At first glance, this is a story about a market brawl, a squabble between porters in an Eastern European town a century ago. The refined storyteller, who is considered the father of the stream of consciousness narrative mode in Hebrew literature, had as if taken a “vacation” and descended to the common, crude and colourful life. However, this is a heart-breaking story about the attempt to escape existential desolation and the sense of absurdity it entails; an attempt carried out on several levels: that of the porter who tries to break free from his daily routine by going to the circus and the cinema in the nearby town; the attempt of all the bystanders watching the brawl, crowding around the squabbling people and quenching their dry souls through the unusual sight; and the attempt of the storyteller, who is in a state of intense distress, which manifests itself in the manner in which he relates the story of the brawl, to escape from desolation through the story itself. All these attempts ultimately fail. The thing from which the characters are attempting to escape— “let atar panui mineh” (“there is no place empty of it”), as Gnessin writes in Aramaic, the language in which the Kabala describes the divine eminence. Through the market scene, Gnessin tells a philosophical story.
Translated by: Yael Lotan
There by the long, plain, flour-dusty carts, which usually stood idly in the middle of the spacious empty square, beside the pot-bellied road which sprawled somewhat in the spring sun, with the scrawny little horses which seemed from afar to be frozen in rigid dreams, standing like a wall-painting, but for the occasional switch of their lazy tails at the troublesome flies about them, a multitude of loud voices suddenly erupted in ringing laughter, and the rather desolate square, eternally strewn with wisps of loose hay and sunk in flaccid sleep, suddenly shook feverishly and its immobile space resounded with bright waves of, “Oh ho ho ho!”
Along the low wires strung beside the broad road, from one pole with its white lamp to the next, perched a flock of staid sparrows, facing the brilliance; alarmed, the birds all took off at once, with a frightened rustle.
They flew off and began noisily to bathe and swirl in the tranquil azure light under the vast and friendly sky. Whrrr—Come, let them be, those floury, busy creatures down below! Let them fuss in their rows of squat, dismal shops on this insignificant patch of ground. Let the Duke’s abandoned castles and clipped orchards serve them for beauty and the bright steeple with its proud, foolish neck serve them for height. Whrrr—in truth, are all of these worth one deep breath of this pure wide azure, and the sublime dreams of its distant horizon?
Down below there was clamor and the area was suddenly shaken and full of voices. Dumb Yoli, a yellow, snub-nosed carter whose speech was incoherent, was apparently one of those speakers, as he lolled in his cart and excitedly emitted a strange yellowish roar, with a pointed conclusion, “The blagues of Egybt take im! Eh? Ho ho ho bull ’im, bull ’im, the blind dog! Ho!”
And his comrades, the other carters, shouted from their carts with voices like hammers:
“Ho! That cock, let him go to hell!”
“Ho ho! He’s just a blind dog! Eh?”
“Ho ho ho! Throw him out! Out of here, Chicken!”
“Cover it up, my boy!”
“It’s the truth, as I’m a Jew, ho ho!”
And suddenly the original loud outburst broke again and drowned the voices.
“Ho ho ho ho!”
It being a partial Christian holiday, the doors of the shops were partially closed. Soon the shopkeepers came out or peered through the shutters. At the butcher’s a little way off, the thumping of the cleaver was suddenly stilled. A window-pane rattled in the notary’s office on the second floor, and the casement was opened wide; then the fat chambermaid of the Central Inn, a low, many-windowed hostelry, who regularly appeared with her skirt hitched up and her arms bared as she meticulously emptied her pail into the rising black swamp opposite the shabby hallway, stood and rested her idle, longing gaze on the gang around the distant carts. It was quiet and the square was still again, the morning sun being sleepy.
Nearby, in the apothecary’s yard, the young redhead Prokhor, who served as a coachman, was grooming his master’s horses and placidly chanting psalms in a strange, churchy voice. Over there, by the long carts, where that ringing, extraordinary clamor had been raised, the wretched horses stood as if lifeless, while the robust, floured men sprawled wordlessly in their carts. One of them, a stocky, broad- shouldered fellow in a floury apron, stood beside his horse, his whip tucked under his arm, tying on a nosebag full of hay. It was quiet, and in the blue space above them a single sparrow turned and then descended calmly and settled on the iron wires. Had it been an error? Or a delusion, a dream of the ears that ached with the agony of the frozen stillness? A cock began to crow beside the distant river.
But human hearts had been aroused and could not be quieted at once. A wave had broken over them, and even if it were a dream, they would have another in its place. An error, you say? Oh no—do you really want, my merciful Jews, to see human life as devoid of all interest, like a dusty breeze? What else can the more intelligent among you have to offer?
A dream…the dream of a suffocating soul stuck in squalid idleness and dreaming of salvation? These are the vapid thoughts of a professional idler. No. Those ears heard laughter—will you please tell me what that laughter signified? The gods are kind, and those voices were tremendous—what did they mean, eh? Now people began popping out of their holes, grasping at straws. Soon they began bringing out rickety benches. Empty crates were shaken and thumped, while the shopkeepers sat outside their shops, expectant. What were they waiting for?
See here—the gods are kind, but not as kind as good people. One of the carters, Kopei Bendit the Chicken, tall and robust, somewhat cross-eyed, with one hunched shoulder, suddenly stood up in his cart and pointed his whip at his stocky, broad-shouldered brother-in-law, Chaim Lemi the Orphan, the one who was tending his horse. This same Orphan was always running away from his stumpy, sickly wife, who resembled her tall robust brother in having a crooked shoulder and was even more cross-eyed. She used to go to the Rabbi and wail in a deep, incoherent voice, and get something in writing, then wipe her nose and travel to Starodob, where she would drag her husband from the circus and take him home. The Orphan had married her more than eight years before, moved partly by love, a lonesome orphan’s love, instilled in him by the halfpenny stories he devoured in the traveling circus’s filthy stable, where he had been employed in his youth, and partly because he had had enough of the circus. Kopei Bendit, the tall, robust, cross-eyed fellow, had slapped him affectionately on the shoulder and cried:
“Take my word for it, brother! After all, you’re not a baby. You see that piebald and its cart? They’re yours. Yes! Wait a minute! Pillows and featherbeds too. And that fat samovar, that’s also hers—hey—spit, brother! We’ll have a swig and be brothers—What more do we need? By my life, eh?”
Only when he took his place under the wedding canopy one clear, icy night, his hand tucked under his arm as the elders led in the bride, and the harps and flutes played, he saw his little woman weeping, a single drop trickling down till it reached the tip of her nose, where it winked at him like a star on the rim of those blue heavens. And when they began reciting the blessing for him to repeat; he stammered and stumbled at every word, the merciful Jews correcting him in unison; and he did not recover that night except when his tall brother-in-law came and sat beside him and gave him a hug, already fairly drunk, and chattered, nodding weakly, “Mmm…Mmm…and so forth…You understand? Brothers—and so on…Don’t talk too much with that witch…Don’t! After all, you’re not a baby—that’s what it comes to…”
Suddenly he got up, struck his chest with his fist, and bellowed mournfully, “Come to me! You understand? To me! I’ll blunt her teeth I promise you, as I live! Mmm…Mmm…Let’s have a drop, brother—and so forth!”
The Chicken was half out of his cart and apparently preaching, and floury caps began rising out of the other carts. Now and then someone laughed briefly, or a whip pierced the air like that of the Chicken, and voices began to rise. Ha! To hell with them, their wives must have been stingy with the beans today, or that crust of bread they’re mourning about—aye! Carters, what do they know…
Then Reb Israel Leib Sweet, a prosperous shopkeeper who dealt in sweetmeats, rose and began strolling along his shop, the one under the notary’s office, and slowly moved on, while his fingers clumsily rolled a cigarette. He wore his usual black coat and red neckerchief, with the worn cap on his head. Reaching the opposite corner of the road he stopped and carefully licked the edge of the cigarette paper. Reb Mordechai Ber Shchavil, another affluent shopkeeper who dealt in flour, observed him from the further row of shops across the street.
He was a broad-shouldered, well-dressed person, with a full beard and red nose, and a black mole, which sprouted hair. He too rose and left his shop with a loud triple groan, “Ah,” he said. “Reb Israel Leib…Would you please, just a minute, Reb Israel Leib…I would like to say, if you would be so kind…this afternoon they will open the mill, and I would like to reclaim my carts—maybe he could lend one a small sum?—I will pay it back tomorrow—eh? Those carters, why are they so noisy today?” Someone in another corner saw them and began yawning and got up for a walk, while on the edge of the square, behind-the steeple, a different scene began taking shape, and soon the old square resembled one of those scenes of the resurrection, such as children imagine in their dreams, with figures moving about, tall and short, bent and” straight—moving slowly, individuals and groups, grunting and sighing and even talking.
