Call It Sleep XV

ON SUNDAY, David stayed in bed the whole morning, and then, dressed, spent the rest of the day in-doors. He had sneezed several times last night and again this morning, and what with his back aching—which David was sure ached for other reasons—his mother maintained that he might have caught a cold as a result of wandering through the streets. His father scoffed at the idea, but refrained from interfering. Although it meant having to be near his father all day, David was grateful not to have to face Yussie or Annie or the boy he pushed or anyone in fact. He clung to his mother or retreated to his bedroom, avoided the room his father was in, and in general, made himself as inconspicuous as possible. Toward evening, however, the dark forced him into the kitchen together with his father. Whereupon he fetched out his box of trinkets, found a corner least in the way, and sitting down on the linoleum floor, began constructing with the odds and ends that filled the box a zig-zag and precarious tower which his father’s or mother’s tread invariably sent toppling down.

During the late afternoon and even until supper-time, his father had several times confidently remarked that Luter would come to his senses, forego this folly of hunting for a wife and eventually appear at the table in time for the meal … However, though they waited almost an hour past the usual time, he never came. It was only when David’s mother began to complain mildly that half her cooking was over-done and the other half cold, that he gave up waiting, and shrugging his shoulders in brusque irritation, permitted her to serve the meal.

“In Tysmenicz,” he scowled sourly as he settled into a chair, “the peasant who tended my—” (There was always that hitch in his speech before the word) “my father’s cattle used to say that a man had to be born a fool to be one. My friend Luter should come on his second childhood early in years—God’s given him a new soul.” He pulled the plate toward him with abrupt impatience. “All I hope is he doesn’t blame my married happiness for his marriage!” He uttered the last words with a peculiar challenging emphasis.

David who was watching his mother as she stood above her husband serving him, saw her bosom swell up slowly as though responding to minute increments of pain, and then without response, exhale tautly her muted breath and look off blankly and resigned. David himself knew only one thing—that the relief Luter’s absence afforded him was as sharp and fervent as a prayer, and that every wordless nerve begged never to see the man again.

At bed-time, his mind seemed strangely calm, reposed without being resolved, inert after long discord. Beneath the film of apathy, the events of yesterday ruffled the surface only rarely, like the tardy infrequent wreckage of a ship long sunken. They would never be answered these questions of why his mother had let Luter do what Annie had tried to do; why she hadn’t run away the second time as she had the first; why she hadn’t told his father; or had she; or didn’t he care. Nor would there ever be the equilibrium again between his knowing what she had done and her unawareness that he knew; her unawareness of what he had done with Annie, of why he had run away; his father’s unawareness of every thing. They would never be solved, never be answered. No one would say anything, no one dared, no one could. Just don’t believe, don’t believe, never. But when would that queer weight, that odd something lodged in his bosom, that was so spiny, ramified, reminding, when would that vanish? Tomorrow, maybe? Maybe tomorrow.

Tomorrow came. Monday. The cold of the day before had either been imaginary or been thrown off. David was sent to school. Once out of the house, he walked guardedly, even taking a new route to avoid meeting Annie or Yussie. In the morning, he succeeded and again at noon, but when school was out for the day, they ran into him as he came out into the open of the crossing. David, himself, shrank away when they hailed him, but they on the other hand seemed to have forgotten all hostilities. Instead they were merely curious.

“W’od id ’ey do t’yuh in de polliss station?” Yussie engaged his arm to keep him in step with the slower limping Annie.

“Nutt’n’!” He shook him off sullenly. “Lemme go!”

“Hey, yuh mad?” Yussie looked surprised.

“Yea, I’m mad! I’ll never get glad!”

“He’s mad, Annie!”

“Nisht gefiddled!” she said spitefully. “Pooh! Who wants yuh!”

“Cry baby!” said Yussie disdainfully.

But David was already hurrying off.

At home, he could not help but observe in his mother’s actions a concealed nervousness, an irresolution as if under the strain of waiting. Unlike the fluent, methodical way in which she habitually moved about the kitchen, her manner now was disjointed, uncertain. In the midst of doing something or of saying something, she would suddenly utter a curious, suppressed exclamation like a sudden groan of dismay, or lift her hand in an obscure and hopeless gesture, or open her eyes as though staring at perplexity and brush back her hair. Everything she did seemed insecure and unfinished. She went from the sink to the window and left the water running and then remembering it was an odd overhastiness, turned, missed the handkerchief she was pegging to the clothesline and let it fall into the yard. A few minutes later, separating the yolks from the whites of the eggs to make the thick yellow pancakes that were to go with the soup, she cut the film of the yolk with eggshell, lost it in the whites. She stamped her foot, chirped with annoyance and brushed back her hair.

“I’m like my father,” she exclaimed suddenly. “Vexation makes my scalp itch! Today you can learn what kind of a woman not to marry.”

Several times during the afternoon, David had been on the point of asking her whether Luter were coming for supper. But something always checked him and he never formed the question.

To avoid the strange emotion, that his mother’s behavior aroused in him, he would have gone downstairs again, even at the risk of encountering Annie or Yussie, but there again, he divined how impatient she would be if he asked her to wait in the hallway. She had seemed cross when he called to her frantically after his meeting with them at three. As she offered no objections he remained indoors and occupied himself in a score of ways—now frightening himself by making faces at the pier glass, now staring out of the window, now fingering the haze of breath upon it, now crawling under beds, now scribbling. He spent an hour tying himself to the bed post with a bit of washline and attempting to escape, and another constructing strange devices with his trinkets. He tried to play the four-handed game of manipulating patterns out of a double string with two hands and the leg of a chair. It was difficult, the old patterns slipped before they were clinched, ended in a snarl. The mind too was tangled, apprehensive, pent-up.

Meanwhile he had observed that his mother’s nervousness was increasing. She seemed neither able to divert her mind nor complete any task other than was absolutely necessary. She had begun to sew the new linen she had bought to make pillow-cases with and had ended by ripping out the thread and throwing the cloth back into the drawer with a harassed cry. “God knows why I can’t make these stitches any shorter! Six to a yard almost! They’d have parted with a shroud’s wear!” And then later, gave up the attempt to thread a cupful of large red beads and dropped them into the cup again and shut her eyes. The newspaper received only a worried glance and was folded up again and dropped in her lap. After which, she sat for such a long time staring at him, that David’s uneasiness grew intolerable. His eyes fluttered hurriedly about the room, searching for something that might distract the fixity of that stare. And grazing the coal sack beside the stove, the seams of the ceiling, the passover dishes on top of the china closet, sink legs, garbage pail, doorhinges, chandelier, lighted on the mantle burning with its soft, bluish flame.

“Mama!” He made no attempt to conceal the anxiety in his voice.

Her lids flickered. She who was always near him in spirit, now seemed hardly aware. “What?”

“Why does that light—that light in the mantle stay inside? In the mantle?”

She looked up, combed her upper lip with her teeth a moment. “That’s because there are great brains in the world.”

“But it breaks all up,” he urged her attention closer. “All up if you—if you even just blow.”


“It doesn’t burn even when you light it?”

“No.” The dull remote tone never left her voice—as if speech were mechanical, forced.

“Why?” He demanded desperately. “Why doesn’t it?”

“Doesn’t what? I don’t know.” She rose, shivered suddenly. “As though it pierced the marrow! Is it cold in here? Or where I sit? Chill?” And stared at the stove, then followed her gaze after a long pause as if her very thought were delayed, and picked up the poker.

“I don’t feel cold.” David reminded her sullenly.

But she hadn’t heard him. Instead her eyes had swerved from his face to the wall and she stood as if listening beyond him, as if she had heard a sound in the hallway outside. No one. She shook her head. And still with the poker in one hand, lifted the other to adjust the gas-cock under the mantle-light—

“Ach!” Exasperatedly she flung her hand down to her side. “Where are my senses? What am I doing?” She crouched down before the stove, buried the poker into the ashes with a provoked stab. “Have you ever seen your mother so mixed? So lost? God have mercy, my wits are milling! Ach! I go here and I’m there! I go there and I’m here. And of a sudden I’m nowhere.” She lifted the stove lid, threw a shovelful of coal into the red pit. “David darling, you were saying—?” Her voice had become solicitous, penitent. She smiled. “You were saying what? Light? Why what?”

Heartened by her new interest, he began again eagerly. “What makes it burn?”

“The gas? Gas of course.”


“One lights it—with a match. And then—Er. And then—” As abruptly as her mood had changed a moment ago, it reverted again. That odd look of strain spindled the corners of her eyes, her face resumed that hunted, alert look. “And then one turns—the—the—”. She broke off. “Only a moment, darling! I’m going into the front room.”

That was the end! He wasn’t going to talk to her any more! He wasn’t going to ask her anything. No, even if she talked to him, he wouldn’t answer. Sullenly, he slumped down into his chair and sullenly watched her hurry up the steps into darkness … heard the window slide open, softly, cautiously … and then close again … She came down.

