We Have Come Back…
In the morning Gran gave me some oat porridge with those nasty husky-husks of bran in it, very prickly, it took me quite a time to pick them out, Gran says, stop dawdling, your Dad is to come to pick you up any moment now. He has left for work early today, with special intention to have everything done before lunchtime and be free to go to the sea with you. I knew he has. We have arrived quite recently, I haven’t seen the town yet, haven’t even been outside at all. Dad says it is dangerous, wait a bit. The war is still on. I asked where is it, he says – far away, in Germany, the enemy is being finished off in his own lair, but nevertheless, there are many bandits about, especially in the evenings. We are staying at uncle Ber’s place, he is Dad’s brother, because Dad’s flat was destroyed in a bombing. Dad went to find out what we were to be allotted instead. He came back and said we’d better forget about it.
But what did they say, asked Mom.
It’s your Russians who had bombed everything to smithereens, go live with them.
Now we are waiting for Gran’s flat to be returned to us, our case is to be settled in court. Some Estonian squatters occupied it while we were away. Mom says we are going to win, Dad is in the Party, he has fought in the War, we have all the papers. Besides Dad has reached an agreement with those squatters.
So there won’t be any trial, asks Gran.
There will be trial, they agree to move out, but only if they are allotted some place to move in, says Dad.
Don’t they have any such place?
They are from the basement. They won’t dispute, if they can keep the chattel that used to be yours.
Let them have it, says Gran, I won’t mind, I only want them to return the remembrances.
Later I asked Mom — what are the remembrances.
Albums, small things, they remind about my brothers.
The Germans came here, we left in time to escape them, we lived in Chuvashia, in a village, and Dad was at the front lines.
I asked Mom, the very first day, why Uncle’s flat is undisturbed, and nothing of the things is missing.
She laughed, the old Hansen woman stayed here, the mother of Alberta, Uncle’s wife. She is not a Jewess, she is a German woman, she had no difficulties due to the Germans being here.
What difficulties? Have we had any difficulties?
Yes we had, some difficulties indeed… and so had Uncle, that is why we all had to leave, though they headed for the South, for Tashkent, and the old woman stayed behind.
But what about Alberta, did she leave with Uncle?
She did leave, but with somebody else, with Thomas, you saw him yesterday.
Now everybody came back, and we all are staying in one and the same flat – Uncle Ber, who is actually away now, his wife Alberta with Thomas, the old Hansen woman, and we – I, Dad, Mom, and Gran Fanny Lvovna, who is Mom’s Mom. Everybody has a place to live in, and there is even an extra room left, the parlor for common usage, huge, with round table, with pictures on the walls, that’s how large the flat of Uncle Ber is. The four of us live in one small room, but Mom says even that is very good, other people who came back have no place where to live at all. We were lucky, says she, Uncle Ber is Dad’s younger brother, he always loved Dad. He is Military Prosecutor now, in another city, Tartu, and comes home on Saturdays. And Thomas lives here all the time, in the same room with Alberta. Gran says Ber is weak-willed, Thomas ought to be kicked out, together with Alberta if she doesn’t give up Thomas. They became friends in Tashkent, when Ber was at the front lines.
Oh, Mom, leave them be, they have to sort it out on their own, says Mom, when Ber is transferred to Tallinn, then will be time for talking it over.
For the time being we live like this.
We Are Going To The Seashore
Dad’s name is Sioma, Mom’s name is Zina, my name is Alik. We used to live in Tallinn before the War, but I don’t remember that time, I was small then. Yesterday I ate too much of almonds, it made me sick.
How could you leave it lying about on the table, says Gran to Mom, you are out of your mind.
Dad made me drink water, a whole decanter of water, then fingers into the mouth, and I was sick twice. By the evening I was right as rain, only I have sore throat now, but not because of this. Gran says that the climate is rotten here, we live right next to the sea.
Then why did we come here, asked I.
We were born here, and we used to live here, says Dad. Tomorrow we will go to the seashore, to look at the water.
Will there be ships?
Of course there will be.
So now I am waiting for him to return a bit earlier for lunch, he will be allowed a short leave from the hospital, he is a doctor there.
But at the front lines you were a surgeon, weren’t you, I asked him not long ago.
He laughed, I am no surgeon, I am a general practitioner, I treat maladies. But at the front lines I had to do anything that was required.
How could you do the cutting if you don’t know how to do it?
I know some about it, they wouldn’t require from me to deal with difficult cases, only to cut it off if it was no good at all.
What was no good?
If an arm or a leg cannot serve a person any more. Then the surgery is simple, you just cut it off.
And then an artificial limb?
That would be in the rear, I wouldn’t know about that.
How many arms and legs have you cut off?
He sighed – I don’t know, I lost count, it’s war, Alik, let’s forget about it.
And now he returned to the clinic where he had been working before the war.
He came, he was in a cheerful mood – that’s quite another kettle of fish, normal people afflicted with deceases. Have you eaten your porridge? Let’s go, we have to make it before lunch.
Mom says, you are going? Sioma, be careful, there might be some mines left…
We won’t get out of the path, somehow or other it will take us to the water.
We went by the street car, it started running again not long ago, and then walked for some very long time along a narrow shadowed street of small wooden houses. That is Leineri street, I used to live here once, says Dad, only that house doesn’t exist any more. There indeed were some houses there that didn’t exist any more, only ruins were left. At last we reached some flat grounds with grass growing over it. Ahead of us was empty sky, unpleasant smell, and noise, not strong, but continuous, it was sort of thrusting on into your ears.
It’s the sea that makes this noise.
And where is the sea?
You cannot see it, I’d better lift you up. He took me in his arms, sat me on his shoulder. And I saw a gray wide band ahead, and above it sky that was almost as gray, a bit lighter maybe, and in the sky there were very white clouds, we never had any clouds that would be that white. When we lived in Tiumerevo, it is a village in Chiuvashia.
It’s autumn, look, the grass is withering, says Dad, farther on there will be sand. And the trenches, we will have to watch our step. At first we walked over the grass, then we made it to the sand, and I saw the sea from my own height. It is gray, but with white spots, because it is windy, wind makes waves, on the waves sits foam, which is of water and air, interlaced. The gutters started, they ran along the waterline, it was obvious that they had been filled in, but not completely, and a narrow path was leading to the water, you can walk along the path, and we did walk along it till we reached the dark strip of sand, of wet sand, there were pieces of broken trees, rags, rusty iron things scattered along it, and right next to those there lied and stirred slightly when moved by the wind and the water some green, dark… grass-like…
That’s seaweed, they grow in the sea, and now it is low-tide. Later water will catch them, it will advance on the shore, it will be high tide.
It will come close to us?
We won’t wait for it to do so, high tide will come not soon.
How do you know when?
Every six hours. The Moon by force of its gravitation draws water after itself, it cant’s actually lift it off the Earth, but it makes a wave, and that is tide… We have come back, Alik. Look, this is our sea. We fled from here, chased away by the Germans, and now we have come back. We have got the better of them, and we are to live here again.
Then we came home, and had some porridge, but without any husky-husks of bran in it, the yellow kind of porridge, Gran managed to get some millet, and there was a piece of meat to go with the porridge, of boiled meat. I couldn’t chew it up, Mom says I will cut it for you. And still I was hardly able to eat it, dry pieces are difficult to swallow.
But to make up for it you have had some meat soup, says Gran. Have I had soup? I don’t remember eating it at all, honestly.
You must eat meat, says Mom, you are undernourished. Now we have come back, and everything will go the way it used to go, won’t it, Semion?
Nothing will go the way it used to go, says Gran, and she began to cry, you will have to start from scratch. And I will have to start nothing, only to wait for the end of my life.
And she retreated to behind her folding-screen. And Mom and Dad stayed where they sat, and gave no reply.
Then I left, to sit in Uncle Ber’s arm-chair, upholstered with leather, huge, with flat hard buttons.
If it has to be from scratch, let it be from scratch, says Dad, we’ll give it a try, we are not old yet.
What Was Said In The Morning
In the morning I was sitting in the parlor, Gran put a plate of porridge before me, not oat porridge, but made of buckwheat, because it was Saturday, to maintain the festive spirit. On Saturdays Jews don’t work, you cannot do anything with your hands, but you can eat, now have some tasty porridge, says she. What kind of life is that, the war is closing to its end, but it’s the same misery without a ray of hope.
Mom, says Mom coming in from our room, she is practically not dressed, I am going to have a wash… Mom, soon it will be over, and we will live the way we used to live. Before the War.
Oh yes, only it will be in my flat, which is hardly big enough for one person to stretch his legs, that’s all that we can expect, says Gran, she doesn’t believe she is going to get her flat back, yet she doesn’t lose hope. Zina, you better get dressed, Thomas may enter.
I can’t care less about that fool.
And Dad has long since gone to work, he is the head doctor now, as he was before the War.
I wish he had stayed away from the steering jobs, sighs Mom, to be an ordinary doctor is much safer in our time.
He is a Party man now, says Gran, and brings the plate with porridge for herself down on the table with such force it nearly crashes. Go and get done with your washing, the porridge is getting cold.
Meanwhile Alberta comes out from her room, she sails in, like a yacht under sail, yesterday Dad and I saw one, he says, look, look, it survived… he was close to tears. I was surprised, it is only a little boat with sails, big deal. But that is history coming alive for you, says Dad, before the War there were many yachts here, we used to sail them, what a lovely time it was, no Germans, no Russians, only Estonians, our own local Russians, and a whit of Jews, that’s how we lived.
Did you have the Soviet Power then?
No, we had the Republic, in the present-day terms, the bourgeois oppressors, the people suffered, they were pauperized, starving… He glanced about him and started on what a lousy life they used to have before the War even louder.
It’s all a pack of lies, says Gran, life before the War was just wonderful, those who wanted to work they didn’t suffer. And then the Russian bandits came, the local ones were helpful. And then came Hitler, kicked out the Bolsheviks, but he made everything even worse, we were lucky to flee in time, but my boys, my boys…
She began to cry, tears were flowing down her wrinkles.
Mom, don’t, says Mom, she hugged her, and started crying too.
I knew why, I used to have two uncles, Mom’s brothers, David and Ruvim, both died, one not far from here, in the camp where the Germans kept him, the other one in the Urals.
Why in the Urals, asked I, there were no Germans in the Urals, I know that for certain. Because we lived in Chuvashia, it was closer to the War than the Urals, and we had no Germans. We lived quietly, though we had little to eat, there was no butter and no sugar, and now I am ill. Not exactly ill, Dad says, but the boy is weak, Zina, we have to do something. And now I am almost daily given to eat some boiled meat, dry, disgusting, though very costly, and caviar, there is a lot of it in the city’s stores, it is rich in iron, Dad says, Alik needs it to stop swooning. It happens to me from time to time, when I strain myself doing something, for example, last week I was turning the crank of the mincing machine, and suddenly I don’t remember a thing, and next I am sitting in a chair and Gran is fanning me with a towel… So each time he gets his salary, Dad brings me a can of caviar, and Gran buys meat for me in the market, we go there on Sundays, when they bring the greatest amount of goods there. Caviar I eat up at once, first offer it to everybody, but they all refuse, Mom says caviar makes her sick, she is allergic to caviar. And I am allergic to chocolate, if I eat a little bit of it, I start itching all over, and have red spots on my skin.
So why was he in the Urals?
Dad sighed, he picked up a German leaflet, he was our soldier. He knew German as well as he knew Russian, he wanted to read it. What a fool.
