The Haunted Pripetshik

 


Photo: Patrick Snook

The Haunted Pripetshik

By Nomi Eve

 

In every Jewish house in the shtetls of Europe, two-thirds of the kitchen was occupied by a huge brick oven, large enough to accommodate burning logs to one side, and with room for as many as eight loaves of baking bread and a few cooking pots. On the upper level, above the oven, was an opening about four feet high, seven feet wide, and five feet deep. This place was known as the pripetshik, and during the long winter months, it served as a warm gathering place for the small children. This was the only heated place in the house, and they often fell asleep there.
 
 
1915
Noviye Mlini
Chernigow County, Ukraine
 

Everyone knew that Baker Loew’s pripetshik was haunted. A descendant of the Maharal who conjured a golem to save the Jews of Prague, Baker Loew had a familial predisposition not only to believe in spooks, but to think them good company. As he rolled a dough for onion board or reached down into the bucket for a bit of sour for rolls, Baker Loew would boast that the ghosts above his oven were none other than the souls of seven centuries of dead bakers. “They give me advice, and most importantly, they regulate the temperature of the fire. Without them my dough wouldn’t rise, and local matrons’ Sabbath stew pots would burn. Yes, we should be grateful for the ghosts in my pripetshik,” he was apt to say whenever a howling noise would issue forth from over the oven.
 
Max was Baker Loew’s only child. Max’s mother was dead. She had died giving birth to twin babies, who died with her. It was Max’s curse and blessing to sleep up in the pripetshik all winter. He was warm up there, but he was also terrified. He often woke up in the middle of the night with the distinct impression that he was not alone. He would gather up his blanket, pat down the lumps and folds, feeling for the noses of goblins, the elbows of harpies, or the rolling pins of dead bakers knocking him on the knees. Because he was a skeptic, he didn’t believe in these ghosts. But because these ghosts were real, they tortured him for his disbelief and infected his dreams. Sometimes Max dreamt that the spectral hands of all those dead bakers were rolling him off the pripetshik, shoving him into the great big brick oven, shoveling more coal onto the fire, and slamming shut the door, all because he had the temerity not to believe in them.
 
In order to postpone the onset of his dreams, Max often took a book up into the pripetshik. He read deep into the night with a little candle casting yellow light on the pages. It wasn’t long before he was a voracious reader. Baker Loew was a lover of great literature and had a floury shelf filled with great books. From the time Max was a baby, Baker Loew had impressed upon him the fact that the baking of bread was inexorably linked with the making of stories, and that both stories and bread were required for a belly’s sustenance and a soul’s nourishment. He also gave Max the rudimentary tools of literary observation, which had been passed on to him by his father, also a baker, who had had the good and bad fortune to bake bread for the great Leo Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy had nurtured a secret craving for the elder Loew’s raspberry sticks but had regularly berated the elder Loew for not putting enough raisins in his sticky buns.
 
Max Loew learned both baking and literary appreciation from his father. He could braid a six-strand challah while mulling over passages of Pushkin, Turgenev, or Dostoyevsky. Sometimes he confused baking with reading, and would feel as if he had put chapters into the oven, not loaves of rye and would stand there confused and unsure of how much metaphor to add to a recipe, or how long a poem needed to be baked to ensure a golden crust and flaky center. Max loved books and loved to read almost anything his father gave him. But it was the great Sholem Aleichem who spoke to him most clearly, telling him his own story, and that of everyone he knew. When his father bartered a tray full of loaves for a new book of Sholem Aleichem stories, all day long Max would look forward to climbing up into the pripetshik and delving into the book – though, if he had to examine the reason why, he would have had to admit that he read so that he wouldn’t dream. But he knew enough about reading to suspect that this was both an impossibility and a contradiction.
 
When he turned thirteen, Max’s dreams changed. Night after night he was visited by a sinewy beautiful demon. Often he woke up with sticky wet pants and the distinct impression that life was playing a joke on him. Eventually he had to admit he was haunted by his own desires. The she-demon who came to him at night bore the face and figure of a girl two years his elder who lived three doors up, spent her days weaving and tending chickens, and considered him just another boy amongst the flock of annoying village boys, someone to scowl at, send on errands, and barely tolerate. He wasn’t even sure she knew his name. Sometimes Max saw her down by the river with her nose in a book.
 
