In "The House on Kronen-strasse," a woman returns to Germany to find her childhood home; in "The Porcelain Monkey," the shocking origins of an Orthodox Jewish woman's faith are revealed; in "The Lamp," the harrowing experiences of a young woman leave her with the perfect daughter and a strange light; and in "Dark Urgings of the Blood," a patient is convinced that she shares a disturbing history with her psychiatrist.
Rendered in powerful, unaffected prose, Awake in the Dark is an illuminating and startling book about the disguises we don, the secrets we keep, and the consequences of our silences.
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Awake in the DarkStories
By Shira Nayman
ScribnerCopyright © 2006 Shira Nayman
All right reserved.
From "The House on Kronenstrasse"
Christiane. New York City, 1985
In this memory, which has haunted me the whole of my life, I am perhaps two and a half years old, and dressed in a special dress made of maroon velvet and lace. I am playing in a fountain that is ornate -- and dry. The dryness is a striking fact, for until this moment of recollection, I know it only as a fountain that furiously spurts; I am accustomed to leaping away from its spray.
I have virtually no memories of my early years aside from this one, which I attribute to the fact of a wartime childhood.
In the memory I am filled with a distinctive mood I've not known since, and which I can only describe as a feeling of luxury -- not of a trivial, material kind but in the fullness of the word's meaning: safety and ease, the promise of endless comfort, the implicit guarantee that all is right with the world and always will be.
My mother is nearby; I can sense her, if I do not see her. Then the moment blurs, and time skips long minutes, perhaps even hours. The sun has moved; it is now overhead and hot on the crown of my head. Ilook down to see that my dress is crumpled, its hem soiled. I see my mother crouched over the steps leading up to our grand home. She seems busy with something, though I cannot make out what.
At that moment she turns. She smiles. I am momentarily puzzled. I do not know why I am puzzled. That puzzlement has marked my relations with my kind soul of a mother for as long as I can remember. It is something I learned early on to try to hide from her. Only when I became a woman myself did I realize that my efforts had been unsuccessful -- that my mother was all too aware of the odd distance between us. This distance came from me, I feel certain, and has been a great sorrow for my mother, with all the losses she has suffered, and me her only child.
I glance over to where my mother now lies. Her body is so reduced by illness that she is almost invisible among the bedclothes. I recoil from the rattle of her breath. I grit my teeth against my own selfishness, and struggle to find something to say, though my mother no longer seems conscious. But they say the dying can hear, whether they appear to or not.
I approach the bed, lower myself beside her, and rest my head on the pillow next to hers.
Her eyes are closed. Her face looks unfamiliar; the deep lines I'm used to seeing are oddly smoothed away, as if she were undergoing a rapid undoing of years. I gaze into her softened features, imagining that this is how she gazed into my sleeping face when I was an infant. I struggle to imagine how she felt in just such a moment, but cannot catch on to it. I reach up to stroke her face.
Her eyes snap open, alert in a way I've not seen in months. "I failed you," she says, her voice almost robust. This comes as a shock, because my mother has not spoken in weeks.
"Hilde, whatever are you saying?" I reply. I have called my mother by her first name since I was a teenager, just one of the many little oddities in our relations. Her eyes are clouded with distress. She touches my face.
"Christiane, my Christiane," she says, her eyes leaking tears that settle in the creases of her cheeks, which seem to have reappeared with her alertness. "You've been a good daughter. I know how hard you've tried."
Something clutches in my chest. I know I've not been much of a daughter to her; I feel I've not been a daughter at all. I try to stifle the rising sob without much success.
"Ssssh," my mother says, batting at the tears that are now slipping down my cheeks. "It's not your fault. You see, I took it all away."
A terrible confusion takes hold of me. I feel as if a gauzy black curtain were being pulled around me.
"Hilde, what are you talking about? What is it you're trying to say?"
Her arm drops; she closes her eyes. Again, that odd dissolving of the heavy creases in her face.
