I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Rhymes, riddles—children like these. They offer a special penetrating view of the adult world, like a peek of the body beneath the clothes, or the skeleton through the skin. There is mystery and revelation and secret, suggestive levels of thought. But like that other treasury of double meaning, the Cabala, a joke’s hidden truth may be perceived only by an initiate. For example, “What grows smaller as it grows older?”
My little sister stood unsteadily, her fingers wrapped around the bars of her cage like plump sausages. She drooled enthusiastically.
“A candle,” I said.
She stretched out a miniature hand to spread across my face.
“A candle,” I repeated, as her fingers explored my teeth and gums the way a blind man reads a statue. “You know, when it’s lit, it melts.”
She fell backwards, her feet bicycling the air with glee.
It wasn’t that funny, but I was glad to be appreciated. I did not mention that a candle may also be snuffed out by the breath of God. “Here’s another. What grows larger when you take the head from it? You don’t know? You can’t guess? A pillow. That’s because it puffs up. Hey, I’ve got a million of them.
It was the season for children. Other times had seen foreigners, Rabbis, beggars, newlyweds, but this year’s autumn was teeming with young. There was a new Kleiner and a typically ruddy, moon-faced Bobover, and, of course, there was the son of Rebecca, held proudly through a chorus of shame. We were as fruitful as the tropics; to find an exact number, multiply. Compared to the latecomers, my sister was a grandam.
She appeared at the start of the previous spring, like the first crocus. It was a trick of enormous magnitude, and I had reason to believe that my mother was the magician. Locked in a room with only Helga the midwife to assist her, she brought forth. Unfortunately, the peanut under the unexpected shell is wonderful not because it is a peanut, so my sister rapidly lost her novel charm. For six months, she was more like a loaf of unbaked bread than a member of the family. Lying in the corner of the kitchen with her doughy, unformed features, it was a miracle that somebody didn’t put her in the oven.
Gradually, her cheekbones rose and her cheeks sunk. A gray thatch covered most of her scalp. I supposed she was just a late bloomer. Now she was giggling, crawling, taking her first steps, and shaping her first words. “Mm-mmm … aaaa.” It sounded like a cross between a cow and a sheep, “Moo … Baa,” although barnyard babies were far cleverer.
My parents were blind to the bad qualities of their offspring. Take my brothers. No matter the clumsiness of the one or the stupidity of the other, let the intellect but call out the ten commandments while the athlete hangs upside down from a tree, and the folks would fairly swoon. They even found satisfaction in my adventures, but they went too far when they transformed the most odious products of my sister’s laxity into golden nuggets. To look at my mother cleaning, you might think the task an honor.
“How can you smile when you’re doing something so disgusting?”
“You don’t think this is poetic?” She raised my sister’s legs like a chicken’s for the dressing.
“Well,” she said, “I did the same for you, and now look at the fine, young gentleman I have,” and she deftly swabbed the pink bottom.
She lowered the squirming carcass. “Ask your father.”
“Daddy?” I could not recall a time when I did not exist, so I must have been eternal, and since I could not exist without awareness, I must have been omniscient. There was a fallacy in this theory, but don’t ask me where. I pleaded for confirmation of my self as I knew me. “Daddy?”
He answered, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?”
Remember, you are listening to a person who has aspired to the estate of wings and wheels. If two legs were a hindrance to my dreams, imagine the burden of a third and, retrospectively, a fourth. Yes, a short month previous I was prone to actions which I recollected with a blush, but still! Mine was the soul to inherit the hallowed realms of poesy, not gibberish.
My father saw my crestfallen expression. “It’s not so bad,” he tried to soothe me. “Everything ages. Goats. Trees. Stones. It’s a natural phenomenon, the same with nations as well as people. The Greeks, for example, were in their prime when they made that riddle.”
