WINTER INTO SPRING • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

In that last hard winter of the war, the farmhouse looked almost like a cabin for the enjoyments of the season.

Those gorgeous drifts of snow would have burned your toes to stumps, if you had no boots.

No one had boots in that last winter.

My grandmother Anya had been hidden in that farmhouse for two years by her friend Elzbieta. In those days Anya had just become a young mother.

Before, they’d lived in Cracow — Elzbieta and Anya, and their husbands. The two couples were torn apart now. It was an irony — Elzbieta’s husband arrested first. Jews were rounded up later.

Elzbieta might have been mopped up afterwards. But she fled with her baby to her grandmother Beata’s place.

Money was already worthless. Elzbieta used her jewelry, and Beata’s, to bribe a way out of the ghetto for Anya.

By that last January, everyone was running out of food. Beata and Elzbieta had slaughtered the piglets early to make sausage. They hid most of it but left just enough in plain sight, so strangers wouldn’t search through the house.

It was almost a cruelty, trying to keep the cow alive. But one of those young mothers had already lost her child and the three women clenched on to everything still living.

The baby still left to them felt love in the touch of their cracked hands. At the conservatory, Anya and Elzbieta had been so careful of their beautiful soft skin. Now they couldn’t spare a teaspoon of lard even when their fingers were bleeding.

They stole from the cow just enough hay to make bread.

Spring brought the great victory. Elzbieta and Anya between them had sustained the one tiny girl.

It was beautiful to see mud when the snow melted. The women hadn’t cried in the dark months, but the green pushing through the awakening earth left tears running down their faces. They picked sorrel and nettles and white goosefoot and made soup. Cow’s milk and women’s milk tasted of spring.

And wild beasts were everywhere now — so many starving people with nowhere to go.

***

Those who qualified as displaced persons might get food, medicine, even a chance of reaching an unravaged country.

It was terrible in its way — Anya going now to any sort of camp. But she was the only one of the three women for whom a little hope was possible. For her and the child.

Why else was I spared? Grandma said. I had to keep her alive. In the end I went.

Grandma met the man who became Grandpa in one of those camps. He didn’t mind another man’s daughter. Loving her kept him alive long enough to grow new roots.

She was four — my Aunt Halina — when they finally got visas for America.

***

Uncle Lenny and my mom were born here. They didn’t mind that Halina was Grandpa’s favorite. It became the family joke — Halina could wheedle anything out of Grandpa with a glass of tea and some sour cherry jam.

There are some griefs, said Grandma, that are beyond sorrow. Like an amputee for whom the lost part is always aching. You can do nothing to ease it, you try to go on anyway. You are surprised, the first time you feel joy again. We had a lot of joy, with three living children growing up in a free country.

***

The Russian victory in Poland brought no joy for people like Elzbieta, who get put on everyone’s lists. She and her husband had been the dangerous sort of people who can’t be trained to the leash.

During the war he’d received the special care reserved for intellectuals. He hung on long enough to die under new jailers.

The Polish Communists allowed some little generosities toward peasants. Elzbieta was granted permission to keep the farm after her grandmother died. The authorities pretended that exile was a great benevolence.

Unintendedly, it was. The piano tuner who revived the old family upright put his craftsman’s tender hands towards Elzbieta too. Some fissures could never be healed; they cast inexpungible shadows. She went on anyway; she married again, and played lullabies for her son on the piano his father had mended.

***

My grandparents were lively and elegant, and gave wonderful holiday parties. Pesach, Hanukkah, and a big Christmas too.

There was always a glorious tree with presents under it, and the Rosh Hashana tablecloth brought out again for the Christmas feast. Grandma made honey cake and compote for both celebrations. On Christmas, an extra place was set for a chair that remained always empty.

All three children spoke Polish and Yiddish and English.

Some people were bitterly offended.

We lost enough, said Grandma. Why should we lose our culture? And can you have too many holidays? This is the great thing to us about America. You grow bigger, not smaller.

Have you forgotten, people asked, what the Poles did to us?

I remember who saved us, said Grandma.

***

When we heard the news, said Grandma, for the first time after coming to America I could not stop my tears.

The season of miracles began early for us that year, though it had been forty-three years prayed for.

It started December 9th, when the runoff election freed Poland.

