Yes because he never asked she never told him of the color of the river in the afternoon when the sun fell behind the bridge, or the castle on the hill, she never told him of the churches, all the red roofs, the cobblestone streets, never told him of a yellow building with flowerboxes in every window, a silent white clock framed in black iron. When she arrived to the new city the inhabitants stood against broken walls in the shade and watched the settlers step down from the heaving train and drag their suitcases through the dry streets. He noticed her that afternoon, if he can be believed—her hair come loose and a mess—the streets yes dry, dust spilling up where their feet fell. She followed her parents to the building where they would live in the new city, a building of plaster and bricks, a long walk from the train station.
Her Polish was good and his Czech was non-existent, so they spoke Polish. They sat on a small wooden bench under a tree that still in late October clung to its green. He reached up without rising and picked a leaf from a low branch. The color is a perfect match, he said, holding the cordate leaf to her eyes, while she smiled and pretended to look away. A linden tree, he said. He knew all the trees in the new city and would impress her with his proud taxonomies. It was afternoon and the sun dipped between two buildings at the end of the street, a blinding from which the last of the office messengers on their bicycles appeared like dark devils legs pistoning and sped past clangoringly. He told stories:
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe summer camp was at Krościenko, he said. The food was excellent and plentiful. We went climbing, he said. It was summer but we wore thick winter boots. There were places where the mountain fell away and we could look out from cliffs ringed with iron railings. The Dunajec was a winding blue ribbon, in places glittering as if—he thought for a moment—as if set with tiny crystals of quartz.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWe climbed higher, he said, to Sokolica, a harder climb. At the summit we could see the Dunajec’s far bank, what used to be Czechoslovakia. He shrugged and brought down the corners of his lips, as if he had nothing to do with it, this transience of nation—which of course was true.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe did not look at her while they talked, he was shy like that, or really he looked only in flashes, quick and clandestine and, she knew even then, filled with lust. He had brown hair, hazel eyes.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe continued: A Jewish student from Poznań died while we were there, this was later, died in the river. I did not know his name, did not know him at all. They say his heart stopped. The next evening we went to the student’s funeral at an old temple in the town. The rabbi sang the El Maleh Rachamim, reading from a little book, and blew a shofar and we all cried, all of us, as if this boy’s death was the first and last of all creation.
IIIIIIIIIIIIA breeze picked up and she moved the hair from her right eye. She spoke several languages, as did both of her parents, and she had already started work as a translator at a government office before leaving Prague. Now she worked in the new city, mostly in Russian, German, and Polish. She knew no Yiddish but was learning from an old book. Besides Czech and Polish, she spoke fluently in Hungarian and Romanian. She could speak Serbo-Croatian and Russian and some Turkish, but she did not think in these languages, so when she spoke them she would tire quickly, like walking up a steep hill. She could read and understand, but barely speak, several others: Albanian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian. Languages were colors and light, and the words and letters danced through her mind like a kaleidoscope, spinning and shifting and often beautiful. This was how her mind worked. Czech, for example, was blue: warm and familiar. Polish was red, perhaps because of the flag. German was violet, a dark violet like a day’s end, a night’s imminence.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOK, she said, when he asked. Pick a word, she said, and today he chose the word memory, which in Polish is pamięć, and she said Erinnerung, memorija, memória, memorie, her mind prismatic, lightsome, kujtim, hafıza, atmintis, atmiņa, mälu, speaking slowly now, climbing, памет (pamet), she said carefully, пам’ять (pam’yatʹ), and then finally as if emerging beneath a wide, cloudless sky a final word: paměť.
One night he came to her from the carpentry workshop where he and his father worked, and they walked through the cobblestone streets in a growing darkness. They walked close together, so close that sometimes their fingers touched, perfect little accidents of great intention, until at a certain point he stopped and lightly took her hand, as if to position her in a certain way, and for the remainder of their observations he held her hand in his, and she obliged. He was covered with sawdust and woodchips. There were no streetlights in this part of the new city, no moon; she could only see him from the light lingering in the western sky like the red glow of a forge fire. The building was nothing much, she could not even picture it in her mind afterward, but they stood before it and he explained to her how someday there will be a new building, one that will unite all pursuits in a single form—the builder, the craftsman, the architect, the sculptor, the painter. He took a breath and said: The end and aim of all artistic endeavor is liberation of the spiritual essence of form and color and its release from imprisonment in the world of objects.
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe lifted her right eyebrow, which she knew caused her right ear to move in tandem. You are quoting, she said.
IIIIIIIIIIIIMaybe, he replied.
The new city was a flux of languages and memories. The languages unfolded into the atmosphere in the form of speech, bursting forth in words and letters and syntax, dissipating, yes, dying, but still vibrating, and in their being heard and sometimes seen, more real than air. Simple words like hunger and sleep and blindness. More difficult words like luteofulvous and imprevidibility and poppysmic. And the language beyond language: rhythm, pitch, gestures, sighs, silences. The memories on the other hand did not unfold and were not seen and were rarely heard and frankly were barely understood. While speech exists within a stretch of time, each memory, each moment of its being, like language, represents a synchronic instant, a storehouse, a potentiality, a seed. The people held their memories—these multifarious points of time—within their bodies and minds, as if they were of immeasurable value, like religious relics or shiny stones taken from the sea—the unimaginable sea—on coastal excursions to Gdańsk in those long-gone days before they came to the new city.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAnd then there were the sacred books, which seemed to be some combination of language and memory, and which too could be unfolded, literally, figuratively, like speech. She had come to understand that according to the laws and beliefs of the people of the new city, the sacred books could not be burned or otherwise desecrated, so when the people left the city—as they did on some days by the hundreds—they would leave behind these books, which would be collected by the preservers of such miscellanea and delivered to the city’s library, where the director, an old man who still, in a show of daring subversion, kept a beard, a man called Engineer Weinhorn, would file them away in all their multitudinousness, along with many other books of a more secular nature, in a system that was not entirely apparent to the library’s visitors but seemed to work just fine for the director. Thousands of books, of all colors and sizes.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWinter snow came early, a terrible, wet snow that turned black when it hit the ground. She walked in others’ footprints. When she entered, the director rose immediately, waving pipe smoke around with his left hand. Here is something for you, he said, placing his pipe on its stand and reaching into his desk for a thick book with a white felt cover the color of curdled milk. This is a difficult book, he said. No one is able to read it. It is in Czech. He handed her the book, which she accepted with both hands. The director continued: As far as I can tell it is a translation of a book in English, itself a translation of a book of Greco-Roman mythology, a story of a long journey, he said, perhaps a journey home. But it is a strange book and even our Czech readers can’t, as the Romans say, make heads or feet of it. She opened the book at random and began to silently read the first words she saw (…Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness …). She closed the book, wiped the cover with her hand, blew away the dust.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen she left the library, leaving the old man standing at his desk, the snow had turned to a cold, light rain, and to protect the book she put it under her coat and held it there carefully with her left arm. It was nearly eight. The streetlights, which shone like pale crosses through the rain, would be extinguished soon, and the window curtains would be pulled so tightly shut that not even a sliver of light would slip out into the night. After eight in the new
city the darkness would be entire.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe truth is that some of the people desecrated the books. The books were burnt in stoves, or the people tore the pages from their bindings and used them to clean themselves or to write words of no importance whatsoever. Some of the people used the one-folio leaves of the larger books as cigarette papers. They’d smoke these cigarettes with cheap tobacco and slip and slide down the ice-covered streets, the sacred words turning to ash and blowing away quickly over their heads. She knew this was not a good omen for the people of the new city. She knew the people were in trouble when they would destroy their own words. This was forgetting. This was the destruction of the past. This was the antithesis of memory.
