The Burial-Attendant’s Wife


Photo: Zalmen Reyzen

The Burial Attendant's Wife

By Rokhl Brokhes

Translated from Yiddish by Joseph Reisberg


The scrubbed samovar was set on the small table with the drinking glasses; the house was swept already, and cleaned and tidied all around. She had finished praying a moment before, had just stood through the eighteen blessings. As she thanked God, her tears praised his benevolence, his great mercy with her, sinful woman.
“Master of the Universe, thank you for everything!”
Her eyes are meek, satisfied; from them shines a soft, luminous fire. She looks outside.
To her left she can see a crooked alleyway rising up a hill, and small houses standing atop one another, like steps on a staircase — standing and leaning and bending as if bowed at the knee. She sees the new and old roofs, the mossy roofs and broken roofs, their deformed chimneys made of tin or clay. From others, blue smoke rises to the hilltop.
To her right, in a valley, she sees a fence and a large yard of neighbors going here and there, from one little house to the next. There’s that coarse woman in the red dress walking past her small white gate for the third time today. There’s the short young wife with her child in her arms appearing in her window again. A farmer drives a wagon with wood. Little children are playing by the shed. “Oh, good health to the little children! My Altinker will have someone to play with.”
“Thank you, God, for everything!” she whispers and sits down to drink some tea.
“Altinker, Altinker, wake up, comfort of mine,” she calls to the curtains around his bed.
“Altinker, your tea is getting cold, wake up, my son!”
No answer comes from behind the curtains.
She can’t keep her eyes off the window.
“Here are people,” she whispers. “Thank you, God, who lives among people, like everybody else.” She turns in every direction, to every nook and cranny — this whole apartment for forty rubles a year, an apartment. “A kingdom, Master of the Universe, good health and livelihood.”
She sighs deeply. She always sighs at that word “livelihood”. Everybody relies on it, they need a livelihood. She needs one too, but… should she beg?
“Master of the Universe, everything is in your domain. Nothing can be done without your holy will. You inscribe it as our fate.” This is how she answers herself, how she makes sense of it.
And the Master of the Universe knows the sum of her thoughts entirely, that she is nothing more than a sinful woman of flesh and blood.
“But now I tell you — enough! I’ve already atoned for my sins, few as thev are. Now I’m just like the rest of them, like everybody else.”
Her eyes fill with tears. Deep wrinkles crease her pale forehead, and her small weary body bows over and contorts. Then the heavy stones start falling away from her heart, they fall and fall as if clearing an empty place inside of her that can breathe freely and easily.
“Thank you, kindly father…”
She remembers the discussion with her husband: “Leyzhe, whatever happens, I don’t have any more strength. I’m ruined, I can’t bear it anymore. I want another house, if God will give it to me. I want another street — among people, like everybody else.”
Leyzhe, the macho man, if he even bothered to reply, would say that the graveyard is a cozy business for him, and that the dead are nothing but good intercessors in heaven for him and his wife and child, as he is very fond of saying. 
“You’re a woman, a foolish woman, and nothing more,” he said to her. “Go on, tell me, what are you scared of? What are they going to do to you? This is our livelihood, after all.”
Because of that phrase, “our livelihood”, and because of the calmness with which he spoke about the dead, she started to tremble like someone had just struck her in the heart.
“Would you look at Heshe, the gravedigger’s wife? A woman — a Cossack!  A tongue! What fear? Whose fear? Don’t carry on like this.” So Leyzhe reproached her.
And she kept silent.
Leyzhe told her that she was sinning: “What are you complaining about? What else could you want? The Master of the Universe provides for you, you live like a princess with meat and fish every Shabbos and delicious pastries for dessert — and, like a rich housewife, you have an allowance. Why do you sin?”
She kept silent, she knew that she sinned. A d she knows that she sins with these: with the meat and the fish, with the favorite dishes, with every ruble that Leyzhe has collected, written in his designated booklet at the bank.
