Was it better not to ask the questions and live in a fantasy world in which one’s conscience remains clear?
Felix rolls over in bed and covers his face with his hand. He should have studied law. He should have studied law and unearthed an ancient jurisdiction against waking up a gentleman on New Year’s Day.
Wilhelm is standing far too close to him. He puts both fingers in his mouth and whistles. Up, down, trill.
“Wilhelm! Please. What gentleman—”
“Guess who I met last night?”
“How should I know?”
“Earth-shattering. I’ve lost count of your uncles.”
“Yes, well, that is not helped by the fact that my father insists I call uncle every man he once drank coffee with.”
“Just tell me about it, Wilhelm. And let me go back to sleep.”
“My uncle. The lawyer. Well, not just a lawyer. He has his finger in every pie that’s worthy of the name.”
Felix opens one eye and then closes it. “Go on.”
“I asked him about the name of that shipping company.”
“Shipping company.” He didn’t drink too much last night, not that he remembers. But talk of a shipping company has him flummoxed.
Felix blink and sits up in bed.
Wilhelm claps his hands. “Ah, some reaction at last.”
Austrian Lloyd was one of the names that appeared on the bank records Joachim gave him. Every day since he was handed a copy of the brown manila file, he has been trying to trace a thicket of names. The only company that appeared, with regular transaction being paid to them, was Austrian Lloyd. A shipping company.
“My uncle told me that they are the biggest shipping company in these parts, with over 70 steamers.”
Wilhelm looks offended. “But that’s not all.”
“They’re waist-high deep in the slave trade.”
Felix shakes his head. “It’s not possible. Even in Ottoman Turkey, slavery was abolished 30 years ago.”
“Well, listen to this. It all blew up ten years ago, when the Mars was searched by the British consul in Izmir and found to be carrying, among other cargo, an 18-year-old boy purchased in Egypt for a pasha in Istanbul. A 16-year-old African. A clutch of little children. So they continued searching. The Jupiter, the Apollo, Urano, the Diana—”
Felix closes his eyes. “So many pagan gods.”
Wilhelm shakes his shoulders. “So many men who think that they are gods.”
The comment sobers him. He passes a hand over his eyes and wishes for a cup of coffee.
Wilhelm leaves the room. Felix hears him bound down the stairs, gone to give orders to Gertrude in the kitchen. Whatever it was that he drank last night, it must have been exceptionally poor quality. This is not a dull-ache headache, but a hammer between his eyes. Slavery. The slave trade. Well, not slavery, per se, of course. This was civilization. They were far away from primitive history.
So what, then, Felix?
He closes his eyes. Transportation of domestic workers.
The door opens. The aroma, strong and bitter, does its work even before he lifts the steaming glass to his lips and sips.
“There is no evidence here.”
“So a man transferred money — repeatedly — to a shipping company. A company that happens to be implicated in transporting, ahem, domestic workers to Istanbul and Alexandria. What is there to go on?”
“Almost nothing. But it’s an arrow. An arrow that points in a certain direction. And those who already know where the arrow can fall may be able to look at the arrow and build it into something more solid.”
“Identify the man who wields the bow?”
He takes another sip. Ah, coffee. How did they ever manage without it? And yet, this too, was once, probably still, cultivated by slaves, sweating in fields, chained by the ankle, whipped on the back.
Could he refrain from drinking it? No. Was it better not to ask the questions and live in a fantasy world in which one’s conscience remains clear? Or was it better to face the truth and accept the fact that no one can walk through This World without a stain on his soul?
It’s a thought too difficult for a New Year’s morning. 1882. A new start.
“So what do you suggest?”
“Turn the whole thing over the police.”
He raises his eyebrows.
“Why are you holding onto this information? Just so that you can break this story? We’re two students, Felix. This is too big for us. The police have whole bevvies of investigators. Throw them a few crumbs and they’ll be off on the trail. A trail we do not have the resources or wherewithal to follow.”
Felix sighs. The coffee has turned cold and these truths are unappetizing.
Wilhelm’s blue eyes are large, and filled with uncharacteristic intensity. “For the sake of those young women, we must take this information to the police investigators.”
Felix touches the scab on his left arm. Once it is healed, the flesh will be scarred. This man — all he has on him is a list of transactions. None for extraordinary sums, although doubtless there is profit made. Surely the man has other bank accounts, in other names. And it’s clear that he is only one man in a web of connections. The only solid lead they have is the Austrian Lloyd, and that’s only circumstantial.
It would have made a good story, but he has neither the connections nor the skill to uncover it.
“Yes. You are right. Whatever paltry information we have, we would do well to turn it over to the police.”
Wilhelm grabs his hand and shakes it. “Tomorrow, then.”
Becca stands and looks out of the window of the Rosh Kahal’s home. New Year’s Day. Who would have guessed that it would have made her feel so homesick? Here, apparently, the new year begins in March. And the Jews, of course, celebrate Rosh Hashanah.
She has asked Fortuna, and the other women she has seen, but none of them have any associations at all with Jour de l’An. The day of the year.
The lump on the bed stirs.
No answer. Becca walks over to the bed and sits on the wicker chair. “Do you know what today is?”
She does not expect an answer. The girl has used up everything to get here. There is not enough left even for words.
“Today is the first day of the new year. The goyishe new year. 1882. What do you think it will bring?”
She pauses for long enough for the girl to feel that this is a conversation, not just a monologue, though she does not expect an answer.
“Let me tell you what we used to do on this day in Paris.”
It’s depressing to look at the mound of sheets on the bed, a few stray blonde hairs peeping out of the top. She cannot be sleeping. Not still. The sheets are too bunched up for sleep — they are being clutched from the inside. Just looking at it makes something inside clench with outrage and sorrow. She takes a breath. That will not help Raizel.
“At the end of the summer, we’d go to an orchard and pick the last plums off the trees. We would take them back home, stone them, and dip them in whisked egg white. Then we’d roll them in sugar and cinnamon and bake them in the oven, on low heat for a long time. I do not remember how long. I’d do the rolling, it was the oldest girl who was in charge of the oven.
“Raizel, there is nothing like a sugared plum straight from the oven. Sweet and warm and the plums are a tiny bit tart. When we’d eaten so much that we would regret it and the plums had cooled we would place them in glass jars.
“On New Year’s Day, we would fill a basket with the jars and walk out onto the streets of Paris, to give a gift of sugared plums to our teachers and the families we knew. Along with cards, of course, beautiful cards that we decorated and inscribed with pretty wishes for the year ahead.”
She pauses, and sits back in the seat. “Raizel?”
She leans over, and is about to touch her, then remembers how Raizel reacted when she pulled at her nun’s habit. For a moment she is at a loss, but then recalls the old, blind woman and how she had talked through each step before she washed her.
“Raizel, I am going to place my hand on your shoulder.”
She leans forward, puts her hand on the girl’s shoulder. The slightest flinch, but she does not throw off Becca’s hand. G-tt in Himmel, what had the girl suffered?
More gaiety. Come on, Becca. Find some more gaiety for the girl.
“When we were finished delivering our treats, we would return to the school. And then came the highlight.”
A deep breath. It’s an effort to talk like this, but she hopes something is soothing the girl. And honestly, she does not know what else to do.
“Each year, the director ordered a sugar-and-marzipan model of the school building. This was placed on a table in the middle of the dining hall, a centerpiece that was oohed and ahhed at all day until, at five o’clock, the little orphan children from the Jewish orphanage were brought in, served egg sandwiches, then let loose on the sculpture.
“How the director would beam as the orphans ate their way through the sugar school. And we students looked on, wishing for a taste. Last year—” was it only last year? — “the director ordered them to save the garden for the students, and I received a tiny sugar orange that was dangling from a sugar tree.”
She had placed it on her tongue and sucked gently, as the sweetness rushed through her and made her smile and suddenly think that this day, the day of the year, was a holiday indeed.
Becca slumps back in her seat. What will get this girl to talk? She feels sure that if she only utters a few words, she will be on a path to healing from the unknown horrors. Since she has come here, she has seen a lot of suffering. But never before was she unable to sleep at night.
She takes her hand off Raizel and walks over to the little table in the corner of the bedroom. There is a gas lamp there, a stone jug of water, and a paper and pen, all laid out for the girl, as if she would move from her bed.
She unscrews the lid of the pen and writes the date, with a flourish, on the top of the paper. First of January, 1882. She pauses. Who to ask for advice? The director, surely. But something stops her. Enough that she has not opened up the school. Now she is putting her energies into a young shtetl girl — instead of the needy of Izmir?
Perhaps she should write to Hannah. But what will Hannah know? Ernst. He will spend far too long prevaricating before sending a reply. Schneur. No. He will be filled with righteous outrage and promises of the Eibeshter’s vengeance, but she needs advice, simple and clear. Who then?
Of course. He would consult with his contemporaries, and consider the situation from a place of logic, not fear.
I hope that this letter finds you well.
I am in dire need of your advice.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 710)
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