Shadowmothers

Part 1

Edith
April 2010

The brutality of the attack dominated the lives of all. Everywhere for a week, in the streets, at home, on the news, the police investigation had raised a growing number of questions, riddles really. Continuous requests for interviews bombarded their lives, all trying to get hold of something. It was as if the media wanted to parade their heads on poles triumphantly across the screen.
The calls continued to seep in through all sorts of electronic devices in a surging wave of buzzes, beeps and giddy ring tones. Without anyone noticing she had fled the house.

The featureless view from the window of her student room displayed nothing but relentless grey mundanity. People moved mechanically in their daily grind.
With a jerk she turned from the window and sat down on her bed; the flight from home no more than a slap in the face with a cold wet towel. Without the comfort of an unblemished past to lean on, the air was sucked out of her future.

She pressed herself to find Ruben’s face in her memory, but to no avail. The attempt to hear his voice delivered nothing but utter silence. Even in retrospect he did not want to live on.
It was her fault, she never tried to bother much. She should have gotten to know him better, done more things with him. It was only during holidays, from time to time, or on weekends that she had actually payed him a visit. Ruben had been more like a brother to her. Motherhood conveniently deferred was simply a matter for the future.

A wrenching sadness stabbed pointedly in her stomach at her every move. She tried to imagine the feelings her mother must have had. She knew the boy’s behaviors, moods and ways. It was her mother who would miss him, not her.
Grandmother howled ceaselessly, day after day scolding and raging. This morning her mother had started to rage in return. An irreversible rolling explosion, a helpless duet filled the house, herself no more than a passing spectator.

Mightily she freed herself from these thoughts and tried to find an explanation for the absurd facts that the police had uncovered. How in the world was it possible that DNA from both the father and son were found at the scene of the attack? He had never known his child. As far as she knew he had never been told. Now the father had died in that school along with his son. The mystery was beyond her.

Edith gently rocked herself in her own embrace, her face buried in her arms. An involuntary feeling emerged that she never would have ventured. The thought that something was finally over and done with gave her a sense of relief. In deep confusion she looked around.

Nina (Penina) 1943-1947
I
There is a strange self-awareness that you are there and knowing it. Quietly this thought lingered in her head. If so then there are two ways to use words; for thinking and for talking. Why are the words you think different? She took a big gasp of air and took off even faster until the swing set nearly tilted over. The swish in her ears gave her a nice tickle. She stopped the swing and leaned backwards as far as possible, facing the sky.

Your audible words are also someone else’s. When other people direct them to you they can drill their words deep into your mind. Those words then sound nasty, and are made purposely cruel. You do not want them to linger, but you cannot throw them away either. You can’t purge them in any way, that’s the trouble. She decided a word laundry is what’s badly needed.

It might be that the troublesome feeling of a mean word disappears if you repeat it often enough to yourself. It will frighten you at first but in time you get accustomed to the sound. The thing is that there are words you can never get used to. These words have creepy faces that look at you in a weird way. They secretly hope you’ll feel miserable every time you hear them.
It started to rain. She jumped off the swing and slipped into the kitchen.

“Mom, I’m not your real daughter, right? How did I come to live here?”
Her mother was stirring at the laundry boiler on the stove. She looked angry, and overheated. It seemed as if she did not even want to look at her.
“I’ve told you over and over that you have to stay away from the boiler when it is cooking!”
Nina took a small step backwards. She got a strange feeling in her head and looked at the kitchen floor. It had been scrubbed clean, but on the sides and in the corners there was yellowish discoloration between the tiles.
Outside the sun had vanished behind thick clouds only to suddenly flop back in place a little later. In the bright light you saw how big steam clouds bulged through the kitchen. The windows were fogged, and heavy drops left thick streaks across the glass.

The woolen collar of her sweater suddenly felt hot in the steamy air. She rubbed her neck and slid her feet so that each foot was placed in a tile with one row in between. Soon the splashing in the tank came to a halt. Her mother put the cover on the kettle, dried her hands on the tea towel and turned around. She could not tell if her mother was angry, but she did sense a peculiar sadness.
“Come!” said her mother as she stepped toward her, “We’re going to the living room for a moment.”

