My Father's Keeper
By Andrew Potok
My mother yells from the front seat.
“They are coming again.”
Stunned and terror-stricken, we scramble out of the van and run into ditches on either side of the road. I land in the gritty mud on my belly, my father behind me, his weight pressing me into the muck. My breath is knocked out of me and my legs are bloodied by the stony earth. Tears begin to form in my eyes, but then an awful stench rises from the grime. I squint and cough and throw up the little bit of food in my belly. In front of me lies a well-dressed man in a brown suit and vest, his gold pocket-watch beside him in the mud. My father pulls himself up a little to cover more of my body. I can’t see farther than the still man who is just far enough so I couldn’t reach him with my hand if I tried.
Suddenly, my ears are deafened by the shriek of dive bombers and the thwack-thwack of bullets spraying the ground. I lift my head a little and see lines of brown grass swept as if a wind were blowing them.
“Get down,” my father yells from behind me.
I can hardly hear his voice above the explosions and the cries and screams coming from everywhere. A bomb explodes very close and clods of earth nearly bury me.
“Tatush!” I yell. “Tatush, I can’t breathe!”
I thrash until I get a mouthful of air. I turn toward him. We are both nearly covered with dirt. His hand struggles to move the earth off me. He has moved up and is almost on top of me. The man in the brown suit is motionless, his face turned away. A few pale fingers poke out of the sleeve of his suit jacket. Below his vest, a dark spot is growing, discoloring his pants. My tongue is coarse with mud and I spit and spit but can’t get it all out. Another bomb explodes near us and the earth shakes. I hear nothing, so I scream. The head of the man in the brown suit shifts and his face turns toward me. It is torn apart. His shattered jaw hangs loose, almost on his shoulder. I retch and nothing comes up. My father crawls further up my back. I stare at the horrible face in front of me, more horrible than the walking skeletons my governess, Fela, once dangled in front of my face. Yet, I stare so hard that it loses all meaning, stops being a face and, looking down, in its place I see only the gold watch peeking out of the mud, still attached to the man’s vest.
I am dazzled by the bits of shiny gold, by its perfect roundness. I pull its dirty, bloody chain toward me. I tug until the watch slides into my hands. It is thick and heavy, warm as a freshly laid egg, like eggs my grandmother plucked from under her hens in Bendzin. The rays of a shining sun are engraved on the lid of the watch and, as I open it, the horror all around me fades and the only thing I hear is the ticking of the watch. Its porcelain face has Arabic and Roman numerals in red and black all around its edge. In school, I learned the Roman numbers. This year is MCMXXXIX. The second-hand is making its rounds, never stopping, while the filigree gold hand clicks softly as it travels from number to number.
The roar above us becomes quiet again and, down by my feet now, my father starts wiping me clean. I twist my head around and look at his eyes, which are gray and focused on me, not, I hope, on the watch. Above us, the sky has cleared, as if nothing had happened. I begin to breathe regularly and stuff the gold watch inside the pocket of my short pants that are caked with mud. My father takes my hand and pulls me out of the ditch. He says nothing about the watch, so I’m pretty sure he never saw it. We climb back inside the Citroen van with my mother and Emilia, her mother Helena and Uncle Bolek, Aunt Eva and Uncle Lolek.
All around us, hundreds of other people are climbing out of ditches into cars and wagons reaching as far back as I can see. The screaming and shouting has almost died down. Doors are opening and slamming shut. I crawl to the back of the van, away from everyone, to examine my prize again. Emilia (little Mila) crawls to my side. She is muddy like me and her dress is torn. We are both on top of the pile of furs in the back. Everyone else is in their place, filthy but alive. No one speaks. No one is kissing anyone else.
The Citronka’s motor starts and we inch slowly forward toward the border again. After a few minutes, Bolek slumps a little at the steering wheel and says, almost in a whisper, that he wants to go back to Warsaw. My mother says, her voice as always quiet but very, very firm, “You are being foolish. We cannot go back. We must go on.”
