Laundry is a novel of psychological suspense that focuses on family relationships and the aftermath of childhood trauma. It is not a novel of the Holocaust, but like much Israeli literature, Laundry is driven by characters whose lives were shaped by the Holocaust—so much so that those events become a silent character in the novel. In 1960s Transylvania, where the novel begins, the main character, five-year-old Ildiko (“Kitschi”), experiences psychological abuse at the hands of an older girl, Yutzi, whom she worships and follows everywhere.
When we returned from Anna’s village, Bokshi wagged her tail with joy to see us. And Yutzi.
Two weeks later we left for Israel. I didn’t know the time was at hand; the holiday in the village had filled my dreams with new visions, I had so much to tell Bijou. I felt older. Yutzi seemed like a woman to me now, and this changed her status in my eyes. When I’d been smaller I had related to her as though she were a big girl. She wasn’t married, even though she was now a strikingly beautiful young woman. I thought she was doomed to the same fate as most of the old belly washers, whose smiles were already blurry in my memory. I wasn’t afraid of Yutzi, and I didn’t hate her either. When I followed her now it was only with my eyes, a sense of disappointment and sourness filling me, as if I were somehow being prevented from a kind of pleasure. And maybe only now I feel this way, in place of that girl. My parents were busy—they weren’t a part of this. I was no longer terrified by every unusual incident. I thought, that’s it. What happened, happened. My parents were making arrangements for our journey to Palestine, I waited patiently. It wasn’t so simple to just leave, everything was hush-hush, a secret, shhhh, I understood this… Yes, we’re going to Palestine but don’t say a word about it to anyone.
I don’t blame my parents for what happened next, they had enough troubles. They didn’t have the energy to follow my every changing mood…
I didn’t throw up, I didn’t faint. I took good care of my sister, I played with Bijou, I kept my distance from Yutzi. One day, like a thunderclap in clear weather—and those days had been bright and clear, filled with springtime smells—in the evening, my father and mother sat down on the couch next to each other, across from the fireplace that still burned on cool evenings. They sat me down in my mother’s armchair under the light of the floor lamp. I knew they had something important to announce, their expressions told me this as well. We’re going to Palestine, I thought. “Kitschi, Daddy and I need to go away tomorrow morning, only for one day, you’ll look after your sister, and Yutzi will come and sleep here at night.” My mother spoke very slowly. Maybe she was afraid I’d be sick, like the last time when they’d almost gone. I was stunned. My father thought I had guessed the purpose of their trip and said that soon we’d leave for Palestine, but in the meantime it was a secret, and they needed to sign the final papers and then, if everything went well, we’d get our passports. I stared at them in shock; everything they were saying sounded like the distant murmuring of strangers.
My mother knelt down at my feet and wrapped her arms around my hips, pressing her head against my knees. This felt so strange, my mother and I in reversed positions. I tried to count each section of the long braid that circled her head. I noticed some white hairs woven in, decorating the dark brown that was always shiny and fragrant. She had a soft neck with a small beauty mark under her earlobe. Her eyebrows formed two perfect arcs. The skin above her closed eyelids was smooth and transparent; below them were the brown circles of her gaze. The rest of her face was dominated by her Sophia Loren lips, large, heavy, red without any lipstick. The curved corners of her mouth ended in two small dimples, always hinting at the possibility of a smile. My father patted the back of the armchair and stood up as if released by some kind of internal spring. “Nah yo,” he said, as if agreeing with himself. My mother also stirred, releasing herself from this moment of indulging me. I remained seated under the light, blinking hard to fight back the burning in my eyes, which my parents didn’t notice. My lips were dry and I couldn’t swallow a growing lump of spit.
The whole time I kept encouraging myself: I’m a big girl, I’m a big girl, everything would soon be in order and we could leave for Palestine, and that would be the end of my problems with Yutzi. Let them go, I’m a big girl. I needed to look after my sister. It had been a long time since I had heard Yutzi call me Satan and tell me she was going to rip out my guts. Her brothers kept an eye on her.
“Can we sleep at Bijou’s house?” I asked. I tried, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea. Bijou’s house was even smaller than ours, three children and a baby on the way. My mother turned to me and shook her head without saying a word, a signal that this wasn’t going to work, there was nothing left to discuss, Yutzi would come take care of us at night, a simple solution, we didn’t have to disturb half the world just because they were going to be gone for a single night. I was a big girl, I would draw, I would play with my sister. Yutzi would be busy making the beds and fixing dinner. I would be fine.
