Baibah enters the hospital ward quietly, but she cant help the scrape of the chair as she pulls it up and now the wooden movement has woken her husband. She looks into his face, distorted down one side, as if August had grimaced into a Carnival mirror and a spell had been put on him.
August ? I have come to visit you at last. August, can you hear me?
He makes a slippery sound with his tongue and upper palate. His eyes slide away from her and back. He lifts his right hand, trying to wave her closer to the bed, but she stays seated on the chair.
Ive come to visit, finally, but surely against your will, I think, says Baibah, discovering a reason for her own neglect.
I dont owe you very much any more, August, but at least I should explain to you where Ive been living since the day the ambulance brought you here. You see, Biabah pauses again, Ive not stayed in the house, but moved my things into a small apartment. I could pay for it, you know, because of the Power of Attorney you allowed me last year when you ... Anyway, when youve recovered a little more, we must talk, yes? We must talk about selling the house.
Well then, turn your shoulder away from me, if you want. August, are you crying?
All right, all right, I shall not talk about the house today. But a man as old as you shouldnt be crying over such a shabby old place.
Baibah hardens herself then sits forward in her chair, uncertain what to do. Part of her wants to go to August, touch his shoulder, kiss his temple. But she tells herself that such gestures would be unwelcome. So she looks down and notices the narrow mechanism of steel pistons and slats that allows the bed to be raised at its upper end for the greater comfort of the patient. She bends to look under the bed, but sees nothing, not even slippers. On the other side there is small dark green carpet, a wastebasket and the legs of a nightstand. She sits up and stares at the vase of red and white carnations on the windowsill. Beyond the thin meager curtain the charcoal lines of winter branches writhe like fronds of seaweed.
The flowers must certainly have been sent by the German Womens Circle, who else? In her cloth shopping bag she has fresh apples and dried fruit for August but has no idea who will slice them and help him to eat them, a nurse perhaps; that is, if he is allowed to eat such things. Then she realizes: of course he can eat nothing but baby food.
The room is painted a vague turquoise and there is but one thing hanging on the wall facing August: a large calendar recording the days emphatically in black figures. The picture above the month of February shows an old farmstead among banks of snow. Did someone from the German Club bring it? Perhaps the ladies on their next visit will help August to eat his dried fruit and tear off February? She rises from the chair to gaze at him closely and sees that he has fallen asleep with tears still wet on his cheeks.
August, she whispers, I think I should throw out those flowers. Surely by tomorrow they will have wilted?
Baibah tiptoes around the bed and lifts the carnations, still quite fresh, from their water. She bends them into a stiff semi-circle and forces them into the wastebasket. There! This minor revenge sends a gush of sweetness across her teeth. Then she shivers.
The rustling sounds have disturbed him again and slowly he turns his heavy head toward her chair. She slips away from the window and resumes her seat.
August, I must go soon, but I want to explain something to you. You will not remember this but, before your collapse, I started getting severe headaches Ah but he isnt listening. She touches her scalp and recalls how her eyeballs burnt in her sockets. Now she checks: she presses her eyelids closed then edges them open. Oh, but the worst was that morning when she woke up with eyes open but could not move a muscle, not a muscle! That was the day August yelled at her to come down and make breakfast, but she couldnt move. He came up and dug the tip of a teaspoon into her head, thats what she remembers, a teaspoon. What you did was make an opening in my brain so that memories Id forgotten could come out, Biabah whispers to his supine body.
Dyou know what Dr. Kaugurs told me? That I was suffering from nervous fatigue those were his words. Yes, I thought, Ive been suffering from nervous fatigue for a long time, but now its going to kill me. So when you had your collapse, I knew you would be infectious to someone in my nervous state, someone whod already experienced loss of muscle. I am superstitious, you know, August. I believe that if a mad person coughs into your mouth, youll fall insane that very night. Anyway, I left you in the hands of the hospital staff so I could run away. Yes, I ran away and found a new place. August, listen, I have left you. So, it makes sense that we should sell the house. Her voice has risen even as her body has risen from the chair, a little frightened now as she has obviously woken him again. Its standing empty, and you will never leave this bed or some wheelchair next to enjoy it anymore.
