This is a last-minute entry for a short story contest at YA Stands. It’s 7,293 words minus the asterisks denoting scene breaks. Though it contains pre-existing characters, I tried to make it like a self-contained story and modified some things a bit. Later, this story will be expanded upon when I get to this part of the story collection to be expanded into a novel titled The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. (I began that story collection in 2006, but only got as far as December ’45 with these characters before turning my attention elsewhere. That didn’t stop me from memorizing a lot of future storylines in my head.)
It’s April 1946 in France, and 16-year-old Kálmán, who’s been extremely angry, bitter, and grumpy since the liberation, finally takes matters into his own hands. His fiancée Klaudia, though, has other plans. (Heads-up: There’s a brief but tasteful, very discreetly-described sex scene at the end.)
Liat, the name Kálmán calls Klaudia, means “you are mine” in Hebrew. He bestowed that name on her after their reunion in Hungary after the war.
Kálmán Rein was going to get off of this damned strawberry farm and into his real homeland if it were the last thing he did. And while he was at it, he was going to shed his silly slave name for the modern, empowered identity of Shimron Amichai. A name suited to a strong, brave soldier and kibbutz farmer, not some pale, wan little coward studying ancient texts in a darkened room all day and afraid to fight back.
He reached into the pocket of the jacket lying with his other clothes at the foot of his bed. Good. A full carton of fresh Gitanes. He could smoke to his heart’s content as soon as he was off this damned farm. As much as he hated to be without a cigarette, he knew he couldn’t smoke in the bedroom he shared with his best friend Móric Heyman. Not unless he were some completely uncaring bastard who wanted to worsen Móric’s delicate health. Kálmán couldn’t understand why, if only two of them had survived from their group of male friends, Móric had to be the one left with a heart murmur and stunted growth. No, not Móric. Mordechai. Mordechai Oz. Even if Móric had been left permanently weakened, at least he could compensate with a strong new name.
Kálmán was relieved they had different beds. He was able to get out of bed and get dressed without waking Móric, who was sleeping like a baby in the bed across the room. Kálmán carefully folded up his pajamas and put them into his packed suitcase, then pulled on brown woolen socks, brown corduroy pants, a white cotton shirt, and the jacket. Once he was dressed, he slipped into his boots and laced them up, constantly listening to make sure Móric was still sleeping.
“Take care, buddy,” he whispered over his sleeping friend. “We’ll be together again soon. Our other friends will take care of you in the meantime.”
Kálmán crept up to the door and carefully eased it open, peering around to make sure the coast was clear. Once he was satisfied all the young farm workers were asleep, he picked up his suitcase and tiptoed out of the building and away from the men’s quarters.
On his way towards the women’s quarters, he stopped in at the management’s office. He had some francs in his pockets, but not enough for train fare from Béziers to Paris, nor did he have enough to cover at least a few nights in a decent Parisian hotel. Perhaps he’d go back to the Twentieth Arrondissement. Prices there hadn’t been too disagreeable, and it wasn’t full of rich people. He figured that he’d quickly find contacts in the Brihah, Aliyah Bet, or Haganah. It didn’t matter which group. All it mattered was that any one of those groups would help him to leave this gigantic graveyard.
He tried the door and smiled when it gave way. These people were so stupid they never locked up for the night and trusted there couldn’t be any thieves among the workers or locals. Without wasting a moment, Kálmán opened each desk and went through all the receptacles until he found the motherlode in a detached mahogany bureau drawer covered with a blanket. He knew francs weren’t worth as much as they used to be since the war, so he stuffed as many of the bills and coins as possible into his suitcase. Some of them went into the inner front pockets of his jacket. He knew the big cities were always crawling with pickpockets, and didn’t want to give them an easy target.
After taking his fill of the farm’s income, but leaving just enough for them to get by, he closed his suitcase and crept towards the women’s side of the farm’s residential area. Even in the dark, he knew exactly where his Klaudia and their five female friends were situated. And luckily for him, they weren’t the type of girls who stayed up late to gossip or make mischief.
He set his suitcase down and slowly opened the door to the room his fiancée Klaudia Buchsbaum shared with Aranka Rubin and Csilla Bergman. After standing and waiting for a few very long minutes, to make sure they were all asleep, he stole into the room and knelt by Klaudia’s bed. He was sure glad there were three beds in this room, so he wouldn’t have to contend with the overprotective Csilla, who probably should’ve been born a boy. Kálmán had never met another girl who was so disinterested in feminine pursuits. Even if a girl could still be a future soldier and kibbutz farmer, she ought to at least have some more traditionally feminine interests to balance that out.