I thought of the spare, noble lines of a Greek temple and the goddess within uplifted by her marble sword. Then I thought of the Proszowice shul, like an outhouse, and the old men who practically lived there, and my sister’s first public appearance; it was early last summer. Everyone was shiny with sweat. She was uncomfortable, but as long as she remained in the women’s section her stuttering infant sounds mixed well with the matronly cooing about her, the gossip, and a little prayer. The serious old men were like crows pecking at their books. After worship though, then they lifted their heads and came over to peer at the unwrinkled one. Their hovering shadows must have disturbed her, because she began to awaken. Her leg flipped out of my mother’s grasp, into my eye. It stung me, yet she bawled.
“What lungs!” someone joked. “Yes, she’ll make a fine wife,” another replied, and they pressed closer to rub her chin with veiny forefingers. The mass of elders, angling and jostling for a view, plowed into my poor mother.
“Don’t drop her, now,” the Rabbi said.
My mother turned a withering stare at the giver of well-intentioned advice. She would sooner put her head in a guillotine than drop the fleshy burden. I pushed the foot out of my face.
Everything ages, I thought. So not only was I personally vulnerable; my whole race was a doddering wreck. It was awful to contemplate, but nonetheless I had to know. “And we, the Jews?”
Here’s where my father surprised me. “We’re always babies,” he said. “That’s why we survive.”
This opened an entirely new perspective. If all Jews were babies, then Proszowice was the nursery in which we matured.
The infant self must have been a perfect outline progressively defaced by the human character. Smooth out the creases of desperation, however, remove the warts of melancholy and the discoloration of sin, and you could work the same alchemy as my parents did to my little sister’s waste. By peering backwards through the telescope of time, you could make the lame walk, the atrocious gorgeous, the depraved innocent. I gave Zalman the Digger his misplaced vigor and Isaac the Millionaire his original honesty. As modeled on the image of my little sister, I surrounded myself with a community restored to the blessed state of their vestigial fourth limbs.
“What is a chicken without any bones?” I asked.
My little sister stared.
Her life was an endless, harmonic round of eating and sleeping, with an occasional bath to break the routine. She was played with and prayed for as if the Jewish people existed solely for her sake. In the nursery, the nurseling was all.
Greedily suckling, she knew nothing from the woe of our fathers. Then it pierced our shelter and descended. Her breath came uneasily, and she woke with a fever that wet rags could not cool. She thrashed and perspired so that her few hairs stuck to her forehead in long, single strands. You could see from her wide, stricken eyes that she saw demons crouched at the base of her crib. Taunting her, hooting and prodding, they taught the lesson of Genesis. Every bite from the tree of knowledge was a step away from the Garden. She had the intelligence of a clam, but the nasty intuition came upon her. She was initiated into the mysteries of mortality, and suffered without rhyme or reason.
My father pounded nuts, fruits, and spices into a healing gruel which he spoonfed the mournful child. My brother did acrobatics, and I told jokes, but she was inconsolable. She wailed with an angel’s unearthly sorrow. My mother rocked the cradle and sang,
“In the sky little stars burn, in the river wavelets turn.
In the window the Moon peeks, and to tads and tots it speaks:
‘Sleep, sleep till the break of day, when the Sun comes out to play.
When it goes off towards night, I, in moonlight soft, recite
A sleepy fairy tale or two, as I keep watch over you …
Sweet slumber I bring. A hushed song I sing …
Sleep, sleep, sleep. Children, chipmunks, chicks, and sheep’.”
The lullaby like a breath of wind behind a ship, the household ark sailed on. My first brother studied the Talmud; the other did calisthenics in the yard. My father and I tended the store, but he was preoccupied with concocting another vile remedy for his only daughter. I dreamed idly of the outside world while stacking wheels of cheese. On my mother’s birthday, I bought her a bouquet.
My gift consisted of three wildflowers and one rose purchased at Medisky’s greenhouse. They were bound together with a piece of red yarn from which dangled a homemade card with a poem too personal to repeat.
My mother had been awake for nearly 24 hours. There were callouses on her fingertips from pushing the cradle to the pulsing whimpers of her charge. She looked up past the flowers with heavy lidded curiosity. She had forgotten her birthday. Pleased by my regard, she smiled wearily and put her cheek to mine. That touch was all I asked.
