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A brooding heat permeates the tight space of the barn loft, no larger than three strides by four. The boards are rough-hewn and splintery and the rafters run at sharp slants, making the pitch too low for Róza to stand anywhere but in the center. Silken webs wad the corners and thin shards of sunlight bleed through cracks. Otherwise it is dark.
Kneeling, Róza pats down a dense pad of hay for Shira to lie on. She positions her by the wall across from the ladder, then covers her with more hay. Róza makes a spot for herself in front of her daughter, angled so she can keep her eyes on the door. Her heart still hammers in her chest.
Not an hour ago Henryk’s wife, Krystyna, barreled in to corner a chicken and discovered them crouching behind a hay cart. Róza swallowed a startled gasp and tightened her hold on Shira. Krystyna’s eyes darted to the wall hung with tools—trowels and spades, shovels, a pitchfork—then she slowly backed out. A few moments later Henryk stepped in. His expression was deeply troubled, but his hands held two potatoes each.
“We have boys of our own. We’ll all be killed.”
The dirt-packed floor shuddered beneath Róza’s feet. There were prizes for denunciations: a bag of sugar per Jew. Her mind raced with what currency she could offer: yeast and salt from the bakery. Coins. Three of her grandmother’s rubies sewn into the hem of a coat. If necessary, her wedding ring.
Had she misjudged them? Henryk frequented their bakery before the war. He had been friendly, maybe even a little flirtatious, when Róza worked at the counter. Sometimes he brought his son Piotr and each would eat a jam-filled cookie in one bite, smiling and batting away the powdered sugar that clung to their lips. They were grateful to her family; her uncle Jakob, a medical doctor, tended to Piotr when he came down with rubella. Róza believed they’d help, at least at the start.
“I beg you, just for a night or two.”
Henryk cleared equipment from the loft and forked up hay. Róza followed closely as Shira scampered up the ladder.
Now they lie here, still and silent. Róza asks herself, Where will we go next? Not back to Gracja. Not after what happened to Natan, shot dead after a week’s hard labor, and her parents, herded out of their apartment onto cattle trucks. And not to the woods, where her cousin Leyb has gone, with no guarantee of food or shelter. Come winter, with the forest’s frigid temperatures, Shira could not survive it.
So where? Róza scours her mind but finds no answer. Tonight’s contingency is Henryk’s root cellar, to the side of the farmhouse, if vacating the barn becomes necessary.
The loft boards are hard on Róza’s back and buttocks, and a splinter of hay stabs at her neck, yet she holds still until Shira drifts to sleep; then she shifts position, ever so slightly, in a slow, soundless motion.
* * *
In the afternoon, Henryk places a water bucket and two clean rags inside the barn door. Róza and Shira pad silently down the ladder. After they drink their fill, Róza submerges her arms in the water, the coolness loosening her whole being.
She wipes Shira clean first, taking the dirt and grime from her cheeks and neck with slow, gentle turns of the cloth. Patiently, indulgently, she swabs Shira’s hands—cupped tight as if cradling something, a habit started after her father didn’t return—moving the cloth quickly between each of Shira’s fingers, then sponging her wrists and upper arms. She sends Shira flitting up to the loft and begins on herself, unbuttoning her shirt to reach her chest, her back, and the space under her arms. The water trickles down her sides; Róza catches it with the cloth and carries it upward along her body, taking care to rub away her odor. She sponges until she senses a slight shift outside the barn. Henryk? He lingered after delivering the bucket, she thinks, and is now watching her through a crack in the lower barn wall. Her breath grows shallow. She looks down at her exposed breasts, her taut stomach, her jutting hips. Her first instinct is to turn away, but she holds herself still. They will be fed here tonight. Sheltered. She douses the cloth again and continues on, the feel of Henryk’s eyes watching her, seeing her.
* * *
Later in the day, Róza peers through a gap in the loft boards and glimpses Krystyna inside the farmhouse, agitated, arguing with Henryk. She is shaking her head, hard, causing the baby, Lukasz, to slip sideways down her hip. Róza sinks low to the loft floor.
Henryk enters the barn and begins forking hay out in large piles, blocking the sight line from the neighboring fields and the road.
The farmhouse, white with carved shutters painted a cheery blue, is smaller than the barn and does not fully occlude the view from the road, especially where it curves. The tavern must be somewhere close by because already Róza can hear carousing.
At nightfall Róza shows Shira how to wrap her finger in the clean corner of a rag to make a toothbrush and how to relieve herself in a bucket filled with straw that Henryk will afterward mix with the animals’ hay and waste.
Henryk brings a different bucket with food in it. Boiled cabbage and turnips. “Krystyna sent this for you. Just for tonight. She’s very frightened.”
Róza nods, grateful.
Back beneath hay, Róza presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. Spots of yellow and black bloom there, spreading like spilled dye. They chase away images of Natan and her parents.
Eventually, she opens her eyes to find Shira watching, enchanted, as two rabbits hop sideways on a hay bale and scurry about. If Shira misses her bedtime rituals from home—a drawn bath, warm milk with nutmeg and honey, snuggles from her grandparents—she doesn’t show it. On her leg, her fingers tap out the rhythm to some elaborate melody only she hears in her head.
Krystyna enters an hour later, stern and stiff postured, her lips pulled into a straight line. But she’s brought more water and a bit of bread. Róza can neither thank Krystyna nor admonish Shira before her girl flits down the loft ladder and, with a dramatic bow, offers Krystyna a small rectangle of woven hay she’s made. Krystyna’s face softens. Her eyes grow kind. Shira scrambles back to the loft and into Róza’s arms.
Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Rosner