Wednesday, September 13, 2017

ET: Almanac

The wedding ceremony ended, the rabbi sank into a chair, then he left the room and saw tables lined up the whole length of the courtyard. There were so many of them that the end stuck out of the gates onto Gospitalnaya Street. The tables, draped in velvet, coiled through the yard like a snake on whose belly patches of every color had been daubed, and these orange and red velvet patches sang in deep voices.

The rooms had been turned into kitchens. A rich flame, a drunk, plump flame, forced its way through the smoke-blackened doors. Little old women's faces, wobbly women's chins, beslobbered beasts, baked in the flame's smoky rays. Sweat, red as blood, pink as the foam of a rabid dog, dripped from these blobs of rampant, sweet-odored human flesh. Three cooks, not counting the scullery maids, prepared the wedding feast, and over them eighty-year-old Reizl reigned, traditional as a Torah scroll, tiny and hunchbacked.

Before the feast began, a young man unknown to the guests wormed his way into the courtyard. He asked for Benya Krik. He took Benya Krik aside.

"Listen, King!" the young man said. "I have a couple of words I need to tell you. Aunt Hannah from Kostetskaya Street, she sent me."

"So?" Benya Krik, nicknamed "the King," answered. 'So what's these couple of words?"

Aunt Hannah, she sent me to tell you that a new chief of police took over at the police station yesterday.

"I've known that since the day before yesterday," Benya Krik answered. "Well?"

"The chief of police called the whole station together and gave a speech . . ."

"A new broom is always eager to sweep," Benya Krik answered. "He wants a raid. So?"

"But when does he want to raid, King, do you know that?"


"King, it's going to be today!"

"Who told you that, boy?"

"Aunt Hannah, she said so. You know Aunt Hannah?"

"I know Aunt Hannah. So?"

"The chief called the whole station together and gave them a speech: 'We must finish off Benya Krik,' he said, 'because when you have His Majesty the Czar, you can't have a King too. Today, when Krik gives away his sister in marriage, and they will all be there, is when we raid!"


"Then the stool pigeons began to get worried. They said, 'If we raid them today, during his feast, Benya will get anry and a lot more blood will flow.' But the chief said, 'Our self-respect is more important to me!'"

"Good, you can go," the King said.

So what do I tell Aunt Hannah about the raid?"

"Tell her Benya he knows from the raid."

And the young man left. Three or four of Benya's friends followed him. They said they would be back in about half an hour. And they were back in half an hour. That was that.

At the table, the guests did not sit in order of seniority. Foolish old age is just as pitiful as cowardly youth. Nor in order of wealth. The lining of a heavy money bag is sown with tears.

The bride and groom sat at the table's place of honor. It was their day. Beside them sat Sender Eichbaum, the King's father-in-law. That was his due. You should know the story of Sender Eichbaum, because it's a story definitely worth knowing.

How did Benya Krik, gangster and King of gangsters, make himself Eichbaum's son-in-law? How did he make himself the son-in-law of a man who owned one milch cow short of sixty? It all had to do with a robbery. A year or so earlier Benya had written a letter to Eichbaum.

"Monsieur Eichbaum," he wrote. "I would be grateful if you could place twenty thousand rubles by the gate of number 17, Sofiyefskaya Street, tomorrow morning. If you do not, then something awaits you, the like of which has never before been heard, and you will be the talk of all Odessa. Sincerely yours, Benya the King."

Three letters, each clearer than the one before, remained unanswered. Then Benya took action. They came by night, ten men carrying long sticks. The sticks were wound with tarred oakum. Nine burning stars flared up in Eichbaum's cattle yard. Benya smashed the barn's locks and started leading the cows out, one by one. They were met by a man with a knife. He felled the cows with one slash and plunged his knife into their hearts. On the ground drenched with blood the torches blossomed like fiery roses, and shots rang out. The dairy maids came running to the cowshed, and Benya chased them away with shots. And right after him other gangsters began shooting into the air because if you don't shoot into the air you might kill someone. And hen, as the sixth cow fell with a death bellow at the King's feet, it was then that Eichbaum came running out into the courtyard in his underpants.

"Benya! Where will this end?" he cried.

"If I don't have the money, you don't have the cows, Monsieur Eichbaum. Two and two make four."

"Benya, come into my house!"

And inside the house they came to an agreement. They divided the slaughtered cows between them, Eichbaum was promised immunity and given a certificate with a stamp to that effect. But the miracle came later.

At the time of the attack, that terrible night when the slashed cows bellowed and calves skidded in their mothers' blood, when torches danced like black maidens, and the milkmaids scattered and screeched before the barrels of the amicable Brownings--that terrible night, old Eichbaum's daughter, Zilya, had run out into the yard, her blouse torn. And the King's victory turned into his downfall.

Two days later, without warning, Benya gave back all the money he had taken from Eichbaum and then came int he evening on a social call. He wore an orange suit, and underneath his cuff a diamond bracelet sparkled. He enered the room greeted Eichbaum, and asked him for the hand of his daughter Zilya. The old man had a small stroke, but recovered--there were at least twenty years of life in him.

"Listen, Eichbaum," the King told him. "When you die, I'll have you buried in the First Jewish Cemetary, right by the gates. And Eichbaum, I will have a monument of pink marble put up for you. I will make you the Elder of the Brodsky Synagogue. I will give up my career, Eichbaum, and I will go into business with you as a partner. We will have two hundred cows, Eichbaum. I will kill all the dairymen except you. No thief shall walk the street you live in. I shall build you a dacha at the Sixteenth Stop . . . and don't forget, Eichbaum, you yourself were no rabbi in your youth. Who was it who forged that will? I think I'd better lower my voice, don't you? And your son-in-law will be the King, not some snotface! The King, Eichbaum!"

