Call It Sleep XIX

AT THE second landing of the unlit hallway, the harsh stench of disinfectants rasped the grain of his nostrils. Behind that doorway where the voices of children filtered through, Mrs. Glantz’s brood had the measles. Upward and beyond it, wearily, wearily. And at the turn of the stairs, the narrow, crusted, wire-embedded window was open. He loitered again, stared down. In the greying yard below, a lean, grey cat leaped at the fence, missed the top and clawed its way up with intent and silent power. And he upward also, wearily.

—Her fault. Hers. Ain’t mine. No it ain’t. It ain’t. Ask anybody. Take a step and ask. Is it mine? Bannister-sticks, is it mine? Mine is … Mine ain’t … Mine is … Mine ain’t. Mine is … Mine ain’t … There! See! Chinky shows! Her fault. She said about him. Didn’t she? She told it to Aunt Bertha. Her fault. If she liked a goy, so I liked. There! She made me. How did I know? It’s all her fault and I’m going to tell too. Blame it on her. Yours Mama! Yours! Go on! Go on! Next! Next floor! Mama! Mama! Owoo!

And leaving the third landing where the stale reek of cabbage and sour cream filled the uncertain light, a low whimper forced its way through his lips and echoed with an alien treble in the hollow silence. And upward, clammy palms clinging to the bannisters and squealing in thin reluctance as they slid. And again the turn of the stairs and the open window framing a soft clarity with the new height. Across the alley, a face between curtains grimaced, tilted back; crooking fingers plucked the collar off.

—Stop hollerin’! Stop! You, inside, stop! Don’t know. They don’t know. Who told them? Tell me, who could’ve? Well, tell me? There! See! Polly didn’t tell—Esther wouldn’t let her. She ran after her. But maybe she didn’t catch. She did! She didn’t. She did! But even if—so what? Aunt Bertha wouldn’t tell. Aunt Bertha likes me. See? Aunt Bertha wouldn’t tell on me for a million, zillion dollars. Don’t she hate Papa? Didn’t she want me ’stead of them? Didn’t she? So she wouldn’t tell. Gee, ooh, God! ’Course she wouldn’t tell. So what? What am I scared of? (He leaned against the bannister in an ecstasy of hope) Nobody knows! Oooh, God, make nobody know! Go on then! Make believe nothing happened. Gee, nothing-but—but him. Rabbi? Aaa, he forgets. Sure he does! All the time. What’s he got to remember for? Go on, gee, God! Go on! But—but where were you? It’s way late. Me? Where was I? Got lost, that’s what. Way in the other side of Avenue A. Why? Thought it was the other side. That’s where I was. Go on! Oooh, God! Wish I broke a leg. Ow! Don’t! Yea! Sh!

The pale blue light of the transom obliquely overhead.


He crept to his doorway, stiff ankle-joints cracking like gun-shots. A blur of voices behind the door.

—Sh! Who? Who’s there?

Pent breath trembling in his bosom, he leaned nearer, leaned nearer and poised for flight.

Someone laughed.

—Who? She? Mama? Yes! Yes!

Again, out of a mumble of voices, again the laugh—strained, nervous, but a laugh. Hope clutched at it.

—She! Laugh is hers! She don’t know! Don’t know nothing! Wouldn’t laugh if she knew. No! No! Don’t know! Can go!

His brain flew open as though a light were swung into it—

—Nobody knows! Can go!

Yet his whole being shied in terror when he reached out his hand for the door knob—

The door that clicked open, clicked shut upon their voices. And—

“David! David, child! Where have you been?”

“Mama! Mama!” But not soon enough could he fling himself into her bosom, not deep enough nest his eyes there before he saw in a blur of vision the bearded figure before the table.

“Mama! Mama! Mama!”

Only the sheltering valley between her breasts muffled his scream of fear to her heart. Convulsive, unerring hands flew up to her neck, sought and clasped the one upright pillar of this ruin.

“Hush! Hush! Hush child! Have no fear!” Her body rocked him.

And at his back, his father’s voice, morose, sardonic, “Yes, hush him! Comfort him! Comfort him!”

“Poor frightened one!” Her words came to him from her bosom and lips. “His heart is beating like a thief’s. Where have you been, life? I’m dead with anxiety! Why didn’t you come home?”

“Lost!” he moaned. “I was lost on Avenue A.”

“Ach!” She clasped him to her again. “Because you told a strange tale?”

“I was just making believe! I was just making believe!”

