written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Monday, September 28, 2009

Excerpt from "Beyond the Pale," Chapter 14

1900, Kiev

Five boys threw dirt clods at each other in the hills above the valley. For cover they hid behind the bronze St. Vladimir who carries a cross overlooking the village. They ran circles around the statue, hollered out racial slurs to each other in jest. Then they tromped through the damp grass, blazing a trail up the hillside. White butterflies went unnoticed flittering between wildflowers as the eldest of the group, Mikhail, took off running toward a cave. The others kept close behind. The boys always kept close behind Mikhail.

“I’m not going in there,” said twelve year old Dimitri upon reaching the cave.

"Ah . . . are you scared?” Nicholas asked. He gave Dimitri a shove.

“Come, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Mikhail slapped Dimitri’s back then tugged at the boy’s arm. His eyes told Nicholas to let him handle this. He possessed a certain talent convincing boys to do any number of things. Mikhail once in fact, convinced them to stow away on a passenger train all the way to St. Petersburg. All of the boys all got quite a whooping that night. But not one told their parents who instigated the scheme.

“Scared! Says who?” Dimitri lurched forward to return Nicholas’s shove.

“Sure, you’re not scared.” Mikhail placed himself between the two, straightened his back and puffed out his chest. “It’s just a little old hole. Nothing to be scared of.”

“Dimitri’s scared. Dimitri’s scared,” the remaining three boys sang. But then they quickly hushed with a look from Mikhail. Nicholas darted off and disappeared into the cave. Inside he hollered as all young boys do in caves – just to hear their voices bounce off the walls. Mikhail patted Dimitri on the head then casually took off behind the other boys to find Nicholas. He didn’t want to walk off too fast as he knew that Dimitri would soon follow. Couldn’t be too obvious either, so he picked up his pace slightly. The laughter that streamed out of the cave’s mouth enticed Dimitri. But he plopped himself down on a boulder instead of following the others, and rested his face in his hands.

“I am not scared.” Dimitri kicked at the pebbles in the dirt. “Am not, I say. Who do they think they are anyway?” He scooped up a handful of gravel and chucked it down at his feet. Then he stepped cautiously into the wide mouth of the cave and followed the playful sounds that echoed through the halls. Two tunnels branched off into darkness. He arbitrarily chose the left hoping that both led to his friends. After a few steps the tunnel curved to the right and daylight completely disappeared. Dimitri hesitated. He waved his hand an inch in front from face and could not see even the outline of his fingers. Only his admiration for Mikhail kept him moving forward. Running his hand along the moist walls, he stepped over a floor he could not see, then stopped to listen for the others. All Dimitri could hear was his own heavy breathing, and the slow moisture drip from the ceiling above.

“Mikhail,” Dimitri called out. “Stop fooling with me.” He took another step then swung around and scurried back to find the light. Before reaching the bend in the tunnel his foot caught a solid lump that he’d managed to side step on the way in. He flew forward landing face down in the cool dirt. With a shrill scream Dimitri scrambled forward on his belly.

Sounds of laughter echoed up the tunnel.

“Give me a match to light my cigarette.” Mikhail patted down Nicholas in the dark.

“Sure, sure, got one here.” Nicholas struck the match. In an instant the tunnel lit up.

“Look here,” Mikhail said puffing on a loosely rolled cigarette. “What are you doing there boy? Stand up and show some dignity.”

The others laughed as Dimitri jumped to his feet and brushed off pebbles embedded into his knees and elbows. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, his face flushed from a mixture of embarrassment and fear.

“What’s that there?” another boy asked.

“Here Nicholas, give us more light.”

Nicholas lit another match and the boys inched forward to a lump in the dirt. It first appeared merely a pile of dirty clothing. Then Dimitri let out a yelp. “Look there,” he said pointing to what appeared to be a hand caked in blood protruding from the pile.

“What is it?”

“No! Can’t be.”

