There's No Heaven for Slaves
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Grigory Kanovich
Translated from Russian by Yisrael Elliot Cohen
“Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?”
The watchman said, “The morning cometh and also the night…”
- Isaiah 21.11
He dreamed that he was a woman, not just a woman but an old woman, not just an old woman but an infirm old Jewess in an absurd wig that stuck out in all directions like a porcupine and covered her small bird-like head. She wore a long, tattered calico dress and squared-toed, well-worn boots encrusted with filth from the market and laces as thin as her wrinkles.
Distant and alien, she stands not in fishmongers’ lane in the shtetl market next to her buddy, the pockmarked Haya-Leah, but in the spacious and empty-like-a-church hall of the provincial courthouse, located on the corner of Georgievsky Prospect and Gendarme Lane. She was standing to the right of the prosecutor, Aleksei Turov, shamelessly uttering guttural sounds and sniffling like a dried out birch-bark peasant flute. Her words were heated and incoherent.
Miron Alexandrovich tried several times to wake up or at least to shift from one dream to another, the way in childhood he clambered from the dark, dank courtyard where he was born and grew up into a bright one which smelled of cinnamon from a bakery. However, the dark courtyard constantly pulled him back. Every time he closed his enflamed eyelids that had clanged shut from fatigue, this old woman appeared again, speaking to Turov in a grotesque combination of broken Russian, Yiddish, which Miron Alexandrovich had practically forgotten, and an eloquent Latin, which was totally incongruous for a fishmonger.
Prosecutor Aleksai Nikolaevich Turov was stocky, squat, and had a beard like a priest. His wiry hair looked as if it had been specifically dried out to serve as a specimen for a herbarium and his uniform was buttoned all the way up. Struck motionless at his prosecutorial post and blinking his thick eyelashes like water gauges above watery, relentlessly proud eyes, he stared at the old woman.
A deceitful, constantly disappearing thread of dream tied Miron Alexandrovich alternatively to the gloomy, taciturn Turov and to the old woman who stubbornly refused to leave the hall. Her fiercely waving bony arms were covered with a fine buckwheat of birthmarks and fish scales. At times the dream thread broke off and a warm wave of peace, of heavenly atonement, washed over Miron Alexandrovich, but unfortunately, never for long. When the old woman in the wig inevitably reappeared, he shook on his feather bed in a disgusting and shameful fear. What especially upset him about his nocturnal fantasy was that he saw no one in the court except Turov and the old woman: not the president of the court, Boris Evgenevich Chistokhvalov, not members of the jury, not members of the public, nor – and this was the main rub – himself! He was not there. Everything proceeded without him, despite his will, but so painfully real and unchallengeable that Miron Alexandrovich groaned loudly and hopelessly. His groans disturbed the silence of the room as they resonated against the high stucco ceiling.
Finally overcoming his will, the dream pulled him along as a river pulls along an empty bottle that floats, enters the mainstream, and suddenly, after becoming filled to the neck with water, sinks to the bottom, where silent fish begin to scurry around it and tap the glass with their flat slimy jaws. He felt covered with slime too, though he was invisible like glass. Uncontrollable fear filled him as with turbid slush.
“Who are you?” the dream-figure of Turov asked the old woman. Grimacing as from a toothache, Miron Alexandrovich could clearly make out Turov’s low and consumptive hoarse voice, but could not see his face.
“You really don’t know?” the Jewish woman impertinently replied to his question with one of her own, waving her bony arms which were suspended in the air.
In his dream, Miron Alexandrovich perceived that Turov’s irritation was growing, threatening to boil over, but he couldn’t bring himself to interrupt their conversation. The prosecutor hated to be unnecessarily interrupted during his cross-examination. He silenced everyone abruptly by rapping the knuckles of his short and pitiless fingers, which sounded like bullets hitting the oak table of the court room.
“I am Zlata, a mother,” the old woman eagerly explained. Her hands continued to move in the air, depicting both the beam of a set of scales and a broken sword.
“Whose mother?” Turov inquired impassively.
“Meilach’s … The solicitor’s,” she mumbled, while attempting to keep her wig from slipping down onto her temples.
