Oscillating between horror and disbelief, Mr. Karp turned again to his son. “You knew all the time he was still around?”
“Uh-huh,” replied Bernie, surprising himself by his utter lack of contrition. “Can I keep him?”
His father exploded: “He’s not a pet!”
Upon which Mrs. Karp, who seldom concerned herself in domestic mat-ters, for once made to advise her husband, “The responsibility might be good for the kid.”
“Who asked you!”
Bernie twisted his head back toward the rabbi in the hope of gaining some show of support, but the old man was already gone. It was three days before he turned up again. In Bernie’s late addenda to the annals of the Boibiczer Prodigy that Grandpa Ruby had detailed in his ledger book, old Eliezer’s absence is referred to as “the three lost days.”
Jocheved awoke on her woven-rope cot after a terrible dream. In the dream she had been in a strange house full of unfamiliar women and men—the women mostly stationary in loose kimonos and wrappers, lounging on moth-eaten divans in an ill-lit parlor, while the men came and went, came and went; though what their purpose was in the house she wasn’t sure. Her father had figured in the dream in a frightful fashion, bursting with an unwonted fury into the parlor where she reclined. The years of sitting vigil in the icehouse and patrolling its frozen merchandise had replaced the marrow of Salo’s bones with rime, leaving his joints stiff and his back as curved as a shepherd’s crook. But in the dream he charged like a bull into the parlor, wielding a crowbar of the type used to pry apart ice cakes, which he swung at the head of a man who was pawing a disheveled Jocheved. Other men assaulted her papa, bloodying him with dirks and blows, since, having dropped the bar in order to lift his daughter, he was now defenseless. In fact, he seemed almost to welcome the knife blades, turning this way and that to receive them, protecting the girl from injury in an improvised waltz. This vision of her papa shielding her as the blood jetted from his wounds seared Jocheved’s brain like a signet in hot wax, the wax losing the vision’s imprint as it seeped into her breast and bowels. She was aware of her lantern-jawed mother hovering over her in their cellar flat, bathing her forehead with a compress and babbling complaints, but this did not seem to be part of the dream. She was also aware of the half-drawn patchwork curtain and beyond it the featherbed, a deflated cloud in its enameled iron frame, on top of which lay the naked body of her father. His ivory-white limbs were chevroned with gashes the size of open mouths, which a gathering of dour men endeavored to stitch closed, swabbing him with sponges dipped in brine. Jocheved thought it curious how her father’s lacerated body had been transported out of a dream and into the cellar crowded with milk churns in cobweb skirts; then having observed as much, she groaned aloud and sought the deeper, dreamless depths of sleep.
When she woke again, her mother was still attending her, wetting her lips and insisting she take a spoonful of barley broth, against which her stomach rebelled. Alongside her mother stood the midwife with her hussar’s mustache, the same old crone who had presided at the girl’s nativity nearly two decades before; but the bed where her father had lain was now empty. Jocheved took this as proof that the bad dream was finally over and she was awake indeed; it was a conclusion corroborated by the ache in her heart and vitals, which yearned for something her murky mind could not name.
Check back tomorrow for the next installment of The Frozen Rabbi. Or, to get each day’s installment of The Frozen Rabbi in your inbox, sign up for the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest, and tell your friends.