By Shira Gorshman
Translated from Yiddish by Faith Jones
Sunday at dawn, while birds still slept in their nests, Khatshe the Rag Man would harness his horse, an old nag with one eye. The knotted reins, the worn-out tackle, the hemp ropes, the nag, the rag man’s green-brown jacket, and the man himself silently posed the question: For how long, oh God?
Khaye-Hinde would bustle out of the house in her coat, which was shiny like a metal plate: all the velvet was completely worn off, except under the collar. She would glance at the wagon, and at Khatshe, with black eyes like wells of sorrow. Then she would spring onto the flatbed like a man, and say:
“Khatshe, don’t dawdle. Pick up the reins. The beggar is three villages over by now.”
She would spend the whole week travelling around with Khatshe, to all the villages and hamlets, sweeping out any peasants’ attics where she thought she could find a rag or scrap of fabric.
But Friday afternoons, come hell or high water, Khaye-Hinde went home. No sooner would she have stepped down off the wagon than the chimney would begin to release a curl of smoke. Still wearing her bald coat and a headscarf that was so patched it looked like a head of cabbage, walking through the narrow vestibule on her way into the kitchen, she would grab a few pieces of wood, throw them into the oven, light the stove, throw on a few pots and pans of water to give the children a scrub. The hot water later got transferred to a huge washtub, which she covered with a blanket to keep warm. She would toss a few pieces of clean clothing to Khatshe, saying, “Take the first bath!” and so Shabbos would begin.
The food she threw together at the last minute was renowned in the neighbourhood. “Even a pig would puke bile if someone fed it that,” women would say, as they smelled the aromas emerging from Khatshe’s house. Another would stop in front of the rag man’s house and say, “Always cooking in a rush, poor thing. What choice does she have?”
Khaye-Hinde herself never complained. She evened out the dirt floors and sprinkled them with sand. Two brass candlesticks would glow on the table. The tablecloth was worn and patched, but clean as a whistle.
She often lit the stove on Friday just so people would think… She kept her children neat and tidy, but in truth, on Shabbos they got to chew raw radishes and make their blessings with rye bread rubbed with garlic, washed down with well water from the courtyard.
When Shabbos ended, she spent the evening washing the week’s laundry. And if Khatshe grumbled about how much she spent on soap, she would answer back, “My children can’t be covered in lice. If they go without bread, so be it. To go without soap—that can’t be done.” If her neighbour asked how the Shabbos cholent tasted, Khaye-Hinde would say, “God willing, I’ll never have worse.”
The six children were what remained of her eleven babies. Thank goodness, none of the ones who died suffered long. The first set of twins, two boys, skinny as rails, got smothered as she slept beside them—she couldn’t keep her eyes open from fatigue. The way Khatshe tried to comfort her only made it worse: “Nobody can begrudge you a rest, Hinde, so stop moaning.”
Khatshe scalded another child in the bath the night before Passover. The doctor recommended covering him with cloths soaked in buttermilk. Nothing helped; he died before the holiday was out. Khatshe complained some more: “Hinde, enough! We are all in God’s hands. If the Holy One wished it, he could have sent an angel like he did to Abraham at the binding of Isaac. It must have been fated. Listening to you cry is rubbing salt in the wound.”
One child fell from a window. A low window: but it was their bloody luck thatjust below it was a pointy rock. Khaye-Hinde was thirty-five when her hair turned dove-grey. She started staying home. But then Khatshe would arrive home with nothing in the wagon, and she had no choice. What’s the good of mourning the dead, when the living ones are starving right in front of me? she thought, and again started leaving her children in God’s hands during the week.
One more child was trampled by Leyb the Wagon Driver’s stallion. Every Shabbos the wagon driver would let the horse run free to work off his energy. The stallion ran like the wind, but one Shabbos afternoon, when Khaye-Hinde wasn’t even napping but sitting in the house with Khatshe eating boiled beans, her little Leybl got knocked down and didn’t get up. Bystanders carried his body home. Khaye-Hinde took him in her arms and ran to the wagon driver’s house. Khatshe ran behind. She lay his little body on the porch and with her fists knocked out all the panes in his big front window. Leyb came out and yelled at her:
“Stupid bitch, are you crazy? Go hit your head against a wall and leave the rest of us in peace. I can’t put my head on the horse’s body. It happens!”
“I notice your own children aren’t the ones being run down by your horse. Bloodsuckers! Thieves!” Khaye-Hinde picked up her dead child and ran home through the Shabbos streets yelling, “God in heaven, why are you silent? Our blood is on their hands… our blood is on their hands.”
And Khatshe ran behind her growling, “You are a just God; your verdict is just!”
Khaye-Hinde’s wail ripped through the nearby houses. The neighbours heard her and prayed for mercy, but didn’t run out to comfort the mother holding her dead son. During the week of mourning, it was the neighbour women who cried and moaned. Not Khaye-Hinde. She sat silently, only occasionally asking Khatshe, “Do you actually think God exists?”
“Stop it, Khaye-Hinde, for pity’s sake. We still have children. I’m telling you, stop it.”
Nothing beside that was heard out of Khatshe. He became silent and angry, with his head perpetually bent over as if he was expecting more blows to come raining down on him from the one up above.
Khaye-Hinde was left with five boys and one girl. Sometimes she wondered if they even knew who she was. The real homemaker and mother to the boys was thirteen-year-old Khanke. Every time Khanke got a penny’s worth of credit from the store or bakery, Khaye-Hinde took her to task for it.