Mikhail moved forward and with his foot flung off a coat from the pile. “My God,” he said. “It’s a boy.” He grabbed Nicholas’s matches and lit three at once. He shuddered before he pushed his comrades aside for a closer look.

A boy indeed – stabbed in the neck and torso forty-three times, a coroner later concluded. A school bag nearby identified him as Andrei Krestyanov, a local fourteen year old missing for several days. His murder scandalized Kiev. All the newspapers wanted to interview the boys who discovered him. But none of their parents would allow it.

Plenty of stories were written about the poor boy’s murder. Jews, people said, the Jews were to blame for Andrei’s murder. The day of his funeral, a group of Russian citizens distributed leaflets throughout Kiev that claimed Jews murdered Christian children for blood to mix with their matzos. And the press repeated the rumor that the Jews practiced organized ritual murder. Like so often before, Russian sentiment toward the Jewish population disintegrated even further. Politicians argued against granting civil and religious rights to them. Others signed petitions demanding that the government bring justice to these “criminal Jews.” Many who thought otherwise feared saying so.

* * *

Axel Levin pulled closed his tattered coat and shivered. He shivered not because of a chill in the air, but from the blood thirst he witnessed from the barefoot peasants and jewel clad aristocrats packed into the courtroom, eager to see Efrat Mindel sentenced to die.

“Poor loser,” Axel said beneath his breath. He wondered how many more times Witness would report on an innocent man or woman sent off to Siberia, or worse yet, blindfolded before a firing squad.

“Mindel, Mindel, drinker of Christian blood,” yelled a toothless woman dressed in rags. She stood beside Axel in the jammed courtroom.

Axel knew damn well that Mindel was innocent, as did half the nation for that matter. The prosecution’s witnesses had been so poorly coached, their testimonies read like bad plays. Mindel’s terrible luck was that he just happened to work in a Jewish owned factory located near the caves where the boys discovered Andrei Krestyanov’s bloody corpse.

The crowds jeered the defense and hissed at the accused as he walked into the courtroom each day. All the while, Mindel sat at the defense table never turning his head to look back at the spectators. No, he stared straight ahead, straight into the eyes of those on the witness stand who spun outright lies. He never even spouted out in protest – proof, some said of his guilt.

A young woman with a child in her arms rose from the audience. “Give them the chance, they’ll murder your child too!” She spit at the defense attorney’s back. Many in the room gasped. Some clapped, then the courtroom momentarily fell quiet as the judge glared at the spectators. Silence prevailed until the judge ordered the peasant woman and her child thrown out.

Several spectators booed. When the judge ordered silence the shouts died out, but a quiet murmur persisted, especially when the prosecutor questioned a certain lady of the night, Sinovia. She swore that Mindel confessed to the murder after he paid her for a particular undisclosed favor. Several women in the crowd scowled and shook their heads at the revelation. A few men smirked, knowing exactly what sort of “favor” Sinovia was famous for. They would have preferred a bit more detail. But those who knew Mindel, had told Axel that he was not the sort of man to visit such women. Those who really knew Mindel were never called to the witness stand. And had they been, they might not have showed anyway. Witnesses for the defense had the habit of disappearing in the night.

Amidst this commotion, Axel noticed a striking woman who sat two rows behind the prosecution’s table. Dressed in the finest blue satin, her hair neatly waved, she inconspicuously patted tears from her face with an embroidered handkerchief. A teenage girl, Axel guessed to be a daughter, sat at her side. Something about that woman, the honey-color shade of her hair, the shape of her neck perhaps, drew him in. He saw the woman take the girl’s hand. The girl viciously pulled away. Her body language revealed disdain.

Axel had no more connections with the bourgeois, especially since Stefan’s betrayal. Yet he felt he knew this woman who wept at the trial of a Jewish man. He watched her back intently as she held her head low, as if ashamed to be seen in the courtroom. She did not turn to watch the scuffle that broke out in the back of the room. She did not participate in, nor did she acknowledge any of the outbursts that entire afternoon.

