The Tale of A Black Man
By Samuel L. Blank
Translated from Hebrew by Stephen Katz
After their wedding, Dave and Mary opened a barber shop. With a few hundred dollars from their bank savings they bought the instruments and necessary furnishings, some with cash and others in installments.
Dave and Mary worked diligently and tirelessly to improve the shop from within and without. To draw attention, they themselves painted the floor and the windows after washing and scraping day and night. Mary cut and fashioned flowers and decorative ornaments out of colorful paper, hanging brightly colored pictures appropriate for a barbershop. It was hard to recognize her, the striking blond soiled and unkempt exactly like a hired maid.
When all was done, a sign painter came and painted up the big shiny front window in bright golden letters with the inscription in English: “Dave Grossman’s Barber Shop.” Then they waited for customers.
At first the barbershop was empty, as if all the men had vanished from the big bustling city. Dave would stand at the doorway wrapped in his white smock, his hair washed and combed, and chain-smoking cigarettes out of boredom, staring at every passerby inquisitively and, finally, becoming very irritated.
Mary was occupied arranging the two small rooms upstairs. From time to time, when the bell in the shop announced the door being opened, she left her work and hurried downstairs to see if it was a customer; but alas, it was only Dave.
—No one is coming.
And when his wife remained silent, he said, worrying:—I’m afraid we will need to move to another neighborhood.
So passed a few weeks. Finally, the hoped-for day arrived—a customer came in. Dave performed his job dutifully as if inspired. Those hands that were idle for so long and longed for activity, no sooner had they sensed a person’s head than they performed wonders. The sharp scissors devoured the hair hungrily as if they, too, have been fasting. He ministered over the customer for a long while, not sparing the perfumes, and satisfied himself with a meager payment.
Gradually, the barbershop’s reputation spread through the neighborhood. Now the clients were many; one reading the paper and the other a magazine while awaiting their turns.
Since it was difficult for Dave to perform the entire task, Mary, too, put on a white smock and helped her husband out. For some reason the men longed to fall into her hands. It was pleasant to feel the touch of her pale and supple hands on their shaved faces or going through their hair, to take in the fresh scent of her body, a scent of a blossoming young woman, and to behold her as she was in the great crystalline mirror. Her image was reflected in all its glory and charm, from her hair that was the color of ripened wheat to her slim shapely form and chaste breasts concealed beneath the white smock. Even her dimples were not left unnoticed, even the straight and even milk-white teeth sparkled as they were reflected in the crystalline glass. Each movement she made, whether taking hold of a white towel or pulling the razor over the taut leather strap, aroused a joyous feeling in everyone’s heart in expectation of something stimulating and pleasurable to follow. Oh, what a pity it was to leave that seat and yield it to another! True, the attractive barber would flash you another golden smile or an enchanting look, but soon enough she would turn her head to the next customer, the one already seated in the chair, uttering in a mellifluous voice:
The barbershop was nice and spacious. Mary’s expert hand was evident everywhere. The woman knew no rest. During off hours she washed the floor or cleaned the windowpane, the latter serving as an advertising page to the outside. What did Mary not display in it? And all was done tastefully and in an organized way—a picture of handsome men of varied types and assorted haircuts; a statue of a man black as coal bearing some kind of platter on his head in which all manner of things were placed: brushes, combs, flasks, a razor, scissors, etc. Even paper flowers in the colors of the American flag were not missing; tightly crisscrossed straps; and even the image of Uncle Sam with his high hat bearing forty-eight stars and a beard like ancient Egypt’s Pharaohs, all cut out of cardboard and standing firmly on a pyramid of assorted boxes.
Dave was not jealous of her. He knew fullwell that her relationship with the customers was for the sake of public relations. This is what the business required; it could not be otherwise. Was there any reason to doubt her love for him? Mary was endearing as a cat hungry to be stroked and petted. At times when they were alone, she would press herself to her husband, all love and submission. Then, too, she would smile, though it was a completely different smile, safely kept in her soul as a precious jewel in a golden box which, emerging into the world, was aglow with the radiance of her wide-open blue eyes and the mysterious shade of her two faint dimples.
Most of the time the barbershop was full of people, some who came for a haircut and others who just dropped in to talk. Even Officer Kelly, the strong and broad-shouldered cop, was among those who showed up. He was bored of standing or walking in the street so he just dropped in to the brightly-lit barbershop that was nearby. Kelly was not accustomed to sit, so he leaned against the wall, brandishing the nightstick in his hand, vigorously chewing his gum with all parts of his red face while sounding off in a deep voice at all his listeners. He would frequently get his hair cut, but only under Mary’s hands. Shamelessly, Kelly admitted that all she had to do was pass the barber’s razor over his face for him to fall into a deep sleep. All would laugh, even her husband Dave. But Mary’s silver-bell laughter towered above all:
Hee hee hee!
The business flourished. Several more instruments and tools were added. Even an electric sign was placed outside, spinning day and night with its red white and blue lights mutely announcing:
—This is a barbershop.
Nothing was missing except for a black shoe-shine man. How could there be a barbershop without a shoeshine? A man leaves the barbershop all shorn and perfumed and needs nothing but his shoes polished.
So a black man was found. His name was Josh. Who brought him? Officer Kelly. The black man came in as he was, black and soiled, and remained standing by the door: I am Josh the black man. What most drew everyone’s attention were his eyes: two glowing embers in an egg-white and two thick lips resembling burnt charcoal. His face was as if freshly smearedin black ointment. The lower part of his nose was spread wide and his oval head reminded one of a newborn lamb’s curly hair. His forehead was low and seemed painted with shiny pitch. When he spoke, his tongue wagged as the torn sole of a boot in a swamp. He was short and thin, his coat hanging on him like a sack, his collar and tie were soiled as he was.
At the question if he, Josh, knew how to shine shoes, it was Kelly who answered:
—Have you ever seen a black man who does not know how to shine shoes?
—Does Josh have a family?
—He has a wife named Esther and is father of four little ones.
—How old is he?
—I don’t know; twenty-two or maybe more.
—Why did he rush to get married?
—Hee-hee, he saw Esther, lusted after her beauty and took her for a wife. Esther is working and so is he—and they don’t have enough at home.
—Will Josh be good and devoted to his boss?
Kelly was in charge of the cross-examination as is proper to a cop on 32nd street and its alleyways, conducting it in his official tone of voice. Later, when the officer left, Mary turned to the black man:
—Is Josh hungry?
—Hungry and not. If the lady should offer, I will eat.
