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Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
1. Kicked out of Paradise
“THANK GOD Purim’s over and done with. Now we can start planning for Passover.”
That’s what Mama said the morning after Purim as she carefully inspected the four corners of the parlor like a chicken about to lay an egg. There, a few days later, we saw some hay and two boxes, upon which stood a little barrel covered by a coarse, white piece of cloth. Father and I were called into the parlor and warned about three dozen times that I not dare enter the room again, look at it from a distance, or even breathe in the general area. Immediately thereafter, the parlor door was shut, and, with all due respect, we were told to bid a hearty goodbye to the room and not set foot into it until Passover.
From that moment on, the parlor had a magnetic charm for me and I was strongly tempted to peep into that forbidden corner, if even from afar. While munching on my afternoon snack -- a piece of bread smeared with chick fat -- I joyfully looked into the bright parlor. There stood the red sofa, made of the same tawny wood used for violins, the three-legged, semi-circular table, the oval, well cut mirror, and the magnificent, hand-decorated picture hanging on the east wall which faced Jerusalem. It was a work of art that Father had made when he was still a young man. Oh my, what didn’t appear on it? Bears and lions, wildcats and eagles, birds and ram’s horns, citrons and candelabras, the Passover plate with stars of David on it, leaves and buttons, circles, loops, and an infinite number of curlicues and dots. It was hard to believe that a human could have drawn all that. How talented he is, I thought. Father is perfect.
“May the devil not take you! Standing with bread at the Passover door. May you not burn in hell,” Mama shouted and with two sharp pinching fingers led me by my left ear to Father.
“Go ahead. Take a good look at your son and heir. With bread in his hands, he looked into the parlor where the Passover borscht is.”
Father faked a solemn expression, shook his head, pursed his lips and clucked: “Tsk, tsk. Off with you, you little brat.”
When Mama turned to go, I noticed a sly little smile on Father’s lips. As Mama faced him again, the serious look returned. He took me by the hand, put me in the adjoining chair, and told me not to look into the parlor again. It was forbidden.
“Not even from far away?” I asked.
But Father didn’t hear me. He had returned to his book and was deep in thought and silent study. Again I sneaked up to the parlor and peeked through a crack in the door. Before me was a Paradise of fine things: a set of brand-new crockery, shiny pots, a meat cleaver, a salting board. In addition, two ropes of onions were strung on the wall, adding charm to the room. The parlor was all set for Passover! Passover! Passover!
2. From Bad to Worse
‘PERHAPS I CAN trouble your honors to move yourselves and your books out of here and go to the big alcove?” Mama ordered.
She was dressed in white, had a white kerchief on her head, and held a long stick in one hand and a feather duster in the other. She bent her head back and looked up to the ceiling.
“Sosil. Come here with the brush! Come on, get a move on, girl. Show your face.”
Sosil, the maid, a white cloth on her head too, appeared with a wet rag and a pail of whitewash. She set to work, slapping the wet brush across the ceiling, splash, splash. The two women looked like live white-shrouded corpses and both were as angry as could be.
But they didn’t let me watch this rare comedy for long. First, they told me that a young boy wasn’t supposed to stand and watch the ceiling being whitewashed for Passover. Then, in an angrier tone:
“Listen here! How about heading for the alcove?”
Saying this, Mama took me by the hand and showed me where to go. Since I wasn’t too eager to leave, I returned and met Sosil. She pushed me away and said:”What a child! Always getting under your feet!”
“Go. Run off, for goodness sake. Go to your father,” Mama said and pushed me toward Sosil, who caught me and threw me back at Mama, saying: “I’ve never seen such a stubborn child in my life.”
“He hasn’t learned from his lesson,” Mama said and slapped my rump. Sosil grabbed me and dabbed some whitewash on my nose and I stumbled into Father’s room, like a wet kitten, and burst into tears.
Father looked up from his books, tried his best to console me, put me on his lap, and started studying again.
3. From the Alcove to the Pantry
“EXCUSE ME, boss,” said Sosil to Father, “but the boss-lady told me to tell you to move to the pantry.”
The maid came into the alcove armed with all her tools, painted white as a ghost. We had to pack ourselves and our books to the pantry, a place no bigger than a yawn. One bed stood there, and in it slept the maid and, to my great shame, I. Sosil, you understand, was a relative, and had been with us for many years.
“When I came,” she once said to me, “you weren’t even born yet. You grew up under my care,” she said. “If it wasn’t for me you’d be God knows where” she announced, “for wherever there was a tumult, a hodge-podge, a mess -- you were in the midst of it, and I saved you from the muddle. And that’s the thanks you give me, huh?” she said, “biting the hand that fed you? Well, don’t you deserve a thrashing?”
