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Moral instruction.

(Translated from the Yiddish by Joseph Sherman)

Careworn and dejected, a small porcelain dog stood on the desk; its teeth ached, and like a human being, a cloth bound its face from head to jaw; a pipe was clenched in one corner of its mouth.

Glancing at this little dog, a certain contemporary writer enquired:

--Why so worried?

--You can see for yourself,--responded the dog.

--My teeth hurt.

--So what?--asked the writer.

--Have you ever had toothache?--countered the dog.


--Did you look at yourself in the mirror then?

--I did.

--And what did you look like?

--As you do now.

--So why are you asking?

--No reason. I've just lost a theme.

--Do you think you'll get it back from a dog?

--Yes, I think so.

--Well, good, but I can't guarantee that. It'll be full of toothache.

--Doesn't matter.

--Shall I give it?


--I continually look at you, said the dog,--and I see you at your work. I must speak the truth: sometimes it's painful for me to set eyes on you and at all those who visit you. I occasionally overhear your conversations: it's a joke! You all want to kick against your destiny, you refuse to submit to laws decreed specifically for you, you want to transcend your own natures ...--Fools!--I think; after all, the greatest achievement lies in the greatest submissiveness; at the moment of surrender, the greatest miracle occurs, and accepting the yoke is both the calling and the exaltation of created beings. But even before you've started down that road, you yearn to have reached the goal and surpassed it, yet your horses, that are meant to leap over all barriers, have been provided by gypsies and vagabonds, so where do you intend to go and how do you propose to win international wagers? ... And I think further: I stand here before you, a little dog, small and artificial, merely a toy and a silly jest, yet I know the lore of real dogs, and though this tradition is followed only by dogs, it's none the less true, for one may learn something even from dogs ...

--By all means,--the writer interposed.

--It is recounted, the dog began, not waiting for permission,--that before the first wolf determined to become a dog, he deliberated long and hard. For some time, he, his mate, and his cubs had hungered greatly, for it had grown increasingly difficult to approach the dwelling-places of man; around himself and his goods man had already erected a fence, a barricade, and had by that time armed himself no longer solely with his bare hands, but also with stones, bludgeons and poles. One way and another, the wolf survived through the summer, from time to time carrying bits and pieces away from man. But when winter came, when frosts gripped the woods, and mountains of snow began piling up, and the young sought shelter in caves, and he saw that warm smoke ascended from man's rooftops, that from thence occasionally rose the scent of meat, and always the scent of something cooking--then more than once the wolf crept stealthily to man's dwelling and, set apart from it by a considerable distance, squatted on his haunches, raised his head to man's rooftop, and gazed long at the smoke ... Thus he reflected: Truly, the freedom of the wolf is from God, Nature's commands have decreed that we must be wolves and on winter nights must gather ourselves into packs and follow the females who lead us, must aggrandize ourselves one over another, must be powerful, kill, seize and possess ... And when you have taken possession, and by right of teeth and in the merit of strength and in the strength of love you have brought a chosen female to your own cave, and when in a little while she has rejoiced you with cubs and is exhausted by childbearing and her young have sucked her dry and she lies speechless with her eyes suffused with compassion, and you are poor and possess only the hide over your bones, and the winter is ferocious and the frosts grow ever sharper at nights and the sky is bestrewn with stars like poppy seed that cannot be eaten, and the moon gushes milk that cannot nourish the young--how shall we then remember the precepts of wolves and abide by our ancient legacies and proud beliefs? ... When all the wolves in the vicinity have perished and their remnant has drifted away and only the empty lairs of the entire lineage of these parts remain behind and man grows ever stronger and his home is fortified and his children mature and aid him and his riches multiply and his wellbeing improves and you remain as you always were and have acquired nothing through long generations--would it not then be sensible to surrender, would it not then be sound strategy to capitulate and in weakness to submit? ...

