Feb 17, 2021
Froyke Barash’s father was a big shot in Mistebove; as starosta he was authorized to issue passports, and he also served as gabbai in the synagogue.
Froyke had no brothers. He was his father’s only son, but he had two younger sisters, who were friendly with Tsilke from the forest.
Froyke was already past twenty, his father had pulled some strings to get him out of military service, and had hoped to arrange a marriage for his first-born. A number of potential matches had already been lined up but Froyke derided the whole affair.
Froyke was the prince of Mistebove, and had his pick of the local girls, Jewish and Christian alike.
He was a handsome, tall young man with roguish eyes and a round face, without a care in the world.
He strode through his Mistebove and the surrounding hamlets in a pair of shiny boots. In summer he wore a dark embroidered shirt; and in winter, a long, fur-lined coat and a karakul hat.
The peasant women called him Panicz, young lord.
He was an accomplished rider, and could hold his drink.
He had his own circle of companions: the uriadnik, the municipal clerk, and sometimes even the bailiff himself in Volkovysk.
Froyke’s father gave him an allowance on top of which Froyke had income of his own: he called in favors to get people out of military service and for such services people were willing to pay handsomely.
He was on first-name terms with everyone and wasn’t afraid of anybody. He caused his father nothing but trouble. How many times had it happened that, in the wake of some scandal, his father would offer to send him away to the Americas where he had rich relatives? But Froyke only ever had one response:
“I’m happy enough where I am.” And with that he would head off with the municipal clerk and one or other of the Christian neighbors and go out drinking in Mistebove’s lone tavern. He ate crabs and sausages there . . . Everyone in town knew about it, they knew and sighed mournfully.
What a dreadful misfortune it is when a Jewish boy befriends such drunkards . . .
But he wasn’t a bad lad, and what’s more he was still young. Young people are not inherently bad, but on account of a whim, or an insult, he would not apologise, instead he would wait, biding his time.
Until the time came.
Until he was drunk.
Until he lost his temper, then it became clear that that nice boy would one day grow up to be a monster, a man quick to anger, capable of anything.
And that same Froyke had his eye on Tsilke from the forest.
She’d been a frequent visitor at their house for years, ever since she was a child.
Her father Iser was a good friend of Barash the Starosta, who in turn had a lot of respect for the Luries of Grodno who owned almost all the woods in the area.
Tsilke would pay them visits to pluck feathers and sing songs with Froyke’s sisters and other girls from the town, gathered in the prestigious Barash homestead.
But back then they had been children: Froyke, a spoiled child, and Tsilke a frightened forest girl. Now that Froyke had kissed all the girls in Mistebove—as he liked to brag—only Tsilke refused to give in to him.
Instinctively, she was frightened whenever he tried to approach her.
He would bare his white teeth, like an animal sure to pounce at any moment.
Tsilke intrigued him. She smelled of the forest, of youth; she stirred something inside him. He would take her by the hand, but she’d tear it away again with such haste that it left him standing there as if he’d been struck over the head with a log.
Tsilke did not yet understand why Froyke scared her; so without knowing why, she kept her distance from him.
Similar things happened to her in the woods. Sometimes farmers would pass through with long carts full of timber. They would stop beside the house to settle accounts with her father Iser, who would hand out receipts which they would later exchange for money.
Sometimes there would be among them a brazen young man who found the warden’s daughter so appealing that he could not help but try to touch her.
“Pashol!” She would cry out, often delivering a slap at the same time.
Why did they touch her? Why did they look at her with such intoxicated eyes?
For the longest time Tsilke did not understand.
She grew older and Sasha Lurie—or the “foreigner” as they called him in Grodno and Mistebove—appeared in the forest.
In Mistebove there were already rumors that Tsilke was having a love affair with the foreigner.
And Froyke Barash heard about it too.
It bothered him; he was upset that she hadn’t set foot in Mistebove all summer.
He went riding several times in the forest.
But he never encountered Lurie.
Tsilke was busy with Aunt Nikhe, washing clothes, polishing the copper utensils. Occasionally she would sit down by the stream to read books.
