"Look Vati, look who is coming. Nehama is here.” There was a moan from the skull propped against the large pillows in the double bed. Mr. Hauptmann rolled his emaciated head. “Nehama? It’s you?”
“Yes, Mr. Hauptmann.”
Nehama removed her gloves, her scarf, and her beret. Mr. Hauptmann extended a skeletal arm. “Madchen. Komm.” Nehama approached the bed and lifted his limp white palm. “How do you feel, Mr. Hauptmann?”
“Auch, Vati is feeling gut. Much better. Tonight he will have steak!”
“Ja.” Mr. Hauptmann grimaced. “Liquid steak!” He looked at Nehama, and his gaze softened. “How is going the theatre? You are still playing?”
“I am still playing. The theatre,” Nehama sighed, “is there.” Nehama watched the old man’s shrunken face. This was not the time, yet there would be no other. “You know, Mr. Hauptmann, when I was a little girl, I knew you liked me, but you never talked. So many times, I wished you would talk. I thought, one day, when I grow up and am old enough to understand, Mr. Hauptmann will talk to me.”
Mr. Hauptmann patted Nehama’s hand. She’d been an enchanting child, and had grown into an enchanting woman. He had felt closer to this girl than to his own daughters, having missed their first years during the war. When he had finally returned from the front, it was as a stranger. “Nehama, when you looked at me with your eyes so brown and big—auch, madchen, we didn’t need to talk.”
Nehama looked out the wide picture-window, at the cracked, withered leaves clinging to branches that twisted into a lavender sky…This is not what I need to hear, Nehama despaired. Now I’ll never know…She looked back at the old dying man. His grip on her hand was surprisingly tight. “Madchen, you will stay with me?”
“Yes, Mr. Hauptmann. I will stay.”
It was bitter, the winter of ’59. Hong Kong flu had broken out in the city. Icicles rimmed the window-pane. Hilde Hauptmann turned up the heat, and propped the swaddled infant against the large pillows of the double bed. Her two teenage daughters formed a circle around the four-poster…“Auch, Mutti, er is so schon! Can we keep him?”
“Only for a little while.” The baby gurgled. “Auch, Mutti! Look! Little Lucian rolled his head, pressed his tiny lips together, and blew spit. “Auch, Gerda! Er is wunderbar! Mutti, we adopt him? He could be our brother!”
“But he doesn’t belong to us, Gerda. We are taking care of him because his family is sick. When they are well again, we must give him back. Go out, now. The baby must sleep, and you must do your homework. Go!”
Gerda and Gisela backed out the bedroom door. Mrs. Hauptmann lifted Little Lucian into her arms. She had agreed, for a fee, to take care of the infant until her neighbours and their little girl were out of quarantine. Poor people, they had no one…Hilde gazed at the baby. He was indeed beautiful. He had soft white hair, feathery as snowflakes. The boy would be blond, for sure. He had huge blue eyes that were just beginning to focus, and pink crinkly lips, delicate as a rose. Best of all, he was fat and round and healthy, not like her own starved babies had been during the bombing of Berlin. Even Hilde, herself, had been thin. She had lost her milk, then. But this boy—his body was perfection. If not for the cut on his penis, one could never tell…Hilde laid the baby on her massive chest. “Auch, mein kind,” she whispered. “Du bist so schon.” She stroked his head. Little Lucian grabbed one of her breasts with his tiny fists, and gummed.
“…Allez h-up!...Bravo!” Mr. Hauptmann raised Little Lucian to the top of the tree. With both fists gripping the foil-wrapped star, he stuck it on the top branch. “Wunderbar! You did this wunderbar!” Mrs. Hauptmann lifted Little Lucian away from Mr. Hauptmann and kissed his fat, rosy cheeks. “Thank you, Mrs. Hauptmann!” Little Lucian kissed her back, wrapped his pudgy arms around her neck, and rested his head on her chest. He was in heaven.
Nehama sat on the sofa and watched, cramming as many chocolates as she could into her mouth before Mrs. Hauptmann would see her, and make her stop.
“You like chocolates, Nehama? They are the best. Das is deutsch schokolade. Herr Bier is bringing them from his factory.”
“I like Mr. Bier. I like his chocolates.” Gisela was so lucky, marrying a man who worked in a chocolate factory.
“Nehama! You are eating again?! You will get fat! If you want to be an actress, you cannot be fat. Put the chocolates down.”
“Auch Hilde, it’s Christmas. Leave the child alone.”
“Christian, don’t interfere.”