And, sitting always opposite the habitation of man and its rising smoke, the wolf spent one night, and then a second night, in thought without reaching any decision, and on the third night he returned home. And when he encountered the she-wolf almost half-dead, and the little ones without food, without so much as a faint cry, still trying to warm themselves against her belly with the last of her body's heat; and when he then approached the she-wolf and laid before her his plan and his rationale for it, she lay mute, scarcely hearing and only dimly understanding what he said, and when he had nudged and roused her, desiring to hear her final word, she turned and, snapping at him with feeble teeth and the last of her fury, gave him answer:

--You can see for yourself ...

And at once the wolf left his cave and approached man's habitation, crept silently up to his dwelling-place, and through the whole night guarded the threshold of his home. And in the morning, when man rose up and went out and encountered the wolf at his door, he failed at first to understand, and thought: the creature is frozen ... But when he perceived that the wolf moved, he took up his thick club and with all his might smashed it down on the wolf's bones, beating him without cessation, believing all the time, he will run away. And since the wolf did not run away, and since he kept his eyes downcast and full of entreaty, and had laid at man's feet all his pride and all that was wolfish within him, man understood: the wolf had come in peace, and from that day forward had ceased to think of strife. So man beat him yet again, this time to test him: to see whether the wolf in him might reawaken, might revert to his old habits and might again attempt to set himself in opposition. But even this time the wolf endured uncomplainingly--and man made peace with him and presently carried out to him food and drink. The next morning the man encountered at his door the wolf's mate and children as well, and he took pity also upon them, protected them, and allowed the whole family to live with him and serve him and be faithful to him.

This was how it was with the wolf, and man beat the pride out of him, and you are yourself a man and you alone must beat it out of yourself ...

--So what do you want?--the writer had already grown angry.

--Don't get cross! After all, I didn't guarantee you a theme. But it's nay duty and my vocation: our grandfather did not receive his first meal from your grandfather with no strings attached ... Peace is peace, and serving and being faithful are the attributes of dogs: I give you fair warning.

--Empty words! What do you mean?

--I see your grief and I can't bear to look at it. You and yours have undertaken to disregard the quintessence of yourselves, and in so doing, you lose everything you possess. More precisely: you have persuaded yourselves that limits mean restrictions, that the true kingdom is freedom in a void, a revolt against all established order! And you have lost yourself in a void, while in reality truth has been granted within limits: true freedom is the desire to be free, and sometimes taking a yoke upon oneself is actually the greatest rebellion ... and that's why I've recounted the tale about the wolf.

--It's foolishness and a highly dubious history.

--Since you don't believe in histories but only in dreams, here's a dream for you.

--One that you've dreamed yourself?.

--No, you--but you've forgotten.

--Remind me.

--On one occasion late one night I stood on your desk, the night-light was burning, and you lay opposite, asleep in bed. Suddenly you began weeping, quietly and soon stopping at first, but then again loudly and very bitterly. And the Master of Dreams appeared here in the room. You didn't see him; I, on the other hand, have grown long acquainted with him alter many nights and many of his visits to you. He instantly went over to your bed, bent over you, and took your hands from your heart. Soon you calmed yourself. Then, like a doctor with a patient, he sat down on a bench at the side of your bed, regarding you attentively for a while. Having completed his scrutiny, he fell into conversation with me, inquiring how you lived, how your work progressed, and how you were in general. So I told him everything I knew, of the change lately noticeable in you, of the great suffering you endured while awake, and of your frequent weeping at night. And the Master of Dreams heard me out and held his peace, merely shaking his head. "Yes, he weeps. He has much to weep about ... Such people do not surrender while awake; they seemingly keep themselves tightly under control, and thus all must break out of them in sleep ..."

--And why was he weeping now?

