Samson Solomon and His Horses
(Or: A Dream of a Former Coachman)
By Jacob Dinezon
Translated from Yiddish by Miri Koral
A Note to the Reader from the Hebrew Publishing Company, the original publisher of this work in 1909:
This distinguished work was published in book form in Warsaw and this little chapbook enflamed all of Russia because it is an enormous critique against Czar Nicholas and his government and it is wildly popular.
Circumventing the censor that forces the writer to write everything in a hidden manner, Mr. Dinezon wove his sharp critique into a wonderful story of a coachman who sits on his coach and drives five horses.
The coachman is the czar and the coach his throne.
The five horses are the five classes of Russian subjects. The white horse is the nobility; the brown, the philistines. The spotted horse is the peasants and workers. The old mare, Jews. And the young pony—the intelligentsia, the revolutionaries. The flies are meant to be the rioters, the pogromists.
This story was dedicated by Jacob Dinezon to the writer of “The Old Mare,” Reb Mendele Mokher Sforim
“If you say, ‘One’s thoughts during the day are what one dreams at night,’ it’s an idea worth ten times nothing!” says Samson Solomon. Do you need anything more than that? I myself dreamed a dream the other night which could never be something I thought about during the day.
Listen, however, to a story that can be dreamed by an old Jew, a former coachman in his youth.
I pondered for an entire day. What can an impoverished Jew ponder? My tough livelihood; the need for bread, clothes, a rental place to live. So I lay down to sleep and I dreamed that I’m still that cocky guy, the coachman, exactly as I was when I was young.
I’m sitting high up on the seat, it seems, and I’m riding on my big wagon, loaded down with weight, overflowing. Hitched to the wagon are Zusa’s four horses. The old white horse in the middle; beside it to the right, trots the young brown horse and his friend, the spotted pony; and to the left, beside the old white horse, is a black-headed mare, but an overworked one, skin-and-bones. Next to her, the trace horse, a really young pony, practically a kid in school. How it got tethered to my wagon, who the devil knows! I can’t even begin to remember how it came to be with me.
But I’m riding as I’m accustomed to riding, and I’m thinking about an inn along the road, about a good supper and a warm oven next to which a delicious sleep is to be had! But soon, I think, I’ll be entering the woods, into the great thick woods where wolves roam in packs, and this isn’t the place to sleep. It’s not daytime, nor is it night. Neither dark nor light—as it always is in the great forest. It’s winter. This I can tell from the snow crunching under the heavy weight of my loaded wagon upon which I’m sitting in my usual sprawl. And I’m feeling cold and hungry. Suddenly I’m seized with dread as I remember that right now is exactly the time when the wolves forget their fear and inhibition and may at any moment attack my horses, and why not me as well?
“Come on, giddy-up!” I give a shout to my horses who, disliking having to rush, pace in their harnesses like sleepyheads.
“Come on, giddy-up!” I yell again and make them comprehend by applying the whip to demonstrate what “Come on, giddy-up!” means. Since they have horsey brains, a hundred times is too few for them; they have to be reminded countless times with the whip of the meaning of “Come on, giddy-up!”
Do you think this helped? Not in the least! They move along step by step and don’t even mind the whip.
I’m surprised. What does it mean not to mind the whip? There has to be something wrong, I think. I look down from my bench and I see clearly that the young trace pony, this little schoolboy, is telling his older buddies what appears to be some interesting horsey story. The big ones are listening to him and don’t hear me nor even my whip.
“Ah, you’re some fellow! I’ll show you to tell stories while you’re in harness!” I say, and lay the whip on him with all the strength in my arm and no holding back.
Old horses already used to the whip can be whipped and whipped, they don’t even make a sound, but this was a young pony. On his own flesh he hadn’t yet tasted the whip, so evidently he really felt it; and without thinking too long, he kicks out with both hind legs.
I have to say a special prayer of deliverance that my bench is so high up that his hind legs didn’t reach me; however, snow and pieces of ice spray my face, nearly blinding me.
