The Letter to God
By Anatoliy Krym
Translated from the Russian by Anatole Bilenko
To Volodomir Yavorivsky*,
"Needles! Needles! The best needles money can buy for your primus. Buy my needles!"
Dressed in a dirty tarpaulin raincoat pieced together from patches of an old army tent, shuffling across muddy puddles in what used to be army boots cut to ankle height, he coursed his route through the serried rows of second-hand dealers like a needle with basting thread that penetrates the thick wadding of a quilted jacket in the hands of a seamstress, as he angrily mumbled his hawker's call, which occasionally drowned the clamorous bazaar that bloomed on Fridays in the little town of Severinivka. He used to mill in the crowd the whole day through, managing to sell two or three and, when luck served him kindly, even four needles which the housewives recalled in hot blood whenever the wares of the half-witted Lemares bent or broke after the third attempt to push the needles into the soot-clogged kerosene vapor nozzles to clean them.
Everyone called him by his surname - Lemares - having forgotten his name a long time ago. According to his passport, he was Yankel Ruvimovich Lemares, but who would take the trouble of looking into that passport and to whom would it occur to dignify by a patronymic a half-witted tatterdemalion who earned his daily bread through such a trivial occupation. But - truth to tell - without these "needles" not a single primus in Severinivka would have been operable, let alone the two pressurized kerosene stoves in the homes of the Commissioner for State Procurement and the Chairman of the Town Council.
No one in Severinivka was interested in the past of Lemares; it was known to the majority of the residents or, to be more precise, the minority who miraculously survived the last Friday of October in the first year of the war.
From the window of a hardware store in which Lemares was manager, salesman and storeman wrapped into one, he saw how three trucks drove into the square that was wet from the rain. Urged on by the orders of SS-men whose armored personnel carrier headed the column, a black mass of auxiliary policemen recruited from local collaborators jumped down from the trucks. Scattering in all directions, they worked the bolts of their rifles with a clatter along the way. Shortly after, the neighboring houses exploded in a pandemonium of shrieks and crying, as half-dressed women, old men and children began to fill the square.
Lemares survived by a mere chance, since he lingered in his store for some reason. When the people were being driven into the square, he looked out of a window trying to find his relatives in the crowd. Then he dashed to the storeroom, opened the door of the back entrance, and meandered through the kitchen gardens toward his house. Now where else can a man run at a time of danger? Of course to his home that would save him by all means, hide him from trouble, to the home where his wife and children were expecting him. But he did not reach his destination. At the end of the neighboring kitchen garden somebody knocked him off his feet and dragged him into a little pigsty still holding the warmth of the piglets that had been requisitioned for the Red Army. He twisted his head like someone demented, as his invalid neighbor, Vasil, having sealed Lemares' mouth with a palm, whispered breathlessly, "Hush, hush."
He tried to break lose, but the neighbor pushed him into a dung heap. Lemares couldn't as much as move a finger. He twisted and turned, trying to wrench himself from Vasil's iron grip, moaning, biting, spitting - all in vain. He was no match to Vasil's strength. At all events he should have shut his eyes so as not to see through a chink in the wooden wall how the police shoved, pushed and kicked his wife Rachel, the elder son Fimka and the younger son Arkasha, herding them together with the other residents of what had been then a sizable shtetl. Lemares should have shut his ears so as not to hear among the hundreds of the doomed the voices of his children crying, "Papa! Papa!" Yet he saw and heard all this, dying from fear and his incapability of being beside them at this moment.
After surrounding the people with ferociously and by now hoarsely barking dogs, the Germans drove them to the outskirts of Severinivka and from there along a country road toward a forest, at the edge of which was a clay quarry. The faint echo of bursts of automatic fire was muffled by a whistling wind that was clearing the way for the first snow.
It's a wonder that he did not die of a fatal heart attack. Probably it's because in a flash he ceased feeling where his heart was and even much later, after a month, a year, whenever he put a hand to his chest, he did not hear even its weak beating. His heart had died.
What had happened must have deprived him of speech. He did not speak for a whole year, fearing to hear his own voice, and to all the questions anyone asked him he nodded submissively like an old weak-sighted horse.
Once Severinivka was liberated, Lemares, unlike the other residents, did not go into the forest in search of a common grave. He did not want to believe that his near and dear ones had died, and during the long nights his waning mind was composing a fairytale about the incredibly lucky rescue of his family. And why not? Miracles did happen and quite a few of them had been recorded in old revered books.
Many a holiday in his past life was slipping his mind. They would begin in the evening when the head of the family solemnly produced a thick folio from a gloomy nook and read about the Red Sea that parted to save the chosen people, about the burning bush that blazed up before a frightened Moses, about the unearthly beauty of a temple that grew up in a dusty Jerusalem, about the angel who stayed the hand of Jacob. Why then could Rachel, Fimka and Arkasha not be alive? Couldn't they be somewhere far away, in other worlds, in other countries, without any hope of a chance meeting, but - alive? Couldn't God have saved their lives just at a snap of His finger? It would have cost Him nothing.
Sometimes such pictures flared up before his eyes during sleepless nights and then died out like a spent candle.
