Now Jacob’s pathetic cries were a mockery, and I trembled, my knees pulled tight up to my chin. I could not, would not hold him in my arms and watch him slip away. Not again
It was 1692 when I lost Isla to the water.
We were drowning. The water was warm as blood and thin as paper. Maybe if I hadn’t let go, Isla would’ve lived, but when my lungs filled with air after they pulled me from the river’s choking claws, hers filled with water, and she was lost even before I had realized what I stood to lose. They tried to take me away before I could see, but I saw. Her face was blue as ice, and yet she looked calm, peaceful. Like she was sleeping.
No one spoke of what happened for months after, but Father was distant, and Levi treated me like a fragile doll. Mother, as she would be, was a quiet pillar of kindness and strength, trying as best she could to uphold our daily lives. I could not sleep — for fear that I would not wake. A sleeping victim. Like Isla. I spoke quietly, afraid to reveal how my heart still felt the icy fingers of death enclosing it.
For hours each night, I sat, unmoving, listening. Listening to the breaths, those small whispers of life from behind each curtain, and I would count every one.
Isla had made the winter months warm for us with her easy laughter and pleasant songs, and no amount of tea could do it in her stead.
“You cannot be blamed,” Levi would tell me when I finally rested from the chores, and my fingers would find a needle and thread weaving the image of a girl with caramel hair and warm eyes.
“G-d chose you to live, Ruth, so live.”
He was wrong. I was three years her elder at 17, her protector, and I had failed.
I knew he missed me almost as much as Isla, because I let the silence sit between us where I had never let it before. But Levi was nothing if not patient and kind, so he sat next to me for hours studying the books that have been in our family for generations, his sweet lilting voice carrying their tunes into the night.
He would reach his 23rd year with the new moon, but the broken part of my heart was filled with the dread that perhaps he would not. Life can be snuffed out in an instant. When I’d dwell on the thought, my fingers would become stiff and shaky, my heart fluttering urgently, and my needle would be forced to rest.
The thoughts were a storm, unrelenting, and although my body craved sleep, my mind would not allow it. I was afraid I would go mad from sheer exhaustion.
Madness was something we all feared. All around us, our town was falling to it. We heard the awful news, and it brought terror to us in Ryal Side. I had been to Salem only once with Father to trade the white linen aprons Mother sewed, and the entire ordeal had taken us a quarter of our short afternoon. Now, in Salem, the girls who were shuddering in violent fits have accused Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne of living for evil. Fear was rampant, and yet, what could one do but continue to live?
Anna came by often, as she had taken it upon herself to bring me back to myself. She was Levi’s betrothed and my closest friend as well, and when she was here, I felt calmer.
It was only a few short weeks before Passover when I heard her knock again. She knew of my wakefulness. It worried her, and she would continue to pursue ways to calm me enough so that I should rest.
“Ruth,” she scolded, “you must sleep. You’ll catch your death of sickness and with no strength to stop it!”
I knew she was right, but I was powerless. Anna knew that, too. She carried a bundle of cheeses and hard, nutty bread and urged me to go to the river with her.
“Please, Ruth.” She grasped my hand and feigned a pained sigh. “It would be awfully dull if I were to go alone.”
I did not like the river; its gurgle and rush would bring back the panic of slippery cold fingers, grasping and pulling, fighting to stay afloat. But Anna was gently insistent as we walked down to the riverbank, kindly reminding me of sweet memories we had there. I knew she hoped facing the water and my fear would relax me enough to sleep again. She was wrong.
But as we sat at its edge, I did not need to say anything. Anna loved to speak, but not of empty frivolities. There was always something on her mind, a question, an idea, and she had no qualms sharing. She also loved to recount stories her father would tell her on cold nights. My favorite was of my namesake, who faced terrible loss yet was able to begin anew, grasping tight to the values of eternity.
I wished I could be like her.
Anna had a way about her. Mother told me some people are gifted to know in their hearts what pains others. She told me Anna was one of them. Maybe Anna could understand my thoughts; if she did, I did not mind.
