By Anna Margolin
Translated from Yiddish by Daniel Kennedy
Every evening he comes home to his large, disquieting room and drinks tea and talks with his daughter.
He has a wife living in a small village somewhere whom he only thinks of when it’s time to send money. But his daughter, a girl of seventeen, lives with him in the city. He loves his little one very much, and they live together like intimate friends.
He usually comes home a little tired, a little dissatisfied. The disturbing expanse of the room, coupled with the fact that the girl is troubled and distracted, only serves to heighten his discontent.
“You should have made the tea; you know what time I usually come home,” he says, irritated.
She approaches, kisses him on the brow—her usual trick to lighten his mood—and sets to preparing tea.
In these moments he prefers not to speak. He looks over the newspapers indifferently, paces around the room, and softly hums an aria from Il Trovatore or La Traviata—he adores “good old Verdi,” as he calls him.
Afterward he turns to the cheap mirror that hangs on the wall and gazes at his reflection with long fascination.
“Another gray hair,” he invariably remarks.
The girl works sadly and absent-mindedly. At her father’s words an ironic smile flashes on her lips and then vanishes.
The conversation now turns around the same old themes as always: about his young years which flew by so quickly, and about cursed old age which draws ever closer.
“How is it that I’ve aged so much in the last few years?”
She looks attentively at his handsome but weary face, at his kindly eyes which no longer sparkle as they once did, at his fair hair which grows ever thinner, and says, uncertainly:
“I don’t think you have aged all that much.”
This vexes him: “Oh, You don’t think so?” he throws her words back at her.
She feels pity for her father who is so afraid of growing old, though that fear is alien and incomprehensible to her, and she says, entirely convinced by her own words:
“No, of course I don’t think so.”
He drums his fingers nervously over his glass. He still does not believe her, but he cannot keep silent for long and so he speaks again:
“Do you know, I bumped into Madam X today. You remember her, don’t you? (No. The girl does not remember her.) Well, she was in love with me before I married your mother. (A flash of pain darkens the girl’s face for a moment.) Fret not, my little one, you have nothing to worry about . . . I hadn’t seen her in about three or four years. So of course I remove my hat and take a little bow. She stares at me in surprise. It was only afterward that I realized she had not recognized me. ‘You’ve aged so, so much!’ she told me. Later I had a hearty laugh about the whole encounter.”
In the distance the sun is going down in a sea of flames. The sunset is not visible from their room; the window faces a blind wall of red brick. But one can see the roof of the building opposite, and the spire of the old church behind it, burning gold and purple. Above is a patch of sky, but this has already turned gray, cold, and deeply calm. Slowly, slowly, as though embarrassed, long, soft, dark shadows crawl in through the open window, stealing their way into the room, growing bold, and making themselves comfortable in every corner. And, whether because the sun is dying or because her father’s words ring with poorly hidden anguish, the girl grows sorrowful, very sorrowful. Pouring him a second glass of tea, she speaks softly, with sincere tenderness:
“It’s ridiculous. I mean really. You? Aged?”
“I don’t understand either,” he says earnestly. “A man over forty is in his prime. When can one live if not now? When does one know how to live if not in these years? It’s not with twenty, but with forty, that one comes into one’s true youth. In France they understand these things.”
Whenever they speak, the conversation invariably turns to France. And once they have reached this point in the discussion it is hard to steer it elsewhere.
The father daydreams about that happy land where youth is in no hurry to slip away, where old age tarries long before stepping over the threshold, and where people know how to live and enjoy themselves.
The girl, too, holds the name “France” dear to her heart. For her it is inseparable from her earliest fantasies about university, her naive girlish dreams of a future life which is bound to be oh so fine, extraordinarily fine! (She cannot stay here after all!) The word awakened images of a great, wonderful revolution, of the great, noble Napoleon whom she had recently learned about, along with memories of the dozens of love stories she’s read, which she still pounces on to this day when no one is looking. And all of these thoughts blend and flow into one splendid, rich, fantastic image: France.
In the quiet evening hours these daydreams of education and stormy world dramas fade unnoticed. Instead the love stories rise to the surface of her memory, all half-earnest, gracious, tender, and colorful. Forgetting to drink her tea, the girl hastens to recount these stories to her father. And each time, out of compassion for him, she makes the hero a man in his forties.
“He was about the same age as you, a little older . . .”
He always laughs at these “foolish stories,” but in the still hours of the evening he listens to them gladly and attentively.
“Of course,” he says, “in France that’s a commonplace thing.”
The sun has not yet died. It only seems that way. With great effort it climbs over the red wall and, in desperation, launches a few sharp bloody shafts of light in through the window, but the shafts are few and weak, they recoil from the dark shadows; trembling and powerless they fall upon the white tablecloth, and on the young girlish hand resting on her father’s bowed head. And in that light, which barges in so unexpectedly, she can see with stark clarity her father’s weary face and faded eyes; the wrinkles on the wide brow are unmistakable, and the thinning hair, growing silver in the corners . . .
He repeats the words: “In France . . .”