Uncle Bolek looks like he is about to cry and says he can’t go on. My mother strokes the back of her brother’s head. She then turns around and yells at my father.
“And you, Zyga,” she begins.
She is very angry and the way she looks at him scares me. “You have no energy. It is time you stopped sitting there with your head in your hands. Be a man.”
I want to shout at my mother. I have never raised my voice to her except, they tell me, when I first came out of her screaming.
As usual, I say nothing, but in the way-back of the van, nestled in the furs, I reach into my pocket and my fingers make circles around the lid of the watch. It feels better even than the smooth, shiny horse chestnuts I collect from the park and love to hold in my hands. Round and round my fingers trace its outline. The feel of the metal and its perfect roundness sends everything else into a peaceful background. Mila breathes softly a few inches from my face. I close my eyes and try to remember why we are here, how we got to wherever in Poland we are. A day or two before—I’m not really sure how long ago—I play with my soldiers under the dining room table. Everyone is there, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, talking of war. It is almost two months since my eighth birthday. For days, funny Hitler songs on the radio made me laugh and dance. Attack Poland? People snort through their noses because it’s a joke. If all of them think it’s a joke, then I do, too, but tonight it’s different.
It is very late at night and the faces at the table are long and sad, tears plentiful, arguments and insults serious and frightening. They talk of leaving, of airplanes and tanks. I sit on the plush carpet moving whole columns of soldiers from border to border demarcated by colorful boundaries in the carpet design. Little Mila, two years younger than me, is lying on the floor and watches my every move. I like her watching me. We play together a lot, in her house or mine.
Now, under the table, we are surrounded by dozens of shoes: my father’s and Uncle Stash’s covered with gray spats, Uncle Bolek’s shiny as glass. Aunt Zosia’s are the highest heels of all. Feet shuffle, cross one in front of the other, tap nervously. Chairs empty as an uncle or aunt gets up to squabble and pace. I can barely see my father on the other side of a momentarily emptied chair, opening the glass doors of the grandfather clock and, after looking carefully at his gold pocket watch, winding the weights which whir softly. The tall grandfather clock strikes twelve times.
Above me, the talk is loud, then my grandfather’s deep voice commands attention.
“They are on the border,” Grandfather Solomon says.
I love his voice and the way everyone pays attention to him.
“They are strong, very strong,” says Cousin Henio.
“Ha!” says Uncle Stash. “We will destroy them.”
Uncle Stash is a lawyer so he must be right. But then everyone speaks at once. My mother’s voice, calm but firm, rises above the rest. She says that men and children must leave immediately.
“I don’t want to go,” I blurt from under the table, and Mila cries that she doesn’t either.
Uncle Bolek yells furiously at his sister and, under the table, I watch as my father and mother kick each other, each of them yelling insults. Above me, spoons stir, tea and cakes are passed around, forks and knives clash. Someone bangs the table and all the cups and saucers bounce. On the radio, a chorus is singing the national anthem. I want to stand at attention. I always do when hearing these words accompanied by this music, but I am much too tall to stand under the table. I don’t think that anyone else is standing now, not Aunt Eva, Uncle Stash or Lolek, not Helena or Bolek, not my parents or Grandfather Solomon, Grandmother Paulina or Inka my governess, not Cousin Henio or Pola.
“Poland is not yet lost,” the radio chorus sings.
Though I know these words well, it feels like I am hearing them for the first time. But I am frightened. If Poland disappears, what will happen to me?
“Not while we live,” they sing. “Poland is not yet lost while we live. What those others take from us, we will take back with our swords.”
I arrange my soldiers, each one small and heavy, so cool in my hand, cool and alive with straps, buckles, rifles and helmets. Then Inka crawls under the table and whisks me away to bed.
