Not-to-be-said from that time onward in the stone cottage in the Milburn cemetery were such words as “cousins”-“Morgenstern”-“boat”-Marea. Certainly you would not say “Kaufbeuren”-“Aunt Dora”-“Freyda”-“Germany.” Not that Ma might hear, or in her nervous confusion imagine she heard. Not that Pa might hear for he would fly into one of his spittle-rages.
Rebecca asked her brothers what had happened? what had happened to their cousins? was it so, the Marea had been set on fire? but Herschel shrugged and grimaced saying how in fuck would he know, he never thought anybody was comin‘ to Milburn anyway, not so far across the ozean with submarines now, and bombs. Also there was sure to be trouble about those damn vissas, like Pa had worried about for them.
“See, there ain’t room for everybody over here. There’s these miz’rable people worsen us, a million maybe. Like this damn house, you can figure it ain’t big enough for anybody else! You can figure it. The Yoo Ess Immigradion can figure it.”
Rebecca asked what that was: the Yoo Ess Immigradion.
“The police, like. Soldiers. They got to guard the Yoo Ess so it don’t get crowded with refugees, like. People tryin to get away from Hitler, you can’t blame em. But over here, you can’t blame em either, tryin to keep people out. Why they let us in,” Herschel said, grinning, scratching at the crotch of his overalls, “I sure as hell don’t know. See I’m gonna en-list in the navy pilots, soon as I can. I’m hopin we go to war real soon.”
In that late summer of 1941 and well into the fall, Ma was in bed. Ma was sleeping, or Ma was lying awake-not-sleeping with her eyes closed, or Ma was lying awake-not-sleeping with her eyes open but unfocused, covered in a thin film like mucus that, drying, stuck to her eyelashes. If Rebecca whispered, Ma?-there would be no response usually. Maybe a flicker of Ma’s eyelids, as if a fly had buzzed too near.
Mostly the bedroom door was shut against the family except of course Pa could enter at any time (for there could be no room in the stone cottage from which Jacob Schwart might be barred) and at certain times Rebecca hesitantly entered bringing her mother food, and taking away dirtied plates and glasses to be washed, by Rebecca who had to stand on a chair for the task, at the kitchen sink. The bedroom was a small room only just large enough to hold a double bed and a chest of drawers. It was airless, smelly, dank as a cave. Ma refused to allow the window to be opened even a crack. As she tasted death in the well water so now she smelled death in the humid greeny-tinged air of the cemetery. A cracked and discolored blind was drawn on the window at all times of the day and night so that no one could peer inside.
For those others were keenly aware of the Schwarts in their stone cottage in the cemetery. All of Milburn, New York, was keenly aware. Since the Marea had been turned back in New York harbor surely everyone knew, and laughed their cruel, crude laughter like hyenas. You had to imagine how they laughed speaking of “Mrs. Schwarz”-“Mrs. Warts”-“the gravedigger’s wife”-who had ceased to appear in town and was believed now to be sick with some wasting disease like T.B., brain tumor, cancer of the uterus.
When Jacob Schwart was stone cold sober he entered his wife’s sickroom in finicky silence, and in silence undressed; he must have slept beside the woman’s inert fleshy perspiring body in silence; in the early morning, before dawn, he arose, and dressed, and departed. No doctor would be summoned, for Anna Schwart would have screamed and fought like a panicked wildcat if any stranger attempted to enter her place of refuge, nor did Jacob Schwart seem to consider that she was ill enough to require a doctor. Frugality had become so instinctive in him, he had no need even to consider those platitudes he had learned to mimic out of an infinity of word-formulae available to him in this new, still awkward and improvised language Dollar bills do not grow on trees. Want not waste not.
When Pa was drinking he became noisy and belligerent and stumbling-into-things, Rebecca could hear from her bed where she lay open-eyed in the dark waiting for something to happen that would in fact not happen for eight years. Sometimes when Pa was drunk he became jovial, garrulous talking to himself. He would curse, and he would laugh. Never would there be any audible response from Anna Schwart. When he settled heavily on the bed, you would hear the bedsprings creak as if the bed was about to break, and then often you would hear a spasm of coughing, phlegmy staccato coughing. Probably Pa would not trouble to undress, even to pull off his mud-splattered work shoes for the damn laces were hopelessly knotted.
After his death those misshapen work shoes would have to be cut off his feet, as if like hooves they were merged with the man’s very flesh.
There were no longer meals in the stone cottage, only just isolated and often ravenous episodes of eating. Often the food was devoured out of the heavy iron frying pan that remained more or less continuously on the stove, so coated and encrusted with grease it did not need ever to be cleaned. There was also oatmeal, in a pot on the stove that was never cleaned. There was always bread, hunks and crusts of bread, and there were Ritz crackers, eaten in handfuls; there were canned goods-peas, corn, beets, sauerkraut, kidney beans and baked beans hungrily spooned out of the cans. From a neighboring farm dairy there were fresh eggs, which were prepared swimming with grease in the frying pan; and there was fresh milk, in bottles, kept in the icebox close beside the slow-melting block of ice, for Jacob Schwart did believe in milk for children (“So that your bones will not bend and break, like mine”). When he was sober, he had a taste for milk himself, which he drank directly from the bottle as he might drink ale, gulping thirstily, without seeming to savor or even to taste what he drank, head thrown back and feet apart in a classic drinking stance. He had begun to chew tobacco and so the milk often tasted of tobacco-tinged saliva, after he’d been drinking it.
