My mother twisted the fringe on the tablecloth into a knot that would not hold. She was reading a book about a futureless, midwinter love affair between two young Russians - a bright-cheeked boy about to enter the Czar's army and a beautiful, stupid girl. My mother frowned at the lovers because she knew they were doomed. She took it as a personal offense that they believed in something so hopeless. With each turn of the page, she twisted her hair faster.
"I hope he doesn't die until spring," she said. "She's too dumb to survive that kind of cold with a broken heart on top of it." My father was not home yet, and the room was like a painting we had made for him. When the knob turned and he had had a chance to take the scene in, we fell back into action - Mother stood up and stirred the soup while the three of us children raced to show our father the evidence that we, too, had been alive all day long - blood on the cloth, firewood piled neatly and a question about the birth of snow.
"The most beautiful woman in the world," my father said, his lips pressed to my mother's hand. The room was rich with the smell of supper, and I placed one soft, old napkin at each of our places.
In our village, all of us - mothers and fathers, grandparents and children, uncles and great-aunts, the butcher, baker, saddlemaker, cobbler, wheat cutter, cabbage farmer - stood in circles around our tables and lit candles while we blanketed the room in prayer. All at once, we tugged at soft braids of bread, which gave way.
I walked to weekly prayers holding my father's hand in a drenching rain. The villagers nodded and smiled to each other, trying to appreciate our place on the turning earth. We concerned ourselves not with the world's many terrors, but with the most mundane of details. My mother said to my crazy aunt Kayla, "This is some kind of rain," and, "Glad I brought the wash in last night." She did not think, I wonder if this storm will last for the rest of our lives.
Kayla said, "Another day in paradise," and took the black top hat off my uncle Hersh's head to shake away rainwater pooling in the brim.
There was an old story that the prophet Elijah was responsible for rain and thunder - his only distraction while he waited for the great and terrible day of the Lord. "Yeah, yeah, we hear you," the baker said to the heavens.
Our village was too small for a proper temple - just over a hundred people - but we made do with the healer's house. In his kitchen: the women and children, quiet, watching rain gather strength out the window. I took note of the puddles forming, wishing I was outside jumping in them, delightedly dirtying everything my mother had scrubbed clean. The mothers had gently stretched the rules of the Sabbath over the years to allow them to do small, easy work while they listened to the service. Several were mending socks, several were knitting. Aunt Kayla had a half-finished needlepoint picturing a basketful of bubble-gum-pink babies wrapped in a pale blue blanket. The babies did not have eyes yet, neither did they have hands. Blind little monsters. Next to Kayla, whose envy seeped out of her like slime, the banker's rounded, pregnant wife tucked a sweater between her shoulder and head and closed her eyes. At her feet, her eldest son, Igor, herded his little brothers and sisters into a tidy circle, distributed toy teacups around and pretended to fill them up.
In the sitting room the men prepared to stoke the coals of faith. But the healer fidgeted. A newspaper in his pocket rustled when he took it out. "There's something we need to discuss," he said nervously. "Before we start." He unrolled it on the floor. WAR. 11 am, SEPTEMBER 3rd, 1939, it said across the front. The butcher turned from picking dried blood out of his nails. The skinny, bespectacled jeweler thumbed his pocket watch. The greengrocer patted his slippery, bald head. The barber read the words out loud, a crack splitting his voice.
Excerpted from No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2012 by Ramona Ausubel.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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