“Were you?” Behind him his father’s cryptic voice. “Were you indeed!”

He could feel his mother start. The heart beneath his ear begun to pound heavily.

“Hi! Yi! Yi! Yi! Yi!” From another corner of the room, the rabbi’s dolorous groan broke up into a train of sighs. “I see I have wrought badly coming here. No?” He paused, but none answered his question. Instead,

“Stop your whining, you!” his father snapped.

“But what was I to do?” The rabbi launched himself again. His voice, so uncommonly unctuous and placating, sounded strange to David’s ears despite his misery. “Had he been a dullard, a plaster golem, such as only the King of the Universe with his holy and bounteous hand knows how to bestow on me, would I have believed him? Psh! I would have said—Bah! Ox-brained idiot, away with this drool! And then and there would I have fetched him such a cuff on the jowls, his children’s children would have cried aloud! Hear me, friend Schearl, he would have flown from me like a toe-nail from a shear! But no!” His voice heightened, deepened, grew rich with huskiness. “In my cheder he was as a crown in among rubbish, as a seraph among Esau’s goyim! How could I help but believe him? A yarn so incredible had to be true. No? His father a goy, an organ-grinder—an organ player in a church! His mother dead! She met him among the corn—”

“What!” Both voices, but with what different tones!

“I said among the corn. You, Mrs. Schearl, his aunt! What! The like will not be heard again till the Messiah is a bride-groom. Speak! No?”

Again that silence and then as though the silence were creaking with its own strain, the ominous grating sound of a stretched cable, his father’s grinding teeth. Under his ear, the heavy beat of the heart tripped, fluttered, hammered raggedly. The stricken catch of the quick breath in her throat was like the audible sublimate of his own terror.

“But uh—uh—now it’s a jest, no? Uh—ah, what! A jest!” His hurried nails could be heard harrying his beard. “Not-eh-ah-poo! Not a doubt!” Stumbling at first, his speech began to tumble, growing more flustered as it grew heartier. “It’s your child now. No! It’s your child! Always! What’s there to be disturbed about? Ha? A jest! A tale of a—of a hunter and a wild bear! Understand? Something to laugh at! Ha! Ha—hey, scamp, there! You won’t gull me again! What these imps can’t invent! Ha! Ha! A jest, no?”

“Yes! Yes!” Her alarmed voice.

“Hmph!” Savagely from her husband. “You agree readily! Where did he get this story? Let him speak! Where did he? Was it Bertha, that red cow? Who?”

David moaned, grasped his mother closer.

“Let him alone, Albert!”

“You say so, do you? We’ll find out!”

“But uh—you won’t hold it against me—uh—I mean that I told you. May God requite me if I came here trying to meddle, to stir up rancor. Yes! May I wither where I sit! Hear me! Not a jot did I care to pry! Let the feet grow where they list, I cared not! Not I! But I thought here am I his rabbi, and I thought it’s my duty to tell you—at least that you might know that he knew—and in what way he was made aware.”

“It’s all right!” She unclasped one arm. “I beg you don’t be disturbed.”

“Well then, good! Good! Ha! I must go! The Synagogue! It grows late.” The creak of his chair and scrape of his feet filled the pause as he rose. “Then you’re not angered with me?”

“No! No! Not at all!”

“Good-night then, good-night.” Hastily. “May God bestow you an appetite for supper. I shan’t trouble you again. If you wish I’ll start him on Chumish soon—a rare thing for one who has spent so little time in a cheder. Good-night to you all.”


“Hi-yi-yi-yi-yi-! Life is a blind cast. A blind caper in the dark. Good-night! Hi-i! Yi! Yi! Evil day!”

The latch ground. The door opened, creaked, closed on his hi-yi-ing footsteps. And of the silence that followed the beating of her heart condensed the anguish into intervals. And then his father’s voice, vibrant with contempt—

“The old fool! The blind old nag! But this once he wrought better than he knew!”

He felt his mother’s thighs and shoulders stiffen. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” he answered ominously. “No, on second thought I won’t need to tell you at all. It will tell itself. Answer me this: Where was my father when I married you?”

“Do you need ask me? You know that yourself—he was dead.”

“Yes, I know it,” was his significant retort. And his voice tightening suspiciously. “You saw my mother?”

“Of course! What’s come over you, Albert?”

“Of course!” he repeated in slow contempt. “Why do you smirk at me with that blank, befuddled look? I mean did you see her before I brought her to you myself?”

“What is it you want, Albert?”

“An answer without guile,” he snapped. “You know what I’m talking about! I know you too well. Did she come to you alone? In secret? Well? I’m waiting!”

As though her body were compelled to follow the waverings of an immense irresolution, she swayed back and forth, and David with her. And at last quietly: “If you must know—she did.”

“Ha!” The table slid suddenly along the floor. “I knew it! Oh, I know her nature! And she told you, didn’t she? And she warned you! Of me! Of what I had done?”

“There was nothing said of that—!”

“Nothing? Nothing of what? How can you be so simple?”

“Nothing!” she repeated desperately. “Stop tormenting me, Albert!”

“You wouldn’t have said nothing.” He pursued her relentlessly. “You would have asked me, what? What I had done? She told you!”

His mother was silent.

“She told you! Is your tongue trapped in silence? Speak!”

“Ach—!” and stopped. Only David heard the wild beating of her heart. “Not now! Not with him here!”

“Now!” he snarled.

“She did.” Her voice was wrung from her. “And she told me I ought not to marry you. But what difference—”

“She did! And the rest? The others? Who else!”

“Why are you so eager to hear?”

“Who else?”

“Father and mother. Bertha.” Her voice had become labored. “The others know. I never told you because I—”

“They knew!” he interrupted her with bitter triumph. “They knew all the time! Then why did they let you marry me? Why did you marry me?”

“Why? Because no one believed her. Who could?”

“Oh!” sarcastically. “Is that it? That was quickly thought of! It was easy to shut your minds. But she swore it was true, didn’t she? She must have, hating me afterwards as she did. Didn’t she tell you that my father and I had quarreled that morning, that he struck me, and I vowed I would repay him? There was a peasant watching us from afar. Didn’t she tell you that? He said I could have prevented it. I could have seized the stick when the bull wrenched it from my father’s hand. When he lay on the ground in the pen. But I never lifted a finger! I let him be gored! Didn’t she tell you that?”

“Yes! But, Albert, Albert! She was like a woman gone mad! I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now! Let’s stop now, please! Can’t we talk about it later?”

“Now that it’s all become clear to me you want to stop, is that it?”

“And why is it suddenly so clear?” her tone held a sharp insistence. “What is so clear to you? What are you trying to prove?”

“You ask me?” ominously. “You dare ask me?”

“I do! What do you mean?”

“Oh, the gall of your kind! How long do you think you’ll hide it! Will I be lulled and gulled forever? Must I tell you? Must I blurt it out! My sin balances another? Is that enough for you?”

“Albert!” her stunned outcry.

“Don’t call to me!” he snarled. “I’ll say it again—they had to get rid of you!”


“Albert!” He spat back at her. “Whose is he? The one you’re holding in your arms! Ha? How should he be named?”

“You’re mad! Dear God! What’s happened to you?”

“Mad, eh? Mad then, but not a cheat! Come! What are you waiting for? Unmask yourself! I’ve been unmasked to you for years. All these years you said nothing. You pretended to know nothing. Why? You knew why! I would have asked you what I’ve just asked you now! I would have said why did they let you marry me. There must have been something wrong. I would have known! I would have told you. But now, speak! Speak out with a great voice! Why fear? You know who I am! That red cow betrayed you, didn’t she? I’ll settle with her too. But don’t think there was no stir in this silence. All these years my blood told me! Whispered to me whenever I looked at him, nudged me, told me he wasn’t mine! From the very moment I saw him in your arms out of the ship, I guessed. I guessed!”

“And you believe a child’s fantasy?” She spoke with a fixed flat voice of one staggered by the incredible. “The babbling? The wandering of a child?”

“No! No!” he bit back with a fierce sarcasm. “Not a bit of it. Not a word. How could I? It’s muddled of course. But did you want a commentary. Let him speak again. It might be clearer.”

“I’ve thought you strange, Albert, and even mad, but that was pride and that made you pitiful. But now I see you’re quite, quite mad! Albert!” She suddenly cried out as if her cry would waken him. “Albert! Do you know what you’re saying!”

“A comedienne to the end.” He paused, drew in the sharp breath of one marveling—“Hmph! How you sustain it! Not a tremor! Not a sign of betrayal! But answer me this!” His voice thinned to a probe. “Here! Here’s a chance to show me my madness. Where is his birth certificate? Ha? Where is it? Why have they never sent it?”

