A Fine September Morning

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I shot a man the night of the pogrom, an evil man. I meant to kill him, but only succeeded in wounding him. I was glad of that, but not of the consequences. If I had killed Viktor Askinov they would have already tried, convicted, and hung me. Instead, they gave me thirty days to settle my affairs and leave Russia forever — expelled. I wanted to leave Uman and go to America, but not like this, not all by myself.  Not without my wife, my darling Sara.

The fires from the ferocious mob attacks, the pogroms, burned themselves out and the dead were buried. By then the whole town knew there was no longer a place for us Jews in the Tsar’s Russia. Sara would join me in America as soon as I was situated and earned enough money to bring her and the children over. The rest of the family would follow. Everyone agreed — Sara, Momma, Poppa, my younger sisters Ester and Zelda, and my younger brother Markus. Everyone but my brother Lieb.

I can admit it now.  Convincing Lieb to change his mind and come to America turned out to be my obsession. He was more to me than a brother, more than my best friend. What else can I tell you?

Growing up, we slept in the same bed, went to school together, prayed together, played together, and suffered the torment of Viktor Askinov together.  Lieb was a year older but most of the time you wouldn’t know it. By the time I was eight years old, I was bigger, could run faster, and read Hebrew better. When we were a little older, I was the one who attracted interest from the girls. But my brother never resented it. In fact, he took as much pride in everything I did as Momma and Poppa. One time when I was about fifteen I threw a rock and knocked Viktor Askinov down, drawing blood. Lieb cheered the loudest and spread tall tales of my great deed.

The day before I left Uman for the last time, Lieb helped me pack my cardboard suitcase, away from everyone else for a few minutes. The smell of Momma’s garlic chicken roasting in the wood-burning oven guaranteed a farewell dinner fit for the Sabbath. For a change, there was no sound of crying babies, or of anything else.

Lieb and I talked quietly in my bedroom as he folded my three shirts and my extra pair of pants. I was afraid to look him in the eye for fear I would break down in tears. I handed him my battered copy of War and Peace, a sprig of Sara’s golden hair pressed inside the pages.

“I remember the first time you read this,” he said. “How old were you, twelve?” He placed it carefully in the bottom of the suitcase.

 “Promise me you will come to America,” I said.

“America. I wish I could believe in America like you do,” he answered. “It would make everything so much easier.”

“I need you with me.”

“You’re the strong one, not me.” He looked up from the suitcase. “You’re Moses leading your tribe to the Promised Land. So go in good health.”

I worried something bad was going to happen if he stayed, but how could I convince my brother of that? “The Tsar’s not done with his Jews, you know. He won’t be till he’s killed, converted, or expelled every last one of us.”

“Don’t be angry with me, Avi. This is where I belong.  I’ll be here waiting when the Messiah comes, God willing.”

 “You sound just like Poppa.”

He spoke softly. “I am like Poppa. Is that so bad? And you’re like Uncle Yakov.  Brave, determined, and discontent with what you have.”

 “Don’t you want a better life for Golde and the kids?” I asked it more as an accusation than a question.

“God will take care of us,” he answered. “He has for five thousand years.” Lieb smoothed my little bundle of clothes with his hand, then closed the lid of the suitcase and snapped the latch. “Now let’s not argue. This may be the last time we see each other for awhile.”

Maybe forever, I worried. “But will you think about it?”

“Yes, of course I will think about it.” I wasn’t convinced he meant it, but I would keep trying to change his mind. If reason didn’t work, maybe persistence would.

I hugged him to me when we said goodbye the next morning. He kissed my bearded cheek.  Neither of us said anything. We didn’t have to.  When we pulled back from each other, he raised his left hand and brushed his floppy hair from his eyes, just like he always did.

Alan Fleishman has been a marketing consultant, senior corporate executive, university adjunct faculty and community volunteer. “A Fine September Morning” is his second novel. The father of three and grandfather of seven, he and his wife, Ann, live in San Carlos with their Siberian cat, Pasha, high on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay.