A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

by Agate Nesaule

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Overview

"Shows us, in disturbing but illuminating detail, how violence and cruelty register on the psyche. This beautifully written book makes us reckon anew with the deep costs of war."—Eva Hoffman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140261905
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/01/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 577,079
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Talking in Bed

We are talking in bed, friends again instead of lovers. Apricot-colored fern fronds wave against the pearl gray background of my flannel sheets. Both of us are surprised to hear thunder, thunder in February, in Wisconsin, over frozen ground and dirty snow. My hand rests lightly on his gray hair, our legs are still entwined. Soon we will turn away from each other, but our backs will touch, close enough to stay warm. We will dream different dreams. He will walk in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico or drive over a wooded Wisconsin road towards Birch Island Lake. I will carry a baby away from a burning Latvian village, evade Nazi guards, catch the last train. When we dream about being seven, we speak different languages.

"Tell me a story," John says, "tell me a story before we go to sleep."

I can't think of one. I have told him many stories, but during the day I often feel we are strangers. I don't believe him when he says he loves me, I don't expect him until he returns.

"You first," I say.

"I told one last night." And it's true, he has. A Miss McPike, the choir director, has glared at two altar boys in Spooner, the small Wisconsin town where John grew up.

"I can't think of one, they're all gone. Or rather, I've told them all."

"Did you have a car in Latvia, before the war?" he prompts.

That's all I need, I am off. "No, no cars, just horses. And, of course, bicycles."

The Parsonage seemed immense. A long road wound through the park toward the trellised porch. Mock orange and lilacs bloomed close to the house; I remember the fragrance. In the fall the leaves from the tall gloomy oaks and red maples were strung on wire. Later, six or so at a time they would be placed under the unbaked loaves of sweet and sour rye bread. Sometimes there was a pattern of leaves on the bottom crust.

My mother had a new bicycle. It was shiny metal, with a large black leather seat and huge black handlebars. But it wasn't like a man's. It had blue and green and red crocheted skirt-guards and a round silver bell.

It was before the war got very close, I am sure of that. She would not have had time to learn to ride a bicycle once refugees and partisans started coming to the house. Gypsies came too. So did a lot of relatives. The adults sat up late and argued whether to sail to Sweden, stay in Latvia, go to Germany. No one cared if my sister and I stayed outside all night, no one made us go to bed. We fell asleep under the stars, sometimes we slept in the hay. But this was the year before the war came. I must have been five, my sister six.

My mother walked the bicycle by herself on the gravel path by the orchard. The apple trees had already finished blooming, but the tiny green fruit could hardly be called apples yet. She would run a little, try to mount, change her mind and slow down again. My sister, Beate, and I were holding hands, watching. My mother had told us to stay behind the orchard fence, well out of her way.

Sniegs walks out of the house, he is smoking a cigarette. His eyes are a washed-out blue. He is dressed in an immaculate suit, but he is wearing bedroom slippers. When he gets closer we can see that one of his shirt cuffs is unbuttoned and the sleeve is frayed. Once he was a promising concert pianist, but now he plays the organ in our father's churches. My father says that Sniegs has ruined his life; he has failed to live up to his earlier promise and taken to drink.

On Sunday mornings Sniegs lets my sister and me pump the organ. Perspiring and trembling after a dissipated night, he is nevertheless vigorous as he plays the hopeful Lutheran hymns. We love being up in the loft with him. It is better than sitting still in one of the pews, waiting for the sermon to be over.

Inhaling slowly, Sniegs watches my mother through narrowed eyes. She is wearing a linen blouse, trimmed with lace, and a full blue skirt that swings as she moves. Although it is summer, she is wearing magenta stockings and black shoes with delicate straps. The shoes are dusty, her face is flushed. She looks up at him, holds his gaze for a second or two, then drops her eyes.

Sniegs strides across the open expanse of lawn bordered by daylilies and irises. He swings across the fence rather than using the gate and stands very close to her. He says something so quietly that we cannot hear, and she laughs. He whispers again, and she laughs once more. Then he steadies the seat with one hand and blows out a final puff of smoke over her shoulders, vulnerable beneath lace and linen. We know she is wearing an ivory-colored camisole; the outline of a smooth satin strap is faintly visible beneath the chaste cool cloth. He grinds the cigarette into the gravel with his heel and puts his other hand on the handlebar. She seems to shiver slightly as she puts her feet on the first pedal, then the second. He soothes and steadies while she, protected by his arms, pedals clumsily at first, then confidently.

She does not look at us. I can feel my face flushing. Beate and I hold hands, our arms stiffly extended. We are trembling with rage. My sister brushes hair out of her eyes to see better.

My mother, shielded by Sniegs, has circled the orchard path a dozen times. She glances at him now and then, but she does not look at us. She has forgotten we exist. A strand of her dark hair has escaped from the chignon she wears. She lets it graze her cheekbone, to lift in the breeze, to partially obscure her vision. She does not hasten to restrain it.

