No One is Here Except All of Us
In 1939, the families in a remote Jewish village in Romania feel the war close in on them. Their tribe has moved and escaped for thousands of years- across oceans, deserts, and mountains-but now, it seems, there is nowhere else to go. Danger is imminent in every direction, yet the territory of imagination and belief is limitless. At the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl and a mysterious stranger who has washed up on the riverbank, the villagers decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch. Destiny is unwritten. Time and history are forgotten. Jobs, husbands, a child, are reassigned. And for years, there is boundless hope. But the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one, eventually overtaking it, and soon our narrator-the girl, grown into a young mother-must flee her village, move from one world to the next, to find her husband and save her children, and propel them toward a real and hopeful future. A beguiling, imaginative, inspiring story about the bigness of being alive as an individual, as a member of a tribe, and as a participant in history, No One Is Here Except All Of Us explores how we use storytelling to survive and shape our own truths. It marks the arrival of a major new literary talent.
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I am sitting with you on my lap, by the window. There are ice crystals on the glass. If I put my ear close enough I can almost hear them cracking and growing. It’s not snowing now, but it has been all morning. Even though you have only been alive a few days, your story, our story, started a long time ago. Ours is a story I know, both the parts I saw with my eyes and the parts I did not. This kind of knowing comes from somewhere in my bones, somewhere in my heart. Someday, your children will ask what happened, and you will tell a new version, and this way, the story will keep living. The truth is in the telling.
It began in 1939, at the northern edge of Romania, on a small peninsula cupped by a muddy river. The days then were still and peaceful. Morning was for kneading bread, milking cows. We brought babies up to our lips. The baker had loaves in the oven in time for them to come out again when we were hungry for lunch. Children added, divided and multiplied numbers and got pats on the head for it. The banker counted rolls of coins and locked them away. The greengrocer filled his shelves with cabbages picked by the cabbage picker and potatoes pulled by teenage boys out of the earthy plots behind old women’s houses. The old women liked to watch the muscles on the boys’ arms pop into life, strands of a knot.
Nine families called the valley our home. In each direction beyond the cultivated hills were mountains dark with pine. We never thought of the river as anything but ours, though its name on maps was Dniester. Our village was complete and so were our lives within it; our ghosts were quiet under the earth and we were quiet above it.
Our lives belonged to this place—we did not want to move them elsewhere, even though we knew that, in another country not so far away, a man with a square mustache wanted to remake the world. People like us were forced to register all wealth and property. Passports were stamped with a large red J. A curfew was set. It was a new chapter of an old story. Somewhere, a temple exploded in flames. Czechoslovakia was seized, Warsaw. People like us were gathered in ghettos. All men were Israel and all women Sarah.
“They will surely stop this,c we said. “The worst is over,” we surmised. “Someone always wants to tell you it’s the end of the world.”
We did not remember a time when there was no impending war, when there was no hatred or persecution. No pogroms, no army conscription. Maybe, when the world began, everything had been clean and pure. We had a story about a man and a woman and a few beautiful days in a garden, but none of us in the village remembered such a time. Our species might have growled at each other or spit into our palms. We might have rolled around on the thin-skinned earth, touched each other’s closed eyelids or kneeled down at the pairs of footprints we were leaving everywhere. However life on earth started, we continued on until we forgot, time batting us with its paws and leaving the gristled meat of each day at our doorstep, while we headed out into the spinning world. For us, it was always the first time the particular baby had been born, the first time he shook his pickled little fists in the air. It was always the first today. . . .
One Friday evening, the sun hung heavy and waiting to drain, syrupy, into the wheat fields. Men walked home carrying evidence of the day—a scythe, a leather satchel full of needle- nose tools, a roll of receipts, a bag of cabbages, an empty lunch box. At the door, children like me had scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit. “Shabbat shalom,” we children said to our fathers.” Good Sabbath,” the fathers said. On the table, a lace cloth. On the lace cloth, covered pots. “Shabbat shalom,” the wives of husbands said through kisses.
