"Brilliant.... Astonishing. Skibell has turned the full light of his extraordinary talent and vision on one of history's darkest moments and taught us to see it again." – The Boston Globe
It all happened so quickly.They rounded us up, took us out to the forests.We stood there, shivering, like trees in uneven rows, and one by one we fell. No one was brave enough to turn and look. Guns kept cracking in the air. Something pushed into my head. It was hard, like a rock. I fell. But I was secretly giddy. I thought they had missed me.When they put me in the ground, I didn’t understand. I was still strong and healthy. But it was useless to protest. No one seemed to hear the sounds I made or see my thrashings, and anyway, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, because then they would have shot me.
I was lying in a pit with all my neighbors,true, but I was ecstatic.I felt lighter than ever before in my life. It was all I could do not to giggle.
And later, as dusk gathered, I climbed out of the grave, it was so shallow, and I ran through the forests. Nobody saw me. I ran with the dirt still in my mouth. I had to spit it out as I ran.
When I got to our village, everything was gone.A dozen workmen were lifting all the memories into carts and driving off.“Hey! Hey!” I shouted after them. “Where are you going with those?” But they wouldn’t stop. In front of every house were piles of vows and promises, all in broken pieces. How I could see such things, I cannot tell you.
A villager and his family were moving into our house on Noniewicza Street. Crouching behind a low wall, I watched them,a man and his sons, sweating through their vests. They packed and unpacked their crates, their shirtsleeves rolled up high, carting furniture in and out of our courtyard. Now and then, one would leave off to smoke, only to be derided by the others for his idleness.
I was afraid if they saw me, they would come after me. Still, I couldn’t stand to see what they were doing. I called to them, my voice escaping on its own. I was shouting. I shouted their names. I couldn’t help it. But they said nothing, merely continued with their hauling and their crates.
So I touched them. I grabbed onto their shoulders, I pleaded with them. At that, they crossed themselves and shuddered.They muttered their oaths. They were peasants. Superstitious. But otherwise, there was no response.And I realized I was dead. I was dead. But why was I not in theWorld to Come?
“Perhaps this is the World to Come.”
The words came from a black crow sitting in an empty tree.
“Rebbe,” I said. I recognized the voice as belonging to our beloved Rabbi.“How can that be?” I said.“Strangers are moving into my house. You yourself are a crow. How is it possible this is the World to Come?”
“Be grateful,” he squawked.“Rejoice in your portion.”
And he flew away.
I felt worse than before. I had nowhere to go. Still, nobody could see me, what would it matter if I went home, if I entered my own house? Why not sleep in my own bed? So back to our court on Noniewicza Street I go. In through the front door.They didn’t even bother to lock it. I stand in the foyer, peering into the various rooms. I clear my throat to announce myself, but there’s no doubting I’m as invisible as air.
The family is sitting around the dining-room table. They are people I know, people I have traded with. Eggs sometimes, bread, linens, goods of this sort.“Look how nice everything is,” the Mama says to her sons, clapping her hands in delight.“So beautiful, Mamu´sku, so beautiful,” a daughter says, but she is the one they never pay attention to, and the eldest son says over her, “A toast! To our home and to our table!”The father’s face beams with pride.
Upstairs are three more sons, big snoring lummoxes, asleep in Ester’s and my bed. Fully clothed they are, with even their boots on.
It’s like a fairy tale from the Mayseh Book!
The rooms are filling up.And where can I sleep?They’ve invited all their relatives to come and settle in. No one is in the nursery and so I sleep in Sabina’s little bed with my feet sticking over the edges.The bed we’ve kept from when her own mama, our daughter Edzia, was little and slept in the nursery as well.
Outside the window, the Rebbe pecks on the shutters to be let in. I open the sill as quietly as possible. “What was that?” a groggy voice from Lepke’s old room echoes down the hall.“Mamu´sku, the bed is so big, I’m swimming in it,” one daughter cries. “Everyone to bed, to bed!” the Mama calls out, cross.The Rebbe circles the room, walking from side to side, his wings behind his back. “Chaim,” he says. “Your legs, they stick out over the edges.”I sigh.He settles onto a pillow near me. He tucks his head into his breast.
I wake up and the sun is black beneath a reddened sky. My head is pounding and my eyes hurt against the light.
Downstairs, the Serafinskis are exchanging gifts over breakfast, various things they have found in their rooms during the night.The table is festive with ribbons and all the colored packages. “Papa, oh Papa, thank you so much,” the plump daughter says, leaning over the table to kiss her father.The shift she has slept in opens and her small breasts are momentarily revealed. “Don’t disturb your father while he eats!” her Mama scolds. But she herself is made so gay by Ester’s pearls, which gleam around her neck, that she cannot stay mad for long.
There are pigs now in the shul, and goats. They mill about, discussing methods of underground resistance. I’m amazed I can understand their language.“Can we rely on the villagers for protection?” one of the pigs says, his voice quavering with rage. “Think again, my friends,” a goat warns, shaking his grey beard, although none of them seems convinced.
I recite the morning prayers outside in the town square, then sit on a bench and throw bread crumbs to the Rebbe. “Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz,” he squawks out the blessing before pouncing on the little I have been able to find for him. He hops onto my shoulder and cackles reassurances into my ear. He turns his head, squinting through a hard yellow eye, to judge the effect his words have on me.
I nod, I listen, but only from habit. I’m too numb to really hear.
“And will you migrate, Rebbe?” I finally ask.“Do crows migrate?”
The question has been burdening my heart.
“God willing,” he caws.“With God’s help. If it’s God’s will.”
And he flies up to perch on the ledge of a high roof, spitting a shrill cry from his throat.