***

No government is trusted by people with secrets. Elzbieta and my grandparents had been afraid of bringing harm to any of the people they loved. Now they were free too.

Obtaining Elzbieta’s number was surprisingly simple — she’d kept her first married name. But we couldn’t get through until the eighth night of Hanukkah.

All of us were there, with the phone on speaker. Even I had enough Polish to understand.

Moje serce,” said Elzbieta. My heart.

Moja dusza, mamusia,” Halina said. My soul.

I was in college then and didn’t know much about love. I thought it would hurt Grandma, hearing her eldest child call another woman by that tenderest word for “mother.”

Then I saw how tightly Aunt Halina was holding my grandmother’s hands.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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 average 4.6 stars • 18 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • joanna b.

    let me be the first to comment. it is an honor. this story, complex as it is and some back and forthing needed, is so beautiful. i was crying at the end as i got what was happening. bravo, sarah. and also, thanks. although i know a lot about the Holocaust, your story taught me more.
    extraordinary, all of it.

  • joanna b.

    let me be the first to comment. it is an honor. this story, complex as it is and some back and forthing needed, is so beautiful. i was crying at the end as i got what was happening. bravo, sarah. and also, thanks. although i know a lot about the Holocaust, your story taught me more.
    extraordinary, all of it.

  • martine

    So moving, thank you.

  • martine

    So moving, thank you.

  • joanna b.

    oh, and 5 stars.

  • joanna b.

    oh, and 5 stars.

  • Annette Greene

    Beautiful …brought tears to my eyes too. Deserves more than 5 stars.

  • Annette Greene

    Beautiful …brought tears to my eyes too. Deserves more than 5 stars.

  • 5 big bright shining stars. A complex story woven with such love and care goes so far beyond my meager capabilities. In my humble Texan opinion you are the most talented writer i have sofar encountered on EDF.

  • 5 big bright shining stars. A complex story woven with such love and care goes so far beyond my meager capabilities. In my humble Texan opinion you are the most talented writer i have sofar encountered on EDF.

  • Mark Wendt

    Touching…

  • Mark Wendt

    Touching…

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A wonderful story, though it felt a bit compressed due to the word limit constraints.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    A wonderful story, though it felt a bit compressed due to the word limit constraints.

  • There’s some lovely writing here, but over all it didn’t touch me in the way it might have had there not been such a choppy feeling to it. I somehow felt the writer’s process of paring and paring and paring so that there was not an extra word left anywhere (though I question “… remained always empty” – why is “always” needed?). I appreciate how much of a narrative was pressed into a small space, but I’m wondering why I didn’t feel it more. Is there such a thing as “too perfect”?

  • There’s some lovely writing here, but over all it didn’t touch me in the way it might have had there not been such a choppy feeling to it. I somehow felt the writer’s process of paring and paring and paring so that there was not an extra word left anywhere (though I question “… remained always empty” – why is “always” needed?). I appreciate how much of a narrative was pressed into a small space, but I’m wondering why I didn’t feel it more. Is there such a thing as “too perfect”?

  • Diane Cresswell

    So many stories are held within families that were a part of those times. I have known some and met some of those families. We’re limited by the number of words that can be written, but not limited by the memories of life. Yes a bit disjointed but then isn’t that what memories are? Bits and pieces that come together to give a hint of what is remembered. Hopefully Sarah you’ve written a larger version of this story to bring it into more depth. Liked it.

  • Diane Cresswell

    So many stories are held within families that were a part of those times. I have known some and met some of those families. We’re limited by the number of words that can be written, but not limited by the memories of life. Yes a bit disjointed but then isn’t that what memories are? Bits and pieces that come together to give a hint of what is remembered. Hopefully Sarah you’ve written a larger version of this story to bring it into more depth. Liked it.

  • Michael Ampersant

    Well, we are glad to hear the author bakes fabulous shortbread.

  • debbi

    So very real, I could see every moment, every person and animal in this brief narrative. Beautiful

  • debbi

    So very real, I could see every moment, every person and animal in this brief narrative. Beautiful

  • S Conroy

    The autobiographical feel to this is very different from previous stories – not just of yours, but of anything I’ve read on EDF so far. Found it very interesting and will be back to read a 3rd time tomorrow. Really pleased that EDF are also interested in this genre.

