The cage closes around the pre-war elevator in the pre-war building in Forest Hills. For Joshua Davidovich, a childhood of ample Sunday lunches in his great-grandmother’s sixth-floor rent-controlled apartment has overwritten with hungry anticipation any fear of snapping cables. His girlfriend Natalie Myron, having no such memories of this place, belatedly suggests that it might have been better to take the stairs. Should they both meet an untimely demise in this shaft, she thinks, two-thirds of the newest branch of the Marxist Workers’ League would be eliminated, leaving the organization of a vanguard party at SUNY-Schuytenkill in the pot-addled hands of Hippie Bob. Christ, she thinks, she does not even know his last name.
Joshua has been cultivating a Van Dyke beard in emulation of Leon Trotsky circa 1919, but the results are even wispier than the original. His wireless glasses, three-piece gray wool suit and Windsor-knotted tie, being more in his power, he finds more satisfactory. He is oblivious to how bourgeois it looks for such a young man to be so nattily dressed; it is November 1995, and the deliberate anachronisms of steampunk have not yet become a mode of subcultural attire.
Natalie’s dress remains what is sometimes called goth: jacket, tall boots and black skirt too short for the fall chill, all fashioned out of repurposed black rubber, and torn black tights, only a partial concession to the weather. Joshua has asked her to leave off the makeup so as not to frighten his great-grandmother—or the MWL’s National Organizer, whom they will be meeting in the Village for dinner—but she has left the black nail-polish and the hair dyed ink black with a streak of Kool-Aid blue to the right of her part. Even without powder, her skin is spectrally pale. Joshua finds her bare lips and wide, unadorned, phosphorescent-green eyes more beautiful than he expected, but having recently learned the word objectify, he says nothing.
This visit to Shirley Halperin, Joshua’s sole surviving great-grandparent, was a late addition to the itinerary. Having been expelled from the Socialist Youth Organization’s Schuytenkill branch and affiliated to the MWL, Joshua feels the need for guidance on the urgent tasks to be undertaken in the struggle against the SYO’s Menshevik influence on campus. The MWL central office does not have e-mail yet, considering the internet to be a plaything of petty-bourgeois academics, and the Organizer seems chary to discuss certain matters over the phone. Hence the trip into the city. Mentioning it to his mother last week left him little choice but to schedule some time for his great-grandmother.
Since then, however, he has found reason to get excited about seeing Great-Grandma Shirley. Not a promise of lunch: his mother is very clear that he must not go at lunchtime, “or she’ll cook you a three-course meal with enough food for ten people, and she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore. Tell her you’re coming at three o’clock, and the most she’ll do is make you a snack.” Rather, it is the consequence of the latest literary intervention from an elder, this time a professor in second-year Russian who, alarmed by the aspiring young Bolshevik in his class, lent him some translated texts by Bulgakov, Mandelstam, and Babel. Babel having been a Communist militant who, like so many others, fell at the hands of a Stalinist executioner, Joshua took immediately to the Red Cavalry stories, reading them through in a single late night, pausing only at “Squadron Commander Trunov,” set in “gothic Sokal, which lay in its blue dust and in Galicia’s dejection.” Sokal, Galicia: the town in which his great-grandmother began her life, the town from which, he knows, she set out for America as a nine-year-old girl in the autumn of 1920, just after Poland’s defeat of the Red Army.
Shirley has removed the baked chicken legs from the oven and is warming the mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and milk—she gave up on kosher decades ago. The Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda is chilling in the Frigidaire, as she still calls it, and she has some sour pickles, too, in case he should want. It’s not much, but she has no idea when Joshua and his girlfriend could have possibly eaten last. Nothing fancy—her arthritis is too much for kreplach or knishes like he also loves—but she wants the young people to be comfortable. She has never met the girlfriend before, and wants to get a sense of her. She knows he told her that they would be going into Manhattan for dinner, but that’s such a long trip on the subway. Just a little snack to hold them.
The doorbell rings. She turns off the gas on the potatoes, turns on her hearing aid and yells, “I’m coming!” Feedback from the hearing aid whistles like a tea-kettle. She fiddles with the volume control and yells, “Shut up, Shirley!” Joshua hears her from the other side of the heavy door and smiles involuntarily, but Natalie wonders if she is entering the lair of a madwoman. Sensing the need to explain, he tells her over the sound of four padlocks being opened, “She says that every time her hearing aid… It’s the oldest joke in the family.”
He is average height for an American man of his generation, Natalie a bit short for a woman of hers, which means they both tower over Shirley, four-foot-eight and shrinking with osteoporosis. Joshua wonders if there is any smile brighter than an old woman’s: the muscles pull every facial wrinkle upward, so her entire face seems creased with grins, except the skin obscured and distorted by her aquarium-thick glasses. Her eyes shine, but Shirley is not a woman known to let a tear fall. By the time Joshua has bent down to brush a kiss against her papery cheek, she is already commanding: “Come! Come! Let’s sit, I can’t stand around so long. Not the sofa, in the kitchen.” They cross the green and yellow tile-patterned linoleum to the small eat-in kitchen.
Before he can take a seat, Joshua notices the chicken. “Great-Grandma, you shouldn’t!” Shirley is reaching for the plates, shooing Natalie away before she can offer help.
Joshua makes a point of inhaling a chicken thigh, a sour pickle, and half a can of Dr. Brown’s before asking his questions. He tries to resist the potatoes, knowing he will not be able to swallow any dinner if he has some, but Shirley drops a large spoonful on his plate. He takes a bite to be polite, and another few for the taste. This suits Shirley, who has questions of her own for Natalie.
“So, how did you and Joshua meet?”
Joshua, his mouth half-full of potatoes, interjects: “It’s OK to give details; I’m not hiding my politics from Great-Grandma. She was a socialist, too.”
“We met in a socialist club.”
“I didn’t know young people were still interested in socialism these days. I was never much involved. I mean I still am, in Workmen’s Circle, you know, but it’s… Your great-grandfather.”
Joshua, having just taken a draught of cherry soda, feels the need to clarify: “Burial society benefits. My great-grandpa Mendel is in one of their—”
“Natalie, please,” says Shirley, standing up, “Is there something else you should want? You have no drink.”
“Just some water would be nice. What is Workmen’s Circle?”
“It’s something Jewish, from my generation, for working people.” She fills a glass of water and hands it to Natalie. “I was in millinery, ladies’ hats. My husband was a tailor. Always very well dressed, like a rich man. Rich we never were. So, Natalie, I hope it doesn’t bother, me asking, are you…?”
“Jewish? My father is. My mother’s Irish.”
“Oh. One of my ladies from the senior center, Maureen, she’s Irish, too. I hope it doesn’t bother, I’m not prejudiced. Good people are good people. So you meet in this club, and…?”
“You mean, how did we start going out?”
“I mean, it’s hard to say, you just spend so much time together, we were both in an occupation, the administration building at our school and, you…” She hesitates, unsure of how much to say about the faction fight, or of how to translate the phrase hook up across three generations. “You start to see someone differently. I mean really see who they are. Your great-grandson is a good man, intelligent.”
Embarrassed and ready to begin his line of questioning, Joshua tells Natalie, “You should try the mashed potatoes. Really good.” Shirley adds some more mashed potatoes to both their plates, and another thigh to Joshua’s. “So, Great-Grandma, I was just reading this book, and it mentions the place you were born.”
“Sokal?” Shirley is utterly disbelieving. “What kind of a book would mention Sokal?”
“It was written about seventy years ago, by a man, a Jewish man, who was with the Soviet army when they were fighting the Poles. It was in Poland, right?”
“Feh. Who can tell? One day it was Poland, one day it was Russia, one day it was the Austrian, eh…”
“Right. Now it’s probably a whole other country.”
“You could never keep track. For a Jew, for a poor Jew, it never made so much difference, especially for the girls. For the men and boys, maybe they would have to go into the army. And I was just a little girl.”
Now Natalie asks: “How old were you when you left?”