“I’ll be an actress! I’ll be a great actress!” Sadly, Nehama put the chocolates down…Nehama had wanted to be an actress ever since she’d seen her classmate play a duchess in a play at the children’s theatre. Later, her classmate had taken her to a practice, and she had sat in the practising space until a big scary guy came over and told her to go away. It was fantastic, the theatre. One minute, you were your plain old self, and the next, you could be a duchess, or a princess, or a queen. You could be all different kinds of people in all different parts of the world—sometimes even in places that didn’t exist in the real world, but in a fairy world, or a fantasy world that someone had made up out of their imagination. The theatre was magical, like a dream. Nehama had decided, right then and there, that when she grew up she was going to be an actress—she would be all the people of the world, so that when it hurt too much to be Nehama she could be someone else, instead. Ohhh, sometimes she felt so full of feeling, it seemed like there wasn’t enough room in her child’s body for all the feelings to fit, and she would want to burst out of her skin, and laugh, and cry. When she grew up and was an actress, it would be so exciting! She would float across a stage, and speak in a low, lovely voice, and say beautiful words. She would travel around the world, and meet all the different people, and see all the different places, and when she showed her feelings on the stage, everyone who watched would understand her and love her. Little Lucian wriggled away from Mrs. Hauptmann and waddled to the tree. It was truly a wonder. Peppermint canes dangled from its branches. Silver tinsel rained from its boughs and swirled ‘round them in loops, like the ribbon in his sister’s hair. On top of all that, the shiny balls jiggled when you hit them. Boom! “Wed! Wed!” Lucian squealed.
“That’s right, schveetheart, it’s red!” congratulated Mrs. Hauptmann.
“Is nice colours!...Ha ha ha ha!” Little Lucian unhooked a cane and sucked on it. He toddled to his sister, and crawled onto her lap…Nehama stroked her brother’s blond head. The scent of pine wafted from the tree. The girl gazed out the wide picture-window, at the soft white snow falling on the bare black branches, and mused on how beautiful her future was going to be.
Nehama walked with her mother up the hill to the bakery. The lady who ran the store huddled behind the counter, rocking herself and sobbing. A transistor sat on the counter. The twang of “Sergeant Pepper” cut the air like glass shards. “What’s the matter, Pani Feinstein? Are you feeling not well?”
“They’re going to kill us. Again. That man—Nasser—like Hitler…Last time, in the forest. This time, into the sea…Again…It’s going to happen again…I have left, only one cousin. In Haifa…Again…It’s going to happen again.”
Nehama was holding her mother’s hand. She felt it tremble. Renia glanced at her daughter. Then she turned on Mrs. Feinstein, her slate blue eyes flashing hot steel. “Pani Feinstein! Stop talking nonsense!..Uspokuj sie! Behave yourself! I came to buy bread, and you’re here to sell it to me!”
“Tak, Pani Mann.” Mrs. Feinstein blew her nose, and wiped her cheek with her sleeve.
“Aye…” she sniffled. “What kind would you like?”
“A pumpernickel, please.”
“Do you want I should slice it?”
“Yes, Pani Feinstein. Please.”
Painfully, Mrs. Feinstein dragged herself to the shelf that held twisted bagels and braided challahs and stacks of rectangular breads. “Bread,” Mrs. Feinstein muttered in Yiddish, as she took down a rich, dark loaf. “To smell bread, to breathe bread, to live in a room full with bread. Ya, ya, ya. That was mein dream.” Mrs. Feinstein set the pumpernickel on the machine with the large metal teeth. Then she packed it into a plastic bag and handed it over the counter, to Nehama. There were little blue numbers on the inside of her wrist. Nehama stared at them.
“Nehama, say ’Thank you’ to Pani Feinstein.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Feinstein…Mrs. Feinstein?’
“Mrs. Feinstein, don’t worry. If something bad happens, my daddy will come and bring you to our house.”
“Aye!” Mrs. Feinstein started sniffling again. “Kind.” She waved the child away. “Go with your mother.Gai.”
Nehama lay in bed in the room shared with Lucian. In the twilight, she watched the full, laden branches of the tree outside her window swaying in time to the music coming from Mr. Hauptmann’s stereo on the other side of the wall. Every night, Mr. Hauptmann would rest in his easy-chair while Mrs. Hauptmann would light his pipe and slip his slippers on his feet, and he would listen to loud, angry music which made the branches sway, throwing shadows on the ceiling of the children’s room. Nehama tossed, and thought of Mrs. Feinstein in the bakery that morning. She couldn’t sleep…“Not my daughter! Don’t touch my daughter! No!” Renia ran into the children’s room, her nightgown flying, her stare demented. She grabbed Nehama’s arm and yanked her out of bed. “Quick! They’re coming! Hide!” Renia tugged at her daughter’s arm, and tried to push her under the bed. “What are you doing to me Mummy? It hurts!”
