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"Come down," Sári hissed at her sister Cimi, glancing back at the white stuccoed house. Anyone stepping from the cook's entrance to the outhouse at the end of the verandah would notice the elm's trembling branches. Rózsa the cook, looking out the window over her broad, pine-planked counter, might glimpse a yellow hairbow winking through the elm's flame-shaped leaves. Pulling her hands from the bread dough, she'd descend on them in a trice, surprisingly agile despite her girth and shuffling slippers. More often than not she could spring from one side of the big kitchen to the other to smack away the fingers of one of the seven children—even the grown ones—anticipating the hand that would stealthily approach the cheesecloth covering her freshly baked béles.
When Sári and Cimi were little, Rózsa struck like lightning if they toddled into the path of the servant girl as she hauled a vat of steaming laundry off the wood-stoked stove. Little one screaming in the clutch of Rózsa's elbow and Rózsa shrieking too that now she had to do the work of the Fraulein! Poor mistress; if she only knew the peril that stalked her brood. But better she was spared so she could preside in the shop with patience and grace. Rózsa liked to feel in charge. After all, it was she who had prepared the first solids to pass the lips of each of the babies, she who held the choicest morsels to their pink satin mouths, feeding them like birdlings from her hand. The Fraulein taught thebabies to take food off a spoon, but it was Rózsa's privilege to give them the best bits from her thick red fingers.
"Get down now!" Sári commanded her sister, who had leapt into the tree without thinking.
Cimi ignored her. "Did you hear that? I'm sure I heard something. I know it's up there, poor little thing, and now it can't get back."
Before Sári could retort, "It's a cat. That's what cats do, they climb," Cimi had tucked her dress into her knickers and melted into the thick foliage of the elm's lowest boughs. They would be lucky if it was only Rózsa who caught them. Wiping her hands on her apron as she waddled across the lawn, she would instinctively reach up into the tree and haul Cimi back by the foot before she had gotten far. "Have you lost your senses?" she'd demand, giving Cimi a light cuff. "Don't you realize your Apuka will be home from the field at any moment?" But Cimi didn't realize anything when an impulse overcame her. If Sári had to go up after her, she'd give her plait a good yank.
"Just wait until Apuka gets hold of you," Sári threatened, but she found small comfort in the prospect because he would blame her too. Her father, losing his head in terror, would hold her responsible for letting Cimi climb. Sári chafed from the unfairness of it. She hadn't chased the cat up the tree.
At this very moment Apuka might be turning off the main road that led into town from the vineyards, his light coat draped over his shoulder, his head hatted like any good Jew, but not the flat round hat of the highly orthodox. His was contemporary and businesslike with a deep front V and a brim he pinched as he greeted an acquaintance. Apuka had little patience for the traditions of the devout. If they lost themselves in the scriptures and let their children starve, why shouldn't the world also believe it had a right to sweep them aside? As for the rich and holier-than-thou who scattered charitable disbursements in hopes of buying a seat in heaven, perhaps they believed the Lord's ear, too, might be purchased?
Apuka had no use for those who showed off their faith any more than he had for morning, afternoon and evening prayers. A blessing for the fruit of the earth, yes, naturally. As for rest, let the yeshiva bochers who came begging for their meals at the cook's entrance put in a few extra words for him. He wasn't ashamed to ask or to slip a coin into their pockets. He was a busy man. What else had they to do?
He gave a little snort, remembering the poor rabbinical student last week who had entered through the kitchen and been engulfed in the rich cooking odours that built up since daybreak. Cholent still baked in the great, wood-stoked oven, and a steaming soup steeped on the range. Rózsa ordered the boy to the table piled high with crockery, pointing a red arm bared by her rolled-up sleeve, so that the shamefaced student had to avert his eyes. While he squirmed uncomfortably, he heard voices raised in the other rooms, and then someone's skirts swished past him and out the door. Girls moved in and out to pick up clean washing and to tear chunks from the loaves that lined the counter. The bocher was afraid to raise his head lest he glimpse the pale flesh under an arm that reached up to fix a hairpin. By the time the servant girl had cleared him a place and pushed a bowl under his nose, he was too overwhelmed to eat.
