Size / / /

Translated from Yiddish by Joseph Tomaras

I first met him in a field, and this is how I greeted him:

“Sir … good … wait! May the crops in your fields be cut down, may all that remains of your summer be hard stubs of straw, may cold and silent woods await you in winter, may every species of bird abandon your lands, may every path you walk be filthy, may all you own be blown in the wind, and may you not have even a single grain to eat, no place or dwelling where you may rest your head, may you have only the bees to keep you company, wherever you walk may you walk alone … and can you hold up a minute and let me reach you?”

He heard me out and stayed silent. He stood right in front of me. I waited. It was late at night, unpleasant at the very end of summer, sad, and we were in a field. A village was visible in the distance; some crazy distance all the way at the horizon, we could see, in the dark, a bit of smoke silently rising to the sky. He pointed it out to me with his finger: “A village,” so he said. “And if you’re scared of the winter, that’s nothing. If you’re scared of the open road, you do what everyone does, abandon the open air and road, because it’s not the road for you.”

This was not how I wanted it to go. I got on my knees to beg forgiveness.

“No, no! Your time is my time, I love this earth of yours, and its winter—by your leave, I’ll keep walking, all the way through winter!”

I was at the end of my tether. Rainwater weighed down my sack and my gait, I had spent long nights in fields and woods all over God’s green earth—and I had turned against it all. I did not want to spend another night under the trees, making a bed of fallen leaves, staking out my portion of moist earth, without a star to light my path, not even a hamlet anywhere nearby, and no help I could count upon.

I waited. After each night I could count on waking up at the cock’s crow, early in a difficult, bright, autumnal morning, the summer long gone. I had had enough of those mornings on the road, enough of the cold and the inhospitable, of the people who had beatings to share and the ones who would not share even a word. They were reminders to me of what had been—the passed and the fallen—and of what was yet to come, of snowy, windblown winters. In and through the half-light of early morning I would resume my path. The days were short, and the ways were long. So that one time I suddenly came across a fellow traveler in a field, in the middle of the day, when we were face-to-face, he took a good look at me and asked, “How are you, fellow? How is it going for you and yours?”

I stayed silent. I only raised my eyes to his. He looked at me. And as we looked one another over, the earth hardened and dried out as chilly winds blew over it. It was as if it only hardened in my vicinity, only near me and my footfalls did the wind and the first flurries of wintry weather make themselves felt, some freak storm that followed me and me alone. My wet sack started freezing on my back. Days and nights passed over me. I saw blinding snowstorms and great distances on bright, clear days. I lived in the open air, and warmed the cold, clean atmosphere around me. That whole time, he never came to me, never showed himself to me. Why not?

Winter came. It came down upon me. And the winds blew over the world announcing like a herald: It follows him. So the first joy was blown away by an agile storm cloud.

I saw him once again standing on a frozen pond, on the slopes of a mountain.

“Hello,” he said to me. “Hello. Peace and joy be upon you.”

And he seemed delighted to see me, whom he had not seen in a long time, still standing and walking his way. He stood still on the pond, not speaking, not showing what he was doing there.

“It’s touch and go, but a summer will come to you.”

And it began to feel summery, even though we were in the middle of winter.

My sack was lighter than it had been, and its outside was worn thin. At nights, I had spoken to the stars and viewed my reflection in their light, set myself on paths and pushed my way through winds blowing against me, looked at the heavens and set my ears upon the waters. The snow had ended, and the sun was helping it to disappear, revealing the landscape to my eyes, near and far. And I began to walk, on a newborn path, not the old one. The nights and the stars would be clear, for it was summer. I was resting late at night, next to a spring-fed pond, started a blessing, and then I said: “I walk and I walk, and I have what to walk with, and if anyone would join me I would be joyful, and the spring …”

And just like that it became spring. I had waited so long for it; it was like the first time. The night became just like those that follow a day in April: The sun, young and strong, has gone, but it leaves a bluish glow. Early morning in the fields, I looked up and saw a flock of geese flying over me, following my path. The field had kept its evening chill. The sky was clean, high, full of stars, and unobstructed in my vision. I could hear a voice coming from somewhere higher up but under the heavens, speaking of flights and flight paths, of geese and of all things that fly high in sky. I lifted my head and I saw him up there with the geese, where he had appeared out of nowhere: “Good evening to you!” he said. “The geese greet you and wish you well, wild geese from all over the world! What do you say to the geese?”

“Good, and good evening!” I shouted up to him and the geese. “May they fly well and joyfully, on this eve of spring! And as for you, what are you doing up there in the sky? Your friend is walking alone, and he just wants to see you, and from time to time maybe, just maybe, have the pleasure of your company …”

He said, “Good night, sir!” And he and the geese kept on flying.

And nights went and mornings came, and in houses and villages the birds did the same; ponds fill up from dawn to dusk with songs that are sung to beg for a crust, on water so fresh, in village roofs made of thatching, promising from on high to bring food to the hatchling, in the bluest of skies and just before dawn they say what they have to, stay silent when they can, and call to their fellows, they call them to sing because in the land it is time now for spring, and the birds follow all without exception, but one: Not the person who walks.

So I kept walking. I could only find a peaceful, silent dawn in the fields, early and far from all. I sought out nests and birds and dew and grass, fields used for pasture and shepherds going out to tend their flocks, and woods where peeping sounds could be heard. With my bundle I came into that dawn as a guest who had tasted too long of winter and its hunger, seeking refuge from winter’s storms. It would be enough for me to spend as long as I could in this new season’s hospitality.

So I thought that the fields would be of a mind to welcome me and my bundle. But this is what the fields said in greeting: “Way over there, you see at the corner of the horizon, there is a sleepy little village. It is spring there, too. They are secure in their sleep and their daily routine and their property, they have houses and stalls, children and livestock, and they keep the peace without even one cop. Leave fields and trees alone to our spring; that there is the place for you until summer, a place for rest and repose.” That is how the fields spoke to me, how the dawn greeted me.

I heard and continued on my way, silently carrying my stick and my sack, still just a walker in the fields, in the light of the dawn.

Another early morning my old friend appeared once more in a field. The field was green and overgrown with grass, and the rising sun was casting its light to every corner. There was a small pond in one spot. It held the waters of the springtime, the remains of winter’s snowmelt, and every sign of blessings in that field. The sun reflected and flickered across its surface, scattering its rays far beyond the pond’s shoreline. The man had fallen in love with this field, and spent the whole morning watching it. He was standing on the shore of the pond, deep in thought, looking around at the lights and waters. I came up to him from behind. I stood there watching him for a long time, as he seemed to be full of love for the springtime and the water by which he was standing. He saw my reflection in the pond. He turned toward me, and our bodies, heads, and faces were parallel to one another.

“How are you, walker?”

“Enjoying the spring, and thankful to meet you, gracious sir!”

“And how is your walking?”

“Walking is fine, especially since I see it has brought me to your lands, good sir, where it would be nice to visit from time to time.”

“And so?”

“And so for walking, I would like some summer. To be able to go from one land to another, even from one earth to another, until one blots the other out in memory. If I keep going, I will get to the water, the sea, and there I will build a hut with a roof over my head, and stay there all summer, living as a fisherman. I will catch a golden fish and dive for pearls, great things with which to thank you, my lord, for blessing me with a summer.”

He smiled. He silently contemplated me as I stood there, smiling at my certainty, but he did not look me in the face. Instead he pointed with his hand toward the horizon …

And spring had gone, and summer had come. I had come to the end of the earth and was by the sea, with its salty water, where I could be happy. But I had no boat, and no fishermen lived upon this shore. He had left me here at the shore of the water, all alone. I looked to see if I could hope for some flotsam to make its way to land on the current.

I stayed put.

Days dawned on me, nights covered me over, and the sea toyed with me. The waters raged. The sea pulled me to its breast and rocked me to sleep. From time to time, it brought me gifts: A pearl of white cast upon the shore. I gathered them one by one, and soon I had accumulated a treasury of the sea’s riches. But no one knew I was there, nor knew of my pearls. No one came to view my treasures. No traveling merchant ever came up the shore to me.

That is how I spent my summer by the sea.

And then, on an evening lit by the moon reflected on the sea, he came to me across the water, from over the horizon.

Over the sea and through the white light of the moon, from far away and over the breaking waves, he came to my desolate shore and made landfall. I was quietly enjoying my pearls in that bright evening, scattering them across the sand around me. I looked at my reflection in the pearls, tossed them from hand to hand, and buried them in the sand. I was so occupied with my games, that I did not look once at the sea, and did not notice him coming.

He kept his distance from me, silent in my presence, as I grew ever more ashamed of my games of pearls and sand. I remained on the ground, embarrassed. I did not lift my body, my head, or even an eye to him, and said: “Good sir, I am ashamed.”

He waited. In guilty silence, I handed over to him one pearl after another. He took them from me without looking at them, remaining silent and taking them in his hands at his sides as he kept his eyes fixed on me. The silence became ever more still until I could hear a sigh escape his chest.

I understood. I pushed up from the ground, then took my stick and my sack from their usual spot. I turned my face away from the sea and toward the dry land from whence I had come. Then I looked at him one last time as a sign of parting: “Sir!”

“Walker, get walking!”

So I went. The summer gave way as every summer should to autumn, and the sky filled with melancholy clouds that wept raindrops onto the land. Then signs of winter overtook the fields and paths of autumn—and I said nothing. I did not call for him. I wished for nothing, demanded nothing. In autumnal silence, through sunsets and sunrises, I carried my fate in my sack.

Der Nister—literally The Hidden One—was the pen name of Pinkhus Kahanovich. Born 1884, in the city of Berdychiv, in what is now Ukraine, in 1920 he went into brief exile, returning to the Soviet Union in 1925. In 1950, he was arrested in conditions of secrecy, and died shortly thereafter in a prison hospital. To date the only book-length translations of his work into English are of the social-realist novel The Family Mashber, and Regrowth, a collection of posthumously published short stories.