Her name was Mirele. She had long, lustrous, curly black hair and big brown eyes that were a little too far apart and made her look as if at any moment she might sneak a peek in an unexpected direction. She had a tendency to read under the shade of a big linden tree down by the river. Mirele’s father was a learned and honorable traveling man, a magid, who went from village to village teaching Torah and spreading news. Mirele lived with her mother and younger brother, and every few months her father would come home, bringing with him tales and gossip from the outside world. Mirele’s only other sibling, an older brother named Asher, had been conscripted into the czar’s army. He was rumored to be encamped in the forest just ten miles to the north, though no one had seen him in months or heard from him, or from the other local boys stolen by the Czar to use for fodder for his campaigns, kindling for his wars.
 
When Max realized that he was desperately in love with Mirele, he considered actually approaching the real flesh-and-blood Mirele and pleading his case by the light of day. But whenever he passed Mirele in the market, or saw her gathered with the women at synagogue, Max couldn’t even look at her, let alone talk to her. He would blush and trip over his feet.
 
Four years passed. Max became convinced that he would spend his entire life being haunted up there in the pripetshik. Sometimes, during the day when he was helping his father make bread, he would feel a warm breath on his neck. His father would reach over, pinch him under the armpit, and come out with a tongue twister like, “daydreaming distracts and destroys dutiful dough.” Max could only nod, blush, and agree.
 
Then one day, when Max was seventeen, his father sent him to deliver a loaf of still-hot black pumpernickel that Mirele’s mother had ordered. Mirele answered the door and Max stood there, dumb as a true golem. But she was as kind as she was beautiful, so she rescued him from his misery. “I see you reading all the time,” she said, handing him a ruble for the bread. “Who is your favorite author?” She reached out and took the loaf from him. She tore off the heel and broke it in half, bringing half to her mouth, and depositing the other half in his. The warm bread dropped onto his lifeline and he felt a shudder run through his body. She continued speaking because it was clear that Max couldn’t manage a single word. “My favorite is Sholem Aleichem…” “What? He is yours, too? What a coincidence! Well, if you ever want to borrow, I have his latest collection. My father brought it home from his travels. You can read it whenever you want, but my only stipulation is that you read it here, in our house. I can’t bear the thought of the book leaving our house for even a minute.”
 
Max walked home in a stupor. He didn’t dare nibble on the half heel of bread. He was afraid that if he ate it, he would die, so desperate was his longing. And then right before reaching the bakery, he forced it all into his mouth and swallowed down the crust, as if it were the only food left for him in the whole world. He walked into the bakery wiping the crumbs off his cheeks. He couldn’t believe his good luck.
 
The next day he made himself go to her house, and knocked on the door. When she saw him, she smiled and led him in. Mirele’s mother nodded at him as if she had been expecting him. Mirele had been spinning some wool by the hearth. She motioned for him to take a seat on the other side of the hearth. She went over to a little bookshelf, brought him the latest collection of stories by Sholem Aleichem. Max whispered “Thank you,” and looked down at his hands because he couldn’t bear looking her in the eyes. She put the book in his lap. He opened it like an automaton and began to read. Accidentally he read the same story twice. Then he flipped backward and forward, unable to find the beginnings of paragraphs, or the ends of stories. Every so often, he would steal a glance at Mirele on the other side of the hearth. Sometimes she would speak, but only about literature. Once when Max was in the middle of the story, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” she said, “What I love about Sholem Aleichem’s stories is that he doesn’t just stick to plot, romance, and drama. He also philosophizes, and speaks extemporaneously.” Max nodded and tried to say something about the involvement and development of minor characters, but only managed to say something unintelligible about country bumpkins and warring twins. Mirele’s lips opened into a ripe peach of a smile, and then she just looked at him for a second, biting her lower lip. He realized that she was just humoring his attempt at conversation, and soon she looked back down at her spinning. Her mother was blocking out a quilt on the table. Every so often Mirele’s mother would sing a half snippet of a broken line from “Yo Ribon Olam.” Max stared down at the pages. He felt sucked into the quicksand prose of the Yiddish master. He suspected that if he didn’t take immediate action he would be stuck there reading forever. Now, since he was sitting in a room not five feet from Mirele and he loved the stories of Sholem Aleichem, this was not such a bad fate. But his father expected him back in the bakery. He tried to rouse himself. Snap out of it Max, he told himself, and forced himself to shut the book and return it to the shelf.
 