"Nu-" Apuka's hard elbow had poked him in the back. "Does the Lord forbid even a bite of bread? Eat or you won't grow a beard long enough for the anti-Semites to tug."
While his daughters tittered, Apuka bent down to whisper, "No harm will take you here. This is not the devil's camp." And, as was his custom, pressed a few coins into the young man's fingers.
If Sári and Cimi were lucky, Apuka would be stalled a few moments along the way home by someone he knew. Well, business could always be better, but he daren't complain. As long as there was food on the table.
Food on the table and stores in the larder, chickens in the yard and fruit from his vines. Five beautiful daughters and two smart-mouthed sons, he mustn't seem ungrateful for the bounty of the Lord; nor dare he boast lest he tempt the evil eye. Apuka was shrewd and superstitious. Spitting into the dirt to ward off ill-intentioned hexes, he would tip his hat and continue home for his midday meal.
When he came in from the field, he was usually in good humour. If a child had a desire or appeal, now was the time to present it. Apuka was best approached while the outdoor air still filled his lungs, before he turned to town and the affairs of the shop. Rózsa would have cleared the sink of dishes for the master's arrival. Pumping the handle above the deep basin as Apuka rinsed what he called the "clean dirt" of the fields from his hands, the child would present his or her request. This was when Apuka felt most disposed to listen to the hankerings of his children: a few filér for the "useless cinema" the older ones frequented, or the porcelain-headed doll one of the girls had set her heart on. In the fall, after he'd been shut in at the shop for days on end, Apuka would lash out at the things he'd let his children accumulate, threatening to burn the dolls with the autumn leaves, "As if there aren't enough bodies underfoot already!" It would go especially hard for them, Sári thought, to disrupt Apuka's midday peace.
She looked up into the tree's twitching branches. Its thick foliage spread over her like a green sky dotted with stars of sunlight so sharp she had to squint. Cimi's legs drooped indolently above her. Anyone glancing from the house would notice the dangling legs without knowing exactly whose they were. After all, both little girls from that house ran around naked-legged in the sunshine save for the white ankle socks on their sandalled feet. It incensed her to be implicated in Cimi's caprice.
The cat wasn't hers. Like all cats, it had attached itself to Cimi. In the nursery last night, the kitten seemed hardly more than a balled-up sock, or a pom-pom that might hang on the tie of a fur-trimmed hood.
"Shut up," Cimi had warned her before she could protest the presence of a cat in their bed and alert Fraulein to another flouting of the household's rules. "It's too little to have any fleas yet. Just look at it."
Sári ran a finger along the delicate spine of the kitten. Its grey fur was meltingly soft, like the downy head of a baby. It was impossibly sweet—but already Cimi's. It nestled only in the crook of Cimi's skinny arm. Cimi was a charmer of felines. She had but to breathe on a cat and it would let her do anything—wrap its head in a doll's bonnet or stuff it into a pram. They sheathed their claws for Cimi.
"Get down here, stupid," Sári ordered again, her throat sore from the strain of whispering.
"I heard it just this minute," Cimi called, not even trying to lower her voice. "I'll find it, even if you won't help."
"Idiot," Sári muttered. Sári would have to go up there to silence her before Apuka heard.
She put a sandal on the bark of the tree, feeling for the familiar knot she braced herself against when she mounted. They had all climbed that tree, each child in his or her time. But never under Apuka's nose. Like the others she was an able climber. Maybe not quite as sure-footed as Cimi, who could shimmy up effortlessly. But then neither was Sári such a stupid goat as to run headlong into resistance. There was no budging Apuka on the subject of trees, not even such a healthy and venerable one as this elm with so many branches you could climb it like a ladder. They had each of them tried at least once to persuade him.
"Apukám, it's such a safe tree—look at it," they pleaded. "All those sturdy branches so close together. You'd have to be crippled not to climb it."
"Bite your tongue," Apuka thundered, and his hand flew up as though to strike them but hovered, instead, above his own head. "You don't know what you're talking about. Your Mamuka's brother, he was a big shot, ya, a know-it-all like you. But he fell out of a tree. Just once!" At this point Apuka raised his other hand and joined the two in a hard smack. "And that was that."
