Ernst turned seventy, and for his birthday Irena baked a cheesecake and decorated it with strawberries.
“Happy birthday,” she says and places the cake on the table.
“At my age, one no longer celebrates,” says Ernst without looking at her.
“That’s not true,” Irena replies, frightened by the words as they emerge from her mouth.
Irena has been working in Ernst’s house for two years, since his operation. She arrives every day at eight and leaves at three. Some days she stays longer. They speak little, but sometimes Ernst surprises Irena with a question, or an idea that is preoccupying him.
“Why did you think of baking a cake for me?” he asks without raising his eyes.
“I thought it would make you happy.” She answers in a full sentence.
“Cheesecake always makes people happy,” Irena says and is pleased with her reply.
“I enjoy a good cake,” Ernst says, “but it doesn’t make me happy.”
Irena doesn’t understand the difference and doesn’t answer.
“At my age happiness is tiring,” he adds.
A year earlier Ernst was still reserved with Irena, but her diligence and devotion won his heart. Now he leans forward to listen when she offers advice about the house or tells him about something she found interesting. But Irena speaks little. The few words that leave her mouth during the day are measured. She knows that Ernst doesn’t like to chat or tell jokes. He is pleased when she takes a hint or guesses instead of asking him straight out. Ernst constantly surprises Irena. Yesterday he told her, “I wouldn’t have wanted to live a different life.” For a moment she was perplexed. His life hasn’t been a bed of roses.
Irena sits in a corner without looking at Ernst. She likes to serve him food and wait for his reaction, but she is careful not to disturb his thoughts. Sometimes he sinks so much into himself that he forgets to eat. Ernst speaks to Irena in German, now and then with a Yiddish word and sometimes also a sentence in Hebrew. He says that his memory has weakened since the operation. Irena doesn’t notice that. The words that come from his mouth are clear, and she understands his requests without any explanation. She has noticed: Ernst seldom describes things, but sometimes he says something so fresh that it’s like a pear that was just peeled and placed on a plate. He also has little customs that she likes: putting on a hat before leaving the house, bowing when she hands him his walking stick.
“I never imagined I’d reach the age of seventy,” Ernst says, as though to himself.
“Thank God,” Irena cries out.
Ernst doesn’t like this display of religiosity, but he makes no comment.
“Seventy is a fine age,” she adds.
“It’s no different from any other age: you’re just weaker, and your memory betrays you more frequently.”
Irena doesn’t agree with him. Ernst is alert. He reads and writes. When he goes for a walk, his posture is erect and his bearing stands out.
“You say that seventy is a fine age.”
“Am I mistaken?” She responds immediately.
“Of course you’re mistaken.”
By now Irena knows that the word “mistaken” doesn’t always indicate disagreement. Sometimes it implies unspoken agreement with slight provocation.
The day is nearly over. Irena has tidied the kitchen and set the table for supper. She puts on her coat and wishes Ernst a good night.
The way home is not long. Irena lives in the Old Kata-mon neighborhood of Jerusalem, a twenty-minute walk from Ernst’s house. Not long ago, her life had been scattered, her days vexed and pointless. She used to stand in the street and wonder whether to take a long walk or return home. Now she walks slowly, a bit tired, but full of words and the sounds of words that she had absorbed during the day.
Irena’s apartment has three rooms, and a kitchen and a balcony. Here she grew up, and here her parents died. After their death she preserved their memory with little ceremonies she invented. Since she started working for Ernst, Irena has done less of that, but she still goes to the cemetery on their birthdays and on the anniversaries of their deaths. On the Sabbath and holidays she arranges the house exactly the way her mother did. But most of her thoughts are now devoted to Ernst. Sometimes, when her fears get the better of her, she goes back to visit him in the evening. She serves him a cup of tea or peels an apple for him. Since she started working for Ernst, Irena has stopped going downtown, and she doesn’t even go out for short strolls.
Copyright © 2014 by Aharon Appelfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.