A Clockwork Phoenix featured story
Barbara Krasnoff reading from her short story “Sabbath Wine”
at the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings on Feb. 2, 2016.
“My name’s Malka Hirsch,” the girl said. “I’m nine.”
“I’m David Richards,” the boy said. “I’m almost thirteen.”
The two kids were sitting on the bottom step of a run-down brownstone at the edge of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. It was late on a hot summer afternoon, and people were just starting to drift home from work, lingering on stoops and fire escapes to catch any hint of a breeze before going up to their stifling flats.
Malka and David had been sitting there companionably for a while, listening to a chorus of gospel singers practicing in the first floor front apartment at the top of the stairs. Occasionally, the music paused as a male voice offered instructions and encouragement; it was during one of those pauses that the kids introduced themselves to each other.
Malka looked up at her new friend doubtfully. “You don’t mind talking to me?” she asked. “Most big boys don’t like talking to girls my age. My cousin Shlomo, he only wanted to talk to the older girl who lived down the street and who wore short skirts and a scarf around her neck.”
“I don’t mind,” said David. “I like kids. And anyway, I’m dead, so I guess that makes a difference.”
Above them, the enthusiastic chorus started again. As a soprano wailed a high lament, she shivered in delight. “I wish I could sing like that.”
“It’s called ‘Ride Up in the Chariot,’” said David. “When I was little, my mama used to sing it when she washed the white folks’ laundry. She told me my great-grandma sang it when she stole away from slavery.”
“It’s nice,” Malka said. She had short, dark brown hair that just reached her shoulders and straight bangs that touched her eyebrows. She had pulled her rather dirty knees up and was resting her chin on them, her arms wrapped around her legs. “I’ve heard that one before, but I didn’t know what it was called. They practice every Thursday, and I come here to listen.”
“Why don’t you go in?” asked David. He was just at that stage of adolescence where the body seemed to be growing too fast; his long legs stretched out in front of him while he leaned back on his elbows. He had a thin, cheerful face set off by bright, intelligent eyes and hair cropped so close to his skull that it looked almost painted on. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, and you could hear better.”
Malka grinned and pointed to the sign just above the front-door bell that read Cornerstone Baptist Church. “My papa would mind,” she said. “He’d mind plenty. He’d think I was going to get converted or something.”
“No wonder I never seen you before,” said the boy. “I usually just come on Sundays. Other days, I . . .” He paused. “Well, I usually just come on Sundays.”
The music continued against a background of voices from the people around them. A couple of floors above, a baby cried, and two man argued in sharp, dangerous tones; down on the ground, a gang of boys ran past, laughing, ignoring the two kids sitting outside the brownstone. A man sat on a cart laden with what looked like a family’s possessions. Obviously in no hurry, he let the horse take its time as it proceeded down the cobblestone street.
The song ended, and a sudden clatter of chairs and conversation indicated that the rehearsal was over. The two kids stood and moved to a nearby streetlamp so they wouldn’t get in the way of the congregation leaving the brownstone in twos and threes.
Malka looked at David. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Did you say you were dead?”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Well, at least, that’s what my daddy told me.”
She frowned. “You ain’t,” she said and then, when he didn’t say anything, “Really?”
He nodded affably. She reached out and poked him in the arm. “You ain’t,” she repeated. “If you were a ghost or something, I couldn’t touch you.”
He shrugged and stared down at the street. Unwilling to lose her new friend, Malka quickly added, “It don’t matter. If you wanna be dead, that’s okay with me.”
“I don’t want to be dead,” said David. “I don’t even know if I really am. It’s just what Daddy told me.”
“Okay,” Malka said.
She swung slowly around the pole, holding on with one hand, while David stood patiently, his hands in the pockets of his worn pants.
Something caught his attention and he grinned. “Bet I know what he’s got under his coat,” he said, and pointed at a tall man hurrying down the street, his jacket carefully covering a package.
“It’s a bottle!” said Malka scornfully. “That’s obvious.”
“It’s moonshine,” said David, laughing.
“How do you know?” asked Malka, peering at the man.
“My daddy sells the stuff,” said David. “Out of a candy store over on Dumont Street.”
Malka was impressed. “Is he a gangster? I saw a movie about a gangster once.”
David grinned again. “Naw,” he said. “Just a low-rent bootlegger. If my mama ever heard about it, she’d come back here and make him stop in a hurry, you bet.”
“My mama’s dead,” Malka said. “Where is yours?”
David shrugged. “Don’t know,” he said. “She left one day and never came back.” He paused, then asked curiously, “You all don’t go to church, right?”
“Well, what do you do?”
Malka smiled and tossed her hair back. “I’ll show you,” she said. “Would you like to come to a Sabbath dinner?”
* * *
Malka and her father lived in the top floor of a modern five-story apartment building about six blocks from the brownstone church. Somewhere between there and home, David had gone his own way, Malka didn’t quite remember when. It didn’t matter much, she decided. She had a plan, and she could tell David about it later.
She stood in the main room that acted as parlor, dining room, and kitchen. It was sparsely but comfortably furnished: besides a small wooden table that sat by the open window, there was a coal oven, a sink with cold running water, a cupboard over against one wall, and an overloaded bookcase against another. A faded flower-print rug covered the floor; it had obviously seen several tenants come and go.
Malka’s father sat at the table reading a newspaper by the slowly waning light, his elbow on the windowsill, his head leaning on his hand. A small plate with the remains of his supper sat nearby. He hadn’t shaved for a while; a short, dark beard covered his face.
“Papa,” said Malka.
Her father winced as though something hurt him, but he didn’t take his eyes from the book. “Yes, Malka?” he asked.
“Papa, today is Thursday, isn’t it?”
He raised his head and looked at her. Perhaps it was the beard, or because he worked so hard at the furrier’s where he spent his days curing animal pelts, but his face seemed more worn and sad than ever.
“Yes, daughter,” he said quietly. “Today is Thursday.”
She sat opposite him and folded her hands neatly in front of her. “Which means that tomorrow is Friday. And tomorrow night is the Sabbath.”
He smiled. “Now, Malka, when was the last time you saw your papa in a synagogue, rocking and mumbling useless prayers with the old men? This isn’t how I brought you up. You know I won’t participate in any—”
“—bourgeois religious ceremonies,” she finished with him. “Yes, I know. But I was thinking, Papa, that I would like to have a real Sabbath. The kind that you used to have with Mama. Just once. As . . .” Her face brightened. “As an educational experience.”
Her father sighed and closed his book. “An educational experience, hah?” he asked. “I see. How about this: If you want, on Saturday, we can go to Prospect Park. We’ll sit by the lake and feed the swans. Would you like that?”
“That would be nice,” said Malka. “But it’s not the same thing, is it?”
He shrugged. “No, Malka. You’re right. It isn’t.”
Across the alley, a clothesline squeaked as somebody pulled on it, an infant cried, and somebody cursed in a loud combination of Russian and Yiddish.
“And what brought on this sudden religious fervor?” her father asked. “You’re not going to start demanding I grow my beard to my knees and read nothing but holy books, are you?”
“Oh, Papa,” Malka said, exasperated. “Nothing like that. I made friends with this boy today, named David. He’s older than I am—over twelve—and his father also doesn’t approve of religion, but his mama used to sing the same songs they sing in the church down the street. We listened to them today, and I thought maybe I could invite him here and show him what we do . . .” Her voice trailed off as she saw her father’s face.
“You were at a church?” her father asked, a little tensely. “And you went in and listened?”
“No, of course not. We sat outside. It’s the church on the first floor of that house on Remsen Avenue. The one where they sing all those wonderful songs.”
“Ah!” her father said, enlightened, and shook his head. “Well, and I shouldn’t be pigheaded about this. Your mama always said I could be very pigheaded about my political convictions. You are a separate individual, and deserve to make up your own mind.”
“And it’s really for educating David,” said Malka eagerly.
Her father smiled. “Would that make you happy, Malka?” he asked. “To have a Sabbath dinner for you and your friend? Just this once?”
“Yes, just this once,” she said, bouncing on her toes. “With everything that goes with it.”
“Of course,” her father said. “I did a little overtime this week. I can ask Sarah who works over at the delicatessen for a couple pieces chicken, a loaf of bread, and maybe some soup and noodles, and I know we have some candles put by.”
“And you have Grandpa’s old prayer book,” she encouraged.
“Yes, I have that.”
“So all we need is the wine!” Malka said triumphantly.
Her father’s face fell. “So all we need is the wine.” He thought for a moment, then nodded. “Moshe will know. He knows everybody in the neighborhood; if anyone has any wine to sell, he’ll know about it.”
“It’s going to get dark soon,” said Malka. “Is it too late to ask?”
Her father smiled and stood. “Not too late at all. He’s probably in the park.”
* * *
“So, Abe,” Moshe said to Malka’s father, frowning, “you are going to betray your ideals and kowtow to the religious authorities? You, who were nearly sent to Siberia for writing articles linking religion to the consistent poverty of the masses? You, who were carried bodily out of your father’s synagogue for refusing to wear a hat at your brother’s wedding?”
Abe had immediately spotted Moshe, an older, slightly overweight man with thinning hair, on the well-worn bench where he habitually spent each summer evening. But after trying to explain what he needed only to be interrupted by Moshe’s irritable rant, Abe finally shrugged and walked a few steps away. Malka followed.
“There are some boys playing baseball over there,” he told her. “Why don’t you go enjoy the game and let me talk to Moshe by myself?”
“Okay, Papa,” Malka said, and ran off. Abe watched her for a moment, and then looked around. The small city park was full of people driven out of their apartments by the heat. Kids ran through screaming, taking advantage of the fact that their mothers were still cleaning up after dinner and therefore not looking out for misbehavior. Occasionally, one of the men who occupied the benches near the small plot of brown grass would stand and yell, “Sammy! Stop fighting with that boy!” Then, content to have done his duty by his offspring, he would sit down, and the kids would proceed as though nothing had happened.
Abe walked back to the bench and sat next to his friend, who now sat disconsolately batting a newspaper against his knee. “Moshe, just listen for a minute—”
But before he could finish, Moshe handed him his newspaper, climbed onto the bench, and pointed an accusing finger at a thin man who had just lit a cigarette two benches over.
“You!” Moshe yelled. “Harry! I have a bone to pick with you! What the hell were you doing writing that drek about the Pennsylvania steel strike? How dare you use racialism to try to cover up the crimes of the AFL in subverting the strike?”
“They were scabs!” the little man yelled back, gesturing with his cigarette. “The fact that they were Negroes is not an excuse!”
“They were workers who were trying to feed their families in the face of overwhelming oppression!” Moshe called back. “If the AFL had any respect for the people they were trying to organize, they could have brought all the workers into the union, and the bosses wouldn’t have been able to break the strike!”
“You ignore the social and cultural problems!” yelled Harry.
“You ignore the fact that you’re a schmuck!” roared Moshe.
“Will you get down and act like a human being for a minute?” asked Abe, hitting his friend with the newspaper. “I have a problem!”
Moshe shrugged and climbed down. At the other bench, Harry made an obscene gesture and went back to dourly sucking on his cigarette.
“Okay, I’m down,” said Moshe. “So tell me, what’s your problem?”
“Like I was saying,” said Abe, “I’m going to have a Sabbath meal.”
Moshe squinted at him. “Nu?” he asked. “You’ve got yourself a girlfriend finally?”
Abe shook his head irritably. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Too bad,” his friend said, crossing his legs and surveying the park around him. “You can only mourn so long, you know. A young man like you, he shouldn’t be alone like some alter kocker like me.”
Abe smiled despite himself. “No, I just . . .” He looked for a moment to where Malka stood with a boy just a little taller than her, both watching the baseball game. That must be her new friend, he thought, probably from the next neighborhood over. His clothes seemed a bit too small for his growing frame; Abe wondered whether he had parents and, if so, whether they couldn’t afford to dress their child properly.
“It’s just this once,” he finally said. “A gift for a child.”
“Okay,” said Moshe. “So what do you want from me? Absolution for abrogating your political ideals?”
“I want wine.”
“Ah.” Moshe turned and looked at Abe. “I see. You’ve got the prayer book, you’ve got the candles, you’ve got the challah. But the alcohol, that’s another thing. You couldn’t have come up with this idea last year, before the geniuses in Washington gave us the gift of Prohibition?”
“I want to do it right,” said Abe. “No grape juice and nothing made in somebody’s bathtub. And nothing illegal—I don’t want to make the gangsters any richer than they are.”
“Well . . .” Moshe shrugged. “If you’re going to make this an ethical issue, then I can’t help.”
“Oh, come on,” Abe said impatiently. “It’s only been a few months since Prohibition went into effect. I’m sure somebody’s got to have a few bottles of wine stashed away.”
“I’m sure they do,” Moshe said. “But they’re not going to give them to you. And don’t look at me,” he added quickly. “What I got stashed away isn’t what you drink at the Sabbath table.”
“Hell.” Abe stood and shook his head. “I made a promise. You got a cigarette?”
Moshe handed him one and then, as Abe lit a match, said, “Hey, why don’t you go find a rabbi?”
Abe blew out some smoke. “I said I wanted to make one Sabbath meal. I didn’t say I wanted to attend services.”
Moshe laughed. “No, I mean for your wine. When Congress passed Prohibition, the rabbis and priests and other religious big shots, they put up a fuss, so now they get to buy a certain amount for their congregations. You want some booze? Go to a rabbi.”
Abe stared at him. “You’re joking, right?”
Moshe continued to grin. “Truth. I heard it from a Chassidic friend of mine. We get together, play a little chess, argue. He told me that he had to go with his reb to the authorities because the old man can’t speak English, so they could sign the papers and prove he was a real rabbi. Now he’s got the right to buy a few cases a year so the families can say the blessing on the Sabbath and get drunk on Passover.”
Abe nodded, amused. “Figures.” He thought for a moment. “There’s a shul over on Livonia Avenue where my friend’s son had his bar mitzvah. Maybe I should try there.”
“If you’ve got a friend who goes there,” Moshe suggested, “why not simply get the wine from him?”
Abe took a long drag on his cigarette and shook his head. “No, I don’t want to get him in trouble with his rabbi. I’ll go ask myself. Thanks, Moshe.”
“Think nothing of it.” Suddenly Moshe’s eyes narrowed, and he jumped up onto the bench again, yelling to a man entering the park, “Joe, you capitalist sonovabitch! I saw that letter you wrote in the Daily Forward . . .”
Abe walked over to his daughter. “You heard?” he asked quietly. “We’ll go over to the synagogue right now and see what the rabbi can do for us.”
“Yes, Papa,” Malka said, and added, “This is David. He’s my new friend that I told you about. David, this is my father.”
“How do you do, Mr. Hirsch?” asked David politely.
“How do you do, David?” replied Abe. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m glad Malka has made a new friend.”
“Mr. Hirsch,” said David, “you don’t have to go to that rabbi if you don’t want to. I heard my father say that he and his business partners got some Jewish wine that he bought from a rabbi who didn’t need it all, and I’m sure he could sell you a bottle.”
Abe smiled. “Thank you, David. But as I told my friend, I’d rather not get involved in something illegal. You understand,” he added, “I do not mean to insult your father.”
“That’s okay,” David said. He turned and whispered to Malka, “You go ahead with your daddy. I’ll go find mine; you come get me if you need me for anything. He’s usually at the candy store on the corner of Dumont and Saratoga.”
“Okay,” Malka whispered back. “And if we do get wine, I’ll come get you, and you can come to our Sabbath dinner.”
Abe stared at the two children for a moment, then pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, tossed it away, and began walking. Malka waved at David and followed her father out of the park.
* * *
The synagogue was located in a small storefront; the large glass windows had been papered over for privacy. congregation anshe emet was painted in careful Hebrew lettering on the front door. Evening services were obviously over; two elderly men were hobbling out of the store, arguing loudly in Yiddish. Abe waited until they had passed, took a deep breath, and walked in, followed by Malka.
The whitewashed room was taken up by several rows of folding chairs, some wooden bookcases at the back, and a large cabinet covered by a beautifully embroidered cloth. A powerfully built man with a long, white-streaked black beard was collecting books from some of the chairs.
While Malka went to the front to admire the embroidery, Abe walked over the man. “Rabbi,” he said tentatively.
The rabbi turned and straightened. He stared at Abe doubtfully. “Do I know you?”
“I was here for Jacob Bernstein’s son Maxie’s bar mitzvah two months ago,” said Abe. “You probably don’t remember me.”
The rabbi examined him for a minute or two more, then nodded. “No, I do remember you. You sat in a corner with your arms folded and glowered like the Angel of Death when the boy sang his Torah portion.”
Abe shrugged. “I promised his father I’d attend. I didn’t promise I’d participate.”
“So,” said the rabbi, “you are one of those new radicals. The ones who are too smart to believe in the Almighty.”
“I simply believe that we have to save ourselves rather than wait for the Almighty to do it for us,” Abe rejoined.
“And so,” said the rabbi, “since you obviously have no respect for the beliefs of your fathers, why are you here?”
Abe bit his lip, ready to turn and leave.
A small voice next to him asked, “Papa? Is it safe here?”
He looked down. Malka was standing next to him, looking troubled and a little frightened. “One moment,” he said to the rabbi and walked to the door, which was open to let the little available air in.
“Of course it’s safe, daughter,” he said quietly. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“Well,” she began, “it’s just . . . there isn’t a good place to hide. I thought synagogues had to have good hiding places.”
His hand went out to touch her hair, to reassure her, but then stopped. “Malkele,” he whispered, “you run outside and play. You let your papa take care of this. Don’t worry about anything—it will all turn out fine.”
Her face cleared, as though whatever evil thoughts had troubled her had completely disappeared. “Okay, Papa!” she said, and left.
Abe took a breath and went back into the room, where the rabbi was waiting. “This is the story,” he said. “My little girl is . . . Well, she wants a Sabbath meal.”
The rabbi cocked his head. “So, nu? Your child has more sense than you do. So have the Sabbath meal.”
“For a Sabbath meal,” said Abe. “I need wine.” He paused and added. “I would be . . . grateful if you would help me with this.”
“I see.” The rabbi smiled ironically. “In other words, you want to make a party, maybe, for a few of your radical friends, and you thought, ‘The rabbi is allowed to get wine for his congregation for the Sabbath and for the Holy Days, and if I tell him I want it for my little girl . . .’”
Abe took a step forward, furious.
“You have the gall to call me a liar?” he growled. “You religious fanatics are all alike. I come to you with a simple request, a little wine so that I can make a Friday night blessing for my little girl, and what do you do? You spit in my face!”
“You spit on your people and your religion,” said the rabbi, his voice rising as well. “You come here because you can’t get drunk legally anymore, so you think you’ll maybe come and take advantage of the stupid, unworldly rabbi?” He also took a step forward, so that he was almost nose-to-nose with Abe. “You think I am some kind of idiot?”
Abe didn’t retreat. “I know you get more wine than you need,” he shouted. “I know how this goes. The authorities give you so much per person, so maybe you exaggerate the size of your congregation just a bit, hah? And sell the rest?”
The rabbi shrugged. “And what if I do?” he said. “Does this look like the shul of a rich bootlegger? I have greenhorns fresh off the boat who are trying to support large families, men who are trying to get their wives and children here, boys whose families can’t afford to buy them a prayer book for their bar mitzvah. And you, the radical, somebody who makes speeches about the rights of poor people, you would criticize me for selling a few extra bottles of wine?”
“And so if you’re willing to sell wine,” yelled Abe, “why not sell it to me, a fellow Jew, rather than some goyishe bootlegger?”
There was a pause, and both men stared at each other, breathing hard. “Because he doesn’t know any better,” the rabbi finally said. “You should. Now get out of my shul.”
Abe strode out, muttering, and headed down the block. After about five blocks, he had walked off his anger, and he slowed down, finally sitting heavily on the steps of a nearby stoop. “I’m sorry, Malka,” he said. “Maybe I can go find the people that the rabbi sells to . . .”
“But David said his father could get us the wine,” said Malka, sitting next to him. “David said that his father and his friends, they have a drugstore where they sell hooch to people who want them. Lots of hooch,” she repeated the word, seeming pleased at its grown-up sound.
Abe grinned. “Malka, my sweet little girl,” he said, “do you know what your mother would have done to me had she known that her baby was dealing in illegal alcohol? And by the way, I like your friend David. Very polite child.”
“He’s not a child,” Malka objected. “He’s almost thirteen!”
“Ah. Practically a man,” said Abe, stroking his chin. “So. And his father, the bootlegger—he would sell to someone not of his race?”
“Well, of course,” said Malka, a little unsure herself. The question hadn’t occurred to her. “David said that they were looking for somebody to buy the kosher wine, and who else to sell it to but somebody who can really use it?”
* * *
Even from the outside, the candy store didn’t look promising—or even open. The windows were pasted over with ads, some of which were peeling off; when Malka and her father looked through the glass, shading their eyes with one hand, it was too dark inside to see much.
“You stay out here,” her father finally said. “This is not a place for little girls.” He took a breath and pushed the door open. A tiny bell tinkled as he stepped through; Malka, too curious to obey, quietly went in after him and stood by the door, trying to make herself as small as possible.
The store looked as unfriendly inside as it did out. A long counter, which had obviously once been used to serve sodas and ice cream, ran along the right wall of the store; it was empty and streaked with dust, and the shelves behind it were bare except for a few glasses. At the back of the store, there was a display case in which a few cans and dry-looking cakes sat.
The rest of the small space was taken up by several round tables. Only one was occupied, and it was partially obscured by a haze of cigarette smoke. Malka squinted: Three men sat there, playing cards. One was short and fat, with the darkest skin Malka had ever seen; he scowled at the cards while a cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. A second, much younger and slimmer, was carefully dressed in a brown suit with a red tie; he had a thin mustache, and his hair was slicked back so that it looked, Malka thought, like it was always wet.
The third man, she decided, must be David’s father. He had David’s long, thin face and slight build, but the humor that was always dancing in David’s wide eyes had long ago disappeared from his. A long, pale scar ran from his left eye to the corner of his mouth, intensifying his look of a man who wasn’t to be trifled with. As she watched, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small flask. He took a pull and replaced it without taking his eyes off his cards.
Malka’s father waited for a minute or two, and then cleared his throat.
None of the three looked up. “I think you’re in the wrong store, white man,” the fat man said.
Malka’s father put his hands in his pockets. “I was told that I could purchase a bottle or two of wine here.”
“You a Fed?” asked the man with slicked-back hair. “Only a Fed would be stupid enough to walk in here by himself.”
“Ain’t no Fed,” the fat man said. “Listen to him. He’s a Jew. Ain’t no Fed Jews.”
“There’s Izzy Einstein,” said the man with the hair. “He arrested three guys in Coney just yesterday. I read it in the paper.”
“Too skinny to be Izzy Einstein,” said the fat man. “Nah, he’s just your everyday, ordinary white man who’s looking for some cheap booze.”
“I was told I could buy wine here,” repeated Malka’s father calmly, although Malka could see that his hands, which he kept in his pockets, were trembling. “I was told you had kosher wine.”
The man with the scar stood and came over as the other two watched. Now Malka could see that his suit was worn and not as clean as it could be; he walked slowly, carefully, as though he knew he wasn’t sober and didn’t want to give it away. When he reached Malka’s father, he stopped and waited. He didn’t acknowledge the boy who followed him solicitously, as though ready to catch his father should he fall.
Malka grinned and waved. “Hi, David,” she said, and then, aware that she might be calling attention to herself, whispered, “I didn’t see you before.”
David put his finger to his lips and shook his head.
“So?” Malka’s father asked. “You have wine for sale?”
“My landlord is a Jew,” said David’s father, challenging.
“So’s mine. And I’ll bet they’re both sons of bitches.”
There was a moment of silence. Malka held her breath. And then one corner of the man’s mouth twitched. “Okay,” he said. “Maybe we can do business.” His two colleagues relaxed; the man with the hair swept up the cards and began shuffling them. “Where did you hear about me?”
“Your son David, here,” said Malka’s father. “He suggested I contact you.”
“My son David told you,” the man repeated, his eyes narrowing.
“Yes,” Malka’s father said, sounding puzzled. “Earlier today. Is there a problem?”
There was a pause, and then the man shook his head. “No, no problem. Yeah, I’ve got some of that kosher wine you were talking about. I can give you two bottles for three dollars each.”
Malka’s father took a breath. “That’s expensive.”
“Those are the prices.” The man shrugged. “Hard to get specialized product these days.”
David stood on his toes and whispered up at his father. The man didn’t look down at the boy, but bit his lip, then said, “Okay. I can give you the two bottles for five dollars. And that’s because you come with a—a family recommendation.”
“Done,” said Malka’s father. He put out a hand. “Abe Hirsch.”
David’s father took his hand. “Sam Richards,” he said. “You want to pick your merchandise up in the morning?”
Abe shook his head. “I’ve got to work early,” he said. “Can I pick it up after work?”
“Done,” Sam said.
Malka’s father turned and walked toward the door, then turned back. “I apologize,” he said, shaking his head. “I am an idiot. David, your son, has been invited to my house for dinner tomorrow night, and I have not asked his father’s permission. And of course, you are also invited as well.”
Sam stared at him. “You invited my son to your house for dinner?”
“Hey, Sam,” called the well-dressed man, “you can’t go nowhere tomorrow night. We’ve got some business to take care of uptown at the Sugar Cane.”
Sam ignored his friend and looked at Malka, who stood next to her father, scratching an itch on her leg and grinning at the success of her plan. “This your little girl?”
It was Abe’s turn to stare. He looked down at Malka, who was nodding wildly, delighted at the idea of another guest at their Sabbath meal. He then looked back at Sam.
“Okay,” said Sam. “What time?”
“Around five p.m.,” Abe said, and gave the address.
“We don’t have to be uptown until nine,” Sam said to his friend. “Plenty of time.”
He turned back to Malka’s father. “Okay. I’ll bring the wine with me. But you make sure you have the money. Just because you’re feeding me—us—dinner don’t mean the drinks come free.”
“Of course,” said Abe.
* * *
At five p.m. the next evening, everything was ready. The table had been pulled away from the window and decorated with a white tablecloth (from the same woman who’d sold Abe a boiled chicken and a carrot tsimmes), settings for four, two extra chairs (borrowed from the carpenter who lived across the hall), two candles, and, at Abe’s place, his father’s old prayer book.
Abe, wearing his good jacket despite the heat, and with a borrowed yarmulke perched on his head, surveyed the scene. “Well, Malka?” he asked. “How does that look?”
“It’s perfect!” said Malka, running from one end of the room to the other to admire the table from different perspectives.
Almost on cue, somebody knocked on the door. “It’s David!” Malka yelled. “David, just a minute!”
“I’m sure he heard you,” said Abe, smiling. “The super in the basement probably heard you.” He walked over and opened the door.
Sam stood there, a small suitcase in his hand. He had obviously made some efforts toward improving his personal appearance: he was freshly shaven, wore a clean shirt, and had a spit-polish on his shoes.
David dashed out from behind his father. “You see!” he told Malka. “Everything worked out. My daddy brought the wine like he said, and I made him dress up, because I said it was going to be religious, and Mama wouldn’t have let him come to church all messed up. Right, Daddy?”
“You sure did, David,” said Sam, smiling. “Even made me wash behind my ears.” He then raised his eyes and looked hard at Abe, as if waiting to be challenged.
But Abe only nodded.
“Please sit down,” he said. “Be comfortable. Malka, stop dancing around like that; you’re making me dizzy.”
Malka obediently stopped twirling, but she still bounced a bit in place. “David, guess what? There’s a lady who lives across the alley from us who, when it’s hot, walks around all day in a man’s T-shirt and shorts. You can see her when she’s in the kitchen. It’s really funny. You want to come out on the fire escape and watch?”
David suddenly looked troubled and stared up at his father. “Is it okay, Daddy?” he asked. His lower lip trembled. “I don’t want to get anyone mad at me.”
Sam took a breath and, with an obvious effort, smiled at his son. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be right here, keeping an eye on you. Nothing bad will happen.”
David’s face brightened, and he turned to Malka. “Let’s go,” he said. The two children ran to the window and clambered noisily onto the fire escape.
Sam put the suitcase on one of the chairs, opened it, and took out two bottles of wine. “Here they are,” he said. “Certified kosher, according to the man I got it from. You got the five bucks?”
Abe handed Sam five crumpled dollars. “Here you are,” he said, “as promised. You want a drink before we start?”
Abe picked up one of the bottles, looked at it for a moment, and then shook his head, exasperated. “Look at me, the genius,” he said. “I never thought about a corkscrew.”
Sam shrugged, took a small pocketknife out of his pocket, cut off the top of the cork, and pushed the rest into the bottle with his thumb. Abe took the bottle and poured generous helpings for both of them.
They each took a drink and looked outside, where Malka and David sat on the edge of the fire escape, her legs dangling over the side, his legs folded. A dirty pigeon fluttered down onto the railing and stared at the children, obviously hoping for a stray crumb. When none came, it started to clean itself.
David pointed to a window. “No, that’s not her,” said Malka. “That’s the man who lives next door to her. He has two dogs, and he’s not supposed to have any pets, so he’s always yelling at the dogs to stop barking, or he’ll get kicked out.” The children laughed. Startled, the bird flew away.
“So,” said Abe.
“Yeah,” said Sam.
Sam took a breath, drained his glass, and poured another. “He had gone out to shoot rabbits,” he said slowly. “I had just got home from the trenches. We were living with my wife’s family in Alabama, and we were making plans to move up north to Chicago, where I could get work and David could get schooled better. He was sitting on the porch reading, and I got mad and told him not to be so lazy, get out there and shoot us some meat for dinner. When he wasn’t home by supper, I figured he got himself lost—he was always going off exploring and forgetting about what he was supposed to do.”
He looked off into the distance. “After dark, the preacher from my wife’s church came by and said that there had been trouble. A white woman over in the next county had complained that somebody had looked in her window when she was undressed. A lynch mob went out, and David saw them, got scared and ran. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, but he was a Negro boy with a gun, and they caught him and . . .”
He choked for a moment, then reached for his glass and swallowed the entire thing at a gulp. Wordlessly, Abe refilled it.
“My wife and her sister and the other women, they went and took him down and brought him home. He was . . . They had cut him and burned him and . . . My boy. My baby.”
A single tear slowly made its way down Sam’s cheek, tracing the path of the scar.
“My wife and I—we didn’t get along so good after that. After a while I cut and run, came up here. And David, he came with me.”
For a moment, they just sat.
“We lived in Odessa,” said Abe, and, when Sam looked confused, added, “That’s a city in the Ukraine, near Russia. I moved there with the baby after my wife died. It was 1905, and there was a lot of unrest. Strikes, riots, people being shot down in the streets. Many people were angry. And when people get angry, they blame the Jews.”
He smiled sourly. “I and my friends, we were young and strong and rebellious. We were different from the generations before us. We weren’t going to sit around like the old men and wait to be slaughtered. I sent Malka to the synagogue with other children. There were hiding places there; they would be safe. And I went to help defend our homes.”
“At least you had that,” Sam said bitterly.
Abe shook his head. “We were idiots. We had no idea how many there would be, how organized. Hundreds were hurt and killed, my neighbors, my friends. Somebody hit me, I don’t know who or with what. I don’t remember what happened after that. I . . .”
He paused. “I do remember screaming and shouting all around me, houses burning, but it didn’t seem real, didn’t seem possible. I ran to the synagogue. I was going to get Malka, and we would leave this madness, go to America where people were sane, and children were safe.”
“Safe,” repeated Sam softly. The two men looked at each other with tired recognition.
“But when I got there, they wouldn’t let me in. The rabbi had hidden the children behind the bima, the place where the Torah was kept, but . . . They said I shouldn’t see what had been done to her, that she had been . . . She was only nine years old.” Abe’s voice trailed away.
The children out on the fire escape had become bored with the neighbors. “Do you know how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors?” David asked. “Here, we have to face each other. Now there are three ways you can hold your hand . . .”
“Does she know?” asked Sam.
“No,” said Abe. “And I don’t have the heart to tell her.”
“David knows,” said Sam. “At least, I told him. I thought maybe if he knew, he’d be at rest. But I don’t think he believed me. And—well, I’m sort of glad. Because it means . . .”
“He is still here. With you.”
“Yes,” Sam whispered.
The two men sat and drank while they watched their murdered children play in the fading sunlight.
Barbara Krasnoff’s short fiction can be found in a wide variety of anthologies, most notably (of course) Clockwork Phoenix 2 and Clockwork Phoenix 4. Others (many with very long names) include Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction, Fat Girls in a Strange Land, Subversion: Science Fiction & Fantasy Tales of Challenging the Norm, Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ’20s, Such a Pretty Face: Tales of Power and Abundance, and Memories and Visions: Women’s Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Her work has also appeared in a number of online and print magazines, including Mythic Delirium, Triptych Tales, Crossed Genres, Perihelion, Space and Time, Abyss & Apex, Electric Velocipede, Apex, Weird Tales, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Amazing Stories. She is a member of the Tabula Rasa writers group and attended the 2015 Starry Coast workshop.
When not writing fiction, Barbara works as Sr. Reviews Editor for the tech publication Computerworld. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her partner Jim Freund and lots of toy penguins. Her website can be found at http://brooklynwriter.com.
She writes that “the origin of ‘Sabbath Wine’ stems from a variety of inspirations. They include three books: Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent, and Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America, from the collection of James Allen and John Littlefield. And, not least, stories from my family—especially my mother, who as a little girl would sit outside a storefront church and listen to the gospel music.”
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“Allen’s strange and lovely fifth genre-melding fantasy anthology selects 20 new short stories of unusual variety, texture, compassion, and perception. . . . All the stories afford thought-provoking glimpses into alternative realities that linger, sparking unconventional thoughts, long after they are first encountered.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review