Izabel's sobbing permeated the room as she unfastened the bobby pins holding together her daughter's soiled diaper. She used one corner to wipe away the solid waste while reaching for a pail of water on the floor beside her. She wrung out a cleaning rag and gently dabbed at Magdalena's inflamed bottom. The infant screamed in pain as Izabel tried vainly to remove the mess from her skin, finally using a jagged fingernail to scrape away the remnants.
"I'm sorry, child," she cried, reaching to steady the tiny legs flailing about in agony.
Magdalena was several months old now. Her cries had increased in their intensity and pitch; her tears flowed out like the waters of the river Duna. Her tender skin was streaked with blood from a staph infection that had turned the flesh white, then gray, then scarlet red. Izabel's mother had left her a lard-rendered salve, but nothing helped.
In desperation, Izabel folded up the child's legs and dipped her genitals into the pail of cold water. Little Magdalena paused for a moment, gazing up at her mother with a look of surprise, then inhaled one long breath to protest her indignation. "Damn him," Izabel swore. She deposited her daughter roughly back onto a wool blanket amid a chorus of fresh screams.
Izabel bawled as she smeared greasy ointment on her daughter's sore skin, bitterly cursing all who had abandoned her. For many weeks she'd not seen Eva. She knew her friend had given birth to a son. Her mother told her the child's arrival had been heralded throughout the countryside, even meriting mention in a newspaper in Pest. She tossed the clipping onto Izabel's lap several days earlier.
Halachist Shimon Szotemel of the Temple Harzion and his wife Eva are proud to announce the birth of their son, David Joshua Szotemel, born April 28 at home in Martely. Grandparents are Ben and Rose Remeny of Siklos and Joseph and Sarai Indulat from Villany
"You would have thought this child of royal blood; a direct descendant of Prince Arpad himself," Mama said. "How jealous you must be at her son's reception. It is an interesting turn of events, for certain. You must be curious to see the little prince. I guess she is still exhausted from her labor."
Every day her mother brought her the latest gossip, serving it up like a tender blossom with the afternoon tea. She seemed to relish rubbing her daughter's nose in her humiliation. Izabel suffered the daily onslaught with enough indifference to negotiate the news while discouraging further ridicule. She gobbled it down like sweet kernels of corn, hungry for the agonizing updates, while inevitably being sickened as they took root in her heart.
Her persistence led Izabel to wonder if she suspected her granddaughter's paternity. She knew her mother's eyes missed little; it wouldn't surprise Izabel if her cruelty ran so deep. Her life had indeed become hopeless; she need not be reminded.
Izabel endured lonely days in the shanty with her child. Her only visits were from her mother on the afternoons when she finished her washing. Although Izabel still awaited her judgment by the kris, her mother seemed in no hurry for their return home.
"There is scant room in your father's house. I don't know how we'll find an inch for my little Magdalena."
Mama straightened the baby's nightdress and brushed loose strands of silky black hair behind her tiny ears. She fussed over the child in a way that Izabel had never seen before.
Izabel wondered if this was some misguided attempt to seek forgiveness for not protecting her from the sexual advances of her lecherous father. After Magdalena's birth, his depravity was never brought up again. But the old woman's actions spoke louder than words--she would never allow harm to come to Magda--Izabel was certain of it. Iza was not even sure if she was still marime. It seemed their isolation might be a deliberate attempt by her mother to keep them isolated from her father. She asked her mother, point-blank, that afternoon.
Her mother sighed deeply as she prepared Magdalena for her nightly bath. She carefully slipped the child's bedclothes up over her head, nuzzling her soft hair against a wrinkled cheek. She clicked her tongue in disapproval of the horrible infection on Magda's privates. The baby screwed up her tiny face as she was laid in the warm washbasin.
"We will let her skin soak awhile in the warm water," said her mother. Grinning up at the old woman, Magdalena kicked a fat foot to splash water onto her grandmother's worn apron, then giggled with delight at her grandmother's open-mouthed expression of surprise. Even Izabel smiled, despite herself.
