The Rest of the Story

Remembering childhood

Carolyn Forché

The author’s aunts: Margaret (left) and Anna. Courtesy the author.

No matter how early I woke, how light it was or wet the fields, and whether or not the horses from the stable down the road had broken their fence and were grazing near our windows like horses in a dream, Anna would be gone. I swept my arm across the still-warm sheet. Her teeth were missing from the glass on the bedside table, and her wire-rimmed specta­cles were also gone. Once again, she had not shaken me from sleep to go with her. I got dressed, taking care not to let the door make any sound, as everyone else was still asleep and the alarm, set for six, would not yet be jangling on my father’s bedside table.

Break of day. My grandmother was already moving along the rows, bending and hoeing, tossing weeds into one bushel basket and squash or cucumbers into another as crows gathered above her and the dawn fog rose. Her hoe rang out when it struck a stone buried in the soil, and she stooped to pry it up and carry it to a pile of stones at the edge of the field. Back and forth she walked, rock­ing from side to side, muttering under her breath either prayers or swear words, I couldn’t tell, or else she was talking to someone who wasn’t there.

At first, she ignored me, planting her hoe again and again, turn­ing and pulling soil and stone, as white grubs fell from the edge of the blade, curled from having been pulled so abruptly from their darkness. Once she let a grub fall into my palm, and it bit me. When I cried out, she shook it away and laughed, not as if a joke had been told. On this morning, she wrapped a stick with a rag soaked in fluid, set it on fire, and stabbed it into a mole’s tunnel until the mole emerged and then was finished off under her shovel.

She found him, his ax blade embedded in a split of oak, staring up without blinking at the passing clouds.

Two crows followed her as she worked, rising and falling in the air on oily black wings to steal strawberries from her quart basket or snatch rye scraps from her outstretched hands. Go away! she cried out even as she fed them, and in Slovak, too, she said it. Chod’ preč!

We picked whatever was ripe, and then as we walked back through the orchard with our full bushels, she checked each tree for the hardness of its fruits. Hours passed, yet it was still morning, and the mist hadn’t left the fields when we returned to the kitchen to proof yeast for bread and kolachy. Only then would she sit, all in, weary from work, rubbing her wire-rimmed spectacles in her apron, dabbing her face with a handkerchief edged in lace. She often talked then about her childhood house in the Tatras and of things as they were in her village, Tarnov, and of Bratislava, not so very far from Vienna. She spoke of the Emperor, Franz Josef I, as if he were still alive. We have opera and dance there. Your own cousin is a tenor in the Vienna Opera House. Opera and dance, you cannot imagine, Piskata, because you have nothing here. By here she meant the United States as she had known it.

It had by now been a decade since her husband’s death the month before I was born. He went suddenly, they said, while chop­ping wood. She found him, his ax blade embedded in a split of oak, staring up without blinking at the passing clouds.

When Anna wasn’t living with us, she lived with her eldest daughter on Chalfonte Street in Detroit. Sometimes I went there for visits, and Anna shared her room with me. The house was quiet and orderly, its silence broken only by the chirps of a cuckoo on the quarter hour. Heavy drapes darkened the rooms, and the porcelain figurines in the glass case chimed when anyone walked past. In the kitchen, everything was kept put away, and a fresh pie would often be cooling on the sill, covered with a towel made from a flour sack. This was the upstairs kitchen, the one used for cooking supper, but it was deep in the house, in the basement, where everything really happened. That is where the second kitchen was, with its two great stoves and long work boards, a porcelain double sink and shelves of jewel-bright pickles and preserves. On the other side of that basement room were the quilting frames and sewing machines, trunks of fabric, and boxes of supplies for making Christmas orna­ments. It was all set up for women’s work, and only the women went down there. English wasn’t spoken. I was allowed down but felt myself apart, more American than everyone else. I longed to be given a task, so that I could sit and work with my grandmother and aunts, pretending I didn’t understand. It was a relief to me to be here, away from my own family’s teeming, chaotic house, away from the work of keeping that house and caring for my six younger brothers and sisters. Here, I was in a small European basement, eager for knowledge and something to do.