You dont have to moan in your throat like that and get the shakes. See, Ive stopped talking about the house now. I wont talk about the house anymore, I promise. But Ill go. See, Im going right now? Goodbye, goodbye Surreptitiously she kicks the bag of fruit under her chair.
Out on the sidewalk Baibah shudders again but replaces her beret firmly, as if to press down any guilt trying to form a bubble in her head. She lifts her shoulders, rotates her neck a few times, then sets off home, relaxing suddenly with the low cool sunlight in her eyes, and the elongated stripy shadows from the leafless trees that she may skip on. She does not know that several paces behind her Yehoshua is walking, carrying his oboe-case. He has no intention of catching up with her square-built figure and wrinkled face, or of returning her smile in the foyer. She has only lived in his apartment building for a few weeks but already he feels that he is going to hate her. Well, not exactly hate, but he hopes he gets a chance to play a trick on this old babushka one of these days.
Here is a cigar, August, that Janni Arends gave me to bring to you. Of course, you may not smoke it in the hospital but Ill put it here on the nightstand so you can look at it. Shall I hold it to your nose so that you can smell it? Or shall I light it for you? No? I understand, I understand: you would like to enjoy your cigar in peace. In a thousand years, she adds softly.
Well, seeing that Im here, I may as well sit a while with you. August pushes breath down his hairy nostrils and Biabah gets a vision of a stabbed bull on its knees, whereupon she lifts a hand to pull her lips together so that her mouth may not show sympathy. She knows this lip pulling makes her look like a comical fish, but she pulls harder.
August I think I should tell you about the apartment building where I now live. Okay? You want to hear? Good. Well, my unit is clean and sunny, though cold. The heating, you know But the building itself is mostly vacant; that is, during the week. Not on weekends! Can you believe that? There are seven units. My one-bedroom is on the third floor, oh the stairs, the stairs, August, and there are tenants in two of the first-floor units, a single Jewish man and an immigrant Jewish family. Maybe Russian Jews, how can I tell? The single man has not spoken to me yet but, you know, he has the dark eyes of a of a Mandelstam, so I assume he is Russian too. Yet, he could come from just about anywhere. Romania. Bosnia yes, maybe he is a Musselman, maybe
Mmm but this, August, is the mysterious thing about the building each Friday afternoon a Rabbi occupies the unit next to mine and an Orthodox Jewish family takes over one of the flats on the second floor. And floods of children turn up, nice boys in black suits and white shirts, with embroidered yamulkas on their heads, and bright girls in pretty frocks, the skirts coming down to their ankles and the sleeves down to their wrists. The Rabbi himself is a tall man, a shockingly tall man
August, dont try to reach for the buzzer, you know you cant do it. Why are you suddenly angry? What did I say? Anyway, I can stop my story, I was just thinking about going, so you dont have stare at me with such furious eyes. Biabah stands up and stretches. So you are still not learning English, even among educated doctors and nurses? Tsk, tsk. The only words that cling to your thick tongue are some simple German ones, I think So she muses, enjoying the stretch. Then jumps.
Dont try to get up! August! Im going, Im going. Auf Wiedersehen.
Biabah thinks of her Rabbi, how she almost got a shock when she first came upon the man suddenly in the ill-lit third-floor passage. With his large hat, he seemed to be seven feet tall, a Rasputin or a Grand Inquisitor. But, when she saw him more clearly, her heart thrilled at the kindly face of such a handsome man. Ooh-la-la, long gleaming beard, frosty shirtfront, eyes glittering with liveliness, and his ear-curls shining and bobbing! He passed by her embarrassed heart with the slightest of smiles.
Ach, now she has to go and remember August, a young skinny deserter whod joined the cart she, her father and her grandmother were pushing along the muddy shoulder of the road as they walked from Gmund into Bavaria, escaping the Russians. She was ten years old and glad of the pale young man come to help them push. So long ago, and he so friendly Pshaw!
