Hershel tells Motti a little about the Sperlings’ home life before the war. Upon returning to the house, Yehuda and Kalonymous have had a fight. Kalonymous is not home; he is at the Zayits.
* * *
Breindl had not witnessed the beginning of the quarrel between Yehuda and Kalonymous. She heard their raised voices but assumed they were having some sort of boyish argument and so neglected to give it her full attention. All she saw was the near calamity that ensued, and she was still shaken. When first Hershel and then Motti walked into the house, she was standing in the doorway to the courtyard surveying the destruction, her hands clutched tightly to the hem of her apron.
It started as Kalonymous was hanging laundry in the courtyard while Yehuda, seated at a small metal stand, was busy with the coveted task of cleaning and polishing the primus before refilling the tank with kerosene.
Kalonymous could have done that task easily. At home, the job was his. Kalonymous was much more steady-handed than his mother. Many of the tasks that had fallen to him as a matter of course at home were considered treats for Yehuda. He had his chores, of course, all the children did — sweeping the floor, weeding the garden, feeding the donkey, but they knew in the back of their minds that if they didn’t do it, Motti or Breindl would perform the task in silent resignation. Kalonymous had no such luxury — if he didn’t do what was expected of him it didn’t get done, and everyone suffered the consequences.
He watched Yehuda at work out of the corner of his eye, and he noticed that some of the kerosene had splashed into the spirit cup to which Yehuda was adding the alcohol, the perfect recipe for a major explosion. His mother had warned him again and again to be careful of this very thing, so the part of Kalonymous that had heeded this warning repeatedly was waiting for Yehuda to get to this part of the process. Kalonymous saw the kerosene splash, he saw Yehuda carelessly pouring the alcohol, and he knew that if he did not act quickly, Yehuda might light the primus to test it.
Before Yehuda even got the match out of the box, Kalonymous hurried over and stayed Yehuda’s hand.
“What’s your problem?” Yehuda sniped irritably.
Kalonymous had learned to deal with Yehuda like the lion that he was, careful not to get too close. Even though the careless preparation of the primus could not be ignored, Kalonymous knew he would somehow pay for it later.
“You spilled the kerosene into the Geist Tasse with the alcohol. It will explode when you light it.” Kalonymous tried surreptitiously to move the box of matches away but Yehuda caught on immediately.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” he said, mimicking Kalonymous’ accent, pronouncing the words with a sneer. “You’re not one of us. What don’t you go back where you came from?”
Kalonymous grew hot, his cheeks flaming with fury.
“Take it back,” he said hotly.
“None of you belong here. You and your ugly brothers.”
Yehuda turned away without waiting for Kalonymous to counter-attack, determined to light the primus despite Kalonymous’s warnings. As he lit the match, he felt Kalonymous approaching and pushed him away with the hand that was not holding the match. As he stood to put some strength behind the shove, he knocked over the primus and dropped the match at the same time. The alcohol and kerosene mixture caught fire immediately, and the two boys froze in terror. Kalonymous reacted first, pulled a wet, heavy blanket from the clothesline and used it to beat down the fire. While he managed to extinguish most of it, a small remnant of the flame refused to be tamed and kept reigniting despite Kalonymous’s efforts. As he stepped forward to the flame, the cuffs of his trousers caught fire. He hit his legs repeatedly with the blanket until the fire was out while Yehuda finally broke from his trance and stamped out the last bit of flame with the bottom of his boot.
The two boys were speechless with rage, Kalonymous for Yehuda’s carelessness and Yehuda in his belief that the fire was entirely the fault of Kalonymous — and it was he who threw the first punch. Kalonymous immediately hit back, and it only took a moment before they were sprawled out on the ground, tackling each other. When Yehuda kicked Kalonymous in the leg, he screamed with pain, unaware until then that the skin on his ankle had been burned slightly when his trousers caught fire.
That was when Breindl dropped her mending and hurried outside to the courtyard to behold Kalonymous and Yehuda covered with grime and reeking of kerosene, Yehuda glowering from the enforced truce as Kalonymous gingerly examined the rapidly reddening wound.
She took in the scene in one glance and, blessed with quick reflexes, thrust the foot into the pail of cold water she kept in the courtyard for washing. There wasn’t much left, it being laundry day, but it was enough to remove the sting. Moved once again by the exquisite fragility of Kalonymous despite his hardened exterior, she turned the full force of her wrath on the stunned and outraged Yehuda.
To be continued . . .