Rebecca drank this milk, gagging. Most days she was so hungry, she had no choice.
In time, Anna Schwart would emerge from her sickbed and resume, to a limited degree, her duties as housewife and mother. In time, with the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the long-awaited United States declaration of war against the Axis powers, Jacob Schwart would resume some of his old embittered energy.
“In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca.”
“When those others ask where you are from, whose people are your people, you must tell them ”The Yoo Ess. I was born here.“”
“Why this world is a shit-hole, eh! Ask Him who casts the dice! Not one who is no more than dice. No more than a shadow passing over the face of the deep.” His scarred-scabby hand cupped to his ear in an exaggerated gesture, he laughed. “Hear? Eh? A whirring of wings? ”The owl of Minerva soaring at dusk.“”
Bleakly she smiled, yes Pa. Yes.
She would wonder: was there an owl? In the tall trees, yes there were screech owls sometimes, in the night: that high-pitched eerie cry of rapidly descending notes, that meant a screech owl. What “Minerva” was, she had no idea.
Pa’s breath, too, that stank of alcohol and something dank and sweetly rotted made her gag. His dirt-stiffened clothing, his unwashed body. His oily hair, unkempt whiskers. Yet she could not run from him. She dared not run from him. For of his children she, the little one, the unwanted one, was coming to be Jacob Schwart’s favorite. His sons had disappointed him, often he could not bear to look at them. Herschel was sullen and slovenly and resentful of working with his father in the cemetery, for no pay; Gus was growing into a skinny boy with spider-arms and-legs and a perpetual squint, as if fearing a blow out of nowhere. (When his mother disappeared into the bedroom Gus ceased speaking of her and, weeks later, when she reappeared, he averted his eyes from her as if the very sight of Anna Schwart’s raddled girl’s face was distressing to him, shameful.)
And so, those evenings Pa turned to her, the little one, taking her hands and pulling her to him, laughing, teasing, whispering to her of such strange fanciful things she could not comprehend, how should she resist, how should she run from him, oh she could not!
And there was Ma, who would seem never to change. For the remainder of Rebecca’s childhood she would seem never to change.
Though since her mysterious protracted illness she was ever more withdrawn from her family. Her sons, gangling clumsy boys, she scarcely seemed to see, and they, in turn, were acutely conscious of her, and embarrassed by her in that way of adolescent boys for whom the physical, sexual being is predominant. For Anna Schwart’s body was so fleshy, straining against the fabric of her housedresses; her breasts were so lavish, bignippled, and fallen; her stomach bloated, her varicose-veined legs and ankles swollen-how could her sons tear their eyes from her? Perversely, her face remained relatively youthful, her skin flushed and rosy as if with fever. Though Ma was morbidly self-conscious and fearful of being spied upon yet, to her sons’ dismay, she seemed oblivious of how she looked hanging laundry on the clothesline in wind that outlined her back, buttocks, thighs through her carelessly fastened clothes. In an agony of shame they saw their mother, invariably outside when funeral processions passed by the stone cottage, so very slowly. Herschel complained that Ma’s tits were like damn cow udders hangin‘ down, why didn’t she get a braz-zir like women do, fix herself up right? and Gus protested Ma couldn’t help it, her nerves, Herschel should know that. And Herschel said shit I know it! I know it but that don’t help none.
Rebecca was less keenly aware of her mother’s appearance. For Anna Schwart so fascinated her, alarmed and worried her, Rebecca scarcely knew what she looked like in others’ eyes. Rebecca felt the distance between them, even in the cramped rooms of the stone cottage. How even at mealtimes, even as she served them food, Ma’s damp heated face was vacant, preoccupied; her eyes were vague and dreamy as if, inside her head, she heard voices no one else could hear, of infinitely more interest than the crude, quarrelsome voices of her family. At such times Rebecca felt a pang of loss, and of jealousy. Almost, she hated her mother for abandoning her to the others. Her father, her brothers! When it was her mother she wanted.
For Rebecca no longer had a sister. Even in dreams she had lost Freyda. With childish logic she blamed Anna Schwart for this loss. What right had the woman to speak of my little nieces, nephew, your little cousins! What right to show them those photographs, and now to turn away aloof and oblivious!
Especially Rebecca resented her mother talking to herself. Why could Ma not talk to her, instead of these others? Ghost-figures they were, making Anna Schwart smile in a way her living family could no longer make her smile. In the back rooms Rebecca heard her mother murmuring, laughing sadly, sighing. Dropping an armload of wood into the stove, noisily pumping water out of the hand pump at the sink, running the carpet sweeper repeatedly over the frayed carpets, Anna Schwart talked to herself in a bright murmurous voice like water rippling over rock. She is speaking with the dead Rebecca came to realize. She is speaking with her family left behind in Germany.
