4:30 a.m. 13 April 1930: Palm Sunday
Through her sleep she hears it, clear and real: the chunk of shovel striking earth.
The new loosened dirt on the sides of the hole crumble down on her. Her mouth is full of dirt. But still, the light above. She reaches for it. She shouts. Hands appear overhead, so many she can’t count. At first, they seem so beautiful, a lacy pattern of graceful fingers, until she feels the clods of fresh earth landing on her. Then more hands. She draws a breath. More dirt. She chokes. She screams.
She is awake.
The cool dark air through the open window whispers in her nostrils. Deep night, brightened by clouded moon, casts shadows of the swaying trees outside. One angled branch moves rhythmically up and down, up and down. Too mechanical to be tree.
A shovel slices sharp into dirt.
The thin sheet slips off Nora’s naked skin. She covers her breasts with her hands, as she swings her feet over the bed, leans forward to peer out the window.
It’s Babcia Franzi. By moonlight, Babcia digs, between the budding pussy willows. A mound of dirt already grows in the garden still edged by muddy snow. Even with Dziadzia's* heavy old work boots laced tight around her spindly legs, she moves quickly.
Babcia picks up a bundle the size of an infant, wrapped in burlap and tied. She settles it into the hole. Her wispy grey hair tumbles out of her babushka, as she carefully positions the bundle, before filling the hole again.
Nora can pretend this is what all the neighbors do, but actually she is glad they are asleep. Except maybe the Słomkas. All of the other houses are dark and still, but a light burns behind the greying curtains in the Słomka’s back room. Their new baby must be colicky.
Babcia now trudges back towards the house, the old coal shovel now her cane. Though her grandmother is hunched deeply over, Nora still hears her muttering. Talking to Dziadzia Marian, no doubt.
Just two days before, Babcia told a census worker that her husband Marian was still head of this household, even though close to sixteen years have passed since his coffin was carried down Chambers Street by the five Gorzynski sons. At the corner of Chambers and Broadway, those silent pallbearers stopped, while the Cleveland-bound streetcar rattled past. Breathing heavy under the weight of the homemade wooden coffin resting on their shoulders, surrounded by wailing women, crying children and other men, all silent and smoking, they waited. Unlike the other children, Nora didn’t cry. She and her father and the whole entourage crossed Broadway. They escorted the coffin down Miles Avenue to Calvary Cemetery, where they lowered Dziadzia Marian into a hole right next to his daughter, Tekla.
Yes, about sixteen years have passed since the entire neighborhood took that walk. Still, Babcia told the census worker her husband still lives with her in this house.
"Can I talk to him then?" the census worker said, probably hoping for someone more fluent in English.
"No. He got job in Buffalo. Be back next week."
“And you are?”
“Franciszka Gorzynski. Call me Franzi.”
“Frances,” the census worker said, writing.
“No! I hate that name Frances! Everyone call me Franzi.”
Listening from the kitchen, Nora supposed she could go and help. But instead, she cut a slice of bread, spread some lard on it, poured some coffee, and settled at the table. She lit a cigarette.
"So, when did you and your husband immigrate?"
"Marian come 1882. Me 1883. He born 1861. Me 1867." Babcia said the numbers in German. The census worker seemed to understand. Babcia told the woman that Uncle Walter still lived here, too, though he died the year Nora entered the convent. She added Alfons, who died the year after Marian.
Nora traced the patterns made by decades of knives on the wood, while the census worker labored with Babcia Franzi's account of the house’s occupants. The census worker seemed a nice woman. Nora thought she really should go out and correct the details, by pointing out those actually living, and those dead. But there was a certain truth to Babcia's story: this house teamed with very lively spirits. Sometimes Nora could feel them passing in the halls, hurrying on with their unfinished lives, or just going to the kitchen for a visit with Franzi.
“Oh, and Nora,” Babcia finally added for the census worker. “My niece.” Again in German.
Nora’s knee twitched. She began to rise, but then heard the census worker being bustled out the door. She’d missed her chance. It would be nice to be counted correctly after nine years of not being counted at all. Census workers hadn’t come to the cloistered convent where Nora lived from age fourteen. Few at the convent took account of her at all. Sent there by her step-mother, no one knew she was the only living offspring of the long-deceased Tekla Gorzynski.