"The house on Kronenstrasse. You know the number? Number fifty-eight."
I want to grab her, to shake her, to shriek at my mother: What? What did you take? What is not my fault? But I say nothing. I just lie there, the tears now flooding my eyes, looking into the smooth face that is no longer the face of my mother, that is now only a mask.
My father was killed in the early weeks of the war. All I know is that he fell on Polish soil, though even this my mother did not tell me; it was revealed during one of my surreptitious raids on the small stash of items she had hidden -- she mistakenly supposed -- beneath her bed. She had kept the notification of his death, an official Nazi document stating that my father, Hermann Kueper, was killed on September 13, 1939, west of Warsaw, in the Battle of Bzura: a hero, in the name of the Third Reich.
The rest I've pieced together using intuition and the few bare facts at my disposal. We fled Heidelberg after my father's death, when my mother was no longer able to find work to support us. I don't know what happened to the house in my memory, or to the wealth that must have gone along with it. My mother never wanted to talk about the past. At some point I stopped asking. I do know that we ended up retreating to Bad Gandersheim, in the Harz Mountains, where we stayed with a distant cousin.
I don't know how my mother secured passage to America after the war ended -- only that we arrived in New York Harbor with refugee status. We had no relatives in New York or anywhere else in the United States, at least none that I ever heard of or met.
I know that my mother was grateful to be on American soil, and that this gratitude did not waver. She never complained that she was reduced in our new land to working as a maid. She took on her work with commitment and dignity. A good livelihood was cause for thanks, she said. She was proud to be on staff at the Plaza, such an old and respected hotel.
I know why I cherish the memory of playing in the fountain. I also know why it pains me still. Within that moment is a fullness of feeling I don't otherwise have in my life.
I give my mother a simple funeral. She had few friends. Eight people attend: the priest and me, four retired fellow workers from the Plaza, and two of my mother's elderly neighbors.
A week later I pack a small suitcase, take two of the many vacation weeks I have accrued, and buy a ticket to Frankfurt, with a train link to Heidelberg.
I have never been back to the country of my birth.
I do not think of myself as German, though neither do I think of myself as American.
From the train station in Heidelberg I take a taxi directly to my hotel, a small pension around the corner from the grand old Hotel Zum Ritter. I deposit my suitcase and walk for two hours or more, surprised by the magnificence of the city. I don't know what I expected, but I know it was other than what I have found. I walk along the river, past the Old Bridge, with its impressive stone arches and stern guard tower, and beyond the last of the bridges, where the river curves and the city opens out into the expansive greenery of its parks. On the way back I pause by Karl's Gate and stand for a moment, looking up at the huge arch, a visual echo of Germany's historical military passion. I take Hauptstrasse past the castle and then wend my way back toward the town hall.
My mother and I spoke German to each other until I was a teenager, when, like many children of immigrants, I started refusing to speak anything but English. Now, though, in the first little transactions I make -- talking to a taxi driver, and to a waiter in a café -- my German comes back in fits and starts. It's like trying to get an irascible old workhorse back into action -- brutish and reluctant, but in the end obliging and strong.
I consult the map I bought at the airport and locate the government building where housing records are kept. On my way there I stop at a small café and drink an espresso at the bar.
Tracking down the owner of the house is remarkably easy: one Herr Eduard Stürmer. The city registry is orderly and efficient, true to German stereotype.
I call from a public telephone on the street outside the housing office. The phone is answered by a man who sounds about my age and who informs me that Herr Stürmer, his father, died a little more than a week ago.
"I'm terribly sorry," I say, aware of my American accent and also of the uncanny coincidence. A little over two weeks ago my own mother breathed her last.
"I'm so sorry," I repeat.
"We had the funeral only yesterday. We wanted to wait for my sister to fly in from New York."
A sister in New York. I can hear the pounding of my heart in my ears.
