The Edge of the Field
Helen Degen Cohen
SHH. . . Listen to the way they talk, Mirenka:
"Where did we live before we lived in the Ghetto, Mama?"
"Don't you remember? On Stolka Street. Don't you remember when Uncle Dadu and Aunt Rachel came to visit?"
Nobody comes to visit. I can walk from one end of the street to the other now. At one end there is a field, and at the other end there is a town. People live in the town, but we don't see them.
"What is a town, Mama?"
"A town is where people live, what else?"
"Mama, will you tell me a story."
"A fairy tale? Oh, I don't remember, Irishya. I don't think I can remember. Do you remember? Don't worry, you will have a book."
"When. When we can get it you will have it."
"Of course in Polish, but maybe in Russian, I don't know. Don't be impatient, you'll get it."
"Mama? Tickle my foot, here."
"Irenka.... All right. Don't kick me!"
"Where is Uncle Jacob?"
"What kind of question? Down the street. Why don't you know where is Uncle Jacob?"
"Where is Aunt Vera?"
"Aunt Vera... I don't know. I don't know where anybody is... Aunt Vera was the most beautiful of the sisters."
"Where is she?"
"Ahh! I don't know, Irenka.
"I don't have anything to do."
"You want to draw a picture? I have some more paper, here."
"Please, Irenka, I don't know what you want."
"I want to go out and play."
"All right, go out and play. But don't stay too long. Find Mirka, but come home soon, and don't play with those, you know, those sick children."
"All right, Mama. I want a newspaper, I want to make a boat. Mama? I want to play with the cards. I want to play House. Let me show you how to play House! Come here. Please. All right, you just look. You have to make a tent out of two cards, you have to stand them up on the rest of the cards, and then pull cards out, here, from the bottom. I'll go first. Look.... See? The cards didn't fall, so I keep the card. I can pull another one because the house didn't fall. Oops! Don't worry, I'll make the house again.... Here... now you pull. Pull, Mama!"
"Oh.... I am too afraid.... Oh, Irenka, I will make it fall!"
"No, you won't. Just try. Please."
"All right, all right... this one! See?!"
"See? You didn't make it fall. I told you!"
"And I can do it again?"
"Oh, that was very nice, I enjoyed it, but that's enough."
"One more game, just one more, Mama."
"No... I don't feel like it, Irishyu."
"One more. One more, that's all."
"All right. One more, that's all."
"I don't know what to do, Mama."
"Go out and play with the children."
"All right. I'm going."
"When should I come home?"
"Mama, play one more game with me, just one more?"
"Is it cold outside?"
"I don't know, Irishya. Just go."
Mama has something to cook; I'm going to play with the children, those children, the ones near the puddle. I'm going to go right up to them and say
"Can I play with you?"
"All right," says a big boy, his eyes busy on the water. The mud makes curving lines on the water, like paint mixing, and the top of it shines. He says, "Everybody start here, see? and we'll see who wins."
"No," I tell him, showing him a wider place, "you should start here."
"I think we should start where Simcha wants to start," says a girl with almost blonde hair.
They are getting their boats ready and are not looking at me. If I wasn't fat maybe they would listen to me. The other children down the street are laughing and shouting they don't look sick to me. I don't think anyone has the Cholera, or Whooping Cough. Cholera is a "bad word," like Psha Krev. They are having a good time and I'm not.
"I have a boat too."
Nobody answers me.
"I'll get my boat," I say. They look up, and then down again at their boats.
"Irenka! Are you back already? Irenka? Are you crying?"
"No. I'm getting my boat."
"Boat? What boat?"
"See?" I show them. But, "Look! Look! Miriam's boat is winning!" they say to each other. Simcha rocks back on the cobblestones and shouts. "Ahh! She won!" He is very surprised. A thin girl with curly black hair and big teeth is laughing too and saying "I'm going to win this time!" "Oh sure...." Simcha says, "Sure..." talking to himself. He is making a new boat, folding newspaper.
"What if there is no puddle later," I say. They look at me.
"Here, you put your boat with the others this time," Simcha says. "I'll wait with mine for the next race."
"Okay," I say. "Now?"
"Now!" he says. Now we all put our boats together, we line them up across the little muddy river, I feel water on my hand and the sun on my head, and we are so excited. "Maybe I'll win!" I say.
"Maybe you won't!" Simcha laughs. I want Simcha to like me, but I'm not pretty, like Miriam. But the other girl is ugly. When Mama sees her she will say, "Look Irenka, how big her teeth."
"Let's play a game now," I say, "follow me!" They look at me. But they don't follow me. They don't think I am very important. I made an excellent boat. I like making those boats; I could make a hundred boats, it is so exciting making the boats, but I may not win the race. I don't like racing too much.
