The Frozen Rabbi: Week 4, Part 3
While taking a shortcut home, Jocheved encounters some trouble
But although Jocheved humored her mother, she dismissed her warnings, so preoccupied was she with an undertaking that promised to lift her family out of their long-standing wretchedness.
In the climate that had followed the failed revolution, however, the ghetto remained apprehensive. Jews, daily accused of collaboration and betrayal, were shipped in increasing numbers to the salt mines and labor camps; others fled to America, the Golden Land, from which stories were heard of limitless possibilities and untold wealth. But Jocheved, happily engaged in her flourishing trade, was unaffected by the millennial currents that had swept her brothers away. She’d recruited the services of a couple of neighborhood girls to help prepare her product and peddle it farther afield, and in rare idle moments she might even indulge the dream of expanding her cottage industry into an empire—though it alarmed her somewhat, the extent of her own aspirations. Then, miragelike, the promise of prosperity began to recede. Crackdowns and layoffs in the wake of more textile strikes, plus the purges of so-called undesirables, had left many families unemployed; and as the Jews liquidated their savings and pawned their valuables in exchange for shifscarte passages to America, there proceeded a creeping exodus from the ghetto. Who, in the face of such circumstances, could justify even the slight indulgence of a sugarplum sorbet? Meanwhile the first biting blasts of the coming winter also did their part to undermine Jocheved’s energetic marketing endeavors. But for her would-be suitors (whom she should perhaps not be so quick to dismiss?), the girl had difficulty finding customers in Franciszkanska Street, and after discharging the assistants she could no longer afford, Jocheved herself began to seek business in other neighborhoods.
One late afternoon, under a sky leaking the tapioca-thick flakes of the season’s first snowfall, Jocheved, enveloped in shawls, wheeled her clattering handcart through a part of the ghetto she generally avoided. But she was tired, having spent the day in the more genteel districts from which she was returning nearly empty-handed, and thought she would take a shortcut home. The unfamiliar streets with their anarchic angles and blind alleys confused her, however, and as she veered beneath an arcade to avoid a fallen truck horse whose putrescence stained the icy air, she realized she was lost. Turning a switchback corner in an effort to retrace her steps, she was accosted by a hollow-cheeked youth whose temple curls dangled from his ears like convolvuli. In his short alpaca jacket and the further affectation of a pair of lemon spats, he looked like some half-caste creature, part yeshiva bocher and part swell.
“You should have in these unsafe streets an escort,” he offered in a sibilant voice, taking her arm.
She abruptly reclaimed the arm and replied, shakily, “I never needed one before.”
“You’re the hokey-pokey girl,” as if assigning her the role she had already assumed, “the one that won’t give the boys a tumble.” He ungloved a hand to dip his middle finger into a tub of parfait on her cart, stirring slowly before licking the finger with a tongue Jocheved half-expected to be forked. Then closing his eyes to smack his sensuous lips, he tugged down the leather bill of his cap and grabbed her arm again, this time with a firmer grasp. She tried to pull away and, for the first time in her memory, Jocheved was afraid. At that point another man in a ratty fur ulster and hat, his face like cracked crockery, appeared from nowhere to grab her other arm. He pressed a piece of damp cheesecloth with a sickly sweet smell to her nose, which caused Jocheved to shake her head violently, snorting to clear her nostrils of its fumes. But the more she struggled to resist the almondine odor, the deeper she was forced to inhale, her brain careering free of its axis. Houses whose listing walls were propped up by warped timbers reeled about her like beggars on crutches, and the sun showed its guttering flame just in time to expire.
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