“Quite the young lady,” Froyke thought, feeling a strong urge to tease her.
Tsilke did her best to avoid him; he frightened her. Aunt Nikhe used to call him a “hoodlum.” She was particularly disappointed in him because back when Froyke was a child she thought he might grow up to be a good match for Tsilke. But in the end, he’d grown up to be a drunkard, a sausage-eater.
Froyke often came into the woods with his sisters. Tsilke would spend time with the Barash sisters, while avoiding Froyke.
He would bite his lips and contemplate revenge.
But on one occasion, he gazed deep down into his own soul and realized that he was afraid of her; he was afraid of Tsilke.
What could that mean?
He wasn’t afraid of his father, he laughed at the uriadnik and drank with the bailiff . . .
But here he was afraid of this nothing, this forest girl who ran around barefoot, polishing copper pans by the river; he was afraid of her?
He felt something else too, he felt that he was drawn to the forest, that Tsilke’s name awakened quite unfamiliar thoughts within him.
Shikses, girls, liquor, cards—there was no comparison; those were mundane, trivial parts of his life.
Tsilke on the other hand disturbed him; Tsilke was different.
Froyke came into the woods again, riding on a horse. There was a carriage next to Iser’s house. The horse was unharnessed, calmly chewing on some fresh clover.
The doors and windows of Iser’s place were open, but apart from the horse, there was no sign of any living soul. Froyke went inside. Bright, clean. A book of psalms lay on the table in a velvet bag, and on the walls hung several pictures of rabbis. In the kitchen, one whole wall was covered in hanging copper pans with yellow brass basins.
Froyke looked around but could not find anyone.
On one chair stood a shabby, gray men’s hat and a whip . . .
Nothing more. All was quiet. Flies droned mournfully. The forest sang through the window, the stream murmured along with it.
Froyke went outside, and scowled in the horse’s direction; at that moment he had a strong desire to give the horse a good kick.
He thought about it again and the blood rushed to his head with rage.
He leapt up . . .
And the Lurie’s black horse received Froyke’s boot in the belly. The horse jumped up, a clump of clover still in its mouth. A moment of doubt and the horse concluded it was not the intended target, and went back to nibbling at the fresh, juicy grass.
Froyke looked all around, into the woods, ears pricked, then he tore a branch off a tree and proceeded to pluck the pine-needles from the branch one by one, sucking the bitter sap from them before spitting them out.
He had already understood that Lurie’s son, the “foreigner” was there. It was his hat lying there on the stool; he was the one who’d unharnessed the horse.
And of course at this very moment he was off walking with Tsilke in the woods, deep in the woods.
His soul burned. Like an animal, Froyke wanted to crawl off on all fours into the forest and follow them, watch them.
In the meantime Nikhe arrived, returning from Mistebove where she’d gone to buy meat and vegetables.
“What are you doing here, Froyke?” She asked.
“I have a soft spot for your forest,” he said. “Where’s Iser? Where’s Tsilke? Whose horse is that?”
Nikhe answered reluctantly.
“Iser has gone to the Prudne forest. Tsilke . . . Who knows where she is; Lurie’s son came over and the two of them left together.”
Froyke heard her out and suddenly lunged towards Nikhe who was on her way inside with the basket of food.
“Listen to me, Nikhe . . .”
“What do you want?”
“Talk things over with Iser, I’m ready to give it all up, I’ll become religious, whatever you want, as long as Tsilke will be my wife, I want to marry Tsilke . . .”
Nikhe turned her back on him suddenly and spat.
“Get out of here! Go back to Mistebove and eat sausages!”
He felt suddenly ashamed that he’d made a fool of himself in the eyes of such an old woman.
And the woods around grew suspiciously silent. Many young, fledgeling birds, gifted their first song to that silence, but Froyke did not notice. He was angry and the horse he rode home on bore the brunt of his anger.
Back at home they no longer recognized him.
They thought he must be sick.
Froyke was quiet, Froyke was not up to his usual tricks.
Everyone was surprised.
But Tsilke did not spare Froyke a moment’s thought. She lived with the forest.
Like the forest . . . Sometimes she was silent, and the grayness of her eyes gave way to a deep cobalt. Her lips closed like a flower, and her aunt could scream at her till she was blue in the face to get back to work but Tsilke would give an angry little shrug and shake her head.
“What? You don’t want to work? You’re not going to lift a finger?”
The word stole out of her mouth, and not another syllable was heard from her.
Where was she spending time? In Prudne? At the road watchman’s? With Sasha? With whom?
Anywhere else her disappearance would have been cause for some concern. But there in the forest where she was born, where every corner was familiar to her, they were well used to her whims.
It often happened that they would be silent together, Tsilke and the forest. She strode through the trees, and the trees held back their music. The trees stretched up higher in the silence, a squirrel paused mid squeak.
What was Tsilke thinking about, and what was the forest thinking about. It was as though the silence were a necessity, a law of nature.
Even the stream did not babble as loudly that day, licking every stone, moving onwards and caressing the banks with its velvety wetness.
Tsilke looked up at the trees: why didn’t they see? Why couldn’t they speak? She saw them as creatures with souls, some of them looked like fathers and mothers, others looked like growing children, branches stretched from one tree to the next, like hands greeting each other, like hands that caress . . .
She lived in the forest and with the forest. A little further along from the house the stream ran deeper.
She went for a swim.
The area was silent. Not one person. No noise. Just a young woman bathing.
A beautiful, young, untouched wild flower of the forest.
And for a long time she did not know that Sasha had seen her naked, in the water, and on the riverbank.
He watched her for a long time.
In that moment he only hoped for one thing: he pleaded to God and to the forest that she would not notice him.
Because the truth was that she was terribly shy.
An hour went by in this way.
For a long time she did not know.
Later, when Sasha told her about it, she was offended, but he managed to console her and reconcile with her.
One fine morning Tsilke sprang up out of bed, pulled on a threadbare little dress, so loose it exposed her pale round shoulders.
She started to sing, for no reason, for herself, singing without stopping.
Aunt Nikhe was still asleep, her father was still asleep but Tsilke’s singing did not wake them up.
She had an idea: on the walls hung copper pans, brass basins . . . She grabbed a stick and started banging on the metal . . .
The sound rang out through the house and through the whole forest.
It sounded as if a carousing regiments of soldiers were attacking, erupting in song and dance.
“Ha ha ha,” she woke everyone up, opened the barn, drove out the two cows, and ran off into the forest.
The smell of warm dung poured out of the barn and mingled with the smell of the young pine branches.
She cast a glance in every direction and laughed silently, laughing only with her big bright eyes.
She was unconsciously joyous and ran back into the house.
Her aunt greeted her with reproachful words.
“You could have scared us to death with that banging of yours!”
Her father, standing by the window, was already laying tefillin.
How pale he was! His face reflected the hue of the forest and he looked matte and greenly pale.
Tsilke remembered that there were other trees in the forest, not just golden pines, but strong silent oaks, solid alders. They stood alone, as though ostracized by the other trees, as though they were lost.
And her father, praying by the window, reminded her of such lonely trees.
“Aunt Nikhe, what’ll we do today?”
Every day she wanted something to happen: the arrival of guests, or a trip to Mistebove. But Nikhe answered. “What’ll we do today? You don’t know? We’re going to peel potatoes and we’ll have them with butter.”
Tsilke remembered that she was indeed hungry, and so they sat down to breakfast.
Her father had finished praying. He was holding his trusty notebook, scribbling something down inside.
What did Tsilke care?
She went outside, she needed to test the forest.
If the cuckoo cried out an even number of times, that meant Sasha was not coming that day; if it was an odd number, then Sasha was coming. And so she waited . . .
Suddenly her heart stopped.
The cuckoo cried out . . .
. . . and fell silent.
Her heart beat impatiently and she went to her aunt to find some chores to do. She walked with joy.