Odessa Stories


Odessa Stories

(A sketch and two stories from the book)

By Isaac Babel

Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk


Odessa is a nasty place. Everybody knows that. Instead of saying “a big difference” Odessans say “two big differences”—and things like “dis-a-way, dat-a-way”. But it seems to me this significant and most charming of cities in the Russian Empire has a lot going for it. Just think of it—here’s a town where the living is light and easy. Half the population is Jewish, and Jews are a people that have a few simple things down pat. They marry so as not to be alone in this world, love so that their kind lives for ever, save money so that they can afford a home and an astrakhan jacket for the wife, and are philoprogenitive because loving your kids is just the right thing to do. Governors and circulars give the poor Jews no end of trouble, but it’s hard to make them change their ways, for these ways are age-old. You won’t change the Jews, and there’s a lot you can learn from them. To a large degree, it’s through their efforts that the atmosphere in Odessa has grown so light and easy.
The Odessan is the polar opposite of the Petrogradian. As a rule, Odessans make a killing in Petrograd. They earn money. Their dark hair bewitches soft-bodied blondes. And, in general, Odessans in Petrograd tend to settle on Kamennoostrovsky Avenue. I can just hear the objections: anecdotal evidence. No, sir—it happens every time. You see, these Odessan brunettes, they bring along a bit of sunshine and lightness.
But I have a feeling that along with these gentlemen, who arrive with their bit of sunshine and loads of sardines in original packaging, Petrograd is bound to receive—and quite soon, at that—the fruitful, life-giving influence of the Russian south, of Russian Odessa, of what may be (qui sait?) the only city in the Russian Empire that could give birth to our much-needed national Maupassant. I even see a few minor—oh, so minor—indications of things to come. Take, for instance, Odessan chanteuses (I’m talking about Isa Kremer), whose voices are small, but who brim with joy, with joy expressed artistically in their very being, with enthusiasm, with lightness and charm—with a sometimes sad, sometimes touching sense of life—a life that is good, nasty and, quand même et malgré tout, extraordinarily interesting.
I have seen Utochkin, an Odessan pur sang, carefree and profound, fearless and prudent, elegant and gangly-armed, brilliant and stammering.  Cocaine did him in, or morphine—did him in, they say, after he fell from an aeroplane somewhere in the marshes around Novgorod. Poor Utochkin. He lost his mind. All the same, I know it won’t be long before the whole of the Novgorod region comes creeping down to Odessa.
First of all, the city simply has the proper material conditions to nurture, for example, a Maupassantesque talent. In summertime, its beaches glisten with the bronze muscled figures of young men who live for sports, the powerful bodies of fishermen who aren’t much for sports, the meaty, potbellied and jolly trunks of “merchants”, alongside pimply and scrawny dreamers, inventors and brokers. While some distance from the wide sea, smoke rises from factories and Karl Marx does his usual work.
Odessa has a terribly poor, crowded and long-suffering Jewish ghetto, a terribly smug bourgeoisie and a terribly reactionary City Council.
Odessa has sweet and wearying evenings in springtime, the spicy aroma of acacia trees, and a moon overflowing with even, irresistible light above a dark sea.
In the evenings Odessa’s plump and ridiculous bourgeois lie on couches in front of their ridiculous, philistine dachas, wearing their white socks and digesting their hearty suppers under a dark and velvety sky… Meanwhile, behind the bushes, their powdered wives, grown fat with idleness and naively corseted, succumb to the passionate caresses of temperamental students of medicine and law.
In Odessa, luftmenschen skulk around coffee shops, looking to earn a rouble and feed their families, but there’s no work to be had—and what kind of work could there be for a useless luftmensch?
Odessa has a port, and in the port there are steamers from Newcastle, Cardiff, Marseilles and Port Said; there are Negroes, Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans. Odessa enjoyed its moment of flowering, and now it has entered a period of decline—of a poetic, somewhat careless and completely helpless decline.
“It sounds like Odessa,” the reader will finally say, “is a city like any other, and you, sir, are simply biased in the extreme.”
All right, so I’m biased—perhaps even in the extreme. But, parole d’honneur, there truly is something to this place. A real human being will sense that, acknowledging that life is sad, monotonous—all true—and yet, quand même et malgré tout, it’s extraordinarily, extraordinarily interesting.
Now my thoughts turn from Odessa to subjects of greater significance. Consider this: Could it be true that, in all Russian literature, there isn’t a single clear and joyous depiction of the sun?
Turgenev exalts the dewy morning and the calm of night. Dostoevsky makes you feel the grey and uneven road down which Karamazov walks to the tavern, as well as the heavy, mysterious fog of St Petersburg. He makes you feel the grey roads and the shroud of fog that have smothered man and, having smothered him, throw him into giddy and hideous confusion, giving rise to the fumes and stench of passions, sweeping him up in the daily human hustle and bustle. And have you ever run across a bright and enlivening sun in Gogol—a man from Ukraine? Perhaps—but only in a few passages. While ‘The Nose’, ‘The Overcoat’, ‘The Portrait’ and ‘Diary of a Madman’ are far more than passages. In Gogol, Petersburg defeated the spirit of Poltava. Modestly, but with terrifying imperiousness, Akaky Akakyevich blotted out Gritsko, and Father Matvey finished the work begun by Taras. The first person to talk about the sun in a Russian book—to talk about it with enthusiasm and passion—was Gorky. But precisely because he talks of it with such enthusiasm and passion, we’re still not quite dealing with the real thing.
Gorky is a forerunner—the most powerful in our time. But he is not the singer of the sun—he is the herald of truth. And know this: If there is anything worth singing about, it’s the sun. There’s something intellectual in Gorky’s love of the sun, and it’s only the magnitude of his talent that helps him overcome this obstacle.
He loves the sun because Russia is rotten and meandering, because the people in Nizhny Novgorod, and in Pskov, and in Kazan are flabby, heavy, by turns incomprehensible, touching and immensely, stupefyingly annoying. Gorky knows why he loves the sun—knows why one should love the sun. And this awareness is precisely why Gorky is a forerunner—often magnificent and mighty, but still a forerunner.
While Maupassant, on the other hand, may be aware of nothing—or perhaps he’s aware of everything. A stagecoach rumbles along a road scorched by the midday heat, and in it, in this coach, sits a plump and cunning fellow named Polyte, together with a robust, unrefined peasant girl. What they are up to and why—that’s their business. The sky is hot, and the earth is hot. Polyte and the girl are both bathed in sweat, and the coach rumbles along a road scorched by the dazzling heat. And that’s all.
In recent times people have taken to writing about life, love, murder and the election of village elders in the Olonets, Vologda or, say, Arkhangelsk regions. They write of all this in the most authentic language imaginable, exactly as it is spoken in the Olonets and Vologda regions. Life in those regions is cold, it turns out, and savage. It’s an old story. And soon we’ll all tire of reading about this old story. In fact, we’re tired already. And I believe the Russian people will soon be drawn to the south, to the sea and the sun. “Will soon be drawn” is wrong, actually. They’ve been drawn there for centuries. The irrepressible yearning for the steppes—perhaps even for “the cross of Hagia Sophia”—is Russia’s most significant path.
Everyone feels the need for new blood. It’s getting hard to breathe. The literary messiah, whom we’ve awaited so long and so fruitlessly, will come from there—from the sunny steppes washed by the sea.
The King
The wedding ceremony was over and the rabbi lowered himself into an armchair, then he stepped outside and saw the tables set up all along the courtyard. There were so many of them that they stuck their tail right through the gate onto Gospitalnaya Street. The velvet-draped tables wound through the yard like snakes with patches of every colour on their bellies, and they sang in rich voices, these patches of orange and red velvet.
The flats had been turned into kitchens. A meaty flame, a plump, drunken flame, gushed through their sooty doors. The aged faces, wobbly jowls and grimy breasts of housewives baked in its smoky rays. Sweat rosy as blood, rosy as the foam on a mad dog’s lips, streamed down these piles of overgrown, sweetly stinking human flesh. Three cooks, not counting the hired help, were preparing the wedding feast, and over them reigned the eighty-year-old Reyzl—tiny, humpbacked, and traditional as a Torah scroll.
Before the feast got going, a young fellow nobody knew wormed his way into the yard. He asked for Benya Krik. He took Benya Krik aside.
“Listen, King,” said the young man, “I’ve got a couple words for you. Aunt Hannah sent me, from Kostetskaya Street…”
“All right,” said Benya Krik, whom everyone knew as the King. “You got words? Spill.”
“Aunt Hannah, she told me to tell you there’s a new chief in town, took over the police station yesterday…”
“Knew about that the day before yesterday,” said Benya Krik. “Keep talking.”
“The chief, he got all the cops together, gave them a speech…”
“New broom sweeps clean,” said Benya Krik. “Wants a raid. Keep talking…”
“But when, King—you know when he wants it?”
“The raid’s tomorrow.”
“King, it’s today.”
“Who says, kid?”
“Says Aunt Hannah. You know Aunt Hannah?”
“I know Aunt Hannah. Keep talking.”
