Return of the King

Benjamin Noam Pearlberg

Behind her house, in the back woods where the river rushed lazy and gentle, she went bathing at dawn with her best friend, Shoshana Epstein. Batya was not yet seventeen and when they undressed she still felt the excitement of exposing her blushing and blooming body to nature’s eye. Sometimes they heard the cries of a mourning dove and would cover themselves with twisted branches and reeds, feigning modesty.

On that particular summer morning, Batya stepped outside and inhaled the scent of wilting flowers. When they reached the river bank, she and her friend began to undress, and as they did, they heard a cry wholly different from the bird songs to which they were accustomed. Shoshana Epstein, already stripped to the waist, said, “Fuck it, let’s get wet.” She quickly removed the remainder of her clothes and entered the water. Batya took her time, stretching out her legs and burying her toes and feet in the cool mud before she too waded in. She tossed back her long brown hair and dipped her head until the water line reached her ears and she could hear the echoes of her friend’s movement ten feet off.

Batya’s father was the Rabbi. Every morning he went to the beis medrish for prayer and study, leaving Batya and her four brothers to their own escapades. In the evenings, upon his return, he expected an account from each of them.

Until that morning, Batya had kept her skinny-dipping trysts a secret from her father, but at the dinner table, as her youngest brother was reporting on the scripture verses he’d memorized with his friend Yussi Blumenstein, she made the decision to confess all. When it was her turn, she told her father about waking early and watching him leave the house for services. She told him about meeting Shoshana Epstein in the backyard, walking down to the river and getting naked. And she told him about the cardboard grocery box packed with clay and tar she saw floating in the water, and the black-skinned baby she’d found inside. “I’m gonna keep him too,” she declared, and she never felt more certain about anything in her life.

Immediately, her father stood up from his dinner plate, reached across the table and grabbed Batya by her collar. “We don’t do that here,” he said, never articulating to the girl what precisely it was that they did not do.

He made her take him to the bulrushes where she’d left the boy before coming in to eat. “He needs food,” her father said, taking the boy in his arms.

“Then I’ll nurse him,” Batya said.

Her father ignored her, not taking the time to correct her misconceived notion of how a virgin girl such as herself might come to give milk; sex was not the subject at hand.

That was the last Batya saw of the river boy whom, in those hypnotic hours after being found, she’d already come to think of as her son. But for the seven years that followed, up until the very night she gave birth to her own first-born son, she felt the strange sensation that somewhere in a shadowy kitchen, mothered by the descendant of a more recent generation of slaves, a new king was rising.

Benjamin Noam Pearlberg grew up in Canada and Michigan, and currently lives in New York with his wife, Lisa. He has earned degrees at Columbia University, and for the past four years has been studying in yeshiva. His short story “A Wedding Tale” is a finalist for the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize.

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