He raised his gaze from the street, three stories below, where shopkeepers, neighbors and friends scurried, rushed, and ran, carrying their possessions, children, or anything of value that they could lift. Looking up, below the eaves just above his head, he saw the roofs of the ghetto tenements across the way, and above those roofs he saw the reflections of the fires, still four or five streets away. The clouds of smoke reflected the flames, rainbow colors cascading down on the row housing between him and the fire. Bright reds at the roof line gave way to orange and yellows higher in the smoke-clouds, which in turn gave way to the deep blues of the sky and the pale indigo of the sun setting in the west.
Below, the stone and mud streets were wet from the incessant rain. Street-lamps were unlit, most of them broken. What little light illuminated the street was reflected from the smoke-clouds above, bathing everyone and everything below in a blood red light.
Closing his eyes he remembered his country farm, cows grazing on the hill behind the solitary shed, chickens pecking the ground outside the garden, and his wife, Aide weeding the garden. He remembered stories his father would tell at night, in front of the fire. Stories of the life in paradise before the expulsion and thought, “We never left Eden, we just never realized it.”
Dropping her garden tool, Aide waved and ran down the short lane leading to their farm just as he closed the wooden gate behind him.
“Thank Ha-Shem you are back,” she cried as she wrapped her arms about him and pulled him tight. Aide sobbed into his shoulder, “Soldiers have been marching past all day, heading toward the village. I was so afraid they would stop here.”
“I saw them on the road,” he said, softly, “and hid behind bushes until they passed .”
He turned and looked at his shed, his father’s shed before him, and his father’s, father’s shed before that. A few sheep grazed in the shaded side of the small coral. Chickens accosted him, demanding their dinner grain, not knowing there was none. The three grazing cows lazily started down the deep green carpeted hill towards the shed, hoping to be milked soon.
Their house, really not more than a shack, attached to the larger shed in the back, stood patiently waiting. It’s two rooms provided shelter for three generations of this family. It provided a birthing place for their children and dying place for their elders.
He opened his eyes. The fires raged closer, redder, hotter. The sun had set and the indigo horizon was now black. He looked around his room. The small vermin ridden unmade bed rested in the corner, unused since he arrived several days ago now. A battered old cardboard suitcase lay at the foot of the bed, its contents spilled and strewn across the bare floors, un-needed. An empty oil lamp sat on an old table, next to the single chair with one broken leg, bound with twine and a discarded stick splint. It didn’t matter. He never used it. He was resigned, defeated and despaired. He sat on the floor, in front of the low window and watched. He didn’t eat, there was no food. He sat, watched and waited.
He heard them approaching the farm before he saw them. Stepping out the door, alone, he turned back to glance inside one more time before closing and latching it behind him and approached the soldiers. “Greetings. How may I be of service?”
Without a word three soldiers stepped around him. Two of the soldiers pushed him in the back with their rifles forcing him down the lane toward the road, away from his farm. When he was forced into the huddle mass of his neighbors he turned his head for one last look and saw the third soldier had thrown a torch into what little straw was stacked in the shed. Already the shed and most of the house was ablaze. With a tear he thought, “At least Aide will suffer no more.”
An old man lay his hand gently on his shoulder and whispered, “Aide?”
He shook his head and nodded towards the farmhouse.
“I said, no talking old man!” the obvious leader of the soldiers shouted, pointed his pistol and shot the old man. One of the soldiers kicked the old man’s body off the road into the ditch as the soldiers forced the mass of men, women and children along the road towards the village.
The door behind him opened and he turned from the window as a little waif stared at him with large, dark, fearful eyes. Dirty, dark brown hair draped her thin shoulders and worn, bright red shoes adorned her feet.
“Come in, little one,” he beckoned. “It isn’t proper to leave a door ajar. Where are your mother and father?”
She walked slowly to the window, looked out and down towards the street barely illuminated by the now golden sky, and began to cry.
“Ah,” he said. “They are outside,” he paused for a moment before continuing, “Shall I tell you why?”
Sniffling, she nodded her head while wiping her nose on the thin, torn sleeve of her dirty frock.
“They left to secure their future. They know there is a better place for you, little bird, and hoped, beyond hope that Ha-Shem might find you before the soldiers did. Little one, you are what remains of their future.” Pausing again, he said quietly, “If Aide and I had been blessed to have a child, I would have liked to have one just like you.”
The girl looked at him, still crying. Suddenly he knew exactly what he must do. He discarded his plan to stay here, waiting… waiting to meet Aide in the arms of Ha-Shem, or whatever there was, after.
“You know, perhaps there is a better place and a better future for me as well, little one.”
He moved quickly now. Somehow, he knew exactly where to go, who to see and what to say. Striding to the table he lifted the envelope with the forged transit papers and carefully tucked them into the inner pocket of his long coat. Without Aide, he had planned to let them burn, along with himself just as she had, back on the farm. Now, he saw a future with a new farm, a new garden and blue skies smiling down on him. This little wren of a waif growing within the garden into a fine young woman.
He gathered what clothing he could, stuffed it into the old suitcase and with one last look out the window, took the little girls hand and left the room, en-route to the airport before the authorities ceased all travel.
Pingback: Short-short Stories | "What If…" by Dave Oney