Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
For weeks those evil eyes pursued me. In the end I did what I intended to do: I got on the night express train and left for Czernowitz. It was my misfortune to meet my old cousin Sarina on board. She assailed me, shouting, “You’ve abandoned the home of your forefathers. One doesn’t abandon the home of one’s forefathers.” I remembered her very well, an unfortunate woman, widowed at an early age. Her children didn’t like her and kept their distance, and she hounded them. Once she set the priest upon her sons so that he would confront them with the duty of honoring their mother. Her years had passed in solitude and bitterness. Now she had found me.
What could I answer? I lied, of course. I told her I was going for examinations in the hospital, and when they finished
the examinations, I would return home. Her mind was set at ease, though not completely. She insisted that I promise her and, indeed, I promised her. Along the way she told me about my father’s last days, about his illness, and about his wife, who had tormented him. While he was sick he had frequently mentioned my mother, the love of his youth, which had only inflamed the wicked woman’s malice.
“She poisoned him.” The words left my mouth.
“That’s what people say. She didn’t get off with an easy punishment, either,” Sarina spat out not without pleasure in the other’s misfortune.
After an hour’s journey she stopped talking and fell asleep. I looked up: There were no strangers, only Ruthenians and the children of Ruthenians. Their peasant nature filled the coach. I could understand their language and taste all the flavors in it, and when they took a maize pie out of their colorful baskets, I knew that food delighted their palate more than any other delicacy. Even the odor of their coats, the sweat of their limbs—everything, down to their shoelaces—was close and familiar, but still a thin barrier separated me from them. That barrier prevented me from drawing nearer, from asking them how they were, and from tasting their beloved foods.
“Why don’t you get off with me?” Sarina asked distractedly when I woke her. She had apparently forgotten the excuses I had heaped up. “I’ll come soon,” I said, and helped her take down her packages.
“Swear.” She surprised me.
The smell of the familiar fields together with the oath
overcame me, and I wept. I wept for my loneliness and for my wanderings and for that place that had turned me out without a blessing. I remembered the two boys who had been taken from me, and the wound bled again. The railroad cars were jerked into motion, and the train sped out. My weeping eased.
At the following stations the look of things changed. A few Jews joined the voyage. I could identify Jews from far off, and it didn’t matter whether they were religious or not. In my youth I had been afraid of them, but now, when I met a Jew, I felt a kind of secret affinity. You could pick them out by a number of signs: They were short and thin and loaded down with bundles. The multitude of bundles immediately made their presence conspicuous. On the trains, the peasants tried to steal from them. They pleaded and bribed, and when bribery wasn’t effective, they defended their suitcases with their lives. I liked to observe them. I won’t conceal it: I was drawn to them. The years in their company didn’t mar that hidden attraction. They bewitched me with their gloomy smiles, but Rosa was closer to me than all of them. In her company I could talk or remain silent, it didn’t matter.
While I was looking in wonder, an old Jew approached me and asked whether I would be willing to help him carry his packages from the railroad station to the tram.
“I’m willing,” I said.
“I’ll pay you.”
“Why? I have six heavy bundles.”
“I don’t need the money.”
The Jew was frightened by my words and said, “I’ll do
it myself.” In vain I tried to persuade him. All my entreaties were useless. He stood his ground: “I’ll do it myself. I always do it myself.” The trust he had placed in me a moment before had apparently lapsed. When we reached Czernowitz, he tied together the six bundles and fastened them to his body and, very slowly, he dragged them to the tram.
I spent my first day in the capital in a tavern. The taverns in the capital, I must admit, are more splendid, but they’re made in the same pattern: two long wooden tables with two heavy benches next to them. I had considered going directly to the city auditorium where Henni used to perform, but as was my way, I got delayed. I drank too much, and in the evening I couldn’t stand. The tavern owner, for a fee, let me sleep on the floor.
The next day I located Henni, and both of us cried like little girls. Henni had become very thin, her face was gaunt, and her long dress made the bones of her shoulders project. “You need rest,” I told Henni. Though she agreed with me, how could she get free of a contract for twenty-four concerts?
I knew how much I had missed her only now. By the way, I hadn’t opened the packet of jewels she had given me. I had hung it around my neck, and I said to myself, This will be my talisman. Now I felt the desire to adorn myself with one of them.
Henni was in a firm and difficult humor. She made a few contemptuous remarks about Izio’s becoming a monk, and finally she said, “I hate monasteries. I’ll never forgive the monks for the sins they commit. A person is free.”
The next day I met her manager, a young, plump Jew, grasping and fussy. He had prepared the concert tour down
to the last note. To me, for some reason, that precision sounded like a banishment. You mustn’t drive people from their homes, I was about to shout, but my voice didn’t stand by me.
Later, we sat and sipped a few drinks. Her voice trilled. She spoke with a kind of enthusiasm of the need to overcome weaknesses and to practice a great deal, for only practice can repair the flaws. That wasn’t her voice but one she had borrowed for the purposes of this conversation. What are you talking about, I wanted to stop her. You have to take care of your health, to rest in the country. But I couldn’t talk. Her voice poured out and silenced me. Finally, she said, “No matter. We’ll see a lot of each other, and we’ll talk for many days. There’s a lot to talk about. A lot.”
The next day Henni left for provincial cities, and I, in my great despair, sat in a tavern and sipped a few drinks. Afterward, distractedly, I straggled along the street near the railway station. The night lights flowed on the damp sidewalks, and I, as they say, had no goal. If a man had come along and dragged me to his room, I would have gone. No one approached me. Everyone streamed by in haste. It made me angry that no one approached me, that everyone was ignoring me, but I kept on walking. For some reason I turned into a side street. While I was walking, I saw a dim light and smelled Jewish food. I had a strong desire to climb up to the first floor and ask for a little soup, but I didn’t dare. I stood and waited for the door to open and for someone to call me: Katerina, come in. Why are you standing outside? For a long while I stood there. It was, it turns out, a vain expectation. One by one, the houses were shut up
behind walls of darkness. “Why won’t anyone give me a little soup?” I finally raised my voice. My words were not answered. The houses seemed like fortresses, and darkness was piled upon darkness. I kept on pacing, and as I continued, the odor pursued me. Irritation goaded me to climb up to the first floor and make a ruckus in front of the doors, but I didn’t do it.
While I was standing there, I noticed I was in front of a small store. From the door and the lock, I knew it was a Jewish shop. I was about to pass it by and continue on my way, but something told me to stay still, and I did. Now the way inside was easy. I smashed the window with a swing of my arm, and immediately I was stuffing cigarettes and chocolates into a bag.
Furtively, I went up and continued through the alleys. I knew it was a contemptible, ugly sin, but I still felt no remorse. A coarse pleasure flooded my body. The night passed without my feeling it. I was thirsty, but all the taverns were closed. Toward morning, I collapsed in a heap at the railroad station and fell asleep.
WENT FROM TAVERN TO TAVERN
. The railway station street was full of them, orderly ones and some less orderly. I preferred the quiet ones. Two or three drinks restored Rosa and Benjamin to me. I know I shall never forgive myself for allowing the Ruthenians to steal the boys. Sometimes I felt they were thinking about me in secret. If I had known where they were, I would have gone to them on foot. Sometimes it seems that time has stopped and we are still together in that little shed during that winter. The rustic stove is giving off its thick heat and I am bundled up with the boys in the big wooden bed.
Each tavern evoked different sights for me. In the Royal Tavern, near the front window, I saw Henni. Now it seems to me I understand her rigor better. She couldn’t bear “almost” or half measures. Without that rigor, she would have floated away. That was her character, and that was how she punished herself. Now she was jolting all over the provinces
and entertaining the dull ears of the wealthy. Izio’s rigor was even more severe than hers. I remember him saying, “One must peel off the many outer layers of the matter and lay bare the kernel.” At that time the word
astonished me. Now I understand the dread inherent in that word. I was afraid of his rigor. The Royal Tavern was quiet, and I could sit there for many hours. Once men used to accost me. Now only old men took an interest in me. In the Royal I met Sammy, a tall and husky man with eyes like a child’s.
They say the Jews are cheats. Sammy, for example, didn’t have an ounce of cunning. I saw him sitting in a corner, sipping a drink. In Strassov, no Jew would enter a tavern. Wonder of wonders, here a Jew sat and piled up glass after glass. I approached him. “What’s a Jew doing in a tavern?”
“I like to have a drink. What can I do?”
“Jews aren’t supposed to drink, don’t you know?”
“I’m a sinner. What can I do?”
He looked strange in the tavern, a boy in a den of thieves.
“You mustn’t be here.” I spoke brazenly.
“Because Jews have to direct commerce. If they don’t direct it, who will?”
He laughed heartily, and his laughter infected me, too.
I used to see him sometimes, but I didn’t go up to him. I felt that my presence embarrassed him. Finally, he overcame it and approached me, paying me back in my own coin. “What’s Katerina doing in a tavern?”
“Because Katerina is Katerina, a Ruthenian from time immemorial.”
We laughed and drank like two friends.
Most of the day I wandered through the streets and slowly soaked up the big city. In fact, I didn’t stray from the streets around the railroad station. But even those faded streets had the odor of a big city.
In the evening I sat with Sammy. Sammy told me about his life. Twice married and twice divorced. He divorced his first wife because she was domineering and the second because she was crazy. He had a grown daughter from his first wife, but he saw her only seldom.
“Why don’t you have steady work? Every Jew has steady work.”
“How do you know?” He chuckled.
“For many years I worked for Jews.”
“I hope you weren’t contaminated by them.”
There was a kind of piercing honesty to his rejoinders. I, for my part, told him about my native village. Sammy was a stricken man, and every word that came out of his mouth was dipped in his wound. Nevertheless, a few of his movements were pleasing to the eye, and his voice, too, or rather his accent, sounded melodious to me.
I was not working then, either. I squandered the money Henni had given me with abandon. Each morning, I would wander the city streets. The city was full of Jews. For hours I sat and observed them.
In the afternoon I would enter a Jewish restaurant. My appearance astonished the customers for a moment. When I asked, in Yiddish, for chicken soup with matzoh balls, everyone’s eyes opened wide, but I wasn’t offended. I sat in my place, ate, and watched. Jewish foods are pleasant to
the palate; they don’t have too much vinegar or an excess of black pepper. In the evening I used to come back to the tavern and sit beside Sammy. While he was drinking no one did him any harm, but when he got drunk, they abused him and called him a drunken Jew. Sammy was a strong man, defending himself even in his drunkenness, but he didn’t have the strength to stand up to the tavern’s owner, his son, and his son-in-law. At midnight they grabbed him and threw him out. “I won’t come back here!” he shouted, but the next day he came back.
“Get a grip on yourself,” I tried to persuade him.
“I must control myself,” he agreed with me.
In my heart I knew he wouldn’t do it, that he couldn’t take himself in hand, but still I plagued him with vain demands.
“And you, what about you?”
“I’m a Ruthenian, the daughter of Ruthenians. Generations of drunkards flow in my veins.”
“I get drunk easily,” he admitted.
The daytime was all my own. I wandered among stores, courtyards, and synagogues, and at noon I entered the Jewish restaurant. Yiddish is a savory language. I could sit for hours and listen to its sound. The old people’s Yiddish recalled delectable winter dishes. I would sit for hours and observe the old people’s gestures. Sometimes they seemed to me like priests who have forfeited their pride, but occasionally an old man would lift his head and direct his gaze toward someone impertinent, and then one saw clearly the priestly fire burning in his eyes. I, for example, loved to stand near the window of the synagogue and listen to the
Rosh Hashanah prayers. People tell me that the Jews’ prayers are maudlin. I don’t hear any weeping in them. On the contrary, they sound to me like the complaints of strong people, firm in their opinion.