Gimple the Simpleton (Gimpl Tam): part two (conclusion)
This is the second half of Gimpl Tam, translated by Saul Bellow as "Gimpel the Fool," but I think "Gimpel the Simple" or naive is closer. Gimpl admits to being simple but denies being a fool. As the story progresses he grows in dignity and goodness, even as he is ground down by the world. I really enjoyed translating this with Musia Lakin's help.
In part one, Gimpl tells us he was gullible as a child and has been a "customer" for wise guys ever since - that he was pressed into marrying a shrewish, promiscuous woman whom he loved like crazy.
In the evening I even brought her bread, a challah which I baked especially for her, and a couple of rolls. For her sake I became a thief and snitched whatever I could: here a piece of coffeecake, there a macaroon, from one direction raisins and from another, almond biscuits. Don't hold it against me: I used to open Sabbath cholents and take out a thread of meat, a little piece of kugl, a chicken head or foot, a piece of kishke, whatever I could get. She ate and became lovely and fat.
The whole week I didn't sleep at home. Friday nights I would come to her, but she always had an excuse. She had a burning in the pit of her stomach, or a stitch in her side, or hiccups, or a headache. Today, woman's complaint! Don't ask, I was torn up about it. Furthermore, there was her brother, that bastard, growing bigger all the time. He slugged me, and when I wanted to hit him back she started swearing like a sailor, everything went green before my eyes. Ten times a day she threw the threat of divorce at my feet.
Another fellow in my place would run away to where the black pepper grows, but I'm a peaceful man by nature. In short, what can one do? Since God gives shoulders, one must carry the pack.
One night there was trouble at the bakery: the oven burst, there was almost a huge fire. Since I had nothing to do, I went home. 'Let me, just once,' I thought, 'taste the flavor of sleeping in my bed in the middle of the week.' I didn't want to wake the little one, I went in quietly, like the tip of a finger. I entered my room and heard a sort of double snore: one was thin, the other like the sound of an ox being slaughtered. It wasn't long till I knew the story. I go to the bed and everything gets dark before my eyes: a man is lying next to Elke.
Another in my place would have made such a scene that half the town would've come running in, but I thought it over: why wake the child? In what way is that sweet little swallow to blame? So, never mind, I went away, back to the bakery, and lay down again on a sack of flour. I never closed an eye all night. I was thrown into an ague. 'Enough of being a donkey,' I thought, 'Gimpl won't let himself be cheated any more, there's an end even to Gimpl's foolishness.'
In the morning I was away to the Rabbi to ask him about all this. There was a ruckus in the town. The shamas was sent to fetch her.
My wife came with the little child in her arms. And what, she asked, had she done? She denied everything vociferously, stone and bone. 'He is,' she says, 'out of his senses.'
I don't know of a solution and it's not a dream: They shouted at her and threatened her, banged on the table, but she held fast, she was being falsely accused. The butchers and the horse-traders were on her side. A young guy from the knackers' yard came to me and said: 'You're a marked man.'
Meanwhile the kid takes to straining, he soils himself. Because there's a holy ark in the rabbinic court, they send Elke away.
I ask the rabbi, 'What shall I do?' He says, 'you must divorce her right away.' 'And what if she won't accept a divorce?' I ask. 'You just have to hang it on her.' I say: 'Good, Rabbi. I'll think it over.' 'There's nothing to think over,' says the rabbi, 'it's forbidden for you to be under the same roof with her.' 'What if I want to see the child?' I ask. 'You mustn't see the child,' says the rabbi, 'she should leave, that harlot, along with her bastards!' He issued a verdict, I'm forbidden even to cross her doorstep. Ever again. As long as I live.
By day, this didn't bother me so much. 'Never mind, forget about it,' I think, 'the mud had to be slung.' But at night, when I'd laid myself down on the sack, things seemed bitter. A longing for her and the child overcame me.
I wanted to be angry with her, but this is my misfortune - I can't be angry. First: there's no telling, people deceive themselves. Probably that young guy came on to her, ogled her, maybe gave her presents, and women are long-haired and short-sighted, he talked her into it. Second: she denies it so furiously, maybe it was a hallucination? Sometimes it happens, one sees some kind of shadow that looks human, but when you come closer, it turns out to have been nothing at all. If that's the case, then an injustice has been committed against her.
