STEMPENIU: A JEWISH ROMANCE
- SHOLOM ALEICHEM
RACHEL CAN'T FALL ASLEEP
How awful! Rachel couldn't sleep! She tossed and
turned, she covered herself and uncovered herself - but sleep wouldn't
come! No matter how hard she tried not to think about him, about Stempeniu,
I mean - he kept popping up in front of her, the devil only knows how and
when! She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could - and saw his wonderful
black burning eyes, which stared straight at her, beckoned to her, called
to her . . . . "Oh, get rid of him!" she thought. "If only Moyshe-Mendel
were here!" She opened her eyes and saw Stempeniu with his fiddle, and
she thought she could still hear the rare and beautiful playing . . . .
"Oh, what music, oh . . . ! No wonder people tell such fantastic stories
about him!" And Rachel remembered all the lovely tales she had heard about
him in Skvirre, during her schooldays, when she was learning how to write
from Mottl Shpraiz, the girl's scribe. Back then, her girl friends had
told her stories about how Stempeniu had once taken a bride away from a
groom, and the bride died of shame, and they set up a black wedding canopy
by her grave. And once Stempeniu had gotten back at a girl for calling
him a lecher .... And once Stempeniu had played at an aristocratic wedding,
in a count's home. And the count's daughter, a great beauty, had fallen
for him and had said: Come what may, even death itself, she just had to
have Stempeniu . . . . And when the count heard this, he tried to talk
Stempeniu into it, at first with threats, then cajolingly, and at last
he promised him three whole villages if he would convert and take the daughter
for his wife. But Stempeniu replied in French (he knew German and French)
that even if the count offered him a torrent of ducats, he wouldn't take
a single drop of baptismal water for love or money. (And that was why he
was so greatly respected by all pious Jews, even the Rebbe.) And when the
count's daughter heard what he said, she threw herself fully dressed into
the river .... And there were so many wondrous tales that made your flesh
crawl . . . .
Rachel also recollected what her girl friends
had told her about Stempeniu's having a bottle of "love potion." "Love,
dove, heavens above!" thought Rachel, remembering all those pretty stories.
"You can keep your love! My Moyshe-Mendel loves me without any potion.
And do I love him? Do I love Moyshe-Mendel?"
And Rachel turned over, with her face to the
wall, and thought hard about all these things. This was the first time
she had ever had such a thought: "Oh, it's all a bunch of nonsense. What's
this love - dove business anyway? I certainly don't hate him!"
And honestly, why should she hate him? Moyshe-Mendel
wasn't bad-looking, thank goodness. A wee bit modern, he tucked his earlocks
up out of sight, he read newspapers, he liked to drink a glass of wine,
crack a joke, have some fun with young people - but he was a fine young
man. True, he was a bit of a stranger to his wife, he hardly ever exchanged
two words with her, he would mumble something and then zip off to synagogue
or to the market. And he never sat down, to speak, to talk to his wife,
just like that, for fun, the way people do. Not on your life, he was like
a wild doe.
Before her marriage, Rachel would never have
expected that, poor thing! When she got engaged, it seemed as if everyone
envied her for her husband - what a wonderful man (he was so handsome)!
There was no one like him in all the world! How happy she would be! . .
. And now? Now she saw that all her girlfriends were leading fine lives.
One, who had moved to a large city with her husband, wrote her the most
incredible letters. And another was already mistress of her own home. And
even Hannah-Mirel, who had moved heaven and earth to get a husband and
finally married a widower with five children - well, she was happy now
too. And Rachel? . . . Ahh, she had nothing to boast about. Locked up all
week like a bird in a cage. Eating, drinking, sleeping! Her father-in-law
and mother-in-law wouldn't let her breathe: Rachel, Rachel, day and night.
And Moyshe-Mendel with his ways, his spare words, as though she were some
sort of- goodness knows what! Shush! Someone was knocking at the door.
That might be Moyshe-Mendel. Her mother-in-law went to open.
"Is that you, Moyshe-Mendel?" his mother asked.
"Oh, what dancing, goddamn it! Brrrr!" her son
"What are you chattering about?" his mother went
on. "Get undressed and go to bed!"
"Goddamn it! What drinking, that Beryl-Menashe,
"For goodness' sake, Moyshe-Mendel! What are
you blabbering about?" Dvosse-Malke said to him, striking a match.
"Can't you see he's as drunk as a lord, mother-in-law?"
said Rachel. "Light a candle over there, please, he'll break every bone
in his body!"
"Hey, goddamn it, give me another glass!"
Jibbering to himself, Moyshe-Mendel collapsed
on his bed and quickly fell asleep with a dreadful snore. Dvosse-Malke
also went to sleep. Her little children had been sleeping for some time
now. Every corner of the house was filled with hissing and whistling. Everyone
slept soundly, only Rachel couldn't doze off. No matter how hard she strained,
sleep just wouldn't come! . . . The moon shone in through a window, and
a long white beam fell on the bed, where Moyshe-Mendel was sprawled with
his face up, his mouth open, his eyes gaping, his neck twisted, and his
adam's apple, a sharp knob, jutting out of his throat - he was hideous
to look at.
Rachel didn't want to look - but look she did.
Moyshe-Mendel had never seemed so ugly to her as now, on this night. And,
willy-nilly, she compared him with someone else, with that rascal Stempeniu
. . . . Was this the same Moyshe-Mendel as once? The bridegroom with his
lovely white face, his sweet smile, with his merry eyes, his straight posture,
with his gait, with his graceful manners, his sparkling jokes? Was this
the same Moyshe-Mendel? . . .
And Rachel, willy-nilly, compared him once again
with someone else, with Stempeniu . . . .
Go away, go away, you dark thoughts, stop tormenting
a Jewish woman!