“You have visitors, Mrs. Jaunzems,” the Day Nurse says. She leaves the two women standing in the curtained-off quadrant of the small room.
“Who it is?” Mrs. Jaunzems asks. She thinks maybe they look like people she knows. Knew, maybe.
“It’s me, Gita,” one of the women says. “Viktor and Mirdza’s girl.”
“You joke. You not are girl. You old!” Mrs. Jaunzems says.
“Viktor and Mirdza’s daughter,” says the other woman, not Gita.
“Who are Viktor and Mirdza? They are here?” Mrs. Jaunzems looks around, but there is only Gita and the other woman. The one who is not Gita. Mrs. Jaunzems wonders if Viktor and Mirdza are dead. She does not ask this. It is better, sometimes, not to ask.
“It’s just us, Ludmilla. Just Gita. And I brought my daughter, Baiba. You remember my daughter, don’t you?” the woman who says she is Gita says and smiles.
Mrs. Jaunzems shakes her head. “There was little girl, Gita. There was little baby, Baiba. They have mother, she is sick with bad lungs. I take care these girl after war. ” She looks at the women. She shakes her head. “The baby girl Baiba, she have such good hair. Light color. With curl.” The two women look at each other. “The little girl, she not have good hair. Her hair is dark. Like wire. I brush and I brush. I oil. I set. Still her hair not stay right.”
Gita smiles. “That’s me, Ludmilla. And this is my daughter. Her name is Baiba. After her aunt,” she says and pulls the hair behind her ear. She twists it. This looks like something Mrs. Jaunzems has seen before.
“You are same Gita I take care after war?” she asks. She looks at the woman’s face. It is hard to say.
“Yes, Ludmilla,” old Gita says, “I am that Gita. With the hair that wouldn’t lay right.” She touches Mrs. Jaunzems’ knee. Mrs. Jaunzems sits back, all the way back against the back of her wheelchair’s seat.
“If you kill me in street, I not recognize you.”
Old Gita laughs. “What a thing to say, Ludmilla!” She makes a sound that sounds to Mrs. Jaunzems like the sound of a hen.
“Papa sometimes say this when he meet old friend he not see long time. One time he see Cousin Ewald in Russian uniform. He say this to Cousin Ewald. Cousin Ewald come next day and shoot him in head. This is when I go away.” Mrs. Jaunzems pats her pockets. She needs a kleenex. The Day Nurse says she can have all she needs, but the box is always empty when she goes to it.
“That was a long time ago, Ludmilla,” old Gita says. She gives Mrs. Jaunzems a small packet of kleenex from her big pocketbook. Mrs. Jaunzems wipes her eyes. Old Gita looks away and Mrs. Jaunzems folds the packet and puts it behind her back.
The one they say is Baiba sits down on the chair. Old Gita sits down on the bed. Now that they are sitting, nobody says anything. Mrs. Jaunzems rubs a palm against the rubber wheels of her chair. Finally, she says, “Day Nurse say my feets bad. She wrap them in bandage. I not can feel.” She points to her feet. “Day Nurse say, ‘Be careful!’ I say, ‘I am in wheelchair, what more careful I can be?'”
Old Gita wipes a knuckle against her eye. “You were always so funny, Ludmilla,” she says. “You used to do that trick, to make us laugh—you’d light up one of papa’s cigarettes and cross your eyes and stick out your tongue and blow smoke out both your ears!”
“They not let you smoke, this place,” Mrs. Jaunzems says.
“How are you feeling, Ludmilla?” Baiba leans in to ask. Mrs. Jaunzems pushes the pack of kleenex down farther behind her back, shoves it under her dupa.
“Is same thing. Same thing,” Mrs. Jaunzems says. She hopes this is a good answer. It is hard to know anymore what to say to people. Maybe it was always so hard but she does not think so.
“They not let you use telephone,” Mrs. Jaunzems says. Her hands make a shape like a telephone and then her hands make a shape like nothing. Her hands make shapes she cannot understand. One hand flaps on her knee. The other hand pulls at the front of her housecoat. “My hands not always this way,” she says. “I was washerwoman, after war. Then my hands are strong. When there is war, nobody care what is clean, what is dirty. After war, every places only dirt, dirt. And everybody wanting clean.” The flapping hand pushes down the pulling hand. Mrs. Jaunzems sneaks a glance inside her housecoat. She hides toilet paper in her housecoat. She sees she needs to hide some more. Old Gita is looking at her, looking at the pulling.
“I not can clean myself here,” Mrs. Jaunzems says, pointing between her legs. Old Gita makes an ugly face. “Is truth!” Mrs. Jaunzems says. Maybe she says this too loud. Old Gita’s lip curls up and twitches as she pushes it back into a pleasant smile. New Baiba coughs into her fist.
“You look nice today, Ludmilla,” Baiba says when she is finished coughing. Mrs. Jaunzems laughs.
“This morning lady come. She set hair. She trim whisker. ‘I look like billy goat before you come!’ I say to her. Is good thing lady come this morning. Is good thing you not see me yesterday!” Mrs. Jaunzems looks at the women. Old Gita is dressed very nice. Mrs. Jaunzems looks at her shoes. They are pointy and have a high heel. What is she doing all day where she can wear these shoes? “Why for you dress so nice for this place?” Mrs. Jaunzems asks. Old Gita and Baiba look at each other. Baiba raises her eyebrows.
“Because we were coming to visit you, Ludmilla,” old Gita says. She smiles, but looks sad. “We have something we want to tell you.” She reaches her hand out to Baiba. They hold onto each other. “Ludmilla, Mirdza passed away.” She blinks back tears.
Mrs. Jaunzems knows she knows this name. Yes. Mirdza was the mother, with the bad lungs. Mirdza did not like Mrs. Jaunzems. Mrs. Jaunzems does not say this. She says, “She was good woman. I know she is staying forever with Jesus.”
Mrs. Jaunzems did not think she was a good woman. Mirdza came from money and she never let anyone forget. Even when a wheelbarrow full of bank notes wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread, Mirdza acted as though she still had her horses, her dressmaker, her hats with ribbons and feathers, her satin slippers. And Mirdza was fat. Even when everyone, even her babies, shrank down to huge skulls and big hungry eyes, somehow Mirdza stayed fat. Mrs. Jaunzems never believed that her milk had dried up like she said. She always thought Mirdza made up that story so she did not have to get out of bed when the baby was crying. Still, Mrs. Jaunzems hopes Jesus will forgive her for lying. It is worse, she thinks, to say bad things about the dead than to tell a lie. The lie is gone, already. The dead, they can come back.
Mrs. Jaunzems reaches out her hand to touch Baiba’s head. When Mrs. Jaunzems took care of the little baby Baiba, she’d touch her head like this to calm her. She’d stroke her good hair and sing to her. Baiba’s eyes go wide like she is frightened, like she thinks Mrs. Jaunzems will hit her.
“You are good girl, Baiba. I am never having to spank you,” Mrs. Jaunzems says, smoothing a palm over Baiba’s soft hair and down her round cheek.
“Ludmilla,” old Gita says.”This is my daughter.”
Mrs. Jaunzems leans toward the woman with the soft hair and squints. She sits back and looks at old Gita. “No…you fool me. You say to me this is Baiba. I hear you.”
Old Gita begins to cry.
Mrs. Jaunzems thinks she should maybe give her a kleenex. But the kleenex is under her dupa. She cannot give this woman a kleenex from under her dupa. She looks the woman with the soft hair up and down. It is hard to know if this Baiba is not the same Baiba. It is hard to know anymore who is anybody.
Mrs. Jaunzems pulls her hand away from Baiba. Not her Baiba. She can see now. “She was good baby,” Mrs. Jaunzems says. “Gita, you remember I take you to green park? You are in kindergarten I think. Baiba is two year old. Maybe you not can remember.”
“Of course, Ludmilla,” old Gita says, dabbing her cheeks with the back of her wrist. “You took us every day.”
When Mrs. Jaunzems took care of those girls, Baiba was just a baby. She could only say, no and momma and dog and tickle and papa. Her whole life, little Gita was always talking for Baiba. Baiba didn’t need so many words. This Baiba is quiet. Maybe her whole life Gita is talking for her too.
“I take you to green park. Only park with grass. With tree. Every places dirt. Holes in ground. Every places peoples, peoples. Too many peoples. No places they can stay.” Mrs. Jaunzems shakes her head. “Is not good place for childrens.”
There was a time, just after the war, when Mrs. Jaunzems turned down a little street behind the apartment house. There were three men. They had a woman pushed against the wall. She made noises like a cat. Mrs. Jaunzems ducked her head and went the other way.
“Oh, it wasn’t so bad, Ludmilla,” old Gita says. “You used to buy us ice cream from a cart, remember? They served it on paper plates and they’d crease right down the middle when Mr. Kirklinš scooped the ice cream onto them.” Her hands make a shape like a book closing.
“I remember cart,” Mrs. Jaunzems says. “I not take good care you girls.” She shakes her head. It is not the ice cream cart Mrs. Jaunzems remembers. Mrs. Jaunzems looks into Baiba’s eyes. She is not her Baiba, no. But she looks like her. She looks like what Mrs. Jaunzems thought her Baiba would look like, someday. Who can say who anybody is anymore? Sometimes the dead, they come back. “Gita, what you remember from war?” she asks. She should not ask this, she knows. She does many things she knows she should not do now. She steals. She lies. She calls the night nurse bad names the Russian soldiers used to call her, before she was Mrs. Jaunzems, when she was still a girl.
“Oh, not very much, really. I was so young. I just remember the boys in the block house playing war with their slingshots. They’d pick up the bullet casings that were everywhere and pound them down flat and shoot them at birds with their slingshots. They’d shoot at each other!” Old Gita clasps a hand to her breast. Her eyes go wide. When she was a little girl, Mrs. Jaunzems called her klektoka. Rattle, it meant.
“What you remember from Baiba?” Mrs. Jaunzems asks. Maybe old Gita remembers only silly things about her sister. Maybe she remembers the game with the rubber ball and the metal star. Or the song Mrs. Jaunzems sang to them going-in-and-out-the-window, in-and-out-the-window. Maybe she remembers chasing chickens with her in the courtyard and fresh eggs for breakfast in little white eggcups like a skirt on a lady. Maybe she remembers her doll with the eyes that go click-click, open and shut. Mrs. Jaunzems hopes for this.