Fiction by Karen Mandell
Margalit looked out the window facing the orchard. Some apples still dwindled on the trees, drying up, almost useless unless she could get them in the next day or two. Plenty of drops. She wondered how many had been worked over by the deer. There’d still be enough. Every year she worried and every year her pots overflowed with steaming applesauce.
She stretched and felt where the doctor had worked on her hip. An incision, already healed, where he’d scraped out the rough patches on the bone where arthritis had set in. Then stitched her up like Motti did with his coats. Two things to contend with: An operation. Unexpected. Fearful. She didn’t trust hospitals. Doctors were just feeling their way with dangerous tools. And a new son-in-law, Motti, who three months after the wedding was already out of sight, thousands of miles west. Helen could have left with him—they’d been sent money enough by the ones already there— but she insisted on helping her out. Not every day my mama has an operation, she’d said. That was true—she was one of the first in their village. Then the men already settled in the tropics decided it would be better anyway to bring across a man who could work and send money back for the next one in the chain. Helen would go eventually. Maybe she would too. How could she be separated from the family? They wouldn’t come back to a place that had never accepted them, though her people had lived here for generations.
She planned how she’d get stronger so that she’d be able to join the others. Gymnastics before dawn, at least stretching. Good meals. She had all the root vegetables, beets, potatoes, carrots, turnips, nicely put up in jars and stored on planks in the cellar.
She was feeling pleased with herself and though she knew war had been declared, their village was remote enough to avoid the consequences. So far. The market still went on every Thursday, although Helen had insisted on her waiting another week or two before she went back to make sure she was strong enough. She was. At the market she’d meet all her friends and not-so-friends at once and catch up on everything. But for a while now, even before her operation, her friends had nothing much to report on except some run-of-the-mill gossip that everyone knew about anyway. Their adult children weren’t letting them in on some big stories. It’s the war, Cerise had said. Don’t kid yourself. They’re almost here. At night I can hear them marching.
Lissel pointed out that the whole town would be on alert if there were any marching. And look at them. People were buying, venders were selling. But the spirit of the market, the give and take, had dulled over, like silver that hadn’t seen the light of day for a year. Our kids are avoiding telling us the truth, Ashira added. They’re afraid for us. She had been the assistant head librarian and had read every book, knew every expression. For years she had given Margalit books to read. Unlike many of the women, Margalit had learned at her father’s knee with her mother helping her sound out the letters as she tucked her in at night.
In a couple of days, Margalit put her apple plan in action. At dawn, she pulled slightly shrunken apples from the trees, picked up any drops that still had a bit of life in them. She worked slowly, not overdoing, not wanting any part of her body to act up. She knew it was good to work outdoors at your own pace. That was the difference between her and the young people who worked the farms. They kept going until they were ready to fall down, and then the same thing the next day. No time to recover. That had been her life and her husband’s life too, until he died from weak lungs. Like all mothers, she’d wanted a better life for her children, free from work that would wear them down to a nub, free from the hate that at times lay dormant but too often boiled over. Houses burned, bodies broken. It was an old story.
By lunchtime, the pots were steaming, dozens and dozens of apples cut up, thanks to Helen. So, Margalit said, thinking it was time for a nice little chat, when do you think we’ll leave here? Shouldn’t we go before it gets too cold? The letters say it’s plenty hot over there. It’ll warm our bones. Helen didn’t say anything. She just stirred and stirred.
Margalit tried again. A lighter tone. Are you thinking about your husband—she let the word draw out—and what he’s been doing. I hope he’s found something more to his liking than spicy beans. He needs you to cook for him. He picks and he pokes and then barely eats a thing. All the men here are like that. Your father was too, Margalit said. They just want to be coddled.
Her daughter tried to smile, but it was a crooked line like a child might draw. Talking about food, Helen said, we got a nice batch of canning done this year, didn’t we.
Well yes, Margalit said. Too bad we can’t send it out to Motti.
No, Helen said. A lot of those jars are going to be for you. She took the ladle and spooned applesauce into the clean jars on the sideboard. Margalit screwed on the lids. For me? Margalit said. Why do I need so much applesauce? Am I known to eat more than my share?
Of course not, Helen said. That’s not at all what I mean. Listen, you remember my friend Liesl from school. She’s up north now, married.
I was at her wedding, Margalit reminded her. Her mother said she’s expecting again.
Yes, well I got a letter from her. Helen couldn’t resist touching the crumpled paper in her apron pocket. She heard that the people in a town near the border have been ordered to work in factories, making things for the war. Coats, pants.
I suppose our soldiers need them, Margarlit said.
No. They’re making things for the enemy. They’ve been ordered to. And now it’s our village. We heard. We’ll have to leave. A transport, some trucks, are going to take us. At the look on Margalit’s face, Helen tried to soften her tone. Going to some factories to do war work. Sewing buttons on soldiers’ greatcoats. Bundling up socks. Packing up rations for shipment. Soft work, actually. Maybe they don’t trust us for anything too complicated. She didn’t say that her friend also wrote that after six months they still weren’t back.
All right, Margalit said. We’ll do what they say. They’ve been here before. Years ago, I’ve told you. Some were gruff. The older ones. They missed home. The younger ones were spirited. They didn’t hurt anybody here. The boundaries changed a little, not much.
I think they’ll bring us back pretty soon, as soon as we finish up the work, Helen said. How many socks can they need?
Margalit became more anxious as Helen tried to smooth out the situation. What does she know. She’s just a grown-up child. So when do we leave? How much do they let us pack?
