The Smith; Or, A Tale of a Man Who Poisoned His Wife

Written by:
M. J. Berdyczewski
Translated by:
James Adam Redfield
Spring 2018
Part of issue number:
Translation 2018

Some themes of “The Smith,” Berdyczewski’s first Yiddish story (1902), are atypical of his return to the mother tongue, while others foreshadow the work ahead. Its misogynistic protagonist, with his vestigial moral reflexes numbed by brutish egoism, is among the nastiest specimens of this fictive shtetl. On the other hand, as he entrances the narrator with his tale—producing echoes of the Nietzschean “will to power”—he personifies the raw passion and unrepentant individualism that Berdyczewski often set against the bonds of tradition and community. The death or opacity of God, replaced by the crushing yoke of Jewish morality, identity, and society, is another theme that runs through the Yiddish writings. Finally, this story also shares a realistic concern for how poverty shapes every aspect of shtetl life, including intimate relations between spouses and family members, religion, and one’s sense of self. This sober reflection on the scope of moral action under such constraints is expanded in other tales, including another “true crime” story written at roughly the same time (“The Guest; Or, A Shocking Tale of an Unfortunate Man Who Tried to Take Revenge on His Father,” 1903). If Berdyczewski’s smith is not a typical character in his Yiddish work, he serves as a loom for common threads.

I have put this down in writing as a lesson. He told it to me himself, on the road, after he got out. His face was black, but I could see an immense strength still flickering somewhere deep inside. His gray beard, half cropped, bristled in all directions. An odd look came over his face as he spoke, like it was about to break into a bitter smile. I recall seeing him once when I was a boy. But that’s not the point right now. Better to let him speak.

On the road from Balta he’s sitting across from me, leaning on a sack of straw. He seems to be turning something over in his mind. There’s another man in our coach: a poor little Jew, fast asleep in such a desperate tangle of limbs that it almost breaks your heart. The coachman’s a strapping young man with a red neck and a triangular patch on his shoulder. I could reach over and poke it if only I had a stick . . . what’s a thousand divided by eighteen? . . . I was so in my head that I completely missed whatever my friend said to me as I got in. That’s how my thoughts are: bouncing around, no rhyme or reason. But he just sits there without saying a word: the ex-con, I mean.

We pass through a town. Barking dogs. Almost at the gate now. He pulls a pouch of commercial tobacco out of his pocket and rolls himself a cigar . . . how he seals it with saliva, I can’t quite make out. “A match—got a match?” he asks, and I hand him one. Once he’s finished the cigar, he starts talking to me. It’s like he already knows who I am.

“Name’s Fishl, Fishl the smith. While you were away, I was doing time in Dashev. My father was a smith too. I don’t know if that means much to you. Carpenters work in the summer, sure, in their house or their little room. But smiths aren’t like carpenters, tailors, cobblers, or any other craftsmen. All they do is putter around inside: picking with a needle, banging with a hammer (anyway, it’s no bigger than a penny). We, we stand in the shop all day: winter and summer too, even before sunrise. The shop’s on the edge of town, where it meets the steppe. I lay out my tools and get to work. Blow the bellows and the fire jumps: you feel it in your bones. Heave the hammer and bring it down on the anvil: it starts your heart pounding. It’s incredible I could last a year in there without working, back when I was starting out. After that, they gave me plenty to do; still, it’s not like working for yourself. Try shoeing a young stallion and keeping him put! Have you seen how iron glows when it’s hot? Do you know how to strike the wheel? The shop’s my home away from home. Shabbos comes around and sure, I’ll put on my best overcoat. But standing in my shop in a shirt and overalls, barefoot and black as a lump of coal—that’s living!

“If only she’d been a beauty, I’d have had it all, right? I earned enough; I was never out of work. Damn those stuck-up Dashevers! In my shop I’d sooner spit than breathe a word about them; whatever they said, it didn’t mean a thing to me. They were saying I didn’t get along with my wife, sure, and I can’t deny it. I never could stand her. I got engaged to her ’cause they gave me a hundred. I didn’t get to see her first. Once I had her, what could I do? The children died young. I never had any love for them, ‘cause I couldn’t stand what came out of her either.

“But that’s how it was meant to be, I guess. Year after year could’ve gone by, and we might still be living together. And then my brother, my younger brother, had to go take a second wife. She was full of herself, sure, but I felt something for her right away. You should’ve seen her: what a piece, take my word for it. It wasn’t till I laid eyes on her that I realized: I couldn’t stand a thing about my wife. Not a thing.

“It started eating away at me . . . just the thought, I mean . . . the first day, I couldn’t work at all. What can I tell you—was I jealous of my brother? Like they say: silence is golden! Still, there’s a big difference between having a mopey dishrag for a wife and having one who’s fit and pretty. A man’s flesh and blood, isn’t he? When he feels something for a lady, it digs into his heart and builds a nest there like an evil spirit . . . one time, when I was in the service, the sergeant got drunk and . . . I sat there thinking it over, wringing my hands . . . I started rubbing my foot against a rock on the ground . . . the wind came howling through the chimney: first a scream, then a sigh, like it was alive . . . a man’s got eyes in his head for a reason . . . how can I be sure it isn’t like this for everyone, if no one tells the truth anyway? . . .

Meantime my wife came to the shop with my lunch. As she ladled my porridge out of the pot, I started boiling with rage. There she was, the old stick in the mud.

“‘Fishl, what’s wrong?’ she asked.

“I wanted to take the ladle and throw it right at her head . . . look, there she is again with her mouth hanging open . . . there was a dog over by the door; I whacked him with a poker so hard I nearly broke his paw.

“‘Fishl!’ She grabbed my hand.

“‘Go to hell!’ I pulled away. I saw red; I was about to grab her by the throat . . .

“After that day, strange ideas started buzzing around my head. If I were my brother and he were me, if I had his wife . . . When I’d come to their place for Shabbos dinner—which wasn’t often, mind you, ’cause my brother and I were never too close—and I’d see her all dressed up, with blood and milk in her cheeks—little by little, it was tearing me up inside. And when she’d put nuts and apples in my hands and tell me, ‘Oh, have a bite!’—it gave me the shakes, I wanted her so bad. What a dame; the devil in the flesh! I’d feel ashamed all week and the next: standing in my shop, striking sparks on the anvil, with just one thing on my mind.

“A few months went by. One night, out of the blue, she started crying in her chair; my old lady, I mean. It was dark outside. I didn’t say a thing. I just sat there too, thinking. Not long since Heymen’s wife died, and Reuven Yosele’s wife, too . . . when I was thinking like that, I found it hard to look at her. So what if she’s crying . . . a man gets ideas, sure, but this one was turning and turning over in my mind . . . she stopped crying. I still didn’t say a word to her. I started playing with a glass, rolling it back and forth on the table. Yankel Passi’s horses got spooked and . . . any horse could jump his bridle; it’s in his nature . . . but what am I saying? I’m a rational human being, aren’t I? Oh, so I deserve to be buried alive with the woman? Love, fine, it’s all yours, but an overcoat that’s not covered in soot? A clean shirt? A couple teeth in her mouth? If only I were a widower . . . I don’t care about money, but how about a little meat on her bones? Man needs a wife, like the verse says!

“I bet you think I’m a filthy lech. Not at all. But I know quality when I see it. When you sit down to a meal, it should feel good when she hands you the food, just like your plate and spoon should be clean. In my shop, I’m someone else. But when I come home and put on a white shirt, it’s got to be white. Trust me, I’m no ladies’ man. But do you think a grindstone keeps grinding forever?”

The chewed-up cigar butt has long since fallen from his mouth. He stops talking and stares off to one side. His ear is bright red. We’re slowing down now. I’m still thinking about what he told me, and I want him to keep talking. But I certainly don’t say that to him.

The sun is high overhead. At the bottom of the hill, we stop at an inn. The horses are covered in sweat; they need to be unhitched and watered. A goy’s coach is parked outside too. I get out; I don’t know what for. Just to have a look around. Now I want a bite. I think I’ve still got some sausage in my bag. There it is. I go in and get myself a roll and a glass of brandy from the barkeep. An old goy slumps over the end of the table, snoring. As I’m sitting down to eat, I happen to look out the window and see the smith, standing around by the coach. I catch his eye and wave to him. He nods his head and comes in. Right away he has a shot at the bar; they pass him some bread and sardines. Then he sits down next to me and goes back to his story.

“You, you’re a man of the world: what do you say? Do we get punished in the end or not? I believe in all that, sure, a little; but if God wanted things to be different, they’d be different, right? He gets angry when we sin, I don’t doubt it. But a man’s only human. He can’t help but wish it wasn’t so simple. What do you say: I deserved to rot with her forever? I didn’t deserve to have a life just because my mother thought she was so clever and she said ‘Fishl, take her, I’m telling you!’ What did she stand to lose? If my wife had died at forty, when she was at death’s door with that illness, things would have been tough for a while, then done. But no, she had to live.

“You think I’ve got a heart of stone, you think I wanted her dead? Inside every person there are really two people; one wants one thing, one wants the other . . . Moyshe, the guy who ran the bathhouse, got so worked up that he jumped off the roof and tore up his lung—the fool! Now, my brother could pass his wife over to me if . . . I’ve heard of that. But should I hold out hope? All I really wanted was to get rid of my own.

“She had a boil on her foot that was hurting a lot. At first I went to the pharmacy myself to pick up her cream; I’m human, aren’t I? But when it started oozing it made my stomach turn, and when she’d change the bandage, I couldn’t take it . . . that little piece of trash . . . I should stuff the whole thing down her throat and poison her! It was like when you keep trying to strike a match and it won’t light; then in a flash it came to me. Maybe, just maybe . . .

“God spare me! Back when I was a kid, I used to love following around the guy who killed stray dogs. I admit it. But this? Tell me—how is this all my fault? If they hadn’t married me off to her, I’d never even have known her. I’d never have hurt a hair on her head. So, so how am I the bad guy? Like I’m not the one getting screwed! Look, if a guy comes to my shop and doesn’t want to pay up, I’ll punch him in the teeth. Damn that runt! Does he think I’ll work for nothing? What does he think I am? His slave?”

He breaks off, flushed, gnawing distractedly on a crust of bread. I haven’t even touched my plate. His hair’s sticking out of his cap in all directions; fat beads of sweat run down his face. Truth be told, I don’t want him to go on. At the edge of an abyss, you shut your eyes. You turn away.

He wipes his face with his sleeve, sets down his half-eaten piece of bread, and continues.

“You know how it all started, so you can guess how it ends. But the end came so fast, like a bolt out of the clear blue. One morning I got up with a weight on my chest. End of summer, but outside it was ice cold. I put my sack over my shoulder and headed to the shop. I was almost there when I realized I’d forgotten the key.

“So I went back. When I got home I sat down on the bench, thinking. Some-thing’s off today . . . I’ve got no desire to work at all . . . I picked myself up and headed back to the shop anyway. But my head wasn’t in it. The hammer fell out of my hand.

“How I got the poison I still don’t know. I kept it in a pouch next to the tobacco; if only I’d mixed them up and stuck it in my mouth, I’d have been the one saying my prayers. Maybe I’d be better off.

“What a horrible thought! That isn’t me, I can’t believe it . . . if someone had come in right then I’d have yelled out: ‘Save me, save me from myself! Tie me to a chair! I’m a crook, I want to take someone’s life!’ But nobody came.

“And that day, of all days, like it was fate, I had to eat lunch at home. She was saying something to me. ‘Eat up, why aren’t you eating?’ I didn’t say a word. I wanted to die. If only I’d swallowed a bone and choked on the spot. Just then she goes into the kitchen to get something. I leaped up and put the poison in her dish. Then all of a sudden I couldn’t see two feet in front of me. I blacked out.

“She came back in . . . Stop! Don’t eat the soup! That’s what I meant to say. It seemed like I was screaming so loud a deaf woman could have heard me. When she put her spoon in the bowl, I meant to grab her hand. Grab her hand, do it . . . that was all I could think of. But somehow she couldn’t hear me. Her hand moved from the bowl to her mouth. But I sat there like a rock. I couldn’t budge. ‘It’s a little bitter,’ she said. ‘Pass the salt.’ You stupid twit! I wanted to scream. I’m a murderer, I’m trying to poison you, don’t eat another bite! I didn’t know what was going on. Everything froze. There was a ringing in my ears.

“If she vomits, it won’t work . . . she’s got to retch it up! Or maybe it’ll come out of her belly all on its own; wouldn’t that be a miracle . . . now she was doubled over in pain, her face had gone blue. ‘Fishl, my head’s spinning, get me something to drink.’ She was gripping the edge of the stool. And what popped into my mind? Take the soup and dump it out in the sink! When I came back with a pitcher of water, she was blue all over. ‘Fishl, you gave me something!’ She fell on the bed, thrashing around. ‘My stomach! Oh, my stomach, it’s like knives! The doctor, call the doctor!’

“Save your wife! I heard myself saying. Stick a finger down her throat so she throws it up! Her tongue was flopping around; she couldn’t talk anymore. I threw open the doors and screamed: ‘My wife’s dying!’ Neighbors rushed in from all directions, pulling on her hands, rubbing her face. She was blue as bleach. Hershl the Nose yelled, ‘We’ve gotta bleed her!’ ‘Why, do we know what’s wrong with her?’ ‘Come in, quick, take off her shirt!’ ‘Yes, she’s dying, and so sudden, how tragic.

Just this morning we saw her at the butcher’s. Forty-two years old!’

“She was buried the same day. Nobody knew for sure what happened, but my face was an open book, and it didn’t look good. After dark, I threw myself on the dirt floor of our hut. That’s when the tears came.”

The coachman swings open the door to the inn and starts complaining: Why aren’t we back in our seats? He drains two shots in a row, then sighs. “We’ve been hitched up for a while now. It’s no use; we’ve got to go.” The little Jew moves up next to the coachman; I sit on top next to the smith. We’re off. “Git! Git!” Soon the inn is far behind us.

I let my eyes drift over the stalks of wheat along the roadside, and it occurs to me: they don’t have a care in the world, do they? Swaying gently back and forth . . . the sun’s beginning to set. I feel the story clawing away at my heart. Remorse, true remorse . . . I have to ask myself . . . do we all feel it? But before I get a chance to answer, he turns toward me again and he says:

“I couldn’t stand myself after that. It wasn’t the blood I’d spilled. It was knowing what a sick thing I’d done: ending another person’s life. When you fight a man, there you are, face to face. You give it your best shot, so does he, and if he’s stronger or luckier, maybe he’ll beat you. But when they’ve got no idea, they’re not expecting it, and you stick it in their guts on the sly; that I can’t stand. That’s a stain you can never wash out, no matter how hard you scrub.

“So let it out! Pull yourself together, open wide, get it off your chest right away! I know. But somehow I just didn’t have the, what’s the word, fortitude . . .

“In the end my brother, my own little brother, who was scared stiff whenever I was around and suspected I had my eye on his wife, went and stabbed me in the back. It was months by the time they examined the body, but they could still tell. They took me straight to prison, then trial. And the prosecutor, what a scumbag, I can’t even; he would’ve kept up his damn questions forever. If he hadn’t thought he was so clever I’d have confessed on the spot. Instead I tied that know-it-all up in knots and decided I’d never confess, not if they put my feet to the fire.

“I did more than a year like that. Finally they sentenced me. The district court was so packed it could’ve been a wedding; that made my blood go cold. They sentenced me to six years in a penal colony. I did three years, then they let me out on a general pardon. It was just goyim there at first, but a couple Jews came later. I didn’t like them much, but you feel more at home in your own tongue.

“How’s the next life going to be? Nobody knows, sure, but if God’s really in charge up there, shouldn’t this life be a lot different? I don’t mean after you sin against Him; I mean before, when you haven’t done it yet . . . ach, better to be an ox than a person . . .”

He breaks off and falls into a heavy silence. The coach rolls on.

MICHA JOSEF BERDYCZEWSKI (1865–1921); Micha Josef Bin-Gorion from 1911 on) was a prodigious man of letters in multiple languages (Hebrew, German, Yiddish) and literary forms. He is remembered as an innovative prose stylist and polemicist on Zionism and Jewish identity; as the “Jewish Nietzsche” (Y. L. Peretz’s epithet); as an essayist and scholar on Jewish history and religion through the ages; as an anthologizer of Jewish folklore; and as a pioneer in Jewish autobiography. His Yiddish writing, however, remains obscure and disconnected from this vast corpus due to its short period (1902–1906), spare idiom, and restricted set of themes—themes inspired by a return to the shtetl and the language of his youth, through which he hoped to reanimate the spirit of the Jewish people. And yet (as Sholem Aleichem was among the first to note) there is a remarkable emotional range and realistic depth in this collection of stories, one acts, character sketches, and rewritten folktales.

JAMES REDFIELD is assistant professor of biblical and Talmudic literatures in the Department of Theological Studies at St. Louis University. He received his PhD in religious studies from Stanford in 2017. His research focuses on rabbinic ethnography; he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the Hebrew Bible, late ancient Judaism and Christianity, narrative, and premodern travel writing. He has published several translations from German and French. This is his second literary translation, both from a selected volume of Berdyczewski’s Yiddish writings (the entire volume, when finished, will be entitled Letters from a Distant Relation and is generously supported by the Yiddish Book Center).