Fiction: “Do Not Punish Us”
Chana Blankshteyn (1860?– 1939) is almost entirely forgotten now, but she was a well-known figure in Vilna between the two World Wars. She was an activist, committed to women’s causes and vocational training for women. As a publisher, editor, and journalist, Blankshteyn defended women’s rights to social, sexual, and political equality. She belonged to the Folkspartey, which argued that Jews were an ethnic minority with a distinct secular linguistic and cultural identity that should be acknowledged and cultivated. Her collection of nine Yiddish short stories, with an introduction by noted Yiddishist Max Weinreich, was published in July 1939. That such a book appeared in Vilna just before the Second World War is remarkable. Even more remarkable are the modern stories in that book. Here is one of them.
A group of doctors, mathematicians, and lawyers who had just completed their final exams celebrated by organizing a friendly gathering. In the morning they took a boat out to a small summering place famous for its historic castle and its large, lush park that stretched for several miles along the river. There was a small pavilion built in an antique Italian style, with a restaurant inside. Once upon a time, after a walk, lovely, proud ladies with powdered hair and laced-up bodices rested there. Cavalrymen, and black cuirassiers, and dragoons in clothing embroidered with gold and silver drank Burgundy from their silk shoes, rode horses at breakneck speed, tortured their slaves nearly to death in order to give their beloved, at the exact right moment, a note on perfumed rose paper with a royal coat of arms.
The long narrow table was set on the green meadow, encircled by old bushy fir trees and tall hundred-year-old oaks. Squirrels with golden red tails were on the branches. One could imagine that, from behind a large tree that two people holding hands could not have encircled, a satyr with goat’s feet would appear, looking at a wood nymph he desired.
About twenty people were sitting around the table, among them a few older friends who lived in the city. Quite a few bottles had already been emptied and lay on the grass. The group was heated by glasses of wine, happy that the difficult months had passed and excited to be in the crystal clear air with its strong scent of earth and trees.
She sits at the end of the table and refreshes herself with frozen punch. Slowly, with a small spoon, she snacks on the cold, sweet dish, and with closed eyes breathes in the strong scent of rum.
“Pretty Max” stands up from his place next to his friend, the private tutor, and with measured steps approaches her. “A hot day,” he says most earnestly, and waits for an answer. Pretty Max deals with everything in the world most earnestly, and most of all with himself. A young man without uncertainties: he never doubted that he would become a famous gynecologist and travel around in his own car; never doubted that all the female students were in love with him and he even pitied them a bit—clearly, he couldn’t love all the women at the same time!
Since she is still silent, he moves a chair near her, sits down and stretches out one foot in its lavender sock, exactly the same color as his enormously wide handkerchief in the breast pocket of his elegant brown summer suit. Because Pretty Max takes everything so earnestly, everything about him is exaggerated: not simply well-dressed, but elegant, not simply spoke, but orated—impressing even himself. Friends used to laugh at him, but in a good-natured way. To tell the truth, he never injured anyone by word or deed. The female students also laughed at him, but not really wholeheartedly—he was, after all, a handsome young man. Unusually handsome.
“I want to visit you before we all go our separate ways. Tomorrow, at two o’clock I’ll have the honor to do so.”
His brown velvety eyes claim her attention. She feels them on her skin, on her suddenly dry lips. It isn’t the first time that she blushes when he speaks to her. She jokes about him just as the others do, but, still, she likes him. Raised in her grandfather’s well-to-do household in the village, she is drawn to him with all of her healthy youthfulness. Whenever she meets him, her blood pulses faster and her heart beats more loudly. She thinks that he has the same effect on the other girls. They don’t want to admit it, or they just don’t say so aloud.
Pretty Max stands up:
“So, tomorrow at two o’clock. You won’t be bored,” he continues with ingenuous solemnity. His velvety eyes caress her. A bit of red pours over her cheeks, flares down her neck. She bows her head. “Good.” Pretty Max returns to his place near the private tutor. He is calm and earnest.
It has become very hot. And she is also tired. She wants to lie down. At least for a quarter of an hour. Not more. With gentle, womanly gracefulness she stands up, takes her coat from amongst the clothing strewn about, and goes to sit under the trees. A friend calls. Someone laughs. She doesn’t stop. She pretends not to hear. In the woods, it’s not as hot. Here, under the old fir tree whose branches hang down to the ground, she stretches out. She sees them all from afar, but here it’s not as noisy. The thick branches swallow the cheerful voices.
She puts her coat under her head, stretches out. How nice it is here! An isolated, hidden corner. Over her head—an entwined green roof. It’s just like in the old story about the beautiful queen whose husband, the wood nymph, cast a spell over her. She had seen illustrations of the story at the dentist’s where she lived. She doesn’t remember why and how the mean king cursed his wife. Her head is spinning…. But in such an old thick forest there really could once have been all sorts of beings, good and bad spirits, nymphs and monsters. Only now does she feel how very tired she is. Deep in her bones, she still feels the weight of the last difficult exams. The professor drove the students hard. He had been especially angry today. Maybe he was on the verge of an attack of gallstones. Whenever that happens, he doesn’t know what to do with himself or others. She isn’t at all afraid of mathematics, but it’s still good to know that everything went well. She can finally sleep peacefully… But what’s so strange? He? Pretty Max?
