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Other titles in the John MacRae Books series:
Sylvia and Ted (John MacRae Books)
Sylvia and Ted
Three Childhoods and a Suicide
The Oceanic Feeling
April 27, 1935
It's a beautiful sunny day. Maybe it's the first day of summer, but there are no boats yet on the water and it's just as cold and gray far out as ever it was before the beginning of this day of secrets.
Even Sylvia's favorite pebbles--those amethysts in an earlobe of white stone that sparkle and glow at low tide--don't know yet that the yellow flowers are out on the broom and that the sand by the edge of the cliffs is almost warm. Once the sludge of winter down by the tidemark lightens in color like drying hair and disintegrates into a million particles in the sun, Sylvia's stones will lose their shine, become no more than the beach detritus Grammy Schober makes you empty from sandals and pockets beforeentering the house. So, in their last moment of unknowing, in their bright, purple, glistening innocence, Sylvia picks up her stones and watches the sea-brightness fade from them as she holds them in her hand. Then she runs to the shore and her arms swing high over her head in the effort to throw them in as far as she can. She can tell from the litter brought up by the waves that there will be further treasure today: mussel shells, the indigo fingernails of a drowned princess, a starfish bringing a sudden pinkness from the sea.
Sylvia can tell also that something is being kept back from her at the house.
She's two and a half years old and her kind Gramper is a few yards away down the beach, sunning himself. He wears a white shirt and gray, baggy trousers and he holds a newspaper a few inches from his face. He is "keeping an eye" on Sylvia as she picks out her stones and runs sometimes too near to that wall of water she is forbidden to enter alone. (But she never goes right in, not since the time, as a baby, she tried to crawl to that green, choking oblivion; felt the need so strong to go through to the other side, a place she knows and yet has never seen.) That time Aurelia, her mother, pulled her back. She knows Sylvia's simultaneous need for escape, adventure--and a place to hide, to be lost, to fall into a prenatal sleep.
The truth is, Sylvia knows that Gramper is hiding nothing from her. If he knows something, he's put it from his mind. He is simply there, down by the cliff where the April sun is at its strongest. He reads a local Massachusetts newspaper--buthe mutters to himself in German from time to time and the low, guttural sounds come down over the wet gravel to his little granddaughter like the gulls pecking at their nests in the hard clay over his head. Gramper has no secrets--or if he has they're easily discovered: his pipe stuck in the crook of a tree and a prize if Sylvia can find it; a batch of Easter eggs in bright paper in an obvious makeshift nest in a bush. There is nothing confusing or hidden about Gramper Schober.
It's the house, especially the kitchen, that has a new aura of mystery. The door of the big old-fashioned cooking range opens and trays of biscuits and loaves of bread come out burned--and Grammy Schober has never burned her bread. And when she's not absentminded like that there's an atmosphere of excited, almost martial efficiency: tunes are hummed, the clock ticktocks in time to the kneading and thumping and strong, firm flattening out of the belly of the dough. The big, brown Bakelite wireless, with its bulletins and weather forecasts and snippets of local news, is turned on and off as if it's telling Grammy Schober quite useless pieces of information, telling her everything except what she most wants to know. It all gives Sylvia a worried, empty feeling, as if she's about to be told of some absence, some sudden inexplicable hole.
Somehow Sylvia senses that this is the last day of her oneness with the world. She will never again live in harmony with her stones and shells and never again walk up the lawn to the house with its short, tufty grass without thinking, in an agony of self-consciousness: I'm walkingon a lawn. Worst, she suspects with an intolerable fear that even in the water she will be apart from it: a breathing, wriggling something-else whom the ocean will not love or hold, but will spit out crashing on the stones or force under. The sea will have more fondness for its spume than for Sylvia.
So the first day of summer--an egg-yolk light playing on Gramper as he sits on the beach quite unaware of her terror--leaves Sylvia as dull and lifeless as her purple stones when they've been too long from the sea. And there is no perspective in the flat beach or the angular cliff or the sun stuck in a high round dazzle in the sky. It can all be near or millions of miles away, it can be real or just a child's drawing superimposed on the much more potent reality of the kitchen to which Sylvia must now return for lunch. The kitchen, dark and deep in Sylvia's mind, with a priestess and a hissing cauldron and a secret about to rise steaming from the pot.
THREE WEEKS IS A LONG TIME WHEN YOU'RE THE AGE SYLVIA is now. A long time because you can't count yet--or, if you can, it's only in the numbing total of absences those twenty-one days and nights make up: no kisses from the mother; no stories; and no great hug from the father when he comes home. No briefcase opening to spill out a gift bought especially for her, or--and imagining this makes her swallow the tears that hurt her sinuses and bring back a whole winter of complaint and colds to her aching eyes--if there is ablack briefcase, then when it is opened it is empty. There is nothing there.
A black hole opens up. Sylvia stands so straight and still, staring out to sea, that even Gramper wonders and glances up at her. But she's a good girl, really. She's looking at the buoy, very likely, as it bobs up and down in the waves that never leave it be. Or she's seen a "whale," a whale she has pretended to see ever since the big whale was beached here last year.
Sylvia has tried to draw the dark, blobby whale that swims along the farthest boundary of her watery world. The whale is her mother, carrying a dark secret over dangerous deep water where Sylvia is not allowed to go.
And when the humped, fat mass of the black-bodied whale has gone over the horizon, Sylvia cries inconsolably until it's time to go home.
Of course, Grammy Schober has noticed that Sylvia is becoming increasingly upset by this separation from her parents. The child's attention wanders now when she's read a story. And the arrangements she makes from odds and ends Grammy finds her in cupboards and jars--string, buttons, paper clips, little fragments of wool from a long outworn pullover--are straight and symmetrical, showing none of the flowery inventiveness of her earlier "patterns." It's time the child went home.
And now--today--as of this very minute, when Sylvia walks sullen up from the beach and Gramper walks beside her, tries in vain to amuse her with the shapes he makesfrom the newspaper: scarecrow, bunny rabbit with floppy ears, house of print with four empty squares for windows--here, now, the poor child can be told she'll be home again soon.
How they'll hug! How they'll kiss!
Grammy Schober flies around the kitchen, and her new energy, the energy of life, of birth, of a world starting all over again, brings the sun dancing in in stripes so that Sylvia, quietly appearing in the doorway, sees a tiger running in the well-ordered kitchen with its cabinets and mugs and pots and pans all gleaming, as Grammy insists on having them.
Sylvia watches the tiger as Grammy tells her "the wonderful news." She sees a tray of gingerbread men lifted from the big black oven and laid on the table: is this "the special treat" Grammy has been promising her? Sylvia is worried, and her eyes look up at Grammy. There's a stew in the pot atop the stove. Is that her lunch? She wants her lunch, this is the wrong time for a gingerbread man. In her mind she sees herself throwing up the stew, a pile of shaming, smelling vomit right there on the kitchen table, with a half-eaten carrot sticking out of the top. Guilty already--for she knows now she will vomit, in this new atmosphere that holds its secret like the whale on the line of sea as it meets the gray sky--homesick and guilty, Sylvia begins to bawl.
As grown-ups will so often react when children are overexcited, her screams bring laughter and protestations--"You'll be all right ... . Darling Sivvy, haven't you understood, darling? There, there ... ."--and handkerchiefs ofAustrian linen, huge and white, are mopping her tears, coming down on her head: peek-a-boo!
But all to no avail. Sylvia's tears dry, but the new energy in the house fills her with a destructive, tearing pace: a race from the warm, stifling kitchen of baking tins and tiny biscuit men with their foolish outstretched arms and legs--a run so fast that Gramper and Grammy Schober will never catch her--to the sea.
And as she runs, knowing already that she is dead to the world--knowing that her purple, white-rimmed stones, even if wet and gleaming from the rising tide, will still be just stones, their living jewel-brightness, their speech, their cries of pain, all taken away from her now--as she runs she hears Grammy's voice again and again, like a radio stuck on with terrible news.