Only now does the man on the line think to ask why I am calling. I know all too well the strange overturning of etiquette that comes with new grief. I recall how, after my mother was packed away in the slightly shabby and oddly inappropriate blue van en route to the funeral parlor, I went into the kitchen, washed the few dishes I'd left in the sink -- which included a glass from which my mother had, earlier in the day, taken her last sips of water -- and then turned off the lights, locked the apartment, and went back out into the world. I found myself entering the corner deli where my mother had bought liverwurst and ham for more than forty years. Around me the day was alive with people going about their Saturday-morning business. How could they all be so calm? I thought. I wanted to shout out to the deli owner, "Don't you realize what has happened? My mother has died! Nothing will ever be the same!"
A well-dressed young woman standing next to me, who was surveying the pastry case, turned and gave me a polite smile. I felt like slapping her face. Instead I ordered a quarter pound of liverwurst and the same of ham, my mother's regular order in the years since I'd stopped living with her.
Outside the store I deposited my purchase in a trash can.
"The house," I say to the man on the other end of the telephone line, who is waiting for my reply.
"We haven't decided yet what we're going to do with it. My father's death was very sudden, you understand."
"Perhaps in the meantime you'd be willing to rent it?" Without any forethought this absurd and impractical suggestion slips from my mouth.
"That might be a good idea. Let me talk it over with my sister."
I hang up the phone and look out onto the street, aware of how everything seems uncannily familiar and yet completely unknown.
My mind is racing with practical details that ten minutes ago would have made no sense whatsoever. Quitting my job, subletting my apartment in New York, dealing with my mother's landlord to put her belongings in storage. Canceling subscriptions, transferring utilities, sending for some of my things. I will enlist my best friend to help put the pieces in place. I'll call my bank to transfer funds from my savings.
Several hours of phone calls, I figure, looking out onto a square where sooty little sparrows hop cheerfully up and down the arm of a statue of a German poet from a lost age -- that's all I'll need to undo my life.
This undoing is disconcertingly easy. When I call my boss at Columbia University, where for ten years I have served as assistant dean of the School of General Studies, he takes the news of my request for leave just a little too much in stride. We will have no trouble filling the position in your absence, he assures me; don't give the matter another thought. My best friend also seems just a bit too nonchalant. Yes, certainly she can tie up the loose ends -- she's happy to do so. I'll miss you, Christiane. Both seem to have been waiting for just this unlikely scenario, and to wish to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
In any case, here I am, three days later, with all the arrangements made, my life in New York put neatly in storage.
We meet at the son's residence, in a leafy suburb. I come to a quick and ready agreement with Herr Stürmer's son and daughter for what seems a ridiculously low rent, given the grandeur of the house as it stands in my memory. No doubt my childhood perception enlarged and embellished the place. Besides, Herr Stürmer's children are probably people of means, and are perhaps simply grateful to have a final disposition of the house pushed off into the future.
The son types up an agreement, which all three of us sign: I will take the house for six months.
Two days is all they need, they say, to clear the house of their father's personal belongings. "My father lived a simple life," the son tells me. "Besides, the house is small; the move shouldn't take long." As for the furniture and household goods, they'll leave them for me.
"You can bring your suitcase and just move in," the daughter says, mustering more cheer in her state of mourning than I am able to achieve in mine. "It will feel like home in no time."
I am a little taken aback. How can anyone refer to the house as small, even taking into account the distortion of childhood memory?
They do not seem to think it odd that I don't ask to see the house first. When I stand to leave, we shake hands. I fancy I detect in the daughter's eyes a peculiar, knowing expression.
"How long did your father live in the house?" I blurt out. I hope this is not becoming a habit -- my mouth bypassing my conscious faculties, issuing statements and questions of its own accord.
"Why, it's the house we grew up in," the daughter replies, the peculiar look deepening. "During the war . . . so many houses were abandoned. We took it over toward the end . . ." Her voice trails off. I think I see a glint of distrust in her eyes.
