Call It Sleep IX

THE three o’clock bell sounded at last. Dismissed, he hurried through the milling crowd of noisy children. He had seen neither Yussie nor Annie, and now, as at lunch time, he darted ahead of the other children for fear of being overtaken by either.

It had stopped snowing, and although clouds still dulled the light, the air was warmer than it had been in the morning. Beside the curb, snow-forts squatted, half built during the lunch recess, waiting completion. A long sliding-pond stretched like a black ribbon in the gutter. Where the snow had been swept from the sidewalks, treacherous grey patches of ice tenaciously clung.

* * *

He went as swiftly as he could, picking his way. From time to time, he glanced hastily over his shoulder. No, they weren’t there. He had outstripped them. He turned a corner, stopped in midstride, staring at the strange sight before him; cautiously he drew near.

A line of black carriages listed away from the snow-banked curb. He had seen such carriages before. But what was that in front of the house, that curious one, square and black with windows in its sides? Black plumes on the horses. Why those small groups of people beside the doorway whispering so quietly and craning their necks to look inside the hallway? Above the street, in all the nearby houses, windows were open, men and women were leaning out. In one of these a woman gesticulated to some one behind her. A man came forward, furtively grinning, patted her jutting hips and wedged into the space beside her. What were they all staring at? What was coming out of that house? Suddenly he remembered. The flowers had been there! Yes he knew the doorway. White, flattened pillars. Flowers! What? He looked about for someone to ask, but he could see no one his own age. Near one of the carriages, stood a small group of men, all dressed alike in long black coats and tall hats. The drivers. They alone seemed unperturbed, yet even they spoke quietly. Perhaps he could hear what they said. He sidled over, straining his ears.

“An’ wattayuh t’ink he had de crust to tell me?” A man with a raw, weathered face was speaking, smoke from his cigarette unwreathing his words. “He siz, wadjuh stop fer? Now wouldn’t dat give yuh de shits?”

He stared at the others for affirmation. They nodded agreement with their eyes.

Vindicated, the man continued, but more slowly and with greater emphasis. “His pole smacks into my hack, and he squawks wadjuh stop fer? I coulda spit in his mug, de donkey!”

“At’s twiset now, ain’ it?” asked another.

“Twiset, my pudd’n,” retorted the first in wrathful contempt. “It’s de toid time. Wuzn’t Jeff de foist one he rammed, an’ wuzn’t Toiner de secon’? An’ yestiddy me!”

“Hey!” Another man nudged his neighbor abruptly. “Dere goes de row-boat!”

Hastily throwing their cigarettes away, they scattered, and each one swung himself up to his box on the carriage.

More confused now than before, David drew near the doorway. A man in a tall black hat had just come out and was standing on the step looking solicitously into the hallway. A hush fell on the crowd; they huddled together as if for protection. Terror seemed to emanate from the hallway. At a sign from the man in the tall hat, the doors in back of the strange carriage were thrown open. Inside the gloomy interior metal glimmered, tasseled curtains shut out the light. Suddenly out of the hallway a scraping sound and slow shuffling of feet. A soft moan came from the crowd.

“He’s coming!” someone whispered, craning her neck.

A sense of desolation. A fear.

Two men came out, laboring under the front-end of a huge black box, then two more at the other end. Red-faced, they trod carefully down the steps, advanced toward the carriage, rested one end of the box on the carriage floor.

That was—! Yes! That was! He suddenly understood. Mama said—Inside! Yes! Man! Inside! His flesh went cold with terror.

“Easy,” cautioned the man in the black hat.

They shoved the box in, lunging after it. It squealed softly, sliding in without effort as if on ways or wheels. The man who had opened the doors, shot a large silvered pin into a hole behind the box, then in one skilful motion shut the doors. At a nod from the man in the black hat, the carriage rolled on a little distance, then stopped. Another carriage drew up before the house.

Supported by a man on either side of her, a woman in black, all bowed and veiled, came sobbing out of the house. The crowd murmured, a woman whimpered. David had never seen a handkerchief with a black border. Hers seemed white as snow.

