During Sleepless Nights
By Anna Margolin, translated by Daniel Kennedy
This story originally appeared in 1909 in the New York newspaper Di Fraye arbeter shtime under the byline Khave Gross, one of various pseudonyms used by Roza Lebensboym (aka Anna Margolin). During Sleepless Nights centers on family secrets and the seemingly doomed desire of a mother and daughter to communicate. Margolin’s prose paints a heightened, dreamlike atmosphere with motifs redolent of European decadent and symbolist writing of the time. Margolin’s short stories have never been collected in book form.
Many years ago, when I was still young, happy, and full of life, I used to like, from time to time, to pay a visit to my hometown and see my parents. There I knew I would always be greeted by my father’s ardent love and my mother’s quiet tenderness.
On one occasion I set off for home feeling ill at ease. I had just received an unusual letter from my elder sister full of vague allusions and riddles. All I could glean from it was that much had happened since last I’d visited. My mother had fallen in love with someone, but the affair was an unlucky one and had come to an unhappy end. Family life had not been destroyed by it—everything remained as before.
I was apprehensive. More than anything I felt a kind of anxious curiosity and tenderness. For the whole journey I thought about my mother. Somehow I found her easier to understand; I felt closer to her—she had been transformed into a sister in suffering.
I imagined how I would throw myself around her neck and kiss her pale lips, looking into her deep eyes so that she would not think I didn’t understand what had happened.
Who knows, I thought, perhaps in one of those quiet nights she would tell me what had caused her such joy and sorrow.
But as soon as I saw her standing by the doorway of our house my hopes and expectations vanished in the wind.
My mother greeted me with her head held high and her eyes lowered.
I had never seen her so proud before. When I gave her a warm embrace she regarded me with cold astonishment. I released my grip.
At first the oppressive atmosphere in the house took its toll on me. It pained me to see my simple, gentle mother so cold and proud and my father with such feverish movements, such exaggerated attentiveness and cheerfulness.
That’s how it was at first. But back then I was young, cheerful, and full of life, and this was enough to resist even the oppressive air in my father’s house. I already had a lover at the time, and whenever a letter from him came it brought with it light, luster, and profound happiness, transforming all the days that followed into one long uninterrupted holiday.
I remember one of those days with particular clarity. I’d just been handed a letter from my lover and secluded myself in one of the hidden corners at the far end of the garden to read it. I drank down the words like strong, intoxicating wine; a wave of hot joy enveloped me entirely. I felt like laughing boundlessly, like singing aloud a happy song, like kissing and embracing every living creature.
And when I saw my mother standing at a remove of a few paces, with her upright posture and lowered gaze, so stern and distant as always, I lunged toward her translucent hand. I did not want to see her cold, surprised reaction, so I closed my eyes and said softly: “Mameshi, I’m so happy, so happy . . .”
I opened my eyes and did not recognize her. She looked at me with an expression that will remain etched in my memory forever.
She looked at me and yet she did not see me. Pure desperation—without solace or hope—filled her eyes, which in that moment had become so large and obscured that they blotted the bright sun from my view; her pale lips gave a faint smile, contemptuous and without pity . . .
I waited. I felt that a moment had come that would never be repeated; something hitherto unimaginable was about to happen.
“Listen, my child . . .”
She wants to tell me something, and what she tells me now I will never hear from her again.
She placed her hand on my forehead.
“Listen, my child . . .”
I waited a few minutes with a pounding heart: What is she going to say?
But suddenly she took back her hand, lifted her head proud and cold, and with lowered eyes began to speak of some trifle that interested neither me nor her.
But I knew I would never forget the expression I’d seen on her face.
* * *
The moment had passed, and, disquieted, she walked away from me, carrying within her an ocean of pain and happiness, a wild storm of conflict and struggle.
Then later, when the dark days came for me and I suffered terrible humiliation and offense, witnessing my great love killed by a mocking grin, I once again went to my parents in my home, which had long since grown unfamiliar.
My mother seemed hardly to have changed at all. As before she carried her proud head held high, always engrossed in her own thoughts, in her memories, barely noticing anything happening around her. My father had aged terribly, but with the years he appeared to have become both more cheerful and restless.
Long and sorrowful stretched out the days in my father’s house. I wanted to hide my anguish within myself so that no one would see it. I would lock myself away in my room, lying on my white, narrow childhood bed. I would dwell with angst and fury on my own thoughts, speaking to myself and sometimes weeping bitterly. It was only in the evening that all three of us found ourselves together around the large dining table, spending two or three hours in each other’s company. And it would often happen that when my father began in his loud voice to recount an amusing anecdote he would go suddenly quiet, rubbing his brow earnestly, trying to remember what he was saying, looking at us with alert surprise. And his attentive, surprised gaze would long linger on the faces of the two young, old-before-their-time women who sat without listening to a word he was saying, each lost in her own dark thoughts.
Long and sorrowful stretched out those days.
* * *
When my childhood bedroom grew too wretched for me I liked to hide away in the large, drafty parlor. It was every bit as forlorn, gloomy, and cold as I was. One time, when I believed I had the room all to myself, I sat by the window and curiously looked out into the snow-covered garden, at the tall, bare trees; this was in the month of Shevat. Heavy, cold tears fell onto the book that I held unopened in my hands, but the tears did not disturb my view of the melancholy winter scene before me. I do not know how I happened to start singing, though I could never sing at all. Great, strange, hoarse tones burst out from within me, and my song echoed through the hall like wild screams. I was lamenting, arguing with someone strong and angry; I wept, pleading for something, demanding it furiously.
Suddenly I felt a soft hand on my burning brow.
And when I lifted up my eyes to my mother I once again recognized that expression of desperation and disdain on her face. And just as before, her lips could barely move; she wanted to say something: “My child.”
I could feel that she wanted to reveal a truth that she had carried in her heart all these years. Now I had to hear it. And unable to restrain myself, I asked: “Mameshi, what are you hiding from me? Tell me!”
And in that moment everything was lost. Her face once again became cold and severe, though her hand stroked my hair—a gentleness I had not seen from her in some time.
* * *
I did not see her again after that. I was not there for her final moments. My life by then had carried me far from my hometown to a strange land among strange people who I attempted through various means to get close to.
Those means, however, did not succeed.
* * *
I am now old and weary. Life storms and seethes just as before, casting incandescent yearnings into human souls, summoning them to happiness and suffering, but life no longer knocks on my door: its waves do not reach as far as my threshold. I have already drained my glass to the very dregs. I am weary. My lonely days, my sleepless nights, pass in peaceful silence—without joy, without pain, without desires.
With each new day and each passing night you creep one step closer to eternal peace and calm—to death.
And the closer you get to death the more intently your gaze lingers on your tear-soaked, paper-garland-crowned youth.
During sleepless nights I see, paraded before me, the shadows of those who bore light or shade in my soul, causing it to quake out of love or hatred.
There they all are: with mirthless laughter, with tenderness in their eyes, with an apathetic smile on their lips.
Some lean down toward me, whispering half-forgotten sweet nothings in my ear; others are lost in thought and don’t notice me at all; still others laugh mockingly, and I feel as though at any moment they will hurl terrible insults in my face. But love, apathy, or mockery cannot touch me anymore.
I lie awake with open eyes during sleepless nights and look at them in cold surprise, and I seek to understand how these strange, distant people could have once been so close and dear to me. What magical thread bound me to them? And how had they severed the thread? And why was this all so alien and superfluous to me now?
They file past slowly and silently, and often I recognize my mother’s footsteps among them.
She does not look gentle and unassuming as I remember her in my distant childhood, nor does she have her head held high as I knew her in her later years. She appears to me with that intimate, deeply tragic expression my memory has kept safe.
She looks at me and does not see me. Desperation—without solace, without hope—fills her wide, dark eyes, and a smile of infinite contempt burns over her pale lips, which seem ever on the point of opening, on the verge of releasing their terrible, momentous truth.
* * *
What was she trying to tell me?
Did she want to say that life was empty and gray, pitiless in its ordinariness? Like a wicked serpent life wraps its coils around your airy dreams and winged desires, smothering them with its venomous breath, killing them on the spot before they have a chance to bloom. Your struggles will be in vain, your attempts to free yourself from the ordinary, to rise above—life will ridicule and crush you without mercy.
Is that what she wanted to say?
Or did she want to say that love is small and ephemeral?—A pale spark against the dark backdrop of life; flashing only for a moment, only to vanish in the thick darkness? It cannot open up cloudless, starlit skies; cannot pour blue light over the cloudy paths of life. It is easily extinguished with only a little water; even its purist flame does not burn eternal.
Is that what she wanted to say?
Or perhaps she wanted to remind me that however beautiful and jubilant life can be, however brightly the sun of love can shimmer, embracing you with its gentle rays, there will always be, standing behind your shoulder, a merciless enemy as old as life itself—death. It stands behind you as you stretch out your hand toward the happiness calling out to you nearby; as you lie in the arms of your ardent beloved and dream of eternity; as you begin a great project and in passionate desires see it through to its end—it is always there behind you, with a cold smile on its bony face, ready to steal away your life, your love, your creative accomplishments—
What was she trying to tell me?
Signed: Khave Gross, 1909
Anna Margolin (1887–1952) was the pen name of Rosa Lebensboym. Born in Brisk (modern-day Belarus) in the Russian Empire, Margolin moved to New York in 1906, where she worked as an editor and journalist for various Yiddish-language newspapers. Despite only publishing one full-length collection during her lifetime (Lider, 1929), Anna Margolin remains one of the most enduringly acclaimed poets in the Yiddish language.
Daniel Kennedy is a translator and co-founder of Farlag Press. His translations from the Yiddish include Warsaw Stories and A Cheerful Soul and Other Stories by Hersh Dovid Nomberg, and A Death: Notes of a Suicide by Zalman Shneour.