Mar 18, 2021
Sasha arrived later that afternoon.
Tsilke did not know that he was already in the forest. She sat by the stream, a book in her hand.
A red patch of golden fire lay on the nearest tree, fire and tree together reflecting on the surface of the water. The stream rushed over the stones and pebbles, hastily murmuring an incomprehensible evening prayer.
And on the other side of the stream stood Sasha, his dark round face appearing matte pale in the shadows of the trees. He hid behind the foliage, his gaze lingering on Tsilke’s movements.
His eyes were serious, his lips closed tightly, and it was hard to tell if he was enchanted by Tsilke or if he sought to discern the nature of her character, to get to the bottom of her secrets.
He watched and pondered: Why had she surprised him so, this forest girl? Why had he run away from the city, where everything now bored him?
Why had he postponed his trip abroad for her?
A shudder went through her; the book fell from her hand. She lifted her eyes, spotted Sasha and laughed. It took a moment before she caught herself and thought to cover her bare legs with her dress.
And Sasha thought.
So wild, wild, and yet she is bashful.
She greeted him with a joyful burst of laughter.
At first the laughter reverberated strangely in the evening forest, where all the sounds had hidden themselves in little nests, when the shadows of the trees had merged into one pleasant whole.
A part of the forest was filled with her laughter.
Something came to life and started rolling from far off, a second later and her echo arrived.
From the house a cry rang out:
“What are you laughing at Tsilke? Why are you laughing like that?”
It was her aunt Nikhe who was preparing food.
“Sasha is here!” replied Tsilke happily.
And Sasha strode across the log which served as a bridge over the stream and sat down beside Tsilke.
“You see? I came.”
“I wrote to you, did you get my letter?”
“No! Not yet, but I came anyway. I was drawn here, drawn here as if under a spell.”
At the same time he looked around, observing the forest around him. Green reflecting upon green. Some pines had straight branches, while others had strangely twisted branches. The muted tapping of a woodpecker reached them from afar, and a drowsy clarity radiated through every branch.
Calm . . .
Tsilke picked up a branch of fresh green needles, intermitantly removing a needle from the branch and playfully throwing it into the water. The thin needles lay still for a moment on the surface of the water until the current snatched them up. But she soon grew bored and it bothered her, too, that Sasha had been pensive for so long.
And then . . .
A shower of cold water landed in Sasha’s face; Tsilke had walloped a pine branch across the surface of the stream. Sasha stopped looking through the trees into the clear distance. He felt an urge to grab the branch from her and in their struggle his lips touched against Tsilke’s bare shoulder and he stayed like that for a second, fused to her until she stared at him:
“What was that?”
“What for?” asked Tsilke, her eyes filled, down to their very depths, laughter.
Sasha laughed too, a playful, youthful laughter that did not fit his temperament: Sasha who would walk at a funereal pace and, regarding everything with the same apathetic detachment.
And just try explaining to the naive forest girl what a fellow like Sasha was laughing at: he’d kissed so many women in his life and not one of them had ever thought to ask: “What for?”
“You don’t want to be kissed?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” she answered, abashed.
The forest, the stream, and Sasha Lurie from Grodno all saw and understood that she did not herself know why she was ashamed by that “yes and no” of hers.
Under the canopy, the stream flowed, taking with it so many green shadows from the pines together with the beating of two hearts. The trees were so tall and the humans were so tiny next to them.
Sasha had respect for the big old forest and in its shadows he started to think about things he had not contemplated in a long time.
He, who had so long believed that the world belonged to him began to feel that he was superfluous . . . only . . .
Tsilke could take no more. She began to shake him by the shoulders, scolding him:
“Don’t you be lost in thought too, you hear me? The forest is silent, my aunt is silent, my father is silent, and you want to be silent too?”
“No, I’m just thinking a little, it’s so peaceful here.”
“What are you thinking about? About that city of yours? Who are you thinking about? What are you thinking about?” She didn’t give him a moment of peace.
And as he continued thinking, she grew angry with him and grabbed the gray hat which was lying next to them like a relic of the olden days and she cast it into the stream.
She laughed and clapped her hands.
The hat landed right-side-up on the surface of the stream. Taking in no water, it slowly slowly began to drift away.