I can hardly sleep and wake up while it is still dark outside. In the living room, my mother, Uncle Bolek, and Bolek’s friend Helena with her little Mila asleep on her lap, are all talking quietly. Mila’s grown-up name is Emilia, but everyone calls her Mila. Sometimes I call her Mishka, then she is Mishka and I am Mishek, two little mice, like the mice we saw in a Walt Disney movie. I walk in bleary-eyed.
“I can’t sleep,” I tell them.
“Of course you can’t,” Helena says.
She is just a friend, especially a friend of Uncle Bolek’s, but I like her better than any other of their friends. She takes Mila and me to the movies and to the beautiful Warsaw parks on the governesses’ days off.
“I must go to close up the house in Wieliszew,” Uncle Bolek says. “Why don’t I take Mishek with me?”
“At a time like this?” my mother says.
I don’t really understand why this time is different from other times.
“Oh yes, please,” I beg, awake now.
I love going places with Uncle Bolek. My father is quiet and comforts me when I have bad dreams. Uncle Bolek is loud, laughs a lot, and showers me with presents.
“We will be back in a few hours,” Uncle Bolek assures them. I get dressed, Uncle Bolek takes my hand, and we walk in the dark streets to his beautiful, blue Packard with red-white-and-silver hubcaps. The streets are empty and distant thunder is the only noise I hear. It is spooky and wonderful.
“Is it war? Is war coming?” I ask as we drive through the damp, eerie streets.
“Yes, it is coming, but it won’t last long,” Uncle Bolek says.
“Why is it war?”
“I don’t know,” Uncle Bolek says.
“You don’t know? Who does know?”
Bolek says nothing.
“Are we going away?”
“Maybe for a little while.”
“Where will we go?”
“Just play,” Uncle Bolek says and leans over to the glove compartment to pull out a ball-bearing in a small leather case.
I forget all about war as I twirl this magical silver ring and spin the steel band around the tiny balls of the ball-bearing. I have no idea why the little nuggets do not fall out of the inner circle. Bolek says that the faint, gray light of dawn means that today will be another cloudy day.
“Maybe even rain,” he says.
I have never seen Warsaw before dawn. All Warsaw is sleeping except for a few neighing horses as droshkies are beginning to line up at important corners. As Bolek drives over the Vistula, he is biting his lip and his hands grip the steering wheel with such force that his knuckles turn white.
“We’ll be back in Warsaw for lunch,” he says.
Bolek’s nearly finished country house is still dark. As he talks to the cook and gardener who emerge from the kitchen looking worried, I race to my new bicycle leaning against the garden fence. A week before, Uncle Bolek brought it all the way from London. I’ve never had a full-size bike before. It’s sleek and black, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Soon I am flying through the field across the road, laughing like a crazy boy. The speed is exhilarating, the air rushing through my hair, my whole body. I yelp and throw my head back as I fly over the bumps 8 and stones. I try removing my hands from the handle-bars and laugh when I can’t. I scream with joy, as loud as I can, then close my eyes for moments at a time. And still, I am flying. My whole body trembles with joy, a whooping, crazy, total joy.
And then, three airplanes appear just over the treetops. So much happiness and all at once. They are Polish planes, probably flying to war. They fly so low that I can see the pilots’ faces in their hoods and masks. My heart beats faster. Their wings shine silver against the dark sky, the red and white checkerboard insignia as beautiful as ever. What a morning this is! I drop the bicycle at my feet, puff out my chest, and salute. And then the planes begin to scream, a horrible wailing sound, and bombs slip out from each of them, exploding all over the field. The stones and clods of earth and fire that hit me change me. I don’t recognize myself. There is no myself. Trees are exploding and the air is filled with stones. The planes drone on as if nothing happened. The house is on fire. I see no one and keep running into the burning woods, screaming for my father. I run to my owl, Koko, hanging in his cage from a low branch inside a clump of pines. I flick the cage open and Koko flies off into the sky, high over the burning trees. Choking on smoke, I run and fall again. Lech, the gardener, finds me and carries me into a shelter, a hole he’d dug in the garden. Shaking with fright, my mouth opens wide and I scream, “Tatush, tatush, tatush!”
