Mimi Pinzón, translated by Jonah Lubin.

Mimi Pinzón’s novel Der Hoyf on Fentster (The Courtyard without Windows) revels in the strange, shifting, often surreal perspectives of its protagonist, Etl, a young girl growing up in a Buenos Aires conventillo, which is roughly the Argentine equivalent of a Lower East Side tenement. The tenants of the conventillo call it “the Courtyard.” Etl came to Buenos Aires with her parents a couple years before the events of this chapter. At this point in the novel, they are making a living by collecting and sorting rags of dubious provenance. In the previous chapter, she was told by her piano teacher (Fräulein Elisa) that a beautiful woman they’d met was “the madame of the bordello” across the street. In the excerpt that follows, Etl attempts to ascertain the meaning of this phrase. — Jonah Lubin

Chapter XIV: Dovid

Ever since that damp, bitter morning at recess when she was rejected by the girls who strolled in rows through the schoolyard, Etl made sure not to tell anyone about her tattered yellow booklets. But there was still one person in the Courtyard who she could talk to without fear or shame, who she could tell everything she wanted to. She knew he wouldn’t react like those girls had—he even considered it a privilege. He thought Etl was doing him a big favor by telling him about the books she read.

And who was he? Who was this person Etl could tell everything to? He wasn’t an adult—he was just a kid, a boy a little older than her—and there wasn’t a single person in the Courtyard who didn’t tease him or boss him around. Not a single person treated him like a human being.

His name was Dovid, and he was Serke the Encargada’s stepbrother. Serke had given him a nickname that everyone in the Courtyard used: Dovid the Stomach.

He was a thin, quiet boy with sparse, dirty blond hair, with eyes that were watery blue and always thoughtful, with a long face that was pale and pinkish, sprinkled all over with freckles of every shape and size, from little points to big stains. Dovid was supposed to be something like an apprentice to his sister and a full member of her household. But instead he was her servant, made to do all sorts of chores and run all sorts of errands. He was a nanny for her dirty, snot-smeared children and a lightning rod and lab rat for the strange curses that Serke invented.

Dovid was a great friend to Etl. No one knew better than she did how much he hated his stepsister and her family, how he despised being her servant, her nanny. How he would have long since spat on her and her favors if not for his widowed mother. Dovid’s mother, who baked cakes and pastries for fancy weddings, would cry and cry that all he needed to do was keep his head down for a little longer and maybe he’d become a tradesman of some kind, someone who could earn a living with his hands—as if Serke’s husband Tsalke ever taught him to do anything but iron shirts. Tsalke wouldn’t even let him line a collar—Dovid complained to Etl—or remove a patch. That stumpy little worm.

In the most distant corner of the Courtyard, where the row of wooden kitchens yielded to a bit of free space—where Alfonsina’s houseplants had once stood in small wooden crates and naphtha-sheet tins—there, a few times a day, Dovid would empty and rekindle his heavy charcoal iron. Etl knew that whenever she needed him, he’d be there. And Etl knew: she’d approach and he’d be standing there, still for a moment, with the heavy iron in his hand, waiting quietly for her to come closer. Then he’d slowly lower the iron and lift his limpid, light-blue eyes, which always looked overfilled, ready to dissolve in their watery blueness; he’d wipe his long, overfreckled hands, which stuck out from Tsalke’s ill-fitting hand-me-down shirt, on his too short or too long pants, from which his thin legs emerged, finely dusted, gilded with little hairs; and for a while he’d just look at her. Then he’d pick up the iron again, rock it this way and that, and ask in his strange voice—overgrown like his legs from Tsalke’s pants, sometimes crowing, sometimes a hoarse bass:

—So, what did you read today?

And when Etl would start telling him—quiet, whispering, head inclined, squatting on the balls of her feet, picking at the dry earth in the crates that once contained Alfonsina’s houseplants—he’d stop rocking the iron, set it down on the ground beside him, fall into the same squat right next to her, and look at her with his overfilled, barely blue eyes. And his lips, as if they were reading together, would imitate every turn and bend of her mouth as she spoke.

Etl didn’t just tell Dovid of all the wonders, all the strange and marvelous tales that filled every page of her tattered yellow booklets; she told him whatever she felt like. Dovid never refused, never interrupted, never argued. He didn’t even think to do so—but maybe that’s not true.

Etl had very few friends in the Courtyard, although it was always full of children. She always wanted to be near the adults, to hear what they were saying, to watch them when they thought no one was looking. Dovid was the only one she told everything to. And besides the stories she read, Etl also told him about the strange dreams that they produced. And that one magic little word from the books—that word she could not fully explain—she could repeat it to Dovid over and over because Dovid listened to her, and he didn’t just listen—he breathed her in through his tight-pressed lips. Dovid wouldn’t even blink while she was speaking—the only thing that moved was his thin, light-blond hair. It looked more alive than he did. He would squat on the balls of his feet for who knows how long, not lowering his eyes from Etl until Serke’s singsong would reach them from the front patio:

—Do-o-vid? Where’d you run off to, my Stomach?

Then Dovid would grab hold of the iron with both hands, lift it in the air, and speed-walk to the front patio before it occurred to Serke to come and see for herself where he’d run off to.

And then Etl would stand there for a long while, there in the back patio, next to the crates with the dry, dusty soil, and it always seemed to her that she had not told him what she really needed to, that she’d forgotten something crucial—but she didn’t know what it was.

Since that afternoon at Fräulein Elisa’s, in the walled-off part of the store, Etl had been wandering around like a sleepwalker. She felt that she needed to tell someone what she’d seen and heard there. That she needed an explanation for something that she didn’t even know the name of. But though she did not know, she felt in an unclear way that what she saw there had to do with what her mom and dad had talked about that night in bed. And she felt that it had something to do with her dad not wanting her to go back to Fräulein Elisa’s.

Etl didn’t think anything she saw was bad. And yet she felt as though that beautiful, shapely woman and her resounding laughter demanded something unknown of her.  Fräulein Elisa’s explanation had meant nothing to Etl, made nothing clearer. And yet—a hazy thought whispered that the secret of the matter was contained in those words.

But Etl felt that she couldn’t ask anyone in the Courtyard to interpret them for her—not even her best friend, Ita. For some reason, Etl was scared that Ita would tell her something that would permanently taint Ita, the whole Courtyard—and even Etl herself. So Etl just wandered around, constantly on the verge of asking someone but never actually doing it. She was so distracted that even her mom noticed: she tapped her head a few times, asked if she was in pain, if her stomach hurt. Makhle, who was also there, thought Etl might have caught a Good Eye and said she could drive it away by rolling a freshly laid egg on her. Then a conversation started between Makhle and Etl’s mom about eggs, about chickens, about Passover, which was right around the corner before you knew it—and Etl and her Good Eye were forgotten.

Etl’s mom could now prepare for the holidays differently than before. Leisurely, festively, with the trembling, joyful assurance that, thank God, she no longer needed to fear, to pinch pennies. She could celebrate with a full mouth. And it wasn’t just High Holidays: she’d already had the pleasure of buying a chicken all for herself and having it slaughtered for Shabbos. It would always last them the next few days, too.

Etl’s mom and Makhle were very excited about a bargain they’d snapped up the previous week: a turkey they’d bought off the goy who drove birds around the street on a long wire with hooks. They were arguing whether to slaughter the turkey right away and have it for Shabbos or to fatten it up a bit and eat it at the seder. All the Courtyard's children took great interest in the animal; everyone wanted to bring food to it, there in the farthest corner of the courtyard where Etl’s mom had put it to pasture, bound with a long cord to an empty houseplant crate. And so that corner of the courtyard filled up with trash and excrement. It got so bad that Tsalke the Encargado decided he needed to have a few words with Etl’s mom and Makhle. He told them that if the turkey wasn’t cleared out from the Courtyard, he’d take it for himself. Under other circumstances, Etl’s mom wouldn’t have taken that from Tsalke. But since, in those days, she was so busy sorting rags in the little wooden kitchen, and since the stench coming off the little turkey was quickly becoming unbearable, she decided—after talking it over with Makhle—to slaughter it for Shabbos.

