May 14, 2021
From time to time the Lurie household would be visited by a curious outsider, a neighbor, or a distant relative, and seeing Tsilke, they would ask:
“So that’s your daughter-in-law? She’s from the forest, is she?”
In the city there was already talk of how charming she was, the “foreigner’s” little wife, and of how fond the Luries were of her.
“Hit the jackpot . . .”
“An auspicious match . . .”
“But Sashke still has that old gray hat of his . . .”
“He’s the type who’ll soon tire of even the most beautiful wife . . .”
Grodno had much to gossip about in the long early winter evenings, but Tsilke knew nothing of all those strange people. She had suddenly been surrounded by much love and devotion, and she soon felt a strong bond with the Luries.
And Sasha . . .
He was very pleased that Tsilke was getting along so well with his family. The more time she spent with them, the less time she spent with him, and he could once again lie peacefully in the next room on a soft couch, thinking.
For the most part he actually thought about Tsilke . . .
How had it happened? How had he, Sasha, gone to a rabbi with a girl and bound himself forever?
And yet that’s what happened.
And without regrets . . .
What now? Part of Tsilke’s charm had been left behind in the forest, there among the trees where her echo circled three times. Barefoot, her eyes would cast so much life into the shadows . . . and that life ensnared him.
And now . . .
He had no choice but to admit that those threads, woven of the green shine of the pine-needles and the echoes of the forest, with the babble of the stream that knows only how to gurgle and flow . . . Those threads which had enclosed his soul like a ball of silk had been severed along with the summer which had now passed . . .
Now he had a wife. They slept in the same bed, and she, naive as ever, had recently made a great discovery with one short phrase:
“You know,” she had said to Sasha . . .
“What, my dear?”
“Kissing was better in the forest.”
“Oh, you rascal!” He laughed it off, but later he realized that it was true: the kissing had been better in the forest. Back there he thought the passion would consume him.
And now? . . .
He returned to his books, old books he’d long ago forgotten and ridiculed. Anything he could get his hands on, he browsed through and read. And when he was tired of books he had another pleasure: lying in bed, staring at the wall, counting the squares on wallpaper and smoking.
Even his father, well acquainted with his son’s ways, was taken aback.
“A married man and still the same as before.”
Sasha was offended, but held his tongue. He felt guilty. He knew that he was a hopeless good-for-nothing and was happy just to be left in peace.
He could hear Tsilke laughing from the next room.
“Let her laugh!”
No doubt she was rejoicing at her latest gift.
Tsilke strode around in the strange rooms and was still afraid. There were tables with crystal glassware, with vases . . . She was very careful not to knock anything, not to break anything.
Hela and Sasha’s mother were teaching her how to hold a knife and fork.
She had laughed at the dining table the first time they pointed out she was holding the fork wrong. She was an attentive pupil: she only needed to hear something once and she would remember forever.
And yet, surrounded as she was with love and devotion, she was often frightened, her eyes darting in every direction. She would look at everyone sitting around her as though they were strangers and crying out:
“Where is Sasha? Where is he?”
He wasn’t in their room, so she ran through the other rooms only to find him lounging on a sofa.
“Sasha, why are you on your own? Why did you run away from me?”
“Kid, I didn’t run away, I like being by myself to think.”
She looked at him and looked inside herself: Maybe she had done something wrong? Maybe she laughed too much? Maybe she hadn’t been behaving properly? Maybe that’s why Sasha was so cold and distant . . .
“Sasha,” she begged him, “don’t be like that . . .”
She did not know how to make him understand, she stumbled over her words and became despondent.
Sasha realized he was too distant; he had grown too self-assured and forgotten his place in the world.
He had a wife, he’d been to the rabbi in Mistebove . . . Carefree Tsilke from the forest. With her firm arms and naive soul, she’d given him so much during those summer days in the woods.
And he had taken her from the forest, to the city, brought her to his relatives, and they all looked to him, imposing on him with words and with silence that Tsilke must become his priority.
Priority . . .
She was staring him in the face, reaching out to him with slim, stiff arms, speaking to him, waking him, shaking him and not leaving him a moment alone.