Why a fool?
Picking it up was a wrong idea, so he ended in a prison camp, a very good one though, they were even allowed out to go to the nearby village to work there for food. He died of pneumonia, Gran went there to see his grave, only don’t ask her anything.
Gran stopped crying, Mom went to the bathroom to have a wash, and Alberta, she had been standing at the window all the time while Gran was crying, came up to the table and said, I hope you will move out soon… She has big light blue eyes, she is wearing a dressing-gown, a very pretty lady, Mom says, only heartless.
How come she can do without a heart, asked I, if the heart stops even for a moment, Dad says you lose consciousness.
Well she manages without any heart whatsoever just beautifully, says Mom, and she doesn’t know what shame is, or consideration either. But Ber loves her, and puts up with many things, hoping Thomas will just stop eventually the way rain does.
Alberta stayed about for some time, tapping the table with her fingers, then also went to wash up, there is another bathroom at the end of the passage, it’s a real bourgeois apartment, Dad says Ber knows how to live well, he is an attorney, he knows where money is likely to be found, unlike me, I am a perfect fool.
A perfect fool describes you nicely, dear doctor, says Gran to him, people come to you and beg for a diagnosis, you used to be the best man for diagnosing in the city, many remember you still. They get their diagnoses and never pay any money, exploiting you kindness.
Dad sighs, they don’t have any money…
But from time to time there comes along a rich patient, then we have a feast. A whole chicken, for example. Or meat, not boiled, but stewed with potatoes.
I am afraid, says Mom, these underground patients will be instrumental to our undoing.
Underground like the partisans?
It’s us who are like the partisans, we have just returned, and to start at once looking for a new trouble?
Party members shouldn’t engage in private practice, but the boy needs some exra food. Dad says that meaning me.
Party members, Party members, says Gran, Party members killed my son.
Nobody killed him, Dad is nervous, he is tapping the table with his fingers, it was the circumstances taking a particularly tragic turn, don’t forget there was war on. Even if many things are not after our hearts, still the Russians have saved us from the Germans, haven’t they?
I wish they never bothered about saving me, all that makes me going is pity for you, you are trapped, they will crush you and never even notice they have had. One must live in a small country, it’s quiet in small countries.
Mom, says Mom, we live where we live, and there are no quiet places left on Earth, unless you go to somewhere in Africa maybe.
Don’t forget about the new country, says Gran.
What new country, Dad is against it, our country is Estonia, now the Union, mind what you are saying, you know what I mean. That frau that came visiting, talking people into leaving, what a boil of a woman, she was placing everybody in harm’s way, under the slaughtering knife, couldn’t she understand what she was doing…
Who was it that came visiting, I asked Mom, she says there will be a new state, for Jews only, they talk people into going there, they don’t understand where we will go after such talks – right in the opposite direction.
Why, if we don’t want to go anywhere?
Because. We are Jews.
What is it?
It’s a nationality, for the time being you don’t need to know any more.
But I already knew some more, kept silent about it, ate my porridge, and thought that I don’t want to go to school.
Don’t want to, don’t want to, says Mom, you keep saying this, but staying at home for one more year, with no friends, no anybody, you will grow unsociable that way.
I won’t grow unsociable, I will accompany you wherever you go.
She laughs, well, all right, we will keep going about together for one more year, but then you’ll have to study, because that’s not right that I am reading to you all the time, and you just won’t start reading yourself, considering you can use your head as well as anybody when you need it.
Why should I read myself when I have her reading to me.
Just you wait and see, I will soon stop reading aloud to you, then you will have to read yourself, says she, but keeps reading to me, reads on and on. I think she enjoys it, she is used to reading aloud, she says she was trained to do it, in a theatrical studio she attended. Quite a while ago, before the War. It was like a life before death.
But we haven’t died.
She says – Alik, we stayed alive by chance, we had better luck than many others. When you grow up, you are to appreciate it, we might have been no more.
Oh yeah, my foot! I didn’t believe her, because how could we possibly be now if we had become no more.
We Can Move In
One day we had no dinner at all, Gran having disappeared early in the morning, Mom served me some porridge and fried eggs, that she knows how to cook, after that we had tea. Hardly had we finished up our tea when Gran came home, she was wearing a long red dress, dark red, and a necklace, Mom says that is her Claret coloured dress, and “Mom used to be a rare beauty, bearing great resemblance to the Portrait Of An Unknown Woman”. I was surprised, there was no resemblance at all, we have that portrait hanging on the wall.
That is not the portrait, says Mom, that is its reproduction in print, the real picture was photographed, then the photo was published in a magazine, and I cut it out, to have it hanging on the wall, it being so much like Mom.
But I cannot even think about it, Gran is so ugly. Though she takes care of me, where are you, Alik, what is the matter with you… it’s time to eat, to wash up, to go to bed… But she doesn’t love me, though she does say “I have nobody but my daughter and you now”. And what about Dad?
She always forgets about him. Of course he is a very good person, says she, and at once forgets about him again. But she never forgets to make me wash up, she catches me with her sharp nails and bends me down pushing right under the cold water, so that I would wash my face. I don’t like it, I say to her – I’ll do it myself, I’ll do, but she doesn’t believe me, no you won’t, I used to have boys of my own, and they never wanted to wash up. And she cries. The water is icy cold, to have hot water the furnace of the water heater has to be stoked, with the peat briquettes, they are like brown stones. At first the furnace has to be kindled with pieces of paper and other kindling like chips of wood, the briquette won’t catch fire otherwise, but if it does catch fire, it produces a lot of heat. Only there would be lots of ashes too, buckets of it. Dad says never mind, I will take it out in the evening, Mom says no, right now. You always forget, and I have a lump in my throat because of the ashes. But it’s great we got at least the briquettes due to your being the head doctor. See, there are good points in being the head, says she.
I am tired of good points, sighs Dad, I love medicine. And I am required to perform some guiding and attitude developing functions, because I am a Party cadre.
Gran says, look out, Sioma, my dear doctor, it is the Party cadres that are first to get it…
That’s too far-fetched, with such a war being just over, it’s a different kind of life we are having now, all enemies were exterminated.
There always will be some enemies to be found, till we are about, you are forgetting who we are.
Well, so Gran came back, and joined us at the table. What do you have here? Fried eggs? But of course! I am not hungry. They cleared off yesterday, we can move in, everything went off very quietly. As for the albums and the like, she assured me she never touched them, everything is in the basement, stayed there throughout the War, she says. And where is the silverware, the engravings, the bed linen, the furniture… all, all, all of it? But what can you prove, what was there, what wasn’t, we fled like from a fire, in pajamas. With Alik in a basket… It was lucky I happened to grab that rice, a whole pack of it, without rice he wouldn’t have survived, that train, the heat, the non-stop diarrhea… Well, the important thing is that we are moving in, the quarters are not very spacious, but they are ours.
Gran pours tea for herself, but she doesn’t drink it. Let’s go, says she.
What do you mean, now? It’s time for the kid to go to bed.
And where is that husband of yours? Is working himself to death as usual, that head doctor?
Mom said nothing to that, and to me – you are off to bed quick march, and I will write a note.
But at that moment Dad came, and said, you are out of your mind, to venture into the streets at nighttime! You will be the death of me… I have just been robbed of my watch and it’s pure luck that I am still alive. They ask me, who are you, I say – I am a doctor, I am going to see a patient. Oh, a doctor… well, you may go on about your business, only give us your watch, we need it more than you do.
I was surprised, and you have given them your watch? It was a big square watch, a present to Dad from my grandfather, to celebrate the event of his son earning the diploma of a medical doctor. Dad never parted with this watch. I wanted him to have fought for it and to have defeated them robbers, and he just gave them his watch – and that was that?
He saw my face, laughed, you see, says he, I was so eager to get home, I was tired, hungry, and suddenly there were these fools pestering me with their requests to give them watch. Well, I gave up the watch, but I am home.
Did they have any weapons?
No, son, by the look of it they didn’t have any.
So why give up the watch?
Well, you know… they might have got vexed. And this way everything turned out all right.
Great that everything turned out all right, but Dad turned out to be no hero. Mom started to chastise him for coming home too late, one day you will come to grief, it is you who keeps walking about at nighttime, and you dare preaching safety to me…
I have to help people.
People have just robbed you of your watch.
Forget it… they also need to eat.
They are bandits.
It’s not that simple.
Would you turn a bandit? So shut up.
He stopped answering, he was eating very fast, he was hungry. Of course they didn’t go anywhere that evening, Gran went to see the old Hansen woman, to talk about the times bygone. She always tries to be off in the evenings, I am in everybody’s way, says she. She comes back late, tip-toes to behind her folding screen, she sleeps in the corner, behind a folding screen. Soon she will snore, and I will lie awake for a long time, listening.
Is he asleep?
No he isn’t…
She showed great delicacy, says Dad, I didn’t expect anything like that from her.
Her attitude towards you is not all that resentful actually.
Oh well… now we are going to live at her place, let’s hope she won’t teach us how to live, it’s not the old times after all.
And the old times were good, weren’t they, sighed Mom.
There was peace, there was happiness, but I don’t remember life being very easy.
But of course, you were being torn between two families.
I was not being torn at all!… But I have a son there…
What son, what is he talking about, I forgot how sleepy I was, with some son of his turning up like this…
At last we will have a room of our own, says Mom. Alik we’ll have to sleep in Mom’s room.
I meant to take offence at that, but there wasn’t time, I fell asleep, and in the morning I decided that the son I just dreamed up, that sleeping in Gran’s room is actually OK with me, since at daytime I am going to have a corner of my own, Mom has promised that, which means it indeed is going to be so, just as she said.
We Have Arrived
The next day we moved, Gran says that in such matters speed is essential, there are always enough property-snatchers about, and then to waste three more months in courts? We loaded into the truck three suitcases, two bags, the old big traveling box that Ber gave us for odds and ends. Ourselves sat on top of the luggage, and started on our way.
Your brother is certainly not one to give away anything good, says Mom.
He has a family of his own.
He owes you. They had entrenched real safe with this Hansen woman of theirs, like they were no Jews at all, the Germans didn’t touch a thing in their flat.
Don’t be envious, be glad that at least some people had some luck. Ber has a weak heart, and Alberta straddling the fence.
Is your heart all that strong?
What does it mean – that she is straddling the fence, asked I, Dad grinned, you are too young to know.
You brother, my dear doctor, is weak-willed, says Gran, she always addresses Dad like that when she says something unpleasant to him.
He stayed silent for some time, then said, Yulik is about to come.
Mom brightened up, he is Dad’s other brother. She likes him, he is a philosopher, during the War he lived in Siberia, and now maybe he will be allowed to return.
It will not be possible for him to live in Tallinn, says Dad, but he will be near by, at least we have a warmer climate than they have there. Dad never says where exactly Yulik is – he is away, and that’s that. Yulik used to write articles for a newspaper before the War, and he went berserk, though he should have known better.
Why should he know better, he has no kids, no wife, says Mom.
Tanya is his wife, she will return with him.
Sioma, my dear doctor, says Gran, forget about her, much she would care to have a Jew banned from cities about. And what is she to do there, in the forest, teach local kids nice manners? She would make it to Moscow… and you will never hear about her again.
Mom, you shouldn’t believe all people to be that bad, says Mom, Tanya is very clever, and Yulik is a genius, I only wonder how much is left of him.
What do you mean – how much is left of him?
Don’t butt in, it could have happened so that there would be nothing left at all, you are too young to understand.
