by Ida Fink
They had just finished supper and the woman had cleared the table, carried the plates to the kitchen, and placed them in the sink. The kitchen was mottled with patches of dampness and had a dull, yellowish light, even gloomier than in the main room. They had been living here for two weeks. It was their third apartment since the start of the war; they had abandoned the other two in a hurry. The woman came back into the room and sat down again at the table. The three of them sat there: the woman, her husband, and their chubby, blue-eyed, three-year-old child. Lately they had been talking a lot about the boy's blue eyes and chubby cheeks.
The boy sat erect, his back straight, his eyes fixed on his father, but it was obvious that he was so sleepy he could barely sit up.
The man was smoking a cigarette. His eyes were blood-shot and he kept blinking in a funny way. This blinking had begun soon after they fled the second apartment.
It was late, past ten o'clock. The day had long since ended, and they could have gone to sleep, but first they had to play the game that they had been playing every day for two weeks and still had not got right. Even though the man tried his best and his movements were agile and quick, the fault was his and not the child's. The boy was marvelous. Seeing his father put out his cigarette, he shuddered and opened his blue eyes even wider. The woman, who didn't actually take part in the game, stroked the boy's hair.
"We'll play the key game just one more time only today. Isn't that right?" she asked her husband.
He didn't answer because he was not sure if this really would be the last rehearsal. They were still two or three minutes off. He stood up and walked towards the bathroom door. Then the woman called out softly, "Ding-dong."
She was imitating the doorbell and she did it beautifully. Her "ding-dong" was quite a soft, lovely bell.
At the sound of chimes ringing so musically from his mother's lips, the boy jumped up from his chair and ran to the front door, which was separated from the main room by a narrow strip of corridor.
"Who's there?" he asked.
The woman, who alone remained in her chair, clenched her eyes shut as if she were feeling a sudden, sharp pain.
"I'll open up in a minute, I'm just looking for the keys," the child called out. Then he ran back to the main room, making a lot of noise with his feet. He ran in circles around the table, pulled out one of the sideboard drawers, and slammed it shut.
"Just a minute, I can't find them, I don't know where Mama put them," he yelled, then dragged the chair across the room, climbed onto it, and reached up to the top shelf of the etagere.
"I found them!" he shouted triumphantly. Then he got down from the chair, pushed it back to the table, and without looking at his mother, calmly walked to the door. A cold, musty draft blew in from the stairwell.
"Shut the door, darling," the woman said softly. "You were perfect. You really were."
The child didn't hear what she said. He stood in the middle of the room, staring at the closed bathroom door.
"Shut the door," the woman repeated in a tired, flat voice. Every evening she repeated the same words, and every evening he stared at the closed bathroom door.
At last it creaked. The man was pale and his clothes were streaked with lime and dust. He stood on the threshold and blinked in that funny way.
"Well? How did it go?" asked the woman.
"I still need more time. He has to look for them longer. I slip in sideways all right, but then... .it's so tight in there that when I turn ... And he's got to make more noise - he should stamp his feet louder."
The child didn't take his eyes off him.
"Say something to him," the woman whispered.
"You did a good job, little one, a good job," he said mechanically.
"That's right," the woman said, "you're really doing a wonderful job, darling - and you're not little at all. You act just like a grown-up, don't you? And you do know that if someone should really ring the doorbell someday when Mama is at work, everything will depend on you? Isn't that right? And what will you say when they ask you about your parents?"
"Mama's at work."
"And Papa?" He was silent.
"And Papa?" the man screamed in terror. The child turned pale.
"And Papa?" the man repeated more calmly.
"He's dead," the child answered and threw himself at his father, who was standing right beside him, blinking his eyes in that funny way, but who was already long dead to the people who would really ring the bell.