Covered by Cobwebs
By Shira Gorshman, translated by Beth Dwoskin
Shira Gorshman was born in 1906 in Lithuania. In 1931, she married the artist Mendl Gorshman, and they moved to Moscow, where she began to write. Despite Stalinist restrictions on Yiddish writers, Gorshman’s work appeared in the journal Sovetish heymland (Soviet Homeland). In 1990 she immigrated to Israel, where she continued to write and publish to great acclaim.
Few Yiddish writers fit the category of “nature writer” as perfectly as Gorshman. Her childhood in a rural village with her nature-loving grandfather and her experience managing animals in a commune in Crimea gave her an intimacy with the natural world, and her writing exceeds the aesthetic boundaries of much recent nature writing.
This piece, “Fartsoygn mit shpinvebs” (“Covered by Cobwebs”), is taken from her collection Yontev in mitn vokh: roman, dertseylungen, noveln un rayze bilder (A Holiday in Midweek: A Novel, Stories, Novellas, and Travel Sketches), published in 1984. Like most of her writing, she produced it later in her life, and it is a classic example of emotion recollected in tranquility.
This piece, unlike much of Gorshman’s work, was probably not inspired by direct experience. I found no evidence that she ever lived through a pogrom, but she was, of course, aware of the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe and would have known that management of regional water mills was a common occupation for Jews in the backwoods of the Pale of Settlement. Like most of her peers, she was consumed with anger and grief about her native town’s destruction and the murder of her extended family during the Holocaust, but the exact time period of this vignette is ambiguous. With its reference to the Red Army, it probably refers to the Russian civil war.
Gorshman’s translated writing appears in Found Treasures; The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers; Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars; and Pakn Treger’s 2017 digital translation issue.
The mill is empty. Tattered, dusty pieces of cobweb hang from the rafters. Birds fly to and from their nests, and the slight wind from their wings sets the cobwebs waving. Two round, weighty millstones lie one atop the other. Great, solid hinges project out from the rough doorposts. The warm breeze turns over a straw on the floor. Somewhere a rat squeaks faintly. A hulking, broken scale stands in one corner. Ragged sacks lie on the scale.
As dusk falls, bats fly out from the dim corners. Then the sacks begin to stir. A young girl is sitting on the scale. Her hair, like the bits of cobweb that hang from the rafters, is dusty and disheveled, half covering the baggy linen shirt she wears. She is barefoot. Her feet—small, narrow. The skin of her heels shows pinkish-yellow under the dirt. She murmurs something as she sits on the scale. Then she stands up, takes a few steps, and stands still. With both hands, she gathers the shirt to her breast. Her blue eyes are moist and open wide, her lips half parted as she utters a weird cry. She is thin, gaunt. A breast and bit of stomach, visible through a rip in the shirt, are girlish and matte yellow, like the yellow powder that bees carry from blossom to blossom.
It’s warm. It’s summer and yet she shivers, pulling the shirt tighter against her body. She closes her mouth. Her eyes shine, empty and sober. She runs out of the mill to the riverbank, where the back end of a broken wagon rolls aimlessly. She dodges it. A pile of crushed eggs lies nearby. She feels with her feet until she finds a place that isn’t prickly. And she sits down. She puts her feet in the river and perches, motionless. Then all at once she flings off the shirt, throws herself in the river, and starts swimming, crying: “Leybke! This is how you do the front crawl! It’s the only way! No, no, don’t swim toward me, swim away, you mustn’t! I can’t get out of the river, I’m shy. Swim away!” Abruptly she falls silent and flips onto her back.
She floats on her back, tranquil. From time to time her thin hand catches the light on the water. Finally she climbs out of the river, shivering from the cold. The water streams from her thick red hair onto her starved body. She sits down on the ground, squirms and shakes herself, slowly stretches, and sings a strange melody:
The summer day was as brief as a dream,
The ducks and the geese swam in the stream,
Like soft, cream-white flowers newly in bloom
But now it is night; Leybke’s gone to his doom.
I’ll never again see my father and mother
Nor Leyke, my sister, nor Yisroyelke, my brother.
. . . Silence, you river! Keep still! Let me grieve . . .
Who should I ask, who should I believe? . . .
Send me the fish where I stand on dry earth.
I have bathed in the river and made a warm berth
Let them counsel my bridegroom,
He should swim to me soon.
Summer days are not long
We will soon see the moon.
Geese and ducks, may I ask, as you swim in the water
Why have my loved ones all been slaughtered?
—Bliumkiteh! Where are you?—a voice calls.
Bliumke springs up, puts on the shirt, and tiptoes slowly back to the mill. She drops down on the broken scale and covers herself with the torn sacks.
—Bliumkiteh! My golden one!—the voice calls again.
Bliumke hears the voice, but she doesn’t respond. She knows that she who is calling will soon enter the mill. It has already happened more than once. Now her mind is clear, and she is filled with remorse at the thought that the old woman has been looking for her. She remembers how old Staskekhe, who was their servant for ten years, saved her life. She wants to stay with her elderly protector, but an eerie power draws her to her father’s mill.
She hears footsteps, and the aged woman trudges in and sits down on the edge of the scale. She strokes Bliumke’s hair, removes the checkered kerchief from her own head and wraps it around Bliumke’s shoulders, and strokes it with her bony hand while tears roll down from her eyes. She whispers: “Yesterday I cooked green pea dumplings, I made up your bed, I waited . . . you never came. Did you bathe again? You’ll catch a cold. Stop running back here; everything has been plundered. Why must you keep looking at this destruction? Listen to me, take my hand, you’re a smart, learned girl. God made a miracle, the Red Army has returned, we can go to the doctor . . .”
Bliumke looks at the old woman with a clear, steady gaze. “I will obey you; I won’t come back here anymore. It frightens me here . . .”
The old servant shakes her head. Bliumke has made this promise before . . .
Staskekhe throws the torn sacks off of Bliumke and takes her hand. Bliumke follows her like a blind girl. Dawn is breaking. The birds rouse themselves and fly out from their nests, and the slight wind from their wings sets the cobwebs waving . . .
Beth Dwoskin is a retired librarian, a singer, and a writer. Her articles have appeared in Zutot, Judaica Librarianship, and the Forward, and she is a regular reviewer for the Association of Jewish Libraries. She is a 2020 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow.