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from the April 2016 issue

From “Raking Light from Ashes”

Warsaw was awoken by a cold winter morning in January of 1943 that illuminated it with sad, gray light.

Relli stirred in her sleep. She heard voices beyond the thick blanket that covered her up to the top of her head. Strange, she thought. It wasn’t Mommy’s voice, or Daddy’s, or even Grandpa’s . . . who could it be, so close to her?

She tried to peek out without revealing herself, but saw nothing. She tried to stretch beneath the blanket and realized she couldn’t, because the bed was too narrow. Her left hand bumped into something hard. Where am I? she wondered. This isn’t my bed. Whose voices are these? Then she heard a clear voice say, Good morning.

Relli sat up and answered the greeting. Mommy and Daddy had trained her to always answer grown-ups politely. She noticed she was wearing her pajamas, but that she in fact was not in her bed, but on a row of three chairs arranged against a dark wooden closet. The back of the first chair was protecting her head, the back of the last protecting her feet, and the back of the middle chair faced the room and protected the side of her body.

A man and woman were smiling at her. The man was taller, and his smile and mustache were familiar. She recalled having seen him several times before, when he came to visit the tiny apartment where she’d recently been living with her parents and grandfather. He would come occasionally to whisper with Mommy and Daddy in a corner while Relli played with Grandpa. The woman—short, very skinny, glasses—was unfamiliar. They smiled at her warmly and invitingly. Relli sat up. Where are my parents? Where’s Grandpa? Her voice trembled. In spite of their smiles, she felt uneasy around these people.

Your mother and father asked us to watch you until they come to visit, the woman said softly.

Relli didn’t like this answer one bit. I don’t want you to watch me, I want my mother and father and grandfather, they can watch me . . . She swallowed her tears, her voice shaking. She remembered her parents repeating that she mustn’t cry out loud even if she was very mad or very sad, and certainly mustn’t raise her voice. It’s all right to be upset, angry, even afraid, but do it quietly, don’t let it be seen, don’t let anybody—not anybody—know.

The man picked her up from her bed of chairs. The woman stroked her head. We’ll be your mother and father until your real mother and father can come pick you up.

Why? Relli wondered. Why are grown-ups playing Mommy and Daddy? My mother is so pretty and my father is tall and strong. I don’t want to play Mommy and Daddy with you, she answered sternly, trying to keep her voice steady, not to reveal the fear that had taken over her.

The man pulled the chairs away from the closet and set them around the round table by the door. The woman took Relli’s hand and said, Come, I’ll show you what we’ve got here in the closet. You know it. As she spoke, she opened the left door of the closet, and Relli spotted all of Mommy’s fur coats—the short gray one that showed off her skirts, the brown knee-length one, and the long black one, reaching almost to the floor, shiny, with remarkably soft fur. Relli walked over to the furs, touched them with both her hands, feeling the softness imbued with Mommy’s scent. She buried her face in the black fur, breathing her mother in. Looking up at the shelf above the furs, she recognized other items from her home—tall vases, deep bowls, platters. She remembered that these dishes, which her mother called “crystals,” had been sitting in a box recently, in their tiny apartment, not on shelves and dressers, the way they used to in their older, bigger, beautiful apartment. That was so long ago that Relli could barely remember. When was it?

Her train of thought was interrupted by the woman. My name is Janina, and my husband is Jȯzef. You see? Your parents gave us all these beautiful things to keep safe for them, and we’ll keep you safe, too.

Relli began to cry silently, the tears rolling down her cheeks of their own volition. She swallowed them when they reached her lips. The woman kept stroking her head as she wiped the tears away with her handkerchief. In the meantime, the man set the table. Relli smelled fried egg and saw fresh bread and a cup of tea on the table. Thank God it wasn’t milk. She hated milk. What was she supposed to do if they offered her some?

The woman led her to the table and Relli sat down to eat. She was very hungry. It had been a long, long time since she’d last had a fried egg. As she ate politely, using her knife and fork, just like her parents had taught her, the woman sat by her side and said, Now you’ll be our daughter a little bit too.

Where is your own daughter? asked Relli.

We don’t have one.

Relli began to understand: that must be the reason these grown-ups wanted to play Mommy and Daddy with her. They didn’t have a daughter of their own. All right, she said. But only for a little bit, because I belong to my own mama and papa, and to Grandpa.

Janina and Jȯzef both smiled. But, Janina continued, ignoring Relli’s remark, now, like I said, you’ll be our daughter a little bit, and you’ll call us Mommy and Daddy and we’ll call you Lala.

But my name is Relli.

Of course, you’re right, Janina smiled, but we’re playing a game. We don’t want anyone to know our secret. We want other people to think it’s all for real. So from this day on, you’ll be Lala.

Relli said nothing, repeating the new name to herself. It’s a pretty name, she finally said. But why do you want to call me Lala?

Janina smiled again. Jȯzef said, You know that “Lala” means doll, and you’re so cute, with your blond curls and your blue eyes, you just remind us of a doll. And it goes well with the game we’re going to play. From this day on we will be your mama and papa and you will be our girl—our doll—Lala.

Now come, Lala, wash up and change your clothes, said Janina, using Relli’s new name as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She must have realized that they were overwhelming the girl, not yet four years old, with information. So far she’d been more cooperative than Janina had expected. Here’s hoping they could make it work. Come, Lala, I’ll read to you from the fairy-tale book. Your mommy gave it to us along with you and the other things.

Lala smiled at the book she knew and loved so well, and a little bit at Janina, too.

 

© 2015 by Relli Robinson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Yardenne Greenspan. All rights reserved.

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