That’s how Sosil used to talk to me, smacking me and tugging my hair, as well. And -- wonder of wonders -- no one protested. Neither Father nor Mama took my part. Sosil did whatever she pleased with me. Just as if I was hers, not theirs.
I took to a corner of the pantry, sat down on the floor, looking at Father as he rubbed his forehead, chewed his beard, swayed, and sighed, “Well , that’s how it is. . .’’ Just then Sosil came in with her equipment and asked us to move a bit farther.
“Where, now?” asked father, completely bewildered.
“How do I know?” Sosil said, and started whitewashing the place.
“Into the little storeroom,” said Mama, coming into the pantry. With her long stick and new feather-duster, she looked like a fully-armed enemy in a surprise attack.
“The storeroom is as cold as a stone.” Father tried to beg his way out.
“A stone–cold plague on him,” said Mama.
“Sure! They’re freezing on the streets now, come spring,” Sosil mocked, and started splashing her wet brush on the dry walls. We had to pick ourselves up and move to the storeroom, where we both shivered with cold. That place wasn’t really conducive to studying. The little storeroom was narrow and dark. Two people could hardly stand there without stepping on each other’s toes. But because of that, for me it was a miniature Paradise. Just imagine, there were little shelves for me to climb. But Father wouldn’t let me. He said I’d fall and break my neck. But who paid any attention to him? No sooner was he into his books than I was -- yippee! -- on the first, the second, the third shelf.
“Cock–a–doodle- doo!” I crowed at the top of my voice, wanting to show Father my great talent. I raised my head and before I knew it, had banged into the ceiling with such force that it practically knocked all my teeth out. Father became frightened and raised a fuss. Then Sosil, followed by Mama, came a -running, and both of them plowed into me for all they were worth.
“Did you ever see such a wild boy?” Mama asked.
“That’s no boy. That’s a little demon,” Sosil said, adding that in a little while we’d be asked -- begging our pardon a thousand times -- to move ourselves to the kitchen, for most of the house was already painted for Passover.
4. From the Storeroom to the Kitchen
IN THE KITCHEN I saw the big-browed Moyshe-Ber sitting with Father on the dairy-bench. They weren’t studying now, but pouring out their bitter hearts to each other. Father complained about his pre-Passover travels, saying that for the past few days he’d been sent packing from one place to another. “I’ve become a vagabond. Gone into exile, tramping from one place to the next.”
But Moyshe-Ber said, “That’s nothing. I have it much worse. I’ve been kicked out of the house altogether.”
I looked at the big-browed Moyshe-Ber and for the life of me couldn’t understand how such a big Jew with such huge eyebrows could have been kicked out of own house. Bit by bit they slipped back into their old strange talk. Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, Philosophy, Spinoza, and other such nonsense which went in one ear and out the other.
The gray cat, sitting on the stove and licking its paws, was more interesting. Sosil said a cat licking herself meant a guest was coming. But I just couldn’t understand how the cat knew we were going to have company. I went up to the cat and started teasing her. First, I wanted to touch her paw. But nothing doing. Then, I taught her to beg and stood her up on her hind legs. She didn’t like this either. “Attention!” I told her, and slapped her nose. She closed her eyes and turned away, stuck out her tongue, and yawned as if to say: Why does this boy bother me so? What does he want of my life? But her behavior annoyed me. Why does the cat have to be such a stubborn mule, I thought, and kept teasing her until she suddenly bared her sharp claws and scratched my hand. “Mama, help,” I yelled. In rushed Mama and Sosil in an uproar and I got my share of it from both of them. Next time I’d know not to fool around with cats, they said. Cats! All told there was only one little cat and they called it cats.
“Go wash up,” Mama told Father. “We’ll have our last pre-Passover meal in the cellar.”
Sosil took the poker and started moving the pots around on the stove, paying no attention to either me, my Father or Moyshe-Ber. Moreover, she let Moyshe-Ber know that she couldn’t understand what he was doing here on the eve of Passover. That’s the proper time to be home, she said, instead of lolling around in neighbors’ houses. Moyshe-Be took the hint, said goodbye, and we all went down to the cellar for our last pre-Passover meal.
5. From the Kitchen Down to the Cellar
I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND why Father made faces, shrugged his shoulders, and grumbled: “What a vagabond life!” What sort of catastrophe was it having one meal in the cellar? How could the smell of sour pickles, stinking cabbage, and crocks full of dairy products harm anyone? What was so terrible about making a table out of two upside-down barrels and a noodles- board, and using other barrels for chairs? Just the opposite. I thought it was much better that way, and more fun, too. While doing so, you could ride around the cellar on the barrel. But what if you fell? If you fell you got up and rolled around again. The only trouble was that Sosil was on a sharp lookout to foil my attempts.
”He’s got himself a new game,” she said. “He’s dying to break a leg.”
That was a lot of hooey. I no more wanted to break a leg than she did. I don’t know what she wanted of me. She always picked on me and looked at the black side of things. If I ran, she said I’d break my skull. If I went near anything, she said I’d smash it. If I chewed on a button, she had a fit: “The blunderhead is going to choke himself.” But I used to get even with her when I was sick. The minute I felt out of sorts, she turned the world upside-down fussing over me to the point where she didn’t know whether she was coming or going.
“Now, take the child upstairs,” Mama said, after we had finished saying the Grace After Meals.
“We have to clean up the last bit of leaven from the cellar too.” Before Father asked her where to go, she added: “Up to the attic for a couple of hours.” Then she added quickly, “Because the floors are still wet. But see to it that the little bungler doesn’t tumble out of the attic and break all his bones!’’
“Bite your tongue!” Mama yelled as Sosil hurried me on with a push from behind.
“Well, get a move on bungler. Move!”
Father followed me and I heard him grumbling: “The attic! What next? There’s a vagabond gypsy’s life for you.”
What a strange one Father was. Going up to the attic displeased him. If it were up to me, I’d like every week to be the week before Passover, where I would have to climb up to the attic. First of all, the climbing itself was fun. On a regular weekday I could stretch out and die -- and they wouldn’t let me go up to the attic. And now I scrambled up the stairs like a little devil. Father came after came after me, saying; “Take it easy. Take it slowly,” but who took it easy? Who took it slowly? I felt as if I’d sprouted wings and was flying, flying.
6. From the Cellar to the Attic – and That’s All
YOU OUGHT to see the looks of our attic. It was smack full of treasures -- smashed lamps, broken pots, clothes so old you couldn’t tell if they were men’s or women’s underwear. I found an old piece of fur there, too. As soon as I touched it, it crumbled like snow. Pages from old sacred books, the burned exhaust pipe of an old samovar, a sackful of feathers, a rusty strainer, and an old palm-branch lay on the floor, stretched out like a lord. Not to mention the planks and boards and the roof! The roof was made of pure shingle and I could touch with it with my bare hands. Being able to touch the ceiling was nothing to sneeze at.
Father sat down on a cross-beam, picked up the loose pages, attached one to another, and started reading them. I stood next to the little attic window and had a picture-postcard view of all of Kasrilevke. I saw all the houses and all their roofs, black and gray, red and green. The people walking in the streets seemed tiny and I thought that ours was the finest village in the world. I peeked into out own courtyard and saw all the neighbors washing and scrubbing, scraping and rubbing, making the tables and benches kosher for Passover.
They carried huge pots of boiling water, heated irons and red-hot bricks, all of which gave off a white vapor that tumbled and turned until it disappeared like smoke. The smell of spring was in the air. Little streamlets flowed in the streets, goats bleated, and a man wearing cord-wrapped boots was hauling himself and a white horse through the mud. That happened to be Azriel the Wagoner. The poor devil beat his horse, who just about managed to drag his feet through the mud. He was delivering s load of matses to someone.
Then I remembered that we had bought our matses a long time ago and had them locked in the cupboard over which a white sheet had been hung. In addition, we had a basketful of eggs, a jar of Passover chicken fat, two ropes of onions on the wall, and many other delicacies for the holiday. I thought of the new clothes I’d have for Passover and my heart melted with joy.
“Boss,” we heard a voice from downstairs. “Sorry to trouble you, but you’ll have to come down and air out the books.”
Father stood up and spat out angrily: “Damn this vagabond existence.”
It was beyond me why father wasn’t happy. What could be more fun than standing outside and airing the books. I dashed from the window to the attic door, then -- clompety-clomp -- head-over-heels down the stairs went I into the kitchen.
I don’t know what happened next! I just know that after the fall I was ill for a long time. They tell me I almost didn’t recover. But as you can see, I’m as hale and hearty as ever, may it continue that way. Except for that one scar on my face, my shortness of breath, and the constant twitch in my eyes, I’m in perfect shape.
Curt Leviant’s most recent novels are the critically acclaimed King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.