Tale 13 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

Fated Steps


Frightened need prompted Gittel to throw her empty bowl across her family's rented room and watch it shatter on the bare wall behind her mother. Feigel, Leibke the Butcher's wife, immediately came running and pounded on the door. "What are you doing to my house? I'm throwing you out this time. I swear I'm getting the straznik and throwing you out."

"See what you've done now? You vile, filthy child; you ingrate..." Gittel's mother took the knife she was holding and threw it at the girl; Gittel ducked. Moishe the Carpenter grabbed his wife's arms and pressed her struggling figure against the wall while their daughter ran out into the cramped alley of mud they lived on and fled directly to the Slonimer rov's house. She ran in without knocking and headed directly for the dark under the dining room table, which is where Hode found her huddled on returning from the marketplace. Ignoring the little girl, Hode unloaded her things, and began cleaning and chopping vegetables and potatoes for the rabbi's dinner. "I wonder what's wrong this time?" She looked at the deep shadows thoughtfully. "Whoever made that table should only know the strange uses it's seen."

Eventually Hode went outside and down the cellar steps, returned with a glass of milk, and stooping, asked Gittel. "Do you want to come out, or stay under there a while?"

Gittel stammered out, "Stay here." So Hode handed her the milk and went on about her business. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors came and went throughout the morning. This one wanted to borrow salt, that one return some thread; everyone stopped to visit, to discuss problems, but no one commented on the girl under the table. A few of the younger children sat with Gittel for a while, but when they discovered this was not a game, lost interest and left.

By noon, Gittel had crawled out and begun to follow Hode around. Hode gave her work to do, to occupy her mind and keep her from being underfoot. When the steady rhythm of cleaning had settled the girl somewhat, Hode asked, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Gittel lived in constant tummel; everyone knew that. Her mother hated everyone, suspected everyone, was jealous of everyone. The suspicions inevitably led to violent outbursts, and screaming, yelling, and punching. This one had taken something from her; that one flirted with her husband; another was trying to kill her. Gittel and her father could barely cope. Moishe and Frayde had married when they were sixteen, and, as if in compensation for all the future tragedies that were to follow, had fallen deeply in love. By her early twenties Frayde had started hearing voices; by twenty-five she had become violent. The only blessing Hode could see in the whole situation was Gittel's being an only child. The fewer eyes seeing the horror Frayde had become, the better.

"Mama accused Tateh of loving Handas' daughter Eidel and said she wouldn't have it." Gittel's voice began to shake. "She tried to kill him with a knife, so I threw a bowl at her." Gittel's body began shaking along with her voice. "She threw the knife at me instead, but it missed me and I ran. Tateh held her down so I could get away." Hode put her arms around the young child. So much tragedy in so few words. There were times when Hode wondered about God's judgment, which was not good for a Rebbizin.

"Why don't you stay here for lunch, and I'll go over afterwards to see how your mother's feeling." Gittel nodded. The girl had done what she could; she did not want to face her mother again by herself.

When Hode arrived at Leibke's house, she found a small crowd gathered outside.

"Hode," Rushke, Alte's daughter, called with relief. She whispered in Hode's ear. "They're arguing about whether to evict Moishe. Feigel's insisting, and I don't think there's anything Moishe can do. Frayde put up an awful ruckus today. Feigel claims she's destroying the house. They've got Frayde tied to her bed right now." And indeed the whole crowd could hear Frayde's screams of anger and frustration coming from the back of the house.

Shoshka arrived a few moments later with a gift from Avrom and the tavern-a bottle of vodka to calm Frayde down. She followed Hode into a small three-room house, where Leibke and Feigel lived in the dining room and Moishe rented the bedroom.

Moishe was sitting on a chair, his head between his hands; Feigel and the police were shouting at him, shouting which stopped as soon as Hode entered. Hode usually had that effect; to be out of control in front of her made one painfully aware of one's failings. Hode was not only Rebbizin, the assumed expert on family problems and therefore esteemed by all Horodoker Jews, she also carried herself with such quiet strength that even the gentile police respected her. And with the silence that followed Hode in, the only sounds that could be heard were the curses and cries coming from Moishe's room, which now stood out with anguished clarity.