And then spring came suddenly, and one late afternoon after work they walked together hand in hand to the cemetery, in a part of the new city called Marysin. They walked past old men, some who fought in the last war, who stood at kiosks and sold Drawa cigarettes (without mouthpieces). In the gardens women crouched on upturned ceramic pots and planted seeds. She and the boy saw exactly one stork returning to its nest. They looked for others but saw none. Bats swirled in a mad crepuscular frenzy, eating butterflies. Three goats and six sheep stood motionless in meadow grass by the side of the road.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe picked up objects as they walked, turning them and holding them to the sky, squinting with one eye as if peering through a loupe, sometimes casting them aside, other times placing them in his pockets. Once she forgot everything, everything, and she let go of his hand and jumped up at the pepper trees and white poplars—he told her the names—and she pulled leaves from the branches and threw them at him laughing.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt the cemetery, as they walked through the uncut grass speckled with little yellow and white flowers, she would stop occasionally and pretend to read the Hebrew on the gravestones. Then they sat together on a low limestone wall the color of skin, a wall laid long before the new city had been created, in the shade of a large chestnut tree with exposed roots. He opened a notebook, which he kept tied to his waist for ease of access, like the naturalists,
and he taught her how to draw.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWe begin with a point, he said. The point is self-contained, it does not move. He drew dozens of points on the page, working quickly, until a girl’s beautiful eye materialized on the page, suddenly staring back at her. The point is in opposition to the line, he continued, which is of course in theory an infinite array of points. The line pressures the point to move. He drew many different lines on the page, straight, curving, angular, warm, cold, horizontal, vertical, diagonal. A line may depict the deepest longing, he said … another: pure sadness … another: unbridled joy. Turning a page, he continued: Now if I take these lines and condense them or arrange them in certain configurations and patterns we can create the third basic unit of visual construction: the plane. The three primary planes, he said, are the circle … the square … and the triangle. Each of these planes has its own internal dynamics, depending on how they are drawn. A circle, for example, can be drawn counterclockwise … or clockwise … with my right hand … with my left. Each has its own inherent nature, each feels different, each is an experience. In the same way that my hand shapes the surface of a chair or a table, he said, and that shape is eventually felt by you, the sitter or the diner, the way I draw the circle, my experience of its inception, determines how it is felt by you, the viewer. We feel the shape together, you see?
IIIIIIIIIIIIA breeze picked up from the west and she reached up to move the hair from her right eye, tucked it behind her ear, and she saw him looking at the soft, albescent underskin of her arm. Glancing, looking away. Yes he had beautiful hazel eyes, flecked with rust. Dark brown hair cut short. The beginnings of a mustache, the Spanish style.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe said: Another important shape is the spiral. While the circle is a plane the spiral is a line. I can draw it like this, starting at the center of the page, and we feel a sense of liberation. But, he said, turning a page, I can also draw the spiral like this, starting at the edge and moving toward the center, where I must stop, where there is a point of finality and destruction.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHow I draw the spiral, you see, is a question of life or death.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAnd then he tore out several blank pages, and together, as the sun began to set behind them, they sketched the objects he had collected on their walk to the cemetery. He sketched a feather he had pulled from a torn blanket that had snagged somewhere on the road. She sketched a single pearl someone had left behind. He sketched a small piece of wood and a coiled wire and the label from an incongruous can of Maggi bouillon cubes. She sketched a broken fingernail.
So this was a place where they could go, here in the silence at the old stone wall, the new city a memory, the old city way out beyond the fences. She read to him: The new air greeted him, harping in wild nerves, wind of wild air of seeds of brightness. She read: There’s nothing like a kiss long and hot down to your soul almost paralyses you. She read slowly, marking the words with her finger, translating into Polish as she read: I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time on livid final flame. What’s left us then? It is a strange book, she said, looking up. They were silent. The whole earth, silent. Only a short time passed before he leaned toward her, and she toward him, and this is when they kissed, long and effortless, down indeed to their very souls.
Each color is a universe in itself, he said once as they walked to the stone wall. When we say sight, he said, we mean not just the physical properties of the waves of light, not just the optical mechanisms of absorption in the eye, but also the perceptions of our minds. This is why the word blue will mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. The eye, he continued, is just the meeting point between the outer sight and the inner seeing. What takes shape in the mind may be entirely different from the qualities and form of the object itself, as it exists beyond the mind, and yet there is no contradiction here, all of these images and existences comprise parts of a great convergent totality.
