“Among the Thorns,” by Veronica Schanoes, is a dark fantasy taking place in seventeenth century Germany, about a young woman who is intent on avenging the brutal murder of her peddler father many years earlier, by a vagabond with a magic fiddle.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.
I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.
They made him dance.
Just over 150 years ago, in 1515, as the Christians count, on a bright and clear September morning, they chained a Jewish man named Johann Pfefferkorn to a column in our cemetery. They left enough length for him to be able to walk around the column. Then they surrounded him with coals and set them aflame, raking them ever closer to Herr Pfefferkorn, until he was roasted alive.
They said that Herr Pfefferkorn had confessed to stealing, selling, and mutilating their Eucharist, planning to poison all the Christians in Magdeburg and Halbristadt combined and then to set fire to their homes, kidnapping two of their children in order to kill them and use their blood for ritual purposes, poisoning wells, and practicing sorcery.
I readily believe that poor Herr Pfefferkorn confessed to all of that.
A man will confess to anything when he is being tortured.
They say that, at the last, my father confessed to stealing every last taler he had ever possessed.
But I don’t believe that. Not my father.
They say that in their year 1462, in the village of Pinn, several of us bought the child of a farmer and tortured it to death. They also say that in their 1267, in Pforzheim, an old woman sold her granddaughter to us, and we tortured her to death and threw her body into the River Enz.
Who are these people who trade away their children for gold?
My parents would not have given away me or any of my brothers for all the gold in Hesse. Are gentiles so depraved that at last, they cannot love even their own children?
I was seven when my father disappeared. At first we did not worry. My parents were pawnbrokers in Hoechst; my mother ran the business out of our house and my father travelled the countryside of Hesse, peddling the stock she thus obtained, and trading with customers in nearby towns, during the week. He tried to be with us for Shabbat, but it was not so unusual for the candles to burn down without him.
But it was almost always only a matter of days before he came back, looming large in our doorway, and swept me into the air in a hug redolent of the world outside Hoechst. I was the youngest and the only girl, and though fathers and mothers both are said to rejoice more greatly in their sons than in their daughters, I do believe that my father preferred me above all my brothers.
My father was a tall man, and I am like him in that, as in other things. I have his thick black hair and his blue eyes. But my father’s eyes laughed at the world, and I have instead my mother’s temperament, so I was a solemn child.
When my father lifted me in his arms and kissed me, his beard stroked my cheek. I was proud of my father’s beard, and he took such care of it: so neat and trim it was, not like my zeyde’s beard had been, all scraggly and going every which way. And white. My mother’s father’s beard was white, too. My father’s was black as ink, and I never saw a white hair in it.
We had a nice house, not too small and not too big, and we lived in a nice area of Hoechst, but not too nice. My parents grew up in the ghetto of Frankfurt Am Main, but the ghetto in Frankfurt is but a few streets, and there are so many of us. So we Jews are mobile by necessity.
Even though it is dangerous on the road.
And Hoechst is a nice place, and we had a nice home. But not too nice. My mother had selected it when she was already pregnant with my eldest brother. “Too nice and they are jealous,” she told me, “so not too nice. But not nice enough, and they won’t come and do business. And,” she added, “I wanted clean grounds for my children to play on.”
We had some Jewish neighbors, and it was their children I mostly played with. The Christian children were nice enough, but they were scared of us sometimes, or scorned us, and I never knew what to expect. I had a friend named Inge for a while, but when her older sister saw us together, she turned red and smashed my dolly’s head against a tree. Then she got to her feet and ran home, and her sister glared at me.
I was less friendly after that, although my father fixed my dolly when he came home that week, and put a bandage on my head to match hers when I asked him to.
Some feel there is safety in numbers and in closeness, but my mother thought differently. “Too many of us, too close together,” she said, “and they think we’re plotting against them. Of course, they don’t like it when we move too far into their places, either. I do what I can to strike the right balance, liebchen,” she said.
This was my mother, following the teachings of Maimonides, who wrote that we should never draw near any extreme, but keep to the way of the righteous, the golden mean. In this way, she sought to protect her family.
Perhaps she was successful, for the Angel of Death did not overtake us at home.
Death caught up with my father when he was on the road, but we did not worry overmuch at first. My mother had already begun to worry when he was still not home for the second Shabbat, but even that was not the first time, and I did not worry at all. Indeed, I grew happier, for the farther away my father travelled, the more exciting his gifts for me were when he arrived home.
But Mama sat with my Uncle Leyb, who lived with us, fretting, their heads together like brother and sister. Even though Uncle Leyb was my father’s younger brother, he was fair-haired, like my mother. I loved him very much, though not in the way I loved my parents. Uncle Leyb was my playmate, my friend, my eldest brother, if my brothers had spent time with a baby like me. But Uncle Leyb was also old enough to be my parents’ confidant. Sometimes he went with my father, and sometimes he stayed and helped my mother.
I am grateful that he stayed home for my father’s last trip. I do not think he could have done any good. But Leyb does not forgive himself to this day.
“Illness, murder, kidnapping,” said my mother calmly, as though she were making up a list of errands, but her knuckles were white, her hands gripping the folds of her dress.
“It will be all right, Esti,” said my uncle. “Yakov has been out on the road many times for many days. Perhaps business is good and he doesn’t want to cut off his good fortune. And then you’d have had all this worry for naught.”
“They kidnapped a boy, a scholar,” said Mama. “On the journey between Moravia and Cracow.”
“Nobody has kidnapped Yakov,” said my uncle. He had a disposition like my father’s, always sunny.
“If we sell the house,” Mama went on as if she hadn’t heard him. “We could pay a substantial ransom.”
“There will be no need for that,” my uncle said firmly.
My mother’s fears did not worry me. Though I was a serious child, my father was big as a tree in my eyes, certainly bigger than Mama or Uncle Leyb or most of the men in Hoechst.
And my parents were well-liked in Hoechst. My father drank and smoked with the younger Christian men, and when he offered his hand, they shook it.
When the third Shabbat without my father passed, Uncle Leyb began to worry as well. His merry games faded to silence, and he and my mother held hushed conversations that broke off the minute I came within earshot.
After the fourth Shabbat had passed, my uncle packed up a satchel of food and took a sackful of my mother’s wares and announced his intention to look for my father.
“Don’t go alone,” my mother said.
“Whom should I take?” my uncle asked. “The children? And you need to stay and run the business.”
“Take a friend. Take Nathaniel from next door. He’s young and strong.”
“So am I, Esti,” my uncle said. He held her hand fondly for a moment before letting it go and taking a step back, away from the safety of our home. “Besides,” he said, noticing that I and my next elder brother, Heymann, had stopped our game of jacks to watch and listen. “I daresay that Yakov is recovering from an ague in a nice bed somewhere. Won’t I give him a tongue-lashing for not sending word home to his wife and family? Perhaps I’ll even give him a knock on the head!”
The thought of slight Uncle Leyb thumping my tall, sturdy father was so comical that I giggled.
