Mar 31, 2021
Tsilke came home that day with a heart full of questions.
But who was there to speak to? Who could she ask?
Aunt Nikhe listened to the whole story and reproached Tsilke for having disappeared from the house.
But later, in the hours of evening and night, Tsilke did not leave her aunt’s side, posing questions all the while. Why after why:
“Why did they beat the shepherd’s daughter like that?
“And what is a ‘bastard’ exactly anyway?”
Aunt Nikhe shook her head sadly.
The shepherd and his children . . .
They lived so far from other Jews, in such close proximity to the farmers that they were beginning to resemble farmers themselves, becoming like animals.
“But, Aunt Nikhe, what did the shepherd’s daughter do wrong?”
Nikhe hesitated and blundered, giving Tsilke a wise, good natured smile. Suddenly her smile seemed to grow younger and younger . . . an almost girlish charm spread over Aunt Nikhe’s face.
“They call you a wild Kozke, my dear Tsilke, and it’s true . . . you still know nothing.”
“What don’t I know?”
“What all the other girls your age know already.”
“What do they know?”
It was already night, though some red still shone through the window, through the trees, a remnant of the lingering daylight hitting the copper utensils on the wall causing them to burn with cold fire.
Crickets chirped outside, the sound resembling a steady beat on tiny drums.
That night Nikhe recounted for Tsilke—slowly and tactfully—the story of her youth, and her wedding.
Piously reserved and with a pang of dread, Aunt Nikhe confided in Tsilke everything that “all girls of her age already know.” Tsilke curled up next to her, eyes closed, and listened as her aunt spoke . . .
It felt as though the old forest had grown a tongue and was recounting all the secrets of life. But had she not already known it all? Indeed. It seemed she had known it all, but she had not understood: she had felt it but she had not comprehended.
Luckily it was dark in the house and Aunt Nikhe could not see that she was blushing the whole time.
Nikhe often let out a sigh, and the sigh meant:
“Child, child! Years go by and years fly. Tsilkes like yourself become mothers, and those mothers become grandmothers. . . the years fly by . . .”
Nikhe stroked Tsilke’s head, her hair, which the dew had made damp and fragrant; she caressed and held the forest orphan close to her, reminding herself that she too had once been young.
Nikhe decided to light a fire. Tsilke slipped out of the house. She sat on the porch and gazed out into the woods. The gypsies were cooking something, but it did not entice her toward the campfire. . .
“So, that’s how it is . . .” she said to herself several times, “I knew it all” and her body winced . . . “I didn’t know it,” she thought again and images came back to her from the previous days. She thought of the girls in Mistebove, who often spoke such incomprehensible words thinking that Tsilke understood them. They had laughed, and Tsilke had laughed along with them many times, though she had not understood what they were laughing at, or why. A lot of things made sense now.
That’s why the sleepy girl had hidden that time in the corn . . .
And Froyke with the gypsy girl earlier that morning!
And the way Sasha often kissed her: her face, her throat, the nape of her neck. . . Oh, let him come now and she’d kiss him too, she would kiss him over and over again.
The thought frightened her: “And what if we’re not supposed to?”
She went to bed, full of sweet restlessness. In her sleep someone chased her across a cornfield. She fled, and yet strongly wished that he would catch her—it was Froyke with his boots, with his black shirt. She ran and laughed . . . ran and laughed . . .
No one saw her running, but Nikhe heard her laughing in her sleep and she rushed over to her bed:
“Tsilke, what’s with you, why are you laughing?”
She woke up and began cursing Froyke.
“What has Froyke to do with anything, merciful heavens!” Nikhe spat out three times and mumbled something.
Later they went back to sleep. Shleyme from the distillery slept on the porch; he was guarding the house from the gypsies. The forest slept, the whole world slept. And if a breeze took it upon itself to give the pine branches a shake—the branches would hiss for a moment, only to return again to their slumber.
A great silence enveloped the forest, and if there was anything sighing in such a quiet night it was the silence itself . . .
Tsilke awoke before Aunt Nikhe. She looked over to her aunt’s bed, at her old face and gray head, and felt a deep pity for the old woman. “She will never again kiss anyone again, she has already lived out her life.”
Tsilke made her way quietly out the door, out onto the porch. Shleyme’s bed was already empty, Shleyme himself had already gone to the distillery.
She began looking around for the gypsy boys who were usually up by now, running and horsing around in the forest. But there was no one there. No one . . .
She ran down from the porch and searched the nearby woods: left, right, nothing, empty. The place where the gypsy camp had been was now an empty space with black burnt patches on the earth. There were a few severed chicken heads lying around, a piece of string, a torn sleeve from some old garment . . . and nothing more.