She feels that she would rather have gone penniless, she would have endured it. If Leyzhe had no livelihood, there would not be such stones upon her heart. These heavy thoughts would not have split her mind, and God would not have punished her.
“My son, Altinker! Get up, my little soul, it’s nine o’clock. Time for a bite to eat.”
She still receives no answer. 
She tries to chase it all away from her mind. She will make herself happy. She feels like doing all her handiwork, she feels like doing a dance, just like a small young girl, dancing and singing like long ago, in her youth. “No more girlish years. Once the world was mine, I could not feel the earth under my feet,” she says to herself. “Where did that go? When I married Leyzhe, I was still a choice young wife, and now… All my troubles.”
Another heart-rending sigh. Just like someone was sitting within her and furtively tugging at her heartstrings all the time. It seems all is well: she has prospered — an apartment-kingdom — and what is lacking? Leyzhe is right to tell her that she sins, but she can’t stand his frequent reminders.. She knows it herself. She knows that she alone has been punished for her sins. “Enough already, Master of the Universe, enough!”
And she is startled by her own outcry, as she knows she should be, as this is what must follow such an uproar.
“Altinker, Altinker, come on, get up. It’s already  ten o’clock, your tea is cold as ice.”
She grabs the glasses,clinks with the teaspoons. “Let’s be civil now. Let’s live like people live.  Altinker, you see, children are playing outside, good little friends. Just please get up.  Good God, thank you for everything!”
She can lead her child among the other children here. A sense of victory overflows her heart. She has accomplished something, she has moved walls with her weak strength. It seems that she has been running for a long time, holding her only child pressed close to her breast, as she ran with him over fields and forests, running as though they were being chased by all sorts of wicked creatures, running all through the day and night, and she came here at last, to a place where people dwell. She can finally stop and rest, her breath settling, her dear child is out of danger…
She will lead her child among the children. He will play, he will make friends…
And again that sneaky sigh: Master of the Universe, I should not sin with my thoughts, you should not punish me for my sins. You should pardon me. Me and my husband and my child…
But the idea occurs to her again, mixes her up, throws her off balance. She wants to snatch her dear child from his bedroom and run and run to a distant place — run far away, to the ends of the earth.
“Sinful woman, foolish woman,” Leyzhe would tell her, “don’t you know that God is everywhere, in every hidden place — that there is nowhere in the whole world  to hide yourself from him?”
And she knows that there isn’t. She knows and she sins, knowing, and gets no repose, and her world is narrow. She knows that God has already punished her — he gave her Altinker, a weakling, a sickling, overprotected…
“Won’t you look at the gravedigger’s children?” Leyzhe jabs her. “I tell you: each one is healthier than the other. In this house the kid takes after his mother.”
But nobody will dissuade her. She feels that she sins, and Leyzhe sins too. She feels that a punishment is coming to them. And she knows that the Master of the Universe settles his debts.
“Imbecile, dumbhead,” said Leyzhe. “According to your speculations, there shouldn’t be any gravediggers, attendants, and no burial society at all. Death shouldn’t exist. So what will the Angel of Death do then? Huh, stupid wife?”
“Then explain how your daughter died.”
“Oh, imbecile, imbecile. Tsire died because she had the consumption. You forgot that, fruit of Adam!”
“But why did she get consumption?”
“Why? Why! You don’t question the Master of the Universe, do you understand?”
Though she already knows the pretext herself. Tsire, his daughter from his first wife, died and was not remembered — a punishment on her father, precisely because of her father — a young woman of twenty-five years!  So what is he doing engaged in such a living?
And she wants to run, run far away… but it seems that here if one runs, one is chased, one is caught. They snatch away what is most precious in the whole world.
“Master of the Universe, what is my child guilty — that his father is a burial-attendant?”
“Mama, look, there goes my papa, he passed by there” she recalls her child’s words —  “Look, mama, there he goes through the graveyard gates.”