Three months after Isla was gone, Anna challenged me to speak of her. My palms dampened, and my tongue grew heavy and clumsy, but she was with me from when the trembling began to when it finally ceased.
“The Angel of Death is but G-d’s messenger. Only He decides who will live and who will die. Not any of us,” she paused. “Certainly not you.”
Some evenings she would stay with me late until the moon hung heavy in the sky and the darkness was thick and unforgiving. That night was one of them. We sat, huddled in warm blankets to fend off the early spring chill, and contemplated the velvety expanse above us.
“The moon,” Anna told me, “is our gift from G-d.”
I let a small laugh escape my lips. “Is not everything our gift from G-d?”
Part of me hoped she would challenge the bitterness in my tone.
She did, her eyebrows raised in slight surprise, the pleasure of a good argument on the corners of her lips.
“Well, yes. Everything is a gift. This gift is the sign of change, of how every month darkness overtakes and then light reemerges. It is a new start, a chance to live again.”
I did not respond, just looked up at the moon’s glow, willing the painful tightness in my chest to ease.
On those nights, Anna would eventually fall asleep beside me. I could not bring myself to look at her, sleeping so peacefully. Isla’s smooth undisturbed face would surface in my mind, and I’d grasp my sheets, twisting them in my fists, needing to feel the warm dry fabric to bring me from the river’s cold wet edges.
Anna was accused only weeks before Passover. Katherine Turner’s dog died just minutes after Anna had visited their general store. A rather loud and boisterous woman who mothered six notoriously troublesome young boys, it did not surprise me that she cried and wailed until the entire town came to stand witness to Anna’s “bloodthirsty crime.”
I ran home, fear making my words tumble almost incoherently from my lips. “Mother,” I gasped. “They are taking her.”
She reached for my hands, trying to calm their trembling. “Who? I don’t understand, Ruth.”
I took a breath, “Anna has received her warrant of arrest. She is accused of killing Katherine Turner’s old lazy dog! Accused of witchcraft.”
Mother’s eyes filled with horror and she cried, her delicate thin hands holding my own. At that moment, I hated her weakness. I hated how it stole her from herself and from us. This would mark her tenth pregnancy, and of all those, only Levi, Isla, and I survived, and now, Isla was gone.
I tried to calm myself; maybe Anna would be found not guilty. She was no witch.
On the day of her examination, we were all there in the town hall except Mother. Anna did not stoop, neither in fear nor shame. Her skin was papery white against the stark black of her shawl, and there were spots of fire on her cheeks. My legs trembled and my heart stuck in my throat. I could not stomach looking at her family, her mother’s violent sobs echoing through the room.
The magistrate’s questions were loud and jarring, grating against my ears.
Are you a witch? No, I am not.
Have you seen Satan? I have not seen Satan.
How, then, do you explain the events that took place in the general store moments after you left? I cannot claim to answer what I have no knowledge of.
And on and on it went. It was clear he was leading her down the path of the guilty. I was helpless, the ghost of Isla’s fingers slipping through my own turned my blood cold.
I cannot help her.
When I felt the razor-sharp waters closing around my throat, I looked in panic at Levi. He stood beside me, eyes fixed on the dull brown wall above the magistrate’s head, a stream of murmured prayers on his lips.
I did not know how he could keep his calm. He and Anna were waiting for the travelers to come through in the summer so they could have the proper witnesses to be wed. How he watched it all begin to slip through his fingers, I did not know. But he did what he always did, what he would always do: He prayed. I did not open my own mouth for fear that a wail would escape, but his whispered prayers were enough for me to hope Someone listened.
The magistrate boomed his verdict. It fell like an ax through the room: “Guilty.”
I was screaming, the sound of it filling my ears, an excruciating echo from my heart. They could not take her. I would not allow it. Someone was holding me back, and I twisted and pulled, kicked at his legs and scratched at his arms, but Levi was too strong. I was imprisoned. Anna was a form of pale skirts and a black shawl being led away from us, from me. They would try her before the Grand Jury. If she was guilty, she would hang.