“…The chief got the cops together and gave them a speech. ‘We’ve got to stifle that Benya Krik,’ he says, ‘because where there’s an emperor, there can’t be no king. Today, when Krik’s marrying off his sister and they’re all in one place, that’s when we raid…’”
“Keep talking.”
“…Then the coppers, they got scared. They said, if we raid today, when Benya’s having a feast, he’s gonna be sore, gonna waste a lot of blood. So the chief says, pride’s more important…”
“All right, get going,” said the King.
“So what do I tell Aunt Hannah, raid-wise?”
“Tell her Benya knows, raid-wise.”
And he left, this young man. Three of Benya’s friends left, too. They said they’d be back in half an hour. And they came back in half an hour. That’s all there was to it.
The guests weren’t seated according to seniority. Foolish old age is no less pitiful than cowardly youth. And they weren’t seated according to wealth. A heavy wallet is lined with tears.
The bride and groom had first place at the table. This was their day. Next came Sender Eichbaum, the King’s father-in-law. That was his right. And Sender Eichbaum’s story is worth hearing, because it isn’t a simple story.
How did Benya Krik, gangster and king of the gangsters, become Eichbaum’s son-in-law? How did he become the son-in-law of a man who owned one fewer than sixty milk cows? It all goes back to a shakedown. Only a year ago Benya wrote Eichbaum a letter.
Monsieur Eichbaum,” he wrote, “I ask you to come to 17 Sofiyevskaya Street tomorrow morning and place twenty thousand roubles under the gate. If you do not do this, what awaits you is unheard of, and you will be the talk of all Odessa. Respectfully, Benya the King.”
Three letters, each more direct than the last, went unanswered. So Benya took certain measures. They came at night—nine men with long sticks in their hands. The tops of the sticks were wrapped in tarred hemp. Nine blazing stars lit up over Eichbaum’s stockyard. Benya knocked the locks off the shed and led the cows out, one by one. A guy with a knife stood waiting. He tipped each cow over with one blow and plunged the knife into its bovine heart. The torches blossomed like fiery roses on the blood-soaked ground, then shots rang out. Benya started shooting to drive away the milkmaids, who’d come running to the cowshed. And the other gangsters followed suit, firing shots in the air, because if you don’t shoot in the air you could kill someone. And then, when the sixth cow fell at the King’s feet with a dying moo, Eichbaum himself ran into the yard in nothing but his long johns and asked:
“Benya, what’s this?”
“Monsieur Eichbaum, I don’t get my money, you don’t keep your cows. Simple as that.”
“Step inside, Benya.”
Inside they came to terms. The slaughtered cows were split evenly between the two of them. Eichbaum was guaranteed immunity and issued a stamped certificate to that effect. But the miracle—that came later.
During the shakedown, on that terrible night when the stabbed cows bellowed and their calves slipped and slid in maternal blood, when the torches danced like black virgins and the milkmaids squirmed and screamed before the barrels of friendly Brownings—on that terrible night, old man Eichbaum’s daughter, Celia, ran out into the yard in her nightshirt. And the King’s triumph proved to be his downfall.
Two days later, without any warning, Benya returned all the money he had taken from Eichbaum, and then he came calling in the evening. He had an orange suit on, a diamond bracelet gleaming beneath his cuff; he came into the room, greeted Eichbaum, and asked for his daughter Celia’s hand in marriage. The old man nearly had a stroke, but he stood up. He still had a good twenty years in him.
“Listen, Eichbaum,” said the King, “when you die, I’ll bury you at the First Jewish Cemetery, right by the gates. I’ll put up a tombstone of pink marble, Eichbaum. I’ll make you an Elder of the Brodsky Synagogue. I’ll abandon my profession, Eichbaum, and we’ll partner up in business. We’ll have two hundred cows, Eichbaum. I’ll kill all the other dairymen. No thief will walk down the street where you live. I’ll build you a dacha by the beach, at the sixteenth tram stop… And remember, Eichbaum, you weren’t no rabbi in your youth either. Just between us, that will didn’t forge itself, did it? And you’ll have the King for a son-in-law, not some snot-nosed kid—the King, Eichbaum…”
And Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world. The newlyweds spent three months in fertile Bessarabia, swimming in grapes, plentiful food and the sweat of love. Then Benya returned to Odessa so as to marry off his forty-year-old sister, Dvoyra, who had a goitre that made her eyes bulge. And now, having told the story of Sender Eichbaum, we can get back to the wedding of Dvoyra Krik, the King’s sister.
