May 14, 2021
Days passed and great heaps of snow accumulated on the rooftops, shaped by the wind into pyramid-like mounds, rounded on one side. There was so much snow gazing in through the windows that it brightened the insides of the houses. A great, white world hung over the little houses, and over the nearby graveyard.
One pair of large, bright eyes in particular often gazed sadly through the window at the world outside, at the whiteness . . .
Tsilke’s eyes . . .
As though they wanted to ask something of the wider world, as though they sought solace.
And she cheered for the first time when Ivan returned.
She was going to go with him into the forest and take one last look at her old home . . .
“There’s not much forest to speak of, Tsilke, the trees are almost all gone, and the three cabins are boarded up and covered in snow.”
But she begged Ivan, and her aunt Nikhe. She wanted to see what the stream looked like, and the road.
But how would she walk in the city shoes she’d brought back from Grodno? The snow was very thick.
“Aunt, where are my father’s old boots . . .”
“Child, you’re going in boots? You think it’s . . .”
But Tsilke was already searching in every corner. She found her father’s old boots. But as she was putting them on, her arms fell limp and her heart felt heavy: the boots were so crude and heavy; Grodno had left its mark on her after all . . .
She sighed, angry with herself.
A moment later she was wearing her father’s boots, wrapped in her aunt’s headscarf and ready to set off with Ivan.
The snow already had that softness that comes with the first warm winds, which flow in from the south making the air milder. What’s more, the sun had opened its wide eye, melting the frost with sharp rays, drilling here and there into the depths, down to the hard earth. The sun licked the firmly packed snow through the holes, so that a shingle, a roof tile peaked through.
Tsilke walked by Ivan’s side. She opened her eyes wide, and it seemed as if she had not been there for a long, long time. The brightness made her feel like skipping, squealing for joy . . . Who to? To nobody. Who does the bird call to? The crow? Who does the squirrel call to in the summer? Who does the eternal stream babble to?
Ivan looked at her and felt a closeness, an affinity to the girl who’d been born in the very forest where he had lived out his life. He was not surprised that she was the way she was, that she had run away from the Luries: each is drawn to one’s own, and Tsilke could not adapt to the big city . . . Ivan understood it quite well, though he’d believed her love for Sasha Lurie might have kept her there.
He interrupted their silence to ask:
“Do you not miss him, Tsilke?”
“You don’t want to see Sasha? Last summer, the two of you were as thick as thieves.”
Tsilke considered for a moment. She pictured Sasha: plump with dark, half-sleepy eyes. He was kind, he held her in his arms, and yet he was so distant, so unknown. No, she did not miss him, but there was a terrible pain deep in her heart as if it were being stabbed with a spear.
“Let’s not talk about that, Ivan, tell me about the forest instead, what does it look like now?”
“We’re almost there, you’ll see everything for yourself.”
They continued in silence. He looked in one direction, she in the other, and they both saw bare fields decked in white. Here and there a hillock or a lone tree stood out, exposed to the elements.
Tsilke looked into the distance. From this very spot she used to be able to see the forest, the woods which were her home, the Luries’ three cabins with the stables, but this time she did not see the forest. And suddenly she stumbled upon the first cadaver of a tree, followed by a second . . . a series of round stumps, half covered in snow, fencing off the flatness of the white path. Peaking out were little seats, the roots of the felled trees. There was a large heap of woodchips and branches that looked like the nest of an enormous animal, and everything was peppered with snow, blanketed in winter.
Just then, Tsilke spotted her house. And as her eyes scanned the surrounding whiteness, she saw the terrible destruction that had been wrought there . . .
The great forest lay stretched out on the earth. Bodies in funeral shrouds stretched out, each one isolated from the next. As though bandits had struck the forest in the night, and run away the next morning, their work unfinished. Here and there terrified groups of trees stood, whole patches unfelled. They stood there with pine needles as lush as ever, seeming to stare with terrified, green eyes at their fallen brothers, at the enormous graveyard, waiting . . .
