It’s the immi­grant expe­ri­ence that is the lifeblood of Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ing,” observed the Toron­to-based writer and film­mak­er David Bez­mozgis a few years ago. An alert, com­pas­sion­ate immi­grant son and grand­son — his fam­i­ly migrat­ed to Cana­da from Latvia in the late 1970s — Bez­mozgis con­tin­ues to refash­ion the core themes of immi­grant fic­tion in fresh and orig­i­nal ways. In a series of high­ly regard­ed, prize-win­ning books pub­lished over the past fif­teen years — begin­ning with Natasha and Oth­er Sto­ries (2004), and fol­lowed by The Free World (2011) and The Betray­ers (2014) — Bez­mozgis has explored the impact of arrival on immi­grant fam­i­lies and the psy­cho­log­i­cal strains of adjust­ing to a new soci­ety. In flight from a men­ac­ing old world (as in the inhos­pitable For­mer Sovi­et Union), Bezmozgis’s immi­grants seek a place of dig­ni­ty — a space where, final­ly, after inter­nal and exter­nal wan­der­ing, they can be at rest. In Bezmozgis’s fic­tion, the past tends to rup­ture into the present, dis­lodg­ing char­ac­ters who remain haunt­ed in a new world — haunt­ed by nos­tal­gia for an imag­ined hap­pi­er, ear­li­er life, by the anomie that marks new world drift, by buried fam­i­ly secrets.

The author’s new col­lec­tion, Immi­grant City, deep­ens his explo­ration of Jew­ish dias­poric themes of dis­place­ment and move­ment, mem­o­ry and nos­tal­gia. In the fol­low­ing sto­ry, Lit­tle Roost­er,” the nar­ra­tor dis­cov­ers that there were aspects of his wor­shiped grandfather’s life of which he was entire­ly unaware: It was dawn­ing on me that I’d under­es­ti­mat­ed and under-imag­ined him.” It is the grandson’s oblig­a­tion to remem­ber the dead through the art of imag­in­ing — a way of keep­ing faith with the past, and thus a means of gain­ing a sense of bal­ance in the present. How­ev­er, the dream of achiev­ing bal­ance, of feel­ing at home, remains fraught. — Don­ald Weber

Ten years after my grand­fa­ther died, I found myself sort­ing through a shal­low plas­tic bin that held the accu­mu­lat­ed doc­u­men­ta­tion of his life. My moth­er had labelled it in Russ­ian: Moth­er and Father.” When she down­sized from a house to a con­do­mini­um, the bin migrat­ed to me. It is hum­bling to con­sid­er that, to all extents and pur­pos­es, a human life can be con­tained inside a shal­low plas­tic bin. It is even more hum­bling to con­sid­er that it can be con­tained in less than a shal­low plas­tic bin. My grand­fa­ther had been a thrifty, patient and metic­u­lous per­son who didn’t like to throw any­thing away. Besides, who knew when some rel­e­vant author­i­ty might demand a full account­ing? Sen­ti­ment had stayed my mother’s hand but I intend­ed to be ruth­less. One old Israeli bus pass is poet­ic; one hun­dred are oppressive.

My grand­fa­ther was born in a small Lat­vian town dur­ing World War I. His first lan­guages were Yid­dish and Lat­vian. Tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish school­ing and an inter­est in Zion­ism con­tributed func­tion­al Hebrew. He also had some Russ­ian, which he was lat­er oblig­ed to cul­ti­vate as a sol­dier in the Red Army and over four decades as a Sovi­et cit­i­zen. Though he spent the last twen­ty years of his life in Cana­da, he nev­er learned Eng­lish. Of the things worth keep­ing in the bin were var­i­ous pho­tographs, pass­ports, nota­rized Eng­lish trans­la­tions of birth cer­tifi­cates, a mar­riage licence, the offi­cial acknowl­edge­ment of my grandfather’s front-line ser­vice dur­ing World War II, a clin­i­cal descrip­tion of the wounds he sus­tained and the con­se­quent ben­e­fits afford­ed him by the Sovi­et state. There were two sets of claim forms for wartime repa­ra­tions — a legit­i­mate one to the Ger­mans for their crimes, and a spu­ri­ous one to the Swiss for their laun­der­ing of loot­ed assets” item­ized as:

Two hous­es, fur­ni­ture, dish­es, jew­ellery $100,000 US (approx.)

Store with leather shoes, leather fur­ni­ture $300,000 US

There were also numer­ous let­ters writ­ten in Russ­ian and in Yid­dish. My Russ­ian wasn’t good enough to deci­pher the cur­sive script, but mil­lions of Russ­ian-speak­ers — includ­ing my moth­er — could do it. The Yid­dish was anoth­er matter.

Once the ver­nac­u­lar, it was now the pre­serve of aca­d­e­mics. I knew one, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, who was writ­ing a mono­graph on het­ero­nor­ma­tive bias in Gali­cian graffiti.

I made an appoint­ment and brought the let­ters to her office. Some were from my grand­par­ents’ friends, reset­tled in Düs­sel­dorf; oth­ers, post­marked from Israel, were from my grandfather’s younger broth­er, Venyamin, affec­tion­ate­ly called Venya. I knew Venya only from sto­ries told to me by my moth­er and grand­fa­ther. I knew, for exam­ple, that when he was a boy, a horse had stepped on his head. He’d near­ly died. For the rest of his life, he bore a dent in his skull in the shape of a hoof. After the war he mar­ried a Jew­ish woman, reput­ed­ly unkind. They had two chil­dren. The first was a son, the spit­ting image of Venya. The sec­ond was a daugh­ter, excep­tion­al­ly beau­ti­ful, who strong­ly resem­bled a Lat­vian who’d lodged tem­porar­i­ly in their house. Lat­er, it emerged that Venya also had an ille­git­i­mate child, a blond girl, raised by her mater­nal grandparents.

Though unwill­ing her­self to do the work, the pro­fes­sor con­nect­ed me with one of her grad­u­ate stu­dents, a tat­tooed Nor­we­gian named Knut, who agreed to write a sum­ma­ry of each let­ter for a stan­dard­ized fee. He explained that this was a com­mon way for Yid­dish stu­dents to sup­ple­ment their stipends. A gen­er­a­tion of Jews appealed to them with their inher­it­ed glyphs. Most often the let­ters were banal, but 44 occa­sion­al­ly some­thing inter­est­ing, even scan­dalous, sur­faced. A secret in the secret lan­guage. Knut pre­ferred when this didn’t hap­pen. Peo­ple got upset and Knut suf­fered moral qualms about prof­it­ing from such dis­clo­sures. He’d con­sult­ed the Tal­mud for guid­ance, but to no avail. The sages diverged.

