By Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2004 Jonathan Safran Foer
All rights reserved.
From the small crossed window of his room above the stable in the brickyard, Yakov Bok saw people in their long overcoats running somewhere early that morning, everybody in the same direction. Vey iz mir, he thought uneasily, something bad has happened. The Russians, coming from streets around the cemetery, were hurrying, singly or in groups, in the spring snow in the direction of the caves in the ravine, some running in the middle of the slushy cobblestone streets. Yakov hastily hid the small tin can in which he saved silver rubles, then rushed down to the yard to find out what the excitement was about. He asked Proshko, the foreman, loitering near the smoky brickkilns, but Proshko spat and said nothing. Outside the yard a black-shawled, bony-faced peasant woman, thickly dressed, told him the dead body of a child had been found nearby. "Where?" Yakov asked. "How old a child?" but she said she didn't know and hurried away. The next day the Kievlyanin reported that in a damp cave in a ravine not more than a verst and a half from the brickworks, the body of a murdered Russian boy, Zhenia Golov, twelve years old, had been found by two older boys, both fifteen, Kazimir Selivanov and Ivan Shestinsky. Zhenia, dead more than a week, was covered with stab wounds, his body bled white. After the funeral in the cemetery close by the brick factory, Richter, one of the drivers, brought in a handful of leaflets accusing the Jews of the murder. They had been printed, Yakov saw when he examined one, by the Black Hundreds organizations. Their emblem, the Imperial double-headed eagle, was imprinted on the cover, and under it: SAVE RUSSIA FROM THE JEWS. In his room that night, Yakov, in fascination, read that the boy had been bled to death for religious purposes so that the Jews could collect his blood and deliver it to the synagogue for the making of Passover matzos. Though this was ridiculous he was frightened. He got up, sat down, and got up again. He went to the window, then returned hastily and continued to read the newspaper. He was worried because the brick factory where he worked was in the Lukianovsky District, one in which Jews were forbidden to live. He had been living there for months under an assumed name and without a residence certificate. And he was frightened of the pogrom threatened in the newspaper. His own father had been killed in an incident not more than a year after Yakov's birth—something less than a pogrom, and less than useless: two drunken soldiers, shot the first three Jews in their path, his father had been the second. But the son had lived through a pogrom when he was a schoolboy, a three-day Cossack raid. On the third morning when the houses were still smoldering and he was led, with a half dozen other children, out of a cellar where they had been hiding he saw a black-bearded Jew with a white sausage stuffed into his mouth, lying in the road on a pile of bloody feathers, a peasant's pig devouring his arm.
Five months ago, on a mild Friday in early November, before the first snow had snowed on the shtetl, Yakov's father-in-law, a skinny worried man in clothes about to fall apart, who looked as though he had been assembled out of sticks and whipped air, drove up with his skeletal horse and rickety wagon. They sat in the thin cold house —gone to seed two months after Raisl, the faithless wife, had fled—and drank a last glass of tea together. Shmuel, long since sixty, with tousled gray beard, rheumy eyes, and deeply creased forehead—dug into his caftan pocket for half a yellow sugar lump and offered it to Yakov who shook his head. The peddler—he was his daughter's dowry, had had nothing to give so he gave favors, service if possible—sucked tea through sugar but his son-in-law drank his unsweetened. It tasted bitter and he blamed existence. The old man from time to time commented on life without accusing anyone, or asked harmless questions, but Yakov was silent or short with answers.
After he had sipped through half his glass of tea, Shmuel, sighing, said, "Nobody has to be a Prophet to know you're blaming me for my daughter Raisl." He spoke in sadness, wearing a hard hat he had found in a barrel in a neighboring town. When he sweated it stuck to his head, but being a religious man he didn't mind. Otherwise he had on a patched and padded caftan from which his skinny hands hung out. And very roomy shoes, not boots, which he ran in, and around in.
"Who said anything? You're blaming yourself for having brought up a whore."
Shmuel, without a word, pulled out a soiled blue handkerchief and wept.
"So why, if you'll excuse me, did you stop sleeping with her for months? Is that a way to treat a wife?"
"It was more like weeks but how long can a man sleep with a barren woman? I got tired of trying."
"Why didn't you go to the rabbi when I begged you?"
"Let him stay out of my business and I'll stay out of his. All in all he's an ignorant man."
"Charity you were always short of," the peddler said.
Yakov rose, enraged. "Don't talk to me about charity. What have I had all my life? What have I got to give away? I was practically born an orphan—my mother dead ten minutes later, and you know what happened to my poor father. If somebody said Kaddish for them it wasn't me till years later. If they were waiting outside the gates of heaven it was a long cold wait, if they're not still waiting. Throughout my miserable childhood I lived in a stinking orphans' home, barely existing. In my dreams I ate and I ate my dreams. Torah I had little of and Talmud less, though I learned Hebrew because I've got an ear for language. Anyway, I knew the Psalms. They taught me a trade and apprenticed me five minutes after age ten—not that I regret it. So I work—let's call it work—with my hands, and some call me "common" but the truth of it is few people know who is really common. As for those that look like they got class, take another look. Viskover, the Nogid, is in my eyes a common man. All he's got is rubles and when he opens his mouth you can hear them clink. On my own I studied different subjects, and even before I was taken into the army I taught myself a decent Russian, much better than we pick up from the peasants. What little I know I learned on my own—some history and geography, a little science, arithmetic, and a book or two of Spinoza's. Not much but better than nothing."
"Though most is treyf I give you credit—" said Shmuel.
"Let me finish. I've had to dig with my fingernails for a living. What can anybody do without capital? What they can do I can do but it's not much. I fix what's broken—except in the heart. In this shtetl everything is falling apart—who bothers with leaks in his roof if he's peeking through the cracks to spy on God? And who can pay to have it fixed let's say he wants it, which he doesn't. If he does, half the time I work for nothing. If I'm lucky, a dish of noodles. Opportunity here is born dead. I'm frankly in a foul mood."
"Opportunity you don't have to tell me about—"
"They conscripted me for the Russo-Japanese War but it was over before I got in. Thank God. When I got sick they booted me out. An asthmatic Jew wasn't worth the trouble. Thank God. When I got back I scraped again with my broken nails. After a long runaround which started when I met her, I married your daughter, who couldn't get pregnant in five and a half years. She bore me no children so who could I look in the eye? And now she runs off with some stranger she met at the inn—a goy I'm positive. So that's enough—who needs more? I don't want people pitying me or wondering what I did to be so cursed. I did nothing. It was a gift. I'm innocent. I've been an orphan too long. All I have to my name after thirty years in this graveyard is sixteen rubles that I got from selling everything I own. So please don't mention charity because I have no charity to give."
"Charity you can give even when you haven't got. I don't mean money. I meant for my daughter."
"Your daughter deserves nothing."
"She ran from one rabbi to another in every town I took her, but nobody could promise her a child. She ran to the doctors too when she had a ruble, but they told her the same thing. It was cheaper with the rabbis. So she ran away—may God protect her. Even a sinner belongs to Him. She sinned but she was desperate."
"May she run forever."
"She was a true wife to you for years. She shared your every misfortune."
"What she caused she shared. She was a true wife to the last minute, or the last month, or the month before that, and that makes her untrue, a black cholera on her!"
"God forbid," cried Shmuel, rising. "On you!"
Eyes agitated, he thickly cursed the fixer and fled from the house.
Yakov had sold everything but the clothes on his back, which he wore as peasants do—embroidered shirt belted outside his trousers, whose legs were stuffed into wrinkled high boots. And a peasant's worn and patched, brown sheepskin coat, which could, on occasion, smell of sheep. He had kept his tools and a few books: Smirnov-sky's Russian Grammar, an elementary biology book, Selections from Spinoza, and a battered atlas at least twenty-five years old. He had made a small bundle of the books with a piece of knotted twine. The tools were in a flour sack tied at the neck, the crosscut blade protruding. There was also some food in a cone of newspaper. He was leaving behind his few ruined sticks of furniture—a junkman had wanted to be paid to take them—and two sets of cracked dishes, also unsaleable, that Shmuel could do with whatever he wanted—use, ax, or fire—they were worth nothing. Raisl had had two sets for her father's sake, for herself it made not much difference. But in exchange for the horse and wagon the peddler would get a fairly good cow. He could take over his daughter's little dairy business. It could hardly pay less than peddling. He was the only person Yakov knew who peddled nothing and sold it, in bits and slices, for real kopeks. Sometimes he traded nothing for pig bristles, wool, grain, sugar beets, and then sold the peasants dried fish, soap, kerchiefs, candy, in minute quantities. That was his talent and on it he miraculously lived. "He who gave us teeth will give us bread." Yet his breath smelled of nothing—not bread, not anything.
Yakov, in loose clothes and peaked cap, was an elongated nervous man with large ears, stained hard hands, a broad back and tormented face, lightened a bit by gray eyes and brownish hair. His nose was sometimes Jewish, sometimes not. He had to no one's surprise—after Raisl ran away—shaved off his short beard of reddish cast. "Cut off your beard and you no longer resemble your creator," Shmuel had warned. Since then he had been admonished by more than one Jew that he looked like a goy but it had caused him neither to mourn nor rejoice. He looked young but felt old and for that he blamed nobody, not even his wife; he blamed fate and spared himself. His nervousness showed in his movements. Generally he moved faster than he had to, considering how little there was to do, but he was always doing something. After all, he was a fixer and had to keep his hands busy.
Dumping his things into the open wagon, a rusty water bucket hanging under it between the back wheels, he was displeased with the appearance of the nag, a naked-looking animal with spindly legs, a brown bony body and large stupid eyes, who got along very well with Shmuel. They asked little from each other and lived in peace. The horse did mostly as he pleased and Shmuel indulged him. After all, what difference did a short delay make in a mad world? Tomorrow he would be no richer. The fixer was irritated with himself for acquiring this decrepit beast, but had thought better a lopsided exchange with Shmuel than getting nothing for the cow from a peasant who coveted her. A father-in-law's blood was thicker than water. Although there was no railroad station anywhere around, and the coachman came for travelers only every second week, Yakov could have got to Kiev without taking over the horse and wagon. Shmuel had offered to drive him the thirty or so versts but the fixer preferred to be rid of him and travel alone. He figured that once he got into the city he could sell the beast and apology-for-dray, if not to a butcher, then at least to a junk dealer for a few rubles.
Dvoira, the dark-uddered cow, was out in the field behind the hut, browsing under a leafless poplar tree, and Yakov went out to her. The white cow raised her head and watched him approach. The fixer patted her lean flank. "Goodbye, Dvoira," he said, "and lots of luck. Give what you got left to Shmuel, also a poor man." He wanted to say more but couldn't. Tearing up some limp yellowing grass, he fed it to the cow, then returned to the horse and wagon. Shmuel had reappeared.
Why does he act as though he were the one who had deserted me?
"I didn't come back to fight with anybody," Shmuel said. "What she did I won't defend—she hurt me as much as she did you. Even more, though when the rabbi says she's now dead my voice agrees but not my heart. First of all she's my only child, and since when do we need more dead? I've cursed her more than once but I ask God not to listen."
"Well, I'm leaving," Yakov said, "take care of the cow."
"Don't leave yet," Shmuel said, his eyes miserable. "If you stay Raisl might come back."
"If she does who's interested?"
"If you had been more patient she wouldn't have left you."
"Five years going on six is enough of patience. I've had enough. I might have waited the legal ten, but she danced off with some dirty stranger, so I've had my fill, thanks."
"Who can blame you?" Shmuel sighed sadly. He asked after a while, "Have you got tobacco for a little cigarette, Yakov?"
"My bag is empty."
The peddler briskly rubbed his dry palms.
"So you haven't, you haven't, but what I don't understand is why you want to bother with Kiev. It's a dangerous city full of churches and anti-Semites."
"I've been cheated from the start," Yakov said bitterly. "What I've been through personally you know already, not to mention living here all my life except for a few months in the army. The shtetl is a prison, no change from the days of Khmelnitsky. It moulders and the Jews moulder in it. Here we're all prisoners, I don't have to tell you, so it's time to try elsewhere I've finally decided. I want to make a living, I want to get acquainted with a bit of the world. I've read a few books in recent years and it's surprising what goes on that none of us knows about. I'm not asking for Tibet but what I saw in St. Petersburg interested me. Whoever thought of white nights before, but it's a scientific fact; they have them there. When I left the army I thought I would get out of here as soon as possible, but things caught up with me, including your daughter."
"My daughter wanted to run away from here the minute you got married but you wouldn't go."
"It's true," said Yakov, "it was my fault. I thought it couldn't get worse so it must get better. I was wrong both ways so now enough is enough. I'm on my way at last."
"Outside the Pale only wealthy Jews and the professional classes can get residence certificates. The Tsar doesn't want poor Jews all over his land, and Stolypin, may his lungs collapse, urges him on. Ptu!" Shmuel spat through two fingers.
"Since I can't be a professional on account of lack of education I wouldn't mind being wealthy. As the saying goes, I'd sell my last shirt to be a millionaire. Maybe, by luck, I'll make my fortune in the outside world."
"What's in the world," Shmuel said, "is in the shtetl—people, their trials, worries, circumstances. But here at least God is with us."
"He's with us till the Cossacks come galloping, then he's elsewhere. He's in the outhouse, that's where he is."
The peddler grimaced but let the remark pass. "Almost fifty thousand Jews live in Kiev," he said, "restricted to a few districts, and all in the way of the first blow that falls if a new pogrom should come. And it will fall faster in the larger places than it falls here. When we hear their cries we will rush into the woods. Why should you walk straight into the hands of the Black Hundreds, may they hang by their tongues?"
"The truth of it is I'm a man full of wants I'll never satisfy, at least not here. It's time to get out and take a chance. Change your place change your luck, people say."
"Since the last year or so, Yakov, you're a different man. What wants are so important?"
"Those that can't sleep and keep me awake for company. I've told you what wants: a full stomach now and . then. A job that pays rubles, not noodles. Even some education if I can get it, and I don't mean workmen studying Torah after hours. I've had my share of that. What I want to know is what's going on in the world." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. Copyright © 2004 Jonathan Safran Foer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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