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Authors: Sholem Aleichem

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

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (36 page)

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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“S
o you’re off to the festivities and I’m coming back from them! I’ve just finished crying my heart out and you’re about to begin … But why don’t I make some room for you? Here, move over this way. You’ll be more comfortable.”

“Ah, that’s better!”

So two passengers sat chatting behind me in the car. That is, one did the talking while the other murmured an occasional word.

“My wife and I go together. That’s her, curled up over there. She’s asleep, the poor thing; she must have shed enough tears for all the Jews in the world. She didn’t want to budge from the cemetery. She simply threw herself on the grave and wouldn’t let me tear her away. I tried to reason with her. ‘That’s enough,’ I said. ‘Your tears won’t bring her back to life again.’ Try talking to the wall! And what’s the wonder? Such a tragedy! An only daughter, our pride and joy. As pretty as a postcard. And so gifted, bright as they come! Just out of high school, she was. It’s been two years now. Don’t think it was TB or anything like that. She couldn’t have been healthier. No, she did it herself, she went and took her own life!”

“Dear me!”

By now I understood what sort of “festivities” were being talked about. It was, I realized, the beginning of the penitential month of
Elul with its midnight prayers, that sad but dear time of year when Jews travel to visit long-dead parents, children, and relatives. Pining mothers, orphaned daughters, mourning sisters, plain grief-stricken women—all go to have a good cry at the graves of their loved ones, where they can let out their sorrow and ease the bitter burden of an afflicted heart.

It’s an odd thing: I’ve been a traveler for years and yet I can’t remember ever seeing such a run on the cemeteries as there was last Elul. The trains were doing a landslide business. Every car was jam-packed with somber-faced Jews, with shiny-nosed, puffy-eyed women on their way to or from the “festivities.” With the smell of autumn that was already in the air came a powerful, Elulish yearning … Without really wanting to, I listened to the conversation behind me:

“Maybe you’re thinking she got into trouble like some other young folks—black shirts, red flags, prison, and all that? God forbid! That’s one thing I was spared. Or rather, that I spared myself, because I watched her like the apple of my eye. You don’t see such a gifted young girl every day, and an only child at that! Pretty as a postcard. Just out of high school. I did everything I could: kept track of where she went, and who her friends were, and what she talked about with them, and even what books she read. ‘So you like to read?’ I said. ‘Be my guest! Just let me know what you’re reading …’ I admit I’m no great expert on these things—but a bit of horse sense, thank God, I have. I don’t even care if it’s written in French, one look at a book is all I need to tell you what’s in it.”

“You don’t say!”

“I didn’t want a child of mine playing with fire—anyone would have done the same. Don’t think I browbeat her, though. If anything, I tried making light of it. ‘Why pretend we can solve the world’s problems?’ I said to her. ‘Whatever will be, will be, there’s nothing you or I can do about it …’ That’s what I said, and do you know how she took it? She didn’t say a word. But not a peep out of her, as good as gold she was! So what does the good Lord do? The worst of it was already over, thank God; the Revolution, and the Constitution, and all those troubles were behind us. No more black shirts, no more red flags, no more short hair, no more hell’s-a-popping, no more bombs. My teeth could finally stop chattering. Do you think being afraid for her all the time was so easy? An only daughter, our pride and joy, and such a gifted child too. Just out of high school …”

“So?”

“In short, the nightmare was ended, God be praised. We could breathe easily again and think of a match for her. A dowry? No
problem, if the right young man could be found. And so we began the whole routine: visits to matchmakers, lists of eligibles, and all the rest of it. I could see she wasn’t too keen on it. Why not? She wouldn’t tell us, not even to say she wasn’t interested. What was the matter, then? Wait until you hear the whole story.

“I kept a sharp eye out and one day I made a discovery: she had a book that she was reading in secret. And not alone, either; she was reading it with a friend of hers, the daughter of the cantor of our synagogue, a bright high school girl herself, and with a third person—the boy from Navaredok. Would you like to know who he was? Well, there’s nothing worth knowing. An ugly, scruffy, moonfaced, pimple-cheeked, eyebrowless little creep with gold-rimmed glasses—you wouldn’t want to eat at the same table with him. And a pest too, a slimy little worm! Do you know what a worm-person is? Then I’d better explain it to you. There are all kinds of people in the world. There are cow-people. There are horse-people. There are dog-people. There are pig-people. And there are worm-people. Do you get it now?”

“Quite.”

“How did this worm enter my life? Through the cantor’s daughter. He was a cousin of hers, a student of pharmacy, or dentistry, or law, or whatever the Devil it was. All I can tell you is that for me he was the Angel of Death. He and his gold glasses rubbed me the wrong way from the start. I told my wife that too. ‘Whatever can you be thinking of!’ she said. But I kept my eyes and ears open, and I didn’t like their reading together, or their talking together, or their arguing together so excitedly one bit … Once I even asked my daughter about it. ‘Tell me, missy,’ I said to her, ‘what’s that the three of you are smacking your lips over?’ ‘It’s nothing,’ she says, ‘just a book.’ ‘I can see it’s a book,’ I say. ‘I’m asking you what book.’ ‘And if I told you,’ she says, ‘would you know?’ ‘Why shouldn’t I know?’ I say. Well, she laughed at me and said, ‘It’s not the sort of book you think … it’s a novel called
Sanine
by
Artsybashev.’ ‘The artsy pasha?’ I said. ‘Is he a Turk?’ That made her laugh even harder. Ai, missy, I thought, you’re laughing your father right into an ulcer! Who knows, I wondered, maybe they’re back to planning revolutions again … Don’t think I wasn’t itching to read that book myself!”

“My goodness!”

“I needed a little help, of course. That’s when I thought of my shopboy, a real whiz who knows Russian like the back of his hand. I stole the book from my daughter’s room one night and brought it to him. ‘Here, Berl,’ I said. ‘I want you to read this tonight and tell me tomorrow what it’s all about.’ I couldn’t wait for it to be morning. ‘All right, Berl,’ I said, grabbing him as soon as he showed up for work, ‘tell me what it says there.’ ‘Whew, that’s some book!’ he says, whistling through his teeth. ‘I didn’t sleep all night, I couldn’t put it down for a minute!’ ‘Is that a fact?’ I say. ‘In that case, suppose you let me in on it …’

“Well, my Berl starts describing the book—what can I tell you? Nothing has anything to do with anything! Listen to a schlock story. ‘Once upon a time,’ he says, ‘there’s this goy named Sanine who likes to get drunk and eat pickles … And he has a sister, Sanine does, called Lida, who’s wild about a doctor, even though she’s pregnant by an officer … And there’s also a student named Yuri, who’s crazy in love with a young teacher called Krasavitsa, who goes sailing one night—guess with who?—no, not with the student!—with that boozer, I mean Sanine …’

“ ‘And that’s all?’ I asked.

“ ‘Not so fast!’ he says. ‘I’m not done yet. There’s another teacher named Ivan, and he comes along with Sanine to see Krasavitsa take a skinny-dip …’

“ ‘Good for him,’ I say. ‘But what’s the upshot of it all?’

“ ‘The upshot,’ he says, ‘is that the boozer, this Sanine, is some stud, and even when he comes home to his own sister, Lida …’

“ ‘Feh,’ I say, ‘you should be ashamed of yourself! I’ve had enough of that drunk. Just tell me how it ends. What’s the punch line?’

“ ‘The punch line,’ he says, ‘is that the officer puts a bullet in his head, and so does the student, and Krasavitsa takes poison, and this Jew, Soloveichik—he’s part of it also—goes and hangs himself.’

“ ‘I wish you’d hanged yourself with him!’ I say.

“ ‘Who, me?’ he says. ‘What did I do?’

“ ‘Not you,’ I said. ‘I meant the artsy pasha.’

“That’s what I told my Berl, though I was really thinking of that damned little creep from Navaredok. Don’t think I wasn’t itching to have it out with him!”

“Well?”

“ ‘Tell me,’ I said to him, ‘where did you ever come up with such a schlock story?’ ‘What schlock story?’ he says, turning his gold glasses on me. ‘The one about that drunk called Sanine,’ I say. ‘Sanine is no drunk,’ he says. ‘Then what is he?’ I say. ‘He’s a hero,’ he says. ‘What makes him a hero,’ I say, ‘his eating sour pickles, drinking vodka from a teacup, and carrying on like a studhorse?’ That got under his skin, that creep from Navaredok. He took off his glasses, gave me a look with those red, browless eyes of his, and said, ‘You may have heard the music, Pa, but you sure can’t carry the tune. Sanine lives a free, natural life. Sanine says and does what he wants!’

“And off he goes into a long harangue about the dickens only knows what, freedom and love and love and freedom, waving his hands in the air and sticking out that pigeon breast of his as though he were preaching hellfire. I stood there looking at him and thinking: God in heaven, would you believe a scrawny little twerp like this talking about love?! Suppose I took him by the scruff of his neck and gave him such a shaking that he’d have to pick his teeth up off the floor? Only then I thought, what’s the matter with you? So the boy is a bubblehead, so what? Would you rather he had bombs on the brain?… Go be a prophet and guess that there are worse things than bombs and that because of that schlock story, I would lose my only daughter, and see my wife go nearly mad with grief, and suffer such shame and heartache that I had to sell my business and move to another town! I can’t believe it’s been two years already …

“But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you exactly what happened and how it all came about. It started with the peasant riots. We had a good scare in our town when they broke out, because we were afraid pogroms would come next. By some miracle, though, everything turned out for the best. How was that? A regiment of soldiers was sent from the provincial capital, and not only did they restore such order that it was a pleasure, they were a windfall for the whole town. What could be better for business than an entire regiment complete with officers, and adjutants, and quartermasters, and barber-surgeons, and camp followers?”

“That’s for sure!”

“Go be a prophet and guess that the cantor’s daughter would fall in love with an officer and announce that she was going to baptize herself and marry him! That put the town into a panic.
Not to worry, though: the cantor’s daughter wasn’t baptized and she didn’t marry the officer, because by then the peasant riots were over and he was so involved in decamping with his regiment that he forgot all about saying goodbye to her … Except that she couldn’t forget about him. Imagine her poor father and mother! It was no joke what they went through. The whole town was in an uproar, wherever you went no one talked about anything else. There were even some bigmouths who spread the word that the cantor’s wife had sent for the midwife and went about asking the cantor who he planned to name the child for … although to tell you the truth, it’s perfectly possible that the whole thing was a figment of their imagination. You know how people in a small town like to gossip …”

“Don’t they!”

“I felt so sorry for the two of them, the cantor and his wife, that it broke my heart, because when you get right down to it, what fault was it of theirs? I had a daughter of my own, though, and don’t think I didn’t put my foot down and tell her once and for all, ‘Whatever was, was, but from now on you’re not friends with that girl any longer!’ When I lay down the law, I expect to be obeyed; she may have been an only child, but respect for a father comes first. Go guess that she would go on seeing the girl secretly without anyone knowing about it! When did I find out? When it was already too late …”

From behind me came the sound of someone half coughing and half groaning in sleep. The Jew telling the story fell silent for a few moments, then resumed his tale in a lower tone than before.

“It happened at the beginning of Elul. I remember it as though it were yesterday. You should have heard our cantor lead the midnight prayer: why, the way he wept could have moved a stone to tears! No one, but no one, knew what he was feeling as well as I did—believe me, being the father of today’s children is no great joy … It was already light out when we finished, so I went home, grabbed a bite to eat, took the keys, went to the marketplace, opened the business, and waited for the shopboy to come. I waited half an hour. I waited an hour. Still no shopboy. Finally he appeared. ‘Berl,’ I said, ‘why so late?’ ‘I was at the cantor’s house,’ he says. ‘What on earth were you doing at the cantor’s?’ I asked. ‘What!’ he says, ‘Haven’t you heard what happened to Chaika?’ (That was the cantor’s daughter.)
‘No,’ I said, ‘what happened?’ ‘You won’t believe this,’ he says, ‘but she went and poisoned herself!’ ”

“Dear me!”

“As soon as I heard that, I ran right home. My first thought was, what will Etke say? (My daughter’s name was Etke.) ‘Where’s Etke?’ I asked my wife. ‘She’s still sleeping,’ she says. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘You won’t believe this,’ I say, ‘but Chaika poisoned herself.’ The words weren’t out of my mouth when my wife grabs her head in her hands and screams: ‘Oh, my God! Oh, dear God! Oh, God help her!’ ‘Who? What?’ I said. ‘You won’t believe this,’ she says, ‘but Etke spent at least two hours with her just last night.’ ‘Etke with Chaika?’ I say. ‘What are you talking about? How can that be?’ ‘Don’t ask me that now!’ she says. ‘I had to give in to her. She begged me not to tell you that she was seeing her every day. Oh, God! If only this were all a bad dream …’ And she turns around, my wife, runs into Etke’s room, and collapses there on the floor. I ran in after her, straight to the bed. ‘Etke! Etke!’ I called. What Etke? Who was I calling? She was gone.”

“Gone?”

“Dead. In her own bed. There was a bottle on the table with a note beside it, written in her own hand—not in Russian, but in Yiddish. It was a thing of beauty, her Yiddish! ‘Dear, darling Papa and Mama,’ she wrote. ‘Please forgive me for causing you such grief and shame. A hundred times I beg your forgiveness. We promised each other, Chaika and I, that we would die a single death, because we can’t live without each other. I know, my dearest ones, that I’m doing a terrible thing to you. I’ve gone through all kinds of torment. But my fate is my fate, and I must go to meet it … I have only one request of you, my dears—that you bury me in a grave next to Chaika’s. Be well, and please, please forget you ever had a daughter named Etke …’ Did you hear that? We should forget we had a daughter named Etke …”

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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