Helene Wecker's debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is now available from HarperCollins.
Gerda Kohl, eighty years old, sat in the den of her house, surrounded by cardboard boxes. Her two daughters were fighting in the study next door. They kept their voices lowered, but it was an old house with thin walls, and although Gerda couldn’t understand the words, the tone was clear enough. Charlotte and Anne had never gotten on at the best of times, and it was probably inevitable that they should fight now. She only wished they’d picked a more distant room.
She sorted through the books while she waited for them to finish. Into the box marked “To Keep” went a Time-Life photo collection, her prayer book, and a few of her husband Otto’s old German volumes. The box marked “To Donate” was almost overflowing. She’d never been a reader, even before the diabetes weakened her eyes. The books were the easy part. Everything else was hard: the furniture, the figurines, the dishes and crystal, the boxes of old papers labeled in Otto’s blocky hand. Each was a decision to be made, and it exhausted her. Most of it had to go. Her new apartment at the Fairview Club was only a quarter the size of the house.
The voices in the study went on, louder and then a pause and quiet again, as if they’d remembered her in the next room. She suspected they were fighting over the dining-room set. The pieces were heavy mahogany, and had been well cared for. Charlotte wanted them sent to her own daughter, the one who’d just gotten married, as a gift for their new house. But Anne insisted that they were too valuable, and had to be appraised with everything else. Gerda suspected Charlotte would win. Her older daughter was too manipulative, her younger too willing to settle for the sake of peace. Gerda supposed she didn’t mind, though she knew this granddaughter and her new husband kept large dogs. At least the pieces would be with family. Even if animals and children destroyed them, at least she’d know where they were.
Everyone agreed that the house was now too big for her to manage alone. She’d grown too frail, her eyesight too poor. It was hard for her to climb the front steps. She’d given up driving before they could take her license away. Anne had found her a Brazilian girl named Maria who came a few times a week and took her to the supermarket and the beauty parlor, to her doctors’ appointments, helped with the laundry. But otherwise she was stuck inside.
And lately she’d had odd moments. One night she’d been sitting in the den watching television, and felt something shift in her lap. She looked down: It was a piece of black plastic, longer than her hand, covered with bumps. What was this thing? What was it doing there? On the television, someone laughed. The thing in her lap came into focus. It was the remote control. Of course it was.
She’d been tired, of course; she wasn’t sleeping well. The doctors were always fiddling with her medications, for the diabetes, for her blood pressure. She took no notice of their reasons, just wrote down the new dosages and reorganized her pills. Occasionally Anne’s husband, the scientist, tried to explain the different medicines to her, but she had little interest. She put the pills in her body, like food, like air; they did their job, they kept her alive. Why bother with explanations?
Slowly Gerda lifted herself up off the sofa. She wished her daughters would stop arguing. She was hungry; it was time for lunch. She shuffled to her bathroom, used the toilet. She took her midday blood test and peered at the large digital readout. It was low. Good. She’d have a little marmalade on her toast.
Studio portraits of herself and Otto hung in the bedroom. They’d been taken when she’d still had some gray in her hair, and Otto’s eyes were still sharp with intelligence. Since then her hair had thinned, and turned so white it looked pink. It didn’t hold a curl very well anymore, but she still went to the beauty parlor every Monday and had it set.
She went back to the den, surveyed what was left. The bookshelves were mostly empty now, save for a few framed photographs. The largest was a portrait of four sisters, arranged oldest to youngest, in lace-embroidered white frocks and large white hair bows. The one on the right, the littlest, was Gerda herself, perhaps five years old. Her mouth was open, and her brows were knitted together, as if she were asking for something. Probably she was. She’d been a spoiled little thing.
To her left was Evie, even at that age the most beautiful of the four. She’d died in Chicago of lung cancer in 1968. The shop where she’d worked was full of smokers, and no one knew in those days. Next to Evie was Leah, the only one who looked like their father, with his heavy eyes and long chin. Leah had escaped to England and married an Orthodox rabbi, then moved to Australia, of all places. She’d died in 1988, of heart failure.
