Morning and Evening, Pt. VII
The seventh installment in an ongoing narrative, told week by week
Hinda lay on the earth with her white limbs out, her dress crumpled to her waist, so that her long pale legs were bared against the brown earth. Yossel stayed pinned in his hollow, breathless. And finally she began, as if assembling herself anew, to smooth her skirts, to close her legs, to rise up from the dust. Her plait was loosened and her hair came tumbling down over her shoulders, matted with grass and birch kindling. Her movements were strained; when she began, at last, to walk, her legs seemed to jerk her forward without the intervention of her will. As she walked, she took her plait in her hand, and Yossel watched her, easing himself out of the hollow in silence. As she walked, she plucked out her long bright hairs, and dropped them, one by one, into the dust.
Alone in the field he stood where the union of their hips had bent the grass. Like dew, like sap, the bright drops of Herschl’s semen clung to the blades. While Yossel had had no mind to heed it time had passed, and dusk was falling. He clutched his fists to his sides and turned homeward. Here was filth—here was darkness—among the chosen people of the Lord.
Yossel told no one of what he had seen in the fields. Instead, he clung to the shadows of the heder and the shtiebel and grew silent and pale. In the shtiebel he leaned for many hours over Hanachiv’s lone Torah, practicing his portion and the speech he would give to the congregation, for his words must prove his mind to be capable and excellent, and spread his reputation in the neighboring towns. Again and again his voice broke along the seams of Joseph’s captivity. The sunset which came earlier and earlier to the walls of the shtiebel was red as the hem of Joseph’s bloody coat.
September proceeded in cool days heady with the last blossoms, the rye grasses trailing their seeds into the earth, and ended in a week of cool, dry winds, ushering out the month. The wind flung silts of debris against the walls of the heder, filling Schoenbrun’s chambers with plaintive sound. The melamed’s leonine grin, flashing out from beneath his matted, yellow-grey beard, flashed out in scornful mirth at his pupils' errors. He flexed his long arms to strike them jarring blows. At its mustaches and tips his beard was growing white, and his shirts were ragged at the elbows; no wife hovered over the table or slept in the upper rooms, and in the dark reaches of his chambers, tattered books lay open at the spine, disgorging their pages for the wind to rifle through. Yossel held his hands against the page of his Talmud until the letters left their outlines on his skin, but they dissolved quickly into the heat of his palms.
The end of September was slaughtering season for the Polish goatherd and the shepherd. Mystislav the goatherd set to work early and on his brief, weary walk through the early-autumn cold to Schoenbrun’s Yossel could hear the piteous, aggrieved bleatings of the goats in the slaughter-shed. Kazimierz the dairyman shot two cows with a rifle his father had used in the war, but one bullet misfired, and broke the back of a brown heifer. Dying, she lowed for a day and a night and then was silent. Kazimierz’s lone black bull pawed at the blood in the earth where the two cows had fallen, and called out unceasingly, until he, too, had to be shot in the head. Yossel’s walks homeward were accompanied by the overpowering smell of meat cooking in the Christian houses. Fragrant smoke rushed from their open windows, and out into the street.
In the Jewish butcher-shop Herschl the butcher’s son worked on as before. With great blows he sliced the red flesh of the heifers to the bone. But Hinda the fishmonger’s daughter had gone mad with an unknown grief, the congregation whispered in the shtiebel, since the day she had come home with her skirts disheveled and half her hair plucked from its plait. She lay down to drink from the brook with the carthorses and the cows, prostrate as the soldiers of Gideon, and walked through the streets naked save for her father’s tallis.