One winter day when the men returned home, it was to discover that Ma had removed the curtains from all the windows. The very curtains she’d sewed with such excitement, back in July. In the kitchen there had been daffodil-colored ruffled curtains, in the parlor pale rose gauzy panels, floral print curtains elsewhere.
Why?-because it was time, Ma said.
Asked what the hell that meant, Ma said imperturbably that it was time to take the curtains down because she would be using them for rags and a rag should not be dusty because a rag would be used for dusting.
Into the rag-bag in the closet, that bulged with Anna Schwart’s spoils! Jacob Schwart joked to his children that one day he would wind up in their mother’s rag-bag, bones picked clean.
Herschel and Gus laughed, uneasily. Rebecca bit her thumbnail until it bled seeing how her mother stared smiling at the floor, silent.
Except then rousing herself to say, with a disdainful laugh, Why’d anybody want old picked bones in a rag-bag? Not her.
Calmly Pa said, You despise me, don’t you.
Calmly Pa said, Tell you what, Ma. I’ll buy a gun. Shotgun. You can blow Jacob Schwart’s head off, Ma. Spray his brains all over your precious wall.
But Rebecca’s mother had drifted away, indifferent.
Those lonely hours even after she’d started first grade. Following Ma around like a puppy. Hoping that Ma might say, Help me with this, Rebecca. Or, Rebecca, come here! And Rebecca would come eagerly running.
Those years. Rebecca would remember how they’d worked together, often in silence. From the time Rebecca was a little girl until the age of thirteen, when Anna Schwart died.
Died Rebecca would say. Not wishing to say Was killed.
Not wishing to say Was murdered.
And yet during all these years (preparing meals, cleaning up after meals, doing laundry, dusting and scrubbing and shaking out rugs) they never spoke of serious things. Never of essential things.
Rebecca’s mother became enlivened, a catch in her voice, only when she warned Rebecca of danger.
Don’t wander along the road! Stay away from people you don’t know! And even if you know them don’t climb into any car or truck! And stay away from that canal! There’s fishermen that come there to fish, and there’s men on the canal, in boats.
See, you don’t want anything to happen to you, Rebecca. You will be blamed if something happens to you.
You’re a girl, see.
At that school you be careful, things happen to girls at school. Plenty of things. Nasty things. Boys calling to you like from a cellar, or inside something, or hiding in a ditch you run away from them hard as you can, see you’re a girl.
Ma worked herself up into a passion, speaking at such length. Never, at other times, did Ma speak at such length. Warning too that Rebecca should not make the mistake of following her brothers, they were boys and they’d run off and leave her, you’re a girl.
Rebecca came to see that it was like a wound. Being a girl.
School! It was the great event of Rebecca’s young life.
Her mother had bitterly opposed her going. Her mother had tried to keep her home until the very last day. For Rebecca had to walk by herself a half-mile along the Quarry Road before being joined by other children; and, in any case, Ma did not trust these other children for they lived in a run-down shack close by the town dump.
Yet Ma showed no interest in Rebecca’s school, apart from these theoretical dangers. It was as if, when the dangers failed to materialize, she was scornful of school as she was of Milburn and their neighbors. Of course, she would not visit the school as other parents did. (Nor would Jacob Schwart visit the school.) Neither of Rebecca’s parents would do more than glance at Rebecca’s report cards. It would be years before Rebecca realized that her mother could not read English, and so she disdained all printed materials: she was capable of tossing out Rebecca’s schoolbooks with her husband’s old newspapers and magazines they meant so little to her. She paused only to look at photographs, occasionally. Once, Rebecca saw her in the kitchen staring at a photography feature in Life of fallen, bloodied, part-naked men, women, and children, sprawled amid rubble in some far-off city. When Rebecca came closer to peer at the caption, her mother jerked the magazine away and slapped Rebecca’s face with it.
“No. It is not for a girl’s eyes. Bad.”
And once I saw her, who had expressed such a terror of snakes, kill a snake with a hoe. We were hanging clothes on the line and a copperhead came out from under the house, in the grass about twelve inches from my feet and Ma said nothing but went for the hoe that was leaning against the side of the house and chopped at the snake chopped and chopped wildly at it until the snake was dead, bleeding and mangled.
At the Milburn Elementary School, Rebecca’s first grade teacher was Miss Lutter who identified herself on the first day of school as a Christian. Miss Lutter was a thin woman with dust-colored hair and teeth that poked through her tight-pursed lips when she smiled. She told Rebecca and the others that they had souls that were “little flames” inside their bodies, in the area of their hearts; these little flames would never go out, unlike ordinary fire.
Rebecca, who had never heard such a thing before, knew at once that this must be so.
For: the coal-burning stove and the wood-burning stove in the Schwarts’ house were all that kept the house from freezing in the bitter cold of winter, so it was that the flames inside a person kept him or her from freezing, too. Almost, Rebecca could see the flames inside her father and mother, behind their eyes; yet she knew she must not speak of this to them. For any authority outside the family would enrage them.
Any belief of those others told to their children would enrage them.
And there is a fire in me, too.
This revelation made Rebecca so happy, she wished there was her sister Freyda to share it with.