“I wish I could take you with me, Liat, but I don’t want to get you in trouble with the people in charge too. I’m the only one who’s running away and taking their money. I’ll see you again as soon as I can.” He stroked her raven hair, which had finally grown back to a more feminine length. “I might even use some of that money to buy you a pretty ring. Probably I’ll send for you once my location is secured.”
He pulled a note out of his pants pocket and left it on her pillow. Klaudia looked so peaceful and beautiful as she lay there sleeping, he was overcome with temptation to at least kiss her goodbye. Then he thought better of it, and how it was probably kind of disturbing to kiss a sleeping girl. That wasn’t mutual, and she couldn’t even give her consent. Instead he settled for kissing the ugly blue number on her left forearm.
“No one’s ever going to hurt you again, my sweet Liat. Soon we’ll be where we belong, among our own people, speaking our real language, with authentic names. Won’t it be something, we’ll both change our last name together. A whole new identity for both of us.” He gently ran his hand along her face. “Ani ohev otach.”
Kálmán shut the door as quietly as possible, then started making his way towards the depot. He was glad it wasn’t that long of a walk from the farm, though it seemed longer in the dark. Just in case anything happened, he had a sheathed knife in one of his other secret jacket pockets.
He blinked to adjust to the light when he saw the depot coming into view after the relatively brief walk. Not many people were there at this obscene hour, which was even better for him. Less potential witnesses.
Kálmán pulled out some francs as he walked up to the ticket counter. His stomach knotted as he choked out words in the alien language he’d only very grudgingly picked up enough of to get by. “Je veux train aller à Paris.”
The man behind the counter laughed. “That’s a very vague request, my boy. Paris is a gigantic metropolis. You’ll have to be more specific than that. Do you have a destination in mind, or do you just want to go to Paris?”
Kálmán dug his toes into the floor. “Je voudrais vingtième arrondissement.”
“Where are you from? I can tell you’re not a native speaker.”
Kálmán scratched his neck. “Je suis né en Hongrie.”
“Really? I’ve heard Hungarians are very bad with learning other languages. You were right to leave before those damned Soviets took over. Anyway, you probably want a train taking you to either the Pyrénées or Père Lachaise stops. Either way, it’s going to be about eight hours, maybe more, factoring in stops. You want a direct train and a sleeping bunk?”
Kálmán nodded. “Je veux aussi chambre privé.”
“You’ve got the money for your own private cabin? How old are you, and how long have you been in this country?”
“J’ai seize ans. Je venu à France en décembre. Je travaillais en ferme de fraises et autres fruits.” He stood up a little taller, suddenly proud of himself for being able to carry on a conversation in French, even if he knew he wasn’t speaking as well as a native. It wasn’t Hebrew, but at least it was better than German or Hungarian, languages that had betrayed him.
After the man gave him the price, he set the francs on the counter and waited for his ticket. He smiled when the man handed him the ticket and wished him a safe journey.
As soon as Kálmán was in his cabin, he locked the door, stripped off his clothes, changed back into his pajamas, and put his suitcase under the generous bench allotted to him. Then he crawled into the nice bed and fell asleep to the sounds of the train rolling through the spring night.
Kálmán rose after a good long sleep and stretched till he heard his bones crack, then opened the window. Though he’d been on other trains since the liberation, this was the first time he really was able to appreciate being on a real train again. His first train ride had been the one from Kecskemét to Planet Auschwitz-Birkenau. At least during his transport from the Abony ghetto to the Kecskemét ghetto, he’d gone in a truck. Now, for the first time, he took in the scenery during a real train ride. Best of all, he had his own private room instead of being packed among seventy-five other people in a space meant for cattle.
When hunger struck him, he instinctively reached for his Gitanes and a match. These were the best cigarettes he’d ever had. As far as he was concerned, the other major French brand, Gauloises, was for snobs and people who lived in a dreamworld where they discussed philosophy, wrote poetry, and painted strange things all day instead of earning a living in reality.
He started up at a knock on his door. “Who’s there?”
“I’m one of the porters, Monsieur. I just wanted to tell you that breakfast will stop being served soon, so if you want to eat, you’d better go to the dining car.”
