May 13, 2021
At the Luries . . .
Such a large house, with so many rooms. At first Tsilke thought she would get lost inside. As she entered she saw that the lamps and pictures had been wrapped in white canvas and paper; the Luries were abroad and everything was covered to keep away the dust. Sasha wanted the house to feel more cosy, and so he arranged for everything to be put in order. For several days, servants were busy cleaning, washing windows and dusting the rooms.
Tsilke wandered from one room to another, unable to find a place for herself. Sasha followed her, looking her in the eyes. He desperately wanted her to feel at home.
She missed the forest . . . Sasha could feel it, but he assumed she would eventually settle in.
She knew, she understood that this was her life now, that things were never going to be the same, but she couldn’t shake the idea that, if she felt like it, she could return to forest, to Aunt Nikhe, to the stream, to the silence . . .
She had been here before of course, when she was a young girl, but the house had been completely refurbished in the meantime, and she barely recognized it. Her Aunt would often remind her of the time she ran away from the Luries, away from Grodno, wandering over barren fields. But that was a long time ago; now she was grown, she’d been to the rabbi in Mistebove, and they’d put a gold ring on her finger and brought her to the city. She wore shoes all day and her feet hurt, but she did not mention this to Sasha in case he laughed at her.
Sasha was there in the next room. He was helping, or supervising, the rearrangement of the furniture, the dusting.
She found herself alone for a moment. She approached the window and looked out at the almost empty street outside. On the building opposite hung a sign which said: “Damski Portnoy.” And because Tsilke’s mind was blank, the words crept into her thoughts. She said the words out loud to herself, “Damski portnoy, damski portnoy.” Nibbling absentmindedly on her finger like a daydreaming little girl she felt so very out of place, so filled with longing.
Her mind’s eye conjured up a pine tree then a second, and a third, until a whole forest laid itself out in front of her. The trees stood calm and slender, bearing on their shoulders a powerful tranquility. Tsilke saw herself striding among the trees . . . Where would she go today? To Prudne! To the nobleman’s estate with its fine courtyard, with graveled paths and buildings adorned with carved cornices. The nobleman has a daughter who wears such pretty dresses. She lives in St. Petersburg, but in summertime she comes to Prudne, and walks along the tidy paths on the estate. She pets her dogs, which follow her, and does not say a word to anyone.
On one of Tsilke’s visits to Prudne, the nobleman’s daughter called her over and posed all manner of questions . . . Where was Tsilke coming from, who was she visiting? Then the nobleman’s daughter asked Tsilke to wait for a moment. She disappeared into the house and emerged a moment later carrying a large canvas, along with brushes and paint. She old Tsilke to stand still and gaze into the middle-distance . . .
Tsilke did as she was asked and the nobleman’s daughter painted and painted until Tsilke’s legs grew tired, yet there seemed to be no end in sight . . . Tsilke was bored, and began begging for permission to leave. The nobleman’s daughter burst into laughter and let Tsilke go, but only on condition that she come back the following day. Tsilke promised to come back, but instead of keeping her word she avoided Prudne for the rest of the summer. She was afraid to return: she could not forget how stiff and sore her legs were from standing still for so long.
And now, here in Grodno, it felt as though she had once again been cornered by the nobleman’s daughter, and was once again obliged to stand still and stare into the distance . . .
From Prudne she had been able to run back home to the forest. But where could she run to now? Preoccupied, she did not notice Sasha watching her . . . A heavy carriage passed on the street outside, its wheels clattering on the cobblestones. She snapped out of her reverie and saw Sasha.
“Are you unhappy, Tsilke?” He asked, adding, “You’ll get used to it! Just wait, my parents will be home soon from abroad. There’ll be more life in this old place then; there’ll be guests.”
He took her by the hand and led her into one of the other, now spotless, rooms.
An enormous mirror shone before her, and in the mirror she could see the whole room, with all its lamps and paintings. They sat down on a soft couch and Tsilke felt as though she were sinking into a pit, she burst into laughter.
“It’s good to hear you laugh, Tsilke. You see, it will all be good. You’ll adapt, you’ll get used to our way of life. One can acquire a taste for anything, even smoking.”
But Tsilke had stopped listening. She had noticed the piano in the corner, and ran over to it:
Back in Prudne, the nobleman’s daughter had also owned a similar contraption, though her’s was brown and this one was black. Tsilke ran her fingers over the keys, and they responded with several discordant notes. She jumped with a start, the Kozke, and looked around, as though trying to see where the notes had come from, or where they had gone. But the notes were nowhere to be found. She tapped the keys again, louder this time, with less restraint, and in that moment she forgot all about Sasha, and everything else . . . She bashed the keys and laughed at the top of her voice, in such a way that the cacophony and her laughter blended together as one.
Sasha was happy she’d found a distraction, but deep down he was growing impatient for his parents to return. He imagined that they would also look out for Tsilke, and things would be easier for her.
Because . . .
He was already tired of constantly following her around, constantly having to worry about her.