At this wedding they served turkey, roast chicken, goose, gefilte fish and fish soup in which lakes of lemon glimmered like mother-of-pearl. Flowers swayed above the dead goose heads like lush plumage. But does the foamy surf of Odessa’s sea wash roast chickens ashore?
On that starry, that deep blue night, the noblest of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated across the land, did its destructive, seductive work. Wine from abroad warmed stomachs, broke legs in the gentlest way possible, numbed brains and brought up a belching as sonorous as the call of a battle horn. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had come in from Port Said three days earlier, smuggled in round-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from Pierpont Morgan’s plantations and oranges from the environs of Jerusalem. That’s what the foamy surf of Odessa’s sea washes ashore; that’s what Odessa’s paupers can hope to get their hands on at Jewish weddings. Odessa’s paupers got their hands on Jamaican rum at Dvoyra Krik’s wedding, sucked up their fill like treyf pigs and raised a deafening clatter with their crutches. Eichbaum undid his vest, gazed at the stormy gathering with narrowed eyes and hiccupped lovingly. The orchestra played flourishes. It was like a divisional parade. Flourishes—nothing but flourishes. The gangsters, who sat in serried ranks, were at first put off by the presence of strangers, but then they loosened up. Lyova the Russkie smashed a bottle of vodka over his beloved’s head. Monya the Gunner fired a shot in the air. But their enthusiasm reached its peak when, in accordance with ancient custom, the guests began to present the newlyweds with gifts. The synagogue shammeses leapt onto the tables and sang out the number of tendered roubles and silver spoons to the sound of the raucous flourishes. And here the King’s friends showed the true worth of Moldavanka’s blue blood and its yet unextinguished chivalry. Their careless gestures filled silver trays with gold coins, jewelled rings and coral necklaces.
These aristocrats of Moldavanka were squeezed into crimson vests, rufous jackets gripped their shoulders, and their fleshy legs nearly burst through leather of the purest azure. Standing tall and sticking out their bellies, the gangsters clapped to the music, shouted “give ’er a kiss” and threw the bride flowers, while she, forty-year-old Dvoyra, sister of Benya Krik, sister of the King, disfigured by disease, with an outsize goitre and bulging eyes, was perched on a mountain of pillows beside a frail boy who had been purchased with Eichbaum’s money and was numb with anguish.
The rite of gift-giving was coming to a close, the shammeses had grown hoarse and the bass wasn’t getting along with the fiddle. A faint odour of burning suddenly wafted over the courtyard.
“Benya,” said Krik’s papa, an old drayman who was known as a roughneck even among other draymen. “Know what I think, Benya? What I think is the soot’s burning…”
“Papa,” the King told his drunken father. “Please, I ask you, eat a little, drink a little, and don’t pay no mind to that nonsense…”
And Papa Krik followed his son’s advice. He ate a little, drank a little. But the cloud of smoke grew more and more noxious. Some patches of sky were turning pink. And а flame’s tongue had already shot up into the heavens like a sword. The guests rose in their seats and began sniffing at the air, and their women squealed. The gangsters exchanged glances. Benya alone, noticing nothing, was inconsolable.
“They’re spoiling my feast,” he cried, full of despair. “Friends, please, I ask you, eat, drink…”
But at that moment the same young man who’d come earlier appeared in the yard.
“King,” he said. “I’ve got a couple words for you…”
“All right, spill,” said the King. “You’re never short a couple words…”
“King,” the unknown young man said and chuckled. “Funny thing, the police station, it’s burning like a candle…”
The shopkeepers were numb. The gangsters grinned. Sixty-year-old Manya, matriarch of the Slobodka crew, stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a whistle so shrill it sent those around her reeling.
“Manya, you ain’t on the job,” Benya told her. “Cool your blood, Manya…”
The young man who’d brought this startling news was still choking back laughter.
“They left the station, about forty of them,” he said, his jaws trembling, “heading out on their raid. So they take about fifteen steps, and the fire, it’s already going… You can run over there, see for yourselves…”
But Benya wouldn’t let his guests go and look at the fire. He set out himself, with two friends. It was a proper fire, the station burning on all four sides. The policemen shimmied up and down the smoke-clogged stairwells, their rear ends jiggling, and tossed boxes from the windows. The prisoners took advantage of the hubbub and made a break for it. The firemen were zealous, to be sure, but there wasn’t a drop of water in the nearest hydrant. The chief—that very broom which sweeps clean—was standing across the street and biting his moustache, which reached into his mouth. The new broom stood motionless. Benya passed by and saluted the chief in military fashion.
