It was a Thursday afternoon in the summer, so naturally long wooden boxes and water barrels crammed the floor of Razel's dining room. They shared the space with the heat, humidity and Razel's constant bustling. Yawning wide, the boxes expectantly waited to be filled with fish that David, Razel's beloved husband, had brought back from the lake, and ice that had been cut from the river last winter and stored in their backyard for this specific need.
Razel and David bid on the right to fish Duke Radziwell's lake every year; every year they had to compete. Only seven contracts were awarded. The lucky merchants hired peasants and their boats to catch the fish, then brought them back in water barrels to David-Horodok, just as David had. The fish had to be shipped at once to the big cities-Warsaw, Vilna, Pinsk. Timing was all-important. So on Sunday morning David rented an empty wagon and left for the lake; Thursday morning, God willing, he came back with a full one. Thursday afternoon and Friday morning Razel packed the fish in ice and Saturday night, boats carried the wooden boxes up the Horin to the Pripyet River. And then? They went wherever they were wanted. Since today was Thursday, Razel packed.
"I see that coffins are covering your floor again." With much annoyance Razel heard Eliakum the Kibitzer's voice boom through the kitchen. For a decade of summers she had heard Eliakum tell the same joke every Thursday afternoon. It hadn't been funny to start with, and had declined with age into putrescence. But it was particularly unfunny when accompanied by dirty, mudtracking boots. She looked at his filthy feet making footprints all over her dining room floor and grunted the merest acknowledgment. She continued to work in silence until at length she straightened up, wiped her face with her sleeve, and asked, "Don't you ever clean your boots?"
"They'd just get dirty again," Eliakum responded pleasantly. As usual, he had shown up on a Thursday to make sure Razel would give him the job of carting her fish to the docks on Friday. And also as usual, he started the conversation by plopping his large belly down at the dining room table and trying to schnorr a piece of kichel. "Any uneaten rolls left from last Shabbes?" he hinted expectantly. He considered it very agreeable of him to be willing to take these last, stale sweet-rolls off Razel's hands before she baked for the next Saturday. She deliberately ignored his question.
Eliakum understood that such largess would not be given for free. No-in exchange for her hospitality Eliakum offered advice and gossip, even though Razel showed a remarkable lack of interest. She was hard to please. "Did you hear that Hode's son Itzik was beaten by the melamed for asking where Cain and Abel got their wives? He said that since Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were the only four people alive, there shouldn't have been extra women around to marry." He was doing his best to amuse them both. Razel nodded vacantly and took a burlap sack out to the icehouse to haul back more ice chips. Ten minutes passed.
Eliakum watched Razel layering ice, fish, ice, fish into a box. He was such a nuisance; she wished she could just get someone else to port their fish. But she knew, of course, she couldn't; he was a close relative of David's. A second cousin... maybe a third. Who could keep track? Razel just knew he was part of her mishpocheh(1) . Another ten minutes passed.
"You know if you had someone else chip the ice for you before Thursday, it would make this go faster." Eliakum congratulated himself on being particularly helpful today and waited for Razel to show appreciation.
"That would make the ice melt faster, and we would need to cut twice as much during the winter." Razel was in no mood to cater to Eliakum's inanities, especially considering the extra dirt she would have to clean up before tomorrow at sundown.
Forty minutes had now passed since Eliakum had sat down and he shifted restlessly. While he considered himself a patient person, the situation was becoming decidedly annoying. Shouldn't Razel have already offered him something to eat? "At least a crust of bread," he said to himself humbly, though in truth he believed she could afford better. But Razel remained silent.
Finally Eliakum decided it was time for action. He announced blandly, "Rifke and Shlaima Gurvich are going to shul next Saturday to thank God for preventing your husband's horse from trampling their child to death last year." He was referring to the incident of David's runaway horse and wagon and his description provoked Razel. He smiled with satisfaction.
"First it was not David's horse! He rented it. Second, it was bitten by a swarm of bees. That would make any animal crazy! Third, we should all thank God that little Sarah jumped back in time for the horse to miss her. It was a blessing, to say the least!" Razel started packing more vigorously. Eliakum had finally gotten Razel's attention, as he always did when he mentioned David. However, he also noticed he had not made any headway on refreshments.
"Simcha the Lout is also going to the synagogue to say a special prayer for his salvation."
"From what has Simcha been saved?"
"He was standing on the sidewalk intending to cross right before the horse ran through, when something told him to wait. As a result he wasn't in the street when the horse and wagon careened by. He thinks he is favored by God since he was spared. He's going to say his thanks."
"The messiah may come and heal the world, but a fool still be a fool!" Razel retorted contemptuously.
Eliakum sat silent for a minute gauging the effect of his last comments. "Alte the Martyr is also going." Razel glared at him. "It seems she planned to go to the marketplace to buy a piece of cloth when The Incident happened, but decided not to go at the last minute. She thinks God must have prevented her because he wants her to carry on with helping her children and grandchildren and all her other charitable work, may her victims be pitied. She wants to publicly thank God for such favor." Razel now began hurling the fish at the ice.
"But you will like the last best of all. Since half the town has now decided that God sent them special protection, your sister Nechama is talking to Rabbi Dovidel to ask if some extra-special psalm of praise couldn't be said in the synagogue next Saturday. You know, to publicly thank God for not allowing David's irresponsible driving to kill anyone."
With the last comment, Razel whirled around and stormed out the door. Her own sister! Such foolishness from her own sister! Half the town needing protection from one runaway horse? What kind of idiots was she surrounded by?! Eliakum called after her, "Since you'll be gone awhile, may I get myself something to eat? I wouldn't want you to bother with me, when you're so upset." Razel gestured "yes" with her hand as she marched into her sister's house.
Eliakum then helped himself not only to some kichel, but also a little strawberry jam, a bowl of soup and some cherries sitting around doing nothing. The arguing next-door did not disturb him.
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