“Not here, too! Nee! ”
From the doorway, I saw soup splash from my aunt’s ladle onto the tablecloth. These days, there was no fat in the broth to set a stain; still, my heart dropped when she made no move to blot the spill. Since the Germans had come, she had retreated further into herself, fading away in front of me so that sometimes it was like losing my mother all over again.
“Of course here, Mies,” my uncle scoffed. His pale face pinked with the easy flush of red-haired men, and he leaned back and took off his glasses to polish them on his napkin. “Did you think the Germans would annex us as a refuge for Jews? The question is only why it took so long.”
I brought the bread to the table and took my seat. “What’s happened?”
“They posted a set of restrictions for Jews today,” my uncle said. “They’ll scarcely be able to leave their homes.” He inspected his glasses, put them back on. And then he turned to look at me directly.
I froze, my fingertips whitening around my spoon, suddenly reminded of something I’d witnessed in childhood.
Walking home from school, a group of us had come upon a man beating his dog. All of us shouted at him to stop—our numbers made us brave—and some of the bigger boys even tried to pull him off the poor animal. A boy beside me caught my attention; this boy, I knew, was himself often beaten by the older boys. He was crying, “Stop! Stop it!” along with the rest of us. But something in his expression chilled me: satisfaction. When my uncle turned to look at me, I saw that boy’s face again.
“Things will be different now, Cyrla.”
I dropped my gaze to my plate, but I felt my heart begin to pound. Was he weighing the risk of having me in his home?
His home. I stared down at the white tablecloth. Beneath it, a table rug was edged with gold silk fringe. When I had first arrived it had seemed strange to cover a table this way, but now I knew every color and pattern of its design. I lifted my eyes to take in the room I had come to love: the tall windows painted crisp white overlooking our small courtyard; the three watercolors of the Rijksmuseum hanging in a column on their braided cord; the glimpse into the parlor beyond the burgundy velvet drapes, where the piano stood in the corner, necklaced with framed photographs of our family. My heart began to beat even faster—where did I belong if not here?
I glanced at my cousin—Anneke was my safe passage through the treacherous landscape of my uncle’s world. But she had been distracted all day, drifting away whenever I’d tried to talk to her, as if she was harboring a secret. She hadn’t even heard her father’s threat.
“What?” I kept my voice calm. “What will be different here?”
He was cutting the bread. He didn’t stop, but I saw the warning look he gave my aunt. “Everything.” He cut three slices from the loaf and then laid the knife down carefully. “Everything will be different.”
I drew the loaf toward me, picked up the knife as deliberately as a chess piece, and cut a fourth slice. I laid the knife back on the board, then placed my hands on my lap so he wouldn’t see them trembling. I lifted my chin and leveled my eyes at him. “You counted wrong, Uncle,” I said. He looked away, but his face was dark as a bruise.
At last the meal was over. My uncle returned to his shop to take care of his bookkeeping, and my aunt and Anneke and I cleared the table and went into the kitchen to wash the dishes. We worked in silence; I in my fear, my aunt in her sadness, Anneke deep in her secret.
Suddenly Anneke cried out. The bread knife clattered to the floor and she held up her hand; blood streamed into the basin of suds, tingeing the bubbles pink. I grabbed a dishcloth and pressed it around Anneke’s hand, then led her to the window seat. She sank down and stared at the blood seeping through the dishcloth as though it was a curiosity. I grew afraid, then. Anneke was vain about her hands, would go without her ration of milk sometimes to soak them in it instead, and she could still find nail polish when it seemed no one in Holland had such a luxury. If she didn’t carry on about a cut deep enough to scar, then her secret was very big.
My aunt knelt to examine the wound, chiding her for her carelessness. Anneke closed her eyes and tipped her head back; with her free hand she stroked the hollow at the base of her throat with a contented smile. It was the look she wore when she crept back into our room in the middle of the night . . . flushed and deepened, rearranged.
I did not like Karl.
