Green Aquarium (1953–1974)
"Your teeth are bars of bone. Behind them, in a crystal cell, your chained words. Remember the advice of your elder: the guilty ones, words that dropped poisoned pearls in your goblet — let them go free. Grateful for your mercy, they will immortalize you. But the innocent ones who will trill falsely like nightingales over your grave — don't spare them. Hang them! For, as soon as you let them out of your mouth or your pen, they turn into demons. May the stars fall out of the sky if I'm not telling the truth!"
This was the legacy left me many years ago, in my living hometown, by an old bachelor, a cracked poet with a long braid hanging down his back like a young birch twig. Nobody knew his name or where he came from. I knew only that he composed rhymed missives to God in Aramaic Targum language, deposited them in the red mailbox on the green bridge, and strolled, contemplative and patient, on the banks of the River Viliya, waiting for the postman from heaven to deliver an answer.
"Walk through words as through a minefield: one false step, one false move and all the words you strung in a lifetime on your veins will be blown apart with you."
This my own shadow whispered to me when both of us, blinded by searchlight windmills, plodded at night through a bloody minefield and every step I took for life or death screeched on my heart like a nail on a violin.
But nobody warned me to beware of words groggy from otherworldly poppies. I became their slave. And I cannot understand what they want. Or whether they love me or hate me. They make wars in my brain like termites in a desert. Their battlefield reflects in my eyes like the glow of rubies. And children turn gray with fear when I tell them: "Good-dreams …"
The other day, out of the blue, as I lay in the garden and, above me — a branch of oranges or children blowing golden bubbles — I felt my soul move. Oho, my words are getting ready for a journey … Having won a victory over one person, they apparently decided to conquer fortresses so far impervious to words. Victory over men, over angels, why not over stars? Drunk on otherworldly poppies, their fantasy soars.
Torches like burning birds.
Accompanied by lines. Frames of music.
To such a word, wearing a crown glimmering with my tears, riding in front, the leader perhaps — to such a word, I fell on my knees.
"That's how you leave me, with no 'good-bye,' no 'see-you-soon,' no nothing? For years we wandered together, you gnawed at my time; now, before we part, before you conquer worlds — one request! But promise you won't refuse …"
"OK. I give you my word. But make it short. Because the sun is bending over the blue branch and, in a moment, it will fall into the abyss."
"I want to see the dead!"
"What a request … Well, I've got to keep my word…See! "
A green knife split the earth.
And it was green.
The green of dark fir trees through a mist;
The green of a cloud with a burst gall bladder;
The green of mossy stones in a rain;
The green revealed through a hoop, rolled by a seven-year-old;
The green of cabbage leaves in splinters of dew, that can bloody your fingers;
The fresh green under melting snow; in a ring around a blue flower;
The green of the crescent moon seen by green eyes under a wave;
And the solemn green of grass making seams on a grave.
Green streaming into green. Body into body. The earth transformed into a green aquarium.
Closer, closer, to the green eddy.
I look inside: Humans swim around like fish. Myriads of phosphorous faces. Young. Old. And young-old in one. Those I saw throughout my life, death has crowned them. with a green existence; all swimming about in the green aquarium, in a silky, airy music.
Here, the dead live!
Beneath them, rivers, forests, cities — one enormous, palpable map; above, the sun swims in the guise of a man of fire.
I recognize acquaintances, friends, neighbors, I tip my straw hat to them.
They reply with green smiles like a well answering a stone with broken rings.
My eyes strike with silver oars, rush, swimming among all the faces. My eyes roam, searching for one face.
Found, found! Here's the dream of my dream — —
"It's me, my dear, me, me. The creases are just nests of longing."
My lips inundated with blood are drawn to hers. Alas, they remain on the pane of the aquarium.
Her lips too swim to mine. I feel the breath of burning punch.
The glass is a cold knife between us.
"I want to read you a poem about you … You must listen!"
"My dear, I know the words by heart, I gave you the words myself."
"Then I want to feel your body one more time!"
"We can't get any closer, the glass, the glass …"
"No, the boundary will soon disappear, I'll smash the green glass with my head — —"
After the twelfth bang, the aquarium shattered.
Where are the lips, where is the voice?
And the dead, the dead — did they die?
No one. In my face — grass. And above — a branch of oranges or children blowing golden bubbles.
The Woman in the Panama Hat
One day, in the Age of Slaughter, I sat in a dark nook and wrote. As if the Angel of Poetry told me: "Your choice is in your own hand. If your song inspires me, I will protect you with a fiery sword. If not — don't complain … My conscience will remain clean."
In the little room, I felt like the clapper of a bell. A movement, a tremor, and the bell starts ringing.
In the silence, words hatched.
Then, knuckles rapping on the door.
The silence ran off over the floor like quicksilver out of a broken thermometer.
"Danger, a friend is warning me." I pulled the bolt.
A woman appears. At first glance — a beggar. Nothing unusual. In the pause between life and death, when hunger reigns in all its skeleton glory, hosts of beggars swell like a swarm of locusts. But this beggar surprised me with her clothes: a straw summer hat, a kind of panama hat, trimmed with dried wild strawberries; a long old-fashioned crinoline — a rainbow of rags; at her side, a bag; on her neck hung a thin jade necklace with an ivory lorgnette; and the points of her polished shoes — two shining crows with blood-red beaks, gaping open.
I didn't ask anything, just offered her a piece of bread with moldy crusts.
She advances a step, takes the bread, puts it on the table and then — cackling like a cookoo, she says:
"If I'm not mistaken, you are the person I'm looking for; so I won't take this bread."
"Sit down, auntie, you'll feel better. The bread? Yes, indeed, mold. But, on my word of honor, I don't have any other bread. We shall live to eat challah again."
I indicate to the woman the only stool and I myself sit on the table facing her.
"Oh, that's not what I mean, believe me." She lifts her crinoline so as not to wrinkle it, like a dancer, and sits down on the stool.
"Might I ask about a small matter?"
"A small thing is a small thing, auntie. You don't have to wear gloves with me."
"There are sheets of paper there. The ink is still fresh on them. Who wrote them?"
"Are you a writer?"
"Yes, a writer."
Not only from the corners of her eyes but from all her wrinkles did tears drip. A rosy smiling freshness, like a mist after a spring rain, bloomed from her soul.
"That's good. Now let me pour out my heart. For these few minutes, the Almighty will repay you with years."
She pulls out of her sleeve a pink handkerchief with a silver border and wipes her lips. From the handkerchief comes the dying trace of an old perfume. And she tells:
"My name is Felicia Poznanski. The writer I. Y. Singer has immortalized me in a novel. Once I looked different. But that's not important."
Out of the other sleeve, she pulls another handkerchief in a medley of peacock colors, with another perfume, wipes away the moisture under her eyes, and goes on:
"As for Felicia — let's say it's another person, not the beggar sitting here in front of you — she was once a rich woman. That is, her husband, Ignatz, was a millionaire. Nine factories, hundreds of spinning machines. In one of his palaces lived the president of the city. In addition, he was Honorary Consul of Portugal — —"
The sunset lit up her wrinkles with the green light of glowworms. She became thinner, more shriveled, looked like the mummy of an ancient Egyptian princess.
"Nobody liked Ignatz, not even his own family. He was considered a misanthrope. Well, maybe he was. We mustn't judge too easily. There was a reason for his hatred of men. As a child, his nose had been broken like a clay pot and the greatest professors in the world couldn't put it together again. He had to wear a false nose, a rubber one. Because of that, his voice lost its virility and he spoke so thinly, too thinly, like a newborn kitten."
But Felicia loved him. Not for his wealth or for his manners. She loved him for his writing. He was writing a poem about Job in Polish … At night, in his study, he would take off his rubber nose so he could breathe more freely and would write until daybreak. And Felicia was the happiest woman in the world. No, this wasn't Poznanski the industrialist, this was Heine,
Byron! Byron lacked a piece of foot — but wasn't he the greatest poet of his century? Just like Poznanski, who lacked a piece of nose…
The sunset heats up the copper bell of my garret. The tears of a hidden child wander to his creator. And the woman in the straw panama hat goes on:
"On the first day of the war, the wheel of fortune turned. Splinters of a bomb struck Ignatz in the head. Before he passed away, he made me swear: Felicia, my dear, take care to save my work, my whole life is in it. My world here and my world to come…"
With a little valise in hand, Felicia fled the city. Inside — the poem about Job, a packet of diamonds, and the costume she wore to the masked ball where she had met her husband. When she tried to sneak across the Lithuanian border by the river, her boat capsized and the valise sank in the water. Miraculously, Felicia swam to the bank and told the ferryman about her diamonds. He dived in a few times and fished out the valise. He was an honest peasant and they divided it as agreed: he took the diamonds and she took her husband's share of eternity, his work, and the costume she had worn to the masked ball…You can see it, Felicia is wearing it now … She wants to wear it to the masked ball of death.
The woman in the panama hat suddenly stands up and curtsies, as once upon a time in that celestial masked ball. But what happens? She can't get up again. Her face grows dark, changes color like paper as it burns, and, on the brim of her panama hat, the strawberries are bleeding.
"No need for water, no need. A twinge of the heart, nothing. Where were we? Oh, yes, I'll make it short —"
Standing, she examines me with her lorgnette and her voice takes on another tone, as if one of her veins had burst:
"Now I am a beggar. Almost a year now. For a while, I taught Portuguese to two girls and, for each lesson, I got two potatoes. But since the girls disappeared, I don't have anybody to teach Portuguese to. I go begging from house to house. Not just for a piece of bread. I wanted to find someone like you, a writer, and give him the masterpiece of my dear husband. For I, dear sir, don't have much longer. I'm going to Join the two girls … Give me your
hand that you will keep the poem about Job just like your own papers and after the war — you understand, don't you? Give me your hand! …"
As her bony right hand with the delicate pianist's fingers was closed in mine, her left hand pulled a pocketsize notebook out of her sack and put it on the table, next to the moldy bread.
When the woman was gone — the bell started ringing. It could no longer bear the silence. The silence of old people snatched up in the street.
The single pane of glass in a cellar, covered with frost. On the pine forest of the window pane, the print of two children's hands, open as if in a priest's blessing. Through the forest and the handprints, the sun falls into the cellar like a corpse into a tomb.
The walls are lined with downy snow and glimmer like a salt mine.
On the ground, in a corner — the scattered rags of a pallet and, among them, like gold teeth, gleam scraps of hidden straw.
On the rags, a thick Korbn Minkhe, a woman's prayerbook, covered with candle drippings, printed by the Rom Widow and Brothers …
Next to it, in a pot of sand — a stiffened wax candle like a bird piercing its own heart with a dead beak.
And in the middle of the cellar, between the children's handprint on the window and the Korbn Minkhe on the rags of the pallet — a bronze horse' s head with a silver spot like a stab wound on the brow and cold, eternal eyes of black marble.
And the children's handprints on the window pane speak:
Dear head, forgive us. It is not we who cut you off your living neck. When the last ones, the very last ones crumbled into ashes — we found you in a butcher shop and dragged you, slowly, hidden under a stranger's long coat, to the cellar. With you — we wanted to feed an old woman. Lonely like you now, the old woman was lying here in the corner. At her head — a burning candle. But all of a sudden — dogs. Dogs. Dogs. They attack the old woman,
attack your frozen flesh. Attack the boy we belong to … Oh, how we wanted to help him … We ran to the window pane, to the snowy forest, and where are we, where are we? …
While the children's handprints on the window pane speak — the icicles melt on the bronze head. His skin starts glowing, becomes alive. His left ear drops like a lock of hair. And tears appear in the black marble eyes.
From pulverized clay nests, from the grids of cellar apertures and broken doors, burning pages of Holy Books rise to the sunset — children with outstretched hands as if the sun had given birth to them in the Synagogue Yard and now they fly back to their mother.
When the sun hides her children behind a cloud, they leave black tears — burned-out soot — on the gallery of the synagogue.
The two-storied gallery, rising to a pyramid over the rickety ruins of narrow streets and alleys, is not the same as before.
The gallery has metamorphosed into an eagle on top of another eagle!
The eagle on top, with the head of an animal and a blue breast between purple wings, like a brook amid rosebushes, plants his four claws of bronze into the eagle below.
And the eagle below, with the head of an angel, a gleaming serpent around his neck, and his wings — two rocks facing each other over an abyss — bows over the synagogue. His ten claws — columns carved of salt — falter under the heavy wings.
Above, between the bronze feet of the eagle on top, leaning on his blue breast, I see a hidden little man.
"Little man, who are you?"
