Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Tale 10 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

A Toast to Beryl

 

As most of summer's yesterdays had, today succumbed to a scorching afternoon heat that blistered the shtetl, reducing body, clothes and thought to limpness. In spite of the sun's blaze, however, Shifre seemed to be bearing up well. She sat humming in the half-hearted shade of her front porch, churning her cow's morning milkings into butter. Bossel was not a particularly young cow, in addition to being both scrawny and dispirited, but Shifre was grateful for her meager stream, grateful that even the Russian army had so far refused to requisition this failing beast. Back and forth, back and forth, her hands moved to the slow rhythm of her song. Pausing frequently, she smiled some new words into the old tune.

	 "Though food is scarce and armies near,
	  today I get to laugh out loud.
	  The funniest show in many-a-year,
	  will soon attract a chuckling crowd."
A peddler of small combs, rouge, needles and thread to the villages, she never claimed to be a lyricist. But what did it matter when she was entertaining only herself?

Even the sun gentled a little at the promise of today's spectacle. The whole town needed diversion. For months most residents had shied away from leaving David-Horodok to peddle in the villages, buy cows for meat or conduct any other kind of business. Soldiers of various armies and countries roamed at will, accosting and robbing in their search for food and money, with a need to satisfy even baser wants. Deserters had appeared in David-Horodok itself selling guns for the money to return home. Like the Tsar's war, Kerenski's was also going badly. Lacking provisions and tactics, he seemed to be throwing bodies at the enemy instead of bullets. Russian soldiers and civilians were both sick of it.

But today Shifre did not have to think about chaos and hunger and bullets. Today there would be something else to do. The town council, after much wrangling, had finally decided on an appropriate punishment for Beryl the Bargeman, who had been caught transporting his illegal, homemade vodka to the nearby village of Olshon. The punishment would not be harsh, just a little lesson. That satisfied everyone but Beryl's family.

"Good morning," Shifre called to Nechama, who was across the street, about to swing into her front gate with the morning's shopping on her arm. Shifre noted that Nechama's trip to the market had netted only a near-empty basket, a sight common in these hungry days. Friendly sympathy prompted Shifre to add, "I see the amount of food in town today isn't going to make any of us fat." Then attempting to change what was always a gloomy subject, she asked, "Going back this afternoon to watch the fun?"

Shifre's simple question provoked Nechama to stomp across the street, babushka and apron strings whipping behind, finger wagging at the top of her raised arm. "I would never condone such a shande by going to see it," Nechama voice could be heard several doors away. "Imagine, humiliating a man like that!"

The combination of hot sun, exercise and indignation had reddened Nechama's face dangerously. Considerably alarmed, Shifre tried to soothe her. "Calm down, calm down. Getting so angry is bad for your health. You're just a little upset because Beryl's your cousin. If you think your whole family will lose face because of him, don't worry. He's not that close a cousin to you. If you lost face so would everyone else in town because we're all related somehow."

If anything, Shifra's words made Nechama angrier. "My losing face isn't the point. Injustice is! Imagine leading a man around the marketplace with pots hanging from his neck! Isn't it enough that we're half starved because of this stupid war? Do we have to be humiliated as well?"

Shifre laughed in disbelief. "Come now, Nechama. How can you take this seriously? It's just a little fun. And Beryl might even come out a hero, for holding up under pressure." Shifre chortled on, stubbornly protecting her pleasant anticipation; Nechama remained unmoved.

"Leading Beryl around like a belled cow won't make him into a hero, and if he were a real criminal, it wouldn't begin to be punishment enough. That's how we both know he isn't a real criminal. Our government has never erred by being too lenient to a Jew."

"Which government do you mean? The Tsar's, Kerenski's or the local mishmash we've had here for the last few months? I personally haven't noticed much of any government lately. The only sign of Kerenski is the acres of worthless rubles he's printing. Have you heard that Gershon the Tavern-keeper is papering the walls of his kretchne with them?"