Shoshka headed for the bedroom, and her liquid palliative slowly reduced the intensity of Frayde's uproar. Hode walked past Feigel and the policeman and knelt beside Moishe. "Gittel is safe with me," Hode assured him. He nodded; he had expected as much. "She told me Frayde tried to kill you." Moishe nodded again, almost imperceptibly. Feigel gasped. She had not gotten that much out of Moishe with all her shouting. Although he didn't speak Yiddish, the policeman could tell by the shock around him that something worse than eviction was being discussed. "Gittel also told me Frayde threw a knife at her." Again a collective intake of breath and whispering from those inside to those outside in the alley. This time someone translated for the police.

"Moishe," Hode said with intense gentleness, "You have to put her away." And Moishe began to weep. For minutes and minutes all that could be heard was Moishe's weeping and the ever-quieting strangled noises coming from the bedroom.

The policeman, who had thought he was in the middle of a tenant/landlord dispute, offered what help he could. He was, after all, not a heathen. "I'll keep her in the jail until you can get her into the crazy house." Moishe looked at him with hostility. "I won't treat her like a criminal. We'll take care of her the best we can." Although he was sincerely moved by Moishe's plight, he had cause to regret his generosity later when Frayde's screams and cries became nerve-racking and the only peace he got was after Shoshka's thrice-daily medicinal trips to calm the woman down.

There came a day, not nearly as soon as the police would have wished but too soon for Moishe, when Frayde was removed to a sanitarium, or what passed for one in Belarus. Moishe and Gittel stood silently as they watched the retreating wagon, knowing that a part of their life had been saved and destroyed at the same time. What a price love sometimes carries-to Gittel, Frayde would always be mother, and to Moishe, a remembered sweetness of things long past. But she would also be remembered as an object of terror.

With the departure of Frayde, Feigel dedicated her life to improving Moishe's. Maybe she felt guilty; maybe she just wanted to be a hero. Who knew? But suddenly she was transformed into Match-Maker. With a devotion known only to fanatics or the ecstatic, she harassed Moishe night and day.

"Divorce Frayde. Your life with her is over. Her life is over. Gittel has never had a decent mother." Moishe glared at her. "At least not for many years." Feigel was willing to be accommodating to make him see her point. "Gittel needs guidance that only a woman can provide; and there is only so much I can do. I'm a landlady, not a governess. There are many women in this town who would be proud to marry you, lovely women. Let me find you one." Then Feigel would name one after another, attaching a paragraph of each one's virtues to the end of her name. Feigel, like her husband Leibke, had a firm belief that interfering in other people's lives was for the best.

Eventually Moishe was badgered into divorcing Frayde, although many said his heart broke that day and never became whole again. From then on he lived more in the past than the present, and avoided the future altogether. Feigel next talked him into marrying Osnay, older than he and not particularly kind nor attractive, but fairly well off. Itzik the Beggar had once called her a female Haman waiting to destroy male Jews, but his judgment of people tended to be harsh. Still no one could deny that even with money, Osnay had trouble uncovering a potential bridegroom.

After Osnay married Moishe, she doted on him; he was perfect for her. She bought him clothes; he wore them. She wanted children; he gave them to her. The fact that his acquiescence was due chiefly to his lack of interest in living did not seem to trouble her. However, he underscored his point some five years after his marriage when he managed to die. Although his death provided much humor for Itzik, who had predicted it, it was no joke for Gittel. Laughing in the face of tragedy is easier when the tragedy is not your own.

Since Gittel was not related to her, Osnay reduced Gittel's status to servant, demanding she take care of her younger step-brother and -sister as well as the house. Since Osnay could easily have afforded help, David-Horodok did not approve, but its disapproval only made Osnay hate Gittel. So Feigel was wrong. Sometimes a girl is better off with no mother at all.

Always quiet so as not to provoke her mother's madness, she became virtually silent now, so as not to provoke her step-mother's tongue.

"Feed the children, Gittel." Gittel fed the children.

"Wash the clothes, Gittel." Gittel washed the clothes.

"Hem my dress, Gittel." Gittel hemmed her dress.

"Eat some supper, Gittel," and Gittel ate. Gittel never talked back, but she never said thank-you either. It was this lack of appreciation that eventually goaded Osnay into her greatest unkindness.