That’s the thing, mama, Helen said. You don’t have to go. Margalit stared at her. All right, we’re not letting you go. You’ll stay here, up in the attic. Where Motti and I stayed until he left. With the tighter window he put in, you won’t get a draft in the winter. If we’re gone that long. All his painting, his putting up shelves will be put to good use.
You’re leaving me in the attic, Margalit said. Just like that. You who stayed with me when you could have left with your husband.
You’re putting it all wrong. We don’t know how far these factories are, could be a full day, even overnight. Anyway, a train ride away. Sitting and bumping for hours. And then standing at the machines.
You don’t need a machine for bundling socks, Margalit said. Just a table. And maybe they’ll give me a chair.
Mama, it’s too far. We may get hungry or thirsty on the way. What do you need that for? You know you’ll be so much more comfortable at home. You’ve got to build yourself up and only being at home will do it. Believe me, I wrestled with the whole thing. Of course I don’t want to leave you by yourself. But it’s the only way. I would stay here with you, but my absence would be obvious. You’re lucky you’re an older woman who people tend to forget about. She wrapped her arms around her mother, kissing her cheeks. Not a wrinkle on them, Helen said.
In the end, Helen won. Margalit had pointed out that she could help Helen, cook for her, clean. Helen said it was likely they’d stay in dormitories and food would be provided. When they come for us, you just stay up in the attic. You’ll have books; we’ll put food on the shelves. In the middle of the night, you’ll carry down your bucket, then take in some fresh night air. Our part of town will be emptied out, so no one should see you. Just play it smart. You can do your stretching right under the full moon.
It’s not always a full moon, Margalit told her. But the fight had leaked out, like air from an old ball. She was tired. Maybe she should be the welcome party when they came back.
When the soldiers came, they used a bullhorn to tell everyone to go outside. They said they’d have an hour to pack a suitcase and a bag with food. Helen rushed inside to kiss her mother goodbye. They held each other, pressing their faces together, one tall with sandy-red hair, the other slightly stooped, her chestnut hair lavishly streaked with gray. Helen had packed her case a few days ago and wore the bulky clothes that wouldn’t fit inside, a thick blue sweater with a shawl collar, her winter boots, her wool pants, though it was only October. Trying to hide her growing anxiety, Margalit asked if Helen’s mittens were in her pocket.
Helen patted her pocket. And you, she said, smoothing the new lines around Margalit’s eyes, remember the shawls and coats upstairs on the shelf for when the house gets cold. And there are scarves. Always wrap one around your neck to prevent sore throat.
Who taught you that, little mama, Margalit said. I’m glad you listened.
Maybe someday I will be a little mama, Helen said, pulling her eyes away from Margalit’s and patting her flat stomach. Margalit thought the tears would burst from every organ in her body, lungs, liver, intestines, skin.
Don’t walk me downstairs, Helen said when the soldier ordered them outside. They mustn’t see you. Write me a letter every night and I’ll read them when I come back.
Margalit pulled back the curtain a quarter inch and peered out. Her friends, her relatives, everyone remaining in their part of town huddled together. The soldiers herded them into orderly lines and led them to the trucks. Later on, they’d transfer to the train. It was strangely quiet, maybe because of the contrast between the clear autumn day and their uncertain situation. Anything was possible. The trucks roared and pulled away.
The window open a crack, Margalit breathed in massed gray clouds that dampened the small flicker of her spirit. Almost immediately, she couldn’t take in another full breath. Her heart floundered; her lungs stopped working. The unexpected sight of the Udo, the neighbor boy perched in an apple tree straightened out her heart. He defied orders—good for him. May he live a hundred years. May we all.
It stayed quiet after the trucks disappeared. The other part of town kept away, as if they too would be caught if they came too close. The silence stretched, immense, into the night. When Margalit went outside in the dark, she couldn’t hear her feet shuffling through the leaves and twigs. When she brought up water from the well, she couldn’t hear the pump (had it been greased?) or the water splashing into the pan. It took three days for her hearing to come back. By that time she had forced herself into a schedule: get up, wash, wind the clock, brew tea (after an hour in cold water it would be almost as dark as hot brewed tea), eat (oats mixed with water and applesauce the night before), do exercises, read, knit, eat (the same but now with canned peaches), write letter to Helen, straighten up, sleep (if possible).
One night, an almost full moon making her feel both vulnerable and relieved, someone coughed as she was priming the pump. Maybe the cough belonged to her, maybe the pump needed oil. Her heart, now the size of a firefly, collapsed in her chest. It’s just me, a young man said, Udo. She splashed water on her shoe and immediately starting shaking, though it wasn’t a cold night.
How did you know I was here?
It doesn’t matter, Udo said. We have a network. You’re not the only one left here.
Who else, Margalit said, her mouth as dry as tree bark. Did Helen at the last second run away?
Udo rubbed his shaved head. He looked like a soldier. No, but Ashira is in her house. In her case, the cellar.
Can we see each other? Could she stay with me in the attic?
Not possible, Udo said, authority in his young voice. I have some things for you. He pulled jars of beef tongue from his rucksack, a warm quilt. From someone’s house, not important whose.
But I’ll need to pay them back later.
Later you will. Now I need some things from you. If I may, he added, remembering his manners.
Margalit felt some of her life pooling at her feet. Manners, who needs manners at the end of the world. She bit the inside of her cheek for having such despairing thoughts. Only good thoughts, vigorous thoughts would save them.
We should go inside, Udo said. We’re pressing our luck. Anyone could come by.
Soldiers? Margalit said.
