Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Salt and Pepper (07/24/14)
TITLE: Ashes on Snow
By Ann Grover
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Mama washed her hair, and mine, with the snow water, and laughter and lather flew through the air. It made our hair soft as a kitten's belly, silky and smooth, and we'd preen before the tiny mirror, admiring our glossy locks. Afterwards, Mama covered her head with her scarf, tying it beneath her chin with a respectable knot, and she'd plait my hair into modest braids, but for a few moments, we were princesses, with long and unfettered tresses.
My name meant princess, Mama said, and I should always remember.
When I first heard the word pogrom, I did not know its meaning. I only knew the feeling, how the air would become heavy and dark, and anguished moans trembled from Mama's lips. Papa would go outside, and I'd hear the sound of the axe, and the pile of firewood under the eaves grew tall.
One day, Papa took me into the forest, deep into the spruce and pines. "Sarah, listen carefully," he said, and he showed me a hole hollowed out between the roots of an old tree. "If I say, 'Be a bunny,' you must come here quickly. Don't look back. Understand?" Papa's stern voice and the blazing intensity of his eyes frightened me, but I nodded, tiny tears squeezing from my eyes.
The days went by, filled with sunshine and rain and digging up potatoes and onions and carrots, and then winter came, a pristine blanket of white covered the ground, and our tiny house filled with the fragrance of cinnamon and apples, latkes and borsht. But the festive feeling felt forced and reluctant, and a shadow hung in the air with our songs and laughter.
One morning after Hanukkuh, I was gathering snow, far from the house and where the snow was fresh and deep. I heard the sound of rapid, thundering hoofbeats. Shouts and screams. Papa's voice came through the chaotic din. "Be a bunny!" I dropped the pail and ran to the forest, floundering and falling in the snow, trying to ignore the hideous sounds behind me. Then came the smell of smoke, and my breath caught in my throat, like trying to swallow Mama's hairbrush. I fell again and again, the snow clotting on my skirt, but I got up each time, fighting the urge to go to Mama and Papa. Don't look back. The trees pulled me along, and then the earth embraced me, drawing me into the snug burrow.
Papa did not come for me, not that night when the moon rose, and I heard wolves howling. Not in the morning, when the sun shone, turning the forest into a shimmering fairyland. I waited, wiping the snow from a log and sitting in a ray of warmth, but still he did not come. Finally, brushing the dirt from my skirt and feeling a bit disobedient, I set off for our home beyond the woods.
As I came closer, a bitter, acrid odour filled the air. Then, I saw. But it is better to say I could not see. Our little house was gone. There was only a heap of smouldering and charred timbers, the tumbling chimney, the uprooted fence. Ominous dark blurs in the snow beyond where the house had been. And a sour smell, of more than scorched wood, but my innocent nose knew.
I knelt, not feeling the chill through my skirt. The silence overwhelmed me, and my tears poured hotly, melting briny runnels in the snow. The snow was sprinkled with cinders, peppery flakes that had once been my bed, Papa's chair, Mama's apron. I heard Mama's voice, then. "Always gather away from the house, where the snow is clean." She'd wink, for I knew this well, but it must always be said.
And so, as I stumbled away from that scarred and tragic place, I knew I must find unsullied snow, new and untrodden. Snow free from the bitter tears of sorrow, free from the fiery ashes of pain and loss.
Don't look back.
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