They walked slowly so that little Dovid’l could keep up, and Hershel went between them. They usually walked in size order, but Kalonymous had to carry Dovid’l and even Hershel when the way was too difficult to negotiate, or one of them was just too tired to continue. They tried to keep to canopied forests and back roads to avoid detection.
They were walking in single file, bound together like piano keys, when a bright klieg light switched on out of nowhere and threatened to illuminate their location. Kalonymous gasped so hard he choked on rainwater he’d inadvertently inhaled in his panic. He spread both hands across his brothers in what was now an instinctive gesture, holding them back when even the slightest danger presented itself.
Now they froze, afraid to take a step either forward or backward. An exhausted Dovid’l was about to whimper, and Hershel rubbed his cheeks, their signal to be quiet. Kalonymous tilted his head, willing his ears to detect any sound above the pounding of the rain, but he heard nothing. They proceeded cautiously, step by step, studying the route of the rotating light so they would stay out of its relentless searching eye.
Just when the light dimmed and they thought the danger had passed, the sound of barking dogs began and grew louder as they closed in on the boys. Kalonymous had learned an unfortunate truth about himself since the beginning of this forced expedition: he froze in the face of danger. It wasn’t his fault and no one blamed him, and he was certainly not a coward, but facts were facts. On the few occasions when he’d been rendered helpless, Hershel stepped in and took over until Kalonymous could get his bearings. One time he’d managed to lead them safely across a high icy bridge, holding Kalonymous’ hand firmly in his own, aware that his older brother had a desperate fear of heights.
Now the dogs were coming closer, and the older boy was trapped, betrayed by his own body while his mind raced furiously, searching for a way out. It was Hershel, though, who found it. A few steps back, he had banged into a stone shelf jutting out from the rocks. Grasping both of his brothers in turn by their frail shoulders, he tossed them up onto the shelf, his small body bursting with adrenaline.
When it was Hershel’s turn, Kalonymous, coming to his senses, leaned down and tried to pull him up and out of danger, but the rock face was so slippery, Hershel kept sliding backwards. Kalonymous’ face dripped with rain and tears; screaming at the top of his lungs for Hershel to “Hurry! Hurry! Climb!” Dovid’l joined in the battle cry, but it was no help for Hershel , who was desperately trying to find a foothold so he could swing himself up onto the shelf where his brothers were waiting.
They could hear the crack of twigs and branches as the dogs ran towards the humans they’d been trained to hunt. Hershel could almost feel their wheezy breath on his face, and for the first time since they set out, he started to cry.
It wasn’t his mother or father’s face he saw before his eyes as he believed he was facing his final moments. It was the face of the friendly egg man, Franz, relieved of his tattered clothing and turned out in a sharply pressed uniform. From the hiding place where their mother had tossed them as soon as she heard the shouts, “Raus! Raus! Jetzt!” Hershel saw his mother being dragged outside and thrown into a waiting truck, then heard Franz laugh out loud at his marvelous coup.
Hershel could see Franz’s large teeth as he opened his mouth wide, and it was this memory that haunted him now.
The dogs were almost upon them, the rain was blinding, and they all were screaming. Just as the dogs were about to pounce, Hershel sat up in bed, soaked in sweat and screaming at the top of his lungs.
Breindl came running in. She was groggy from sleep but some part of her was always on the alert. This wasn’t the first time one of the boys had been yanked from sleep by a bad dream. She held the boy, still so thin from his ordeal, until his heart stopped pounding like it would jump out of his chest. She wiped his face with a clean, cool cloth, but instead of soothing him he cried out in fright.
“What is it?” she crooned softly. “What’s frightened you?”
“The rain!” he sobbed. “I’m all wet and the dogs are coming!”
By this time Kalonymous was up and standing next to Hershel’s bed.
“You were the captain that night,” he said, his voice full of admiration. “You saved our lives.”
Hershel nodded weakly, searching his brother’s face as though it contained all the knowledge in the world and the answer he was looking for.
“Go back to sleep now. I’ll stay right here until you do.” Kalonymous stood beside his brother’s bed until he saw Hershel’s eyelids flutter and heard his breathing settle into its shallow rhythm. Then he lay down on his own bed and stared at the ceiling until sleep overtook him.
To be continued