Past and Progress
A sensation of surrealism overwhelms me while walking through these streets again, like a fairytale without the protagonistic whimsy.
As I move along at my mildly cautious pace, I see places that transpire memories in me: the bakery on the corner, the local pub, and the schoolyard playground. All of these places, they are my home. Yet, I feel misplaced in this atmosphere. It has become a fumbled myriad of past and progress.
Passersby either shift their eyes away or offer me scrutinizing glances as I walk by. Perhaps they are repulsed by my gaunt frame and sheared scalp. Or maybe, a wisp of the young girl with auburn ringlets and a stitched yellow star who used to reside in this town is residual upon my hollow face, and the sight of me has begun to refill the vacancies in their minds. Either way, it's of little consequence. I am now an outsider in my own society.
To the right of the bakery, I can see the alleyway, and immediately, I know where it leads. Twenty paces down the passage and one turn left stands the old ghetto, a ghastly imprisonment, caged in by barbed wire fences and blockaded with iron-clad gates. The ghetto has since been demolished, or so I heard. But still, the crushing weight of death clings to the scarred ruins. The gruesome aura can be felt in the air. It's stifling. And it is this aura that deters me from venturing any closer. So, I opt instead to keep trekking straight onward, my eyes fixated to the path in front of me, unwavering. That alley, I'm afraid, is a confrontation I'll never be able to withstand.
My previous encounter leaves me rattled, and it takes me a moment to realize that I am walking down my neighborhood street. Seconds later I have arrived at my destination, my childhood home. While standing here, I can vividly remember days spent here with my family: my mother, father, and little brother. I remember picking apples from the tree in the backyard, bringing my brother home as an infant, being read bedtime stories by my mother and father, and Cinderella always being my favorite. But these memories have been vacated from the premises, been whittled down to irksome cobwebs in the corners of the household. The surviving memories find sanctum only in the corners of my heart, where they will thrive for what life is left in me.
There must be a new family living here now, I think to myself, with new children to run mischievously through the corridors and new scents to permeate its insides. My stomach nearly lurches at the thought, but my pondering is sharply disillusioned by a voice from behind.
I turn to be met by an old woman, whom I recognize as my old neighbor. I had failed to notice her tending to her garden before when passing by.
"Zdenka? Is that really you, Zdenka?" an inquiry is made as she wraps her arms around me.
I stiffen in response to her embrace. It is awkward being hugged by this woman, my former neighbor. My family had never seen eye to eye with the political views of she and her husband, and tension arose because of this. Nonetheless, she is a devout Catholic. I release myself from her grasp and peer at her.
"Zdenka?" she questions again, eagerly awaiting my response.
She stares at me so expectantly, so hopefully, as though my next words will either be the salve to her binding guilt or the shredding of delicately stitched wounds. She need not voice it, for the evidence is written on her eyes, the traces of anxiety and yearning.
But I do not respond, not right away. I instead take this silent opportunity to observe her, this woman I am seeing for the first time in years. My thoughts drift to the whereabouts of her husband. Could he be inside? No, that's impossible, I know. Her husband is gone.
And again, the old woman need not voice it. The answer is etched in the haggard crinkles around her eyes, the burrowing wrinkles on her weathered cheeks. His death has aged her immensely. A childless and elderly couple, he was all that she had in this unforgiving world. And now she is alone, I think, much like me. It is this notion that allows me to see this embittered woman in a foreign light, with history and spite cast aside.
In this spectrum, I am not Jewish, and she is not Catholic. I am a young woman whose eyes have been wrenched open to undeniable horrors, and she is an old woman who has turned her sight to hard truths and the depths of loneliness. But most significantly, we are just people, people who have both endured hardship and loss.
"I am tired, and I have where else to go," I finally respond, "May I stay here tonight?"
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