“Not even the cold air can rouse me.” Her fingers drummed nervously on the ridge of a chair. “Nothing does any good. My head is—Oh, I’m sorry, David, beloved! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to run off in the middle of answering you.” She came over, bent down and kissed him. “Do you forgive me?”

Unappeased, he regarded her in steady silence.

“Offended? I shan’t do it again! I promise!” Where the broad waxen plane of her cheeks curved into the chin, small dents of contrition appeared—the very furthest away a smile could get from the distracted brown eyes, the creased brow. She shook herself. “Er … Burns, you said. Burns! Everything burns! Yes! Or almost. Kerosene, coal, wood, candles, paper, almost everything. And so gas—at least I think so. Er … And so gas, you see? They keep it in great vats, you know. Some tall—like the ash-cans out in the street, some short, like drums, only bigger. I don’t understand them.”

“But mama!” He wasn’t going to permit her to pause; she would fade back into her old mood if he did. “Mama! Water doesn’t burn when you throw a match in a puddle.”

“Puttle?” she repeated. “What is puttle? Your Yiddish is more than one-half English now. I’m being left behind.”

“Puddle. It’s water—in the street—when it rains sometimes.”

“Oh! Water. No, tears sometimes—No! You’re right. Water doesn’t burn.”

“Is there always a—something burning—when it’s light—like that!”

“Yes I think so. When I was a girl, the goyim built an ‘altar’ near a town some distance from Veljish because two peasants saw a light among the trees—yet nothing burning.”

“What’s a—what you said? Altar?” It was his turn to be puzzled. “Means old man?”

“No!” She laughed shortly. “An altar is a broad stone—about so high.” Her downturned palms impatiently leveled the air at bosom’s height. “They have a flat top. So. And because the ground was holy, they fenced it in.”

“Because why? They saw a light and—and nothing burned? So that was holy?”

“Yes. So it pleased them to say. I suppose that was because Moses too saw a tree on fire that didn’t burn. And there the gound was also holy.”


“Yes. And when you begin going to cheder you’ll know more about these things than I do.” She stopped pacing, moved abruptly toward the china-closet. “I think I’ll set the table—do something.”

“Was it holy?” He drew her on.

“What? The light the peasants saw? Ach, nonsense! My father said that the truth was an old Jewess had been walking along the road through the woods. Where she was coming from I don’t know—”

She paused again. Three plates had been taken from the china closet and set on the table. The fourth, still in her hand, kept fluttering back and forth as though it were impossible for her to decide whether to set it on the table or to replace it on the stack she had taken it from. Finally, with a throaty exclamation, she set it on the table—before the chair on which Luter usually sat.

“Yes! So! Oh!” Her head went back as if returning thought were an impact. “Yes. Coming home, she was. Without doubt. And on the way, dusk overtook her. Yes. It was Friday. Now it chanced that she had candles with her—or so my father said, though he never said why. Perhaps she foresaw that she would be delayed. There’s no telling what women will do when they’re pious.” Her lips pressed together and she reddened ever so faintly setting the clinking silverware beside Luter’s plate. “She foresaw. Let us say, she foresaw. And with night coming on, she stopped beside the road and lit the candles and prayed over them as you’ve seen me pray. And having prayed, went on, leaving them lit—a Jew may not tamper with the candles once they’re burning and the prayer said. Then these peasants came along at night. And devout as she or more perhaps—” With a slight, spattering sound from the end of her lip, one cheek eddied in; she set the cup and saucer above Luter’s plate. “And perhaps drunk or surely dull-witted, saw the light in the woods—so my father said—and ran back and roused the village. They saw it and saw it vanish, and approaching, found nothing, heard nothing, only the sound of the woods. What more could they want? Priests came and high priests and consecrated the place.” Her eyes, momentarily meditative, kindled again, whisked to the door. She was listening again.

“Didn’t the candles leave another candle?” David strove to force her attention back again. “Like our candles? It’s water and candles.”

She shrugged impatiently. “Who bothered to look? The ground was holy; people soon remembered having seen angels; and there’s an end. And why hunt for candle-drippings. The altar did the village a mass of good.”


“People, benighted ones, they came from all over Austria. They brought their sick, their maimed. They asked aid, they prayed for the dead and for better fortune. And they still do. And—” She paused, almost losing the thread, but regained it with a jolt. “While they were there, they had to eat, they had to buy things, they had to sleep somewhere. Fear not, those little candles kindled the day for the storekeepers in Lagronow. You see?”

“Yes, mama.”

“So much did they benefit Lagronow that Jews, merchants, in other villages also left a burning candle here or there. It never succeeded again.”

“But that wasn’t a real one,” he reminded her. “That wasn’t a real light. And—and without burning. But Moses, he—”

“Sh!” Sudden and sharp her warning.

David listened: The quick creak of the outer doorway. The slow and heavy footfall, carpet-muffled. That was his father’s way, a thrust of impatience followed by deliberation.

His mother, looking very pale, had opened the door a crack and stood there with one ear pressed against it. No sound of voices drifted up, no interweaving of a second footfall. She drew back, staring, shut the door carefully, sighed, but whether out of relief or apprehension, there was no telling, then stood attentive, waiting for him to enter.

In a few seconds, he did, and David knew by the very way the door swung open that his father was irritated. He came in—alone. The muscles under the dark jaws were bumpy, distinct, like cords twisted about and bulging. His eyes held a steady glower.

“Albert.” She smiled.

He made no answer, but breathing gustily, stripped off his coat—the jacket beneath always peeled with it—and removed his hat and handed them to her.

“I hope you haven’t prepared too much supper,” he began brusquely as he whipped his tie and collar off. “He wouldn’t come. Do you hear?” She had gone into David’s bedroom to hang up his coat.

“Yes.” Her voice preceded her. “I can use what’s left over. There’s no loss—especially in the winter—nothing spoils.”

“Hm!” He turned his back to her, rolled up his sleeves and bent over the sink. “And don’t prepare anything extra for him to-morrow. He’s not coming then either.” The squeezed soap slipped clacking into the sink. His teeth ground as he picked it up.

“No?” Her eyes, resting on his bent back opened in a worried flicker; her face sagged. But the next moment her voice was as barely surprised as a voice dared be and yet be non-committal. “What’s the matter?”

“Would I had known as little of him as I know his reasons!” He slapped his dripping palms angrily against his lean neck. “He wouldn’t say anything! He wouldn’t even ride home with me—had to go somewhere—some lame excuse! And that marriage-broker affair! Not a word! As though it had never been! As though he had never spoken about it! He took the keys from me in the morning, checked my overtime, and that was all!” He shut the water off with a wrathful jerk, snatched the towel. “God knows what he’s found or done or achieved! It’s too much for me! But why, tell me?” The towel paused in its swirling. “Do you think that if he found a woman who thought he was agreeable and had—she, I mean—a great deal of money, do you think that that might have given him a wry neck?”

A faint, troubled groan ushered in her answer. “I don’t know, Albert.”

“Now be honest!” He suddenly swung the towel into a ball, glared and thrust his lips out. “Answer me with a brunt!”

“What is it, Albert?” She lifted startled, fending hands. “What is it?”

Seeing her alarm, David squirmed back into his chair and watched them apprehensively under the rims of lowered eyes.

“I—” his father broke off, bit his lip. “Was anything said by—by me? Did I seem to be mocking him—when was it?—Friday night? When I told you he was going to a marriage broker?”

“Why, no, Albert!” Her body seemed to slacken. “No! Not at all! You said nothing that would offend any one! I thought he was amused!”

“You’re sure? You’re sure he didn’t leave so early because I—because of some jest I made?”

“No. You said nothing out of the way.”

“Unh! I thought I hadn’t! Well, what fiend is it that eggs him on then? He was like a man with a secret grudge. He wouldn’t speak! He wouldn’t look at me straight. A man I’ve known for months! A man who’s been here night after night!” He pulled a chair toward him, slumped into it. “At noon today, he ate his lunch with that Paul Zeeman. He knows I hate the man. He did that to hurt me. I know!”

“But—don’t—don’t let that upset you, Albert. I mean, don’t take offense at that! It’s—why—” She laughed nervously—“It’s too much like a school-girl’s device—this—this eating with another.”

“Is it?” he asked sarcastically. “Much you know about it! You haven’t seen him all day. It wasn’t only that! There were other things! I tell you there’s something seething in that skull of his! A hatred, for some mad reason! A vengeance biding its time! Do you know?” He suddenly drew back, looked up at her with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “You don’t seem dismayed—you don’t seem downcast enough!”

“Why, Albert!” She flinched before his harsh scrutiny. “I am dismayed! I am downcast. But what can I do? My only hope is that this—this hostility—or what one may call it—is—is only temporary! What can it be? For a time perhaps! Something worrying him that he won’t disclose! Why, it may be all over by to-morrow!”