At my house, a chicken leg cooked until meat fell off the bone into the soup. My brother had just carried wood inside before sundown and I was trying to figure out if winter clouds were frozen, or only the snow falling from them. My sister held a piece of cotton over the fingertip she had pricked with her sewing needle. This led the three of us to our favorite game—comparing wounds, the souvenirs of childhood. Moishe, the oldest at thirteen, had a bloom on the back of his calf from swimming into a log in the river. Regina, a year younger than Moishe and a year older than me, let a drop of deep red needle- pricked blood fall into her opposite palm. From a game of chase, I could boast a long branch-scratch across my cheek. Our skin was one map divided into three pages, the territory of our joy marked therein.
My mother twisted the fringe on the tablecloth into a knot that would not hold. She was reading a book about a futureless, midwinter love affair between two young Russians—a bright-cheeked boy about to enter the Czar’s army and a beautiful, stupid girl. My mother frowned at the lovers because she knew they were doomed. She took it as a personal offense that they believed in something so hopeless. With each turn of the page, she twisted her hair faster.
“I hope he doesn’t die until spring,” she said. “She’s too dumb to survive that kind of cold with a broken heart on top of it.”
My father was not home yet, and the room was like a painting we had made for him. When the knob turned and he had had a chance to take the scene in, we fell back into action— Mother stood up and stirred the soup while the three of us children raced to show our father the evidence that we, too, had been alive all day long— blood on the cloth, firewood piled neatly and a question about the birth of snow.
“The most beautiful woman in the world,” my father said, his lips pressed to my mother’s hand. The room was rich with the smell of supper, and I placed one soft, old napkin at each of our places.
In our village, all of us— mothers and fathers, grandparents and children, uncles and great- aunts, the butcher, baker, saddlemaker, cobbler, wheat cutter, cabbage farmer—stood in circles around our tables and lit candles while we blanketed the room in prayer. All at once, we tugged at soft braids of bread, which gave way.
I walked to weekly prayers holding my father’s hand in a drenching rain. The villagers nodded and smiled to each other, trying to appreciate our place on the turning earth. We concerned ourselves not with the world’s many terrors, but with the most mundane of details. My mother said to my crazy aunt Kayla, “This is some kind of rain,” and,” Glad I brought the wash in last night.” She did not think, I wonder if this storm will last for the rest of our lives.
Kayla said, “Another day in paradise,” and took the black top hat off my uncle Hersh’s head to shake away rainwater pooling in the brim.
There was an old story that the prophet Elijah was responsible for rain and thunder—his only distraction while he waited for the great and terrible day of the Lord." Yeah, yeah, we hear you,” the baker said to the heavens.
Our village was too small for a proper temple—just over a hundred people—but we made do with the healer’s house. In his kitchen: the women and children, quiet, watching rain gather strength out the window. I took note of the puddles forming, wishing I was outside jumping in them, delightedly dirtying everything my mother had scrubbed clean. The mothers had gently stretched the rules of the Sabbath over the years to allow them to do small, easy work while they listened to the service. Several were mending socks, several were knitting. Aunt Kayla had a half-finished needlepoint picturing a basketful of bubble-gum-pink babies wrapped in a pale blue blanket. The babies did not have eyes yet, neither did they have hands. Blind little monsters. Next to Kayla, whose envy seeped out of her like slime, the banker’s rounded, pregnant wife tucked a sweater between her shoulder and head and closed her eyes. At her feet, her eldest son, Igor, herded his little brothers and sisters into a tidy circle, distributed toy teacups around and pretended to fill them up.
In the sitting room the men prepared to stoke the coals of faith. But the healer fidgeted. A newspaper in his pocket rustled when he took it out. “There’s something we need to discuss,” he said nervously.” Before we start.” He unrolled it on the floor. WAR. 11 am, SEPTEMBER 3rd, 1939, it said across the front. The butcher turned from picking dried blood out of his nails. The skinny, bespectacled jeweler thumbed his pocket watch. The greengrocer patted his slippery, bald head. The barber read the words out loud, a crack splitting his voice.
“It’s our day of rest,” the widow said, indignant.
“This was weeks ago already,” the healer said softly. He took a folded square of newsprint from his vest pocket. He opened it, and it bloomed like a flower. He began to read.” The Jewish people ought to be exterminated root and branch. Then the plague of pests would have disappeared in Poland at one stroke.”
Sure that I did not understand what this meant, I refrained from tugging on my mother’s skirt because her shock- white face frightened me. The mothers who had been mending socks were no longer diving the needle in and out. The tip-tapping of knitting needles had stopped. The banker’s wife still slept peacefully, while her children drew closer to her ankles, Igor trying all the time to cheer them up, offering pretend cookies to dip into their tea.
I could not see my uncle Hersh, but I recognized his voice. “Surely this cannot continue. Surely it will be stopped.” “I have a brother in America who says they will not let Germany win the war,” the jeweler said. “We are a forty-day walk from Ias¸i, and two weeks to Lvov. We are safe here,” the baker said.
“Chernowitz is only forty- seven kilometers,” the healer said.
The quiet that followed was desperate, starving, rabid. No one moved. We were a houseful of statues, discarded for imperfections. Waiting to be broken to pieces and thrown into the river. What if I die? I said to myself. What if I don’t grow up? Even when I repeated this, I did not believe it could be true. My pink hands, my scratched cheek, my brown dress mended in three places— none of these seemed to be disappearing. They were solid and real, indisputable. What force could talk them out of existence?
My mother absently took my braids in her hand and held them like reins. I wished I could gallop her out of this fearful place, faster than the wind, to safety. We remained in the healer’s kitchen, and danger crept around us like a salamander. The banker’s wife woke up and swatted at her eleven children, huddled close, like a woman keeping flies off the pie.” Mother,” Igor said.” We are in trouble.” She rested her hands on her big belly and glared at him, her eyes blistering with heat. Do not betray me, the eyes said. Do not wake me from my slumber.
We were completely dumbstruck. Our hearts were racing, but we did not know what to do.
The healer moved his pointer finger across the flaking leather cover of the big book in his lap. He had cracked that spine ten thousand times. The rest of his body fixed, he opened his mouth and started to read. He began at the beginning, his words running over us, a familiar river.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the
earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep,
and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light
from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.
And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
His voice replaced the blood in my veins. Outside, the rain turned to sheets. Streams began to run over the cobbled streets.
And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters called He Seas; and God saw that it was good.
And God said: “Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.” And it was so.
And then, as if she had gathered us for her audience, a silver airplane passed, grinding her big propeller at the sky. My mother released my braids, which fell palm-warmed onto my neck. Our faces, pressed to the panes, froze in silence. The young boys seared the shape in their minds so they could draw it later. The girls were not so susceptible to the spell and saw a shiny menace. Moishe shot me an exuberant, shocked look. Regina wrung her hands out. The airplane was low, but the sound of it was not. Igor did not have enough hands to cover the eyes of all ten of his siblings. He shielded the youngest ones and soothed the rest.
I imagined what the world might look like from so high. I thought the pilot would have seen three concentric circles. First, the brown, churning water—the circle of our river around us; inside that, the quilt squares of our fields, which were turned dirt, newly planted seeds, the bright green carpet of a field just beginning to come to life, fences mended or falling down into the soft new grass, humped haystacks, our cattle herd, our sheep herd, our goats, bare birch trees pointing straight into the heavens; and in the center, in the heart, our cobbled and dirt streets, our red- tiled and gray- shingled roofs radiating out from the town square with its statue of a long-dead war hero in the middle. In each storefront, promises were being made— the butcher’s window with a freshly killed lamb hanging on a hook, the greengrocer’s with a basket of a deep red beets and a tub of onions, the barber’s empty chair and glinting scissors, the healer’s pharmacy full of brown glass bottles with handwritten labels, the jeweler’s gold chains strung around a black velvet neck.
We watched the airplane fly away into the gray and come back again, the approach rattling our veins. I followed with my eyes as it turned over the mountains on the other side of the river. Then my ears were punched out with a thundering, time- stopping boom and the crackling silence afterward. The memory of that sound circled us while the airplane glinted and disappeared into the clouds.
We waited, itchy, for everything around us to erupt in flames. For the surface of the earth to shatter. For the airplane to come back and drop an ending on our peninsula. The sky did not clear to let us see whether smoke was rising from the other side of the mountains. The rain put out any fires. Silence, that fat hand, slapped away all my questions.
People started to shout. The banker’s eleven children yelled questions at each other, at their mother, who was awake but did not stand up from her chair. The word war popped like bubbles on my father’s tongue. The word death came after. Forgiveness was begged for. The sky was pummeled with apologies and the ground was pummeled with rain. I thought about everything a person could drop from up high: pigs, logs, bricks. A letter stating you are dead. I knew the word bomb, but I had never seen one go off . My mother was silent, except for the grip of her fingers around mine. My hand fit completely, like a seed, inside hers. It must have been the very same sky as before, but it looked emptied out, lightless.
The barrier between the kitchen and sitting room fell. Men and women mixed, husbands and wives held each other. Children tried to insert themselves into the embrace.
The river rose, rain crashed down, and the sound of all that water jumbled our words. We heard glove when someone said love. We heard yarn for harm and bread for God. We were like a windstorm, whipping ourselves dizzy, going nowhere.
There was no point in guessing how many minutes or days before another propeller cut our sky into billowing blue shreds. We began, first in our feet, then in our legs— those rootless stumps— in our sloshing guts and our clamoring hearts, to feel we were being abandoned on this island. The sinking island. Why were we not running downstream with all the rainwater? Why were we standing here, dumb as flags stuck into the earth, when everything that could escape was escaping?
The healer sat down on the floor. He opened the book and began again, his voice loud and sure.
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God said: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years.”
The healer’s voice turned scratchy and he started to cough. I could not tell the meaning of the tears that streamed down his face. My father handed him a worn handkerchief, and the healer wiped his face.
I closed the door and went to the threshold between the kitchen and the sitting room.” Please keep reading,” I said. He forced the words out.
And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that
crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every
winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good.
And the Lord God formed from the earth every beast of the field and
every fowl of the heavens, and He brought it to man to see what he would
call it, and whatever the man called each living thing, that was its name.
My father considered me. His brown eyes were gray in the light. His beard was wiry and ragged-looking, his hands stubby. We all stood still. We watched the mountains where smoke still did not rise, where the silver flyer did not circle back. The blast already seemed like a dream, meaningless and impossible.
Wheat blew against the ground in surrender. The sky flattened, the cottonwoods slapped leaves against leaves. The rain kept coming and we kept watching it come. The froth- white river tumbled all of her stones.
And a mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground.
After hours of waiting for the airplane to return, after the rain quieted to a soft dust, under the palm of a cool pink sky, our river sounded like our river again and we crept out to see what the world looked like now that it was coming apart. The air was thick with the scent of soaked sheep. Our feet stuck in the mud, our clothes caught on blown branches. We stood in the wind-combed wheat above the river. The mountains where the explosion had taken place looked no different from how they ever had. The sky was the sky, vast and prickling with light.
The riverbanks were alive with slapping fish. Beached and afraid, they curled up like question marks. “Something to save,” I said, grateful, and I began to gather the fish in my skirt. I walked carefully, the mud slippery and deep, my skinny white legs browning, my socks falling down, until I threw open my bundle in one shining, silver delivery. Back in the water, the fish flicked their tails and disappeared. Everyone joined in, filling dresses and pants pockets and arms with slipping, flapping fish. The fish, stronger than they looked, swam out of our hands and made us laugh. We chased them, saying,” We won’t hurt you. We’re trying to take you home.”
As we worked, the banks stopped glimmering with the jewels of trout, but the river receded to offer other treasures. I picked up the spout of a teapot, filled with silt. The front half of a piano smiled with its teeth punched out. The butcher found a gentlemen’s wool hat with a ribbon around it. From the muck we pulled two bowls, one jewelry box full of mud, a doll with no legs, a matted sweater, some cut logs, a hand-drawn map of the summer constellations smudged but readable, and a woman. A woman— hair, teeth, feet, fingers all. And she was alive."Romanian Jews in 1939 reinvent their own reality in this inspiring novel about the power of community and imagination."
-O, the Oprah Magazine
"Ramona Ausubel's debut, No One Is Here Except All of Us captures the magical group-think of a Romanian village that retreats into an imaginary reality at the outbreak of war."
"Ausubel uses the history of her own great grandmother as the framework for her first novel, which fully evokes the horrors of the Holocaust by merely touching on events. A fabulist tale of love, loss, faith, hope, community, and, especially, the power of story."
"Ausubel has written a riveting, otherworldly story about an all-too-real war and the transformative power of community."
"In her strange and lovely debut novel, Ramona Ausubel tells (slyly, sideways) of the horrors of war: A Romanian Jewish community dreams up a collective delusion about the world they live in. Rather than resist or run from events too insane to be real, they construct an elaborate game of make-believe which works, until it doesn't. I was unsettled and moved by this tale of the human imagination-its force, its failure and its regeneration."
-Danzy Senna, author of You are Free
"In her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, Ramona Ausubel breaks new ground, with a unique prose style that weaves a classic immigrant tale into a world of dreams. The town of Zalischick and its citizens re-write their own story, filling it with magic, hope, and a determination in the face of destruction to find new ways to begin."
-Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
"Here is a world created out of the most curious and beautiful remnants of our own: opera, suitcases, letters, rivers, daughters, strangers and shovels. Ramona Ausubel cracks open the very idea of a book and fills its shell with a thing glimmering, thrilling and new."
-Samantha Hunt, author on The Invention of Everything Else
"A special work of the imagination, an original gift, dark and light, and Ramona Ausubel colors it all with a glowing wisdom."
-Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies
"Beautifully written and alive in story, fascinating characters, and place. You can't help but compare Ausubel's book with Marquez, with her fantastic vision of history and invention, the small village dreaming the vast world, but she is her own new fresh voice."
-Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury
"A wise, compassionate book that even in its darkest turns uplifts."
-Christine Schutt, author of Florida and All Souls
Reimagining Family History
My grandmother was born in a village in the Carpathian Mountains, in what was then Romania. She came to New York as a girl, learned English, had her pigtails pulled a boy whom she would later marry. On the other side of the ocean, a war emptied her family’s original villages.
The stories of those long-ago villages were repeated to me many times. In them, a girl—my great-grandmother—was given to her childless aunt and uncle; later, when a war broke out, her husband was captured and taken to Sardinia where, instead of suffering, he spent the best years of his life; my great-grandmother escaped the village and wandered with her children through beech forests, surviving on tree bark and stolen potatoes; her son, jumping on a mattress left in the middle of a field, fell and died; my great-grandmother’s adoptive parents drowned in a river at ninety-years-of-age attempting to escape Nazi guards. But she made it to America and the story changed.
When I was twenty-three, I went to New York with a tape recorder and asked my grandmother to tell me everything. We went through photo-albums of people who all looked the same—mothers with black skirts and square ankles, fathers with scrawny arms and bowler hats. I wrote down family trees and birthdates. When I went home and started to write, I couldn’t get anything to move. All those facts, and the story was gone—with all the information, I thought I needed to get it “right.” I closed the notes on my computer and did not look at it for two years.
When I began again, it was in the dark. The legends were nothing more than points of light in a night sky. My territory was in the dark-matter, in the emptiness of what is unthinkable yet can still be felt. As I wrote through deeply sad stories, I found that hope was in the telling. Hope was not an idea, but the act of continuation, of connecting the rope’s two ends and making a circle. As long as the story was told, it was alive.
For me, this book is about what we pass on—genes, letters, memories and the right of the next generation to keep telling the story long after the facts have melted away and what’s left is truth, glittering in a sky deep and dark enough to hold everything lost, everything saved.
Téa Obreht is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. Here she talks with novelist Ramona Ausubel about her experiences writing No One is Here Except All of Us
Téa Obreht: I’m always interested in how projects of this magnitude begin. It seems like a novel “about” one’s family, or projecting one’s family into a fictional sphere, almost always ends up being an endeavor of self–discovery. Tell me a little bit about how you came to it, about what inspired you to take this journey and why.
Ramona Ausubel: The project started out as a desire to record the family stories while my grandmother was still alive and well (happily, she remains so at ninety–one). I didn’t know it would become a novel until later, when, having collected dozens of individual stories, I was frustrated that the complete picture was still foggy. It felt like having a lot of scraps of fabric, but if I wanted to see the quilt, I was going to have to sew it myself.
Téa Obreht: So much of this incredible book relies on fable, on the creation and acceptance of a particular reality in order to survive. At the end of the book, in a note to the reader, you even say “facts aren’t important” and that “the truth is in the telling.” What draws you to this idea of fable? What is its place in the modern world?
Ramona Ausubel: When I first started writing, I was trying to stick as closely to the “facts” as possible. Soon, I realized that facts were not what I really cared about. The reason it mattered to my grandmother to tell the story and the reason it mattered to me to hear it and tell it again was not that we were trying to reconstruct history, it was that we were trying to fold the characters, places and lives from the past into our world. As long as a story is being told, it stays alive, even as it changes. Each fable is a version of what could have happened, and between all those versions, maybe we come close to the truth. I think that, no matter how modern our world gets, we will always have a need to tell stories about the past.
Téa Obreht: I was fascinated by the point of view shifts in No One Is Here Except All Of Us; it seems that the novel begins rooted in collective consciousness and then, as the experiment of isolation fails, and tragedy upon tragedy is unleashed onto the characters, this shared perspective splits up until, in an ironic twist, outside communication becomes the only way the characters receive fragmented information about each others’ lives. Why did you choose this particular narrative style? How did you settle on Lena as the primary voice?
Ramona Ausubel: It took many drafts to find the right point–of–view for this story. Lena is based on my great–grandmother and I knew she would be the protagonist, but I wanted it to be about everyone together as well, for there to be a kind of Greek chorus. Finally, I decided to give the story to Lena to tell, and to allow her to speak both for the village and for herself, to speak to the ideas of collective struggle and imagination in addition to one person’s loneliness and isolation.
Téa Obreht: This novel was obviously inspired by family legends, but tell me more about your own life as a writer. When did you know you wanted to write? Who are some of your literary influences?
Ramona Ausubel: I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember. My mom recently came across the poems I wrote in fifth grade, and I was a little embarrassed to admit that not only did I recall writing them, but I had been so proud of them that I still had them memorized twenty years later. I still feel the same sense of excitement and satisfaction when a piece of writing starts to come alive.
Some authors and books that matter to me are Pastoralia, by George Saunders, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gilead by Marilyn Robinson and Florida by Christine Schutt.
Téa Obreht: You already have numerous illustrious publications under your belt, but No One Is Here Except All Of Us is your first novel. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome, and what surprised you most about the process?
Ramona Ausubel: I have written short stories that mattered a lot to me, but writing this book was different because I spent so many hours in the world of the novel––some days I spent more time there than I did in the real world. Though the characters are different from the relatives on whom they are based, I still feel that I got to know my ancestors in a way I never could have otherwise. Those old family stories became my own, and they became part of my everyday life.
In November, I became a mother. As I gaze down at my new baby, a tiny, beautiful little boy, I think, “I’m glad you’re here. I have so many stories to tell you,” and I realize that in many ways I have been writing this novel for him.
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