On the far left was the eldest, Esther, with their mother’s gold locket around her neck. When Gerda and Evie had left for America in 1938, Esther had refused to go. Her husband was a respected businessman; they had friends. They decided to weather it out. In Chicago Gerda had a few brief letters from Esther, laced with false cheer, and then nothing. Anne’s husband had researched which camp they’d ended up in, but Gerda didn’t want to know. To her the information would be worse than useless.
She looked at each face down the row, stopping at the end, her own. Spoiled little Gerda, the youngest, their father’s favorite. The only one left.
Finally her daughters emerged from the study. Charlotte’s face was neutral. Anne looked drained. Poor Anne, always taking everything too much to heart.
Wordlessly Anne began to set the table for lunch. Gerda watched as Charlotte roamed about the kitchen, pulling cold cuts from the refrigerator and taking out dishes and cutlery. Yes, Charlotte must have won. She wouldn’t have been so quick to help otherwise.
“Mom, do you want the rest of the turkey?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes. And marmalade on my toast.”
“How was your sugar?” called Anne from the dining room.
“It was fine. Don’t worry.”
In truth Charlotte was her stepdaughter, but Gerda had rarely used that word. She was in her early sixties now, thin and tiny, with sharp features. Lately she had dyed her short hair a brassy red and put something in it that made it stick up all over. Gerda thought it looked ridiculous on a woman her age. But no one could tell Charlotte anything, least of all Gerda.
She wondered sometimes if she’d had any hand in turning Charlotte from the shy little girl she’d met all those years ago into the person she was now. Charlotte herself had certainly thought so, had spent years hurling her theories at Gerda and Otto. She’d blamed them for trying to correct her left-handedness when she was young; it had confused the two sides of the brain, and now she would never reach her full potential. She’d blamed them for their sense of propriety and good manners, which were bourgeois and tyrannical and stifling. She’d blamed them for not sending her to a better college, though she dropped out of the one they did send her to, in favor of getting married and running off to Europe. At no point did Charlotte ever say she blamed them for meeting and marrying, for replacing her mother, Liesl, who’d died of rheumatic fever when Charlotte was four; but it had been there, underpinning everything. Sixty years later, it still was.
The three women ate their lunch. Charlotte and Anne were tensely polite with each other. Gerda pretended not to notice. Anne reminded her that they still needed to sort the artwork. Gerda nodded and ate her toast and marmalade. She wanted to leave this to another day, another year, a time when she did not feel so tired. She didn’t want to make any more decisions about what to leave behind.
The move went as well as could be expected, though by the end of it Anne and Charlotte were speaking to each other only when necessary. A few days later they flew away, back to their homes and husbands, and slowly, Gerda settled into her apartment. The portraits of herself and Otto hung on the peach-colored wall above the bed, looking much the same as they had before. There was a little balcony off her living room, overlooking the pool. Every morning she went out onto the balcony to see what the weather was. Sometimes there was a woman swimming, the same woman each time, paddling back and forth with her head up out of the water. She wore a swimming cap covered with plastic flowers, like Esther Williams. If she saw Gerda, she’d smile, and Gerda, feeling caught out, would smile back quickly, then go inside.
A pattern emerged to her days. She woke at eight, went to the toilet, and took her blood test. She bathed in the odd sit-down tub that made her feel like an invalid. She got dressed, slowly. She turned on the television and ignored it. She fixed herself a glass of milk and a piece of toast, with or without marmalade, depending on the blood test. She washed the glass, the plate, and the marmalade knife. She watched the television, or napped, or dusted. At eleven thirty, she rode the elevator downstairs and waited with everyone else for the dining room to open.
The dining room was supposed to feel like a restaurant, and Gerda supposed it did. The hostess was a tall, sour-looking woman who insisted on seating Gerda with the most talkative residents, and Gerda had never been much for conversation at meals. Neither had Otto. At dinner they would turn the radio to the classical music station, or put on a record, and eat quietly. There’d been such a fight with Anne once, years ago, when she’d visited with her children, a girl and a boy who chattered through their meals. Otto, irritated, had asked Anne to tell the children to be quiet. Anne had shocked everyone by growing furious and shouting at him that he didn’t understand children, that they needed to be encouraged and not silenced, and they might be under his roof but they were hers and they could talk as much as they wanted. And then she’d left the table to pull herself together. Otto had been so surprised he hadn’t said another word. Neither had the children.
