A Pity for the Living
Sholem Aleykhem

"If you were a good boy, you would help us to scrape the horse-radish until we are ready with the fish for the holy festival."

That was what my mother said to me on the eve of "Shevuous," about mid-day. She was helping the cook to prepare the fish for the supper. The fishes were still alive and wriggling. When they were put into a clay basin and covered with water they were still struggling.

More than any of the others there struggled a little carp with a broad back, and a round head and red eyes. It seemed that the little carp had a strong desire to get back into the river. It struggled hard. It leaped out of the basin, flapped its tail, and splashed the water right into my face. "Little boy, save me! Little boy, save me!"

I wiped my face, and betook myself to the task of scraping the horse-radish for the supper. I thought within myself, "Poor little fish. I can do nothing for you. They will soon take you in hand. You will be scaled and ripped open, cut into pieces, put in a pot, salted and peppered, placed on the fire, and boiled and simmered, and simmered, and simmered."

"It's a pity," I said to my mother. "It's a pity for the living."

"Of whom is it a pity?"

"It's a pity of the little fishes."

"Who told you that?"

"The teacher."

"The teacher?"

She exchanged glances with the cook who was helping her, and they both laughed aloud.

"You are a fool, and your teacher a still greater fool. Ha! ha! Scrape the horse-radish, scrape away."

That I was a fool I knew. My mother told me that frequently, and my brothers and my sisters too. But that my teacher was a greater fool than I—that was news to me.

. . . . .

I have a comrade, Pinalle, the "Shochet's" son. I was at his house one day, and I saw how a little girl carried a fowl, a huge cock, its legs tied with a string. My comrade's father, the "Shochet," was asleep, and the little girl sat at the door and waited. The cock, a fine strong bird, tried to get out of the girl's arms. He drove his strong feet into her, pecked at her hand, let out from his throat a loud "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" protested as much as he could. But the girl was no weakling either. She thrust the head of the rooster under her arm and dug her elbows into him, saying:

"Be still, you wretch!"

And he obeyed and remained silent.

When the "Shochet" woke up, he washed his hands and took out his knife. He motioned to have the bird handed to him. I imagined that the cock changed colour. He must have thought that he was going to be freed to race back to his hens, to the corn and the water. But it was not so. The "Shochet" turned him round, caught him between his knees, thrust back his head with one hand, with the other plucked out a few little feathers, pronounced a blessing—heck! the knife was drawn across his throat. He was cast away. I thought he would fall to pieces.

"Pinalle, your father is a heathen," I said to my comrade.

"Why is he a heathen?"

"He has in him no pity for the living."

"I did not know you were so clever," said my comrade, and he pulled a long nose right into my face.

. . . . .

Our cook is blind of one eye. She is called "Fruma with the little eye." She is a girl without a heart. She once beat the cat with nettles for having run away with a little liver from the board. Afterwards, when she counted the fowls and the livers, it turned out that she had made a mistake. She had thought there were seven fowls, and, of course, seven little livers, and there were only six. And if there were only six fowls there could be only six little livers. Marvellous! She had accused the cat wrongly.

You might imagine that Fruma was sorry and apologized to the cat. But it appeared she forgot all about it. And the cat, too, forgot all about it. A few hours later she was lying on the stove, licking herself as if nothing had happened. It's not for nothing that people say: "A cat's brains!"

But I did not forget. No, I did not forget. I said to the cook: "You beat the cat for nothing. You had a sin for no reason. It was a pity for the living. The Lord will punish you."

"Will you go away, or else I'll give it you across the face with the towel."

That is what "Fruma with the little eye" said to me. And she added:

"Lord Almighty! Wherever in the world do such children come from?"

. . . . .

It was all about a dog that had been scalded with boiling water by the same "Fruma with the little eye." Ah, how much pain it caused the dog. It squealed, howled and barked with all its might, filling the world with noise. The whole town came together at the sound of his howling, and laughed, and laughed. All the dogs in the town barked out of sympathy, each from his own kennel, and each after his own fashion. One might think that they had been asked to bark. Afterwards, when the scalded dog had finished howling, he moaned and muttered and licked his sores, and growled softly. My heart melted within me. I went over to him and was going to fondle him.

"Here, Sirko!"

The dog, seeing my raised hand, jumped up as if he had been scalded again, took his tail between his legs and ran away—away.

"Shah! Sirko!" I said trying to soothe him with soft words. "Why do you run away like that, fool? Am I doing you any harm?"

A dog is a dog. His tongue is dumb. He knows nothing of pity for the living.

My father saw me running after the dog and he pounced down on me.

"Go into 'Cheder,' dog-beater."

Then I was the dog-beater.

. . . . .

It was all about two little birds—two tiny little birds that two boys, one big and one small, had killed. When the two little birds dropped from the tree they were still alive. Their feathers were ruffled. They fluttered their wings, and trembled in every limb.

"Get up, you hedgehog," said the big boy to the small boy. And they took the little birds in their hands and beat their heads against the tree-trunk, until they died.

I could not contain myself, but ran over to the two boys.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"What's that to do with you?" they demanded in Russian. "What harm is it?" they asked calmly. "They are no more than birds, ordinary little birds."

"And if they are only birds? Have you no pity for the living—no mercy for the little birds?"

The boys looked curiously at one another, and as if they had already made up their minds in advance to do it, they at once fell upon me.

When I came home, my torn jacket told the story, and my father gave me the good beating I deserved.

"Ragged fool!" cried my mother.

I forgave her for the "ragged fool," but why did she also beat me?

. . . . .

Why was I beaten? Does not our teacher himself tell us that all creatures are dear to the Lord? Even a fly on the wall must not be hurt, he says, out of pity for the living. Even a spider, that is an evil spirit, must not be killed either, he tells us emphatically.

"If the spider deserved to die, then the Lord Himself would slay him."

Then comes the question: Very well, if that is so, then why do the people slaughter cows and calves and sheep and fowls every day of the week?

And not only cows and other animals and fowls, but do not men slaughter one another? At the time when we had the "Pogrom," did not men throw down little children from the tops of houses? Did they not kill our neighbours' little girl? Her name was Peralle. And how did they kill her?

Ah, how I loved that little girl. And how that little girl loved me! "Uncle Bebebe," she used to call me. (My name is Velvalle.) And she used to pull me by the nose with her small, thin, sweet little fingers. Because of her, because of Peralle, every one calls me "Uncle Bebebe."

"Here comes Uncle Bebebe, and he will take you in hand."

. . . . .

Peralle was a sickly child. That is to say, in the ordinary way she was all right, but she could not walk, neither walk nor stand, only sit. They used to carry her into the open and put her sitting in the sand, right in the sun. She loved the sun, loved it terribly. I used to carry her about. She used to clasp me around the neck with her small, thin, sweet little fingers, and nestle her whole body close to me —closer and closer. She would put her head on my shoulder. "I love Uncle Bebebe."

Our neighbour Krenni says she cannot forget Uncle Bebebe to this day. When she sees me, she says she is again reminded of her Peralle.

My mother is angry with her for weeping.

"We must not weep," says my mother. "We must not sin. We must forget—forget."

That is what my mother says. She interrupts Krenni in the middle and drives me off.

"If you don't get into our eyes, we won't remember that which we must not."

Ha! ha! How is it possible to forget? When I think of that little girl the tears come into my eyes of their own accord—of their own accord.

"See, he weeps again, the wise one," cries "Fruma with the little eye" to my mother. My mother gives me a quick glance and laughs aloud.

"The horse-radish has gone into your eyes. The devil take you. It's a hard piece of horse-radish. I forgot to tell him to close his eyes. Woe is me! Here is my apron. Wipe your eyes, foolish boy. And your nose, too, wipe at the same time your nose, your nose."

Translated by Hannah Berman, 1921, reprinted by project Gutenberg.