My parents didn’t sleep for days before we left for Israel; they had many worries. What was I going to tell them? Don’t leave me alone because Yutzi scared me with stories of Satan and ripped-out guts? I believed she was telling the truth, but they believed in her, too. They also told me I had an overactive imagination. Dr. Ontel had determined that my fainting was the result of my overtired and overworked mind. At school I was a quiet child, a good student. I had an appetite and this proved everything was fine, I was fine. They left. Early in the morning they left.
They woke me early in the morning, kisses and hugs, and Kitschi be a good girl, we’ll be back soon, you won’t even know we were gone. My mother’s cheeks were cold, my father was scattered, trying to organize their papers in a large envelope he put in his polished leather briefcase with the buckles that rattled with a metallic clink-clank when he walked.
I got out of bed, my bladder full, urgent. I wanted to smile at them so they would remember me like that. I wanted to wake up my sister, so her doll-like face would accompany them on their way. Yutzi was at the stove, wearing my mother’s apron, stirring the porridge. Everything had been arranged to the last detail while I’d slept. Cold air penetrated the house as my parents disappeared across the threshold. I released my bladder. I felt the wetness dripping down the inside of my thigh, collecting inside my slippers, soaking into the fur, overflowing and spilling into a little puddle, marking the place where I stood. I was afraid, I wanted to run after them, but I was wet, I was afraid that Yutzi would notice the warm vapor rising from my pajama bottoms. I raced back to my room, stripped off my pajamas, rolled them into a ball and hid them under the bed. Every time I heard the wooden spoon knocking against the side of the pot I knew I was safe; if Yutzi left the porridge it would burn and there would be nothing to give my sister for breakfast, and Yutzi didn’t have anything against my sister.
I crawled under the bed and took out the wet lump of cloth, crept back to the puddle and mopped it up, folding up the cloth and wiping, being careful not to let it drip until I had put it back under the bed. I grabbed a clean pair of underpants and a warm undershirt and put them on just as Yutzi appeared, heading straight to my sister’s bed, ignoring me. I thought it was polite of her to give me some privacy while I got dressed. “Pitzi, Pitzika, good morning! Who wants to come to Yutzi?” She sweetly coaxed my sister out of bed. I sighed with relief. She looked at me and just said, in a normal voice, that it was already late and I needed to get moving.
Later, I sat at the kitchen table with my head lowered, the smell of the porridge warming my nose, and I had to look up to remind myself of the fact that it was Yutzi who had prepared our breakfast, not my mother. My sister was giggling and babbling nonsense, not a care in the world. Outside the light was clear and bright, a sign that we could expect pleasant weather. Yutzi took our spring jackets from the coat rack, handed me mine and patiently pushed my sister’s small hands into her pink jacket, carefully holding the sleeves of her sweater so they wouldn’t bunch up uncomfortably. She helped me thread my arms through the straps of my knapsack, and around my neck hung my lunch bag with its slice of fresh bread spread with goose fat. This she’d quickly prepared while I was putting my shoes on and tying them. “After school go to Bijou’s; I’ll come get you in the evening,” she said, before turning toward the nursery school with my sister. I followed them to make sure she wouldn’t kidnap my sister, or show her anything, until I saw the teacher patting my sister on the head. Yutzi wouldn’t do anything bad to my sister, my sister didn’t have Satan’s violet eyes. The nursery school teacher would bring her to Bijou’s house in the afternoon; I would look after her. I hurried on to school, breathing in the clear, cool morning air, filling my lungs. I thought, something’s changed in Yutzi, without a doubt, maybe because I’m older, maybe the spell has been lifted, maybe I’m not Satan anymore, maybe, maybe. These thoughts were running through my mind as my teacher wrote math problems on the blackboard.
All day I played with Bijou and prayed to Jesus, to our forefather Moses, who I knew from Passover, to God, that just this once the sun wouldn’t set. I prayed that my parents would return as a surprise, or just return; I prayed that something would happen to Yutzi so she wouldn’t be able to come get me and my sister. But evening closed in; it was barely light outside when Bijou’s mother crowded us around the kitchen table and gave us a treat of sweet platchinta filled with white cheese and cups of clear, strong tea.
It began to rain, the clouds pulling a dark curtain across the sky. It was evening, Yutzi was knocking on the door and calling for us to come out; she didn’t want to come in with her wet coat. It was getting late, she said, and we needed to gather up our things quickly and go home. All the while I tried to ease the sleeping fears stubbornly raising their heads inside me. She didn’t pinch me anymore, she didn’t stab me with her hard gaze, maybe it was over. Still, this was the first time I’d ever felt that my own house wasn’t a safe place to go.
My sister crowed with glee when she saw Yutzi, all day she’d been dying for Yutzi to come and take us home, to play with her, spin her around on the rug, tell her bedtime stories. The house was cold and smelled empty. I helped Yutzi bring in firewood from the shed, which was nearly emptied of the stacks that had been piled up at the beginning of winter. I thought, I’m really grown up—Yutzi let me try to light the fire in the fireplace in our room, and when I spilled the ashes from the night before she wasn’t angry with me. She walked through all three rooms just like my parents did every evening. My sister raced through the house, shouting Yutzi, Yutzi come here!
Yutzi was busy in the kitchen, heating up water, then she undressed my sister, bathed her in a tub with the warm water, put her pajamas on, combed out her curls, kissed her many times and put her to bed. I stood by my bed in my underwear, resting a hand on the dresser and waiting. When she finished taking care of my sister, she turned to me and in a voice that was almost gentle said, “You’re not in bed yet? Hurry and wash up before the water gets cold. Why are you standing there half-naked, do you want to catch cold?” I didn’t want to catch anything; I did everything with quick, mechanical movements until I could feel the blankets and sheets starting to absorb the warmth of my body. Only then did I allow myself to relax my muscles, but my eyes didn’t close. Yutzi told my sister about once upon a time in a faraway land, palaces, a prince and a princess, elves and carriages and everything ending happily ever after. I wanted her to tell another, my sister had fallen asleep, I was afraid that my turn had come. I shrank as much as I could and made myself sleep. Yutzi tucked the covers around me, just like my mother and father did before they turned off the light and went into the living room to take care of grownup things; later, quietly, they would sit on the divan whispering. Sometimes they listened to soft music.
Yutzi had already left the room, I knew, because her scent had faded. Quiet. Why wasn’t she bothering me anymore? Maybe she was going to come to Palestine with us after all, and she would start up again there, but now she didn’t want to arouse any suspicion, or maybe she’d found a different Satan. I could hear her washing the dishes. She was making the pleasant, familiar sounds of a house preparing for nighttime. Maybe it was simply done with, and that was all. I was tired. The sound of my sister’s breathing was soon matched by my own, which deepened and eased. I fell asleep.
I knew I was dreaming because my father’s gramophone was playing. On my mother’s armchair, beneath the light of the floor amp, sat Pishta, Bijou’s father, smoke curling from the cigarette he held between his large fingers. He was sitting in my mother’s armchair without a shirt or pants, and Yutzi danced in front of him, naked.
In the main room, a fire burned behind the grate. The steel barrier that circled the fireplace and kept the embers from burning the parquet floor was open. Three logs were a part of this vision, two large ones with a smaller one propped on top. The two logs on the bottom were wrapped in living creases of red and white. In some places long tongues of glittery new colors burst from the creases, orange and blue and a transparent yellow. As the triangles of flame burned in the crevices and folds, a kind of competition began among them. The smaller ones that burned in the lower logs and couldn’t seem to burn under their own power merged with the flames around them, which were also shorter and weaker. Thus they formed another, larger tongue that was able to leap straight up to the highest peak of the veteran flames at the top, and even higher. The smaller log lay in the middle, cloaked in the same fire that enfolded and strangled the small, burning, wrinkling embers of dark blue-gray that turned clear, dissolving on their way up the chimney, outside, toward the sky. Anyone walking by could easily have seen, on one side of the window, in the direct light of the floor lamp beside the lowered shutter, ovals of light inside, earthbound stars shining between the slats of the wooden blinds, arranged in fixed spaces one after the other beneath the third. On the other side of the window there was a movement of orange and red lightning, pale, gleaming, ignited and then doused by the motion of the blinds. The smaller log surrendered in the end to the flames of the larger ones, the burning accompanied by the sound of a strong exhalation when little drops of water were released in angry black steam. After this struggle, the fire straightened and burned with a peaceful unity, decorated by the activity of the gleaming sparks. The sky was clear, the street was quiet, my sister floated peacefully in the world of dreams, I lay curled up beneath my blanket. Only my eyes saw through the tiny slit between the blanket and the white sheet.