Nehama’s father raced in in his pyjamas. “Renia!” He grabbed his wife, pulled her off their daughter, lifted her to her feet, and smacked her across the face. “Wake up! Renia! Wake up!” Nehama was rubbing her sore arm. Lucian was crouched in a corner of his bed whimpering. Renia turned to her husband, confused. “What happened? What did I do?”
Adam wrapped his wife in his strong, warm arms. “Nothing, moja droga, you just had a bad dream. You thought Nehama was in danger. You wanted to make sure she was alright.”
Renia gasped. She realized. “Adam.” She searched her husband’s face. “What am I doing to the children?”
“Renia,” Adam murmured in a voice spent with fatigue. “You are making them afraid.” Nehama’s mother collapsed in her husband’s arms. He sat on the edge of Lucian’s bed and stroked her thick, chestnut hair. “Reniusia,” he whispered. “Wein nicht. This is not what for we were left alive.”
Renia raised her tear-stained face. “But is it true, what Pani Feinstein said, what everyone is saying? Is it true it’s going to happen again?”
“No, no. Such a thing cannot happen again.”
“But when I watch on the news, and I hear that man Nasser—I hear him screaming, screaming like Hitler—”
“It is not the same. We have an army now. Now we can fight back. Such a thing cannot happen again.” Adam held his wife. He regarded his children. “Hey! What’s with the faces? Look on you! You look like two monkeys without bananas!” He reached for his son. Nehama remained on her bed. “Aysh. Bikush!” Lucian was like a little bull. He reminded Adam of his brother, the officer killed at Katyn. “So, when are you starting karate lessons?”
“But I told you, I don’t like to fight, Dad.”
“This is not fighting—this is self-defense. You must learn how to protect yourself—you never know when you are going to need it. I don’t say you should go around picking fights, but if someone starts with you, then you have to hit them back double hard--you have to hit them back so hard they should never think they can hurt you—it must never even to enter their heads. So after you come back from Camp Shomer, I want you should start lessons, O.K?”
“’Kay Dad.” Lucian hung his head. Adam lowered his own head, level to his son’ s. “Lutek, listen. Nobody has to like you, but everyone must respect you. And some people, the only language they understand is the language from the fist, so sometimes, you have no choice but to speak to them in their own language. POW!” Adam pretended to punch his son. Lucian grabbed the clenched fist, and threw his small chest against his father’s big one.
“Hey hey! What’s this?”
“I feel sad, Daddy.”
“Sad? What for to feel sad?” Adam surveyed his family. His wife was cradled in his left arm. His son was huddled under his right. His daughter, as usual, sat apart and alone. Quiet. Dry-eyed. He was afraid for her. He was afraid for her the most. “Look on you! What is this, a funeral? What for to be sad, when you must to be happy! Look!” Adam pointed to the view outside the window. “Look on this tree. You see how God made this tree, so beautiful and green, like a broccoli? I could put salt on the leaves and eat this tree. Yum, yum. Such a delicious tree!”
The children giggled. Renia, still in her husband’s arms, hit him. “Ouch! Renia! What for you hit me! Because I love this tree? You can’t be jealous from a tree!” His wife hit him again. “Gevalt! Help! Police brutality! Beat me! Kill me! I’m the Jew!” Between gulps of laughter, Renia gasped. “Oh stop making me laugh!” “Why should I stop making you laugh? You married me because I make you laugh. I’m just doing my job!...Aysh…” Adam stared out the window. “I love this tree. I love all the trees…I love green—it is mein favourite colour. When comes the spring, everything is getting green. It is fresh, it is new, it is life…I love life…I love everything in life.” Adam looked at the bundle under his left arm. “And I love mein vife. Mein vunnerful vife! Ach!’ He shook her. “And I love mein kids. Nobody has more great kids than me!” With his right arm, he shook his son and winked at him. “Nehama. Nu?” He gazed into his child’s wise, frightened eyes. “So who are you, a stranger?” Nehama smiled bravely, unconvincingly. Adam shuddered. He was afraid for her. He was afraid for her, the most. “Ach! I am the luckiest man in the world. Nobody has a better family than me!” He kissed the top of his wife’s head; then he kissed the top of his son’s head. He stared back at Nehama. “If only,” his eyes welled, “if only mein mother could see.”