Later that Friday afternoon, as she was carrying her wash-basket down to the basement, she found herself surrounded by the twitter of girls and the funny breaking voices of boys, all on the back first-floor landing, the Rabbi standing like an immense black tree-trunk in their midst.
Oh, excuse me. Hello! Baibah said, stopping entranced at the sight of all the young boys and girls. Moving slightly out of her range of vision, she glimpsed taller Yehoshua, his plump tummy elegantly encased in a black jacket, his shirt frilled under his dumpling throat, and his yamulka pinned unsteadily at the top of thick hair. His eyes lowered and askance, he lifted one girlish hand to palpate the suggestion of his moustache.
And you are ? asked the Rabbi in a voice of dauntless timbre and authority.
I am Biabah Mintiks, she said. How do you do?
I do very well. I am Rabbi Freilig and these are my pupils. I am trying to get a Hebrew School started, a Yeshiva, you understand?
Ah, murmured Biabah, still gazing down at the children. She smiled but no one returned her nervous friendliness. The children stared at her with unseeing or shy faces.
Yes, continued the Rabbi. As you know, this building is virtually empty. So we have permission to use the unoccupied apartments for our weekend studies and our celebrations. And, as you may have noticed, Mrs Mintiks, some of my friends move in downstairs on Fridays to keep me company over the Sabbath.
Thats very very wonderful, Biabah stuttered, hitching the heavy plastic laundry basket to her other hip. Well good fortune with your school!
Come, children, come along, ordered the Rabbi, nodding at her. Biabah saw that he had forgotten her presence in the instant. Clearly, his mind was on God and the study of God. Talking in low voices and glancing back at her under their eyes, the children followed their master into a large clean basement-room. Soon she heard the children tugging to arrange the stacked benches. School was to begin.
Biabah felt intrusive for going into the laundry room next door and starting up a washing machine. As the weeks went by, however, she realized that if she wanted the washing machines and dryers to herself, she should do her wash on Saturdays, for none of the other occupants did laundry on their Sabbath. Also, as time went on, if she nearly collided into children round corners of stairwells, sometimes the little girls would return her Hi, hello there! with smiles and giggles. For the boys, on the other hand, it was necessary that she remain invisible. That she understood.
Each Friday afternoon, Biabah would listen for the sounds of the childrens feet on the stairs; their quick bursts of speech, their smothered laughter. And then the building would nestle into tranquility until after the Synagogue services were over on Saturday and everyone had again enjoyed what, from the spicy fragrances and odors of caramelizing, must have been some marvelous cooks creations. Could Yehoshuas mother, the woman with the red face folding downwards and with perpetual moisture at her hairline, be one of the cooks?
Later in the afternoon, not only did the capricious sun sign-off on the living-rooms, cooling the carpets and smearing dark swathes along the walls, but along the darkening corridors and stairwells the girls threw high-pitched plaints and bursts of tears to echo off the walls, while the harder stamping of the boys boots and fists drummed against the steps and the railings. Biabah was not sure whether their confinement to the building until sunset was a religious requirement - she believed it might be or whether their mothers weariness from all the cooking and cleaning-up meant that they had no energy to take their children outdoors for play. Whatever the reason, at times the noise of dissatisfaction raked at her thoughts. Shed always hated to hear children crying and had never left her own two daughters to sob at night or keen from hurts during the day. Now she would be reduced to sobbing herself as memories of her girls thin soft arms, tender necks, and, after play, the smell of young puppies in the sweat of their hair, overcame her. Oh why did they leave, why? Why did they telephone her so seldom? Uh-uh-uh, she cries. Suddenly she understands they think she is living with and nursing their loveless father, herself loveless. She will telephone them, even to disturb them, and let them know she has moved and is a free woman now.
When from somewhere a prolonged jag of weeping quavered and tremoloed through the walls, she would leap up, her throat burning, and want to rush from her apartment to deliver strong parental advice to those sleepy mothers. She never did, of course: never.
