by Garth Wolkoff
Ahron Zalman rode in the backseat of Isaac Zalman’s Ford, his hand covering his chest under the coarse gray wool of his coat. Isaac owned the first such car in Coke Run, a shiney black Model B, a more expensive version of the Model C he told Ahron. Isaac showed off his American home in South Western Pennsylvania with great pride to his youngest brother, who just that year had escaped the Easter Pogrom in Dusetos, Lithuania–which the Jews knew as Dushat–and sailed to America.
Isaac had opened up Zalman’s Department Store on Main Street, at the time the largest in town and next to Adams Drug Store, the oldest business in Coke Run. “Yes, and we are bigger than Monroe’s Department Store,” he told Issac, in English, which Isaac insisted on speaking, whether Ahron understood or not.
Isaac ran the first rye distillery in town, started the first synagogue, albeit a small one with the handful of Jewish families available. He had started making and selling shoes 10 years before, opened a small store, then a larger one, then expanded his inventory to include an increasing number and types of clothing. The coal miners and other townspeople wanted to dress in the latest fashions. Everyone did. “Ten years, and look,” he bragged to his brother, a thin young man with dark eyes who had only recently cut off his side curls and beard. Isaac, who had an ample gut as befitting an important man, had moved into a grand two-story home with his wife, Aliza, and their four boys, on Washington Street. Ahron listened with disquiet when Isaac told him that because carpenters made the house out of red brick, it was practically fireproof.
The young man, not 20, grew even more agitated at the Ford’s rough ride. The unsteady car and Coke Run’s unbricked road mirrored Ahron’s insides, which were falling apart. “I like a horse,” he told Isaac in the limited English he had learned from a teacher, with whom he traded instruction in reading scripture for language lessons.
“We don’t ride horses in America anymore.” Ahron noticed several buggies as they passed out of town, but as had always been true, he never questioned or debated his brother. They drove into the countryside outside of Coke Run, in the direction of the Fayetteville County Seat, Union Town. After about 20 minutes, they saw signs. Poland Mine. Fayette Mine. Monongalia Mine.
As Isaac drove with one hand on the steering wheel, he gestured with his other arm out the window of the Ford. “All is mines. All is mines.” Ahron thought the mines and the land around them belonged to his brother, who must have turned out to be more successful than he expected, than he had even dreamed. He didn’t ask more and if Isaac had understood the miscommunication, he never bothered to correct himself.
They returned home as the autumn sunlight cast a golden and orange glow over Coke Run. Ahron brought out a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his round glasses. His brother had picked him up at the Monongahela Railway station, a little more than a porch and wooden bench. As garrulous and crude as Ahron remembered him, maybe even a touch more, Isaac greeted his brother with open arms and all the while jawing, about business, about how much older Ahron had become, about Jews with a good sense like himself voting for the young president Roosevelt, about the Ford’s front engine layout and exorbitant price, apologizing several times about not meeting him in New York, about Isaac’s four sons, about purchasing shirtwaists directly from New York factories, about coal prices–he had so much to say, thought Ahron--never once letting up throughout the ride through town, to the mines, and then back around to Main Street and Church, Jefferson and Madison Avenues, and finally Washington Street. Isaac asked no questions of Ahron. “Home again, home again.”
Isaac hoisted Ahron’s pocked-up and rickety valise onto his broad shoulders–”Oh, we’ll get you something fine to replace this box of manure”–and carried it into the house, all the while crying out for Aliza and the boys. “Hermann, Abe, Ben, David! Come meet your uncle.”
Introductions and welcomes and handshakes. Then the two middle boys, at the behest of their father, showed the weary Ahron to his room with a much softer stuffed bed than Ahron had ever known. The little boys filled the air with a hundred questions, English language questions that surpassed his limited vocabulary. The boys showed him the pitcher of water and towel where he could wash his face, his chamber pot, and the nightgown his mother had so carefully laid out; they had been raised to perform duties assigned by their father, and Uncle Ahron’s silence did not deter them. Then, as if answering their uncle’s prayers, the boys left the room with no further chatter.
Ahron took off his shoes, holes and all, shoes that Issac had made him years before. He took off the coat that had seen him through the forest, called Barovker Vald by the Jews–a forest he knew because he had picked berries there–his coat that he had worn through the nameless wilderness and wildness beyond, all the way to the Baltic Sea, through namely foreign seaports, though a sleepy and hungry and uncomfortable passing, and, finally, to New York Harbor. Ahron never even stopped to look at the lady liberty, his darkening eyes lowered always, his mind on performing the one task left to him. In full dress, Ahron laid on the bed. He clutched his heart again, closed his eyes, and fell into a dreamless sleep until morning.
The story goes, told by Isaac and every living Zalman afterward, that Ahron came to the breakfast table the next morning looking even more drawn than he had the previous evening, looking older, looking wan. The boys, ages six, seven, eight, and nine, crowded around. Ahron coughed into his yellowed handkerchief, having dressed himself in the only other set of clothes he had, brown and black, vest, tie and collar. And his cap. Isaac inserted his arm between the boys and Ahron, who had taken a seat at the breakfast table. “Give the man some room.”
A young servant, referred to as Miss O’Neil, brought out some juice and a glass of water. She brought pastries and cream, warm bread and butter and preserves, strawberries and sliced apples. She brought coffee. Ahron took the coffee, burnt his tongue, and summoned all the English he had learned and heard and read, wanting to comply with his older brother’s dictum to speak only English. “I have come to tell you of our family.” He did not address this to Isaac, but to the air, full of dust motes, lit from the outside, a softer hue of orange than the previous evening, the quiet Pennsylvania countryside outdoors. Nothing and no one stirred in response to Ahron’s ominous and forthright delivery. Ahron coughed again, clutched his chest. He took off his cap, and the family noticed his hair was completely gray, almost white, and very thin.
Wife looked at husband, sons looked at mother, and Miss O’Neil looked at her shoes, then returned to the kitchen. Everyone sat, then, and looked at Ahron, and in doing so, invited him to tell the story of the Zalman family. So Ahron did. “I have kept this inside, these months. I have spoken to no one, not over there, not over here. I have waited and waited to tell you, my brother.”
Isaac put his elbow on the table, and his chin in his hand. Abe and Ben emulated him. David leaned into his mother and then sat on her lap. Hermann, the eldest, stood still with each hand on the back of Abe and Ben’s chairs. As if to steel himself, Ahron bit off a chunk of the thick bread, ignoring the rest of the bounty before him, ignoring the warmth of the parlor, the beauty of the morning light now starting to gray up just a little.
For one second, Aliza looked at Isaac and saw something in her husband she had never seen before, a wistful expression as his eyes seemed to focus on a dark gnarl in the wooden table, an expression she had viewed so many times in her boys, an expression of self recrimination, as in the eyes of the boys when they forgot their chores. Then, she thought of the Bible story. Ahron spoke because Moses stuttered, and although her Isaac has no speech impediment of any kind, even in English, she believed there were certain matters of the heart he could not articulate.
Silence and more silence. A clock ticked audibly, the only sound, and each tick sunk the room into a duskier portend. When Ahron could not bear it any longer, he opened his mouth. And just like that, he forgot his English. His months of mental preparation of how to tell his brother what he had stored away, inside the darkest places he had discovered in his mind. The sentences he had worked on in his notebook, the sentences he had created from so little–gone. His increasingly dark eyes opened wide in something between humiliation and desire. After several silent moments, he began in Yiddish. Only the parents understood. The boys, however, remained still throughout, not moving, even if they were itching to. Ahron: the brother who studied Torah, the brother whom everyone protected and loved, the soft intellectual. He spoke, in a clipped and monotone Yiddish, the story goes. Issac couldn’t remember his brother ever telling a story, speaking more than he had to.
The goyim left their church on Monday at noon, he said, in an exhale that must have signaled a relief. They called it Easter Monday. All the farmers came to town, to church. All of them. We were friendly with some, but as a whole, they did not like us. The farmers, it was said, accused the Jews of preventing them from opening the businesses. And the farmers read the papers, or those who read did, and the papers sneaked in the old stories about us.
The square had never been so crowded. We had been told there would be trouble. On Easter, you know, the Catholics say the Jews killed their god. They say we kill the Christian children and use their blood to make our Passover meal. We had heard so many stories. Elsewhere, there had been riots, pogroms in the Shavli and Ponevez districts a few years ago. Not in Dusetos or anywhere nearby. Still, our fear knew no end. We knew the farmers, the Catholics, did not like us. But we had been safe. Until the Easter.
