"There Are Jews in My House"
Galina carried in an aluminum pot of boiled potatoes, holding it by the handles with a kitchen towel. She put it on a wooden holder in the middle of a round table covered with a beige oilcloth. She opened the lid and, turning her face away from the steam, ladled coarse, unpeeled potatoes onto each of the four plates. The plates were beautiful: delicate, white, with a golden rim and little forget-me-nots in the center.
For the past six weeks, they'd been eating in the living room, where the heavy dark brown curtains covered the only window. For the past two weeks, they'd been eating in silence. From time to time, somebody coughed or sneezed, the girls might whisper something to each other, or even giggle, after which they glanced guiltily at their mothers, but mostly they heard only themselves blowing on their food and the clatter of heavy silver forks. Galina didn't mind the silence. It was better than having to talk, to keep up a forced conversation, as she did a few weeks before. Even the room itself was best suited for silence. It was large and square, empty and spotless. The sparse furniture was drawn close to the walls, and there was only a massive dinner table in the middle, rising like an island on the dark brown floorboards.
Since they dined on potatoes everyday, Galina was used to everybody's eating habits. Her seven-year-old daughter, Tanya, cut the potato in half and bit the insides out of the skin hurriedly, then ate the skins too. Raya, sitting across from Galina, peeled potatoes for herself and her eight-year-old daughter, Leeza. "Two princesses," Galina thought. Raya peeled potatoes with her hands, using her delicate fingernails to hook the skins. She bent her head so low that her dingy hair almost touched her plate. Raya and Leeza broke their peeled potatoes into small pieces and ate, picking them up with a fork. Raya's hands were often shaking, and then the fork clutched in her fingers was shaking too, knocking on the plate with an unnerving tinkling sound. Galina had the urge to catch that trembling fork and hold it tight, not to let it shake. "Chew, chew!" Galina kept saying to Tanya, who tended to swallow big chunks in a hungry rush. "You're wasting your food when you're not chewing." Galina herself ate slowly. She picked up a whole potato on a fork and ate it with the skin, biting off pieces with her strong, wide teeth. She chewed zealously, careful not to waste food and also trying to prolong dinner as much as possible, because the hours between dinner and going to bed were the most unbearable.
Six weeks ago, when Raya and Leeza first came to live at Galina's place, it had been different. Galina and Raya spent the evenings talking, mostly about the prewar life that seemed now unreal and perfect. They retold some minor episodes in meticulous detail, as if the precision of their memories could turn that prewar life into something real, and failure to remember something could unlock the door of Galina's apartment and let the war in. If one of them was unsure of a detail, she relied on the memory of the other. "I used to buy Moscow rolls every Saturday. Remember, Moscow rolls, the small ones with the striped crust? They were six kopecks each. Were they six kopecks?" "I think they were seven--the ones with poppy seeds cost six." Often, their conversations went on well into the night, after the girls had fallen asleep. Then they moved closer to each other and talked in whispers.
Now, right after dinner, Raya went into the back room, where she and Leeza slept, and sat there on the bed with her back to Galina. Sometimes, Raya bent over the nightstand and started a letter--to her husband no doubt--but after a few lines she always stopped and crumpled the paper. At other times, Raya had a book in her hands, but she didn't turn the pages. Through the opened door--Raya never shut the door--Galina saw Raya's pale, unclean neck, so thin that you could count every vertebra. Galina couldn't concentrate on a book either. She would follow the lines to the bottom of the page and only then realize that the letters didn't form words and sentences, but simply passed in front of her eyes like endless rows of black beads.
