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Michals destiny, p.18
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       Michal's Destiny, p.18

           Roberta Kagan
 
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  “You swine,” she said.

  “I don’t care what you think of me.” The man shrugged his shoulders. His breath stunk of alcohol, his hands were filthy, and when she thought of those hands touching her child’s body, she shivered. What was left of his graying hair was stuck to his head with grease and sprinkles of yellow dandruff.

  Michal gagged. But she knew she must eat. There was no food at the house. She tucked the bread into her coat pocket and picked up the bowl to gulp the soup. She’d never eaten without utensils before, but she wanted to finish as quickly as possible.

  Once Alina had finished her last bite, Michal grabbed her child’s hand and pulled her out of the shelter into the dark cold night air.

  Derelicts hovered in the alleyways, some of them just broken men who’d returned from the Great War as invalids, but others were pimps and drug pushers. Michal was afraid of the pimps. They smiled fetchingly at her. But she knew that she and Alina were worth money to them and they were trying to lure her and her child into their circle.

  Dear God,Michal thought, (it is only by your grace that Alina and I are still alive. Please watch over us and help us to get home safely.

  “Come on, Alina, walk faster.” Michal pulled Alina’s hand.

  “I can’t, Mommy.”

  Michal sighed. What was she doing? She knew that the child was moving as quickly as her little legs would carry her. A chill went down Michal’s spine. The quicker they got home, the sooner they would be out of danger.

  “Want to earn some quick cash?” a man with a fedora and a cheap suit said, as he leaned out from between two buildings and smiled at Michal. He reeked of men’s cologne. “I know a lot of men who would pay a good sum for a mother and daughter. Especially such a young child. Too young not to be a virgin.”

  Michal picked Alina up into her arms and began to run. The child was heavy for Michal’s small frame. But even though her arms ached and her legs were quivering with the weight, Michal didn’t dare put Alina down until they arrived at the door to the apartment.

  Michal’s heart was pounding so hard she thought she might have a heart attack. Her hands were shaking, but she found the keys. It was hard for her to steady her fingers enough to get the key into the lock. Slow down, she thought. Breathe deeply. Open the door. As soon as they were both safely inside the little flat, Michal slammed the door behind her and turned the lock to assure that no one who might have followed them could get in. Then she flipped on the light switch. For now, they were safe. Michal fell to her knees, holding her daughter in her arms and weeping.

  What had the world come to? How had things ever gotten so out of hand?

  Because Michal was crying, Alina began to cry as well. Then she began screaming for Bridget. Michal was exhausted. Tonight had made things clear; they were in a very bad position. Survival in Berlin without any money was dangerous business. Alina sensed her mother’s angst and responded by being fussy and unwilling to go to bed. Michal knew it was because Alina was afraid. How could she not be? Her life was so unstable. She’d lost her surrogate sister and the funny man who told her stories all within a few weeks. Alina had slept in a shelter and had recovered from insects crawling all over her body. And now she’d been molested by a filthy monster. There was never enough to eat, and it seemed that Alina was always hungry. Michal couldn’t blame Alina; she was just a little girl. How could she understand the enormity of what her mother was facing? Alina was whining and crying, refusing to sleep, holding on to Michal. “I want Bridget. Why did Bridget have to go away?” Michal was trembling; she had to quiet Alina or she feared she would lose her mind. She had explained countless times that Bridget had gone to live with her aunt and uncle. It would seem that Alina understood what Michal was telling her, then an hour or so later, she would begin asking for Bridget again. If only Alina would fall asleep. Michal needed a few hours of peace and quiet. Then she became afraid. What if Alina was so fussy because she was getting sick? Michal said a silent prayer, begging God to forgive her for wanting Alina to fall asleep. She loved her daughter. “Please, God, keep her healthy and strong. Help us to find a way out of this.”

  In order to quiet Alina’s constant crying and questions about Bridget, Michal gave Alina the last lump of sugar that they had. Before popping the small kernel into the child’s mouth, she exacted a promise from Alina that Alina would stop fussing. It didn’t work. So much for a promise from a five-year-old, Michal thought. But she couldn’t blame Alina for feeling abandoned. Bridget had really formed a bond with the child, and Alina missed her surrogate sister terribly. Finally, at a little after eleven that night, the child was spent, and she fell into a fitful sleep. She slept beside her mother that night, curling into Michal like a lost lamb.

  Michal awakened at four in the morning. The room was totally dark, but she could feel Alina still asleep beside her. When she slept, Alina looked blissful, sucking gently and rhythmically on her thumb. Soon, Michal would have to start breaking that habit. It wasn’t good for Alina’s teeth. But the little girl had been through so much that Michal couldn’t bear the thought of taking anything away from her daughter that might give Alina even a small drop of comfort. Careful not to awaken Alina, Michal slipped out of bed and covered her child, then she went into the living room to contemplate her meeting with Taavi that would take place later today.

  Not much was left of the turnip coffee; it was mostly bitter water, but at least it was hot. At night, the landlord turned the heat down even lower and did not raise it until much later in the morning. Michal wrapped a blanket around her shoulders against the cool night air and sipped the flavored water. In only a few hours, she would face Taavi. She would have to swallow her pride and beg him to take care of his child. Taavi. Handsome, arrogant Taavi. She’d walked out on him, and now she was about to return on her knees as a failure.

  Michal curled her legs under her body to stay warm and waited until the sun rose. Then Alina came shuffling out of bed.

  “I’m hungry, Mama.”

  “I know. I don’t have anything to give you.”

  “Mama?”

  Michal bit her lower lip. Then she remembered the bread in her coat pocket. “Wait, I do have something.” Michal handed the small heel of bread to Alina, who ate it quickly.

  “I’m still hungry,” she said.

  “All right then. Let’s get dressed. We have to go over to the shelter and see if we can’t get you something to eat.”

  “I don’t want to go there. That man that was there yesterday scared me.”

  “I know. But we have to go today. We don’t have any more food. If you’re still hungry, there is no other place for us to get anything to eat.”

  Alina stuck out her lower lip. “I hate it there, Mama. Why can’t we go back to Sammie’s house?”

  “Don’t you remember? Sammie and his mommy had to move to Frankfurt to live with Sammie’s grandparents. So, let’s just go over to the shelter. We can eat something quickly. Then we have a special errand to run.”

  Alina pouted, but she allowed Michal to help her get dressed. Then Michal quickly dressed herself and took a quick look in the mirror. She was only twenty-one, but her eyes had lost their sparkle. If only she had some lipstick to rub on her lips and cheeks before she saw Taavi. That might make her look a little more attractive. But she had none. Lipstick cost money, and she didn’t have money to waste on frivolities. Right now, she didn’t even have a few marks for a slice of bread to give Alina.

  “Come on, let’s get you into some warm clothes. It’s very cold outside.”

  Alina allowed Michal to put her hand through the sleeves of her coat, then bundle her with warm gloves and thick stockings under.

  “Today is a very special day. I need you to be an exceptionally good girl today. Please do this for me, Alina?”

  Alina looked up at Michal. She nodded her head. “I will, Mama.” Alina’s eyes looked so sad, far too sad for such a young child. It broke Michal’s heart.

  Snow was fa
lling as they made their way to the shelter to join the rest of the crowd waiting for a crust of bread. Alina complained of the cold as they stood in line. Michal picked her daughter up and held her in her arms as long as she was able to sustain the weight in order to keep Alina a little warmer. Their breath rose like white smoke against the crystal blue sky.

  Finally, they reached the front of the line, where they each received a crust of bread, a thin slice of cheese, and some hot water. At least it was warmer inside the shelter. Alina gobbled her food down quickly.

  “Are you still hungry?” Michal asked. She’d saved her share to give to Alina if Alina was still hungry.

  “Yes.”

  “Here, eat this.” Michal gave her food to her daughter.

  “Then what are you going to eat?”

  “I’m not hungry, sweetheart.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Yes, of course I’m sure.” Michal was starving. All she’d had to eat was a bowl of watery soup the night before. But she couldn’t eat while Alina was still hungry.