They’re gone for now. Other towns to wrap up. That’s why we can practice in the woods. We’re leaving tomorrow.
For a moment, Margalit couldn’t imagine what they would be practicing.
He lifted his shoulders. Not such big things, he said. How to detonate a small bomb in trains carrying supplies to the front. We jump out, roll down the hill, poof, end of train. At least a few cars.
Moonlight poured in through the kitchen windows. We need knives, Udo said. Good butcher knives, not too big. Margalit pulled out the knives her husband had made before their wedding, the blades still sharp and strong, no rust on them, their handles tight.
What else? She looked at his shabby quilted jacket. Maybe socks, she said. Motti I think left his wool socks here. Said he wouldn’t need them where he was going. When she came back downstairs, Udo had packed away the knives and put on a well-worn tweed cap. He looked like the newspaper boys she’d seen in the streets when she went up north for her hip operation. She hugged Udo fiercely. Be careful, she said. Watch out for yourself and your friends. Thank you for the food. She’d remembered her manners. Maybe Udo had put a little life back into her.
You’d better go back upstairs, he said. It’s not altogether safe.
Are your parents with you, Margalit said.
No, they’re at the factory. He emphasized the word. They didn’t look at each other. It wasn’t possible.
When he left, Margalit’s head echoed with his words. Bombed trains, dubious factories—Udo had practically said as much—knives. She thought again about the soldiers from years ago. They hadn’t hurt any of the local people. She’d just keep telling herself that. She’d seen them. Perfectly harmless. Don’t be a fool, she scolded herself.
She couldn’t sleep—that was always the first thing to go. But she was ravenous. She ate most of a jar of calf tongue, relishing every bite. How does it figure—you’re living in fear for your family, for everybody, and you eat like there’s no tomorrow.
Maybe there was no tomorrow, she thought, the blanket pulled high on her chest. Of course tomorrow would come, the sun would rise, but maybe there was no future. That’s what she meant. Still, she had to stay alive for when they came back. She had to believe and not believe at the same time. Either way, the reality would stun her. Logic told her that in her life people who left came back or wrote you why they wouldn’t. So why should she believe different? She rolled onto her right side, got into her sleep position. You have to keep things as normal as possible. Margalit put the back of her right hand under her chin. When the moon slipped behind clouds that rose like dough, Margalit thought she had a chance for sleep. Not possible. Udo’s words. Nothing was possible with their part of town gone. She felt like a worm trying to excavate an entire building site by itself. Not possible. She pushed herself up. Yes, she had to look after herself until they all came back, keep her strength up for them.
She pictured the trucks bringing her people back. They’d be dusty from the ride, pale from long hours in the factory, needing bone broth, good cuts of meat. She’d wait for them. As long as it took. As long as she held out. But there was something she could do now in the middle of the night. She pulled on her black shawl with the fringe she had so enjoyed knitting. When, a century ago? She dug out the burlap bags she used at the market and took them with her, downstairs, outside. She stayed off the road and walked on the verge under the plane trees. Her feet crackled twigs and leaves, but she thought she sounded no different than the unseen animals in the dry matted grass.
She turned left on Ulika Volka and went to the back of the second house. She tried the door but of course it was locked. She tossed pebbles at the window that was flush with the ground—at least there was a window. She whispered into a crack where the wood frame had pulled away from the glass, wake up, wake up. It’s me, Margalit. Let’s go to my house. Margalit waited a long time, then tapped her nails on the window. Ashira flicked the curtain aside maybe an inch. Margalit could see a green eye and an unruly tuft of gray-brown hair.
Thank goodness it’s you, Ashira said. I’ve been going out of my mind. But go home, they’ll catch us. Margalit told her to unlock the cellar door. She was coming in.
The cellar had a packed dirt floor and high enough ceilings so that Ashira could stand up straight. Her children had set up a bed with an eiderdown quilt and rows and rows of shelves with food, neatly folded sweaters and housedresses, and piles of books. You can stay with me, Margalit said. There’s more space and the well is right out back. We’ll keep each other company until they come home.
Ashira dropped her face into her hands. When she looked up, her eyes were glazed and puffy. Could we? she said. They’ll allow it? Her voice, like her body, was weak and thin.
No one will know except us. Has anyone come here since the others left? Ashira shook her head. Then we’ll allow it, Margalit said briskly, jolted by her assurance. Let’s put your things in these bags, and tomorrow night we can come for more.
Tears ran down Ashira’s face as they packed. They were too busy to say much, taking mostly clothes and some jars so the loads wouldn’t be too heavy. She was a little broken, Margalit thought. Pieces of her had fallen off, trodden on the cellar floor. And, Margalit admitted, she herself wasn’t far behind. Together—she lifted her shoulders and dropped them—it would be better. They would manage.
At the house, Margalit draped an embroidered sheet over the small couch in the corner and threw on Udo’s quilt. Ashira could have her bed tonight. They would alternate. Ashira, smart, sharp-eyed Ashira looked like a child cringing under the blanket. The cuffs of her nightdress were grimy. Margalit wanted to make life normal for her and not merely out of some fine feelings of helpfulness. She was afraid that Ashira’s sour state would drag her down, too.
Tomorrow night we’ll wash clothes, Margalit said. I do it in the stream out back and hang them in the parlor. Scrub ourselves down too.
I’m afraid, Ashira said.
We won’t be downstairs very long, Margalit said. Then we’ll dash upstairs and read in bed.
I’m not afraid of being seen, Ashira said. She pressed her lips on her tightly twined fingers. No one’s come around. But they’ll look at the list and see we’re missing.