“Mironalexandrovich’s,” marvelled the prosecutor, running the name and patronymic of the lawyer together as he was wont to do. He mouth opened like a fish’s and from its bottomless cavity there wafted to Miron Alexandrovich a smell of disgust and Siberia.
“For some people he may be Miron Alexandrovich, but for his mother he was and always will be Meilach. That was the name of my late father, his grandpa… Meilach – that’s king in Yiddish.”
The loquacity of the old woman grated on Turov. What did he care about his late father’s name? But the Jewess did not cease. She continued jabbering, spitting out words like cherry pits:
“Honored prosecutor!” Miron Alexandrovich cried in his sleep, but Turov did not seem to hear. He continued to look suspiciously at the old woman, waiting new revelations, salivating at the prospect that some incredibly important secret might be disclosed.
“Excuse me,” Turov asked with an overtone of threat in his voice, “are you saying that Mironalexandrovich is a Jew?”
“We’re all Jews,” said the old woman, and, tuckered out by her fight with her recalcitrant wig, she doffed it and placed it on the oak court table.
“What do you mean ‘all’?” the astounded prosecutor asked.
“All the Weinsteins, Goldsteins, Kagans, Kogans, Mandels, and Spivaks.”
“Wait a minute. But what does this have to do with Mironalexandrovich? His name is Dorsky!” Turov wrathfully spoke up for the lawyer.
“For some he may be Dorsky, but for his mother he was and always will be Weinstein… I swear that I never slept with any Dorsky character…”
Turov stared at the old woman and her wig which stood out like a black spot on the clean court table. Horror mixed with pity and curiosity disfigured his sharp stubborn brow like a round red brand. His sensitive ears had long white lobes which resembled dumplings.
“Don’t listen to her! Throw her out!” shouted Miron Alexandrovich. “Honored prosecutor, kind sir, Aleksei Nikolaevich! ... I don’t have the honor to know…”
“Baistriuk, you tramp, what are you straining your throat for?” the old woman reproached him, and then turned to Turov with her grey head shaven (as tradition required), with the remaining short hair resembling autumn stubble in the fields. “From birth he’s been like that… a hollerer… When the mohel, excuse me, performed the rite of circumcision on him, he shouted so loudly that the angels covered their ears.”
“Dear Aleksei Nikolaevich,” croaked the fear-struck Miron Alexandrovich, “let me give her out… It will take just a minute… She’s turned the place into a regular market!...”
“But isn’t this a market?”
“What?” The impassive Turov was now non-plussed. “The court a market?”
“Everything’s a market. The market’s a market and the court is a market… I sell carp and you, the law… Tell me, please, how much is a pound of justice going for these days?”
“Out!” screamed Turov.
“Out!” Miron Alexandrovich echoed his righteous anger.
To his great surprise and joy, the old woman did not resist, but slowly, with her arms held close to her sides, headed toward the exit past the court benches which were well polished from all the rear ends that had sat there.
“What about the wig?” suddenly shouted Turov. Miron Alexandrovich winced in fear that the old woman would return and never leave either his dream or the hall or his life. Dumbly, with his face distorted with grimaces and a beseeching, pleading expression, he tried to signal to the prosecutor: for God’s sake, Aleksei Nikolaevich, don’t stop her, let her go to her fish before it’s too late, to her cockroaches, to her market where everyone, from the village constable Nesterovich to the melamed Leizer (if he’s still alive) knows her. I’ll throw out the wig or burn it. But Turov was implacable. The wig, which had defiled the court table, aroused in him an undisguisable repugnance. The prosecutor could scarcely doubt that the wig contained a mass of smelly insects which, if not dealt with, would multiply and start crawling from the table to him, from him to Boris Evgenevich, the president of the district court, from the president of the district court to the governor-general, and from the governor-general to the court and to the tsar himself!
“The wig!” he shouted, paying no attention to the grimaces and glances of Miron Alexandrovich. All he needed was for Boris Evgenevich to discover on his uniform or on the table covering, or even in a file before him, a louse well-fed on dandruff!
“The wig! The wig!” screamed Miron Alexandrovich, clearly envisaging how the handsome, grey-haired, pince-nez-adorned president of the court Boris Evgenevich Chistokhvalov, who had been awarded a Vladimir medal of the third rank for faithfully serving the throne, would stare at the cloth along which the orphaned shtetl louse was crawling. When something came to Boris Evgenevich’s attention, that was no laughing matter. Boris Evgenevich was an intimate of the governor-general himself. One word from him and Miron Alexandrovich would be a nobody, a nothing, a worm, no longer the barrister Dorsky, but once again Meilach Weinstein. And the guilty party would be a single whitish, insidious louse from his mother’s wig! “Oh, Lord!”
With the name of the Deity on his lips, he awoke.
Miron Alexandrovich lay in a cold sweat, having thrown off the down cover and bared his emaciated legs covered with slight hairs soft as goose fluff. A repulsive sweat covered his forehead and temples. Like a warm rivulet it streamed down, soaking his luxuriant curly sideburns. He breathed heavily. He felt as if a fire had been lit inside him, water was splashing, and steam from smouldering brushwood was belching from his rib cage, nostrils, and his every pore.
Knocked out, defeated, Miron Alexandrovich was afraid to even move.
The stucco ceiling seemed suspended above him like the painted lid of a coffin and the lamp like a monstrous funereal flower with porcelain leaves. How much had he paid for the lamp? Perhaps ten marks? During his first trip abroad he bought it in Weimar from a German who had a smelly pipe in his mouth and wore amazing bottoms that reached almost to his knees.
“Gneidige Frau! Gneidige Frau!” The German exuded politeness as he rushed back and forth in front of Christina.
This reminder of Christina made Miron Alexandrovich even more depressed and his pinched, tormented face once again streamed with perspiration. During her lifetime Christina had never appeared in his dreams. Never. When she was alive, the nights just flew by like clouds carried on the wind: all that remained was the rustle of her hair and the softness of her skin in the darkness – impossible to recapture! Then Miron Alexandrovich did not dream at all – either of his mother or the court, either of Russians or Jews – because night was not a period of time but a state, a fire which consumed everything except the flame itself.
Miron Alexandrovich looked around the empty bedroom, making out the high oak bed and the pristine pillow next to his own, with the initials C.D. on its case. The bitterness of wormwood once again rose to his throat and he felt like howling.
The dawn, which usually calmed him like ambrosia with milk, now tormented him by indolently and depressingly casting a weak light on his bed and on the thick Persian carpet where, like two puppies, fur slippers were awaiting their master.
Suddenly Miron Alexandrovich desperately wanted to smoke, just as he was, without rising from the feather-bed, to put a cigarette or an odiferous pipe in his mouth. He wanted to smoke until he smoked out all traces of his dream which had brought him, in turn, fear and shame and pity or, perhaps, all together, since a person never experiences one emotion at a time even when he is happy.
It grew light. Miron Alexandrovich glanced at the untouched pillow next to his but saw only its whiteness. Strange to say, he recalled that just recently he had found hair on it. Could it be that two years after Christina’s death not even a single hair of hers remained? Miron Alexandrovich had not even once allowed the laundress to touch a single one of her things: not a towel, a dress, or a pillowcase. It was funny and stupid! Time is the best laundress. It launders everything. Absolutely everything: blood and memory and odors. And there’s nothing to console oneself or deceive oneself with. What’s one single hair one might find compared to a whole heap of hair redolent with apples and sin… How sweet the mingling of odors!
Miron Alexandrovich continued to lie uncovered, unable to overcome his apathy, stiff like a corpse. Trying somehow to distract himself from his nightmare. Dorsky forced himself to think about anything – the twilight, the color of coffee diluted with milk, his fur slippers, the image of Christina, the Weimar salesman. Bu no matter how hard he tried, his thoughts, like boys stealing once again into a stranger’s orchard, came back to the fishmongers’ row in the shtetl market, where for many years (how many he couldn’t recall), a tall skinny woman with a name that rang like coins – Zlata, Zlata, Zlata – sold fresh fish.
Miron Alexandrovich rolled her named over in his mouth as in ancient times the famous Demosthenes had done with pebbles. A bronze bust of this orator stood on a desk in his office, evoking the envy of his friends, especially Doctor Samuil Yakovlevich Harkavy, with whom Miron Alexandrovich had studied in the mighty and impressive Petersburg.