Galina dried the dishes and stacked them in the cupboard above her head. She put the aluminum pot on the lower shelf, shoving it deeper with her foot, then shut the cupboard door with a bang. She wondered if Raya heard the clatter. Sharp sounds made Raya shudder. Everything. A fork falling on the floor, a door's squeak, somebody's sneezing, the toilet flushing. For a long time, Galina had tried to do everything as quietly as possible. Now she didn't care. Raya herself was quiet as a mouse. That's what she told Galina when she came: "I'll be quiet as a mouse." Galina wondered then where this expression came from, why mice were considered so quiet. Because they weren't. Galina grew up in the country, and there were a lot of mice in their house. At night, they made these distinctive mice sounds--scratching and nibbling and knocking against the floor with their tiny claws when they ran from one corner to another. Little Galina lay in bed thinking that if she opened her eyes she would see a mouse with crooked yellow teeth and moist eyes staring right at her.
Galina went into the living room, removing her wet apron. The usual picture: the girls were on the sofa, making a dress for Leeza's doll from some scraps. As always, Tanya was doing all the work and Leeza giving instructions, Galina thought with annoyance. The doll's pink, shiny body was turning swiftly in Tanya's hands as she dressed her. It was a beautiful, expensive doll with the torso made from hard plastic and the head and limbs from some other, softer kind. It had blond hair shaped into long, springy curls and round light blue eyes that seemed to stare right at you. Galina didn't have toys like that as a child, and she couldn't afford to buy them for Tanya.
Galina peeked into the back room. Raya didn't turn to her, only bent lower. She was scribbling something with Galina's rusty ink pen. The pen was almost dry and made heart-rending sounds, scratching the paper.
Galina covered her ears and looked around. She had always liked that her room was so plain. There weren't any crocheted doilies, marble elephants, or crystal vases. The windowsills weren't decorated with pots of geraniums, the floors with rugs, or the walls with framed paintings. She didn't even have an image of the Madonna in the corner where it always hung in her mother's house. The only thing on the wall was a framed black-and-white photograph of Galina's mother. Now, Galina wished they had a painting--any painting, something to rest her gaze on. She uncovered her ears and immediately heard the awful scratching sound of Raya's pen, Leeza's troubled breathing, the snapping of the big tailor's scissors in Tanya's hands, Leeza's cackling cough. Galina wanted to scream, open her mouth and scream at the top of her lungs.
She rushed to the hall, mumbling that she was going to get some air before the curfew. She wondered if Raya heard her. She probably didn't. Because if she did, she would have darted out of the back room, asking: "What? What did you just say? You're going where?" Her face would have been distorted and her voice faltering. During the last few days, it happened every time Galina went out of the house. Every time. When Galina went to the market in the morning, when she left to talk with one of the neighbors or their former coworkers, when she simply went out for a breath of fresh air, like today. Every time, when Galina touched the doorknob of the exit door, she felt Raya's begging stare on her. She saw that Raya wanted to fall on her knees, to clutch at the edge of Galina's dress and not let her go. But she didn't do it, she just stood in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other, clasping the doorframe with yellowed fingers, clearing her throat to ask in her thin, trembling voice again and again: "Where're you going? When will you be back?"
Galina opened the door and glanced in the direction of the back room. Raya hadn't moved.
Galina walked downstairs, trying to resist an urge to run. Part of her was expecting Raya to rush out the door and grab her by the sleeve. A ridiculous thought. Galina knew that Raya would never so much as stick her head out. She walked to the door and pushed the cold iron handle down. The door gave in slowly, scratching the stone floor and making a tired screech, the last sound before the silence of the outside.
It was beginning to get dark, but still the contrast between the soft, dusky light of the street and the semidarkness of the staircase was great. Galina had to shield her eyes for a moment. Their deserted street with a few pale stone buildings, a few leafless trees, and broad rough sidewalks, was wide and airy. Galina threw her head back and inhaled hungrily. At last, she could breathe!