IIIIIIIIIIIISo now I look at you—he stopped right there on the cobblestones and turned to her to exaggerate this looking, his eyes traveling slowly from her face (green eyes, freckles stippled delicately across the bridge of her nose, falling as if carefully scattered onto her cheeks, lips slightly parted), her collar bones, her breasts, her stomach, down the whole length of her body—I look at you, he said, and you are inside me, and that is now an essential part of you too.
Sketch me, she said, moving the hair from her eyes and sitting up straight. There was a chill in the air, so they sat close to each other with their backs against the stone wall, the chestnut tree and all the gravestones beyond them. He untied his notebook from his waist. While he sketched he explained to her that the human body relates to the space around it in an abstract system of surfaces and shapes and light. She wore a flowered dress: scarlet poppies, white pheasant’s eyes, orange marigolds, blue primrose, eight white buttons running down the front. The accumulation of these geographies, he said, evinces a schema of dialectics of stillness and motion, past and future, solidity and ephemerality. She, not really listening, reached up and unclasped the top button, the second button—do not move, he said, as she did this—the third, the fourth. Do not move, he said again, looking up at her, and down to the page, his hand moving quickly. Her shoulders shone now and in the light they were luminescent and white, tinged with pink, like two eggs of the gray linnet, perfect specimens. He paused, but only for a moment, and then she could hear him dotting with the tip of his pencil the freckles that fell across the top of her chest, those shoulders, and then filling in the shadows below her clavicles, the darkness under her arms. The body is a construction of three-dimensional solids, he continued, the cylinder of the neck, the cube of the ribs, the ellipsoid of the belly. Fifth button, sixth, seventh. Black shoes. Ivory socks with ruffles. She placed the socks in the shoes: left to left, right to right. She lifted herself slightly from the ground, wiggling, shedding. She never took her eyes off him. She folded the dress and set it on the grass next to her. His face was as red as a corn poppy. We see spheres, he continued, at the elbows and knees. The upper thighs, the calves, he said, barely looking up, we call frustums, which are just conical solids severed by planes. The body is nothing but shapes. Nothing but? she asked. A strapless brassiere, with steels running to her mid-stomach. Briefs that shone and shimmered and did not match the brassiere, which did not reflect the light in any way worth mentioning. Bones pressing against very pale skin that nearly matched the color of the stone wall, skin so thin every vein showed blue and green. She was as light as the silky seeds of the milkweed, ready to float away. To capture the body in space, he said, as if imagining this literal floating, to place it on the page, he said, the artist must see the object as both a concrete experience of undeniable truth and a spectral hallucination of the substance of dreams. She had a single mole on the left side of her stomach. A dark violet bruise in a nimbus of yellow on her right inner thigh. Her breasts were small and the color of moths’ wings. Her areolae were small and the color of carnelians. She hid none of this from him. She bared herself to him entire, there amongst the gravestones, like an open country.
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe could not remember how much longer he sketched. She believed he brought the picture—in all its confusion and variability—to some conclusion, perhaps a hasty one. You are a terrible sitter, he said to her, much later.
Summer came to an end, the days drawing in. For her birthday he brought her eight big poppies (she was born on the eighth of September), which she carried as they walked to the stone wall.
IIIIIIIIIIIIPick a word, she said, setting the flowers on the ground next to her. He hesitated, dug into the dirt with a small stick, and then he looked into her eyes and said love, which in Polish is miłość, and looking away from him, looking up and following a murmuration of starlings swarming like smoke in the eastern sky, she said, that is an easy one: Liebe, ljubav, любов (lyubov), let’s see … dashuri, szerelem, dragoste, aşk, she had a map in her mind and she danced over the nations … armastus, mīlestība, she said, and finally: milovat.
IIIIIIIIIIIIShe said these words as if they were just words, sound images floating in space, lacking concepts. Empty words. It occurred to her afterward, as they walked home in the dusk, that this was how she translated love.