Nechama was not, however, to be diverted. "It doesn't matter what government we have; Beryl is not a criminal."

"Be reasonable. He was caught hauling illegal whiskey."

"So what? Where do you think Sarah the Bride and Simcha the Japanese get their money, not to mention many others?" Nechama was clearly daring Shifre to provoke her again, and then Nechama, regardless of who might be listening, would mention the others. Shifre remained silent.

"This whole town knows Beryl is just a man trying to earn a living." Nechama then added, emphasizing the last word pointedly, "the same as all his other relations."

"But everyone else in town didn't get caught without money to bribe the police. Naturally the straznick locked him up. How could they make a living if this sort of behavior spread?" Shifre started laughing at her own wit, though in all seriousness, not keeping a bribe for the police was past understanding.

"If you can't muster a little sympathy for a man who doesn't have a kopke to spare, even for a bribe, then the word mensh must have no meaning for you." Nechama swung around magnificently, harrumphed across the street and swept into her house, chin up, body erect, arms and basket swinging determinedly at her side.

Shifre stared with appreciation even after Nechama had gone inside. She had to acknowledge that the woman had quite a flair for the dramatic. In her own way however, Shifre was as determined as her neighbor. Nothing was going to tarnish her afternoon's fun, not even Nechama's self-righteousness.

Shifre's hands told her that while she had been "chatting," her milk had turned into butter. "None too soon," she thought, looking at the position of the sun. She grabbed the ceramic pot sitting next to her and hurriedly scraped in the butter. Then she clattered down the steps to the cool cellar under the house to store it, and ran up the stairs and through the back door to dress for all the neighbors she would soon meet in the marketplace.

 

Shifre was hardly the only one in David-Horodok to object more to Beryl's stupidity than his crime, and it was for this that they were willing to see him penalized. With the war and its chaos dragging on, Horodokers were finding alcohol one of the few ways left to earn a living. Cut off from the cities by the fighting around them, fully a quarter of the town had become involved in illegal whiskey one way and another. So even though the bargeman, having been caught with several jugs of vodka, was clearly guilty, the town council had to be careful about the punishment they meted out. Making An Example of him would not sit well with the citizens, and what with the national and provincial government in disarray, there was little likelihood of carrying out unpopular punishments.

The police insisted something be done; after all they had arrested him. The townspeople insisted nothing much be done; after all it could have been them and they disliked setting a bad precedent. The council, caught between the two camps, sought a Solomon-like solution. For the last month they had debated, without much help from the laws of a country falling apart, what they should do with Beryl. A decision had finally been reached after several difficult sessions: Beryl would be led around the Russian Orthodox Church that stood in the center of the marketplace with distilling kettles strung around his neck. Adam Pavuk, a gentile, would beat a drum in front.

 

The crowd waited, laughter and murmurings passing from one to another. Children carried old pans and sticks; their elders carried jeers and jests. As time passed and no Beryl appeared, the remarks became less and less charitable. Blowing dust, which settled on the crowd's clothes and in their eyes, and insistent flies that prompted strange slap-dances added to the general annoyance. As irritation shifted the crowd's mood, Shifre became more and more uncomfortable.

Finally they saw the culprit and his drum major, and Shifre heard the jokes around her whirl quickly: Beryl should get eyeglasses so he could see danger coming next time; too bad he spent all those years in cheder and never learned the value of a little ready cash; next time Beryl should get better pots so he could cook himself out of trouble instead of into it.

For the first time in her life, Shifre really looked at the old bargeman. A broad-shouldered man thickened by a life of hard work on the rivers, his gray-white head was bent in frustration. He looked filthy and gaunt, as anyone would who had not been allowed much food or a change of clothes for a month. But no dirt streaks on his face or clanging pots around his neck could conceal the air of defiant martyrdom that hung about him.

Pavuk beat his drum loudly, flinging his arms high over his head and bringing the polished sticks down in a strutting tempo. Beryl's kettles clanked in cacophonous rhythm behind, while the children fell in around them, pounding their own impromptu pot-drums with sticks. The jokes and laughter of the adults permeated the parade, wit dueling wit, each sally encouraging an even more outrageous response. Everyone was having a wonderful time, except Beryl.

Shifre tried to join in, but had more and more difficulty and finally dropped to the outside. The parade circled the church once, twice, three times, but when it veered off onto a side street Shifre decided she had had enough. Pavuk was exceeding his mandate because he and the crowd were so clearly enjoying themselves. Shifre was not. Her conscience had long since pushed her into misgivings.

Empty and dissatisfied, Shifre shuffled down the wooden sidewalks of Olshonergas to her home. Her thoughts concerning Nechama were not kind. Thanks to her neighbor, the early promise of fun had turned sour; she was extremely annoyed. But as she reached her gate, thoughts of Beryl vanished in alarm at the strange bumping and scraping she heard from inside her house. "A pig! A damn pig is in the house!" The gentile pigs that ran loose in the town looking for any stray garbage were an eternal nuisance and explained the fences virtually everybody built around their yards.

Shifre ran through her front door and screamed at the grunting, filthy, brown-bristled pig crouching in the middle of her table. His snout defiantly licked the last few crumbs on the empty plate where the bread she had baked last evening once lay. All her frustration took aim at the pig; she grabbed a broom and hooted and yelled and whacked the animal...damn pig-whack-getting into her house and eating her food-whack, whack-damn gentiles-whack-letting their pigs run-whack, whack, whack-wild…damn war-whack, whack-starving animals as well as people...and with a final whack, she chased the pig out of the house. Then, hungry and tearful, she crumpled down on the porch steps, rocking her face in her hands…and damn Nechama, ruining everyone else's good time. She felt rather than saw her neighbor standing in front of her. When she finally raised her eyes she could hardly believe the loaf of bread she saw in Nechama's outstretched hands. Nechama was offering her the same loaf she had baked last night, the loaf the pig had eaten. Nechama was offering her her own bread.

"I'm sorry. I saw the cowherd let Bossel in your yard this afternoon. He forgot to close the gate because he wanted to get to the marketplace before the fun was over." Shifre looked at her miserably.

"I thought, 'If Shifre can waste a whole afternoon at the marketplace, then she doesn't need help from me to keep her affairs in order. If she cared whether her gate was open or not, she would have stayed to watch over it.' So I didn't close it. I knew a pig might get in." Shifre looked heartsick and disgusted.

"I know, I know. I thought it would serve you right to chase a crazed pig out of your house. I also thought it might be fun to see you become a spectacle yourself. But it didn't serve you right and it wasn't fun…At least I wasn't willing to risk your dinner. I took your bread over to my house before the pig got in. Here." She handed Shifre the pristine loaf.

Shifre took the bread and looked at it. "It wasn't any fun watching Beryl either." Nechama nodded.

The two walked to the back of the house and surveyed the damage. The pig had aggressively rummaged through the yard searching for garbage, a scarce commodity these days. The two chickens Shifre had managed to hide from the requisition officers had been rousted out of their hen house while the pig ate their grain. It had also rooted though the garden and knocked over various boxes and barrels before going into the house through the back door that Shifre had left open when she had raced up from the cellar to get dressed.

The house itself was a mess. The pig, filthy from the garden, had poked its dirty nose into everything, overturning chairs, pulling down clothes and combs and brushes, upsetting the Shabbes candlesticks, tracking mud onto the dining table. Nechama sighed. "I'll help you set things right. First let's get the vegetables back into the ground and watered. Fortunately we never lack for water around here."

"After we're done, share my supper." Shifre said impulsively. "I have some butter and two eggs in the cellar. And we can eat the bread you saved."

Nechama smiled. "I'll get some of the jam I made this spring...and let's drink a toast to Beryl."

"Yes," Shifre said, "a toast to Beryl."

 


Home

List of Tales

Next Tale