The Fifth Commandment

by Miriam Dansky


She had tried to break out again. This time she had got as far as the pond on the common. It was an uninteresting stretch of grass, interceding between the houses and the main road. The day was damp, swollen with the threat of snow—the trees, still bare, lay against the darkening sky like licked postage stamps. So she had sat for a while, watching the grey March clouds and the water, until they had come—to fetch her home—as she had known they would. That was one time.

Another time, it had been summer. She had walked as far as the park, in the other direction. It was a largish park, fairly hilly. She had managed to reach the top of the steepest slope. It had been difficult, but she knew what she was aiming for. There was a bandstand at the top. Here she had sat, with the precise ordered notes of the music, tapping through her fingers. It reminded her of those other years, when it seemed they had always strolled in time to the music. Father and she. So she sat on. Until they came.

That was a time she remembered now as an era of freedom. It was ended. Then came a new era of "confinement." Self-confinement within this room, these walls, this chair, facing the narrow window. Now it seemed to her that she had been sitting for an interminably long ache of time, and also that she had somehow grown old, sitting in that particular spot. She would sit there now, until the sands of time trickled imperceptibly away. From down below rose the steady hum of voices, but she would not go downstairs again. She had grown beyond any interest in their words or petty gestures; she felt detached, disembodied almost. She remembered vaguely some unnameable hurt or loss of pride, but she knew that she had set it away from herself now. It no longer had the power to hurt her. But footsteps were sounding on the narrow stairway.

Sarah ascended the narrow stairway towards Mother's room heavily. It was hard to balance the tray in one hand. She managed it steadily enough, but as she neared Mother's door, her hand faltered. Mother had been so difficult lately, so unpredictable. First it had been her escapes. They had had to search the emptying streets until they found her. Once she had gone as far as the pond. Another time they had found her at the bandstand in the park. It had been late on a Friday afternoon in the summer. But Mother had sat abstractedly tapping her fingers in time to the music. After that, she had alerted the neighbors. They would report sightings of her. "I've seen your mother. She's wandering again. She's just at the end of the street, you'll catch her if you hurry." She could almost hear them discussing the situation. And somehow, there was a kind of shame in it. What was she running from? Where to? Hadn't she always been an exemplary daughter; hadn't she always fulfilled her duty?

She paused at the closed door. Should she knock? Mother would be sitting, staring out of the window. She rarely moved from this position now. There was only the stretch of the street below and the tree at the corner. At night the blue light of the lamp-post opposite shone through its branches, making it seem a thing almost alive. When she entered, she knew, she would look up, wearing the hurt absent look that was habitual to her now. Always, she thought, love invents its own sadnesses. So at last, she knocked. "May I come in?"

And here was Sarah, with the tray. The clock sounded its hollow drumbeat—six o'clock. Ever punctual, the meal neatly positioned on the tray. But which meal? The shadows were gathering around the tree outside—wintry greynesses beginning to smudge the sky. Perhaps it was suppertime then? Impossible to tell and immaterial. Lunchtime, bathtime, suppertime, bedtime! How had her life come to be divided and subdivided into these absurd but entirely precise cross-sections, squares, containing and concealing nothing. She turned her head slowly upwards to the woman still poised over her with the tray in her hand. "They did it," she thought....

Squares and smaller squares...the cobbled, uneven squares of K. If you stood in the center, the pebble-stones radiated, rippled soundlessly outwards. And round and round that square, they would stroll in the pleasant evening air, father and she, past the local bank, the sweet shop, the cinema on the corner, greeted from time to time with a polite nod of the head by some local dignitary or perhaps the schoolmaster, or President of the Synagogue.

"Gutten Abend, Herr Doktor, Frau Doktorin..." and some other muttered banality about the time of year. And always the music—pale notes threaded on the air, almost indistinct—from the local park where the military band perched proud as peacocks on the raised bandstand....

Something would have to be done. It couldn't go on—this silence—and within the silence, more menacing than any words, the unuttered reproach. They would discuss the situation, night after night, when the house grew quiet.

He was pragmatic in his approach. "She's always been difficult. Father was the disciplined one. We couldn't just let her wander...."

"But this silence, this lack of interest," Sarah would retort, nervously twining and intertwining her fingers. "It's unnerving, what is she thinking?"

But she had never been able to "feel" Mother's thoughts. They lived too much on different planes.... Mother, unpredictable, something in her brown eyes had always seemed to say, "I am removed. I live for something other than this." Even her gaiety had seemed to contain an indigenous sadness. Once she had come upon her weeping—she only a child—it was one day soon after their arrival in England. "What are you crying about, Mother?" she had asked in her precise way—desiring information. Somehow, once things were labelled, like Father's bottles of pills and other medical paraphernalia that inhabited the house, they could, she felt, be more easily dealt with. "I'm crying not for myself, but for the sadness of the world," she had whispered. "Do you understand?" As a child she had frowned at this answer, not understanding, but sensing something beyond her, outside of her, foreign.

Sarah always wore that frown, Mother thought, even as a young child. But she was now a thickset and large-boned woman with heavy, bunched features. And still that shortsighted frown of earnestness, her head held slightly forward. No, Sarah had never understood instinctively. But she had been a trier. As a girl, her school reports had always stated that Sarah has tried hard, worked diligently. And she could always be relied upon. But Sarah would view old age as a kind of lapse, she thought, for she met life squarely. She held the world firmly down, everything in place. "It's all a question of mind over matter," she was fond of saying. "Mind over matter"—how much exertion of will would reduce the thickening stiffness in her limbs, or dispel the strange greyness in her mind? There were larger things out there, in the world, so much larger than the tiny will of any human being. She saw herself standing by another blackened window, looking out onto the street below, as the unseen menace of war gathered in fury. All those years she had spent framed by the window, defined almost by its rigid contours. "Come away," Father had begged, "who are you waiting for?"

Even when the whole family was safely gathered inside the house still she had waited and waited, as if the exercise of her will alone could outface the looming darkness. And she had prayed by that window too, finally and utterly surrendering the notion of the potency of the individual will. But these things could only be understood at moments of extreme terror—terror at the disintegration of a whole world, or at the disintegration of self.

"Do not cast us away at the time of old age, when our strength fails do not abandon us...." She remembered all at once how the reader's voice in the ornate synagogue had always trembled when he intoned these words, as if he could already feel the cold breath of a loveless and abandoned old age upon his cheek. Mind over matter—but there was a leaden weight pressing on her mind. She could not move it nor even identify it, for now her mind shrank from naming anything exactly, from the stiffness in her limbs, which held her shackled to this chair, to her position in this household. Who was the woman, for instance, hovering uncertainly over her, who the man standing darkly behind? But the leaden weight would crush her if she did not move it, would defeat her—and somewhere outside there was freedom, air, people strolling in time to the music.

"We must get a help," Sarah said fixedly, in one of their endless discussions on the situation. "She's sinking into herself, she knows everything, is still perfectly aware, I'm sure of that, but she's retreating somewhere we can't reach her." And then, as her words talked themselves into silence, she thought, "I've done all I can, fulfilled all the requisite requirements of the fifth commandment. Respect and fear—in a mutual and delicate counterbalance. I've fed her, clothed her, refrained from sitting in her place, given of my time, my health, my patience, and still there's something she reproaches me with—as though I've deprived her of something essential. Why does it cost so much pain, why?"

They were plotting something down below, she could sense it. There was something quivering in the air, some change, some breeze blowing through the confinement of the house. They had stopped her escapes, they wanted to pin her down, to manage her. It was Sarah, she knew that now, the heavy-set, frowning woman. In some incomprehensible way, she was joined to the young Sarah, curly-headed and wide-eyed. Sarah tried, she knew that too, in the darkest recesses of her mind, tried her best. But she saw in her not the human being, shrinking and afraid, but a kind of plaster-cast, "Mother," signifying duty, respect, devotion. Sometimes, she wanted to reach over and smooth the worried frown, to pat her hand and say, "Don't fret over me, just let me be...."

But something always stayed her hand. And outside the street was restless, conspiring with morning agitation—the black-coated men—moving between home and the synagogue, home and work—the women, some headscarfed, grouping at the gates, waving children off to school. And all in all, a kind of time-bound urgency. She watched and heard all these things as on other days—with a fixed intensity—yet they were not of her. They were outside of her—like the distant dull shuddering of heavy traffic—they signified something other, a different existence, inconceivable.

"When we are very young," thought Sarah, "we think of our parents as statues, frozen in virtue. When we grow up we not only see their failures, but more painfully we see their failures in ourselves. And love, what of love?"

