"In the magazines war seemed romantic and exciting, full of heroics and vitality.... I saw instead men... suffering and wishing they were somewhere else."
A thin trail of black smoke was nearly up to the clouds when Elijah Cohen burst into his home, struggling to force air back into his lungs. His hair, flaming red that battled against the nearly triumphant grey, was matted with ruby blood. A deep gash below his eye dripped a red river down his cheek, spotting his ripped shirt, already beyond repair and stained with smoke and ash.
"Bel—" He broke off, cough ripping though his body. Elijah hunched over, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him or if he really was coughing out cinders. "Belinda?"
A woman was already at his side, feet crunching on broken ceramic that had once been a serving plate. She ran one hand nervously through his hair, grabbing his head to move it downwards so she could smooth her moist dishcloth over his burnt skin.
Elijah stumbled, hissing as the cloth grazed his wounded cheek, pushing against the shiny red gash. He let out another yell when she pulled his face closer, discarding the cloth to run her own fingers along the wound. Near the curve of his lip, Belinda thrust her finger into the bloody mess, recoiling when she felt something hard. She pulled away quickly, noticing white where her finger had been; there was a hole in his cheek, revealing a sliver of his teeth.
"My God, Eli!" Fluttering hands followed him as he took his last strength to throw himself onto the sofa. Belinda sat beside him, hands pressing against his forehead, running through his hair, trying to find any more broken pieces.
He rested his head on his wife's shoulder, unable to close his eyes. When they were closed, even for a brief moment, he could see it all again. "We saw planes ova in Lee-ads."
"Shh," she whispered, eyes darting around the room, making sure the two were completely alone before she dared to deliver a quick kiss to his sweaty brow. "Don't talk now. I need to fix you up."
Elijah sighed, wincing as the breath of air escaped from the wound in his cheek, stinging as if it were salt instead. "We t'ought she wur jus't'a daft Kraut 'oo lost 'is way. Nivver yance ower did we t'ink t'ere'd be more of 'em."
"Eli, please. Not until I fix you up." Belinda pressed a finger to his lips, although knew that wouldn't shush him. She would keep him in his arms as long as she could, just so he wouldn't have to say another word. Elijah worked in a shoe factory, a respectable place where he strung the laces through each shoe, never once before coming back with terrifying wounds and fear in his eyes.
No. She didn't want to know one more word that would be the end of her happiness. Germany's attacks had been fewer in the past few weeks, and London, who had been hit the worst, was about ready to celebrate. There had been a peaceful lull where England hoped that Germany was not as strong as she thought she was. But now, Belinda realized, it was all just a ruse; a calm before the storm.
People on the continent were being killed for their beliefs, she heard, murdered in their sleep for being something as innocent as a Jew. The idea revolted her nearly as much as the religion itself. She was the only daughter of a Protestant mother and Jewish father, a match that deemed her a gentile by thousand-year old manuscripts written by bored old men. Forced to attend double services at every holiday to please both mother and father for Passover and Easter, Hanukkah and Christmas, Belinda learned to resent any idea of God, ready to snip away the last ties to religion, until she met her husband.
Leaning in to steal another kiss, Belinda could almost hear Elijah's heart beating wildly in his chest. His breath was warm on her cheek when she pulled away, the faintest smile touching upon her lips. Her Eli. She had put up with religion after falling in love with an Orthodox Jew, a rabbi's son who gave up everything he knew just to marry her. Every night when he slipped in bed beside her, she knew she did not deserve him.
What had been an innocent vacation in a town just outside of Leeds had turned into her future. She met Elijah, first noticing his wide grin instead of his bright red hair. His accent had been charming at first, Yorkshire so different from her own elegant London accent. He had charmed her, asking for her hand within a month, marrying just a month after that, even though Elijah's father refused to give his son his blessing. The rabbi was furious, cursing his son's bride, calling her evil for stealing his son away from God.
It still hurt to think about it, she who never known God had stolen her love from the first comfort he knew. Elijah had been studying to follow in his father's footsteps and become a rabbi, but he gave it up for her, to work in a factory and lace up hundreds of shoes every week day and on Saturday, the day that always hurt him the most to go to work.
Eighteen years of marriage and five children created a comforting home, even though there was never an extra pound in the house, even though Belinda and Elijah chose to freeze in the winter, making sure their children were warm enough during the cold months. He would have been financially comfortable as a rabbi, praised and respected by his peers. Now he was just a factory worker wearing an eight-year old shirt that should have been thrown out five years earlier.
Their tiny home, barely large enough for even the two of them, was all they knew. As war came, all eight huddled together, hoping it would pass, seven of them praying the rumors they heard were not true, Belinda just wishing it would end soon. But now it had struck again like a spiteful asp, calculating its next move.
"We kep' on workin', an' I was stringin' awaa. T'en we 'ear' it, whistlin' high, and t'en t'ere was not'in'. We were deaf for an hour a' leas', didn' even 'ear t'bomb." Elijah moved closer to his wife, resting his head on her breast. He could still see the explosion; the bomb had only taken his hearing, most of which had returned. One moment he was sitting on his stool, lacing up a pair of black boots, and the next there was a piece of wood lodged into his cheek and his neighbor was crushed underneath a steel bar that crashed down from the ceiling.
"Don't," Belinda pleaded lightly, but it was inevitable. She had imagined this moment so many times before. If the Nazis were to overpower England, she would run. She was born a gentile, after all, maybe she could even live peacefully until the war ended for good, but Eli and their children… They were Jews, all of them learned from their father, able to pray and read Hebrew, all firm believers, at least outwardly to please their father. When their oldest was born, she pleaded with Eli to give her an English name, but he refused. Although he was no longer part of the community he grew up in, although his father mourned him as if he were dead, he would proudly raise his children in his faith.
As if she knew the day would come, Belinda imagined it all in his head. She couldn't take the boys, but perhaps she could take her daughters. She could call Ahava Alice, and Meira could be Mary, until the war ended. They were old enough now, Ahava sixteen and Meira nine years-old. They would understand. She could be packed within the hour and leave during the night. Eli would understand…
But as she thought it now, she grew angry at herself. How could she leave her love and her sons? Belinda had never been much, the pampered child of London upper class and the wife of a poor man. How much more could she insult herself by abandoning her family? She shook her head firmly. At least she could save her daughters. They would be gone by morning.
"Belinda, Belinda…" Elijah brushed his fingers against her cheek, letting his lips rest just a breath away from hers, so close she could feel them sweep across her lips when he spoke. "I've been speakin' wit' your kid in Poland an' 'e been offerin' us a place t'stay for mont's now, 'e just on 'is seat knowin' this'll be 'appenin'. We'll go tomorrow before it gets too bad."
Her brother. In Poland. Belinda wanted to refuse, but Elijah pressed her lips closed with his. They tasted salty and she pulled back, a gasp lifting her off the sofa to fetch the medical supplies he had been needing for hours.
Elijah sat back, wiping blood from his lips. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Germany was supposed to grow weaker, but instead she was attacking the factories. He didn't know how much other damage had been done, but at first news of the war, his little shoe factory had become the largest boot supplier to the British army. Soon, if not already, they would be without their weapons factory. It wasn't supposed to happen this way, but at least he had his family. At least they had a way out.
It took the rest of Belinda's courage to thread a needle with blue thread, the only color spool with enough left to do the job. She had been meaning to get more thread for years, tired of darning black socks with blue, but there were more important things to buy than something as silly as thread.
"I can't do it, Eli," she said at last, having spent several minutes wasting time, threading the needle and then taking it out, as if she couldn't get the piece through the eye.
Elijah was staring at her, one hand cupped under his chin, elbow on the tattered armrest. "Jus' a few pokes, Belinda. Pretend I'm a sock." He leaned towards his wife offering his wounded cheek. "We don' 'ave enough money for t'doctor an' you were good wit' t'at needle when Ezekiel nearly bit off Hezekiah's finger two years ago."
He couldn't help but smile at the memory. Hezekiah was always pestering his youngest brother, despite the vast age difference. Eight years meant nothing to Hezekiah, except that Ezekiel could barely fight back when he was five and his brother nearly thirteen. Finally deciding he had taken enough abuse in his short life, Ezekiel clamped his teeth around his brother's finger, not letting go until Elijah had to pry them apart. The boy's mouth had been filled with crimson blood, a stream of it trickling out the side of his mouth. While Elijah cleaned up Ezekiel, laughing all the way, Belinda sewed Hezekiah's finger. Then, they had blue and white, and Hezekiah chose white, his face ashen as the thread she sewed him up with.
Belinda frowned at the memory. It didn't sting with the fact it was one of the hundreds of days they desperately needed money that was not there, even for a doctor, but that it was the first day Elijah openly showed favoritism towards one of his sons. Hezekiah had grimaced in pain, trying to hide his tears when Belinda sewed him up, but she knew his tears weren't for physical pain, but mental. As she carefully pushed the needle through the tough skin on his finger, even she was hurt by Elijah's praises.
"I should 'ave named thee David," his proud bellow echoed around the tiny flat as he wiped the blood from Ezekiel's face with a washcloth. "At five years old, thee defeat Goliat' an' now thee are destined t'be king."
That had been a big day in the Cohen family. After that, when Elijah came back from work, he shortened Hebrew lessons with all five children, giving Ezekiel private lessons of his own. Belinda could only imagine he was preparing his son to be what he could not: a rabbi. That day had been marked by white thread, and this new upheaval would be marked with blue.
"I can't do it," she said again, the threaded needle lying in her palm, defeated. "Don't make me do it, Eli."
Just as Elijah was going to take the needle himself, the front door of their flat opened hesitantly, a small boy stumbling inside. Elijah stood quickly, lifting up his son as if the boy didn't know how to walk. The child's face was pale, stark white against his red hair, the only child who had his father's red hair, muted, but there nonetheless. "My Ezekiel." Elijah kissed his son's forehead, wiping away a small trickle of his blood. The boy was snuggled against his father's chest, eyes closed. "Why aren't thee at school?"
"We're sick, Papa," the boy moaned, nuzzling deeper after one eye opened for a moment, just enough to see his mother's glare. "Our stomach 'urts."
It was an excuse all had heard when, at least once a week, Ezekiel would skip out early from school. Only once could Elijah take time to talk to his son's teachers, who complained that, even when Ezekiel didn't skip, he still wasn't there.
"He stares out the window all day," the teacher had said, pulling out a few papers from her desk and handing them to Elijah. "He does some of his homework, but…" She motioned to the papers, where each question was answered in a different language. One was in Hebrew, one in German, one in the rough version of Italian, mixed with English. "I don't know how to grade this. He might be," she grasped at the word, "trilingual at seven years old, but I doubt he knows much more. I can only read his maths homework and, if maths is like other subjects, he doesn't know a thing. Mr. Cohen, Ezekiel can barely subtract."
Elijah reported the news back to his wife, who was furious.
"Of course he can't subtract!" She had yelled at him. "He spends the day dreaming up that fairytale nonsense you force into his head every night! I bet he can name all twelve of Isaac's sons—"
"Jacob's sons," Elijah had put in coolly.
"…but he can't identify a noun. And you don't care, just as long as he can pray to your silly God, rocking back and forth all day like he's shivering with cold."
Every argument led back to religion, how Elijah was poisoning their children's minds with nonsense. None of their arguments had a winner; Elijah waited patiently until Belinda was finished yelling and then he would take her hands in his, delivering a kiss on her temple. He would never give up religion, but she would never stop wishing he would.
Elijah also would never try to discourage Ezekiel from skipping school. If the boy wanted to leave, it was his right. What did a rabbi need with subtraction, he would ask himself sometimes. Knowing the complex language of mathematics would just be another subject in his mind that could distract him from God.
Standing up slowly, Belinda gripped the needle in her hand. Now that Ezekiel was home, she had to fix Elijah's face and put a bandage on it before the boy saw. The boy was spoiled and Elijah would be upset if the blood upset Ezekiel.
The needle shook between her fingers as she put one hand on Elijah's head while the other pushed the needle through his cheek. Elijah grimaced, grip tightening around the boy in his arms. Opening his mouth wide enough for Belinda to put her fingers through to retrieve the needle and jab it through again, Elijah squeezed his eyes shut, holding his breath when he tasted her fingers in his mouth.
After a few minutes, he could hear the gentle snip of scissors. "I'll be back in a minute," Belinda whispered.
Elijah opened and closed his mouth, feeling the stitches. They pulled painfully when he opened too far, but it would heal. Hopefully it would be just a thin scar, one that could easily hide in his beard. "We're goin' on a trip tomorrow, Ezekiel," he mumbled, words slurring as he tried not to open his mouth too far.
"Where?" Ezekiel's head jerked up and, just as quickly, he ducked down again, remembering he was feigning ill.
"To t'continent. 'ow does Poland sound t'thee?"
"Borin'," he answered back.
Elijah stroked his son's hair. It always brought a smile to his face, knowing that his favorite boy may have his mother's icy eyes, but he also had his father's hair, vibrant and beautiful. And the boy was brilliant. It was true that Hezekiah was praised by his teachers for his superior knowledge in science and that Ethan, the middle child, had won most of the spelling bees in his class, but that was different. "I found a Russian book," he said, dropping his voice lower. He had been saving up the smallest scraps of money for nearly a year to get a gift for his son. Many times had Ezekiel asked to learn the funny Russian language, and he finally had enough money and today would be the perfect day to give it. "We can start when we get t'Poland."
Ezekiel lifted his eyes, blue eyes wide with excitement. "I want it now, Papa."
"Of course, love." He kissed Ezekiel's brow. "I'll gi' thee owt." Then he hesitated, words escaping his lips before he could hold them back. "Can thee name all Jacob's bairns?"
"Aye. Joseph, Judah, Issachar—"
"What if—what if thee subtracted Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah's bairns. 'ow many did Leah 'ave?"
Ezekiel wrinkled his nose. "Judah, Simeon—"
Elijah interrupted again. "Jus' t'number, darlin'. Twelve sons altoget'er, t't'ree women 'ad two a'piece."
"I don' know, Papa," Ezekiel answered nonchalantly. "I want t'book, please."
He stood, surprised to see Belinda standing in the doorway, her arms crossed on her chest, a knowing look on her face. They stared at each other for a moment before Elijah looked away, hurrying out of the room with Ezekiel following close behind.