August, you know, once the Saturday sun starts setting, the children are released, and oh what joy and merriment, what singing and changing of clothes! Then from my windows I always watch Pine Tree Rabbi Freilig leave the building, tall hat on straight, followed by the numerous boys dressed like little men and the black-haired girls in all their finery and fur collars. Ive never found out where they go: perhaps to the Synagogue again, perhaps to the lake parks, perhaps to neighbors for more lovely food and lovely fun.
Augusts hands move aimlessly over the cover and, with half of his teeth bared, he turns his head in Biabahs direction. His expression, which might in fact be an attempt to smile, still causes her to scrape her chair further back from him, even though she believes that he cannot get out of the bed. In nervous defiance, she starts talking again, determined not to do what he wills to approach him as a wife. She will not to touch him or fuss over him. She is the provider of anecdotes: thats all!
Remember, August, how when you retired from Gottebergs Electric, you were restless and irritated at home. As the months passed, you became frantic in the prison of our house (which we should sell, of course). Yet and this is strange to me unlike the other Germans in our neighborhood, you never took to fishing. Germans love fishing, merriment, women and song, she misrecalls a ditty, her memory like a torn scrap from a once pretty dress. I studied English, read books, went to the pictures, but you never tried learning more English than you needed for your job. Why? August, why?
No ja, so you had nothing to do but drink! Biabahs voice has been low but grows stronger at this point as her anger, like a stone held firmly to her chest for years, suddenly is released like scatter-shot. You would drink and guzzle, and laugh, and chant Marschenliede. Later you started to slam me against the wall or drag me to the floor, me your personal Untermensch
Baibah is sobbing now and footsteps are scuttling in the passage.
Mrs Mintiks, whatever do you think you are doing, carrying on like this? Dont you understand where you are? Dont you understand that you husband is not yet able to speak or help himself? The nurse is livid. She takes Biabahs arm and pulls her toward the door, but Biabah has not finished.
Your voice dried up my feelings, the spittle on your lips wiped away my good thoughts. You kept me and our girls in whispers in the emptiness of our own home! You !
Out, out you go, Mrs Mintiks. If you dont leave immediately, I shall call Security. The womans nails bite through Biabahs sleeve.
Biabah lets the nurse drag her into the corridor. Adjusting her beret, she bows. In a singsong voice of assumed sweetness, she croons, Oh dear, such a short visit
Go! commands the nurse.
That evening Biabahs muscles tingle as if awash in river-water churning up the sand. She cannot settle to any task but paces her living room. She pulls at her hair and her ears; mouths what she hopes are inventive insults, screwing her lips to spit dryly after each curse. Exhausted, finally, she runs a tepid bath to soak in, and then gets settled in bed. She hopes to rest, but the tears persist in dripping down the sides of her temples. She cries over her besmirched life, she cries for her daughters.
Biabah does doze and soon sinks into a deep sleep. Some hours later she is woken by sounds coming from the apartment below; sounds like the mournful throaty call of some wild animal. Shocked, she sits up. The very walls seem to be vibrating in agony. She listens intently.
Groaning, Biabah sinks back against the pillows. She knows what the ruckus is: its Yehoshua playing his oboe. She tries to relax, telling herself that this practice session will soon end. It does not end. Repeatedly her eyes droop but she is jolted awake by the baying of a bated bear; they droop and she shivers at the dying trumpeting of an elephant. Tormented beyond endurance, Biabah leaps out of bed. She gets her heavy broom from the kitchen, up-ends it, and with all her strength bangs it repeatedly against the floorboards. The oboe grows still but then bellows forth again, and Biabah bangs. She bangs and bangs until all is silent. She cannot know that at that moment Yehoshua decides that he will, indeed, hate her.
Yehoshuas hardworking mother has such swollen ankles that when she goes out with her son, she follows him at a lengthening distance. However, next day she ventures to take the stairs to Biabahs apartment and knocks gently on the door. Hearing the sound of deep panting, Biabah opens slowly.
Mrs Mintiks, says Marna Netzloff; the boy has to practice, he is in the school band. Please
Mrs Netzloff, of course he must practice. But could we agree that he will always complete his practice before ten oclock?