“Sincerest greetings, Your Honour,” he said sympathetically. “What can you say at a moment like this? A real nightmare…”
He stared at the burning building, shook his head and smacked his lips:
“Oy, what a nightmare…”
By the time Benya came home, the lanterns were going out in the courtyard and day was breaking. The guests had gone, and the musicians were dozing, their heads resting on the necks of their basses. Dvoyra alone wasn’t ready for sleep. She was nudging her timid husband toward the door of their wedding chamber with both hands and leering at him like a cat that holds a mouse in its mouth, probing the creature gently with its teeth.
How It Was Done in Odessa
So I said to the old man:
“Reb Aryeh Leib,” I said, “let’s talk about Benya Krik. Let’s talk about his lightning-quick rise and his terrible end. Three shadows block the path of my imagination. There’s Froim the Rook. The steel of his deeds—would it not bear comparison with the King’s own strength? There’s Kolka Pakovsky. That man’s madness gave him all he needed to wield power. And did Chaim Drong really fail to catch the glint of a rising star? So why did Benya Krik alone climb to the top of the rope ladder, leaving the rest of them dangling below on shaky steps?”
Reb Aryeh Leib didn’t say a word, just sat there on the cemetery wall. Before us stretched the green tranquillity of the graves. A man eager for answers must arm himself with patience. An air of importance suits a man who possesses knowledge. And so Aryeh Leib didn’t say a word, just sat there on the cemetery wall. Finally, he broke his silence:
“Why him, you want to know? Why not the rest of them? Ah, then forget for a while that you’ve got glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. Stop raising hell at your desk and stammering in public. Imagine for a moment that you raise hell in the streets and stammer on the page. You’re a tiger, a lion, a cat. You can spend the night with a Russian woman and know that you’ve left her satisfied. You’re twenty-five years old. If the sky and the ground had rings attached, you’d grab those rings and pull the sky down to the ground. And your papa, he’s the drayman Mendel Krik. What’s a papa like that think about? He thinks, this papa, about a nice glass of vodka, about landing a punch to the mug, don’t matter whose, about his horses—and that’s all. You want to live, and he makes you die twenty times a day. What would you do in Benya Krik’s shoes? Ah, you wouldn’t do a thing. But he did. And that’s why he’s the King, and you—you just thumb your nose behind people’s backs.
“And so Benchik, he went to Froim the Rook, who was already watching the world through one eye, who was already what you know him to be. And he said to Froim:
“‘Take me in. I want to moor at your dock. The dock I moor at, it won’t be sorry.’
“So the Rook asks him:
“‘Who are you, where’d you come from, what makes you tick?’
“‘Look, Froim, let’s stop smearing kasha,’ says Benya. ‘Try me.’
“‘All right, we’ll stop smearing kasha,’ says the Rook. ‘I’ll give you a try.’
“So the gangsters had a council, to think over Benya Krik. Now, I wasn’t at that council.
But word is they had a council. The elder back then was the late Lyovka the Bull.
“‘What’s he got under his cap, this Benchik?’ asks the late Bull.
“And the one-eyed Rook, he gives his opinion:
“‘Benya, he doesn’t talk much, but what he says, it’s got flavour. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking.’
“‘Is that so?’ the late Lyovka cries out. ‘Well, then, let’s try him on Tartakovsky.’
“‘Let’s try him on Tartakovsky,’ the council decided, and the ones that still had a conscience quartered in their souls turned red when they heard this decision. And why did they turn red? Keep up and you’ll learn.
“They used to call Tartakovsky ‘Yid-and-a-Half’ or ‘Nine Shakedowns’. They called him ‘Yid-and-a-Half’ on account of the fact that no single Jew could contain the guts and the gelt that Tartakovsky contained. He was taller than the tallest policeman in Odessa, thicker than the thickest Jewess. And ‘Nine Shakedowns’ they called him because the firm of Lyovka the Bull and Company had tried not eight and not ten, but exactly nine times to shake down his concern. And Benya, who was not yet the King, mind you, had the honour of trying to shake Yid-and-a-Half down for the tenth time. When Froim informed him of this, Benya said ‘yes’ and marched out, slamming the door behind him. And why did he slam the door? Keep up and you’ll learn.
“Tartakovsky’s soul is a killer’s soul, but he’s one of us. He’s our kind. Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, as if we were born to the same mama. He’s got half of Odessa working in his shops. And he’s suffered plenty at the hands of his brethren from Moldavanka. Twice they kidnapped him for ransom, and once, during a pogrom, they buried him, with a choir. The thugs from Slobodka, they were beating the Jews on Bolshaya Arnautskaya Street. Tartakovsky, he ran away, and at Sofiyskaya Street he came across a funeral procession with a choir. So he asks:
“‘Who’re they burying with a choir?’
“And someone tells him they’re burying Tartakovsky. Well, when the procession finally got to the cemetery in Slobodka, our boys grabbed a machine gun out of the coffin and let the thugs have it. But Yid-and-a-Half, he didn’t see that coming. Yid-and-a-Half was scared to death. And what boss wouldn’t be scared in his shoes?
“Now, shaking down a man for the tenth time, after he’s already been buried once, is a rude thing to do. Benya, who was not yet the King, mind you, understood this better than anyone. But he told the Rook ‘yes’, and that very day wrote Tartakovsky a letter, which read like all letters of that sort:
“‘My dear Reuben Osipovich! Please be so kind as to place, by this Saturday, under the rain barrel…’, and so on. ‘In case you refuse, as you’ve allowed yourself to do lately, what awaits you is a great disappointment in your family life. Respectfully, your acquaintance Benzion Krik.’
“Tartakovsky, he didn’t drag his feet, he responded right away.
“‘Benya! If you were an idiot, I would address you as an idiot! But I don’t know you for an idiot, and God forbid you should be known for one. You must be playing innocent. You mean to say you haven’t heard about this year’s harvest in Argentina? They’re rolling in it, and we’re sitting on wheat no one wants… And you know what? I tell you, hand on my heart, I’m tired of having to eat such bitter bread in my old age, tired of having to deal with all these troubles. This, after breaking my back like a workhorse year in and year out. And what have I got to show for this life sentence of hard labour? Ulcers, sickness, worries and sleepless nights. So let’s you and me drop this nonsense, Benya. Your friend, and a better one than you think, Reuben Tartakovsky.’
“Yid-and-a-Half did his part. He wrote a letter. But the post office, it never delivered the letter to the right address. Benya never got his answer, so he got sore. The next day he shows up at Tartakovsky’s office with four of his friends. Four masked youngsters with revolvers burst into the room.
“‘Hands up!’ they say, waving their pistols in the air.
“‘Solomon, calm yourself,’ Benya tells the boy who’s shouting the loudest. ‘Getting nervous on the job, that’s a bad habit to have.’ Then he turns to the clerk, who’s as white as death and yellow as clay, and asks:
“‘Yid-and-a-Half here?’
“‘No, the boss is out,’ says the clerk, a Muginshteyn, name of Joseph, the bachelor son of Aunt Pesya, the one who sells chickens down on Seredinskaya Square.
“‘So who’s boss when the boss ain’t around?’ they press poor Muginshteyn.
“‘I suppose I’m boss,’ says the clerk, who’s turned green as grass.
“‘Then God help you. Open up that till!” Benya orders, and what you have then is an opera in three acts.
“Nervous Solomon’s shoving money, papers, watches and stocks into a suitcase, the soon-to-be-lamented Muginshteyn has his hands in the air, and Benya, he’s telling tales from the life of the Jewish people.
“‘Wants to play Rothschild, does he?’ Benya says about Tartakovsky. ‘So let him burn. You tell me, Muginshteyn, tell me as a friend: the man gets my business letter—and what? He can’t fork out five copecks and take the tram to my place, have a shot of vodka with my family and a bite of whatever God’s sent us? He couldn’t come out and tell me what was in his heart? Just come and say, “Benya, this and that, here’s my balance sheet, you just hold off a couple days, let me breathe, mull it over.” And what do you think I’d tell him? A pig won’t meet another pig halfway, but a man will meet a man. You get me, Muginshteyn?’
“‘I get you,’ Muginshteyn says—and that was a lie, because he had absolutely no idea why Yid-and-a-Half, a rich man, a big shot, should take a tram to break bread with the family of Mendel Krik the drayman.
“And all the while misfortune was drifting beneath the windows like a beggar at dawn. Then misfortune bursts into the office with a terrible noise. And though this time it takes the form of Savka Butsis, a Jew, it’s as drunk as a water-carrier.
“‘Well, well, well!’ the Jew Savka shouts. ‘Sorry I’m late, Benchik.’ And he starts stamping his feet, waving his arms. Then he fires his pistol, and the bullet hits Muginshteyn in the belly.
“Now, what can you say about that? There was a man, and the man is no more. An innocent bachelor, he lived like a bird on a branch—and a fool thing like that robs him of his life. Along comes a Jew looking like a sailor, and he goes and fires a shot not at some bottle for a prize, but right in a man’s belly. What can you say about that?