Ivan set off for home while Tsilke stayed alone.
She turned right, left, she was close, she had already reached the three houses, all three were closed, the windows boarded up with planks . . .
Shhhh . . .
All around was so quiet. A winter bird jabbering on the skeleton of a tree, and on another tree hung a piece of rope—a remnant of Aunt Nikhe’s washing-line.
Tsilke’s eyes darted to and fro as she crept over the dead, snow-covered trees. And when she got tired she brushed some snow off one of the tree stumps and sat down on it. Sitting and looking. There used to be life and warmth in this corner. Even during the worst frosts a plume of blue smoke had risen from the house, pouring out of the chimney, sneaking through the green canopy and drifting high into the sky. All was still, white, and bright all around.
It had never been so bright there before. But the brightness weighed so heavily on Tsilke’s heart that she was on the verge of tears. She kicked the frozen snow with her father’s boots until the tree revealed its golden bark.
Empty all around . . .
Where were the paths she walked with Sasha?
Where had the gypsies set up camp?
She did not recognize her home . . . and where was the stream?
She climbed down from the stump she’d been sitting on and went to find the stream. It was covered in branches and woodchip, and the frost had forged the branches together into one icy whole.
Everything was different, poorer, emptier. Only light and snow remained. Light and snow. She missed her footing, and realized that she had never felt so lost . . . she had arrived at an unfamiliar forest, a forest being cut down. She looked at the three boarded-up, locked buildings, at the quiet porch of their cabin where she used to sit on summer mornings, greeting the forest . . . She looked and recognized the ruins of her home, and the tears began to flow from her heart to her eyes, where they became stuck, frozen. . .
She set off back home, her spirits low. The heavy boots, her father’s boots, grew even heavier; the snow clung to them. She felt exhausted, forlorn.
Not far from Mistebove, she saw her aunt coming toward her.
Nikhe had worried that Tsilke had been gone so long.
“Was it worth it? Tsilke . . . Was it worth dragging yourself all the way out there?”
“They’ve cut down almost everything, Aunt . . .”
“What of it? It’s not the first forest to be chopped down . . .”
“But, my trees, they grew up with me . . .”
“A person is a person, and trees are just wood . . .”
The two women walked home, wrapped in headscarves, barely uttering a word. And as they entered the town they were followed from a discreet distance by Froyke. He did not appear to be watching them. His gaze was directed at the houses covered in snow, at the edge of the sky, which encircled the whole of Mistebove.
Froyke had one thought in his mind, one prayer, one desire:
Don’t let her go back to Grodno . . .
Let her stay here among the snow-covered houses.
He felt reborn. He held his head up proudly. So he still has a chance: she’d run away from such wealth in Grodno . . . Why? What was it to him? As long as she was in Mistebove, in the other half of his father’s house, right next door where he could hear her singing through the wall.
And Tsilke . . .
Tsilke returned from the forest, upset:
“Our house locked, the windows boarded up with planks.”
“And what about this place, Tsilke, it’s not such a bad house: it’s warm, bright, and clean,” Aunt Nikhe danced around her, and when Tsilke had calmed down a little, the conversation moved on:
“You’ll go back to your family now soon, won’t you Tsilke, back to the Luries?”
Tsilke silently shook her head: “No.”
“He shouted at me. Sasha lost his temper with me, he raised his voice in anger.”
Nikhe sat closer to Tsilke:
“Husbands shout sometimes . . . What’s the big deal? He loses his temper and then everything goes back to normal . . . What’s the big deal?”
Tsilke straightened herself up, stood up and declared with hurt pride:
“Nobody shouts at me . . . He carried me in his arms, didn’t leave the forest for weeks . . . Because of me. But in Grodno he started hiding from me, sneaking off into a separate room, playing billiards, I didn’t see him for days on end . . . No, Aunt Nikhe! It’s over, over . . .”
“I’m not going back there. You need to talk to Father. And if old Lurie comes back you need to talk to him too, you need to tell everyone that Tsilke is never going back to Grodno ever again . . .”
She was upset, tears running from her eyes. Nikhe went to sit in a corner and did not say another word.
Iser came for Shabbes. He arrived with a few half words, said something to Nikhe, mumbled something to Tsilke and sat for the rest of the day with his nose buried in a holy book.
After Havdole he went to Tsilke and looked her deep in the eyes . . .
“Tsilke . . .”
She shivered. She knew her father’s visit meant something serious.
“What is it, father?”
“Will you obey everything I tell you to do?”
She hesitated for a moment and said:
He laid his hands on her shoulders and continued:
“Your Sasha is back from St. Petersburg, the Luries are waiting for you, it’s not a nice situation . . .”
“What do you want, father?”
“I want you to go back to Grodno tomorrow, I’ll come with you . . .”
She sprang to her feet, ran to the window and stood there in silence . . . Until her father spoke again:
“What is it, Tsilke?”
“I won’t go . . . There’s nothing for me there, no one for me.”
Iser tried his last hand:
“If you don’t go, I probably won’t come back to Mistebove, I’ll rot away somewhere in the woods, but I won’t come back here. Neither you nor your Aunt Nikhe will ever see me again . . .”
They looked at each other for a moment.
She was the first to speak:
“If you won’t come home, and you all continue to torment me about going to Grodno, I know what I’ll do.”
There was silence. Iser, Nikhe and Tsilke, all three retreated into their own thoughts.
“What will you do?” Iser asked.
“There are still some trees in our old place in the forest, and I’ll find a rope somewhere.”
Nikhe ran towards her:
“Pfui to that! Starting the new week with such words, shame on you Tsilke, have you lost your mind . . . Pfui to that . . .”
Her gaze darted nervously between Tsilke and Iser.
Aunt Nikhe was all too familiar with stories about ropes on trees.
A few years ago a girl from Mistebove had hanged herself in the woods, on account of some man . . .
Iser stood mute. Terrified. He stared at the wall, at the window. Running his fingers through his beard, he did not say another word.
Later, as he sat with a holy book, he said to Nikhe, loud enough for Tsilke to hear.
“Let her do what she wants, whether she goes or not . . .”
From that day on no one mentioned another word about Grodno or the Luries. The three people who had lived out their lives in the forest, understood each other through half-words, through what was left unsaid. Each was stubborn in their own way, and they hid their anger deep down. Every conflict ended with a long silence . . .
Tsilke often went back to the site of the old forest, to the three boarded up cabins.
The townsfolk began to regard her with a strange respect. When they saw her passing in her aunt’s headscarf and father’s boots, they would shrug:
“She’s off to the forest, the empty almost entirely treeless forest . . .”
“As if she’s visiting a grave . . .”
“And she ran away from such wealth . . .”
“Melancholic . . .”
“Just like her old man . . .”
But their respect for her remained intact. Iser the forest warden’s daughter, the forest girl everyone knew since she used to walk to Mistebove barefoot as a child. They looked at her now like royalty . . .
“One of these days she’ll get up and fly off somewhere . . .”
“No, she’ll go back to Grodno, to that rich family, to the Luries . . .”
“Such wealth, such millions!”
“A family with a good name . . .”
But she did not go to the Luries. She would visit Ivan the old road watchman and the mute forest which lay in pieces on the ground. She would exchange a few words with Ivan, and with the forest she would share a long silence, hours of silence.
The further she went from the road, the more trees there were left. And Tsilke liked to wander in the white dense winter forest. On a frosty day, when the vapor of her breath froze immediately, and the trees stood tense like thick cords, like pillars of steel, in the frozen silence you could hear a rustle, a groan, like a clay pot breaking: It was the frost bursting the bark off the trees . . .
Suddenly she heard the cat-like squeak of a squirrel. The golden scamp was not frozen, and its squeak carried so far. The sound was not a sad one, but resounded with firm certainty . . .
The certainty that there will always be forests.
That the green heads of the trees will always stretch towards the sky.
Often, on her way back, Tsilke saw Aunt Nikhe from afar; Nikhe always worried when Tsilke tarried too long. The old woman seemed to bring warmth for Tsilke, who had been frozen to the bones out in the woods, and there was food waiting for her at home.
Whenever Nikhe noticed that Tsilke was bored, she would go next door and invite the Barash girls over, and they would invite other girls.
They gladly visited Tsilke. She had been to Grodno after all, and she was so pretty that even a foreigner had fallen in love with her.
A strange character: running away from money—yes, the girls were happy to pay Tsilke a visit . . .
One thing led to another until eventually Froyke ventured into Iser’s house. At first he came to call on his sisters. The second time he found a new excuse. Tsilke watched him curiously each time. She remembered, had no choice but to remember . . . The time in the sled when he was kissing the girls and he had wanted to kiss Tsilke too, but she had been afraid of him. Now she was no longer afraid . . . She also recalled how he had danced with the gypsy woman in the forest, and how Tsilke’s heart had begun to pound . . . Since then she had dreamed of him often . . .
Froyke with his boots—he was calmer now, his shoulders had grown broad, and he sought out Tsilke with his eyes. It seemed as though he was always on the verge of telling her something. But they were never alone together. Aunt Nikhe did not leave the room for a second, and Tsilke’s friends were always sitting there, chatting and laughing.
One time Tsilke said that if Froyke wanted . . .
“What?” several girls asked in unison.
“If he set up the sled and we went off over the fields . . .”
Froyke’s sisters burst into laughter. The other girls laughed too. And Froyke blushed. Tsilke did not understand why they were laughing, or why Froyke had gone red. She did not know that months ago Froyke had set off for Volkovysk with his horse and drank it all away.
And all because of Tsilke. Because she had married the “foreigner.”
One of Froyke’s sisters said:
“We don’t have a horse anymore—long since sold!” But they did not say why for fear of embarrassing Froyke.
And because he was calm . . .
And because he would stare at her with such devotion in his eyes, Tsilke also began to look at him more.
And she spoke to her Aunt with an open heart:
“You know, Aunt, I feel happier when Froyke comes to visit.”
Nikhe opened her old eyes . . .
“Who, Froyke? Do you reckon he’ll ever make something of himself?”
“What does that even mean, make something of himself, Aunt!”
“It means being a decent person, living like a decent person . . .”
“And Froyke doesn’t live like a decent person?” He’s not a decent person?”
The old woman was confounded by Tsilke’s questioning, and went back to her pots in a huff.
Froyke came by every day now, except Shabbes, when Iser was home. He was afraid of the old man.
He would stand by the oven, warming himself. He grew ever more bold and cheerful. And Nikhe mumbled to herself:
“They have their own oven . . . Why does he come here?”
“He comes to see Tsilke.”
“And she’s glad he comes.”
“She watches him, laughs when he laughs, sings when he sings.”
“Like cats, they’re courting each other.”
The dishes fell from Nikhe’s hands as they had that summer when Sasha was staying in the forest.
How much she had already suffered, Aunt Nikhe. How many sleepless nights on account of the motherless child, and she always thought that everything was her fault. She would be punished for it. She had grown grayer and bent, she who’d lived her best years in solitude. She’d had only one celebration in her life, one consolation: putting on a new wig, and reading Bible stories.
Now that Froyke was becoming a regular guest, and Tsilke was happy that he came, Nikhe no longer knew what to do.
Iser returned to Mistebove; he paid no attention to anyone, least of all Tsilke.
Nikhe had no desire to talk to strangers about it. Talk to Tsilke herself? She needed to come to terms with the reality that she had a husband in Grodno, she needed to put aside her whims and go back to the Luries. In every town and village people were gossiping about it. About the poor girl who married a Lurie only to run away a few months after the wedding for no reason at all.
But Tsilke was strong-willed, and no amount of words were going to make any difference.
So Nikhe held her tongue, and sighed . . .
And there was nothing she could do when Froyke turned up one night with a sled. He had borrowed it from a neighbor, a Christian. He pulled up outside and called out to Tsilke . . .
“How about a sleigh-ride?”
At night alone: Tsilke, a married woman who’s run away from her husband . . . With Froyke the sausage-eater! Nikhe wanted to block the doorway, stop Tsilke from going out, but Tsilke did not even look at her aunt, and slipped out, wrapped in a headscarf.
A white night. The horse broke into a steady trot—and the houses with their fires disappeared behind them. The fields began, open fields under the starry sky. The snow, which melted slightly in the light of day, now broke like glass under the horse’s hooves. The sled flew over low hillocks, and shallow troughs . . .
Tsilke accidentally fell against Froyke’s shoulders several times, and she found herself hoping the sled would shake again so that she could fall against him once more.
With each shake, Froyke opened his mouth and laughed, laughed to Tsilke and into the night.
But what had happened to his former audacity?
He would long ago have let go of the reins and his hands would have been busy with something else, but he was still afraid of Tsilke. He looked her in the eye, counting and weighing up her every word . . .
Had she already forgotten about that Lurie?
And does she like him, Froyke?
When the sled began to swim slowly over the snow they spoke about various things, but very little about themselves.
Tsilke said that at the Luries’ place in Grodno there was a box, like the nobleman had in Prudne: They called it a fortepiano, and Tsilke liked to run her fingers over it, making such strange sounds, sounds that reminded her somehow of the forest.
She told him about old Lurie, who would sit her on his knee.
She told him all sorts of details about everyone, but she never once mentioned Sasha’s name.
This surprised Froyke, but he did not want to ask about it.
“Froyke!” Tsilke called out suddenly.
“When summer comes, let’s go together through the woods, around here, in the parts that haven’t been cut down. I’ll go barefoot, and you’ll wear your shiny boots like you did with your gypsy woman . . . Do you remember?
She looked him boldly in the eyes . . . Any minute now he’d let go of the reins, any minute . . . But the lights of Mistebove were glinting; they were already home.
Tsilke ran into the house, the frost playing on her face. She looked around; her aunt was in bed, asleep, or pretending to be. The old woman had already made Tsilke’s warm bed with her thin hands . . . Tsilke threw herself onto the bed and closed her eyes. The blood coursed quickly through her veins. Her heart pounded and fragmentary images floated in her mind’s eye . . . The forest, the road, Froyke and the gypsy, Sasha and Grodno, old Lurie. But she wanted to disentangle all these images, because her hands were drawn to one figure, to Froyke.
Such round shoulders he had, part of his chest was exposed, covered in thick, black hair . . . And it seemed as though, at any moment, he would grab her by the hand and run away with her. And if he did not want to, she would grab him herself and run, run with him to the stream, to the Twin Pines and further still.
Suddenly she opened her eyes. She was surprised not to find Froyke by her side, but instead of Froyke, she saw Aunt Nikhe, sitting on her bed looking at her, watching her every movement. Old and bent, cranky and kind at the same time, she gazed at Tsilke with the look of another world. Tsilke was not surprised to see her staring at her . . .
Her aunt had every right to stare . . .
And Tsilke’s heart, pounding so fast, had every right to pound . . .
Both women stared at each other. Tsilke was the first to look away. She shook out her hair, and hid under the blanket.
The next morning Froyke’s sisters came by and Tsilke told them about the previous night’s sleigh-ride. The sleigh shook and the snow shattered like shards of clay. Then when she got home, her face stung from the cold and she slept like a baby.
Froyke’s sisters told the neighbors that Tsilke was happier and in better spirits, and in the town there were already insinuations that Froyke had fulfilled his conquest . . .
“And what will Grodno have to say about it?”
“Ah, the big-shots, you can never tell with them.”
In Mistebove there was no shortage of girls carrying out love affairs, but Tsilke and Froyke were the favored topic of discussion.
When paying visits to the Barashes, or to other neighbors, Tsilke herself had now become a little reserved, a little shy. People liked her and their curiosity about her knew no bounds . . .
“She’s different somehow . . .”
“Grew up in the woods.”
“But, Froyke . . .”
“When someone catches his eye . . .”
“Even the Luries’ millions won’t help . . .”
It was now Purim. Snow fell and snow melted. The sun would warm up half a rooftop, melting the snow, while the other half was still shrouded in white . . . Outside the town the waters were already beginning to flow, snow mingling with the softened earth. It was no longer possible for Tsilke to walk in the forest, it was hard to walk even in her father’s boots. A breeze would blow from the woodlands, bringing the scent of freshly cut wood, and the smell of last years leaves and pine-needles.
Ivan paid Nikhe a visit. He had been to St.Petersburg for several weeks where his son was serving in the army. He said it was very hard for him in the big city.
“There was a lot to see, but I was confused, so in the end I didn’t see anything. I’m a simple man, I need to see the sky several times a day; it stretches out so wide here over our road . . . The forest is a better place for the likes of me.”
Tsilke took up his last words:
“Exactly right, Ivan! The forest is better for people like us. When summer comes, I’m going to go with Froyke into what’s left of the woods . . .”
“With Froyke?” Ivan asked with wide-eyed curiosity.
Tsilke was embarrassed.
She had not yet had time to take stock of everything she’d been feeling these last days. The joy she felt when Froyke spoke. And now Ivan from the forest was asking out loud: With Froyke?
Ivan came closer and laughed in her face:
“With Froyke it is then. You’ll come to the forest and I’ll show you what a beautiful fox I caught; I have him in a cage.”
Then Ivan went to talk to Nikhe in the next room, about domestic things, like one of the family.
Iser did not come to Mistebove the next Shabbes. He told someone in Svislotsh that he would have to stay in the forest that week.
Froyke more than anyone was delighted to hear the news. A whole Shabbes without that hot-tempered mute, Iser!
Minding her own business, Aunt Nikhe said nothing, save for the occasional disapproving mumble, as Froyke sat next to Tsilke.
The aunt, he could handle, let her be as angry as she wanted.
It was Friday evening, after the blessing of the candles. The men were praying. Twice Tsilke asked Froyke why he had not gone to pray with the others. Froyke stood there calmly next to Ivan, warming himself by the stove and smiling:
“Praying? I’ll have plenty of time to pray when I’m old.”
The candles burned. A tranquility came in from the dark street outside. Tsilke stood next to the stove too . . . Aunt Nikhe was reading a siddur, firing evil looks at the pair every few minutes.
Froyke’s hand roamed by the warm stove, until it found one of Tsilke’s fingers . . .
Just one finger . . .
And he felt as though he had conquered the world, he had defeated a wealthy man, because Tsilke did not take her finger away. He squeezed it in his firm hand, played with it . . . And he felt as though the whole Tsilke—she who used to proudly reject his advances, who married another man before running away—that Tsilke was as subservient to him now as her little finger, which warmed itself in his hand.
Later, when Nikhe had disappeared for a moment next door, Froyke looked at Tsilke, and Tsilke looked at Froyke . . .
He took a step away from the stove, gently leading her. Instead of one finger he now held both her hands. He looked at her with burning eyes for a moment . . .
And they fell upon each other. He bit into her lip, and she closed her eyes from the pain. It felt as though a song rang out throughout the whole house, the whole world, and their hearts . . .
And afterwards she realized that Froyke was trying to say something to her, practically shouting:
“Write to him, tell him you want a divorce . . .”
The door opened. They heard footsteps—Aunt Nikhe had come back and Froyke met her in the doorway:
“I’m off to pray, Nikhe!”
The old woman glared in astonishment;
“So religious all of a sudden?”
Froyke was gone. Nikhe looked at Tsilke who stood lost in thought, with a half-smile on her lips. And when her aunt called out:
She trembled; the light shudder caused her hair to come undone, and it flowed over her shoulders like a stream of gold.