Here’s how I feel it still, a memory that unravels all of a piece:
The woman sets her chin just so, as she grips the wooden spoon and stirs the milky cereal, willing bubbles to appear around its rim, a signal of readiness. She despises this time of morning, her muscles taut as she gears herself for what lies ahead. Her own breakfast dishes, emptied, are still on the table next to the chair she’s prepared for the child. Plenty of time to tend to them later. The child sits on pillows, elbows just barely skimming the surface of the heavy oak table. Gerda, a small rag doll, yellow braids darkened from hours of play, black and red dirndl skirt beginning to fray, bobs back and forth in her chubby hand. She hums to herself, softly at first, then louder. She knows what’s coming, begins to kick her heel against the table leg fast, and then faster still. She likes the feel of heel against hard edge of wood, the jolt of it. More than the feel, she likes thinking about it, her young mind swirling around wood, nothing but wood. The woman turns to look at her, grabs a kitchen towel and ties it around the child’s neck.
“Hehr auf!” she commands.
The child stops. The woman places a bowl of mushy cereal and a spoon alongside the child.
“Ess,” she says.
The child takes the spoon, plunges it into the cereal and begins to make circles, small at first, then wide and wider still, like the circles stones make when she throws them into the goldfish pond outside.
“Ess,” the woman repeats.
The child, not hungry, is thinking about goldfish, eager to go and watch them dance just under the water’s surface. She cocks her head to look at the woman.
“Nein,” she says.
The woman takes bowl in hand, scoops a mushy spoonful, aims it for the child’s mouth, connects before the child knows what’s happening, before she can resist. The child puffs her cheeks and rolls the mush around from one side of her mouth to the other, not wanting to swallow, not yet.
“Schling upe!” she says, ordering the child to swallow. Eyes widening, she scoops another spoonful and pushes it against the child’s locked lips.
She’ll teach this one to refuse food. What does she know, this child born after the war, what does she know of a hunger so deep, so pure that nothing can sate it.
“Ess!” Louder now.
The child’s lips tighten into a thin line.
The woman’s face contorts, reddens.
The imperative of it drives her now, the child must eat, must have another layer of fat to protect her. How else to survive winters in the forest? Screaming at the child, her mouth contorted in rage, she smacks her on the back. She smacks her hard. The child begins to cry, great, gasping sobs. The woman, seizing the opportunity, forces another spoonful into her open mouth. The child spits, gags, and vomits the little she ate. The woman is in another place, a black place. The child’s sobbing drives her deeper into black. She scoops up the vomit with her spoon, with such force, the sound of spoon scraping on plate startles them both. The dead ones, they didn’t have anything to eat other than what they found, or dug, or stole. But this one is alive, alive and ungrateful. What right has she to innocence, to willfulness, to otherness? She shoves the spoon into the child’s mouth. The girl cries louder, chokes on the bitter taste.
The woman grabs the knife next to her breakfast plate, points it inches from the girls neck and screams,
“Ess, odder ich vell dir darhaggenen.” Eat, or I’ll kill you.
The child gazes past the woman to the window outside. She sees a ladybug crawling on glass, six perfect circles on red, climbing up, seeking a way out. She looks back at the woman, hugs Gerda to her chest and opens her mouth.