“What’s for breakfast?”
“The usual. Croissants, jam, coffee, tea, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, some fruit.”
“Sure, just let me get dressed and finish my cigarette.”
“You’re welcome to smoke in the dining car. Just about all the passengers smoke in there.”
Kálmán set his cigarette on the ashtray and quickly dressed, glad for once that the traditional French breakfast was so short and light. He’d be back to his private room very soon, where he could continue taking in the scenery.
In the dining car, he was served a plate with a large croissant, peach slices, a generous slice of pain au chocolat, and a mid-sized piece of pain aux raisins. A communal serving tray of butter, marmalade, jellies, and jams was pointed out to him. He felt like such a grownup as he smoked and served himself the kind of jelly he wanted, blueberry. He’d had enough of strawberries and raspberries after four months on that stupid farm.
And why shouldn’t he feel like a grownup?, he asked himself. Even sixteen-year-olds with their parents still living often traveled by themselves, and got away with smoking. The only difference was that he was able to smoke whenever and wherever he wanted, within reason. If his parents were still alive, they would’ve told him he had to wait till he was at least at university to start smoking. Not that he’d planned to start smoking underage. An older man in the camps had told him it would take away hunger pangs and take his mind off of having nothing to do. Now that he no longer needed to smoke for those reasons, it just made him feel so sophisticated and adult, like a man and not a boy. But as far as he was concerned, he’d become a man at fourteen when he’d been chosen to live. Little boys had never been chosen to live. Otherwise he’d still have his brothers Miki, Olivér, Virgil, Nándor, and Páli.
After breakfast, he returned to his private room and helped himself to another cigarette. These cigarettes were so good he just couldn’t help himself, and now he no longer had to put up with Klaudia, Csilla, or anyone else pestering him about smoking or how he’d supposedly influenced Aranka to also start smoking. Aranka had taken up smoking all on her own.
Knowing he should probably do something for the remainder of the trip, he reached into his suitcase for a pen and notepad and began practicing his Hebrew script. He’d mastered Hebrew print awhile ago, but had never quite gotten the hang of its cursive. Adults wrote cursive; children and uneducated peasants still used print. He didn’t want any reason for anyone to make fun of him after he’d arrived in his homeland.
Just when he was starting to look forward to lunch, his stop was called. Kálmán cursed as he gathered together his things, looked around the room, and headed for the exit door. He’d really been enjoying having a private room and having a leisurely train trip. If he weren’t so determined to beat it the hell out of Europe as soon as possible, he’d be most interested in taking a long rail trip over the safe parts of the continent, the countries the Soviets hadn’t gotten their claws into after the liberation. This was even better than driving an automobile on a long trip to nowhere. On a train, all you had to do was pay for your ticket and enjoy the ride, while someone else worried about keeping the vehicle stocked with enough fuel.
As he was making his way through the not-so-unfamiliar Twentieth Arrondissement, he kept his eyes peeled for a decent-looking café. After splurging on a private train room, he wanted to save his money for the important things. He felt slightly guilty for having taken so much money from the farm, but it weren’t like he’d made off with everything. And the farm was crawling with fruit and berries. They could easily make back what he’d taken. They had enough workers and customers.
He spied a clean, mid-sized café with a fair amount of empty tables and had a seat, figuring he’d be served quicker. While waiting for service, he lit up again and inhaled the delicious flavor. By now he was convinced that Gitanes were the best cigarette ever. He’d have to stock up on them before leaving the continent. They probably weren’t available abroad, and he wasn’t about to go back to cheap no-name brands or hand-rolled cigarettes.
When a waiter appeared, Kálmán ordered beef stew, potatoes sautéed in garlic and wine, carrot salad, and black tea. Even though he hadn’t been raised particularly Orthodox, he still took care to avoid treyf, or at least to be as un-treyf as possible. He knew the beef wasn’t coming from a shochet, but at least it wasn’t ham, or beef mixed with cheese or cream sauce. He’d never waited six hours between meat and milk, but he thought there should at least be a respectable waiting period. After the liberation, he’d settled on two hours, a happy medium between the German custom of three hours and the Dutch custom of seventy-five minutes. If there were no obviously non-dairy desserts on the menu, he’d just wait till he got to his hotel. Dessert was an optional course anyway.
