Echoes of Time
Queens, New York. 2013.
“A cousin give me this,” she says, smoothing over the brooch with her thumb. “She give me this before she left Romania. And then her ship was sank by Germans and she die.” My grandmother asks if I would like any more sherry, which she keeps in a glass medicine bottle. I am silent as she pours me another shot. “Is why I don’t like fish. When I eat I think the fish eat her and I eat the fish. Is spoiled.” Her declarative tone is jarring, but her accent is soothing. It gives her a mystique that I can’t quite mimic, nor have yet to observe in any other human being. Her words possess something pure and rare. I press the button and start recording.
Bucharest, Romania. 1942.
Rifca held Lotti as she shivered in her sleep. The room, which both sisters shared, was meant to be a service room for the maid. It belonged to the family that lived in the rest of the apartment, but they rented it for cheap. They were required to take the back stairs instead of the elevator when coming and going. A sofa, sink, and toilet were more than enough.
She kept her head veiled with a scarf as she walked into the pharmacy for work. The customers either greeted her with smirks or disregarded her as she continued to the small laboratory in the back. Her boss’s wife, a beefy Christian woman with a delicate disposition, snuck in behind her.
“How are you faring?” she whispered.
Rifca was always curt when discussing business. These adjustments in speech were necessary. A queer inflection, a careless slur, a hushed prayer, Rifca learned, could all lead to accusations if overheard by someone untrustworthy, unknown. The Christians, those indecisive people, snatched businesses and nabbed politicians, dangled Jews from meat hooks and etched curses on the remainders of their disemboweled bodies. They glared and shunned and tolerated. Only few empathized with those woeful eyes. How grateful Rifca was to have found what was so rare in Christians – kindness.
Throughout the day, Rifca measured crystalline salicylates and prepared caplets of aspirin with steady hands, which she then bottled and labeled with the same precision. It was comforting to have a profession. Her brother, Avraham, worked on the assembly line in a tire factory in Iași. A job, yes. But not a durable profession. Lotti, barred from universities, would have to continue medical school “after the war,” a phrase with little weight or meaning.
Like his wife, Mr. Tilea, Rifca’s boss, checked up on her. His stoicism and professionalism often eroded when he entered that back room.
“How much do you need?” he asked her.
“A kilogram should do.”
He left the lab and returned with a paper bag.
“Here,” he said, handing it to her.
She nodded with a thank you.
These final words were full of worry as he walked out the door.
That night, moonlight flickered behind shifting clouds, partially illuminating the park. As she waited, Rifca blended in with the darkened silence. She kept the bag under the bench and behind her feet, a layer of ripe fruits concealing the items beneath it. The park, with its serpentine trails and gardens, was a floral maze. Safe and misleading.
A woman wearing a tattered coat gently approached Rifca. She gestured to the open space on the bench. Rifca nodded and the woman sat beside her.
“How much for cough syrup and aspirin?” the woman asked. Her chills rippled through Rifca’s bones.
As the woman shifted through her purse, Rifca unearthed the bottles of medicine from the paper bag. They swapped without speaking. Before getting up, the woman took Rifca’s hand and held it in her own, tenderly squeezing it. Then she stood up and walked off into the dimly lit night.
Botoşani, Romania. 1947.
The multicolored blur of nature’s hues mesmerized Rifca as she sat on the train with her husband. She peered and pondered the specs of red and gold in the vastness of green, the distorted vision of the train in the river’s reflection, the crooked houses teetering on the mountainsides.
“Is it like this where you live?” she asked.
“Eh, not so much.”
Earlier that day, Bercu had been late to his own wedding. Besides the couple, the only two attendees were Mr. Tilea and Rifca’s uncle, who were there as witnesses. But as the afternoon passed on, they began to question whether they would be needed.
“Maybe he changed his mind!” they teased.
Rifca and Bercu had contemplated marriage for five years now, but Bercu refused to wed until he completed his final year of medical school. His education had been halted by Romania’s wartime decree that forbid Jews from attending universities. After the war, as a consolation, the universities offered an exam to those unfortunate students shy of credits that, if passed, would automatically reward them their diploma. But what kind of doctor would Bercu be without the full six years of schooling? Without the hospital clinics, the experience? What kind of man would he be if he complied with yet another decree? If he allowed his education to be manipulated and devalued again and again? So Bercu re-enrolled in university and Rifca waited.
But now he was ready for marriage, and what a day for a wedding! Josip Tito, the dictator of Yugoslavia, was in Bucharest visiting King Mihai of Romania. This one man’s regality resulted in a complete shutdown of the city’s transportation. Buses and subways were suspended. Bridges and roadways were barricaded. Cars and taxis were diverted. Bercu, witnessing the chaos and obstructions, chuckled out of frustration. He had no option but to walk to City Hall.
“Oh, how wonderful a guest Tito is!” Rifca joked.
Their wearisome trip ended as the train pulled into the station. It was already late, and the darkness of night guided them as they trekked to Bercu’s childhood home
As they neared the house, Rifca noticed a candle in the highest window. The window framed a girl whose features were obscured by the flame’s unsteady light. Her presence permeated the empty street like a watchful phantom. A surge of coldness overcame Rifca, and she adjusted her shawl to cover her shoulders and neck.
“Are they all home?” Rifca asked Bercu as he knocked on the door.
“I’d assume so.”
The muffled noise of Bercu’s pounding fist made the house seem hollow, and it surprised Rifca that anyone even answered the door.
