| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 49

She is glad of the rush. She wants to be home, with Ernst, in a place where she can try and make sense of it all


Before she succumbed to sleep, Emmy told her, when we go and find Perla tomorrow, tell her a story from home. And so, all night, Hannah lay, staring at the ceiling, dredging up old stories. The next morning, when they arrive at Paulina’s tent and are refused entry, Hannah calls out: “Remember Gittele Frohlich?”

The tent door opens and the three of them bend and enter.

Paulina stands there, with her arms over her middle. “What about Gittele Frohlich?”

Emmy stares. “Who, Mama?”

“There was a young woman, Gittel Frohlich, who lived near us. There was an oak tree just outside her house where the children used to climb. One winter, she lost her husband. The next winter, she lost two of her children. Weak lungs.”

Paulina sniffs.

“Remember?” Hannah asks.

“Go on, Mama,” Felix says.

“On the day she was to get up from shivah, the women of the town — Mama, too — went to accompany her as she walked out of her home, past the tavern and the green and the cheder. But she refused. That afternoon, they sent one of the cheder boys to take away her low chair, so she couldn’t mourn even if she wanted to.

“Did you ever go with Mama to visit her?” she asks Paulina. “Gittel kept the house dark and the candles burning and she never went out of the house.”

“Melancholia,” whispered Emmy.

“Every week, a different woman would go to her house, bring her buckwheat and kasha and barley and potatoes and cheese, a little chicken or meat, as well. And they would try to tempt her out of the house: ‘Come for my Pessel’s chasunah, just the chuppah.’ Or, ‘Come for a piece of cake on Shabbos, we have a new baby girl.’ ”

She shakes her head. “But Gittel never left the house.”

Paulina nods. “We would go to the window to peer inside. When she saw us, she would hand us slices of apple.”

“And do you remember Simchas Torah?” Hannah asks.

Paulina is absorbed. This is good.

“On Simchas Torah we knocked on her window and told her we had come to take her to shul.

“ ‘Run along, kinderlach,’ she said. ‘There’ll be pekelach waiting for you.’

“ ‘But we want you to come with.’

“ ‘I can’t come,’ she said.

“ ‘But why?’

“ ‘You know the reason why.’


“And we children said, ‘The sifrei Torah are outside of the aron kodesh. Today is the day the children are dancing with the sifrei Torah. Your little boys would not have been at home today. They would have been in shul. They’re in shul now, dancing with the sifrei Torah. Why don’t you come and find them in shul?’

“There was a long silence, and then the front door opened. Stooped over, white and pale, and with a rough gray shawl around her — certainly nothing Shabbosdig, but then, she must have been wearing the same clothing for years — she stepped out of the house.

“She was unsteady, and she gripped the railing outside her house. With her other hand she shielded her eyes from the sun, for though it was watery and faint, she was unused to daylight.”

Who is she telling the story to? Perla? Or Emmy and Felix? Or herself? She swallows and forces herself to continue.

“That year — and every year after that, Gittel came to shul on Simchas Torah. She wouldn’t come alone, though, she waited for the children to come to the window and tell her that the spirits of her dead children were dancing with the Torah.”

She turns to Paulina. “Do you remember that world?”

Paulina’s expression is inscrutable.

“Do you remember the world of neshamos dancing with sifrei Torah?”

Paulina slowly shakes her head. “No. I do not remember.”

A sudden gust of wind opens the tent flap and an icy draught makes them all shiver. Emmy and Felix, perched on small stools, bend over to protect themselves from the cold.

Hannah leans forward and whispers. “Why have we survived, Perla?”

Paulina shakes her head. “Not why. How. We have survived because we are freaks. We are the show. We are the people whom others can look to and point, look at their big noses. Look at their stiff necks. Look at how they hang on even when the Russians beat them and their children die of starvation and the goyim attack every Christmas and Saints’ day.

“If G-d made me into a freak, then that is how I will live. All of us here. The old woman, Martha — you must have seen her. And the man with the beard, Pietre. And all the rest of us. We’re saved because we’re something to look at, to laugh at. Well, let them laugh. It keeps us fed and warm and safe.”

Her voice is filled with such anger and bitterness that Hannah forces herself not to recoil. “But please, Perla,” she pleads. “Come home to us. Be with family. Live in comfort.”

Her sister laughs. “Do you think I would put my comfort over my liberty?”

“But you are not free here! Everyone stares.”

“I am my own free woman.”

“Do you think they would clothe you and give you shelter and food if you did not stand up on that horse every night, wearing a glittering shawl and rouge? They protect you because they gain from you. You bring them money.”

“Well, then, I have some use in the world.”

Hannah shakes her head, heart aching, wanting, praying.

Paulina’s voice is harsh. “This is my world. My life. If those people laugh at me, they also love me. They must.”

Felix interrupts. “But what of when you grow old?”

“These are my people now. They will look after their own. This is my home. Why should I not stay here?”

The words come out of Hannah’s mouth before she can consider them. “G-d is not in this place.”

Paulina starts to laugh. “G-d has not been in many of the places I found myself, Hannah. You learn to get by without Him. Wits and luck and kindness. And if you die a little earlier than others, well, that’s a few years’ less suffering and a few less winters to shiver through, so good for you.”

She so much wants to reach her sister, but it is like they are at the wreckage of the Tower of Bavel, each speaking a different language. She says goodness, and means the milk of human kindness, and her sister means a good performance or a night when no one kicked her or made her clean out the monkey cage.

“Please, Perla, come home with us. We live in a house in Prague. I have a husband, Ernst, who plays in an orchestra. And Felix and Emmy — as you see — are grown, and we all live together and we are happy.”

She feels it suddenly, the sweetness of their life together, and it brings sudden tears to her eyes.

“This is my home.”

“This? Living in a tent? Always on the move?”

A bitter laugh. “A true wandering Jew.”

But there’s more. “And every night, performing, riding that horse. I love the horse. And the crowds. It makes me feel alive. This is my life now. Can you not understand that?”

Her eyes are wide, her mouth set. She will not budge. Hannah knows that more definitely than she knows that the tiny woman is her sister.

“So this is it? Are we to find each other only to lose each other?”

Perla shrugs. “If need be.”

Something in her wants to sob, but she also wants to shake some sense into her sister. To say, you are found, you are wanted. You do not have to perform to a crowd and earn your keep through the somersaults you perform on the back of a horse.

“Then I bid you farewell.”

She gestures to Emmy and Felix, who rise and leave the tent. As Hannah stands, Paulina speaks.

“And what of Mama and Tatte?”

Hannah hesitates, swallowing. “They are…” What can she say? “They are alive.”

And finally, finally, familiar words come out of this stranger’s mouth. “Baruch Hashem.”


Becca knocks sharply on the front door. No one answers. She sighs and puts her traveling bag onto the wooden trunk that is fast becoming covered in the slight drizzle. She looks at Raizel. The girl is snug in her traveling cloak and has looked calmer since they arrived in Europe. She has even talked a little.

Long may it last.

She turns to Raizel. “Welcome to the home of my shvester.”

“A frommer?”

“Yes. My shvogger — not so much.”

“And they live in peace?”

“More or less.”

“And they will welcome us?”

“This is something my sister took from our home. We will be welcomed warmly.” She raps sharply on the door for a second time.

The door opens. Becca looks into the stranger’s face. The young woman does not look like a servant, but nor does she look like a gentlewoman.

“Are you the new Gertrude?” Becca asks.

“Gertrude is in the kitchen.” The woman, to Becca’s consternation, does not step aside to let them in. “Would you like me to call her?”

“No. I simply want to know who you are. A friend? A servant? I am Hannah’s sister.”

“Her sister?” The woman’s face creases into wonder.

“But I thought you were in…”

“Ottoman Turkey. Yes. Well, evidently I am not there now. So if you could please stand aside and allow us in, I’d be obliged.”

The woman blushes. She steps aside, then forward to help with the luggage.

“Mama, have they come?” a childish voice calls out. “Has Uncle Felix arrived?”

“No. This is Tante Hannah’s shvester.”

The kettle whistles and Gertrude bustles in from the kitchen. “Of all the days.”

Becca sinks down onto the ottoman and gestures that Raizel take a chair by the dining room table. “Yes, Gertrude, welcome, wonderful to see you after all this time and how long have you been on the road, or does it not matter? Now. Where is my sister? And what is wrong with my timing?”

“Your sister, Hannah,” the other woman says. “I am blessed to call her my friend. She is expected back tonight, together with Emmy and Felix.”

The woman — who finally introduces herself as Chasya — hands her a cup of tea and then turns to Raizel. She gives the girl a gentle smile, and it’s almost like she’s caressing her with her gray eyes. Becca watches. There’s something fragile about this woman, but also strong. She understands why Hannah likes her. And Raizel seems to have taken to her.

“Where have they gone?”

“I believe it was a family matter,” says Chasya.

Becca puts down her tea. “My parents — Mama and Tatte — are they well?”

Chasya nods. “I believe so.”


Chasya shrugs. “I simply came to help Gertrude make the place comfortable.”


She dreads telling Ernst of her failure. Not that he would blame her, not at all; he’d look at her steadily with his pale blue eyes and she’ll know that if he’d been with her, he would have done a better job.

They finally get home late at night. Felix had been anxious to get back — Wolf had only allowed him a few days, and only because Felix will take over in a few weeks’ time, supervising the ads and the final galleys of the paper and organizing the advertisements when Wolf goes to a family wedding in Hamburg.

She is glad of the rush. She wants to be home, with Ernst, in a place where she can try and make sense of it all.

But when she opens the door, she’s greeted by a whoop of excitement. Who? What?

A clatter of boots on the stairs.

Hannah flings open her arms. “Becca!”

“Yes, it is really me. Can you believe it? I am not sure that I can. And this is my friend and charge, Raizel.”

Hannah looks curiously at the thin, blonde girl. She wears a dress that is too big. On second look, she recognizes it as one of Emmy’s old ones. Becca had been there long enough to raid the wardrobe, it seems.

“So we have a full house.” She threads her arm through her sister’s. Becca is the only person she wants to see. She may not remember Perla, or not much anyway, but she will understand, she just will. Thank You, Bashefer.

“Yes, indeed, it’s a good thing your bas bayis was here before, helping Gertrude, who was quite hysterical at the thought of two extra beds to make and mouths to feed.”

“Bas bayis?”

“Yes. Chava? Chana? A little boy and a baby girl, quite charming.”


“Yes, that’s right. She let us in, quite surprised, but apparently she had heard of me and even of Raizel, so she was less surprised than we were.”

“What was Chasya doing here?”

“She came to make the place nice for your return.”

Hannah looks around. There are fresh flowers in all the flower urns and the place is spotless of dust — not Gertrude’s strong point. From the kitchen wafts the smell of soup. Hannah sniffs.

“Heavenly. Smells like Mama’s soup. So Chasya has worked her magic.”


Just before he rubs his eyes, blows out his candle, and lowers his aching body into his bed, Felix dashes off a note to Wilhelm.

Contact Inspector Dessoff. We have a witness .

to be continued…

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 718)

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