But they are not looking at the race, they are looking at soldiers going into a house. They are looking at what will happen. I don't want to look, but I am looking too. The soldiers are taking people out of the houses, by shouting and pushing. I leave the boat race. I hide behind the corner of the house, but I am looking. People are putting their watches and rings into a basket, others are following the soldiers down the street, away into the town. Someone is crying. I am not crying. They are not going to find me. I am smart, I am not like everyone else, I just had a birthday party, Mama put tea and marmalade on the table, and faces were looking in the window....
It is quiet and I pass the children at the puddle who are still looking, but at nothing. I stand next to them, wanting to go home. I don't know why I don't go home. I want to know something, but I am afraid to ask them. Karla, the curly-haired one, says, "My mother went with the soldiers." "Where did she go?" I say. Nobody answers me. "Don't worry," Simcha says, "some will come back--soon. Some always come back." Karla is not saying anything, but out of her eyes water is running. I want to run home, but I can't, just as I couldn't run home from the edge of the field. I can't move. "You have to be very healthy," Miriam says, "you have to have muscles for working, to come back." Karla's eyes are stretched open but she is not moving, she is looking at nothing. I hate Karla. "Muscles, shmuscles," Simcha says, "it makes no difference." A tall girl walks up, listening. "Children are no use," she says. "Who are you?" Simcha says to her. "And you," he says to me. I am confused. I am not a stranger. "My name is Irenka," I insist. "Who said it wasn't," Simcha laughs. I don't understand. Something terrible is going to happen.
Mirka has walked out of our house, and is coming to play with me. "Nothing is going to happen..." she sings for everyone, smiling and looking down with black, dreaming eyes, "you are all so silly... of course they will come back.... Come with me, Irenka," she pulls me up, "I want to show you something...."
I go with her, but I don't believe her. What if it happens when I am playing cards with Mirka, what if it happens when we are making glass-bead rings. Something bad inside of something terrible, inside I am hot, I am so hot I open my mouth to let it out. "I'm not playing," I tell Mirka, "I'm going home." "Oh... you people...." she sings, looking around at everybody and still smiling. When I go home I will tell my father that Mirka's father gave her a gold ring. Sometimes my father gives me a ride on his back. Once, he went away, I don't know.
"What! What happened, Irenka!"
Mrs. Katz comes over from behind the hanging sheet, scratching her head. "They took some people to work," she says.
Mama sits down on the bed to stare. I am shaking her, "Mama! Mama! Mama!" She moves her head away from the stare to look at me, but she doesn't see me. I am shaking her, "Mama! Mama!"
Mrs. Katz comes to my mother, shaking her head. "You people..." she says like Mirka, "you have no faith. They will come back."
Mama says, "Don't worry, it will be all right." I lie down on the bed. I am going to stop crying soon. "It will be all right," she says, and I'm going to believe her.
But at night they are talking in Yiddish so I won't understand. They call me a kind. It means child. I never told them that I understand everything.
I am in someone else's house. I have to stay here because Mama and Tata went away for a little while. In the dark they tell me to lie down next to a boy on a cot. I find the cot and lie down. It is very warm next to the boy, and he moves closer, he is very soft. I don't know if I am sleeping, but I couldn't see the boy even if I opened my eyes he is behind me; but I don't want to open my eyes, I move closer to him, and he feels so good, the boy, I can feel his bare legs around me, I can feel the warm thing between his legs, it is impossible to get as close to him as I want. I don't know what I want. It feels so good, though, the boy touching my whole back, his leg between mine. The boy is sleeping. I put my hand between my thighs, to make it feel good. The stars are making light in the room....
I am standing at the edge of the field. I have a piece of warm crust in my hand and behind me the houses are quiet. There are only a few small children in the street, sitting quietly. I look out at the neverending field, stroked by a wind's breath; the grass goes down under it, like sweet-smelling hair, and comes up again. I reach through the wire for a piece of grass and look at it closely, then feel it with my tongue. It is different from the grass on our street. I suck on my piece of crust. Something is going to happen. I look around nothing is happening then look back at the field. The blonde children must be tired of coming, maybe they are being punished, maybe their mothers told them not to do it. But -- something is coming out of the field, a blue piece of cloth; a girl, I think. I don't move. I can't be afraid of just one. Is she crying? They don't cry, the blonde children, and they are never alone. Is she coming to see me? Oh how do I look, I want to see myself. But I only feel myself, the skin on my face, my arms, my fingers on the crust of bread, my other hand feeling the loops of my braids from end to end. She has stopped running and is walking slowly towards me, wiping her eyes and streaking her face with dirt. She stops, where she could almost reach me. She is smaller than I thought, and her hair is like the wheat in the far field, and her hands keep pulling on her faded blue dress. She has no stones to throw and she doesn't say anything. She just stands there staring at me, her face dirty and her dress torn. I must be much older than she is.
