This story is an excerpt from The County of Birches (1998), © Judith Kalman
The wet world receives us like a shipment of cargo. Like luggage, I feel flimsily held together by strings and brass clasps and leather straps. We’re inadequately contained. My parents, so competent on home ground, have been reduced by the strangeness to uncertainty. Stunned and light-headed and tongue-tied, disoriented by the fumes and the noise and the volume of people, we’re so clearly lost we must be shepherded from steward to porter to station attendant.
My mother’s confusion rouses my father from the apathy he had felt on the train. She had been so eager to leave Hungary, so sure she was right. Now her bewilderment makes him feel needed. He gestures to passersby in Victoria Station. He holds out pieces of paper for them to read. Until now we’ve gotten by with some German, but my mother can’t piece together the sounds she hears in London with the English words she studied in Budapest. My able parents are stripped of their natural authority. It frightens me that they don’t know what to do or where to go, that we have stopped moving forward. There is a memory in my cells of a station platform where families are divided. It resonates through us all, underscoring our agitation.
Someone points us to a policeman in the station, but my parents instinctively recoil. Enforcement officials are suspect, even one unarmed and looking odd in a hat like a bell. Subtly my parents resist being led to an arm of any state. I see the reluctance in my father’s thick inertia, an assumed denseness of what is being asked of him. The policeman in the pointy hat is their last resort.
My mother ventures first, her voice halting and high-pitched. The policeman touches her arm, and we tense. He lifts a finger—wait. Our eyes follow his few steps to a stall brimming with wrapped merchandise. As he adeptly picks out a bag, I’m charmed by the beauty of his easy knowledge. He tears open the top, proffers the bag first to my sister then to me, then kindly prods my mother towards a booth. I work the sweet brown glob in my mouth, observe him lift a handle inside the little cabin and pass it to my mother. He dials. In a moment we hear her rushing voice in our language. There are nods and smiles all around. My father pumps the policeman’s hand; he thumps my father’s back, and leaves us with the candy.
The policeman has left us the whole bag of candy, such beneficence when he probably has children of his own. I suppose that such a kindly man must have children. Lili holds the bag awkwardly. So much all at once. There is a message here, a promise I take to heart. All that candy for us, Lili and me. I love the sure swing of the policeman’s long, black-clad legs as he walks away.
And I know very well how the Jews of Europe died. Waking briefly from our heavy, child slumbers, we would hear the rising voice of our mother reliving its memories. Before we recognized all the words, we understood the sounds of grief. I’m under the impression I’m here to replace the dead children—my mother’s niece, Dana, and my father’s first daughter, whose name is my second one. Lili is called Liliana after both grandmothers. We learned our names through theirs, through their photographs and the stories told about them. We’re the attempt at life out of the ashes.
Laci-bácsi, my mother’s brother, got away to England before the labour service draft. He flew with the Royal Air Force and bombed strategic installations. Laci-bácsi free as a bird up in the air. I know how his parents and his sisters and their babies died while he flew above them, futilely flapping his wings. He will swoop down on us now, I hope, and whisk us to safety. He has made possible the papers and the passage.
We expect Laci-bácsi to meet us at London’s Victoria Station, but instead a trim Briton recognizes the petrified family group huddled around its baggage. We are an island in the sea of Victoria Station, immobile as it washes around us. A neat, light-boned man breaks from the current. My mother looks up sharply and we raise our noses to sniff, sensitive as animals to familial spore. In his long, controlled face, witty eyes take in our discomposure. We’re so obvious, it’s amusing. He comes towards us with his eyes laughing and his arms unfurling from his sides.
Through his eyes I see we’re comic. It makes my heart tighten even now. I resist thinking of us as lost, cast-up people. That it was me clinging to my father’s trouser leg. I struggle against believing we were ever foreign and unfortunate. My life has poised on conviction in my well-being. I have calculated my risks against my good fortune to be alive, well endowed, well raised, well educated, well off. I have so rooted myself in this notion of privilege, I succeed in overlooking that I started off buffeted and tossed by the wind. Sealed in my car, I drive by bus stops where families wait in the heat or in the cold, their babies bundled against them. We were once there, subject to endless, degrading delays. I was there, and now I am here whizzing by. I feel a vast distance like a sea between the worlds we have inhabited in one form or another and between the different selves we’ve invented. My father was once a solid tree trunk with his back braced against the driving winter sleet, his coat open to shelter me. It’s hard to accept that we were once so exposed to the elements.
My uncle, catching sight of us, can afford humour. We look so frightened when he knows there is no call to be. He knows where we are and that we’re safe. He knows he has it worked out for us. This knowledge is in his manner, his amused expression and easy grace.
Washed up: we’ve been washed away from our bearings and swept onto a foreign shore. That this might be humorous tilts me off balance. It will be the central riddle of my childhood. I will grow to see my parents as besieged people performing on the essentially comic stage of a safe world.
