Hester's Folly

 

 

Hester's Folly

By Ezra Hirschmann

 

 

 How still the night is.
The queen surely sleeps, protected by a lady keeping a faithful, loving watch there
- Libretto from Il Trovatore
 
 
 
It shot out of the sky.
 
Like a cannon ball, the thing plummeted to earth. It trailed a red and white plume that looked like something being peeled, perhaps ripped, off something else. It had rained the night before. Water pooled in troughs. Just beyond the cowshed, where on clear days outdoor milking was once a joy, the ground it struck was moist. At great speed it whistled down, hissing as it went, like an angry witch.
 
The impact made a loud plunking sound.
 
It reminded the girl of cows’ hooves emerging from mud. Instantly, air rushed in, trying to fill the hole, for Nature abhors a vacuum. But the object was not freed. It went in deeper, entering the yielding earth with great force.
 
Although the girl did not yet realize it, the deadly power of gravity was spurred by conflict.
 
 
 
“Secret, yes. Disguise, no,” Frau Anneke Gluckel, the girl’s foster mother decided on the day that Hester was “given” to her.
 
When Anneka and her husband lived in the village, before moving to the farmlands, she loved her neighbor, the beautiful Jewish woman with dark eyes and black hair who had only one child, little Hester. Frau Gluckel had no children of her own.
 
She was my best friend. We shared the delight of confidences . . . love beyond love . . . loneliness . . . longing. . . .Things that women tell each other and nobody else, without fear of betrayal.
 
“I will save her.”
 
Those last words passed from one woman to another as a declaration of the deepest reciprocal affection.
 
Days later, without time for farewell, Hester’s mother disappeared, and her father too. They were put in a cattle car heading “east.” An only child, small and extremely quiet, Hester had become an orphan, even before her parents were exterminated, although mercifully she was too young to know it.
 
 
 
The girl wanted to walk around the small farm before full daylight emerged. Without conscious reason, Hester always liked the half-light, a dappled time of solitude and serenity. The earth seemed fresh. Life felt abundant. No veils of rain had covered the face of a new day. Only a fragile mist hung in the shadowy air, like a celestial smile.
 
“It’s dangerous,” Frau Anneke told Hester.
 
“Why?” the child asked, her lips puckering.
 
“The war rages on and on! We see no end!” Frau Anneke replied, sighing fearfully.
 
“Not here,” the girl insisted with childish conviction.
 
“Yes, even here,” Anneke said, her blue eyes brimming with transparent tears. “We may not see it. But it is all around us. If you must go outside, be careful, Liebschen,” she added, her voice trailing off.
 
 
 
Before she came to the farmlands, her husband, a rough-handed but sincere man, kissed her goodbye as usual. Herr Werner Gluckel headed to work in the railway station near their old town. It was there that a stray aerial bomb fell. The explosion decapitated him, leaving his dismembered body smoking and unrecognizable to rescuers. Frau Anneke identified him by the ring on his finger. As she removed it, a part of her died too.
 
She kept to herself. The other farmers’ wives were infrequent visitors to the solitary widow. Contact seemed to have withered, like shrunken grapes left unpicked on a vine.
 
People are afraid. Neighbors are suspicious. This was not always so, she thought, remembering better times.
 
However because of the girl, Anneke was thankful for her solitary life. I can keep her safe with me!
 
The widow had let word leak out that her niece had come from Hamburg, after my sister died, she said. Anneke had never mentioned a sibling before. Nor did she say how her “only relative” had passed away. Nobody asked. They just assumed that the war took her. Residents of the small town near her farm nodded at the news. Death in families was common. When greetings were exchanged, sympathy did not stray into speech. Lips were tight.
 
“One never knows who is listening to what,” the inhabitants had learned, fear having taught them well.
 
Frau Gluckel had a plan for wartime survival. She determined to be as self-sufficient as the yield of her small plot and three farm animals made possible. I cannot hope for more. Not now.
 
She knew that the animals were her last resort for meat.
 
If it comes to that!
 
 
 
Hester breathed in the fresh air.
 
The distant hills were brushed by strokes of lavender. Early morning held the promise of excitement as it painted the farmlands and swept across the fertile land before it.
 
Something good will happen, the child thought as she walked past the shed.
 
She noticed a creeper. As always, it insisted on stalking up the side of the barn, its many suction cups gripping tenaciously.
 
Drops of heavy dew clung to tall stalks of grass. Diamonds for a princess’s crown, the girl imagined. It was a happy, childish thought.
 
In one corner of the otherwise clear blue summer sky, a host of cumulus clouds clustered, as if seeking the protection of a crowd. They hovered, still and silent in the distance.
 
Unbeknownst to the girl, they hid a terrible truth.
 
Hester was a quiet, introverted girl. She did not notice the whine or the spitting metallic clatter of conflict between flying war machines. Somewhere in a field a dog barked. It wasn’t theirs, although Hester longed for one. Anneke Gluckel was afraid of dogs.
 
“They bite,” she said, ending the request as it began.
 
But a cow, a pig, and an old horse seemed to trust her, and she them.
 
High above, the remote vapor floated persistently. It hid the remnants of night rain and something else.
 
The aerial engagement was brief and brutal.
 
Bullets spat. Cockpit windows shattered. Airframes tore. Blood splattered against glass.
Men died in the sky that day. Those who lived flew off to fight another day. War went on, just as Frau Anneke had said. Only this time, proof came to Hester in a way that would change her life.
 
She heard a thud.
 
As soon as she saw it, she realized that the head had no identifying features. It was just an object that flew out of the sky with others, as she watched the squadron scatter like angry bees and head in disarray for temporary sanctuary beyond distant horizons.
 
Hester approached the thing lying in a hollowed little grave, carved by the force of its impact.
 
It lay backward. All skin was gone. Everything that made a face was obliterated by shock, speed, and the rip and claw of violence. Mud filled the eye and nose sockets. Toothless jaws locked fast. Charred bone smoked. On one temple a neat hole had been drilled roundly. On the other, bone splinters fragmented where a machine gun bullet had exited.
 
The girl looked down. She stared awhile, standing as still as a silhouette.
 
“Who was he?” she asked in a voice of softly whispered secrets.
 
It was one of the few things she ever said, then or later, and the question was posed to herself alone.
 
A wooden box once housed fodder for the farmyard animals. When Werner Gluckel was killed, Frau Anneke put his tools away in that box.
 
Slowly Hester walked back to the shed, her galoshes sloshing in mud pools. She opened the container. Its rusty hinges groaned reluctantly.
 
With a wood-handled shovel in her pink hands, the girl returned to the hole in the field. Mud around lay splattered thickly, like treacle. She shoveled it in. Then she dug up lucerne stalks and placed them in a thatched pattern over the spot.
 
Hester’s work was done.
 
 
 
The child had always been quiet. But after the head fell from the sky that day, she enveloped herself in profound silence that grew and grew. Frau Anneke did not know what to do.
 
I have no idea how long the war will last. If Hester dies, I will burn in the eternal hellfire of a broken promise, because I pledged to her mother that I would keep her alive!
 
Sometimes, her dead friend appeared in her dreams.
 
“Send her away, to safety,” she pleaded. Then each time she disappeared impetuously into the haze from which she had emerged for those short hallucinatory visits.
 
One day, shaking with the effects of her heartrending decision, Anneke dressed the girl in the only nice clothing that she possessed, the smock she had worn on the day she had come. Anneke stuffed the pockets with coins wrapped in rags. It was all the money that Frau Anneke then possessed. She took the girl and left her at a convent not far from her farm. On the note that she pinned to Hester’s pinafore she wrote, “God save this child. She does not speak!”
 
As she turned away from the girl’s astonished stare, Anneke’s heart broke. She had redeemed herself from everlasting damnation. But I have hurled my soul away! she declared to her sickened self.
 
Never again in her life would Anneke feel whole.
 
She returned to her small farm.
 
That night she lay down on her bed and waited for sleep to enfold her. It did not come in the way she wished for it. When she awoke the next morning, she rose and washed the tear marks off her face. Looking in the mirror, she noticed an ashen expression. Her hair seemed to have grown white during the hours of darkness. The color almost matched the paleness of her cheeks.
 
Werner loved their rosiness. He said they made me look like a pretty Gypsy flower seller!
 
Previously her hair had been speckled blonde and those roses had still bloomed, albeit hesitantly in her cheeks. But now and for the rest of her days, color never returned to Frau Gluckel’s face.
 
The German sisters had heard of the “Kindertransport.
 
“Surely,” they reasoned, “this child will be sent to safety? So she will live!”
 
Their optimism derived from their own principled order.
 
“When fear plunges, hope rises. In Jesus, the Child of the Immaculate Conception, we trust!” they told one another frequently in those times, and especially when they turned the girl over to the Red Cross to join a children’s transport into the care of unknown people.
 
Their duty thus done, they went home to the convent, where prayer and praise awaited. When they recited the Nocturn, the young nun who had been the last to lay a palm on the child
whispered the Absolution, reciting the words with fervor burning like a fever on her lips:
 
A vínculis peccatórum nostrórum absólvat nos omnípotens et miséricors Dóminus
 
May the Lord Almighty and merciful break the bonds of our sins and set us free. Amen!
 
 
 
Hester arrived with other children in England. She never said to anyone how that came to be.
 
As time passed, her elective mutism turned into intense inhibition. On the brink of womanhood, her silence solidified around her like a protective shield. Within its hushed epicenter she found a haven, a place where none but she could dwell in the concord of silence. At the “Children’s Home” where she lived--though she had already then emerged from childhood--she learned to sew. Her hands became the tools of livelihood. From simple materials, she made beautiful clothing for women.
 
One Sunday, she passed a millinery shop in war-ravaged London. Explosions had torn away an entire building, save for a single structure that remained largely undamaged. Even the thin glass windows of the small shop, called Milano’s, had been left miraculously intact.
 
She went inside. Summoning her greatest strength in an effort that threatened to invade her refuge, Hester spoke.
 
“Sir,” she said to the shopkeeper, “teach me, please.” She stammered, uncertain whether she had spoken correctly, or at all, for she did not recognize her own voice.
 
The rather round, friendly owner stared at her. His heart stirred. She was young and strikingly beautiful. Samuel Rubin, well trained to observe ladies’ accoutrements, immediately noticed that her dress was handmade. It was purple and full length.
 
Utterly perfect in fit and design! This, in wartime? His eyes widened.
 
“Did you make the dress you are wearing?”
 
“Yes,” she replied, the strain of speaking pressing upon her like hundredweights. Mr. Rubin motioned for her to sit. She obeyed. He went to the back of the small store and returned with a lady’s extravagantly styled hat in his hand.
 
“Do you think you could make this?” he asked, the sound of his voice benevolent, but nervous in anticipation of her refusal.
 
She nodded.
 
“Good,” he said, feeling relief wash over him. “Let’s see what you can do.”
 
Samuel Rubin led her to his own sewing bench. Materials were in short supply. His curiosity soared to new heights as he looked more closely at her and made sure she had all that was needed for the experiment.
 
Indeed she is beautiful. In demeanor and movement. In finesse and grace. And, what’s more, something profoundly attractive emanates from within. She simply radiates, he thought. I am lucky beyond words! Thank you, God, for this angel whom you have sent down to me!
 
I shall restrain myself from looking until she is finished, he decided, as he placed the model hat on a round head-shaped stand. His heart beat faster than usual.
 
It did not take very long, although it seemed as though the millennium was grinding slowly through its mid-point as Samuel Rubin waited.
 
Unhurriedly, Hester tidied ribbons, stiffening materials, cotton, and utensils. He heard the sounds, which he knew so well from his own work. She rose and walked to the counter where the portly avuncular man busied himself over his limited stock of items and wondered, as he looked dejectedly at a brick wall from which bits of plaster continued to fall: Will this millinery survive in more ways than one? Although he was never sure of the answer, the milliner remained ever hopeful.
 
Hester extended her elegant arms and delicate hands, offering the product of her labor. Mr. Rubin gasped. In all his years as a hatmaker, he had never seen a more spellbinding lady’s bonnet. It abounded in feathers. It showered ribbons and filaments of cloth that waved in luxurious splendor.
 
“My dear,” he said. For a moment he was rendered speechless. Regaining composure, he continued, “You were born to do this. There is nothing I can teach you!”
 
Compliments caught in his throat. I am blessed to have this exquisite young woman enter my world. The famed couturiers of Milan who gave both my profession and my enterprise its name could never have been more fortunate!
 
He paid her as handsomely as his small income allowed.
 
Samuel Rubin bowed low and beamed with pleasure as money passed from his plump hand to Hester’s supple fingertips. Then he reached into a drawer of his bureau.
 
“Forgive me, I do not have much money, but please take these to enjoy,” he said, blushing vividly, stammering his joy, as he handed her a fistful of chocolate bonbons, each individually wrapped in red cellophane, which he had saved as if they were precious heirlooms.
 
So Hester obtained a job in the East End of London, a place battered and broken but not beaten by a reign of terror from the skies. The Nazi warmongers had not bargained for the resilience of its hardy inhabitants--particularly a beautiful, hushed refugee with skilled hands and the superbly creative eyes and hands of an artist.
 
 
 
The Curzon Crown Residential was a neat hotel, not prepossessing or ostentatious, just clean and properly managed. It suited Hester well, as talking was not essential to being a resident there. When the need arose, she could simply write a note of explanation or request and hand it in at the reception.
 
Her room was simple. Red velveteen wallpaper in hypnotically repetitive swirling patterns aided her imagination. Whenever she looked intensely at them, numerous stylish shapes came to mind. Some ultimately manifested themselves in modish creations that she assembled for her grateful employer.
 
Samuel Rubin always spoke kindly to her. He never asked her questions about her past, present, or future. To him she was simply a “Godsend.”
 
The war boomed its last, or so Mr. Rubin thought in his naively contented way. Normality seemed to return, although many had forgotten its attributes. The tight tourniquet that had stifled, but not destroyed, London began to loosen.
 
Business had improved from the first time that a stunning hat had appeared, alone on display, in the window of Milano’s.
 
Now it is really good, Mr. Rubin thought, smiling through the prism of candid optimism, which colored his observation of the world and everything in it.
 
The building around his little shop was being rebuilt.
 
Proprietors of adjacent establishments welcomed Samuel Rubin’s shift of fortune. They considered it an excellent omen, especially because his business had remained intact, despite the haphazard obliteration caused by flying bombs. If anyone felt jealous of his survival, he did not hear of it, for he relegated rumor to oblivion.
 
That I can do quite easily, he thought, because I have my own protective hearing aid that I can switch on or off at will!
 
Mr. Rubin never placed another hat beside a “Hessie.” He considered that to do so would be disrespectful to Hester’s unique style, and the delightful femininity of her extraordinary handiwork.
 
“Works of fabulous opulence!” he called them, extravagantly describing hats that “adorn and complement the loveliness of ladies!”
 
They became highly prized collector’s pieces, especially after the royal couple visited the East End. As luck would have it, the sovereign’s wife had seen one of Hester’s works of art in the window. On orders, an equerry bought it--for British monarchs dare not be contaminated by the commonness of money. Samuel Rubin was thrilled when, just once, he saw a picture of the hat adorning the head of royalty.
 
 
 
The reconstruction of the area had a frightful consequence. It seemed long after V-Day, but it really wasn’t, when the explosion occurred. Some said it was a gas main that ignited. Others, especially the milliner, knew better.
 
He had been at home in his small flat when a worker’s pick blade struck a hitherto unexploded bomb that had fallen nearby. It sparked into massive detonation. The heavy shockwave set the building aquiver, though it did not topple.
 
Hester was in the shop when the bomb went off.
 
Her head was bowed over her work, her hands skipping, her eyes darting from a charcoal sketch she had made to the emerging “cappello,” as Mr. Rubin liked to call it, using the only Italian word he knew, aside from lines memorized from his favorite operas.
 
Until then she had ignored the noise generated by the workmen.
 
The humming sewing machine, clicking thimbles, snapping scissors, and sighing pedal pumps were welcome friends. So also were the divine voices (her employer’s description) that flowed from “His Master’s Voice” gramophone whenever Mr. Rubin was in his place of business. Samuel, a single man, had a generous heart, notwithstanding that its stirring was sometimes borrowed from tragic melodrama set to music.
 
“Singer and Song,” he loved to remark, his eyes twinkling with delight.
 
“One gave me my livelihood. The other gave me bliss.”
 
“Ah, and you, my silent, beautiful, dearest one. You are everything!” Hester’s smile lay trapped within. But sublime warmth spread through her each time he paid her one of his patriarchal compliments, color flushing her cheeks.
 
Surrounded by the safety of her private cocoon, in the absence of Mr. Rubin, she did not put on a record that day, although he always encouraged her to do so. Nimble as she was, her fear of shattering the means of his listening pleasure was only surpassed by her terror of losing the work she loved.
 
The crash of bricks and the smashing of glass destroyed her tranquil world.
 
Her slim body was hurled against a wall. It went limp. She slumped to the floor and lay still, like a rag doll discarded by a bored child.
 
A few days later, when she was released from the hospitalMr. Rubin, fussing attentively and declaring that he was her only “relative”she went into a deeper state of silence. This time it was completesave for her last utterances, which occurred the day after she had a terrible vision.
 
Since that time in the field, she had had the brutal nightmare only once. Strangely, it occurred long after the bomb went offdispelling the elements of mental peace and security that working and sharing space in the millinery with her kindly employer had given her. To these she clung as much for the love of her work as for the maintenance of her fragile sanity.
 
After a full day’s work at Milano’s she returned to her bed-sitter at the Curzon Crown Residential. In tunnels beneath the damaged city, trains were running. She could feel the vibrations when they passed under the hotel. The day before, seemingly at random, Mr. Rubin had said, “Rats, cockroaches and the Underground are indestructible, even by the Luftwaffe!”
 
The walls of the station nearest to the hotel on Baker Street were covered with cream-colored tiles. Slippery surfaces discouraged but didn’t eliminate graffiti. Below the red circle bisected by a blue line with the station name lettered in white, in an act of defiant freedom of speech, an anonymous artist had sprayed, “Evil,” then reversed it to “Live.” For good measure the painter had left black spatters underscoring the insignia of the London Underground.
 
She stared unblinkingly at the words, then at the hands that bracketed them, wondering which was being shoved out and which in, by the stenciled finger commands.
 
“So soon after the war, and who can tell the difference?” someone near her commented aloud, as if reading her mind. Hester did not respond, remaining trapped in silence.
 
In her room she undressed, bathed, put on her nightclothes, and got into bed. The clean sheets felt cool and crisply comforting. Vaguely, within a hazy nimbus of isolated memory, she could sense her mother tucking her into bed, whispering sweet blessings in her ears, stroking her hair as gently as a weaver touches cloth, and smelling of lavender.
 
She fell asleep. Oddly, she hardly ever felt really tired. No matter how hard she willed herself to be weary, some compulsive energy seemed to intervene, especially at night when her impudent subconscious exerted its controlling influences. Normally, when she awakened Hester could not remember her dreams.
 
However this time was different. She woke before her bedside clock raised its shrill alarm, even on Sunday. It was still dark outside.
 
Every sight and sound of her nightmare, in which not just one but many skulls fell out of blue skies filled with terrible noises, remained hotly etched in her mind. Her body was wet, her hair in disarray despite having been combed and pinned up at bedtime. Dampness clung to the nape of her neck. She had been crying in her sleep. Her pillow felt moist.
 
Was it only a dream?
 
She rose and bathed again, washed her hair, then dried and plaited it. In the open closet, she found the purple dress. It was still the best one that she owned. Above it, on a shelf, the first “Hessie” waited. It was the original that Mr. Rubin insisted she should keep.
 
“It is too beautiful to sell!” he declared. “Take it. You wear it,” he urged.
 
Following many refusals, one afternoon when tea was over, she found the bonnet. It was on her chair beside the workbench. She took it home. But she had never worn it. Not until this day.
 
Hester left the room, ignoring the breakfast offerings in the dining room that had been set up the night before. Coffee boiled in the urn. It smelled foul. Nobody was there at the dawn hour. White columns in the lobby shone, bathed in weak artificial light. Although she had not eaten anything since the previous day, she was not hungry.
 
Back in the station, she saw the graffiti still on the wall.
 
A train rumbled to a halt. She got out at an entirely different location than usual and took the stairs to street level. A busker’s trumpet calls echoed through the subterranean tubes where people streamed like ants, even so early. Someone must have paid him to play “The Last Post.”
 
What a bold bugler, she thought. Once she read that the call had been played every day at Ypres, to commemorate the fallen in the Great War, except when the Germans occupied Belgium.
 
Notes struck thunderously on her eardrums like discarded cans clattering in an alley. She had always been sensitive to loud sounds. The trumpeter was getting his piece in, before eviction. A bobby was coming down the stairs as she was going up, for some always complained when others made or tried to make music.
 
I must tell the Queen! It was an inner command that could not be denied. Not on this Sunday when she felt so strange after her nightmare.
 
On the sidewalk beside the street, she saw that a gate was slightly open. A gardener had wheeled a barrow through it. He was visible, far back in the garden, but had not returned to close and lock it. The heavy chain dangled like a gutted snake, shining in the clarity of a new day.
 
Hester opened the metal door and closed it behind her. In the lovely dress of her own making, her hips swayed as she walked the grounds in flat shoes, heading toward the grand palace. As if wishing to suggest nonchalance, she used the pathway that meandered through the grounds.
 
The gardens are splendid, she thought.
 
Hester passed an artificial lake. It was entirely surrounded by festooning flowers, grand trees, and exotic shrubs. The benches beside a little pergola were empty in the sun. Variety and perfection preceded and followed her like persistent, but suddenly disarranged, shadows.
 
She was close to the side entrance of the magnificent building when a voice boomed out.
 
“Halt!”
 
She ignored the order, even though she recognized its meaning and menace. She had heard it spat out at innocent men, women, and children . . . like she had been . . . when too young to understand the degradation that would befall them. It seemed so distant.
 
Another place. Perhaps even another life? The young queen is my age. Her beloved father died recently. She mourns. I know she will understand!
 
 
 
Chris Jones was new to the duty of patrolling the grounds in disguise. He was not wearing the red and black uniform of the immaculate guardsmen at the front gates. Instead of shiny patent leather shoes, he wore the rubber boots and the cloth coveralls of a gardener. But in his wheelbarrow under clumps of peat moss a well-oiled Lee Enfield No. IV, MK1 bolt-action rifle lay beside a shovel.
 
Inside the tunic under the coveralls, at his waist a blade pressed against his right thigh. It was held snugly in place by an olive-colored canvas scabbard, cutting edges and socket brazed together into a singly forged, extremely sharp weapon. The cold handle reminded him of its presence and of its lethal purpose.
 
“You! Stop!” he yelled.
 
Hester continued on. Now she was near a side portico. She heard him, but did not care. Only a few more steps to go and I will be there.
 
“State your business here!”
 
The voice was increasingly threatening, rising in pitch. But Hester would not speak. Silence had always gripped her tongue, holding it prisoner to her palate.
 
I must speak only to Elizabeth the Second, Regina, Queen of the Realm! Hester screamed in shrill silence. Then she began to run.
 
Jones reached into the wheelbarrow. He pulled the rifle to his shoulder. “Halt or I shoot!”
 
She ran even faster. A gardener cannot kill me!
 
His heart beating thunderously, goaded by training, Chris Jones, member of the Queen’s secret guard, squeezed the trigger. The bullet jammed in the breach. “By God!” he yelled.
 
He had not seen her face. From behind he thought she might be a young woman. But he had been taught not to make assumptions in the heat of an emergency.
 
“Don’t be fooled,” his commander had taught him. “Killers come in all disguises.” The warning had been uttered so often that it was branded into his brain. It compelled his reflexes. He reached under his coveralls and pulled the weapon from its scabbard. With a swift movement he locked it into place beneath the Enfield’s muzzle.
 
“Assassin!”
 
The word lunged. And so did he! The steel bayonet manufactured by Singer caught Hester between her shoulders. It plunged into her beating heart and exited her chest between her breasts.
 
The bonnet burst from her head. It fell to the stone path and lay in a crimson pool of blood. She tried to reach for it, but her fingers numbed, then stopped in mid motion. Faster than her brain, her heart was dying.
 
Deep within her mind’s closing eye, she saw the images of her nightmare, those she wanted to share with the young Queen so that sheSovereign of the Empire, Defender of the Faith, possessor of majestic power and influencewould stop the many skulls raining down like bizarre balls of flaming bone from the sky where darkening storm clouds never ceased to gather!
 
She saw the patch of earth in the farmland. The hole was filled with mud. Above it, lucerne grew, ever greener, the stalks more translucent than when she was a child on a German farm with Frau Anneke, her mother’s friend who loved her so much that she sent her away.
 
Jones knelt beside her, staring unblinkingly into her face.
 
It is him! she thought, startled by onrushing recognition. The young man, who once had a nice face. A pilot whose skull fell in Frau Anneke’s field. She felt no pain or fear of any kind. He barely has hair on his rosy cheeks. A boy, only a handsome boy!
 
“Stay alive!” He was ordering her, again, his voice shocked and strident. Her beauty and youth were screaming at him as he raised her forehead from a cushion of stone.
 
I am not “hidden” any more . . . no longer “alone” . . . not “taken” . . . not “given” . . . I was small . . . so much has happened! She tried, but failed to speak. She could only hear her own words echoing in a chamber somewhere far off, as her shuddering body grew colder and colder, despite the warmth of summer. She began to drift, as if borne by wind.
 
I remember my mother’s name. Her inner voice rattled. Esther!
 
And my father. Moses!
 
The Queen’s guard in the mufti of a gardener leaned closer to hear her words, hoping against hope for a confession to save him. But none came.
 
Tears fell onto the sleeve of his coveralls. The gurgling in her soft throat ceased. As life left her at the entrance to the palace, her eyes remained open as if with the inner knowledge of fading consciousness.
 
 
 
Later that same morning, seated on the back bench at Milano’s, Samuel Rubin was intensely worried. Since that first day when Hester entered his world, he had moved to the rear of his own shop.
 
Why is she late? She’s never late! Even on a Sunday. She must have had some pressing business of her own . . . or, God forbid, something happened!
 
His double chins wobbled. His lips trembled. In an effort to suppress rising anxiety, he put on his favorite record. The black disc spun dutifully.
 
Ah! se l’error t’ingombra.
If the chains of error,
Daughter of Eve, have bound you . . .
Presso a morir, vedrai
Che un’ombra, un sogno fu . . .
Know when you come to Death’s door,
God offers you His grace,
And when Life’s dream is over
You will come to see Him, face to face . . .
Vieni, e t’asconda il velo
Ad ogni sguardo umano . . .
Come then and let this veil
Shroud you from earthly eyes.
Free you from earth’s dark jail,
Win for you Heaven’s prize . . .
 
The haunting refrain of the hidden “Nuns’ Chorus,” stirring in its magnificence, filled the small millinery. Tears fell from the hatmaker’s eyes, as always when (with his hearing aid turned up to highest volume) he heard Verdi’s tragic masterpiece and he cried in time to the music.
 
Only, this time, overcome by the power of telepathic grief, he wept for the loss that his benevolent heart told him would never be assuaged.
 
 
 
Copyright © 2013 by Ezra Hirschmann
Reprinted with permission from A House Too Small: And Other Stories by Ezra Hirschmann, available in Spring 2013 from Texas Tech University Press: www.ttupress.org.
 
Ezra Hirschmann was born and educated in South Africa, where he practiced law for many years. Widely traveled and having lived in a number of countries, he resides in Florida and works as an international legal counsel.


 

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