The woman’s hands are wrinkled, the skin hanging like melting wax. She holds her hand in the air. “She is this high”
The village seems to be marked by sorrow. The small houses have sagging roofs, as if pummeled by a fist come down from heaven, and the ground is frozen and hard. The men walk with bent-over backs and there are few children here.
“A spiritless place,” Emmy says.
But when they arrive at the address, a neighbor of Chasya’s cousin, the door opens to the smell of apples and cinnamon. The walls are draped with handiwork, and the woman who bustles them into the house — strangers, without an invitation, with no forewarning — wears a headscarf that is embroidered with daisies. The white petals seem to gleam.
Felix blinks. Is this Sarah the matriarch, bringing guests into the house without thought, without plan or …?
It is only when they have eaten and drunk that she asks them. “And now how may I help you?”
“We have come to ask you about your daughter.”
The woman stares.
Felix takes a deep breath. No one said this would be easy. “A friend gave us your name, and said that you would be able to tell us a story. You see, I am collecting stories of young girls who have been taken or were moved across the world.”
“Are you from the police?”
“No. I am from a newspaper.”
“And will it help my Pesha?”
He hesitates. “No. It will not help your Pesha, but it might help other girls like her. It will be a warning, explain to people that they must take care, they must not fall prey to these traps and ensnarements.”
The woman becomes very still, as if she has moved into a different place, and left her body behind as a marker, to signal where she should return to.
Emmy pokes him.
Felix coughs. The woman blinks.
“I… I am sorry for disturbing you. We will go now.”
One winter’s day, Hans and Bertha go out on their daily walk. The snow is melting and the cobblestones are covered in gray slush. Outside, they meet a little girl.
“Do you have something for me to eat?” the little girl asks them.
Hans and Bertha look at each other. “No,” they say.
“For I am cold and tired and hungry.”
“Where is your home?” Hans and Bertha ask.
The little girl just shrugs her shoulders.
Hans and Bertha know that it is right and proper to help out another person, especially in a time of need. This little girl seemed to have many, many needs, so they decided that they would like to help her.
“I know,” said Bertha. “Let us go to the forest. There, we will gather firewood. Some of it you can take home and make yourself a good fire that will warm you. And some of it you can sell, and earn some money to buy a loaf of bread. And perhaps the farmer will give you a cup of warm milk, besides.”
Another address. A woman covered in a dark brown shawl pulls Emmy into the house and makes her sit at the table. The house smells of damp. Felix follows after. The woman plants her elbows on the table and then rests her head in her hands as if is too heavy for her to bear. “You want to know about Zissel?”
“She only eats apples without a single bruise. Even if I cut away the bruises, no, that is not good enough. A princess, my Zissel. She wears clothing sent from Hamburg. A cousin packs up her dresses after each season, and Zissel tries them on and takes the little hand mirror and checks herself up and down, up and down. And she says, perhaps I can ask my cousins to send me a big mirror.”
Emmy interrupts the woman’s tales. “Do you have a picture of her? A photograph? What did she—” does she? — “look like?”
“Oh, yes.” The woman’s hands are wrinkled, the skin hanging like melting wax. She holds her hand in the air. “She is this high.”
Emmy clears her throat. “But that would mean that she did not grow.”
“Ah.” The woman looks confused for a minute. “So taller, then, for I think she is taller than me.”
“And where is Zissel now?” Felix asks gently.
The woman shakes her head, and a mixture of sorrow and confusion enter her eyes. “Every day, I go to the beis olam, to look for her gravestone, but I never remember where it is. I search and search, and read through all the names, but I never find her.”
And so Hans and Bertha and the little girl walk across the town and into the forest. It is dark in the forest and the wind whistles through the trees as if they are telling some secret that they do not know about or think about or dream about.
The first few layers of trees are fruitless: Their feet sink deep into the muddy earth, sticky and thick from the melted snow. As they get deeper into the forest, however, they start to find sticks aplenty on the forest floor. Excited, they gather the sticks into their arms. Already they can see the fire, burning cheerfully in the little girl’s home.
Suddenly Hans stopped still.
“Whatever is the matter?” Bertha asks.
“Do you hear it?” he asks.
He stopped and listened closer. Oh, it is just the wolves, howling at a distance, he thought. Or perhaps a strange bird that is flying overhead.
Another village. Another set of doors.
“Could we ask you about your daughter?”
The woman points up, toward the sky. “I think she is in a better place. Safe with the Basheffer.”
They thank her and leave.