My uncle turned his face to me and pretended to be stern. “You mock me, Ittele?” he said. “Oh, if only you could have seen your father and me when we were boys! I thrashed him up and down the street, and never mind that he was the elder!”
I laughed again, and my uncle seemed pleased. But as he waved at us and turned to go, his face changed, and he looked almost frightened.
The fortnight that he was away was the longest I have ever known. Mama was quick-tempered; my brothers ignored me, except for Heymann, who entertained himself by teaching me what he learned in cheder. I tried to pay attention, but I missed my uncle’s jokes and games, and I missed my father’s hugs and kisses. I took to sucking my thumb for consolation, the way I had when I was a baby. Only when my brothers couldn’t see, of course. My mother did catch me a few times, but she pretended not to notice so I wouldn’t be embarrassed.
My brothers were out when I saw Uncle Leyb coming home through the window. His face was distorted, and I could not tell if it was an effect of the glass rippling or of some deep distress.
He seemed calm by the time Mama and I met him at the front door, having dropped the forks from our hands and abandoned our meal. My mother brought him into the kitchen and settled him with a measure of kirschwasser. Then she told me to go play outside. I was moving toward the door with my brothers’ old hoop and stick as slowly as possible—they were too big for hoop rolling by this time, but I still liked it—when my uncle raised his hand and I stopped.
“No,” he said firmly. “She should stay and listen. And her brothers, where are they? They should come and hear this as well.”
My mother met his eyes and then nodded. She sent me out to collect my brothers. When all four of us returned, my mother’s face was drawn and taut. For many years I thought that my uncle had told my mother the tale of my father’s last day privately after all, but when I was older, she said not; she said that when she had seen that Uncle Leyb was alone, she had known already that she would never again lay eyes on my father.
The four of us sat between them, my eldest brother holding our mother’s hand. My uncle held his arms out to me and I climbed onto his lap. I was tall, even as a child, and I no longer quite fit, but I think it was his comfort and consolation even more than mine, so I am glad I stayed. At the time, I was still obstinately hoping for good news, that Papa had struck a marvelous bargain that had taken a lot of work, and now we were all wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, that even now Papa was travelling home as quickly as possible, his pockets loaded with treats.
My uncle wrapped his arms around me and began to speak quietly and deliberately. “Esti, Kinder. Yakov is dead. He will not be coming home. I buried him just a few days ago. With my own hands, I buried him.”
My mother sighed, and somehow her face relaxed, as though the blow she had been expecting had finally landed, and it was a relief to have it done.
My brothers’ faces looked blank and slightly confused; I suspect mine did as well. I did not quite believe what my uncle said. Perhaps, I thought, he was mistaken. But I could tell that my uncle was genuinely sad, so I reached up and patted his face.
“I fell in with Hoffmann after a few days, and told him of our worries”—Hoffmann was a peddler my father and uncle crossed paths with every so often and saw at shul on the high holy days. He lived several towns away, but he took much longer journeys than did my father. It was strange, though, that he should have been peddling among my father’s towns.
“He said that word had spread that my brother’s territory was going unattended; otherwise, he never would have presumed to visit it. He offered to join me in my search, so we pressed on together until we came to Dornburg. ‘Burg’ they call themselves, but they’re not even as big as Hoechst. As we approached, the town lived up to its name, thorn bushes on every patch of scrub by the road.
“Yakov’s body was hanging from a gibbet mounted by the side of the road just outside the town.
“We waited until nightfall, cut him down, and buried him under cover of darkness. I left a few stones at the graveside, Esti, but otherwise, I left it unmarked. I didn’t want to risk them digging him up. Let him rest.”
My mother’s face was stone, and my uncle’s voice was calm, but the top of my head was damp with my uncle’s tears. I was still confused, so I turned around on my uncle’s lap so I could face him.
“So when will Papa come home?” I asked him. I can make no excuses. I understood the nature of death by then. Perhaps I just did not want to believe it.
My uncle put his palms on either side of my face and held my gaze. “He will not come home again. The people of Dornburg killed him. He is dead, like your baby brother two years ago.”
“How?” I could not imagine such a thing. My papa was big as a bear and twice as strong in my eyes. He could swing me around and around and never get tired. He could wrestle my two eldest brothers at once. He could even pick up my mama.
“They made him dance, liebchen. They made him dance in thorns, and then they hanged him.”
“For what?” The cry burst from my mother. “For what did they hang him?”
“Theft,” said my uncle, not taking his eyes from my face. “They said he had stolen all his money; rumor has it that they gave all he had to some vagabond fiddler, and he set himself up nicely. What’s little enough for a family of seven is plenty for one vagrant.”
“My papa never stole anything,” I said. It was then that I realized what had happened. These people could say terrible things about my father only because he was dead.
“Not since we were boys,” Uncle Leyb agreed.
I put my hands over his and stared into his eyes intently. If my father could not bring justice to those who slandered him, I would. “I will kill them,” I told my uncle. My voice was steady and I was quite sincere. “I will surround that town with death. I will wrap death around their hearts, and I will rip them apart.
“I will kill them all. Every one.”
My uncle did not laugh at me, or ruffle my hair, or tell me to run along. Instead, he met my gaze and nodded. Then he took my hands in his and said “So be it.”
He said it almost reverently.
The residents of Dornburg were proud of their story, how they had destroyed the nasty Jewish peddler. How a passing fiddler had tricked the Jew into a thornbush and then played a magic fiddle that made him dance among the thorns, until his skin was ripped and bloody, and how the fiddler would not leave off until the Jew had given over all his money.
How the Jew had caught up with the fiddler at the town and had him arrested for theft; and how the fiddler had played again, forcing everybody to dance (the residents of Dornburg often omitted this part, it was said, in order not to look foolish, but the other gentiles of Hesse gladly filled it in) until the Jew confessed to theft. And how the Jew, bloody and exhausted and knowing he would never see home nor wife nor children again, did confess, and how he was hanged instead of the fiddler, and his body left to hang and rot outside the town gates as a warning.
How one morning, the town of Dornburg awoke to find that the Devil had taken the corpse down to Hell.
Uncle Leyb said that Papa would come home to me nevermore, but I did not quite believe it. I waited every night for years to hear his footsteps and pat his black beard, I waited every night for his pockets full of treats and his embrace.
I still do not understand why I waited, full of hope. I knew what my uncle had said.
My baby brother had died of a fever two years before; my parents had been heartbroken, and I still missed his delighted laugh when I tickled his face with my hair. But he had come and gone so quickly, a matter of months. Papa had always been with me; I think that I could not conceive that he would not be with me again.
I knew better than to tell anybody that I was waiting, but I waited nonetheless.
I think that I am waiting still.
My mother never quite recovered from Uncle Leyb’s news, and when the story of the Jew at Dornburg became commonplace, her soul suffered further. She had been so careful, so alive to the delicate balance that would placate the Christians so that we could live a good life; finding that her best efforts were so easily overcome, that the mayor and the judge of a town where my father had traded for years would hang him at the behest of a vagrant fiddler, and that the townspeople from whom he had bought, to whom he had sold and loaned, with whom he had drunk and diced and sung, would gather and cheer, it was too much for her to bear, I think.