Two weeks after I turned over the let­ters, I met Knut at a pop­u­lar, as yet unboy­cotted, Israeli cof­fee fran­chise near cam­pus. Though he greet­ed me warm­ly, I detect­ed unease. He began with the innocu­ous Düs­sel­dorf cor­re­spon­dence, which con­cerned itself most­ly with the realms of health, edu­ca­tion and finance. Who was hale and who was ill. What afflic­tions had strick­en. Who, thank God, had pre­vailed and who, God for­bid, had suc­cumbed. Also, the inex­orable pas­sage of the bril­liant grand­chil­dren through the sta­tions of the school sys­tem. The admirable and incom­pre­hen­si­ble direc­tions they pur­sued in life. The exact dol­lar fig­ures of their salaries and the pur­chase prices of their homes. Venya’s let­ters most­ly con­formed to the same mod­el. It was only in his last four let­ters, sent in the six­month peri­od between my grandmother’s death and his own, that the sub­stance changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly. Faith­ful to our agree­ment, Knut had sum­ma­rized these as well, but he cau­tioned me to reflect before I took pos­ses­sion. He didn’t pre­tend to under­stand the impli­ca­tions of every­thing he’d read, but he believed the let­ters touched upon mat­ters of a del­i­cate nature. It was pos­si­ble, of course, that what he’d read in the let­ters was already com­mon knowl­edge to me and my fam­i­ly. And per­haps, even if it wasn’t, I might not be dis­turbed by what he’d uncov­ered. Peo­ple had dif­fer­ent sen­si­tiv­i­ties. How­ev­er, from the tone and con­text of the let­ters, Knut sus­pect­ed that they addressed some­thing con­fi­den­tial between my grand­fa­ther and his brother.

Though I was tempt­ed, I took Knut’s advice and resolved to reflect. One of life’s cru­ellest lessons is that a per­son can’t unknow some­thing. And there exists enough unavoid­able pain in the world that one would be a fool or a masochist to active­ly court more. My grand­fa­ther, whom I loved very much and whose essence was still some­times pal­pa­ble to me, was dead ten years. His broth­er, a man I didn’t recall ever meet­ing, was dead sev­en­teen. What did I stand to gain by scav­eng­ing through the past? The reflex­ive answer, of course, was that sacra­ment, the Truth. After all, it was just a cru­el stroke of his­to­ry — per­pe­trat­ed by the dread mus­tached vis­ages — that explained why I couldn’t read the let­ters myself. And would my grand­fa­ther have kept them— like so many Israeli bus pass­es — if he didn’t want them to be found? Per­haps the sin wasn’t of tres­pass but of lazi­ness and indif­fer­ence? How many vain and use­less things had I done while these let­ters lan­guished, hum­ming with mean­ing? And wasn’t there a priv­i­leged kind of know­ing avail­able to us only after our loved ones were gone? In oth­er words, I walked around the block and jus­ti­fied doing what I already want­ed to do.

Sum­ma­ry of let­ter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 6

March 1999

Venyamin asks after Berl’s well-being. He repeats his con­do­lences on the death (Jan­u­ary 1999) of Berl’s wife, Shay­na — a gen­er­ous heart, loved by all — but reminds Berl that the liv­ing must live. He asks if Berl has returned to the Lat­vian Cana­di­an Cul­tur­al Cen­tre and if he has been able to ver­i­fy that the woman he saw there was Lau­ma. He admon­ish­es Berl not to let the mat­ter drop. He con­cludes with affec­tion­ate wishes.

Sum­ma­ry of let­ter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 30 March 1999

Venyamin prais­es Berl for per­sist­ing re: Lau­ma. He remarks upon the mys­ter­ies of fate. He dis­miss­es Berl’s reser­va­tions and appre­hen­sions. (There is an uncon­tex­tu­al­ized allu­sion to home­made farmer’s cheese[?].) He insists Berl act deci­sive­ly and make con­tact with Lau­ma. He con­cludes with affec­tion­ate wishes.

Sum­ma­ry of let­ter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer, 9 May 1999

Venyamin con­grat­u­lates Berl on Vic­to­ry Day (Great Patri­ot­ic War). He reproach­es Berl for the pes­simistic atti­tude he dis­played dur­ing their tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion (date unspec­i­fied). He says he has slept poor­ly since the con­ver­sa­tion, wor­ried about Berl. He relates his attempts to book a flight to Toron­to. He cites his course of chemother­a­py and his doctor’s refusal to write a let­ter of per­mis­sion (to air­line). He crit­i­cizes his doc­tor, the Israeli health­care sys­tem and the air­line. He insists he feels well but is not naïve about his prospects. This explains his sense of urgency re: Lau­ma. He says she is the love of his life. He con­cludes with affec­tion­ate wishes.

Sum­ma­ry of let­ter from Venyamin Singer to Berl Singer,

3 July 1999

[NB: Hand­writ­ing illeg­i­ble in some places.] Venyamin asks after Berl’s well-being. He apol­o­gizes for his long silence. He expe­ri­enced com­pli­ca­tions from the surgery. He blames (a com­man­der?) for (the pills?). (Elec­tric­i­ty?) in his hand makes it hard for him to write. He con­firms that he received Berl’s last let­ter. He says (the sis­ters?) stole the pho­to­graph Berl sent of Lau­ma. He asks that Berl send anoth­er. He enclos­es a pho­to­graph of him­self tak­en in the (??) fortress. He also enclos­es a let­ter to Lau­ma. He asks Berl to relay it. He recalls a dif­fer­ent let­ter he asked Berl to deliv­er to her. He hopes Berl has (??) (vagi­na?) (this time?). He con­cludes with affec­tion­ate wishes.

