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A Woman’s Wrath

The small hut is as dingy as the poverty within. Its four walls weep. From the cracked ceiling hangs an orphaned chandelier stub, the remnant of a no-longer existing light.

The large peeled stove is bound around its belly with a heavy stocking, and leans to one side as if to look at its darkened neighbor, the empty black hearth on which lies an overturned pot with a burnt bottom. To one side there is, may it rest in peace, a broken spoon. This tin hero had an honorable death — fallen in battle with a crusty, stubborn leftover kasha.

There is in the cluttered hut a canopied bed with covers so tattered that its holes look like red feathered eyes. Picture the bedding — no sheets or pillow cases, only the tattered covers and quilt. Nearby stands a cradle, out of which shines the little yellow head of a sleeping infant. In another corner stands a trunk with edges and corners hammered of tin. Once, the trunk had been locked, but now, the padlock hangs loose — obviously no great treasures inside! Then there is a table and three chairs. This wooden furniture had once been painted red, now it is a mottled brown. Add to all of this: a sideboard, a wash stand, a barrel of water and a bucket with a small shovel. Now you can understand that a pin couldn’t fit into these four-by-four premises. Nevertheless, there are in here two beings — a “he”; and a “she” — a woman in her middle years, sitting on the trunk which stands between the bed and the cradle.

To her right is the only little green-shaded window, to her left, the wooden table. As she knits a sock, she rocks the cradle and listens. He sits at the table, studying and chanting in a weeping, echo-like voice. He appears uneasy as he pores over his book — he is detached and obviously nervous. He reads aloud as he studies. Some words he swallows, some he draws out in emphasis, some he hurries over, and some passages he skips altogether. Some are accented in staccato, yet expressed with love and reverence. Other passages pour forth like peas from a sack.

Throughout this whole episode he isn’t still for an instant. Now he plucks a once-red handkerchief. He wipes his nose in it — then mops his face with it. When he has wiped his forehead, he drops the handkerchief onto his lap; then he takes to twisting his payis (sidelocks of hair), plucking jerkily at his graying pointed beard. Now he tucks a plucked hair between pages of the book as he starts to slap his knee. He discovers the handkerchief he had dropped into his lap. He snatches it up, thrusting a corner of it between his teeth. He proceeds to cross his legs in rapid succession — left over right and right over left.

His pale forehead wrinkles constantly, vertically and horizontally; above the bridge of his nose there is now a letter “T”. The brows are elongated and the wrinkles deep; layers conceal the skin on his forehead. Now and then he appears to have piercing chest pains. So, with a firm right fist to the left side of his chest, he pounds out an “Al Chet” (Confession). He tosses his head to the left, presses his left nostril and through his right nostril there is a jet spray.

Reversing the sides, he repeats the earlier process and this time the left nostril releases the jet. Interrupting this activity, he sniffs a pinch of snuff. He continues in this manner as his body rocks back and forth in fervent prayer. His voice rings, his chair creaks and the table trembles with his activity.

The child doesn’t awaken. It is accustomed to the music. And she, shrunken, though still in her early middle years, indulges herself in the “nachas” of his renditions, not taking her eyes off her husband, sighing and listening intently for fear a single utterance might be lost. She releases a sigh, thinking, “If only he were as adept at making their way in this world as in his ‘other’ world, her life here might be bright and sunny. . . .”

As she listens to her inner voice reciting the words, her lined face twitches — her nerves arc taut. These thoughts have poured into her being a wild pleasure of anticipation. Imagine the nachas she enjoys from her husband’s Torah learning! Suddenly she is reminded — “This is already Thursday and there’s hardly a kopek to prepare for the Sabbath.” And the heavenly light which shone on her face becomes less and less bright — her smile fades and, as she looks out at the setting sun she realizes the day is drawing to a close and that there isn’t even a spoonful of warm water in the hut. So a dark shadow is on her face now as she glances at the infant starting to stir. In a moment the ailing child will be awake — and there’s not a drop of milk. Desperation has changed the shadow on her face to a black cloud and her knitting needles begin to tremble. She is remembering that, besides all of this, Pesach is almost upon them and her gold earrings and the Sabbath candlesticks are already pawned, the empty chest and chandelier sold! Now the knitting needles are doing a death dance. The clouds which veiled her face earlier have now turned an eerie blue, almost like ammunition for her gray little eyes become weapons…..

He is still poring over his books in study, not noticing the atmosphere’s becoming more and more tense, not noticing that she has abandoned the sock she was knitting and is now cracking her spindly knotted finger knuckles, furrowing her brow in agony. One eye is already half shut while the other is plunging dagger thrusts at him . . . her husband . . . the scholar. If he could only see all this as she does, he, too, would suffer chills in every fiber of his being. But he doesn’t see . . . nor does he see the trembling of her bluing lips. .. her quivering chin . . . her teeth chattering and how desperately she is trying to arrest an outburst. Anything could trigger off the deafening thunderbolt.