Is it too ridiculous to say let’s not worry about tomorrow? Margalit said. Because I don’t have the strength.
Already you don’t have the strength? Maybe that’s a blessing, Ashira said.
Margalit lay down on the sofa. Lumpy, too short, but just perfect. She would never complain again. She dearly hoped—she’d give her own life if the children—meaning anyone younger than her and Ashira—had someplace comfortable to lay their heads. Margalit pressed her face to the window and leaned her forehead on the cool pane. At dawn, geese flew in formation on their way elsewhere, a long V stretching across the sky.
Helen pressed down on the pedal. Too hard. The needle jerked forward, making small bunched stitches that she had to cut out. She didn’t have the knack for getting the machine to move smoothly, with just the right pedal power. The thick loden green cloth didn’t help matters. There were finishing the nurses’ midweight coats with attached capes. Right now her group was hemming the coats and capes, while others were hemming the sleeves. They laid the finished garments on a table under the only window, the piles little by little blocking out the sun. Like an eclipse, Helen thought, an eclipse in a grimy factory. Helen hoped that Motti was sewing in a clean, well-lighted room with a soft breeze from an open window. There’d be no loose threads or dust to coat his throat or sting his eyes. She wished afterward he’d have a good meal, then write her a letter at a little desk with a vase of jasmine.
Kjell, the foreman, got up from his desk and moved in front of the window. Now that all the work here is done, he said, tomorrow morning we’re moving on to another factory where they need you to put together ration kits. After that they have something else for you. Never idle. The corners of his lips lifted, imitating a smile. So. He rubbed his eyes, probably thinking of his lunch. Helen imagined herring in sour cream, twice-baked potatoes, lamb.
Tomorrow morning you will leave your suitcases in the hall outside the dormitory. Just bring a change of clothing. We can supply a bag if you don’t have one. We won’t be gone terribly long. We’ll store the suitcases here for when you come back. Now I release you for lunch. Don’t be late. Per usual, we always have work to do.
Lyra was waiting for her in the corridor. Where do you think they’re— she began, but Helen shushed her. Listen to me, Helen said. We’ll eat fast, leave the dining room early, stop at the dorm and grab a bag—I have two market bags if you need one.
Lyra couldn’t get a word in as Helen bulldozed on. Then each of us will come back to the factory floor, take two nursing coats each, stuff them in the bags and hide them in our suitcase. Then tomorrow morning, we’ll take them out, put the suitcases in the hall like Kjell said, and go nonchalantly out to wait with the others for our transport. She stopped to catch her breath.
So we’re going on the train with four stolen coats. Lyra’s pale skin blanched, highlighting the freckles across the bridge of her nose.
I said nothing about going on a train. The others are going on a train. I would stop them if I could. We are going someplace.
Home, Helen said. We’re going home. We’ll be nurses and later our mothers will be nurses.
Lyra put her face in her hands. I shouldn’t have left her in the cellar, she said. She must be miserable.
How would she have survived here, Helen said. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Maybe we should have put my mother and Ashira together. That was a mistake. Another reason to go home. We made a mess of things.
In the lunchroom, they ignored the skimpy soup and went right for the hard-boiled eggs and fatty beef-like meat. There was no way of knowing by its taste. Helen coughed and covered her mouth with her hand, neatly slipping two eggs down the front of her shirt. Two stale rolls found their way into her smock pocket. She nodded at Lyra to do the same. As planned, they left early and went to the dormitory. Helen grabbed the bags out of her suitcase, and they went back into the
workroom. Helen’s heart was bouncing and leaping and Lyra’s hands trembled violently. So far, they were completely innocent, except for the stolen eggs and rolls. But that thievery was a common enough practice—who could blame you when your stomach was never satisfied.
No one was in the room. Kjell was probably still in the officials’ dining room, and he was prone to come in no earlier than he had to. Still innocent, Helen ran her hands over the coats as if accessing their quality. What she was really doing was checking sizes sewn into the neckline. She folded two coats and slipped them in Lyrah’s bag and did the same with hers. Lyrah hovered behind her unable to open her fist and grab the handle. Go, Helen hissed. Stuff the bag under your smock. Then in your suitcase. In the corridor, she heard scraping of metal chair legs being pushed back from the table. Helen hurried on, the coats filling out her chest to improbable size under her smock, wondering how she could walk so briskly if she found it impossible to breathe. By the time she got back to her seat, she was dizzy and weak. If anyone asked what was wrong, she’d say…something. Words usually didn’t fail her, but right now she couldn’t think.
They spent the rest of the long afternoon taking out bobbins, oiling the machines, sweeping up loose threads and dust. After supper, the women went back to the dormitory, knowing they’d have an early start in the morning. Yvette, the matron, sat in her rocking chair. She wore a yellowed white dress and a nurse’s cap, though she was no nurse. She had at some point gotten it into her head that a nurse’s cap lent her an air of authority or sexuality or something else that Helen couldn’t put her finger on. Yvette’s cot stood in the front of the room, the others in vertical rows behind hers. Her purpose was to insure that they went to sleep when she said so and to break up squabbles, such as who really owned a disputed chemise. She had favorites, those who’d get a piece of candy before bed or a sip of whiskey from the flask she carried in her ample pocket. Some were just inexplicably made favorites; others had to work up to it. Perhaps not inexplicably—it helped if you had curly hair, a cheerful disposition, and a curvy body. The curves wouldn’t
necessarily be evident under the smock’s coarse material, but she also watched them get undressed at night, dressed in the morning. She knew.