After the war Vasil died after exerting himself to the utmost at railroad works - nobody cared that he was an invalid, since everyone was driven to work, even those who could move around on one leg. His widow resettled to her daughter in Siberia, leaving Lemares the hut with one room, along with a pantry and pigsty, in which the dung that had once saved his life turned to stone. That's how he dragged out his miserable existence in a ramshackle hut that the winds scourged as they wished; in the evenings he kindled the stove to boil his teakettle and pour boiled water over a handful of millet. The things the former mistress left behind stood him in good stead as well: Vasil's old sheepskin coat that saved against the cold, chipped cups and three bowls, a bench and two stools - what else does a widower need but a roof over his head? A paradise, no less!
It took a long time for Severinivka to pull itself out of the ruins, but once the district center dispatched to this place managers wearing faded military field uniforms with wound chevrons it roused the people to action - six months later a steam-powered sawmill was puffing, a packaging shop was opened, and the grocery store began selling tea, sugar and even laundry soap. Never mind that all these goods were sold against ration cards - they reappeared on the shelves.
In spring, succumbing to the instinct of thousand years ago, people made the way to their kitchen gardens. A little such plot also adjoined the ramshackle hut of Lemares. For three days he measured it worriedly by long strides, not understanding what he should do with it. He hadn't the slightest idea what to plant, he hadn't any seeds besides, and, incidentally, he hadn't been trained in farming, having all his life worked in a hardware store. Nails, spades and rakes were his element, his vocation, which he stubbornly refused to forsake. Besides, destiny did not wish that Lemares quit the hardware trade, presenting him with a gift from a garbage heap - a big roll of thin wire, out of which he crafted his "needles."
Captain Poboynia landed in Severinivka after being discharged from military service because of battle wounds. Throughout the entire war he had not received a single letter from his family, and while he mired in the swamps of Belorussia, braved the Seelow Heights in the environs of Berlin, and raked the gray Berlin houses with gunfire, he always thought about his family - wife and daughter; during the brief lulls in the fighting he wrote them letter after letter, but all in vain. He wrote to near and distant relations - to everyone he remembered, asking to clear up, suggest and find out whether his wife and daughter were alive, but in response he received from his neighbors only one brief letter replete with dark hints. Only after he returned to his native town of Zhitomir did he learn that his wife and daughter were hanged as accomplices of partisans. At first he could not believe it - his wife was a quiet, timid women, but in the place where his house had once been there stuck just a lonely charred flue of the chimney, and a woman neighbor, who was rummaging in the adjoining ruins, told him with tears and sighs what had really happened. The partisans had blown up a shop at the railroad depot; the Germans rounded up hostages from the nearest houses, and then hanged them in public: as an object-lesson for others and yet another of the thousands of gory episodes of the Great War.
He did not burst into tears, neither was he surprised by his unruffled composure. Everything inside him turned into stone and became dead. He did not want to think or to live. For half a day he sat near that flue, smoked up his entire stock of trophy cigarettes, and then went to the commandant's office.
The next day he was offered a job with the militia, for all that he was weathering a shoulder wound. After all, it wasn't an injured leg; his legs were healthy, and for the militia the legs were the main thing. He agreed listlessly - if it's the militia, let it be the militia, but only on one condition: to be detailed as far as possible from the charred ruins of his home, even to the back of beyond. That's how he appeared in Severinivka.
The militia district station was manned by Sergeant-Major Tikhonenko and three militiamen. Poboynia's wounds mended, the shoulder did not ache even in rainy weather, and only inside him it was cold and rock-hard as before, and not only inside. He had a stony face, on which neither the Severinivka residents nor the men under his command ever saw a smile or any other expression of emotions; stony was his pace, gestures and even brief words of commands or orders, for which reason everyone was rather afraid of the militia chief and, perhaps, that's why the local pickpockets and swindlers moved to neighboring Popelnia where the authorities were good-natured, foulmouthed and not loath to payola.
One April morning something faltered in Lemares' soul. He had just undertaken to dig up his neighbor's kitchen garden: the Severinivka bazaar was closed that day, and although his stock of needles was fairly large, there was no hope whatsoever that this stock would provide for his livelihood everlastingly. Of course, wielding a spade was not his vocation, but Zinaida, a soldier's widow, was a kind, sleek woman who worked at the bakery, so digging the garden could by any reasoning earn him half a loaf of bread for sure.
The soil was soft as butter and, while digging the first row, he felt that something was similarly melting inside him and becoming as alive and pliable. The surprise made his lips curl - now what joy could be ahead? Well, the sun had slightly burned the soil, warmed his hands and face - that's what spring was supposed to be. But no, the reasons behind the feeling were the woman's words - rapid, fluid like the peas she intended to plant to be ripe by Easter. That's exactly what she said, "My Easter." He already forgot what that Easter was like, he forgot the word itself, because the holidays had disappeared and hid in his mind somewhere. Of course, Zinaida meant her Christian Easter, but he remembered that before her Easter there was certainly his Passover!
Now something turned in his stomach. Much earlier than the brain his stomach made him vaguely recall the Passover Seder meal. Surprised, he lent an ear to his stomach (no, he hitched up his shirt to look at it!), which over the past five years hadn't known anything except potatoes, stale bread and nettle soup, and his face crinkled into a silly smile. As it proved, the brain was not only inside the head, but a tiny bit of it was hiding in the stomach. God did wisely by distributing the human organs in such a manner. Should the head forget, the stomach will remind about it without fail.
It was a good thing that Lemares recalled the Passover. All his life he had celebrated this most important and bright day of the year like his parents and the parents of their parents until the war burst the endless chain of the agonizing suspense of this day in spring. With an impatient childish desire he wanted to return to the distant past when Rachel lit the Passover candles, while he produced from the cupboard an old book, and moving his finger along the lines, read in a sing-song manner the prayers fit for such an occasion. He also thought that if he celebrated Passover this year, all his relatives living now in heaven would be happy, and on the windowsill he would by all means leave for them something from the Passover repast which they'd take after he fell asleep.
He kept on digging the kitchen garden, oblivious of the tears that trickled down his dirty, bristly cheekbones, as he sniffled, smiled, and burst into tears again. After his imagination had toyed long enough with the pictures of the past, and when he had mentally celebrated in detail all the Passovers he remembered since his childhood, something cold hit his face and erased the pictures. He thought that the sun had set behind a cloud and the chill of winter had returned and was capriciously hesitant to leave, but the sun shone as brightly as before, while the chill had been caused by an unpleasant thought that was impossible to banish.
Where on earth can you get the boodle to celebrate your Passover, Lemares? he asked himself with a bitter smile. You're poorer than Job's turkey, as they say; you haven't stripped off your shirt for a whole year and it stinks not of sweat but of mice and an old junk dealer's store. You haven't got the money for a frugal Passover meal or even for a visit to the bathhouse, which Severinivka's Militia Chief Poboynia himself opened last week with an orchestra. You have nothing, Lemares, except the old book with a multitude of prayers. So the question is why did God set a holiday, if Lemares cannot enjoy it? After all, it's a holiday not only for people, it's certainly a day conceived primarily for Him to descry the little lights of all candles, count those lights and bless those who are now trying to speak with Him. On that day He must descry His woefully depleted people and decide what to do with them tomorrow - to be severe as before or, finally, to forgive them?
When Lemares finished digging, the sun had already rolled behind a cloud, having surrendered to the falling darkness as to the mercy of as victor, but this was of no importance anymore. The main thing was that he had decided what he would do in the evening today.
Captain Poboynia took a look at the frightened face of Sergeant-Major Tikhonenko and asked in a thick voice:
"I don't even know how to put it, Comrade Captain," the Sergeant-Major whispered tremulously, swallowing the endings of his words.
"If you don't know, then get the hell out of here and put your act together first!" the Militia Chief advised, but since the Sergeant-Major stayed in place like a stump that could hardly be uprooted, the Militia Chief asked crossly, "So what's the matter?"
"Smacks of politics, Tikhon Andreiovich," the Sergeant-Major whispered, his eyes bulging.
"What?" The weird report made the Militia Chief rise from his chair.
"I'll explain right now!" his assistant launched into a rapid gabble. "We opened the bathhouse last week in compliance with the order from the regional center so as to keep lice and any other pests under control."
"So what?" Poboynia hit the desk with his fist from impatience.
"There was this order for the bathhouse to be working on Sundays! That's exactly what we did, the people are happy, approve of this measure, but in the morning when you were still in the district center a bunch of Yids shows up and starts demanding that the bathhouse work on Fridays. Imagine that? It's as much as a riot!"
"Why on Fridays?" Poboynia asked, furrowing his forehead.
"That's exactly what I asked myself! Why on Friday? It's a working day, while Saturday is just the right time. A wash in the morning and you're free for the rest of the day! What's more, fresh beer's been delivered to the teahouse!"
"But what has . ," Poboynia faltered, but nonetheless said nervously, "What's politics got to do with all that?"
"Religion is the root of the matter! Wherever there is religion, there's also politics. With the Yids it's altogether different than with other people! They don't give a damn about our Sundays! From them it's Friday that counts the most. That's why they demand Friday to be Bathhouse Day. It's the Rabbi from Popelnia who's stirring the cauldron, and they keep running to him every Friday."
"Why do they run to that place?"
"Want to know why? Because Severinivka lacks a religious establishment, that is, a synagogue. And thanks to God! A synagogue is the last thing we'd want! What about arrest?"
"The Rabbi. There must be somebody who ordered them to visit the bathhouse on Fridays! No more than seventeen, all of them to be provided with hot water and steam! We won't be able to lay in enough coal for their pleasure!"
"Seventeen what?" Poboynia asked irritably. "Can you speak more clearly?"
"The Yids, who else! Seventeen of them left in Severinivka."
The Captain forcibly pulled the constantly jamming drawer out of his writing desk, produced a pack of cigarettes he had obtained in the district center, and lit up slowly.
The Sergeant-Major had his own ideas about the Captain's silence. The Chief was sunk in thought, and that's good. Oh well, as to politics he got worked up a bit, but it's common knowledge that any politics begins with religion; although the religion in question wasn't pushed to the wall too much now, the war was over, there was a shortage of labor, but that didn't mean that vigilance should be thrown to the wind. The last thing was to lose vigilance. We routed the Nazis, but our domestic enemy is not slumbering, biding his time in disguise for the suitable chance.
After fidgeting for a while, Tikhonenko took out of his service shirt a quarter of a page and, straightening to attention, guardedly put it on the table.
"This is the list of those who demand that the bathhouse work on Fridays."
"How many were there in Severinivka before the war?"
"You mean the Jews? Well, a little over two thousand. The Germans mowed everyone to the roots. Mostly in the clay gully in the forest. A commission came here to investigate ."
