When The Moon Is Full
By Frederick Nenner
The sun is rising on a full moon, and an old man readies himself, as he does with every full moon, for the hardship that the day will bring.
Meyer had a hard bottom, but it was no match for the dumb creature he straddled and the uneven and rocky road he was on. No amount of blanket on the creature’s back — it only had one — could keep that four-legged animal’s spine from digging into him. He and Steka were not such a good match. There was not an ounce of fat between them. Between his boney bottom and Steka’s boney back there was nothing but pain. His own, anyway. “Does yours hurt as much as mine?” he would ask. Of course there would be no answer. Everyone knows a donkey can’t talk.
But who’s to say a donkey can’t listen? Not Meyer. He had a better chance with this stubborn animal than he had with his stubborn wife. So he talked. Why not? Did it cost anything? Not a cent. A few oats, a little water, but not one precious copper.
Listening. Meyer liked when people listened to him. But no listening from Gilda. She said he had nothing to say that was worth listening to. Gilda, in the fifty years they were a mister and misses, could find not one thing that was worth a single moment of her time. Hadn’t there been at least one moment when there was talk of a marriage? Not in his little part of the universe, this little corner of heaven where his parents, grandparents, and even grand- — grand- that Meyer didn’t know of but had heard many stories about — had been born. Here you don’t ask when it’s time for a marriage. You are told. “This one,” his papa said when it was his time.
And that was it. Fifty years of Gilda, children along the way and a donkey.
What did they know about each other before the marriage? Nothing. For Meyer, maybe, not nothing. Maybe a little something. He was older, twenty, she was only eighteen, and their families had next to nothing. “If you added it all up,” as Gilda would say over and over, “multiply by two, and you still have nothing.” To Gilda, his family’s nothing was more nothing than hers. She had said that right from the beginning.
Meyer understood he had a problem, but what could he do? Marriage wasn’t a decision for him to make. All that was left for him to do was to say “You are married to me with this ring.” And even that he didn’t do so well. “Speak up,” the rebbe had barked. “They can’t hear you. Speak up!”
What did Gilda know about marriage? Enough. “For her,” Meyer would say, “getting away from her mother, my beloved mother-in-law, was worth whatever was coming her way.”
Did it matter to the new bride that her husband was lacking in ambition? Absolutely. A tradesman would have been nice. She would even have settled for a tinker, a fixer. “What kind of fixer?” Meyer had asked Gilda. “An anything fixer,” she had answered. “Anything but a peddler.”
And that’s what she got. A peddler. “A peddler with nothing to peddle,” was how Gilda would put it. What was she talking about? Every morning he set out with his cart and looked for what he could sell. Sometimes Meyer would find something, sometimes nothing. His misfortune — there was more nothing than something. But when there was something, he knew how to bargain. A bag of flour, some beans, he even got a chicken once. And, of course, coins, too, which he always gave to Gilda to buy what she needed. Now shouldn’t this be enough to make him a good husband? Gilda didn’t think so. On days when business wasn’t so good, and he came home with nothing, when a little sympathy might have been nice, there she was waiting for him with an “Is this it?’ Unbelievable. Believe it.
“Nothing to sell, nothing to peddle. A peddler without what to peddle is like a rooster without a crow, a cow without a teat, a bull without a — ” When she got to the bull, and she always did, it was beyond what this reasonable man could endure. Before she could end her sentence, Meyer, with a reddened face and shaking hands, would bellow, “This bull got just what he needs. You think it was the Almighty that put our useless daughters in the pot? It’s Meyer and Gilda. Not Mary and Joseph!”
Still, Meyer knew Gilda had a point. She always had a point, and she was clever at making it. It took a while for him to figure that out, but when he did, he also figured out how to handle a raving wife. Keep quiet and listen. Agree? Who said anything about agreeing? So long as he kept disagreeing to himself.
Once a month, as the sun was rising on a full moon, Meyer would begin the trip, and at the end of the day, he’d say goodbye to the last of the stones that had rumbled through Steka’s spindly legs and into his aching flesh. But right now it was far from being the end of the day.
