Black Leyke

By Abraham Karpinowitz, translated by Helen Mintz

“To earn the right to his pen, the writer must love his protagonists. He must understand and sympathize with them.”
—Abraham Karpinowitz, interview with Boris Sandler, 1995

Through numerous intimate portraits of its residents, including the working poor and members of the underworld, Karpinowitz’s stories memorialize the Jewish city of Vilna in the period before its destruction by the Nazis. He includes real-life characters, such as the reporter Siomke Kagan and the poet Leyzer Volf, and introduces his readers to important institutions in the city, including the Vilner Tog and Ovnt Kurier newspapers. In the story “Black Leyke,” Karpinowitz illustrates his love for his characters, in particular the prostitutes Black Leyke and Tall Tamara. And Karpinowitz pays attention not just to Vilna’s people and institutions—he also lovingly re-creates the specifically Jewish urban geography of the city, naming its streets and alleyways, its streams and mountains.

 

 

The whole thing got started because Siomke Kagan, the reporter for the Vilner tog newspaper, went to war with Sophianikes Street. He couldn’t bear the suffering of the girls in the Sophianikes whorehouses and decided to take up their cause.

Siomke put on his shirt with the buttons up one side and went to talk to the brothel owners about freeing the girls from their yoke. If they refused, he’d write a detailed article, dishing out the goods on them to the entire city.

Siomke paid his first visit to Tovshe the Angel. Obviously, Tovshe received Siomke like an emperor. After all, Siomke was a respectable young man. Tovshe had the table in the front room laid out with whiskey and chopped liver, and Siomke laid out his Declaration of Emancipation.

Tovshe sat opposite Siomke, squinting at him like a guilty tomcat and waiting for the do-gooder to finish his fiery speech. Then Tovshe answered Siomke point by point. “First of all, should a respectable young man like you even be involved in these matters? And second, no one on Sophianikes is working in a factory or sawing logs. If a girl wants to, she takes a customer. And if she doesn’t want the guy, she gets a couple of slaps. So what’s the big deal? Are the girls made of glass?

“Aside from that, they get all kinds of goodies—food, drink, and who knows what else. If a girl needs a coat, someone goes with her to the Nose’s ready-made clothing store. If she needs a ribbon or a button, there’s Sarah Klok. And they don’t lay out a single groschen—it’s all on the books. Too bad the girls never crawl out of debt, but is anyone forcing them to stuff their gullets? And really, who are we talking about here? A few shiksas. In good times, you wouldn’t trust them to carry out the slop pail. If there are three or four Jewish girls on the street, we treat them like family. We close down for Yom Kippur, and if a girl wants to visit her relatives in the shtetl for Passover, we don’t nail her feet to the floor. So why make such a big stink? Why don’t we call in Leyke, and you can talk to her yourself? She’ll tell you whether she has such a rotten deal.”

So they called in Leyke, but she didn’t talk to Siomke. She just stood in the doorway of her cubicle holding on to her flowered robe so it didn’t open. Tovshe badgered her through clenched teeth. “Say something, sweetie.” Forcing a laugh, he said to Siomke, “You’d think we were keeping her here in chains.”

Leyke’s silence provided Siomke with material for a dozen articles about the vale of tears known as Sophianikes. Both sides won. Readers tore the newspapers from the vendors’ hands, and profits on Sophianikes soared. Progressive young men started dropping by every evening to witness the outrage, and the whores stuffed a few zlotys into the trunks under their beds.

But the whorehouse bosses weren’t happy—they’d been humiliated. Froyke the Cripple suggested they hire a writer to respond to Siomke in the Ovnt kurier newspaper and make him pay for the trouble he’d caused. But the bosses dropped the idea—why air their dirty laundry in public? They agreed not to let Siomke cross their thresholds ever again. Meanwhile, Tovshe the Angel took out his anger on Leyke’s backside. “If you’d said something instead of standing in the doorway completely tongue-tied, then Siomke wouldn’t have had anything to write about, and Sophianikes wouldn’t be the talk of the town.”

Tovshe was right. Siomke wrote, “Black Leyke, the white slave, was afraid to speak under the watchful eye of her oppressor, Tovshe the Angel. Her silence simply confirmed the naked truth.”

Meanwhile Leyke was angry. Now that Siomke had made her famous, not a day passed without some fool in a fedora showing up on Sophianikes to ask about her parents and her seducer. The few zlotys they gave her in exchange for absolutely nothing didn’t mollify her.

Tall Tamara advised Leyke to tell the guys that her father was the Antokol rabbi, and she’d been seduced by the only son of Count Oginski, with his park in Pospieshk, next to the Viliye River. “The story will make the suckers happy, and money will rain down on you like chestnuts.”

But Leyke didn’t want to fool people. Before she died, Leyke’s mother, Bertitshke the Stovepipe, had told her daughter, “Leyke, my child, I bequeath you the territory on Shur’s sidewalk, from the bridge over Targove Street all the way to the train station. Don’t blacken my name. Earn your bread honestly. Give the client what’s his and take what’s yours.” That’s exactly what Leyke had done, and thanks be to God, she’d earned good money. But a decree was issued forbidding the girls from walking the streets, stipulating that they stay indoors and motion to the customers from the windows. So Leyke was forced to move to Tovshe’s. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but then Siomke came along and turned her entire world upside down. Not only her work, but her thoughts as well.

The first time Leyke laid eyes on Siomke, she lost her tongue. He was a very handsome young man with a full head of hair and a nose like an emperor. And when he talked, batting his eyes every so often, Vitler, the heartthrob from the Novogorod theater, paled in comparison. Aside from all that, Siomke had spoken the unblemished truth. Leyke heard him through the thin wooden walls of her cubicle. “I know you give the girls a place to lay their heads, but you charge them enough for Tishkevitsh’s palace. And you’ve made deals with all the shops—you get your cut from every purchase. After all your generosity, they’re lucky if they can afford face powder.” Siomke had thrown everything in Tovshe’s face; it was all 100 percent accurate. Leyke wondered how a respectable man like Siomke knew all the fine points of the business.

Leyke lay in the darkness next to the bolted shutters until late into the night, thinking about Siomke. She couldn’t figure out what would drive a respectable young man to take up the grievances of Sophianikes Street. If Siomke had been a pimp, then there’d be something in it for him, but he was completely uninvolved. Was he really just thinking about her bitter lot in life? 

Leyke, who had been scarred by life and had no one, started talking to Siomke. She told him about the first time she’d gone out on the street. After all, where could Bertitshke’s daughter go if not straight to hell along with her mother? Was there anyone who cared about her? When she’d tried working for the Gordons, who had a tannery, the lady of the house found fault with her. “She’s too dark to be a maid, and she has wandering eyes.” At the Trotskys, who owned an oil factory, their gymnasium student son suddenly started getting up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. Again, it was Leyke’s fault. Then Leyke told Siomke about Yoske the Cookie, who’d left her and run off to America after one of the freight cars on Bunimovich’s branch line was robbed. It had been a long time since Leyke had unburdened her heart. She fell asleep dreaming about Siomke’s thick head of hair. 

Dawn peeked through the slits in the shutters, bleaching Leyke’s dark face. A quiet blush appeared on her cheeks to welcome the light of day. Her hair, spread out on the pillow like a pile of coals on newly fallen snow, eclipsed all her other features. The down on her upper lip accentuated her strawberry red lips and the perfectly chiseled nose she’d inherited from a good-looking Czarist officer. 

Mrs. Gordon had been right about Leyke—she was too dark and too beautiful.

*

Meanwhile, Siomke picked a quarrel with the authorities. He was in deep, working to overthrow the state. The commissar for the Third Precinct definitely wasted no time. He sent a pair of secret agents to Siomke’s apartment, but they didn’t find him there. The day before, Kozshik the Little Eye, the secret agent who got a monthly payoff and free whiskey from the Vilna criminals, had tipped off Zelik the Benefactor. Even though the underworld was still angry with Siomke, Zelik sent his daughter Taybke to warn Siomke that he’d been implicated and should look for somewhere to hide. Siomke thanked Taybke from the bottom of his heart, sent greetings to her father, put a few pairs of underwear into his backpack, and disappeared. 

