Eli's Story by Michelle K: Before Me Like a Vision Fleeting

portrait by Linn

 

 

Shouting. So much shouting.

A loud crack sounded and a woman screamed.

A child cried.

Chains banged metal upon metal ... tinny, uneven heartbeats that sounded through the streets, carried into narrow alleys, wound in and out of broken windows into the prison that had become their home.

Amid the throng outside huddled friends of his boyhood ... pretty girls he'd admired but never dared approach ... families with whom he had shared the Shabbos. He knew how they crowded into the streets, pressed into tight circles of fear, hands clasped in silent prayer. He knew what they felt. For the last several days, he'd felt it, too.

His father sat in the corner, apart from the family, still and quiet. He hadn't spoken for hours; no one had. There was only the sound outside, the cries, the grief ... and the chilling wind of death.

Another gunshot. His mother flinched; he took her hand and watched her fingers curl around his. They were thin. Too thin. He glanced at his sister, but she avoided his gaze, her bony shoulders hunched beneath a sweater far too large.

Time slowed, and it seemed the end would never come. His father rose and paced across the floor. Back and forth, back and forth until he wearied his limbs of their restlessness. He took pause at the window, tapped the pane ... lifted it open and breathed in the odour of smoke and starvation. His chest heaved with the effort, and Eli felt a great sense of foreboding ... as though his father might choose that moment to leave them and join the throngs outside.

But he did not. Only wrapped his arms about his waist and stared up at the sky.

An occasional spark of gunfire flashed and then was gone. There was no moon ... no stars. Only the unearthly glow of powder igniting – more a reflection of light, than light itself.

And then it was over.

The gates clanged shut one last time ... the rhythm of footsteps diminished ... the voices ebbed into silence.

But his family remained. Without relief. Without hope.There would be no comfort for what they had lost. No warmth ... no joy. Only dread for the days yet to come.

* * *

The sound of the shop bell startled Eli from his nap.

"Coming!"

He stood and stretched, splayed his fingers, rubbed his jaw. The fan he had repaired that morning blew a steady stream of cool air; he held up his arms and the breeze billowed his shirt.

Archie poked his head through the doorway. "Ah, there you are. I've got a job for you."

"Not the old radio again." Eli straightened his back and took his friend's outstretched hand.  "I told you – I won't fix it again. You need a new one."

He moved into the front and halted behind the empty counter. "Well?"

Archie grinned. "Not this time," he said, lifting the busted frame of an old bicycle. "Found it at the yard ... thought maybe you can make it work. Make it nice. For Joey."

Eli examined the bent handlebars, broken pedals. "It'll need new parts. Crank is shot, see?  Chains are gobbed up, too – will need replacing. I can knock out these dents here ... probably fix up the seat." He ran his fingers over the chain rings and grunted at the titian residue on his skin. "Not so bad ... should clean up okay."

"How long, do you think?" Archie rolled back on his heels, arms crossed in front of him. "His birthday's on the 2nd."

"A week, maybe two. I'll need to call Jefferson's for parts ..." Eli glanced up at his friend. "You sure you don't want to take it there? It might be faster."

"Your work is better. I've told you many times. Besides ..." He leaned forward, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. "The kid would never forgive me. You know how he feels about you."

Eli smiled. "He's a good boy."

"So you'll do it?"

"Of course."

Archie set his cap on his head and turned toward the door. "Great. I'll stop by tomorrow, yes? We'll grab a bite."

Eli waved him out and took the bike to the workshop. It was a sad bundle of metal – worn and disfigured.

Well used, he corrected himself. Loved ... and left behind.

* * *

He loved riding first thing in the morning, when the roads of Chernivtsi were quiet and the dawning sun brightened the dull grey rooftops with a spattering of silver. If he departed early, he could detour to the rough paths near the Prut, close enough to hear the rush of water over rock and sand.

When he arrived at school, he would leap from the seat and throw the bicycle aside in a race to be first inside. There it awaited his return, exactly as he'd left it, whether in sun or rain or snow. No passerby disturbed it ... no one put it on its wheels until the end of the day, when he once again bounded down the steps, took the bars in his hands and set his feet on the pedals for the return trip home.

The streets were busy in the evening, filled with friendly chatter and bleeping horns. And though these sounds were familiar – even welcome – he never paused to take them in. There was no time for a ride near the water, no chance to admire the setting sun or visit a friend. Chores waited. And supper. And a few hours of reading with his father before sleep took him ... and dreams ... and the ritual began again.