Enraged, I crawl under the awning of my wagon, stretch my arm out, and start to beat with my whip in all directions like slicing cabbage, at all of them, ceaselessly. This is my tendency when I fly into a rage. I don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong; I beat my whip like slicing cabbage at whatever I come into contact with. And really, bless my whip! The team begins to trot faster, and we’re moving forward.
But their speed is not quite to my liking: they’re running like the devil’s after them, and then I hear splintering sounds coming from the wagon as if the ropes binding the load are splitting. A few more moments, I surmise, and the entire wagon will shatter into pieces.
“Halt! Stop!” I shout, overcome by anxiety. I shout at them but it’s like shouting at a wall – they all turn a deaf ear. I’m canny, though, and letting the reins go, I make a treacherous jump off my bench, and immediately run ahead to catch them – and beat them with the stick end of my whip, right in their faces, right in the eyes, until they’ve stopped.
Stopped, but heated and agitated. From their mouths and nostrils steam rises as if mixed with blood. I let them rest for a moment, to cool off, that is, and go back to my bench, intending to take the reins in hand again. But here I sense that, probably from the cold, the fingers of both hands are as stiff as the stick of my whip. I can’t take hold of the reins. When I manage to grab one of the reins, the other one falls away. What a dreadful situation! My thought is: Without being able to take hold of both reins, with five horses one is more likely to reach God than the first inn.
So I breathe onto my frozen fingers. Maybe they’ll warm up and I’ll be able to grasp the reins again. But it must be only snow and hail falling from my mouth and not warm breath, for it appears my heart has already frozen into solid ice inside me.
And I notice that in the woods things are beginning to get lively. The wolves’ eyes are starting to show up, burning amongst the trees like lit memorial candles. I imagine that I even hear them snapping and honing their teeth. Any minute they’ll spring and tear me apart, along with my horses.
“Nu,” I say in a pleading manner. “Nu, not today; tomorrow.” They don’t hear me.
To defend oneself with the whip against wolves, especially while one doesn’t have hold of both reins, is dangerous. With one hasty pull, the entire wagon can tumble into a ditch, and that would be a really lovely outcome.
One has to attempt using goodness, I think. Horses are quick to allow their pardons to be begged.
“Steeds!” I address them. Every time I want to curry their favor, I don’t call them horses but steeds. They imagine this is God-only-knows how lofty a title.
“Steeds,” I say, “what’s the sense of staying put? If you aren’t able, or don’t want, to run, I forgive you! I personally know that it’s not easy to be a horse. But you must take into account that I can’t pull the wagon on my own. So let me guide you to the stable, at least until the first inn.”
“You hear these words, brothers?” says the little pony to the others. “Seems like he’s already good and stuck! How soft he’s become, now that he’s in trouble! Now, brothers, is the time to have him grant everything that for so long we’ve been longing for!”
‘Grant everything’, you bastard! I think to myself. Wait, you lout. As soon as I get to the inn, you’ll know exactly what I think of such words!
"Why are you staying put?” I ask out loud. “Go faster! Wolves, real wolves, hungry and violent, will soon attack you! Let yourselves be guided by me,” I beg, “for I intend to rescue you.” And I’m ashamed of myself that I, their coachman, before whose eyes they trembled, need to beg like this.
But even this begging doesn’t help, for they pay no heed to my words at all.
“In other words, criminals attack each other, but wolves attack you!” I shout angrily enough for the one God to answer me.
“Us?” the little pony asks with a dastardly little laugh.
“Let’s say me, too,” I concede, “but they won’t let go of you either.”
The young pony, having become the lead spokesman for his older friends, retorts, “It’s all the same for us: succumbing to your whip in the harness, or getting torn apart by wolves. We can’t continue living as we have until now!”
“So tell me, what do you want?”
“To express our dissatisfaction!” they reply in unison. “Once and for all, we need to tell you what we want and to achieve what we want!”
“Is this the time for complaints, for arguments, while wolves are attacking us? While the danger is so great?” I ask, nearly in tears.
“Children,” interjects the old white horse that goes in the middle and that always loves to lean on those at its sides when it comes to pulling the wagon out of the mud. “Children, I think that while wolves are attacking both us and him, it’s really not fair to stand still and complain.”