I want my father. My throat burns. In my head, stars and planets collide. The world has ended. They make me drink an awful tasting liquid and I fall asleep. When I wake up, I’m in the car on the way back to Warsaw, my head on the cook’s lap in the back seat. Uncle Bolek is driving and Olga and Lech are weeping. My head is still ringing. My mind is black as night. My old self is looking down at the boy in Olga’s lap. I don’t know who he is, maybe a boy who is dead or nearly dead. I’m glad I’m not him.
Later that day, or maybe in two days, I am Miszek again. I don’t like being touched. I can hardly hear what is being said. When it is dark outside again, I curl up in Inka’s lap and listen to her read from one of my favorite books, about a locomotive which pulls cars full of everything I can think of, including a thousand athletes who have eaten a thousand cutlets. I can picture them flexing their muscles and opening their mouths, but then I squeeze my eyelids hard and see only bursts of light, like stars exploding.
In the morning, airplanes come again. The sound is louder and louder until they are roaring above my head. I lose myself inside the noise. I cover my ears and scream. The room shakes, buildings must be crumbling, falling to the ground. My father paces, in and out of my room, into his bedroom, around the dining room table, into the kitchen. He puts his hands on my ears and holds my head.
“This will soon stop,” he says, almost as if he were asking me if it really would stop. “The English are coming,” he says. “They will chase the barbarians from Poland.”
His words, as always, comfort me, but in spite of what he says, the next day the barbarians come back. The noise lasts all day and I hide, cuddled under the table as the adults listen to the radio.
“The bombing is mostly across the river in Praga,” my father reports. “Only a few planes crossed the Vistula and dropped bombs around the synagogue.”
But I know that is not true, even though I don’t know where the synagogue is and I have never seen it. I know for sure that the bombs are falling on me. I cannot breathe and my father takes my face in his hands again. He checks my forehead for fever, which he does whenever I cough or my nose is stuffed. If I am sick, the doctor will walk down Moniuszki Street, the cups clinking in his bag, cups he will lay on my back which make beautiful blue circles. I can picture those circles now.
Very early the next morning, Mila, her mother Helena, my father and I get into the white Citronka van, the name Mandelbaum’s printed in large letters on both sides. The back of the van is stuffed with fur coats! I have seen many fur coats in my life but never so many in one pile. The driver Twardowski gets behind the wheel, while Uncle Bolek slides into the front seat of the Packard. My mother, Aunt Eva, and Uncle Lolek drive with Bolek. Half of Marszalkowska, which my father calls the Champs-Elysees of Warsaw, is rubble, but Mandelbaum Furs is as yet untouched. Trolley cars are lying on their sides or standing still between stops, as if they were my toy trolley cars or army trucks or ambulances. It is as scary and impossible as a bad dream. I blink my eyes and try to make everything right again.
The road leaving the city, heading south, is packed with honking cars and trucks. I grab my father’s arm. He is slumping in a middle seat. I have seen him sad before but never like this. When he takes my hand to comfort me, his hand is cold and trembles a little.
“Where are we going?” I ask him.
“Rumania,” he says.
Helena then says that the king and queen of Rumania bought furs from Bolek. I try to imagine Rumania where we will be greeted by the king and queen, invited to stay in the royal palace.
“Tatush, are we coming back?” I ask my father.
“Soon,” he says, almost in a whisper.
In Lublin, the sound of tanks which, my father says, are coming from Russia, turns us back to where we came from. The Citronka stinks of the dead animal skins sewn into fur coats. Mila quietly sings a pretty song. I make a funny face to make her laugh. Mila is almost family. Though she is only six, she is very smart. Like me, she loves to count, loves words and numbers. We have been at each other’s birthday parties all our lives.
“Tatush, where are we going now?” I ask my father.
“Lithuania,” he says, not looking at me.
I can hardly hear him.
“Is it far?”
“Not too far.”
We drive past the outskirts of Warsaw again, now on our way to Lithuania. Twardowski leads us over unfamiliar dirt roads. After a day or so, we stop in front of a country house.
“We need gasoline,” Helena says.
Bolek and another man drive off and when they return they transfer large metal cans from the man’s car to our van, which begins to smell of gas. I watch through the window as my mother gives the man one of her rings.
“Oh my God,” Helena cries. “It’s her diamond.”
She pulls Mila to her chest.
“Bolek knows everyone,” Helena says, looking a bit shaken.
Then we get back into the long line of cars and horse-drawn wagons, all of us racing to get out of Poland. I look out the back window of the van and I see a cage with chickens on top of a small car. People have chairs and tables tied on their roofs. Noisy little trucks are carrying goats and sheep. We drive across a long, flat plain and begin to hear airplanes in the distance. The thud of bombs moves closer. I squeeze my body into the smallest ball I can manage, my arms hugging my chest, clinging hard, my head down, my hands frozen into fists. I look plead¬ingly at my father. His head is in his hands and he does not notice me. Mila cries for a piece of chocolate. Her mother takes two small squares out of her handbag and hands one to each of us. I love chocolate, but now I taste only gasoline.
The next day, we pull out of line again and drive into the yard of a ramshackle farmhouse, partly shaded by trees. A few cows graze not far from it. Through the mud-flecked back window of the van I can see a woman in a dirty dress standing by the farmhouse door, leaning on a scythe. At the wheel of our van, Twardowski is smoking a cigarette. My father sits still in the back seat. I don’t think he even knows that we are no longer on the road. Uncle Bolek, my mother, Eva, and Lolek get out of the Packard. Helena rolls down the window and tells Bolek that the children are very hungry.
The woman with the scythe yells, “Jews!”
“Please Madam,” Uncle Bolek says with the smile he reserves for his best customers. “Can I buy some food from you?”
She is wearing a shredded dress; Bolek a pinstripe suit, a white hand¬kerchief peeking out of his breast pocket. I don’t understand why she calls us Jews. Maybe Jews should be ashamed of being Jews. Fela, the governess before Inka, told me that Jews killed God. If they did, that could be the reason Jews should be ashamed. But I don’t think we are Jewish. And I don’t know how anyone can kill God. Uncle Bolek bows down, places his hand just inside his suit jacket. He looks like Napoleon in one of my school books.
“Esteemed Madame,” he says, “we want nothing without paying.”
He opens the van doors. Afraid of what is about to happen, the woman’s scythe still in her hands, Emilia and I sneak away from the pile of furs. The woman comes closer, her eyes open wide. The furs are piled almost to the van’s ceiling. The woman licks her lips. My father covers his face with his hands. An old stooped man comes in from the field.
“Jews from Warsaw,” the woman shouts over her shoulder.
I slide out of the van’s open door and walk over to the Packard. My mother is again sitting in the front seat, her face motionless. “What are Jews?” I whisper into her ear.
“Jews?” she says. “It’s nothing.”
She opens her door and walks toward the van.
“Zyga, take him,” she says to my father.
He does not respond and my mother pushes me back into the van.
A few minutes later, with a mink coat slung over her dirty dress, the peasant woman strangles three chickens, rips their feathers out, and cooks them in a large black pot. We are standing outside the farmhouse kitchen, and the smell brings saliva to my lips. I have never experi¬enced hunger before. When the chickens are cooked, we pass the pieces around. It feels funny to be eating standing up, especially eating with my hands. I look at my mother, but she doesn’t look back at me as she picks delicately on a chicken wing with her beautiful painted fingers. My father sucks on a chicken foot and passes another to me. Never having done so before, I suck on the coarse skin of the chicken foot and actually like it. Helena makes sure Mila and I get enough. Everyone seems satisfied. Darkness comes and we climb back into the vehicles, but we don’t leave. Mila and I sleep on the fur coats, holding hands.
