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Words for Nothing
In Carnac, between Arthurian woods and the grey Atlantic, hundreds of megaliths lean blankly in the half-sunlight, each fixed unalterably in its place. They are the last remains of a sun-worshipping culture, active in Brittany long before the arrival of Roman and British settlers and their mythologies. Before and behind me stretches a thousands-year-old silence, stone after stone in rigid lines, progressing, for over a kilometer, in gradual increments of height toward the sea. The tallest menhirs now lie below water. They are more constant, even, than the sea, which has betrayed and begun to swallow them. I walk an hour among them, in and out of the slick shadows they make on damp patches of grass, and although I stand on the southern coast of Brittany, I feel I am in the graveyard of my own history. There is no evidence of a sun-worshipping culture, its existence mere hypothesis. There is nothing to say about the occasional snaked carvings in the rocks, not at all like alphabets or prayers. The people who created this order have disappeared entirely behind it, leaving no garbage pits and no gods out of which to draw their likeness, no secret word to call up out of history the dead. Death is the first and the last principle. This is what I think to myself in the empty hotel restaurant, three kilometers south of the stone fields where I drink a cup of tea and eat a bitter chocolate. Death provides direction, a forward tumult through time and experience toward a point of nullification. Why are there so many words for nothing? Blank and empty, absent, vacant, desert, bare, bereft and also zero, lifeless, void. Against our inevitable submission and in our terror we rail, creating order, purpose, language. Death allows us this: to speak in our own defense. And then, because it is death, and not a judge, not reasonable or fair, it takes everything back again: the story, the words, the meaning, all of it consumed by silence. Twenty meters from my table by the window the sea spits a ceaseless grey. The sky, inevitably in this wet season, collects thick clouds that move closer and closer together, squeezing out the seams of silver light. Just inside the restaurant entrance, two cockatiels are singing between the bars of their bronze cages. The yellow bird trills and the peach one answers until the waiter drops a glass and it shatters against a table edge before falling in so many pieces to the burgundy carpet.
In my grandparents’ home I was sometimes called Moshiach, messiah, and I never questioned the burden in this name, or the strangeness of my being chosen to bear it. Questions are not, as they seem, the natural mode of an inquisitive nature. Like all aspects of language they are an inherited custom, and in the case where they are absent, other ways of coming to know the world present themselves. I did not question why I stood, for my grandparents, as both their judgment and their reward. Instead I tried to become that thing, and thereby learn what was meant. I looked closely, I touched, I ferreted out the qualities of the world’s small objects. I did not play games unless they were very dull games, with numbers and dice and an end, because I had no patience for the pretended when the real was absolutely perplexing. In the white hallway, near the door to my grandfather’s study, which was also the room where I slept with my sister when we visited, hung a painting in a heavy dark frame. The canvas was covered entirely in muted hues—brown into grey, grey into a rank yellow. Although I never thought about it in these terms, if you had asked me then, at the age when I had still to tilt my head back to see the entirety of the canvas, which was no more than twenty-four inches high and fourteen across, to point to the center of my grandparents’ flat, I would have taken you here, to the small corridor that led from the kitchen to the bathroom with the study and my grandparents’ bedroom on either side. If I had known a question could be asked about it, I might have answered: This is a woman whose blouse is torn and stained with blood, a woman in the moment of dying. Her right arm is flung out from her, but holds, still, a soldier’s rifle. You can see her teeth because her mouth is just open, her jaw slack. The woman in the painting, if the angels touch her, does not show it. She is running barefoot through a haze of smoke and bodies. She is running out toward the lower left corner of the painting, but our eyes arrest her from her passage into the dim hallway, and in the instant when she turns to us, not seeing, trying to see, the crack of a gun catches her—and so she is forever dying, here beyond the door of my sister’s sleep and mine.
My grandfather and grandmother were born, respectively in 1908 and 1916 in Warsaw but did not meet until 1943 in Russia, where both had fled the march of the Nazi army. My grandfather, Szama Gruszka, was a tailor with careful hands. Since I knew little of his youth, I imagined it as follows: First as a dark room smelling richly of onions, and then I placed a table in the center where a silver, three-necked candleholder always stood. Szama sat in a corner below a small window, learning how to read. It was spring. The Yiddish letters curved across the paper in eloquent strokes. They spoke of God and the laws that men have accepted from Him—in this world there was no question of gender; the language belonged to and described men. This text was written by a Warsaw Reb, in fact, by the very man who, later that day, would sit with his elbows between the three shadows of the candleholder, sweating below the rim of his black hair. He would drink schnapps with my great grandfather who was stern and quiet with a deep voice. This was Reb K. who believed in spiritual transcendence of the material. Reb K. had written on the smooth pages that Szama held between his hands that the prayers of man are answered, not right away but when the time is most fit, even if that means that a man must die before his desires are satisfied. And this, he explained, is as it should be because it encourages prayers for the good, rather than for the individual man. It encourages a spirit of generosity and thereby brings men closer to God—because God hears only the prayers of the generous of spirit, and locks selfish prayers into the dark of the void. These thoughts delivered, through Szama’s slender limbs and narrow chest, a tightening of recognition, something he already knew, that had to do with the pear tree in the small garden outside the window and her yellow fruit, and the white flowers before them, and the smell of the bark after rain, less the smell than the breath the tree gave back to him when he pressed his mouth against her—damp, sweet, dark. There was speculation that Szama should become a Rebbi himself. He was smart. His father was a pious man—but there were many smart boys, many pious fathers. The Jews of Warsaw lived so closely together it felt as though everyone was touching everyone else. It wasn’t until my grandfather died in 1995 that I discovered I didn’t know his true name. Of course, I knew that most of the new immigrants to North America after the war changed their names, but it is not something I thought about in relation to my own family. Zaidy Sam is who he was to me alive; in death he is, once again, Szama Gruszka. In the unreachable realm of the deceased, he has reclaimed his foreignness. He was born in the month of June, son to a “nurse” and the middle of three brothers. His father’s medical practice was mildly Cabalistic, and based on “banke,” the application of heated glass cups to ailing body parts in order to create a vacuum. These cups left ripe red rings on the patient’s skin, and a sweet smell of sweat and wax-smoke in the healing room where his father practiced. Sometimes Szama was allowed to help his father by holding the long wooden splints. The glowing cylinders in that dim, almost blind light left him with a mysterious feeling of emptiness, as if neither he nor his father nor his father’s patient were in the room at all; only those soft lights lived, and the force behind them and the darkness between. But it was Avraham, his older brother, who was their father’s true apprentice, because he was the eldest, and because he had the “touch.” Avraham, at the age of ten, could take away the pains behind their mother’s eyes and temples just by rubbing them with one finger of each hand. Since he himself had no such ability, and since there was need only for one apprentice in the healing room, Szama went to work at twelve years old for Gotski. His hands found the work they loved best, and Szama became a tailor. In Gotski’s shop, which was no more than the front room of his house, with a sign reading, in Yiddish and Polish: Tailoring, Mending, Alterations—in this shop, Szama learned exactitude and patience. “These are the two hands of mastery,” was Gotski’s maxim. Szama taught himself to be meticulous, running the tape again and again between his fingers until the numbers of the centimeters faded and he had to ink them in again. In 1929 in North America—where much later, after everything, he would live—the last year of the decade was marked by the market’s crash and a sudden, pervasive poverty. The world was much smaller than it had ever been before and in Warsaw it was the same as anywhere. There were more brawls in the street and the street itself began to change, to become darker, narrower, to lose the blue from its sky. One day on his way to work Szama saw a dog dragging a man’s hat by its brim. The dog was thin and small and the hat black and wide, so that the dog had to drop and pick it up again in his teeth as he walked, adjusting the weight. Szama laughed, “Your toy is too big for you.” But his laughter burned in his throat when he saw, in the place the little dog had dragged the hat along the pavement, smears of blood. The young German philosopher Martin Heidegger had published, in 1927, his popular book Being and Time, an existential exploration of human consciousness of the world, the other, and the self. Two important elements of Heidegger’s treatise were the special anxiety, or dread, a person experiences when faced with the real immanence of his own death, and also the notion of care. Of care Heidegger writes:
When we ascertain something present-at-hand by merely beholding it, this activity has the character of care just as much as does a ’political action’ or taking a rest and enjoying oneself . . . so any attempts to trace it [care] back to special acts or drives like willing and wishing or urge and addiction, or to construct it out of these will be unsuccessful.