My legs gave out from beneath me, and the world faded into empty blackness.
When I awoke, it was morning and I was bleary-eyed and sick to my stomach. Levi was home, methodically stoking the flames in the fireplace. He was lost in thought but shook himself when I came into our main room, and he offered a half-hearted morning greeting. I did not answer. What could I possibly say? But I felt his presence quietly watching me. I wished he wouldn’t. I was not a child, and he needed not treat me as such.
Anna was locked in jail. We heard of the jail, of how it was slowly sucking the life of its occupants. The thoughts swirled again, unforgiving. Perhaps she felt betrayed, perhaps she felt we had forgotten her, and did nothing to stop her torment.
On Friday evening, Levi and Father came home with the news that Anna had escaped and nobody knew how; there was no place for an accused witch to run. My heart lifted. Of course she had. Anna was strong and brave; she would survive this.
The warmth in my heart that evening did nothing to give me a reprieve from my usual fitful sleep. In the dead of night, I was suddenly roused by unforgiving banging on our door. I sat up and moved my curtain aside to see Father and Levi standing by the open door, with five angry townsmen pushing their way in.
“Did she come here?”
The leader, tall and lanky with a wide, yellow-toothed sneer, did not wait for an answer. He pushed past Father and Levi, and in a matter of minutes, ransacked our home. I scuttled away, cowering in the farthest corner near Mother’s cot squeezing her hand. When he found nothing, he turned his angry glare on Levi.
“Where is she?”
Levi was pale but calm. “I don’t know.”
He spat in Levi’s face. “You don’t know.” He jabbed a finger at Levi’s chest, “And where would she run if not to you?”
Levi’s lip curled in disgust and he rolled his shoulders back in a shrug, “That is something I neither know nor care to know. Let her die in the forest.”
He gestured dismissively, and my heart dropped to my stomach in shock.
“I would not sully myself to provide shelter to a witch. Least of all marry one.”
His eyes glinted dark and hard, and there was a moment’s silence. The man finally grunted with some satisfaction, and Father took a hand to his shoulder and led him toward the door.
“When you do find her,” Father paused, his hand on the doorknob, “be sure to let us know.”
He gave one last grim smile and firmly shut it. I was trembling again with the cruelness of Levi’s eyes and words. It must not be true, he could never think such a thing of Anna.
I could not bring myself to ask him, to affirm what I knew were lies he had spoken only to spare us. Soon he and Father had put our home back to some semblance of normalcy, and both silently moved back to their cots. I noticed Levi looked to the floor, jaw set tight and fists clenched at his sides. An angry part of me hoped that sleep would elude him, too, tonight.
I did not know how long I sat or that I had fallen into a dreamless sleep until I was shaken awake. Levi’s eyes were wide and urgent, and he held a hand to my mouth to stop the startled cry of surprise from escaping before leading me quietly to the door.
Anna stood at the threshold, eyes hoping, pleading. I could not breathe. I had expected to never see her again. But she had come — clothing filthy and ripped, cheeks scratched and bruised, hair loose and tangled — but alive.
We stood for a moment, and then I leapt forward to embrace her and we were silently laughing, and she weeping. I had not noticed that Levi had disappeared until he was back with a folded blanket in his arms and a chunk of leftover bread from our meal. She smiled in thanks, and we made our way to the kitchen so she could wash her hands and rest her feet.
My stomach turned to see her in such a state. I could not be sure when she had last eaten, but it must not have been recently because the bread was soon gone, and when Levi put whatever cornmeal we had before her, that too disappeared quickly. Levi and I exchanged a look. As much as we were relieved that Anna lived, we now had to ensure that she would not once again be taken from us. The tightness in my chest from his earlier words eased. He had meant none of it in truth.
Root cellar, Levi mouthed to me, and I nodded. Although many others were built into the ground outside, ours was under our house as a small shelter if ever needed. Mother hadn’t been down there in weeks due to the weakness of her condition and Father barely frequented it. It was only me keeping its order now, and although tonight with no flames to light it, it was black as ink, I knew my way around. There was room for a small cot in the far corner.
I brought Isla’s mat and some of her old clothing to Anna, and she bit her lip and looked up at me, seeking my permission. There was not a question in my mind — Anna was as close as a sister to me, and besides, Isla loved to share. We gave her extra blankets for warmth and a small pail of clean water. She could not properly wash until tomorrow night anyway.
Levi left us soon after, and I stayed, unwilling to leave Anna’s side, afraid she would dissipate along with the morning mist.
But she was soon fast asleep, and I was left alone with the night again, a stranger to sleep. Mother would wake soon, and the day would begin, so I headed upstairs on weak legs and tried to allow myself to relax on my cot.
When morning finally dawned, Mother was feeling stronger despite being within the later months of her expectancy. She was smiling, slowly covering the table with her white lace cloth and laying the small rolls at Father’s seat.
I was hesitant to tell her of Anna’s whereabouts for fear that the shock would cause harm to her condition, so I worked with her and spoke only of how the warm chicken stew would do good for the spirit. I lifted the pot and unwrapped the layers of wool we had used to keep it warm without fire through the night. It was strange, to speak so freely of nothing. With a rush, I realized I had not done so in months. It felt like a small release, the trappings of the heart given a breath of freedom.
The day seemed to take an eternity of time, and I waited for the house to sleep so that I could bring food and clothing to Anna. When I finally made my way to the root cellar, I could see she had been crying. She smiled when she saw me, but her swollen eyes and pink nose did not escape me. Sadness squeezed my heart.
For what did she endure this? As it were, we cringed when we heard the news brought by travelers from Salem. We struggled with it in our own town, as each was accused and tried.
I could only set the food and oil lamp down and sit beside her.
She was quiet for a moment. Then, “My family must know nothing.”
I looked up curiously; surely if she were alive and safe they should know.
Her face revealed little as she continued.
“If they know, they cannot protect themselves when my captors come for me. Better to be truly ignorant than to know and lie. For some, it will be easy to spot the lie.”
I understood. It was a painful choice. I sat beside her. Tears slipped down her cheeks, but no sound escaped her lips.
After many long moments, I braved the quiet.
She looked at me.
“I’ve been watching every night.”
Her eyes were wide even as the wet stuck to her eyelashes. I ignored the painful thud in my throat.
“Tonight the moon hides in darkness.”
After a moment, she nodded, giving a small hesitant smile. I needed not continue. I knew she understood.
Anna hid in our root cellar all through the heavy, sticky summer. In Salem, it was June when the first woman hanged. It started as rumors stinking of madness, and then the news reached us by way of travelers passing through. Bridget Bishop was soon followed by five more in July, and another five in August. I was sick with disgust.
September 22nd was the worst; eight were hanged for witchcraft just days after Giles Cory had been crushed to death following his sentence of guilt. Our family shuddered at the mention of Ann Putnam Jr. and the other girls, accusers like her. I tried as best I could to stay within our own walls.
It was somewhat of a relief when several months later the winter snows blew in, covering our world in a thick, heavy blanket. Everyone stayed indoors. I relaxed at the thought that there was less of a chance to be snatched from the streets and hanged for practicing sorcery, although the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem, the third and final court to try a witch and to pronounce her sentence, had already been dissolved.
The accused had been piling up with no end, and the use of spectral evidence was declared no longer viable as it held no concrete ground for truth. Reason was beginning to enter the minds of many. Salem was starting to quiet.
It was a brutally cold winter, and when it set in, Levi set up an alcove, hidden near the oven in his small blacksmith shop, to keep Anna concealed and warm. I was charged with visiting regularly whenever Levi worked.
Thank G-d, our new brother came into the world strong and healthy with a hearty set of lungs that he did not hesitate to use at every turn. He was named Jacob, and he grew at a dizzying pace, long and plump. The others had been frail and sickly, unable to gain an ounce of weight.
Three weeks after his birth, when I was confident in Mother’s growing strength, Levi and I told her and Father of Anna. Mother pursed her lips, holding the bundle of our brother close to her heart, and Father said nothing. He did not seem upset, just contemplative.
Mother asked to see Anna, and when she did, her face cleared, and she told me later that night that she was proud of her brave children.
“I know where the blessing for his health comes from,” she murmured with a smile as she bounced Jacob in her arms.
The praise warmed my heart and strengthened my resolve. Anna would live through this.
But the thought was always there: She could not live out the rest of her days hidden, on the run from crimes she had never committed. And I could not let her die. The pressure of it had me going out to the shop more than once in the sleepless hours of the night. I had failed G-d’s task to me to keep Isla alive, and I would not now fail this one. I could not let Anna die.
Winter progressed, and as I felt the shadows fall from my shoulders gradually and slowly, they seemed to entrap Levi. He was distracted more often than not, leaving the house early in the morning for his partnership with the blacksmith and returning home long after the winter darkness fell. He told us the church had commissioned him to create 20 iron candleholders. Levi hated the work, but he went day after day. It would take him weeks to complete.
For eight nights we lit candles, commemorating miracles, and on the last, when Levi stumbled into the house later than usual, there was blood on his lip and a dark bruise on his cheek.
He quickly washed his face but waved it off as a minor accident.
“Really, Levi, please be careful,” Mother said, tired.
“Don’t worry about me, Mother. Thank G-d I am fine.”
Levi tried a disarming smile, then grimaced as his lip bled anew. His eyes narrowed slightly in concern when he finally turned to face Mother fully.
“You’re looking pale,” he said.
And with that, the topic was dropped. He was right, Mother did not look well. It did not take long for her fever to settle in, and all we could do was wrap her in a thick heavy shawl and push some cider into her hands, urging her to rest. She was asleep soon after.
That night Jacob, too, grew ill, his tiny body racked with chills and shivers. I held him, rocking and cooing, but he was inconsolable. I was unable to soothe his pitiful cries, and so I transferred him to his cradle and sat by the crackling fire, fingers tightly gripping my shawl. Levi rocked the cradle back and forth, back and forth.
I remembered Anna’s words from earlier that day, her stories. Even Father and Levi had stopped their studying to listen. This story we all knew. The battles; weak against strong, many against few. Miracles and victories in the most hopeless of times.
I stood and made my way to the cradle, where Jacob’s little body fought its own battles. His smooth skin was red and clammy with exertion, the soft crown of fuzz slightly matted and damp. In the moments he wasn’t wailing, he was whimpering, and I let his tiny fist grasp my forefinger as I silently prayed for the mercy and grace of our Creator on him and on us, so dwarfed by the challenges we faced.
He was so small, too small to fight this big monster of death. The monster that took so many accused, the monster that ripped Isla from my grasp. There was a tightness in my chest and throat, and when I took my finger from his tight, stubborn fist, the whispers of Anna’s words left tendrils of thought unexpectedly through my mind. Only He decides who will live and who will die. The Angel of Death is but G-d’s messenger. Only He decides….
The night was long, but Jacob seemed to quiet. Mother was still ill, and Father and Levi finally retired from pure exhaustion, leaving me to care for Jacob. I hardly slept anyway, was their reasoning. My heart became laden with dread, feeling the closeness of death as I had felt it all that time ago. My blood ran cold in panic.
Jacob awoke suddenly with a small nasal cry that soon turned into a full-blown wail. Mother slept. I should go to him. I should hold him, rock him, and do what little I could do to comfort him, but my muscles were lead.
It was just me and Jacob.
It was just me and Isla.
The darkness was a tangible rush around me, it swirled and pulled, like the river’s insatiable depths. I had failed her. When she needed me to hold on, I let her go. Now Jacob’s pathetic cries were a mockery, and I trembled, my knees pulled tight up to my chin. I could not, would not hold him in my arms and watch him slip away. Not again. They would hate me. I would hate me. I was suffocating again, choking, this time on air and my own debilitating terror.
The Angel of Death is but G-d’s messenger. Those words again, like a breeze in the blistering heat. Only He decides who will live and who will die. Not any of us. Something hot and unfamiliar prickled my nose and the backs of my eyes, sending chilled shivers down my spine. My arms tingled with gooseflesh.
Certainly not you.
And for the first time since Isla was lost, I allowed myself the luxury of tears.
Certainly not you.
I wept for the sister I had lost and for the burden I had carried since then. I stood on shaky legs to gather Jacob in my arms and sit with him in the chair. We rocked and cried until we were both empty of tears, and then, finally, peacefully, we slept.
By morning, both Mother’s and Jacob’s fevers broke. He slept all day until evening when he opened his eyes, alert and happy as ever. We sang and laughed and gave thanks to the Creator, for He had granted a miracle in our home like He has granted miracles to us in the past, and to our nation time and time again. It was the first time our home rang with joy since Isla had gone. With some wonder, I marveled at how truly I felt it.
The winter was a tunnel and we had finally begun to see the end of it. Our town slowly began picking up the pieces of its shattered world. Jacob grew, wanting to touch and hold and eat everything in sight, and he brought wonder and joy to us all.
And as he grew, Levi grew restless, as if the anger and injustice of the past year had been growing in his heart with nowhere to go.
One morning he did not go to work. Again and again, for the next five days, he did not go.
“Will you continue with the commission for the church?” I asked him.
He considered me. “No.”
I poked at the fire with the iron rod. “Then what will you do? Do you not need the job? The experience?”
“Now you sound like Mother,” was his answer, but I saw the glimmer of humor there. “I’ve enough experience to begin on my own. I should never have taken a job for the church.”
I looked up in surprise. “There can’t be enough business here.”
“I never said here, Ruth.”
I prodded but he didn’t elaborate, just stood and muttered something indiscernible as he left me to my thoughts.
It was a week after we celebrated our festival of masks when I ventured to the general store and saw him on my way home. Levi was outside of the church, in a passionate argument with Christopher and his friends.
I edged close enough to see Christopher laughing, his large teeth sticking out in ugly angles and his stringy yellow hair flopping unceremoniously off the back of his head. I did not recognize the look of anger in Levi’s eyes. I cowered. Christopher had always been loud — I needed not get any closer.
He was speaking easily, enjoying every word as he threw insult after insult at Levi and at his runaway bride, so heartless she had not the decency to inform him of her true colors. Oh, how they deserved each other.
I would’ve laughed at the senselessness of his words had my blood not started to heat and boil restlessly in my veins. Levi was pale with anger but still. The boys were surrounding him, like cats, toying with their prey before the kill.
Christopher continued to push. “A witch,” he crowed, “a coward and a witch.” He was merciless. “How could she not at least face her end with grace? No, instead she chose to run from her pathetic groom.”
Christopher gloried in the idea that the entire episode was a grand charade so she could be rid of Levi. Oh yes, how clever he was to think of such a thing on his own.
I relished the victory when Levi punched Christopher in the jaw, causing spit and a sprinkle of blood to fly from his open mouth. But that feeling was soon replaced with fear, and my fingers began to tremble. I clamped them together and turned to flee. Let my brother have the dignity of his defeat without my prying eyes.
I did not have a moment to tell Mother when I got home. The Benders’ smallest girl, Mary, had come to borrow three carrots, and she blithely told us, “The runaway witch’s family is leaving for Rhode Island with the new moon.” She looked up from her carrots with large eyes and whispered, “You know the witch?”
Mother blinked, nodding slowly.
Mary shrugged and continued, “Mother said. She said she heard them talking of it when she went to town to have Tilly’s horseshoe fixed.”
And she left with her sweet smile and three carrots.
My heart was thumping loudly. Anna’s family, leaving, after having been left to their grief in a place that hated them for harboring a witch. It was not shocking for them to want to rid themselves of the past and its pain. My heart ached to tell them that Anna was alive, safe, with us.
Darkness was upon us and still, Levi was not home. I feared for his life. I wanted to tell Mother but she did not offer me the chance, bringing Anna up to the house to tell her the news of her family. When Anna heard, she began pacing.