"Goat—stupid, stubborn, willful," Sári seethed as she craned to see where Cimi had clambered.
Sári's mouth pursed grimly as she followed her sister. Once when they were little, Cimi had nearly disfigured her. It was just by chance that the brick she had thrown caught Sári on the hairline. The madness of Cimi, not more than four or five at the time, Apuka's old fedora flopping over her eyes. She tipped up the hat, revealing eyes that flared a blue fury. Levelling them in deadly aim at her bossy sister, she pronounced before firing, "This is one time too many you made me be the Father!"
Sári had stood transfixed by the flash storm that transformed her tender-hearted and usually obliging sister. Spellbound, she watched the brick lurch in her direction. Blood ran warmly down her face, spilling onto Mamuka's old gown that bespoke Sári's role as Mother. Only when Sári saw her own blood and realized, outraged, that she had been struck by her sister did she gasp with pain, wind slicing exposed flesh. They were just a year apart, raised like twins, the last of the litter. Both of them were shocked into silence by this rupture that oozed sticky and red between them. Not until Rózsa's arrival and then the Fraulein's did the predictable howls and commotion begin.
Sári touched the scar on her forehead before she reached for the branch overhead. Early on, her features had shown promise of her older sisters' mild beauty. She knew from their experience that a natural dowry would be useful when she grew up, fourth of five sisters. She quickly learned to value and exploit her appearance. Like Mamuka, who used the best fabrics from the shop to fashion their outfits. Even the boys were her mannequins. The children's charming features and Mamuka's handsome garments made the best advertisement for the wares of the shop. Six children lent themselves more or less willingly to this purpose. But then there was Cimi, mercurial and unthinking, who one Pesach, dressed in holiday velvet, refused to wait patiently on the front yard lawn while Mamuka buttoned the endless rows on the other children's frocks and jackets. Cimi had wandered away and ruined her vestments in the shitpile down the road.
Sári's legs pumped purposefully up the rungs of the elm. How often must she contend with the thoughtlessness of her sister? There was that other time too, Rózsa's gleaming gutting knife poised in Cimi's fingers: "There's going to be a funeral around here, Miss Schoolteacher Sarah," she'd spat because Sári had tried to crown her with a dunce cap.
This time Sári was going to stop Cimi in her tracks before, as the elder, she'd be made to pay the price.
"Where are you? I'm coming," she hissed up into the branches.
"Shh," Cimi answered from closer than Sári had expected. "Listen, I think I hear something." She had straddled a limb above Sári on the other side of the trunk.
"I don't care," Sári said, joining her, "we can get it later. We may still have time to get down before Apuka sees."
"What? Do you think he'll climb up to get us? Besides, he doesn't have to notice. We'll go down after he leaves."
"Don't be stupid," Sári snapped. "We can't stay up here forever. You better come down now before you get any more bright ideas."
"You think you know everything, don't you?" Cimi flicked a braid over her shoulder, catching Sári on the cheek. "Shut up. I'm sure I heard it, poor little pet."
Cimi pulled herself to her feet. Balancing her fingers against the trunk, she slid along the branch until she got a clearer view. Then she stretched her other arm into the leaves overhead. The branch dipped from the weight of her movements, and Sári had a brief sensation of vertigo as she watched Cimi grope blindly at the ungraspable air.
"Watch it," she admonished, forgetting not to care. "It's only a cat." The plaintive mewing of the kitten could be heard faintly through the rustling leaves. Well, that sealed it. The creature wasn't only a cat to Cimi; if it breathed, it was blessed. There would be no getting Cimi down until the cat was in hand.
Cimi let go the trunk and sidled further along the limb, making soothing noises to the kitten. Sári fumed. What if Cimi the fool slipped? Cimi had no right to upset her by being so reckless and sure of herself. She was always selfish, not once considering how Sári might feel stuck up here, unable to do anything but watch and worry. She wasn't such an idiot as to startle Cimi now, or get her into an argument. She wasn't one to imperil her sister.
"There!" Cimi leapt up like a gymnast, and now swung from the overhanging branch.
"Stop it! Right now!" Sári shouted, unable to keep from raising her voice. "Now! Do you hear me; Cimi? You get back here now!"
Cimi's legs swayed above the limb she had balanced on, and she inched her palms towards the thinning edge of the branch overhead. Then, in a swift move that forced Sári's heart into her mouth, Cimi let go her right hand and grabbed at thin air. Sári saw something grey explode from the leaves while Cimi's legs scissored.
"Idiot!" she yelled, but Cimi had already swung back to the trunk and dropped like a cat herself to the limb below. Around her neck the kitten clung like a fur collar.
"Down! Both of you! Get down here!" Their father's voice cracked through the golden noon light. He choked out the order. From the girls' perch they saw his fist raised against them, and behind it his upturned twisted face.
Apuka's passions played through his body as through an instrument. He had a quick, impatient mind that expressed itself in neuralgic aches and pains, headaches, a delicate stomach. His terror of heights translated into rage.
"Get down. Brats. Disobedient wretches. Get what you deserve!"
The tree shook and shuddered around Sári, alive with a swift wind. Cimi, kitten clutching her shoulder, had taken flight and was climbing again, impossibly higher.
"Cimi! Sárika!" a chorus called from the foot of the tree. Rózsa, red-faced and wringing her hands in her apron. Háni the servant girl, gazing up blankly until Rózsa slapped her awake to send her running, Sári presumed, to fetch Mamuka from the shop. Looking down from her roost she noticed that her quick-tongued brother Laci was chewing ruminatively on lunch, hands in the pockets of his short pants. Fraulein appeared finally, calling their names as though she had been searching for them this long while. She'd feel a guilty twinge or two before this was over, Sári relished. Toni, their eldest sister, graceful as a willow, leaned gently towards the elm, hand shielding her eyes from the glare. Cimi shouted at them all from aloft: "You can't make me!"
And now Sári too joined the fracas. "Stupid. Don't be so stupid. It's just a spanking!"
She strained her eyes up into the shaking branches where, instead of finding Cimi, she was struck by the rays of the sun. White and blinding they pierced through the leaves, obliterating her sister. When she glanced down again at the gathering of her kin they were sprayed by sun spots that left brilliant holes in their chests, bellies and eyes. She was stunned by the blasted peace of the noontime idyll. The green and gold canopy that had sheltered two little girls and a baby kitten, the dangling of skinned knees and sagging socks and sandals the colour of milk chocolate shattered like a picture in glass.
Alone in the tree, Sári felt stripped suddenly of all that rooted her. A weightlessness filled her head. The earth moved ever so slightly as though she might lift off and spin like a balloon on a current of air. She could pass out of this world now, lift, and let go.
"Sar-i-ka!" Rózsa's scream pierced Sári's reverie, making her grab involuntarily at the tree trunk. "You'll be sorry, Miss," shouted the cook, "if I have to come up there to get you!"
How had she gotten into this, Sári wondered, dazed by the fear of those below and the dangerous flight overhead of her sister. She was a good girl. She hadn't gone looking for trouble. Her head felt light and her eyesight spotty. What she had witnessed seared through her like a brand. What was it? Something so troubling it made her float free of her body as though she were lighter than air. She didn't like the sensation. It was too dangerous and too eerie and she had no patience for what she couldn't understand.
"Do you hear me, Miss? I can climb if I have to!"
Sári didn't recognize herself in what she had experienced. It made her chilly to think she had almost lost her grounding.
"Nitwits," Laci laughed up at them, "are you going to climb up to the sun?"
Well, Cimi might think she could escape forever, but Sári wanted none of it. Slowly and carefully, she placed one foot below the other. She descended with relief, regretting only the decline of her role in the drama.
Too stiff with panic to cast about for a switch or loosen his belt, Apuka beat her with his bare hand. Face smeared with tears and snot, head upside down because she was bent over, Sári barely made out the grey blur that streaked into the grass a moment before Apuka pushed her away so he could spring after her sister. Feckless, sly Cimi had waited until Apuka was absorbed in the beating, then scrambled down the tree trunk and sprinted off.
"Cimi, get back here!"
But Cimi ran and ran, her legs toughened by climbing trees and dodging the boys from the Christian Fathers' lycée, who tried to pull her braids and worse if they could catch her. Apuka staggered home puffing, his shirt soaked with sweat, hand on his heaving chest. Mamuka waited in the sitting room. Deploring the spectacle her daughters had made of themselves, she sat stitching, her mouth an eloquent line.
Sári barely noticed the shadows lengthen along the nursery floorboards. All afternoon she lay on the bed, face stuffed into her pillow. Her parents' voices, low and conciliatory, wafted from the main room where Mamuka had spread her sewing on the divan that pulled out nightly for the older girls' bed. Tonight there would be no guests invited to sip cordials and enjoy the big girls' renditions of operetta numbers. The young ones, lying two by two in the nursery, wouldn't keep each other awake with scary stories about the one-legged beggar who prowled the streets of the Jewish quarter. There would be no pauses to listen to laughter ripple from the adjacent room when their sisters finished a popular song, and no succumbing to giggles that made the Austrian Fraulein get up time and again muttering her guttural hushes. The household was still in the aftermath of its midday crisis. It was quiet with implied recriminations and apologies.
Sári heard the subdued sounds of the household from a spiritual remove. They had abandoned her and left her to her misery. Nobody cared. When Apuka came back sweating and panting, he had tried to take her in his arms.
"It's all over now, Sárika darling. You're home and safe."
But she had shaken free. Over for him, perhaps, now that he didn't need to worry. But what about her? No one seemed to care about what she felt.
"Really, Sanyi." Mamuka's grey eyes had widened when she saw how dishevelled Apuka looked. Sufficiently quelled, he went straight to the pump and scooped water over his neck. Sári, sticky and sopping, waited in the door for attention. She had been frightened too, and then beaten and humiliated. But Mamuka only swiped at Sári's face distractedly with her lace handkerchief and sat her down at the table with a glass of water. Sári stared into the glass, tears welling. It wasn't fair. She had been dutiful. She'd only gone up into the tree to fetch Cimi down. She hadn't run away and given Apuka a pain in his side. No one felt the slightest bit sorry for the wrong Sári had suffered. Her tears fell into the glass, and turned to sobs.
"Sárika," Mamuka sighed. "You know you gave your father such a fright."
Fright! Her fright had been worse. She'd been subjected to Cimi's acrobatics in the air. She had swayed in the tree and nearly lost her balance. What if Apuka had seen that! His fright was nothing compared to hers, but no one took her feelings into account. Sári put her hand on her heart and sobbed even harder.
"What's this," Laci teased, "is someone still beating you?"
Such an insult, to have her suffering made light of.
In the end there was nothing for it but to let Rózsa lift Sári in her big arms and carry her, legs trailing limply, to bed in the nursery.
She conjured sorrowful scenarios that stoked her tears. How sorry they all would be when she died of her broken heart, her brief, tender life sacrificed by an unfeeling family. Then they would be exposed for their heartlessness. Cimi would be banished for the trouble she had made. She would get her reward finally for all the wrongs she had inflicted on her blameless sister. They would cast Cimi out of the family fold. When no one was looking, after the funeral cortege had finished its bitter business of burying Sári's young, beautiful body, Cimi would crawl out from among the cemetery willows like a cast-out cur, and throw herself weeping on Sári's grave.
The sad and gratifying image sustained Sári through the long afternoon.
Too restless to coop himself up at the shop after an unnaturally quiet midday meal, Apuka drifted out onto the back lawn. He gazed quizzically at the huge elm. It had been here long before he had brought his bride to the house not even a decade into the century, more than twenty years ago. The house had appealed to him because of its proximity to the road that led from Beregszász's Jewish quarter to the vineyards and groves of the surrounding countryside. In the days of his father, the land had been Russian. Sometimes Russian, sometimes Magyar or Austro-Hungarian. In any case they had remained Jews, whoever was master. Like the tree, they were rooted here and fixed in place.
Tentatively Apuka touched the bark. It was just a tree, beautiful, shapely, a green fact he normally took satisfaction from when he left the house at dawn through the kitchen entrance. He'd glance at the tree dominating his yard, and think yes, it was anchored here. Whatever ill wind might blow through, it would hold firm.
Excerpted from The County of Birches by Judith Kalman. Copyright © 1998 by Judith Kalman. Excerpted by permission.
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