I’m holding onto Mamoo’s hand, I can’t stop shaking. My feet are close together. My shoes, they are too big, and the rain is dripping off the end of my skirt and running down my knees, into my socks. Teddy is under my arm, and when the rain gets very bad, I open up my coat and tuck him in. Mamoo looks down at me. I think she is crying, or it might be the rain.
I am so cold, my bones are cold. Stone cold old cold bones. I wish, I wish I was anywhere else but here. I don’t ask Mamoo where we are going. Pappy hasn’t said a word for ten whole days. He just stares, his eyes are all black and sunk in looking, a bit like Teddy’s eyes. My brother Michael, he went somewhere ten days ago. He hasn’t come back yet.
Everyone around us looks the same. There are so many people, all tired and hunched over and very sad. No one can think of anything to say. We are all thin and grey, like the rain. I tuck Teddy in tighter and move closer to Mamoo. Some people are sitting down on their suitcases. I don’t know why we are standing. Maybe it’s because we’ll be off soon.
When Michael came running into our house ten days ago, he could hardly talk. He was breathing so hard and fast, his whole chest was going up and down. Mamoo put a chair underneath him just in time. He was trying to catch his breath and tell us something all at once.
‘Take these…quickly…hide…they’re coming…please.’
Michael undid his coat, and two small potatoes, a leaf of cabbage, and a carrot fell onto his lap. The carrot was so orange, we all stared. My tummy started hurting.
‘Hurry!’ Michael shouted.
Mamoo picked up the vegetables and ran to the cold fire. She buried them in the ash, deep down so they couldn’t be seen. We all looked at the fireplace, then at Michael. He was crying, not loudly. Michael’s sixteen. He never cries.
Mamoo knelt down by Michael and put her hands on his face. She wiped away the tears, making him all dirty with ash.
‘Michael, I love you,’ she said right up close.
Pappy put a hand on Michael’s shoulder. Then we heard the footsteps, running closer, louder and louder. And the shouting. I felt sick. I forgot how to breathe. Mamoo started to cry, shaking her head from side to side.
‘No, no, no,’ she kept saying, over and over.
We could hear people shouting, ‘please no, please no.’
It was all quiet then. I ran to Mamoo. She pulled me close, really close. She held me and Michael so tight. I felt safe. Then the footsteps began again, getting closer. Michael stood up, wiping his face with his sleeve. He looked down at me.
‘Be good for Mamoo and Papy, Munchkin.’
Pappy let out a strange kind of moan, and held onto Michael, pulling him right in.
‘My son, my son.’
That was the last time Pappy spoke.
Then they were at the door. They didn’t stop to knock. They smashed it open. Mamoo pulled me closer. There were five of them, five German soldiers with horrible faces. They spat at us like we were dogs.
‘Filthy Jews. Look at this stinking place.’
They started laughing. Not nice, happy laughing, but mean, wicked laughing.
‘Hey, lazy Jew. Get out.’
Michael gave them a look so hard, I smiled inside. One of the soldiers hit Michael across the face with his gun. Mamoo squeezed me so tight, it hurt. I couldn’t see Michael’s face; he was gone with a gun in his back. He never looked round. The footsteps went away, I couldn’t hear which ones were Michael’s. There was crying from the street outside, and Michael’s blood on the floor.
I can still taste the soup that Mamoo made. It was the last thing I remember eating. If I close my eyes to the rain, I can smell the sweet carrot going up my nose, I can feel the warm taste of cabbage on my tongue. I never used to like cabbage. Mamoo tried to save some soup for the next day, but we couldn’t stop our spoons going in for more. Even Pappy ate, but his words didn’t come back.
If I wiggle my toes, I can feel the rain squeezing through my socks. I think of summertime, long long ago, running outside to see a rainbow. The sky was blue then, with white fluffy clouds. And the rainbow, it was all the colours of the world. I filled my shoes with puddle-water, jumping and splashing like a frog. The rain was warm and kind, making way for the sun to come out. Now the rain won’t stop falling.
‘Mamoo, I’m cold,’ I say.
‘Hush, Eva. It won’t be long now.’
She takes off her scarf and wraps it over my head. I feel warmer straightaway. Pappy looks at Mamoo, and begins to unbutton his coat.
‘Don’t, Yoseph,’ she says, holding up her hand.
But he takes it off and lifts it around her shoulders. Just then Pappy’s eyes are real, and he looks at Mamoo, holds onto her hand with his hands. For a minute we are all joined together, and I feel warmer inside. Then Pappy’s eyes shut off again, and he turns away.
I watch a man creeping like a crab through the people. He’s holding something underneath his coat. Some people shoo him away, and others are swapping things for what he’s got. He gets closer and closer until I see that his hand is full of little sticks. I see another girl; she is watching the man too. She looks across at me. I don’t know her, but she smiles. I think she must be older. I like her face. She’s got long, black hair like mine. Mamoo plaited my hair this morning, in two neat plaits that come over my shoulders and are tied with strips from my old nightgown. It was too small for me. It should have come down to my ankles, but I wore it until it was almost touching my knees. The strips are just as good as ribbons, pale blue with small pink flowers.
The man with the sticks has stopped in front of the girl. She looks up at her father, who looks sad and reaches into his pocket to give something to the man. Then the man gives one of his sticks to the girl. She looks at it, very closely, and then she shuts her eyes and licks the top, just once. She opens her eyes, sees me looking, and smiles across again. Only this time, her smile is a real smile.
When the man with the sticks gets to me, I pull on Mamoo’s hand.
‘Yoseph,’ she says, quietly.
Pappy turns slowly to look at the man, and then at the man’s hand full of sticks. Pappy feels inside his pocket and pulls out his gold watch. He opens it up and rubs his finger over the glass. Then he closes it, very carefully. It is my Grandfather’s watch, and Pappy is holding it out to the man. The man takes it quickly, and gives me a stick. I look at it. It looks like a lollipop that has been sucked until it’s almost gone. I shut my eyes, like the girl, and lick just once. It tastes like a thousand things I’ve forgotten. It tastes like Heaven. Mamoo squeezes my hand, and Pappy looks at me. He almost smiles.
I wrap one of my hair ribbons around the stick, to keep it safe for later. Then I hide it up the sleeve of my blouse. I can feel it against my skin. The rain is still coming down, and everyone is standing now, because I think it must be time to go. I can hear shouting. It is the same as ten days ago. The Germans, they are angry and frightening.
‘Mamoo, where are we going?’
‘Don’t worry, Munchkin. They’re just moving us somewhere else. To work. A different place to live.’
Pappy moves closer to us, and puts his arm around Mamoo. Then the soldiers come towards us, pointing their guns; everyone is lifting up their suitcases and queuing to go through a building ahead of us.
We go into the building, and the soldiers take away our suitcases and throw them into a pile.
‘Your belongings will come separately,’ they tell us, looking down.
And then we’re out the other side, back into the rain, and there is a train that we have to climb into. There are so many people all pushed together. Mamoo holds onto me tightly, and Pappy jumps up onto the train to pull us up too. The soldiers are sliding the doors closed, I can’t move, I’m squashed behind Pappy, and Mamoo is behind me. Everyone is shouting, calling out for each other. There’s a woman screaming for her son, she’s trying to push towards the door, crying out his name, someone is trying to pull the boy up from the platform before the doors close, but his hand can’t reach. The boy is crying for his mother, but the doors have closed, and the mother is still shouting, screaming. I shut my eyes. I think of Mamoo and Pappy being all around me. I think of Teddy being tucked in tight. I think of my sugar stick, warm and sweet.
I think I must have slept, but I’m still standing. It is so dark that when I open my eyes it is just the same as having them closed. I can’t tell how long we have been going, but it is quieter. All I can hear are the wheels of the train, and the sound of a hundred people breathing. It feels as if there is hardly any air left, as if it’s all been sucked out of the train. I am so thirsty, I wish the rain was in here with us. I can’t move my arms, I can’t turn around. I can’t feel my toes any more. I think of my sugar stick. I think of what one lick would be like. I think of being in the warm sun, with an ice-cold lollipop melting against my tongue. But the smell in the carriage is so bad, all I can think of is being afraid.
When the train stops, the doors slide open and there is a lot of shouting. Everyone is falling out of the carriage, they can’t stand up, their legs won’t work anymore. Some people don’t get up. I think it is still night time, but there are so many lights, I can’t see. Pappy goes out first, and lifts me down. His arms are shaking, and he almost drops me. Mamoo is right behind. I see her face for the first time in a long time. She is starting to look like Pappy. I feel really scared. I hold onto her hand. I’m not going to let go.
The soldiers are shouting again, telling us to go into the building. I can’t see where we are. We all go quickly, as quickly as we can. The Germans, they are shouting again and again. They are pushing the men and the boys into a different place.
He turns and bends down to kiss me, he kisses Mamoo, he’s falling over, stumbling, the soldiers are pushing him with their guns.
‘Elsa! Eva!’ Pappy shouts.
Then he’s gone, and we’re being taken somewhere else, and I don’t know why this is, I don’t know why we are here, I don’t know, I don’t know.
Inside it is colder than the night outside. There isn’t a bit of me that doesn’t hurt. The soldiers are telling us to take off our clothes. How can this be? I can’t move my fingers. I can’t undo my buttons. I can’t undo my shoelaces. Mamoo helps me.
‘Don’t worry, Munchkin. We are only being cleaned. Just stay close by me, and everything will be all right.’
‘But what about Teddy? I can’t leave Teddy. What about my sugar stick?’
‘Teddy will be waiting for us. Give me your stick. I’ll look after it.’
Mamoo snaps my stick in half, and closes her hand around the end with the ribbon.
Mamoo is shivering. She undoes my plaits, so that my hair hangs right down my back. She does the same to her hair. We smile at each other. I don’t want to need anything. I know that I need to be brave, for Mamoo’s sake.
We are lined up, and then I see what will happen. There is a man with scissors. He is going to cut off our hair. I keep telling myself: ‘I don’t need anything. I don’t need anything.’ And then the man is cutting all Mamoo’s hair away. It falls to the floor in big black clumps. He keeps on cutting, and then he shaves her head until she has no hair left.
‘It is so you don’t get lice,’ he tells us quietly.
1It is my turn. I shut my eyes. It’s a strange noise, the sound of the scissors on my hair. I feel so light afterwards. I touch my head. There’s nothing there anymore. Just a fuzzy softness.
We go through to a big room. It is empty and very cold. I don’t know what is happening.
‘Mamoo, will we be given new clothes?’
‘Yes, Eva. New clothes. Clothes that are warm, and clean.’
She holds me close. I look at all the women and the girls. All without clothes. All without hair. Their eyes are so big. Huge eyes in small heads and thin, bony bodies. I don’t even feel ashamed. They are all like me. We are all in here, together.
Everyone is waiting. Some people are crying. I look at the ceiling, at the showers, where the water will come out to clean us. Then everyone is quiet. There is a strange hissing sound that I’ve never heard before. We all look up. A mist is coming down. It smells horrible. People are beginning to cough.
‘Eva, take the stick. Keep it in your mouth for as long as you can.’
I take the sugar stick, and unwrap the ribbon. The mist is getting to the back of my throat. There are moans and cries from all around me. Mamoo kneels down, I kneel down beside her.
‘Don’t be afraid, Eva.’
I put the sugar stick in my mouth. I feel the sweet warmth on my tongue. Mamoo unfolds and lies on the floor. I lie down with her. I feel her arms around me.
I think of the girl like me.
I think of Mamoo reading to me at night, her bedtime kiss.
I think of Pappy’s funny laugh, his dark brown eyes.
I think of Michael pushing me on the swing.
‘Higher, Michael, Higher.’
I think, I think of touching the deep blue sky.
I think of sweetness…
…think of warmth….
Published in Seventh Quark Magazine 2005