Translated by: Ellen Cassedy & Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Artwork by Julie Bolton
It’s been said that “April is the cruellest month,” but for me the cruellest of all is October. In October we turn back the clock. The days grow shorter, the nights longer. Winter waits by the door, sharpening its teeth. Soon it will bite into the innocent pansies and proud chrysanthemums, hunt down the late-blooming rose bush that clings to the wall and crush it into the mud. Meanwhile, the flowers keep on flirting with the pale sun, soaking up the rays as if imbibing an elixir of eternal youth. Absorbed in their personal Song of Songs, they’re unaware of the beginning of the end. They don’t see the falling leaves, the trees stripped bare, the unavoidable fate that looms ahead.
On autumn mornings, the sun is in no rush to cast off its nightclothes, nor do I feel the call of a summer morning urging me to leap out of bed, ready to take on the world. Now I linger under the covers thinking of everything and nothing. A friend of mine once said that thinking was a loafer’s invention. Back then I didn’t have time for thinking, so I allowed the words to sink into my reservoir of memory, along with other clever (or foolish) sayings I had put aside for my retirement.
My husband is the first to get out of bed. Rather than giving in to idle thoughts, he summons his manly pride like a shield to protect himself from danger. He bathes, shaves, and pulls on work pants as if he’s planning to build a house. The leaves that have fallen overnight are waiting for him, and so are the birds he feeds each morning. He pours out their grain and takes pleasure in observing them at their meal. He presides like the lord of the manor, allowing no quarrels. When his work is done, he retrieves the morning paper from the doorstep, comes inside, and spreads it out before him, a contented smile gracing the smooth planes of his face.
It takes me longer to get moving on these autumn mornings. Not until I smell fresh-brewed coffee do I put on my faded robe and stuff my feet into well-worn slippers. My husband takes a look at my tousled hair and wrinkled face and shakes his head. I can tell he doesn’t like looking at what’s become of me, but I distract him with a “good morning.” “Good morning,” he answers, nose in the paper. He grumbles over the reporters – sensationalists who will do anything to advance their reputations.
When I don’t respond, he gets up and goes to his room with the stock market pages, leaving the rest of the paper on the table.
After my second cup of coffee, I feel a surge of energy. I remember the two stray cats that count on me for their rations. If I’m even slightly late with their bowl, they make a meal of the birds. Sometimes they kill not out of hunger but for sport. They pierce the victim’s throat and lay the corpse on my doorstep, like a gift.
I’ve asked my husband to stop feeding the birds. In return for the small amount of food he gives them, they suffer heavy losses. He replies that I should stop feeding the cats. “What right does a person have to interfere in the affairs of the animal world?” he asks. “If man can’t even stop killing his fellow man, why get involved in the conflicts of other species?”
The problem is, he’s always right. Arguing with him only depresses me, so I try to avoid it. On sunny days, I stretch out on my chaise longue and watch as he gathers up the broken branches and stacks them neatly under the terrace awning. Why so many branches? I wonder. He already has enough for ten winters. Has he forgotten about the growth on the left side of his brain? The doctor says an operation is not necessary. A tumour such as this could stay the same for years, he says. There’s no guarantee, though. “We don’t know what keeps it stable,” the doctor says. “It could wake up without warning and start to spread, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop it.”
“Haven’t you done enough?” I ask my husband. “Go change your clothes. It’s shabbes.”
“So?” he answers. “The wheels stop turning on shabbes?”
Yes, I think, for some they do, but I say nothing. I observe the steady stream of young couples dressed in their Sabbath best on their way to the synagogue. Some have children with them, boys with the traditional sidelocks and yarmulkes and girls with colourful ribbons in their hair. Twenty or thirty years ago, when we were young, it was the old people who went to services while the young ones stayed home to wash their cars, paint their houses, work in their gardens. Back then, the ones who went to services were seen as a doomed lot. Today the wheel has turned. The old people work in their gardens while the young are drawn to the ancient well. “One cannot live by bread alone,” I think as I watch them pass.
For me, shabbes is the saddest day of the week, full of uninvited memories. A Jew with a black beard walks by – and I see my father, bathed in the light of the Sabbath soul that relieves him from weekday cares. On shabbes even poverty is transformed. The table is set, the floor freshly washed in preparation for the Sabbath bride. Intoxicated by the smell of poppy seed cakes, I polish the candlestick with its three branches. The face staring back at me from the shiny surface contains the secret of my tomorrows. One moment I’m a princess, the next moment a monster.
“Enough with the rubbing!” my mother scolds. “You’re taking off all the silver. Any more and the tin will show through.”
Rubbing off the surface shine – such has been my tendency all my life. I’ve done it with my husband, my children. Maybe I’d be doing it still, if not for the bugaboo lurking in my husband’s brain. “Avoid excitement,” the doctor says. “Leave him alone. Try not to upset him.” I obey these instructions to the letter. Instead of upsetting him, I do the worrying myself. Why has it been more than four weeks since our son called? Why did our daughter divorce her Jewish husband and run off with a gentile?
“Who were you talking to on the phone?” my husband asks.
“Our daughter,” I answer casually, as if I talk to her all the time.
“I thought you weren’t on speaking terms,” he says.
“How long can you stay angry at your own daughter?”
“Well then,” he asks, “did you ask her if she’s planning to start a family?”
“Mothers don’t ask such questions these days,” I answer. “They listen and keep their mouths shut.”
He thrusts his hands into his pants pockets and rummages as if searching for an answer. Meanwhile, he paces around the room, and when he can’t find a way out he comes to a stop and looks at me. “I know a man, a rich man,” he says, “who in such a case willed his estate to a yeshiva.”
“Your child is still your child,” I answer. “Maybe we contributed to the error of her ways.” Maybe we failed to set a good example. In any case, it’s too late now. She seems happy, so we, too, must be happy.
I often think we should get a dog. Or if not a dog, then a cat or a bird. A living creature with its own take on right and wrong. I could talk to a cat without fear of distressing her. I could tell her I live in the shadow of death and her facial expression wouldn’t change in the slightest. She would lie quietly in my lap and allow herself to be stroked. My words would put her to sleep. She would breathe rhythmically, like an integral part of eternity. If I were a cat, I’d do the same. I’d lay my head in a warm lap and dream.
When the north wind begins to whistle angrily over all of creation, I get out my ball of yarn and my knitting needles. Years ago, I intended to turn the ball of yarn into a sweater for my son, but he got married and I forgot about the project. Now I’m knitting a sweater for my husband. I’m in no hurry. An unbidden voice whispers that I should take my time. As long as I knit, I hold the Angel of Death at bay. So I do what the Greek Penelope did – Odysseus’s wife. I knit by day and unravel by night.
A delusion is worse than a disease, my father used to say. I’ve deluded myself into believing that finishing the sweater means signing my husband’s death sentence.
My husband is still busy with the stocks and bonds. He says he’s trying to figure out whether we can afford a winter in Florida without drawing down our principal. I’m not sure he means what he says, though. I suspect that, like me, he’s wrestling with his own premonitions – he in his room and I in the kitchen. A certain intimacy prevails in the kitchen. The boiling kettle fills the room with steam. Time was when four of us ate together at the table. Then three. Beyond that I don’t want to think. I hold the sweater in my lap without knitting. The telephone is silent. The wind whistles. The first snow has fallen and Hanukkah arrives. The candles are burning and my husband is running a fever. He recites the blessing over the candles and goes back to bed. The doctor says he has the flu and needs a good chicken soup. I do as the doctor orders, but the fever comes and goes.
“How’s the sweater coming along?” my husband asks gruffly. I knit faster, until the sweater is big enough to fit. And although we both laugh, my heart beats faster. Unseen hands are pointing their skinny fingers. The doctor says the flu has returned. He must go to the hospital for a comprehensive examination. Whenever the doctor addresses my husband he smiles from ear to ear. He claps my husband on the back and speaks heartily. On the other side of the door, his smile is nowhere to be found.
He never comes home from the hospital. Spring arrives, and summer and autumn. Yellow leaves fall from the trees. No one collects them. The wind lifts them and sends them in eddies out to the street, where the speeding cars grind them into dust. I debate within myself: should I rake them up the way he used to do and turn the pile into a bed for the cats in the alley? Or should I leave them in God’s care? Should I make something to eat? Should I crack the covers of a book? Yes, the golden sunsets still move me as always. I get up off the sagging couch and go out to meet them. I walk up and down along the beach and greet other widows. I don’t know these women, but I recognize myself in the halo of diminution that widowhood together with the years has woven around our heads. Dressed in black, I go often to the old age home. Once a week I read aloud from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories from Behind the Stove in Yiddish. After I read, the audience peppers me with questions having nothing to do with the book. A woman with only one tooth wants to know if God exists. Another answers that simply by voicing such a question she’s causing the Messiah to tarry.
Within the residents of the old age home, the spark of Jewishness still glows. They’re not shy about expressing themselves. One woman sitting at the window tries to catch a fly that buzzes by…. When she succeeds, she carefully raises the sash and releases it into the world.
“Maybe a gentle breeze will carry it off into a field of flowers,” she says, “and there it will live out its life in joy and satisfaction.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” cries a bleached blonde in a hot red blouse. “Such a fuss over a fly!”
The woman who has freed the fly doesn’t reply. She stands up and leaves the room. I follow her with my eyes. There is something aristocratic in her bearing, her smooth white hair and her pale face. Her eyes express a certain sadness, as if to say that we understand each other.
The next time I come, the woman is no longer there. She has thrown herself out of a fifth-floor window.
Not so long ago, I reflect, these old people were little children pressed tenderly to their mothers’ bosoms. All too soon they were mothers and fathers themselves. Now they tremble like dry leaves on the bough, faces clouded, eyes dim, counting the hours from one meal to the next. Is this what the future holds for me? A chill runs down my spine. I approach the man who always acts the know-it-all – an interesting person who usually sits at the head of the group with his back to the window, pronouncing judgment on religious matters. He can talk rings around anyone. Now, with the fervent singsong of a Lubavitcher Hasid, he’s quoting from a chapter of the Psalms. He has the group in the palm of his hand. No one asks questions. He doesn’t like to be put on the spot, preferring to supply both questions and answers himself. His specialty is arguing with God. If someone does dare to ask a question, he invokes the Ruler of the Universe who thought the whole thing up in the first place. “Imagine,” he says – “if man with his limited years on earth can get tired of the game, how must it feel to live forever? The Almighty got sick of spinning around and around a long time ago. He washed his hands of us and went off to build a better world.”
When I read aloud, he falls asleep – or seems to, anyway. I have a feeling he’s actually paying attention but can’t bring himself to descend from his hard-won perch. Sitting and listening to a woman read Stories from Behind the Stove makes him feel like a horse among cows. Although he keeps his past under lock and key, the number on his arm reveals his secret. Sometimes, when the spirit moves him, he sings selections from the Yiddish theatre. He knows the names of all the dead actors. Those who are among the living he dismisses with a wave of the hand.
Blume Lempel was born in 1907 in Khorostkov, Galicia (now Ukraine), immigrated to Paris in 1929, and fled to New York just before World War II. She wrote in Yiddish into the 1990's. Acclaimed for a narrative style that is noteworthy for its abrupt detours, psychological acuteness, foregrounding of women's concerns, and contemporary settings, she received literary prizes on both sides of the Atlantic. She died in 1999.
Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub won the 2012 Translation Prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center for their (unpublished) collection of translated stories, including this one, entitled "Oedipus in Brooklyn' and Other Stories by Blume Lempel." Cassedy's translations appear in Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories. She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. Taub is the author of four books of poetry, including Prayers of a Heretic/Tfiles fun an apikoyres. He was named by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York's best emerging Jewish artists.