Harry Turtledove is a Hugo winner who seems to live on the bestseller list. The field of alternate history was pretty much overlooked and abandoned until Harry made it his own, and tens of millions of sales later, he still pretty dominates it.
Yitzkhak the cobbler loosened the vise and checked to see whether the glue had set between the half-dozen thicknesses of leather. Finding it had, he let out a small grunt of satisfaction. On the topmost layer, he drew an outline of the rears on the pair of boots that needed reheeling. The knife he reached for was sharp but sturdy. Sturdy it had to be, to cut through that much leather.
He bore down with the knife, using all the strength in his right arm. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. The verse from Psalm CXXXVII was seldom far from the Jew’s thoughts.
He muttered to himself as he cut. Too many people had forgotten too many things over the course of too many years. To Yitzkhak, it seemed as though more people had forgotten more things lately. That might have been because his rusty beard had more white in it than he cared to remember. Or, on the other hand, it might not. The way things were these days, you never could tell. And no one ever seemed to forget trouble.
After cutting the new boot heels, he used brass nails to fix them in place. Iron nails would have been cheaper, and would have served just as well…till Chaim the butcher walked in mud or splashed through a puddle. After that, they would have started to rust. Do it right the first time was one of the rules Yitzkhak’s father had beaten into him. The habit was too deeply ingrained now for him to lose it, or even to remember he’d once had to acquire it.
Warm, sweet summer air and light came through the open door and the narrow window of the cobbler’s shop. So did the exciting, almost intoxicating gabble of trade. Monday was market day in Kolomija—the town’s name could be spelled at least half a dozen different ways in at least three different alphabets. The same was true for Yitzkhak’s own name. This was a debatable part of the world in all kinds of ways.
It was summer, yes. Just what the date was was as debatable as the spelling of Kolomija. By the calendar the Catholics used, it was August 24, 1772. To the Orthodox, it was August 13 of the same year. In the Jews’ system, which reckoned from the creation of the world, it was the twenty-fifth of Av in the year 5532. The Ottoman Empire lay not far to the south—just on the other side of the Carpathians. To Muslims, it was the twenty-fourth of Jumaada al-awal, 1186. And, by the new reckoning that threatened to swallow all the others, it was the twenty-fifth day of the eleventh month in the year 95.
Even the frontiers in these parts rippled and shifted like a river. Until a few months before, the Jews of Kolomija had paid taxes to a nobleman who mostly didn’t send them to the King of Poland. Now, though, Kolomija—and that nobleman—owed allegiance to the Emperor of Austria. If the nobleman held out on Joseph, Yitzkhak suspected he would regret it.
The cobbler looked at the boots he’d just fixed. He looked under the counter. He had to patch a torn upper for Shmuel the rope-maker. That could keep, though. Shmuel was down in Jablonow, fifteen miles to the south, tending his sick mother. Unless the poor woman took a turn for the worse and died (God forbid, Yitzkhak thought), he wouldn’t come home for a week or two.
Yitzkhak didn’t have anything he needed to do right this minute. It was gloomy and stuffy inside the cramped shop. It smelled of leather and sweat and glue. Under that, it smelled musty.
Outside, the sun shone. Outside, the market square would be packed. Kolomija had a fine market day. It wouldn’t just be peasants bringing in chickens and white radishes and peas from the countryside. Merchants came call the way from Czernowitz, sometimes all the way from Rowne, to buy and sell and trade. Rowne was on the other side of the border now, but nobody yet had fussed about it.
He closed and latched the shutter, stepped outside, and put a big iron padlock on the front door. The lock was ancient and rusty. A half-witted child could pick it or force it. So far, no burglar had figured that out. With luck, none would till Yitzkhak got back. “Alevai omanyn,” he murmured as he started for the market square.
His own well-made boots kicked up dust at every step. It was hot outside. The broad brim of his fox-trimmed black hat kept the sun off his face, but sweat sprang out on his forehead.
He wasn’t the only man who might have been working but was heading for the market instead. He called greetings to Jews and to Catholic Poles. Like most people in Kolomija, he could get along in Yiddish or Polish, German or Little Russian, or even Slovak in a pinch. He talked to his God in Hebrew, as the Poles talked to theirs in Latin.
