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Michals destiny, p.4
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       Michal's Destiny, p.4

           Roberta Kagan

  Bearded men with black hats, boys with long pe’ot (sidelocks), women with sheitels (wigs) that had been thrown on their heads without care all ran for their lives as the Cossacks on horseback chopped them down with giant sabers that glittered in the sun and dripped with vivid red blood. Michal covered her ears to the piercing screams. She heard a young child calling, “Mama … Mama.…” Michal could not catch her breath. Her heart beat in her throat so loud that she thought the sound must be audible to Avram.

  From somewhere down the road, she could hear a woman crying, begging, “No, please, no.” Then she heard a group of men who had begun chanting prayers in Hebrew.

  From where Michal stood, she could see that across the street, two Cossacks, both with single ponytails rising from their shaved heads, were nailing the door to her neighbor’s house shut. Then another Cossack, wearing a gray fur hat and carrying a stick that had been wrapped with hay and set on fire, came riding by and touched the burning torch to the wooden house. It sprung into flames immediately and became a hungry orange beast that began to swallow the structure. The family who lived in the house was trapped inside. Clouds of black smoke rose into the air. The people who lived in that house were the Glickmans; they were friends of Michal and Avram; they had a small child, a girl. In fact, they had been guests at Michal and Avram’s wedding. Now, they were being burned alive. OH, DEAR GOD … PLEASE HELP US. Michal said out loud, but her prayers were drowned out by the roar that came from the chaos all around her. What to do? What to do?

  “Avram, we have to get out of here. We can’t stay in the house. We are safer outside,” Michal said, feeling bile rise in her throat. “They are burning the neighbors alive in their home next door.”

  Forgetting to put on her coat, she and Avram rushed outside. “Let’s try to run as fast as we can and get into the forests.” She grabbed his hand, attempting to pull him away. But he was stunned with grief, unable to move. The bodies of his friends and neighbors lay bleeding out in the snow. “AVRAM!!!!”

  She tried to wake him out of the fog that had taken over his mind, but he refused to be moved. He began to pray. The prayers for the dead….

  “Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba Amein

  May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified,” Avram said.

  “Avram.” Michal shook his arm, but he stood, mesmerized, as if he had left the world and was speaking directly to God.

  “b'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei

  In the world that He created as He willed,” Avram continued.

  Michal felt tears fall from her eyes as she shook Avram harder. “AVRAM! AVRAM!”

  Her grip on his arm did not move him at all. Instead, Avram continued to speak the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

  “v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon

  May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,

  uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil

  and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel.”

  “Avram, have you gone mad?” Michal shook him hard, but he continued even though he was alone, without the other nine men that were required by religious law to make a minyan (quorum).

  People were running all around her. People she’d known all of her life, still in their bedclothes, their bare feet leaving blood stains on the snow and ice. Michal had a vision of her parents and her brother and sister. Where were they? Were they alive? In a split second, without her realizing what was happening, a monster of a man was upon her. He stood at least six feet five and carried over three hundred pounds on his large frame. Throwing her to the ground, he tore the shawl from her shoulders. Michal scrambled to escape, but he kicked her in the stomach and the pain doubled her over. She began to pray. There was nothing else she could do; her husband was lost in another world. “Avram?” she called to him, but she knew he did not hear her. He continued his prayers. With a single slice of his sword, the Cossack beheaded Avram. Michal let out a piercing scream as she saw her young husband’s head roll down the hill, blood still spurting from his empty neck. A mahogany bay horse that had been tied to a fence post let out a loud snort. Michal wanted to run, but she was unable to move. Her stomach ached and the ice beneath her prevented her from rising quickly. This had to be a nightmare. How could something so terrible be actually happening? It was no feat for the Cossack to rip the nightdress from Michal’s body. She was too horrified to feel any modesty or to be affected by the Arctic winds. She forced herself, in spite of the pain, to rise to her knees. Her feet slipped on the ice, but she finally stood. The massive man grabbed her and threw her down on a patch of ice. Michal hit her head as she fell, but she was numb to the pain. Her entire body trembled with terror. The blood of her husband soaked the snow on the ground beside her. Her own blood trickled from her head wound to blend with Avram’s. The Cossack pulled his heavy fur coat away from his body and unbuttoned his pants. Michal felt like she might vomit. She would beg, but she knew it would do no good. He took his penis out of his pants and entered her body. Michal wished she could die; even death could not be as horrible as this moment. He began heaving and grunting like a wild boar. She shivered from the cold and tried to move away from him, but he slapped her face so hard that her lip spurted a stream of blood.

