Edith played with her father’s wooden leg like it was a horse on a carousel. He pedaled at the sewing machine with his other leg, singing to Lakmé on the radio. The wool of his pants scratched her cheek. Her mother, belly big with her sister, knelt and huffed around a crabby woman, who swiveled this way and that to catch herself in the mirror.
“Leave your father’s leg alone,” her mother said through the pins pressed between her lips.
So Edith crawled out from under the table and admired the woman’s crocodile shoes and sang.
The woman in the crocodile shoes disappeared behind the green curtain and returned with freshened lipstick in a cupid’s bow. Her cloche hat chic, her trench coat cinched. Edith’s mother handed her the alterations ticket.
“Your child is lonely,” said the woman.
“Not for long,” her mother said.
Edith had one sister and then three years later another. Instead of playing with her father’s wooden leg she asked him about the Revolution. He told her about the bullet wound in his shin and the gangrene. She imagined him a younger man, the year before her birth, 1919, hunched forward on a march. Rain and mud. Sparrows chirruping on bare trees. She braided the middle sister’s hair and her mother nursed the baby. Lakmé came on the radio and now she knew all the words. With her father she sang. Her mother, off-pitch, hummed.
One night, Edith stood on a chair and dangled a candy on a string above her sisters on the ground, who hopped up and down trying to catch it in their mouths. They barked like puppies and clapped their hands. Tails of balled up yarn bounced, pinned to the backs of their dresses.
Edith’s father, Ludo was his name, limped home from a stroll.
“Thank god we’re godless,” he said, soberly, hanging his hat.
Edith laughed and dandled the candy string.
Laura, Edith’s mother, said, “Don’t laugh.” Her round glasses flashed in the light. Her gaze said to Ludo, speak.
Adela caught the candy in her mouth and tugged. Eva, the youngest, pushed up on Adela’s shoulders, yapped, growled.
Ludo eased into a chair. “Hooligans again.”
Laura clutched the top of her blouse and muttered oy gevalt. She drew Edith’s sisters near. Uncomprehending, they pressed their faces into her skirt, little fists clutching the delicate floral print. Ludo locked the door.
Edith sang so well people stopped in the street to listen through the shop window. The woman in the crocodile shoes and the cupid bow lips told Edith’s parents she should have lessons. She could join her daughter Rita, she said, and split the cost.
Rita wore flouncy lacy things. The woman in the crocodile shoes, Mrs. Herzig, gave them linden tea with honey in delicate porcelain glasses. They lived in a stately apartment building, plaster curlicues on the ceiling. The teacher was a slender young man fresh out of school in Vienna with slicked-back hair and tortoise shell glasses. He tuned Mrs. Herzig’s warped piano. For him, Edith perfected her coloratura. After the lesson, more honeyed tea and poppy seed roulade. Rita and Edith squeezed in front of a mirror picking seeds out of their teeth. Before dark, Edith hurried home.
Once, the family went to a studio for portraits. They craned their heads this way and that and there was a click and a flash. Later, their likenesses appeared frozen in sepia. Edith asked her parents for a camera. Just a little simple one. A plastic box. She’d seen the models in the studio window. But even the simple little ones were costly.
“Singing or camera, not both,” Laura said.
Ludo showed his gold tooth smile.
Edith apprenticed with the studio photographer. He was a broad-shouldered man in suspenders. He explained to her all the vinegar-smelling chemicals. He explained to her how to catch the light. Rita sucked her tongue when Edith gave up her lessons. Mrs. Herzig said Edith wasted her talents.
Singing was just air. Good for the soul but hardly practical. Cameras made things, captured time. If you’re good enough, they’ll record your voice, Mrs. Herzig said. Edith shrugged. Nights she still sang with her father alongside the stutters of the sewing machine. At school she learned math and Russian and on Saturday afternoons she bathed photographic paper in chemicals until faces formed. Her fingers turned black.
The Herzigs threatened to leave Romania. Ludo said they were neither fascist nor communist, simply capitalist. Edith practiced wrinkling her nose in the mirror. She would capture her expressions on camera when she had one of her own. The Herzigs stayed. The laws changed. Ludo and Laura still worked. The laws affected those in higher professions. Attorneys, academics. The Herzigs thought again to leave. Instead, Mr. Herzig found work with a locksmith.
Edith became a woman. Laura fitted her into a brassiere and explained menstruation. Contrary to Laura’s warning of pain and diminished energies, Edith’s powers grew. She flit from school to home to the photography studio. She printed, dried, and filed family portraits large and small to be picked up in glassine envelopes. Soon she was shooting portraits too. She tossed little Eva up and down even though she was now a big girl. She followed the war on the radio and cheered on the Soviets. There were talks of deportations.
The photographer cornered her one day in the darkroom. His hands went everywhere. He said this is what men and women do. He said he would give her a camera. She thought about the singing teacher with his slender hands. She didn’t think that’s what he did. She upended a chemical bath and fled.
At home she packed her father’s army rucksack.
“I’m joining the Soviets,” she announced.
Laura said you are not.
Ludo clapped his daughter on the shoulder.
“I want to go too,” Adela said. She looked at Edith with big stars in her eyes. Eva hugged her mother’s knees.
“She is 18,” Ludo said to Laura. “She can go if she wants. She can supervise Adela.”
Laura’s eyes rolled up to the god she didn’t believe in.
They packed Adela a rucksack too. Ludo told Laura to stop blubbering and be proud of her good, brave girls. The family walked to the train station. They were going to work in a steel mill in the province of Voronezh. Steel for the war.
Edith’s eyes felt sharper and newer. A fire propelled her, a hot air balloon inflating in her torso. She hugged her parents and Eva. She grasped Adela around the shoulder, who leaned into her. Still smelled like a baby. Talcum and sugar. They climbed the train and the family stared at each other through the window, waving until it hissed and lurched, eastward.
Edith was in the factory kitchen when the news broke: war over. Adela had given up the endeavor long ago. Within a month of arriving in Voronezh, she wrote Ludo begging for money to come home. Silly Adela. Edith did easy tasks, boiling potatoes, ladling soup, while Adela’s small nimble fingers had been put to use on the assembly line. Hard work. Since Adela left, Edith had not heard from her family. The war disrupted all communications. But Edith fell in love with a factory foreman. She wanted to write to her mother, tell her father Boris wanted to settle in Moscow. The letter sat, bundled with other letters, inside her father’s rucksack. But the war was over. She would go home and tell them herself.
“I’ll wait for you,” Boris said.
She laced up her boots, lips pressed together. She put on her father’s rucksack. She put on a jaunty hat.
What can we say about Satu Mare when Edith returned? The buildings were mostly the same. Red brick. Gray stone. Yet the claws of some great beast left the streets scraped.
Gaunt people wandered in a daze. Unrecognizable faces. From where? They appeared to drift in on gusts of dried leaves and ash. Windows boarded up, in splotches. Laura and Ludo and Adela and Eva were not in the shop in which they’d lived and worked. A strange woman stood in the window. Cheekbones like ledges. Edith knocked on the glass. The woman scowled, switched on a lamp and pulled down the shade.
Edith found herself at the Belle Epoque building in which the Herzigs lived. A line of people wound out of its black and white tiled lobby. They shifted side to side on tired feet. She studied their faces and they hers.
“What is this for?” she asked the man on the threshold.
“Redistribution of goods.”
Edith’s heart jumped.
The line snaked inside of a large ground floor apartment. Edith waited her turn. Inside, the line split in two. One toward a backroom with grand furniture: lion-clawed, mahogany, Chippendale. A slender spectacled man managed that room. Not many people in it. She squinted, tried to make out her former piano teacher. It wasn’t him. But a piano (the Herzigs’?) sat there in the shadows. The longer line in the front room led to a woman who organized many boxes of small items. Spoons. Plates. Baby clothes. Fine, fine, baby clothes, with sweet embroideries, soft cotton eyelets. The woman’s hair was colorless and shorn.
A person would make their case. The woman would look through the wares and provide. She kept inventory on a clipboard. It became apparent that the furniture was in less demand because many had not settled back into places of their own.
Edith strode up to the woman.
“What do you need?”
Rita dropped the baby blanket she’d been fondling. They moved around the table and hugged, firmly. She grasped Edith by the face. Thumbs to ears’ curves. Hearing blocked.
“Have you seen my family?”
Rita’s thumbs were off her ears but everything muffled.
Rita shook her head. Her lip half-drooped. “Not yet. Maybe—”
“18,000 gone,” a hoarse voice said behind her. Edith turned to him. “And here I am, waiting for one of their spoons.” Ringing ears. Warped words.
Edith dropped her father’s rucksack. She sat directly on the floor. She ripped the bottom of her shirt.
“Edith, no. You don’t know.”
“18,000? It doesn’t matter.” She ripped the shirt further. “But you were there? With them?”
Rita crouched beside her. The waiting man sighed as if squeezing out the dregs of his soul. Rita’s voice low. “A different deportation. A different camp.”
“Death all the same,” the man said.
“You’re still standing,” Rita said to him. “Edith, please. Wait for me in the other room.” She turned back to the man.
“Here’s your spoon. What else do you need?”
“My husband,” Rita said to Edith, introducing her to the man in the furniture room. “Mattias.”
“The question is,” he said, as if mid-conversation, “do we talk all night or do we never speak again? I can’t seem to find a balance.” They all sat on the hardwood floor.
“We’re giving people basic things. Basic things they need, otherwise where do the things go? In a heap.” Mattias darkened at the word heap.
“Your parents?” Edith ventured, gentle.
Rita shook her head. “Separated upon arrival.” The newlyweds exchanged a slow glance. Spontaneously, Mattias broke out into the Kaddish. Over his prayers she said, “It’s almost a sickness. He keeps saying it. He keeps saying it.” She put her head in her hands. Edith’s boots splayed out in front of her. The pain came strangely. Not in the chest but above it, in her shoulder. A push upwards. As if that essential organ wandered. Or as if her lungs, trying desperately to find new air, attempted escape.
Before she left, before she went back to Boris in Voronezh, utterly depleted, Edith rummaged through the boxes Rita had organized.
“You’re married now,” Rita said. “Take these baby clothes.”
Edith pressed the little ruffled dress to her breast. The little footed suit. She folded them into her father’s rucksack. The load was heavy.
Before she left without saying goodbye, before she left when Rita’s back was turned, before she went back to Voronezh and was never heard from again, Edith rummaged through a box of photographs Rita had found in the back of the abandoned photography studio. Edith searched and searched among the faces. She studied them, slid them back into those same glassine envelopes. A fashionable woman with bobbed hair, dark and sleek. A children’s birthday party gathering around a big sliced babka. A couple on a summer picnic, reclined in the grass, the voluptuous wife resplendent. Her family wasn’t in there. Her family had their photos with them; she’d delivered them herself. She kept searching. There was one of a little blond girl in braids, sitting in a flowering chestnut tree. She didn’t know her. Just some girl. Bare-kneed, legs dangling. She wasn’t quite smiling. She was fierce. She squinted directly in the sunlight. Her cheeks were crinkled. Edith pretended she’d taken that photograph. She felt the warmth of the sun on her back. She heard the rustle of the leaves. On a gust, the scent of its blossoms. She felt as if the girl would hop off the tree and whistle. She felt the force of the girl’s challenge. Take me home, she said. Her heart slid down from where it had bunched up in her shoulder. She slipped the photo against her sternum like a salve.
Anca L. Szilágyi is a Brooklynite living in Seattle. Her debut novel, Daughters of the Air, is out December 2017. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, and Jewish in Seattle, among other publications.