And she tried to deny this, to deceive him, but indeed she knew: Leyzhe passed by with a dead baby in his inner coat pocket.
“Altinker, sweetie, don’t look there.” She shooed him away from the window. “What will you see there?”
“Mama, a funeral! There’s another funeral! There goes my papa with the charity box,” her child told her again.
“Get away from the window, sweetie! You shouldn’t…”
But her child stealthily did it often, searching for a sky, and any sort of people… and she didn’t want him to be seen, she wanted to hide him. She didn’t want him to meet with  people, when they had just had a loved, cherished soul taken from them. She didn’t want anyone to know that Leyzhe the burial-attendant had a child — an only child: small, a weakling, barely brought into the world.
Whenever he was called away to the corpse of an old person who had lived out their years, she could endure it; but if it happened to be a small, innocent child, it seemed that all the people of the world were her enemies, and at those times she couldn’t look directly at Leyzhe’s face. It seemed that he had just come back from a robbery, or from performing some evil deed. God had already punished her: he’d given her a child, one barely-born, an Altinker for the old folks.
But this is all past… this is already gone! Now she has successfully broken away from the graveyard road, from funerals. Now her child’s cheeks will redden, a glimmer will come into his little eyes, now her child will be happy, will play with other children…
Oh, how Leyzhe does not understand this! A male — but an idiot, all the same.
It is a cold day in Elul.
At dawn there was some light and warmth, an altogether different sort of comfort, a benignness, but soon after noontime, exactly as before, the whole day seemed to tumble down: it turned cold, lonesome, and pitifully forlorn.
The mother looks through the window. She looks at her child and feels great pride.
Little children sit there by the fence: youngsters, nice youngsters. A girl in a little red dress also sits beside them, and they play. They build things out of pebbles and from planks of wood. Children, good health to them, the pride of their mothers and fathers. And Altinker is with them too, there’s her precious only child: a tiny little thing, thin, with blue eyes and wide-legged pants, a short jacket. “Oh, my comfort,” whispers the joyful mother.
What else does she need? “Thank you, God, that you answer me, that you help me, despite my deeds…”
Her child has come to life — who doesn’t see it? Only two days, and it’s like he’s grown up with them! It’s clear even from far away, like it’s nothing, just like that. She feels ashamed of this a little, although she is joyful and her heart is more generous and free. This is what I wanted!
She has a lot of work to do, but she’s drawn to the window — it’s something she cannot give up. But something still overturns her, yanks at her heartstrings — she is still not accustomed to all these people. Children outside may roughhouse and punch, as is their nature. But she should keep her thoughts at a distance, keep her self-control. Here, through the windowpane, it is already better, already good…
She needs to pound a nail into the wall here. She will hang up some fabric right over there. She contemplates buying a tablecloth, as is today’s fashion, something to complete her home furnishings. She will spruce the place up, tidy it, as though it’s a holiday everywhere — as though all the corners of the room celebrate with her, filled with joy.
“Oh, thank you, God. Living souls live through it all.” The living… She recalls a living person, she recalls the dead. How many dead. Then a frost runs all over her body.
“Oh, so what!” She thinks about what Leyzhe said. “As far as I care, it’s all the same. My street is familiar to me, I’m accustomed to it. My job... And what’s here? Nothing but eyes. Wherever I stick my nose, eyes and more eyes…”
She does not submit herself to lengthy conversations with him: the old speeches sit in her bones. She will not disturb her new life with them.
And last night, getting Altinker ready for bed, she patted him, searching for something. She imagined that he has become healthier, stronger, and happier, and she felt a great joy.
An apartment! A Garden of Eden! When she went to bed last night, she could not feel her bones from vitality, from delight. A bedroom, a palace, the bed just like anyone else’s, the bedsheets like new, fit for a bride — soft and lovely to lay your head on, and the air so much more comfortable and fresh. She did not indulge herself to fall asleep.
“Leyzhe!” She woke him up. “You hear, Leyzhe? A person only needs…”
“Why aren’t you asleep! What’s wrong with you now?” he interrupted her.
