By R. Shlesinger
“You don’t do anything.” Bella’s voice hissed.
“I do a lot of things.”
“You sit at home and stare at the street.”
“That can be dangerous as well.”
“You’re nothing but a printer.” She spat the accusation out.
“Men have been shot for that.”
“You’re nothing. Who’d want to marry you?”
It had always been like this. He was nothing. The venom of her words burned him. Only the second son. Neither the heir nor the hero.
Baruch, the blessed one, but the blessing had been bestowed upon his older brother.
He’d changed his name to Benedikt. No blessing came.
He looked over the channel between the little islands of streets and houses. The pale winter sun sent a ray through the window and Baruch quietly picked up the next letter.
“You’re an orphan, you should be grateful. I can provide for you.”
“With what? Your ink smeared fingers?”
With that, she left the room to its silence.
His mother came in and shook her head. “You shouldn’t fight with her.”
“She never does what I say.”
“Why should she?”
“I’ll be her husband when…” he stopped and swallowed the words.
“Don’t!” His mother interrupted. “He is alive.”
Chaim was gone. How long was it now? Three years? But there wasn’t a day that his presence wasn’t felt. Chaim the firstborn, the steadfast one, the bringer of glory.
Chaim set the tone; Baruch set letters.
“I didn’t run off with the soldiers, but I’m not a coward.”
The conversation ran like the morning prayers. They all knew the answers by heart. His shoulders slumped, and he turned back to his letters.
“He’s in danger…”
“She thinks I’m a coward because I’m not fighting.”
“Bella is worried.”
“Am I worth nothing?”
“You’re worth a thousand soldiers. You’re keeping our traditions alive.”
His mother patted his shoulder and left him to his work.
He had stayed behind when his older brother went off to be a hero. Honoring the profession they had learned provided for all of them and Bella.
Maybe it was time to follow in Chaim’s footsteps, time to join the fighting and be a hero as well.
Chaim opened his eyes. Pain shot through his arm and he howled. Where was he? Right, in the battle…
He lifted his head, “Where are the French?”
“Not your worry any more, son… Not your worry.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the man you’ll curse from now on.”
“I’m the surgeon who just took off your arm.”
Chaim stared at the man, “My arm? But it’s hurting.”
“Yes, son, it is… It is.”
The surgeon squeezed Chaim on the left shoulder and handed him a bottle of something strong.
Chaim moved, but nothing happened.
“Here, son. It’s the left hand from now on.”
Everything went dark.
“Baruch? Are you listening?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, yes, of course.”
“There’s fighting everywhere. No one is safe. If you really want to join the Free Corps, you need to…”
His friend told him more about the battles and the Free Corps, but he couldn’t listen.
Battles meant death or glory, Bella’s hand.
Which would be his lot?
Which would be his brother’s? Would he return? Claiming his place as a beloved son?
He sighed, gathered his coat and headed home.
The evening was quiet, and he ate his soup in silence. Before going to his room for the night he kissed his mother and cast one last silent glance at Bella.
The next morning Baruch did not come for morning prayers and neither did Benedikt the printer sit at his workbench.
“You shouldn’t have teased him so often.” His Mother chided.
“I only said what everybody thought.” Bella defended herself.
“Now you don’t have a Chatan nor a future brother-in-law. We will have to support you alone, but I guess you could help.”
“I’m not your servant.” she snapped.
“Bella, how can you say such a thing?”
“I won’t demean myself. I’ll …”
“You’ll what? Run away? Where to? With whom? Baruch was a blessing.”
“He wasn’t. He was a coward; just a printer.”
Days passed, and no word came from Baruch. Bella looked out of the window before closing it for the night. She didn’t see the tall soldier who dragged himself down the street.
He was tired, but he knew his way. Passersby looked at him, and one or two even offered him a greeting.
When he reached the house he knocked.
Once, then twice.
A maid opened the door and showed him into the kitchen.
Chaim didn’t have the heart to announce his homecoming as he’d always done.
They would see him soon enough.
He looked around. Everything looked the same: the kitchen, the table, his place. He touched his chair to feel the warmth of the wood, then let his hand fall to his side.
When his mother entered, he turned but didn’t face her fully.
After her cries of surprise and joy gave him a moment to greet her in return, all he could say was, “I’m home.”
She embraced him, held his neck and his shoulders and showered him with kisses.
“No, don’t be sorry. You are here now. That’s enough.”
“She’ll be home soon.”
“Never mind that now. He followed you. He wanted to be like you. Never mind that now. You’re here. You are at home and you have a beautiful Kallah waiting for you. That’s enough. Oh my son, my son is home…” She prattled on but Chaim didn’t listen any longer.
His brother had gone to be a soldier. Quiet, learned Baruch who never missed a Minyan, gone.
The greeting and embrace by his father was shorter but no less heartfelt.
“Chaim, you’re alive!”
“Father… I am…”
“No, no. Don’t be sorry.”
His father enveloped him in his arms before Chaim could free himself.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to rest for a bit.”
“Of course,” was all his father said.
The old and warm hands on his neck, Chaim looked to his side, then at his father, who silently shook his head.
His mother hadn’t realized yet.
Chaim went to his bedchamber, dropped his sack to the floor, opened the buttons on his jacket and flung it onto the chair. It took longer now. Everything took longer.
The shirt had bloodstains where the stump was still healing. He washed off the blood and bandaged the wound.
When Chaim came down for supper, he looked at the table. It was all set; his chair at one side of the table, his plate and his spoon.
He sat down and looked again. The spoon was on the right side.
He reached over, moved the spoon to the left and began eating. Little spoonfuls of soup, slowly, always sure to bend over the plate.
When Bella came in, he looked up. His Love, beautiful and smiling as ever. Her shrieks of delight and wonder toppled over questions and declarations of happiness. She flung herself on him with exuberance, encircling him in her arms, then went utterly still.
She held onto him for a moment, feeling the warmth and strength of his arm and the cold and too empty fabric of the right sleeve before her hands went to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears.
He pulled her to himself with his left arm and let her clutch her fists against the black uniform as she hid her face in his chest.
“I’m alive, Bella. I’m alive.”
He sat down and looked up at her.
He patted the bench to his left side, “Sit here. It’s the left side from now on, the surgeon said.”
Wordless Bella eased herself onto the bench, one hand on her mouth, tears running down her cheeks.
He put his hand forward and she took it. His rough thumb caressed her soft white one and gave it a squeeze.
“I can still provide for you. I can still be a printer.”
R. Shlesinger holds an MA in Literature. Her mother-tongue is German which she teaches as a foreign language. She is writing historical short stories with a Jewish background for the English speaking audience and occasionally tries her hand in modern short stories. For the last twenty years she has been living with her husband in Israel.
2 thoughts on “The Printer”
This is a dramatic war drama that redefines the war drama! So riveting!
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Looking forward to seeing many more stories by Ms. Schlesinger.
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