Hands Of Time
Hands Of Time
Artist: M.L. Walker

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Wedding Band and Custom-Made Pink Satin Bra

by Monika Lange

That gloomy early December morning, disaster lurked in the air. I remember the red flame pirouetting in the stove, a cereal bowl on the round table, Nana smelling of soap and cinnamon, and snowdrifts outside the window. It was a typical day for the Polish winter of 1941, which had lashed out with a particular fury. On our estate, a little over 100 km from Warsaw on the outskirts of the city, we led a seemingly peaceful life. Until the arrival of the potato thieves.

At six years old, I was still innocent in many ways.

A hand crept up the windowsill. It shivered. Spidery fingers probed the steel ledge until they reached the leftover potatoes Nana had placed outside for the pigeons.

The hand stopped.

Intrigued, I watched the fingers investigate their booty, seize it, and wrap over the frozen food. Then the dimpled fist with ivory knuckles retreated to disappear into the December freeze.

I warmed my toes by a pot-bellied kitchen stove. The wood inside its iron belly cracked, sending red sparks. It smelled of pine and spruce and it made me think of the upcoming Christmas. My governess, whom I called Nana, placed my breakfast of hot oatmeal on the table covered with checkered gingham cloth. She was a petite, large-busted woman, with silver hair pulled up into a tight bun fastened to her head with a handful of hairpins. Now she fixed her bright-blue eyes on the window. The snow came steadily and dense, and frost had painted windowpanes. A devout Catholic, Nana crossed herself and muttered, "Sweet Jesus! Have you forsaken Poland and its people, Lord? We die like flies, either killed by the enemy, or from the cold and the famine."

Used to Nana's religious devotion I didn't pay much attention to her calls to God. Nana isn't a real governess, I thought. She doesn't teach me German or French. My Mama had found her and said she was the best nanny in town. Tata always left running of the house to Mama and didn't ask any questions. Mama was right. I looked at my nanny thinking, Nana is the best, and I love her. She has a soft bosom and smells of soap and cinnamon. She makes me feel safe, and my tummy is warm inside when she takes me in her arms. But, dear Mama, Nana is also a Jew-lover and if Tata finds out, he'll fire her.

After the German invasion of 1939 and the subsequent occupation of Poland, my parents had accepted the "volkslist," surrendering their Polish citizenship and pledging loyalty to Nazi authorities. They became German citizens. All Poles in our small town hated us for that. I didn't understand much of it at the time.

I ate my cereal, thinking about the owner of the hand on the windowsill. Our kitchen was warm and cozy and I shivered at the thought of the cold outside. Once I had touched the windowsill in the winter. It had been so freezing cold that my finger got stuck to it. Who goes out in this weather without warm mittens? Why is he stealing pigeon food?

"Tell me a story, Nana," I said, looking at her carefully manicured fingers and her wedding band, which I admired.

"All right, Kinga," she said. "Did I tell you how Artie …"

I tuned out. I didn't want to listen to a story about Artie again. I hated Artie. Some nights I dreamed of a perfect world in which no boy named Artie could so much as exist. Nana loved Artie more than any of the children she had helped raise. Her face brightened and she had light in her eyes whenever she spoke of him. Artie was perfect and could do no wrong, just like my older brother Hans whom Mama and Tata adored.

"Germans required that all Jews move to ghettos. Among them was Artie I raised from birth," Nana said in a coarse voice, her eyes moist with tears.

"But Artie lived with you and they didn't know he was Jewish," I pretended interest in the story I had heard a hundred times. I twisted my new doll's yellow braid around my finger and opened my mouth for Nana to feed me another spoonful of sweetened oatmeal.

"Unfortunately, I was unable to save him from a street round up, and later from the ghetto. If I baptized Arthur and sent him to Sunday school when the Germans invaded, perhaps his Aryan looks and his knowledge of the Bible could have saved him." Nana whispered.

I turned my head to hide a sneer. If Artie lived with Nana, she wouldn't be here with me. Perhaps she wouldn't even be alive. Giving refuge to a Jew meant automatic death penalty under Hitler's occupation, Nana had told me. After she lost Artie, Nana came out of hiding to look for a job and my folks employed her.

I finished the oatmeal and slid off my stool.

"I want to go sledding later," I said, stepping to the window, dragging my doll by her arm. The doll was a gift from Tata. He had bought it for me in Berlin.

Nana rushed after me to clean my face with a damp cloth.

Outside, a young boy feasted on the frozen potatoes and fed them to a little girl. He seemed older than me, eight or nine perhaps. The girl was probably my age. Both of them looked sickly with transparent white skin and skinny limbs. They were dressed in rags.

The boy's fearful eyes were fixed on the house more than on the potatoes. He looked ugly and ridiculous in an oversized coat, with feet dressed in sandals slipped over what seemed like cut-off-sleeves of an old sweater.

I laughed.

"Nana, look, they stole our food," I said, still tasting the cinnamon and the sugary warmth of my oatmeal.

That weird footwear can't protect your feet from frostbite, silly boy. I felt smug. My fur-lined boots stood on the threshold, ready for fun in the snow.

Once I had seen a kitten steal food from our dog's dish in the yard. The boy outside reminded me of it. He looked like a hunted little animal, and he was ready to run for his life.

Why are you so scared to take this pigeon food? How can you even eat it? Why don't you eat fruit drops instead? I bet you like fruit drops or mint drops, like my cousin Arnold. You look like him.

As if the frozen potatoes were some rare delicacy, the little girl crammed her mouth with handfuls of them. It made me feel sick.

"Nana?"

But Nana's eyes set on something distant and invisible, and she didn't hear me.

With chapped, gloveless hands, the girl held open a big sack. You kids are so stupid. Look at your hands girl. Whoever goes outside without mittens in winter?

The boy reached for the food again and this time, instead of eating, he placed it in the sack. It was a brown burlap bag I had seen used for potatoes or coal. The whole thing filled me with disdain.

Watching the food disappear at the bottom of the bag, the girl gulped. She looked like a doll, her cheeks rosy from the cold. Unruly, dark curls escaped from her blue kerchief. For a moment she lifted her head. Our eyes met — hers, sapphire-blue, and mine, the frosty-blue of steel. The look in those eyes, so similar to mine and yet so different, locked in my heart to haunt me forever after.

I might have been young but I realized the little girl was beautiful.

So what. She only has dark hair. Everyone says I am an Aryan beauty with my light-blond hair and big, blue eyes. Mama and Tata say I look like a cherub, which means angel.

Stomping on the snow to keep warm, the girl said something to the boy. He grabbed the remaining food, threw it in the sack, signaled to the girl, and they were gone.

"Who were they, Nana?" I finally asked.

"They sneaked out from the ghetto in search of food," Nana said.

So they were Jews. I knew that much, even though I didn't quite grasp why they needed to live in the ghetto.

"Why?"

"These children are starving, Kinga. You mustn't tell anybody about them."

"Not even Mama or Tata?"

"No."

"Not even my new doll Tata brought from Berlin?" I lifted my toy as high as I could for Nana to see.

Nana smiled, revealing her gold tooth.

"Well. I suppose you could tell your dolly," she said and kissed my cheek. "Let's keep this a secret. Just you and I," she added.

"What if I forget?"

"I will give you anything you ask for, if you don't tell, Sweetie."

Adults didn't usually offer to give me anything I wanted. It wasn't a chance I would let pass.

"I want your wedding band and your custom-made pink satin-bra," I said, recalling the silky touch of this much-admired garment. Oh, I wish I had large breasts like Nana's, not the flat nothings I watch in the mirror when no one is looking, I thought.

Nana laughed.

"You've got a deal, girl!"

***

For a fortnight, the two little Jews came every day. Nana increased the amount of food she put out for them. They always took everything. I stopped paying attention. Nana seemed unusually happy and cheerful. She played with me for hours now and told me more stories than ever.

One afternoon Tata called me to his study. It was a rare occasion and I readily obliged. Tata, thin wire spectacles on his hawk nose, hid behind his massive mahogany desk, holding a letter. Mama stood by his side. The air around her smelled of powder and perfume.

"Sit down," Tata said.

When I was settled in a chair, Tata began to read. The letter was from Hans. I recognized the neat, thin script of my brother. He described his life on the Eastern front, the dangers they faced, the battles the had won. My thoughts drifted to the leather-bound volumes on the shelves behind Tata. Dangling my feet, I wondered what was in them and if my father had read them all.

"Kinga!"

I looked up in panic. The Persian rug on the floor started spinning. The gold lettering on the books blurred. I felt nauseous.

"Your brother almost got killed and received a silver cross for bravery. But you don't seem to care!"

Mama's face glowed and shone with tears. She dabbed at them with a silk handkerchief.

Hans. Hans. I barely remember you. But they always talk about you, only you.

I despised Hans at that moment. But I also recalled how Hans had seen me when I had dropped cookies on the floor.

"Kinga!" my older brother said with scorn.

"I didn't mean to. Please, don't tell," I stuttered.

"Oh, Kinga, Kinga." He bent down and started picking up the cookies. "Well. What are you staring at? Aren't you going to help me, Princess?" We put the cookies back on the platter, laughing and eating a few broken ones in the process. Then we faced our parents as if nothing had happened. But that was long ago, and now Hans was a hero and everyone loved him more than me. How can I ever compete with you for our parents love? If I could do something vital like you did, Hans. But I'm just an unimportant angelic child everyone treats like a live doll.

Then, suddenly, I knew what to do. "I saw Jewish children on our estate," I said.

Tata stiffened in his chair. Mama stopped sobbing. Unexpectedly, I had what I wanted. All eyes were on me.

I had hidden Nana's custom-made, pink satin bra and her wedding band in a box in my chest of drawers in the nursery. At night I would take out my treasures and admire them. But not after Tata read the letter from Hans.

On one of those rare December days when the pale winter sun shone over snowy fields, making them sparkle with magic, Nana was ironing my dress at the back of the house. I sat next to her and played a make-believe game. I imagined that if I went out, the trees covered with snowcaps would turn into giant snowmen and a Snow Princess, frozen among them, would come to play with me. In my mind's eyes, the Snow Princess looked like the Jewish girl.

When sharp shouts of German voices sliced through the air a little distance away, Nana and I dashed to the kitchen window.

The children had come as usual. We saw them loading the food into their sack, which meant they had already eaten.

From behind the barn, ten SS men came running toward the house. They approached fast.

Tata, I thought in panic. Oh, Tata, please call them off.

But Tata and Mama had left for Warsaw that morning to do their Christmas shopping.

My stomach hurt and I tasted Cod-liver oil on my tongue.

By then, the estate swarmed with SS men. Six monstrous Alsatian dogs, still leashed by the Germans, barked and slavered in excitement.

I covered my mouth so as not to scream. Nana crossed herself. I wanted her to protect me and tried to snuggle against her ample bosom.

"Wait Kinga," she said.

She jerked open the vent in the storm window. Freezing air invaded the kitchen. The boy looked up, stupor painted on his face. He was very pale. He seemed frozen in place, as if he couldn't believe what was happening.

"The SS!" Nana whispered through the opening, her voice coarse from the cold. "Run, run! God be with you."

I stood in the freezing air unable to move. Goose bumps covered my body.

The boy emerged from his daze, grabbed the girl's hand, and sprinted away, tugging her behind him. She couldn't run fast. Her legs were too short. She tripped in her oversized boots. The food sack weighed her down, but she wouldn't let go.

Run so they don't arrest you, so that those terrible dogs don't get you. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for any of it to happen! I didn't. Cross my heart.

Already inside the estate's gate, the SS men were screaming "Halt! Halt!"

The boy frantically tugged at the girl.

Nana struggled to close the vent.

A fusillade exploded outside.

I couldn't take my eyes off the yard. I felt Nana's arm around me. The little girl dropped the sack. Nana squeezed me hard. The food spilled on the ground. I was drenched in sweat.

The boy shouted something at the girl and tried to drag her with him.

She ignored him.

Jerking her hand from his grasp, she crouched beside the scattered food. She began to retrieve the frozen potatoes, now mixed with snow and icy mud. With tiny hands blue from the cold, she replaced the food dregs in the sack, one piece at a time.

A bullet struck the back of her head and pierced the blue kerchief. The bullet and the eye exited the eye socket together.

Nana tried to cover my eyes but I shoved her hand away.

It isn't happening. It isn't real. It's just a bad dream.

The girl's eye–one of those eyes I looked into just a few days before–turned into a jellylike smear. Blood gushed out of the eye hollow and flooded her face with crimson.

She collapsed forward on the scattered, icy potatoes, and covered them with gore. In the frosty air, the scarlet, steaming puddle melted the snow. The punctured blue kerchief and the gaping lips of the dead girl turned purple.

My screams and Nana's wails shredded the silence of my parents' estate.

Outside, the boy resumed his flight.

I could hear the snow squeak under the SS men's boots. More shots rumbled in the arctic air.

Nana pulled me away from the window and we staggered into her room, huddling together. At last, everything became still.

Nana dragged out a suitcase from under her bed. She tossed in a few of her skirts, sweaters, and other garments. Then we went back to the kitchen.

While Nana transferred provisions from our pantry into her suitcase, I ran to the nursery and brought back the box containing her bra and her wedding band.

"Here, Nana."

"Hush my child." She pushed the cardboard container back into my hands.

"Kinga, the cook will make your meals today. And I've already asked Hanna, the maid, to take care of you till your parents return," she said.

Dazed, I followed her to the entrance hall. I watched her dress in her heavy winter coat and put on her boots.

She hugged me, crossed herself, then walked out into the December twilight.

I stood by the window long after Nana had left and looked at the small sandal footprints in the snow. The larger prints of Nana's winter boots followed in their wake. Before long, the falling snow buried everything. I wished I could have also magically turned back the clock so none of this would have happened.

But there was no magic. My jealousy had caused a sapphire-eyed girl to die and Nana to leave. I still begrudged Hans Tata's love, and in 1943 a Russian bullet killed my brother. Shortly after hearing of Hans's death, Tata died of a heart attack and Mama lost her mind. Nana's wedding band and her custom-made pink satin bra were lost in a bombing raid. Only my porcelain doll remains, her glass eyes staring at the world without judgment.

Born and raised in Poland, Monika Lange moved to Iran in 1977, and to the US in 1985. She lives in California with her husband and daughter.


Monika Lange has published fiction and nonfiction in The Copperfield Review, Reader's Digest's Polish edition, Cenotaph's new Book of Remembrance Anthology, The Pilot, Living MS Magazine MS Connection, Eclectica, Brew City Magazine, Whistling Shade, and Long Story Short. She has recently completed OPIUM, a novel set in Iran just before the revolution of 1979, as well as a novel entitled THE DANCING SHIVA.


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