Each morning in the spring of 1945, from the day the war ended and the trains began bringing them home, her father awakened in the empty house that was sodden with silence.  Only the loud ticking of the valuable Swiss clock which hung on the wall opposite his bed conferred a rhythm to the endless days.  This ticking, he thought, and the daily walk to the train station, were the rhythm of his life.  After dressing he carefully wound the spring of his Schaffhausen, the wristwatch he’d received as a gift from his wife on his birthday, focusing his gaze on the repetitive motion of thumb and finger, listening attentively for the brief click that signals he’s to stop winding.  Then he placed his round eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose and combed his hair impatiently and, alone, in the narrow dining corner of the hushed kitchen, ate a slice of bread spread with goose fat.  He sipped murky, tasteless coffee, his expression stern, and thought:  perhaps today.  If not both of them, perhaps one.  One is his wife, Elizabeth, her mother; the other is Eva, his daughter, and he rose and gave Dorex a half-filled bowl of milk mixed with water.  Dorex lapped the milk quickly, his body tense, his ears and tail erect, until the dish was empty, until the small, empty bowl gleamed.  Her father bent down to the dog and fastened the worn leather collar around his neck.

“Maybe I’ll have bones for you soon,” he told him, and donned his checkered woollen jacket, his only jacket, with measured motions.  And placed the brown felt hat on his head.  And donned the brown leather gloves.  And gazed without expression at the serious man wearing a brown felt hat and brown leather gloves who faced him in the round mirror beside the entry door.  He paused opposite the mirror for an additional moment or two during which he examined his image with dissatisfaction, then double-locked the door of the empty house.  And ensured again it was locked.  And when he was certain the house was locked the two of them began walking, mum.

For a few weeks now they’ve been making the same short journey every day in the early morning. This morning was colder than yesterday and low, grey clouds huddled in the same corner of the sky where he saw, as evening approached, a yellow light grow brighter before fading.  The air was crisp and biting and he breathed it into his lungs like a drowning man swallowing water.  He stopped beside a half-rotten wooden gate so Dorex could urinate at length.  Meanwhile he listened to the suppressed chirping of the birds and observed the wise eyes, the tail wagging cheerfully at him and the ridiculous manner in which Dorex bounds beside him these days.  It made him smile thinly, the smile which frequently colours his cold, pale blue eyes but never fully spreads over his lips.

When they reached the main road a shiny black automobile raced by and its driver, annoyed, peremptorily honked his horn twice in warning.  They hurried across the road and climbed the old, worn stone steps, black with dirt, whose corners, where fewer people had trodden, were pale yellow.   A large crowd already murmured at the entrance to his town’s old train station, and they were swallowed up in the flow of people.  They passed through two huge, wide-open wooden doors and entered a giant room which echoed and clamoured like an angry beast.  It had curved ceilings and a gentle light tapped at its high, dusty windows.  Every day at this hour the station bustled:  arrivals from the east hurrying west, advanced and then retreated as though they’d changed their minds or had forgotten something they couldn’t do without, stood scratching their heads, read what was written on rectangular signs, repeatedly gazed at the white numbers stamped into shiny metal on the locomotive’s brow, compared them to the writing on the creased piece of paper in their hand, firmly grasping the handle of a heavy suitcase in which their entire world was contained and squared away, at a loss.

The hands of the large round clock on the wall above the ticket sellers’ booths – one of six identical black iron clocks that hung on the walls at equal intervals – showed the time was 08:37.   Two trains growled angrily on the tracks at either side of the platform.  He breathed deeply and stood fast where the place, the time, the fearful days had now become his place, his time, and his  fearful days:  a place that no longer had any meaning, a time so illusory as to be unrecognisable, long, difficult days, none better for waiting.  For yearning.  For pity.  The fear rooting itself within him for some time now:  no matter how often he approaches these metal rails which stretch from somewhere to some elsewhere, he’ll always turn and return home alone, he and his beloved dog, stumbling after him wherever he goes.