He also has homework, lots of homework, and hes struggling with Hebrew, Mrs Mintiks.
Can he not do his homework after he practices? I have read that playing or listening to music stimulates the brain. There have been studies
All right, I will tell Yehoshua that by no means must he practice his oboe after ten oclock.
Thank you, Mrs Netzloff, thank you. I apologize for my banging
August, I will give you an example of how stupid I am. It will please you. You see, I moved my belongings rather hastily into my new place, and I unpacked in a disorganized way, bundling the summer clothes I wasnt using into the small storeroom near my front door. I had also not thought to find out where the fuse-boxes for my unit were. I simply assumed they were in the basement.
Well when the weather turned so suddenly frigid last week, I came home late from the cinema&bnsp; oh what a film, an old film, Electra. Well yes. So I found that the heating in my place did not seem to be working. My first thought was to create some warmth for myself and then start phoning the landlord. I switched on the electric heater in the living room, that large thing I hadnt used in years, remember? The heat came on fine for a few minutes but then there was a snapping sound. All the fuses went kaput! I was in total darkness, except for the fading orange of the dying heater.
I ran downstairs to the basement. There were all kinds of steel boxes for some electrical purposes, but I couldnt find fuse-boxes. Very worried, I climbed the stairs slowly. On the third-floor landing I could hear voices coming from Rabbi Freiligs apartment. I knocked on his door, which was soon swung open with a hiss of annoyance and a wagging of his beard.
Dont you know I have a class in session? he exclaimed. He changed his tone as he recognized me. Mrs Mintiks, we should not be interrupted, he added more gently.
Im terribly sorry, I said, noticing some teenage boys seated on the couch, books open on their knees. I really dont know what to do, er, Father. All the lights are out in my apartment and I dont know where the fuse-boxes for the building are.
Ah, have you looked in your closet? he demanded.
Thst, he clicked his tongue. Come, I will show you. But please do not refer to me as Father. I am not a Catholic.
In his elegant black suit, like a Fresh Count or English Beau Brummell, August, this fine man stalked ahead of me and into my apartment. He opened the storeroom door, but not only was it in full darkness but the shelves were also piled helter-skelter with my things. He pulled some matches from his pocket and lit one. With one hand he held the flame upright, like this, August, and with the other he swept away to the floor the bundles of clothes stuffed on the third shelf. There was the fuse-box! With quick movements of his fingers he righted the levers, letting there be instant light.
There! he announced.
Of course I thanked him, but before I could say I appreciate I was talking to his broad but modestly retreating back. However, I did have a chance of reciprocating, as you shall hear, August. August why are you turning to me and pushing at the sheet? Can you manage that? Has the physical therapy helped you so much already after only two months? August? What are you Oh, how disgusting disgusting, August Why are you trying to point your horrible thing at me! Aargh! Are you making a joke? Are you suggesting that I want a mans member, that I want the Rabbis member? Even you, Augie, could never believe such a thing of me!
As each new cluster of blossoms wafts like minute butterflies in the chilly wind around the building, and as still stronger tiny clear green leaves unfold on the trees at the small garden, more and more women start turning up at the apartment for Fridays cooking and baking. Biabah hears ripples of song rising from downstairs and her throat hums in accompaniment. One Saturday morning, passing the open door of the Netzloffs apartment, she glimpses Marna Netzloff sitting spread out on the floor like a bean bag sprouting a weary head. Marna is busily wrapping little parcels in coloured paper. She glances up.
Oy, but it is hot in here, she says. I have to open the door to breathe. Excuse me please, Biabah.
No, no, Biabah replies smiling. Certainly, you must open your door. It doesnt bother me.
Ah-ah-aah, she signs, shaking her uncontrollable hair.
When Biabah gets upstairs she realizes that the heating system is not operating properly again, for while the apartments below were saunas, hers was Alaskan, her thermostat showing 55°. She has complained twice previously to the management but now has stopped. Whats the use? At least she has low gas bills and has, in fact, become used to the bracing indoor temperatures, reminiscent of the rigors of her youth with her father and Augie, among the refugee shacks and hideaways on a Bavarian farm. She pulls on a woolen sweater over her acrylic one, even as she recalls a day when young Augie lent her his army jersey. So kind then Then there is a knock on the door.