  Alina took the food and ate it quickly. Once they’d finished, Michal took Alina’s hand and led her out of the shelter.

  “Where are we going?”

  “Remember I told you that today we are going on a very special outing? And remember you promised me that you would be very good today?”

  “Yes. I will,” Alina said. She gripped tightly to Michal’s hand with one hand and with the other she popped her thumb into her mouth.

  It was an eight block walk and the sidewalk had frozen patches of ice covered with snow. Alina’s nose was running and she slipped twice on the ice. If she hadn’t been holding Michal’s hand, she would have fallen and possibly scraped her knee or elbow. As it was, she was cold, and demanding to go home. For a while, Michal carried Alina in her arms. But she was too heavy and finally Michal had to put her down to walk on her own. She began complaining about being tired and her feet hurting, but Michal urged her on until finally they arrived at the carpentry shop where Taavi worked.

  Michal wiped Alina’s nose with a handkerchief and then smiled at her daughter. “You’re doing so well. I am so proud of you for walking all this way like a big girl.” Michal smiled at Alina. “Now, don’t forget your promise to me to be a good girl, please? And if you’re really good. I will take Otto’s old socks with the holes in them and together we can sew buttons on them and make puppets. What do you think? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

  Alina nodded.

  “So remember, if you’re very good … I promise we’ll make puppets.”

  “Can we make up a puppet play?”

  “Of course we will. You think about the play you want to do and be very good and very quiet until we’re done here.”

  “Okay, Mommy.”

  They entered the shop. This was the first time Michal had been inside of Taavi’s place of employment. There were blocks of wood leaning against walls and shavings on the ground. Beautiful hand carved pieces awaited pick up by their new owners. She glanced around the shop and saw several men, but not Taavi.

  A man wearing a heavy flannel coat and wool hat walked up to her “Can I help you?” he said.

  “I’m looking for Taavi Margolis.”

  “I’m sorry, he doesn’t work here anymore.”

  Michal’s heart sank. Where could he have gone? If she couldn’t find Taavi, she had no choice but to join the other women who stood at the docks hoping for a man’s attention. The thought made her shudder.

  “But … do you know where he is? Where I can find him?”

  “I’m sorry, I don’t.”

  “Please, you have to help me,” Michal heard the panic in her own voice, but she couldn’t control it, and now Alina was looking around the room frightened.

  “Hold on a minute. Now, don’t cry. Let’s see … I think he was pretty good friends with Lev. I can’t say whether Lev knows what happened to him. But I’ll ask him to come and talk to you. The man turned to the workers in the shop, “Where’s Lev?”

  “In the back,” one of the men answered.

  “Go and bring him up here.”

  It was a few minutes before Lev came walking up “Yes, sir?” Lev asked skeptically. “Did you call for me?”

  “You were friends with Taavi, weren’t you?”

  Lev shrugged, not wanting to commit to anything until he knew where the conversation was leading. Lev had lost his wife recently. She’d died in an accident at the factory where she worked. The loss had devastated him, and since her death he’d become withdrawn and quiet.

  “This lady is looking for him … You go on and talk to her. But don’t be too long, I need you to get back to work,” the man with the flannel coat said and walked away.

  Lev sighed and went up to the front of the shop to meet with the visitor.

  “Are you looking for Taavi?”

  “Yes, I’m Michal Margolis. I’m Taavi’s wife. This is his daughter. We have to find him. We have to.…”

  Lev raised his eyebrows. Taavi had mentioned a wife, but he’d never mentioned that he had a child. Would he want this woman to find him? Lev didn’t want to betray his friend, yet the woman looked so lost, desperate, pathetic….

  “Please,” Michal said, her lips quivering. “I need to find him. If you know where he is.…”

  Lev couldn’t give this woman the address to the night club where Taavi was working. It was obvious to him that she wasn’t the night club type. Besides, he didn’t feel right giving her any information without Taavi’s permission; yet he felt he must do something.

  “All right,” Lev said. “I can’t tell you where he is. But if you give me an address that I can give to Taavi, an address where he can find you, I’ll see to it that he gets it.”

  “Oh, thank you. Thank you.” Michal took Lev’s hand in both of hers.

  “I can’t guarantee anything.”

  “I know. I understand. Let me give you my address. Do you have a pencil and paper?”

  Lev walked away and came back, handing a dirty torn sheet of paper and a crudely sharpened pencil to Michal. She wrote her address.

  “I heard the man call you Lev? Your name is Lev?”

  “Yes, my name is Lev.”

  “I am grateful to you, Lev. But I have to tell you that I only have about a week left to stay at this address. Then the rent will be due and I have no money. We have been eating at the shelter for the homeless. I am begging you, please do a mitzvah and give this address to Taavi as soon as possible. Tell him please … please … tell him that we need him.” The tears spilled down her cheeks.

  Lev nodded “I will. I promise.” Then he took a few marks out of his pocket. “Take this money and feed the child,” he said.

  “I couldn’t.…”

  “You can and you will.” He stuffed the money into her coat pocket and walked away.

  Chapter 42

  On the way home, Michal stopped in the bakery to see if there was anything available to purchase. Even the baker had lost weight. That was truly evidence that there wasn’t much food to be had.

  “How can I help you, pretty lady?” he said, winking at Michal.

  “I have a few marks … do you have anything that I can buy to eat?” Michal held out the money that Lev had given her.

  “Let me see what I can do. For such a beautiful woman, I have something that I have been saving in the back.” He brought out three rolls. They were a bit stale and hard, but at least there was no visible mold.

  “I’ll take them,” Michal said. Now, she and Alina would have something to eat and they would be able to avoid going to the shelter tonight.

  By the time they got back to the apartment, Michal was drained from pulling Alina along while Alina complained about everything she could possibly complain about.

  Until recently, Alina had been a happy child. When they lived with the Fogelmans, she’d been an easygoing baby. With Bridget and Otto, she’d been a curious and fun loving child. But Alina was changing and, a
lthough she was only five years old, Michal could see that Alina resented and blamed her mother for everything. Especially for Bridget’s leaving. Michal knew how close the two girls had grown over the year that they’d spent together. And she couldn’t blame Alina for her anger and her difficult behavior. It seemed that Alina was always hungry, always. Her constant nagging for food was driving Michal crazy. She gave everything she could to Alina. In fact, Michal had lost so much weight that her hip bones jutted out of her body.

  “It’s cold in here,” Alina said, as Michal removed her coat.

  “I know, let me wrap you up in a blanket and then I’ll read you a story. How would you like that?”

  “I’d like Bridget to read me a story.”

  Michal wanted to scream, to tell Alina to shut up already, that she was doing the best she could. She wanted to strike the child. To hit her hard. (My dear God, help me, Michal thought. She had to walk away from Alina. She couldn’t trust herself not to hit her child. Michal’s body was trembling with anger and frustration. She went into the bedroom and slammed the door. She threw herself on the bed and pounded the mattress with her fists until she’d spent all of her rage. Then she sat up and took several deep breaths. Better to hit a mattress than to hurt her precious daughter.

  “Mama?” Alina was standing in the doorway, her dark eyes wide with fear.

  “Yes, sweetheart … come here. Mama’s all right. I’m going to read you a story.”

  Gingerly, Alina crawled up on the bed and sat beside Michal, who leaned over and kissed the top of her daughter’s head.

  “I’m sorry if I scared you. Mama is just having a very hard time right now.”

  Alina just stared up at Michal, who knew the child didn’t understand.

  “But Mama loves you very much. And I’m so sorry about Bridget, sweetheart. With God’s help, we will see her again.”

  “I know I will see her again. She and I made a promise that no matter how far away we were from each other, we would always be sisters.”

  Michal felt the tears well in her eyes as she stroked Alina’s hair. Alina was miserable. And Michal blamed herself. She was the mother; it was her fault that her daughter was hungry, fatherless, and had just lost her best friend.

 
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