I am running.
Thats the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”
Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from dream or memory, my legs are tingling.
He was dragging me, running. He was much bigger. My feet skimmed over the ground. Sirens were screaming. His hair was red. We flew through streets and alleyways. There we thumping noises, like distant thunder. The people we bounced off didnt seem to notice us. The sirens were screaming like babies. At last we plunged into a dark hole.
“Youre lucky,” he said. “Soon it wont be ladies chasing you. It will be Jackboots.”
“Jackboots?” I said.
I wondered who the Jackboots were. Were unfooted boots running along the streets?
“Okay,” he said, “hand it over.”
“Hand what over?” I said.
He reached into my shirt and pulled out the loaf of bread. He broke it in half. He shoved one half at me and began to eat the other.
“Youre lucky I didnt kill you,” he said. “That lady you took this from, I was just getting ready to snatch it for myself.”
“Im lucky,” I said.
He burped. “Youre quick. You took it before I even knew what happened. That lady was rich. Did you see the way she was dressed? Shell just buy ten more.”
I ate my bread.
More thumping sounds in the distance. “What is that?” I asked him.
“Jackboot artillery,” he said.
“Big guns. Boom boom. Theyre shelling the city.” He stared at me. “Who are you?”
I didnt understand the question.
“Im Uri,” he said. “Whats your name.
I gave him my name. “Stopthief.”
He took me to meet the others. We were in a stable. The horses were there. Usually they would be out on the streets, but they were home now because the Jackboots were boom-booming the city and it was too dangerous for horses. We sat in a stall near the legs of a sad-faced gray. The horse pooped. Two of the kids got up and went to the next stall, another horse. A moment later came the sound of water splashing on straw. The two came back. One of them said, “Ill take the poop.”
“Where did you find him?” said a boy smoking a cigarette.
“Down by the river,” said Uri. “He snatched a loaf from a rich lady coming out of the Bread Box.”
Another boy said, “Why didnt you snatch it from him?” This one was smoking a cigar as long as his face.
Uri looked at me. “I dont know.”
“Hes a runt,” someone said. “Look at him.”
“Stand up,” said someone else.
I looked at Uri. Uri flicked his finger. I stood.
“Go there,” someone said. I felt a foot on my back, pushing me toward the horse.
“See,” said the cigar smoker, “he doesnt even come halfway up to the horses dumper.”
A voice behind me squawked, “The horse could dump a new hat on him!”
Everyone, even Uri, howled with laughter. Explosions went off beyond the walls.
The boys who were not smoking were eating. In the corner of the stable was a pile as tall as me. There was bread in all shapes and sausages of all lengths and colors and fruits and candies. But only half of it was food. All sorts of other things glittered in the pile. I saw watches and combs and ladies lipsticks and eyeglasses. I saw the thin flat face of a fox peering out.
“Whats his name?” said someone.
Uri nodded at me. “Tell them your name.”
“Stopthief,” I said.
Someone crowed, “It speaks!”
Smoke burst from mouths as the boys laughed.
One boy did not laugh. He carried a cigarette behind each ear. “I think hes cuckoo.”
Another boy got up and came over to me. He leaned down. He sniffed. He pinched his nose. “He smells.” He blew smoke into my face.
“Look,” someone called, even the smoke cant stand him. Its turning green!”
The smoke blower backed off. “So, Stopthief, are you a smelly cuckoo?”
I didnt know what to say.
“Hes stupid,” said the unlaughing boy. “Hell get us in trouble.”
“Hes quick,” said Uri. “And hes little.”
“Hes a runt.”
“Runt is good,” said Uri.
“Are you a Jew?” said the boy in my face.
“I dont know,” I said.
He kicked my foot. “How can you not know? Youre a Jew or youre not a Jew.”
“I told you, hes stupid,” said the unlaugher.
“Hes young,” said Uri. “Hes just a little kid.”
“How old are you?” said the smoke blower.
“I dont know,” I said.
The smoke blower threw up his hands. “Dont you know anything?”
“Hes a stupid Jew.”
“A smelly stupid Jew.”
“A tiny smelly stupid Jew!”
More laughter. Each time they laughed, they threw food at each other and at the horse.
The smoke blower pressed my nose with the tip of his finger. “Can you do this?” He leaned back until he was facing the ceiling. He puffed on the cigarette until his cheeks, even his eyes, were bulging. His face looked like a balloon. It was grinning. I was sure he was going to destroy me with his faceful of smoke, but he didnt. He turned to the horse, lifted its tail, and blew a stream of silvery smoke at the horses behind. The horse nickered.
Everyone howled. Even the unlaugher. Even me.
The pounding in the distance was like my heartbeat after running.
“He must be a Jew,” someone said.
“Whats a Jew?” I said.
“Answer the runt,” someone said. “Tell him what a Jew is.”
The unlaugher kicked ground straw at a boy who hadnt spoken. The boy had only one arm. “Thats a Jew.” He pointed to himself. “This is a Jew.” He pointed to the others. “Thats a Jew. Thats a Jew. Thats a Jew.” He pointed to the horse. “Thats a Jew.” He fell to his knees and scrabbled in the straw near the horse flop. He found something. He held it out to me. It was a small brown insect. “This is a Jew. Look. Look!” He startled me. “A Jew is an animal. A Jew is a bug. A Jew is less than a bug.” He threw the insect into the flop. “A Jew is that.”
Others cheered and clapped.
“Im a horse turd!”
“Im a goose turd!”
A boy pointed at me. “Hes a Jew all right. Look at him. Hes a Jew if I ever saw one.”
“Yeah, hes in for it all right.”
I looked at the boy who spoke. He was munching on a sausage. “What am I in for?” I said.
He snorted. “Strawberry babka.”
“Were all in for it,” said someone else. “Were in for it good.”
From the Hardcover edition.