Bontsha the Silent

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I. L. Peretz

BONTSHA THE SILENT[1]

Here on earth the death of Bontsha the Silent made no impression at all.

Ask anyone: Who was Bontsha, how did he live, and how did he die? Did his strength slowly fade, did his heart slowly give out—or did the very marrow of his bones melt under the weight of his burdens? Who knows? Perhaps he just died from not eating – starvation, it’s called.

If a horse, dragging a cart through the streets, should fall, people would run from blocks around to stare, newspapers would write about this fascinating event, a monument would be put up to mark the very spot where the horse had fallen. Had the horse belonged to a race as numerous as that of human beings, he wouldn’t have been paid this honor. How many horses are there, after all? But human beings—there must be. a thousand million of them!

Bontsha was a human being; he lived unknown, in silence, and in silence he died. He passed through our world like a shadow. When Bontsha was born no one took a drink of wine; there was no sound of glasses clinking.

When he was confirmed he made no speech of celebration. He existed like grain of sand at the rim of a vast ocean, amid millions of other grains sand exactly similar, and when the wind at last lifted him up and carried him across to the other shore of that ocean, no one noticed, no one at all.

During his lifetime his feet left no mark upon the dust of the streets; after his death the wind blew away the board that marked his grave. The wife of the gravedigger came upon that bit of wood lying far off from the grave, and she picked it up and used it to make a fire under the potatoes she was cooking; it was just. right. Three days after Bontsha’s death no one knew where he lay, neither the gravedigger nor anyone eke, If Bontsha had had a headstone, someone, even after a hundred years, might have come across it, might still have been able to read the carved words, and his name, Bontsha the Silent, might not have vanished from this earth.

His likeness remained in no one’s memory, in no one’s heart. A shadow! Nothing! Finished!

In loneliness he lived, and in loneliness he died. Had it not been for the infernal human racket someone or other might have heard the sound of Bontsha’s bones cracking under the weight of his burdens; someone might have glanced around and seen that Bontsha was also a human being, that he had two frightened eyes and a silent trembling mouth; someone might have noticed how, even When he bore no actual load upon his back, he still walked with his head bowed down to earth, as though while living he was already searching for his grave.

When Bontsha was brought to the hospital ten people were waiting for him to die and leave them his narrow little cot; when he was brought from the hospital to the morgue twenty were waiting to occupy his pall; when he was taken out of the morgue forty were, waiting to ‘lie where. he would lie forever. Who knows how many are now waiting to snatch from him that bit of earth?

In silence he was born, in silence he lived, in silence he died—and in an even vaster silence he was put into the ground.

Ah, but in the other world it was not so! No! In Paradise the death of Bontsha was an overwhelming event. The great trumpet of the Messiah announced through the seven heavens: Bontsha the Silent is dead! The most exalted angels, with the most imposing wings, hurried, flew, to tell one another, ”Do you know who has died? Bontsha! Bontsha the Silent!”

And the new, the young little angels with brilliant eyes, with golden wings and silver shoes, to greet Bontsha, laughing in their joy. The sound of their wings, the sound of their silver shoes, as they ran to meet him, and the bubbling of their laughter, filled all Paradise with jubilation, and God Himself knew that Bontsha the Silent was. at last here.

In the great gateway to heaven Abraham, our father, stretched out his arms in welcome and benediction. “Peace be with you!” And on his old face a deep sweet smile appeared.

What, exactly, was going on up there in Paradise?

There, in Paradise, two angels came bearing a golden throne for Bontsha to sit upon, and for his head a golden crown with glittering jewels.

“But why the throne, the crown, already?” two important saints asked, “He hasn’t even been tried before the heavenly court of justice to which each new arrival must submit,” Their voices were touched with envy. “What’s going on here, anyway?”

And the angels answered the two important saints that, yes, Bontsha’s trial hadn’t started yet, but it would only be a formality, even the prosecut01 wouldn’t dare open his mouth. Why, the whole thing wouldn’t take five minutes!

“What’s the matter with you?” the angels asked. “Don’t you know whom you’re dealing with? You’re dealing with Bontsha, Bontsha the Silent!”

When the young, the singing angels encircled Bontsha in love, when Abraham, our father, embraced him again and again, as a very old friend, when Bontsha heard that a throne waited for him, and for his head a crown, and that when he would stand trial in the court of heaven no one would say a word against him – when he heard all this, Bontsha, exactly as in the other world, was silent. He was silent with fear. His heart, in his veins ran ice, and he knew this must all be a dream or simply a mistake.

He was used to both, to dreams and mistakes. How often, in that other world, had he not dreamed that he was wildly shoveling up money from the street, that whole fortunes lay there on the street beneath his hands – and then he would wake and find himself a beggar again, more miserable than before the dreams

How often in that other world had someone smiled at him, said a pleasant word – and then, passing and turning back for another look, had seen his mistake and spat at Bontsha.