On the third day, at dawn, the artillery moves in. With daylight, the Israeli soldiers can make out Mount Scopus, and at its peak, Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University. Each week a convoy of trucks had carried Israeli police through Mandelbaum Gate, up to the school and the hospital. Each week the convoy had brought them back…At 8:30 a.m., paratroopers drop near the Mount. Tanks and infantrymen surround the Old City…its blond walls and silver minarets shimmer in the Kidron Valley…Battalions advance, with orders not to harm the holy sites. The tanks roll over the cobblestones to St. Stephen’s Gate. It is partially open. Arab Legionnaires have abandoned their posts…Tanks roar through the first gate, then the second, while soldiers fight their way through the narrow alleys and crooked lanes. They are in hand-to-hand combat, like the Crusaders…A platoon attacks Dung Gate, and is stalled by Jordanian guns…Crouching, soldiers catch sight of a gold cupola—it is the Dome of the Rock, only feet away from the wall—the Wailing Wall…Israeli tanks rumble through St. Stephen’s Gate, from the east. Foot soldiers fan out towards the Wall. Jordanian gunners shoot at them from the protected entrance of the mosque. They hurl shells; this halts the first position. The mosque remains intact, except for a broken glass door…At 9:10, Israeli tanks and buses carry infantrymen towards Mount Scopus…Foot soldiers climb the slopes. A mine explodes among them; they keep climbing. Israeli jets bombard behind the Mount of Olives…By 10:15, ambulances are driving on Mount Scopus. Soldier-laden lorries are riding down…Mount Scopus has been captured…By mid-morning, Arab resistance is broken…Soldiers make their first pilgrimage to the Wall. The young have to be shown the way—they have never seen it before…They pray. One is killed by a sniper’s bullet…The Chief Rabbi of the Armed Forces stands before the Wall with Torah in hand; “We have taken the city of God…I promise to the Christian world that we are responsible for, and will take care of, the holy places of all religions here. For all people, I promise them, we will take care…” Despite sniper fire, they keep coming…hundreds now stand before the wall…the Six Million join them; Adam’s mother among their ranks. The spirits commingle with the citizen-soldiers…With the fall of night comes the fall of Old Jerusalem. At 9 p.m., Israel and Jordan declare a cease-fire…Through the wards of Hadassah Hospital, word spreads that the Old City has been taken. Transistors transmit the Chief Rabbi’s message from the foot of the Wall; “On our blood we took an oath, that we will never leave this place. The Wailing Wall belongs to us. The Holy Place was our place first, our place and God’s place. From here we do not move. Never. Never.” Men who have given their limbs for Jerusalem lie in bed, weeping. Men who have given their vision for Jerusalem weep from eyes that will never see it again.
Lucian watches the televised images, uncomprehending, while Lucian’s father watches, and weeps with them.
Nehama and her mother were walking up the hill to Mrs. Feinstein’s bakery. Suddenly, Renia stumbled. Her pale face grew paler. Two hooked crosses had been chalked on the hot pavement. “Wait a minute.” She leaned against a fence. “I’m dizzy.” That night, after the children had been sent to bed, there was a debate at the kitchen table. Generally, parental discussions were conducted in Polish, but lately, Renia insisted that she and her husband speak only English. The doors in the apartment were open, to allow the circulation of air. Lucian was asleep. Nehama lay on a sheet, listening…The voices in the kitchen grew louder. Renia wanted to leave. Adam wanted to stay. “…So where should we go?” He challenged, hunched over a glass of amber tea.
“Why not to Cote St. Luc? The store is doing better, we can afford it. Talk to your sister. Ask her to find us something.”
“I don’t like mein sister.” Adam lifted a spoon and tested the tea.
“I don’t like your sister, either. But we must get out of here. We must leave.”
“Renia,” her husband smirked. “To Cote St. Luc? With the fancy-schmancy people?”
“That’s not why I want to go, and you know it! I want to be with my own people!”
“Renia, it’s a ghetto!” Fancy-schmancy, but still, a ghetto. Is this what you want? Another ghetto? Again, a ghetto? Renia, this is moving backwards!”
“I’m afraid for the children.” Renia picked out a Jaffa orange from the fruit bowl and peeled it.
“The children must learn to live in the world. They must learn to mix with all the people from the world, not to hide in a ghetto and be afraid.”
“So you want to make Lucian a shomer, like you? Always on guard, always ready to fight? Maybe you still want to go to Israel, so they can take my son away to the army where he can be killed!” Renia was slivering the orange peels.