“Zlata,” said Dorsky aloud and then broke off.
He tried to force his memory to conjure up his mother, but the resulting brief spark only illuminated the shtetl market with heavy peasant carts covered with straw, squealing piglets in canvas sacks, the aces of wise and apparently ageless horses, and cow turds expressive and unconditional as a wax seal. His memory did not reveal his mother’s face, but only her shabby wig, which grew right before his eyes, her square-toed boots, and the tattered calico dress in the hem of which he had once hid his curly head so full of pranks.
“You tramp,” his mother said. “Again you ran away from heder down to the river!”
“They don’t reach us anything.”
“What does the river teach?”
“They beat us also.”
“If you good-for-nothings aren’t beaten, what will you grow up to be? Meilach, a Jew has to be beaten.”
“So he doesn’t forget that he is a Jew.” She laughed resonantly and added, “Now I want to ask you a riddle: Who is better off, a goose or a horse?”
“A goose. A goose is chased with stick, but a horse is driven with a whip.”
“Some wise man you are!... You didn’t figure it out. Meilach, a horse is better off, because unlike a goose, it never ends up in the soup and it even outlives its master.” His mother once again laughed heartily.
It has been so very long since Miron Alexandrovich had recalled her. If it had not been for that damned dream, he would hardly have fished her out of the veiled past. No matter how strange it was for him to admit it, he didn’t even know when she had died or where she was buried. This ignorance pained him; he felt guilty toward her and his uncle Naftali Spivak, without whose aid he would have in no way been able to attend the gymnasium, much less the university. He had sent letters to the shtetl, intending to go there for vacation, but something inevitably, imperiously held him back. It may have been the fear of losing permission to reside outside the Pale of Settlement. (If you leave, you may not be allowed back into the capital when you return.) Or it may have been his deep-seated alienation. (If you go home, there is no one to communicate with; everyone is engrossed in their petty cares and concerns, their complaints about the thieving officials.) Or it might have related to his early marriage to Christina, the daughter of the prominent Vilna lawyer, Stanislaw Dorsky. (He could hardly take her with him to the boondocks, the heart of the Pale of Settlement, so that everyone on the single street would gawk at her and the toothy Haya-Leah and the shrewish Sheine-Rochel grimace at her and in a low voice direct thousand-year-old curses in her direction.)
From year to year Miron Alexandrovich put off his journey home, continually seeking more convincing, decisive reasons, so that eventually his birthplace had become so alien to him that it was no more than a nagging disembodied sound like the while of a saw, the clattering of a sewing machine, or the mournful nasal voice of the old clothes dealer Motel crying:
“I buy bones and feathers, I sell rags and old clothes.”
Miron Alexandrovich used to roundly curse himself for remembering clearly some detail or other, like the peyes of his first teacher, the melamed Leizer, or Motel’s wagon, while with each year his mother lost her distinctive features and was transformed into some abstract symbol, smelling of fish, dressed in a cheap calico dress, and conversing with him in an unchanging language consisting of clichés, admonitions which set your teeth on edge, and laments for her bitter widow’s fate.
Sometimes, when he was already a lawyer living in Vilna, Miron Alexandrovich stopped as if struck by lightning when he happened to see on the street an old Jewish woman who strikingly resembled the woman who had nursed him with her lovingly bounteous breasts which for so long refused to dry up. When this happened, Dorsky experienced a unique agitation: his body felt like lead and his eyes filled with sincere, involuntary tears of grief. Of course, he understood that the resemblance was purely accidental, external, in no way obligating him. Nevertheless, after such an encounter he became introverted, morose, and sat idly in his office for hours, staring at the colored wallpaper adorned with all manner of butterflies, beasts, and fish. Other fish, the live bream and tench of his mother Zlata Weinstein, swam to him here on Zavalnaya Street, from there, the shtetl market. They came from a deep rusty bucket that was bottomless like the sea, from the world of his childhood, which had been disheveled and frozen like a sparrow in winter. He would undoubtedly have remained there in the shtetl forever if his mother had not become sick and been taken to a hospital either in Kovno or Shavli, or maybe Ponevezh.