"I am the painter Yankel Sher, the painter of the narrow streets …"
In his green velvet vest, he stands in front of a canvas. It was a vest he once got in Paris. In our town, it was unique. People used to stop in the street, admiring its beauty. He fastened it at the neck with a big copper clip. Its folds shimmered like a peacock's feathers. It had ten different pockets stuffed with brushes, pencils, and notebooks.
Now the vest hangs on him, puffed out, covered with mold, not a garment for a man but for a hen. And the brush he holds in his teeth looks like a ritual slaughter knife.
The squinting, watery eyes bulge out over his nose and two twin tears enclose it.
The painter looks at the twisted narrow streets, then looks at the canvas and doesn't believe his eyes. Ever since he hid in this gallery, today is the first time he has seen how his world had changed.
What wind blew him up a church opposite? And how did the medieval city hall get here where the butcher shop was?
Who lit the lights in the dead Synagogue Yard?
Why, dear God, does the Gaon's Prayerhouse deserve stoning? And why was the tree over the gate condemned to fire?
Only the sewers haven't changed.
They too! Shimmering with blood …
Yankel Sher wants to smear the canvas with paint. Where is the truth — inside him or outside?
Maybe it was his palette that was guilty?
He once saw a violin in the hands of a virtuoso. Right in the middle of the concert — alas, the sound was gone. The audience was bewildered. The violinist turned pale as the rosin on the strings. But soon, he bent his ear and said: Honored audience, this violin has just given up the ghost. I beg you to stand up and pay him a final homage.
He brings his ear to the palette. It lives, it lives.
Bunches of soot of the burning pages of Holy Books fall on his hair, fall on the canvas.
Now he pulls the brush out of his mouth. The brush, with the hunger of an artist, devours colors. The spots of snow vanish from the canvas. From the young, fresh, springtime earth, an old woman emerges.
That's just how she looked, the eighty-year-old woman. Now she lives again, lives again! A black Sabbath dress with little crystal buttons. Her hair white, dazzling white, like frozen milk. Her face — a ball of silver creases where springtime rivulets shimmer. Plop, plop. In the rivulets, the sun dances. Casts little beams in cold bayonets. And the old woman, just a bit bent, carries a blond girl on her shoulders — —
Behind the old woman — faces. Faces. A chimney with a slaughtered neck.
On one knee, a window bends in the air. And the gate over the narrow street, where the old woman makes her way, has a black slit.
Yankel Sher recoils a step. Yes, that's just how she looked, the eighty-year-old woman. It just lacks … Oh, what is missing?
His watery eyes bulge even more. Spill over onto the palette. A damp flush covers his face.
The old woman walked … with a tefillin box on her forehead … she picked up the tefillin box from the ground, from the sewer …
"Yankel, you're a painter, paint the tefillin box!"
He dips his brush in the fallen tears, in a spurt of red; and the old woman, with the blond girl on her shoulders, now passes under the split gate, between bayonets, with a little box on her brow, where God lives.
"Lady Job, that's what the picture will be titled …"
A shudder came over the gallery. Both eagles rose. Two pairs of stormy wings. Along with the painter Yankel Sher, along with Lady Job, along with the kneeling window, along with the whole alley — the eagles vanish in a lightning cloud.
The Last of the Blind
Her eyes did not dwell in flesh like everybody else's. They lived inside, in a separate face — two small magnetic needles.
The needles attracted flowering branches, sun and shade, colors like throbbing veins, faces and, most important, the face of her blind lover.
The two of them met like two nights and their stone blindness gushed out sparks.
And when he, with a face like a windowpane in the rain, clambers over the walls at night, so the moon would throw him a silver herring, he plays on the long flute he inherited, plays a melancholy tune, a kind of funeral march for a bird; and she, in her garret, sees her lover in a mirror of his tones.
Once, he didn't come back. A deaf veil darkened the mirror. And she — as if another blindness had seized the blind woman!
She gropes for his shadow. The pompadour of his shadow. The magnetic needles do not attract him anymore…
Someone stuck a knife in a corpse!
Her fingers — ten droning bees — dance around the hollow garret, where the air is consumed like white ash.
Her little sister who can see, half naked, a book under her arm, two little braids like open scissors, looms up out of a glimmering corner, with a lantern in her hand.
"Teach me to dance, I have never danced, never, never in my life."
The lantern — a one-eyed owl — remains hanging on a beam. Underneath, in the light of that bloody eye, the two sisters dance. Accompanied by the vanished flute, the bird funeral march…
"Thank you, my dear. Now leave me alone. I want to see if God is blind."
A shudder went through the garret, like a nest at the touch of a saw.
The blind girl slowly approached the lamp, her buzzing fingers unwound the cylinder, moistened her braids, her dress with kerosene, and the owl-eye cast a jet of fire.
Over streets — caverns of ghosts — sun. Sun. Sun.
Sun in bandaged windowpanes. Sun in faces. Sun in corpses who haven't found death …
Men, sundered into two separate profiles, become skeletons again in the rosy glow of her dance.
And she herself, the blind girl, all of her in her fiery eyes, inflames the streets with her dance, inflames the city, inflames the clouds:
"If you are blind, my God, take away my fire! …"
Honey of a Wild Bee
This is how the night will remain forever: An old maid sitting till her braid turns gray.
The moon, who left all her dear ones on earth and can see no one, prays a confession on her marble deathbed for the only creature left in the city, the
gravedigger Leyme huddling down below, on Rudnicka Street, in a heap of sighing leaves.
Leyme, a gravedigger ever since he can remember his own face, who sowed half the graveyard with the sons of man, will bury no one anymore.
Children, old people, all those born here, all entered the kingdom of the stars. At first — they became flaming branches. Bony winds, in tatters of shirts with Magen-Dovids, have scattered their sparks in a bloody crown over the skull of the earth.
They shamed his graveyard.
Shamed the tombstones.
So they sink with downcast heads, like offended in-laws when the bride disappeared from the Chupa.
Shamed is Leyme.
"Spade, where are you, I must bury the moon …"
Now he sees the moon with his glass eye. On the other eye hangs a padlock. The silver key is no longer in This World.
Once, half a century ago, a wild bee stung out his left eye.
The story of the wild bee is written in a chronicle:
One nice summer day, when Leyme lowered a corpse into a grave, the dead man's soul, disguised as a wild bee, flew with him into the grave. It had to whisper a secret into his ear before they parted forever.
Leyme, a simple man, did not understand the machinations of ghosts. He didn't like any of this hanky-panky and he swatted the bee with his clay-caked shovel.
The bee uttered a childish cry. Its polished, sunny face assumed the countenance of the dead man. A minute later, a screech was heard. Leyme grabbed his left eye where the wild bee entered as into a beehive; and the eye soon ran out in a red, buzzing wax under the gravedigger's hairy paw.
The whole city was up in arms about it. His gravedigging was menaced. They wouldn't let him near a distinguished corpse. But Leyme didn't give in and the "arms" subsided: Dr. Tsirulnik put a glass eye in his socket, an eye as blue and almost as big as a hen's bellybutton. And along with the clods of earth on the Zaretshe Cemetery, Leyme buried the story of the bee.
Winds, coupling like cats, meow at his head.
No savior. The dead are far away. No one to bring him a cup of water …
"Hey, spade, where are you? I must bury the moon!"
But his spade, his graveyard wife, is out of reach.
Hush. His spade is wandering above him. Wandering alone among hanging sparks. His spade is digging the ringing eternity.
Leyme stretches out a long hand to the moon, puts a star to her nostrils. The silver feather does not flutter…
Then — I saw it with my own eyes — the wild bee flew out of his glass eye and stung into my heart her last fiery honey.
Where the Stars Spend the Night (1975–1989)
Seven turns of the key to bolt the door of beaten copper. I hide the clever key, notched with serpentine teeth, like a treasure on my heartbeat: in the lining of my red velvet waistcoat.
Such a trick deserves a medal: Who am I guarding that key from? If the thief is outside, he can't come pull it out from the inside and, if he's inside, what good is it to keep it hidden in that tiny pocket?
I live on the top floor of the highest tower in town and my only visitors are gangs of drunken clouds, like Rubens's lusty bodies, entering through my only window, and in the whole town, there isn't a ladder that can reach my window, not even with our ardent firemen — nevertheless, for the sake of supersecurity and for fear of a cosmic evil eye, I have barricaded all the inside shutters and have mercilessly hung brocade draperies over them.
All that so nothing and no one will come disturb my chemical and alchemical experiments designed to transform an orphan shadow into its former living owner.
The battered and polished lamp I bought for a farthing in the bustling fleamarket of old Jaffa drinks only good old kerosene, odorous greetings from the bowels of the earth. It suits my taste and temperament better than insipid electricity. Electricity means electrified barbed wire, the electric chair; since such a chair exists, it may well be that someday soon, an electric bed, too, may become popular, with brides and grooms giving birth (or death) to electric children.
My family wonder why I keep from turning on an electric switch. When I do, my nostrils revolt: they smell an odor of burning human flesh.
But I feel as much affection for that obsolete lamp as for a living soul. The kerosene lamp is my first critic. At night, I read to her my poems, just extracted with tongs from the forge and, by her mien, by the flickering of her flame, I understand clearly what is good for nothing and what merits heaven. Sometimes I ask her for advice or for help in solving a riddle and, peeping through the black lips of the hood, her little tongue of fire — a poppy petal in the wind — gives me signs of yes or no; she is more useful than a colleague for unraveling a psychoanalytic tangle. Sometimes the lamp hiccups with unclear, cracked sounds like the confession of a dying philosopher and then I see that the lamp is talking to me in a language of other worlds.
Who knows where this lamp hung before and whose wisdom she inherited? I would give up many faces to see the face of her former lord. Now the lamp, with its bulging glass belly, hangs on a chain of copper tears over my desk and draws a gentle halo on the parchment of the ceiling. She is the magic sun of my nights in my fortified, book-lined retreat between heaven and earth.
Between heaven and earth, it is so silent you could hear the dead breathe.
It must happen tonight. Every wave, even if only once in its life, must reach a shore. The orphan shadow is chemically ripe for me to transform it into its former living owner. Fortunately for the shadow, I took pity on it; otherwise, wild beasts would have hacked it to pieces and I would have barely found its black bones. With mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, I breathe a warm dream into it. Its limbs begin to move. In the convulsed darkness, its phosphorescent ribs emerge. I recognize the rib whose clay was used by a sculptor to mold Eve. The waiting shadow invades my thoughts. A smile flutters and plays on its almost-face. This is how a drowsing wave in the river comes alive in circles when a swallow swoops onto it, splitting the water with his chest. And see, see: from the mirror in ferment opposite me emerges a tottering creature and I hear a living voice:
"Why sacrifice a dream? Why create a being out of nothingness? Is the shadow willing to be harnessed to veins? And is its former owner so important? White shrouds don't have pockets but black ones don't either: the resurrected corpse is going to pay you back in ringing curses!"
"Who are you? How did you slip into my four walls?"
I jump out of my chair and prepare to stab my visitor with the stiletto I use to open envelopes.
"With a stroke of genius, you guessed my intentions," gurgles the apparition with obvious pleasure. "That's just why I loomed up here. Be so kind as to take your dagger and return me to non-life. You wanted to transform a shadow into a man and you have a man in front of you: transform him into a shadow! It will be easier and it will be worth it. I myself cannot do it. I have burned already but tears put out the fire; I leaped into the water but the river ran out. So, may I sit down and smoke a pipe?"
Go ahead, burn and smoke, I'm tempted to grumble. But all the same, I'm curious to see what that encounter will cook up for me and I begin to play the gracious host:
"Invited or not, a guest is a guest. Of course, you may sit down and smoke your pipe."
I raise the wick of the lamp hanging above the desk, better to examine the figure.
"These are things you never heard, but I am not so rare a bird," my visitor rhymes tongue-in-cheek.
He's already settled in, his legs crossed, not on the other side of the desk but on this side, so close that, stretching out my arm, I can touch his face, a clump of dried moss with two glowworms in the middle.
He draws on his pipe. A smoke dancer escapes from it. And as her feet tap out their beat on my skull, it occurs to me that there is only one stool here in my room and I ride on its saddle into worlds beyond. So it is clear, and obscure, that my guest is sitting on air.
OK, I think, let him sit, let him hang, as long as the shadow forgives me for making him wait for his resurrection. Meanwhile, the uninvited guest says to me:
"To tell you the truth, I would have thought you'd recognize me right away, I who am privileged to be the object of your hatred. You still don't recognize me? Oh dear, man remembers neither the moment of his birth nor the moment of his death. What does he remember? All right, enough innuendos. My name is Lupus. My parents named me Velvl and that's what they called me. But later on, in the university, among my non-Jewish classmates, I was baptized with the name Lupus."
"Not just Lupus, Lupus the Cyanide Merchant," I added, confirming his title of nobility. "No need to gurgle out to me how you managed to slip into my house: instead of bolting the door of beaten copper and hiding the key in
my waistcoat, it's quite another door I should have barricaded and with another key. So here I am at your mercy."
"And I at yours." The two glowworms winked in the middle of the clump of dried moss. "Now that you know I'm Lupus the Cyanide Merchant and through which door I slipped into your four walls, I can put my cards on the table."
Aside from the stool I'm riding on, as far as I remember, there never was another stool in my study. But nothing is as illogical as logic: I see and hear Lupus moving closer to me and tapping his pipe against the foot of the nonexistent chair to knock out the ashes. A spark leaps out of his pipe and, with a pungent nip, dies on the tip of my tongue. Lupus stuffs his pipe and puffs out a new smoke dancer:
"The secret of my strength and my weakness is that I have spent my life not agreeing with myself. But the present hour is different from all my other hours stitched together: you have my full agreement to give me back nonlife. I am going to put it in black and white and sign it. I will add a codicil: you will be my only heir."
Although my tongue was nipped, the words don't succumb, they rebel:
"Lupus, my guest, before I accept or reject your request, we must unfurl an old scroll. If your hands tremble, don't be ashamed, admit it. I will unfurl the scroll myself. I have a good memory because I don't have the strength to forget. I see you nod your mossy hair. You yield the honor to me. Thank you. I unfurl the old scroll:
Of all the nights past and to come, we have one winter night left. Together with us, the winter night is fenced with electric shovels. But the winter night, loyal as it were, will disappear with the dawn, while the shovels will fling us as fodder to the ravenous maws of the earth.
Wrapped in our snow shirts, we lie in an icy lime kiln. No one is cold. And the child, frozen to its mother's breast, is certainly not cold. The stars are smiling. Delighted to escape the firing squad.
Suddenly, a shudder among the marble skeletons: a savior appears, bearing a pouch of cyanide! He too is wrapped in a snow shirt and his breath — a honed knife.
The stars are smiling. Delighted to escape the firing squad. But we, the chosen stars of the earth, don't envy those of heaven. We envy only the fortunate among us, those born in silk shirts who hid a ring or a jewel and can still use their power to trade or beg a portion of death from the Cyanide Merchant.
Ice chandeliers stretch their ten branches:
"For pity's sake, a thin slice, a crumb …"
"So dawn will not shame me …"
"Good man, just for my little birdie …"
"I played chess with your father …"
"Lupus, save me from life, I'll marry you in the other world …"
But Lupus doesn't distribute his merchandise for nothing. There is a price and the price grows higher and higher. And the less cyanide is left, the more precious stones you need for it. And he has a certain manner, Lupus, the manner of a billygoat who has just torn a wolf to pieces!
The third dancer escapes in coils from his pipe. She is dreadfully black, a sparkling necklace around her waist. She taps castanets. Or perhaps it's my temples tapping like this?
Lupus catches the thread of my thoughts and cuts it:
"You unfurled a genuine scroll. All we've just seen is as real as your charred tongue. The soul would have left me long ago but it is fastened to me with long nails. Nevertheless, you didn't notice everything: who took cyanide first that winter night? Me — Lupus! But in my veins there flowed an even more violent poison that mocked the cyanide. It was then, only then, that I became the Cyanide Merchant: let others too be persuaded that death had become as meek as a lamb, that the poison flowing in their own veins was stronger. That was the last consolation. Poor creature, are you seeking a reason for all that? As soon as you find a reason, you lose your reason."
"But why didn't you offer poison to the poor, those bereft of everything? Why did you trade it only for precious stones?"
"I didn't want those holy rings, those jewels, to end up in the executioners' pockets. Later, I threw them over the hedge of shovels into the abyss."
"Where, Lupus, in that icy lime kiln, where did you get cyanide?"
"I pinched it from my father's pharmacy and hid it on my body through all the tribulations. The poison delivered my father right at the start. The cyanide was then still stronger than the red poison in our veins."
"And who was that woman who begged you to save her life?"
"Amalia. A student. My beloved. My god. But God is too far away to betray."
"Lupus, I believe your commentary on the scroll. I had seen a lot, I hadn't seen it all. Both of us are incredible errors of that winter night. The meaning of my survival, however, is not to take life; and if you were the object of my hatred, my hatred has now evaporated like the cyanide of that winter night. Let's drink l'chaim, to life. Taking life isn't in my power as creator …"
I went to get some slivovitz and two glasses. When I returned, Lupus was no longer there. In the margin of one of my manuscripts still rose the mist of his curlicues: "I thought you were wiser. That you would understand me better and hasten my meeting with Amalia. Only there will I really be able to drink to life."
The wick of the lamp had drunk the kerosene to the last drops and the nocturnal sun on the parchment of the ceiling had consumed itself entirely, leaving only a halo of ash. But another wick which had just been lit, bathing up to its neck in an ocean of kerosene, pierced the diamond sparkle of a mild goodmorning through the cracks of the shutters between heaven and earth.
Where the Stars Spend the Night
In the little park forsaken by summer, we were both silent, I and the setting sun. In truth, hardly had our silence on the rickety bench begun when the setting sun was ready to set out on his way. Linger a bit, my friend; why this haste? Do you prefer to sink in the sea? The sharks will rip your flesh and, on your gilded skeleton, the coral will build a metropolis.
My teeth pierce his cosmic flesh. I want to hold onto him. At least let our silence finish its first chapter. But instead of holding onto him, preventing him from drowning himself in the sea, I slice my own tongue, and keeping silent becomes harder for me.
Sparks rain down from the almond trees. A bird crowned with mourning, in dark peacock feathers, returns from a funeral. And here I am again in a twosome: instead of the setting sun, a woman, emerged from the purple alley, settles down next to me on the bench. "A young-old-woman-from-birth," my sliced tongue prattles in me. "A young-old-woman-from-birth."
"Volodia, how did you turn up here?"
I am no more Volodia than I am the king of Portugal. But how do I know who I am? "I — it's somebody else," a poet's line comes into my head. And I nod like the bird returning from a funeral who is now perched on a branch opposite me:
"Yes, dear heart, you guessed …"
"You're alive? Marvel of marvels! But how can you live when your soul — your one and only — is no longer in your head?" her silence rustles in my left ear with the tickling of a velvety stem.
"This is how I've lived since my birth and maybe even longer and, up to now, no one has ever thrown that up to me. To tell you the truth, I've never seen my soul and yet I can swear to you that it is buried deep inside me and no cunning soul thief has yet succeeded in lifting it from me."
"Don't! Don't!" She seals my lips with her strange fingers wafting the perfume of cinnamon. "Don't dare swear. A false and perverse oath — that sin the Almighty won't forgive. You, you've never seen it, I have."
"When and where did you see it?" I ask her, breathing between her cinnamon fingers as I breathed into a harmonica in my childhood.
"Soon you'll ask me my name," she said condescendingly, liberating my lips.
"Don't blame me, I'm asking you now. My memory has started to limp lately, like a horse that's lost a shoe."
"Lili, Lili the Blond. That woman and that name — you didn't have the right to forget them."
All of a sudden, she puts her head on my lap, her pert little face turned toward me so I will remember better.
And I would swear again: I'm seeing that face for the first time. The name is also strange to me: Lili the Blond. Even in the twilight of the extinguished park, I easily convince myself that the woman is blond as a crow. Isn't it enough that I need all my strength for the truth, do I need it for the lie as well? Yet I silence what I want to say. Curiosity is twinkling — a beacon for wandering thoughts. Again I nod, consenting.
"I remember, Lili, I remember."
"God be praised. At least memory isn't a horse. Now, Volodia, you're going to hear when and where I saw your soul and what happened to both of us, you and me."
Call me Volodia, call me Tom, Dick, or Harry, Lili is clearly confusing me with somebody else. OK, let her enjoy it. Yet, something is bothering me: that my face — so totally mine, a mysterious manuscript on old parchment — can be confused for another. Would an art forger have reproduced my flesh portrait? Or perhaps, I think, Lili the Blond doesn't have all her wits? If she doesn't have all her wits — the wits have her. The shadow of a bird sings better than the bird himself.
"Begin, dear Lili, with the when: when was my soul revealed to you? Then the where will be clear…"
Her ruffled little head suddenly jumps off my lap and rises like a released
spring. Lili snuggles up to my shoulder and hugs me. Her little feet dangle under the bench like a dwarf's:
"I didn't string time on a thread. Its pearls — forgive the expression — I can't count them. I only remember that it happened when the city was transformed into a black clock, with human figures spread out in a gigantic circle. And, in the circle, a fiery hand spun around the human figures, slicing, slicing."
Death in the city wasn't kind to us. Both of us escaped to the forest, into its icy depths. There too the hands of the black clock were slicing, slicing. We escaped into its subconscious — into its shaggy swamps where the hands were only reflected.
"Lili, stop pouring your silence into me. I remember as if it were today, as if it were tomorrow. We both foundered in two separated tomb-swamps where a body can't touch another body. Only our hands — red desires — reached out to each other, day after day."
"Volodia, let me finish: hunger sucked the marrow of our skeletons and yet we were not sated. We ate poison herbs and frog roe. And one night, a wedding gown rustled lightly over the swamps and they started freezing — then I saw your soul swimming out of your mouth and approaching mine. It gleamed with a luminous blue like a sapphire and, in shape and form, looked like a dove's egg. You know, my dear, hunger croaked, a mouth is greedy and I devoured it."
"Thank you, Lili, you did well; otherwise it would have foundered forever. I would like to go on a pilgrimage to those swamps. Where are they? In what latitudes can I find them?"
"I shall give you a sign: there, where the stars spend the night …"
For the yortsayt of their father, known to the world as
Moneske the Tailor, the two younger sisters, Tzertl and Tzirele,
rushed to their older sister Tilye in her solitary and weatherbeaten
turret on the seashore.
Tilye, the oldest of the three sisters — you might say the oldest, you might say the liveliest — had lived in that turret at the seashore ever since her happiness had drowned.
That happened when her girlhood flickered out and, in the cracked mirror, the first white hair — an uninvited relative — appeared.
That happened in ancient times when, coming from her home in Lithuania, she wound up here. Times people now call before the Flood.
Tilye had wound up in this place along with the cracked mirror.
How Tilye had found out about the day, or the night, of her father's end remains a mystery for the author or witness of this story. For, in those regions of Lithuania, not a single stone remains intact, nor a human being.
And even if somebody did survive, she would have been afraid to meet him. As for her two younger sisters, Tzertl and Tzirele, who had wound up
with their father in a Slaughter City, they couldn't or, perhaps, wouldn't give her any more details.
The author or witness of this story is even inclined to think it was Moneske the Tailor himself who had whispered to his oldest daughter the day or the night of his yortsayt.
The two sisters, Tzertl and Tzirele, appeared under the vault of the turret. They looked like two scared gray seagulls. Tilye kissed them and, by her expression, you could see that her sisters' lips and cheeks tasted of salt.
In a niche of bricks grown into one another, shot through with veins of straw, sputtered a tall, waxen yortsayt candle, legacy of the sunset.
"Remember, children, you're at home here," she smiled maternally at her guests. And she remembered that there, too, in the tailor's house, she had liked to call her younger sisters "children." A smile was peeled off her aged face like the skin of an onion.
Behind the iron bars of a little window, the sea polished its waves and, far far away, on the horizon of the horizon, a fiery hand drowned, not finding anything or anyone to grasp.
"Children, you must be hungry, we're going to eat supper," said Tilye, helping her sisters fit into old rickety chairs on either side of the table, facing one another. "I've made a nice little meal for you like you haven't tasted in a long time: honest-to-God potatoes in their skins."
But Tzertl and Tzirele exchanged a mischievous wink and, for some reason, preferred to sit on the same side of the table, next to each other.
When their skins were taken off, a wolf's breath came from the potatoes. Tzertl devoured them as if she had come from the Land of Hunger.
"Tilinke, you always were an artist. It's been ages since I've savored such a delicious dish."
As for Tzirele, she barely touched her plate.
"I've been full ever since I've been hungry."
Tilye hardly ate either. While preparing the meal, her appetite had disappeared. She poured wine into three goblets and, bowing to her sisters, drained her glass to the last drop.
Either they were drunk with wine or from the yortsayt candle. Tilye awoke, fearing her sisters had stolen her dream. Her frantic eyes groped for them:
"Children, today is our father's yortsayt. I have sent for you, my dears,
from far away, to honor him and to tell one another our memories. It's true we're three sisters but we didn't have three fathers. Let us show him our love."
Tzertl shuddered, a shudder of rustling silk:
"He was a gay blade, our father. He loved to play tricks. I was still a little girl at the time but I remember one day a carriage stopped at our door and the mixed-up son of Lord Guintillo, the baron of Kalvaria, came into our house. He looked like a pale white plant that had grown in a cellar. Lord Guintillo had sent his treasure of a son for papa to make him a suit. Papa squinted, took his measurements, and ordered him to lie down on the floor and stretch out his hands and paws. And when he did, papa drew his shape with a piece of chalk: that's how he measured for a suit."
Tzirele uttered a half-laugh, broken by regret:
"But when the suit emerged from papa's needle, it fit that fop like a glove. The Lord and Master of Kalvaria, old Guintillo himself, came to our house later on to pay papa and to thank him."
Another smile peeled off Tilye's face:
"You were only babies then both of you, you don't know why the old baron took the trouble to come in person to thank papa. In fact, Guintillo suspected his lady of having a lover behind his back. Papa gave him a recipe. Take the tongue of a toad and put it under the lady's left breast as she slept. She would spill everything. And that's just what happened."
The three sisters grew closer. Tzertl and Tzirele remembered their goblets of wine and raised them to their salty lips. They wanted to say "l'chaim, to life," but were ashamed.
Tzertl flushed from the first sip. Her goblet was spinning in Tilye's eyes in a whirlwind of silence. A melted flash shimmered in it:
"Which of you remembers how Moneske the Tailor, our father, became a matchmaker, sewing for and dressing orphans for nothing and leading them to the khupa? "
"I do!" Tzirele called out in a mischievous voice. "I even remember that, at one of those celebrations, papa was wearing a top hat and he fed the inlaws and the newlyweds on rhymes. Yes, he was the life of the party. But us, how come he didn't lead us to the khupa? Weren't we also orphans?"
Tilye rapped on the table with the bony fork of her fingers.
"Tzirele, you who ran off with a student in a pointed white hat, what do
you have against papa? And you, Tzertl, you too believed in the bluebird of happiness but the bird soon stopped singing. And am I any better? I had to disappear overnight so as not to rot in prison. His needles were more faithful to him than his own daughters."
All three of them burst into tears, as if the needles Tilye had just recalled were pricking their hearts. The tears of the oldest were real human tears; the tears of the two younger ones, a salty echo of the music of the sea incessantly going away from the tower and incessantly coming close to it. Going away and coming close.
Tzertl was the first to calm down and shake the foam off her eyelashes:
"But later on, when we found each other in the Slaughter City, Tzirele and I were as faithful to him as his beloved needles. Maybe more. For a
whole winter, we hid our papa in an attic, we warmed his feet with our breath. But that didn't do any good: they grew numb."
"Let's add," Tzirele hissed, "that even in the attic hiding place, our numb papa was still the life of the party. Who did he want to cheer up? The people hiding with him in the same attic. Papa was only sorry he couldn't laugh at the top of his voice so his laugh would reach the ears of the One he prayed to."
Tzertl leaned over the narrow table and, with her wings spread, encircled Tilye's shoulders:
"With his good humor, he gave courage to his faithful needles so they wouldn't rust, God forbid, in the hiding place. But I must tell the truth: the last time I saw our papa, he had become so pale I thought I saw the shroud shining through his skin."
The flicker of the yortsayt candle leaped up twice as high. It seems that the flicker which had been drowning a moment before, struggling with waves of wax, had triumphed over them and darted up.
A whistle was suddenly heard. Tilye also rose up twice as high: Who is whistling? A ship coming close? Oh no, it was only the blue teakettle whistling in the kitchen. She had forgotten it and now it reminds her in its whistle language: Finished, you can drink tea.
Glasses of tea — full of water-gold. Sails of lemon floating in it.
Again, a burned smile peels off Tilye's face:
"Drink, children. I've put aside for you a few crumbs of sugar from before the war, the kind you don't find anymore today. They're hard as a rock, you must have healthy teeth, like the teeth of mice. And all that because our papa loved to drink tea with a lump of sugar."
"Hot!" shouted Tzertl, as if she had burned her palate.
"Cold!" shouted Tzirele, looking as if she had been falsely accused of something shameful.
Tilye swims up in their eyes, searching:
"The farther you flee from one cemetery, the closer you get to another. Just now, one of you started telling about a last Time. And afterward? What happened to papa afterward? "
They heard a wave break on the shore. Tzertl's lips were covered with foam:
"Papa begged me to leave him in the attic, in the hiding place; his faithful needles, he said, would protect him."
"It's true," it's true," Tzirele echoed in the same tone. "Papa also begged me to leave him in the attic and save myself. It's true, it's true. But that his faithful needles would protect him, that I didn't hear. I know, Tilye, what you're hiding in your thoughts. You want to ask us if we always obeyed papa's requests. No, Tilye! In fact, I escaped through the sewers. I was swallowed up by a forest, but I did not obey papa and I went back, I returned to the Slaughter City, to our numb papa. You see this little red hole in my forehead? On the way back, I got a kiss from a bullet there. Tzertl wanted to go back to the attic too but the tears of a little baby, her baby, prevented her."
The two sisters started up. Began packing to go. Time to go home.
Tilye embraced them like a mother. Tzertl and Tzirele now looked like her two burned wings, grown back on her:
"Children, don't rush. I have good news for you. Our papa is alive. He is with us. There he is, sitting in his old chair, at the head of the table…"
The two sisters, with Tilye between them, all three entwined, saw with their own eyes: on a chair at the head of the table, lighted by the yortsayt candle, a little bush of thorns: Moneske the Tailor.
His face among the thorns began sprouting leaves.
A swarm of flaming needles stuck on the buds of his vest.
There's papa's finger crowned with a thimble.
And there, the green ribbon of the measuring tape wound around his neck.
And their papa, known to the world as Moneske the Tailor, laughed at the top of his voice out of the thorn bush.
And when he finished laughing, he spoke thus:
"It's all true, daughters, I swear by my life."
It happened and then happened again when the starry sieve of the autumn night kept sifting over and over in the narrow ghetto streets who is to live and
who is to die: to live — twenty-four hours, maybe less: to die — an eternity, maybe less.
The starry sieve is pulled over the narrow streets. An unseen hand shakes it. Sons of man tumbled by scoops, innocent, falling in sighing silence —sifted into an empty, overturned sky.
Here and there, prayers drill. The shimmer of their words, emptied of crying and congealed.
A split voice, like a stone talking in its sleep, seeks refuge in the cranny of my ear:
"Old fellow, how can you go crazy?"
It is the Hunchback Kheme. The only hunchback left in our kingdom.
When did we meet? Ah, I remember: when both of us swam among thousands into the stone veins of the narrow streets.
It was his majestic hump that drew me to him then. You might have thought that, still alive, he was carrying his tombstone on his own shoulders.
The hump was only the form. I soon realized that here, form and content are not twins but a perfect unity.
I was drawn by his name: Kheme. Where did they cook up such a curious name?
At our first verbal pingpong in the stone veins of the narrow streets, when I asked if he was born in this city, Kheme hissed without blinking his tongue:
"I'm transplanted from another planet."
And though I was used to his demonic paradoxes and his trenchant dicta, cutting to the bone (I wrote them down on relics of scrolls, locked my treasure between earth and sky, but later lost the key), caught in the starry sieve of that autumn night, I was stunned by the revelation of his question: How can you go crazy?
I stroked his hump for luck:
"Why, all of a sudden?"
Kheme turned around and butted me with the point of his hump like a billy goat with his horn:
"Till now, I believed that everything my eyes see is a delusion, a dream. When I saw a pair of children's shoes in the mouth of a dog, running to find a barefoot child, or when I saw a cherry tree hanging on the gallows, or a shadow waking with a start and not finding its owner — to all this I had a chant of denial: a dream, a dream, a dream. Now, at this late hour, I've lost the power of denial, I see that the dream is bleeding."
A blue old man, over his head a Torah scroll in a mantle of sparks, cut his way through the hordes of people. Some believed the old man would save the
Torah scroll. Some — that the Torah would save the old man. Both the former and the latter were sifted more and more through the starry sieve of the night.
Kheme shrank. His tombstone started sinking. In his tattered rags, he looked like a thousand-year-old feathered owl. The pupils of his eyes turned into incandescent rings:
"Every end is a beginning. Now is my great beginning. But it all depends on you: You must anoint me a madman. With the power of madness I will
drive the enemy crazy and we will all be saved. No serpent was ever poisoned by its own venom."
A thought somersaulted in my head: only the impossible can still make sense. I lay my hands on his mop of hair and anointed him a madman.
Incandescent, anointed, Kheme pulled a Shofar from under his jacket and blew into it such a howl as if he were joined by all the breaths left over from the annihilated ones.
Suddenly, the starry sieve of the autumn night collapsed. The conquerors of the city went out of their minds and bit through each other's throats.
The Boot and the Crown
Trofim Kopelko can't stand tears. Tears, he says, are ladies' buttons, a real man has no use for them. He would have hanged all tears if there were such a gallows.
Only once in a while, his own left leg, the wooden one, the one he himself carved out of a young, juicy fir tree, weeps a few tears of honey tar. It happens when the low sun warms the bones of his festive wooden leg.
Trofim Kopelko can't stand such tears either. He pours the embers of his pipe on them. But from the embers, the tar tears catch fire and Trofim Kopelko can't stand burning tears, even less than tears that died out.
Nevertheless, Trofim Kopelko found a way to deal with his tears. It happened like this: Kim, commander of the partisan brigade, remembered Trofim and appointed him executioner of the forest court. He, Trofim Kopelko, had the honor of dunking his victims in the swamp with his wooden left leg. And then, among the serpents frozen in the swamp, the tar-tears of Trofim's wooden leg froze too.
In the Narocz Forests, people say that, just yesterday, Trofim Kopelko's guys, wearing the uniform of the enemy, were ambushing partisans. Forest men who fell into their clutches were sawn to pieces by his band.
But Trofim Kopelko is shrewder than time. When the Germans lost their iron britches, Kopelko shed his skin: he stretched out his left leg to his
adjutant, the little Tartar, who pulled off his boot. Trofim Kopelko groped for a long time inside as if he were looking for his luck and plucked out from the lining the sweaty medal for heroism he won in the Finnish war.
With the scoured Soviet medal on his Berlin-made uniform, he jolted his blond advisers.
Ever since, armored by their weapons and experienced in action, Trofim Kopelko became famous throughout the region.
One autumn dawn, while cutting deeper into the Narocz Forests, a mine blew up under him, and his left leg, along with the boot, hung like a dead crow on the crown of a birch tree.
His loyal gang, who went on serving their beloved leader, would later swear that Trofim Kopelko almost bit through his pipe in pain, but his wolf's eyes remained dry as gunpowder; and when his adjutant, the little Tartar, begged him: "Sweetheart, saw off my left leg and put it on, it's yours …." he sank his teeth into his pipe and spat sideways to his Tartar: "No need …."
To this day, the little Tartar in his lamb's wool hat is still Trofim Kopelko's sublime subordinate. They ride together, they clink their glasses together, and he always leaps up with fire to light his boss's wrathful pipe.
The little Tartar built a bath in the forest for the two of them: a kind of underground bunker over a spring with bubbling water, colder than ice. Pour a bucket of spring water over glowing stones and you get steam as good as at home. The little Tartar sweeps all his limbs and parts, including the wooden leg that Trofim Kopelko won't give up for a moment.
From his hairy cloud-body, lightning flashes.
The big Kopelko is red as a lobster.
Then the little Tartar takes him naked on his shoulder, hurls him outside, and rolls him in the snow.
The points of his copper moustache hanging down under his chin are Trofim Kopelko's scales of justice. The sins of spies and traitors are weighed in their pans. True — the eye over the balance is the vigilant eye of the commander, but Kim is generous, very generous. And Trofim Kopelko's moustache swings back and forth, back and forth — —
The frozen sun warmed itself. In its own red ashes, it puffed up the sparks and sprayed them over the snow.
Through the needles of the evergreens, a green hand, growing out of the earth, threaded a green thread.
A single stork, a bow without a violin, arched over the forests.
And then he thawed, Trofim Kopelko, and shone in all his glory.
He galloped through panic-stricken forest and behind him — his faithful bloodhound with a drooping scarlet tongue, the little Tartar.
They rode back leisurely. Behind them, hands tied, the ropes pulled by the riders, limped teeteringly, barely recognizable, the most beautiful gals of the forests: Katya, Lyubochka, Halinka — the lovers of company commanders, commissars, and brave officers. Trofim Kopelko was a Caesar and the little Tartar — a little Tartar.
In one of those early spring nights, two young horses whinnied over the dugout of my company hidden in a nest of branches near Lake Myastra.
The silence freshly frozen in space was splashed by the supple steel of the horse laugh.
I woke up under a face crucified by three burning dark eyes. The third eye was the fire of a pipe.
"My name is Trofim Kopelko," the nocturnal messenger introduced himself. "Commander Kim ordered me to bring you to headquarters."
Why this game, since we know each other? Why does he play a cat when he usually plays the dog? That's what I think, but I don't ask any questions. I grab my fur coat, insert a bullet in my rifle, stride out of my dugout into the disturbed silence, following the traces of a boot and a wooden leg.
The suspicion of my comrades accompanies me from the dugout. The breath of their looks puffs the sparks in my spine.
When we are both sitting in the saddle, I behind him, Trofim Kopelko orders his little Tartar:
"Get the horses drunk so they'll gallop faster, but don't forget to leave some for the three of us."
The little Tartar unties a flask of homebrew from his saddlebag and pours it in the gaping maws of the horses, first ours and then his.
Feeling a burning springtime in their guts, the horses lash themselves with the whip of their tails and their joyous gallop swallows the forest miles. The little Tartar bounds ahead of our panting horse and feeds fire to the demanding pipe.
Single shots, like overtones of nearby wolves, crease the space.
The last hairy snows, like frightened rabbits, slide down fir branches.
Our drunk stallion stands on his hind legs and we metamorphose into a marble monument.
Trofim Kopelko gropes in the forest with his nostrils:
"Enemy shots. I know them by their echo. A defeated army is closing in on our bases. Before the sun slices the ice, we must gallop over the Myastra!"
The little Tartar zigzags deeper into the forest. I imagine: he wants to gather the shots … and he catches up with us in the middle of the lake on the splitting ice.
Dawn swings on a branch on the horizon: a purple ghost.
Trofim Kopelko leads me to the commander's dugout. The silence in the earthen hut — a secret map. And springtime is not just overhead, a partner of the sun, springtime is down here too, in the veins of the earth, its rain smell wafts from inside, in the branch-covered dugout.
A warm, trusty hand clutches mine. I notice that the brigade commander has changed: the creases on his young face are older now than the face itself. And his beard, blond as a newly plucked chick, is too mild for his deep creases:
"You want to know why I called you in a hurry. Here's why: I received a radiogram from partisan headquarters in Moscow to send you there. Get ready. Tomorrow, three armed partisans will escort you to our airstrip. There, a small plane will land and fly you over the front. I must warn you the roads are full of danger, but, if you're lucky, you've got your wits in your feet."
"And a little bit in your head too," I play the role of a cold fish.
"No, the main thing is: keep your wits in your feet," the commander persists. "When you walk through a minefield, what does your head know about the mines lurking? A true partisan puts his soul down in his feet."
As Kim goes on talking, I feel a glow in my feet: my life hangs on them.
Trofim Kopelko teeters in. His wooden leg, it occurs to me, is cleaner than his conscience. He whispers something in the commander's ear.
"Only the girls!" Kim rages and signs a crumpled piece of paper. "And don't let nobody in, nobody."
Kim comes close. His voice sounds closer and more trusting:
"You heard: girls. The branches whisper the secrets of the roots. Let me solve the riddle for you: the Germans, convinced that we're stronger than their armies, that the forests are graveyards for their generals, came up with a clever trick to subdue the partisans without a single shot. They caught girls, every one prettier than the next, infected them with syphilis, trained them thoroughly and unleashed them like foxes into the forests to spread syphilis among our best, heartiest boys. I won't deny it, the devil's game worked pretty good. But most of the girls are caught in our net. I just signed their sentence."
Kim leaps up from his stool and paces back and forth in the traces of his shadow:
"I don't care about the girls, let the swamp choke on them. I care about the diseased comrades, company commanders, heroes. I'm keeping them in a dugout under guard but I can't drag it on for long. And I can't let them go either. We're about to meet a defeated enemy army. The horns of a gored ox are stronger than his own body. Trofim Kopelko advises giving the same sentence to the gentlemen as to the ladies. Don't stand on ceremony. But now, things are changed: I'm sending you over the front. When you fly to the other side and get to partisan central headquarters, tell them about the diseased boys and let them decide there what to do — —"
They will not see their last sunset.
One by one, eyes blindfolded with their own stockings, the little Tartar leads them out of their prison.
Katya, Lyubochka, Halinka … — each one clasps a branch and the little Tartar pulls them.
He leads them out of their prison to the dry, flayed, huge trees, hollow trees.
There, only a single person reigns: Trofim Kopelko.
Brief shots ring out, like titters of laughter.
With the horseshoe of his wooden leg, Trofim Kopelko smashes a pane in the green-and-thinly-frozen swamp windows and, with the same leg, he swings the girls one by one into the swampy, splintered sky.
Krasnogur, Maligin, and Leybele Blat — my escorts and guards of the next day.
Krasnogur bustles about the horse and sleigh, Maligin bends over a map, Leybele Blat cleans a machine gun.
Trofim Kopelko is hospitable: my escorts and I will spend the night in his dugout. The little Tartar prepared supper for us.
I am the last one at the bonfire.
The bonfire struggles with a wet fir.
The fir defends itself with its acrid smoke, but fire teeth rip up its veins and muscles.
In the dugout, the partisans are sleeping. Someone is playing on a harmonica and falls asleep in the middle.
I lie down on a bed of straw and pull the fur coat over my head.
My last night in Narocz Forests.
Tomorrow at this time, I will be-or-not-be over a minefield, trying to muddle my way through to the partisan airstrip. Kim is right: if you're lucky, you've got your wits in your feet.
Suddenly: can a dream explode? Is a dream a minefield? A thunderclap inside me, near me, in front of my awakened dream: a white lime kiln swirling in a ring.
No. It's not in me. It's in my neighbor Trofim Kopelko. Standing over him, the little Tartar, with a gun sticking out a smoking tongue to the lord of the swamps. Enthralled in the sweet joy of vengeance, his erstwhile comrades and subordinates dance around the shot Trofim and dismember him as ants dismember a dead beetle:
One runs with Kopelko's wooden leg and throws it into the hungry bonfire;
Another one — with Kopelko's shirt. Against the freshly painted moon, he looks through the shirt to see if it's worth it; and the moon is strangely red and warm drops drip from it on an island of snow;
And again I see a face crucified by three burning dark eyes. The third eye — the fire of a pipe;
Cursing, the little Tartar pulls off Trofim Kopelko's only boot and doesn't know what to do with it. Let it fly to the devil: to its brother boot on the crown of a birch tree!
And he pins on his heart his commander's medal for heroism.
First I got her letter: not handwriting but heartwriting, the signs you see on the paper accordion of an electrocardiogram: violet scratches, short flashes which, without warning, announce an impending, crashing thunder-clap.
Barely did I have time to plumb the secrets of her letter when here she is in person, in flesh and blood, chatty, the same violet scratches as in her letter etched on her silvery face.
Is this really Glikele, my first love? Glikele, the redhead, nine years old?
Her tresses are webs of old ash and the pins in her hair are rusty.
But her voice brings back the savor of childhood years, the savor of that voice is not changed.
"I don't know how to begin," she began. "You think I'm somebody else but that's not true. Every person is like somebody else, much more than himself, but I am only like myself, like two drops of gall. Yes, I really don't know how to begin, just as I don't know my age before my birth. So I'm going to shut up, ruthlessly, and let my tongue run free: Tongue-tongue, play out my lost world, or else I'll kill somebody."
When Glikele let her tongue run free, her familiar little voice crept into
my ear with the same fiddle tone as before. Her eyes too, I thought, are the same as before, the eyes of a girl: two little green watches with a phosphorescent glow in the dark. Surely the woman is right: she is only like herself, like two drops of gall. But why, hammers my skull, is the same another?
"Your best friend is the one you meet in a dream, he's always warning you and never betrays you," Glikele or her tongue said to me, nourishing me with her thoughts. "And that dream friend ordered me confidentially, as soon as the war against me began, to take my father's sacrificial slaughtering knife with me wherever I went. I already carried a warm, living slaughtering knife next to my heart. But I obeyed and, with a cold slaughtering knife, I protected my warm one."
"Do you remember, Glikele, when the two of us were children, I whittled a little stick for you in the forest, with your father's slaughtering knife?"
"My memory is my treasure. Listen to what happened: the three of us, I and my two slaughtering knives, ran away from Ponar, from under a heavy blanket of corpses. It was a winter night but I didn't feel I was naked as the day I was born.
"Where to go? Where? No Luckytown anywhere. But go, run away from here, till you're out of breath. Under my feet, the snow didn't make the slightest peep, for I was barefoot. When I turned around, the traces of my footsteps had become steps of light rising to I don't know who. What do you think? Can Elijah the Prophet disguise himself as a peasant woman? "
"If he can disguise himself as a beggar, a magician, he can also disguise himself as a peasant woman."
"As true as I wish both of us long life, so I believe in it. The ninety-year-old Papousha was Elijah the Prophet. She hid me in her hut, in a chicken coop under the oven so the cackling and squawking of the chickens would smother the crying of the child I gave birth to there.
"Do you know what is a day in black shrouds? I do. In the chicken coop, typhus consumed me and to stay there any longer was dangerous for the child. What do you think? Can Elijah the Prophet catch typhus?"
"I don't know …"
Glikele took me by the arm:
"Let's take a stroll in the other region."
When the two of us went toward the door and our two heads swam through the hanging mirror, I saw, I realized that my real existence was there, inside the hanging mirror.
Her arm in mine, like a squirrel curled around a branch, we let ourselves be carried off to the other region.
When Glikele had come to me, the ripening summer was bursting with colors and odors and the sun cooled its muscles in the stream. Now the stream, as in a coffin, lies under a heavy cover of ice and a pale gray snow falls from the unextinguished fire in the sky.
In that pale gray snow, a single hut stands out with a chimney in the shape of a boot. A stooped old woman, loaded down with an armful of branches, hobbles over to us; at her side a dog barking shrilly leaps and scratches the earth under his paws.
"Glikele, that's where you gave birth," and I point to the hut. "I see your thoughts as clearly as I see the willows next to us. I can feel them as I can feel the willows."
"Cut them down or saw them up, can you do that too?"
"No, that I can't do. Maybe it's better to say: I don't want to."
"Then the tongue is superfluous since you know my thoughts anyway."
"Glikele, what you wanted to say just a moment ago is that there, you also abandoned the child."
"Suffering from typhus and burning like a torch, you ran away beyond the green pond. In the forest, you crept up to a fir tree and the merciful fir tree warmed you like a mother with her bark; later you had a guest, a she-wolf. You sucked her warm milk and that milk cured you."
"Instead of my child, I was the one who sucked. Do you think the she-wolf is still alive?"
"No, Glikele, the she-wolf has been in the other world for a long time now. The one who brought her down is the one who aimed his bullets at you. But you leaped down from the fir tree and your slaughtering knife sliced his breath."
"If that's how it was, I shall light a memorial candle for the soul of the she-wolf."
The closer we got to the hut, the farther it receded. The dog's barking also, strung on a silver thread, scattered its yelps in the snow. A wall of marble grew opposite us: Forbidden to Approach.
On the way back, through pale gray snow, the region grew summery again.
When the stars came out, we entered the living city. Young couples, like eagles with wings spread, were lying in wait for their prey — their own flesh.
Glikele stopped at a fountain where a water-dancer was ripping off her clothes:
"Now do you see my thoughts?"
"You want me to show you which of the lovers is your son?"
"I've been searching for him ever since I lost him. Every time I find him, it's as if a flow of melted lead were poured over me: it's always somebody else."
At that moment, Glikele tore herself away from me, fell on her knees before a disheveled young man who was kissing a girl right in the middle of the street.
"Papousha, Papousha," Glikele stammered from the ground, to stir some memory in her son.
The young man, freeing the girl from his embrace, picked Glikele up
from the ground and stroked her hair spun of old ash.
Now it was I who took Glikele by the arm. She was light, as if the ground underneath her had lost the force of gravity. Her little green watches began to gleam with a phosphorescent glow:
"Again somebody else … How long will he be somebody else?"
The Beggar with Blue Eyeglasses
You see a beggar, a bundle of walking rags. Or a beggar's hand, a shell cast out by the sea onto the shore: no ear to listen to its weeping. Or a beggar-invalid, his legs have betrayed him, gone to someone else — and you pass by him with antimagnetic thoughts.
The idea of getting to know him doesn't occur to you. You're not curious to ask him his name or if a mother gave birth to him. Or if that mother had ever been a maiden.
But sometimes it happens: passing by a beggar, an idea pursues you, as a lightning colt pursues a cloud: You want to get rid of your past sins. So you stop and let a metal drop fall onto the beggar. Your conscience is eased — that's all. You're not there. Without a word. Without a smile.
Why deny it? I too seldom smile at a beggar. Seldom even smile back, although I answer a skeleton's greeting. Things went on like that for a while, a long while, a short while, until … until whoever is in charge of my pen decided I must write this tale.