And then I knew.
“What have you done?” I whispered to her when my aunt left to fetch the disinfectant and muslin.
“Later,” she whispered back. “When everyone is asleep.”
There was ironing and darning to do, and that night it seemed to take forever. We listened to Hugo Wolf ’s music on the phonograph while we did these chores, and I wished for silence again because for the first time I could hear how the tragedy of Wolf ’s life flowed through his music. The beauty itself was doomed. When my aunt said good night, Anneke and I exchanged looks and went upstairs as well.
We washed quickly and put on our nightclothes. I couldn’t wait another moment. “Tell me now.”
My cousin turned to me, and I’d never seen her smile so beautifully.
“A wonderful thing, Cyrla,” she said, reaching down to stroke her belly.
The cut on her finger had begun to bleed again; the bandage was soaked through. As she stood in front of me smiling and caressing her belly, a smear of blood bloomed across the pale blue cotton of her nightgown.
“I’m leaving. I’m leaving here!” Now Anneke could hardly stop talking. “We’ll get married here, at the town hall I suppose. Karl’s family lives outside Hamburg—maybe we’ll get a place there when the war is over, with a garden for children, near a park, maybe. . . .Hamburg, Cyrla!”
“Shhhhhh!” I quieted her. “She’ll hear.” It wasn’t my aunt we were careful of, but Mrs. Bakker in the next house, which shared a wall with ours. She was old and had nothing better to do with her days than spy on people and gossip about what she’d learned. She sat in her front parlor all morning long and watched the goings-on of Tielman Oemstraat through the two mirrors attached to her windows. We knew from her coughing that her bedroom was next to ours, and we didn’t think it would be beneath her to hold a glass to the wall. But I didn’t really care about Mrs. Bakker at all. I wanted to stop Anneke’s words.
I unwrapped her finger and cleaned it with water from the wash pitcher. “Change your nightgown. I’ll go downstairs for more bandages.” Out in the hall, I made myself breathe calmly again. I gathered the muslin strips, and also a cup of milk and a plate of spekulaas—Anneke had hardly eaten at supper, but she loved the little spice cookies she smuggled home from the bakery. If I distracted her, I wouldn’t have to hear her plans. And if she saw how much she needed me, she might understand that it was a mistake to leave. It was always a mistake to leave.
We sat on her bed and I dressed her finger; I couldn’t look into her face although I felt her studying mine. “Are you sure? And how did this even . . . weren’t you careful . . . ?”
Anneke looked away. “These things happen.” Then she broke into her brilliant smile, the one that always disarmed me. “A baby . . . think of it!”
I wrapped my arms around her and laid my head on her chest, breathing in the scent she brought home to us from the bakery each day—baked sugar, sweet and warm, so perfectly suited to her. What scent clung to me, I wondered. Vinegar from the pickling I’d been doing all week? Lye from the upholstery shop?
Anneke stroked the tears from my cheeks. “I’m sorry, Cyrla,” she said. “I’ll miss you so much. More than anyone else.”
That was my cousin’s way. Sometimes she was careless with my feelings—not in cruelty, but in the innocent way that beautiful girls sometimes have, as if being thoughtful were a skill they had never needed to learn. But when she did think of me, her sweetness, completely unmeasured, would fill me with shame.
“But I’m so happy!” she cried, as if her face weren’t already telling me this. “And he’s so handsome!” She fell back onto the bed, clutching her heart. “He looks just like Rhett Butler, don’t you think?”
I sighed in mock exasperation. “He looks nothing like Rhett Butler, for heaven’s sakes. For one thing, he’s blond.”
Anneke waved this detail away with her bandaged hand.
“And he has blue eyes. And no mustache.” I rose and brought the glass of milk from the dresser over to her night table. “All right. He’s handsome. But frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Anneke laughed and sat up. “You’ll be an aunt! And the war will be over soon, and then you can visit.”
Copyright © 2008 by Sara Young
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