The next day he returned again. After ten minutes or so, Mirele’s mother left the room. Mirele put down her spinning and said, “Do you think that the short story is Sholem Aleichem’s chosen form because the lives of individual Jews do not merit longer treatment? Or because the life of the individual Jew must be read against the backdrop of Torah and Talmud? This is what I have come to believe that the true novel of Jews is Torah itself, and the stories he writes are like the weekly parshas: holy little parables, fragments of philosophy and fancy meant to be digested in small bites.”
 
Max sucked in his breath, thought quickly, and decidedly impulsively to disagree, because he though it would make him sound smarter. “You assume Sholem Aleichem makes choices, and that he has intentions, when anyone can see that he writes from the place where there are no choices, only truths.”
 
Mirele put a needle in her mouth, and then took it out slowly. She held it up to the fire to catch the eye. She smiled. “Max the baker’s son, you are both smarter and dumber than you look.”
 
He took a risk. “Mirele the magid’s daughter, Sholem Aleichem should write his next story about you.”
 
“Oh yeah, and what would he write?”
 
Max shrugged. “That is between you and him. But I warn you, everyone will read it and know who you are, and chase after you till the end of days, troubling you with the difference between how you appear on paper and how you live your life.”
 
“How I live my life.” She repeated his words, looking right into Max’s eyes with a smile that seemed to have a frown tucked in the center of it.
 
Mirele’s mother returned. They quickly pretended to be talking about something else. “Did you hear,” Mirele said, “that the roof of the lubricant shop collapsed and killed poor Mrs. Anchik?”
 
“I know,” said Max. “A tragedy, and an order of three challahs, three dozen rolls, and five pumpernickels for the shiva.”
 
“I forgot, bakers hear everything first, don’t they?”
 
Max shrugged. “Births or deaths, people need bread.”
 
He closed the book, stood up, and returned it to the shelf.
 
When he walked into the bakery, his father looked at him strangely and said, “It’s time to make bagels,” and Max realized that even though it felt like he had spent hours at Mirele’s, almost no time had passed at all.
 
He was unable to return to Mirele’s for another two weeks. But when he did, he found himself in the middle of a commotion. Mirele’s father had just returned from his wanderings with news not just of the outside world, but of an engagement. Mirele herself was to be married to the son of a wealthy dry goods merchant from Kiev. It was a tremendous match, and Mirele’s mother and father were both drinking toasts to their own good fortune. Mirele was the only one not celebrating. Her face was flushed, her eyes red and puffy. She was worrying her apron with her hands. At the door, Max said, “Mazel tov,” even though he had lost a duel with an invisible adversary and would now die, bleeding and alone up in the pripetshik. She said, “Thank you.” He said, “I suppose I should be going.” She said, “No, stay and read.” He said, “I can’t.” She said, “Please. Please stay and read.” She reached for his hand, grabbing hold of him, and pulling him inside. So he went to the chair by the hearth, and she put the story book in his lap, and he stared at the words on the page, not reading a single word, as friends and relatives flowed into the house to congratulate Mirele on her engagement. The wedding was set for six months hence. They would be married on Sukkot, an auspicious time for a fruitful union.
 
