Authors: Eva Wiseman
A Place Not Home
My Canary Yellow Star
No One Must Know
For my parents and my husband
“There is no witness so terrible, no accuser so
powerful as the conscience which dwells within us.”
SOPHOCLES (496 BC-406 BC)
When I was a child and tattled on my younger sister, my mother would admonish me: “Don't be a Morris Scharf !” My curiosity was piqued. I asked her about the identity of Morris Scharf. My mother's recount of the blood accusation of Jewish people living in Tisza-Eszlar, Hungary in 1882 and the blood libel court case that followed it in 1883 was the cornerstone of this novel. I based the trial scenes on the court transcripts from the
, a daily Hungarian newspaper at the time, which were published in entirety in Elek Judit-Sükösd Mihály's 1990 book,
I would like to thank my father, my husband, and my children for their critical reading of the manuscript of this book.
I also want to thank my editors Kathy Lowinger and Heather Sangster for never steering me wrong.
I want to express my appreciation to the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for their support.
THE VILLAGE OF TISZA-ESZLAR, HUNGARY
It happened a long time ago when we were young girls in short skirts. It was before my ma got sick and even before Esther's mother had to sell their cow, Magda.
In the field behind Esther's house, we were lying in the tall grass. It tickled the bottom of our bare feet. I was chewing on a blade of grass, luxuriating in the summer sunshine hot on our faces and legs and arms. Esther's eyes were closed. A happy smile on her face transformed her plain features to near prettiness.
Suddenly, her stomach growled so loudly I could hear it.
“I'm hungry!” she said.
I spat out the blade of grass. “Me too.” I peered into the sky. “It's another hour to lunch.”
It was useless to ask Esther's mother for food. The whole village knew Widow Solymosi had trouble enough scraping together the daily meals of four hungry people.
Esther pushed herself up onto her elbows.
“I'm starving! I can't wait another minute to eat something.”
“Well, you'll have to, unless you want to eat grass like Magda.”
She laughed. “I won't eat grass, but you gave me an idea. I'll milk Magda. The milk will tide us over.”
I sat up.
“You can't! You don't know how and you're too young. Your mama will never let you milk the cow.”
“She doesn't have to find out. I know what to do. I've seen her do it a thousand times.”
She stood up and pulled me off the ground.
“You'll get in trouble,” I warned her.
“You're such a scaredy-cat, Julie. Mama will never find out. She's helping Farmer Veres in the fields today. She won't be home till nightfall.”
Magda was lying on the straw in the barn. She struggled to her feet when she saw us. Esther undid the latch on the gate and we went into the cow's stall. She scratched Magda behind her ear. The cow mooed.
“See how friendly she is?”
Esther slapped Magda's flank. The cow mooed again.
Then she took a milking stool and bucket from the corner of the stall. Placing the stool beside the cow's rump, she lined up the pail under her udder and grabbed one of the cow's teats. I retreated to the farthest corner of the stall.
“Don't be such a coward,” she said. “Watch me.”
She squeezed the cow's teat, but no milk came out.
“I guess I'm not squeezing hard enough.”
“Stop it!” I pleaded.
Magda looked so big and I was afraid she would trample me. I tried to take another step back but couldn't. The rough wooden walls of the stall felt scratchy against my neck and my arms.
“I'm going to squeeze harder.” I saw Esther's hands move, and a second later Magda's hind hooves flew into the air. Esther fell back, the stool on its side, as her pail clattered to the floor. Magda took a step. Esther screamed.
“My foot! My foot! Help me!”
I ran at the cow, butting my head against her rump, pushing her away from Esther with my arms. The cow wouldn't budge. Esther was bleating with pain.
The stool was upended on the floor. I picked it up and threw it at Magda's hindquarters with all my might. She finally lumbered off Esther's right foot.
I dragged Esther out of the barn, a trail of blood marking our way. I laid her down on the ground. Her eyes were closed and she was white as snow. When I saw the large, open wound at the base of her big toe, I ran to get help.
Leslie the Brave grasped the handle of the frying pan and held it high in the air, ready to smite the black-hearted Devil cowering at his feet.
“This will teach you not to ravish young maidens!” cried Leslie as his frying pan met the top of the Devil's noggin with a loud thunk.
The audience's cheers almost drowned out Leslie's words. He bowed in our direction, and the Devil sprang to his feet and ran away. As soon as Leslie noticed he had lost his quarry, he was in hot pursuit.
Sophie Solymosi and I were standing so close to the stage that I could see every crack on Leslie the Brave's wooden face, his bulbous red nose, and the stains on the puppet's braided scarlet coat.
I looked for Esther among the laughing villagers, but
there was no sign of her. She had promised her sister and me that she would try to get her mistress's permission to come. After all, traveling puppet shows were a rare occurrence in remote Tisza-Eszlar.
“Do you see Esther anywhere?” Sophie's broad face was full of concern. “She should be here by now.”
“I guess Mrs. Huri wouldn't let her come.”
“That witch treats my little sister worse than a slave! Mama says that the minute we have two forints to rub together, Esther will be able to quit.”
We turned back to the stage. Leslie the Brave was tiptoeing behind the Devil's back, his frying pan once again high in the air. A child's high-pitched voice rose from the back of the crowd.
“What's Leslie the Brave doing?” he asked.
He was shushed by an older boy about my age, holding his hand. I recognized him right away. It was Morris Scharf, with his little brother, Sam. Their black pants, the tassels hanging out from below their white shirts, and the black skull caps covering their hair marked them as Jew boys from the Old Village. They stood out like ravens among the peasant women in their embroidered skirts and many petticoats and the men in their wide pantaloons. The long, curling forelocks in front of their ears made them seem strange and exotic. Morris was much taller and skinnier than I remembered.
I watched him, curious, for I hadn't talked to Morris in a long time. He and I were the same age. We used to play
together when we were young children while my ma sewed for Mrs. Rosenberg, a friend of Morris's stepmother. Morris could barely speak Hungarian, but it didn't matter. We played wild games of tag among the rose bushes in Mrs. Rosenberg's garden while Ma was fitting her for her new clothes. When I grew older, Ma left me at home when she went to her fine ladies' houses. The rare times I saw Morris in the streets, he would say a bashful hello but hurry off before I could speak to him. Jew boys kept to themselves.
I must have been staring because Morris glanced up and our eyes met for a moment. He lowered his head and a crimson flush crept into his cheeks. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing. He looked so funny with his ears on fire.
I turned back to the stage when the crowd around us began to scream and whistle. They began to chant “Kill the Devil! Kill the Devil!” Leslie the Brave knocked the Devil to the ground and was sitting on top of him, bringing the play to an end.
“That was funny!” I said to Sophie as I adjusted my kerchief to make sure it covered my left cheek.
Sophie slipped her arm through mine. “Let's go home.”
“Do you want to stop off at Mrs. Huri's to see Esther?”
“That old crow won't let Esther talk to us,” said Sophie glumly.
“We can try speaking to her in the yard, while Mrs. Huri is inside. I'm worried about Esther.”
Sophie sighed. “So am I. She's been acting strange lately. She never smiles. She's always so sad. Remember how she used to sing like a songbird while she worked? She never opens her mouth nowadays, and she won't tell me what's bothering her when I ask her.”
“Perhaps she'll tell me.”
As we picked our way through the audience, I looked for the Jew boys, but they had disappeared.
We snuck into Mrs. Huri's yard through the side gate. Esther was feeding chickens grain from a wide wicker basket. There were large chickens and small chickens, fat chickens and a few puny ones. Bright yellow chicks at the back of the brood were desperately pecking at the ground. The squawking of the hungry birds was deafening. There was no sign of Esther's mistress.