Sasha stood up, wanting to save his “talisman,” as his mother sometimes called his gray hat. Tsilke barred his path.
The hat swam and they followed along from the river bank.
Tsilke was barefoot and could easily have waded in to save the hat, but she wanted to tease Sasha, who could not bear to be separated from such an old hat.
The stream led them a little further into the forest, but the hat was taking on more and more water and had begun to sink. Tsilke then dashed into the water, barefoot, with legs exposed, and came back holding the gray hat.
She forced Sasha to put it on like that, drenched in water. His protests fell on deaf ears. She laughed as cold water dripped around his shoulders. Her task completed, she was content.
“If I let her get away with this,” thought Sasha, “she’ll walk all over me.” And in his heart he was glad that such childish pranks amused him too and he was truly happy that he’d managed to forget about the city and everything else.
Repeatedly she turned to look at him, as though trying to learn something she did not yet know, and as her gray-blue eyes gazed into his, it felt to him as though the sun were gazing into the forest, into every shadowy corner, and he felt like singing and playing . . .
Suddenly they heard footsteps and voices.
They looked up and saw a whole horde of farmers approaching with saws and hatchets. Some were barefoot, others wore sandals, they were speaking and looking at the ground.
Sasha regarded them with curiosity and Tsilke explained who they were:
“They’re lumberjacks; they’re cutting down a section of forest just beyond. They’re on their way to work.”
And in that moment Sasha wished that his father did not deal with forests and that they would not cut them down.
It’s good in the forest; the forest is the only environment that produces creatures such as Tsilke. And where could he relax that was as pleasant and peaceful as here?
“Father often tells me that our forest, too, will one day be sold and cut down. But I find it hard to believe.”
“It’s certainly hard to believe,” Sasha answered. “What would happen to all the squirrels? And what would happen to Tsilke?”
Hearing the word “squirrel” she apruply launched herself onto a nearby tree and deftly clambered upward. Quickly reaching quite a height she then, just as suddenly, jumped back down with a laugh.
Sasha stood there astonished. Charmed by her agility.
Her face laughed with childlike mischief. She had no wish to stand still for even a moment; she wanted to run and Sasha would have to run after her.
They chased each other, but Tsilke was faster and Sasha tired easily.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Sasha! For shame!”
Suddenly he realized with joy that with each passing day he was forgetting himself more and more, that he was no longer “him.”
He thought about how he’d been so serious, too serious, too skeptical about all the joys that life could offer, and now here he was enthralled with such an adolescent affair.
Running through the forest after a barefoot girl, chasing her, the forest warden’s daughter.
Running like a headless chicken, without thinking. What was this? What was happening to him?
What was it about this place? He felt safe here, the feeling of being in the protection of a mother, or the most loyal of friends; every word that he spoke came from a soul at peace. He stretched out on the ground beneath the trees looking at the stream and the tangle of branches, looking at Tsilke, he felt good.
Suddenly Tsilke interrupted the silence.
“Aunt Nikhe laughs at me. She says that you have prettier girls than me in the city and she says that you’ll never marry me.”
Marry? Where did she get the idea that he’d marry her?
Then Sasha remembered that he’d once told her that, if he wanted to, he would marry her without asking anyone’s permission.
Yes. He’d forgotten about that. But he did not feel like discussing such things now.
“No, Tsilke, there are no girls better than you. You . . . you.” He could not find the right words and Tsilke came to his aid by laughing again.
Now Aunt Nikhe was coming out, she regarded them with mild reproach; Sasha’s visit made her nervous.
The girl had no mother, and she needed looking after. Nikhe grumbled something and headed back into the house.
“Is your aunt angry?” asked Sasha.
“She’s a good person; but when you come she’s different.”
Night had fallen in the meantime. The dark forest had become a wall and only the stream made a sound. Now it spoke of everything that had happened throughout the day—of squirrels squeaking and jumping, of far off trees that had been cut down, and of Tsilke yearning all day . . .
“It seems to me,” said Tsilke, “that I’ll never find a place for myself. People scare me, while here in the forest I sometimes get so sad, so lonely. My father is so silent, and Aunt Nikhe is getting older and older. There’s no-one to talk to.”
