(photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
This elliptical story of 19th-century shtetl Europe is narrated by Shimek, whose older brother drowns, leaving an orphaned daughter, Buzie. It is from a translation of Sholem Aleichem’s The Song of Songs (Simon & Schuster Editions, 1996), a collection of stories about Shimek and Buzie told in four parts, explains the publisher. “This baby niece – Buzie – who is raised as Shimek’s sister, becomes at first an audience for his magical tales, then his companion on journeys through Edenic woods and fields and, at last, the love of his life. This love, first frustrated by Shimek’s inability to speak his heart, is finally and ironically shattered on a fine point of Jewish tradition: though an uncle may marry his niece, Shimek and Buzie have been raised as brother and sister. Shimek’s tribute from the biblical Song of Songs – ‘my sister, my bride’ – becomes a mocking taboo.”
“Hurry, Buzie, hurry!” I tell Buzie a day before Shevuos, taking her by the hand as we quickly run uphill. She’s a year older than me, is Buzie, perhaps two, and together we’re not even 20. “Time doesn’t stand still, little silly. First we have to cross this hill and a stream spanned by planks that we call the Bridge. And only then comes the true Paradise! That’s where my estates begin.”
“I mean the meadow. A huge meadow that stretches on and on. It’s covered with a green blanket. Dotted with golden specks and sprinkled with scarlet buds. And how sweet it smells – the finest spices in the world. And there I have an endless forest. And a little hill of my own where I sit. If I wish, I sit down. If I wish, I can rise up by means of the Holy Name and soar like an eagle above the clouds, over meadows and woods, over deserts and seas, until I come to the other side of the Hills of Darkness.”
“And from there,” Buzie interrupts me, “you walk for seven miles until you come to a little stream. You swim across it and count seven times seven….”
“Then a little old man with a long beard appears….”
“Who asks you: ‘What is your wish?’”
“And I say to him: ‘Bring me to the princess.’”
Buzie tears her hand from mine and begins to run up the hill. I run after her. She doesn’t answer. She’s angry. She hates the princess. She likes all my stories but not the one about the princess.
I had an older brother, Benny. He drowned. He left a water mill, a young widow, two horses and a baby. The mill was abandoned, the horses sold, the widow remarried somewhere far away, and the baby was brought to us.
That was Buzie.
Everyone thinks of us as brother and sister. She calls my father Papa. My mother, she calls Mama. And we live like a brother and a sister. And we love each other like a brother and a sister.
Like a brother and a sister? Then why is Buzie so shy with me?
One day, the two of us were all alone in the house. It was getting dark. Father had gone to shul to say Kaddish for my brother Benny, and Mama had gone out for matches. Buzie and I were huddled in a corner and I was telling her stories. Buzie loves when I tell her stories. Nice stories from cheder, stories of a thousand and one nights. She draws very close to me, her hand in mine.
“Tell me, Shimek, tell me more.”
Softly, the night descends. Slowly, the shadows climb up the walls; they tremble, creep on the ground and disperse. We can barely see each other. But I feel her hand trembling, and I hear her little heart pounding, and I see her eyes shining in the dark. Suddenly, she tears her hand from mine.
“What’s the matter, Buzie?”
“It’s not allowed.”
“What’s not allowed?”
“Why? Who told you that?”
“I just know it myself.”
“Are we strangers? Aren’t we brother and sister?”
“Ah! If only we were brother and sister!” Buzie declares slowly and in her words I hear the language of the Song of Songs: “Oh, would that you were my brother – why aren’t you my brother?”
It’s always like that. When I talk about Buzie, I recall the Song of Songs.
So where were we? Erev Shevuos. Buzie looks at me with her big wistful eyes and says, “Shimek! Look at that sky!”
“I see the sky. I feel the warm breeze. I hear the birds tweeting and soaring over our heads. That’s our sky, our breeze, our birds – everything is ours! Give me your hand, Buzie!”
No. She doesn’t give me her hand. She’s shy. Why is Buzie shy with me? Why is she blushing?
Buzie runs ahead and it seems to me she’s speaking to me in the language of the Song of Songs: “Come, my beloved, let us walk in the meadow. Let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom.”
Just then we’re at the little plank-bridge.
The stream flows, the frogs croak, the boards of the plank-bridge shake and sway, and Buzie trembles.
“Oh, Buzie…. What are you scared of, little silly? I’ll hold you, and you, me. See? That’s it! That’s the way!”
Done with the little plank-bridge.
And since we have our arms around each other, we continue like this, the two of us alone through this Paradise. Buzie holds on to me very tightly. She doesn’t say a word. But it seems she’s telling me in the language of the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
The meadow is broad and wide. It stretches on and on. It’s covered with a green blanket. Dotted with golden specks and sprinkled with scarlet buds. And the sweet smells – the finest spices in the world! And we walk with our arms around each other, all alone, just the two of us in this Paradise.
