|Jan/Feb 2015 Nonfiction|
Editor's Note: Published here are the middle four flashes from a linked, eight-flash series called Birds of Prayer: A Memoir. The first three flashes were published in Connotation Press in 2012. The last in the series appeared in Olentangy Review in 2014.
After we picked up the shochet—a ritual chicken slaughterer from Brooklyn who would make our chickens kosher—at the train station that night, my grandfather and I entered Zeidika's half of our two-family farmhouse. My step-grandmother, Magda, appeared dressed up, her lips red, her black hair tied back with a scarlet kerchief, tendrils curling around her flushed face. She wore a frilly hot-pink apron crawling with red roses over a purple silk dress. Her stocking seams shot straight up the back of her legs from her high-heeled white-feathery slippers. Magda was my step-grandmother, Zeidika's second wife. She looked like Snow White's step-mother, especially when primping in front of her three-way Hollywood mirror on her dressing table.
My own mother bitterly complained about her: "She is the opposite of your grandmother, selfish and money-hungry. My mother loved everyone and everyone loved her, and she was happy with whatever she had before they took her and my sisters and brothers to the gas chamber."
"Mr. Unger, come in! Welcome to our poor farmhouse," Magda exclaimed. The shochet glanced uncertainly at Zeidika, who gestured him on. They followed Magda's prancing figure into her kitchen where Hungarian delicacies had been simmering all day.
"Sit. Gloria, have some of my delicious sauerkraut and potato soup. I made it especially for you." She was formal and distant amid all her hysterics, never using the diminutive forms of my name.
The three sat around the kitchen table while Magda bustled about, mesmerizing the shochet who stuffed his mouth for the rest of the evening. Stranded in a farmhouse, this former Budapest socialite was thrilled to have a new audience for her concoctions, especially a visitor about to slaughter several months' worth of poultry on our farm for her freezer. Magda's head bobbed over wooden spoons she dipped into broths, stirring and tasting, steam billowing, fogging every window. She sang Yiddish and Hungarian folk songs, swinging her hips from side to side.
Magda and my mother both cooked ferociously, as both had once starved. Often not on speaking terms, they would hand me measuring cups, instructing me to ask the other to borrow sugar, oil, flour, or salt. Regardless of the weather, I shuttled along the concrete walkway linking their separate entrances to the same farmhouse, never leaving either kitchen without a taste of the most recent concoction.
While Magda's cooking was tempestuous and peppery, my mother's was soothing and rich. Both artfully balanced sweet and sour, cinnamon and cloves, caraway and garlic, salt and paprika, temporarily conjuring the spirits of the dead with their challahs, strudels, kishkas, stuffed cabbages and goulash, as if just the right combination of ingredients could transport them all back to a time before anyone realized how unsafe life could be. Though I complimented both equally, Magda relentlessly informed visitors that I loved her cooking the best.
"Time for bed, Gittileh," my mother called through the screen of their heated closed-in porch that was used mostly for their frequent overflow of relatives from Brooklyn on Jewish Holidays and summer vacations.
"Finish your sauerkraut soup," Magda chided. I noticed some goulash beef stuck to Mr. Unger's beard.
"I have to go," I said, passing the loyalty test in favor of my mother. I kissed Zeidika's rough face and Magda presented her powdered cheek.
"Good-night Mr. Unger," I said. He waved me off like a fly, his cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk's.
"She loves my cooking better than her own mother's," I heard Magda lie as I slammed the door.
5. The Lost Ones
I meandered through the fresh snow of the front yard between our two farmhouse entrances, creating a fresh trail, still counting flakes falling in the light outside our porch.
"Mommy, how come you and Magda never talk to each other?" I asked as I peeled off my snowy boots in the doorway.
"She said something bad about you as a baby," my mother replied, her back to me while washing dishes.
"What was it?"
My mother paused mid-scrub to lean on the sink. Though she wore a plain, faded housedress and came from a poor village on the opposite side of Hungary from Magda's glamorous Budapest, I noticed the porcelain translucence of my mother's ivory skin that everyone remarked on, so beautiful compared to the floury coarseness of Magda's pampered face.