Mary served him a good piece of bread and spicy salami. The black man was most thankful to her and sensed, as a stray dog, the pretty lady’s good intention. When he finished eating, he wanted to pay back with work. And since the lady was just getting ready to do the floor, he offered to take her place, saying:
—Let the lady ignore that he is a man; there’s no one as good as he to do this job. Floors shine under his hands, as a mirror. She, the lady, was created to do different work, cleaner and nicer work. It would be a pity if her white hands should get soiled.
And indeed, Josh showed great skill in that job.
—Good, Josh, said Mary.
The black man was happy. The lady was so good! Besides the sufficient food, she also gave him a pack of clothes: an old suit for him and an old dress for Esther; some ties and shirts, too, as well as a pair of shoes and a hat. There was no end to the black man’s joy. Were he not embarrassed he would have begun to dance. Imagine: such a present! Did not Old Lady Ossie’s words come true? Josh went to Ossie the black woman; he put before her a twenty-five cent coin, to tell: what should Josh do to find an easy and comfortable job? Ossie melted some wax, drew her thumbnail over it, whispered some, and said: “Go left and stand in the middle of three streets—good fortune awaits you there.” Josh did as she said. He stood for an hour, two hours, and was ready to return to Grandma Ossie—there’s no truth to her words; let her return the money—but all of a sudden Officer Kelly came upon him and he brought him here, to the barbershop. Now he is going to go home to tell Esther of the important job and the fine bosses. Then he will begin to do his job—to make himself a shoeshine box. So it was on the next morning, while the barbershop was still locked, that Josh was already waiting outside with his creation—the box.
When Dave came out, the black man greeted him:
—Morning, sir. Here’s the box. Does he like it?
—No, the box was not good.
Josh scratched his head. All night long he had been bent over his work, he sawed and planed, glued board to board, painted in colors, as the colors of the electric light (let him, sir, count them); but if Sir says “no good,” he must be right.
He, Dave, ordered a shoeshine kit from a craftsman and it will be ready today. For the time being, let Josh prepare the other instruments. Does he know which?
Does Josh know! It’s as if he was asked for his name. For ten years he worked at shoe-shining, his permanent place was by the central station. All the gentlemen knew him. Hi Josh! How are you Josh? There were many shoe-shines there, as many as the street lights in the city. Among them were also whites who gave him mean looks. All shouted loudly, but he remained quiet, polite. To whom did people come? To Josh! And in a line! Once he even had a colonel named Lincoln— a co-lo-nel! He paid with a dollar, a crispy new bill. Does sir want to know what the instruments are? Here they are, by the count of one’s fingers: four brushes, two for black and two for brown; four rags, three kinds of polish, a jar of polish; a brush to brush gentlemen’s clothes—and that’s it. Was Josh ever a shoes-shine!
On the same morning Josh began his job on the right foot. A client came to the barbershop and Joe, stooped to the ground, polished his shoes. It was hard, very hard, nevertheless he performed wonders. The shoes were dirty and stained so that it was hard to tell their true color, but under Josh’s two brushes they soon took on a new look, as clear as a mirror!
It was his first triumph. The second was shining the barbershop window. Dave was accustomed to cleaning the window pane every morning with a kind of a cork made for the purpose. When Josh saw Mr. Grossman armed with a handle and bucket, he proposed to do the job himself.
Dave refused. The reason: the pane requires great care.
Josh: No. He has extensive experience doing this job, too.
Later, when Dave saw the pane clear, shiny and pure, he admitted: Josh is a man of valor!
It was the most glorious day in Josh’s life—a sign for future days. When Mary came down from the second floor she was amazed:
—Is this Josh?
The black man was on cloud nine. He was clean shaven, wearing a tie and dressed in the suit that Mary had given him as a present. The lady stood close to him, fresh and fragrant, joyous and radiant as a great rose dipped in morning dew. What could he boast to her about? Let’s begin with his salary:
—Today he already made twenty cents.
—You don’t say!
The black man’s two eyes, black fire and white fire, began to shine with happiness:
—Let Mr. Grossman admit, how were the shoes of that gentleman before and after?
Dave concealed a barely-perceptible smile on his lips:
The black man was unsatisfied:
—Let the missus check the window pane—can she tell?
The lady turned her beautiful head, the laughter was barely suppressed. But seriously:
Now Josh had nothing but to pray in his heart:
—Shoes, come to me, many shoes!
Josh’s “shop” was outside, by the barbershop. It was a sofa chair affixed to a long box with a ramp. To the box, near the seat, were attached two iron soles on which shoes would be placed. The tools— brushes, jars and rags—were all under the sofa.
Josh loved rule and order. He was wrapped in a cloth apron with sleeves rolled up, ready for work. He already recognized and knew the neighborhood residents, Christians and Jews, and as they passed by him he would greet them, looking over their shoes and offering his service:
When not busy, he strolled by the shop looking for people to greet.
It was summer, Josh’s most favorite season. The barbershop was on a street corner with a few alleys to its right and left. From time to time new faces would appear. There was always something with which to feast the eyes. There the streetcar passed noisily, lingering by the next corner, letting people out and swallowing others before moving on. At times one could follow the beautiful face of a young woman peeking through open windows and to smile to himself without knowing why; across from him there shines a pane glass window and there Mr. Weiner is yawning near the meat-market; here the Jewish peddler appears with his empty cart shouting about old clothes; sweeping up the trash in the street there is Bob, the old black man. It’s possible to approach him meanwhile and ask, without boasting:
—What’s new, Bob?
Now Mr. Grossman, the landlord, comes out to roll a cigarette outside. Josh approaches him:
—Nice weather, no?
Dave treats the black man to a cigarette. Both stand smoking, one tall and clean and the other short and thin, flapping with his tongue and looking meanwhile at Bob limping on one leg and armed with a broom twice as big as he, as if saying: Can you see the level to which Josh got to rise? Not every black man gets to do so!
Josh rejoiced particularly when the missus appeared. Oh, how many virtues does this woman have, and particularly the love of conversation. Mr. Grossman is a quiet man and somewhat arrogant, but she is a chatterbox. Her voice is clear, and it penetrates deep within him, to the innermost of his soul, as if he was listening to some wondrous music; and how lovely are her hair locks, hair whose strands he hungered to count and to kiss each and every one separately; and her mouth? Dear God! And she would never come out empty-handed; she always brought out something sweet, whether a chocolate or a sweet cake. And is there any greater pleasure than standing close to her and to eat with her? Had he seen Bob, what would he say?