--He saw--the Master of Dreams related--a town being raised up ... bricks and mortar, dust and girders, everything needful for building ... And the construction progressed swiftly and the work expeditiously ... And soon the girders were removed and the walls completed, and the windows fashioned with bars across them, as in prisons. And all at once the builders were no longer outside, but each was seated in a prison cell staring out through a barred window. And abruptly many builders became one single builder, and he alone sat within ... And not long thereafter he saw himself as an eaglet with a yellow beak and truncated wings, and its eyes were as yearning and dejected as those of one long imprisoned ... And the eaglet remained an eaglet and he, the dreamer, found himself seated on a bench before it, at a desk furnished with paper, ink and pen, and the eaglet was dictating a letter to his father and he, the dreamer, was transcribing it:

And this is what the eaglet dictated:

"... And I write telling you more, father: I have never before been as lonely as I am now, never before felt so companionless for want of a brother as of recent days, and I long to grow up with him and eat out of one dish with him ... And, father, no son has ever before loved his father as I do you ... And when I shut my eyes, I imagine you and I sitting upon the highest mountain peak, and the world around us is huge and unpopulated, and you and I regard it from our summit, from time to time preening our feathers ... And suddenly you say to me: 'Son, we're flying!' And we soar in circles over the world, you before and I behind. And you are part of me, and I learn from you and sanctify your path as I follow after you, and I breathe with the breath of your forward flight, and I take my course from the flight-circle you have drawn ... And you show me your kingdom and what I stand to inherit after you, and I fly following in your path, and I study and grow accustomed to rule ...

And father, your prison is also dear to me ... And sometimes (and I can be trusted to do this), during a quiet morning or a dark evening, I will slip through the bars like a silent thought, and soundlessly and noticed by none I will go in search of you on the high and distant mountains. No one will block my path, no bars will hinder me, and in the meanwhile I still linger aloft, and from time to time I kneel and beg before your bars: Father, do not forget your son ..."

And the letter was concluded and in silence the eaglet fell into a reverie. And suddenly, as he (the sleeping you, that is) raised his head from desk and paper and writing and glanced at the window, he noticed that one of the bars had broken open and there was space for him and the eaglet to pass through, and he roused the eaglet from his reverie and pointed to the open window: 'Come, it's open ...' And the eaglet went before and he followed, and one wing dragged behind the eaglet and it moved on but limply and looked to be ailing, and he escorted it from behind, and in this way they came out into the road. When they had gone on a little way, they met a healer of beasts and birds, fully equipped and loaded down with instruments, with little knives and medical equipment stuck all about him, and carrying a rucksack filled with assorted salves and ointments ... Approaching and stopping the healer, he detained him and directed his attention to the eaglet's limp wing: it trailed behind and pained him; it dragged and was incapable of flight. Bending over the eaglet, the healer palpated this wing and its joint, then rose and spoke as follows: 'It is neither dislocated nor injured but defective from birth, and I believe the case is hopeless ...' He, the dreamer, wept and the eaglet appeared much cast down, and its wing slewed behind like an orphan or a superfluous appendage; so they down in mourning for the wing, the eaglet on the place where he stood, and he, the dreamer, on the ground beside him, and the healer desired to assist them but knew not how, so he too sat down beside them and, like one of Job's comforters, consoled them with a tale:

And he began in the following way:

I am returning from a fair. There I healed horses and cattle, lame, blind and constipated. From all I received payment in advance of the treatment. One poor individual, however, with a mean, lone cart whose horse had collapsed, summoned me but I was unable to assist him, and in the midst of my treatment the horse stretched out its legs and yielded up its ghost to the fair, and he did not pay me before the treatment. But as soon as the little horse had collapsed, a knacker appeared and bought its carcass and carried it away. And when this poor individual had received the money, he winked at me and invited me into a tavern: 'Be my guest to the last penny.'

--And how will you return home?

--I'll tell you in the tavern.

When we arrived and had seated ourselves and had taken both a first and a second drink, and my companion had warmed himself, and his grief at the loss of his horse and cart had started to evaporate, he began to talk; I cannot be certain whether or not this is true or a drunken illusion, but he spoke as follows:

