Shoelaces

She buys shoelaces for a pair of men’s shoes – such a
trivial purchase.
As she’s buying them, she still thinks she’s in love with
Jurek Szwarcwald. Everybody thinks that, especially
Jurek’s parents. Jurek isn’t ugly and he isn’t boring. He
isn’t poor, either. Izolda is wearing his shoes because a
bomb destroyed the house on Ogrodowa Street and now
she can’t get into her apartment, let alone her wardrobe.
She stops at her friend Basia Maliniak’s. Just for a
moment, to thread the new laces.
A young man is standing by the stove, warming his
hands on the tiles. He’s tall and slender, with straight,
golden hair. His hands have a golden tinge. When he
sits down he spreads his legs and drops his arms – nonchalantly,
almost absent-mindedly. His hands just hang
there, helpless, and even more beautiful. She learns he
has two first names, Yeshayahu Wolf, and that Basia
calls him Shayek.
She takes her time lacing her shoes. After an hour
Shayek says: You have the eyes of a rabbi’s daughter. An
hour later he adds: A sceptical rabbi.
Basia sees her to the door and hisses: I could kill you
right now.

 

Engaged

He drops by a few days later, with bad news about Hala
Borensztajn’s brother Adek. (Izolda shared a desk with
Hala to the end of sixth form.) Adek’s dead. From typhus.
She can’t believe it: typhus? People die of scarlet fever
or pneumonia but not from typhus. Shayek says: Now
they’ll be dying differently, we better get used to that.
They walk over to Hala’s. Adek’s friends have come
as well. The apartment is cold. They drink tea. Basia
Maliniak is knitting a colourful sweater from unravelled
yarn and doesn’t say a word to either of them. The others
talk about typhus. Supposedly it comes from lice. Not
from people? No, just lice. Hala laughs at her father, who
wants to build a shelter and hide from the lice and from
the war. His daughter assures him that the war won’t
last long, but he’s already stocking up on provisions.
The talk moves to love. Izolda says: You know what?
I thought I was in love with Jurek Szwarcwald but I was
wrong. Should I tell him or not? After some debate her
friends conclude that would be too cruel. Get engaged
to someone else, they advise, and Shayek tosses out: I’m
available. After he leaves, Basia Maliniak puts down her
knitting and says: He meant that – and she’s right.

 

The Zacheta Guest House

They take a local train. She opens the window and warm,
spring-like air flows inside. The train passes Józefów.
She points out the road the old peasant wagon used to
take coming from town. You can see how it follows the
tracks. Always around this time of year. That’s where
it turned behind the trees. You can’t see the houses
from the train. The one with the big porch belongs to
the Szwarcwalds. The wagon would drive up and the
servant girl would unload all the baskets packed with
linens, summer clothes, pots, buckets, brushes. Then
she’d fetch water from the well and scrub the floors. At
the end of summer the same wagon would drive back
in from town and the servant girl would load up all the
baskets packed with linens, pots, brushes. There used to
be a sandy glade in the woods, not far off, with an old
oak tree. No, of course you can’t see the tree. It always
had so many acorns.
She talks and talks, hoping the words will drown out
her fear, as well as her embarrassment and curiosity. They
get off at Otwock, the end of the line. A group of older
boys scrambles out of the next carriage, all very serious
and conspiratorial, probably scouts. Their leader issues
a few quiet commands – fall in, compasses, north-east
– and the column fades into the woods. A freckle-faced
boy with a broad smile brings up the rear.
The Zacheta guest house smells of warm pine. Inside
the room, Shayek clearly knows what to do with a woman
who’s as eager as she is afraid, as curious as she is embarrassed.
Later that afternoon they head back, stopping
to rest under a tree. She lays her head on his lap. They
hear a chorus of voices, not very loud, singing a scouting
song: Hur-rah hur-rah, hoo-ray hoo-ray! As long as we
can, let’s seize the day! – the boys from the next carriage
are also returning to the station. The freckle-faced boy
again brings up the rear, but he isn’t singing; maybe he
doesn’t have the voice for it. The boy notices them. Hey,
he shouts, take a look at this, the Yids are making love.
The boy snickers, then turns around and catches up with
his colleagues. Izolda keeps her eyes closed and whispers:
Your hair is so blond and your skin is so light, but they
could tell. He drapes her sweater around her shoulders.
She hadn’t realized it had slipped, exposing the armband
with the blue star.