The Home Front
Home was the first word that Hadassah learned that she came to realize had a much different meaning for other people than it did for her. There would be others—love, for instance, or even friendship—but even at an early age she was aware that this idea of home had both a broader meaning and a greater significance for her cohort than she could find in it.
Not that the children were unkind to her. Nobody called her a dirty Jew, or snubbed her because her family name was Mendelboym, and she was not left out of the schoolyard play. The children were kind, really, and if they had any sense that she was somehow an outsider, they never let on in a way that Hadassah could put her finger on. And outwardly there was little reason for them to even notice. She was a ruddy little thing, ginger-haired, with fat little green eyes that belied her Ashkenazi heritage. Her spoken Polish was flawless, and she got top grades in writing. Yet the other children’s common culture had something that she could not share, a sense of home. When they prepared for the Easter holiday, Hadassah just prepared to leave school. When they all unpacked their lunches to eat together, hers had a scent or a shade of color that often caused them to look askance at her meal.
Even in her own family, Hadassah sensed that she was somehow alien. Her uncle, on one of his frequent visits, tousled her hair and lightly pinch her cheeks, asking her questions about school. When she answered he smiled a little, ironically, and said to her father, “This is a strange child you are raising, Brother. She speaks Yiddish with a Polish accent.” Her grandparents chastised her parents openly for their disinterest in any sort of spiritual or even ritual involvement in their community.
Her father, when she helped him stack fruit at his greengrocer’s, would often tell her that Poland itself had a special meaning in Hebrew, that it was a home for the Jews, and he was very enthusiastic about Pilsudski, the president of the Second Republic.
But she felt none of these connections. To her, home meant the smell of honey cake coming out of the oven, or even a chicken stewing. It was the soft fat of her mother’s upper arms encircling her bony girl’s frame. It was the little bedroom that she never had to share, and the doting that her father did over her homework.
At least it had been these things before. But she didn’t want to think about before at this moment. She wanted to unpack the old plates that Andrzej had managed to find and lay them in the cupboard. She wanted to sleep in her own bed. She wanted to pull the curtains and shut out the light and the night. All of it, even the birdsong and the moon and the heavy smell of July fruit rotting in the ditches by the orchards had to go. She had had enough of the outdoors when she had fled Lublin. She had slept in lean-tos, in her clothing. She had eaten cold, rotting meals. She had had enough of remembering all of that.
“Jozefina?” Andrzej called from the parlor.
“Yes,” Hadassah replied.
“This table isn’t level.” Should I cut the legs to match the short one?”
There was a defeat in his voice that she was unaccustomed to hearing.
“No. Prop the short one. Nobody will see.”
She measured her tone carefully, trying to right the course of the conversation. She could not stand an uncertain house.
She walked into the dining room that was little more than a nook. Andrzej stood at the head of the table, his flat palms rocking the top back and forth. He let out a long sigh, punctuated by the knocking of the short leg.
“Is it that bad?” she asked. She took a wooden spoon from her apron and leveled the thing.
He made a gesture with his hand like he was waving away a bad smell. When he raised his eyes, he could see the injury in hers, and he was sorry.
She was unaccustomed to his privacy. They had shared everything during the war. Every detail of their lives was known, not only to each other, but also to the other partisans with whom they had traveled. Every plan, every strike, every meal, even every toilet was common knowledge and affair. This was, however, not the cause of her hurt. That little wave, an unthinking gesture, had reminded her of the way that her father had waved her on when he had sent her away from their house. House was the way that she thought of it at that point, not a home. The house had been crowded with strangers when they had assembled all of the Jews in the ghetto. She had shared her parents’ room then. Some other family had taken her room. And then one day her father told her that they were going to fence the ghetto, and that he wanted her to go. She cried as quietly as she could as she snuck to the Wysocki orchard, owned by old family friends from the grocery business.
She was at the point of crying again as Andrzej looked at her, an apology in his eyes, if not on his lips. He weakly smiled and turned to go.
“I need to get dressed for work.”
His police uniform was hanging over the door to their bedroom. She thought to herself that she would need to get some hangers at the market today. One of the first things she had noticed about him when they had met was his clothing. His appearance was a sharp contrast to his grubby compatriots. Even if he had spent the night in his old field uniform in a ditch, he had always looked sharp and pressed. When she had first come to the camp as a cook, he had always shown a gratitude and refined temperament, even if she had had nothing but potato to boil. And when most of them had died, and she had taken up the rifle, it was he that had shown her how to use it.
She moved into the kitchen and put on a pot of water to boil. She would cook a couple eggs, soft, and serve them with some rolls from the day before. She looked at an apple on the sideboard and decided to cut it up, though she felt a sad swelling in her breast when the knife pierced the skin. She was thinking of Agnieszka. When she had arrived at the Wysockis’ farmhouse, old Jozef recognized her from her father’s shop and spirited her so quickly inside that she wondered if he didn’t mean her some harm. He set her on the hearth and his wife Aniela, in her nightshirt, fussed around her like a hummingbird. Aniela’s pity and ministration tossed her around the house—to the kitchen for a cup of tea, to the bath to scrub her face, and to the closet for some nightclothes. Then she found herself hurried into their daughter Agnieszka’s bed, and she cried, wracking. She felt the older girl’s tubby arms enfold her, and she was able to sleep.