“‘Everybody scram!’ Benya shouts and runs out after the rest of them. But before they split up, he tells Butsis:
“‘I swear on my mother’s grave, Savka, I’ll put you in the ground right next to Muginshteyn…’
“Now, tell me, a young gentleman like yourself, who clips the coupons off other people’s bonds, what would you have done in Benya Krik’s shoes? Ah, you don’t know. But he knew. And that’s why he’s the King, while you and me, we just sit here on the wall of the Second Jewish Cemetery and shield our eyes from the sun.
“Aunt Pesya’s poor son, he doesn’t die then and there. They get him to the hospital, and an hour later Benya shows up. He has them call in the senior doctor and the nurse, and he tells them, hands deep in the pockets of his cream-coloured trousers:
“‘I’ve got an interest,’ he says, ‘in seeing your patient Joseph Muginshteyn make a full recovery. And just so you know who you’re talking to, my name’s Benzion Krik. See to it that Muginshteyn gets camphor, air cushions, a private room—the whole works. And if you don’t, then all doctors, even doctors of philosophy, get six feet of earth.’
“But it couldn’t be helped. Muginshteyn died that same night. And it was then that Yid-and-a-Half raised a big stink all over Odessa.
“‘Where do the police start,’ he howled, ‘and where does Benya stop?’
“‘The police stop where Benya starts,’ reasonable people told him, but Tartakovsky, he wouldn’t calm down, so one day a red car with a musical horn shows up on Seredinskaya Square, honking the first march from Pagliacci.
“Its wheels thundering and copper gleaming, the car flies up to Aunt Pesya’s little house in broad daylight—spitting smoke, reeking of gasoline and playing arias on its horn. Someone jumps out and heads into the kitchen where little Aunt Pesya’s writhing on the earthen floor. Yid-and-a-Half’s in there, sitting on a chair and waving his arms.
“‘You rotten hood!’ he shouts when he sees the guest. ‘You dirty gangster, may the earth spit you out! That’s the latest fashion with you mugs? Going around killing live people?’
“‘Monsieur Tartakovsky,’ Benya Krik replies in a low voice, ‘two days and two nights I’ve been shedding tears for the dearly departed as if he’d been my own brother. I know, I know—you don’t give two copecks about my young tears. But shame, Monsieur Tartakovsky—in which fireproof safe have you hidden your shame? You had the nerve to send the mother of our lamented Joseph a hundred miserable roubles. When I heard about this, my brain stood on end right along with my hair.’
“And here Benya paused. He was wearing a chocolate-brown jacket, cream-coloured trousers and boots of raspberry-red.
“‘Ten thousand on the spot,’ he roared, ‘ten thousand on the spot and a pension till her dying day, may she live to be a hundred and twenty. And if not, Monsieur Tartakovsky, then you and me will leave this room and take a ride in my car…’
“Then they had words. Yid-and-a-Half had some choice ones for Benya. Now, I wasn’t there to see that fight. But those who were won’t soon forget it. Well, they finally came to terms—five thousand in cash, fifty roubles a month.
“Then Benya turns to the dishevelled old woman twisted up on the floor and says, ‘Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, Aunt Pesya—a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God. Listen to me with your ears, Aunt Pesya. You’ve got five thousand in hand and fifty roubles a month till the day you die—may you live to be a hundred and twenty. And Joseph will have a first-rate funeral: six horses like lions, two hearses with garlands, the Brodsky Synagogue choir, and we’ll get Minkovsky himself to come and chant for your lamented son…’
“And they held the funeral the next morning. You want to know about this funeral? Ask the beggars at the cemetery. Ask the shammeses at the synagogue, the kosher poultry traders, the old women from the Second Almshouse. Odessa had never seen such a funeral before, and the world will never see one like it. That day the police wore cotton gloves. The synagogues, decked with greenery, their doors wide open, glowed with electric light. Black plumes swayed atop the white horses pulling the hearse. A choir of sixty chanters led the procession. The chanters were little boys, but they sang with the voices of women. The elders of the synagogue of kosher poultry traders held Aunt Pesya up under her arms. Then came members of the Society of Jewish Shop Clerks, and behind them—attorneys, doctors of medicine, nurses and midwives. Flanking Aunt Pesya on one side were the poultry women from the Old Market, and on the other the esteemed milk women from Bugayovka, wrapped in orange shawls. They stamped their feet like gendarmes on holiday parade. Their broad hips smelt of milk and the sea. And behind them schlepped the employees of Reuben Tartakovsky. There were a hundred of them, or two hundred, or two thousand. They wore black frockcoats with silk lapels and new boots that squeaked like piglets in a poke.
“And now I will speak as the Lord spoke on Mount Sinai from the burning bush. Place my words in your ears. What I saw, I saw with my own eyes, sitting right here, on the wall of the Second Cemetery, next to the lisping Moiseyka and Shimshon from the funeral parlour. It was I who saw it, Aryeh Leib, a proud Jew who lives among the dead.