Helen kneeled down in front of Yvette, rocking and knitting, peaceful after her supper. Can I bring you a glass of tea from the kitchen? They’ll let me if I say you needed it.
Go ahead. Earl Grey. Light, two sugars, she said. Only the staff had tea or coffee. The rest of them got by on greasy broth or water.
Yvette also had a tiny room on the far side of the kitchen. That’s where she did her reports, kept her clothes, and washed up. Helen asked a cook who was wiping down the tables with a dirty rag about the tea and said she’d be back in a minute.
A minute? the cook said. I don’t have four hands, mind you. You come back in ten. That gave Helen the time she needed to slip into Yvette’s room. Unlocked, a miracle. Maybe she’d had too many gulps from her flask on the way to the dormitory. She locked the door from the inside and carefully went through the bureau drawers next to a small desk. In the forth and last drawer she found what she was looking for, each wrapped in thin paper. She took four, tucked them into her smock—which had become a very convenient holding place—and went back for the tea. How could she not have planned for nursing caps? At least something had possessed her to look at Yvette’s head tonight. Tomorrow would have been too late.
Yvette grimaced at her, her attempt at a smile, exposing her short brown teeth. Cook had me wait ten minutes, Helen said. I hope it’s still hot.
Hot enough, Yvette said. That was high praise. Ah, they put honey in it.
In the morning, a designated quiet time, though the women usually muttered to each other until Yvette gave them a look, they were stone quiet. Even though most had long finished packing their bags, some still took things out of their suitcases—a picture they couldn’t bear to part with, an extra washcloth, a few sheets of paper—and put them in their bulging bags. Everyone hunched over her possessions, not
wanting Yvette to see. She’d been known to pluck out a pair of socks from someone’s open suitcase and say, Very nice, beautifully knitted. You wouldn’t mind, would you?
Helen and Lyra had every reason to keep their bags private. Stealing could mean death, as far as Helen knew. After all, they were working for an enemy’s army. What had she been thinking of? She felt the sheen of sweat on her back and forehead. She had no choice but to pull her face together and show nothing in her eyes.
Yvette glanced at her but merely said, it is hot in here, isn’t it. Anyone have a little fan? A young girl handed her one—two sticks that opened to a peacock, feathers spread across the shiny paper. Yvette had a new toy.
After a skimpy breakfast, they lined up outside and walked the half-mile to the train station. It was a glorious day, with a mild breeze that played with their hair, the October sun, still owning a reservoir of strength, and drifting leaves that gave off a vegetable smell. Even though Yvette and an armed guard were with them, Helen gave in to the pleasure of walking outside. That lasted less than a minute, but it was something. Lyra didn’t move from her side.
I’ll look at you and nod, Helen murmured.
I know. I’m ready. Helen knew Lyra was shivering inside, waves that broke over her, pulled back, broke over her again.
At the station, the stationmaster told them that the train was delayed. Not for long, I’m sure, he said. That’s how it goes.
Yvette glared at him. That’s why you were overrun by us so easily. A cavalier attitude, what happens, happens. Stupid people.
Perhaps you would like to wait inside the station, he said, looking at the ground. You and some of your…helpers.
Yvette went in to see what comforts the station could offer. The guard stood outside, obviously torn between his duty to protect her and his need to flirt with the girls at the front of the line. Flirting won out. Who could blame him? An innocent blue sky, girls (some weren’t too thin), the twittering of birds. He pulled down the brim of his hat, apparently aiming for a rakish look.
Now, Helen hissed. Little by little, they had drifted to the back of the line. They ran towards the woods on the other side of the tracks. The air had lost summer’s humidity, so that they could gulp in huge breaths, filling their lungs. They ran through the trees, branches snagging their clothes. Helen had to stop first. They crouched under an old poplar, their lungs burning. When they gained enough strength, they ran again. Eventually, they came to a swiftly flowing creek where they drank so long and so hard that they couldn’t bend at the waist.
Let’s rest here, Lyra said. I don’t hear anyone. Maybe we’re safe.
We can never count on that, Helen said. I’m thinking that if there’s a stream there’s a village nearby.
Shouldn’t we stay away?
Someone could tell us how to get back home.
Just like that.
We’re nurses now, Helen said. People don’t look at nurses as runaways.
She dumped out her bag. She put on the smaller nurse’s coat and cape, which had a large turquoise cross machine-embroidered on the back. She’d done dozens of them herself. After Lyra buttoned up her coat, they pinned on each other’s nursing cap. You look exactly like a nurse, Lyra said.
Because that’s what we are.
We have no identification, Lyra reminded her.
We’ll have to make do with our demeanor. It’s like a nun. Whoever asks for her identification? Maybe we should eat, Helen said. Half a roll.
Munching, they walked downstream, looking for a crossing. Near an embankment, the water was shallow, with flat rocks they used as stepping-stones. They curled up under a stand of birch trees, whose peeled bark made a nest for them. They covered themselves with more bark and leaves, hoping to blend in.
Those trees are scary, Lyra said. So white, like skeletons. Helen thought they were beautiful. My grandfather made a walking stick out of birch, she said. And a little one for me.
