"It's our day of rest," the widow said, indignant.
"This was weeks ago already," the healer said softly. He took a folded square of newsprint from his vest pocket. He opened it, and it bloomed like a flower. He began to read. "The Jewish people ought to be exterminated root and branch. Then the plague of pests would have disappeared in Poland at one stroke."
Sure that I did not understand what this meant, I refrained from tugging on my mother's skirt because her shock-white face frightened me. The mothers who had been mending socks were no longer diving the needle in and out. The tip-tapping of knitting needles had stopped. The banker's wife still slept peacefully, while her children drew closer to her ankles, Igor trying all the time to cheer them up, offering pretend cookies to dip into their tea.
I could not see my uncle Hersh, but I recognized his voice. "Surely this cannot continue. Surely it will be stopped."
"I have a brother in America who says they will not let Germany win the war," the jeweler said.
"We are a forty-day walk from Iasi, and two weeks to Lvov. We are safe here," the baker said.
"Chernowitz is only forty-seven kilometers," the healer said.
The quiet that followed was desperate, starving, rabid. No one moved. We were a houseful of statues, discarded for imperfections. Waiting to be broken to pieces and thrown into the river. What if I die? I said to myself. What if I don't grow up? Even when I repeated this, I did not believe it could be true. My pink hands, my scratched cheek, my brown dress mended in three places - none of these seemed to be disappearing. They were solid and real, indisputable. What force could talk them out of existence?
My mother absently took my braids in her hand and held them like reins. I wished I could gallop her out of this fearful place, faster than the wind, to safety. We remained in the healer's kitchen, and danger crept around us like a salamander. The banker's wife woke up and swatted at her eleven children, huddled close, like a woman keeping flies off the pie. "Mother," Igor said. "We are in trouble." She rested her hands on her big belly and glared at him, her eyes blistering with heat. Do not betray me, the eyes said. Do not wake me from my slumber.
We were completely dumbstruck. Our hearts were racing, but we did not know what to do.
The healer moved his pointer finger across the flaking leather cover of the big book in his lap. He had cracked that spine ten thousand times. The rest of his body fixed, he opened his mouth and started to read. He began at the beginning, his words running over us, a familiar river.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
His voice replaced the blood in my veins. Outside, the rain turned to sheets. Streams began to run over the cobbled streets.
And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas; and God saw that it was good.
And God said: "Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth." And it was so.
And then, as if she had gathered us for her audience, a silver airplane passed, grinding her big propeller at the sky. My mother released my braids, which fell palm-warmed onto my neck. Our faces, pressed to the panes, froze in silence. The young boys seared the shape in their minds so they could draw it later. The girls were not so susceptible to the spell and saw a shiny menace. Moishe shot me an exuberant, shocked look. Regina wrung her hands out. The airplane was low, but the sound of it was not. Igor did not have enough hands to cover the eyes of all ten of his siblings. He shielded the youngest ones and soothed the rest.
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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