 
For three weeks after the engagement, Max didn’t go to Mirele’s house. He couldn’t bring himself to. Once or twice he saw her in the market. Once she came to the bakery to buy poppy seed rolls and kamish bread. They nodded at each other but didn’t exchange a word. It was as if they were strangers again. On the third week, Max saw Mirele down by the river and forced himself to go down to where she was standing, in the shade of a giant old linden tree.
 
She didn’t look at him, but said, “My father returned last night. He had a copy of the newspaper from Kiev. Sholem Aleichem is dead.”
 
“Dead?”
 
“Yes, dead.”
 
“That’s horrible.”
 
“He died of tuberculosis, or a broken heart. You know his son died last year in Switzerland. The boy wasn’t allowed to join the rest of the family in America because of his disease. Isn’t that tragic? Anyway, Sholem Aleichem was sick too, and he died. They held his funeral in Brooklyn, New York. One hundred thousand people came – it was the biggest funeral cortège in the history of that city. And there’s more. The night before he was buried, one hundred Yiddish writers kept watch over his body in shifts.”
 
Max sucked in his breath. Unconsciously, he reached for the trunk of the tree and leaned on it for support. He pressed his palm into the rutted bark. How could the great writer be dead? This was the saddest news. Now there would be no more stories. His own romantic drama receded. He was not a boy desperately in love with a girl who haunted him, and who was promised to another. He was part of a great literary tradition, even though he himself had never written a single word. He heard himself saying, “One hundred writers! That is a poetic problem.”
 
The truth is that Max had been thinking quite a lot about poetic problems these days, problems of metaphor and truth and the meaning behind the stories written or not written yet. In other words, Max was beginning to become a writer himself, even though he had never put a word on a page. Sometimes though, he scattered flour on the table when his father wasn’t looking. He used a finger to inscribe the beginnings of stories and then rubbed them out before they could impress themselves into the dough and become part of the bread people would eat for breakfast.
 
Mirele bit her lip. “Define your poetic problem.” She gave him a sideways look out of her too-far-apart eyes. Her eyes flashed chestnut and gold.
 
Max continued: “What I mean is, how do we know who they are, the writers?”
 
“The ones who stood watch over Sholem Aleichem’s corpse? We don’t. It wasn’t in the article. It just said they took shifts and recited psalms.”
 
“So we should guess. We should describe them, flesh them out.”
 
“Why should we?”
 
Max didn’t speak for a moment. He was trying to untangle his own thoughts. Then he said a single word, “Homage,” and as he said it the wind blew, and a brace of yellow leaves fluttered down from the tree. He said it again: “Homage.” Max spoke slowly, methodically: “Because since he is dead, and there are to be no more Sholem Aleichem stories, it is maybe our job to add to the great writer’s – how do you say it? his oeuvre. And the writers who gathered to sit watch over his corpse, they seem a good place to start. We should imagine them – we should make them real, we should give them mustaches, beards, dreams, allergies, their own disasters, pets, and personalities. For example, the first writer who kept watch… I want to know: Did he wear glasses? Was he born in Poland? Or Paris, or Worms? Was he a musical fellow or was he tone deaf? And what was he an author of? Derivative stories or inspired poems? Essays or novels?”
 
Mirele ran her fingers through her hair. “Max the baker’s son,” she said, “when I first invited you in to read, I knew that you had gumption.” She stopped for a moment, took a deep breath. “I suppose we could categorize those writers is that what you are suggesting?”
 
“It’s a start.”
 
 In the distance, they both heard casual, workaday sounds of village life: carriage wheels, mills turning, a mother calling for her son, the lowing of a cow.
 
Mirele began. Later, when he remembered this moment Max thought that what came out of her mouth was quite strange. Why, it was as if she had fully formed opinions on the matter, as if it had been her idea in the first place. She said, “Seventeen of the Yiddish writers who kept watch over Sholem Aleichem’s corpse wore glasses, six were the sort who danced at weddings, seven were the sort who got other people to dance with them, ten played accordions, and thirty-two were journalists, while twenty wrote poems, the rest wrote all variety of prose.”
 
Max smiled, “six were tragedarians…”
 
Mirela looked around, took stock of the ground, and sat down on a clump of mossy earth. “Three of them came from Minsk.”
 
