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Author: Tovli Simiryan
Location: West Virginia

diamond icon Tovli is an award-winning writer living in West Virginia with her husband, Yosif. The family came to America as refugees from Moldova in 1992. A collection of short stories and memoirs, entitled Ruach of the Elders—Spiritual Teachings of the Silent, was published in 2009 by HDM Publishers. You can contact Tovli at tovli102@verizon.net.



The Pieces of Ester

Part 1: Cartography of War


“There’s a tear in my song. Don’t wipe it away—it’s my gift to you.”

--R. Shlomo Carlebach z”l



Throughout Mama’s life, stones from Moldova’s deep pool of drowned longings floated to the surface. Each dawn, her eyes opened like bright flames, anxious to regain consciousness. Holocaust shadows had fallen into creases within her soul, never eroding the precious light deposited there.

“I can’t see this morning,” she told her son following her eighty-seventh Kippur.

“Don’t lie, Mama. Of course you see.”

“It’s not completely dark,” she explained in Romanian, her son translating for the doctor. “It’s like the day war rose from the Nistru and darkness surrounded our village, bumping the borders of Germany and Russia. When Germany gets bumped, there’s hell to pay.”

“Concentrate, Mama. The doctor is trying to understand what’s happening to your eyes.”

“They’ve blown out, like candles. I’ve become Moldova—my vision stolen by Soviets. Damn them. Then again, their army was strong, their weapons relentless and the soldiers thin. At least Russian horizons weren’t pinkish clouds of smoking skin and crematoriums. They protected us, but stole our country.

The next morning I kissed Mama awake, asking if she was still blind.

“Forever. I’ve seen enough in this life.”

“Then tell stories, Mama, of Gulags and how Papa returned empty. Describe the bombs and how you hid inside Kazakhstan from nazis.”

Mama dropped a slice of lemon in her chai. “I’ll tell a story about dreaming in America. They made us refugees, explaining we belonged to Florida. It was fall, but the earth was pastel. Everything man-made in Florida is pink. Everything from G-d is a mixture of blue and white. There were endless, cobalt oceans, bordered by white beaches, scented with salty, warm winds. I believed my mother’s kitchen was nearby. War never wounded this place. Americans said that wasn’t so, but I didn’t believe them. If wars happened on American soil, they left no scars. That would be as big a miracle as Egyptian soldiers thumped soundless by G-d’s finger. Victories don’t happen abruptly. They leave wounds.”

Ester’s eyes were colorless. The iris had separated from its pupil and a sliver of film floated like a dead body about to smile. She continued, “I decided we were safe and no longer needed to pray. That night, I dreamed we’d returned to Moldova. Birds murmured in spring-like voices. There were grapes in Papa’s vineyard. This peacefulness reminded me of an anthem tucked away so deeply, I’d forgotten its melody was for the downtrodden people whose voices burst forth following centuries of silence. I was one of them, so I sang, ‘The breath of war has melted into our soil.’ That’s how it ended. I promised G-d in my sleep I’d never stop praying for horizons and boundaries made of warm air.”

“So the dream was a prayer?”

“A prayer to see as far as G-d and keep American skies blue and oceans sprinkled with just enough white borders to remember good days end quickly.”

“I love you Mama.”

The next day, a brilliant fall embraced our New York neighborhood and America was attacked. Low flying jets, preparations for injured victims who never arrived and threats the National Guard would patrol streets at timed intervals ripped the crisp soul from our new nation.

Reluctantly, we informed Ester. “Mama. War is inside America. Our buildings still burn. Pieces of bodies are mixed forever with air. The wound is so deep, not even the President can erase the scar.”

Mama kissed a picture of President Bush. “I’ll smell smoke and dying bodies in my dreams again. Darkness will bump into dawn. It’ll be a long time before America sleeps.” She touched her son’s nose, checking for tears. She grabbed my hand tightly when I kissed her awake every morning after war started.

“Mama, are you afraid of not being able to see?”

“I see fine, Tanichkah. I’m an old ghost who tolerates sadness.”


* * * *


Seven years passed and Ester’s voice collapsed into gentle stillness, her wingback recliner clutching her body like a soft glove. Little crumbs settled within cloth wrinkles, convincing us pieces of her remained. We were careful not to disturb them. It was as if windows opened and she followed the night, without waving goodbye, or drying our tears. Her voice became a still prayer that wept beyond shadows, a place where uncut fingernails scratch the face of G-d, or gather those remaining pieces we promised never to disturb. We’ll miss lamentations hidden beneath her eyelids, and our tears linger for those no longer with us—the ones we hope will return to mend our broken hearts.


Part II: Ester, the Nurse of Bendery--1914-2008

Territory


After that war, I hoped Yoinah would return from the camps, but I never saw my brother again.

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery


1939

The wind blew pieces of sunlight against her cheeks, causing her to squint and worry her face might stay wrinkled forever. It was a Friday morning and the air was a ceiling, tempting all those in its embrace to rise like vapor and become one floating pastel color baked inside light and wind.

“The Temple is nearby; look up. You always look up when you’re in the desert.”

Her brother pointed toward Kazakhstan and she cried with joy. “Your finger has become part of heaven.”

And then it happened: the sun sank too low, too quickly, and a small dark spot became its centre—like ink poured on bright fabric until all was ruined and nothing pale or muted mattered anymore. It was something she’d always remember—the tanks on the border, her beloved brother standing in awe, the sky flickering like a candle, about to go out.


Surrender

Never ask for a new czar.

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery


1941

A judgmental attitude is forbidden, or so the Reverend proclaimed just before sundown, the moment others spit prayer like loose feathers, airbrushing the atmosphere. Last year he was more understanding, cherishing the inner knowledge that had spoken to him as a child, slowly from a deep place, dissipating pleasantly alongside the scent of Friday’s baked bread, fresh parsley and schnapps.

This year the soft, gradual voice no longer sounded like lost relatives rising from the edge of dusty skies, and he almost gave up. It was the beginning of a black year: belief in prefabricated lyrics, imbedded heart beats, severe colitis and the middle generation’s integrity blending into many leaves, twigs, and dead trees.

Like any well-read community leader, he kept his mouth shut, decided to pretend, and before long the delightful image of sunlight disappearing into the purple horizon could not be distinguished from storm clouds, war, or dew dropping like tears. He took it well. In fact, it was his best year—significant financial success, a cottage near the sea, the children leaving for Yalta, his wife’s new business, and days that ended abruptly with few questions and little time for reflection.


Time

I whisper to G-d beneath my nose when no one is watching.

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery


1953

Many long days, nights, and storms passed and winter eventually ended.

It’s early spring, the day is cold and the air feels like it is about to burst into tears. There you are whispering from the archives and everything that’s been lost is in your vest pocket. All I truly remember about you is cold and hopefulness colliding, a lot of singing and half-empty suitcases. This time I’ve gathered the prettiest flowers just for you. Their bouquet of color matches the steel blue sky of a Moldovan spring. But these early flowers are often coveted and don’t last for long.


Away

Are there places for us to hide in America?

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery

1991

I watched the fields empty from our place into someone else’s time. The wind shifts, forcing ancient buildings to contract like death inside sea weed, but a crest of memories still flourish. The soldiers smile at us. Everything angry has been corrected, blown away once again by the breeze that always tastes like oranges from the south.

My hands are creased from places I have hidden little tokens we must leave behind. In the distance a train moves like a storm. Our bags are packed. The map is changing. Every piece is smooth, yet shaken to its core. But in our wake, the wind stays behind, offering whispers and someone else’s voice.


Providence

So, now I am an American. The rivers are deep and the borders are made of skies and oceans.

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery


1992

I kept the box Great Grandmother called Remains. It was her special project, the path she followed outside herself and beyond family. It held a collection of things she’d seen inside a deep river her grandmother told would flow forever. Each year she added to her collection: pictures of people she loved, tokens from the Black Sea, pieces of newspaper proving Stalin was dead, and a series of hand-written stories about cut flowers that took a long time to die inside their vase, but if replanted could not stop blooming.

When I was a child, there was a particular autumn that was unusually warm and pleasant. That was the year a stray soldier dressed in an unfamiliar uniform knocked on our door and stammered, “Your presence is an act of intrusion, any illusion you have that this is your country is treason.”

Great-Grandmother said, “It was bound to happen sooner or later.” The old ones refused to argue with young men in uniform. Instead, they packed food and valuables and planned escape routes. Great-Grandmother removed the week’s bread from the oven before it was fully baked, placed her box of ruins in a cloth travel bag, and told us to stop crying. “Take a final look at our river and pretend we are breathing only because we will remember its secrets.”

Many loved ones were lost before that war ended. We never saw our home again and wandered for two generations. The year I became a great-grandmother, America opened her doors to us and our feet sank like brittle roots in search of soft soil and water. There were many rivers and opportunities to plant gardens. The grandbabies laughed easily and never feared an unexpected knock at the door. But each fall, as the days began to grow short and the weather unpredictable, they often begged, “Open that old box of remnants that smell from fresh water and bread; tell us how many dead flowers have bloomed, covering the countryside with soft petals, unbreakable roots, and other such things.”


Dream

Near a low foothill
At Heaven’s doorsill,
Where the trail’s descending
To the plain and ending,
Here three shepherds keep
Their three flocks of sheep… from Mioriţa

--as recited by Ester, the Nurse of Bendery

1999

The afternoon train to Bendery, Moldova, is due to arrive soon and a woman gently touches my arm, as though she’s afraid to anger me, or ashamed at being interested in someone other than herself. She watches my reaction while peering into the distance—the point where all moving things vanish. To be safe, she whispers in two different languages: “Куда Вы едете? /Unde eşti tu călătorie?”

Her words drip like juice from a sweet orange. Her accent tastes like old Soviet bread lines. Before I answer, before I can prove to her the mixture of stale bread and fresh oranges still interest me, the crowd moves like a long, deliberate growl, and someone overly optimistic yells, “The train is leaving, we’ll miss our train.”

The friendly woman is hoisted forward, toward an aperture that becomes a closing door, and disappears, proving belonging is merely stepping forward quickly, without hesitation. Instead of climbing aboard, I remain on the platform and all that moves away from me becomes an edge, a pinpoint as it squeezes into darkness.


Kindness

Año—There is no reward, only true kindness.

--Ester, the Nurse of Bendery


2008

She lived to be much older than expected. I liked the way her hands shaped fish patties, and the creases in her skin hid the shape and color of her eyes. It takes decades and many wars to shape a person’s eyes.

I am standing next to her, cleaning the dirt from her fingernails with a sharp toothpick. Her body has begun to stiffen. Its wrinkles are forever, and have hardened into a cemented-wax finish. There should be more of us praying. There should be more tears and different ways of saying goodbye—but it’s only me, whispering. I tell her not to be afraid. I adjust her shrouds, but leave her eyes open so she won’t be lonely, or forget sunlight and young faces.






Acknowledgments  ISSN 1941-0441

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