There, near the stairwell, stands tall Rabbi Freilig with two shorter foreign-looking young people and Yehoshua. Biabah notices instantly the lovely young girl behind the black-suited men, a girl or woman with long dark auburn hair covered by a diaphanous mantilla tied with an embroidered headband. Her almond-shaped brown eyes are delicately made up, her cheeks are powdered, her lips reddened. She wears a long Eastern sort of dress made of many diaphanous layers of cloth. Biabah cannot draw her eyes away from such beauty and hardly listens to what the Rabbi is saying.
Mrs Mintiks, he says more loudly.
Oh yes, forgive me, Rabbi. How are you? Biabah also nods to the young man, another Kafka with brooding eyes, she muses.
Fine, fine, fine. Remember when you asked me to find your fuse box?
Well, now I need to ask you to do something for me. You see, we are not allowed to touch any electrical object on the Sabbath
Yes, I know.
Please. However, my apartment is very cold and I would like you to come and adjust the thermostat for me. Please come.
Biabah follows him, and the two strangers are trailed silently by Yehoshua, plumper but sporting a more dramatic moustache. They follow the Rabbi into his living room, whereupon he points accusingly at the thermostat on the wall. Biabah reads the temperature: 55°.
Ill do what I do with my own thermostat sometimes, which is to push it right up to 90°. Not that youll get that sort of heat, but it might edge up to 65°. If you are lucky, she says, pushing at the tiny lever.
Yes, thank you, thank you, exclaims the Rabbi, bowing Biabah politely out of the door. She turns to glance once more at the lovely girl, so different from all the other girls and women in the building, wishing she had been introduced and could have touched her hand. In the weeks that follow, Biabah thinks about her frequently, fantasizing that such a one might be the granddaughter she would have one day, perhaps, if her daughters dont hesitate too long. But who can the young woman be? From what country?
August. Ja, ja, I can see that you are able to sit up a little now. Therefore you will have noticed the snow beyond the window. Biabah puts her hand gingerly on his temple and moves his head so that he can see, she hopes, beyond the window. How out of season for April!
It was on Monday, Augie, two days after Id seen the young princess. Yes, yes, you dont understand what Im saying, but never mind. Take my word for it: I saw a princess. Well, on Monday I was kicking through the fluffy snow of the night before as I made my way to the garages at the back of the building. As I approached the doors, I noticed immediately something horrifying lying on the snow. Something as if an animal had been crushed by heavy wheels, its long fur patterned with blood.
I crept closer and found that the thing on the snow was long thick strands of dark-red human hair, strands like this. Biabah demonstrates with her hands. About eighteen inches long and as if hacked off. The hair, August, had been flung across that patch of snow as if in cruel disregard. I remembered that film, Electra, from last week where the heroine, having been forced to marry a farmer
idiotisch du du Isch Isch
Biabah stands up briskly.
Hah, you can say words, too, now! Good, good, you are progressing. But you dont want to listen to me, do you? All right, I wont finish my story. Biabah backs to the doorway. You can try to get off the bed, if you like. When you have fallen, then only shall I call the nurse.
zum Teufel mit ...
I shall not go to the Devil, dumkopf. In any case, Ive already been there!
Isch Verzeihung Baibah
Oh, Augie, what is the use? ?
But just beyond the door, the nurse is waiting. Mrs Mintiks, she says softly.
What? What do you want?
I understand that there is no love lost between you and your husband please, let me finish. But I am concerned about him. He cries a lot and often he calls for some child, some baby, it sounds like. Could you, perhaps ?
Excuse me, breathes Biabah, pushing past the nurse and running.
Walking toward Kohls Food Store on her way home, Biabah forces herself to think of that movie Electra and not of August.
