Herschel growled, Promise you won’t tell ‘em?
Oh, she promised!
“Cause if she did, Herschel warned, what he’d do is shove the poker up her little be-hind-”Red hot, too.“
Rebecca giggled, and shivered. Her big brother Herschel was always scaring her like this. Oh no oh no. She would never tell.
It was Herschel who told her how she’d been born.
Been born like this was something Rebecca had done for herself but could not remember, it was so long ago.
Never would Rebecca’s parents have told her. Never-never!
No more speaking of such a secret thing than they would have disrobed and displayed their naked bodies before their staring children.
So it was Herschel. Saying how she, just a tiny wriggly thing, had gotten born on the boat from Europe, she’d been born in New York harbor.
On the boat, see? On the water.
The only one of the damn family, Herschel said, born this side of the ‘Lantic Ozean that never needed any damn vissas or papers.
Rebecca was astonished, and listened eagerly. No one would tell her such things as her big brother Herschel would tell her, in all the world.
But it was scary, what Herschel might say. Words flew out of Herschel’s mouth like bats. For in the Milburn cemetery amid the crosses, funerals, mourners and graves festooned with flowerpots, in the village of Milburn where boys called after him Gravedigger! Kraut! Herschel was growing into a rough mean-mouth boy himself. He hadn’t been a child for very long. His eyes were small and lashless and gave an unnerving impression of being on opposing sides of his face like a fish’s eyes. And his face was angular, with a bony forehead and a predator’s wide jaws. His skin was coarse, mottled, with a scattering of moles and pimples that flared into rashes when he was upset or angry, which was often. Like their father he had fleshy, wormy lips whose natural expression was disdainful. His teeth were big and chunky and discolored. By the age of twelve, Herschel stood as tall as Jacob Schwart who was a man of moderate height, five feet eight or nine, though with rounded shoulders and a stooped head that made him appear shorter. From working with his father in the cemetery, Herschel was acquiring a bull-neck and a back and shoulders dense with muscle; by degrees he was coming more and more to resemble Jacob Schwart, but a Jacob Schwart smudged, distorted, coarsened: a dwarf grown man-sized. Herschel had bitterly disappointed his father by doing poorly in school, “kept behind” not once but twice.
As soon as they’d arrived in Milburn, Jacob Schwart had forbidden the speaking of German by his family, for this was an era of German-hatred in America and a suspicion of German spies everywhere. Also, his native language had become loathsome to Jacob Schwart-“a language of beasts.” And so Herschel, who’d learned German as a child, was forbidden to speak it now; yet scarcely knew the “new” language, either. Often he spoke with an explosive stammer. Often it sounded as if he was trying not to laugh. Talkin, it was some kind of joke? Was it? You had to know the right sounds to talk, how to move your mouth, God damn they had to be the sounds other people knew, but how’d these people know? The connection between a sound coming out of a mouth (where your damn tongue got in the way) and what it was supposed to mean drove him wild. And printed words! Books! Fuckin school! That some stranger, an adult, would talk to him, he was expected to sit his ass in a desk where his damn legs didn’t fit, because it was New York state fuckin law, an look in their damn face? With them little kids, half his size? That stared at him scared like he was some kind of freak? And some old bitch titless female teacher? Why the hell? At the Milburn school where Herschel Schwart was ostensibly in seventh grade, by far the biggest boy in his class, he took “special education” courses and under state law would be allowed to quit at age sixteen. What a relief, to his teachers and classmates! As he could not speak any language coherently he could not read at all. His father’s effort to teach him simple arithmetic came to nothing. Printed materials aroused him to scorn and, beyond scorn, if they weren’t quickly removed from his glaring eyes, fury. His brother Gus’s textbooks and even his sister’s primers had been discovered torn and mutilated, tossed on the floor. In the Port Oriskany newspaper which Jacob Schwart occasionally brought home, only the comic strips engaged Herschel’s interest and some of these-“Terry and the Pirates,” “Dick Tracy”-gave him difficulty. Herschel had always been fond of his baby sister the little one as she was called in the household and yet he often teased her, a wicked light came into his yellowish eyes and she could not trust him not to make her cry. Herschel would tug at her braids that had been so neatly plaited by their mother, he would grin and tickle her roughly beneath the arms, on her belly, between her legs to make her squeal and kick. Here he comes! Herschel would warn her. The boa ‘stricter! This was a giant snake that wrapped itself around you but also had the power to tickle.
Even with Ma in the room staring at Herschel he would so behave. Even with Ma rushing at him crying Schwein! Flegel! slapping and punching him about the head, he would so behave. Physical blows from their mother made him laugh, even blows from their father. Rebecca feared her hulking big brother yet was fascinated by him, those lips expelling the most astonishing words like spittle.
That day, when Herschel told Rebecca the story of how she’d been born.
Been born! She was such a little girl, her brain had yet to comprehend that she hadn’t always been.
Yah she was a squirmy red-face monkey-thing, Herschel said fondly. Ugliest little thing you ever saw like somethin‘ skinned. No hair, neither.
“Cause why it took so long, eleven damn hours, and everybody else dis-em-barkin‘ the fuckin’ ship except them, her baby-head come out backwards and her arm got twisted up. So it took time. Why there was so much blood.
So she got born. All slimy and red, out of their Ma. What’s it called-‘gina. Ma’s hole, like. A hairy hole it is, Herschel had never seen anything like it. Nasty! Like a big open bloody mouth. Later he’d seen it, the hairs, between Ma’s legs and up on Ma’s belly like a man’s whiskers, in the bedroom by accident pushing open the damn door and there’s Ma tryin to hide, changin’ her nightgown or tryin‘ to wash. You ever seen it? Thick hairs like a squirrel.
Hey, Herschel said, snapping his fingers in Rebecca’s blank face.
Hey you think I’m fuckin‘ lyin’ or somethin‘? Lookin’ at me like that?
Rebecca tried to smile. There was a roaring like thousands of mosquitoes in her ears.
You askin for the boa ‘stricter, honey, are you?
Not the boa ‘stricter, oh! Please not him.
Herschel liked to see his sister scared, it calmed him some. Saying she maybe thought he was makin all this up, but he wa’nt. How’d you think you got born, eh? You somebody special? How’d you think anybody gets born? Out of their Ma’s hole. Not her asshole, nah not like a shit, that’s somethin else, there’s this other hole it starts out small then gets bigger, girls and wimmen got ‘em, you got one too, want me ta show ya?
Rebecca shook her head no. No no!
You’re just a li’l gal so you got one but it’d be real small like pea-size but for sure it’s there inside your legs where you go pee-pee and where you’re gonna get pinched, see? You don’t b’lieve your brother Hershl.
Quickly Rebecca said, yes she believed him! She did.
Herschel scratched his chest, frowning. Trying to recall. The shit-hole cabin they was stayin‘ in, on the ship. Size of a dog house. No windows. “Bunk beds.” Damn mess of rags, squashed roaches an’ stale puke from Gus being sick, and everywhere stinkin‘ of shit. Then, Ma’s blood. Stuff comin out of her layin’ in the bunk bed. At last they was in New York harbor and everybody crazy to leave the stinkin‘ boat except them, they had to stay behind, “cause of her wantin’ to be born. Pa said you wa’nt spost to be born for another month, like he could argue with it. We was all starvin‘, Christ sake. Ma got so ’lirious, it was like she wudna h’self but some wild animal-like. Screamin, some muscle or somethin in her throat broke, why she don’t talk right now. An you know she ain’t right in the head neither.
Some old lady was gonna help Ma get you born, but there we wuz “embarkin” so she had to leave the boat, see. So it was just Pa. Poor Pa out of his head. All along, Pa was goin‘ nuts with worry he said. Sayin’ what if they wudna let us land? in the Yoo Ess? what if they send us back to fuckin‘ Nazizz they’re gonna kill us like hogs. See, these Nazizz was comin’ after Pa at where he worked, he hadta leave. We hadta leave, where we was livin‘. We didn’t always live like animals, see, we wa’nt like this…Shit, I don’t remember too well, I was just a little kid scared all the time. They was tellin us there’s Nazizz submarines-“torpedoes”-tryin to sink us, why we was zigzaggin an took so long to cross. Poor Pa, all the time he’s lookin through this “money-belt” thing he got around his middle checkin the papers, the vissas. God damn you got to have them vissas with all kinds-a stamps an things, you ain’t a Yoo Ess cit’zen, see the fuckers won’t let you in if they can. Fuckers sure didn’t want us lookin at us like we stunk! Like we was worse’n hogs ’cause we cudna speak right. All Pa could worry about on the boat was this papers gonna be stolen. Everybody stealin what they could, see. That’s where I learned, snatchin things. You run, old people ain’t gonna run after you. You’re little enough, you can hide like a rat. A rat is littler than I am, I learned from em. Pa goes around sayin his guts was eat out by rats on that crossin. It’s some joke of Pa’s you got to ‘preciate the old man’s sense-humor. My guts was eat out by rats on the ’Lantic Ozean I heard him sayin to some old lady in the cemetery here she’s puttin flowers on some grave an Pa gets to talkin to her, like he says for us never to do, talkin to those others you can’t trust, but he’s talkin an laughin that dog-bark laugh of his so she’s lookin at him like she’s scared of him. So I was thinkin Pa is drunk, he ain’t got his right judgment.
