Drops of rain stuck to his leather violin case, then stretched and slithered down its side until they became puddles underneath. Mottel walked through each of them, concentrating on the sound the water made inside his shoes. For a moment, it overtook the notes that echoed inside him, bouncing off the bare trees and clouds above.
An untied shoelace trailed behind him, collecting mud and wet branches for miles. Mottel squeezed his fingers around his cigarette, and raised it to his mouth. It was his last one, and already too damp to finish.
When his Rebbe first sent him away from Radzyn, Mottel approached each day like it was an adventure. He'd look forward to arriving in a new city, meeting its chassidim and learning from them what he could. At night he'd stay up reading the note Rivkeh slipped into his pocket before he left, tracing her letters with his finger.
His excitement soon faded, revealing what was underneath. He began dreading closing his eyes at night, certain the only thing he’d see was blood and broken fragments of wood; the only sound he’d hear was the terrible noise of his violin crashing against the Rebbe’s floor. Some nights, he was fortunate enough to find an inn or a barn to sleep in. Other nights, he’d lean against a tree in the forest. As soon as his eyes opened, he’d continue wandering to the next stop on the map he was given, afraid of what he might dream of if he went back to sleep. Lately, however, Mottel would lie awake until noon, with his arms clutching his gut and his knees brought to his chest, just barely able to withstand the sorrowful regret burning his insides.
He was far away from home already, and each step brought him yet further, marking an ever expanding distance between who he was, and who he felt he was supposed to be. Radzyn used to have only one violin player, and now it had none. He braced himself for the moment Rivkeh and the rest of them simply stopped missing him.
He considered writing letters, but even if he could find someone able to deliver them to Radzyn, he could not find words capable of containing his thoughts. So, he spent each day freezing, tired, and alone, fantasizing about abandoning his violin case and his dream of returning home a fixed man.
As the sun set, he fantasized about nothing else but a dry field to sleep in, and a fire to sit by.
Was this cave a blessing or another test? Were the souls sitting around the fire inside generous enough to share? Mottel didn't care. If he approached it and found friendly faces, gevalt. If not, he'd invite them to find something that hadn't already been taken from him
Without fear, or pride, he walked inside.
Mottel was certain they saw him, but they acted as if his arrival changed nothing. Their singing didn't stop and their swaying didn’t slow, so Mottel indulged their inaction. He rested his violin case on the dry dirt by the fire and sat down on top of it.
When the song was over, they started another one, and when that one ended another one began. The three men sang until Mottel’s breathing relaxed, then sat without saying a word and listened to the fire pop. It appeared to Mottel that just sitting together was an avodah for these men. A few months ago, he would have indulged his curiosity, but tonight, his only desire was the warmth of the fire, and silence.
"We didn't come to this cave to be found," the man with the shortest peyyos said finally.
Mottel examined the faces of the men around him, and started to suspect they were perhaps not as righteous as they appeared. They did not have many belongings, and the few they did have looked like they to belonged to someone else. Mottel’s judgement had sharpened over the months he’d spent wandering the roads with beggars and vagrants, and his instincts urged him to flee while he still could.
However, the thought of going back into the cold rain was more than he could bear.
"I didn’t come here to find you," Mottel replied, looking down at the water dripping inconsistently from his hat to the ground. "Please,” he pleaded. “Let me sit quietly by your fire. I've come all the way from Radzyn- "
The men sat up straight and looked at each other. Mottel was usually disciplined about revealing where he was from, and winced at his lack of control. His mysterious shtetl prompted too many long conversations with too many people to whom he could never explain it. Now, these men, who appeared to like things that did not seem to belong to them, turned their gaze towards the mysterious stranger who happened to find their cave.
"From Radzyn?" asked the heavyset chassid. "It’s not possible."
Mottel wasn’t sure what to say.
"Do you know why nobody outside of Radzyn has ever met a real Radzyner?” continued the heavyset chassid. He looked away from Mottel and towards his partners. “Because, why would anybody ever leave Radzyn in the first place?”
"Oy," Mottel sighed. He held himself and let his head hang down between his legs. The dwindling light from this weak fire, he thought, was not worth the abuse.
The chassid leaned forward. “My friend, we’re in the business of ransom. When a yid ends up in a place he was never meant to be, we’re hired to go find him, then redeem him.” He contorted his face and shrugged his shoulders, unsure how to say what he needed to say next.
“But, as you can imagine, if the same animals who would kidnap a poor yid were to find out exactly where we were sleeping, well, it wouldn’t be a very good thing at all. Fershtay? We travel with money that is not ours, with people from communities that are willing to pay a very high price to get their brothers back home.”
They did not have to say anything else. Mottel knew that simply walking back out into the storm was no longer an option.
"You know," said the chassid with the shortest peyyos, "we’re very far from home, from a place called Bratslav. Our Rebbe doesn’t have many chassidim yet, but his teachings are really the deepest.”
"Of course they are," said Mottel in a scratched, mean voice.
"Our Rebbe teaches us,” he continued, “that every soul has a song. And, every piece of good he can perceive from within all the bad he experiences, becomes a note in his song - ”
“Please,” Mottel interrupted. His head was still down, and he shook from side to side with his eyes closed. “I don’t need useless teachings. I need fire.”
"Well," the third chassid said. He spoke in a low voice that sounded like it hadn't been used for speaking in a long, long, time. His impatience matched Mottel’s. "You’ll either play us your song on that violin, so we can understand exactly who you are. Or, you’ll keep our fire going, so we can keep an eye on you until the morning.”
For a long time, nobody said anything at all. Mottel sat, still and silent. He had only two possessions, Rivkeh's note and his broken instrument, each suitable to keep the cave lit for a little while longer. He rose to his feet and picked up the violin case beneath him. His hands were still numb so it took several attempts, but finally he opened the latches for the men to see the broken instrument inside.
Piece by piece, he threw them in. His eyes reflected the light from the restless flames.
He watched the paint varnish melt and and strings curl, until the fire momentarily raged and then died once again. The men before him sat in judgment, instructing him with their eyes. And, there Mottel stood, holding above his head the last bit he had left to burn, the bare neck of his broken violin.
He held it up for what could have been minutes, or what could have been hours. For the men sitting in that cave, it didn’t matter. Their eyes remained fixed.
Mottel was simply, helplessly, unable to destroy it.
When the last ember finally dissipated into smoke, and the cave returned to darkness, he dropped to the floor and leaned his back against the freezing stone wall. All at once, he felt those long nights spent dreading the rising sun and another day of roaming. He felt the stress of ignoring his profoundly broken spirit. The despair that revisited him every step he took away from home, was finally, finally, more than he could withstand. How much longer could he spend wishing he were somewhere else, wishing that he had never torn open the fabric of his being to reveal what was truly there?
“Nu?” The question echoed towards him from across the cave. He could not provide enough light, so there was only one option left.
The song inside Mottel began to stir, no longer accepting his refusal to give it form. He sat before his charred violin, tightly grasping its last remaining piece, knowing he was incapable of ever letting it go. He opened his mouth, and took a breath.
“And, from that one good point, found within all the bad,” the chassid said, sailing through the darkness, “there we find our melody.”
Tears trailed down Mottel’s face into his beard. When he opened his eyes, he rested his hand on his violin case and let himself smile. They did, too.
"There is a silversmith in Bratslav, who can fix all sorts of things,” the chassid said. “Silver, or otherwise."