Why would any clear-thinking man put himself through such misery each and every month for so many years that he couldn’t remember? He did it because . . . . “Hmm. A very interesting question,” Meyer said to himself. “Why haven’t I thought of it before?” Actually, he knew why he was going where he was going. It was the misery that he let himself forget. Someone might have asked him if his forgetting had to do with his advanced years. He was seventy-four. But, as he considered the question, his answer was always the same. “What’s to remember? Did something happen that I should remember?”
And maybe there was something to it. Not remembering yesterday meant that nothing ever happened from day to day, season to season, year to year. There was some comfort in that. When you remember nothing, you have nothing; when nothing is enough, a tomorrow, like a today, is just what the doctor ordered. No surprises. Someone might say a life with no surprises is a life without excitement. But who said excitement was a good thing? Not Meyer.
But as for Gilda and excitement, therein lay another seed of an old man’s troubles. “Is this it?!” was her song. While no one listened to him, Meyer couldn’t help but listen to her. Every minute of every day, and even in the middle of the night in his dreams — and oh, did he have dreams — there she was, always with something to say, to complain about, and there was no stopping her.
Even the children, whose lives he had had something to do with — if not in raising them, at least in making them — greeted him with an “Is that it?” For Gilda, the “that” had to do with their having only daughters. There were six. Six “Is that it?” girls. Gilda wanted a son, and the daughters wanted a brother.
It’s not that Meyer wouldn’t have liked a boy. Two would have been nice, but one would have been enough. A household with seven females, and not one who would listen to the papa. Seven and a donkey. A boy would have been different. Meyer had listened to his father, and he had no doubt that a son would have listened to him. He hoped and hoped, and on his monthly trip to the city, he thought of little else but his imaginary son. He even had a name for this boy he’d never had: Mendele. But, like with his wife and daughters, whoever is up in heaven and is supposed to listen didn’t. Girls, girls, girls.
Now to know Meyer is to know that he is an optimist. But in matters of the gender of another child, optimism had run its course. So, it was no surprise that, after a while, when he bedded down with his Gilda, felt her flesh against his, and breathed in her all-too-familiar smells, that the constant companion, which always swelled when he lay with her, betrayed him. Gilda knew right away that something was wrong. She reached over and began feeling for what was supposed to be there. It wasn’t. “Where did it go? What did you do with it?” This was no question. This was an accusation. She knew infidelity was not part of a husband who doesn’t long for tomorrows. The accusation was that he was withholding. Not pleasure, but the possibility of a boy. Meyer should have felt the humiliation, but he didn’t. He felt relief. When you have six of one kind, and you are poor and don’t have the money to marry even one of them off, it is a relief to not have to gamble that you’ll get it right next time. Dying with six daughters still at home was a big bag of troubles.
But death was not for today. Today was for the endless trip to the city, and with fall about to tumble into winter — oh, he did not want to think about winter, because if it was so cold now — how would it be when winter came?
Meyer started to feel that familiar chill in his shoulders when the sun sits low in the sky this time of the year. He had a choice to make, one of the few in the life he was leading. Should the blanket be under him to ease the pain from the boney beast or around his shoulders to ease the cold? Would it have been too much to hope for two blankets? Is that more than a man is entitled to? The fact was, it did seem more than this man was entitled to, and his shoulders were beginning to pain him more than did his buttocks.
The road was no friend to Meyer and Steka. He was feeling more pain and he could tell his donkey was sharing the sentiment. How could he tell what Steka was feeling? Easy. It happens when two of God’s creatures have been together for so long. Take the time that Meyer was getting ready for the trip and was in a state of distress because he knew he was forgetting something but couldn’t figure out what. The beast put his muzzle in the small of Meyer’s back and pushed him to the jug of water sitting against the wall. So how did Meyer know his dear friend was getting weary under his weight? For the last half mile he had felt the bottom of his boots touching the road. Steka was sagging. It was time to get off the donkey and walk.
Walking, however, had its drawbacks. First there were his knees. Oh, how they ached under the burden of a disproportionate belly. Meyer thought of doing something about his weight from time to time, when Gilda would nag about his belly being bigger than when she was carrying a baby. But his good intentions never survived the next meal.
Feet. How could so many toes complain so much? One wife, six daughters, ten toes, all making, as Meyer was apt to say in moments of distress, “Noise, noise and more noise.” But there was also some relief. After all, Meyer was a survivor. When it came to the family, the long hours he spent with his cart doing business meant long hours of not hearing them. And as for his feet, his boots had become their good friends. They hadn’t always been so.
It was the left boot that had betrayed him. There was something inside it that wasn’t right. His little toe made the discovery. At first, Meyer thought it was a pebble, so he took off the boot, turned it upside down and shook, shook, shook. Nothing. He put his hand in as far as it could go. Nothing. “Two nothings and a red toe,” Meyer said in exasperation. “It must be a sign.” So many signs of doom and disaster in this man’s life, and this was just one more. What do you do with this one? A rich man might buy a new pair of boots. If you are poor, you put your foot in the boot and keep on going. So Meyer did just that. Every morning he put on his boots and went about his business, and part of that business was pain.
Then one day the pain was gone. Just like it had come, it was gone. He took off the boot and ran his finger inside. This time he could feel it. The lining was so rough it hurt his finger to touch it. He took off the sock and ran the same finger along the side of his toe. The skin that had been raw and painful was now rough. He could feel a thickness where once it had been smooth.
There was a lesson to be learned and, for the most part, Meyer got it. Living inside every pair of boots is a problem. Don’t be too quick to make a trade because the next pair may be worse than the one you have. And there is always the possibility of a miracle, even for a man with nothing.
Meyer thought about his boots as he and Steka staggered along, until he noticed the donkey was not as close to the ground as it had been before. With that, he slung a sore leg over the beast’s back, and he and his old friend continued their journey.
“How long can you last, old friend?” How long? For a man who survives by not worrying in a world where there is lots to worry about, this was his one worry. How would he get to the city if there was no Steka? Another donkey was more than he could afford, and walking back and forth each month would be more than his old bones could manage. He had done it when he was younger, and there was no Steka — before his father-in-law had given him the donkey so he could make the trip. But now there was nothing young about Meyer, and there was no father-in- law. No Steka and disaster would be his companion. Meyer willed the horror of this possibility to leave his brain. “Don’t worry about what you can’t fix,” he reminded himself. Worry, he knew, can steal years from a man’s life, and he had to be in this life at least once a month, when the moon was full.
“One more hill, you stupid beast,” said Meyer, digging his heels into Steka’s flanks. He could see the glow of the city lights above the tree line, and feel the cold that was moving from the top of his body to the bottom. Even his feet, enshrouded by thick socks and boots, were feeling the chill. If it was this bad now, how bad would it be when the snow began to fall? Another “worrying” thought to push out of his head.
Steka goes at Steka’s speed. No slower, no faster. Meyer could poke, kick or slap, but that would do nothing. And so they plodded on until the last hill was behind him.
The orange glow from the lamp that hung in the apothecary’s window pierced the night. It would guide them through that last little bit of the journey.
“Ah, it’s you, Meyer. I’ve been waiting,” said the pharmacist. “Every month it seems to take you a little longer. It must be that the distance from the village to here gets a little farther. Nu, what do you think?”
Meyer was too tired to think. He pulled out a little pouch he had pinned to his waistband, and coins tumbled onto the counter. It had taken him a month of labor to accumulate them all. Just enough. Not a penny more, not a penny less. The pharmacist counted out thirty little envelopes of powdered medicine, put them in a bag, and handed them to his customer. Meyer folded the package into the smallest bundle he could make and slipped it into his shirt. Gilda would live another month.
Meyer left at sunrise. Still warm from his night’s sleep in the pharmacist’s shed, he folded his blanket and placed it on Steka. He felt his chest for the package of medicine. It was where he had put it. “Why, old man, do you do what you do each month when the moon is full?” he asked himself. The answer came as it always did.
Meyer gently pushed his boots into Steka’s flanks as they began their slow journey home.