It was only Thursday night—Etl’s mom kept to her old custom of preparing for Shabbos starting on Thursday—and the little turkey was to be taken to the kosher butcher. Usually, taking birds to the butcher was Etl’s job. But she’d only ever done it during the day and it was usually a little hen or a duck, never a bird so well fed as that turkey.

Etl’s mom discussed the matter with her husband, with Makhle, and decided that Etl would go—but she’d ask Serke to send Dovid along with her. He’d help carry the heavy basket and keep Etl company on her long journey through the night.

Etl hated nothing more than taking birds to the butcher. First of all because it was a real shlep: the kosher butcher lived way in the outskirts, behind the railroad tracks. She also hated it because the whole Courtyard always made a big deal out of it. Everyone, even the Jewish neighbors, thought it was the funniest thing in the world and had a good laugh at her expense. They offered to slaughter the bird for free—save a couple cents, save the kid the trouble. Etl hated it when people took pity on her. Etl’s dad didn’t even really care about using a kosher butcher—that was clear. But when the matter was between his wife and God, he did not intervene. Every time Etl’s mom decided to slaughter a bird, Etl started hating her mom, the bird, the kosher butcher, and all their neighbors who got to laugh it up over her mom’s small-town ways.

But this time Etl didn’t take it so hard—firstly because it wasn’t just any old bird. A turkey was a rare sight in the Courtyard. Secondly, because the chore was like a little holiday: she and Dovid, the two of them, just like adults, went off walking through the dim streets. In the evening the city had a fully different feeling than during the day. It looked mysterious, obscure—past each gate, weak light shone from behind shutters, with hidden intention, asking: So what do you think’s happening behind me?

They walked along, each holding a handle of the big wicker basket, where the turkey fidgeted about in quiet anxiety, producing soft noises with its wings. Occasionally it would try to poke its beak out, as if to ask grumpily:

—How much longer is this going to take?

You had to walk for a long time to get to the butcher. You had to turn through the gloomy street, where the only light sources were dim, lonely lanterns on the corners. You had to cross a bridge that cut over the arroyo—a dry, stinking gully where even in the middle of the day a big, dark rat could be seen scuttling from one bank to the other. Then you needed to cross the train tracks, the rails that divided the city abruptly, cordoning off a plot of sand and weeds and sometimes granting passage to a chiming, whistling, panting train and sometimes to a long and gloomy caravan of iron railroad cars, their windows bristling with the hairy throats of dignified oxen, who ruminated proudly: Please, they are bringing us here on your account.

They had to wait a while in the narrow courtyard. The butcher was out davening mayrev, said an old Jewish lady with a well-greased headscarf, sticking her head out from a little kitchen window then disappearing again.

When the butcher arrived—a tall, withered Jew with a faded, tousled beard like a quilt—he didn’t even look at them. He washed his hands perfunctorily at the courtyard faucet, took the little turkey, which lay quietly on the stones, and plucked a few feathers from its neck. All the while he held the knife firmly between his teeth. And then, suddenly, an evil look appeared on his face. He passed his knife through the turkey’s throat and threw the bird down on the stones as if revolted by it. The turkey started writhing, jumping from its skin, like it had gone crazy. Full with fear of death it struggled to its feet, its throat slit and bloodied, and began to run around the narrow courtyard. But the butcher lunged, caught it, threw it on the ground, and, having put his foot on its trembling feathers, began to wipe the knife. Etl offered him the ten cents that her mom had given her. He took the coin, gave it a look, and said in a dry, faded voice

—Twenty cents. A bird like that costs twenty cents.

Etl had grazed the butcher’s hand when she’d given him the money: it was pale, chapped, and damp, and she felt like she was going to be sick. Her head had been hurting all day, but from looking at the turkey, which was still twitching, and from touching the man’s damp, chapped hand, and from the blood on the courtyard stones, she felt such a terrible nausea that she thought she was about to throw up right into the man’s hand. Luckily Dovid noticed something was wrong; luckily he had a twenty-cent piece in his too short, too long pants. It was Dovid who picked up the bloodied turkey, which no longer thrashed, and stuck it in the basket. He picked it up by both handles, glanced at Etl, and said:

—Let’s go!