Max sat down next to her. He picked up a small twig and poked at the dirt underneath his nails. “Nine priests, twelve Levites. Six had buckwheat and eggs for breakfast.”
 
She said, “Twelve had hotcakes, and four had dry toast, black coffee, and soft boiled eggs.”
 
They nodded at each other, wrinkling their brows, egging each other on, co-conspirators. There was a confident breeze blowing through the linden branches, scenting the air with the perfume of ripe, nutty fruit. Max told himself: She will never marry that fellow. She will marry me for sure. Mirele’s ruby red mouth was open, she was sitting on a tree root, her arms wrapped around her knees, resting her chin on her knees, cocking her head to one side so that her loose curls hung almost down to the ground.
 
For the next six months they went into the woods, hid themselves in a thicket, and seriously set about the task of describing those one hundred Yiddish writers who had stood watch over the body of the great Sholem Aleichem. Sometimes Mirele brought a blanket and they sat side by side. Once Max lay down and put his head in her lap, and she ran her fingers through his hair. They spoke for hours, describing one by one the men who’d stood watch over Sholem Aleichem’s corpse.  
 
The first writer was this, the second one was that, the third had boils on his arse, the fourth spoke Russian with a perfect Slavic accent, the fifth was a disciple of Nachmanides, the sixth was a descendant of a murderer from Galicia.
 
As they made things up, they were both filled with a deep sense of ineffable reality. If anyone had dared ask, they would have defended the truth of their little fictions. It was as if those writers stood for the entire world, as if they were the world, and the two of them, Max and Mirele, could never say enough about them, as if by describing those writers, they were fulfilling some ancient prophecy. Out in the woods, they never once spoke of her engagement, or of the fact that after her marriage she would leave to live with her husband. Of these truths they spoke not a single word.
 
When they bumped into each other in town, or when she came to buy mun cookies, or onion board, or black pump, they would try their best to pretend that they were not engaged in a conspiracy of the imagination. In other words, that they were not secretly meeting and telling each other whole epics of the lives of the writers who’d stood watch over the body of the man who would write no more. And when they met in the forest, they came from different directions in order to avert the suspicion of gossiping friends. They knew that no one would understand what an engaged girl was doing in the forest with the baker’s son. They knew that people would suspect them of immorality – when in truth the most immoral thing they were doing was paying homage to the greatest storyteller they had ever read, in the only way they saw fit.
 
 
Two months before Mirele’s wedding, something horrible happened. The story which was on everyone’s lips was as follows: The czar was planning on visiting a military camp. The camp commander decided that twenty Jewish soldiers would be baptized in the river in his honor. The Jewish soldiers held hands, entered the river, and dived in. They did not come out. All twenty of them committed suicide rather than be baptized. Most of the boys came from Max’s village or the surrounding ones. Personally he knew six of them himself. One was the older son of the fishmonger. Another was the son of one of his father’s best customers. And another, of course, was Mirele’s brother Asher – who, according to reports, was the leader of those boys: the one who must have come up with the idea and inspired his fellow Jews to martyr themselves to God.
 
After the catastrophe, everyone mourned those boys and suffered an insomnia that turned night into day and day into night. Everyone saw ghosts or claimed they did. People walking the streets, bleary-eyed and exhausted, regularly saw those twenty dead boys, greeting them and asking them casual questions about the weather. How had they done it? No one could quite figure out how the boys had drowned themselves, and yet they were gone. Some of the village boys went into the river themselves and tried to hold their breath to see if they could force themselves to die, like the dead heroes. Their mothers stood on the bank screaming, and walloped them, pulling them out, punishing them for being so young, dumb, stupid, and inspired.
 
