Earnestly he insisted, “My son, he is a good boy! Like all your boys. Your Milburn boys. He would not harm another. Never!”
And, “My son Herschel, where he is gone I do not know. He is a good boy always, working hard to give his wages to his mother and father. He will return to explain himself, I know.”
So Jacob Schwart claimed when Chautauqua County deputies came to question him about Herschel. How adamant the poor man was, in not-knowing! In a craven posture clutching his cloth cap in both hands and speaking rapidly, in heavily accented English. It would have required men of more subtlety than the literal-minded deputies to decipher the gravedigger’s sly mockery and so the men would say afterward of Jacob Schwart Poor bastard ain’t right in the head is he?
Among your enemies, Rebecca’s father advised, it is wise to hide your intelligence as to hide your weakness.
A police warrant had been drawn charging Herschel with three counts of “aggravated assault with intent to commit murder.” Of his three victims, two had been hospitalized. The swastika-mutilation to Jeb Meunzer’s face was severe. No one in the Milburn area had ever been so attacked. Bulletins had been issued through New York state and at the Canadian border describing the “dangerous fugitive” Herschel Schwart, twenty-one.
The deputies did not question Anna Schwart at length. The agitated woman shrank from them trembling and squinting like a nocturnal creature terrified of daylight. In her confusion she seemed to think Herschel had himself been injured and hospitalized. Her voice was quavering and near-inaudible and her English so heavily accented, the deputies could barely understand her.
No! She did not know…
…knew nothing of where Herschel had gone.
(Was he hurt? Her son? What had they done to him? Where had they taken him? She wanted to see him!)
The deputies exchanged glances of pity, impatience. It was useless to question this simple-minded foreign-born woman who seemed not only to know nothing about her murderous son but also to be frightened of her gravedigger husband.
The deputies questioned August, or “Gus,” Herschel’s younger brother, but he too claimed to know nothing. “Maybe you helped your brother, eh?” But Gus shook his head quizzically. “Helped him how?”
And there was Rebecca, the twelve-year-old sister.
She, too, claimed to know nothing about what her older brother might have done, and where he’d fled. She shook her head wordlessly as the deputies questioned her.
At twelve, Rebecca still wore her hair in thick, shoulder-length braids, as her mother insisted. Her dark-brown hair was parted, not very evenly, in the center of her head and gave off a rich rank odor for her hair was not often washed. None of the Schwarts bathed frequently for hot water in large pails had to be heated on the stove, a tedious and time-consuming task.
In the face of adult authority Rebecca’s expression was inclined to be sullen.
“”Rebecca,“ that’s your name? Is there anyone in your family in contact with your brother, Rebecca?”
The deputy spoke sternly. Rebecca, not raising her eyes, shook her head no.
“You haven’t been in contact with your brother?”
Rebecca shook her head no.
“If your brother comes back, miss, or you learn where he’s hiding, or that someone is in contact with him, for instance providing him with money, you’re obliged to inform us immediately, or you’ll be charged as an accessory after the fact to the crimes he’s been charged with-d’you understand, miss?”
Stubbornly, Rebecca stared at the floor. The worn linoleum floor of the kitchen.
It was true, she knew nothing of Herschel. She supposed that, yes he was the man the deputies wanted. Almost, she was proud of what Herschel had done: punishing their enemies. Carving a swastika on Jeb Meunzer’s mean face!
But she was frightened, too. For Herschel might now be hunted down, and himself injured. It was known that fugitives resisting arrest were vulnerable to severe beatings at the hands of their pursuers, sometimes death. And if Herschel was sent to state prison…
Jacob Schwart intervened: “Officers, my daughter knows nothing! She is a quiet girl, not so bright. You see. You must not frighten her, officers. I plead you.”
Rebecca felt a pang of resentment, that her father should misspeak. And malign her.
Not so bright. Was it true?
The deputies prepared to leave. They were dissatisfied with the Schwarts, and promised to return. With his sly mock-servile smile Jacob Schwart saw them to the door. Again telling them that his elder son was a boy who prayed often to God, who would not raise a fist even to a brute deserving of harm. Nor would Herschel abandon his family for he was a very loyal son.
“”Innocent until guilty‘-yes? That is your law?“
Watching the deputies drive away in their green-and-white police cruiser, Rebecca’s father laughed with rare gusto.
“Gestapo. They are brutes, but they are fools, to be led by the nose like bulls. We will see!”
Gus laughed. Rebecca forced herself to smile. Ma had crept away into a back room, to weep. Almost you would think, seeing Jacob Schwart strut in his kitchen, thrusting a wad of Mail Pouch chewing tobacco into his mouth, that something exhilarating had happened, that these others had brought good news of Herschel and not a warrant for his arrest.
In the days following, it was clear that Jacob Schwart took pride in what Herschel had done, or was generally believed to have done. He overcame his customary frugality by buying several newspapers carrying articles on the assaults. His favorite was a front-page feature in the Milburn Weekly with a prominent headline:
THREE BRUTAL HALLOW'EEN ASSAULTS
LINKED TO 21-YEAR-OLD SUSPECT
Area Youth a Fugitive Considered Dangerous
In each of us there is a flame that will never die, Rebecca!
That flame is lighted by Jesus Christ and nourished by His love.
How badly Rebecca wanted to believe in these words of her former teacher Miss Lutter! But it was so hard. Like trying to lift herself onto the tar paper roof of the toolshed using just her arms, when she’d been a little girl imitating her brothers. They’d laughed at their little sister struggling behind them, too weak-armed at the time, her legs too thin, lacking muscle. Where they scrambled up onto the roof deft as cats, she’d fallen back helplessly to the ground.
Sometimes one of her brothers would lean over to give her a hand and hoist her up onto the roof. But sometimes not.
In each of us a flame. Rebecca, believe!
Jacob Schwart mocked those others for being Christian. In his mouth the word “Chriss-tyian” was a comical hissing noise.
Rebecca’s father said how Jesus Christ had been a deranged Messiah-Jew who could save neither himself nor anybody else from the grave and what the fuss was about him, almost two thousand years after his death, God knows!
This, too, was a joke. Jacob Schwart was always grinning when the word “God” popped out of his mouth like a playful tongue. Pa would say, for instance, “God chases us into a corner. God is stamping his big boot-foot, to obliterate us. And yet there is a way out. Remember, children: always there is a way out. If you can make yourself small enough, like a worm.”
He laughed, almost in mirth. His rotted teeth shone.
And so it became Rebecca’s secret from her family: her wish to believe in Miss Lutter’s friend Jesus Christ who was Jacob Schwart’s enemy.
Miss Lutter had given Rebecca Bible cards, to be hidden in Rebecca’s school books and smuggled home. “Our secret, Rebecca!”
The cards were slightly larger than playing cards. They were full-color depictions of Bible scenes so precisely rendered, Rebecca thought, you might think they were photographs. There was the Wise Men from the East (Matthew 2:1) in their flowing robes. There was Jesus Christ seen in profile, in a yet more flowing, surprisingly colorful robe (Matthew 6:28). There was the Crucifixion (John 19:26), and there was the Ascension (Acts 1:10): Jesus Christ, His bearded face barely visible, in a now snow-white robe floating above the head of his prayerful disciples. (Rebecca wondered: where did Jesus’s robes come from? Were there stores in that far-off land, as in Milburn? You could not buy such a garment in any store in Milburn but you could purchase the material, and sew it. But who had sewed Jesus’s robes, and how had they been laundered? And were they ironed? It was one of Rebecca’s household tasks, to iron flat things for her mother, that didn’t wrinkle easily.) Rebecca’s favorite Bible card was the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:41) for Jairus’s daughter had been twelve years old, she’d been given up for dead except Jesus Christ had come to her father and said Why make ye this ado, and weep? The damsel is not dead, but sleepest. And so it was, Jesus took the girl by the hand, wakened her, and she rose, and was well again.
Miss Lutter had not understood that the Schwarts did not own a Bible, and Rebecca had never wished her to know this. There were many things of which the gravedigger’s daughter felt shame. Yet she did not wish to betray her parents, either. Now in seventh grade she was not Miss Lutter’s pupil any longer, and saw her infrequently. She remembered Miss Lutter’s words, however. You have only to believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God and He will enter your heart, He will love you and protect you forever.
So she tried, tried to believe!-and could not, not quite. Yet almost she did believe! Each day, since Herschel’s disappearance, and the upset in her family’s life, and the widespread dislike with which all the Schwarts were now regarded, Rebecca especially wanted to believe.
When she was alone, and no one observing her. No one sneering at her, cursing her. Bumping against her in the seventh grade corridor, or on the school stairs. Walking quickly home from school cutting through alleys, vacant lots, fields. She was becoming a feral cat, furtive and wary. Her legs were strong now, she could run, run, run if pursued. A not-bright girl, you might think. A girl from a poor family, in mismatched clothes, ugly braids swinging beside her head. There was a certain hill above the railroad embankment, just before Quarry Road, where, as she descended it, skidding and slipping in the loose gravel, Rebecca felt her heart knock against her ribs for she was allowed to know If you deserve to fall and injure yourself, it will happen now.
Rebecca had recently learned to bargain in this way. To offer herself as a victim. It was in place of others in her family being punished. She wanted to believe that God would act justly.
Sometimes she did fall, and cut her knees. But most often she did not. Even when she became aware of the wraith-like figure in a flowing white robe and white headdress approaching her she did not lose her balance, her body had become agile and cunning.
Columns of mist, fog, lifted out of the deep drainage ditches on either side of Quarry Road, that was an unpaved country road on the outskirts of Milburn. Here there was a stark cold odor of mud, stone.
Rebecca was allowed to speak if she did not move her lips, and did not utter any sound.
Would Herschel be returned to them?
Jesus said in a low, kindly voice, “In time your brother will return to you.”
Would the police arrest him? hurt him? Would he go to prison?
Jesus said, “Nothing will happen that is not meant to be, Rebecca.”
Rebecca! Jesus knew her name.
She was so afraid, Rebecca told Jesus. Her lips quivered, she was in danger of speaking out loud.
Jesus said, just slightly reproachfully, “Why make ye this ado, Rebecca? I am beside you.”
But Rebecca must know: would something happen to them? Would something terrible happen to-her mother?
It was the first time Rebecca had mentioned her mother to Jesus.
It was the first time (her mind rapidly calculated, she knew that Jesus too must be thinking this) she had alluded to her father, indirectly.
Jesus said, an edge of irritation to His voice, “Nothing will happen that is not meant to be, my child.”
But this was no consolation! Rebecca turned in confusion, and saw Jesus staring at her. The man looked nothing like Jesus on the Bible cards. He wasn’t wearing a flowing white robe after all, nor a headdress. He was bareheaded and his hair was straggling and greasy, tinged with gray. His jaws were stubbled, his face was creased with deep wrinkles. In fact Jesus resembled the scummy-eyed men, derelicts they were called, bums, who hung about the railroad yard and the worst of the taverns on South Main Street. Those shabbily dressed men of whom Rebecca’s mother warned her repeatedly to keep clear, to avoid.
This Jesus resembled Jacob Schwart, too. Smiling at her in angry mockery If you believe me you are indeed a fool.
And then a car came rattling along the Quarry Road, and He vanished.