| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 17

S

he would have walked past the police station a thousand times had Nissim and Fortuna not led her there, opened the door, and beckoned her inside.

It is dim inside, with a strange smell of rich coffee and smoke. Her eyes have barely adjusted to the gloom when a voice calls out in Turkish. Such a strange sensation, to hear a language that you have no connection with, and cannot comprehend. Oh, she learned a few phrases. But maybe it’s not the words which confound her, but the music of it all that she can’t get used to.

Hannah talks a lot about loneliness. Maybe this is how she feels. Becca shivers, despite the heat, despite the smoke that burns her eyes and seems to cling to the back of her throat, scratching it. She straightens her back. Yes, she is in a different country. Yes, she had better get used it. But do the work and then think.

Nissim is talking to the officer. The man sits behind an old wooden table. Next to him is a bright red and orange cloth. Looking closer, Becca sees that it is in the shape of a long-barelled gun.

The policeman addresses her. To her surprise, he talks in badly accented French. “So you have lost your passport.”

“Oui.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

Two more policemen walk in, chewing something that can only be tobacco. As the door opens from the inner room, a smell of coffee washes through the room, heavenly and noxious at the same time.

She replies in French. “You are the arm of the law. Will you not find it? I can describe to you the children who took it.”

The man gives a short, sharp laugh. “Do you think that they took it for themselves? True, they will be paid something for the job. But these kids are managed by an agent, who is managed by another agent, up through the ranks.”

“And do you know who is at the top of the ranks?”

“Of course.”

“Well? Reel him in and the whole structure will fall down.”

The policeman laughs again; this time the sound is not fake but real.

“Oh, how precious is a trusting disposition.”

Becca stiffens.

She has been to police stations before. In Paris, the Jews are treated with respect. Deference, even. There are some powerful Jews in Paris. In Prague, they tend to avoid the police, unless there is a pressing reason. They fight things out between themselves.

In Poland, she has heard, it is worse. A Jew can’t step into a police station without the fear that as innocent as his claim may be, it will be turned on him and he will end up in jail. Here, it seems that the police are not police at all, but like fulcrums, the balance of the city.

“We treat him with respect, and he treats us with respect.”

“But why…”

“That’s the way we keep the city in order.”

 

Two of them leave the room, one snatching up the gun as he leaves.

In the corner, Fortuna and Nissim talk quietly between each other.

She looks at them. She looks at the door, still swinging on its hinges. “But how will I ever get home if I don’t have a passport?”

The remaining policeman looks at her, chews a minute, a thoughtful expression on his face.

She takes a step closer, not caring if she is trespassing some unknown rule about how a woman — and a Jew — addresses a person in authority. “I need a passport. You can get it for me. Will you help me or should I call your senior?”

The Director, surely, has some strings around here. That’s what is needed in Turkey, it seems. Strings. Or maybe a nice bribe. But she has no money. Frustration builds inside her and she has to force down the yell which is threatening to erupt. She wants to grab the man by the embroidered collar of his strange uniform, and shake him.

She takes a deep breath and stands, waiting.

The policeman sighs. “Listen, Madamoiselle.” He rubs his thumb against his fingers. “We are paid well for what we do. How do you think we can afford to smoke, to dress our wives, to send our children to school? Not from a measly policeman salary. We get a second wage for turning a blind eye. And when we have money to spend, other pockets are lined too. No, we get on very nicely with our resident crooks.”

What sort of land has she come to? What chaos of disorder and anarchy? She wants to wail and screech. Maybe this Turkish mentality has already rubbed off on her. She looks him straight in the eye. “I need a passport.”

The policeman, without looking down, opens a drawer on the side of the desk. He reaches inside and takes out five banknotes. “Don’t ask me why I am giving this to you. Maybe because I have a little pity in my heart. We have good hearts. Go to the marketplace. In the second house from the first corner is a man, Abu Khamir. He’ll issue you a new passport.”

A new passport.

For a moment, she is confused. A passport is issued by the consulate, or retrieved from some crook who has snatched it for some absurd reason. Not by a man called Abu Khamir, who lives near the market.

But she takes the money, and between her fingers, the notes are soft, more like fabric than paper.

The second house from the first corner. She is a quick learner. She will ask no questions. Abu… She clutches the notes in her hands, and approaches Fortuna — she learned quickly that Nissim is embarrassed if she addresses him.

“I am ready to leave,” she says. She pushes the notes up the cuff of her sleeve. When Nissim and Fortuna turn and walk out of the station, she gives a little bow to the policeman and follows.

***

Snow. The first snow of the winter. Hannah stands at the window, staring as the snowflakes dust the black cobblestones with white, then grow faster, until the streets are blanketed and the sun is unexpectedly bright.

She stands for a long time, occasionally throwing another log on the fire or refilling her teacup. The snow has brought peace and beauty.

And then, suddenly, Ernst and Felix are there, and Gertrude arrives, stamping the snow off her boots, and even Emmy emerges from her bedroom, her hair still pinned up. For a second, they stand beside her at the window, silent at the snowfall. And then the chatter comes.

“The lake.”

“The lake is frozen over.” This, from both Gertrude and Felix.

“Mama? Can we? We can go early, if you’d like.” Hannah looks at Emmy, the laughter in her eyes, her hands clutched together, pleading, as if she is a little girl again.

“Of course.” She smiles, and leans forward to touch Emmy’s forehead with a kiss, but Emmy has already disappeared.

Emmy reappears not long after, ice skates slung together. She kisses her father, who peruses the morning paper with a cup of tea. “Becca told me that in Paris there is a Glaciarium.”

“Meaning?” Hannah asks, as they close the front door and set off down the snowy street.

“A huge sheet of ice that, summer or winter, ladies and gentlemen skate on. It’s not real ice, of course. Or, a mixture of ice and other things.”

“It can’t be the same as the lake.”

“Of course not.” Emmy winks and walks faster.

Something catches in her throat when Hannah sees the lake. It has frozen gradually, but the surface carries some white ripples, where the current should be. Everything around it is covered in white. When the children were young, they’d come almost every day in the winter, skating first near the edge and gradually venturing out to the middle. Felix first, then Emmy following her elder brother, wobbling slightly, arms held out for balance.

“Whoohoo! Hannah!”

Hannah turns.

It is Sarah. Somehow, it’s always a shock to see Sarah outside, away from her fire or her oven. Though even here, she stands near a large metal barrel filled with coal, glowing merrily. Hannah steps closer, feels the heat on her face. The Jewish mothers stand on the right, the gentiles on the left, and is it her imagination, or are the gentiles gradually closing ranks, moving around the furnace inch by inch so that the Jewish women are left further and further from the heat.

Sarah stands with her feet planted on the ground, as if she is a tree that has grown there. She reaches out to clutch Hannah’s hand and Hannah is forced to remove her hand from the fur muffler and brace the cold.

“Nice.” Sarah says, eying the muffler.

“A gift from Ernst, for when I returned home.”

Sarah runs her hand over the fur. “Sable.”

Hannah winks. “Oh yes. You know Ernst.”

Im yirtzeh Hashem by me.”

Hannah laughs and turns to watch Emmy, distinctive in her red woolen scarf and gloves. Her hair is coming loose from atop her head, and the sweet little curls that she forms each night in paper bob around her neck. Emmy is a proficient skater, but she is not elegant, like some of the other girls who are circling the lake, gliding along in figure-eights, suddenly spinning on the spot as if they belong in one of those jewelry boxes — open the lid, wind the key, and a young woman skates in circles on the glass of the mirror.

But still, there is something about Emmy. She is like Becca, filled with vibrancy. Though sometimes she sees something brittle in Becca. As though she is filled with forced gaiety, lest something else come out altogether.

Sarah watches alongside her. “A girl and also a woman.”

“I like to see her carefree like this, childish, almost.” It is attractive in a way that the forced curls will never be.

“At any rate, I am sure you have heard.” Sarah drops her voice dramatically.

But Hannah is watching as Emmy spins in the middle of the lake, face tipped up to the sky, laughing.

“Hannah?” Sarah’s hand on her arm.

“Sorry. Heard what?”

“The za’am in Russia is getting stronger. There’s been another train-full of Jews trying to escape.”

Sarah has all her attention now.

“Most of them are continuing their journey directly, on to the New World. Our volunteers simply stand at the stations, and give them the packs we have prepared to help them on their journey.”

“Of course.” A twinge of guilt. How many times has Sarah asked her to help prepare these packages: a loaf of bread, canned foodstuffs, eierkichel, a note from the community in Yiddish, wishing them every brachah for their future. She doesn’t know why she always refuses. Something about fleeing Jews does her no good.

“Well, there are a number who must stay in Prague for a while. An expectant mother — alone, but for her little boy, I do not yet know the story. Three families with young children. The children need to recover, apparently. One of them has stopped talking. And five elderlies.”

There is a young man skating alongside Emmy. He has blonde hair, a short, curled beard. So his mother has not yet given her command. Or perhaps she has, and Joachim is defying it.

“Hannah?”

“Hmmm.”

Sarah cranes her neck and looks at the lake. “Oh, I see why you are not listening.”

Hannah blinks. “Sorry, Sarah.”

Sarah’s green eyes peer into her own. “So I will write you down? To be of assistance to these people? Maybe the expectant mother?”

All she wants to do is be rid of Sarah and run down to the lake, curl one hand above her eyes to shield it from the sun, and watch in fear.

“Yes,” she says quickly. “I shall take care of the expectant mother.”

She turns, quickly. Joachim is gone. Emmy is skating towards the perimeter of the lake, towards her. Hanna kisses Sarah and hurries forward.

Emmy walks up the bank and points towards home. “Come, Mama, it is quite, quite cold.”

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 686)

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