It is one such day, and the basement kitchen is clouded from the canning pots set to boil on both stoves. On the work board there is a mound of peaches that have been dipped in boiling water so that their skins could be easily peeled under the paring knives wielded by the babushka’ed women sitting on their folding chairs with bowls in their laps. On such days, I was given the task of emp­tying the peels and carrying the skinned peaches to the long table where the hot mason jars had been set. Back and forth I went, not yet old enough to have a knife of my own, but I could listen. I can’t remember what language they were speaking among the languages they knew. Slovak and Czech were the mother tongues. Hungarian was for keeping secrets. If I could sit there again I might remember, listening to the peach stones strike the pail and to the ringing of the jars as they were lifted from the canning bath.

I pretended not to be listening, although on occasion they would notice me and say something like little water pitchers have big ears and shush themselves, their silence broken by the pinging of the pails. When I was invisible to them, I learned that my grand­mother had come by a ship, had lowered her own night soil into the sea by bucket, had slept under a blanket swarming with lice, and awakened finally in America, where she straightaway worked at a mill all day, seven days a week, packaging the sewing needles that emerged from a needle press. Her parents, my great-grandparents, hated life in America as it turned out, as all immigrants did truth be told, and they went back to the old country with their other two children, leaving Anna to the mill. Out of hunger they sailed back again into New York Harbor, this time without their children. No one knows where the sister was left, but her brother was con­scripted into the army and later disappeared on the Russian front, and as a child I imagined him staggering through the blue snow of a birch forest until he could no longer be seen.

It was Anna’s eldest daughter, also named Anna, who let me go down to the basement kitchen, and who years later began to tell me her secrets. I will tell you something I saw as a child, she said, a thing I will never forget. This happened before the town’s two blast furnaces were built and the brick Catholic Church, before the mill and machine shop and the Italians who opened the saloons, and before the dirt road through the town was paved with bricks.

There was a family called the Simonics. The woman was hard­working with four young children, two born in the old country, two here, three girls in all and a boy. They lived in a red row house, near where the iron ore boiled and sometimes exploded, and we women had to know when they were going to do the pour, because sparks flew to the laundry if it was hanging on the lines. Mrs. Simonic wanted to grow cabbages but that was impossible, as the cabbages would turn from blue to red under the dust. These were the things that bothered her, this and having to cross the road with bare feet to go the toilet, as we did then. Mrs. Simonic also had problems with her husband, who went to the saloons, played cards, and gambled, and everything else.

Mrs. Simonic had a white dress made for herself, and clothes for her children too, new dress pants for the boy, white dresses for the girls, organdy and tied with bows, as if they were making their First Communions, and one day she dressed herself and the children in these clothes and led them to a rock behind the house. She took the oldest first, put his head on the stone, and cut it off. Then she took the other one and cut her head off. They were screaming, but by the time anyone came, the children’s heads were hanging from their necks, and the woman had cut her own throat. I ran down there to the rock and saw them lying in white clothes and blood, and others arrived as well and held the woman’s throat shut. Her eyes were open, she was still alive, and the blood was pouring over the rock, coating it and soaking into the red of the iron ore dust on the ground. The children’s eyes were open too, and the girl’s braids filled with blood as if they’d been dipped in a well of red ink.

Mrs. Simonic was kept in a jailhouse then, and as a result of the trial and the guilty verdict, there were only two choices.

The town held a trial after the woman’s throat healed, and pho­tographers came from all over, with their big cameras on wooden stands, and covering their heads and cameras with black sheets, they made pictures of this woman who had murdered her children and had tried to kill herself. They were news photographers.

Mrs. Simonic was kept in a jailhouse then, and as a result of the trial and the guilty verdict, there were only two choices: life imprisonment or deportation back to the old country. It had been discovered that the murder had been planned, that she had had the dresses made up especially for the occasion and had left a note telling the townspeople exactly how she wanted things done and where they were to be buried. She also requested that photographs of the children be placed on their graves, which was done accord­ing to her wishes. They cut a hole in the stones and put the pictures there. You’ve seen that, you know how it is done, Anna said.

The town didn’t want to keep her, as there was only a small jailhouse there with a single policeman. So, they deported her. We later heard that in the old country she married again and had other children. No one knows what happened to the husband, but the town quieted down after that.

I kept the scene on the rock for life within me, said Anna.

Rock, paper, blood. My grandmother was angry with her daughter, Anna, for seeing it, just as others were sometimes angry with me for seeing the things I saw.

Carolyn Forché is a poet, memoirist, translator, anthologist, and professor at Georgetown University. Her books include In the Lateness of the World, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and winner of the American Book Award, and the memoir What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and winner of the Juan E. Mendez Book Award.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022

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