* * *

Early morning was his favourite time to work, when the shop was quiet and no one stirred in the tenement above. It was just before dawn; the lamps basked the streets in a yellow haze, and only paper boys and delivery trucks interrupted the silence.

Eli gathered clean rags, wool pads, and rubber gloves, now and then reaching to touch the bike as he passed. It patiently awaited his ministrations, its form half-bathed in shadow where it leaned against the wall. He cleared a space in the center of the floor, where the lamp's beam would cast a spotlight over the beat up metal. A cleaning, better parts ... all would be like new.

The record was already in place on his old phonograph – the only album he kept in the shop. He set the needle in the groove and within seconds, Rachmaninoff's Prelude2 flooded into the small space, its bright, lively rhythm filling every corner with light.

Light as Relia dancing ... her dress a flutter of yellow as she twirled on her toes.

He laid the bike on its side and plopped down on a stool next to it. She would laugh, he thought, as he set to work. How I miss her laugh.

* * *

Eli wiped his brow and threw the sweaty rag aside. It had been a busy day. Mrs. Himmel had dropped off her chandelier for rewiring, and Charlie had finally collected his repaired washing machine. Brian Duffy surprised him with a smorgasbord of chewed wires, a broken footstool, and an antenna his new dog had destroyed.

He glanced at the clock. 3 PM. If he left now, he could get to Jefferson's for parts before they closed ... maybe stop by Duffy's on his way home. A quick look at the back room revealed the bike as he'd left it, mostly clean but for a few stubborn specks of rust. He would tackle them tomorrow, with a toothbrush and citrus.

Still, he thought, hanging the Closed sign in the window and locking the door, a good start.

In the alley, the acrid odour of garbage assaulted him from an open dumpster. He crinkled his nose and walked in the opposite direction, honing in on the more comforting aromas from the restaurants nearby: tomato sauce and garlic, freshly brewed coffee, the sweet scent of pastry, a faint savour of hotdogs from the corner vendor.

Peoples' voices carried to him under the din of bleeping horns. He stopped and listened ...  absorbed the cacophony, found its pulse. And then, the softer notes: the cooing of pigeons as they picked at stale bread; bells jingling as doors opened and closed; children shouting as they played a game of stickball.   Warm sounds. Familiar. The music of home.

Wood whacked against rubber and the ball rolled past him. Eli bent to pick it up and tossed it back, saluting the boy who caught it.

Further down the alley, near Broome Street, two vagrants dug through a trash bin. Eli searched his pockets for change and came up empty. Next time, he promised. Tomorrow.

As he moved past them, one looked up and smiled. It was as if ...

Eli halted. It couldn't be. She was ...

"Relia?"

His chest tightened; he opened his top button and rubbed the bare flesh at his throat.

She had a pretty face – open and kind – with clear, fair skin and bright eyes. Pale curls poked from beneath her shawl and caught the breeze. Her clothing, worn and patched in places, was an unusual collection of patterns and textures that mingled as one.

"I ..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry ... you seemed ..."

"Come on!"  The girl's friend grabbed her hand and pulled her down the street.

"Wait!"

The girl turned and looked at him ... and in that instant, Eli felt a pang ... a sense of ... knowing.

It was only a moment, and she was gone.

* * *

"Why us?" she asked, over and over again. For weeks she questioned, but answer was impossible. They had been fortunate. Chosen by circumstance to remain in the city, when so many families were sent away. No one knew where the others were headed. No one wanted to know.

His family should feel blessed. They should give thanks and pray for continued good fortune. But it was not so easy. Guilt was an unforgiving burden; it pressed them down, forced away smiles and joy. Sorrow filled them up, built walls of brick around their hearts.

Mother was taken with grief, the Kaddish perpetually on her lips. She embraced the darkness as she mourned the death of their former life.

"The soul is gone," she would say. "The soul of the world has perished."

And still ... Relia questioned. Demanded answers. Railed her anger at an unsympathetic sky.

"Why us?" she asked. "Why us?"

* * *

He hadn't seen her again. Two more trips to Jefferson's, a walk to Duffy's, a few hours outside in the sun while he primed and painted Archie's bike ... none revealed her to him. She had vanished. Perhaps she'd never been there at all.

During those long moments of solitude, he imagined her as she'd appeared that day: the serenity in her eyes, the wisps of golden curls blowing in the breeze. So like Relia.

Fool, Eli thought, shaking his head. You see what you want to see. That is all.

