When she is fifteen, and about to become a mother herself, Neria begins to dream of when Ima would sing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” to calm her nightmares. Too late for lullabies now, and too late for her mother, who at least didn’t live to see that she had been right about the no good English boy.
In the last week before her confinement, Neria dreams of light. She remembers her ima telling her an old story, a different story, about the creation of the world. She remembers shattered vessels containing holy light, that it is the duty of humanity to act rightly and so gather up the scattered sparks. She is too far from religion and stories now; all she can do is push, push, push, and hope she doesn’t explode into a million sparks.
The child is fair, like his father. After Neria recovers from the birth, she leaves Whitechapel and starts going by an English name. Ya’akov will be Jamie. She cannot give him a world with raisins and almonds. They will save each other.
Nancy has a plan. She is going to take care of these runaways, and that will save her.
The first night, however, her son comes back from the dead and it is as though she is back in Whitechapel and splitting open with lullabies in her ears and light drowning out her vision. They are not quite in this world.
She whispers, ‘Where is your neshomeh?’
He cocks his head to one side before he keeps moving forward. She never spoke Yiddish with him.
‘Kineahora,’ she says, and she runs back to the shelter, which she has just started to make haymish, and yells at the children to abandon it. It is a long time before she finds somewhere safe for them, and longer before they go to sleep and the all-clear sounds and she can think. Her son is not quite in this world, but neither is his soul in the world to come. She holds a small, cold girl tight enough that she whimpers in her sleep. What kind of world to come will there be for the souls the Germans take?
‘Right now,’ says the strange man, ‘not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it, nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says no. No, not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You're amazing, the lot of you. Don't know what you do to Hitler; you frighten the hell out of me. Off you go, then. Do what you gotta do. Save the world.’
She wants to hit the man in the face, because the English are going to lose the war, and because she is not the lot of you. She is a girl from Whitechapel masquerading. And she has not lived the kind of life through which one can come and still stand being patronised.
Instead, she walks away and thinks about saving the world. One spark at a time until it all goes to hell. Back to her runaways, then, of which there’s a new one almost every night.
And whosoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he has preserved an entire world.
When the soldier turns into a gas mask person, it is the third time in her life Nancy thinks she is going to die. She is five years old again and her mother is singing and oh will that work?
She starts to sing her ima’s song of raisins and almonds, and gets as far as the lovely low note with ‘dos tzigele’ when she realises that the gas mask person has not gone to sleep and she is not getting through to him at all and now she is really going to die. She sang some English song to Jamie. Something—
‘Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops…’
Saving one’s own life is a mitzvah. She never anticipated doing it by singing to a dead man.
If she holds her dead, soulless son, she might just save the world. It might not be worth it to feel that. But she owes whatever is left of him the truth.
‘I am your mummy, I will always be your mummy.’ She holds her child, and maybe it really is the end this time, because through and behind her eyelids she can see countless sparks somehow making things whole. If it is the end of the world, at least she told her last truth, gathered her last spark.
When she opens her eyes, the sparks are still there, and his neshomeh is back in him.
This is the musical notation for “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen”.