They didn’t think they’d fall asleep—they didn’t think they should fall asleep in case guards brought dogs to sniff them out. They’d have to be alert, ready to run. Helen rubbed her feet—sore, bruised, blistered. No matter. Her eyes closed, she felt as if she was still running. Like when she’d been out in a boat in the summer: at night she’d still feel the rocking and rhythm of the lake. She wanted to consider any contingencies they might encounter the next day, but her thoughts dissipated like smoke. In the morning, both of them ached—sleeping on the ground didn’t help—but at least their minds were clear. Lyra had a fingernail’s worth of dried up lipstick at the bottom of her bag, and they used it sparingly on their lips and cheeks. They brushed off the leaves and twigs from their nurses’ coats, fixed their caps at just the right angle, and walked toward the chimney smoke of a village some kilometers to the west.
How odd, to have a good night’s sleep when you didn’t know if you’d survive the night Ashira said. She was half lying/half sitting on the attic couch with Lyra cross-legged on the floor, holding her mother’s hand. Helen and Margalit sat on the bed; Margalit couldn’t stop looking at her.
Margalit ran her fingers through Helen’s tight curls. You’re thin, Margalit said. But that can be fixed.
Can it? Helen said.
We still have all these jars, Margalit said. And Ashira has more at her house.
It’s the workhouse we have to make up for, Lyra said. But on the road, we had plenty. One look at us and they couldn’t do enough, even the ones with empty eyes.
It had taken them three days to get home, hitching rides on trucks filled with produce, hay, and even squealing piglets. The two of them usually sat together on the passenger seat, the cargo behind them, unless someone was driving without goods so they could spread out a bit.
They looked at us as if we were healers, that laying a finger on them would cure them.
So did you give advice, Ashira said.
Only what we learned from our mothers, Lyra said, squeezing Ashira’s calloused hand. Wash out a cut, drink baking soda and warm water for stomachache, put honey on bug bites, daub vinegar on windburn. It was seeing sick children that upset us.
Helen nodded. Fortunately, none of them was in bad shape. Mostly croup. So I gave them Papa’s recipe: a chunk of butter put in boiled milk and honey. You drink that and you’re better in the morning.
I wish I’d known that, Ashira said.
I must have told you years ago, Margalit said.
No, you didn’t. I would have remembered something so useful.
Maybe your children never got the croup so you forgot about it.
Comforted, Helen relaxed a notch listening to their familiar, mild disagreeing. Still, she and Lyra hadn’t told them about their plan, and that was a worry. Being older, feeling anxious and vulnerable, they might not want any part of it.
I’m going to brush out your coats, Margalit said, getting up. Nice thick gabardine like that repels stains. Motti could have added a flourish or two, make them more stylish.
At the mention of his name, the rest of them didn’t know what to say or where to look. He’s safe where he is, Helen said. Thousands of miles away. And we’ll be with them too. Very soon.
What are you talking about, what do you mean, the mothers said, how could it be possible, you’re talking about skipping across countries, we’d never make it.
Lyra, you explain, Margalit said. You’re sensible and logical—Helen just throws out wild ideas.
Skipping across countries, no. We’re just going across our country, Lyra said. How’s that a wild idea? And then a boat, she added. Like Motti and the others took. All arrived safely. She didn’t mention that they had left before war had been declared. Now there were enemy boats on the water, just waiting to destroy.
I wish we had all left, years ago, Margalit said. But no, I needed my garden, my friends. I was stupid. I wish we could take all our relatives and friends with us now. But they’re gone. Vanished.
We can’t think like that, Lyra said. We’ll break down. The women were all fine when we last saw them. We never saw the men and the children. Someone said the children were in a nursery. And if we were fine, there’s no reason the men wouldn’t be. Anyway, Helen and I have to go before they come here looking, and we’re not leaving you again.
We’ll do some walking—you two are plenty strong for that—until we get to the train station—not the one we left from, of course—and then we just sit and go north, looking out the window, until we get to the sea, Helen explained in what she hoped was a level, sensible voice.
That’s the length of the entire country, Ashira said. Still, we won’t hold you back. We have no choice. And if it’s not the enemy looking for you, it’ll be the other townspeople, wanting all the empty houses. It’ll happen.
Some kids from the other side of town were playing around here the other day, and one threw a stone at the window, Margalit said. The window was open a crack and I whoooed like a mad owl. Haven’t seen them again, but they’ll get braver. More curious. She placed her arm on Ashira’s shoulder. We’ll find the wherewithal to leave.
It took two days to get ready, one day for baking bread for the trip and eating as much as they could of the remaining jars, the second for packing clothes, a couple of knives (for our food, Helen assured them) warm socks, sturdy sweaters, a dress for each of them—all crammed into four market bags. They redid them several times, trying to get the weight down. Bare necessities, Ashira said.
Leaving well before dawn, they walked to the train station on the northern branch. The air was pungent from the smell of piles of burning leave. They had rarely taken a train, only when someone needed glasses or serious medical care, as Margalit had. But the stationmaster likely wouldn’t recognize her, and certainly not the three others. And now, of course, they were nurses. Remember, Lyra had told the mothers, when someone calls out Sister, that means us. Nursing Sisters.
We’re aware of that, Ashira said, grasping Lyra’s hand. It took about two miles until Lyra and Helen took over their mothers’ bags. Ashira and Margalit had been on their feet their entire lives, but the surprising autumn heat, the heavy coats, the loaded bags took their toll on them. As they passed through a one-street village, two boys ran after them.
They tossed their schoolbags under a tree and asked if they could help. We don’t want much money, the taller one, maybe twelve years old, said. He had red hair with a stubborn-looking cowlick. The other boy, his short pants held up by a rope, was a bit craftier. Any coins would go to help our mothers, he said.
You can hold them, but stay right by our sides, Margalit said. We don’t want you running and falling over a rock, everything tumbling out. We have aspirins and bandages for the sick. And we might have some coins for you.
