Cossacks

Fifty Lashes

By Marc Nemiroff,

Last year I was little.  I was six years-old and something happened.  I don’t think it started then.  I think what happened was a keep-going from before, but I’m not sure because no one will tell me.

A long time ago when I was five, Daddy dropped me off at Gramma Ruthie and Grampa Sol’s apartment.  It was Sunday and I always went to Gramma and Grampa on Sunday.  Daddy let me run down the hall all by myself and ring the doorbell.  I could ring the doorbell if I stood on my tippy toes.  When the door opened, I told Daddy that Gramma and Grampa were only for me, so he waved and went back to the elevator.

“I’ll pick you up when it gets dark,” he said.

“No, you won’t either.  I’m staying here forever.  I’m moving here,” I said.  Daddy smiled.

When Grampa opened the door, he was on his knees. His nose and mine touched and we wiggled them together.  He put his pointer finger up to his mouth and then put it up to my mouth.  “Shhahh,” he whispered.  Grampa had never done that before.  Well, maybe once when we took a walk and he told me to stop singing the “Internationale” outsde where people could hear me.

Gramma and Grampa’s apartment is small.  I know because I counted the rooms.  There is a “foyer”; that’s the little room when you first come in.  The foyer is empty except for my cot and a picture of Russian hunters riding their horses and carrying guns and bows and arrows.  Or maybe they’re spears but I like bows and arrows better, and Gramma says I can call them whatever I want.  The Russian hunters are wearing big red coats.  And blue and black and brown coats, too.  The Russian hunters have big fur hats that make them look like fuzzy Q-tips.  Their guns are long, but the arrows are skinnier, and you can shoot skinny arrows very far.  Arrows make a whizzing noise, too.  I know because I saw it on Robin Hood.  The Russian hunters shoot deer and bears and big fat pigs.

Sometimes when I look at the Russian hunters, I think they could jump out of the picture and hunt for animals, right here where Gramma and Grampa live, except we don’t have any deer.  At least, I haven’t seen any yet.  Have you?  But if you see any Russian bears in Brooklyn, pinky-promise me you’ll tell.

“Grampa, are the Russian hunters Cossacks?”

He said “Nuh, deh Cozzax vuhrunt deh hunterz; deh vuhrr more like deh poleez.  Zumtimes deh came for people det deh udder people din’t vant ‘round.  In deh picture diss iz hunterz.”

I think I looked scared, because Grampa said, “Moy mal’chik,” (that means “my little boy”), you dunt need doobee scared of deh hunterz.  Ant deh Zarr isn’t anymore, zo he can’t hurt you.”

“What about that man who’s a thief named “Stealin’.”

Grampa said, “You mean Stalin.”  I nodded.  “Deh zemeteries are not so full dey couldn’t make room for Josef Stalin.  He can’t hurt you in America, either.”

I stood in the foyer very quiet and waited for Grampa to tell me what to do.  He whispered in my ear, “Only talk out loud about your birthday.”

I whispered back, “But Grampa, I already had my birthday!?”

He said, “Veel pretend iz your birthday again.”

I could tell he was worried because he looked at the big black telephone on the little table and made a face like he does when his tummy hurts him.  Then he looked at the light near the ceiling but didn’t say anything.

Gramma said we should go down to the candy store and get a malted for my birthday except it wasn’t my birthday except I love malteds, so pretending was a pretty good idea.

“But Gramma, isn’t that like lying?”

“Let’s say we’re pretending instead.  It’s not a problem under the circumstances.”

I don’t know what “circumstances” is, but if Gramma says something is OK, it must be OK.   We walked to the Waldbaum’s near Nostrand Avenue so I could get a pickle from the pickle barrel.  They wrap them in wax paper which is silly, because wax paper is slippery, and pickles are wet.  I ate my pickle and Gramma and Grampa, and I walked to the park.

Grampa found a bench away from other people and we sat there all by ourselves.  I like being all by myself with my Gramma and Grampa.  Only the pigeons could hear us.

“You vant to know vye vee vhispered and went for a walk?”  I shook my head yes.  “So, I’ll tell you.  Moy mal’chik, remember when we showed you where poor people live, and you asked why they lived so crowded?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Grampa raised his pointer finger up and tilted his head and raised one eyebrow.

I corrected my English.  “Yes.  I do.”  Grampa smiled.

“And remember we showed you where rich people live and their big houses?”

“Yes, I do.”  Grampa smiled again.  When Grampa smiles, he always looks like he’s keeping a little laugh just inside his cheek where you can’t see it, but I know it’s there.  “You told me that there are a lot of rich people who get more rich than they need, and they get more rich by not paying their workers enough money.”   Grampa waited for me to think about this.  “So, the rich get more rich than they need because they don’t pay their workers enough and that keeps poor people poor?”

Grampa said, “Do you remember saying that most of the poor people have brown skin, and in the rich neighborhood everyone has white-and-pink skin.”

Gramma butted in.  Sometimes she had to do that because Grampa liked to talk a lot.  Gramma says sometimes he forgets that she knows how to talk, too.  “Moy mal’chik,”–I’m her mal’chik too– “Grampa and I go to meetings to try to find a way to help poor people.  And the government doesn’t like that we do that.”

Why wouldn’t the government like Grampa and Gramma?  Everybody should like Grampa and Gramma.  There’s nobody in the whole world as wonderful as my Gramma and Grampa.  “But what’s wrong with trying to help poor people and people with dark brown skin?  I thought we’re always supposed to help people.”

Gramma said, “I think the government gets all smushchennyy.”  That means “confused.”  “The government thinks we like Russia better than America.”

“But that’s not true, Gramma!”

“Of course, it’s not.  Russia is a terrible place.  They were supposed to help poor people but the poor people in Russia just got poorer.  America is a better place.  That’s why we came here.  But Grampa and I and other people at the meetings think that America could be more better than just better and we want to make it more better by teaching people about rich and poor and about brown and white.”

“But Gramma, you’re not hurting anybody.  Why is the government scared of you and Grampa?”

“Darling,” Gramma said, and she touched my cheek.   “Sometimes the government don’t make so much sense.”

Grampa smiled and said, “Now veel go home, and I’ll show you vye vee have to vhisper,” and he took my hand.  I love Grampa’s hands because they’re big and squishy when I hug them tight.

When we got home, Grampa put his pointer finger up to his mouth again.  It was a secret code so I would know to whisper.  He said very softly, “Moy mal’chik, here is a lesson in looking.  Use your eyes and show me something new in the foyer.  Just point.”

I scrunched up my eyes to see better, just like Grampa does when he’s reading the paper, it’s called the Daily Worker.  I found a small brown box with skinny wires coming out of it.  One wire went up into the ceiling light and another wire went to the bottom of the big black telephone.  The wires were so skinny they were hard to see.  At the end of the wires were “my-crow-fones” is what Grampa called them.  They were little black boxes with teeny-weeny holes poked all over them.  “They’re listening to us,” Grampa whispered.  “They still think we don’t love America.”

“But Grampa…who’s listening.”

“Shhah.  Vhisper.”

Grampa told me that someone called the Fibby was listening.  He didn’t want me to know that Fibby was its real name, so he spelled it.  F.B.I., but I figured it out and I didn’t even need my Captain Video special decoder ring.  But I still couldn’t figure out what the Fibby was going to do when it listened to Gramma and Grampa.

Gramma was standing by the apartment door, listening.  She heard a little noise on the other side.  She said that the Fibby told the neighbors to listen to Gramma and Grampa and to take notes.  Gramma opened the door fast and the neighbors Jean and Benny were there.  They tried to hide it, but I saw a little writing pad and a pencil in Benny’s hand.  He quickly put it into his jacket pocket.  I don’t like Jean and Benny.  I think they are phonies.  They only pretend to be nice, and I never like it when they touch my head.  I think they’re creepy.  Gramma says I have a good way of knowing.

Gramma pretended to be nice to Jean and Benny and asked them if they would like to come in.  I think she knew they would say “no”, and they did.  Gramma closed the door, and she had her special smile, the one she only has when she’s happy about something she does, but she doesn’t want to say so.  I love my Gramma so much; I get filled up like a balloon.

Then Gramma’s eyes got little stars in them because they twinkled.  Her eyes are soft and grey as a kitten, and I love kittens.

“Darling, shhh, let me show you something.  Watch carefully, and shah.”

She picked up the telephone and turned it over and there was the microphone, just like I told you.  Gramma whispered in my ear.  “I made it not work.  See?  I put nail polish on it.”  She laughed very softly.  Grampa was watching, and he looked proud.

When it got warm outside and there was summer, we all went to the bungalow colony and there were no microphones and no snoopy neighbors, because everything at the bungalow colony was nice.  I was happy in the beginning because it was good-hot but not too-hot and the sun was crispy clean.  But then the sun got soggy, and I knew that summer wasn’t going to be forever.  We would all have to go home where the Fibby was and the microphones, and the phony snoopy neighbors Jean and Benny who I don’t like and I never will.

The Russian hunters were still there in the painting on Gramma and Grampa’s foyer wall.  Their coats were still red and blue and black and brown, and they still had their guns and their bows and arrows, but they looked creepier now.  I was sure they were Cossacks and what Gramma calls “up to no good.”  This time, I tried not to look at the Cossacks.

And then, that Something happened.  A few weeks after my sixth birthday, Grampa got sick.  It was something about his stomach.  I wasn’t surprised because he would sometimes hold his tummy and a make a little noise and then chew a white pill to make it better.  He said his heart was burning.  This time, the white pills didn’t help, and Grampa  had to go to the hospital.

Gramma and Mommy and Daddy, all told me that Grampa needed an operation on his stomach so the doctors could go inside and fix it.  Gramma said that the doctor was someone she never saw before.  Daddy said everything would be all right because doctors were special and knew how to do operations.  Gramma looked like she wasn’t so sure.  She said that she saw men watching Grampa and her when they went into the hospital.  Daddy looked a little worried, but he told Gramma that everything was going to be fine.  I don’t think he believed himself.

The hospital didn’t let me see Grampa while he was in the hospital.  They said, “no kids allowed,”, so Daddy and Mommy and I stood on the corner across the street and waved to Grampa.  He was at the window in his room, and he waved back.  I cried.  If I could have gone to him, I would have squeezed his hand so squishy-tight that it would have made him feel better because mal’chiks have special powers.

Grampa never came home and that’s when I learned the word “died.”  He wasn’t supposed to die.  But he did.  Gramma and Daddy told me he died because the doctor made a mistake when he was operating.  Gramma and Daddy cried a lot and that scared me.  I walked around Gramma and Grampa’s apartment over and over.  The furniture was still there.  The microphones were still there.  The Russian hunters were still there.  But Grampa was gone.  Gramma told me that dying is forever.  I asked her if I would ever see Grampa again and she said no, but that his spirit would be in the sky and would always watch over me.

I looked out the door to see if creepy Jean and Benny were listening.  My chest hurt when I saw pictures of Grampa, so I turned those pictures of him down.  I didn’t want Grampa to see my heart burning.

I told Daddy and Gramma that we should go to the hospital and find that doctor who made the mistake.  Daddy said that Gramma had called the hospital and the doctor didn’t work there anymore.  I think that doctor was a Cossack and Cossacks were part of the Fibby.  I think that doctor was in the picture in Gramma and Grampa’s foyer, and he jumped out and went to the hospital and hurt my Grampa.  He hurt my Grampa so bad that he made Grampa dead.

I told Gramma, “I want to get that doctor; I want to make a mistake on him so he can die too.  I’m going to get that Fibby.  I’ll bring my Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters and go where the Fibby is.  I’m going to get them.  They’ll see.  I’m going to get them, I’m going to get them, I’m going to get them.”

Gramma held her pointer finger up to her mouth again, but I yelled, “No!  I’m going to become a Cossack.  I’m going to become a Cossack and wear a red coat and a big fur hat and carry both a gun and a bow-and-arrows.  I’m going to go where the Fibby lives and I’m going to hunt them down.”

Gramma listened and said, “Shhah, darling.  Please.  Whisper.”

“But Gramma, you said the microphones don’t work anymore.”

Gramma looked around and said, “Shhah, moy mal’chik.  You’re young yet.  Whisper.  And wait… and keep whispering.”

 

Marc Nemiroff is a clinical psychology in the Washington DC Metro area specializing in children and families. Nemiroff is also the co-author of eight children’s books (published by American Psychological Association) and also the co-author of graduate level text on group therapy with early adolescents on the Autism Spectrum. Has has taught at the Washington School of Psychiatry, and supervised as clinical faculty at George Washington University. 

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