"You sewed my son's socks to each other, you stupid girl." Osnay threw a bunch of ill-sounding names at Gittel and then the socks. Gittel picked the socks up for repair.

"Can't you at least say you're sorry?" Gittel, for once had the nerve to reply. "Why? You don't pay me."

"I give you a roof over your head. I allow you to use my name; that gives you yichus you would never have otherwise. I accept you into my house when no one else will, because of your crazy mother. And this is how you repay me? Get out! Get out!" Osnay was irate, so irate she wasn't thinking, which she realized later when she had to spend money on maids and governesses. However, by then Gittel was gone.

When Hode found Gittel sitting at her table once again, she was less disturbed than relieved. Hode had always believed that if you have to be a servant, you might as well get paid for it. After much wrenching of Estusha's arm, Hode found a place for Gittel there. Hode had had to appeal to Estusha's charitable instincts because Osnay's words were not entirely untrue, as is usually the case when unkindness justifies itself. Everyone in Horodok, including Estusha, was apprehensive about having Gittel around, fearing she might turn into a raving lunatic like her mother. Who knew whether it was safe to sleep at night with Gittel in the house; who knew whether she needed to be watched during the day? Taking Gittel on, even as a servant, was considered a mitzvah.

Of course when it's hard to find someone a job, it's impossible to arrange a marriage. When parents contemplated Gittel as a daughter-in-law, their fears only became worse. They worried not only about their sons, they worried about what would happen to their grandchildren. Even with a respectable dowry provided by the kehilla, once again arranged by Hode's arm-twisting, Gittel remained single. No one would take a chance, especially given how closed-off Gittel had become. If people were leery of her heritage, they were equally as leery of her silent ways. When you can't tell what's going on in another's mind, it's all too easy to imagine absurdities.

As the town moved into war and the draft made young men ever scarcer, some becoming soldiers, some fleeing to America or Canada, some going into hiding, everyone, including Gittel, accepted that fact that she would never marry. People looked to their own troubles, ceasing to be concerned about others', even for amusement. Nothing distracted townsfolk from their own predicaments, and who are we to blame them? One had to be very careful, what with the number of Cossacks, refugees and deserting soldiers appearing in town looking for food and money. Cossacks took what they wanted; refugees bought; deserters begged at the back door and were handed a few scraps of this and that, mostly by the wealthy who still had scraps to hand. Thus Gittel was seen occasionally handing out food from Estusha's back door.

One day Estusha came running to Hode's, caught somewhere between alarm and fury. Gittel had disappeared. Everything she owned had gone with her. What could have happened? Where was she? Had some stranger killed her? Forced her away at gun point? Hode raced over to Estusha's house and saw at once that it was true-not a shred of Gittel remained in her room. Hode's surprise was so great, she was even willing to disturb her husband who studying at the Bes Midrish; he in turn asked for help from the community at Minha(1) and Maariv(2) services. "Would anyone having knowledge of what happened to Gittel please let me or Estusha, her employer, know."

The answer came the next day from a strange source. It seemed that the Horodtchukas in the tavern knew that Gittel had been married by the priest the day before and left town with her new husband. He was one of the deserting soldiers she had been feeding for weeks; they had fallen in love and she had left with him for the big city, where could both hide their pasts. So that ended the story of Gittel, except for the hashing and rehashing that such a marriage always brings.

Hode found several Horodokers discussing it in front of the Eisenberg's grain store a few weeks later.

"It's shocking. If Moishe were alive he would be sitting Shivah for her. To marry a Christian like that."

"That family has been cursed with bad luck from the beginning. First the mother was mad and now this. To run off without telling anyone, and with a Christian yet. She'll prove to be as mad as her mother was, trust me."

"I'm glad I never considered her as a daughter-in-law. Someone who'd take up with a stranger, and marry him after only a few weeks. They'll both regret it."

Hode listened and decided that a little honesty needed to be part of the conversation. "Maybe Gittel didn't leave of her own choice. Maybe she was forced to go."

If anybody but Hode had said that, she would have been laughed at. "By whom?" this one and that one asked.

"By us, of course." The Horodokers watched, perplexed, as Hode went into the store to buy the little flour she could afford.

1. Afternoon prayer service Back
2. Evening prayer service Back



List of Tales

Next Tale