“Yes. It may indeed! Something may! But my belief is that no man would become a stranger to me overnight unless he thought I had wronged him. Isn’t that so? And he—he’s worse than a stranger—he’s a foe! Avoiding me as if the sight of my face were a stab! Looking past me darkly! Ha! It’s more than something transient! It’s—what’s the matter?”

She was pale. With the glass pitcher in one hand, she strained vainly with the other to open the tap of the faucet. “I can’t open it, Albert! You must have shut it too tightly when you washed. I want some water for the table.”

“Are you weak suddenly?” He rose, strode sourly to the sink, twisted the tap open. “And as for him—” he stared ominously at the gushing water—“if he doesn’t change, he’d better be careful! He’ll find that I can change even more!”

There was a pause, a gathering of strain. Silently his mother set the pitcher on the table, went to the stove and began ladling out the steaming yellow pea-soup into the bowls. Stray drops that fell from the brown pancakes as she transferred them from the pot to the dishes hissed over the stove lids. The odor was savory. But David, glancing hurriedly at his father’s gloomy face, resolved to eat more carefully than he had ever eaten in his life. So far these sombre eyes had scarcely rested on him; now he felt himself trying to contract within himself to vanish from their ken. And failing, concentrated on the frosted moisture of the glass pitcher and how each drop awaited ripeness before it slid.

His father reached for the bread—it seemed to ease the strain. Relieved, David glanced up. His mother came near, her face strangely sorrowful and brooding, incongruous somehow, dissociated completely from her task of carrying a platter of soup. She set it down before his father, and straightening, touched his shoulder timidly.


“Hm?” He stopped chewing, twirled the spoon he had just picked up.

“Perhaps I should ask you this after supper when your mind is easier, but—”


“You—you won’t do anything rash? Please! I beg you!”

“I’ll know what to do when the hour falls,” he answered darkly. “Don’t let that trouble you.”

In spite of himself, David started. Against a sudden screen of darkness he had seen a dark roof, a hammer brandished over pale and staring cobbles.

“Pouh!” his father snorted, lowering his spoon. “Salt? Don’t you use that any more?”

“Not salted? I’m sorry Albert! Everything I’ve done today has gone awry—even the soup!” She laughed desperately. “I’m a good cook!”

“What should trouble you so much?” His sharp gaze rested on David. “Has he been lost again or up to some new madness?”

“No! No! Not him—! Begin eating, child! Not him! I don’t know! Nothing I did today had my eyes and my wits in the doing. Every hour brought some fresh confusion. It was one of those fateful days that make people superstitious. There’s a handkerchief in the yard this very moment. Who knows what made me drop it!”

His father shrugged. “At least you were alone. There was no one watching you! No one prodding you with his eyes into blunders.”

“You mean—him again?”

“Yes! Him! Twice I didn’t feed the sheet into the press just so. They wrinkled, crushed! The underpad was inked! I was ten minutes each time cleaning them! I tell you he gloated! I saw him!” He stopped eating, hammered the spoon on the table. “There’s evil brewing inside him! He’s waiting, waiting for something! I could feel his eyes on my back all day, but never there when I turned to face him! It took my mind off my work! I fed the press as though I were lame! I couldn’t have done worse the first day I began! Now too soon! Now too late! Now just missing! And then the mussed paper caught in the roller—in the gummy ink. I had to take the whole thing apart! And every minute the feeling that he was watching me. Ha!” He breathed harshly. His lips writhed back and his words battered against the barred teeth. “It’s more than I can bear! It’s more than I’ll stand! If he’s waiting for something, he’ll get it!”

“Albert!” She had stopped eating as well and was gazing at him panic stricken. “Don’t—!” Her unsteady fingers closed her lips.

“I tell you he’ll hear from me! I’m no lamb!”

“If—if it’s that bad, Albert. If it doesn’t change, and he’s—he’s that way—why don’t you l-leave! There are other places!”

“Leave?” He repeated ominously. “Leave! So. But the first man I’ve ever trusted in this cursed land to treat me like a foe. The worst of all! Leave!” He stared at his plate bitterly, shook his head. “You’re a strange one yourself. You’ve trembled every time I had a new job—trembled for me to keep it. I could read it in your face—you pressed me to be patient. And now you urge me to leave. Well, we’ll see! We’ll see! But when I leave he’ll know it, never fear! And do me a favor. Take those plates away.” He nodded toward Luter’s place. “It’s as though someone were dead.”