Her reverie had gone on for a couple minutes too long. She pulled the pot from the flame and rinsed the eggs, but they were boiled hard. She made a little curse, too quiet to hear, but brought the meal to the table. Andrzej sat at the table in his crisp police uniform.
“I’m sorry. The eggs are hard.” She looked at the eggs, wrinkling her nose.
“It’s no matter.” He made his eyes soft and kind as he peeled one.
That had been the first attraction for Hadassah, on that morning when she woke up in Agnieszka’s arms. Her little blue eyes in that pudgy smile. No eyes had ever been kinder, not in Hadassah’s experience at least. Neither had they been prettier. And Agnieszka had told her that she had always wanted a sister and she promised that they would keep her on the farm forever, that she could call the orchard home. And when they went out to play that afternoon, Agnieszka had run her choppy run. Though Hadassah could have easily outpaced her, she let herself be dragged along. Agnieszka had a swing under an old oak tree, which she boasted was older than the Bartek tree, near Kielce, which was over 1000 years old. They had lazily hung on the swing together, sitting Hadassah-over-Agnieszka like a spider until lunch. Hadassah’s thighs were warm just thinking about it.
Now here she was, in Kielce, and had never even seen the Bartek tree. She thought that she should go and see it. She wanted to see something rooted in place for so long, but not today. Today she needed to go to market.
“Is there any butter for the rolls?” Andrzej framed the question in a measured tone.
“No. I’m sorry. I’ll get some today.”
“It’s no matter.” He made that little wave again.
But there had been no wave when she had left the farm. Agnieszka had stayed in her room and would not come to see her off. And Hadassah did not want her to see that she wasn’t crying. And anyway, it wasn’t even Hadassah anymore. Old Jozef had told her that she had to go. He could not risk keeping her longer. He warned her that the partisans would likely not take her either if they knew that she was a Jew. So the name had to be changed. She thought that he was pleased that she had chosen Jozefina. She decided that Jozefina didn’t cry. And she didn’t, not until she shot that man in the brush.
“Thank you for the breakfast.” Andrzej said.
He stood up, turned to go but there was a hitch in the turning.
“I’ll bring you a lunch from the market.”
She looked into his face but he didn’t seem to see, instead taking in the room like he was taking stock.
“Well, thank you.”
He walked out of the room. She could hear him putting on his heavy boots in the foyer. The door squeaked goodbye.
She was hoping to grow accustomed to being alone, but it was trying. She cleared the table and busied herself in the kitchen for a few moments, but found herself at loose ends when the work was finished. It was too early to go out. She sat in the armchair in the front room and fell into a dead sleep.
When she woke it was as from a dream, though she could not remember dreaming at all. She slept in fits and she woke often thinking of the man that she had killed. There had been only three of them left then, her and Andrzej and an old soldier named Seweryn. The old man always had a shaggy face, even right after a shave, and he had a dirty habit of wiggling his finger in his ear. He always snorted and spat when she was near, and said that women fighting was a dirty business, and bad luck besides.
They had been moving east through the forest and had come to a rail crossing that ran across a field. They did not like to move in the open, but to go around the field would have taken them near to a town, which they liked even less. It was up on the railroad tracks in the middle of the field that she saw him. She pointed and they crouched. They could see a man indistinctly, could see his rifle. He stalked back and forth across a small clearing between two thickets of brush. The brush rustled—there were at least three or four more soldiers crouched in there, it seemed. Hadassah and her men had not been spotted, they were sure. They crouched on the rails and took aim with their rifles. The man in the brush made a strong gesture, calling one of the others to him, but they stayed in the bushes, all of them. Hadassah held her breath and sighted the man in.
The thing itself happened all of an instant. Someone in the bushes started screaming, and then they all did. The man shouted, one sharp report, and Hadassah started. The gun went off, the man fell. The screaming got frenzied then, and the pitch was high and strange, like a chorus of howling babies, and then they erupted from the bushes. Pigs, maybe six, burst into the field and ran in all directions. Andrzej shot a small one. Seweryn cursed. They broke and ran across the field to the little clearing. Andrzej and Seweryn dragged the pig into the woods, but Hadassah stood over the man. She studied his face. It was still angry, though she was not certain if it was the pigs or her that was the target of his dead anger. Andrzej came and pulled her away. When they had gone a safe distance, they cut the hams and the ribs from the pig. The rest they buried with the gut pile so that dogs would not find it. After they had roasted and eaten as much pork as they could hold, they lay down to sleep. She cried as quietly as she could manage, bitter that she lived in a place where it was necessary to bury a pig but not a man.