He wouldn’t be allowed to teach children, says Dad, but he can teach grown-ups in the evening school.
You always know everything in advance – suppose he will be allowed.
You seem not to have realized yet where you live.
Where I belong, I have returned home.
It was a long ride, to the other end of the town, but the good point is that our new home is close to school. The Russian school is quite near, you will enroll into it next year. We are driving through a little garden, there used to be flowers, wild roses, says Mom, but now the soil in the garden is all turned over, it’s obvious somebody was digging for potatoes here. Look what they were driven to under the Germans, growing potatoes within the town limits to survive.
Why, Zina, aren’t you just wonderful, retorts Gran, have you forgotten yourself going from village to village in search of a bit of butter for your son. And now you have this cough, you have to see a real doctor, a doctor who is the family is no doctor at all.
Mom is pale, and she had the cough always.
It’s for you she had it always, you don’t remember how healthy she used to be, says Gran, small children forget their early years.
Will I forget about now?
No, you won’t forget about now, you are grown up enough, but not quite a grown up yet. Thank God you have yet some time in store, to be a grown up is a terrifying business, don’t be in a hurry to grow. Sioma, knock to signal the driver – here we are to turn to the right.
Dad had no chance to knock, the driver knew the way. We drove into a narrow alley, with several small wooden houses with small fences on one side of it, and a big yellow house sticking up on the other, it was four storied, very dirty, and crooked. I told Mom so, she says it only seems to you so, it’s not the house, but everything around it that is crooked. That is our home now. Behind the house is a stone barn with windows opaque because of the dust, Mom says it is a workshop, they saw wood here. And indeed there comes a screeching sound, then silence, then again the saw screeches.
They don’t do much sawing, there is no wood, Gran learned everything there was to know yesterday, after the hearing at the court was over she kept walking the street back and forth in front of the house, they hadn’t given her the keys by that time yet, or she would have run upstairs at once.
We ascended to the second floor, there were four doors there, this one is ours, there is a seal affixed to it, Gran tears the seal off, she is fumbling in her hand-bag, can’t find the key…
Let me help you, says Mom.
No, I will do it myself, myself…
At last she got it out, big, long like a flag, began to push it into the key hole, missing the hole time and again… we stand by, waiting…
The door screeched, opened in, and I saw the dark hall – and both the rooms at once, they are inter-communicating, and flooded with light, and the parquet floor… I have never seen the like of it, big slabs, dark, polished with some stuff, because they are shining.
At least they left the flat in decent condition, says Mom.
I made them clean everything thoroughly, so that nothing will remind about them.
Where are they now, asked I.
Where they used to live, in the basement of our house, answers Gran, she tends the boiler and cleans the yard, Dad arranged for her to have this job, she ought to be happy about it actually.
It turned out that there are many rooms in the basement, one can live there, of course the window is very high, close to the ceiling, but the boiler is in the next room, so it is always warm there, even in winter, living there is not all that bad, they had no business to occupy Gran’s flat.
Dad says, they wanted to live like human beings too, seized their opportunity. Jews were gone, and many other non-Jewish people, who were for the Russians, left too.
You, my dear doctor, can explain away anything, says Gran.
I am not trying to justify it, it is wrong to take that which belongs to others, you must remember it, Alik.
It sure is true, and they say it is the obsolete moral.
There is no parquet floor in the basement, but the floorboards are excellent, says Dad.
How come you know, asks Mom, have you gone to see her, you are lapsing into your old ways again…
Stop it, I know simply because we have made some repairs for them in the basement.
They didn’t deserve it, these thieves, Gran is against the repairs.
Forget it, Fanni Lvovna, answers Dad to her, they are not the enemy, they had not much better luck than we had. And to me – now come with me, you will help carry the albums and the like, that which is left from our past life.
Isn’t he amazing, this man, says Gran to his retreating back, he can explain away anything.
Oh, Mom, stop it, it was hard enough for him at the front lines.
But Dad and I were already heading for the basement.
From the first floor a small staircase going underground, then to the left stretches on a small passage, narrow but long, and there are doors on both sides of it, in the small dark rooms heaps of old things are stored, next comes the big hall with the boiler, next the room where those people now are, those who have been living in Gran’s flat. It is quiet behind their door, they must have hushed down in there, they know that we are coming.
Next came one more small door, and Dad had the key to it, and we entered.
A room narrow like a slit, stone floor, made of big gray slabs, along the two walls go wooden shelves, very high almost near the ceiling is a window, one can see legs walking in the street. Soon the heating season starts, this basement is not a bad place at all, says Dad, now let’s have a look at what is left of us.
Very little was left, some thick ornamental fabric, it belongs to our folding screen, wrapped up in it were several hefty books, and here are the albums… an old kerosene lamp, a picture… Later I had a better look at it saw that it was not a picture, but a little yellow wooden board, dirty, if you look closely you can see trees carved out, and people, Dad says it was done with a knife, it is a Japanese work, how to go about cleaning it, I have no idea. Let’s have a look at the albums right here.
Shouldn’t we rather carry them upstairs, there would be more light there?
He gave it a thought, no, let’s look by ourselves first. Briefly. He put the albums on the lower shelf, close to the window, so that it would be more convenient to look through them, and we stood there and looked.
Who is that, this red-haired, pot-bellied man?
Dad laughed, that’s your Mom’s father, your grandfather, he died before the War, thank God he never lived to see it, he would never be able to stand it, your grandmother is stronger.
And who is that?
This is my father, he is also a grandfather of yours, he died even earlier, of old age.
Don’t you recognize her? This is your grandmother.
It can’t be, was she that beautiful?
Beautiful and capricious, she made her husband suffer terribly, and he loved her.
And whom did she love?
She loved her sons, and your mother a little.
One of my uncles was plump and red-haired, and the other was tall and dark, it was for the first time that I saw what they looked like, it was weird to think that they were no more.
Do we have any photos of ourselves?
We didn’t have time to make any photographs, Alik, but we will make some now. Well, it was not so very dreadful after all, let’s go upstairs.
Why should it be dreadful?
He didn’t know how to answer, he was thinking.
You see, it used to be another life, and it ended, the war turned everything over, and we have to live on, and keep from too much of remembering.
Best of all I liked in the flat the windows, from them you could see the grounds with grass and bushes, across a road, and the road was narrow and also all covered with big stones, but it was not the same road that you come out to when exiting from the main entrance. At first I couldn’t understand how come it was so, but then I figured it out, our house was like an island between two roads. Beyond the grounds were some small wooden houses, and beyond them some big stone houses, uninteresting, but those were far away from us.
I looked out of the window, right under us was a small shed, its roof was on the level with the first floor, the coal for heating our house is stored in it, says Mom. Up and down its roof a small dog is running, making the tin thunder, Mom asks Dad, can it be the very same dog? He shrugged his shoulders, it is possible, says he, for us an eternity has passed by, it was the War, and for the dog it was four years, dogs can live even longer.
Mom laughed, what about us?
We can too… if we are lucky. Dad also laughed, and Gran said, at last there is laughter in our home, and started crying, but soon stopped. So the little dog is that very dog? Gran says – looks like it is, I would have asked the owner, but I’d rather not have any contacts with her, she is not happy that we came back.
Mom says, you are right, few people are happy about our return, though life with the Germans wasn’t all that nice for them.
May I go outside, asked I, I have had enough of those conversations.
First you must have something to eat… but we don’t have anything, Mom is only about to start for the market, says Mom. But we have some bread, it is fresh, tasty, I used to like it plain, without anything.
Don’t you remember butter, I have bought butter for you, haven’t I?
Oh yes, I remember, it was nasty – greasy.
I took the bread, I liked it, it melts in your mouth, Dad says when you are hungry anything would melt in your mouth. And I went outside.
If anything happens to be the matter – you are to go straight home at once, says Mom. I didn’t understand what might happen to be the matter, I went to have a look around to see how our house is located, and what is next to it.
Oh yes, and in the kitchen I liked the “shcaffreika”, it is a narrow cupboard hidden inside the wall in the corner, it is triangular, it has two parts, the big one at the bottom, with three shelves, even yet laid with paper, with old newspapers, the German newspapers, Gran says, I am going to throw away this nastiness right now, so that there will be nothing left from the time when we were not here. And the smaller part is high up, with a separate door to it, I climbed on a stool – a small triangular chamber, and in the back wall of this chamber there is a round opening leading right outside, from it comes the smell of fresh air.
Everything is like it used to be, like it used to be, like it used to be, Gran keeps saying it over and over, in the “schaffreika” food may be stored, it will stay fresh.
But not all of us have come back, says she, not all of us, not all of us.
Olga and Silvia
In the morning Mom and I went to buy some bread, there used to be a small baker’s store at the corner, says she, and we’ll have a look how things are getting on there, as well…
Near the entrance to our block of flats there is a woman with a broom standing, she must be the janitor. Mom stopped and said – Olga, let bygones be bygones, let’s have no new quarrels, you might not like it, but we have come back. We aren’t nursing a grievance against you, let those things…
What things, says the woman janitor, she is not old, she is tall, and she is obviously very strong, it’s a large hand that is grasping the broom. She is twice as big as Mom, I was frightened, suppose she would hit us with her broom… What things, everything was sold, for food, we wanted to survive, I have children.
Actually you have a one more child now, says Mom.
So what, I had a German living in, an officer, then he was killed when the Russians were bombing the town. They bombed the downtown to flinders, and the Germans they didn’t damage a single house. And the child has nothing to do with it anyway.
Mom didn’t say a word to it, then she said why take things that belong to other people.
I was born in the basement, and will die in it, at least we have lived a couple of years in the air that was fresh, with no dampness about, who could have thought the Russians would win and their Jews would come back.
Not all of them have, not all of them, said Mom, we are few who are left.
She turned away and went on, with tears flowing down her cheeks.
I followed her, and the woman stayed where she was, and I realized that it was she who had been occupying Gran’s flat.
Don’t tell a word about it to Mom, said Mom, you are a big boy, you must understand.
The street turned out to be quite short. At first there was the saw-mill, a low but wide building, with walls made of big stones, gray, uneven, Mom says stones like this are dug up out of the ground somewhere beyond the town borders. Next came several small wooden houses, and then athwart to ours there goes another street, Tompi street, also paved with round stones embedded into the ground, the stones are not easy to walk upon, but a pavement like this will last forever, says Mom, they used to know how to do simple things in the times bygone, and now people would have nothing but asphalt pavement, it is smoother, but has to be fixed yearly.
In the end of our street there stands a small yellow wooden house, the entrance is from the back-yard, there is a porch there, and over the porch there is a sign, on which the word “BREAD” is written in Russian, and one more incomprehensible word, which means bread in Estonian. We entered, the floor in there was of wood, everything was of wood, everything was shining, it was very clean and full of light. There were several people present, they were chatting with the saleswoman, a short fat woman with white curls, she was laughing all the time, was handing out bread, counting money, and laughing.
People cheerfully left one after another, at last we came up, the fat woman gasped and said – Zi-i-na… And Mom started crying, they embraced each other over the counter, it was very awkward to stand like this, but they kept standing, both crying. Then this woman, Silvia, began to speak very fast in Estonian, looking at me and patting me on the head.
We talked some more, bought a gray loaf, two such loaves actually, the name for this bread is “sepik”, Mom said it is a very wholesome bread, half rye, and we turned back home. I wanted to go by some new street, but was afraid to ask, Mom was crying, she says, dear Silvia, when we were children we used to play together, she will come to visit us, before the War Dad saved her husband’s life. He had pain in his chest, but the inflammation, as it turned out, was in his bowlers, only Dad was able to know it, and if he hadn’t, her husband would have died. Now he is dead anyway, the Germans shot him dead.
What for did they shoot him, asked I, she said they shot him by accident, she and her husband used to have this baker’s store for ages, he was driving to get the load of bread for the store, and happened to get under fire, the Germans were fighting the partisans.
There were some partisans here too?
There were some of everything here, it was such a mess, nobody could understand what was going on. And now she has no husband, no store, herself serves as the sales-woman in it. How everything has turned topsy-turvy in life, that which we had wished for and were waiting for proved not at all like what we had expected, and that which we used to be afraid of, which we wished might never happen, now seems not at all frightening, even rather nice actually, like the whole of our pre-war life, it was a fairy-tale life.
Dad says to her, no it was not a fairy-tale life, how soon we forget everything ugly, and thank God for that. They wouldn’t have me on the staff in the hospital because I am a Jew, and I was working as a doctor at the works, was it not so?
It was, it was, says she, but it is such a hard life that we are having now.
It is because of the War, says he, if there were no war…
If there were no war, says Gran, both my boys would be buried in the Urals, would you dare say it is not true? You have become a really devoted Party man.
Don’t forget, Fanni Lvovna, the Russians have saved us, and given us everything they were able to.
They weren’t all that able or so very knowing when they stormed in here, that summer day before the War. Never having seen any wheat bread, walking about streets wearing pajamas, believing it was some kind of pretty clothes.
Now you start on those funny stories of yours once again, says Dad, it wasn’t that I was talking about. Oh, well… he waved his hand – we have to survive, you are staying at home, but I am very much in the public eye, and I must mind what I am saying.
Gran didn’t answer anything to that, but went to cook the dinner.
How We Are Going To Live
The other thing I liked was the kitchen stove, it has three entrances, on one side there is a double entrance, through the upper opening you put the fuel to stoke it, through the lower one get the ashes out, on the other side there are the great gates, it is the oven, to bake cakes or pies, only Gran doesn’t know how to bake, she keeps going to her sister Tsilia, who teaches her, but each time says – you will forget everything anyway, teaching you, Fanechka, is useless, you are The Beauty of our family, the Unknown Woman. Tsilia bakes Jewish way, Gran often brings home some of her baking, wrapped in paper, and we have it with tea in the evening. And besides the oven on the upper side of the stove itself in the corner there is a little door that can be raised, under it is a big tank for water, it gets heated when the stove is stoked, so you have hot water to do the dishes with, you don’t have to warm the kettle for the purpose.
Near the window there is a little table, it is not big enough to seat everybody for dinner, but one can sit at it, to have breakfast alone, looking through the window at the grounds. The floor in the kitchen is not parquet, but brown linoleum, it is torn in two places, near the table and near the door, tears are holes actually, you can see floor-boards through them. We’ll have to have new linoleum laid, says Dad, but Gran – no, no, it was Ruvim who cut them, let them be. Dad wouldn’t argue, there is enough work to be done in the room, we need a desk to keep papers in, and we have no bed, which is the most important. In the back room he and Mom will sleep, at last alone, says he, and in the front room Gran and I, we will need a folding screen here, to hide the beds, it used to be my parlor. Mom, says Mom, why would we need a parlor now, we don’t have anybody who would come to see us… though you are right, we will have a round table here, like it used to be, how about that? Suppose some of our friends are yet to return later? Only where are we to find a big table like that, with one very thick leg, decorated… it was big enough to seat us all.
Once again I say the wrong thing, says she.
But Gran didn’t hear her say it, have to go to the kitchen, have brought loads from the market, everything is terribly expensive, how are we going to make it?
I will get a job.
Zina, just have a look at yourself, you have to have a treatment, not a job.
Never mind, we have come back, that’s what matters. Now everything is going to go as it should, never mind anything. The boy is to go to school in a year, he is a big boy now.
I asked, where did your brothers sleep, if the table was big, there wouldn’t be much space for beds.
In the pre-war years they lived separately, but came to see Mom every day.
Did you come everyday too?
No, we were falling out all the time. Mom always wanted everything to be as she likes, and I am stubborn.
Oh yes, says Gran, it was sure the case of meeting one’s match, it was. But she wasn’t angry, she actually smiled.
And when they were small, how did you manage to have place for all of you in here?
Gran came to the wall – here used to be a door, and beyond it three more rooms, now they belong to the neighboring flat.
Little by little we started to live here.
Going To The Market
In the morning Gran takes her shopping bag, and goes to the market with me in tow. She doesn’t like to go with me, without you it’s easier for me to bargain, you have no patience whatsoever. I keep telling her, do buy it at last and let’s have it done with, and she says — you do not understand… But I want to go with her anyway, because it is interesting there, it is noisy, and a bit scary – in front of the entrance there are beggars singing their songs, they returned from the War but never made it to their home places, or they have nobody to return to… they wave their arms, many have some fingers missing, only stubs are left. One young guy is legless, his name is Kostya, he rides about on a low cart, pushing off the ground with two pieces of wood, he has a head of curly hair… and he laughs. Why would he laugh, that I could not understand. Another one, who has no arms at all, is having vodka poured down his throat, he gurgles, he mumbles, some of it flows down his chin. Gran grasps my hand tight, we go past him. I asked her shouldn’t we drop a coin to them, she says they’ll waste it on hard liquor anyway… and I can’t go near them, I can’t… In the market it is not as noisy. Most venders are men, old, they are Estonians, they sell white pork and blood in big cans all covered with tiny brownish spots, next to a can there is always a glass with pinkish fingerprints. To taste it.
We returned home by another route, going through yards, it is a shortcut, then along a high fence with barbed wire on top of it.
They are the German prisoners of war who are in there?
Yes, says Gran, wish they would take them away at last.
Sometimes I saw them – adorned in gray clothes, with gray faces, they talk to each other in low voices, the language they speak sounds strange and hard. Sometimes they are allowed to go from door to door begging for food. Once I heard a knock at our door, I ran to open it, we rarely have guests, I am very glad each time we have a visitor. I opened the door – there is a man standing there, dressed in the clothes of a soldier, only his clothes are dirty, old. He is looking at me, silently, a long thin face. I didn’t know what to do – he is looking at me, I am looking at him.
Then Gran appeared, said to him something in German. He shook his head, replied something in low voice, and started downstairs.
What have you said to him?
That he had no business coming here, you have killed us, Jews, and now he comes to beg for bread, I won’t give a mite!
What did he reply, what did he reply… I can’t care less for what he replied. Not all of us acted like this, that’s what he replied, oh Lord forgive me if You exist, but You don’t exist, or my boys were still with me now.
Mom says to her, you are wrong, Mom, it is true about not all of them doing this.
Gran waved her hand, I don’t want to understand it.
Then the Germans were taken away, and some other prisoners took their place, those spoke Russian, I heard them do it when going by. They were not allowed to go from door to door.
Electricity often fails, and we light candles. We have a kerosene lamp, but Mom cannot stand the smell, she starts to cough, she has not enough air to breathe. How might there be not enough air to breathe, I couldn’t understand that, and she says to me – you would be much better off never to understand it, my dear, I am not quite well.
Because of that we were afraid to use kerosene, and when it was dark we burnt candles. Gran says, so what of it, when I was small they hadn’t invented electricity yet, which doesn’t mean we lived in the darkness.
What did you burn?
I can’t even remember now, both kerosene and candles, and we had some other lights, but not these Edison’s globes.
Edison invented the electrical light bulb, with the filament inside that gets heated and produces light. You must read books! You have grown tall, but neglect books, and everything is written down in them, who, what, why… You won’t make a Jewish lad worth the name if you go on like that. If you won’t study, you’ll have to toil at some works lathing one and the same part a hundred times and more over and over, all your life. Jews study so that they can have good jobs. Why, why… Because people don’t like us, we have to know how to do everything better than everybody else, or we will be lost. And we do things better. We don’t drink vodka like the Russians, and we are not as dim as the Estonians.
Mom, says Mom to her, stop poisoning the kid with these silly notions. He has to start reading, but he doesn’t need to know these things.
A boy must know, lest he gets used to it, and it is wrong, to get used to swinish ways.
Even if it is wrong, we have to, laughs Mom.
Gran laughed too, patted me on the head, I said it out of malice, don’t listen to me, each people has some good men of its own, only I will never believe either the Germans, or the Russians again. And candles used to be always, my own grandmother grew up with candles, and it didn’t hurt her any. Yes, I mean precisely this — my grandmother! And will you kindly address me in some decent way from now on, I am no Gran, no Granny, I am your grandmother, or Fanni Lvovna, or just simply – Madame, like they used to address me before the War.
Like An Unknown Woman?
I was surely no worse, Lord, oh Lord, what have you done with me, and that is supposed to be life?
But you don’t believe in God.
I don’t believe, but if he exists, he is a malicious fool, or a criminal worse than the Germans and the Russians.
Mom laughs, I wish Sioma was about, he loves talking about God, and at the same time he copies Lenin’s works, each week he delivers a lecture, and the doctors, the nurses, everybody who is not dead yet have to listen. Al right, here are the candle and the matches, only be careful and I have to see you lighting it. That she is saying to me, and I take the candle and the matches hastily, before she thought better of it.
Are you out of your mind, to give matches to a child, Gran snatches everything from my hands, herself lights one candle, handles it to me, and into my other hand puts the other one, which is dark, cold, – now light this one yourself.
Mom, says Mom, the boy is six and a half years old, kids grow faster than you wish them to.
Well, maybe we grew up slowly, but we did grow up, and you flicker like some candles.
But I am not listening any more, I am concerned with my candles, the lighted one which I have in one of my hands, and the dark one which I have in the other. I tilt the dark, the cold one over the lighted one, the warm and the limpid one. You have to hold it tilted like this for some time, otherwise it won’t kindle. The tiny flame will catch up the very tip of the wick, will twinkle couple of times, than burn bright, and there you are! — you can stand the candle on the saucer now. To have it stand you are to stick it upon wax. You tilt it over the saucer, drop some wax – and immediately stick the candle into it, while the wax is soft. Actually it is not wax, it is the paraffin, it is artificial, they don’t make candles of the natural wax now. I light the candle and carry it into the darkness, the light is swaying to and fro before me, it waves, shadows embrace it from all sides, and together they dance on the walls and the ceiling. I open the book – letters and pictures stir, shadows run over the page. My Robinson is only about to start on his journeys. Mom reads much faster, Robinson has already got a friend, man Friday, and I move on slowly following them in their footsteps, I know what is going to happen, so it is easier for me to imagine myself on the island talking to them.
The boy has great imagination, says Dad, — that is why he doesn’t read, he reads a single line – and stops. I am the one to know, I myself used to be like this.
Maybe you are right, but he is soon to go to school, and he is not ready for it, he has to know everything better than the others.
There will be time for him to know, it is such a pleasure to know nothing, if you only knew.
I don’t know it, and won’t know, you are an irresponsible man, that’s why you are making fun of it.
To survive one just has to do some fun making from time to time.
All gather round the candles, it’s warm, cozy, nobody bustles, nor argues, nor quarrels…
And then – hop! – and the other light goes on – strong, even, and the little candle, so small and yellow, starts twinkling as if it has grown blind. Everything around becomes different – there is more space, the voices are louder, somebody says “well, I must be going…”, somebody else – “it’s time indeed…” And the candle has to be extinguished, you can do it with your finger actually, if you do it fast enough. The candles are laid down in their box in the cupboard, dark and cold. Light doesn’t argue with darkness any more — each knows its proper place. Gran says “at last!” and goes to the kitchen to cook supper.
But Dad is given the kerosene coupons anyway, and we take them, kerosene may be traded for something, people from the country come, go from door to door, would you like some potatoes, cabbages, they grow these things, and we pay for the food with kerosene. To go to the store to buy kerosene is usually my chore, I am given several kopeks to hold in my hand, and I go with the little can across the road, it is not dangerous, practically no cars go down our street, behind us are two short streets, then comes the park, and the sea. Though there is a hospital for the military near the sea, it is noisy there, the wounded are shouting from the windows, and on week-ends the dance is held on the grounds among the horse chestnut trees. I have never before seen leaves that big, and the fruits, in their thick green capsules with prickles, are like naval mines with their horns, when they fall they crack open, and inside there are brown seeds, smooth, shining, with one single pale spot.
In the little streets about our house everything is quiet, the old stones on the road are just as they used to be, Mom says everything seems to be as it used to be, only we are no more.
What do you mean we are no more when here we are.
Alik dear, this is not us, this is our shadows. Don’t listen to me, you have to live, to live. Soon you will be seven, says she, it’s time you start seeing people, and you have your eyes turned inward, you don’t see anybody.
Leave him alone, says Dad, I used to be like this too, he will have his chance to feast his eyes above measure yet.
You don’t believe in life, says Mom, and I for all, for all of that – still do.
He sighed, I believe in you, I don’t know what else is there to believe in. At work I know the remedies, things… People are sick, I can help them. But who is going to help us. Who will come to your aid when I die, Ber? Or Yulik, a homeless, where is he even now?
She laughed, you must be joking, thinking about death, you are not fifty yet… Then she started to cry, look what the War has done to us.
Don’t, don’t, says he, patting her on the shoulder, they avoid kissing in my presence. First one comforts the other, then the other way round.
I know, one has to believe, says he, but things around us are much like at a railway station, some are arriving, others have gone for good, and some live so very far away… We are not used to this kind of life.
And you, you go and fetch that kerosene, says Mom to me, here is the money, here is the can, and you know what you are to say.
Under the Desk
The store is in the green little house across the road.
The house has a side entrance to the basement, small stairs going down, it smells of shoe polish there, they sell kerosene, various brushes, some other things, I never looked too closely, on my mind was what I was to say and whether I had enough money.
Once I was standing in line, and a man behind me asks, he speaks Russian not very well, but you can understand him – are you the doctor’s son? I say – yes. It’ good that he has come back. Tell him Olaf sends his greetings, he will remember me, I know. A gray haired, bent down old man, as tall as I am, maybe a little bit taller. Dad says – Olaf, thank God he is alive, I always believed justice would triumph. But he is not old, he is about forty five, like I am. If Olaf came back, then others may also return.
I have one more brother, Yulik, he was banished before the War, of course it was due to a mistake, and then the War started. Actually he was lucky, those who stayed here perished.
He thought some, says, no, not only the Jews.
Why the Germans are mean?
Hitler was mean, and the Germans are different, many were afraid. I have friends who are German, I studied there.
Forget where you studied, dear doctor, says Gran, and forget about these friends too, they are no more any friends of ours.
You are wrong, Dad disagrees.
They started to argue, and I left, I have a little house of my own, under the new desk. Actually the desk is not new, but I have never seen a desk that big before, and I at once figured out what is the best thing about it. It has two solid sets of drawers, and there is nothing in between them, below is the parquet floor, above is the tabletop, and at the back the most important thing – the warm radiator of the central heating, and I would sit there, in my den.
Look, Zina, the boy is growing positively unsocial, he made up a house for himself under the desk, says Gran, he has had a strictly home upbringing sure, but there is such thing as good measure, where are his friends?
When he goes to school he will have both friends and enemies, and now let him sit awhile and think.
What he has to think about, he is a child…
Everyone has to do some thinking, says Dad, he comes home late, sits at his desk when I am in bed, and all the rest of the time the little house is mine. I was allowed to have a blanket there, and I sit in it, thinking.
You’d better read some, says Mom, but I don’t like to read, I listen to her reading to me. No, I mean I do read, but little by little, I read half a page and think, imagining myself living there, on that island…
It’s time you started reading yourself, Mom is not pleased about it.
But reading myself takes too long. And I like to sit under the desk, thinking what is yet to happen to me.
As Chance Would Have It
On Sundays Dad and I go to the sea. And on Saturday mornings we stay at home, all together. But in the morning Mom has headaches, she has low blood pressure. And Gran is simply in low spirits. And Dad and I are in a great mood, and they won’t see things our way. And we all argue, bicker about a bit, and make peace by dinnertime.
Today Mom says, I was born quite recently, and why everything had to happen to me exactly the way it did? This War could have happened never at all, everything would be nice and peaceful…
And would I be?
Our life generally is a chance thing, says Dad, and the fact that we have had you was also due to chance, it could have been some other person.
But they would have given him the same name – they started to make ready well beforehand, and had decided on it in advance. Once upon a time a boy lived in our town, who had the same name I have, when Mom was a child she liked him very much. I have never seen him, Mom told me about him, he was drafted into the army, and immediately perished. He was drowned.
That’s strange, in the wartime, and to get drowned?
He was on board a ship sailing from Tallinn. The ship was sunk by the Germans, and he didn’t know how to swim.
And so I got his name. Mom wanted everything about a person to be beautiful, name too. How could she know that I would turn up like this?
Dad says, she didn’t know, but she could make a guess, it is the genetics, each person has it written down inside himself what he will be like, and what his children will be like, everything is known. Except for the chance. It is important what chance will come your way.
You always tended to hope against hope, whatever the odds, says Mom, she believes one has to rely on one’s own abilities only.
Gran doesn’t believe in anything at all, she sighs – where is that life of mine, where has it gone… And as for my grandfather, I never saw him, he died before the War. Everything was beautiful about him, says Gran, but his name wouldn’t suit you, times have changed. His name was Solomon, and that is really going too far. He wasn’t named like this by chance, he had a grandfather whose name was Shlema. Then it was possible to name children like that, and now it is not a good idea, so I was given a different name.
To avoid advertising for trouble, says Dad.
It wouldn’t be a good idea to advertise for trouble, agrees Mom, and Gran sighs – everything about him was beautiful… And, of course, I look like him, it is the genetics. But how come it was I who happened to be his grandson, but not some other boy?
All the morning I was thinking over how come it worked out exactly this way, considering I could have been not at all, and it would be he sitting here looking out of the window. Or maybe she?
No, a daughter, it’s just not possible, says Mom, and she ought to know.
Where did you get this idea, says Dad, we may have one yet, easily.
Oh no, enough is enough, it’s a regular lunatic asylum as it is, he has harassed me with his questions witless, what for and how come, when I myself don’t know why everything turned out exactly this way for me…
But everything turned out rather nicely, didn’t it? – Dad is getting angry for some reason, he is dangling his foot, he always does when something displeases him.
I didn’t mean it to be derogatory, it is just that everything is so baffling.
On the contrary, everything is perfectly clear to me! – and Dad leaves, but he doesn’t go far, he sits down at his desk, he has to copy Lenin again. He looks into the book, then writes something down in his notebook in his beautiful hand, he is working.
Grandfather never acted like this, sighs Grandmother, working on Sunday indeed… He kissed my hands and bought me dresses.
Oh Mom, says Mom, it wasn’t just pure perfect bliss actually, was it, did you forget about little Bertha…
Never mind little Bertha… it was nothing, there was nothing between them.
And she leaves for the kitchen, she doesn’t feel like arguing any more, she has to cook our dinner.
It is a regular lunatic asylum, says Mom, nobody remembers a thing, and she also leaves to look after that dinner.
I am left alone, at my window, that boy who had my name died long ago, he got drowned in the icy cold water. I feel chilly, though the heating is on. How would he, if he had survived, and they had him instead of me… how would he be getting on with them?
You will have to face many a difficulty in future, says Mom, the main thing is to believe you have your own abilities to rely on.
Yet the chance is of importance, sighs Dad.
We have had dinner, they are bickering no more, they are playing draughts. Grandmother brings them their tea, and some kompot made of prunes for me, because I haven’t moved my bowlers for quite a time.
Maybe he should have an enema, Mom is thoughtful.
Enema would be just the thing, says Dad, contemporary medicine doesn’t deny the possible good effects of a nice little enema.
No, don’t bother about an enema, I’d rather have kompot.
I was playing across the road, on the grounds opposite our house, there are bushes there and a lot of snow. I was making snowballs and throwing them at a tree trunk, and keeping count of the hits; if I was making many hits, I moved a little bit farther off, and started throwing snowballs again. A boy was passing by, he was a bit bigger than me, his hands were bare, and his jacket was without any collar, he was cold, he was twitching and jerking and dangling one or another of his feet all the time. I guessed at once that he was a hooligan, only I couldn’t know whether he was a Russian or an Estonian one. Would be better if he were a Russian one, such if he chooses to fight will say so first thing, and an Estonian will approach silently, so when you understand what is going on it is already far too late.
I pretended I didn’t see him, and went on making snowballs, though I didn’t throw them any more, lest he think that I was aiming at him. He stopped, watched me making snowballs for some time, and then said in Russian – let’s throw snowballs at each other, who makes more hits. You have a store of snowballs, and I will be making mine by and by, and still I am gonna win.
His hands are bare, and I am wearing knitted mittens, they are already wet, but still it is much harder to make snowballs with your bare hands, so I agreed, though I didn’t like the idea of throwing snowballs at him – if you miss it means surrender, if you hit, why, he is a hooligan, he may get vexed. But there was no way out of it, well, let him throw.
He walked some distance off and began to grab snow with his bare hands very, very quickly, one-two, here is a snowball for you – and he is already throwing it with great force. Of course his snowballs were not as solid as mine, I had been making mine for quite a time, and he – one-two, and here it is, but he was making his quickly, and threw them with force, and he began to hit me more and more often. I was busy throwing too, and had hit him several times, he got vexed, began to throw his even quicker and with greater force. I guess my snowballs hurt more when they hit, because his were – one-two, here it is, and mine were solid. I see — I am running out of my store of snowballs, and I don’t know how to make snowballs as quickly as he does. And at that moment I hit him with one of my snowballs right in the forehead, he stopped throwing, decided to have a talk with me on the issue. I understood that he was going to fight, I was frightened, but I didn’t want to flee. He pushed me and said – what do you think you are doing? I say – why, nothing, you yourself suggested it. He pushed me again, and hit me over my hat, the hat fell off. I was still afraid of him, was trying to push him away, and then suddenly I myself grew vexed, and began to beat him, delivering blows with such quickness that he was surprised and turned to run, and while running he kept looking back, and I was running after him. From time to time he would stop and hit me over the head, not heavily, but each of his blows landed neatly, and none of mine reached their aim once, and yet he was running away, and I was pursuing him. Then he was turning back no more, and ran faster. We reached the border of our grounds, I didn’t feel like running any further. When in the street he shouted something to me, and showed me his fist.
I was going back thinking – why was he running away, he had hit me so very many times, though he didn’t hurt me any, and he was so quick about making the snowballs, he threw them with great force, and made lots of hits, and I made few hits, and yet he was running in front of me and I was running after him. Have I won a victory over him? I tried making snowballs the way he made them, but my fingers started to hurt at once, and the snowballs turned out as if slapped up from gruel. Later I understood why he turned running – it wasn’t his grounds, suppose he would have won a victory over me, and so what? Still I would be somebody who lives here, and he – a somebody who was passing by. And maybe he just wanted to play with me, and I hit him in the forehead for all his good intentions? Anyway, getting vexed was undue.
I have never seen him again, which was a pity – I would have asked him to explain what skill allowed to make snowballs so quickly, and throw them like a machine, who taught him to do it, and how come his fingers do not hurt, and if they do hurt, how he manages to stand it.
Lots Of Things At Once
Mom used to read to me every day about Robinson, for half an hour, sometimes longer, Dad says, wasn’t that guy lucky, he escaped being eaten by the savages, and me, they gnaw at me daily.
How do you mean – gnaw?
Like this, he laughed, they bite me like savages. Wish I could give up the head doctor position, it would be less money, but it would also mean treating diseases quietly, not commanding about.
Don’t even think about it, my dear doctor, says Gran, they’ll jump at the opportunity to kick you all the way down.
And Mom says nothing, she is not with us. I have difficulties meeting my Robinson, it is three of us living together now – me, Dad, and Gran Fanni Lvovna.
One day Mom came and said, we are to part for some time, Alik, I am going away to have my treatment in the sanatorium in a pine forest, that kind of air is good for me. You will be coming to visit me. And read the book to the end on your own, otherwise you will never know what happens to Robinson next.
I have known how to read perfectly well for some time now, but I dislike doing it. How am I going to do without her…
Are you to stay away for a long time?
Maybe for the summer, and will come back in autumn. You think I want to go? But it looks like it is about time.
Oh yes, says Gran, it was high time the day before yesterday. What a long aftermath of the War we are having, wish I died then.
Mom, don’t, says Mom, I will soon come back, and you – you listen to what your grandmother tells you.
He listens to what he is told, and doesn’t obey.
Fanni Lvovna, we have to go, Dad is at the door already, kiss your daughter goodbye.
On the cheek, says Mom, lest the bacillus hops onto you.
That is how this microbe is called – the Koch bacillus, it was discovered by a German under the microscope.
The bacillus is German?
No, says Dad, it is common to everybody, it has no nation. Only humans could invent nations. We will win over this microbe, don’t you worry.
Mom left, three months have passed, it is the rainy August now, the wind is cold, but she is not coming back. They won’t let you in to see her, says Dad, have patience. Yeah, when he himself goes to visit her all the time…
Winter set in swiftly, I woke up in the morning, and there was nasty snow falling in through the upper section of the casement, Gran had left it open. After lunchtime it is dark in the street, and will stay dark till the next morning. Winter is slow death, says Gran, the cold and the darkness, life is against us. Mom would have said, come, Mom, don’t… but there is nobody to say it, and Dad is at work. The radiators of the central heating hardly give any warmth at all, the floor is icy-cold, it is not cozy under the desk any more, and in the morning one has to put the clothes on very quickly.
In the evening Dad comes late, I am already asleep.
Not long ago I went to buy bread, it wasn’t dark yet, Gran says, buy some rye bread, we have fatback, we will take some of it to Mom, and eat some ourselves, it is salty, you have never tasted that kind. You are all bones, some fatback will do you good. She gave me a slice of rind to chow, I made away with it in a moment. These teeth of yours sure know how to do a job, take good care of them, I have lost mine. But she has another set of teeth. Waking up in the morning I find Gran snoring, next to her is the bedside table, and on it, in a glass, two jaws shine their white teeth through the water tinted pink with a grain of potassium permanganate. You absolutely must not loose your teeth, says she. Fatback helps, you are thin, could be worms or something… Buy rye bread, salted fatback doesn’t go with wheat bread well.
I bought a whole two pound loaf, received several kopeks as the change, and set on my way back, it is just going past five houses and the saw-mill. At the corner of the saw-mill a boy accosted me, he is a bit taller than I am, his head is big, he himself is very thin. I have already spotted him once, he was standing at the house across the road from ours, looking at Dad and me going to the sea, we were passing him by. And now he is blocking my way, and just when all that is left for me to make is to go past the saw-mill, our house comes next. Let me pass, say I to him, he keeps silent, and then, without saying a word, strikes me. Guess he meant to hit me in the face, but the blow landed on my shoulder. It didn’t hurt actually, but I dropped the bread, luckily in the snow, snow is clean. I wasn’t frightened, it was not a heavy blow, guess he was no stronger than I was.
What do you think you are doing?
And why you walk about here?
He speaks Russian, but it is obvious that he is an Estonian.
I live here.
No, me live here, me street.
We have come back.
Who the guy who takes you for walks?
You must say Father. You are the Doctor’s son?
Yes. We live here now.
Pick up the bread, it is bread, it is.
I bent to pick it up and did, though I was afraid he was going to strike me again. But he didn’t, he said gimme a piece of it.
I was surprised, he could have taken the bread from me, if he had already struck me, but no, he says gimme. He is not looking at me, he is looking at the bread. I broke off a piece, the bread was fresh, he took it without saying thank-you, crossed the road to where his house must be. Turned back, said, OK, you may walk about here, you will give bread for the pass. I brought the bread home, Gran was surprised, you couldn’t wait till home, you were that hungry? only penniless beggars eat in the street. I didn’t tell her anything, things sorted themselves out. That’s what Dad says, he is in trouble – things will sort themselves out, don’t you worry, Fanni Lvovna. The important thing is that Mom is better, this medicine is a true wonder, it is an antibiotic, the Americans invented it. And Gran, in loud whisper, haven’t I warned you! Not to say a word to a soul! The very thought about wherefrom the medicine came is terrifying, and he is announcing the news at every corner, do try to use your head for a change, my dear doctor Semion Grigorievich.
She calls him that when she is displeased with him.
The medicine was for a patient, there was nothing wrong about it, in the War I treated the Germans too.
Wish you haven’t, wish they were all dead.
It’s wrong to think this way, Fanni Lvovna, though I understand your feelings. They started to inject Zinochka with it, and the results were immediate, soon she will be at home. An old friend from Germany mailed it to me, he is a doctor too.
So he was treating the fascists, and is a fascist himself.
He was drafted to the army, just like I was, what could he do, he was treating people, not shooting them.
He was treating those who did the shooting, don’t forget about it, Sioma. On behalf of my daughter I am grateful, but I do wish you had kept silent, maybe nobody would have become the wiser.
What was so noteworthy about my words?… And who could have bothered to report, who…
He is asking — who… those who are ever ready to. Well, no point in talking about it now, you have already blurted everything out.
She left for the kitchen, and Dad said, now Mom is sure to come back soon, the medicine is just the thing.
Why don’t we have this medicine ourselves?
One day we will.
We Go To Visit Mom
At last we went to visit her. It is a ten minutes ride on the suburban train, said Dad, but before one has to go by the streetcar for quite a time, to the end of the line, first there were big houses, then a dull long street with small wooden houses.
I asked Dad, are we already in the country?
It is an old district of the city, soon we will reach the small station of the suburban railway, electric trains run here now. Once we used to go to the country house from this station, before the War. The sea, huge boulders, we bathed there. I had a car, but we liked to go by train.
What happened to the car?
He laughed, I wouldn’t know, I left it in front of the house, and when we came back, the house itselfwas no more, so we headed for uncle Ber’s place, don’t you remember?
Of course I remembered. I even felt belittled by the question, only two years passed since.
It was a very long ride, in the morning it is neither dark, nor light, the day is gray, only the snow lends some light to the street, to the little houses, little fences, the leafless trees and low pines, they grow in little groves here and there, they always have their needles on. The street car goes slowly, stops often, the doors open, and each time your feet are chilled by the wind. I began to grow cold, here we are, says Gran, we failed to dress the boy warm enough, that’s my fault. Under the overcoat she is wearing a woolen jacket, she took her jacket off, I say no, it is a woman’s jacket. She laughed, look what we are having here, the little man is heard from, and put the jacket on me, wrapping it all round me, and then put my overcoat over it. “And I can do without, I have enough fat for warmth.” I at once grew warm. There were few people in the car, all of them were silent, Dad was standing in the end of the car looking out of the window.
He just wouldn’t switch to the warm winter clothes, he still thinks himself a boy, wearing that light coat of his in such a weather, says Gran, he is excited, they see each other so seldom. Your Dad is a good man, things will sort themselves out, you will have a long life to live.
My life was over even before the War, it is just one gray day that I am going through now. I will make it to the end somehow, only the pity for you, in times like this one has to hold on with one’s teeth, use one’s teeth…
That I didn’t understand, though teeth are useful, without them you cannot even chow salted fatback.
At last we arrived, on both sides there were small hillocks, the street-car stopped down in the long pit between them, we climbed the stairs leading to the top of one of the hillocks, and there was a tiny wooden ornamented house up there, and there was a little window in the wall of the house, in the window was a head of curly hair, it was the cashier, she asks where we are going, how many tickets…
Dad says two tickets for grown ups, and do we need to buy a ticket for the boy?
Does he go to school? Not yet? Then you don’t need to.
Dad gave me the tickets to hold, hold them tight, next year you are going to need a ticket too. Now we go to the terminal to wait for the train.
We entered the long wooden terminal, it is a platform, with no snow on it, there were several other people there, everybody was silent, only the vicious wind blowing, well, we wait. At last, from far away to the right came a low rumble, it was growing louder and louder, the whistle blew, a bright light is rapidly approaching us, though it is broad daylight now, it is the lantern of the electrical suburban train. The train is going by with a swish, I mean to say, what about picking us up… The cars are fleeing by, but slower and slower, I understood that the train was coming to a stop. Right before us hissed and gaped open a door, climb in quick! Dad pushed me in, we all boarded it, the door closed with the same snaky sound, it slid close, coming from inside the wall like the doors in our cupboard, Mom says it is a convenience, and we started on, there was one stop, then the second one, then Dad said – forward march! We ran to the door, just made it, bounced out onto the platform, and the train rushed away.
The electrical train runs here from recently, Dad says, there used to be a little steam locomotive, it draw little cars, it took it two hours to make this distance.
Not two, one hour, says Gran, she has trouble keeping up with us, but doesn’t complain. The electrical train is not much of an achievement, I loved those little cars, light breeze was blowing in our faces, we used to go to our summer house… and she started crying, she hasn’t cried for quite a time, but she is crying now…
Dad knitted his brows, that was in summer, Fanni Lvovna, and now it is winter, you can see for yourself. And you cannot stop the technology. I also remember everything the way it used to be, but what are we to do, sit weeping all day long? The old life is over… as well as our young years, it can’t be helped.
You are not an old man, says Gran, if only life were a bit better.
We went down the whole of the terminal, began to descend the broken stairs leading to the ground. Gran groans, where are the handrails, there used to be handrails here, from time immemorial, so that’s your technology for you, why break the handrails, what for? The Estonians won’t do it, it is all the Russian newcomers’ doings, they have come and are in no hurry to leave.
Fanni Lvovna, they have nowhere to go, their country is in ruins.
Wish they took to re-building their country, I do.
We were walking on, there were no streets, there was a field, and a walk trumped in the snow across it, I had some snow get into my boots, but it melted at once and became warm, we were walking quickly and in silence. Ahead of us there came in sight some little and shabby wooden houses, among them was one white two storied house made of stone, that one we entered. There was a counter, and a woman sitting and knitting something from red wool – your pass is good for going where, the seventh? Only till the dinner-time, our rules are strict. I know, I know, I need no pass, I am a doctor, and here are the relatives. The woman at once looked into her notes, you can go, no bacillus, my congratulations, doctor, but rules are rules, you must understand.
We went past the counter, through another door and found ourselves beyond the wall, it was encircling all the houses. Dad knew where to go, we walked quickly, Gran was puffing, but wouldn’t acknowledge it, only fell behind several steps. We entered the little house, there was a short passage, several doors, Dad knocked once at one door, two voices simultaneously answered – do come in, we came in.
I Have Seen Her
The room was small, there were two beds in it, on one, which was close to the door, a fat woman was lying, she at once turned over to face the wall, and Mom was sitting near the other bed which was close to the window. She saw me, stood up and said, at last, I am waiting for you since early in the morning, what took you so long. She hugged me, but didn’t kiss me, she smelled of some herbs, or some medicine, I wouldn’t know.
Are you coming home soon?
Yes, I am well, the antibiotic cured me. Let’s go and have a walk all together.
It took her a long time to dress, her clothes were right here, in the closet, they are allowed to take walks, even forced to have them, and we started.
Gran says, well, you have seen your Mom, now let you and me have a walk on our own, and them have some time together, they have lots to talk about.
Maybe we should have some more time with Alik? says Mom. Then she said – no, soon we will be all together, better go, just in case.
So Gran and I started to walk down the row of the little houses, over the snow, I saw how swiftly the shadows were growing, how the windows would light up.
People live here for years, says Gran. Zinochka was lucky, to get this new medicine, we don’t have it here, we live in a camp, nobody cares if we die, we are unwanted.
And before, were we wanted then?
No, but there was no fear, it was a quiet kind of life. For about twenty years we lived undisturbed, people can’t stand peace for long. And before that there was another war, it was some tsores too.
Tsores is a Jewish word which means troubles.
Were you rich?
She laughed, no, not rich, but well to do, we had everything we needed when your grandfather was alive, but all in all the Jews are not much liked.
I asked why, she says, it’s a long story, but you must enjoy your life, the main enemy doesn’t exist any more, as for the rest we will live with it somehow. But you must study, and you read too little, you can’t read that one book to the end, what is to become of you?
I wanted to say that I was doing some reading in fact lately, but thought better of it. I have started to read another book only I am not telling anybody about it, or they will say you ought to read the first one to the end before starting on a new one, you never finish anything. Though Mom is not at home, Gran is quite capable of saying it, things they say are much alike. Only Dad will say nothing of the kind, he will pat me on the head – go on, read, read… But he is busy all the time. And I know everything about Robinson already, I have read it in the end of the book. Everything for him turned out not jolly, but he is having that peace and quiet Gran is always talking about. A pity he had left the island, what good might come from it. Now the book is spoiled, I don’t feel like reading it, I know everything. Mom has read it to me up to Friday man, I have read it up to the first savages, I wish I had never looked up the end… Now I am waiting till I forget the end, maybe then I will start reading it again. And the second book is “What I Have Seen”, about a boy in Moscow, he had seen many interesting things.
We were walking on and on, I grew cold, though the woolen jacket was warm, at last we turned back, and I saw in the distance two figures, one small, one tall, they were Mom and Dad, they were slowly walking towards us. I see that he is big, and she is small, I told Gran, she said stop calling me Gran, what a nasty habit! I am a dame, even if an old one, but a DAME.
OK, let her be a DAME, but what I said was true, she is small.
The dame laughed, and said – it is all the other way round, my boy, she is strong, he is weak. In our time being a good person… it is not enough, no it isn’t.
Why is he weak?
Sometimes she says incomprehensible things, and she makes you wash up, it is very cold in the morning.
She kept silent, we were slowly walking on to meet them.
So far as they are together, everything will be well. Though I planned a different match for her, but there was the War, everything turned upside down, what is good, what is bad. And I have lost so much since…
Then she looked at me, oh dear, what am I talking about, you are only a child.
At that moment they approached us, Mom was laughing, and Dad looked happy, imagine, Mom, says Mom, he has just suggested we have our marriage registered.
Oh dear, very funny, the boy is to go to school next year. But better late than never, and to me she says – see, I was right, they are fools.
Mom laughed, OK, we are fools, agreed, but it is about time.
He is spending all his time at work, from morning till night, says Gran, nothing blameworthy came to notice, the War made a respectable person of him.
Mom laughed, and said nothing.
We walked some more all together, then she said, I have to hurry off, it’s the dinner time, such are the rules. Dad kissed her, I won’t see you off, next time we will be coming back together.
The ride back was long, but merry, some people in the car were singing Estonian songs, in the town the lights were glowing up, there were lights on in our house too, only the small houses across the road were dark, people there were already asleep.
Mom Is Back
Three weeks passed, three Saturdays, three Sundays, and yet she hasn’t come home. Gran says they have to make sure that everything is well, which means x-rays, tests… Saturdays I remember very well, we go to the market on Saturdays, there are many people in the market place on week-ends, one can buy cheaper.
You and me, we are sinners, says Gran, Jews are forbidden to work on Saturdays.
Is that work that we are doing?
She laughed, you might think it isn’t, you are just taking a walk, and me, I am figuring out what I am to buy with these few small coins I have in my purse. Poverty is wearisome, I never knew it was. And then there will be that cooking with no end to it… you think I like it?
At last Mom came back.
They arrived, knocked at the door. We were having an electricity failure, and Dad had left his keys on the table. Hardly Mom had stepped over the threshold, it’s dusty here, says she, throws off her coat, grabs the brush, and starts poking it under the bed – I ought not to breathe in dust.
You will drive yourself crazy with these fantasies of yours, to sweep the floor in candlelight!… says Gran, I have swept it in the morning, there is no dust.
Mom dropped that brush, grabbed me, pressed me to her belly, I felt the warmth, she has come back. Dad didn’t go to work, we sat down to a meal, we had potatoes and fried Baltic herring. They drank some wine, and I was served kompot, made of apples and prunes.
Mom, you fry fish exactly the way I do it, — even the tails are crisp.
It’s you who is frying fish exactly the way I do it, Gran always starts arguments.
What have you ever fried before the War? You never entered your own kitchen.
Oh yes, indeed… I keep forgetting, it’s the teaching-your-grandmother-sucking-eggs times we are having now.
What do you have going on at work, Sioma, tell me the truth.
Dad waved his hand, nothing much, they let me stay on the staff, Zolotova is the head doctor now.
You were lucky to get away that easy, says Gran. Communicating with the abroad, and all you get is a reprimand. Discharged from the helming post, but let stay on the staff, taking into account the war record.
Oh, never mind… says Dad, it is much better this way, I am an ordinary doctor once again, I treat patients, not give orders. Otherwise I could have forgotten everything about treating patients, and it would have turned out that the Germans had wasted their time teaching me.
And he thinks it as a laughing matter! Forget about your pre-War Germany, you light-minded man.
Let him be, Mom, says Mom, everything is fine, we are all of us together.
Only my boys are no more.
My Brother Grisha
It happened when it was spring already, Mom says, today is Sunday. I was surprised, am I a baby to be told what day of the week it is? And she says:
Today you are not going to the sea with Dad. When you were still asleep, he has gone to meet your brother, soon they will be back.
Dad had another son before you were born, long ago. Dad was living with another wife then.
Where is she now?
She died during the War in Tashkent. Grisha went to us, to Chuvashia, on his own, crossing the whole of the country, then he studied in the medical school under your father to become a doctor’s assistant, he was even drafted and sent to the front lines. A couple of months before the War was over.
Then how old is he?
He is fifteen years older than you are, figure it out for yourself.
Nope I won’t, I am good at counting, but I dislike doing additions.
At that moment the door opens, and in comes a strange grown-up man, not tall, rather like Dad as to his built, carrying two suitcases, and the third suitcase is carried by Dad, who is following him, smiling.
Oh, Zi-i-na, hi, says this strange man in high pitched voice, he is young, but he is not smiling.
Father, is this your new son? – and he points at me.
He had seen me, before the War, but I was in my swaddling clothes, he couldn’t have a really good look.
He has changed a lot, says Grisha, and starts laughing very loudly, throwing his head back, just the way Dad does it, that’s mannerisms running in the blood for you, says Gran.
Oh, Fanni Lvovna, glad to see you…
I have changed a lot too, it’s amazing you recognized me.
He never gave me another look. We had dinner together, he was eating fast, greedily, and noisily, but Gran didn’t say a word to him about it. His nose is aquiline, like Dad’s, and mine is straight, like Mom’s. He has fat cheeks, he is eating non-stop, he is eating whenever he has an opportunity to eat, says he. And he can sleep sitting up, and knows how to fall asleep for five minutes. He says to himself, I will wake up in five minutes, and indeed does.
You’ve got the nerve just like your mother, says Mom.
Yes, she sure had it in her that which was worth copying.
Everybody fell silent because she had died.
Then he and Dad sat down in armchairs facing each other, and Grisha started to teach Dad how he ought to live, there is no point in staying in the big city, Zina needs to live in the country, and doctors are wanted everywhere. In the country patients bring food to doctors, and country life may improve matters with your heart trouble…
What is the trouble with Dad’s heart? I didn’t know there was any.
Dad was listening and smiling, where are we to go, our home is here, you cannot hide from them anywhere, you are too young and do not understand. There is nowhere to go, we will do our best to survive here.
No, Grisha wouldn’t agree, we must go, you know where.
You are out of your mind, instead of Israel you will travel in quite an opposite direction.
I know, I know… Grisha knows how one ought to live. I am not crazy, I will be waiting for an opportunity, don’t worry about me. I don’t want it to be like with Mom. Like with you…
They started an argument, and I left, got under the desk, though even the floor was cold there. My elder brother turned out to be a boring person. Then everything became quiet, he left, and I got out of my den.
How impolite, you didn’t even come to say goodbye, says Mom, Dad went to see him off. He will be living not far from us, in a small town near a lake, he is a doctor’s assistant, he is a tough guy, he will pull through.
He sure will pull through, says Gran, but we won’t. He is perfectly right, the thing is to escape. Sioma is too much in the public eye, they will never forgive him.
Oh, Mom, says Mom, what are you talking about… it’s a thing of the past, it is over and done with. Life is good, as far as we are together.
What’s a psycho?
Gran waved her hand, and left.
Now, Mom, you always leave me in a tight spot to deal with difficulties on my own.
Gran in the kitchen laughed, use your head to think up an explanation, it is your son.
Psycho is a madman, whose thinking is garbled, a sick person.
He who is not afraid, he is a psycho?
A psycho is not afraid of anything, he has lost that which is of the utmost importance.
Which makes me a psycho, says Gran, bringing in jam on a small plate, small apples no bigger than plums in size, only they are transparent, yellow, with long stalks.
These are crabapples, Tsilia sent this as a treat, tomorrow we are to go visit her. Tsilia is my sister, you have met her.
Of course I have, in the street. She never visits us, it’s a long way, she is lame, she had that sore leg since childhood. But Gran often goes to her place to ask for some advice about how to cook things, she would leave and not return till late in the evening, and we go on hungry. Mom gets angry, goes and cooks some fried eggs, only the yolks always get burst. And Tsilia knows everything about cooking. She doesn’t know a thing to talk about aside from cooking, sneers Grand, but she is a kind sister, a pity she has this idiot of a husband who is swaying all day long sitting on his bed.
Mom, laughs Mom, he is not swaying, he is praying, you are an old person yourself, you must be more understanding.
I don’t want to be understanding, what can one be asking from a criminal. That’s who is a regular psycho, her husband Aron, he sure is.
In the morning Gran and I went to visit Tsilia, the streetcar doesn’t run that way, and going on foot makes a long walk, she lives in the old part of the town. The air here smells strongly of the briquettes, people stoke the stoves to make homes warm. But the house is beautiful, it is of gray stone, narrow, with a high pointed roof.
Start climbing the stairs, says Gran, I will follow you, these stairs will kill me one day.
The steps are narrow, flat, slightly curving inward in the middle, Gran says people would wear even the stone away. The stairs keep turning on and on as if to make a circle, there are only walls about, and up at the top there is a door.
Gran pushed the door open, an idiot, a trustful soul, she still goes on like in the pre-war years.
We entered. A small passage, opening to a big room afore, and to the right there is a glass enclosure, it is the kitchen that is within, and walking about it, wobbling, is a large old woman, who is stirring something with a spoon with one hand, and shaking a bottle with the other, talking to herself. She didn’t hear us enter, Gran knocked on the glass. Tsilia saw us – Fanni, at last! Go to the room, I will be with you in a moment. We entered the room, it was spacious, light, there were two very high narrow windows… the room was strewn with various belongings carelessly thrown all over it, there was not a single vacant chair.
Oh, that Tsilia… it is just like her!
Gran loaded some of the belongings onto the bed that was in the corner, and we sat down at the table. There is a door leading from the kitchen right into the room, through it enters Tsilia with two huge plates in her hands, I am cooking some meat, try it, it is sweet-and-sour meat, my boy, you have never eaten anything like this, has he, Fanni?
That’s out of my league, says Gran, but she is not vexed, I see she loves Tsilia. And you are not eating?
You eat, and I will watch you eat, I enjoy it. I have to stay off till two, I’ve been to the dentist in the morning.
The meat is with potatoes that are brown, it is very tasty, but there are such heaps of it. I have already had enough, but my plate is still full, I am just picking it with my fork, so that Tsilia won’t get angry. Gran says if you want to make Tsilia angry or hurt her feelings, eat little, she will pine away. So I pretend to be eating, having meanwhile some rest, and then I felt like eating again, and I ate it all. But Gran just picked at her portion a bit, and took her plate to the kitchen. Tsilia didn’t say a word to her, just waved her hand in despair.
And the boy did a great job. Alik. It is a Russian name, isn’t it?
Why Russian, Alexander is a fit name for a Jew. A Greek tsar, he never bothered the Jews any.
Alik has the second wind, he will go far, says Tsilia. Eating is the Jewish kind of sport, we are the world champions in eating. Not taking into account you, Fanni, you are the Russian beauty of our family.
Why Russian, in what way I am any worse than you are?
You are not worse, quite the contrary, you are better, we are common folk, and you are capitalists. Oh well, it is all in the past now, over and done with. Now all are equal, is it not so?
Gran laughed – all those who got fell in to make the rank and file, they are, with the exception of the big bosses, that is. Where is your man?
In the Synagogue, naturally, where else could he be, is talking God into being a bit kinder to us.
Me – as usual, he will come to find the meat served on the table, which means our kind God was helpful.
We finished with the meal, stayed for some more time, and left, going back took long too, I even grew tired, it is not easy to walk with your belly full.
Why Tsilia doesn’t come to visit us, she is not that badly lame, and she goes to the market in our neighborhood?
She is shy of your Dad, he is educated, and she is a common woman.
And where are her children?
She never had any. She is older than I am, she got married when she was forty, nobody wanted to take a lame girl for a wife.
She has a beautiful face.
You think so… Nobody ever said this before, I must tell her you think so.
Embarrassed, aren’t you? There is no shame in saying something nice to a person.
Once a year you get real presents. On your birthday, naturally. The New Year doesn’t count, there is general distribution of something or other on the New Year Eve, there is fuss and bustle, everybody is checking whether the others have got something better. It is tiresome, and makes your present look small, uninteresting. Each and everybody gets a present, it is that kind of a day, that’s all. They say the New Year begins. How do they know when it begins? I have been asking about, nobody gives an answer. Dad says people just reached an agreement about that day, you have to begin the new time from somewhere, after all. But one can reach an agreement about anything… On the other hand, nobody ever has yet cancelled the New Year, many festive days have changed, but this one persisted. It’s nice to know, says Dad, that no government can cancel it.
But if you give it some consideration, is it my fault that the old year has come to its end? And my birthday I have deserved, I have been doing my living on and on, and made it to the end of my year. And now here they are, my presents…
They are sitting on the bedside table near the bed. Gran was up early to go to the kitchen to cook something special for dinner, she never is in time to make something for breakfast. So I am alone here, in my little corner. Through the hole in the folding screen I can see the window. Gran says there used to be no holes in the screen, the screen is the only thing which was left from the pre-war times. Beside the albums, they were wrapped in the fabric of the screen. As to the frame Dad had a new one made to order, not as beautiful as the old one, says he, but much faster, this screen will outlast us all. And instead of the hole there used to be a famous picture, Gran says they must have got quite a nice sum of money for it. But on the other hand I can see the window now. It is our second year in this flat, my second birthday here. I also remember the third one, at uncle Ber’s flat, it was long ago, and further on I don’t remember anything at all. Uncle never came back, he moved to Moscow for good, he has another wife now.
He did brace himself up to it after all, I have been doing him injustice thinking little of him, says Gran.
And Dad is not glad at all, I have lost my brother, am I to see him ever again now…
What a silly man you are, Sioma, my dear doctor, he is alive, that is what matters, Gran is always right.
And most amazing things happen to presents sometimes, says Mom. Before the War I got a huge teddy-bear as a present. We went away, leaving everything behind, our house was bombed out of existence, but the teddy-bear was staying with my friend, I had sent him there to have some repairs done to him. As soon as we came back, he returned to us.
I heard this story about the teddy-bear a hundred times maybe, now he is sitting on the upper shelf, in the dark. I am a bit sorry for him, nobody plays with him, I don’t play with toys any more. But at least he is living at home.
I don’t remember anything now about how we used to live when the War was on. Isn’t Alik lucky, says Mom to Dad, I wish I could forget everything, the War, and especially that which was before it, I would feel better.
Would you like to forget me as a young man?
No, you – never, laughs she. But to forget that which I have lost, so that I won’t miss it any more.
And I cannot forget a thing, says Gran, for me life is one single leaf of paper, everything is written down on it, and all the Kings horses, and all the Kings men cannot erase from it a tiniest strike.
She was born in July, she is not our kind, and Dad and I were born in October, on one and the same day. Actually I was ten minutes late, says Mom, the next day had already started. I talked the doctor into changing the time of birth, on paper only, of course. So Alik was registered five minutes to midnight, same day as Sioma, to please the father.
I overheard it, she was telling it to her friend Sonia, in strict confidence. Confidence indeed, it was only fifteen minutes, and anyway Dad and I were born very close to each other. Only in different years.
I was born in the last century, the one within which Pushkin had lived his whole life from beginning to end, says Dad.
And I was born before the War.
And I was born before the previous War.
What previous war?
Never mind… he laughed, you will yet have time to count all these wars.
In the morning it is gloomy in the room, it is dark, there is a draught coming from the upper section of the casement that was left open — Mom is fortifying me against colds with fresh air, and one can hear drops splash against the glass-pane. Ahead lie winter, darkness, the yellow feeble light. And yet – it is my birthday! I have made it to the end of my own year. And to make my further life more cheerful – here are the presents…
They are lurking in the darkness, waiting for me to wake up. And I have been not asleep for quite a time, I have been watching the bed-table. They are not rising all that high over the table surface, are they?… Though there do exist some not very high long presents that are most useful, a hand torch for example, I got one as a present last year. It is round, long, with a big transparent window at one end, and the other end is for inserting batteries. It still would be lighting up beautifully had I not let it drop. Mom says I am a barbarian, because one of the batteries developed a leak. The other I broke to pieces myself, one battery is not enough anyway. Dad promised to buy some new ones, if they happen to be in stock, and if he happens to have some money at that moment, and if he doesn’t forget about it as he usually does. It rarely works out all together for him, either he is out of money, or the shop would have moved to another location. But one day he will make an effort. That’s how Mom puts it: make an effort, Sioma… Before my birthday he makes an effort, and here they are – the presents.
They are not very long, the presents, the top of the bed-table is big enough for them to lie on. Last time something was hanging over, I even fancied it might be the string of the dump-truck. I lost my nerve and reached my hand for it, but it proved to be a doily, they decided to lay the presents out on a doily, for prettiness’ sake. Presents themselves proved reasonably nice by the way, though that dump-truck had never left the store I saw it in. Well, it was no great loss, they say trucks like this will use up batteries in half an hour, after which you are obliged to draw it about by hand, and what is there inside the battery I have already found out. Dad promised me another torch, a special kind, but it is not on sale yet. It gives light on its own, it doesn’t require batteries.
So there can be no torch among the presents.
They are not high, not long, not round, these presents of mine… Which means there is no ball among them either. Well, it’s all for the better, a ball is so difficult to find in the grass, you may be walking right next to it without noticing it. You must not to just gape about the way you do, but see things, says Mom. To look is easy, since you have your eyes anyway, but as to seeing…
At the moment I have difficulties even with just looking – it is dark yet. I am lying in my bed waiting. Time goes slowly, it is the first day of my new year. The wind is working hard for me, chasing the clouds away, it becomes a bit lighter in the window. I can see that there is something black on the bed-table which is flat – that’s one thing, there is also something of incomprehensible shape – that’s another… and there is something else, something thin, and longish, and rather small…
I already know. Of course it is guesswork really. Though I am pretty sure about the flat thing. It is a book. I have two favorite books, about Robinson, and “What I Have Seen”, and what might this one be? I think it is that very book, about the past of the Earth, which I had seen at Edik’s, and even started to read, by myself! I read very slowly, but I understood everything. But he wouldn’t allow me to take it home to read – it’s a pre-e-esent, says he. The beginning is interesting – how our Earth came to be. Some star had torn out a shred out of the sun, and the planets came to be from it, they started to whirl and swirl, grew cold, and life sprang up on them. And eventually I was born. In autumn, and today is my birthday.
About that second present… I think it is some useful thing. It is a rag thing. Not very interesting, but a necessary of life. Maybe it is a shirt or even pants. It better be pants, the pockets of my old pants have worn through and are all holes. Mom says it is irreversible. Pants without pockets become a thing of no interest whatsoever. And new pants are sure to have pockets.
As to the third present – well, I don’t know. Maybe I was just seeing things, it is only a shadow, and nothing is lying there actually? When you are wishing for something very hard you start seeing things.
I am lying in bed, I am in no hurry to get up. After you have touched everything, there will be nothing to wait for.
This boy is truly amazing, says Dad, he sure knows how to wait, I have never mastered the art and wouldn’t know how to do it even now.
He took after me, says Mom.
No, after me…
And they argue like this almost daily, though without quarrelling. Till Gran says the breakfast is ready. And today is a holiday, and our birthday too, first we will go to the sea, then we will have dinner, then Edik and Auntie Sonia will come, and bring me presents, we will eat pretzel, have tea.
That is the real first day. The New Year Eve my foot… even if they had come to an agreement, so what? And I have done all that living and made it personally to my own day.
 The larder, from Schafferei