Meanwhile that gang was also changing. The carts were empty and people, some floury and some not, crowded about them. The Chicken was there too, holding forth, but he was not alone. Many others talked in excited tones and ringing laughter, and the gang swelled. The Orphan was gloomy and ranting, “You animals! Savage Tartars!”
That was the language he remembered from the circus and the halfpenny stories he had read, and he always resorted to it, especially when he was angry.
“What did I say, what? I said you were all a pack of donkeys, all of you! Aye, as I am a Jew. What’s your life worth? You’re like dumb animals, savages, Asiatics, damn you! All you do is eat and drink and snore and…Shut up, Nosey! Human beings—you are human beings? Have you ever been to a show? Ever been to the teatre? You asses! Asiatics! Living with you! It’s hell living with you. As I’m a Jew! How can anyone live with you? Pfui!”
“Hey, hey!” These words got up the nose of one of the gang and the commotion grew louder. The bystanders began joining in, even those who had not come to watch. Kopei Bendit was silent, his flushed face stilled in dull wonder, while his companions whispered in his ears. Suddenly it seemed that something pierced his feeble brain and he pounced like an animal on his brother-in-law, and his voice rang out, “Whaa? That’s what you want, you uncircumcised Antichrist? To go back to being a tramp? Starodob’s calling you again?” He gritted his teeth: “Shut up, you dunce! Hey? Or I’ll squash you right here, like…like a flea—pfui!”
The gang fell silent and crowded closer. They were exercising self-control. But the Orphan started again from the beginning, in the same dark tone, “You animal! You African Tartar! What do you want from me, eh? What…”
But he did not finish. At the end of the opposite lane stood Moishe Butcher, a redheaded Jew who was always laughing and whose white teeth always gleamed in the sun, together with his filthy apron. He suddenly jerked forward with a resounding cry, and in harsh tones, which sounded like the pounding of the smith’s hammer cried, “Aha! Shut him up, Chicken! So the fine lad has started again? Shut him up, I say!”
The Orphan desisted. The blood rushed to his face, but he paled at once, turned his shoulder to his brother-in-law and began to defy him.
“And what if it is Starodob? So what, Starodob—What then? I’ll run off to Starodob, if I want to! Hey! So what?”
Suddenly a heavy sigh burst from all the listeners and the men took a deep breath. Then the excited voices rose again and the uproar increased “Oh ho ho! What a plague! With a wife and children! The nerve! Oh ho ho ho…”
Dumb Yoli’s dirty, burning face came forward and his angry bellow pierced the eardrums:
“The Antichrist! The horsh and cart, Topei! The horsh and cart, as I’m a Jew—let him go to hell! Hey!”
Moishe Butcher’s hammer resounded from the sidelines:
“A con, is he?” followed by: “Flatten him, the crook, flatten him!”
The clamor grew and burst like a dam, “Crush him! You, Chicken! Stick it to him! Squash the unclean animal! Hit him! Oh ho ho!”
The heads began to move apart; Suddenly there was a crack of a broken board in one of the carts, and a short, broad-shouldered figure burst through the crowd, its shorn head uncovered and its shaven face pale and bleeding on one side, its apron drooping, and it began to leap and charge and scream wildly, flinging its whip about, shouting and bellowing, “You Tartars, the plague take you! Animals! Eat and drink and snore…Animals!”
The group fell silent for a moment, somewhat stunned. Dumb Yoli, who had marched in fury to the harnessed horse with the fod- der-bag and taken the reins, left the whip to dangle over his shoulder as he stood with one foot on a wheel axle, remaining thus with his dirty face flushed and rigid. The Chicken, standing immobile, his big mouth wide open, breathed heavily like an overworked horse. The Butcher suddenly groaned from the depths of his belly, “Animals?! Hey? Finish him off!”
The gang shook. The heads came together again. The more respectable began to sidle away, while others, who were ready for a fight, fell into a commotion. The big Chicken closed his mouth and was the first to jerk forward with a strangled cry, waving a thick wooden board in the air and resembling, from a distance, one of those cheap prints showing Moses breaking the Tablets of the Law, while his hobnailed boots began stomping on the cobblestones. Moishe Butcher groaned and followed him, cleaver in hand, while the other carters swayed and moved on. The commotion swelled. First it was Yoli’s roar that thundered:
“Hey, you bastard!”
But the roar was drowned in the great tumult of voices that filled and overflowed the boundaries of the square.
“Ho ho! Get him, Chicken! He wants Starodob, damn him to hell! The Antichrist! With a wife and children, plague take him! Get a move on, Chicken!”
