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Jewish short story: ‘Beginning in Autumn’

Editor’s Note: From time to time, San Diego Jewish World will publish works of fiction such as the short story below. Writers may submit a story, poem or essay on Jewish themes or subjects via email to [email protected].  There is no pay if your submissions are published, only the pleasure of being able to share them with others. 

By Howard B. Kaplan

Howard B. Kaplan

Howard B. Kaplan

He had chosen this land fifteen years earlier, because it was close to the ocean. There was always a way to escape, if you lived near the ocean. When he had bought the old Ashville farm, the real estate agent, a fortyish, skinny yenta with a beaked nose had pecked at him with one question after another.

“Why a farm here in Maine of all places? You don’t look like much of a farmer. And why do you want to be near the bay?”

“With me, it is been good always by the ocean. I like specially the big rocks, and the waves also.”

“The   worst  soil is near the water, don’t you know? There’s too much salt in the air. The ground’s too hard, and not good enough to grow vegetables. And the fog will block the sunlight. You’ll be lucky just to break even.”

Rosen had turned his head away from the woman, and had looked up at the brilliant, blue sky. The air had been crisp and clean. Newly fallen snow had sparkled in the sunlight. He had scooped up a handful and had taken half of it into his mouth. As the crystals dissolved into chilling water, he had felt renewed. Turning back to her he had answered: “So, who needs to break even?”             :

Rosen felt the biting rain against his forehead. He buttoned up his Levi jacket, and pulled one Mcintosh apple after another off the lower branches of the tree, dropping them into the bushel basket at his feet. His hands became numb and his shoulders and back ached, but still he worked until there was no daylight left.

As he carried the last basket of apples toward the cellar, he saw a small figure dart from behind his house and run toward the orchard, carrying an armful of apples. His first thought was that it was a dybbuk. From the time he had moved onto the farm fifteen years ago until the past few days, the Spirits had stayed away from him. Suddenly, from nowhere, their voices returned. First their cries invaded his·sleep, and then he heard their wailing in his orchard while he worked. And now they showed themselves to him! Maybe he should make a winter offering.

We are their playthings, he thought as he threw open the cellar doors. He heard the Spirits crying in a child’s voice. He shoved his bushel of apples into the corner and hurried inside the house.

The night darkened. There was no moon, no stars. The trees, hills, boulders and ground blurred together. The rain rode the winds and exploded against his windows and roof, and the sea waves thundered. But Rosen only heard the wailing. It was the same crying he had heard in his youth. The Spirits made those cries live,  he thought, made them travel time and distances to come to him.

Standing at his living room window he heard again the crying of a train load of children, the prayers of old men bowing toward the eastern wall of the synagogue, and the giggling, sing song voices of young girls.

“Away! Leave me,”  he   yelled. And then he began chanting Kaddish. prayed.

Rosen had been eight years old the last time he had prayed.

*

He had been loaded onto a cattle train, crammed into a corner, and pressed against his mother. The box car was stuffed with praying, wailing people from his village. Whole families. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents. There was no room to stretch, to see. As the train lurched out of the station, the prayers and crying grew louder. He buried his face in his mother’s black wool coat. The smell of her damp coat and the weight of her body comforted him.

During the second night of the journey the old woman leaning against him collapsed to the floor, dead. Five others died during that night. Two men kicked a small hole in the outside wall of his corner, and shoved the dead out into the darkness.

Carl’s mother whispered into his ear. “Mein kind, mein libbe kind, you must through the wall go. Next, when the train slows.” She kissed him. Her lips were cold and her eyes closed. She squeezed him tightly to her, and he felt her body, fragile sticks, shake against him. Her thin fingers stroked his face.

“Now,”  she said.

“But I’m not dead yet, mamma! I’m not dead!”

Mein kind, mein little love, listen to your mamma. The others believe from the stories about special labor camps. They think its a good place with plenty of food to eat and big, important work to do. They are fools. I heard from other stories. stories of evil men. Stories of such bad things. Nobody ever comes back to their family from such places. A person goes, and that is the end. Let the others here believe. Fools! Even your papa wants to believe. You must go. Mein kind. Go now and remember your mamma and papa,” she whispered. And she pushed him through the hole.

