Tuesday April 9th, 1912
Her steamer trunk lay open before her, but there was very little in it. She had underestimated how difficult this would be and had left the unpleasant task of packing her belongings until nearly the last minute. Now as she sat on the edge of her bed and teased the frayed edge of her quilt between her fingers, she felt remarkably overwhelmed. She wasn't afraid, yet. But she knew the fear would come. It would come when she was alone and vulnerable. Out in the middle of the ocean with no one to turn to for comfort, on her way to her brother whom she hadn't seen in nearly seven years.
"It isn't right of Moishe to ask you to travel alone. He should have come to escort you." Startled, Rivka looked up. She hadn't heard Leah at the door. How long had she been standing there, watching? The Rabbi's wife was looking down at Rivka with obvious concern.
"I don't mind," Rivka replied, pushing herself to her feet. She smiled a weary smile. "It will be a grand adventure." Quite likely the only one she would ever get. She should make the most of it, she knew. It wouldn't be like fleeing Russia had been – walking until her feet bled, going hungry, finding abandoned barns to sleep in during the day and traveling at night. Trying to avoid detection. This time she would be sailing, without a care in the world, and in luxury no less.
"Of course you don't mind, you're such a good-natured girl." Leah wiped her flour-covered hands on the front of her apron. The whole house would smell like bread, tonight. "I've never known anything to bother you," the older woman continued, "Even so…"
This was a conversation they'd had many times before. Almost daily, since her brother had sent word that there was a second-class ticket awaiting her at the White Star office. The Rabbi, Isaac Heller, had gone to retrieve it the same afternoon the letter had arrived, and it had sat, since then, tucked into the corner of her mirror. A constant reminder that everything was soon to change.
The Rabbi and his wife had not liked the idea of sending Rivka across the Atlantic on her own. She was a good girl, a smart girl, they'd told her repeatedly. But even good, even smart girls could be tempted. They were vulnerable. Vulnerable to violence, and manipulation. To the lies and tricks of the godless. Rabbi Heller had sent a letter to her brother, expressing his concern, but it had gone unanswered. So, determined that Rivka not be entirely alone, he had sought out anyone else in their community who might be traveling on board Titanic.
"The Rosens will be traveling too," Rivka reminded Leah. "Remember?" The Rosens seemed like the perfect solution to the problem that was Rivka traveling alone. They were a nice, Jewish family. A mother, a father, and three small, well-behaved children. They attended Shul on Saturday mornings, and observed the dietary laws. A different Shul than the one led by Rabbi Heller, mind, but that didn't really matter. It was something. Rivka did not know them well, but she had met them, and she was grateful, at least, for that.
A few days ago, that had seemed to ease Leah's mind. But now nothing could convince her that this was a good idea. "Yes, but their rooms are so far from yours. What if you need help? In the middle of the night?"
Rivka's smile was stronger than it had been before – to reassure Leah. "We're on the same deck, Rebbetzin. Not so far from each other. I'll know where to find them, if I need them."
Leah hesitated, before granting Rivka a reluctant nod. "You know I just worry over you."
"I know. And I have so appreciated your care and your guidance. But… but it's time for me to rejoin my brother." Would she even recognize him, after all this time? Would he recognize her? She had been only fourteen when he'd left, he had been only eighteen. Seven years was a long time. But although she loved the Rabbi and his wife, her brother was her true family. The separation was only supposed to be temporary, after all. So that he could work and establish himself in America before sending for her. He had promised her, when he'd left, that he would send for her soon. For seven years, her life had been in a state of limbo. She had formed few attachments, refused to entertain the notion of finding a good man and getting married. She could be called away at any time. Now, at twenty-one, her life would finally be able to start.
Leah wiped at her eyes with the only spot on her apron that wasn't smudged with flour. Rivka had never thought the Rabbi's wife looked… old. But today she was showing her age. When had her hair started going grey? Rivka had never noticed the strands of silver woven in among the dark curls before. And her face, always so full of joy, was weighted down by grief. There were wrinkles there that Rivka had never paid any mind to, around her eyes and mouth. Perhaps the impending goodbye was aging her. "I will miss you fiercely, my sweet Rivka."
"And I will miss you." It was true. She wouldn't miss London, it had not been good to her. Better than Russia, but that wasn't saying much. But the Rabbi and his wife had been absolute angels; when Rivka and Moishe had arrived in London alone, ten years ago, they had taken the two children in and loved them like their own.
Leah was silent for a moment or two, trying to compose herself. Rivka, too, was trying to get her emotions under control. She knelt on the floor and set a pair of shoes inside her trunk, all the while, feeling at war with herself. She could stay here. She hadn't seen her brother in seven years, but this woman standing right in front of her had been there, day in and day out, taking care of her. Loving her. Guiding her. Rabbi Heller, too. He had read Torah with her, he had prayed with her and had taught her so much. They weren't family by blood. But they were, in every other way that meant anything. Shouldn't that count for something?
Leah broke the silence. "I have something for you."
Curious, Rivka stood and dusted off her skirt. "What is it?"
She motioned for Rivka to follow her out into the hall. "Come, come, I know I left it… it should be right around here…" She guided her young charge into the kitchen. It smelled of rising bread. Rivka had so many fond memories of time spent in this room.
Leah rummaged through some papers on the counter. Hastily scrawled recipes and letters from friends and community members, mostly. There were a few newspapers, too. Some photographs in among the mess. She stopped and pulled out a little black box. "Ah yes, here it is." She held it in one outstretched hand, beckoning Rivka forward. With some hesitation, Rivka took the box and opened it, then pulled out the little silver Magen David on a dainty silver chain that had been tucked inside. She set the box aside and held up the necklace, admiring it from every angle.
"Rebbetzin, this is too much."
Leah smiled and took it from Rivka. "Nonsense." She lifted it and put the long chain over Rivka's head, then lowered it to let it settle around her neck. The pendant hung low, settling against her skin, below the neckline of her dress. Not immediately visible to anyone else, but heavy enough that Rivka knew it was there. "It is to remind you," Leah continued, taking Rivka's face in her hands, "that whenever you are alone, that you are still in the loving hands of Hashem."
Touched by the gift, Rivka lifted her own hands and placed them over Leah's. "Thank you. It's beautiful. I'll never take it off."
They stood there for a moment, studying each other. When tears began to well up in Leah's eyes once again, she moved her hands from Rivka's face and, taking up a no-nonsense tone declared, "It is time to finish packing. We wouldn't want you to forget anything."
Hand in hand, the pair returned to Rivka's room. In silence, they worked side by side, preparing Rivka for her journey.
She and Leah stood side by side, drawing strength from one another as they stared up at the great ship that would carry Rivka to the other side of the ocean. They were still some distance from it, standing out of the way. Even still, it towered over them. The Rabbi had gone to see about Rivka's trunk, and they were waiting for him to return.
"Remember," Leah would whisper every time a warning came to mind, pressing her lips to Rivka's ear. Don't pay any mind to the young men on board. Or, I've checked; there is food that meets our particular requirements. Or, do not feel you must attend their religious services. Rivka knew that there would be a protestant service on board the ship on Sunday, and that there was no Rabbi to lead something more appropriate for the Jews who were traveling. You can honour Shabbat with the Rosens, Leah added as an after thought.
The Rosens had offered to travel to Southampton with Rivka so the Rabbi and his wife could stay behind; Rivka was glad that they had refused the offer. She was grateful for every little bit of time she had left with the couple she had come to love as parents.
Leah visibly hesitated, as though she wanted to say something but couldn't. She opened her mouth to speak, and then shut it quickly again.
"What is it?" Rivka asked, concerned.
"You should be proud of who you are, and where you come from," Leah said hesitantly.
"I am!" Rivka was quick to reply, but Leah held up her hand and Rivka quieted.
"I'm glad," the Rabbi's wife said softly. "But it will be hard, to be at sea, without a community. Perhaps there will be many more Jews on board with you, perhaps there will not be. And perhaps there will be many who would hate you for what you are. You are no stranger to such hatred, Rivka. Nor am I. And it is bearable, when one has their community. Their people. But without it…?" Leah sighed, running a hand over her face. The words she was saying seemed to pain her. "It is not so shameful, to not give them a reason to wonder about you. To use your English name. To act like one of them, until you are returned to your brother's safekeeping."
"Just be safe, Rivka, that's all I ask," Leah said as she saw her husband approaching. "Take care, and be safe."
The Rabbi was with them again moments later, and said with a sad smile, "your trunk should be on board any moment. You will be able to follow it shortly."
"Thank you," Rivka replied, feeling sick. She had never been on a ship before, had never been at sea. "For everything."
"I would have felt far more comfortable with this had he come to retrieve you himself," Rabbi Heller said slowly, "but we must trust that Moishe knows what is best for you."
"Of course." If she'd had any hope of changing her mind and staying here, it was gone. She knew the Rabbi loved her, but she also knew that he would not encourage her to disobey her brother's request. Nor would he aid her in doing so.
Leah pressed a bag into her hands. "Bread," she said, "and cheese. I know there will be plenty of food on board. You will eat better than you've ever eaten." And, perhaps, better than she would ever eat again. "But there is nothing quite like fresh bread from home," she added, sniffling as she fought back her tears.
Rivka threw her arms around Leah, embracing the older women tightly. Neither of them let go easily. But when Rivka's grip loosened, Leah stepped back and cast her eyes downward. Her husband placed a hand on her arm. "It is nearly time for you to board, Rivka. Let us say a blessing over your journey."
The three of them huddled close together, heads bowed as the Rabbi softly sang the blessing. The familiar Hebrew soothed Rivka's nerves. When he had finished, he reached out his hand and placed the tips of his fingers lightly against Rivka's forehead. He spoke another blessing over her then, one typically spoken over children by their fathers. Once done, he dropped his hand and leaned forward to kiss her forehead, where his fingers had been moments earlier. "Daughter," he said softly, "may Hashem guide your steps, and protect you from all harm." Pulling back, he looked at Rivka with fondness. "Should you ever find yourself in London again, my dear, I hope you will seek us out."
"Of course," she replied, wiping at her eyes. "Of course. I will write to you both the moment I have arrived in New York."
"And we will write back," Leah promised, reaching forward to take both of Rivka's hands in her own. She brought them to her lips, kissing one and then the other before releasing them. "We love you, Rivka. Never forget that."
Rivka realized that if she did not tear herself away, she might stand there forever, caught in a painful cycle of goodbyes. She forced herself to take a step backwards. It was now or never. With a wavering smile at both of them, she turned and started at a brisk walk towards the boarding platform. She couldn't bring herself to look back at them standing there, watching her.
She joined the other passengers lined up at the second class gate. To make the journey easier, in the hopes that it would be safer for a young woman traveling alone, Moishe had secured her a second class ticket instead of one in third class. It was a large expense; it was not the standard of living she was accustomed to, nor was it what she would have when she arrived in New York.
She would enjoy this opportunity, she told herself. She would enjoy it, and she would be grateful.
Author's Note: It has been a long time since I have posted anything here on FictionPress. After my novel, "Of Proud Spirits and Losses at Night" was plagiarized in 2012-2013, I swore the site off. But I've missed posting chapters and getting feedback, and the incredible usefulness of self-imposed deadlines so as not to disappoint readers. So I've decided to take another chance, and post another novel here as I write it. Updates will be on Mondays. Yes, it's another Titanic novel, because I love the Titanic and I haven't written a novel in forever, so I'm sticking to what I know. But while the setting is the same, the characters/the story are completely different. (So please be kind, as… well, I haven't written a novel in forever!) Reviews are ❤, and I'm excited to give this another go. Much love, and thanks for reading!