“Nine years old. It was 1920. I know it was already late in the year, because I couldn’t start in school until the next year.”
“Great-Grandma did all of grade school, through eighth grade, in three years,” Joshua tells Natalie. “Pretty smart!”
“Meh. Poor girls never had school in Sokal, and my father wanted me to start working when I turned thirteen. I had to do it, so I did it.”
“So you never learned to read Yiddish?”
“Why should I? I was in America, to learn English I needed.”
“It was your mother tongue.”
Shirley stands up again. “Natalie, let me get you some more water. And another cherry soda for Joshua. I don’t understand why two bright young people should want to listen to an old lady talk and talk.” The hearing aid whistles, and she utters the habitual “Shut up, Shirley!” apparently unaware of the irony. “What are you studying in college?”
“Still trying to decide. Either Russian or philosophy. It may depend on if Mom and Dad can afford to send me to Moscow next year for study abroad.”
“And you, Natalie?”
She responds, “English, with a minor in Women’s Studies.”
“Such things I never knew. Professors you could both be!”
“Maybe,” says Joshua. He takes a bite from the second chicken thigh, takes a sip from the new soda can, thinks that he would have preferred the cream soda but realizes that there is no way his great-grandmother could have known that his tastes have changed. There have been fewer gatherings, especially after his grandparents moved to Florida. “So, were you there for the war? I mean, not the big one but, the year you came here, when the Poles fought the Soviets.”
“There was so much war, and it never really ended. I was just a little girl. It’s hard to say. My father came to America right before the war, with my three oldest sisters. He sent them all into the shops to earn the passage to bring us over. My mother, taking care of my sister Toyve, my brother Yankel, and me. I was just a baby when he left. When I saw my father again, here in America, he was like a stranger to me. Toyve they changed her name to Tillie when she came here, you met her once, at your bar mitzvah.”
“Shirley doesn’t sound like a Yiddish name,” says Natalie. “What was your name before you came here?”
“Sheyndl. Means, little beauty. No one’s alive to call me that anymore.”
“It’s a nice name.”
Shirley puts both her hands on Natalie’s closest, her left, and says, “Thank you, dear.” Natalie puts her right hand over Shirley’s.
Joshua, knowing his girlfriend has met with the desired approval, glances at his watch. It is already 3:35, and he will need to get his questions out quickly before they go. “What do you remember about the war?”
“I remember—it must have been not so long before we left, I remember it clearly—I remember horses. Dead horses. So many dead horses. I remember an airplane in the sky, with a gun. It was so frightening. I had never seen an airplane before, or so many horses. We ran away from the fields, but even in the town, you could hear the horses crying.”
“Who was riding the horses?”
“Russians. Cossacks. This was so long ago. What does it matter to a young man?”
“Marx said we need to understand history to know where we are going in the future.” In fact, Marx never said any such thing, but Joshua is in the habit of attributing mangled quotations to Marx when he cannot place their origins accurately. He knows he is on the right track. Now it is time for the questions he has rehearsed.
We have already given you a sense of Joshua’s personality, of his family background, and of how Shirley, like a character from a story by your writer Tillie Olsen, uses domestic duties, physical frailties and self-deprecation to evade topics with which she is ill at ease. Yet we also see that she is willing to answer uncomfortable questions when they are posed to her directly, perhaps knowing that she may never have another opportunity to speak to Joshua, perhaps because none of her descendants have previously shown such focused interest in her past.
Who are we? We can answer that only as well as you can, for we know only what other conscious beings know, perceive what they perceive, think what they think. These experiences may not be particularly significant in your concept of history, but we do not sense time the way you do, or rather, it is only through you that we sense it the way you do. We present these experiences as a case study, for you to investigate as best you can. Your species’ recurrent habit of unseeing what you have once seen, unthinking what you once thought, unknowing what you once knew, is troubling to us, and it is hampering us in addressing some of our own difficulties. For your sake and ours, we hope you do not find this intrusion too distressing.
In the interests of time and patience, we will arrange the remaining dialogue with the signal stripped out of the noise, almost as a transcript of an interrogation. That is how it feels to Shirley.
We trust you will be able to insert these things into the narrative in the appropriate places:
These things are common enough to most of you, regardless of the different nations and cultures into which you divide yourselves, though each of you thinks them to be so special and unique to your families, clans and tribes. Those of us assigned to your surveillance find it tiresome at times, this clamoring insistence upon small differences.
J: Was there a funeral in town for one of the Russians?
S: Yes, yes I think there was. We kept our distance. Everyone knew what could happen with so many Cossacks, and so many Jews.
J: Do you remember hearing any speeches?
S: I heard, but I couldn’t understand. I didn’t speak Russian. The peasants around Sokal, they didn’t speak Polish like the rich people, but they didn’t speak Russian the same as these Cossacks, either.
J: They spoke Ukrainian.
S: We didn’t know to call it that. I couldn’t speak that either. Not like your great-grandfather, who spoke four languages. When we had to go to the farms and beg potatoes, our word was like their word enough they could understand. If they said yes, it was obvious. Also no. But yes, there were many speeches. We stayed away.
J: Do you remember a fight around that time between two different groups of Hasidim? The Belzers and Husiatiners? The book described one.
S: We were never so religious. I remember there were a lot of rabbis, and yes, I think you’re right, some liked the rabbi from Belz, and some the one from Hus-whatever it is. A fight I don’t remember. We were never so religious.
J: Did you see anyone with the Russians who didn’t look like a Cossack?
S: You mean a Jew?
J: Yes, maybe a Jew.
S: There was one. Always wore glasses, not like these I have but maybe, yes, like the ones you are wearing. He gave a speech at the funeral that made them cheer. He came walking down our street the next day with one of the rich Jews in town showing him around. Our house had been my father’s carpentry shop, when he was there, so we had a wide-open door to invite customers. If we had more potatoes from the peasants than we could eat, my mother would sit in front of the house to sell some, to try and get some money to buy milk or butter. We almost never had meat. That’s why I’m so small, and your great-grandfather, too, was just a little taller, but your grandmother and your aunt Ida are as tall as you.
J: And that was all you saw?
S: That’s all I can remember. They were only in our town for two days, I think. It was not long after, the Polish army marched back in. Many Jewish men were arrested. It was the only day my mother was glad my father was gone. Then the next day, the telegram. It was held in Lemberg—the Poles called it something different…
J: Lwów [pronounced, pedantically, luh-VOOF]
S: But we called it Lemberg. Held back because of the war. My father had booked passage for us, but we had to get to the port, which was very far away. I forget its name, something German…
S: That sounds right.
J: It’s called Gdansk now. That’s a long way from Sokal. How did you get there?
S: How else? We walked.
J and N: Walked?!
S: We didn’t walk the whole way. Sometimes, someone kind would give us a ride on a carriage or a wagon. Especially after I got sick.
J (to N): That’s how she lost her hearing. Scarlet fever, I think?
S: That’s right. That’s what the doctor told my mother. We didn’t have enough money to pay the doctor. A kind person, Polish, not a Jew, gave us a place to rest and called the doctor. And another, also not a Jew, gave us a ride to Warsaw, then bought us train tickets to the port. It was my first time on a train. That’s why I say it doesn’t matter, good people are good people, there just aren’t enough of them. When we got to Danzig, though, we had trouble. We were walking from the train to the boat, and we were hungry. My mother went into a store to try and buy something little for us children. The shopkeeper accused us of stealing, started yelling, it must have been in German, which I didn’t understand.
J: German and Yiddish are similar.
S: Not enough. And remember, I was losing my hearing. I didn’t know how to read lips yet. My mother forced me to learn on the boat. I was lucky, when we got to Ellis Island, that they didn’t notice my hearing loss. They might have sent me back to Poland. So the shopkeeper was yelling, and then a policeman came, also yelling. But my mother somehow explained.
S: I didn’t understand. I was just a child.
