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In the Lion's Den
Kracow, Poland, 1881
Aryeh Nachman jiggled the coins in his pocket and realized he had bupkes. Absolutely nothing but the clothes on his back, a tattered copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a prayer book--though seldom used, it was a Bar Mitzvah gift from Shimon--and a copy of Childe Harold.
And he now sported a slight limp ala Lord Byron.
Thanks to his former employer.
He had envisioned that being a tutor to the spoiled sixteen-year old daughter of Herr Abramowicz would be an admirable use for his English education. He thought his tenure was secure due to the overweening pride of her father. To boast of having a tutor who could speak several languages and quote Shakespeare and Goethe was quite a coup.
Little Sarahleh was more precocious than her father knew. After three months, Sarah confronted him in the charming gazebo in the garden and threw herself at him.
He then made the mistake of spurning her advances.
To quote the old saw, "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
By that evening he was out on his ear, literally, as Sarah tripped him on his way out the door and her father tossed his valise after him, regrettably empty of his few pieces of clothing.
There was no possible way he could or would marry the rich man's daughter.
For one reason, he was a bastard.
His flighty mother should have made sure his father wasn't already betrothed before she became pregnant. Falling for the sexual blandishments of the son of the house where she worked as a maid was as clichéd a story as one could imagine. But sinceshe was a good girl from a poor Jewish family, she wasn't cast out into the cold.
Fortunately, the man had supported her during and after her pregnancy, up to his son's twenty-first year, setting them up in a cottage with a cook and a maid.
By then Aryeh had acknowledged several facts that were to guide his life.
He was smart.
He was a hedonist.
He loved words.
And he loved men.
That last he had realized rather unexpectedly.
Like Sarah, he, too had been given a private tutor. As he neared the age of thirteen, his mother had begged his father for someone to prepare him for his confirmation.
Finding someone willing to begin with the "Aleph Bet" took some doing, but one was found. Shimon stayed with the family for five years, teaching him not only the necessary prayers for his Bar Mitzvah, but exposing him to a world of fine literature, history, mathematics and languages.
His tutor called him Aryeh, the Hebrew of his English name, Lionel. And it was Aryeh that fell from his lips the first time they kissed.
And the last.
On the eve of his eighteenth birthday, the lingering looks and accidental touches that had been exchanged between them changed.
Both he and Shimon knew his employment would end when Aryeh turned eighteen. That night would be the last time they would see each other.
They met in the little garden under the apple tree, the scent of the blossoms filling the air. They didn't speak, just came together, their mouths open and greedy. Their tongues plunged deeply, tasting the sweetness of the wine downed at dinner.
Shimon's trimmed beard brushed Aryeh's chin like a kitten's fur.
He wanted to purr like one.
Both the same height, their erections bumped together, hard and aching for release.
"Aryeh." Shimon murmured his name and drew back, gasping for breath.
Aryeh remembered every word they exchanged, even now, ten years later.
"It's a sin. Forgive me. A madness took me over."
"Divine madness. Kiss me again."
Aryeh felt Shimon tremble in his embrace. He wanted Shimon, and nothing Aryeh had ever wanted had been denied him.
Shimon shook his head.
"I will not lead you astray. I've managed to refrain from acting upon my impure impulses up till now. I will not act upon my desire for you."
"Why not? Who will know?"
"I will. And God." Shimon managed a smile. "You could tempt Elijah the prophet." He shook his head. "You have no idea how handsome you are. It's easy to love you, Aryeh."
"If you loved me, you wouldn't deny me."
"It's because I love you that I must." Shimon gripped his shoulders. "You'll find a young woman from a good family--"
"Who will marry a momzer?"
Shimon winced then recovered. "You'll go to America, maybe?"
"Not America. I'll go where you go. We'll be together."
"No. I'm going back to Zolnyia. My parents are aging. They need me." He took a deep breath. "They've found me the daughter of a wealthy merchant." His mouth thinned. "He's eager to boast that his daughter is marrying a scholar. Her dowry will take care of my parents in their old age."
Even now, Aryeh winced at the way he lashed out at Shimon.
"You'd sell yourself and enter a loveless marriage, and that you don't consider a sin?"
Shimon shook his head.
"One day you'll find someone for whom you'll give up everything. You can't see that this is the best thing for you. Trust me."
Shimon left and a few days later so did Aryeh. He headed to London with the little bit of allowance his father offered.
He soon found out that there were men who weren't as unwilling as Shimon to act upon their desire.
He arrived in London and discovered that Shimon was correct.
He was handsome.
Simeon Solomon thought he was more than handsome; he was beautiful and begged him to model for him. After he begged him to be kind to him.
He reminded him of Shimon, even to his name.
And when Simeon stroked every part of his body, learning the muscles and tendons intimately, he knew that Shimon was wrong.
He would never marry a nice girl from a good family.
Commissioned to create a portrayal of a Rabbi for a new Temple, Simeon dressed him in the Rabbinical vestments and gave him the pillow they'd slept upon to take the place of the Torah scrolls.
"Think of me in your arms. Hold the pillow like you would hold me."
Dreaming of Shimon, he pushed his hand under the linen encasing the pillow, pretending he caressed Shimon's arousal. His right hand curved around the down-filled cushion and he leaned his cheek upon it. Upon Shimon's cheek.
He kissed the pillow as he would kiss the Torah upon the Sabbath.
"Perfect," Simeon whispered. "Remember that look when you come to me later."
He had modeled for several of Simeon's circle of artists, but after a year left him and traveled to France with a young American youth newly awakened to his fondness for other young men.
In Paris, Simeon found him again and he left his American.
A mistake on his part, for Simeon was arrested. Simeon hadn't been content with him alone, but had gone trolling for even younger men. It was fated, perhaps, that he had just left their apartments when the gendarmes came and hustled Simeon out of the city.
Once Aryeh turned twenty-one, the meager allowance his father begrudgingly gave him ceased. Aryeh picked up his last draft at the Rothschild's Paris branch along with a note from his father. His obligations fulfilled, he requested no further contact between them. His mother died suddenly of congestion a year later. By the time the news reached him, she'd been buried for over three weeks. With no ties left in England, he remained on the continent.
He traveled farther eastward, instinctively journeying toward Zolynia and Shimon. To earn a living he wrote articles about travel, art and cuisine for various English language newspapers.
In Berlin, he hired himself out as the escort of an older, widowed, middle class woman who liked opera and much younger men.
That too had not ended well when Frau Bernstein had forgotten that he was only hired to act like her lover.
Thankfully, she'd paid him enough to get him to Kracow.
Now, here he was again, out in the cold and without any money.
He turned up his collar as a gust of wind sliced his neck. Without realizing it, he'd wandered towards the Reform Jewish temple.
And a loud argument.
He hovered out of sight, ready to intervene if the words became too violent.
"Putz! You think you're better than us? If you won't let us perform in the courtyard, we'll disrupt your services! We'll dance naked on Shabbos!"
"Take your business elsewhere! Who do you think you are? William Shakespeare? Defiling the Sabbath will get you nowhere! Go back to Romania, you mamaligaleh!"
"You ignoramus, I have never tasted a bowl of corn meal mush in my life! When no one wants to hear the Megillah Esther, you'll know where to find us!"
Aryeh moved toward the shadows cast by a street lamp and took in the verbal altercation between the beadle of the Temple and a middle-aged man.
Dressed in shabby, though once fine, clothing, his grandiose gestures and clear, carrying voice caused Aryeh to wonder if he were one of the peripatetic members of a troupe of traveling players.
With the beadle's back turned on the man as he re-entered the Temple, he failed to see the rude gesture given to him.
Aryeh had to learn more about the bold rogue.
"Pardon me, are you all right?"
He strolled into the light of the giant sconces on either side of the temple door, his valise in his hand, and smiled.
Aryeh stared. Was the man crazy or just pretending to be?
"You can't be deaf, otherwise your voice wouldn't sound so pure. Perhaps you only know the one phrase in Polish?" The man scratched his head and spoke again, this time in Yiddish. "Do you understand? Farshtaisht?"
Aryeh nodded, curious as to what the man would say or do next. He did appear harmless.
"So," the man continued in Yiddish. "Since you speak Yiddish, you're not one of the maskilim, then, those enlightened nuddiks who'd throw away everything to eat treyf? But who are you?"
Aryeh had enough with being coy. He was just as intrigued by the multi-lingual man as he was of him, and getting colder by the minute.
He answered in Polish. "My name is Aryeh Nachman, late of Kracow." He switched to German. "Germany." Then continued in French. "Paris." And finally in English. "And born in Her Majesty's blessed realm twenty-eight years ago. And you are?"
"Moyshe Bercovich, come to free you from the infidels and lead you to the Promised Land."
Aryeh's laughter rang out upon hearing Moyshe's impeccable English.
"And what makes you think I need saving?"
Moyshe swept his hand up with a flourish, taking in Aryeh's shabby jacket, thin shoes and single bag.
"Unless you're some eccentric millionaire, I can see that you're cold, with no lodging, and judging by how you're clinging to that bag, you obviously have little in the way of worldly goods. I can offer you food and lodging."
Aryeh inclined his head.
"Quite observant, but I've found that people seldom are generous without wishing something in return." He ventured up towards the man and cupped his stubbled chin. "Am I correct?"
Though he didn't cringe in disgust, Moses shook his head. "Although you've quite a gorgeous punim on those shoulders, my interest doesn't involve using your body in that way." He reached down and extricated Aryeh's bag from his cold-stiffened fingers. "Come back with me to my wife Rivkeh. We'll fill your stomach and get you some clean, warm clothes. Then we'll talk." He hoisted the satchel onto his shoulder and headed off.
Aryeh stood transfixed.
Moses turned. "Well, boytshik? Coming?"
Aryeh shoved his hands into his pockets and hurried after his potential savior.
The Yiddishe Zingshpielers Troupe.
The wagon encampment was a good twenty-minute hike towards the edge of the Kazimierz Jewish quarter. They'd been granted permission to park their wagons in a field near the tavern owned by one of the city's wealthier Jews. A bit of an iconoclast in the Jewish community, he enjoyed tweaking the nose of the establishment by allowing Moyshe and his people to set up camp. Moyshe repaid his generosity by offering discounts to the tavern's patrons and performing vignettes in the larger of the two public rooms.
He wandered if he had gone meshuge, picking up the handsome young man and bringing him home to Rivkeh. Maybe he had taken a leave of his senses.
But there was something rather appealing to this Aryeh besides the obvious. His instincts told him that here was a soul that hadn't found a home.
If he were wrong, Rivkeh would know right away.
But if he were right...
He looked over at the taller, younger man and sighed.
If he could act as good as he looked and spoke, he'd found his latest star.
Ah, there was his blessed home, and a thin line of smoke rising from the little stovepipe sticking out from the roof.
A light shone in the window, as he knew there would be.
He increased his pace.
Better to find out Rivkeh's opinion sooner than later.
"Rivkeh, mayn gelibte, we have company."
The wagon door opened and the lamplight silhouetted a petite, zaftig, female form as round as a pumpkin.
"What stray did you pick up this time, Moyshe? A flat-footed dancer? A tone-deaf opera singer? A blind portrait artist? A--"
"Sha shtil! When have I ever--don't answer that. Here, mayn zeeskyt, may I introduce you to Aryeh Nachman, our new leading man."
Aryeh followed Moyshe into the cramped quarters of the wagon, almost bowling him over when Moyshe paused to kiss a mezuzah. Aryeh was surprised to see the small case containing a tightly rolled scroll with the name of God and blessed writings in it on the doorframe of the portable abode.
Regaining his footing, Aryeh bowed, then smiled.
"Froy Bercovich, I am in no way a stray, though grateful to your husband's kindness in offering to share a meal with you both. Nor am I here to audition for a position of which I had no prior knowledge and for which I have no training. If you choose to evict me into the cold, I can only assume I've unwittingly offended you in some way. I do offer you my assurance that I will not impose upon your hospitality longer than I am welcome."
Rivkeh placed her hands on her hips and shook her head. She glanced over at her husband and sighed.
"Well, he talks like an educated gentleman, looks like a dream and has good manners. I presume you've seen him move?"
Moyshe nodded. "Like King Solomon entering his throne room."
"Well, my darling, you're right."
Moyshe gasped and dropped Aryeh's bag, placing his hand on his heart. He staggered into Aryeh's arms and sagged in his supporting embrace.
"Mark this moment well, young man. You have witnessed a miracle. Rivkeh Josselwicz Berocvich has admitted that I am right."
Aryeh laughed and boosted the older man upright.
"I haven't agreed to audition for this lofty position yet, though I do admit to being intrigued." He grinned. "And honored." He laughed again. "And hungry."
Rivkeh threw her hands up.
"Tsa! Here I am talking and your stomach is grumbling. Come sit down. It will have to be a cold meal, but some hot tea should help."
With the door closed, the interior of the wagon soon warmed up. A chunk of homemade challah, its delicate eggy flavor enhanced by a drizzle of honey and fresh butter, was placed on a simple ceramic plate. A couple of hardboiled eggs joined it. On the small table, Rivkeh set a trivet and the teapot that had been sitting upon the spirit stove. The aroma of hot, strong tea swirled through the air.
"A feast, indeed. My thanks, Froy Bercovich."
"Tante Rivkeh, if you're going to join us."
Aryeh paused in the act of salting the peeled egg. He stared at the oval shape as if never having seen one before.
"If I pass the audition, I do believe that I would like to join your illustrious group." He gazed at the older couple and smiled. "And your family."
Rivkeh clapped her hands.
"A blessing on your head, tatelah. You already passed my audition."
Aryeh smiled once more. "'Tatelah.' Even my mother never called me 'little father.'"
"She must have decided that you were her angel, instead." Rivkeh dropped a sugar cube into Aryeh's tea and stirred.
"At least she never called me her little momzer."
Rivkeh gasped. "Sha! A mother's child is never a bastard. Now, relax. Eat." She reached over the small table and pinched Aryeh's cheek. "You're a little skinny."
Aryeh grinned and dug into the food set before him. He noted the idiosyncratic ways Moyshe and Rivkeh drank their tea. It told him a bit more about them.
Moyshe poured his tea into a glass set inside an ornate metal holder, clamped a sugar cube between his teeth and sipped, the hot liquid hissing over the cube. Though his name might not reveal it, his Russian style of drinking displayed his heritage.
Rivkeh sipped her beverage from a fine china cup, adding a small stick of cinnamon to the water, sending up even more aromatic fragrances into the air. Though she might be in straitened circumstances at present, her delicacy showed a more well to do upbringing.
Moyshe set down his glass and sighed. He took in Aryeh's eager consumption of Rivkeh's plain meal and wondered how someone, obviously a gentleman, should be at such low straits. He decided to get the perfunctory audition over now so he could get down to details.
"Do you know any Shakespeare by heart?"
Aryeh paused in mid-bite and nodded, his mouth full of bread and honey.
"Good. Finish your food and pick something you know well."
Rivkeh touched Aryeh's hand with her fingertips. "Don't worry. He doesn't bite."
"Of course I don't. At least not hard."
Aryeh wolfed down the food Rivkeh had prepared. Everything tasted better made with the love the gentle woman showed for her husband.
They may have been wanderers with only a wagon to call home, but it was obvious that they wanted for nothing. The cast iron stove offered homey warmth. The gaily-painted interior was cunningly fitted out to make use of every inch of space. He noted a small wooden box most likely holding a block of ice purchased from the town's icehouse. Did they try to keep kosher in the cramped quarters? It would have taken a master engineer to have separate places for dairy products and meat. Perhaps there was a food wagon among the others parked in the circle? It would be interesting to see how they conducted their lives in such a unique setting.
He mopped up the drips of honey with the last slice of bread, took one final sip of tea and leaned back in his chair.
"Many thanks, Tante Rivkeh. If my mother had had a sister, I would have wanted her to be just like you."
Rivkeh blushed. "Sha. You're a flatterer, Aryeh. I bet you have the women falling all over you."
He shook his head. "Not so much." He turned to Moyshe. "So, what would you like to hear, Onkle Moyshe?"
Moyshe waved his hand. "Anything."
Aryeh took a deep breath. He slipped from his chair and knelt at Rivkeh's feet. He lifted her hand from her lap and held it by her fingertips. Bending his head toward her hand, he brushed a light kiss across the top.
Once more, her cheeks pinked.
"'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temp'rate.'"
The words of the sonnet rolled from his lips as Rivkeh's blush deepened. He finished and rose in one lithe move.
Applause ricocheted as Rivkeh and Moyshe clapped. Moyshe stood and then creakingly sank to one knee before his wife. He tossed a mischievous smile toward Aryeh then picked up Rivkeh's hand and placed a kiss in her palm. He placed his hand over his heart as he translated the same lines into German, and then Yiddish.
What a genius!
Moyshe got up, leaning on the table for support and turned to Aryeh.
"So, if I gave you the lines, could you memorize them in these languages? Our audiences don't speak English that good." He grinned. "But they know a good writer when they hear one. And in case you were wondering, you're hired!"
Aryeh didn't speak. Finally he caught his voice.
"I don't know what to say except I accept. I only hope I can live up to your expectations."
"I'm sure you will. Now, let me tell you a bit about us. Remember, you can't back out now. You gave your word!"
Aryeh laughed. "I'm a man of my word."
"We've been together, mayn Gott, twenty years now! We started out as a simple Purim shpieler group. Now we've ten active male members in the troupe, counting you. A nice little minyan. Rivkeh takes care of the costumes, designs and stitches them. She'll fit you tomorrow in the costume wagon. Oh, you're our new leading man, our lover. We've mostly all male in the roles."
"Like Shakespeare," Aryeh said.
Moyshe nodded. "Exactly. Also one or two female members married to our male actors sometimes take character roles. Our leading man decided to take his parents' offer and marry a girl in his home town." Moyshe shrugged. "Nu? What could I do? Who am I to defy true love--and a huge dowry? Your predecessor shared a wagon with one of the other men."
"You'll like him," Rivkeh interrupted. "He's a doll. A real mentsh."
Moyshe glared at her. "As I was saying. So, we have several families who each have a wagon."
"Are there children with the troupe?"
"Not now. Leah's two boys left to stay at a kheyder in Brody." Moyshe chuckled. "They're little hellions, but we miss them. Gittel's little daughter lives with her grandmother." He sighed. "She's very frail. A life on the road would be too strenuous for her."
Rivkeh nodded. "I think Gittel and her husband may leave us this spring. She misses her little Shifra terribly." She took up where Moyshe left off. "Yossi and Malkah's children left years ago to start their own families. The daughter made a match with one of the Bronfmans. He went to a performance, saw her and made an offer for her." Rivkeh beamed. "Very wealthy family. She'll want for nothing. And their son is a teacher, engaged already!"
"If I can get a word in sideways, here." Moyshe cast a baleful look that rolled right off Rivkeh's back. "We also have a wonderful musician, Yuval. He can play every instrument you can name. Lucky for us. Can you imagine if we had to schlep a piano around?" He chuckled, then sobered. "He and his sister share a wagon." He sighed. "Such a shonda, a shame. She's a little slow, but such a voice! Like hearing tinkling bells. Yuval is so good with her. He treats her like a princess."
"He sounds commendable. I could help there, perhaps. I read music and sing a fair baritone."
"See! I told you it was a beshert that you found him." Rivkeh grabbed Aryeh's cheeks and planted a loud smacking kiss on his surprised face. "We got two for the price of one!"
Moyshe and Aryeh roared with laughter.
"What? I shouldn't be happy we have such a wonderful new member?" She fluttered her hand, urging him to continue.
"We do a variety of performances from Purim shpiels to Shakespeare in Yiddish, Hebrew, German and English. How's your Hebrew?"
Aryeh shrugged. "Pretty good, I can read it and I have a good memory."
"We try to appeal to a wide audience. We travel to so many different towns, we never know what sort of community we might encounter. Times change, you know, so we're always prepared to put on the production that will bring the best response from the residents."
"It sounds exciting and challenging. I presume you have scripts for me to study?"
"Of course. We were hoping to perform a Purim shpiel in the Temple courtyard but that doesn't look likely now." He spread his fingers and shrugged his shoulders. "So, we'll set up behind the tavern. The owner's a real prince, he might as well reap the benefit of his generosity."
"So, who will I be?" Aryeh glanced slyly at Rivkeh. "Queen Esther?"
"You're a demon, Aryeh. No, you'll be Ahasureus. It's a nice small cast so we can have a couple of the troupe members do a little singing."
"And the production is in?"
"Yiddish. I have the script and you can study it at your leisure."
Aryeh stifled a yawn, then looked downcast. "Please forgive me. It's not the company. I'm just a bit overwhelmed by the day's events. It was a bit vexing."
"Listen to him, Moyshe. 'A bit vexing.' Tatelah, a wart is a bit vexing. You've had such a day..."
Aryeh rose. "Then you won't mind if I say good night, if Moyshe will show me to my wagon?"
"Tante Rivkeh? May I come in? Shmuel tore his dress and Avrum wants to have a new vest for his costume and..."
A muffled voice emerged from a walking clothing mountain as it entered the wagon. The pile was dumped on the padded bench near the entrance and a tall figure appeared. Aryeh glimpsed a youthful profile and curly strawberry blond hair topped by a plaid cap. A heavy wool coat enveloped the person down to his ankles. A sturdy pair of boots was barely visible.
Rivkeh swooped down upon the newcomer and dragged his head down, bussing him on both cheeks.
Aryeh watched as Rivkeh showered Daniel with affection.
He smiled as Rivkeh tugged the young man further into the wagon and pushed him toward Aryeh.
He tripped and toppled into Aryeh's arms, and Aryeh's smile faded.
The man he held was beautiful. And very young.
They stared at each other in silence, then in unspoken agreement, sprang apart.
Moyshe cleared his throat. "Dani, this is Aryeh, your new roommate."
Aryeh knew he was going straight to Gehenna.
Posted June 17, 2009
Set in 19th century Poland, Bend in the Road is really two novellas, linked together by common setting and common characters. In the first of the two stories, In The Lion's Den, a penniless vagabond, Aryeh, joins a traveling troupe of Yiddish performers in need of a leading man. Aryeh meets and falls in love with the pretty young man, Dani, who is soon playing the female lead, Esther, in their upcoming play, opposite Aryeh's King Ahasuerus. But Aryeh, experienced in the homosexual life, thinks Dani is too young, and Dani thinks Aryeh doesn't find him appealing.
In the 2nd of the novellas, From Stage to Stage, the troupe is hired by a prominent Jewish merchant to perform for his daughter's wedding, and the group's musician, Yuval, composes a musical version of The Emperor's Nightingale. Yuval, secretly gay, is fascinated by the merchant's homely gardener, Tvsi, whom Yuval recognizes as a kindred spirit, and when he hears Tvsi sing, Yuval realizes that he has found his nightingale - and also the love of his life. But, things don't go smoothly.
The stories are both charming and sentimental, in the nicest sense of the word. The settings are colorfully evoked and one truly gets a sense of sharing the lives of these people. For the most part the characters, even the minor ones, are well limned. Both stories have a folkloric air about them, almost a fairy tale quality, so it is probably less critical than it might otherwise have been that the two villains are mostly one-dimensional, almost the archetypical ogres of old legend. Or, Golems, if you will. Indeed, the stories remind me of fables handed down through generations rather than stories recently penned, which gives them a nice sense of authenticity.
It is self evident that this was a labor of love for the author, and ultimately the affection she so obviously feels for her characters and their lives overrules all other considerations.