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Memories of Babi Stories
By Aranka Siegal
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2008 Aranka Siegal
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Feathered Spirit
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I woke early one Friday morning, put on one of my cotton country dresses, and walked into the kitchen to find Babi well into her baking for the Sabbath. Her apron tied around her, her sleeves rolled up, and the babushka on her head knotted under her chin, she was standing in front of her kneading board. Her whole body swayed in rhythm as she shook the flour sifter from side to side.
"Good morning, Babi," I said.
"I'm glad you are up, Piri," said Babi, glancing quickly in my direction. "Go, shaefele, little lamb, and wash the sleep out of your eyes. I'll roll out a piece of challah dough, and bake you a nice lángos."
After I came back from the well where I had washed my face, I watched Babi's small dark fingers tear off a piece of the spongy white dough, form it into a ball, pound it with her knuckles until it was the shape of a saucer, and finally roll it flat to the size of a dinner plate. Then, lifting the stretched dough over both her hands, she carefully placed it on the long-handled bread paddle and shook it onto the hot oven floor.
Babi stopped briefly and said, "Go and pour yourself coffee; my hands are coveredwith flour," before she turned back to the rest of the dough. She had a system for making challah that was second nature to her hands. They seemed to move of their own accord from one step to the next until all the dough was kneaded, rolled, and braided into challah and distributed on various baking pans, which were then placed inside the hot walls of the oven.
I mixed the acorn coffee half-and-half with boiled milk, and measured out several spoonfuls of sugar. When I was done, the lángos was ready. It was hot and crusty and filled with holes as I pulled it apart to butter it. Babi, watching in amusement at the way I was so totally engrossed in eating my breakfast, asked if she should make me another lángos for when I came back.
"Where am I going?"
"I think you are now old enough to run an important errand for me. I have the chicken in a basket on the porch ready for the slaughterer. You are going to take the chicken to Big Komjaty to the shochet."
The hot buttery lángos suddenly ceased to interest me.
"I have never gone by myself before."
"Don't you know the way?"
"Yes, but ... I'll have to walk past the cemetery ..."
Although I wanted to plead, "Don't send me," I knew it was no use. The cemetery and the slaughterer's were the two places I dreaded most in all Komjaty, but if Babi asked me to run an errand, I would just have to go, regardless of my fears.
"Nothing," I said in answer to Babi's question.
"Good girl. Now, don't linger or visit. Come straight back. The day goes so fast, and I will need plenty of time to prepare the chicken for the Sabbath." She went on talking, but I did not hear her words. My thoughts were on the cemetery and Noochum, the evil spirit in rooster form who haunted it.
Babi walked me out to the porch. Still talking, she hung the basket with the cackling chicken over my arm. "Go, shaefele. Hurry."
It was one of those days in July when the air was hot and sticky and the fields were still. Nothing stirred outside, but in me all the ghost stories I had ever heard were unfolding and leaping over each other. There were as many ghost stories in Komjaty as there were people.
The one that had made the biggest impression on me was about the Jewish cemetery and had been told to me in the courtyard of the synagogue. It was during one of the High Holy Days, when all the grownups were inside praying. The three daughters of the widow Laiku were sitting outside on the porch railing of their two-room house, which was a few meters from the synagogue. Their legs dangled over the outside of the railing. The girls were dressed in their Sabbath best and wore dark ribbed cotton stockings and high laced oxford shoes with many visible patches. For the benefit of the out-of-town children like me who were spending the holidays with relatives, they were telling stories about Komjaty.
It was Tesy, the oldest, who told the story about Noochum and the Jewish cemetery on top of the steep hill that divided Big Komjaty from Little Komjaty. She said that there had been a loyal old caretaker named Noochum who had tended the graves in the cemetery until he died at the age of ninety-three. But he could not rest in peace because he worried about the dead not being cared for. So he had come back from his grave disguised as a rooster and continued his job of caretaking. Since Noochum's grave had been dug out and found empty, there could be no doubt about the truth of the story, as all three of the widow's daughters assured us by swearing. First they spat away from themselves-"Ptui, ptui, ptui." Then Tesy jumped up and hopped around on one leg with the other tucked under her skirt and said, "I should walk like this for the rest of my life if it's not true that his grave was found empty." The middle sister got up, spat again, and declared, "I should grow boils under both arms if Tesy is not telling you the truth." Then the youngest sister stood up and covered her left eye with her left hand. "I should go blind in this eye if the story you are listening to is not exactly the way it happened."
"That is why the cemetery could never hire a new caretaker; nobody would take the job with Noochum running around all the time," Tesy concluded. "That is why the grounds look so neglected."
"Why doesn't Noochum take better care of it?" asked one of the out-of-town children.
"He is not interested in the grounds-just the dead," offered the middle sister. "Besides, did you ever see a rooster prune hedges?" Nobody had further comment after that, and ever since then I had gone to great lengths to avoid any close contact with the cemetery.
The heat of the day, coupled with my inner anxieties and the restless chicken trying to break loose from the basket, added to my burden. I decided to sit down on the side of the dusty road at the bottom of the hill from the cemetery and try to think of a way to deal with the situation. I stroked the smooth feathers of the chicken and talked to it about being good and brave. When we were both calmed down, I continued on my way.
With my head bent over the basket, I kept the conversation flowing as I walked up the hill and began to pass the length of the cemetery. Even on the sunniest days, it was densely shadowed. The black iron poles of the fence were all askew, held together only by ropelike vines. The cemetery ground was bumpy, full of rocks, and crowded with rows of sunken tombstones covered with moss. The lopsided markers seemed to be marching in rows over the uneven ground. Noochum was nowhere in sight. Soon the field that bordered the cemetery was before me, and just beyond, at the bottom of the hill, were the whitewashed houses of Big Komjaty.
"We made it," I whispered into the basket, and broke into a run. But the motion upset the chicken, and it began to cackle from fright. I stopped running and again calmed her down.
When I got to the busy yard of the shochet, women, girls, and boys were hurrying in and out carrying their Sabbath dinners. Geese, ducks, and chickens went in alive and came out dead. I stood at the gate for a few minutes and watched the people greeting each other with "Have a good Sabbath." Then I remembered Babi's warning not to linger, and I ran inside the low building toward the slaughterer and handed him the basket.
The shochet, a very tall and slender man, was dressed in black silk from head to toe. His white collar and socks matched his white cheeks and long hands. He was young, and his dark beard, with full sidelocks, covered his jaws. He stood behind a trough that was splattered with blood. Above his head some chickens hung by their feet from hooks, waiting to be picked up. The swishing of shoes in the sawdust on the floor was the only sound in the room except for the slaughterer's voice as he recited the ritual prayer in a low monotone. As soon as he took the frightened chicken out of my basket and reached for his sharp knife, I lost my nerve and started to run out, but his voice caught me at the door. "Come back in a few minutes." When I returned he handed me the basket with the now dead chicken and said, "Have a good Sabbath."
I turned, walked back through the courtyard, and started my journey home to Babi's. But this time as I walked toward the cemetery, I spotted Noochum perched on the iron gate. He was twice the size of any rooster I had ever seen.
The encounter I had dreaded was less than one hundred meters away, with no possibility of avoiding it in sight, if I wanted to go home. Now I didn't even have a chicken to talk to. I just stood where I was and waited, hoping he'd go away. But even if he flew away and I could not see him, how could I be sure he would not jump out at me from some hiding place? I decided I would have to wait until someone came along. I stood there for a long time; my stomach began to growl from hunger, and I realized it must be past noon. But even such a familiar and natural sensation was startling in these circumstances, and I was sure that in some way Noochum was responsible for the growling in my stomach. Maybe this was his way of casting a spell.
I was growing frantic when a peasant woman finally came along, carrying two large jugs of water hanging from a yoke on her broad shoulders. Clouds of dust rose around her chunky ankles and bare feet as she mechanically half shuffled and half walked under the weight of the jugs.
When she came up to where I was standing, I started to walk slowly alongside her, keeping her between me and the cemetery. I looked toward her, hoping for a comforting word, but instead her rude, sarcastic voice was so loud I was sure that Noochum could hear. "Are you afraid of the cemetery?" she asked.
"What do you have in the basket?"
"Did you kill it?"
"Did you have it killed?"
"Yes." I wished she would stop talking about all this killing.
"I kill my own chicken when I decide to cook one," she continued.
"We are not allowed to kill our own."
"Oh, you must be a djidka," she said, using the Ukrainian word for Jewess. "You have some strange customs. By the time you get that chicken home, it will stink."
"There is this rooster ..." I said as we were nearing the cemetery gate, and I was sorry at once for mentioning him. Noochum was looking right at us. Except for his shriveled pink face, he was all black, and his brown-yellow eyes, like amber beads stuck into his loose-hanging flesh, were focused on the two of us.
"Oh, someone told you about him," the peasant woman said, trying to read my thoughts. "That is the truth they told you. But he doesn't bother us Christians. He just works his spells on the Jews. Have you done anything to upset him?"
"Then you shouldn't be scared." She went close to the gate, leaving me on the other side of the road, and shooed the rooster into flight. His large wings made a loud flapping noise. The woman started shaking with laughter as she alternately looked at the rooster and at me. Noochum's wings picked up momentum, stirring up great swirls of dust as he crowed in loud protest and circled in front of her. Her laughter became hysterical cackling, blending with Noochum's cries. As the laughter shook her body, water spilled out of her jugs, each splash sending up its own puff of dust to blend with the cloud Noochum's wings were beating into the air.
I started running down the hill, the dead chicken bouncing around in the basket on my arm. I glanced back over my shoulder into the bright rays of the sun and saw Noochum and the billowing dust cloud, seemingly flecked with sparks-almost flamelike-in the afternoon glare. I kept running until finally the pounding of my heart filled my ears and drowned out the sound of the cackling.
When I reached Babi's house, she was standing in the road, shielding her eyes from the sun with a cupped hand, looking for me. "I was getting worried," she said, taking the basket as she quickly moved her eyes over my face and body. "You are trembling. Did anything happen?" She didn't wait for an answer, but continued, "I have to hurry and pluck the chicken, or I won't have time to cook it before sundown. Come, have your lunch while I work, and tell me what happened."
I felt as limp as the chicken Babi pulled out of the basket. "I am not hungry. Would it be all right if I cooled off in the rain barrel?" I asked.
Babi was a little taken aback, but then, still holding the chicken, she looked me over, shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Sure, why not? Go, shaefele, wash away whatever is troubling you."
Chapter Two The Ducks
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Tercsa lived across the road from Babi. She had a limp and her lame foot was supported by a high-laced black orthopedic shoe with a six-centimeter heel. On her other foot she wore a low oxford. Each made a different thump as it contacted the hard clay of her yard, sounding to me like the steps of two different people. During the summer, her son and daughter-in-law, who lived with her, worked out in the fields from dawn until sunset, and they usually took their two little girls with them. Tercsa kept busy with the household chores and tending the pigs, chickens, ducks, and geese. She yearned for companionship, but summer was a busy time in Komjaty, and nobody stopped to socialize except on Sundays. Tercsa felt left out of things, staying by herself six days a week.
Sometimes when I was alone because Babi was working in her own fields, Tercsa would call me over from our yard to sit and talk with her while she did her work. Besides taking care of the animals and cooking the meals, she also had to gather the hemp that was drying in the sun and beat it through her primitive thresher until the outside husks became brittle and broke off, leaving the fiber tangled like matted hair. Next she drew the fiber through a large mounted brush made out of spikes. After this long and tedious procedure, she tied the combed fiber onto her spindle. This was the part I liked best. By moistening the thumb and the forefinger of her right hand with saliva, she twisted several strands of the soft fiber into thread. Her left hand held a large, mushroom-shaped spool that was in constant motion winding up the freshly spun thread. Sitting on her stool behind the spindle, Tercsa herself became a machine, with both hands occupied in different movements and her good foot pedaling.
After letting me try her spindle, she set up a child-sized version of it for my use. At first, I got very frustrated because my thread was so uneven. Tercsa's was smooth and tight, almost like store-bought thread. Mine went in and came out in different thicknesses and became unraveled. Tercsa's old and patient hands then guided mine, and the thread started to even out. After I spun a satisfactory spool, she told me that when I visited Komjaty during the winter, her loom would be set up and she would teach me to weave the flax into homespun.
One Sunday, her son, Ivan, and his family had gone to visit his wife's family in a nearby village. Tercsa saw me in Babi's yard and asked me to come over and keep her company. She was as fascinated with my life in the modern city as I was with the traditions of the country. She could never hear enough about my city life, especially about the train I took from my house in Beregszász to Komjaty. That day she heard the train whistle in the distance and asked, "Aren't you scared of it?"
"Not at all. Why should I be?"
"Because it is driven by the devil."
"No, Tercsa, it has a furnace and the man on the train keeps shoveling in coal."
"Don't you believe it, child. It is the devil himself who drives that monster."
"Oh, Tercsa, have Ivan take you over to the train stop in the oxcart sometime so you can see the train for yourself."
"Not me, child. I don't ride on anything. I only go to places where my lame leg can take me."
"Well, the train is run by an engine that is heated by a furnace. If you had a furnace in your spindle, you would not have to move your arms; the heat of the coals would move things for you. I saw it and my stepfather explained it to me."
Excerpted from Memories of Babi by Aranka Siegal Copyright © 2008 by Aranka Siegal. Excerpted by permission.
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