by S. Nadja Zajdman
black tea in tall glasses, with lemon wedges
When I was small, with fascination I would watch as my father’s sister Cesia washed dishes. In a short-sleeved blouse, she’d plunge her arms into sudsy water. There were little blue numbers on the inside of one of her arms. I thought the water would wash them out, but it didn’t. I didn’t ask my aunt why she had blue numbers on her arm; I asked my mother.
“Auntie has a bad memory. She writes her phone number on her arm so she won’t forget it.” Genocide taught Mum to be a quick and clever liar.
“But the numbers don’t come off! What happens if she moves?!”
A woman who had outwitted the Gestapo had no answer for me. When Mum was stumped, she’d change the subject. When Mum was stumped, I’d allow her to.
A year later, we were gathered at my aunt’s kitchen table when my little brother blurted, “Auntie, how come you got little blue numbers on your arm?” The adults sat in shocked and embarrassed silence. I kicked my brother under the table.
“Shashi!” The oblivious tyke inserted a second foot into his already crowded mouth. “Why do you kick me under the table?! What did I do?” The adults were stunned. Their hurt and haunted eyes focused on me. The spectres that lived in the world behind their eyes rose up in my relatives’ irises to silently question me. How does the child know? How can the child know? We couldn’t protect the children. Can’t we protect them, even now?
“Slodka, sweetheart.” My mother became uncharacteristically gentle. She placed her worn hands on my soft, unmarked arm. “How do you know?”
“I don’t know,” was my answer to my parents and my relatives and above all, to the ancestors who had risen out of the ether and were hovering over Cesia’s kitchen table. “I just know we’re not suppose to ask.”
About the author