"You must be mistaken," I say to the taxi driver as he pulls up in front of an attached house on a dingy, treeless street. The driver repeats the address and then points decisively at the brick façade, which is slightly crumbling in places. It is a two-story house with comfortably high ceilings, but with none of the grandeur I had expected.
The driver turns off the engine and exits the car to retrieve my suitcase from the trunk.
Stepping out into the gray late afternoon, I find myself trying to stifle a childish sob of disappointment. Where is the fountain? The imposing wide steps? And where is my mother, crouched over something she's doing? Where has it all gone? I should have known, from the modesty of the rent they settled on. How could my mother have made such a mistake? Could she have directed me to the wrong house?
I catch myself. What does it matter? This address is a mistake -- the taxi driver's mistake, most likely. Kronenstrasse is, after all, a common street name, like Maple or Pine in leafy suburbs all over America. A tonier neighborhood across town, no doubt, harbors a far grander Kronenstrasse, with the large brick house and fountain and grounds of my memory.
I am cold, standing there on the street. I have packed inadequately, assuming that early fall would be much warmer in Germany than in New York, which I always think of, irrationally, as the coldest place on earth from October to late March. Now, in my jeans and thin sweater, I shiver. I need to go in.
I climb the three brick steps to the front door. The key turns easily.
So the taxi driver was not mistaken. Perhaps my mother's mind failed her in the moments before her death. Reaching for one thing, she happened upon another, a neurological short circuit. Thinking she was handing me the key to my lost past, she instead shunted me to a meaningless dead end. Who knows whose address this once was, or why the street name and house number long ago lodged themselves in her brain? Perhaps she took piano lessons here, or visited cousins of lesser means.
In any case, I have landed here. In my purse is the neatly folded contract for a six-month stay. Besides, as I open the door and peer into the dark, narrow hallway, a murky intuition tells me that this house, wrong as it is, will offer up some kind of knowledge.
I slide my hand along the wall and flick on a switch. A dim bulb fills the hallway with insubstantial light, by which I see a worn floral carpet in fading pinks and browns, and an attractive staircase with polished mahogany balustrades and banister.
I recognize the close, musty smell of a house uninhabited by youth, of an old person's habits and lack of interest in freshness, brightness, and the new. I glance into the parlor to my left; I make out the shapes of several pieces of heavy old furniture, too large for the small dimensions of the room. I take the stairs and find another switch on the landing, which turns on a slightly brighter but still inadequate light. Herr Stürmer had either an aversion to bright light or a frugal concern for his electric bills. Here the walls are papered in vertical stripes of faded green. I tiptoe from room to room, finding three bedrooms, one converted to a sitting room, and the same weak lighting in each.
I brought with me a small bag of groceries -- dark bread, a can of soup, apples, coffee, milk. I leave my suitcase in the largest of the bedrooms and make my way downstairs to the kitchen, where I rummage around for a pot, a can opener, a plate, a bowl, a knife, and a spoon. I settle at the small wooden table in the kitchen, rather than in the formal dining room, to eat my first meal in this wrong and musty and dark little house on Kronenstrasse that has drawn me to itself, though clearly under some cosmically mistaken premise.
After my meal I wash the dishes and climb the stairs. In a hallway closet I find blankets and sheets. I make up the bed in the room I have chosen, undress, and get into the bed. The sheets are worn and soft. Immediately I drift into a deep sleep. I am awakened by a draft that seems maliciously directed at my ears, which have always been sensitive. I rise, locate my light sweater, and wrap it around my head, not having thought to bring a scarf. In the morning I awake with aching ears and the uncomfortable fullness in my head that heralds a bad cold.
I spend the day wandering around the city and sitting in cafés, reading newspapers and magazines, which I find I can understand almost completely. Every now and then I consult the small dictionary I bought at a stationery store. When I have the need to talk to anyone, I am aware that my American accent is not quite so pronounced.