“Listen to Uncle Naftali,” she ordered him with lips burning with fever. “I’ll return soon. There, in the pantry, is a fish. Go to the market and sell it! You’ll have your own money. A person should always have money for himself.”
How old was he then? Six, or seven?
When his mother was taken away, he snuck into the pantry and found the fish. Zlata had bought it from a Lithuanian fisherman in one of the neighboring villages. He carried it through the whole shtetl to the market, where he set himself up next to the pockmarked, successful fishmonger Haya-Leah, who had two wicker baskets with tench as velvety as Rabbi Uri’s yarmulke. He began to imitate her, crying enthusiastically:
“Fresh fish! Fresh fish!”
People bought Haya-Leah’s fish, but not his. He stood in the fishmongers’ row, chewing his lips from spite. Anger at the whole world churned in his chest and rumbled in his stomach. “Why don’t they buy from me?” he asked pockmarked Haya-Leah.
“You’re still small,” she replied. “Have patience, they’ll buy from you too.” After a silence, she added, “When the time comes, they’ll buy you, too.”
Miron Alexandrovich rose from his bed, pushed his feet into the fur slippers, threw over his shoulders a terrycloth robe, and with drunken steps and a hacking cough, headed for the bathroom. However, he didn’t start washing himself. Instead he went up to the mirror and began to examine his flabby face, which looked like it had been polished with wax. He studied himself as if he were surveying a stranger: with excessive fault-finding that bordered on squeamishness, he scrunched up the empty pod of his nose, fiercely moved his jaw, closed his lips, and then gathered the lock of hair on his crown and pushed it from the left to the right side. With his fingers he lightly massaged his forehead and temples. Oh, Lord, I myself could use a wig, he thought and he once again was shaken with chills and fever.
Now wouldn’t that be something! The barrister Miron Alexandrovich Dorsky, the eloquent hero of the courtroom, appearing in court in curls! For twenty years he has been bald and now, picture that, he turns up with curly hair!
Miron Alexandrovich again glanced in the mirror. He tried to see himself without his bald spot, with dense sideburns, the remnants of his once luxuriant head of hair, and with thick bluish-black hair as in his youth. No, that wouldn’t do! Black hair might be handsome but that would only emphasize his ethnic origin. Wasn’t it enough that for his whole life he had to go around with a hooked nose and a slight guttural pronunciation inherited from his mother? As it was, in the corridors behind his back he was referred to as “the Frenchman.” “Here comes she Frenchman,” people would say, or “Our buddy is quite a Frenchman! Boy, did he put one over on Boris Evgenevich!” Miron Alexandrovich knew about this nickname – he knew and suffered from it. As he used to say, “It doesn’t matter if people call you a pan, as long as they don’t put you into the oven.” The oven of the Empire is hot and its fire fierce. If you end up in it, you’ll be consumed in no time. But Miron Alexandrovich considered it a sin to complain. Although he was often teased, he was appreciated and respected. Of course, if he had not been a convert to Christianity from Judaism, he would never have been able to outdistance others and would certainly not have attained a post, even with his abilities and skills, in a ministry in the capital Petersburg, indeed in a position close to the minister himself. After all, at university Miron Alexandrovich had not only spent years with the future minister but had even been friends with him. Friends? Why they had roomed together on the Moika. Their bunks had been next to each other, Dorsky’s at the window and the future minister’s opposite, under the painting of the suffering Jesus. Miron Alexandrovich even got his buddy, his old “roommate,” to give his blessing to his bride and himself when they were married.
Would the minister, now that he is close to the tsar, remember how they had once toasted brotherhood to each other with champagne on Vasil’evsky Island?
“From today on, Miron, you’re one of us, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church!” exclaimed his classmate, interlocking arms with him.