Czeslaw the tavern-keeper had a bottle of plum brandy under each arm. He was on his way back from the square. His red nose and the veins that tracked his cheeks said he drank up some of his profits. He and Yitzkhak nodded to each other. Kolomija wasn’t such a big town that everyone didn’t know everyone else, at least by sight.
“How’s the square?” Yitzkhak asked.
“Busy. Busiest I’ve seen it for a while. With the roads dry, people from a long way off can get here.” Czeslaw frowned. His ice-gray eyes narrowed. “I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, not the way it is nowadays. They’ll go home and remind their neighbors we’re around.”
Yitzkhak made an unhappy noise. “I’m not so sure it’s good, either. Sometimes—a lot of the time—the most you can hope for is that everybody forgets about you and leaves you alone.”
“Too right, it is!” Czeslaw said. “There was talk that haidamacks are gathering.” He crossed himself to turn aside the evil omen.
“God forbid!” Instead of thinking it, Yitzkhak said it aloud. He wanted to give the Lord a better chance of hearing it. Haidamacks meant rioters. They were Cossacks and other ne’er-do-wells who swarmed like locusts every so often, killing and looting and burning for the greater glory of their notion of God—and for the fun of it. Yitzkhak went on, “I hope the talk is wrong. The last time they came through was only—what?—four years ago?”
“Yes, that’s when it was,” the taverner said. “Before that, we didn’t see them for fifteen or twenty years, and then another fifteen before that. We were both little boys back then.”
“I remember.” Yitzkhak touched the brim of his hat once more. “Well, I’d better head on to the square myself and hear it with my own ears. May the Lord bless you and keep you, Czeslaw.”
“And you, Jew. And you.” Bobbing his head, the Pole headed up the street toward his place of business.
On to the market square trudged Yitzkhak. The joy, the anticipation, were gone from his step. The only thing he had to look forward to now was bad news. The day felt darker, as if clouds covered the sun. They didn’t, but the cobbler saw with his heart as much as with his ears.
Wagons and carts filled the square. Women in embroidered head scarves sat on the ground, selling eggs or mushrooms or turnips from baskets they’d made themselves. A donkey brayed. Stray dogs skulked, looking for food they could steal.
Peddlers who’d come to Kolomija from bigger towns shouted their wares: plates; big, clunky clocks with gilded wooden cases; books in German and French and Latin and Hebrew; the brandy Czeslaw had bought; carved meerschaums from Vienna; singing finches in brass cages; and almost anything else someone thought he might be able to sell.
Yitzkhak eyed the meerschaums with longing, especially one in the shape of a bare-breasted mermaid—you smoked through her tail. His current pipe was baked clay. It worked, but it was ugly as the mud it came from. He asked the trader what a meerschaum cost. The answer made him retreat in a hurry. The best haggling in the world wouldn’t bring the price down to anything he could afford.
He did buy a bagel for a copper. His jaw worked at the chewy dough as he went through the square, though not before he recited the brukha over bread. A sausage-seller held up a link. Yitzkhak politely shook his head. Tadeusz used pork in his sausages; it wasn’t forbidden him.
The cobbler wished he had ears like a cat’s or a fox’s, ears that could swivel and track things he particularly wanted to hear. But he turned out not to need anything like that. People were talking about haidamacks in several different languages. They would have talked about a rising storm the same way when clouds were still low on the horizon.
He wasn’t the only man from Kolomija whose face got glummer the longer he stayed in the market square. Alter the druggist and Casimir the stonecutter were talking when Yitzkhak came up to them. Alter touched his hatbrim; Casimir bobbed a token bow.
“It doesn’t sound good,” the stonecutter said.
“They’re coming, sure as sure,” the druggist agreed sadly. “For our sins, they’re coming.”
“We must have done something awful, to make God hate us so much,” Yitzkhak said. “Another pogrom, so soon after the last one…”
As Czeslaw had before, Casimir made the sign of the cross. “I’m a good Catholic—well, as good a Catholic as an ordinary man can be,” he said. “All I want to do is to worship God the way my father and my grandfathers and all my ancestors did before me.”
“That’s all I want, too.” Yitzkhak and Alter said the same thing at the same time. The two Jews looked at each other and laughed. It was that or burst into tears.
Casimir glowered at them from under bushy eyebrows. “That miserable…” The stonecutter growled a Polish obscenity, adding, “He was just a rotten Zhyd himself.”
“Nu?” Yitzkhak shrugged an expressive—and nervous—shrug. He didn’t want to tangle with Casimir; the man’s trade had given him shoulders broad as a bull’s and upper arms bulging with muscle. He tried simple truth instead: “So was the one you go to church for.”
“It’s not the same,” Casimir said, but he stopped glowering.
“Besides,” Yitzkhak added, “would it make any difference if he’d been a Turk? He still would have been…what he was. What they say he was, I mean.”
“What they say he was, eh?” Casimir seemed to like that. He nodded. “Maybe the God-cursed haidamacks will be afraid of the Austrian Emperor. This is his land now. Maybe they won’t come. Maybe the town can fight them off if they do.” He lumbered away. He’d talked himself into feeling better, anyhow.
Softly, so the stonecutter wouldn’t hear, Alter said, “And maybe I’ll grown like an onion, with my head in the ground.”
“Maybe you will,” Yitzkhak said. “You never can tell.” They both laughed again. Again, Yitzkhak heard the sorrow under the mirth.
Summer slipped toward fall. The High Holy Days came and went. The Jewish year 5532 gave way to 5533. Yitzkhak fasted and prayed through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He begged forgiveness of everyone he’d offended the past year, and did his best to forgive everyone who apologized to him. It wasn’t always easy, but on that day of days a man had to try.
The fall rains held off long enough to let the peasants bring in a good harvest of barley and wheat. The winter would be hungry—winters usually were. But no one seemed likely to starve.
As soon as the rains came, roads went from dusty tracks to rivers of mud. Travel slowed, or else stopped altogether. The roof in Yitzkhak’s shop leaked. He put a chipped bowl under one drip and a dented tin cup that had lost its handle under another. Every so often, he would toss the water into the muddy street.
He didn’t mind one bit, not that autumn (during which the new reckoning passed from year 95 to 96). Every time a drop plinked into the tin cup, he would smile. Forty days and forty nights, Lord, he thought. The longer it rained, the longer before the haidamacks could come, if the haidamacks did come. They swept out of the east when they came, and the rains were usually worse in that direction. Everybody said so.
But the rainy season didn’t last forever, no matter how much Yitzkhak wished it would. Snow whitened the upper slopes of the Carpathians. Frost traced magic patterns on the glass windowpanes of rich men’s houses. Yes, the rich—mostly Poles—in Kolomija had glass windows, as if it were Czernowitz or Kiev or Warsaw.
And the cold weather hardened the ground, as it did toward the end of fall every year. The muddy roads turned to something more like rock. With the crops in, the worst of the year’s work was done. Some men out in the countryside lay up through the winter like sleepy bears—though bears didn’t have vodka to help make time spin by.
Yitzkhak didn’t mind the men who stayed in their houses and drank their way through winter. They were harmless. Oh, they might beat their wives and children, but they might do that sober too. The trouble was, vodka also inflamed other men, the kind who loaded their muskets and pistols, climbed into the saddle, and went riding in the name of the Messiah—and in the name of kicking up as much trouble as they could.
Haidamacks torched the synagogue in Zastawna. They burned the rabbi in it, and howled with laughter at his screams. Zastawna lay between Czernowitz and Kolomija, west of the one but east of the other. It wasn’t nearly far enough away to let anyone in Kolomija feel safe, in other words.
Snyatyn was a smaller town a little southwest of Zastawna—even closer to Kolomija, that is. Two days after people fleeing Zastawna came to Kolomija, people fleeing Snyatyn got there.
“God have mercy on us!” a Catholic woman from Snyatyn screamed in the street as she stumbled past Yitzkhak’s house. “Christ have mercy on us! They murdered the priest, the holy father! They cut his throat on the altar in the church, as if he were a hog! Their horses drank from the holy-water fount! Oh, Christ have mercy!”
Yitzkhak’s wife was a small, dark woman named Rivka. She was quiet and steady. He could see that those shrieks shook her even so. “They’ll be here next, won’t they?” she said, her voice not much above a whisper.
“I’m afraid so,” he answered.
“They went away the last time,” his son Aaron said. “They went away, and we’re still here, and we’re still Jews.” He was fifteen. He thought he was a man. Under religious law, he was. Otherwise…less so. He did have a certain gift for the Talmud, which made Yitzkhak proud. An open volume sat on the table in front of him.
“It’s like a bad storm,” Yitzkhak said heavily. “It blows for a while. Then it eases back, and you think maybe it’s over. But it blows some more, stronger than ever. And before this one is done, if it ever is, it’s liable to blow all our houses down.”
“What will you do, then, Father?” Aaron asked. “Will you bend to the storm?”
Yitzkhak understood what that meant. He shook his head. “A lot of people have, but I won’t. I’ll stay a Jew, a proper Jew, as long as I live. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. That was the first prayer I learned, and those will be the last words that ever pass my lips.”
“Some of the Catholics want to fight the haidamacks,” Aaron said, his voice cracking with excitement. Talmud or no Talmud, he added, “I want to fight alongside them.”
“What do they say about that?” the cobbler asked. His wife looked horrified. He understood; that was what mothers were for. He knew horror, too, but also a grim determination.
“They say every man with a knife or a hatchet in his hands can help,” Aaron answered. “If we don’t fight, we’ll go under.”
No Jew in Kolomija owned anything much more dangerous than a knife or a hatchet. The Catholics had firearms. Some had gone to war; others hunted. That they were willing, even happy, to have Jews stand with them was a telling measure of how desperate they were. Well, by the woman from Snyatyn’s cries, they had reason to be desperate. Time was when they’d looked down their noses at Jews. They still did, some; goyim were like that. But the passage of Kolomija from Poland to Austria was the least of their worries.
Poland, Austria, Russia, Turkey—even, from what Yitzkhak had heard, Prussia…. The same storm was blowing through all of them, and showed no sign of blowing itself out. If anything, it was spreading. Where it touched, nothing was the same again. Would the proud Catholic Poles of Kolomija want Jews at their side if things were the same as they used to be?
Tell him no. Tell him he’s too young—Rivka’s eyes begged Yitzkhak. But the cobbler could see that the only way to keep Aaron from doing something like that would be to tie him up and sit on him. Easier to ride a horse in the direction it was already going.
Besides… “Enough is enough. If nobody stands up to the haidamacks, they’ll ride roughshod over everything,” Yitzkhak said. “And if the Catholics will take one Jew who doesn’t know much about this fighting business, chances are they’ll take two.”
“Vey iz mir!” Rivka said. Yitzkhak could hardly hear her through his son’s war whoop. He didn’t feel like a warrior himself. Unlike Aaron, he didn’t want to fight. But he didn’t think things would turn out any worse for him if he did than if he didn’t. There was even some small chance they might turn out better.
He got something better than a hatchet. The Catholics gave him a spear. A spear of sorts, anyhow: an old scythe blade lashed to a staff. He had Rivka’s longest knife on his belt, and a small one from his shop stuck in one boot for a holdout weapon. Aaron hefted a makeshift spear, too.
Casimir carried a stout wooden club with nails driven through it. Yitzkhak wouldn’t have wanted to be on the wrong end of a buffet from that, especially not with the stonecutter swinging it. But the haidamacks were horsemen. A spear at least gave you extra reach. How much good could a club do?
A couple of Poles had iron helmets. One even wore a back-and-breast that must have come down from his great-grandfather. It might keep out a musket ball. It would surely make the man very slow. Several Catholics shouldered muskets. One was a businesslike modern flintlock. The rest looked at least as old as the corselet: wheel-locks and an ancient matchlock.
Czeslaw had a pistol. A taverner needed something to keep himself safe. He surveyed the ragtag militia. “We’re a fine bunch, aren’t we?” he said. “Maybe the haidamacks will get a good look at us and laugh themselves to death. Christ, it’s our best hope!”
