One June night, Maria came home coughing. Vasili was concerned, as always, but Maria said it was probably just the dust from the factory.
“I’ll be fine in a couple of days,” she assured Vasili. “The factory is never cleaned and when you look at the lights you can see the dirt and fibers like it is a foggy day.”
“But I can see the doctor and get some medicine for you,” said Vasili.
“No, that will be too much money. It’s nothing,” said Maria, with much emphasis at the end.
Vasili did not mention it again, praying that it really was nothing to be concerned about.
It seemed like Maria never minded the hard work she had to do. Vasili would ask her about it every day, and her answer was always the same, “I can do this. Hard work doesn’t bother me. I will not be a useless woman because the work is hard.”
One day she added, “There are boys and girls younger than me that have to climb up on the machines to change the spools. One poor boy lost his leg when the loom started up while he was still on top. The owner had him bandaged up, but then told the Overseer to just take the boy home and leave him there. He said the boy was no good to anyone now.”
Vasili was moved by that story and said, “These owners think that we’re just sheep to do what we’re told; and when they can get no more out of us, they throw us away and get somebody else.”
To Maria he said, “That is why I don’t like you working there. It’s dangerous.”
Maria laughed and said, with sarcasm, “And your job is so safe!”
“That’s different,” said Vasili.
Maria and Nadya had been avoiding each other as much as they could in their small apartment, but one Sunday when Vasili had to work, they ended up seated across from each other at the supper table. Nadya was a good cook and knew the recipes from the Old Country, but she had refused to share them with Maria. On that day, Nadya had prepared halupki, a Rusyn favorite of meat and rice rolled inside a cabbage leaf.
When Maria told Nadya that the meal was delicious and that it reminded her of Čirč, Nadya casually said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to return to Čirč and maybe you could cook for your father and brothers. I imagine they miss a woman’s touch.”
Maria immediately sensed what Nadya was trying to do. While she did miss her father and brothers very much, and Nadya’s mention of them brought pictures in her mind of each of them, Maria knew that Nadya was trying to make her homesick. Maria knew that Nadya was hoping she would leave.
Maria, acting coyly said, “I have told Vasili that he’s stuck with me for life.”
Nadya reacted with barely-contained anger and shot back, “This is not possible. You must either find a husband or go back to Čirč. Either way, you must leave this house.”
Maria had not expected a reaction like that, and dropped all pretense of manners.
“You have degraded me since you met me,” said Maria in a disgusted tone. “I don’t care what you think. It’ss only what Vasili thinks that matters.”
Nadya was becoming more and more angry and blurted out, “You can get sick and die for all I care.”
Maria was genuinely shocked at that statement, and began to bless herself. “You have cursed me,” she accused. “You have cursed me to die.” Maria began to sob uncontrollably.
Nadya then said, “Yes, when we were back in Čirč, I didn’t trust you and I don’t trust you now.”
Maria shot back, “But you were the one that lured me out into the valley and then left me there. I could have died, and I think that would have made you happy.”
Nadya asked, “If it was so bad, why didn’t you tell Vasili?”
“I told him of course, but he was under your spell. He told me that you would never do something like that. He thought you liked me. He was a fool, but I could do nothing.”
“Well, Maria my dear,” said Nadya in that condescending tone that Maria hated, “I have won. Vasili is mine.”
Maria went to her bedroom, buried her face in her pillow, and cried the rest of the night.
More often now, Maria came home from work with a cough. The cough started sounding worse to Vasili, so Vasili spoke to the druggist, who sold him a bottle of Laudanum. It seemed to be helping, but slowly Maria became bedridden and very sleepy during the entire day. Vasili thought that might help the cough, which it did for a while, but with opium and cocaine as the main ingredients, he knew that Maria would have a hard time functioning, and would always want more. She started missing work which Vasili knew would be the end of her working at all.
By the end of June, Maria was only out of bed for a short time, and her skin began to look more sickly and pallid. Her beautiful eyes were sunken in and she could barely talk without coughing.
Nadya asked Vasili, “What are we going to do with Maria? She cannot work, and without that money and her being sick, this is a burden we cannot bear.”
Vasili was trying his best to hold his temper, and blurted out, “What if it was you who was sick like that? What would you have me do to you? Would you have me throw you out into the street?”
Nadya, now upset and angry, said, “Maybe you should send her back to your family.” Vasili could tell that Nadya immediately felt regret for saying that. That realization kept him from becoming even more angry, but in a whisper that still seethed, Vasili said, “If I had known you were this cruel to family, I would not have married you Nadya.”
Nadya began to cry. With tears flowing down her face she said, “I am sorry, I am so sorry Vasili. I didn’t mean that. Please Vasili, forgive me. I love you and I can’t stand to see you in this much pain. It hurts and I said what I didn’t mean.” At that, she slowly reached her hand for Vasili’s shoulder, afraid that he might slap it away. Instead, he grabbed her arm and pulled her to him, kissing her on the lips and stroking her hair.
