The Circumcision

From Chapter 5

It was a pleasant evening. Having turned the lights out, they listened to old chansons on the radio by candlelight until they felt sleepy. Then Grandmother took the bed linen from the bottom of the middle wardrobe, and they made up the big divan for the night. Robi pulled the duvet up to his chin, thinking how nice it would be for a change to have peace and quiet for the night because the adjacent room was unoccupied. This particular night, his mother's sleeping cure would be doing them the world of good, too.

The first time Robi was startled awake that night, he found the bed on his right empty. He saw the door leading to the hall was open, and he heard Grandmother moving about. Strange, he thought. Why is she up in the middle of the night when for once she doesn't have to be? She's probably thirsty, or she has to go to the toilet. There's nothing to worry about, he concluded, and he went back to sleep.

But soon he was awake again, this time startled by some deep-seated, instinctive fear. The other bed was still empty, but he hardly had time to think about that, because then he saw Grandmother in the dark, sitting doubled up on the floor by the divan, her hand over her left breast, gasping for air. Over and over again, she was saying something that sounded like, 'I don't know, I just don't know.'

Robi sprang to his feet, and ran to the door to switched on the light. Grandmother was on the floor, her face ashen. There was a wet rag in the hand she was was pressing to her breast. 'It's my heart,' she gasped, and with her free hand she massaged her shoulder. Robi ran over to her, kneeled down and, grabbed her around the waist. She was as light as a feather, and he placed her on the divan. 'What happened, Grandmother?' he asked.

By this time, Grandmother's lips had turned purple. Her eyes were bulging and she was shivering. She kept repeating, 'I don't know, I just don't know.' Then, pulling herself together, she raised her head and said, 'Whatever you do, Robi dear, don't leave your mother alone.'

At this point, Robi Singer grew really terrified, as the inconceivable finally dawned on him. He grabbed some clothes, keeping a steady eye on Grandmother, as if trying to keep her alive by sheer strength of will. 'Wait, Grandmother, wait! I'll get a doctor,' he urged her.

Needless to say, Robi had no idea where he'd find a doctor at that time of the night, or even a telephone token so he could call an ambulance.

'Whatever you do, don't leave your mother alone,' Grandmother said again, and her eyes filled with tears. 'She can't help it.' She looked into Robi's eye. 'You do love your mother, don't you?'

'Of course I do,' Robi said. He was shaking from head to toe, by now. 'I love her a lot.'

'Good,' Grandmother said. 'You'll find a thousand forints under the sewing box. It's for the funeral. Give it to the Chevra Kadisha.'

That clinched it! Robi was now sick with fear. Grandmother was about to betray him in the worst possible way, by leaving him alone like this in the middle of the night. By this time, the tears were flowing down his cheeks. Pleading, begging, cajoling, he kneeled down by the divan, and put his hands together. 'Don't die on me, Grandmother, don't die!' he sobbed.

He looked around the room, but he could barely make out the shape of things through his tears. Everything was in its place, each of the three wardrobes, the dining table, the buffet. It seemed absurd that someone could disappear from this comforting and familiar world, that he was about to be a witness to the most terrible of all miracles, the moment when life turned into its opposite.

The Lord! It was the Lord's doing. It was penalty time for the forbidden tram-rides, the Christian services, the non-kosher sausages. Or it could be Jesus, who picked this cruel manner to protest against his forthcoming circumcision. Maybe it was the two gods, the Jewish and the Christian, taking a united stand against his self-abuse, the sinful release of the night which he'd tried to balance off by next day's good deeds. That's what you got for trying to bargain with the heavenly powers. There was only one thing left to do, Robi concluded, and he turned towards the bed. 'Grandmother, let's pray!'