"I know." Poboynia deeply inhaled the cigarette smoke, went over to the window and asked again, "So to date there are seventeen of them?"
"Yes, Comrade Captain!"
"All right," the Captain said with a sigh. "When they show up again, send them to hell! Tell them that I don't give a damn who wants to wash on what day! Fomenting anarchy, that's what they do! In compliance with government orders, all Soviet people must have a bathhouse day on Sunday! Period!"
"Got it, Comrade Captain," the Sergeant-Major rendered a brisk salute and marking his time, asked specifically, "There'll be no arrests then?"
"Listen, Sergeant-Major, how are we dealing with the speculators? I've heard that two sacks of sugar were sold on the bazaar, while two weeks ago that sugar had been lying around in the warehouses in Popelnia."
Tikhonenko turned red in the face and, rendering a salute again, reported:
"Comrade Captain, measures will be taken! Request permission to leave."
Poboynia gave a nod and the Sergeant-Major left, catching his foot on an empty pail in the entrance hall.
The Captain lit up a second cigarette, gingerly pushed the window frame and it opened easily, letting a wave of fragrant spring air into the smoke-filled office. Inhaling the air, Poboynia closed his eyes and tried to imagine the stone shelves of the new bathhouse, the scalding steam obscuring the sweating room; he even seemed to hear the swashing slaps of birch brooms, and all of a sudden he had an irresistible urge to strip down to nothing and rush into the sweet steamy bliss.
He started, opened his eyes and shook his head. Got yourself unsettled, you fool! You might as well dream about Easter! Or else run to a priest for advice!
Still, the bathhouse wouldn't leave his mind. He'll have to visit it on Sunday. Not within a general crowd, of course, but alone. After closure.
Lemares sat down at the table, placed a thick sheet of yellow paper in front of him, moved up the ink well, picked up the pen he had borrowed from Zinaida, and fell to thinking.
He was a literate man and knew what to write - yes, he knew; he'd compose it in silence, rolling the words over like pebbles and arranging them in the proper order. He also knew to whom he'd write the letter, but only two questions tortured his mind and didn't allow him to write the first character.
Firstly, he did not know in what language to write. For God it would certainly be more convenient to read the letter in the Hebrew script, since He was a Hebrew God after all and it would please Him that Lemares had not forgotten his roots. But on the other hand, the letter could be opened at the post office where not a single Jew was employed, and on seeing the weird characters, an employee might take the letter to an unwanted place or - God forbid! - throw the missive into a trash bucket. Hereupon followed the "secondly." He was well aware that nothing good would come of his venture, because the sender might scare the foolish postmen who'd surely take the letter to the stone-jawed Militia Captain. Yes, they would take the letter to an undesirable place, and therefore the stony goy, once he opened the letter, should see that it was a strictly personal letter that included a modest request and in no way offended the might of a great country. Such a letter would by all means be sealed again and sent to the addressee, the envelope bearing a little stamped mark - Lemares happened to see the soldiers' handmade triangular letters with the "censor-checked" mark.
Well then, he would write the letter in Russian - that's for one. Also, he conceived of addressing the recipient in a manner that'll be fixed up to a "T," and that's for another. As to the address, the people at the post office would sort things out - he was not the first and not the last to knock on His door with a request. Yet Lemares is the smartest of them all. They raise their heads to heaven and beg, demand, and supplicate to do anything that comes into their heads - from health for themselves to affliction for others. What can He make out in that clutter? Nothing. But the letter by Lemares will be read and reread with pleasure. He will read Lemares' letter against the background of a choir of thousands upon thousands of foolish cadgers who keep annoying Him every day much more than the flies in July.
Lemares carefully dipped the pen into the inkwell, shook off the ink drop hanging on it and, checking the tremor of his clumsy bruised fingers, painstakingly began to scrawl the letters.
Dear Comrade God,
Writing to You is Yankel Lemares, one of the sheep from Your flock. When there were many Jews around, You might not have noticed me, but now very few of us have remained and You can count us all on the fingers of Your hand even from such an enormous height. I've never bothered You, dear Comrade God, with any requests and was even angry when others addled Your brain with trifles. But now I have a favor to ask You and, I hope, it won't be a very difficult one for You. The thing is that I am absolutely alone in my Severinivka, a total orphan as it were, without any relatives except You. The Nazis killed my wife and children and they are now beside You and, I think, also interceding for me. So I am absolutely alone, earning my bread the hard way by selling primus needles and you know how much money that gains. That's slender living, but there's nothing else I can do to make it and I'll probably die what I am if You will so. I beg Your pardon if I am describing all that at such length, but I have nobody to talk with. So now that it got warm I called to mind that soon it will be Passover, the main holiday for You and me. Before this event all people visit a bathhouse, put on clean underwear, sit down at a table and eat what others eat in Paradise every day. But the only food I can put into my mouth is a little piece of stale bread and wash it down with my tears. I cannot even afford buying some matzos that I could put on the windowsill and wait until Rachel and my angels come for it in the night. If you have forgiven my sins, I beg of you to send me 50 rubles so I could celebrate Passover as other people. Goodbye, and as I look forward to a positive response, I remain
When he finished the letter, it was already dark in the room. Lemares worriedly waggled his head, shuffled to an old beside table on which stood a kerosene lamp, lit it and carefully carried it over to the table. The letter should be read once more, just to be on the safe side. Something might be off the mark.
