In this continuing story, a young woman in Holland, on the day of liberation, brings home a round of cheese she took, with others, from a railroad car left behind by the fleeing German army.
Ever since her father had been taken, her mother had spent most of her time reading, often the Bible, sometimes books with long titles, histories of the Scriptures, commentaries. Tina had taken on responsibility for both of them, not because her mother had demanded it, but because the lot had simply fallen to her in her mother's withdrawal from life outside the apartment. Tina's daily search for food kept them from starving. She had to do what she could. To survive, both of them had to eat. She had to do what she could, God forgive.
She picked up the cheese and kept going back home, the last six blocks going easily in the glow of her anticipation. She could already imagine the sudden brightness in her mother's eyes, the joy across her face at the sight of so much free food. A small wheel of cheese would last them weeks. The greatest bounty she had ever been able to gather, and it was theirs without a price.
She came up the stairs carefully, closing the door behind her with her leg, then walked through the vestibule and into the front room where her mother sat, mending a blue wool sweater Tina had worn last spring. All through the winter her mother had worn her church clothes, as if she were living constantly in the presence of God. Even though it was warm, she sat wrapped in her finest shawl.
"What have you there?" her mother said. The sweater fell to her lap when she dropped her hands.
"Cheese," Tina said. "All this cheese--look!" She carried it out front and placed it carefully on the coffee table. "The Nazis left a whole boxcar. Can you imagine?"
Her mother's face focused into a stare. She placed the sweater at her side on the couch, then slid the needle through the fabric. "It belongs to the Germans?" she asked.
"They left it. Pounds and pounds of it." Tina waited to see her mother's happiness. "Lots of us got some. Whole lines of people took it home."
Her mother slid her fingers over the wheel, following the edges as if she were molding its shape herself. Back and forth she moved her hands, almost as if she were blind. "And you took some too?" she said.
"Men were handing it out from the train. I wasn't the first. There were many more behind me--dozens more. There was so much cheese, like a blessing from God--"
Her mother's eyes rose sternly, her eyebrows nearly clasped in an arch across her forehead. She used the back of her hand to raise her glasses, as if her fingers had been soiled. "It is no blessing, Tina," she said, finally.
Tina tried to swallow her surprise. "The Germans left it, Mother," Tina said. "They left it behind. They're gone--"
"It's not ours," her mother said. Her mother put her hands around the wheel and lifted it in her frail arms, as if she wanted to know its heft, to verify the burden of her sacrifice. "It's not ours. It's chaos to take it, you know. We will be part of the chaos--"
"The Germans are gone!" Tina said.
"Is it any different from stealing?" her mother said. "Your father would say it is stealing." She pulled her hands slowly away, sat back on the couch, and retrieved her mending.
"We cannot be part of chaos. You must return it."
Her mother had no physical strength to demand Tina's compliance. The only authority in her command came from her weakness, her soul rising up out of her eyes and reaching with open hands for her daughter's acceptance of an action her mother knew to be unequivocally and eternally right.
"By now there's no one there to take it," Tina said.
"You must return it. It's not ours. It's stealing."
"God meant this for us, Mother," she said.
"God means nothing for us which we take in violation of his law." She curled her hands into each other, as if her fingers were cold.
Tina turned away to hide her anger. The curtains were still closed over the windows looking down on the street. Months ago already her mother had refused to look outside. At first, only Sunday worship drew her from the apartment; but even there the Germans sometimes threatened, breaking into worship to search for men. When it had happened, her mother would come home and sit still on the couch, as if what had occurred had to be replayed time and again to make it understandable--how the Germans could penetrate even the sanctity of the church.
No matter how absurd it was to return the cheese, no matter how ridiculous, Tina knew that to disobey would be to break her mother's will and scar their lives forever even more deeply than they'd already be scarred. There was no choice, really. The fear in her mother's eyes forced her to comply, the visible fear of her daughter's eternal desertion from the way of the righteous. She could crush completely whatever will remained in her mother, just as if she were herself the one with the jackboots. To refuse to obey would be to leave her own mother alone on the day of liberation in the curtained prison above the shop.
Her mother retrieved her mending.
Tomorrow: Tina, following her mother's directive, returns the cheese.