Story from the book “Breakfast at Midnight”
Herr Duhms, when are we going home? Leib Schuster always asks me this on meeting, always in German. He asks the same question today as we happen to bump into each other on the road near his little house. The wind is whistling around our ears and driving snow under our collars. Tell me, please, are we going home soon? Fahren wir bald?
Old Schuster and his entire family aren't doing well under the Soviet power starving and castigating them – neither are any of the other exiles. Still, I can't understand what kind of joys and benefits this simpleton hopes to find at home - under German rule?
Schuster is not the shoemaker his name would suggest; no, at Chernovtsy he was a well known baker with his own bakery and pastry shop. He has been brought here together with his wife and two young sons. The head of the family is a swarthy runt of a man with fleshy lips, wrinkled face and bulging, nearsighted eyes which peer perplexedly through the thick, concave glass of his spectacles. Whereas his wife is a stately, once plump woman with handsome features. In calm weather old Schuster slowly shuffles his feet, first wrapped in rags and then stuffed into huge galoshes, stumbling along to the high, steep slope of the river bank, only to stare into the distance with his weak eyes for a long, long time. Only to turn his gaze to the West.
The Schuster family had passed the first winter tolerably. Their captors had allowed them to take along substantial bundles of their possessions: they carelessly traded clothes for food and filled their bellies full almost every day. They firmly believed that soon, quite soon, they would start on the journey home. In the second year of exile they had nothing left, each had only one motley set of thin, tattered clothing. Later there remained only one set for all four of them. Old Schuster had long had a weak heart, and his spouse was also beset with various ailments. Neither of them was able to work. But their young sons were no workers, either: the boys had shrewdly calculated that by staying in bed they would preserve their strength longer.
In the first months of exile, Schuster had taken the chance to purchase an abandoned log cabin, dirt cheap. Although warped, lopsided, small and full of chinks, it was their own home. It stood at the very end of Merry Village's only populated street. No one had lived there for the last four years. One fourth of the cabin was taken up by a huge, Russian style bread oven, but along the opposite wall some helpful person had quickly erected for them a sleeping platform of roughly trimmed timber.
Bundled up in grubby, worn-out rags, the new inhabitants of the cabin lounged away the days and nights. There they fidgeted, shared bits of food, reminisced about their native country, remembered long-ago meals, scratched themselves, killed lice, talked constantly about returning home and argued bitterly. A ravenous person is a great quarreler. An army of lean, thin, transparent bed bugs, having been starved and exposed to bitter frost for four years, now emerged from all chinks and crannies. They crawled along the walls and the ceiling and busily dropped down unto the tormented flesh of the sleepers: they had managed to await their food supply. Having feasted, the bed bugs propagated prolifically.
Julius and Augustus, the two young sons, were too lazy to fetch firewood from the nearby forest or to bring in straw from the shed to spread in a thick layer on the bedstead. It was one hundred eighty steps to the straw pile. Two hundred eighty to the forest. When real frost hit, the brothers chopped up the picket fence and used it for fuel. And then they chopped up and burned up the outhouse, and the entry passage, and the porch . . . and in the end they burned up the plank roof, the lath trim and the very rafters. When there was nothing else left to burn, all four lay there in the cold. Once in a while one of the boys pulled himself together and stole a paling from the artel's cattle enclosure or filched a few pieces of firewood from a neighbor's wood pile.
Herr Duhms, are we going home soon? Fahren wir bald? Leib Schuster repeats his query and looks at me as if I were the one to permit or deny their return. Fat drops are running down his lean, furrowed cheeks, covered with scruffy stubble. Are they tears or melted drops of snow? I can't tell.
If you only knew what buttery pretzels I used to bake once upon a time, what fine coffee cakes . . . and such fluffy breads . . . I'm telling you the truth - they were soft and light as down. My shelves were filled with bread. Yes, yes, all shelves were filled with bread . . . eat whenever you want, eat as much as you want . . . Yes, yes, Mr. Duhms, you could eat as much as you wanted, on my word of honor. Bread rolls like puffs of down . . . But now . . . now . . . Man hat mich in den Dreck getreten . . . .
We exchange a few more words and part. For a moment I look after the old man, who is slowly shuffling his ailing feet and stumbling toward his hut. There's no strength left in him, neither strength nor spirit to withstand cold and hunger. And yet he is stronger than both his spineless sons.