Of death, Heidegger says succinctly: “Dying is not an event; it is a phenomenon to be understood existentially.” Being and Time helped to shape twentieth century existential thought and influenced writers like Sartre and Derrida. Heidegger’s writings were lauded by students and intellectuals in Germany, and in 1933 Heidegger was elected Rector of Freiburg University. At that time he joined the Nazi party and praised, in his inaugural speech, “the march our people has begun into its future history.” If Heidegger’s celebrated rhetoric and ideology can be taken as representative of public rhetoric and ideology in the late twenties and early thirties, then it is important to notice that the question, “Why?” is completely absent from his book. Heidegger is always asking, “What?”—What is Being? What is care? What is death? When he argues against the necessity of political action, when he denies that death is an event, something that happens, when he relegates dying to an existentialism that only knows how to ask “what?,” he rescues care and death from ethics, consequence, and cause. When Szama saw the little dog and its trail of blood, his nausea and grief had no public language, and so, in public, they could not be acknowledged or expressed. Szama knew a man had died, though he did not know who, or at whose hand, or why. The why fluttered in his mouth like a terrible stutter that would not come free. It lodged there, and he could not retract it or spit it out. His knees softened and his stomach turned. His blood said, Run, and he ran. Avraham left for Palestine the next summer. Beyond the window he was a small, dark figure walking away from the house in Warsaw forever. Like a ripple before the advancing boots of the Nazi army, Poland’s Jews pushed east toward Russia, Szama among them. There at least he could save himself, what was left of himself. He left his parents behind him. His mother kissed his forehead a hundred times. His father squeezed his hand and said nothing. It is like a folk tale from the old country: Szama did not die. Because he was a fine tailor, the best tailor that anyone could find in a country where a tailor’s fingers were always numb, his knuckles swollen. Szama was in Moscow in spring. The air was sweet with horse sweat and with flowers. Then, because he was with the army, sewing officers’ uniforms, he was transferred north and east to work in the outposts of the condemned. Szama in Siberia for summer, and afterwards. The whiteness there was the blank white of persistence. What lived—terns and burrowing mice—lived on the fat from its own bones because nothing grew from the ground, as far as he could see, and nothing fell from the sky but an increase of whiteness, sometimes heavy and sometimes fast. Who knew that white contained its own darkness? In this way I know my grandfather—in his haunted early history, and then, because it is so clear to me, I have no need to set it down, in his later history in Montreal, Quebec, Canada—places as solid as this desk I am writing on: his work with the tailor’s union; the factory; the grocery store he owned and worked in evenings; the Yiddish newspaper; the sugar cube between his lip and bottom teeth, and the red tea running over then through it, the teeth yellowed; the synagogue where he prayed, bending under his white tallis among the low voices echoing his own; his tomatoes ripe with the fierce smell of the vine clinging to them, and the raspberries which scraped his hands in the rear of the garden; a smile, for us, his granddaughters, and the name, Moshiach—all this I know as deeply as a story I have invented myself.