She became a wan, quiet shadow of the mother I remember from early childhood. She stayed indoors as much as possible, and avoided contact with non-family. She ate little and slept for long hours. I missed her strictness. She had always been the stern and reliable pillar of my life. And of course, business suffered as the families of Hoechst enjoyed visiting less and less often, and my mother declined to seek out their company. Too, she suffered strange aches and illnesses with neither source nor surcease.
We would have starved, I think, if not for Uncle Leyb and our next-door neighbors, whose eldest daughter came over to help my mother through her days. Tante Gittl, I learned to call her. There was some talk for a while, talk that I was supposed to be too young to notice or to understand, that she was angling to catch the eye of Uncle Leyb. If this was anything more than talk, she was doomed to disappointment, for no woman ever caught the eye of my uncle, who much preferred the company of other young men, though he was not to meet his business partner Elias until some years later.
Uncle Leyb took over my father’s peddling, joined by my eldest brother, Hirsch, who, at sixteen, had hoped to make his way to Vienna, but willingly turned to peddling to keep food on the table. Tante Gittl helped my mother recover herself, and to slowly revive what remained of our business, and Heymann was able to continue at cheder. At thirteen, Josef was already demonstrating that he had the temperament of a sociable man, one who preferred the company of fellows to the rigors of scholarship. He now keeps a tavern in Mainz, having gone to live with our mother’s cousin and learn the trade.
Heymann devoted himself to study, seeking in the teachings and commentaries of Rebbes both living and dead the father we had lost. But I knew he would never be found there, for my father was never a bookish man, proud though he had been of Heymann’s intelligence and aptitude for study.
I was still young, old enough to help around the house, but not much else. I spent much of my time alone with my dolly, running my fingers over the scar where my father had repaired her, sometimes not even aware that my thumb had found its way into my mouth until Tante Gittl, barely two years older than my eldest brother, would remind me gently that I was too big a girl for such behavior, and set me some petty task as distraction.
Eventually I began reading Josef’s cast-off books. Heymann, who had always had the soul of a scholar, stole time from his study breaks to play tutor, practicing on me for his future career.
Time passed, and perhaps that is the worst betrayal of all, for life without my father to have become normal. It felt sometimes as if only I remembered him, though I knew that was not so, as if only I missed him, though surely Uncle Leyb felt keenly the absence of the elder brother who had taken care of him in boyhood and brought him from Frankfurt Am Main to Hoechst in manhood, the two of them staying together even as so many of our families are blown apart like dandelion puffs, never to see one another again.
Uncle Leyb must have been as lonely as I.
And Mama never remarried.
So perhaps it was foolish to feel that nobody was as bereft as I, but I am sure that my father and I treasured each other in a way peculiar to only the most fortunate of fathers and daughters.
I wonder, sometimes, if the fiddler, Herr Geiger, as he was called in Dornburg, felt that way about his daughter. He always seemed uncertain around her, as if he wished to love her but did not know how to begin. Once he told me he would love her better when she was older and had a true personality. But she has always seemed to have quite a strong character to me, right from the very beginning, even in her suckling.
I could have told him how to love her. I could have told him that to love a baby is to wake up every time she cries, even if you have not had a full night’s sleep in days, to clean and change her cloths even when she has made herself quite disgusting, to sit up fretting and watching her sleep when she has a cold, to dance with her around and around the room without stopping, because her delight is well worth your aching legs and feet, to tell her stories and trust that she understands more than she can say. I could have told him this, but I did not.
He was not a bad father. But he was not a good one. And I did not help him.
My mother died when I was seventeen. She seemed to have just been worn out by the treachery of our gentile neighbors. I do believe that the people of Dornburg killed her as surely as they did my father. She kissed me on her deathbed, and prayed to God to guide me to a safe home. And she died, with God having given her no answer, no peace of mind, the worry still apparent on her lifeless face.
I became Tante Gittl’s main help after my mother’s death, as Josef had left for Mainz two years earlier and Heymann had no interest in the family business. Too, Heymann was—is—studious and intelligent, but not canny. His is the kind of intelligence that can quote Torah word-perfect at length and analyze the finest points of disputation, but he never could add up a column of figures and get the same answer twice. Not if his life depended on it.
And I hope it never does.
I became Tante Gittl’s help, but she did not need me. She and my eldest brother, Hirsch, had married the year before, and it made good sense for her to take over the business. She was very good with people, very charming, and she and Hirsch lived in harmony, companions and business partners. Nor did she need me when she became pregnant, for she had her own sisters, even her own mother next door.
I think it was her wish for me to wed her brother Nathaniel, and he was not unkind. The match would have been well made, but I knew that motherhood would destroy any plan of mine to see my father’s grave and take vengeance on the man who had ended his life, because of what we owe to our children. To put myself at great risk—that was my choice, my prerogative. But if I’d had children—it is not right for parents to abandon their children, never. I knew too well what it meant to lose one’s greatest protector and caretaker, the one in whose face the sun rises and sets, while still young. And I could never have done that to my child. We owe our children our lives.
With my mother in the ground and the youngest of her children grown, my Uncle Leyb grew restless. He had met Elias while visiting Worms, and with Hirsch and Tante Gittl well set and Josef in Mainz, he deeply desired to make his life in Worms as well. Heymann and I were left to choose our paths.
There was never really any question about Heymann’s future: he lived and breathed the dream of continuing his studies at the Yeshiva in Cracow. I told Hirsch and Gittl, and Heymann as well, that I was going to Worms with Uncle Leyb, and there, perhaps among so many of our people, I would find a husband. They believed me, I think, though Heymann, who of all my brothers knew me best, wrinkled his brow in perplexity. Uncle Leyb accepted my decision without comment, and we made plans to depart.
The last night we all spent together was much as our nights had been for some time, with a pregnant Gittl and Hirsch conferring about the future while Heymann talked to me of his plans for study and Uncle Leyb sat by himself writing a letter, this time to Josef, detailing our plans.
Worms, my uncle said, is perhaps four days’ travel from Hoechst, provided the weather was good and nothing hindered our progress. But we would be carrying our lives with us on horse and cart, he noted, and would, of necessity, go more slowly than he did while peddling. The three of us—Uncle Leyb, Heymann, and I—travelled together to the regional shul, where the men prayed for good fortune on our journeys, and then we parted ways, the brother closest to me in both age and affection kissing my cheek, swinging his pack off the cart and onto his shoulder, and turning to the northeast and his scholarly future. His face was flushed with excitement, but the journey was six hundred miles, and he would be alone for the first time. For months after, I would picture him alone on the road, set upon by ruffians, or ill among strangers, without any one of us to hold his hand or bring him water.
My uncle and I walked in silence for a while. After perhaps half an hour had passed, he kept his gaze on the road ahead but spoke carefully.
