Ever since I can remember, I have felt a need not to show my feelings in front of others, to hide them somewhere where no one will be able to see them, presenting a different mood, like the painter who puts a new layer of paint over the paint he hastily applied before, like the light of the stars that changes until it has reached this planet. While Miriam was still in the room, I watched everything that happened with great composure, almost indifference. But when she ran out of the room, I rushed to mother shivering, leaning my head on her bosom to be sure that she was still breathing. I believed that her life would be prolonged if I was there to hear her breathing. What I heard was a strange sound, something like a slow erosion, like a quiet and irreversible passing away. All of a sudden, something moved vigorously in her dying body. I could hear a sound mounting inside her, a sound that came from my mother’s chest, a sound that instilled both fear and hope in me, a sound that was so strong and whose strength came from a mixture of the annunciation of death and the need to continue living. At that moment I believe I heard mother whispering my name. I will never know whether I really heard those two syllables or I only wished I had heard them. I only know that I lifted my head and saw that the lips of mother were blue and contorted, whereas her eyes were making an attempt to open. Her right hand made a barely perceptible movement, or at least it appeared to me to do so, a movement with which she tried to hold me and move me away at the same time. Then the strange sound in her chest grew very strong, turning into a cough that seemed to remain within rather than coming out, as she could barely open her blue lips. Her eyes opened slightly and her look, which was discernible under her dark eyelids, made me shudder from head to toe. I no longer recognized that look, it was completely alien to me, and the fear it caused inside me was even greater: it was obvious from mother’s pupils that I was also alien to her: she could not recognize me either. As her blue lips began to open due to her cough, I thought that the body lying on this bed was not the body of my mother, that the dark face, the mute lips and the hostile look could not be hers. With the cough, blood came from the mouth of the body lying on the bed and flowed onto her chest. I was watching the blood that was in sharp contrast to mother’s paleness, as if a piece of her soul had remained in the red fluid. I reached towards her chest, took a drop of blood between my thumb and index finger and brought it close to my face, looking at the drop (the drop that seemed to pulsate between my thumb and index finger) as if it were the last thing in which I could see mother. At that moment I felt something cold clenching my arm. But I did not look at where I felt the grip, I looked instead in the mirror. There my eyes met the dead eyes of mother: they gazed into the mirror and from there they gazed into me. I remembered my mother’s words, that the mirror could charm me and swallow me up. Hence I turned my eyes away from the mirror and looked at the drop of blood between my fingers, the last thing that bore witness to mother’s life. Then I looked at her, at her dead, half-open eyes, gazing into the mirror, and I became aware again of the cold grip on my arm. I looked at my wrist — the dead fingers of mother were clenched there. Suddenly my fear turned into a scream, a scream that burst out loudly and penetratingly, an intense red scream that grew darker and darker, as my eyes moved along the triangle created by my mother’s eyes, the fingers that powerfully clenched my wrist, and the drop of blood between my fingers. In the scream that grew darker and darker there seemed to be something that was tearing apart deep inside me, moving away from me, but I was not aware what it was. Only the colour of my scream, which was turning black as it began to die out, told me that I was losing something permanently and that the lifeless body that was gripping me so firmly was only a part of that loss.
By the time Miriam, Rebecca and father came running into the house, my scream had already died out. My voice now seemed so feeble that I could say neither “yes” nor “no.” Miriam and Rebecca began crying seeing mother’s body, and father tried to remove the dead fingers of mother from my wrist, shouting that I was turning blue, that I was breathing heavily and that there was no blood in my hand. He asked me to say something while he tried to release me from mother’s grip, but her fingers were clenched too tightly around my wrist. Just as I began to wish that I stayed tied to her forever, that this remained an eternal bond — so that the loss would then only be partial — I saw father spreading mother’s fingers enough for my hand to be pulled free. After that I ran to the corner in the room, curled up and involuntarily fell asleep.
I did not go to mother’s funeral. I did not see her body put in a coffin, nor did I see her coffin put into a boat on the canal. I did not see her body being carried to the Jewish cemetery, and I did not see her buried in the ground. When I woke up two days later, my thumb and index finger were still tightly clenched together. I moved them apart and I saw a dry red speck. I put the speck in a handkerchief which I later always carried with me. It was this red speck that broke up the circle of my endless existence, turning my life into a line segment with a beginning and end. I noticed through the window that father had cut down the carob trees in front of our house. Forgetful for a moment that mother was dead, I thought that, since the trees were no longer there, she would never pick carob blossom and make us carob tea in winter again. After that, every winter, as early as the first days of November, I would begin breathing quickly and heavily, like when something is taken away from you, like when you have irreversibly lost something. Only a little bit of mother remained in my memory: her hand giving me food, her figure reaching through the open window for the carob branches to pick their blossom, her foot stepping on and knocking over the little bowl of milk left at the door for the cat. I forgot how she used to sing sections of the Torah to me, I forgot how she used to explain the meaning of words to me, how she told me about the difference between a dream, imagination and reality, I forgot how she told me that the mirror could charm me, I forgot how she was dying. All this did not occur consciously or deliberately; I forgot everything during those two days of sleep. Everything had been erased from my memory and was all lost until shortly before my death, like the way you lose a heavy stone in a badly sewn pocket. After mother died, I no longer had any dreams. I would begin remembering my dreams again only when my death was drawing near.
Miriam and Rebecca cried all the time that winter after mother died. It was enough for them to open a drawer and just see a mother’s handkerchief (once a jar of rose preserves slipped from Rebecca’s hands, breaking on the floor), and both would burst into tears. Sometimes I could not stay in the same room as them, since I had visions of mother picking carob blossom, giving me food or knocking over the bowl of milk. I had to get away and run, crossing the bridges over the canals of Amsterdam. I came to despise tears: I would never again shed a tear in my life. In the evenings I was unable to fall asleep. I used to stay up late watching father who played chess with himself, or I invented stories and retold them to myself quietly so that no one would hear me. When I really wanted to sleep, I had to lie down and press the pillow firmly over my face so that the throb of my blood in my head sounded like the steps of sleep coming towards me.
I spent most of the time looking through the window or looking at myself in the mirror. I was no longer afraid that the mirror might charm me and that I would remain imprisoned there: I had forgotten what mother had said to me. When there was no one in the large room on the ground floor, I stood in front of the smooth surface, looking at my face. I was no longer confused about there being another me there, nor did I laugh in front of the mirror any more. I looked at the expression on my face — that quiet sorrow articulated in the trembling which became noticeable only after long and careful observation, a trembling that began imperceptibly near my chin, continued along the sides of my lips, mildly inclining downwards, and ending at my eyebrows. Under my eyebrows, the only undisturbed part of my face, were my eyes, but their calm, which stretched from the iris to the pupil and then seemed to continue deep inside them, further reinforced the impression of sorrow that was reflected in my face.
I developed a love of corners; they attracted me greatly. With unusual tenderness I would touch a book’s corners. The corners of new rooms I went into fascinated me, arousing an inexplicable curiosity in me. I would go to one of the corners, and it seemed to me that there I was alone and that no one could hurt me or do me any harm. The next autumn after mother’s death, I started going to school, and while the other children jostled to sit in the front benches, I dragged myself to one of the classroom’s corners. Later everybody noticed that wherever we went, I always wanted to be near the place where three lines met: in the synagogue’s garden, in the schoolyard, everywhere. That is why, although I was recorded in the school books as Baruch, everyone called me Corner. When I looked through the window, I did not look through the window, but through the window’s corners: I wanted to see that section of the external world framed by the window’s corners. I no longer watched clouds moving across the sky, but clouds approaching one of the corners of the upper window pane and then disappearing behind it. I no longer watched water flowing in the canal in front of our house, I watched how the canal was cut by the lower right-hand corner of the window.
My days in the Talmud Torah school were filled with a strange anguish. Everything was all right as long as the rabbis instructed us how to pray, as long as they explained the interpretations of the Torah and we translated texts. My anguish began at the instant the classes ended. I felt myself to be different from the rest of the children, and the children felt the same. They certainly could not see that I myself felt to be different, but they sensed I was different from them. In that difference, in my inability to talk to them as they talked to each other, they seemed to find a kind of inherent sin, something they chose to punish with contempt and hatred. Hence, immediately after the classes ended, at eleven o’clock sharp, I ran home, and came back to the school at two, only a minute before the afternoon classes began. Even during that one minute I felt extremely uncomfortable, I could feel them watching me, though I always stared at the corners of the table in front of me. At the same time, I could hear their voices very clearly, including the words of scorn they shouted at me, forcing me to make imperceptible movements towards the corner of the room. It was impossible to go any further, I was virtually squeezed against the wall. The funniest thing of all for the children was when I sometimes took out my handkerchief, moved it between the fingers of one hand and the fingers of the other, and then put it back in my pocket again. Then they used to nudge each other, stare at me and make fun of me, taking care not to be noticed by the teachers. One day, when the classes were over, some of the children from my form gathered in a group. Two of them took hold of me, a third took the handkerchief out of my pocket, and the rest started laughing loudly. Then they would throw the handkerchief to each other, darting away from me as I tried to grab it from them. Finally, when they reached the bridge across the canal in front of the school, Joseph stretched out his hand holding my handkerchief over the canal. I tried to snatch it, on the verge of tears from the pain of it, but he pushed me away, took one step further and opened his hand. I extended my arm as far as I could to catch the handkerchief but it was too late. While I watched it falling into the canal, I thought that a part of mother’s soul concentrated in that speck of blood on the white tissue was merging with the water.
Translated by: Filip Korženski