SHORT STORY CONTEST
THE MEMORY OF MIRIAM
by Kelly Glass
I brush the leaves from my coat and hang it in the small foyer closet. Miriam’s coat hangs there too: a black pea coat that hugged her hips and collected stray hairs from the cat. There are times I move in close and bury my face in the neck of her coat. The wool scratches against my cheeks and I imagine the scent of her skin still clinging to the rough fibers. Miriam’s raincoat and scarves live in the closet too. I could pass days simply sitting and listening to all the memories pouring from her garments. Jewel weaves her fat body around my legs, meowing her displeasure that I haven’t greeted her.
“Hi, my friend,” I say, softly leaning over to stroke her fur. “I’m leaving on a 5:20 a.m. flight out of LaGuardia tomorrow so I’d better do some laundry. But first, some tea.”
From my window I see the trees standing guard to the entrance of my small backyard; their foliage spreads out and overlaps like school girls linking arms for a game of Red Rover. The wind blows by to say hello and the trees respond in a chorus of applause. An army of fat, black carpenter ants make their way across the deck in search of breakfast. The steam from my tea cup swirls around my face and I am content for a moment. I close my eyes and see our room: pale buttery yellow walls, faded blue and white bedspread, a mason jar filled with wildflowers, a book of poems marked up with notes on my nightstand. Miriam picked the yellow paint for the walls, and I, the bedspread. She had an affinity for wildflowers growing on the side of the road and I’ve kept up the habit of picking them for her. The walls of my room in this place are beige, but I still have the bedspread. The wind makes another pass and the trees cheer again. The flowers are waking, stretching their petals to the sky, preparing to sunbathe awhile. It is a good day to be alive. Tomorrow I am headed back to Auschwitz.
When I was young, the thought of my memory fading terrified me, but now, as I wait in line at the welcome center, I am grateful. I pay twelve dollars to enter the place that held me captive for three years. I want to tell the clerk to look in his logbook and he’ll see under my name a notation that reads: Asher Reichenburg, paid in full with his life, but I don’t. Instead, I slide my money across the counter and say, “You may want to consider changing the name of your building.” He stares at me as if I’ve gone insane. Perhaps I have.
I wander through the buildings, the memories hazy from time. “I have defied these bastards,” I think as I walk freely through this place, touching the rough walls with my weathered hands.
The last building I enter houses items our captors took from us: glasses, prosthetics, children’s clothing, shoes, hair. I turn, the glint of sun off metal catching my eye. I step up to the glass and lay both hands on its smooth, clear surface. The space is cavernous, filled with hundreds of pieces of cookware: aluminum pots stained and seasoned from years of use, yellow bowls with delicate flowers hugging the outside, oval baking dishes the color of the sky; all with chips and cracks to their lips and handles. When Hitler’s men came to our town, they rounded us up, barking orders to take only the most precious items. I can still hear their jackboots on the cobblestone plaza, still see their brass buttons catching the sun, blinding us.
A memory of Miriam comes to me then. She is squatting in our kitchen, rummaging around in the cabinets.
“Miriam, let’s go love. I have what we need.”
“Just a second,” she replies, her voice muffled by the cabinet.
I am about to grab her arm when she stands up, triumphant, with her grandmother’s cake pan in her hands. The tube pan holds dents and scratches from years of use and hundreds of happy memories: the touch of her grandmother’s worn, loving hands, her mother’s bright, carefree voice. Miriam looks up at me with tears in her eyes and says, “It’s tangible, Ash.”
I look down at the stack of photographs in my hands and know the tube pan will be the thing we save.
The Germans split us up on the trains. They said it was for privacy reasons and we believed them. That was the last time I ever saw my Miriam. She was standing in line wearing her black pea coat, clutching that pan of memories.
Perhaps Miriam’s pan lies in the room in front of me and I smile at the thought of her standing in our kitchen, in a house that no longer exists, wielding a tube pan like a shield. The pan will never be recovered, but I have her coat. Miriam’s coat came back to me by sheer happenstance. After the war, after I returned to our home only to find a pile of rocks and a few memories in the rubble, government officials ordered the cataloguing of all items found at the camps. Someone found Miriam’s coat with her note inside, matched up our names and just like that, her coat arrived at my small apartment one bright, spring day. I will never know the name of the person who broke the law to send me her coat. It came only with a note that read, “Live for her.”
I find my way to the main entrance and step outside of the old wrought iron gate that secured us from the outside world. The sign that mocked us is still there: “Work Makes You Free.” With a steady hand I pull out a copy of the note Miriam left in her pocket:
My dearest Asher,
Love is a measurable, tangible thing. It is not in the oratory of great poets or geniuses of prose. It is the crinkle that comes to your eyes when you smile over at me. Love is in your hand reaching up to cover my ear from a blaring siren. And in my small hands working the knots from your back. Don’t be afraid. The heartache is going to come. It is going to plow right through you until you’re almost dead and then come back for a second pass. The lights will go out. An avalanche of hurt and regret will bury you neck deep. Don’t be afraid. Remember the texture of love and you will survive.
All my love,
I pull out the small roll of tape I brought from home and attach Miriam’s note on the post underneath the arch of the main entrance. I look up one last time at the Nazi saying on the fence and bark out a laugh. The only thing that makes us free is love.
Kelly Glass is a Language Arts teacher at St. Francis High School in Milton, Georgia. In addition to teaching, Kelly has presented at numerous conferences on works by Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Gaskell and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and topics such as strategies for assisting non-traditional students in college writing centers. When not writing, she thinks about hiking; when hiking, she thinks about reading; when reading, she thinks about things she can write about. Her work has appeared in The Drowning Gull.