And he got his way, that Benya Krik, because he was passionate and passion holds sway over the universe. The newlyweds stayed for three months in fertile Bessarabia, among grapes, abundant food, and the sweat of love. Then Benya returned to Odessa to marry of Dvoira, his forty-year-old sister, who was suffering from goiter. And now, having told the story of Sender Eichbaum, we can return to the marriage of Dvoira Krik, the King's sister.

For the dinner at this wedding, they served turkeys, roasted chicken, geese, gefilte fish, and fish soup in which lakes of lemon shimmered like mother-of-pearl. Above the dead goose heads, flowers swayed like luxuriant plumes. Bud do the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw roasted chickens onto the shore?

On this blue night, this starry night, the best of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated far and wide, piled its seductive, destructive craft. Wine from afar heated stomachs, sweetly numbed legs, dulled brains, and summoned belches as resonant as the call of battle horns. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had pulled in three days before from Port Said, had smuggled in big-bellied bottles of Jamaican Rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantations of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the groves of Jerusalem. This is what the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw onto the shore, and this is what Odessan beggars sometimes get at Jewish weddings. They got Jamaican rum at Dvoira Krik's wedding, and that's why the Jewish beggars got as drunk as unkosher pigs and began loudly banging their crutches. Eichbaum unbuttoned his vest, mustered the raging crowd with a squinting eye, and hiccuped affectionately. The orchestra played a flourish. It was like a regimental parade. A flourish, nothing more than a flourish. The gangsters, sitting in closed ranks, were at first uneasy about the presence of outsiders, but son they let themselves go. Lyova Katsap smashed a bottle of vodka over his sweetheart's head, Monya Artillerist fired shots into the air. But the peak of their ecstasy came when, in accordance with ancient custom, the guests began bestowing gifts on the newlyweds. The synagogue shamases jumped onto tables and sang out, above the din of the seething flourishes, the quantity of rubles and silver spoons that were being presented. And here the friends of the King proved what blue blood was worth, and that Moldovanka chivalry was still in full bloom. With casual flicks of the hand they threw gold coins, rings, and coral necklaces onto the golden trays.

The Moldovanka aristocrats were jammed into crimson vests, their shoulders encased in chestnut colored jackets, and their fleshy legs bulged in sky-blue leather boots. Drawing themselves up to their full height and sticking out their bellies, the bandits clapped to the rhythm of the music and, shouting "Oy, a sweet kiss for the bride!," threw flowers at her, and she, forty-year-old Dvoira, Benya Krik's sister, the sister of the King, deformed by illness, with her swollen goiter and eyes bulging out of their sockets, sat on a mountain of pillows next to a frail young man who was mute with melancholy who had been bought with Eichbaum's money.

The gift-giving ceremony was coming to an end, the shamases were growing hoarse, and the bass fiddle was clashing with the violin. A sudden faint odor of burning spread over the courtyard.

"Benya," Papa Krik, the old carter, knwon as a ruffian even in carting circles, shouted, "Benya! You know what? I think the embers have blazed up again!"

"Papa!" the King said to his drunken father. "Please eat and drink and don't let these foolish things be worrying you!"

And Papa Krik followed his son's advice. He ate and drank, but the cloud of smoke became ever more poisonous. Here and there patches of sky were turning pink, and suddenly a tongue of fire, narrow as a sword, shot high into the air. The guests got up and started sniffing, and their women yelped. The gangsters looked at one another. And only Benya, who seemed not to notice anything, was inconsolable.

"My feast! They're ruining it!" he shouted in despair. "My friends, please, eat, drink!"

But at that moment the same young man who had come at the beginning of the feast appeared again in the courtyard.

"King!" he said. "I have a couple of words I need to tell you!"

"Well, speak!" the King ansewred. "you always got a couple words up your sleeve!"

"King!" the young man said with a snigger. "It's so funny--the police station's burning like a candle!"

The storekeepers were struck dumb. The gangsters grinned. Sixty-year-old Manka, matriarch of the Slobodka bandits, put two fingers in her mouth and whistled so shrilly that those sitting next to her jumped up.

"Manka! You're not at work now!" Benya told her. "Cool down!"

The young man who had brought this startling news was still shaking with laughter.

"About forty of them left the station to go on the raid," he said, is jaws quivering. "They hadn't gone fifteen yards when everything went up in flames! Run and see for yourselves!"

But Benya forbade his guests to go look at the fire. He himself went with two friends. The police station was in flames. With their wobbling backsides, the policemen were runing up and down the smoke-filled staircases, throwing boxes out of the windows. The prisoners made a run for it. The firemen were bristling with zeal, but it turned out that there wasn't any water in the nearby hydrant. The chief of police, the new broom so eager to sweep, stood on the opposite sidewalk, chewing on his mustage which hung into his mouth. The new broom stood completely still. Benya walked past and gave him a military salute.

"A very good day to you, Your Excellency!" he said sympathetically. "What bad luck! A nightmare!" He stared at the burning building, shook his head, and smacked his lips: "Ai-ai-ai!"

- - -

Wen Benya came back home, the lantern lights in the courtyard where already going out and dawn was breaking across the sky. The guests had dispersed, and the musicians were asleep, their heads leaning against the necks of their bass fiddles. Only Dvoira hadn't gone to sleep yet. With both hands she was edging her timid husband toward the door of their nuptial chamber, looking at him lustfully like a cat which, holding a mouse in its jaws, gently probes it with its teeth.

Isaac Babel - Odessa Stories                                                                                

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