Morning and Evening, Pt. XVI
The sixeenth installment in an ongoing narrative, told week by week
In the morning, the boys of the heder were still and silent. There were only ten now, and Leibush’s smaesk seemed emptier than the hungriest belly or the whitest page: the absence of his small piping voice, only temporary during his illness, was louder than the hesitant tones of their chanting now. Schoenbrun’s fiercest scowl could not impel them to pronounce a line without giving way to tears. The biggest change was in Mendel, whose greatest talent in previous years had been finding the tenderest places on Leibush’s arms to pinch, and who swaggered down the village paths like a prince instead of a butcher’s son. Now his eyes were red as Leibush’s mother’s, and what little literacy he possessed was utterly gone; he kissed his Talmud over and over again in a strange show of penitence. It was only a few hours into the long heder day that Schoenbrun shut his Talmud in disgust, glared at his reluctant, mournful pupils, and declared that he would give them a day to recover, but no longer. Pointing his finger with its sharp yellow nail at Yossel, he declared that he must find time to practice his Torah portion further, or bring shame on his teacher, who was a poor man with barely enough money for bread.
The only bread you care about comes in a bottle, not a loaf, thought Yossel, though it’s made of wheat all the same. Still, his cheeks were burning as he left the heder, his hands shaking with embarrassment. Let Mendel only recover from his newfound piety, and he would be sticking his huge red tongue out at Yossel again, and laughing at his stuttering replies.
Yossel’s feet were nimbler than his tongue, however, and he found himself climbing the north hill as he often had in previous days. The dirt path had frozen where the cart bearing little Leibush’s body had passed, and Yossel walked in the wagon-tracks. Away to his left a path broke from the main road, leading through the frost-sealed needles of the firs and the bare white birch branches. He turned to follow it. Brittle with frost, the branches reached for his long coat, seeking to tear it from his body. The sky was a pale blue, and small white clouds like boles of uncarded wool hung low over the town. By now the Christians were gathering for their Sunday suppers. Those without families to feed would soon congregate instead on the benches of the tavern, acquiring debt to his mother they could not pay back until the market-days of spring. He knew she would be keeping her watch for the mail-wagons again until they came, leaning against the wall of the tavern with her arms folded and following each horse with her eyes from nose to rump, as if the power of her gaze alone could draw forth the rebbe’s letter.
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