  • S Conroy

    The autobiographical feel to this is very different from previous stories – not just of yours, but of anything I’ve read on EDF so far. Found it very interesting and will be back to read a 3rd time tomorrow. Really pleased that EDF are also interested in this genre.

  • Carl Steiger

    Wow. If you told me this was autobiography, I’d believe it. What is the germ of this story?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Carl and S. Conroy: This isn't the actual or disguised story of anyone known or related to me, or heard of by me. In that sense it is an imagined story. But I think it's the truthful story of many people throughout human history, whose names never or rarely were known to others, who acted with exceptional grace and courage and whose suffering is unremembered. I get really angry about the idea that any particular group of people can have a sort of patent on suffering, and recent world events made me even angrier, and especially about the lack of courage of politicians whose only risk, if they speak out about injustice, might be to lose their jobs. But I wrote about this from the perspective of the culture my own people come from. In the first few versions of this story (the original submission was excruciatingly awful and this is the fifth revision) I hadn't named the grandma. The editors urged me to do so, to make a story with so many characters at least a little easier to follow. And I had a hard time with naming a character who is so close to the narrator in a story like this. Just slapping a "suitable" name on her felt wrong. My own people come from the Ukraine, and until a few years ago I thought none of my relatives had experienced the worst horrors of WWII. Then I was doing some research on the internet and found out that my great-great uncle--my great-grandma's brother--and his wife and four grown daughters were murdered by the Nazis in Uman. I have a photo of them--one of those studio portrait postcards people sent to relatives in the early part of the 20th century. So they weren't just faceless relatives whose story is terrible but who are hard to imagine as real people. Their eyes remain open and alive in that photo. So I named the grandma for my great-great Aunt Anya, that her name might not be forgotten.
  • Carl Steiger

    Wow. If you told me this was autobiography, I’d believe it. What is the germ of this story?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Carl and S. Conroy: This isn't the actual or disguised story of anyone known or related to me, or heard of by me. In that sense it is an imagined story. But I think it's the truthful story of many people throughout human history, whose names never or rarely were known to others, who acted with exceptional grace and courage and whose suffering is unremembered. I get really angry about the idea that any particular group of people can have a sort of patent on suffering, and recent world events made me even angrier, and especially about the lack of courage of politicians whose only risk, if they speak out about injustice, might be to lose their jobs. And last year I read about the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah (old New Yorker article available online), and the fact that the exceptional courage and nobility of many Balkan Muslims in WWII is unknown to most of us made me pretty mad too. But I wrote about this from the perspective of the culture my own people come from. In the first few versions of this story (the original submission was excruciatingly awful and this is the fifth revision) I hadn't named the grandma. The editors urged me to do so, to make a story with so many characters at least a little easier to follow. And I had a hard time with naming a character who is so close to the narrator in a story like this. Just slapping a "suitable" name on her felt wrong. My own people come from the Ukraine, and until a few years ago I thought none of my relatives had experienced the worst horrors of WWII. Then I was doing some research on the internet and found out that my great-great uncle--my great-grandma's brother--and his wife and four grown daughters were murdered by the Nazis in Uman. (If my family in the US knew about this, they never talked about it.) I have a photo of them--one of those studio portrait postcards people sent to relatives in the early part of the 20th century. So they weren't just faceless relatives whose story is terrible but who are hard to imagine as real people. Their eyes remain open and alive in that photo. So I named the grandma for my great-great Aunt Anya, that her name might not be forgotten.
  • Judith Goldsmith

    What a wonderful tale of survival against all odds. The end was so touching and carefully wrought, how the two women were so connected by their past war experiences and loving relationship. I hope that the writer will submit more such stories.

  • Judith Goldsmith

    What a wonderful tale of survival against all odds. The end was so touching and carefully wrought, how the two women were so connected by their past war experiences and loving relationship. I hope that the writer will submit more such stories.

  • MPmcgurty

    Sarah, you managed to weave quite a story within severe word count constraints. There are some exceptional passages here; the last section with the phone call and the love being expressed was wonderful.

  • MPmcgurty

    Sarah, you managed to weave quite a story within severe word count constraints. There are some exceptional passages here; the last section with the phone call and the love being expressed was wonderful.