My sisters eyes lit and her fingers uncurled. It was the first voluntary motion she had made since the fever struck. She stirred with the scent, and grabbed the flowers away from my mother. Her fingers played up the stem like a flute. The whimpering ceased. She stroked the petals and pressed them to her face and began to chuckle. I didn’t say a word.
I sat on the fourth step of the ladder in my father’s store. I think I was attempting to compose a poem on age, something to do with an hourglass and a scythe. My shoes were untied, my shirt untucked. There was the usual racket of brothers and customers, but I didn’t care a fig. I was in the throes of artistic inspiration, and nearly jumped when hailed.
“Why there you are!” My father was by the fish counter, his white smock stained with the pink and gray pigments of his trade. He looked like a French painter. He was grinning. “You devil, you.”
“No,” he said, “this beauty.” And he bent under the ladder. For a second I thought he was lifting my shadow off the floor. I felt a rush of alarm, and then dismay. I saw the flowers the shadow was holding. Her gloom gone, my little sister had followed me out of the kitchen into the store, where she plopped herself down, legs crossed like a jade Buddha, the nosegay in her lap a pilgrim’s offering.
“Hello, cockroach.” My father hoisted the insect up with ease. Happy now, she gurgled like water in a barrel. She reached out to squeeze his nose with her left hand while her right crushed the rose.
Why, I wondered was this love of children so tremendous? It was a consequence of neither pragmatics nor aesthetics, as she served no purpose and was unpleasant to think of. It was a gut feeling, pure as the gourmet’s examination of a fish before dinner. It was the contemplation of experience rather than experience itself.
They began giggling together with an intimacy, or immodesty, that embarrassed me. I climbed the step ladder up to the rafters, from which strings of dried mushrooms and garlic cloves hung freely. I turned my attention to the dusty swatches of fabric rolled up and tucked away by my great-grandfather before my time. They looked like the rare skins of fabulous, polka dotted beasts.
Beyond the scrolls of material was a dark attic giving onto the beams and roof. Smoke risen through the ceiling to the enclosed vault gave it the acrid scent of an altar. Grit lay as thick as a piece of paper. There were shadowy corners that had not seen light in a hundred years. I felt like Jonah in the whale, exploring this weird, ribbed sanctuary. “You know, there’s a really huge nest here,” I stated.
I heard goo goos, ga gas, and special dill pickle tickles.
“Yes, the nest of some sort of enormous insect. They seem to be burrowing into the wood.” I peered intently elsewhere, but I saw through the planks to my father with one leg raised, my sister bouncing there like a marionette.
“Yes, they’re etching patterns. Like letters, yes, exactly like Hebrew letters, although I can’t make sense of the words.”
“I think I’ve heard of these creatures. They’re named alphabet bugs, not that they can actually write. It’s that the original inventors of language imitated the shapes they saw in nature. Stars or waves were too complex to transcribe, but the carvings of insects represented order and definition.” Now there was an elegant scientific explanation.
“What does that mean?”
“Well what? Don’t you believe me?” I could feel the hackles rising along my neck. “Do you need witnesses? Evidence?”
“To tell the truth …” He was grinning.
“If you don’t believe, you can climb up here and see for yourself.” I stood and the ladder swayed, but I didn’t care. I felt like the Rabbi raining damnation down into the congregation for its lack of faith. I thought of the headfirst dive I might take, and wondered whether my father would drop her to save me. “If you don’t believe me, just put her down and come up here.”
“No that’s not necessary.” He tried to placate me.
But I had worked myself into a righteous fit. I would have as little of his soothing as my little sister had before my bouquet. “No, it is necessary. If you don’t believe me, climb. Climb!”
“Alright, alright already … I believe you.”
The storm clouds passed from my personal sky. The mist cleared. The sun shone. Of course he didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe that he believed me. Why should he? Enormous beetles spelling out magic formulas in the attic?
I had lied. An accessory after the fiction, my father had also lied in order to satisfy me. He lied when he said he believed me, and I completed the circle by lying when I pretended to believe that he believed me. “Deceit” was the name of this game, yet I felt as joyous as my sister when she emerged from the depths with a bunch of wildflowers and a rose.
“Riddle the riddle, fiddle dee dee.” I was ecstatic. “I have seen a man walking, on two legs mind you, a lifeless man who never existed. How is this possible?” A thoughtful look crossed my father’s face. My sister tried to scratch her left ear with her right hand, around her head.
“It was a reflection on water,” I said. “Now who is and is not, has a name, and answers a voice? You don’t know? You can’t guess? An echo, believe me, an echo.”
Everyone here lied: for ease, for entertainment, for the sheer holy Hell of it. The truth is we engaged our illusions at the expense of truth. The truth is there’s no truth besides the one we create.
America, there’s an image for you! Bands playing, flags waving, sparks from the forge of liberty. In America the Jews were rich. They drank tea with Rockefeller and didn’t worry from Poles cudgeling them. In America, the Jews dressed like Polish barons. In America, a Jew could become a poet.
The synagogues in America were so tall there were sofas along the stairs for the women to rest. There was a magnificent boulevard called Second Avenue, in the restaurants of which the Jews ate food like the Tzars, except kosher, in the theaters of which they showed the works of Shakespeare and Sholem Aleichem, but not on Shabbos.
Jacob Lester whispered the word as if it were sacred, “America.”
Jergenchic, the barber, whipped a lather up from a soapy glass. “What about it?”
I could picture Lester on the cracked, red leather chair, his black beard turned white with foam. Idly boasting, he was lead by his own fancy into a resolve he could not deny.
The news spread like the flash of Jergenchic’s scissors. With each wet curl that dropped to the floor another household was informed. Horowitz, the landlord, thrust his poxy face into my father’s store and shouted, “Lester’s emigrating.” My father immediately balled up his apron and called to my mother, “Lester’s emigrating.”
She was more sanguine. “Again?”
“Alright, alright already.” She was folding a towel. She turned to me. “Will you watch the baby?”
“We’re all babies,” I muttered. “Except Lester.” I felt awe and envy and resentment at the loss this would mean to me. The one ray of enlightenment that had penetrated the Polish murk was to be extinguished.
“So, fine, so one baby to another, will you watch her?”
“Now you know where her oatmeal is? And you know how to heat the milk? Not too hot. And the extra quilt is in the hall closet. And in case …”
I thought of Lester, stupidified by his rash declaration, no doubt, but thrilled with the attention it brought him. The more folks who came to shake the hand of the man who would shake the hand of Rockefeller, the more bound he was to his folly. He stroked his clean-shaven chin as if he had just made a decision to grow a mustache. He would book voyage within weeks. He would write letters.
“I know. I know. I know.” I groaned. My sister was about as difficult to take care of as a gardenia.
Still instructing, “And a new bib is in the bottom drawer …” my parents left to join the gathering crowd at the barber’s.
Stuck in the nursery, I paced and chafed with jealously. I was tired of infancy. I wanted to grow up.
My sister, meanwhile, beamed at me with a big stupid smile. Her tongue lolled out of the corner of her mouth. She grabbed and spilled a sack of kasha. Then she spat and tried to eat a chair, but there were no major problems until she began to smear the stairs with mustard, at least I hoped it was mustard. Attending this perpetual motion machine may not have been strenuous, but it was an ordeal. I could not imagine my mother on guard against ever imminent disaster every night and every day, and she claimed to have done the same for my brothers and myself.
The kid stood with a wobble, lost her balance, and fell. Still she labored to her feet again, as though she knew that this was a trick worth mastering. She persevered like a caterpillar flicked off a porch recommencing the arduous climb, like my mother starting another child.
“Dance?” I asked. This was a favorite activity I had seen her and my father perform. I held her hands, squirming little animals, in mine and maneuvered her body across the floor.
Maybe it was dancing with an unfamiliar partner, or maybe it was my lingering resentment that changed her mood. Maybe it was clouds scudding over her private sun, but I could see her eyes darkening and feel her steps lose their bounce. She peered anxiously about, maybe for parents, maybe at demons.
“C’mon, the orchestra’s just warming up.”