… the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums…. She lay on her back with the book in the air, his coat covering her. He was on his side, facing her, with his head resting on the closed fist of his left hand, his forearm a prop. She lowered the book. I am so tired, she said. I cannot sleep here in this place. No one can sleep in the new city, he said. This is a city of insomnia, he said, gesturing over the stone wall. They lay there in the silence until in the distance across the cemetery and beyond the fences they first heard them and then could see the very tops of a regiment of soldiers passing in review, so far away that they were almost invisible, and they reminded her of a time when she was a little girl, sitting in a wicker chair with her father watching the Spanish cavalry at La Roque, and then after (or was this another time?), she looked across the bay from Algeciras at all the lights of the rock, which in her memory moved like fireflies. Or had she read of these things? Her memories were becoming confused, reality and dream swirling together. She was so tired.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe began to sing softly, in Yiddish, a song of his childhood: S’hot dos vintl zikh geshtilt…. The song was about the wind and the night and the stars, but she was too tired to understand. She began to drift off, and time passed and did not pass and she woke with a start … s’dremlen feygl, blum, un vint….ay-lyu, lyu-lyu, lyu. She listened to his voice, and translated, imperfectly: The birds are asleep, the flowers, the wind. You, too, my child, should rest and sleep. I will stand guard, ai-liu, liu-liu, liu.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThis is how it would always go, just barely piercing the surface of sleep, but never falling all the way to its warm depths. She was shaking, with just his coat over her naked body, his fluids running out of her … ai-liu, liu-liu, liu, he sang again.
IIIIIIIIIIIISoon they would no longer be able to go to this place. Soon it would be too cold. The last of the long line of soldiers disappeared behind a distant building that shone bright white in the sun. They lay together a while longer, and then they dressed and walked back through the streets. An air-raid alarm sounded somewhere in the old city. Three days later they could hear the arrhythmia of falling bombs, so faint that not even the liquid surfaces of their weak teas wrinkled, bombs that came to nothing.
One evening when he stayed late at the carpentry workshop she attended a lecture in a room at the House of Culture on Krawiecka Street. Formal instruction had been discontinued months before she arrived to the new city, but this was one of a series of lectures organized privately and presented by a man the people simply called the Professor, a language specialist who had worked at the university before the new city was founded. The Professor had a straight nose, short hair, a little silver around the ears. The lecture, introductory in nature, focused on the philology of East Central Europe, the mixing of languages, lingual resistance and sharing. She sat in the front row, not far from where the Professor paced and waved his arms around, and she blinked her eyes and reached down as if to scratch an itch on the upper part of her calf, and in so doing her striped skirt rose—she knew this, of course—until her knee showed, just a glimpse, her right one. The professor never stopped talking. Eventually she let the skirt fall, like a curtain.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAfter class she and the Professor coincidentally left the lecture hall together (she had lingered while he collected his things, hurriedly) and they walked near the Bałuty market, crossing one of the wooden bridges that rose over the street there. They talked of words and language. He had a skin-colored mole on his right cheek near the base of his nasolabial fold, barely noticeable, and she had the nearly uncontrollable desire to reach out and touch it.
IIIIIIIIIIIISo this is how it will end, she thought to herself, as she and the Professor discussed phonetics and phonology and the strange book she was translating and other such topics. The boy—whom she loved in some way, who loved her like an obsession—was so heavy and dark, and she could already feel a weight lifting, a disentangling of ponderous complexities.
When she saw the boy the next evening, winter was in the air. In the new part of the cemetery the workers had already begun to dig rows of graves for bodies not yet dead, for once the ground froze it would be impenetrable. She and the boy sat together on the granite wall and watched the men work. Sparrows danced from headstone to headstone. Lines of clouds like whale ribs, each painted pink on one side, crossed the sky, covering, uncovering, covering, uncovering a three-quarter moon in the southern sky.
IIIIIIIIIIIIPick a word, she said. The boy thought for a while, and then without looking at her he said: jealousy, which in Polish is zazdrość. Jealousy, she repeated, and then she said the following words: Eifersucht, xhelozi, kıskançlık, ljubomora, féltékenység, ревност (revnost), ревнощі (revnoshchi), gelozie, pavydas, greizsirdība, armukadedus, žárlivost. She said the words quickly, almost magically, without any effort at all, as if they sprang forth of their own accord. All the colors of the languages suffused in her mind, a great accumulation of colors, which of course is just black, is the absence of light.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe truth is that in the way he sang to her, the way he held her and made love to her, the way he spoke to her, the way he looked at her in his bright flashes—in all of these things she glimpsed a passion both unrestrained and relentless. In his desire, she felt not love, but possession. And possession is the opposite of love. Or more accurately, its end.
IIIIIIIIIIIILater when he walked her back to the building where she lived she half consciously and half not began to pull her hand away one finger at a time, until he held just three fingers, then two, then her pinky, then just the pinky’s tip, near the nail, and then in an instant her hand fell free, and he did not reach for it. Dusk had turned to night. They entered her building, and he walked with her up a flight of stairs that shook, ten steps up, a turn, five more steps, to a narrow indoor landing decorated with mud-colored ceramic jardinières empty of any plants or flowers. At the door to the room she shared with her parents she turned to look at him. They did not speak. He bent forward and kissed her lightly on the cheek, a kiss that meant nothing, and thus everything—the answer to a question he did not have the strength to ask. Then she went inside, closed the door behind her, leaned her forehead against a small, closed, peephole window framed in brass, pressed very hard, until, after a long time, she felt the building shudder, vibrations scattering through her skull and body, diminishing, as he turned and walked away.
Or here is how it happened: she entered and turned and slid to the floor with her back against the closed door, she sat there unmoving, as if lame, until, after a long time, she felt the building shudder, vibrations scattering through her, diminishing, as he turned and walked away. Or she closed the door and stood there with her hand on the wooden knob, waiting for the sound of his footsteps, which, after a long time, she felt in her fingertips, a shuddering, vibrations scattering through her fingers and hand and arm, diminishing, as he turned and walked away. Or she could have simply entered the room she shared with her parents, freeing herself of him effortlessly like a loose coat, hearing none of his hesitation at the door, feeling none of the building’s shudderings and scatterings, as he turned and walked down the stairs, trying desperately to keep his stomach from falling out, and slid into a cold night with a moon the color of barely decayed bone. Who is to say what she did or how she felt when she closed the door behind her? Who is to know any of this?
Yom Kippur fell on the ninth of October, warm and bright, but the days fell away with the leaves and November arrived, cold and dark, a month that even as a child always seemed marked with memory, a month less lived than dreamed. His mother had died in November, on the third night of Kislev, a year before he and his father came to the new city. Father and son stood together in the darkened room where they lived—a table they built together with scraps of lime- and rose- and satin-wood, two simple chairs, mattresses for beds, a small black stove near the window—and lit a pallid candle, which the son placed on the table’s surface in drops of its own wax. They sang the kaddish quietly. He tried to remember her face, her movements, her voice, but he realized, standing there with his father in the fluttering darkness, that there was no precise thing, no clear and determinate aspect, that could bring her beauty into focus. He was thinking of his mother, but also, for he could not help it, of the girl. Sensations are transformed through the filter of the mind into perceptions are transformed through the filter of recollection into mere atmospheres—this, he thought, is what memories are: atmospheres, air.
IIIIIIIIIIIISince heating wood and coal were not supplied to the new city the people dismantled the old, ruined buildings at the city’s periphery, they threw themselves upon these structures like black flies to treacle, and in this way the city, like the bodies it contained, slowly thinned and warped until eventually it seemed the new city would disappear altogether. Once, ignoring the curfew, he went out into the streets, thinking he might find her, and he wandered to the city’s northern edge close to the fences, and there in the moonlight he watched children with spades and cleavers and bent iron hatchets digging into the trash for small bits of coal or wood. One girl wiggled and shed herself of what he imagined was her only dress, folded it carefully on the ground, and entered the mud pit to dig with the boys. Cold, desperate, filled with lust, he returned to the room he shared with his father and lay sleepless on the floor.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHis father had taught him geometry, had taught him about the points and planes and all the shapes, the colors, about numbers and probability. They did not know where the trains went, they did not know the fate of their passengers, no one in the new city knew, but they decided they would not play the odds. They shook hands and agreed on this. At all costs, they would not board the trains.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe workshop where they worked was on Drukarska, just off Limanowskiego (one of the Aryan streets). Once they were asked to design and build a giant gallows. They built it of pine, the wood hard and still wet, difficult to cut. Every piece of furniture, his father told him once, has a soul, and how we think of the wood, how we touch it with our hands and tools, how we choose to shape it and combine it with other materials, is what determines the character, the outward manifestation, of this soul. Furniture can be warm or cold, his father continued, the piece can comfort or surprise, it can love or hate. Gods play in these shapes we make, he said. Father and son could feel in this gallows’ wood, that day in the workshop, that the soul was one of hate, that the gods were those of death. It is not the fault of the wood, the son said to his father. His father only nodded. Twenty-two citizens of the new city would later hang from this gallows at Bazarowa Square. The son felt neither remorse nor sadness. He was not sure what to make of this lack.
IIIIIIIIIIIINow, nearing what felt like the end, they spent their days making artillery boxes. These, it seemed to him, contained no souls, no gods at all.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOn sleepless nights he walked into the streets of the new city and retraced their steps. Here they stopped to watch a merry-go-round, just beyond the fence on Urzędnicza Street, the small hanging boats, a radio amplifier broadcasting phonograph music, Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the smiling children—even from this distance you could see that the children beyond the fences were smiling—and he and the girl danced together to the music, turning in circles on the broken cobblestones. Here they sat on a red-brick planter in the shade and tried to read the new graffiti—Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German—that covered the old walls across the way, all mixed together in a way that made the words illegible. Here someone played a street organ and someone clapped and they stood side by side listening, his arm around her waist, her head on his shoulder. Here on the bench beneath the linden tree she pinched the loose skin of his elbow as hard as she could and he felt no pain and they laughed like birds and fell back hard into the night like tramps. Perhaps we relive our past, he thought as he walked these empty streets, in order to neatly rebuild its foundations, frame its structures, concretize its particularities, for then, once the pictures have become clear in our minds, we may pull them out, like architectural models, and begin our meticulous deconstructions. Perhaps this is why we remember, he thought. So that we may then forget.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe air-raid alarms were more frequent now. Some days from the workshop windows he and the others stood and watched exhausted soldiers marching out-of-time to the west, some without their steel helmets, some without their greatcoats. He had not seen the girl, not once since that last night. He guessed she had left with the others. So many had boarded the trains and left the new city, leaving behind their overflowing suitcases and their empty rooms. He went once to watch near the station, the same place where he had seen her the day she arrived—her green eyes, her beautiful auburn hair blowing around—the wind bringing up all the dust. The people walked up planks that bent precariously. Train porters carried the sick and the elderly. Seven third-class cars. Everyone got a seat. He did not see her. He came home and on this day decided to burn his notebooks and sketches in the small black stove.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBefore his father died, the son sang: S’hot dos vintl zikh geshtilt, ovent hot di erd farhilt…. He held his hand. He sang softly: … Ikh vel ophitn dayn ru, ay-lyu, lyu-lyu, lyu. In his own voice he could hear the distant memory of his father’s singing to him these exact same words, in a voice that was identical, a timeless echoing. The burial department came to the apartment at noon and washed his father, according to the rituals of the people. His father was buried in the cemetery later that day, a day with an iron sky and no sun and flocks of black birds circling.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThey would talk of his mother, he and his father, and now that the father was gone, it was as if the mother had died a second time. It was important for him to decide if he should keep on living. Walking back alone from the cemetery, this was the moment when he had to make a choice. He turned to me and told me this: It was then, he said to me, when I could either surrender or persevere.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDays passed and days passed and he could put his ear to the ground and hear the distant rumbling. The blackouts were permanent now, air raid or no. A squadron of aircraft, sounding somehow different from the planes he knew, flew east to west leaving white contrails of exhaust (like clouds like whale ribs painted pink on one side), before the planes turned into black smudges on the horizon and disappeared into a roseate sky. The people of the new city were leaving in those heaving trains, leaving by the thousands, to God knows where. But he would stay. Down he went with some of the others into darkness.
Time for him was no longer linear or calendric. It spiraled. But it spiraled out. The Siege of Leningrad ended after 872 days; Allied soldiers entered Rome to waving flags and ringing bells; on the beaches of Normandy, a cold and windy day, Operation Overlord commenced; the Warsaw Uprising began, and ended 63 days later; Paris was liberated; Patton’s tanks crossed the Marne; Hitler left the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenberg to embunk in Berlin; the Soviet Army entered Auschwitz, too late for most of the prisoners from the Łódź Ghetto; and the Yalta Conference and the fall of Budapest and Dresden to rubble and Soviet and American troops shaking hands at the river Elbe and Hitler and Eva Braun, by poison and gun, and the Prague uprising and surrender in Reims and all of it, all of it, like the fantastic careening history of some strange alternate universe.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe had dug his own grave in the cemetery, one of eight large trenches, but the Red Army was close and the German soldiers were antsy and apt to leave things undone. After the Soviets entered the new city and the wire and fences came down, it was as if some organ or tissue had been split open, and he wandered in this dissipating dehiscence of astonished ghosts through snowy streets with names once Polish but now unrecognizable.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe left Łódź in 1948, to a Kibbutz north of Haifa, a dry heat he’d never known, less about ideology—he was no Zionist—than about, as he put it, getting the hell out of there. He met her within a week: my grandmother, Sue née Klebanov, who spoke Russian and some English but not a word of Polish. They spoke, he said to me, the language of love, and he stuck out his tongue, just the tip, and smiled. She was already pregnant with my uncle Aaron when they came on a boat to America in 1952 and settled in Red Bank, New Jersey, right there on the Navesink River. Just a farm town at the time. Wiktor Waszyński became, for convenience, Victor Waszyński. The furniture shop was on West Front Street, a two-story brick building with a blue awning, the workshop in the back. Aunt Elizabeth was born a couple of years later, and then, a year later hence, Daniel, the youngest, my father. In the summer of 1969, the year the Americans walked on the moon, they packed up a station wagon, a green Chevrolet 4-speed, and drove the northerly route to Glendale, California. The house was up a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac, three bedrooms and a detached garage. Grandpa Victor opened the furniture import shop—Victor & Sons—on Brand, next to a park and all the trees (he could name every one) and a movie theater that showed cartoons during the day and the violet jacaranda petals on the sidewalks sticking to the bottoms of our summer shoes.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe sang to me in Yiddish, a grandfather to his granddaughter, that same lullaby, the one his father sang to him, the one he sang to the girl in Łódź.
IIIIIIIIIIIII sat in my grandfather’s study, on one of his Barcelonas, filling up my notebooks, a few times a week for a month and a half, to hear his stories. He was still healthy, still lucid. His study was filled with books, all the Bauhaus books, art and furniture books, books in Polish, some in Yiddish, a single book by Joyce which he picked up along the way of life, dog-eared and still incomprehensible. Photos hung on the walls in silver and brass frames: the kids in a park on the river in Red Bank, the old shop, that station wagon after the trip, looking like a tired old packhorse. There was one of Grandma Sue in a light dress and a wide straw hat, standing next to a wall of piled stones. She’s looking up, smiling, a final stone in her hand, poised for placement. The Western Galilee desert is spread out in the background, now just a faded, sun-bleached streak blending into a white sky dotted with white clouds. She looked just like you, he said to me once, her hair, he said, her eyes. She, who? I thought to myself. This was the oldest photo on the wall, as if there was no time, no history, before their meeting.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe told me once, when he first started telling me his stories, that the artist, the writer, is internal to, is indeed created by, her work. You will be changed by this, he said. I knew it was a warning, but it was also a kind of absolution for him, a penance in advance. There was evil there, he said. He was absentmindedly opening and closing a book on his desk. A pale moth fluttered against the window glass, sounding softly like voices whispering in another room, or another time. And then he looked at me with those beautiful hazel eyes, flecked with rust. But there was also redemption, he said, switching to Polish. I hope you can find some way to include this in what you write. And I told him I would try.