  The Cossack closed his eyes in ecstasy and, as he did, Taavi came from behind with the ax that he used to cut wood. The Cossack never heard him. Taavi lifted the ax and planted it square into the massive man’s skull. Blood flew into Michal’s face. She gagged. Taavi pushed the man off of Michal and lifted her.

  “We have to get away from here right now,” Taavi said.

  “But Avram?”

  “Avram is dead. Come on. Before the Cossacks notice us.”

  Taavi grabbed Michal’s hand and she reached down and picked up her shawl, then wrapped it around her. For a moment, she remembered that it is unsuitable for a man to hold the hand of a woman who was married to someone else. But that thought passed quickly as Taavi pulled her by the hand and led her out of the village. He tugged her along faster as they ran through the farms. Behind them, houses and barns blazed. Michal heard the tortured cries of the families and the horrific neighing of the horses that were being stolen from their stalls. She stopped to look for a moment; she was mesmerized, staring at the scene in front of her, unable to move. Taavi tugged her hand harder.

  “Don’t look back,” he said.


  “Come on … If you don’t come now, we will both be dead.” He pulled her hand harder and she almost fell forward, but she caught herself and the two of them ran at full speed until they reached the dense forest that lay just beyond.

  The trees were close together. The icicles that hung from the branches and leaves of the trees were thick and heavy enough to cut into a man’s flesh. Michal glanced up and saw that there were rainbows that the sun was causing to reflect in the ice. A little way across from where they stood, a long frozen dagger of ice fell into the snow, leaving a gap where it had landed. Michal looked up at Taavi with concern in her eyes. But he refused to stop; instead, he continued pulling her deeper into the thick foliage where they would be hidden from the invaders.

  Her body trembled with the cold. He took off his coat and put it around her.

  “Wear this or you’ll freeze. I’ll be all right as long as we don’t stop moving. It’s too dangerous to try to break into one of these farm houses,” he said.

  “So, where will we go? What will we do?”

  “I have an idea.”

  He pulled her harder, moving her faster.

  “I’m still stunned by what’s happened,” she said.

  “We have no time for sentiment. If we are to survive, we cannot think of what we have lost, only of what we must do.”

  She nodded, but tears filled her eyes. They froze as they dripped down her cheeks. He turned to look at her.

  “Please, don’t cry. I’m not very good when someone cries,” he said. “Now, I know you are scared and tha
t you lost your husband today. I don’t mean to seem uncaring. But, Michal, this is a pogrom. They mean to kill all the Jews in this village. We are fighting against terrible odds. The Cossacks are strong. They’re cruel and fierce mercenaries. We’re lucky we got away. If you dwell on the past, you will not have your wits about you. Until this is all over, we have to be very careful.”

  “How long do you think it will be before they leave?”

  “Tomorrow morning probably. I think they’ll stay in town at the tavern drinking until they fall asleep. Then they’ll steal what they can and leave. You wait here. There’s a farm in the distance; I’m going to break in and take some clothes.”

  “But we can’t be sure that there won’t be anyone in the farmhouse. They might shoot you.”

  “I know, but it’s a risk we have to take. If we can’t find warm clothes, food or shelter, we will die.”

  She bit her lower lip. “I’m scared.”

  “Yes, well, that won’t do us much good right now. I’ll be back; wait here.”

  Michal had not realized how cold she was until she stood still waiting for Taavi. He returned with men’s pants, a shirt, boots, and another coat for himself. His face and shirt were splattered with blood. She dressed quickly and didn’t ask questions.

  “Now, let’s keep moving until we can find a safe place to stop.” She felt as if she could not go any further, but he kept pulling her forward. The cold bit through her skin and she felt like her blood was freezing solid.

  Taavi put his arm around her. Michal looked up at him; he was taller by over a foot. She was stunned. It was not acceptable for such an intimate gesture to take place between a man and a woman. “I don’t mean to behave disrespectfully, but we are both freezing. We can use the warmth from each other’s bodies,” he said, reading her mind.

  Michal blushed. He was right, of course. But even in the middle of this terrible situation, she was reminded of the inappropriate thoughts that she’d had about him in the past, and she felt ashamed.

  “You’re shivering and your lips are blue. We cannot wait until nightfall to find shelter. We must find some place warm as soon as possible or we will both freeze to death.”

  “What can we do? There are Cossacks all around us!”

  From where they stood, hidden behind the thick brush, they could still see the pillagers on horseback.

  “We must turn and go to the non-Jewish farmers until we can find someone to take pity on us.”

  “I’ve never been out of the Jewish section. It is forbidden to have communication with the non-Jews.”

  “Yes, I know about all of your rules. In my opinion, they are ridiculous.”

  “That’s your opinion,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. Her teeth had begun chattering.

  “Never mind. I don’t want to have an argument with you. It’s a waste of precious energy right now. Just follow me and do as I say.”

  She felt her back stiffen. He was a man. After all, men had all the power. But he was different from Avram, who was gentle and never made her feel like she was being dominated. He reminded her a little of her father and, for that, she was starting to dislike him. Still, right now, she needed him and so she would do as he commanded.

  Taavi pulled Michal’s arm, leading her deeper into the forest. Her toes were numb. She felt the wind slice right through her skin. The cold had frozen the tears she’d shed for her dead husband less than an hour ago, and her eyelashes felt heavy and began sticking together. The terror of the pogrom, the screams of the victims, the wild conquering cries of the Cossacks mingled with the unbearable cold of the Siberian winter left Michal exhausted and ready to collapse. It would be easier to just give up, to lie down in the bed of white frozen flakes and allow her body to sleep, a sleep that she knew she would never awaken from. But, Taavi pulled on her arm, the heavier she felt and the slower she moved, the harder he pushed her, the more insistent he became.

  “Where are we going, Taavi? We have nowhere to go. I’m tired, I’m weary. I can’t go on anymore.…”

  “Don’t even talk like that. I’m taking you to a place that very few people know about. We’ll be safe there.”

  Her shoulders dropped. She had to believe him. He would not let her go, would not let her fall into her final rest. Instead of slowing down, Taavi pulled her harder. The icicles on the tree branches scratched her face. One dropped right in front of her, missing her by inches. She wanted to cry, to cry and cry and cry. But Taavi would not let go of her arm.

  Finally, there was a break in the trees. A small cottage stood alone, surrounded on all sides by forest. The house was made of wood painted brown, so as not to stand out to a passerby. In order to find this minuscule shelter, one would have to know exactly where to look.

  “Who lives here?” Michal asked. She’d heard tales of the old wise woman who lived in the forest, but she thought it was only a myth. The woman was said to be a witch, to work with herbs and cast spells. People had warned of the danger of the witch in the woods. “Is this the home of the witch?”

  “Come on,” Taavi said, giving her a tug.

  “I’m not going in there.”

  “You are. You have no other choice. Besides, she isn’t a witch at all; she’s a woman who makes medicine and delivers babies. I know her. She is kind. She’ll help us.”

  “For sure she is not one of us.”

  “You mean a Jew?”

  “Exactly, she is not a Jew.”

  “No, of course not. But she is a good person. You are about a minute from freezing to death. Stop asking me so many questions.” He was curt, but to the point. He knocked on the door of the modest dwelling. A woman wearing a thick flannel dress and a heavy woolen shawl opened the creaky door. Her hair, as white as the snow, was long and thin, but her eyes were bright, blue as the morning sky on a crisp winter day.

  “We need help,” Taavi said. “There has been a raid by Cossacks on our village. We are Jews.”

  The old woman stared at them both skeptically. Her piercing eyes scanned the couple, digesting every detail. She shook her head. “I’ve been expecting something like this in the village. It’s been happening more frequently at all of the towns surrounding us. It was just a matter of time.” She shook her head. “Well, come on in. What are you waiting for? Standing outside half naked, you’ll both freeze to death. I have a fire going; you’re welcome to sit down and warm yourselves.”

  The orange and red flames burned low, deep inside the belly of a black cast iron stove that stood in the corner of the small room. There was a single bed on one side and a table filled with bowls containing strange mixtures. Michal looked around suspiciously.

  “Don’t be afraid. You’re safe here. The Cossacks are scared of me. They’re afraid that demons will descend upon them if they come anywhere near this house.” She laughed. “My name is Bepa. Go on, sit down.”

  Michal settled cross-legged on the dirt floor with Taavi beside her. The room was very warm and it felt good to have that warmth seep into her body. As she began to defrost, she felt the will to live begin to rise within her and travel through her bloodstream all the way to her heart. She was afraid of the old woman. She’d been raised with fears and superstitions that haunted her now as she accepted Bepa’s charity.

  “Are you hungry?” Bepa asked, already doling out a ladle of soup and tearing off a thick hunk of grainy bread.

  Taavi nodded. “Yes, very hungry. Thank you.”

  Michal thought about all of the rules that she’d grown up with. There was no doubt in her mind that this food could not be kosher. Yet, Taavi did not seem to care at all.

  “No, thank you. I’m not hungry,” Michal said. “Thank you for taking us in. You didn’t have to.”

  “You both would have died. How could I not take you in?” Bepa said, smiling. “Anyway, you’re welcome.”

  Bepa pulled her shawl tighter around her reed-like body and gazed into the fire. “I’m glad for the company. It gets lonely here sometimes.”
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