“Old horse!” yells the young pony insolently. “You talk about fairness? He shows a lot of fairness towards us?”
“But how far is it to the inn?” asks the old horse. “If we can just get to the inn in good shape, I’ll be the first to shout, ‘Time to complain!’”
“The inn?” the little bastard laughs outright. “At the inn, when he binds us to the pole, his hands will warm up and he’ll grab hold of the reins, then he’ll have as much fear of us as of last year’s snow. Now, it’s only now, because for a thousand years we horses have waited until we had the ability to speak, and now that we have it, we can’t allow a moment to pass before we say what it is we want!”
“Quiet, you oaf!” I yell at him. “There are those who are your elders. Let them speak!”
“Now, now!” the older ones bray, shaking their heads.
And listen to what I’m telling you: It was no surprise to me that my horses had suddenly begun to speak in a human tongue, exactly as I’m speaking with you. Need, they say, can break iron, and a whip can make the dumb speak. The same whip that made Balaam’s donkey talk by day opened my horses’ mouths in my dream at night. Whips I never spared them; this could be seen by their whip-striped coats. What was surprising, however, was how such a young pony could have the gift of gab – to so rapidly convince his elders that they all took to shouting as in one voice: “Now, only now!”
“Why now?” I ask, pretending ignorance.
“To lodge our complaints now!” they all reply in unison.
“To lodge complaints isn’t enough!” the young pony interjects. “He needs to make a verbal oath that he’ll grant and fulfill our demands!”
“Respect, young man!” I eventually address him directly, seemingly with esteem. “It’s not worth displaying such impudence at this dangerous moment. Where there’s Torah, there’s wisdom; where there’s old age—justice! Let the elders speak first. What do you say?” I address the one in the middle, the oldest, who should be more loyal than the others.
He turns his horsey head towards me and says: “The whip, Reb Samson! When can we ever get rid of the whip?”
“What do you have against the whip?” I ask. “With the whip I merely drive the flies away from you! Without the whip they’d eat you alive!”
“For driving flies away,” the young pony declares, “God gave us an extra-long tail. If only you don’t cut it short, we can manage to drive the flies away by ourselves.”
Do you hear what such a lummox has the idiocy to say? I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have a rejoinder for him. But since I’m no horse, I immediately arrive at a solution. From behind, I draw stealthily closer to the quiet old nag who’s the designated victim for everything, draw out a pin from under the yoke, and give it to her deep in her tender flesh, so that the blood spurts out in a fountain.
The miserable nag emits a bitter groan and trembles in pain.
“You see,” I gesture to the others, “you have complaints about the whip, yet I removed the whip from her for just one moment and the flies instantly attacked her and now her blood gushes!”
“Where do you get flies in winter?” challenges the young whippersnapper trace horse.
“Quiet!” I yell with assumed bravery. “You stick your nose into everything. The flies didn’t bite you, so it’s none of your concern. Let her complain, she’s the one in pain!”
I expected since the nag is long-suffering — bite her and tear her, she never makes a sound — that she’d probably keep quiet now, too, but this time I made a big mistake. The quiet nag also grows insolent, and what insolence! Swivels her head toward me and states quite clearly:
“Samson, I’ve endured enough shoving and enough whippings. Whom are you trying to convince that this is caused by a fly biting me? I’ve learned enough to recognize the difference between a bite given by a fly and a puncture from a pin!”
“Are you insinuating that I’m the one who stuck you? Don’t forget to whom you’re talking! You’ll answer to me for such a cheeky suspicion!” I shout at her as if deeply insulted that she suspects me.
“I’m not only suspicious of you, Samson. If there were a court of justice in the world, I’d prove it, supported by evidence, that you yourself stuck me with a pin!” the old nag retorts in defiance.
“To a court of justice, to a court of justice! I’ll show you, you troublemaker!” I rail as if I were truly innocent in the entire incident with the pin.
“But who’s your court of justice, Samson?” rejoins the old nag. “Aren’t your judges the self-same whip with the self-same justice as you yourself?”
“True, true,” interjects the young trace pony. “I also had a trial once and I recognized those judges of yours.”
