“You saved my violin.” She tries to answer, but even when she manages to move her lips, words seem to belong to a different realm
Within the darkness, figures fade in and out of view.
A man wearing a white coat that gleams in the dark and who smells of soap.
“Rest. Rest and let the body heal. There are a few burns, but mostly there has been a shock to the system. Nothing of too much concern.”
“I called to wish you an easy recovery, Frau Schwebel. And to assure yourself and your husband you that we will be making arrangements for your family’s safety.”
She tries to speak, but again the words do not come. He understands when she mouths thank you.
He coughs. “Felix, though, is a different matter. I have told your husband that he will have to make himself scarce for a while. A spell in a foreign country. I have heard that Paris is a good place for young thinkers like him.”
She hears the news but it does not touch her.
An arm pulling her up and placing an ice cube in her mouth. The cool smoothness soothes the roof of her mouth and takes the velvet feel from her tongue. When the melted water trickles down her throat, she swallows again and asks for water.
“Good girl,” Sarah soothes. “Good girl. Now, you must all stay here as long as you need.”
Now when her mind speaks, a rough sound emerges. “The house?”
Sarah shakes her head, face sorrowful. “There is nothing left.”
“They say that I must not touch you or try to embrace you.” Eyes wide with fear.
“I… I am fine. No cause for concern, Emmy.”
“Can I at least… give you a kiss?”
Hannah nods, blinking away the tears that bathe her eyes in comfort.
The faintest brush of lips on her forehead and Emmy is gone.
“You have been so brave, Hannah. So very brave.”
She blinks. Was she brave? Was that what it was called? What she had done — finding the violin, crawling out the house, surviving, seemed more instinct than anything else.
Becca squeezes her hands. “And you must continue to be strong.”
Becca stares into her eyes and Hannah does not know what she means.
“You saved my violin.” She tries to answer, but even when she manages to move her lips, words seem to belong to a different realm. She blinks her stinging eyes and looks up. His blue eyes are filled with tenderness.
Time passes. There is evening and there is morning, the first day.
When the new morning’s sun filters in through the lace curtains, Hannah reaches out to the bedside table and slowly sips the water that has been left there. There’s a small brass bell there, too, and she lifts it and rings. A servant enters. She asks for Felix.
He slowly pushes the door open and stands looking down at her, pale-faced with dark rings around his eyes. “Mama!” He kneels on the floor beside her and buries his face in her pillow. His shoulders shake. She pats his back, feeling a strange calmness.
“Mama. This was me. This was all me. All this… destruction.”
He helps her to sit up and hands her a drink. She sips, and the water sliding down her throat seems to help her voice. Still, she whispers. “Do you know what I thought of, when I was there on the floor of the house?”
He shakes his head. His fingers are entwined around her own and he looks at her as if he expects some kind of revelation. She blinks. “It was something that Zeide told me once. That before this world came into being, Hashem created other worlds, many of them, and each of them He destroyed.”
“When I was a child, I asked if the Eibeshter didn’t get tired, and he laughed.”
“I think what I was really asking was, what was the point? And we do not know, of course, we can never know Hashem’s thoughts. But I think of our home. Tomorrow, or the day after, or next week, we will be pick through the burnt timber and the ash. We will find a silver milk jug, covered in soot. We will hold it up and say, this can be salvaged. And perhaps we will find other things. A crystal glass that has not warped. A candlestick. And we will take it with us to the new home we shall build.”
She takes a breath. “It makes me wonder if when each world was destroyed, some fragments were left. And these were gathered up, and they became part of the new creation.”
Does he think she is rambling? Is he simply humoring her? This is perhaps the most important thing she will ever tell him.
“The fragments of each catastrophe — what’s left, after the fire — these are the seeds of something new. Different. Better. Or better for this person at this time.”
She watches his face and there’s a struggle there. Patience and faith.
Eventually he closes his eyes and there is silence between them.
She sips again and leans her head back on her pillow. “Eretz Yisrael does not only need farmers.”
He looks up at her, bewildered. “Eretz Yisrael?”
“It also needs… thinkers. And writers.”
“But why are you talking of this now?”
“It’s a new place. And everything new needs men and women of understanding. Truthtellers. People with imagination, who can see something different.”
He looks at her and all of a sudden he is a little boy and his eyes are an open book. She sees the fear, the sudden realization shooting through him. That he must leave. That she does not want to see him adrift in Paris and Vienna and Hamburg. Another nomad. Another wandering Jew. If he cannot stay here in Prague, let him root himself in holy soil.
He shakes his head. “But what is there, in Eretz Yisrael? Nothing. Emptiness.”
She gives him a half-smile. “You told me once that Chasya says that emptiness is the place where we find G-d.”
Tired suddenly, she closes her eyes. Is it true? Is it where she has found G-d? In the emptiness of Prague, after the bustling warmth of the shtetl? In the emptiness of her Shabbos table after Ernst left to play in a concert, when she would search her memory for stories that would entertain the children and lift her thin voice to sing Kah Ribon Olam, hoping that it would, somehow, be enough? In the emptiness of watching her children set adrift in this modern world, and her, powerless to direct them? Or was it really the opposite — the emptiness was where G-d found her?
“And Chasya?” Felix asks.
“When the right time comes, Chasya will travel there, too. And if it is right for you to build a home together, then your paths will cross again.”
He nods, silent, but tears trickle down his cheeks. One falls on her hand and she watches it quiver on her skin, not brushing it away for it is this moment, filled with sorrow yet still precious — and maybe all that has transpired was only to bring them to this teardrop.
“There is no future here, Felix.”
He stands and stretches. “Yes. I see that. Either you stay in the shtetls and are battered by poverty, your homes are plundered and daughters snatched. Or you move to the city, and try to show your gentile neighbors that you are more cultured and refined than they are, hoping for a snatch of approval, but never able to stand tall.”
She is tired, but she pushes herself to speak. “It is just another… circus. And we follow the ringmaster’s instructions, performing vapid tricks on a horse.”
Their thoughts turn to Perla.
She nods. “I want you to leave, Felix. Find something new. Empty but filled with G-d.”
They are a little group, standing at the train station, and trying hard to stay in the shadows. Hannah leans heavily on Emmy. It is still hard for her to breathe: Ernst had urged her to stay at home, but she must do this.
There has been no time. No time to even make plans, to do things in a sensible way, to bid farewell to her parents, to Ernst’s parents, for Felix to visit the thousand places that lodge in his heart and have grown him as he has grown.
Inspector Dussoff instructed them not to make a scene, to simply let him board the train, where a detective would join his carriage until Felix was safely on a steamer to Egypt, from where he would hire a carriage to take him to Eretz Yisrael.
It’s a good thing they stand in the shadows. No one can see the tears that run down her cheeks. It also allows the pictures to gather in her mind. Felix, squalling in her arms as a tiny baby. With his new velvet cap, off to shul for the first time. His tongue smeared with honey as Schneur sat with the little boy and started teaching him Alef-beis. Tossing a ball to the little cat they used to own, and teaching her to bring it back to him. Sitting beside Emmy’s cradle and rocking it with pudgy fingers. She sees Felix grow taller, taller, until they are the same height; taller still as he overtakes her. She sees him don tefillin for the first time, begin to excel in maths and logic, apply to university, become a student, with piles of books and ink smudges on his fingers, excited to pit his brain against the collective learning of the world.
With a blast of steam, the train pulls up at the station.
She swallows, blinks back the tears, takes a breath. So this is what it means to be a mother.
It is to give your life, your heart, knowing that it will be broken, but knowing, too, that it is worth it. And that just as your child lives and breathes and laughs, you will learn to survive the brokenness.
He leans toward her and she kisses him. He asks her for her blessing, and she swallows, unsure of what to say, for there is too much to say. Too many years and too much love, and when she whispers the words, she does not know what is formed on her lips.
And then he is on the train carriage.
The doors close and a whistle blows and steam billows and the train begins to shudder, clattering along its rails, picking up speed, until she cannot see at all and the past and the future dissolve into a blur, disappearing along with her only son.
In the morning, desolation settles over her like a heavy blanket. In the afternoon, she excuses herself from Sarah’s living room and goes to lie down.
She closes her eyes and when she opens them, Chasya is sitting quietly beside her. Chasya reaches out her hand and folds it onto Hannah’s. Her gray eyes are sad.
To speak of anything else is pointless. “Is there anything left for us here?” Hannah asks.
Chasya does not answer.
“My parents live here, a few days’ travel. I have been in this country all my life.”
What does that mean? What does it mean when you know the ebb and flow of the river, the exact shade of silver when frost covers the loamy soil, the way the geese fly overhead in the first days of spring?
“I always thought that I belonged. That there was something called home. But maybe that isn’t true. Maybe there’s no place like that. Maybe we will always be wandering Jews, never able to rest by the fireside. Always pursued by poverty or by sadness or by ideals, real or mistaken.”
She sighs. “Help me up, Chasya.”
Chasya puts her arm around her and together, they step towards the window. In the late afternoon sky, a group of pigeons wheel and call, flying in synchrony, as if they practice dancing through the clouds together.
“Maybe there is something more important than belonging,” Chasya says quietly. “More important than home, even. And that’s a future where you can breathe and laugh and love, and live with the truth.”
Chasya is trying to comfort her. “You have not lost Felix. You have simply sent a part of you to live elsewhere.”
She watches the gulls. “No. I have not lost him, nor Emmy. They are brave and kind and ready to face a new world.”
She turns to Chasya. “But I have lost my home. Everything I own.”
Chasya shakes her head. “Not everything.”
She leaves the room and comes back a few minutes later.
“I have brought you something,” she says. She stands aside, and Hannah sees it: The carved eyes, the tooled mane, the wood so light that it is almost cream, the perfectly carved legs and tail.
“You gave it to me for Leibele. Now I give it back to you.”
Hannah leans down and runs her fingers over it. She nods, slowly. When Felix gave it to Leibele, he removed the wheels and restored the original runners. Hannah strokes the wooden mane and then gently pushes down the head. The rocking horse rocks gently, back and forth. Past and future, back and forth, hope and despair, to and fro, joy and sorrow, back and forth, faith and love.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 727)
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