Dorsky finished shaving. He always shaved himself: he couldn’t stand barbers and resorted to them only out of dire necessity. He wiped off the rest of the remaining shaving cream, dried his face, and glanced at Christina’s towel, which still hung on a hook, as when she was alive. Once again he morosely pondered the enigmatic power of dreams: how much they stirred up from the depths which even his thoughts had not so much as visited. If you descend into them and do not surface again, you’ll remain among the pitiful detritus, caught in the silt on the bottom, eventually transmogrifying from a living person into a useless mummy. His life in the shtetl, before he pulled himself free, was just that kind of sticky silt that immobilized one’s whole existence, that kind of obscure depth. A trap. There he was born, there, like his grandfathers and grandmothers, he would have expired without taking a single step forward or even to the side. And all because they were fruits of the wrong field, members of the wrong faith. After all, shouldn’t a rational person have a rational religion, the religion of those on top, not those on the bottom? If he had remained there, in the shtetl, who would he be now? A tailor or an old clothes pedlar, or, if he were really lucky, a shopkeeper, who kept under seven locks his treasures consisting of clamps, harrows, harness, pitch, barrels with herring, and the kind of cheap calico that poor Jewish mothers wore.
Once, it’s true, he had dreamed of being an old clothes dealer, who had seemed to him a rich man, traveling through town and country buying up all kinds of used, dirty, and worn things. Then, during those distant, almost unimaginable times, he had wanted to buy up all poverty, all beards and sidelocks, all ills and woes, the put them into his wagon and remove them from the shtetl. Quite soon, however, he learned that even if there might exist a wagon and horse in the world that could do this, there was no buyer. There wasn’t and never would be! Who would be stupid enough to buy them?
The grandfather clock with the large gold face and Roman numerals that shone like copper in the twilight indicated that it was already eight, so Miron Alexandrovich had to get going. Precisely at nine he had to be at the Lukishky jail and at eleven he had the hearing of the case about the forged will of merchant first guild Yulian Semenov. Dorsky disliked being late. He would arrive at the jail or court half an hour early just in case the hearing started a quarter-hour before the set time, or the defendant was unexpectedly brought for questioning at a quarter to nine. And there was always the possibility that the clock had gained time during the night.
Miron Alexandrovich’s punctuality had become a byword in the city. The members of his household and the court employees even made fun of it. Still, he remained steadfast in this habit which went back to his student days. Miron Alexandrovich believed that a convert ought to do everything better than anyone else: sew, solder, work with tin, engage in commerce, defend the accused, and serve his native country – if he wanted to attain anything in life.
Dorsky was also accustomed, no matter what the weather, when rain fell in buckets, when it was freezing and when it was unbearably hot, to always go on foot, moving along at a pace that a young man would have been proud of. He avoided taking a cab, not in order to save pennies, but because he couldn’t abide the jolting and the smell of horse sweat.
Now, after Christina’s death, Miron Alexandrovich often was short of sleep. He rose early so that he had time to grab something to eat out of the house, even though he had no appetite. Usually, he breakfasted at Pan Mlynarczyk’s. At the latter’s restaurant-café he ate a ham omelet and drank a cup of Turkish coffee. Pan Mlynarczyk had at one time been a soldier. He took part in the Russo-Turkish campaign, bringing back from Bulgaria not only a scar testifying to his undoubted military prowess, but also the secret of how to prepare that strong oriental beverage, which testified to his obvious commercial bent.
While he sipped his coffee Miron Alexandrovich would rapidly peruse the morning papers, which were full of all kinds of nonsense. For the past half-year they had been crammed with descriptions of the riots and pogroms in southern Ukraine. With a pleasant feeling derived from a full stomach and a sense of security, he would then set out for the courthouse on the corner of Georgievsky Prospect and Gendarme Lane or to meet with his defendants in Lukishsky prison.
He had many cases – criminal ones and civil ones, easy ones that promised undoubted victories, and hopeless ones where all was already lost ahead of time and once could have skipped the trial altogether. Within a small circle Miron Alexandrovich used to refer to the latter as “Siberian affairs.” He loved to tell Doctor Harkavy or other friends about puzzling or frightful matters, especially relishing details of mutilation, violence, or murder.
At first, right after he graduated from St. Petersburg University and became a barrister, Dorsky eagerly took on the defence of anyone without distinction, from a small-time thief to the petty bourgeois Borodovsky, who beat his mistress Spirina, also of the petty bourgeois class. But as he became better known, he began to prefer cases with more, as he put it, “scandalous resonance,” about which people dying of boredom in high places liked to gossip. The latter included well-placed officials, noblewomen, habitués of horse races, litterateurs, and sensitive schoolgirls who dreamed of strong passions and remaking the world, as did his half-cocked son Andrei, who had left his father’s house to join the proletariat.