“That? Was it because of that one single thing your blood warned you so much? Why, dear God, they wrote you—my own father did. They had looked for it everywhere and never found it—lost! The confusion of departure! What other reason could there be?”

“Yes! Yes! What else could it be? But we—we know why it stayed lost, don’t we? It was better unfound! After all, was I there to see him born? Was I even there to see you bearing him? No! I was in America—on their money, notice! The ticket they bought me. Why were they so eager to get rid of me? Why such haste, and I not married more than a month?”

“Why? Can’t you see for yourself? There were nine in my family. Servants, others, outsiders began to know. They had hoped I would follow you soon. There was no money at home. The store was failing. The sons weren’t grown yet. You couldn’t send for me—”

“Oh, stop! Stop! I know all that! Who is it they began to know of—you or me?”

“Do you still persist? Of you, of course! Your mother went around telling everyone.”

“And they were ashamed, eh? I see! But now I’ll tell you my version. Here I am in America sweating for your passport, starving myself. You see? Thousands of miles away. Alone. Never writing to anyone only to you. Now! He’s born a month or two too soon to be mine—perhaps more. You wait that time. That month or two, and then, why then exactly on the head of the hour you write me—I have a son! A joy! Fortune! I have a son. Ha! But when you came across, the doctors were too knowing. Fool your husband, they said. You were frightened. Seventeen months were too few for one so grown. Twenty-one then! Twenty-one they might believe, and twenty-one of course I thought he was. There you are! Wasn’t that it? I haven’t forgotten. My memory’s good. An organist, eh? A goy, God help you! Ah! It’s clear! But my blood! My blood I say warned me!”

“You’re mad! There’s no other word!”

“So? But good enough for your kind. That’s what they reasoned back home—the old, praying glutton and his wife—Did you know an organist? Well, why don’t you answer?”

“I—oh, Albert, let me alone!” She moved David about frantically under her arms. “Let me alone in God’s name! You’ve heaped enough shame on me for nothing. It’s more than I can bear. You’re distraught! Let’s not talk about it anymore! Later! Tomorrow! I’ve suffered twice for this now.”

“Twice! Ha!” He laughed. “You’ve a gift for blurting things out! Then you knew an organist?”

“You claim I did!” Her voice went suddenly stony.

“Did you? Say it.”

“I did then. But that was—”

“You did! You did!” His words rang out again. “It fits! It matches! Why look! Look up there! Look! The green corn—taller than a man! It struck your fancy, didn’t it? Why, of course it would! The dense corn high above your heads, eh? The summer trysts! But I—I married in November! Ha! Ha!—Sh! Don’t speak! Not a word! You’ll be ludicrous, you’re so confounded!”

“And you believe? And you believe? This that you’re saying! Can you believe it?”

“Anhr! Do I believe the sun? Why I’ve sensed it for years I tell you! I’ve stubbed my feet against it at every turn and tread. It’s been in my way, tangled me! And do you know how? Haven’t you ever seen it? Then why do weeks and weeks go by and I’m no man at all? No man as other men are? You know of what I speak! You ought to, having known others! I’ve been poisoned by a guess! Corruption has haunted me. I’ve sensed it! I’ve known it! Do you understand? And it’s been true!”

She rose. And David still in her arms, still clasping her neck, dared not breathe nor whimper in his terror, dared not lift his eyes from the shelter of her breast. And his father’s voice, nearer now, broke like a rod of stiff, metallic words across his back.

“Hold him tightly! He’s yours!”

She answered, a kind of cold deliberate pity in her voice. “And now, now that you know what you think you know, the corruption’s drained. Is that how you are? The fog is split. Why didn’t you tell me sooner what clouded you? I would have freed you sooner.”

“And now like any discovered cheat you’ll mock me, eh?”

“I’m not mocking you, Albert. I’m just asking you to tell me exactly what it is you want.”

“I want,” his teeth ground into his words. “Never to see that brat again.”

She sucked in her breath as if making a last attempt. “You’re driving me mad, Albert! He’s your son. Your son! Oh, God! He’s yours. What if I knew another man long before I met you—! It was long ago, I swear to you! Can he, must he be his? He’s yours!”

“I’ll never believe you! Never! Never!”

“Why then I’ll go!”

“Go. I’ll caper! I’ll dance on the roofs! I’ll be rid of it! Be rid of it, I tell you! The nights in the milk wagon! The thoughts! The torment! The stables—hitching the horse. The other men! The torment! I’ll be rid of it! His—”

But as though answering his suppressed scream of exultation, noises in the hallway, wrangling, angry, confused, battered like turbulent waves against the door. He stopped as though stuck. About David’s legs the clasp of his mother’s arms tightened protectingly. Again the cries threatening, reproachful and a stamp and shuffling of feet. A sharp crack at the door—flung open, it banged against a chair.

“Now let me go! I’m here! I’m going to speak!”

He knew the voice! One wild glance he threw over his shoulder—Aunt Bertha grappling with her husband seemed less strange to him now that the light of the kitchen had grown so grey. With a whimper of despair, he clutched at his mother’s neck, buried his face frenziedly into the crook of her throat. And she, bewildered—

“Nathan! You? Bertha! What is it? You look so frantic!”

“I—I am angry!” Uncle Nathan gasped tormentedly. “I have much—!”

“It’s nothing!” Aunt Bertha beat his words down. “My man is a fool! Look at him! He’s gone crazy!”

“Let me speak! Will you let me speak!”

“Be strangled first!” She flew at him venomously. “He wants—do you know what he wants? Can’t you guess? What does a Jew want? Money. He’s come to borrow money! And why does he want money? To make a bigger store. Nothing else! He’s out of his head! I’ll tell you what happened to him. He dreamt last night the police came and stripped off his boots, the way they did his bankrupt grandfather in Vilna. It’s gone to his head. He’s frightened. His wits are in a foam. Ask him where he is now. He couldn’t answer you. I’m sure he couldn’t. And how are you, Albert! It’s a fair brace of months since I have seen you! You ought to visit us sometimes, see our little store, and vast variety of bon-bons. Cheh! Cheh! Und heva suddeh-wawdeh!”

David’s father made no answer.

And lightly as though she expected none. “And why are you holding him in your arms, Genya?”

“Just to—just to feel his weight,” his mother replied unsteadily. “And he is heavy!” She bent over to put him down.

“No, Mama!” he whispered, clinging to her. “No, Mama!”

“Only a moment, beloved! I can’t hold you in my arms so long. You’re too heavy!” She set him on his feet. “There! Once he gets up, he won’t come down.” And still keeping her trembling hand on his shoulder, she turned to Nathan. “Money? Why—?” She laughed confusedly. “I think the world’s gone mad! What makes you come to us of all people? Are you in your right senses, Nathan?”

Fixing his glowering, harassed eyes on David, Nathan opened his mouth to speak—

“Of course!” Aunt Bertha outstripped him. “Of course, you haven’t any money.” She dug her elbow viciously into her husband’s ribs. “That’s what I told him. To the very words! Didn’t I?”

Almost giddy with terror and guilt, David had dodged behind his mother. At her side stood his father, arms folded across his chest, aloof, nostrils still slowly flaring in the ebb and flow of passion. In the greying light, his face looked like stone, only the nostrils and the crooked vein on his brow alive. Then he uncrossed his arms. His dense, smoldering eyes traveled from face to face, brushed David’s who jerked his head away in panic, traveled on and returned, cleaving there. Without turning to look, David knew himself regarded, so palpable was that gaze, so like a pressure. Enveloping him, it seemed to sap him from without. He grew dizzy, reached out numb hands for his mother’s dress, hung there faintly. His father shifted his gaze. And as though he had been struggling under water until this moment, David gulped down breath, heard sounds again, voices.

“And you won’t sit down?” His mother was asking solicitously. “You’re tired, both of you. I can see it. Why, supper for two more would take no longer. Please stay!”

“No! No! Thanks, sister!” Aunt Bertha was positive. “But if he would go hunting for rusty horseshoes before he’s had his supper, why he can wait a little longer—I’m as tired as he is. And I warned him!”

“I’m sorry we can’t help you, Nathan. You know we would if we had it! Oh! It’s all so mixed! I’m confused! Why!” She laughed ruefully. “If it weren’t so absurd, Nathan, it would be flattering that you should think we had any money.”

Biting his lips, Uncle Nathan stared at the floor, swayed as if he might fall. “I have nothing to say.” he answered dully. “She’s said it all.”

“You see?” There was a note of triumph in Aunt Bertha’s voice. “He’s ashamed of himself now. But now I like him!” She began nudging him toward the door. “Now he’s my man and as good a man as ever ate prunes with his meat. Come, good heart! Mrs. Zimmerman is waiting— My customers will think I’m burying you.”

“You’ve a cunning way!” He answered, shaking her off sullenly. “You’ve clogged my chimney well! But you wait! You’ll laugh in convulsion yet!”

“Come! Come!” She gave him a push toward the door. “Hoist up your nose! That venture you want money for can wait!”

Uncle Nathan wrested his arm away, shook a desperate, baffled finger at his wife. “A curse on you and your money and your whole story! I’ll stay! I’ll speak!”

Aunt Bertha ignored him, opened the door. “Good night, sister! Forgive him! He’s always been a good husband, but to-night— You know how men are! When they’re a little unstrung, they revel in it. Come, you!”

Cowering behind his mother, David watched Aunt Bertha drag her stubborn husband toward the door. Their going would be no deliverance—one doom postponed, another waiting. There could be no less terror if they stayed, or if they went. Whatever way the mind turned it faced only fear. This he had escaped. Aunt Bertha had saved him. But his father! His father again! Their going abandoned him to that fury! But—


For the first time since they had come, his father spoke. And now he uncrossed his arms and stalked suddenly to the door.

“Wait!” He gripped Uncle Nathan’s shoulder, towered above him. “Come back!”

“What do you want of my man!” Aunt Bertha snapped in angry surprise. “You let him alone. He’s distraught enough without you troubling him. Come, Nathan!” She redoubled her tugging at the other shoulder.

“It’s you who should let him alone!” her brother-in-law growled dangerously. “You and your cursed deceit! Come in, Nathan!”

Staring amazed from face to face, Uncle Nathan could muster no more than a bewildered grunt.

“I say let him go!” Aunt Bertha shrieked furiously. “Wild beast, take your paws off!”

“When I’m done!”

“Albert! Albert!” his mother’s frightened voice. “What are you doing! Let him alone!”

“No! No! Not till he’s spoken!”

For a moment, half in the thickening light of the kitchen, half in the gloom of the corridor, they wrestled for him, Uncle Nathan’s pale, alarmed face, bobbing back and forth between them, and all three struggling figures, shadowy, unreal as nightmare. A moment longer, and with one vicious yank, David’s father pulled them back into the room, and with such force, the other man pitched forward, his hat flying to the floor. He slammed the door.

“Listen to me, Nathan!” He drummed his stiff hand against the other man’s chest. “You came here to say something, now say it. Stifle that she-ass and her guile! Say it! It isn’t money!”

“N-nothing! Nothing! So help me, G-God!” Before the thrust of the other’s hand, Uncle Nathan fell back against his wife. “Bertha told you everything! May evil befall me if she didn’t! A store! I wanted! I saw! That was all! No, Bertha?”

“You fool!” She spat at her husband. “Didn’t I warn you not to come here! Didn’t I tell you you’d groan and remember? I’ve a good mind to—What do you want of him?” She wheeled furiously on her brother-in-law. “You let him alone, ungovernable beast! Do you hear? He’s come for money and nothing else! How many times do you want to be told? I don’t have to endure any more of your rages! Remember that!”

“Hold your tongue!” His father was beginning to quiver. “You treacherous cow! I know you of old. I know what you’ve already done. Speak, Nathan!” He smashed his fist down on the wash tub. “Don’t let her trick you! Speak! Whatever it is! Have no fear of me! Only the truth! I have reasons! It may do me good to hear!”

“What’s he saying?” Aunt Bertha’s eyes bulged. “What new insanity gripes him!”

“Albert, I beg of you!” his mother had seized her husband’s arm. “If you’ve any quarrel, it’s with me. Let the man alone. He’s told you all.”

“Has he? So you think! Or pretend, maybe! But I know better! I have eyes! I have seen! Will you speak?” Wrath stretched him to his full height. Teeth bared, he advanced, dwarfing the other man who cowered.

“I-I’ve already s-said everything,” his lips trembling, Uncle Nathan reached behind him for the door. “I must leave! Bertha! Come!”

But David’s father had rammed his palm against the door.

“You’ll wait! You hear me? You’ll wait till you answer me one thing! And you’ll answer it!”

“W-what do you want?”

“Why, when you opened your mouth to speak—Before that she-ass brayed you out of words and will—Why did you stare at him?” He hammered the air in David’s direction. “Why that look? What was it you were trying to say about him?”

“I—I have nothing to say. I didn’t look at him. Let me alone in God’s will. Genya! Bertha! Don’t let him quarrel with me.”

“Albert! Albert! Stop torturing the man!”

“A curse on you! You fiend!” Aunt Bertha tried to squeeze in between them “You madman! Let him alone!”

He flung her viciously aside. “And you, will you tell me what he did? Or do you want my fury to burst—!”

“Oh! Oh! Woe me! Woe me!” Aunt Bertha filled the room with a loud gasping and lament. “Woe me! Did you see what he did? He threw me? And me with a child in my belly. Monster! Mad dog! It’s not drawers you’ve ripped this time. It’s a child you’ve destroyed! On your head my miscarriage. Oh you’ll pay for this! May they hang you. May you—”

“Not if you had twins would it trouble me. Your breed is well destroyed. But I will find out what he did. That brat there! I’m waiting!” His voice became strangled. “I tell you I’m at the end of my patience!”

Uncle Nathan began to sag as though about to faint.

“He—uh—uh— oy! oy! He—!”

“Not a word!” Aunt Bertha screamed. “Open that door or I’ll shriek for help! Let us out!”

They faced each other in a silence so awful it seemed as if the very room would burst with the tension of it.

Blind with terror, unnoticed by any, David had already reeled toward the stove. (—It’s there! It’s there!) A tortured, anguished voice babbled within him. (—It’s there! She put it there! It’s there!) Groping, tottering hands reached into the dark niche between the stove and the wall—

“Speak!” In the shrunken, shadowy room, his father had become all voice, and his voice struck with the brunt of thunder.

“Bertha!” Uncle Nathan wailed. “Save me! Save me, Bertha! He’s going to strike! Bertha! Bertha!”

“Help!” she screamed. “Let go the door! Help! Help! Call! Genya, throw up the window! Help!”

“Albert! Albert! Have mercy!”

“Speak!” Above their screaming, the horrible gritting of his teeth.

“I— I— uh—he— it was he— uh. Oh, Bertha! Noth—”

“Anh!” That insensate snarl. The shadowy arm drew back. “You—!”


The bent arm hung in air, hung motionless. The writhing face above it turned.

“Papa!” In the swirling, crumbling, darkened mind, that one compulsion rallied the body and the brain like a standard. A dream? No, not a dream. Not a dream nor the memory of a dream. An act, ordained, foreseen, inevitable as this very moment, a channel of expertness, imbued for ages, reiterated for ages, familiar as breath.

He approached. The rest stood spellbound.

“I— It was me, papa—”

“David! Child!” His mother sprang toward him. “What have you got in your hand!”

But before she could reach him, he had lifted the broken whip into his father’s curling fingers.

“David!” She seized him, drew him out of danger. “A whip! Near him! What are you doing!”

“This?” The lids dropped over his father’s consuming eyes. “Why do you—? Why is this given? You know what happened to this? Is it your fate you’re begging for?”

“I— I— Please, papa!”

“You shan’t touch him! You hear me, Albert! I won’t endure it!” All entreaty, all timidity had vanished, in its stead a fierce resolve. She bowed over David like a ledge of rock. “Whatever he’s done or anyone thinks he’s done, you shan’t touch him!”

“Band against the alien, the stranger!” His father’s voice was hollow and perilous, “But let me hear him!”

“Say nothing, child!” Aunt Bertha’s warning cry.

But he was already speaking. And the words he spoke were like staggering burdens he bore up a great steep where his own sighs battered him, where he floundered in his own tears.

“I was—I was on—the roof. Papa! I was on the roof! And there was a b-boy. A big one—and—and he had a kite—k-kite, they called it. Kite—goes h-higher than r-roofs—it goes—”

“What are you talking about!” His father ground. “Stop your candle-gutter! Hurry!”

“I’m—I’m—” He gasped for breath.

“God’s fool!” Aunt Bertha rasped under her breath. “My man! My man! May earth gape for you this very hour! You see what you’ve wrought!”

“Me?” Uncle Nathan groaned. “My fault? How did I—”

“So—s-somebody—wanted to take it. The k-kite. And I called. And I said—look out! Look out! So I—I was his friend. Leo. He had skates and then—Ow! Papa! Papa! And we went to Aunt Bertha’s. And we got Esther on the other side—in the yard. He got her—And he gave her the skates. And then, ow! Ow! He took her in—in the cellar. And he—he—”

“He what!” The implacable voice was like a goad.

“I don’t know! Ow! He p-played—he played—bad!”


“Don’t you come near him!” his mother screamed. “Don’t you dare! That’s enough, child! Hush! That’s enough!”

“H-he did! Not me, Papa! Papa, not me! I didn’t! Ow! Papa! Papa!” He clung frenziedly to his mother.

“That’s hers! Her spawn! Mark me! Hers!” He seemed to be stifling in a wild insane joy. “Not mine! Not a jot of me! Bertha, cow! Not mine! You, Nathan! Rouse your sheep-wits! Your mate’s betrayed my wife! Do you know it? Blabbed her secret! Told him whose he was. An organist somewhere. How I harbored a goy’s get! A rake! A rogue’s! His and hers! But not mine! I knew it! I knew it all the time! And now I’m driving her out! Her and him, the brat! Let him beat her in time to come. But I’m free! He’s no part of me! I’m free!”

“He’s mad!” The other two whispered hoarsely and shrank away.

“Hear me!” He was slavering at the mouth. “I nurtured him! Three years I throttled surmise, I was the beast of burden! Good fortune I never met! Happiness never! Joy never! And—and that was right! Why should I meet anything but misfortune! That was right! I was tainted. I was bridled with another’s sin. But for that—for all that suffering I have one privilege! Who will deny me? Who? One privilege! To wreak! To quench! Once!”

And before anyone could move, he had lunged forward at David’s mother.

“Ow! Papa! Papa! Don’t!”

Those steel fingers closed like a crunching trap on David’s shoulders—yanked him out of her hands. And the whip! The whip in air! And—

“Ow! Ow! Papa! Ow!”

Bit like a brand across his back. Again! Again! And he fell howling to the floor.

His mother screamed. He felt himself grabbed, pulled to his feet, dragged away. And now his aunt was screaming, Uncle Nathan’s hoarse outcry swelling the tumult. In the shadows, figures swayed, grappled—And suddenly his father’s voice, exultant, possessed, hypnotic—

“What’s that? That! Look! Look at the floor! There! Who disbelieves me now? Look what’s lying there! There where he fell! A sign! A sign I tell you! Who doubts? A sign!”

“Unh!” Uncle Nathan grunted as though in sudden pain.

“Woe me!” Aunt Bertha gasped in horror. “It’s—! What! No!”

Terror impinging on terror, David squirmed about in his mother’s arms—looked down—

There, stretched from the green square to the white square of the checkered linoleum lay the black beads—the gold cross framed in the glimmering, wan glaze. Horror magnified the figure on it. He screamed.

“Papa! Papa! Leo—he gave them! That boy! It fell out! Papa!” His words were lost in the uproar.

“God’s own hand! A sign! A witness!” his father was raving, whirling the whip in his flying arms. “A proof of my word! The truth! Another’s! A goy’s! A cross! A sign of filth! Let me strangle him! Let me rid the world of a sin!”

“Put him out! Genya! Put him out! David! David! Him! Hurry! Let him run!” Aunt Bertha and Uncle Nathan were grappling with his father. “Hurry! Out!”

“No! No!” his mother’s frenzied cry.

“Hurry! I say! Hurry! Help! We can’t hold him!” Uncle Nathan had been shaken off. With knees bent, Aunt Bertha was hanging like a dead weight from his father’s whip-hand. “He’ll slay him,” she shrieked. “He’ll trample on him as he let his father be trampled on. Hurry, Genya!”

Screaming, his mother sprang toward the door—threw it open— “Run! Run down! Run! Run!”

She thrust him from her, slammed the door after him. He could hear the thud her body flung against it. With a wild shriek he plunged toward the stairs—

On the whole floor and even on the one below it, doors had been opened. Spears of gas-lamps crisscrossed in the unlit hallway. Gaping, craning faces peered out, listening, exclaiming, reporting to others behind them—

“Hey, boychick! Vus is? A fight! Hey vot’s de maddeh? Hooz hollerin’? Leibeleh! Dun’ go op! You hea’ vot I say. Dun go op! Oy! Cull a cop! Tek keh! Quick! Vehzee runnin’? Hey, boychick!”

A reeling smear of words, twitching gestures, fractured lights, features, a flickering gauntlet of tumult and dismay. He never answered, but plunged down. None stopped him. Only a miracle saved him from crashing down the dark steps. And now the voices were above him, and he heard feet trampling on the stairs, and now all noises merged to a flurried humming and now almost unheard—his down-drumming feet had reached the hallway—

Blue light in the door-frame.

Arms up and gasping like a runner to the tape—

The street.

The street. He dared to breathe. And stumbled to the sidewalk and stood there, stood there.