Pishta sat in my mother’s armchair, still smoking. When the long tower of ash collapsed, scattering softly on the rug’s burgundy border, he tossed the butt in the exact center of the fire, which now burned indifferently. He sat back as if a kind of paralysis had spread through his body. Only his tongue moved from side to side, wetting his top lip and then his bottom lip, making sounds in his throat like a man who smells something tasty to eat. Yutzi also licked her lips, as she did at the slaughterhouse. Her lips looked like butter cookies, crescent-shaped, swollen, coated with clear strawberry jam.
The door to the children’s room opened into the living room, a door like two white wings with geometric designs carved into them, squares inside squares. On the rare occasion when the doors were closed, these designs formed a raised, symmetrical pattern of a flower with six petals in each corner, one centered flower with two gilded handles attached to it, extending out and down as if they were the flower’s leaves. When the doors were open, each handle took the shape of half a flower on the open side. From where I lay I could see that a gentle push on both doors into the living room would have closed the gap between the two halves and created the perfectly formed flower with its two gilded handles.
In the space between the doors sat Pishta, and Yutzi danced before him, naked. The flames danced behind her, decorating her body with a costume of red, orange, and yellow light. She was enchanting, as if a good fairy had gently tapped her on the head with a magic wand. Her hands swayed over her head, and her body swirled with the graceful movements of riverbank reeds. Her bare feet were entwined in the nap of the rug; she twisted her hips in circles that matched the spiraling movements of her shoulders. She glided closer to the armchair, bending her body in the shadowy space between them to take Pishta’s face between her branchlike hands, offering the two apples of her breasts to his hands. Something snakelike awoke in his body; he wrapped his arms around her torso, clinging to her flesh, moving his head back and forth, licking the drops of sweat that gleamed on her skin like fire. His head was trapped, buried in her arms as though he were caught in a thicket of vines. He breathed hoarsely in the space between her breasts, quenching his thirst by sucking noisily on one of her pink nipples, which shrank into a small point that he needed to grip with his teeth to keep it from slipping out of his wet lips and escaping. Yutzi suckled him on the right side and then the left as she moved her head back and forth, making sounds that were at once pained and laughing. She put her arms beneath his armpits and pulled him effortlessly to a standing position. He was a large man. The illumination of the fire had almost no effect on the dark color of his skin, which was as shiny and wet as if he’d just stepped out of a warm bath. Yutzi drew away from him, gathering up her hair, blowing as if she were trying to extinguish an imaginary candle that burned between them. She blew on her breasts, under her arms, toward Pishta, directing the air from between her pursed lips up then down. He reached out his large hands without moving from where he stood, taking a handful of her hair in each and drawing her near. She lost her balance and fell to her knees in front of him. In one hand he continued to grasp a handful of her hair, stretching it away from the pale skin of her forehead. In his other he held a black cucumber that had appeared between his legs and put it close to her lips. She tasted it with the tip of her tongue, licked around and around it and then swallowed it, almost all of it.
The room echoed with sounds made mostly of the letter M, as if they’d been stopped right behind clenched teeth. The cucumber went in and out of Yutzi’s mouth in a steady tempo, it glistened in the firelight. Pishta loosened his grip on Yutzi’s head, she slid away from him on her back, straddling his knees. He burst out laughing and asked her something in a bossy tone. She reared up toward him as if she were angry, grabbed the nape of his neck and pulled his head between her legs with a willful gesture. His head twisted back and forth between her thighs. In a choked voice she cried out to him not to stop. Pishta laughed again and stood up. They wrestled for a moment, until he collapsed on top of her, preventing her from moving, pressing her down, although she didn’t try to escape. She fought against him with her hips, flipping him over. They struggled like this, Yutzi writhing, biting, scratching him. He laughed at her, sticking his tongue into her mouth and her ear. Yutzi yelped like a dog that’s accidentally been stepped on, she tossed her head from side to side, biting her fingers. Her hands flew uncontrollably over her head. Suddenly she arched her back, her face crumpled up, and she closed her eyes tight. Her mouth opened wide with an ahhh that burst from deep in her throat. Then her body was completely still, except for her rising and falling breasts, which quivered like vanilla pudding with cherries on it. Pishta was satisfied with her swoon; he got up, lit a cigarette, and sat next to her, hiding the fire that was beginning to die down behind him. From where I lay, they seemed like a black stain surrounded by a red halo, like a dangerous rain cloud hovering insolently in front of the sun when it has just begun to set.
I raised myself up to a seated position. I was beginning to think I wasn’t dreaming. They were laughing and whispering. Pishta finished smoking and turned to throw the cigarette butt into the dying pile of embers that still burned weakly. Yutzi turned her back to him, lying on her side, resting her head in one hand, stroking the rug with the other. With a thick finger Pishta traced circles on her shoulders, then drew an imaginary line down her stomach and made circles on her thighs. Yutzi laughed and started to wriggle around again on the rug. Even though my room was almost completely dark, and the light of the floor lamp could barely illuminate the dim living room, her eyes met mine. Like an arrow she shot toward me, passing through the narrow gap in the doors without touching them. Pishta ordered her to come back, but she was already standing across from my terrified violet gaze. Her hair stuck to her shoulders in dark clumps, her breasts lifted and fell, growing and shrinking with her rapid breaths. I thought she was going to start screaming, her lips shrank into a pale noose of a scowl below her nose. Her nostrils flared as if she were an upset mare. She stood right next to me, her hands gripping the soft flesh of her hips; from the curly black patch of hair that grew between her legs dripped something transparent that smelled pungent and slightly sour.
I knew I wasn’t dreaming. Yutzi had an expression on her face that even in my worst dreams I had never seen, even worse than when she saw me by the slaughterhouse, worse than all the times she’d threatened me to keep quiet. I couldn’t faint—she paralyzed me with her eyes, skewered my stomach to the wall as she stood there. Pishta called to her, she was distracted for a split second. I took the opportunity to escape, pulling my blanket over my head, she shrieked at Pishta to shut his mouth and turned back to me. She was nearly foaming at the mouth with fury, yanking away the blanket. “Satan, you are dead now,” she hissed. I managed to raise my hands and cover my face with my arms, my pajama top came untucked, my belly was exposed. I was already prepared to feel Yutzi ripping out my guts. I curled up and waited for the pain. Instead of ripping out my guts, she jerked away my down pillow, which was already soaked with my sweat. She pounded it, as if she were about to refresh the wrinkled bedding. When the feathers expanded into a single shape, she lifted the pillow over my head as if she were about to strike a gong with it, and with a quick, sharp movement she lowered the pillow over my face and pressed down and pressed down and pressed down with all her strength, she pressed that pillow onto my face as hard as she could. She wasn’t laughing, she wasn’t just trying to scare me, she pressed down with all of her strength because she wanted me to stop breathing, she wanted me to die, I knew this, even though I’d never seen how someone acted when they wanted to kill someone else, I knew. And even though this was the exact kind of situation in which I would have thrown up and fainted, I struggled to stay awake, I knew she was killing me, and like the cows who didn’t know what to do when they were killed, I didn’t know what to do either. I tried to kick my legs and move my head, but she was much stronger than I was, and I was already running out of air.
I saw the white feathers hovering in a black hole opening up beneath my body. The feathers spiraled down peacefully, silently, without touching. I was already beginning to relax, when suddenly a heavy, prickly lump of feathers landed inside me and exploded into a million glass eyelashes. She released me. I was breathing.
I heard my sister crying, I heard Pishta’s voice nearby, screaming, Are you insane? Have you completely lost your mind? I heard Yutzi growl in response, She’s the Devil, did you see how she was watching us? Pishta said, I’m leaving, get a hold of yourself. You want to make this kind of mess for us? Your brothers would murder us. She’s just a little girl who doesn’t understand, she didn’t see anything, give her a little palinka, and she’ll go back to sleep. You said she wouldn’t wake up, Pishta said scornfully. Yutzi screamed at him, Get out of my sight, mein ah frosbah! My sister cried, Yutzi screamed at her to shut up. I breathed with my eyes shut, they left the room. I heard Pishta’s belt buckle; Yutzi kept hissing, “I’m not through with her yet,” Pishta told her to take it easy, the door slammed shut. Later she came back and quietly poured something sweet and fiery into my mouth. I must have fallen asleep.
From Laundry by Suzane Adam. Copyright Suzane Adam. Forthcoming from Autumn Hill Books. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2008 by Becka Mara McKay. All rights reserved.