In the evening of this frosty and stormy day, Leib Schuster once more crawls from his nest of rags, puts his feet into the big galoshes and, without saying a word to anyone, slinks off across the snowy expanse and disappears into the darkness. Through the swirling snowstorm, he trudges to the house of the wealthy man, Frol Porozhny.
When, after a difficult trek, Leib Schuster comes into the entryway of the rich man's house and starts knocking at the sturdy door, the owner and his old woman are sitting in the kitchen at the supper table. Frol Porozhny and his old woman are guzzling sauerkraut soup and crunching on some garlic.
Milosti prosim - both slurpers in unison invite the visitor into the house.
Schuster opens the door and thoroughly cleans and brushes his snow covered feet with a broom of twigs before entering. Then he straightens up his hunched body as best he can, offers an evening greeting and rubs his besmeared, fogged glasses with a corner of his jacket. Gripping the thick lenses in the palm of his hand, Schuster stands there benumbed, motionless and silent for a good while, only blinking his reddened, almost sightless eyes. In Porozhny's house the light source is by no means just the blaze in the oven or else a lit splinter of wood, a wick lamp or some such primitive thing: in Porozhny's house, there is on the table a fine kerosene lamp with clear glass. It spreads a bright light in all directions, into the furthest comers. Therefore, Leib Schuster is able to make out a little, discern some contours here.
“I've brought . . .” he speaks, overcome with diffidence. Around him waft the intoxicating fumes of sauerkraut; and his nostrils recognize from afar the tempting, mild aroma of potatoes boiled in their skins. All this makes him even more wary, more on edge. “I've brought . . .”
The landlord doesn't deign even a glance at the scruffy stinker. He wields his round wooden spoon, loudly slurps the steaming cabbage soup, and sniffles. Some other visitor - a person of some substance - Frol would invite to the table: sadys, pokushai s nami. But Frol does not invite this beggar who comes every other day. A sponger if there ever was one. A bare-arse. Everything that could be purchased from him, whatever could be useful in some way, Frol has already purchased. As well, from time to time he has given a little gift, a little assistance to the supplicant, out of the softness of his heart. Everything is good and proper as far as that goes; our Father up in heaven can see that. Still, begging your pardon, there's a limit to everything. The two sons of this eternal beggar, his two strong progeny, should be harnessed to the harrow. But they avoid any work like the plague. Both have become listless and weak from lolling about on their bunk and gnawing at the bits of charity handed out to their parents. At their age, the sons of Frol were yanking out trees from the soil, roots and all. Are those two sons of a king, that they can afford to be idle? Look at himself, Frol Porozhny; he's been exiled three times and shunted from place to place, and still he's wealthy. By Bolshevik standards, by war time standards - wealthy. Well-to-do. Why? Because all day long he's wielding a shovel, an oar, an axe, a hoe or a scythe. Or else an awl and a darning needle, working on footwear. Nothing drops from the sky, you have to earn everything yourself, using your hands and your brain. Through thinking and by the sweat of your brow. Don't preach a sermon where work is required.
Yet Praskovya Prohorovna, Frol's old woman, can't remain indifferent. She leaves the table, marches up to the big oven, fetches pot three potatoes boiled in their skins from the cast iron pot and tucks them into Schuster's palm. The potatoes are still hot. Leib Schuster keeps them pressed to his stomach, warming his hands and his body with them. Then he shuffles up to the table and sets down his spectacles next to the crock of sauerkraut.
“I've brought . . .” he utters the phrase for the third time.
His words can barely be heard. But then the old man cannot hold back any longer, and clamps his gums around a potato. With his toothless mouth he chews on the unpeeled gift of God; he chews slowly, tasting the food with his tongue, his palate, with all his sense organs. His weak eyes are bathed in tears.
Praskovya, Frot's old woman, had tried on Schuster's glasses a while ago, and they were very suitable for her fine needlework. At that time, her wealthy spouse hadn't been stingy, and had offered Schuster five bucketfuls of potatoes for the spectacles. A whole sackful of potatoes. A profusion of riches. Yet at that time Schuster hadn't been able to relinquish his glasses. Without his spectacles he wouldn't see anything anymore. He'd be lost without his glasses.
“So you've schlepped them here now! What's the rush? You could've procrastinated some more, kept wearing them yourself in state . . .” Frol licks his spoon, wipes his lips with two fingers, smoothes his beard, twirls his curly whiskers.
“Starvation is at our door. There's nothing left to eat. At home, everyone lies there hungry. Worn out, swollen bellied . . . ” Leib Schuster replies quietly. He's ashamed of his poverty.
“My root cellar isn't bottomless, either. Ja . . . Have you ever thought of that? Right now there's only a small mound of potatoes left in the comer, a minimal reserve. As you know, there's still a far distance to go until spring. Also, a portion has to be saved for planting, and then there's the stretch until the new harvest. And my own grandchildren need help, too. Ja . . . So you see . . . Before biting into a potato, we have to turn each one around in our hands three times. That's how it is, ja . . .” Frol Porozhny speaks in a drawl, dropping his words like stones.
“And yet, and still . . . perhaps . . . please, I beg you. Something, a mere trifle. This is very good glassware . . . excellent lenses. Truly, nowhere could you find . . . nowhere . . .”
“I've already told you, we need to save. Ja . . . Have to figure out how to last until summer, how to stumble that far. Such is our existence, living here. Whoever doubts it can come and see for himself – ” Frol indicates he is willing to open the trapdoor to the cellar.
Schuster stands before the rich man with bowed head and shuffles from foot to foot.
“Take your glassware to someone else, perhaps someone has a pressing need for it, he would pay you more. Take it to someone else . . .” says Frol, stroking his whiskers.
“No, no! . . . Only to you, please . . . To you. All my family is wasted to skin and bone, my wife lies there sick . . . not a bite left at home. We haven't eaten for four days . . . please . . .” Leib Schuster speaks with head bowed low. “No one here would buy my spectacles, you are our only hope . . . only you . . .”
“Where did you hear that Frol has enough of everything? That under my floor, mountains of potatoes tower? That I have oceans of milk, lumps of butter? Has communism or some kind of utopia been established at my house? Well, for your information - I don't have anything, ja, we're just struggling, my old woman and me, just struggling from day to day. Ja.”
“Just a small trifle would do . . . So I can take it to my wife. . . and my sons . . . They're lying there without food, exhausted . . . Starving. A small trifle . . . please.”
“Well, all right, let’s do it like this - I'll pay you two bucketfuls - ja, two bucketfuls of potatoes. I have good potatoes, my buckets are ample; you know that. Ja. I'm doing this out of pity for your good wife. And out of respect for yourself, a master baker of old. I'll give you two buckets, but myself, I'll have to tighten my belt. Just so, that's how it is. Because of that, I and mine will perhaps arrive at the brink of catastrophe!” concludes Frol Porozhny, patting his curly wisps of beard.
“But that other time . . . then you offered me five . . . Five! I've been hoping for that, hoping and relying . . . Five buckets . . .” Schuster whispers in a strangled voice.
“What was then, that was then. That is past and gone forever, ja. Times change.”
“But at that time you . . .”
“Well, all right, I'll give you some bread, too, ja. I'll give a whole loaf of bread. But then that is all, my utmost maximum, more I cannot give. That's how it is,” says Frol, and gets up from the table as a sign that all bargaining is finished.
“I'll fill up a bowl of sauerkraut for you,” Praskovya stealthily promises.
With starvation looming around every comer, it's not the time to be stubborn. Schuster understands that he's sold his spectacles for empty words, not sustenance. But he also knows that his thick glasses are of no use to anyone else in this village - or in the whole wide world. No one else will buy them, give either a crust of bread or a potato peel for them. Give as much as the dirt under one’s fingernails. Thus, he has to accept what is offered now. Come what may after that.
Frol Porozhny promises to bring over the bartered goods the next day. The bread, a round, fragrant loaf, the old baker carefully settles under his shabby half-length coat; he tenderly presses it against his tattered, lice-ridden shirt.
Outside it is dark as a dungeon. In the open space a blizzard howls and whirls gusts of snow against Schuster's face. After a few steps, one of his galoshes slips off his foot. Scrabbling for it with stiff fingers in the deep snow, Schuster looses both potatoes. After a fruitless search, he trudges on. A few steps further he loses the other shoe. The old man doesn't stop to look for it but hurries onward, he keeps walking, he's walking home, to his home, home . . . He's bringing bread to his loved ones.
The next day straw carters found Leib Schuster under a snowdrift by the big straw pile. May the Lord receive his soul . . .
The three survivors in the desolate hut did not suffer much longer. One morning they didn't wake up. May the Lord receive their souls.
Translated by Biruta Surmane
Are we going soon? - Ger.
I've been trampled into dirt - Ger.
Sit down and eat with us - Russ.