From then on, every week some relative of Sarai’s would arrive in the village. Cousins, uncles, aunts, came by his cobbler’s shop to inquire about Alter’s health, and then stayed on for days or weeks at a time in his home. As soon as one left, another one arrived. Alter felt he was being constantly watched, lest he hitch his horse to his wagon and take Sarai to Podloz, with its rabbi and its river.
“You see,” Mendel the baker scolded. “You let your heart guide you, instead of your head. Now you are stuck in this marriage. The heart has no place in marriage.”
“What should I do?” Alter asked. His great love for Sarai had faded under the pressure of circumstances. It was merely a pang of longing, muffled in a pocket of his grief. He felt like a calf being prepared for slaughter.
“Find some other grounds to divorce her,” Mendel said, and then realizing Alter did not get his meaning. “Trick her Reb Alter -- you have less sense than a cow!”
“I can’t,” Reb Alter trembled, “that would be a sin before Heaven.”
“Fine then,” Mendel spat, slapping some dough on the counter, releasing geysers of flour. “The world needs fools as much as wise men.”
Somehow, right after Purim, there was a gap between his house guests, and Alter seized the opportunity and took Sarai to Podloz. For all the sadness of their journey, the ride was peaceful, even pleasant. Spring had come early that year, and waxy buds were swaying on the branches. A fine stitching of green carpeted the forest floor. Here and there, small flowers speckled the muddy ground, sometimes in a bank of melting snow. When they finally reached Podloz, Alter almost forgot why he was on this journey. Why all this nonsense about children? Didn’t God provide and withhold according to His wisdom?
Yet here they were, in front of the rabbi’s house. It was too late to change his mind, so Alter and Sarai entered. They asked the beadle for the rabbi, and the man, frowning instinctively, said he was ill, may he live to be one-hundred and twenty. But his son, Reb Nathan, could see them.
Reb Nathan had a flaming red beard. He was drinking cup after cup of tea. A plate of almond cookies sat on the lectern where the Talmud should have laid. As Alter and Sarai entered his study, two disputants in a law suit were exiting, still arguing the case despite Reb Nathan’s verdict, or maybe because of it. Reb Natan looked at Alter, quickly glanced at Sarai, and asked them their business.
Alter began to tell him of their woes. The rabbi interrupted him.
“How many years have you been married?”
“Almost nine,” Alter answered, and the rabbi pulled one of his earlocks.
“She gets ten,” the rabbi said, glancing over at Sarai. “Ten years to try for offspring.”
“I know,” Alter explained in a shamed voice. “But we are unhappy.”
“That isn’t grounds for divorce,” the rabbi chided. He took a pinch of snuff from a black box inlaid with pearl and snorted. He then asked details about the marriage and about Sarai. He shook his head mournfully, as if what he heard was most dissatisfying.
“Daughter,” the rabbi finally addressed Sarai, cutting Alter off in mid-sentence. “Do you want to divorce, so you can marry another man, and perhaps have offspring with him?”
“No,” Sarai answered. The rabbi threw up his hands.
“No,” he repeated. “The law says she has another year. Why did you come all the way to Podloz when she has one more year? The Messiah may come in a year. Heaven and earth may change places in a year. We could be walking among the clouds in a year. Come back in a year!”
On the way back to the village, Alter vowed never to try and divorce Sarai again. He had taken bad advice from Mendel the baker for too long. A too literal interpretation of the law was about to destroy two lives. God was trying to tell him something vital: his love for Sarai was sufficient. Asking for more was a sin.
In the forest, it grew dark and cold. The horse began to shy at a bend in the road for no apparent reason. Then, the reason became clear. Two gentile Poles on mangy horses had soundlessly ridden up behind them. One had a beaten metal sword, the other a length of rope. Alter lifted his arms to spur his horse on, and one the gentiles caught his elbow. Both the rider and Alter fell to the ground.
Alter’s horse spooked and bolted. From the ground Alter could hear Sarai’s cries, which grew distant, dim and then silent as the wagon disappeared. The other gentile did not pursue Sarai. He jumped to the ground to help his comrade. They beat Alter fto no purpose, since he didn’t resist. When they were satisfied with their results, they tied and slung him over a horse like a piece of baggage.
The dark night enclosed around them, and they rode on and on.