The pain spread until it was general throughout her body, whose very skin seemed to plead for an even greater portion of hurt. Her skin invited further punishment while her brain, as if swathed in damp gauze, remained at a distant remove. Although she recognized that she was in a state of authentic agony, the agony was itself as remote as the memory of her dream, images of which reemerged only to retreat back into their fog. But some of the images persisted, assuming more clarity, and again she saw her naked father with his gorse-like clumps of hair and beard, his concave chest, his genitals like eggs in a nest. It was a picture that did not square with the ferocious image of the watchman in the dream parlor, where he behaved as he had in the stories he’d told of laying waste to the enemies of the icehouse, stories that even as a child she’d understood to be lies. Again she saw him swinging his crowbar in those tawdry rooms, smashing the skull of a character whose name she seemed to recall: Wolfie, it was, the walleyed famulus of Zygmunt the Yentzer, the Pimp. Then Wolfie went down, though not before he’d delivered a slash or two to the intruder’s chest and cheek. Her injured papa had nevertheless gathered up his daughter from the sofa where she lay in her rucked chemise, just as Zygmunt himself stormed into the room yammering scripture and attacking her papa, who bled already from a dozen wounds. Still, he had managed to carry the languid girl out of the brothel and down the stairs into the slushy streets, stumbling past a thousand witnesses: the poulterers and lottery-ticket peddlers, rusty-eyed millworkers and market wives, the pimp himself in his earlocks and lemon spats, who followed but dared not assault the watchman further before the gawking audience. Thus did Salo stagger with his burden all the way back to Zabludeve Street, where he deposited the girl, wrapped in his bloody sheepskin, on the cot behind the stove, drawing the curtain to give her some privacy. Then, while his wife excoriated him for a hopeless ninny and threatened to increase his wounds, he lay himself down on his own bed and slipped away.
Or had he been a walking dead man all the while he was carrying his daughter home from the shandoiz? For that was the version that evolved in the ghetto, a story that thrilled its citizens, some of whom still recalled how Salo had entered their city preceded by legend; he’d been the guardian of a celebrated tzaddik’s remains, hadn’t he? though there was still some controversy as to whether the holy man was actually deceased. This was all long ago, but the memory, vague though it was, supplemented the perception that Salo Frostbissen was a holy warrior, come forth from his dormancy in Pisgat’s icehouse to do battle with the evil element. So emboldened was the local population by the tale of Salo’s martyrdom that, when Zygmunt the Pimp returned to claim his stolen property, he was met by a party of implement-brandishing neighbors standing outside Jocheved’s door. Zygmunt swore on his hip-pocket siddur that he would come back with reinforcements and proved as good as his promise, returning with a cadre of crime-syndicate shtarkers to break the heads of those who’d dared to defy him. But as he’d been in no special hurry to stage his reprisal (and was himself not exactly a popular cause), by the time he reappeared Jocheved’s mother had already followed her husband’s lead: Having hounded him throughout his days, she had apparently no intention of allowing death to come between them, and so pursued him into the hereafter with a stinging fund of leftover abuse that she’d neglected to unload on him in life. She had expired (this was the coroner’s diagnosis) of a ruptured heart that few gave her credit for having, and her daughter had since vanished without a trace.
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