Nine-year-old Eva Hoffman is the daughter of Austrian Jewish refugees who have found a precarious safety among a small community of European exiles attached to a psychoanalytic hospital in Topeka, Kansas. It is 1951, and the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, is being tried in the local court. As the rising river inundates the town, the Hoffmans open their home to refugees from the flood, and Evan learns the complexities of prejudice--and courage--both within and outside her family.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Carol Ascher divides her time between writing fiction and personal essays and studying public schools. She is the author of Simone de Beauvoir: A Life of Freedom and co-author of Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., San Francisco Chronicle, Utne Reader, Phi Delta Kappan, and numerous literary journals. In 1995, she was a recipient of a New York State Foundation for the Arts award.
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By Carol Ascher
Curbstone PressCopyright © 1987 Carol Ascher
All rights reserved.
THE RISING WATERS
It was the black starry June night we had been waiting for. Each evening since spring began we had looked out at the sky as dusk fell, but either rain clouds had hung low and disturbing, or Mother had judged the ground too damp. But now, after a short drive out of Topeka in search of an empty pasture, the sky spanned high above us, filled to overflowing with stars.
"How far away is it?" I whispered. I was, as I used to say that summer, nine going on ten, and I often liked best those questions which I suspected had a very difficult answer.
"Which one, dearie?"
Father's voice was distant, as if he had moved off to join one of the stars. I didn't clarify myself. I wasn't in the mood tonight for one of Father's long explanations, part philosophy, part fact or science. Watching the black sky vibrating with stars high above me, what I might have wanted were words to release the longing the night breeze had blown over my breast.
We lay on a woolen blanket, the four of us: me, Father, Mother, and Sarah, who in fall would be seven. Sarah lay beyond Mother, on the other side of Father, but I could imagine her body curled in the crook of Mother's arm. Mother would be lying on her back, a forearm thrown across the thick wavy hair she combed back from her strong cheeks and tensely lined forehead into a roll at the nape of her neck. Perhaps she and Father, enjoying the few minutes of peace, were holding hands. Here and there lightning bugs seemed to deliver us momentary stars within our grasp, and the sound of crickets filled the air. I had told Father I was afraid that the farmer who owned the land would come with dogs to pounce on us, but Father had assured me we were doing no harm on a plot of land left fallow. If there were corn or wheat growing, as in the fields we had driven past, that would be just cause for anger.
"That was the rule in Austria. It makes sense," Mother had explained, and nostalgia filled her voice.
"But what if it's not the rule here?"
Father had laughed, and I had slowly relaxed into the night, feeling the protection of the cool wind and stars. Still, there was an edge of anxiety in the air.
Through my blue rimmed glasses, which forced my lazy left eye to work as hard as my right, I searched the sky. One day in class Miss Woody had told us that when people passed away they became stars. This was shortly after Grandmother had died, in winter when snow fell outside the decorated school windows and the day seemed to wane even as we walked home, dragging our satchels. I had not been sure Miss Woody was serious, but now I believed her sufficiently to watch the stars dancing above me in the hope of finding Grandmother. If the world did make a kind of peaceful sense, as in Miss Woody's stories, Grandmother would have been given a star next to Grandfather Hoffman, an upright mustached man I had seen only in curling brown photographs. He had died mysteriously in Vienna, just before Grandmother followed my father, her son, and my mother out of Austria to America. A nervous, aching old woman, Grandmother had irritated my mother with her complaints each day she lived with us. And now, some months after she had been taken in an ambulance to the hospital where she lay in a coma and quickly died, I had been given her lacy pink wallpapered bedroom, my first room of my own. If I could see Grandmother among the stars, I would know she was finally safe, and that she didn't mind my moving in and taking over her room.
Father was explaining to Mother a suit that a Negro man was bringing against the Board of Education; and my parents' voices, as they talked German, blended discomfortingly with the wind. When Grandmother was alive, Mother had reprimanded her: "Speak English. We're in America now. In front of the children, you must speak English." And I had felt embarrassed when, walking down the street with them, they would forgetfully break into German, making us stand out as sharply as when I carried my sandwich to school on pumpernickel bread. And now, though no people were around to hear, I felt strangely disturbed by the gentle wafting of the language as Mother and Father spoke to each other. Although I could follow their conversation if I paid attention, Mother's anxiety as she softly questioned Father about the case made me want to close my ears to the German, leaving it as their private language. In daylight, Mother still said, "Psha, German, Hitler's language," and pretended she no longer wished to speak her childhood tongue. Which was also why I felt both misgiving and comfort when in the evening she and Father wrapped their thoughts in it together.
"Mummy, I can see the Big Dipper," Sarah was saying.
"Wo, süsse?" Mother asked.
"There!" Sarah's chubby arm pointed like a small gray branch at the sprinkled sky.
I could see the bright stars that marked out the corners of the huge ladle, to the left of the Milky Way. At home I had a little blue book on the constellations which Father and I had studied together, and most of the time I could even find Orion the Hunter and the Great Bear. The flat Kansas earth lay like a gleaming black disc beneath us, except on one side where a row of willows stood in silhouette against the horizon. There must have been a little stream nearby, for the trees always marked where water flowed.