Moving his lips, he read the letter syllable after syllable. A good letter came out of it, sensible and without any trifles.
Lemares hunted in his mind for a possible response and was already reaching for a yellowed envelope, when doubt that had crept up to his soul stopped him. Oh sure, applying to the Most High was cleverly conceived, they won't have anything to pick on, the letter didn't have a single word about politics, but what remained unknown was how they would figure it out. If you took a detached view of it, that is, without taking sides, everything seemed to be all right: a simple Jew writes a letter to his God and why should anyone care what an agreement they are negotiating? But on the other hand, the State demands order. God is more than a match for any generals? But who is he, Lemares? He's not even a house manager. So they might ask: "On what grounds do you, citizen Lemares, apply to God over our heads? Fed up with living, or what?" He might say that they were absolutely right - God should be addressed in a synagogue in the presence of a Rabbi, but where, beg your pardon, is the synagogue, and where is the Rabbi? No, for them such a dodge won't do. What they liked was - saving your presence - to have their asses kissed. Still, it would be better to add a couple of words to put a damper on anyone's desire to ask idiotic questions.
Lemares took a look at the letter, estimating how many words could be additionally put onto the thick page and, having moved up the lamp so close its hot glass chimney seared his face, he heaved a sigh and added:
I forgot to mention that the attitude of Soviet power to the Jews is very good and I ask You to thank for this the Severinivka Party Secretary, Comrade Zhadilo, the Commissioner for State Procurement, Comrade Belonog, and the war hero and our Militia Chief Captain Poboynia. That's all."
Now it came out really good. To tell the truth, he had doubts whether it was worthwhile writing those stupid words that's all, because for the sake of precision he could have also mentioned the manager of the collective farm market, Zhamkalo, and the school director, and the doctor's assistant, and a lot of other respected people whom he had seen from afar, but the page was already filled up and the words that's all were the last to have been squeezed into the corner at the bottom.
Lemares sealed the letter, wrote the address on the envelope and, after looking through the window, blew out the lamp.
Captain Poboynia moved up the envelope addressed TO COMRADE GOD in large printed letters, turned it left and right, took out the letter and started rereading it. Moments later he pushed the letter to the edge of his desk and raised his sullen eyes at the Sergeant-Major.
"Who's that character?"
Tikhonenko drew his head into his shoulders and mumbled cautiously:
"He has a few loose screws. Sells primus needles in the market."
"What do you mean by a 'few loose screws'?" the Militia Chief asked petulantly.
"Some are stark raving mad, others are quiet. This one is of the quiet variety. He keeps mumbling something under his nose nobody knows what. He lives alone. There's nothing suspicious about him on record, Comrade Captain!"
"A shellshock case, or what?"
"The Germans killed his family. Right before his eyes, and so he . well, went off his rocker."
"How's that - right before his eyes?" the Captain asked quizzically. "Why wasn't he shot?'
"He was about to return home when the Jews were rounded up. A neighbor dragged him into a pigsty and hid him under a dung heap. From there he saw how his wife and kids were chased by the Germans into the forest." After a thought, the Sergeant-Major specified, "He's out of his head, but not dangerous. He doesn't disturb anyone or bother people. Well only, perhaps, when he's selling his needles."
The Captain went to the window and lit a cigarette. Today was the first day when spring was in full sway. The discordant voices of flocks of birds returning from the south and of the boys reveling at their unending "war games" were bidding their last farewell to winter. But he was turning over in his mind not so much the mysterious developments of nature. He was trying to understand whether he, the erstwhile commander of a reconnaissance company, Captain Poboynia, could have watched through a chink in a wall how his wife and children were being hanged. He would have seized the throats of the rabid Nazis and torn them with his teeth until a burst of automatic fire stopped him. That's what he would have done for the only reason that he was not afraid of death that had always stalked him and breathed down his neck at every step. Just like the jingle of his mess tin in the old haversack behind his back.
It's easy to die. At times it's not even painful. Living with a continually festering wound is much more difficult. Yes, he did not see how his family was killed, but had there been but one single day when he was not thinking about it? Hadn't he, firing his imagination, tried to see in his mind's eye how it all happened? Hadn't he been making up the horrible scenes of their sufferings? And now he had to pass judgment on this hapless, half-witted Jew who wrote a letter to God? Maybe he's happy, this Lemares, happy for not understanding his madness, happy in the belief that the post office will without fail deliver his missive to the addressee. And for the first time Poboynia regretted that God - or whatever else there might be out there! - had preserved his lucid mind.
"Tikhon Andreich," the Sergeant-Major said with a cough, "what about forwarding it to the regional center? Let them deal with it."
"What?" Poboynia responded with a start, disentangling himself from the shroud of his reflections.
"I mean the letter, along with the Yid. What we have here is obvious religious propaganda!"
"You're a blockhead, Sergeant-Major!" the Militia Chief said good-naturedly with a sigh. Sitting down at the table, he turned the letter over in his hand and quietly ordered in his habitually stony voice, "As to this letter, mum's the word. I'll handle it myself. Bring this niggling Jew to me tomorrow."