“In everything you’re an expert, in all things you like to stick your little nose, may it wither away!” I say in an insulting tone. “What business is it of yours? I’m telling you once again, it wasn’t you that the flies bit!”
“But how can we all be certain that tomorrow or the next day you won’t enact this little farce again?” the little bastard has the gall to ask.
“Then, too, you’ll have a reason to complain! In the meantime, we’re wasting time, and we’re not moving. Speed things up a bit, and let anyone with a complaint make it. And what is it you want?” I turn to one of the horses in the middle.
“The harness. Your reins are unbearable, Samson!” replies the horse and opens its bloody horsey mouth in display. “See if your harness hasn’t broken all my teeth. Don’t we have your ever-protruding rope reins lodged deep in our cheeks? For pity’s sake, why? Is there no justice and no God in your heart?”
“Did I invent the harness and the reins?” I interrupt his little speech. “Perhaps during the time of Creation when the first horse was created, the harness and reins were created then, too. Maybe you know of a time when a horse was hitched without a harness and reins? No! No!” I shout heatedly. “About the harness and reins no one may open their mouth to complain. The world isn’t topsy-turvy yet!”
“Yes, a harness. Yes, reins,” the horse speaks more softly. “Who says there should be no harness? Who wants reins never to have been thought up? For all I care, let there be a harness and reins. But where does it state in the Torah that there needs be a harness of iron, of all things, that breaks all the teeth in one’s mouth? Who claims that horses can’t be hitched any other way except with reins made of thick rope like protruding stakes that have to be driven deep into the cheeks?”
A complaint indeed, I think, while trying to say something that doesn’t concede anything. As if I have a choice at such a dangerous time?
“You know what? I’ll tell you.” I address them all quite politely and soberly. “While I didn’t make the harness and the reins myself, I, as you yourselves know, inherited them from my father, my grandfather, and great-grandfathers. But since now the descendants are weaker, and present-day horses aren’t the great horses of yesteryear, I promise you all that if, God willing, we get through this danger, as soon as we get out of the woods and get home in peace, I’ll send for the experts in town and confer with them about the possibility of fashioning a harness of down and butter so that it’s both soft and light. And as for the reins – perhaps they could be made long, of silk, and with springs that curve right and left on their own? Nu, will you be satisfied then?”
“We will be satisfied to the same degree as you implement what you promise!” calls out the white horse in the middle, who is usually happy with everything.
“But absolutely not!” shouts the spotted little horse on the right. “And you think the pair of flaps for our eyes is just? I’ve become entirely blind because of your blinders. With them, you shut out the sunlight and the world! You think that horses, even poor spotted horses, don’t have any souls, any hearts? That they don’t sometimes want to view a light and a world? Often we pass a field from which wafts the aroma of green juicy grass, or sometimes a breeze carries the sweet perfume of a lovely fragrant flower, and my heart yearns, while disgusting spit fills my mouth. One longs to have a peek, no more than a peek. A nip, which we know you’d likely not allow us. No. Is your cruelty so great that you don’t even allow us a peek, as if you’re truly afraid that with our eyes opened we might hex you?”
“You’re saying things, believe me, like little children who don’t have the sense to understand the favor you’re being given!” I reply and shrug, pretending surprise that they have complaints about the blinders. “Fools, don’t be upset,” I tell them. “The blinders were put on you only for your own good! What do I intend with the blinders? I intend only for you to be able to tread a straight path – the straight path upon which your fathers trod, your grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, the illustrious famed horses, in their grand footsteps! It’s your souls I care about, and you have complaints against me!”
“We’re not asking you to care about our souls,” the little horse on the left declares, the one next to the young trace pony. “Try instead to care about our bodies! The main thing, I think, is the feed, and I can’t even remember a time when I saw hay or oats before my eyes. All of it is straw and chaff and there’s not even clean water to drink!”
1 Fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet with the sound “h” and pronounced “hay.”
2 "Ot" also connotes “letter of the alphabet”.
3 Shulkhan Arukh (Prepared Table), the code containing the body of Jewish laws (1550-1559), i.e., a complex and detailed set of rules.