That night I drag my bed into the middle of the room and stuff a towel along the windowsill to fill the gap I have discovered beneath the pane. This helps a little, but not enough. My ears become so sensitive that every little sound is jarring.
The next day I buy a scarf and sleep with it wrapped tightly around my head.
My days take on a rhythm of walking, reading, walking some more. I drink a lot of very strong coffee, and sometimes forget to eat. When I walk, I enjoy a feeling of floating -- after an hour or two all sense of effort evaporates, and I feel swept along by an external force, freed of agency. My mind, too, spins free, and I have the sense that I am hovering pleasantly some distance from my own body, like a small, friendly bird assigned to accompany my physical self on some important secret mission.
At night, the draft seems to be getting worse. On the fifth night I decide to change bedrooms. I strip the blankets and sheets from the bed and take them into the adjacent room, where I make up the bed and check the window, which seems to be newer than the one in the first room, and without gaps. I run my hand around the frame: no draft. I feel cheered and go to retrieve my things from the closet in the other room. I wonder why I didn't think to change rooms earlier.
I return with an armful of clothing and then stop short. I survey the room. In one corner is a small side table holding a basket of silk flowers. The bed, a bedside table, and a dresser complete the furnishings. Three smooth walls, painted pinky-beige, the fourth wall broken only by the well-sealed window.
I put the clothing on the bed and find myself walking the perimeter of the room, running my hand along the wall. These old houses often have few if any closets; clothing was hung in armoires. But something about the layout of the space is odd. A closet on the other side of this wall, in the bedroom I've slept in these past five nights, but no closet here, on the complementary side of the wall, as one would expect.
I return to the first room. Open and shut the closet door. Examine the wall, trying to imagine an explanation for what seems a kind of optical illusion related to the design of these rooms.
I sit down on the bed and glance around me, aware of a heightened feeling of eyes. I have often had the sense that other people are watching me, though I've learned to dismiss such feelings as a quirky neurosis. I date this odd sense to my seventh birthday, when my memory, having been almost wholly erased up to then, seems to have kicked back in. Ever since, it has existed only in fits and starts -- vividly comprehensive regarding some periods or events, wholly amnesic regarding others.
I don't recall all of that birthday, just one pulsing moment.
I am sitting at a table, and before me is a cake, fashioned ingeniously by my mother from coarse ration flour, a lump of lard, a single egg, and a precious cupful of sugar. How proud she was that morning as she assembled those ingredients. She was particularly pleased with the sugar, which was very hard to come by and must have cost what was to us at that time a small fortune. Slowly she touched her finger to her tongue and then placed it in the cup of sugar. A few granules clung to her fingertip, which she put to my lips. "Isn't it delicious?" she said.
She also saved a candle stub, and here I am, sitting before the cake, looking at the wavering flame. "A wish," my mother is saying. "You have to make a wish." I look around the table: my mother's cousin, a woman who can't be over forty but looks old to me, and her husband, a clerk, both of them wearing expressions of irritation and distaste; their three children, much older than I, already in their teens. All of them are looking at me in that sideways manner they have when addressing me, as if they can't quite stomach looking at me full on.
We are only just tolerated, my mother and I; we are not a welcome presence. To pay for our keep my mother hands over much of the pittance she earns doing housework for her cousin's colleagues. I know that these relatives are sitting at the table only for the rare benefit, in that time of terrible scarcity, of a piece of cake, however skimpy in richness, texture, and taste it might prove to be.
Fervent wishes regularly passed through my child's imagination at that time, intense longings incubated by the suffering I'd witnessed and by our many deprivations. But one wish only burns in my mind as I look around at those faces, at all those sideways eyes fixed on my face with a distaste I do not understand, and which makes me feel hollow and achy inside. I close my eyes and give it full voice: Stop looking at me.