The next day Lemares stood in the office of the Militia Chief and, looking around anxiously, he felt how sweat covered his palms, back and even abdomen. The man behind the desk looked at him intently for a long time, his nicotine-stained fingers crumbling a cigarette. Lemares did not care about cigarettes, having never smoked in his life, but what he could not tear his eyes away from was the holster with a heavy pistol lying on the edge of the desk, and of all the stuff that his mind had been hashing throughout the day, there twirled but one word - "Curtains!"
At last Poboynia looked at his assistant and said curtly:
Sergeant-Major Tikhonenko clicked the heels of his battered boots and bolted into the entrance hall where a pail fell to the floor again with a clatter.
The Militia Chief's heavy eyes again looked piercingly at Lemares, followed by a nod toward the stool standing in the middle of the office.
Lemares glanced back, a pathetic smile bared his yellow, sparse teeth, as his head was sinking into his shoulders. But he did not sit down, being afraid that some trick would be played on him.
"Sit down, I said," Poboynia ordered quietly and Lemares lowered himself onto the stool.
He guessed that he had been summoned because of the letter. Something in it was probably not to their liking. But what? What did he offend them with? What did they find in the letter to take him by the scruff of his neck and drag him to the very Militia Chief whom even the wildest of drunkards gave a wide berth?
"So Easter's upon us, you say?" the Captain asked suddenly.
Lemares reproduced what was supposed to be a smile - his mouth, though, seemed to have been stuffed with yarn of metal.
"You want to go to the bathhouse?" came the next question.
He nodded again and froze abruptly, struck by a lightning conjecture. The bathhouse! Why did he have to detour from the main course of his narrative and mention the bathhouse? It was whispered in the market that the Jews were supposed to instigate a riot in the bathhouse, or else rise in revolt to prohibit everyone else from bathing on Sundays. Oh, he shouldn't have mentioned the bathhouse! He should have struck it out. Now it's too late. The end. Curtains.
The Captain rose from behind the desk, made a gesture ordering Lemares to remain seated, approached the detainee from behind and, to his own surprise, almost put his hand on the man's shoulder, but thought better of it.
"Now this is what I want to tell you, Lameres," the Captain said with a different voice. "Your letter was received THERE. Of course, you were wrong to have thrown the letter into a mailbox. Next time bring it to me personally. Understand?"
Lemares, his eyes bulging, nodded frightened.
"Have you lost your tongue?"
"No," Yankel whispered almost inaudibly.
"We already received the answer." Poboynia unbuttoned the pocket of his service shirt and put a 25-ruble banknote on the desk. "Here it is. Up THERE they asked to tell you not to take HIM in anymore. We are many, while HE is ONE, understand?"
Lemares even forgot to give an assenting nod as his eyes were riveted on the brand new banknote. He was afraid that this was a vision, a mirage, and as soon as he took his eyes off it, the money would disappear right there and then.
"Do you hear me?"
"Yes!" the answer momentarily escaped the tortured lips of Lemares. "I hear!"
"Good," the voice of the Militia Chief became the mellower, probably because he had clearly heard what his visitor said for the first time. "Take the money and hide it so that nobody will see it. Understand? And mind you celebrate your Easter quietly, without any witnesses. Understand? That's not May Day for you, the more so not October Revolution Day. It's . - he failed in the search of a definition for this religious holiday, which he did not want at all to discredit, but found it impossible to approve either. "In short, the authorities have no interest in it. Come on, take it, take it!"
Lemares extended his trembling hand to the banknote, raised it to his eyes and, after kissing it silently, hid it somewhere under his coat in God knows what pocket.
Poboynia wanted to ask why Lemares had kissed the money, but the cue popped up much faster than the question and the back of the former reconnaissance company commander turned goosepimply. He realized that the Jew had kissed the banknote in the belief that it had been in God's hands .oh well, who cares!
"Tikhonenko!" the Militia Chief uttered such a deafening roar it made Lemares jump up for his stool and the decanter on the glass tray clatter.
The Sergeant-Major rushed into the office like a wraith and stiffened to attention.
"At your command, Comrade Captain!"
"In short, the matter is as follows," the Captain said in a severe tone. "I've had a talk with this comrade and he understood his mistake."
Lemares tried hard to grasp the drift of what was being said and kept nodding his head just in case.
"Yes, Comrade Captain!" the Sergeant-Major nodded in time with Lemares, although of everything he heard he understood even less than the flabbergasted Jew.
"No more will he write to anyone, the more so to the address we know. Yes, Comrade Lemares?" the Captain asked and Lemares gave a frightened nod again.
"Therefore we are closing this case," the Captain said, looking menacingly at the Sergeant-Major who had turned pale. "It'll be filed and stamped as 'top secret' and deposited in the archives. It'll go right into this folder which we'll put into the safe. By the way, what's the day today?"
"It's Wednesday, Comrade Captain!" the Sergeant-Major said, trying to understand what had happened in the office within the short time he was absent.
"Yes, Wednesday," Poboynia nodded affirmatively. "So, Comrade Sergeant-Major, find those . well, the ones who wanted to bathe on Friday, give orders to heat the bathhouse and personally bring citizen Lemares there."
"To heat . when?" the Sergeant-Major's tongue would not obey him altogether by now.
"Didn't I say it? On Friday!" the stony tones resurfaced in the Captain's voice and, after a thought, he added: "As an exception and on the condition that they will bring their own coal. Half a bucket each. Carry out!"