A bulge started pulsating in her head, a pounding that did not want to stop. “Jewish bawler, no mother anymore!” she heard taunting at school. It wasn’t blatant, it was more a kind of hissing from behind. When she tried to walk away they always came after her. Until Annie that is, her girlfriend next to her in school. Annie seized the biggest bully, Fritz, by the scruff of the neck. She was very strong, and Fritz was screaming with his head wrenched back. She held firmly.
“I will not let you go unless you swear you’ll never say that ever again to Nina.” She pulled even harder.
“I swear, I swear!” cried Fritz.
“What are you swearing to?” Annie asked, holding him tightly not caring the least about Fritz’s kicking. “What are you swearing to? Well, what?”
Tears welled in Fritz’s eyes. In the end, he said, “I swear I’ll never say Jewish crybaby again to Nina. Honest!”
Annie still would not let him go. She stared with furious eyes at the other children before she loosened her grip on Fritz.
“That goes for all of you too, you stupid apes!”
She turned to Nina. “So now the bullying’s over.”
Nina looked at the smudges on Annie’s legs. Annie wiped them off mechanically.
“Come on, let’s get to class,” Annie said.

Annie! It was clear she had older brothers! Nina still felt strange in her head from the harassment and on her way home she had asked, “Why do those children say that?”
“Oh,” said Annie, “don’t worry about it. And you don’t need to hide anymore.”
“But some time ago I had to go in hiding,” said Nina after a while. “We sat at the table when a line of cars drove into our street. My mom quickly brushed my food back into the pan and brought the empty plate to the kitchen. I had to sit upstairs in the big closet behind dad’s good suit. I had to remain frozen and wait until they could come back and fetch me!”
Annie looked for a while at the pebbles on the footpath. The sun had started to shine again, and the clouds seemed less dark.
“Mama later said that nothing was going on.” They were almost home.
“Let’s go play at my house!” said Annie.

Nina now reflected on her stay in the locked closet. The stale air had left her throat parched. She wanted to call out, but stopped herself just in time. Her eyes teared and her nose felt terribly itchy, but she stopped herself crying and listened for sounds. Sitting in the dark, the house seemed an alien place as if she had never been there before. She heard the voices of strangers. There, alone in the closet, she had decided to ask mum whether she was her real child.

As she entered the living room with her mother, the space seemed to change. It was much bigger and much brighter than before. She saw how mama walked wobbly on her legs and opened a drawer. An envelope appeared with two photos in it. One showed a little girl barely able to sit up with one hand at her mouth, eyes large with fright and a neat little bow in her curls. On the backside was written ‘Penina’ and below it: ‘1937’. The other picture showed a father and a mother in front of a house. The father carried a bulky baby in his arms, and the mother was holding hands with a little girl. On the back was written ‘In front of the house, 1940’. She looked at it for a while before handing over the pictures. Mama raised the baby photo and pointed at it. “This is you! And this photo was taken in front of the house where you lived.”

The back of her head began to rumble, followed by a soft dark growl. All of the sudden an electric storm rushed through her whole body. She could only fight it by screaming and kicking as hard as she could, but the growl did not want to stop. With long squealing howls she cried while Mama held her firmly. Outside it slowly became dark. Father came in and she felt how he lifted her up and carried her to her room.
Mama came straight behind them and undressed her. She was no longer fighting. Behind her thick eyes an overwhelming calm set in. Her mother laid a cool hand on her head as she sat next to her on the bed, while father walked down the stairs. The light in the hallway was still on. When mama gently rose, the bed squeaked a bit. She saw her glancing over her shoulder as she tiptoed out of the room. The door was left open just a little.
Downstairs mom and dad moved about. She heard soft but urgent talking. Sleep did not sink in right away, not even when it had gone quiet in her head. There was a thought she could not grasp, and an awful feeling stirred in her belly. All of the sudden she knew what she had meant to ask. She should have asked where they had gone, those people in the picture.

Translated under the supervision of William Westhead