“Ittele, you know, of course, that Elias and I will always welcome you. But you have always been my favorite, and I flatter myself that I know you as well as anybody could. Surely my brave, bright-eyed niece is brewing plans more complex than husband-catching?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I am.” But I did not elaborate.
When we stopped for dinner, he broached the topic again. As he finished up the bread and sausage we had packed, he poured himself a measure of kirschwasser. He leaned back against the cart and looked me in the eye.
“So, liebe, what are these plans of yours? Indulge your old uncle by taking him into your confidence.”
I smiled at him. “I do mean to see you settled, Uncle. And when you are happily ensconced in Worms and have joined your business to Elias’s, and are well occupied, I believe it will be time for me to set out once more.”
Uncle Leyb raised his eyebrows and gestured for me to continue.
“To Dornburg, Uncle. I will go to Dornburg, and I will watch the fiddler’s last breaths.”
My uncle poured himself another measure of kirsch and sipped it slowly. “How do you intend to do this, child?”
My voice seemed to come from far away as I spoke, though I had long thought on this very question. “I do not yet know, Uncle. It depends on how I find him. But I must do this. I have known ever since I was a child. The knowledge has lodged like . . . like . . .” I fumbled for words.
“Like a thorn in your heart, my child?” finished my uncle.
My uncle finished his kirsch. “Yes,” he said.
“You are bravest of us all, I think,” he said, and then he stopped. “I should go—I should have been with him—I will go—”
I put my hand on his arm to stop him. “No. You should go to Elias. I am my father’s daughter, and I will go to Dornburg.”
My uncle relaxed and let go of the tin cup he had been gripping. Its sides were bowed inward. Color slowly returned to his face. “I believe I understand,” he said. “And after I am settled, I will see you to Dornburg. Yakov would never forgive me if something should happen to you on the road.” He began packing up our belongings in preparation for continuing on to the next inn.
“So be it,” he added, just as he had when I was a child on his lap.
I did wonder how I would take my revenge, but I did not wonder how I would escape afterwards. I did not expect to escape Dornburg. I expected to take my revenge, and then to meet the same end as my father had. But I did not say this to my uncle. He would not have been so sanguine, I know, had he heard me say that.
That night, the Matronit visited me in a dream. I did not know who or what she was, only that she was nothing human. She was the moon, she was the forest, she was my childhood dolly. But she was terrible, and I was frightened.
She smiled at me, and through moonlight and the rustle of the trees and my dolly’s cracked face, she told me to turn away from Dornburg.
“Never,” I said. And the moon clouded over, and the trees cracked open, and my dolly’s head shattered.
And then she was gone, only a whisper in the air left to mark her passage.
I had this dream a second time the following evening, and again the following night. But the third time, it ended differently. Instead of shattering and leaving me, the Matronit’s face grew stern and she coalesced before me into the form of a woman who was a beautiful monster, my beloved mother with a brow free from fear, claws like scimitars ready to tear and kill. Her hair streamed out from her head like the tails of comets and blood ran down her face. Her feet reached down to death and her head to the heavens. Her face was both pale and dark and she beamed at me with pride.
I am coming, my daughter.
Worms was much larger than Hoechst, but my uncle had no trouble settling in. I suppose a peddler who goes from town to town must be used to a whirl of people and places. I liked Elias well enough. He had an elegant brown mustache and was very fond of my uncle. I determined to set out for Dornburg on my own, so as not to interrupt their idyll, but my uncle would not hear of it, and neither would Elias.
“Terrible things can happen to a maiden alone on the road,” said Elias. “Leyb and I have both seen this. But with him escorting you, you will be safe. As safe as anyone can be.”
I nodded my head in assent, secretly pleased to have my uncle’s company and moral support along the way.
“But Itte,” he continued. “What of when you are in Dornburg? You . . . look so much like your father. I see Yakov every time I look at you, and your father . . . your father carried Israel in his face.”
I remembered the woman in my dream, the woman with claws like scimitars, with her feet in death and her head burning in the sky like the sun. And blood, blood running down her face. “I do not yet know, Uncle. But I trust a solution will come.”
She came to me that night, while I was sleeping. I opened my eyes, sat up in bed, and words began pouring from my mouth, words in languages I had never heard, let alone studied. I wrested back control of my tongue long enough to stutter, “Dear God, what is happening to me?”
I am here, my daughter, echoed in my head. My mind flooded with pictures of moonlight, forests, and war.
“Who are you? Where are you?”
I am here, the presence said again.
“I am possessed? Inhabited by a dybbuk?”
I felt the presence bridle. I am no dybbuk, it said. I am your dearest friend and ally. I am the mother who protects and avenges her children. I am she who is called Matronit, and I speak now through your mouth. I am she who dries up the sea, who pierces Rahab, I am the chastising mother, I am the one who redeems the mystery of Yakov.
“Mother?” I gasped.
I am the goddess-mother of all children of Israel. And I am your maggid.
“My mother is dead,” I told the empty air. “And I am pious—I have none but Adonai as God.”
I have always been goddess of Israel, even now as my children turn away from my worship. And I was goddess in times of old, when I was loved and feared. For was not a statue of me set in the temple of Jerusalem? And did I not oversee the households of the Holy Land? Was incense not burned to me, libations not poured to me, cakes not made in my image in Pathros, when the children of Israel defied Jeremiah? And have I not intervened with Hashem on behalf of the children of Israel, not once or twice, but many times? And am I not your maggid, who will bring you victory if you but embrace me as of old?
“These were great sins,” I breathed. “To depart from the ways of the Lord—”
He is a jealous god, she continued. But he is not alone. Was not your own mother named for me?
“My mother was named for her grandmother, who was—”
Esther. Named for me, the goddess of Israel, and I have gone by many names, including Astarte, including Ishtar. You worshipped me every time you spoke her name.
Do you not understand? I will bring your vengeance to pass.
“What mother are you,” I said bitterly, “who did not protect a child of Israel ten years ago, when he was tortured and killed in Dornburg? And he is only one among many.”
There was a silence in my head, and I thought the presence—the Matronit—had departed, but then she spoke to my soul again. I have been greatly . . . diminished. Hashem is a jealous god, and his prophets have destroyed my worship, and so my power has dwindled. But still I can be your maggid, and guide you to righteous victory. And in turn, you will observe the rites of my worship, and help to restore some of my former strength, just as your brother will in Cracow, when he learns of me, the Matronit, the Shekhina, in his studies.
“My brother will learn only the most pious teachings.”
And he will learn of me, when he advances to the teachings of Kabbalah. And I will bring you vengeance as your maggid.
Your guide, your teacher. And something more. I will possess your body, reside in your soul, yet I will not wrest control from you. I will strengthen you for what lies ahead, yet I will leave you human. And when this work is done, I will depart.
“And you will bring me success? You will enable me to bring vengeance to Dornburg?”
Yes, my child. Through you, Dornburg shall become a wasteland.
