As the bitter cold of a Belarus winter froze everything outdoors, Brokhe Leah's hunched figure perched on a tiny stool near her square brick furnace. A blackened chimney climbed beside her toward the roof of her one-room house, disappearing in the shadows as everything seemed to disappear into shadows on this late Saturday evening.
Brokhe was intent on spinning yet another tale of devilish misconduct for her grandchildren, and the malice of her characters filled the room. She had long-since banished the holiness of Shabbes and replaced it with the evil doings of Lilith, who at the present moment was after the soul of another baby. Her grandchildren huddled close around her. "Then Lilith swept into the room to smother Hannah's newborn son. The midwife chanted incantations, but in vain."
Little Basheva was close to crying. Mama expected a baby very soon; suppose Lilith came after her new brother or sister. How would the family defend itself? What if Lilith took Mama? Basheva knew that many mothers died when a baby was born. Was Mama going to die too? The friendly tongues of fire dancing through the grate were no match for the blackness spreading from her grandmother.
Frost covered the windowpanes so thickly the children's eyes could not see the night sky. In the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, the window patterns transformed themselves into impenetrable forests covered with strange and confusing stars. The snow outside, which by this time of year had drifted to the windowsills, was no longer white but had blackened in the darkness. Crunching footsteps outside bespoke danger: animals, imps, Lilith! The children huddled more closely around the fire on an evening when even familiar shadows dancing over the wooden floor frightened them.
Brokhe paused in her story to open the ruba's door and throw in more kindling. The crackling wood spit out a shower of sparks that landed near Basheva. She screamed, provoking a spate of laughter among the children. The tension in the room broke, to the relief of all but Brokhe.
Brokhe focused petulantly in on the cause. "You are a little fool, Basheva. You should have more respect for the powers of darkness. How can you interrupt your Bubbe when she is trying to teach you about them!" Then the thought that Basheva might only be reacting the way her mother had taught her to, drove Brokhe to fiercer admonition. After all, Broche had the full weight of evil's enormity to communicate. "Basheva, making your cousins laugh at Satan instead of fearing him endangers them as well as you. Listen to me, all of you! If you are not careful, you will be caught by Satan's demons and tormented forever! Anyone who promotes that can only be trapped already." Everyone stared at Basheva.
At this moment the outside door opened and Shoshka, Basheva's mother, came trudging in, shaking the snow and cold off her boots. She had caught the last words of Brokhe's speech and immediately knew what was happening. She had endured the same sort of persecution when she had been growing up, and was extremely unhappy to see the pattern repeat itself with her own child.
"What have you been doing to Basheva? I've warned you before to watch what you say to her." Basheva ran to her mother and threw her arms around Shoshke's legs.
"The girl needed a lesson. I would have thought any granddaughter of mine would have been more aware of evil, but then I forgot that you are the mother. Anyway, how dare you use that kind of tone with me! Remember the commandment to honor your mother before it is too late for you."
With that, something in Shoshka snapped. She had had enough, for that night and all nights. Hurriedly, she bundled her daughter into her winter coat and boots. Then she opened the door and, holding Basheva in a protective closeness, spit out feelings that had torn her for years. "You wretched old woman! You abused me my entire life and I swore when Basheva was born that you'd never touch her. You've seen little enough of her in the past; from now on you shall see nothing, of her or me. You are the one who is evil, Brokhe, not me or Basheva. And you are very, very evil."
Although those were the last words Shoshka ever spoke to her mother, a relationship does not begin and end with words, because relationships cannot be contained in sentences. Brokhe's trade was that of opsprekerin; she exorcised the evil eye in exchange for payment. To get rid of evil, she would chant and pray and snort and spit. Sometimes when the evil was hard to dislodge, she struck two flints together, and the sparks sent her prayers upward with special speed. Today who would think of doing such a thing? But to people then it could be a matter of life and death.
As the years went on, Brokhe became stranger and stranger. One heard whispers every now and then that she had spent so much time wrestling with evil spirits they had begun to invade her soul. Shoshka discounted such talk, believing her mother to be largely mad, but others were not so sure. As a result Brokhe's business was reduced to people with only the direst problems. Townsfolk feared crossing her by accident, so no one would come near her with just a simple exorcism. Only for the most difficult cases was Brokhe called.
