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Authors: Sholem Aleichem

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

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (8 page)

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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Well, one can’t stop being a Jew in this world: it was time for the evening prayer. (Not that the evening was about to go anywhere, but a Jew prays when he must, not when he wants to.) Some fine prayer it turned out to be! Right in the middle of the
s
himenesre
, the eighteen benedictions, a devil gets into my crazy horse and he decides to go for a pleasure jaunt. I had to run after the wagon and grab the reins while shouting “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” at the top of my voice—and to make matters worse I’d really felt like praying for a change, for once in my life I was sure it would make me feel better …

In a word, there I was running behind the wagon and singing the
shimenesre
like a cantor in a synagogue.
Mekhalkeyl khayim, bekhesed
, Who provideth life with His bounty—it better be all of life, do You hear me?… 
Umekayeym emunosoy lisheyney of or
, Who keep-eth faith with them who slumber in earth—who slumber in earth? With my troubles I was six feet underground already! And to think of those rich Yehupetz Jews sitting all summer long in their dachas in Boiberik, eating and drinking and swimming in luxury! Master of the Universe, what have I done to deserve all this? Am I or am I not a Jew like any other? Help!… 
R
e’ey-no be’onyeynu
, See us in our affliction—take a good look at us poor folk slaving away and do something about it, because if You don’t, just who do You think will?… 
R
efo’eynu veneyrofey
, Heal our wounds and make us whole—please concentrate on the healing because the wounds we already have … 
B
oreykh oleynu
, Bless the fruits of this year—kindly arrange a good harvest of corn, wheat, and barley, although what good it will do me is more than I can say: does it make any difference to my horse, I ask You, if the oats I can’t afford to buy him are expensive or cheap?

But God doesn’t tell a man what He thinks, and a Jew had better believe that He knows what He’s up to.
Velamalshinim al tehi tikvoh
, May the slanderers have no hope—those are all the big shots who say there is no God: what wouldn’t I give to see the look on their faces when they line up for Judgment Day! They’ll pay with back interest for everything they’ve done, because God has a long memory, one doesn’t play around with Him. No, what He wants is for us to be good, to beseech and cry out to Him … 
O
v harakhamon
, Merciful, loving Father!… 
S
hma koyleynu
—You better listen to what we tell You!… 
K
hus verakheym oleynu
—pay a little attention to my wife and children, the poor things are hungry!… 
R
etsey
—take decent care of Your people again, as once You did long ago in the days of our Temple, when the priests and the Levites sacrificed before You …

All of a sudden—whoaaa! My horse stopped short in his tracks. I rushed through what was left of the prayer, opened my eyes, and looked around me. Two weird figures, dressed for a masquerade, were approaching from the forest. “Robbers!” I thought at first, then caught myself. Tevye, I said, what an idiot you are! Do you mean to tell me that after traveling through this forest by day and by night for so many years, today is the day for robbers? And bravely smacking my horse on the rear as though it were no affair of mine, I cried, “Giddyap!”

“Hey, a fellow Jew!” one of the two terrors called out to me in a woman’s voice, waving a scarf at me. “Don’t run away, mister. Wait a second. We won’t do you any harm.”

It’s a ghost for sure! I told myself. But a moment later I thought, what kind of monkey business is this, Tevye? Since when are you so afraid of ghouls and goblins? So I pulled up my horse and took a good look at the two. They really did look like women. One was older and had a silk kerchief on her head, while the other was young and wore a wig. Both were beet-red and sweating buckets.

“Well, well, well, good evening,” I said to them as loudly as I could to show that I wasn’t a bit afraid. “How can I be of service to you? If you’re looking to buy something, I’m afraid I’m all out of stock, unless I can interest you in some fine hunger pangs, a week’s supply of heartache, or a head full of scrambled brains. Anyone for some chilblains, assorted aches and pains, worries to turn your hair gray?”

“Calm down, calm down,” they said to me. “Just listen to him run on! Say a good word to a Jew and you get a mouthful of bad ones in return. We don’t want to buy anything. We only wanted to ask whether you happened to know the way to Boiberik.”

“The way to Boiberik?” I did my best to laugh. “You might as well ask whether I know my name is Tevye.”

“You say your name is Tevye?” they said. “We’re very pleased to meet you, Reb Tevye. We wish you’d explain to us, though, what the joke is all about. We’re strangers around here; we come from Yehupetz and have a summer place in Boiberik. The two of us went out this morning for a little walk, and we’ve been going
around in circles ever since without finding our way out of these woods. A little while ago we heard someone singing. At first we thought, who knows, maybe it’s a highwayman. But as soon as we came closer and saw that you were, thank goodness, a Jew, you can imagine how much better we felt. Do you follow us?”

