The Secret – Commentary
Arichive : The Secret – Commentary
Some odd Divorces were granted in our house, but the one I’m about to describe was the oddest of all. One day the front door opened to admit the owner of a haberdashery and dry goods store located in the neighborhood. He was about forty and had a beard so black it looked almost blue. His eyes were not shifty or cunning but instead seemed to be gazing into the distance. I have since met Italians and Spaniards, who had the same dark eyes. He was dressed like a Hasid, but an exceptionally neat one. Everything he wore glistened—his alpaca kapote, his cloth hat, his soft collar with the black, silk tie. His name was Mordecai Meir.
“Good morning, rabbi.”
“Good morning, Reb Mordecai Meir. Welcome. Please be seated. What can I do for you?”
Mordecai Meir uttered something akin to a grunt. “I want a divorce now.”
“Rabbi, I’m not doing this for frivolous reasons.”
“What is wrong, then?”
“Rabbi, I’m very ill,” he said calmly. “The doctors have given me up. We don’t have any children; when I’m gone my wife will have to be released from a levirate marriage.2 My only brother lives in America. So it’s better to get a divorce now.”
“What is wrong with you?”
The man whispered something to my father, who paled.
“The doctors are sometimes mistaken,” he said after a moment. “It’s all a matter of Providence.”
“I’m not a Kohen [priest]. If I live, we can always remarry.”
“I see. But what is your hurry?”
“Why not? You should consult someone else. Perhaps a specialist. There are some wonderful doctors in Vienna.”
“I know. I’ve seen them already.”
Father suddenly noticed me. “Out!” I went to another room, upset and frightened by the words I had overheard from this man who sold us thread, buttons, and other such items. I knew what the problem was: the wife of a Jew who has died childless must be released from a levirate marriage. Mordecai Meir was willing to divorce his wife and live out the final months of his life alone to spare his wife the hardship of being forced to have dealings with her brother-in-law. But how could a man speak so calmly of such matters? Tears came to my eyes, and I feared this man, who seemed to me now almost a walking corpse.
Mordecai Meir soon left the house. My father took my mother aside and told her what had happened. Hearing their whispers and sighs, I went outside and walked past Mordecai Meir’s store. I wondered about his wife. Was she crying? Not at all. She stood behind the counter measuring a length of sacking with a wooden rule. As she went about her work, she smiled and talked with the customer. Dark like her husband, with a rounded figure, plump cheeks, and a high bosom, she still kept the customary amiability and decorum of a shopkeeper and matron. Her face showed not the slightest trace of concern. With great deliberation she counted the money she had just received and placed it in the cash drawer. “But this is impossible,” I said to myself; “After all, it’s her husband. She must know that he’s going to die.”
It was very odd; I, a stranger, was suffering while she, his wife, appeared unmoved. Later in life I was to have this same experience many times: to lose sleep over people that I hardly knew, though their closest relatives remained indifferent. I learned for the first time that there are people so stolid that no misfortune can affect them. They trudge on toward the grave, their minds on food and the trifles of the day. Even when they must look directly into death, they remain preoccupied by the pettiest ambitions.
But to return to Mordecai Meir. From that time on, I became more and more curious about him and his wife. At every opportunity I strolled past their store. And just like his wife, he continued to chat with customers, to display and sell his goods as usual, to count the day’s receipts, or work on his accounts. But as he went about his business, he sometimes stared off into the distance as if he could see beyond the houses, across the roofs, and over the clouds. As the weeks passed, his face grew pale and then green, as though he had undertaken a long fast; his pallor made his beard seem even blacker.
Then one day in our house the divorce was granted. The scribe wrote out the terms with his quill pen. The two witnesses practiced their signatures. Mordecai Meir faced the scribe; his wife sat on a bench. A single tear fell from her eye and lingered on her cheek. The look on her face expressed the acquiescence of a simple woman who is dealing with matters beyond her comprehension. She knew how to sell thread, buttons, safety pins, how to handle a maid and clean house, but how to behave to a husband who was about to die bewildered her. I saw that her mind was wandering, and for a time she seemed to be counting the fringes on her shawl. Then suddenly she turned and twisted her wedding ring. Father sat leafing through a holy volume. He bowed his head and covered his eyes with his hand. Not for one moment did he doubt that what was happening had been ordained by Providence; but why had Providence denied Mordecai Meir his full complement of years? He was, after all, a decent fellow. Yet who dared question the ways of the Almighty?
Finally, Mordecai Meir’s wife stretched out her hands and was given the bill of divorcement. Only then did she begin to wail. Father said what he always did on such occasions: the divorced woman could not remarry for ninety days. This caused a fresh rush of tears.
What subsequent arrangements were made by Mordecai Meir and his wife I do not know. According to the law they were not permitted to sleep under the same roof. I forgot about them or, rather, forced myself to forget.
One day I saw a procession. It was Mordecai Meir’s funeral cortège. His widow walked with uplifted arms, weeping and moaning. Behind her came a number of men, who were chatting as they walked. Their manner seemed to say: “Mordecai Meir is Mordecai Meir, and we are we. He’s a corpse, but we’re alive. He’s about to be buried, but we must pay our rent and our children’s tuition. We no longer have anything in common.”
Perhaps six or nine months later, I entered Mordecai Meir’s store to buy thread, and found a strange man there. How different he was from Mordecai Meir. Mordecai Meir had been slim and delicate while this man was burly, with a large head, a flat nose, and a wide, thick beard. Hair sprouted from his long ears and wide nostrils; a little beard grew from every finger. He spoke in a rattling voice. His unbuttoned kapote was spotted. It was the second husband. He had taken over everything: Mordecai Meir’s wife, his home, his store. He opened the cash drawer and casually took out a handful of coins, shuffled over the account books and papers, addressed his wife as though they had been married for years. It was as if there had never been such a person as Mordecai Meir.
In time, Mordecai Meir’s wife had a child which was just as husky and slovenly as its father. She played with the baby, she clucked and cooed: “A-cuckoo, cuckoo.”
That is not quite the end of the story. During the First World War an epidemic of typhus ravaged Warsaw. More people died on Krochmalna Street than in any other section of the city. Among those who were taken was Mordecai Meir’s widow. A neighbor lamented to my mother: “Such a young person, a mother of small children, and as lovely as a rose. Woe is us.”
Mother, her matron’s wig askew, nodded at this new episode in the timeless catastrophe to which one never becomes accustomed. It was only additional proof to her that life was a dream and it was useless to sin against one’s Maker. Perhaps one should never have been born. . . .
But what was one to do if one was born?
A few months passed and in Mordecai Meir’s store a strange woman could be seen.
1 Copyright © 1965 by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
2 A law obliging the brother of a man who died leaving a widow but no children to marry the widow.—Ed.