One winter night in 1883, the colony not quite a year old, its youngest member—youngest after a newborn whose shrieks had kept him up for hours—left his cabin without a coat and witnessed something he’d never forget. His name was Yankel Kolm. He was nineteen, slight, with a patchy beard and pockmarked cheeks, and lungs that had given him trouble since infancy. Only cold air provided relief, and he sucked it in as soon as he stepped into the clearing, gasping and coughing, hands on knees. A recent snowfall, no more than two inches, melted around his feet, stuck without socks into unlaced boots. From the cabin came another shriek, followed by the child’s mother cooing desperately, once more trying and failing to get its mouth to latch.
That sound! If he never heard it again, still it would haunt him, he thought, until he was in the grave. Last night he’d sworn off having children, and tonight he swore off marriage, too, just to be safe. Another night of the noise and no sleep, and he might castrate himself with a rusty saw. Except that even the thought of never being able—never even wanting—to make love to a woman made him picture doing so now, and despite the cold he felt himself flush. His breath came easier, and he stepped away from the cabin he shared with the family and two other young men, both of whom managed to snore through the child’s cries.
Of the colony’s fifty-one adults, eight were married and thirty-four were single men. That left only nine unattached women, all of whom Yankel had imagined wrapping arms around him, whispering in his ear, tickling his neck with excited breath. As yet, though, he’d slept alone every night he’d been here. Every night, for that matter, since he’d last shared a bed with his brother Aron, at eight years old.