He inspected the bicycle, found the paint almost dry. Soon, he'd apply the finishing touches – maybe a blue stripe, similar to the miniature race cars Joey collected. Or a flame. The boy would like a flame.

But first ...a rest. He'd share a drink with Archie and Charlie Mueller tomorrow. Friendly chatter, a little company. Too much solitude was not a good thing.

He sat in the doorway and watched the day's last light retreat to the center of the alley. It hovered for awhile, then disappeared into the shadows. Cars and dumpsters and plastic crates all became silhouettes of themselves, black blobs amid shades of grey.

In the tenement above, someone played the violin; rich, sultry tones resonated off the walls and cascaded down to him like a misty veil. Eli sighed and closed his eyes. Vocalise. The player's fingers slid up and down the scale ... a flow of water over flesh, each note melding with the next in an endless stream. It had been years since he'd heard it played with such emphasis; the lush strokes seeped inside him ... spread their salve upon his soul.

Relia. He felt her with him ... the lithe movement of her body, the gentle arch of her back, the rise and fall of her arms as she glided across the floor.

Eli sat for several minutes after the final note sounded, until his mind had cleared and his heart settled to its normal rhythm. He was tired, that was all. And hungry. A break would do him good.

As he moved to stand, there was a sound in the darkness. Breath ... light and raspy ... and very near.

He pulled himself upright. "Hello? Who's there?"

A flicker of movement by the dumpster. He stepped forward. "Can I help you?"

A whisper ... a reply. His visitor was not alone.

He should have been afraid. He told himself to return to the workshop, to lock the door. But his body refused to obey.

"It's okay," he said, lowering his voice. "I won't hurt you."

Movement again. And then ... footsteps.  A fleck of blonde. Her.

"I can help," he said. Please don't run away. "I have food ... if you're hungry."

She moved closer. "I'm not hungry. Thank you."

Eli held out his hand. "Would you ... like to come inside? I can make some coffee ... or tea." 

She hesitated ... turned away. Several minutes passed. She didn't move, but her gaze, intent on the shadows where she'd emerged, confirmed his suspicion that someone else was there.

"Your friend is welcome, too."

"I ... I would like that. I mean ... tea ... would be nice."

Eli smiled. "And your friend?"

"No. Thank you. Just ... me."

He considered her a moment, wondered what she was hiding ... but she gave nothing away. Whatever truths she withheld, they were hers. For some reason he couldn't fathom, he trusted her.

"Come then," he said, ushering her inside. "You are welcome. Everyone is welcome in my shop."

She followed him to the front and seated herself on a stool near the counter. "You fix things here?"

"Yes."

Her gaze darted over the walls and shelves, and Eli allowed himself to see his belongings through her eyes.

"It's not much, but ..." He shrugged. "It's honest work."

Her face was as he had remembered: not conventionally beautiful, but clean and open. Her skin was pale bisque, and her eyes the colours of a summer storm – blue and grey and green. Her hair resembled Relia's. Lighter, perhaps, but with the same wisps and curls. Lovely.

She caught him staring and smiled. Eli mumbled something about the tea, and quickly escaped to the back room.  When he returned, she was where he had left her, sitting with her ankles crossed and hands relaxed in her lap. He poured her a cup and slid it across the counter.

"What kind is it?" she asked.

"What?"

"The tea. What kind?"

Eli glanced down at the dark liquid. "I don't know.  Tea."

She nodded and blew into the cup. "That day on the street ... you looked at me as if you recognized me. Do you remember?"

"You're not easy to forget."

She laughed. Eli enjoyed the sound of it: a trickle of water hitting the drain.

"Is that funny?"

She shook her head. "No. Just ... unexpected."

"You seemed familiar," he continued. "Like someone ... I once knew."

She took a sip and held it in her mouth a moment before swallowing."It's good."

He nodded.

"Who was she?" Her voice was soft and sympathetic, and it occurred to Eli that she knew without asking. Not the details, of course, but the sorrow, the loss. He had not dreamt it that day in the street. She had sensed his pain ... and understood it.

"She's ... she was ... my sister."

She leaned forward and took his hand. "I'm sorry."

"It was a long time ago."

"It still hurts."

"Yes," he answered. He raised his head and looked into her eyes. "But ... it is life."

* * *

She came every day for two weeks, and though they didn't say very much, the visits fulfilled him in ways Eli had believed were no longer possible. Her name, she told him, was Rebecca.

He didn't know what to make of her. Rebecca was no older than his sister had been, but carried a deeper wisdom, an understanding of life, a gentleness that came with years she had not lived. Hers was a different kindness – reminiscent of his youth, when scraps of bread, a warm fire, an extra blanket were shared between strangers because they all suffered ... they all grieved.

