Divide and Conquer
Remote Northern Switzerland – Autumn, 1837
Saffron’s body was still good and firm even though she’d been a fortnight dead. The weather had preserved her well, so although the old horse wouldn’t be pulling the carriage another yard, she was still pulling her weight by providing sustenance for the desperate party – who prayed her meat might outlast the storm.
The mid-October gale had caught them off guard; it howled through the already-treacherous Jura mountain passage, evening the landscape under a uniform cotton shroud and leaving the trail indistinguishable from its surrounding countryside. The terrain wiped flat — save where huge, swirling drifts rose and formed impassable barricades — it was all but impossible for the hapless group to continue navigating their way to the crossing point on the Rhine, still some thirty miles on.
The ferocious winds had tossed their carriage like a children’s toy, had flipped it effortlessly and weakened its frame upon landing it again. Their essential provisions having flown off and away, were scattered widely and then buried under a foot or more of fresh snow in the outlying fields. And during the long nights, wild beasts, better equipped for the task of scavenging there, made off with whatever edibles they could find. By the time the blizzard relented three days later, leaving frigid temperatures in its wake, there was precious little left for the family to eat, and old Saffron, having had enough, had simply laid down, died, and froze.
But Leopold Wyler was no grand butcher, so what might have been generous choice cuts, enough for a score of days, had been recklessly discarded with the actual waste during the butchering process. Unbeknownst to Leopold, of course, was that had that meat been saved, countless girls’ lives might also have been saved over many ensuing years; such is the way of fate.
Leopold’s young wife, Angelica, along with their unborn child, had been relegated to passenger status within the carriage while he, his sister Rebekka, and her husband Julius Frey, filled in for the late Saffron and slowly forced the carriage along the trail, through the heavy snow. Finding the trail ahead had become as arduous a task as traversing it now, as slipping off the edge could be detrimental to the carriage’s chassis; it having been compromised during the storm, and patchworked back together into a precarious state of functionality.
And then Julius was at the left rear, pushing and puffing, when the carriage slid into a rut and tilted wildly toward him. He stumbled and slipped into the rut himself, his foot being crushed before he had time and balance enough to pull it back. He cursed his maker as he realized he was pinned. Inside, Angelica had fallen across the seat and hit her elbow hard against a furious Fantôme, Rebekka’s cat, as the carriage had jolted and come to a sudden stop. She awkwardly pulled herself upright, and sighed heavily. Her baby kicked, as if it too were frustrated with this latest annoyance.
Angelica had enough of being coddled. “Stay,” she told Fantôme, who gazed back at her defiantly. She unlatched the carriage door and kicked it open. Fantôme dove out the door and nearly disappeared in the snow. She looked around, and then back at the door, as if having immediately regretted her escape. Rebekka immediately came to the cat’s rescue, rescuing her from the snow, and glancing hard at Angelica.
Angelica paid her no mind. She looked around, assessing the situation as she climbed down. She slammed the door when she felt ground underfoot, hiked high her skirts, and made her way to the carriage’s rear center. Rebekka returned the grateful feline to the relative comfort and safety of the cab before following her sister-in-law.
“Pull...” Angelica began as Rebekka took up position beside her. “One, two, three, and... push!” Angelica’s shrill voice cut through the crisp air. She repeated the command several times, creating momentum in the carriage’s movement as her husband and in-laws abided on cue. And on the third push! the carriage escaped its hold and freed a relieved Julius from its grip.
“Hurrah!” said Leopold, from his position near the front. Rebekka and Julius joined the chorus but a piercing crack! cut short their ovation.
Leopold stumbled when the axle snapped and the carriage lurched. Again, it had come to an abrupt stop but determination and physics would not save the beleaguered party this time. They stood in silence for a moment, each of them shivering and feeling the full weight of this newest defeat. But none would call it that; it was as if admitting the reality would somehow allow them to succumb to it. Leopold moved to hug his wife. Angelica squeezed his hand in response. She peered through the now lightly-falling snow at the errantly-sloping landscape that had been their domain for the better part of a week. She scanned the immediate area: down along the bottom of a nearby dale the remains of a small forest, having burned down some years before, jutted up at awkward angles from the otherwise flat basin, like lost and disoriented soldiers in the aftermath of a fierce and pointless battle.