“Be careful with that,” Adam pointed to the knife in Renia’s hand. “You’ll cut your fingers!”
Renia dropped the knife and shredded a napkin. Adam slowly sipped his tea. “Reniusia, kochana.” He took a long time to answer. “I would still go to Israel, if I could live in a kibbutz, but you would not come, and I don’t want to live without you.” Matter-of-factly, he lowered his glass.
Renia leaned on the table, running her fingers through her thick, chestnut hair. “…But you know, there is no privacy on a kibbutz. It is like a camp. I could not stand to live in a camp. I need someplace—just a little place—where I can close my door, and it is my own.”
Adam nodded. “I know. But for me, Israel is only the kibbutz. To live in Tel Aviv, even Haifa—“ He waved the images away. “Ach! One stinking city is like another. Better to stay here.”
“But not here, here where we are now. Nehama is almost a teenager. Soon she will need her own room.”
“Renia!” Adam banged his fist on the table.
“Adam!” Renia matched him, fist for fist. “And will you teach your daughter to use her fists, too?...In my dreams—again, I am having the dreams--“Renia pleaded, “In my dreams, it is not me, it is Nehama.”
Adam contemplated the steam rising from his glass. Then he looked up. “How can you dream, when you don’t sleep?”
“I’m afraid to sleep.” Renia looked away. “I’m afraid, if I sleep, I will dream.”
Adam cradled his head in his hand. “And if we move to Cote St. Luc, you will feel enough safe to sleep?”
Renia looked back. “I hope so. At least, there, no one is making swastikas in the street.”
“Fine.” Adam sighed. “I’ll call Hela. If it will help you to sleep, we’ll get out of here.”
Nehama pushed open Mrs. Hauptman’s unlocked door. Mrs. Hauptmann was in the living room, knitting. “Nehama, you are late.” The needles clicked.
“Yes, Mrs. Hauptmann.” Mrs. Hauptmann peered over her glasses. “Did you have to stay after school?”
“Did you call your mother in the store?”
“Yes, Mrs. Hauptmann.”
“What about your homework?”
“School is almost over. We don’t get homework in June…Where’s Lucian?”
“He is in the garden. Where were you?”
Nehama fidgeted. “In the library.”
“But you did said you didn’t stay in school.”
“I didn’t. I went to the grown-up library at Neighbourhood House.”
“They let you in?”
“I said I was 14. I look 14.”
“Yes, you are big.”
Nehama sighed. Mrs. Hauptmann set aside her wool, and went into the kitchen. Nehama followed her. “Mmm. It smells good in here. I’m hungry.”
“I have an apple, and skim milk for you.”
“Could I have a cookie? A chocolate chip cookie?”
“Nein. You must have disziplin.” Mrs. Hauptmann poured the milk, and washed the apple. Nehama sat at the set table. “Mrs. Hauptmann, in the library, I read about Hitler. Who was he, exactly?”
Mrs. Hauptmann smiled. “He was the leader of the German people.”
“Like Prime Minister Pearson?”
“In a way.”
“In the book, they say he was a very bad man. Was he?”
“Ummmm…was not so bad—he was a good speaker. He built the autobahn.”
“What’s a autobahn?”
“It’s a highway.”
“So what’s the big deal about that? We got lots of autobahns. They go to Toronto.”
“Auch, kind, you don’t understand.”
“Sure I understand. Hitler was a prime minister who built highways and killed people!”
Mrs. Hauptmann pounded on veal fillets.
“Ja, Nehama, was is?” Mrs. Hauptmann cracked eggs in a bowl, and whipped them. Sipping milk, Nehama eyed her, like a cat. “Was Mr. Hauptmann in the army?”
“Auch, jawohl! He was offizier. He was so handsome in his uniform.” Mrs. Hauptmann dipped a fillet into the bowl, “But all the pictures, he threw them away.”
Nehama picked up a knife and sliced a piece of apple, the way her mother did. “My mother was very upset about the war they just had. Why are the Arabs always picking fights?”
“It is the Jews—I mean the Israelis—who are starting with the Arabs. They made a war and took their land. Now those poor Arabs are living in refugee camps.”
Nehama sat at the table, biting pensively into a slice of apple. “Gee. I’m so mixed up.”
Mrs. Hauptmann patted the fillet into a bowl of breadcrumbs. Then she dropped a glob of butter into a heated pan. Nehama moved to the stove, watching the fat sizzle. Mrs. Hauptmann laid the fillet in the hissing pan. “What are you making, Mrs. Hauptmann?”
“I am making for Christian a schnitzel.”
