May 01, 2021
The sun now set much earlier; each evening it expired in a brief burst of red fire. Sasha and Tsilke were making their way, where Nikhe had been worrying about them. She had prepared a meal.
“For the children . . .”
Aunt Nikhe now had a heavy workload. She’d had some new dresses made for Tsilke in Mistebove, along with new undergarments and shoes. Nikhe had gone to the Mistebove twice a day to arrange it all. She was beginning to believe that everything would turn out well. Sasha had done the decent thing in the end after all: he had not run off. And he indulged Tsilke’s every whim . . . If things continued like this then the orphan will have found happiness . . . And so Nikhe worked hard, preparing the best food . . . “for the children.”
Meanwhile, preparations would soon need to be made for the move to Mistebove. Iser had rented one half of a house from Barash the starosta, where Iser and Nikhe would live. Life was going to be so much quieter. Tsilke’s laugh and radiant face would be gone, transplanted to the city, with the Luries.
Nikhe visited Ivan the road watchman to ask him to lend a hand later when the children were gone, to help with the move.
Ivan agreed. He smiled.
“That Tsilke, just up and got married, and what a groom! The son of a millionaire . . . That Tsilke!”
“May they only be happy,” Aunt Nikhe added, wary of tempting the Evil Eye.
“And the forest will be empty,” she added.
“What forest? There won’t be any forest left, they’re cutting down the whole thing. The stream will be left bare, the road exposed, and there won’t be any shade around my house anymore.”
She was waiting for the children to tell her when they intended to leave. She had to start getting ready for winter in Mistebove.
But the children kept putting it off. Fine, bright days went by, without a cloud in the sky, but the stream by Iser’s house had been reduced to a trickle. The river bed began to resemble a long, white sheet, with great big holes where the stones and tufts of rotting roots poked out. What remained of the stream hurried on its way, eager to leave before winter came.
“Until the rains come.” That’s what Tsilke and Sasha had promised each other: when the rains came Tsilke would don her new dress and the new shoes, and they would go to the city.
In the meantime, Shleyme from the distillery went into the city every few days.
Sasha sent him on various errands; Shleyme brought back cigarettes, cigars and sweets for Tsilke.
Sasha remembered another duty he had neglected: He had not yet written to his parents abroad to tell them what was going on.
And so he wrote them a short, clear letter informing them of the marriage.
A week later, the response came. Old man Lurie was not in the least unhappy about the whole matter.
“I believe,” he wrote, “that now you’ll make something of yourself, and everything will turn out well.” His mother had only added two words: “Mazl-tov.”
Mother is sulking, so be it.
He was happy and relieved that his family finally knew everything. And when he saw Tsilke he showed her the letter . . .
“Why did your mother write only ‘Mazl-tov’? She doesn’t sound very frindly. I don’t want to go to the city to live with people like that. I’ll stay here . . .”
It required great effort on Sasha’s part to reassure Tsilke; he was forced to lie, saying his mother had shaky hands and found it difficult to hold a pen.
These were no more than brief moments of caprice and stubbornness. Brief moments . . . As before, Tsilke wore a radiant face, lighting up many shadowy corners of the forest, and of Sasha’s soul. She was the youngest in the forest. She was used to everyone treating her kindly, because she had to live her life in the forest without a mother, and with a silent father. And now that someone had come along who embraced her, rousing her body and soul to life, she found herself ready to bind herself ever more closely to him. Granting ever more trust and kisses.
Sasha did not withhold his affections, though he often felt an urge to leave the forest, to return to Grodno to be free like before. At the same time he knew this was no longer an option: Tsilke had broken into his heart; she held him in her embrace. Her bright, trusting eyes followed his every step and besides . . .
There was the responsibility he had undertaken. He had decided to become a better man; this was the duty he had accepted.
Who knows where his thought might have taken him if Tsilke ever gave him time to think. But she did not; it was as though she felt it would be against her best interests.
She always appeared to shake him, kiss him, bite him, and look deep into his eyes.
“What are you thinking about? Tell me everything!”
“I was thinking about you; in Grodno I’ll dress you so well . . .”
