Apr 06, 2021
In Mistebove, meanwhile, there was much to talk about: young Lurie, the foreigner, was on everyone’s lips.
“And if you have a rich father, I suppose you can get away with anything.”
“Settled himself down there in the forest with the helpless girl.”
“It’ll end in tears, mark my words, it’ll all end in tears!”
“Poor old Iser, his only child . . .”
“It’s his own fault, it’s all his fault: why did he go to Svislotsh leaving his daughter with Lurie’s son?”
And when aunt Nikhe came into town to buy food the curious townsfolk gathered around her:
“What news from the woods? Is he still there? Yes. And Tsilke? Let’s hope nothing bad happens.”
Nikhe would open her eyes wide, as though only now realizing how imminent the danger was. And she would hurry home, without answering anyone.
The girls of Mistebove would follow her with curious eyes:
“The old woman knows everything, but she doesn’t want to tell us, she’s silent like a witch.”
People whispered and spoke openly that Lurie’s son was having a love affair with Tsilke.
Froyke would prick up his ears, catching a word. An impotent rage tormented him:
If it wasn’t for that Lurie, Tsilke would never have run away from him, Tsilke wouldn’t have pushed him away. He’d been so blind. Earlier he hadn’t even noticed, she was a girl like all the other girls, a little wild, a little quiet . . .
But now she’d grown up so slender and beautiful that even Lurie, the rich boy from the big city, wouldn’t so much as leave the forest anymore.
And the forest . . .
The forest had grown older, more silent. When the day was over a black sheet, strewn with golden dots, covered everything and all the sounds and notes, all the sighs of the forest rolled up into one great silent hush . . .
The breeze there still had a few untold secrets. A half-dead beetle scrambled up the bark of a pine. The beetle was black, the night was black, and the black sheet with the golden points was so very far away.
Afterwards the darkness receded and, in the pallor of the new morning, the tips of the trees began to peek out, each tree gradually drawing away from its neighbor—enough kissing in the darkness. Each tree returned to its post from the previous day, standing to attention like a soldier, and began casting shadows.
But if the trees were silent, the squirrels and the birds spoke up in their place. The last butterflies of summer meandered among the trees—they had left the fields for nothing; there was less sunlight here.
Which of God’s fine creatures cared what was happening in the forest?
The sun still shone by day and, wherever it found a place free from shadow, it concentrated all its beams and drew out young blades of grass from the earth just as it had done in early spring.
Yet somewhere there was already an empty nest and from time to time an abandoned feather floated out of it, along with a few dried-up pieces of eggshell. Threads of spiderwebs hung in the air, hanging and tangling themselves between the branches until the wind tore them free and left them to snake in the currents of air.
The night moved onward, leaving behind its great silence in the illuminated forest. With each passing day the silence grew deeper and more earnest. Birds ceased their song abruptly. The crickets were rarely heard. Only the squirrel with its catlike cry broke ranks and ignored the forest’s restraint, its cry ringing out more clearly and wilder than before . . . sounding for all the world like an alarm, a call to arms.
By this time Sasha had spent several weeks in the woods. He could not and did not want to leave. It had happened. He already felt that he would not escape. Life had grabbed hold of him with firm, branch-like arms and held him fast . . . Tsilke was his . . .
He experienced moments of clarity where he would resolve to escape, but at the same time he knew he would not survive if she did not belong to him. She would run to meet him, not leaving his side for a moment. Her lips were drawn to his, her arms embraced him . . . She’d always been a girl of few words—she seldom spoke but her eyes gazed ever deeper and deeper into his. Wordless kisses and occasional laughter. She laughed softly, timidly, and it seemed as though she were teasing him . . .
Once she came out with the following words:
“Why don’t you kiss me the way Froyke kissed his gypsy girl?”
“Who’s Froyke? What gypsy girl?” Sasha wondered.
And she told him all about the scene she’d witnessed recently in the forest.
Sasha grew pensive. Deep down he was a little ashamed before the forest girl . . . but she would not allow him ruminate for long, and he was taken aback when she said:
“You’ll never leave, we’ll stay together right here in the forest.”
“It won’t be long before they cut down the whole forest, Tsilke!”
