Table of Contents
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First published in 2010 by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Esther Friesner, 2010 All rights reserved.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44538-9
[1. ImmigrantsâFiction. 2. JewsâUnited StatesâFiction. 3. Triangle Shirtwaist
CompanyâFire, 1911âFiction. 4. New York (N.Y.)âHistoryâ1898-1951âFiction.] I. Title.
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Dedicated to the memory of Rebecca Eiber Tessler
Her spirit will always warm us Her light will always shine
TO TRICK AN ANGEL
aisa's world was fire. The blaze was everywhere. She was lost in the heart of the flames. Wherever she turned, walls of heat beat against her like hammers. The air throbbed and rang, filling her head with merciless thunder. Sometimes she thought she heard other sounds, urgent voices calling to her, trying to help her find a path out of the fire, but then she realized that they weren't calling her name but
Alteh! Alteh! Come back to me, Altehleh!
Who is Alteh?
she wondered, her head spinning.
Such a strange name . . . not really a name at all.
She'd heard the word for
many times in her thirteen years. The little Polish shtetl where she lived had many old peopleâmen and women, scholarly and ignorant, a scattering of rich, a swarm of poorâbut not one of the
the old women, had Alteh for a name. She had a faint memory of a sickly little boy named Alter, from one of the village families, but he was only eight, far from being an old man.
She tried to hold on to her thoughts, but they trickled away like water. Water! She was so thirsty. She couldn't feel her lips, only harsh, scaly skin, her tongue like a rasp, her mouth a desert. When she tried to ask for a drink, all she could do was whimper. And the fire burned on until the whole world was filled with it. It devoured everything until the only thing left for it to consume was itself. The scorching light flared wildly, casting up soaring plumes of dancing flame, then all at once it dove into an abyss of starless midnight, absolute and all encompassing. Raisa sighed with relief and tumbled into the cooling darkness.
When the light came back, she fought against it, twisting her head away, throwing one arm across her eyes. “No, please, leave me alone!” Fresh light meant fresh fire. She had to get away.
“Shhh, shhh, lie still, little one. It's all right, you're safe now. Lie still.” Soft hands touched her face with tenderness. Raisa smelled bread, and a sudden pang of hunger creased her belly. The hands withdrew, and a damp cloth stroked her cheeks and forehead. She'd never felt anything so good in her life. When it pulled away, she made a little cry of protest and was shocked by how pitiful her own voice sounded, weak as the chirping of a baby bird.
“Yes, yes, hush, I'll do it again. Let me soak the cloth in fresh water for you. Don't worry, you'll feel much better soon. Ah, thank God, thank God!” The cooling cloth bathed Raisa's face once more. Water trickled past the corners of her mouth. She tried to lick it up, but there was far too little to quench her thirst.
Then something smooth touched her mouth. Someone was holding a cup to her lips. Water spilled over the brim. She gulped it greedily and protested when it was taken away. Who was tormenting her so cruelly? She sobbed without tears.
“My sweet one, shhh, you'll have more water, but slowly, slowly, I beg of you. Too much won't be good for you. You don't want to be sick again.”
The voice was soothing, familiar. Raisa tried to focus, to see the face behind the voice, but when she opened her eyes the world was still a blur. The light dazzled her. If she lifted her eyelids too much, it felt like someone was jamming a wreath of needles onto her head. She wanted to speak, to thank whoever it was that had brought her comfort and relief. She wanted to say,
You saved me from the fire. I owe you my life. How can I ever repay you?
But the words would not come. Instead, her eyes closed and she returned to the darkness.
When she opened her eyes once more, the blinding light had faded to a single flame, glowing inside the milky white glass of a flower-painted lamp. Raisa turned her face toward the light. The lamp sat on a small table by her bedside, a table that also held a thick-sided green drinking glass, a battered book covered in brown leather, and the dull glint of a circular gold brooch set with seed pearls. One pearl was missing, and for a moment the tiny cavity drew Raisa's gaze until she imagined it was opening up, blossoming before her eyes. Soon it filled her sight, a bottomless abyss gaping at her feet, hungry for her to tumble in. She gasped and snapped her eyes shut. When she opened them, the dizzying illusion was gone and the brooch was just a bit of broken jewelry again.
Her eyes drifted to the drinking glass. Was there water in it? Raisa's tongue scraped over her parched lips. She tried to reach for the glass, but her arm refused to obey her. It was as if someone had boiled her bones until they were as limp as overcooked noodles. How she hated that helpless feeling!
With a mighty effort, she forced power back into her arm and made a grab for the water glass, but only succeeded in knocking it off the table. It hit the floor with a dull crash, though not before taking the book and the gold brooch with it. The lamp rocked back and forth, perilously close to the table's edge.
“Ah! What are you trying to do? Burn down the house?” Strong hands darted out to steady the teetering lamp. A woman's face ducked low, into the mellow lamplight, and Raisa heard the scraping sound of chair legs being dragged over wooden planks just before the woman sat down at her bedside. She looked closely at Raisa, stroking her forehead with one hand, clasping her fingers with the other. “This is all my fault. I never should have left you alone. What do you need? More water? I'll get it for you right away.” She patted Raisa's hand and got up again.
“Glukel, wait, don't leave me!” The words flew out of Raisa's mouth much louder than she had expected. Her voice was coming back. It sounded healthier than she felt.
The woman turned sharply, a look of delight on her weary face. “You know me,” she said, as if that were a great miracle. “You remember my name.”
“How could I forget . . . ?” Raisa began, but the dryness in her mouth and throat forced her back into silence.
“Hush, not another word!” The older woman raced off into the shadows, returning swiftly with a new glassâfresh water. She sat on the bed, one arm supporting Raisa's back, the other holding the glass to her lips. “Drink it slowly.”
Raisa did her best to obey, but the water tasted so good that soon she was gulping it down. When Glukel tried to pull the glass away from her lips, Raisa clutched the older woman's wrist with both hands and held on stubbornly. Still, Raisa wasn't strong enough to win that tug-of-war. She made a weak protest as she was forced to let the glass go.
“Shhh, shhh.” Glukel stroked Raisa's cheek with her free hand. “You can have more soon. I don't want you to make yourself sick again, that's all. Your stomach's not used to having so much in it all of a sudden. Patience, and I promise that soon you'll have more water and maybe a little soup and even a nice egg! And tea! Tea with honeyâit's good for you, my darling Alteh. You'll see.”
“Alteh? Glukel, why do you call me that? I'm
” She pronounced her given name fiercely, defending something precious.
“Not anymore, dear one. When you were so sick that I thought I was going to lose you, too, I changed your name. The Angel of Death”âGlukel spat three times to cast away any bad luck that might be attracted by mentioning the name of such a dreadful beingâ“was looking for a girl named Raisa. A
girl. What young girl would be called Alteh?” Glukel appeared doubtful, as if she didn't believe her own words of explanation, but she spoke as if she did.
Raisa shook her head. “I don't like that name. It'sâit's not who I am.”
“It's who you are now. What does it matter? It's such a little thing, and it saved your life!”
“You believe that?” Raisa gave the older woman an incredulous look. “You think it's so easy to trick an angel?”
Glukel looked uneasy, as if she sensed an invisible, dangerous presence in her own home. “Don't talk like that. Don't mock what you can't understand! You should be thankful that we could fool the Angel ofâthat we could fool him.”
thankful,” Raisa maintained. “Glukel, you took care of Henda and me like your own daughters since Mama died and I'm gratefulâI'll never be able to repay you for itâbut how grateful would I be to Mama if I abandoned the name she gave me?”
“May she rest in peace,” Glukel said automatically. She sighed. “She was my closest friend. I can hardly believe she's been gone for so many years.
would understand what I've done to save you, but you? Who can argue with you girls these days? So headstrong! Fine, have it your way; I'm too exhausted to fight you. I've had to have one new grave dug already. I'm just thankful there won't be a second one now,
k'n ein' horeh.
” As she spoke the words to avert the evil eye, she began to weep.