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He grew up caught between his father’s rage and the permanent sadness in his mother’s eyes, not understanding, not then, anything beyond the stigma of a boy with no family.
Mozart’s wife went on with Helmut’s tale of woe. Yakov rubbed his temple; pain lurked below the surface. His eyes dropped to the ground and followed an insect as it scurried past his sandal and across the large floor tiles, alternately appearing and disappearing in the dark designs.
After the Soviets freed him Helmut returned home; his wife had remarried.
“She told him he wasn’t welcome. She said it would be better if he forgot all about her and their baby. Better if he remained dead.”
Mozart’s wife’s eyes glistened. She too had a baby girl.
“The poor man. He drifted around Europe until he made it to Canada and started a new life. Just imagine,” tears at the ready, “giving up your baby, never to see her again.”
Yakov was reminded of the small sepia picture in a silver frame his mother had kept atop her bureau. Yakov’s grandfather had bright eyes and an assured expression. Seated next to him his grandmother looked tiny and worried, her hands on her lap, one atop the other, her graying hair arranged in a bun. Four boys and three girls surrounded them. His mother was the middle girl. Other than the incorrigibly impish eyes of the youngest boy, they stood frozen in stern and rigid poses for all eternity.
That photograph was all that remained of her family. His father didn’t even have that.
Helmut was shrunken, bony and bent, with rheumy, red-rimmed eyes, large-lobed ears, a few wispy threads of white hair atop his head and an obsequious smile. Not quite the Aryan superman.
Throughout lunch Yakov kept an eye on the old German. Surely Helmut couldn’t be the one. He didn’t act or look anything like the snarling SS villains from the movies. Yakov had no appetite. He did his best to remain sociable but he didn’t speak with Helmut.
That evening Helmut and his Canadian wife were waiting in the crowded restaurant lobby when the group met for dinner. Helmut had already secured a table for eight and — a napkin folded over his left forearm, mimicking a solicitous waiter — brought wine, glasses, even ice for the water. Big deal, Yakov thought, it’s all included.
Yakov stared into Helmut’s faded blue eyes, trying to bore into his soul. Not all German soldiers were bad. Countermanding a direct order might’ve meant death. Would Yakov refuse to carry out an order he thought criminal? He thought he would. He knew right from wrong. It was in his nature to do the right thing.
Helmut noticed Yakov’s stare and offered a smile.
The rest of the week went by in a rush. Yakov windsurfed to exhaustion before dragging himself up the slight hill to collapse on the grass in his wife’s private oasis. They made other friends, but his wife preferred to eat with the same three couples. Yakov begged off the trip to Chichen Itza when he learned Helmut would go; he claimed a need to water ski. But he didn’t.
He couldn’t stop thinking. The odds that Helmut had been the one who’d killed his family, or even to have looked the other way, were insignificant. But did it matter whose family he’d killed?
“Why can’t you Jews forget already?” an English colleague had asked Yakov a few years earlier. They had been eating a quick lunch in London between business appointments. Yakov felt the blood rush to his face. He threw his pizza slice down.
“How could you forget such a thing? No. Never. Never again.”
But when it had happened in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Somalia, in Bosnia and on and on, Yakov hadn’t stopped it. He had a family to feed.
On their last day Yakov decided to take a few more pictures of Lulu but she wasn’t on her usual spot. He scanned the canal waters, the long open hallway and the narrow bank lush with vegetation; any croc could easily be lying in wait. Maybe Lulu had missed her morning chocolate bread.
The security guards’ English was no better than Yakov’s Spanish but their surprised faces sufficed. They were unaware of Lulu’s absence. They shrugged. One guard said something and the others laughed. Yakov wished he’d understood. Maybe he’d have laughed too.
He met his wife and the rest of the group for their last lunch together. They exchanged hugs, kisses, emails, phone numbers … Yakov ignored Helmut but when he extended a hand towards Mozart, Helmut grabbed it and shook it. Surprised, automatically, Yakov shook the hand and mumbled something. Helmut’s hound-dog face broke into a grin.
“Auf wiedersehen, Herr Yakov.”
With one last afternoon left, Yakov windsurfed to the last possible moment. After showering and dressing he re-joined his wife. At dusk, from her oasis, in silence, they watched the sun set.
It was late by the time they boarded their plane. Young men and women, still in a festive mood, flitted from seat to seat, pre-testing whether their friendships would survive under the cold northern skies. A few lucky ones, like Mozart and his Constanze, might meet again, maybe even find love.
Yakov felt tired but relieved to be aloft and on his way home. He peered out the window into the dark. Below, somewhere in her lagoon, old Lulu lurked in the black waters, her reptilian eyes searching for her next meal. And somewhere else in the void, Helmut too prowled the vast expanse of shadows, stalking a more elusive prey. Come morning Lulu would be back on the landing, sunning herself, sated and majestic. Not Helmut: whatever he sought, he wouldn’t find.
Yakov yawned and stretched, trying to drive away the week’s exertions. In time the airplane’s lights dimmed, the passengers settled down, and the noise abated but for the engines’ constant drone. Normally, at this point in the vacation he would’ve dozed-off, his mind clear and refreshed, dreaming of new projects and future accomplishments. Not this time.
Out the window he spied a few flecks of silver in his small slice of sky. His thoughts drifted to his mother’s family portrait in the sterling frame, now residing atop his fireplace mantle and crowded by a jumble of colorful frames holding more recent images. Pictures of graduations and gymnastic feats and choo-choo rides and picnics and weddings and countless other moments, like his mother’s last Thanksgiving, when Yakov and the other men had to be dragged away from the TV for the all inclusive family self-portrait, with his mother in the center, smiling shyly, hands folded on her lap, amid her children and their children and their children and the promise in their laughing eyes. “I suppose we could come back,” Yakov finally answered his wife, though she was probably asleep, “but I’d rather find a different paradise.”