A baby! A baby brother!
On the far side of the sea, where the hills stop and the great forest of water lies flat--where the sea becomes the sky--a whale moves slowly, a double black hump. Then it dives down and the flat unwavering line of the horizon runs across Sylvia's gaze like a scalpel going in. Sylvia turns and walks gravely along the line of hard wet sand where the tide advances in semicircles like eyebrows raised higher and higher in surprise.
ARMS HOLD ANOTHER--A BUNDLE--AND SYLVIA SEES A BLACK emptiness, a rival: it can have no features, it is the other, it is the unnecessary, inescapable thing.
Her father's hands, and the bumblebees that love to feelsafe in the warm, male prison of her father's hands, buzzing contentedly for Sylvia and her father alone--Look! They won't sting this kindly giant of a man!--her father's hands hold and embrace the rival and Sylvia is forever cast out of Eden. Her mother, unforgivable perpetrator of this great betrayal, is blotted from sight as she walks along the landing, comes down the stairs to say that the bath is run and waiting, wafts her faint scent that is like lime trees across the hall as she goes out to fetch Sylvia in the garden.
Sylvia isn't there. She wills their cries of fear at her disappearance.
And sure enough, the cries are real: Grammy and Gramper hurrying along the beach as fast as their years will permit them.
Sylvia feels no pity for them. She bends down, picks up a starfish washed in by this new tide. She holds the small red hand in her palm.
She is quiet and thoughtful when the Schobers catch up with her at last. Standing still, quite composed. And as they come to lead her gently to the car for her journey home, Grammy notes with a certain relief that Sylvia is not insisting today on carting her collection of stones and mussel shells and what have you on her journey back to her parents.
You can't be too careful with a new baby, Grammy thinks, as Sylvia drops the starfish on the beach and doesn't look back once at the dead hand of her murdered newborn brother.
Across the ocean the little girl has never even seen, in a country to which her mother belongs and her father decidedly does not, the little girl is listening to a story before being put to bed. She knows it well--it is "Little Red Riding Hood," the story her mother, from the heartland of German Protestantism, loves best. But the little girl has noticed that her father gets anxious and upset when he hears it read aloud in the strong, pure voice his wife has when she delves into the tales of her own childhood. The little girl's father is Russian: the forest Red Riding Hood enters is alien to him. Worse, though the little girl has only the faintest inkling of the reason why the kind Dr. Gutman clears his throat and paces in the overornamented parlor below as his wife's voice floats down to him, there is always the sound of a door opening and then closing when Lisa gets to the end, the wolf dressed up as dear old Granny. The little girl, who is the apple of Dr. Gutman's eye, hates it when he opens the door and closes it behind him. It means he's gone out for at least an hour, to try to wear off the anxiety the story appears to induce in him. The little girl, who is seven years old, is Assia Gutman. She's torn between wanting the story again, and keeping her adored father in the house for the rest of the evening.
Tonight, despite the usual buildup of almost unbearable suspense as Red Riding Hood ends her walk through the wood and goes up the path to the door of her grandmother'scottage, there is no sound of Dr. Gutman pacing in the study downstairs. As Lisa reads, her brow furrows: it's almost as if the walking to and fro, followed by the front door opening and closing, have become a part of the story, and the excitement of "What big teeth you have, Granny!" won't be the same without them. "What big eyes you have--" Lisa dutifully begins, but her voice is losing its confident ring. Even her little daughter looks perplexed, and keeps glancing at the bedroom door as if she thinks her father might be hiding behind there, transformed suddenly into a wicked wolf, when she has loved and trusted him all her life.
Dr. Gutman is an orthopedic surgeon, and people with bad backs and twisted limbs come frequently to his consulting room, on the ground floor next to the study. That's what has happened (both Lisa Gutman and Assia think this in unison): while the story was being read, they didn't hear the doorbell and an emergency patient coming in. That's where Lonya must be--down behind the thick mahogany door, pulling and pushing at legs or arms, manipulating a back so that its owner can, quite unexpectedly, find himself sitting upright and straight on the long, thin table.
Assia is displeased when her father's attention is turned away from her. She likes to feel he's as frightened of what nearly happens to Red Riding Hood as she is. She just wishes he'd wait for the happy ending, when the wolf's stomach is slit open and Granny steps out, smiling, instead of going out of the house; or, in this case, permitting apatient to take precedence over the demands of his darling daughter.
Lisa finishes the story, though both teller and listener are restless and uneasy. Here comes the big knife!--Assia screams with pretend fear as the wolf jumps snarling from its disguise in Granny's bed. But even the lacy frills at the wolf's hairy wrists don't absorb the pretty little girl as much as they usually do. She doesn't even wait for the last, triumphant thrust at the cornered animal, and slides from her child's bed to the floor. Somehow she must find her Tatti: she's burst in on a few occasions when he's been busy in his consulting room, but he never really minds.
"Lonya!" Now Mutti is calling her husband when he's in consultation, something she has never been known to do. "Lonya, send the child straight up to bed, I ask you!"
By now the little girl has reached the foot of the stairs and is running in the sweet little harlequin slippers Mutti gave her for her birthday, back when it was sunny May. Now it's dark and as frightening in the hall as it is in the forest when Red Riding Hood first meets the wolf. Where is Tatti? He doesn't keep the hall dark, does he?--unless of course he went out hours ago, when it was still light. The complication of the thought halts the child a moment, by the open door of the empty consulting room.
There's no one in the study, either. Assia runs to the front door and stands staring at it a moment or two before laying a pudgy hand on the big gilt doorknob. There's one place--she's been taken there by her father lots of times--where he's likely to be found. At old Uncle Victor's--he's a doctor, too, and specializes in children. It's not far to go. And she wouldn't sleep anyway, unless the one person she wants in the world is there to ruffle her hair and whisper good night and turn off the lights before going quietly down the stairs.
The street is cold and white, with its dusting of ice and snow. The child runs, so fast she doesn't feel the cold in her nightdress and checkered dressing gown. The street already begins to look unfamiliar, and the chimney pots on the old, crooked houses stick up like trees in a forest. All the lights in the windows are out--but a child her age wouldn't wonder why. The path hasn't been trodden for some time: there are no footprints in this deserted, freezing wood.
The fire can't be seen until she rounds the corner; it's hidden by a tall building just as empty and abandoned-looking as the rest. The fire sends tongues of bright flame up into the starless sky. And there, like stone men marching without eyes, ears, or hearts, are soldiers holding torches. The procession, loud and muffled at the same time, like the drums the little girl used to enjoy hearing in parades when her mother and father still took her to the town square, comes toward her like a long column of fear.
Why can't she wake up? That can't be Uncle Victor, stumbling behind the procession, in shabby trousers and no jacket in this midwinter night? And--surely--that can't be--
"Lonya!" The mother's voice is near now, four pairs of hands seize the child and she's whisked down the street tothe safety of her own front door and the longed-for smell of plum pudding and mince pie.
Why are they taking Uncle Victor away? How did her father, sole witness of his friend's abduction--unable to prevent it, powerless at the force of the Nazis as they continue their crusade of Judenrein, cleansing the Fatherland of Jews--succeed in escaping, and rescuing his wife and daughter too?
This is a story that's never told. The lamps in the hall are lit when the Gutman family returns home. The evening has to go on, and it does.
But the child doesn't forget the forest she ran into that night. The stone men think they're rescuing Germany from the wolf--and Assia has learned that her father, like Uncle Victor, is seen as the evil creature that will eat little children alive. For the first time in her young life Assia lies awake all night. She's more frightened, in her own safe little room, than she ever can be again when the story of "Little Red Riding Hood" is read aloud.
Copyright © 2001 by Emma Tennant
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