But my grandmother escapes me. I knew her beneath the benign branches of the apple tree behind the duplex in Montreal, picking up the fallen fruit for tart, red sauce. She sang to us when we were small, and walked us to the park. She laughed. She asked about our schools and admired our drawings or our new holiday dresses. And she was tired—not physically fatigued, just the opposite—a kind of tired that kept her always awake, alert. She woke before we woke and went to sleep after us. In our presence she did not have moods. Sometimes, rarely, she would grow annoyed with my grandfather—a flash of Yiddish words and then it would be over. Silence again. Calm again. She never betrayed a secret. She never complained, not that I knew of, not even jokingly. She did not joke. She made a wall of her love, of her strength, of her care, and there was no going beyond it. She was impenetrable. But I am drawn past her hours in the kitchen, humming, her card games and her Yiddish murmur, as if they are road-signs toward the past and not places themselves in which to rest. Only brilliant moments of her history become clear to me, and these are always moments of transit, of passing, of just barely surviving. When she was very ill in hospital, my grandfather would run his hand over her round forehead and her white, white hair, saying, Chanaleh, Chanaleh. This diminutive of her name is the only clue I have. I throw it back like a net into the past, but beyond that name I cannot go without a brutal concentration and a certain hopelessness. Adorno says that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And what about the time before? When the horrors still wait around the next corner or the next? Who can go back and paint happiness? Who can sieve the future from the past? But I cannot help myself. Asking the true question begins with the places you have no right to enter, in trespassing, in naming what has never been named. Perhaps, like myself, Chana was a shy child—this would explain her quiet elusiveness, my inability to find her in her childhood house. In the house she is hiding behind a curtain, trying to make her breath small, smaller, so as to ruffle nothing. In this house she becomes a shadow. Outside it is a rough spring. The grass pushes up through swollen mud in the small gardens, just as in the rough fields where sometimes, in summer, they take long walks, letting the sun come in beneath the blouses her mother has starched hard at the collars. Is there a shadow of recognition in her, that Warsaw will never be her home, that she cannot remain there, in that house? That her very breath is unwelcome? She is bound east through sorrow, toward sorrow. What is childhood if not the future compressed into a tight and unfathomable seed? Chana at seven with a chest full of secrets, with a dead fly from behind the curtain caught in her hair. Chana at twelve in a blue apron, in the painful body of change. Her sisters kissing her hands, kissing her knees in a game they have invented to keep her from working, to beg a little moth of attention from her. These girls, their smudge-mouths, their squabbling, all to perish apart from her, in the humiliation of their hurt bodies, their soft hearts, to die, far away from her, calling one another’s names. Chana is trapped in the nearly absent light before dawn. Her sky is a pale cuticle to the east below a hard darkness. The shapes of her home are grey shadows, one obscuring another. She is waiting with a first husband who appears as a charcoal smudge beside her in the first hours of the morning. They have paid a farmer what money they could offer, with a gold pendant engraved with her grandmother’s name, with a pair of shoes. They will begin the journey toward Brest by wagon, and after that a week of walking through dense woods, nothing like the gentle linden trees in a Warsaw park, to cross the Bug river at the border of Russian-occupied Poland. Once they reach the other shore their guides, for the most part peasants who use their nights in this way in order to ease their families’ poverty by day, will leave them. But at least they will be east of the Nazi soldiers, on Soviet soil. Did she leave Warsaw with any friends, I wonder, holding their youngest children in her lap, feeling the lack of her own, the great loss in that, the relief? Is it possible that she did, after all, have children, that they cried quietly until they were too exhausted to cry anymore? Maybe she dreamed impossibly, looking out to grey October fields and dark figures bending over their labor, at a white horse behind a wooden fence, in a brown field which had been garlic, at the wheat fields, at the small towns with their carriages and above all of them, the narrow towers of their churches—against a blue sky, a white sky, bells in their cavities like fetuses, silhouettes against the bruised night and the cold stars. They labored without pay. Chana’s husband died beneath the crumpled scaffolding he had built. She worked in a munitions factory shaping steel casings. By now the Nazi army had taken Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the twelve hours of her working day she made herself become a stone. She bit her lip until the screech and the stench of the machinery left her smooth. She was a stone and the work was a river that shaped but could not move her. I remember reading in a children’s fantasy book how wizards could change their forms, take the body of any thing whose name they knew. But the danger was that the knowing was deep, and to stay long in a borrowed form was to become it, eventually. This was the strong magic that stole my grandmother away. The stone stayed with her all her life. What do I ask of her? That she return to me with a voice. That she cause the silent branches of the trees to flower, that she betray her whole existence so that—this is the cold heart of it—I can be freed of her. I would like, in a strong voice, in the English which was never hers to speak, to hear my grandmother talk about the night she left Warsaw, the colour of the sky in Russia, the displaced person’s camp in Germany, how she found herself pregnant with Szama’s child, how she helped him steal chickens from the German farmers, flirting, distracting, blinding them. What did she say to the peasant farmers to cause them to forget their work? Did she touch their hands? Did she lie with them in the tall grass? Did she speak at all? Did she require anything more than to be beautiful? Did she know then for certain that all her sisters had died? That her parents, both, had died, her cousins, friends, rivals, even? That Gertrude had been raped and shot, Mila shot and mutilated, Esther and Rochle gassed side by side? Was the woman in the painting of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who died nightly in the hallway of the Montreal flat, prefigured in her dreams and prayers, demanding an apology, an explanation? Did she wish to be a farmer’s wife, whose worst anxiety was to lose her chickens to thieves? Are these the true stories? Euphemisms? Fabrications?
My grandparents died slow, difficult deaths. Szama developed Alzheimer’s. He lost his hat, his wedding band, his memory, the ability to eat. He laughed to fill those absences, telling jokes again and again until even those were lost to him and he passed away. Chana cared for him as long as she could. Perhaps that is why she said nothing about the growing pressure in her chest, about a pain which must have seared and flattened her, leaving her shaking and blank; perhaps not. Angina led to a small stroke, a series of strokes, full seizures in the night. And when her brain was so bruised and scarred that she could no longer speak more than a garbled mess of sound, it became the one thing, aside from lighting Sabbath candles, she wanted desperately to do. Too paralyzed to write, she would, for an hour at a time, try to shape a sentence, some small meaning. Occasionally, a Yiddish word would find its way to the border between her tongue and the world beyond it, and then my father, or someone else who understood would leap to do what was bidden, or simply to affirm that he had understood, that she had spoken. But I could never know what was the indifferent press of air and tongue and lip, one against the others, and what was language. I could not watch her die in the hospital, her white sheet twisted off, her legs slightly spread and bent, weak, powdery, pale. She lay in a room with three other women, moaning in their sleep, defecating, bodies too frail for the blue hospital gowns and always slipping out or tangled up in them. One time I came to find her entirely disrobed, with her head tipped over the edge of her mattress, and a faint groan came from her, the sound a branch makes in the wind. I walked away, afraid to be a witness to her pain, not brave enough to see her to the final gate. Outside Toronto’s Sinai Hospital, on a stone bench beside the bronze statue of a pregnant woman, between sirens, the everyday, the white noise of the city, below a sky as clear and blue as ever, I sat, stunned by an order of loneliness I could not name. Do you see now? I am writing out of cowardice, loneliness, shame, and in betrayal of my grandmother’s choice to let history rest. Some granddaughter. Some love. And yet, in my defense, I don’t believe she wanted silence in the end. Not the absolute silence of Carnac—monument without memory, without meaning. She knew, at the last, too late, that to live she must speak, that her voice was the one charm she might hold up against her own passing. And she could not. So I am speaking in her place, even if all I say comes out as lies. Because the stillness of Carnac is truth and time erases us. Because death presses from every quiet corner and will not be pushed back. Because I do not acquiesce. I do not stand aside in fear or dignity. Bound by duty, shame and love, I offer this: a document of memory, my answer to the name Moshiach.