In the morning, with the farmer and his wife somewhere in the fields, we say goodbye to Twardowski and the Packard.
“Not enough gasoline,” my father explains.
Twardowski shakes everyone’s hand and wishes us well. He pats my head. “I know I will see the families Mandelbaum and Mendelssohn soon. I will meet you back in Warsaw.”
A few hours later, creeping through the crowded streets of Wilno, the last city before the border, a bullet crashes through the windshield and lodges in the front seat next to Uncle Bolek. Everybody starts yelling and crying. I feel numb. Uncle Bolek again says he wants to turn back to Warsaw, to his apartment overlooking the Vistula, to his beautiful salon with its perfect little French elevator. My mother, sobbing, puts her head on his shoulder and says nothing. Then Bolek shrieks dirty words, much worse than “blood of a dog,” the worst curse I know. Mila is crying in Helena’s lap. My father hides his head in a white handkerchief. Everyone is wailing. The van keeps inching forward, following the cars in front of it, sometimes so slowly that Lolek and my father push it to save gasoline. Other people are doing the same. Dead horses and overturned carts litter both sides of the road. Children dressed in rags stare at us as we pass.
We move slowly all night. When I wake up, the landscape has not changed much. We are back in the countryside, farmland spreading out around us. It feels like we have been driving forever. Uncle Bolek says the border must be close, and that’s when we hear more planes. My mother yells from the front seat, “They’re coming again.”
That is how we got here, why I am holding a gold watch in my hand. I wish I could be back sitting under the dining room table, playing with my soldiers, thinking that war was like a Charlie Chaplin movie, that we will kick Hitler in the dupa. I wonder if my English bicycle is still in the field. I don’t even know if it was hit by a bomb. I hear Mila breathing softly next to me. We are breathing each other’s breath. I also smell the filthy mud still on our clothes. I try not to think about the man whose watch this was. I stop thinking about where we are going, or where we have come from. I just keep running my finger in circles over the polished surface of the lid of my watch.
Around noon, the red-and-white-striped barrier of the border crossing appears. The mood inside the van changes. My father comes back to life, but looks worried. Helena sits up, and my mother, who has been humming to herself, falls silent. Bolek taps his fingers on the steering wheel. I shove the watch deep into my pocket. Mila and I press our faces to the window. We can see that, one by one, cars are being examined by the border guards. Some are allowed through, some pushed to the side. The people whose cars have been pushed to the side drop to their knees and weep. Our Citronka is, I think, ten cars from the painted wooden barrier which goes up and down with each car’s crossing. We are hardly moving. Polish soldiers hobble past us and throw their rifles into a growing pile before getting in line to cross the border. Two of them peer into the Citronka and spit on the windshield, hissing, “Jews.”
I think it’s my fault. They spit on us because I stole a gold watch. I begin to cry.
“Don’t cry,” my mother commands.
“Let him cry,” my father says, sitting up straight.
Then he pushes his way to the door of the van and climbs out, slamming it behind him. I want him to grab one of the rifles and shoot the soldiers, but instead he paces outside the van. I squirm forward, try to get out to be with him.
“Just stay,” my mother yells from the front seat.
So I hide in the furs again, but a moment later, Uncle Bolek explodes in anger.
“Where’s Zyga going? What’s that swine up to?” he yells, peering over the steering wheel.
I sit up and look for my father, but he has disappeared from sight. No one answers Uncle Bolek.
“Coward!” Uncle Bolek yells out the side window. “Blood of a dog, smear of shit, son of a whore, may cholera take you!” His teeth are bared, his smooth, bald head all shades of purple.
Blood rushes to my ears and my body shakes.
“Don’t listen to him,” I whisper to Mila and cover her ears with my hands.
I want to hit Bolek, stupefied that I can even think such a thing. I know that my father is planning something good, something that will save us all. Come back Tatush, I think with my face all scrunched up, for who, if not him, will protect me if the planes come back?
My Uncle Lolek, who still has all of his thick brown hair, speaks up and says to Bolek, “What is the matter with you? Why do you hate him so?”
“Don’t talk to me!” Uncle Bolek shouts.
“Let it be,” my mother commands.
Uncle Bolek has never liked my father. When they are together in a room, I run away. They always look so angry that it scares me. The truth hits me like a slap in my face and brings burning tears to my eyes. Both Bolek and my mother really hate my father. I have never seen my parents kiss or hug. They don’t joke and cuddle. They don’t smile at each other or speak in soft tones. When I played at my friend Tadzik’s house, I saw his mother and father kissing, so I know. My mother only shouts at my tatush and he shouts back. Sometimes she throws things. Some of the words that are now flying around inside the Citronka I have never heard, not really. Why does she hate him? Has she always hated him? Does she hate me, too? I shrink into the seat and try to cover my ears as she says, “Those Mendelssohns think they’re so smart, always on the right side of everything. How does he dare to look down his nose at the business, the only reason he can live as he does. He knows nothing of the world. All he and his friends are capable of is talk.”
“Ha!” she says. “They think they will change the world. Ha! War comes and they don’t know what to do.”
But now, my father is gone. Maybe he is never coming back. I begin to cry and Aunt Eva holds me close.
“Where is he?” my mother suddenly asks.
Bolek raises his eyebrows. “He ran.”
“You saw it?”
Bolek stabs the windshield in front of him with his finger.
“On the running board of a Mercedes. I am sure it was Zyga.”
Helena says that Zyga would never abandon his son.
“You know nothing,” Uncle Bolek yells.
I close my eyes and bury my face in the furs. Voices argue, yell, and whisper. Soldiers shout. It is all muffled by the soft fur, now wet from my tears. When I stop crying and sit up again, the red-and-white-striped border has disappeared behind us. We are in Lithuania. Everyone is talking quietly. I take my gold watch from my pocket and listen hard to its ticking. Mila tries to pull the watch from my hand and I tuck it under my body.
“What is it?” Mila asks.
“It’s a beautiful gold watch,” I tell her.
“Show it to me,” she begs and, shielding it carefully from everyone else, I pull it out to show her.
“It’s a secret,” I say. “Only you know, no one else.”
The Citronka suddenly stops. We are a few kilometers inside Lithuania. I sit up and see my father at the side of the road.
“Tatush,” I yell.
I push past Mila, throw the van door open, and run into his arms.
“Tatush,” I say to him.
He is white as a ghost and his arms seem too weak to hold me. No one else gets out of the van. I take his hand and lead him back across the road. I get in first and sit down, still holding his hand. He keeps his eyes down as he climbs in. It is as if I am his father and he is the eight-year-old. No one says a word and Helena reaches over and closes the van door. Mila is staring at my father. My hands close into fists. My whole body clenches.
The trees and fields we are passing are ugly. We stop and Helena buys apples from a cart at the side of the bumpy road. Farmers are plowing the fields with large cows that Helena says are not cows but oxen. I bite into the apple but it is mealy and dry. We drive forever. My father remains as pale and silent as a ghost. Helena whispers to me and Mila that we are driving straight through Lithuania into Latvia, another country altogether. I wake and sleep and wake again. Each time before I am fully awake I think I am back in Warsaw, then I see the faces of the adults, cold and hard, feel the movement of the van, and my stomach shrinks again. Sometimes my mother chats with Uncle Bolek about what is on the road or where they should stop for gas. No one talks to my father, who never looks up from his shoes.
At the airport in Latvia, we leave the Citronka, our home for days though it feels like months. Time is so slow now. It feels like Mila and I have always slept on furs in the back of a van, like I have always had a gold watch I stole from a dead man, like my mother has always hated my father. When I get out of the van, my father reaches for my hand. We get on an airplane, my first time ever. Helena says we are flying to Sweden.
Bolek, my parents, and I move into an apartment in Stockholm that smells like rye bread and fish.
“Where is Emilia?” I ask.
“They are in another apartment,” my mother says.
I wake up screaming every night in a small bed in a corner of the living room. Blackness makes me scream and screaming brings me blackness. The black is as heavy as all of space. It is a vise, sucking up air as it closes on me. My father does not come to comfort me. I don’t know what has happened to him. My mother takes me to a Swedish doctor, who prods my stomach and prescribes some kind of medicine. “This will help you be happy,” he says in, I think, German, which my mother translates for me.
Mila and I go to a school in the middle of Stockholm. She plays with the other children. I do not. I don’t want to play. I sit by myself, keeping my body very tight and perfectly still. My watch is always with me, in my pants pocket. I can’t stop flipping its engraved lid open and closed. In our apartment, the clicking sound annoys my mother and I like that.
“What are you doing?” she keeps asking. “Let me see what is in your pocket.”
“No,” I say, defiance as natural to me now as smiling had once been.
Weeks later, I begin remembering strange things like my governess Fela, the one before Inka, who told me that Jews stole from the dead, that gold was all Jews wanted.
“Oh please,” I say to myself, “not gold, not Jews.”
But I know I am a Jew because my gold prize dazzles me. My heart, a Jew’s heart, is beating so hard I think I will stop breathing.
One day, as we drink tea in the small dining room that is full of sunlight but cold, my mother says,
“We’re going to America. We have been in Sweden for four months. It is time to leave.”
A few days later, we board a train to Bergen, which I learn from a map on the wall of our railway car is a port city in Norway. Out the train window, I scan the sky for airplanes, but the sky is light blue and clear. I look around the train car for Helena, who always explains things, but she and Mila are not with us.
“Where are Emilia and Helena? Where are Aunt Eva and Uncle Lolek?” I ask. We were eight in the Citronka and now we are four. “Are they meeting us at the boat?”
My mother doesn’t answer. My father stares at his shoes, which is where he has been looking since we picked him up in Lithuania. Oh, please look at me, I want to say, but say nothing.
As we walk from the train station, Uncle Bolek is in the lead, my mother alongside him, and my father trailing us, like a family. I flip the lid of my watch open and closed. The port opens up before us. It is full of people and ships. Boxes and suitcases all over the pier make it hard to walk. Everyone is in a hurry. I hear someone say in Polish that the Germans are on the Norwegian border.
“Where is everyone else?” I ask again. “Where are Mila and Helena?”
“They will come later,” my father says.
Uncle Bolek and my mother look at the high cliffs. I don’t like what is happening. I am angry, angry and weepy.
“Don’t cry,” my mother says, her face an angry scowl.
“Let him cry,” my father says, angry himself and speaking up for the first time in a long time.
As we walk up the gangplank, the huge cliffs tower over the boat. I have never seen cliffs like these nor have I ever been on a big boat like this one. Everything is new and frightening. The air smells like coal and steam. I share a tiny cabin with my mother, who sits on her bunk, finds her little mirror in her purse, and powders her nose.
We leave shore at dusk. After a supper of mostly herring, I sneak away to the deck and stand on the rail, watching the land shrink and then disappear.
“Where are you, Mishka?” I cry quietly.
I have never felt so alone. My hands numb up to my elbow. Terrified, I turn away from the sea. No one is in sight. My knees give way and I fall asleep on the deck.
Copyright © Andrew Potok 2014
This is an excerpt from a novel by the same name which will be published in June 2014 by Fomite Press. This novel can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.
Andrew Potok, once a painter, turned to writing in his middle years. His first book, Ordinary Daylight, received national acclaim and was followed by a novel, My Life with Goya, and then a scholarly look into the fascinating world of disability, A Matter of Dignity. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Loie, and his guide dog, Gabriel.