  • Stephen Ramey

    Wonderful work here. Five stars.

  • Stephen Ramey

    Wonderful work here. Five stars.

  • Rohini Gupta

    Beautifully written, Sarah. Its hard to convey such strong emotions so well. A very rich story for so short a space. Five stars.

  • Rohini Gupta

    Beautifully written, Sarah. Its hard to convey such strong emotions so well. A very rich story for so short a space. Five stars.

  • Chris Antenen

    A thousand words capturing the emotions and connections of lifetimes, and yet all the elements I demand woven into a story. I had trouble with keeping characters straight, and now understand why most flash fiction has only a few. I also understand why so many revisions were necessary and I think you have succeeded with this one. Only once in a while does a story like this come along to tear at one’s heart.

  • Chris Antenen

    A thousand words capturing the emotions and connections of lifetimes, and yet all the elements I demand woven into a story. I had trouble with keeping characters straight, and now understand why most flash fiction has only a few. I also understand why so many revisions were necessary and I think you have succeeded with this one. Only once in a while does a story like this come along to tear at one’s heart.

  • There is an emotion, after considerable reads of your previous publications here at EDF, that compels me forward to confront you to explain why you are not writing longer work. Obviously I deserve no response and step on personal toes, and you just have to shoo me away, of course. But you set up for the novel. You research, you make sure the ends meet the means, you graduate the story in all ways? Okay, I won’t go on. Sarah, your writing is personable. You can sit here and wait for an editor to pick you up, or you can – you know what – . I am just peeking over the transient window. Best of luck to you.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Michael--when I first started writing to a non-negotiable word limit, I really struggled to come in under the wire. I saw each story as a complete world and although some stories focused on a particular moment in time, I wanted readers to feel that the characters had real lives that began before that moment and continued afterwards--that the story pulled back a curtain for the reader but the lives of the characters were independent of the reader observing them. And because of the word limits, I had to find ways of suggesting or expressing the unobserved so that the story had real truth in it. That forces the writer to discard everything that is irrelevant and to find ways of making the unexpressed real too. Once you've trained yourself to that, you start to lose patience with the overexpressed. It's almost impossible for me to read novels now because there's so much I want to cut out... Which makes it hard for me to actually get anywhere with those various novels living within the mysteries of my hard drive, that grow maybe a paragraph every five years or so... I'm extremely grateful and honored by what you said. But my stuff doesn't exactly have mainstream appeal. I'd need a fabulously wealthy independent press owner who laughs scornfully at sales numbers and publishes what he wants because he can... Thank you for being one of those readers who does enjoy what I do. And to all--a happy, healthy New Year, and may all our wishes come true....
  • There is an emotion, after considerable reads of your previous publications here at EDF, that compels me forward to confront you to explain why you are not writing longer work. Obviously I deserve no response and step on personal toes, and you just have to shoo me away, of course. But you set up for the novel. You research, you make sure the ends meet the means, you graduate the story in all ways? Okay, I won’t go on. Sarah, your writing is personable. You can sit here and wait for an editor to pick you up, or you can – you know what – . I am just peeking over the transient window. Best of luck to you.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Michael--when I first started writing to a non-negotiable word limit, I really struggled to come in under the wire. I saw each story as a complete world and although some stories focused on a particular moment in time, I wanted readers to feel that the characters had real lives that began before that moment and continued afterwards--that the story pulled back a curtain for the reader but the lives of the characters were independent of the reader observing them. And because of the word limits, I had to find ways of suggesting or expressing the unobserved so that the story had real truth in it. That forces the writer to discard everything that is irrelevant and to find ways of making the unexpressed real too. Once you've trained yourself to that, you start to lose patience with the overexpressed. It's almost impossible for me to read novels now because there's so much I want to cut out... Which makes it hard for me to actually get anywhere with those various novels living within the mysteries of my hard drive, that grow maybe a paragraph every five years or so... I'm extremely grateful and honored by what you said. But my stuff doesn't exactly have mainstream appeal. I'd need a fabulously wealthy independent press owner who laughs scornfully at sales numbers and publishes what he wants because he can... Thank you for being one of those readers who does enjoy what I do. And to all--a happy, healthy New Year, and may all our wishes come true....