Memoir — From the July 2013 issue

Other Types of Poison

Three legends

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Whether or not there were, at that moment, Jews hiding in the closets of the little lake house, no one can now remember. The point is that there had been, and there often were, and there would be again; and even if there was no human ballast holding that house to the shore, surely there were other things as incriminating. Likewise, it is unclear, more than six decades on, whether the soldiers were even German, or whether they were the Russian liberators who so soon became the Russian occupiers. That summer, both were equally likely.

The soldiers pounded at the door looking for whatever nineteen-year-olds in uniforms are always looking for: food, lodging, sex, warmth, inebriation, water. In other words, the closest subconscious approximation of their mothers.

They found at this particular house an eight-year-old boy and a woman far too formidable to rape. They found kohlrabi soup and ate it, and they found the boy’s swing set, a four-legged frame sitting right in the water, with a swing to jump from and a slide that ended beneath the surface. They left their clothes on the shore and swung from the top beam and broke the whole thing. If no one has exhumed its bones, it is still at the bottom of Lake Balaton. When night fell and there was insufficient firewood, they tore the books apart and threw those on the fire. They demanded socks. The woman said, “Would you prefer a lady’s size or a small boy’s?”

That boy, this whole time, stood half inside a kitchen cabinet, his fingers curled around the handle, his heel kicking the canned fruit he hoped they wouldn’t take. If the story is hazy, almost seventy years later, that is because it is his. If the details are strangely specific — the dialogue, the type of soup — that is because they are mine.

By the time their flasks ran out, the soldiers were drunk enough to insist on more alcohol, but the woman told them she herself was out and that her son did not drink. They began a Russian drinking song, or perhaps a German one, depending on your version of the story.

One undisputed fact: They saw on the kitchen table the large bottle of black ink that had been the boy’s birthday present — a rare gift, dearly bought — and the drunkest soldier announced he had found the alcohol.

The woman told the truth. “That is ink,” she said, “you idiots.” But the soldier opened the top, got an astringent whiff, and declared her a liar and a slut. With his friends pounding the table, he guzzled the entire bottle, and then — friends laughing, pointing, demanding a camera — sputtered black and coughed black and wiped black ink down his arms.

The woman said, “I am a writer. I have more such drinks for you upstairs. Perhaps you’d like a typewriter ribbon.”

The soldier cursed her with his black teeth and tongue and lips, his face an abyss. He was already ashen as he stumbled to the door.

My grandmother claimed for the rest of her life that she once killed a soldier with a bottle of ink. Is it possible that he did more than empty his stomach in the bushes? I could ask a doctor the effects of eight ounces of cheap ink on top of alcohol and months of hard living.

But if this were your family legacy — this ridiculous assertion of the might and violence of ink, this blatant and beautiful falsehood — could you change it? Would you dare?

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is the author of The Borrower, published by Penguin.

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October 2019


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