As he walked downhill, away from the town, what Chaskiel liked best was to make a stop at Willer’s mill. Two ingenious culverts, one higher and one lower, pumped the waters of the Bystrzanka onto the large wheel with such force that the roar and thunder of the foaming stream at this spot always reminded him of those verses from the Book of Bereshit about the times when there weren’t yet any lands or creatures, no birds and no mankind; only the Ruach Elohim rose above the waters, which were no longer pure darkness and chaos by now, but resembled the sinister, dark force from which the shapes of life would later emerge. Right here Chaskiel turned on his heel and looked back at the town. It was beautiful. A wave of red and grey roofs fell gently from the church tower to the old stone walls, in which the Gothic gates looked like the secret door into a goldsmith’s casket. On the rocks below the walls, vineyards and small gardens were perched. Their fresh greenery was pleasing to the eye, especially set against the high mountains and the sky. The town looked like a nest suspended on an invisible thread.
He heard a voice behind him.
“Is that you, Chaskiel?”
There stood Willer, in a slightly soiled linen apron, wiping the sweat from his brow. The sleeves of his checked shirt were rolled up to the elbows.
“Why didn’t you sing at the last service? My wife puts on a headscarf and goes inside the synagogue as if she were a Jew purely to hear you. Can you imagine? She’s not the only one. They say your voice brings good fortune. And they also say that if you were to go to Vienna or Berlin, the world would be at your feet. The opera. Do you see?”
Chaskiel smiled at the miller.
“I’ve never been to the opera, Mr Willer,” he said pensively. “Or to any city as large as that. It’s not for me. I’d like to be a cantor. Here, at our place. Or somewhere in the neighbourhood. But it’s not possible. At least not for the time being.”
“Why is that?” asked Willer, taking half a step towards Chaskiel and relighting his half-smoked cigarillo. “Nobody sings as well as you!”
“Our Rabbi Szudrich doesn’t like my father. Because we’re…” ― he hesitated for a moment ― “Sephardi. But here they’re all Ashkenazi. It’s somewhat the same as if the organist at your Protestant chapel were to be a Catholic from Saint Peter’s, Mr Willer.”
The miller was highly amused by this comparison. But he couldn’t hide his amazement.
“Ashkenazi? Sephardi?” he repeated with a careful accent. “Who’d know the first thing about that? And what’s the difference, if you’re all Jews anyway?”
“None, as far as I’m concerned, Mr Willer. But I am not everyone. Please tell your wife that this Sabbath I’ll be singing.”
Chaskiel bowed politely to the miller, and was on the point of leaving when Willer held him by the arm.
“Do you realise what it means? Christian women are going into the synagogue. For you! You people never cross the threshold of a church, do you? Why would you? You’d fry in the Jewish hell for that. You’re sure to have a special curse for instances of the kind.”
“Like everyone. We have many curses, Mr Willer,” replied Chaskiel. “Perhaps too many for this world?”
The miller said nothing more. Chaskiel moved on, with a gentle nod to say farewell. He walked down the road along the Bystrzanka. Between the stones, amid the gravel there were daisies and dandelions growing. From a nearby meadow came the scent of haymaking and the singing of some girls, telling the world, over their rakes and hard toil, a sad story of unrequited love. The sun was at its zenith and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. At the point by the Tatar Rock, where the Bystrzanka flowed into the Czeremocha, Chaskiel sat down in the tall grass and took some food from his bundle: bread, cheese, an apple and some raisins.
If that man Willer knew what nobody knows, he thought, as he stared at the sky. How much effort he’d had to make to transform himself for that one moment from Chaskiel into a rough peasant whose appearance wouldn’t arouse any suspicion. How much fear he’d felt inside as he’d entered the church gates with the crowd. He’d wanted to see what they were all talking about in town: the restored painting of the miraculous Madonna, the most beautiful in the whole country ― so said the Catholics. He remembered the smell of the incense, the wailing of the women, the flash of the monstrance, the thunder of the organ. And the face of the woman in the painting: truly beautiful, subtle, extraordinary. He knew that this image, painted centuries ago in Kiev or even further to the East, belonged to the Orthodox Christians. For Chaskiel it was no mystery that now the Catholics were worshipping it. The mystery was her gaze. He had never experienced anything like it. He felt as if the Jewess Miriam, mother of the would-be Messiah, were looking straight at him, Chaskiel, as if wanting to ask him a question. About what? That he didn’t know, but he was sure she was looking straight at him, Chaskiel, as if demanding something.
He moved on. At the first bend in the Czeremocha, on a small piece of common land, somewhat askew, stood Reb Beszt’s house. Five years earlier a flood had brought it here with the entire family inside on a great wave and set it down on the riverbank,. That was why both the Jews and the Christians called it Noah’s Ark. But Reb Beszt was not Noah, and was altogether a strange person. He never went to the synagogue in town. In time, the village Jews started visiting his house, as a house of prayer. No more than two years ago Rabbi Szudrich had put a curse on him. Whoever heard of dancing and clapping your hands on the Sabbath? Whoever heard of drinking vodka the while? Whoever heard of saying such strange things about God? That supposedly he’s in everything: in the water, in the air, in a beech stump, in the grass, in a fish, in a cloud, in a stone, in a butterfly? And on top of that, that singing in the meadow, by moonlight. Those who supported him called themselves Hasidim. But was this not godless provocation? Hasidim means the just, and yet the just and god-fearing Jews could not support such godlessness.
As he entered the yard and was barked at by two menacing dogs, Chaskiel wondered about it too. Thinking he wasn’t where he should be. But Reb Beszt greeted him cheerfully. He was neither small nor tall. Neither fat nor thin. He looked like neither an ascetic nor a sinner.
“I’ve heard about you, Chaskiel,” he said. “The women praise your voice, even the Christian ones. Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Reb Beszt, they say you’re a miracle worker. And that you heal the sick. Apparently you restored the sight to Count Branicki’s daughter. But I’ve come to see you on a different matter. From my father. Apparently you know secret prayers. The kind that ensure the Messiah will be arriving soon. My father, may he live eternally, will die soon, and insists on knowing this. To be precise: Where will the Messiah come from? From the North? The South? From the East? Or maybe from the West? Because my father, may he live eternally, wishes to be buried on the edge of the cemetery that the Messiah will visit in the first order. With this question he has sent me to you. Forgive me, Reb Beszt, but I am merely fulfilling his request. I do not fully believe it would make any particular difference to the Messiah.”
Chaskiel fell silent, feeling ashamed of everything he had said. Without a word, his host led him into the prayer room, where they covered their heads with tallits and attached tefillin. At first, the words flowed neutrally, as they sometimes do at any synagogue or place of worship. But suddenly Chaskiel heard music. And it wasn’t music from Reb Beszt’s words or any other music he had ever heard. It was the music of God himself: the roar of banked-up water, the patter of rain, the breath of wind on the first day of spring. The growth of grass before the first mowing. The song of the thrush at dawn, the love charms of girls setting garlands afloat, the whisper of a mother lulling her child to sleep, the sound of the first snowflakes in November settling on the roof. The crackle of light in the window of a house, right beside the synagogue and the church, where he lived.
Then they ate supper. By only two candles, as this was a penniless home. They broke bread, and each drank a goblet of wine, over which Reb Beszt spoke a blessing for all Israel and for all the world. Chaskiel couldn’t tear his eyes off Beszt’s oldest daughter. Ewa was so like the Madonna in Saint Peter’s church that he felt as if he were in there, amid the clouds of incense, the Catholic hymns and the thunder of the organ.
He was invited to rest for the night in the wooden house on the riverbank. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to wander by night, beneath the starlight, hearing the constant murmur of the water: first of the Czeremocha, then the Bystrzanka. When he stopped at Willer’s mill to gaze at the black contours of the town, he saw Venus, shining bright beside the disc of the Moon. He was happy, though to the questions his father had asked him ― for Reb Beszt ― he had of course no answer. But it didn’t matter. Slowly he climbed the stone road towards the town, as if to dormant Jerusalem. Now he knew that prayer is one of the mysterious gates that open everything. Two years later, when Rabbi Szudrich died, he became cantor. Then he married Ewa, Reb Beszt’s daughter. No one ever found out about his visit to the Catholic Saint Peter’s church. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren perished in the Holocaust. All of them. That’s why I’m calling up his memory: as he walks down the hill, away from the town, to Willer’s mill. Chaskiel really did have a beautiful voice. Whenever he sang a psalm at the synagogue, the women wept with emotion. And said: Chaskiel, how radiant he is…
The Polish version of this story was originally published in Paweł Huelle’s collection of short stories entitled “Talita”, published in 2020 by Znak.
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Did you like what you’ve just read? Here at “Przekrój” Magazine, we are fans of brilliant literature from our region. Support us so that we can bring you more short stories, poems and excerpts from books from the ‘New East’.
Choose your donation