“Shimek,” Buzie says to me and looks me straight in the eyes and draws even closer to me. “When will we begin to gather greens for Shevuos?”
“The day is long enough, little silly!” I tell her, and I feel I’m on fire. I don’t know where to look first: at the yarmulke of the blue sky or at the green blanket of the wide meadow. Or should I look into Buzie’s big beautiful eyes, as deep as the sky and wistful as the night? A deep anxiety lies hidden in them, a silent sorrow. She carries a great pain in her heart. A resentment toward her mother who took a new husband and left her forever – as if she were a stranger.
In the house it’s forbidden to mention her mother’s name, as if Buzie never had a mother. My mother is her mother. My father, her father. And they love her as if she were their own child. They fret over her, they indulge her every whim.
Buzie had said that she’d like to go gather greens for Shevuos with me (actually, my idea).
My parents are concerned about our going alone outside of the shtetl to gather greens for Shevuos. I know what’s bothering them. Perhaps 20 times my father tells me, and then my mother too, that there’s a little plank-bridge there beneath which runs a body of water – a stream, a stream, a stream….
Buzie and I have long forgotten the plank-bridge, the water, the stream. We amble along over the wide expanse of meadow under the wide expanse of sky. We run across the green field, roll and tumble in the fragrant grass. We get up, then roll and tumble again and again, and we still haven’t begun to gather greens for Shevuos. I lead Buzie across the length and breadth of the meadow and brag about my estates.
“See these trees? See this sand? See that little hill?”
“Is this all yours?” Buzie asks me, and her eyes laugh.
It annoys me that she laughs. She always laughs at me. Offended, I turn away from her for a while. Buzie sees that I’m upset. She comes to me, gazes right into my eyes, takes both of my hands in hers and says, “Shimek!” At once my anger flees and all is forgotten. And I take her by the hand and lead her to my little hill, where I always sit, every year. If I wish, I sit down. If I wish, I rise up by means of the Holy Name and soar like an eagle above the clouds, over meadows and woods, over deserts and seas….
There, on the little hill, we sit, Buzie and I (we still haven’t gathered any greens for Shevuos), telling stories. I tell her about what will happen some day when both of us are grown up and married. Then, by means of the Holy Name, we’ll rise up above the clouds and travel all over the world. First, we’ll go to all the lands that Alexander the Great visited. And, then, to the Land of Israel. There, we’ll roam on all the mountains of spices and see all the vineyards. We’ll stuff our pockets with carobs and figs, olives and dates, and then we’ll fly even farther and farther. And everywhere we go we’ll play little tricks on people, because after all no one will be able to see us.
“No one?” Buzie asks, seizing my hands.
“No one! We’ll see everyone, but no one will see us.”
“In that case, Shimek, do me a favor.”
But I know what she wants even before she speaks. She wants us to fly to the place where her mother remarried. To play a trick on her stepfather.
“Why not?” I tell Buzie. “With pleasure. You can depend on me, little silly. I’ll fix them so they’ll never forget me.”
“Not them, but him. Only him,” Buzie pleads. But I begin to seethe and fume. The nerve of the woman! Getting married to another man and then taking off to the blazes knows where and abandoning a baby and not even writing a letter! Did you ever hear of such an outrage?
But then I regret my angry outburst, and I eat my heart out. But it’s too late. Buzie has hidden her face in her hands. Is she crying? I’m so furious at myself I could tear myself in pieces. Why did I have to touch her raw nerve – her mother? I call myself all kinds of nasty names. I draw nearer to her. I take her hand. “Buzie. Buzie!” And I want to tell her in the words of the Song of Songs: “Let me see your face – say something to me.”
Suddenly, how did Mama and Father get here?
Father’s silver-rimmed glasses glint from the distance. The silver threads of his silver beard are blowing in the breeze. And, from afar, Mama is waving her kerchief to us. Both of us, Buzie and I, remained sitting like statues. What are our parents doing here?
They have come here to find out how we are. To see if, God forbid, something awful might have befallen us. After all – a little plank-bridge, a body of water, a stream, a stream, a stream….
“And where are your greens?’
“The greens you were supposed to gather for Shevuos.”
Buzie and I look at each other.
“Well, somehow or other we’ll manage to get greens for Shevuos,” Father says with a little smile and the silver threads of his silver beard shine in the bright rays of the golden sun. “Main thing, thank God, the children are well and nothing happened to them, God forbid.”
“God be praised,” Mama answers, wiping her red, perspiring face with her kerchief. And both of them are delighted, literally beaming with joy.
What strange parents!
Curt Leviant is the author of the recently published Zix Zexy Ztories.