Making demands . . .
Love, attention, tenderness and words, words, words.
Demanding he speak, tell stories.
Often in those moments he recalled a particular mountain somewhere in Switzerland where he’d broken away from the others and gone off on his own, climbing higher and further, with only the rocks for company. And if he reached the very heights or fell down into a crevice, no one would care, no one would try to find him.
But now if he tried to go into another room for half an hour Tsilke would appear beside him.
Kind, bold, naive Tsilke.
She who had given him everything and demanded everything in return.
He wrestled with himself, each time managing to stifle his anger and impatience, and instead of losing his temper he caressed her and comforted her, until he had reassured her, and reassured himself.
It was enough to gaze into her eyes, and feel her trembling body for everything to be forgotten.
The forest came to mind again. The nights they spent together with her undone hair which still smelled of resin . . .
“I imagined, just now, that I was back in the forest.”
“Me too, Tsilke.”
“They’re probably chopping down the trees there as we speak.”
“Perhaps . . .”
“Will they cut down the Twin Pines too?”
“Aunt Nikhe misses me, no doubt. The old woman is probably crying.”
“Old people enjoy a good cry.”
“And my father. Sasha, why does my father never come to visit?”
“He feels like he has sinned against his employer, as though he had married me, not you!”
A gloomy “oh” fell from Tsilke’s heart, and was lost in the darkness of the room.
Sasha pondered. Just then they heard Hela’s voice:
Tsilke ran to her new friend, to Hela, leaving Sasha alone.
Outside it was snowing and raining at the same time. The city seemed so small somehow; Grodno with its little shops and little people. He was sick of them all, and of his father and his mother, constantly polishing their new jewellery.
On one such evening, Sasha left the house and strolled down Soborna Street with its narrow pavement.
Suddenly he heard the clinking of billiard balls. He went into Katowska’s Cukiernia, just to watch the billiard players.
And he started playing a few rounds of billiards.
“Where is Sasha?”
“What’s he doing?”
“Playing billiards . . .”
And the chalk-tipped cues, the green table with all the fives, twelves and fifteens now filled Sasha’s whole day.
This had not gone unnoticed at home.
His father tried to influence him with his strongest argument:
“Sasha, why leave your young wife alone?”
“What, I should take her everywhere with me?”
“Sasha, people are laughing at us.”
“And I laugh at them!”
He lit a cigar, put on his gray hat, and headed off to Katowska’s once again.
“Who does he play with there? With low-lives. With a drunken functionary, with a Swiss-man from the hotel . . . Who else?”
“And for all that he had to study abroad?”
“Was it for this his whole education?”
“Having a father like his with a good name and fortune?”
“Marrying an innocent child from the forest?”
There was plenty to gossip about, and they talked. Sasha, as if to spite everyone, continued playing. His partners embraced him warmly; it’s not everyday you catch a fish like that.
At home everyone was infuriated with Sasha’s billiard playing, because he had abandoned Tsilke, and they hid from her the real reason for his absence. . .
He’s going to work in his father’s office.
Sasha confirmed it himself, when she asked him about his work.
“Yes, yes, in my father’s office.”
Afterwards he felt guilty: Was there any need to tell lies, to Tsilke of all people, who believes everything she’s told? It troubled him greatly. The lie had debased him, made him childish, and he began to flee from home even more, and from himself . . .
The longer this went on, the more days that went by, the less that remained from the forest, from his intoxication.
Tsilke . . .
Was she still the same person?
He could not always talk to her anymore. Sometimes he had the impression he was a lot older than her.
And it made him weary:
Always having to choose the right words, to adapt to her mindset, to her whims . . .
Suddenly he felt sorry for her: what fault is it of hers? He came to her forest with kind words—and she, in her loneliness, had fallen into his arms and put all her trust in him.
He sought out the best words, caressed and kissed her, sat with her for hours. While deep inside he strained to bury the signs of his own unease and boredom.
He would sing, play piano, throw himself eagerly on Tsilke and kiss her as before, carrying her around from room to room.
His parents took some pride in their only son, for once deriving a little vicarious pleasure from him.
He grew colder, cursing Grodno and the tedious autumn in his heart. He was waiting for the opportunity, a chance to escape . . .
And he hurried to Katowska’s, to play billiards.
The long cues shimmered as they cut though the shafts of light which illuminated the half-dark room. A patch of the green table shone like a meadow, and the dull clack of the heavy balls drowned out every thought, every stirring of his conscience.
Sometimes he would stay there until late at night, and Tsilke would ask the others:
“At the office so late? Why does Sasha work so hard?”
They sent someone to get him:
“Tsilke is restless.”
“Ha! Tsilke? Who’s she to be calling me, to be ordering me around?”—He smacked the cue on the ground and went home in a foul mood.
In the bedroom afterwards, when Tsilke asked him why he was working so late, he told her the truth:
“What office! I don’t go to my father’s office, I was playing billiards, do you understand?
“Billiards . . .”
He had a new task before him: Tsilke had no idea what billiards were. Grumbling and with a smirk he explained to her in detail the game with the cues, and balls, on the green table.
She took an interest, thought for a moment and began shouting at Sasha:
“Why don’t you take me with you? I could play too and wouldn’t have to miss you so much.”
Imagine the scene, thought Sasha, a couple such as himself and Tsilke turning up at Katowska’s to shoot some balls . . .
Tsilke found herself spending more and more time looking for Sasha, who went missing more and more often. Seeing that he was not there, she would hide in her room, sitting by the window, thinking.
Why had he been so kind back in the forest?
Why did he run away now?
There was already snow on the street outside, and she was reminded of winters past, of the paths she trod herself from the woods to Mistebove, the broad whiteness that lay over the surrounding fields, the closed doors in Mistebove, through which thick mist poured out, the feathers, the girls and their songs . . .
Her heart was stirred by all those memories, and she felt so claustrophobic in Grodno. They had bought her dresses and shoes, they loved her, old man Lurie often sat her on his knee and stroked her hair, speaking and laughing:
“What a forest girl, my Sasha managed to scoop up in his net . . .”
“Such a rascal, who would have expected it?”
And Hela would come to her several times a day, with warm kisses.
“You know,” said Hela, “you taste good. It’s good to kiss you.”
But Sasha was gone; he’d snuck out without saying a word to anyone.
And no one dared say a word to him.
It had been like that for years: no one could say anything to Sasha. No one could teach him anything. He’d get angry, and everyone stayed quiet on account of his temper which descended on the Lurie household like a cloud.
One day Tsilke dressed in her new winter coat.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Lurie asked her.
“Just going for a walk . . .”
“She’s growing into a lady,” Mrs. Lurie thought, “She’s going for a walk by herself.”
But Tsilke was going to look for Sasha. She asked around and found Katowska’s Cukiernia. She entered, finding herself in a large smoke-filled room where Sasha and some others stood with long cues, playing in silence.
He did not notice her at first in the fog of smoke. Suddenly he saw her by the door.
Her piercing eyes looked so clear and bright; her gaze so detached from the rest of her, dressed now in new city clothes.
The forest . . .
All of last summer stood before Sasha’s eyes, demanding, punishing and imploring . . .
The cue stayed frozen in his hands; the other players turned around.
“That’s his wife,” one of them said.
“She’s come after him.”
“Why did he get married, the idiot!”
Sasha ignored their insults. He found himself put on the spot. It was a matter of pride: He did not want to show that he was dependent on someone, that someone held him back from doing what he wanted.
But Tsilke looked with a gaze, where pleading struggled with anger, and Sasha did not know what to do in that moment . . . Should he stop playing, or continue to hit the cues?
She stood by the door, scanning the room and turned to Sasha:
“Keep playing, Sasha, I’ll watch.”
Sasha’s steps were heavy; the cue trembled in his hands.
“I’ll finish this game tomorrow,” he blurted out, putting on his coat.
“Let’s go, Tsilke!”
They walked out in silence. She—lost and frightened; he—angry. The further they walked and the longer the silence, the stronger his rage burned.
He snapped at her, saying something that he was to regret instantly:
“Why did you have to butt in? What do you all want from me? What? What?”