Miron Alexandrovich absolutely and irretrievably refused to take political cases. “Please be so kind as to find another lawyer!” Whatever the way might be to go far in the Empire, politics was not it. Of course, it would be noble to defend some provincial Vera Zasulich, or some sad Jewish lad with shoulders that stuck out like undeveloped wings, or a pale, ox-eyed teenager who, with her parents’ money, bought a bomb which she placed in a garden in an attempt to assassinate the governor-general, a passionate admirer of carnations and gladioli. Thanks very much for the honor, but no thanks! He, Miron Alexandrovich Dorsky, was a sober person: such nobility raised suspicions and ultimately turned out to have unfortunate consequences. Of course, it would be pleasant to earn the reputation of a defender of the downtrodden, to gain fame as a fearless legal fighter. But people might well remember – remember and “reward” him for it. “Whom are you, respected Miron Alexandrovich, taking under your wing? Apostates, enemies of the crown, subverters of the social order? Perhaps you, Meilach Weinstein, are one of them yourself? Perhaps you, too, you filthy snout, stay awake nights planning some vile deed, a notorious act against the Empire, against the country which has given you everything: the rank of barrister, a Christian wife, a home in the very center of Vilna on Zavalnaya Street, and…” they might very well “reward” him. And they would be right.
Already on more than one occasion people had intrigued against him, both at the beginning of his career and later, when the papers began to write about him, and recently, when Turov, stroking his priest’s beard, reproached him as follows: “Miron Alexandrovich, my good fellow, why don’t you up take the case of Lekhem?”
“Lekhem?” Dorsky feigned ignorance.
“Barrister Tikhvinsky, I believe, is not particularly fond of Jews even when they are innocent, not to mention when they are guilty…”
“My dear Aleksei Nikolaevich, I make no exceptions for anyone…”
“Tikhvinsky claims all Jews are brothers,” said Turov with a sardonic smile. “Brothers and rebels… Please be so kind as to forgive me,” he added after a pause, caressing the plant on his desk. “One would think you have all the cards ready in your hand.”
“Absolutely not!” You couldn’t get around Miron Alexandrovich. For him Lekhem or Ivanov, it was all the same. He wouldn’t defend a “political” for gold, or even a promotion to state counselor. He dealt with another circle of guilty (or innocent) parties. And there were plenty of them. What about the politicals? The politicals were no commodity. Extortioners – there were plenty, perpetrators of violence – plenty, swindlers – you could count them by the dozen, but political could be counted on one hand. For these you needed only one judge, one prosecutor, one lawyer. There was no need for Miron Alexandrovich here. The Empire could get along very well without him…
Dorsky went out onto the balcony.
The weather was fine. The sky was clear, a pure light blue.
The headache, which had been tormenting Miron Alexandrovich since his nightmare and once again threatened to drive him to bed, let up. Still, just in case, Dorsky decided to take some medicine. After all, Doctor Harkavy had prescribed a whole bunch of powders, pills, and cloying mixtures which Miron Alexandrovich punctually and superstitiously took three times a day in various combinations.
Miron Alexandrovich returned from the balcony into the bedroom, opened the drawer of the night table, and took out a pill. It stuck in his throat and he couldn’t swallow it. Nausea brought on by his hunger forced it out and, having turned red from distress, Dorsky spit it onto the rug.
Just as he was bending over to pick up the pill, someone rang the door bell.
Dorsky’s housekeeper, Pani Katarzyna, had gone to Grodno for the week to a wake so Miron Alexandrovich had to open the door himself. He straightened up and listened. By the strength and frequency of the rings Dorsky unerringly knew who was there.
Doctor Harkavy rang the way he spoke: sharply, curtly, unceremoniously. Pani Katarzyna, if she absent-mindedly forgot her key, pecked at the bell like a sparrow, timidly, quietly and on the lookout for predators, picked up a crumb thrown onto the pavement from heaven. Andrei, whom Miron Alexandrovich could not bring himself to call “son,” pulled at the bell as if he intended to tear it out of its socket, ringing it with all his might and without a break until someone opened the door.