The best part of French lunch was that it lasted two hours. He was able to sit at his table, leisurely eating his food and sipping his tea, without anyone looking at him funny for not leaving after a certain period. By now, he’d moved past the early post-liberation desire to gobble everything like a ravenous wolf and stuff any leftovers down his shirt and into his pockets. As he was enjoying his lunch, he took out the notepad again and continued working on his Hebrew script.
When the dessert menu was brought around, Kálmán saw the only non-dairy option appeared to be roasted apples. When the waiter tried to convince him to try the café’s delicious mousse, opera cake, or tarte tatin, Kálmán muttered something about a religious prohibition against meat and dairy too close together. The waiter looked at him a little funny but came back with the apples.
After he was done eating, Kálmán left his bill on the table along with a slightly above-average tip. He still had plenty of francs left to finance a few nights in a decent hotel, till he found people from the Brihah, Haganah, or Aliyah Bet to take care of him. They’d give him housing along with training.
It couldn’t be some large, ornate, fancy hotel like they’d stayed at when they’d first come to Paris in December. That had been paid for by his friend Marie Sternglass’s older friend Wolfram Engel anyway. Wolfram had more disposable income, even for a fellow survivor, because he was different from the others and didn’t have a wife or children. Kálmán felt slightly queasy when he thought about what Wolfram must do with other men, but figured it wasn’t his business to concern himself with. Wolfram was a Righteous Gentile, besides, who’d suffered along with them, so it didn’t really matter what he did in his personal life.
Part of him was tempted to just walk around Paris and explore all the famous parks, museums, libraries, cemeteries, and landmarks, but that would just slow him down. Perhaps later he’d have time for it, after he found the people he was looking for. Maybe he could even explore the city with his Klaudia, after she joined him. They might not yet realize he was missing. Probably it would take until the night for them to realize he wasn’t anywhere on that damned farm. The theft would also probably be discovered soon, unless farm management didn’t count all the money daily.
Here it was, an unassuming-looking, small hotel with a friendly energy coming from it. It wasn’t too fancy or large, and it wasn’t too seedy-looking or small. He held his suitcase a little tighter as he made his way up to the front door.
Once inside, he had to wait in line behind a huge fat woman with some unfortunate, very visible facial hair and a family with five obnoxious children. He hoped these children wouldn’t be disrupting his stay. His five little brothers and one little sister had never behaved so obnoxiously.
“Is it finally my turn to sign in?” he snapped when he got to the head of the line. “It sure too forever for those brats and that circus sideshow freak to go away.”
The woman at the desk looked at him sharply. “I beg your pardon, Monsieur?”
“I just asked if I can sign in.” He knew he was making more mistakes than usual in his French, but didn’t care. “I want to have a room for myself for at least next five days. Do you have restaurant in hotel?”
“How old are you to be staying alone? And do you have enough money to cover a five-day stay?”
“I’ve got enough. I was paid well at some stupid strawberry farm in the south. And I’m sixteen and an orphan, so I’ll always have to travel alone. But thank you for assuming my parents are alive and that I’m normal.” He pulled out a cigarette and fumbled for a match. “Do you have a vacant room or not?”
The woman pulled on her collar. “Yes, I’ve got a vacant room on the third floor. You can pay at the end of your stay. If you’re selling me a fish story and don’t have the money to pay for it, I will alert the authorities. Conmen aren’t allowed in my hotel, not even sixteen-year-old orphans.”
Kálmán set his cigarette in the ashtray as he signed himself in as Shimron Amichai, relishing the look of the letters. Of course, they looked even better in Hebrew, but he knew he couldn’t write in letters no one else understood. And either way, it looked much better than the name “Coleman” that had been put on his French visa.
“What kind of a name is that?”
“What does it matter what kind of name it is? It’s my damn name, and that’s all that matters. Not everyone in this country was born here. At least I’m not in the south anymore. I felt dirty when I had to breathe the air of the former Vichy France.” He put his cigarette back in his mouth and picked up his suitcase. “May I have my key?”
The woman reached behind her, took a key off its hook, and pushed it across the desk. Kálmán snatched it up and rushed upstairs.
“By the way, we have no restaurant here. You’ll have to eat out or go to the market. Can an orphan and former farm worker afford at least five days of groceries and restaurants?”
“Believe me, lady, I’ve got plenty of money. More than you think I have. Not everyone believes in underpaying young workers. I worked for free against my will for the Germans for almost a year. Any money I make now is worth its weight in gold.”