Wouldn’t that be just my luck, he thought now, and be was afraid to lift his eyes, lest the dream end, lest he awake and find himself again on earth, lying somewhere in a pit of snakes and loathsome vipers, and he was afraid to make the smallest sound, to move so much as an eyelash; he trembled and he could not hear the paeans of the angels; he could not see them as they danced in stately celebration about him; he could not answer the loving greeting of Abraham, our father, “Peace be with you!” And when at last he was led into the great court of justice in Paradise he couldn’t even say “Good morning.” He was paralyzed with fear.

And when his shrinking eyes beheld the floor of the courtroom of justice, his fear, if possible, increased. The floor was of purest alabaster, embedded with glittering diamonds. On such a floor stand my feet, thought Bontsha. My feet! He was beside himself with fear. Who knows, he thought, for what very rich man, or great learned rabbi, or even saint, this whole thing’s meant? The rich man will arrive, and then it will all be over. He lowered his eyes; he closed them.

In his fear he did not hear when his name was called out in the pure angelic voice: “Bontsha the Silent!” Through the ringing in his ears he could make out: no words, only the sound of that voice like the sound of music, of a violin.

Yet did he, perhaps, after all, catch the sound of his own name, “Bontsha the Silent” And then the voice added, “To him that name is as becoming as a coat. to a rich man.’

What’s that? What’s he saying? Bontsha wondered, and then he heard an impatient voice interrupting the speech of his defending angel. “Rich man! Frock coat! No metaphors please! And no sarcasm!”

“He never,” began the defending angel again, “complained, not against God, not against man; his eye never grew red with hatred, he never raised a protest against heaven.”

Bontsha couldn’t understand a word, and the harsh voice of the prosecuting angel broke in once more. “Never mind the rhetoric, please!”

“His sufferings were unspeakable. Here, look -upon a man who was more tormented than Job!”

Who? Bontsha wondered. Who is this man?

“Facts! Facts! Never mind the flowery business and stick to the facts, please!” the judge called out.

“When he was eight days old he was circumcised—”

“Such realistic details are unnecessary—”

“The knife slipped, and he did not even try to staunch the flow of blood—

“—are distasteful. Simply give us the important facts.”

“Even then, an infant, he was silent; he did not cry out his pain,” Bontsha’s defender continued. “He kept his silence, even when his mother died, and he was handed over, a boy of thirteen, to a snake, a viper—a stepmotherl”

Hm, Bontsha thought, could they mean me?

“She begrudged him every bite of food, even the moldy rotten bread and the gristle of meat that she threw at him, while she herself drank coffee with cream.’

“Irrelevant and immaterial,” said the judge.

“For all that, she didn’t begrudge him her pointed nails in his flesh— flesh that showed black and blue through the rags he wore. In winter, in the bitterest cold, she made him chop wood in the yard, barefoot! More than once were his feet frozen, and his hands, that were too young, too tender, to lift the heavy logs and chop them. But he was always silent, he never complained, not even to his father—”

“Complain! To that drunkard!” The voice of the prosecuting angel rose derisively, and Bontsha’s body grew cold with the memory of fear.

“He never complained,” the defender continued, “and he was always loneiy. He never had a friend, never was sent to school, never was given a new suit of clothes, never knew once moment of freedom.”

“Objection! Objection!” the prosecutor cried out angrily. “He’s only trying to appeal to the emotions with these flights of rhetoric!”

“He was silent even when his father, raving drunk, dragged him out of the house by the hair and flung him into the winter night, into the snowy, frozen night. He picked himself up quietly from the snow and wandered into the distance where his eyes led him,

“During his wanderings he was always silent; during his agony of hunger he begged only with his eyes. And at last, on a damp spring night, he drifted to a great city, drifted there like a leaf before the wind, and on his very first night, scarcely seen, scarcely heard, he was thrown into jail. He remained silent, he never protested, he never asked, Why, what for? The doors of the jail were opened again, and, free, he looked for the most lowly filthy work, and still he remained silent.

“More terrible even than the work itself was the search for work. Tormented and ground down by pain, by the cramp of pain in an empty stomach, he never protested, he always kept silent.

“Soiled by the filth of a strange city, spat upon by unknown mouths, driven from the streets, into the roadways, where, a human beast of burden, he pursued his work, a porter, carrying the heaviest loads upon his back, scurrying between carriages, carts, and horses, staring death in the eyes every moment, he still kept silent.

“He never reckoned up how many pounds he must haul to earn a penny; how many times, with each step, he stumbled and fell for that penny. He never reckoned up how many times he almost vomited out his very soul, begging for his earnings. He never reckoned up his bad luck, the other’s good luck. No, never. He remained silent. He never even demanded his own earnings; like a beggar, he waited at the door for what was rightfully his, and only in the depths of his eyes was there an unspoken longing. ‘Come back later!’ they’d order him; and, like a shadow, he would vanish, and then, like a shadow, would return and stand waiting, his eyes begging, imploring, for  what was his. He remained silent even when they cheated him, keeping back, with one excuse or another, most of his earnings, or giving him bad money. Yes, he never protested, he always remained silent.

