Thursday, April 29, 2010

What You Didn't Get to See Was This

I omitted a long scene that followed the fourth death sentence (though now I'd call it the third as I'm combining the two death penalty activities as one since, as Jacob noted, "At least.... they couldn't kill me twice.:

But here's what happens after he runs down into a cellar to hide. The rest of the scene takes place after he runs down the stairs to the wine cellar, after the first paragraph:

At the grinding of a heavy door above me, my eyes snapped open. I drew my revolver and held it poised to fire. Until I remembered that I had forgotten to reload it. At most I had one bullet in the chamber.

But it was only an old man whose slippered feet shambled down the stairs. I called out helpfully, “Don't be afraid.” At which he dropped his lamp and turned tail.

“There is something in the cellar!” he shouted.

A peevish wifely voice shouted back, demanding to know, in full detail, what he saw.

“Something alive.”

”Who alive, what alive?” she demanded. “A dog, a cat, a thief? What? Maybe a ghost?” she taunted. “Fool, what did you see?”

“I didn't see anything. It spoke to me. If you’re so curious, why not see for yourself.”

“A thief, then,” her voice decided. “Why are you just standing here? Run for the police.”

At this, I flung aside the door to reveal myself. Eight or ten pairs of female eyes gaped at me in terror and fascination. One woman reached out and touched me to assure herself that I was a creature of flesh and blood.

“Have no fear Fellow Jews,” I said. “I am neither a thief nor a ghost, but a human being like yourselves.”

“What are you doing in my cellar?” the most officious of the women wanted to know.

While I groped for an answer, the wine-merchant announced his verdict. For scaring an old man half to death, I should be handed over to the police.

I showed him my revolver in a perfectly sociable way, at which he retreated. Unfortunately, his wife was not so easily cowed.

“What are you doing here??”

“I lost my way. Here I am, a visitor from out of town. I heard shooting. I saw police grabbing people right and left. I was afraid that if they arrested me, my parents would never hear from me again” There was just enough truth in this to fill my eyes with honest tears.

“And why are you carrying a revolver?” my interrogator demanded.

“My mother warned me Warsaw was a dangerous place,” I answered somewhat truthfully.

With a sniff of contempt for a boy so unworldly as to be afraid of Warsaw, the woman dragged her husband back into the wine shop because customers were waiting.

The rest of my audience remained gathered around me, as though expecting further entertainment. Among them was a woman with a damp, unhealthy face that might once have been beautiful. She stared at me with what I chose to read as sympathy.

Addressing myself to her, I said, “Madame, you can see that I am only a harmless bystander running from the Cossacks. If they should find me here . . .“

I needed say no more. She said, “Come with me.” Ignoring the snickers of the other women, I followed her up four flights of crooked stairs. She admitted me to a one-room flat whose ceiling tilted as though the roof has fallen in.

“Here you will be safe.”

I looked at her in surprise. It wasn’t that I was unused to acts of generosity in unexpected places. But the very walls here oozed poverty, and the raw floor barely supported two crippled iron beds and an uncertain table, leaving a narrow alcove to serve as a kitchen. This consisted of a wood stove and two barrels, one for clean water and one for sewage, though at a glance I couldn t say which was which.

Seeing my interest in her kitchen, she said, “I have nothing for you to eat. I haven’t eaten, myself, since yesterday. Maybe later, when my daughter gets home.” She nodded toward a bright dress that clung to the wall like a large insect poised for escape.

The woman did not ask my name, and I didn’t ask hers. But, trying to be polite, I fumbled to open a conversation. “How many children do you have?”

A flare-up of shooting in the street blurred part of her response but I gathered that she had two daughters. One of them, it seemed, had turned out badly. But the younger one was a treasure whose earnings had been her mother's sole support.

My curiosity exhausted, I sat heavily on one of the beds and gave my attention to the pain in my thigh. A bloody scar had slashed my good trousers. Mindful of my manners, I tried to sit upright like a proper guest, but the weight of my head was more than my shoulders could carry. Before another dozen toothless words had tumbled from my mouth, daylight drained from the room like blood from a bullet hole.



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