She has disobeyed a cardinal rule. Never interrupt in the middle of a poem. A poem must be savored, from beginning to end
"Will there be a comfortable mattress?”
Hannah cocks her head to one side, considering. In one word, no. She pushes down on Emmy’s mattress, stuffed with wool. At home — home! — the mattresses are stuffed with hay.
Emmy lifts her eyebrows. “Well, Mama?”
“I have an idea. We will take along your down quilt, and spread it over the mattress there. Then we’ll cover the whole thing with a sheet. You’ll sleep like a baby.”
She lifts a pen and adds to her list: extra down quilt. Sheets. She thinks for a moment. They may as well take along pillows for good measure.
“And I shall not be expected to fold up my gowns and stuff them into drawers, shall I?”
“Of course not.”
She marks down on her list: hangers. Not that there will be enough space in the little wardrobe, but she may be able to persuade Shneur to hammer a few strong nails into the wall; the hangers can be placed on the nails.
“And Mama...” Emmy’s eyes open wide, pleading. “I shall not be expected to eat kasha, shall I?”
Hannah bursts into laughter. “No Emmy. No kasha for you.”
The night before they leave, Ernst tries to coax Emmy into a musical evening, but she refuses. He pats the ottoman and asks Hannah to sit with him. “Shall we have some poetry?” he asks.
He picks up a small, leather-bound volume, opens at random and begins to read.
We speak with the lip, and we dream in the soul,
Of some better and fairer day;
And our days, the meanwhile, to that golden goal
Are gliding and sliding away.
“Sad,” Hannah interrupts.
She has disobeyed a cardinal rule. Never interrupt in the middle of a poem. A poem must be savored, from beginning to end. Its meaning is always new, there is forever space for fresh interpretation, but the words must be allowed to be spoken.
Ernst puts down the book, puzzled. “I thought you liked Schiller.”
She nods, slowly. She has no patience for this right now. The trunks are packed, but she would gladly unpack them all and redo Gertrude’s painstaking work, only to have something to do with her hands.
“Excuse me. I am just… uneasy.”
He nods. “Quite understandable. To leave behind that young mother. I do believe you have become quite attached to each other.” He sets down the poetry book and looks carefully at her. “It has been good for you. You have been more like your old self. Industrious. Busy. More cheerful.” He smiles. “Tell me about your sense of unease.”
“It is not only Chasya and the baby.”
Dr. Werther’s face. His words: Speak out what is in your heart.
She didn’t realize how much courage that could take. We assume that the buttoned-up mouth is the paragon of control, but maybe it is just a person who has succumbed to fear.
“Taking Emmy to my childhood home—”
What can she say? That she is ashamed of her daughter? That she is proud of her daughter, but afraid that she will put her, Hannah, to shame? That she is afraid that Emmy will disdain her parents, her old home? Or that her parents will treat Emmy as a foreign thing, instead of a granddaughter. That she is afraid her love for Emmy will fracture in the face of Emmy’s rejection of what is so close to her heart.
She is a coward. She shares only what she judges Ernst is able to hear. She meets his eyes and says, softly but clearly. “I am afraid that Emmy will not open herself up to liking it. And if she does not like my childhood home, she will turn her anger on me, her mother, and make me feel as a foreigner to her.”
First his eyes are hard with anger, but they soften into something she cannot name. “Emmy is my little pet, it is true. Fathers and daughters. But she forgets something. For all her adulation of her father, she forgets that her father chose her mother.”
Relief floods through her, slowly at first, then warming her fingers, her arms, her heart. Something releases. Enough for her to say, “I will miss you.”
He pats the couch, inviting her to sit beside him. “And I, you. Sometimes I think that you do not see what you give to us all, our little family.”
She waits, but he does not elaborate.
He has always been a man more of notes than of words. She has an idea. “Play it for me. Play what you will miss in me.”
His face crinkles into a smile that becomes a laugh. He walks over to the piano, lifting the lid. He sets both hands on the keys, spreads his long, sensitive fingers. The melody is one she doesn’t recognize, he is improvising, just for her. A slow smile spreads across her face.
Here and there she hears a passage she recognizes: a snatch of Shalom Aleichem, then she suddenly hears the Yiddish melodies she hums as she braids the challah. Once, she had added her own, ay ya ya ya to the tune, and Felix had turned to her. “Why, Mama, you are singing the letters of G-d’s name, alef and yud.” She had blinked, confused. It was just something that left her mouth, without thought. But perhaps.
Ernst plays on. The left hand turns stormy, even as the right hand continues its delicate melody. And then, it circles back to the opening. A tune that is unfamiliar but also familiar, a trill of lightness to it, with the minor chords bringing a sense of yearning.
She closes her eyes. The music is both a lullaby and a serenade, a storm at sea and the rays of suns sparkling on the still water. She lets herself be cradled by the music until it is not just something she hears with her ears, but senses with all her body, it caresses her skin.
When he is finished, he sits for a moment, then turns around.
She smiles through the tears that fill her eyes. She takes a deep breath. “I… I didn’t realize that you know me so well.”
He tilts his head and pulls a face. “Come, Hannah.”
She tries again. “I didn’t realize that… This was beautiful.”
“Yes. A fitting portrait, then.”
The carriage jogs through the darkness. It will continue almost all through the night. They will arrive, if all goes well, with the break of a new day. Hannah is glad of it, as it will show the small village not as a squalid group of rough houses, but will lend the scene a certain glow, a softness.
How many times has she been back, over the years? Three maybe. The first time was when Felix was a baby. The trip was not a success.
First her father had insisted on calling Felix “Feivel.” And then he had demanded to know why they were using Feivel as a name, when it didn’t run in the family.
“But it’s not Feivel, Papa,” she had exclaimed, as Felix had cried endlessly. A new tooth? Or something in her diet? “It’s Felix. Felix means joy, felicitations.”
“Joy? So he should be called Osher, not Feivel. Ushy,” he crooned at the baby, suddenly placated. Felix, surprisingly, stopped crying and stretched out his hand. His little fingers closed around Papa’s long beard. He pulled. Papa jumped. Hannah did not bother to translate the stream of Yiddish that followed for Ernest.
But Papa quickly returned to himself and wanted to take a family field trip to the beis hachayim — because there were Ushys in the family, he just couldn’t quite place them. Ernst looked at Hannah with desperation. Shneur saved the day.
“Papa, they come all the way from Prague, with its coffee shops and theaters, and this is what we can offer them in return? A graveyard? Come, let us sit around and be comfortable, and maybe little Ushy” — here he winked at Hannah, and she breathed out gratefully — “will calm himself.”
Her mother appeared and held out a piece of biscotti. Hannah bit her lip. Under instruction from Sarah, Felix had only eaten food that was cooked and strained through a sieve, until there was not the tiniest of lumps. Biscotti — could that be good for him? Could he manage it? Was it healthy?
Felix-Ushy grabbed it and stuck it into his mouth, sucking furiously. Quiet descended on the room and then the questions began.
“What exactly do you do in this band of yours?”
“It’s not a band, Papa. It’s an orchestra.”
Orchestra. Her father had never seen an orchestra before. Nor had she, two years ago. Strange that. Now it’s so much part of her life, she can’t imagine life without it.
“There are over a hundred players, Papa, and some instruments look so strange that you can not imagine that they could produce music. And when they play… it’s like you can hear the angels sing.”
Papa had stroked his beard. “Angels sing? Hmm. We have Moshke’s little boy for that. Every Shabbos — you never heard such a voice. Why, even Mama started coming to the shul since Moshke’s boy started singing.”
She had looked around at her mother, who nodded, eyebrows raised as if to fend off Hannah’s surprise.
“So, I have a son-in-law who plays with the angels. Could be worse.”
Ernst is lost. And she longs to say, Papa, why can’t you be normal? Why the interrogation? Why not your usual blend of humor and stories, a touch of gossip but only that which skims over other’s faults, and highlights their good-natured foibles?
Papa can talk the hindquarters off a donkey, Mama always said, Shneur agreed. In fact, it’s family legend how the gendarmes once came in search of Berel the butcher, who didn’t turn up to a court case. They were intercepted by Papa and talked until night fell, having forgotten their errand.
What will her parents be like now? How will they treat Emmy?
A voice comes out of the darkness. “Mama? Are you asleep?”
She could not dream of sleep now.
They will be there in time for Chanukah. And that will be a relief. To miss the Xmas celebrations, the parade through the city, the inevitable concerts and the little hum and smile on Ernst’s face. When she had asked him about it, shocked, years before, he had sung her the line of a carol: Tis the season to be merry. And for them, she could see why. Gifts. The scent of pine in the air. Winter’s gloom was lifted by the extra gas lights that were placed not just in Wenceslas Square, but across all the river.
And when they walked down to the river in the evening, on the rare occasion that Ernst wasn’t playing, the place was alive. The smells of roasting chestnuts, people poured out of their homes for the newest trend — a ghost walk through the city, led by a guide who will stop at every corner and tell you of the spirits and demons that were seen there. Felix had snorted when he heard, and Ernst had shaken his head sadly: Why are they entertaining themselves with this when they could be uplifted by some of the most beautiful concerts of the year?
But that was for them. We have Chanukah. This year, she’d stand in front of the dancing flames of her father’s menorah.
“Tell me something about your Papa. Grandfather.” Emmy hesitates. “Zeide.”
Hannah leans her head back against the cushioned leather seat.
“He likes to tell stories. He’d always tell us stories about princesses who were captured from the palace and taken off to islands, and golden mountains and lands which no one had entered, which no one knew.”
“Is it?” Her voice has an edge of sharpness, and she swallows, modulates her tone. “One time I asked him, why is it always the princesses who are taken and the princes who are getting themselves into trouble and being banished from the castle? Why can’t you have it the other way around? The prince gets taken and the princess is banished?”
Emmy laughs. “What did he say?”
“He told me the princes being banished, that’s not such a kashe. But the princesses.” She stops and considers again his words; she hadn’t understood them then, and is maybe only starting to understand them now. “That’s the power of a woman.”
“The power of love or receiving love, of being open to the world. It’s not so possible nowadays, according to Zeide. A woman has to be closed. She has to be clever and wily. She has to be on her guard. She can’t open up too much, lest the knowledge be twisted and used against her, so that is why the women are kidnapped. It’s as if their power is taken.”
“Is that what you think?”
Emmy and Joachim. Emmy traveling with her, to the most unlikely place in all the world, because she gave away her heart and must now nurse its fragility.
And what of her and Ernst?
“I’ll tell you what Shneur once explained. He said that the word Shechinah is feminine and symbolizes renewal. For woman, by her nature is renewal.”
“I don’t really understand.”
“Mmm. Nor do I.” But still, there is something silently tragic about the woman being taken that touches her in an unknown place.
The night grows colder. They speed along in the carriage, born by two chestnut mares who paw the ground and snort clouds of white into the darkness.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 697)
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