As I think along these lines, I start to cry, I sob so hard the flour gets wet.
Early next morning I was off to see the rabbi and said I'd made a mistake. The rabbi recorded this with his goose-feather pen and said he'd send a query to the greater rabbinic authorities. Until then, I'm forbidden to approach my wife, but I can send a messenger with baked goods and money for her support.
It was three quarters of a year before the rabbis came to an agreement. Letters had been going back and forth, I hadn't known there was so much torah consultation required in this sort of situation. Meanwhile Elke had gotten pregnant and she bore another child. This time it was a girl. On Shabbos I went to shul and gave her my blessing. I was called to the torah and I gave her a name, I named her after my mother-in-law, rest in peace.
The hooligans who came into the bakery thrashed me with their tongues. All Frampol delighted in my shame. But I decided it suited me to believe everything from now on. What happens if you don't believe? Today you don't believe your wife, tomorrow you won't believe in God. Every day I sent her a journeyman from our neighborhood with cornbread, white bread, and when possible I added challah, crispy rolls, a couple egg bagels, angel food cake, cookies, raisin rolls, anything that was lying around.
The journeyman was a goodhearted young guy, more than once he gave her baked goods from his own portion. Previously he'd bullied me, he'd flick me in the nose, poke me in the side, but since he'd been going around to my house, he was like a balm to my affliction.
'Hey, you, Gimpl,' he said to me, 'you have a fine wife and two great children, you're not worthy of them.'
'What about the things people are saying?' I asked him.
'People have long tongues, they gossip,' he answered, 'it should worry you as much as last year's snow.'
One day the rabbi sent for me and he said: 'Are you sure, Gimpl, that you made a mistake?' I said: 'Absolutely, rabbi.' 'How can that be?' he said, 'you yourself saw it!' 'It must have been a shadow,' I say. 'A shadow,' he asked, 'of what?' and I answered: 'of a rafter.' 'Well, then,' he said, 'you can go home again, thanks to the Yonever rabbi. He found a pertinent passage in Rambam which was in your favor.'
I grabbed the rabbi's hand and kissed it. At first I wanted to run straight home, it was no small thing that I hadn't seen my wife for so long. Then I thought: 'Better I should go back to work and then go home tonight.' I didn't say anything to anybody, but there was a holiday in my heart. Just like every day the young women and wives teased me, they ridiculed me, but I thought to myself: 'Go ahead, blather on. The truth is out, like oil on the waters. If Rambam says something's kosher, it's kosher.'
At night, after I prepare the dough to rise, I take my portion of bread with me, I fill my little sack with flour and let myself go home. There's a full moon in the sky and the stars glitter with a deadly danger. I stride on, and up ahead flies a long shadow. It was winter, a fresh snow had fallen. I want to sing, but it's already late and I don't want to wake the neighbors. I want to whistle, but I remind myself it's forbidden to whistle at night because it calls out the demons. I keep quiet and plunge ahead as quickly as I can.
In the Christian yards, hounds hear my steps and they bay after me, but I think to myself: 'Shout your teeth out. You're vicious curs, while I'm a person, a man with a respectable wife, a father with well-made children.'
I get a glimpse of my house and my heart starts banging like a thief's. I'm not dreading anything, but my heart's going bam, bam ... well, too late now. I quietly open the door chain and go in.
Elke's already asleep. I stand still as a stone and take a look in the crib. The shutter is closed but the moon shines in through a crack. I see the little maiden's tiny face and straightaway, I feel love. Just like that, all at once. I already could have kissed all her little bones.
Afterwards I approach the bed. And what do you suppose I see there? Elke's lying there and next to her - the journeyman. All at once the moon is snuffed out. Before my eyes, a terrible darkness. My hands and feet shake. My teeth start chattering. The bread falls out of my hands.
My wife wakes up and asks: 'Who's there, eh?' 'It's me,' I murmur. 'Gimpl?' she asks, 'how can you have come here? Is it permitted now?'
