The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
In winter they would board the train to Vienna: Little Max, his parents, and his grandmother. They always traveled at night, and they always left on the same day, just past the middle of December. Little Max knew that it was the same day, year after year, and it confused him when he looked up one year and saw the moon was almost full. The previous year it had been only a half moon. When he asked about this, his father explained that the moon moved in its own way and didn’t care what day it was in Europe. This was the first time it had occurred to Little Max that the world did not conform to the order people made for it. You could arrange the toys on your shelves a certain way or ask your mother to wake you at a certain time, but the world did not follow suit. It seemed to him the moon should look the same every twentieth of December. There would be a rhythm to that, something comprehensible, but his father said it didn’t work that way. Max’s mother whispered to him from time to time, “Don’t believe everything your father says,” but the moon was indeed different from the last time they’d boarded the train, and this fact added greatly to Max’s opinion of his father’s wisdom.
You had to cross two borders to get from their village in Poland to Vienna, and Max would hear his father murmuring and passing papers to the officers on board the train in the dead of night. Max never fully woke up, and he was glad there were adults to take care of such things.
They boarded the train at night so they could be in Vienna by morning, sometimes at the very breaking of the dawn across the city’s verdigris domes and the flashing gold panes of its windows. They took either a car from the station or a carriage drawn by horses. The carriage was both colder and warmer, for you were in the open air, but you were also covered up with blankets. Max’s father would hold him in his arms, and the steam coming off the horses’ nostrils made Max feel warm even if he wasn’t. Whatever the conveyance, they wouldn’t get more than a few blocks in the bracing cold before stopping for hot chocolate from a cafe whose steamy windows resembled mother-of-pearl, and whose odors flowed onto the streets like the draft from an open door to paradise.
They spent every New Year’s at the home of Uncle Max, the Big Max for whom Little Max was named. There were actually two New Years. The other was in early fall, and you stayed home and went to synagogue, and people would pat you on the head if you knew a little Hebrew to say along with the prayers. New Year’s at Uncle Max’s in Vienna was much happier. Little Max could be forgiven for thinking that Christians were happier than Jews, for during the holidays in Vienna — where it seemed there were more Christians than there were Jews in the whole world — there was laughing and singing and pastries drowned in cream. The other New Year’s, at home, was solemn and confusing. Yet, at the end of it, you knew that something had passed away, and something else had begun, and that it was important.
Little Max had a row of animals lined up across the chest in his room: stuffed bears and elephants, a wooden cow and its calf, little mice made out of his mother’s sewing scraps, an iron wolf so heavy Max could hardly lift it. Most of the time they looked like the toys they were, but when moonlight touched them through the window, they looked almost alive, with shadows that moved like the twitching of their skins. Max touched the animals one by one before he went to sleep. It was important that he do this in the same order every night. He asked them to watch over him as he slept, and since he always awoke alive, he assumed they did. Sometimes in Vienna, at New Year’s, his father would buy him a new animal for his collection — a rabbit made of wood, a china cat — but Max liked the iron wolf best.
The whole family had lived together in Vienna before Little Max was born. But one day Big Max, who had a reputation for prophecy, had thrown down his newspaper and said, “I can read the handwriting on the wall.” He began to say this over and over, as though they would be convinced if he spoke the words enough. He told the rest of them to get out, to go to America or Australia.
Big Max was the older brother of Little Max’s father. One day Big Max had pulled his younger brother close, put his hands on his shoulders, and said, “Avrom, take our mother and your family and move away. Get out of the city. The fist will fall here first. Go hide in the countryside.” Avrom adored his brother and did as he said. He and Max’s mother and grandmother took little Max and moved to Poland. Now years had passed, and the fist hadn’t fallen. Avrom had a nice business, a jewelry store in a little village he had never heard of before he moved there. The Poles, with their blond hair, liked his necklaces and bracelets, and if anyone knew they were Jews, they never spoke of it. Sometimes it seemed to Little Max that his father wanted to come home. Avrom hinted at such a desire, perhaps just to hear his brother thunder, “I can read the handwriting on the wall!”
Besides Little Max’s parents, one of the aunts and a few cousins had left Vienna, but that was all. The rest had stayed, and Uncle Max kept his composure — most of the time.
“Why doesn’t Uncle Max leave?” Little Max asked his mother when she explained all of this to him.
His mother answered, “He’s such a big shot, Vienna would fall apart without him.” Little Max believed that, and strode proudly through the city holding his uncle’s big, gloved hand.
Little Max had heard Big Max recite the prophecy a few times, in solemn moments when the family was huddled in the middle of the big house in Vienna, away from the windows, and the adults were speaking in low voices. Suddenly out of the murmur would come Uncle Max’s voice, loud, accented like the cantor’s, and a little frightening: “I can read the handwriting on the wall.” He meant for his voice to be frightening then. He repeated the prophecy whenever his brother or his sister-in-law or one of the hard-to-keep-straight cousins suggested that they could relax their vigilance a little, that maybe they could trust the Austrians or the Poles; it was the 1930s, after all, and the age of pogrom was over. Big Max would get tears in his dark eyes and shout, “I can read the handwriting on the wall!” and everyone would keep silent for a while. Then Grandmother would get up for another glass of brandy, and the rustling of her skirts would break the spell.
Little Max’s mother said that one day, when things were better, he was going to have a little sister, but not now, not while everybody was going on about the situation in Europe. Their village was in Europe, and Vienna was in Europe. Little Max thought Jerusalem the Golden might be in Europe too, but if so, it was a long way off.
One year the family did not go to Vienna for New Year’s. Soon after that the windows in the family’s jewelry store were smashed. Max and his father and mother and grandmother hid in the house for a week. After it grew quiet, Max went back to school. And then the war started. Max arranged the animals on his windowsill so that if the Russians or the Germans came to the window, they would have to deal with his ferocious guardians first. His father said they were lucky: the armies passed a little to the north, though for a while Max could hear a great booming in the distance, and the whine of planes flying over to bomb other towns. Then the fighting ended, and soldiers came in trucks with red stars painted on their sides. For a couple of years, nothing changed.
Little Max had been on a train only with his mother and his father and his grandmother to go to Vienna each winter when he was small. But this time the soldiers made him get on the train without his mother and his father. It was not winter. It was hot, and the soldiers smelled of sweat. His grandmother was there and held Max by the hand, but she seemed frightened, and he couldn’t get her to explain anything. She would not tell him where they were going. Maybe she didn’t know. Whenever Little Max spoke, she would put her finger to her lips and say, “Shhhhh.”
Mr. Voytecki, the butcher, was on the train too, with his wife and daughter. When Max asked Mr. Voytecki where they were going, the man made the same gesture his grandmother had and said, “Hush now, little man. You don’t want to know where you’re going. You’ll know soon enough.” Max thought maybe this was what the handwriting on the wall said: “Shhhhh.”
The soldiers had stood in front of the class while the nun pointed to Max and to Greta Voytecki and eight or ten others. The soldiers rounded them up and herded them out the door. One jabbed the tip of his rifle into the back of Lev, the mechanic’s son, who was the biggest boy in class. Lev was big but cried easily, and the tears looked foolish on his manly face. “I’m not supposed to leave until my mother comes for me,” he said in Polish, and when someone translated for the soldiers, they all laughed. Their laughter made Little Max afraid. It was then he understood that something terrible was happening.
The camp was far away. The train passed through towns that had been bombed, and Max was glad that he didn’t live in one of them. The soldiers had filled Max’s hands with papers and told him not to lose them. Of course he did lose them, but while they were still on the train a boy a little younger than himself died, and Max took the boy’s papers out of his jacket, and nobody seemed to notice. This made Max feel interchangeable, as though the dead boy and himself were identical.
New arrivals disrupted order at the camp. Rifles fired day and night. There were angry shouts and screams of agony. There was laughter — from one side of the camp only. There were many languages. The number of prisoners dwindled, though, and by autumn something like peace had returned to the guards’ demeanor. They could relax a little when there weren’t so many to watch. You learned quickly which guards were kind and which were cruel. You learned who among the prisoners had turned informant, and if they spoke to you, you pretended to be deaf or stupid.
Grandmother had disappeared the first few weeks they were in the camp. Max no longer asked where she had gone. He’d learned. He understood what was meant by “the handwriting on the wall.” He imagined it blazed like a red-hot length of barbed wire across the wall of the squat gray building where Grandmother had entered and never come out. Max had asked Mr. Voytecki if that was where the old folks lived, but Mr. Voytecki hadn’t answered.
Two shapely trees grew by the commandant’s quarters. Their leaves turned gold in autumn, and the prisoners were marched past and expected to comment on how lovely the commandant’s trees were. Max couldn’t be seen over the adults around him, so he was free not to speak, though he thought the trees were beautiful indeed, shimmering clouds of gold so tall that if you climbed into their branches, you would be able to leap over the high fence into the farmlands beyond the barbed wire and the palisades.
Then it was winter. The first few days of frost were terrible, but a woman gave Max a coat that had once belonged to her son. In the pocket was a badge the son had won for reciting poetry. Max tried to give the badge back to the woman, but she waved it away and turned her face to the wall. So many had died that the thin soup came up a little higher on the sides of his cup, and it was hot, as the cooks kept warm by standing beside the cooking fire. Little Max didn’t know it, but sometimes there was a carrot in his soup because he was pretty to look at. Some were alive because of what they knew or what skills they had. Some merely escaped notice. Some, like Max, were hovered over by the guardian angel of beauty.
There had been a children’s barracks, but whooping cough and then some other plague had ripped through it, and the children were almost all gone. Max had coughed until his sides ached, but then he had gotten better. He wandered over to the barracks where Mr. Voytecki stayed. Max didn’t think Mr. Voytecki was a Jew, but maybe he had done something else to anger the men who ran the camps. Mr. Voytecki’s daughter Greta had become a girlfriend of the guards. Max had never thought she was pretty, but they did, and now and then she wore a bit of finery that Max recognized had once belonged to someone else. Mrs. Voytecki was gone, but Mr. Voytecki was alive, perhaps because he was strong and could work, or maybe Greta had put in a good word for him. He was lonely by then, and when Max came to him, he didn’t wave him away. He gave Max food if he had some. When Max crept in to sleep by his side, Mr. Voytecki moved over to give him room and said nothing. Once, when a guard was dragging Max away by the arm, Mr. Voytecki came out and shouted, “Pervert!” and the guard let Max go. Max sat for a long time in the snow where the guard had dropped him, wondering what pervert meant. He hardly got cold anymore, or hungry. Maybe that’s what it meant. Maybe Mr. Voytecki had been warning the guard that Max was no longer real.
Max was not always sure what was real. A doctor might have told him he was experiencing hallucinations, or the odd clarity of starvation, but there was no doctor. Max thought the world had melted, and the wall between real life and dreams was no longer firm. He heard voices just beyond the camp fence, tiny voices, like the chittering of mice, or something deep underground. If he went and looked, though, there was nothing, and he couldn’t spend much time near the fence; the guards might see him and think he was plotting something.
One day the trains began to arrive again. The guards sorted the new prisoners into groups and signaled to them to move one way or the other. Some carried suitcases or household goods. Those who had been in the camp for a while thought that was funny. Steam came from the guards’ mouths as they barked orders. Max didn’t watch the newcomers for very long; they made him sad, and he knew that something sad was going to happen, and more people meant that the guards would be on edge. The sorting and shouting continued well into the night. It was winter, and night came early. Max wandered to the edge of the camp. The moon was rising. The moon must have risen on many such nights, but Max had never noticed it, or else some nights it had given up rising on a scene of such sadness and desolation. It was not quite round yet, but it was bright and made the trampled snow at the edge of the camp seem beautiful.
At the perimeter of the camp, Max heard the tiny voices again. He looked across the snow to the edge of the forest, and then back at the ground nearby. A mouse was scurrying from one dent in the snow to another, foraging for seeds perhaps. It struck Max that the mouse must be cold and frightened, too, that this whole part of the world might be a prison camp, for people and animals.
“Here, mousie,” he said. His own voice startled him. He almost never spoke anymore.
The mouse stopped on a ridge of snow with one tiny paw up. The moon was low in the sky so that the mouse threw a tremendous shadow, from where her paws met the snow almost to the ragged edge of Max’s shoe. The mouse appeared to be saying something. Max thought that if only he were smaller, or if only the mouse would come a little closer, he could hear. Maybe she couldn’t come closer to anyone than the tip of her shadow. Max started to move toward her, but she disappeared under a ridge of snow and did not appear again.
When Max told Mr. Voytecki that he’d met a mouse at the edge of the camp and the mouse had spoken to him, Mr. Voytecki held Max and whispered in his ear, “It’s all right, little one. It won’t be long now.” Mr. Voytecki was crying. Max never could figure out the mysterious, lugubrious emotions of adults. Maybe the man was happy. Maybe he was sad. Maybe he was thinking of Mrs. Voytecki, who had disappeared into the same building as Max’s grandmother, even though she wasn’t very old.
Rifles went off every hour of the day. Max had stopped jumping when he heard them. As someone from the barracks had said, “If you hear the shot, you’re not dead.”
Once, Mr. Voytecki became sick and lay on his cot all day. When Max touched his hand, he smiled but did not get up. “Don’t tell the guards. If they know I’m sick . . . well, you know what happens then.” Max sat by the cot for a while, but Mr. Voytecki didn’t ask for water or touch Max’s hair as he sometimes did, so Max finally wandered off.
The moon kept getting rounder and rounder, night after night, and now Max walked to the edge of the camp to look at it. In the long shadows of the moon, sometimes far away at the edge of the forest where they could barely be discerned, Max saw animals. Rabbits appeared, and a pheasant dragging its long tail across the snow. A wandering cow lowed piteously at the edge of the camp until someone came for it. Max had forgotten such animals were meant to be eaten. He had forgotten anything was to eat at all. There were so many prisoners now, and he couldn’t fight hard enough to get his share. His mother used to feed him three times a day or more. It must have been unnecessary, for he couldn’t remember his last meal, and he was still walking around like a little machine. If he blew hard, he saw mist in the air in front of his mouth, and that let him know he was alive. The animals had mist in front of their mouths. They were alive, too.
He closed his eyes and tried to line the wild animals up as he had the toys on the chest in his room, but they wouldn’t stay in place. They crept back into the darkness, watching. This was good. This was what they were meant to do. If he ever got home, he would put the animals in the far corners of his room, and the rooms of his mother and his unborn sister, to keep watch.
He went to tell Mr. Voytecki of the bright eyes and misty breaths in the snow beyond the camp. The animals were speaking to him. He could almost make out their words now, almost understand their language after so many nights of listening. When Max got to the barracks, Mr. Voytecki was not on his cot. Someone else was: a woman holding a baby to her breast. The mother looked at Max with wild eyes, as though he might hurt them.
“Mr. Voytecki,” he said.
The woman said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. They just put me here. I didn’t know!”
Max wondered if he had the strength to look for Mr. Voytecki. Maybe if Max just sat still and waited, he would come back. Max found a corner to curl up in, where he could see the woman and the baby on the cot, and the door Mr. Voytecki would come through, if he came back.
If anyone had been watching Max, they would have seen the white plume from his mouth grow thin, and thinner, and disappear, and then reappear again, so thin you had to lean close to tell if it was there at all.
It was night when Max awoke. He could tell by the colors moving on the floor of the barracks, ice blue and snow white shapes, that the moon was rising. In order to stand, he had to push against the floor with both hands, working his way slowly up the wall. He was so weak he had to concentrate for a moment to control his legs.
The woman on the cot was watching him. She seemed beautiful now. She hadn’t before. She motioned to him. Her baby was asleep on her lap, and Mr. Voytecki’s green blanket was wrapped around her shoulders. Max came and stood by her side. She felt around in the coats she’d layered on herself to keep warm until she pulled out something bright in the bluish darkness. She held it in the light of the window. It was an orange. The pungent scent of it electrified the room. Max breathed it in until he was drunk with the sharp smell of citrus. The woman dug her nails in at the top and the bottom of the fruit and pulled it in two. Half she laid on her lap beside her child. Half she handed to Max.
Max ran into the darkness to devour his half of the orange. It went down his throat like cool fire and lay in his stomach like one of the full meals his grandmother had made long ago. Strength flowed back into his feet and hands. Max jammed the peels into his torn pocket, so he could take them out later and smell them. He sucked the last residue of juice from his fingertips as he ran toward the fence, where he knew the animals were waiting in the moonlit trenches of the snow. He heard their voices, from far off this time. He thought he understood.
When he got to the fence, a wolf stood on the outside in the snow. A wolf, or a great dog, Max didn’t know which. It cast a familiar, friendly shadow in the moonlight.
“Wolfie?” Max whispered to the creature beyond the fence. “I remember you. You were my favorite.”
The wolf indeed seemed made of iron. Only the pant of steam from its mouth betrayed that it was alive.
“Why have they done this?” the wolf asked.
“I don’t know,” said Max. “Because we are Jews.”
Had the wolf spoken? Max wasn’t sure. The voice had sounded like Uncle Max, or perhaps the way Uncle Max’s voice would sound at the edge of a deep forest in winter.
“Mr. Voytecki says that animals don’t talk,” Max said. “Mr. Voytecki says that it is almost over.”
The wolf said nothing. An image entered Max’s mind: Darkness. Rough wood. The still cold of indoors. The smell of huddled bodies. He was not out in the snow at all. He was in the barracks, still huddled in the corner. He had not gotten up. There was no wolf, no orange. The woman with the baby was watching him die. She was sad, but she could not help. She could only watch.
Max was standing in a drift of snow under the blue moon outside the fence. The wolf was there. Where the moon struck his fur, he glistened like snow. The wolf looked back over his shoulder, as though listening for something in the fields or the forest beyond. Then he began to walk, slowly, purposefully, as a dog does when it means for a human to follow. Max hesitated. He thought he should turn and go back for Mr. Voytecki, or for the woman on the cot who had sat and watched him die. But he didn’t.
When the wolf was sure Max was following, he began to trot deliberately toward the forest, keeping to the shadows. Max looked down and saw footprints, many of them. The footprints kept to the dark edges of the path and did not touch the snow that shone bright every few minutes under the beams of the searchlights. Maybe the wolf had led others from the camp. Or maybe he had come for Max alone. He was big and swift and knew the way.
“Wolfie,” the boy said.
The animal trotted faster now, as though he didn’t mean for the boy to keep up. When Max’s feet touched the shadowed edge of the forest floor, he couldn’t see the wolf anymore. Max turned to look back at the camp, with its lights and roofs. Someone passing at night might think for a moment it was an ordinary little town. But the barbed wire and the trenches would give it away, even when the rifles had fallen silent for a while.
The orange lay within him like a tiny fire.
He reached into the forest, so that his hand was in shadow but his arm still shone pale with moonlight. Then he entered the woods. It was dark, but not very, for the moonlight poured between the branches and welled through gaps in the canopy of trees. Which direction should he go? There was darkness one way, the lights of farmhouses or perhaps a village the other. The darkness, he thought. Hold to the darkness a little longer. He ran. The orange burned within him. The forest was alive with voices and animals’ eyes blazing in the moonlight. He thought he could understand what they said. He could, almost. Yes, he was certain he knew what they meant. He kept running, deeper into the woods, the moonlight breaking through whenever he feared he was lost.
David Brendan Hopes