GITTEL might have been any maidel in the Pale, just past schoolgirl age, slim and poor. But she came from a family who’d had the most terrible luck. In Püsalot, the shtetl where she lived, like many others with worn and dusty names in the time of the last czar, bad luck was seen as a curse. Though villagers held many opinions about the source of misfortune, everyone acted as if the Almighty in his infinite and mysterious wisdom smiled on those who did well, and turned his face away from those who did not.
Gittel was used to the back of God’s head. So used to it that she had long developed elaborate ways to do things behind his back. At a young age, too young perhaps, she had learned how to get little bits of goodness, of pleasure, of joy, without his noticing, or so she hoped.
She had no dowry. And, as everyone knew, a woman without a dowry had as much chance of getting a husband as the village idiot had of getting a Cossack’s horse. Even the poor families managed some kind of dowry for a daughter. But she had no real family now, since the pogrom that had burnt a few unfortunate houses to the ground in her natal village of Ayin, years before. She didn’t want others to know this. There was such a thing as charity, even for dowries, but she had been carefully taught that taking charity is shame. Gittel spoke to the rebbe and townsfolk as if her family were still living somewhere. So whenever the butcher or fishmonger asked, she mentioned an auntie this, a cousin that, as if she still had people alive who knew and cared about what might happen to her, somebody in the next district, a few villages past the city, a few days’ journey by the dirt road. The dirt road that never seemed to end.
She had thick straight black hair brushed to a gloss and always tied neatly at the back with a ribbon. She wore a furl of bang over her brown eyes, as if she were still a girl of ten, though she was more than twice that now. Her bodice and skirts were simple and faded but always impeccably starched and ironed, as her line of work required. The skin of her hands was already showing signs of its regular exposure to scouring powder, boiled linens, bluing soap, and boar’s-hair scrub brushes, though her fingers were still as gentle and small as the still, small voice the Talmud says is in every soul, waiting to speak.
She had a very peculiar habit. She liked to walk home from errands in the marketplace past the graveyard. If her employers, the wrinkled merchant of the village and his plump, nagging wife, had looked with care into her face—but they didn’t bother, of course—they would have seen in her eyes something of the night, and of the headstones delicately carved with shapes to match the names of the dead.
Timidity was expected of a servant in a village of the Pale, as in every other burg of the world, and she had learned early and often from casual beatings how to wear its mask. She always looked down at her worn shoes when the master or mistress of the house spoke to her. But she was not timid. None of the dusty villagers guessed that this was Gittel’s seventh shtetl in as many years. Every so often, usually on a Sabbath day when everyone was supposed to be resting, she would walk and walk and walk until the next day, when she would get on a cart until the last town to take its wares, and then she’d find yet another cart going even farther away, till she experienced the lapse of memory that allowed her to tell the local rebbe in yet another village that she had a different last name than the one she had a few days and a few towns before.
She always made sure there was a large enough graveyard. She needed the right kind of graveyard. In those days, in a large enough village, the chevra kadisha—the brotherhood responsible for burials—always employed a caretaker who dug when called on, pruned the weeds, cleaned the stones, kept the dogs out, and locked the gate at night. And by long general practice, everywhere in the Pale, this man was the village idiot, a deaf-mute, a mamzer born with no father, missing a limb, or in some other way smitten by the Almighty in his infinite wisdom.
By custom or habit, the caretaker would not show his face to the villagers except when called to a funeral, though there was always a small shack near the graveyard where he slept. If he was physically deformed, the shouts of the village children—cruel as all children’s voices are—would keep him from doing his duties until well after nightfall. Gittel had learned all this years before, with the first caretaker. He had started out a mere friend to her.
This was when she was twelve and had just begun to live by her labor. The graves of her parents, grandmother, and sisters were still fresh enough to have only small markers on them. For months, she had spoken to no one in Ayin. But every night after the washing and carrying and serving that didn’t stop until the stars were out, she waited till everyone in her employer’s house was asleep, and crept quietly out. The graveyard gate was locked, but she climbed it with ease, for she was a limber child.
The caretaker discovered her crying by the graves of her family, calling their names, begging their return, crying out even to God for help—for she had not yet learned to distrust him. Her cries became screams, and she would have woken half the village if the cemetery hadn’t been a half mile away, and downwind. When her cries quieted, the caretaker’s gnarled hands startled her with the offer of a soiled cloth. She looked up at him, puzzled into silence.
The moon was too low in the trees for her to see more than a tuft of unkempt hair and an oversized suit coat. She stammered something and waited, afraid to move. After a moment, he mumbled in a low voice, like the voices of night birds who sound almost human.
She understood as little of him as she did of the birds. She knew without seeing it that his face was ugly, yet the way he gestured toward her family’s graves, as if smoothing the air, told her he meant no harm. She said something about the family she worked for and quickly got up to walk as quickly home.
A few days later, she was there again at night. She looked for him as she came to the gate, then climbed it and approached her family’s gravesite. When he did not appear, she kneeled down at the headstones, as before, and began to cry. Then she saw him coming and became quiet. He spoke to her in a mashed tongue from which she slowly began to discern words. He had a cleft palate, and his hands had been ruined in an accident years before, though he was quite strong. She did not know how old he was, though he was not old.
When she came again, he did not wait for tears. He came out to greet her as soon as she entered the graveyard. And after that, he took to watching the road every night and waiting at the gate for her arrival.
And this became a ritual. Every few days, Gittel came to unburden the griefs and little hopes and discoveries of her days to the caretaker. She could never tell if he understood anything she said, but when he spoke—and she slowly began to learn his speech—he told her of small things he encountered in his rounds, what the mice and rabbits were doing, which new graves were dug and who was in them, and what the weather did to the stones. Sometimes he did not speak at all.
And a few years passed this way. She began to be a woman. Smolin, the middle-aged merchant who was her first employer, wore a studied demeanor of indifference at home. When not chewing at the dining table, he was usually hiding behind the Russian newspaper. But his small-eyed wife seemed to get satisfaction from looking for reasons to curse and beat the girl. The Smolins had no children, so they were among the few in the village who could afford servants. The older ones—a cook and an elderly housemaid—had taught Gittel how to boil and iron the hard, course linens, scour the porcelain cups and wooden floors by daylight, and lay the settings for the meals in the early evening. But there was always some small spot in the silver or misplaced crease in the linen to arouse the anger of Smolin’s wife. Though Gittel was now a woman, she wore welts on her arms where the lady of the house struck her with the dark regularity of Baltic weather. She tried to hide these with the ends of her sleeves.
Gittel became more restless at night. She was now wandering beyond the graveyard, dawdling on the empty road till nearly daybreak. Though many times she had talked to the caretaker about running away, her plans began to sound more serious. And he became afraid for her. So one night, in early fall, he promised to take her to a new place, a small river a few miles from the village.
In the full moon, the dry grass and weeds appeared gray along both sides of the riverbank. The distant voices of the whole village in its little wooden shul a mile or more back came and went faintly like the whispering of ghosts. Every now and then, a bird-light staccato from the distant ram’s horn touched the surface of the river and disappeared.
The sounds, though faint, reminded her that it was Rosh Hashanah, and there was more than one sin she was committing this night: not saying the prayers to be inscribed in the Book of Life, lying—for Gittel had told Smolin’s wife that she was visiting an aunt—and, worst of all, not being repentant. Gittel felt no remorse for her lie. She sat down in silence on a half-ruined log. Admitting nothing to herself about what they were doing here—neither of them had spoken of it—somehow she knew.
The caretaker went to the river’s edge, took off his suitcoat and overshirt, and from a pocket in his trousers, produced a real cake of soap, which must have cost him in dignity, for he would have braved the village store in the daylight to purchase it. He bent down to the water and washed his hands and forearms, face and neck. She had never seen him wash himself before. Though he had the use of only a few of his fingers and one thumb, he maneuvered and raised lather from the soap with delicacy and skill.
He rose and jumped into the shallow water, trousers and all, only removing them under the surface. She watched him throw the wet garments, one by one, with unexpected force, onto the riverbank. She sat perfectly still. The moon looked at her with its open eye.
She knew she ought to do something, but she couldn’t move. Her imagination had not prepared her. The prettier-faced young village boys she sometimes watched from the corner of her eyes as she went about her errands would never do more than briefly glance at her, since in the eyes of the townsfolk, nothing—no labor, however dirty or ill-paid—was worse than being a servant. Her daydreams about them always ended with a cloak that came down across her mind, though the cook had explained one day what to expect with a man, after Gittel asked.
She was as still as a stone. He moved in the water, with just his head and neck exposed, making his way toward her, watching her. She stared back, unmoving. He spoke the words of a Hebrew folk song, vehayikar lo le fached klal—the main thing is not to fear. He asked if she were cold. She could not get her tongue to work, nor her voice. She just looked at his face, as if to will the answer from him. She could clearly see his deep-set eyes that would have been beautiful in another face.
Somehow, she found herself wondering what God was thinking. She hoped that he was not watching this. She listened for the sound of the shul-goers of Ayin, but there was only silence from up the road, and the only sound she could make out beside her own heartbeat in her ears was the light rush of the river. Then, as if something pushed her, she got up from the log, took off her outer garments, and jumped into the shallow water with her petticoat ballooning around her.
Gittel grinned at the caretaker in that skull-like way people do when they are terrified, and kept trying to push down her petticoat. He stood in the shallows and stared. Under the surface, she managed to get at and remove the rest of her underclothes, but she somehow couldn’t lift them. When he saw her struggle with them, he came to help her. He took her garments, heavy with water, onto the riverbank, awkwardly climbed out of the river, and spread them on a few bushes where they wouldn’t become soiled. He turned around, and she saw for the first time what a man looked like as God made him.
A sound came out of her. He stopped in his tracks on top of the riverbank. And she saw that his body was not marked as his hands and face were. Out of her mouth came a word she had never said or heard before.
She scrambled up onto the riverbank. Nothing was between them now but the cool air. He looked his fill of her for the first time, and something overcame his face. She had to look away, at the trees across the field behind the river, as if for a place to rest her eyes. He saw her do this and looked down at the gray ground. They stood apart, shivering. For a while, they kept standing this way, not looking at each other, like the first two, newly banished, not sure where to go or what to do.
A bird’s call, loud and harsh, hit their ears. They both flinched and jumped into the water. For the first time, she heard his laugh—strangely high pitched—and she laughed also, which was no less strange, and they kept laughing a bit too long for humor alone, and the sound began to loosen her limbs. And the water and the bird and the laughter emboldened her to reach her hand out, and she found his arm, which felt stronger than she would have imagined, though he barely used his strength with her, as if he were afraid to break her. He brought both his arms lightly around her waist, and as she put her arms around him and brought him close to her, it was the intoxicating warmth of him, even in the cool of the river, that surprised her the most and began to flood her senses, below the surface.
When winter came, a few months later, she saw him little, for she was susceptible to colds and could make few long walks across the snowbound fields. The road was icy, and the river had frozen over so that children made a game of sliding across it. She missed him painfully, but she felt weak and couldn’t work as hard as before, though she had no cough or fever. Something was happening to her. Slowly it dawned on her what it might be. She went to the cook and the milkman’s daughter to be sure of it. Then she wept quietly on her straw matting and cursed God.
She tried everything she could think of to stop it. She walked back and forth carrying a heavy tub of water as the cook suggested she do, and this did nothing but weary her arms. She took a bitter tea made from the root an old woman had given the milkman’s daughter for her, and this, too, did nothing except make her unable to eat for days. She knew the Smolins would dismiss her the moment they noticed. And the people of Ayin would turn their backs on her, also. It was becoming more noticeable. Already, she’d had to cut and resew her clothes where they no longer fit her.
So she contrived a plan. The first Sabbath when the wind died down enough to whisper the promise of a spring thaw, she put together a small bundle of belongings and set out to bid him farewell. Though she’d paid him one or two visits since finding out, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell him. Gittel stood in the doorway of the shack looking at this man no longer ugly to her, and the whole story came tumbling out.
The caretaker dropped to his knees and wept. His ruined hands covered his face. Though she had seen many a sad man in the village—there was no shortage of them—she had never before seen a man taken over by violent grief, making sounds that cut into her. She stood back, frightened. She waited, but when he couldn’t recover himself, she picked up her little taschen of things and quietly and quickly made for the road.
Days of walking and riding in peddlers’ carts followed. Gittel had to be sure to get far enough away that no one who traded with Ayin would have heard gossip about her. And just before she came to a village that seemed to be at the edge of the world, she went into some tall grass by the side of the road to be sick. There, she fell to the cold ground and miscarried. For hours she was passed out, and would have died from exposure had she not been found the next morning by a peddler who carried her to the rebbe’s house in the village of Retslaw, where she was nursed and cared for until she became conscious enough to tell the story she had prepared.