Sniegs lifts first one hand, then the other from the bicycle. He allows her to ride alone for a moment, then his arms encircle her again. Finally she rides by herself . Sniegs lopes dreamily behind her. He does not notice us either. Her eyes are shining, she is exhilarated. She does not fall, although I want her to. I want the bicycle to veer sideways, trip Sniegs, throw her on her knees on the ground right in front of my sister and me. We would rush to comfort her, she would cry and put her arms around us. My sister and I continue holding each other's hands so hard our fingers hurt, but we do not let go.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," my sister whispers.

"Stupid," I echo, willing my mother to look at me. She does not.

She continues circling the orchard. Her eyes briefly meet Sniegs's, but mostly they are on the horizon, far away from the house.

In the twilight she sits on the sofa, covered with an afghan, surrounded by pillows, cups of tea, a tablecloth of peacocks and lilies she has been embroidering forever.

"Come and sit by me, precious," she says to me. "Come, my little love." How dare she say that? How dare she assume I would come? I take a step backwards, press myself into the wall. But it is impossible to resist her. Although I stiffen myself, I am pulled towards her. I throw my arms around her neck and hold on as tightly as I can. She lets me do that, then gently begins to free herself.

"Not so hard," she says.

She turns away, towards the window. I know she likes the blossoms of the apple trees in the twilight, but they are long gone. She sits motionless, watching the darkening distant trees. Her dark brown eyes are sad, though not nearly as sad and empty as they will become later.

"Go now," she whispers, "Go away, I want to be by myself. Go play."

Her black bicycle is leaning against the orchard fence. Next to it is the other bicycle she has persuaded my father to buy. Together they ride out into the country. Sometimes they bring back wild strawberries. Once they brought two trout.

While they are gone, Sniegs paces and smokes. He has begun composing again, so he spends a lot of time in the drawing room. He plays a phrase or two on the piano, marches around the sofa, goes out to have a cigarette, returns, tries again. Occasionally the chords flow together; a melody seems to be hovering just on the edge. He walks up and down the long drive through the park. He is wearing shoes, and his shirt cuffs are buttoned.

He takes an interest in my sister and me. He brings us halvah bars from Riga. He hands them over wordlessly, his other arm circling a briefcase with a broken clasp. We can hear the bottles clink. He brings a book of verse with a few gloomy pictures. A man is being pursued by his sins, represented as gray balls of yarn. It is Peer Gynt, who has lived a dissolute life. Saying it is too old for my sister, my mother puts it on the top shelf in the library.

On the next trip, he brings me an ugly black-and-white plaster cast dog with drooping jowls. Saying it is breakable, my mother puts it on the top of the tall chiming clock in the dining room. One hot July afternoon, while everyone is resting, I push a chair over to the clock, reach up and grasp the dog. It is heavier and more slippery than I remember. The short neck and the pudgy body are hard to hold onto. I stand on tiptoe to lift it. It flies out of my hands and shatters on the parquet floor; the pieces fly off in a thousand directions.

She does not scold me. "Poor little thing," she says, "what will you do now without your little dog? How will you pass the time?" She has not noticed that I have never played with the dog. She keeps her finger marking her place in her book.

My mother has one of her musical evenings. The maid lays out a white satin cloth, the delicate cups and plates with wreaths of pale violets and gold rims. The samovar gleams. She will serve tea, Russian style, in tall glasses, with slender long silver spoons. The platters are filled with raspberry meringues, apricot turnovers, dark red cherries. The torte looks disappointing to Beate and me; instead of being piled high with chocolate icing and whipped cream, it is flat and thin, with tiny almond half-shells and sugar roses on the mocha glaze.

The first to arrive is her former colleague, the village music teacher. He bows silently and hands her a single white lily. Then Elvira, whose brother Arijs is in the insane asylum; my mother is her only friend. Two high school teachers from town, in flowered dresses, with crisp white collars, lace handkerchiefs tucked into their gold watchbands. They dab at their faces, laugh and whisper with my mother. She used to take long Sunday walks with them, going from one Lutheran church to another to look at the new preachers, to see their faces and to sit through their sermons. My father was the handsomest and the smartest, so my mother married him. The doctor limps in, leaning on his cane. His driver carries in his cello and music stand and sets them up, while the doctor kisses my mother's hand and unwraps a bottle of cognac. Sniegs comes in last, looking rushed yet weary. He nods silently to my mother, strolls over, opens her piano, begins to play.

We are allowed to sit on the top steps. We listen to the women's sweet voices, accompanied first by the cello, then a flute, joined finally by the regular throbbing of the piano. The women sing separately, then together.

Tonight there is something special. Sniegs has written a song dedicated to my mother. He stands up, bows, speaks long and importantly, bows formally again and hands the music to my mother. She smiles into his eyes.

"It's a song about the comfort Christ can bring to those who long for him," he says.

"Like twilight to a dreamer Like a goblet of cool water to the weary ..."

