The Sperling boys have eaten mushrooms and have become ill. Two unknown men approach them.
* * *
The Metzger twins were wandering around the woods long before the Nazis rose to power. When both their beloved parents were stricken with pneumonia, Berl, the older by seventy-four minutes, and his brother Fisch had nursed them with all of their teenage abilities, which were long on stamina but short on know-how. They tended to them tirelessly until there was nothing left to be done.
Their home was located on the edge of the forest. Their father built furniture, and lived close to the source of his livelihood. Their mother gathered herbs and boiled them into mysterious tinctures, and she enjoyed a devoted following. The boys, however, didn’t know their mother’s healing arts, and could not use the medicine to save their parents.
After the funerals, Berl and Fisch returned home. Fisch said to Berl: “What now? Isn’t someone supposed to come and claim us?”
After awhile, when no one arrived, Berl replied: “We’ll stay here. We have each other.”
Thus the lives of Berl and Fisch took a strange turn. They eked out a decent existence from the forest. They didn’t need much. To keep busy, they taught themselves to play the mandolin and clarinet Fisch had once received as payment for some service rendered (“What are we supposed to do with these?” Berl had complained. “Cook them and eat them?”). Years of dogged cacophony, and a purloined music book, eventually led to surprisingly harmonious melodies.
Living as they did, they were blissfully unaware of the target painted on their backs, gun fodder for the bloodthirsty German soldiers, so when they encountered the Sperlings, their surprise was complete.
“My ugly face? I look the same as you!” Fisch countered.
“You only wish you could be as handsome as I. Now, should we speak to these distraught little fellows or not?”
“Of course, of course.” Fisch, the acknowledged gentler of the two, squatted down as far as he could go and spoke as softly as he could, as though he were coaxing a cat from a tree.
“Hello,” he crooned. “Hallo, bonjour, ciao, hola…”
“What are you doing?” Berl griped.
“I’m trying out different languages to see which one they speak,” said Fisch.
Berl growled in frustration. Even when he was right, Fisch could be infuriating.
“They look Jewish,” he observed. “Try Yiddish.”
But despite Fisch’s attempts, Kalonymous and his brothers huddled together at a distance, afraid now even of good people, unable to trust their judgment.
Fisch stayed where he was, attempting to meet their eyes.
“Mein numman iz Fisch,” he said, and then pointed at Berl with a thumb over his shoulder, “un dem iz mein brudder, Berl.”
When their eyes, against their own will, lit up with comprehension, Fisch turned back to a gloating Berl. “How long am I going to be hearing about this?” he mumbled.
“Forever,” Berl replied. “And a day.”
“Will you be serious? Look at these poor things.”
“We can just scoop them up and carry them back,” said Berl, ever-practical.
“Back? Back to where?” said Fisch. He turned to the boys. “Where are you from?” he continued in soft Yiddish. “What are you doing here?”
Despite his soft voice, Fisch still looked enormous, and Berl, standing behind him, even more so. Kalonymous struggled to make some sort of decision as to the intentions of the two men, whether they were friend or foe, but his mind refused to work. All he could do was stare at them as he clutched his brothers shoulders close to his own.
Still, something had to be done. However he figured it out, Kalonymous knew that they had once again reached the end of their rope. On their own steam, they could go no further.
“Are you going to answer them?” Hershel whispered. Dovid’l had gone mute with sickness and fright.
Kalonymous looked into Hershel’s eyes, and they told him everything. Hershel, too, was coming to the end of his strength, and it was this knowledge that helped him overcome his fear and face the giants.
He stood up to his full height, which reached to the squatting Fisch’s shoulder. “I am Kalonymous Sperling. These are my brothers.”
Fisch nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He turned around to Berl, who wordlessly removed a cloth sack from his pocket.
Fisch opened the sack, stuck his hand in and pulled out a half-loaf of bread. The Sperlings’ bodies betrayed them, and before it could be offered to them, Kalonymous snatched the bread from Fisch’s hand. He almost bit into it first, but stopped himself at the last second. He divided the loaf into three parts, taking the smallest for himself, and handed the other two to each of his brothers. Hershel took his happily, but Dovid’l was simply too stunned to react. Kalonymous took a moment to decide what to do, then took a hefty bite of his own piece and put it to the side. He took Dovid’l’s portion of bread in his hand and fed it to his littler brothe.
Fisch turned around and eyed Berl accusingly. “You wuld never do that for me,” he accused.
To be continued . . .