A hen sits in the basket, sometimes calmly turning its head around. It glances at the boy who carries her, and again forward, into the woven rods. The child’s father is a shoemaker and, as per the proverb, the boy runs on the cobblestones barefoot, hurrying up the road to the top of the town hill, to the house of the Jewish butcher, the shoikhet. The boy feels rich: in his pocket, he has five kopeek his mother gave him to pay the shoikhet.
At the knock on the door, the shoikhet will come out of the house and nod when seeing a hen, and invite the child inside. His daughters, Pesya and Fira, will be playing in the yard, tossing small stones onto the squares-lined ground. The boy will greet them, and they will politely stand up and answer him, but giggle again once he passes by them. Meanwhile their father will prepare for shechita: he will put on a white coat, wash hands in a tin washbasin and take a small knife. The shoikhet will bring the knife to the light, check it by touch for cracks or chipping and, having taken the hen from the boy’s hands, will bend its neck and, with a sharp precise movement, will cut the vein. With the same rapid movement, he will put the limp dangling chicken’s body upside down into the bowl from which the blood will flow into a wooden trough on the floor, and further into the slop pit.
He will ask the boy after his mother’s health, his father’s crafts and news from his elder sister who married a Russian airman and then went with him to Moscow for military training. Then the shoikhet will take the hen from the bowl, put it onto the table and, after plucking the feathers in the chosen spots, will take out the innards. Lungs, kidneys, heart, ovaries—he will examine them all. Possibly he will come to the cabinet and look through the sacred book, consulting it about a special spot on the stomach or the number of hen’s eggs hanging in a bunch in front of his myopic eyes. While he is busy, the boy will listen to the voices of the shoikhet’s daughters playing in the yard. Having already forgotten about his presence, they will be lively, and sonorously counting the stones thrown on the ground. Finally, the wise man will be reassured that the hen bought this morning by the boy’s mother is pure before G-d and man. The boy will thank him, cover the dead bird’s head with its wing and put it back into the basket.
The boy will go through the yard blushing under the girls’ looks and the shoikhet will ask him to pass his regards to his parents. Then the boy will go down the hill by the same twisting road and give the hen to his mother so that she can make bouillon or fry it with garlic for the holy day. By the corner of the road, he will see his friend Petya and, briefly telling mother that everything is fine, he will rush out to the street, and together with Petya will run down to the city square, into the crowd buzzing around the recently opened movie theatre. The boys will slip into the dead end of the road, to the rear wall of the theatre, through which they will hear muted voices, sometimes, the chorus of laughter, sometimes, an anxious groan.
But what if he were to meet Petya on the way up the hill, before he got to the shoikhet’s house? His friend would immediately tell the boy about the movie with languid beautiful ladies and pomaded gentlemen, and about a ticket for five kopeek, if you want to see it all, and Petya would have these five kopeek, and he would still have them, but they would not be for the movie, but for the job to be done by the long-armed shoikhet. But what is this job, would laugh Petya, that you have to pay so much money for this? To kill a bird, it is not a fair deal at all, anyone can do it, even him, Petya, he has cut so many hens’ throats in his time!
And the boy will give him the basket with the humble bird, and will look with growing sickness in his stomach, as his friend wrings the hen’s neck, then smashes her head with a stone, then runs after it whereas the dead hen with a crooked neck and body covered with blood runs away from him. The hen will run into a slit between the fence and the wall of the dead end and will not accept the finality of its death. At last, convinced by the boy’s horror and the cursing of his friend, the hen will fall into the dust, allowing the boys to catch its dirty body and put it into the basket, and go to the movie theatre. At home, his mother will immediately recognise the forgery and beat the tar out of him with the heavy wet corpse, leaving stains on his new shirt, on his neck, on his arms, on everything she can reach, everything he exposes to the blows.
He will remember the lesson for a long time. And he will never disobey his mother, realizing that for everyone and everything in the world, there is a law which was spoken well before him, and in compliance with the rules lies simplicity and righteousness of existence. He will live by the Book. After all, were he not to learn the lesson his mother has taught him, he would hold the grudge, and in three years’ time he would run away from home to Moscow, to his elder sister, and stay there with her. Even more, he would begin hating his mother and her cruel G-d and seek comfort in another faith, whose God, as his friend would tell him, graciously forgives everyone, even their worst thoughts and actions, if only they come to him and ask for forgiveness. The boy would like the thought of forgiveness, though it would remain incomprehensible for him: to this age, he would be certain that for everything you have done, all choice you have made, you would have to pay, despite your tears and complaints.
At thirteen, instead of going to the rite of bar mitzvah, he will be baptised and run away from his parents. He will work in the printing factory, at first cleaning the heavy patterned boards, then putting letters into words, and words into the newspaper’s articles about the liberated proletarian labour and the upcoming foreign aggression. He will live at the factory, in the printing house, in a warm corner by the stove. When meeting him on the street, his mother will look through him as if not seeing him, but his sister Fira will return his nod. One day he will print the news about the start of the war.
In four months, one week and four days, the Germans will enter the city. Three weeks later, he will print the order to all Jews to come to the city square, taking with them food and clothes for two days. He will lock up the printing factory and come to the city square with everyone else. They will be taken to a hall converted into a prison from the former movie theatre. Two days later, they will be taken to a distant mechanical plant. By the orders of the soldiers, they will undress, put their belongings on the ground and wait in December chill for their turn at the ditch. They will be more compliant victims than the soldiers will be competent murderers. The soldiers will fire their rifles, not particularly aiming at anyone, and without wasting bullets to finish off each victim, letting one fall over another, and another, and the next. The Earth over the pit will moan and tremble for three days, making the neighbourhood dogs go mad.
He will suffocate under the cooling bodies, he will float away into oblivion and return again to life, into the world without law, where people are cruel even in death. He will not know how quickly his mother would die. Will she forgive him? Will she know that he has returned to his people? Or will she not and for the first time ever would she be glad that he left the law, wishing at last, that he would survive by any means? No, probably to the very last minute she would stick to her belief that the responsibility is the most important thing in the world, and G-d will reward the devotion of the faithful ones and will punish the weakness of the apostate ones.
For a long time, he will wake up from nightmarish dreams, drenched in sweat in his sister’s room, in Moscow. Together they will learn about the executions of Jews of their hometown. They will listen to the news, read by a high solemn voice, among other war news calling for revenge, for fighting and for heroism. As everyone around, he will desire to take revenge, and, attributing himself a couple more years of age, enrol into an artillery course, quite easy for him always good at math. Soon he will be taken to the front line to be killed in the Stalingrad meat grinder battle. In the same hell will die his brother-in-law, his sister’s husband, but she will receive just one death notice—on the death of her husband—and for the rest of her life she will believe that her brother was injured, wounded, surrounded, captured, lost, but alive, and one day he would come back to her. It may well be the case that he would go with the Russian army to the Western Europe, to Germany, and would be injured there, and taken care of by a sentimental German girl. He would throw the army uniform away and recover while lying with her in a manger, among cows. Then, together with his German wife, he would move into the displaced persons’ camp and from there to Australia. Or, in a completely different turn of events, he would end in a dear Soviet camp, but he would still survive, and would return to Moscow and go to Australia later, in the seventies, when one corner of the iron curtain will slightly lift for the Jews.
At ninety, he lives in Sydney, alone after the death of his wife, in a one-bedroom state apartment. Two storey houses, for dozens of lonely poor retired people like him, stand on the perimeter of an evergreen flowerbed with a banana tree jutting into the everlastingly blue skies. His room is filled with books on mathematics and history. He is in very good health for his age. Every day he walks to the park to feed black swans in the pond. Afterward, he goes to the local library to gather the crumbs of the history of medieval Jews. He writes articles for a Russian-language Jerusalem journal. He is interested in Kabbalah, rearranging the letters of the Book like stones in the old labyrinth, like the moulds on the printing lines in one of his past lives. From the height of his nineties, life seems to him to be a maze, where he could have followed dozens of paths, but has chosen just one of them, not ever really knowing which one he should. Now he is jealous of his indomitable mother who always knew everything for sure. Stepping down from an open balcony to the courtyard, he is blinded by the falling sun and does not know what to say to a 9-year-old boy running up the road with a hen in the basket.
by Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya
Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya was born in the former Soviet Union and is now based in Australia. She is an author of a number of publications in Russian. Her poetry in English has appeared in Bridges Anthologies; London Grip; Journal of Humanistic Mathematics; The POEM; Rochford Street Review, and other editions. Tatiana is also an exhibiting visual artist. Tatiana is interested in mathematical forms in arts, in writing and creating art objects on formal language and literary restrictions.