Articles Essays & Stories > CHILDREN OF GOD
CHILDREN OF GOD
(Published as Figlie di Dio in Italian, translated by Claudia Costa, in Italy in the anthology, Figlie di Sarah, edited by Mario Materassi, by Passigli Editori. Published in the US in English in K'tia, A Savior of the Jewish People by Micah Publications)
MIRELE'S story begins in the wheatfields of Bessarabia during Easter week, 1903, when she was twelve, and she heard the ominous rumble of horses being urged to blood. She stood up and examined the horizon with squinting eyes, as someone in Kansas might do, alerted from her particular history to differences which had invaded the familiar air. She called to her sister, two years younger than her, also working in the field a few rows away,"Psst, Hinda," and jerked her chin in the direction of the horizon. Hinda got off her knees and looked in the direction her sister was looking, but the clues embedded in tiny horsemen shrouded in dust evaded her. Mirele shaded her eyes again, and watched the moving columns of figures for a few more seconds. Then she said, "Come," to Hinda, with a parental authority that irked the younger sister and, grasping her hand, began to cross the fields to go home.
She did not wish to appear out of order and tried to walk normally, not too fast for it was not clear if anything was out of order. A disturbance of air might be all. She had been accused of being melodramatic before. Ideas seized her, it was true, ideas which often betrayed her, it was true, if she tried to realize them. But it seemed best to leave the fields and speculate later on the wisdom of doing this, and Hinda was compelled to follow her, upon instruction from their parents that she was never to be left alone in the fields. Walk normally, decorously, Mirele instructed herself, but she did not.
"Hey, where are you going?" the overseer shouted.
"Hey! What's up?" a young man called.
Mirele was not detained by any of this. She jerked her chin backwards and kept walking, Hinda's hand clutched in hers. Let others explain the ball of dust in the distance.
Others got up from their knees and looked at the horizon and left too, also slowly at first, not wishing to appear undone by fear; then more quickly as conviction seized them.
Heads bobbed up to see what was happening, but no one spoke. Those who were leaving merely jerked their chins too in the direction of the horizon, or rolled their eyes backward, but kept moving. More followed, quickly, then urgently. They dropped their hoes, their sickles, their scythes. Women who had lain their babies on the ground, hoisted them to their backs and began to run. Then a man gave the signal to clear the fields, and the men began to run quickly. The overseers could not stop them. Heads and shoulders bobbed and moved in unison, up and down the rows of wheat, old men with ill fitting boots on feet that hurt, heavy breasted women with babushkas and laboring breaths, not meant to run. They fled like deer from a burning forest. An instinct urged them out of the fields, and they ran toward the town, their homes, the synagogue, not sure where shelter could be found.
Mirele searched for her parents and brothers, but she could not find them. They worked in different parts of the fields. She recognized faces, but not those of her parents and brothers. Was it possible they did not see the commotion? Perhaps her mother had taken ill and could not leave the field and her father would not leave without her. Fears assailed her, but she brushed everything aside except the obsession to hold Hinda's hand and run with her. Hinda struggled against her, humiliated at being committed to Mirele's care, who fled, dragging her with her. They reached the first street of the town, already able to hear the salacious sounds of the horsemen's laughter in their ears. A few more minutes, a few more yards, a few more streets, and safety was possible. The spires from the cathedral were straight ahead. But the orderly retreat from the fields broke down. People scattered into fragments, like a shell burst apart, for the men with horses with the smell of blood on them were already in the streets of the town, blocking every path. Some had circled the fields and had come into the town from another direction. They had outwitted the Jews. They had outrun them, they had outfoxed them. The prey were caught in the claws of a crab.
In the history of suffering, among various people, there are single words, single phrases, which carry the people's history and convey the whole of what is to be dreaded by them, words like famine, slave raid, plague, or pogrom. They need no explanation. The word sounds the alarm of history. So a cry from within the belly of the crowd defined the chaos in the street. "Pogrom," someone screamed. Then the voice fell under a horse and was carried away.
Hinda began to howl. Mirele wanted to strike her, but she could not stop to do this. She held her by her wrist with a force she had never felt before, and darted in and out of the streets, but no street seemed better than another. The horsemen were everywhere, the sound of their whips over her head wherever she went, and every street was blocked with horses and human bodies. A dreamlike maturity overtook her. The word released her from confusion. Reality leaped before her and she discovered ways to outwit it. Holding Hinda's hand, she made her way down the narrowest alleyways where it was difficult for the horses to go, into streets she had never been before, into the Gentile section. She ran, and Hinda had no choice but to run too. A moan sent her in one direction, the sound of horses in another. Fleeing people were trampled to death before her eyes. Doors were flung opened, bodies were flung out, clothes, furniture, household belongings, babies.
"Shut your eyes," Mirele said, lifted into her new maturity.
"Where are we going?" Hinda cried.
Mirele had no answer. At the end of the narrow street they were now on, horsemen plunged through the opening and between the houses. "Run," she screamed, and pulled Hinda's hand so hard Hinda staggered forward without control. The two of them fell headlong, feet away from the grasp of the horsemen, who chuckled as they went after them, so little were the mice, so big the lion, it moved, sure of its prey, with feigned leisure, even as it panted to be rid of its passion. The two children fell over the cobblestones, tripping, weeping, the saliva in their mouths turned to dust, fear spilling through their bodies, their hands outstretched, clutching the air for help, their eyes shut, running blindly, running without seeing, up the church steps, falling, slipping, running, until the door met with their outstretched hands, and they banged and banged on it. "Push," Mirele screamed. They pushed with the strength of thousands, as the horsemen dismounted at the foot of the church steps and leisurely, smiling, dressed superbly as horsemen, speaking to them in the teasing voices of male desire, began to climb the steps after them.
The door suddenly opened, and the Archbishop stood there. He surveyed the scene with a swift glance and with an equally swift movement of his hand whisked Mirele and Hinda behind his robes. The horsemen stopped at the bottom of the steps. One dismounted, curiosity on his face, and came up the steps. The sun shone on his boots and on the iron cross he wore on his chest. His thumbs were hooked into the belt of his uniform. "Come, Father," he said good humoredly, "you don't mean to protect these Jews." His voice caressed the air with bonhommie and confidence.
Hinda and Mirele turned to stone. The priest did not move, except to put his hand on his cross, whether as a sign of his authority or as a request to regard his office. The horseman, at any rate, considered this an ambiguous gesture, and hesitated. Then he moved forward again, less goodhumoredly. Still the priest did not move. He blocked the doorway with his body, and the smile in the horseman's eyes vanished. He cocked his head. The thumbs he hooked into his belt whitened. His smile, which he had worn while he imagined carnally, playing a flirtatious part even under these circumstances, disappeared, and his face was cast in iron.
He was not sure whether the priest had read his carnal thoughts and disapproved of them, he was not sure what the priest disapproved of. He made a move to get around him, and swiped at the air like a bear at a fish. His comrades stood at the bottom of the steps, also confused but still expectant, still smiling, still very handsome, the sons of Belial in their leather boots, their cargo of dying bodies on the ground. The Archbishop's eyes wandered over their faces, wandered past them over the corpses at the bottom of the steps. The arm of one, half mutilated, drifted downwards through the air. The horses pawed the ground with confused instincts: the smell of blood, the absence of combatants.
One of the horsemen held up an arrogant fist to the Archbishop, to let him know his judgment meant nothing to them. Emboldened by support, their leader made another move to get past the Archbishop. Mirele and Hinda bit their tongues. The priest grasped the lintel harder. His knuckles pierced his skin. His meaning was now clear to the horsemen.
"You may not slay the children of God," he said. "You will have to slay me first."
To Mirele it did not matter what he said. All that mattered was the wizardry in his voice that made the horsemen go away. Then the priest beckoned to them to follow him and with a presumption of trust they did not question they fled after him down the corridor, down the staircase to the basement of the church where he hid them until he came, some days later, to tell them that they could now go home. The destruction was over.
Their Gentile neighbors hurried past the empty doorways, intent on getting to church or to work. They did not gossip about the affair at their dinner tables, with their families, or with their neighbors. The event made the newspapers in several European cities and in the United States. A few of the papers found their way into the town and made them feel uncomfortable, incriminated in an event which they felt had as little to do with them as a tidal wave.
The wagons started out of the Jews' quarter with the bodies of the dead, with the rabbi in front, and with Mirele and Hinda, aunts and uncles and neighbors, the mourners of other dead, behind them. The wheels moved through the spring thaw without seeming to yield movement, moved and sank, and exasperated the nerves of everyone. Neither Mirele nor Hinda grieved. They were numb and unreflective about mortality and the finality of an era. Their parents and one brother were dead. Their other brother was going to America. Some were going to Palestine. All the young men were going away, saying they had been struck down in their souls. The disshevelment of private belongings, photographs and coins, amulets, the mayhem of memorabilia were detached from the loving hands of the dead as they clung to their souvenirs with the expectation for life, and the streets were cleansed. It was still Easterweek, and the church bells tolled.
Their Gentile neighbors hurried to service. They looked at the Archbishop as they always did as they passed into the doorway. They curtsied and kissed his hand. They came into the church, genuflected in the central aisle and found their seats. They were silent because they had resolved on silence. They were helpless to control this evil and found safety in imperturability.
Mirele and Hinda went to live with an aunt and uncle who, already having raised six children of their own, accepted them regretfully, and it was then, after several weeks of this new life, that Mirele understood the deprivation of her parents' deaths. It was not only that their bodies had been put into the ground which signified the radical passage from one state to another. It was that their passage was her passage. Death was not single. It was pervasive. They were dead, like a squirrel she had once found after the spring thaw, unfamiliar in its decomposed state, not like anything which had once resembled life. The squirrel was ghastly because one knew it once had lived, once had been familiar and instinct with life, once had made one happy to look at it. Death was irretrievable. Many things could change, but not death. Death would never change. She would change, but the death of her parents would never change.
She tried to erase from her mind the comparison between the squirrel, stiff and rigid, and her parents, Her parents were gathered to Abraham's bosom. Human death was different, more pliant. Her uncle said kaddish for her parents and her brother.
Occasionally, they received a letter from their other brother, Yousele, who had gone to America, and Mirele soon felt a desperate sweet jealousy, a feeling which grew with each letter from him and which eventually became so big that it pushed out her grief and, one spring like the sudden change in the weather, a miraculous warmth in winter, she ceased to be sorrowful. If Hinda felt such things, she did not know it, but everyone knew how Mirele felt, for she did not keep her feelings to herself, not hate nor love nor envy nor desire. Puberty made her incautious, willful, and more desperate than ever. She began to lie to her aunt and uncle. Puzzled at first to find herself lying, she tried not to lie, but it was impossible. If she told them the truth, that she walked in certain streets, spoke with certain boys when they sent her on an errand, they would not send her. They were suspicious and troubled, and questioned and pestered her. Why did it take so long for her to come home? Where had she gone? Whom had she spoken to?
"Nowhere!" "Nothing!" "No one!" she shouted at them. She had twisted her ankle and had had to hobble home, and that had made her late. They were alarmed and wrote to Yousele. Hinda was not a problem, but he must take responsibility for Mirele. They were too old and could not curb her anymore. She worked when she felt like it, an impossible situation in a farming community. Chickens went hungry while she stood at the gate and stared at the road, dreaming, longing, in love with the road. The pupils of her eyes became violet and warm and sly, her skin became the color of an apricot, and her bosom grew unprecedently.
In certain communities, at such a time, there is an answer to this problem, and her aunt and uncle found it. She would be married to the miller's son. As soon as Mirele heard this, a second maturity overtook her. She became very shrewd and realized it would be useless to oppose her aunt and uncle. Instead, she wrote tearful letters to her brother in America.
"Beloved Yousele, I am the most misfortunate creature, that my darling parents are not with me to guide my destiny. Aunt and Uncle wish to marry me to the miller's son. My mother would never have permitted this to happen, because he cannot read and is too stupid to learn. Moreover, he is short and fat and pimply, which is not to my liking. His skin is as raw as a newborn bird's and looks as if it is waiting for feathers. KNOW THAT I WILL DO EVERYTHING TO PREVENT MARRIAGE TO HIM"
She paused and thought what threat she could bring to bear on her brother to save her. To herself, she seemed defenceless, without a weapon to speak of, though her aunt and uncle would not have described her in this way. To herself, she seemed urgent with desire for the world and hopelessly dependent upon others who had lost their appetite for it. The summer wind outside her window filled her with burdensome languor. With tears in her eyes, she straightened the paper in front of her and wrote, "Better a Gentile." Having written this, she elaborated quickly:
"There is one here who looks at me whenever he can. His thoughts are no doubt dishonorable, but he has neither pimples nor bad breath. If I am driven to this desperate act, you will have yourself to blame. SEND ME MONEY TO COME TO AMERICA AND SAVE YOUR SISTER FROM DISHONOR AND APOSTASY."
She posted the letter and began to wait for a response. A letter came a few months later, but it came to her aunt and uncle who saw immediately that Yousele was not in possession of the facts. He forgot that time had moved for Mirele as well as for himself. He was going with a young lady. Her name was Eva. Here in America, men and women, boys and girls, sought each other out. They did not need intermediaries. "Freedom," he wrote handsomely, "was everything in such matters."
His aunt and uncle exchanged a silent glance, and wondered how such a system could work, and wrote back that in Bessarabia young ladies were also free, but there were no choices to be free with since so many Jewish men had left the place. Mirele was free to marry the miller's son or not, but if she did not, he should send for her so that Mirele's freedom would have more meaning in the new world where there were more choices. They concluded tersely: "We will forget the miller's son--he has pimples--but something, nevertheless, must be done with her." The rest of the letter was shrouded in obscure warnings. Conveyed in a secret language, they wrote: her bosom is bursting. In spite of her mother and father and her brother slaughtered in the prime of their lives, her bosom is bursting. They softened their warning with an additional note: "Hinda is a lovely girl and should be given every chance to better herself. Being the younger, we are naturally anxious to see that she has a good model to follow. She has a good head and can already read very well. In America, she may become something, maybe a teacher, but here there is only the miller's son left for young Jewish girls. It is advisable that Mirele go to America so that Hinda can go with her."
Letters passed back and forth, but none came to Mirele. She watched the horizon, she watched the skies, she watched the seasons change. Bitterness struck her down with pneumonia. For three days she raged with delirium, calling to America to save her, while her aunt and uncle and even Hinda watched by her bedside, awed by the intensity of her feelings.
One day the weather cleared. The frost melted on the window. A branch with a blossom on it scratched across her window and urged her to recover. Her aunt sat on her bed, with a letter in her hand and a stamp on it from America. Mirele's eyes darted to it. Her hand shook out the contents of the envelope on to her blanket: two tickets for passage to America fell out.
Mirele rose from her sickbed with marvellous swiftness, and a few months later, in the month of June she and Hinda went to the cemetery to bid goodbye to their parents, their brother, their grandparents, and all other ancestors, known by name or legend. Sorrow overcame Mirele and struggled for her soul. She bent down and put a stone on her parents' grave, a sign of her visit for the earth to receive, and pressed her lips against the engraving on the tombstone. Hinda burst into tears. "Hush," Mirele said, recovering at the sound of Hinda's alarming misery, "even if we weren't leaving, they couldn't come back to life," and she got up off her knees.
Their belongings were put on a wagon, a small trunk of clothes, their mother's candlesticks, their father's siddur and tallis to be given to her brother, two haggadahs, one for Hinda and one for her, some coins sewn into the lining of their coats, and each other. She was given strict orders about how to conduct herself on the ship and in the new world, and not ever to let go of Hinda's hand. But she soon found that it was difficult to walk in the style she felt belonged to a woman of the new world while clutching her sister by the hand.
The rabbi blessed them and the wagon moved out of the town, past the church and the spires, past the blacksmith's shop and the baker's and the house they had been born in, down the alleyways and the streets where the Gentiles lived, past the fields and out into the countryside, down the dusty road, through the fields and out on to the sea. The churchbells rang the noon hour. Mirele and Hinda sat in the back of the wagon and watched the town disappear behind the wheatfields and below the curve of the earth, until the sky swallowed it up, and all that could be seen of the town where they had been born were the spires of the church against the sky. "Goodbye, Kishinev," Mirele waved her handkerchief, "I'm going to America, and I'll never cry again."
"Do not leave go of Hinda's hand," her aunt screeched after her, "even if the ship should sink,"
Mirele obeyed, for three days. On the fourth day she told Hinda she could watch her just as well if she stood by her side without clutching her hand, and if the ship should start to sink she would grab her wrist at once. On the fifth day she told her to sit and mind their trunk, and if the ship should start to sink she would come back at once to save her, and she went forth on the deck, amazed at how many men looked at her.
One came and stood by her side. "What is your name?" he asked in Russian.
Remembering her aunt's warnings, she walked away, treading carefully over these new found ways. But he followed after her. "Come, come, don't be afraid," he said so seductively, she became alarmed and went back to Hinda.
Hinda looked up at her with a withering expression from her guarding crouch over the trunk. "I'm bored," she said meanly. Mirele considered he problem. "You shouldn't go off and leave me," Hinda complained. "Can't you get along without me for five minutes?" Mirele said. "What will you do in America? I can't sew you into my pocket."
Accused of immaturity, Hinda felt wounded. She looked up at Mirele who stood with her hands on her hips and a look on her face which Hinda judged as immoral. "I hope you marry a fat man with pimples," she said. "There must be such, even in America."
Mirele considered this new, harsh trait in her sister, whom she had always regarded as malleable. But Hinda gazed back at her, gaze for gaze, closing the gap between them. For the next two days, Mirele went about again, holding Hinda by the hand, feeling constrained to assert her authority, even if it was an authority she did not want and which got in the way of her new style of walking, and Hinda went about with her not because she had an interest in such things, but because she surmised that she got in the way of Mirele's new style.
In spite of Hinda, a man winked at her. Mirele was shocked and thrilled. "Did you see that?" Hinda said, only shocked.
"See what?" Mirele asked.
Hinda felt that Mirele was lying, and she did not know what to make of this.
"That man winked at you," Hinda whispered shrilly.
"So what?" Mirele warbled, "a wink can't hurt you."
But Hinda knew better, and it was no surprise to her that she found her sister in conversation the next day with the man who had winked at her, in close conversation, tête a tête, their breaths mingling in the ocean air.
"Mirele!" Hinda shrieked at her.
A wave of horror went up Mirele's spine. She attempted to make Hinda's shriek mean something other than what she knew it to mean. "My sister is not feeling well," she said in a voice overcome with responsibility. "I should go to her." She took Hinda by the hand and dragged her below deck, out of sight of everyone, and bit her cheek. After that, she strolled on the deck to her heart's content, breathing in the spray and the waves and the tobacco smoke and the gossip which mingled with the blue sky and the flight of the seagulls and the masculine glances, while Hinda sat below, nursing her cheek.
In the third week of this voyage the Statue of Liberty came into view and, like everyone else on board, Mirele was overcome at the sight of it, and the man who had conversed with her tête a tête, stood next to her at the rail with his arm around her waist. To give Mirele her due, she removed his arm, and hurried below deck to get Hinda.
"Come, Hinda," she called to her when she found her sulking by their trunk, "don't you see that everyone has gone up on the deck. There is that wonderful Statue of Liberty that has come into view. Come, hurry, or we'll be past it."
Hinda sat with her knees drawn up and crouched close to their trunk, her head buried in her lap, hiding from view the noise, the confusion and the shapelessness of a foreign life.
Mirele cried with exasperation at her. "If you do not hurry, you will miss everything."
Mirele hesitated. It did not feel right to leave Hinda at this moment, but Hinda refused to move, and the murmurs and exclamations that drifted down from the deck as the ship approached the shoreline made Mirele sick with longing. She felt like stomping on Hinda. "It's your own fault," she cried, "if something happens to you," and she turned and ran back to the deck, to be part of the noise and the crowd and the bedazzlement of this extraordinary ritual of people waiting to receive them, waving their handkerchiefs with welcome, and to shout back to them, "Hurrah, hurrah," and wave her handkerchief also, wave it wildly in the air for the triumph of arriving. She was so filled with hunger and anticipation, with sadness and fear, with looking forward and looking backwards, that she did not know whether she felt anguish or joy. She could only wave her handkerchief at those waiting for them, wave her handkerchief frantically, exhausting the act over and over, for the act was too small and she was too insignificant to signal all that it meant. She looked down at the faces crowded into the harbor and waved and waved her handkerchief at them, until her feelings burst through her throat and she lay her head on the rail and wept.