Authors: Ellen Schwartz
The cottage was quiet. The village was silent. All were asleep.
All except Yossi. Bathed in yellow moonlight, he lay wide-eyed on his bed, remembering. The fear on the faces of his neighbors â¦ the pages of the prayer books curling, smoldering â¦ the grim determination in the Rebbe's eyes â¦ the strange sideways glances of the soldiers â¦
Yossi wondered about that. The soldiers were ten times stronger than the villagers â no, a hundred times â yet they'd been uneasy. They'd refused to look the Rebbe in the face, and they'd made that funny hand sign, to ward off the devil. They'd seemed to shrink back from the burning books which they themselves had thrown onto the fire. It didn't make sense, unless â¦
Yossi sat upright. Unless they were afraid! But afraid of what? The Jews? The Rebbe? The funny Hebrew writing and the strange-sounding prayers?
Ridiculous. The soldiers knew how weak and defenseless the Jews were. That was why they bullied them all the time. And yet, Yossi was sure, they feared something. Not the Jews' might, surely, but something else. Something deeper. It was as if they feared that the Jews held some kind of power over them, some force of enchantment.
A tingle went up Yossi's back. So the
soldiers were not all-powerful. In spite of their brave words and their bold deeds, they had a weakness. And maybe he, Yossi, could find out what that weakness was and use it to scare them even more â scare them off long enough to let the people of Braslav escape. Then he'd fulfill the vow he'd made â¦ and be a hero!
But first, he had to find out more. He had to figure out how to give the soldiers the fright of their lives.
And that meant he had to spy on them.
Yossi listened. Papa was snoring gently. Mama and Miriam were breathing softly. Yossi knew Mama and Papa would kill him if they found out. They'd give him so many punishments, he'd be serving them until his beard turned gray.
But he had to go. He had to find a way.
Scarcely breathing, he slipped out of bed, tiptoed across the cottage, past the traveling case that lay packed and ready â “Who knows?” Papa had said with a shrug earlier
that evening; “Maybe a miracle will happen” â and unlatched the door. The latch groaned. Yossi held his breath. Papa rolled over. Mama sighed. Yossi crept outside and pulled the door shut. Then he ran.
Five nights later, Yossi crouched in his usual hiding place behind a stout fir tree. It was all he could do not to stamp with frustration.
For four nights he had spied on the soldiers. For four nights he had snuck out of the cottage, risking discovery and punishment. For four nights he had watched and listened.
And for four nights, he'd heard nothing.
Oh, he'd heard plenty of complaints. The soldiers seemed to do nothing but complain. Their boots pinched. Their greatcoats were wearing thin. Their sabers were old. Their huts were falling down.
But so far he'd heard nothing useful. Nothing that would help him.
And he was beginning to wonder if it
had been a stupid idea after all, to think that he could find out what they were afraid of, and turn it against them. To help the Jews escape.
Now, on the fifth night, he promised himself he'd try one last time. If he didn't learn anything tonight, he'd give up.
In the flickering firelight, Misha took a long drink from a bottle, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and handed the bottle to Andrei, the skinny one, sitting on the ground next to him.
“I'm hungry,” Andrei said.
“Me, too,” said Boris, the fellow with the bristly mustache.
“Who wouldn't be, with the miserable rations the army gives us?” Misha grumbled.
More complaints, Yossi thought. For a change.
Yuri, the chubby soldier, took a gulp. “A crust of black bread, a handful of buckwheat groats, a lump of hard cheese â¦ Pitiful!”
“Any more of the Jews' beets left?” Misha asked.
At the word “Jews,” Yossi's ears pricked up.
“All gone,” Boris said with a sigh.
“Already?” Misha said. “Ah, they were good while they lasted.”
Yuri chuckled. “Especially since we didn't have to do the digging.”
Andrei grinned. “Just plucked them out of the barrel.”
“Speaking of plucking,” Misha boasted, “how about that raid the other night, when we plucked the food off the walls of that crazy shelter, eh?”
Boris barked out a laugh. “A whole meal laid out in front of us. Very kind of the Jews.”
Andrei drank. “Why'd they hang the fruit on the walls, anyway?”
“Some stupid Jewish custom,” Misha said.
Boris took a long swallow, then slapped his knee. “Hey, fellows, did you see their faces when we took the prayer books?”
Yuri spat. “Can't read that backward writing anyway.”
“That's what the Jews are â backward,” Misha said. He wagged his head like a simpleton, and the others roared with laughter.
“No wonder the Czar wants to get rid of the devils,” Andrei said.
“Devils is right,” Yuri agreed. “They're sons of the evil one, and no mistake.”
The laughter died away and a shiver seemed to run through the group. Then Misha said in a low voice, “And that leader, the priest, what d'you call him, ooh, I didn't like the look in his eyes.”
Andrei huddled forward. “It's as if he knows something â¦ as if he could cast a spell â¦”
afraid! Yossi thought. Afraid of the Rebbe!
Boris shook his head. “I don't like this talk of spells. Reminds me of the tales my granny used to tell, of witches and goblins.”
Andrei leaned forward and whispered, “Baba Yaga â¦”
“Don't say that name!” Misha shouted.
“Oh, my aunties had my hair standing on end with tales of that crone, I can tell you,” Yuri said.
Misha drank, then looked around the circle. “Who wouldn't be scared of Baba Yaga? The most powerful witch in the forest.”
“Her hut â my granny swore this was true â sits on chicken feet,” Boris said. “And Baba Yaga can make it turn in any direction, so you can never hide from her.”
“I've heard her fence is built of human bones,” Andrei added.
“With hollow-eyed skulls perched on the fence posts, lit by a ghostly fire,” Yuri put in.
With a shudder, all four soldiers drew closer together around the fire.
Yossi watched with growing interest. So he'd been right. The soldiers were scared.
Superstitious. Big, brave fellows! They thought the Rebbe could put a spell on them. And they were even more afraid of Baba Yaga. Yossi had heard of the famous Russian witch. Jews didn't believe in her, nor in the devil and demon tales their Rus-sian neighbors told. But the soldiers were terrified of her!
Andrei took a long sip. “They say she's tall and skinny, with long, long legs.”
Yuri nodded. “Baba Yaga Bony Legs, I've heard her called.”
“Skinny as a skeleton â¦”
“Long, stringy hair â¦”
“Razor-sharp fingernails â¦”
“And that flying mortar she travels in â she can go anywhere she pleases, just by saying the magic word,” Misha put in, his face pinched with fear.
“While with her broomstick, she brushes away her tracks,” Andrei added.
Boris looked over his shoulder. “She could be flying through the forest right now!”
A shiver seemed to go through the entire group. “Hush!” Misha ordered.
Yuri squirmed. “My granny says Baba Yaga eats little children, whole.”
“Not just children. Grown men, too,” Andrei said.
“Don't say that!” Misha cried.
“Yet she never gets fat, no matter how much she eats,” Yuri said.
Misha nodded. “That's why she has to keep catching more and more victims.”
Boris drank. “Her appetite's never satisfied.”
Yuri shuddered. “God preserve me from such unnatural cravings, but Baba Yaga's not the only one who's hungry all the time. I'm ravenous!”
Misha nodded in agreement. “I can feel my poor empty belly rubbing against my backbone.”
Andrei sighed. “Ah, what I would give for a fire-roasted potato right now.”
“Forget it, Andrei, we have no potatoes,” Boris said.
“But the Jews do,” Yuri remembered.
“True, but they're all harvested,” Boris returned. “Last time we rode into the village, the fields were empty.”
“So what? I think I know where they store the crops,” Misha said.
“You do? Where?”
“In a root cellar, by the garden. Remember when we took the beets? They kept kicking straw around a certain spot, as if they didn't want us to see â¦”
saw, Misha, you sly rascal,” Andrei said admiringly.
Grinning, Misha gave a mock bow.
“Think of all those potatoes, just sitting there,” Yuri said.
“Potato stew â¦ Fried potatoes â¦ Potato dumplings â¦”
All four gazed dreamily into the fire. Then Misha sat up straight. “Let's go get them!”
“What, tonight?” Andrei said.
“Yes, tonight. I'm starving,” Misha said.
“What better time, with the Jews all asleep?” Yuri laughed.
“Great idea!” Boris said. “Come, we'll saddle the horses â”
Misha shook his head. “But no galloping into the village. Let's keep it quiet. We'll walk the horses. It'll be more of a joke that way â and we love a good joke, don't we, friends?”
“Especially on the Jews!” Yuri added, and the others shouted their agreement.
Misha glanced at the sky. “The moon'll set in an hour or two. We'll wait until full dark, then sneak into the village. They'll hear nothing. See nothing. What a surprise in the morning, when they find their precious potatoes gone!”
“And if they wake up?” Yuri said.
In answer, Misha thrust a stick into the fire, then held its burning tip aloft. “Then we burn them out.”
“Either way, we still get the potatoes,” Andrei said gleefully. “What a feast we'll have.”
“Don't torture me,” Yuri said. “I can't wait!”
Neither could he! Yossi told himself. The soldiers would be on the road in a matter of hours. He had to warn the villagers, so they could protect the root cellar. If they lost the potatoes, as well as the beets, there wouldn't be enough food for winter. But how could the Jews fend off the soldiers? What were unarmed villagers against soldiers with sabers?
Still, the Jews couldn't simply stand by and see their food stolen. If only they could â
An idea came into Yossi's head. A brilliant idea. A way to scare off the soldiers. Give them the fright of their lives.
And, if it worked, it would give the Jews a chance to escape.
Panting, Yossi let himself into the cottage. Dear God, what was he going to do? There was so little time. Within two hours â less than that, now â he had to prepare to carry out his plan, and get himself into place, and warn the Jews to get ready to run, and â
Two eyes shone at him in the dark. Miriam!
For a moment, Yossi was terrified, thinking he'd been caught. But then he was flooded with relief. Miriam would help him. With her assistance, he could get ready in time. And she could help him rouse the people.
Yossi beckoned to his sister. Silently she followed him outside. In a low voice, he told her what the soldiers were planning to do.
“Yossi!” she whispered in alarm. “We'll lose our food â or our homes!”
“No, Miriam,” he said. “I have a plan.”
Miriam listened carefully. Then she shook her head. “Yossi, it's madness! What if it doesn't work? They'll kill you!”
Yossi knew that was true. But what else could he do? What else could any of them do? It was worth a try. It was better than starving â or being burned out.
work,” he insisted. “Only help me get ready.”
Silently he and Miriam tiptoed around the village. They gathered Mama's string
mop, Rivka's head scarf, a long black cloth hanging on Golda's clothesline, several pairs of Sadie's knitting needles, Simon's broom, a small clay lantern from Eli's pottery workshop and, last of all, Yossi's stilts.