Her father quickened his steps and turned toward Platform No. 3 and pushed among the bodies of those who stood, like him, planted on the concrete platform, impatient to leave, or waiting, like him, to see whether the black metal entities will today, perhaps today, spew out their loved ones.   One wooden bench was vacant but her father didn’t sit down.  He thrust his gloved hands into the pockets of his woollen jacket.  He felt in the right-hand pocket the quenched ivory pipe, in the left-hand pocket the jagged key to the door of his house.  He looked around, felt he distinguished disconnected details:  the light’s intensity, the force of the wind’s gust behind him moaning as if from a tunnel’s depths, the length of the platforms which narrowed and diminished in the distance, the fragrance of lilac blossoms on the young tree which grew in a niche at the platform edge, the bitter odour of smoke rising from the locomotives, the smell of roasted chestnuts from the movable wooden stand belonging to dirty old Dziga, one of the train station’s mainstays who for that reason will never die, just like King Mátyás, cast in bronze and standing proudly in the town square; all of them sights and smells that had burst open in his head on those mornings in a specific order, mingled with the sharp, jarring shrills of a whistle, with the terrifying noise sounding from the locomotive’s belly, the muted drone of people conversing, calling happily to each other, coughing, echoing, the rapping of their heels on the concrete pavement mingled with the loud barks of his beloved Dorex, all forming a deceptive mixture  to be imprinted in the rear of his skull:  a memory of the long morass of time during which questions and fears fell on his head like snowflakes – no, like a tintinnabulation – a reminder of time’s measure – morning, and another morning, and again morning – among whose fragments he came with Dorex to the train station and waited.  And breathed deeply.  And waited.  In vain.

Her father removed from his trouser pocket a neatly-folded white handkerchief, opened it in his hands and blew his nose.  His left hand still firmly gripped Dorex’s leash while his eyes stared pensively and wearily at the approaching coaches.  When he tired he bent and stroked the hairy back, grabbed the dangling bit of fur beneath the chin and waggled it gently.  “Shh, Dorex, shh, you’ll see, everything will be alright,” he muttered.

Dorex whined as if he’d understood his words.

A woman with an elegant feathered hat fixed to her head, carrying a heavy, brown leather suitcase, approached them and Dorex sniffed the strong fragrance she emitted and it so excited him that he tangled himself up in the leash and her father gently freed his trapped foot, softly mumbling a polite apology to the woman with magnificent hat and breasts.  As he did he lowered his gaze and hurried toward the coaches at the front of the train where there was less congestion and he would be able, he thought, to better see the faces of those descending from the cars.  Anxiety seeped into his heart, spread through its chambers.  He didn’t know how long his heart could bear it.  Above all, he feared the actual meeting.  That, he was certain, he’d be unable to bear.  He’ll recognise Elizabeth easily, he wasn’t worried about that, but how will he recognise the little one?  How will he recognise Eva?  She was thirteen years old when he’d been taken from his bed before dawn, snatched, and transported for many days and nights to distant, frozen steppes in a far-off land where he was forced to labor in menial jobs which irreparably damaged his body and his soul.  And when he’d already given up and his strength was almost gone the war ended as suddenly as it had begun for him – one moment he’d been a prisoner, no better than a slave, and in the next he was set free – released and began the long, incredible journey home.  He’d had no idea whether his house still stood.  His house stood, and he returned home, but there was no sign of either of them.

He’ll never forget that day.  He pushed the door handle, knowing deep in his heart that it won’t open; feared he’d awaken.  But he was already awake.  The door didn’t open.  He ascended the stairs, knees buckling, perhaps he’ll find Professor Radu and his smiling wife Maritza, the neighbours who had once lived above them.  Who knows what happened to them all this time, even though they weren’t Jewish, and it didn’t seem they had ever been in real danger.  The thick striped mat still lay on the floor in front of his neighbours’ door.  One tin flowerpot was empty and the other held the dry skeleton of a small heather bush, a shrub her mother called ”Erica.”   Once a bush like that had blossomed in each pot, with hundreds of tiny flowers, pink, perhaps purple, he no longer remembers.  A slight movement beyond the door interrupted his musing.  His neighbour Maritza – she hadn’t changed at all – suddenly stood before him, expressionless, twisting her apron in her hands.  She knew him immediately even though he had changed so much he was unrecognisable.  He was emaciated.  He’d aged many years though only three had passed, and all his vitality had vanished.  Without delay she turned to a massive wooden bureau and removed from its drawer a jagged key and without delay placed it in his hand, her face drawn.  The cold metal burned in his palm.  He thanked her with a brief gesture of his fingers at his temple, as if saluting her, and immediately fled to the stairs.  His neighbour wiped her hands on her apron and looked at his retreating back and again withdrew into her home, her hand pressed to her mouth.  He didn’t ask anything; didn’t ask a thing, she thought.  And:  only his shadow has returned, but where is he, this good man?  Then she hurried to light the stovetop burners.

