Tale 8 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston



Dusha was beside herself; she was also behind and in front of, hysteria being her natural state. "It's terrible news-terrible, terrible news." Dusha's hands fidgeted at the babushka she wore even though she had never been married, a shame almost inconceivable in a town dedicated to marrying twelve-year-olds, eighty-years-olds and even the lame and the blind.

The sheer wonder was that constant fears about living had not killed her years ago. Having somehow survived to the age of sixty, Dusha had, in her lifetime, predicted more deaths in David-Horodok than there were people, and more plagues than God had visited on the earth since He created it. Her entrance always lead to the swift exit of all casual on-lookers, and store owners had learned to curse when they heard her grunting noises in the marketplace. Dusha was not good for business.

Kinder than the store-owners, Hode could still only muster resignation as Dusha waddled through her doorway. "What's wrong now?" the busy Rebbizin asked distractedly, continuing to salt her soup.

"It's the volunteer fire brigade. They drenched Koppel the Goat's house during this month's practice drill. His wife is furious. With water coming in through her open windows and a yard full of mud, Malka Chanis says she'll be cleaning up the mess for weeks. She's threatened to make all sorts of trouble; she even swore she'd complain to the Magistrate Avtchenkov, the representative of the tsar himself. Such trouble this will bring the Jews!"

Far from finding the news troublesome, Hode hooted and guffawed, striking the kettle with her soup ladle in periodic appreciation. She laughed so hard she had to sit down. "So someone finally repaid the man who'd take anything from anyone! You know that's why people call him 'the Goat,' don't you?" Noticing Dusha's pursed frown, she commented more calmly, "Soaked Koppel's house did they? Well, don't worry about Malka Chanis, Dusha. She wouldn't dare call on the Magistrate; she doesn't want any official getting into her affairs!"

A tightness began to stretch visibly across Dusha's lips; then her body started to twitch strangely. A suddenly formidable voice said, "If you had seen her as clearly as I did, you would realize how serious this situation is." The erratic jerking alarmed Hode. Even for Dusha this behavior was exceptional.

"Dusha, calm down. You can't take this little revenge seriously. Koppel and his wife finally short-weighted the wrong customer, someone who could repay spite for spite. By the way, who picked their house as the target for the fire drill?"


"So let that be a lesson to all store owners. Never cheat a volunteer fireman. Ber retaliated for all of us. We should thank him."

Unmollified, Dusha paced from one side of the small kitchen to the other, back again, then around again. Her eyes darted from one object to another while she picked up a dish, then a spoon, then the salt box from Hode's kitchen table, fingered them, and set them down again. Hode slid a knife out of Dusha's sight, her eyes intently watching Dusha's recurrent spasms.

"You're being naive, Hode. Ber's revenge was all out of proportion to paying a tiny bit more for flour. After all, you just said yourself the same thing has happened to everyone, and no one else has tried to get back at Koppel. There's bigger trouble between them than that. There has to be."

"Why do you look for problems when we have enough already? Have you ever heard of the camel's back? Couldn't Ber just be avenging years of dishonest dealing by Koppel? Every house the firefighters have ever chosen for practice was picked by someone who had a grudge against the owner. It's common knowledge that if you want your house to stay dry, you don't start a fight with a fireman. Why does this soaking mean so much more than all the others?"

Dusha's words began coming very quickly. "Ber wouldn't cause this kind of trouble over a few kopkes, especially if they haven't bothered him before. More money than that has to be involved." Then Dusha stopped right by Hode's ear and whispered, "Ber and Koppel must have done some illegal business together, and Koppel cheated Ber out of his share. That's why Ber got so mad." Her head bobbed up and down in a knowing "yes" that mesmerized Hode. Then Dusha turned and walked out, one foot carefully placed after the other, her head still wobbling up and down, almost of its own free will.

Hode sat down. Could a dybbuk have invaded Dusha? She considered the possibility while she finished the soup and washed the clothes and polished the windows, and then decided she would have to talk to her husband about it, even though she knew he didn't believe in dybbuks. Past experience had taught Hode that Dusha could make a mountain out of a dust speck; still, Dusha had always seemed sane before.

However, dybbuks proved to be only half of Hode's concerns. The question Dusha had raised kept pushing itself into her mind as well: was being short-weighted on an order of flour enough to justify drenching Koppel's house? Both problems festered until Hode found herself discussing them with her sister Frumke the Letterwriter over the washline a few days later. Deep in speculation they were startled by Dusha's rather silent approach, a fact that later troubled them even more than her comments. No one had ever missed Dusha's approach before. "Things are worse than I thought! Ber is gloating all over town that he's one up on Koppel and Koppel is furious. Koppel has threatened not to sell Ber even a pinch of flour again. Those two are going to kill each other if someone doesn't intervene! So much hate means a lot of missing money. And a lot of missing money means illegal business. It's awful!" Without waiting for a response Dusha rolled on, eyes bright, head still lolling.

That settled it. Dusha must be possessed; her thinking was ridiculous. If gloating lead to murder then most of David-Horodok would already be dead. Hode and Frumke parted, determined to drop the matter. But being human, the women went home and talked with their husbands anyway. The test, it was gradually decided, lay in whether Koppel or Ber had spent more money lately than seemed reasonable. Soon the question of Ber's and Koppel's finances were being discussed by most of the town, with Dusha mindlessly repeating her suspicions to anyone who would listen. One person remembered that Malka Chanis had ordered a new set of chairs from Warsaw only two months ago. Warsaw prices were high, much higher than what local carpenters charged. Another volunteered that Koppel had brought his samovar in for repairs only a few days ago. Both things cost money. Some Horodokers saw guilt. Others shook their heads in disgust. What did chairs and samovars prove? Koppel and his wife could have savings.

