Thursday 5 May 2022

Born of Heroes - Short Story by Melanie Chartoff


Born of Heroes

Short Story by Melanie Chartoff


The cramps worsened, and she held back a groan. She felt stuck.  She'd wake her baby brother if she climbed out to the left, rouse her little sister if she rolled out on the right.  Why had she let herself fall sleep in the middle? Because she’d been too tired to move. 

Any whimper would wake every exhausted person in the house. She weighed her options.  She dreaded having to get up and walk across an open field of scratchy buds and bugs to the odorous outhouse, unpleasant even in the bright light of day; but she’d wet them all if she stayed where she was. She clenched tighter, reflecting on all the changes these last three years to distract herself.                                        

The warm Hermosillo nights were far safer than that last icy winter surviving the pogroms pillaging Djurine, Ukraine.  They fled, but then they'd endured degrading poverty, malnutrition, and head lice the entire anxious year awaiting their visas for America in Lithuania.  Tales from home were horrible to hear as the Red Army terrorized the Ukraine, kidnapping their neighbours' daughters and coldly killing their sons. So many tears were shed, of sorrow for others, of guilty gratitude and shame that they had been spared so far. But their mother said they must stop crying so they could go on to new possibilities. 

Survival had come at a high price for her family and many other refugees exiled from the Ukraine. Right now, if the babies' sleep in what was left of the darkness was her most urgent concern, she knew she was most fortunate.  Sophie slid slowly, slowly down among the baby feet, down under the coarse burlap, struggling not to cough, or uncover her siblings as she wriggled, emerging to carefully clamber out the bottom of the bed.  Success.  So far, so good. She tiptoed past her older siblings Helen and Louie as they slept deeply on straw beds on the ground. She crept on her toes across the dank dirt floor, which she and Helen swept of crumbs every morning in one direction, and every evening in the other direction.  Her mother kept them as busy with chores here as she did back in the Old World, so they would feel at home.  She crept toward the wooden door, comforted by the noisy breathing of her mother Livsha sleeping alone in the front room.                      

She stopped to listen to the soft snores. For awhile her mother had slept silent like the stiff, dead bodies which had laid frozen on the ground in Mother Russia, which they had too often rushed past.  But now Livsha had a busy sleep like the always moving, hard-working woman she was.  Her courageous mother deserved more rest from her long hard days.  It was amazing Momma hadn’t died, sharing her single boiled egg and one piece of bread a day with her three young children aboard the harrowing boat ride from Lithuania to Mexico, enduring that, too, typical of so much other deprivation in so few years.  Sometimes her mother would faint from the ache of her hunger, but soon revive to comfort her crying children, to find her balance on the rocking ship deck once again. 

Despite the swaying confinement, they had been too scared to leave the creaking ship to explore when it harboured for one day in the heat and humidity of Havana. But they gazed at its palm trees and darker hued peoples through the portholes in hungry wonderment.  So much newness awaited them and excitement was growing larger than their fear.  They had agreed to stay aboard all the way South to Uruguay where a small quota of Jews were invited to be sheltered. What price they’d pay for protection there was still unclear. At any cost, this long ocean voyage was something they would be glad to escape.

Instead, Sophie, Louie, Helen and their mother snuck off the boat North of their assigned destination at the busy port of Veracruz, Mexico as they'd been instructed by Meyer, Livsha's gentle new husband.  He welcomed his weakened new family into his arms at the end of the ship ramp in this small port in this enormous foreign place. He wept to hold Livsha close to him again.

Meyer had fallen in love with the recently widowed matriarch, even though she was his boss and he her admiring bookkeeper in her Russian small goods business. He had come ahead to the Americas to pave the way. He’d been given temporary lodgings at the Chabad Community Center inland in Mexico City where he’d met Jews speaking Russian with accents from the different war torn areas they’d escaped.  He learned a great deal while he sold shoelaces and hats in the Spanish speaking markets—about the rural town of Hermosillo, just three hundred miles South of the Promised Land of the United States. He’d been told that the local people were peaceful Christians, and the five Jewish families awaiting the opportunity to enter America there were treated respectfully. 

The United States had exceeded its immigration quota for 1925-26, and the waiting period was growing longer and longer.  So, Meyer began teaching them Spanish words for things as soon as they were able to take some steady steps on solid land. He knew they'd need to speak more than Russian and Yiddish to survive for whatever time they’d be living in this strange new world.

He purchased them unfamiliar fruit from a cart near the dock and they devoured it skins and all like the starving wraiths they were, astonished at the sweet and sour new tastes and textures. The woman and her daughter who sold it looked them over curiously, and they stared back until a small smile of empathy passed between the mothers. Then the girl gave Sophie a yellow green 'lima.' She pocketed it to exclaim in Yiddish with her older siblings over it later. That was two long years ago and she had now tasted many novel foods with surprising flavors in her host country.

Finally unclenching, relieving herself, she wiped herself with leaves and lifted her feet frequently to avoid adhering to the muddy ground, holding her nose so as not to breathe in the fumes of the overused cistern. She shut its door and began to cross the grass under the gigantic canopy of moonless night. She shivered at the size of the world, at the millions of stars peeking down impersonally in this small slice of it, on this tiny bit of her. Rather than running back to the cabin, she stopped in her tracks to face down what alone was like, to see if bravery lived in her like it did in her mother.  She rarely got to be on her own, but just a short distance from the crowded shack where her family slept, she had never felt more lonely.

She reflected on how many miles they had come and how many perilous moments had passed. And now how painfully she missed her grandma, her beloved Bubbe who had tended her since she was born while Livsha travelled far away to the markets of Kiev to sell schmatahs and goods six days a week. When they had gotten word from Meyer that they would be among the last group of Jews allowed to leave their homeland before Stalin closed the borders, Bubbe and Livsha threw their few good things into some sacks. They carefully polished the one pair of decent boots the family shared and shoved them in, too. Whoever wore them out to work or school each day wherever they were living would leave them by the front door when they returned to enclose the next set of tired family feet. Sophie couldn’t wait for the day she’d wash her feet extra clean, stuff the boot toes with rags and wear them to her first days of school.  

Their Bubbe had made them a big lunch for the journey and travelled with them to the train in Kiev. She murmured to each of them in Yiddish, her language of love, with tender caresses, saying she would join them as soon as they were settled. She reminded them that they must all be good kindelah to ease their mother's burdens. She kissed and held them each closely until she had to let them go, then stood waving her lace hankie as the train pulled slowly away from the platform. She walked along beside the train, blowing kisses and walking faster as the train picked up speed, until, to Sophie's surprise, she broke into a run, crying, "Oh, my children, my children," then screamed until she ran out of platform and collapsed weeping on her knees as the train rounded a bend.   

Sophie was only a naive five back then, but now she’d grown wise enough as a big sister to realize that she would never see her grandma ever again. The journey was too difficult, the distance too great for a woman with her years and her tired heart.  She had lost her husband to ice cold violence their last winter and now had lost them, too, and would be very much alone.  Sophie wanted to weep, but felt how necessary it was to keep her sad secrets to herself to protect the children, to prevent her own despair at every turn.

Daytimes, while Livsha and Meyer were at work in the village, she and Helen and the babies had been taken by a family maid into the Church of Hermosillo to learn to worship in Spanish. She recalled them praying on their knees with other local children and crossing their hearts until her mother found out.  Livsha thanked the maid for her care and the language lessons but asked her to stop making Sophie and Helen pray in that way.  The maid then asked if Sophie’s chubby baby brother David could play the baby Jesus in the Nativity pageant in the community that first Christmas because the priest had taken kindly to him.  Livsha and Meyer agreed that would be lovely. He was perfect for the part and the congregation there adored him.  

Her bladder now unburdened, the pain in her throat from holding back the temptation of ready tears was her new problem. Her mother never cried, despite all she had lost—a young husband from Typhoid Fever, and her beloved father, slain by laughing Cossacks as her family listened in quiet anguish under the floorboards. Meyer, a modest peddler, did everything he could to keep her mother and his two new babies and stepchildren fed and safe. 

Sophie wrapped her arms around her chilled self to contain her roiling feelings.  No one would need Sophie until the dawn demanded they all go to their labors, so she lay down in the scratchy weeds to compare her small self to the size of the sky, and to wonder at her survival at a time when so many did not have such good fortune. They would go on when they could, she knew, pushing for the promise and safety of a democratic land that did not steal their supplies, dignity and beliefs, the women and children's innocence. That would let them earn a livelihood to fill their needs. That would let them be Jewish.

How could she ever pay for the privilege of her life, she asked herself, for the Jews she knew and loved being spared.  She wondered if she could help God in his work, or if God even knew of her with all he had to do. She had begun to doubt that God even existed in this dark world.  Regardless, she decided in that darkness as the sky began to purple, that forever onward she would be kind and help people in need wherever they might hunger, wherever they might suffer, whatever they might believe about God. She would not seek pay, play or pleasure. She would repay with all her heart and life. From then on, as long as she had until death one day took her as it would them all, she would live to give.

Melanie Chartoff is a lifelong actor, recent essayist (published in McSweeney's, Entropy, Verdad, Five on the Fifth, Defenestration), first time author of "Odd Woman Out," and is included in five editions of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She's a new wife and stepmother, residing in Los Angeles. 


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