“And I’ll never again go around barefoot? And the stream . . . If only we could take the stream with us to the city.”
Sasha spoke up:
“You have to allow me to teach you some things. I’m older than you.”
“And yet, I’m a better kisser than you.”
Sasha had not been expecting an answer like that and he looked at her in wonder: how much insolence and audacity that naive girl had in her.
And before he knew it, she was hugging him and teasing him, putting her lips near his and pulling them away, snuggling for a while before running home. A seamstress had arrived from Mistebove.
Sasha was left alone. “And yet, I’m a better kisser than you”—those were her words. And she was right. He recalled their nights together.
She spent every night in his cabin now. She was shy and bold simultaneously. At night she cast off her dress and groped around in the dark to find Sasha’s face, Sasha’s lips.
“Mine, my Sasha . . .”
She bit him so hard he sprung to his feet and grumbled good-humoredly.
“What? You said yourself, that you’re mine.”
“And what of it?”
“So I’m allowed to bite you.”
Like a restless wildfire she enveloped him in her arms, caressed him, kissed him, conquering his every thought, his every feeling. She had come from the depths of the forest. Her limbs had been shaped by long summers and winters; her arms were as tough as the branches of the trees. Her hair carried the scent of resin . . . Her teeth were sharp, her lips burned, her whole body was aflame . . .
Often, when Sasha awoke at dawn and the first light began pouring in the window, he would see Tsilke, sleeping soundly by his side, the pillow entirely covered by her hair, like the pelt of an animal . . .
In those moments, he was overcome by a feeling of pride and satisfaction; he believed then that he’d found an authentic way of living, that life had finally found its way to him.
He gazed benevolently at Tsilke.
And if her sleep was momentarily disturbed, she would stretch out her hands, searching for something, until her hands would come upon a thicket of her own hair. Her fingers would burrow into it and she would continue to sleep.
Wild and young, naive and bold. Sasha thought about all the things she would need to learn in the city, and it pained him. He liked the creature just the way she was: untamed.
He would often sneak out at dawn to stroll in the woods, visiting the stream, and the Twin Pines, where Tsilke liked to sit.
He smoked and observed the mournful trees. A shot rang out somewhere in a distant part of the forest and Sasha remembered that the hunting season was beginning. He envied those men setting off into the woods with rifles on their backs.
That’s the life. An elaborate idyl took form in his fantasy, and he smiled to himself: tedious.
Arriving back at the three cabins, he noticed that Aunt Nikhe was also up. She was carrying a tub into the stable to feed the cow. Her dress hung on her old bones so gracelessly; her head was uncovered, and she looked older, more pitiful . . . Nikhe noticed Sasha watching her. She felt embarrassed and hurried into the stable. Once inside, she called out:
“Sasha, is the child still asleep?”
“Yes, Aunt Nikhe.”
“Oh, Sasha, Saha!” she sighed from inside the stable.
“What is it, Nikhe?”
“Soon you’ll both have to leave for the city—the weather is turning—you’ve taken away my Tsilke and now I have nobody . . .”
He had an idea:
“Come with us, Aunt Nikhe! You’ll be comfortable with us, and it would make Tsilke happy.”
“No, Sasha, I’m going to live out my last years in Mistebove, I’ll prepare a home for Iser, so that he can have a place to rest his weary bones for once . . . No Sashele!”
The whole conversation took place with Nikhe inside the stable, hidden from Sasha’s. He knew she would not leave the stable as long as he stood there.
So he returned to the stream, thinking and laughing to himself: The old woman looked so funny with her head uncovered, like a plucked chicken, and she’d called him “Sashele.” He stood by the stream and smiled at the cold, rippling waters, which forged a way for themselves through the stones and old roots.
Sasha’s thoughts almost drifted off in a melancholy direction, but he remembered that he’d left Tsilke in bed, entangled in her own hair, and the thought lured him back to the cabin.
She was still asleep. Sasha began to sing:
Away from the prison shade!
Give me the broad daylight . . .
But instead of the prison doors, it was Tsilke’s eyes that opened. Her face buried in a mass of hair. She languidly brushed the strands aside, revealing a pair of eyes, which gazed happily at Sasha.