My parents will build a satisfactory life. They will have a home and a garden and respectable work. They will raise and educate their children. They will have dinner guests and enjoy them. This is what my approaching uncle banks on. He doesn’t expect to see the open graves of their hearts, but the possibility for renewal and pleasure. Renewal and pleasure and habitual pain will co-reside in my parents always. I will puzzle over the concurrence of these unmixable properties. They will cast in doubt the validity of my own petty trials. Against my parents’ tragedies, my concerns will seem trivial; against the misery that befell them, my troubles will be mild.
As my parents hold their children and their belongings tightly in the human surf of Victoria Station, they cannot share my uncle’s certainty that things will work out for the best. Nor will they share the confidence of their future neighbours in claiming contentment and stability. They won’t be sure of their footing because the comic platform will never fully bear the weight of their pasts. This faulty equation will unsettle me. The vertiginous imbalance of then against now.
I see Laci-bácsi approach us in London’s Victoria Station. We know it is Laci-bácsi by my mother’s heightened alertness. He separates from the crowd, a small, graceful man, Laci-bácsi my mother’s brother. When he greets us he is a pleasant Englishman who holds the future in his smile. “Call me Uncle Larry,” he says, mock-seriously shaking my diminutive hand.
We had expected Laci-bácsi, the brother who schooled his younger sisters in off-colour ditties. We had expected a longer moustache, not one so carefully clipped.
I play my uncle’s approach in my mind. The concise man breaking from the tide of station travellers. My uncle as he sees us bescarved and burdened with our metaphoric baggage. The little glint of humour in his eye. When do I notice he sheds something as he nears?
I see a small man emerge from the faceless sea that engulfs us. He is neat and sure and certain of where he is going. He is coming straight at us as if he knows who we are and what he can do for us. There is no trace of the central European about his tidy figure. His face is narrow, his nose straight. Somehow genetics have foretold his destination. Whatever past he brings with him through the tide of commuters, he discards at first sight of our huddled, fearful family. We are it, he has decided. We are the past, nothing fearsome, just typical greenhorn immigrants. I notice the lightening in his bearing, his jovial relief.
My mother will set him right, I’m sure. We love him in advance for his frailness and culpability. Poor Uncle Larry will have to pay for his failure to protect the lost ones. I see in his amusement what he doesn’t know. When my mother and her sisters were forced to work in a German munitions factory, it was the bombs of the English that killed one of them. The bombs of the English exploding around them so that soil and sky were one burning mass, soil and sky and human flesh merged and melted and flying under the bombs of the English, the bombs of all that the English chose not to know.
Laci-bácsi comes smilingly towards us in Victoria Station. Finally we will be claimed. We will be plucked from the limbo of transit and identified again. We will have our names back, and our voices. But what he sees is not who we are. He remembers something else, has not accounted for a breach that is silent, pending and still as the air between a warplane and the ground. He thinks we’re his past, but we are the remains. And he is not Laci-bácsi.
My overwrought mother falls into her brother’s arms. We watch them embrace, the slim man and the lushly proportioned woman. She weeps. He holds her. He holds her tightly. We see that, how he holds her, all of her against his body. He holds onto her in this public place where we’re growing aware this isn’t done. People are looking. A reserved Englishman caught in a public display of emotion. The rhythm of her sobs enters him along his arms. We watch curiously as his hand creeps into her thick dark curls. He combs the locks searching, pulling.
“What have you done?” The Hungarian in his mouth is correct but rusty. “What have you done to it?” His hand tugs at the tendrils. “Why would you paint your blonde hair?”
They grew up together around the same mahogany table. They climbed the same tree, ran the same races in the fields. They pulled down their pants and thrust out their puny pelvises to prove who could pee the farthest. They shared a childhood but are so far apart this tidy man does not know, has not realized that her hair—because by the end the gassings were so hurried and so numerous they did not bother stenciling skin—the hair they’d shaved off is her tattoo.
My mother pulls away. We see she has stiffened with the other horrors he doesn’t know. She touches his face. My father passes her his handkerchief. Finally she kisses Uncle Larry.
I feel indignant. Why is he spared what we small children were not? He is a grown-up, bigger and stronger and smarter. He should be made to know if we do. Uncle Larry’s ignorance insulates him. If we don’t tell him the truth, we will have to shield the English too, presumably, through our politeness and discretion, from their failure to protect the Jews of Europe. My mother mustn’t let Uncle Larry off scot-free.
She strokes the smooth face of her older brother, seeing in its vulnerability an obdurate denial of who and what has been lost. She has the power to change him. I wait for her justice. I expect it—the child who has been promised all that is good—I wait for a balancing, but my mother lets him go. She has opened her hands and released Uncle Larry like a bird. I see, as he shrugs his suit straight with a slight shudder, that the moment of danger for him has passed. Free again, he flutters aloft. We watch his wings catch the air and pull at it strongly. Uncle Larry beats hard, winging upward. Lili and my father lift in the current he has stirred. My mother’s hands on my shoulders tug at me gently. We will fly across land, then above sea and over the hurdles of time.