Which day would it have been, that the voice had first broken in on her? "Good morning, Mrs. Rosenbaum, and how are we this fine morning?" The face was rotund, almost featureless, unmemorable, except for blue eyes, set back in the puffiness of flesh. The voice continued, a high-spirited voice. "We have let ourselves go, haven't we—let's see if we can get you up and about, dear lady." But there was a directness about the "voice" which appealed to her, meeting her squarely, summoning a response. It seemed to fill the small room with breeziness, knocking away the cobwebs in the corners of her mind. So Elsie came to do for her, for a time, and Sarah had watched, watched from the doorway. One day she had ventured downstairs with Elsie, step by step. The next day, they had walked out together, to the corner shop and back again, retracing their steps gingerly. It reminded her of that other time of freedom—but this time they were trusted. No one came after them. Once they walked as far as the squat building on the next block, the old age home. They had got up near the huge windows and looked in under them. There was a green corridor—a nurse, walking soundlessly along. In the square room, the tinny sound of a piano and voices colliding roughly with the notes. "It's in their eyes," she remembered saying. "It's all anaesthetised. There's no pain here, no pain at all," her voice breaking into dark throbs. "Come, come away, dear." So after that, they walked more circumspectly, only in the other direction.

"It's the perfect solution," Sarah had said. "It's all working out. They get on so well together. Mother relies upon her—lights up when she comes."

"But what do they talk about? And they must look so strange together—an old Jewish lady and a shiksa!" But mother had lost that self-absorbed fretted look, as if her whole life was simply a question of waiting. She seemed to live the minutes now, to actually inhabit them. And she had broken her silence.

But one day, she remembered, Elsie had not come. She had been up so early—was dressed—Elsie had promised, they would walk out, if it was fine. The day was bright, unclouded and blue, so she had waited—by the window. Although it did not look out directly onto the front of the house it drew her naturally, it was her place of waiting. When the time passed, then an hour, she had sunk into her chair, as if resuming her former position. "Where is she?" she had asked, in a low accusing voice, but not asking it of Sarah directly. "Asked for the afternoon off, not feeling herself lately," the phrases had resounded, and she had heard them, as if not for the first time, as if these particular formations of words had always been there, waiting to be uttered.

Sarah had stood for a while over her mother and then she had noticed that she was crying, great salty tears, rolling unhindered down her cheeks. Then, when the tears were spent, she had looked up, suddenly addressing her quite articulately, "What have I ever asked of you?" she had said.

It had been weeks before that, that Sarah had first noticed Mother's total dependence on the shiksa. If she was late, by a few minutes, she became agitated—unbearably fretful—would descend not to take part in the life of the house—but to wait at the door—peering expectantly down the empty, tree-lined city street. When she came, she hung on her every word, childishly, often repeating the last few words of her sentences. She copied her too, quite unconsciously, in trivial ways. Hovering uncertainly at the doorway, Sarah knew they would be laughing, when Elsie read to Mother from the newspaper, or washed her face and hands, but they would stop abruptly on sensing her presence.

"Why won't she accept it from me, to read to her, laugh with her—why must it be this stranger?!" But for all this, she had not sent her away deliberately. They had simply quarrelled one day about payment, Elsie demanding a small rise, perhaps fairly. She somehow determined, almost perversely, to withhold it. "Go, go then," she had told her, suddenly shouting, as if with a borrowed voice. "We don't need you here. We got along before you came, Mother and I. We'll manage again. You'll see, you'll see," she continued calling long after the shiksa had left the room. And in the silence, following Elsie's noisy, over-obvious departure, she had been aware of what she had done.

So mother had returned, after all, to the bleakness of her decline after they had first stopped her escapes. She no longer came down, no longer spoke, seemed to be inhabiting some other space or time. But she would never know now the extent of Sarah's guilt or sense of failure, nor how much remained unsaid between them. "Why, why could you never ask it of me. Why did you never really see me, never call my name, or touch my hand just once?"

So she had returned to the window, to the square pane of the city sky—and the blue tree as she had known she would. The lights were coming on in the houses opposite now—people moving quickly in and out of rooms. They looked like black silhouettes against the sharp electric flare, just as she would, looking out on them, a dark frame, by a square window. They had sent her away, somehow they had sent her away, she was sure of it, just as they had always blocked off every means of escape, every exit. They wanted her here, but not for herself. They would say, "We're looking after Mother," as if it was simply a task to be carried out, a duty to be fulfilled, a chore to be executed. Well, she would escape them, escape them all. No, she would not go downstairs again. She would not see the open spaces beyond this room, the wide green places where they had sat. But the past was waiting, hovering weightlessly about her—there were so many other days to live in except this one. And Father was waiting. She knew that too, as surely as the notes of the band music floated from a great distance, yet strangely distinct, on the warm, scented air.



Back  Index  Next