"Daddy?" I wondered. "Did you see those same stars in Vienna?"
I looked over at Father's craggy profile outlined against the vast night. Like me and Mother, he too wore glasses. (Sarah was the only Hoffman who faced the world directly, through her fringed hazel eyes.) In the darkness, the wiry rims of Father's glasses looked like delicate pen lines which disappeared behind his large musical ears and thick black hair. Father's hair, so long compared to the men in our neighborhood, was brushed from his face, but it often flung itself stubbornly over his glasses. Then, like a shaggy dog removing a bothersome fly, he would jerk back his head. I could see Father's long fleshy nose, his sagging cheeks, and the dimple of his chin. Thinking over my question, his soft mouth seemed to stir between sorrow and humor.
"The same stars, I think, though shifted in the sky."
A dog or a wolf howled in the distance, and my body tensed against the scratchy blanket as once again I imagined the unknown farmer coming to get us. He would appear large and silhouetted at the horizon, wild dogs at his heels. Or he would suddenly stand high above us, his hands tucked in the long legs of his overalls.
Father had begun to hum a melody he sometimes played on the piano. Without the bass notes, it sounded particularly melancholy.
"Can you harmonize, dearie?" he asked.
"I don't know." A senseless worry made me fear being heard in the midst of the empty pasture. Still, I knew from my violin how to create a harmonic third. I began to hum softly along with Father.
"That's nice," Mother said from her side of the blanket.
I held my attention to the notes Father was humming and we let our voices drift with the night.
"Did you make your bed?" Mother asked on Thursday morning. She was standing at the living room window through which for the past minutes she had watched the glistening street.
I glanced up from the five-hundred piece jigsaw puzzle I was trying to turn into a picture on the coffee table. I had two sides of the frame, and part of a third. The border pieces, I had discovered, were the easiest to set in place. The box promised a red barn obscured by the profusion of an orange fall scene, when all the pieces were in.
"Because Mrs. Johnson can't clean if you haven't."
"I did, Ma." I had even hung up my pajamas and put away yesterday's clothes. I knew she was anxious to have everything in order the days Mrs. Johnson came.
Mother gave a search the length of Lindenwood toward Sixth and turned from the window. In Mrs. Johnson's honor, she had put on her nice brown and white sundress that held in her full breasts and gave a thickness to her shoulders. Wisps of dark hair had fallen out of her combs and curled damply at her neck. "The buses may be a little slow because of the heavy rain," she decided. Behind her glasses, her restless dove-gray eyes darted about the living room.
I knew nothing in the house would hold her attention until Mrs. Johnson came. I fit two leafy pieces together but they didn't connect with anything else.
"Do you intend to leave that here all day?"
"It's directly in the way. How is Mrs. Johnson supposed to polish the coffee table?"
"I'll do it myself, tomorrow," I said, trying to force a piece.
"I just don't think it's very friendly —"
I scanned the border area, then the stray pieces. Sarah had come downstairs in her pajamas with the little blue bears and knelt beside me at the coffee table.
"You should get dressed," Mother told Sarah. "Mrs. Johnson is coming today."
"Just let me help Eva for a while."
"Maybe we could transfer the puzzle to a tray," Mother fretted.
"I'll ask Mrs. Johnson if she minds, when she comes," I said. It was hard to concentrate with Sarah threatening to tamper with the pieces and Mother fidgeting all over the room. She was back at the window again, her attention sucked into the empty street. I picked up a blue rabbit shape and without thinking stuck it into sky.
"That's good!" Sarah laughed.
"Maybe she forgot today is our day," Mother was muttering.
"She comes here every Thursday." Without looking up, I could feel her shaking her head, wondering whether to be hurt or angry. "She's usually a little late," I reminded Mother.
"Don't move anything that's already in place," I warned Sarah, who was tinkering along the edge.
Mother came to the table and looked down, as if to join us, but then she impatiently turned away. "I should get some work done. I can't let Mrs. Johnson hold up my whole day!" she exclaimed to herself.
I moved all the red barn pieces to one side but they looked as though none would ever fit together.
I could hear Mother irritably stacking Father's books on the end table next to the couch, and then she went across the room to the piano and neatened our music scores. She thought Father and I should store our compositions inside the piano bench when we were finished, but we hardly ever put them away. She had stuffed my violin in the corner and was starting to fold my music rack, which was really silly, and she wasn't quite sure how and got it stuck half way. Finally, she tucked it in the corner. Then she turned and faced us, arms folded awkwardly, from the other side of the room.
"It's unfair that poor people have to work hard for others, and sometimes, natürlich, they resent it," she announced. "I try to pay Mrs. Johnson well. Still, it's not a good wage. So, that's the reason that occurs to me she might be taking her time."
"She's not that late," I said.
"Yes, but you did mention that she always comes a little late." A shadow of distress crossed Mother's worried face. "And here, in America, the poor are almost always Negroes."
