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written by: Michal Reibenbach
Anna is playing with Bobby, a neighbor’s son in their garden when her aunt comes scurrying over.
“I don’t understand how all the floors are covered in blood! Did you have anything to do with it, Anna?”
“It’s nothing to do with me.”
Bobby’s mother scans Anna over until her eyes finally land on her bare, filthy feet.
“Anna, your foot’s bleeding!” she declares.
She looks down at her feet and her heart sinks. She notices there’s a bleeding gash in her right foot and she knows she’ll be in serious trouble. Curiosity about new flooring had been the reason she’d previously been secretly sneaking around in their cottage. A strict aunt had come to live with them ever since Anna’s mother had died when she was a small child. She was grateful to her aunt but some of her rules like the one of not being allowed in any part of the house save for her room upset her.
“Please don’t send me home, please!” She pleads.
“Does your father beat you?” Bobby’s mother whispers in her ear.
“Yes, all the time; please don’t send me home!”
Bobby’s mother studies her for a moment.
“You’re filthy, you need a bath!”
Anna doesn’t understand what having a bath has to do with anything,
“Don’t worry I’ll speak to your father,” she adds kindly.
Bobby’s mother walks over to her aunt and says something silently to her, whereupon her aunt strolls up to Anna, catches hold of her arm and guides her towards their cottage.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Anna shrieks.
“Nothing, you’re just going to have a bath, that’s all.”
She’s greatly relieved.
While Anna is taking a bath, which her aunt has filled up to the brim with warm water, she feels extremely guilty. Usually, she only has a bath once a week on Friday evenings, in a tub which is barely a quarter full of water. Her conscience also bothers her because she understands she is being a nuisance. When her aunt comes into the bathroom to bandage her foot she continually apologizing to her, so much attention is a rare treat for her.
The next day Anna is packed off to her grandparents. During the drive up to London, she feels sick. The air inside the car is stifling and thick with angry unspoken words. She is so scared of her father she doesn’t dare ask him to open the window to relieve her nausea. When at last he stops the car, the wave of nausea which hits her is so intense that she leans forward and vomits. The contents of her stomach spew out over the car’s floor and a pungent smell of sick swarms up into the air.
Anna’s thoughts are tangled, “I’m glad I’ve been sick all over his car! But now he’s going to clobber me for sure!”
However, he just says, “What a mess, get out.”
She gladly rushes off to her grandparents' house while her father sets about cleaning up his car. As she enters the living room she wonders what terrible stories her grandparents had been told about her? She studies them to try to ‘read their faces’, but they just stare back at her with somber expressions. There is no way she can tell them her father, their precious son, continually beats her. Her grandparents are German Jews and they keep silent about their past lives. Her grandpa is a bony man, there is a map of wrinkles on his face and a wrinkled smile is never far from his lips. He is a chain-smoker and sometimes to amuse her, he takes in deep drags of smoke which he puffs out in rings of grey circular wisps. Her granny is loud, and laughs easily; she has a deep chuckle which makes her happy to hear it. In her youth she was beautiful, now her face is wrinkled. She wraps Anna in her love with her chubby arms and soft face. Anna loves them both.
During her stay, her granny pampers her with all sorts of goodies. It is boring at their house, for there’re no children in the vicinity with whom she can play, albeit, the knowledge that they’ll never harm her by far outweighs any other consideration. She wishes she could stay with them forever. At bedtime she goes to sleep in a tiny room which has been converted into a bedroom for her; she lies in bed listening to the relentless roar of the London traffic, which sounds like a huge humming noise. She finds the sound both hypnotic and comforting. It serves as an unlikely lullaby and sends her off to sleep. In the mornings she creeps silently over to her grandparents’ bedroom, peers in and watches them as they lay asleep. She notices they snore in synchronization, and their enormous fluffy, feather-filled eiderdowns move up and down together with their snores. The scene makes her smile.
In front of her grandparents’ house is a small garden, which is completely bare save for a large willow tree.
“Please tell me once again the story about the willow tree,” she asks her granny one evening.
Thus her granny recalls to her in her German accent: “During his various military maneuvers, whilst he was fighting the Germans in Belgium, for a while your father was camped out in a forest. The soldiers in his unit had been ordered to collect all the foresters’ rifles as a precautionary measure.
“Please let me keep my rifle to kill a deer?” one of the foresters had begged of your father and he had consented. After the forester had shot and killed a deer, he cut out a large chunk of meat and handed it to your father as a gesture of gratitude. Your father took the meat, wrapped it up in sacking, and sent it off to us in London. Since the weather was cold the meat arrived in good condition. Along with the meat arrived some Willow twigs which by mistake had been wrapped up inside the sacking. I took those twigs and planted them in the garden on the day you were born. Well, a beautiful tree did manage to grow and as you know it is your very own Willow tree.”
Anna loves that story and she loves the Willow tree. No, it isn’t a Weeping Willow but some hardier variety, a Weeping Willow needs water and would never have survived in that dirt patch of a garden. Sometimes she goes into the garden, touches its strong trunk and feels its blisters, gazes up into its branches, watches the lights and shadows on the dancing leaves, and then she deftly climbs up its branches. The tree makes her feel special and loved.
One evening Anna’s father turns up to take her back home which causes her mind to swirl in blackness.
“Do I have to go back?”
“You’ve got school.”
“I could go to school in London.”
“Come along!” he orders her.
On the drive back he says, “I’m leaving the window open if you’re going to vomit, lean out of it.”
For the rest of the journey, they sit in silence.
Arriving back home and before going into their cottage, Anna rushes over to their neighbor’s house. She finds Bobby in his yard feeding his mongrel dog.
“Did your mother tell my father to stop beating me?” she asks him full of hope.
“No, she wouldn’t interfere,” he answers ever so quietly.
A sharp stab of disappointment runs down her body. For a while, she stands silently watching his almost black silhouette in the velvety dusk of the evening.
“Do you get the cane at school?”
She feels sorry for him.
“Why are people so cruel?”
“Who knows, maybe they’re sick in their heads?”
After a while, Anna walks-off home, a sad little girl.