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The wailing of cats outside the window of our house startled me from my sleep. I was lying with my face turned to my father's back, inhaling the sour smell of his heavy, hairy body. Father was snoring loudly, wheezing and rattling as if trying to expel a piece of phlegm from his throat. I raised my head a little to peek across his bony shoulder. A small kerosene lamp smoked on the dresser between Father's and Mother's beds. It cast a reddish circle of light on the low ceiling, throwing off quivering shadows between uneven patches of darkness.
The two brass weights of the clock must have stopped moving in the middle of the night. One of the weights reached down to the top of the dresser and came to rest. The other hung in midair like a severed leg. I heard a rooster crowing in the distance, its cries mingling with the wailing of the cats and telling me that morning was about to dawn.
I clearly saw that the other bed, in which Mother should have been sleeping, was empty. Smack in the bed's center was a dark shape, indicating that a garment had been hastily tossed there. Mother, it seemed, hadn't yet returned from the hospital, where she had gone last night after serving Father and me our supper.
I myself, a chubby kid swaddled in layers of clothing, had just returned from the day's study at the Hebrew school, the kheyder. Father was still at the table, looking tired, mumbling the prayers of the Grace after Meals. Mother plopped down my supper, and then, wrapping herself in the large, gray woolen shawl, hurried off to the hospital to Moyshe, her youngest, and handsomest, son by her first husband.
Handsome he was indeed! Fathers of marriageable daughters had set their sights on him and sent matchmakers around. Moyshe had a round, dimpled face, like the full moon, ruddy cheeks, and a beautiful handwriting. He was already a full eighteen years old and worked for Israel the bookbinder, applying strips of paper decorated with birds and flowers, as customers requested.
He'd promised to paste those same birds and flowers on the four panes of our window and around the walls of our long, low-ceilinged dwelling. But Moyshe preferred taking girls out for walks, the flaps of his coat fluttering in the wind. He would come home so late at night that our maid, Jusza the cooper's daughter, who lived with us and helped Mother with the household chores, always had to get up to let him in.
Who would have thought it possible? Who would have imagined it? One morning Moyshe couldn't get up. He moaned quietly and complained of stitches in his side.
Bespectacled strangers began coming to our house and Jusza, who now washed the floor only every other day, helped them out of and back into their overcoats. The strangers told Moyshe to take deep breaths, tapped his ribs, and wrote out prescriptions, to be rushed to the pharmacy, for little bottles of oddly colored liquids.
The windowpanes frosted over with a tracery of white pine trees. Sometimes the trees took on the shape of a ship at sea, sometimes that of a little old Jew in a nightcap, with a pointy beard.
Moyshe gazed at the panes with watery eyes. His face had turned gaunt and greenish, and brown blotches appeared around his eyes.
The sweet-sour smell of his medicines and perspiration permeated the room, and Mother kept forgetting to comb out her sheytl, the wig worn by married women. As Moyshe kept staring at the frosted panes, Mother's chin grew more pointed and the veins on her hand stood out more prominently. Jusza, her black hair disheveled, pattered about barefoot and repeatedly crossed herself at her iron cot in the kitchen.
Father, coming home at night, would look about him, dull-eyed, and in a nasal voice ask, "Nu, how is he—Moyshe?"
But nothing more could be done for Moyshe at home, and so one weekday afternoon, without a by your leave, he was rushed to the hospital.
Father was standing in a dark corner of the room, reciting the afternoon prayers. A cold blue haze settled on the four frozen windowpanes, whose icy coatings now looked more like those of a ship underwater. Moyshe was padded with a pillow held in place by Mother's woolen shawl, and wrapped in the very coat he was wearing when he caught a chill.
An unknown Gentile in a yellow sheepskin helped Mother and Jusza get Moyshe out of the house. They propelled him forward slowly, step by step, as one would sometimes shift a heavy wardrobe.
Outside everything was blue—the snow, the houses, the roofs. Moyshe was placed on a low, wide sleigh where he lay flat on his back, like a narrow, dead fish, his wrapped face looking up to the sky. Mother sat at his feet, facing him, her feet dangling onto the snow. Several women, heaving deep sighs under their frozen noses, called after them, "May he return in good health!"
The sleigh set off, gliding along the soft snow, leaving behind two broad ruts, like two incisions on a live body. The farther it traveled, the smaller it grew in the deepening blue of the approaching evening.
Back in the house, Moyshe's unmade iron bed, its rumpled bedclothes still warm, stood forlorn. Damp wisps of straw littered the floor. The medicine bottles along the window sill seemed to have moved closer together, their necks inclining toward each other in a fraternal nod, and one of Moyshe's mother-of-pearl cufflinks peeked out from under the table, like a white, dead eye.
At the hospital they drained water from Moyshe's side and from the same side removed two of his ribs. He lay in a separate cubicle with two tall white windows. The bare, upturned branches of a tree looked in through the bluish panes.
Mother went to the hospital every evening and stayed through the night. By the time she returned, Jusza had already chopped some wood and was blowing into the open fire with puffed-out cheeks. A gloomy chill still clung to the walls. Father would be standing by the tiny flame of the kerosene lamp, reciting Psalms, when Mother would return from the hospital in silence, her eyes red from lack of sleep. She would immediately stick her head under the tin hood that hung over the stove and that resembled a peasant's cap, and she would start fixing Father's breakfast, weeping softly into the pots still unwashed from the night before.
Dipping a morsel of bread into salt, Father would ask from across the table, "Nu, Frimet?"
With her head hunched between her shoulders and talking into the pots, Mother would answer, "He's in need of God's mercy."
This morning Mother wasn't standing under the hood above the stove. Outside, the cats seemed to have tired of wailing. Somewhere in the empty darkness of the room one could hear the sharp scratching of a mouse. The cot in the kitchen where Jusza slept creaked, but the mouse went on scratching. Jusza must have hurled something across the empty space for there followed a sound like the cracking of an earthen pot. I pulled up my legs and huddled closer against Father's back.
All of a sudden there was a dreadful pounding on the door. Jusza leaped up to open it and, like a cork popping from a keg, a drawn-out shriek pierced the room.
Dad's wheezing snore stopped as if throttled midway. I sat bolt upright, and saw Mother standing in the middle of the room, rocking from side to side, clutching her head between both hands, then dropping them limply to her sides as if gripped by an unbearable pain.
"Such a young tree! Such a noble soul!" Mother wailed, still rocking from side to side.
Now Father sat up abruptly.
"Hah! What happened?" his hoarse, drowsy voice echoed around the room.
"He's gone!" Mother cried, spreading her arms as if crucified. "Leyzershi, I've lost him!"
Jusza stood beside Mother in a long nightgown, her tousled hair like a black sheep's wool, clawing at her cheeks with both hands, all but tearing the flesh from them. She turned up the lamp. On the ceiling the quivering red ring widened like a strangely distended eye. A draft swept through the room. I got out of bed and dressed quickly. Father set down a pair of blue feet onto the cold floor and groped for his slippers.
The four small windowpanes turned blue and behind their blueness the faces of strangers suddenly appeared. A stooped old woman in a red, feather-strewn nightcap slowly sidled up to Mother and, inclining her head like a napping hen, gazed straight into her face. Our upstairs neighbor, a shrill-voiced woman, came running down the stairs in unlaced shoes, their tongues flapping.
Then, fair-haired Fayvl, who sold us a quart of milk every morning straight from the cow, arrived with his battered can. Today, nobody went out to meet him, pot in hand. Two women, total strangers, pressed in behind him. One of them, a hunchback, looked around the room as if she'd lost someone there. The other, in steel-rimmed spectacles attached to her ears with two white ribbons, like a teacher in a girls' school, shuffled about the room as if she owned it. She whispered something to Father through narrow shrunken lips.
Father gave her a sidelong glance, raised his black beard, and muttered, "Yes, yes ... Frimet's son, my stepson."
By now it was brighter, but no one turned off the lamp on the dresser. The woman in the spectacles, pointing at the clock, said, "It stopped. The clock ..."
At that moment the door burst open and Aunt Miriam almost fell into the room, her mouth pursed into tiny wrinkles that looked like deep-set veins, her small nose pointy and red.
I was surprised. All her life Aunt Miriam used to speak softly, with winks rather than words. Talking loudly, she maintained, was a Gentile custom. Jewish children ought to speak in a quiet manner, like the biblical Mother Rachel. Our Mother Rachel, she explained, was soft-spoken and never raised her voice. Now that same Aunt Miriam barged into our room with an alarmed, panic-stricken look. The shout about to explode from her lips was signaled in her round, wide-open eyes. Mother, sitting in a chair, completely crushed, her head buried in her hands, seemed to have sensed that someone dear to her was in the room. Before actually setting eyes on Aunt Miriam, she leaped up and, with hands held out stiffly, threw her head back and burst into a loud wail.
"Sister dear, save my child!"
As though she had been waiting for her cue, Aunt Miriam let out a wail that pierced through to the ribs.
Father had stationed himself by the window, his face to the glass.
Mother's tears not only flowed from her eyes but also seemed to gush from her heavy, frozen garments. Suddenly she stood motionless in the middle of the room, as if struck dumb. The room became very quiet and she looked about her with inflamed, frenzied eyes.
"Frimet! Oh, Frimet!" Aunt Miriam cried out and rushed to her sister.
But Mother didn't seem to have heard her. She had changed into a different person, taller, straighter, unlike the crushed woman she had been a moment ago.
The people in the room huddled closer together. A slight tremor, barely noticeable, passed over their heads.
At that instant, Mother tore herself from the spot, lunged toward the wardrobe, tore open the doors, not unlike—may God forgive the comparison—a worshiper who opens the doors of the Holy Ark during services in the synagogue. Only then did she burst into tears again.
"What good are they to my child now that he's gone! Come and take them, good people!" she said, and, in an outburst of frenzy, started flinging Moyshe's clothes about. "Pray for my poor child. Let God revoke this evil decree!"
Father pressed his face closer against the frozen pane. The good people grabbed whatever they could, stripping the wardrobe almost bare.
Then Mother, her palms extended, as if she were carrying a child to its circumcision, ran out of the house.
The open wardrobe gaped hollow and dark. Father stepped back from the window and lowered the flame of the lamp.
Suddenly, Jusza stood beside me, took me into her big, warm arms, and sobbed into my ear, "My poor, poor boy!"
The strangers in the room slipped out one by one. The sour smell of empty bellies hung in the air. Father sat down, as he did every morning, to recite Psalms, except that this morning his head kept swaying nervously back and forth as he repeated a word several times over, making it sound like the buzzing of a fly against the windowpane. On the low ceiling, the shadow of Father's head kept swaying up and down, like the distorted shape of some outlandish being.
But God did not revoke the evil decree and Moyshe, unfortunately, died.
I ran to the hospital, but by the time I got there its black gate was already locked. Two tall, thick-bearded Jews were arguing about something with a Gentile. Several women stood about, stamping their feet in the snow. A shaggy, mangy dog sniffed around the hems of the men's long overcoats.
Shortly thereafter, Uncle Shmuel, Aunt Miriam's husband, appeared on the scene. He stepped up to the tall Jews and, spreading his hands, said in his oily voice, "Died, just like that! Can you believe it?"
The two Jews turned their beards to Uncle Shmuel and gave him a surprised look. I was about to kick the dog when Uncle Shmuel set eyes on me and, smacking his thick, wet lips, said, "You're here too? Who sent for you?"
And who had sent for him? Who needed him here, with that oily voice of his, running back and forth along the black gate, spitting into the snow, stopping the carts of passing peasants to poke the bags of grain they were hauling, asking what the grain cost, though he himself had never dealt in grain and hadn't the foggiest idea whether grain grew in the fields or on trees in the wood.
Meanwhile, Father arrived, treading slowly and heavily, and soon after him, Aunt Naomi and Uncle Bentsien pulled up in a public carriage, a droshky. Bentsien, round and squat like a stuffed pillow, had difficulty getting out. So Aunt Naomi, she of the thin lips and pretensions to learning, held a shoulder up to him and Uncle Bentsien, leaning on it, finally managed to heave himself down.
There he stood, with his protruding paunch, panting laboriously. Then, looking about him and blowing air through his fleshy red lips, said, "It's ice cold ... a real frost ... any idea what the temperature might be?"
No one answered. The mangy dog lowered his head to Uncle Bentsien's galoshes. He drew back.
"Beat it!" Uncle Bentsien snarled.
The dog hung his head meekly and padded over to me. He looked at me with his mild, moist eyes, wagged his tail sadly and, had he been able to talk, would probably have said, "Your brother died, and all your Uncle Bentsien can talk about is the weather?"
Night had fallen imperceptibly. A flock of ravens flew up somewhere into the clouds. On both sides of the road the snow lay in patchy strips, here black, here blue, and here rusty white. Across from the hospital, on the porch of the tavern, two buxom girls in fur coats talked in loud voices to the stooping shadows of two men.
Only then did the black hospital gate open. Two weary, black-eared horses, their heads bobbing, were pulling a narrow black cart behind their scraggly tails. Father's big hands lay on the cart's burden as he followed along. All at once, a line of men formed, their black coattails flapping in the wind, looking like birds abruptly roused from sleep. Women came rushing up, shoving one another aside and tugging at the woolen shawls that kept sliding from their shoulders. Both Mother and Aunt Miriam followed close on the heels of the men, their heads tossed back, their mouths agape, like freshly slaughtered cattle. Uncle Bentsien and Aunt Naomi, riding in their droshky, brought up the rear.
Excerpted from Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Yehoshue Perle, David G. Roskies, Maier Deshell, Margaret Birstein. Copyright © 2007 the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.
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Posted March 16, 2014
Posted April 20, 2014
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