I didn’t share with my moth­er what I’d learned from Knut. The sub­ject of my grand­par­ents’ deaths remained raw for her. She still drove to the ceme­tery near­ly every Sun­day to 48 vis­it their graves. If the trail of Venya’s let­ters led some­where unset­tling, I couldn’t see how that knowl­edge would do her any good. How­ev­er, under the pre­text of try­ing to make sense of dis­parate bits of my grandfather’s files, I asked her if she knew the name Lau­ma or if she’d ever been to the Lat­vian Cana­di­an Cul­tur­al Cen­tre. She didn’t rec­og­nize Lau­ma, but not long after my grandmother’s death, she had vis­it­ed the Lat­vian Cen­tre with my grand­fa­ther. The Lat­vian gov­ern­ment, hav­ing par­tial­ly crawled out of its post-Sovi­et hole, announced that it would offer pen­sions to eli­gi­ble expa­tri­ates. My grand­fa­ther qual­i­fied, and my moth­er took him to the Lat­vian Cen­tre to help process his appli­ca­tion. It was the only time she’d been there. Though she’d lived half her life in Latvia and now, by virtue of her age, was receiv­ing her own mod­est Lat­vian pen­sion, she found no rea­son to return. The Lat­vian she’d learned at school, she’d most­ly for­got­ten. Her lan­guage was Russ­ian. She was Jew­ish. And she was leery of eth­nic Lat­vian expa­tri­ates, most of whom had retreat­ed with the Ger­mans at the end of the war or descend­ed from peo­ple who had retreat­ed with the Ger­mans. What they had or had not done to Jews, or why they might have pre­ferred to retreat with the Ger­mans rather than be lib­er­at­ed” by the Sovi­ets, was too eso­teric a con­sid­er­a­tion. Sim­ply, she didn’t feel com­fort­able with them.

With­out a car, the trip from my grandfather’s apart­ment to the Lat­vian Cen­tre required three bus­es. It was hard for me to imag­ine my grand­fa­ther mak­ing such a trip on his own. I couldn’t recall him ven­tur­ing any­where by him­self. He sel­dom even went to the near­by super­mar­ket for gro­ceries; my moth­er and aunt han­dled the week­ly pur­chas­es for him — not because he was phys­i­cal­ly inca­pable but because his lack of Eng­lish made the task incon­ve­nient. If he had a doctor’s appoint­ment, some­one in the fam­i­ly drove him. The gro­cery store, the doctor’s office, a fam­i­ly gath­er­ing — did my grand­fa­ther go any­where else dur­ing the last decade of his life? His syn­a­gogue was on the ground floor of his build­ing. Maybe he went for a stroll in the park across the street or some­times attend­ed a dif­fer­ent syn­a­gogue a block or two from home, but I wasn’t even sure about that. To the extent that I thought about my grand­fa­ther when I wasn’t with him, I pic­tured him scrupu­lous­ly engaged in some mun­dane task in the cir­cum­scribed precinct of his one-bed­room apart­ment. I cer­tain­ly didn’t imag­ine him embark­ing on an hour-long, mul­ti-stage jour­ney to a dis­tant part of the city. But a spry and sur­pris­ing­ly attrac­tive nona­ge­nar­i­an Lat­vian woman con­firmed that he’d done it quite regularly.

She’d known him as Berls Singers, the Lat­vianate ver­sion of his name. I encoun­tered her at the entrance to the din­ing hall, seat­ed at a table, tick­ing off the names of the seniors who attend­ed a Thurs­day after­noon social club. As we spoke, the mem­bers of a folk choir fin­ished their rehearsal and descend­ed from a stage at the front of the hall. The singers were elder­ly Lat­vian men; their piano accom­pa­nist was an elder­ly woman. All had approached their efforts with vig­or­ous 50 and joy­less deter­mi­na­tion, as if at once proud and resent­ful at hav­ing to bear so dis­pro­por­tion­ate a cul­tur­al burden.

The woman was sur­prised to learn that I was Berls’s grand­son. In all the time he had fre­quent­ed the Lat­vian Cen­tre, she had thought him alone in the world. No fam­i­ly mem­ber had ever accom­pa­nied him or come to watch him per­form with the choir. He’d been cir­cum­spect, so she hadn’t pried. To live a long life was to accrue many joys but also many hurts and dis­ap­point­ments. She remem­bered my grand­fa­ther as a qui­et, mild-tem­pered man who pos­sessed a beau­ti­ful singing voice and a remark­able mem­o­ry for Lat­vian poems and songs.

As she spoke I sensed her sub­tly inspect­ing me. She asked my name, and to ingra­ti­ate myself I offered the Lat­vianate ver­sion, which sound­ed for­eign com­ing from my mouth. She inquired if I spoke Lat­vian and I con­ced­ed that I did not. She asked where I was born and was enthused to learn it was Riga. She, too, had been born there. A half-cen­tu­ry before me. She’d last seen it in 1944, when she’d fled with her par­ents. I vol­un­teered that I’d left with my par­ents in 1979. I’d imag­ined that from my grandfather’s name and phys­iog­no­my, she would have deduced he was a Jew, but her reac­tion led me to won­der. Maybe she’d known and for­got­ten? In any event, the lit­tle yel­low pilot light did not come on. We smiled at each oth­er as we each per­formed the sor­did cal­cu­la­tions. Innu­mer­able faces, voic­es and land­scapes swirled in the silence between us. Box­cars rolled to the east and west. A com­mis­sar and an SS offi­cer shout­ed orders in a hoarse voice. A crow land­ed on a corpse.

Despite what­ev­er the woman had deduced about my ori­gins, she invit­ed me to stay for lunch. The centre’s kitchen pre­pared tra­di­tion­al Lat­vian foods and offered them at a rea­son­able price, and was par­tic­u­lar­ly renowned for the baked goods. If I was curi­ous about the cen­tre, I could sit and talk to the oth­er din­ers. They would be hap­py for the com­pa­ny. I observed them at their tables — most chew­ing silent­ly or con­vers­ing in mut­ed tones — and tried to imag­ine my grand­fa­ther among them. The men of the choir were rigid, sil­ver-haired, peas­ant-faced. They wore suit jack­ets and nar­row ties after a Lat­vian folk pat­tern. When I’d seen my grand­fa­ther sur­round­ed by his con­tem­po­raries, wear­ing an ordi­nary tie, it was for the com­pli­men­ta­ry kid­dush after the ser­vice at his building’s syn­a­gogue. He’d be one of a dozen or so elder­ly Sovi­et Jews load­ing paper plates with her­ring, hon­ey cake and egg sal­ad, and allow­ing the more bois­ter­ous of the group to pour down-mar­ket whiskey into his Sty­ro­foam cup. In a room loud with jok­ing and grum­bling, my grand­fa­ther was usu­al­ly reserved. I’d always tak­en it as a func­tion of indi­vid­ual tem­pera­ment rather than a man­i­fes­ta­tion of nation­al char­ac­ter. But it was dawn­ing on me that I’d under­es­ti­mat­ed and under-imag­ined him.

With one ques­tion answered, I posed the other.

We have more than one Lau­ma,” the woman said, but I think I know who you mean.”

My grand­fa­ther would have known her.”

Lau­ma Gul­bis. In her day she walked on air. It was very sad how she end­ed. The more God gives in your youth, the more He takes in old age. Her daugh­ter is Agnes. She lives in her house.”

There was a court­yard in the Lat­vian Cen­tre with green patio tables. I took a seat to place my call to Agnes. Around me, para­le­gals drank cof­fee and smoked cig­a­rettes dur­ing a break in a sem­i­nar. There weren’t enough Lat­vians to cov­er the over­head, so the com­mu­ni­ty let space and offered cater­ing. I could tell that the para­le­gals were only neg­li­gi­bly aware of their sur­round­ings, as if to con­vey that life, already tax­ing, would be unten­able if one took heed of every abstruse thing dear to strangers.

They paid no atten­tion to me, either, sit­ting by myself, daunt­ed at the prospect of mak­ing a phone call. The ini­tial momen­tum that had pro­pelled me for­ward had stalled. It had been easy to come this far. Con­tact­ing my pro­fes­sor friend at U of T and Knut the Nor­we­gian had seemed like a game. Drop­ping in on the Lat­vian Cen­tre, like an adven­ture. But call­ing a woman out of the blue to pose inti­mate ques­tions about her dead moth­er seemed like only an unwel­come intru­sion. Then again, had I not passed the point of no return when thought became deed? And wasn’t the world already strewn with too many half-con­sum­mat­ed acts? I didn’t want to con­tribute another.I dialed the num­ber I’d been giv­en — a num­ber, I was told, that had been in oper­a­tion for fifty years — and heard a woman answer. I ascer­tained that she was Agnes and then tried, as suc­cinct­ly as pos­si­ble, to explain who I was. There was a drawn-out silence on her end when I asked if she knew Berl Singer, as though she wasn’t so much try­ing to place the name as decide whether or not to avow what she knew.

Is he still alive?” she asked.

No, he died ten years ago.”

Well, I’m sor­ry to hear that,” she said, and fell again into a tem­pered silence.

I filled the silence by telling her that I’d recent­ly dis­cov­ered a ref­er­ence to her moth­er in my grandfather’s doc­u­ments and was curi­ous to learn about her and the rela­tion­ship she’d had with him, since he had, for some rea­son, kept it a secret from his fam­i­ly. I’d hoped to deter­mine why.

I can’t answer that ques­tion for you,” Agnes said. He nev­er spoke of any fam­i­ly, so I had no rea­son to believe he was con­ceal­ing anything.”

What did he speak of ?”

The past. My moth­er was already not well when he encoun­tered her. Alzheimer’s. He rem­i­nisced with her about peo­ple they knew in their youth.”

I’d like to hear more about that,” I said.

You want me to recite con­ver­sa­tions from fif­teen years ago?”

I’m sor­ry if it sounds strange.”

Agnes fell silent once more, although this silence felt gen­tle, ruminative.

You couldn’t know, but you have called on my mother’s name day. So maybe it isn’t pure­ly acci­den­tal. I’m now in my kitchen bak­ing a cake in hon­our of the day and will cel­e­brate it with my daugh­ter, who is prac­ti­cal­ly the only per­son left with whom I can rem­i­nisce about my mother.”

Agnes’s house turned out to be not very far from my own, twen­ty min­utes by bicy­cle. I rode there in the late after­noon as we’d agreed, a bou­quet of red car­na­tions jounc­ing in the bas­ket before me. The neigh­bour­hood had once been Pol­ish and Hun­gar­i­an but was gen­tri­fy­ing like every oth­er in the city. Young pro­fes­sion­als with chil­dren and enig­mat­ic resources were erad­i­cat­ing the old hous­es and replac­ing them, often as not, with nar­row mod­ernist box­es, archi­tec­tur­al lex­i­con for Fuck off, old.” Any of the remain­ing orig­i­nal homes looked like poor rela­tions, stub­born­ly or hap­less­ly imped­ing progress. Agnes’s was one of these, flanked alter­nate­ly by a cube and a con­struc­tion site. As I rode up I saw a blond woman smok­ing a cig­a­rette in the shared lane between Agnes’s house and the cube. She eyed me sul­len­ly as I came to a stop, dropped her cig­a­rette on the pave­ment, ground it out with her boot and dis­ap­peared through a side door. Her terse revul­sion evoked the usu­al coun­ter­vail­ing response. I pre­sumed this was Agnes’s daugh­ter and imag­ined, against rea­son and prac­ti­cal­ly against my own will, the illic­it pos­si­bil­i­ties. The heart barks like a dog.

I walked my bicy­cle up the dri­ve­way, past a Japan­ese com­pact car, to the steps that led to the cov­ered porch, which was paint­ed a pale blue. To the right of the front door, set against the brick­work of the house, two patio chairs with striped blue cush­ions faced the street. To the left, a large ceram­ic pot blazed with pink gera­ni­ums. Before I reached the land­ing, Agnes was wait­ing at the thresh­old, regard­ing me in a flat, unsmil­ing, almost clin­i­cal way. She appeared to be in her six­ties and alto­geth­er rec­on­ciled to the fact. She wore no make­up, and her grey hair was gath­ered in a sim­ple pony­tail lev­el with her shoul­ders. She had on a cream-coloured sleeve­less blouse and roomy den­im shorts that fell just below her knees. On her feet were brown orthopaedic san­dals. The only adorn­ment she’d per­mit­ted her­self was a sil­ver neck­lace with an amber pen­dant and ear­rings to match, like an affir­ma­tion of Baltic her­itage. My moth­er owned sim­i­lar things.

Agnes direct­ed me to lock my bicy­cle to the balus­ters. As I knelt to secure the device, she watched me silent­ly. When I’d fin­ished with the awk­ward busi­ness, she remarked on my resem­blance to my grand­fa­ther. Now that I’d crossed into my for­ties, I’d not­ed the same thing about myself. Though, pecu­liar­ly, the resem­blance wasn’t just to him, but to all my male rel­a­tives in their more advanced years. It was as if some pri­mor­dial, Jew­ish oy-face had sur­faced with time, round­ing 56 and soft­en­ing fea­tures, imbu­ing a father­ly, grand­fa­ther­ly, even ances­tral lachry­mos­i­ty as from the head­wa­ters of the bib­li­cal patriarchs.

I look noth­ing like my moth­er,” Agnes said. The resem­blance skipped a gen­er­a­tion. Ruta, my daugh­ter, inher­it­ed my mother’s looks, but not much else.”

I removed the bou­quet from my bas­ket and fol­lowed her into the house. We walked through a dim foy­er — to the left, a stair­case led to the upper floor; to the right, an arch­way accessed the liv­ing room. Anoth­er arch­way sep­a­rat­ed the liv­ing room from the din­ing room. In oth­er words, the rooms were small and dark, closed off from one another.

Agnes ush­ered me into the kitchen, where a glass door offered a view of the back­yard. It was late Sep­tem­ber, and the leaves of the Nor­way maples cast a cop­per wash over every­thing. On the table Agnes had set out a ket­tle, teacups, plates, forks and three-quar­ters of a cake.

The cake I baked for my mother’s name day,” she said. We’re only two women; we could nev­er fin­ish it.”

She took the bou­quet of car­na­tions from my hand and motioned for me to sit at the table while she went to the sink. I watched her deft­ly free the flow­ers from the plas­tic wrap­ping, sep­a­rate out the blooms, count them and then snap one of the stems in half and deposit it in the trash.

I’m sor­ry,” I said. I thought the super­sti­tion against even-num­bered flow­ers was only Russian.”

Who knows who bor­rowed from whom,” Agnes said.

She trimmed the remain­ing stems, filled a vase from the tap and set them in water.

Framed on the kitchen walls were sev­er­al small ama­teur water­colours of region­al song­birds and a larg­er char­coal draw­ing of a cat. There were also pho­tographs: a posed por­trait of an elder­ly cou­ple — pre­sum­ably Agnes’s par­ents — tak­en on the occa­sion of some notable life event, and a more recent snap­shot of a young woman in bulky work­wear — a reflec­tive vest, green hard hat and pro­tec­tive gog­gles — stand­ing inside a mon­u­men­tal garage, dwarfed by the treads of a gigan­tic front-end loader. Though her fea­tures were obscured by the hard hat and gog­gles, it was obvi­ous­ly the woman I’d seen smok­ing outside.

Agnes brought the vase to the table, cut each of us a slice of cake and com­menced to pour tea. She not­ed my inter­est in the draw­ings and photographs.

My moth­er paint­ed the birds and drew the cat. The birds she did from pic­tures in books. The cat she did from mem­o­ry. It was her cat, Mitzi, from Latvia. When she and my father fled the Rus­sians, she brought the cat with her. All the way to Ger­many. Imag­ine that. For three years Mitzi lived with them in the DP camp, but she didn’t make it to Cana­da.” Very life­like,” I said.

My moth­er was very tal­ent­ed, very artis­tic. My father was also tal­ent­ed, espe­cial­ly with his hands. He kept a wood shop in the garage where he cre­at­ed beau­ti­ful things. Fig­ures. Sculp­tures. Also tra­di­tion­al Lat­vian musi­cal instru­ments. Maybe in anoth­er life they could have been rec­og­nized for 58 their gifts. But for peo­ple of their gen­er­a­tion, from sim­ple fam­i­lies, from small provin­cial towns, they had lim­it­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties. My father fin­ished the eighth grade; my moth­er the sixth. It’s amaz­ing they accom­plished all they did.” I felt the same about my grand­par­ents,” I said.

Come,” Agnes said, ris­ing. I’ll show you something.”

I fol­lowed her into the liv­ing room, where, hang­ing by braid­ed leather straps along a wall, in the shape of a V, were three trape­zoidal, dul­cimer-like instru­ments. Agnes took one down and pre­sent­ed it to me. It was made of pale wood — pine or birch — and was dec­o­ra­tive­ly carved in the Lat­vian style, the min­i­mal­ist sug­ges­tion of a sun for the res­o­nant cham­ber, and runic designs that resem­bled inter­sect­ing swastikas above the tun­ing pegs.

You can hold it,” she said.

It felt quite sol­id, heav­ier than I’d expect­ed it to be. What is it?” I asked.

A kok­le,” she replied, dis­ap­prov­ing of my igno­rance. You play it by rest­ing it on a table or on your lap. That is the Lat­galian kok­le. There is a Kurzeme kok­le, but it is small­er and has few­er strings. My par­ents were from Lat­galia, same as your grand­fa­ther, and so my father pre­ferred the Lat­galian kok­le. He made many of them. A few, like these, he kept. The rest he donat­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty. Not just in Toron­to, but across Cana­da and even the Unit­ed States. Chica­go, for instance. Also Texas.”

Did he play them?”

He made them; my moth­er played them,” Agnes said, look­ing wist­ful­ly at the instru­ment in my hands. She played also when your grand­fa­ther vis­it­ed. When she wasn’t capa­ble of doing much else, she could still play. She played and he sang. I think it was a great com­fort to her. Per­haps to him, too.”

I tried to imag­ine my grand­fa­ther in this room with the elder­ly Lau­ma — she with the kok­le on her lap, he sit­ting next to her singing Lat­vian songs. I sup­posed it was a touch­ing scene, but so much about what Agnes described didn’t add up. How exten­sive was the secret life he’d led? Not only was he mak­ing furtive trips by bus to the Lat­vian Cen­tre in one end of the city, but also trav­el­ling to Agnes’s house in anoth­er. He nev­er had a cell­phone, and my moth­er, aunt and uncle called him rou­tine­ly. If he didn’t answer, nodes of pan­ic would aggre­gate like birds on a roof and occa­sion­al­ly erupt in a spasm of flapping.

I asked Agnes, What did you know about my grandfather?”

Not very much. He told me he was a friend from Balti­na­va, from my mother’s youth. After my father died, I used to take my moth­er to the Lat­vian Cen­tre. Her mind was going and she was depressed and con­fused by my father’s death. At the Lat­vian Cen­tre, peo­ple knew her. They looked after her. I could leave her and run errands. One after­noon I came back and found her sit­ting at a table hold­ing hands with a strange man. Your grand­fa­ther. Then he start­ed com­ing to the house.”

By him­self ? He didn’t speak English.”

I gave him direc­tions in Latvian.”

Had your moth­er ever men­tioned him before?”

No, but she wasn’t one to talk much about her past.”

When the two of them spoke about the past, what did they speak of ?”

Do you know what it’s like to care for some­one with Alzheimer’s? If you can get a moment to your­self, you take it. He came here and they talked or sang. It gave me a chance to cook, to clean, to wash my hair. I didn’t sit over them and lis­ten to every word.”

I under­stand. But did you pos­si­bly hear them talk about his broth­er, Venyamin? Venya?”

Not that I recall.”

My grand­fa­ther nev­er deliv­ered a let­ter from him?”

A let­ter to my moth­er?” Agnes regard­ed me as if I were impaired. In her con­di­tion, what would she do with a letter?”

I under­stood that my line of inquiry would lead nowhere. Either my grand­fa­ther had been a mas­ter of con­ceal­ment, care­ful to divulge noth­ing to Agnes — as he had divulged noth­ing to us — or Agnes had been, and con­tin­ued to be, a par­ty to the sub­terfuge. Why that might be, I couldn’t com­pre­hend. I felt myself grip­ping the kok­le very tight­ly. That I still held it com­pound­ed my sense of frus­tra­tion and fool­ish­ness. I relaxed my grip and set the instru­ment on the sofa.

Agnes,” I said, can I ask you one more, pos­si­bly very stu­pid, question?”

Ask what­ev­er you like.”

The ques­tion was gra­tu­itous and indul­gent, but I per­sist­ed anyway.

I didn’t know that he was or was not a Jew,” she replied.

When we part­ed at the front door, Agnes regret­ted if I was dis­ap­point­ed with my vis­it and that she’d been unable to pro­vide me with the infor­ma­tion I’d sought. She had tried, in advance of my arrival, to locate a video she’d shot of her moth­er and my grand­fa­ther togeth­er — her moth­er play­ing the kok­le and my grand­fa­ther singing. But she’d been unable to find it. She pledged to try again and to call me once she did. I could return and we’d watch the video together.

It was dusk when I rode home to my wife and daugh­ters. Under the dark­en­ing canopy of trees, I flowed along res­i­den­tial streets as though indis­tin­guish­able from my thoughts.

What had I learned from Agnes? My grand­fa­ther had vis­it­ed Lau­ma at her home. They’d sung parochial songs and talked about things Agnes could not recount. When it was no longer advis­able, he’d stopped com­ing. That was the sum of what Agnes had giv­en me. And after Agnes, the trail went cold. There was nobody else who could shed light on what had moti­vat­ed my grand­fa­ther to keep vis­it­ing Lau­ma in her reduced state. She was a sick woman. It wasn’t as if they were engaged in some love affair. And even if they had been, what would have been the harm? She was a wid­ow; he was a wid­ow­er. Why choose to with­hold it from us? Unless 62 his inten­tion was to with­hold for the sake of with­hold­ing. To have some­thing alto­geth­er his own. A secret like a mus­cle built up for his own delec­ta­tion, which nobody else could see but which he could flex and feel. A sense of firm­ness in the core, when every­thing else was dete­ri­o­rat­ing. A small claim to auton­o­my or wild­ness in the face of neu­tral­iz­ing domes­tic­i­ty. Or was I ascrib­ing my own impuls­es to him? In life, I’d nev­er thought him capa­ble of rea­son­ing this way. But what did I know about the lim­its of his mind? Appar­ent­ly, not enough. And appar­ent­ly, that was how it would remain. I would have to resign myself to it.

At home I was drawn into the eddies of our evening rit­u­al. There were griev­ances to adju­di­cate and half-heart­ed pun­ish­ments to mete out. There was bar­gain­ing and cajol­ing over math home­work and piano prac­tice, inter­spersed with earnest and play­ful affec­tions. There was fit­ful con­ver­sa­tion, din­ner, dish­es, toi­let and bed­time. All the while, look­ing at the faces of my wife and chil­dren, I felt the atten­u­at­ed weight of my grandfather’s secret. It was a small frac­tion of what he must have felt. He’d kept a secret while I was keep­ing the secret of a secret — and one I under­stood only par­tial­ly and imper­fect­ly. Maybe because of that — because there real­ly wasn’t any­thing defin­i­tive to say — I didn’t tell my wife where I’d been or what I’d been doing. Or it may have been out of a sense of feal­ty to my grand­fa­ther, as though, as his only male grand­child, I had an oblig­a­tion to keep faith with him in death as I’d kept faith with him in life. When nobody else could sum­mon the patience, I’d lis­tened to exhaus­tive rec­ol­lec­tions about his beloved pre-war Balti­na­va. And his repeat­ed accounts of being wound­ed at the front and his long and ardu­ous recu­per­a­tion. Were some­one to ask me, I could name the sur­geon who saved my grandfather’s arm. Pos­ter­i­ty would know him as Dr. Dubinsky.

To regain our psy­cho­log­i­cal equi­lib­ri­um after the rigours of bed­time, my wife and I repaired to our indi­vid­ual screens, she in our bed­room, I down­stairs in my office. After ingest­ing my dose of the day’s cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal news, I checked my email and found a mes­sage from Ruta Gul­bis. Its sub­ject line read: Your grandfather.”

Hi David,

You were just at my mom’s house. I’m send­ing you the video. I don’t know what she told you, but it prob­a­bly wasn’t the truth. Ruta Gulbis

7804048001

I clicked on the file and encoun­tered Lau­ma sit­ting on the sofa in Agnes’s liv­ing room. She wore a grey skirt and pale- yel­low sweater. In her lap she cra­dled a kok­le. Her expres­sion was vague­ly fear­ful, as if she expect­ed to be scold­ed for some inde­ter­mi­nate offence. A woman’s voice sound­ed off-screen, pre­sum­ably Agnes’s, say­ing some­thing in Lat­vian. Lau­ma didn’t so much as twitch. A moment lat­er my grand­fa­ther 64 walked stiffly into the frame and sat near Lau­ma. He wore bur­gundy house slip­pers, dark trousers and a striped shirt with a blue tie under a blue-and-red argyle vest he’d favoured. As Lau­ma watched him take his seat, her expres­sion changed from anx­ious to impas­sive. My grand­fa­ther glanced at her, as if to ascer­tain her mind, and turned calm­ly to face the cam­era. Agnes spoke again and he nod­ded. The cam­era then zoomed in on his face, imme­di­ate­ly zoomed out, adjust­ed focus and jerk­i­ly panned over and down to reframe him and Lau­ma so they were cen­tred on the screen. All the while, my grand­fa­ther appeared and behaved exact­ly like him­self, patient and obe­di­ent. I felt a pow­er­ful rush of feel­ing surge up in me, which man­i­fest­ed itself, sur­pris­ing­ly, in Yid­dish. My mind formed the phrase: Berl, vos tostu? It trans­lat­ed, not harsh­ly but endear­ing­ly, as Berl, what are you doing?”It was an echo of the way my rel­a­tives — my father, my uncle— would greet my grand­fa­ther in his apart­ment or at one of our hous­es. Before switch­ing to Russ­ian, they’d offer one or anoth­er phrase in Yid­dish, deliv­ered most­ly in jest, like an acknowl­edge­ment of their lega­cy mem­ber­ship in a quaint but defunct club. Mean­while, in the video, Lauma’s fin­gers start­ed mov­ing across the strings of the instru­ment. She played a short intro­duc­to­ry pas­sage, and then my grand­fa­ther launched into the lyrics with his strong, con­fi­dent voice. It was a hap­py, jaun­ty tune — odd in the con­text. Even though I was igno­rant of most things Lat­vian, I rec­og­nized it. It told of a lit­tle roost­er impa­tient to wake the sleepy vil­lage girls. I’d heard my grand­fa­ther sing it before, in the guise of Latvia’snational folk song. I watched him and Lau­ma per­form it to com­ple­tion, where­upon Lau­ma removed her hands from the kok­le and Agnes applaud­ed. Agnes then uttered what sound­ed like a request for anoth­er song, but Lau­ma rose from the sofa. My grand­fa­ther also began to rise when the video abrupt­ly ended.

I sat qui­et­ly for a minute, the black screen before me, and con­sid­ered exact­ly how I would pro­ceed. It was near­ly ten o’clock. Ruta had writ­ten not a full hour earlier.

Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy fur­nished too many alter­na­tives and con­fused what should have been a sim­ple mat­ter. I want­ed to speak to Ruta. But when did I want to inform her that I want­ed to speak to her? And then when did I actu­al­ly want to speak to her? And what was appro­pri­ate based on the tim­ing and the con­tent of her email? Each suc­ceed­ing ques­tion didn’t so much bring me clos­er to an answer as cause me to despise myself and the cul­ture I lived in. In the end I com­posed the fol­low­ing text: Hi Ruta. It’s David. Thank you for the video.”

Imme­di­ate­ly, I saw the ellip­sis blink in the respondent’s bubble.

I told my wife I was going for a walk and sat on a bench in the park near our house. Dur­ing the day the park teemed with nan­nies and chil­dren. Plas­tic play­ground equip­ment had been installed atop a spongy sur­face, and a set of swings fixed over a sand­pit. Beyond the play­ground were an open field, a knoll, a mix of young and mature trees where dogs 66 ran and relieved them­selves, stern­ly warned to keep clear of the chil­dren. At night, these same dogs streaked unre­strained across the entire park while their own­ers chat­ted. Some­times teenagers got high and behaved obnox­ious­ly on the swings. Dur­ing warmer months, shad­owy char­ac­ters hunched at the edge of the park, and in the morn­ings par­ents and dog own­ers found spent con­doms and hypo­der­mic nee­dles. As I wait­ed for Ruta, I had the park most­ly to myself. Occa­sion­al­ly some­one walked or cycled past. In a far cor­ner, dog tags tin­kled around the glow of a cellphone.

From the bench I could see cars turn from the main road onto our street. I inferred which was Ruta’s — a sil­ver Dodge Ram pick­up with Alber­ta plates that slowed sev­er­al hous­es before ours and crept for­ward. I went to meet her where she parked. Through the win­dow, she appeared younger than I’d orig­i­nal­ly thought, clos­er to thir­ty than forty. She met my eyes briefly, then leaned across the pas­sen­ger seat to retrieve some­thing. As Agnes had con­ced­ed, Ruta was beau­ti­ful, but grim­ly or antag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly so, as if she regard­ed her looks as a gift she’d been unable to decline or destroy. She opened the door and swung around to face me. Her blond hair fell loose­ly over the col­lar of a plaid shirt. She wore fad­ed jeans and rest­ed her scuffed brown leather boots on the truck’s run­ning board.

Where do you want to talk?” she asked.

Prob­a­bly not across from my bed­room window.”

You didn’t tell your wife?”

What’s there to tell?”

I retreat­ed a step and turned in the direc­tion of the park. Ruta swept her purse off the seat, hopped down and shut the door. We walked word­less­ly to the bench I’d occu­pied while wait­ing for her.

Once we’d sat, she rum­maged in her purse for a cig­a­rette and a lighter. Spark­ing the flame, she said, I hope you’re not expect­ing me to jerk you off or any­thing.” It hadn’t crossed my mind,” I said.

Real­ly?” she replied mor­dant­ly, and lit her cig­a­rette. I was in Alber­ta for almost ten years work­ing in the oil sands. You prob­a­bly read all sorts of shit about it. Most of it was true. Guys propo­si­tioned me all the time. Not just me, but any woman with a pulse. In the work camps and on the job sites, you could be offered hun­dreds or even thou­sands of dol­lars to jerk some­one off or blow them. It could be the labour­ers, the cooks, the secu­ri­ty guards, the super­vi­sors, oil exec­u­tives, even cops. I nev­er did, in case you’re won­der­ing. Not because I’m a prude or a fem­i­nist or any­thing, but because I respect myself and demand to be respect­ed for what I can do. Which is a lot more than jerk­ing peo­ple off.”

To sub­stan­ti­ate her point, Ruta rifled through her purse for her phone and showed me pho­tographs sim­i­lar to the one I’d seen in her mother’s kitchen: her beside or inside large machines. As she swiped through the images, I not­ed that she had excep­tion­al­ly well-formed hands, the fin­gers long and slen­der, though the nails were trimmed or bit­ten to the 68 quick. There was also some­thing man­ic about the play of her hands that seeped increas­ing­ly into the pitch of her voice. She lin­gered on a shot she’d tak­en through the wind­shield of an exca­va­tor depict­ing the colos­sal raw expans­es of the bitu­men mines. Her job had been to clear the land of over­bur­den — lay­ers of worth­less rock and dirt that rest­ed atop the valu­able resource. She proud­ly dis­played a series of pic­tures of a trail­er home she’d bought. She’d been paid hand­some­ly for her work but had sunk much of her mon­ey into the trail­er at the peak of the mar­ket. Then the price of oil tanked and work became pre­car­i­ous. And then, in the spring, the wild­fire struck and reduced her home to a pile of tox­ic ash. She’d been forced to flee, just like her grand­par­ents from the Red Army, snatch­ing only a few pos­ses­sions and dri­ving her truck through the flames. The only refuge she could afford while wait­ing for the insur­ance com­pa­ny to process her claim— which they were in no hur­ry to do — was in her mother’s house. Iron­i­cal­ly, it was a desire to escape her mother’s house and seek her inde­pen­dence that had com­pelled her to go to Alber­ta in the first place. Now she was strand­ed there and even more mis­er­able than she’d been before.

In the time she spoke, Ruta didn’t pro­vide me an open­ing to say a word, and I felt a grow­ing and des­per­ate need to leave — as if for the sake of my san­i­ty. I sensed that I had final­ly arrived at the stage Knut had warned me about, and I feared that any­thing Ruta might say about my grand­fa­ther — true or false — would do me harm. I’d pur­sued the mys­tery faith­ful­ly and lov­ing­ly, but it was clear to me now that peo­ple either didn’t know, wouldn’t say or couldn’t be trust­ed to speak sense.

I rose from the bench and said some­thing to this effect as diplo­mat­i­cal­ly as I could.

Ruta respond­ed with a look of naked, child­like hurt — a look that declared that I’d joined the ranks of all the peo­ple who’d dis­ap­point­ed her in life.

I was try­ing to form a human con­nec­tion,” she said. But if you can’t han­dle that kind of inti­ma­cy, I’m not going to force it on you. I respect your choice. But it doesn’t change my inten­tions. I came here to repay my family’s debt to your grand­fa­ther and to Jew­ish people.”

Once more she dug into her purse and this time pulled out a sealed, white let­ter-size enve­lope, which she then extend­ed to me.

You can do what you want with it. Open it. Don’t open it. Throw it into one of the garbage cans with the dia­pers and dog shit. It’s up to you.”

I accept­ed it and turned to go. Ruta remained where she was, smok­ing her cig­a­rette. But before I’d gone very far, she called after me.

Did my moth­er say any­thing about the child my grand­moth­er left behind in Latvia?”

She didn’t,” I said, though my tone made clear that the exis­tence of the child wasn’t a rev­e­la­tion to me.

Did she show you the draw­ing of my grandmother’s cat?”

She did.”

Did you hap­pen to ask why she took her fuck­ing cat and not her child?”

It would have been impos­si­ble to ask, but I felt stu­pid that it hadn’t even occurred to me.

My grand­moth­er was very beau­ti­ful and very weak. My grand­fa­ther ruled her life. If he decid­ed they weren’t going to take her Jew­ish bas­tard, then guess what, her Jew­ish bas­tard got left behind.”

Ruta looked at me defi­ant­ly, as if, hav­ing dan­gled such provoca­tive bait, she dared me to keep walk­ing. I felt a shiv­er of dis­dain pass through me.

I held up the enve­lope. What’s in it?”

Our fam­i­ly history.”

I know about it.”

Then you know about it,” she replied.

In reproach, I tore the enve­lope open where I stood. It con­tained a sin­gle pho­to­copy, which I read by the light of my phone. One side was a typed and nota­rized doc­u­ment in Lat­vian; the oth­er side bore a hand­writ­ten Eng­lish translation.

I, Berls Singers, born in Balti­na­va, Latvia, the sole sur­viv­ing heir of my par­ents, Natans and Fru­ma Singers, declare that my fam­i­ly was dis­pos­sessed of prop­er­ty by the Sovi­et occu­piers in the form of two hous­es at 7 and 20 Darza Street and a leather store at 5 Tir­gus Street. I assert my rights to have the prop­er­ties restored to me and their deeds trans­ferred to Mara Smilt­nieks, my bio­log­i­cal daugh­ter from Lau­ma Gul­bis, née Smiltnieks.

Signed this 17th day of Feb­ru­ary 2001 in Toron­to, Canada.

I looked up to find Ruta eye­ing me bold­ly, as if we were now implic­it­ly joined in pro­found and painful feeling.

My moth­er was nev­er going to tell you.”

The anger I’d felt drained away and was replaced by a weary pity.

To pro­tect Mara? So I didn’t go after the hous­es and the store?”

You had a right to know.”

I walked slow­ly back to the bench and sat beside her.

We knew, but we believed she was my grandfather’s brother’s.”

Not accord­ing to what your grand­fa­ther wrote here.”

If he wrote it out of char­i­ty, bet­ter to write daugh­ter rather than niece. There’s nobody left to deny it.”

You’re deny­ing it.”

Ruta, it doesn’t mat­ter,” I said. It’s all past. You can believe what­ev­er you want.”

Thanks, so can you.”

I try not to believe what I want to believe.”

I don’t under­stand,” she said with exas­per­a­tion. Why did you even text me?”

I don’t know. I thought there would be more.”

She reached into her purse again for cig­a­rettes. Deliberately

avert­ing her eyes from me, she lit one and gazed out at the park.

I reflect­ed on the tor­tu­ous cir­cum­stances that had brought us togeth­er. Some­thing had hap­pened a long time ago between peo­ple who were no longer alive and whom we would be the last to know. For flawed and pow­er­ful rea­sons, we assigned too much impor­tance to it, even as we didn’t real­ly know what it was.

Had our grand­par­ents loved each oth­er but sup­pressed their feel­ings for the sake of the broth­er with the dent in his head? Had they cov­et­ed each oth­er, as pro­scribed by the Bible? Or had they sim­ply, in the ter­ror-eros of war, sub­mit­ted to a spon­ta­neous passion?

Through green fields, insu­per­a­ble Aryans advanced. Of one hun­dred Jew­ish fam­i­lies in Balti­na­va, three fled. The oth­ers per­ished. Per­haps at Ruta’s grandfather’s hand. In the shad­ow of the crim­son reck­on­ing, Lau­ma looked into her daughter’s face for the last time and left.

On my phone were pic­tures I’d tak­en of my girls at Geor­gian Bay. They posed in their swim­suits on the white sand, in the glare of the sun; the dark, shal­low lake spread out behind them, stands of birch and pine describ­ing the coast. The set­ting evoked the sum­mers I’d spent as a boy on the Baltic shore. My mem­o­ry of them now was vis­cer­al and ephemer­al, like a deep breath. I brought up the pho­tos and offered them to Ruta. She took the phone from my hand and stud­ied them care­ful­ly. From across the park, a girl shrieked. The sound whisked through the night like an arrow that land­ed between us, nar­row­ly miss­ing its mark. Ruta and I star­tled and looked to each oth­er as if we might embrace or leap to each other’s defence. The sin­cer­i­ty of the feel­ing gripped us and then released as the girl’s shriek spi­ralled into laughter.

David Bez­mozgis is an award-win­ning writer and film­mak­er whose fic­tion has appeared in The New York­er, Harper’s, Zoetrope, and Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries. He was named one of The New York­ers 20 Under 40” writ­ers in 2010. He lives in Toronto.