This is the last of my money, and I have nothing with which to return home, and it is likely that I have no home at all. I am now living through my second metamorphosis, and in my first I was rich and possessed much property. And the more I possessed, the more I was given ... And until that time I was a great landowner, and ! owned fields stretching from one horizon to another, and when the ploughing season came round and I rode out to my fields on horseback, I saw in the heavens above me a pair of oxen yoked to a plough; and these oxen made their way back and forth across the heavens, raising dust over the ground from one horizon to another, and since they were well accustomed to plough, by midday half my fields had already been tilled, and at dusk when the heavenly oxen had disappeared into the horizon in search of shelter and rest for the night, my fields stood black and fully prepared ... As with ploughing, so also with other work. At harvest-time, reapers appeared to me in the heavens and for days on end bent to their labour and did not straighten their backs, and sweat poured from them, and they drank water from heavenly pitchers and the grain was harvested in the heavens above and my fields below were stacked with gathered sheaves of wheat ... For what reason I was found worthy, or for what person's meritorious deeds, I know not, but thus it was also with ingathering the harvest and with threshing and grinding, and so year after year--always with miracles, and my house was filled to overflowing, and my barns heaped up to the rooftops, and my livestock was healthy and they offered me their labor and their yield, and nothing departed from me, and I lacked for nothing, and the blessing lay before my threshold, and mouth and lips could wish for nothing more.

But at dusk one autumn day I was sent a guest from heaven: a groaning, sickly being, taciturn and somewhat sere in years himself, and in the evening he entered my doorway and in my house he laid down his pack. He asked for a night's lodging, I did not refuse him, I showed him to a place, but I was uneasy about him: he seemed to me somewhat too strange and ill-omened. He stayed the night, rose up again, I wished him a good morning, but he seemed not to hear. He stood facing a window looking beyond. Outdoors it was raining. Autumn rain wept against the panes, and the woods were soaked, and the heavens laved them. And all at once my guest turned and noticed my uneasiness and he bade me harness horses for him; he was ill and could not travel on foot ... And I found this distasteful and made pretense of inviting him to stay with me even though in truth I did not desire this, nor was I keen to harness up a horse for him, but wanted him to leave of his own accord and quit the house as quickly as possible. And he understood and said nothing and merely bent down to his pack and picked it up from the ground, not hoisting it up to his shoulder but keeping it in his hand as though he needed only to carry it outside where someone was already waiting for him. And in truth, as he parted from me and left the house and I crossed the threshold to accompany him out, so I saw a horse and cart standing outside the door. He mounted the cart, urged on the horse, and said:

--If you ever need this horse and cart, it's ready for you ...

And my guest drove away and I re-crossed the threshold and behind after him something had been left that cannot be called by any name, but assuredly it was a curse and assuredly he had left it somewhere in a corner of my house ... From that time on the mornings were lonely and the evenings at home unhappy, and care moaned in the chimney, and at night someone in my little house would clamber up the ladder, and the fire in the stove crackled weirdly, and in the evenings the lamp would frequently extinguish itself; and the autumn was severe, and winter followed, and that which my guest had left behind I failed also to overcome in the dead season: and my livestock sickened and no healer appeared and the livestock died off and I was unable even to find a knacker to whom I could sell the hides, and at the end of winter I myself fell ill and was confined to bed, and in the early new year, during the ploughing season, I was wholly without means to drive out into the fields. And on one occasion, on a hot day when I had dragged myself over the threshold, those same oxen of good fortune appeared in the heavens and were again inspanned and again I thought that my fields were intended, and I reasoned that they had come to cultivate my land; I rejoiced in them, and blessed them, the early morning, and the yoke that teamed them; then I followed them with my eyes as I had always done, and all at once the oxen turned aside, abandoning my domain for that of another--a neighbor of mine--to work all day for him ... At dusk, when they returned from their work and were passing my fields, weary and parting from each other as the sun set, I approached them, asking why they were avoiding me? Then above, on the cart with them, appeared one like that guest of mine, and he answered me: "We are not avoiding you; we have nothing against you, and if you wish, you may come up, and very early tomorrow you may travel out with us to work at your neighbor's."

--And to work on mine?--I asked.

--Your fields are no part of our concerns at present ... And I understood: my time had passed, and my blessing had departed from me. So I took my leave with the setting of the sun, and I blessed my fields and gave feed to the oxen above, and they took me up, settled me in--and on the morrow I travelled out with them to a stranger's fields.

