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By Gilbert Morris Zondervan
Copyright © 2001
All right reserved.
Chapter One Reisa Dimitri always slept soundly through the latter part of the night and on into the morning, but a sudden loud thumping noise very close to her head brought her awake instantly. Confused and frightened, she sat up in her narrow bed and stared wildly around the room, trying to pull her thoughts together. She knew that it was morning, for a pale milky light filtered through the single window of the room. As the biting cold struck her, she shivered, pulling the covers up to her neck, afraid to lie down again.
It could be robbers!
The thought brought her completely awake, and she swung her feet over the bed, slipping them into the bulky leather boots that she kept beside her cot. Standing up she listened hard, but only silence came echoing back to her. Drawing a deep sigh of relief, she murmured, "It's not robbers-and I don't think it's soldiers."
The thought of soldiers was even more disturbing to Reisa. After all, robbers would only come in and take your possessions-but soldiers of the czar would seize people and carry them away to some frightful place where they would never be seen again. Such a thought always lurked deep down in Reisa's subconscious. She had heard terrible stories from her grandfather about the pogrom that he had survived in his youth. The Russian government had sent cruel cossacks through villages, killing Jews, slaughtering them like cattle, then taking the survivors away to prison camps where they died lingering deaths.
Waiting silently in the room, Reisa became calmer. Not robbers and not soldiers. Soldiers would have broken the door down, and robbers would have tried to be silent. But I know I heard something.
Standing up with a swift motion, she pulled a heavy overcoat over her thick woolen gown, buttoning the two buttons with numbed fingers. She plucked a white scarf from a peg, then moved quickly across the small room as silently as possible. She was alone, her grandfather spending a rare night away from home sitting up with an old friend whose wife was dying. Somehow the isolation had not troubled Reisa while it was light, but now the mysterious thumping sound worried her.
Unbolting the latch, she stepped outside. The cold pierced her to the bone, for though there had been no fire in the house, it had retained some heat. Outside, however, the frigid atmosphere touched her face with ghostly fingers cold as death. Blinking her eyes against the fine particles of frozen mist, Reisa scanned the area outside the house, but saw nothing. Then remembering that the sound had been close to her head, she walked around the corner. There on the ground lay a bundle of some sort. As Reisa approached, she realized that it was the body of a large goose. Drawing her breath in, she ran at once and knelt beside it.
The bird had been injured somehow. Strong compassion swept through Reisa. She loved animals almost fiercely, and indeed her grandfather, Jacob, had scolded her for bringing home crippled animals and birds half-mangled to death by cats. Yet she knew that this side of her character pleased her grandfather.
She leaned closer and rolled the goose over. Seeing an empty eye socket and the breast terribly scarred and denuded of all except the finest feathers, she cried out, "Poor bird! You were left behind, weren't you? Some hunter shot you, and you couldn't leave with the rest of the flock. How terrible to be left alone to face winter when your fellows were all flying away!"
Her fingers touched the bird's injured wing, and she leaned forward to look more closely. The goose gave a convulsive lunge and uttered a hoarse sound. Reisa jerked her hand back, afraid of the large bird's beak. The goose gave a shudder and seemed to grow still. She knelt there undecided. What should she do with such a large bird? Often she had tended sparrows and other small birds, keeping them until they were able to fly. But what could she do with this battered creature?
As she knelt there weighing the alternatives, the goose opened his beak and uttered a small sound. Somehow this brought a firmness to Reisa. Carefully she lifted the bird in her arms, then made her way to the small barn occupied by her flock of chickens, two goats, and the milk cow. Lifting the latch was difficult for her, but she managed, and as she stepped inside the usual greetings from the chickens rose as they gathered around her feet. Ignoring their cluckings as well as the nudgings from the goats, she placed the half-dead goose in a manger filled with hay. The long neck flopped over, but the good eye was fixed on her.
"I'll be right back," Reisa whispered, then turned and left the barn. Going into the house, she quickly built up a fire, then drew on two petticoats and a brown woolen dress. As soon as the fire was hot enough she put on a kettle, then waited as the flames licked the vessel. Finally a breath of steam appeared, and she at once poured boiling water into a small saucepan. Moving quickly, she grabbed a worn towel, plucked up the lantern, and left the house.
As soon as she stepped inside the barn, she hung the lantern on a peg, then opened a wooden box fastened to the wall. With her hand she scooped up some of the oats and dropped them into the hot water. The cold was so severe that the boiling water was already only warm. Moving to the goose, she began stroking him with the towel, intent on her task. She had seen flocks of this sort high in the sky, and twice a neighbor who hunted had brought her grandfather birds he'd killed as payment for a debt. Reisa had dressed and baked the birds, and even as she removed the icy scales from the goose, she thought, Grandfather would expect to eat this goose.
The thought troubled her, for survival was not easy in such hard times. If the goose died, she would certainly give thanks for God's provision, and it would become food for them. Yet somehow Reisa hoped that he would not. Broken and dying, the great goose had come into her life, and now as she dried him she hoped that he would live. She was aware that most of her neighbors would laugh at such a foolish wish. "Geese are made by the Eternal One for people to eat," they would say. Reisa knew they were right, and it certainly gave her no problem to behead one of the chickens from her small flock. Yet somehow this goose was different.
"Ruler of the Universe," she whispered, "this poor fellow is crippled and half-blind. He is lost from all his kind and has no help but me. You brought him into my life, and now I would see him well and able to continue his journey to join his flock. I am a foolish girl, but I ask you to give him strength to complete his journey south ..."
As Reisa prayed (feeling rather foolish praying for a dying goose), suddenly the great bird began to move his wings. He lifted his head, and his one eye fixed itself on the face of the girl.
Reisa uttered a glad cry and leaped at once to pick up the pan of warm oats. As she approached, the bird lunged to his feet and spread his wings. She saw that the right pinion was damaged, but she held out the pan, saying, "Now, eat some of this." The goose shook his head and tried to fly, but Reisa reached out and caught him. She forced his beak into the oats, wondering if she could make him eat such foreign food, remembering how difficult it had been to get other wounded birds to eat. Warm hot mush had worked for sparrows, but she was not certain that a goose would eat it.
For several minutes, she restrained the bird without success, but finally managed to force some of the oats into his beak. He was no doubt frightened and confused, but he was also starving. He swallowed the food, then when Reisa forced his beak into the pan, he began to take the oats, swallowing convulsively. He ate ravenously, his bill tapping against the bottom of the pan, so that Reisa laughed. "Don't be such a glutton!" She rose and studied the bird as he faced her. She could see the naked breast with the jagged scar, and wondered what sort of determination had brought him this far.
She turned to feed the chickens, then milked the nanny and the cow, pausing frequently to glance at the goose. He had settled down on the straw with his good eye closed. Reisa felt a thrill of accomplishment, and nodded with satisfaction. You rest, goose, and after I fatten you up, you can go find your mate.
Carrying the two pails of milk, she returned to the house. The small fire and the feeble sun overhead had brought some warmth into the room, and she felt happy. As she moved around the room doing her housecleaning chores, she wondered what she would do if her grandfather chose to kill the goose for food. The thought bothered her, but she was a cheerful young woman, so put the thought out of her mind. She had never been denied anything that was in her grandfather's power to give her. If someone had said, "Reisa's learned to manipulate her grandfather," it would have bothered her. But nevertheless, she began to plan a way that would make him less ready to sacrifice the goose.
This problem occupied her as she boiled water for tea. Then as she drank the scalding beverage, she suddenly said aloud, "I know! I'll cook one of my chickens! If Grandfather is full of nice stewed chicken, he'll be happy enough to let me nurse my goose!" Satisfied, she planned the meal, not pausing to give the doomed chicken one thought of pity. If she had been asked about that, she would have replied, "Chickens are made to lay eggs and to be eaten, but the great goose is made to fly high in the heavens."
Happy with her decision, she returned to the barn, killed the fattest of the chickens, plucked its feathers, then returned to the house satisfied that her grandfather would be happy.
Looking down at her bloody hands, a thought came to her: I'll take a bath! The thought stirred her, for she loved bathing, and in the summer nearly drove her grandfather to distraction by bathing every night. In the winter, however, with fuel scarce, it was more difficult. She laughed aloud suddenly, saying, "A bath I will have!" and quickly began the preparations.
She moved to the stove, the family's pride and joy. It was made of heavy iron, built by her father, Ivan, who had been Grandfather Jacob's only son. She had heard the story many times of how Ivan had become a blacksmith and had built the stove for his parents' twentieth anniversary. Now as Reisa quickly built up the fire which had been banked the night before, she ran her hand over the hard cold surface and thought of her parents. She remembered them with sorrow and grief, for they had been a cheerful, loving pair. They had both died of an epidemic before she was ten, but Reisa kept their memories alive by thinking of them often. And now, as always, a warmth came inside her that matched the fire that began to crackle inside the stove, and she whispered, "Got tsu danken."
She spoke the words in Yiddish, for that had been her mother's native language. Gretchen Moltman had been of German descent, and had spoken Yiddish so much that the rest of the family had learned it along with their native Russian. Her grandfather Jacob had taught Reisa Hebrew. While not fluent in this language as he was, Reisa could read it and even speak it rather haltingly. Over all of this was a layer of English. One of the villagers, Yuri Pavlov, had emigrated to the United States and stayed for several years. He had come back to take care of his aged parents and had brought several books with him. Living next door to Reisa and her grandfather, he had been amused at her interest in America and had taught her the rudiments of English. He had also let her read in English two books that he had brought back-Great English Poetry and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
When the fire was built up, Reisa put the large kettle and the large iron pot on the stove, then filled them with water. Going back outside, she fetched an iron pot used to wash clothes. It was heavy, and she puffed as she brought it inside and set it down on the floor with a thump.
While the water heated, she busied herself with the chores around the room which served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. The only other room was a bedroom and study where her grandfather kept his books and slept. She herself slept on a cot that folded up against the side of the wall in the larger room.
Finally her work was interrupted by the bubbling of the water and the whistling of the kettle. Moving over, she poured the boiling hot water into the large pot and added some cold water. She loved baths as hot as she could bear.
She bolted the door and drew the curtain over the window. The yellow light of the lamp illuminated the room as she stripped off all of her clothes and stuck her toe into the water. "Ooh, that's good!" she whispered, then slowly immersed herself. The water came up to the edge of the pot so that only her head and knees were out. She lay there soaking up the delicious heat for a time, then finally straightened up and pulled the pins from her hair so that it cascaded down her back. She had beautiful black hair that came down to her waist, but no one ever saw it. She kept it done up and covered by a scarf, as all respectable Jewish women did.
The soap was rough and almost gritty, but she managed to work up a lather as she washed her hair, then soaped herself all over. Filling the smaller pot with warm water, she rinsed herself and her hair. Finally she stepped out.
Being completely undressed embarrassed her, even though she was all alone. As the daughter of an Orthodox Jew, she had arrived at the notion that the body was something to be covered and not exploited. She toweled herself dry and for one moment stared down at her body, thinking, I must have grown. I'm taller. Indeed, she was a tall young woman, with the prominent curves of young womanhood. She had long legs and a rather short upper body, and her muscles were firm, although lean rations had kept her very slender.
She put on the underwear, the gatkes, then quickly donned a long gray woolen dress. Finally she sat with her back to the fire combing her hair and letting it dry. This was a time of peace for her, and she hummed under her breath. Finally, her hair dry, she moved over to the small mirror and began plaiting it so that she could put it under her scarf. Without meaning to do so, she studied her face. She was not a vain young woman, and would have been astonished if anyone had called her beautiful. Her hair was black as the blackest thing in nature, and her eyes were enormous-a strange gray-green color, with a beautiful, faintly oriental shape. She had an oval face with high cheekbones and a wide mouth. But one feature she always noticed was the widow's peak, the tiny "V" of the hairline that dipped down on her forehead. She touched it and said playfully, "I ought to cut you off!"
Finally she emptied the large pot a basin at a time, throwing the water out the door, then carried the pot outside. She felt strange about taking baths, for none of her neighbors seemed to enjoy the ritual-but she was determined to have this one pleasure.
Hunger gnawed at her, and she moved quickly to prepare herself a small meal. She made tea in the samovar, heated a little of the beet soup that they had had for supper, and after she had eaten that she found a bit of taiglech, a small cake dipped in honey. She ate one of them, then Boris, her cat, came purring roughly and shoving his blunt head against her leg.
"Oh, Boris! Are you hungry? Here, I saved you some fish." Quickly she took the fish out of the cupboard, laid it out, and watched as he ate, stroking his coal-black fur. He looked up from time to time licking his chops, his enormous green eyes studying her. When he finished, she broke off a piece of the taiglech and offered it to him. "Do you like sweet cakes, Boris?" She laughed when he ate it. "Of course you do. You like everything."
Reisa rose and moved to the cage that her grandfather had made out of small branches, opened the door, and fed the small bird that was regaining his health. He had been mangled by a cat, and Boris was under suspicion. Reisa was always torn between her love for birds and her love for Boris. She often said to him, "Boris, you're a mamzer!" This was the Yiddish word for trickster that she had heard her mother use many times.
Reisa put on her coat, then picked up a package wrapped in brown paper. As she started for the door, Boris came at once with his nose stuck in the crack. "No! You can't go," Reisa said.
Boris looked up at her-and grinned.
Reisa laughed aloud at this ludicrous sight-as she always did. "You're the only cat I ever saw that could grin." Indeed it was true. Boris, for whatever reason, had learned to bare his teeth when he wanted something-or when he was in trouble. It was not a snarl, for the corners of his lips were turned up. It was a feat that never ceased to amaze and amuse Reisa, but now she picked him up firmly and moved him away from the door. Putting him down, she said, "Smile all you want to, but you're not charming me. I'll be back soon."
Excerpted from Jacob's Way by Gilbert Morris Copyright © 2001 by Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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