They carried the four bags. All of them feared that the boys would take off with everything they owned, but apparently coins had greater usefulness for them.
They couldn’t have run far with the bags, Helen thought. Certainly she could catch up with them. They reached the train station after about a mile, Ashira and Margalit thirsty and dusty. Helen and Lyra doled out coins, small denominations, until the boys each had six or seven. They ran to the pump outside the station house and filled two metal cups lying on a plank in the grass. They brought them to Margalit and Ashira, who stared at the boys, stunned. Tell your mothers they’ve brought you up right, Ashira said. The boys nodded and ran off.
I can’t believe it, Margalit said. Such nice boys. They run wild, those kids, but someone taught them.
Those mothers should have brought up your boys, Ashira said.
Tah, Margalit said, waving away Ashira’s words. Maybe they should have. Though they both knew that their sons were wonderful and couldn’t be improved upon, it was nothing you could say aloud, banish the evil eye. More important, their sons were safe, half a world away from the dangers brewing here.
The stationmaster stood in a hut behind an empty window frame. Helen wondered if the pane had been stolen. A breeze whirled old ticket stubs and decaying leaves, and Margalit’s eyes watered from the dust. Maybe it was too hard for the mothers, this foray to the sea, with the lies and false identities she had imposed on them. The stationmaster busied himself for a while with forms and timetables. One may be master of a hovel, but that didn’t mean he had to snap to attention when his services were needed, Helen thought. She could read his thoughts from his pinched face and the narrow line of his lips.
Helen was about to ask for the tickets when Lyra cut her off. Lyra beamed at the stationmaster, showing her gleaming teeth; even a bad diet hadn’t had a chance to ruin them. Thank you so much for helping us, she said. We’ll need four tickets to the end of the line, please.
The man looked them over. I certainly hope you’re not leaving the country, he said, his face pinched and his lips a thin slash. Not that it’s so easy. Practically impossible now anyway. We need nurses here if we’re ever going to get the soldiers back on their feet. He placed his stubby hand on top of the ticket book.
Nothing like that, Lyra assured him, her voice sing-song and caressing. We’ve been assigned to a hospital way up north. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of casualties near the border.
He spat at the word border. The enemy had streamed out from their side, mowing down anyone in their path with tanks. But all right then, he conceded. You’ll have your hands full. He passed over the tickets, took their money. Train’ll be here in half an hour.
They sat down on a weathered bench beside the tracks. Helen and Lyra looked at each other. None of their plans had included looking at a timetable. They might have missed the last train of the day had it not been for pure luck. Of course, they wouldn’t have known where to find a timetable for the northern line, but that didn’t excuse forgetting about it entirely. What other mistakes or lapses were they going to make? They needed to be sharp, alert; at least Lyra had known to sweet talk the man—something she herself hadn’t thought to do. She sat there berating herself until she felt the first rumblings of the train. She jumped up and peered down the track, squinting her eyes, which seemed more nearsighted since their time in the factory. Margalit and Ashira shouted at her to stand back. This was a good time for last minute instructions.
Don’t say anything, even to each other. No raising of voices, no conversations with anyone, no matter how friendly. We’re everyone’s enemy. And they’ll know as soon as we open our mouths.
How can any of us escape, Margalit thought when she and Helen settled into their seats, Ashira and Lyra right behind them. Our country hates us and our country’s enemy hates us. She was thankful that Ashira and Lyra had light eyes, and Helen’s hair was as red as the day she was born. They fit in and she herself would be camouflaged by their approved looks, though much of the population had dark eyes and hair like her. How stupid it all is, she thought. She didn’t think she would doze off—far too anxious for that—but the rhythm of the wheels, the train’s slight lurching lulled her into a light sleep. Until someone pulled at her sleeve, whispering sister, sister.
Margalit opened her eyes, which felt like they had been scrubbed with starch, and saw a swaddled baby in its mother’s arms. The baby’s face was red, her body limp. Margalit gestured unwrapping the blanket and fanned the baby’s face with her hand. She hesitated a moment, then reached into her bag, taking out a bottle of elderberry juice and a spoon. The baby looked dehydrated; a couple teaspoons of juice—which she had grown and pressed herself—would do her good. The mother kissed Margalit’s coat, and Helen pointed the woman back to her seat.
Don’t do that again, Helen said. Now they’ll all come running. The last thing we need.
I was starting to feel like a nurse, Margalit said. I did what a nurse would do.
Just huddle into your seat with your back to the aisle. Like this. Helen mimicked looking dead to the world. We can’t get involved.
Margalit thought that was harsh, but of course her daughter was right. One of them would forget and say a few words, and people would know who they were. The train was filling up fast now, mainly families who wanted to leave the country. And children—probably many of them sick. Margalit turned with a groan and burrowed into her seat.
At dawn, soldiers from their country were waiting at the station. At least they weren’t the official enemy, Margalit thought, but these were friends of nobody on the train. They stormed through, bayonets waving, and pulled off all army-age men—even ones who were on route with their families to another country. There was no mercy. Some had hidden in the storage compartment under the rattan seats, but the soldiers thrust their bayonets into some of the compartments. Obviously, they needed anyone able-bodied or close to it, even though the enemy had already overtaken much of the country. Women and children wept and screamed as the men were hauled out. Horrified, Margalit and the others were desperate to reach the end of the line.
Within an hour, the train reached the port city. The women and children stumbled out, in shock. Some looked for officials who could explain where their husbands had been taken, but there was no one to ask. An enormous ship waited in the harbor, its masthead a woman with streaming hair holding a scepter. Goddess of Mercy was emblazoned in flowing script on the bow. The ticket office, the last building on the path down to the harbor, was abandoned, and the open door creaked in the wind off the water.
They followed the disheartened travellers down to the harbor. No police, no soldiers waiting to check passports, just the ship’s boarding crew. Lyra started her plea to let them aboard though their tickets had been stolen—they had been assigned to work in a clinic in…
Please come aboard, the man said. He was impeccably dressed, in a navy and white uniform, but his face was ashen. We have to leave as soon as possible. If the police show up, we may be delayed indefinitely. We don’t have time to check anything.
Inside the ship, they found an unclaimed cabin. It was on a lower level, close to the kitchen, and the smell of fried fish hung in the stagnant air. Though they were utterly exhausted, they couldn’t stop talking once they closed their door. We’re on the boat, Lyra said. Unbelievable we got this far.
Her mother put her head in her hands. This far? You heard him. The police could be here any minute. Why should we be so lucky to escape? And then anything could happen to us on the open sea. They could pick us off like flies, couldn’t they? Goddess of Mercy. It’s like a slap in the face.
The enemy is going to be too busy to bother with a passenger liner, Lyra said. Soldiers fighting soldiers on land. That’s what they’ve done since the dawn of time.
She has the knack of reassuring, Helen thought. But even in our remote village, we’ve heard stories. Battles at sea. Still, she wasn’t trying to comfort me. It’s the mothers who won’t function if they’re panicked. She instantly felt guilty at her cool assessment. Not only a matter of functioning. We have to calm them, protect them. We’re their daughters. She turned away from the others so they wouldn’t see her wet eyes. She hadn’t had much time to think about Motti and everyone else she loved from their village. She was realistic enough to know she wouldn’t see most of them—perhaps any of them again. It was an unbearable burden.
Listen, Lyra said. The motors. They looked at each other, their fatigue briefly replaced by excitement. The crew had gotten the motors up to cruising strength before the police could sweep down on them. The vibrations thrummed inside them, coursing through their organs, their bones. Their hands and legs trembled from the sensation, and they tottered over to the lower bunks and sat down heavily.
Margalit looked at her hands, shaking, but not from fear. The motors are in our blood, she said. And soon the waves will join them. But it means we’re moving. We’re leaving.
It wasn’t much of a homeland, Ashira said. But it’s all we’ve known.
Still, Lyra said. They’ve written to us. We have an idea what it’s like there.
Beans, heat, humidity, Ashira said. But I will be grateful with every breath and never again say a mean word about anybody.
I’m holding you to that, her daughter said.
You won’t be around me forever, Ashira said. You’ll be off and married and won’t be aware of everything I say. It’s in the hands of the powers that be.
They had allowed themselves to think of the future, even perversely joke about it. It was a luxury, but why not, Helen thought. This way, the mothers could look forward to their new life—they wouldn’t be burdened, certainly not by their daughters, by fears of enemy ships, by gunfire.
The days at sea were long for Helen and Lyra. It was different for their mothers, who were gradually releasing themselves from fear. It’s not as if I’m happy, Ashira said. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy again not knowing what’s happening with our friends. They were walking up and down the deck in the predawn mist. None of them had been sleeping much, considering the pitching of the boat, the cries coming from behind closed doors, the unpalatable food, everything served with dry bread that crumbled like dust, the ever-present smell of frying fish.
Ashira told them she was going back to the cabin; she was exhausted but didn’t expect she’d sleep. Margalit went with her, and the two young women sat on dilapidated deck chairs, careful not to snag themselves on splinters. This boat has seen better times, Lyra said. But then, what hasn’t? Our village, the country, the continent. Us. I’m scared to death all the time, just waiting to be bombed. It’s odd. I thought I’d be afraid being on the sea, nothing but water. Untethered. Claustrophobic, somehow. But that’s not what’s twisting my insides.
The way I’ve been doing it, Helen said, is making deals with the universe. If we’re safe, if the war ends with nobody else dying, if our people are alive, I’ll eat fish every day, fried in old oil, like here. Or if I take twelve steps right, twelve steps left, then recite perfectly three old poems from school, death won’t come that day. But then an hour later I have to do something else, chew my food twenty times without swallowing. I feel at peace for a moment—after all, the ship must be making progress—until it all starts up again.
Do you think the universe really cares how many steps you take, Helen?
Of course not. That’s what’s so crazy about it. It just makes me feel like I’m doing something.
Eating fish every day. How simple! Lyra said. I tell myself I won’t eat except between the hours of six and six-thirty if we live. I have much higher standards, she said, starting to laugh. And I’ll only breathe ten breaths a minute.
So? Helen said. I’ll only breathe five breaths a minute. Both were laughing hysterically now, pounding their feet on the deck and shrieking. It didn’t take long for them to weep inconsolably. When Helen could talk, she said that her father always told her when she was running around and being silly that she’d laugh until she cried. And it always happened that way. I’d fall down and bump my knee and then I’d be sobbing, she said. I miss him all the time.
Maybe we’ll live, Lyra said. Isn’t that possible, too?
That’s the whole thing, Helen said. Some things go on, reassuring, there’s morning and night, the seasons, there’s still gravity, stars, moon, sun. But you can’t predict if you’re going to be alive from one hour to the next.
Vicious people have set it all in motion, Lyra said. They’re not like us. They’ve learned to despise.
Helen took in the morning’s first rays shooting across the sky. Soon the mist would burn off, leaving a roiling sea and restless clouds.