They Sent Runners Out
by Sarah Pinsker
My twin brother had been a dry-eyed baby, and he grew into a dry-eyed boy.
“Yaakov, why don’t you ever cry?” I asked him the day we buried my uncle’s family.
He shrugged. “Maybe you carry all the tears for both of us, Anna.”
I thought he might be right. In the past month I had cried again and again. I had wept through the night of hiding in the root cellar among the onions and potatoes and jars of pickled vegetables, my face buried in our mother’s skirt. We emerged in the morning to discover the Cossacks had burned down the barn with all of our animals trapped inside. I cried again for the goats. We didn’t even know yet that our cousins down the road had suffered the same fate. Our two older siblings took their turns calming me, but I took the most comfort from Yaakov’s stoic face.
We kept to the house for weeks after the funeral. The snow fell and fell. It changed the landscape, muting the scorched beams and bones of the barn. Without our animals, we had only the vegetables from the cellar. We ate those until Mama announced she would walk into the village to find more food.
Yaakov and I went with her. The sky was gray and the trees were bare and the snow went from white to gray to white again where new covered old. We walked gray roads to the gray village to trade our gray potatoes to gray-faced merchants. All the color in the world seemed to have burned up on the night of fires.
The village no longer seemed the friendly place I once thought it. Mama warned us that the men who had come in the night had been neighbors, and I eyed everyone with a new suspicion. She told us to keep to ourselves and not look for the village children to play with as we usually did, so Yaakov and I settled into a doorway to play with our small wooden top. I could feel the cold stone through my woolen layers.
“Give it here.” We looked up to see a Cossack boy. I don’t think he was much bigger than either of us, but we were on the ground, and he loomed like a giant. Yaakov closed his fist around the top.
Neither of us expected the kick to Yaakov’s chin. I don’t think the boy did either; he ran away as soon as his boot connected. I burst into tears, and it took me a moment to realize that Yaakov was crying, too. Behind his tears came flowers, small and white with yellow centers. They flowed from his eyes on runner stems, and became strawberries as I watched. The bright red of the berries seemed like a new color, invented from nothing. I’m not sure which shocked me more, the berries or the fact that something had made Yaakov cry.
I picked one and held it in my palm. It felt real. I rolled it in my mouth, touching the seeds with my tongue. When I bit into it, the taste was an explosion of summer. Three more grew before Yaakov stopped crying and the plants shriveled and fell from his face. I gave him two. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and rolled the berries in his mouth as I had. He carried them in his cheeks on the walk home, his scarf pulled up over his face so Mama wouldn’t see the blooming bruise.
That night, when she would normally be cooking, our mother sat at the table and studied her hands. Yaakov and I watched from under the bed.
“Nobody would trade with me,” she told our father. We had eaten the last of the pickled beets, and the potatoes that were left were shriveled and mealy.
I rolled over to look at Yaakov. Then, before I could reconsider my action, I punched him on his bruised chin. He gasped. Tears ran down his face, just as they had before, followed by stems and leaves, then flowers, then berries. I picked the berries and kissed his forehead. One of my own ordinary tears leaked from the corner of my eye. “I’m sorry.”
I scrambled out from under the bed.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” I said. “Look. Yaakov found these for you.” I held out my hands to show her six small, perfect strawberries. She took one from me, holding it as carefully as an egg. She smiled at me, her first smile in weeks.
“Thank you, Annaleh. Thank you Yaakov, under the bed. Why don’t you find a bowl for those?”
We ate potato soup, followed by a strawberry for each of us. Our father led us in shehechianu, the prayer to thank God for having sustained and brought us to this day. I only mouthed the words. The berries left everyone in a good mood. After dinner, we sang and danced around the house.
Over the weeks that followed, as we stretched the last of the last of our food, I bent Yaakov’s fingers and pulled his ears and twisted his arms behind his back. If I did any one thing too often, it ceased to make him cry. I found ways. Anything to see the strawberries send their runners out, then grow in that strange quickened version of springtime.
“I understand,” Yaakov said each time. I didn’t understand. For the first time, I felt distant from him.
And so I hurt my brother, over and over. He let me. We bore the secret together. I had a second secret that I kept to myself: sometime during the long winter I learned to hold back my own tears. When the first real strawberries of spring arrived, they didn’t taste nearly as sweet.