In but a minute, I made my choice. I abandoned what I had been taught, not out of impiety, but out of sheer rage, for I realized then that despite all my piety, all my father’s piety, all my brother’s devotions, Adonai had allowed my father to suffer, to be ripped by thorns and then hanged while townspeople had jeered. What, then, should He be to me? And if this Matronit would bring devastation to Dornburg—“Then possess me, Mother,” I said. “I consent to this ibbur. I welcome you, and I will observe your rites.”
The Matronit paused before answering. Then you must know that I must first make your soul ready to receive me. And you must know that this cannot be painless. Your uncle and his partner will see you writhe in fever for seven days and nights. And you will be changed. You will be scorched with the knowledge I bring you.
I was not foolhardy, for I knew what I was accepting. My soul had been scorched before, when I was seven years old.
My uncle and Elias tended me faithfully as I convulsed with fever. I vomited, they told me, continuously, until my body could bring up nothing more, and then I shook and refused to choke down even water. They told me later that they did not believe I would ever regain consciousness, and Elias whispered privately that my uncle had sat weeping by my bedside more than once. Perhaps it is a blessing that I could not feel that pain, for I do not remember any of it.
What I remember are the visions, for while my uncle sat by my bedside, I was not with him. I was not there at all. I was among those to come, among my people when they were expelled from Vienna five years hence, when they were driven from Poland in the century to come. I saw our emancipation throughout that century, and I saw its collapse—and then I was among riots, watching parents throughout Bavaria clutch their children as their homes burned, as learned professors and their students tore their possessions apart and worse, an old man impaled with a pitchfork, unable to scream as blood bubbled from his throat. Again and again, I saw the pendulum swing, as my people’s emancipation drew near and then was wrenched away, slicing through the hands that reached out for it.
And I saw worse. The world around me teemed with flickering images, nightmarish visions of stone roads carrying metal beasts, of burning homes, of people pressed like livestock into mechanical carts, children crying, separated from their parents, toddlers heads dashed against walls, of starvation, and of our neighbors turning on us, only too glad to agree to our degradation and murder. The visions persisted no matter where I turned my head, and there was no reprieve, nor any justice, no justice anywhere.
What is this, I asked the Matronit. What is happening to me?
None of this has happened, as yet, she told me. You see as I see, across not only space, but time. This has not happened, but it will happen. It will all happen.
And Adonai? What of Him? Why has—why will He abandon my people? I wailed silently. Does our devotion mean nothing, nothing at all? What of our covenant? Did Abraham smash his father’s idols for nothing? For nothing at all?
The Matronit chose her words carefully. Hashem—Hashem . . . is . . . hungry for power. He always has been. He rides the waves of power and he does not care who is crushed beneath them. He never has.
So He will desert us?
My daughter, he deserted Israel long ago.
If I could have, I would have spat. Then I will desert Him, I told her. Why should I remain devout, why should I—why should any of us—maintain our rituals or keep our covenant?
My daughter, if you did not, who would you be?
I awoke with no voice, coughing blood. When I saw Uncle Leyb asleep in the chair by my bedside, tears ran from my eyes for his ignorance, and for his hope, and I cried for Hirsch’s baby, and all the children to come. My uncle awoke and wiped my tears as well as my nose. I was able to take his hand and to whisper that I was well again, but this effort exhausted me, and I fell back asleep. I dreamt not at all.
I was not well. I thought I would never be well again.
As I slowly recovered my strength, I kept faith with the Matronit. I poured out wine and lit incense for her; I baked small cakes in her form and in her honor. I did not tell Elias or Uncle Leyb the reasons for my actions. I myself was still unsure whether or not the Matronit was a demon or the goddess—and how strange it felt to think that word—and if she was the former, I had no wish to lead them astray, for they are good men. But I became convinced she was what she said she was—the diminished goddess of the Jews, she who had intervened on our behalf with Adonai. For how could she speak holy prayers otherwise? Even if Adonai was no longer with my people, the holiness of our prayers could not be denied. So I prayed for her strength to return, every night and day.
After such a long illness, it was many months before my uncle would allow me to travel. But recover I did, and soon even he could not deny that I was strong, stronger even than I had ever been before. And so we two set off for Dornburg, leaving Elias in Worms to manage the business.
When we had travelled for two days, my uncle turned to me and told me that he was not a fool. He had heard me talking to the Matronit, he said, and he told me he would not allow me to continue unless I could explain what seemed to him like madness. He would not, he said, abandon a woman touched in the head to a strange town.
I weighed my options.
“I have a maggid, Uncle,” I said at last. “My soul is hosting a righteous spirit who is leading my steps. Please trust in it as I do.”
My uncle looked strangely relieved. “I am glad to know it, Itte,” he said. “I will feel better knowing that you are not on your own. Tell me the name of this spirit, so that I may honor her as well.”
I paused for a moment, wondering if I should invoke the name of some learned Rebbe, but I could think of none. “The Matronit,” I said. “It is the Matronit-Shekhina.”
My uncle said nothing. I hoped that he would remember her in his prayers, and that his prayers would add to her strength.
He left me five miles from Dornburg. I know my uncle did not like to turn back to Worms alone; I know he worried. He tried to disguise it, but I was less easily fooled than I had been ten years previous. And despite my maggid, after I had walked for two hours and found myself standing alone outside the walls of Dornburg, staring at the gibbet where my father’s body had rotted a decade ago, I found myself gripped by terror. I looked for the rocks my uncle told me he had placed atop my father’s grave, but without much hope. It would have been strange indeed if they had not been moved in ten years. Finally, I placed the stone I had brought from our garden in Hoechst at the foot of a birch tree.
Then I paid my toll to the guard at the gate and entered the town.
It was morning when I entered Dornburg. My uncle was right; it was not even as large as Hoechst, and after the time I had spent in Worms, it seemed even smaller than I would have thought it only six months previous. A cluster of women was gathered around a well, and a group of children were tearing around after each other, screaming with laughter. As I walked slowly, they caromed into me. One went sprawling and the others ground to a halt, looking embarrassed.
I tried to smile kindly, and I began to speak, but my throat was suddenly dry. In the pause, the boy who had fallen spoke.
“I’m sorry, Fraulein. I didn’t see you—we were playing, and I wasn’t looking where I was going, and then you were there—”
I lifted him up and helped him brush the dirt off his clothing and hands. “It’s no matter, liebchen. I too knocked into my share of grown folk when I was little. They move so slowly, you know?”
We shared a conspiratorial grin.
“Were you playing a game I know, kinde? Tag? Or—” I said, noticing some crude musical instruments in the children’s hands. “War? Are you piping brave songs to hearten the soldiers?”
“Neither,” laughed the child. “Dance-the-Jew! I’m the Jew, and when the others catch me, they must make me dance ’til I drop!”
I recoiled involuntarily. “I—I don’t know that game, child. Is it . . . new?”
“Dunno,” said the boy. “We all play it.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to not to shake. “Well. Run along, then. Run along and enjoy yourselves.”