Smoking one cigarette after another, Sasha listened to her in silence.
“Tsilke, what would you like more than anything else in the world?” he asked.
“I don’t know. At night I don’t know what I want. At night when the forest is asleep, I feel lonely. During the day I don’t think about anything at all.
“I want you to always laugh, I want you to always be carefree.”
Just then, Nikhe appeared to call them to dinner. Bright light poured out from the large wooden cabin. Tsilke dashed inside ahead of the others and started singing.
Sasha joined in, but Aunt Nikhe shot angry flames at them both.
That night she did not sleep a wink, because Tsilke and Sasha sat together by the stream until dawn.
What did they talk about? And what didn’t they talk about, during those long hours of darkness?
Sasha did most of the talking. He now knew how to get through to Tsilke’s soul in such a way that she would understand him. Sometimes he went too far, he would get carried away speaking about people, about long gone times, often denouncing the whole world. But for Tsilke he wanted to open up his soul and to do so he told her things he did not believe.
She listened and allowed him to speak about “other things.” Slowly but surely she began to understand something of these “other things” and she asked him many questions, filling him with joy to the point of laughter.
One thing charmed Sasha Lurie: she, the daughter of the quiet Jew, Iser; she, the forest girl, who lived here so close to nature, with nature—she still knew nothing.
She did not know why he showered her with kisses, why the touch of her hand was so dear to him when he held it in his own, why he was so enchanted by every inch of her uncovered body.
She didn’t know?
Or maybe she knew perfectly well, and it was nothing but a woman’s game, a ruse, in order to trap him.
No, from all their talks, and from all that he’d observed, Sasha came to the conclusion that she was genuinely naive, naive to the point of childish innocence . . .
One thing she did feel: her blood was ripe and it ached for something that caused her to redden with shame. But it was all unconscious, so incomprehensible, and . . .
Sasha sat with her by the stream the whole night. Tsilke took a blanket out from the house and spread it on the ground. She jumped down beside Sasha, snuggling up next to him with a childlike trust and said nothing. Later she interrupted the silence:
“My father hasn’t been home in over a week.”
She said this to herself, to the forest, to the stream, but not to Sasha who had begun to harbor strange thoughts; he had grown so introspective in the forest. The silence had a strong effect on him and more than once found himself reevaluating all his principles. In his thoughts he battled with the world, which demanded something of him and from which he demanded even more. Suddenly he became aware that beside him, practically on top of his heart, a second heart was beating.
Tsilke slept and he who had already met and parted ways with so many women, he calmly watched over her sleep, and that moment was dear to him.
Perhaps it was the effect of the night, which, here in the forest, wore its blackest garbs.
Back at the house, Aunt Nikhe slept all alone. She tossed and turned her gray head many times in fitful unrest. Sasha Lurie had crept into the forest like a wicked wolf.
But what can one old woman do? No one, not even the night itself heeded her sighs—it was already on the move.
The obscurity behind the trees began to lighten and the stream appeared like a long illuminated path, rushing and drawing itself towards the morning.
Ivan the road watchman arrived to ask Sasha if he would be going back to the city soon, because he needed to know. He needed to harness the horse. And Sasha remembered that he had a horse and carriage, and that he did indeed need to be in the city that day.
Tsilke woke up and, hearing that Sasha was going away, she grew sad.
“Don’t go, Sasha. The days are so endless when you’re not here. Don’t go,” she implored him. This bothered Sasha. He resented the fact that, though he did indeed have business to attend to in the city, he was not indifferent to her pleading. He hesitated and, losing something of his equilibrium, felt an unconscious irritation.
But he composed himself and countered with a promise:
“I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon and then I’ll stay for a few days.”
She accompanied him as far as the road watchman’s hut. It was still quite early but the forest was bright enough and the morning sun, along with a light breeze tugged at the last of the dew drops. The woods smelled of freshly sprouted shoots. A colorful butterfly fluttered through the trees, appearing and disappearing again.
Once, Tsilke would have chased such a butterfly, running after it into the depths of the forest. Now she stood and watched as Sasha’s carriage departed along the white road. Sasha turned around, his large eyes smiling, and waved.
Tsilke went home saddened, and not saddened; happy, and not happy. The forest sang so heartily, everything was so bright. How could one be sad on such a new morning? But Sasha had gone away and she would wait for him until the next afternoon and Aunt Nikhe would spend the whole time glancing at her with silent reproach, and if her father came he too would say nothing . . . how could one be happy?
She went into the house. Nikhe had gone to Mistebove to buy food. The morning sun flooded the room, causing the copper pots to glisten. The beds had been stripped of their bedding, as though the place had been long abandoned. A few lazy flies buzzed . . . Tsilke felt bored and restless . . .
The world was still. The forest was still.
And in the stillness Tsilke heard the stream bubbling and calling. She remembered that she had not yet washed today and so, grabbing soap and a towel, she made her way to the water.
First she had a good look at her reflection in the water and when she’d had enough she stuck her tongue out at her own image and the gesture lifted her spirits. She kicked her legs against the current as though she wanted the stream to reverse its flow just for her, she would have liked to speak to the water, to the trees—she was alone there, alone . . .
Then she uncovered her neck and began scooping large handfuls of water and splashed it over herself like a duck again and again . . . and so when Aunt Nikhe—on her way back from Mistebove—saw her she could not help but laugh . . .
Nikhe laughed and Tsilke was glad; as long as Nikhe did not scowl at her it was going to be a good day.
The day and the night passed peacefully, with work, with singing and with sleep. Tsilke waited for Sasha to return while Aunt Nikhe was glad that Sasha had gone away.
Meanwhile Sasha was already on his way back to the forest.
He came by himself on his carriage. He’d bought several books with him, with the intention of getting some work done.
He was glad that he’d kept his word and that Tsilke would be happy to see him.
He thought about how good it was to have someone who missed him and was waiting for him. The road stretched on, level and smooth, with the forest on either side. When the horse felt like it, it ran faster, if it wanted to it slowed its pace. Sasha Lurie was not in any hurry. Neither the forest nor Tsilke were going anywhere. He thought quite calmly.
Was she one of his people?
He had a theory about people, dividing them up into two categories: his people and not his people.
His people were those whose souls possessed lyrical cords which resonated on a similar frequency to his own, who could always be relied upon to create new sounds, unexpected gestures, trembles, and agitation; people not entirely laid bare, not fully-rounded, not fully-formed. Those who don’t tell all and don’t give everything away. They were rich, such people, rich even in poverty—people with music in their souls. When a person’s soul is in tune you can play any melody on it, you can get any sound out of its cords, and there is always some music left inside them, which remains unplayed, which you did not manage to get out.
Everyone else, those who were “not his” people, he called “boxes,” closed on all sides, four-sided, finished coffins.
Sasha steered clear such people.
Tsilke’s soul was unmistakably attuned to his, its chords almost all of them untouched.
When she grows a little more acquainted with life, when she feels what passion is, it will ignite like a wildfire . . .
As Sasha was thinking this something happened to him that he would never have contemplated.
Three farmers appeared out of the forest, barefoot, wielding sticks. They rushed toward his horse, blocking his path. With all their might, they began beating Sasha with their sticks, and with their hands. It was all so unexpected Sasha did not even manage to ask why, he jumped down from his carriage and for his attackers that was better still: now they could really get at him with their sticks.
Quickly and adeptly they beat him before running back into the forest.
Sasha stood there for several minutes, bewildered. His head was bleeding, the back of his neck and his arms were in pain. He wanted to be calm and he remained calm, but he could not understand . . . What exactly had just happened?
Perhaps it was a dream? No, his head was in agony and he felt sick to his stomach. For the first time in his life he had received a beating. He felt deeply ashamed before the quiet woods, the sky, and his horse which had witnessed the whole scene.
But why? Why had strangers attacked him?
He did not lose his composure; he went over to the tiny stream that ran in the ditch alongside the road, washed his head and stood still for a moment.
Tsilke was still waiting for him, she was overjoyed and then shocked when she noticed the bloodstains on his clothes.
Sasha laughingly told her about the ambush on the road. Aunt Nikhe came out and overheard the whole thing. She ran into the house to fetch water and clothes, and they bandaged Sasha’s head.
“But who and why?”
Tsilke thought for a moment and suddenly let out a cry
“It was Froyke’s doing . . . Froyke’s handiwork!”
“Who is this Froyke?” Sasha urged.
And Tsilke started to tell him about Mistebove, about the long winter nights plucking feathers, about Froyke and the girls he used to kiss. The whole childish story of her’s floated before Sasha’s eyes as she told it.
She continued speaking, seeming to forget all about what had happened and the fact that Sasha had been injured. Sasha himself forgot what had happened to him on the road, so vivid and alive was her story, describing summer after summer, winter after winter. Days and years swam past and into those days wandered a certain Froyke with shiny boots, a fellow who kissed all the girls and got drunk with the bailiff, a Froyke whom everyone in the area was afraid of. And now it seemed that this Froyke was the one who had sent three farmers to break Sasha’s bones all because Tsilke wouldn’t let Froyke kiss her?
“And why didn’t you let him kiss you if all the other girls let him?”
Tsilke fell silent and hung her head.
That same evening Iser returned to the forest and stayed for several days.
In the morning old man Lurie arrived with some merchants. The forest bustled with people from the city. Aunt Nikhe and Tsilke were working.
Sasha wandered by himself, reading books. The woods relaxed him, but his mind often returned to the beating he’d received.
The thought of it would not allow him to rest and he managed to talk himself into a little mission: he set off for Mistebove.
On the way he though back to the boxing moves he’d once learned from a friend in the mountains.
“You hit your opponent with your right hand, and you defend yourself with your left; you’re allowed to hit anywhere except below the belt; if your opponent has glasses you can’t punch him in the face . . .”
It would be a shame if this Froyke fellow wore glasses. No, a playboy like that wouldn’t wear glasses. People who wear glasses are cold blooded . . .
Sasha walked and thought:
People have hands and sometimes they have to use them.
Once he reached Mistebove he called on Froyke.
No glasses, he remarked.
“I am Alexander Lurie,” he introduced himself, “from Grodno, Sasha Lurie. My father owns forests here. He’s just now bought a new forest in Svislotsh, we need someone . . .”
Froyke glared at him askance and strode toward him.
“What do you want from me?”
“I’ve heard that you’re without work, perhaps you’d like to fill the position . . .”
“Me, in the forest?” Froyke said, surprised.
Sasha walked with him ever further away from his house and closer toward the field, which had been his intention: to lead him out into an open space.
And once in the field . . .
Sasha wasted no time.
“A week ago, as I was riding through the forest, I was attacked and beaten by three farmers. Nobody knows me here, I haven’t done anyone around here any harm, yet there is a suspicion that it was you who put them up to it . . .”
Froyke bit his lip and said nothing.
His silence deflated Sasha’s anger. A silent person feels regret and that is disarming. Sasha sprang forward and grabbed him by the hand.
“You admit it, do you? You were the one who . . . ”
But Froyke jerked his hand away and prepared to fight.
A moment passed . . .
And Sasha’s fists began showering Froyke’s face and body with punches. He was the attacker, on the offensive, though Froyke launched himself into the fray with all his force. They fought without any method, kicking, punching, biting . . .
Sasha—the bearlike, plump young man—was the winner. He lay on top of Froyke and just waited for him to surrender, and if he so much as moved, Sasha treated him to another shower of punches.
Afterward Sasha picked himself up. Froyke was left lying on the ground, covered in bruises. Their scuffle had disturbed a patch of the earth around them. Sasha spoke angrily and agitated:
“Setting three people with sticks on someone, three against one, that’s the lowest of the low, and now you’ve paid for it . . .”
Froyke was silent. The whole thing was so unexpected and he’d suffered a good beating. He was silent, guilty and afraid, and Sasha started to leave and went off relieved towards the forest where he did not say a word about what had just happened.
That same evening Iser left again. Nikhe was once again deeply unsettled while Tsilke and Sasha lit a campfire in the forest and sat looking into the flames. Later the forest watchman came by and reprimanded them for lighting a fire in the woods. But when he saw that it was Lurie’s son he took off his hat, sat down with them, and spoke about forests, about aristocrats, and about hunting . . .
And as he spoke, the watchman himself threw some dried twigs onto the fire.