By Der Nister, translated by Joseph Tomaras
Der Nister (pen name of Pinkhas Kahanovich) (1884–1950) was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine. After the 1917 Russian Revolution he lived in Lithuania and then Germany before returning to the Soviet Union in 1926. He is perhaps best known to English readers for his massive socialist-realist novel The Family Mashber, but before its publication he was known to the Yiddish literary public primarily as a writer of short fiction in fantastical and symbolist modes. He died in a gulag hospital.
This short story appeared in volume two of his collection Gedakht (Imagined), which was published in Berlin in 1923. When Gedakht was republished as a single volume in Kiev in 1929, this story and several others were omitted; this translator does not know why. Alongside the supernatural elements in the story, there is a sense of wonderment for the natural setting.
For many years, the fool had lived in the wild woods in service to the forest spirit: he hewed its wood, bore its water, accompanied it on its travels, followed all its orders, and started and finished his tasks with only a silent smile. But sometimes, on a hot summer’s day in the woods, when all the day’s tasks had been completed and there was nothing left to do, but the day was still long and the forest languished as the sun heated its stones through the trees, the forest spirit would feel empty and wrung out and tired and go to rest from the bright light of day inside an old linden tree. On that sort of day, when the sun’s shadows lay upon the trees that just stood there in the forest that rested with silent birds in even more silent nests—on that kind of day the fool went to his own distant spot in the woods known only to himself, a silent place hidden by small trees with wide leaves. There was a very old mossy stone. He would come there and sit with his back to the stone and face the direction from which he had come. In this position, he would lose himself for what was left of the day in silent contemplation of the forest. Alone in that spot, taking his rest from the day and with nothing else around, he would sit, and sometimes a clear smile would well out from his lips and crinkle his face, pure and from his innermost self. Smiling this way to and by himself, he felt good, more than good, and lingered long in this foolish goodness…
But at dusk, when the sun was setting and shadows stretched out long and wide all around, settling on the forest and its trees, the fool would stand up from his spot, turn toward the stone, and look at it for a long time. In taking his leave from the stone he would say: “I have long sat by you, stone. Today I believed, I thought, just as I always have, that you would finally open up at sunset and reveal a sun of your own, and chase the dusk away and make the night impossible…I hoped that it would be today. I’ve often imagined that you have the power within you to open up like that, but I’ve made a fool of myself over you. Now I must return to serve the forest and its spirit, but I’ll still be waiting for you, stone, fool that I am. I’ll be going now…”
And then the fool would turn away from the stone and leave it in the hidden thicket. Alone in the forest, he would return through the light of the setting sun, arriving silently and late, when the warm darkness of evening had already crept in, to find the forest spirit still lying asleep in its linden tree.
After a time, he would hear a hoarse voice from the trunk of the tree. “How late is it?”
“Late enough, and time to wake up.”
Then the spirit would stick out its head and its horns, then its furry forefeet would creep out, and finally its knees would crack and it would climb onto the fool’s back, and the fool held the spirit’s heavy body until the spirit felt fully awake and refreshed. The spirit would look around, ready to see where he would go and what he would do on this night, where and what awaited him…Once he had finally made up his mind he would direct the fool with a commanding pointer finger: bring my drink and my dinner. The spirit supervised the fool closely in his preparations, accompanying him here and there in every direction…
And so it was, and so it remained, year after long year—the forest endured, time marched onward; the spirit was lord, the fool his ward, and never any changes. But one night, after this routine of midday resting and evening waking, the spirit and the fool were separated from one another in the depths of the forest. It was a summer night, with a full moon shining bright through the trees. They were walking and walking until they were somewhere in the middle of the woods.
They realized they had never been in this spot before and had never felt the grass grow so thick beneath them or seen the trees so high above them, never seen a place so wild and strange, so bright and so shaded at once. There were gigantic trees standing, growing, dominating, with thick, healthy trunks and roots anchored firmly in the earth, their tops bathing in the light of the moon and their branches splayed overhead. The spirit and the fool were so taken with the grandeur above them that they were not paying attention to what was going on at their own feet. Both were heedless of what was going on below, around the tree trunks, for their heads were turned up toward the treetops, their eyes never looking downward, fixed on wonders they had never experienced before.
“Where are we?” asked the spirit.
“I don’t know,” answered the fool.
“I don’t recognize this place.”
And so the spirit ordered the fool to gather firewood and kindling, for they would stay the whole night in this place, examining it thoroughly. The fool followed the order and built a fire in the midst of the grass, on which he started to cook dinner. Sitting there, the fool fed the fire as it burned and flickered. As the fool watched the fire, the spirit walked around and around the fire inspecting this hitherto unvisited place, but always staying close to the fire. When the smoke had risen through the treetops, the spirit said, “Fool, I am going to leave you alone here to tend the fire. Do not fall asleep and let the smoke die down…I must go alone throughout this place to get to know it thoroughly. It is not right for a spirit, a forest spirit, to have some place in his forest, his domain, that he does not know…” Having said this, he departed.
The fool was left alone beside the fire. He sat and he sat, silently, and as was his habit, whether in forest or in grassland, in sunshine or in the shade of the trees, he began to think to himself. He started laughing quietly and kept laughing like a real simpleton, silently giggling like he always did. Having finally laughed himself silly and taken his pleasure from it, the still silently smiling fool began again to pay attention to the growing fire. Its smoke had gone higher and higher, up above the trees. But it was so quiet for so long, and as evening gave way to midnight, the spirit had still not returned. The fool was getting drowsy and began to nod off. He hunched up by the fire, let his head fall toward his chest, and went to sleep completely.
As soon as the fool had fallen asleep a branch of a healthy tree directly above him began to sway. There was a young dryad on the branch, looking down at the fool and swinging playfully. This forest maiden was so small and flitted about so quickly she could hardly be seen with the naked eye. Then she stopped her swaying and stilled the branch, and after a long spell of watching breathlessly finally she screamed: “Fool, why are you sleeping? I have come from your stone; your stone is not alone, the stone has split open…” She screamed down at the fool, waiting for him to look up and notice her. He did not. Again she screamed: “Why are you sleeping, fool? This is the last night of your service to the spirit. Go! We are waiting for you by the stone; we are watching out for you…” The fool noticed none of this. So she plucked a large, dried-out pinecone from the branch and threw it at the fool’s sleeping head.
And as the fool awoke, he saw the returning spirit standing with his head turned upward in surprise, looking at a branch of a nearby tree. The forest spirit asked: “Who’s there?”
“I am!” came the answer.
“And who is that?”
“The forest maiden.”
“What do you want here?”
“To free my master from his servitude.”
“Who do you mean?”
“Him!” She pointed down toward the fool.
And as the spirit turned to look at the fool, the fool, as had always been his custom, bowed his head toward the earth as if ashamed, still silent and good-humoredly smiling, as if he felt guilty and were humiliated by his guilt. The spirit gravely addressed the fool, he who had awoken the stone and was now standing stone-still in shame.
“Yes,” the fool answered him, lifting his head and almost looking the spirit in the eye. “Let’s bid each other farewell.”
The spirit fell silent.
The fool gave the spirit the dinner he had cooked, serving it out as he would have in the past, standing at a distance and waiting until the spirit had eaten his fill. Then he gathered the serving dishes and silently left that place and that night, accompanying the spirit home. Arriving at the linden tree, the fool stood silently in front of its trunk, then fell to his knees, bowing his face toward the earth, and remained silently in this position for a long time. After a long time he stood again and turned to the spirit, looked him in the eyes, and said abruptly:
“The fool is thankful to you.”
“For many long years, for what I am and have become…”
And then, waiting for nothing, for no speech and no word, he turned his back on the spirit and on his service to the spirit and left the spirit’s domain and the linden tree behind.
Joseph Tomaras writes short fiction and lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York; they have been translating short stories published by Der Nister in the collection Gedakht.