Chapter the Thirteenth.
The forest burns. - A terrible fire. - I am confused. - We save our household items. Fifty dessiatins forest consumed by fire. - The forest burns again. - I run helter-skelter looking for people to extinguish the fire. - The 'Starost'1. - Extinguished. - My agricultural plans. - A new misfortune. - A roof caved in. - Even bigger misfortune. - The child has fallen out of its crib. - My wife is sick. - The children are ill. - Running around. - Yankev-Yosl. - A woman with hallucinations. - Help!!!. - A problem about hair. - My lullaby.
Once, while cutting the oats, I was standing near the reapers, lost in thought. One of the reapers was a farmer named Theodore, a very unpleasant fellow, a bad one. I constantly sensed his hatred towards me in particular. Suddenly this Theodore turns around and shouts cheerfully, "The farm is burning!".
I turned pale. In the direction of the farm smoke was rising up into the sky. I ran as fast as I could to the farm, accompanied by five farmers. While I was running I saw the smoke increase and spread out over the whole forest like a black carpet. On my arrival my wife came running towards me, shouting in despair, "The forest is ablaze!"
The fire was getting closer to the farm and the thatch roofing would certainly be consumed by the flames.
And I hadn't the faintest idea what I ought to do and how to extinguish such a big forest fire. I was in a complete panic. The farmers said that the farm was in great danger, because the forest was full of dry twigs, because they had been cutting trees in the forest for export to Danzig. There had been no rains for a couple of months. The grass and twigs were very dry and made excellent material for a fire!
Fifteen years back the farm had also burned down. They used to have two distilleries there, a vodka distillery and a brewery. Everything had been consumed in the conflagration [R. pozhar] that had started in the forest. To extinguish such a large burning area you needed several hundred people. Now I saw for the first time that the poisonous, silent animosity of the farmers towards me, thus far hidden, was about to surface. I was a stranger to them, foreign blood running in my veins.
I told my wife to start securing our belonging on a cart together with the farmers. I myself grabbed a horse and hurried off to get farmers to put out the fire. But it was summertime. In the villages there was no trace of any farmer. The young ones were out herding, the grown ups were out reaping the harvest, either on their own land or for a leaseholder.
In a sorrowful gallop I hastened onward [loyf ikh in a troyerikn galop vayter]. On my way I came across some women cutting. I shouted at them and begged them to stop cutting, to hurry up and run to fight the forest fire.
In exchange I promissed to remit them the reapers they owed me for the strips of land for hemp they had received from me. Every farmer's wife took a strip of land from me to sow hemp on and for each strip they gave me five reapers or other laborers.
So I galloped about eight versts from one field to the other imploring everybody to run and help extinguish the inferno. While riding I kept looking behind me and saw the smoke spreading all over the forest. You couldn't see any flames, only a dense cloud of red smoke, smoke mixed with fire reaching up to the skies.
Suddenly my heart missed a beat. It wasn't because I realised that I would be ruined, but because it hit me that I had left behind my wife and two little children2in a huge fire among enemies, that she was bound to faint and that there would be no one there to revive her. I had only thought of requesting all farmers and farmers wives I met on the road to run and help fighting the fire but I myself rode away.
When I came home I found that the smoke had diminished. It seemed that they had put out the fire. Though the farmers certainly had not done very much about the fire I would remit them the labor that was mine by rights.
Fifty dessiatin3forest close to my farm had burned down, other trees were still smoldering. The goyim had fought the fire with long sticks in their hands. With those sticks they had beaten the grass, knocked out the fire.
The dry twigs around the trees caught fire easily, but the trees themselves didn't burn. I stayed around until they had extinguished the fire completely. There were several hundreds of people altogether, farmers and farmers wives.
When the danger was over I went home to settle the account with the farmers. It came to about four hundred laborers. I promised some puds of hay to the ones I had not had dealings with before.
But that wasn't the end of it. It is impossible to extinguish a forest fire completely at once. The next morning the forest ad started burning again here and there. I had to go out to get laborers again to fight the fire.
Almost every day it was the same thing. Every day I had to leave the farm-work behind to go searching for laborers. Actually, I did know that the farmers were obliged to come when called on to fight a fire, but I couldn't force them really and their help had to cost me money.
Generally speaking, fire is something that puts the fear of God[a gevaltike strashidle - scarecrow] into a village. You have to be really careful with fire.
I remember how one day I was sitting on the grass with the reapers, smoking a cigarette. I threw away a burning match and the grass caught fire so quickly that I hardly succeeded in putting it out stamping on it with my feet. And when I had not succeeded in stamping it out, the fire might have spread in no time over several versts.
I therefore understood fully well that a small child [shnek], a cowherd or anybody else could burn down my place in a matter of seconds.
During the second part of the summer until the middle of autumn we lived in constant terror. I became a ghost of my former self, it drained the blood out of me. I was constantly upset. The forest conflagrations disheartened me completely.
I had already promised the village representative a goodly present of five cartloads of hay and the clerk a gift of twenty five rubles to ensure that they would send me farmers from the villages immediately whenever I would appeal for help.
Besides, I busied myself sharing out vodka.
Once on a Friday, during the day, the forest started burning again. A strong fire started spreading quickly. Luckily it happened to be a religious holiday. I rushed off in a buggy straight to the clerk. The representative who lived in my village wasn't home. I entered the chancery - there was no clerk. Here they told me that the clerk was two versts from there, at his sweetheart's place.
So I quickly went there. The door was locked. I knocked and knocked, but there was no response. I asked the neighbours whether the clerk was inside and they replied that he was, with his sweatheart, refusing to open up. I raised a racket pounding and kicking the door and he finally came out of the house, wanting to beat me up. But as soon as he felt the ten-rubel note which I had quickly slipped in his hand he laid off. He didn't feel at all like deserting his sweetheart to go running after farmers, "I'm sick.", he lied.
With some difficulty I finally succeded in prevailing on him, using mild threats. On the road we collected some three hundred farmers and I bought them twenty gallons of vodka, with herring and cheese. By the time I came back in the evening, the fire had spread over the whole length of the forest. Luckily the fire had moved away to the other side, away from the farm.
The farmers said that they couldn't possibly extinguish such a big fire, but that they all would guard the farm and prevent the fire from reaching it.
The farmers advised me to send someone out to ask the women for the linen sheets they had made on their looms. These sheets had to be soaked in water and spread over the roofs of the farm.
After promising them a satisfactory compensation they started collecting barrels and buckets and tubs [Text: kades > Hark, kadke - tub > R. kadka; P. kadz - tub] from all the villages in the vicinity and they soaked the sheets. Three hundred farmers had a drink and laid down in the grass, waiting for the fire to get closer to the farm.
Their very waiting became unbearable.
All around a blazing inferno and the farmers calmly laying down and waiting for the fire, after their shot of vodka. I see how it is coming closer - the farmers remain silent. My heart is about to explode, my brain is afire, I am going crazy.
For your information," I shouted at the representative in despair, "I am going to leave the farm altogether, making it your responsibility. You realise, you will rot way in jail and Shemet will bring your children and grandchildren to ruin!
Finally the representative stirred and shouted at the crowd, "Let's go and fight it!
They went into the forest to cut long rods. A host of three hundred man strong lined up in a row facing the fire and started lashing, beating with the sticks. Slowly the crowd moved forwards doing their job: lashing, lashing the fire.
They kept moving all night, beating with the sticks, until they had put out the whole fire, which had spread widely.
The fire had been so big and so high that it had been seen in all towns in the region. No one in these town had slept that night. I was told that they had stood in the streets all the time, watching the sea of fire. Many had known that it was Jew going up in flames and they had bewailed his misfortune.