Voices of children. He looked around.

Annie and Yussie were there, staring at the woman as she entered the carriage. He shuddered, contracting, crept behind the crowd and broke into a run.

At the doorway of his house he stopped, peered in, stepped back. What was he going to do now? At lunch time, as he neared the house, he had seen Mrs. Nerrick, the landlady, climb up the stoop. By running frantically, he had caught up to her, had raced past the cellar, before she shut her door. But now there was no one in sight. At any moment Annie and Yussie might come round the corner. He must—before they saw—but the darkness, the door, the darkness. The man in the box in the carriage. Alone. He must.

Make a noise. Noise … He advanced. What? Noise. Any.

“Aaaaah! Ooooh!” he quavered, “My country ’tis of dee!” He began running. The cellar door. Louder. “Sweet land of liberty,” he shrilled, and whirled toward the stairs. “Of dee I sing.” His voice rose in a shriek. His feet pounded on the stair. At his back, the monstrous horde of fear. “Land where our fodders died!” The landing; he dove for the door, flinging himself upon it—Threw it open, slammed it shut, and stood there panting in terror.

His mother was standing, staring at him in wide-eyed amazement. “Was that you?”

Close to tears, he lowered his head.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know,” he whimpered.

She laughed hopelessly and sat down. “Come here, you strange child. Come here. You’re white!”

David went over and sank against her breast.

“You’re trembling,” she stroked his hair.

“I’m afraid,” he murmured against her throat.

“Still afraid?” she said soothingly. “Still the dream pursuing you?”

“Yes,” a dry sob shook him. “And something else.”

“What else?” She pressed him toward her with an encircling arm. In the other hand, she took both of his. “What?” she murmured. Her lips’ soft pressure against his temples seemed to sink inward, downward, radiating a calm and a sweetness that only his body could grasp. “What else?”

“I saw a—a man who was in a box. You told me once.”

“What? Oh!” her puzzled face cleared. “A funeral. God grant us life. Where was it?”

“Around the corner.”

“And that frightened you?”

“Yes. And the hall was dark.”

“I understand.”

“Will you wait in the hall if I call you next time?”

“Yes. I’ll wait as often as you like.”

David heaved a quivering sigh of relief and kissed her cheek in gratitude.

“If I didn’t,” she laughed, “Mrs. Nerrick, the landlady, would dispossess us. I never heard such a thunder of feet!” When she had unbuttoned his leggings she rose and set him in a chair. “Sit there, darling. It’s Friday, I have so much to do.”

For a while, David sat still and watched her, feeling his heart grow quiet again, then turned and looked out of the window. A fine rain had begun to fall, serrying the windows with aimless ranks. In the yard the snow under the rain was beginning to turn from white to grey. Blue smoke beat down, strove upward, was gone. Now and then, the old house creaked when the wind elbowed in and out the alley. Borne through mist and rain from some remote river, a boat horn boomed, set up strange reverberations in the heart …

Friday. Rain. The end of school. He could stay home now, stay home and do nothing, stay near his mother the whole afternoon. He turned from the window and regarded her. She was seated before the table paring beets. The first cut into a beet was like lifting a lid from a tiny stove. Sudden purple under the peel; her hands were stained with it. Above her blue and white checkered apron her face bent down, intent upon her work, her lips pressed gravely together. He loved her. He was happy again.

His eyes roamed about the kitchen: the confusion of Friday afternoons. Pots on the stove, parings in the sink, flour smeared on the rolling pin, the board. The air was warm, twined with many odors. His mother rose, washed the beets, drained them, set them aside.

“There!” she said. “I can begin cleaning again.”

She cleared the table, washed what dishes were soiled, emptied out the peelings that cluttered the sink into the garbage can. Then she got down on all fours and began to mop the floor. With knees drawn up, David watched her wipe the linoleum beneath his chair. The shadow between her breasts, how deep! How far it—No! No! Luter! When he looked! That night! Mustn’t! Mustn’t! Look away! Quick! Look at—look at the linoleum there, how it glistened under a thin film of water.

“Now you’ll have to sit there till it dries,” she cautioned him, straightening up and brushing back the few wisps of hair that had fallen over her cheek. “It will only be a few minutes.” She stooped, walked backward to the steps, trailing the mop over her footprints, then went into the frontroom.

Left alone, he became despondent again. His thoughts returned to Luter. He would come again this evening. Why? Why didn’t he go away. Would they have to run away every Thursday? Go to Yussie’s house? Would he have to play with Annie again? He didn’t want to. He never wanted to see her again. And he would have to. The way he did this afternoon beside the carriages. The black carriage with the window. Scared. The long box. Scared. The cellar. No! No!

“Mama!” he called out.

“What is it, my son?”

“Are you going to—to sleep inside?”

“Oh, no. Of course not! I’m just straightening my hair a little.”

“Are you coming in here soon?”

“Why yes. Is there anything you want?”


“In just a moment.”

He waited impatiently for her to appear. In a little while she came out. She had changed her dress and combed her hair. She spread a frayed clean towel out on the parlor steps and sat down.

“I can’t come over unless I have to,” she smiled. “You’re on an island. What is it you want?”

“I forgot,” he said lamely.

“Oh, you’re a goose!”

“It has to dry,” he explained. “And I have to watch it.”

“And so I do too, is that it? My, what a tyrant you’ll make when you’re married!”

David really didn’t care what she thought of him just as long as she sat there. Besides, he did have something to ask her, only he couldn’t make up his mind to venture it. It might be too unpleasant. Still no matter what her answer would be, no matter what he found out, he was always safe near her.

“Mama, did you ever see anyone dead?”

“You’re very cheerful to-day!”

“Then tell me.” Now that he had launched himself on this perilous sea, he was resolved to cross it. “Tell me,” he insisted.

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “The twins who died when I was a little girl I don’t remember. My grandmother though, she was the first I really saw and remember. I was sixteen then.”

“Why did she die?”

“I don’t know. No one seemed to know.”

“Then why did she die?”

“What a dogged questioner you are! I’m sure she had a reason. But do you want to know what I think?”

“Yes!” eagerly.

His mother took a deep breath, lifted a finger to arouse an already fervent attention. “She was very small, my grandmother, very frail and delicate. The light came through her hands like the light through a fan. What has that to do with it? Nothing. But while my grandfather was very pious, she only pretended to be—just as I pretend, may God forgive us both. Now long ago, she had a little garden before her house. It was full of sweet flowers in the summertime, and she tended it all by herself. My grandfather, stately Jew, could never understand why she should spend a whole spring morning watering the flowers and plucking off the dead leaves, and snipping here and patting there, when she had so many servants to do it for her. You would hardly believe how cheap servants were in those days—my grandfather had five of them. Yes, he would fret when he saw her working in the garden and say it was almost irreligious for a Jewess of her rank—she was rich then remember—the forests hadn’t been cut”—

“What forests?”

“I’ve told you about them—the great forests and the lumber camps. We were rich while the forests were there. But after they were cut and the lumber camps moved away, we grew poor. Do you understand? And so my grandfather would fret when he saw her go dirtying her hands in the soil like any peasant’s wife. But my grandmother would only smile at him—I can still see her bent over and smiling up at him—and say that since she had no beautiful beard like his to stroke, what harm could there be in getting a little dirt on her hands. My grandfather had a beard that turned white early; he was very proud of it. And once she told him that she was sure the good Lord would not be angry at her if she did steal a little from Esau’s heritage—the earth and the fields are Esau’s heritage—since Esau himself, she said, was stealing from Isaac on every side—she meant all the new stores that were being opened by the other gentiles in our town. What could my grandfather do? He would laugh and call her a serpent. Now wait! Wait! I’m coming to it.” She smiled at his impatience.

“As she grew older, she grew very strange. Shall I tell you what she used do? When autumn came and everything had died—”

“Died? Everything?” David interrupted her.