The melody is plaintive, not energetic like the hymns in church. Sniegs plays the piano softly, letting his tenor voice rise and yearn. He sings all three verses alone, then my mother joins in. Together they sing the first verse. She leans over his shoulder to follow the music; her hand brushes his arm when she turns a page. After much applause and laughter, the two of them sing the entire song together again.

"How beautifully it expresses religious feeling," Elvira says. The two school teachers whisper and giggle. Distracted from the music, my mother turns around, notices my sister and me, and firmly motions us up the stairs to bed.

"What happened to all those people?" John asks. "Where do you suppose they are right now? Do you think any of them are alive?" I do not know. Sniegs was arrested by the Russians, deported to Siberia. My mother has been dead for more than ten years. My father is alive, remarried, living in a distant city, but then, of course, he wasn't there that night.

"What happened to the song? Did she ever sing it again?" "Oh, yes, yes, she did. She used to hum it."

"Often? When?"

"Oh, sometimes. Her eyes would have that faraway look."

"Ah."

We are silent together.

"Tell me about one time when she hummed it," he says.

I am too surprised to speak. No one ever wants to hear about the painful parts of my past. People have hundreds of ways, both subtle and harsh, to reinforce my own reluctance to tell.

"I really want to know. Please tell me."

No wonder I love him. Sometimes I almost believe he loves me.

"Well, let's see ..."

"Yes?"

We were in a basement in Germany. It seemed quiet for a moment. The Russian soldiers had gotten tired of threatening us, our possessions were all over the muddy floor — clothes, photographs, shattered crystal. We weren't allowed to pick anything up. All the women without children had been dragged away. My father was gone. It was chilly and getting dark.

"Please," I whispered, "I want to go away. Please."

"We can't," she said. "They are still shooting, and anyway, we don't have horses or cars."

"Please."

"Shush, poor little thing, shush."

"Then tell me everything will be all right," I beg. "Please smile at me. Say it will be all right."

She smiles down at me.

"Yes, yes, it will, precious."

She lets me put my head in her lap, she strokes my hair. I cling to her; my sister, Beate, clings to her other side. I close my eyes. I almost do not hear the women pleading behind the partition. The guns seem to recede, but there is a steady rumble in the distance.

"It will be fine," she says, "you'll see. But now you must not make the soldiers angry, you must not cry, you must not speak. You have to be very, very quiet."

I can feel the warmth of her hands on my hair, the warmth of her eyes on my face.

She starts humming, wordlessly at first, then she whispers the words.

"Like twilight to a dreamer,
I know her eyes are sad, that she is looking toward the dark horizon. I want her to look at me, just me, so I hold on harder.

"Yes," he murmurs, "I can see that scene. You must have been very frightened."

We caress each other's eyelids and hair.

"I cherish you," he says.

I struggle to believe him. Outside the rain has changed to sleet. Snow will fall later. It will be treacherous driving or walking, the layer of ice under the deceptively soft snow. I have seen such changes in weather before. To keep the warmth in, I pull the apricot and pearl gray sheets tighter around us both.

Shielded by shadows, away from the world, in a safe and intimate setting, it is possible to talk. But later I regret the telling. To distract myself from my shame, I move into a ritual I have practiced for more than forty years. I am ashamed of it too, but I cannot stop.

I reach for my underwear in the cold and whisper, "Thank you." I repeat the words after every item of clothing I put on because now I will not freeze when I am shoved out into the cold drizzle by the soldiers. Sometimes they are Nazi guards with swastikas on their armbands, more often they are Russian soldiers with impassively cruel faces and slurred words. "Thank you," I murmur as I pull on my shoes and stockings because now I will not have to walk barefoot over frozen mud. I luxuriate in my thick soft sweater, I am relieved as I hurriedly button my skirt. I have made it, I will be warm in the camps, I am all right.

But on my way down the stairs, guilt sweeps over me. Dressed, warm, I move towards crusty bread, fragrant coffee, sweet oranges. My house feels solid and safe and orderly; hyacinths and narcissus bloom indoors here even in the dead of winter. I have everything that others packed onto trains, starving in camps, tortured, gassed, bludgeoned and shot do not. I move resolutely, willing for guilt to pass. I compose my face into a smile. I am known as a cheerful person.

In the summer I dress more quickly to cover my nakedness, shield myself from mud, mosquitoes and whips, before the truck carries me off. Faces from photographs of children from Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Africa, Guatemala, Ethiopia haunt me then. I must hurry.

I know these fantasies trivialize the suffering of millions who were awakened at night, shoved out on cold sidewalks, marched away as their homes and villages burned behind them. Separated from their families, they were packed onto trains headed for concentration camps in Germany, forced labor camps in Siberia, dilapidated shacks far from food and water in Asia, Africa, Central America.

My own experience of war and displacement was different, it was not so bad. How dare I visualize myself like them? How do the real survivors bear it? I ask the empty air.

How?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "A Woman in Amber"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Agate Nesaule.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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