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The Spinning Top by Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich

 

More than any of the boys at “Cheder,” more than any boy of the town, and more than any person in the world, I loved my friend, Benny “Polkovoi.” The feeling I had for him was a peculiar combination of love, devotion, and fear. I loved him because he was handsomer, cleverer and smarter than any other boy. He was kind and faithful to me. He took my part, fought for me, and pulled the ears of those boys who annoyed me.

And I was afraid of him because he was big and quarrelsome. He could beat whom he liked, and when he liked. He was the biggest, oldest, and wealthiest boy in the “Cheder.” His father, Mayer “Polkovoi,” though he was only a regimental tailor, was nevertheless a rich man, and played an important part in public affairs. He had a fine house, a seat in the synagogue beside the ark. At the Passover, his “Matzo “ was baked first. At the feast of Tabernacles his citron was the best. On the Sabbath he always had a poor man to meals. He gave away large sums of money in charity. And he himself went to the house of another to lend him money as a favour. He engaged the best teachers for his children. In a word, Mayer “Polkovoi” tried to refine himself—to be a man amongst men. He wanted to get his name inscribed in the books of the best society, but did not succeed. In our town, Mazapevka, it was not easy to get into the best society. We did not forget readily a man's antecedents. A tailor may try to refine himself for twenty years in succession, but he will still remain a tailor to us. I do not think there is a soap in the world that will wash out this stain. How much do you think Mayer “Polkovoi” would have given to have us blot out the name bestowed upon him, “Polkovoi”? His misfortune was that his family was a thousand times worse than his name. Just imagine! In his passport he was called Mayor Mofsovitch Heifer.

It is a remarkable thing. May Mayer's great-great-grandfather have a bright Paradise! He also must have been a tailor. When it came to giving himself a family name, he could not find a better one than Heifer. He might have called himself Thimble, Lining, Buttonhole, Bigpatch, Longfigure. These are not family names either, it is true, but they are in some way connected with tailoring. But Heifer? What did he like in the name of Heifer? You may ask why not Goat? Are there not people in the world called Goat? You may say what you like, Heifer and Goat are equally nice. Still, they are not the same. A Heifer is not a Goat.

But we will return to my friend Benny.

* * *

Benny was a nice boy, with yellow tousled hair, white puffed-out cheeks, scattered teeth, and peculiar red, bulging, fishy eyes. These red, fishy eyes were always smiling and roguish. He had a turned-up nose. His whole face had an expression of impudence. Nevertheless, I liked his face, and we became friends the first hour we met.

We met for the first time at “Cheder,” at the teachers' table. When my mother took me to “Cheder,” the teacher was sitting at his table with the boys, teaching them the book of Genesis. He was a man with thick eyebrows and a pointed cap. He made no fuss of me. He asked me no questions, neither did he take my measurements, but said to me—

“Get over there, on that bench, between those two boys.”

I got on the bench, between the boys, and was already a pupil. There was no talk between my mother and the teacher. They had made all arrangements beforehand.

“Remember to learn as you ought,” said my mother from the doorway. She turned to look at me again, lovingly, joyfully. I understood her look very well. She was pleased that I was sitting with nice children, and learning the “Torah.” And she was pained because she had to part with me.

I must confess I felt much happier than my mother. I was amongst a crowd of new friends—may no evil eye harm them! They looked at me, and I looked at them. But the teacher did not let us idle for long. He shook himself, and shouted aloud the lesson we had to repeat after him at the top of our voices.

“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field.”

Boys who sit so close together, though they shake and shout aloud, cannot help getting to know one another, or exchange a few words. And so it was.

Benny “Polkovoi,” who sat crushing me, pinched my leg, and looked into my eyes. He went on shaking himself, and shouting out the lesson with the teacher and the other boys. But he threw his own words into the middle of the sentence we were translating.

“And Adam knew (here are buttons for you) Eve his wife. (Give me a locust-bean and I will give you a pull of my cigarette.)”

I felt a warm hand in mine, and I had some smooth buttons. I confess I did not want the buttons, and I had no locust-beans, neither did I smoke cigarettes. But I liked the idea of the thing. And I replied in the same tones in which the lesson was being recited:

“And she conceived and bare Cain. (Who told you I have locust-beans?)”