She had no inkling of the worlds of thought and speech beyond her barnyard vocabulary. Her mouth dropped and a long, hollow moan seeped out. It sounded like her very soul was escaping.
“Oooh, things can’t be that bad. Here, I’ll tell you a story about someone who really had it bad. A lad in a cell. Maybe 16 years old. The judge asked him:
“Tell me now, my little fellow,
Have you bumped off many men.”
“Just three of them were Christians
Plus one hundred Yids and ten.”
“For the Yids we shall forgive you.
For the Christians we shall not.
Thus at dawn tomorrow morning,
In the courtyard, you’ll be shot.”
“Isn’t that pretty? What, you don’t think so? Well, to be frank, neither do I. In America, this could never happen. Everybody is always happy in America.”
She started crying and crumpled to the floor.
I tried the standard treatment of food and funny stuff, but I knew that nothing would work except a flower. I rummaged along the kitchen counter, under the table, and through the drawers in search of the bouquet, but it was nowhere to be found. I thought that maybe my mother had taken it with her to show to the neighbors at the barber shop. (She didn’t; years later, I would discover the withered stalks in the attic niche. They were arranged in an eerie semblance of two Hebrew letters, hai and yud, ??, the symbol for life.)
Then I had a brainstorm. If I couldn’t bring the flowers to the sister, I would bring the sister to the flowers. Better yet, I would put an end to her madness, not with one frail daisy, but a million. I would cure her with azaleas, pachysandras, lilies, peonies, snapdragons, and a thousand more varieties of bloom. I would take the nurseling to the nursery.
“How about a nice walk?”
She lay inert as I wrapped her in a quilt and propped her up in the seat of her carriage. I tied a bonnet under her pudgy chin like a noose of yarn around a wildflower’s neck.
“See the trees,” I said as I wheeled her out the front door. They’re actually big flowers. The reason we have to pick little ones, you see, is that if we let all flowers grow into trees there wouldn’t be enough room for people. Do you believe me?”
Polish soil was so fertile that it was the only European land to grow sugar beets in addition to the more easily cultivated oats, barley, and rye. Of course these crops to feed a nation required vast fields, but a single, large building full of the same nutritious earth could raise enough flowers for our small population. This building was the greenhouse. It was an amazing edifice, a transparent glass triangle that remained upright without beams, maybe by magic. Old man Medisky, who kept this secret, had retired into the study benches of the shul, while his son, Ed, was content to eke out a modest living. He and one non-Jewish laborer sowed and nurtured the shoots of carnations, gladioli, and amaryllis. His wife sold the mature blossoms from a stall in the market. People bought these flowers daily the way cosmopolitanites bought newspapers. Since every other person here was a gossip and the rest philosophers, we didn’t need a paper. Information and opinion we had in abundance, but a tulip mid winter was a token of beauty for even the poorest and most wretched.
The greenhouse was a series of glass panes that reminded me of a quilt. Instead of novel patterns, however, each square was identical to every other. The color of the glass this twilight was the color of the gray sky, delineated from it by the lead strips that joined the panes and sealed the interior. The door, also glass, swung welcome. Although I had just purchased a bouquet born here, I had never been inside. I felt as if I was stepping into a diamond.
“Well,” I said, “It’s certainly warm.”
That was putting it mildly. There were stoves every six feet in the aisle between halves of the jungle. Waves of heat spread upwards as a mist filtered down from an elaborate sprinkler system. Terra cotta pots and rectangular wooden boxes like open coffins were crammed into every available inch of table space. In each small plot a dozen plants vied for life. Leaves crawled over the planter walls and dropped into the aisles, and some vines crept up the lead binders of the windows in which the reflected image of the tropical blossoms glowed.
My little sister’s eyes were full of flowers. She lunged forward out of her seat into the aisle. Her pink swaddled form no higher than the tabletops was like a bunny in the fields. Tottering on, bumping left and right, she poked her nose into one plant after another, sniffing and giggling. She was flushed from the heat and the pleasure. Then her arm caught in a tangle of ivy, and she tore it free, but the tendrils clung like a green tattoo. Then she screamed.
One of the vines was alive.
My sister howled and spun like a dreidel. She had never seen a snake before, but she was terrified. I, who had calmly observed reptile life by the river, was shaken. Nevertheless, protector of the weak, I gripped the slimy, metallic tail, and yanked it off. The viper slithered around the mound of earth my sister had upset, poked up its triangular head, hissed, and slid toward us.
“Back,” I stamped my foot, but the serpent advanced undaunted. It was, after all, home. I was the intruder. The shock of the confrontation froze me. My sister’s screams crazed me. I grew stubborn and determined to repulse the venomous brute.
I reached for the nearest weapon, the kerosene stove. My hands seared on contact. I pushed it with all my might.
And the stove crashed, and the kerosene poured from its iron gate, and the fire rolled across the floor. In seconds the entire bench was ablaze, the plants’ leaves shriveling, blossoms curling, berries popping with brown spurts. The snake was a writhing cinder. The kerosene quickly burned off, but the wooden floor nourished the fire, which advanced on a second stove.
The danger obvious, I grabbed my sister and ran. We reached the door as the stove exploded the rest followed suit in a hideous chain reaction. Instead of the steamy exhalations of the plants, smoke rose to the peak of the triangle, and a window burst with the heat. The booming sounds of the explosions were punctuated by the tinkling of breaking glass and the shouts of the people who came running to witness the conflagration.
Proszowice converged on the burning greenhouse from all directions, especially that of the barbershop. I didn’t quite realize the extent of the damage until then. I didn’t know that the flames were towering like a church spire. I couldn’t imagine that the whole town might be kindling. There was panic in the raging wind in the crimson light. One group formed a brigade to pass buckets of water along from the well in the square. Others hurled themselves at the base of the nursery with pickaxes or shovels. Fire was such a dread calamity that the community would rebuild anything that burnt, so the Mediskys were not ruined, but the old man sobbed at the stench of his flowery babies consumed in their cradles. Still, he struck at the building he loved with the same implements he had used to construct it. Even his friends from the study benches rapped at the weakened glass with their canes.
The annihilation of the Proszowice nursery was a deep and hurtful offense to the spirit of every Jew. It was an insult from heaven that demanded an investigation. On the spot, a council was convened: my father and the Rabbi, a teacher, a tailor, and Ed Medisky, all smudged with ashes, the usual inquisitors. Blame was not their goal. Another, more potent motive impelled them—curiosity. The merely physical cause of the fire was insignificant, but it might help to understand why they had been called upon to make this sacrifice. The still glowing embers a constellation in the shattered remains of the diamond sky, the question was asked, “Why did this tragedy occur?”
I had been noticed leaving the scene of the fire shortly after it broke out. Had I seen anything suspicious?
“Saw anything?” I repeated dumbly, my blistered palms locked behind my back.
Yes, a stray cow, a lightning bolt, maybe somebody deliberately tilting a stove.
I was not a destructive type of boy. To the contrary, I had acted in bravery and benevolence, but there was no doubt that this terrible accident was my fault. My hands bore the mark of guilt. I could not lie, yet the inquiring eyes would not allow me to remain silent. I wished to explain, but the words stuck in my throat. I coughed and cleared my throat, then I heard.
“Mmmm … eee”
My little sister was smiling, the pink tip of her tongue visible between the two, incomplete rows of baby teeth. Her thumb was stuck proudly to her chest, a bright red flower sprouting beneath it. “Uhhh … I,” she groaned. “Ffff … I … rr.”
It was her first sentence. Even if the diction was faulty, the meaning was clear. It was impossible, but undeniable. She repeated her gleeful confession. “Meeee.” She was Eve, giving recipes for apple cider. What was going on? Didn’t I know? Couldn’t I guess? Lying ran in the family.
Question: I saw a man walking on his two legs, a lifeless man who never existed. How is this possible?
Answer: It was a reflection on water.
Question: A stranger spoke to me without tongue or voice. He has never been and never will be. Who is he?
Answer: A dream.
The darker the night, the brighter the stars.
The deeper the pain, the closer to God.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee