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Jacob, Rachel, and Leah: An Excerpt From ‘Mount Terminus’

In David Grand’s atmospheric new novel set in pre-Hollywood Los Angeles, a man can’t outrun his dark New York past

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The Rosenblooms were conceived somewhere on the other side of the world. In a country whose name they didn’t know. To mothers and fathers who were most likely dead. Those who told them about their origin could only say with any certainty they had been carried by many caretakers to a port on the shore of the Adriatic Sea, where they were placed on a ship and into the arms of an old rabbi and his wife, who bundled Bloom’s father together with his mother and her twin sister in a bread basket. Each child, so far as the rabbi and his wife knew, had yet been named. From the story of Joseph, the rabbi called the boy Jacob, the sisters, the rabbi’s wife called Rachel and Leah, and they passed down to each of them their family name. When the ship landed, the elderly couple claimed them as their grandchildren. To the gatekeeper, the old man swore on the scrolls of the Torah cradled in his arms they had been born by his two daughters, both of whom, he said, had died in childbirth. Because they were too old and poor to parent the children themselves, the rabbi and his wife carried Jacob, Rachel, and Leah to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on the lower east end of the city, where they lived for many years.

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The three infants had grown so accustomed to sleeping with each other over the course of their long journey, the two girls and the boy wouldn’t be separated at night without a great disturbance upsetting the nursery. Their new guardians allowed them to sleep together in the same crib until they were two, then moved them to the same bed when they were four; at the age of five, they required them to reside in separate wings, but the children met every day between lessons to play in the courtyard, and without fail, they sat side by side when they dined. So Jacob wouldn’t be lonely at night, the girls cut pieces of ribbon from the ribbons holding back the thick curls of their hair, and they pinned the shiny material to the lapel of his jacket, and each night before curfew they placed into his pockets notes inscribed with wishes he was meant to read before the dormitory lights were extinguished. The girls longed for things all children long for: sweets and toys and pets. They desired, too, only things orphans desire: a mother and a father, a room in which to sit alone, for silence lasting days and nights with no end. Jacob never made such wishes, as he only had one, of such great importance, he never dared write it down or articulate it. His only wish was to remain with Rachel and Leah. To never be apart from them. To be reunited with them in his bed.

***

Anyone who had eyes could see in what ways the twins would blossom into great beauties. At the age of nine, they already comported themselves with the poise of young women, and on their own initiative they endeavored to refine their characters so they might better resemble the figures living in the novels they read at night under the glow of street lamps hanging outside their dormitory windows. Leah taught herself to sing and play the spinet; Rachel taught herself how to draw and paint; their eyes, in turn, retained a hopeful glimmer, and projected an intellect neither sharp nor oppressive. On Saturday afternoons, they walked with their sister orphans to the long meadow in the park, where, instead of running wild with the others, they presented themselves for public view at the edge of the promenade. There they watched the men and women of privilege stroll by, evaluated their faces as they passed, read into them what goodness they believed they were capable of. On one such Saturday, the identical sisters, dressed in their identical dresses, attracted the attention of an unaccompanied woman, who, on her approach, saw them point her out of the crowd, then watched them lift a dandelion to their lips, and blow away the downy tuft in her direction.

What, the woman asked, had they wished for?

The girls said they had wished she would stop and talk with them.

Why? asked the woman.

And they told her why.

And what more would you wish for if I handed you all the dandelions in the world?

And they listed all the wishes they had written in the notes they had slipped into Jacob’s pockets. The following day, they were invited to visit the woman’s home. And off they went, and never returned. Without so much as a final note to wish Jacob well, they were gone, and would remain estranged from him for almost a dozen years.

***

To dull the loneliness Jacob felt in Rachel and Leah’s absence, he immersed himself in his studies, and he discovered one day in the Asylum’s library the writings of the Cambridge scryer, John Dee. He grew increasingly fascinated by Dee’s pursuit to devise a numeric code in which one could see the pure verities that underlay the visible world. He dreamed of a universe in which it was possible to prove there was a mystical unity in all creation, and marveled over the thought of an obsidian mirror the old scholar acquired from a soldier who claimed Aztec priests had found within it the angels of God.

For two years, Jacob spent his free time absorbed by the principles of optics he’d discovered in Dee’s writings, in the drawings of Goethe, the treatises of Newton, and when his enthusiasm for this field was brought to the attention of one of the orphanage’s trustees, he was introduced to a man named Jonah Liebeskind, an inventor and craftsman, who made his living shaping lenses for cameras and naval telescopes. Mr. Liebeskind was a fastidious bachelor who saw the smallest imperfections in all things. In objects. In architecture. In the manners of men. In the appearance of women. His intention, he would one day explain to Jacob, was not to be unkind by pointing out the deficits in people and the objects they created, he simply could not tolerate mediocrity.

He said to Jacob the afternoon they met if he were willing to work hard and do everything in his power to live up to his standards, if he was willing to pledge to him his diligence, and promise he would attempt to rise above his circumstances, he would make Jacob his apprentice. To this, Jacob agreed. In return, he was given a room of his own in Mr. Liebeskind’s splendid home, a key to the garden, a pair of coveralls to be worn in the machine shop, a new suit to be worn on days they made their deliveries, an additional suit, even more refined, to be worn to shul on the high holidays, to the theater, where they would spend each Sabbath eve, to the museum, where they would spend each Sabbath day studying art, and always to dinner.

Mr. Liebeskind was fond of saying, We will not be unseemly Jews. We will not look nor speak like men spawned from the gutter. We will rise above. He settled for nothing less. Sartorial perfection. Clean hands. Buffed nails. Hair groomed. Shoes shined. Posture erect. Words pronounced without guttural inflection. Manners. Always manners. Always serving the aesthetics of grace. Jacob adopted Mr. Liebeskind’s regimen. A small sacrifice to make for a room of his own and for the opportunity to handle such beautiful tools. In a night and a day, the upright Mr. Liebeskind transformed him from an unkempt boy into a pristine little man, and in ten years’ time, all the while playing his role accordingly, Jacob absorbed everything Mr. Liebeskind imparted to him. He learned from him all there was to know about the properties of glass and shaping lenses, the mechanisms of photographic equipment, the physical nature of light, the internal workings of reflecting telescopes. His mentor had an impeccable eye for painting and believed there was no reason why he and Jacob, with a forthright application of ingenuity, couldn’t, one day, craft lenses and mechanisms that would make it possible for the photographers to whom they sold their equipment to be as great as Hals and Van Dyck. Tiepolo. Poussin. Guardi. He dreamed of traveling abroad like proper gentleman, to meet with other opticians, to research their methods of shaping lenses, but they were always too consumed with work to take time for a holiday.

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Jacob, Rachel, and Leah: An Excerpt From ‘Mount Terminus’

In David Grand’s atmospheric new novel set in pre-Hollywood Los Angeles, a man can’t outrun his dark New York past