“I know that. I’m sorry that I lost my temper. We have only been married two months and you already have to bear this burden with me. I don’t know what to do right now, but I am praying to God for her recovery.”
“I have been going in her room after everyone is asleep and praying the rosary over her. I didn’t want anyone to know for fear it would curse her. I only tell you so that you know that I also pray for her healing.”
Vasili wondered, “Why do you feel this way now? I could see that you didn’t want Maria around here, and now you seem guilty. What have you done?”
At that Maria broke down completely and confessed, “She is sick because I cursed her. I didn’t mean to, Vasili, but I was angry and I cursed her.”
“That is nonsense,” said Vasili, not quite convinced that it was nonsense. All that he knew was that his sister needed help, and he had to help her.
One of the girls from the silk factory stopped by a few days later to see Maria, who was sleeping in her room.
Vasili opened the door and the girl said, “You must be Vasili.”
Vasili answered, “Yes, what is your business?”
“I am Illona. I work with Maria in the factory. I wanted to see how she was doing because she has not been to work in a week.”
“I am sorry Illona,” said Vasili, “Please come in and sit. Maria is sleeping and I don’t want to wake her.”
“Please, that is fine. I was praying the rosary for her last night, so I was hoping she might come back to work. We all love her there. She works very hard.”
“Of course she does,” said Vasili proudly.
Illona’s eyes began to tear up and her face turned red. She was trying to stop and trying to hide it from Vasili.
“What is it? I am sure Maria will be better. We have all been praying and lighting candles at St. Michael’s.”
“The Overseer also ordered me to give her a message.” Illona hesitated, then continued, “He said that she is fired and is not to return to the factory.”
Now Vasili’s face turned a bright red and his eyes projected a fierce anger that was welling up inside of him.
“I will go and talk to that piece of filth,” shouted Vasili.
Nadya, who had been in the kitchen until she heard the shouting, now hurried into the room, wiping her hands on her flowered apron. “Vasili, you know you can’t do that.” Nadya was the only person on earth who could calm Vasili down. “If the bosses in the mill find out, they will fire you too.”
But Vasili’s anger was now nearly out of control.
“I’s my job to take care of my sister. If I have to lose my job to do it, then so be it.”
Illona sat with a shocked and frightened expression on her face.
“I’m sorry. He told me that if I didn’t tell her myself, that I would lose my job.”
Nadya replied, “Of course, of course. I’s not your fault.” Turning to Vasili, she said, almost in a whisper, “Please Vasili, you know that Maria can’t return to work anyway. When she gets better she can go find another job in another factory. You don’t want Maria to get upset do you?”
“No, no, of course not,” said Vasili, ignoring the bit of pain he felt in his arm as he began to calm down. “Thank you for coming Illona, I’ll tell Maria that you came to see her, and I’ll tell her about her job.”
Nadya walked Illona to the door.
Vasili walked into Maria’s room to check on her. As he entered, Maria began one of her coughing fits, holding a handkerchief to her mouth. When she pulled the handkerchief away, it was splattered with blood.
Vasili could see the pain in Maria’s face, but did not know how to comfort her.
“Who were you talking to out there?” Maria wondered.
“It was your friend Illona. She came to see how you are, but I told her you were too sick to see her.”
“Vasili! That’s a terrible thing to do.” But as Maria said these words, she began to cough until she was in spasms. More blood was on her pillow.
Vasili left her room and went straight through to the front door.
“Where are you going?” Nadya’s voice had an edge to it that Vasili had never seen.
“I’m going to find the doctor to come to the house.”
“Do you know what that will cost?” said a worried Nadya.
“It doesn’t matter, this is Maria, and I must get her help.”
Vasili was about to yell, but remembering their conversation the week before, he realized that it wasn’t that Nadya cared more about money than Maria, but Nadya had never had much, and he knew that she was trying to look out for him. But where Maria was concerned, Vasili did not care what the price was.
“She is my sister, and I made her and my father a promise,” was all that he said as he closed the door behind him.
By the time Vasili returned with the doctor, they heard Maria’s terrible screams. When they rushed into her room, they found her lying on her pillow, which was splattered with blood.
“I don’t know what is wrong,” cried Maria, coughing and wheezing. “I—can’t—stop.”
Nadya was sitting on the bed with her, and said, “She has been like this since you left. I’m afraid I have cursed her.”
The doctor moved her out of the way and said, “Nonsense, she is just a very sick young lady.”
He listened to her heart and lungs, took her pulse, and felt her fevered head, then stood up with a very serious look on his face and said to Vasili, “I would like to speak to you in the other room.”
Vasili began to feel sick and he could tell that Nadya, too, could feel that there was terrible news awaiting them in that room.
When Vasili closed the door to Maria’s room, the doctor ran his fingers through his graying hair, then smoothed his thin, graying mustache. He began, “I’m afraid this is not good news. Maria has Consumption.”