Ahron coughed again. He did not look at one of the boys or at Isaac or at Aliza. He looked at nothing, his eyes unfocused even behind his glasses, unfocused, almost absent. Ahron had not spoken anything at all since he ran from Dusetos and as he told his story, he seemed to lose his fluency in Yiddish as well, although he spoke as he needed to speak.
Now, there had been such a fire just two days previous to the Easter. The fire burned many of the Christian homes, not the Jewish. So they blamed us, and their priest asked us to go to shul to swear our innocence. They told us to report whether anyone in our community started the fire. We don’t start fires; that is something we do not do. But we went unbelieved. There was talk in town of a riot. The community closed up shops. Some hid in the forest. Others took refuge in the kindly Christian homes.
Aliza held her youngest close, but continued to look over at Isaac, and she wondered for a moment which of the Christians in her town would take them in if the coal miners rioted against the Jews in Coke Run. Aliza shivered. She tried to banish the thought, but it stayed with her for the rest of her life.
After noon, hundreds of people left the church on Uznter-Dem-Brik Gass. They had axes, poles, knives, scythes, and worse, torches. We hid in the basement of the neighbors, with whom we had always been friendly, you know them, the Matonis family. Ester, Dvora, Mamma, and I hid with them. Moshe, Baruch, and Papa went with the men who had revolvers. I do not know where they came from, these guns, perhaps the Baron family, at whose house they gathered. We had never had guns, our family, but there were those among us who wanted to fight back.
From the house, they shot at the farmers, Baruch told me after everything. Baruch said they shot until they had no more ammunition and then Moshe began throwing bricks at the farmers from the back porch. Then Moshe climbed to the roof, and began throwing bricks from the roof, bricks and tiles. Finally, Baruch said, the farmers climbed the stairs, got to the roof, and shoved Moshe from the roof to the street, where he died. Baruch, separated from Papa, fled to the thicket behind the Baron’s house. Baruch never saw what happened to Papa and we never saw him again.
When Aliza told this story, and she told this story many times, she remembered vividly those words about Isaac and Ahron’s father, and that she didn’t see Isaac’s expression change, but that a visible shiver took hold of him and rattled all his features. She also said that an autumn squall had begun, and that as the story progressed, rain started to at first lightly tap on the windows.
Meanwhile, Mamma underwent terrible anguish in the cellar. With the little light there, and the hollering and screams from outside, we watched her face go through contortions, knowing the farmers were burning houses. She cried out Father, Moshe, and Baruch’s names. Finally, she could take it no more, and ran out from underground. We followed her up the basement stairs. I was behind the girls. From the vantage point from under the Matonis’ awning, I saw our house in flames. Momma started shrieking and ran into the house. Why, I do not know. I yelled after her, and the girls followed. I went after them and that’s when I saw Baruch, who grabbed me from going into the burning house. I tried to escape his arms, but I could not. The flames grew and the house started to collapse. We hid in the forest the rest of the night.
When Aliza told the women at synagogue this story, she imagined outloud what would happen if such an occurrence happened here. She asked the assembled ladies why a woman would run back inside her burning house, and she told them that she might have done the same–her house, her home, her work, her children. How could she abandon a home to the hatred that lit the torches that burned the wood?
Ahron’s eyes had changed again, this time his dark eyes had gone white, as though no one lived inside his body any longer.
The next day, we found their burnt corpses. We knew them each from the Jewelry around the necks–Mamma, a Star of David; Ester, a Chai; and Devora, a Mezuzah–gifts from Papa–and from the shoes you made before you left; they had somehow not burned. Baruch collapsed to the ground when we found them. I carried him back to the Matonis’ family. In the morning, we found him hanging from the rafters.
Ahron lay his wet forehead on the table and said no more. No one spoke, although the youngest, David, sobbed, only knowing, it was said, the feelings, not the facts. Aliza had tears falling from her face, drop by drop. Isaac clenched his eyes, the story goes, and when he finally opened them and looked at his brother, Ahron was dead.
Winning pieces are published as received.
Second Place Winner:
Garth Wolkoff is a writer and high school teacher living in Brooklyn. He has had stories published in the Indiana Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Kereem, and will have fiction published this year in Bull, Everyday Fiction, and 86 Logic. He was a finalist for the 2022 Fractured Lit Flash Fiction Challenge.