Etl stayed quiet almost the whole way back. Dovid talked. Etl was scared that if she opened her mouth she’d feel that fever in her head again, and the damp nausea she’d caught from the butcher’s hand would again push up into her throat.

They stopped by the train tracks. The barrier was down. They needed to wait for the train to pass. In the gloom it seemed to Etl that the turkey in the basket started making noise again—she jerked in horror and dropped the ten cents that she’d been squeezing in her hot, sweaty hand. Dovid set down the basket and started to help her look for it. They fumbled around in the darkness for a while, their hands pressed on the sandy soil, damp with night. They found nothing but pebbles, shards of glass, and pieces of rusty wire. But the searching, the meeting of their hands in the darkness, made them happy. They squatted on the balls of their feet and laughed in each others’ faces. A train whistled. It was very near. The tracks trembled. The light and the panting of a locomotive approached. Bright and cheerful wagons danced by. In one, happy people laughed, eating at white-spread tables. A woman looked on and smiled as a young fellow poured red wine into her glass. Dovid babbled happily that someday soon he’d run away. He’d jump a train and go off to the campo for the cosecha. And he’d earn a lot of money, get nice clothes, a pair of boots, a long knife. He’d come back grown up, browned by the sun, tall and strong, with a black, curling mustache.

Etl wanted to ask him where he thought he was gonna get his hands on a mustache—but then she remembered the burden that she’d been carrying for the past few days. She didn’t have the slightest expectation that Dovid would be able to answer her question, but she was so used to talking to him, to telling him everything, that she just asked:

—Dovid, what’s a madame at a bordello?

Dovid went silent. For a long time he looked at her without words, shock in his pale eyes. Once he’d managed to swallow down the saliva that had prevented him from speaking, he looked off to the side, and with a weirdly quiet, almost choked voice, he began to talk of something that, at first, Etl did not completely understand. She was still squatting, running her finger over the damp and sandy earth. She listened to what Dovid was saying. He spoke strangely, interrupting himself, swallowing spit as if his throat was dry, panting as if he’d been running.

When Etl understood what he was talking about, she noticed his pale, watery eyes very near to hers. And it seemed a sort of murky trickle ran down from them and onto her. Again, she was struck with that feverish nausea she had felt when she accidentally touched the butcher’s pale hand. And together with the nausea was a chill. She forgot about the coin, forgot about the slaughtered bird lying in the basket, and began to run as fast as she could. She forgot about the night, about the barrier, about the train’s distant panting. She knew only one thing—she was running.

The barrier was still down. A new train was approaching—not brightly lit and cheerful like the other but gloomy, boxy, nailed shut. Its wagons rolled through the darkness with a muted murmur, and from them could be heard through the night the constant, ragged, orphaned rumble of cows’ throats. Cows’ voices mixed with the chugging of the train. And then they were lost in the distant darkness, where sparks that flew from the panting locomotive lit up a piece of sky.

Mimi Pinzón is the nom de plume of Adela Weinstein-Shliapochnik. She was born in what is now Ukraine (Belotserkov, near Kyiv) in 1910 and moved with her family to Buenos Aires at the age of four. Der Hoyf on Fentster, which appeared in 1965 in Buenos Aires, was the only book Pinzón published. She was a prolific writer of criticism and short fiction, as well as an activist in IKUF (a Communist-aligned Yiddish culture organization) and a teacher in the Argentine Chaim Zhitlovsky Yiddish schools. She also translated, among others, Borges to Spanish and Bergelson to Yiddish.

Jonah Lubin is a student at the Freie Universität Berlin interested in Yiddish literature and digital humanities. He translates from German and Yiddish, and his first book-length translation (Spook, a fever-dream novel by the German expressionist Klabund) recently appeared with Snuggly Books.

Read the story in its original Yiddish through the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Library.