What proved to be the most difficult was to have the twenty-five rubles changed, and in this case as well God was on his side. Old Weinstein, who sold rabbit pelts in the market, agreed to give Lemares twenty-four rubles and fifty kopecks in small banknotes and coppers, leaving fifty kopecks from himself "for service." Bleating fool! If he only knew from whom the money had been received he'd have added at least one ruble, but Lemares held his tongue. The more so since Weinstein's wife was a gossip of the highest order! Never mind, fifty kopecks won't make him any poorer. Shortly after Lemares hid fifteen rubles in a little box which he buried in a corner of his hut. With the rest of the money he went on a headlong shopping spree. First, he bought a new shirt and drawers - well, not exactly new but laundered not more than once. Besides, he bought a long belted blouse and old boots. The old-clothes dealer wanted to foist on him an almost new coat for well-nigh a song, five rubles, but Lemares could not bring himself to incur such financial outlay - spring had already arrived, and in winter he'll be content wearing his tarpaulin coat. Second, he bought candles, a bottle of wine, and an incredibly tiny jar of honey. Then two primus needles were successfully exchanged for a dozen walnuts. Third, and finally he brought together all the bits and pieces for the Seder his distorted mind could recover from his happier days.
At last the Friday morning arrived when Sergeant-Major Tikhonenko sulkily explained to Lemares that sixteen of his landleit were patiently waiting for him at the bathhouse that was heated by order of the Militia Chief.
Indeed, the Jews crowded at the yet closed doors of the bathhouse; at the feet of each stood a bucket or sack filled with coal by a half, which the stoker was checking fastidiously. As soon as the Sergeant-Major led Lemares up to the line, the doors opened wide and the people timidly stepped over the threshold into the bathhouse.
Oh-h-h yes, if God had once created something magic after Eden, it was, of course, neither sugar nor halva, neither milk nor a good home-reared chicken. It was the bathhouse.
The grunts, sighs, oh-oh-s and ah-ah-s rending the sweating room seemed to Lemares like ethereal music. Now and then he closed his eyes, inhaled the hot air and swayed from side to side like a bird preparing for takeoff. And how pleasant was the feeling of the underwear put on a clean body! How easily his feet shod with warm boots carried him home! How cleansed the world seemed as if somebody had washed thoroughly the windows separating him from this world! And how heady was the spring fragrance that flooded his house through the open window!
And then came the moment when he laid out the food on the table and lit a candle. It goes without saying that the Seder Plate stood at the head of the table and nearby was the plate with three matzos and dishes of salt water for dipping. And the wine was poured into a glass, and the book was open at the necessary page. And when he felt that precisely this moment had crossed the threshold of his squalid abode, Lemares lowered his eyes toward the page and . could not make out anything.
The lines merged into furrowed strips, the words danced Freilehs; he raised his eyes to the black sooty ceiling and in a whisper related everything that had heaped up in his soul over these long years of suffering.
And God listened to him attentively.
Summer always tends to pass quickly. But now Lemares was pleased with his life. Something intelligent and even ironical appeared in his look as if he possessed a secret that was inaccessible to others. Of the food he had tolerably enough so that the future winter did not frighten him. For the kitchen garden he had dug for Zinaida he earned a sack of potatoes, and Weinstein sold him for one ruble a big jug of stewed rabbit. Of course, the cost of the stock of tea and sugar was a heavy pull upon his purse. But what did a man really need until spring? A little bit of bread and firewood. Even for a nosebag of macaroni Zinaida did not charge him anything, though, truth is, she asked him to mend her fence. Why not fix it for such a nice woman? After all, she could have favored for this task someone else, say, the carpenter Ivan Klakov, who lived two houses away. After a lot of thinking, Lemares wondered why the choice fell on him. What was behind Zinaida's interest? For all that, life became a merrier affair, especially after the Passover meal he received as a gift from God. The matter was not so much in the money as in the incredible miracle that unfolded the next morning. In the evening he had left bits of the meal and a glass of wine on the windowsill, and what he saw next morning was an empty plate with little crumbs and a half glass of wine. It's good that he had the foresight to leave the window open for the night! Wasn't it a miracle to raise your head to the blinding sun and realize that they see you, hear you, even when he was talking to himself? So why should he show them his troubles, his poverty and the squalor of a seller of primus needles? Quite the contrary, he should not upset them but set their minds at rest. Let them be happy at the thought that everything is all right with him.
But then autumn came running along, followed by winter. The frosts in 1948 were viciously bitter, and much as Lemares cut and sliced his expenses he now and then had to dig into his cache and drain it to buy firewood, a bucket of coal, kerosene for the lamp - there's not knowing everything that was needed to survive the dratted frosts that made the rotten window frames crack in the morning! The less money remained in the hidden little box, the more his mind was haunted by an alarming and unpleasant thought about the Militia Chief Poboynia who, on closer acquaintance, wasn't such a damnable rogue as it was rumored among the market profiteers. But when Lemares asked of God fifty rubles, the Captain handed over only twenty-five. It was simply laughable that God could have economized twenty-five rubles on a poor Jew! God can print such slips of paper in any amount; he can cover the entire world with them, possessing more money than the leaves on the trees! So who pinched the twenty-five rubles then? Let's not talk about it aloud; it's clear enough who lapped the cream out of the jug.
Passover was approaching inevitably and of what remained in the little box was enough to buy just one candle. There was also little to say about his underdrawers that were worse for the wear over the year, while his boots had already been repaired twice and were yawning at the toes. And, of course, visiting the bathhouse was out of the question, let alone enjoying a Passover repast. Now what choice does a man have when life pushes him so brutally to the wall that he can hardly breathe? You guessed it correctly - he calls to the people for help. And what help can be expected by a man who doesn't have a single dear person in the entire world? He'll call to God for help - you guessed it correctly again.
One humid day in March Sergeant-Major entered the office of the Militia Chief, having timidly knocked on the door first. Poboynia was busy drawing up a report for the first quarter, which recorded about a man of unknown identity who froze to death, three criminal cases on speculation in sugar in the Severinivka market, the sabotage of the district procurement office that screwed up the supply of kerosene, and a request to allocate for the militia station one cartage transport unit, because the trophy car they had was at its last gasp and could not negotiate the miry vernal and autumnal roads to reach the neighboring village where the keen eye of the militia was also indispensable.
"What's the matter now?" the Captain asked impatiently, as he tried to clear the pen of a paper fiber.
"A letter!" Tikhonenko exhaled his breath.
"From Lemares again!"
"Lemares?" Poboynia frowned on hearing the slightly forgotten name. "Who's the letter addressed to? To me?"
"To God," the Sergeant-Major said in a whisper and retreated three steps just in case.
"Oh-h-h," Poboynia said with a smile after reading the name of the addressee. "So it's the sponger again? And you say that he's a halfwit! Mind you, he's shrewder than you and me a thousand times over! Oh no, no wondrous feasts for that one anymore." He wagged his head and waved off the Sergeant-Major in dismissal. "I'll read it later on!"
Poboynia bent over the report. What was left to be written were just two phrases to the effect that "as we approach the international holiday of solidarity with the working people of all countries under the leadership of the Great Stalin, the Militia Department of Severinivka undertakes to." and so on and so forth, but something was holding him back. Feeling an itch of impatience tickle his hands, he put the pen aside, unwittingly reached for the letter, opened it, and began to read:
Dear Comrade God,
I beg to forgive me for pestering You with trifles. That is, I wanted to say that for me they are not trifles at all, but the other way around. Last time I received greetings from You and celebrated Passover not worse than other people and was then recalling it with pleasure throughout the whole year. So thank You ever so much for it. And now Passover is just round the corner and again I am without money to partake of the pleasure one more time. Of course, if I had received everything I had asked for the first time, it would have been enough for two Passovers. A man doesn't need much, does he? After all, he's not a horse, the more so such a man as I. But You understand whom I have in mind, because there is no need to write about it, although it pains me that You forgave him for what he did. So if You consider me to be Your creation and continue to care for me, I ask You to meet my request again. But, please, do not pass the money on through Captain Poboynia because, a good man and war hero that he might be, he always leaves a half for himself. It's rumored that it's such a habit with the militia, but why should it affect me? Maybe he, too, is in need of something. If so, let him ask it of his God and not poke his nose into our relations. That's all. One more thing. Ask my Rachel whether she'll be against me moving to Zinaida? The thing is that my hut has an earthen floor while hers is of wood. I can't suffer from my rheumatism any longer. So that wouldn't qualify even as infidelity.
With the best wishes
Your creation Yankel Lemares.
And one more thing. Tell my dear ones that I miss them very much and kiss them thousand times. Now that's all.
A horrible roar rent the building of the Militia Station; the sound waves blew off the cobwebs in the corners and made the heavy lamp under the ceiling sway. Sergeant-Major rushed into the office of his chief and saw the enraged physiognomy of Poboynia, as he hollered at the top of his voice:
"Bring that fucking shit Lemares! To me! Immediately!"
Those of the Severinivka inhabitants who were in the habit of getting up with the first cocks were witnessing a weird scene that Friday morning preceding Passover. Through the weather-beaten square of the town marched a disorderly detail of Jews with Lemares at the head. Now and then he turned his head to review his flock. It seemed that he was worried lest anyone lag behind, talked loudly, and attracted unnecessary attention. But what worried him most of all was the thought about the fifty rubles he had wrapped in a canvas rag and hid in the deepest pocket of his tarpaulin coat. Among those he was now leading to the bathhouse there were, of course, no blatant scoundrels, except, perhaps, for the lame Ziama who had the habit of borrowing from everyone and never returning his debts after being reminded about it three times, and the old Weinstein with his malicious smile of a furrier. For all that, his anxiety prevailed and therefore Lemares decided that it would be reasonable for him to enter the bathhouse the last and leave it the first. More reliable that way. On the whole, there was no need to think about bad things on such a wonderful day. If God called to account such a horrible man as Poboynia, who except for shouting and cussing had not learned anything in this life, if He ordered the Captain to have the bathhouse heated for the Jews and give Lemares back all the money due him to the last kopeck, He would certainly protect him against any other troubles.
The detail approached the low building of the bathhouse, its tall chimney belching strong-smelling smoke. Each Jew carried an armful of firewood since the stocks of coal in Severenivka had been exhausted already in February.
* Volodimir Yavorivsky - former Chairman of the Ukrainian Writers Union - Tr.
from the January 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.
|All opinions expressed in all Jewish Magazine articles are those of the authors. The author accepts responsible for all copyright infrigments.|