Klodawa. Congress Poland. Saturday, November 22nd 1879 4p.m.
Thirty-four year-old Aniela Bielski trudged towards her lodgings in Dziadowice’s Jewish quarter with not only the weight of her two full shopping baskets slowing her down, but also her thoughts. She’d just caught sight of two of her pupils from the Immanuel School dragging a scraggy-looking sheep and a sack of hay away from the early morning market. The last people she wanted to see after a week disrupted by bad weather and a dead starling – seemingly intact – left on her class register during yesterday morning’s geography lesson.
For a moment, she was tempted to intervene. Persuade the boys to return the protesting creature to its seller, because to her knowledge, neither had a garden or even a yard in which to keep it. However, instinct told her to walk on by, keeping her back to the pair. One endlessly chattering, the other as usual, silent.
Number 3, Aleja Ogrod couldn’t come soon enough, and once she’d let herself in and climbed to the first floor where her bare front window overlooked the street, was unnerved to see the two schoolboys standing outside, staring upwards. The poor sheep still protesting. Its tongue hanging from its mouth while from the other end, dark green liquid dripped on to the trampled snow. Whether a ewe or a ram, she couldn’t tell, what with that long tail and straggling fleece. Besides, not all rams had horns.
Aniela ducked sideways, leaving a noticeable patch of condensation on the glass, yet still able to see the silent one raise his hand and wave his white, tapering fingers in what a stranger might assume was a friendly gesture. But not her. She’d known both boys for two years, when she’d been an emergency replacement for an unwell Piotr Wolmark who’d never got better. His throat and lungs damaged by daily wear and tear on those youngsters stunted by their families’ Hasidic faith, with few prospects of work in such a one-eyed town. Why she lubricated her own throat every evening with several small glasses of Scheidam’s Aromatic Shnapps. Also to keep the stinging cold at bay.
One day, she told herself while unloading her potatoes, cabbage and other items on to the kitchen table, she’d divorce Chaim Bielsky, become a Gentile and leave for Canada, where immigrants were in short supply. There, she’d pursue another career - this time in law - and become an advocate for orphaned children. At school, these were the boys she was most drawn towards to help, and every year, the local King David Charity would deliver their latest crop of twelve year-olds, often with only the clothes they stood up in.
As she rinsed the potatoes in the chipped stone sink under a dribble of water from the single tap, she observed the progress of both fourteen year-olds and their distressed sheep until they turned into the Ogrod Itshak Mayer – a park used by vagrants and drifters even in winter - and disappeared from view. She also noticed the sky turn yellow, and by the time her potatoes were dry, a fresh snowfall had begun.
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