“Ima,” he greeted his mother in a boyish tone.
Bercu’s father and two sisters shuffled downstairs squinting their tired eyes, except for the younger sister, Anuta, who appeared awfully alert for such a late hour.
“Why are you here?” The mother asked them both, yet looked only at Rifca. They had met once before at the pharmacy where Rifca worked, but it was a brief and businesslike encounter.
“She’s my wife.”
“Your wife?” the father repeated.
“You married a girl without a dowry?” He knew only of Rifca’s status and nothing of her being. “You’re a doctor! A doctor! And you choose to take her? You left me with two girls to marry! How foolish could you be?”
The father’s shouts echoed in everyone’s ears. He yanked Anuta’s feeble wrist and threw the girl at her brother. Bercu desperately tried to subdue his sister’s convulsing body, but her hysterics were ceaseless.
“Take her with you!” the father demanded.
“Don’t leave without taking a girl!”
Anuta, no older than fifteen, clung to her brother’s waist with her nails and wailed as if someone were beating her with a brick.
“Please don’t go without me! You won’t! You won’t!”
“But I… we should…” Bercu muttered, reaching out for his wife’s hand.
“No!” Anuta shrieked. She ran up the stairs. Freed from his sister’s grasp, Bercu took Rifca and hurried out the door.
The couple looked up at the house’s façade and saw Anuta standing on the window ledge. Her torso swayed in the breeze. Then she stiffened and fell forward, her arms stretching outward with nothing to embrace. Rifca looked away.
Piatra Neamț, Romania. 1932.
As January settled in, icy veins of frost crept across the windowpanes. Snow continuously flittered and coated nature with white. Rifca watched in amusement as her siblings climbed the slicked tree out front. The branches bent and waved, brittle twigs extending like delicate fingers. That was the tree their father had planted, a nuca tree. Come spring, theirs was the only yard littered with nuts. All three children would gather the nuts by hand, rubbing the raw, indented shells with their palms. Father would inspect their findings and, if ripe enough, the nuts would be used to bake nuca bread. Sometimes the scent of dough lingered in the corners of the house, as did extra loaves in the cupboards.
“Take this!” Rifca said, handing her father a loaf of nuca bread. He was preparing to journey to a neighboring city with his brothers for business. A horse drawn sleigh loaded with barrels of wine for delivery stood beyond the tree with her pesky siblings.
“Thank you,” he said, grinning.
As he was about to leave, he had an overwhelming realization. “Oh, and before I go…” He paused to run into his room and rummage through a drawer. “…An early birthday gift.”
He handed her a gold watch. It had a thin band and a small circular face like a pill. The time was stuck on 5:19. “It needs to be repaired a bit. But it works.”
Rifca tried to impress her father by snapping it around her wrist with one hand, but she was clumsy and kept dropping it.
“Here, do it like this.” He clamped it shut effortlessly. “You’ll figure it out.”
Rifca kissed her father on the cheek, and then he left.
On the ninth of January, seven days after her birthday, Rifca’s father returned home. Her mother opened the door to greet her husband, letting in a gust of snowy air. Rifca peeked through the crack behind her mother. She saw a black blanket draped over the sled and her uncles kneeling beside it. Her mother’s face turned as gray as the winter sky.
“Inside. Now.” She commanded her daughter while she slipped on a pair of boots to go outside.
When she reentered the house, Rifca, Lotti, and Avraham were waiting quietly in the kitchen. A weary stillness settled over them. Their father, they were told, had died of a stroke. Rifca felt the fingers of her ribcage interlock and tighten around her heart. The sounds of her sister’s sobs and her brother’s resistances were warbled and muffled.
“Don’t talk this way, mommy! I’ll beat you if you talk this way! Stupid things! Don’t repeat it, I’ll beat you!”
There came a point where only silence was heard. The creaking, the dripping, the stomping, the moaning. Every word, uttered or not, had succumb to a permanent loss of sound. It was in this silence that Rifca laid on the floor with her father. She removed the sheet that covered his body and kissed him. And she stayed there parallel to him, refusing to stand, their faces so near that she believed her tears to be his. She stayed there even when men came to take him away. They stood around, crying at the sight of a daughter kissing and holding her dead father. But the only noise Rifca heard was the deafening silence of her broken watch.
Queens, New York. 2014.
My grandmother tells my mom and I that she’s canceled her appointment to remove the cancer on her cheek. Instead, she covers it with a Band-Aid.
“I take with me to my grave.”
Today is her ninety-seventh birthday.
“But you don’t look a day over eighty-five,” I joke.
I sit across the table from her and study her skin, an aged parchment shedding tales with every movement, every touch. Her nails resemble withered pieces of tree bark growing sideways from her curved fingers. The lines and folds of her hands are a language of time, of war, of loss, a scripture I can’t decode.
“What was it like where you lived as a child?” I ask.
“The city where I lived is a very beautiful city. Was mountains and was…what you call…”
“Yeah. And we have very big park. Was a different level where it plateau, and
you can see the city of Piatra Neamț. You know, from up. And after this you go a little bit higher. They call it, ‘The Corner of the Gospodina.’ When a woman is clean and cooks and she bakes and she does everything, you tell she’s a very good gospodina. She does good everything.”
She pauses to sip her sherry. I do the same.
“You know, Lotti went to Romania. She went after so many years. And specially to go see our house. Was important to her. The house didn’t existed because it was transformed. But the tree of nuts was still there.”
Rifca Covrigaru, inspiration for Echoes of Time