The children took off again, shrieking in delight.
“They will know,” I whispered to the Matronit. “They will know and they will hang me as they did my father, and then children will laugh for years afterward!”
They will not know, she said. They will not know, because they do not see your true form. I have glamored you, my daughter. They do not see your true face, and they do not hear your accent. Be calm in your heart.
Slowly I made my way to the well at the center of town, past a tavern called The Dancing Jew. There, I found three or four women talking amongst themselves, but instead of happy, boisterous, gossiping, they were speaking in low tones of worry and sorrow.
“Well, it’s not the first time one so small has been lost, and it won’t be the last, either,” said an older matron briskly, but with tears in her eyes.
“But for such a great man,” said a younger woman. “The loss is doubly sorrowful.”
“Guten morgen, Frauen,” I began. “I wonder if there is work in this town for one who is willing.”
“You have chosen a sorrowful day to come to Dornburg,” said the youngest woman. “For one of our finest bürgers has lost his wife in childbed just two days ago, and will soon lose his baby girl as well. And he is a fine man, who helps anybody in our town in need.”
“Is the babe sick?” I inquired.
“She will take neither cows’ milk nor goats’ milk, but she screams and turns away from any who try to nurse her. She will not last much longer.”
I felt the Matronit move in my body, and a sudden heaviness in my breasts, almost painful.
“I think I can help,” I said.
He has three gifts, the Matronit told me as I was being taken to Herr Geiger’s house. He has the fiddle that compels all to dance when it plays. He has a blowpipe that hits whatever it is aimed at. These two objects are on display, so that he may have the pleasure of telling of his triumph over the wicked Jew. The third is not tangible, but it is the most valuable of the three. No mortal can resist his requests.
“No—but then, if he asks me of my background—”
I will strengthen you. That and your appearance I can do right now. And you will meet his will with your own.
My fear subsided and I thought clearly again. “So he could have requested that he be set free, and gone on his way without consigning my father to the gallows, then?”
“But he preferred to torture my father and take all he had and see him hanged?”
Herr Geiger made only the most cursory inquiries into my background. I was a widow, I told him, and had lost my man last month in an accident in Hoechst. After my husband’s death, I said, his family had refused to take in me and my baby due to bad blood between them and my late parents. I had set out for Worms looking for work, but had lost the baby to a fever only days ago on the road, and could not go on. It was a very sad tale.
Herr Geiger took my hand in his and wept with me over the loss of my child. He asked me its name.
“Jakob,” I said.
I did not worry that he would connect this lost baby’s name with the Jewish peddler he had murdered a decade ago. I do not believe Herr Geiger ever knew my father’s name. I am not entirely certain that he ever realized that my father had a name.
When I first saw Eva, she had hair like the sun, yellower than my mother’s. My mother was fair, her hair pale blonde, but Eva’s was true gold. Her eyes, though, were dark and brooding, the kind of stormy blue that, in a baby, will soon change to brown. She lay in her cradle, too weak to do more than mew sadly as she turned her head this way and that, searching for her mother’s breast.
When I lifted her to mine, she gripped my braids with more strength than I thought she had left in her entire body and seized my nipple in her mouth. I closed my eyes and for a terrible moment thought nothing would come, but surely I knew that if the Matronit was any kind of goddess at all, she would be well-versed in the powers of the female body, and soon Eva shut her eyes in long-awaited bliss, and her suck changed from frantic to strong and steady, an infant settling in for a long time.
I shut my eyes as well, exhausted by my journey and my anxieties. When I opened them, Eva was asleep in my arms, and we were alone in the room.
Herr Geiger thanked me the next morning. He had tears in his eyes and his breath smelled of schnapps.
I nursed Eva carefully. As carefully, I lit incense and poured out libations to the Matronit. And as Eva got stronger, so did my maggid.
Eva stared up at me with her storm-night eyes as she nursed. When she was sated, she would push her head away and sigh contentedly. Sometimes, I thought I saw my reflection in her eyes, the reflection of my true face, but I knew I must have been fooling myself.
Her hair began to curl, like my mother’s.
I spent my days caring for her. I sang to her when she wept. Her first laugh came when I set her down on the floor and stepped out of the room to retrieve a blanket. As soon as I got out of her sight, I popped my head back in the room and said, “Boo, baby girl!” She laughed and laughed. We did it ten times in a row before her giggles calmed.
She is a jolly baby with an open heart.
Her first word was Jutta, the name I had chosen for myself when I translated my own name to its Christian equivalent. When I kissed her, she beamed up at me and tried to kiss me back, but was not quite clear on how. She opened her mouth and bit my nose instead. I laughed so hard she did it over and over again, and we rolled around together laughing and kissing each other.
I had not been so happy since I had flown through the air, swung around and around by my papa.
One night, after Eva was asleep, Herr Geiger called for me, and I found him in his study, fondling a violin.
“Are you fond of music, liebchen?” He was well in his cups.
“As fond as anybody, I believe.”
He lifted his bow.
“But not, I think, now, Herr Geiger.”
He lowered the bow. “I take it you have heard of my conquest of the Jewish rascal whose ill-gotten gains gave me my start in life?”
I lowered my eyes modestly.
“Indeed, how could you not? Dornburg has made its fortune on that tale. I have always been a generous man—am I not so to you?”
“But of course, Herr Geiger. I am very grateful to you after so many difficulties.”
Herr Geiger waved off my thanks and offered me a glass of schnapps. I accepted warily.
“After my first job, for a man so miserly he might as well have been a Jew, I set out to seek my fortune. I had not walked ten miles before I saw a poor old woman begging by the side of the road, and I gave her three talers, all the money I had in the world. What do you know but she was a fairy in disguise, and in recompense for my kind heart, she gave me one wish for each taler. I asked her for a blowpipe that would hit anything I aimed at and a fiddle that would compel all who heard its music to dance, and one more wish that is my secret, my dear!” He paused and waited for me to attempt to wheedle the secret of the third wish out of him.
I remained silent.
“Well,” he said awkwardly. “I kept on with my journey, and not two days later, what did I find but a nasty Jewish swindler by the side of the road, muttering some sort of hex. I didn’t quite understand all he was saying, but to be sure he was up to no good, with his eyes fixed on a brightly colored bird in a tree. Quick as anything, I used my blowpipe to bring down the bird. Then, all politeness, I asked the wicked old fiend to fetch me my kill. I waited until he was just crawling through a thornbush and then—out with my fiddle and on with the dance!”
Herr Geiger laughed at the memory and poured us both more schnapps.
“Such fine dancing you’ve never seen, my dear! With the blood running and his clothing in tatters, still he had to keep on dancing! He begged me to stop, and I did, on one condition—that he hand over all his sacks of money! And he did—there was less there than I had hoped, but plenty still, so on I went with my journey, having made a good beginning.
