I was a child, maybe six years old. My brother was there as well, eight years old, my little sister and my mother, silent, statuesque, graceful. I was walking through a wood decorated with red berries and frost embedded in an edgy green backdrop. I was on my own, moving ahead. I could sense that we would not be alone for much longer; the four of us.
After a few moments, I reassembled with my family and we walked out of the forest, on a path, frosty, brown, towards a large clearing, away from our car which was in the other direction. I don’t know why we were headed that way.
Suddenly, behind us dozens of cars recruited blocking the path back into the woods, where our car was waiting for us, and even more people jumped out of the cars with an energy that made me silent and careful. They gesticulated like untamed beasts, their arms ranging widely, their bodies needed space to express themselves. Women, men, shoving heads onto heads, rubbing their foreheads against one another and I could feel that we could not walk in their direction. Not in this constellation. It would be too easy. My mother’s breathing changed as she turned her head and shortly glanced at our unnatural surroundings, how the entire end of the clearing was stomped on by masses of people that belonged together and purposefully united for a cause unknown.
I didn’t dare to speak to my mother, interrupt her thoughts, I could sense that she was brooding, her breathing was irrational and I was too scared to ask her what we should do. My little sister looked at me and nothing stirred; I held her hand. And then, my mother’s face distorted, disturbed, invisibly outraged: my brother was being harassed by one of them, an adolescent, maybe sixteen, eighteen years old. My mother suppressed the gesture of her hand covering her mouth and adopted a glacial demeanour, grabbing both my sister and me, shoving us together.
My brother was walking backward, faced with this young man, brutal, small yet vigilant and threatening, loaded with a destructive energy, a lust to induce fear, to see on this little boy’s face the effect of his terrifying mannerisms. He might have been drunk, might have been drugged, but he could walk, function, exacting his movements toward my brother, holding out his hands and arms, playing with his voice and his tongue. My brother tried evading him, but he followed him and copied every gesture until he started addressing my brother who was gasping for air: “Where did you put my gun?”
He cut my brother’s body off as he went left, as he turned right, as he ducked. My brother didn’t know what to answer. He had no idea what he was talking about, what he wanted. My mother was assessing the situation, bearing the lot in mind, all those crowds behind us, he was one of them, my mother needed to be strategic. “Why did you take my gun?” My brother was at a loss for words, desperate, rummaging through his brain for the right answer. He started to look at my mother, his eyes screaming for help, he didn’t know what to say. The man became louder, more hectic, erratic, his breath became louder, his body unrulier, he barked and barked “Where are you hiding my gun?”.
At one point, the young man’s body was accelerated by my brother’s muteness and ran into him so that he fell in front of my mother’s feet and the man noticed our presence for the first time.
My mother acted. She picked my brother off the floor, dusted off his trousers and shoved our bodies together, ducked, squatting, heads down, together, holding each other, breathing, looking down, huddling, having each other’s backs. After the circle had been formed she positioned herself in front of us and spread her arms above us as widely as she could. She erected her body and became a giant shadow.
The young man snorted, he was done talking and enquiring. He turned toward my mother, with his deformed walk, and assumed a boxing position. His knees bent, arms bent, face squinting, mouth distorted, and hit my mother in the face, walking one step, two step, on one foot, the other foot, my mother did not move an inch. It was a slap. My mother composed her face. Immediately. Irrevocably.
And he moved, his quest intensified, challenged, he rose, and ducked, my mother was motionless, he pretended that her hands were fists too. He licked his lips. Another slap. Then one, two, punch under her chin. My mother bit her tongue. She kept breathing rhythmically, closing her eyes, opening them, assessing.
Another punch, faster, consecutive, another one, on the left side of the jaw, then the right side, step, step, he put his whole body into it, he exhausted himself and she hardened her features. Her stoicism enraged him and his thrusts became harder, intentional, damaging. One-two punch.
One step, two-step, he landed a punch on her cheek, her forehead, her ear, her lip and he howled diabolically, exhilarated, on fire. Blood ran down my mother’s chin and we knew, as a collected, united body, that we could not move, that we were a part of her and she did not falter. She was our protector, she had examined the situation and so we trusted her and refused to move, and kept listening to the horrifying numb sounds his fists made on my mother’s face, the cracked bones, teeth, the pounded flesh, my mother’s substance. My stomach burned. For her.
My brother was crying into the muffled air of our circle hearing my mother’s courage, my sister thought we were in a game and looked at me. I shut my eyes tightly, pressing my lips upon each other.
He became bored with my mother’s passivity, annoyed even, at her resistance, as if he didn’t exist, as if he were of no consequence to her. So he turned around, stood erect, and with a swift yet precise move, he landed his final punch, his determined fist, on my mother’s nose and her dress was flooded with her blood, her nose broken, I heard the sound of it, my mother’s lips had never been redder. He disappeared, content, accomplished, unsatisfied, on the hunt, without remorse, memory or acknowledgement.
When he was out of sight, we loosened our circle, stood up, held my mother’s hand, my brother right, my sister left and I walked with her, we formed a tight row.
Something changed in my mother’s appearance, attire, her posture and movement. She was fast, determined, invincible and unstoppable. Our hands were glued to the power within her body. And we walked toward the crowd who became attentive to us, especially my mother’s energy and face, and we did not acknowledge their presence, we became an insurmountable mammoth.
Eyes straight ahead, bodies straight ahead, never deviating. People started to evacuate the path as we approached the route with our car in sight. I understood what she had done, what she had accomplished. She had guaranteed us all passage. She had paid for it. She had earned the face to march out of here with us. She understood what she had to endure, the lesser evil, quietly, what she had to look like, how she needed to be branded, how to become untouchable in confrontation with that crowd.
Then my mother’s shoe fell off her foot. She didn’t even realise it, still walking, overtowering everybody who gazed at her in unexpected confusion. The air had been clear, the elements in our favour. But my sister, for an instant, looked at my mother’s foot, still not realising the situation, broke the spell, and screeched “Mommy, your shoe, you lost it!”. And she turned around, walked backward, the crowd eyeing her, and ran toward the lost shoe to pick it up and bring it back and put it back on my mother’s foot as she gasped in terror.
“Gram” by Oskar Zwintscher (1870-1916)