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15

Those summer weeks when she was never alone. Always Rebecca would remember. Playing by herself it wasnt by herself but with her new sister Freyda. Always the girls were chattering and whispering together. Oh, Rebecca was never lonely now!-no need to hang around her mother so much, nudging Mas knees till Ma pushed her away complaining it was too hot for fooling around.

Herschel was always giving his little sister presents, things he found in the dump hed bring home for her, there were two dolls hed brought for her called Maggie and Minnie, and now Maggie was Freydas doll, and Minnie was Rebeccas doll, and the four of them played together around the side of the house in the hollyhocks. Maggie was the prettier of the dolls, so Rebecca gave Maggie to Freyda because Freyda was the prettier of the sisters, and more special because she was from Kaufbeuren in Germany across the ocean. Maggie was a girl-doll with plastic rippled brown hair and wide-open blue eyes but Minnie was just a naked rubber doll-baby with a bald head and a corroded pug face, very dirty. The way Herschel had given Minnie to Rebecca, hed tossed the rubber doll high into the air making a wailing-baby noise with his mouth and it landed with a thud at Rebeccas feet scaring her so shed almost wetted herself. So when Minnie was bad you could discipline her by throwing her onto the ground and it would hardly hurt her but you would not wish to throw Maggie down, ever, for Maggie might break and so Maggie was the better-behaved of the dolls, and obviously smarter because she was older. And Maggie could read words, a little. Pas old newspapers and magazines Maggie could read while Minnie was just a baby and could not even speak. Of such matters Rebecca and Freyda whispered endlessly in the wild-growing hollyhocks in the very heat of midday so Ma was drawn to come outside to peer at them in wonderment, hands on her hips.

Asking Rebecca what on earth was she doing in that hot dusty place, who was she talking to?-and her voice was throaty and cracked and alarmed, and Rebecca turned away blushing and sullen refusing to look up from the dolls as if no one had spoken at all.

Go away! Go away Freyda and I dont need you.

But Monday was laundry day, and both girls were eager to help.

For Anna Schwart did not leave the stone cottage often, and this was a special time. She would tie a scarf hurriedly around her head to partially hide her face. On even very hot days she would wear one of Herschels jackets over her shapeless housedress. So that if someone was spying on her (from the cemetery, from behind the crumbling stone wall) they could not see her clearly. Jacob Schwart had tried to shame his wife out of such eccentric behavior, for cemetery visitors certainly noticed her, shook their heads and laughed at the gravediggers crazy wife, but Anna Schwart ignored him for what did Jacob Schwart know for all his radio-listening and newspaper-reading he knew nothing about their Milburn neighbors. She knew.

Yet the laundry had to be washed in the old washing machine in the shed, and the soaking-wet clothes pressed through the hand-wringer, and placed in the wicker basket, and the basket had to be hauled out into the backyard, into the bright sunshine and gusty air. And Rebecca helped carry the basket. And Rebecca and Freyda handed Ma things from the basket to be pinned on the old rope clothesline tied between two posts to flap and slap and clapclapclap on windy days. Rebecca made Freyda laugh by pulling an undershirt over her head when Mas back was turned, or letting a pair of shorts fall into the grass accidentally-on-purpose like theyd squirmed out of Rebeccas hands, but Freyda took away the undershirt and the shorts to hand to Ma for Freyda was a good girl, Freyda was a serious girl, often Freyda put her forefinger to her lips Shhhh! when Rebecca was being loud or silly.

In Rebeccas bed, they snuggled and cuddled and hugged and sometimes tickled. Rebecca slid Freydas warm bare arm across her side, over her ribs to snuggle closer so Rebecca could sleep not hearing Pas radio voices in the night.

Oh, that delicious swoon of a dream: Rebecca and her new sister Freyda walking to school together in matching jumpers and shiny patent leather shoes along the Quarry Road, and along the Milburn Post Road, a mile-and-a-half walk it was to the Milburn Grammar School, and they would be hand in hand like sisters. And they would not be afraid because there were two of them. Except Ma had been saying this year was too soon, she would not let Rebecca go yet. I want my little girl safe with me long as I can. Pa said that Rebecca would have to go to school, she would have to start first grade, why not this year since she knew her ABCs and numerals and could almost read, but Ma insisted No. Not yet. Not for another year. If they come to ask us we will say that she is too young, she is not well, she coughs and cries all the time.

But Rebecca thought: Freyda will be with me now. And Elzbieta.

The sisters would all walk to school together.

Rebecca felt a thrill of triumph, her mother would not be able to prevent her now.

How strange it was that in those weeks of July 1941 there was such excitement in the stone cottage like the humming of bees in the powdery snakeroot flowers you were not supposed to play near for you would be stung, and a sickish sensation beneath like running faster and faster down a hill until you are in danger of falling yet the name Morgenstern was rarely spoken and then only in whispers. By Morgenstern was meant adults as well as children yet Rebecca gave not the slightest thought to her cousins parents. Freyda! was the only name she cared for. It was as if the others even Elzbieta and Joel did not exist. Especially the adults did not exist.

Or, if these Morgensterns existed, they were but strangers in photographs, a man and a woman in a setting drained of all color, beginning to fade like ghosts.


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