At times she climbed up on the sofa seat and he would shine her shoes. Indeed, it is worthwhile to live in this world just to perform this job! She sits, the pretty and good hearted lady, slightly bent forward, her dress raised somewhat so that her lovely legs appear through the transparent silk stockings, her shoes are short, as those of an infant. Had missus Mary allowed, he would kiss them. Meanwhile he satisfied himself by merely touching them. The touch was sufficient to run an electric current through him from the roots of his hair to the soles of his feet. Slowly, intentionally so as to draw it out, he polished, and with care, as a mother washing her newborn. How difficult it is to part from this blossoming body that intoxicates him with its fresh scent. Josh forgets the world and all his being is focused on these two lovely legs before him. And when the lady comes off the seat, he feels a sorrow in his heart, a great sorrow, as if a shining sun disappeared with her and sadness would descend upon him. She went to where she went leaving behind her a good scent and the memory of her small shoes. Oh, had his guitar been with him he’d sit on the seat and pour out his soul upon it, for the lady with the curls of the color of ripe grain and with the pure, sky-blue eyes. And since the guitar was not with him, he strolled by the barbershop’s clear window pane—perhaps he will catch a sight of Mary; maybe he will hear her voice. And then:
It’s the lady. Again he stands before her, his face shiny as pitch against the light.
—Josh should go out and buy her this and that.
He brings the package, carrying it to her, to the kitchen. She gives him a tip. But it’s not the tip that matters. More valuable is to stand alone with her.
The best day of the week is the Sabbath. Work is plentiful and the profits considerably; one customer leaves and another comes in. At evening time he tidies the two upstairs rooms. Mary wanted to hire a black woman but Josh protested:
—Why should the missus spend money? Can’t he, Josh, do the windows and wash the floor?
Josh was happy. Imagine!—to be in Missus Mary’s bedroom, to move the bed that she lay in and wash the spot on which she will tread. With a kind of reverence he felt the pillow on which she slept and the blanket that covered her and the dresses hanging in the corner. Her scent was preserved in them, that odor that enfolds his spirit and is reminiscent of springtime, a blooming garden and fragrant flowers. Before him stands the glass-covered dresser upon which lay all the articles she uses. One by one, he picks them up and looks them over: this is the hair brush which she uses to arrange her hair, and these are the scissors with which she cuts her nails. Here’s the picture, a picture of Missus Mary. One can kiss her without being seen, hold her against one’s chest and whisper her name. He could stand for a long time before her dressing-table, no one will come now, and no one will disturb him. He is now in a mysterious palace illuminated by a blue electric light that imparts a dimness of an otherworldly sun upon him. Every corner is saturated with Mary’s scent; her imprint is everywhere. Everything, it seems, awaits her return, everything declares mutely: reign over us, you magnificent daughter of Eve.
The black man paces slowly in the bedroom, as if afraid to disturb its sanctity. Many melodies sound out in his heart. Some of them he knew from long ago and some were born at that time and in that place; but of all he would pick a one-word pure prayer of the heart:
Reluctantly, Josh returned home, leaving and entering alleyways with Mary on his mind. He recollected the day’s impressions and tossed them about as an infant would play with his favorite toys: three times he went on errands for her. Once, as he gave her the package, he touched her white hand; once she gently cuffed his cheek saying, Good boy, Josh. He retained all these as a good perfume in a sealed jar.
On his way he walked past many white women, but none was like Mary. They moved out of his way in scorn and revulsion, but she—she was like a sister to him, good and merciful.
Josh passed through busy, illuminated streets and past big and opulent stores. In the past, he loved to stand and stare at the displayed merchandise. Now he paid no attention, choosing instead places that were quiet and without pedestrians so as to daydream of his white goddess.
The road home was long, but it seemed that it was just now that he left the barbershop and he is already at home. He is strolling over the cracked sidewalk near semi-derelict buildings and soiled blacks. The street was filled with them, men, women and children.
And there is his home. The dim light of a flickering gas fixture trickled through the open doorway. The windows were red and squinted as the eyes of a drunkard. A multitude of black half-naked toddlers were playing on the sidewalk, among them his four little ones. On the shabby step by the door sat Esther—a corpulent black woman with a bare chest and exposed knees—awaiting her husband.
Josh entered without a greeting, dropped on the torn sofa, remaining silent. Esther, a woman, showered him with questions, why was he late returning, how much did he make today—and he responded reluctantly and without looking at her. Josh is tired, she thought, standing on his feet from morning till night. Let him regain his strength and his mood will change. She can vouch for it from personal experience: after a day of hard work and frequently standing before a tub full of underwear—solitude does one good.
Meanwhile, she served dinner, a meal Josh loved: potatoes fried in butter. The little ones came in, four of them, and clambered up to the table. In the semi-darkness they resembled four creatures hurrying at some loot, each from a different side of the table, with wide trembling nostrils and with lustful and yearning eyes. Mother scolded, hitting them mercilessly. They did not fear mother but looked at their irate father.
After the meal, which passed quietly between husband and wife, Esther began:
—Today was a hot day.
Josh was silent.
—She made two dollars and fifty cents today.
Instead of getting into a conversation, Josh went to sit on the stairs for the evening breeze.
There was a great tumult in the street. The black children set fire to pieces of crumbling buildings and danced around the bonfire in a clamor. Across the street a loud argument broke out among some blacks, so there was a racket and commotion and running every which way. Even Esther hurried to that spot. When she returned she brought the daily bit of news—John got drunk and beat his wife. Why? It’s the same old story: he suspected her and called her a whore.
Josh heard and did not hear; before his mind’s eye stood Mary.
The silence returned, but a heavy wagon appeared out of nowhere announcing itself from afar as if someone over there was rolling stones; a tram passed noisily in the nearby street; cats (they were black, too) cried longingly at one another in a wailing sound; a dog and his black master, who did not see each other all day, ran after each other in high spirits; somewhere someone blew a trumpet noisily. Laughter and a baby’s cry.