“Mmm.” Nehama sniffed. It smells too good. I’d better leave.”
Nehama tripped down the hill from Neighbourhood House, clutching a stack of books. She had to pass Mr. Hauptmann’s garage. He was stretched out under a car. “Nehama? It’s you?” He slid into view. “Madchen, you are gut?”
Nehama squirmed. “I’m fine.”
“What happened? You are looking not gut.” Mr. Hauptmann was prone, on the pavement. Sweat tricked down his forehead.
“I just came from the library.”
“In sommer? When there is no more the schule? Das is gut! I am always thinking you are schmart.” Mr. Hauptmann smiled his special smile, the one he reserved for his younger daughter, and for Nehama.
Nehama felt embarrassed. “Well, I gotta go.”
Mr. Hauptmann looked up into the girl’s great, pained eyes. He lifted himself to his kees, and wiped his hands on his overalls. “Madchen, was is?”
“Nothing.” Nehama averted her eyes.
“Madchen.” Mr. Hauptmann took her chin into his palm, and turned her face to meet his.
“Did someone hurt you?”
“No. Nothing!” Nehama clutched the books to her belly—it burned so bad.
“Madchen,’ her old friend coaxed. “Remember when your dolly was hurt, and you bring her to me so I can fix? Well,” he declared, wielding a wrench, “if something is broken, Mr. Hauptmann can fix!”
“No you can’t. You can’t! You can’t!”
“Madchen! You are mad with Mr. Hauptmann? What did I do?” Nehama stared in horror at the kindly, middle-aged man. He seemed so like a grandfather. She had never known one. This summer, in the library, she was finding out, why. Nehama burst into tears.
“Madchen! Mein Gott! Was is? Tell to Mr. Hauptmann.” He touched her arm. “No! Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me anymore!” Nehama yanked her arm away and ran off down the hill.
Nehama, in costume and make-up, sat waiting at her dressing-room table. Peer appeared at the open door. Nehama looked up into her mirror, and smiled at his reflection.
“Good evening, liebschen.”
“Hi.” She set her notebook aside.
“What are you writing?”
“Something for Sunday.”
“That’s all you seem to be doing, lately. I’m beginning to think you’re in the wrong profession.” Peer sidled in and slipped onto a stool. His chest was filling out. She liked it.
“Did you see the old man?”
“How is he?”
“Peer!” Nehama turned on him. “How can you?!”
“They should all die slow, agonizing deaths, the kind of deaths they inflicted on their victims.”
Nehama winced. “Peer. Please.”
“Liebschen, you don’t know, but I do. My father, that schweinhund!” Peer trembled at the memory, “The only reason I went to his funeral was to make sure he was dead.”
“Ja, it’s true. The only person I can tell, is you. You think everyone had a father like you had? My father beat my mother until I got big enough to beat him. Sometimes I think he was proud of me for that.” Peer peered at his protégée. “You are beautiful, you know.” Nehama blushed. “I mean it. The period style suits you. Your profile is like—like a carving on a cameo.” Nehama had had her hair cut and permed for the play. She wore pearl drop-earrings, and a rope of pearls over a drop-waist dress. More and more, she resembled the portrait of her mother’s mother. “You look like you’ve stepped out of an old film,” Peer went on. “Every night I see you, and I feel like a child again, in my parents’ time. It is—haunting.” Nehama fiddled with lipstick. She never knew what to do when Peer got this way. “Still,” his gaze turned critical, “you’re getting too thin.”
“I need to be ten pounds under, for film—for the new films.” Nehama grinned.
“Mmmm, you were luscious,” Peer leered. “Your body was like the bodies in seventeenth-century paintings.”
“But we’re living in the twentieth.”
“‘Alas, and alack.’ Must you starve yourself to fit some tyrannous cultural ideal?”
“We are not in Europe,” Nehama reminded him.
“Of course not!” Peer kicked at the costume rack. “Europeans know the meaning of starvation. North Americans are mad!”
“You’re angry, too,” Nehama teased.
“Ja,” Peer nodded ruefully. “I am also mad.”
“Fifteen minutes!” The stage manager bobbed backstage.
“Auch so!” Peer raised himself, and edged his way into character. “You are soon to be my wife—my ‘Jewish Wife.’”
Nehama wandered onto the darkened stage, still in costume, and dropped, drained, onto the divan of Brecht’s fictional Berlin apartment. She liked the theatre this way. The lights were off, the seats were empty, and she was left in peace to ponder, and dream. “Where’s our star?”
“Must’ve gotten lost again.”
“Well someone better find her. We’re locking up.”
“It’s alright,” Peer’s protective tone. “I’ve got the keys.”
“We’re going out for a bite. Think the lady’d like to join us?”
“You know Nehama. She won’t eat.”
There was raucous laughter and a slam of the back door. Nehama pressed her lids together. Thank god, they were gone…Peer’s footsteps fell on the floorboards.
“Are you?” He studied her distant look. “I’m not so sure.” Nehama swivelled her swan-like neck. “You read me like a subtext.”
Peer’s pace quickened. He settled himself on the divan, next to Nehama. “It went well tonight.”
“You’re never satisfied.”
Nehama sighed. Peer surveyed the set. “Saturday evening, it ends.”
“You are thinking of Sunday.”
“Yes.” Peer enveloped the young woman in a familiar embrace. “Will you come?” Raising a pale hand, Nehama touched his face. “I don’t think I have a right to be among those people.” Peer’s cheek brushed her open palm. “I want you to come. I want you there for me.” Peer choked. Nehama held his head. “Auch, liebschen,” he groaned. “I felt nothing until I met you. It is my job to fabricate feelings, and I am good at what I do. For a few hours, I can escape being my father’s son--I can escape being myself. I have no feelings, except my feelings for you.”
Nehama’s long, tapering fingers traced the lines on his ageing face. Her lips grazed through his greying hair. Peer nuzzled her shoulder, and kissed her alabaster neck. “You’ll come?” They knew they were doomed. “Yes.”
On Sunday morning, with a crowd quietly waiting, they passed through the cemetery gates. Lucian, no longer little but big now, the biggest of all. His blond hair had gone ash and he had grown into a giant like his unknown uncle, the officer killed at Katyn. His broad, warm arms supported his mother and his sister, walking on either side. He nodded to the people who had come to pay their respects to Dad, scanning the gathering over his mother’s bowed head. There were the blacks and the Greeks and the French-Canadians who worked in his father’s warehouse; there were the Vietnamese boat people his father had employed. When Dad discovered they were hiding relatives, he had helped support them. His philanthropy had been anonymous, or so he had assumed. The Vietnamese workers had come to tell Lucian, after the funeral. They were here today too.
There was the Italian customs-broker, the Hindu travel agent, and the Catholic cop who’d stopped Dad for speeding. He had charmed his way out of a ticket, and every year, until this last, had donated to the policeman’s Christmas charities.
There were the Polish refugees Dad had sponsored after the collapse of Solidarity; there were his mother’s friends, the Hadassah ladies, and their husbands—they hadn’t left for Florida, yet. There was Lucian’s girlfriend, her friends, and their parents. There were his classmates from medical school, and his comrades from the Zionist youth movement. Lucian had forfeited his internship at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem that summer. Dad was supposed to have joined him. Nehama had argued with her brother about travelling with Daddy in Israel during the high heat—she was frightened of its effect on his high blood pressure. “I hope Moses doesn’t take me through the desert,” Adam had joked. “I won’t make it.” There was a shadow in the distance—it was hard to see. That must be Nehama’s actor friend, skulking behind a tree.
The man’s background bothered Lucian, still the fellow seemed sincere. He was glad his sister had found a friend. With Dad gone, she needed one…Adam had died in early spring, just after Passover, just before his birthday. He had died instantly, painlessly, without knowledge, without fear. He had been laid to rest in the verdant earth, in a landscaped meadow flanked by trees with branches like broccoli. Now, six months later, Renia wanted to lay his stone, to blanket his grave before the snow. To her, his death was not real, and never would be.
“Oysh, look on the boy, so tall, so handsome. He’s going to be a doctor, you know.”
“And what about the girl? Such a beauty. What a figure! Do you remember how heavy she used to be?”
“A scheine maidele.”
“Kopia matki. She looks like Renia, thirty years ago.”
“Oh no. She’s much better looking.”
Nehama cringed at the encroaching crowd. She stumbled. Lucian lifted her. She shrugged him off. If she fell, what would it matter? She was invisible to her brother’s friends. Frankly, she preferred to be. She felt intimidated by them—by their sports cars, by their confidence, and by their casual cruelty, by their taut, modern bodies, and their jaunts to Club Med. To her mother’s friends, she was hardly more human. If Nehama’s weight went up, her mother’s status went down; if Nehama’s weight went down, her mother’s status went up, and they’d trot out their divorced sons…Where was Peer? Ah, there he was, leaning under a tree. Such a European, so was she. Was that why she didn’t fit? When she’d gone to study in England, she’d felt like a fish thrown back into water.