But with children, at least, you could let them prattle on and not pay too much attention. The women at Gerda’s table made her listen to their stories, and then demanded that she tell her own. It tired her out horribly. All she wanted to do was eat her salad, her soup, her piece of chicken. She didn’t want to talk with these women she didn’t know. And sometimes the women would act as if they were in the middle of a conversation that Gerda couldn’t remember beginning. She would try to hide her confusion, but at some point there’d be a puzzled question, or a missed cue. The women would look at each other then, fall silent for a while. Well, what did it matter? At least then she could eat in peace.
After lunch, the Brazilian girl, Maria, might show up to help her with the laundry or drive her to an appointment. Maria was barely older than Gerda’s youngest grandchild, and already a single mother. But she was nice enough, and her English was almost as good as Gerda’s. Maria helped her organize her medications: There were too many now, and they all looked alike. It seemed like she saw Maria more and more; before she had only come a few times a week, but now the girl was there almost every day.
Sometimes Gerda would show Maria her photographs. That’s Otto, Gerda would say, that’s my mother, my sisters, my daughters. She told Maria about meeting Otto in Chicago, how a woman she knew from the shoe factory had set them up. She’d arranged to meet Otto at a city park, and had liked him instantly: a small, trim, upright man in an overcoat and fedora, holding a dark-haired little girl by the hand. He’d insisted on bringing Charlotte. Gerda had found this admirable. And truth be told—though not to Maria—she’d fallen in love with Charlotte as much as with Otto. The girl barely spoke, only in a whisper, and she never smiled. She would look around herself, darting glances at the faces of passersby, and Gerda imagined the girl was searching for her mother. She worried that the same qualities that drew her to Otto, his staunch pride and his manners, his strong sense of what was good and right, would overwhelm Charlotte if not tempered by a woman’s influences. Gerda decided they both needed her. Two months after that first meeting, they were married in a rabbi’s study. Anne was born in 1947; they’d decided to wait until after the war.
Maria would listen and nod, interested. Sometimes she would start to tell Gerda about her life in Rio de Janeiro, but Gerda would grow tired, or confused, and begin to doze off. The doctors kept altering the medications; she could never stay awake. Anne often called to check in when Maria was there. Gerda would wake at the sound of the phone and hear Maria’s quiet voice reporting what the doctors had said at the latest visit, or how long Gerda had slept. Then Maria would hand her the phone. Yes, I’m all right, I was just dozing for a moment. Who knows what the doctors think, they change their minds all the time, I can’t keep it straight. My sugar, let me think, it was good today. Yes, I’m certain.
Afterwards, Maria would walk Gerda down to the dining room for dinner. It was much the same affair as lunch, although the men were required to wear jackets. Gerda would sit and peer at her menu, surrounded by people who greeted one another as if they were thrilled to see see them, as if they hadn’t just eaten together five hours ago.
In the spring she flew to Chicago to spend a week with Anne and her family. At the San Diego airport, an attendant with a wheelchair met Maria’s car at the curb. She’d never sat in a wheelchair before, except for when Anne was born. They checked her in and took care of her luggage. She was the first on the plane. Another wheelchair was waiting for her at the other end. She had to admit, it was nice to be waited on.
Had Chicago always been this cold in the spring? Her legs were stiff, and she couldn’t understand why Anne wouldn’t turn up the heat. By dinnertime she was nodding off in front of the television, a blanket over her legs.
Anne’s husband drove them into the city so she could visit Evie’s grave. Anne stood with her arm around Gerda while they said Kiddush. Poor Evie. So beautiful, and so young.
Charlotte and her husband drove down from Madison for an afternoon visit. Charlotte’s hair was even shorter now. It still looked absurd. Everyone sat politely in the living room. They had exciting news, Charlotte said. Their older daughter was pregnant. Gerda was going to be a great-grandmother! Well, imagine that, thought Gerda. Time marches on.
Anne was certainly cooking a lot—it was Passover already? Oh, of course, that was why she’d come. Anne’s two children arrived, one after the other. The boy was in college, as tall as his father. According to Anne, he ate nothing but pizza. Anne’s daughter was a working girl now, had brought a briefcase and a computer with her. Where was she living? Minneapolis? How nice, Gerda had been to Minneapolis many times. Such a friendly city, but so cold! How did she stand it?
They were setting the table for the seder when the doorbell rang. Gerda looked around: Weren’t they all there? Anne’s daughter went to the door and opened it. A smiling young man stood on the step, holding a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine. The two hugged quickly. Anne walked in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel, and exclaimed over the flowers. She, too, hugged him. Who was this?
Anne’s daughter led the young man over to Gerda, put a hand on his shoulder and introduced him: her boyfriend. Gerda couldn’t quite catch his name, asked him to repeat it as she shook his hand. Again she couldn’t hear it right — whatever he’d said, it didn’t sound like any name she knew. She smiled warily, didn’t ask again. He was handsome, she supposed, a thin boy, not very tall, with a mustache and a trim little beard. His skin looked dark, even though it was only March.
Anne was in the kitchen, ladling soup into bowls. Gerda cornered her. This was the girl’s boyfriend? Yes. They’d been together for a while, Anne said.
Gerda frowned. Was he Jewish?
Anne smiled tightly. No. He wasn’t Jewish. And Gerda wasn’t to say anything about it. Not to either of them.
She asked, Are they getting married?
Anne said, I don’t know.
Gerda sighed. Both of Charlotte’s daughters had married gentiles, but she didn’t blame them, Charlotte hadn’t raised them any better. She’d hoped Anne’s children would be different. She had to admit the young man seemed very polite, helping her to her chair and filling her water glass. She could feel something odd in the room that he had caused, a tension, as if everyone was on their best behavior. All took their places at the table, and Anne’s husband began the seder.
Later, during dinner, she noticed the silver kiddush cup on the table in front of her. Hadn’t that been Otto’s? Yes, it was the one with his father’s initials engraved on it, an E and a K twined together. He’d given it to Anne’s son for his bar mitzvah. That was my husband’s, she told the young man, pointing to the cup. He brought it with him, from Germany, in 1940.
The young man asked, Is that when you came over?
No, Gerda said, she’d come over earlier, in 1938, with her sister Evie. They were so young then. They came from a town called Trier, had he heard of Trier? No? Well, it was a lovely city, in the valley of the river, the Moselle, where the vineyards were. There were ruins there left by the Romans. After school, she would go out to the ruins with her sisters, to the baths or the amphitheater, and play for hours.
The young man looked genuinely interested. He told her that the city where his father grew up was also known for its Roman ruins.
Really? In Germany?
No, Syria. A city called Hama.
Gerda wasn’t sure she’d heard right. Syria?
Those crazy Romans, said Anne’s son. They went everywhere.
Mom, do you want anything else? More brisket? Anne’s voice was bright and direct. Gerda’s daughter was staring at her significantly. Syria. And Anne allowed this to go on? Well, it wasn’t her place. So be it.
Anne’s husband asked their daughter how things were at work. The young man held the held the tray of brisket for Gerda while she captured a slice with the serving fork. He asked, have you ever been back to Trier?
No, she said, startled, gripping the fork. No, I would never go back there.
Oh, he said, and then paused; and she watched him remember what he’d for a moment forgotten, that she hadn’t merely left Germany, but had run. He looked like he wanted to apologize, but wasn’t sure how.
She squeezed his arm. Eat some more brisket, she said. You’re too thin.
The girl was off again that night, she had to drive back for work in the morning. Gerda couldn’t quite remember, where did she say she was living? Oh, of course, Minneapolis. A wonderful city, Gerda had been there many times. But so cold! How did she stand it?
One day, walking in the shopping mall with Maria, Gerda started to feel like she was drowning. She sat down, hard, nearly pulling Maria with her. Someone shouted. Gerda went under.
She surfaced in a hospital bed. She’d been dreaming of her father. The doctors told her it was congestive heart failure, and changed her medications.
After that, Gerda was never alone. When she woke in the morning, a woman was there with her, sometimes Maria, sometimes someone else. The women helped her dress, did her hair, pricked her finger, fed her breakfast, fed her pills. They took her down to the dining room and sat with her, told her what she could and couldn’t eat. They helped her into her cardigan when she was cold, then helped her back out of it when she was hot. In the afternoon, one woman would be replaced by another, the two comparing notes at the door: what Gerda had eaten for lunch, whether she’d gone to the bathroom, what kind of mood she was in. Some of them had accents she didn’t understand.
She was always confused now. She’d fall asleep talking to someone, and someone else would wake her for dinner. Her legs felt heavier, her breath shorter. She was often nauseated. Everything became an ordeal. The women were constantly telling her to do something, not to do something else. They wouldn’t let her eat what she wanted to eat, they wouldn’t leave her alone. She was a grown woman, wasn’t she? She was over eighty years old. That should count for something. She was sick of taking so many pills, why did she have to take so many pills? She had just taken them, and here they were in front of her again! Well, she wouldn’t take them. No, she wouldn’t, and she wanted this woman out of her apartment!
The woman stood in the kitchen, talking apologetically on the phone. She handed the phone to Gerda.
Mom, you have to take your pills.
Anne? She’s trying to poison me, I just took them and she’s giving them to me again.
Mom, the caregivers are staggering your pills now. There’s too many for your stomach to handle all at once, that’s why you were feeling sick. Mom, you have to do what Denise tells you. You have to take your pills, or you’ll end up back in the hospital.
Gerda took her pills.
The door opened and Charlotte was there, with her older daughter, and a little boy, and a baby girl. These are your great-grandchildren. The boy ran around, the girl cried. They took Gerda out to a restaurant. Charlotte talked with her daughter while Maria helped Gerda choose what to eat, took Gerda to the bathroom, cut up Gerda’s chicken. She nodded off over her plate, woke when the boy yelled. They went back to the Fairview. She fell asleep, woke up. Charlotte was there.
Mom, the cab’s here, we have to say good-bye.
Charlotte? When did you get here?
We’ve been here all weekend, since Friday night. Don’t you remember?
What did you do to your hair?
She ate, she went to the bathroom. She fell asleep, woke up. A big black woman was looming over her, saying her name. Who was this? Where was she? My God, she was being kidnapped! Police! Police!
Gerda, Gerda, it’s me, it’s Nancy, stop yelling, please, Gerda, you’re scaring everyone.
Get away from me, you awful woman.
Mom, you have to be nice to your caregivers, you can’t yell at them. They’re there to help you, they’re taking care of you. Please, try to be nicer, be on your best behavior. Will you do that for me?
Anne, I don’t like this woman.
It was a man’s voice. Strong. Familiar somehow.
Are you listening to me?
Gerda, the caregivers are keeping you alive. You are paying them to keep you alive. You have to do what they say, and what Anne says. Do you understand me?
Yes. She understood.
There was a photograph on the wall above her bed, of an old man.
Maria, who is that?
Gerda, that’s Otto, that’s your husband.
Of course. Don’t be silly. I know who he is.
There were men in her apartment, and everything was in boxes. People were walking in and out. Anne was there. What was happening?
We’re moving you to a different apartment, a better place.
She fell asleep, woke up in a strange room, a strange bed. The room was so small. Where were her things?
Mom, we kept all the important pieces, the silver and the crystal and the pieces from Germany. I have half, and Charlotte has half. Your jewelry is in a safe deposit box. Everything will stay in the family, don’t worry.
A woman in a nurse’s uniform walked Gerda down a hall to a large room with many round tables. Everyone there was very old. Many of them talked to the air, said things that made no sense. A tiny woman walked up to Gerda, tugged on her sleeve, and asked if she was her sister. She turned around, and Maria was there. Maria, these people are very strange.
She was sleeping more and more. She was always on the edge of dreaming. A woman’s voice told her to finish eating: her mother? Someone whispered in her ear: Grandma, I’m getting married, you met him a few years ago. No, Grandma, he’s not Jewish. But I love him very much.
She slept and slept. People spoke. She opened her eyes. There was a picture on the table next to the bed, of four girls in white dresses and hair bows. She reached out a hand and touched each face in turn. She didn’t know who they were, but each one evoked a familiar loving sadness.
The little one on the end, who was she?
There had been a dark-haired girl in a park, holding a man’s hand. Was it the same girl? Was the man her father, was he the voice on the telephone?
No, she realized, her finger tracing the little girl’s features. She smiled, and closed her eyes. She knew who it was.
She’d know that sweet face anywhere.