“A highwayman?” I said. “That’s a good one! Did you ever hear the story of the Jewish highwayman who fell on somebody in the forest and begged him for a pinch of snuff? If you’d like, I’d be only too glad to tell it to you.”

“The story,” they say, “can wait. We’d rather you showed us the way to Boiberik first.”

“The way to Boiberik?” I say. “You’re standing on it right now. This is the way to Boiberik whether you want to go to Boiberik or not.”

“But if this is the way to Boiberik,” they say, “why didn’t you say it was the way to Boiberik before?”

“I didn’t say it was the way to Boiberik,” I say, “because you didn’t ask me if it was the way to Boiberik.”

“Well,” they say, “if it is the way to Boiberik, would you possibly happen to know by any chance just how long a way to Boiberik it is?”

“To Boiberik,” I say, “it’s not a long way at all. Only a few miles. About two or three. Maybe four. Unless it’s five.”

“Five miles?” screamed both women at once, wringing their hands and all but bursting into tears. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying?
Only
five miles!”

“Well,” I said, “what would you like me to do about it? If it were up to me, I’d make it a little shorter. But there are worse fates than yours, let me tell you. How would you like to be stuck in a wagon creeping up a muddy hill with the Sabbath only an hour away? The rain whips straight in your face, your hands are numb, your heart is too weak to beat another stroke, and suddenly … bang! Your front axle’s gone and snapped.”

“You’re talking like a half-wit,” said one of the two women. “I swear, you’re off your trolley. What are you telling us fairy tales from the Arabian Nights for? We haven’t the strength to take another step. Except for a cup of coffee with a butter roll for breakfast, we haven’t had a bite of food all day—and you expect us to stand here listening to your stories?”

“That,” I said, “is a different story. How does the saying go? It’s
no fun dancing on an empty stomach. And you don’t have to tell me what hunger tastes like; that’s something I happen to know. Why, it’s not at all unlikely that I haven’t seen a cup of coffee and a butter roll for over a year …” The words weren’t out of my mouth when I saw a cup of hot coffee with cream and a fresh butter roll right before my eyes, not to mention what else was on the table. You dummy, I said to myself, a person might think you were raised on coffee and rolls! I suppose plain bread and herring would make you sick? But just to spite me, my imagination kept insisting on coffee and rolls. I could smell the coffee, I could taste the roll on my tongue—my God, how fresh, how delicious it was …

“Do you know what, Reb Tevye?” the two women said to me. “We’ve got a brilliant idea. As long as we’re standing here chitting, why don’t we hop into your wagon and give you a chance to take us back to Boiberik yourself? How about it?”

“I’m sorry,” I say, “but you’re spitting into the wind. You’re going to Boiberik and I’m coming from Boiberik. How do you suppose I can go both ways at once?”

“That’s easy,” they say. “We’re surprised you haven’t thought of it already. If you were a scholar, you’d have realized right away: you simply turn your wagon around and head back in the other direction … Don’t get so nervous, Reb Tevye. We should only have to suffer the rest of our lives as much as getting us home safely, God willing, will cost you.”

My God, I thought, they’re talking Chinese; I can’t make head or tail of it. And for the second time that evening I thought of ghosts, witches, things that go bump in the night. You dunce, I told myself, what are you standing there for like a tree stump? Jump back into your wagon, give the horse a crack of your whip, and get away while the getting is good! Well, don’t ask me what got into me, but when I opened my mouth again I said, “Hop aboard!”

They didn’t have to be asked twice. I climbed in after them, gave my cap a tug, let the horse have the whip, and one, two, three—we’re off! Did I say off? Off to no place fast! My horse is stuck to the ground, a cannon shot wouldn’t budge him. Well, I said to myself, that’s what you get for stopping in the middle of nowhere to gab with a pair of females. It’s just your luck that you couldn’t think of anything better to do.

Just picture it if you can: the woods all around, the eerie stillness, night coming on—and here I am with these two apparitions pretending to be women … My blood began to whistle like a teakettle. I remembered a story I once had heard about a coachman who was driving by himself through the woods when he spied a sack of oats lying on the path. Well, a sack of oats is a sack of oats, so down from the wagon he jumps, shoulders the sack, barely manages to heave it into his wagon without breaking his back, and drives off as happy as you please. A mile or two later he turns around to look at his sack … did someone say sack? What sack? Instead of a sack there’s a billy goat with a beard. He reaches out to touch it and it sticks out a tongue a yard long at him, laughs like a hyena, and vanishes into thin air …

“Well, what are you waiting for?” the two women asked me.

“What am I waiting for?” I say. “You can see for yourselves what I’m waiting for. My horse is happy where he is. He’s not in a frisky mood.”

“Then use your whip,” they say to me. “What do you think it’s

“Thank you for your advice,” I say to them. “It’s very kind of you to offer it. The problem is that my four-legged friend is not afraid of such things. He’s as used to getting whipped as I’m used to getting gypped.” I tried to sound casual, but I was burning with a ninety-nine-year fever.

Well, why bore you? I let that poor horse have it. I whipped him as long as I whipped him hard, until finally he picked up his heels and we began to move through the woods. And as we did a new thought occurred to me. Ah, Tevye, I said to myself, are you ever a numbskull! Once a beggar, always a beggar, that’s the story of your life. Just imagine: here God hands you an opportunity that comes a man’s way once in a hundred years, and you forget to clinch the deal in advance, so that you don’t even know what’s in it for you! Any way you look at it—as a favor or a duty, as a service or an obligation, as an act of human kindness or something even worse than that—it’s certainly no crime to make a little profit on the side. When a soup bone is stuck in somebody’s face, who doesn’t give it a lick? Stop your horse right now, you imbecile, and spell it out for them in capital letters: “Look, ladies, if it’s worth such-and-such to you to get home, it’s worth such-and-such to me to take you; if it isn’t, I’m afraid we’ll have to part ways.” On
second thought, though, I thought again: Tevye, you’re an imbecile to call yourself an imbecile! Supposing they promised you the moon, what good would it do you? Don’t you know that you can skin the bear in the forest, but you can’t sell its hide there?

“Why don’t you go a little faster?” the two women asked, poking me from behind.

“What’s the matter?” I said, “are you in some sort of hurry? You should know that haste makes waste.” From the corner of my eye I stole a look at my passengers. They were women, all right, no doubt of it: one wearing a silk kerchief and the other a wig. They sat there looking at each other and whispering back and forth.

“Is it still a long way off?” one of them asked me.

“No longer off than we are from there,” I said. “Up ahead there’s an uphill and a downhill. After that there’s another uphill and a downhill. After that comes the real uphill and the downhill, and after that it’s straight as the crow flies to Boiberik …”

“The man’s some kind of nut for sure!” whispered one of the women to the other.

“I told you he was bad news,” says the second.

“He’s all we needed,” says the first.

“He’s crazy as a loon,” says the second.

I certainly must be crazy, I thought, to let these two characters treat me like this. “Excuse me,” I said to them, “but where would you ladies like to be dumped?”

“Dumped!” they say. “What kind of language is that? You can go dump yourself if you like!”

“Oh, that’s just coachman’s talk,” I say. “In ordinary parlance we would say, ‘When we get to Boiberik safe and sound, with God’s help, where do I drop
mesdames
off?’ ”

“If that’s what it means,” they say, “you can drop us off at the green dacha by the pond at the far end of the woods. Do you know where it is?”

“Do I know where it is?” I say. “Why, I know my way around Boiberik the way you do around your own home! I wish I had a thousand rubles for every log I’ve carried there. Just last summer, in fact, I brought a couple of loads of wood to the very dacha you’re talking about. There was a rich Jew from Yehupetz living there, a real millionaire. He must have been worth a hundred grand, if not twice that.”

“He’s still living there,” said both women at once, whispering and laughing to each other.

“Well,” I said, “seeing as the ride you’ve taken was no short haul, and as you may have some connection with him, would it be too much for me to request of you, if you don’t mind my asking, to put in a good word for me with him? Maybe he’s got an opening, a position of some sort. Really, anything would do … You never know how things will turn out. I know a young man named Yisro’eyl, for instance, who comes from a town not far from here. He’s a real nothing, believe me, a zero with a hole in it. So what happens to him? Somehow, don’t ask me how or why, he lands this swell job, and today he’s a big shot clearing twenty rubles a week, or maybe it’s forty, who knows … Some people have all the luck! Do you by any chance happen to know what happened to our slaughterer’s son-in-law, all because he picked himself up one fine day and went to Yehupetz? The first few years there, I admit, he really suffered; in fact, he damn near starved to death. Today, though, I only wish I were in his shoes and could send home the money he does. Of course, he’d like his wife and kids to join him, but he can’t get them a residence permit. I ask you, what kind of life is it for a man to live all alone like that? I swear, I wouldn’t wish it on a dog!… Well, bless my soul, will you look at what we have here: here’s your pond and there’s your green dacha!”

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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