"I don't remember, but I know it was bad. Now get ready for bed."
I had trouble imagining baby insults sufficient to explain their longstanding rift. My mother compared Magda's "rotten nature" to the "sweet nature" of her own mother, Gittel. I therefore suspected that baby insults were a cover story. Just being alive while Gittel was dead was likely Magda's most unforgivable sin.
"How many were there?" I asked my mother, initiating a nightly ritual of remembrance as we checked on my sleeping baby brother, David. Moisheleh, she called him, for Moishe Dovid, her brother who died of crib death at nine months. And my little sister, Linda, Layaleh, both names of my mother's lost siblings.
"Such zeeskeits. I could eat them up," my mother whispered, kissing each of their warm cheeks. "What did you ask?"
"What were their ages?" I persisted. "What were their names?"
As she did most nights, my mother recited her siblings' names and ages the last time she saw them, when she was sixteen, on their way to the gas chamber with her mother. And just as always, as she uttered the syllables, they transformed into sparks charging the air, casting a spell, so that I could not grasp the answers before they evaporated like zeroes. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to ask again and again for the identities of those who had flickered briefly on earth before me, like fireflies. I forgot what my mother said no matter how many times we repeated this like a prayer every night. My mother seemed entranced by this incantation between waking and sleeping, to punctuate each day. Together we evoked invisible gravestones in the puffs of air and sounds between us, in a world with no other markers of those fleeting lives.
The only name I ever remembered was that of Gittel, my grandmother, because it was given to me. I embodied Gittel in the world of the living, just as my Yiddish name connected me to the land of the dead. I felt my grandmother watching over me with compassion, although helpless to intervene on my behalf under the furious scrutiny of God Almighty, just as Gittel had been powerless to rescue her own four little ones huddling around her like ducklings in the gas chamber.
As my mother recited the names, she tearfully called me Mameleh, Little Mother, which confused me. Was I her mother meant to comfort her? Was she my orphaned child? Was I dead too? I was never quite sure where I belonged in the overlapping worlds of the living and the dead. My competent mother seemed so fragile in the liminal space between day and night. Carrying my grandmother's name, I wished I could protect my daughter-like mother from past harm as if she were my own child, as if time could zigzag back and forth.
Only Zeidika, my grandfather, never seemed to weaken, though it was his wife and children who had been murdered, his mother who had died in the hot cattle car ride to Auschwitz where it was even too crowded to sit down. In those early years after the war, both my parents were irritable, volatile at times, but Zeidika was their steady compass, calming them when they lost their patience with their children and placating his often-shrieking wife, Magda. He reliably centered us all. When he was around, we never got hit.
That evening, I could hear the Chicken Killer from Brooklyn snoring on a pullout couch in Zeidika's cozy closed-in porch.
The next morning, the shochet and Zeidika awoke before dawn, snaking around their arms the leather straps of tefillin attached to little prayer cubes perched on top of their foreheads and hands. Each draped over his shoulders and head a white tallis with fringes hanging like the spread-out wings of a giant bird. They recited the morning prayers that long ago replaced animal sacrifice in Jewish ritual. Then, in his rickety truck, Zeidika drove the executioner up to the coops to begin a long day of stooping in a white blood-stained robe over surgically-precise throat-slashing.
6. The Slaughter
After breakfast, I badgered my mother into letting me help with the slaughter for the day, leaving Linda and David with their babysitter to watch cartoons. School was closed for a snow day, so my mother relented. Together, we trudged to the coops, just as flurries began again. Walking down the hill from the house to the dirt road, we passed the snow-covered vegetable garden and the skinny wooden shed that exuded the charred aroma of smoked geese and ducks against an impenetrable gray sky. On the road climbing up towards the coops, my mother walked along the tire tracks, but I stumbled through fresh snow higher than the tops of my red boots.
We passed the bright yellow gasoline pump for fueling the tractor, the bare weeping willow hanging over the frozen frog creek, the Concord grape arbor we children picked clean every fall and the hump of snow-covered sand hill I pretended was a desert every summer. Up ahead, just outside a long cinder block building called the Hatchery, where Zeidika warmed eggs in incubators and nurtured baby birds every spring, I could see the winter slaughter had begun, half-way between our house and our four large coops of squawking chickens.
Approaching the carnage, I stretched my neck, wrapped in an itchy woolen scarf, to observe from a safe distance, wondering how I might save even one chicken. My mother told Zeidika that Magda had a headache "as usual" and was lying down "with an aspirin" before joining them. Mosey, the head farm worker, a black man who had worked alongside Zeidika for as long as I could remember, hauled and stacked wooden cages like tiny enclosed cribs, each crowded with noisy terrified birds: chickens, ducks and geese.
"Steer clear, Kitty Kat, or they'll mistake you for a chicken," shouted Mosey.
"You're joking," I replied.
"Me, joke? You got me mixed up perhaps with some other gentleman?"
"Yes, you told me I'll sleep in the bungalow with the freezers next summer."
"That's no joke. You most surely will. Leaving space for a cot just your size when we finish in the spring."
"Mommy says that's not true."
"Just you wait, come summer, who's telling you the truth."
Zeidika, meanwhile, assisted the shochet the way Mommy often helped Dr. Lyons immobilize me for penicillin shots. Zeidika firmly restrained each bird through the procedure, gently rubbing their heads while softly singing Hungarian lullabies. He could hypnotize them into limpness before they were killed.
Mr. Unger recited Hebrew blessings, maneuvering a razor-sharp knife with his corpse-white hand so fast that I could not perceive the moment of death, though I monitored each flick of the wrist and alarming spurt of blood that stained the snow below in seeping redness.
The flurries intensified. Snow fell on blood, blood on snow, like Snow White's lips and skin, and silky chicken feathers. I thought of the sharp pain of paper cuts and remembered the shock of once stepping on broken glass, something like what the chickens must feel when the knife parted their necks. The scene resembled a distant play in a tiny shaken snow globe inside which I felt suffocated yet outside, detached, all at once. It was difficult to breathe, as if my lungs were confined in a crowded cage.
Mosey transported the limp birds by their legs, two birds in each hand, to the hatchery building with its high windows and bare bulbs hanging from rafters. There, he hoisted cadavers up and down from their hooks so my mother, a few of the other workers, and eventually Magda could pluck feathers and scrape guts over long metal table-tops resting on sawhorses, a process inexplicably referred to as "dressing the chickens." Hanging featherless by their tied-up stick legs, the lifeless fowl looked more like creatures in need of clothes and a burial than freezing and cooking.
My palms dampened with sweat despite the cold. I scurried between the doomed living and the freshly dead, wondering how it felt to be suddenly headless, cold air blasting into one's neck. The crammed birds were frantic, but fear apparently did not count as suffering in kashrus law. I could feel their terror permeate my body. I imagined trying to herd them back into warm coops without chickens scampering in every direction and freezing to death. I remembered my parents' claim that in the hierarchy of suffering, these were just senseless animals, not sensitive humans. But like so much else they found comforting, this did not calm me at all, for I recalled them quoting Nazis say the same things about Jews.
"Vermin, they called us. Our lives were cheap," I often heard.
My intensifying panic triggered an even worse feeling of unreality. I hated this floaty, out-of-body sensation, colors brighter, hurting my eyes, for it made me feel like I was watching myself in a dream. And if so, where was I really in my waking life? Was I trapped in a bunk of blanket-less wooden slats in Auschwitz? Was I crowded in a dark stinking cattle car or awaiting slaughter in a gas chamber? Was I, in fact, a trapped bird dreaming of flight?
To drown these concerns, I assigned myself the task of purging the concrete floor with a water hose. While the grownups toiled up to their elbows in blood, I directed a Red Sea to the drain in the slightly sunken middle of the room. Everyone splashed around in rubber boots, but while I shivered in my snowsuit, my mother and Magda perspired in light sweaters, yanking out feathers and slithery organs, washing corpses, then sprinkling them with giant salt crystals to draw out the blood which was banned for consumption under the tenets of kashrus.
7. The Blood Sacrifice
The shochet shuffled to the bathroom. I dropped the hose and ran outside. His leather knife case rested on a stool. I removed my mittens to feel the soft leather pouch, then slowly slid out the knife. The blade's edge seemed thinner than paper. I held out my left hand, like Isaac's throat. I passed the blade lightly across the tip of my forefinger, parting the flesh like a chicken's neck. Out gushed blood, with no pain whatsoever, just a chill up the back of my neck. I dropped the knife and its pouch in the snow.
"Has anyone seen my knife?" the shochet boomed. I scampered back inside to hose off my hand. Mr. Unger located his knife in the snow and glanced in my direction through the open door. The water numbed my finger, but as soon as I removed the flow, the finger poured blood. I ran to the bathroom and pressed the cut with wads of toilet paper. Mosey barged in.
"I knew you's the snoop fiddling with that butcher knife. Show me the damage."
He knelt to examine my finger.
"Cut your finger almost right off, Kitty Kat."
"Please don't tell my mother. She'll kill me."
"Maybe if you promise not to go touching more knives. I'm gonna bandage this up real tight so all the insides of your finger don't go falling out like chicken guts. But first, I gotta clean it with iodine to kill those germs. That's gonna sting plenty. So take a deep breath and think snow. Be glad you ain't no chicken."
The searing pain did make me glad that the fowl had all died quickly, before the pain set in. At least I now knew that their death was indeed painless. Mosey wrapped my finger tightly in layers of gauze and then round and round with white tape.
"You should scat down to the house and be watching cartoons with the other little kids, anyways, not messing around with all these blood and guts. What's the matter with your folk? This ain't no place for no nosy-body little girl. Why these people let you up here in the first place?"
"I begged them."
"Oh, so I suppose if you pestered them to let you drive the tractor, they gonna say 'Here the keys, girl. Bye! Don't run over no geese.' This is crazy stuff, Kitty Kat. Jesus!"
I pulled his jacket.
"Thank you, Mosey, for helping me."
"Real helping would be marching you right back down to that warm old farmhouse where you belong."
He waved me away as if disgusted and went back to work. I wandered out of the bathroom, embarrassed that Mosey thought my family so strange. My mother stood square and sturdy, preoccupied with feather-plucking, her high cheekbones reddened, fluffy down caught among the black curls escaping from under her red-checkered kerchief. Never too close to her worked the regal Magda.
By the end of the day, plastic bags filled with chicken carcasses were ready for freezing. Both women's hands were chafed and scarlet from the combination of icy water, frigid winds, bucketsful of blood and giant crystals of kosher salt that came in bright red and yellow boxes, each emblazoned with a white Star of David.
At dusk, just before Zeidika drove the shochet back to town, he who had ignored me all day took me aside.
"You ask too many questions, little one. Have more faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Rest your troubled thoughts with Him. He has His reasons for everything. Accept that you can never fully know those reasons. And as they say in America, 'curiosity killed the cat.'" He pinched my cheeks roughly and departed. I rubbed my stinging face with relief. The slaughter was over, for now.
By evening, the Hatchery was scoured and we were all exhausted, ready to return to the farmhouse. There, my father would arrive even later from the shop in New York City, where he sewed mink coats and often brought home extra pieces to sew in the attic late into the night. Every penny he earned kept the farm going.
Before they emerged into the starlit night, Mother and Magda grilled some salted chicken livers held over a blowtorch clasped in a metal double-grid with a handle so it could be flipped over. The charred organs melted on our tongues like chocolate, quelling hunger pangs and completing a cycle of transforming creatures into sanctified food suitable for Jewish consumption, erasing all thoughts of suffering with sensations of eating pleasure, albeit incited by animal sacrifice.
"You take care, Kitty Kat," said Mosey, plunking me onto my mother's lap in the truck, next to Magda. As Zeidika drove back to the house, Mosey wiggled his left forefinger and winked. He lived in an apartment attached to the hatchery, with the three transient farm workers who never talked to me at all.