Yes, indeed, Electra hacks off with a dagger her clumps of thick black hair and flings them onto white paving stones. There they fan out into a design. The hair outside the garages is such a grim picture. If the hair had been cut and put in a bag and the bag fallen, could the hair have moved into its own brilliant ripples over the snow? Not unless the wind blew it. But why would any woman willingly cut or have cut off such beautiful hair near the parking garages? And then permit it to be cast away like so much refuse, not even worthy of the rubbish dumps?
The afternoon has darkened by the time she gets her bags of groceries checked-out. As she approaches the lane behind the garages, she can still make out the red and brown stain on the snow. Already the hair has been trampled by the wheels of cars but perhaps not by feet. Most passers-by would avoid walking on it, uncertain of what other obscenity might lie beneath its thick patterns. Such hair should be buried, she moans to herself. She would do it if she could manage to dig into the icy granite of the winter garden. But she is too old for such a task. And, if she tried to lift the silky strands, even with snow clogging them, she would probably scatter them further. She knows that she could not touch something that seemed so alive in its death. She is motionless in the eerie light advancing on the lane, surrounded by darkened fences and whitened roofs and the far-off hungry barking of dogs. Light snow begins to fall again. Distressed, she goes indoors.
It snows all through the night. The next morning she is woken very early by the jar and grinding of the snowplows clearing the roads and lanes. Later, when she walks past the garage doors she sees, as expected, that the hair has been hauled away and buried in one of the mounds at the curbside.
Biabah cannot raise her spirits. There is no more spiteful joy in tormenting a pathetic August who clearly hopes for pampering and sympathy. But surely he gets it from the nurses and the ladies from the German Womens Club? There seem to be few pleasures in her newfound freedom. The isolation of her apartment seeps into her, in spite of her encasement of blankets, her cups of soup, and her many books. Her stomach at times churns as if there were worms living in her juices. When her breath becomes short, she is convinced that she has contracted a fatal illness. At night she has repetitive dreams of shadowy women. She is startled awake, smelling the stench of burning hair.
Then something occurs that assures her that her taut nerves are near breaking point. Hauling her grocery bags up the front steps one afternoon, she hears arguing voices, the one low, slow and deep, the other high-pitched and hysterical.
Yehoshua, tie your shoelaces, please, says the low voice.
Mami, screams the other. Ive told you, they are tied!
No, no, I can see that they are not tied. You will
They are tied! They are tied! trills the other.
Yehoshua, you are going to trip over your shoelaces like that.
Yehoshuas voice rises to a strangled pitch that echoes up the stairwell just as Biabah approaches. They are tied, they are tied, they are tied, they are tiiiiied!
Biabah sees Marna and Yehoshua standing straight and close, as if to begin a boxing match, for their hands are locked. As Marna tries to bend to tie the shoelaces, Yehoshua pulls her upright. Biabah begins shivering in strange anxiety, an anxiety as hysterical as Yehoshuas denials.
What is this place we are living in? she yells. A madhouse? Are we all living in a madhouse?
No, no, no, Biabah, says Marna, disengaging her hands from her sons. No, no, my dear, this is not a madhouse. It is teenager, teenager. It is just Yehoshua who will not tie his shoelaces.
Yehoshua, not deigning to reply, looks at Biabah with pure annoyance, a red flush forming over his cheeks. A distraught Marna stares at Biabah in bewilderment.
I Im sorry, stutters Biabah. Please excuse me. I I am not feeling well. She bends to pick up her shopping bags, but they are suddenly taken up by young hands reaching from behind her.
Allow me to help you, says a female voice. Biabah turns to see a girl or a woman dressed in a long neat linen skirt and a white shirt. Her hair is completely hidden by a blue-patterned scarf tied at the nape of her neck. Biabah stands and stares. The girls face, even devoid of make-up, is beautiful. The eyes are large brown almonds, the nose is straight, and her smiling bottom lip has that elevated line, as if carved by a sculptors fingers. I can carry your parcels, she says, her accent so sweet that it subdues Biabahs agitation.
We havent met, have we? asks Biabah.
We have seen each other but havent been introduced. I am Sarah. The girl begins climbing the stairs to Biabahs landing. Biabah turns to smile weakly at Marna in apology. She notices that Yehoshua is grinning widely.