Soon after the catastrophe, Mirele began to act differently. Max listened to the gossip in the bakery and heard the local matrons tell of her transformation. At synagogue she refused to pray, but just stood there, not even mouthing the words. On the Sabbath she didn’t change her dress. She was seen in the company of a gypsy who had strange markings on her hands and brow. There were rumors that Mirele had become an atheist and that her father was beside himself with worry at her radical beliefs. Max went into the forest and waited for her at their regular place. She never came. He went again and again. But she never came back. Eventually Max heard her engagement was broken off, the dowry disassembled. The young man married instead the daughter of a ritual circumciser from Kodrovka. Max silently rejoiced. But he didn’t know how to coax Mirele back to herself, and back to the woods.
 
Yet history intervened in Max’s romantic troubles. In 1917, the White Russian soldiers of General Danikin came calling. Villages were burned, thousands of Jews were killed, women were raped, and children bayoneted and left for dead. Max was alone in the bakery. His father had been two doors up, in the shop of Yoram the sausage maker. Max heard the pounding hoofbeats of the marauders, and stupidly stuck his head out of the door to see what was going on. He caught sight of three soldiers on horseback shooting into a crowd of Jews in front of the synagogue. As fate would have it, Mirele was in the street in front of the bakery.
 
“In here, in here!” he yelled to her. Max grabbed her hand and pulled her inside the bakery. He pulled himself up to the pripetshik and then reached down for her. He saw Mirele hesitate, and then hitch up her skirts and climb up to him. He covered them both in the heavy quilts. Then he had a thought, and jumped down, gathered up some burlap sacks, climbed back up, and stuffed them in the opening of the pripetshik. They lay side by side, barely breathing under the heavy quilt and the burlap sacks.
 
Outside the mayhem grew louder. Max heard a woman scream, and a man let out a strangled growling groan, accompanied by a clubbing sound, hoofbeats, and what sounded strangely like the flapping of enormous wings, but which turned out to be the sound of the synagogue igniting, the flames percussing in the wind. Max thought he heard Mirele’s mother screaming for mercy. Then he thought he heard his own father exclaiming “Shema Yisrael,” which was cut off before he reached the word Echad, One, at the end. Lying there, Max knew he was orphaned, and that the marauders would probably come for them next. Mirele lay silent and still as a stone, wincing every now and then at the sound of a scream, the report of gunshots, the crackling of thatch, or the moaning of panicked animals.
 
Then, when it seemed that the noise was at its crescendo, Mirele turned to him, and they embraced. There was barely any room, so at first their hips and foreheads pressed into each other. I am Mirele, he thought, and Mirele is me. They lay like this until the mob had gone. And then they kept lying together, when it was silent except for scattered screams and cries and moans. They had shifted, in the close space, and were spooned together, his arms wrapped around her middle, until they heard the voice of Momik the beadle, calling out for survivors. Then she pulled away, pushing off the quilt, kicking down the burlap, slipping down, and leaving the safety of their perch.
 
 
After the disaster, people divided into three camps: those who stayed in the village, those who went to live with relatives, and those who went elsewhere. Elsewhere meant far away. Mirele was in the last group. She was going to cousins in Cuba.
 
The day she left, Max walked her to the carriage. It was all loaded up, and the driver was waiting only for her. Max had been carrying her bag. She reached for it, took it from his hand, and then rested it at her feet. She smiled, that peculiar smile of hers that also had a frown in it. The carriage was waiting for her. She backed away, either because she wanted to see Max until the last second, or because she was afraid to turn her back on him. Max stood watching her and realized that even though they had embraced, they hadn’t kissed. Not once. The carriage rolled off and he thought, How could I have let that happen?
 
Max also went far away. He crossed Europe, sailed from Marseille, and went to Brooklyn where his dead mother had a brother who sold elastic waistbands to seven different garment factories. He walked up and down the streets asking everyone the same question: “Do you know who the writers were who stood watch over Sholem Aleichem’s body the night he died? Do you know who they were? Who were they? Please tell me.” They shook their heads and treated him like a crazy fellow, the kind they were used to see rolling off the boats, sick in the head from the infection of Europe. Perhaps he just didn’t know who to ask.
 