One man rushed forward. Kill them all!” he screamed. “Until not a single one’s left.” His face red and trembling, blue veins throbbing at his neck, he plowed his way through the crowd toward the defense.

“I will not have this in my courtroom,” the judge finally yelled out. “Clear my court this instant.”

People mumbled beneath their breaths as armed guards herded them out of the courtroom doors. The defense attorney put his arm around Mindel and whispered into his ear, while the prosecutor made his way through the crowd to the woman dressed in blue. Axel watched as she bowed her head before the prosecutor, a man in his late sixties, clean shaven and dressed in an expensive tailored black suit. He kissed the woman’s forehead then received the teenage girl with open arms.

“Oh Father, you will send that dreadful man away won’t you?”

“With any luck Sweetheart, he’ll never have the opportunity to kill again.”

Arm in arm, Father and daughter followed the crowd out of the courtroom doors, the woman taking up behind. She looked to the ground and patted her face dry with the handkerchief.

Axel obeyed an impulse to follow her through the crowd. She had a lightness to her walk that he found familiar, compelling, urging him to follow until he found himself with only a few people between him, the woman, daughter and prosecutor.

“Father, I do hope you will allow me to attend the shooting. I want to see that disgusting man die.” Unable to contain her excitement, the prosecutor’s daughter hopped from foot to foot.

The girl’s mother shook her head in protest. Taking the cue from his wife, the prosecutor held his daughter’s hand, moved stray hairs from her face and said something that Axel could not make out.

She yanked away from her father. “You ruin everything,” she screamed at the woman who had so drawn Axel. “I hate you!”

The girl pushed her way through the crowd, squeezing tears from her eyes. She blindly crashed into Axel just a few feet away. His eyes met hers – a deep brown, void of recognition.

“Out of my way, you bum,” the girl screeched and pushed onward.

Outside the courthouse spectators lingered about in hopes of the trial re-adjourning. Axel moved away from the crowd and rested at the feet of a larger than life statue of Alexander the Third upon his throne. Tearing pieces from his bread, Axel ate while contemplating the fate of Mindel. Absentmindedly he tossed the remains of his loaf to the ground.

Just as dozens of birds perched upon Alexander the Third’s stone robe swooped down to devour the crumbs, the woman from the courtroom stepped out from the Tsar’s backside. She held her head down and wrung her hands as she anxiously looked behind her.

“May I assist you?” Axel said. He found himself not looking at her, but past her, for the prosecutor and the teenage girl.

“Please.” Her eyes downcast she held onto the diamond and sapphire choker around her neck. “I have the means. I can pay,” she said.

Hints of something familiar in her voice, Axel clumsily rose to his feet. With one hand he swept his lap for breadcrumbs. “Pay? Dear lady,” he said. “You must have me mistaken for someone else. Why don’t you tell me who you are looking for and . . .”

“Axel, please,” the woman snapped. She rushed forward into his space. “I haven’t much time.”

Axel stepped back, stumbling over his feet. “I don’t understand.” He scanned the area quickly. “My name,” he said with urgency, “how did you know?”

“I beg you Axel, please take me away, help me escape.” She took the crumpled handkerchief from her closed fist and sobbed into it.

He studied the wrinkle in her brow, the strain in her pale blue eyes. He knew immediately that he had gazed into those eyes before, dreamt about those eyes before. But the eyes he remembered seemed stronger, more full of life.

“Ivana, could it be?” Axel quickly recoiled from the woman. “Some kind of trick.”

“No, please,” she said. “I promise, no trick.”

It was her eyes that convinced him. When he looked further into them, everything else fell away – the diamonds, the satin, the finely manicured hair. It was the woman he once knew who cried out from those eyes – the woman so passionate about their cause . . . the woman who he could not save from the wretched hands of Stefan.

Axel grabbed her shoulders, startling even himself.

“Yes.” She lifted her chin, tears welled in her eyes, she looked up into his. Her painted lips formed a faint smile.

“Ivana,” Axel cried in a hushed voice. “My God, you’re alive.”

(c) Lauren D. H. Miertschin

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