“A grown-up girl shouldn’t notice what someone else is buying or eating! I’ve told you so many times, there are no windows in the stomach. Don’t cry, you glutton. Stop it.” Khaye-Hinde spoke quietly so the neighbours wouldn’t hear, God forbid.
Choking on her tears, Khanke would show her bruises as evidence of her excuses: “I bought the bagel for Shmulke. He wouldn’t stop pestering me. He came running after me to Khaye’s bakery and had a fit. ‘Buy me a bagel, I need to eat!’”
It’s true, it was impossible to hold out against the five-year-old Shmulke. All the neighbours had been bugged by him. Mothers would warn their children, “Finish your dinner before Shmulke comes and grabs it!”
Khaye-Hinde heard from her neighbours on Saturday night, after Shabbos was over. “For pity’s sake, Khaye-Hinde, you need to take drastic measures! Your boy will be breaking into locked cupboards soon.”
The rest of the children spent the whole week eating plain noodles with peas. Khanke would put the jug of goat’s milk on the very top shelf, but it made no difference. Shmulke could find it and chug the entire thing before anyone noticed.
“I wish they all looked as healthy as he does,” Hinde thought to herself, watching him through the window as he rode a stick horse. His dark eyes darted, his red cheeks wobbled, his little teeth gnawing. He was always healthy and always wanted to eat. This was exactly what was worrying Khaye-Hinde. The whole neighbourhood was saying Shmulke had a parasite.
One Sunday morning, Khatshe drove out alone. Khaye-Hinde went over to Toybe the Gardener to ask her advice. She was known to be able to remove a curse, pull out baby teeth, make salve for bee stings, and remove a splinter from under a fingernail. Toybe listened to Khaye-Hinde, and then said:
“You know, my Velvl also had a parasite. Nobody should suffer as he did. He could barely keep his mouth closed! He would hide crusts of bread and at night we could hear him chewing like a mouse. I made him eat a little piece of paper with the Psalms on it by covering it with honey. Then I locked him in the bottom drawer of the dresser for half an hour. Sure, he was scared, but he came out fine in the end.”
“Toybe, I can hardly tell you how hard it is. I was giving him his bath on Friday and he fought and kicked so much I just gave up. His hair was covered in soap and I left it that way, I’m ashamed to say.”
“I’ll come with you,” Toybe said.
The two women went to Aaron the Bookbinder to buy a leftover scrap of Psalms. They tricked Shmulke into following them into the house. They gave him a piece of the paper to eat, but he spit it out with a “yuck!”
“Roll it up and stick it in a lump of sugar. He’ll eat that.”
This time Shmulke ate it and asked for more.
Toybe sent Khanke outside with the other boys, and locked the door behind them. Khaye-Hinde took all the clothes out of the bottom dresser drawer and slightly opened the other four drawers so that air would flow in. Then they began talking Shmulke into getting inside.
“If you don’t go in by yourself, we’ll get Yankl the Chimneysweep to come. He can pick you up with one hand.”
Shmulke ran to the door. Toybe and Khaye-Hinde grabbed him. He fought and scratched at them until their hands bled. He screamed so much that they quaked inside, but they stuck to their guns and finally got him locked in the dresser.
Shmulke lay in the dark. In that first instant he realized he would never see the outside world again. He struggled to get out of the musty drawer and banged his head on the wooden sides. The dresser shook with his movements. Then it seemed to him that Yankl the Chimneysweep was pulling him by the feet to hang him in a narrow chimney. Shmulke had already given up and was willing to go, but the chimney was so narrow his head wouldn’t fit in it. Yankl had white eyes with no pupils, and his stiff, strange beard rubbed Shmulke’s naked feet uncomfortably. Shmulke couldn’t breathe and felt as cold as ice…
When the women took him out of the drawer, Toybe threw a quart of water over him to bring him around. Khaye-Hinde used the dairy knife to flatten the bumps on his head. She already regretted the whole business.
“Go on then, little fool,” Toybe comforted him. “It’s no easy thing to get rid of something like this.”
Shmulke’s parasite was indeed gone. The goat milk could sit on the windowsill without him taking any notice of it.
The next Sunday, before Khaye-Hinde left for the week with Khatshe, she said to Khanke, “Buy a bagel for Shmulke. Make sure you look after him, for heaven’s sake!” But Shmulke just looked at the bagel with watery eyes. He started crawling back under the bedclothes, lying there for hours. The next Shabbos Khaye-Hinde poured out her troubles to Toybe.
“The food could be sitting there long enough to grow mold, but he won’t take any. He’s eating like a bird and looks at me like a simpleton. It makes my blood run cold.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Toybe comforted her. “He’ll grow out of it, God willing. He’s not the first and not the last.”
And that’s how it remained.
It was a shame that Shmulke’s eyes became so watery. He couldn’t grasp anything in school. So in winter he would sit inside, in summer outside on a heap of rags. Khaye-Hinde taught him how to cut off buttons and clasps, how to put the woollen rags in one pile, the linen in another. The neighbours said it was a perfect job for an imbecile. Khaye-Hinde had long ago run out of tears. But from time to time she would look at him and murmur:
“A mother like this should be maimed. It would have been better if I had no arms and legs. Curse my awful luck.”