What could make sense? The Israeli playwright had such long legs it was hard to believe he was Jewish.
“Little girl,” he said, coming up to Miriam with his very short pants and his heavy brown sandals that looked like they were made out of a whole rocky gang’s Garrison belts, “little girl, which languages you are speaking?”
But Miriam had not been speaking to anyone: she was walking around the canteen with a milk container going gummy in her hand, and waiting by herself for all the days of camp to be over. There, in the rain, the entire room was sour from milk and muffled from rubber boots and raincoats. The sourness clung to her tongue and whined in her sinuses; locked away from rain and from mud was the whole camp. Soon, some other day, it would get sunny and Snack would be outside on long wooden picnic benches. If you made a mistake and sat down on these benches, splinters crept into your thighs, and if you sat down on the grass instead, insects roamed your whole body. For milk containers and Oreos, this was summer.
“Listen to me, please, little girl. Why you are walking away? I am asking only a simple question. Which languages you are speaking?”
“Right this minute?” Miriam said. “I wasn’t speaking anything, can’t you even tell?” How he could be smart enough to fix tractors or fool Arabs, let alone write plays, Miriam did not see, not that she said it.
“No, no,” said the Israeli playwright. “Bring me please your counselor.”
“She’s right over there with the garbage,” Miriam said, but because she was not at all sure of how words came out of his mouth or went into his head, walked over with him to Fran who was going around with the basket.
“Amnon!” Fran screamed with her thin sparrow’s voice, and immediately dropped the basket and the empty milk containers like people on TV shows who walk backwards into sewers. Miriam had never seen her look so lively: Fran’s flat paper face was like the front of a brand new apartment house, and even though she was nineteen years old, did not wear lipstick. Instead, she got up very early in the morning, before any of the girls in the bunk, just to make sure that she would have enough time to stand in front of the mirror and put on all her black eye makeup. It was how Miriam woke up every morning: Fran, standing at the mirror, patting and painting her eyes as if they were an Arts and Crafts project. Right after that, Gil Burstein, a Senior boy, went to the loudspeaker to play his bugle, and from that time on there was no way at all to stop anything that came after. Every single morning, Miriam woke up in the cold light of a strange bed.
From behind all the black lines, Fran’s eyes looked as if she was already set to start flirting, but even so her arm would not let go of Miriam’s shoulder. It was just another thing that Miriam did not like. Simply going from one activity to another, the whole bunk walked with their arms linked around each other’s waists; at flag lowering, you joined hands and swayed in a semi-circle; in swimming you had to jump for someone else’s dripping hand the second the whistle blew; and at any time at all, there were counselors standing with their arms around kids for no particular reason. They were all people you hardly knew and would probably never see again; there was no reason to spend a whole summer hugging them.
“Miriam,” Fran said, smiling at her as if she were a new baby in somebody’s carriage, “do you speak Yiddish?”
“What do you mean?” Miriam said. “Every second? I can, if I have to.”
“It’s all I ask you,” Amnon said, and for the first time, smiled too; from way above his long legs, his face crinkled and seemed smaller, as if he wrote most of his plays right under a bulb that was going bad.
Fran said, “I don’t see it. She’s very quiet—her voice is much too soft.”
“It’s not making a difference. In America you have microphones falling from the ceiling even in a children’s camp you’re using only for summer.”
“On that huge stage? Are you kidding? She’d fade into the woodwork. Nobody would even see her. I told you—she’s very quiet.”
“She is not quiet,” Amnon said. “Not quiet, only unhappy. It’s how I am choosing her. I see her face: unhappy and unhappy.”
It was the last thing Miriam wanted anyone to think of.
“Everything’s perfect,” she said, and with all the tightness inside her, quickly gave Fran a smile that tired out the corners of her mouth.
“Probably she wouldn’t forget lines. But if she doesn’t remember to scream when she gets up there, you’re finished.”
“I don’t believe in screaming,” Miriam said, but not so that anyone could hear her. Beneath the ceiling, there were ping pong balls popping through the air like mistaken snowflakes, and behind her, some girls from her bunk were playing jacks. In the close, headachy damp, Miriam looked at Fran and hated her; in the whole canteen, that was all that there was.
It was getting to Amnon, too; the whole sour room seemed trapped in his face.
“Frances Wishinsky,” he said as he watched Fran walk away with the basket. “In England, are boys named Francis. In England, Wishinsky would already be Williams. England is a worse country, it’s true. I have suffered there for eleven months.”
Miriam said, “I read that it rains a lot in England,” and wondered if the rainy day and gray, stuffy room were what was reminding him.
“Weathers are not so much important to me,” Amnon said. “Other things I don’t accustom myself so well. For me, terrible weathers I find not so bad as terrible people. For example, I think you’re not liking so much your counselor Fran.”
But Amnon was a stranger. “She docks us from movies a lot,” Miriam said, “but with what they’ve got here, it doesn’t even matter. The last time we went, all they had was Martians. An entire movie about a bunch of miniature green guys running around in space ships.”
“You’re not liking science fictions? Which kind of films you like to see?”
“All different ones. I just don’t see why they can’t find enough movies to make up with real people’s colors and sizes in them.”
“Ah,” said long, stretched-out Amnon. “Look here, Miriam, you have been ever in a theater?”
“A children’s theater,” said Miriam. “They took us once from school.” The children’s theater, in the auditorium of a big high school in Manhattan, was in a terrible neighborhood: in a building right across the way, a left-alone little girl was standing up completely naked, her whole dark body pressed right against the window in the cold. “She’s only a little baby,” Miriam had said, but there were people who giggled all the way through the play and couldn’t wait to get outside again just to see if she would still be there.
“Children’s theater,” Amnon said nodding. “This play we do is also children’s theater. Only because it’s in Yiddish, the children here will not understand. But what can I do? I am not choosing it, it’s not my play, it’s not my language.”
It was not Miriam’s language either, so she said nothing and watched Amnon stare around the room, more and more dissatisfied.
“It is not my medium. I am playwright, not director. What can I do? Many people are coming to see this play who are not interesting themselves in theater and they are not interesting themselves in the children. They are only obsessing themselves with Yiddish. For this they will come.”
“For what?” said Miriam. “What are they all coming for?” There was a program every Friday night—nobody special came and nobody ever made a fuss about it.
“It will be performance for Parents Day,” Amnon said. “In two weeks is coming Parents Day. You know about it, yes?”
But more than yes: Miriam was sure that any parents, seeing what camp was like, would be only too glad to take their children out of it. How much more than yes? It was the one day she was certain of and waited for.
Even before she got there, Miriam had a feeling that camp might not turn out to be her favorite place.
“It’s terrific,” was what her cousin Dina told her. But it was the same thing that Dina said about going on Ferris wheel and roller coaster rides in an amusement park. Coming home from school, her arms full of all her heavy high-school books, she would tell Miriam, “Wait till you start doing things like that! Everybody screams and it’s terrific.”
“I get dizzy on the merry-go-round,” Miriam said, and was very suspicious. Only a few years before, Dina used to lie around on her bed, setting her stringy strawberry blonde hair and reading Love comics. With her extra baby-sitting money, she would buy different size lipstick brushes, close the door in the bathroom, and completely mess up all her perfectly good but strange-colored brand-new lipsticks. Naturally, Dina’s mother did not approve, but all she said was, “All the girls are like that. They all do it, and Miriam will be like that, too.” But because she was not like Dina, who and what she would be like was in Miriam’s mind very often; it was the reason she looked so closely at people’s faces on the street.
“If you’d only smile once in a while,” Miriam’s aunt said, “you’d look like a different person.” But her aunt was a liar, a person who spent her life thinking there was not much children could understand. Just to prove it once, when Miriam was in kindergarten, she gave her aunt a special lie test on purpose: on the day that Israel got started as a country, everyone had the radio on all day and many people put out little flags in their windows.
“Why do they have Jewish flags out?” Miriam asked, very pleased with herself because she had thought up the trick and knew the answer.
“What Jewish flags?” Her aunt’s arms were all full of bundles and her fat, soggy face looked very annoyed. “Where? In the window? They’re left over from Shabbas.”
So Miriam saw she was right, but even when she got older said nothing, because she knew that for the times her mother was sick, she would still have to stick around her aunt’s house, listen to some lies, and watch Dina fool around with her friends or do her homework. Whenever her aunt bought fruit, she would say, “It’s sweet as sugar,” even if it was unripened grapefruit; and when she made lamb chops, she said, “Don’t leave over the fat, it’s delicious,” even though it wasn’t.
Sometimes, when Dina and her mother had fights, or when her uncle was yelling on the phone about Socialism, it would seem to Miriam very funny, so to stop them from noticing her giggles, and also to drown out the screaming, she would go into the living room and play the piano. She played from her head songs she had learned in Assembly or Hebrew School, or even better, melodies that came into her mind like ideas: not real, official songs that people knew, but ones she made up on the spot and could change and fix up if she wanted. It was separate from things that she knew about and completely different from people; often when she played the piano, it seemed to Miriam like reading Chinese in a dream.
“I don’t see what’s so great about playing without piano books,” Dina said. “You can’t even read music. Just wait till you start taking lessons from Mrs. Landau and have to start practicing from books, then we’ll see what a big shot you are.”
“I’m not ever going to take from Mrs. Landau,” Miriam said. “My mother says she’s a very limited person who shouldn’t be teaching anybody anything.”
“Your mother tells you too much,” said her aunt, but in what way this was true she had no idea. “Stalin” was what Miriam’s mother called her uncle, and what she said about him was that he simply had nothing in his head and had no way of telling what was true from what wasn’t. For this reason, all of his talk about Socialism was just noise-making, and all he was, she said, was a big talker who would believe anyone who was a bigger faker.
The other thing Miriam’s mother most often told about was her own life when she was a child, but when she got to that, she talked only half to Miriam and half to someone who wasn’t there at all.
“Who could have believed that anyplace could be as big as Warsaw?” is what she would say. “Streets and more streets, I couldn’t understand it. I was the first girl from my town ever to be sent there to school, and I was so smart that when I got there, I was the youngest in my class. But all my smartness did me no good—I looked at all the stores and the people, the streetcars and the houses, and all I did was cry constantly.” This, Miriam never had any trouble believing; it was a habit her mother never got out of. Whenever the boiler broke down for a day, her mother cried all the time that she washed in cold water, and if the butcher ever sent the wrong kind of chicken, or one with too many pinfeathers on it, she cried for hours after and then started all over again when they were ready to sit down and eat it.
Still, with all the things that she did tell, when it came to camp, Miriam’s mother said very little.
“You’ll meet children from all over. When Dina went, there was a girl from Winnipeg, Canada.”
“Was her father a Mountie?”
“How could he be a Mountie?” her mother said. “Ask Dina, I think he was a dentist.”
“Then I don’t see the point.”
“It isn’t a question of point, Miriam. In camp, you’ll have grass and trees and get away. Here all you’d have is the hot city.”
But it was the hot, empty city that Miriam loved. The flat, gritty sidewalks, freed of people, widened in the glassy, brilliant glare and in the distance fell away like jungle snow. Hard, strange bits of stone came up bubbling through the pavements: glazed, heated traces of another city that once drummed and droned beneath. In front of all the buildings, just where landlords had planted them, low, wiry shrubs pushed themselves out like rubber plants, and the buildings, rougher and rock-like in the ocher heat, seemed turned into bricks that was brick before houses, brick that cooked up from the earth itself. From the sky, the city’s summer smell sank into Miriam’s skin, and walking along with the slow air, she felt her thin, naggy body skim away to the bricks and the pavement that streamed, in belonging, to the sun. What she would do with a bunch of trees, Miriam did not know.
Only dodge ball, it turned out, could have been invented by human beings: if somebody kept throwing balls at you, it was only natural to try to get away from them, and if you would just be allowed to go far enough, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. This was what Miriam decided on for all games, so in basketball and volleyball, she let other people push and scream for the ball as if there were a sale, and in badminton, she watched them jump and yell, “Look at the birdie,” like photographers with black cloths in an old-time movie.
Folk dancing was no improvement. “Right over left, left, step, right behind, left, step,” Naamah the Yemenite folk dancer sang out instead of words in her dark Yemenite voice, while all her heavy silver jewelry sounded behind her, a rhythm as clear and alone as somebody cracking gum in an empty subway. In a way, Naamah was the most Israeli-looking person Miriam had ever seen; with her tiny, tight dark features and black, curly hair, she flew around the room like a strange but very beautiful insect, the kind of insect a crazy scientist would let loose in a room and sit up watching till he no longer knew whether it was beautiful or ugly, human or a bug. Sometimes, Naamah would pull Miriam out of the circle and sing the special right-over-left song straight into her ear as if Miriam were the one who couldn’t speak English.
“The grapevine step,” she screamed over the music. “It’s necessary for all Oriental dance. Not just Israeli. Also the Greeks have it, and it’s found modified with the Druse.” But it seemed to Miriam like doing arithmetic with your feet, and finally Naamah let her go back into the circle saying, “Westerners cannot do our dances. They do not have the body.”
“I don’t know what she acts so fancy about,” Miriam said in a half-whisper to no one. “Everybody knows that when the Yemenites first came to Israel, they never even saw a toilet before, and when the Israelis gave them brand new bathrooms, what they did was go all over the floor.”
“Shush, Miriam,” said Phyllis Axelrod, a tanned chunky girl in Miriam’s bunk. “Don’t answer back. If you feel bad, just cry into your pillow. I do it every night and it works.”
“What does your pillow have to do with it? That sounds like putting teeth under your pillow so that fairies will give you money.”
“You get dimes that way, Miriam. Don’t you even want the dimes?”
“If I want a dime, I ask my mother for it. I don’t hide teeth and expect fairies, that’s not something I believe in.”
“My mother wouldn’t just hand out dimes like that,” Phyllis said, and Miriam immediately felt sorry. She liked Phyllis, though she often seemed not too brilliant; sometimes they were buddies in swimming, and once they snuck out of the water together because Phyllis heard a radio playing inside the little cabana that was only for counselors. It was the reason that Phyllis cried into her pillow at night: she missed listening to the radio and knowing what was on the Hit Parade, and this gave Miriam the idea that when Phyllis got to be a teenager, she might spend all her time hanging around cars in the street, holding up a radio and looking for boys. Sometimes Phyllis also cried because she missed her oldest brother Ronny who had just come back from Korea and immediately got married.
“You’re not glad about being a sister-in-law?” Miriam asked her.
“It’s not that great,” Phyllis said. “I just wish I had my regular brother back again, no Army and no wedding.” Still, she had a beautiful red and gold silk scarf that Ronny had brought back for her from Asia; once she wore it as a shawl when everyone, already in white tops and shorts, had gone out on the road to pick wild flowers for the Friday evening table. On that road, outside camp but just behind the bunks, most of the flowers were tiger lilies, and when Phyllis bent over to pick one, she looked, with her straight black hair and broad, brown face, like an Asian girl herself.
It was the closest Miriam got to “children from all over”: except for a girl from Teaneck, New Jersey, everyone in her bunk was from New York, mostly from Brooklyn or Queens, both places Miriam had not been to. Still from what they said, the only difference she could see was that they called Manhattan “going into the city,” while people from the Bronx called it “going downtown.” Besides Miriam, that meant only Bryna Sue Seligman, who, because she came from Riverdale, would not admit it. Everything that belonged to Bryna, her recorder included, had specially printed stickers, made up by her father who was in the printing business, that said in giant yellow letters Bryna Sue Seligman, and her favorite book in the world was the Classic Comic of Green Mansions. On the very first day they were in camp she asked Miriam, “Don’t you wish you were Rima? Isn’t Green Mansions the most beautiful thing you ever heard of?”
“It’s OK,” Miriam said; she could not see constantly going barefoot in a hot jungle and having to depend on birds when you had any trouble. But Bryna liked the whole idea so much that just in order to be like Rima, she kept her long red hair loose and hanging down her back, walked around without shoes when she wasn’t supposed to, and blew into her recorder, which she couldn’t really play, when she lay in bed after Lights Out. Whenever there was any free time, Bryna the bird-girl spent almost all of it either brushing her hair or dusting herself with bath powder, all in her private mirror with the yellow label, moving it constantly from side to side so that there was no part of her she would miss.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she would say as she stared at herself and brushed all her red hair. “I’m going to be a bareback rider and my mother promised me a camp with horses.”
“Jewish camps don’t come with horses,” Miriam said. “You should have figured that out for yourself. Besides, I thought you said you were going to be a poetess.”
“Oh, I am one already,” Bryna said. “Any time I feel like it, my father prints up all my poems.”
“In yellow?” said Miriam.
“In any color I want. Once I wrote a poem about a rainbow and my father made every line in a different color.”
This sounded like a bubble-gum wrapper and no poem, but watching Bryna trace around her suntan marks in the mirror, Miriam decided not to say it.
“I could be going horseback riding in River-dale right now. Where I live, it’s practically the country.”
“Where you live is the Bronx,” Miriam said. “On your letters you put Bronx, New York, and you even write in a zone number.”
“It just so happens that lots of people put Riverdale-on-Hudson, and any time I wanted to, I could.”
“You could,” Miriam said, “but it would probably end up in a museum in Albany.”
Because their beds were next to each other, Miriam and Bryna shared a cubby; with all Bryna’s yellow labels shining through the shelves like flashbulb suns and the smell of her bath powder always hanging in the air, there was no place that Miriam felt was really hers. Her bathrobe and bathing suits hung like blind midgets in the way; they even got the Bryna bath powder smell. It made them seem as if they were someone else’s clothes, and like everything else in camp, had nothing to do with Miriam and her life.
“I could be in a special dramatics camp on a fat scholarship,” Bryna said. “The only reason I told them no was that they didn’t have any horseback riding, but at least there they would have had me starring in a million plays.”
“I’m in a play here,” said Miriam. It was turning out to be what she had instead of a cubby, and completely faking calmness, she waited for Byrna to faint.
Who could have believed that anyplace could be as big as Warsaw? Probably not anyone in the play: who they were, all of them, were Jews, Nazis, and Polish partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto—but where all the streets, more streets, and streetcars could be, the stage gave no idea, and Amnon didn’t ever say. On the stage was a tiny, crowded Warsaw filled with people who had phlegmy, sad Polish names—Dudek and Vladek, Dunya and Renya—just like in Miriam’s mother’s stories, and though they were always fighting and singing, there was no way for them to turn out not to be dead. Even the Yiddish song that Miriam had to sing at the end was about a girl who gets taught by her boyfriend how to shoot a gun, and who, one night in the freezing cold, goes out in her beret and shoots up a truckload of Nazis. When the girl is finished, she falls asleep, and the snow coming down makes a garland in her hair. Probably it also freezes her to death, though all it said at the end of the song was: “Exhausted from this small victory, For our new, free generation.”
How could a girl who ran out all alone shooting soldiers let herself end up snowed under? And what was the point of people’s running through sewers with guns if all they turned into was corpses? It was very hard to explain to Bryna, whose big question was, “Are you starring?”
“Nobody is,” Miriam said. “It’s not that kind of a play. Half of the time I fake being dead so that nobody finds out and they leave me.”
“You mean you don’t even say anything?”
“I do,” Miriam said, “but what I say doesn’t do any good. I’m a little girl in braids and I sneak out of the ghetto with my big brother.”
Bryna said, “That’s your big part? What do you tell him?”
“Nothing. While he’s out getting guns, I hide and I hear some Nazi soldiers being so drunk that they start screaming out their plans. And that’s when I immediately run back to the ghetto and warn everyone.”
“Oh,” Bryna said. “So the whole thing is that you copy Paul Revere.”
“The only kind of Paul Revere it could be is a Jewish kind. Everyone dies and there are no horses.”
Bryna said, “Some play! When we did “The Princess and the Pea,” I was the star and then when we did “Pocahontas, Red-Skin Lady of Jamestown,” I was the heroine. In this moron play, I bet that there isn’t even one person with a halfway decent part.”
“My part’s good,” Miriam said. “I’m practically the only one who doesn’t turn out to be killed.”
“That’s because you’re a girl.”
“No, it’s not,” Miriam said. “I don’t even know why, that’s just the way the play is.”
“Listen, Miriam, I’ve been in a million plays. Little girls never get killed in any of them.”
“Well, in this one they do. In this one, the only people who don’t wind up dead are me and Gil Burstein.”
“You’re in a play with Gil Burstein? You? Just let me come to rehearsals with you and I’ll let you use my expensive bath powder any time you want.”
“You can’t get out of playing badminton just like that,” Miriam told her. “That’s only for people in the play.”
But play or not, camp was still camp. At night, cold air flew in through the dark from Canada and mixed on the screens with mosquitoes; 6-12 and whispers filled up the air in the bunk and stayed there like ugly wallpaper. How could anyone sleep? Miriam played with the dark like a blind person in a foreign country; in the chilly, quiet strangeness, her bed was as black as a packed-up trunk, and her body, separate in all its sun-burned parts, was suddenly as unfamiliar as someone else’s toothpaste.
In the daytime, too, camp was still camp: a place dreamed up to be full of things that Miriam could not get out of. Whenever Amnon saw her face, he said, “What’s the matter, Miriam?” It was how he kept starting out rehearsals.
“Look here, Miriam,” he would say, pronouncing her name the Hebrew way, with the accent on the last syllable. “Look here, Miriam, say me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing,” she said. “Everything’s great.”
“Why you are saying me ‘Nothing’ when I see you are crying—have been crying?”
“I wasn’t, I’m not, and anyway it’s not something I do.”
“All girls are sometimes crying.”
“Well not me,” Miriam said. “I don’t believe in it.” For a reason: it sometimes seemed to Miriam that if a person from a foreign country—or even a miniature green man from Mars—ever landed, by accident, in her building and by mistake walked up the six flights of stairs, all he would hear is screaming and crying: mothers screaming and children crying, fathers screaming and mothers crying, televisions screaming and vacuum cleaners crying; he could very easily get the idea that in this place there was no language, and that with all the noises, there were no lives.
But crying was the last thing that Miriam thought of once she got to rehearsals. Still in camp, but not really in camp at all, it felt like a very long fire drill in school when you stayed on the street long enough to be not just a child on a line, but almost an ordinary person—someone who could walk in the street where they wanted, into stores, around corners, and maybe, if they felt like it, even disappear into buses.
As soon as Miriam put on her costume and combed her hair into braids, there was nothing on her body that felt like camp, and away from the day outside, nothing to even remind her. On the stage, Jews, Nazis, and Polish partisans were wandering through the streets of shrunken Warsaw, and in a corner, where in the real Warsaw there might have been a gas street-light, a trolley car stop, or even her mother’s Gymnasium, Miriam and Gil Burstein played dead.
“What’s the best can opener?” Gil whispered.
“I don’t know,” Miriam said.
“Ex-Lax,” said Gil and laughed into his Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
“Rest!” Amnon called out. In the middle of the stage, a Polish partisan had just kicked a Jew by mistake and suddenly the girl was crying. Nazi soldiers and Jewish resistance fighters started stampeding across the stage and charging, and Amnon, looking at no one, said, “Always they are playing Indians and Lone Rangers. It’s for me completely not possible.”
“Rest!” he yelled again; what he meant was “Break.” Once, in one of his terrible-English times, Amnon said “Ninety-Twoth Street Y,” and Miriam, thinking suddenly of a giant tooth-building with elevators full of a thousand dentists, could not stop herself from laughing. Other times, she thought of asking Amnon why she and Gil were the only ones who managed to end up not dead, but usually during breaks, Amnon sat with his long legs stretched out across a whole row of chairs and just talked. He hardly even noticed who was concentrating on Cokes and who was paying attention.
“In Israel now it’s not the right climate for art. You understand me?”
“It’s much too hot there for people to sit around drawing pictures,” Miriam said and wished that the Arts and Crafts counselor could understand this too.
“No,” Amnon said. “For me it means in my own country even people are not interesting themselves in my work. Here it’s not my language, it’s not my country, there is no place for an Israeli writer, there is nothing to do.”
Gil Burstein said, “He could always take and autograph butcher-store windows or foods for Passover, I’m getting sick of this. Who wants a Coke?”
“Me,” Miriam said, but knew the truth was that she didn’t mind at all. From lying stretched out on the wooden stage for so long, her mind felt empty and the whole rest of her seemed dizzy in a sweet, half-sleepy way. Soon, in this dark auditorium, only the stage would be full of light and the plain wooden floor would hold up for an hour all the mistakes of a place that once had existed. A girl with braids and a too-long dress would run out in the mixed-up streets, and sitting in the audience with many other people, Miriam’s mother would know what this place once was like way before and could tell how it actually looked. The girl with braids would sing the last song, and all Miriam’s days of camp would finally be over.
Parents Day did not start out with Gil waking people up with his bugle; instead, from the loudspeaker in the office, came records of Israeli songs—background music for the whole day, as if it were a movie. The melodies ran out quick and flying, and framed by the music, the whole camp—children, counselors, little white bunks, even trees and grass—seemed to be flying away, too, as if after all these weeks they were finally going someplace. Not exactly in the movie herself, Miriam went to the clothesline in the back, checking to make sure no bathing suit of hers was still left on it.
“Miriam, you better come in the front,” Phyllis said. “There’s a whole bunch of people here and they’re looking for you.”
