by Janet Lee Berg
When she was a baby, Sylvie Rosenberg’s mother propped her up in a highchair and fed her with a silver spoon too big for her mouth. The nanny was the only one who managed to get pabulum down the child’s obstinate little throat, cooing at her with a breath that smelled like cooking vanilla.
Sylvie’s older sister, Eleanor, couldn’t be bothered with her 41/2-year-old little sister and her rubber dolly seated around the small wooden table. Sylvie would wait for Eleanor to return from private school, imploring her to join the tea party she had painstakingly set up with miniature cups and saucers so delicately placed on doilies.
“Sylvie, I cant possibly fit in that tiny chair. Besides, you have your doll friend. Look, Marta finished her tea, and she’s asking you to refill her cup.”
“No, Sylvie protested. Dolls can’t talk!”
“Listen, I’ve got more important things to do, okay? Maybe Mother can find a friend for you, call a neighbor, or . . . or hire someone.”
William, always making boy noises and shooting pretend-guns, came soaring through the playroom as a fighter jet, arms extended, bringing down the entire tea party in a flash. He glided out of the playroom with his radar searching for a good landing spot, while Eleanor slipped out to the courtyard for her cello lesson.
“Let’s have a sip, shall we?” the nanny said to the child who had developed hiccups from crying so hard.
Sylvie had long abandoned her tea set by the age of 8, but never liked playing alone at home. She wanted to be just like everyone else, and skipped along the sidewalk that ran along the chain-link fence, thinking that very thing one day. Some of the unfamiliar children in the park spotted her, and waved her toward the entrance.
“What’s that on your necklace?” one girl asked, studying her through the steel lattice. “A star?”
The girl unlocked the latch, and let her in, and whispered something to someone else. The gate closed behind her. Suddenly, Sylvie felt different, like she didn’t belong there. Her smile shifted at the same time as the sky. Light raindrops ricocheted off her head and off her turned-in feet.
The other children started drawing something in the wet dirt with a stick a giant symbol. Someone with a small voice said they thought the mark stood for good luck. One of the girls, much bigger and older than the others, called everyone over to where she stood, and eyed Sylvie the hardest. “We’re going to play a game now. It’s called “Catch the Jew.”
The children were shouting and snickering as they chased Sylvie in circles. The big girl was the first to throw the mud, but the others soon followed. Then they caught her. Sylvie was forced to stand in the center of an ancient-looking letter. Whatever it meant, to her it stood for humiliation. As her fine shoes sank into the sludge, minutes seemed forever. She refused to make a spectacle, refused to make eye contact with the other children. So these are Christians, she thought. She thought about telling them that her family wasn’t a religious one, but that probably wouldnt change her from being a Jew.
The thug picked up a stick off the ground and pointed with it at the dirt on Sylvie’ shiny new shoes, then dragged the branch down each of Sylvie’s arms, leaving a track of dirt everywhere it touched. “I’m afraid you are nothing but a dirty Jew, now.”
Sylvie recited the alphabet in her head backwards while the big girl taunted her, pulling the stick slowly down Sylvie’s spine, walking behind Sylvie, then in front of her. Sylvie thought of her science lesson in school, how the moon rotates around the earth.
The giant girl stared at Sylvie’s necklace. “Looks like real gold to me, no?” Sylvie thought about the day her father taught her, in a soft voice, how to draw the hexagram by herself, two triangles laid over each other.
Sylvie had learned now how to hate. Somehow, she’d turn things around, get even. She’d come up with her own strategy that would serve her for the rest of her life, so she’d never again have to stand on that horrific insignia. With her mud-streaked face and shoulders erect, Sylvie walked up to the captain of the bullies and smiled a potent smile that said she was different, all right –different because she was better, prettier, smarter, and more powerful, especially more powerful. She told the big bully all this without saying anything of the sort. She had to come up with a good plan.
“You like my jewelry? There’s more where that came from. I bet you would like some for yourself?”
. . . Sylvie was about to bury her muddy clothes in a pile of rags in the basement, promising herself she would never wear them again, but wouldn’t that be letting that horrible girl win? No, she’d let one of the servants wash and press everything. She’d wear those clothes again, and in front of that same bully. That ugly bully girl was poor, and not very smart. Sylvie had things she wanted. She could win her over, and the power that would come with it. . . .
At 3 o’clock the following day, Sylvie watched from her bedroom window as her plan unfolded. . . . There she is. But who’s that girl with her? Oh, I remember. She was at the park, too, the pint-size one, spineless, just like the others who had stood back and watched . . . the one who said the symbol stood for “good luck.”
The two girls walked past the lamppost boxes filled with flowers and turned up the slate walkway through the perfectly pruned shrubbery.
“This isn’t a house. It’s a mansion!”
“A mansion?” The smaller of the two repeated the word.
The girls stood and looked up at the gabled roof with open mouths. “See. I told you. Papi was right. She is a rich Jew.”
“Should we use the knocker?”
The little one peeked through the hinges of the massive door when the servant answered and directed them to go through the guest entrance. In the corner of the sunroom, there was a faded sage toile duvet and six petite wood chairs in a line. The walls were tiled in blue and white Delft with sprigs of green. The two girls looked at each other. Then the older one got up and went over to the duvet, and extended her legs out long. “I feel like a mo-o-ovie star,” she enunciated. “Why don’t you come on up and see me sometime. . . .”
The skinny girl stretched her neck, looking to see where the woman had gone when she had disappeared past the foyer through the tall French doors that led to a world beyond imagination.
The big girl told the small girl, “My Papi also said her father’s a big shot art dealer. Owns more Rembrandts than anyone in Europe.”
Minutes later, the woman returned to the waiting area and said, “Miss Sylvie will see you now.” The two girls followed the woman down the long hall and ascended the central staircase on tiptoes, holding onto the banister. The stairwell was squared off as it went up to the third floor; it would have been so much more fun to slide down had it been spiral.
As the girls stepped on each riser, they peered at the rooms below through the railings — the all-white porcelain kitchen with copper pots, the flowery powder room, the busy laundry area with orderly shelves stacked high with linens and folded towels.
Sylvie opened her bedroom door and the brute went in first, walking in slow circles around the room, and glared at Sylvie, re-evaluating her.
The diminutive one chattered incessantly. “You have your very own servant? Is she the one who folded all those towels? Does she pour your drinks, too?”
“I like to pour my own. To the top of the glass. Why do you ask? Are you thirsty?” Sylvie queried.
“Where’s your mother?”
Sylvie got busy, ignored the little one snooping around at her things, and showed the bully her doll collection and all her splendid games and toys.
“Doesnt she pour?”:
“Who?” Sylvie asked the little one, annoyed.
“I told you. Shes out somewhere.” Sylvie continued rooting through her jewelry box until she found the glittery necklace she had been looking for, and then picked it up and dangled it in front of the bigger girls face. The contrast of the shiny necklace in front of the bullys face made her look even uglier. Sylvie pretended to beam as she offered to put it around the girl’s thick neck.
“You can keep it. Sylvie felt her throat constrict.”
The tiny girl tapped Sylvie on the shoulder. “I live in a little house, and my mother is always home.”
“Good for you!” Sylvie barked.
“When does she come home, your mother?” she asked Sylvie.
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you, Mousy Girl?” Sylvie said.
“That’s not my name!” The small one protested.
“Yes it is. That’s what I’ll call you if I want to — Mousy Girl. Mousy Girl.”
The larger girl looked delighted as they squabbled. Sylvie said, “I have an idea. Let’s play Seek and Find. I’ll hide these bags of chocolate-covered jellies somewhere on the third floor. Let me tell you, it is the best Dutch chocolate in all of Holland.”
The petite girl wore a worried expression. “But what if she finds both bags? ”
The heavy girl licked her lips as Sylvie left the room for a few minutes.
When she returned, she shouted. “Ready? Go!”
Mousy Girl scooted off toward the west wing, but before the big girl headed for the east wing, Sylvie grabbed her plump arm and pulled her back into the room. Then she opened both her hands, which she had kept behind her back, and exposed the bags of candy.
“You never hid them? ”
“No. Come with me,” Sylvie said. “I know how much you like playing Catch. How would you like to catch a mouse?”
They could hear the teeny girl rummaging through a closet in one of the spare rooms. “Shhh. . . . ” Sylvie put her finger to her lips, and twisted the key in the lock.
“Good. Now, we get to have the candy to ourselves,” she said, knowing the chunky girl would love that idea. Their little friend banged on the door, nonstop, while Sylvie undid the wrappers and talked to Mousy Girl through the crack. “Oh, you poor thing,” she lied. “It’s unfortunate you found your way into this closet — the one with the broken lock. It gets stuck sometimes, you know.”
The heavy girl laughed so hard her shoulders shook, and the delicious dark-brown saliva bubbled between her teeth. The oversize girl leaned her back against the door and slid down until she hit her rear end with a thud. Then she looked at Sylvie. “You have so much at your house! Can I come over tomorrow, too?”
Tears formed in Sylvies eyes; she knew all along exactly where to find another whole bag of chocolate-covered jellies to stop the girl from her pathetic crying — in the second kitchen cabinet from the right. Her mother always made sure there was extra everything in whatever she desired . . . almost everything. But for what seemed like a very long time, Sylvie did nothing to help the girl in the closet, just as the girl did nothing to help Sylvie the day before at the park.
That night, Sylvie lay awake in bed, again, this time thinking about all the silly games children play. The clock bonged at least 11 times as she waited for her mother to come home, to come into her room to tuck her in . . . she wondered where her mom was, this time.
Janet Lee Berg holds a Master’s degree in writing from Stony Brook Southampton and has been a writer for local newspapers for nearly 12 years. She has also published a parody, for readers of all ages, called Glitz of the Hamptons. The Author’s Playhouse in Bay Shore presented her one-act play Airsick.”