by Avrom Reyzen, translated by Curt Leviant
When eight-year-old Reyzele woke up in the morning, she rubbed her sleepy eyes and gazed at all four corners of the room looking for something.
She was looking for her mother, Khiyene, but she had already left for the marketplace with her basket of apples.
Reyzele sighed. "Gone so quickly?"
She languidly put on her old torn little dress, washed, found a rag that resembled a towel, and dried herself. Now her head cleared a little, and she recalled that today was Tuesday and that all night long her mother had been gasping for breath. She had brought her cold water and a piece of sugar, but to no avail. Khiyene had stared at her so strangely.
"Reyzele," she said, "do you feel sorry for me?"
Reyzele did not answer but burst into tears and ran to a corner to cry. More than that she did not remember. She only knew that she had dreamt all night long.
Mama must be feeling better, Reyzele consoled herself. Otherwise she would not have gone to the marketplace.
On the table Reyzele found breakfast prepared for her—a piece of bread and some milk in a chipped glass.
When she finished eating, she felt gloomy. She prayed to God for darkness to fall so her mother would return. During the summer she could not restrain herself and would run to the market to see how her mother was faring. Even though her mother always complained about lack of business, Reyzele enjoyed being with her. When a customer approached her mother's basket of apples and bought something, she cried out in delight, "Mamele, you're making a sale!"
But most often Khiyene would answer sadly, "Ah, woe to such sales, my child. It's only the third kopeck for the entire day.”
During the winter Reyzele didn't even have this small pleasure. She had never owned a pair of shoes, and it was too cold to run to the market barefoot. Mother had warned that she might catch cold and die, God forbid. And dying, Reyzele knew, was a very bad thing. She did not remember when her father had died, but she knew that he was in a deep grave in the cemetery behind the town and could never return from there, not even during the summer. Never! That's why she was very careful. So during the winter she sat home all day long, waiting for dark, when her mother would return.
She kept going to the window, saying, "It's dark already. Soon. Soon she'll come home."
Nevertheless, she had to wait a long time. Darkness fell over the little house with its frosted windows, but outside there was still light. Time stretched unbearably for Reyzele. "It's dark already." She sighed impatiently. "Why doesn't Mama come?"
The darkness thickened in the little house. By now Reyzele could only see a part of the stove, which her mother had recently whitewashed. When she heard a knock at the door, her little heart almost jumped out of her chest with joy.
"Mama's coming!" she sang out. "Mama's coming!"
No one else ever came, she knew. And indeed, her mother had come in almost frozen. She set the basket by the door and called, "Where are you, Reyzele?"
"Here I am, Mama. Here, next to the bed. Make light."
Khiyene struck a match and lit the lamp. It was only a dim light that glowed in the little house, but it was enough for Reyzele—all she needed was a glimpse of her mother. Now she saw her quite clearly standing in front of the smoky lamp and it made her happy.
"Mama, are you going to cook supper?"
"Of course," she replied. "You're probably hungry."
"No, I don't want to eat, but you probably do."
"I don't want to eat, either,” Khiyene said. “I bought half a pound of bread at the market and ate it with a rotten apple. It was delicious."
The mother lit a fire. When the flames took hold, she set a pot of water to boil and sat down with Reyzele. Looking at the fire and at her mother, Reyzele felt so good and so warm.
The pot of water began to boil merrily. Khiyene cooked some barley and half an hour later both were eating supper.
At the second bite, Mama began coughing. Reyzele stopped eating and waited for her mother's spell to pass. Khiyene wanted to tell Reyzele, Eat, don't wait! But the cough choked her and she couldn't utter a word.
"Mamele, enough coughing," little Reyzele pleaded with tear-filled eyes.
When the fit had ended, her mother said, while stroking Reyzele's hair, "Let me indulge in a bit of coughing."
But instead of answering, Reyzele threw her arms around her mother and burst into tears.
Reyzele had turned twelve.
It was summer. The intense rays of the sun penetrated as if by force through the little dust-covered windows and shone on Reyzele's small face. Reyzele, who had been sad all morning long, was revived by the sweet light, which made her want to go out to the street. . . . But what would she do there? She had no one to play with. All the girls her age wore little dresses and Reyzele didn't even own shoes: Everyone was ashamed of her.
She had only one friend—her mother. Mama was so kind-hearted, so good. Her sweet mother acquiesced to her every wish. She even obeyed Reyzele’s request to stop coughing when she came home from the market. During the night, however, Reyzele's requests were of no avail. This past night her mother had coughed so much… Reyzele had brought her water two times, but it didn't help... Why was Mama coughing so much? She said it was a disorder, but one could live out one's years with it. Her mother, Mama said— that is, Grandma—also had this problem and she too had lived out her years...
"Oh God, let Mama live!" Reyzele's little heart began to cry. She imagined her mother's pale face and longed to be close to her. Their narrow little house became even more cramped. The thought, "I must go to the market," flashed through Reyzele's little head. To Mama...
Barefoot and in her old torn little dress, she quickly ran to her mother.
"Why did you come, Reyzele?" Khiyene asked lovingly.
"Just like that, Mama. I feel sad," Reyzele answered shyly.
"Well, no harm done," her mother consoled her. "Stay. There's no business anyway."
A market peddler who sat opposite Khiyene left her little stool and approached both of them. The woman usually squabbled with Reyzele's mother over every kopeck's worth of business but turned friendly when neither of them had sales.
She contemplated Reyzele with probing glances and called out, "You know, Khiyene, your Reyzele is growing, may the evil eye spare her."
"May her good fortune grow the same way," Khiyene sighed, looking with brimming eyes at her small, thin child.
"What do you think?" the other woman continued. "One year will pass and then another, and soon she'll be a young lady and will have to have a bridegroom. The years fly by. How long has it been since I myself was a youngster? It seems like only yesterday... and she’s quite a pretty girl too," the peddler concluded, looking at the curly locks on Reyzele's broad forehead and at her pale face and deep black eyes.
Reyzele couldn't bear the peddler's gaze. Two red spots appeared on her pale face and she became even prettier.
"A beautiful girl indeed!" the peddler continued complimenting her.
"May her fortune be as beautiful as she!" Khiyene sighed. "God Almighty, may her father be a good interceder for her in heaven!"
"Of course," the peddler answered. "Who then if not he? Still, Khiyene, you should start thinking what to do with her. You have to be practical.”
"Well, what should I do," the mother sighed, "make her stand with a basket of apples? I myself don't do any business."
"Why a basket of apples?" the peddler cut her off, as though afraid of another competitor.
"Why don't you find a job for her in someone's house? Nowadays that's nothing to be ashamed of."
Khiyene and Reyzele exchanged glances. Both paled. They looked sternly at the peddler as though chiding her: You bandit! You want to separate us?
Reyzele did not leave her mother's side. She waited until it was dark and both returned home together. During the walk home they didn't exchange a word, as if both had suddenly become mute. Occasionally, Reyzele would take hold of her mother's dress, as though afraid of something.
It was already night when they came home. Reyzele started a fire; then, seeing two big tears running down her mother's drawn, sallow face, a fright came over her.
"Mamele, you're crying!" she called out in alarm, huddling next to her.
“You expect me to laugh, my little daughter? Isn't the peddler right? Oh woe is me! You're already a girl of twelve and you don't even have a pair of shoes or a blouse on your body. I'm sick, and God only knows how I manage to stay at the market… What will become of us?"
"So what should I do?" Reyzele asked. "If I could earn money, I'd have a dress and shoes made, and I'd also have a pretty dress made for you for the holidays.”
Khiyene, silent for a while, gazed wide-eyed at her little daughter. Then she asked softly, "Reyzele, do you want to earn money?"
"Oh, yes." Reyzele brightened. "If only I knew how! I'd really like to be a seamstress. Sara's daughter Leah, who lives opposite us, is a seamstress. And she earns so much money. Every Sabbath I see her walking in such a beautiful dress. And even during the week she wears a little cap. But I wouldn't wear a little cap: I'd rather buy you a new wig. Yours is already all torn."
"No, my child," Khiyene interrupted her. "Being a seamstress is not for you. You’d have to work three years before you started earning money and you still wouldn't be able to buy a dress. When you get apprenticed to someone, you have to give the shop owner ten rubles for teaching you the trade."
"Well, then, how does one earn money?" Reyzele asked sadly.
"You heard what the market peddler said."
Reyzele's pale face became even paler. Fear floated in her deep little eyes. "And leave you alone, Mama? At night you wouldn't even have anyone to give you some cold water."
Khiyene did not reply, but two more tears ran down her somber eyes onto Reyzele's little face.
"Come, Mama, don't cry," Reyzele begged. "You'll find me a job at a nice lady's house and she'll let me come home every night to sleep with you."
"No, my child, there are no nice housemistresses. If they pay wages, they want to make use of you day and night."
“But don't they have any pity?" asked the frightened Reyzele.
Her mother did not respond to this question. Saying, “absolutely not” would scare her beloved one and only child, who would surely fall into the hands of such a woman. But the mother’s tongue wouldn't let her utter yes either. All the housemistresses she'd known were mean-spirited. And so Khiyene remained silent.
Eight days later Reyzele arrived at the home of Madame Glotzman.
"Just do your work well," were Madame Glotzman's first words. "Everyone likes someone who works efficiently and well. And I want you to do everything you're told to do. You must obey everyone, even the cook, and then things will go well for you here."
Reyzele gaped at the big, fat Madame. She could not understand how things would go well for her here, if this big fat Madame Glotzman would feed her and tell her, "Go to sleep," and if this fat Madame Glotzman would order her to perform a task and would never say, "My child," "my daughter," and would never even say, "Reyzele," but would always call her "you."
No, you're a liar; you're wicked! Reyzele thought the first night as she lay on the little bed in the kitchen. Things can't go well for me here. Things are good there, in the little house near my sick mother. This place is a prison for me. At night Mama will cough there, and I'll have to work here. And why does she, this big fat mistress need me? Does she cough like my mother? She's so healthy. And if she were to cough even once, she’d have so many people here they’d even bring her wine, while there my mother lies all alone and coughs and coughs, calling, "Reyzele, Reyzele, some water, Reyzele, some water . . ."
Reyzele quickly clambered out of bed, went to the window, and with her little eyes looked for the little house where her mother lay alone and was calling her.
"Mama, Mama, dear Mama."
And Reyzele, unable to contain herself, began weeping, burrowing her head into the pillow.
Her weeping, however, woke no one. Everyone slept soundly.
Curt Leviant’s most recent novels are the critically acclaimed King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son. A new novel, Katz or Cats; Or, How Jesus Became My Rival in Love, was published at the end of 2018.