When Fanny Keismann turns ten, her father gives her a ritual slaughtering knife, and she soon develops a talent for his trade. But in 19th century Russia, ritual slaughter does not befit a wife and mother, so when it comes time to raise a family, Fanny abandons her work and devotes herself to her five children. When Fanny's older sister's husband disappears, Fanny leaves her own family and sets out for the great city of Minsk in search of her wayward brother-in-law. She is accompanied by Zizek Bershov, who was forced into the Tsar's army as a boy, and has refused to speak since he returned home. Fanny and Zizek are soon accosted by a band of highway robbers. Fanny dispatches the three brigands with her ritual slaughtering knife, and then flees with Zizek. The killings attract the attention of Piotr Novack, the head of the secret police, who, believing that the crime scene is part of a plot to incite a revolt against the Tsar, begins a pursuit of the pair of fugitives. Fanny's initial mission to help her sister turns into a misadventure that manages to threaten the foundations of the Russian Empire. What began as a family matter in Motol, a peripheral Jewish settlement, breaks the bounds of the shtetl, pits the police against the army, and upsets the political and social order.