She gave another name for her family and, instead of Ayin, she claimed to come from the outskirts of the city of Vilnius. She told of a violent misfortune and a lost husband. The good people of the house took pity on her and offered to find a place for her. So she gained admittance to another world much like the old one, but where she was a stranger and could start over.
When summer came again, with its birds and crickets, when she was well enough to work again in another plump merchant’s house, and her heart and body and spirit had mended enough, she found herself drawn to the graveyard in her new shtetl. And there she found another one, another caretaker, this time misshapen and with a club foot, but she didn’t care.
And so, over a few years’ time, Gittel’s peculiar habit came to feel like a way of life. Every so often, she found herself in trouble and had to get further and further away. She learned how to put things out of her mind, how to believe the stories she told when she entered yet another new village. She learned how to make herself miscarry. And she came to feel that God had disappeared from the world. She became afraid to go near a shul. She never prayed. She wondered who the people were praying to. The feeling of being cursed began to be like a familiar, invisible to the naked eye, following her down the dirt roads of the Pale, no matter how far she went.
But one night, something was different. It was spring, time of the bread of affliction and the bitter herb. This was in the shtetl Püsalot, near the city of Kovno. Gittel had again told the latest burgher and his wife that she was with an aunt—but was in fact sitting in the lean-to of the latest caretaker, a deaf-mute. He had seen her in her shame in the woods, before her entrance to the town the previous fall. It was he who found her, cleaned her sufficiently, and carried her to the rebbe’s. And he had refused to touch her ever since. This had never happened before.
He was older than any of the others. Though the skin on his face was worn with long exposure to the elements, his eyes held a steady fury. On this visit, she brought him a gift of two pieces of matzo with crushed apples and walnuts sweetened with wine between them. He nodded and opened a dirty hand for the gift. He ate it slowly. Since he couldn’t hear, she didn’t speak, and merely waited for him to finish eating. After he took the last bite, she went to take up the linen napkin in which she had brought the treat, and, as if by accident, her hand brushed lightly across his forearm. He looked at her fiercely and grabbed her wrist so hard she made a soft cry. With unambiguous intention, he slowly shook his head. Her eyes widened.
He let go of her wrist and turned away from her, leaning down to a small but strong rusty metal box that looked as though its side and top had been kicked a few times. He carefully opened this box and brought out a small parcel folded in an embroidered handkerchief. He came back to the small table and unwrapped it. Her mouth dropped open.
She had never seen so much money in her life. It was silver and gold coins, how many kopeks she couldn’t guess. She looked up at him in amazement. “But you…where did this…who…?”
He shook his head again, scowling.
She understood that she wasn’t supposed to ask where an old caretaker like him, without even the gift of speech, could have gotten this kind of gelt. Perhaps she didn’t want to know.
He pushed the parcel to her with a frown. She blinked. She was trying to comprehend. He frowned with angry intention at her, nodding impatiently. Slowly, she began to realize what was happening.
She stammered out “I…I….” and pointed to the parcel and herself a few times with a questioning look. His expression softened. He looked down and nodded. She shook her head in disbelief.
Her hands were trembling as she gathered the gelt and put it in the linen napkin that still held the crumbs of the matzo he had eaten. Perhaps he is a fool, she thought, to pay such a price for so little food. She tried to thank him, but he waved her away impatiently. Before she knew it, she had backed out of the lean-to and was on the dirt road again. She took the gelt out of the napkin to make sure it was real, then clasped one hand so tightly around it that its shape was imprinted on her palm by the time she got to the city. She never stopped or took a ride on a cart. She walked for a day and a night without rest or water. But this time, and for the first time, she would not have to look for a graveyard. With a respectable dress and a dowry, the prospect of finding a man with whom she could walk under the sun quickened her steps.
The old caretaker went about his tasks as always. In the old metal box from which he had taken the parcel, there were a few more pocket watches and gold rings from fresh occupants that he had not yet exchanged for coins in the city markets. He would wait until the next market day to take care of these. There was a poor child in the village whose screams he had heard on his walks. The child needed an expensive medicine, and he knew just where he could leave enough kopeks for the family. From under his cot, he pulled a bottle of slivovitz. He took a glass and poured himself enough to soften the prospect. For he could hear. He had always been able to hear.