Shirley closes the door on her eldest great-grandchild and, she feels sure, her newest one—how could a boy with such good sense not marry such a nice girl, not today of course, but someday? She turns off her hearing aid, as she often does when expecting no company or calls. This is well enough. Her thoughts need silence, and the kitchen needs scrubbing.
Joshua tries to reconcile the many contingencies indispensable to his individual existence with the seemingly inexorable dialectic of History: debates between Lenin and Trotsky over whether or not to invade Poland; Trotsky and Tukhachevsky demanding concentration on Warsaw, Budyonny and Stalin seeking to conquer Lwów; Poland, haven of the Jews and their tormentor, birthplace of Rosa Luxemburg and Sheyndl Halperin née Lemberger and the countless righteous gentiles who saved her life, ever-shifting land of a thousand pogroms and a billion ashes. In sullen silence, as Natalie marvels aloud at what a strong woman with such an interesting life—for her father’s ancestors were German Jews of earlier vintages and more prosperous circumstances, the immigrant passage a distant family myth and not a recurrent set of Passover anecdotes—this is as far as he can take his thoughts. As they board the elevator, with the familiar sounds and motions of gears and levers, there is another sound, a creaking, another motion, a listing. Somewhere amidst his overtaxed digestive motions, his intestines send a different signal to his adrenal glands, to tell his nerves and muscles to run, but by the time his brain has formatted this into a feeling of panic, it is too late. The cage has closed.
Shirley does not hear the crack, or the screams, but feels the crash report in the soles of her feet, and then the pain in her chest.
This is what Joshua knows: he is in a muddy field. Beside him lies Natalie’s broken body, yet he feels well enough to stagger to his feet. Several yards ahead of him, there is a bearded, burly corpse, with several bleeding bullet holes through its face, chest and abdomen, and two heavy-looking machine guns at its sides. Above him is a surprisingly antique airplane, headed up and away. He hears a rhythmic sloshing from a further distance and peers to see horses trotting through the mud, with men on their backs. As they get closer, he can hear them shouting, in Russian: Tovarishch Trunov! Oni ubili tovarishcha Trunova!
We cannot tell you how this happened. We know that Joshua knows this. We know that we know nothing further from Natalie. We know that Shirley’s body will be found by the building super the next day, after all the commotion over the elevator crash has petered out. We know that the MWL National Organizer will eat a fretful, dissatisfying meal at a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village, waiting an hour and a half and drinking too much before giving up and grumbling about the unreliability of petty bourgeois college students, only to feel great sadness and guilt when she hears a week later about the accident, from Hippie Bob who will have heard from Natalie’s roommate who will have heard from Natalie’s parents, come to retrieve their daughter’s belongings. We must leave it to your physicists, psychologists, perhaps historians to discern what your philosophers call the ordo essendi. This is the ordo cognoscendi, which is all we can know.
Joshua tries to remember the Russian words he needs, conjugates and declines them, and utters—with adequate grammar but with misplaced emphasis, too-rigid consonants and an intonation that makes him sound to the approaching Cossacks as if he were asking a question: Tovarshchi, ya khachu vidyet’ tovarishcha Babelya. Comrades, I want to see Comrade Babel. It takes them a minute, and a few more shoutings of Babel, to realize he is asking for Lyutov, the Jew correspondent going by a Russian name.
Isaak Babel writes in his diary:
AUGUST 25, 1920: SOKAL
Peculiar incident after Trunov’s death. A young man, looking like a bourgeois Galician Jew, dress—provincial imitation of a Vienna intellectual—but taller than most, asks for me by name. Describe his arrogance.
Speaks Russian like a slow-witted child, strange accent. Does not seem to understand German, Polish or Yiddish. Uncovers himself: Pugachov roars, Spy, we will teach you to speak good Russian, punches him; youth expostulates in English, American accent. I try to learn more, but he jabbers like a madman, half English, half bad Russian—insists he is a communist, raves about counterrevolution, crazy talk about Stalin.
Tried to argue for restraint, but men too upset over Trunov. His last words before firing squad: “No, comrades! I am communist!”
Desperation of the Entente.
He sees another thousand sunrises and sunsets and then tries, finally, to write a story about that peculiar town, Sokal. He begins not with Trunov’s last stand, not with the battle of warring Hasidic sects, but the sighting of the strange young man. He makes several starts that he soon finds dissatisfying, for he cannot decide if the youth was in fact a spy, or perhaps some aphasic madman returned to Galicia from an ill-starred migration to New York. Other possibilities he senses not as conscious thoughts, but as a creeping dread that comes whenever he tries to read Pravda’s latest denunciations. He has not yet learned how to live or write with uncertainty, and tears the offending page out of his diary, locking it and his first jottings together in a bureau drawer.
He tries again with Polish POWs in place of the strange young man and stops after a page. Then again with the summary execution of nine accused spies, one of them a Jewish clerk from Lodz named Adolf Shulmeister, but fears it would prompt more accusations of slander from Budyonny. Both these drafts were found and published after his death. By the time he has written a story he feels comfortable including in the collection, he begins instead with Trunov’s martyrdom, the summary executions reduced to two ordinary Poles, and the strange young man has become an uncanny Galician in a white shroud, “sepulchral and gaunt as Don Quixote,” who leads him silently through the alleys of Sokal.
He never again sees the diary page or the early attempts at telling the story of the young man. Yet the bureau in which it is locked remains intact until the day of his arrest. Two NKVD agents take custody of him and his second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, while the other two break open his bureau and every other piece of furniture that might contain paper, piling all into a straw hamper. In the NKVD headquarters, Ivan Alekseyevich Streltsov, a man renowned within the Commissariat for his discretion and cynicism, misfiles some of Babel’s papers with those of Streltsov’s former boss, Babel’s friend and husband to his former mistress, the deposed and arrested NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Streltsov has secured this job through his unique ability to comprehend anything he reads without believing a word of it. We cannot tell you why Streltsov misfiled the papers, for his cognition is unique among your species for its impermeability to our sensing. It is said that Streltsov does not believe even his own eyes, ears or fingertips. His mind appears to us as a kind of singularity, a black hole.
In 1992, the Academician Nikolai Ivanovich Pitkovsky decides to cash in on the emerging vogue for biographies of disgraced figures from the Stalin era. His choice of biographical subjects is unfortunate, for even with all his connections in the FSB, formerly the KGB, formerly the NKVD, it is difficult to gain access to any interesting materials pertaining to Yezhov. It is only in 1995 that he comes upon the stray pages in a hand he does not recognize, which is clearly not Yezhov’s: brittle, brown, acidifying, one that looks like a diary page from the Polish campaign, and others dotted with sentence fragments, locatives without prepositions, and verbs without nouns. He realizes, trembling, that he will have to bring it to Streltsov, the sole surviving expert on the handwriting and literary styles of high-profile detainees from the thirties. He nervously asks the agent in charge of the reading room if he may be allowed to photocopy the pages. The agent eyes him and asks, Chto eto?
Literatura, poeziya. The agent asks to see the pages, smirks at them, and replies with a laconic Davay. The originals crumble as he removes them from the glass of the machine. The copies are dark but legible, and there is no choice. They will have to do.
Yet, with barely conscious reluctance to see Retired Agent Streltsov, Academician Pitkovsky forgets in which stack in his study he has placed the photocopies. He seeks them half-heartedly for a few weeks, Streltsov grows impatient with the delays, and Pitkovsky sets aside the Yezhov biography as an ill-conceived misadventure.
In your collective perception twenty-two more years have passed, and Academician Pitkovsky has just died. His wife Nataliya is cleaning his study, so she can rent it out to an American student. We ask only that you call this matter to her attention.
Story copyright © 2020 by Joseph Tomaras
Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver
Joseph Tomaras now lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. In addition to Lackington’s, their stories have appeared most recently in Salvage Quarterly, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and the late lamented FLAPPERHOUSE. When not serving as tech support for remote-schooling children or seeking paid employment, they have been working sporadically on a romance/crime novel and translations of stories by the Yiddish author Der Nister.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.