Wednesday 25 October 2023

Short Story 2023 Featured Writer, Arko Datta

The Runaways

It all started the day her family moved into the old house across from ours. I was fifteen, and she was seventeen. The year was 1932. The place: a long-forgotten town in a country destined to be torn apart by a madman. But that was still a year away. It was only April 10th, 1932. I saw her helping her sister with the boxes filled with memories of the place they were coming from. And that was it for me. Everything changed.

In that era, even the young Jewish boys and girls didn't just talk to each other. There was a particular, socially accepted way of doing things. But she had black hair and blue eyes- spellbinding, even from my window across the street. I soon discovered that social acceptance was a suggestion that loses its hold over young boys with throbbing hearts. On the afternoon of April 15th, I found myself standing in front of her as she was sitting on the patio, busy with the task of avoiding me completely.

'What can I do for you?' she asked, uninterested in my answer.

'Do you act?' I found myself asking. There was a new kind of braveness that I had felt at that moment.

'Act?' she looked up at me with her blue eyes fixed on my boring ones. I lost words again. 'Acting?' she repeated herself.

'The kids, my friends are planning to put on a show next month. A play of sorts. Everyone will be there. Would you like to act in it?' I impressed myself.

'What is it about?' she had asked. A fair question, one would say.

'I will tell you only if you are working on it. It's a surprise for the people,' I replied. I was on fire.

She promised to ask for permission from her parents and let me know the next day. There suddenly appeared tiny curves in the corner of her eyes, a kind that I had never seen before. As if she was smiling with her eyes. I returned home with a smile, like the boring ones we see everywhere. That evening I told my friend about it. 'What play?' he asked, quite clueless about what was happening.

'Exactly,' I murmured. 'There's no play.'

'Huh?' he threw his arms in frustration.

'Okay, there is a play, but there isn't any yet,' I tried to explain. It didn't help. So, I told him the truth: there was no play, but there was a girl who had blue eyes and black hair, and she could smile with her eyes and ignore me completely, at the same time making me feel like the most important person in the world just by looking at me. And there had to be a play or at least a few rehearsals for a never-to-be-performed play just so I could be around her.

And that's how it was for the next few weeks. We planned a play, assigned roles, and included more of our friends, none of whom knew what a farce it all was. But I didn't care. Hannah- that was her name- was there, playing The Queen of the Earth. She really was. Soon, the pretended rehearsals had started to take shape and colors. It caught my father's eyes one afternoon as Hannah and I were practicing our lines in the yard. He asked me about it that night, and it became a real thing. A month later, we performed the play that was never meant to be. The parents of the actors and the elderly neighbors were there. We got ourselves some claps. It earned me a friendship with The Queen of the Earth. Then it turned into an undeclared, silent love story. We knew who we were together. On my birthday, my friends were invited to my home for lunch. We all sat in the garden afterward, where she touched her lips on mine for a tiny moment. Our love was declared. Words weren't used. It lasted for a few more months: wonderful months, full of blue eyes and laughs and a fifteen-year-old's tortured heart for a seventeen-year-old. Then everything changed again, and nothing was ever meant to be the same again.

The year 1933 came, and all hell broke loose. The "ethnic cleansing" was made operational. It later came to be known as The Holocaust. We had no idea at that moment how it all was meant to turn out to be. But we were suddenly the target of blind hate. Lucky for us, my father was a mathematician who knew too much about numbers and state secrets. The Americans wanted him. We found refuge in their land. The same can't be said about Hannah's family and the millions of families just like hers. It wasn't fair. Then again, life never was. I was fifteen, she was seventeen, and I was sure I would never see her again. Before fleeing the country in the middle of the night, I went to meet her one last time. Their house was all out of people. They had left without saying goodbye.

Fast forward three decades: I had become a recently divorced, forty-five-year-old professor who had just moved back with his parents by then. Life wasn't treating me well. In fact, I was perhaps going through the toughest period of my life- running away from Nazis included. But, as it often happens, things changed. I still remember that day perfectly: the morning after the first snow of that year. It was one of those mornings; I woke up and suddenly decided to take charge of my life. It had been a few years since I was toying with the idea of writing a book, as literature professors often do in their mid-forties. So, that cold morning, I finally decided to do something about it and went to the local library. It turned out to be the best decision I will ever take in my life.

It was an extensive library with books covering fiction and nonfiction and newspaper archives. I hadn't yet decided whether to write a novel or a memoir, but I had an idea about what I would write about: Escaping the Holocaust, easy call!

I went to the desk clerk and asked him to show me everything they had on the holocaust. He instructed me to go to a particular room and wait for a librarian to help me. I went to the room filled with books, but no people. I was shuffling through their pages when the librarian entered the room. Now, there are two kinds of people in this world. There are the ones who come into a room and are just there. But, there are also people who, when they enter a room, bring in their strides everyone and everywhere they have ever been. The librarian matched the second kind: a tall, thin woman with the confidence of someone who has already won in life.

'What can I do for you?' she asked me, and at that moment, the entire world came crashing down on my heart. She had black hair and blue eyes. I had heard that question before, coming from that same small mouth, with those same eyes staring right into mine. I had no idea if I was dreaming or imagining things, but I was absolutely sure that it was her; it was The Queen of the Earth. Right there, I felt something I hadn't felt in probably three decades. My heart throbbed like a fifteen-year-old boy's when he sees a seventeen-year-old girl with black hair and blue eyes.

I saw her lips moving for several minutes but couldn't hear anything. I wasn't there in the library anymore. I was fifteen again- standing before her for the first time. With great struggle, I gathered myself and asked, 'Are you her? Are you Hannah?'

I noticed a hint of recognition in her eyes before it was replaced by panic and then nothing. 'You are mistaken, sir,' she said. 'I am the librarian. You were looking for some books!'

And then, for the next hour, she helped me pick books that I would need to work on my book. But I didn't need any books at that moment. What I needed was to know that it was her. I was so sure. Even if I could ignore those blue eyes based on the fact that many others had them, I couldn't ignore how I was feeling. I hadn't felt anything similar since I had first seen Hannah all those years ago, not even when I was married. I had felt a longing, a certain belief that I was meant to be with the woman standing before me, talking about books. But I couldn't say anything to her. She either hadn't recognized me, or she didn't want to for some reason. So, I kept my mouth closed and discussed books with her that day and the following days. I kept going back to that library, each time to find books that weren't even real. It took me twice every week for two months' worth of visiting her before mustering the courage to finally hand her my card. 'I don't know why you are pretending to not know me, but I know who you are. No amount of denial will convince me that you aren't The Queen of the Earth. You are Hannah, and you need to stop lying to me,' I declared and then waited for her answer.

She fell silent momentarily and then said with a firm voice, 'I have already told you that I don't know you, and I will much appreciate it if you don't ever return.' Then she returned to the office, clenching my card in her palm. It was her!

I waited for a phone call or telegram from her for weeks, then the weeks turned into months, and the months turned to seasons. Meanwhile, I made some changes to my life. To start with, I stopped feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I moved out of my parents' place and rented a small apartment. Then I began to work on my book. The following winter, I held in my hand a completed manuscript. I was a professor at a prestigious college, I had seen the first days of the Holocaust, and my father had worked for two governments in one of the most volatile eras of human history. These three things may sound like separate phenomena, but they can become the most powerful selling points for a writer. My book had become an overnight sensation. And then, two years after I had last seen her, Hannah came back into my life.

It was one wintry early morning in December. I was still trying to comfortably fit under the blanket when the phone rang. 'Hello, this is Hannah,' she said as soon as I picked up the phone. 'I hoped you might have changed your telephone number by now,' she added.

I took some time before answering. 'I didn't because I hoped that you may call me one day,' I lied...sort of. Then I asked her if she would like to meet me for lunch, but she turned me down immediately. 'Let's meet for coffee first,' she had suggested. So I took what I could get.

I dressed in the best of what I had and went to see her. I saw her from outside the cafe's window. She was sitting there, playing with a piece of napkin. Whoever says that men reaching fifty can't fall in love like they used to doesn't know either about aging or love. The first sight of her took me back to my youth, the time when I was hopelessly in love with her and when she was the only thing in the universe that mattered. Her black hair and blue eyes had caught gray, but she appeared to me like she always had: the world's most beautiful and important person.

We had our coffee in silence and then pondered over two small pieces of cake, perhaps trying to find words in them for each other. She was the first to break the quiet. 'Forgive me for the last time...I wasn't ready,' she confessed. 'You don't know what I have been through. Still today, every night, I have to fight the demons of my mind to sleep. The memories are still there, like all that had happened yesterday. I still feel the pain, and my days are spent trying to forget everything that had happened in Germany. And then I saw you, and it made me remember the time when things were okay, and life was good. And it had made things worse. See, for a long, I didn't even remember that there was even life before it all broke apart. Then you found me, and you recognized me. It was like my past had come back to haunt me, but not like it does to me in my dreams. It was as if the past had embodied you and came back to snatch away whatever I had rebuilt.'

Each and every word she said made sense to me. I didn't yet know what had happened to her there, but I understood it was much worse than what had happened to me. I still, after all these years, have nightmares about the past. And she had lived them. So I understood how difficult it must have been. 'What changed your mind?' I asked her finally.

She smiled and took out a copy of my book. I smiled back shyly. 'I noticed you have spent a lot of words for me,' she smiled broader. 'But that's not the only thing that has changed my mind. Look at this,' she opened a particular page from my book and pointed to a line: You Carry with You Everything You are Running from. I remembered writing it.

'This one got me,' she said softly. 'My monsters aren't under my bed, behind the dark alley behind my apartment, or in you. They are in my head.'

I nodded and waited for her to talk again.

'And reading about how life used to be before 1933 and how we were happy, reminded me how much I have loved you. It reminded me how happy I was that you were safe. But I missed you. For all those years I spent waiting to die anytime, I had thought about you and how we were together. I used to remind myself about our first kiss to remember how love felt like, how there was a time when I was cared for and adored. It kept me going for a long time. But, you know, one can withstand so much hatred before forgetting everything that used to be good, the life that was gentle to me. I was happy once because of my family, and my friends, and you, my lover. But those things didn't last. What did was a series of years that offered me nothing but pain and loss. You left...I don't blame you...but the truth is that you weren't there when there was so much darkness,' she said with great difficulty. I saw a single drop of a tear rolling down her cheeks. I offered her a napkin.

'Are you ready to tell me about those years?' I asked and held her hand.

'Yes, that's why I am here. It's time. It has been too long to live with those memories alone. But take me somewhere else first,' she smiled sadly.

We came back to my apartment. I made her tea and talked about general things for hours. Then the last of the sun's rays faded away, and I made dinner for us. After supper, she finally opened up to me, and I discovered what suffering really means. Her story broke my heart into a million pieces, and I hated myself for leaving her behind in that hell. The day my father had planned to leave for America with us was when Hannah and her family had started to run. They went to a faraway town and moved in with one of her uncles. But they were caught by the Nazi soldiers and taken to a camp. Her father was allowed to work as a manager in a factory, and she, with her mother and sister, were forced to work in the camp. They lived with thousands and thousands of others, most of whom were either shot or beaten to death soon for no reason.

Hannah and her family were just waiting for their time. One afternoon, when they were working in construction inside the camp, an old chunk of a wall fell on her sister's hand, shattering it. An injured worker was no help to the Nazis, and they had never let anyone unnecessarily live. So, a soldier came and shot her in the head. Seeing this, her mother screamed and tried to attack the man. She was shot immediately too. Hannah had tried to hold back her screams and tears and continued working. But he had come for her next. She was numbly waiting for her death, accepting it completely. The soldier didn't like that she wasn't scared to be shot, so he didn't kill her. Instead, he threw Hannah on the ground and kicked her until she was unconscious.

That evening, when Hannah's father returned from the factory, he went straight to bed and didn't talk to anyone for days. Then, a few weeks later, he told Hannah that the factory owner had managed permission for her to work in his house. For the years that followed, they were free from the camp during the daytimes. But one morning, a year later, a Nazi commander killed Hannah's father while testing a new rifle. She had gone to work that morning without a sense of what was happening. She was in a painful trance. In the afternoon, the factory owner informed her that he had managed to make a deal with a few officials and that she was allowed to stay with him as his cook. He was a good man. She never went back to the camp ever again.

Then the war started, and the Nazis were gone one day. The factory owner sold everything he had and left for America with Hannah and another girl he had saved. But he had become really ill by then, and the girls had to spend the next twenty years caring for the man who had once saved them from death or maybe even worse. Then the other girl married some rich guy and left, never to come back. Hannah stayed with her savior until the day he died peacefully in his sleep. Hannah had become utterly alone in the world after his death. He then slowly started to build sort of a life for herself. She had taken night classes and became a librarian, leading her to the day when I reappeared in her life. Life is too funny that way, but it all worked out too intricately to be a coincidence. That's what we realized once she was done telling her story. It was morning again by then. We left for work, and that evening, when we returned, we both returned to my apartment. We never talked about it. She just moved in with me after spending one day with me. It was as if the last three and a half decades had never happened. I wasn't one to complain either.

We got married three years later. We didn't need to, but we wanted to. She was my first and only true love. Hopefully, I was her's too. I just wanted to make her my wife, and she seemed to like the idea. So, we got married- me at fifty and she at fifty-two. We adopted two beautiful kids and made a life for ourselves. And, for twenty years, we didn't talk about the past. Then, last week, we decided to visit Germany on our twentieth anniversary. It was time. We are at the end of our life, and we decided to face the darkest part of it, look it right into its eyes, and own it.

We visited all the places dedicated to the memories of the victims of the Holocaust. Then, we decided to end the tour in the town where we had first met. We couldn't recognize it. It was completely rebuilt after the war had destroyed it. But some of the old streets were still there, including where we had our houses. There was a huge park built on our abandoned plot. We stood there and watched happy-looking children playing there. Suddenly it all vanished, and in its place emerged our childhood homes. A seventeen-year-old girl was pretending to read a book. A fifteen-year-old boy walked up to her and lost all his words. She looked up at him. She had black hair and blue eyes. He had the courage to talk to her. Nothing had changed.

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