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.)