'The rabbi called...' I answer, and it's as if I've got an ague.
'Listen to me, Gimpl,' she says, 'go outside to the shed and have a look at the goat. It seems she's sick.' (I forgot to tell you we had a goat.) 'Figure out if the nannygoat isn't quite right.'
I go out into the yard. She was a fine creature, I was very fond of her, as much so, if you'll pardon the comparison, as if she'd been a person. I go to her stall with stumbling footsteps and open the little door. The goat is standing on her four feet. I check her all over, her horns, I feel her udder. I don't see anything wrong. It must be that she gobbled down too much bark, I decide. 'Good night to you, little nannygoat,' I say, 'be healthy and strong,' and the quiet beast answered me with a 'meh' as she usually did, trying to say with her mute tongue: 'thank you very much.'
I return and see that the journeyman has escaped, he's seeped away. 'Where's that young guy?' I ask. 'What young guy?' my wife answers back. 'How can you ask? The journeyman,' I say, 'you were sleeping with him.'
'The dreams that came to me, tonight and last night,' my wife called, 'may they pour out over your head and your body and soul. Nothing other than an evil spirit has taken possession of you and dazzled your eyes.'
She suddenly shouted: 'You rotten guy, you monster, you banshee, you elflock, get out of here or I'll scream and all of Frampol will come running.'
Before you know it, her little brother sprang up suddenly from under the oven and walloped me with his fist, right on the cheek. I thought he'd broken my neck. I understood something was the matter with me and complained to her: 'Don't make me a laughing-stock. That's all I need, a reputation for dealing with the Other Folk. Nobody will touch my baked goods.' In short, I pacified her. 'Well then, an end to it,' she says, 'lie down and be broken on the wheel.'
Next morning I called the journeyman aside in secret. 'Hear me out, brother,' I say, and thus and so-forth. 'So, what do you say?'
He looks at me as if I've fallen down from a roof. 'For goodness sake, go to a healer or some old Christian. I'm afraid,' he says, 'you've got a screw loose in your head, what a bane you are. I won't tell anybody, let this be the end of it.' And that's the way it stood.
To make a long story short, I lived with my wife for over twenty years. She bore me six children: four girls and two boys. Over those years all sorts of things happened, but I didn't see or hear. I just believed, and that was that. The rabbi recently said to me: 'When you believe, things go well with you. It's written that a holy man lives by his faith.'
Suddenly my wife became ill. It began small, a lump on her breast. But she evidently wasn't a person with long years to live. I spent a lot of money on her. (I forgot to say that I'd already had a bakery of my own for quite some time by then and that Frampol considered me to be something of a wealthy man.) The healer came every day and people brought me any witch or sorceress to be found. There were leeches, there was cupping. Even a real doctor from the city of Lublin. But it was too late.
Before dying my wife called me to her bed and said: 'Gimpl, forgive me.' I say: 'What would I have to forgive you for? You were a faithful wife.'
She says, 'Oh, Gimpl, poor thing, I've deceived you cruelly all these years. But I want to go off to God with a clean conscience. You must know - the children aren't yours.'
If you hit me over the head with an iron bar, I wouldn't be as befuddled. 'Whose are they?' I ask. 'I don't know,' she says, 'there were a lot - only, they aren't yours.' And as she speaks she throws her head forward, her eyes get glassy, and Elke is gone. On her white lips, a smile remained. It seems to me that in death she was saying: 'I deceived Gimpl. That was the purpose of my abbreviated life.'
One night, after the week of mourning was over, when I was lying on my sack and snoozing, a certain Somebody came to me, actually the Evil Inclination himself, and he says to me: 'Gimpl, why are you sleeping?' I say: 'What should I do, eat kreplach?' He says: 'Since the whole world fools you, you should fool the world.' I say: 'How can I fool a world?' He says: 'Every day, gather a bucket of urine; at night, put it in the dough. Let the wise men of Frampol gobble muck.'
I say: 'But what about the Next World?' He says: 'There is no Next World. They've deceived you.'
'Well,' I say, 'is there a God?' He says: 'there's also no God.' 'Well what, then,' I ask, 'is there?' He says: 'A deep, filthy swamp.'
He stands in front of my eyes, the devil, with a goat's beard, with goat's horns, with long teeth and a tail. After such words, I wanted to grab him by the tail, but I tumbled off the sack of flour and almost broke a rib.
It happened that I needed to relieve myself and passing by I noticed the big ball of dough; it literally begged me: 'Do it!' In short, I let myself be convinced.
Before dawn, the journeyman showed up; we kneaded the bread, sprinkled the loaves with caraway seeds, and left them to rise. Then the young man left and I stayed behind, sitting in the pit by the oven, on a pile of rags. 'Well,' I think to myself, 'you've taken revenge, Gimpl, for all the embarrassments.'
Outside, the ice crackles, but here inside it's warm. My face glowed. I bent my head and dozed off.
As I sleep, into my dreams comes Elke in her shrouds, and she calls to me: 'Gimpl, what have you done?' I say: 'It's all your fault,' and I begin to cry. She says, 'You simpleton, just because Elke is false, is everything lies? I haven't deceived anyone but myself. Gimpl, they don't forgive anything There!'
I take a look at her face: black as coal. Right away I wake myself up. For a long time I sat silently. I felt as if everything hung in the balance. One step and I lose the world to come.
But God helped me. I grabbed a paddle, carried all the loaves outside, threw them in a pile, and started digging a grave for them in the frozen earth.
Meanwhile my young man arrived. 'Boss,' he says, 'what are you doing?' And he turned as pale as a ghost. 'It's all right,' I say, and in front of his eyes I bury all the baked goods.
Afterwards I went home, took my money from its hiding place, and divided it among the children. 'This very night,' I say, 'I saw your mother. Poor thing, she's turned all black.' They were so stunned, they couldn't get a single word out. 'Farewell, be healthy,' I say to them, 'and forget there was ever a Gimpl.'
I put on my short coat, a pair of pants, take the tallis bag in one hand and a walking stick in the other, and kiss the mezuzah. When people saw me in the street, they were completely amazed. 'Wherever are you going?' they ask me, and I answer: 'I'm going out into the world.' And that's how I left Frampol.
I've wandered over the land and good people haven't neglected me. Years passed. I became old and grey. I've heard a lot of stories, a lot of lies and fabrications, but the longer I've lived, the more I've realized there aren't really any lies. If something doesn't happen to one of us, it happens to another. If not today, it will be tomorrow, or in a year, or after a hundred years. What's the difference? More than once when I've heard of some incident I've thought: 'This certainly isn't possible,' yet after no more than a year or two I hear it really happened somewhere. Even if a story is made up, it can also have substance. Why does one person think up one sort of thing and a second person - something else?
So as I go from house to house and eat at the tables of strangers, I often have the chance to tell stories, unbelievable, improbable stories, with a ghost, a magician, a windmill, any sort of whatever. The children press around me: 'Grandfather, tell a story.' Sometimes they tell me exactly what story they want, and that's what they get. Why should I care?
Once a chubby little fellow said to me: 'Grandfather, it's all the same story.' And what do you know? The rascal was right.
It's the same with dreams. It's been so many years already since I left Frampol, but if I merely close my eyes - I'm there again, and who do you think I see? Elke. She stands by the washtub, like the first day I met her, except that her face shines, her eyes are lit up like a holy woman's, and she says unusual things to me. When I snap out of it I've forgotten everything, but meanwhile, I feel happy. She answers all my questions and it turns out that everything is good. I cry for her and beg her: take me, and she calms me: have patience, Gimpl, it will be sooner rather than later. Sometimes she kisses me, embraces me, she weeps on my face, and when I wake up, I feel her lips and the salty taste of her tears.
Yes, it's true, the world of the living is a false one, full of lies, but it's only one step away from the real world. In front of the poorhouse where I lie stands the table where corpses are washed. The gravedigger is ready with his shovel. The grave is waiting. The worms are hungry. The shrouds are lying next to me in a sack. Another beggar already waits for my pallet of straw. If God wills it, when the time comes I'll go happily. Whatever may be there, everything will be true, without complications, without mocking and swindling. Thank God: there, not even Gimpl can be deceived.
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