STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
STEMPENIU UNEXPECTEDLY GETS MARRIED
One day, Stempeniu and his band arrived in Mazepevke. They played for
three weddings in a row together with the town musicians, who argued with
him about their rights and swore that if he ignored them, they would take
him apart bone by bone. And they would have done a nice job of it if Stempeniu,
who had a good heart, hadn't been willing to join forces.
Since there were several days between weddings and Stempeniu had nothing
to do in the meantime, he got to know the daughter of Shaike the Fiddler.
She was a fine girl of about twenty-two, dark and fat, and he fell madly
in love with her in his usual way: He kissed her, hugged her, caressed
her, brought her presents, fondled her like a fiancé, and when the
time came to leave, the dark-haired girl (Freydel was her name) told him
not to delay any longer, but to sign the engagement contract right away,
as is the custom. Stempeniu, not used to that sort of thing, shilly-shallied,
tried to talk his way out of it, but even the Good Lord couldn't help him
now. Freydel was as tough as nails, she grabbed him by the hand and wouldn't
let go, and presto!- the betrothal party took place, God bless them! The
musicians drank themselves silly toasting the famous bridegroom, and they
celebrated three days straight in Shaike the Fiddler's home, until the
dear bridegroom and all the dear guests drove tiff to the next town, and
the town after that, and so on.
Needless to say, Stempeniu promptly forgot all about the wedding and
the betrothal and the dark-haired girl, and he did business as usual, that
is, he had his romances in every town, as he was used to doing. And so
he went from town to town with his group, playing at weddings and having
a great time! When all at once? Well, nothing lasts forever in this world!
Everything comes to an end. And things came to an end for Stempeniu too.
Lightning struck him, and thunder. A plague raged into his young life!
Just listen to his misfortune:
He was playing at a wedding in some small shtetl, somewhere in the
Ukraine, while romancing Hershke the Flutist's daughter (a rather attractive
girl), whom he promised to marry - when in burst Mekhtshi the Drummer with
the sleepy face. He motioned to Stempeniu and whispered to him:
"Hey, Stempeniu, there's a chick waitin' for you in that house."
"A chick? What chick?"
"A dark chick with green eyes."
And Stempeniu strode over to the house and saw the dark-haired girl,
the fiddler's daughter, his fiancee Freydel!
"Why're you staring like that, Stempeniu? Don't you recognize me. Just
get a load of him, peeping and eyeing me. It's me, Stempeniu, me: Freydel,
your fiancee, Shaike the Fiddler's daughter."
"Ha! Yeah, I know. What'd you think? I know, I know! But how'd ya get
here? Where ya comin' from?"
"How I got here? On my legs, Stempeniu, on my legs. I asked directions
all the way. I just arrived at Hershke's place. Where am I coming from?
"Well, what's happenin'? When did you leave home?"
"Happening? Nothing much, Stempeniu. No news. When did we leave home?
Oh, about six or seven weeks ago. We've been everywhere! Every place we
came to, we were told: 'He was here but he's already left.' We barely got
on the right track .... Well, how are you, Stempeniu?"
"What?! Me? I'm all right. Why not! C'mon, Freydel, let's get away
from here," he said to her, seeing that the musicians were starting to
gather around them and stare at the dark girl with the black braids and
the green eyes.
"Okay, ley's go," Freydel replied.
And Stempeniu put on his jacket, picked up his cane, and went strolling
through town with the dark-haired girl. He peered around to make sure no
one was in earshot, and then he said to her more vehemently:
"Now, listen, what's this all about?"
"What do you mean: 'What's this all about?' "
"Well, why'd you come here?"
Well, get a load of you, acting like you don't know, like you dropped
dead or something!"
"Listen, Freydel," Stempeniu got more emotional. "Listen, Freydel.
I don' like no one pullin' stunts like this on me! I asked you: 'What're
ya doin' here?' And you start jiving' me!"