In this way I came from the world, and in the heavens I served long years as a wagon-driver for a stranger's benefit, and thereafter, when it grew tedious for me, I pleaded to be set back down and below ... Then my guest appeared to me once more, still somewhat sickly, as formerly, and he had not forgotten me, and he was some manner of caretaker there, and somehow had keys to gates of steel, and when he heard my request, he led me to a stable, unlocked it, and led me to his former horse and cart:

--You can take this. Look after this little horse for me, I find it weak; if it collapses, you will have no means to return home; then your place will be to drift about in a tavern.

This is what that individual who owned the horse and cart told me, and this I have now related to yon--the healer concluded.

--And for what purpose have you related this?--the eaglet and he, the dreamer, both asked the healer.

--First of all, to demonstrate that metamorphoses do occur; and it is possible that in your first metamorphosis you have encountered a harsh, turbulent fate. And secondly, as a healer I say, turn back ... bad as it may be, a home is still a home, and those who are sick do not need to drag themselves about ...

And suddenly (so the Master of Dreams went on) the eaglet and the dreamer saw themselves back in the prison cell. And the bars over the window were whole again, and, as before, neither opening nor exit was visible; and the eaglet fell again into melancholy, and observing this, the dreamer was overcome with profound sorrow: and again he sat before the table with pen and paper, and the eaglet dictated a letter, while he transcribed:

"... And sometimes, when I bow my head under my wing, and, stiff and silent, pass the night in such warmth as I can find, I see my father in heaven, in his high domain ... And often, when we fly together, I press ahead of him along the way, and I sense his mighty wings behind me, and the way, following me with his eyes, he holds me in view, and he rejoices in the way his son speeds on ahead; and sometimes--and this is my chiefest joy, when I hear his voice behind me--he emboldens and encourages me thus: 'That's the way, son ... excellent, you're flying the way one should ...' and then from joy and flight I lose my breath, and were I to hold my head under my wing only an instant longer, I would suffocate and my father would lose his heir ...

Recently, however, father, lost in thought about you, I perceived you on your high crag; and a wind sprang up, and all the sky around the crag suddenly darkened with clouds, and the wind gained in force and tore at your eyrie set on the summit of that crag, and you could barely keep your tooting, and your plumage was fiercely ruffled, and your eyes filled with blood, and in an instant I saw how you had aged, how your years had decayed you, and how the time had come for you to be taken from your height and from the world; and in a terrifying flash, the storm in all its fury burst upon all the world, and great awesomeness filled the heavens ... And in the midst of all this awesomeness and storm-cloud dread, a solitary place unclosed: thence two eagles with burning torches emerged, set flight towards you and your crag, and behind them, from the place whence they had come, a great circle of eagles appeared, in the midst of which stood a pallet, prepared for you, a place to which they would bear you ... And they approached you with their torches, and in the eye of the storm you recited the confession of faith, and in eagle majesty you submitted and--woe!--before my eyes, father, they began to bear you onward, and I was unable even to accompany you ... Intercede for your son ..."

And here the eaglet, in the midst of dictating his letter, buried his head under his wing and wept with grief, and he (you, that is to say), looking at the eaglet, burst into sustained weeping ...

And the little dog added:

--All this you saw in a dream, and all this was revealed to you in a dream, and you may indeed weep, but with broken wings one does not drag oneself about to any fairs, so healers say ... Do you remember that dream?

--Yes, you've reminded me.

--And so?

--Thanks for the reminder.

--And so?

-- You'll earn royalties for your moral instruction.

--And nothing more?

--What else?--the writer smiled.

And he turned from the little dog, leaving it with its toothache and its bound-up cheeks, and hurried off in search of pen and ink to transcribe it all.

DER NISTER, is the pen name of Pinkhes-Pinye Kahanovitsh, famed Yiddish author of Symbolist fiction who died in 1950 in the Stalinist anti-Yiddish culture pogrom in the Soviet Union. See the preceeding article by Professor Joseph Sherman on Yiddish Symbolism, Der Nister, and the above story that he translated.
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Author:Kahanovitsh, Pinkhes-Pinye
Article Type:Fictional Work
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Previous Article:Der Nister and symbolism in Yiddish literature.
Next Article:At The Bris of My Grandson.

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