That is how we conversed the whole time, until the teacher suspected that though I shook myself to and fro, my mind was far from the lesson. He suddenly put me through an examination.

“Listen, you, whatever your name is, you surely know whose son Cain was, and the name of his brother?”

This question was as strange to me as if he had asked me when there would be a fair in the sky, or how to make cream-cheese from snow, so that they should not melt. In reality my mind was elsewhere, I don't know where.

“Why do you look at me so?” asked the teacher. “Don't you hear me? I want you to tell me the name of the first man, and the story of Cain and his brother Abel.”

The boys were smiling, smothering their laughter. I did not know why.

“Fool, say you do not know, because we have not learnt it,” whispered Benny in my ear, digging me with his elbow. I repeated his words, like a parrot. And the “Cheder” was filled with loud laughter.

“What are they laughing at?” I asked myself. I looked at them, and at the teacher. All were rolling with laughter. And, at that moment, I counted the buttons from one hand into the other. There were exactly half a dozen.

“Well, little boy, show me your hands. What are you doing with them?” And the teacher bent down and looked under the table.

You are clever boys, and you will understand yourselves what I had from the teacher, for the buttons, on my first day at “Cheder.”

* * *

Whippings heal up; shame is forgotten. Benny and I became good friends. We were one soul. This is how it came about:—

Next morning I arrived at “Cheder” with my Bible in one hand and my dinner in the other. The boys were excited, jolly. Why? The teacher was not there. What had happened? He had gone off to a Circumcision with his wife. That is to say, not with her, God forbid! A teacher never walks with his wife. The teacher walks before, and his wife after him.

“Let us make a bet,” cried a boy with a blue nose. His name was Hosea Hessel.

“How much shall we bet?” asked another boy, Koppel Bunnas. He had a torn sleeve out of which peeped the point of a dirty elbow.

“A quarter of the locust-beans.”

“Let it be a quarter of the locust-beans. What for? Let us hear.”

“I say he will not stand more than twenty-five.”

“And I say thirty-six.”

“Thirty-six. We shall soon see. Boys, take hold of him.”

This was the order of Hosea Hessel, of the blue nose. And several boys took hold of me, all together, turned me over on the bench, face upwards. Two sat on my legs, two on my arms, and one held my head, so that I should not be able to wriggle. And another placed his left forefinger and thumb at my nose. (It seemed he was left-handed.) He curled up his finger and thumb, closed his eye, and began to fillip me on the nose. And how, do you think? Each time I saw my father in the other world. Murderers, slaughterers! What had they against my nose? What had it done to them? Whom had it bothered? What had they seen on it—a nose like all noses.

“Boys, count,” commanded Hosea Hessel. “One, two, three—”

But suddenly....

Nearly always, since ever the world began, when a misfortune happens to a man—when robbers surround him in a wood, bind his hands, sharpen their knives, tell him to say his prayers, and are about to finish him off, there comes a woodman with a bell. The robbers run away, and the man lifts his hands on high and praises the Lord for his deliverance.

It was just like that with me and my nose. I don't remember whether it was at the fifth or sixth blow that the door opened, and Benny “ Polkovoi” came in. The boys freed me at once, and remained standing like blocks of wood. Benny took them in hand, one by one. He caught each boy by the ear, twisted it round, and said:

“Well, now you will know what it means to meddle with a widow's boy.”

From that day the boys did not touch either me or my nose. They were afraid to begin with the widow's boy whom Benny had taken under his wing, into his guardianship, under his protection.

* * *

“The widow's boy”—-I had no other name at “Cheder.” This was because my mother was a widow. She supported herself by her own work. She had a little shop in which were, for the most part, so far as I can remember, chalk and locust-beans—the two things that sell best in Mazapevka. Chalk is wanted for white-washing the houses, and locust-beans are a luxury. They are sweet, and they are light in weight, and they are cheap. Schoolboys spend on them all the money they get for breakfast and dinner. And the shopkeepers make a good profit out of them. I could never understand why my mother was always complaining that she could hardly make enough to pay the rent and my school-fees. Why school-fees? What about the other things a human being needs, food and clothes and boots, for example? She thought of nothing but the school-fees. “When the Lord punished me,” she wailed, “and took my husband from me—and such a husband!—and left me all alone, I want my son to be a scholar, at any rate.” What do you say to that? Do you think she did not come frequently to the “Cheder” to find out how I was getting on? I say nothing of the prayers she took good care I should recite every morning. She was always lecturing me to be even half as good as my father—peace be unto him! And whenever she looked at me, she said I was exactly like him—may I have longer years than he! And her eyes grew moist. Her face grew curiously careworn, and had a mournful expression.

I hope he will forgive me, I mean my father, from the other world, but I could not understand what sort of a man he had been. From what my mother told of him, he was always either praying or studying. Had he never been drawn, like me, out into the open, on summer mornings, when the sun was not burning yet, but was just beginning to show in the sky, marching rapidly onwards, a fiery angel, in a fiery chariot, drawn by fiery horses, into whose brilliant, burning, guinea-gold faces it was impossible to look? I ask you what taste have the week-day prayers on such a morning? What sort of a pleasure is it to sit and read in a stuffy room, when the golden sun is burning, and the air is hot as an iron frying-pan? At such a time, you are tempted to run down the hill, to the river—the beautiful river that is covered with a green slime. A peculiar odour, as of a warm bath, comes from the distance. You want to undress and jump into the warm water. Under the trees it is cool and the mud is soft and slippery. And the curious insects that live at the bottom of the river whirl around and about before your eyes. And curious, long-legged flies slip and slide on the surface of the water. At such a time one desires to swim over to the other side—over to where the green flags grow, their yellow and white stalks shimmering in the sun. A green, fresh fern looks up at you, and you go after it, plash-plash into the water, hands down, and feet up, so that people might think you were swimming. I ask you again, what pleasure is it to sit in a little room on a summer's evening, when the great dome of the sky is dropping over the other side of the town, lighting up the spire of the church, the shingle roofs of the baths, and the big windows of the synagogue. And on the other side of the town, on the common, the goats are bleating, and the lambs are frisking, the dust rising to the heavens, the frogs croaking. There is a tearing and a shrieking and a tumult as at a regular fair. Who thinks of praying at such a time? But if you talk to my mother, she will tell you that her husband—peace be unto him!—did not succumb to temptations. He was a different sort of a man. What sort of a man he was I do not know—asking his pardon. I only know that my mother annoys me very much. She reminds me every minute that I had a father; and throws it into my teeth that she has to pay my school-fees for me. For this she asks only two things of me—that I should learn diligently, and say my prayers willingly.

* * *

It could not be said that the widow's boy did not learn well. He was not in any way behind his comrades. But I cannot guarantee that he said his prayers willingly. All children are alike. And he was as mischievous as any other boy. He, like the rest, was fond of running away and playing, though there is not much to be said of the play of Jewish children. They tie a paper bag to a cat's tail so that she may run through the house like mad, smashing everything in her way. They lock the women's portion of the synagogue from the outside on Friday nights, so that the women may have to be rescued. They nail the teacher's shoes to the floor, or seal his beard to the table with wax when he is asleep. But oh, how many thrashings do they get when their tricks are found out! It may be gathered that everything must have an originator, a commander, a head, a leader who shows the way.

Our leader, our commander was Benny “Polkovoi.” From him all things originated; and on our heads were the consequences. Benny, of the fat face and red, fishy eyes, always managed to escape scot free from the scrapes. He was always innocent as a dove. Whatever tricks or mischief we did, we always got the idea from Benny. Who taught us to smoke cigarettes in secret, letting the smoke out through our nostrils? Benny. Who told us to slide on the ice, in winter, with the peasant-boys? Benny. Who taught us to gamble with buttons—to play “odd or even,” and lose our breakfasts and dinners? Benny. He was up to every trick, and taught us them all. He won our last “groschens” from us. And when it came to anything, Benny had disappeared. Playing was to us the finest thing in the world. And for playing we got the severest thrashings from our teacher. He said he would tear out of us the desire to play.

“Play in my house? You will play with the Angel of Death,” said the teacher. And he used to empty our pockets of everything, and thrash us most liberally.

But there was one week of the year when we were allowed to play. Why do I say allowed? It was a righteous thing to play then.

And that week was the week of “Chanukah.” And we played with spinning-tops.

* * *

It is true that the games of cards—bridge and whist, for example—which are played at “Chanukah” nowadays have more sense in them than the old game of spinning-tops. But when the play is for money, it makes no difference what it is. I once saw two peasant-boys beating one another's heads against the wall. When I asked them why they were doing this, if they were out of their minds, they told me to go my road. They were playing a game, for money, which of them would get tired the soonest of having his head banged on the wall.

The game of spinning-tops that have four corners, each marked with a letter of the alphabet, and are like dice, is very exciting. One can lose one's soul playing it. It is not so much the loss of the money as the annoyance of losing. Why should the other win? Why should the top fall on the letter G for him, and on the N for you? I suppose you know what the four letters stand for? N means no use. H means half. B means bad. And G means good. The top is a sort of lottery. Whoever is fortunate wins. Take, for example, Benny “Polkovoi.” No matter how often he spins the top, it always falls on the letter G.

The boys said it was curious how Benny won. They kept putting down their money. He took on their bets. What did he care? He was a rich boy.

“G again. It's curious,” they cried, and again opened their purses and staked their money. Benny whirled the top. It spun round and round, and wobbled from side to side, like a drunkard, and fell down.

“G,” said Benny.

“G, G. Again G. It's extraordinary,” said the boys, scratching their heads and again opening their purses.

The game grew more exciting. The players grew hot, staked their money, crushed one another, and dug one another in the ribs to get nearer the table, and called each other peculiar names—“Black Tom-cat! Creased Cap! Split Coat!” and the like. They did not see the teacher standing behind them, in his woollen cap and coat, and carrying his “ Tallis” and “Tephilin” under his arm. He was going to the synagogue to say his prayers, and seeing the crowd of excited boys, he drew near to watch the play. This day he does not interfere. It is “ Chanukah.” We are free for eight days on end, and may play as much as we like. But we must not fight, nor pull one another by the nose. The teacher's wife took her sickly child in her arms, and stood at her husband's shoulder, watching the boys risk their money, and how Benny took on all the bets. Benny was excited, burning, aflame, ablaze. He twirled the top. It spun round and round, wobbled and fell down.

“G all over again. It's a regular pantomime.”

Benny showed us his smartness and his quick-wittedness so long, until our pockets were empty. He thrust his hands in his pockets, as if challenging us—“Well, who wants more?”

We all went home. We carried away with us the heartache and the shame of our losses. When we got home, we had to tell lies to account for the loss of the money we had been given in honour of “Chanukah.” One boy confessed he had spent his on locust-beans. Another said the money had been stolen out of his pocket the previous night. A third came home crying. He said he had bought himself a pocket-knife. Well, why was he crying? He had lost the knife on his way home.

I told my mother a fine story—a regular “Arabian Nights” tale, and got out of her a second “Chanukah” present of ten “groschens.” I ran off with them to Benny, played for five minutes, lost to him, and flew back home, and told my mother another tale. In a word, brains were at work and heads were busy inventing lies. Lies flew about like chaff in the wind. And all our “Chanukah” money went into Benny's pockets, and was lost to us for ever.

One of the boys became so absorbed in the play that he was not satisfied to lose only his “Chanukah” money, but went on gambling through the whole eight days of the festival.

And that boy was no other than myself, “the widow's son.”

* * *

You must not ask where the widow's boy got the money to play with. The great gamblers of the world who have lost and won fortunes, estates and inheritances—they will know and understand. Woe is me! May the hour never be known on which the evil spirit of gambling takes hold of one! There is nothing too hard for him. He breaks into houses, gets through iron walls, and does the most terrible thing imaginable. It's a name to conjure with—the spirit of gambling.

First of all, I began to make money by selling everything I possessed, one thing after the other, my pocket-knife, my purse, and all my buttons. I had a box that opened and closed, and some wheels of an old clock—good brass wheels that shone like the sun when they were polished. I sold them all at any price, flew off, and lost all my money to Benny. I always left him with a heart full of wounds and the bitterest annoyance, and greatly excited. I was not angry with Benny. God forbid! What had I against him? How was he to blame if he always won at play? If the top fell on the G for me, he said, I should win. If it falls on the G for him, then he wins. And he is quite right. No, I am only sorry for myself, for having run through so much money—my mother's hard-earned “groschens,” and for having made away with all my things. I was left almost naked. I even sold my little prayer-book. O that prayer-book, that prayer-book! When I think of it, my heart aches, and my face burns with shame. It was an ornament, not a book. My mother bought it of Pethachiah the pedlar, on the anniversary of my father's death. And it was a book of books—a good one, a real good one, thick, and full of everything. It had every prayer one could mention, the “Song of Songs,” the Ethics of the Fathers, and the Psalms, and the “Haggadah,” and all the prayers of the whole year round. Then the print and the binding, and the gold lettering. It was full of everything, I tell you. Each time Pethachiah the pedlar came round with his cut moustache that made his careworn face appear as if it was smiling—each time he came round and opened his pack outside the synagogue door, I could not take my eyes off that prayer-book.

“What would you say, little boy?” asked Pethachiah, as if he did not know that I had my eyes on the prayer-book, and had had it in my hands seventeen times, each time asking the price of it.

“Nothing,” I replied. “Just so!” And I left him, so as not to be tempted.

“Ah, mother, you should see the fine thing Pethachiah the pedlar has.”

“What sort of a thing?” asked my mother.

“A little prayer-book. If I had such a prayer-book, I would—I don't know myself what I would do.”

“Haven't you got a prayer-book? And where is your father's prayer-book?”

“You can't compare them. This is an ornament, and my book is only a book.”

“An ornament?” repeated my mother. “Are there then more prayers in an ornamental book, or do the prayers sound better?”

Well, how can you explain an ornament to your mother—a really fine book with red covers, and blue edges, and a green back?

“Come,” said my mother to me, one evening, taking me by the hand. “Come with me to the synagogue. Tomorrow is the anniversary of your father's death. We will bring candles to be lit for him, and at the same time we will see what sort of a prayer-book it is that Pethachiah has.”

I knew beforehand that on the anniversary of the death of my father, I could get from my mother anything I asked for, even to the little plate from heaven, as the saying is. And my heart beat with joy.

When we got to the synagogue, we found Pethachiah with his pack still unopened. You must know Pethachiah was a man who never hurried. He knew very well he was the only man at the fair. His customers would never leave him. Before he opened his pack and spread out his goods, it took a year. I trembled, I shook. I could hardly stand on my feet. And he did not care. It was as if we were not talking to him at all.

“Let me see what sort of a prayer-book it is you have,” said my mother.

Pethachiah had plenty of time. The river was not on fire. Slowly, without haste, he opened his pack, and spread out his wares—big Bibles, little prayer-books for men, and for women, big Psalm books and little, and books for all possible occasions, without an end. Then there were books of tales from the “Talmud,” tales of the “ Bal-shem-tov,” books of sermons, and books of devotion. I imagined he would never run short. He was a well, a fountain. At last he came to the little books, and handed out the one I wanted.

“Is this all?” asked my mother. “Such a little one.”

“This little one is dearer than a big one,” answered Pethachiah.

“And how much do you want for the little squirrel?—God forgive me for calling it by that name.”

“You call a prayer-book a squirrel?” asked Pethachiah. He took the book slowly out of her hand; and my heart was torn.

“Well, say. How much is it?” asked my mother. But Pethachiah had plenty of time. He answered her in a sing-song:

“How much is the little prayer-book? It will cost you—it will cost you—I am afraid it is not for your purse.”

My mother cursed her enemies, that they might have black, hideous dreams, and asked him to say how much.

Pethachiah stated the price. My mother did not answer him. She turned towards the door, took my hand, and said to me:

“Come, let us go. We have nothing to do here. Don't you know that ' Reb' Pethachiah is a man who charges famine prices?”

I followed my mother to the door. And though my heart was heavy, I still hoped the Lord would pity us, and Pethachiah would call us back. But Pethachiah was not that sort of a man. He knew we should turn back of our own accord. And so it was. My mother turned round, and asked him to talk like a man. Pethachiah did not stir. He looked at the ceiling. And his pale face shone. We went off, and returned once again.

“A curious Jew, Pethachiah,” said my mother to me afterwards. “May my enemies have the plague if I would have bought the prayer-book from him. It is at a famine price. As I live, it is a sin. The money could have gone for your school-fees. But it's useless. For the sake of tomorrow, the anniversary of your father's death—peace be unto him!—I have bought you the prayer-book, as a favour. And now, my son, you must do me a favour in return. Promise me that you will say your prayers faithfully every day.”

Whether I really prayed as faithfully as I had promised, or not, I will not tell you. But I loved the little book as my life. You may understand that I slept with it, though, as you know, it is forbidden. The whole “Cheder” envied me the little book. I minded it as if it were the apple of my eye. And now, this “Chanukah”—woe unto me!—I carried it off with my own hands to Moshe the carpenter's boy, who had long had his eye on it. And I had to beg of him, for an hour on end, before he bought it. I almost gave it away for nothing—the little prayer-book. My heart faints and my face burns with shame. Sold! And to what end? For whose sake? For Benny's sake, that he might win off me another few “kopeks.” But how is Benny to blame if he wins at play?

“That's what a spinning-top is for,” explained Benny, putting into his purse my last few “groschens.” “If things went with you as they are going with me, then you would be winning. But I am lucky, and I win.”

And Benny's cheeks glowed. It is bright and warm in the house. A silver “Chanukah” lamp is burning the best oil. Everything is fine. From the kitchen comes a delicious odour of freshly melted goose-fat.

“We are having fritters tonight,” Benny told me in the doorway. My heart was weak with hunger. I flew home in my torn sheep-skin. My mother had come in from her shop. Her hands were red and swollen with the cold. She was frozen through and through, and was warming herself at the stove. Seeing me, her face lit up with pleasure.

“From the synagogue?” she asked.

“From the synagogue,” was my lying answer.

“Have you said the evening prayer?”

“I have said the evening prayer,” was my second lie to her.

“Warm yourself, my son. You will say the blessing over the ' Chanukah' lights. It is the last night of 'Chanukah' tonight, thank God!”

* * *

If a man had only troubles to bear, without a scrap of pleasure, he would never get over them, but would surely take his own life. I am referring to my mother, the widow, poor thing, who worked day and night, froze, never had enough to eat, and never slept enough for my sake. Why should she not have a little pleasure too? Every person puts his own meaning into the word “pleasure.” To my mother there was no greater pleasure in the world than hearing me recite the blessings on Sabbaths and Festivals. At the Passover I carried out the “Seder “ for her, and at “Chanukah” I made the blessing over the lights. Was the blessing over wine or beer? Had we for the Passover fritters or fresh “matzo”? What were the “Chanukah” lights—a silver, eight-branched lamp with olive oil, or candles stuck in pieces of potato? Believe me, the pleasure has nothing to do with wine or fritters, or a silver lamp. The main thing is the blessing itself. To see my mother's face when I was praying, how it shone and glowed with pleasure was enough. No words are necessary, no detailed description, to prove that this was unalloyed happiness to her, real pleasure. I bent over the potatoes, and recited the blessing in a sing-song voice. She repeated the blessing after me, word for word, in the same sing-song. She looked into my eyes, and moved her lips. I knew she was thinking at the time: “It is he—he in every detail. May the child have longer years!” And I felt I deserved to be cut to pieces like the potatoes. Surely, I had deceived my mother, and for such a base cause. I had betrayed her from head to foot.

The candles in the potatoes—my “Chanukah” lights—flickered and flickered until they went out. And my mother said to me:

“Wash your hands. We are having potatoes and goose-fat for supper. In honour of 'Chanukah,' I bought a little measure of goose-fat—fresh, beautiful fat.”

I washed myself with pleasure, and we sat down to supper.

“It is a custom amongst some people to have fritters for supper on the last night of 'Chanukah,'“ said my mother, sighing. And there arose to my mind Benny's fritters, and Benny's spinning-top that had cost me all I possessed in the world. I had a sharp pain at my heart. More than all, I regretted the little prayer-book. But, of what use were regrets? It was all over and done with.

Even in my sleep I had uneasy thoughts. I heard my mother's groans. I heard her bed creaking, and I imagined that it was my mother groaning. Out of doors, the wind was blowing, rattling the windows, tearing at the roof, whistling down the chimney, sighing loudly. A cricket had come to our house a long time before. It was now chirping from the wall, “Tchireree! Tchireree!” And my mother did not cease from sighing and groaning. And each sigh and each groan echoed itself in my heart. I only just managed to control myself. I was on the point of jumping out of bed, falling at my mother's feet, kissing her hands, and confessing to her all my sins. I did not do this. I covered myself with all the bed-clothes, so that I might not hear my mother sighing and groaning and her bed creaking. My eyes closed. The wind howled, and the cricket chirped, “Tchireree! Tchireree! Tchireree! Tchireree!” And there spun around before my eyes a man like a top—a man I seemed to know. I could have sworn it was the teacher in his pointed cap. He was spinning on one foot, round, and round, and round. His cap sparkled, his eyes glistened, and his earlocks flew about. No, it was not the teacher. It was a spinning-top—a curious, living top with a pointed cap and earlocks. By degrees the teacher-top, or the top-teacher ceased from spinning round. And in its place stood Pharaoh, the king of Egypt whose story we had learnt a week ago. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, stood naked before me. He had only just come out of the river. He had my little prayer-book in his hand. I could not make out how that wicked king, who had bathed in Jewish blood, came to have my prayer-book. And I saw seven cows, lean and starved, mere skin and bones, with big horns and long ears. They came to me one after the other. They opened their mouths and tried to swallow me. Suddenly, there appeared my friend Benny. He took hold of their long ears, and twisted them round. Some one was crying softly, sobbing, wailing, howling, and chirping. A man stood near me. He was not a human being. He said to me softly:

“Tell me, son, on which day do you recite the mourner's prayer for me?”

I understood that this was my father of whom my mother had told me so many good things. I wanted to tell him the day on which I must say the mourner's prayer for him, but I had forgotten it. I fretted myself. I rubbed my forehead, and tried to remind myself of the day, but I could not. Did you ever hear the like? I forgot the day of the anniversary of my father's death. Listen, Jewish children, can you not tell me when the day is? Why are you silent? Help! Help! Help!

* * *

“God be with you! Why are shouting? Why do you shriek? What is the matter with you? May the Lord preserve you!”

You will understand it was my mother who was speaking to me. She held my head. I could feel her trembling and shaking. The lowered lamp gave out no light, but an oppressive stench. I saw my mother's shadow dancing on the wall. The points of the kerchief she wore on her head were like two horns. Her eyes gleamed horribly in the darkness.

“When do I say the mourner's prayer, mother? Tell me, when do I say the mourner's prayer?”

“God be with you! The anniversary of your father's death was not long ago. You have had a bad dream. Spit out three times. Tfu! Tfu! Tfu! May it be for a good sign! Amen! Amen! Amen!”

* * *

Children, I grew up, and Benny grew up. He became a young man with a yellowish beard and a round belly. He wears a gold chain across it. It seems he is a rich man.

We met in the train. I recognized him by his fishy, bulging eyes and his scattered teeth. We had not met for a long time. We kissed one another and talked of the good old times, the dear good days of our childhood, and the foolish things we did then.

“Do you remember, Benny, that 'Chanukah' when you won everything with the spinning top? The G always fell for you.”

I looked at Benny. He was convulsed with laughter. He held his sides. He was rolling over. He was actually choking with laughter.

“God be with you, Benny! Why this sudden burst of laughter, Benny?”

“Oh!” he cried, “oh! go away with your spinning-top! That was a good top. It was a real top. It was a pudding made only of suet. It was a stew of nothing but raisins.”

“What sort of a top was it, Benny? Tell me quicker.”

“It was a top that had all around it, on all the corners only the one letter, G.”

 
 
 

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