As for Ber, well-last month this teamster with a none-too-prosperous trade had bought new reigns for his horse.... But his cousin hadn't charged him for the labor... Well, the leather was expensive. And where did the money for all Ber's vodka come from?-Ber was a notorious drunk... Simple: he doesn't have children to support.... He may not have children but he still has a wife, and she doesn't look like she's starving... Ber's wife is an exceptional business woman. Why can't the money be coming from her?... A wife give her husband money to drink? The thought was ridiculous. And so a town without radio, television or movies, with only one monthly newspaper from Warsaw to link it to the world, chewed on its own small problem. Had Ber and Koppel lately spent more than they should?

Several weeks after the drenching, Frumke and Anuta the Midwife were still discussing it, propped up against a storefront that looked out over the hot, dusty marketplace. With heat having slowed all motion to a standstill, they were engaged in the only available substitute for movement-talk.

"Ber could be mixed up in something illegal. The way he visits the tavern he could hardly be considered an upstanding Jew. And we already know that Koppel cheats." Anuta's sentences slowly petered out, this ground having been covered before.

"Getting drunk and committing a crime are not the same thing." Frumke was still uncertain about her view on the issue, and refused to give in to either side. "Why should one mean the other?"

Anuta was about to answer when Dusha wandered out of the store, a still-empty basket on her arm. Dusha leaned toward the women, pressing her confidentiality on them. "It's illegal whiskey that links Koppel and Ber. Mark my words."

As Dusha wandered on, both women shook their heads and pretended not to notice. However the rumor had soon penetrated most of David-Horodok. Naturally it came to the attention of the police, who finally decided an investigation was in order.

The whole town was amazed when a policeman lead Koppel away to jail. No whiskey or still had been found, but a pair of candlesticks reported missing from Chaim Goldberg's house were discovered in one of Koppel's flour bins. The police wanted to know what they were doing there, and Koppel's explanation had been less than satisfactory.

Everyone stared hard at Ber: was he the thief? Had Koppel cheated him out of his cut? No-the town soon decided. Ber was about as quiet as a herd of Cossacks and the thought of him stealing into a house and filching valuables was out of the question. But Koppel could have been involved in other illegalities. Were there other dealings between Koppel and Ber? The question would not settle itself.

A month later Koppel was convicted of fencing stolen goods and taken off to prison. Malka Chanis wept and moaned. How was she going to manage? How would she survive? How had this terrible thing happened?

Most of David-Horodok avoided the woman. Malka Chanis' reputation, never good, had now fallen to nothing. She had obviously known what her husband was doing. How could she not? When they saw her, the townsfolk thought of their own lost possessions, and wondered if Koppel and his wife had helped in the losing. Only Dusha spent time with Malka Chanis. For hours Dusha listened and talked. For both, their words slowly transformed speculation into truth.

"All these terrible things started when Ber soaked your house. He was the one who made the authorities suspicious."

"If he hadn't been so spiteful, everything would still be fine."

"You would still have your Koppel; you would still have your reputation." Neither ever said what the rest of David-Horodok thought, "Koppel brought this on himself." Wrapped in her misery, Malka Chanis quickly lost the grain store and her house and moved into a rented room, peddling as best she could to make a living.

Late one sweltering summer night, the wretched woman, overwhelmed by her sorrows, heard Ber's drunken warbling out in the street. Dusha's words echoed inside her. Ber, the cause of her suffering, was outside her room enjoying himself this very minute. His very lack of anguish added to her own. He was free and her husband was in prison. He could drink while she starved. Ber had destroyed her husband; Ber had destroyed her! She could stand the pain no longer. She picked up a chair and ran outside after Ber, screaming and cursing and swinging the thing in front of her.

Ber dodged back to avoid the woman, staggering first to the right and then to the left. His drunkenness was not helping. He raised his arms in front of him to ward off the blows. Then it happened. As he lurched backward, he fell into the street well and broke his neck before he hit the water. They said it was dark; they said he was drunk; they said accidents happen. What they said was no consolation to his wife.

Malka Chanis was not charged with murder, although she was certainly responsible for Ber's death. All she had really done was wave a chair in front of a drunk and that was not illegal. David-Horodok, however, had no problem convicting her. No one wanted talk to her, and few would even come near Dusha, the dybbuk-woman.

Demented as she was, Dusha still went to the Slonimer rov for assistance. He would make people treat her well. Hode's husband was kind but firm.

"Woman," said the rabbi, "Ber is dead as much because of you as Malka Chanis. Your insinuations attracted the police and put Koppel in jail; your words inflamed Malka Chanis. Forgiveness is what you should be asking for now, and from the whole town, not help against your neighbors."

A sly twistedness passed over Dusha's downcast face. "You're wrong. My words did not attract the police. Everyone's did. Everyone talked, not just me. If they hate me for that, they should hate themselves, too." Then Dusha stood, and added with a malice that momentarily made the rov reconsider his stand against the existence of dybbuks. "I wasn't worth marrying but I was worth being listened to. Finally." And the woman stumbled out, mumbling and chanting, and hissing every now and then.

From then on Dusha could be found sitting on corners, standing in doorways, talking to anyone, to no one, but principally to herself. She had in the end found the attention she always wanted.



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