“The hearse rode up to the cemetery synagogue. They placed the coffin on the steps. Aunt Pesya, she was trembling like a little bird. The cantor climbed down from his phaeton and began the service. The sixty chanters joined in. And right then a red car came flying around the corner. It honked Pagliacci and hit the brakes. Not a sound from anyone—they might as well have been dead. Not a sound from the trees, the chanters, the beggars. Four men got out from under the red roof and, stepping quietly, carried a wreath of roses such as you’ve never seen up to the hearse. And when the service was over, these four men hoisted the coffin on their shoulders of steel and marched off—eyes burning, chests stuck out—beside the members of the Society of Jewish Shop Clerks.
“And up ahead, in front of everyone, marched Benya Krik—who wasn’t yet the King to anyone, mind you. He reached the grave first, ascended the little mound and stretched out his hand.
“At that point Kofman, from the chevra kadisha, ran up to him and asked, ‘Young man, what is it you want?’
“‘I want to make a speech,’ Benya Krik said.
“And a speech he made. If you wanted to hear it, you heard it. And I, Aryeh Leib, heard it, along with lisping Moiseyka, who was sitting on the wall next to me.
“‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said Benya Krik, ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, and the sun rose over his head like a sentry with a rifle. ‘You came to pay your last respects to an honest worker, who laid down his life for a copper half-copeck. On my own behalf, and on behalf of all those not gathered here, I thank you. Ladies and gentlemen! What did our dear Joseph manage to see in life? Bupkis is what. How did he occupy himself? Counting other people’s money. What did he die for? He died for the whole working class. There are people in this world who are doomed to die, and there are people who have not yet begun to live. And that bullet—the bullet that flies towards the doomed breast—pierced Joseph, who’d seen bupkis in life. There are people in this world who know how to drink vodka, and there are people who don’t know how to drink vodka but still drink it. The first, they take pleasure in grief and in joy, while the others, they suffer for all those who drink vodka without knowing how to drink it. And so, ladies and gentlemen, after we pray for our poor Joseph, I ask you to accompany Savely Butsis, unknown to you but already lamented, to his grave…’
“After saying these words, Benya stepped down from the mound. Not a sound from the mourners, the trees, the cemetery beggars. Two gravediggers carried an unpainted coffin to a nearby grave. The cantor stammered through his prayer. Benya was first to shovel earth on Joseph’s coffin, then he went over to Savka’s. All the attorneys and ladies with brooches followed him, like sheep. He made the cantor sing a whole service over Savka, with the sixty chanters joining in. Savka never dreamt of such a service, believe you me, Aryeh Leib, an old man as old as the hills.
“They say Yid-and-a-Half decided to shut up shop that very day. Now, I wasn’t there to see it. But the fact that neither the cantor, nor the choir, nor the chevra kadisha asked to be paid for the funeral—that I saw with Aryeh Leib’s own eyes. Aryeh Leib—that’s my name. But that’s about all I could see, because once people sneaked away from Savka’s grave they took off running as if from a fire. They fled in phaetons, in carts and on foot. And only the four men who’d come in the red car drove away in it. The horn honked its march, the engine rumbled, and the car sped away.
“And lisping Moiseyka, who always steals the best seats on the wall, followed the car with his eyes and said, ‘The King.’

“Now you know everything. You know who first pronounced the word ‘King’. It was Moiseyka. And you know why he didn’t use it on the one-eyed Rook or mad Kolka. You know everything. But what’s the use, I ask you, if you’ve still got glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart?…”


English translation © Boris Dralyuk. Published by Pushkin Press, November 15, 2016 (United States and Canada).
This sketch and two stories are part of the book, Odessa Stories, which can be purchased here. 
Isaac Babel (the author) was a short-story writer, playwright, literary translator and journalist. He joined the Red Army as a correspondent during the Russian civil war. A friend and protégé of Maxim Gorky, he was the first major Russian-Jewish writer to write in Russian and was hugely popular during his lifetime. Despite his popularity, his critical portrayal of the Cossack army in Red Cavalry, also published by Pushkin Press, made him significant enemies within the Soviet establishment. He was murdered in Stalin's purges in 1940, at the age of 45.
Boris Dralyuk (the translator) is an award-winning translator of several volumes of poetry and prose from Russian and Polish, and co-editor, with Robert Chandler, of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, published in February 2015. He also translated Babel’s Red Cavalry and is the editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, forthcoming from Pushkin Press.

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