By Yente Serdatsky, translated by Dalia Wolfson
Yente Serdatsky’s “Tsu Shpet” (“Too Late”) was one of dozens of stories and fables published in Geklibene shriftn, a collection of her writing, in New York in 1913. Opening with the trappings of a naive folk tale—a shepherdess in love with a knight—“Tsu Shpet” is a self-aware critique of literary representations of women’s emotions. Serdatsky writes in a Yiddish suffused with “daytshmerish,” using formulaic storytelling phrases and Germanic vocabulary to mimic an affected register. At the same time, she subverts the reader’s expectations with an unprecedented protagonist—a heroine who refuses to tread a worn, lovelorn path. As the tale progresses, the shepherdess’s initial hopes for a classic storybook ending prove elusive, and her feelings are exploited for poetry by local bohemians in a city that just could be Warsaw. By the story’s end, however, Serdatsky’s heroine concludes that her learned notions of “romance” are deeply misleading, and she takes ownership of her own song.
I am grateful to the wonderful staff, fellows, and mentors of the Yiddish Book Center translation fellowship for their support of this translation.
She was a shepherdess and grazed her sheep in a quiet valley. As a young child, she heard her grandmother (for she had no mother) tell a bedtime story of a fair, enchanted knight whose heart had been turned to stone. He lived in a gray stone tower in the mountains, cut off from the world.
“A young sorceress cast a spell on him,” her grandmother would begin. “For some time the knight had loved the sorceress, but then, as was his wont, he abandoned her for another. Seeing that he was lost to her, the sorceress, overcome by envy and rage, used her magical powers to turn his heart to stone. From then on, he could not take pleasure in the love of women nor enjoy the world. Now he lives in a gray stone tower, leaving it only when the moon is full. On those nights he stands by the tallest oak tree, not far from where the spell was first cast, his face turned toward the moonlight. He remains there until daybreak, when the moon finally fades from view . . .”
Then the grandmother would add: “Only the spell of a beautiful young woman—mightier than the first—can rouse the man’s heart and allow him to love again.”
The fair, enchanted knight entered the child’s fantasies in those early stories. She imagined his figure painted with the palette of the valley: the bright hues of the flowers, the brilliant blue sky, the clear, cool river where she watered her flock, and the sun-dappled green grasses. With every year, his portrait grew more defined. It seemed just the thought of him could make her flush: her heart pounded in her chest and her breath quickened.
One cold autumn night, the shepherdess sat by her spindle, listening to the howling of the wind. Once more her grandmother told the story of the fair, enchanted knight: how he still sits, lonely and locked away in his gray tower, for no woman can lift the spell . . .
And the young shepherdess wondered: Could she be the one who would wake his heart through love? The thought would not leave her: “My love for him grows stronger with every passing day. I will awaken his heart—and he will love me in return.”
Soon enough spring arrived, embroidering the valley in gold and verdant threads. Seeing the palms begin to bear fruit, the shepherdess felt her heart beating faster, the blood pumping in hot waves. She knew: the time had come to seek the fair knight.
So she wove herself a dress of blue linen and slid it onto her slender body. She made a garland of the valley’s lilies and crowned her flaxen locks. She shod her feet with deerhide. And as the valley reddened with morning, she set off into the mountains to seek the fair knight.
As the sun was setting, the young shepherdess found herself in a valley once more, this time at the foot of a mountain. Small wooden houses, gilded by the last rays of sunlight, stood in a long row. The old folks of the hamlet sat out front telling tales of paradise. Little children chased one another in the street. In a square overgrown with mossy grass, young men and women danced. The maidens had dark faces framed by black wreaths of hair; their obsidian eyes burned, and lilac shawls fluttered over their wide shoulders. The young men had coal-black hair and eyes and were dressed in white linen.
The shepherdess approached the square and waited for the dancing to stop. Then she said: “Good people, can you tell me where to find the fair knight whose heart is turned to stone?”
At this question the young men hooted and hollered, and the maidens, annoyed, murmured among themselves.
Then the tallest youth, a white turban over his black locks, came forward. “Pretty maiden,” he said. “What good is a knight with a heart of stone? Look at me! Am I worse than a knight? Better yet, my heart is full of passion—and I will love you forever.”
There was a shriek—his beloved had heard his words.
The shepherdess, however, did not care to stay. She left swiftly, still seeking the enchanted knight.
As the sun gathered up its last rays and tucked them behind the clouds, the shepherdess approached a river where bands of pale light still shimmered on the water. A group of blonde girls were splashing around, their alabaster bodies sprinkled with drops. The shepherdess called out to them, and soon the girls were swimming toward her like elegant white swans, their chests rising periodically from the water, silken locks floating on the surface. “Another blonde!” one girl yelled, and they quickened their pace toward the shore.
“What are you looking for?” the girl asked.
“Sister, can you tell me where to find the fair, enchanted knight whose heart is turned to stone?”
The girls broke into laughter. “Take off your dress and join us in the river! Soon the young, brave fishermen in their white sailboats will come for a swim—you’ll find a lover here. What good is a knight whose heart is turned to stone?”
But the shepherdess would not listen. She left quickly and continued on her way.
Soon the terrain began to change. The shepherdess entered the foothills of a mountain range and began her ascent. The moon had long since risen when the shepherdess paused. She had reached a clearing; tall trees wept silently, green curls stroked by silver rays. An old man with dove-blue eyes and a long white beard sat on a great boulder, his gentle face turned toward the moon.
“Good sir,” said the shepherdess, “can you tell me where to find the fair, enchanted knight whose heart is turned to stone?”
The old man looked at her mournfully. “What do you need him for, child?”
“I love him, and I long for his love.”
But the old man shook his head, and his voice grew sadder still. “Do you know, child, what a great misfortune it is to love a man whose heart is turned to stone? Don’t you know such a heart cannot return love?”
She stared hard at him, her lustrous blue eyes flashing. “Good sir! My heart is young, passionate, and full of love. Surely it will melt a heart of stone!”
“Poor child! Nothing can melt a heart of stone—but you will understand this in good time. Meanwhile—you must go!”
And he pointed toward the highest peak, warning her to hurry before the moon faded from view—for it was only then that the enchanted knight spoke, his face illuminated by moonshine. Then the old man put his silver head in his hands. He heaved a great sigh and grew lost in thought.
The young shepherdess’s feet flew—she hurried, lest she be too late. The full moon still hung in the sky as she climbed the last mountaintop. There it was—the stone tower, a massive gray stain in the silver-washed landscape. She could make out the oldest, most majestic oak, too, not far from the tower, and—an ecstatic cry burst from her chest. The knight’s face! A glowing spot in the dark, the rest of his body obscured by brambles. She rushed toward him, the branches snapping under her feet.
And now there he was. His hard, broad chest was puffed out. Bathed in moonlight, his exquisite features appeared to her sculpted, as though carved in marble and polished to a shine. Rich, night-dark locks curled at his neck, tousled by the wind. She could see his eyes—they seemed to her like two dark diamonds—under a set of long, raven-black eyelashes, his noble gaze apprehending the night.
The young shepherdess turned pale. She felt as though her heart would burst, and her breath came labored and hot. Kneeling before him, voice shaking, she cried: “Oh fair, powerful man! I have come to ask for your love.”
But the knight did not move. Only a distant voice emerged, as though from a cavern: “My heart is turned to stone. I can love no more . . .”
The shepherdess rose and stood before him.
“Oh fine, fearless man!” she called once more. “My warm heart will wake your heart of stone.”
Suddenly she tore open her blue dress. Her twin rosy breasts shone like orbs in the moonlight. She pressed them to his heart, wrapping his chest in her flowing hair. She clasped her smooth arms around his neck and kissed him with her soft, luscious lips, her body warm against his.
But the knight stayed still, standing haughty and unmoved. Dismayed, she raised her sparkling blue eyes, her voice full of passion: “Handsome, proud man! Still you cannot answer me with love?”
“My heart is turned to stone. I can love no more . . .” His voice seemed to retreat even farther.
She stared at him. “Beautiful man! Your rosy lips move; why then can’t you kiss me? Can you not press me to your heart with these knightly arms?”
He replied: “When the heart loves, the arms grow stronger; when the heart storms with passion, one shows it in kisses. But my heart . . . it is dead and turned to stone.”
“And my burning love, it cannot wake your heart?”
“Many young, sweet women have pressed themselves into my arms . . . In vain . . .”
He had not yet finished speaking when his voice went silent—the moon had disappeared. The first gray stripes of morning were beginning to show.
Deeply troubled, the lovely shepherdess made her way down the mountain and returned to the valley. But in the quiet fields where she grazed her sheep, her longing for the knight only grew. She could no longer endure the stillness.
The shepherdess set out for the city; she hoped to forget her longing in the hustle and bustle. But in vain: the hard, glinting church roofs and tall, stony facades of the houses reminded her of the knight and stirred her yearnings. Watching the city folk scuttling through the shops, she thought of the poised, handsome knight and was filled with desire.
The locals were delighted with the young newcomer. Artists in search of a model—in the name of art—craved her fine body. The poets wished to look deep into her sapphire eyes and repay her in the most elegant verse. Dandies offered her glittering gemstones and perfect pearls.
But the shepherdess was inconsolable. She ignored them all; the knight was her only desire. Longing gripped her soul. Her heartbeat stormed in her chest . . .
In time, the poets took note of her feelings. They began to sing of her sentiments in verse. It was then that she resolved, once again, to set out for the mountaintop.
The shepherdess arrived at the fateful spot as the moon reached its place, right across from the knight’s gracious countenance.
Kneeling before him, she said: “Fair, proud man! If my love could not wake your heart of stone, perhaps my longing will move it! The poets themselves never grow tired of praising my desires . . .”
Once again the knight was unmoved. “In vain! All the women—from the noble ladies of the mountains to the simple maids of the valley—they all yearn and long for me . . . But my heart is dead and turned to stone.”
The shepherdess turned away. She found her path down the mountain, engulfed in great sadness. The city offered no comfort; she felt like a stranger among the people, their pleasure and pain foreign to her. Nothing brought her joy. Her face grew long with sad shadows. And yet—the most famous poet of that generation was entranced by her sadness. His song of her sorrow soon came to be sung by young and old.
Once again she went to kneel before the knight.
“Fair, proud man!” she said, her voice sad and sweet. “My sorrow is so beloved by many, perhaps now it will move your heart of stone?”
The knight replied, his voice quiet and muffled: “Love and longing are mightier and more beautiful than sorrow—and since they did not succeed, then this effort is also in vain . . .”
And so the shepherdess returned once more to the valley, a shadow of herself. But her desire for the fair knight gave her no rest. Oftentimes her heart would pound with longing and her eyes would fill with tears. One day she sat down and composed a song that wove together her most prominent, painful feelings of love, longing, and sorrow. She began to sing it aloud, and the song enchanted her listeners—hearing the voice of the shepherdess, they dropped to kneel before her. Others kissed the notes that hung in the air.
So the shepherdess ascended the mountain once more. She came before the knight and sang him her beautiful song. But still the knight remained cold and unmoved.
She asked him again, and again he replied: “Have you ever heard the passionate song that the mountain girl sings? She sings for me. Or the marvelous, melancholy song of the lovely dreamer on moonlit nights? She sings for me. And the women of the valley, their songs of sorrow, longing, doubt, and tears? All for me. But my heart is not moved, for it is dead and turned to stone.”
The last time the shepherdess came before the knight she did not kneel. She stood upright before him, her gaze regal. Her face was aflame like the red morning sky and her blonde locks writhed like snakes. Her red lips were pressed firmly together, and her eyes, like two burning coals, looked straight at the knight, sparking with rage and derision.
“Cruel, proud man!” her voice thundered. “I am not here to ask for love! I have come to tell you that I find you loathsome. You are despicable. I hate you!”
Suddenly, a miracle occurred: the great stone heart of the proud knight jolted and began to beat. His haughty, noble expression warped and cracked. He sank to the earth, fell to his knees before his proud enemy, and asked for her love.
But it was too late. Immense fury and contempt filled her being. There was no place now for romance.
Yente Serdatsky (1877–1962) was a journalist, editor, and short story writer based first in Warsaw and later in New York City. Her short stories were printed in various periodicals, and Geklibene shriftn, a collected volume of her writing (including three sections of short stories, dramas, and fables), was published in 1913.
Dalia Wolfson is a graduate student in comparative literature at Harvard University, where she studies short Yiddish and Russian fiction in the early twentieth century. She is a 2021 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow and editor of Texts & Translations at the journal In geveb.