Surely someone must have known. One hundred Yiddish writers in Brooklyn they must have been everywhere: sitting on stoops, smoking in coffee shops, congregating in union halls. But he couldn’t find them. Only once someone said, “Yes, one of the writers is an essayist named Pinsker. He lives on 24th Street, above a laundry.” Max went to find him but the man had moved, and the woman who lived there told Max that he had converted, and was busy translating the gospels into Yiddish in the back room of some rectory on Staten Island. Max went to the New Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens and stood at the Sholem Aleichem’s grave. He considered sinking to his knees and crying, but he realized that though he was sorry that the writer was dead, his sorrow had nothing to do with this mound of earth, this jutting stone, and a cemetery commemorating other people’s catastrophes. He picked a stone and put it on the grave anyway, as if to say, “I knew you too,” even though he hadn’t.
 
He left America and went to Palestine. He stayed in Jaffa for a few weeks and then went to Jerusalem where he wandered around the streets of the Old City, sat in cafés, and quickly got himself hired in a bakery behind a mosque, where every day men would be called to prayer, and the voice of the muezzin would startle him every time, sending shivers down his back, until at last he too felt like bowing down to some god, but he didn’t. One day a man came into the bakery and bought a dozen mun cookies. He was a tall, smiling man with a very big, fleshy face. Eating a mun cookie with relish, he explained to Max that he was the publisher of a successful literary journal. When Max expressed interest in contributing small pieces of “prose or fiction,” the man agreed to take a look. He walked out of the shop. Max watched him go, sure that he would never send him a single word.
 
 That very night, Max dreamt he had given the man a story and gotten it published. In his dreams he received acclaim for the story and was even offered a contract to write a book. But in the morning, Max was just a baker again. He woke up and went back to work, braiding challah and making sticky buns with more than enough raisins for a Tolstoy to love. The man with the big funny face never came back.
 
Eventually Max opened a bakery of his own with its own pripetshik above the oven. He constructed it in the style of the shtetl of Europe, not in the newfangled style that the bakers were using here in Jerusalem. He saw no reason to change. And he slept there in the winter, when the wind howled and the white-stoned city seemed to be hewn of ice, not rock. He didn’t marry or have romantic attachments: in his dreams, he took mistresses, and had long-term affairs with the wives of prominent men. But in reality he lived like a monk, baking bread and becoming intimate only with the narrow streets and alleys of the old Jerusalem. Every so often he would agree to be a tenth in a minyan, and would mouth prayers he didn’t believe in. He became friendly with the other bakers, the Armenians, the Copts, the Arabs, and the Turks, who catered to the Ottoman authorities. He developed a love of towers, and would spend his spare time searching out the many towers of the Old City, bribing his way into them, climbing up, and having bold original thoughts which he promptly forgot when he climbed back down again.
 
During the day he was a baker. But at night he was haunted, just as when he had been a little boy. Sometimes Mirele haunted him, appearing poof in the middle of the night up in the pripetshik. Sometimes Max was haunted not by a woman, but by words. He would lie in the pripetshik and think of all the stories he should write but knew he wouldn’t. The one he thought about most often he titled, “The One Hundred Yiddish Writers.”
 
Over a decade had passed since the death of Sholem Aleichem. In his dreams, Max made up those one hundred writers one by one. Just as he and Mirele had done in the woods, Max gave all of them names, histories, genres, habits, allergies, and heartbreaks. He factored in the intervening history, and filled his phantom pages with intricate, detailed, and heartfelt suppositions about writers who’d died in Zurich, were descendants of the concubines of kings, fell in love in Paris, converted to apostasy in Istanbul, or were slaughtered by petty thieves in Albany. In his sleep, Max wrote great tomes and tiny poems. In short, he described an entire Jewish encyclopedia of life, death, birth, and rebirth as lived, suffered, and loved by the men who sat by the great writer’s corpse, singing psalms, clenching and unclenching their hands as they raged against death, while begging a god many didn’t believe in for mercy on the dead man’s soul. But of course it was all a dream. 
 
In the morning, when he woke up, the words Max wrote in his head would be as insubstantial as the dead bakers who had knocked his knees with their rolling pins when he was just a boy. And Max would go about his day, baking bread, braiding challah, existentially confused about the measurements of metaphor and the proper use of dialogues between of ingredients. He would hand over a dozen onion rolls to a matron in a black kerchief with a lazy eye and think, Did I just give away an essential element of my plot?
 
At night, he would dream-write again. The first writer was a tragedian and a powerful swimmer, the second was a tall novelist who loved peanuts and ate them daily, shells and all. The seventeenth writer was a poet from Warsaw, the seventieth was a handsome, silver-maned Muscovite essayist married thirty-eight years, who still treated his fat blonde jowly wife like a queen. Max used some of Mirele’s suggestions. He hadn’t forgotten a word she had said in the thicket, when they sat side by side making things up. He added his own, and erased hers, and then added hers back in again. He felt that the story would not have an ounce of truth in it if he didn’t include her suggestions, but then he argued with himself because he was writing fiction and what does fiction need truth for anyway? And whose truth? The eightieth writer hated lemons, the eighty-fifth drank too much cherry wine and was the son of a humming scribe from Cologne. The truth of history or of his own heartbreak?
 
No matter how hard Max tried or how long he kept at it, he never seemed to reach the one-hundredth writer who’d kept watch over the body of the dead master. He came close. But the identity of that one-hundredth writer was as elusive as Mirele herself, who may or may not have gone to Cuba, who may or may not still be alive, who may or may not visit him in the dreaming darkness, using him for love, memory, pleasure, or the memory of pleasure, as fleeting, hard, and elusive as history itself.
 
And then one day, many many years after they had parted, Mirele walked into Max’s bakery in Jerusalem. Had sixteen years passed? Seventeen? Or an entire century? Was he dreaming?
 
No, not this time.
 
She wasn’t old, but she wasn’t young either. There was the tiniest sprinkling of grey in her dark hair, just at the temple. The rest was still jet black and lustrous, down around her shoulders, not tied back and covered like the hair of the matrons who frequented his shop. Her skin was still smooth, her eyes radiant, and her lips as full as that night, when he was a boy and she a girl, and the village burned around them.
 
She was startled to see him. Her face registered shock, fear, and pleasure. In her eyes flashed a look of utter astonishment, and he knew instantly that in the years since he had seen her last, she had trod a hard path.
 
She looked around and saw that no one else was in the shop. She didn’t mince words. She said, “Oh thank God, I can love you now.”
 
He said, “I have loved you ever since.”
 
Max’s whole body was shaking. Suddenly everything was intolerable, and he had to act. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He wiped his floury hands on his apron. He stepped out from behind the counter. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Then he tried again, saying, “Come here, please, come here now.”
 
She put down her bag and walked toward him, in a trance and entranced. They stood facing each other inches apart. And from such a close distance they read each other’s dreams, and she knew that he had been waiting for her. She was the first to touch. Reaching up a hand and stroking his face, pressing her fingers to his lips, his cheeks, feeling his beard, feeling his closed eyes. She gasped, dropped her hands, and looked upward. He kissed her jugular and then put his hands around her waist, feeling her warm hips, her still slender waist.
 
The last Yiddish writer approached the corpse, sighed loudly, and then sat down in a hard chair, prepared to do his duty before man and God. He recited a psalm no one even knew anymore. The funeral cortège of the great writer advanced slowly up the broad avenues of Brooklyn. Phantoms sighed and prepared to throw earth. 
 
Max and Mirele embraced in the bakery. Behind them, the ghosts in the pripetshik rejoiced, turned to smoke, and danced up the chimney. As Max and Mirele kissed for the first time in their lives, a white braid of souls departed, decorating the sky over a sleeping Jerusalem and absolutely everywhere else.

         

Copyright © Nomi Eve 2023

Nomi Eve is the author of Henna House and The Family Orchard, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York TimesGlimmer Train Stories, The Voice Literary Supplement, Conjunctions, and The International Quarterly.  She directs the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Drexel University and lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia with her family.

 



 
 
 
Please click here to donate to JewishFiction.net  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.



Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.