(Excerpt #11 from The Ultimate Patient)
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. Tina is one of four major characters in my novel. This excerpt is the continuation of the four published earlier and describing Tina’s experience in Transnistria. Being Jewish, she and her family were deported there by the pro-Nazi government of Romania in 1941. Please let me know what you think. As always, I would love to read your critique.
A small shallow lake bordered Illya Petrovici’s property, with marshy shores and long grasses. In the morning, the edges were covered by a thin layer of ice that melted towards the middle of the day allowing the brown water to lap, with a mellow, almost imperceptible sound. They waded into it and Tina and the other women tried to launder the larger garments the best they could in the frigid temperatures.
Chaim followed Tina everywhere. Although she was amused by his persistence, after a while she decided that telling him the truth was best. “Listen,” she said as they were standing by the lake, looking over the desolate scenery. “You are a nice person, but I am older than you, practically a woman, and you are still a boy. I’m seventeen. Illya Petrovici’s daughter is fifteen and already dreaming of marriage. Do you want to get married? I don’t think so. But we could be good friends, talk about things.”
Chaim looked at her, worried. “I just want to spend time with you. The adults are boring. They have no hope.”
Tina was moved by his disarming excuse. She had no doubt he was attracted to her as a woman. He wasn’t going to admit to it because, well, such was life, and she saw no issue with accepting a role akin to that of a young governess to a family with three boys, of which the oldest has a crush on her she pretends not to notice. A little bit of the personal in their dreary mix would only enhance the family cohesion. “I see,” Tina said, deciding to dig a little deeper. “Myself, I wouldn’t mind spending time with you if we had interesting things to discuss, if we could talk about the future and the end of war. Say, have you ever read Marx or Engels?”
Chaim’s worried face became even more sorrowful. He started pulling nervously at his crop of reddish hair with long thin strands hanging behind his ears. It was clear he hadn’t read them nor did he have a clue of who they were or what ideas they represented.
Tina smiled. “All right,” she said. “As you know, we are now on the territory of the Soviet Union. For sure they have Marx and Engels at the local library, so it shouldn’t be difficult to borrow some of their books.”
Chaim nodded vehemently. He wasn’t going to doubt Tina, nor did he wonder where in the village of Lucinețthe library might be located, or whether they would have access to it. Luckily he didn’t have to find out.
A young man from Suceava by the name of Felix was also in the house, with his family. He was skinny and walked with a limp. He liked Tina from the moment he first saw her. Unlike Chaim, he was delicate and more direct in his courtship, and Tina found his sense of humor appealing. She never questioned why he had not been sent, like many other men, to the forced labor camp by the Romanians. Eventually she found out that like her brother, he had given a bribe, and later yet she understood that the labor requirements were actually quite random, depending on the needs of the war and the whim of the administrator and his cohorts.
She and Felix went on strolls together, walking through the village, as if purposefully, since Jews did not have free range and were not supposed to wander around without reason. They talked about Tina’s early years of high school in Câmpulung, his trade school in Suceava, about the war, and even about a future once the war ended and they were allowed back to Romania. More often than not, Chaim tagged along, and Tina welcomed his presence, nurturing and teasing him like a younger brother, had she had one. As long as Chaim was there, Felix had no choice but to refrain in his advances, since Tina did not like to have to reject his tender gestures or pretend not to understand his skillful double entendres.
One afternoon in November, as they walked along the slippery shoreline, Tina grabbed Felix’s hand for support. She felt his fingers reach out and tentatively interlace with the fingers on her free hand. From that point on, whenever other people were not around, she proudly walked in between her two admirers holding hands with both of them, much like she did as a child with Stella and Adina in the streets of Câmpulung, on their way to and from school. There she was, feeling like a queen exiled from her kingdom and sustained by the adoring love of her two royal pages, a young man of twenty six and a second one, almost a man, still believing in what was good in the world and in the happiness that would soon return. On those days, the shallow waters of the fen looked like pools of silver mirroring the sky, the long grasses and fallen leaves under their feet felt like soft Oriental rugs, and the dust in the streets shimmered with specks of gold.
Once they noticed the water quivering on the surface of a small cove. “Look, a fish!” Felix yelled. He found a straight stick and tried spearing the fish with it. He missed the first several times, but then the fish swam towards the inlet of the cove where the water was shallow and Felix managed to sink the stick deep into the fish’s soft belly. He lifted the flapping prey into the air and threw it onto the ground. It was a fat carp, slippery and yellow on the underside, about two pounds in weight, and Tina, grabbing it by its gills, ran home as fast as she could, followed by her suitors. She had never before held a live fish in her hands, but she had no time to be queasy. When Mrs. Schultz saw what she brought and heard that they had caught it at the lake, she immediately produced a triumphant yell and grabbed the only kitchen knife they had. Holding it by the blade, she started smacking at the carp’s head. Everybody gathered around.
“Don’t crush the head!” Dr. Flor exclaimed. “Just cut it off.”
“It’s still alive,” Tina protested.
“He’ll be dead and cooked by the time we eat it,” Dr. Flor said.
The tail flapped on the table while Mrs. Schultz pressed the blunt knife onto the spot behind the gills and scales flew everywhere as she started cleaning the fish.
Felix went looking for his parents. It wasn’t dinnertime yet, but it was clear nobody was going to wait. The Freedmans had a handful of peas in one of their backpacks, along with an onion and several potatoes, and they handed their provisions to Mrs. Schultz who nodded approvingly and threw them with the cleaned chunks of carp into the pot. Someone produced several slices of dark bread.
Aromas of fish and boiled vegetables filled the room and Dr. Flor lit a cigarette, his fingers trembling around the flame. Tina felt hungrier than she had ever felt. Mrs. Schultz did a careful job dividing the broth in equal portions to each one in the room — the Freedmans, the Flors, the Schultzes, as well as Felix, their fisherman, and his parents. Flakes of sweet meat fell off the bone. Steam rose from the bowls, islands of rainbow colored fat floated on the surface of the broth. They ate in silence and when they were done, they scraped their dishes and sucked on the white backbone of the fish. Dr. Flor devoured the head — he cracked the skull open and extracted the brains, he dislodged the eyeballs and licked them like candy, one after the other, and he looked for and swallowed the meaty cheeks. “Great,” he said satisfied, pursing his crooked lips and pushing aside the smallish pile of still steaming fish remains.
Everybody started talking at once, while the two youngest, Yitzhak and David rushed outside to look for straight sticks to make fishing poles.
“On a train, once upon a time, a young man shared a compartment with this old Jew,” Dr. Flor began. “After the train left the station, the old Jew took a dozen fried sardines out of a small wooden box and started eating them. He swallowed the fish whole, tails and all, except for the heads, which he bit off and carefully placed back in the box. The young man was astonished. ‘What are you doing, old man? Why save those fish heads?’ ‘Oh, the heads are the most beneficial,’ the Jew said. ‘They contain phosphorus, and I save them for my kids, because phosphorus makes you real smart.’ The young man fell silent, and, after pondering for a few minutes, he asked the old Jew, ‘Tell me, how much do you want for the heads?’ ‘Not for sale,’ the Jew said. “C’mon,’ the young man insisted. ‘I’ll make it worth your while.’ They haggled and quibbled and eventually the old Jew succumbed and agreed to sell his fish heads for a substantial sum. The young man gulped them down and satisfied fell silent again. Then he frowned and fidgeted in his seat. ‘Old man, I think you tricked me. Those fish heads, you charged me way too much for them.’ ‘See? You’re smarter already!’ the old Jew smiled.”
Tina felt smarter too. She felt like a heroine for the day. Later in the afternoon she went out walking again with Felix and Chaim, and, as they crossed paths with the locals in the village, she looked them straight in the eye.
Not long afterwards, the Schultzes discovered relatives in Mogilev and decided to move there to be with them. Tina thought of the twenty-mile march from Moghilev to Lucineț, and the relief she had felt day they stopped walking. She was happy for the Schultzes to be reunited with their relatives, and yet sorry to see them go. They had shared difficult times together and had grown close. Their departure meant more space in the room for the Flors and themselves. They spread the mattresses on the floor, rearranged the screens and widened the common space by the stove. The Schultzes had paid for the room until spring and Illya Petrovici wasn’t losing any money with their departure. Jews were no longer brought to the area, at least not for the time being, and therefore there was no temptation or opportunity for him to rent the vacated space out. Besides, it had been him who had spoken for the Schultzes with the Rabbi and found their relatives. He had also inquired about the Horwitzes, specifically Iboy, just as Tina had asked him to do, and found out they had stopped in Lindiceni, which was too far away and so there was no way for the girls to see each other. They could write letters, because the Rabbi had created a network that allowed the few local Jews and the many newcomers to communicate, take their grievances to the Romanian authorities, and even publish a sort of newspaper.
Chaim was the only one who seemed truly devastated by the separation. He insisted Tina go with him to the lake, where he cried in her arms, and kissed her on the lips. Tina let him do it, but only once. Then she wished him good luck, assuring him they would see each other again.