She was sad one minute and prone to anger the next; they would need to send for a seamstress, then a shoemaker . . . All these little tasks surrounded him, fencing off his whole being, and he yearned to breathe free of it all.
If only his parents would hurry home.
He rarely walked in the streets now; he only remembered the world at large when he heard the whistle of a train or when he read the papers. And all the things that he had previously had little to do with, had become dear to him, as though he could not imagine life without them.
And then along Tsilke came to confess to him, as though it were all somehow her fault, that her feet hurt. Still not used to the city shoes, she convinced Sasha to let her take them off, and he saw that her feet were rubbed raw.
“Oh, you poor thing, Tsilke.”
“Because you’re a bird in a cage, aren’t you, Tsilke?”
“Yes, but you said I’ll get used to it . . .”
“Of course, of course . . . Everyone gets used to everything.”
And . . .
It was an autumn evening. The sun set without color. Sometimes a cart would clatter past, or voices on the street would break the silence, but only for brief moments, and in that silence Sasha and Tsilke both felt as though they were in a strange castle, surrounded by strange, unfamiliar furniture. They longed for friendship and intimacy. He caressed her, cradling her in his arms, and each caress made her feel as though she were in the forest, as though everything were taking place in the forest.
And perhaps, Sasha thought, perhaps there was no need to worry, no need to yearn for excitement after all. Maybe he should give himself over entirely to this untamed squirrel from the woods, who had given him such sweet hours of joy there by the stream, by the Twin Pines.
He grew pensive.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked Tsilke. “Tell the truth!”
“What do you think of me?”
“That you’ve become like another person, you’ve tucked in your wings. You’ve hidden yourself away.”
“Wings? I’ve never had any wings.”
He kissed her.
“It’s only a figure of speech, back in the woods you were so much livelier.”
“But you said yourself, I’ll grow into it . . .”
“Is that what you want?”
“I do. But will you come with me to visit the forest some time?”
“Certainly, we will travel to many places . . .”
It was getting dark, and late. In a reverie of daydreams and kisses, they fell asleep together on the soft couch.
The old maid, Shura, entered the room several times. She wanted to call them for dinner, but the “lovers” were asleep. She left the room with a shrug.
The maid did not know what was going on. “His lordship” was no doubt playing a joke when he claimed that that timid, jumpy girl was his wife.
When his parents got back from abroad there would be a scandal.
She had served the Luries most of her life, and she was as loyal to them as a faithful hound, but now she did not know what was happening.
The city was filled with gossip about the “foreigner” getting married.
“A preordained happiness, the girl of a forest warden.”
“He’s obviously gone mad, Lurie’s heir . . .”
“His father is going to jump for joy . . .”
“It’s the mother I’m worried about; she’s so preoccupied with status and coming from a good family. Just picture the face she’ll make.”
And everyone who had occasion to visit the Lurie’s in those days was bombarded with questions:
“What’s she like?”
“And what about Sasha? Is he content?”
Grodno had something to talk about. And anyone who passed the house would crane their neck and attempt to catch a glimpse in through the windows.
Inside the rooms were being cleaned; the parents were expected back any day now.
In the meantime heavy curtains were drawn across the windows of the stately home.
Tsilke too was anxious for them to return. There was something that frightened her . . . she had suddenly seen that the world was full of so many people and you needed to learn how to speak to each one of them . . .
Even the seamstress, who came into her room, wanted to interrogate her. While the old maid, Shura, looked on her with resentment and suspicion.
Only Sasha was there to comfort and reassure her.
“Try to make yourself at home; it’s my father’s house, which means it’s also my house!” Yet Tsilke still felt out of place. She was afraid to touch the valuables, afraid to lift her feet too far off the ground as she walked.
She sat there as if in a prison. It was cold outside and besides, Sasha never brought her anywhere because the city was large: if they showed their faces, they would be followed.
The days passed, rainy, and overcast. Tsilke’s complexion had quickly grown pale . . .
And in Mistebove? What was Aunt Nikhe up to there? And in Svislotsh? Her silent father, who never made a peep? . . .
Their forest was being felled, their little stream would dry up and Tsilke would never again feel the calm and tranquility she felt before.
Sasha now found himself acting as the head of the household. He would never have dreamed of such a thing before, that he would take an interest in such details. He did it for Tsilke’s sake, and . . . For his own sake too; he wanted to do something to appease the worm that was eating away inside his mind.
In the city they were already saying:
“He’s becoming a man, that Sashke!”
“Taking an interest in everything . . .”
“With age comes wisdom . . .”
“He’s got quite the inheritance waiting for him after all . . .”
“Taken a wifey and snuggling up at home . . .”
Early one morning, while it was still dark, there was a noise in the Lurie household. Sasha and Tsilke awoke.
“What’s happening?” Tsilke asked. Sasha answered calmly:
“My parents are home. Back at last.”
“They’ll be angry at me, won’t they, Sasha?”
“Why would they be angry?”
“Because I don’t belong . . .”
“Go back to sleep another while, and I’ll go and tell my parents the good news.”
