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Authors: Sholem Aleichem

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (13 page)

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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But why make a short story long? I’m sure you remember, though I would much prefer to forget, what happened with my
cousin Menachem Mendl—how I wish I had never heard that name!—and with the fine business in gold imperials and poptions that we did in Yehupetz. It shouldn’t happen to my worst enemy! For a while I went about moaning and groaning that it was all over with me and my dairy, until the wife said to me, “Tevye, you’re a fool to carry on as though the world has come to an end. All you’re doing is eating your heart out. Why not just pretend we’ve been burgled, it could happen to anyone … If I were you, I’d go see Layzer Wolf the butcher in Anatevka. He keeps saying he needs to talk to you urgently.”

“What can be so urgent?” I asked. “If he’s got it into his head that I’m going to sell him our brown cow, he can take a stick and beat it out again.”

“What’s so precious about our brown cow?” says my wife. “All the rivers of milk and mountains of butter we get from her?”

“No, it isn’t that,” I say. “It’s just a sin to hand over a poor innocent beast to be slaughtered. Why, it says in our holy Bible—”

“For goodness’ sake, Tevye,” she says, “that’s enough! The whole world knows what a professor of Bible you are. Listen to a simple woman like me and go see Layzer Wolf. Every Thursday when I send our Tsaytl to his butcher shop for meat, it’s the same thing again: would she please tell her father to come at once, he has something important to say to him …”

Well, sometimes you have to do what you’re told, even if it’s by your own wife; I let myself be talked into going to see Layzer Wolf in Anatevka, which is a couple of miles away. When I got there, he was out.

“Where’s Layzer Wolf?” I asked the pug-nosed woman who was busy doing the housework.

“He’s at the slaughterhouse,” she says. “He’s been there all morning slaughtering an ox, but he should be back soon.”

While I waited for him I wandered about the house, taking in the furnishings. I only wish I had half as much! There was a cupboard full of copper that you couldn’t have bought for two hundred and fifty rubles; not just one samovar but two; and a brass tray, and another tray from Warsaw, and a set of cups with gilt edges, and a pair of silver candlesticks, and a cast-iron menorah, and all kinds of other things, more bric-a-brac than you could count. God in heaven, I thought, I should only live to see my daughters own such things! Some people have all the breaks. Not
only is Layzer Wolf rich, with a grand total of two children, both married, he even has the luck to be a widower …

Well, before long the door opened and in came Layzer Wolf himself, fit to be tied at the slaughterer for having been so unkind as to declare unkosher an ox the size of an oak tree because of a tiny scar on its lung no bigger than a hairpin. A black hole should open up in the earth and swallow him alive!… “Am I glad to see you, Reb Tevye!” he says. “It’s easier to raise the dead. What’s new with a Jew?”

“What should be new?” I say. “The harder I work, the less I have to show for it. It’s like it says in the Bible:
loy mi’uktsokh veloy miduvshokh
. I not only have no money, I also lack health, wealth, and happiness.”

“It’s a sin to be ungrateful, Reb Tevye,” he says. “Compared to what you once were, and let’s hope won’t be again, you’re not doing half bad these days.”

“It’s the other half that worries me,” I say. “But I have nothing to complain about, thank God.
Askakurdo dimaskanto dikarnaso difarsmakhto
, as the Talmud puts it …” And I thought: may your nose stick to your backside, you meat hacker, you, if there’s such a line of Talmud in the world …

“You’re always quoting something,” Layzer Wolf says. “I envy you, Reb Tevye, for being able to read the small print. But what good does all that book learning do you? Let’s talk about something more practical. Have a seat, Reb Tevye.” And before I can have one, he bellows, “How about some tea!”

Out of nowhere, as if she had been hiding beneath the floorboards, the pug-nosed woman appears, snatches a samovar like the wind snatching a leaf, and disappears into the kitchen.

“Now that we’re alone with only four eyes between the two of us,” says Layzer Wolf to me, “you and I can talk business. It’s like this: I’ve been wanting to speak to you for quite a while, Reb Tevye. I even asked your daughter several times to have you come see me. You see, lately I’ve had my eye on—”

“I know you have,” I said. “But it won’t do you any good. It’s out of the question, Layzer Wolf, simply out of the question.”

“But why?” he asks, giving me an astonished look.

“Because there’s no hurry,” I say. “She’s still young. The river won’t catch fire if we wait a little longer.”

“But why wait,” he says, “if you have an offer for her now?”

“In the first place,” I say, “I just told you. And in the second place, it’s a matter of compassion. I simply don’t have the heart.”

“Just listen to him talk about her!” says Layzer Wolf with a laugh. “A person might think you had no others. I should imagine, Reb Tevye, that you have more than enough of them, touch wood.”

“I can use every one I have,” I say. “Whoever envies me should know what it costs just to feed them.”

“Envy?” says Layzer Wolf. “Who’s talking envy? On the contrary, it’s just because they’re such a fine bunch that I … do you get me? Have you ever thought for a minute, Reb Tevye, of all I can do for you?”

“Of course I have,” I say. “And I’ve gotten a headache each time I did. Judging by all you’ve done for me in the past, you might even give me free ice in the middle of the winter.”

“Oh, come,” he says, sweet as sugar. “Why harp on the past? We weren’t in-laws then.”

“In-laws?” I say. “What kind of in-laws?”

“Why, how many kinds are there?” he says.

“Excuse me, Reb Layzer Wolf,” I say, “but do you have any idea what we’re talking about?”

“I should say I do, Reb Tevye,” he says. “But perhaps you’d like to tell me.”

“With pleasure,” I say. “We’re talking about my brown cow that you want me to sell you.”

“Hee hee hee,” he says, chortling. “Your brown cow, no less, that’s a good one … ho ho ho!”

“But what do you think we were talking about, Reb Layzer Wolf?” I say. “Why not let me in on the joke?”

“Why, about your daughter!” he says. “We’ve been talking all along about your Tsaytl! You know I’m a widower, Reb Tevye—it shouldn’t happen to you. Well, I’ve made up my mind; why try my luck again far from home, where I’ll have to deal with all sorts of spooks, flukes, and matchmakers? Here we are, the two of us, both from the same place, I know you and you know me—to say nothing of the party in question, who I’ve taken quite a fancy to. I see her every Thursday in my butcher shop and we’ve even exchanged a few words; she’s on the quiet side, I must say, but not bad, not bad at all! And as for me, touch wood, you can see for yourself: I’m comfortably off, I have a couple of shops, I even
own my own house. I don’t mean to boast, but it has some nice furnishings too, and there are hides stored away in the attic, and a bit of cash in a chest. Reb Tevye, why haggle like gypsies about it? Come, let’s shake hands and be done with it, do you get me?”

In short, I sat there listening and couldn’t say a word, the whole thing bowled me over so. For a minute I thought: Layzer Wolf … Tsaytl … why, he’s old enough to be her father … But it didn’t take me long to think again. My God, I told myself, what a godsend! She’ll be sitting pretty with him, on top of the world! So what if he’s a tightwad? These upside-down days, that’s actually considered a virtue.
Odom koroyv le’atsmoy
—charity begins at home … It’s true the man is a trifle common—but since when can everyone be a scholar? There are plenty of rich Jews, fine people, in Anatevka, Mazapevka, and even in Yehupetz, who wouldn’t know a Hebrew letter if one fell on them; that still doesn’t keep them from being thought highly of—I should only be as respected as they are! How does the verse go?
Im eyn kemakh eyn Toyroh
—it’s all very well to know the Bible by heart, but you still can’t serve it for dinner …

“Nu, Reb Tevye,” says Layzer Wolf. “Why don’t you say something?”

“What’s there to shout about?” I say, playing hard to get. “One doesn’t decide such things on the spur of the moment. It’s no laughing matter, marrying off your eldest daughter.”

“That’s just it!” he says. “She’s your eldest. Once she’s my wife, God willing, marrying off your second and your third and your fourth will be no problem, do you get me?”

“Amen,” I say. “It’s easy as pie to marry off a daughter. God simply has to find her the right man.”

“But that isn’t what I meant, Reb Tevye,” he says. “I meant that you not only needn’t put up a penny’s dowry for your Tsaytl, or buy her the things a girl needs for her wedding, because I’ll take care of all that myself—you can also trust me to beef up your wallet while I’m at it …”

“Hold on there!” I said. “You’ll forgive me for saying so, but you’re talking just like in a butcher shop. What’s this about beef in my wallet? You should be ashamed of yourself! My Tsaytl, God forbid, is not up for sale to the highest bidder.”

“Ashamed?” he says. “And here I thought I was only being nice! I’ll tell you what, though: for you, I’ll even be ashamed. Far be it
from me to object to your saving me money. Let’s just be quick about it, the sooner the better! I want a woman in my house, do you get me?”

“I certainly do,” I say. “For my part, I won’t stand in your way. But I’ll have to talk it over with the missus, because such things are her department. One doesn’t give away one’s eldest daughter every day. You know what
Rashi says about it:
Rokheyl mevakoh al boneho
—that means there’s no one like a mother. And we’ll have to ask Tsaytl too, of course. You don’t want this to be the sort of wedding where everyone turns up but the bride …”

“What kind of a man are you!” he says. “Who asks? Go home and tell them, Reb Tevye, tell them it’s all been decided and that I’ll be waiting beneath the wedding canopy.”

“You musn’t talk like that, Reb Layzer Wolf,” I say. “A young girl isn’t a widow, to be married off at the drop of a hat.”

“Of course she’s not,” he says. “A girl is a girl and a hat is a hat. That’s why I want it settled quickly, because there’s still a whole lot to talk about, pots, pans, and petticoats. But first, Reb Tevye, what say we drink to it, eh?”

“Why not?” I say. “I never turn down a drink. Among friends it’s always appropriate. A man is only a man, as they say, but brandy is still brandy. You’ll find that in the Talmud too.” And with that I began spouting whole passages of
Gemara, mixed in with some prayers and a bit of the
Haggadah, such as no one ever dreamed of before …

In a word, we put a few drops of brandy beneath our belts without keeping count of how many and then, when old Pug Nose brought the samovar, switched to tea-and-brandy punch, jabbering away all the while in the friendliest of fashions about the wedding, and God knows what else, and the wedding again, until I said, “I hope you realize, Reb Layzer Wolf, what a diamond it is that you’re getting.”

“You hope I realize?” he says. “Do you think I would have asked for her if I didn’t?”

“A diamond,” I say, raising my voice, “and twenty-four carats too! You better take good care of her and not act like the butcher you are …”

“Don’t you worry about that, Reb Tevye,” he says. “She’ll eat better by me every day of the week than by you at your Passover seder!”

“Eat!” I say. “How much can a person eat? A rich man can’t eat the gold in his safe, nor a poor man the stones in his shoes. Just how do you think a Jew as crude as yourself is even going to appreciate her cooking? Why, the hallahs she bakes, her gefillte fish … good Lord, Reb Layzer Wolf, her gefillte fish … lucky is the man who gets to taste it …”

“Reb Tevye,” he says, “you’ll forgive me for saying so, but what does an old prune like you know about it? You don’t know the first thing about anything, Reb Tevye, you don’t even know the first thing about me!”

“If you were to give me all the rice in China,” I say, “I wouldn’t take it for my Tsaytl. Listen here, Reb Layzer Wolf, I don’t care if you have two hundred thousand to your name, you aren’t worth the little toe of her left foot!”

“Believe you me, Reb Tevye,” he says, “if you didn’t happen to be older than me, I’d tell you to your face what a fool you are.”

Well, we must have gone at it hammer and tongs until we were good and sozzled, because when I arrived home it was late at night and my feet felt made out of lead. My wife, may her life be a long one, saw right away how pie-eyed I was and gave me the welcome I deserved.

“Ssshhh, don’t be angry with me, Golde,” I said, feeling so merry that I could have broken right into a jig. “Stop screaming at me, light of my life, and wish me a mazel tov instead!”

“A mazel tov?” she says. “I’ll wish you a mazel tov you’ll never forget! I’ll bet you went and sold our poor brown cow to Layzer Wolf, after all.”

“Oh, it’s worse than that,” I say.

“What?” she says. “You swapped her for a cow of his? Just wait till the poor devil finds out how you cheated him!”

“You’re not even warm yet,” I say.

“For God’s sake,” she says, “out with it! Do I have to pay you money for each word?”

“Mazel tov to you, Golde!” I said again. “Mazel tov to us both. Our Tsaytl is engaged.”

“My God, are you ever potted!” she says. “It’s no joke, the man’s hallucinating! How many drinks did you say you had?”

“Layzer Wolf and I had more than one between us,” I say, “and a bit of punch to wash it down with, but I swear I’m as sober as can be. It’s my pleasure to inform you, my dear brother Golde, that
our Tsaytl has had the good fortune to be betrothed to Layzer Wolf himself!”

And with that I told her the whole story from beginning to end, the who, where, when, and all the rest of it, not leaving out an iota. “So help me God now and forever, Tevye,” she said when I was done, “if something didn’t tell me all along that’s what Layzer Wolf wanted. You know what, though? I was frightened to think that maybe nothing would come of it … Oh, thank You, dear God, thank You, thank You, merciful Father! It should only be for the best. Tsaytl should live to grow old and be happy with him, because Frume Soreh, rest her soul, didn’t have such a wonderful time of it; but then she was, God forgive me, an impossible woman who couldn’t get along with a soul, not at all like our Tsaytl. Oh, thank You, thank You, God! What did I tell you, Tevye, you dummy! What’s the use of worrying? If it’s written in the stars, it will walk right in without knocking …”

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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