Apr 22, 2021
On quiet days it was enough to strain one’s ear to hear the axes at work. The forest was being cut down, the noise moving ever closer and closer.
Everyone in Iser’s house knew that their forest’s days were numbered. It was a few short months until fall when more workers were due to arrive; the trees would be richer in resin then, making them easier to cut them down.
Summer had come to an end.
While the forest was governed by greenery as before, and the last remaining summer breezes still blew between the trees, fall had already arrived in the fields. The yellow leaves of each deciduous tree sent the signal far and wide: something was dying, something had already died.
By the road watchman’s cabin there was a small patch of guelder-rose bushes. The flowers had opened up, a charming sight . . . Everything around was green. The trees radiated green from every angle, and amid that valley of green the red of the guelder-rose berries would stand out with whimsical joy.
Sasha was fond of that particular spot. He came there often, with Tsilke or on his own. He would go there to reflect, to think about himself and about the forest girl with whom he’d gone to the rabbi of Mistebove.
Now he had a wife. It had happened and yet he often found himself shuddering with a sudden doubt—and what if the whole thing had been a dream? One of those pleasant dreams that set the blood on fire, after which you lie there with closed eyes and a restful soul.
No. It wasn’t a dream. He needed only to wait and she would come to him, his Tsilke. She would sneak up behind him and cover his eyes with her hands.
And again, “Tsilke!”
“Yes, yes, it’s me, it’s me . . .”
The word “me” rang out over the forest, over the whole world, penetrating Sasha’s soul like an exhortation, like a command . . .
A good-natured one, but a command nonetheless . . .
Sasha could not leave for any length of time; Tsilke did not allow him to go to the city, as though she were afraid someone would take him away from her there. She did not give him express orders, she did not force him, but whenever the matter arose she would shut her lips and it would be a long while before she opened them again. She could be very stubborn in her own way.
This stubbornness took two forms:
Either she would constantly embrace Sasha, kissing and biting him, or she would be like a pine sapling: beautiful, adorned with lush greenness, and mute.
After much effort Sasha convinced her to let him leave for one day. He went to Svislotsh to her father, Iser. He introduced himself, not as his employer’s son, but as his son-in-law.
They met in a newly built cabin in the woods. Iser had visitors so Sasha waited for a long while before getting to the point:
“Reb Iser, Mazl-tov is in order . . .”
Iser raised his eyes, ran his fingers through his overgrown beard and, after a few moments of silence, asked:
“What do you mean?”
“A week ago I married your daughter, Tsilke.”
The old man stood frozen to the spot.
“Yes, the rabbi in Mistebove married us.”
“My daughter? Iser screamed. “What? How? why?”
“Reb Iser, what’s done is done, I love her, I grew fond of her. She’s mine now, my wife.”
In that moment it seemed that Iser had understood everything, everything Sasha had said and everything left unsaid. He held his tongue, went to the door, and gazed long out into the forest, standing with his back to Sasha. Sasha felt very unwelcome at that moment. It was half dark in the hut, which also affected his mood.
Sasha approached his old servant and asked him obligingly:
“What’s the matter, don’t you approve of the match, Reb Iser?”
In his heart Iser did not hate Sasha, though he’d heard enough bad stories about him, and now here he stood in front of him with a kind, open face.
Iser offered his hand, uttered: “I accept your mazl-tov,” and burst into tears. Sasha was taken aback. He had never seen a grown man cry before. It was as though a hundred-year-old tree had broken, or a stone had burst open of its own accord. Iser’s whole body shook and large tears ran down his face, streaming over his hairy cheeks.
Sasha felt he should leave, and went for a walk, exploring the unfamiliar woods nearby.
When Sasha got back to the cabin, Iser approached and wordlessly kissed him. Then he asked:
“And do you parents know about this?”
“Not yet. They’ll find out about it today. I’ll write to them.”
“Will your father be pleased?”
“My father deals in lumber . . .”
“And what does that mean?”
“Nothing. We’ll come to an understanding.”
Sasha returned with Iser, who could only spare one day to make the trip from Svislotsh to Prudne.
They traveled in silence.
Iser, the old Jew who had lived his life in the woods, had learned from the trees how to be silent. His wife had died a year after their marriage, taking his happiness and hope with her into the grave. He was a man who always feared that someone would force him to speak . . .
And Sasha . . .
It was rare for Sasha to look deep into another man’s soul. But on this occasion, he thought about Iser during the entire journey. He felt sure that a single word could cause the old man to fall apart and so he refrained from all attempts at conversation. He could not figure out if the old man was angry, or if he was perhaps even a little pleased about the whole affair.
The road ran through the empty fields. Farmers were digging up the last of the potatoes; crows were scavenging in the parched cabbage fields. All around, the world was vast and empty, and the hollow emptiness made itself at home in one’s heart . . .
The road was long. To be silent on one’s own is much easier than to do so in another’s company. Yet Sasha was at least somewhat glad he had gone to Svislotsh.
I’ve fulfilled an obligation, he thought. He felt that he’d become a “man with obligations”: obligations toward Iser, toward Aunt Nikhe—he had obligations towards everyone now. And he had done his part, had looked everyone squarely in the eye . . . and yet, and yet . . .
He did not want to think, he refused to admit to himself that it all required tremendous effort on his part.
When Iser arrived home Tsilke wrapped her arms around him, kissing him where before they would have greeted each other in silence. Aunt Nikhe wiped her eyes when Iser said to her:
“May fortune smile on them, Nikhe. It was fated to happen.”
Then Iser and Nikhe took a walk together among the trees. She told him the whole story while he asked short questions, periodically letting out a sigh.
“It was all fated to happen like this.”
“And what’s Lurie going to say about the whole thing when he gets back from abroad?”
Of all the worries this one bothered him the most. He felt somehow guilty about his boss.
On his first day home Iser informed them that this entire section of the forest was due to be felled in the autumn. They also planned to cut down the forest around Svislotsh. Absolved of his duties, Iser would then be free to retire in Mistebove with Aunt Nikhe . . .
The children would move to Grodno, he informed Aunt Nikhe.
Sasha smiled to himself. Suddenly he had become a “child.” Tsilke shuddered: “Move to Grodno, among strangers?” She bit her lip and almost burst into tears.
Sasha consoled her:
“You’ll be happy in Grodno; you can’t live here in the forest all your life.”
“Of course I can, I can, I don’t need strange people.”
Nevertheless Tsilke had cheered up somewhat, curious about the new life opening up before her. But once her father had gone, she pleaded with Sasha to postpone their move to the city. She did not want to abandon the forest, which would soon be cut down.
From a distance they could hear that work was progressing. Dozens of axes hacking at the trees, and suddenly, a groaning sound—they’d felled a tree, an old resident of the forest. The racket grew ever closer, the strange echo ever clearer . . .
And the closer the woodsmen got to Iser’s house, the more frequently Sasha and Tsilke went to the spot where the trees were being felled.
The forest had been transformed into an enormous battlefield. Men waded, up to their knees, through the detritus of severed limbs, gouging deep wounds with sharp hatchets in the bodies of the old trees. They worked like dwarves. Then, once a tree had its bones hacked out, they would shake it in just the right way, before jumping deftly aside, lest the tree attempt a final act of vengeance on its way down.
It was both sad and compelling to watch the work: there stood a pine, calm and proud. For a hundred years it had stretched toward the sky, higher, higher, while down below its roots delved ever deeper into the earth. It had stood there for generations like a golden sphinx encased in a green coat of lichen, and now, in the final moments of its silent existence, it radiated beauty and certainty. Its knee has already been chopped off, but its head is held high over many other trees . . .
Toward the sun, toward the cool autumn sun the tree has raised its head, bathing in brightness. Suddenly it begins to shake and its branch-ams begin to wriggle and shake along with them. The branches become disentangled and like frightened hands they try to hold on to the tree—its body. But not long after the first shake comes the terrible event.
