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No Time for Tears
By Cynthia Freeman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Cynthia Freeman Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Winter was a time to be feared. It meant hunger and idleness. It came upon them like a plague, a punishment meted out for all their sins of five thousand years. Would God ever forgive them? In time—in time, even if man never would.
The torrential rain that had persisted for the past five days left deep crevices in the earth, leaving in its wake a river of mud that would not dry till spring. Soon the snows of winter would come and freeze the mud to ice. But finally and mercifully, the elements had given them a reprieve. The heavens now rested, the rain had stopped. And now the small village which lay south of Odessa slept.
Huddled together, they lay on floor mats, this human fodder, close to the tile oven. What could not comfort their empty stomachs, they found in the closeness of one another. Silhouetted against the threatening sky, billows of black smoke arose from the chimneys and spiraled upward. The village lay in darkness except for the kerosene lamp that burned dimly inside the Rabinsky house.
It had been this way since the rains had come and gone. But sixteen-year-old Chavala, the eldest of five children, had little time to concern herself with what happened beyond the confines of the three rooms that were home to them. The past days and nights had been lived in torment as she watched her mother lay in the agony of childbirth. She spent her time between the small bedroom and kitchen where the cauldron of water boiled constantly. As she tore the sheets apart, she railed at the elements that caused Leah, the midwife, to lay in her cold bed with pleurisy and a hacking cold so violent that now she was coughing up blood.
It was a terrifying scream that made her forget Leah and hurry back to the side of her mother.
"Chavala," her mother said, barely able to form the words, "how are the others?"
Chavala took her mother's hand in hers and held it gently. She had not seen nor heard from her brother, Moishe, nor her three sisters, Sheine, Raizel and Dvora, since she had sent them along with papa to Mrs. Greenblatt's, who lived at the furthest end of the village. Chavala wanted to spare them the sight she now witnessed. "The children are fine. For them you needn't worry."
Her mother screamed again and lay back prostrate, drenched with perspiration.
Chavala's own breathing was labored with fear, the silent voice within her whispered, "God, dear God, help us, I beg you. I plead with you." And God must have heard. After five agonizing days, Chavala's mother emptied her womb of a child she had conceived in her fiftieth year.
Quickly, Chavala cut the cord, took the tiny infant out of the veil of placenta, held it upside down and spanked it into life. But no cry was heard. Again, she spanked it. This time harder, still not a murmur. Almost frantically, Chavala called out, "Cry ... CRY!" But not a sound was heard, although Chavala felt the faint heartbeat and heard the shallow, slow breathing. It sounded as though any moment it might sound was heard, although Chavala felt the faint heartbeat and heard the shallow, slow breathing. It sounded as though any moment it might stop. "Live, do you hear ... LIVE!" Putting her mouth to the child's, she tried breathing life into it. Still there was no sound. Chavala looked from the child to the mother and saw that the eyes were closed and the head lay lifelessly to one side. She stood in utter disbelief, but her mother was gone. She should have wailed and beat her breast and berated God and wept, but there was no time for tears, as she felt the near-lifeless body of the new babe in her arms.
Quickly, she ran to the kitchen and immersed the infant, first in a tub of water just hot enough for the child to endure, and then in cold ... until at last, at long last, a new cry was heard in the world. Holding the red, scrawny babe in her hands, she looked down at the wrinkled face, then brought the emaciated body to her breast. "You are mine ... you were given unto my keeping ... little Chia ... mama's life will be lived through you." As she wrapped the child in a warm blanket, Chavala looked up to see her father framed in the doorway. His eyes were red and swollen. She had not heard him enter the house, but from the look of agony on his face he must have seen mama.
Heavily, he sat down at the kitchen table. "I should not have listened to you, Chavala. It was my place to be here."
Her heart went out to him. He had lived through so much pain and joy with his beloved ... He had married Rivka when both were seventeen. They had been childless for so long and then a miracle came into their lives when Chavala was born. Afterward, two years apart, each of the other children had come—a succession of miracles. Papa was such a good man, kind, pious. His great concern was that he could not provide a better living for them ... that burned deep in him. But what he could not give them in worldly goods he made up for in his love for them. After all, did miracles deserve less?
Now, in her hope to spare him, Chavala had sent him away. And the decision fell heavily on her. "I know, papa ... but I thought the others needed you."
"Oh, Chavala ... my place was here."
Swallowing hard, she looked at her father in this moment of bereavement and anguish. "The sin, if any, is mine, papa."
"No, it is mine ... I should have stayed. I should have been stronger than you and not allowed you to send me away. She was my wife ... my life. May God forgive me, I could at least have held her hand as she passed into the valley of ..." He could not finish the rest of the prayer. Instead he recited it silently as the tears came from his eyes. Chavala wept too, silently, but at this moment she was afraid of her emotions. Should she for one moment allow herself to let go, it would become impossible to rise above her bereavement She had to be the strong one. So much and so many depended upon her. Let her father have the blessed release of grief. It was the only solace left for him. All the failures of his life were descending upon him. From his earliest beginnings, his one longing had been to be a rabbi, to devote his life to the service of God and to live in peace in the land of his forefathers, Eretz Yisroel. Each time a landsman went to Palestine he pleaded with him to send back a handful of earth. They were his greatest possessions, these tiny bags of ancient dirt from Eretz Yisroel. But life had denied him, deprived him of his dreams. Instead he became the village shochet, a job he did not enjoy, but one was not meant to enjoy his labor nor to question the will of God. Avrum Rabinsky was obliged to accept his lot in life. He set aside his longings and made a meager living for his family. Now, his Rivka had been taken from him and that was too much for him to bear. Yet even now in his grief he did not ask God why, but something inside him was broken beyond repair. Somehow, when he needed the strength of his faith he could not call upon the Almighty to bind his wounds. He admonished himself, his head bowed in shame and guilt. The confusions in his mind were written on his face, so it was not difficult for Chavala to read what was in his heart. He cried from the depths. She placed the newborn in his arms, hoping that she would help, but for a moment he was reluctant to take the child. She was too painful a reminder of his loss. Then, slowly, he took the infant and held it close while swallowing the tears that ran into his mouth.
"Papa," Chavala said softly, "the baby must be fed. I'll go and bring back Manya."
He sat looking down at the small motherless creature. She would be nurtured on the milk of another's breast. She would never know the love and comfort of a mother's lullaby sung while the child suckled in quiet contentment. This one would be fed and Manya would receive her few kopeks. Love was not what she was being paid for—quickly he berated himself. God was all-knowing and not to be questioned. God knew all and man's life was predestined from the cradle to the grave. Avrum Rabinsky should have praised God that he had been provided such as Manya. Without her the child would also die ...
Putting on the shawl Chavala passed the open door to where her mother's lifeless body lay. The still body was now covered from head to toe with a stained sheet. Chavala swallowed hard to fight back the tears, closed the door and quickly rushed out into the cold early morning. For a moment she steadied herself against the wooden porch rail, breathing hard so as not to faint. Regaining her composure, she stepped down into the mud.
From across the road Dovid Landau sat at his cobbler's bench and watched through the window as Chavala tried to move forward, laboriously lifting one foot, then the other. Why did he love her so? She'd always been so distant, so aloof. He would have imagined Chavala would have shown some gratitude after he had added the small room where she could do her sewing, but not Chavala. There were no thanks, nothing. All she had said after his labors of half a summer was, "A palace it's not, but it'll do." Some favor she'd done him—giving him the great honor of providing a space for her to make a living. Still, as he watched her trying to lift her feet out of the mire, he felt ashamed of his anger. Why was he berating her this way? Chavala had never been a child. From his earliest recollections it was Chavala who had taken on the responsibilities of the family. He could never remember her without holding a sister or having one tugging at her skirts. It was as though Chavala's mother gave birth to them, then Chavala fell heir to their raising. He could also never remember her sailing nor going with the other children in summer to the meadow. She had no time for such frivolity. Poor Chavala, beautiful Chavala, with the thick chestnut hair that would have fallen to her slim waist if she'd not worn it braided and twisted around her head, making her look older than sixteen. Beautiful Chavala. With the lips that he so longed to kiss. Quickly he spewed the nails from his mouth, put down the small hammer and went to the door, opening it. He called out, "Chavala?"
She turned her head toward the voice. Tonelessly she answered, "Yes?"
"It's so cold. What are you doing out this early?"
Swallowing hard she answered, "I have to bring Manya back."
His eyes narrowed in shock. Manya? ... Manya was the wet nurse. She was always used when ... he quickly rejected the thought. Still ... "Why Manya?"
For a long moment Chavala stood silent. To speak at this moment would risk tears, and she could not risk that ... She bit her lower lip hard, then, "My mother died early this morning." Flat, matter-of-fact, to camouflage the awful hurt ...
A gasp lay in Dovid's throat, as though the loss were his. The pain of what Chavala felt seared through him like a knife. Mrs. Rabinsky had been like a mother to him when his own had died of tuberculosis. Then shortly after, he witnessed the burial of his father. That was before Chavala was born and he was only six. He remembered so well how Rivka had taken him to her home. She held him close to her for comfort, sang him to sleep with her soothing lullabies, fixed a bed on a board between two chairs, put down a straw mat and covered him with Avrum's winter coat. She sat by his side until finally he fell into blessed slumber. In the morning she prepared a special treat of Chanukah latkes and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. But he could scarcely eat. "Why did she die?" he had asked. Her soft brown eyes looked at him. "Because, Dovid, it was God's will. We are only mortals and God must not be questioned. He knows what is best. We must trust in His decisions."
But why had God made such a decision? Who was God to take his mother from him? He did not like God. No, he would never like God. But he would always love Rivka Rabinsky ... But this was not the moment for such painful memories. Grabbing his coat from the hook on the door, he slipped into it and joined Chavala. "I'll go to Manya's with you."
"Thank you, but I can go alone."
"Don't try to show how strong you are. You're only human, Chavala. You're not an oak."
"I want to do this alone," she answered, without rancor.
He knew it wasn't her stubbornness but her courage that spoke. To argue with her would be pointless. Picking her up in his arms, he
walked awkwardly in the mud that came up to his ankles.
Chavala did not resist. She was too weary. In fact, there was a measure of gratitude while she rested in his arms, although she would not tell him so.
When they reached Manya's hut Dovid walked up the broken wooden steps and put Chavala down. He looked at her eyes, which were not red and swollen from crying, but he knew the grief that lay hidden. If only she would show a sign of her despair, release herself from the torment she held in silence. What comfort that could bring to her! But to do that would also show her weakness, and Chavala would never permit herself that luxury. Not Chavala. She would suffer alone. She did not thank him for his help and concern, instead she turned from him and knocked on Manya's door.
When Manya finally opened the door and saw the two standing there she knew at once the reason Chavala had come. Her large bulk trembled for a moment, then she invited them in, but Dovid said, "I have to go to the Chevra Kadisha."
Manya shook her head. Poor Dovid was the one the task had fallen to of notifying the department of burials that his beloved Rivka Rabinsky was gone. Manya also knew that with Rivka's passing all the understanding of a mother who nurtured Dovid's soul and fed his body would be buried. He had loved her so. It was to her that he had been able to confide his great love for Chavala, the frustrations of manhood as well as his disillusionment with God. Not once had she taken him to task nor forbidden him to speak such blasphemy in her house. Instead she tried in her gentle manner to explain, "Where is there to go, Dovid, for help and solace if you forsake God? No mortal's door is open for you to enter. You see, my darling boy, without the love of God we are lost He is there when our courage has faltered, if only we call on Him."
He did not dispute her words, though they did not change him. He'd felt he didn't need the love of God so long as Rivka's door was open. And now it was shut, forever.
Manya put on her shawl, told her husband to attend to their child and with Chavala descended the steps into the water-filled rut.
Chavala slipped and fell face down in the mud.
Quickly Dovid helped her up. "Are you all right, Chavala?"
Throwing back her head, she answered quickly, "I'm all right, please let go of my arm."
Releasing it, he knew her anger was not directed at him. It was the same anger he'd felt when his mother died and he wanted to break the world into a thousand pieces. But for them there had been the gift of Rivka to guide him through the troubled nights. Now he desperately wanted to hold Chavala close to him so that she too would know the healing power of love. Perhaps then the fire of her anger and grief would dissipate like smoke. But it was useless to try ... Chavala would hug and nurture her pain ... it was how Chavala protected her wounded soul from feeling too much. He watched as the two women walked clumsily down the road, and when they'd entered Chavala's house and closed the door behind them he made his way to the Chevra Kadisha at the furthest end of the village, shaking his head in sympathy for her loss, which was also his.
Manya took the infant from Avrum. Without a word he got up unsteadily and walked to the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
Chavala watched as the new one sucked greedily to get Manya's milk. When the frail infant was satisfied and asleep Manya handed the baby to Chavala, and then the two sat in silence, each with her own separate thoughts.
Not so much out of curiosity but from a feeling that Chavala needed to talk, Manya asked, "What's happened?"
The words seemed to stick in Chavala's throat, then almost inaudibly she said, "Leah was sick ... by now, who knows, she could be dead too. Why are we so cursed? Why, Manya? What have we done to offend God so much that He allows us to suffer this way?"
Manya swallowed hard. "I don't know answers to life's riddles. I only know God's not to blame. Your mother, may she rest in peace, would have told you that—"
Excerpted from No Time for Tears by Cynthia Freeman. Copyright © 1981 Cynthia Freeman Enterprises, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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