Illustration by Paul Rogers

He emerged from the cottage just as Casimir, a sooty-eyed Polish porter with hair like thatch, was tugging along Yosl’s pussle-gutted mare by a frayed piece of rope; and though he knew the beast to be next to useless, Salo straightaway turned over his inheritance (minus the postcard and thimble) to the porter in exchange for redeeming the skewbald nag. Then, as the roof shingles of his former home began to curl upward, tugged at by threads of smoke, Salo took up the reins of the mare, whose name was Bathsheba.

He was aware, of course, that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, if he belonged to anyone, belonged to his worshipful followers. But the Frozen Chasidim and their families were packing up their belongings as was everyone else, and nowhere amid that doleful exodus of clattering barrows and carts heaped high with candlesticks and featherbeds did Salo spy any monumental block of ice. Ingenuity had never been his strong suit; indeed, Salo had never had a strong suit, but drawing from a fund of proficiency that he decided then and there was his father’s legacy to his son, he undertook to replace the metal-rimmed wheel on Yosl’s delivery wagon. When he’d managed over the course of an hour to unhobble the wagon, he hitched it to Bathsheba, whose sluggish forward propulsion seemed entirely owing to a chronic flatulence. Salo stopped at the old log prayer house long enough to appropriate the cedar casket that leaned against an interior wall beneath the half-collapsed roof. This was the single battered casket that the village had recycled for the funerals of the past hundred years. Loading it onto the wagon, the youth continued to lead the horse up the hill to the icehouse, where he studiously addressed the heavy mechanism of a block and tackle coiled at the threshold. He proceeded to snake the pulleyed device through the hatch and down into the stygian grotto, then lowered himself after it for the purpose of attaching the cables to the ice. Back outside again, awakening muscles that had slumbered for the greater part of his 17 years, Salo hauled the rebbe by main force from his catacomb up the wooden ramp into the failing light of day. Then, sweating profusely despite the bitter cold, he slid the block of ice up a second, makeshift ramp of sagging planks onto the bed of the wagon. There he began to chip at the edges with his father’s axe until he could shove the block, wrapped in burlap for further insulation, over a final improvised slope into the casket. Since Bathsheba’s slack belly dragged the ground as if she were fed on cannonballs, there was no question of mounting the wagon; so Salo tugged at her reins and set off walking without further delay (as who was there left to say goodbye to?) in the general direction of the city of Lodz, which lay some leagues beyond the Russian Pale.

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