Esther wanted to please her husband and sat down by the piano, one that plays on its own. It was a real find; she bought it half-price in the antiques bazaar. True, it was battered and could barely remain standing, but it was a musical instrument nonetheless—put your foot down below and it emits a tum-tum-tum. It’s Saturday night now. Tomorrow, after all, is a day of rest. If Josh would like, they can take a trip on the streetcar that passes through the park. She will wear her new dress, the dress that Josh brought her as a gift from his boss lady. She will even wear the hat. Oh, that will be interesting! Inspired by these thoughts she put her feet on the piano’s pedals and accompanied the tune with her thin and shrill voice:
Josh got highly irritated at Esther. She plays the piano! Look at her, that fat cow! He got up and left. Where to? He himself did not know, except that he did not want to hear her tum-tum. Josh was tired, but that was nothing. He wandered as a cloud, he and the image of Mary before his eyes. In the dark her form was accentuated, just like that lamp far over there. This is a neighborhood of blacks. Black people of all shape and form emerged from everywhere, lumbering like seals on a raging beach. Here, too, the noise was unbearable. So he slipped away from there and, surprise, came upon a store-filled street. He walked past stores with illuminated shopping windows, lingering here for a while and there for a while. Over here stood a jewelry store. How nice would that chain look on Mary’s neck. Over here was a photographer’s studio. Many pictures were hung on display in an illuminated, glass-encased box, most of them of women, very beautiful women. But Mary surpasses them all. Had her picture been hanging here, by God, all the people would have been crowding in to see her! Who is she? And he, Josh, would have answered: Her name is Mary.
At a late hour, Josh returned home. Esther was still awake. She rested upon the step and awaited his return. He saw her from afar, a black, living mass. The little ones were already asleep, some on the floor and others on the sofa. The piano stood heavy and silent occupying half the space in the room. The gas lamp trickled and heavy shadows hovered on the walls.
Esther came after him, as she was—bare-chested, clumsy and pregnant, her hairs standing upright on her head as frozen sprays of pitch and her face shining black. More terrible than she was the shadow that stretched behind her. Josh had loved her in the past. Now she was repulsive to him.
Esther wondered: What has become of her Josh? Why is he so sullen? He always gave her his salary to the last penny, to talk with her at length and even kiss her, and now, as if mute, he does not open his mouth.
Maybe Josh is sick? Maybe he encountered an obstacle on his way? Why does he feel his cheeks? She put her heavy hand on his cheek:
Josh pushed her hand angrily:
Her wonder became more pronounced: Is this Josh? Esther endeavored to stir him with her femininity, she wanted to arouse his desire, but Josh did not touch her, he barely saw her. She began arguing loudly. Josh heard his shame and remained silent. Esther turned to the bedroom, dropped to the bed as a wounded animal, lay with open eyes and sought to solve the riddle: What has become of Josh?
Yes, Josh had changed greatly of late. Once a week he would go to the bath house and he changed his underwear frequently. He bought scented soap, a bottle of perfume, a comb, and a few washcloths. No one was allowed to touch them. He kept them in a locked box. Every morning he would shave and shampoo his curly hair until it hurt. He knew clearly that a foul smell comes from him that is repulsive to all whites. More than once he saw when he stood next to Mary that she wrinkled up her nose in loathing, and he surmised—she cannot bear his odor.
Josh was a kind father who played with his children. Now he was as a stranger to them, chasing them away. Why? He was afraid that their odor would cling to him.
Esther saw everything and was anguished. She was hurt not only by the insult to her shamed children but for her own humiliation. She was a young woman in need of love—and her husband was abstaining. He bought himself a sofa with a pillow and blanket and slept separately. The little home turned into a hell. The family’s tranquility was disrupted. She would have been relieved were Josh to repay her insults, or even beat her. But he remained silent and the wind carried her words away. Things went so far that Esther took it outside their home. The neighbors and those hungry for any gossip gathered about to hear the arguments. Esther was not shy about getting to the point—her husband is abstaining. The men laughed and the women advised her to sue him. She found their advice good, but for now she began by investigating his ways. Perhaps Josh had a lover. He must have a lover, but who is she? Jealousy was eating her up. She ran through all the young black women in the neighborhood, the married and the unmarried. She surreptitiously followed her husband, but she found nothing. It remained a riddle. For whom does he groom himself? And why did he become so refined? Not only that, but he also distanced himself from the neighbors, as if it is not proper for him to befriend those of his race. Josh used to be gay and full of life. When the mood came over him he would dance and sing or play his guitar for their pleasure and the children’s enjoyment. She had had it good and he never touched her in a bad way. The house was joyous, and now such a change! He said nothing to her, neither good nor bad. If she went out to sit on the step he left her and went into the house. It was obvious—Josh hates her. She scrutinized her actions, maybe she had sinned against him—but she found herself clean. She used a variety of means to bring him back to her—but to no use. The fights and quarrels increased from day to day, especially on Sunday. That day became a horror. Curious people surrounded the little apartment in hordes. Whosoever had a tongue in his mouth would sharpen it, egging them on and pouring oil on the fire:
—Josh has a mistress.
—Two, young and pretty.
—Josh, are you a man? Let her have it!
—I would have spilled her guts!
—Scratch his face, Esther!
That was enough! Josh could stand it no more. So what did he do? One day, when Esther was not at home, he gathered his belongings and went and rented a room in a distant neighborhood. But Esther did not panic. She did not know where his new residence was, so she took her little ones and came to the barbershop. As soon as she entered she began to raise a hue and cry.
Dave and Mary, who were alone in the shop, were aghast. What does this woman want? They could not get a word out of her; she wailed and tore at her pitch-black hair. The children who witnessed her began to wail, too, so the barbershop filled with deafening howls. Dave wanted to take her outside but Mary objected: There must be a reason and it calls for an investigation.
Meanwhile customers arrived and the affair became a cause for laughter and scorn.
The black woman kept repeating: she will not move until she sees him, her “sport.” Who was it? She would not specify. Neither Mary’s entreaties nor Dave’s threats were of use—she howled as a wounded beast, gathering her little ones, two on one side and two on the other, and announced:
—Here she will stand even if she dies here.
There was laughter within and without.
—So what’s new?
—A senseless black woman stole into the barbershop and there is no removing her.
—So where is Kelly?
Just then Kelly was not to be seen in the neighborhood, but Josh had returned from an errand and the puzzle was solved. As soon as Esther saw her “sport,” she cast the four little ones aside, her pitch-black hair stood on end even more, and the whites of her eyes grew larger to become a white flame. Her high chest rose, as if her heart kicked up a storm within, and she attacked him in a rage and with earsplitting wails.
Anyone who did not see Josh at the time has never seen a man thunderstruck. Imagine: Esther in the flesh. And where? In the barbershop and in front of Missus Mary. Had the earth opened up he would have leaped into it instead of witnessing his shame. How could he hide his disgrace? At first he wanted to hit Esther, to kick her in the belly, to kill her, but he controlled himself and put himself into her hands to do with as she pleased. Better that he should go deaf than hear her screams; better that he should go blind than witness this scene with his eyes. And above all—Mary; all this was taking place in her presence.
At long last the officer was found and was led by many to the barbershop. He immediately began the questioning. Esther responded to the questions and Josh stood mute, his face scratched. Everything now became clear—she came to punish her husband. Several days ago he left her and the children in the seventh month of her pregnancy. She does not know what fault he has found with her. She did not omit mention of his abstinence, the new bed, the pillow and blanket, the soap and wash cloths and the perfume bottle that he keeps in a locked box.
Kelly laughed and all who gathered laughed also, and Josh—his heart was cringing.
—Is this true, Josh?
Josh remained silent. It was clear that soon he would burst out in tears. He raised his eyes to Mary, to this woman whom he so admired, yet she was cross. Her heart went out to Esther in empathy but he, Josh, was disgraced and held in contempt in her eyes. How could he justify himself?
Finally, Josh and his family were brought to the police for an official investigation. His job, the job of a shoeshine in front of Dave and Mary Grossman’s barbershop, was forever lost.
It was a devastating disappointment. Josh could not come to terms with the idea that from now on he would no longer stand before the barbershop, and would no longer see Mary. That would be impossible, it was like air for a living being.
Following the police investigation, after he promised to be a faithful husband to his wife and a devoted father for his children, he did not return home with his family but went directly to the barbershop. Now, when all the excitement had died down and there no longer was a horde of the curious around the windows to witness his shame, he could quash the evil slander that Esther directed at him in anger, and to prove decisively that he did not steal anything. For some reason he hoped to restore his lost honor so that everything would end happily. Yet things made no impression on his listeners. Dave was particularly angry with him: the day’s event at the barbershop irritated him to no end.
—I am not guilty, boss, Josh almost cried.
But Dave hardened his heart. Who knows what was stolen from the barbershop? He made himself too much at home here. Josh should go now in peace; here is his salary for a week.
The black man did not touch the money. How could he take the money? In so doing he would weaken his remaining position. He had to vindicate himself. He swore in the name of Jesus and Lincoln. Is he, Josh, a thief? As God is his witness, the idea never even crossed his mind. He was ready to bring all his belongings here. He bought them with his own money. It is a false accusation. His wife is wicked, she has always been quarrelsome. She places her own faults onto her husband.
His words were emotional and entreating, almost in tears. He mostly wanted to affect Mary. For was it not because of her that it all happened? Before her he humbled himself submissively. Had he been able to confess the whole truth, to open his heart, he was sure that she would have understood him. But this time she, too, was different; not the good, kind and laughing Mary but a furious goddess. She did not favor him with even one look, not with one word. Is this Missus Mary?
Josh left the barbershop disillusioned. He spent the rest of the day wandering through the bustling city. He went to the park and the river’s edge. He did not return home, despite his promise at the police station. He could not look at Esther, that evil woman who was the cause of all this. He feared that he would not be able to control himself and would attempt to kill her with a knife. It was better for him to be alone with his longings for Mary and his burning shame. Many thoughts ran through Josh’s head—to leave for a faraway city out west and begin a new life. At times he toyed with the hope that after a day or two he would be reinstated. It was impossible for him to remain in one place; something pushed him onward, to wander aimlessly. The roar of the city could not drown out the cry of his heart. He would continue to roam as an outcast dog that had lost his master. On his way he came upon a small park. He dropped to the first bench, buried his head in his hands. There were many passersby, among them children playing among the few trees. Josh saw none but Mary.
On that very night, Josh stole through dark and narrow alleys to the barbershop. For a long while he roamed around there, once on the sidewalk where “his” shop stood, and once on the opposite side. He stood looking up to the two dark second-floor windows. Here the black man justified himself before Mary and revealed his holy secret—he loves her, not a carnal lust but a far different love, the kind of which he’d never known before. Mary looked at him with her amazing eyes and said nothing. He forced himself to remember her scent, the purity of her hands and the snow-white of her neck. Were he allowed he would have remained here all night playing a song from his soul to his white goddess; were he allowed he would have kneeled here all night long uttering a single prayer: Mary. Josh wept tears, boiling tears. His heart melted within him and turned into liquid droplets. No one saw him crying except for the objects on the second floor. The whole world was folded into that floor on which now slept a white goddess named Mary—
When he ran out of his meager funds, he labored a day here, a day there. At nightfall he went to see the barbershop. It was summertime and he was in no need of an apartment. He lay on the grass under a leafy oak tree in the park, watched the stars, the Delaware River that was before him, and smiled at Mary’s image. It was a pity that he did not take his guitar with him; with it he could have expressed all that was in his heart to the warm night. He’d completely forgotten his family, as if he’d never had one. He found his inexpensive meals here and there. At times he went to the cinema, only to leave in the middle. At times he got drunk and slept abandoned in a secluded nook. When he awoke, the gnawing worm woke up as well. Nothing interested him. He wandered alone in the bustling city with Mary’s image before him. He wandered especially in the main thoroughfare; perhaps there he would meet Mary. For some reason he believed that he would find her there. He looked at every woman. At times his eyes played tricks on him, deceiving him to believe that it was Mary walking over there, the same erect stature and the same spring in her step. When he realized his error, his face became contorted in disillusion and he returned to his odd wanderings.
Josh regretted one thing: that he had not stolen Mary’s photograph. Had it been with him, he could have long ago taken it out and kissed it as one kisses an icon of one’s religion. So the black man resolved to get hold of Mary’s picture. He devised many schemes, but the only good one was to steal into the barbershop unnoticed, to secretly go up to the second floor and steal it. The thought gave him no rest. But how? Night upon night, when he came by the barbershop, he searched for ways to go up to the second story. The best time was on Saturday night. Both Dave and Mary were then occupied at work downstairs and the second floor was empty.
And so it was.
On Saturday, as it got dark, Josh wandered in the alleyways near the barbershop. Every once in a while he came closer from one side, the side where few people were present. Caution was essential. He kept looking sideways, and every time a person appeared he turned away. He had to complete his deed quickly, lest all work finish and the shop close. Since he was familiar with the area, he chose a courtyard near the Grossman house. He peeked through the fence—no one was there. Slowly, he opened the gate and entered the yard. For a while he hid in a secluded nook to calm his beating heart and plan his way. While standing in the narrow passageway between the two buildings he examined the walls—from which side should he climb up? He was completely focused. His ears pricked up and his eyes looked in all directions at any movement. Then he removed his shoes and climbed up onto the roof. Luckily, the night was pitch black and he kept himself in the dark. On this side not even one street light existed and the many-branched tree that stood in the yard concealed him. He slid by the high wall, grasping the gutter at one time and a protruding beam at another. Thus he slid, step by step, like a shadow. Everything went right—even the cats, who lusted here every night, were not to be seen. All the traffic existed on the other side, on the street and the sidewalks. There people talked, children played, the streetcar passed noisily, but here all was completely silent. Only once in a while did someone pass by, and the steps beat on his heart as sledgehammers. At time the homeowner came out to the yard, it was big-bellied Mr. Fish who suffered from asthma and whom Josh used to greet every morning. He either sought something in the dark or answered a question of his wife who stood in the open doorway. Again it was quiet. The question now arose whether the windows of the second story were open. Yes, the windows were open and a dim bluish light streamed out through them. What was there? Was anyone inside? No, it was impossible, Mary surely forgot to put the light out. He looked down again and listened attentively, waited a short while, and took the last step.
