A Newborn Little Soul
Once, on an early June night, when Sholem was returning from a nearby shtetl and had reached the small forest a verst or two from home, he heard a carriage approaching from the opposite direction. He soon recognized the voice of his older daughter, Malkeh, speaking in goyish with Vasil, the farmhand.
“There goes your father. I recognize his horse’s gait,” said Vasil. And Sholem heard his daughter respond, “Well, okay, if it’s my father, we’ll have to go back and pick up Aunt Yakhe to stay with us and then get home. My mother said she won’t stay alone. My mother—she’s sick.”
“Sick? You’re just a kid. For women, this isn’t a sickness. It’s probably another little Yid. You’ll see—by the time we get home, it’ll be shrieking and not letting anyone get any sleep . . . Well, they’ll make a bris and raise a glass with a good fiery toast . . . Your father, along with everyone who comes to your house for the parties—they all just make it seem like they’re drinking and singing. They pretend to get drunk. But I know how to take a swig; I know how to get drunk for real,” Vasil responded.
At this point Sholem could no longer contain himself. “Vasil! Malkeh! What’s going on—what’s this about your mother?”
“Yes. Mama isn’t feeling well. They sent me to get Aunt Yakhe to bring her to stay with us.”
“Vasil, turn around and go right back. See what has to be done there. I’ll go and come back quickly with Aunt Yakhe. Tell Mama we’re coming soon.”
Each of them turned around and went in different directions. Sholem soon reached a small, thatch-roofed hut. He approached it, knocked on the door—and a hunched-over woman dressed in village clothes opened the door. “Oh, it’s you? Well, come on in.”
“Good evening. Where’s Leybe?”
“Leybe—when is he ever at home? He’s with the cattle. His whole life is there. I don’t see when he gets up or when he goes to bed. When he comes back from the field he goes straight to the stable, where he settles himself in and spends too much time. But, brother, that’s not what you’ve got on your mind. You went to the market today, right? So why are you here?”
“Well, here’s what’s really going on. Malkeh ran into me and told me to come for you. Peshe probably needs you. I myself expected it. She’s due any day now.”
Yakhe got dressed in a hurry, grabbed a large, white apron, placed a few pointed cheese wedges—“for the children”—into a small white bag, and quickly left the house. She kissed the mezuzah, walked directly to the stables behind the house, and shouted, “Hey! Leybe!”
“What is it?” Leybe asked, trudging out of the stable. He walked forward and then, noticing Sholem, greeted him. “Any news?”
“There’ll be news soon,” Yakhe chimed in. “With God’s help, a boy. The fa-ther, may he live a long life, doesn’t have a name in mind yet. A year on the nose since the last one. Get back into the house soon. The kids are asleep. Take some supper for yourself. Enough with the horses. That’s plenty. He loves that dun horse like a son who’d say Kaddish for him, if you’ll excuse the comparison.”
When Sholem and Yakhe stepped into the entry hall, the house was quiet except for the cries of a newborn infant coming from the bedroom. Khishe, the blacksmith’s wife, was moving quietly through the house. Peshe had been quarreling with her ever since they became neighbors. She was an old, bent woman—nearsighted, with a white kerchief on her head—who now walked around the tavern keeper’s house with the small, measured steps of someone who had done something wrong.
Yakhe approached her. “Good evening, Khishe. Congratulations to you! Are you the grandmother? Congratulations. A boy? With any luck there will be a bris.”
Khishe stayed where she was, feeling even guiltier. “I was going about my business when Sorke came running over, crying, ‘Please, Khishe, my mother sent me to get you. She’s sick.’ I asked her where her father and Malkeh were and, excuse the comparison, Okulina. She started crying and said, ‘There’s no one. My mother is by herself.’ Well, a person isn’t made of stone, after all, God forbid. And I thought to myself: So what if there was silliness? We didn’t talk; we just argued. After all, we’re not enemies, God forbid.”
Sholem cut her off. “Is it a boy?”
“A girl, a little darling, may she live for many years,” Khishe answered, rectifying the condition of the newborn child whom others had hoped would be a boy. “A boy? Why is lineage such an obsession for them, may they all be well? Two boys and two girls, and now a third girl. Things will be okay for Sholem. He’ll have enough for their dowries, no evil eye. His daughters won’t become spinsters, God forbid.”
Khishe wished the mother a good night, gathered a few things, and quietly went into the other room, where children were sleeping. She went over to the beds, made sure that all the children were asleep, and went home.
During the Sabbath prayers, Sholem was called to the Torah for the prestigious last portion. They served honey cake and liquor and named the child “Dineh”—after the grandfather Daniel, may he rest in peace.
Dineh was the fifth child at home, and the sixth child her mother had. The eldest child, a boy, died immediately after birth.
By that point getting pregnant, giving birth, and nursing were not particularly newsworthy for Peshe. She had the babies a scant few years apart and nursed them until the late months of a new pregnancy.
The children grew up with the help of a servant or two: Okulina, an elderly Gntile woman from a nearby village, and Oliana, a tall, healthy peasant woman who had her own cottage and her own child, a little girl. Her husband, Vasil, the farmhand, didn’t own his own field. They lived off what they could earn off the tavern keeper’s property. On the Sabbath Oliana carried the keys to the warehouse and the liquor cellar and heated up the oven herself. The tavern keeper’s children considered her a second mother. If the children wanted bread and butter or an apple or to go outside and play, they turned to Oliana. If fights broke out among them, the children went to Oliana to complain.
When it was time for Oliana to return to her cottage, she often took several of Sholem’s children with her so that Peshe would have an easier time with the younger children. The children felt very at home in Oliana’s cottage. She spoke Yiddish with them, and when they got hungry after playing in her home for a while and asked her for something to eat, she gave them bread and butter or bread with an apple. When the children extended their little hands for the bread and butter, Oliana always commanded them, “Ha-Moytse! Don’t eat without making a ha-Moytse!”
Between these two mothers—the cold and strict Jewish mother, whose main tasks were to nurse the smallest child, oversee the house and liquor cellar, and tend to the frequent guests, and Oliana, the gentile mother, who washed, cleaned, dressed and undressed them, and offered bread and water — Dineh grew up.
As a child she did not flourish. She was emaciated. From the moment she was born Dineh didn’t nurse the way she should have. It was as if something about her stern mother and the milk from her breasts didn’t appeal to her. Each time Peshe lifter her baby to her breast, bundled her warmly against it, and started to nurse her, Dineh —as if she remembered something — suddenly raised her large brown eyes, looked up at her mother, started crying, and refused to suckle anymore.
Peshe wasn’t accustomed to this kind of behavior. The other children, when they were already running around the house with a piece of bread in their hands, used to approach her and ask, “Mama. Nipple.” And here was this kind of demon child that wouldn’t take her breast.
Peshe didn’t have much time to spare. When the baby didn’t drink her fill, she placed her back in the cradle, half hungry. When the baby cried, one of the older children was seated by the cradle and would dangle a piece of string into her hand, which she tugged. The older children rocked the cradle as determined by age and level of maturity.
At that time the older daughter Malkeh, who was then nine years old, studied with a teacher along with the older brother, the tavern keeper’s eldest son, Faytl. Sorke, the youngest daughter, was six years old, and Itshe was three years older than Dineh. He often sat by her cradle and extended the string with great concentration until he himself fell asleep.
When Sorke came to rock the cradle, she sang to Dineh and told her stories. And when Dineh was hungry and didn’t want to go to sleep, Sorke threatened her with all sorts of intimidation. “Go to sleep, Dinehle. If you don’t, the Tsigayner* will hear you in the forest. They’re going to come with their horses and covered wag-ons and steal you from us and throw you in a big wagon . . .”
That was how the six-year-old Sorke would talk over the cradle until she frightened herself and started believing her own story that the Tsigayner were about to come. She burst into tears and ran to Oliana, hiding in the folds of her wide, pleated dress. “I’m scared of the Tsigayner. They’re going to come soon to steal Dinehle and throw her into their big red wagon.”
In her cradle, Dineh did her part crying, and thrashing her thin legs — not out of fear of the Tsigayner but because of the hunger that was gnawing at her and preventing her from falling asleep.
With her mother and her mother’s milk, Dineh never made peace — until they began to feed her with a nipple and a little bottle, and added to that a makeshift feeding contraption. This consisted of chewed-up hard bread with sugar poured into a thin linen tied with a thread. It was then inserted, large as a large brass button, into the baby’s mouth. But Dineh didn’t want this strange food that had to be sucked through a rag. When the corners of the rag dragged around the baby’s mouth, she would tear it and start to cry.
When Oliana saw that Dineh wasn’t going to behave properly anytime soon, she decided to render the little demon into less of a nuisance. She took the nipple, soaked it in liquor, sprinkled it with a bit of sugar, and stuffed it into the baby’s mouth. This quieted Dineh. She got drunk and fell asleep.
This only helped as long as the baby was asleep. As soon as she woke up she began to show her resentment. For her part, Mama also showed hers. “This is some kind of a pest, not a child. She refuses to nurse and never stops whining. You go try and figure out what’s wrong.”
Moreover, Peshe had another reason for her resentment vis-à-vis the “pest” that refused to suckle her milk. She was pregnant again. This had never happened with her except after the first child that died after birth. At that time she gave birth to her second child exactly one year later. Since then the nursing had been a kind of insurance policy against pregnancy. But now—such an affliction. And Peshe was no spring chicken. It was almost unseemly, and no evil eye, there was one little one after another at home, and that one, Dineh, the little pest, just a year old and far from thriving. She still didn’t walk by herself and constantly had to be rocked—and rocked some more—staring out from her large brown eyes and never content.