He studies and says aloud, “Listen . . . onto this word the embittered heart clings” . . . and this is the spark which ignites the gunpowder.

Her iron will is being tried to the limit. One unfortunate word opens all the bolted gates, and loosens all the hinges. She is beside herself and springs to her feet. She is frothing at the mouth in a rage and her finger nails arc imbedded in her cheeks.

“Oi! a curse should overcome you! Dear God!” She calls out in an angry hoarse voice. “A curse! Dear God!” she repeats and again screams in desperation. “Pesach is coming, it’s Thursday and the little one is sick — not a drop of milk in the house … Ah! Pesach!” She is breathless. Her hollow chest is heaving, and angry lightning flashes blind her eyes.

He remains transfixed, pale with fright. He leaps from his chair; breathless, he moves in the direction of the door. They stand facing each other – he, staring, glassy-eyed with fear — she, eyes burning in anger. He realizes she has no control, not in her tongue nor in her hands. His eyes squint and he thrusts the handkerchief end into his mouth. Moving away slightly, he breathes deeply and murmurs, “Listen, woman, do you know what it means not to allow your husband to study? eh? not to be a believer? . . . Foolish woman, evil woman, not to allow your husband to study. For this you may burn in hell.”

She doesn’t reply; this gives him added strength and as she grows paler and paler, his voice takes on greater emphasis.

“Hell-fire … to hang by the tongue . . . four deaths at the time of judgment!”

She is very still and her face is now chalk-white.

Instinctively, he feels how unjust he is, that he is punishing her, that he is dishonest. Nevertheless, he is unable to contain his anger. It seems that all the hurtful things he has kept inside himself until now pour forth:

“Do you know the translation of skilleh?” His voice booms at her like thunder. “Skilleh — it means to be thrust into a grave and covered with rocks. Fire! burning . . . that’s what it means — to pour into the intestines a spoonful of boiling hot lead! The battle to the finish . . . that’s what it means … to decapitate with a sword — like this” — he gestures choking by encircling his neck. “Understand? All for neglecting the Torah.”

Now his heart aches with pity for his victim, but this is the first time that he has been so brave — and he is intoxicated. … He had never realized before how easily she could be frightened. He stops short, thinking she might come to her senses and grab the broomstick. He springs to the table, closes his book and, as he rushes out he announces (in a softer voice than he had been using), “I’m going to shul,” and shuts the door firmly behind him.

The raised voices plus the banging of the door have awakened the small child. It raises its head slowly; the waxened face contorts as it starts to cry, causing a spray to gush from the little swollen nostrils. She remains standing — now she is beside herself — almost a stone figure hardly hearing the child’s voice.

“Hah!” She utters such a hoarse sound from a wheezing chest. “Not this world, not the next world. Hanging, he says, choking — hot tar — lead, he says, for neglect of the Torah!

“So — nothing — for me — nothing.”

There’s a pounding in her torn heart. Here there is hunger — not a dress, no candles to bless, nothing. The child is hungry and not a drop of milk. “Hanging by the tongue for neglect, he says. Hanging? Ha ha ha!” Puzzled, she laughs hysterically and in a rasping voice repeats, “Hanging? Yes, yes, but here, now, the same way. Why wait?”

The child cries out loudly. She doesn’t hear it.

“A rope! a rope!” She searches in every corner for a rope. “Where docs one find a rope? May he never find my remains here. Let me be rid of this purgatory. Let him know and feel it all. Let him be a mother. I’ll sacrifice myself— an angel of death — and let there be an end … a rope!”

Her voice calls out in despair, as one cries out for help in a fire. She remembers she had seen a rope somewhere. Yes! under the stove. It has been stowed there to retie the stove for the winter; it must still be there. She rushes over to reach for the rope. What joy! She found it, the treasure. She glances up at the ceiling. The chandelier stub is there; she must get up on the table. She jumps up and as she glances down from the table height she realizes that the frightened ailing child is sitting up, leaning out of the cradle and is trying to get out — about to tumble out.

“Mama,” the child cries out weakly. Now a new anger overcomes her. She throws the rope down — jumps off the table — rushes to the child – pushes its head back on the pillow, crying out, “Bastard! You won’t even let me hang myself – not even hang myself in peace! It wants to suck again — to suck at the breast. Poison! You’ll suck poison!

“All right, glutton, all right,” she cries out as she presses her breast into the child’s mouth. “Suck — suck and bite.”

 

I. L. Peretz (1852-1915) was one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. He lived in Russia during a period of great suffering and upheaval, and his writings show both his love for his people and his socialist leanings. Peretz wrote of the life of the Jews of the Czarist “prisonhouse of nations” with bitter realism, and was especially sympathetic to the plight of women. A Woman’s Wrath describes the plight of the poor Jewish woman without any of the later mystification and sentimentality about “the wonderful life in the shtetl” that characterizes writings of those who never lived or suffered there.  Zora Zagrabelna has appeared in Yiddish and English theatre and on Yiddish radio programs in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a translator of plays and fiction in both languages.