"We don't have to have a cleaning lady," I said, wishing that we wouldn't bring this added sorrow and confusion into our house. Today Mother was worse than usual, but she was always agitated the mornings Mrs. Johnson came. "I don't see why we even have one."
"We always had somebody at home in Vienna — more than one. Country women who even lived with us. Ach! I don't know. It's hard with two children!"
"Mrs. Johnson has four children," I said.
Mother gave me a hurt look and went to stick her head out the front door. "Ah hah! Here she comes," she cried, and her voice was suddenly pitched high with the pleasure of her strange victory. "But she doesn't even have an umbrella! I should go out and bring her one!" She came back inside, almost giggly with relief, grabbed an umbrella, and disappeared out the door.
"Mama's cuckoo around Mrs. Johnson," Sarah noted.
I didn't say anything. It was hard not to snap at Mother when she was so out of kilter. But the worst thing was, with everyone being tense, sometimes I couldn't even figure out if I liked Mrs. Johnson.
"Here she is, here she is!" Mother called out gaily. She held the door open for Mrs. Johnson and shook out the umbrella.
Mrs. Johnson was wearing a dark raincoat, and her black hair was wound around her head in a tight braided crown. She had fine small almost Oriental eyes and a soft upper lip that was tulip-like, pretty, when she wasn't tired or annoyed. She was carrying her work clothes in a large plastic bag. When, some years earlier, she had first come to our house, she had also brought along her lunch in a paper bag each time, but Mother had slowly convinced her to eat whatever we were eating along with us.
"Hi," I said, hobbling up from my puzzle, caught by a leg that had quietly fallen asleep.
"Morning, Eva, Sarah," Mrs. Johnson nodded. She took off her coat and handed it to Mother.
I was prancing on my numb leg, and then it began to bristle inside. "Want to see our puzzle?" I bounded to and fro.
Mrs. Johnson came over to the table. Her bright orange traveling dress was decorated with a rhinestone pin at the neck. The sheath hung loosely over her thin body, and you could see her collar bone and the tiny horizontal ribs above her breast. She concentrated on the puzzle momentarily, bent over, and, with her long dark, large knuckled fingers, snapped a piece of tree into place.
Laughing, I dropped to my knees to begin work again.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Mother asked, coming toward us.
"No thanks. I s'pose I'm late enough as it is."
"I was worried about you!"
Mrs. Johnson's black eyes snapped at Mother under half-closed lids. "It wastes my time too when the bus driver don't stop."
"That driver, he just went right by."
"You could skip some of the ironing," Mother shook her head worriedly. "That way you can still go home on time."
"That ain't the point. I can stay to finish your ironing. It's just that they done that to me before. Them drivers don't think a nickel from colored folks is worth the same as a nickel from you whites."
"Maybe he didn't see you," Mother suggested hesitantly.
"Oh, he saw me. He saw me all right! I run after him waving and yelling as he drove away. Then I had to come all the way back to the stop and wait twenty more minutes in the rain." She looked down at the puzzle, as if ready to move another piece into place, and then seemed to pull herself back, remembering that she was at our house to clean. "Well, I'd best be getting to work."
"Ach! I don't understand this country," Mother shuddered.
"It ain't a country fixed for colored folks, that's for sure."
"Why can't people understand we're alle Menschen, all human beings." Mother's eyes were red at the rims.
"Tch! You Jewish people be thinking that way," Mrs. Johnson said to Mother, and picked up her shopping bag.
Mother rubbed her finger behind her glasses. "Would you like me to report the driver to the bus company?"
Mrs. Johnson lowered her eyes; she often got standoffish when Mother wanted to go out of her way to help.
"I hope you don't think that's interfering," Mother said cautiously. "But people shouldn't get away with injustice like that."
"I don't suppose it would hurt," Mrs. Johnson agreed, turning to go upstairs to change. "They're not likely to listen to me. Course if a white lady complains she can't get her help on time —"
Mrs. Johnson's piece of tree had opened up new possibilities, and I worked steadily on the puzzle. I could hear Mother talking to the bus company on the telephone. Her voice was curt and choppy with the anxiety of talking to authorities in English. When she was through she began to move about here and there, calm at last to have Mrs. Johnson safely in our house. Sarah went to take off her pajamas for the day, and I followed her upstairs.
Mrs. Johnson was in the bathroom, scrubbing out the sink. She had changed into her fluffy slippers and an old print cleaning dress that had once been Mother's. A yellow bandanna covered her ebony crown of braids and made her dark face look pinched and worn. Mrs. Johnson, I decided, not for the first time, was altogether different from the warm black mammies of my children's books. First, she was much too thin; next, she tended to be irritable and did not hesitate to complain. Actually, she reminded me of my grandmother, who had often knocked us off her lap with impatience when we tried to scramble on. Both had aches in their arms and legs, which was why, I supposed, they were so often tired and cross.
Excerpted from The Flood by Carol Ascher. Copyright © 1987 Carol Ascher. Excerpted by permission of Curbstone Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. THE RISING WATERS,
II. THE REFUGEES,