Eight-year-old Brontsi used to linger for hours at the border, looking across to Russia.
The shtetl was built on a mountain, and a narrow river rippled down in the valley below: the Russian-Austrian border. From the lookout point with its railing, a large stretch of land was visible on the far side, as well as the red customs-house.
Brontsi looked across at the customs-house and thought of her rich uncle the wine merchant who lived on the far side of the river. She had loved Russia ever since she first caught sight of a Russian nobleman wearing a white fur. In Russia they wore white furs.
She was an only child. She had no mother, and her father, a merchant who was always travelling from village to village, could not always be with her; so he used to leave her with an aunt until he returned. And because there were enough children at her aunt’s house as it was, no one paid her much attention. Therefore, she could slip away down to the water to look across to the far side. For as long as she could remember, she had always yearned to cross over the border. And when her father came back from the villages, she used to wheedle:
“When will you take me across to buy a little white fur coat?”
“Daddy, daddy, daddy . . .”
“Crazy child . . .”
She imagined that in Russia everyone went about dressed in white furs.
“This Russia . . . what is it?”
“A land,” said her father.
“A land, a land, a land . . . with white furs . . .”
And once, when snow had fallen and covered the Russian fields on the far side, it seemed to her that the land itself had been spread with white furs.
That was in the wintertime. In the summertime, she drew near to the water, near to the border, because little dark berries grew on the far side of the river.
She always imagined her rich uncle standing by a barrel, drawing wine into cut crystal glasses and passing them around . . . It is good to have an uncle who serves wine. So she wanted to travel to see him.
Every Friday evening, she used to chase after the peasant wagons full of flour which pulled up at the border to pay the customs fee, and she sought out Fishl son of Basi, a Jew who travelled across the border with the transport every week. She would catch him by a coattail:
“Fishl, are you going across?”
“Go home, or I'll tell your father.”
“Send greetings to my uncle . . . ”
“Which uncle, what uncle? . . . Let go of my coattail, you brat . . . go home, I say . . . ”
“The one who passes out wine . . .”
She jumped up and down like a demon, and he couldn’t extract himself without promising that he would pass along the greeting.
She truly wanted to travel across to Russia to see the white furs, and whenever she pestered her father, he would appease her with a little toy, and promise that he would soon earn a lot of money in order to buy her uncle a fine gift. It would not do to visit without a gift . . . And he remarked to himself that the child needed a mother. He thought of Peysi the widow and gave a tender sigh.
Like all children who have lost their mothers, the child was unruly, with a wild little heart which wandered from place to place—when it was here, it wished to be there, and vice versa.
One day, her father travelled to Germany to sell oil. And as he did not return promptly, it was rumoured in the city that he had been lost; some even said that he had died.
So Brontsi went to stay with her aunt whose house was full of children. This aunt of hers was no gem of an aunt, always cross with Brontsi, finding fault: she gave bread to the pup, she did not obey when sent on an errand . . . Brontsi did not understand. So what if she shared her bread with Bosik? Must they shout at her so? She wasn’t giving away their bread, she shared only her own portion. It helped him and it helped her too. She did not beg a single extra morsel for him, nor one for herself. So why all the fuss?—And she really did not want to go on errands for her aunt—why should she? She would rather slip away to the border, to look across to her uncle who served wine, and to the noblemen with their white furs.
When her aunt saw that Brontsi was incorrigible, she wept before her husband, the girl’s father’s brother. He could not bear the sight of tears, so he said: “I shall send her over to Russia.”
When Brontsi heard that they were sending her over, she danced with joy: white furs . . . And when they seated her in the wagon next to Fishl son of Basi, and the horses tugged on the traces, something inside her leapt for joy, and she thought to herself: “All is well.”
After passing over the border, she soon wearied of the journey and gradually dropped off to sleep in the wagon.
When she awoke and Fishl told her that they had arrived in the Russian shtetl, she did not want to believe it. She could see that it was autumn, just as it was at home. People wandered through narrow alleys, up to their ankles in mud. She saw sagging houses like the ones near the bathhouse at home.
“Fishl, is this really it?”
Fishl son of Basi answered that this was it.
“Well, and where are the noblemen with their white furs?”
He led her into one of the sagging houses. Inside she saw a clay floor and a glass cabinet full of holy books. She went over to the cabinet and opened a book. The pages were spattered with wax and gave off an odour of decay. No, in truth the musty odour came from the portrait of Baron Hirsch and Montefiore!
Fishl took Brontsi into the other building, the tavern. Inside, Russians drank and sang, lined up at long tables.
Brontsi's aunt was an old matron wearing a stiff kerchief, with a look in her eyes that portended no good. She roved around with a large bunch of keys and cursed the serving girl. When she caught sight of Brontsi, she didn’t even lower her cheek for a kiss, but only snapped, “Well, how are you doing? Everything in order?”
Her uncle was a rather round-faced fellow with a bristly beard like a brush. He approached her, looked her over, and ordered that she be given something to eat, in such a fearsome voice that Brontsi could barely restrain her tears.
Her aunt passed her a small plate of peas with a bit of bread, and Brontsi ate.
Meanwhile, a clamour arose at one of the tables. One peasant grappled with another, breaking a bottle in the process. Her uncle came over and punched one of them in the jaw. Blood spurted. The peasant burst into tears. He sobbed aloud, slurring the Russian words: “My dear Ber, why, whyyy, whyyyyyy . . . .”
Tears poured out of Brontsi’s eyes in immediate sympathy. She was afraid lest someone see, so she wiped her eyes surreptitiously and continued eating, swallowing her tears with the peas. Every morsel stuck in her throat.
Fishl son of Basi stood by the door and took his leave. Suddenly, Brontsi darted over to him. She fastened herself to his coattails and would not allow him to leave. He pulled away from her, but she buried her face in his cloak and sobbed: “Take me home . . . home . . .”
Her aunt and uncle came over to insist that she stay. Her aunt put on a friendly face and spoke with a warm voice, now that she knew the child would soon depart:
“Stay here, silly goose, why are you crying? You will find it pleasant here . . . .
We will take you with us into the forest each day . . .”
Fishl son of Basi tried to help.
“They’ll buy you a pair of galoshes . . .”
Her uncle tried too: “We’ll get a coat made for you . . .”
“Of white fur?” she asked through her sobs.
Her uncle smiled and everyone else burst out laughing. “Of course, you silly girl, what else?” said her aunt. “As long as you stay . . .”
But she knew it was all a lie, there were no white furs . . . people get smacked in the face here . . . blood spurts out and they sob drunkenly . . . it’s no good . . .
the peas stick in your throat, choking you. So she renewed her lament:
“Home . . . I want to go home . . .”
And when Fishl son of Basi saw how the child clung to him, it tugged at his heart and he stood there, uncertain. The child’s uncle called out: “Oh well, you can certainly see that she doesn’t want to stay . . . Let’s put an end to it, take her home . . .”
When she was seated with Fishl in the wagon, and her uncle and aunt stood with their arms crossed watching them go, she suddenly felt love for them, now that she was free to leave them behind. She cried out: “Goodbye, be well . . .”
But on the other side of the border, when they were riding uphill toward home, she began to feel a twinge of regret.
Fishl son of Basi asked her: “So, are you still going to want to go to Russia? Did I tell you, or what?”
Brontsi’s heart broke and she wept. Not because she was not permitted to give bread to the pup, and not because her aunt sent her on errands, and not because her father had gotten lost somewhere, but because she had been to Russia and there were no white furs there . . .
Fradel Shtok (1890 – c.1952) Yiddish writer associated with the New York-based Yiddish modernist literary group Di Yunge. Best known for her 1919 book of short stories, Gezamlte ertseylungen.
Rumours of her death in a mental institution persisted for many years despite the fact that she was still active and publishing stories in newspapers.
Ri J. Turner is a Yiddish translator based in Paris, where she also teaches Yiddish language at the Paris Yiddish Center ~ Medem Library. She is also pursuing a master's degree in Yiddish Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
She is a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellow, and is currently translating the novel Chaim Gravitzer by Fishl Schneersohn as well as an anthology of humour writing by Joseph Tunkel (Der Tunkeler).