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The Compromise

Karin is a yoga teacher and mother who writes when time allows. Her stories can be found in Stupefying Stories, back issues of Daily Science Fiction and in a big pile next to her desk. Her essays can be found on Aish.com. Author Comments: I was raised at the knee of Holocaust survivors. Heard stories of amazing people I would never meet. One was named Leo. I am no time traveller. But this story is my compromise.
The time traveler was back. Tall and thin, standing in front of a low hanging clothesline, flapping with yellowed linens. He was fifty--or sixty--years old, with a gray wash of stubble on his angular cheeks. But he stood straight and strong, in a soldier's uniform. Well muscled and lean. Eyes sharp, dark blue, squinting as he surveyed the ghetto.
Leo recognized him immediately.
Heart lively, Leo swiftly wound his way past the market, the gates, the wire, and finally fell against the crumbling facade of the boarded up butcher shop.
"You're back," Leo said breathlessly. Just shy of twenty-five, the short sprint had none-the-less tired him. "You still look too healthy," he managed. "It's good I spotted you first. Come. We've been working on your project."
Leo took a steadying breath and pushed himself upright. Swooping beneath the clothesline, he ducked into the alley. People sat in piles, threadbare blankets about their shoulders. They glanced at the scene of an old soldier marching behind Leo, then looked away.
"In here," Leo said finally, nodding to a small hole in the side of the building, where brick had caved in and left a hollow.
The sounds of the men were already audible. Nine of them, together, practicing kaddish. Their voices rich--tenor, baritone, bass--rising and falling, like a song.
Two months earlier, the time traveler had appeared, and taught Leo the mourner's Kaddish. Leo enjoyed the visit, but it was over too quickly, his agile brain easily memorizing Kaddish, even with all its graceful nuances.
Almost as though it were a parting gift, the time traveler gave Leo a job--assemble a Minyan of ten men, and teach it to them.
"My grandfather died in this ghetto," the time traveler had admitted, looking off into the gray sky. "I can't change that, but a Minyan reciting kaddish for the dead won't change history. At least I can do that for him."
It was a challenge to find men up to the task. Many men had the education, the linguistic skill, the talent for song. But Kaddish required daily recitation for a year. What Leo needed was to find men with the faith that they would be alive for that long.
But Leo found them, and they began to meet. Learning kaddish, learning Torah--what bits they'd each remembered--and learning about each other.
It was a relief to focus on something other than uncertainty. And a relief to be together in prayer.
"We're all here," Leo said, as the time traveler stooped to peek into the hollow. Cracks in the brick let in some light. Damp and infested, it swelled with voices. With men who rocked and swayed, their hearts leading forward.
The time traveler backed out of the space.
"You need one more for your Minyan," he said. His voice small and colorless.
"But we have ten."
"There were only nine men in that space."
"Yes of course, but there's me, as well."
The time traveler stared into the sky. Steel gray clouds moved overhead.
Then he reached into his pocket, and pulled out a potato. He handed it to Leo.
Leo's breath quickened. It was a large potato. Firm and fragrant. Beautiful, brown, shaped like an "8." Solid in Leo's palm. He brought it to his nostrils. The smell of earth filled his lungs.
"I could eat for three days on this potato," he said happily. "But I thought--"
The time traveler's jaw trembled.
"Oh," Leo said quietly, "oh I see."
His thumb found a small sprout on the potato's skin. He rolled it around for some time.
Suddenly, his thumb stopped moving and his fingers snapped around the potato in a strong, resolute grip. He stood up as straight as he could. "If you could just tell me who will survive, I'll give the potato to him."
A sob escaped the time traveler's throat. "I'd always heard you were a selfless man," he said. Quickly, he pressed his lips together.
Leo blinked. Then his brow pulled back. He surveyed the time traveler with fresh eyes. Then he gave an approving nod.
"So tall and handsome," he remarked. "And you're a scientist?"
The time traveler wiped his eyes, and laughed. "Yes. My wife too."
"And children? You have children?"
"A boy and a girl. And they have children."
"Good," Leo smiled. He gave the potato a light toss in his palm, like a baseball. "Good," he said again. Then, almost as an afterthought, "How long do I have to find a tenth man?"
The time traveler ground the heel of his palm against his eye, then wiped his nose with the back of his fingers. "You know I can't tell you that."
"No of course not," Leo muttered. "Still, I'll need a few days."
"You have that," the time traveler assured him.
For a moment, they both hesitated. Then the time traveler gave a quick glance around, and seeing no soldiers, grabbed Leo and hugged him.
When he let go, he was again teary eyed.
Leo reached up and cupped the time traveler's chin. "Thank you, time traveler."
"Please don't thank me, Leo. I couldn't change anything."
Leo smiled kindly. "But you've changed everything," he tapped at his heart, "everything."
After the time traveler disappeared around the corner of the building, Leo felt lighter than he had in years. Not even hungry, anymore, really.
He tossed the potato from hand to hand. Enjoyed the weight as it shifted from palm to palm.
It was a large enough potato that each man in the Minyan could have a few bites. Maybe not enough to fill their bellies, but it would be a fine thing to share a meal with those men.
A very fine thing.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 1st, 2016


I was raised at the knee of Holocaust survivors. Heard stories of amazing people I would never meet. One was named Leo. I am no time traveler. But this story is my compromise.

- Karin Terebessy

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