“There,” Angelica said thoughtfully. She pointed, and the ragged family obligingly followed to where her shivering finger directed their gaze. “Do you think a new axle could perhaps be found down there? The newer growth will be too soft, of course, and the old, mostly bent and brittle but there may be one good old piece that’s long and solid enough for our needs, no?”
“Perhaps something,” Julius agreed, nodding. “Shall we go see what’s down there in the morning, Leopold?” He looked to his brother-in-law, but Leopold was already on his way, axe in hand, trudging through the snow. Julius limped after him, soon being led through a makeshift path the width of Leopold’s body, as the snow became deeper the further they travelled toward the skeletons of the old forest.
Rebekka moved to stand closer to Angelica and they watched their men for a short time until their backs were swallowed by the dark. “Back in the cab for you, young madam,” Rebekka said. “There’s nothing else we can do at the moment, except pray.”
Angelica nodded her tacit agreement, silently noting that a great deal of prayer had only managed to deliver them to their current predicament. But she climbed back in as instructed and attempted to soothe her child by gently rubbing her stomach and humming a lullaby she half-remembered from her youth. Having apparently forgiven her, Fantôme nestled up to her leg. The poor thing could use more meat on her bones, Angelica thought.
She unknowingly began dozing, dreaming of her family’s new life across the border, away from the strict rules governing Jews in their native Switzerland. She was preparing lunch on their farm; it was a modest one, but it was theirs. Her child played carefree on the floor beside her, occasionally yanking at her skirt, babbling and giggling. They had decided to call the child Freddy, if a boy, otherwise, Frederica. In the dream, it was a little girl.
It was warm in her dream, and Leopold was there, walking back to the small home for a midday meal after working up a sweat, turning soil for the turnip and cabbage seeds to be soon planted. He was handsome and brawny, his muscles glistening in the bright sun. He waved and she pretended not to see him. He called her name and chased some fat chickens out of his path, off the lane that meandered up to the quaint farmhouse. Angelica looked around, in every direction save the right one, pretending to search for the source of the voice. She shielded her eyes from the sun and scanned the breadth of the property: there was no one at the eastern end where the sturdy new barn reached into the sky.
“Angelica!” he called. Again, she focused her attention the wrong way and tried not to smile. This time to the western orchard, where red apples hung temptingly from the trees there, approaching their peak ripeness…
“Angelica! Oh my god, Angelica!”
It was Rebekka. Angelica stirred, quickly regained her bearings, and snapped the curtain back to look through the crudely-cut window at the stark grey sky of the present.
“What’s wrong, Rebekka?” she asked, weary dread rippling her words.
Rebekka pointed to where the men had gone. Angelica couldn’t get a proper view from her vantage point and hurriedly exited the cab. She tried to focus in the dark and saw Julius running and stumbling and waving, making his way up the hill toward them. He was severely agitated. He yelled something but neither woman could make out the words. There was no sign of Leopold, and Angelica’s heart sank. She felt nauseated.
“W-where’s Leo though?” she vaguely heard herself ask Rebekka, but she knew the question was pointless; Rebekka couldn’t know. When Julius got near enough that they could see the stark severity of his eyes, they finally understood the words he had been yelling: wolves. Wolves, he was yelling, and Leopold.
Angelica started running down into the forest valley, circumventing Julius but he grabbed her and stopped her from progressing. She beat at his chest, screaming for her husband, but Julius held her firmly, silently weeping at her shoulder. Rebekka joined them and the three huddled there for a considerable time until the madness had subsided from Angelica’s eyes and the tears finally came.
“Bah,” Samuel had said. “Don’t be foolish, girl.”
“He’s clever, Father, and funny, too,” Angelica had said in Leopold’s defence.
“Funny and clever? If you mean cocky, then, yes, I agree. But cocky doesn’t put soup in the belly, my dear,” Samuel said, as if explaining to a child. “Sweat does. Keeping quiet, with your mind on your work, that’s what builds a home and a secure family.”
“He’s ambitious too,” she offered, and immediately knew that was about the worst thing she could have said.
“Ah, ambitious, is he? The most dangerous of all traits.” Samuel smiled without humour, his eyes remaining hard. “Ambition will get a Jew’s throat cut quicker than anything else, except, perhaps, being funny and clever.”
“What should he do, then, Father? Accept his fate, and that of his future children, and that’s that? We’re forbidden from nearly every kind of decent, honest work! What can we do? Sow the seeds for Protestants and Catholics to reap? Trade tattered rags for nearly nothing on the pitiless streets? Where can we live, Father? Tell me! Here, and in Lengnau, and nowhere else? What life is that, Father? Forbidden to live in all but two towns in all of the cursed land!”
“It is a life, yes. As opposed to a death,” Samuel said. “I’m glad you’ve finally come to your senses and realized that.”
“Play with my words if you wish but Leopold has dreams, and I do too. Together we can work toward the change our people need and deserve. We deserve it, Father!”
“Of course we deserve it!” Samuel slammed his calloused palm on the table and Angelica tensed. “But deserve and expect are not the same, Angelica. Deserve and receive are even greater strangers. That’s a difference you stupid young people need to learn before you get hurt, and get others hurt along with you!” he roared. And when he saw his daughter’s tears of frustration commence, he calmed considerably and made to comfort her. “That’s what this is about, my child. I’m so afraid that Leopold’s high and mighty ideals will deliver you to a life of misery, or to no life at all. Don’t you understand that? His kind… his kind,” he shook his head sadly, “they never persevere.” Samuel reached across the table and took her trembling hand in his. “I have seen their fates, my dear. The dismal fates of a dozen Leopolds, maybe a hundred of them.” He patted her hand. He got up, blew out the candle, and left her alone at the table. From the other room he added, “There’s no shame in a hard day’s labour, Angelica. He just needs to get used to it. His childish fantasies will subside with time. They do for all of us.”
On a logical level, she knew her father made sense. But someone had to make the change, she thought. Why not Leopold? She knew her stance would not waver, and neither would her father’s, but peace would have to be made, somehow.
Samuel had been mortified on that late afternoon when Leopold had come to dinner and announced his intentions toward Angelica. He decided then that Leopold was an evil, treacherous rat who had tricked his naive child into romance. This was a notion that his wife Alina, scoffed at, and one that Angelica found highly offensive. She refused to speak to her father for days until he apologized and accepted Leopold into the family, however grudgingly.
Contrary to the common mores of the local Christians, Jewish women had never acted subservient to their men and had never allowed themselves to be treated as lesser people simply due to their sex. Wiser Jewish men, for their part, knew they daren’t even try.
Leopold, then, was welcomed as Samuel’s son-in-law. Because Samuel knew he had no choice.
He never did come to view the situation quite as his daughter and her husband did, or agree that leaving the country was the best thing for her, but Samuel knew that he must accept it. Sombrely, he had helped them load the carriage on that late-September morning when they departed and, as a show of love and support, offered them his trusty horse, Saffron, in trade for the thinner and weaker one Leopold had planned on using for the journey. “If you are to make it,” Samuel had assured them, “it will be with the help of able ol’ Saffron.”
It had been three days since Leopold’s death. She took turns, along with Julius and Rebekka, guarding the carriage with an old shotgun; the onslaught of wolf packs had become a very real threat with the aroma of meat roasting over the fire. Night and day, the small troupe kept vigil but the wild animals never returned. Julius eventually got the axle replaced and they set off once again, slower than ever, one man short, and with a rapidly declining source of food. On the seventh day, the last sad remains of Saffron were divided up, cooked over a small fire, and dished out. And then it was Fantôme’s turn, but she only lasted a day.
After four more days as the hunger became unbearable, Julius forced himself on a foraging expedition early in the day and not returning until dusk, acting sheepish and peculiar when he did. He had with him, wrapped in his jacket, a piece of meat he said he found jutting out of the snow, just beyond that old forest where the new axle was found.
“It’s the thigh of an elk,” he said, “It was quite a stroke a luck to come across it.” He avoided the women’s gazes and cooked it behind the carriage in lee of the bitter northerly winds. The smell was glorious to the ravished threesome as it began to sizzle. Fearing the scent would attract predators, they remained on guard as they salivated and impatiently waited for it to be thoroughly cooked. Julius scraped off the first piece for Angelica, who took it reluctantly but then gorged herself on it, chewing and swallowing faster as the taste became more palatable. She thought she could feel her child being satiated as her own hunger subsided for the first time in days.