At six in the morning they had put the fire out and I sent for more vodka and herring. The crowd ate and drank heartily,
At eight o'clock the assessor of Breze4arrived with six hundred goyim. There was nothing left for him to do, but he received money from me anyway. How could one let an assessor go without having money in his hand? Or, to put it another way, how could an assessor let a Jew off without receiving money?
The goyim reassured me that this would be the end of the fires, because all the grass had been burned now. As soon as the grass was gone the danger of a big fire was over.
And they proved to be right.
When the fires that had made me old before my time had ceased we went back to work. I decided that I would get a lot of cows to stay in my stable, because I had plenty of hay. I would get a lot of dung that way. If I would fertilizer the land and work it well I could expect it to become good. That's what I did.
I began to carry out my plan to produce a lot of dung for improving my fields. At the end of the summer I let it be known in all towns in the region, that I would take cattle for the winter. For five rubles I would take care of a cow or an ox during the winter. From the towns in the neighborhood they brought in seventy head of cattle .
I also received a visit from a Lord who had forty oxen to put up for the winter. We made a contract stipulating five rubles a piece and after that he handed me two hundred rubles straight away. In the contract stated in black on white that in case an animal died I would be liable and would have to pay fifty rubles. I had one hundred and ten heads in all, not counting my own, more than twenty.
But winter had only started when I realised, what kind of stupidity I had committed. At the beginning of the winter the price of hay went up to 30 kopecks a pud. A carload of dung was going to cost me dearly! I would have been much better off had I sold the hay and not taken in so many mouths to eat it up. Then I would have made an easy few thousand rubles on hay. The hope of improving my fields with manure could only be realised in the course of several years in any case.
Maybe such a plan would have suited a Rozenblum type, living on a farm fit for a king. But I, a man living a bitter life in the great wilderness, beset by fires, wolves and farmer-foes, would probably not stick around for long here. What good would it do me? But it was too late, as with all the foolish plans I had thought up. My heart sank.
When they eventually began to remove the dung from the stable, they found enormous snakes underneath the dung. The farmers, very much afraid of snakes, stared shouting. They quickly gathered bringing stakes and killed the snakes. There were over sixty huge snakes, some were about one and a half arshin5long.
These snakes didn't do me any good either.
During the winter, with little work to do and long evenings, I started yearning for books again and melancholy overwhelmed me.
Endless evenings, nothing to do during the day-time - not to go mad I went to Kobrin, six miles away6, to visit the son of Mr. Yoshe7and to borrow a book from him. I would borrow one or two books, but in a few days time I would have finished them and had nothing to do again. But God granted me some more trouble.
Around Khanuke, while sitting in the room, I suddenly heard the sound of something crashing, loud and heavy like a stroke of thunder. We all ran to the window and saw to our great distress that the roof of our main stable, where all the cows stood, had caved in. I still can't understand why we didn't die there and then from mere fright.
We ran in great panic into the stable, but all the cows were in one piece. It seems that the cows instinctively had pushed themselves against the wall on hearing the roof coming down. It had broken down in the middle. We didn't die, but at that occasion my wife fell ill because of the fright.
The roof had caved in under the heavy load of snow. There had been heavy snows then and I didn't know that one was supposed to remove the snow from the roofs.
Though the roof hadn't hurt the cows, it caused me plenty of misery. Because cows cannot stand the cold I had to give them extra fodder, mainly hay. I went through it at double the normal rate and just to mock me the price of hay went up to seventy kopecks the pud.
All the farmers were forced to sell off their cattle, because they had nothing to feed them with. Really, you could buy cows for next to nothing [bekhotse-khinem - halb umzist]. That year you could buy a cow that before had cost thirty to forty rubles for eight or nine rubles. A few weeks old calf went for eight guilders [florins?].