They approached the rabbi, waiting by the grave. The crowd closed in. The rabbi removed the white cloths from the headstone and the footstone. Lucian pulled a prayer book from his pocket. The rabbi began the mourner’s kaddish. Stoic, Renia stared at the double stone, at the tiny scroll of the Ten Commandments she’d had engraved at the top left, and at the inscription beneath: MANN.
April 16, 1917—April 6, 1983,
Husband of Renata
Father of Nehama
A Remarkable Spirit.
Adam’s epitaph had been taken from a line in the funeral eulogy, Nehama had written it. On the right side of the rectangular granite slab was an empty space waiting to be filled. Renia contemplated it, at peace…swaying to the rhythm of her brother’s keening bulk, Nehama grew dizzy, as dizzy as she had been when they’d buried her father on this spot. Inwardly, she prayed she wouldn’t faint. Her grief was too deep to display…Nehama felt a rising nausea, and her blood dropped to her feet. Her knees sagged, she pushed through her shoes to keep from passing out.
Across the heads of the crowd, she caught Peer’s anxious face. He’d seen her like this in the final moments before an opening backstage. He’d seen her gripped by paralysing fright, her white paws clawing at the folds of the black curtains, her white profile nestling against it, a mask. Mesmerized by the starkness of her terror, he’d watch as she’d plunge into her old woman’s soul, and drew breath, and drew life, and walked into the light. Craning his neck to see above the crowd, he willed her breath, he willed her life. A gust of wind whipped Nehama’s ribs and the bile subsided. Leaning on her heels, she drank in the cold October air and focused on the autumn leaves feathering the cloudless sky. Crimson and saffron and citrine, marmalade and scarlet and apricot and tangerine, red mango and burnished amber and tarnished gold foliage explode above her head like soundless firecrackers, their shades radiant as the spirit over whose grave they hover, dying vividly, vibrantly, in riotous, unbridled bloom. The leaves die as Daddy had died, as Daddy had lived: vitally, reverberately alive.
The chanting has ended. The air is silent but for the last, lingering sparrows. The rabbi says a few words. Then he introduces Nehama. She pulls a scrap of paper from her purse, clears her throat, and reads: “For those who read Hebrew, you will notice the inscription on the footstone, which says, ‘Son of Mihal and Leah.’ Leah was the widowed mother my father took care of until the outbreak of the war. She gave him up so that he might survive. She was the most important person in his young life, and she disappeared from it as swiftly and suddenly as he disappeared from mine…There are those of us whose grandparents perished years before we were born. We, who are part of this generation, tend to forget that our parents were also children who lost their parents in a fashion far more brutal than we are going to lose our own. My father was talking about his mother the very day he died. Before he died, my grandparents seemed like shadows from another world who dissolved with that world, but now I see that my father’s mother was as clear to him as he is to me. And so, I would like to dedicate this stone to the memory of Leah Glatt Mann, who has no resting place of her own. If not for Leah’s sacrifice, we might never have known her son at all. After forty-four years, we give him back to you. He doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
A hush falls over the crowd. Peer is quietly proud. The Hadassah ladies clear a path for Nehama. Lucian’s friends hang back. Gradually the crowd disperses, and retrieves its voice. Nehama, already by the road, collapses against Peer’s car. “I’m hungry. I’m so hungry.”
Peer grins. “Great. Let’s get something to eat.”
“Oh Peer,” Nehama’s dark eyes appeal. “There isn’t enough food in the world for how hungry I am.”
“Come.” Peer proffers his palm.
“Where to?” Hesitantly, she accepts his hand.
“Would you like me to take you home?”
“To your mother’s, of course.”
“I can’t go back there. Not with all those people.”
“None of those people count, if you’re not there.”
“Not yet. When it gets quieter. I can’t face it yet.”
“Alright. We’ll have something to eat, first.”
A procession of cars files through the cemetery gates and turn east towards Renia’s house. Nehama and Peer drive off in the opposite direction.
…And Christian Hauptmann passed away at Christmas, listening to the music-box Nehama had sent to him.
S. Nadja Zajdman is a writer and an actress based in Montreal. She received her professional training in the John Abbott College theatre program and later studied developmental drama in McGill’s University, going on to teach and work with children in high school and in various theatre programs around Montreal. Her many theatre roles include the one-woman show Shirley Valentine, and the title role in Sheindele. Nadja has had short stories, memoirs and essays published in newspapers, magazines and literary journals, and has performed her material on radio and in live readings. One of her short stories has been commissioned for film. She is collaborating with the film’s producer on the screenplay.