“But oh, that vengeful, petty Jew—of course he couldn’t let me have my triumph, of course not—they are a vindictive race, my dear, grasping and vindictive. He followed me straight to Dornburg and had me arrested with some trumped-up story about how I attacked him on the road! I would’ve hanged, my dear, if you can believe it, had I not pulled out my fiddle again, and this time I didn’t leave off playing until the Jew had confessed to all his crimes. He hanged before the day was out, and I was rewarded with all he had—for of course, you know Jews, he’d kept back some money from me at our first bargain. And that’s how I got the capital I needed to set myself up well, here, and they honor me as one of their first citizens! You can see how well I’ve done for myself.”
“I can, indeed, Herr Geiger.” I kept my face turned to the ground, not out of modesty, but so as not to show my feelings. I say again, my father never stole, and was never petty. He ever had open hands and an open heart, and never turned away a request for help. I remember him, I do.
“All I lacked was a companion to share my happiness with. I thought I’d found my heart’s desire in dear Konstanze; we were so happy together. I never thought in my youth that I’d wish to give up bachelorhood, but as a man ages, my dear, his thoughts turn to the comforts of hearth and home. Poor Konstanze. She was always delicate, and childbirth was too much for her.”
Herr Geiger lapsed into silence while I considered the lot of the late Konstanze.
“But Jutta, a man cannot live forever alone. It’s not right. It’s not healthy. It’s not Christian. And Jutta, I know what a good mother you will be. Are you not already a mother to my child?”
Now I did look up, startled. “Herr Geiger—you know not what you are saying—you know so little about me—you are still headspun with grief—”
He leaned forward and took my hands in his. I tried not to lean back. “Jutta, my darling, let me hope. Give me a kiss.”
I felt the force of his request coursing through my body, the pressure to bend toward him and part my lips. This was different than just a request for information, to which, after all, I at least had pretended to accede. I felt the Matronit’s strength behind my own, and I redoubled my resolve. Never. Never. Not even to lull him into complacency.
I think that if I had not been able to resist, I would have strangled him right then and there.
But I did resist. The Matronit lent me strength and I directed it, meeting Herr Geiger’s magic with my own, stopping his will in its tracks.
I stood up. “Alas, Herr Geiger. I regret that I cannot give you cause to hope. But my loyalty to one who is now gone prevents it. I will care for Eva faithfully, but to you I must never be any more than your daughter’s nurse.”
He gazed at me in wonder. I spared a thought for the late Konstanze, and wondered if she had been tricked into marriage by such a request, if she had mistaken his desires and magical compulsions for her own inclinations.
“Good night, Herr Geiger.” I walked out of the room and left him staring after me, eyes wide.
The following morning I took time during Eva’s morning nap to bake cakes for the Matronit. I stayed in the kitchen as much as possible, trying to avoid Herr Geiger’s eyes. I suppose it had been many years since anybody had been able to refuse him a direct request. I did not care to encounter his scrutiny.
But I could not avoid it forever. I became aware of . . . how shall I put this . . . his eyes upon me. And he took to accosting me without warning and asking me to do things. I acceded, but when he would ask for a kiss, I would not, and then his curiosity would redouble.
“When?” I pled with the Matronit. “When? I cannot stay near this man much longer, Mother. When will you be strong enough?”
Soon, she replied. But every time you must refuse a request of his, my power is depleted. Are you so sure you will not—
“I am sure,” I told her. “I will not endure the touch of his lips. Not now. Not ever.”
One morning, a month later, she said tonight.
I devoted myself to Eva that day as if I would never see her again, for I did not believe I would. I could not take a Christian baby, not after all the lies told about us. This is not a thing we do, stealing children.
But did Eva not belong to me? By love if not by right? Her face lit up when I picked her up from her cradle in the morning, and when she was fretful, only I could calm her. She laughed at my games and clung to me with both her fists whenever someone else tried to hold her. Even her father.
I did not like to think of what would become of her with the rest of Dornburg dead. For I could not kill an infant, not an infant. I am not a monster.
But how could I take her?
Eva became drowsy at dusk, and I cuddled her and sang her to sleep as gently as I could. After she fell asleep in my arms, I curled myself around her and napped, drifting in and out of sleep. I felt at peace; I felt that all the world had fallen away, and only Eva and I remained, coiled together in love.
The clock at the center of town tolled midnight. I shifted, but did not rouse myself. I did not want to leave Eva. I wanted only to have her in my arms forever.
Rise! The Matronit’s voice was mighty, implacable, and I was instantly fully awake. The time is now.
I sat up and reluctantly pulled away from Eva’s small body. She stretched out an arm, looking for me in her sleep, but was otherwise undisturbed.
I had been ready, I think, for a decade.
First I went to Herr Geiger’s study and collected his fiddle and his blowpipe. Then I silently left the house. The judge who had ordered my father’s death had been an old man then, I had learned over the months. He had died not long after. But the mayor and the hangman, they were still in the prime of life. The hangman had several children and a lovely house, some distance from the other homes, it’s true, for nobody loves a scharfrichter, but nonetheless, he had a good life, and was respected if not celebrated. I walked to his home by moonlight, my cloak wrapped tightly around me. Standing outside his house, the Matronit told me to shut my eyes, and when I did, she granted me a vision.
The scharfrichter, Franz Schmidt, and his wife, Adelheide, were sleeping in their shared bed. All was peaceful.
What is your desire? asked the Matronit.
“Give him a dream,” I told her. “Can you do that?”
But of course.
“Give him a dream. He is in chains, being led to the scaffold. He is innocent of any crime, but nonetheless, the faces of the crowd are filled with hatred. He thinks of his wife, his children, and how they will long for him, grow old without him. The noose is fitted around his neck and he finds his tongue, pleads for mercy, but the judge and the crowd only laugh. The platform drops out from under him, but the rope is not weighted correctly, and instead of his neck breaking instantly, he is slowly strangling, dancing in air. Oh, how he dances!”
The vision the Matronit granted me changed—Schmidt is twisting and turning in bed, unable to wake, unable to breathe. His face is pained and panicked.
I waited, wondering if I would feel pity, or remorse, or forgiveness. I felt none.
“Stop his heart,” I said.
Schmidt convulses once, and then is still. His wife has never moved.
I then went to the house of the Bürgermeister.
Strangely calm, I returned home; I returned to the house of Herr Geiger.
Herr Geiger awoke to find me seated on a chair at the foot of his bed. “Jutta?” he yawned, all confusion. “What are you doing here?”
I did not answer. Instead, I brought the blowpipe out of my pocket and snapped it in two.
“Jutta! What are you doing?”
I then smashed the fiddle against his bedpost. It was nothing, then, but shattered splinters and catgut. I threw it to the ground.
“Jutta!” Herr Geiger was on his feet, looming in front of me, grabbing my shoulders. “Do you know what you have done?”
Still I did not answer. My braids undid themselves and my hair, my true black hair, stretched out toward the fiddler, becoming thorn-covered vines. He shrieked and tried to back away, but my vines caught his arms and legs, lifted him into the air, and there was nobody to hear his shrieks except Eva, who awoke and began crying in the other room. The maid and the cook came in daily, but lived with their own families.