Tsilke was left alone in the room, but she could not sleep. She could hear voices in other rooms, loud and then quieter, people shouting and then whispering. She understood that they were talking about her and she felt trapped. She looked at the window: maybe she could escape through there, and run away from these strange people? Run away, but where to? The forest was being cut down, her father was as silent as a stranger himself, and she did not want to run away from Sasha—he was so kind to her . . .
Now he was back by her side again. He sat down on the bed and stroked her hair, saying nothing until Tsilke broke the silence:
“What did your parents say? Do they know that I’m here, that I’ve snuck into someone else’s house?”
“Tsilke, don’t talk like that. It’s your house now as much as it is mine or theirs. They’re already fond of you, they will welcome you with open arms, you’ll see.”
He comforted her until it was bright outside. The day had come and Sasha left. For the first time since she had arrived he left her alone for a few hours while he went into town. Shura brought her some tea; the old maid no longer looked at Tsilke quite as angrily as before.
Tsilke combed her hair several times, staring into the mirror.
Just then the door opened and Sasha’s sister, the gymnasium student Hela, ran in excitedly. Overjoyed, she began kissing Tsilke.
She spoke quickly:
“We’re going to be like sisters, aren’t we Tsilkele? I will love you, we’ll all love you . . . We’re going to be like sisters. Oh, I so wanted Sasha to get married, we all wanted it. Father is pleased and mother will come around eventually . . . Tsilkele, Tsilkele . . .”
She spoke to Tsilke in a confidential tone, as though they had always been thick as thieves, telling her everything: about her time abroad, about her gymnasium where she was rushing that very moment, because she was very late and had missed several weeks of classes.
Tsilke did not understand everything she said, but she already felt more at home.
When Hela had left, old man Lurie entered, portlier than before.
He approached Tsilke and made to give her a kiss, startling her.
“What’s there to be afraid of, Kozke? I’m like a second father to you after all, you can’t begrudge your father a kiss!” With that he lay his hand on her shoulder and said:
“My Sasha vanished into my woods and came back with a bird, a precious beautiful bird. Things will be good for you here with us, Tsilke . . .”
At the moment Sasha came in from the street and his father noticed he was still wearing his old gray hat.
“Now of course you’ll finally get rid of that old hat. . .”
“Why now of course?”
“You’re a married man now.”
“Nothing . . . The hat stays.”
“Well, let’s not fight about it,” he said in good spirits. Just then, Mrs. Lurie came in, well rested. She entered without a word and regarded everyone coldly, then she approached Tsilke and kissed her.
“You really are beautiful. Now I understand my son.” She was trying her best to remain composed and resigned. But at dawn, when she had spoken with Sasha, she had let slip some angry words.
“How could you not even ask us?”
But Sasha had interrupted her, warning her that if she said one more word, he would take Tsilke and leave the house.
The old man had been pleased by Sasha’s tone. It meant that he loved Iser’s daughter; loving his wife was bound to make a decent man of him.
Tsilke looked at them all, and was a little frightened by them. All she wanted was for Sasha to be on her side, but he seemed to have joined theirs:
“Look alive, Tsilke,” He laughed. “Hop like you did in the forest!”
“It’s not so easy to hop, Sasha, there’s nothing to hop on. I’ll only break something.”
“Don’t hang your head like that.”
She stood up ramrod straight, lifting her head proudly, and looked at him . . .
“Is this how you like me?”
“Yes . . . though you’re frozen stiff like an effigy . . .”
“Like an effi-what? You think that just because I’m in the city I understand all your fancy words?”
He laughed heartily.
Just at that moment his mother entered, carrying a pearl necklace for Tsilke.
“You’ll accept this gift from me . . .”
Madam Lurie was famous for her love of jewelry; it was a particular passion or hers. Every day people would call to offer her precious objects, gold, diamonds and pearls. She liked to buy them and swap them, and was always making a fuss over rings and earrings.
“What with Sasha and his dogs, and my wife with her pearls, I never get any peace,” old man Lurie liked to joke.
Tsilke stood there with the necklace in her hand, not knowing what to do with it.
And so Mrs. Lurie stepped closer again, placed it around her neck, and pale new beams of flight fell upon Tsilke’s face . . .
From then on Tsilke received many gifts. Everyone was fond of her, they hung on her every word, her every reaction. They spoiled her and she played along. Her days were filled with clothing, jewellery, accessories and ribbons. They did not quite know what to do with her hair—so much hair! How to comb it, and in what style?
Sasha’s younger sister Hela spent more time with her than anyone.
“So you’re a forest girl, you were born in the forest?”
“Yes,” Tsilke answered.
“Tell me about the forest then.”
And Tsilke would talk about her Aunt Nikhe, about Mistebove, about Prudne, but suddenly she trailed off.
There was nothing to say about the forest. There were stones and trees and silence, and through it all ran a babbling stream . . .
“And Froyke?” Hela added.
She had heard Tsilke mention the name and always asked about him:
“He must be handsome. I’d like to see him . . .”
And she would also tell Tsilke stories about school. Tsilke would listen to it all with a smile. It seemed that she had other preoccupations now, and that she was far away from it all.