Six months before that census worker’s visit, it was Nora herself knocking on Franzi’s door, hoping to collect on a promise her grandmother made, long ago. Nora worried that the Gorzynskis had forgotten her. Franzi made no indication of remembering, though she acknowledged Nora as kin. She simply grunted, then led Nora upstairs to a room full of hand-hewn furniture, cast-off clothes and ancient photographs, all covered with sheets. Aunt Helen and Uncle Joe, all busy now with new families and changed names, welcomed their long forgotten niece. After a quick conversation, they determined Nora was the best candidate to care for their aging matriarch, the neighborhood crazy lady who spoke a Polish no one could understand when she talked to the dead.
The back door closes downstairs. Five days from now, Nora knows, Franzi will return to the lamb roast buried in the garden. Burying, Franzi insists, is the only way to properly tenderize meat.
Floorboards creak as her grandmother moves towards the front of the house, closing curtains, extinguishing lights. In the front room, chair springs squeak. Nora knows that, come morning, she will find her grandmother sleeping in that chair, with her rosary, half way completed, wrapped around her fingers in her lap.
April 1921: Uncle Walter’s Funeral
"Tekla's child?" Mrs. Mrozinski said.
"Yes, Tekla's child," Mrs. Krajewski answered.
Though they shared the surname Krajewski, Nora could not call this woman “mommy.” From the day she started putting Nora into bed at night, just six months after her mother had died, there had been nothing warm in this woman’s eyes. Nora would stare, mouth clamped shut, while her father’s new wife efficiently tucked in the corners of her sheets, then patted the bed. She never touched Nora, and in response, Nora never called her by name. In public, Nora called her Mrs. Krajewski.
Mrs. Mrozinski and Mrs. Krajewski talked as if Nora wasn't there. They rolled out dough on the table, producing soft clouds of flour that settled in Nora’s hair. Nora ignored them, too. She let herself become one with the painting she painted: the goddess Marzanna, breasts bare and flaming skirt holding her aloft over a still, icy landscape. Nora painted her breasts like two shining suns, radiating their energy into the air.
"How old is she now?"
"Oh, nearly fifteen," Mrs. Krajewski said.
"She's getting old. Is she willful?" Mrs. Mrozinski said, spreading butter and nuts onto the paper-thin dough. She had lowered her voice, as if that made any difference. Mrs. Krajewski didn't respond.
"It must be difficult, especially since your own are getting older too."
Mrs. Krajewski may have shrugged. Or made a silent comment. Nora didn't pay attention. As she painted some flecks of gold from the sun on the turning earth, she could feel its warmth on her arms. Adding gaunt dark birds in the sky, she heard their call.
"She looks like Tekla,” Mrs. Mrozinski said. “I remember Tekla.”
The wind Nora could hear howling in Marzanna’s ears subsided. Nora listened to the women making pastry at the table.
"I didn't know her," Mrs. Krajewski said. "I didn't pay much attention to those people before I married George. Queer things happen in that house. If the Gorzynskis weren't Nora's kin, I'd have nothing to do with them."
"Well, Tekla was different. She was a little shorter than the others. And she didn't put on airs, like her sister Helen does."
"Oh, that Helen," Mrs. Krajewski said.
Nora painted a deer, as lithe and beautiful as her Aunt Helen, standing alert, gazing up at the Queen.
"Tekla was prettier than Helen. And very kind," Mrs. Mrozinski said.
Mrs. Krajewski's heavy steps carried her to the icebox. Nora’s forehead burned. She felt Mrs. Mrozinksi’s eyes watching her. Nora looked up to face her.
"Who are you painting?" Mrs. Mrozinski asked. When she tried to smile, her cheeks grew fatter, her eyes more squinty.
Nora considered telling her the painting was her real mother, the beautiful Tekla. Or her Aunt Helen. Instead, she said nothing.
"Nora, you should answer people when they ask you questions," Mrs. Krajewski said, than added, "She's very shy. Sometimes I think there's something wrong with her."
Nora dipped her brush into water, than blended her colors together. Blue and purple and gold and red. They turned into the color of mud.
