The Frozen Rabbi: Week 1, Part 5
After a brutal pogrom tears through town, Salo discovers that he has been made an orphan
So it was that, on the morning of the pogrom, Salo was seated on a cabbage crate, gazing at Rabbi Eliezer’s slightly distorted features, their beatific peacefulness having invaded his timorous heart. All about him the stacked slabs of ice were carved into shelves and niches, which contained fish, fowl, and barrels of kvass. In one recess Leybl the hatmaker’s poker-stiff dog Ashmodai awaited the spring thaw for its burial. Rime coated each jar and jeroboam until it resembled a vessel made of spun sugar; ice stalactites hung from the vault of the ceiling like fangs. But the warmth Salo felt in the rebbe’s presence (enhanced by his sheepskin parka, whose collar he pulled over his ears) practically deposed the arctic chill of the grotto in its subaqueous light, a light that seemed to emanate from the ice itself. “The Chasids sit shivah while you sit and shiver,” Salo’s father had complained, but in the rebbe’s presence all the fearful chimeras of the boy’s imagination were dispelled, and the world seemed almost an idyll, a winter pastorale. As a consequence, Salo never heard the cries of the tortured and defiled, the keening women and the breaking glass, nor did he smell the smoke from the burning synagogue. It was only when the sexton, Itche Beilah Peyse’s, who’d lost his mind, began to howl like a hyena in the street that Salo’s own peace was finally disturbed.
Bestirring his broad behind to go and see what was happening, he crawled up the slippery ramp and wriggled out of the hatch through which the large rectangular ice cakes were slid into the grotto. He stumbled down the hill into the village, past the Shabbos boundary markers where the snow was stained in patches with what appeared to be plum preserves. Outside the door of the smoldering timber synagogue a mother tried to revive her fallen son by pumping air into his lungs with a pair of bellows; a violated daughter begged her father on her knees in the ruts of the market platz not to disown her. The procession of wagons hauling bodies, already becoming rigid, to the cemetery vied with the jauntier parade of peasants carrying off samovars, chamber pots, a trumpet-speakered phonograph, a cuckoo clock. Plodding forward in his klunky topboots, Salo accidentally toppled the cantor Shikl Bendover, who had died of fright still standing, like Lot’s wife. He paused to reerect the dead man, then realized what he was doing, and understood that the scene he had entered eclipsed any active fancies his mind might entertain. It put to rest forever his habit of ghoulish invention, for which Salo, who began then and there to grow up, was grateful.
He stepped into the smoky, slat-shingled dwelling that he and his father called home, where he discovered to his head-swimming sorrow that he’d been made an orphan like his father before him. Yosl King of Cholera lay on the raked clay floor in the stiff leather apron he’d donned for work, his head pincered by his own ice tongs. The handles of the iron tongs branched above his crimped skull like a giant wishbone, the blood streaming in crimson ribbons from his ears. Salo retched down his front and fell to his knees, leaning forward to touch those of his father’s features that were still recognizable: a blue knuckle swollen from arthritis, a pooched lower lip like a water leech. For an indefinite time he lay prostrate without the least inclination ever to rise again, until he remembered that he now had a higher calling. Wiping his mouth and dabbing at his eyes, Salo crawled forward to wrench apart the ice tongs. He got to his feet and began to rummage in the debris of the ransacked hovel, eventually locating a pair of candles which he lit with a sulfur-tipped match and placed at either end of the murdered man’s outstretched form. All the while murmuring Kaddish, he threw a cloth over the ancient mirror, its surface clouded with floes of mercury; then he squeezed himself behind the tile stove, scalding his tush in the process, and pried loose a wallboard in back of which Yosl had hidden his meager treasures—a handful of groschen and some ducats as worthless as slugs, an unsigned postcard with a sepia view of Lodz, a dented thimble that had belonged to his wife. Salo thrust it all into a capacious pants pocket along with the crust of black bread with dried herring that his father had laid aside on the table for his lunch. Stooping to right a toppled chair, he found himself gripping it tightly, swinging it into the stovepipe, which burst apart, releasing a naked tongue of flame that tickled the ceiling.
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