On the boat, we had to eat what they give us. Spoiled food with weevils in it, roaches. You pick em out, squash em under your foot and keep on eatin, you’re hungry enough. It’s that or starve. All our guts was eat out by the time we landed and everybody shittin bloody stuff like pus but Pa was the worst ‘cause of ulcers he said the fuckin Nazizz give Pa ulcers way back years before. Pa’s guts ain’t normal, see. Look at Pa, he wa’nt always like he is now.
Rebecca wanted to know how Pa used to be.
A vague look came over Herschel like a thought the wrong size for his skull. He scratched at his crotch.
Oh shit, I dunno. He wa’nt so excitable I guess. He was more happy I guess. Before the trouble started. Before I got too big, he’d carry me around, see? Like he does with you. Used to call me Leeeb-somethin like that. Used to kiss me! Yeah, he did. And this music him an Ma liked, loud singin on the radio-“oper-a.” In the house they’d be singin. Pa would sing some, and Ma she’d be in some other room and she’d sing back, an they’d laugh, like.
Rebecca tried, but could not imagine her parents singing.
She could not imagine her father kissing Herschel!
They was diffr’nt then, see. They was younger. Leavin where we lived wore em out, see. They was scared, like somebody was followin em. Like the police maybe. “Nazizz.” There was trains we rode on, real noisy. Real crowded. And the damn boat, you’d think the ‘Lantic Ozean would be nice to look at, but it ain’t, all-the-time the wind’s blowin and it’s damn cold an people pushin you an coughin in your damn face. I was little then, not like now, see nobody gave a damn about a kid if they stepped on me the bastids! The crossing, that wore em out. Havin ’ you ‘bout killed Ma, an him, too. Nah it wa’nt your fault, honey, don’t feel bad. It’s the Nazizz. “Storm trooperz.” Ma had nice soft hair and was pretty. Talkin diffr’nt langidge, see. Christ I was talkin this diffr’nt langidge “Ger-man” it was, bettern I can talk what-the-fuck’s-this-now-“Eng-lish.” God damn why they got to be so diffr’nt I don’t know! Makin more trouble. I mostly forget that other now but I don’t know fuckin Eng-lish worth shit, either. Pa was like that, too. He knew to talk real well. He was a schoolteacher they said. Now, Christ they’d laugh! “Magine Pa teachin in school!
Herschel guffawed. Rebecca giggled. It was funny: seeing Pa in front of a classroom, in his old work clothes and cloth cap, a stick of chalk in his hands, blinking and squinting.
No. You could not. You could not ‘magine.
Herschel had been nine years old at the time of the ‘Lantic crossing and would not forget through his fuckin life except he could not remember, either. Not clearly. Some kind of mist came down over his brain that ain’t lifted since. For when Rebecca asked how long did it take to cross the ocean, how many days, Herschel began to count on his fingers slowly then gave up saying it was a long fuckin time an there was lots of people died an’ dumped over the side of the boat like garbage for the sharks to eat, you was always scared you would die, this “dyzen-tery” sickness in the guts-that’s all he knew. A long time.
Ten days? Rebecca asked. Twenty?
Nah it wa’nt days it was fuckin weeks, Herschel snorted.
Rebecca was just a little girl but already she needed to know: numbers, facts. What was real and what was only made-up.
Ask Pa, Herschel said, flaring up suddenly. Herschel would get mad if you asked him any question he couldn’t answer like he’d gotten mad at his teacher at school once, she’d run out of the classroom for help. That cobweb look in Herschel’s eyes and baring his yellow teeth like a dog. Saying, Ask Pa you’re so hot to know all this old crap.
Looming over her, and his hand shot out, the edge of his hand, whack! on the side of her face so, next thing Rebecca knew, she was fallen over sideways like a rag doll, too surprised to cry, and Herschel was stomping out of the room.
Ask Pa. But Rebecca knew not to ask their father anything, none of them dared approach Pa in any way likely to set him off.