“Thank the good Lord,” Tevye said when he finally crawled back under the wagon. His rain-drenched clothing clung to his flesh. “Tonight, a miracle has transpired. The son of a rabbi wants to marry Tevye’s daughter.”
Ruchel kissed him. “I am so happy, Tata.”
Suddenly, Tevye raised himself up with a jerk and whacked his head on the planks of the wagon. “I forgot to tell your mother,” he said. Quickly, he scrambled back outside in the downpour. He bent over the coffin and whispered the good news to his wife, Golda.
“Our Ruchela has found herself the son of a rabbi,” he whispered. “You can rest in peace, my Golda. Our luck is finally changing.”
But then again, a man can never be sure. As the Talmud advices, a man should keep good fortune a secret lest the evil eye glance his way. Suddenly, galloping horses thundered by in the night, a stone throw away from the Jews. Tevye recognized the sword-wielding figures of Cossacks. His family sat frozen, holding their breaths until the rumbling cavalcade passed. The darkness of the forest had saved them.
Within minutes, Tevye was asleep, snuggled between his daughters. Nachman fell asleep in the arms of the Zionists. Only Ruchel remained awake with her thoughts of a wedding in Israel, and of the gown she would soon need to sew.
The first time that she heard their horse sneeze, she thought it was from the rain and the chill. The animal neighed restlessly. Its ears straightened, and it started to beat the ground with its hooves. Then a smell of smoke filled Ruchel’s nostrils, causing her to sneeze also. Yells came from the forest. It was Hevedke.
“Fire!” he shouted. “Fire! Branosk is burnt to the ground!”
“Tata,” Ruchel called, shaking her father. “Tata.”
Tevye woke up and scrambled to his feet. Quickly, he ran to the road. In the distance, he could see clouds of smoke. The rain had ceased, and a towering fire reached up to the treetops. Ben Zion and his comrades ran past him. Tevye hurried back to the campsite, threw the reins on his horse, and swung onto its back. Nachman ran over and Tevye extended a hand, lifting him up alongside him. They rode off, galloping back down the road. Within minutes, they were back in the village. Pillars of fire blazed all around them. Houses were burnt to the ground. People in their nightgowns lay slaughtered in the street. Others ran in helter-skelter confusion, trying to douse out flames with buckets of water. Crying children searched for their parents. Nachman jumped down from the horse and ran toward his house. Tevye bent down by a man who was pierced through with a saber.
“Cossacks,” the Jew whispered and died.
Down the main road of the shtetl, the barn where Tevye had met Nachman caved in and collapsed. A man staggered out of the burning synagogue, clutching a Sefer Torah. Lungs choking with smoke, he handed the sacred scroll to Tevye. Hevedke appeared by his side. The fire’s reflection flashed over his face. He tried to speak, but couldn’t find words. Ben Zion ran up alongside them.
“They didn’t want to come with us to Palestine,” he said, and he ran off to help with the wounded.
Tevye shuddered and embraced the Torah scroll in his arms. By a twist of fortune, his family had escaped the massacre. If they had spent the night in the village, they too would have been victims. And if the rain hadn’t extinguished their campfire, the Czar’s soldiers would have set upon them. Why had the Almighty protected them, Tevye wondered? Because they were headed for the Promised Land?
Clutching the holy Torah, he headed for the house that Nachman had entered. He climbed the porch stairs and pushed open the door. Dozens of books were scattered on the floor. Bookcases had been toppled. A menorah lay shattered. Tevye set the Torah down on a table. Nachman appeared in the door of the bedroom, his face as white as the kittel worn by the cantor on Yom Kippur.
“Blessed art Thou our Lord, King of the universe, the true Judge,” the young man whispered.