"Did you get whipped?" I say.
What if I were in her place, Mirenka, staring at me behind the fence, a Jew... from those bible places with the darkness of God in them.... I just swept around the chickens, where in winter snow falls covering the seeds with diamonds, but today it got blown around and my mother told me to sweep. I swept and swept, in the wind. Behind the barn there was a noise. I ran. The boys chased me and I tore my slip, and I grabbed my wet dress off the rope where the hammock used to be, and mother called them. She can't come out, the Jew, she lives in a circle the fence makes, like the sun. The others throw stones into it. "Did you get whipped," she says, behind the fence. I wipe my face. Sure I got whipped, everyone gets whipped. The boys say that in her circle there's the devil's food, but I know she has sausage and milk. She bends her head to one side like Babek, our dog, and stares at me. They don't throw stones, they just stand in a dark group and stare. She sleeps in there, the dark one. They even play in there, their dirty games, the boys say. I don't care. I hate washing and feeding and planting and sweeping. I would show her Babek, and my place in the woods. She wouldn't whip me for playing, she is only a little bigger than I am and her braids are circles. Sometimes I draw a circle around my feet and jump in and out. When I look at her, I think about circles and I don't know what to say. The wire in the fence makes your hand bleed. I brought her something; I found it in a drawer where the boys can't look, or Jesus and Mary, and when they were earning their whippings, sitting down in the middle of harvest So!, Psha-Krev!, she said, you want to eat too?! cussing and hitting and making faces, I took it out of the drawer, in the dark room, and I hid it in my hand, and I ran, I ran away from my mother's angry apron blowing behind the barn; and I'm going to give it to her, the Jew one. I wouldn't throw stones so they whipped me it was play and they still did it, and they whipped me for not doing it, but the stones were too heavy, and I couldn't lift them into the circle of light. They called me a sissy, they cussed. And she saw it... my hand stuck in the sun. "Did you get whipped today?" she says. They don't say anything, but they know everything they have secret eyes. I'm going to get closer. Someone washed her dress and tied up her hair in circles, and she"s pink as jam. I remember what's in my hand, glistening like something maybe she's never seen. I'm glad we're children, we're not mothers yet, we don't live in strange places, and I have this to give her: it is a silver cross, which I myself found, and it gleams in the sun as if all the powerful saints had hallowed it....
"Did you get punished?" I ask her again.
She doesn't answer. Takes a last slow sob, like a deep breath, and looks around at the field, as if wanting to say, "You'll be sorry, you'll see." She is a funny little girl. "Well? Did you get whipped?" I ask her, excited, because I have never been whipped. I could comb her hair and close her eyes and put her to sleep. I could make her a cup of tea.
She is smiling at me. She has something behind her, but she's shy.
"Mama, there was a girl behind the fence. She was smiling at me."
"A Polish girl?"
"Yes. She was smiling at me."
"That's nice. She must be a good girl."
"I'm going back."
I can't stop staring at the field. Behind me the children are sailing boats, and Mirka is looking down at her gold ring, putting her lips to it, but I must stand here looking at the fields. The bottom of the sky is stretched pink from side to side. The sun hides and now in bluer air the daisies and buttercups fade to whispers in the grass. O the good words, the gentle flowers. Into the misting field a sweetness has fallen, a sparkling like my glass beads. A group of birds, in the shape of a flying bird, is floating across the sky.
"Mama, did you get me the book?"
"Here is the book. Hans Christian Andersen."
"Do you like it? Irenka? Do you like it?"
"Don't read the whole book now, save a little for later."
"But you didn't eat!"
"Soon, it is going to happen soon," Tata says to Mama in Yiddish, in the quiet of the night. He has brought me another book. I've had books before. I know all about the Match Girl. But true princesses can save themselves, magic things and people come to help them because they are good. The children don't follow me, and I am such a good leader. If I were whipped like other children I would be good, but my father won't whip me. I can make up the best games and rules but the children will not listen.
"Mama, do you like me?"
"What? You talk like a foolish little girl, you know? Of course I like you. Everybody likes you, don't be silly. You should have seen how you sang and danced, nobody could believe it. When we had company they gave you a chair to stand on. And once you danced in front of hundreds of people, do you remember?"
"Why don't you remember! You sang that song from Al Jolson, the "Anniversary Waltz" from America, and you danced with your arms "
"See, you remember?" What do you mean they don't like you; maybe they are not good enough for you."
Not good enough? But Simcha is the best boy in the world. He knows everything, everyone listens to him. Mama doesn't know that I am too fat, she thinks I look good. In my house I look good, but outside I don't. Look at the flypaper, black with a thousand flies, hanging so still from the middle of the ceiling....
"Irenka, you don't look good. And it is late. You should go to bed now.
"I want you to come to bed too, and Tata."
"Where is Tata...."
"He'll be here soon."
Good. Now is the warm time, now Mama comes to bed, now Tata comes to bed, and the dark comes under the covers. Mama curls around me, big and warm, I can feel her stomach, I can feel her hair, I want to bury myself in Mama, I want to dig into Mama and feel Tata curled around her, I can't reach him, I can't reach him! I want to sleep in the middle, Mama. I want to smell Tata's hair. I want to sleep on the other side now, Mama. I want you to turn around, Tata. I want more, more. I want to get closer, let me get closer....
Everything happens before the beginning, before dawn. How often we have awakened before the sun, to wait for what will happen, for the awful day. We are awakened by the full, correct knowledge of what will happen; how much better not to know what will happen to be up into the safe night, and then to sleep through dawn. But what we know comes knocking on the door before sunrise, before the sun has awakened to warm us, and we wake into a strange pre-world ghost-lit by a future sun, when the darkness is no longer dark enough, and only the day that must be lived is living before its time. Look, Mirenka.
How often they move out of bed this way to pace in the gray, stony darkness, one at a time, Tata first, Mama next, whispering to each other, sitting down, standing up, walking to the window, to the door, sitting down to tap on the table with their fingers. Around them people are sleeping, so they can't say, this, or that, and their wild looks fly between the walls, fall dead on the table, into walls. I am stretching, I pretend to be just waking up to their pacing in the weird darkness. It is a cold time to be up, a time before God has decided how nice it would be to have earth, light, water, human beings. He knows everything beforehand, and yet he begins it, there is some use to it; and we, like God, know what will happen and yet we rise, to watch it before its time. Time. Time begins when Mama stands up out of bed bewildered, when Tata pulls his timepiece out of his pocket to find the time. Time, time, time!
Why do they have to get up! Why do they rush the time! The Katzes never get up. If anyone knew how strange my parents were they would never play with me.
Karla is sitting on the curb and crying.
"They say stupid things," Mirka warned me off to the side, but I know, I heard what Simcha said. Simcha is different now. He is sitting with his legs crossed, not doing anything. He just says things as if to no one, as if he is letting birds out of his hand, and they are flying everywhere. Everyone listens to Simcha's birds, and then they go home. They don't go home like I go home, they know their parents won't save them. They just don't know where else to go. Mirka hates them. "They are so stupid..." she sings, "they weren't there, how do they know...." Her head falls slowly to one side, her black hair oozing down like molasses, as she closes the caves of her eyes, dreaming, her arms around herself. "Mirka, wake up! Wake up!"
But Mirka won't ever wake up, not after days, not after nights. Days come and go, and Mirka won't wake up.
Mirka sits on a doorstep dreaming about her gold ring, the gold watch her father gave her only today, her father whose face is oily, whose eyes roll down dreaming, like Mirka's. She puts her lips on the gold ring, like a small kiss. O please wake up, Mirka, let's play hopscotch, let's unravel our glass bead rings and make new ones. The street is emptier every day, a loneliness sits in it, its head dropped.
Days come and go.
"Simcha went home..." Mirka sings, "finally he went home...." But, everyone has gone home. From the fields the children come to throw stones, but we are not there. They walk away disappointed. They will say mean things to their parents. They won't do their chores.
Days come and years go.
Look, that little girl with white hair has come back to the fence. She was told that no one was here any longer but she didn't believe them. She stands at the fence looking for me. Should I go to her? Will she recognize me?
She stands at the edge of the field, smiling. She knew I would come. "You didn't get whipped today?" I say to her. She shakes her head, still smiling. From behind her torn dress she brings out her hands, and in them a little silver chain. For me. She must have found it somewhere. I put two fingertips through the diamond of space between the thorned wire, and between them she places one end of the silver chain. We don't know what to say to each other, so we laugh. And it is so peaceful around us. It is such a fine chain, it makes a little pool of silver.
Look, I still have it. Right here, in my palm.
© 2001 Helen Degen Cohen
"The Edge of the Field," an excerpt from Helen Degen Cohen's autobiographical novel of the same name, was first published as a first-prize winner in the Winter 1985-86 edition of Stand magazine in England. Helen (Halina Degenfisz) is a widely-published poet and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Other honors include two Illinois Arts Council Awards, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, an Indiana Writers Conference award in Poetry, and fellowships to the four major art colonies in the United States.
Ms. Cohen is a graduate of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and, after years traveling to schools throughout the state as part of the Artist in Education program, she returned to teaching (at Roosevelt University) and then to co-editing Rhino magazine. Helen originally co-founded the magazine as well as its adjunct, the Poetry Forum, a monthly drop-in workshop. She was a featured poet in the October 2001 issue of TheScreamOnline, and is currently seeking a publisher for her poetry collection, The End of Snow. Helen can be reached at Halinka1[AT]aol.com (replace [AT] with @).