By Miriam Kresh
Annie fluffed her white hair in front of the mirror, damp from her shower and smelling like lavender soap. The old woman gazing back at her was wrinkled and stooped, but her eyes were still bright blue. Pleased enough with her reflection, Annie winked at herself. She pressed the snaps of her housecoat together and said out loud, “Pretty good for ninety years old.” She spoke American English with no hint of an accent. “Now for coffee.” She carefully put her glasses on and shuffled across the sunny apartment.
Ah, I love Tel Aviv, she thought, drawing back the living room window curtain. The traffic on the streets boomed; one more day in the busy world. The bushes and date palm in the building’s garden stirred in the breeze, and Annie watched an iridescent black sunbird settle on the palm. The tiny bird gave a high peep like a note from a piccolo, and flittered off. Annie kept her hold on a handful of curtain, gave a sigh of pleasure, and inhaled the fresh morning.
“What's today, Wednesday already? Yes, Wednesday. Moshe's coming for his lesson later. The last before the big test. He’s smart, that boy. He’ll be fine.”
She straightened herself, as much as her creaky back let her. The body's going, but the mind is still sharp, she told herself. Sharp as a tack. She turned the phrase over in her mind, liking the image it brought up. English was one of the languages she thought in. She’d taught English literature in New Jersey for forty years.
She stayed looking down at the street. There was something about the shabby neighborhood that she liked — probably the vaguely European look of the buildings. She liked living close to the beach, where she joined the early-morning yoga class twice a week and enjoyed astonishing everyone. There was a grocery store and a hairdresser on the block. The neighbors were good, even helpful. She’d lived there contentedly on her own since she’d retired from her profession and moved to Israel.
True, her heart was beating thickly lately, and she needed to nap more often, but for the moment, she felt well. And was thankful for it. She’d come through, she’d made it. Her health was phenomenal for a woman her age. It was her triumph over the horrors of the past.
As she stood there, a memory rose unbidden. It was happening more often these days, old memories popping up while she read or rested, or a dream returning during the day. It rushed back: the dream she’d woken up from that morning.
She was strolling with her young husband, Shimon, and her brother, Yitzhak Leib, in her parent’s garden, in Hungary, before the war reached their town. Yitzhak Leib carried a shallow basket on his arm. They were arguing in Yiddish about the interpretation of some poem in English. “Jabberwocky,” that was it, although why they’d been reading that particular piece of nonsense, she couldn’t remember. Shimon, shy behind round glasses and a short moustache, smiled and said nothing. They’d only been married a few months. He wasn’t used to the lively arguments that Annie’s family enjoyed and he hadn’t studied English. He was terribly in love with Annie.
Someone in the house was practicing scales on the piano, running up and down the octaves like a child jumping up and down steps. The afternoon sun glimmered, dreamlike and hazy, one of a thousand summer afternoons at her parent’s house. Annie, in an old straw hat and a summery print dress, took shears and snipped white and pink blooms off her mother’s rose bushes. Yitzhak Leib lay the flowers head-to-head in the basket and lifted it to his face to inhale the heady fragrance.
“This is a gardener’s job,” he teased. “You should be above this, now you’re a married lady.”
Annie took the basket from him. “You should go upstairs and chew on your pencil and write a poem about roses, Great Poet.”
“My poems!” Yitzhak Leib said, laughing. “Anyway, Bella likes them. Hmm…” He stroked his upper lip, where he was cultivating a promising moustache. “I will compare her to a rose. I’ll send her one of these roses wrapped up in the poem. She will be enchanted.” He grinned at his sister, who frowned back.
“And then you’ll get bored with her,” Annie said. She turned to Shimon. “Bella is Yitzie’s great passion,” she explained. “Until some other girl comes along. You can’t imagine how many nice Jewish girls cry over him every night.” Yitzhak Leib, delighted, took a breath and got ready for a good argument. But then Annie was alone, reaching for the dream while Tel Aviv daylight crept in and swept it away.
She released the curtain. “We were so young,” she murmured, passing a hand over her face.
