| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 48 

Paulina puts down the looking glass and stares. “Are you naïve or just stupid?”



"I am looking for Paulina.”

The man brushes past her.

“Where is Paulina?”

A woman points vaguely toward the sea of tents that sit in the field behind the big top.

“Paulina. I need to find Paulina.”

A young boy shrugs and runs off.

Hannah feels the sweat build on her palms and forehead, although it is freezing and frost crunches under her feet. She opens a tent flap. “Oy!” A man pulls it down again.

She should be doing this logically, methodically. Going from tent to tent, or perhaps finding the man in charge and asking him to direct her, or to call out on his megaphone — Paulina, come and show yourself. You are wanted by a lady.


This way.


That direction.


Grass, night sky, gas lamps, stars, tent flaps, raucous fit of laughter, a distant roar of a tiger.

Paulina Paulina Paula Perla Perla…

She sits in a dark tent, a looking glass propped up on her lap, wiping away her rouge with a soft cloth. The woman looks at her. Is it she? How can it be? But the eyes. There is something in the eyes. But the face, it looks so rough and worn under the makeup.

“Paulina. I have been searching for you.”

Paulina-Perla turns around in her seat and crosses her small arms over her middle. “The answer is no.”

“What do you mean?”



“I will not come and live in your house and entertain your guests and do a little light housework along the way. No, no, no.”


“I am a woman who loves her freedom. I will not be a slave to a gentlewoman. Do not think you are the only one. At least once a week, some gentlewoman comes charging into my tent, wanting to buy me, thinking that I am like a lapdog they will have around the house for their entertainment. Well, the answer is no. I shall not come.”


“I did not for a moment want to suggest—”

“Anyway. I eat a lot. Meat. You’d be annoyed with me after a week. And my voice is too loud and I like to laugh and sneeze and leave a mess. No.”

“But I did not want to buy you. How can one buy a human being?”

Paulina puts down the looking glass and stares. “Are you naïve or just stupid?”

The words wind her. There is not enough air in this small tent.

The tiny woman turns back to her mirror. Pouting her lips she considers her lipstick, hesitates, then attacks her lips with the cloth as well. “So what did you want, eh?”

“I came to find you, Paulina, because—” Can she say it? The words seem trapped in her throat. “Because I am your sister.” She swallows and her heart beats in her ears, so that she will not even hear Perla’s response. “I’ve been searching for you. It is Chanalle. Remember me? Your sister, Chanalle?”

Paulina sits perfectly still. Still, still, still, not moving, not breathing, and oh, this was a mistake, this was a terrible mistake, where have they all ended up, lost, she and Perla, oh, and Becca, too, was there a curse on their parents that they are all scattered and shattered?

Paulina starts to laugh.

Hannah blinks. It is not a laugh of joy.

She places both tiny hands on her middle and rocks back and forth, back and forth, still wearing that hat with the ribbons so they waft through the darkness.

“Paulina—” Hannah reaches out a hand to ground her, remind her that they share the same skin and blood, but Paulina shrinks. Her face twists in rage. She reaches a small hand into the air and slaps Hannah on the cheek. Hannah reels from the blow.

“Get out! Get out!”

Paulina jumps off her chair and runs to the entrance of her tent. “Help!” Paulina bellows into the tent village. “There is a stranger here who is trying to harm me. In the name of all you hold dear, help me!”


Hannah stumbles across the field. There are hillocks and troughs and exposed roots that she never noticed before, and twice she finds herself with her feet entangled, falling. She catches herself just in time.

She is breathless, but she does not know whether this is because she is running, or because the pain pressing down on her chest is so strong so that it is hard to catch her breath, or to open her lungs. The smell of damp grass rises and feels overpowering.

Felix and Emmy are waiting for her. She only has to reach them. To put distance between herself and the circus. And the tent city. And Perla. Paulina. Her cheeks don’t hurt, though surely they are red. It is her heart that feels shredded, ribboned, attacked with a knife.

She looks up and sees a light bobbing across the field, where the exit should be.

It is not a lamp. It is a Shabbos candle that her mother has lit.

It is a yahrtzeit light.

It is a candle, in a tiny glass holder, perched atop a grave.

It is a soul, that has loosened from its body and hovers at the entrance of the circus. Maybe it is not just one soul, but a collection of souls that together have thickened into that light that bobs up and down.

There has been a slash in the veil of the world, and from behind it, an otherworldly light shines, reminding her, somehow, that there is something other than darkness and cruelty.

She is closer, now. There is the sound of voices. Felix and Emmy.

She looks up into their faces and sees that the light is a lost star that has plummeted down from its place among the stars, and has been caught by Felix and is cradled in Emmy’s two hands.


The hotel Felix has found them is a good place, with large fires, so you slowly feel your bones begin to thaw. Felix ordered them warm cider with cinnamon, and although she’s still numb, as if she will never be able to feel again, Hannah find that the sweet spiciness comforts her and the alcohol calms her, until she finds it hard to believe where she has been and what she has heard.

“Oh, Mother. Mother, Mother, Mother.” Emmy shakes her head and there is no mistaking the glitter of tears in her eyes.

“Emmy,” Felix warns.

“Really. After all this searching. And now to come so close, only to push her away.”

It is all Hannah can do to restrain passing on the slap that Perla gave her. She closes her eyes, willing the world — and her daughter — to remove themselves from her, so she can lose herself in this pleasant cocoon of warmth and dim light and sweetness on her tongue.

When she speaks her voice is ragged. “It is not that I pushed her away. She… she is different.”

“Well, she is a horsewoman for a start.”

But it is not that. Not that Hannah knows what it is. She gropes for an explanation. “Her face. There is something in it that has become hard and coarse.”

Felix shrugs. “Well, she has a rough life. She does not live in a comfortable and warm Prague house, snug with fires and brick walls.”

“No, indeed. She lives in a tent.” Hannah hangs her head.

“Are you feeling well, Mama?” Felix asks.

Hannah shakes her head.

“No. No, I am not feeling well.”

“But Mama. Mama. Please. I need to hear every word. You cannot simply sit there and not tell us all. It was because of me that this happened, that we have found her. It was my work, the letters that I posted, my idea. All of this was my idea.”

Emmy is red-eyed. She understands precisely nothing about the world, and Hannah feels a shaking rage toward her daughter that she has led her here to this place, to this confusion, to this discovery that is the worst thing that has ever happened to her.

And she is angry with Felix, she finds, as she looks up at her son. Why did he simply go along with it all, when it was bound to be a disaster, one way or another. This whole trip went against every rational reason for success. They should have known. She should have known. Why did she not think this far, wonder what would happen if they actually found Perla.

She puts her hand on her forehead, presses between her eyes. But of course, she never thought that they would really find her. They were sure that Perla was dead, and at most they would perhaps confirm that. Emmy would shed some tears and spend a few days mourning an aunt she had never met and then they would move on.

The search for Perla would have made her forget Joachim, and shown her that the world is big and there are all kinds of troubles that eclipse losing the man you thought you would marry. Very neatly, all would be set to rest and Emmy would have learned a few lessons about life and at some inconvenience and expense — moderate, but not too terrible — she would learn to live with a little more reserve and thought and find a nice Jewish gentleman to marry. Someone solid. A mensch.

Well, then, maybe you too were using Perla. For your convenience.

She shudders and Felix looks at her.

No. It could not be so. Not for a minute did she think that there would be a different outcome.

But now, here they are. And Perla is found, but Perla is unfound. She is a stranger.

“Tomorrow. I will go and talk to her. Paulina. We all will,” Emmy says. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and slowly extends her hand over the burnished wooden table. “I am sorry, Mama, I should not have gotten angry.”

Hannah sips her warm drink and summons a quiet from within so that she can address her daughter. “I know, Emmy. But please understand. For you, this is an elaborate puzzle to solve. A treasure hunt, of sorts. But this is my sister. Can you not think about how much this hurts me?

“I ache, and my head is spinning, and I do not know if all this is real or some elaborate show, where we are all dressed up and taken to a foreign place to pretend that this is life, when really it is no such thing, it is not life at all. Just a dream. Or an elaborate game of charades, such as we used to play when you were children.”

The old pictures resurface in Hannah’s mind. The dining room cleared of all furniture and a pair of curtains hanging from a rail that was erected in the middle of the room. Felix announcing the performance with a bugle call from between his hands: Jonah and the Whale was a favorite, or King David and Absalom’s Rebellion.

Emmy always wanted to be King David, though Felix told her that she must be Absalom, with his long, curling hair. But Emmy prevailed. The only item that was allowed to remain was the rocking horse. It would sit, center stage, and Emmy would drape herself over it as she keened: My son, my son, Absalom, my son, my son.

It would send shivers down her spine. Soon enough, they would prance off the make-do stage and the ivory horse would remain, with its large eye that looked almost human.

Back and forth. It is real, it is a play. It is a story from their history, it is today’s tragedy. It is raucous laughter, it is a cry and lament and wail that pierces the present.

to be continued…

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 717)

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