Eli supposed it was not so different from the life she lived now. The streets were unforgiving.

Near the end of the second week, she surprised him as he was putting the last finishing touches on Joey's bicycle.

"It looks wonderful!" She ran her hand over the handlebars and rang the bell. "I like the flame."

He grinned and patted the seat. "He'll like it, too, I think."

She stared at him a moment. "That's a good thing, isn't it?"

"Of course.  It's a very good thing."

"Then why do you look sad?"

"Do I?" Eli met her gaze with surprise. "I hadn't ..."

He stroked the firm new saddle and shrugged. "I suppose ... I'll miss it. When it's gone."

"Is it always that way when you finish something? "

He considered the finished product – the fresh green paint, gleaming silver rings, pewter chains. His own two-wheeler had been nothing like it – old and scratched with a broken bell. Yet it had given him his morning rides in Chernivtsi, when he would ride near the river Prut and listen to the rush of water, or inhale the scent of wet grass after a night's rain. His bicycle had not been fancy like this one, but it had been a good friend ... and had offered the same sense of freedom.

Eli smiled. "One day, I will tell you about my boyhood in Chernivtsi.Then you will understand."

"You could tell me now," she answered. When he met her gaze he saw hope there ... curiosity. Tell me a story, her eyes seemed to say. Tell me about your life.

He shrugged. "Do you know of Chernivtsi? Bukovina?" She shook her head. "Ah ... no. They don't teach it in schools here. It is Soviet now, as it was when I was a boy. But it changed hands many times ... Soviet, then Romanian, then Soviet, and Romanian ... a sordid past." He winked at her, and Rebecca laughed.

"When I was young, I knew nothing of such things. I understood only the routine of my days ... the river surging through the heart of the city, the morning sun sparkling across the rooftops, the cold metal of my bicycle when I picked it up from the snow where I had tossed it before school. These were the things I cared about. The crisp air of winter, the beauty of the spring ..."

And so he told her. About his bicycle, and his early morning rides. About supper and the Shabbos ... and reading with his father.

Every day, he shared something more of his life. He bought a map and marked Chernivtsi with a pin. Taught her the HaMotzi. Played her Rachmaninoff.

But he never spoke of Relia.

* * *

"Why us?" she whispered. "Why didn't they take us to die?"

"Why do you want to die, little bird? We are fortunate. We were spared."

"Why were we spared? We have suffered more than they ..."

He shushed her with a hand upon her brow. "We were spared, so they might be remembered."

He wanted to believe it. For years they had languished ... their clothing worn to rags, bellies empty. There seemed no good reason for such despair.

"I'm tired."

"I know. But you must be strong."

"Why?"

"Because ... you have a gift."

"What gift?" She spat the words with a strength her body no longer possessed.

Eli smoothed her hair.  "Life, little bird. Yours. Father's. Mine. You must carry on. Rise up. Show them that they did not defeat us."

"You be strong," she whispered. "For both of us."

* * *

"Eli?"

"Yes, little bird?"

"Why don't you talk about her? Relia?"

He had never spoken about her. Not with the few friends who remained in Chernivtsi, nor those in the DP camps in Vienna. 20 years in New York, and he had never shared her with anyone – not even Archie, who was as close as family.  Relia was his private treasure: the face he saw in every sunrise, the pulse he felt in the noise of the street. He had buried her deeply, where no one could take her from him again.

He washed his hands and wiped them on a towel. "It is not easy for me ... to speak of her."

"I'm sorry," she said, laying her hand on his arm. "I shouldn't have asked."

"Don't be sorry. "

She ducked her head. "In my world, a person's past is their own. We're not ... we speak only of the present. And the future."

In my world. Eli considered her a moment. She'd said it before, and he began to wonder if perhaps "her world" was something more than the Lower East Side. Perhaps she'd had a family once ... perhaps she'd left it behind. Perhaps she longs for it ... as I long for Relia.

"We all feel pain. That is why, yes?" Rebecca nodded. "But I think ... perhaps ... the asking isn't a bad thing."

He searched within himself and found Relia smiling, heard the soft notes of her voice. Always a pang accompanied her memory. Always a tight clenching within his chest. He reached his hand to his heart.

"Eli? Are you all right?"

Am I all right?

She reached her hand to his shoulder. "I'm sorry. Please, let's not speak of it. Tell me about Duffy's dog."

