| Rocking Horse |

Rocking Horse: Chapter 5

“Felix, be reasonable. It may be rather unusual for girls to train as teachers, but it is not unknown”

F

elix puts down his knife. “A teacher?”
Hannah stands up and pours herself a cup of tea. She cradles it between her hands and lifts it to her face, as though the steam will give her courage.
“She could teach little children. Numbers, a little arithmetic. Letters, perhaps a little French, some music.” She catches sight of Felix’s expression and trails off.
Felix’s jaw tightens and she sees a little pulse of agitation there. “No, Mama, that will not do.”
“Why not?”
“For one thing, think of our social status. Do any families who are like us have daughters who work?”
Hannah shakes her head, mute.
“These are the rules of the bourgeoisie.”
“We are not in Vienna now, Felix.” Her voice is sharp.
He shakes his head, his eyes wide with unexpressed anger. “Yes, but we are also not in your little village, where anyone can do anything they choose. Where a girl can pretend she is a shopkeeper or a farmer, and none of it matters, anyway, for everyone knows who has a dowry and who does not.”
His words pummel at her. She struggles to keep her voice steady. “Felix, be reasonable. It may be rather unusual for girls to train as teachers, but it is not unknown.”
She wants to add, Look at my sister, Rivkele. Becca. But Felix would use that to prove his previous statement. Score one, Felix. Score zero, Hannah. Find reasonable arguments, for we are reasonable people. People of the mind, not of superstition, not even of emotion.
“There’s a teacher training college, and it’s training girls like Hannah. It cannot be so unknown.”
Felix snatches up another piece of toast and slices his knife into the butter, leaving a little cliff on the side.
“Those who train as teachers begin with all the hopes and dreams in the world, and they finish with the realization that no one will have them. Do you know any women teachers, Mama?”
“It has been a few years since you and Emmy were in school.” She lifts the kettle and sets it back on the stovetop.
“All our teachers were men. Ditto, Emmy. They do not have women teachers in the Jewish schools, Mama. And in the goyishe schools, they will not employ a Yid.” Felix sniffs and pushes back his chair. “Nice thought, Mama, but bad plan. Maybe… a nurse. There are women doctors, today, and nurses are always needed.”
A nurse? Would that not be even more distasteful to Emmy than teaching? She stands with her back to him. If her idea is dismissed thus by Felix, what can she expect from Ernst? And what of Emmy herself?
A light touch on her shoulder. She turns to face her son. How many years has he been taller than she, yet she is still not accustomed to his height. “You may call me a bad son here, Mama, or a good philosophy student because I am asking you this question, but tell me, what do you want from Emmy?”
She swallows. He is her son, she can speak plainly. “There are a lot of things I want, Felix.”
I know what I don’t want from her, she thinks. I don’t want her to have a secret admirer who gives her a bust of Goethe. I want her to be G-d-fearing and purposeful. I don’t want her to be dancing and drinking into the night.
Felix inherited Ernst’s blue eyes, but they are darker, with a touch of violet. When she looks at him, she sees the tiny child who made her heart into a slave. But still, what can she say, what part of this can she explain in a way he will understand?
As he sees it, Emmy is just being a höhere tochter. Just another of those marriageable girls who prances around town doing nothing very much at all.
“When you were born, Felix, we went to visit my parents. It did not go well, but I promised my family that once a year, all being well, I would go and see them.
“When you are a young wife and a new mother, you think that all you need is a traveling cloak and the wind. You don’t think about the fact that it takes money to travel. Train tickets, the carriage, the fact that you cannot turn up at your family for a week, empty-handed.
“And it is not something that a woman can do alone, without a chaperone. I wanted to go and see my mother, my father, and your father said that it was a nice idea, but a rather large expenditure, maybe in a year or two. But five years went by until I saw my parents.”
The kettle sings and Hannah swoops it up off the flame, but forgets the gloves, and she drops the copper kettle with a clatter of metal and the sizzle of spilled water, and a flame of pain across her palm.
“Mama!”
She plunges her hand into a jug of water and continues.
“And when you were a little boy, I said to your father that I would like a tutor to teach you Mishnayos and Gemara. But there wasn’t money for that, either, although there was money for another painting on the wall.
“And when the butcher put up his prices, your father said, surely, we don’t have to have the most kosher meat in all the town?”
“But—” Felix interrupts.
“So I reduced Gertrude’s hours, so we could continue having the most kosher meat in town.”
There is more, much more, but nothing she would say to her son. That the only reason she and Ernst married was because she had no dowry, and her parents were in no position to refuse. That the reason why she continued in this life, even when she understood, at last, who Ernst was, was because she didn’t even have the means to pay for the journey home. And whoever Emmy ended up marrying, she wants that somehow, somehow, the girl would face a life in which she had the means to choose.

Dr. Werther told Ernst, in a long letter written on thick, cream notepaper, that he recommends not simply the talking cure, but also the walking cure. When Ernst is performing, they walk in the late morning. On evenings when he is home, they walk out in the evenings. Evening is easier, for she can talk into the darkness, only the hiss of the gaslights and the echo of their footsteps on the cobblestones can come between their words.
They crisscross the city. Ernst loves to walk by the castle; Hannah relishes the river, especially at night, when she can imagine the river as a stream of black ink, spilled down from heaven. As well, she likes the breeze.
Each time she lifts her hand up to her hat, Ernst offers to alter their route. “Emmy would complain that her hair is being ruined, her hat is being beaten, and that her complexion will suffer.”
“But I enjoy it,” Hannah says. It is like the wind fills her with freedom, life.
Tonight, Ernst is performing, so they are walking out at lunchtime. The sky is gray, with a slight drizzle. Not enough to penetrate her coat, but enough that the ground is slick and she walks with care. At the end of the street, Ernst hesitates. Left or right? Public gardens or the river?
She gives the slightest indication to the right. He nods and turns in the direction of the river. She speaks. “There has been something on my heart, my dear.”
“Oh?” He carries a silver-tipped cane, and it taps the cobblestones with each stride. “And what is that?”
“Emmy.”
The tap of his cane loses its rhythm.
“You are her mother, you know best.”
It is on the tip of her tongue to say, you are her father. You know best. And what’s more, she loves you best.
“It is just, I can’t believe it is good for her, all this idleness.”
Ernst laughs. “Not every woman can be as hardworking as you, my dear. Besides, does not every young woman fritter away her time? She is just doing what every girl her age does.”
Which is… Hannah counts the activities on her fingers. Go riding out in her friend’s carriages. Go to literary evenings so she can meet people there. Go to musical evenings so she can show off her instinct for fashion. Laugh and chatter about who has a beau and who will be the next bride.
He is walking half a pace ahead of her, and he is a tall man, so she feels like she is talking to a black-wool clothed shoulder. “After all, when she has babies in the cradle, she will not have time for idleness.”
He cannot see her shaking her head.
“I would like her to be using her time better. I think she would be happier if she used her time better.”
“I am not sure I understand what you are suggesting.”
“Simply that she learn to be a teacher.” She hesitates, and thinks of Felix’s advice. “Or perhaps, a nurse?”
“Perhaps you do not fully understand our standing in society.” He is facing the river now, and all she can see is his profile. It is inscrutable. She does not know whether he is angry or disappointed by her, and something inside her curls up. She straightens, and inside her fur muff, grasps her hand together.
“It is not unknown.”
He turns suddenly, to face her. “But people will say that I cannot provide a dowry.”
Ah. Here it is. His fatherly duty. His role as the patriarch of their family. His ability to provide.
Well, let him think about his fatherly duty.
She keeps her voice sweet. “She already has… this admirer. And I do not know if he is a suitable match. Even Felix does not know who he is, or whether he is from the right kind of family. With the right kind of… place in our society.”
A tugboat chugs along the water, a man waves from the window. Ernst keeps his hands firmly by his side. When he talks, his voice is throaty. “So you think if she has some kind of distraction, then she will not be so… enamored?”
“I do not know how enamored she is. But certainly, she is vulnerable to the sentiments of boys whom we know nothing about.”
They continue walking along the riverbank. On the grassy verge, a man does magic tricks. A handful of people stand around watching, and Hannah draws closer, glad of the distraction. The magician takes off his silk top hat and draws out a white rose. He steps toward the crowd, twirling the rose between his fingers. With a flourish, he presents it to Hannah. Face red, she accepts the rose and carefully holds it between the thorns.
Ernst tosses a coin into the man’s hat. Hannah hopes it is more than the cost of the flower. He takes the rose from her, and snaps off the thorns, one by one.
“Here.” He returns it to her. She smiles her thanks. Clutching the rose, Hannah senses that something has softened in Ernst, softened between them.
The magician promises the crowd a rabbit. The river laps at the shore.
“There is something else. If Emmy taught little children, or nursed the sick, it wouldn’t only give her something else to think about. It would give her a feeling of satisfaction. It would make her happy.”
She hopes that for Ernst, it will be another magic word. But instead, he beckons her away, and she tries to match his stride as he heads inland away from the Vltava, toward the old town. Through the old town, now, and she wants to tug his sleeve, implore him to sit at one of the outdoor cafes and burn away the cold with a hot coffee. But he continues, and her legs begin to ache, and the cold bites into her. He turns sharply down a narrow street. She blinks. Josefstadt. The old Jewish ghetto.
A little boy, pale of complexion, sits in the gutter, woolen cap pulled over his ears and sitting low on his forehead. Seeing them, he holds out his hand.
Ernst stops and pulls a coin out of his pocket. He hands it to the little boy, who does not even thank them. The glint of metal must have been spotted, because all of a sudden, they are surrounded by little boys, spindly fingers, hungry palms. Pleas are in Judendeutsch. She looks around, but all is shadow; on both sides of the street, tall buildings block out the daylight. From somewhere, the smell of stale fried onions, babies wailing, the clatter of a homemade cart piled high with cabbages.
“The whole place is crammed with people, with poverty, with misery,” says Ernst. He throws a handful of coins a few paces away and the crowd of children leaves him, swarming over to the meager treasure.
“Take… take me out of here,” Hannah whispers.
He looks into her face. “Are you sure?”
She nods.
They walk quickly out of the ghetto.
“Why?” she asks.
“You think that Prague equals freedom, but we are rocking back and forth between acceptance and rejection. Acceptance. Rejection. A rocking horse, if you will.” Ernst holds his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. “This,” he says. “This is what separates us from those poor, beaten Jews. And I will hold on to it with my life.”
To be continued...

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 674)

 

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