Suddenly a runaway cart began jolting down the road with a deafening clanging of metal, with Dumb Yoli standing up in it, his strong legs wide apart, whipping the wretched horse which swung from side to side between the shafts. His roars were jolted wildly amid the tumult and he growled like a beast, “The horsh and cart, damn him to hell! The traitor! You rotter! You unclean shaushage! Damnation!” And more shrilly: “Leave your wive and children to berish? Well, you vilthy beasht!”
A sudden wind swept over the spacious square, which had always been rather desolate, strewn with loose wisps of hay and sunk in languid sleep. Columns of dust rose and moved like waves, and through them could be discerned the rushing Jews, dogs scrambling from the butchers shop, barking frantically, and women shouting in the yards, while here and there windows slammed shut, and Yoli and his cart made a deafening racket, and the heavy door of the post office creaked and banged, until the raging storm conquered the square.
But once Yoli and his cart were gone and the pillars of dust slowly began to settle and dark knots of Jews formed, women clustered at the windows and a bunch of clerks gathered beside the post office and the notary’s bald pate shone in his second-floor window, not a trace of the storm remained. Silence fell, and the barking dogs vanished, and there was no more shouting. Far from the heart of the deserted square, at the end of the street, there appeared a dark crowd of men, swaying strangely, having apparently forgotten what they were about and fallen silent, the broad-shouldered Orphan at their head, his whip under his arm, followed by the tall Chicken with the wooden plank in his rigid hands, and then the rest of the carters, leaning forward as they trotted at a steady, lumbering pace, only concerned, apparently, not to spoil the formation. It was a strange parade, and the onlookers, who had not witnessed the start of the row, watched it in amazement, searching for an explanation.
What was the meaning of the race run by these grown men, for their enjoyment, or perhaps not? What was its object? But even those who might have provided an explanation, in the secret smugness of the sober-minded, for which their arid hearts yearned, even they ignored the nudges and whispers of their companions who did not know the answer, ashamed to admit to them that they too had been carried away, beyond the usual limits. They preferred to remain silent and gaze at the wordless, moving throng so as to avoid looking at their inquisitive companions. The square must have been too spacious for the small gang to conquer, and the dusty low roofs of the shops suddenly began to complain: What a dreary life it is, this life of ours, oh good people…
From a distance the gang caught a glimpse of Prokhor’s red shirt beside the apothecary’s squat, white, proud little shop. He was standing, combed and bareheaded, on the slightly raised porch at the entrance, and his usual psalms were suddenly recalled in the true purpose of the race. Moishe Butcher shouted in a ringing voice: “Prokhor, hey Prokhor!”
Prokhor shook like a hound at the hunter’s whistle, and abandoned his verses. He vaulted over the railing of the porch and dropped down on the fugitive, who swerved like a cat and ran back to the square, besid? his pursuers, who were unable to follow him because of Prokhor, who had misjudged his jump and to avoid falling hopped up and down in the street, his body leaning forward and his legs apart, kicking out. By the time he regained his balance he had reached the steeple on the other side of the street, and blurting out a curse he burst out laughing and resumed his tranquil recitation of verses. The gang found itself facing the market again, and continued its silent run in the same formation. Only when they reached Mor- dechai Ber Shchavil’s shop, which was open at both ends and had a door on the street where the Rabbi lived, the Orphan suddenly stopped still. When he saw Mordechai Ber’s sickly son sitting in the doorway with his hands on his cane, close to his chest, he gasped and growled, and for some reason shook his fist at him, “Spoiled offspring of a rotten mother! Her atonement, are you? Pfui!” Having said this he ran through the shop with the gang at his heels.
The square was visibly relieved. A filthy apprentice, holding a shoetree in his black hand, shouted to one of the lower windows, “To the Rabbi! As I’m a Jew—to the Rabbi, Mendel!”
Children broke into a run, and women laughed, and the Jews chatted and whistled. Mordechai Ber the shopkeeper turned up near the post office, to tell the gang of clerks all that had happened. His companion, Israel Leib, was enlightening the notary, whose head emerged from the second floor, with many Russian words and giggles. At the Central Inn the fat chambermaid was gleefully expounding to the guests who came out, and one traveler with a sleepy face and red blotches on his cheeks kept getting behind her to pinch her on her bare neck. She let out a shriek, which subsided softly, “Och, my trials…Mr Rosilkroit!”
