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Authors: Sholem Aleichem

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

Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (9 page)

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
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And with that I swung my wagon right through the gate and drove like nobody’s business clear up to the porch of the house. Don’t ask me to describe the excitement when the people there saw us pull up. What a racket! Happy days!

“Oy, Grandma!”

“Oy, Mama!”

“Oy, Auntie, Auntie!”

“Thank God they’re back!”

“Mazel tov!”

“Good lord, where have you been?”

“We’ve been out of our minds with worry all day long!”

“We had search parties out looking for you everywhere!”

“The things we thought happened to you, it’s too horrible for words: highwaymen or maybe a wolf! So tell us, what happened?”

“What happened? What happened shouldn’t have happened to a soul. We lost our way in the woods and blundered about for miles. Suddenly, along comes a Jew. What, what kind of a Jew? A
Jew, a schlimazel, with a wagon and a horse. Don’t think we had an easy time with him either, but here we are!”

“Incredible! It sounds like a bad dream. How could you have gone out in the woods without a guide? What an adventure, what an adventure. Thank God you’re home safe!”

In no time lamps were brought out, the table was set, and there began to appear on it hot samovars flowing with tea, bowls of sugar, jars of jam, plates full of pastry and all kinds of baked goods, followed by the fanciest dishes: soup brimming with fat, roast meats, a whole goose, the best wines and salad greens. I stood a ways off and thought, so this, God bless them, is how these Yehupetz tycoons eat and drink. Why, it’s enough to make the Devil jealous! I’d pawn my last pair of socks if it would help to make me a rich Jew like them … You can imagine what went through my mind. The crumbs that fell from that table alone would have been enough to feed my kids for a week, with enough left over for the Sabbath. Oh, my dear Lord, I thought: they say You’re a long-suffering God, a good God, a great God; they say You’re merciful and fair; perhaps You can explain to me, then, why it is that some folk have everything and others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt? A moment later, though, I said to myself, ach, what a fool you are, Tevye, I swear! Do you really think He needs your advice on how to run the world? If this is how things are, it’s how they were meant to be; the proof of it is that if they were meant to be different, they would be. It may seem to you that they ought to have been meant to be different … but it’s just for that you’re a Jew in this world! A Jew must have confidence and faith. He must believe, first, that there is a God, and second, that if there is, and if it’s all the same to Him, and if it isn’t putting Him to too much trouble, He can make things a little better for the likes of you …

“Wait a minute,” I heard someone say. “What happened to the coachman? Has the schlimazel left already?”

“God forbid!” I called out from where I was. “Do you mean to suggest that I’d simply walk off without so much as saying goodbye? Good evening, it’s a pleasure to meet you all! Enjoy your meal; I can’t imagine why you shouldn’t.”

“Come in out of the dark,” says one of them to me, “and let’s have a look at you. Perhaps you’d like a little brandy?”

“A little brandy?” I say. “Who can refuse a little brandy? God may be God, but brandy is brandy. Cheers!” And I emptied the glass in one gulp. “God should only help you to stay rich and happy,” I said, “because since Jews can’t help being Jews, someone else had better help them.”

“What name do you go by?” asked the man of the house, a fine-looking Jew with a skullcap. “Where do you hail from? Where do you live now? What’s your work? Do you have a wife? Children? How many?”

“How many children?” I say. “Forgive me for boasting, but if each child of mine were worth a million rubles, as my Golde tries convincing me they are, I’d be richer than anyone in Yehupetz. The only trouble is that poor isn’t rich and a mountain’s no ditch. How does it say in the prayer book?
Hamavdil beyn koydesh lekhoyl
—some make hay while others toil. There are people who have money and I have daughters. And you know what they say about that: better a house full of boarders than a house full of daughters! Only why complain when we have God for our Father? He looks after everyone—that is, He sits up there and looks at us slaving away down here … What’s my work? For lack of any better suggestions, I break my back dragging logs. As it says in the Talmud,
bemokoym she’eyn ish
, a herring too is a fish. Really, there’d be no problem if it weren’t for having to eat. Do you know what my grandmother used to say? What a shame it is we have mouths, because if we didn’t we’d never go hungry … But you’ll have to excuse me for carrying on like this. You can’t expect straight talk from a crooked brain—and especially not when I’ve gone and drunk brandy on an empty stomach.”

“Bring the Jew something to eat!” ordered the man of the house, and right away the table was laid again with food I never dreamed existed: fish, and cold cuts, and roasts, and fowl, and more gizzards and chicken livers than you could count.

“What will you have?” I was asked. “Come on, wash up and sit down.”

“A sick man is asked,” I answered, “a healthy one is served. Still, thank you anyway … a little brandy, with pleasure … but to sit down and make a meal of it, when back home my wife and children, they should only be healthy and well … so you see, if you don’t mind, I’ll …”

What can I tell you? They seemed to have gotten the hint,
because before I knew it my wagon was being loaded with goodies: here some rolls, there some fish, a pot roast, a quarter of a chicken, tea, sugar, a cup of chicken fat, a jar of jam …

“Here’s a gift to take home to your wife and children,” they said. “And now please tell us how much we owe you for your trouble.”

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “who am I to tell you what you owe me? You pay me what you think it was worth. What’s a few kopecks more or less between us? I’ll still be the same Tevye when we’re done.”

“No,” they say, “we want you to tell us, Reb Tevye. You needn’t be afraid. We won’t chop your head off.”

Now what? I asked myself. I was really in a pretty pickle. It would be a crime to ask for one ruble when they might agree to two. On the other hand, if I asked for two they might think I was mad.
rubles for one little wagon ride?

“Three rubles!” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. Everyone began to laugh so hard that I could have crawled into a hole in the ground.

“Please forgive me,” I said, “if I’ve said the wrong thing. Even a horse, which has four legs, stumbles now and then, so why not a man with one tongue …”

The laughter grew even louder. I thought they’d all split their sides.

“Stop laughing now, all of you!” ordered the man of the house. He pulled a large wallet from his pocket and out of it he fished—how much do you think? I swear you’ll never guess—a ten-ruble note, all red as fire, as I hope to die! And do you know what else he says to me? “This,” he says, “is from me. Now children, let’s see what each of you can dig out of your pockets.”

What can I possibly tell you? Five- and three- and one-ruble notes flew onto the table. I was shaking so hard that I thought I was going to faint.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” says the man of the house to me. “Take your money from the table and have a good trip home.”

“God reward you a hundred times over,” I said. “May He bring you good luck and happiness for the rest of your lives.” I couldn’t scoop up that money (who could even count it?) and stuff it into my pockets fast enough. “Good night,” I said. “You should all be
happy and well—you, and your children, and their children after them, and all their friends and relations.”

I had already turned to go when the older woman with the silk kerchief stopped me and said, “One minute, Reb Tevye. There’s a special present I’d like to give you that you can come pick up in the morning. I have the strangest cow; it was once a wonderful beast, it gave twenty-four glasses of milk every day. Someone must have put a hex on it, though, because now you can’t milk it at all—that is, you can milk it all you want, you just can’t get any milk from it …”

“I wish you a long life,” I said, “and one you won’t wish was any shorter. We’ll not only milk your milk cow, we’ll milk it for milk. My wife, God bless her, is such a wizard around the house that she can bake a noodle pudding from thin air, make soup from a fingernail, whip up a Sabbath meal from an empty cupboard, and put hungry children to sleep with a box on the ear … Well, please don’t hold it against me if I’ve run on a little too long. And now good night to you all and be well,” I said, turning to go to the yard where my wagon was parked … good grief! With my luck one always has to expect a disaster, but this was an out-and-out misfortune. I looked this way, I looked that way—
vehayeled eynenu:
there wasn’t a horse in sight.

This time, Tevye, I thought, you’re really in a fix! And I remembered a charming story I once read in a book about a gang of goblins who played a prank on a Jew, a pious Hasid, by luring him to a castle outside of town where they wined and dined him and suddenly disappeared, leaving a naked woman behind them. The woman turned into a tigress, the tigress turned into a cat, and the cat turned into a rattlesnake … Between you and me, Tevye, I said to myself, how do you know they’re not pulling a fast one on you?

“What are you mumbling and grumbling about?” someone asked me.

“What am I mumbling about?” I said. “Believe me, it’s not for my health. In fact, I have a slight problem. My horse—”

“Your horse,” he says, “is in the stable. You only have to go there and look for it.”

I went to the stable and looked for him. I swear I’m not a Jew if the old fellow wasn’t standing there as proud as punch among the tycoon’s thoroughbreds, chewing away at his oats for all he was worth.

“I’m sorry to break up the party,” I said to him, “but it’s time to go home, old boy. Why make a hog of yourself? Before you know it, you’ll have taken one bite too many …”

In the end it was all I could do to wheedle him out of there and into his harness. Away home we flew on top of the world, singing
Yom Kippur songs as tipsily as you please. You wouldn’t have recognized my nag; he ran like the wind without so much as a mention of the whip and looked like he’d been reupholstered. When we finally got home late at night, I joyously woke up my wife.

“Mazel tov, Golde,” I said to her. “I’ve got good news.”

“A black mazel tov yourself,” she says to me. “Tell me, my fine breadwinner, what’s the happy occasion? Has my goldfingers been to a wedding or a circumcision?”

“To something better than a wedding and a circumcision combined,” I say. “In a minute, my wife, I’m going to show you a treasure. But first go wake up the girls. Why shouldn’t they also enjoy some Yehupetz cuisine …”

“Either you’re delirious, or else you’re temporarily deranged, or else you’ve taken leave of your senses, or else you’re totally insane. All I can say is, you’re talking just like a madman, God help us!” says my wife. When it comes to her tongue, she’s a pretty average Jewish housewife.

“And you’re talking just like a woman!” I answered.
“King Solomon wasn’t joking when he said that out of a thousand females you won’t find one with her head screwed on right. It’s a lucky thing that polygamy has gone out of fashion.” And with that I went to the wagon and began unpacking all the dishes I’d been given and setting them out on the table. When that gang of mine saw those rolls and smelled that meat, they fell on it like a pack of wolves. Their hands shook so that they could hardly get a grip on it. I stood there with tears in my eyes, listening to their jaws work away like a plague of starving locusts.

“So tell me,” says my woman when she’s done, “who’s been sharing their frugal repast with you, and since when do you have such good friends?”

“Don’t worry, Golde,” I say. “You’ll hear about it all in good time. First put the samovar on, so that we can sit down and drink a glass of tea in style. Generally speaking, you only live once, am I right? So it’s a good thing that we now have a cow of our own that
gives twenty-four glasses of milk every day; in fact, I’m planning to go fetch her in the morning. And now, Golde,” I said to her, pulling out my wad of bills, “be a sport and guess how much I have here.”

You should have seen her turn pale as a ghost. She was so flabbergasted that she couldn’t say a word.

“God be with you, Golde, my darling,” I said. “You needn’t look so frightened. Are you worried that I stole it somewhere? Feh, you should be ashamed of yourself! How long haven’t you been married to me that you should think such thoughts of your Tevye? This is kosher money, you sillyhead, earned fair and square by my own wits and hard work. The fact is that I’ve just saved two people from great danger. If it weren’t for me, God only knows what would have become of them …”

In a word, I told her the whole story from beginning to end, the entire rigamarole. When I was through we counted all the money, then counted it again, then counted it once more to be sure. Whichever way we counted, it came to exactly thirty-seven rubles even.

My wife began to cry.

“What are you crying like a fool for?” I asked her.

“How can I help crying,” she says, “if the tears keep coming? When the heart is full it runs out at the eyes. God help me if something didn’t tell me that you were about to come with good news. You know, I can’t remember when I last saw my Grandma Tsaytl, may she rest in peace, in a dream—but just before you came, I dreamed that I saw a big milk can filled to the brim, and Grandma Tsaytl was carrying it underneath her apron to keep the Evil Eye from seeing it, and all the children were shouting, ‘Look, Mama, look …’ ”

“Don’t go smacking your lips before you’ve tasted the pudding, Golde, my darling,” I said to her. “I’m sure Grandma Tsaytl is enjoying her stay in Paradise, but that doesn’t make her an expert on what’s happening down here. Still, if God went through the trouble of getting us a milk cow, it stands to reason He’ll see to it that the milk cow will give milk … What I wanted to ask you, though, Golde my dear, is what should we do with all the money?”

BOOK: Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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