Hans and Bertha run deeper into the forest. It is quieter there, and darker too, and the place is dry for the ground is covered with layer after layer of dead leaves.
The little girl catches up a handful. “Do you think these will burn?” she asks.
“They will burn,” Hans says, “but only for a second.”
“And that will not be enough?” she asks.
“It is enough to cheer your heart but not enough to warm your bones.”
The little girl nods.
“Here,” Bertha says, picking up a stick. “This is what we need.”
And the three children gather stick after stick until their arms are full and their cheeks are warm.
“Here is enough for you to sell in the market and for your own home, too,” they say to the little girl.
They look upward and glimpse the sky between the canopy of the trees. “The day is almost gone,” Hans says. “Let us return home. Tonight you will have a fire and tomorrow you will take your sticks to the market.”
Hans and Bertha begin trudging through the forest. Their arms are filled with firewood and their legs are heavy from trudging through the muddy ground. When they reach the edge of the forest, they stop for a rest. They put a pile of wood onto the ground and sit down on a low branch for a rest.
“Where is the little girl?” Bertha asks.
They look this way and that, but the girl is nowhere to be seen.
At the entrance of the village store: “I am looking for families of lost girls.”
A crumbling wooden door: “I am looking for lost girls.”
In the shtibel: “There are meidelach who went missing.”
The provincial police station: “Jewish girls who have been sold, oh, not intentionally of course, supposedly saved by a job, an opportunity, an immigration certificate. Saved from poverty and pogroms and degradation and murder.”
And instead given over to long, confusing journeys and servitude and beatings and endless minutes as if G-d himself has placed them into a slingshot of cruelty and thus scattered them across the world.
Where are they?
He combs the streets, stops people in shul, he and Emmy accept tea and cinnamon cake, and slowly they learn which questions to ask, and the fragments begin to emerge.
Brazil. Bueno Aires. Istanbul. Odessa. Berlin. Vienna.
Who are they?
A girl with blonde braids. A girl who baked biscotti that would melt in your mouth. A girl with dark brown eyes, the shape of almonds. A girl with a voice so beautiful that even the birds would stop their song to listen. A girl who would take her little brothers and sisters down to the riverbank every summer evening, and play with them in the water. A girl who taught herself to read and begged her father to teach her Chumash. A girl who would pause in the middle of sweeping the floor, and stare out of the window, dreaming of her future.
“Little girl! Little girl” they call out, but their only answer is the wind and the creaking branches and from far off, a wolf’s howl.
Bertha feels tears begin to fill her eyes. She looks at the pile of branches that they have gathered, all three of them, to warm the little girl’s home and to bring her money for food. As she stares, the brown branches soften and slide and form the shape of a little girl.
Bertha blinks. The wood child stands, puts her arms around herself for warmth, and then runs past them into the forest.
Hans reaches out and takes Bertha’s hand. For a long time, they sit and stare.
When they are both shivering from cold, they jump down from the branch where they have been sitting. They want to bring home the pile of sticks, but they are gone.
When they run home and their mother asks them where they have been all day long, they do not know what to say.
Eventually, Hans says, “We went to the forest.”
“And we met a little girl there, but she disappeared.”
Emmy shivers and pulls her coat tighter around her. “And that is the end?” she asks.
Felix looks around the village square. He raises his hand to encompass all of it: the barrels stacked on one side; weeping willows; the birds pecking for worms; the old water carrier, bent under his yoke; a cluster of youths trying to push each other onto the ground; the words spoken and unspoken; the stories that travel on the wind.
“Yes,” he says. “All of this is the end.”
“Disappeared?” their mother asks, sitting up straight. “But the parents must be notified. The police must go and search for her. A child alone in the forest?”
She looks at them both and a little worry line appears between her eyes. “And what is the little girl’s name?”
Hans and Bertha look at each other. “We do not know,” Hans answers.
“We did not ask her.”
Their mother nods. “Very well, then. At least you can tell me what she looks like. Perhaps that way we can find someone who will go searching for her.”
They stop and think. Bertha clutches her hands together and closes her eyes, trying to picture the little girl in her mind. But when she opens them and looks at Hans, they both shake their heads.
“We do not remember.”
“Come, children. You must remember. Was she tall or short, fat or thin? Did she have blonde hair or brown?
But no. They cannot remember. It is almost as if she is not a child at all, but a spirit. She has gone and there are only a wisp of something and a slight coldness on the skin, as if someone has just opened the door to leave and a wild, wet wind has swept into the room in its place, leaving ice crystals on their eyelashes and their fingertips.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 723)
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