My vines twined ever tighter around his arms and legs, and blood ran down his body freely as the thorns dug through his skin. He twisted in pain, trying to wrench himself free, but succeeded only in digging the thorns in more deeply. My vines suspended him in the air in front of me, and I watched his struggles dispassionately. They did not bring me pleasure, but neither did they move me to pity or compassion.
“Why, Jutta?” he gasped.
“My name is Itte,” I told him. Then I spoke to the Matronit. “Let him see my true face.” I watched his eyes as my disguise melted away and my own features showed forth.
“You killed my father,” I told him. “Ten years ago, you killed him. For ten years I have missed his embrace and smile. And never will I see them again.”
“Jewess!” he spat.
“Yes,” I agreed.
The vines grew further, wrapping themselves along his trunk, and they began burrowing into his flesh. He screamed.
“Did my father scream like that?” I asked him. “Did he scream when you made him dance in thorns?”
Eva continued to cry.
“Please, Jutta, spare me!”
Again, I could feel the force of his request marching through my body. The Matronit was channeling all her strength into the vines of my hair. I had only my own resolve with which to meet his power, but that power had been weakened by my breaking the blowpipe and the fiddle, for all things are more powerful in threes. I met his will with my own.
“For Eva’s sake, spare me!”
I stared into his eyes. “You know nothing of Eva! Do you know which solid foods she can stomach, and which she cannot? Do you know on which day she began to crawl? Does she even babble your name?”
I thought of my father, swinging me through the air, patching my dolly, cuddling me to sleep and I thought of him exhausted, breathless, limbs burning like fire, skin torn, confessing to crimes he had never committed, knowing he would never see me nor my brothers nor my mother again, and my resolve strengthened.
“I will not spare you, Herr Geiger,” I said. A new vine formed from another lock of my hair, and even as he gibbered in terror, it wrapped itself around his throat.
“Eva—” he began.
“Eva is mine,” I told him. “You destroyed my family. I will take her and make a new one.”
At my nod, the vine gave one jerk, and snapped his neck.
The vines let him fall, and they began shrinking and turning back into my plain black hair, which replaited itself. I took one final look down at what had been Herr Geiger. Then I nodded again, and turned and ran to Eva.
As soon as she caught sight of my face, she stopped crying, and she beamed at me through her tears and held out her arms. I picked her up and began to soothe her. I changed her cloth, for she had wet herself, and nursed her back to sleep.
“I am taking her with me,” I told the Matronit as I threw my belongings into my sack. “I do not care what is said about us. I will not leave her here to be raised by strangers, to be taught to hate Jews.”
It would be a terrible thing to do to a Jewish infant, said the Matronit.
I paused. “She is not Jewish.”
She is the child of a Jewish mother.
“Konstanze was Jewish?” I asked.
No. Konstanze is not her only mother.
“She is not my daughter.”
She is. Your milk gave her life. She knows she is your daughter.
“Why did she not cry when I picked her up?” I asked. “She has not seen my true face before, only my disguise.”
She has never seen any face but your true one, the Matronit said. She knows you. She knows your face. She knows you are her mother.
I had finished packing. I picked up Eva and she opened her eyes to peer drowsily at me. She smiled, nestled her head against my chest, and fell back asleep. I tied her to me, picked up my sack, and left Herr Geiger’s home with my daughter.
Outside the town walls, I stood and watched as bushes and vines of thorns grow. They blocked the gate and rose to enclose Dornburg.
“What will happen to the townspeople?” I asked the Matronit.
They will wake tomorrow to find the sun blotted out, the sky replaced by a ceiling of thorns, and no way out of the eternal night their town has become. The sun will not shine. The crops will fail. No traders will be able to penetrate the thorns. They will starve.
I watched for a while longer, and found myself troubled. I could not shake from my mind the memory of the grin the little boy had given me on my first day in Dornburg. Apparently I had some pity, some compassion after all.
“Is this just?” I asked. “To destroy the lives of children for what their elders have done before they were born?”
The vines paused in their growth.
Do you question me?
“I do,” I said. “Children are powerless. Is this divine retribution, to murder the helpless? I do not wish it. Matronit, you should not do this.”
The Matronit was silent. And then—Very well. I will spare the children. You may take them away to safety.
I remembered an old story, of a man in a many-colored suit leading away the children of Hamelin. But is this what I wanted? To take charge of a town’s worth of children who by the age of six were already playing at killing my people?
“No,” I said. “What you suggest is impossible. How should I do such a thing? And is it mercy to take children from the only love they have ever known, to make them wander the earth without family? Without home? Is this kindness?”
What do you suggest? The Matronit did not seem pleased with me.
I thought again, looking at the thorn-vines. “I know another story,” I said. “Of a princess asleep in a tower, and a forest of thorns sprung up around her.”
And this is your vengeance? asked the Matronit. Sleep for a hundred years? They will sleep and wake and your people will still be suffering.
“No,” I agreed. “A hundred years will not suffice. But . . . let them sleep . . . let them sleep…” I thought of what the Matronit had shown me of the future. “Let them sleep until their loathing for my people, Matronit, for your children, is only a curiosity, an absurdity, a poor joke. Let them sleep until they are only antiquities, laughing-stocks. Let them sleep until Hesse—and all the lands that surround it—are safe for the Jews.”
The Matronit was silent once more.
“Will that suffice?” I prodded her.
That will be a long time, my daughter.
“Yes,” I agreed.
That . . . will suffice. They will sleep until realms of this land—all this land, all Europe—are safe for the Jews. And you are satisfied? This is different enough from death?
I struggled to explain. “If they do not wake . . . if they cannot wake . . . it will be only their fellows in hatred who are to blame. Not I.”
I stroked Eva’s head, noticing the darkness growing in at the roots of her hair. “Will you guide us, Matronit? Will you guide my footsteps?”
I will guide you. I will guide you to Worms, where you will see and speak with your Uncle Leyb and Elias, and then you shall take them with you to London.
“London?” I asked, surprised.
London is open to my children once again. And there will be no pogroms there, not in your lifetime. Nor your daughter’s. Nor your daughter’s children’s, and their children’s after them. I will guide you to London, and then I must depart. But you will keep my rites, daughter. Keep my rites.
“Yes,” I agreed. “I will keep your rites.”
I stood outside those walls with Eva bound to my chest, my old dolly tucked in next to her, and I carried my pack, which contained only those things I brought with me—I no more steal than my father did—and some of Eva’s necessary items. She is sleeping peacefully, and I can feel the damp warmth of her breath against my neck. No feeling has ever given me greater pleasure.
The vines of thorns had almost reached the top of the town walls when I turned and did what my father had not been allowed to do. I walked away from Dornburg.
For Donna Mosevius Levinsohn
“Among the Thorns” copyright © 2014 by Veronica Schanoes
Art copyright © 2014 by Anna & Elena Balbusso