“Then we’ll move to Svislotsh.”
“Is that what you reckon?”
“Yes, yes yes,” and she accompanied each “yes” with a kiss. He saw what was happening to her: a life had awoken, a flame, a hidden fire had been lit, and he was being ever more dazzled and entangled. He thought and thought . . .
Until in the end he stopped thinking altogether.
Day and night flowed into each other. His whole life unravelled before him: his time abroad, his worldview, his lethargic inertia. He opened his arms, opened his heart wide and exhaled, releasing it all into the forest, into the world. Days and nights passed, moments of passion and oblivion. It used to bother him that Tsilke understood him so little, that he had to adapt himself to her, choosing his words carefully. But now it no longer seemed necessary; all that was needed was to gaze deeper and deeper in each other’s eyes sinking their teeth into each other as they kissed—that was the best language, the most important and the most sacred . . .
And Tsilke bit with ravenous, unexpected ferocity. As though she had the sharp incisors of a squirrel and was now using them on Sasha’s lips, on his neck . . . He would indeed try to defend himself from her, like a bear defending itself against a more agile predator. He tried to pacify her, with a gentle touch and an avuncular smile, until he too would abandon himself and bite her in return . . .
Iser was in the Svislotsh forests the whole time. Nikhe sighed, and her sighs grew heavier and increasingly apprehensive.
The smitten Tsilke learned to fool the old woman: she would go to bed at night and wait for her aunt—gray hair peeking out from under her wig—to fall asleep. Then she would slip back into her dress and run to the other cabin, to Sasha . . .
He would wait for her, and if the night was warm they would spend it in the woods.
The only sound was the stream swirling over the stones and speaking in its inscrutable water-language. Sometimes branches would begin to rustle lightly, as something disturbed them in their forest-dream.
Tsilke and Sasha slept in the woods among the trees, slumbering as soundly as the dead, until the woodsmen would come with their sharp hatchets. A breeze passed and it knew the secrets of all the living and the dead.
Tsilke snuggled up to Sasha, telling him whatever thoughts came into her head. She had now become talkative, asking Sasha about everything, as if she had been born anew. She wanted Sasha to tell her what the city was like, what the people were like there.
Once, in a moment where their arms had just released each other and Sasha gathered a thick bundle of her hair in his hand, she asked him:
“Sasha, are all people like this?”
“Like us,” she said, in a fit of laughter, and started to kiss him again, and her wriggling body fell against his. The forest itself listened as she murmured softly with each ardent kiss: “Like this, like this, like this . . .” And the murmur drifted off somewhere, falling on the trees like velvet, like silk, warming the air . . .
Afterwards she fell asleep by his side, among the trees which had witnessed her first steps, and her first laugh. But Sasha was an outsider, a stranger from Grodno. He came from abroad with many suppressed doubts and desires.
He was deep in thought, Tsilke’s words still ringing in his ears. Yes, the whole world was like this. Unfamiliar feelings fought within him until dawn. One the one hand he was proud that Tsilke, such a lively child of nature, had fallen into his grasp; on the other hand he was starting to feel as though he was the one bound to her. He felt a great restlessness, but he shook it off; he did not like to dwell on painful thoughts.
There she was, sleeping peacefully—no doubt dreaming of the daytime forest—what has she seen in her life?
Then dawn came and Sasha could once again gaze at her face, which the night had made so pale, and in that moment he felt a deep affection for her, an almost paternal compassion. He would never leave her, he would protect her from life’s hardships. This is what he thought in that happy moment . . .
And by day . . .
Sasha’s gray hat was always lying around, either in the forest, or in the house. He never wore it. Aunt Nikhe prepared food with trembling hands, with uneasy glances. Several times, she’d considered sending Shleyme to find Iser in Svislotsh and tell him that Sasha was still in the forest, not leaving Tsilke’s side, and that no good would come of it.
She did not yet know about the nights when Tsilke snuck out of the house.
One time, Sasha announced that he would like to return to Grodno for a day; there was no one at home, and perhaps some letters had arrived for him.
Tsilke went pale. She felt threatened by the city, and the letters he was waiting for. As soon as a thought entered her mind, she put it into words:
“If you go away I’m afraid you’ll never come back.”
“Where would you get that idea, foolish child.” This girl, it seemed, would never let him go. He became even more afraid of Tsilke and retreated into himself, feeling a momentary flash of anger before deciding not to go. Tsilke was glad.
Later that night she came to him with a question that greatly troubled him:
“Sasha, If I have a child, will it be a bastard?”
He did not know how to respond. He wanted to change the subject, to avoid the question, but she persisted.
“In Prudne, I saw them beat the shepherd’s daughter, because she was going to give birth to a bastard.”
Sasha was torn; he had no answer for her. The stark reality of life struck him in that short question: “What’s going to happen?” And when he saw that Tsilke’s face grew sad, he pressed her to him and said reassuringly:
“Kid, no one’s going to beat you. I won’t let them insult you, everything is going to be fine.”
Later, when he found himself alone for a moment, he took a stroll into the forest and thought, considering his situation. It all seemed so awfully strange, so awkwardly terrible; he had led himself into this, he who had always run away from life’s complications, not allowing himself to be conquered. Now the matter had grabbed him, binding him hand and foot, because . . .
Tsilke was not like, could never be like, all the previous women he had encountered—out there abroad—they had not wanted much from him, nor he from them. Brief relationships, brief passions, with no strings attached. But Tsilke was a lonesome orphan. Iser was an employee of Sasha’s family and had already spoken with him; there had been tears in the quiet old man’s eyes.
Sasha wandered with slow steps deeper and deeper into the forest. He reflected on his lonely life, chiding himself for his laziness and how ill-suited he was for life. He was young, his thirtieth birthday still a good few years ahead of him, and yet he had already outwitted everyone, ridiculed everything. And Tsilke? What feelings did he have for her? Was it love or merely passion? He could not give a full reckoning. Most likely it was no more than the thrill of discovering a rare, untouched specimen and being dazzled.
Tsilke’s image came to him. He tried to compare her to all the women he had ever met. He exaggerated and diminished her beauty, her youthful fire, which had lit him up. He asked himself frankly, would he be capable now of going out into the world, and forgetting her? He felt an unfamiliar yearning take hold of his whole being . . . Maybe it really was love? He had never felt anything like it before.
What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?
He looked around at the forest. A great calm lay in the trees around and above him; rays of light trickled wearily down to the forest floor while birds sang somewhere in the distance.
He would have liked to take that calm into his heart—thinking was making him tired. He could not suffer and did not wish to suffer.
Suddenly, he heard his name. Tsilke was calling him, clapping her hands and shouting: “Sasha!”
He called back and they set off together back to the house. She laughed, unaware that Sasha was troubled. Her laughter surrendered to him. He grabbed her hand and led her away into the forest. At first she resisted, then she closed her eyes and her breathing began to quicken. He ran his fingers over the thin fabric of Tsilke’s dress, feeling her body underneath and his whole being was aflame. The green trees shimmered in his eyes, the beams of sunlight flickering between them. They took a few more steps and then fell together to the ground.
All alone, far from other people, as long as the bird singing on the branch does not give them away.
Afterwards, when Tsilke opened her eyes—eyes which reflected the green of the forest, she said to Sasha.
“You? I . . . for a moment there I thought it was Froyke.”
“Froyke? What does he have to do with anything?
But Tsilke did not know what to say. This had happened to her many times: whenever Sasha lit up and kissed her with such passion, whenever he held her so capably and easily in his arms, she pictured Froyke Barash, whom she had always been afraid of . . . because he’d always wanted to kiss her, and now the same thing had happened to her again. She opened her eyes, looked at Sasha and saw Froyke, in his disheveled black shirt, looking back at her with a menacing smile.
Sasha was completely bewildered. Tsilke once again reached out her hand to him, laughed and joked until the sun had transported itself to another part of the forest. The tree they were sitting under began to slowly bleed drops of resin, like great tears of amber, drawn out by the rays of the setting sun.
They walked back. Sasha had forgotten everything he’d been thinking about. Tsilke laughed, and her laughter lightened his mood. Every now and then he opened his eyes wide to admire how she hopped around without a care in the world.
