| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 21

Maybe it was easier to miss her when she was gone, than live with her. Maybe he is ashamed of his shtetl wife



t’s not far to the Old Town Square, where the astronomical clock looks upon them from on high. There is always a crowd that gathers as the clock prepares to strike the hour. At eleven o’clock in the morning, they’re lucky that the gathering is relatively sparse.

The boy’s mother had been reluctant to let them go, but Mama had pushed, gently. “Let him go and see Prague,” she had said. The woman had shaken her head.

Mama, unusually, had persisted. “You need a little peace. Have a rest while I do some tidying.”

A long hesitation. Mama had signaled to Felix and he had held out the pencil and notebook for the child, who had accepted them with glee.

A half nod from the mother, and the boy slipped his hand into Felix’s and they had set off to find the Orloj, the famous astronomical clock.

A tug on his hand. “Where?” the boy asks again. “Where? Tell me where to look to see the clock.”

They are directly in front of it now, joining the small crowd—passersby and students and even local shopkeepers—who linger, to mark the passing of another hour. Felix bends down to him. For a second, he has the sensation of being at Leibe’le’s height, and of seeing nothing more than knees and shoes. He hoists the little boys up in his arms, and puts him on his shoulders. “There, now you can see better than I can.”

Felix’s hair is thick, but that doesn’t prevent it from hurting when Leib’le grabs it with both hands.

“Here,” Felix says. He reaches up and gently disengages the boy’s hand from his hair, and places them on his forehead.

He points. “That up there, is a clock.”

“A Zieger?”

“A clock. Do you know what a clock is, Leibe’le? It tells the time. It tells us if it’s the morning, the afternoon, the evening.”

Beside him, a man in a butcher’s apron tips back his head to have a good look. A schoolmarm troops along with her class of schoolchildren—probably some history lesson.

Felix watches the second hand move slowly around the clockface. It won’t be long now.

“Like the zun.”

“Well, yes. The sun, maybe was the first clock.”

“Even though it’s a ball of fire. A ball of fire clock.”

The little child is bright. Felix is strangely glad. “Yes.” He should pay attention to the way this little boy’s mind works. After all, he is writing for children now.


“So this is a very special clock. Do you know why?” Before he can explain, the figure of the skeleton begins to ring his bell and nod his head.

“See that?” Felix points.

He feels the little boy jerking on his shoulder.

Two windows on top of the clockface open, and figures parade past.

“It’s not just the time. It also shows where we are in the zodiac,” Felix offers.

“Zo… What’s that?”

“The earth—that’s our planet, the place where we live, it moves around the sun. In orbit. And it passes by different stars on its journey.”

How much does Leibe’le understand? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

“It passes by stars? But how did I not see them?”

“Maybe you did. In the night. But you didn’t notice.”

“Maybe I was in bed.”

“Ah. Right.”

The windows close and a bell begins to toll.

“Each month, the earth passes different stars, as it travels around the year.”

The boy is quiet. He probably does not understand a word.

Felix tries again. “So what do you know about the calendar?”

The little boy’s voice is high and clear in his ear. “A few days after Rosh Chodesh, after Shabbos, my Tatte would go out and dance in front of the new moon. He used to hold my hands, just so—” Leib’le’s hands flutter in front of his face, waiting.

Felix reaches up and Leib’le takes them, holds them tight, then loosens, so that they are lightly held, skin against skin.

“And what would you do then?”

“Sing.” Careless of the crowd, totally unselfconscious, Leible begins to sing, “Tovim m’eoros shebara Elokeinu…li li li liy liy liy…”

Kiddush Levana. The blessing of the new moon. He had never said it himself, and certainly Papa never recites it. But, ignoring the bell’s toll, Felix dredges up a memory: Uncle Schneur, outside on a frosty night, gazing up at a crescent moon. It had seemed faintly comical, his half jumping, coming inside and pumping Felix’s hand, Shulem Aleichem.

He thinks, further, takes a telescope to the memory. Shneur was always a big man, but watching him looking up to the moon made him suddenly small. We all feel small sometimes. And Shneur had said something about the Jews’ enemies being defeated, and Felix, for a second, had wondered if there was some kind of cache of weapons hidden in the moon’s craters. Or if there was some power that could be drawn down, which would destroy the enemies.

Like the mist over the Vltava, the memory is patchy. As soon as he catches some of it, the rest begins to drift away.

“Kiddush Hachodesh. There’s something about the enemies of the Yidden, no?” he asks.

A nod, again his hair is ruffled by the little boy’s chin.

The bell stops ringing. The crowd begins to disperse. The show is over. Now time is just a river, current flowing ceaselessly, no one noticing until a skeleton rattles its hour glass once more, and another hour has slipped away. Felix turns. His shoulders ache, and he swings Leib’le down to the ground. A little hand touches his own, and Felix looks down. Leib’le is holding out his hand for Felix to take. Felix wraps his hand around, strangely moved.

He shouldn’t. It is unfair. Unwise. But he can’t help himself. Know a man’s enemies and you know who he is.

“Is that the goyim?” he asks. “The enemies, I mean.”

The little boy crinkles his nose, and disdain is written across his pale skin and delicate features. “The goyim? Nein. They’re just silly fools. The enemy of the Yidden is the yetzer hara, of course.”

Of course. As they turn towards Leib’le’s home, the shadow of the skeleton grows longer.


One foot in the house and Hannah senses something is wrong.

For one thing, Gertrude is not singing one of her endless ballads. In the quiet, she hears sounds coming from Emmy’s room. Wails. Loud wails.

Her heart sinks, and a great sigh escapes her before she can push it back.

Emmy. Poor, poor Emmy. Joachim must have finally told her that they have no future together. And again the question comes, but this time mingled with guilt and regret. She should have told her. She should have been a mother protecting her daughter. And if she could not do that, if Emmy doesn’t trust her mother enough for Hannah to cushion her daughter’s falls, then she regrets that things are not different between them.

She steps closers and hears Ernst’s voice. His words are slightly clipped, authoritative. Unusual for Ernst, who is normally long and lingering in his speech.

She hesitates for a moment, then knocks, Ernst pushes the door open. From over his shoulder, she sees Emmy lying face down on her bed, shoulders heaving. It can only be…

The bust of Goethe—a gift from Joachim—is on the floor.

She steps towards Emmy, half-dreading this encounter, half-waiting to pull her daughter close. Emmy glances up, face red and blotchy. She takes a great, staggering breath.

As she does, Ernst turns. “My dear, Emmeline and I have been having a small talk about the value of dignity.”


His eyes are sad, but there is something set in his shoulders, and a tautness around his mouth. “Of how we must never forget our status as a lady, no matter what happens, and that will show how we have risen above it all.”

He stands up, crosses his arms, his feet planted firmly apart. Separating her and Emmy.

“There are lessons we all have to learn. And if we do not learn them when life is easy upon us, we will learn them the hard way.”

On the bed, Emmy’s violent sobs have given way to something calmer. But her face. On her face is no longer the violence of anger and hurt, but something that touches Hannah more. A kind of desperation.

Hannah meets Ernst’s blue eyes. “May I go to her, Ernst? May I comfort our daughter?”

He looks down at the floor.

“May I?”

“I…” something in his face shutters. “I believe that when Emmy has regained her composure, she will be happy for some company. Let us withdraw until that time.”

He gestures to the door. Hannah stands, watching her broken-hearted daughter, seeing Ernst’s grave look as he gestures to the door.

Husband or daughter? Daughter or husband?

Whichever way she chooses, she will have lost. But maybe she lost long ago.


In the dining room, Hannah’s hand shakes as she pours Ernst tea.

“What time are you performing tonight?” she asks, trying to keep her voice mild. According to her husband, dignity is the first quality of any woman. Bitterness worms inside her. She keeps her voice tight, controlled. “Gertrude has been neglectful of her duties again, and I must ensure that dinner is ready at the appointed time.”

He waves away her playacting, and she is grateful and glad for it, for she could not have borne a conversation about Vivaldi or Mozart or the promising young Mahler.

“Did you foresee this?”

She hesitates. But if anyone deserves the truth, it is Ernst. “I did.”

“And why did you hide it from me?”

She pours her own tea, watching the liquid flow from the spout, carefully adding a spoonful of sugar and a dash of cream. Then she picks up the teacup and cradles it between her hands, not drinking, just trying to find some warmth.

“Hide it?”

She expected… She does not know what she expected. A recrimination: she should not have visited Frau von Albrecht.

“If you had told me about it, I could have taken steps to salvage the match. But more than that, if our daughter’s happiness is at stake, do you not think I should know about it?”

Sudden tears gather and she blinks, once, twice, willing them not to fall.

“I do not know.”

“If you had trusted me, you would have told me.”

Does she not trust Ernst? She does, oh, of course she does. She is a good wife and he is a good husband. He has shown her nothing but tenderness. But, how can she explain, how can she say, that she trusts his heart, but not his judgement?

“I went to visit Frau von Albrecht. I just thought, a mother to mother thing. I wanted to understand the family more.”

“If you wanted to understand the family you could have asked me. I have met Joachim. And I have had certain dealings with his father, although we do not move in similar circles.” He sips, and then heaves a great sigh. “Pray continue.”

“From when I walked in there, she pounced on me.”

“What do you mean by this?”

“She said that… she would not countenance a match with…” Hannah swallows. How to put it? “With someone who has such close connections with the shtetl.”

Ernst nods. “I see.”

Something inside Hannah curls up in shame. Ernst will think he has married a liability. When she returned from Vienna, from the sanatorium, he had comforted her. “Your absence has only made me cherish you more,” he had said, and handed her a jewelry box. Inside, nestled in black velvet, was a delicate silver bracelet. But maybe it was easier to miss her when she was gone, than live with her. Maybe he is ashamed of his shtetl wife.

Come, Hannah, where are the proud words you spoke to Joachim’s mother?

But the pride seems to have suddenly gone, leaving only a childish yearning for reassurance.

A tear runs down her cheek and falls onto her hand.

He clicks his tongue. “It is an opportunity lost. You do know that?”

It is? She feels for Emmy, but she can’t help but be relieved that she will not marry a boy from such an assimilated family.

“Don’t you understand, Hannah? These are complicated times. We need to build a safety net wherever we can find one. This family knows how to do that.”

She opens her mouth to protest, but Ernst shakes his head. “It is true, that we might not want to follow the actions that they have chosen. But surely, it would be wise to benefit from their moves.”

She is quiet. Dignity, after all. A woman does not show it, even when an axe falls through her heart.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 690)

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