She greeted us listlessly.
“Why didn't you come to the puppet show? We were waiting for you,” said Sophie.
“Mrs. Huri wouldn't let me leave.” Esther shrugged her shoulders. “I don't care.”
She threw the last handful of feed among the chickens, put down the basket on the porch steps, and wiped her hands on her apron.
“I'm going to eat my lunch. Can you stay for a while?” she asked.
I didn't know what to do. If Pa got home before me, he'd have my hide. I studied the sun. With some luck, I had a few minutes of freedom left.
“Pa probably won't be home yet. I can stay.”
“So can I,” said Sophie.
Sophie worked as a maid for the Rosenbergs, who treated her as well as their daughter, Rosie. Her clothes were much nicer than Esther's and mine. She could come and go as she pleased, as long as her chores were done.
Esther led us down a narrow path that cut through a vegetable garden at the back of the yard. She unlatched a door set into the wooden fence and we walked toward the meandering stream almost obscured by the bulrushes on its banks. Esther pulled aside the tall, reedy plants to reveal a small clearing. Sophie and I squeezed through the bulrushes and sat down on the ground beside her.
“This is my secret place,” she said. “I come here whenever I can. The mistress can't find me here.”
She pulled a piece of dark bread out of her apron pocket.
“Do you want to share?” she asked.
The sight of the bread made my mouth water, but I shook my head. I knew that was all she was given for her meal.
“I'll eat at home.”
“Me too,” said Sophie.
“I'm not really hungry,” said Esther and began to pick at the crust.
“I wish you could have seen the puppet show,” said Sophie. “It was so funny! I couldn't stop laughing.”
“Leslie the Brave makes a wonderful hero.”
Esther didn't seem to be paying attention to us. Her arms were wound across her chest as she rocked back and forth, her eyes fixed on the gurgling clear waters below us. We could see the pebbles on the streambed and tiny silvery fish darting about.
“The water,” said Esther in a dreamy voice. “It's so pure, so clean.”
I had the feeling she had forgotten we were with her.
“What's the matter with you?” asked Sophie. “Talk to us!”
Esther blinked as if surprised back into wakefulness. She plucked at the red-striped belt she always wore around her waist.
“What's the use?” she asked. “Each day is the same as the day before, full of misery, hunger, backbreaking work. It'll never change.” Her voice cracked and she wiped away a tear with a corner of her apron. “Sometimes, I think I should just …”
“Just what?” said Sophie. I shared the fear in her voice. “Just what?” she repeated. “Talk to me, Esther. What's the matter with you?”
Esther didn't reply for a long moment.
“I can't –”
A harsh voice from behind the fence interrupted her. We heard footsteps crunching on the grass.
“Where are you, Esther? Where are you, girl? I need you. Don't think you can hide from me!”
Esther put her finger to her lips and we fell silent. I was afraid even to breathe.
The footsteps receded. Esther pushed the bulrushes aside and peeked out.
“I have to get back to the house!”
In an instant, she had disappeared.
The spring sun warmed the crown of my head. It also reminded me that Pa would be home soon.
“I have to go too. Pa will want his lunch.”
I didn't have to explain to Sophie why I was running. She knew my father.
Even during the brightest part of the day, the sun barely penetrated the narrow windows of our cottage. It took a few seconds before my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I could see the clay walls Ma had convinced Pa to whitewash. He had grumbled that it was a waste of money. I had to blink several times before I could make out the rough-hewn wooden table and chairs in the center of the room. The four cots lining the walls were the only other pieces of furniture. There was also a wood-burning metal fireplace in the corner that gave us heat in the winter. I had chopped wood, stacked it in the fireplace, and lit it before I left the house for the puppet show. I realized Pa would
be angry that I made a fire on such a warm afternoon, but Ma was always so cold nowadays. Through an open door, I could see into the chimneyless kitchen with its cast-iron stove and door leading to the yard. When she was still able to cook, Ma had always left this door open to allow the smoke to escape.
Ma was lying on the cot closest to the fireplace. Clara was sitting on the clay floor, crooning softly to the doll I had made for her out of a stick of wood and some rags. I noticed how my sister's thin arms and legs stuck out from under her skirt and blouse. She was three years old and growing fast. I would have to get some money somehow to buy material for new clothes for her. On one of her good days, Ma would sew her a new dress in no time.
Ma's eyes were closed and I was glad she seemed to be asleep. Sleep was the only respite she got from the terrible pain gnawing at her. It was about a year ago that the pain first came. Ma tried to ignore it, but after a while it couldn't be ignored. She begged and cajoled Pa in her gentle way, but he wouldn't agree to call the Jew doctor to come and see her. He said that you couldn't trust one of them Jews.
The day came when I couldn't stand to see her suffer any longer. Pa was working in the fields, so I fetched Dr. Weltner myself. I knew Pa would beat me if he ever found out, but I didn't care.
When the doctor's horse-drawn buggy arrived, Ma told me to take Clara outside. I carried her to the yard, but I left
the back door open a crack so I could hear what was going on inside. I set Clara down to play in the dirt and stole up to the door to listen.
No sound came from the room.
“Come here, Julie,” Clara cried from behind me. “Look what I drawed!”
I rushed up to hush her.
“Look what I drawed!” she repeated, pointing to the stick figure she had traced in the dirt. “It's a princess!”
“She's beautiful, just like you. Draw another one.”
I went back to the door. It was still silent in the room, then a bag was snapped closed.
“I am afraid that I have bad news for you, Mrs. Vamosi,” the doctor said solemnly.
I crept even closer and nudged the door open a little more so I could see what was happening.
The doctor was sitting on Ma's bed, patting her hands.
“You have a tumor in your breast,” he said.
I could hear the sudden intake of Ma's breath.
“I don't understand,” she said, her voice quivering.
“It's cancer,” the doctor said. “Something that shouldn't be there is growing inside your chest. I am afraid there is nothing I can do to help you. There is no cure for your disease.”
A sob escaped Ma's lips. “Dear Mother of God, what will I do? What will happen to me? What will happen to my girls?”
“I might not be able to cure you, but I can give you something to help with the pain — at least for a while.”
“We have no money for medicines.”
“Don't worry about the money” the doctor said. He took something out of his bag and handed it to Ma. I couldn't see what it was. “When you can't bear the pain, fill a thimble with this powder, mix it with water, and drink it. It will help with the pain, although it will make you drowsy.”
“My husband won't let me accept charity,” Ma whispered.
“Trust me, Mrs. Vamosi. You will need the medicine. Hide it where your husband won't see it. It will help,” he repeated.
Clara started crying. I ran to pick her up. By the time I had soothed her, the doctor was climbing back into his buggy.
I took Clara into the house. When I asked, Ma wouldn't tell me what the doctor had said to her. Nor was there a sign of the powder. However, I always knew when Ma took her medicine because she slurred her words and became sleepy. As the days went by, she took her medicine more and more often. I could also see by the tightening of her lips and her moans that it was helping her less and less with each passing day. My ma who used to love to sing, my ma who used to make better meals out of very little than anybody else, my ma who used to braid my hair, my ma who used her gentle ways to rein in Pa's temper — that Ma was forever gone. Nowadays, she spent her days in bed, dozing off, restlessly waking and then crying whenever her eyes rested on Clara or me.
I bent down and kissed the top of her head softly. She was burning up. I wet a rag with water from the earthenware pitcher on the table and tried to squeeze a few drops into her mouth. Then I dampened her face and hands gently with the cloth. The pitcher was half-empty I would have to go to the village well tomorrow for drinking water while Clara took her nap.
Clara began to whine.
“I'm hungry Julie. Give me something to eat.”