She did not respond, but stared wide-eyed. He was saying such words to her? He’s shouting at her like that? She came to a halt not far from Lurie’s house, as though frozen to the spot. Not saying a word, not blinking an eye. And a light snow fell slowly on her, on Sasha and on the whole street. It fell gently, almost playfully. In the tranquil forest, there used to be snow like this too, and she had liked to stand on the porch, listening to the silence of the white forest.
Sasha looked at her; his anger had subsided, and he now felt sympathy for her. Why had he offended her? What fault was it of hers?
“Let’s go inside. It’s cold, Tsilke.”
She did not answer.
“Come on inside, Tsilke!”
She gazed off down the street, not saying a word.
Sasha took her by the arm and led her into the house.
That evening he did not leave her side.
He spoke to her, begging her to forgive him. But she did not respond. He took her hand and squeezed it, but her arm hung limp and lifeless.
Sasha felt that something had changed in her, that her sudden stubbornness was not going to go away so quickly. They had skipped dinner and spent the whole night in their clothes. She fell into an uneasy sleep, while he sat and thought.
It seemed as though he had lost her today.
By shouting at her one time as they were coming out of Katowska’s Cukiernia . . .
That one offense.
He was filled with regret for everything: his freedom, his independence, his studies, billiards, cards, all his travels and foreign newspapers.
It all seemed so petty, so empty compared to Tsilke’s open smile, which she always carried for him in her bright eyes.
Which he had felt threatened by earlier today, yesterday and the day before.
The fact that Tsilke had become his priority, that responsibility which he had been running from his whole life, did not seem so terrible.
He wanted to wake her up and speak to her, to confess that she was indeed his priority.
But she had fallen asleep, fully dressed, offended and alienated.
Tsilke did not want to come out.
“What’s wrong with her? Is she not well? Maybe we should call for a doctor.”
With great effort they managed to convince her to eat something, but she refused categorically to sit at the dining table.
They took turns going in to her; old man Lurie, his wife, Hela . . .
Each came with kind words. She did not respond. Like a flower that had stopped blooming, she stopped smiling, stopped lighting up with her glance.
“Tsilke, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing . . .”
“What do you want?”
“Nothing . . .”
And that nothing sounded so hopeless, so pained . . .
They went to Sasha:
“Did you offend her somehow?”
“I raised my voice one time, and she got angry.”
He did not go back to Katowska’s. He hung his head and moped through the rooms in his wealthy house, sullen, unsatisfied.
In the city they were saying:
“That young wife at the Luries. . .”
“Is melancholic . . .”
“And the young master . . .”
“Likes billiards more than he likes his wife, or parents.”
Tsilke would stand for hours on end by the window watching the snow fall; how white it shone into the soul, and she also saw how the whiteness was trodden underfoot by passersby.
“What was she thinking during those hours? No one knew, though it pained them. They had grown truly very fond of her, she was like a child to them, and no one is spared by the gloomy shadow that descends when a child is sad.
Old man Lurie joked that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—and Tsilke was starting to resemble her silent father.
But she used to laugh so loud.
And she would ask such naive questions, which everyone laughed so indulgently at.
Now she refused to leave her room, did not want to put on a new dress, and the jewellery she got, all the gifts, were lying around, abandoned.
Word reached Iser that his daughter was not well and so he came to Grodno. He had not wanted to show his face earlier, because he felt very guilty towards the Luries.
Because in the hot summer days his daughter had . . .
Now—he stood before her, saddened by her pale complexion.
“Do you not feel well here, Tsilke? The Luries are fond of you, you know?”
She said nothing; tears rolled down her cheeks.
Iser went back to his silent woods, and the silence enveloped the Luries too.
Sasha hid himself away in another room with his books.
Hela stopped singing and playing the piano.
The parents were angry at their son, and the son was angry with the whole world.
It seemed as though if Tsilke only came out of her room and smiled, everything would come back to life.
But she remained silent.
Like a stranger, like a proud princess imprisoned in a tower, the barefoot girl from the forest who had, by chance, fallen in with the wealthy . . .
Her silence continued . . .