The path ahead was unfamiliar and uninviting. Nosson stayed low to the ground and moved quickly through the moonlit forest, allowing the branches of fallen trees to scratch his face as he passed. He was singularly focused on the figure a short distance in front, and followed the sound of dead wood crushing beneath its feet as it stumbled along.
The noises in the forest were more unfriendly than the ones he was used to from his private strolls before dawn. The ominous hoots of owls and the drone of flying insects sent warnings to all those who did not belong, urging them to explore no further. However, Nosson was committed to trailing Koppel for as long as was necessary, and forced himself to ignore his instincts to abandon the hunt.
He could not, however, ignore the barks of a lone dog in the distance. As Koppel led them deeper and deeper into the forest, the barks became louder and louder, and a small light near it became brighter. It seemed Koppel was heading straight towards them, like a moth saling lazily towards the only object to which it can orient.
Barking, Nosson thought, was bad. Fire was worse. He continued moving cautiously, but as the barks grew louder he could no longer help himself.
“Koppel,” he yelled out with his hands cupped around his mouth. But, it didn’t matter. Koppel continued along, unaware of anything but himself.
Nosson stopped for moment to consider his options. Sweat dripped down his face from under his hat, and he wiped tiny things off his sticky skin. He’d been so concentrated the trail ahead that he lost track of the trail back home, and as the man who stole his kiddish cup was getting further away, Nosson became aware of the slithering and scurrying all around him. All he had was the unkown forest in front of him, and his lonely room back in Radzyn, and both compelled him to catch up with Koppel.
When Koppel finally stopped moving, it was because he discovered where the barking and the light were coming from. As Nosson approached the standoff, Koppel turned his head to him like a child who had been hiding and was finally found.
The Polish man grinned to reveal his crooked teeth and twisted smile.
“I told my son we might see strange creatures out here at night, but we never thought we’d find Jews.”
It occurred to Nosson that this might be Koppel’s first time this far from home, and certainly his first time hearing the voice of a man who had not spent a lifetime learning the secrets of Torah.
“Tell me,” the Polish man snarled over the barking, “where you Jews are from.”
Nosson looked over to Koppel, unsure of what to say. He wondered if Koppel still considered him a guest of the shtetl.
“We are from Radzyn,” he finally said, and from the corner of his eye watched Koppel nod along.
“Radzyn?" the man asked. "I have never heard of it.”
“No,” said Nosson, “I imagine you haven’t.”
The man’s dog growled menacingly from deep inside its gut, shaking its head with controlled violence in attempts to free itself from the metal collar around its neck. The man looked down at his son, like a rat teaching his young to scavenge, and relaxed the hand that was holding onto the leash.
The torch in the ground shook as he dug his feet in the ground, resisting the dog’s weight pulling him forward.
Koppel remained paralyzed by fear and exposure. He felt the heat from the torch’s fire pierce through the humid air, and the immensity of dark space between them and Radzyn. He couldn’t tell if he was more afraid of going back to the shtetl or staying here, and although he had never been threatened like this before, even he could sense what would make a man like this go away.
He looked at Nosson with unmasked eyes, pleading to be a released from a choice he never had the freedom to make.
With his left hand, Koppel reached into his pocket and pulled out the silver kiddish cup.
“Very good” the man assured his dog, watching the fire reflected in the cup and ignoring the maniacal barking. With one hand holding the leash, he extended his other to accept the gift. Nosson had lowered his head, swinging it like a pendulum in heartbroken disappointment, when he stepped forward.
"My friend,” he said, raising his his eyes to meet the man's, “I'm not sure you understand what’s happening.” He calmly turned to look back at the kiddish cup and made sure his voice was heard above the dog’s barking. “This is our cup, not yours, and it will be returning with us to Radzyn tonight.”
The dog, anchored by its collar, now stood on its hind legs, ready to catapult ahead. The fur along its back rose sharply in attention and its growls graduated into an assault of yelps chomping at the air. Its large paws shuffled above the dirt to mix with drool into mud, as the man gradually loosened his grip on the leash.
"I’m surprised Radzyn has survived this long with Jews like you living there,” the man hissed, and stepped towards Nosson and Koppel so his dog could just barely reach them.
Nosson understood the desire to destroy something greater than yourself, and would not be threatened by it. He looked into the arrogant eyes of the man below him with compassion, but without mercy.
The man gritted his teeth behind his thin lips, and his face turned a deep red. Nosson’s countenance lingered before him, alien and infectious, while his hands began to shake with rage. He stared at the cup for a moment, then down at his son for a moment longer, and let go of the vicious dog.
It took only one leap to reach Koppel. With the entirety of its ferocious weight, it sunk its teeth easily onto the hand holding the silver cup, and dragged it down to the ground. It wasn’t until Koppel dropped what he was holding that it opened its jaw and licked its lips.
Koppel let out a scream that reverberated through the trees and into the sky. He held his mangled hand up, terrified of the dark blood pouring from each of the holes where the dog's teeth had been. It flowed steadily down to his wrist from the exposed muscles and tendons beneath the frayed skin and hair.
He dropped to his knees and screamed again, struggling to catch his breath, inhaling and exhaling heavily through his mouth in a daze of pain and terror. He continued for some time, until he realized that he was the only one moving.
The others were frozen, observing the animal, who had become completely silent and still. It stared into the cup that Koppel had dropped, transfixed, as if it recognized it from some time long ago. Its eyes were wide, and its mouth closed, like it was waiting for instructions.
Slowly and gradually, the beast took a step back.
Until its tail was swept up by the flames of the torch.
It let out a high-pitched howl and began to roll in the dirt between frantic, haphazard sprints towards safety, while the son followed behind into the darkness. Only the Polish man remained, alone, surveying the scene and considering Nosson standing confidently before him.
Nosson stepped towards him.
“The surprise,” he whispered steadily into the man’s ear, “is how Poland has survived so long with the fires of Radzyn’s Jews inside of her.”
For a moment, the man tried to inspect the shiny, mysterious object on the ground, confused as his dog was, before cowering underneath Nosson's glare and running dutifully after his son.
Nosson bent down on one knee to pick up the kiddish cup, polished it with his sleeve, and placed it in his pocket. He then turned to Koppel, who was still writhing in pain and watching the blood pour out of his lifeless hand.
Nosson pulled out his knife.
"Nosson, Nosson, please," Koppel begged in between sobs. "Please, you don't know! Please, you don't even know how broken you made me!"
Nosson stepped closer, put the knife to Koppel's shoulder, and surgically cut through his shirt until he had a long piece of cloth. He stretched it out and wrapped it tightly around the bloody hand.
"You don't know either, my friend," he said gently, smiling. "This has been a good night for both of us. I found my kiddish cup on the ground, and I found a new job for you."
Koppel stared. The bleeding was under control, and a steady breath returned.
"Until your hand heals,” Nosson continued, “you’ll be running my business. I'll be making all of Radzyn’s silver.”
“Very nice, Koppel. Very nice."
It would be hours until the sun came up, but they'd try their best to navigate back home together.
"Nosson?" Koppel said after a long time walking in silence.
"Yes, my friend?"
"It’s the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life."
"Me too." Nosson replied. “You know, my zaidy was an extraordinarily humble man. But even he said the same thing when he finished making it for me."