I open my eyes to find that my wish has come true. My mother, smiling a rare smile, is cutting the cake -- and now all eyes are on her. She hands me the first slice. Then she leans down, her smile full and warm, though she has tears in her eyes.
"Happy birthday, Christiane," she says. "Seven years old! Imagine that!"
Now, in the house on Kronenstrasse, I feel overcome by tiredness. I lie down among the clothes I have put on the bed and doze.
When I awake, I am in darkness. The bulb of the lamp must have chosen this moment to blow. I stumble up, still half lost in a rapidly dispersing dream, and fumble for the switch on the wall. A scuttling on the floor to my right tells me I am not alone. A mouse, perhaps? I leap back onto the bed, but in the dark, and still unsteady on my feet, I miscalculate. One leg makes it up onto the bed, but the other misses, and I find myself falling awkwardly forward. I fling my arms out and tumble headlong into the wall. The lip of the baseboard catches my cheek sharply, while my forehead thuds the wall above. I lie there disoriented and frightened. I get to my feet and switch on the overhead light. I can feel a trickle of warmth down my cheek; I touch the spot, and my fingers come back red.
It is only when I am in the bathroom, dabbing at my cheek with a wet towel and staring into the mirror at the swelling lump on my forehead, that I realize something was odd about the sound my head made when it banged against the wall. This old house is solid -- solid as a rock. But when my head made contact with the wall, it produced a hollow thud.
I flash on my mother's face, her dying words, the peculiar urgency in her eyes. No, her giving me this address was not a mistake, not the utterance of an addled mind in the moments before death. She intended this, intended that I be here, intended -- though this seems so unlikely, so impossible -- that I discover this wall that gives off a hollow thud when struck.
I dry off the cut and return to the bedroom. I kneel down to examine the place where I tumbled against the wall. There, at the bottom of the baseboard, is the little slit through which the mouse, flattening its body in that impossible way that is the special talent of mice, disappeared.
I look more closely at the slit. It is not a crack that has appeared from age or the gradual settling of the house but something made deliberately by some sort of woodworking tool. I run my fingers along the bottom of the baseboard. Sure enough, I find a series of such slits, perhaps eight or ten, along the length of the wall. They are perfect for mice to enter and leave, though I feel certain they were made for another purpose entirely.
I put my ear to the wall and hear faint scratchings on the other side. I knock once, twice, on the wall above the baseboard. The scratchings on the other side stop; my knocks echo in the room. I stand and go out into the hallway and then into the bedroom next door. I knock on the wall there; I hear the heavy sound and unyielding thwack of knuckles on plaster-covered brick.
Yes, I think, not knowing what to do with the knowledge. A false wall on the other side, in the bedroom I am inhabiting. A space in which mice now live.
I go back to bed, though I sleep very little, and fitfully.
Copyright © 2006 by Shira Nayman
Excerpted from Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman Copyright © 2006 by Shira Nayman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"I'm shaken by Shira Nayman's brilliant and mystical stories. She writes with wisdom and courage about the devastating heritage that separates and yet links the descendants of Holocaust victims and perpetrators." Ursula Hegi, author of Sacred Time and Stones From the River
"Imagine a collaboration between O. Henry and Cynthia Ozick. If you can't, then do read the wonderful stories in Shira Nayman's collection Awake in the Dark." Susan Isaacs, author of Any Place I Hang My Hat
"Shira Nayman's stories risk strong emotion and always clear the sentimental. Her sentences have heft and spine and grace, and her vision is clear and generous." Mary Gordon, author of Pearl and Spending
"How can you know who you are when deception and secrets are your birthright? With compelling prose and satisfying twists, Shira Nayman reveals the awful burdens carried by people born into dark times, and how those burdens are inherited by their own uncomprehending children. This book will resonate with anyone who has buried a parent without ever knowing who that person was, but it will be especially important to the Holocaust's grandchildren." Mary Doria Russell, author of The Thread of Grace and The Sparrow