IX. When the bombardment was over a thick haze hung over the swamp. There was a peel of screams in the distance, which flared up like geysers, only to tamp down as quickly as they had emerged. Boris and Yasha were unhurt, but caked in mud. Reb Schulevitz was trembling.
“Don’t worry, Rebbe,” Boris said, wiping some mud from his eyes. “I’ll deliver you into the hands of the godless Soviets in one piece.”
Then from around the bend a skiff emerged from the haze. It had floated down with the current. Boris waded out to intercept it, and it was empty but for a man’s severed arm gripping a pole. Boris pried the fingers loose and keeping the pole, tossed the arm into the water. He pushed the skiff up to Reb Schulevitz.
“Here is our own rush basket, Reb Schulevitz,” Boris laughed. “To take us down the Nile.” He stepped on the shore and literally bundled Yasha Schulevitz in his arms like a baby.
“But no nubile Egyptian princess out for her afternoon schvitz will retrieve us, I can assure you. If God is with us, if there is a God, we’ll get out of this with the hide on our back.”
“Blessed Be He,” Reb Schulevitz answered, his voice wavering.
X. Once in the channels, among the island and reeds, Boris become disoriented. The sky was overcast. He could not tell north from south or east from west.
“Which way is east, Reb Schulevitz?” he asked Yasha.
“I do not know, my good Jew,” the man answered.
“But you grew up here… you live on that damn island.”
“I do not venture in the swamp, my good Jew,” Reb Schulevitz answered in a meek voice. “I am alone with my books. I was the son of a rabbi… I grew up in his court and among his books, I should never have left…”
“Well,” Boris laughed, “you’ve left now. You must be mad, Reb Schulevitz. Can’t you see what is happening with your own two eyes? The world is coming to an end, but the Messiah will not come. Your travails have addled your brain, Rebbe. Socialism, Yiddishism, Hebraism, Zionism, nihilism, now Judaism… damn your bones man. The ism isn’t going to save your skin. Don’t you have anything to say? Some parting words?”
But Yasha Schulevitz said nothing. He looked far away, in the distance, although with the haze that could not have been far. The shelling had stopped, and all that was audible was the sound of the skiff skimming through the brown water and the dipping of the pole as Boris pushed off, moving the skiff swiftly forward.
XI. Sometime after midnight Boris saw a light ahead of him and moved to veer away but it was already too late. Shots peeled out, and some hit the water around the skiff. There was screaming and they were being pulled roughly from the craft. It took several men to grapple with Boris, who resisted. The butt of a rifle finally crumpled him to the ground. When Boris looked up, he realized his predicament. Three German and four Russians soldiers stood around Boris and Yasha, laughing and jeering at them. A German took out a bayonet and sliced off Yasha’s side locks. He dangled them from his own temple, and performed a mock Jewish prayer before tossing them into the water. Boris understood Russian. One Russian officer spoke to a German, who in turn spoke a stilted Russian.
“Which one do you want?” the Russian asked. “The Pole or the Jew?”
“The Jew,” the German answered, laughing. “Always Jew. Beside, Pole an ox… The Jew light… take ox.”
Boris was raised to his feet. Yasha was simply tossed into the back of a horse drawn lorry like a bag of turnips. Boris took a step forward but a rifle butt brought him once again to his knees.
He wanted to ask Reb Schulevitz for his forgiveness. Yiddish words came to his lips, a supplication, but then he realized that speaking Yiddish could get him thrown in the German lorry, so he closed his mouth. He could speak German or Russian to Yasha, but to do so would place him in even greater jeopardy than speaking Yiddish. So he let them take the poet without a word. Boris watched the lorry trudge away. The Russian’s grasped Boris’ arm.
“Come along Comrade,” a Russian told Boris. “Let’s see what’s in store for you.”
XII. One morning, on the way to the mine, Boris stopped to remove a pebble from his boot; a useless gesture, since it was riddled with so many holes. Since the war, there were less and less guards. Soon the line of prisoners rounded the bend, and Boris found himself alone. There were only the high fir trees, swaying and whispering an incomprehensible phrase in the cool breeze.
Boris entered the forest and walked for a day and a night without stopping. Then he sat on a round boulder. Boris Kahanowitz was free. But it was a freedom which had a kinship with death. He didn’t have a ruble in his pocket or a crust of bread in his vest. The forest had ended and the steppes rolled out before him. The hulking, slumbering body of the Russian winter lay before him like a sleeping beast. Even a few flecks of snow began to fall from the late autumn sky.