“A violent man is roaming the old ghetto, looking for poor families, persuading them to send away their daughters. Does that not sound suspicious?”
"So, are you going to reveal your secret?”
Felix sighs. Papa is at a performance. Mama is in her bedroom, reading Tehillim, or her techinos. He thought he would have a glass of wine and some time alone to think over the events of the last few days. But Emmy follows him. And Emmy will not give in. She never has.
He shakes his head. No point in wasting the word no.
“Nothing to explain.”
Emmy raises her eyebrows and pulls a face. “Oh, so nonchalant.”
Felix runs his finger across his cheek and then winces. “This you mean? Nothing really. Just—”
He sips his wine. “Hans and Bertha.”
She laughs. “Why did I not think of that. Hans and Bertha. Of course. What else?”
“Why, did you think a gentleman like me would be involved in a street brawl?”
“Surely not. Hans and Bertha is the only explanation.”
“So what have they been up to now?”
“They were on their way to see the Orloj in the snow. Did you know we had snow here while you were away?”
“And they saw an old woman selling snowdrops.”
“The old lady was blind and a young ruffian came over and grabbed a bunch of the flowers she was selling.”
“But not the money in the cup?”
“Not the money. The flowers.”
“Well, Hans and Bertha ran after him. Hans dashed in front, and Bertha pulled on his scarf and they had almost stopped him, but he was a bit too much for them.
“And of course, they’re just children, so I had to help out. It would not have been decent to leave them to tackle the ruffian alone.”
“Of course not.” She licks her lips. “So that’s how it happened?”
Felix opens his eyes wide and nods. “And I’m happy to report that the old lady received her snowdrops back. Some were a little crushed, it cannot be denied. But there were still buyers, for there’s nothing like a snowdrop on a winter’s day.”
Emmy nods slowly then picks herself up from the stool on which she had been perching and lays down in the middle of Felix’s bed.
Felix cock his head to one side. “Could I kindly request the Frauline move so that I may retire for the night?”
He folds his arms. “Excuse me. Pray, do I deserve an explanation for this sudden residence on my place of retirement?”
“It is you who must give me an explanation.”
His fingers creep to his cheek. She does not even know half of it. She does not know about the ache in his ribs or the slash in the flesh of his arm,
“What is this? Do you think you are my wife?”
Her eyes open wide. “Your wife? Do you think a wife would be so pushy? Can you imagine Mama forcing Papa this way? No, no, a good wife should be seen and not heard, unless it is a pretty song or an amusing story.”
“You are too young for cynicism.”
She waves her handkerchief through the air. “It’s the generation, my dear. We are all ripe for cynicism.”
She is right. They have all been taught to think too much, want to much, be too much, and all they see is their own inadequacies, and the world around has turned into a prison, promising, promising, promising, then turning around and slapping them in the face when they dare to reach out their arms. He sighs. His arms hurts. His bed calls.
“Get off my bed and take the stool and I will tell all.”
“On your honor.”
“On my honor.”
She jumps out of bed and he wonders at her energy. He kicks off his slippers, and lays down. His head sinks into the down pillow and he lets his body unstiffen.
He tells her, quickly and concisely. The man at Wolf’s with the advertisement. How they had gotten talking, and how he had led the man on with his questions. “That’s what happens when you think you’re a journalist when in reality you are a children’s writer,” he says. “Journalists don’t just smell a story. They smell danger.”
“And it was the same man who attacked you.”
“Yes. Certainly. He even said something about me encroaching on his territory.”
She leans forward, obviously excited by the story. “So what did you do next?”
“I came home and tried to hide the bruise from Papa.”
“I did not realize it was an art.”
“Men consistently underestimate what it takes to be a good woman.”
“But Papa noticed, surely, but you were able to fob him off with some silly explanation.”
“But that was not my question. What did you do about this man and his territory?”
He shrugs. “What should I have done?”
She flings out her arms, in her best theatrical manner. “You had a lead. A violent man is roaming the old ghetto, looking for poor families, persuading them to send away their daughters. Does that not sound suspicious? Does that not have all the elements of a headline-worthy, sell-out-this-week’s-paper story?”
He shifts. His body is heavy and all he wants to do is to get rid of Emmy’s voice which is needling him somewhere uncomfortable, and go to sleep.
“Does it or does it not?”
He yawns. Will she just go away? “It does.”
She jumps up from the stool and stands over him. “Well, then, what are you going to do about it? Let him succeed? Creep around his so-called territory? Or go and knock on every door and find out what the man has been up to?”
“Don’t know,” he mumbles.
“Well, I do.”
“Can I go to sleep now?”
She nods and walks over to his bedroom door. “One last thing.”
“What was your purpose in visiting Chasya?”
It’s two o’clock before Becca walks into the house, wondering what else the day will throw at her. She closes the front door, steps back, and looks.
There are three squares of fabric pinned to the back of the door.
It is a good system. After two weeks of trying to convey messages, of people calling for Becca for help with anything from the pain of a rotten tooth to childbirth to a little girl who refuses to utter a word, and all of the messages getting scrambled or forgotten or confused, Fortuna had come up with the fabric method.
Each family is represented by a different scrap of fabric. When something is urgent, it is the red scrap of fabric with the yellow silk slashes over it. Something to do with death is white—Becca blinked the first time she saw it, thinking black would have been more appropriate, but then…what did she know? White it was. Usually, death could wait, at least for her to gulp down a little luncheon and a glass of pomegranate victual.
What couldn’t wait were women who were falling apart, or serious illness. Each time Becca would finish with one family, she would return back to Fortuna, and survey the scraps pinned to the back of the front door. A good day would see two or three scraps. A bad day would be six or seven, and then she’d have to ask the family to provide an escort, for she would not be back home until well after dark.
If Fortuna thought of this system because she cannot simply write down the names and addresses of the people who call for Becca, then Becca will be the last person to say anything.
Today, the first square is a red scrap of fabric with yellow silk slashes. Something is urgent.
“Fortuna?” she calls out. “Is it Nona?”
No answer. Perhaps Fortuna is lying down, she sometimes rests at this hour.
The second scrap of fabric is green like a peacock feather. It must be Fortuna’s upstairs neighbors. The woman always wears a scarf this color. She is highly pregnant, and together they have been discussing how to prepare the house for a new baby. Not that Becca knows what it is to be a mother, but her mother was always pushing her into other homes to care for newborns. Now she looks back and tries to distinguish: What helped one to cope and what led others to flounder apart from how loud the baby cried?
The third scrap is a piece of blue silk. She tries to think. She unpins the scrap and goes in search of Fortuna. “Whose home is this?” she asks.
Fortuna bustles into the main room, unpins the two remaining scraps and sets them back in the basket.
Becca fingers the silken blue scrap of cloth. It’s a new color. She points. “What is it?”
“The Rosh Kehal.”
“The Rosh Kehal?” She has heard of him, but never met him. Too old for young children, too young for illness and death. What could be wrong? And how has he come to call her, little Becca? Newcomer to the community. Outsider. Still under suspicion.
“And what is wrong with him?”
Fortuna shakes her head. “They would not say.”
“Is there time for me to sit and eat?”
Fortuna smiles. “If you do not want to faint on the way, then I trust that you will eat.”
Becca smiles and pats Fortuna’s arm. Every woman who wants to do something in the world needs a woman who will take care of her. Where would she be without Fortuna and her silk scarves and her teas, infused with a mixture of lemon rind and mint leaves and far too much honey?
“It did not sound too urgent.”
Next to her plate are two letters, both from Europe. She picks up the envelopes and is about to rip them open. “You don’t—”
Fortuna throws her hands into the air. “News from home. Come on. Open it. From your sister, no?”
Becca looks at the postmark and nods. She slides her finger under the flap and opens the thick envelope. She reaches inside. A note and a second envelope. The note is from Felix.
Hello, dear Aunt Becca,
I do hope you are well. It is rather intriguing being postmaster at times. Perhaps you can enlighten a budding journalist? Mama is due home next week, I am sure she will catch you up on all the news, at your home and ours.
Becca drops the note.
“Not your sister?”
She wrinkles her nose. “My nephew. My sister’s son.”
She opens the second envelope, covered in colored postmarks and already, presumably, opened by Felix. It is from Istanbul. Who does she know in Istanbul?
She opens the letter and sees the Yiddish cramped across the page.
Those two girls, the girls who accompanied her on the journey. Fraydl and Raizel. Her eyes jump to the bottom of the page. Fraydl.
No more than a child. Far too young and innocent to be so far from home.
What does she write? How is she managing in her domestic employment?
I have no reason to fear that we will not be provided for when Pesach arrives, for we already have maror aplenty.
She drops the letter and closes her eyes, better to think.
She feels a hand reach over and picks up the paper. “Becca? Is all well at home?”
Becca opens her eyes. Fortuna’s dark eyes are filled with concern.
“At home? Yes.” She gives a bitter laugh.
“I see that you are distressed. And yet, there are people who await your counsel. Will you eat, please, and put your worries to the side, for the Rosh Kehal is expecting you to call.”
Becca rubs her forehead. She pushes away her plate, but Becca nudges it back towards her. She feels slightly nauseous. But Becca is right. The Rosh Kehal whoever he is, whatever he wants, is waiting. She will put aside thoughts of Fraydl, at least until this evening. After all, she thinks, chewing on saffron rice, there are only so many lives one can save in a single afternoon.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 706)
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