But Siomke didn’t know where to hide. He certainly had plenty of friends in the city, but they were all revolutionaries. There was Karpovitsh the shoemaker, Nakhke the harnessmaker up in Shnipeshok, and Leyzer Volf the poet, holed up in a basement near the lumber market. 

Siomke didn’t want to get anyone else into trouble—after all, he was a seasoned political activist. He left town with his cap pulled down low over his eyes and his backpack slung over his shoulder so it would look like he was on his way to Trok to swim in the lake. He walked along Groys Pohulanka Street into the Zakrete forest, and from there along the banks of the Viliye to Antokol.

The sun rode high on the copper cupola of the Romanov Orthodox Church in Pohulanka for the entire day until the evening prayer bells lifted it off its metal saddle. Then the sun went down to the river to cool her overheated face. Meanwhile the trees moaned in the twilight, “Thank God, it’s finally cool enough to breathe.” Siomke continued walking. He’d purposely gone the long way round so people would think he’d gone to Trok. He snuck past the boats under the Green Bridge, slipped into Telyatnik Park, and from there went to the Hill of the Crosses. Tired after a day of mischief, the sun and had already fallen behind the Viliye River. 

Siomke climbed the hill in the darkness. He knew all the trails. Many a young woman had climbed the mountain with him on a summer night to lie in his arms watching Vilna sparkle in the darkness. This time he lay by himself with his head at the feet of the three pale crosses. As well as worrying about a bed and a meal, Siomke imagined taking vicious revenge against the tyrants. And the sooner the better.

*

Siomke had been lying, sick, in Leyke’s little room for almost a week. By the time he’d thought of hiding at Leyke’s he already had a fever, probably from lying on the damp ground in a sweat on the Hill of the Crosses. Leyke was used to late-night visitors, but she certainly hadn’t been expecting Siomke. She’d felt flustered. But when he put his knapsack down and asked for a glass of tea and a piece of bread, she’d realized that something had happened to him, and he wasn’t there for a good time. Then he’d collapsed like a sheaf of wheat. Leyke lay at the edge of the bed, afraid to touch him.         

In the morning, Siomke couldn’t lift his head off the pillow. He just warned Leyke not to let anyone know he was there and then closed his eyes again. Grabbing her kerchief, Leyke ran to see Bruk the healer to get a remedy for a fever. Bruk wanted to see the patient, but Leyke assured him it wasn’t worth his time. “Tall Tamara drank a little too much and spent the night with her feet in the Vilenke. Just give me something for her to smear or swallow and she’ll heal right up.” Bruk did exactly that, and Siomke swallowed the medicine down to the last drop. Day by day, his health improved. 

While Siomke lay in Leyke’s bed, she wasn’t earning a single groschen. She paid Tovshe from the nest egg she’d saved from the suckers who’d come in flocks to investigate the moral and social causes of her dismal situation. Her few zlotys quickly disappeared—she was pouring money down Siomke’s throat. Every day she gave him two onion biscuits, a cup of sour cream with fresh radishes, and some chicken. Even though Siomke’s throat was badly swollen and he had difficulty swallowing, he managed to get everything down. Taking his empty plate away, Leyke was amazed that his appetite hadn’t been affected in any way. 

Aside from money problems, Leyke was also having problems with Tovshe the Angel. He hollered at her that she had to leave her door open to keep the business going. “This isn’t an inn. A customer can’t sleep forever while the business goes to hell. One more week and everyone’ll forget there’s a Tovshe on Sophianikes, and I might as well be copying a Torah scroll.” When Leyke tried telling him that she’d paid the rent for the bed, Tovshe told her, in no uncertain terms, that a brothel doesn’t survive on bed rent but on customers coming and going. “That sucker of yours is going to run out of cash pretty soon, and then what’ll he pay you with? Tell that lout to put on his walking shoes and get moving. And he better not look back before Poplaves or I’ll give him something to cry about.” Then Tovshe slammed the door.

Siomke got back on his feet. One morning he gave Leyke a note, written on a piece of cigarette paper, to deliver to Karpovitsh the shoemaker. Leyke left Siomke a pot of hot water to wash himself and then set off. He told her a hundred times that if anyone approached her, she should swallow the note. She assured him he had nothing to fear. “Everyone knows who I am. No man would dare bother a woman from the trade in broad daylight.” 

But when Leyke failed to return in good time, Siomke worried. While running his razor over his chin, he realized he was missing her. Now that he had recovered from his illness and was dressed in the ironed shirt and clean suit Leyke had left for him, Siomke realized, for the first time, how much she’d done for him. 

Siomke was extremely self-disciplined and worked hard to keep his feelings focused on his lofty ideals. After he finished shaving, admittedly with a trembling hand, he decided to thank Leyke in the name of the entire movement, rather than personally, so he wouldn’t be tempted by thoughts unrelated to improving the world. He took a clean piece of paper from his backpack and sat down to write a poem. About what? That wasn’t a problem. He’d look through the half-open curtains at a thin strip of the Vilenke, its overflowing shores running from Sophianikes Street to the Poplaves Bridge, and the words would come. After all, he was a poet.

*

It took Leyke a good few hours to find Karpovitsh on upper Novostroyke Street. He was in his workshop getting peasant boots ready for the Tuesday market. When Leyke handed him the note, he studied it from every angle, his wire-frame spectacles slipping down his nose. Then he grumbled under his ginger-stained whiskers in Belarussian for a good long while. Leyke understood from his grumbling that it would have been better if she’d come after market day. To respond to Siomke’s note, he’d have to leave the workshop to speak with someone. Karpovitsh put a pitcher of buttermilk and half a loaf of black bread on the table and told Leyke to not, under any circumstances, respond to anyone knocking on the door, then locked the workshop from the outside.

Leyke wandered around the workshop for a while. Eventually she picked up a broom that was lying in a corner and swept the floor. She drank the buttermilk, ate a piece of bread, and sat there with her arms crossed. Karpovitsh was taking his time. Meanwhile, Leyke wondered why she was so taken with Siomke. Her few zlotys were long gone. Her customers had disappeared. She was washing the shirts of a man she barely knew and doing errands for him. What was so great about that?

Thinking about her situation, Leyke wasn’t angry with herself or with Siomke. On the contrary, she felt better than she’d ever felt before. She peered through the window at two swallows fighting over a piece of a worm and she smiled. At another time, she would have pitied them. This time, watching them struggle over their food, she noticed how they leapt into the air and touched beaks. She smiled again and decided to ask Tall Tamara, who’d been in the profession longer than her, why she’d been swept off her feet by a man who’d brought her nothing but grief instead of by a very wealthy client. 

*

Leyke got back very late. It was evening by the time Karpovitsh returned and jotted his reply to Siomke on a piece of cigarette paper. He also told her that if anything out of the ordinary happened, she should swallow the note. Though Leyke wasn’t thrilled with being fed paper all day long, she agreed and left. Walking by Crookedhead’s Courtyard on Novgorod Street, she noticed Shimon the carriage driver getting ready to head into the city with his horse and buggy. Her first thought was to ask him for a ride as far as Breyte Street, and from there she’d walk to Sophianikes, but she thought better of the idea. Shimon would ask where she’d been—he stuck his nose into everything. 

So Leyke went the entire way by foot. Meanwhile, Siomke felt like he was sitting on hot coals—not so much because of the note but because of Leyke herself. When Leyke opened the door, Siomke ran to her with outstretched arms. Once again she became flustered, just like she had when he’d first arrived. She handed Karpovitsh’s note to Siomke, blushed like a virgin who’s just been kissed, and left the room, saying she had to run out to buy food before Khayim-Khone the Herring closed his stall.

Leyke returned with a loaf of bread and cottage cheese to find Siomke pacing back and forth. She picked up the kettle and went to Tamara’s room to get hot water for tea.

Siomke spread the cottage cheese on his bread, obviously thinking about a difficult problem. He didn’t smile or even look at Leyke, which was unlike him. She felt miserable. What had she done to deserve this? When they finished eating, Leyke cleared the table, making sure she stayed out of Siomke’s way as he paced back and forth across the room. Suddenly he stopped and announced, “Leyke, I have something to say to you!”

Leyke almost dropped the kettle. Maybe the cobbler, that goy, had criticized her to Siomke. She suddenly remembered that when Karpovitsh had scribbled his note, he kept glaring at her, like a real crook. But Siomke had something completely different on his mind. “Leyke, in the name of the . . . No . . . Leyke, in my name, I want . . . briefly . . . I want to thank you for the tea and bread.”

Leyke breathed a sigh of relief. 

“Not only for the food, but for everything you’ve done for me. By sheltering me, you’ve supported the movement that is fighting for a better, more beautiful world. We will usher in a new epoch, and very soon. Your deed will be honored as an elevation of the folk masses toward the ideal we’re struggling for. This isn’t a question of me personally. I am simply a soldier in an army of fighters and builders. It is a question of a struggle that binds you and me and hundreds of others, including all of Sophianikes Street. Do you understand?”

“No.”

Siomke stood there with his mouth open. “You didn’t understand anything?”

“Nothing.”

“Then put the kettle down.” 

Leyke obeyed.

“Leyke, before I leave, I want to tell you . . . What can I say? If I’d known how hard it would be to say goodbye I wouldn’t have come here, even though this was the only place I could get to from the Hill of the Crosses.”

Leyke sat down on the bed and burst out crying.

“Leyke, please . . .”

“Well, what do you want me to do? I was scared. Why didn’t you say that to begin with instead of all that talk about a better world?”

“A better world is more important.”

“Not for a lonely stone like me.”

“In the new epoch, things will be different.”

 “Oh, Siomeh, Siomeh. The world could turn itself inside out and Sophianikes will still be here. But who am I to contradict you? You said you’re leaving. Do you have another place to hide? You know . . . you can stay as long as you need to . . . I . . .”

“No, Leyke. Thank you very much, but there are other tasks awaiting me. Tomorrow at dawn, my friends, the gypsies from Trok, will come to get me. I’ll wait for them at the French mill up in Kopanitse.”

Leyke wiped her eyes and whispered into her hankie, “Do whatever is best for you. But if you ever need a place to hide . . .” Then she started really sobbing.

That night Siomke tried to explain some of the trickier concepts pertaining to the bright new future. Leyke lay at the edge of the cot, a little ways from Siomke, the metal edge digging into her side. While Siomke talked, she reproached herself. “Why am I so upset? It obviously had to end.” But knowing this didn’t make it any easier. The coming day, without Siomke and all the hustle and bustle around him, would be more painful and lonely than when she had to go to the clinic for a checkup.

Who knows where Leyke’s sadness would have led her had she not felt Siomke’s warm arms around her? At first she thought she was taking up too much space on the cot, so she slid closer to the edge. Siomke held on to her so she didn’t, heaven forbid, fall off the bed. Leyke was really embarrassed—she could have sworn her cheeks were on fire. She barely managed to stammer, “Siomeh, it’s not right for you . . .” But Siomke was completely absorbed with searching for her lips in the darkness. Leyke sighed happily, “Another world, a better world, but men will still be men . . . Oh, Siomkele . . .”

At dawn, Leyke was still asleep. Siomke crept out of her little room with his backpack slung over one shoulder. He strode through the rear courtyards of Sophianikes Street and then through Kopanitse, mentally transforming the state of the world. And the sun, that bandit, winked at him from behind Castle Hill.

*

That year, it wasn’t only the Vilenke that overflowed its banks, but also Leyke’s heart. The stream got drunk and suddenly wanted to grow as large as a river, so it drank all the snow from the Hill of the Crosses as well as the floodwaters from the French mill. To lighten her load, the Vilenke lurched through the Bernardine Garden and spit into the Viliye River. Like a young hoodlum trying to prove he should be accepted into the brotherhood of Lithuania’s major waterways, the stream roared loudly, dragging along weeping willow branches and tearing down the huts on Sophianikes. 

Leyke’s heart was also full to overflowing. After Siomke left, she stopped working and completely changed her ways. Iserke the Scorekeeper told everyone in the pool hall that Leyke had become respectable and was driving away clients. Tovshe the Angel also criticized her. “Do you think, God forbid, that this is the women’s section of the synagogue?” To make matters worse, as luck would have it, the floodwaters were lapping at the foundations of Tovshe’s whorehouse, making it dangerous to live there. He tried to convince Leyke that she had nothing to fear because the building was sealed up tight. Tall Tamara told him, “You want to drown a Jewish woman just to line your pockets? I hope you get a piece of straw in your eye and a splinter in your ear and don’t know which one to pull out first.” Leyke went to stay with Tamara, who lived close by, until the water receded.

Tamara felt very close to Leyke. She would never forget Leyke throwing her cigarettes through the bars on the window of the Savitsher Street clinic when she’d been laid up with the clap. Tamara felt badly for her friend—she could see that Leyke had lost her will to live. She asked Leyke if she’d dreamt about the ten of spades or about a cat walking on all fours. But Leyke told Tamara to stop pestering her. She put her kerchief on her head and went to spend the day in the Bernardine Garden. 

Tamara resolved to stop bothering Leyke with questions. “If I don’t,” she told herself, “may I never have another decent customer. As long as she takes a few zlotys and some food and drink until she gets over her depression.”

Leyke sat on a bench in the Bernardine Garden pushing a twig through the sand. The Vilenke hustled and bustled behind her and the chestnut trees sprouted buds. Leyke drew lines and intersected them, trying to get them to merge. In the end, she erased everything with her heel. No matter what she did with the twig, her thoughts returned to Siomke. “What kind of spell did he put on me? I keep thinking about him and wanting to cry. All I really got from him was trouble. My money’s gone and still, I just want to wash his shirts and listen to him talk about ushering in a world of plenty. The world of plenty interests me less than listening to him. But he’s used me as an audience for all his lofty theories. He says that even a streetwalker can improve her situation.” No matter how hard Leyke tried to push away Siomke’s words, they returned to her like rowdy children who deserve a spanking but are too well loved to receive one. 

Leyke could have sat there for hours, but Iserke the Scorekeeper happened by with a new billiard hall regular—Khonovitsh, a student who liked to spend his time with poor, local guys. Iserke told Leyke he had a rich sucker and asked her if she wanted to work. Leyke stood up and spat at the pointed toes of Iserke’s shoes, declaring, “May someone put a rope around your neck, you barefoot sailor.” Then she returned to Sophianikes Street.

*

That evening, Tamara got ready to go out on the street. She rubbed rouge into her cheeks and put on her work clothes—a tight skirt with a slit above the knee and a sleeveless blouse. By the time she’d left the clinic after her illness, she’d lost all her regular clients, the corporals from the Sixth Legion’s infantry regiment, and she’d been forced to go out on the street to earn her living. The last few nights she’d actually been glad to go out. She’d hoped that Leyke would light the red lamp, stand in the doorway, and act like the other girls. Tamara hoped a new face would attract new customers to the whorehouse so she wouldn’t have to run in her high heels and hide behind Svirski’s bakery every time Martsinkevitsh, the policeman, may his eyes roll back into his head, walked by.

Tamara picked up her purse and went to tell Leyke she was going out. She found Leyke sitting on her bed with a piece of paper in her hand. She spread the piece of paper out on her lap, smoothing out the edges. Tamara’s heart started pounding. She remembered things starting like this with Esther the Tatar, who’d smoothed out pieces of paper until she was taken to the lunatic asylum in Olkenik. Tamara was relieved when Leyke handed her the piece of paper and tearfully begged her to read it. 

Tamara wanted to know who’d given her the paper and why, but Leyke brushed her questions aside. “Later. First read it.” Tamara, who could read and write and bought the latest installment of Regina the Spy every week, began to read, scowling after every few words. 

While Leyke sobbed, Tamara did her best to make sense of the verses, but she couldn’t make head or tail of what she was reading. At another time Tamara would have been furious with her friend. All she could figure out was that it had something to do with cucumbers. Why turn the world inside out over that? But when Tamara saw Leyke crying so bitterly she pleaded with her, “Leyke, I beg you, in the name of my freedom, tell me what’s going on.”

“What can I tell you? It’s something Siomke wrote. I found it under my bed.” Then Leyke told her friend everything. 

Tamara paced around the room, wringing her hands and pinching her rouged cheeks to get hold of herself, but she was too upset. After she calmed down a little, she tried comforting Leyke. “So what’s the big deal? He’s gone. Disappeared. What did you expect? That he’d put a ring on your finger? Listen to me. Save your tears for a smack from a customer. If not, your heart will be squeezed dry.” 

“Don’t worry, I’ve swallowed so many tears, there’s got to be a few left.” 

“There may be a few tears left, Leykele, but they’re salty enough for ten pots of potatoes. Stop dousing yourself with salt. You’ll never be kosher merchandise. Change your clothes, come out onto the street, and may all the idiots burn in hell.”

“I can’t, Tamara. I just can’t. He’s turned my emotions inside out.” 

While Leyke wiped the tears from her eyes, Tamara got ready to leave—the second showing at the Eden Cinema would soon let out. When she got to the door Leyke asked her, “What do you think Siomke meant by ‘to distant worlds’?”

For a moment Tamara stared at Leyke like she’d just returned from distant worlds herself. Then she yelled, “Forget about your fancy poet, that hack. He needed a word that rhymed, so he shoved in any old stupid expression.” 

Leyke wouldn’t give up. “No, Siomke wouldn’t write words for no reason. He was saying something.”

Waving her hand dismissively, Tamara left. 

Leyke didn’t get an answer to her question. She folded Siomke’s poem and hid it between the black covers of her government registration book. Then she went outside. The waters of the Vilenke had receded. Ashamed, the stream was shuffling along the walls of the buildings, trying to escape as quickly as possible from the area where she’d behaved so drunkenly. The moon, exactly as Siomke had described it, was swimming toward distant worlds. Leyke watched it appear and disappear between the clouds.

“And if I knew where he went, would it be any easier?” Leyke asked herself. “Why’d I have to go and play at romance? I feel so cold . . . Just let him try and come back!” But at the same time, her heart beat out the refrain, “Maybe . . . Maybe . . .”

*

Tovshe replaced the washed-out bricks, and Leyke moved back in. All night long she stood at the window without motioning to the customers. She lived on what she earned as a waitress at Bukayke’s tavern, next to the covered market—Tamara had gotten her the job. Tovshe didn’t bother Leyke, first because she always paid her rent on time and second because Tamara had informed him that if he dared say a word, she’d douse him in hydrochloric acid. Tamara told everyone on Sophianikes Street that Leyke had been done in by a rhyming letter.

Every night Leyke looked out the window into the darkness and thought, “Maybe . . .”

 

Abraham Karpinowitz (Avrom Karpinovitsh; 19131981) was born in Vilna into a family at the center of the dynamic Yiddish cultural life of the city. He survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, returned briefly to Vilna, and emigrated to the newly formed state of Israel, where he was the director of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Karpinowitz wrote seven collections of short stories, two biographies, and a play. He was awarded numerous prizes, including the prestigious Manger Prize (1981).

Helen Mintz is the translator of Vilna My Vilna: Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz (Syracuse University Press, 2016), which garnered three literary awards. Mintz’s translation of Janusz Korczak: Teacher and Child Advocate by Zalmen Wassertzug is under consideration by the University of Poznan Press. Mintz was a 2014 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow. Her translations have appeared in In Geveb, Jewishfiction.net, and Pakn Treger, and her writings about translation appear in Words without Borders and BC Studies. The short story “Black Leyke” appears in an as-yet-unpublished collection of stories about the Jewish city of Vilna by Abraham Karpinowitz. Helen would like to thank Ri Turner for her help with this translation.