SHE DOES NOT want to be seen. 'What is there to see,' she says. 'I am old.' She prefers to converse by phone. As she speaks she grows more resolute. She rages against the state of the world: 'So much hatred. So much fighting.' She is forever railing against something. In time her tone softens. She moves from the talking to the telling, from complaint to story. She becomes light-headed, her voice playful. Time is receding. The pace gathers, and she is elsewhere, hurrying home through the streets of a distant city.
She turns at the tenement gateway into the courtyard, leaps over the threshold, and bounds two, three steps at a time, up the wooden stairway. She rejoices in the litheness of her body, her youthfulness. She is weightless. Her feet are lifting. She is on her toes, rising. The transition from rotting wooden stairs to elevation is effortless. Four flights and she is on the top floor, turning from the stairwell into the passage. The rooms of her neighbours rush by her. The floors beneath are non-existent. She is far above and beyond them, approaching her destination. She comes to an abrupt halt at the end of the passage. She has returned to the attic.
THE ATTIC DOOR opens directly into a kitchen. Before her there appears a woodstove and beside it a bed reserved for the servant. Natalya, the servant-girl, is gutting a fish at the kitchen table. Something is pulsating inside it. Surely it is the fish's heart beating. She is nauseated at the sight of the bloodied fish. Appalled at the callousness.
She proceeds to the adjoining room, kicks off her shoes, and savours the touch of her feet upon the polished floorboards. The room is furnished with two beds, placed by the wall, end-to-end, and a table. Her brother sits by the table, drawing. She is eleven, he three years younger. They are fellow apprentices in the art of observation, conspirators of the imagination. All they hear and see about them they register as both reality and metaphor.
Brother and sister stand side by side at the window. From it can be seen the sky and a church steeple. The church bells are ringing, and brother and sister are singing. They use the bells as accompanists and improvise a melody around them. Their voices are in turn drowning, resurfacing. The bells are tolling louder, moving in and out of hearing. The teeming metropolis beyond the rooftops remains hidden. Its distant hum is a barely registered tremolo, a drone beneath the performance. It is something that will persist into adulthood, these improvised games, the tacit pact between them.
Their gaze falls upon the clothes strewn over the bedding. They feel sorry for the clothes – for the random nature of their abandonment, the sensation that the clothes at the bottom are choking. They extract the buried items and set them free of the darkness. In winter they take pity on the clothes on the top of the pile – surely they are freezing. They rotate them so that each item takes their turn at being warm, well tended. At night they put their clothes to bed and tuck them in beneath the blankets.
Brother and sister are always sorry for something. They are possessed by guilt for the poor and the forsaken. It is a curse they have inherited from Father. Even so they are young enough to see the world as miraculous, and inventive enough to view objects as human. The table is a friendly table, around which the family eats in the times that mother and father, son and daughter are in one place together. Evenings when Father is not away at the club or travelling in faraway places.
The second room is furnished with a single bed, a foot-pedal harmonium and a grand piano. How did the piano get there? Up the wooden stairs through the front door and into the room via the kitchen? How did it fit through successive doorways to where it now stands beneath a hooded window that looks out upon the sky and church steeple?
Father and Mother sleep separately – Mother beside the piano and harmonium, Father in the third of the three rooms in the attic. Mother sits by the harmonium and plays it to accompany her singing. She sings in Yiddish, Polish, Russian and German. The German songs she had acquired in Vienna, the city she lived in as a young woman on a music scholarship.
It was in Vienna that she met the man who had overwhelmed her with his tales and ambitions, and spirited her away to an attic in the heart of Warsaw. To assuage his conscience he had a grand piano and harmonium installed and awaiting her on arrival. He provided her with a servant so she need not cook nor clean or do the washing.
The piano and harmonium remind Mother of her folly. She sings the Lorelei. Her voice reverberates within the confines of the attic. Heine's lyrics are well served by her mezzo-soprano: I wish I knew the meaning/A sadness has fallen on me/The ghost of an ancient legend/That will not let me be.
The third room is furnished with a single bed and a desk upon which there stands a typewriter. Father is a two-finger typist – poems, essays and meditations fly from his fingertips. He attacks the keys with a fury. His fingers are driven by obsession. He is cursed with an urge to record his every thought, every reflection. He is compelled to vest all he sees with significance. He cannot leave things be, but is driven to capture all that transpires in verse, a vignette, a fully blown story. He would record his every breath if it were possible, and only then would he finally accept he is fully living. He alternates between typewriter and long hand, and grips the pen between his thumb and middle finger, with the forefinger resting lightly upon them – just as his father did before him.
Over Father's bed dangles a black crucifix. Sister and brother have different versions as to how he acquired it. Wherever he travels Father frequents cemeteries. This is, he says, where one can quickly discover the history of a town, a shtetl, an entire city, certainly a neighbourhood. The inscriptions can be read as a narrative, the repository of ancient memories. The sum total of the epitaphs constitutes a book of revelations. It was in one such remote cemetery that Father found the crucifix, claims the sister.
They were travelling in a horse and cart somewhere out in the Polish countryside, claims her brother, when Father glimpsed the cross lying in the mud, all but indistinguishable. His eyes became fixated upon it. He had to have it. He bid the driver stop, and jumped off the wagon to retrieve it. Whatever version is true, Father certainly kept the crucifix with him for the remainder of his life, and hung it on the walls of his various rooms in his sojourns in far-flung places.
Apart from the crucifix the room is austere, a monkish retreat – a writer's study. But wait. There is something else. On the wall hangs an etching of Baruch Spinoza. It is the only image displayed on the walls of the attic. It is a beautiful Spinoza – this is how brother and sister see it. His dark hair falls upon his shoulders. His face is youthful, his gaze thoughtful as befits a philosopher.
'He is a shpinozle,' says Mother. For her the etching is fair game for ridicule. She sees Spinoza as she sees her husband, as a rigid man imprisoned by his obsessions. Father worships Spinoza. The philosopher looks down upon his desk and typewriter. He is a guiding presence, a reminder of life's purpose. A school friend of his daughter's once looked at the portrait and asked: 'Is this your auntie?'
WE ARE NOT done with our preliminary reconnoitre. Not so long ago the toilets required a journey from the attic along the corridor, down the four flights out into the furthest reaches of the courtyard. At night the journey is hazardous. Some of the stairs are broken, others cracking. A toilet has since been installed on the fourth floor, and is located mere metres from the attic. It was a happy day when it was finally ready for use, an occasion fit for ribbon cutting.
Even so, it is a forbidding trek after nightfall, but once there, the rewards are plenty. Above the seat there is a skylight and from a certain angle a cat can be observed, on full moon nights, sitting on the roof in silence. The eyes of human and animal meet in dumb communion. When the sitter extends the gaze a little further, she can take in a fair proportion of the roof and the cats that loiter upon it.
Brother and sister feel sorry for cats. The forlorn faces that peer through the attic windows disturb them. Mother adores cats. She had adopted one and allowed it to roam about the rooms, and in and out of the windows. On one of its rooftop forays the cat was impregnated. She was granted permission by Mother to give birth on a bed in the attic. Alas, the litter was stillborn. The cat abandoned her dead offspring, leapt through the window and was never seen again among the living.
Obviously she had committed suicide. Mother, Father, brother and sister discuss it while gathered around the friendly table. Not withstanding the friendlessness of the table, they are a family that argues, yet on this occasion they arrive, as one, at the same verdict: the cat had committed suicide. The verdict still stands eighty-five years later. She was a tragic cat and she took her own life, traumatised by the death of her litter. No doubt about it. The entire family felt sorry for her.
SHE IS ON the telephone, speaking from the apartment in Elwood, the seaside suburb she inhabits in her ageing. The apartment is weighed down by stuff accumulated over an epic lifetime – cluttered with memorabilia, newspaper cuttings, books and journals. There are books by the bed, on the chairs, books lining the walls and passageway.
The clutter is intertwined like vines in a rainforest, climbing ever higher, inhabiting every nook and cranny. She has long ignored it. It does not concern her. She has lived in this apartment for decades, but she is much too pre-occupied with 46 Novolipke, a tenement topped by an attic, enveloped by sky and a church steeple: circa 1930, circa 2013, the dates do not matter.
In the attic live our four central characters. Allow me to introduce them. Ruth, who flies up the stairs, and who is, for the time being, the principal narrator of the story, will become a dancer. Her brother Yosl, lost to his drawing, will become an artist, a painter. Father is the well-known, some say the renowned Yiddish poet, Melekh Ravich. The name is a pseudonym. Over time his birth name has vanished and all that remains is Melekh, or simply – Ravich.
He is a man possessed by a healthy ego. He knows every Yiddish author of note in Poland, and he knows those who are struggling to be known, since he is the secretary of the Yiddish Writers Club, the hub of literary life in Warsaw. The legendary rooms of the Club are located at Tlomackie 13, a half hour walk or ten-minute tram ride from the attic. Ravich is a man who regards life as a mission. Long after his death he will remain a dominant force in the minds of his son and daughter.
WAIT A MINUTE. We have all but overlooked Mother. She is often overlooked. Her name is Fanya. She was once known as Feigele, 'little bird', a loving diminutive, a name she lost when she left her childhood behind her. Her stage name is Riva Ravich. The name has a certain ring about it, and she plans to retain it if she returns to performing, even though the marriage is unravelling. She holds to the memory of the solo concerts she performed in Vienna. She last performed when she was six months pregnant. She would have, surely, become a professional singer, except for that fatal encounter with a Yiddish poet.
Don't get Fanya wrong, mind you. She has a life of her own. Her Russian friends come to visit her. They talk and play cards by the friendly table. And she does not hang around moping. She leaves the attic and makes her way to Tlomackie 13, where she basks in the company of writers and poets, the hangers on and dandies who frequent the premises. She has many admirers and she comes to life in their company. It inspires her eccentric sense of humour – day-by-day we are becoming younger, she says, as she huddles with her admirers around a cafeteria table. One day we will be sitting around this table as infants, still discussing the urgent problems of the world. We will surely make more sense of it as babies.
When the mouse is away, and he is often away, she takes on a lover, one of the writers. Feigele is no wallflower.
MEMORY IS ATTACKING Ruth. It tugs her back with the force of a receding tide, and deposits her in the attic. She is compelled to preserve it. She wills it back to life, and endows it with a certain grace, a certain feeling. The attic has assumed for her the attributes of a person. She has taken to writing about it.
She cannot write in her apartment. She has too many bloody things. She prefers to write in a local café. The apartment is in Milton Street, a thoroughfare named after the poet. The surrounding streets are named after English writers. Dickens. Shelley. Tennyson. Byron. Yet the streets mean nothing to her. No matter that she adores writers, and puts them on pedestals. She makes her way to the café, but is not interested in her immediate surroundings.
Sartre and Camus loved writing in cafés, she says. If you go sit in a café everything is right with the world, everything is in order. Is it not? This is what Sartre said, didn't he? Don't bring your nausea into a café? Or was it someone else who said it?
She orders a coffee and retrieves a book from her handbag. She is reading the autobiography of Thomas Mann's daughter. She is drawn to books about writers, thrice drawn to a book written by the daughter of a writer. She lays down the memoir and takes out a notebook. When she writes, she grips the pen between her thumb and middle finger, with the forefinger resting lightly upon them, just like her father before her, and his father before him. Her father's father had trembling hands. He had no choice but to hold it this way. As with many such things, trace them back to their origins and you will find a rational explanation.
Ruth closes her eyes. Scenes appear with a clarity that startles her. She retraces her steps through the tenement gate into the courtyard. The entrance traverses a narrow passage. On the left hand side of the passage there is a hole in the wall, a sort of cellar, and through the door she sees the single man who lives there. He is lying on a bed, sleeping. The bed is small and he, so tall, that his legs dangle over.
During the day the man in the hole in the wall sets out for the city with the aid of a staff. He is thin as a rod and apparently crippled. He is an emaciated Moses, sans beard, staff in hand, making his way from tenement to street in search of a living. One day Ruth sees he is neither crippled nor injured. He leans not on a staff but on a curtain rod. He is a man as thin as a rod who makes a living selling curtain rods. People sold anything and everything. The poverty was frightening. Eighty-five years later she says this often. It peppers her talk – the poverty was frightening. The poverty was frightening.
One evening, through the open door, she saw the curtain-rod man foaming at the mouth. He was slumped over the edge of the bed, neck and arms dangling. He looked as if he were about to topple over. She stepped into the tiny room, and eased his sagging body back onto the mattress. At that moment he expired. This is the word Ruth uses, 'expired', when she recounts the story. It is one of the incidents she returns to often, both in the writing and the telling. Her English is superb for one who acquired it later in life. Her enunciation is precise and measured, her accent indeterminate. It belongs mid-ocean.
When the curtain-rod man expired Ruth fled from the hole in the wall into the courtyard, leapt over the stepping stones, and flew up the wooden stairs past the house of study for young boys that stood near the first floor landing.
By day the boys can be heard chanting verses from the scriptures, line by line in response to the teacher's calling, and at recess they can be seen running in and out of the apartment, their sidelocks fluttering. Others sit on the broken wooden stairs playing chess and dominos. The images flit through Ruth's mind as she flies, and for an instant they erase the sight of the curtain rod man sagging in her arms, expiring, his white corpse hardening into rigor mortis. The fear returns and propels her. She veers into the passage, and swoops past the rooms of her neighbours. She does not cease fleeing until she is through the front door and safely back in the attic.
ONE IMAGE BEGETS another. Father has returned from one of his journeys. Ruth walks beside him on a street in Warsaw. He is holding her by the hand. It is a windy day. Suddenly he stops, casts his eyes downwards. What is the matter, she asks. He remains silent. She follows his eyes. They are gazing at a piece of paper in the gutter. The paper is quivering. The wind lifts it and sets it down back down again. It looks like a dying bird, he says. She can see it now, the cobblestone gutter, the bird in its death throes, quivering – the life force ebbing. Lingering.
SHE IS HURRYING home from the Yiddish school. She is always hurrying, head in the air, feet treading the pavement ever so lightly. They convey her above herself, above her thoughts, above the city, to visions of faraway countries and dreams of palm trees.
From the roof of a passing tenement a pigeon is falling. It lands by her feet, a dead weight in freefall. A group of passersby gather around it. The bird is wounded – its wings are urgently fluttering. There is going to be a lovely soup tonight, they say, smacking their lips. The whole world is drooling and she is running, weeping, bounding up the stairs, along the passage. She has made up her mind and will not deviate. She is twelve years old and it will be the last day she will ever eat meat again.
She announces her intentions to her brother. He too will take the vows of a vegetarian, he promises. Not everyone is won over, mind you. Fanya and Natalya remain committed carnivores. From time to time some meat goes missing. Yosl is surely the phantom meat gobbler. He flies into a rage at the accusation. He loves cats and pigeons and all living things as much as she does. How dare she.
Only after she has left the attic for the final time and made her way across the oceans, will he write a letter of confession. Yes. It was he who had stolen the meat and broken the pact he had made with his sister.
EACH YEAR, AS winter drew to an end, a horse-drawn cart arrived at the tenement, and from the attic they descended – brother and sister, Fanya and Ravich. They carried furniture, baskets, kitchen utensils, blankets and bedding down the four flights to the courtyard. The horse drew the cart from the city out into the countryside. A horse-drawn cart was a fitting way to make the annual journey to the dacha where they spent the summer, but alas, it conveyed only the furniture. The family followed by rail days later.
One summer, Father bought a doll as a present for his daughter. It was a beautiful doll. She took it with her everywhere. She seated it in various locations in the attic. She took it with her to the dacha and down to the river. She sat the doll on the sand, and went swimming. When she returned there was no doll. She ran here and there in a panic. She dug into the sand, waded in the shallows, and searched the paths between river and dacha, but could not find it.
On her return to Warsaw, Father took her to the theatre. There was a girl, five years old – a wunderkind. She performed mime and dance and used them to convey stories. A master of ceremonies introduced her, and told jokes while she was offstage changing costumes. The wunderkind returned to mime the anguish of a girl who had lost her doll, and was frantically searching.
She ran here and there in a panic. She ran the length and breadth of the stage but could not find it. She dashed to the wings and returned empty handed. She peered behind the back curtain. Ruth cried throughout the performance. She was not weeping for the loss of the doll, but at the truth of the enactment. She saw that it was possible to tell stories of life through mime and dancing. She cried all night, and in the morning she announced that she had discovered her life's vocation. She would tell stories in movement. She intended to be a dancer.
RUTH LAYS DOWN her pen, closes her notebook. She is unhinged from the world, from the people who sit in adjoining tables anchored to their seats, chattering. She makes her way from the café back through the streets named after writers. She curses her compulsion to record her memories. Father was the writer. I am a dancer. A choreographer. I am an old woman. What business do I have with writing?
Excerpt from a novel-in-progress