Nikhe would prepare them food, but she kept her distance. Deep down she was still angry with them. She had no evidence, but she was convinced that they had sinned nonetheless. She was powerless; there was nothing she could do, so she put all her faith in God. She had only one glimmer of hope: summer was coming to an end and Sasha would not stay in the forest for much longer.
Days went by, dry and hearty, while the nights were deathly silent. And on one of those nights, Aunt Nikhe heard a rustle inside the room. She soon drifted back to sleep, but it was an uneasy sleep, lasting only a short while. She opened her eyes, looked around in the dark, and called out:
No response. Nikhe got up and lit the lamp . . . Tsilke was not there; her bed was empty and unmade. The old woman turned pale with fright . . . She ran to the door and called out again, “Tsilke.” It was night in the forest and the night did not respond.
In that instant Nikhe wanted to know everything, to get to the bottom of it all. She was filled with rage and suspicion. Tsilke, whom she’d raised like her own child, that same Tsilke was taking her for a fool—sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night . . . Nikhe went out into the woods and walked a few paces to the left, a few paces to the right. The night was too cold for her old bones, and she shivered. The breeze tugged at her gray hair. She no longer called out to Tsilke, no, no, she wanted to see for herself. She wanted to know if the sin had already been committed. She crept like a conspirator towards the stream. The water was following its usual path, babbling restlessly. The night seemed so mute to the old woman, so packed with terror. During the day she had never felt her age like she did now in the dark among the trees. She forgot for a moment about Tsilke and thought about her own life, about her many lonely years, and she felt that the graveyard was not so far, not so very far at all. Who had she lived for, and who would cry for her once she was gone?
Tsilke . . .
Nikhe had given her heart and soul for her and now here she was sneaking out at night to lie in sin.
There was no sign of them in the forest. Maybe they’d gone further. The old woman had no energy to continue, and she could barely see. Then, just as she was about to turn back, she heard Tsilke’s muffled laughter. Nikhe shuddered. The laughter was coming from Sasha’s room, from the other cabin.
She crept closer and stood for a few moments under the window, stood and shuddered at every noise she heard—everything was clear. There was no more doubt, and the night became twice as dark for her, her legs were weak. She wanted to go back, but heard Tsilke’s laugh again. She could not hold back any longer and started knocking at the window shouting: “Tsilke, Tsilke, Tsilke!”
The room fell silent. The whole forest, the whole world held its breath. The old woman went back to her house, collapsing on her bed with a groan. In the forest, it seemed as though thousands of voices were pouring in, calling out: “Tsilke, Tsilke.” The voices ran through every dark corner, latching on to every branch. The noises fell into the stream and the currents carried them away together with pieces of the night.
Aunt Nikhe wept into her pillow. Responsibility for the sin fell on her and her alone. She should never have left Tsilke out of her sight. She should have driven Sasha out of the forest—like a crow that croaks too long by the window, like a dog.
Later, she heard the door open. She listened as Tsilke crept back in and crawled into bed. The room was dark. Neither woman said a word. One who had lived such a pious life, and the other who had begun to live her life in sin.
Over in his room, Sasha was left alone. The cry of “Tsilke,” which had ripped through the night banished any hope of sleep.
Nikhe had been the one to call out, but it seemed to him that the night itself was shouting at him. The wicked night would not let him sleep. He began to smoke one cigarette after another. He went over to the window and looked out into the darkness.
“What’s going to happen?”
At one moment it all seemed so simple: in the morning he would go to the road watchman, Ivan and tell him to saddle up the horse. He would leave the forest and go far away.
“No, that will never happen.” He decided a minute later, and suddenly felt such a yearning for Tsilke who had been so scared when Aunt Nikhe had knocked on the dark window. What is she doing right now? Crying no doubt, while her aunt curses and punishes her.
Sasha jumped from one thought to the next. His head burned with excitement. He began to feel like a criminal, and wanted to think up a fitting punishment for himself, one he deserved.
He trembled several times, imagining the forest was calling again, “Tsilke, Tsilke!” The room still held traces of Tsilke’s warmth. The scent of the woods from her hair still pursued him. He felt both good and bad in that moment. And suddenly the old carefree Sasha Lurie stirred inside him.
“So be it!” He said to himself and soon drifted off to sleep.