Last Friday was Halloween but on a Friday I much preferred to post faith filled post, especially since the next day was All Saints Day. So I went with a saintly post instead of a fiendish one. But now let me make a Halloween post, an excerpt from a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer titled, “The Gentleman from Cracow.” Part IV of the story is a perfect Halloween read, from the eerie, portentous setting to the evil supernatural beings that invade from the sky.
Let me give you the context. The town of Frampol, already a humble town, has been further impoverished because of a drought. Just when the inhabitants are about to abandon the town, suddenly a rich man from Cracow comes to settle, a relatively young widower, and he starts giving away money like it’s sand, and of course the poor people start taking it and going along with his wishes. Slowly, step by sinful step, the traditional religious ways are compromised and a Sodom and Gomorrah mentality pervades the town. Finally at a dance the Gentleman (we are never told his name) throws to marry every girl in the town by random lottery, social breakdown ensues and evil spirits take over the town. In the passage below there are a lot of what appears to be Jewish folkloric references which I don’t recognize, but I don’t think the specific references are significant. Perhaps they are to those that get them, but one doesn’t need to know them to appreciate this passage. Also, the girl Hodle in the passage is a girl from the outskirts of town who has been raised loosely and has a reputation for promiscuous and serial sex. The story is part realism, part folklore, and part cautionary tale, and only a master short story writer as Singer could pull this off in just thirteen pages. Enjoy, and happy Halloween.
The setting sun, remarkably large, stared down angrily, like a heavenly eye, upon the Frampol market place. Never before had Frampol seen such a sunset. Like rivers of burning sulphur, fiery clouds streamed across the heavens, assuming the shapes of elephants, lions, snakes, and monsters. They seemed to be waging a battle in the sky, devouring one another, splitting apart, breathing fire. It almost seemed to be the River of Fire they watched, where demons tortured the evildoers amid glowing coals and heaps of ashes. The moon swelled, became vast, blood-red, spotted, scarred, and gave off little light. The evening grew very dark, dissolving even the stars. The young men fetched torches, and a barrel of burning pitch was prepared. Shadows danced back and forth as though attending a ball of their own. Around the market place the houses seemed to vibrate; roofs quivered, chimneys shook. Such gaiety and intoxication had never before been known in Frampol. Everyone, for the first time in months, had eaten and drunk to the full. Even the animals participated in the merrymaking. Horses neighed, cows mooed, and the few roosters that had survived the general slaughter crowed. Flocks of strange birds flew in to pick at the leavings. Fireflies illumined the darkness, and lightning flashed on the horizon. But there was no thunder. A weird circular light glowed in the sky for a few moments and then suddenly plummeted toward the horizon, trailing a crimson tail. Then, as everyone stared in wonder at the sky, the gentleman from Cracow spoke:
“Listen to me. I have wonderful things to tell you, but let no one be overcome by joy. Men, take hold of your wives. Young men, look to your girls. You see in me the wealthiest man in the entire world. Money is sand to me, and diamonds are pebbles. I come from the Land of Ophir, where King Solomon found the gold for his Temple. I dwell in the palace of the Queen of Sheba. My coach is solid gold, its wheels inlaid with sapphires, with axles of ivory, its lamps studded with rubies and emeralds, opals and amethysts. The Ruler of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel knows of your miseries, and he has sent me to be your benefactor. But there is one condition. Tonight, every virgin must marry. I will provide a dowry of ten thousand ducats for each maiden, as well as a string of pearls down to her knees. But make haste. Every girl must have a husband before the clocks strike twelve.”
The crowd was hushed. It was as quiet as New Year’s Day before the blowing of the ram’s horn. One could hear a fly buzz.
Then one old man called out, “But that’s impossible. The girls are not even betrothed!”
“Let them become betrothed.”
“We can draw lots,” the gentleman from Cracow replied. “Whoever is to be married will have his or her name written on a card. Mine also. And then we shall draw to see who is meant for whom.”
“But a girl must wait seven days. She must have the prescribed ablutions.”
“Let the sin be on me. She needn’t wait.”
Despite the protests of the older men and their wives, a sheet of paper was torn into bits, and on each piece the name of a young man or young woman was written by a scribe. The town’s beadle, now in the service of the gentleman from Cracow, drew from one skullcap the names of the young men, and from the other those of the young women, chanting their names in the same tune as when he called up members of the congregation for the reading of the Torah.
“Nahum, son of Katriel, betrothed to Yenel, daughter of Nathan. Solomon, son of Dov Baer, betrothed to Trina, daughter of Jonah Lieb.” The assortment was a strange one, but in the night all cats are gray, and the matches seemed not too absurd. After each drawing, the newly engaged couple, hand in hand, approached the doctor to collect the dowry and wedding gift. As he had promised, the gentleman from Cracow gave each the stipulated sum of ducats, and on the neck of each bride he hung a strand of pearls. Now the mothers, unable to restrain their joy, began to dance and shout. The fathers stood by, bewildered. When the girls lifted their dresses to catch the gold coins given by the doctor, they showed their legs and underclothing, which sent the men into paroxysms of lust. Fiddles screeched, drums pounded, trumpets blared. The uproar was deafening. Twelve-year-old boys were mated with “spinsters” of nineteen. The sons of substantial citizens received the daughters of paupers as brides; midgets were coupled with giants, beauties with cripples. On the last two slips appeared the name of the gentleman from Cracow and that of Hodle, the daughter of Lipa the ragpicker.
The same old man who had called out previously cried out, “Woe unto us, the girl is a harlot!”
“Come to me, Hodle, come to your bridegroom,” the doctor bade.
Hodle, her hair in two long braids, dressed in a calico skirt, and with sandals on her feet, did not wait to be asked twice. As soon as she had been called she walked to where the gentleman from Cracow sat on his mare, and fell to her knees. She prostrated herself seven times before him.
“Is it true, what that old fool says?” her prospective husband asked her.
“Yes, my lord, it is so.”
“Have you sinned only with Jews or with Gentiles as well?”
“Was it for bread?”
“No. For the sheer pleasure.”
“How old were you when you started?”
“Not quite ten.”
“Are you sorry for what you have done?”
“Why should I be?” she answered shamelessly.
“You don’t fear the tortures of hell?”
“I fear nothing—not even God. There is no God.”
Once more the old man began to scream, “Woe to us, woe to us, Jews! A fire is upon us, burning, Jews, Satan’s fire. Save your souls, Jews. Flee, before it is too late!”
“Gag him,” the gentleman from Cracow commanded.
The guards seized the old man and gagged him. The doctor, leading Hodle by the hand, began to dance. Now, as though the Powers of Darkness had been summoned, the rain and hail began to fall; flashes of lightning were accompanied by mighty thunderclaps. But heedless of the storm, pious men and women embraced without shame, dancing and shouting as though possessed. Even the old were affected. In the furor, dresses were ripped, shoes dropped off, hats, wigs, and skullcaps trampled in the mud. Sashes, slipping to the ground, twisted there like snakes. Suddenly there was a terrific crash. A huge bolt of lightning had with one blast struck the synagogue, the study house, and the ritual bath. The whole town was on fire.
Now at last the deluded people realized that all these seeming occurrences of nature were unnatural in origin. Though the rain kept falling, and even increased, the fire was not extinguished. An eerie light glowed in the market place. Those few prudent individuals who tried to disengage themselves from the demented crowd were crushed to earth and trampled.
And then the gentleman from Cracow revealed his true identity. He was no longer the young man the villagers had welcomed, he was a creature covered with scales, with an eye in his chest, and on his forehead a horn that rotated at great speed. His arms were covered with hair, thorns, and elflocks, and his tail was a mass of live serpents; for he was none other than Ketev Mriri, Chief of the Devils.
Witches, werewolves, imps, demons, and hobgoblins plummeted from the sky, some on brooms, others on hoops, still others on spiders. Osnath, the daughter of Machlath, her fiery hair loosened in the wind, her breasts bare and thighs exposed, leaped from chimney to chimney, and skated along the eaves. Namah, Hurmizah the daughter of Aff, and many other she-devils did all sorts of somersaults. Satan himself gave away the bridegroom, while four evil spirits held the poles of the canopy, which had turned into writhing pythons. Four dogs escorted the groom. Hodle’s dress fell from her and she stood naked. Her breasts hung down to her navel and her feet were webbed. Her hair was a wilderness of worms and caterpillars. The groom held out a triangular ring and, instead of saying,” With this ring be thou consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel,” he said, “With this ring be thou desecrated to me according to the blasphemy of Korah and Ishmael.” The evil spirits called out, “Bad luck,” and they began to chant,
“The curse of Eve, the mark of Cain,
The cunning of the snake, unite the twain.”
The cunning of the snake, unite the twain.”
Screaming for the last time, the old man clutched at his head and died. Ketev Mriri began his eulogy,
“Devil’s dung and Satan’s spell
Bring his ghost to roast in hell.”
Bring his ghost to roast in hell.”
I didn’t think it possible, but the entire story is on the internet. Commentary magazine posted the story. If my excerpt was enticing—and how could it not be—run over and read the entire story. It’s not very long and Singer is one of the great short story writers. Let me know what you think.
Also, for some reason Commentary does not attribute the translation on their posting. The translation on the internet is the same as the one in The Collected Stories from which I read. The English translators from the original Yiddish are Martha Glicklich and Elaine Gottlieb.