Kálmán threw his suitcase on the floor, threw his window open, and surveyed his view. Not the best view he’d hoped for in one of the supposedly most beautiful cities in the world, but it sure beat a view of emaciated dead bodies or a sky so black with smoke that even the Sun couldn’t shine through. And at least now he was alone, instead of surrounded by so many other people constantly all up in his business.
Of course, he missed Klaudia, but figured she’d come when it was time. He hadn’t meant to leave without her to be a cad. This was just something he had to do on his own, and she hadn’t wanted to hasten their redemption anyway. She was content to sit around waiting for the British to peacefully go away and lift their barbaric blockade. Like that would happen all by itself, and that speedily. Even if his ship were pirated and he were forced behind barbed wire on Cyprus, he’d still be the hell out of this blood-soaked continent. Now, he could finally get down to business his way, on his timetable.
Csilla was fuming. Kálmán, who’d been put under her supervision in December, hadn’t been around the farm all day, not even at the communal dining room. Not only that, but quite a large sum of money had been reported missing from the management office. The disappearing act was something she or any of their friends wouldn’t have been surprised at, but the theft wasn’t. He was angry, bitter, resentful, and chomping at the bit to get out of Europe so he could start killing British and Arab soldiers, but he’d never been a thief. Running away without telling anyone also wasn’t like him.
“I thought it couldn’t get any worse when he tried to start his own cell when we arrived,” Csilla said as she paced back and forth that night. “He didn’t even tell you, Klaudia. That note he left you just said he loved you. I never took him for a deserter.”
“Maybe he went into town and was attacked,” Aranka suggested as she raised a cigarette to her lips.
“When do any of us go into town! Everything we need is provided on the farm. He’s not even one of the workers who goes into town to sell the produce.”
Klaudia picked at a corner of the blanket on her bed. “We won’t know anything for certain till they’ve searched for a few days. I suspect what you all do, that he ran away to Paris or Lyon or some other larger city, but he couldn’t have gotten into any trouble already. Maybe he just needs time to cool down and start missing us, and then he’ll come back to apologize and settle down.”
“My eye that’s what’s going to happen! You know damn well he’s tracking down people in the Brihah, Haganah, or Aliyah Bet! He might even have a weapon in his hands by now, and be getting lessons in how to make bombs and sabotage railroad tracks. He’s going to get himself killed one of these days, after everything we’ve already lived through.”
“What happens if he doesn’t come back in a few days, or the search turns up nothing?” Aranka asked. “Some loyalty from your fiancé. Móric would never desert me like that. Maybe he even went to meet another girl in Paris or Lyon, or was cheating on you for awhile.”
“Don’t say that!” Klaudia shouted. “I’m the only girlfriend he’s ever had! And he’d be man enough to tell me if he’d taken up with another girl or lost interest in me. He was man enough to tell me he liked me when we were thirteen, and man enough to ask me to marry him after we were reunited. Ari, can I have a cigarette?”
“Sure.” Aranka reached for her purse and pawed around through the contents. “Would you like to try Gauloises for your first smoke? It’s the brand all the famous artists, writers, thinkers, and musicians have smoked. I don’t know why Kálcsi thinks they’re snob cigarettes.”
“No.” Csilla put out her hand as Klaudia was reaching over for the cigarette. “It’s bad enough one of you smokes. I don’t want both of you taking up that disgusting, lowbrow, common habit. I didn’t even know you were interested in smoking, Klaudia. You always refuse to kiss Kálcsi after he’s been smoking.”
“I’m sixteen, Csicsi, not a little girl. I can smoke a cigarette once in awhile in emergencies if I want to. It’s not like I’m going to make this a habit.”
Csilla sighed as Klaudia put the cigarette in her mouth and Aranka held a match to it. Klaudia gagged as she inhaled and put her hand to her head.
“It takes awhile to get used to the taste,” Aranka said. “It’s like coffee or black tea.”
“At least those things aren’t bad for your health,” Csilla said. “I really don’t think smoking is that healthy. You know you and Kálcsi try not to smoke around Móric because of his heart murmur. You can’t honestly claim you think smoking is a good habit if you avoid it around someone with a health condition.”
“It’s bad for him, but not for us.” Aranka shrugged.
“I’d rather you all drink alcohol and get drunk than smoke cigarettes! I’ve heard smoking might cause lung cancer. You didn’t hear much about lung cancer till smoking got more popular.”