But this time the ring was unlike any other.
For some reason Miron Alexandrovich crushed the pill with his foot and, quite puzzled, in his fur slippers and terrycloth robe, made his way to the door. It must be somebody who’s gotten into a scrape, thought Dorsky. They have no patience, these funny people. They think all they have to do is ring, and justice itself will open the door for them! But there is no justice on either side of the door. That’s the way it is, folks!
Dorsky pulled back the bolt and into the entry came a huge broad-shouldered Jew with arms which were far too long for his overcoat, and clean boots that he had evidently spent a long time cleaning on the outside stairs. His head was bare, his hat was stuck inside his coat, and he had a calm, almost cold expression.
By all indications, he had come from far away. Perhaps from Miron Alexandrovich’s dream.
The newcomer shook his head in greeting and, in doubt as to whether to enter or not, said: “I come from your fellow-countrymen.”
“From my ‘fellow-countrymen’? My what?”
“This is 17 Zavalnaya Street, isn’t it?”
“Miron Alexandrovich Dorsky,” drily, almost hostilely, replied the master of the house.
“We’re in trouble,” briefly explained the guest, for some reason sticking his hat further into his bosom.
“Who’s in trouble?”
“Five people are in detention. Including your uncle, Naftali Spivak.”
“Is Naftali Spivak really alive? Where they arrested recently?” Miron Alexandrovich asked irrelevantly, without any intention of getting involved in a long conversation.
“Just before Passover… It’s the second month already… It’s awful…”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a spare minute… I’m in a big hurry… and then…”
Miron Alexandrovich didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t stay, but he certainly couldn’t drive this person away. At nine precisely he had a meeting with Strelnikov. The case was not a simple one, a wife-murder. Oh, Lord, that he should have been delayed because of a pill!
“All right then, with your permission, I’ll come back later,” said the guest, turning, and with his cap protruding from his coat, made his exit.
Miron Alexandrovich had no time to reply. The dream has come true, he thought, wrapping himself closer in his robe and looking around.
Copyright © Grigory Kanovich 2011. Translation copyright © Yisrael Elliot Cohen 2011.
This chapter is an excerpt from a book that was published in Russian by Vaga in Vilnius in 1985 and by Sovetskii pisatel (Soviet writer" publishing house in Moscow in 1989), in 150,000 copies.
Grigory Kanovich was born in Kaunas (Kovno) Lithuania in 1929. He grew up with a command of Yiddish and a deep familiarity with traditional Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. In the postwar period he wrote mainly in Lithuanian and Russian, often dramatizing the Lithuanian Jewish experience in the 19th and 20th centuries.
He was a leading Jewish activist in Lithuania. He made aliya in 1993 and has continued his creative career in Israel.
Kanovich has written in a number of genres, achieving international fame, marked popularly by huge print runs of up to one million copies, and critically by scholarly recognition of his impressive talent.
Mr. Kanovich has won numerous awards. He was shortlisted three times for the Russian Booker Prize, including for his Holocaust novel, Charmed by the Devil, and has received prestigious prizes in Russia, Lithuania, and Israel: National Prize of Literature of Lithuania (1989) for his trilogy, Candles in the Wind, Prize of the Lithuanian Government for Literary and Cultural Achievements (2010), and the Israeli prize in the name of Yuri Shtern for a lifetime of literary achievement. Kanovich's The Park of the Jews was voted best Russian-language Israeli novel in 2007. His works combine the ethnic with the ethical. More information about the author at: www.gkanovich.com.
Yisrael Elliot Cohen (the translator) was born in Boston. He received as B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale, both in Slavic Languages and Literatures. In the USA and Canada he taught humanities courses, including on Russian literature. He made aliya in 1979. In Israel he has worked as a translator from Russian into English, specializing in topics relating to Soviet Jewry, and as an editor. For 18 years he was co-editor of "Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe." At present he edits Yad Vashem's online site, "The Untold Stories," about Nazi killing sites of Jews in the Soviet Union. Dr. Cohen can be contacted at email@example.com.