This story is by Shulamit Kopf and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A split-second decision changed Sam’s life forever.
He didn’t make it consciously — his legs and instinct decided for him. He climbed up the wooden ladder rung after rung, heart pounding, his breath quick and shallow. Once on top, he squeezed his body into a narrow vent that led to a hidden alcove. There he lay trembling long after the sounds of terror had died down. By the third day there were no more anguished screams, babies crying, staccato gunfire. He heard the soldiers, boots stomping, searching the building for people hiding, but someone had taken away the ladder, so he was safe. On the fourth day he allowed himself to cry silent tears until there were none. That night hunger and thirst drove him to escape. Under the cover of darkness in rain that veiled the fields, he walked all night to the forest.
But all that was a lifetime ago at a different time and place.
Tuesday. A balmy Florida morning.
Sam felt the humid breeze through the open doors leading to his balcony. He had already walked the dog and eaten his breakfast. He met his daughter’s gaze in a silver-framed photo—his Helen. His untouched, lucky child. It pleased him every morning to think she was safe, married, with two children.
Marilla stirred in the next room, muttering under her breath.
Again, she’s sniffing for mildew, complaining if I open a window. If she’s so afraid of mildew she should have retired to Arizona.
He got up from the table and went to sit in the balcony, a signal for Marilla to make her own breakfast and read the morning paper as if it made a difference.
She hasn’t learned yet that nothing matters. You live. You die. Today is already tomorrow. That’s it. God is silent. But it is my silence that shatters His eardrum.
Sam could sit for hours, thinking, dreaming, his gaze fixed on the boats sailing up and down the intracoastal canal. Any thought drifting to the days haunting his nights, he blocked. He envied the easy laughter of his neighbors, snowbirds, sunning in the octagonal pool below. Mostly he felt like a bird in the nest of a different species. When fatigue overtook him, his eyes closed, and his head dropped, chin touching chest.
Sam and Marilla left Chicago and bought the condo five years earlier. Marilla wanted a corner apartment with a view. He wanted the seventh floor, she preferred the third, arguing the elevator might one day break down. The elevator worked just fine, but a palm tree carted to the site on a flatbed truck with five others and planted near the pool had grown till two of its branches obstructed Sam’s view. The growth had been so gradual that it was only the previous Thursday that Sam noticed.
“I told you we should have taken the unit on the seventh floor,” he barked at Marilla, the only thing he said to her all day.
Right after lunch, he went down to the office to explain about the palm tree. The manager promised to bring it up at the next board meeting scheduled, it just so happened, in two days. That evening the board voted against the motion to cut down the tree or any of its branches.
“Sam, Florida is all about palm trees,” one said.
Sam went back up to the apartment, watched the news and a rerun of Columbo. Marilla sat beside him.
“What’s all this fuss you’re making about some palm tree?” she asked.
“Sit on the balcony and see for yourself.”
He rubbed Bengay on his shoulder, put on pajamas and went to sleep.
Something woke him in the middle of the night. He got up to get a glass of water and through the window he could see a glimmer of moonlight reflected in the pool. He opened the sliding glass door and stepped on to the balcony; the faux grass rough under his bare feet. Inhaling a deep breath of night silence, Sam’s gaze wandered to the offending tree its fronds outlined against the night in a menacing silhouette, like a giant spider.
“Sam, What’s the matter? Why are you up?”
Marilla, a light sleeper, must have heard him sliding the door open.
“I’m going to get a ladder, then I’m going down to the pool to chop off those damn branches,” he said to himself, as much as to her.
“Are you crazy? You’ll fall and break your head.”
He didn’t answer.
“What about the association?”
“To hell with them.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No. I don’t want you to come.”
“I’m coming anyway,” she said. “Climbing ladders in the middle of the night at your age,” she muttered and went to put on a robe.
There was no one in the lobby. They walked to the pool, Sam carrying the light aluminum ladder and the largest serrated kitchen knife he could find. He leaned the ladder against the tree and climbed rung after rung, his heart pounding. Marilla steadied it with both hands. Once at the top, he wasn’t sure which two fronds blurred in shadow needed hacking. The tremors in his legs subsided and he looked back to his balcony to gauge it. He sawed the knife back and forth with fierce intensity cutting through the tough flesh. It seemed forever until, with a soft swish, the branches swooned to the ground. He tossed them one after the other into the canal watching them float away.
They took the elevator back to †he apartment.
“I’ll make us a cup of tea,” Marilla said.
He sat with his back to the kitchen and waited.
She brought the tea and sat across from him. The apartment was dark except for the kitchen light reflecting Marilla’s luminous night cream, accenting the lines on her face, the shadows beneath her eyes.
He took a sip, and, with no forewarning, a strangled cry sentenced to solitary escaped. The pain was searing. His body shook. He began to weep.
“I never should have…left them,” he said tears flowing, his shoulders shaking. “He was only four.”
Marilla knew the story. He had told her in hoarse whispers one night several months before their wedding about his first wife, Fania, and his little boy. When he spoke his heart was pounding, every beat of pain binding her to him.
In December 1942 the Germans rounded up the Jews of his town, crammed them into trucks and drove them a few kilometers to a ditch. There they forced everyone to undress, bare feet standing in snow, and machine-gunned them, group after group. Sam whispered that he could imagine his little boy falling into the trench still alive only to be crushed by bodies falling on top of him. His mother, sisters and brothers, everyone he knew, was killed. Only he survived. He never spoke of it again. He hardly spoke at all, but there were nights he woke Marilla up with a scream.
“You couldn’t save them,” Marilla said wondering why he brought it up after decades of silence. “Your only choice was to die with them.”
“He must have looked for me, his Papa. Where is papa? Fania held him in her arms shielding him with her body. But still, he must have looked for me in the crowd while I was hiding in the attic.”
Marilla put her hand on top of his. He didn’t pull away. Sam wiped his eyes and took a deep, jagged breath.
“He was only four years old,” he said. “He was such a smart boy.”
They lapsed into silence. Marilla kept her hand on his. They drank the tea, now cold.
“You could have chosen to die with them that day, but then our Helen and our grandchildren wouldn’t be alive today,” she said. “They are your vengeance, your victory.” Sam met her eyes.
“It’s time you forgive yourself for being alive.”
The next morning was another perfect Florida morning, flooded with light. Sam took the dog for a walk, made his breakfast, and went out to sit on the balcony. He had chosen well. His view of the canal, the boats, the flat horizon to the west, was clear. A deep breath and with it an unfamiliar sense of elation. When Marilla padded into the kitchen to make her breakfast, Sam resolved he would be kinder.
He was more talkative, but the habit of silence was hard to break. Wednesday was Marilla’s day to water her plants. She had carried one on the flight from Chicago, a philodendron, and over the years had rooted cuttings, some she gave to neighbors, the rest she replanted in new pots. Sam helped her water and moved a large Ficus tree closer to the window. When he went to the drugstore, he asked her if she needed anything.
All day he waited for someone to notice the missing palm branches, but no one did.