When he entered he was totally surprised. That which he did not permit himself to even see in his dreams he now saw in the flesh—Mary asleep in bed. The black man soon forgot the reason for his coming and saw nothing before him but this marvelous sight. By the light of the bluish light she appeared even more beautiful. Her mane spilled as molten gold onto the white pillow. Her thick eyelashes put her closed eyes in a shadow. Her lips, twin bedewed roses were slightly agape and her small white teeth glistened as pure as snow. A slight blush came upon her pale cheeks. She lay supine, the thin blanket folded back slightly to reveal her muslin nightgown and the dark cleavage of a beautiful and chaste breast. One hand was behind her head and the other, thin and pale, lay limply on the blanket. Her fingers were spread open, on one a golden ring bearing a sparkling gem stone, speckled by the electric light. Her chest heaved gently, as the breathing of a sleeping babe. The small room was saturated with the scent of her fresh, blossoming flesh. All was silent, as if watchful over her sleep. The evening breeze stole in, fluttered her hair and made the white muslin nightgown tremble. Behold, she moved her head, her legs. The blanket slid down further, deepening the cleavage of her breast. Her pink flesh showed, and the nipple of a single breast peeked out. Behold, she raised one foot and then another appeared, a small foot with small toes.
The black man could not take his eyes off the sleeping woman. Mary’s photograph stood on the bureau and all he had to do was put out his hand and take it. Yet he did not touch it. He was beside himself—here before him lay Mary nearly naked. Something within urged him to approach the bed, to get down on one knee before her and kiss her exposed foot, each and every toe. Yet any movement was difficult, as if he was riveted to the ground. Torrents of blood coursed through him, thumping in his brain and cascading as a mighty waterfall in his heart. He just had to lean against the wall or fall in a quiver. Josh forgot everything. Was he dreaming or awake? And although he sensed the danger lurking in this place, he did not budge, and all desire to move evaporated. He did not miss out on even one of her movements. The image of her body was engraved deeply in his being and he was all eyes—
Behold, he is nude, running after a naked maiden over burning ground and under flaming skies. A powerful cry is about to burst from his mouth, a savage call in the Sahara Desert. But soon enough he was shaken out of his stupor as if by an inner voice, he woke out of a dream and his eyes, fixed at first at an imagined sight, grew larger and more savage—and became fixed on the round nipple of her breast. He no longer beheld Mary in other guises but as a woman with whom he can quench his burning thirst, like water poured over a flame. All of a sudden he stirred and approached the bed, closed his mouth to check his feverish breathing, but his breath exploded through his quivering nostrils and his forehead became covered with dew. Every so often Officer Kelly’s face flashed through his dim conscience, or Dave with his barber’s razor and a mob of white men, but they soon faded as sparks in the darkness. At other times pure and good-hearted Mary appeared before him, the Mary whom he bore in his heart as a pure prayer. Is this what a man would do to his goddess? Mighty forces clashed within him.
Mary was oblivious. Because of the heat, she threw the blanket off her and lay there half naked. One breast, round and beautiful, was completely bare. The other was still covered: two ripe apples, a sight for hungry eyes. And her flesh, Mary’s flesh, was all scent, pure and wondrous. Her every vein and sinew a fount of life, small pouches of an intoxicating wine. Now a dimple in one cheek appeared, and then another. Now an imperceptible smile formed on her lips, an illumination of a radiant meditation of the spirit. The lamp’s dim light cast a mysterious shadow over her. She slept, but life within her was awake. Her mane shook as if each and every hair was whispering separately. Thin veins moved beneath the pallor of her neck, forehead and temples.
Burdened by the heavy struggle within him, the black man stood over her as a nightmare. The room crumbled in him to its foundation. The floor and ceiling were pulled from under and above him. The bed, too, vanished as if by a magical incantation and he was again surprised by African jungles and himself all resplendent in sunbeams with the blood of ancient generations raging in his veins. But behold! the scene changed and he was now in an enchanted palace with a white goddess in it. He alone was with her, her name was Mary. His heart wanted to cry out, to complain before her about loneliness and grief, poverty and shame. He, Josh, is now serene, as bright skies after a storm. A great sun rose in his soul, pouring its light through his exhausted and feeble body. Pure springs uttered hymns in his heart and he bent down to the sleeping woman and kissed her on the lips:
A mortifying shriek stunned Josh, the scream of Mary awakening in fright, followed by a second and then a third. Soon enough, the black man came to his senses. Like one sobering up, his consciousness cleared as he realized the danger lurking and vanished through the bedroom’s open windows.
When Dave and a few customers burst into the bedroom, they found Mary swooning. They revived her with some difficulty. Overcome by terror, she was shaking uncontrollably and blurted out in broken sounds:
—Josh—he wanted to rape me.
She pointed to the windows.
A great tumult arose. A wild running began from the stairs leading into the barbershop and then outside. Soon enough the news spread through the neighborhood and people gathered in crowds at the scene of the deed. Someone from upstairs burst out crying:
—A doctor—she is fainting!
All began to squeeze inside—to hear first-hand what had happened. Various rumors flew about from mouth to mouth, one contradicting the other:
—Her mouth was stopped up with a rag—and she was raped.
—Her nightgown is torn to shreds and she is covered in wounds.
—She has lost her senses.
Suddenly, one word spread outside: Josh. The name passed from one end of the street to the other and everything became clear: The black man who was the shoeshine at the barbershop had raped Mary.
The crowd was stunned, as if a bomb had gone off.
—Where is he?
—Where is the black man?
Suddenly, the mob moved in a mighty dark surge to the alleyway behind the barbershop. Without exception a thirst for revenge overtook them all. Eyes flickered in the dark, and hands turned to fists—to murder. Everyone hurried to cut a path by force, as if afraid to miss the first chance to quench their burning rage.
—Where is he?
