Nothing will happen that is not meant to be.
These were the words of the mocking derelict Jesus. Rebecca heard them taunting her through that long winter and into the freezing spring of 1949 which would be her final year in the old stone house in the cemetery.
It would be said in Milburn that the end came for the Schwarts soon after Herschel’s criminal behavior, and his flight as a fugitive, but in fact eight months intervened. This was a time of stasis and confusion: when one is locked in the paralysis of sleep, even as the dream is broken, disintegrating. Rebecca knew only that her father’s episodes of fury and despair, anxiety and sodden alcoholic depression, alternated more frequently, and were not to be predicted.
More and more, Jacob Schwart found fault with his remaining son. The boy’s very name filled him with contempt: “”Gus.“ What is this ”gus‘-“gas’? Who is named ”gas‘?“ Jacob laughed, this was very amusing. Even when he hadn’t been drinking he tormented the boy:
“If our Nazi enemies took one of my sons, why not you? Eh?”
And, “God is a joker, we know: taking my firstborn son and leaving behind you.”
Strange, Jacob Schwart’s English speech was becoming ever more heavily accented, as if he’d been living in the Chautauqua Valley only a few weeks and not more than a decade.
Gus mumbled, to Rebecca, “Why’s he hate me? I never made Herschel go nuts like that.”
Unlike Herschel, Gus could not seem to stand up to their father. And Jacob Schwart was a man who, when unopposed, grew yet more contemptuous, cruel. Rebecca had seen how at school if she tried to ignore the other children’s taunts, the taunts were only intensified. You could not placate a bully. You could not wait for a bully to tire of his cruelty, and find another target. Only if Rebecca fought back immediately did her tormentors let her alone.
Temporarily, at least.
Poor Gus, who had no work outside the cemetery. No life outside the stone cottage. Their father refused to let him get a job, as Herschel had done, and earn his own wages. Nor did Gus have the strength to break away from home, for their mother was dependent upon him. By the age of nineteen he’d become Jacob Schwart’s (unpaid) assistant. “Get out here! Get your ass here! I am waiting.” In the smallest matters, Gus must obey his father; Rebecca thought he was craven as a boy-soldier, terrified of disobeying his superior officer. She’d loved Gus when they were younger, now she shrank from him in disgust. By degrees Gus had become a captive animal, his spirit was squelched. His hair that was thin, fawn-colored, was seriously thinning, he scratched his scalp so. His forehead was becoming furrowed as an old man’s. He suffered from mysterious skin rashes, always he was scratching with his nails. Rebecca cringed seeing Gus poke his forefinger deep, deep into his ear canal to scratch wildly as if hoping to claw out his brains.
Since Herschel had left home, the persecution was worsening. But it had begun years before when Jacob Schwart insisted that Gus quit school on his sixteenth birthday.
Jacob had said, matter-of-factly, “Son, you are not bright. School does nothing for one like you. On the terrible sea voyage, you were afflicted with dysentery and fever. Once the brain starts to melt like wax there is no recovery of intelligence. At that school you are surrounded by our enemies. Crude, coarse peasants who laugh at you, and through you laugh at your family. At your mother! It is not to be tolerated, son!” When Pa worked himself up into righteous anger, there was no reasoning with him.
It was true, Gus had to concede. His grades were poor, he had few friends, the majority of his classmates avoided him. Yet he’d never caused trouble, he’d never hurt anyone! It was his inflamed skin that exuded a look of fury. It was his small close-set eyes that regarded the world with such distrust.
So Gus obeyed his father, and quit school. Now he had no life outside the cemetery, beyond Jacob Schwart’s domain. Rebecca worried that one day her father would insist that she, too, quit school. He had so bitterly repudiated the world of learning, of books, words. And Rebecca’s mother would wish it, too. You are a girl, you don’t want something to happen to you.
(Rebecca was puzzled: would she be punished because she was a girl, or because she was the gravedigger’s daughter?)
One day in late March, when Gus was helping their father clear away storm debris from the cemetery, Jacob Schwart became impatient with his son, who worked clumsily and distractedly; Jacob cursed him, and feinted with his shovel as if to strike him. Of course, Jacob was only joking. But Gus’s cringing response, the look of abject fear in his face, infuriated the older man who lost his temper and struck Gus on the back with the flat of the shovel-“Fool! Donkey!” The blow wasn’t a hard one, Jacob Schwart would insist, yet out of perversity Gus fell, striking his head against a gravestone and cutting himself. A short distance away, several visitors to one of the grave sites were watching. A man called over asking what was wrong, what was going on, but Jacob Schwart ignored him, cursing his fallen son and commanding him to get up-“You are shameful, to behave so. Pretending to be hurt like a baby.” When Gus struggled to his feet, wiping at his bleeding face, Jacob raged at him. “Look at you! God-damn baby! Go, go to your mama, suckle Mama’s teats. Go!”
Gus turned to his father, staring. There was no look of abject fear in his face now. Bleeding from a cut in his forehead, Gus regarded the older man with an expression of hatred. His fingers twitched, gripping a wide-pronged metal rake.
“Do you dare! Do you! You! You do not dare, go suckle Mama’s teats!”-so Jacob Schwart raged, as his son advanced upon him with the uplifted rake. At the same time, the man who’d called to them was now approaching them, cautiously, speaking calmly, trying to dissuade them from more violence. At the grave site, two women clutched at each other, whimpering in alarm.
“Try! Try to strike your father! You cripple-baby, you cannot.”
Gus held the rake in his trembling hands and then, abruptly, let it fall. He had not spoken, and would not speak. As Jacob Schwart continued to rage at him, he turned and walked away, unsteady on his feet, dripping blood on the snow, determined not to fall like a man making his way across the deck of a pitching ship.
When Gus entered the house, there was Anna Schwart awaiting him, quivering with emotion.
“He? He did this to you?”
“Ma, no. I fell. I did it to myself.”
Anna tried awkwardly to embrace her son, who would not be embraced or impeded at this time.
She was begging, pleading. “He loves you, August! It is just his way, to hurt. To harm where he loves. The Nazis-”
“Fuck the Nazis. He’s a Nazi. Fuck him.”
Anna soaked a towel in cold water, to press against Gus’s bleeding forehead. But he had no patience with her nursing, he seemed hardly to feel pain, the bleeding was only annoying to him. “Shit, Ma, let me go. I’m O.K.” With surprising roughness he shoved Anna aside. In his bedroom he emptied bureau drawers onto his bed, yanked his few items of clothing out of his closet, threw everything into a pile. He would fashion a crude bundle out of a flannel blanket, and tie up his meager possessions inside. His distraught mother could not believe what she was seeing: her wounded son, her only remaining son, so elated? Smiling, laughing to himself? August, who’d rarely smiled since the terrible morning of the swastikas.
On the kitchen floor, in the hallway and in the bedroom, bloodstains would gleam in August Schwart’s wake like exotic coins Rebecca would discover when she returned home from school to the silent, devastated stone house.
Like the other he never said goodbye. Left without seeing me never said goodbye.