Right outside the bunk, some girls in a circle were doing the dances that belonged with the melodies, and squinting there in the sun, practically trapped inside the dance, was Miriam’s aunt and uncle, and with them a couple she had never seen before. The man, very short and with gray, curly hair, was dressed just like her uncle: Bermuda shorts, brown cut-out sandals with high socks, and a kind of summer hat that always looked to Miriam like a Jewish baseball cap. His wife, who was taller, had thick dark braids all across her head, and though her skirt was very long in the sun, there was such a round, calm look in her clothes and on her face that Miriam was sure she had never had to be anybody’s mother.
Miriam’s aunt said, “There’s my niece. Here she is. Miriam, this is Mrs. Imberman and that’s Mr. Imberman, they came up with the car.”
Miriam’s aunt looked exactly the same: every part of her heavy face drooped like the bargain bundles she always carried, and stuck to her cheeks like decals with high pink splotches the color of eyelids—extra supplies of tears she kept up to make sure she was always ready.
“What are you doing here?” said Miriam. “You’re not my mother. Who asked you to come?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Imberman came here to see a play,” her aunt said, “and we’re staying right next to them in the same little hotel, and it’s not far, and they came with the car, so here we are.”
“I didn’t say what are they doing here. I said what are you doing here? And where’s my mother?”
“Your mother couldn’t come. She was going to write a letter and tell you, but I told her not to because I know you, Miriam, that if you knew about it you’d make a fuss, and now I see how right I was.”
Turning around, Miriam stared at all the trees and grass that she had there: if they were so wonderful, the least they could do was pay attention to the music and do an Israeli dance.
“For you, your mother is your mother, but for me, she’s still my little sister and there are plenty of things still that I have to tell her.”
The trees, with all their millions of leaves, did not do even half a grapevine, and Miriam’s uncle said, “Imberman, feel how hot it is already here and it’s still early. Can you imagine what it’s like a day like today in the city?”
“Hot,” Mr. Imberman said. They stood there, the two of them, with their Jewish baseball caps, and Miriam thought how her uncle looked when it got too hot in his apartment: he would walk back and forth in his shorts and undershirt, fan himself with a newspaper, and say in Yiddish, “It’s hot today in the city. Oh my God, it’s hot!” If her uncle and midget Mr. Imberman got together, they could both walk back and forth in a little undershirt parade, fan themselves with two newspapers, and in between saying how hot it was, could have little fights about which countries were faking it with Socialism.
Miriam said, “If my mother were here, she would take me home.”
“Why should she take you home? It’s good for you to be outside and it’s good for you to get used to it.”
“Why should I get used to it if I don’t like it?”
“Look how nice it is here, Miriam,” her uncle said in Yiddish. “Look what you have here—a beautiful blue lake, a sky with sun and clouds that’s also blue, big strong trees you can see from a mountain—with birds in them, wide, empty green fields with only grass and flowers. Look how nice.”
“The lake is polluted,” Miriam said. And it seemed to her that he was describing someplace else entirely—maybe a place in Poland he remembered from when he was young, maybe even a picture on a calendar, but definitely not camp on Parents Day. All the empty green fields were filling up with cars, the grass and flowers were getting covered over with blankets and beach chairs, and pretty soon, the birds from the mountain would be able to come down and eat all the left-over food that people brought with them. Except that there was no sand, the whole camp could have been Orchard Beach.
“Let me tell you something,” her uncle said. “First I’ll tell you a little story about your cousin Dina, and then I’ll give you some advice.”
“I don’t want any advice from you,” Miriam said. “You can’t even figure out which countries are faking it with Socialism, and if you’re supposed to care about it so much, why don’t you just write a letter to a person in the country and ask them? All they have to tell you is if they’re selfish or if they share around the things they’ve got.”
“Straight from her mother,” said Miriam’s aunt. “With absolutely no sense that she’s talking in front of a child.”
“And don’t think I can’t understand it either. My mother calls him Stalin.”
Mrs. Imberman said, “Sweetheart, are you in the play?” She bent her head in the sun, and for a second, her earrings, turquoise and silver, suddenly turned iridescent.
“Yes,” Miriam said and looked up at her: somewhere, a man with a sombrero and a moustache got off his donkey and sat down in the heat to fold pieces of silver so that Mrs. Imberman could turn her head in the sun and ask questions of strange children.
“Ah hah,” Mrs. Imberman said, “an aktricekeh. That’s why she’s so temperamental.”
“I am not an actress,” Miriam said. “I never was one before and I don’t plan on being one again, and what I’m definitely not going to be is an explorer so I don’t see why I have to get used to so much being outside.”
“Listen, Miriam,” her uncle said. “Let me tell you what happened with Dina in case she was embarrassed to tell you herself. It happened that Dina didn’t feel like giving in her chocolates to the counselor, so she put them under her bed and only took out the box to eat them when it was dark in the bunk at night and she was sitting up in the bed and setting her hair. She figured out that if anyone heard any noises she could tell them it was from the bobby pins and curlers.”
“Such a woman’s story,” Mr. Imberman said in very Polish Yiddish. “I didn’t know, Citrin, that you knew such womens’ stories.”
Miriam’s aunt said. “You know my Dina. She could set her hair anyplace.”
“Anyway, what happened, Miriam, is that once somebody put on a light and saw her, and that’s how she made some enemies, and that’s why she didn’t always love it here.”
“I don’t set my hair,” Miriam said. “It’s the one thing I’m lucky about—it’s naturally curly, and now I have to get it put in braids for the play, so good-by.”
“So quick?” her aunt said. “Good-by Miriam, look how nice and sun-tanned she is. Nobody would even know she has a sour face.”
Just behind the curtain, Miriam waited bunched up with everyone in their costumes on the hot, quiet stage. Sunk into the scenery, not even Gil Burstein was laughing, and all the Jews, Nazis, and Polish partisans were finally without Cokes in their hands. Amnon, still walking around in his same very short pants, gave Miriam a giant Israeli smile that she had not seen before and could not feel a part of. He said, “Now I don’t worry for the play and I don’t worry for the audience.”
But why anyone would worry for the audience, Miriam could not see. All through the play, she kept looking out at them—a little girl in braids and a too-long dress who would end up not dead—and could not tell the face of anyone. Who they were she did not know and did not want to think about: people, probably, who cried and screamed in their houses, fanned themselves with newspapers, and took along hard-boiled eggs if they went in a car for a half hour.
The stage did not stop being hot, and lying stretched out on it with Gil Burstein, it seemed to Miriam that they were playing dead right underneath a gas street-light from a stuffy, summer night in the real Warsaw. Way above their heads hung a fat, yellow bulb that was surrounded by a thousand insects. In all different shapes and sizes, they kept flying from the empty blue darkness backstage toward this one single glare, till the bulb, ugly and unshaded in the first place, seemed to be growing a beard as sweaty and uneven as a grandfather’s. Back and forth, over and around, the different insects crowded and buzzed, all with each other, so that watching them, Miriam started to wonder whether these were Socialist bugs who believed in sharing with each other what they had, or else, bugs who were secretly wishing to keep the whole bulb for themselves, and by politely flying close together, just faking it.
In the woods, just outside the finished-off Warsaw Ghetto, the night was bitter cold. Miriam stood up to sing the song of the girl with the velvet face who went out in the blizzard to shoot up the enemy, and knew that no matter how big the stage was, when she sang or played the piano, there was nothing about her that was quiet at all. “‘Exhausted from this small victory, For our new, free generation,’” Miriam finally sang, and the curtain fell over her head like the garland of snow on the girl who could end up snowed under.
Left all by herself behind the curtain, Miriam heard crying coming from people in the audience: they were the parents of no one in the play, but were crying now because, like somebody’s stupid, stupid parakeet, they had learned how to do one thing and one thing only. If anyone yelled out “Budgie!” right now, the entire audience would immediately get up and start flying. Amnon would fly out, too, and Bryna, always a bird-girl, ran up now to Miriam on the stage, and right then and there began chirping.
“Guess what?” she said. “Now there are two people in my family with red hair. My mother got her hair dyed and I didn’t even know it was her till she came over and kissed me.”
“Oh,” Miriam said, and because she could see that Bryna had big things on her mind—counting redheads—listened from somewhere for the sound of Amnon’s voice letting out his one Israeli-parakeet line: Say-me-what’s-wrong-Miriam, Miriam-say-me-the-matter. Standing there on the stage, a little girl in braids and a too-long dress who would end up not dead, Miriam promised herself that never again in her life would anyone look at her face and see in it what Amnon did, but just like the girl who could fake being dead, she would keep all her aliveness a secret.