Freydel's green eyes flared up at Stempeniu and, tossing her long black
braids, she snapped:
"What am I doing here, you wanna know? I've come for you, Stempeniu.
At the betrothal party, you said you'd write in two weeks at the latest
and let us know about the wedding date. We waited and waited for more than
two months, and when we saw we wouldn't be hearing from you, we decided
to go and track your ghost down ourselves, and we've been everywhere, to
the ends of the earth, and it was only after lots and lots of trouble that
God helped us and we?"
"Tell me, Freydel, who's 'we'? You keep saying 'we' went and 'we' came
. . . ."
"The two of us. Me and Mom."
"Your Mom." cried Stempeniu, stopping dead in his tracks. "Your mother?
What's she doin' here?"
"Stop screaming, Stempeniu! What'd you think? That I'd come alone.
A girl doesn't travel alone. A fine thing! Imagine!"
"Yeah, but what does your old lady have to do with me?" asked Stempeniu,
walking back with her.
"She's your future mother-in-law, Stempeniu. Your future mother-in-law.
And later on, she's gonna be your present mother-in-law."
"Freydel, do you seriously intend to marry me?"
"And you didn't mean it seriously, Stempeniu?"
"It's off the wall!"
"What's off the wall!"
"Listen, gettin' hitched is the last thing in the world I wanna do."
Freydel halted for a minute and gazed into Stempeniu's eyes. Then she
looked all round and finally spoke to Stempeniu very quietly:
"Just you listen to me, Stempeniu! Don't think you've met up with some
dumb kid who doesn't know which side her bread is buttered on. I know you
very well, Stempeniu! I know all about your carryings-on. You like getting
engaged to a different girl every week, but it doesn't matter, you've sowed
your wild oats, that's okay .... Basically you're all right, you've got
a soft heart, you're a good-looking guy, one in a million, you're a wonderful
fiddler and you can support a wife - that's why I want you and that why
I'm marrying you, on the spot! You can argue all you like, it's no use,
you're wasting your time, Stempeniu, believe me. Now bend your head, I
want to tell you a secret . . ."
And Freydel, the dark-haired girl, whispered a secret into Stempeniu's
ear, and Stempeniu shuddered from head to foot. He stood there like a clay
golem, in the middle of the road, unable to open his mouth, to utter a
word. And then along came Mekhtshi the Drummer with his red hair, and he
told Stempeniu that he was supposed to go to the town Rothschild to talk
about a wedding. Stempeniu took leave of Freydel, nodding and sighing:
"I'll see you later, Freydel!"
"You're not kidding you'll see me later!" she replied, happily saying
good-bye to her darling fiance Stempeniu.
All the people who saw Stempeniu at the wedding were astonished at
his pale face and his absent look. It just wasn't the old Stempeniu, a
better-looking corpse would have been buried posthaste! It was as though
someone had whisked away his merriment, his ardor. Yes indeed, Stempeniu
saw that his sweet life as a free bird was over, he was sticking his head
in a yoke forever and always. Adieu, radiant summer evenings and long strolls
outside of town with musicians' daughters! Adieu, long, delicious braids,
undone hair, huge, black eyes! Adieu, silvery moon! . . .
Naturally, Stempeniu fought a bit, he struggled like a fish in a net,
with his last strength, using any means he could, but it was about as useful
as applying leeches to a corpse. Freydel and her mother stuck to him like
those ghosts that come in a dream at night, dragging you off to face the
music in the heavenly court of justice .... And he was scared to death
of his future mother-in-law, who knotted up her black maw as though with
a piece of string, but her face blazed as though she were all set to pounce
on Stempeniu any minute like a ferocious cat and scratch both his eyes
out - if it weren't for Freydel who kept holding her back.
"Leave him alone, Mama, you'll spoil everything. Just watch him, but
don't say anything, keep your eye on him so he doesn't escape. It'll be
all right, Mama, Stempeniu is mine, he's mine!.."