Was elk the best he could come up with? she thought. It wasn’t nearly the right shape for elk, nor an appropriate length.
How had the wolves managed to leave an entire thigh behind? she wondered, but she couldn’t ask. To ask would be to break the communal lie. She closed her eyes and tried to think of elk meat as she chewed the bit of flesh she had just torn from the bone with her teeth. Still, despite Julius’s crude fabrication, she was grateful to him for allowing her – for allowing all of them – to pretend it was something other than Leopold’s leg they were dining on; it helped to make it just a little more tolerable.
But it wasn’t a full two days later when the hunger had returned worse than ever – and there would be no more Leopold legs to feast on. On the sixth day thereafter, without a scrap to eat since, the three sat in the cab in silence. Julius and Rebekka huddled together on one side, Angelica spread out on the other. She appeared to be asleep, but remained very much alert.
Because she had heard the whispers in the night, and she was hearing them again now.
She couldn’t make them out, yet knew exactly what they meant. Despite their misgivings, her travelling companions were planning to kill her and eat her; it was the only logical conclusion they could come to. Someone had to be eaten for the others to have a chance at survival. Rebekka and Julius never slept at the same time anymore. One of them always remained awake. Why? Was it to ensure she couldn’t get them before they got her? Angelica toyed with the idea that hunger might be making her paranoid, but she soon discarded the notion; her mind was all too clear. The body of a woman, with child, could feasibly supply enough energy to help the couple make it to the Rhine, at least if there was to be a mild break in the weather. It was two against one, Angelica thought. Or, perhaps, against one and a half.
She feared sleep but she was so desperately tired. If not today, then tomorrow it will happen. It will be soon when they kill me in my sleep and begin feeding on me and my baby. Angelica’s mind raced. She pitied herself and her insane predicament. How can I save my child? She hadn’t the strength to fight off the two of them, she was sure of it, not even if she wasn’t weak and nearly eight months pregnant. That was out of the question. She would have to somehow outsmart them. And fast. Emperor Napoleon, who was sympathetic to the Jews, she recalled, had often outwitted stronger, more powerful enemies – and enemies were what her in-laws now were, she had to admit. Adversaries in a life and death struggle. What would Napoleon do? she asked herself.
The answer came to her almost immediately: divide and conquer.
“I’m going out to melt some snow for water,” she said. “Unless there’s some to drink in here?” she asked, knowing that there wasn’t, since no one had left the cab during her supposed nap.
“Sorry, I should have gotten some for you,” Julius offered. “Let me get it now.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I need the air. It’s a little milder this day, no?” she said. The Freys uttered vague agreements. Angelica hobbled out, closed the door behind her, and filled a tin pitcher halfway up with fresh snow from beside the trail. “Oh, perhaps you could start the fire for me, Julius?” she called. Moments later, he was out there with her, struggling to ignite a flame without much in the way of kindling. He muttered something unintelligible but it didn’t matter; she replied with a loud giggle, one sounding flirtatious, she hoped, to Rebekka from inside the carriage. Julius gave Angelica a quizzical look, laughed awkwardly in return, and went back to concentrating on the fire. “I’ll just go back in, away from the wind, until it’s going well, alright?” she said, hoping Rebekka had heard Julius’s laughter as well as her own. He nodded, but she didn’t notice, as she had already climbed back inside.
“The baby okay?” Rebekka asked.
”I think so. It seems a little better than yesterday even,” Angelica lied.
“That’s surprising, but certainly a good thing.”
“Yes, it may have been Julius’s comfort during the night. You’re so lucky to have him, Rebekka. He’s truly a wonderful man.”
“Comfort?” asked Rebekka.
“Yes, and body heat. I loved how he rubbed my belly and... well, elsewhere... to help keep me warm and comfortable. I was truly relaxed for the first time in days. It made quite the difference.”
“Oh, I…” Rebekka tried. “I wasn’t aware he did that.”
“Yes, he said it was important to protect the child. He does love children so much, doesn’t he? It’s a shame you’ve never been able to give him a child yourself. So sad, for both of you.”
Rebekka had no reply.
Angelica had been aware that, even this far along in her pregnancy, Rebekka felt inferior to her, as a woman — as a sexual being. She knew Rebekka was a little jealous of her, her looks, her manner, and especially of her unborn child. It was something that never would have been an issue under regular circumstances, but something Angelica felt she may be able to leverage now, during this desperate time. It was cruel, and devious, and the only thing she could think of that might help her live throughout the night.
Then it was Rebekka’s turn to force away sleep. Angelica had no idea if she could outlast her. She had her doubts, but the survival of her child was a powerful incentive. She felt like squealing with delight when, finally, she heard Rebekka lightly snoring. She waited an agonizing ten minutes more before motioning to Julius to come over to her side of the cab. Seemingly bewildered, he yawned and obeyed. She whispered to him that she was cold and asked if he could he rub her belly for a few moments. The notion of touching her seemed to rattle him a little, and Angelica suppressed a sly smile. But he reluctantly obliged; he couldn’t say no to her, and when his hand was particularly low on her stomach, Angelica coughed loudly and laughed, arousing Rebekka on the opposite seat.
Rebekka immediately assessed the situation, noting that her husband had his arm around Angelica instead of her, and his other hand had been suspiciously out of sight and doing god knows what down there before he quickly removed it, looking guilty. Rebekka screamed with rage and rummaged through her possessions quickly, finding the handle of the cast-iron frying pan, and swinging it wildly into the side of her husband’s head. Julius had tried to speak just before the impact shut him up and rendered him unconscious, leaving slouched against the side of the cab.
Angelica didn’t miss a beat. The moment the pan struck Julius, she pulled the butcher knife from her left coat pocket and reached across, burying it deep in Rebekka’s belly, and then yanking it up tight to the woman’s sternum. Rebekka gasped, her eyes widened in disbelief, and she instinctively used both hands to try to hold her guts in place. Her effort was admirable for a short time, until she fell over on the seat, with her dead eyes staring uncomprehendingly toward Angelica, and her innards escaping down the seat and creating a mound on the cab floor.
Julius began to regain his senses. He moaned and held his forehead where the pan had struck. He groaned, and moved to push Angelica aside when he saw his wife was in some sort of medical distress. But he wasn’t quick enough, not having the comprehension and clarity of the situation as Angelica had. She acted fast while she had the upper hand, quickly pulling the knife from Rebekka’s midsection and swinging it over and backhanded across Julius’s throat. That attempt merely grazed him, so she tried again, deeper, more determinedly, more accurately, and with more success. The dullish knife gouged, more than cut, his throat and Julius slouched once more, but remained upright as the blood poured from him, and Angelica watched his life drain with it. She tried to get away from him, but weak, tired, and frantic, it took her a few almost-comical manoeuvres with her large belly before she managed to get released from his grip, and outside into the brisk evening air.
She leaned against the carriage trying to catch her breath, to breathe the fresh air deeply, and then she bent over and tried to be sick. But nothing came. She dry heaved for a long time, worrying how her child was faring with the physical and emotional distress on their systems. But then the nervous convulsions thankfully subsided. Angelica stared up, emotionless, into the night sky.
There would be no cooking of the meat.
Over the next few days Angelica tried several times to eat some of her in-laws’ raw remains that she had managed to keep from freezing. Each time, she vomited violently immediately thereafter, rendering the attempts futile – and the meat wasted. She kept trying, however, and once in a while tried another match until they were all so torn and scraped up that they wouldn’t have been able to ignite in the most pristine of environments. Eventually, she had to admit it was pointless, and she broke down sobbing. She could feel the essence of her child waning.
And it was good. Palatable, at least. She could almost feel her child’s gratitude with every bite.
As the weather finally cleared and the snow began to melt, Angelica felt stronger, rejuvenated, and she decided she was now healthy enough to head out on foot. There wasn’t much of Rebekka’s brain left, but Julius’s head was in her sack, and that gave her comfort as she headed east with the brilliant morning sun splashing her face with glorious warmth.