written by lauren d. h. miertschin

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Excerpt from "Beyond the Pale," Chapter 6

Sevastopol, Russia 1889

Six year old Joshua picked up a stone and threw it so that it skipped along the rippling edges of the sea. All the neighborhood children, and even some adults, tried to beat the record, eight skips – set by thirteen-year-old Yerik Levy two summers ago. No one even came close.

“Three hops. Did you see?” Joshua ran up shore and unwittingly kicked sand into his uncle’s lap.

“Well look at that!” Axel set his papers face down on a leather bag and grabbed for a flat round rock. “Give her a try.” He tossed it against a gentle sea breeze.

Joshua leapt, caught the rock midair and ran off toward the bay’s mouth. Then he sent it soaring barely an inch above the water where it touched down, hopping not three, but four times before plunking into the sea.

“Wow! Did you see? Did you see?” The boy paid no attention to the sand that flew up from his running feet and slapped at his face.

“Now that’s a champion’s throw.” Axel applauded his nephew. He glanced about casually, his actual attention focused off shore – up the bay where a lone fisherman rowed in toward the docks. “Say . . . I heard a certain someone’s mother is making pancakes dipped in sugar and cinnamon.”

“You don’t say!” Joshua ran up the sandy slope to the road and took off running as fast as his feet could carry him. He halted and turned back to the beach. “Are you coming or not?” He shrugged his shoulders and let out a laugh before racing home.

Axel picked up his papers and resumed translating articles he wrote for Witness into the German language. His underground publication was into its sixth year running. Not one issue missed since start-up. He prided himself in that; authorities gnashed their teeth over the same fact.

The fisherman pulled up to dock as Axel worked the final page. He waved to Axel who nodded. He scribbled out one last line as the old man tied his boat to the weatherworn dock.

Shoving the papers into his bag, Axel remained in the sand and watched. A man and woman fished from the shore down a ways, while their little girl dug for sand crabs. A group of teen boys worked at breaking Yerik Levy’s rock skipping record further down shore. Axel waited until a commercial fishing vessel sailed past the several rundown private docks on its way out to sea. Then he casually walked down the beach as the old man heaved two sacks of piked dogfish, lethargically twisting and turning amongst themselves up onto the dock.

“Good catch today?” Axel knew the answer – the old man was an expert fisherman.

“Better than you know.” The setting sun lit up the old man’s tired, leathered face. He spit onto the dock’s wood planks and diverted his eyes to the sack in his rickety boat.

“Let me get these for you.” Axel grabbed the sacks on the dock and threw them over his shoulder with little effort. The fisherman pulled the other from the boat and the two made their way up to the wood shack close to the road where the fisherman gutted and cleaned his catch before he would sell it to a mid afternoon crowd. As long as Axel could remember the old man had been supplying locals with their fill of fish.

Axel dumped the fish from his sacks into a tattered metal bin filled with sea water outside the shack. He then followed the fisherman into the building further behind a canvas curtain into a back room. A small desk stood against the wall where the fisherman counted his earnings out each night, made notes about the fishing conditions that day and what he predicted for the next.

He offered Axel a seat, took his at the desk. He lit his pipe and hesitated before speaking. “It’s got to be ready today,” the old man said finally. “I set sail in the morning.”

“Have it right here.” Axel pulled out the final draft of Witness, written out in three languages: Russian, German and Yiddish.

“Excellent.” He took a puff from his pipe. “Give me a look.” The fisherman flipped through the pages that reported anonymously on the pogroms, on the Tsar’s callous response. It listed names of men and women wrongly accused. It promoted resistance and strikes, but also showed another side of the argument that Axel still felt uneasy about – that is men have the responsibility to rid itself of bad governments. But how to do that mercifully, Axel spent many a night pondering and writing about. Witness used France and America as examples –dangerous comparisons to make in a world such as his. Lesser words if traced to Axel would certainly cost him his life.

“Oh, yes. I like this . . . ‘Campaign of Terror’.” The fisherman read on silently. “Oh, and this,” he slapped his thigh. “ ‘Holy Mother Russia Frowns in disdain.’ You should have been a poet mate.”

Axel chuckled. He took back the empty leather bag and held it close to his heart.

“Great stuff. But you scare me mate, working this close to deadline.” The old man lit his pipe again and grinned, revealing three or four gaps where teeth had rotted and simply fallen out.

The bag draped over his arms, Axel rubbed his hands nervously. He looked over his shoulder twice before speaking in a low tone. “Any word on materials? Not much paper to last.”

“Leave it to me. Next week maybe. Take one of those fish for now. And this sack too; thirty-five pounds of sugar here.” The fisherman pulled a key from his trousers and turned his back, situating himself purposely to shield Axel from the desk drawer where he secured his papers. If all went well, by nightfall the next day, Witness would be in the hands of university students, in the hands of bankers and other businessmen, and perhaps even the Tsar himself.

Axel took the sugar, Rebekah, he thought, would appreciate this, but the fish, its skin was smooth, no scales. He found it endearing that the old man couldn’t remember that Jewish Law didn’t allow Axel to eat such meat. So, as usual Axel had it cleaned and smoked and gave the fish to the old Turkish woman who lived in the wood crate on the edge of town. She refused to live elsewhere, despite a couple of offers from kindhearted families in town. On the average, most people shunned her. She did not adhere to any divine law, but what did that matter, Axel thought, when you’re starving?

* * *

Axel and his brother, Jared, along with several longtime neighbors rebuilt the Levin home in the same spot it burned down seven years ago. It was two stories, still modest, but made mainly of stone this time instead of wood. The shed out back survived the fire, though it leaned to one side due to years of weathering. The neighbors offered to build a new one while they rebuilt the house. Axel declined. Grass covered the hillside now between their home and the shore where homes once stood. A small creek once diverted by those families who used to live there, had finally dug its way back through, bound for the Black Sea.

Though many left town after the pogrom of ’Eighty-Two, a great number remained and rebuilt. The city also had many newcomers. People from Odessa, and as far as Brest-Litovsk traveled to Sevastopol to set up a home. Many businesses were back and running. And the Russian Navy brought much needed revenue with sailors who took leave in this scenic, waterfront city of Sevastopol. The widow, Ruth, who lived across the street from the Levins, made a good business selling poppy cakes to famished, half-drunken sailors. She often stopped by the Levins with a batch as well.

Sugar was quite a luxury and certainly not cheap, which explained Rebekah’s gratitude. Joshua screamed with delight because sugar meant the future held treats. But neither Jared, nor Rebekah asked Axel how he came upon riches such as this. They never asked him where he got the money or goods he brought home on a regular basis. Both suspected though, that it had something to do with the writings he produced working late nights in the shed out back.

“Let’s tell him,” Rebekah said after packing away the sugar. She looked at her husband and smiled. “We have wonderful news.”

“Well?” Axel leaned in forward.” I’m always in the mood for good news.”

“Soon . . .,” Rebekah blushed. “Soon,” she giggled, “another Levin baby will fill our days.”

“And nights,” Jared chuckled.

Axel slapped his brother’s back and reached out to Rebekah.

“Hooray!” Joshua jumped up from the table and holding tight onto his pancake ran circles around his mother. “I’m going to have a brother . . . A baby brother!”

“Or sister.” Rebekah pulled her son in close.

“I’d say we have cause for celebration.” Axel lifted his nephew and plopped him on his lap. “So you’re going to have a brother or a sister? Won’t your grandmother be delighted.”

“Hooray!” Joshua yelled again. He blew a wisp of hair away from his eyes.

“About mother . . .” Jared interrupted. “There’s something, I mean, oh hell Brother, we need to talk.”

Rebekah and Jared looked to one another. She nodded to her husband.
“Has she grown worse?” Axel’s smile faded.

“No, nothing like that,” Rebekah said. “She’s upstairs resting now, she wanted us to talk to you first.” She moved in close to her husband to provide a united front.

“We’ve been thinking,” Jared continued, “and well, we would like to take Mother with us.”

“With you?”

“Yes. Please. We can’t put this off much longer.”

“Put what off?”

“We want to leave, Axel”

Axel opened his mouth to speak. No words escaped.

“Now look, before you say anything. Doesn’t look like its going to get much better here. In Pinsk last week a man was dragged from his home. They beat him to death.”

“I know, I know.” Axel shook his head, fearful where this conversation was leading. Though he once pleaded with his father to leave Russia, Axel could not leave now. He felt his father was right; he did belong in Russia, this was their home.

“It’ll take years for Russia to recover from what’s happened. And I’m afraid, well, you know more so, the worst is yet to come.”

Axel pushed his nephew’s dark hair away from the boy’s eyes. He stared at his brother and nodded his head in regretful agreement. “But this is your home.”

“Axel, please.”

Jared took his wife’s hand. “You understand,” he said. “I want my son free to enter any profession he desires, attend a university if he wants. And Mother, no she hasn’t gotten worse, but she hasn’t got any better.”

“Come with us,” Rebekah pleaded.

“What do you say?” Jared held out his hand to Axel. He winked at his son who with sugar in the corners of his mouth concentrated on the pancake.

“Oh, Axel do.”

“I urge you to consider, Brother. We’ll leave for Berlin in a week . . . we can stay with Rebekah’s sister until we decide where next.”

“She has a lovely home,” Rebekah piped in.

Axel kissed Joshua’s head and set him on the floor. “You can stop,” he said.

“Why? What are you saying?” Jared looked anxiously at his brother.

“I have only one thing to say.”

“And that is?”

“My prayers will be with you,” Axel said. “The journey will be long.”

Tears fell down Rebekah’s cheeks. Despite it, she smiled, leaned forward and hugged Axel. “Come Joshua.” She grabbed her son’s hand. “We have much to do

(c) Lauren D.H. Miertschin

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