“If you feel that way—” Yitzkhak began.
“Why don’t I pack it in?” Czeslaw finished for him. “Because I’m a stubborn son of a bitch, that’s why. We all are, or we wouldn’t fight back. We’d do what the haidamacks want, and that would be that. Only then we’d hate our own reflections for the rest of our lives.”
Yitzkhak nodded. He felt the same way. He wouldn’t have stood there shivering in the cold if he hadn’t. So many, though, had gone over to the new reckoning without so much as a backward glance at what they’d once believed.
One of the Poles who’d done some real soldiering before his hair grayed took command of the fighters. He stationed them on the streets just inside the east end of town. “We’ll make things crowded for the haidamacks, anyway,” he said. “We’ll run up what barricades we can and hope for the best.”
“What if they swing around to the west side?” Aaron asked him.
The veteran scowled. “You’re one of those damn smart Jews, are you? If they go over there, they screw us up the ass, that’s what. But they won’t. They aren’t long on tactics, the haidamacks. They just charge on in and start smashing things.”
Townswomen brought the fighters soup and stew in big, steaming kettles. After a hurried brukha, Yitzkhak ate whatever got ladled into his bowl without worrying much about breaking dietary laws. He’d atone for his sins later, if he had a later. When you went to war, you dispensed with a lot of the formalities anyhow.
As night fell, Casimir pointed out into the gathering gloom. “Look! You can see their fires!”
Yitzkhak cocked his head to one side. “Yes, and you can hear them howling, too. If they aren’t already plastered, they will be soon.”
A drum began to pound out there. The first thud was so deep and sudden, for a panicky moment Yitzkhak took it for a cannon firing. But it thumped again and again and again. The haidamacks’ drunken shouts coalesced into a chorus that rang out between the drumbeats: “Sabbatai! Sabbatai!”
“God damn Sabbatai,” Casimir said in Polish at Yitzkhak’s left hand. He spat on the ground.
“God curse Sabbatai,” Aaron said in Yiddish at Yitzkhak’s right hand. He spat on the ground too.
“God’s already done whatever He chose to do with Sabbatai Tzevi,” Yitzkhak said, first in the one language and then in the other, though Aaron followed Polish perfectly well. “It’s here on earth that we’re still sorting things out.”
“God damn Sabbatai,” Casimir repeated. “God damn him and the Devil broil him black!”
Sabbatai Tzevi had been dead for almost a century; the date of his death marked the first day of the new reckoning his followers used. He’d been born an ordinary Jew in Turkey, but he had messianic ambitions and pretensions. He also had the kind of spellbinding character that made people who heard him take those ambitions and pretensions seriously.
They said he worked miracles. Yitzkhak didn’t know the details; he didn’t want to know the details. Sabbatai had preached in Asia Minor, and in the Holy Land, and in Egypt. Some from Europe who’d heard him believed his claims as firmly as the folk in the Ottoman Empire.
Finally, in the year the Christians called 1666, Sultan Mehmet IV summoned Sabbatai to Istanbul to hear at first hand what he had to say. The canny Turk listened to the man who called himself the Messiah…and declared that he was changing his name to Sabbatai I.
The new faith exploded through the vast Ottoman domain, and out into Europe as well. Sabbatai Tzevi lived another ten years after converting Mehmet to his cause. Mullahs, cardinals, patriarchs, rabbis—every religious authority called curses down on his head. It did them little good. When people were ready for something, they grabbed at it whether their leaders approved or not. Christianity and Islam had spread the same way.
And when people were ready for something, they were also ready—eager!—to ram it down their neighbors’ throats, regardless of whether the neighbors were ready too.
“Sabbatai!” the haidamacks roared. “Sabbatai!” They danced around the fires like…like Yitzkhak didn’t know what. He vaguely knew there was a New world beyond the ocean far to the west (he only vaguely knew there was an ocean far to the west), but tales of its natives had never reached his ears.
He turned to the grizzled veteran who ordered the defenders around. “We ought to go out there while they’re drinking and yelling and carrying on—take them by surprise.”
“Another Jew who thinks he’s a general.” The Pole sounded more amused than annoyed. He waved toward the fires. “Go ahead, Jew—be my guest. If you guys were real soldiers, not odds-and-sods, I might try it. But they’d chop you to bits if I did. You don’t know how to hold together. No, our best chance is staying where we’re at and making them come to us.”
“All right.” Yitzkhak had no idea whether it was or not. But the gray-haired Pole understood more of war than he did. He pulled his black coat tighter around him, lay down on the ground behind a barrel, and tried to sleep.
He didn’t think he would, but he managed a light, on-and-off doze. He was dozing when a haidamack rode out of the gray predawn light in the east and shouted, “You misbelievers there! Give your souls to Sabbatai Tzevi, God’s great light on earth, and we’ll leave you alone! Otherwise, you’ll pay for your wickedness in this world and the next!” He sounded like a Little Russian trying to speak Polish, but no one in Kolomija would have trouble following him.
“Go away! Leave us alone! Let us worship the way we want to!” Yitzkhak shouted as he grabbed his spear and scrambled to his feet. Other men yelled variations on the same theme.
“On your heads be it—and it will.” The haidamack turned his horse and rode back to his encampment. Sabbatai’s followers, like those of Muhammad and Jesus before them, were sure they knew the one right answer and had the right, even the duty, to inflict it on everyone else. Jews didn’t proselytize—which was, no doubt, why there were so few of them.
The drums began to pound again. When the sun rose, the haidamacks came trotting toward the town and its homemade barriers. Some bore lances, some short muskets, some pistols. They wore fur hats; their capes streamed out behind them. As they came, they shouted Sabbatai’s name.
One of the defenders steadied his musket on a board and fired. The shot missed anyhow. Yitzkhak was too excited to be afraid—till a pistol ball smashed Casimir’s face. The burly stonecutter wailed and gobbled at the same time. Bright blood poured out between his fingers as he clapped his hands to the wound. Then he fell, and it puddled and steamed under him. He never got to use his fearsome club.
A raider’s horse went down. The haidamack howled—his leg was broken or crushed beneath the thrashing animal. The others kept pushing forward, though. They had more guns and less fear than Kolomija’s amateur defenders.
Yitzkhak awkwardly thrust his improvised spear at a horse. The rider didn’t get close enough to let the weapon bite. He shot at Yitzkhak, missed, and cursed horribly.
Another haidamack skewered a Jew with his lance at the same time as his comrade shot the Catholic next to that Jew. Their horses chested planks aside. Whooping, the haidamacks poured through the breach in the miserable barricade and into Kolomija. A couple of them went down, but most rode on.
Some made for the Catholic church, others for the synagogue. That split the defenders: the Poles tried to save the one, the Jews the other. The fire in the synagogue started first.
Aaron lay in the street, bleeding from the head. “No!” Yitzkhak shouted. He tried to skewer one of the raiders. Laughing, the man yanked the spear from his startled hands. “No!” he shouted again. “Your Sabbatai, he was a Jew, the same as we are!”
“He got over it.” The haidamack aimed a musket at Yitzkhak’s belly. “Will you, fool? Admit that Sabbatai was the Lord’s chosen, the Messiah, and you can have your worthless life.”
Yitzkhak grabbed for the kitchen knife on his belt. “It isn’t true,” he said. Even as the words came out of his mouth, he wished he had them back. Why would you condemn yourself like that? Because I am a Jew, he thought. Because I can’t be anything else.
Laughing still, the raider pulled the trigger. Maybe the gun would misfire. If it didn’t, maybe he would miss. Maybe—
Flame and smoke burst from the muzzle. The bullet caught Yitzkhak square in the chest. It didn’t hurt. Then it did, horribly. He crumpled, blood filling his mouth. Through it, he managed to choke out, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” before darkness swallowed him.
The synagogue burned. A couple of hundred yards away, so did the church. “Sabbatai!” the haidamacks cried, over and over again. “Sabbatai!” Like the smoke from the houses of God, the name mounted to the uncaring heavens.
Copyright © 2014 by Harry Turtledove