Josef Maevski’s calloused fingers pressed the brilliant-blue stone against the grit of the turntable as he tried not to rush.
Just the other day, he’d held a half-polished piece of garnet the size of a small strawberry and as crimson red as wine. He had spent hours peering through the loupe, exploring and creating mental maps of the stone’s grain, minuscule fractures, and ancient bubbles trapped as the forces of nature formed them. He had only four more facets to create when the stone splintered and cracked clear through, an irreparable chunk flying across the dimly lit room and landing on the edge of the windowsill. A beam of sunlight illuminated the claret sliver so it gleamed like fresh blood on the edge of a cut finger.
I haven’t much time, he thought, adding the finishing buffs and polishes to the precious aquamarine, shoving a magnifying loupe against his eye socket and then removing it, angling the stone toward the lantern light and the dwindling sunlight until at last he was satis- fied with every facet.
Nobility and villagers alike considered Josef an expert stonecutter. The previous spring, an aristocratic family in Kiev commissioned him to create a one-of-a-kind faceting design for a large, egg-sized aquamarine, chosen for its color, which matched Princess Anastasia’s eyes.
Already completed and delivered weeks earlier, Josef ’s stone would be placed in the center of a gold scepter designed for Tsar Nicholas in celebration of his daughter Anastasia’s birthday. The stone in front of him now was one of two smaller versions—still of valuable size—that he’d been working on from what was left of the aquamarine used for the tsar’s scepter. Most of the companies whose orders he had received from Kiev shipped him the rough stones, and their coffers were so full that they rarely cared what he did with the scraps.
Josef ’s father spent years saving enough money to send Josef to Idar-Oberstein, Germany, for an apprenticeship with some of the finest cutters in the world. Because of that, Josef ’s family could eat and had lived mostly without fear in the bucolic shtetl,1 one of many in the Pale of Settlement. His primary work as a farmer would never have paid the bills. And with four daughters and two sons and a seventh child on the way, peace and dowries were high priorities. At least those had been his priorities until the recent bloodshed in Kishinev, where there had been yet another slaughter of innocent Jewish brothers and sisters, even babies torn to pieces, during the most recent Passover.
“Josef.” One breath from his bride still turned his stomach upside down, even after eighteen years of marriage. “Here’s your bread and butter. There’s not much beef left.”
“Thank you. Set it there.” He tilted his head slightly in the direc- tion of the table and tattered wingback chair by the fire.
“Josef. You should take a moment and eat something.”
“I know, I know.” He was more gruff with her than he’d intended. Eliana started back toward the glow of the kitchen, one hand on her lower back as she lurched unevenly from the weight of the near-term baby within her.
She turned toward him, her sky-blue eyes melting him with their cool, steady, gentle gaze.
“I’m sorry, moya lyubov.† You know I have to finish. Peter will need this for his journey. The sooner he can leave the better.”
Eliana came back toward him and leaned heavily against the thick wooden worktable as she settled on the stool next to him. Her swollen breasts stretched the scarlet cross-stitching of her blouse. She picked up the aquamarine, which nearly filled the palm of her hand, and a tear rolled down her flushed cheek.
“The color of dawn. Of new beginnings,” Josef said, watching as Eliana ran her fingers over the polished contours of the gem, then set it on the table, nesting it into a dingy piece of cheesecloth.
She wiped her face and sighed, appearing impatient. “I thought we’d be safe in the Pale, that what happened in Odessa and Kishinev would not come near us. That if you continued using your trade for the tsar …”2
Josef shook his head and ran his fingers through the ends of his thick, black moustache. “We will have to choose a side soon. There is talk in Zhytomyr about the Black Hundreds radicals who are organiz- ing. Among them are those who’d like to kill anyone who even looks like a Jew. It won’t matter that we believe in Yeshua Messiah now. I will fight for my village, for Russia, for my family, and for the faith.”
“For faith? You would fight for it?” Eliana stood again, breathing hard as she trudged toward the window, where fresh snow swirled against the icy panes. Then she turned toward him, her face red with fury. “You heard the reports, Josef. Babies torn to pieces. Babies! Our brothers and sisters stripped naked and herded like cattle into the woods, into great pits, and slaughtered. Who can fight such evil? Not El Shaddai. He doesn’t pass over His chosen ones any longer. And Yeshua Messiah, if He were truly Emmanuel …” She held her belly, her interlaced fingers mottled and clenched as if someone were already trying to tear her unborn child from within her.
“The Gospels tell us that even Yeshua Himself felt as if God had forsaken Him, but He hadn’t. He won’t leave us either.” Josef moved toward her, pulling her close, and the two began to sway together as he whispered in her ear, “Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.”
She did not answer.
He lifted her chin, wiped her tears with a swoop of his calloused thumb, and locked his eyes with hers. “Ba-ruch sheim k’vod mal-chu-to l’o-lam va-ed.”
Eliana pulled her scarf over her head. Her shoulders shook as she cried.
“V’a-hav-ta eit A-do-nai E-lo-he-cha, B’chawl l’va-v’cha.” ¶
She joined Josef in the Shema, their family’s recent conversion to Messianic Judaism not dampening their dedication to offer praise, recite the traditional prayers, and commit to the adoration of God in the midst of fear and pain.
In their grief, each syllable felt to Jakob like a forced attempt to believe the words they’d learned as soon as they were able to form words as toddlers; each syllable a vain plea for escape from the new Pharaoh of death bearing down all around them.
“Mama, Peter’s coming!” Zahava’s shout broke the intimacy of the moment.
Josef and Eliana’s oldest daughter had been cross-stitching with her two younger sisters, Tova and Ilana, in the front room by the fire. Now with four-year-old Jakob on his tiptoes at her side, Zahava stood by the window and rubbed a spot of frost off the windowpane. The door to their home slammed open, causing the youngest of Joseph and Eliana’s children, Faigy, not yet two, to startle and burst into tears. The wind ushered a swirl of snow and ice into the house, along with a young man, tall but slender beneath his layers of sweat- ers, sheepskin, and fleece. Ice covered his eyebrows, his beaver-skin hat, and his mukluks.
“Are you a man or a beast, Peter?” Josef ’s laugh came from the depths of his belly and shook the furniture in the room.
“Tato,** it’s time.”
Josef ’s smile fell, and Eliana pulled the red-faced and whimper- ing Faigy closer.
“How can this be?” Josef said. “I heard of the madness in Kiev, but Zhytomyr? Are you sure?”
Peter was only fourteen, but he’d shown enough maturity to help other boys from the shtetl deliver milk and other goods
across the countryside, where they often learned news. “There are riders. Madmen. The Black Hundreds are well organized now. More interested in Jewish and peasant blood than in Orthodoxy. They’ve covered the city, throwing their propaganda leaflets everywhere, gathering more supporters. They’ve filled storehouses with arms, and barns with horses. They will be in Chudniv by sunset tomorrow, if not sooner.”
Josef moved toward his workroom, and Peter followed him, watching as his father picked up the aquamarine he’d been work- ing on and turned it toward the fire, sending reflections flickering around the room. The stone’s color reminded Peter of the sky on afternoons he had spent ice-skating with his classmates on the frozen pond behind the village dairy. Josef picked up another stone, identi- cal in cut and splendor to the first round stone on the worktable. He wrapped it and several other stones—some rough and others brilliantly faceted—in cheesecloth and tucked them into a leather satchel. The crinkle of wax paper came from the kitchen, where Eliana wrapped bread and cured beef.
“You must go,” said Josef, his enormous hands trembling as he handed Peter the bag of stones. “Take Galya. He is the strongest of the horses. His dapple-gray coat will blend with the birch and the aspen. He will get you across the Carpathian Mountains and foothills and into Hungary. Find your way to the sea as we talked about, and use these stones to buy your train tickets to Rotterdam and your passage to America.”
“But, Tato—” Peter tried to protest as his mother pulled him toward her.
Eliana hung the strap of the leather satchel stuffed with food across Peter’s chest, then tightened the buckle as he held up his arms while she fussed. When she finished, he stuffed the bag of stones deep into the inside pocket of his fleece-lined coat.
“I thought we’d have more time,” Peter said.
“Me too,” said Josef. “Try not to worry. We will be fine as long as people still believe I am an artisan and for the tsar, for Russia. Zahava, Tova, and Ilana are strong like their mama, and they’ll be here to help. Send letters when you can. Once you find work and a place to live, we will come too. They say there’s good work in America. Lots of work for laborers. Factories. Fisheries. The ocean. Can you imagine?”
Peter could not.
“I will finish more stones and use them to pay our way once you are settled,” Josef continued. “Faigy will be bigger, and the baby will have arrived and be strong enough to travel. But you must go first.” Eliana put her arms around Peter’s shoulders as little Jakob clung to her skirts, his hazel eyes wide with concern. “Mama.” Jakob’s chin quivered.
Peter pulled back from his mother’s embrace and squatted onto his haunches so he was at eye level with his little brother. He put his hands onto the boy’s small shoulders. “It’ll be okay, Jakob. I promise.” Peter stood and adjusted the belt across the waist of his kozhukh. “Jakob, come here,” Zahava called in a gentle but scolding voice from near the hearth where she and her sisters clung to one another and held the younger ones close.
The wetness of Peter’s tears created bright-red splotches on Eliana’s faded scarlet head scarf as he held his mother once more. Then he turned to Josef, who helped him fasten the top of his kozhukh and tuck in his woolens as if he were a schoolboy again.
“Let’s go, miy syn. I’ll help you ready Galya.”
Eliana didn’t bother to wipe the tears flowing down the grooves of her grief-blotched face. She clung to Faigy and leaned into her children, all of them staring at the heavy wooden door after Josef and Peter left.
Jakob ran to the frosty window and used his small fist to clear a spot. He stood on his tiptoes again and strained to watch his father and Peter prepare Galya for the journey.