“What are you looking for?”
we’d ask Mother, as she rummaged
a cupboard or a drawer or the phone book.
“My lost youth,” she’d answer
absent-mindedly, having forgotten
whatever had occupied her mind
when she first began to search.
The bombs, the soldiers, the streets
covered with bodies, the story of the children
smashed against the wall, her babies
washed down the drain in the bathtub in Danzig,
they were always
right there in the cupboard, the drawer,
the book next to the telephone.
At the annual picnic of the New Immigrants Society
in the park shelters at Ontario Lake Beach,
while all the children went to swim
I disguised my fear of water and assuaged my boredom
by concentrating on organizing the numbers
exposed to the sun on the refugees’ arms
into some kind of arithmetical sequence.
I knew enough to be discreet,
counting the history of their agonies,
without looking directly at the tattoos.
But their arms were bare, exposed,
as they sat telling indiscreet tales
around the samovar and the hill of sugar
and they had nothing to hide
from one another.
Now I cannot remember
a single cipher
except the number 1
that looked so much more fundamental
than what we learned in math class.
Karen Alkalay-Gut’s latest books include the Yiddish/English Inheritance (Beit Leyvik, 2021), Egypt: An Israelite Returns (Simple Conundrums, 2021), and the French/English Surviving Her Story (Corlevour, 2020). Retired professor of Tel Aviv University, she now chairs the Israel Association of Writers in English.