Her father inserted the key in the keyhole.  His hand froze for a moment as if he’d cocked a grenade, and the click of the lock’s tongue sounded to his ears like the pull of a grenade’s pin.   One careless movement and all will go up in flames.  The door opened with a faint creak.  He removed the key and put it in his pocket.  For a few moments he stood between the doorposts until he no longer had strength to stand, until he found within himself the courage to take the one step after which the unimaginable will occur:  he’ll be home.

The door closed behind him as if of its own accord.  He looked around.  And saw:  everything is in place.  Free of dust.  Neat.  Empty of people.  Silent.  Awaiting its master like a faithful dog.  Even the odour was the same.  Only heavier and darker.  And Dorex, he thought, he must have died of hunger.  Or from grief.  A dog mourning its master, he’d once read, stops eating.  His heart dropped.  A straining locomotive roared in his brain, voices at the outskirts of the labor camp beat and jabbered and shouted, swirled in the forest depths, among craggy mountains whose summits are snow-covered and wrapped in lovely white clouds.  His body gradually thawed.  His heart slowly froze.

The large wooden grandfather clock suddenly emitted a muffled sound, then another.  And another.  Her father listened in amazement:  the heart of the house began to beat again.  His head was still filled with the incomprehensible hunger whose power won’t be dulled by years of eating, strangers pressed against his limbs to warm themselves, warm him, to vent themselves upon each other.  For almost a year he’d hardly seen a thing because the golden frame of his eyeglasses had one day caught the attention of a passing camp supervisor who’d casually lifted them from his nose and continued on his way.  Finally it was all over.  He and his comrades were put on a train back to their country, to their traitorous homeland, to their fathers’ empty house.  Along the way, strewn with destruction and soldiers’ corpses of every nationality, he’d received from an Allied soldier a chocolate bar in a white wrapper.  Only after they’d also found him eyeglasses – a little too big for him, with thicker lenses than he needed – did he again feel he’d begun to see the light.

Her father sat down apprehensively on the arm of one of the deep armchairs – perhaps all he sees in front of him will shatter under his weight and disappear as though it had never been.  Nothing disappeared.  His eyes devoured the old, elegant furniture which had  stood resignedly, the oil paintings and tapestries on the walls, the broad window facing the empty park, a lace curtain pulled across its width concealing the azalea bushes and fir trees with thick trunks and the niche above which Dorex would urinate freely and from whose base, at the end of winter, bellflowers bloomed.  For some reason his thoughts were focused on his dog, which made him uneasy.  He didn’t dare picture his wife and daughter.  Everything around him was so familiar and also so foreign.

After some time he walked to the bedroom, measuring his steps on the polished wooden floorboards that creaked beneath the soles of his shoes.  He collapsed on his bed like a sack dropped from the hand that gripped it and he sat even longer at its foot, until he flung himself back and lay motionless, trapped by the heavy weight filling the rooms, wringing his hands, not knowing what to do.

When he realised someone was knocking at the door his legs raised him upright immediately and his breath quickened.  To him, loud pounding on the door has long been an ominous sign.  He opened it a crack, perhaps they’d again come to take him, and immediately the air filled with an unbelievable odour of the warm vapours which rose from a small pot that Maritza, his neighbour, held by its two handles in a kitchen towel.  Her eyes were red.  Why had she been crying?  For him?  Because he’d returned alone?  Perhaps she knows where Dorex is?  He regretted he’d appeared without warning from her doorstep, perhaps he’d distressed her.  For a moment he imagined he might have made her happy.  Perhaps she’d wept with joy.  She handed him the pot and when he took it carefully from her hands she greeted him again, shyly and emotionally, and quickly added, addressing him formally, “It’s so good to see himself,” and again wiped her hands on the cloth apron around her waist and silently wept.

Only when Dorex fell upon him whimpering uncontrollably did he realise his neighbour also held out his beloved dog’s old leather leash, which was wrapped around her arm.  Her eyes smiled, flooded with warmth, tears of excitement because she’d been able to surprise him this way.  He was, indeed, stunned.

“I don’t know how to thank you, dear Maritza,” he called to her retreating back.  He was helpless.  The leash was clenched tightly in his fingers and at its end a small black dog ran frantically back and forth, about to upturn over both of them the contents of the pot which emitted so wonderful a fragrance. Dorex was beside himself.  He whimpered and jumped on his master’s legs and barked and licked the tips of his shoes and his entire black body trembled.  Her father bent and petted his head.  A faint smile appeared in the corners of his clamped lips and the huge glacier which had formed within him cracked slightly.  The dish his neighbour had brought cooled slowly in the small pot on the iron stove.  When they had both calmed they ate it.

The following morning her father already went to the train station, and hadn’t missed a day since.  Now Eva is almost sixteen, he thought.  How will he recognise her?  He’ll certainly recognise her, a voice berated him, she’s his daughter!  He tugged the leash and Dorex rose and followed him.  Each time he pulled on the leash her father looked back to make sure it was really Dorex, his beloved dog.  Who would have believed it.  His faithful neighbour had looked after both his house and his dog all this time, took care of him and fed him, not an easy thing during the war years.  He cautiously felt a trace reappear of the trust in people which he had lost.   Perhaps, he took heart, perhaps despite everything, some remain human.  But still he swallowed as though forcing a glass ball down his throat.

A long, black train stood in the station, emitting clouds of smoke.  A bearded station employee in a black, sooty uniform opened the door to one of the coaches.  The other doors creaked open from within as though at a signal.  For a moment, no one boarded the coaches or descended from them, as if everyone had frozen in place.  Suddenly the tumult began.  Those wishing to board pushed toward the narrow doors, squeezed toward the openings; those who’d come to receive the arriving passengers crowded one another along the platform’s length.  The arriving passengers descended only with great difficulty from the coaches.  Her father surveyed the coaches, one by one: first an old man emerged, straining to carry a large leather satchel.  A young man moved toward the old man, smiled warmly and helped him descend the narrow steps.  Then another man and woman emerged, content, engaged in conversation while their eyes sought whomever they were looking for.  Two excited girls waved to a handsome man who hurriedly pushed toward them and they hopped up and down, and an erect woman with curly hair and fine clothes, her high heels tapping, firmly grasped the hands of two elegantly dressed children and the three of them carefully descended the tall stairs.  People standing on the platform pushed themselves and their belongings forward, barely remembering their manners.  As though there had been no war.  Or perhaps because there had.

“Dorex, come,” her father drew his dog closer.  Then he scratched his head and looked left and right, but again remained rooted in place for the tenth, the twentieth time, and perhaps he was already confused and erred in his accounting.  He smelled the odour of roasted chestnuts.  One of the station employees shrilled twice quickly on a tin whistle.  The locomotive tensed, roared and exhaled smoke.  Dorex also tensed.  A group of people descended hesitantly, in a clump, from the penultimate coach.  He straightened.  To his chagrin their blank expressions, their shorn hair, their open wounds, the clothing hanging on their bodies like on scarecrows, their clenched hands, were already familiar to him.  They descended to the platform in a single mass, proceeding along the concrete floor like an animal that’d lost its head and limbs; if they should separate, God forbid, they’d resemble the scattered limbs of a shattered body.  When they came down a murmur spread through the crowd.  A fissure opened among the waiting forms as though the sea had parted and a narrow path opened for them on which to walk.  They stood on the platform like abandoned property.  Where will they go?  Her father hurried toward them, his heart pounding in his chest, quickly paged through the many faces, reading their features – No.  No.  Nor her. – And moved to the next array of limbs, skimmed over them also with eager eyes:  No.  Not her.  Nor her either.  Perhaps this woman?

No.

And that girl, is that Eva?

No.

Well he knew:  Today he’ll again return alone to the empty house.

Chapter 5: Hotel Malta

(Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, 2015, Translated from the Hebrew by Charles S. Kamen)

 

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Edna Shemesh
Edna Shemesh is an Israeli author, translator and book reviewer; the author of short story collection Amstel (2007) and novels The Sand Dunes of Paris (2013), Hotel Malta (2015) and Go, Pave the Sea (2018). Her fifth book, A Sensitive Woman, will hopefully be published soon. She is a two-time recipient of the “Am Hassefer” translation prize by the Israeli Ministry of Culture for the translation of The Sand Dunes of Paris and Hotel Malta into English, invited lecturer at Harvard University, SIS University of Shanghai and The National Library of New Zealand, guest of the Shanghai Writers Association and a MacDowell Fellow. She spent two unforgettable months in Queensland and Orpheus island, and wishes she could go back again.

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