The Frozen Rabbi: Week 3, Part 2
Basha Puah evinces a talent for business—and for childbearing
For her part Basha Puah fulminated against their lot with every breath she took, cursing her husband’s irrepressible spirits, though she was herself galvanized by the ghetto’s raucous atmosphere. Despite her violated sense of entitlement, which she never ceased from registering with God and Salo, she was an enterprising woman. By the time their celebrity had expired, she had managed to parlay nothing into a couple of turnips and eggs, which she peddled in the Franciszkanska Street market—battling the other wives over coveted locations—for the price of another couple of turnips and eggs. Then a day came when she sold an egg at a profit and used the surplus capital to increase her inventory. Eventually, by shrewd reinvestment in the produce the peasant farmers sold wholesale from the wallow of their wagon-yard, she established a modest pushcart business; she sold vegetables and eggs whose freshness her husband extended by storing them in the icehouse overnight. In a matter of weeks her market stall was a going concern, and full of admiration for his eruptive wife’s industry, Salo helped her as best he could, though it meant that he seldom slept. He carted merchandise from the wholesalers to the marketplace and shlepped to and from the bakery the boolkies Basha Puah rolled at home and left to rise like inflating airships on top of the neighborhood oven. For gratitude Salo received his wife’s habitual grousing that he was always underfoot. She also chafed at his solicitude with regard to her inconvenient condition, which she refused to let hamper her labors or leaven her poisonous tongue.
Then the twins were born and Basha Puah cursed the incontinence of her own womb, which she threatened, if her husband did not cease his mawkish cooing and fawning over the infants, to stitch shut. She savaged the mustachioed midwife for her complicity and Salo for having saddled them with more mouths to feed. Euphoric nonetheless, Salo bankrupted his expanded family by laying in schnapps and spongecake and inviting every ganef and teamster in their putrid trough of a street to witness the circumcision. He named the boys, in the face of his wife’s indifference, Yachneh and Yoyneh after his ill-fated father.
Even as she carried them dangling from either udder to her market stall, Basha Puah excoriated the twins for their rapacious appetites. “Fressers, you suck like leeches and bite like asps!” Rascals that no one ever bothered to distinguish from each other, they were running wild in the unpaved alleys of the Balut before they were weaned. Early on they learned to ignore their mother’s threats and jeremiads, or rather—following their father’s blithe example—to be amused and even tickled by the lash of her tongue. From the first they were conspicuous for their cheek among the swarms of marauding ghetto urchins; they were foremost in teasing the blowsy whores who graced the windows and doorways of Žvdowska Street, and in tormenting the mendicant amputees till their flaring tempers enabled them to sprout latent limbs and give chase. From hanging about the slaughterhouses and tanneries, they brought home new varieties of noxious odors, and vile language that rivaled even their mother’s. They rode the obsolete mill wheels and were baptized in the seething river that bubbled with acids like a sorcerer’s retort. Basha Puah charged her husband to discipline the young savages, but in his eyes the boys, high-spirited and reckless, did no real harm. Besides, when did he have the time to be more than a benign spectator to the progress of his sons, whom (like everyone else) he’d never troubled to try and tell apart? He did attempt, for the sake of form, to see to it that they attended a local cheder, but the old melamed Yankl Halitotsis was unable to keep them (or their peers, for that matter) confined to an airless study house during the day. They were forgiven their truancy by their father, who harbored his own unpleasant memories of the village kloiz. To placate his wife, however, Salo assured her that, when they were old enough to appreciate him, he would introduce the twins to the Boibiczer Prodigy, whose aura had a moral effect on any Jew that beheld him. Basha Puah called him every manner of fool, then accused him of being a wanton beast as well for making her pregnant again.
“How did this happen?” she demanded to know. “When are we in bed, the two of us, at the same time?”
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