Dry needles from the fir tree pour down. Someone is coming…. Who can it be? Who? The tall trees move apart, the woodland king appears. Two pairs of gnomes, one pair following the other, carry his long green beard. In their free hands they hold tiny golden axes. Behind them walks the chief marshal, the old satyr with his goat’s feet. The woodland king, with the yellow face of the mathematics professor, stops. She wants to flee, but behind her the satyr’s horns emerge. He raises his scepter with its head of a dead owl. She feels faint. She feels his green beard on her cheeks. She knows—it is a great honor when the lord of the field and forest casts his eye upon a mortal girl, but, still, she has taken all her exams…. Why does she deserve this? No, no! Suddenly the branches start to rustle, thousands of birds sing sweetly, the entire meadow is full of nymphs and sprites. They stand around the woodland queen. Golden hair bedecks her white back, redolent flowers circle her body. On her head she carries a crown of diamonds that the gnomes dug out of the depths of the mountains for her. She raises her hand.
“Aha! Caught! Lusting after a young nymph!”
Her mother of pearl bosom rises and all the birds emit a melodic sigh. The chief marshal lowers his horns and hides behind the king.
The girl under the tree jumps up on a wide tree branch. The thick growth hides her. No one sees her. The woodland king raises his nose, just like the professor.
“Foolish woman, are you jealous? Do you concern yourself with the women who creep around on the earth? They are born and disappear like dust under our feet. Don’t you know that I cannot allow our godly generation to die out? Even you, immortal women, don’t understand your men!”
A wild storm erupts. Tall trees bow down and tremble like torn leaves. Thunder splits the sky. All the living beings fall down. The woodland king’s eyes burn like fire and his voice is louder than the thunder.
“Go, foolish woman. Because of your jealous curiosity I cast upon you my royal curse. Go!”
The queen lowers her head. A bejeweled tear falls from her diaphanous eyes. She departs slowly. Around her is her frightened retinue.
The golden axes resound in the hands of the gnomes. The earth shakes under the woodland king’s heavy steps. He disappears.
As soon as the godly pair disappear the thunder is silenced, the birds once again begin to praise the day, and the sun in the clear heavens smiles down on the world.
She jumps down from the tree branch and heads through the forest. A clear river beckons her from afar. Heatedly, she throws herself into the cool stream, jumps out, dries herself in the golden sand on the shore, weaves a crown, and adorns herself with white lilies. A sweet melody is heard: the little lonesome shepherd is playing on his fife. She runs over, taps him on the forehead and hides among the bushes. But the shepherd finds her. She sits on a fallen tree trunk. She refreshes herself with the redolent honey of a green leaf that has stolen out of the hollow of an oak tree.
The old black billy goat gathers the white sheep. He knows that as soon as the young shepherd runs after a girl, he—the old billy goat—must guard the flock.
Suddenly two white doves fly by. They are blowing on narrow silver trumpets— the queen’s messengers are summoning her nymphs. She reminds them that she, too, is in the king’s retinue. She runs to where the silver trumpets beckon.
The entire court is already assembled on the flowery meadow. In the middle stands a tall brown jackass. Its coat shines like copper under the sun. The queen rises from her throne. The white swans at her feet spread their wings and fly after her. Two nymphs bring a wreath of roses. The queen puts it on the jackass’s forehead. It turns around, looks at her with big brown eyes, stretches out its head and emits a long dreadful cry. The queen is delighted.
“Listen to how majestic and grand is his sweet voice. Listen!”
The sapphire eyes shine, the dainty hand with the coral nails stretch out. A contented sigh raises the buds on her mother-of-pearl breast. The evening stars of her crown, a gift from her sister the Night Queen, descend…
Tenderly she embraces the ass’s thick mane… The queen’s companions cover their faces with their hair and weep quietly. Others laugh. Behind the trees there are all sorts of creatures who live in the forest and make fun of their ruler whom the king, her husband, punished with the curse that she would bless an ass with her divine body. The old satyr, the Chief Marshal, leans on his scepter with its head of a dead owl. He shakes his horns gleefully. “Ha, ha, the proud and beautiful queen is in love with a fool.”
The young woman under the tree trembles in sadness and pity. Shame has turned her face red. Frightened, she startles. Where is that laughter coming from? She leans on her hand. Where is she? And where is the angry king with the professor’s yellow face? And who is there on the meadow? She stares. A tall man is standing near the table. She sees him through the branches. His straight, dark hair falls over his ear. His brown suit glistens like a pelt. Who is he? Whom does he resemble? And why are they laughing around the table? Oh my, whom does he resemble?
The strong, healthy young woman, the first female mathematician to graduate, sits under the bushy fir tree and sways, just like her old grandmother at home used to do when saying her prayers on the Sabbath. Swaying and murmuring and wringing her hands. “Protect and shield me, Master of the Universe! Do not let my foolish infatuation crown the ass in my heart. Grant mercy to your daughters. Do not punish us with a fool.”
Cheerful voices call out:
“How much longer will you sleep? Get up, we’re going swimming!”
Anita Norich is Collegiate Professor Emerita of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her most recent book, A Jewish Refugee in New York (2019), is a translation of a Yiddish novel by Kadya Molodovsky.
Art: “In Sync” by Kathy Ruttenberg, kathyruttenberg.com