Come, come, now, says Marna, bending, let me tie your shoelaces. And indeed the laces are undone and undergo tying.
At her front door, Biabah takes the parcels from the young woman and settles them on the mat. Sarah She hesitates. Sarah, did you cut your hair off? Embarrassment makes Biabahs eyes burn. Did somebody cut off all your hair? she persists, measuring the cut strands with her hands. And then did they throw it onto the snow as if it had no value?
Sarah throws back her head and laughs, showing a young pink tongue and even white teeth. Oh, Mrs Mintiks, that day when the Rabbis heat was off and you saw me and Aaron, I was all dressed up for a rehearsal of the play we were doing about King Davids court. I wore a wig.
What play? Where?
At the Jewish Community Center. It was a play about David and Absalom and Tamar, Davids daughter. I was playing Tamar.
Biabah is still confused and her heart beats too fast. A wig, you say? Then why was it thrown onto the ground?
You see, my head had gotten very hot under that wig and when we were driving back here, I took it off. And then the boys began fooling with it, putting it on, taking it off, pulling it apart, and then Yehoshua suggested we throw it out at the garages to give a fright to someone who might come by, especially after dark. He loves playing naughty tricks, you know.
I see, I see groans Biabah.
Please Mrs Mintiks. If you need any help while Im here, staying with my aunt, you must simply come to the top of the stairs and call Sarah loudly and I shall come. She offers her hand and Biabah takes it hesitantly between her own.
Augie, she says, sitting next to him and stroking the paralyzed forearm; laugh if you like, but when that beautiful young girl helped me with my parcels, I wanted to sink down onto the kitchen floor like a Musselman, put my forehead to the linoleum, and make a prayer. But then the images of the two faces, Yehoshuas wily one and the young womans purity of beauty, clung to my sight and I didnt know whether to laugh or cry. In my heart, though, I prayed for all children. I hoped Austra and Marie would soon visit me now, to offer me some love, to stroke my arms as I am stroking yours, and tidy my hair behind my ears, and then make me a cup of tea. Make us a cup of tea.
Yes? Yes? What is it?
Wasser bitte, Baa
Baibah guides the flexible straw in the paper cup to Augusts mouth. He sucks sloppily, and she wipes his chin. He drinks some more. His eyes, which have been watching her calmly, close as if in pleasure. Biabah loses her train of thought as she is struck by the fact that Augusts eyes have become different. They have lost both their former drunken glare and the burning frustration. My, my, she thinks. And now? Is she to be expected to return to the house with him and take care of him? Surely there are places with trained people, places that She tries to visualize them but can bring to mind only movie scenes of hideous insane asylums. Amadeus, was it, and Shine?
August seems to have fallen asleep, so she gets up as noiselessly as possible and tiptoes to the door. In the passage the nurse is again waiting for her.
Mrs Mintiks, I have to bring up this matter. I am sorry. But we cannot keep your husband here for much longer. He is ready to be moved, either to some facility or back to his home
Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know. Please. Please let me think on arrangements. I shall speak to you tomorrow.
To me or anyone in the front office.
Yes. Thank you.
Outside the sky is bright blue. The temperature is rising and globs of snow are falling noisily off the branches of the trees. There is the rustling of unseen melting taking place under the spongy layer of white along the gutters. Summer will come. Biabah walks along, no clear thought taking hold of her mind.
She turns a corner and espies Yehoshua and Marna on the next sidewalk. Yehoshua strides ahead, carrying his oboe case plus a set of hi-hat drums. Marna trudges behind, swaying from tired foot to tired foot. She carries two bags of groceries in each hand. Biabah picks up her pace to catch up with Marna.
Mrs Netzloff, here, let me help you. Give me some bags. Yes, so-so. Now we can walk together more easily, no? How are you? How is Yehoshua?
Mrs Mintiks, Yehoshua shall be having more music practice, she says nervously.
Marna, dont worry, dont worry.
Not worry? But
I believe I shall be moving to to my old house soon. Yes, soon.
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