And go talk to him… Explain to him that she’s not asleep because she can’t get her head around it all.
And she remembers her fifteen years of nights in a row without sleep. “A trifle! I really could have lost my mind!” She trembles, remembering certain long, difficult nights with certain thoughts. God, the father!
She remembers a night when she remembered her wedding, the first one, when she was young, twenty years ago, when she stood under the wedding-canopy. A beautiful girl and him a fine young man, handsome. It was a summer evening and the canopy stood in the  yard of the shul under a cloudless blue sky. And she had wept and prayed until her heart was filled with goodness…
She recalled the letter announcing his death that came half a year later. And as she remembered this, she looked at her sleeping Leyzhe and recognized the burial-attendant — perhaps the same one who had performed the burial rites for her dead Mordkhe. Maybe the same one who had washed him, put on his shrouds, and lowered him into his grave.
From this, she became crazed. Leyzhe’s face became loathsome. She could not bear his snoring, she could not stand being in their little house, she was driven away from that place. She readied herself to run away — from the dead bodies, from the graveyard, from the burial-attendant.
The Master of the Universe alone knows her thoughts, she cannot keep anything from him. He knows what she hides in her thoughts. Once, in one of those long nights without sleep, she suddenly felt the urge to remember Mordkhe’s voice, the same voice she used to hear studying from behind her bedroom wall soon after their wedding. But she had forgotten the sound of him, so sorrow had overtaken her heart.  And suddenly she heard, just like someone murmuring over her, bending low over her,  caressing her with a warm, even hand, and whispering a secret in the stillness to her: “Tsipkele, I love you very much. To me you are a beauty and a sage.” At that moment she startled awake — that was Mordkhe’s voice, benevolent, loyal…
Some more nights like this passed. And one morning, upon waking, she knew that she had sinned. She had had thoughts unfaithful to Leyzhe. She knew that a decent woman was not permitted to do this.
“Altinker! Altinker! Where are you, my consolation?” Only at that moment did she remember he was playing outside. She was weeping in her empty apartment, calling for him, so she could hear a voice, a living voice.
“I will make a velvet suit for him, buy him a hat. He will shine because of me, my dear child. I’ll take him out like ordinary folks. I’ll go on a stroll with him. God willing, this winter will be time for him to go to kheyder. I will ask the neighbors here who are the good teachers. I’ll spend a fortune on money for the rabbi. Leyzhe has nothing over me.  I owe him nothing.” 
But she remembers what she owns, she remembers everything, and that the toll of her possessions is the toll of her sin.
“You’re upset, you’re bothered that there’s an extra penny? You won’t let it live!” Leyzhe attacked her yesterday when she said that she was thinking a bit about getting some new clothes for Altinker. “Madness!” said Leyzhe. “ She would pour it out in the middle of the street if I let her. What does it concern you that there’s a couple of rubles?”
“Really I should just pour it out in the street,” she answered. “Seems like it would be better to give it right back, give it all back! Down to the very last shirt here.” How easy that would be, how lovely and good. This is how she would answer him, but — so what! She  doesn’t want to make herself ugly.
And he is right: she won’t rest about those rubles, which lie and collect, one after another in his box. Every penny, every grosz is accursed, unlucky, lamentable.
She tears herself away from there.
She goes to the dresser, searching for her quilts and kerchiefs. She will cover the window — the time has come for her to beautify her home. All her valuables, the hidden and the good,  offer themselves.
There, in that other house, her hands were quite unoccupied. There was a day when she did not sweep the house — the broom fell from her hand. Why should she clean? Who would come visit her from the graveyard? Before whom would she be embarrassed? But here, she will live like everyone else; here she will show everybody! Here Leyzhe will stop lecturing her, he will see what a skillful housewife she is. She will wash, she will iron, she will  prettify hers home. It will be a life…
Neighbors will see her here. They will come to her, they will sit, and visit, as people do.
She’ll only be idle if she stays inside. She must go outdoors. Yesterday those neighbors were sitting on the bench and chatting — yesterday was warm weather! The neighbor from the opposite window is clearly a young wife with a tongue! Laughter from the yard rises. And the young woman with the child in her arms is clearly very joyful, and a beauty! And the old one with the glasses on her nose — she is an earnest woman, somewhat angry. They pointed there to me, at my window.
She starts to spin around, searching, in a hurry. She has a load of work to do! She needs to stretch the handkerchiefs. Needs to wash Altinker after he plays. Through the window she sees him — a tiny thing, thin, quiet. He carries a brick. He is already building together with the other children.
“Thank you, my God, my good-hearted father! Thank you for your great mercy!”
When she went to market yesterday evening, she greeted the coarse woman at her gate. She said good evening to her, with a broad, kindly smile, but the other one shook her head slightly, angrily, with contempt.
 She started to feel uneasy again, her holiday disturbed, as though she sensed a growing hatred. And that night there was a knock, and she opened the door to a stranger, who drily and hastily asked a question: “Leyzer the burial-attendant lives here? I came to get some information from you all.” 
“Here, here,” she whispered to him and let him in… quickly — so that no eye should see him, nor anyone should hear his coming. And letting him through to Leyzhe, something of an unrest fell upon her as she suddenly understood that the woman was mad at her, could not stand her, could not greet her.
A wild fear fell on her. She quickly went into her room, lay in bed, and grabbed Altinker with a hug. And then death, precisely that familiar death which comes so frequently, so comfortably to their home, transformed into the shape of a wild monster before her eyes, like death was nearing her very soul, like he would lay a strong, cold hand on her. It seemed to her that she was dying, but she startled, and flung her eyes open wide. Nobody was there. A cold sweat pounded through her. Her hair stood on end.
“Altinker! Altinker! My son,” she grabbed for her child. “Altinker, are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?”
Altinker mumbled and moved himself closer to her.
She barely survived the night, and woke up sick, broken, with her drenched shawl placed on her forehead.
“You see?” Leyzhe remarked. “You said in another apartment you would become healthy, you’d be another person entirely. It’s only been two, three days, and already you’re sick again, like back there.”
The sun, as if it would thaw her chill, as if it would undo her arrogance, stooped down very low, and smiled in a friendly, kindly way, and warmed the whole yard.
The rooftops on the hill gleam and shine in the distance. Beside the small house across the way is a single tree, thickly branched, covered with small red apples, and every apple offers itself, to take and make a blessing over. An open window can be seen and, in the window, a dark-haired head of a young girl. And then the girl lifts her head, and it is as though the whole alley lightens at once, so goodhearted is her smile and so lovely-colored her cheeks. The world is seemingly so friendly! And people are blessed in countless precious ways.
She continues standing by her window, and looks far away, and it seems that those wives on the bench do not hate her at all.  Why had she thought this? She grabs her knitting and wants to go out to them, will make herself known, will be with them…
Leyzhe sleeps there in the bedroom — he should go on sleeping. She will go out.
I will not let anyone but a doctor inside. Lately my thoughts haven’t seemed so sensible, she thinks, remembering last night.
She puts on her green Shabbos kaftan, sticks her ears out from the shawl, and takes her unfinished stocking in her hand. “What a day — a joyful kingdom! A good year may our lord-father inscribe…”
These words she says aloud.  Already she’s standing outside.
The wives are sitting just like yesterday, like all days, as is their custom. The young one holds her baby in her arms. What a beauty that baby is – blood and milk. May it live long.  The elderly woman looks up through her glasses and knits; the crease between her eyebrows is angrily drawn together. She listens as the tall one, the happy one, explains something with feeling. The fourth, the lean one, is unknown, singled out — a guest.
She doesn’t have the audacity to go. Something tugs at her suddenly. “Good morning, Khashe. I am one who really has no class at all — what am I, a small girl?” And she goes off as if she were searching for something in the yard.
“Altinker! Altinker!” She places her hand over her eyes. “Altinker!”
“What is it, Mama?” a thin little voice answers. He is playing with his buddies by the fence.
“Altinker, you haven’t seen our rabbi’s little chick? Tsip, tsip, tsip, tsipinke!”
“The chickie?” His voice rises again. “The chickie? Mama, I don’t know.”
She is already close to the neighbors. Almost standing next to them. They have stopped talking.
“Good day!” she calls out, and turns a friendly face to them.
Only one, after a weighty silence, spits out a short “Good year!” from between her teeth, and the rest sit silently, silent, and as if they were angry, not even raising an eye to her.
She almost feels her heart tear in two from this indignity. What did she do to them? She stands there only a moment more, and then goes off over the yard.
“Altinker, Altinker, slowly. Calm down! These youngsters throw stones at each other, sweetie! One musn’t throw stones; one can be mutilated!”
And it seems the wives burn her through with glances, and they would not be on good terms, she thinks.
“Tsip, tsip, tsipinke!” she calls for the chick.
The wives talk amongst themselves, but become silent whenever she comes near. She keeps walking over the yard, searching.
She is by the bench again. It’s quiet of course, like everyone is waiting in suspense. It seems they will tell her something, they have something to say to her. She stands there unwillingly.
They don’t even invite her to seat herself. It is silent. “Tsa-a-tsinke!” But the young wife plays with her baby. And the baby tries to get at her stocking and knitting needle, and smiles and waves with little hands.
“What is it, little dolly? A lovely baby. A groom or a bride?” she asks the mother.
“A bride.”
“What is it, little bride? May no evil eye get you. Lovely, fine…”
The baby alone turns to her and shows her a friendly face.
“Sit down, what are you standing for!” the mother asks out of half her mouth.
She sits down.
“What a day — a pleasure! I couldn’t just sit in the house.”
But nobody answers her.
“She says she’ll send the farfel-grater over?” the elder says to the guest after a considerable silence.
“Send, why not? An honest woman, I tell you.”
“How much does it cost?” She inserts herself into the conversation.
“Not expensive,” the woman answers curtly.
Clearly, they will not talk with her. She feels she is superfluous to them, a stranger. She keeps her eyes on her stocking — she will do her knitting,  then get away from here. What’s she doing staying?
They are all silent. The tall one, from the opposite window— Treyne they call her— is sad today,  not  yesterday’s face. Some sort of worry presses on all of them. And this Treyne would barely look at her with her black eyes, just like she herself deprived her of yesterday’s joy. What have I done to her? she thinks, and feels more hatred and resentment toward her than toward the guest.
“Where did you live before?” the older one with the glasses suddenly questions her.
“Me?” she asks back, and does not answer, will not answer. What is this humiliation – for what?
“Sweetie pie, what is it? A pretty little bride.” She speaks instead to the baby.
“Well, have a good day!” the guest says to all of them and stands up. “I tell you, Treyne, you should not go to your sister-in-law's. They have small children, and scarlet fever is a contagious thing.”
“What are you saying!” Treyne shakes her head. “My bright treasures, how can I not go there when I can still hold them in my arms?”
“Altinker! Altinker!” She gets up at once. ”Altinker, go in the house!”
She tears herself away from there, she doesn’t have time to stay. Where is he, Altinker? What does he need friends for? She will hide him, so that no eye should see him, so that no one should know him.
She lets herself in. Leyzhe is finally awake, calmly drinking tea. The windows are shut, the curtains closed, and it seems to her that once again it is the graveyard road, and her house is forlorn, dead, accursed.
And the same old sinful samovar, and Leyzhe content, placid, groaning and panting as he drinks.
She knows at last why the women hate her! She knows why they point fingers at her, why they curse her child!