“Do I have to finish this?” Klaudia asked. “I really don’t like the taste.”
“Of course you don’t. Let Ari smoke both of them, since she lit both of them. Bad enough two people in our group are smokers.”
“In the meantime, what do we do about Kálcsi? What if he really doesn’t come back?”
“They’ll start searching for him tomorrow. I’m sure he’s no longer anywhere near this area, but hope springs eternal. And if he doesn’t come back and isn’t found, that’s his loss. His love for you should be more important than his obsession with revenge against everyone.”
Klaudia had slept very poorly since Kálmán had disappeared. In her heart, she knew he had probably run away to Paris, but she couldn’t believe he’d already have found contacts in the Haganah, Aliyah Bet, or Brihah. He didn’t speak perfect French, and wasn’t on his own turf. It had been easier for him to find the Brihah men who’d smuggled them out of Hungary. Looking for those sorts of people in Paris, as a foreigner, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack if he didn’t even know where to start looking in the first place.
After four days, Klaudia decided to take matters into her own hands. In the middle of strawberry-picking, she put down her basket and made her way to the women’s dormitories.
“Where are you going?” Csilla asked, trailing after her.
“I’m going to go to Paris myself and track down that wayward fiancé of mine. Maybe I can finally shout some sense into him.”
“What!” Aranka shouted. “You’re a young woman alone! At least take Koba or Artur for male protection! Even ask Wolfram to come down to escort you!”
“What about me?” Móric asked. “I’d be good male protection too.”
Aranka giggled. “I love you, Móric, but you’re no one’s male protection. You’re barely five feet five inches tall, and too slim. And you have a heart murmur. You’d need your own protection.”
“And you’re not married,” Csilla said. “Assuming you found him, decent establishments never let unmarried couples room together. You probably couldn’t even get a room as a young woman alone.”
Klaudia held up her hand. “I can borrow someone’s wedding ring, and no one will be any the wiser. I’ll just tell them I’m a young bride, and that we had to marry so young because we lost everyone. And you’re no one to talk, Csicsi. It’s no secret you were born before the nine months were up, and you certainly weren’t premature.”
“My mother was thirty-five, not sixteen!”
“And your father was only twenty. Age has nothing to do with it. Would it really be so bad if I found him and we shared a room before we came back?”
Csilla put down her basket. “You’d better know exactly what you’re doing and what you might be getting into. I don’t want both of you to go missing forever. Then there’d only be six of us from our neighborhood still left. It’s nerve-wracking enough waiting for Miri to finish her degree and get out of Hungary before the Soviets close all the borders.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll ask around at dinner tonight if anyone would like to lend me a wedding ring. What are the odds he went back to the Twentieth Arrondissement? It’s familiar. He might be angry and bitter, but he’s not stupid. He’s not going to go prowling around unfamiliar territory alone.”
“If you find him, you’re both coming back here immediately. Understood?”
“You expect us to stay in Paris? Of course we’ll come right back here. I’ll bring him back with me if I have to drag him by his neck.”
Klaudia slipped the borrowed wedding ring onto her finger and checked the tie in her tichel was secure as she approached the depot bright and early on Monday morning, a week after Kálmán’s disappearance. In the basket she was carrying was a loaded handgun she’d been lent, just in case the worst happened. A young woman travelling alone could never be too sure.
“One ticket to Paris. I want to go to the station near Père Lachaise.”
Her friend Marie’s fiancé Artur Sklar moved forward. “The lady wants a private room for her own protection. We want to make sure our friend is safe when she’s travelling alone.”
The man behind the counter shrugged. “Sure, if you’ve got the money to pay for it.”
Klaudia looked back at Artur, a native Czech who was over six feet tall, and wished he were coming along as her escort. But unlike Kálmán, he couldn’t bear to be away from his fiancée. She sighed and dug out the required francs, which she’d come by honestly.
“Here you are, Mademoiselle. Enjoy your trip.”
Klaudia picked up her ticket and found her way to the room matching the number on the ticket. After locking the door and putting her baggage down, she sat down and pulled out one of the Margit Kaffka novels she’d bought before leaving Budapest in November. Unlike her fiancé, she wasn’t opposed to reading books in their native language. Hungarian was the one language she was completely fluent in. Then came German, then French, and finally Hebrew. One day she’d be as fluent in Hebrew as she was in Hungarian, but till then, she was going to read, speak, and write the native language God had selected for her above all others.