And for my sake, he created a beggar in blue eyeglasses.
The man with blue eyeglasses made his appearance at the corner of my narrow street, next to the sunset-red mailbox I stuffed for years, like a living creature, with my friends and enemies. Quite possibly he had stood there before and begged and it could be that I had already seen him but, all of a sudden, I noticed him. It's a long way from seeing to noticing.
It happened like this:
One fine morning, I dashed out of my house into the street, carrying a still warm letter for the red mailbox. The city was still empty, without a human breath. Two birds sang to each other in their sleep.
I was already holding the envelope at the rusty gullet of the mailbox when, behind it, a voice came to me speaking my mother tongue:
"A golem you give alms and a beggar not?"
And then, for the first time, I noticed him. As you notice a tree surfacing out of a fog.
Aside from his blue eyeglasses, a goatee, like a radish just pulled up from the ground, is etched on my memory.
And the blue of his eyeglasses — what did they remind me of? Splinters of blue glass, found in childhood, that give you more joy than the discovery of a treasure.
Let the mailbox go hungry today, I decided. Anyway, I was content to have the beggar's reproach as an excuse: I had written that letter to my
beloved in a state of agitation, stimulated by irrepressible, juvenile jealousy. And if, God forbid, the iron golem had swallowed it, I would have had to go search for matches and set fire to its innards.
I ripped letter and envelope into minuscule pieces and the jealousy in me crumbled into pieces too. But instead of thanking the man with blue eyeglasses, a needle jumped off my tongue and pricked him:
"Working so early?"
A bony smile twinkled on his face:
"Only the dead have an easy life. If the living knew who I am, they would even come from Honolulu to see me."
"Let's say I'm from Honolulu. But first, let's get acquainted." I held out my hand to him. "My name is …"
"To a beggar and a hangman you don't hold out your hand and, if you do, it's with a coin." A bony smile twinkled again.
To my misfortune, my pockets were empty. The man with blue eyeglasses took pity on me:
"An honest man settles his debts at home. Here is my card."
Meanwhile, the city started moving. A cascade of bricks fell off the buildings and became hurrying people. Cars were shuffled like cards. The sun had risen to the seventh heaven.
The next day and the day after, I did not see the beggar in the blue eyeglasses next to the mailbox. I was already beginning to think: a dream figure. A nightmare. But in my pocket, my fingers found his card:
Philosopher and Sage
And the street. And the number of the house. And that very evening I went off to pay him a visit.
No, it's not a false address, my suspicion was in vain. He himself, the philosopher and sage, bowing courteously, led me into his room. Here, at home, he looked slightly different: he was dressed in a cape and a silver-embroidered yarmulke was perched on his skull. His blue glasses were lying atop a pile of papers on a little table illuminated by a hanging lamp.
"Now I'm not a beggar and I can give you my hand," he hissed. "And let's address each other familiarly. I don't like to be so formal. Yiddish is so juicy but praised be our Holy Tongue: a familiar language. Talking familiarly to the beggar and to the prince."
He pushed up a rickety chair for me:
"Cognac or a glass of wisdom?"
"A glass of wisdom, but a strong one!" My chair started to teeter underneath me. "However, before this glass goes to my head. I have a question: Why this comedy? Why the disguise of a beggar?"
"One glass of wisdom isn't enough for you," he said coiling himself into a rickety chair facing me. "Every human being is born with a mask: his own skin is the mask. Nevertheless, he puts on other masks to hide the previous one. If I didn't disguise myself as a beggar, I really would be a beggar."
"Where's the logic?"
"Logic plus logic equals demagogic! How can you ask such a question? It's all a matter of habit. Get used to it and you can be an eagle. If man was born with seven legs, the two of us would look like pitiful creatures in comparison. Man is not a cosmic animal, as my colleague Schopenhauer teaches; but man is a Cosmic Man, as Horace Adelkind teaches. And Cosmic Man, of which I am the classical example, is not content to change only the mask on his face. He must change so that death will not find him. If this is what you call comedy, that's a personal tragedy. Let's shuffle the cards again: if I hadn't been begging, your eyes would have wiped me out of the scene and you would have really put your letter in the box. Do you know what would have happened then?"
"I would have eaten myself alive."
"On that diet, the two of you — her and you — would have starved to death."
Both rickety chairs and us inside — two ends of a ship — pitched on sighing waves. The former beggar with blue eyeglasses, currently philosopher and sage, Horace Adelkind, struck his oar:
"Since you already know the secret of my disguise, I am going to reveal to you why I revealed it to you: you owe me a debt. But your debt is more than all the coins I have collected. This is what you owe me: be my heir! I, the Cosmic Man, no longer have anyone on this planet. My friends and relatives have gone to the galaxies. My only friend is a strange creature. I am so alone that I have recently asked a psychiatrist to make me schizophrenic, to split my personality so I won't be so alone."
"Did it help?"
"Yes, I became twice as alone."
"Is that my inheritance?"
"Not at all. I want to leave you my wisdom, my aphorisms. I have written seventy thousand pages of them."
"And when you die, what should I do with them?"
"Publish them in seven hundred volumes, bound in leather, gilt-edged."
"Before I take on this sweet burden, I ask the privilege of hearing a few aphorisms."
We understood each other perfectly,
The gorilla and I.
First peel off me these bars,
Then I'll talk with you.
A single moment is as old as time.
You are too close for us to get close,
You are too far away for us to be far.
"One of you will not betray me,
Said Jesus to his disciples.
And he himself was the one.
Tears are the sparkling words of the eyes.
Men were created in plural
Women — in singular.
Do not reproach the tree
For growing and blossoming
I am the tenant
Of my own body.
With my tears
I pay the rent.
If I had nothing more to pay with —
The landlord would throw me out
In the cold and rain.
Too soon has become too late.
I am no less than anyone here
Only to myself am I a babe
Who has barely cut his teeth."
Nimble as a cat, Horace Adelkind leaped up, unhooked the lamp hung on a chain, and aimed it at the heavily loaded shelves:
"Dear heir! All around us, on every one of these walls, huddle my writings. Congratulations, they're yours now. My past is my future."
A barely heard knock on the door.
His voice grew hoarse:
"It is my only friend. It's his time to come. I hinted earlier that my only friend is a very strange creature. He's a worm! A white-headed worm, who comes to share his thoughts with me and I write them down. The poet Slowacki was the secretary of an angel, so he says, and I, Horace Adelkind, am the secretary of a worm. Would you like me to introduce you?"
I blocked his way:
"Some other time. That's enough for today. Is there a back door here?"
Horace Adelkind raised the lamp above me and pulled me by the sleeve:
"Of course, of course … and you are going to take a gift from me: my blue eyeglasses. So you can disguise yourself as a beggar and become a Cosmic Man."
Youth is a tree. And the tree of youth, my radiant woman, shakes off its summer garb to rustle younger again, even younger than last year.
These are the words murmured by an elderly man with his slashed lips to a very young woman barely emerged from a summer mist.
The elderly man, wise and foolish, his curls dusted with the ash of a lime kiln, murmured these words not to the whole female figure but only to her smiling hand, as he brought his slashed lips to her gracious fingers to savor anew the taste of his youth.
And then, not only in his slashed lips, in his frozen mouth, but also in the dried up roots of his bushy hair, the elderly man sensed, fireclear, the young,
sweet taste of sharp raspberries and the gushing odor of sap in the forest underbrush where the raspberries hide.
And then he experienced something strange: where his soul ends, another soul begins and where that one ends — death is dying in him.
A moment later, when the young woman withdrew her smiling hand from his lips, death itself stopped dying in him.
And, through the magnifying glass of his tears, the elderly man plunged into the mystery of a single one of her fingers, a bit higher than the others, and began again to mumble with his slashed lips:
"The tree of youth is farther than your shadow of yesteryear. You may not taste its Paradise wine. I would swear: your real face is the small, damp face of this finger. Its little face inscribed in circles of wrinkle after wrinkle: and the teensy half-sun on the horizon of your fingernail will never shine higher, to warm my bones.
"You are a wave that has swallowed a man.
"Your wrinkles are older than my fear. Older than both of us.
"You are older than the four-legged old woman, who sits at the museum all stitched up in black silk, throwing peas to the gracious and merciful pigeons."
The Coin from Heaven
Why do they need money in heaven? And who mints silver coins in the firmament? Anyway, what can you buy with those coins? Stars, clouds on the moon? —
Such questions buzzed in my curious brain when Shloyme-Leyb, my teacher, in the snowed-in hut in Siberia first taught me the alef-beys and a good angel had just dropped a silver coin for me on the first page of my Siddur, where the letters of the alef-beys glowed like black stars.
I could utter them freely with my mouth but not with my eyes.
With all the questions I asked myself, there was not the slightest question that the silver coin was really meant for me and that a genuine angel had tossed it to me. Shloyme-Leyb wouldn't dare lie. The proof was the little wings about the coin, glimmering with a mysterious sparkle — the sure sign of its origin.
I protect the coin in the warm nest of my fingers, in my left hand. A sweet thrill spreads through my limbs. The heavenly wings flutter and curl up in their new home. For nothing in the world will I let them go today to the beetred sunset.
Shloyme-Leyb is my neighbor in the next hut on the frozen bank of the Irtysh. How did the two of us get to the snows of Siberia — I don't waste any time thinking about that. To tell the truth, I did hear something from papa and mama, I recall a few fragments of words: war, wandering … But if the sun had followed me in this wandering, then it wasn't so terrible.
In our hut, I also learned that life or time had long ago been cut into parts
they called years. According to this accounting, I was sliced into five equal parts. And when I am cut into a hundred parts, I will be exactly a hundred years old.
Shloyme-Leyb is tall, his face is dark. His glowing eyes are the color of the skin on his face. And his hairy growth is the same color too. ShloymeLeyb walks with wide strides, his stiff, high felt boots come up over his knees and creak, no — he plays a tune with them on the frozen snowtwinkles, a living path between the huts. I could crawl into one of his felt boots and be nice and warm there.
Why is it I learn the alef-beys from dark Shloyme-Leyb and not from my papa, known throughout the area as a God-fearing scholar and a wise man? I finally learned the reason: my papa is sick with typhus and a sleigh stole him from our hut.
The heavenly coin in my fingernest beat along with my heart under my fur coat the next day when I run back to my teacher Shloyme-Leyb so he would etch in me the marvelous letters of the alef-beys. This time, I think, not just one by one, but letter after letter, strung into words.
For a whole day and night, I was terrified to open my fingers and delight in my heavenly coin. I didn't allow my sinful looks to take pleasure from an angel's gift. Who knows when the evil eye might appear. An angel won't give me another coin so soon. Nevertheless, I lift my head from my Siddur every now and then and look at the ceiling.
"My boy, the book is down here," Shloyme-Leyb nudges me.
"But I think it's up there," I tell him innocently.
"How is it up there? What's on the ceiling?"
"I'm looking for the crack. There must be a crack in the ceiling."
"What crack? There's no crack up there. What's going on in your head?"
"If there's no crack, then there's a question: How did the coin fall down to me from the ceiling?"
My question confuses Shloyme-Leyb. His dark face gets all wrinkled up like the water in our deep well when the chain lets the bucket down into it and shakes up its mirror.
Having put Shloyme-Leyb to a hard test, I take pity on him and come to his rescue:
"I know! On the silver coin I saw a bird, it must have flown in through the chimney."
How long will I keep my silvery secret a prisoner? Of course, I have to protect it from ordinary glances. But from my own eyes? I myself won't give me any evil eye.
The day is chiseled in snow and piercing sun but the cold is king. If you spit in his kingdom, a sliver of ice falls down. But I don't because, on the snowy plains behind the huts, a glowing alef-beys is scattered and a tall, windy Shloyme-Leyb is shuffling it back and forth with his diamond teacher's pointer.
Pale, nude, not the lightest shirt on their backs, the birch trees shiver in the wind along the frozen Irtysh. One day, the Kirghizes made a bonfire
there and the birch trees revived, then breathed a warm breath. Now even the bonfire is frozen and the birch trees barely breathe inside themselves, like the waves of the Irtysh under the ice. But I, in my fur coat and with my silvery secret in my fingernest, am not afraid of the cold and its whip.
Along the birch trees at the frozen Irtysh, far from the huts and the people, I awaken the coin from its heavenly sleep and expose it to God's world. Its little wings flutter with joy. They wave and sparkle in the chiseled, translucent splendor.
Now a weird question sneaks into me, followed immediately by another: What is the difference between heavenly money and earthly money? And what can I buy in the market with this coin, I'd like to know.
To the second question, I have an answer right away: I wouldn't give the coin even for the whole market.
I will give it only for medicine to make my papa healthy.
And I give my heavenly money a kiss and hide it in my pocket.
Ever since I kissed the silver coin, I am disturbed and frightened by its sharp, twitching smell. My God, where have I smelled such an odor? Was I ever in heaven?
Someone is weeping in me and the tears are mine. They melt the frost birch trees off the window panes. But the clouds of the moon know nothing about it.
Whom shall I ask? Whom shall I confide in? Papa is far away, a sleigh took him away from me. Mama isn't here either, she followed him in the sharp ruts in the snow. Should I ask my Kirghiz friend, Tchangouri? He'll laugh at me with his yellow laughter, yellow as salted butter. No choice, I won't be shy, I'll ask Shloyme-Leyb.
Today's lesson isn't like the one yesterday or the day before. I don't lift my head up to the ceiling anymore, don't look for any crack. Let my teacher think the coin flew in through the chimney. I lean closer to him and his pointer. But I no longer hear his deep voice and I no longer see the letters. Now I learn only with my nose, only with my nostrils.
"What are you sniffing?" Shloyme-Leyb sweeps me with his shadow.
"My silver coin … the smell …"
"Little fool. Don't you know I deliver kerosene to the huts all around? Come on, let's study some more."
To this very day, whether we study or not, a glowing alef-beys is scattered over the snowy plains behind the huts and a tall, windy Shloyme-Leyb is shuffling back and forth with his diamond teacher's pointer.
The Artist even enjoyed Death. And what about Death? Oh, he envied the Artist.
There is a silkworm and there is a silkman. And since the silkman never stopped weaving his art, so the One-With-A-Thousand-Eyes never stopped competing with him: let's see who can do better!
In a snowy violet fire, he froze a scared birch forest which clasped a lake. He didn't yet want to freeze the lake. He just forged the shores all around with glimmering silver.
Among shattered mirrors of birch trees, condemned people built his fortresses.
A marble hunchback, the earth. Axes and picks thrust into him and fingers snap like icicles. And if a prisoner falls, either the hungry ones assault him or — this "or" is not that simple: the sons of man have no strength to cut graves in the frozen earth. With every thrust in the stubborn marble hunchback, wolves' eyes leap up as if the One-With-A-Thousand-Eyes were huddled under the axes and picks.
What do the sons of man do then? They hack out pieces of ice on the edges of the lake, they cut out a pallet in the ice, they put on it the dead body, cover it with a piece of ice, to seal the eternity. And they let the crystal sarcophagus float away in the waters of the lake.
The sarcophagi float and the sun, the frozen sun, cannot melt them. The frozen sun itself is a burning man in ice. Its bony rays cut through the crystal graves, and the living discern their friends from afar.
Sometimes, the dead meet each other. Two sarcophagi, of a man and a woman, collide and melt the ice with the force of their lips.
And at night, in the glow of a single star, the beacon for the floating sarcophagi, the Artist paints with a black coal on snow. He paints and his
heart floats into his fingers. In glowing ecstasy he paints the vision over the lake.
A few hundred of us, born once-upon-a-time, all with one face, we lay in a tangle of limbs, like one multi-eyed creature, on the icy cobblestones of Lukiszki Prison.
The yard — a horrifying square mirror framed in barred walls. And where
the walls meet at sharply joined corners, watchmen in steel helmets rise and, from rubber hoses like long, demonic throats, aim lightning streams of water at us, over us, the once-upon-a-time born as men.
Are they firemen? Who's burning? No one is burning. Everyone is freezing. And the ringing swords of the waterstreams dance on our naked bodies.
Now the prisoners understand that the firemen want to freeze them. Thus, once upon a time, a volcano played with the people of Pompeii. In the morning, when invited guests come to the exhibit, they will enjoy the ice sculptures.
A woman with a child at her breast is almost frozen. Her breath above the breath of her child — a smoke-diamond dove hanging in the air over a broken egg.
And here is a klezmer with a fiddle under his chin. The strings are drawn from his fiery beard. Sounds — snow and ice — cover him. Slowly his fiddle ceases: a ship among floes.
I hear fragmented voices:
"Why is the snow not cyanide?"
"I tell you, brothers, the creator envies us. "
"Today is Hanukkah, the fifth candle!"
A voice or an echo?
Half-frozen black pupils, where tears laugh at tears, saw up their bars and float in the marble air. They seek the echo and find it:
Five burning fingers lit by a Jew with his own hand, five Hanukkah candles rise with golden tongues over the ice sculptures. And they melt their own iciness, and they burn the firemen and the barred walls.
A Black Angel with a Pin in His Hand
All his life, he was nicknamed Moyshe-Itske. The few in whose memory he is still gasping call him by this boyish nickname to this very day.
Moyshe-Itske was born because he wanted to be born, as he told me. And added mysteriously that a pack of dark forces did not want to let him light
up but his will was stronger and the anointed writer Moyshe-Itske was born — to live forever:
"Just as I am I shall remain," he looked me over from head to toe with a face that looked as if it had just now surfaced from a cracked mirror. "Death has nothing to do with me. We belong to two separate worlds. Too bad that, a thousand years from now, you won't stroll in the streets. You would have recognized me in a crowd. I shall not change, as a stone doesn't change."
He burst into a moldy laugh and, as if possessed, he went on:
"You mean a stone gets covered with moss? Well, so a beard will grow on my big soul. According to you, sparks lie dormant in a stone? In my veins, they sing! And the torrent has not yet been born which could put out my sparks."
I had the privilege of hearing the songs of his sparks. In most lines, the sparks have burned the song. But poem-sparks and poem-fires gushed out of him and indeed the torrent has not yet been born that could put them out.
During our strolls and chats on the Castle Mountain, I learned from him that he was a mighty heretic: of all world history and world literature, he recognized the greatness of only three humans: Moses, Napoleon, and Dostoevsky. All the rest are just books, not great people:
"There are zillions of books, show me one that is alive!"
I tried to bargain. To add to the chosen three at least one poet:
"And what about Byron, how can you reject him?"
Moyshe-Itske brushed it off with his hairy paw:
"He limped in his poetry too."
One summer evening of great transparent amber, as we walked down the Castle Mountain and turned to the Viliya, I was bold enough to bargain off a bit of Moyshe-Itske's eternity:
"All three of them, the greatest — Moses, Napoleon, and Dostoevsky — they all died. So how can you imagine that you, Moyshe-Itske, will live forever?"
A crease cut into his rusty forehead: a flash on a cloud at night. A glowing spiderweb broke out from the skin of his face. And with the voice of a strayed echo, he roared:
"One can break through!"
He lived on Gitke Toybe's Alley, in Meirke's yard, where the Vilna jester, Motke Habad, had once resided.
His father had two professions: butchering and stitching shoe tops. He
cut meat in the winter and stitched shoe tops in the summer. What he did at other times, I don't know. For his son, the father thought one profession should suffice, the nobler of the two, stitching shoes; and Father himself taught him.
But Moyshe-Itske's hot blood drew him to the slaughter house. Where the condemned calves and oxen low and roar; where the ritual slaughterer plays the violin or cello on their hot throats; where his father afterward cuts off their double crowns, pulls off their purple boots.
As his bar-mitzvah approached, the boy grew more restless than ever. He decided to buy his manhood by saving at least a few oxen from the slaughterer's knife.
It was murderously cold. Dawn. Over the slaughter house hung a single star. Moyshe-Itske snuck into the slaughter house through a narrow aperture.
A single ox, like the single star overhead, stood tied to a pole, kicking his hind leg. Moyshe-Itske warmed his frostbitten ears in the ox vapor.
In the slaughter house, two lads like oaks appeared with ropes and flaying knives. Soon, wrapped in a huge fur coat, and with a case under his arm, the ritual slaughterer entered. That morning, Father had yortsayt for his father and was late. And when the ritual slaughterer began to peel off his fur, Moyshe-Itske peeled out of a slaughtered shadow; nimble as a bastard, he leaped to the block where the ritual slaughterer had left his case, snatched the slaughtering knife, and slipped it under a heap of sawdust.
The ritual slaughterer was sure he had forgotten to put the slaughtering knife into the case. The butcher boys stormed off, cursing. The single star, too, bloodily reflected in an icicle, absorbed the mysteries of the earth in the memory of its eye and then vanished.
Inside, two remained: Moyshe-Itske and the rescued ox.
Meanwhile, the sun appeared in the slaughter house: the slaughtering knife meandered out of hiding and slit the space.
Now Moyshe-Itske approached the ox, entered his pen to get acquainted. A virtuous sweetness melted in the boy's limbs.
But who can understand the justice of an ox? Instead of rewarding his savior with a smile, with warm gratitude, he first bowed to Moyshe-Itske and then unfairly speared him on a horn — —
All those details, images, nuances concerning the ox, Moyshe-Itske confided to me many years later when his poems roared on the hospitable pages of the Vilna newspaper Tog and the poet himself was admitted to the Young Vilna coterie.
From his hoarse, possessed voice I gathered then that the ox plowed his horn into Moyshe-Itske's brain.
The horn vanquished someone.
When Moyshe-Itske boasted grandly that he would live forever and that one could break through, I was ready to believe for a while that the someone pierced by the horn in the slaughterhouse was Moyshe-Itske's Angel of Death, who had occupied a bridgehead in his brain.
Like a soldier in muddy trenches, in a war with no end, Moyshe-Itske wallowed in madhouses and only during the cease-fires in his cracked soul was he awarded a furlough.
During one of those cease-fires, on the eve of Passover, returning home to Gitke Toybe's Alley, to the crumbling hovel, where he lived on the ground floor in a single room with a corridor, Moyshe-Itske saw a dogcatcher in leather pants chase a little dog in the street, catch it in the hoop at the end of a long pole, and pull it trembling in a half-circle through the mild, blue springtime air to his weeping wagon.
Moyshe-Itske's calmed blood flared up and flourished like the liberated springtime streams under thin cracked ice. It jolted him out of his vein bridle. And now his hands gallop toward the dogcatcher in leather pants:
"First, give me back my dear little dog or else I'll measure the city with your guts."
The dogcatcher in leather pants had already dropped the roped dog into the crying wagon:
"Don't give me any crap that the dog is yours."
Moyshe-Itske uttered a loud bray:
"Hamlet, tell him I'm your master …" (Moyshe-Itske called him Hamlet because the dog's fate was suspended between to be or not to be.)
Between the iron bars of the wagon, where an orchestra of street dogs barked and bayed and howled, the newly imprisoned little dog pushed through with the cute red glove over his face and wept like a child:
"Oy, oy, oy."
"Now, do you believe?" Moyshe-Itske, his mouth filled with hot coals, fired at the dogcatcher.
The dog executioner gave a beaming smile like a sliver of glass in a dungheap:
"You're both liars. But I'll give you a chance. You can redeem this pest for only ten zlotys."
Ten zlotys. Where could he get hold of such a sum? On the way home, Moyshe-Itske had bought some coarse-cut tobacco, a yellow pencil, and a
few sheets of paper to compete with Byron and Dostoevsky, with the few zlotys his father jingled into the pocket of his blue smock on his last visit. All that was left was a farthing. Bargaining with a dogcatcher is an offense to your lips. This is the time and place for action. Hamlet's fate hung on a hair. If the wagon moved, there would be no more appeal. There was only one way: force! Beat up the hoop man and free the doggie.
But what happened was a double miracle: from the circle of people around both of them, a girl wearing a man's double-breasted jacket over a blue-flowered blouse like the newly hatched spring approached them and, sacrificing her ten zlotys, ransomed the imprisoned dog.
Her name was Yettl Gonkrey. And the second miracle was that, along with the dog, Yettl ransomed Moyshe-Itske from his solitude.
He had left for the institution alone and now returned as a threesome, and the mildewed room on Gitke Toybe's Alley was filled with life.
The father with two professions saw at once he was superfluous. He went to stay with a relative and learned a third profession: to play and lose at cards with his butcher friends.
Yettl was short, with yellow hair — call it blond if you like. With a string of freckles on her neck, even in winter. One smile on her face teased another and both teased a third — Moyshe-Itske. He loved to tell and tell again that, at first, Yettl went into his head, later — into his heart. And that her skin was foggy; and that, if her man's jacket at their first meeting had been buttoned up over the blue-flowered blouse — nothing would have happened.
Yettl was a kindergarten teacher. She worked hard. Hard but easy: now she had someone to work for. Along with her own mouth, she had two more mouths to feed. Hamlet sat at the table like a person.
As soon as she came home from work (Yettl! moved in with Moyshe-Itske on the seventh day after they met), she rolled up her sleeves. She cooked, scoured, kept house. She brought a huge copper pan for making preserves and soon every corner of the room lit up like the copper pan.
And Prince Hamlet became their faithful guardian.
Not just head over heels: the teacher fell in love with Moyshe-Itske way over her head. She believed he would live forever, that one could break through.
Her only regret was that it was only one, not both of them. Moyshe-Itske instructed Yettl, explained to her why he of all people was the chosen one:
"When a man dies, Yettele, it is because the number of words God allotted him runs out; but the number of words allotted me has no end."
On another occasion, he added:
"You must know, Yettele, that when a man kicks the bucket, he has nobody to talk to."
She also heard him say such words of consolation:
"You mustn't be ashamed that you were born a girl. Someday, they'll write about you in the newspapers."
When Moyshe-Itske read one of his poems to Yettl or roared a story of one sentence a mile long, her cheeks flushed with the colors of passion. She lovingly accepted his philosophy of life. But one thing Yettl could not get used to: his sudden bursts of laughter. When Moyshe-Itske roared out such a sudden, unslaughtered laughter, she accompanied him on the keys of her tears.
One nice day, the room on Gitke Alley was enriched with a Singer sewing machine: Yettl's gift for her intended. Let him knead the air below with his feet for a few hours a day, she thought, and it will be easier to breathe above.
On another nice day, Yettl returned home from the kindergarten and walked into a cherry garden. What happened? Was she lost? No: Moyshe-Itske had flayed dozens-of-years-old wallpaper from their walls and, instead of writing with a pencil, he sewed on them with a black thread from the Singer machine, line after line, his latest work.
Behind the old faded wallpaper sprouted the earlier one, fresh and young and fiery.
Since then, the walls in their room and in the corridor took on the colors of the four seasons.
"You are my living medicine," Moyshe-Itske soothed Yettl in a calm moment. "Since you are already me, I will break through together with you and it will count as if I alone broke through, for this is the only way it can be."
Yettl believed him.
"We shall not sneak into eternity by the back door, oh no," he pictured for Yettl their own personal afterlife. "I met him yesterday on Yatkeve Street, I stopped him and told him in so many words: 'We shall not sneak into eternity by the back door.'"
"Who did you meet?" Yettl stroked his bristly hair off his rusty forehead and pricked her finger.
"Silly people call him Death. But what he really is is a black angel with a pin in his hand!" And Moyshe-Itske burst into his sudden laughter.
This episode was told me by Yettl herself when I came to visit them in a very tall, late summer day.
On that visit, my memory was enriched with the following three events:
1. During the few months I hadn't seen her, Yettl's waist had shrunk, for Moyshe-Itske demanded her waist be as thin as the waist of the Singer machine.
2. Moyshe-Itske dreamed that a dentist pulled out one of his molars. At dawn, when he awoke — Yettl is a witness — the molar was missing from his mouth. Now Moyshe-Itske was waiting for the dentist to come and demand payment from his patient.
3. Hamlet became a lunatic. On a moonlit night, you could see a silver hand lead him by a silver chain over the cornices and sloping roofs of the city. Later on, Hamlet crept back into his doghouse and, in the morning, he didn't remember a thing.
On that visit the walls of the room were blue: the blue of the sky after a rain with the golden tail of a rainbow.
Yettl put a full bowl of hot limabeans on the table and Moyshe-Itske unfurled a stitched-out scroll and read me a prophecy, foretelling that hunger would soon end in the world: one man would eat another.
When Moyshe-Itske read his stitched-out lines, I felt the needle of the Singer machine dancing on my spine.
Our last meeting was on the first night of the ghetto.
Barefoot, in the tatters of a shirt, a scroll under his arm, he hovered like an eagle dying in mid-flight over the numb human waves barely breathing in the alleys.
A black angel with a pin in his hand, a single angel in many guises, flickered through the square pane-less skies and cracked attics.
The night rolled out of time and time vanished.
Moyshe-Itske descended on me, illuminated by his own blood.
"You still think one can break through?"
He unfurled his scroll and pointed to a verse:
"Son of man, I broke through already, I am already eternal."
And he burst into his sudden laughter.
The only laughter on the first night of the ghetto.
The Gunpowder Brigade
It happened in the topsy-turvy time, when a plague of locusts covered my city. The locusts did not devour stalks and herbs but young and old, babies and graybeards. And along with flesh and bone, for the death of them, they had to saw up with their sawing teeth that part in man called the soul.
For them this was the tastiest part.
Then, on an early autumn dawn, I was caught in my garret by a messenger of the locusts — just yesterday a student in a white cap, my neighbor — and he and his cronies lined me up in a column of people caught all over throughout the night, and they drove us up street, up street to the mountains that start where the street ends.
On both sides, the maples had already shaken off their yellow patches.
Where the street ends, the column was driven further, chased between two mountains, one staring dumbly at the other.
The belly of the first mountain was circled by barbed wire and crossed irons. Its innards were soon revealed: trenches around caves, fortresses and redoubts, prepared by the former power to defend the city.
The column entered the trenches.
Another messenger of the countless locusts, in mouse-gray pegged pants, climbed out of a cave and made a brief speech to the prisoners: Since we had ignited a war to subjugate the world, we had to pay dearly. The first payment: to carry on our backs and shoulders the gas bombs and stink bombs lying in the belly of this mountain — to the other mountain, opposite.
The space between the two mountains, at arm's length when they started, now — under the weight of the bombs — lengthened bizarrely, as if the earth were turned into dough and rolled out to the horizon.
His Excellency My Fate fixed it for me to march in the gunpowder brigade (as someone in the column called it) under a load of gas bombs. I was in the middle of the gunpowder brigade, stretching out in pairs.
My partner was stooped under stink bombs. I measured him from the side under the first autumn rain of sweat: a face overgrown with silver nettles, shadowed under a straw hat — in memory of summer. A pince-nez with a string around his left ear on my right side. With each step, the pince-nez jumped up like two lovers on a carousel. (This grotesque simile has stuck in my memory ever since!) For a moment, I released my right hand from the load and attached the pince-nez on my partner's nose.
The gunpowder brigade marched and didn't even begin to march. With each step forward, the mountain opposite recoiled. Under the demonic music of groaning bones, I got acquainted with my partner. A staccato-panting dialogue began leaping between the two of us to make us forget our miserable role and the distance we were destined to swim through the wasteland to the desired shore.
Dr. Horatio Dick, his name and title. A psychiatrist in the lunatic asylum.
We are both afraid to look ahead. Dr. Horatio Dick was luckier than me: his pince-nez was coated with a glue of dust-and-sweat and he couldn't see what he didn't want to see. And I was drawn even more to lift my leaden eyelids. My eyes became alcoholics, yearning to drink the pure and strong spirits of the air.
An explosion was heard. One of the first men in the gunpowder brigade fell under his burden. A fountain of red smoke spurted over the blue sheet of the horizon. In the brief commotion, my partner cleverly peeled off his gray coat. The explosion gave him strength to continue trudging on.
Dr. Horatio Dick told me his pedigree: he was a grandson of Isaac-Meyer Dick, author of hundreds of popular stories and novels.
It seemed unbelievable. I happened to know the biography of Isaac-Meyer Dick and was familiar with many of his stories. I tried to calculate when Isaac-Meyer was born, married, had children and died; and something did not tally.
Scholars of the novelist, if I'm not mistaken, never mentioned that a grandson of his still resided in the city.
"Perhaps a relative, a great-grandson?" — I tried to bargain off some of the distinguished doctor's pedigree.
My partner did not yield: a grandson. He even remembered Grandpa's jokes and proverbs. When Horatio was a child in heder and still called
Hirshke, he heard the old man say: The time has come to chew the earth but I have no teeth.
A transparent smile remained hanging on his face like a spider web in the sun.
Somebody else in the gunpowder brigade fell under his burden but there was no explosion.
The opposite mountain grew weary of plodding backward and remained like a dummy in the same place as yesterday.
The messenger of the locusts in his pegged pants roared by the gunpowder brigade on a motorcycle. He shot above our heads and between one pair and another.
When the oven of the sun above us descended lower to bake our bodies into Challah for Shabbos, the same messenger of the locusts was waiting for us on the other mountain. He stood there like a scarecrow at a clay pit which for years had fed the surrounding brickyards with wagons of clay.
In the clay pit silence snored. With purple sealing wax on their foreheads, some of the gunpowder brigade were dozing off. The clay pit seemed to give birth to the dead. And at the clay pit where we unloaded our bombs, the creature in the pegged pants granted us an hour of rest.
Now I could observe my friend better. I decided to put off researching his relation to Isaac-Meyer Dick to another time. (I believed in time.) Meantime, I tore strips off my shirt and applied them to his wounds.
But Dr. Horatio Dick was a little sore at me for doubting his status of grandson.
I pricked up my ears to hear his language: it had a German twist like Isaac-Meyer's, as if I were reading Dick's story "Chaytsikl Alone" or "The People of Duratshishok."
Out of curiosity, I asked him if he was a native here and, if so, why his Yiddish was so old-fashioned.
He answered obliquely: "Ja, ja, in dieser Stadt, colleague, even a bathhouse goy spoke Yiddish to the steam."
My partner in marching and in fate already spoke of this city in the past tense.
At the clay pit, he groped for a sweet flower and was revived.
I decided again to stop my pedigree searching. At the clay pit, everybody's pedigree is the same.
Dr. Horatio Dick became more intimate with me. He changed the subject. He leaned on his elbow and told me about an experience he'd had in the lunatic asylum: Dr. Dick ordered that the service staff was not to be drawn
from outside the hospital but from inside, from the crumbled souls. Furthermore, there was a schizophrenic, a doctor, who healed himself through healing the lunatics. The head chef was also a patient in the hospital.
One fine day, as we say, Dr. Horatio Dick went into the kitchen for no good reason. Suddenly the door was shut behind him. The head chef and his aides tied him up and the head chef approached him with two long knives:
"I'll cut you up and cook you. At least once for old time's sake, we shall have a tasty dinner."
His life hung on a second. But in that second, Dr. Dick remembered that the craziness of the head chef was that a thief had stolen all the salt of the city and without salt, food had no taste. Isaac-Meyer's grandson called out: "Mr. Handeles" — the chef's name — "what are you talking about? The dinner will be entirely without salt, without taste, let me go and I'll bring a handful of salt."
This is how Dr. Horatio Dick was saved on that occasion.
His conclusion: only if you accept a lunatic's reason do you have a chance to escape his knives.
The messenger of the locusts reappeared at the clay pit: recess is over. Now, in the same order, we must carry the bombs back to where we got them, behind the barbed wire fences on the opposite mountain.
Then, suddenly, light as a bird, Dr. Horatio Dick arose and I saw and heard his fiery sermon to the messenger of the locusts: Since we prisoners ignited a war to subjugate the world, as he himself had said, and it is not yet clear who will win the war, it may cost him dearly if he torments us — —
The doctor was not little David and the messenger of the locusts was no armored Goliath, but the members of the gunpowder brigade went along with this life-and-death spectacle.
Even those who were dozing in the clay pit with purple sealing wax on their foreheads pricked up their dead ears.
Even the gas bombs and stink bombs seemed to choose sides in this unequal duel.
When Dr. Horatio Dick ended his sermon, the messenger of the locusts turned black and thin like a burned-out match.
"You are free," he brushed us aside with his arm. And he disappeared, leaving no trace.
But as a matter of fact and as a matter of history, we couldn't be free then because the clean, early autumn air was hanging on a gallows.
The Bottom Line
I shall leave behind nothing, nothing.
His Excellency Nothing I shall not leave
For others: over there, what has happened may recur,
With Adam-Eve like old acquaintances.
I shall leave behind nothing, nothing.
I must confirm a line in From the Forest:
Wherever my word can reach, there I am.
My every word an open eye. A Milky Way of eyes
Shone through me in the dark, illuminating
The visions of unseen atoms.
I shall take with me from the would-be nonexistence
My cradle, my broom I once wanted to compare
To a dried rain, my first dove
That learned humming up to her Creator.
And I swear I shall
Take with me the breath of my extinguished friends:
When I gnawed on wood, they fed me
With the honey of friendship.
I shall take with me a pebble
Inscribed with letters by no human hand.
February 12, 1990
On My Father's Yortsayt
Snowlight, field-in and field — up to my father,
Suntears drip in the snow — up to my father.
Seventy years I walk among snowlight
To reach my father on time.
Is it the silence that cries in the snow, or is it
His red violin accompanying me among snowlight?
What a destiny in snow to feel:
The distance gets close, ever closer.
Shall I tell my father from what place
I bear my breaths in my arms? Can I find
Words to awaken his silence,
To open up his frozen eyes?
Snowlight, field-in and field-out. Mustn't neglect
To tell him: Your son is the same.
For it may be: my father is no more,
Arose long ago for his resurrection …
October 17, 1990