The tree falls quickly, breaking many of its limbs on the way down. It lies there like that for a week, two weeks, until its green needles take on the color of rust—the needles will draw no more moisture. Now men go at it, hacking off the last of its limbs with sharp axes. All that remains is a long, round skeleton. Out of its wounds and knots, seep drops of its resinous blood, a tiny ant gets its feet stuck there, and cannot save itself.
And nearby the men are hard at work.
The axes have dull, nasty voices, the echo of the forest amplifies them with doubled malice:
“Forests, beware! The danger is great! Humans are sharpening ever more axes to use against you!”
Another section of forest is cleared. A new patch has opened itself up for the sun, and on the free earth the light is somehow brighter; the air, fresher.
The sun’s rays have had their revenge. Until now the shadows have hindered the supremacy of the sun . . .
“Sasha, they’re coming ever closer to us, the wood-cutters.”
“We’ll go to the city, Tsilke.”
She fell silent, and, without exchanging a word, they wandered through the fallen trees. They spoke with the woodsmen. Suddenly someone shouted at them to get out of the way. A tree, an enormous tree, was about to fall to the ground.
But the tree fell a little to the side, and got tangled in another tree. And there it remained, propped up by its companion. It almost looked as though the tree was holding its head in its hands, weeping . . .
The odors of the forest and freshly sawn wood mingled in the warmed autumn breeze. It cheered the soul, though every moment carries new sadness transported from an unknown source.
The fact that the forest was being cut down, that the autumn breeze was growing every cooler, and that Sasha was talking more and more about the city and about moving there—it all added a layer of accumulated sadness to Tsilke’s soul. They often walked in silence. At first Sasha was glad of the silence. Tsilke left him in peace to think. Lately he had grown fond of spending time on his own, with his own thoughts, remembering the old days when he was, and could be alone.
Climbing alone in the mountains, bringing with him nothing but his own soul, and looking into it as one gazes into a mirror.
Now . . .
The silence had gone on too long. Tsilke nibbled her finger, a sign that she was unhappy.
She did not respond. He tried to hug her, but she pulled herself free and ran off. And even when he caught her, she took her time in answering.
“Why are you angry, Tsilke?”
“Because you’re being quiet, why are you so quiet?”
“I was daydreaming.”
“What were you thinking about?”
Sasha found the interrogation uncomfortable. But he did his best to hide his irritation. He wanted to reassure her.
“What do you think I was thinking about?” Sasha asked, curious.
“Clearly, you once loved someone else!”
It wasn’t the first time she’d shown signs of jealousy. Women are all the same, he thought, angrily. But he restrained himself and pulled Tsilke close to him.
“I’m not being quiet . . . You see? You hear? I’m talking right now!” And with that he began to recite the words of a Lermontov poem:
AWAY from the prison shade!
Give me the broad daylight;
Bring me a black-eyed maid,
A steed dark-maned as night.
First the maiden fair,
Will I kiss on her ruddy lips,
Then the dark steed shall bear
Me, like the wind, to the steppes.
His voice was powerful, charming, tinged with a hint of agitation. The forest listened too taken off guard to echo his words.
And Tsilke became a different person, her eyes opened wide. Sasha saw
that she captivated, and so he continued:
Give me a lofty palace
with an arbor all around
where amber grapes would ripen
and the broad shade fleck the ground.
Let an ever-purling fountain
among marble pillars play . . .
“. . . Do you like it?”
“Will you come to the city? In our house I will play for you and sing.”
“And when we’re in the city, you won’t go off with other people? Will you?”
A brief silence. Sasha could not find an answer, it troubled him that he had to concede everything. With that question Tsilke wished to impose conditions on him, and he had never liked that. But she was dear to him and her sorrow weighed on him. He pressed her to him and mumbled affably:
“Yes, I will always stay by your side, always.”