“Once,” the defending angel went on, “Bontsha crossed the roadway to the fountain for drink, and in that moment his whole life was miraculously changed. What miracle happened to change his whole life? A splendid coach, with tires of rubber, plunged past, dragged by runaway horses; the coachman, fallen, lay in the street, his head split open. From the mouths of the frightened horses spilled foam, and in their wild eyes sparks struck like fire in a dark night, and inside the carriage sat a man, half alive, half dead, and Bontsha caught at the reins and held the horses. The man who sat inside and whose life was saved, a Jew, a philanthropist, never forgot what Bontsha had done for him. He handed him the whip of the dead driver, and Bontsha, then and there, became a coachman—no longer a common porter! And what’s more, his great benefactor married him off, and what’s still more, this great philanthropist himself provided a child for Bontsha to look after.

“And still Bontsha never said a word, never protested.”

They mean me, I really do believe they mean me, Bontsha. encouraged himself, but still he didn’t have the gall to open his eyes, to look up at his judge.

“He never protested. He remained silent even when that great philanthropist shortly thereafter went into bankruptcy without even having paid Bontsha one cent of his wages.

“He was silent even when his wife ran off and left him with her helpless infant. He was silent when, fifteen years later, that same helpless infant had grown up and become strong enough to throw Bontsha out of the house. They mean me, Bontsha rejoiced, they really mean me.

“He even remained silent,” continued the defending angel, “when that same benefactor and philanthropist went out of bankruptcy, as suddenly as he’d gone into it, and still didn’t pay Bontsha one cent of what he owed him. No, more than that. This person, as befits a fine gentleman Who has gone bankruptcy, again went driving the great coach with the tires of rubber, and now, now he had a new coachman, and Bontsha, again a porter in the roadway, was run over by coachman, carriage, horses. And still, in his agony, Bontsha did not cry out; he remained silent. He did not even tell the police who had done this to him. Even in the hospital, where everyone is allowed to scream, he remained silent. He lay in utter loneliness on his cot, abandoned by the doctor, by the nurse; he had not the few pennies to pay them—and he made no murmur. He was silent in that awful moment just before he was about to die, and he was silent in that very moment when he did die. And never one murmur of protest against man, never one murmur of protest against God!”

Now Bontsha begins to tremble again. He senses that after his defender has finished, his prosecutor will rise to state the case against him. Who knows of what he will be accused? Bontsha, in that other world on earth, each present moment as it slipped behind him to become the past. Now the defending angel has brought everything back to his mind again— but who knows what forgotten sins the prosecutor will bring to mind? Prosecutor rises. “Gentlemen!” he begins in a harsh and bitter voice, and then he stops. “Gentlemen—” he begins again, and now his voice is less harsh, and again he stops. And finally, in a very soft voice, the same prosecutor says, “Gentlemen, he was always silent—and now I too will be.”

The great court of justice grows _very still, and at last from the judge’s a new voice rises, loving, tender. Bontsha my child, Bontsha”—the voice swells like a great harp— “my heart’s child.”

Bontsha his very soul begins to weep. He would like to open raise his eyes, but they are darkened with tears. It is so sweet to cry. Never until now has it been swet to cry.

“My child, my Bontsha…” (Not since his mother died has he heard such words, and spoken in such a way.) “…child,” the judge begins again, “you have always suffered and you have always kept silent. There isn’t one secret place in your body without its bleeding wound; there isn’t one secret place in your soul without its blood. And you never protested. You always were silent.”

“There, in that other world, no one understood you. You never understood yourself. You never understood that you need not have been silent, that you could have cried out and that your outcries would have brought down the world itself and ended it. You never understood your sleeping strength. There in that other world, that world of lies, your silence was never rewarded, but here in Paradise is the world of truth, here in Paradise you will be rewarded. You, the judge can neither condemn nor pass sentence upon. For you there is not only one little portion of Paradise, one little share. No, for you there is everything! Whatever you want! Everything is yours!”

Now for the first time Bontsha lifts his eyes. He is blinded by light. The splendor of light lies everywhere, upon the walls, upon the vast ceiling, the angels blaze with light, the judge. He drops his weary eyes.

‘ ‘Really?” he asks, doubtful, and a little embarrassed.

“Really!” the judge answers. “Really! I tell you, everything is yours. Everything in Paradise is yours. Choose! Take! Whatever you want! You will only take what is yours!”

“Really?” Bontsha asks again, and now his voice is stronger, more assured. And the judge and all the heavenly host answer, “Really! Really! Really!” “Well then,” – and Bontsha smiles for the first time “well then, what I would like, Your Excellency, is to have, every morning for breakfast, a hot roll with fresh butter.”

A silence falls upon the great hall, and it is more terrible than Bontsha’s has ever been, and slowly the judge and the angels bend their heads in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth.

Then the silence is shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh.


[1] Bontsha the Silent from A Treasury of Yiddish Stories edited by Irving and Eliezer Greenberg. Copyright 1954 by The Viking Press, Inc,.. reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.

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