Where can they hide him? Her world is narrow. She shakes, she is afraid someone will knock at her door, like she has something from a horrible robbery hidden at her house. She feels like someone is searching, and will come to her, and demand…
“Master of the Universe! You forgave Cain for slaughtering his only brother. Master of the Universe, don’t punish me, pardon me!”
She searches in her prayerbook, she flips pages. She searches for a woman’s prayer said in the event of a huge storm, for something she can implore, so the storm should pass. Her heart feels that here, here, thunder should break, lightning should strike, it should ignite and burn up…
Her heart runs away from this place, knocking and jumping around. Soon  the whole world will come tumbling down, and every rustle, every voice, terrifies her, drives her further away.
Leyzhe is home, and when he is home, he finds tasks for himself: He sets the clock right, picks up a book that was thrown to the side, and occupies his time.
Since yesterday it has been as if she were bewitched, and she finds no peace in herself, running each moment to the window.
“Leyzhe! Treyne’s baby— a baby like an apple— is dying…. Leyzhe, the doctor just now went away. Leyzhe, you hear?”
“What are you worried about? Pick yourself up! What good can I do?” he answers.
“Just think!” she begins, and starts to wring her hands, but she can’t express what she wants to say.
“Among respectable people a woman on Shabbos finds herself some handiwork, and a  city trustee minds her business!”
“Among respectable people…” she starts to mimic him. “This is the real misfortune, that we are not among respectable people. People are people!”
“What do you want, imbecile!” he spits out with contempt. “. You have to lock your doors from the crazies.You’re a blot, a pest. What’s bothering you? You want an apartment — here! have an apartment. Want a new table? Here! Have a table! What else do you want?”
She cannot express what she wants; right now, this moment, she wants to flee the  apartment. Her apartment is cursed. She wants to give back all that she has, to hide herself and hide everything inside. And he’s still sitting. Still in the eyes of everyone, sitting and waiting. Yesterday he took away Treyne’s sister-in-law’s child, and today Treyne’s baby is dying.
She doesn’t need Shabbos, she doesn’t need this apartment, no rest at all! She wants to take Altinker now and travel away to someplace else. She goes out of the kitchen, where she was looking for something she didn’t need.
“Leyzhe, Leyzhe!”
“What, what is it?”
“Leyzhe, I will travel away with Altinker.”
“What?” he says.
“I will travel away with Altinker to my relative in Lyubke.”
“Tfu!” With feeling, he spits and waves with his hand. “An evil spirit sits in her, nothing but a shrew.”
“Master of the Universe, answer me, answer, you truly know my heart.” She breaks out in a wail.
Leyzhe decides to leave. He searches for his Turkish pipe. “Oh, so what, a woman, a scold!” He would rather go out now, and do his job, and not look at everything.
Only Altinker is calm there. He finds ways to pass the time, he doesn’t go outside. He doesn’t play with his friends. His mother won’t even let him stand in the window, like on that other street. This apartment is not a good place, either. He has his opinion.
“I must travel away to Lyubke, away from here! What will I do here, waiting? What will I do here sitting around? It’s already time.”
This is how she drives herself away. It is not yet late. She doesn’t need long to gather her belongings. She takes Altinker by the hand and runs.
“Leyzhe, I must go.” And she doesn’t wait for his answer, his agreement. She knows that she must go somewhere else. Everything: her unrest for so many years, the whole time since she got married, since her Altinker was born, the long nights without sleep, the wicked dreams which terrified her so much— her entire life, unlucky and far from home, was becoming clear to her. She should go away, only away! Right now! Right this moment. Certainly not waiting for some news from there, from her neighbors. She must go away, as though the world was laid out before her. And it seems, the whole world really lies ahead
“A delirium, a lunatic!” murmurs Leyzhe. “I’ve got it: Shabbos, when we make the blessings I’ll call Pinye, Zerakh, the gravediggers, for a new apartment. What will you say then! How about a kishke pudding, tsimmes, a strudel… whatever you want. Here you go, little simpleton of a woman! A demon, God help us, tfu!”
“Be quiet, be quiet, you fool! Be quiet!”— a scream tears out of her. “You understand what you’re doing with yourself? Where you stand in the world? Master of the Universe, help me, answer me, revoke the punishment from me that I deserve.”
She weeps. Her tears don’t make anything easier. She knows she must do something and doesn’t know what. She must go away. She cannot do anything… he should go away! What’s he sitting for? What’s he waiting for? She can’t stand him — some kind of devil, a plague upon him! She was fourteen years a widow, she should have remained that way another fifteen.
“Hm! A demon,” he claims from his side. “Even if it’s free now, I won’t fetch it. She’s too lazy to go out to market.She wants a table? Here, have a table. An apartment? Here, have an apartment. What was she missing back there? Huh? What? Loneliness, fear? A small child, a toddler, has more brains than you! You get no sleep, you never rest, not on Shabbos, not during the week. Where are your candles,  modest woman? Huh?”
“Lay off, lay off, stop it,” she can only say. He keeps talking, he makes her feel guilty. What will happen when she needs to bless the candles? She is not joyful when Shabbos comes. People call for a burial-attendant on Shabbos just the same.
She remains seated, deep in thought. These past few days, her head has become heavier, duller. Her thoughts are something wild, fearful. And the dread she feels is sharp, stinging, hot.
“I must travel to my relative in Lyubke! There is a village, a field. There I can be alone — me and Altinker.”
“Quiet, quiet, quiet!” She hurries from her chair. “Quiet, quiet, quiet, you hear? Someone’s crying!”
Her face has grown pale, wrinkled, and pitifully weary. Her eyes are cried through. Fevers are blazing, and her small, worn body has become enveloped with distress.
But it is quiet…
She sits back down at her place.
The night lowers itself little by little.
“Bless the candles!” Leyzhe angrily says to her.
She does not budge.
“Where are you going? Where are you going?” she shouts at him. “Don’t go! Don’t go! Where are you going?”
“To shul.”
“Don’t go, don’t go! Later, when it’s really dark, you can go. That’s all I need, for someone to see you in the yard! The Angel of Death walking, the burial attendant…”
She stands close to him, inches from his face,  with a shuddering, wild look. As though she would take the measure of his strength. Who will become stronger — she or he?
“Don’t go! You hear what they call you! Don’t go, ‘Angel of Death!’ You know who you are? When they see you, they see death.”
Leyzer stares at her. Her voice has gone quiet, choked-up, and fervent, and her looks are wild, unnatural…
“Late at night, you will go out — when nobody can see you. You hear what they call you?”
“You are crazy, or what? Or really, truth be told, you’re a demon!”
But she doesn’t hear him. What will he say to her, when she has clearly lost her senses? Clearly, she has something  else to contemplate, to say.  


“Strange, it’s gotten quite dark. All of the neighbors’ windows are already glowing with their Shabbos candles, blessed, and happy. Only the burial-attendant’s is dark and cursed.”


Copyright © Joseph Reisberg 2023

Rokhl Brokhes (the author) was born in Minsk in 1880, the daughter of a Hebrew scholar who instructed her to read holy texts, an unusual skill for a Jewish girl at the time. After her father died when she was a child, Brokhes became a seamstress and published her first story at age nineteen. She enjoyed moderate acclaim by publishing in periodicals like Der Yud, Der Fraynd, and Di Tsukunft, but only published one full-length collection in 1922. The critic Zalmen Reyzen described her as a “a psychological realist with an inclination towards lyricism.” Her work was known for depicting the lives of working-class women and their families, as well as frankly portraying abuse and powerlessness. She died in the Minsk Ghetto in 1942.

Joseph Reisberg (the translator) was born and raised in Baltimore, MD, where he also received a BA in History and Creative Writing at Goucher College. His poems appear in Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Sugar Rascals, among other publications. He currently serves as the Applebaum Family Fellow in Bibliography and Translation at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA. This is his first published translation.

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