"It would make sense, with all she's been through," Mrs. Mrozinski said. "Wouldn't it be a burden to you if she never married?"
Her brush now laden with mud, Nora spread it over the painting. Marzana and her glowing breasts, the slender deer, all became nothing but mud.
"I think you're right," Mrs. Mrozinski said. "There's probably something wrong with her."
Nora watched them for a moment, then slid from her chair. She slammed the door behind her, hard enough, she hoped, to make the delicate rising dough collapse.
Nearly everyone on Chambers Street thought Uncle Walter was born in the Old Country. His funny lisp was often taken for an accent. But the truth was, Walter was born in Nanticoke, where the family lived before they moved to Cleveland. Walter was born nine months after the young Franzi joined Dziedzia Marian in the two-room home he had prepared for her. A year after Walter’s birth, Tekla was born. Than Uncle Joe, then Helen, then three more boys. Nearly one every year.
As a young boy, Walter had worked the mines with his father, so he knew how to climb down freshly dug holes and collect valuable hunks of bituminous coal while not disturbing that which shouldn't be disturbed. It was Uncle Walter who climbed down that hole and rescued Nora, enfolding her in his huge tobacco-tinged hands, than holding her up over the six-foot-four inch length of his body, so others could snatch her into safety.
Uncle Walter, too, taught Nora Polish, so she could talk to Babcia Franzi. And he told her about her mother as a girl. We were like twins, he said. But she was the pretty one.
He had a big pock-marked face, and elephant-like ears that he could wiggle on command. And though his hands were always dirty and dry, his touch was gentle. For years, Nora was jealous of his two little girls, Geraldine and Dorothy, because they had both their real parents, and one of them was her mother's sweetest, eldest brother, Walter.
The dirt under Nora’s bare feet was hot and dry. She pressed the whittled tip of a long stick into the ground, twisting it to make a neat hole. Then another, then another, in a pattern like a starry night sky, while her half-sister Alice and some neighbor girls jumped rope at the other end of the yard, and a dog down the street howled. Nora looked to see if it was the Gorzynski's dog, but couldn't tell. Their house - the largest on the street - seemed so small and far away.
The day before it had been Uncle Walter's turn to die. Already the neighbors were saying Walter’s widow wanted to move her girls to her brother's house in New York. Probably next week.
"No child should live in that house," Mrs. Krajewski said just that morning. "It is cursed."
Nora pressed the stick against the tip of another, making it spring into the air. Alice and her friends shouted and squealed. Nora looked up to see them scattering as Robert ran among the girls with something clutched in each of his fists. Probably frogs.
"Mama! Mama!" Alice called. The door swung open and there was Mrs. Krajewski. Nearly as wide as the doorframe, and covered with flour, she wiped her hands on her apron.
"Robert! Leave your sister alone," she shouted. Then:
Nora didn't reply, just stood and waited for her command.
Mrs. Krajewski stepped out of the house, her face firm and red.
"Answer me when I call you."
Like a tightrope walker, Nora approached her. One foot in front of the other; her stick was now her balancing rod.
"Nora, I have some strucla for you to bring to your grandmother's house for the funeral dinner. Hurry now."
Mrs. Krajewski held out a loaf, wrapped in newspaper.
"Why not strudel?" Nora said.
"Strudel is for special occasions. Now go and hurry back. I'll need your help preparing dinner."
At the Gorzynski house, the windows and door were covered with the black sheets of mourning. The window shroud moved slightly after Nora knocked. The lock released, and the heavy door sighed. When Helen’s powdered white face appeared, it seemed to float in blackness.
“Did you come to see Walter, Honora?” Helen asked.
Nora swallowed and her eyes grew damp.
Only the Gorzynskis called her Honora. It was the name her mother gave her. She was named for her mother’s elder sister, Honorata, Franzi’s only child to be born in Poland.
“He’s right here if you want to see him,” Helen said.
Nora did not have to see anything; she knew this house’s death rituals so well. Just inside the door, in the parlor to the left, she knew all the shades were drawn, the mirrors and pictures covered with black. The hot, thick air would be tinged with the sweet taste of flesh, just beginning to decompose. The wooden sawhorses that Dziadzia had long ago built to brace the wood he was carving into elaborate moldings or stair rails stood under the crucifix and image of the Virgin. Built to hold heavy weight, the sawhorses now served as coffin supports. Today, they supported Walter’s handmade coffin. Inside, her uncle lay, cheeks sunk deep, hands folded across his thin chest. No, Nora did not have to look. She knew what she would see.
She held out her package.
“Mrs. Krajewski told me to bring this for Uncle Walter’s funeral meal.”
The door opened more, and Helen stepped out. Even grieving, she was as glamorous as Alice Terry in her sequined fur-trimmed black dress and black turban.
“Strudel?” Helen said.
“We’re not good enough for Mrs. Krajewski’s strudel. Go around back, will you Nora? I’ll take it at the kitchen door,” Helen said. Before closing the door, she winked and added, “and we can have some lemonade together.”
Nora hurried down the wooden steps, then past tall sunflowers that swayed like dancers alongside the house. In the garden, chickens chattered. Uncle Joe’s roosters crowed when she rounded the corner. Joe’s son Frank – already tall as a man though only twelve – leaned, shirtless, against the shed and smoked.
“Ah, my pretty cousin Nora is here,” Frank said. “Don’t go into that house, you may catch the plague.”
A sea of hardened mud and chicken shit separated her from him. She was glad. Even at this distance, his thin chest seemed to collapse as he coughed. He probably had consumption, too. After all, his mother had been the first to die from it. And his father was still in the public sanatorium.
“You are the lucky one,” he said. “You are a Krajewski. You did not inherit this name.”
The back door squeaked open.
“Come sit with me, Nora,” Helen said, setting some lemon-aide and a plate of honey cookies on the wooden table under the oak tree. The table was built from beams left over from the house’s foundation.
Though her knees quivered as she approached her aunt, Nora sat close enough to smell Helen’s musty perfume and see the sweat pearling on the powder dusting Helen’s full, exposed cleavage. Helen’s presence always made Nora’s whole body tingle. Nora lifted a cookie, took a sweet bite.
“Frankie, give me a smoke,” Helen said, reaching her hand out. Frank crossed the dried mud sea, pulled a thin, smudged rolled paper from his pocket, and placed it between Helen’s graceful extended fingers. A spark of fire reflected in Helen’s deep brown eyes, and she sipped in the smoke.
Frank sat across from them and popped a whole cookie into his mouth. Close up, Nora could smell the bitter tinge of sweat and tobacco, and watch Frank’s long slender fingers. Always dirty, they fluttered delicately, unconsciously.
“Got any vodka, Auntie Helen?” he said, swaying back and forth.
“You know we can’t drink as long as Walter’s in the house,” Helen said.
“Nora?” she added, offering the cigarette.
Nora’s face went hot.
“Oh, don’t be a prude. Your mother wasn’t a prude.”
“Was she as beautiful as you?” Nora asked, carefully taking the cigarette in her fingers.
“Everyone says Aunt Tekla was the prettiest,” Frank said.
“Which is why I didn’t grieve when she died,” Helen added, then laughed.
Nora laughed too, though she wasn’t sure why. She could not imagine anyone prettier than Aunt Helen. Placing the cigarette between her lips, Nora sucked. The sides of her throat ignited, than exploded in a searing cough. The cigarette popped from Nora’s fingers and onto the ground, while Frank laughed and Helen squealed as she snatched it up.
“Oh, Nora, sweet, you’re such a girl,” Helen said, embracing Nora quickly against her full bosom before inhaling on the cigarette until it burned down to a glowing stub in her fingers.
The door creaked again, followed by a rustle of skirts. A woman’s shape emerged, shrouded by black lace and cloth. Babcia descended into the yard.
“Is that Tekla’s child?” Babcia said, in Polish.
Her grandmother’s arms engulfed Nora in a stifling embrace, holding her face tight to her musty, taffeta breast. Releasing Nora, Babcia turned, smacked Helen’s face with an open palm.
“Disgraceful! Honor your dead brother. Go inside and cover yourself.”
“I lose a brother nearly every year, Franzi. I can’t stay covered forever,” Helen answered.
“Not forever. But a week of mourning wouldn’t hurt you.”
Babcia attention returned to Nora. Now self-conscious of her light white cotton shirt and knee-length skirt, Nora crouched. She could barely see her grandmother’s expression. Reportedly, her grandmother was beautiful once, with sparkling eyes and flawless light skin. Although her father was a peasant who had never owned his own home, Babcia still carried herself like an aristocrat. Underneath that veil, though, Nora knew Babcia’s eyes were sunk into a leathery, creased face; her hands were gnarled and work-worn.
“Will you stay with us tonight, Honora? Will you watch Walter’s final hours away with your kin?”
“I brought strucla from Mrs. Krajewski,” Nora stammered, her Polish words like jagged pebbles in her lips. “My father and I will come tomorrow to the cemetery.”
“Strucla is for Christmas. Give it to the dogs. Your Mrs. Krajewski should deliver the best for the eldest son’s funeral,” Babcia said.
Helen laughed, tore open the paper on Mrs. Krajewski’s package, and ripped off a piece of the strucla and ate it.
“Still warm,” Helen said, and passed the package to Frank.
Babcia gathered her skirts and settled on the bench next to Frank.
“Nora is right to go home to her father tonight,” Babcia said. Her hands rustled inside her crepey layers. Finally, she drew a dented tin flask from her skirts and opened it.
“But Nora,” she added. “You must share a drink with us now.”
“But we’re not supposed to drink, mother, out of respect for Walter,” Helen said, her voice mimicking Babcia’s scolding tone.
“Didn’t I tell you to cover yourself?” Babcia answered, without even looking at Helen.
“Besides, this is not normal drink,” Babcia added. “It is the vodka that Marian made six months before he died. No one would buy it. Plague vodka, they said. Laced with the curse of Marian’s sins. It is almost gone. If we finish it now, we will put an end to people dying in this house.”
Babcia raised the flask, took a long drink, sighed deeply, and for a moment, seemed to relax.
Helen drank. She wrinkled her face as she wiped her mouth. When Frank drank, he was overcome by coughing.
“Now you, Nora,” Babcia said.
The outstretched flask glinted, but Nora’s hand could not move. Drinking would surely give her the plague too. She’d be dead in a year, for sure.
“Honora?” Babcia said. “You must finish it. Drink to your mother’s memory.”
Nora’s arm moved at her grandmother’s command. Her hand trembled as she raised the flask to her mouth and tasted the tin. The liquid inside was also metallic. It tore open the cigarette burn in her throat as she swallowed. She gasped. Blinding tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Eat some strucla. It will help,” Babcia said. She took the flask from Nora and drank the final swallows.
Nora tore off a piece of Walter’s funeral strucla, let its sweetness soak in the remaining vodka in her mouth. She chewed. It was a strange new taste. Not unpleasant. She savored it, before she swallowed.
The police wouldn't let the men carry coffins through the streets between the house and the cemetery anymore, so the Gorzynskis convinced the milkman to let them use his wagon. But they still had to carry Walter from the house to the wagon, then from the wagon to the grave.
Holding her father’s hand, Nora stood at the edge of the group of mourners. Her father’s usually cool palm was hot and wet. Mrs. Krajewski had gone to the church, but refused to come to the grave.
The gravestone had been moved aside and a new hole dug, in the exact same place where Nora’s mother was buried.
“They can’t put him there!” Nora said.
If she looked into that hole, Nora was sure she would see her mother, lying there in her broken coffin, with her hands crossed softly over her belly. And her baby sister, who died with her, snuggled by her side.
“Quiet, Nora,” her father whispered.
The men and Uncle Walter's coffin moved closer to the hole. Nora pulled on her father’s arm. He embraced her and led her closer to the grave.
Nora wouldn't look inside it, though. Her eyes rested on the gravestone. What are they thinking? They can't put another person into that hole.
The men shouted and struggled as they hoisted Uncle Walter over the open grave. Her father's fingers opened Nora’s hand, pressed a clod of cool fresh earth inside it. She sucked in her breath, but it caught in her throat as she stared at the crumbling dirt in her hand. She wanted to turn and run. Instead, her stomach clenched and a rushing filled her head, as her legs collapsed underneath her.
Her father pressed dirt into her tiny hands. It crumbled out through her fingers. He pressed more dirt in and closed her fingers tight. “Throw, Nora, throw! We must bury mama.” He said. She threw. The dirt fell on Nora’s new black dress. She was too little to be burying her mother.
“Get closer, Nora!” her father had said, again pressing dirt into her palm, then squeezing her fist shut, before pushing her towards the hole. “Throw, Nora, throw!”
The earth that she threw wouldn’t let her release it; it carried her with it, right over the dark edge and into the grave. Her hands, outstretched to break her fall, instead broke through the thin wood of her mama's coffin, gripped the cold crossed hands and the rosary wound in mama’s fingers. The raw, loosened earth on the sides of the grave crumbled down on top of her, along with a shower of dirt clods. Nora couldn't scream for the dirt in her mouth. Then a heavy shadow loomed overhead. Uncle Walter, climbing down, shouted Stop! Stop! in Polish, while his warm hands embraced her and lifted her up towards the light and the stunned faces above her.
Her head burned as her father shook her back to consciousness. There was no dirt in her mouth, only hot sun on her forehead. Babcia Franzi's black lace veil, dampened with tears and cool water, pressed against her forehead. Lying on the ground next to the grave, Nora watched the men try not to fall while they lowered Uncle Walter down on top of her mother.
"She remembers her fall when we buried Tekla," Babcia said. Babcia knelt beside Nora. When Babcia stroked her face, her gnarled fingers felt as soft as bird's wings.
"I remember, too," Babcia whispered to Nora. "I thought I'd lost three babies at once. But thank the Lord, we didn't lose you."
Two of Nora’s uncles helped Babcia rise to her feet. Babcia reached with both hands for dirt to throw into the hole.
"I will throw for you, Honora," Babcia said. Nora sat up to watch the clods of earth returning to their rightful place. Everyone threw their dirt, then gathered another fistful and threw, again and again, enough to cover Walter, Nora’s mother, and Nora’s baby sister, once more.
"I hear you almost fell into the grave again, Nora," Robert said.
"Go away," Nora answered. Her dress for the day still lay on her bed. Robert had probably heard Alice go downstairs. Even though he was forbidden to enter the room Nora shared with Alice, Nora knew Robert came in anyway. Sometimes she found her underwear on the floor, when she knew she had folded it and put it away. Sometimes she was sure he'd been in her bed, because the sheets were rumpled and smelly.
"I just want to say how sorry I am about your Uncle Walter," he said, but she didn't believe him.
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it.
"Leave me alone," Nora said.
"I just thought you might need a hug, Nora, to comfort you."
"Go away!" she said louder. The last time he hugged her, he'd gripped her arms until they were red and pushed his hard pointy crotch against her. When Nora had reminded him they had the same father, he had just laughed.
"You should be crying about your Uncle Walter," he said, moving forward through the shadows. "But you don't care, do you? You don't really care about anyone. Only Nora."
Robert’s short thick body was strong. She knew she wouldn't be able to get past him.
" I saw your Aunt Helen with George Walzer right after they buried your uncle. They were in the backseat of Walzer’s car. I can show you what they were doing. You be Helen."
“You are my brother,” Nora said.
“Only half,” Robert said as his breathing came closer. Her back to the wall, Nora’s hand reached behind, fingertips searching for the windowsill. She was barely dressed, but she removed the wood dowel that kept the window locked. It would be foolish to turn her back to Robert. But somehow she knew that would be just as foolish to not try to escape. She turned, yanked the window wide open.
Nora’s hair fluttered in the cool morning air as Robert grabbed her from behind. He pushed her against the wall so hard her face smacked the window frame. His body heavy against hers, she could not catch her breath. The taste of blood filled her mouth. Robert’s fingers pried down her panties and groped between her legs.
Nora screamed out into the dim morning streets. The air was still. No one was out yet.
"Shut up," he spat into her ear. He bit her.
Nora’s head hurt. She couldn't see. Her fingers clutched the wooden dowel. Her father had cut it strong and solid, to protect my girls, he had said. She swung around, gripping it tight. The dowel connected with a crack like a bat against a ball. Robert shouted and grabbed his head, as Nora climbed out the window. Crawling out onto the roof of the front porch, blood dripped from her head onto her hands. Robert’s head was bleeding, too, but she didn’t care. She screamed. The houses across the street lit up. She screamed louder. Mrs. Krajewski appeared in the street below, her mouth wide open as she stared up at Nora, who was standing now, on the roof of the front porch. Blood dribbled out of Nora’s ear and mouth and splattered on her thin sleeping shift. Her panties were still pulled down to just below her knees. Still, when Mrs. Krajewski heard both her story and Robert's, she decided that Nora was all to blame.
One skirt. One dress. Two white shirts and some socks. Some panties. One camisole. She folded them small. Nora only had one bag, and it, too, was small.
Nora could hear the call of the old blacksmith who pushed a cart through the streets with his tool and knife-sharpening stone. She paused to watch him just as he stopped under a tree, took a long drink from a wineskin.
Tap tap tap tap tap! The sound of hurried footsteps approached. Both the blacksmith and Nora looked and saw Babcia Franzi, her black mourning cape fluttering, her face as tight as the fists that carried her long skirt up high enough to accommodate long strides. When Nora heard Babcia’s frantic pounding on the door downstairs, she knew Mrs. Krajewski, who was packing a cheese sandwich for Nora’s dinner, would not be happy.
Voices rose in the kitchen below. Mrs. Krajewski knew no Polish, so she shouted in English, as if yelling was the only way to communicate with Babcia Franzi.
"Her father made the decision! The arrangements are made!" Mrs. Krajewski said.
At the top of the stairs, Nora listened, laughing softly when Babcia’s low voice growled: kurwa! – you whore!.
“Did you just put a spell on me, you Polish witch? Talk to her father! He'll be here with the car soon."
When Nora entered the kitchen, Babcia Franzi stopped cursing. Covered by black mourning lace, only Franzi’s face and her fingers were visible. Those fingers held an old burlap bag, wide open, towards Nora.
"Put your things in here, and come home with me. There's a room, just for you, in my house."
"But I'm going to join the Poor Clares," Nora said. The idea of a room at the Gorzynski's was enticing, but she would still be down the street from Robert. She would surely see him, and his mother, at least twice a week. And of course, she would die in Babcia’s house. Everyone else did.
“The nuns promised me my own a room,” Nora said.
"But they're cloistered! No member of my family could tolerate being locked in anywhere for even an afternoon! You might as well be buried alive. You can't want to go there, can you?"
Nora’s breath was shallow, and the room glowed brighter than usual, almost burned her eyes. All she could see of Mrs. Krajewski was her back as she slouched against the counter, a bread knife clenched in her hand.
Outside, a car door slammed. Her father was back with the borrowed car, ready to take her to the convent.
"Yes," Nora said. "I want to go."
"Are you sure?" Babcia asked. Her grip loosened. The bag dropped to her side.
"Just don't forget, when you start thinking you don't want to spend your life praying for strangers' sins, that there's always a room for you with me."
18 April 1930: Good Friday
Nora can hear Babcia Franzi moving around in the parlor. Dusting. Talking. To Dziedzia, for sure. Then a pause, before Franzi claps her hands together and laughs, as if Dziadzia Marian actually has answered her.
Nora’s job is to clean the kitchen before the dinner preparations. Babcia Franzi doesn't trust her much with cooking. “You spent too much time just boiling things in that convent,” Franzi says, and she is right. She lets Nora do the potatoes, and maybe make the cabbage, but Franzi insists she will do the lamb herself. The bread is rising. Tomorrow will be the sweets. Nora will finally get to watch Babcia Franzi make her own strudel, envied even by Mrs. Krajewski for its delicate, melting pastry. Until now, Franzi has refused to tell anyone her secrets, and she does not know how to write them down.
"Helen’s new baby is coming for Easter," Franzi says as she shuffles down the hall towards the kitchen. Then, "Honora! This floor needs to be scrubbed!"
"I will, Babcia," Nora says, wringing the wet rag, letting the hot water run down her arms. Franzi insists everything be cleaned with the hottest of water. Especially on a night as cool as this, Nora does not mind; she loves to plunge her hands into a warm soapy brew. The scrubbing water at the convent was always cold.
Franzi chuckles, now, in low tones, and sometimes her voice goes soft and smooth, almost seductive. It is as if Dziadzia Marian is with her, helping her shake out the lacy table cloth, sent long ago from her mother in Poland, helping her center it on the table. The crystal glasses, tinkling and ringing as she dusts them, orchestrate her soft lullaby. She sings lullabies and parlor songs mostly in German. The only Polish songs she knows are folk songs.
Nora scrubs the counters and the sink. She scrubs down the table and polishes the gilded crucifix. She kneels before it to scrub the floor.
Five days have passed since Babcia Franzi buried the roast, and Nora knows she intends to unearth it tonight. The tulips and daffodils are a day shy of bursting, and the moon is high. Cool air whispers through Nora’s window. She can't sleep.
She hears the trudge of Dziadzia Marian's boots, and the chunk, chunk, chunk of the shovel that Franzi uses like a cane. Nora sits up to watch her through the window. Franzi wears her nightdress - a rough grey cotton gown - and it lifts, softly, in the breeze.
But she's going to the wrong place. Franzi starts digging by the chicken coup. Head bowed, her knobby fingers tight on the shovel, she cuts into the earth.
Wrong place. Nora remembers where she put it. Between the pussy willows. She can hear her grandmother’s hard breathing.
"Babcia," Nora almost shouts. But she would wake the whole neighborhood, she’s sure. She dresses quickly, in the cotton shift that always hangs at the foot of her single bed, the only thing she kept from the convent. Nora’s feet hurry down the cold hard wood steps. She finds her work boots, than goes out the back door.
"Babcia!" she calls, in a loud whisper.
Her grandmother grunts, takes another slice at the earth.
"Babcia, it's over here!" She calls a little louder now. Finally, the old woman raises her head.
"Honora, you should be in bed," she says.
"So should you," Nora says. "It's over here."
Nora walks towards the spot between the pussy willows. They're in full bloom, their fuzzy tails swaying in the evening air.
Franzi’s face is smudged with dust, as she leans against her shovel.
"You woke me up the other night when you were burying it," Nora says. "I watched you. I know you buried it here."
Franzi peers into the hole that she dug. She digs a little more, taps the earth with the tip of the shovel. Squints, shakes her head, then hobbles across the yard and hands the shovel to Nora.
"Show me where."
Nora kicks away white flowers and pussy willow buds, finds the place where the earth below is not blanketed with last autumn's dead leaves. She touches the fresh soil with the tip of the shovel.
Nora digs into the earth. After six or seven shovels full, she begins to doubt her own memory. Franzi is chuckling behind her when the shovel strikes something. Not a rock. More like a buried tree limb. Nora gently scoops the dirt away to uncover the burlap package her grandmother buried there.
They both kneel on the earth, push their hands into the damp soil to grasp it from beneath. When they lift it out and set it on the ground, Nora reckons it to be about seven or eight pounds of good lamb roast.
She puts her arms around Babcia Franzi's frail shoulders to help her up. When Nora places the swaddled roast in her grandmother’s arms, Franzi smiles and embraces it.
"Good for you, Nora, remembering that," she says, turning back towards the house. It seems darker; clouds must have covered the moon. Franzi finds her way slowly. Nora follows her, carrying the shovel.
"I'm getting old, you know," Babcia Franzi says, as Nora opens the door for her. "I forget things. It would be awful if I lost this, wouldn't it?"
"But you didn't.”
Nora leans the shovel against the house, latches the door behind them, than follows her grandmother to the kitchen, brightly lit. She imagines that if one of the neighbors were to wake up and look out on this night, with its nearly full moon, the Gorzynski’s would be the only house light they would see. If they looked a little closer, too, they might even see the heads of Franzi and Nora, bowed over the lamb roast, preparing it for their Easter dinner.
* Pronounced “Jah-jah” dziadzia is the Americanized Polish word for dziadziu, grandfather; Babcia (bahb-tchah) is grandmother.
About the Author, Mary Louise Hill: With an MA in Fiction Writing from Syracuse and a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU, Mary Louise Hill's day job is academic, chairing the English Department at a small college in Buffalo, NY. In her free time, she writes fiction. Recent publications include The Gettysburg Review (shortlisted for the Best American Short Stories 2014) and Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine.