The two girls walked a long time without saying a word, and still had a long way to go. Fruma kept her arms close to her body, being careful not to accidentally brush against her host. Gittel's heavy breaths, and the tiny paws scurrying all around them as night approached, were the only sounds they heard. Yet, Gittel's accusation echoed loudly in the gulf between them, filing it with everything that was not said hours ago in the meadow.
Fruma thought she had found a friend in Gittel. She wasn't aware of how badly she was seeking one, but their days together felt like it was bringing her closer to something she left behind in Odessa. Instead, walking home in the dimness between sunlight and the stars, her fears about coming to Radzyn were confirmed.
When she was informed by her parents that she was being sent away, they didn't leave her much time to prepare. In truth, it would have felt inappropriate otherwise.
She had seen the broken windows, felt the stares, and smelled the smoke, but it wasn't until the shabbos she heard her tatti praying at home, instead of standing as chazzan for Odessa's largest shul, that she understood that the city she was raised in was no longer home. His sweet voice had turned bitter, and the joy in his tunes was whistful instead of immediate. She knew something had happened that demanded change.
The tzaddik with whom she travelled on the long journey from Odessa to Radzyn was kind and slow – and tried his hardest to make her feel safe. One morning, he sat on a fallen tree and related a thought connected to the meal of beans and kraut they had prepared over a fire in the shallow forest. Fruma sat among his chassidim like she was one of them, studying his face instead of listening to his words. His remarkable presence was coupled with an apprehension for staying in any one place longer than was absolutely necessary, and it wasn't until she heard the stomping of heavy boots that she realized why.
On their long walks through woods that carriages could not traverse, she worried how anybody in this new place where she'd soon be living could ever understand her. The things she was seeing were new, enormous and terrifying – causing a frequency to her voice audible only to those who had seen what she had seen, heard what she had heard and smelled what she had smelled.
Who in the paradise of Radzyn could know how she longed to leave everything that reminded her of how things were before?
Now, she walked beside Gittel, who set a swift pace and was making an obvious point not to be led. They moved through the forest swiftly, crushing dead leaves beneath their shoes and momentarily scaring away the critters around them. Gittel kept her head down and her thoughts tight, anxious to arrive home to privately confront that her search for happiness must begin all over again.
The basket Fruma held in her hand still held the lunch she never got to share, dangling by her side and tempting the creatures crawling on the forest floor beneath. One by one, these critters took their chance at finding out what was inside, jumping up and scratching at the basket. It was cute at first, then unusual, and only when it became frightening did Gittel finally notice that they were surrounded by a swarm of small animals vying for Fruma's leftovers.
"Run!" Gittel yelled. "Towards the shul. They won't come near it!"
Fruma rolled her eyes, but once Gittel darted off, she followed closely, holding her basket tightly. Gittel arrived first, looking back to make sure Fruma was there too, and watched a perimeter form around the small shul. Fruma looked to Gittel – and Gittel looked back to Fruma – exasperated and trying to reserve her wonder.
And, that's when Fruma heard it.
She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds coming from the shul. It was not like hearing a song, but rather like receiving instructions she'd never get again.
"Do you hear that?"
Gittel looked around, then closed her eyes to listen too, but she could not detect anything. When Fruma walked towards its source, Gittel followed behind.
The room behind the shul shook every time she pounded her fist on the table, raising loose dust from the sefarim stacked on top of it. Hidden deep within a shtetl which was already so deeply hidden, this was where the Rebbetzin felt most comfortable. She sat alone before a steaming cup of tea, her tattered book of Psalms, and a box from Yankle's.
Gittel grabbed Fruma's shoulder to urge her to continue on their way, but before she could say anything Fruma started to sing along with the Rebbetzin. It was the same song she had been humming around the house, when the rest of the family was leaving to pray, or while lying in bed while everybody else prepared for work.
It was heartbroken and full, scared but strong, and, until Gittel heard it emanating as one from these two Godly souls, she had never really heard it at all.
"Oy, tatti." The Rebbetzin spoke softly.
She shuffled carefully through rectangular pieces of paper with names written on them, finally stopping at one and staring. Gittel couldn't make out what the note said, but she recognized her mother's handwriting from the thousands of receipts she'd spent her days filing away.
"Oy, tatti! What can I do to help them? It breaks my heart into so many pieces, only you can repair it." She wiped her eyes, then her nose, and shook.
"Those girls are so broken and," she breathed, "they haven't even the slightest clue what is about to happen."
Fruma rested her chin on the windowsill in front of her, and pushed hard against it. Her fingers trembled and her eyes became cloudy.
"Those girls just do not know what their true value is. They have no idea what they're worth. Now, more than ever, we need them to know."
"They try, and they try harder, then they try even harder than they thought they ever could. And one day they simply stop. Who can blame them? I certainly won't. I don't."
Gittel hid her head, so she couldn't see what was happening inside. She felt the hut shake again.
The Rebbetzin slid the box of cookies from Yankle's closer towards the edge of the table, then delicately opened it. The Rebbetzin took a bite.
"Even the sweets in Radzyn are sour! Those poor girls in Yankle's work so hard, but they work without joy. Effort without joy does not make the world sweet. Oy got in himmel! They're missing the only ingredient that matters and they don't know it."
Gittel rose up to the wooden windowsill, now stained darker and damp.
The Rebbetzin was out of useful words and began to hum. When she was done, her eyes opened to the glance of the two fragile figures crouching outside the window and looking in.
"If I can't help them," said the Rebbetzin, no longer speaking only to the Creator, "please, please, please, at least show them how to help each other."
Fruma looked to Gittel, without wiping her eyes dry.