Side A Fiction: “To See the Moon” by Marlene Olin

To See the Moon

What she hates most are the lights. There’s no dawn. No dusk. No silver sliver falling through the slats. Instead a light as bright as a photographer’s flash burns day and night. She’s almost sleeping. She would die for some blessed sleep. Instead she hears the squeak squeak squeak of a nurse’s shoes.

“Put a note on her chart. Esther Lipinsky. She’s refusing intubation again.”

And the noise. Did she mention the noise? The beeps. The alarms. The frantic whispers.

“Mrs. Lipinksy. Can I get you a sip of water? Mrs. Lipinsky. Remember that you need to breathe.”

She’s landed on an alien planet. Only she’s the alien and spacemen hover. The shields. The suits. Only their eyes and voices set them apart. The black one, the one with squishy shoes and worried eyes, holds up some sort of mask.

“The CPAP’s harmless,” she says. “Really. Pretend that you’re swimming, Mrs. Lipinsky. Pretend that you’re coming up for air.”

Her mouth tries to speak but the words stay trapped inside. No! No! No! She waves. No! No! No! But she’s drowning. And the deeper she sinks, the more the male nurse scolds. Some sort of accent. Two eyebrows linked like one long moustache.

“Keep your hands down, Esther. You’re swatting the doctors. You want we tie you up?”

If she turned sideways, if her nose edged closer to the keyhole, if she jammed her foot hard into the wood, it was possible to breathe. Esther was ten years old. It was her forty-fifth day in the cabinet. The city was Vilna. The year 1941.

I got your cell phone, Mrs. Lipinsky. Your daughter wants to talk.”

It had been their favorite hiding spot. First, you put the key in the lock. Then, you pushed through the clothes. Behind the clothes, if you looked closely, lay another door.

Their father was tall. Taciturn. Dapper with a smart goatee. “It was your mother’s idea,” he said. Then he offered the smallest of smiles.

The nurse holds the phone inches from her face. “Mrs. Lipinksy. I can’t stand here all day holding the phone. You gonna say hello or what?” 

“You see,” said their father. “When you push one door, there’s another. Clever, right? Then through the wall there’s an attic. The tiniest of attics. A cubbyhole big enough for two.” Then he held up a single finger. “Tell no one. Not your friends. Not your cousin Yanky. Not your Aunt Mindel. It’s a secret. Yes?”

 “We’re like conspirators!” said her brother. “Like pirates hiding in a cave!”

“My children,” said their father. “My brave brave children.”

On the screen, a face is speaking. It’s an image in a funhouse mirror, slightly familiar yet startlingly stretched.

“Let me show you how to slide the deadbolt,” said her father. “What a clever cabinet! Do you know another cabinet that locks from the inside and outside both?”

Only later did Esther understand.

When the soldiers came, she grabbed the key and rushed toward the wardrobe. Hurry, she said to her brother. But when her foot stepped into the attic, no one followed. Instead she heard lamps falling and dishes crashing. Her mother shrieking. A cry and then a thud.

The black nurse is persistent. “You’re eighty-nine years old, Mrs. Lipinksy. This virus is screwing with my scoreboard. You know what I mean? I’m planning on getting you to ninety.”

After that day—silence. She had no idea where the soldiers took them. All she knew was that people disappeared. First the Schwarkophs down the street. Then the Bernheim boys from her school. But she was safe in the attic. It was like camping in the attic. When she lay down, her head touched one wall, her toes another. Her mother had left a loaf of bread. A jar of jam. A pitcher of water freshly filled. She slept on a nest of old blankets. The first few days swept by.

 “Your oxygen level’s at 77, Mrs. Lipinksy. You ought to be dead. Why aren’t you dead?”

Then one morning she dreamt of woodpeckers peck peck pecking at her head. When she woke, the floor was shaking. At first she waited. Hypnotized. Paralyzed. Listening to the voices below. Then all at once she remembered to slide the inside locks.

It takes five people to turn her on her stomach. And suddenly, like a miracle, she can breathe. A bird inside her chest starts fluttering, its wings thwacking hard against her ribs. 

 Esther was incredulous. A new family was moving into her home! During the next few weeks, thanks to the keyhole, each disembodied voice became a face. Another taciturn father. A mother who fussed and fidgeted, directing the workmen like an orchestra conductor. Put that here. No over there. Higher. Lower. Under. But instead of a son and a daughter, there were three boys. Of their ages, Esther only guessed.

My face! She wants to tell them. Please don’t cover my face!

When the mother tried to unlock the wardrobe, Esther felt Death’s hands on her neck. For hours, the mother tried to pry it open, never guessing there was an inside lock as well. At last, the father shouted. “Leave it alone, Hildy! That armoire is worth a fortune! You’re going to crack the mahogany! Such mahogany doesn’t come cheap!”

The old woman’s sliding. Let’s get some plasma in that port. Stat.”

That keyhole was her portal to sanity. During the day, she could see the light climbing up and down the walls. In the evenings everything was black. The walls would shrink, her throat would tighten, her very smell made her gag. Then she’d glance out the keyhole and wait. If only she could grab the sky! See the moon! Touch the stars!

Then finally a ray of sunshine would puddle the floor. A puddle would turn to a pond. The pond an ocean of light. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. One day bled into another. Somehow time pushed on. 

People are always crying. The man who was next to her, stark nude except for the tubes, died the night before. While the machines still hummed, they let his wife and a priest say goodbye.

“I’ll see him again, right?” said the wife. “They’ll let me see him again?”

“No,” said the priest. “It’s too dangerous.”

It’s an open secret. The bodies are carted to the morgue. Then after the morgue, the mortuaries. There’s no rending of clothes. No heartfelt speeches. Both the dead and the living are abandoned. Forsaken. Bereft.

The black nurse looked like she was sobbing. Meanwhile the male nurse opined. “What’d she expect? A fucking Mass? Casseroles and homemade pies?”

Esther learned their schedule. What time the father went to work. What mornings the mother did her shopping. When the boys were dropped off at school. Every day she got a little braver. First she stole some food. Then she helped herself to a book. A pad. A pen.

The wife was crazy with grief. “I want to hug him,” she cried. “I want to kiss him.” Then she started taking off the mask, the goggles, the gloves.

Each day she grew bolder and bolder. Then on the forty-fifth day her luck ran out.

The priest panicked. He turned to the nurses with a shout. “For the love of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Please help this lady now.”

But life takes twist and turns. No matter how much you brace yourself, each path is uncertain, each step a surprise.

The father and mother were unexpectedly kind. They always wanted a daughter, they told her. So they let her live in her hiding place until the war was over. They brought her food, books, clothes. And after the war, they helped her search for her family.

It was years before the truth surfaced. Her parents dead in the pits of Ponary. Her brother gassed in Auschwitz. And though her story could have been sadder, not a day passed by when she didn’t miss her father’s smile, her mother’s touch, her brother’s laugh.

She moved to New York. Married. Had children of her own. But like a ship without an anchor, she felt adrift. There were no gravesites she could visit. No dates she could commemorate. No prayers that eased her pain.

“It’s your daughter again, Mrs. Lipinsky.”

And suddenly the face on the screen takes form. Like drops in a bucket, the parts converge to form a whole. It’s Natalie. Her oldest. Of one thing, Esther is certain. This leave-taking, this severing, may be God’s plan but it’s not hers. Not yesterday. Not today. Not tomorrow.

She takes one deep breath and then another.

“My children,” said her father. “My brave brave children.”

“Your oxygen’s at 93, Mrs. Lipinsky. That’s good. That’s real good.”

“Look at you, Esther! A fucking miracle! We could use some miracles around here.”

With a steady finger, she touches the face on the phone. “Don’t worry,” she whispers. “I’ll be home soon.”

Mini-Interview with Marlene Olin

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

MO: I’ve always written. I was the editor of my high school yearbook. Majored in English. Taught high school English for a while. But around fifteen years ago, the pressures in my life came to a boil. It was time for my adult daughter, challenged with learning problems and high-functioning autism, to move into her own apartment. And a long-going rift with my siblings came to a head. Together, the stress was almost more than I could bear.

So I started to write. Reams and reams of paper accumulated on my desk. But most of the essays I wrote were very personal, too personal. I could never have them published.

Then I discovered fiction. Fiction, I learned, could be truer than any memoir. I could pour all my angst into my stories. The process was both liberating and challenging.

HFR: What are you reading?

MO: I like to read a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. I just finished The Ravine by Wendy Lower. Using a single photograph as a starting point, Lower researches the “Holocaust by bullets,” the story of Jews killed outside of the extermination camps.

I also highly recommend George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Reading that book is like going back to college and taking a course in Russian Lit.

I always keep a stack of short story collections on my nightstand. I like to savor each one, reading with my finger, marking passages with a pencil, studying them line by line. I just finished Anthony Veasna So’s book. I was blown over by his talent. What a loss.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “To See the Moon”?

MO: During the first few months of the pandemic, I compulsively turned to The New York Times. It had pages and pages of obituaries every day. I was shocked by how many Holocaust survivors we lost. And many of them died the deaths they most feared—in a COVID ward without loved ones by their sides.

The irony was obvious. Survivors who lost family in the Holocaust had long been cheated of their mourning rituals. There are no gravesites to lay pebbles on. No anniversary dates. No cherished heirlooms to hold.

And it struck me that the pandemic has presented us with a similar situation. Since COVID hit, I’ve attended six Zoom funerals. Can you imagine? We’ve been deprived of hugging and comforting. Shiva calls. There’s no collective binging on food!

So once again … we’ve been robbed of our deaths.

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

MO: I’m always working on a short story. When the writing is going well, I’m transported. I create the characters, and they write the plot.

On occasion, I still have the urge to write nonfiction. But I’ve acquired a sort of funny self-deprecating style. I try to channel David Sedaris or the late great Erma Bombeck. Using humor gives me the freedom to explore topics I would otherwise avoid.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

MO: I’m very concerned about the rise in anti-Semitism. World War II ended nearly eighty years ago. When none of the Holocaust survivors are left, who will tell their stories?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. She is the recipient of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.

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