Trapped Inside the Story
by Leslie Cohen
It’s my second winter with the Brzuszkiewicz family. One bitter cold day, Zhislav goes to Lublin on a buying and selling trip. He has to get up very early in the morning to fill the cart with eggs and milk and other farm produce. He gets back from Lublin in the late afternoon, half frozen.
When he comes inside, he says, “I can’t remember a winter this cold.”
Wanda helps him take off his boots and Maria warms up a bowl of soup for him.
“I saw something very strange on my way,” he tells us, and we all sit around him, listening to his story:
“On the road to Lublin, I saw a group of Jews marching along the road, dragging their feet, and stumbling along. All they were wearing was the striped pajamas of prisoners. The German soldiers were screaming at them to move faster, and striking them with whips all of the time.”
Granny B says, “Those must be the last Jews left in the world!”
Maria asks her, “What makes you think so?”
Granny answers, “I’m sure they’re the last ones! There are no more wild hens to be seen anywhere.”
Maria asks her, “What has that got do with the Jews?”
Granny answers, “Do you mean to say you don’t know the legend? For every Jew alive, there is a wild hen somewhere in nature. When all of the wild hens are gone, that means all of the Jews have died.”
“I never knew that!” Maria exclaims.
Zhislav says, “That explains it!” and he shrugs his shoulders. After that, the subject is dropped, and everybody asks to see what Zhislav has brought back from Lublin.
But I’m deeply shocked. I’ve never heard the legend about the wild hens. Am I, then, the last Jew alive on the face of the earth? If so, how long will it be before the Nazis discover where I’m hiding, and come to take me away? I struggle to keep my face like a mask, without any expression, knowing it could be very dangerous if they should suspect that I’m a Jew. Meanwhile, my insides are churning. I continue rocking the cradle where the twins are sleeping, and I wait miserably for the hours to pass, wondering if the Nazis will come that very night to arrest me.
I toss and turn in my bed, getting very little sleep, thinking about what to do.
“A fairy tale hero is always good to those who have been kind to him,” says a voice inside my head. “Do a good deed.”
As morning approaches, I come up with a plan. As soon as the family awakens, I make an offer to Maria, saying, “Why don’t I go down to the spring in the valley and bring back water?”
Naturally, Maria is very pleased with me for offering to go. This is the coldest winter that anyone can remember. The water has frozen in the well in our courtyard. In order to get water, we would have to melt snow, or someone would have to go to the spring. I see this as an opportunity to get out of the house and go off on my own for a while. So, I carry two buckets on a wooden yoke across my shoulders, and take the long walk to the spring to fetch water.
I wade through the heavy snow, sinking into it up to my knees with every step. But I’m happy to be out of the house and on my own for a while. As I get near the spring, I can see footprints in the snow. They look like the footprints of some kind of wild birds. My heart starts beating faster. I haven’t seen any wild hens, but I’m almost sure those footprints couldn’t have been made by any other animal. For the first time since Zhislav returned from the market in Lublin, I feel a ray of hope.
The spring is bordered by many trees, and their branches are heavy with snow and hanging low. I lift my eyes up, and, on the branches, I can see wild hens – not just a few, but many, many of them! I’m so full of joy that I begin to cry. It’s almost as if I’m seeing my relatives from Lvov again. Now I know that I’m not the only Jew left alive in the world!
As I fill the buckets with water, my own soul is filling up with hope and optimism. I stay for as long as I can to watch the wild hens, before returning to the farmhouse with the water. For the next few days, while the well is still frozen, I volunteer to fetch water from the spring every day. And, every day, I take the yoke and the buckets and set off to visit my companions, the wild hens - the representatives of my fellow Jews in the world.
When the water in the well unfreezes, I go back to dipping the buckets into the well in our courtyard to get water with a much lighter heart.
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