“Not everything, little goose. The flowers. When they died she didn’t want to leave the house. Wasn’t that strange? She stayed for days and days in her large living room—it had crystal chandeliers. You wouldn’t believe how quietly she would sit—not seeing the servants, hardly hearing what was said—and her hands folded in her lap —So. Nor could my grandfather, though he begged her to come out, ever make her. He even went to ask a great Rabbi about it—it was no use. Not till the first snow fall, did she willingly leave the house again.”


“Here is the answer. See if you can find it. When I came to visit her once on a day in late autumn, I found her sitting very quietly, as usual, in her large arm-chair. But when I was about to take my coat off, she said, keep it on, Genya, darling, there is mine on the chair in the corner. Will you get it for me, child?

“Well, I stood still staring at her in surprise. Her coat? I thought. Was she really of her own accord going out and in Autumn? And then for the first time I noticed that she was dressed in her prettiest Sabbath clothes—a dark, shimmering satin—very costly. I can see her yet. And on her head—she had never let them cut her hair—she had set a broad round comb with rows of pearls in it—the first present my grandfather had ever given her. It was like a pale crown. And so I fetched her coat and helped her put it on. Where are you going, grandmother? I asked. I was puzzled. In the garden, she said, in the garden. Well, an old woman must have her way, and into the garden we went. The day was very grey and full of winds, whirling, strong winds that could hold the trees down like a hand. Even us it almost blew about and it was cold. And I said to her, Grandmother, isn’t it too cold out here? Isn’t the wind too strong? No, her coat was warm, so she said. And then she said a very strange thing. Do you remember Petrush Kolonov? I wasn’t sure. A goy, she said, a clod. He worked for your grandfather many years. He had a neck like a tree once, but he grew old and crooked at last. And when he grew so old he couldn’t lift a faggot, he would sit on a stone and look at the mountains. This was my grandmother talking, you understand?”

David couldn’t quite follow these threads within threads, but nodded. “Why did he sit?” he asked, afraid that she might stop talking.

She laughed lightly. “That same question has been asked by three generations. You. Myself. My grandmother. He had been a good drudge this Petrush, a good ox. And when my grandmother asked him, Petrush, why do you sit like a keg and stare at the mountains, his only answer was, my teeth are all gone. And that’s the story my grandmother told me while we walked. You look puzzled,” she laughed again.

He was indeed, but she didn’t explain.

“And so we walked and the leaves were blowing. Shew-w-w! How they lifted, and one blew against her coat, and while the wind held it there, you know, like a finger, she lifted it off and crumbled it. And then she said suddenly, come let us turn back. And just as we were about to go in she sighed so that she shivered—deep—the way one sighs just before sleep—and she dropped the bits of leaves she was holding and she said, it is wrong being the way I am. Even a leaf grows dull and old together! Together! You understand? Oh, she was wise! And we went inside.”

His mother stopped, touched the floor to see if it was dry. Then she rose and went to the stove to push the seething beet soup from where it had been over the heat of the coals to the cooler end of the stove.

“And now the floor is dry,” she smiled, “I’m liberated.”

But David felt cheated, even resentful. “You—you haven’t told me anything!” he protested. “You haven’t even told me what happened?”

“Haven’t I?” She laughed. “There’s hardly anything more to tell. She died the winter of that same year, before the snow fell.” She stared at the rain beating against the window. Her face sobered. The last wink of her eyelids before she spoke was the slowest. “She looked so frail in death, in her shroud—how shall I tell you, my son? Like early winter snow. And I thought to myself even then, let me look deeply into her face for surely she will melt before my eyes.” She smiled again. “Have I told you enough now?”

He nodded. Without knowing why, her last words stirred him. What he had failed to grasp as thought, her last gesture, the last supple huskiness of her voice conveyed. Was it in his heart this dreamlike fugitive sadness dwelled, or did it steep the feathery air of the kitchen? He could not tell. But if only the air were always this way, and he always here alone with his mother. He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity. When she lifted the stove lid, the rosy glow that stained her wide brow warmed his own body as well. He was near her. He was part of her. Oh, it was good being here. He watched her every movement hungrily.

She threw a new white table cloth over the table. It hovered like a cloud in air and settled slowly. Then she took down from the shelf three brass candlesticks and placed them in the center of whiteness, then planted candles into each brass cup.



“What do they do when they die?”

“What?” she repeated. “They are cold; they are still. They shut their eyes in sleep eternal years.”

Eternal years. The words echoed in his mind. Raptly, he turned them over and over as though they had a lustre and shape of their own. Eternal years.

His mother set the table. Knives ringing faintly, forks, spoons, side by side. The salt shaker, secret little vessel of dull silver, the pepper, greyish-brown eye in the shallow glass, the enameled sugar bowl, headless shoulders of silver tongs leaning above the rim.

“Mama, what are eternal years?”

His mother sighed somewhat desperately, lifted her eyes a moment then dropped them to the table, her gaze wandered thoughtfully over the dishes and silverware. Then her eyes brightened. Reaching toward the sugar bowl she lifted out the tongs, carefully pinched a cube of sugar, and held it up before his eyes.

“This is how wide my brain can stretch,” she said banteringly. “You see? No wider. Would you ask me to pick up a frozen sea with these narrow things? Not even the ice-man could do it.” She dropped the tongs back into the bowl. “The sea to this—”

“But—” David interrupted, horrified and bewildered. “But when do they wake up, mama?”

She opened her two palms in a gesture of emptiness. “There is nothing left to waken.”

“But sometime, mama,” he urged.

She shook her head.

“But sometime.”

“Not here, if anywhere. They say there is a heaven and in heaven they waken. But I myself do not believe it. May God forgive me for telling you this. But it’s all I know. I know only that they are buried in the dark earth and their names last a few more lifetimes on their gravestones.”

The dark. In the dark earth. Eternal years. It was a terrible revelation. He stared at her fixedly. Picking up a cloth that lay on the washtub, she went to the oven, flipped the door open, drew out a pan. The warmth and odor of new bread entered his being as through a rigid haze of vision. She spread out a napkin near the candlesticks, lifted the bread out of the pan and placed it on the square of linen.

“I still have the candles to light,” she murmured sitting down, “and my work is done. I don’t know why they made Friday so difficult a day for women.”

—Dark. In the grave. Eternal years …

Rain in brief gusts seething at the window … The clock ticked too briskly. No, never. It wasn’t sometime … In the dark.

Slowly the last belated light raveled into dusk. Across the short space of the kitchen, his mother’s face trembled as if under sea, grew blurred. Flecks, intricate as foam, swirled in the churning dark—

—Like popcorn blowing in that big window in that big candystore. Blowing and settling. That day. Long ago.

His gaze followed the aimless flux of light that whirled and flickered in the room, troubling the outline of door and table.

—Snow it was, grey snow. Tiny bits of paper, floating from the window, that day. Confetti, a boy said. Confetti, he said. They threw it down on those two who were going to be married. The man in the tall, black shiny hat, hurrying. The lady in white laughing, leaning against him, dodging the confetti, winking it out of her eyes. Carriages waiting. Confetti on the step, on the horses. Funny. Then they got inside, both laughing. Confetti. Carriages.


—The same!

—This afternoon! When the box came out! Carriages.



“Dear God!” exclaimed his mother. “You startled me! What makes you leap that way in your chair? This is the second time today!”

“They were the same,” he said in a voice of awe. It was solved now. He saw it clearly. Everything belonged to the same dark. Confetti and coffins.

“What were the same?”

“The carriages!”

“Oh, child!” she cried with amused desperation. “God alone knows what you’re dreaming about now!” She rose from her chair, went over to the wall where the matchbox hung, “I had better light these candles before you see an angel.”

The match rasped on the sandpaper, flared up, making David aware of how dark it had become.

One by one she lit the candles. The flame crept tipsily up the wick, steadied, mellowed the steadfast brass below, glowed on each knot of the crisp golden braid of the bread on the napkin. Twilight vanished, the kitchen gleamed. Day that had begun in labor and disquiet, blossomed now in candlelight and sabbath.

With a little, deprecating laugh, his mother stood before the candles, and bowing her head before them, murmured through the hands she spread before her face the ancient prayer for the Sabbath …

The hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude …