Fisch and Berl encounter the three brothers, and Fisch is able to earn their trust enough to hand Kalonymous a loaf of bread.
* * *
Berl rolled his eyes. “Right. And all these years I’ve let you starve.”
“All right, all right,” Fisch conceded. “You always have to have the last word.”
“That’s right. I do.”
“Look at them though,” said Fisch, his eyes softening. “You must admit, they’re special.”
“I admit nothing,” said Berl, but his eyes were glistening a little too much.
“You’re just an old softy underneath that gruff exterior,” said Fisch.
When he turned around again, the boys were sitting in a row, staring at them.
“What should I say?” asked Fisch.
“I don’t know. Do we want them?” asked Berl, plainly.
“They’d be a big burden,” said Fisch.
“And a big pain in the neck,” said Berl.
“But do we have a choice?” said Fisch.
Berl shook his great head. “No choice.”
“Would you boys like some more to eat?” asked Fisch.
Visions passed quickly through their minds: Yannick finding them in the shed, Berta gathering them up from the road and riding away with them on her bicycle. And now here was another one. There were no promises or guarantees either way and Kalonymous, thrust into the leadership role but well aware of his inability to solve every problem, examined their faces, searching for something he’d recognize. How do you know goodness or badness by looking at it?
“Yes, we would like,” he said, at long last. “Me and my brothers.”
“Okay then. It’s settled.” Fisch stood up and he and Berl began to walk away, and it was only when they’d already gone a few steps that they realized the boys were not behind them.
“Is something wrong?” asked Fisch.
“Can you bring the food here? We are too weak to go.” Technically this was true; they were very weak and it would be hard to walk, but he knew they could if they had to. He could even ask the men to carry them. But with no forethought, he threw down a test, suddenly unwilling to rely solely on an instinct.
Fisch squatted again. “Yes,” he said. “We could. But it is a bit far away, and it might take a long time. You may decide to leave before we get back.”
Kalonymous looked at his brothers out of the corner of his eye, and could not deny the kindness in the man’s voice. He pulled Hershel and Dovid’l to their feet and attempted to lift Dovid’l himself.
“Can I help you?” asked Fisch.
At first Kalonymous shook his head no. He walked a few steps with Dovid’l in his arms, and then the two of them fell over onto the grass.
Fisch lifted Dovid’l gently into his arms, rising slowly so Kalonymous would not get suspicious. He was still bent low, intuitively understanding that if he lifted himself to his full height he would lose the boys’ trust.
Kalonymous held on to Dovid’l’s hand as the small group began to move. Berl, as usual at a loss for what to say, reached into the sack again and pulled out a large apple. Hershel, who had been keeping his eye on Berl, yelped when he saw Berl pull a pocketknife from his belt loop.
“Kalonymous!” he cried. “Kalonymous!”
Kalonymous turned to where Hershel was pointing, only to see Berl calmly peeling the apple as he walked. His eyes lit up with hunger and longing.
“It’s okay,” said Kalonymous.
Berl, aware of the panic he was causing, cut off a thin slice and handed it to Hershel. “Here you go, son. Don’t eat it all in one bite.”
But Hershel could not control himself. He gobbled down the entire slice, barely chewing, then looked up at Berl in terror.
“Good? Here’s another one.” By the third slice, Hershel and Berl were fast friends. Hershel handed over the fourth slice to Kalonymous and the fifth to Dovid’l, and kept the sixth for himself. Not long after, Hershel was riding on Berl’s shoulders.
Fisch had been right; it was a long walk. While Hershel and Dovid’l rode aloft, Kalonymous stumbled behind, eventually dropping Dovid’l’s hand so he could keep up. Fisch knew that Kalonymous would not willingly consent to be held as his brothers had — he understood the need for a person, even a small, young person, to maintain his dignity. Rather than scoop him up on his shoulders, he first bent down and found a small branch on the forest floor, about the right size for a walking stick. He handed it to Kalonymous, who accepted it gratefully, and listened as Kalonymous continued plodding behind him.
When his breathing became labored, Fisch began taking baby steps, waiting for Kalonymous to catch up. Berl and Hershel were already far up ahead. Fisch could have easily brought this charade to an end, but he felt so sorry for Kalonymous. He reminded him so much of Berl when they were younger and their parents had just died. Berl, too, was determined to protect him but was still so young himself. Fisch wanted, now, to be the helper Berl never had.
He began to drop more “breadcrumbs” before Kalonymous: stopping to “rest,” pretending to be tired himself, yawning and closing his eyes. Eventually Kalonymous started to droop, practically sleepwalking, and only then did Fisch pick him up and carry him.
The two boys slept peacefully as the small party wended its way through the forest. “Almost there,” Fisch whispered to his two weary passengers. “Just a little while longer.”
To be continued …