A Box of Holocaust
By Yaron Regev
There is a box of Holocaust hidden under my grandmother’s sink. I hear it every day, at lunch time, when she stands over the stove holding a large wooden ladle, raising her hand high in the air, and cursing.
I don’t understand any of the curses, I think they’re in Czech; throaty sounds that turn the kitchen air murky. The rest she says in plain Hebrew over the steaming pot of soup, screaming, “May God come down and take me this very instant!”
I don’t look at the ceiling anymore, but I used to, when I still believed that God was real and the ceiling, stained with the vapors of soup, would suddenly be ripped open to reveal a bearded face with hollow eyes filled with dark stars, as dirty as my grandmother’s curses.
Now I know that God isn’t real — but the box of Holocaust under the sink is.
God never comes to claim her when soup-drops rain from the raised ladle onto the floor. She stands there, frozen. Mouth open. Emitting the silent echoes of her desperate plea for release. Always disappointed that a bolt of lightning, or some other celestial force, doesn’t manifest itself to claim her. A monument of frustration.
The box of Holocaust, though, sings in return. All her dead relatives burned in the crematoria, and there were fields plowed with muselmann bodies, and bulldozed mountains of limbs. The documentaries they show us in school are only pale imitations of what’s inside there, in my grandmother’s box of Holocaust.
She never hears it. Nobody does. I’m the only one.
The ladle is lowered back into the soup. It will taste like death and decomposed bodies now. With the soup she pours, she drowns the pale flowers painted on the porcelain plate. Groats float like carcasses.
“I don’t want you to leave even a quarter of a bite,” she says as always, her rheumatic finger stretching up into a warning, grown from the fertile ground of the box.
Two or three spoonfuls later I do my best not to vomit. I know Hitler still lurks about this house. He escaped from the box last Holocaust Memorial Day. He’s got sharp teeth beneath his little mustache. Sometimes he hides inside the toilet bowl, waiting for me, so he can extend a brown hand from within.
Grandmother looms behind me, her face rising behind my shoulder like an ancient, wrinkled sun. “Not even a quarter of a bite,” she hisses.
When I finally yield and vomit, she yells in the background about how it has taken her hours to prepare the soup with her bent, rheumatism-riddled fingers. I think about how it will all go down the toilet now, lost between her house and the sea, in the nether realms where water snakes with mustached-dictator faces swim.
I wash my hands and face. The bathroom holds other terrors. It is also here that the dead fish swim, the ones she brings from the market every Rosh Hashana. They are alive and flailing, tails flapping against the plastic walls of bags bursting with water. She opens the bags and lets them swim in the bathtub, bumping against the porcelain walls. They have to be cooked fresh, so she kills them with a sharp blow to the head. Theirmouths gape in silent screams. They can only be heard from the box of Holocaust, resonating through the house. I’m the only one who hears it. My grandmother — she also kills cockroaches with her bare hands, slapping them to death against the walls, holding them by their antennae, waving them like little hunting trophies. She’s infinitely strong, my grandmother. She climbed a wall and escaped from Auschwitz, all by herself. Once she threatened a boy who had been bullying me in school. She told him she would poke his eyes out with her fingers if he dared lay a finger on me again.
Backat the table, the soup still waits. Most of the groat carcasses have sunk into the depths, resting on the flowery bottom.
She pours me another ladleful, to replace what I’ve thrown up. Not even a quarter of a bite.
“Bitch,” I mutter under my breath, and dip my spoon into the bowl.
“What did you say?”
I look up at her. “Stupid hag.” It sings through my mouth now, the box of Holocaust.
The dead fish raise their heads above the walls of the tub. Hitler lifts his head to peek over the toilet bowl. God is silent, while the box still sings from between my lips. “Idiot.”
Grandmother leaves the kitchen and comes back with one of the blank cash register rolls she uses for her shopping lists. “I’m going to write down,” she says, unravelling the roll like an ancient scroll, “all the nasty, filthy things you’ve just said about me. And when your mother comes back from work, well, she’ll see what thanks I get for slaving all day with these!”
One gnarled hand stretches open to display knotted fingers. She begins to write with the other. Latin letters, magnificent and curly, my curses translated into the signs and symbols of the proud heritages of the ancient world. Why do I find this so wonderful?
“You’re an imbecile! An old hag!” I can barely breathe as I see her adding the new curses to the list. Oh, that wonderful list; that book of curses. How I wish I could gather all the swear words and dirty words and insults ever uttered in every language, and see them all written down with those curly twists and turns of ink.
The soup grows cold. She always gives up and throws it away after about an hour, during which I’m forced to sit at the table and stare at it, while she mutters about how she used to eat potato peel in the camps. But I always need to vomit first. Our daily ritual. Just me and my grandmother, with Hitler and God and dead fish and cockroaches.
She’s so busy clearing the table and muttering about starving people, she missed hearing that one. But by then my older sister has come back from school and has decided to write a list of her own to show my mother. And I’m bothered by the fact that there are two lists now — both inaccurate, incomplete.
They go on writing, my grandmother and my sister. Bitch, idiot, imbecile, fool, so many curses spiced with biblical and Roman histories. Letters that once burned in the mouths of Cicero, Ovid, Ezekiel, and Elijah now pour through mine. And my sister and grandmother keep on chronicling, creating my wonderful book of curses.
When my mother finally comes home from work, I see on her face that the morning blossoms of fatigue have bloomed into afternoon flowers of despair.
We’re in the kitchen. Everything happens in the kitchen. The box of Holocaust is in the kitchen, under the sink. All my mother wants to do is go upstairs to our own part of the house. No, she isn’t hungry. Liar!, I think. She just doesn’t want any of my grandmother’s soup. She knows it tastes like death and ashes.
I wait in the corner and watch the fish killer take out her list. My mother’s eyes narrow. My grandmother speaks. “This is what your son has been calling me today.” Her bent fingers smooth out the cash register scroll.
She begins her recitation. “Bitch, fool, idiot, imbecile, moron…” It ends too quickly, I’m disappointed, there are many, many curses missing. Perhaps my sister has them on her list.
My mother looks at me. I forget how angry I am at her for not being here when I come home from school, for trapping me in this place with the song of the Holocaust box always in my ears.
“Wait!” I cry. “The curses — you haven’t heard them all yet. There’s still my sister’s list.”
The hand rises, the hand falls. The blow surprises me with its terrible, physical insult. A betrayal. My mother has never hit me before. It wasn’t hard enough to leave any bruises, but it hurts like hell.
The dead fish lower their heads and go on swimming in the bathtub, Hitler decides it’s better to crawl back into the box. God persists in his absence. The weather on the ceiling is cloudy with soup stains.
I drop down onto the floor, crying.
The box continues to sing.