The fire of life was burning brightly in her eyes, in the furrows of her eyebrows, and in her quick agitated movements. She was thinking, thinking. “Maybe… maybe, I can find a way — to leave with them.”
She stopped pacing, watching us with the hope of a child. My heart betrayed me. I was loathe to say goodbye to Anna.
Mother wrapped her in an embrace. “We will do all we can, Anna.”
Levi all but tumbled through the door then. His jaw and eye were mottled blue and purple, blood leaking from his nose and swollen lip.
Mother let out a startled cry. She quickly led him to a chair and then ran for a wet rag. Anna was already bringing a pail of water, lips pursed with worry. Levi coughed red. Mother fussed over him for a minute before he gently waved her away.
“Mother, we need to go.”
I could barely hear his slurred words. He coughed, cringing and holding his ribs.
Mother licked her lips.
“I’m running for Father,” she announced.
While we waited, Levi closed his eyes and pressed the cloth to his bleeding nose. In a rush, Anna told him that her family was leaving and that she hoped to find a way to join them.
Levi looked up, slowly lowering the cloth. After a few moments, he gave a nod and cleared his throat, attempting a smile. He did not speak then, just ducked his head, studying his boots. Anna bit her lip, eyebrows drawn, and twisted the handkerchief in her hands back and forth. The only sound was the tap of Levi’s boot against the floor.
A few moments later, Father burst in with Mother on his heels, an angry storm over his eyes.
“What happened, Levi.” It was a demand.
He told them in few words. I cared not to add the details he had left out.
“They won’t stop, Father. I need to leave.”
Levi took a breath and suddenly looked at the wooden slats at his feet, unable to meet our eyes. He rubbed at a dark spot with the toe of his boot.
“Perhaps…” He stopped a moment, looking up at Father. “Perhaps we should also move to Rhode Island.” He spoke his words quicker then: “There are other Jews.”
Father did not answer and Levi continued, “This place — it has not been kind to us. We live among murderers.” His voice trailed off, and he looked at Anna. “There we can start again, all of us.” He gave her a small smile, and her cheeks colored.
I let the idea into my mind, tasting the possibilities of new hope, new life. I looked at Mother. Her face was twisted in a pained grimace.
“Isla.” If we were to leave here, we would leave her and our siblings who had passed on. “And Jacob,” Mother continued. “He is so small for such a journey.” We would travel for a little over a day if we were to go.
Not two weeks later, as if messengers from G-d Himself, a group of Jewish travelers passed through our town. Finally, Levi and Anna had their witnesses.
I helped Anna pack what little belongings she had in a sack. They would leave with Anna’s family right after being wed. I marveled; it had been almost a year since she was accused, and now, just weeks before Passover, freedom beckoned. She stopped for a moment, holding both of my hands tightly in hers, and smiled so assuredly at me that I could see the glow of it even in the dimness.
“Ruth, you are my sister. Thank you. Thank you.”
I wanted to laugh and to cry and to burst, how could I possibly have done any different? “You saved me once, it was only fair.”
“How?” I couldn’t help but ask. “How do you stay so strong and sure, sure of good?”
To that, she nodded. “All those stories. They are not silly childhood tales. They ring with truth, every last one of them. G-d does not forsake, Ruth, He hides. They are the stories of how we find Him.
“Now, He splits the sea for me. My pursuers are behind me, and my future is before me, and all I have to do is trust.”
She gave my hands one last squeeze and me one last hug, promising we’d see each other before we knew it.
The wedding took place behind our home under the cover of darkness. It was small but wholehearted, and I cried, with happiness and with hope. And then, they were gone. Ready to build a new life in Rhode Island.
We would leave after Passover, and we would begin again. My heart was torn for this place of so much fear and hurt, of so much comfort and love. I would miss it all.
But we would join Levi and Anna and her family, be a part of a community of those like ourselves.
I stood at Isla’s final resting place, and I laughed, almost hearing her do the same. She would tease me for being so sentimental, and then she would take my hand and pull me away from this place.
It was 1693 when we moved forward, into a dream of a future. Just as our grandparents had ventured into the desert to find home, we did too.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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