The Yellow Bird Sings - Jennifer Rosner
The girl is forbidden from making a sound, so the yellow bird sings. He sings whatever the girl composes in her head: high-pitched trills of piccolo; low-throated growls of contrabassoon. The bird chirps all the musical parts save percussion, because the barn rabbits obligingly thump their back feet like bass drums, like snares. The lines for violin and cello are the most elaborately composed. Rich and liquid smooth, except when fear turns the notes gruff and choppy.
Music helps the flowers bloom. When the daisies grow abundant, the bird weaves a garland for the girl to wear on her head like a princess—though no one can see. She must hide from everyone in the village: soldiers, the farmhouse boys, the neighbors too. The lady with squinty eyes and blocky shoes just dragged a boy down the street and returned, smug and straight-backed, cradling a sack of sugar like a baby.
When giants tromp past, the bird holes up in a knot in the rafter, silent and still. Tending the garden must wait. The girl, music trapped inside, buries herself under hay. She imagines her mother whispering their nightly story or whisper-singing her favorite lullaby. She holds tight to her blanket and tries to fall asleep, sniffing in vain for the faded scent of home.
A brooding heat permeates the tight space of the barn loft, no larger than three strides by four. The boards are rough-hewn and splintery and the rafters run at sharp slants, making the pitch too low for Róża to stand anywhere but in the center. Silken webs wad the corners and thin shards of sunlight bleed through cracks. Otherwise it is dark.
Kneeling, Róża pats down a dense pad of hay for Shira to lie on. She positions her by the wall across from the ladder, then covers her with more hay. Róża makes a spot for herself in front of her daughter, angled so she can keep her eyes on the door. Her heart still hammers in her chest.
Not an hour ago Henryk’s wife, Krystyna, barreled in to corner a chicken and discovered them crouching behind a hay cart. Róża swallowed a startled gasp and tightened her hold on Shira. Krystyna’s eyes darted to the wall hung with tools—trowels and spades, shovels, a pitchfork—then she slowly backed out. A few moments later Henryk stepped in. His expression was deeply troubled, but his hands held two potatoes each.
“We have boys of our own. We’ll all be killed.”
The dirt-packed floor shuddered beneath Róża’s feet. There were prizes for denunciations: a bag of sugar per Jew. Her mind raced with what currency she could offer: yeast and salt from the bakery. Coins. Three of her grandmother’s rubies sewn into the hem of a coat. If necessary, her wedding ring.
Had she misjudged them? Henryk frequented their bakery before the war. He had been friendly, maybe even a little flirtatious, when Róża worked at the counter. Sometimes he brought his son Piotr and each would eat a jam-filled cookie in one bite, smiling and batting away the powdered sugar that clung to their lips. They were grateful to her family; her uncle Jakob, a medical doctor, tended to Piotr when he came down with rubella. Róża believed they’d help, at least at the start.
“I beg you, just for a night or two.”
Henryk cleared equipment from the loft and forked up hay. Róża followed closely as Shira scampered up the ladder.
Now they lie here, still and silent. Róża asks herself, Where will we go next? Not back to Gracja. Not after what happened to Natan, shot dead after a week’s hard labor, and her parents, herded out of their apartment onto cattle trucks. And not to the woods, where her cousin Leyb has gone, with no guarantee of food or shelter. Come winter, with the forest’s frigid temperatures, Shira could not survive it.
So where? Róża scours her mind but finds no answer. Tonight’s contingency is Henryk’s root cellar, to the side of the farmhouse, if vacating the barn becomes necessary.
The loft boards are hard on Róża’s back and buttocks, and a splinter of hay stabs at her neck, yet she holds still until Shira drifts to sleep; then she shifts position, ever so slightly, in a slow, soundless motion.
* * *
In the afternoon, Henryk places a water bucket and two clean rags inside the barn door. Róża and Shira pad silently down the ladder. After they drink their fill, Róża submerges her arms in the water, the coolness loosening her whole being.