In Shchavil’s passage shop the sickly young man, excited and pale, lips trembling, groaned and voiced his complaint to the crowd, which was dwindling as people went by the opposite exit to the street, which echoed with the laughter of women and the pranks of the children, with and without shoes on. The Rabbi’s house stood wide open, its windows packed with children and adults, thick as flies, as were the dining-room and corridor, while the black tail of the crowd straggled into the street.
Inside, everyone was talking at once, a noisy racket, in the midst of which a little cross-eyed woman stood beside the red curtain, holding two miserable, frightened girls by their hands. She was sobbing in a gruff masculine voice, blowing her nose and bellowing unintelligible phrases, while the Rabbi, who had come out of his private room with a great book in his hands and his spectacles on his nose, stood beside his great chair and listened with difficulty to the Chicken’s roar, “Hey! All of a sudden, the devil knows what goes on in his dirty mind. A man goes to sleep at night, healthy and sound—and then she says, Rabbi, he’s got fire in his belly!”
Chaim Lemi stood by the wall, pale and crushed, the trickle of blood on his cheek now dry and his head covered with a sort of crushed silk cap which had been found for him in the Rabbi’s house. He was silent, his pale face looking as if he had just broken the bonds of a strange dream and was wondering where he was. The Rabbi, still standing with a hand in his half-opened book, was saying something, it seemed, and asking several questions, but did not hear anything. The Chicken was close by, wiping his dirty, low brow with his filthy sleeve. It seemed that he had finished speaking. But suddenly the Orphan’s face flushed and he emerged from his corner, ploughed through the crowd to the Rabbi and shouted, “Rabbi! No…Rabbi! I ask you…what I want to ask you…For example, Rabbi…when I married the woman—doesn’t it mean…Doesn’t it mean that I’m the man? Me? I’m the man, aren’t I?”
He stopped and glanced at the Rabbi’s face. Seeing the Rabbi’s face turned to him he banged his fist on the table.
“The hell with her! When I say beans, that’s what it should be, beans! Isn’t that so, Rabbi? Should be beans, say!”
Suddenly he fell silent and his face once again turned pale. The uproar began again. The Rabbi sat down and laughed, and his twitching shoulders revealed his growing anger. The woman continued to chatter unintelligibly, and the tall Chicken began to yell again. The crowd was aroused. Dumb Yoli’s piercing scream resounded from the street as he approached, now on foot, scraping his hobnailed boots on the hard ground, and Chaim Lemi looked down and backed away to the wall in a daze. Suddenly the woman began howling again, and Chaim Lemi looked-at her and saw her cross-eyed face, faded and wrinkled like an old boot, and from the swollen tip of her nose hung a trembling drop, and unable to restrain himself he charged at her, roaring, “Home, you witch! This minute!”
One of the frightened girls began to cry, while peals of laughter filled the place and the racket started again. The woman was alarmed and her face fell even more. She put up a hand to shield her lowered head, as Chaim Lemi suddenly spat: “Pfui!”
Rushing to the open door, he roared: “That’s enough, you animals!”
The onlookers, shocked, moved out of his way. In the corridor some tried to block his way, but he grunted and someone fell down with a curse. Once in the street he stopped and shouted up at the windows, “You, witch! Hey, tell that witch of mine to go home now. Right now! I want something to eat!” He roared out in conclusion, “You wild animals! You savage Tartars! The hell with you and your dirty hearts…pfui!”
That afternoon, when the doors of the flour-mill opened and the carters drove up their noisy carts, including Shchavil’s two carts which he had reclaimed, Chaim Lemi stood by, urging on his lazy horse and lighting his cigarette with the burning end of his brother- in-law’s, who was also whipping his horse forward. And when the Chicken saw the other’s apron hanging loose, as it had that morning, he growled, “That witch, the plague take her! Is she too sick to sew it up so it won’t hang down?”
He sucked on his cigarette and handed it back to his brother- in-law, spitting with excitement.
But Chaim Lemi seized his brother-in-law’s thick paw and touching the end of his cigarette to the other cigarette, exclaimed as he inhaled: “To sew it?…And what about food?… Women—She made a Yom Kippur for me today!”
The Chicken recoiled as if bitten by a snake, and his neck swelled and reddened, “What?! That’s the sort of trick she’s up to?—The idiot. I’ll teach her a lesson!”
He fixed his cross-eyed gaze on his brother-in-law, who had lit his cigarette and was puffing on it to get it going. He seized his shoulder affectionately and straightened it. Then he promised him, beating his fist on his heart, “You listen to me, brother—you’ll see! Don’t let anything stop you—just slap her down! One-two-three—slap her down! Hey hey, stop right there! Ah, that’s the way!”
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