For a moment, Tsilke felt sad—everything that went away and vanished from sight, everything that was there one day and gone the next, left behind a painful yearning in Tsilke’s soul . . .
No more gypsies—a lonesome, empty forest. Just the same trails between the trees remained, the same green of the needles, the same stream . . .
The stream . . .
It always spoke the same language, it ran eternally along the same course, carrying on its hunched shoulders the shadows of the high pine trees. It did not pause for even a moment as it passed Tsilke—sitting now by its banks with her finger in her mouth, like a young girl—It did not ask her:
“Tsilke, what are you thinking about?”
No. Not a single tree, not a single bird: no one asked Tsilke what she dreamt or mourned, or why she was now ashamed to go back inside and look her aunt in the eye . . .
The night before Aunt Nikhe had confided strange things in her.
And it seemed to her that it hadn’t been yesterday but long ago, years ago, lost in the depths of Tsilke’s memory. Now she remembered . . . now.
It was Aunt Nikhe, it was time for work. Her father was coming home today.
They worked in silence, cleaning every corner. The beds were already made and covered in white cushions. Spick and span. After breakfast, Nikhe took a basket and headed for Mistebove.
Before leaving she adjusted her wig without even glancing in the mirror. She caressed Tsilke’s head several times before going out the door.
And once she was gone Tsilke burst into tears. Without rhyme or reason, without pain she cried, and she felt so good afterwards, when the tears stopped coming.
She was alone now in the great forest. The windows were open and the green of the needles and the gold of the pines filled the house with forest, with calm forest.
She sat down by the window and watched the chickens creeping around, one by one looking for food. She stared at one tree and another, wondering which one had the most branches.
Suddenly she began to smile to herself and the smile spread slowly over her face, over her lips, to her eyes . . . The smile spread to every tree, through the whole forest and culminated in a short “hahaha.”
Who or what was Tsilke laughing about? The forest neither knew nor inquired.
In the meantime the sun swam overhead. Sometimes a whole sea of light poured down onto the forest, and in those moments the birdsong rose higher. The sunbeams and the sounds blended together and every sound and every trill resonated with clarity. And when the sun moved aside, shadows lay down over every tree, over every trail, and a cool-warm breeze blew. Everything then became more restrained. There was no mourning in the forest, the birds did not fall silent, but there was no rejoicing either until the sun once again returned to pour light onto various parts of the woods; silver beams enveloping the trees and on the tip of every needle shone an illuminated diamond . . . Then even more noises could be heard, such sounds that only converse with the beams, only with the lofty blue which flows so peacefully for everyone, for the whole forest, and for no one . . .
Tsilke sat for a long time, lost in thought. She was surprised that Sasha had not yet returned.
Sasha. . .
What kind of a person was he? And was it true what he once said, that if she wanted, he would marry her? He had only said it once, but she remembered it well. Supposing it were true; if she wanted to, if he did indeed marry her, where would they live? Here in the forest, or in Grodno? In Grodno no doubt; Sasha would not be able to sit still in the forest. But in Grodno there would be so many unfamiliar people, all those streets and buildings—everything would be unfamiliar.
She thought about Sasha, when suddenly the image returned to her of Froyke and the gypsy girl danced away together, deeper and deeper into the woods. . .
No, the gypsies had left. The Uriadnik and several farmers came to Iser’s house and asked Tsilke:
“When did the gypsies leave?”
“How long were they here and what did they steal?”
In the surrounding villages and in the nearby farms they had caused quite a stir.
Nikhe returned from Mistebove, she had lingered quite a while in the village that day.
She explained to Tsilke that the Barashes had invited her to their house and had spoken to her for a long time. They’d spoken about Tsilke in fact. It was time for her to start thinking about marriage, and they had a son of marriageable age . . .
Admittedly he was still a bit wild, that son of theirs, but he’d make a man of himself soon enough, he’d said so himself. He had already spoken to Nikhe several times. When Nikhe brought it up with Iser he grew angry: “No daughter of mine,” he shouted, “is ever going to marry that sausage-eater!”
Tsilke stood in the middle of the room, stretching herself as though waking from a slumber, and said to Aunt Nikhe:
“That’s enough about weddings, and about Froyke: wasn’t he just the other day dancing with a gypsy girl?”
“Where did he dance? When was this?”
Tsilke told her about everything she had seen in the forest, about Froyke and the gypsy.
Just then they heard the sound of an approaching horse.
“That’ll be your father now. . .”
But Tsilke recognized the trot of Lurie’s horse.
“No, it’s Sasha.”
In a flash she was outside, her laughter ringing out for all the forest to hear.
“How happy she is to see him,” Nikhe thought, “It will all lead to disaster, disaster I tell you. . .”
Sasha had brought sweets, chocolates and books. They left the gifts lying on the ground and went off to find the road watchman, Ivan, to let him take care of the horse.
They walked and laughed and talked. Tsilke told Sasha all about the gypsy girl and the sleepy shepherd girls of Prudne, but she said nothing about the conversation she’d had with her aunt, and nothing about her dreams that night. Suddenly she could no longer hold it in and she laughed again happily, to herself this time and to no one else.
“What’s so funny? Sasha asked.
“I was just remembering something.”
“That girls become mothers and mothers become grannies.”
“What? What are you blathering about? Sasha asked, curious.
Without answering, Tsilke sprang toward Sasha, made as though to kiss him, but instead of kissing him she bit his neck.
He held back a cry, whether of pain or of joy.
She ran off, barefoot and he gave chase, thinking: “The forest, the forest is awakening. . .”
As she ran, her bare legs caught the dappled light of half-shaded woodland paths.
She ran off far ahead of Sasha and did not stop teasing him:
“You didn’t catch me . . .”
Sasha was no longer following her. He had stopped in his tracks, observing her from afar. Since the summer she had grown more mature and beautiful. Her light hair had become a little darker, her eyes seemed deeper, more probing. Her eyes . . . in the shadows they changed from gray to blue, and Sasha did not know if there was a word to describe them, their color changed constantly.
Tsilke stood in front of Sasha, not wanting to approach. Her gaze was somehow strange.
“What? You’ve never seen me before, Tsilke?”
Tsilke replied, “I often ask myself what you’re doing here in the forest. What brings you here? Who brings you here? And how long will you keep coming here?”
“What are you talking about? You don’t need to think about anything, you should be just like the forest, that’s how you need to be. . .”
“The Forest thinks too, the forest sighs often. Maybe others don’t hear it but I . . . it often seems to me that the forest is trying to speak, to let out a great yearning . . . and the branches stretch toward you like hands . . .”
Sasha took advantage of her outpouring and sprang forward, kissing her . . .
For the first time Sasha felt that his kiss stirred something deep inside her: she trembled and fell toward him. Her breath filled his face, her eyes begged for something and at the same time they burned with the wicked fire of a wild animal.
They heard a cough nearby. The road watchman was passing: “Ivan!”
He listened to Sasha’s orders to hitch up the horse, and went to carry them out.
Sasha and Tsilke walked behind him: he gave them the news from the city. The Luries had gone abroad. Their house was empty. Only an old maid stayed behind, and Sasha decided that he would now stay in the forest until the end of the summer.
They arrived home to find Iser eating in silence. Tsilke was sincerely glad to see her father. He was in good spirits and was more talkative than usual, but Tsilke’s eyes widened when she heard what he had to say:
“You know,” he said, addressing everyone, “You know that we have sold the forest.” By “we” he was referring to the Company Lurie. “We’ve sold the forest and soon they’ll start to cut it down.”
“Tsilke, Nikhe and I, all of us will move away from here, away from the stream, from the road watchman, from Mistebove.”
“We’ll move to Svislotsh, where old man Lurie owns more woodlands.”
Sasha stood by the door; he was strangely intimidated by the silent Iser. Tsilke was devastated by her father’s news and Sasha felt for her.
“Reb Iser,” he said, “If I ask my father, perhaps he will leave the forest be.”
“The forest has already been sold, it’s too late,” Iser said, almost smiling.
He was a little surprised to hear Sasha suddenly taking an interest in his father’s woods.
Then Iser took out a book and soon became engrossed in it: he seemed to forget all about his daughter, forgetting that he had a boss, old-man Lurie who was on holiday in Karlsbad and that Lurie had a son, Sasha, a good-for-nothing who came to visit now every couple of days for who knows what reason . . .
Her father’s silence unsettled Tsilke and at the same time it felt almost like approval. Tsilke and Sasha went off into the woods. Aunt Nikhe went to the stream to scrub the dishes.
Walking alongside Sasha, Tsilke suddenly started to smile and laugh lightly. . .
“What is it, Tsilke?”
“Nothing,” she replied, laughing all the more. And Sasha was even more confused when she fell on him a second time and gave him another kiss followed by a bite. . .
The hours passed in playful joy. They rejoiced in every little thing. If they happened upon a berry they would bite into it with a kiss. . . but suddenly they remembered that Tsilke’s silent father was sitting at home.
They walked back slowly. Iser was gone, he had already left.
“Was he angry?” Tsilke asked her aunt.
“When is he ever not angry?” He’s gone to Svislotsh for a couple of weeks . . .
Tsilke looked at the wall. His tefillin were gone, a sure sign he would not be back for some time. Her heart rejoiced, and Sasha broke out suddenly into song. He remembered a song from the mountain people. Tsilke imitated him and the dishes fell out of aunt Nikhe’s hands . . .