Naturally when you deal with difficult cases your success rate is low, and with each failure the whispering became worse. Brokhe was not trying. Brokhe wanted people to stay sick, be crazy, remain barren. Brokhe must be in league with the devil. How else could you explain it? Oy veh-a witch in David-Horodok! Oy, oy, what could be done? When superstition takes hold, sanity is put in the back of the wagon and fear drives up front.
Shoshka heard with misgiving these whisperings in the tavern run by Yankel and her husband Avrom. She had long ago ceased to believe in the evil eye, hell or the devil. If she hadn't she would have died of fright, what with her mother holding Satan's hordes over her every day of her life. She thought her mother a sour, spiteful, deranged old woman, but a witch?
Finally the day came when a Horodtchuka, beside himself with grief, sought out the notorious Jewish crone to save his son. Liovo rushed into the tavern and demanded Avrom. His sobriety, more than anything else, convinced people the situation was serious. Yankel called Avrom from the back where he was balancing the books.
"My son is dying. I have to see your mother-in-law."
"Liovo, she's just a demented old woman; she can't even help herself."
"Please, please. You can't know what my son means to me. You give her money every month; the whole town knows that. She'll be good to me if you ask her."
"We don't give her money because she has special powers. We give her money because Shoshka is her daughter."
"Money is still money; she'll do what you tell her. You must take me to her. You have to. My son may die otherwise." Avrom looked at the man with both pity and distaste. A mean drunk, he was not Avrom's favorite person, but Avrom decided to do as he asked. When a son is dying, what won't a father try? It would probably have been better if Avrom had told Liovo to go to the devil and accepted the consequences, but unfortunately when one has a compassionate heart, there is no remedy for it.
"All right, Liovo. I'll show you to the house, but I won't go in. And if I were you, I'd take your son to Pinsk to see a doctor."
"I don't have the time; he's too sick."
The boy had cholera, so both Liovo and Avrom were right. Chants and incantations were no prescription, and there wasn't much time. The boy died. Since many died of cholera that year, what was different about this case? The difference was that Liovo wanted a scapegoat, and he was Christian while Brokhe was a Jew. So he got his scapegoat. He accused Brokhe of secretly bleeding his son to death to get blood for her Passover matzo. To avenge this old accusation that had plagued Jews since the Middle Ages, he demanded Brokhe's execution.
The Jewish community was outraged and fearful at the same time. They argued, as they had many times before, that the accusation was ridiculous. Jews didn't use blood to make matzo; matzo was just a kind of bread. They pointed out there was no proof that Brokhe had done anything of the sort. Anyone could say something had been done in secret. Where was the evidence? The arguments helped as much as they usually did. Brokhe was arrested and put in jail.
Months dragged on and still the matter lay over the town. Christians and Jews alike were interrogated; witnesses to Brokhe's deed were sought. In spite of the police's efforts, however, no proof could be found. Brokhe, still in her cell, now spent most of her days singing parts of random tunes and words, periodically calling on God to save her. Her behavior itself spurred the police on-obviously something was very wrong with the woman. What should God save her from, they wanted to know.
Guilt lay heavily on Shoshka. Regardless of what she said, the greatest proof of Brokhe's evil in the eyes of the police was the fact that she and Basheva refused to have anything to do with Brokhe. The police reasoned that they must know something, even if they refused to speak. So Shoshka was called back, and called back, and called back. What had Brokhe done to so alienate her daughter and granddaughter? Who had her mother talked to in the dead of night? What spells could she cast? "This is all nonsense!" Shoshka would shout. But the interrogations continued.
Shoshka's pain ended the day Brokhe, hearing Shoshka's voice in the jail, asked for the pretty brown and green shawl she had stitched for her daughter's wedding. Naturally wanting to see what spells Brokhe would cast with the shawl, the police demanded and got it. Brokhe, however, did not use the shawl to contact the devil, unless she met him in death. She simply hung herself, thereby releasing herself and the entire Jewish community from the scrutiny of the police.
Shoshka requested that Brokhe be buried in the Jewish cemetery in spite of the suicide, and no one objected. Everyone considered the old woman completely mad at the end; thus she could not be held accountable for her actions.
Years passed before Shoshka finally came to terms with her mother's death. The pity she had had for her mother during Brokhe's imprisonment, coupled with her own guilt, moved her to pray for her mother every day. Eventually her desire to see her mother at peace overshadowed the hate that had grown during Brokhe's lifetime. In the end Shoshka acquired a reconciliation that could have come in no other way. The strange path God had chosen for them allowed Shoshka became the loving daughter she was never permitted to be while her mother lived.
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