Illustration by Paul Rogers

Even had he been able, Bernie would not have known how to respond.

Groaning and soaked to the skin, his hands and face the consistency of wet papier-mâché, the old man endeavored to rise, only to fall back splashing into the freezer. “Dos iz efsher gan eydn?”

Again Bernie, his heart rattling the cage of his ribs, could only shake his head.

“A glomp,” said the rabbi decisively, “a chochem fun Chelm,” as he held out his scrawny arms for the boy to help him up. Bernie remained motionless with awe, but as the old man’s anticipation had an air of authority, he took an involuntary step forward. The rabbi was no more than a featherweight, but his saturated ritual garments hung on him heavily, and, in attempting to lift him, Bernie felt as if he’d become involved in a wrestling match. When he’d managed to drag the old man from his sloshing sarcophagus, his decaying garments clinging to his body like bits of eggshell to a fledgling bird, the boy and the elder tumbled together onto the hooked rug. Just then the lights came back on and the TV began blaring, its screen displaying a smug master of ceremonies making a face as contestants held their noses in order to swallow the placentas of voles. The defrosted rabbi, lying sprawled atop Bernie, who had yet to release him, squinted with interest at the show.

“Voo bin ikh?” he inquired.

At that moment Bernie’s sister, leading her escort in his Bermudas and crested blazer by the hand down the basement stairs, spied the half-naked old party in the process of extricating himself from her brother’s embrace and screamed bloody murder.

1890 – 1907.

Since progress was slow along the czar’s highway, glutted with so many displaced souls, Salo took to the less traveled back roads. This was the more hazardous course, for there was some safety in numbers, whereas alone he was more vulnerable to attacks by brigands and peasants who’d missed their chance to plunder Boibicz—or Shmedletz or Smorgon or Zhmirzh, all of which had also been emptied of Jews. But Salo, his head cowled in his filthy tallis and crowned by a peaked cap to protect him from the needles of falling sleet, preferred the risk to the ranks of his fellow refugees. He had grown impatient with the pall that overhung their caravan like the poor relation to a pillar of flame, their forced march toward some new oblivion that the Jews seemed born for. Should he feel guilty? Was he perhaps an apikoyros, a heretic, that he should experience such exhilaration on the heels of his father’s homicide and the destruction of his hometown? But having spent the past seventeen years in nearly uninterrupted mooning about, he was thrilled, God help him, at having waked up to find himself at large in history. He was Salo Frostbite, self-appointed guardian of a slumbering saint, and while he might look like a schnorrer, his holey boots wrapped in rags to keep his feet from freezing, he felt he had become overnight a man of substance and parts.

It was a status corroborated by those who might otherwise have done him harm: the mounted Cossacks in their braided cloaks and astrakhan hats, who cantered alongside his wagon and threatened Salo with conscription, which for a Jew amounted to a life (if not a death) sentence in the army. They would lift his weak chin with their swagger sticks and accuse him of the Jewish trick of concealing treasure in unlikely vessels, then demand to know what he had hidden inside the casket. During the earliest encounters Salo wondered if he ought to refuse their request on principle, even if it meant imperiling his person; for wouldn’t allowing these bullies to ogle the casket’s contents amount to a type of desecration? But as his mission of maintaining the rebbe required his staying alive, he would concede in the end to raise the lid (the soldiers would have raised it in any case)—whereupon all questions would cease. Confounded by the revelation, the Cossacks would dig spurs into the shuddering flanks of their steeds and gallop away in a spray of mud. Eventually soldiers and peasants alike began to give the youth with his strange cargo a wide berth, a state of affairs Salo attributed to the gelid rebbe’s disturbing effect on the goyim, word of which must have spread abroad in the land.

He had the conviction that so long as he took care of Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, the tzaddik would take care of him.

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