It is dangerous, to tell the truth, but Momik isn't scared. That is, he's scared, but there's just no other way. Bella unknowingly gave him the biggest clue of all when she mentioned the Nazi Beast. That was a very long time ago though, and he hadn't quite understood it then, but the day Grandfather arrived and Momik went down to the cellar to look for the sacred old magazine with his story in it, he understood exactly. And in a way that was when Momik made up his mind to find the Beast and tame it and make it good, and persuade it to change its ways and stop torturing people and get it to tell him what happened Over There and what it did to those people, and it's been about a month now, almost a whole month since Grandfather Anshel arrived that Momik has been busy up to his ears, in complete secrecy, down in the small dark cellar under the house, raising the Nazi Beast.
That was a winter they would remember for years. Not because of the rain, it didn't rain in the beginning, but because of the wind. The winter of '59, said the old people of Beit Mazmil, and no one had to say any more. Momik's father walked around the house at night with yellow gatkes showing under his trousers, and a big wad of cotton in each ear, and he would stuff pieces of torn-up newspaper into the keyholes to stop the wind from getting in which could get in even through there.
At night Mama worked on the sewing machine Shimmik and Idka gave her. Bella fixed it so lots of ladies would bring Mama their quilt covers to mend and their old sheets to patch up and she could earn a little extra for the house. It was a secondhand Singer sewing machine, and when Mama sat working at it and the wheel turned and creaked, Momik felt as if she were controlling the weather outside. The noise from the machine made Papa jumpy, but he didn't say anything, because he also needed the little extra, and besides he didn't want to get into trouble with Mama and her mouth, so he would pace around the house, krechtzing and switching the radio on and off, saying, This wind and all the other troubles are from the government, choleria.
He always voted for the Orthodox Party, not because he was Orthodox, he wasn't one bit, but because he hated Ben-Gurion for being in power, and the General Zionists for being in the Opposition, and Ya'ari forbeing a Communist, pshakrev.
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But Momik was pretty worried, because he noticed that the whistling winds were confusing the people he'd become friendly with lately, and he had this feeling, not that he believed it could actually happen, but things were sure weird and a little scary too. Hannah Zeitrin for instance. She got another installment of her compensation for the tailor shop her family used to own in Danzig, but instead of spending it on food or stuffing it into an old shoe in the storeroom, she went out and bought herself new clothes, aza yar oif mir, may such a year befall me, and the wardrobe of that woman, says Mama to Bella, her eyes burning with rage, the way she wiggles like a boat, the slut, what did she lose out in the street?
And Bella, who is pure gold, and who gives even Hannah a free glass of tea, just laughs and says, What do you care, Gisella, tell me, did you give birth to her at the age of seventy that you should worry so much about her? You know why a woman buys herself a fur coat, don't you, she wants to keep herself warm and the neighbors boiling. And Momik listens and sees that Bella and Mama don't understand, Hannah just wants to look beautiful, that's all, not to make Mama mad, and not even for mating, but because she has a new idea which only Momik knows about from listening to her when she talks to herself and scratches on the bench with the old people.
But Hannah Zeitrin isn't the only one around here who's overdoing it lately. Munin is acting stranger than ever. Actually, with Munin it started even before Grandfather arrived, but now he's really gone too far. Sometime around the beginning of the year, Mr.
Munin heard that the Russians sent Lunik 1 to the moon, and he started to be very interested in space things and became so impatient he made Momik come and tell him anything new he heard about Sputniks, right away, and even promised to pay Momik two piasters for listening to New World of Science on the radio Saturday mornings, and for bringing him a report on everything they say about Our Friend, that's what he calls Lunik 1, as if they know each other. So on Saturday morning after the program Momik runs outside and crawls through the hole in the fence to the back yard ofthe deserted synagogue where Mr.
Munin lives as caretaker. Straightaway he tells him everything they said on the program, and Munin gives him a note on which he wrote in advance on Friday: "In exchange for this note I will pay bearer the sum of 2 two piasters after the Holy Sabbath. When Momik brings really good news about space and the latest discoveries, Munin is very happy. He bends down and draws the moon like a round ball in the dirt with a stick, and beside it all nine planets whose names he knows by heart, and next to that, proud as a baleboos, he draws a picture of his friend, Lunik 1, who didn't quite make it to the moon and so became, nebuch, planet number ten.
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Munin is very knowledgeable, and he explains all about rockets and jet propulsion, and about an inventor called Zaliukov Munin wrote to once about an idea that could get him the Nobel Prize, but then the war broke out and everything went kaput, and the time is not yet ripe to discuss this but someday the whole world will understand who Munin is, and then they'll envy him, oh yes, that's all they'll be able to do, because they will never know what the good life is, the true life, true happiness, yes, he isn't ashamed to say it, the word is happiness, Momo, happiness, it must exist somewhere, right?
Ah, nu, here I go, talking your head off. He drew in the dust as he talked, and Momik stood by, not understanding any of this, facing the bald spot with the dirty black yarmulke on it, and the two pairs of glasses tied together with a yellow rubber band, and the long white whiskers on his cheeks.
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Munin almost always had an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips that had a strange, sharp smell, not like anything he'd ever smelled before, kind of like the smell of carobs on a tree, and in a way Momik does enjoy standing close to Munin and smelling that smell, and Munin doesn't mind too much either. And once when the Americans launched Pioneer 4 and Momik went over before school to tell Munin, he found him sitting in the sun as usual, on an old car seat, warming himself like a cat, and beside him, on an old newspaper, were pieces of wet bread for the birds he always feeds, and the birds know him now and they fly around with him wherever he goes, and Mr.
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Munin had just been reading a holy book with a picture of a naked prophetess on the cover, and it seemed to Momik he'd seen that book somewhere before maybe at Lipschitz's in the shopping center, but how could that be, Mr. Munin wouldn't be interested in things like that, Momik knows the kind of ladies he looks for in the ads. Munin quickly hid the book away and said, Nu,Momo, what news dost thou bring? Marcus are also playing secret roles and they aren't just here by chance, they're here to help Momik, because before he started fighting for his parents and raising the Nazi Beast, he rarely even noticed them.
Okay, maybe he noticed them, but he never used to talk to any of them before except Munin, and he always tried to keep as far away from them as possible, and now he hangs around with them all the time, and when he isn't hanging around with them he's thinking about them and what they say about Over There, and what a dope he was not to understand it before, and the truth is, he did use to sort of make fun of them sometimes because of how they look and stink and things like that, but now Momik hopes for one thing only, that they'll pass him all their secret clues so he'll be able to figure them out before this crazy wind gets them.
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Now Momik can throw his schoolbag down and help Grandfather off with Papa's big, old overcoat, and sniff him quickly and sit him down at the table, and warm up the food for both of them. Grandma Henny used to have lunch in her room because she couldn't get out of bed without help, but Grandfather keeps him company, which is nice, like having a real grandfather you can talk to and all that.
Momik loved Grandma Henny very much. To this day it makes his heart ache to think of her. And all the suffering she suffered when she died too. But anyway, Grandma Henny had a special language she used when she was seventy-nine after she forgot her Polish and Yiddish and the little bit of Hebrew she learned here. When Momik came home from school he used to run in to see how she was, and she would get all excited and turn red and talk in that language of hers.
Momik would bring her food in and sit down to look at her. She pecked at her plate like a bird. She had a permanent smile on her little face, a kind of faraway smile, and she talked to him through her smile. It usually startedwith her getting angry at him, Mendel, for leaving the family like that and going to do poor people's work in a place called Borislav, and from there he wandered off to Russia where he vanished, how could you do such a thing and break our mother's heart, and then she begs him, Sholem, never, ever, even when he reaches America where the streets are paved with gold, to forget that he's a Jew, and to wear tefillin and pray in the synagogue, and then she would ask him, Isser, to play "Sheraleh" on the violin, and she would close her eyes and you could tell she actually heard that violin, yes, and Momik watched not daring to disturb her.
This was better and more exciting than any movie or book, and sometimes he had real tears in his eyes, and Mama and Papa asked what he liked about sitting with Grandma Henny in her room so long, listening to her talk that language no one understands, and Momik said he understood everything. That was a fact.
Because Momik has this gift, a gift for all kinds of languages no one understands, he can even understand the silent kind that people who say maybe three words in their whole life talk, like Ginzburg who says, Who am I who am I, and Momik understands that he's lost his memory and that now he's looking for who he is everywhere even in the garbage cans, and Momik has decided to suggest they've been spending a lot of time on the bench together lately that he should send a letter to the radio program Greetings from New Immigrants , and maybe someone would recognize him and remind him who he is and where he got lost, oh yes, Momik can translate just about anything.
He is the translator of the royal realm. He can even translate nothing into something. Okay, that's because he knows there's no such thing as nothing, there must be something, nu, that's exactly how it is with Grandfather Anshel, who also eats like a bird, peck and gulp, only slightly more frightenedly than Grandma Henny, probably because they had to eat very very fast Over There like the Jews in Egypt on the eve of Passover.
And Momik has also finally managed to crack Grandfather's code, and he knows now that Grandfather is telling the story to a man or boy by the name of Herrneigel, and he calls his name in different ways, sometimes angrily, sometimes flatteringly, or sometimes a little sadly, but three days ago while Momik was listening to Grandfather talk to himself in his room, he distinctly heard him say "Fried," and Momik had come across that name before in the sacred magazine, and his hands started to tremble with excitement, but he told himself, Look, those are old stories, whywould Grandfather tell the same stories over and over and get all excited like that?
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But naturally he had to check it out now, so when he brought Grandfather home from the green bench and sat him down at the table, he blurted out, "Fried! He did give him a very spooky look as a matter of fact, but he didn't do anything, and after sitting still for almost a whole minute, Grandfather said softly and very clearly, "Herrneigel," pointing back over his shoulder with his crooked thumb, as if there were some big or little Herrneigel standing behind him, and then he whispered, "Nazikaput! And Momik just sat there looking at Grandfather, his eyes filled with admiration, and now Grandfather seemed to him exactly like an ancient prophet, Isaiah or Moses, and suddenly he realized that all his past plans about what to be when he grew up had been one big mistake, that there was only one thing worth being in life and that's a writer, like Grandfather Anshel, and the thought puffed him up so much that he almost started flying around the room like a balloon, which is whyhe had to dash to the toilet, but this time it was different, he didn't have to pee after all, and in bewilderment he ran to his room and pulled out his secret notebook, which is also his diary and a truly scientific catalogue of things from Over There, the emperors and kings, the soldiers and the Yiddishists and the athletes from the Jewish Olympics, and the stamps and currency, and precise drawings of all plants and animals, and across the page in great big letters he wrote IMPORTANT DECISION!!!
First he switched on the big radio with the glass panel showing the names of capital cities around the world, and he waited for the green eye to warm up; it looked as if he had already missed the beginning of Greetings from New Immigrants and Locating Lost Relations, and he did hope none of his names had been called out meanwhile. He picked up the list Papa wrote in big letters like a first-grader, and lip-read together with the radio announcing that Rochaleh, daughter of Paula and Avraham Seligson from Phashmishul, is trying to locate her little sister Lealeh who lived in Warsaw between the years Momik doesn't even have to glance at the paper to check, he knows his names by heart.
Esther Neuman ne;e Shapira, and the child, Mordechai Neuman, and Zvi Hirsch Neuman, and Sarah-Bella Neuman, a lot of lost Neumans wandering around Over There, and Momik is only half listening now, pronouncing the names like the woman on the radio, in a sad singsong that sort of sinks into despair which he has beenlistening to every lunchtime since he first learned how to read and they gave him the list with the names, Yizhak son of Avraham Neuman, and Arieh Leib Neuman, and Gitel daughter of Hirschel Neuman, all the Neumans, Papa's family, very, very distantly related, he's been told so many times, and he traces circles on the paper which is stained with the grease of a thousand lunches, and in each circle there's a name, but suddenly Momik notices that this is like the singsong of the old people telling their stories about Over There.
It's now, time to get going.
He wipes the table meticulously, and washes the dishes in his own special way soap, rinse, soap and rinse again till the forks and plates glisten and give him naches, because he can't stand dirty silverware lying in the sink, as they very well know, and then he puts the quarter of a chicken he didn't touch into a brown paper bag and looks through the refrigerator to see what he can take for the Beast. So far so good though. He's had some great catches. A big hedgehog he found in the back yard with a pointy black face, sad-looking like a little person, and there's a turtle he found down in Ein Kerem that's still in hibernation, and there's a toad that wanted to cross the road but Momik saved its life and brought it down here, and a lizard that unhitched its tail the instant Momik caught it, but Momik couldn't resist so he scooped up the tail with a piece of paper it was pretty disgusting and put the tail in a separate cage with a sign saying: An as yet unfamiliar animal.
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May be venomous. But then he had a scientific conscience about it and added a correction that looked more honest: Tail may be venomous , because you never can tell. And there was also a kitten that most likely went crazy in the dark cage, and then--this is what you could call the crowning touch of the collection--there was the young raven that fell out of its nest in the pine tree kerplunk onto the little balcony.
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