When she stood out of the armchair she busied herself dressing to go to market. She picked up her shopping basket and hooked her arm through the handle’s arc. She looked out the window, and could see that the sun had got high. Hadassah eyed the street from the window in the parlor and everything seemed strange. There were too many people on the street for the time—it was before the lunch break when workers from the steel mill would fill the streets—but it was the movement in the crowd that set her ears to pricking and pulled her brow down in a curious frown. Everyone was headed in the same direction, and their footfalls were almost unison, like soldiers marching in step.
When she stepped out her door the air seemed close and she swallowed a few times to clear her throat. The crowd’s tenor reminded her of patrols that had marched patterns through the woods searching for the partisans, and she fell into the old habit of following just behind and out of their earshot. Even so, he could sense that they had no interest in her, only in their destination.
When the small crowd turned into Planty street, Hadassah’s own furtive steps began to mirror the urgency of the rest. The scene was almost fantastical, warlike, perhaps even a nightmare of the war, with beatings in the middle of the street. Someone shot an old man hanging out of one of the upper windows in the Jewish house, where most of the Jews had returned after the war. His cry for help died on the gun’s report. Another man dragged a woman out of the front door and was beating her across the head and shoulders with a battered old suitcase.
Hadassah pushed to the front of the crowd in a spasm, but held short before breaking from them. She took in the scene for a moment before she had the presence to ask her neighbor what this could mean. The man shrugged, a lazy gesture, and told her that the Jews had kidnapped a Polish boy.
And for a moment she stood, dumbstruck as the crowd, though she did not feel a part of it. She scanned the crowd, looking for the police, and found them, idle as the rest at the side of the street. There was a feeling building in her middle that urged her into the street but she swallowed it for a few moments. Then another man broke out and crossed to where the man who had pulled the woman out into the street was beating her with a tree branch. For a moment she thought that the second man, whose step was determined and swift, was going to stop the first. The momentary relief that she felt seeing his stride was crushed when he joined the attacker, kicking the woman with his worn cavalry boots.
And then Hadassah could not stand in the crowd any longer. As she stepped into the street, she had a short fantasy that she would stand these men down, blocking them from their attacks. She imagined that she would announce that she, too, was a Jew, and that the men would leave off in shame. She had no time to execute, or even to rethink this plan, because their violence, with the steady rhythm of a machine, simply folded her in. She said nothing, surrendering to the rage and heat of their attack.
She could feel the hard stub of the man’s boots and the heavy rhythm of the branch on her back. She wrapped herself around the other woman to shelter her, but she was so limp that Hadassah feared her dead. Then she knew that she was going to die, there in the Planty street with the other Jews. She wondered if the man in the clearing had known that he was going to die when she shot him, or whether he had simply died.
But then a hand took hold of her and pulled her out of the beating, and she knew by the heft and care with which she was lifted that it was Andrzej. It was the same grasp, firm and easy, that he had held her with when she lay in the wood after the shooting. He carried her through the crowd, which parted for the uniform. As they left the street, she turned and looked for police to dispel the riot, but the pogrom kept on.
They returned to the house. Andrzej fetched a cool rag and daubed a scrape on her face with a pungent antiseptic. She sat at the uneven table.
“My name is Hadassah.” She looked him in the face, but she could not measure his reaction.
“It’s no matter.”
His eyes did not meet hers. He was intent on the wound as he cleaned it.
“I can’t stay here.”
He made no reply.
“There is nothing left for me here. Do you know that today I wanted to go and see the Bartek tree? It is huge and old, and I wanted to feel how old it was. It’s maybe 1000 years old. I wanted to see something that hadn’t changed for so long. But I don’t want to see it any more. I think that it has changed. I think that everything has changed.” She pouted a bit when she said it, and felt ashamed at the moue.
“Where will you go,” he asked, turning to her. The heat of the question drove off her gaze.
Then she turned to face him, and as their eyes met, they could both see that she didn’t really know what that meant.
Interview with Mark Cecil Stevens
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Mark Cecil Stevens: I have read with fierce appetite since I was a very young child. I started to read on my own at two or three years of age, and the written word has always touched me more than any other medium. I wanted to be a doctor in my youth, though, until I watched a surgery on television. I decided I didn’t have the stomach for that and from then I wanted to write. Fate made me a paramedic first, though, and I’ve seen worse than that surgery since!
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Mark Cecil Stevens: To me, the value of the short story is its ability to illuminate. A skilled writer fashions their narrative so that the world, truth, and reality come into focus through the telling. In this time where truth is so plastic and tribal, this is critical.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Mark Cecil Stevens: Lucia Berlin. Her unflinching verity and tenderness are unmatched. I’ve rarely been so moved by the short form as I have when reading her.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Mark Cecil Stevens: To me, the short story only requires one element—honesty.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Mark Cecil Stevens: Self-improvement. I view myself, like one of my stories, not as good or bad, but as a project that must always improve.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Mark Cecil Stevens: I am currently working my Master of Fine Arts at Naropa University as well a novel-in-sketches that describes the history and sequelae of the atomic bomb and my hometown, where fissile material for the Fat Man bomb was produced.
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