There was no doubt that the black man was somewhere nearby. It could not be that he would escape so quickly. So they split up every which way to seek out their mortal enemy. Some climbed the fences, suspending themselves from trees and from there onto the roofs. Others wended their way through narrow alleys and dark passages. Ceaselessly, new faces came to join, leaving their house doors open to be swept up by the mob. The whole neighborhood became a torrent of raging people thirsty for revenge. At one time they came together as a wall and at others, followed each other as raging waves, one above and the other below. Now they broke into a sudden run, as flocks of sheep during a storm, and then they turned back where they came from. All it took was for one or two to make their way into some street and the whole mob immediately followed. Each man was mumbling to himself, each expressed whatever came to him and repeated the words of others:
—Have you ever heard of such an outrage?
—He is going to get killed!
The streetcar that passed in the street stopped, as if colliding with a solid rock; it rang and rang but in vain. The mechanic, a man with a bored expression on his face, no sooner had heard of the deed than his two eyes opened wide, as one awakening from a swoon when a pail full of cold water is poured over him, his bony jaws moved. He grasped an iron bar that lay by him and a savage moan issued from his chest: “Where is he?” But he soon remembered his duties as a mechanic and returned the rod to its place with an expression of disappointment on his face, as an animal whose prey has slipped from its jaws.
Even the passengers on the streetcar pressed against the windows—what happened? Most could not control their zeal to take part in the duty and joined the raging mob.
Automobiles and horse-drawn carts also stopped. Horns honked, teamsters cursed, but there was no one to heed them.
Now Officer Kelly showed up. He was bewildered and swung his nightstick in the air. His hat was pushed back and the gum in his mouth remained stuck under his tongue. It seems as if he got taller and his face was more tense and distorted. Yes, he already knew everything. Where was he? He had to make a telephone call to the station—for help. And until help arrived he chased out those who had gathered in the barbershop and shut the door behind him. He went up to the bedroom where he found Mary pale and terrified vomiting out of disgust in her mouth and heart, and Dave and a few close acquaintances were tending to her. It was impossible to calm her down. Her eyes were bewildered and directed at the windows:
As he was looking at Mary, the pathetic image of the black man, dirty and soiled, appeared before Kelly, and a venomous wrath began to permeate him. Did he dare touch this beauty? Did he defile this pure flesh? A death sentence! He suddenly grasped the nightstick in his left hand and his gun in the right and decided: Whatever may happen to him—he will not escape! Only one ambition occupied him: to capture the black man, to squeeze his windpipe in his ten fingers, to throw him in the air as a fisherman throws a flounder, and drop him down to the masses—Do with him as you see fit! He stood up full-height and bellowed through the open windows:
When those standing below saw Kelly, they began to climb up, some using the gutters and others ladders, some over fences and others on trees, grasping the bricks as they strove upward. Below, the frothing and growling mob stirred. Advice was offered from every which way. Those above strode over the roofs and those below rushed from yard to yard, fences bent under the live and stirring load. Window panes were shattered and bricks, suspended from ropes exposed to the evening breeze, sailed through the air. It seemed as if camps of angry, lumbering elephants emerged out of the jungle with a loud, thunderous sound. But the black man was nowhere, as if the earth had swallowed him.
People treaded over people. Crates and barrels were broken. Whatever stood in the way was hacked to pieces—Do not stand still or you will be trampled by the others! A huge gathering of savages stormed a fortified wall with weak and strong shouts. Revenge! All sought the sacrifice.
—To hang the black man on a tree!
—And set a fire under him!
—No. Cut his limbs off instead!
—Tie him to an automobile with a rope and drag him from one end of town to the other!
—But, where is he?
Suddenly, one cried out that he saw the black man “over there.” Immediately, the living tide turned in another direction. Their running became increasingly furious. They passed over balconies and railings, stumbled, fell and got up, got up and fell, got entangled with one another as crabs in a fight, were kicked, gnashed their teeth and remained silent. Frightened dogs barked and cats, terrified, tried to cope and meowed.
No. The black man was not “over there.” But that’s neither here nor there. They were sure of success. Streets emptied and streets became crowded. A mighty river, it seems, overflowed its banks to flood the area. It penetrated every nook and cranny, every courtyard and square. At times the tumult seemed as muted as the current of a distant waterfall and at times as close and powerful as the roar of beasts of prey.
A police wagon appeared noisily and parked. Several confused officers burst out armed with billy clubs.
—Was he found?
No, he is nowhere to be seen!
The running was renewed. The number of officers equaled the number of directions. The mob again split into several heads and rejoined again here and there. The whole neighborhood came under siege. The alleyways, passages, courtyards and secluded nooks were re-checked. This time with greater vigor and a strange denial that knows no compromise or concession, as if each sought to exact a personal blood vengeance. It was impossible to either sit at home or rest for a while. Some mysterious forces pulled one out, to the living, raging surge.
—Has anyone seen a lean, short, black man?
No black man had been seen in the area. The terror of the white race overtook the black race. Each of them hurried to extinguish his light and to hide in his den. In their imagination, each of them envisioned the terrible judgment—hanging on a burning tree—and died a little within:
—Oh, Jesus! Oh, Lincoln!
The barbershop was flooded in electric lights, as if nothing had happened. The door was locked, a chaos inside as after a fire. What was happening on the second floor? No one knew. Women, young and old, gathered about the barbershop and spoke of the event in a whisper. When the raging mob was seen, they were quick to disperse, screaming desperately as if attacked by herds of wild horses. Everything was as in a tumult. More police officers came. They inquired and investigated—Josh was nowhere. Nevertheless, they did not give up. On the contrary, this added to their courage, so their passion to seek revenge was heightened. Many from below climbed to those above. Here Kelly led the mob, he at the head and they all behind. All lids on the flat roofs were opened; dark and narrow attics were searched. From time to time the sound of rolling bricks, the cracking of sheets of metal and the casting off of shabby signs was heard:
A voice from within the storm:
—Search the chimneys!
Good idea! They began to search the chimneys, not with hands but with iron poles: Should they feel something soft, it will be hauled up promptly. Hither and thither, they skipped from roof to roof and from chimney to chimney. Hiding, terrified cats were pulled up and cast away. Hither and thither, flashlights swung in people’s hands. Yet the black man was not to be found.
Those standing below waited impatiently.
And where was Josh?
At first he had slipped into the adjacent courtyard, standing for a short while confused and indecisive as to which way to turn. Had he succeeded in stealing out of this alleyway, he could certainly have saved his life. But time was not enough for that—the whole neighborhood was already abuzz with masses of people. He had to find a hiding place until things quieted down. Where? Speed was essential. Fortunately, he came upon a large barrel half filled with construction debris. One cannot be squeamish in times of trouble. So he made haste to climb in and covered himself with whatever he could. There he hid uneasily and without sufficient air to breathe but accepted his pains lovingly. The barrel stood in a dark corner, one fenced-off with broken crates and foul smelling garbage. He squeezed himself tightly, like a hedgehog that only leaves his back exposed. His legs, back and head ached, but he did not budge. He held his breath and listened intently to everything going on outside. The abundance of mold irritated his breathing, stimulating his sneezing reflex. His nose was embedded in trash and his head reeled from the choking fumes. He was also wounded by the rusty nails. Yet he did not move or stir. Now he heard the tumult as furious people ran about, at times close to him and at other times far away. Now a door opened noisily and a raging and rumbling river burst into the courtyard. The nearby tree trembled. The fence was shaken and a few of its posts were pulled up with a grating sound. Iron rods were thrown noisily, crates and boards were moved, and heavy feet stomped about, making a crunching sound. Growls issued out of throats. Someone hit the barrel, piling up on it several bricks and boards. Josh’s heart leapt in its cage, a cold sweat covered him. Now something heavy landed on his back and his blood curdled. When the courtyard emptied and the mob moved off, Josh did not leave his hiding place. Caution! He focused his hearing—there was no one around. From time to time a brick dropped from above, or a board slipped from someplace, and then there was silence again. Yet this silence was terrible and suspect, as if death lurked in ambush clutching an axe. Josh could not linger there any longer lest he suffocate. A heavy and exhausting burden pressed on him, so he decided to get out. It was a dangerous decision, like jumping off a burning ship into the raging sea. On the other hand, where should he run? All roads were blocked by wild mobs. Maybe he should hide in a chimney? But how could he reach it? Maybe a basement? A ray of hope illuminated his darkness. Like a frightened animal, the black man slipped silently out of the barrel to see whether the danger had passed. He was a ball of pain but his mind was alert and sufficiently sober. Crawling on all fours, he reached a small cellar door. The door was unlocked. He squeezed his lean body further and succeeded in entering. He locked the door behind him and was absorbed by an abysmal darkness. He had a few matches with him but lighting a fire was out of the question. So he began to feel his way in the dark and stumbled into damp stone walls and all kinds of utensils. He tripped and fell to the ground; nearby something tipped over and water poured out of it. When he recovered from his panic he found himself standing in mud and shivering with cold. He listened—silence. He sat on the ground and turned his head this way and that. A muted hum reached him from afar. Suddenly a dark panic overtook him, fear of an unnatural death. Only now did he realize his situation in all its horror. Out of the dark emerged a multitude of red faces and blood-thirsty eyes, all pressing at him with clenched fists. A fear came over him and he buried his face in his hands so as not to see the bloody scene. Yet the horrific picture pressed against him: he is hanging on a burning tree. He got up in a hurry and stumbled into something hard. He panicked in fear and a desperate scream stuck as a bone in his throat. While he moved back and forth, mice began to squeak nearby; some even dared to leap on his shoulders and bare feet. He was jolted as if frozen spikes were injected into his blood and he were floundering one way and then another in fearful death. The barrel had been good. Why did he abandon it? What will happen? Had he reached his end?
Josh leaned against the wall and reflected: what had he done? He’d kissed Mary. Did he mean to harm her? Could he, Josh, cause harm to Mary? She was his. He could have raped her, even strangled her. God Almighty is his witness that he struggled with superhuman strength against his lust. He only kissed her—-
And here, in the dark, the marvelous scene came to him again—Mary in bed. The bluish light, the dresser, every detail, and the heart, Josh’s foolish and loving heart, filled with holy terror. He had never felt that way before. The kiss entered him as a life-giving potion whose taste—who can express its taste? See him bending down and kissing her. What does the mob mean, or the mice? A heavy black curtain was raised—and there stood a magnificent castle. Within sleeps a white goddess, raised beyond the stars on a magic carpet and he, her black idolizer, escorts her. She smiles—to whom? To Josh. All the odors of the world faded into oblivion; only her fragrance remained. All the flavors of the world vanished and nothing remained but the taste of that kiss.
Suddenly Josh was jolted—the mob came near. They thrashed about in the yard, in the house above and outside like bears. They called to each other. The noise was great, as the raging of a stormy sea. Now the butcher’s bass and Mr. Fish’s hoarse voice rose up. The kitchen door was opened noisily. A ponderous mass was striving beyond the walls and bricks were treaded upon at the entrance into the courtyard. Somewhere a heavy piece of metal struck something that was followed by the humming sound of something shattering. Flashlights shone, a thin strip of light cleared itself a path through the small doorway and slithered as a ten-headed serpent feeling its way through the dark. One moment it vanished and the next it reappeared.
The scene dissolved and the instinct of self-preservation summoned all his limbs to flee. By the serpent’s light he saw a depression resembling a pantry in a wall upon which hung a narrow door. He squeezed in there and hid. Listening, he heard the barrel, in which he had hid before in the courtyard, being turned over and broken vessels and boxes falling out. He listened further: they were climbing up on the roof. He even heard Officer Kelly’s voice, that terrible roaring voice:
His heart was about to leap out of his chest and his breath stopped momentarily. Another voice:
—He will not escape!
Now the small cellar door was opened—jumping in. One, two, three. Lights flickered in the dark. Giant silhouettes, monsters, not humans, were scraping and searching here and there. Hatchets were raised and a sharp cleaver was brandished in the air. Mute barrels were being dragged and turned over.
Now they came closer, to the pantry. His end was near… He grasped the beams as a drowning man grasps the boards of a ship that is breaking up. His whole being converged in his hands that grasped the beams. His heart was convulsing and his body became increasingly heavier, enveloped in darkness and overcome with panic. Alternatingly, he swooned and awakened, died and came back to life. Every moment was an eternity and every movement a move toward the pit. He called on Jesus, on Mary—
Now they, many people, began to come down the stairs. Mr. Fish was there also. His asthma came over him, over Josh, and was permeating his chest as a poison. Someone bumped at the pantry door and the abyss opened up its bottomless maw, a horrible darkness. He looked at the door again, the hair on his head stood on end. Another bump on the pantry and numerous poisonous snakes wrapped themselves around his chest to the point of death.
The asthma burst out:
—Here he is!
The sharp cleaver asked:
The rickety stairs breathed wearily under foot:
Officer Kelly’s voice:
—He is in the cellar!
One of the black man’s hands was still grasping the top beam. He saw himself hanging on a burning tree. Laughter. Flames were licking at his flesh.
—Here he is!
A heavy weight fell upon the black swooning body, and he was brought up with a triumphant roar:
—We found him!