The declaration of war with Germany three months ago, in June, although completely unexpected, didn't shake Galina. Somehow she didn't see the war as a great tragedy, as a disaster rushing into their lives and destroying everything. For her, it was more like an unwelcome change in her daily life, requiring some practical adjustments. Galina made her husband, Sergey, dig a big hole in the empty plot of land behind their building and construct a little cellar there, while she was buying potatoes, drying them in sheets of newspapers, and storing them in big sacks. Galina also bought large quantities of salt, soap, oil, and matches; glued stripes of paper to the windows to protect them from shells; made sure that she and Tanya had enough warm clothes; and determined the shortest route to the air-raid shelter, counting the number of steps. She didn't feel shaken--on the contrary, she felt energetic and alive, something that hadn't happened to her in a very long time. She also felt proud of being able to keep calm and make rational decisions at the time, while everybody else seemed to lose his head. Galina didn't feel shaken even when she saw her husband off to the front. They were stuck in the middle of the crowd of men going to the front and the howling children and women who were clutching the men's coats. Sergey was silent. The only words he said were about Tanya, that it was good that Galina didn't let her come along, that it would have been too upsetting. Galina thought it was good too. She saw a glimpse of Raya nearby, howling like the others, with her hands tightly locked on her husband's back. "Don't they understand?" Galina thought, starting to feel annoyed. "It's war, men are supposed to go."
Toward the end of the summer, when there was a clear prospect of the town being occupied, the evacuation started. The factory equipment was packed hastily in plywood boxes and put on freight trains along with valuable workers and the families of those soldiers who were members of the Communist Party. All the others (families of non-Communist soldiers, retired workers, and invalids) were supposed to follow in a few days. But in a few days, the town was cut off. Galina and Raya stayed, because neither of their husbands was a Communist.
The prospect of staying in the occupied town seemed uncomfortable to Galina, but not catastrophic, especially since Soviet newspapers said that the Germans treated the civilian population with decency. She had read it just a few weeks before the war. Galina made more practical adjustments: she buried all her modest valuables in the ground next to the potato sacks, she bought more soap and matches, she got rid of Tanya's red tie and a folder full of newspaper clippings about Stalin. Galina managed to keep her calm.
Raya was another matter. As soon as it was announced that the town would be cut off, she went into a feverish, panicky state. She spent the whole first day running around the station, grasping at anyone who would talk to her, begging the railroad officials to take her and Leeza on a freight train, trying to convince them that trains must run, simply because she, Raya, must leave. She continued to do that until she was forced away from the station along with the crowd of other desperate people. But, unlike them, Raya didn't give up after that. The following days she spent running around the town, attempting unthinkable measures to get her and Leeza out of town. She tried to bribe some truck drivers to drive them east. She tried to bribe a clerk in the city passport office to forge documents for them. She walked to the small villages to the south of town and asked everybody there if they could take her and Leeza out on horseback. When she came home from her day trips, the soles of her shoes were worn through and her feet rubbed raw. She slumped onto a couch and burst into hysterical sobs, unable to calm herself even in front of Leeza. Raya was Jewish. That explained a lot of things, Galina thought.
The war had been going on for a few months, and rumors became the only source of more or less credible information. The rumors about Jews differed. Some said that when Germans occupied a new town, the first thing they did was to put all the Jews on cattle trains and ship them away. Others said that Germans didn't bother to ship Jews anywhere; they just drove them together to the edge of a town or to a big ravine and shot them all. Everyone: men, women, and children. A few refugees from Kiev, where Raya's parents lived, added more ghastly details. Tanya began asking Galina: "Do they make Jews take off all their clothes? Underpants too? Do they throw all the Jews into a big pit and then burn them alive? Have they burned Leeza's grandma?" Galina told her to stop listening to nonsense. But Tanya wouldn't stop: "Do they also burn kids? Will they burn Leeza?" Galina told her to shut up. Raya also couldn't stop talking about that. She was running around town, looking for refugees and asking them more and more questions. She said she was sure that they were telling the truth. She said she could feel that her mother was dead.
continued...From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from There Are Jews in My House by Laura Vapnyar. Copyright © 2003 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.