The Most Righteous Adulterer in Vilna

Jacob M. Appel

They had been joking about refugees for nearly a year before they moved into the convent. Mitch had raised a raft of serious objections—about lead paint in the window wells, about asbestos and drafts, about management of the Ursuline burial ground beyond the carriage house. Then there was the matter of the six-hour drive from Manhattan. Not exactly the Berkshires or the Hamptons. But when he understood that Bev’s heart remained dead set on the property, notwithstanding all the expenditures of energy and capital that would entail, he quipped, over maple pancakes at their bed and breakfast in North Flodden, “Aren’t you afraid we’ll be overrun by migrants? Or fugitives? Just because it’s Canada doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. It is the longest undefended border in the world.” That was his way of conceding that her quest for novelty had once again eclipsed his conservative, securities attorney instincts, that they would tender the highest bid at the estate sale, which turned out to be the only bid, and spend their forties summering in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Now ten months had passed, the boys were ensconced at Androscoggin, and after a spring of overpaying contractors and bantering about asylum-seeking lumberjacks, mostly him bantering and Bev rolling her eyes, they’d finally unpacked the cars—they’d driven tandem—and settled onto the deck for gin rickeys.

“I can’t believe we’re finally here,” said Bev. The setting sun, an opulent orange, glimmered off the balsam firs and the streaks of silver in her hair. Like veins of ore, she’d said, when defending her decision not to dye. “It’s so alive, Mitch. It smells so alive. Makes me want to drive into town and buy a tent so we can sleep outdoors.”

“I’m sure the bears would love that,” said Mitch. Besides, who could afford a tent with this mortgage? But he didn’t want to argue, so he checked himself. “I can’t help thinking about the nuns. All those young women and no sex. I wonder if they measure celibacy in ‘nun-years’ the way they measure smoking in ‘pack-years.’ We’ll have to make up for them, I suppose.”

The nuns had occupied the convent since the 1880s; in their heyday, they’d numbered in the dozens, raising goats and rabbits, selling eggs, later tending to a herd of alpacas. Sister Birgitta had been the last of the lot—still gardening at ninety-one, but largely dependent on weekly food drops from the parish in Flodden Center. Renovating the structure into a livable modern home had required all but divine intervention.

 “Do you ever get the sense you’re being ignored?” asked Mitch.

“I could just curl up right here on this chair and doze off,” said Bev.

“In that case, I’m going to head up to the attic and make sure Hawley’s men hauled off that loom and those mattresses.”

“Have fun. If I’m napping, don’t wake me.”

“What if I find Anne Frank?” asked Mitch.

His grandfather had escaped from Sobibor, while his granduncles had not been so lucky, which Mitch felt justified his outlandish jabs at humor. His wife said nothing; she had already rolled onto her side.

“Okay, turn your back, but these old places are full of surprises.” He reached for the bottle of gin. “And I’m taking this with me in case Anne wants a drink.”

Hawley’s men had been under the supervision of the caretaker, Waite, a laconic Yankee who’d looked after the grounds since the pontificate of John XXIII, but he’d been laid up with pneumonia at North Country Regional for nearly two weeks, so it did not surprise Mitch to find the loom and mattresses mouldering in the dim heat alongside bound stacks of St. Anthony Messenger and National Geographic. One cover memorialized Dian Fossey; another depicted Hillary and Norgay atop Everest. In the morning, he’d have to speak directly to Enoch Hawley, which was a bit like arguing with a barn door, or the corpse of President Coolidge, but what else could be done? Mitch took a swig from the gin bottle. He’d already turned back toward the stairs when a peculiar noise pierced the shadows. He spun around as the distinctive sound repeated itself three times in succession: the unmistakable staccato of a human sneeze.

The sound arose from the far wall—behind an Adirondack cabinet in which Waite stored varnish and turpentine and brushed nickel fittings. Mitch couldn’t exactly say he was surprised: He’d heard too many tales of squatting hobos and truants hiding inside mangers. Rather, he was irked. “The gig is up” he shouted, his adrenaline surging. “You’d better come out now before I call the authorities.” He searched for a weapon, but all he found was the handle of a whisk broom.

His ultimatum drew no response. He set down the Tanqueray bottle and pushed aside the wooden cabinet, revealing an aperture in the masonry. About the size of a manhole, its edges jagged as canine teeth. Easier to block the defect with a bureau, of course, than to disclose it in the bill of sale. Again, not a surprise. Waite was probably in cahoots with the estate agent.

Mitch thrust the broom handle into the cavity, and when it met no resistance, he followed with his head. Even with the aid of the light on his phone, he couldn’t pierce the darkness, so against all good judgment, he squeezed his torso through the gap in the stonework. That was when he saw them: The old man on his knees, praying, rocking with his fringed shawl at his lips; the wife, pinched and depleted, her head wrapped in a colorless shmata. And the girl—the girl. She looked roughly twenty-five, maybe a few years more, the age Anne Frank might have been had she spent another decade stuck inside a garret. Her eyes had sunk into their sockets, her hair gone to string. But even then—and there was no getting around it—she was exquisitely beautiful. Mitch lowered the broom handle.

“Who in hell’s name are you?” he demanded.

“You know who we are, you bastard,” snapped the girl. “Just get it over with.”     

Her English was more stilted than broken—as though she’d learned it from a foreign service manual—and inflected with the cadence of the shtetl. His own mother’s aunt had married a survivor who spoke like that. A cabbie. They guy had once shown Mitch his tattoo.          

“Get what over with?”

“Sick, that’s what you are. Does it make you feel important to toy with us?”

The wife had started to sob. “Please, Mirele,” she said. “Don’t make things worse—”

They stood in silence for several seconds, illuminated only by his phone. The old man had stopped praying, but remained on his knees. Murder lurked within the girl’s eyes.

“Maybe the American sister sent him,” said the wife. “Or Herr Waite.”

“Don’t be a fool, Mama. He didn’t know we were here.”

Mitch regretted leaving the Tanqueray behind.

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