No, such women are only to be found on oil-paintings, where they bear the names of various legendary figures . . .
“Sasha,” she said, “I dreamed that you were Froyke . . .”
Froyke . . . Again Froyke. How many times now had she mentioned his name. Sasha felt the irritation rise inside him, but he shrugged it off.
He went to her and they started to play. By now the room was bright, and her arms lit up like fragments of sun, her young breast hidden.
She opened her eyes and looked at Sasha, as though only now seeing him for the first time . . . and he looked at her, into her soul.
“What? What is it, Sasha? What are you looking at?”
“Nothing . . . noth—”
That “nothing” contained everything . . . from that “nothing” their arms became entwined and his teeth touched hers . . .
The forest exhaled . . .
Afterwards, some time later, the following conversation took place:
“Sasha, let’s not go to the city, Something about it frightens me.
“But, I’ll be with you. What’s there to be afraid of?”
“Sasha, they’re going to cut down this forest, but we could go away to another forest, and if we have children, we can allow them to live like squirrels, they’ll climb on the trees, and squeal merrily . . . Sasha, Sasha, let’s not go to the city . . .”
“You’re still a child with childish thoughts . . .”
“I’m afraid somehow . . .”
Sasha smothered that fear with kisses, buried it in words. But he was beginning to weary of it. There was only so much energy he had to give, and yet deep down he felt that Tsilke was right to be afraid . . .
He had no desire for self-examination; he avoided soul-searching because it caused him to suffer, something he was not accustomed to.
Returning from the city, Shleyme knocked on the window and Sasha went out to him. He’d brought letters and the carriage to transport their belongings.
“The whole city is waiting for you to arrive, everybody is talking about your wedding . . .” said Shleyme.
The words made Sasha tremble, “city, everybody, wedding”—what business was it of theirs? He found a girl he liked, what’s it to them?”
Maybe Tsilke was right, maybe it would be better if they stayed in a forest after all.
And perhaps it was on account of the sunlight shining down onto the roof of Iser’s house, onto the stream, that Sasha felt content, and he put all his worries aside.
“Aunt Nikhe,” he called out.
She popped her head out the door, wearing a wig this time.
“What is it, child?”
Sasha broke into laughter:
“The child wants to eat,” he said, referring to himself. “Make me something to eat, Aunt Nikhe!” And he began shouting to Tsilke that she should get dressed quickly. Tsilke responded with a song, which she had often heard in Mistebove:
“What does the world say, what does the world say?
That women love money . . .”
The forest, entering a delayed autumn, listened to her song, and to the far-off echoes which all come from one place.
From that condemned spot, where one tree after another was felled.
They ate together and Aunt Nikhe told them she’d already begun packing her things to have them sent to Mistebove . . . “What will the forest be like without us, and what will we be like without the forest?”
At those words, Tsilke ran to the window and looked out at the forest:
“It’s a shame to leave this place, Sasha! Look how the trees are in mourning!”
And the trees did indeed appear mournful as, just then, dark clouds began rolling in overhead, surrounding and blocking out the sun, while a sharp gust rattled the pine needles on the trees . . . The laundry hanging outside began to sway violently, billowing up like a sail before deflating again.
“Children, It’s time to give some real thought to leaving! When the heavy rains start pouring down—day and night, night and day—it will be harder.” said Aunt Nikhe.
But in the meantime, no rains fell. Though the clouds had already begun to gather. They seemed to be only passing though, as though they had another land in mind, another place. A murmur spread over the whole forest. Tree bowed to tree, others shook off clouds of rusted pine-needles, pine-cones and abandoned nests . . . Suddenly the eternal calm of the forest had vanished. Trees, which in summer had stood frozen to the spot, began to rustle, speaking in whispers, while the stream writhed, its waters in agitation.
On one such day Tsilke put on her shoes and took her Aunt’s coarse shawl. Sasha dug up his old gray hat, which he hadn’t seen in many days.
Once again they went to the woodsmen. But they were surprised by the quietness which reigned all around. Usually at that time the air was filled with the sounds of axes chopping, trees groaning and falling to the ground; branches cracking. They came closer and found the woodsmen gathered together in a circle, their axes in their hands.
The forest had taken a casualty. A tree had come down too quickly and one of the woodsmen had not managed to jump out of the way in time. There the body lay now, slashed to ribbons, covered in fresh foliage. Only a pair of bare legs were visible under the vegetation. Many of the fallen trees were stained with fresh blood, and the red patches filled one’s soul with dread. The forest is silent, and the gathered woodsmen cross themselves without a word. Tsilke huddled with cold and fright . . .
A kind of evil had stolen into the forest along with the wind and death . . . But turning homewars, they did not get far before the sound of the axes resumed.
A man had died; there were other men to take his place. The forest must be razed; the forest had been sold.
When they told Nikhe about the accident she spat out three times and mumbled something under her breath: “Let’s hope it’s not a bad omen.”
Darkness fell sooner than usual that night. The clouds had gathered ever closer; the wind did not rest. In the middle of the night there was a rainshower and everything became gloomy . . . Tsilke slept sadly, waking several times. She said to Sasha:
“Autumn has come; you hear the forest crying? . . . You won’t leave me alone, will you?”
Sasha reassured her that autumn was not so dismal in the city. In their house, large lamps were lit in the evenings. His parents and sister would soon return from abroad. They would love Tsilke and all would be well.
She felt Sasha close to her as she drifted back to sleep, and he spoke so sincerely that she believed him.
Until Aunt Nikhe came the next morning:
“Children, the rain has stopped, your things are packed . . .”
“Then it’s time to go,” Sasha interrupted.
“Already?” Tsilke asked wide-eyed, her heart pounding in fear.
Sasha was a good man, and yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being stolen away.
Nikhe hastened to prepare everything.
The weather had turned colder, but the clouds overhead—torn by the wind—let through patches of sunlight. All day the light vanished, only to reappear a moment later.
Tsilke struck a bargain: she would go, but only if they could stay in the forest for one more day. Sasha agreed, smiling. He understood perfectly well how she felt. They spent the day wandering the forest, walking along the road.
“Are they really going to cut down the whole forest? All the trees will be gone? And I won’t be there?”
“You’ll be in Grodno.”
“And you’ll stay by my side, always?”
Sasha’s intentions were pure, but the word “always” cut him to the quick. And, to reassure himself more than anything, he repeated several times:
“Always, always. I’m yours, after all.”
The next morning a hitched carriage stood ready outside Iser’s house. Shleyme sat on the coachman’s seat. A cold, dry wind blew. Tears ran down Aunt Nikhe’s face, Tsilke’s too, even the road-watchman’s wife, who had come to see them off, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
The trees swayed, and it seemed to Tsilke they were waving her goodbye. Sasha became flustered by all the groaning and goodbyes.
“We’re ready to go Shleyme, eh?”
Tsilke began looking frantically from left to right. The horse took off, and soon her aunt, the houses and the stable vanished from view. Copper pine-trees marched past, proud and slim, as if in a parade . . .
“Sasha,” she asked, “Will I never come back here?”
“The forest will be gone,” he answered curtly. His own mood was dark at that moment. Tsilke wept quietly, but suddenly she lifted up her head and began speaking rapidly:
“Over there, that’s the very spot where Froyke kissed the gypsy woman. Right there is where they lay, he had his boots on—she was barefoot.”
Sasha looked at her. Her cheeks were still wet with tears, and here she was recalling a story like that about Froyke and a gypsy woman.
He noticed that the recollection had distracted her, cheered her up. He deliberately kept the conversation going.
“And what’s he up to these days, that Froyke?”
“He’s a drunkard of course, like always. Aunt Nikhe hates him, father hates him, only the girls in Mistebove like him . . .”
By then they had readed the main road, and the strong wind cut off their conversation.
Sasha sat lost in thought. The whole story of living there in the forest, his getting married—it all felt like a fable. He had swooped into the forest and slipped off with a wife.
And now he was heading back to Grodno with her, back to his father’s house.