When the porter knocked on her door to call her to lunch, she took out her gun, turned the safety on, and tucked it into the inner front pocket sewn into her jacket. Kálmán wasn’t the only one who had that trick up his sleeve. She’d learnt a lot about unique ways to hide important objects in the camps, and secret pockets was one of them. Another common trick was to hide things in shoes, but a gun wasn’t as safe, easy, or practicable to hide in a shoe as it was to hide a picture, jewelry, money, or soap. Belatedly she realized she could’ve worn high boots and just hidden the gun there, though she had always hated shoes or boots that came up too high.
A waiter handed her a menu. “Just tell us what you’d like, Mademoiselle.” He got an eyeful of the wedding ring. “Sorry, Madame. But you look so young to be married.”
“I’m sixteen, not a child. Girls my age were usually married just a few hundred years ago. My husband and I lost the rest of our families in the war and wanted to start over with each other as soon as possible.”
Klaudia perused the menu, trying to remember Marie’s tutorials on the names of common French dishes. She finally decided on lamb in lemon and garlic sauce, a mixed greens salad, and Salad Niçoise. During the two-hour lunch break, she slowly ate her food and read the latest issue of Vogue Paris. She was proud of her progress in French and how she could now read magazines and newspapers and understand most of the words. She wished as much as Kálmán that they could be making this kind of progress in Hebrew, but right now, French was the language they needed to master.
The train rolled into the Twentieth Arrondissement at 6:00 in the evening. Klaudia’s heart beat a little faster at the sight of the slowly gathering twilight. Now she was really on her own in this gigantic metropolis. If she didn’t find Kálmán by going from hotel to hotel, she’d have to find a hotel of her own, and pray that they’d let a lone young woman stay there. If the pretended Madame Rein had no Monsieur Rein to back up her claim of marriage, she might be refused lodgings and have to resort to the kind of communal housing they’d been living in till coming to the farm.
Trying to feel hopeful, she approached the first hotel she saw, a fairly large building with a pretty design.
“Excuse me, has my husband Kálmán Rein been staying here? He ran away from Béziers last week, and I’m very worried about him.”
The registrar looked at her with large eyes. “A young thing like you is married?”
“Don’t you see my wedding ring and covered hair? Please look up my husband’s name in your records. He may also be going by Shimron Amichai. He calls his real name his slave name.”
“His what name?” The registrar flipped through the records.
“He wants to go to Israel so badly after what happened to us, and he’s going to take a new name when we go there. He compares his Hungarian name to an American Negro’s slave name.”
The registrar stopped searching and looked up at her. “Is your husband by any chance involved with the military group who’s been in this area? They’re trying to recruit survivors into their brigade and illegally smuggle them into the Palestine Mandate. I told them I sympathize with their cause, but I couldn’t have them in my hotel. It’s asking for too much trouble from the authorities.”
“Maybe he is involved with them. That’s why he came back here, to try to get in touch with one of those groups.”
“Well, if he has met up with them, he’s not in our records, under either of those names you gave us. How many hotels have you searched so far?”
“This is my first. Are there a lot of other hotels in this arrondissement? I don’t want to look all night.”
“Probably fifteen or twenty. Are you sure this is the arrondissement he’s gone to?”
“Oh, yes. We lived here before, when we were in Paris late last year, right after we came to France.”
“Well, good luck on finding him. Some husband you have, deserting his lovely young bride to join some illegal cell.”
Klaudia went back outside and headed towards the next hotel on her map. As the sky got darker and darker, her search continued to yield no results. Several of the hoteliers had had dealings with the people Kálmán was trying to join, but hadn’t seen or heard of Kálmán himself. She was at her wits’ end by the time she approached an unassuming-looking hotel not marked on her map. Perhaps he’d checked in there to be extra-secretive.
Klaudia tried to walk faster as rain began pounding and lightning streaked across the sky. She broke into a run as the building came closer into view.
“My name is Klaudia Rein. Has my husband Kálmán checked in here? He ran away a few days ago, and I’m so worried about him.” By this point she was sick to death of repeating these lines over and over, and her throat felt hoarse.
The woman closely examined her. “You look awfully young to be married. This isn’t the Middle Ages.”
Klaudia held up her left arm, tattoo-side forward. “I might be only sixteen, but I’m as married as can be. As you can see, I’ve gone through a lot. I’m far from the only young survivor who’s already married a boyfriend. We consider it very important to begin new families right away.”
The woman looked through the registrar. “Sorry, no one by the name of Rein.”
“What about Shimron Amichai?”
The woman went through the registrar again. “Shimron Amichai? That bag of bile is your husband?”
“He’s coming back with me whether he likes it or not.”
Kálmán was in the middle of practicing Hebrew script when a loud knock sounded on his door. He put down his pencil and cigarette and answered the door.
The woman crossed her arms and gave him a very stern look. “So you’re not only full of bile and a recluse, but a deserting husband and using an alias as well? Madame Rein has been worried sick about you!”
Kálmán rushed towards Klaudia after the door was shut. He began crying as he wrapped his arms around her, rain pounding on the windows. Klaudia ignored his smoky taste as he kissed her.
“You found me!”
“Of course I found you. I love you. Though I wonder if you still love me, after how you ran off without a word. Our place is on the farm, not in Paris joining cells!” Klaudia undid the tichel and tossed it onto the floor. “I don’t know how real married women do it. My hair was itching like crazy, like it was when it was first growing back after all that shaving. At least it’s not July.”
“Of course I love you! I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I was going to send for you as soon as I got a little more settled. It’s impossible to find the people I want in such a big city when I have no contacts.”
“They’ve been here, but you apparently haven’t run into them. Several of the other hotels I tried have had dealings with them. And don’t give me that look. You’re going back to Béziers with me and immigrating the legal way. I’ve told you, I’m never living behind barbed wire again, even if the Cypriot camps have no Kremchies or gas chambers.”
Kálmán’s whole body was shaking. “Stay with me, Liat. I’ve been so lonely without you. Ani ohev otach.”
Klaudia looked at the one bed in the room, then back at Kálmán, her body tingling with nervousness, excitement, and anticipation.
“We’re supposed to be husband and wife, apparently,” he whispered in her ear. “Are you really going to request a separate room after that scene?”
“So we’re just going to share a bed?”
“If you want. But we’ve never had a room alone our entire courtship. Now that you’re here, would you like to finally make good your offer to, you know, be with me in every way?”
Klaudia felt as if in a dream as she walked over to the bed. Kálmán lustily wrapped his arms around her and kissed her again, for the first time slipping his hands under her clothes. Klaudia liked the touch of his hands, and began exploring his body too. She’d never felt sensations like this before, but she only had to experience them once to immediately know she liked this very, very, very much.
“Are you clean?” he whispered in her ear as he was slipping off her stockings.
“What? I bathed last night.”
“No, I mean, you know, your womanly time.”
“Oh, menstruation? No, I’m not having that, and amn’t expecting it for about two more weeks.”
“Good. God, I’ve been wanting you so badly for so long now.”
Klaudia let him take off the rest of her clothes, then watched eagerly as he took off his own clothes. She smiled at her first sight of an undressed man. This was the boy, now the man, she’d loved since she was thirteen years old, the man who’d survived for her, the man who was going to be her husband by the end of the year, the man she’d someday have children with, the man she knew she wanted to grow old with and spend eternity next to in the Land of Israel.
She yelped at the moment she ceased to be a virgin. Kálmán, still shaking, kissed her as she put her arms around him. She stared up into his eyes, not sure why something that hurt was starting to feel good. She was glad he’d never done this before either. A more experienced man would probably go a lot faster and not pay enough attention to her comfort.
“So that’s what the adult mystery is all about,” Kálmán gasped afterwards as Klaudia put her head against his chest.
“Ani ohevet ot’cha,” she breathed.
He put his arms around her and stroked her hair. “I don’t feel so angry anymore. Can you please take me back to Béziers? I promise I’ll be a good boy and try to start over on the right foot.”
“You’re not a boy anymore after you’ve done that. You’re my grownup lover now.”
“I’ll do anything for my beautiful Liat. Can I please apologize for how mean and vulgar and bitter—“
She put a finger to his lips. “Your behavior made sense for you after what we went through. The only bad thing about it would’ve been if you’d always been that way, and never moved beyond it.”
“I’ll do whatever the future Madame Amichai wants. I’ll be as good as I can from now on. I never, ever, ever want to be without my beautiful Liat ever again.”
They fell asleep curled up in one another’s arms, rain banging on the windows as thunder echoed. Whatever their future held, and in whatever country, they’d face it together with the help of the simplest yet most powerful force in the universe, Love.