Before Peysekh the farmers living nearby came to buy hay from me. I told them I was sorry, but that I didn't have any hay, only, laying in a corner of the barn, some half rotten, frozen hay, left over from the hay stacks [Text staiges: R./P. stog - stack. Weinr. der stoyg, -n - pile (of hay etc.) Comp. Frisian stûke; Dutch stoek.]. But they wanted to buy it anyway. The farmers paid me twenty-five kopecks a pud for it, for such bad hay. I made one hundred and fifty rubles on that.
If I had not been so foolish in wanting dung I could have made my fortune that year. Someone else in my position would have eaten his heart out from misery, having lost through his own doing such a large fortune. But it was not the money I could have made that pained me, but being such a good for nothing, my pathalogical tendency ["mit di puter arop"] to do everything the wrong way, badly, stupidly; the fact that I never figured correctly what is involved in any plan.
Since I had nothing to do and was breaking my head on how to get through the long winter having no work to do whatsoever, having no visitors and nowhere to go, God took pity on me again, was merciful, and sent me another disaster, a big one this time.
My wife fell sick with typhoid after having fried out eighteen geese for 'shmalts' and having salted a lot of meat. Right after her my three boys all went down with it. And if that wasn't enough yet the smallest one fell from its crib, which, as was the custom in those days, hung from the ceiling on ropes.
The crib was suspended high above the floor and the little boy smashed the side of his head, above the eye. A huge swelling was the result. The child, already sick with typhoid, went through incredibly terrible agonies.
We had a teacher and a maid living with us, but they ran away from the farm and went home, out of fear for the typhoid. So I was the only one left. Yes, I did have a cowherd with his wife, but they had enough to do with the cows and I did not dare to ask them for anything.
None of the nearby towns had a doctor, only barber-surgeons, quacks. Three miles from Kushelyeve, in Breze, there lived an expert barber-surgeon, a certain Yankev-Yosl. That was the one I used. But going to fetch him, I had to leave all my patients in the care of a stupid little girl.
Cry-baby as I was I wet the road with tears on my way to the barber-surgeon. It would have been mere luck to find the barber-surgeon at home. My heart sank when they told me that he was at railway station, where the station master's [natshalnik] sister lay sick.
So I ran to the station, reaching it completely out of breath and shedding big tears I implored him to have pity on me and to come with me to Kushelyeve straight away. "My children are gone! Be merciful, Yankev-Yosl!"
But Yankev-Yosl didn't stir. He told me that he had to wait until twelve o'clock. He waiting for a doctor coming from somewhere and he got to be there when this doctor arrived.
I started crying loudly, but to no avail. The station master guarded him like a treasure.
But tears don't help. I started telegraphing for doctors. Next I sent a coachman to Kobrin to fetch a doctor, who had to come together with Yankev-Yosl. I also found a Jewish nurse, to take care the sick. To find a Jewess willing to come with me was no easy task, because in all towns close by everyone was aware of the fact that Kushelyeve had fallen victim to the typhoid because of the swamps.
I put the Jewess on my cart and went off for a moment to buy something in a shop. The Jewess fell asleep and guess what, she had a dream in which she died in Kushelyeve. She woke up in absolute terror and ran home. When I returned to the cart - no more Jewess. Home I went without a barber-surgeon, without a Jewish nurse.
When I came home I found my wife and the children in a high fever and the little one was laying there with his swollen face wailing ["yentshet" > yentshen See Oytser 512, p. 557 R.] terribly. On the table I noticed something white, a piece of paper. What was written on it? My wife had written her testament, in the correct feminine style, in Yiddish.
I glanced at it.
I wanted to cry out for help.
In the will, believe it or not, she told me who I should marry. Help!
Apart from the will my wife had succeeded in getting her hair cut. She had sent for someone and ordered this person to cut her hair off because she didn't want to die a sinner. A married woman is not allowed to have hair.
On the table a white spot, the will; next to my wife's bed lies her beautiful black hair. I went around completely shattered, like an idiot. My mind was aflame. What was coming next?
In my misery, my suffering, I thought up a lullaby, a sad, melancholy one and singing that I rocked the child that had typhoid, had a high fever and had fallen out of its crib. Even now, remembering it, a shiver goes right through me.
Thus I rocked the child and sang my lullaby an ran to the other sick ones each moaning in their own corner.
Towards the evening the barber-surgeon Yankev-Yosl came, bringing the doctor from Pruzhani and a few hours later a doctor from Kobrin arrived.
But there was nothing the doctors could do. What could they do against typhoid fever? They stayed for a couple of hours, ate some cracklings, drank tea. Well, what else? I gave them forty rubles each and they went away in peace. Not to call in a doctor was a terrible thought. But when I called for them there was nothing they could do, it was a waste of time.
They didn't write out any prescriptions for the sick ones. They only advised me to give them some ordinary things, I don't remember what. But I recall that the samovar was steaming constantly. I did nothing but dance from one patient to the other, while rocking the little one.
I understood that there was no one besides me to help the sick ones. I was all on my own. I had to eat, to drink, to save my forces if I wanted to stay on my feet. I pulled myself together and ate, drank.
I ate all of the twenty salted geese and two bowls with cracklings, mechanically, like an automaton. I couldn't allow myself to pass out. But I didn't sleep at all, absolutely not at all. The child didn't let me. It was constantly moaning and wailing. I sat up all night, rocking the child while horrible thoughts went through my mind.
My wife was in a high fever. She used to get up during the night and run into the barn, shouting, " I want to go into the forest!
I would try to hold her back, grabbing her hand, but she tore herself loose and took off for the forest. With great effort I managed to get her back into bed, restraining her with one hand from wrangling loose and taking off again while rocking the crib with the other.
But in the end I couldn't cope anymore, it was too heavy, too horrible.
I sent a message to Kiev. But no one came to my assistance from there. Not from Kamenits either. I had become an outcast. They had forgotten about me. With sorrow I remembered my grandmother. If grandma Beyle-Rashe had been alive she would have come flying for sure. Nothing in the word could have stopped her and she would certainly have brought along some children to help out and she would have been wonderful to me.
1The heading says 'staroste', but the text has 'starshine'. Though Harkavi gives for both words 'chief of a village', it would seem from the text that the 'starshine' has greater authority than the 'staroroste', wielding power over more than one village. See footnotes to Chapt. XII.
2Vol. II, Chapt. XI: My wife had given birth to a daughter. Chapt. III: In that period I knew one thing for certain: I had to forsake my wife and son, I had to go away and study. Chapt. VII: I brought my wife and two children home to Makarovtsi.
It seems that the daughter born to the Kotiks in Makarovtsi died before they moved to Kushelyeve.
3R. desiatin = 1.0924 hectare or 2.6997 acres.
4Breze = Bereza (Kartuska), on 20.8 km. from Koshelevo.
51 versts [1066,78 m.] = 1500 arshin] > 1 arshin is about 71 cm.
6Kobrin: 55.5 km. SW of Bereza.
7See: Vol. I, Chapt. XXVI, p. 307-308: Yoshe Minkes, son-in-law of an uncle, lived in Kobrin. He was married to the daughter of the Rov of Kamenits, Aster-Gitl. (The Rov was a brother of Kotik mother's father.) Yosl Minkes and Aster-Gitl kept a guest-house. They had 22 children, 13 died. Remained 3 sons and 6 daughters. Kotik visited the family shortly after his marriage. He calls them the most hospitable family in all of 'Lite'. Kotik mentions a son-in-law of Yoshe, named Leyzer, a 'maskl'who ran a kind of Haskole school in Kobrin. He owned a large library with Russian and Hebrew Haskole books. Another son-in-law: r' Zalmen-Sender, became later the Rov of Krinik. He was a grandson of r' Khaim Volozhin. (also family of Kotik) and had married at the same time as Yekhezkl-Zeyv.
* * * RETURN TO HOME PAGE * * *TABLE OF CONTENTS * * * NEXT CHAPTER * * *