He met her worried gaze, and as always, her warmth fluttered through him ... opened him up. He reached for Relia's memory and found her smiling, but not as she had when she teased him ... not as she had when she danced ... but a sad smile. A lonely smile.

I miss her.

"She would like you, little bird," he said, taking Rebecca's hand in his. "Maybe I've been selfish, keeping her to myself."

He led her to the stairs and down to his one room apartment in the basement. There, he showed her his most prized possession: a small, torn photograph of his family.

"This is Relia," he said, pointing. "As she was. Before ..."

Rebecca traced her finger over the image ... brought her hand to her hair. "Like mine."

"Like yours. You see now. You understand."

She placed the snapshot over her heart. "She's beautiful."

"She always was. Exotic, my mother said. So fair. It was unusual in our country – the blonde hair.

"But Relia did not know her own beauty. She cared only to know the world – to see others, to experience life. She took in everything ... and it became part of her gift. Her inner light."

Rebecca sat down across from him and laid the photo on the table, smoothing its edges with her fingers. "Did she like music ... like you?"

He nodded. "She loved to dance. She absorbed life. It fed her. The dancing ... was her way of expressing what was inside. Until ..."

Until ... the gunfire, and the screams, and the steps of 30,000 souls on their death march to Transnistria. Until the day they huddled among their friends, only to be singled out – exempted – and ordered to return home.

She had questioned. Over and over again. Why us? Why us? Why did we survive?

 But there were no answers ... only the guilt and sorrow for all they'd lost, the fear of the coming days ... the sharp pain of hunger and the cold upon their flesh.

And even as she shivered with fever, as she lay dying in a body that had long since betrayed her ... still she questioned. Still.

Eli opened his eyes to find Rebecca's arms around him, her slender frame trembling. "I'm sorry ... I'm so sorry ..."

He hugged her to him. "It's all right, little bird. It is life."

She pulled away from him. "It shouldn't be. You didn't deserve it. She didn't."

"It's not about deserving. It's what life gave us."

Always acceptance. This was his way. He would not curse fate, nor wish for other than he had. He took what was given ... each moment a gift that kept him moving ever forward, always one day into the future, living because there was no other choice.

It was what Relia had never understood.

What was lost could not be recovered. But this was life. Just life. A gift not to be questioned.

"Let me help you, Eli."

"How so?"

"I ... I don't know."

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and led her to the stairs. "You already help me. With your visits. With yourself. "

"But ... it still hurts."

"Of course. It will always hurt, I think. But friends ... you ... ease the burden."

"Yes."

"Now. Maybe I can help you."

"Me?"

"I have some money. Let me get you some things. A new sweater. Warm boots. Winter is coming."

"Maybe," she said, a glimmer of ... something ... in her eyes. She smiled.  "Maybe ... we can help each other."

* * *

Eli stepped into the darkness. Grit crunched under his shoe – the only sound in the stillness. There was a dank scent in the air, a mingling of minerals and water and rust. For a brief moment, anxiety tightened his chest and he couldn't breathe.

And then Rebecca took his hand.

"Down this tunnel ... here."

The sound of a lever cranking, and a door rolled open. Beyond, a long corridor stretched like a river of gold.

Eli gasped.

"Come on. Quickly now," she urged, and he stepped over the threshold. The door closed behind them.

Her tales about a world of earth and light had not prepared him. It was terrifying and wondrous at once: the chill air in his lungs ... the warmth of the flames ... the quiet ... the shadows. He moved, it seemed, between life and death ... and as they travelled farther and farther downward, as he felt the weight of the city above them ... he half expected to see Relia in a dress the shade of sunflowers, twirling through the passage on her toes.

They came to a halt at the end of a long corridor that opened into a large cavern. The area was bathed with light, aflame with the heat of torches and lit candles. Below, a small group gathered around a makeshift stage, at the center of which stood a young man. He lifted his violin to his shoulder, and the rich, smooth stroke of bow upon string echoed off the stone walls.

Water on flesh, Eli thought. Each note melding with the next in an endless stream.

"Vocalise," he whispered, squeezing her hand. "He's playing ..."

"Yes."

The music flooded the corridor. Eli closed his eyes and allowed it to surround him, the hair on his arms prickling with anticipation. His heart expanded, and in that moment, he felt certain that it would burst.

"Come on," Rebecca said, looping her arm through his. "They're waiting."

________________

 

Title Quotation: Alexander Pushkin. Wondrous Moment.

2. Sergei Rachmaninoff. Prelude Op. 23 No. 5.

 

 

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