Inside a barrel in the bottom of a boat, with a canteen of water wedged between his legs and a packet of poison concealed in his pocket, Jacob Rappaport felt a knot tightening in his stomach -- not because he was about to do something dangerous, but because he was about to do something wrong. He was nineteen years old, and he was accustomed to believing that he wasnt responsible for what he did, that there were all sorts of considerations and complications that didnt apply to him. So he had told himself that one knot was the other knot, that there was no distinction between fearing others and fearing oneself. But as he waited through his second endless night with his chin pressed against his knees and his arms pressed against the barrels wooden sides, listening to the waves slap against the hold of the smugglers boat that was carrying him to New Orleans, he knew the difference. It had begun on Passover of the previous year, when he first could have said no.
That cold March night in 1861 hung before his eyes like a curtain, the entire evening a hushed held breath of waiting for life to begin. In his parents townhouse in Madison Squarein New York, the long dining table was laden with wine and food, and lined with his fathers business associates and their wives and children -- and as always, Jacob was seated across from Emma Jonas. Emma was one year younger than Jacob, and utterly homely. At seventeen she was still a child, playing with dolls; it was clear that she suffered from some sort of mental deficiency, but the Rappaports and Jonases were high society, or desperately trying to be, and no one ever mentioned it. After the ritual fourth cup of wine, the conversation returned to the long, dull debate over whether or not a war was imminent, which Jacob pretended to follow so as to avoid Emmas vacant, childish eyes. But he barely heard any of it until Emmas father, who had been silent for most of the evening, suddenly spoke.
What do you think, Marcus? David Jonas asked Jacobs father. I must admit, Ive become quite nervous. Shipping is a disaster when you have blockades to worry about.
Jacob watched as his father smiled. Marcus Rappaport was leaning back in his cushioned seat, his full head of blond hair crowning the round boyish face that made him look much younger than he actually was. At that moment Jacob envied his fathers happiness, how his father was completely accountable for his own life. Twenty-five years earlier, when he was Jacobs age, he had come from Bavaria as a human pack mule, and walked from farm to farm across New Jersey with a hundred pounds of fabric on his back to sell to the farmers wives. By the time his only son was born, he was the founder of Rappaport Mercantile Import-Export. For years Jacob worshiped him. Later he became ashamed of him: embarrassed by his fathers accent, and, worse, by how his father used him as a showpiece for clients, presenting Jacob with the same pride he displayed when sharing a collection of rare cigars. Jacob was increasingly disturbed by the possibility, which had seeped into his awareness like a very slight but pervasive and lingering smell, that he was nothing more than one of his fathers acquisitions, another hard-earned marvel that America, in its infinite bounty, had allowed his father to possess. In the time since he had started working at the firm, Jacob had detected a casual dismissiveness in his fathers tone, as though his father somehow sensed Jacobs uncertainties, and disdained them. His father held the maddening conviction that self-doubt was the surest sign of a fool.
I disagree, Marcus Rappaport said, and turned his smile to David Jonas. Its all a matter of opportunity. Suppose theres a blockade on shipping from here to the South along the coast. One simply has to rearrange some assets, and become the first to run alternate routes through the Caribbean. Some people might worry about having to adjust so many different accounts, but Im lucky enough to have Jacob at my disposal. Jacob is brilliant with numbers.
Copyright 2009 Dara Horn. Reprinted with permission from W. W. Norton & Co.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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