She admitted that she hardly remembered Shimon anymore. It was Yitzak Leib she’d been closest to in their bustling family full of clever, opinionated people. Her marriage was an arranged match, a shidduch made between the parents. Successful, judging by the fact that Shimon had fallen violently in love with her, while in turn she’d felt an affection that was on its way to love. They’d had little time together before they were driven at gunpoint onto a train that stopped at Auschwitz.
They were separated at the arrival platform. Sooner, rather than later, everyone died of overwork, starvation, or disease, in the camps. Everyone but her.
She was twenty when she left Europe, widowed and her family’s sole survivor. An American cousin had sponsored her and sent the fare to get her out of the German D.P. camp, and into a new life in the USA. She’d landed with ten dollars in a worn purse, wearing second-hand clothes they’d given her, already adept at grabbing what she could out of each moment. America offered opportunities. To make the most of them, she’d had to put the old, dead life behind her and face front. The past, she knew, could destroy her, and she was determined to live.
Annie pushed the dream out of her thoughts. Well, that was then, this is now. Coffee, coffee! She walked slowly to the kitchen, thinking of her student — her last student probably. She stopped in the doorway.
A stranger sat at the kitchen table, turning her coffee mug over in his hands.
He was young, skinny, and blond, with pierced ears and eyebrows and dragon tattoos on his arms. He wore jeans torn at the knees and a T-shirt printed with an ad for a Led Zeppelin concert in Madison Square Garden, July 1973. A blue nimbus shimmered around him. He turned phosphorescent eyes to her. She knew who he was.
She cleared her throat. “Is it time?”
The stranger nodded. “Chana bas David,” he said in a strangely flat voice, “it’s your time.” He rose, holding out a pale hand burdened with heavy rings.
Annie stared. “No, no, no. I’m not going. I’m busy today.”
The Angel of Death stood in the kitchen, glowing, beautiful in an eerie way.
“Oh, sit down,” she said irritably. She snatched up her mug and flounced past him. “Coffee? Does the malach hamaves drink coffee? I do.” She turned on the electric kettle and pulled a jar of instant coffee from a cabinet, trying hide the trembling of her hands.
“Chana bas David, we must go,” said the Angel of Death, frowning a little.
“Oh, call me Annie, everybody does. Don’t you have anything else to do today?" Annie said, spooning too much coffee and sugar into the mug. She remembered an old Yiddish joke. “How’s the cholera in Odessa?”
“You’re behind the times, it’s the flu these days,” the Angel of Death said. “Oh, I get it. Funny.” He didn’t look amused.
“Well, you have a hell of a chutzpah,” Annie snapped. “Showing up here dressed like a crack addict. Show some respect. Put on a white gown, grow some wings or something.”
“You don't like my garments?” he asked. “Do you prefer traditional?” In a second, a skeleton in a winding sheet loomed over her, rolling veined eyeballs, holding out a bony hand.
She put her mug down on the counter. “So clichéd,” she said, although her voice shook. “I’ve seen uglier than that. After Dachau, after what they did to me, nothing scares me anymore.” A memory rose: a freezing room bare of furniture except for a filthy bed, in a house set apart from the camp barracks. Herself, nineteen years old, naked and coiled on the bed. A man in SS uniform wiping sweat off his forehead, loosening his belt, opening his trouser buttons.
“They took my ovaries out, you know?” she said dully. She had never spoken of it to anyone. But what would it hurt to tell the malach hamaves? He probably knew already.
“They did it so I wouldn’t menstruate. So I’d be ‘available’ all the time. They didn’t bother with anesthesia; I wasn’t worth the expense.” Her thin lips tightened to a thread. “No children for me. No grandchildren. I didn’t expect to survive anyway back then. But I did. Didn’t I?” She turned her back to him, old and sad in her flowered housecoat.
The malach hamaves was back in his blue-jeaned guise, pulsing with blue light. “We know what you endured,” he said, and his flat voice was kind. “Yet you made it through and thrived. Got an education, earned respect in your field, and made enough money to move to Israel when you retired. Volunteered. Made lots of good friends. You could have married again — twice, men proposed to you.”
“So what?” Annie asked, still with her back to him.
“Your time has run out, Annie. Come with me. You’ll rest.”
Annie sat down at the table and glared at him. “Would you please stop standing there glowing at me? It’s annoying. And don’t tell me my life story, I already know it. I’m not ready to rest. There’s something I need to do.”
The stranger sat down opposite her, smiling a gentle, disconcerting smile. The blue light around him faded.
“That's better,” Annie said. “Now listen. I’m tutoring a young man, Moshe Ezra, a neighbor. He needs help with his English. His mother does my shopping, takes me to the doctor. Moshe and his father help around the house. They’re like family. They’re in and out of here all the time, they even have a house key.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “Now. He needs to pass his matriculation exams with a high grade, so he can get into an army program that sponsors university studies. Get that? He wants to study medicine. His future hangs on passing this English test. I’m going to help him get that future.”
She sipped her coffee to show the malach hamaves how collected she was. She made a face; she’d forgotten to add milk. She reached into the fridge, poured a healthy dollop into her mug, and sat down again.
“I know bright kids like Moshe,” she said. “He can make a big difference, given the chance.” The old woman looked hard at the stranger. “Okay, so I’m begging. Give him the chance.”
He listened with his blond head tilted and seemed to be considering what he heard.
“By that, you mean give you the chance,” he said. “I see the connection.” His spectral eyes flickered. “In fact, I see that your Moshe could do a lot of good, save a lot of lives.”
Annie looked away, blinking. Oops — saving lives is just what an Angel of Death doesn’t like.
“Annie, you don’t know why I do what I do,” he said, reading her thoughts. “There’s always a reason for me to show up. I'm not Death itself. I'm only a messenger.” His features shifted subtly. He looked like someone she used to know. Someone she’d loved long ago.
Shimon, shy as ever, sat across from her. “Now Chana’leh,” he said in Yiddish, flooding her shaky heart with his voice, that tender, young man’s voice she thought she’d forgotten. “Don’t you want to be with me, my darling, with Mameh and Tateh and your brothers and sisters? We’re waiting to be with you again.” He put out his hand.
Annie hid hers under the table. “You can’t fool me, you mamzer,” she said, her old eyes swimming. “If you knew anything, you'd know it was Yitzhak Leib I loved most. And if they’ve waited for me all these years, they can wait a little longer.”
Shimon spun a full circle in his chair. It came to a stop facing her, and there was the malach hamaves again, young, blond, multi-pierced, and glowing blue.
“Can’t get much past you, Annie.”
“That’s how I managed to cheat you for so long.”
He turned his heavily ringed hand palm up. “You have to come with me sometime.”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. She reached for a paper napkin, avoiding his hand, and wiped her eyes. “But why put on such an exhibit? It’s not nice, making an old lady cry. Soon, okay? Just not yet. Moshe’s big exam is tomorrow. It’s going to be hard. He has to go in strong.”
“Chana. Annie.” The stranger was silent for a heartbeat. “All right. It might not be a bad idea.” He rose, holding her eyes with his spectral gaze.
Annie shivered, but pressed further. “I want to stick around until I know Moshe’s exam results. Give me that, too.”
“I'll talk to the authorities,” the stranger said. “Excuse me now.” His nimbus folded itself around him like a cloak and then he was gone.
“Oof,” Annie said to herself. “He'll be back. Just not today, I hope.” She got up and put her mug in the sink. “God, I hope they make him wear something decent next time.”
“How did Moshe's exam go?”
It was the stranger, dressed in a discreet suit and tie, sitting on the sofa with his legs crossed, one knee over the other. With his clean-shaven face and hair brushed straight back, he looked like a businessman of the 1940s. Except for the blue light around him, which shifted when he moved.
Annie opened her eyes. “Oh, you again. Quite the gentleman this time. Sorry I don’t have a nice cigar to offer you. How about some schnapps?”
The malach hamaves shook his head. “So, did Moshe pass his exam?”
“Don’t you know already? I thought you knew everything. He’s coming to tell me any minute. You’d better not be around when he comes.”
“I'll make sure he can’t see me,” the stranger promised. But he wasn’t a stranger anymore. He felt more and more familiar to Annie, like an old friend. It would be easy to take the hand he offered, to slip away quietly, comfortably. She felt the temptation. She was tired.
She pulled herself together with an effort. “I want you out when Moshe’s here. Don’t want you taking him along by mistake, God forbid.”