Tumbling from the train into the black night, he sobbed to himself, “Mamma I’m not dead, not dead yet. Mamma, mamma.”  His head  struck the frozen ground. Hours later  he regained his senses repeating ” But mamma, I’m not dead, not dead …”

The Spirits  answered, “Carl Rosen, you are dead.”

 

*

For forty odd years he had fought the Spirits of the other world. When he had wandered Europe hiding in fields or barns and stealing slop from hogs in order to stay alive, the Spirits had pulled at him. After the war, first in  public houses and later in Red Cross orphanages, they had been joined to him. Not until he had come to· Maine had he been able  to escape them. And now the Spirits had returned.

“Why now? Why come for me here, here on mein land? No killing been here by me. What is it you want by me? It is been so long!” Rosen shouted.

There was no reply. The wind hurled rain mixed with sleet against his windows. The voices called to him to come out into the night. He grabbed his pruning knife and flashlight, threw the front door open and again shouted “It is been so long!”

“There is no length to time,” the Spirits answered.

Rosen clutched the knife as he lit his way toward the orchard. He sucked in deep breaths of air as if inflating his bulk would multiply his strength. Before him Rosen saw the huddled figures; he heard the rattling noise of the train, and smelled the stench of the sick. he heat from their bodies rubbed against him.  Their sweat dripped into his eyes.  He stumbled against the root of an apple tree, and struggled to keep his balance. Then he heard the broken wails, a death chant.  So soft, it was almost a whisper, as if the Spirits did not want him to hear.

Rosen moved toward the sound.  The cries and prayers of the train passengers twirled around him. He heard the scraping of their shoes on the wood floor, staring at each other as mothers held daughters and sons, and husbands held wives.  Rosen dropped to his knees.  He stuck the flashlight in his right back pocket and, clenching the knife in his left hand, crawled toward the moans.

His free had bumped against something yielding and clammy.  he pushed harder, and it moved. Rosen jumped to his feet and raised the knife. He grabbed the flashlight out of his pocket and pointed it at his target.  The beams shone on the sobbing face of a young boy.

Rosen stared at the boy.  He was thirteen, maybe fourteen, and his eyes, blinking against the light, were dark balls set deep into his cheeks.  His face was drawn, like the mamma did not have enough food to make, Rosen thought.  He dropped the knife, scooped the thin body into his arms, and carried him into the house.

The boy had been beaten by the rain and cold.  His soaked jeans clung to his body like wet plastered.  He shivered and his legs shook as Rosen stripped off his clothes.  His skin was chalk white except for the circle of red rashes that blotched his stomach and chest.  Rosen wrapped a wool blanket tightly around the boy, and carried him to the living room sofa to be warmed by the fireplace’s jumping flames.  When five minutes had passed and the boy was still shaking with cold and fever, Rosen covered him with the down comforter from his bed.

So strange, so strange he thought. In this country to find a lone child wandering in the wilderness.  And such a good looking boy too.  Where is the mamma and papa?  During the war been plenty of wild children, wandering in alleys and back streets, living in the fields of the peasants’ farms, and stealing food from animals.  Bu now?  Such a thing is a shande.

*

He was thirteen and had to sleep hidden in the alleys of Gdansk, Poland. the March rains burrowed into the dirt streets and washed the red-brown dirt against the wood frame shops.  The air was painted pewter gray by low thick clouds and the wind carved curves and circles into the muddied road.  He had not eaten for two days, and the hunger in his belly made him light-headed. His hands were crusted with dirt, and dried blood caked over the small cracks on his lips.

The Spirits tortured him with imitations of his mother’s voice: “Remember your mamma, remember…”

He was drawn to the building first by the shelter of the overhanging roof.  The the heat of the building’s walls against his back eased his pain and warmed him.  More than anything else though, it was the smells of the baking breads and cakes that made him risk exposure.  His starving body ached for warm, fresh food.  He fought off the lightheadedness in time to duck behind the shop just when the baker, a tall blond man with a pointed goatee, swung open the doors.  Rosen watched him carry out week-old stale bread and throw it into the garbage cans.  As soon as the baker returned to the shop, Rosen grabbed what he could from the cans and ran off toward the woods.

Rosen returned the next day.  When he reached the rear of the bakery, he noticed that the seller door had been left open.  And on the second step, he saw a loaf of steaming black bread and a bottle of milk. Rosen looked around, his heart pounding wildly.  Trembling, he approached the food and stuffed piece after piece of bread into his mouth.  He quickly guzzled the bottle of milk. Then he ran off.

He returned the next two days to find the same gift.  The third day, he brought sticks and wood from the forest for the baker.

The first night that he slept in the cellar, the baker came in, set down a bowl of soup for him, and then turned to leave. Awakened by the baker’s movement, Rosen tried to utter some words of gratitude and beg. for protection. But he had not spoken for two years and was only able to make a gargling, grunting noise. The baker turned and stared at him. Rosen covered his mouth with his hands. He began to cry.

“Well, well! So you have no voice?” the baker asked. Carl, still crying, nodded.

”It is often best  not  to talk. And  safer. Do you understand?” the baker asked.

 

*

Rosen fell asleep in the rocking chair watching the boy and remembering his mother. Later he awoke to find the boy staring at him.

“So boy, what is doing with you in my field?” he asked. The child looked pale and scared, but he did not look away.

“Didn’t,– know it was your field. Only wanted a few apples. What’s the big deal? You can’t eat ’em all, anyway.”

“From who you been running? A boy like you. Good looking. A real American boy. You should be with your mamma and papa. ”       .i

“What are you, mister? You look like someone from an old picture or something.”

Rosen  smiled at the  boy, and stepped closer. The boy cowered in the corner of the sofa and wrapped the blanket around him tightly, like a cocoon. Rosen reached  out and felt his forehead.

“Your name, boy. What are you called?”

“Todd. Todd Smith.”

“Where is your mama and papa? Where do you come from, boy?”

Rosen stood over Todd waiting for an answer. The boy fidgeted and began rocking back and forth. Then he held the blanket up in front of his face, and began to sob quietly.

“So, Mr. Todd Smith, what am I to do with a boy who just cries and will not talk? There is nothing to do but give you back to the Spirits. Let you go back into the night. Just like you came, you shall leave.”

The boy slipped the blanket from his face. “I didn’t ask you for nothin’. Don’t want nothin’. I ain’t got no mother. No father. You, you know what I mean?” his voice shook as he talked.

“You have no people?   An  American boychik like you. Makes no sense. In Europe after the war was orphans. But should not be here. Not now for sure.”

“I live in foster homes. Never had a daddy. My mother’s dead. Died when I was little. When people. find out I can’t  read, can’t learn how, they send me back to the county.   Every time, the same thing. But I ain’t gonna go back there. No more. You can’t make me. I’m gonna make it to Boston. That’s where. I can take care of myself o.k. Don’t need any of them.”

“Why is it you can not learn from reading?”

“Huh? What’d you say?”

“Reading. Everyone must learn from reading. You don’t try? Your teachers, maybe you do not listen and make   from the lessons?”

“No. It’s just that… I’m too stupid. They all say the same thing in their big shot way. I think that… Maybe I’m crazy.

“What crazy? You do not have a mama or papa does not make you crazy.”

“I don’t see right. I can’t tell letters right. The letters all look alike. I don’t see them right.” Todd’s voice broke as he talked. His face muscles tightened and he squeezed his hands into tight fists.

Rosen concentrated on the boy’s words. He remembered boys and girls in the Red Cross orphanages struggling to learn. But who could concentrate on words and numbers then? It was not possible. And later it was not so different here for him. Learning English, reading and writing specially, was not such an easy thing.

Rosen waited for Todd to stop fidgeting and then said, “Sometimes reading not been easy for some boys, and for plenty girls also. I know from such things. I was by plenty orphanages. It is hard, very hard sometime.”

Rosen stepped to the fireplace and stoked the burning logs. He studied the low flames and jumping sparks. As he gave the logs a last poke, he turned back to the boy and said, “So, Todd Smith, could be Boston been a good place. Rest. Stay warm until your fever goes. I will make apple porridge for me and for you also. It will be besser to leave from here with no sickness. With no hunger … I know from what I been talking.”

The next morning as he dressed, Carl Rosen thought about the boy. So how do you find out such things? he wondered. Police, important bureaucrats, they know what is what. But a stranger, as it is said, in a strange land knows only how to find trouble.

Rosen left Todd sleeping on the sofa and walked two miles along the highway to the public telephone and made the call anyway. He was told that Todd Smith was a runaway from the county orphanage. When the voice on the other end of the line had asked who he was and where he had seen the boy, Rosen hung up and walked back home.

Rosen entered the house through the side kitchen door. He closed the door carefully, trying not to disturb the boy in case he was still sleeping. He pulled off his jacket and hung it on the door handle. As he stepped into the kitchen he noticed that the dishes he had let accumulate in the sink for three days were washed. He picked up a plate and inspected it. Rosen walked into the living room and looked around. The boy had brought in the firewood and stacked it in a neat pile beside the fireplace.

“So Todd Smith, you been feeling besser?” he asked.

“Where’ve you been, anyway? You call the cops on me, or what?”

Rosen looked at the boy for a moment, then smiled.

“Called the police, for what? For a few apples? Besides, who is to know? Maybe you are in mine house. Maybe you been gone. You are a boy like magic.  You been from nowhere, then you are here. Who is to know?”

“I don’t know what you’re. talking about,” Todd answered. “Where you from, anyway?”

“Come from Poland. Was many years before you been born. Much different from here.” Rosen walked over to the boy and placed his hands on Todd’s shoulders. So skinny. It felt like boys he had fought with over hog’s food. A boy must have more fat, more muscle. It’s been a big mishmosh this country. “Could be sometime I tell you stories from· it,” Rosen said

“I been walking and thinking from boys,” he began. “From you for sure. A boy who thinks he been born stupid. Who hears from such a thing? It’s a sin on their heads to give to you such­ ideas. Boys been  stupid who do not think. Stupid for boys who do not feel things for themselves, for people. Maybe you been thinking too many things. Maybe you been too much with   feelings. Maybe you should learn from different ways without reading. Maybe reading is for later. That is what I been thinking.”

Rosen  sat down on the sofa next to Todd and pulled off his shoes. He stretched and grabbed his heavy leather work boots from in front of the fireplace. “Time to bring in more apples and some pears. Soon the frost will make mine crops bad.”

Rosen pulled the laces of his right boot loose and pushed his foot inside. He yanked at the leather above the heel and wrestled his foot forward. With his head down and back bent, he yanked on his other boot and stared at the laces. “You go to Boston, maybe.   That is all right. … But maybe you want to be by me, on  mine land, until you been stronger.  Maybe that be besser.”

Rosen stood up from the  sofa,  and  looked  at  Todd.  When  the boy did not speak, Rosen said: “Mine coat is by the kitchen.” He turned  from  the boy  and  slowly walked  away.

Outside, Rosen smelled the sweet mixing of dried leaves and moist earth. The  sky  was  deep  blue,  the  air  clean  and  crisp. The sun warmed his face, and  he  felt  strong.  He  looked  back  at the house. Todd was struggling toward Rosen carrying four empty bushel  baskets  in his  arms.

A strange boy empty in a land of so many things, Rosen thought. Then he remembered his mamma and thought that maybe it was a good  thing that there is no  length to time. As  Todd  came closer, Rosen became  aware  that the  Spirits were singing,  and Rosen  smiled.

*
Kaplan, today a San Diego resident, first published this story in the Winter 1990 edition of Peregrine, published by Amherst Writers & Artists Press, Inc.  Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)




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2 Responses to “Jewish short story: ‘Beginning in Autumn’”

  1. Maria Kaplan says:

    I love this beautiful story. Howard Kaplan is a kind and generous man and a brilliant writer. My children are blessed to have such a wonderful Grandpa!

    –Maria Kaplan, Southlake, Texas

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  1. […] A short story, Beginning in Autumn, by TIS Men’s Club member Howard B. Kaplan appears today on the San Diego Jewish World website, http://www.sdjewishworld.com.   Here is a link to Howard’s engrossing story, which is focused on the life of a Holocaust survivor: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/2016/05/25/jewish-short-story-beginning-autumn/ […]


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