"Truth be told, daughter, I am afraid for your return home, but not for the reasons I'm sure you're thinking."
She glanced at Izabel for a moment, saying, "You never believe anything I say. You think I don't love you. It's always been this way between us. I only hope you'll someday realize my love for you. A mother's love. You should understand this now."
Izabel stared at her in disbelief. Though her shoulders were still rigid, tears began filling her eyes. Izabel was touched by the sincerity in her voice. Her heart wept.
"Times are terrible for our people in Romania, Iza. Rroma registered by the government are being rounded up and taken to labor camps. Many men have left for work, never to return home; many have been dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night. We do not know where they are taken. We think them all dead. It is a travesty.
She paused as if wondering where to continue.
"There have been witnesses that the women and children in the camp in Varsand were thrown into a shallow grave and shot. They were covered over with dirt. Some of the people buried under the bodies were still alive. Their muffled cries were heard by a passing farmer who dug them out. Women and children!
She clapped her hands over her face.
"I am afraid for our people. It is rumored that the Jews watch us, feeding information to the Romanian Iron Guard Legionnaires to save their own families from the death squads. Policemen? They are butchers!"
Izabel stared at her mother in disbelief. She'd left many friends behind in Varsand. She never dreamed of not seeing them again.
"Why were they murdered, mama?"
"I don't know." She abruptly shifted her focus. "Her water is getting cold. Time to dry off my little chirilo."
She lifted the soaking child out of the washbasin onto a clean towel. She rubbed the baby briskly while her little chin trembled in the cold air.
"Add more wood to the stove, Iza, your daughter is cold." Her mother pulled a light in close to inspect the girl's behind. "Hmm."
The old woman removed a square of waxed paper from a hidden fold in her skirt. On it laid a glob of gelatinous liniment which she slathered onto the exposed skin.
"This is a poultice of flax seed and elm bark. You must apply it every few hours. It will heal her sores."
The old woman then rubbed a finger, dipped in brandy, over the infant's gums to calm her. "You must have such pain, Magdalena. This will ease your suffering."
And it did. Her fiery red skin turned dark pink. She cooed up at her Nana, enraptured, much to Izabel's chagrin.
Why does she do everything better than I? She even takes better care of my child than I do. She glowered jealously at the sentimental scene before her.
She stood up to fetch the books borrowed from Eva, and flipped through the pages, distractedly looking for her place. The books left a bitter taste these days; the words rang hollow and meaningless. She was lonely. She longed for the companionship of her tutor. She missed her friend.
"Perhaps I will visit Eva this afternoon," she murmured.
"Haven't you heard a word I said?" Her mother's angry outburst prompted Magdalena to burst into tears. "It isn't safe, you stupid girl! We are being hunted. Thousands have died or gone missing."
Then, she tried a gentler approach. "You are safe here. Stay out of town and away from camp if you want to live."
"Watch my daughter." Izabel pulled a sweater up over her head and straightened the braids under her diklo.
Her mother darted across the room to lunge for her arm.
"No, Mama. I want to see her."
"She doesn't want you around. She doesn't want you around her husband. I think we both know why. Don't play stupid with me. I knew the moment I laid eyes on him he had designs on you. The Jewish bastard! I don't think Eva is so stupid not to know of the affair."
"Has she once visited you, or your daughter, since last December?"
"She knows!" Then, more quietly, "She knows. And since she knows, what would stop her from reporting you to the authorities?"
Izabel tried vainly to pinch some color into her pale cheeks.
"I'm begging you not to go. I can protect you here. Your secret is safe with me, daughter. I am afraid you will leave your child an orphan."
Izabel brushed her lips against her daughter's crying face and walked out the door.
The air felt good on her face. It had been weeks since she'd last ventured outside the vicinity of the shack. The anticipation of seeing her dear friend hastened her steps along the footpath.