ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER
Big and Little
You say—big, little,
what's the difference? Man is not measured by a yardstick. The main thing
is the head, not the feet. Still, if a person gets hold of some foolish notion,
you never know where it may lead. Let me tell you a story. There was a couple
in our town. He was called Little Motie, and she, Motiekhe. No one ever used
her real name. He was not just little; he was hardly bigger than a midget.
The idle jokers—and there are always plenty of them around—amused themselves
at the poor man's expense. The teacher's assistant, they said, took him by
the hand and led him off to Reb Berish, who taught the youngest children at
the cheder. On Simkhas Torah the men got drunk and called him
up with the small boys to the reading of the Torah. Someone gave him a holiday
flag—with an apple and a candle on the flagstick. When a woman gave birth,
the wags would come to tell him that a boy was needed for the childbed prayer,
to ward off the evil spirits. If, at least, he'd had a decent beard! But no,
it was only a wisp—a few hairs here and there. He had no children and, to
tell the truth, he did look like a schoolboy himself. His wife, Motiekhe,
wasn't a beauty either, but there was a whole lot of her. Well, be that as
it may, the two of them lived together, and Motie became something of a rich
man. He was a grain merchant and owned a storehouse. Our local landowner took
a liking to him, though he'd also make fun of the man's size now and then.
Still, it was a living. What's the good of being big if the hole in your pocket
is even bigger?
But the worst of it
was that Motiekhe (may she be forgiven) was forever teasing him. Tiny do this,
Tiny do that. She always had something for him to do in places he could not
reach. “Put a nail in the wall, up there!” “Take the copper pan down from
the shelf!” She ridiculed him in front of strangers, too, and the stories
were carried all over town afterwards. One day she even said (can you imagine
such talk from an honest Jewish wife?) that he needed a footstool to get into
bed with her. You can guess what the gossips did with that! If someone came
to ask for him when he was out, she'd say: “Take a look under the table.”
There was a teacher
with a wicked tongue who told how he had once mislaid his pointer. He looked
around—and there, said he, was Motie, using his pointer as a walking stick.
In those years, people had time on their hands, and nothing better to do than
wag their tongues. Motie himself took these mean jokes with a smile, as the
saying goes but they hurt. After all, what is so funny about being small?
What if a man has longer legs, is he worth more in the eyes of God? All this,
mind you, went on only among the riffraff. Pious folk shun evil gossip.
This Motie was no scholar,
just an ordinary man. He liked to listen to the parables of visiting preachers
at the synagogue. On Saturday mornings he chanted Psalms with the rest of
the congregation. He was also fond of an occasional glass of whisky.
Sometimes he came to our house. My father (may he rest in peace!) bought oats
from him. You'd hear Motie scraping at the latch like a cat asking to
be let in. We girls were small then, and we'd greet him with bursts
of laughter. Father would draw up a chair for him and address him as Reb Motie,
but our chairs were high and he'd have difficulty climbing up. When tea was
served, he would fidget and stretch, unable to reach the rim of the glass
with his lips. Evil tongues said that he padded his heels, and that he had
fallen once into a wooden bucket, such as people use for showering themselves
at the bath house. But all this aside, he was a clever merchant. And
Motiekhe had a life of ease and comfort with him. He owned a handsome house,
and the cupboard shelves were always filled with the best of everything.
Now listen to this.
One day man and wife had a disagreement. One word led to another, and soon
there was a real quarrel. It happens in a family. But, as luck would have
it, a neighbor was present. Motiekhe (may she not hold this against me!) had
a mouth on hinges, and when she flew into a rage she forgot God himself. She
screamed at her husband: “You midget! You little stinker! What kind of a man
are you? No bigger than a fly. I am ashamed to be seen walking to the synagogue
with such an undersized tot!” And she went on and on, heaping coal upon ashes
till all the blood drained out of his face. He said nothing, and this drove
her altogether wild. She shrieked: “What do I want with such a midget of a
man? I'll buy you a stepping stool and put you into a cradle. If my mother
had loved me, she would have found me a man, not a newborn infant!” She was
in such a frenzy, she no longer knew what she was saying. He was red-haired,
with a ruddy face, but now he turned white as chalk and he said to her: “Your
second husband will be big enough to make up for me.” And as he said it, he
broke down and cried, for all the world like a small child. No one had ever
seen him cry, not even on Yom Kippur. His wife was stricken dumb at once.
I do not know what happened afterwards, I wasn't there They must have patched
it up. But as the proverb says, a blow heals, but a word abides.
Before a month had passed,
the townspeople had some thing new to talk about. Motie had brought home an
assistant from Lublin. What did he want with an assistant? He had managed
his business well enough by himself all these years. The newcomer walked down
the street and everyone turned to look at him: a giant of a man, black as
pitch, with a pair of black eyes and a black beard. The other merchants asked
Motie: “What do you need an assistant for?” And he replied: “The business
has grown, shank God! I can no longer carry the whole burden by -myself.”
Well, they thought, he must know what he is doing. But in a small town everybody
sees what's cooking in his neighbor's pot. The man from Lublin—his name was
Mendl—didn't seem to be much of a merchant. He hung about the yard, gawking
and rolling his black eyes this way and that. On market days he stood like
a post among the carts, towering over the peasants and chewing at a straw.
When he came to the
prayer house, people asked him: “What did you do in Lublin?” He answered:
“I am a wood chopper.” “Do you have a wife?” “No,” he said, he was a widower.
The Brick Street idlers had something to prattle and gossip about. And it
was strange. The man was as big as Motie was little. When they talked to each
other, the newcomer had to bend down to his waist, and Motie raised himself
up on tiptoe. When they walked down the street, everyone ran to the window
to look. The big fellow strode ahead, and Motie had to run after him at a
trot. When the man raised his arm, he could have touched the roof. It was
like that story of the Bible, when the Israelite spies looked like grasshoppers,
and the others like giants. The assistant lived at Motie's house and Motiekhe
served him his meals. The women asked her: “Why did Motie bring home such
a Goliath?” And she replied: “I should know of evil as I know why. If he were,
at least, good at business. But he can't tell wheat from rye. He eats like
a horse and snores like an ox. And on top of it all, he's an oaf—so sparing
of a word as if it were a gold coin.” Motiekhe had a sister to whom she poured
out her bitter heart. Motie needed a helper, she said, like a hole in the
head. It was all done out of spite. The man didn't do a stitch of work. He
would eat them out of house and home. Those were her words. In our town there
were no secrets. Neighbors listened at your window and bent their ears to
your keyhole. “Why spite?” asked the sister, and Motiekhe burst out weeping:
“Because I called him a premature baby.” The story was immediately all over
town, but people found it difficult to believe. What kind of spite was it?
Whom was he hurting with such a Turkish trick? It was his own money, not hers.
But when a man takes a foolish notion into his head, God pity him! That's
the truth, as it ;is written—I forget just where.
Two weeks hadn't passed
before Motiekhe came weeping to the rabbi.
“Rebbe,” said she, “my
husband's taken leave of his senses. He's brought an idle glutton into our
home. And if that's not enough, he's turned over all the money to him.” The
stranger, she said, held the purse, and whenever she, Motiekhe, needed anything,
she had to go to him. He was the cashier. “Holy Rebbe,” she cried, “Motie
has done all this only to spite me, because I called him a puppet.” The rabbi
could not quite make out what she wanted. He was a holy man, but helpless
in worldly matters. And he said: “I cannot interfere in your husband's business.”
“But Rebbe,”,” she cried, “this will be the ruin of us!”
The rabbi sent for Motie,
but the man insisted: “I've carried enough grain sacks. I can permit myself
to hire a helper.” In the end, the rabbi dismissed them both with the command:
“Let there be peace!” What else could he do?
Suddenly Little Motie
fell ill. Nobody knew what ailed him, but he lost color. Small as he was,
he shrank still more. He came to the synagogue to pray and hovered in the
corner like a shadow. On market day he was not out among the carts. His wife
asked: “What's wrong with you, my husband?” But he replied: “Nothing, nothing
at all.” She sent for the healer, but what does a healer know? He prescribe
some herbs, but they did not help. In the middle of the day, Motie would go
to bed and lie there. Motiekhe asked: “What hurts you?” And he answered: “Nothing
hurts.” “Why, then, are you lying in bed like a sick man?” And he said: “I
have no strength.” “How can you have strength,” she wanted to know, “when
you eat like a bird?” But he only said: “I have no appetite.”
What shall I tell you?
Everyone saw that Motie was in a bad way. He was going out like a light. Motiekhe
wanted him to go to Lublin to see the doctors but he refused. She began to
wail and moan: “What's to become of me? With whom are you leaving me?” And
he answered: “You will marry the big fellow.” “Wretch! Murderer!” she cried.
“You are dearer to me than any giant. Why must you torment me? What if I said
a few words? It was only out of affection. You are my husband, my child, you
are everything in the world to me. Without you my life isn't worth a
pinch of dust.” But all he said to her was: “I am a withered branch. With
him you will have children.”
If I wanted to tell
you everything that went on, I'd have to stay here a day and a night. The
town's leading citizens came and talked to him. The rabbi paid a sickbed visit.
“What is this madness you've taken into your head? It is God's world, not
man's.” But Motie pretended he did not understand. When his wife saw that
things were going from bad to worse, she raised a row and ordered the stranger
to leave her house. But Motie said: “No, he stays. As long as I breathe, I
am master here.”
Nevertheless, the man
went to sleep at the inn. But in the morning he was back and took full charge
of the business. Everything was now in his hands—the money, the keys, every
last scrap. Motie had never written anything down but the assistant entered
everything in a long ledger. He was miserly too. Motiekhe demanded money for
the household, but he made her account for every kopek. He weighed and measured
every ounce and every crumb. She screamed: “You're a stranger, and it's none
of your business! Go to all the black devils, you robber, you murderer, you
highwayman out of the woods.)' His answer was: “If your husband dismisses
me, I will go.” But most of the time he said nothing at all, merely grunted
like a bear.
While the summer was
warm, Little Motie still managed to be up on his feet some of the time. He
even fasted on Yom Kippur. But soon after Succoth he began to fail rapidly.
He went to bed and did not get up. His wife brought a doctor from Zamosc,
but the doctor could do nothing for him. She went to witch-healers, measured
graves with a wick and made candles for the synagogue as an offering, sent
messengers to holy rabbis, but Motie grew weaker from day to day. He lay on
his back and stared at the ceiling. It was now necessary to help him put on
his prayer shawl and phylacteries in the morning, he no longer had the strength
to do it himself. He ate nothing but a spoonful of oatmeal now and then. He
no longer said the benediction over the wine on Sabbath. The tall one would
come from the synagogue, bless the angels and recite the benediction.
When Motiekhe saw where
all this was leading, she called in three Jews and brought out the Bible.
She washed her hands, picked up the Holy Book and cried: “Be my witnesses,
I swear by the Holy Book and by God Almighty that I will not marry this man,
even if I remain a widow to the age of ninety!” And after she had said this,
she spat at the big fellow—right in the eye. He wiped his face with a handkerchief
and went out. Motie said: “It doesn't matter. You'll be absolved of your oath
A week later Motie lay
dying. It did not take long, and Motie was no more. He was laid out on the
ground, with candles at his head and his feet pointing to the door. Motiekhe
pinched her cheeks and screamed: “Murderer! You took your own life! You have
no right to a holy Jewish burial! You should be buried outside the cemetery
fence!” She was not in her right mind.
The tall one took himself
off somewhere and stayed out of sight. The burial society wanted money for
the funeral but Motiekhe didn't have a kopek. She had to pawn her jewelry.
Those who prepared Motie for burial said afterwards that he was as light as
a bird. I saw them carry out the body. It looked as if there was a child under
the cloth. On the coverlet lay the dipper which he had used to pour out the
grain. He had ordered it to be laid there as a reminder that he had always
given good measure. They dug a grave and buried him. Suddenly the giant turned
up, as if from out of the ground. He began to say the Kaddish, and the widow
shrieked: “You Angel of Death, it was you who drove him from this world!”
And she threw herself upon him with her fists. People barely managed
to hold her back.
The day was short. Evening
came, and Motiekhe seated herself on a low stool to begin her seven days of
mourning And all the while the tall one was in and out of the yard, carrying
things, doing this and that. He sent a boy to the widow with some money for
her needs. And so it went from day to day. Finally the community took a hand
in the affair and called the man before the rabbi. “What's all this?” they
argued. “Why have you fastened on to that house?” At first he was silent as
if he didn't think the words were addressed to him. Then he pulled a paper
from his breast pocket and showed them: Motie had made him guardian over all
his worldly goods. He left his wife only the household belongings. The townsfolk
read the will and were stunned. “How did he come to do such a thing?” the
rabbi asked . . . Well, it was simple enough: Motie had gone to Lublin, sought
out the biggest man he could find, and made him his heir and executor. Before
that, the man had been a foreman of a lumbering gang.
The rabbi gave his instructions:
“The widow has sworn an oath, and so you must not enter the house. Return
her property to her, for the whole thing is unholy.” But the giant said: “You
don't get things back from the graveyard.” Those were his words. The leaders
of the community reviled him, threatened him with the three letters of excommunication
and a beating. But he was not easily scared. He was tall as an oak, and, when
he spoke, his voice boomed out as from a barrel. In the meantime, Motiekhe
kept to her vow. Each time a visitor came with condolences, she renewed her
oath—over candles, over prayer books, over anything she could think of. On
the Sabbath, a quorum of men came to the house to pray. She ran up to the
Holy Scrolls and swore by them. She wouldn't do what Motie wanted, she screamed,
he wouldn't have his way. And she cried so bitterly that everyone wept with
Well, dear people, she
married him. I don't remember how long it took—six months, or nine . . . It
was less than a year. The big fellow had everything and she had nothing. She
put aside her pride and went to the rabbi. “Holy Rebbe, what should I do?
Motie wanted it so. He haunts my dreams. He pinches me. He cries into my ear
that he will choke me.” She rolled up her sleeve, right there in the rabbi's
study chamber, and showed him an arm covered with black and blue marks. The
rabbi did not want to take the decision upon himself and wrote to Lublin.
Three rabbis arrived and pored over the Talmud for three days In
the end they gave her—what do you call it? —a release.
The wedding was a quiet
one, but the crowd made enough noise to make up for it. You can imagine all
the jeering and hooting! Before the marriage, Motiekhe had been lean as a
board and looked green and yellow. But soon after the wedding she began to
blossom like a rose. She was no longer young, but she became pregnant. The
town was agog. Just as she had called her first husband “the small one,” so
she called her second, “the tall one.” It was the tall one this, and the tall
one that. She hung on his every look and became altogether silly over him.
After nine months she gave birth to a boy. The child was so big that she suffered
in labor for three days. People thought she would die, but she pulled through.
Half the town came to the circumcision. Some came to rejoice, others to laugh.
It was quite an occasion.
At first everything
seemed fine. After all, it's no small matter—a son in one's old age! But just
as Motie had been lucky in every venture, so Mendl was unlucky. The landowner
took a dislike to him. The other merchants shunned him. The warehouse was
invaded by mice as big as cats, and they devoured the grain. Everyone agreed
that this was a punishment from on high, and it didn't take long before Mendl
was finished as a merchant. He went back to being a foreman in the woods.
And now listen to this. He goes up to a tree and taps the bark with his mallet.
And the tree falls over, right on top of him. There was not even any wind.
The sun was shining. He didn't have time to cry out.
Motiekhe lasted a while
longer, but she seemed to have gone out of her mind. All she did was mutter
endlessly— short, tall, tall, short . . . Every day she rushed off to the
cemetery to wail over the graves, running back and forth, from one grave to
the other. By the time she died, I was no longer in town. I had gone to live
with my husband's parents.
As I was saying—spite
. . . One shouldn't tease. Little is little, and big is big. It's not our
world. We didn't make it. But for a man to do such an unnatural thing! Did
you ever hear the like of it? Surely, the evil one must have gotten into him.
I shudder every time I think of it.