“Annie,” the malach hamaves said with gentle irony, “to err is human.” He vanished, leaving a slowly fading impression behind.
“Smart aleck,” Annie snorted. “Who does he think he is, popping in and out like that? The Cheshire Cat?” She took off her glasses and closed her eyes.
“Savta Annie,” he said. “Wake up, I have good news.”
Annie woke with a little gasp. “What?”
“I passed the English exam! With 100%! Look, I brought flowers to celebrate.” He beamed at her and lay the bouquet in her arms.
Annie groped for her glasses. “Wonderful, wonderful! Roses, how lovely. Thank you, Yitzhak Leib darling.”
“I’m Moshe,” the boy said.
“Of course you’re Moshe,” Annie said, rousing herself. She was uncomfortable, aware of feeling heavy in her chest. “I was just dreaming a little. So you passed the test with 100%? Fabulous, good for you! I’m so proud. Did you tell your mother yet?”
“No, I ran out to get the flowers when they notified me, and came right up to my best-ever English teacher.” He leaned down to kiss her soft, wrinkled cheek. “I wish I could buy you a bottle of champagne.”
“We used to drink champagne in the old days,” Annie said, “but it wouldn’t do me any good now. Never mind, your news is better than champagne.”
“You’re tired, Savta. Sorry I woke you, but I couldn’t wait.”
“You did right. I’ve been waiting to hear how it went. Now you’re happy, eh?”
“I’m going to work so hard once I get that scholarship,” Moshe said with energy. “You watch, I’ll be the best.” He took the bouquet from her arms. “I’ll close that window, the curtain’s blowing in and out. And you’d better go to bed. Where should I put the flowers?”
Annie smiled at her student’s manly tone. “There's a vase behind the dairy dishes; put some water in it, and then the flowers. So pretty, my favorite, roses. How did you know?”
“You told me once.”
“You didn’t have to buy me flowers, Moshe.”
“Yes, I did.” Whistling, he moved off to the kitchen.
Such a sweet boy, Annie thought, listening to him turn the kitchen light on, open the cupboard, and move dishes around to take out a vase. “Handsome too, in that dark Iraqi way. The girls won’t give him any peace, especially once he’s a doctor. Hope he gets a good one.”
“I think I’ll just rest in my chair tonight,” she called after him.
“Okay,” he said. “Can I get you anything?” He placed the vase on the bookshelf where she could see it.
“No, thanks. Go tell your parents now — they must be eager to hear the news. Goodnight, Moshe, mazal tov on your exam.”
Moshe shut the window, looked around to see that all was well, and let himself out. “I’ll come by tomorrow morning,” he said.
Annie folded her hands and pressed them over the pressure in her chest.
Soon enough, a swaying blue mist materialized in the living room. Yitzhak Leib stepped out of it, glowing and almost transparent, all the old mischief and humor in his face. Behind him a nebulous group formed. Shimon with his round glasses, smiling shyly behind his moustache. Her father, handsome and dignified, his arm around her stately mother’s shoulders. Her brothers and sisters, then cousins, uncles, and aunts took form. They were talking, gesturing, showing each other things in books without making a sound.
She wanted to weep for their terrible fate, for their innocence and their ignorance of the encroaching darkness. Her old heart twisted with the pain and longing she thought she’d put behind her so long ago.
Other people appeared, likewise almost transparent, taking their places behind her family. People from her town. She recognized each one. Children clinging to their parents, and friends in fancy Shabbat clothes. Aproned servants and stolid town tradesmen with their forthright wives. The rabbi with his yarmulke and long beard, and the doctor carrying his medical kit. They were dressed in the fashions of seventy years ago, as she had last seen them. Each stood in his or her characteristic posture, looking exactly as they had in life.
They turned strange, mild eyes on her. The room was full of the fragrance of roses.
Annie rose to her feet stiffly, her heart beating in heavy waves like a gong being struck again and again. Tears ran down her cheeks but she didn’t bother wiping them away. Instead, she waved her hand at the ghostly people, dismissing them.
A young, blond, many-pierced man in jeans stood before her, holding out his hand, smiling with unfathomable tenderness, but saying nothing.
"Now," she said. And she put her hand in his.