Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #97, Indentured Servant

Nobleman, Jew; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Persian Dignitary by Orlowski, in the public domain.
Nobleman, Jew; image colorized and modified by the author, obtained from Wikimedia Commons, Persian Dignitary by Orlowski, in the public domain.

In this episode our heroes find themselves in the midst of a classic Yiddish folktale.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Sixteenth Era, Part 1, 1280 C.E., Poland

Just before Rovno here come a Jew ridin’ a horse like a nobleman. *’Shalom Aleikhem’s’ and ‘Barukh HaShem’s’.* A little chit and a little chat as we try to assess the taste of this land.
*-* ‘Peace be upon you and ‘Bless the Name’ (that is, God)

With a flick of his reins the horse turns aside into a dark and narrow trail, and the Jew beckons,
“Follow me…”
Batkol yanks my sleeve and frowns.
“…and I’ll tell you about this Volhynia.”

Wary, our steps get slow and short.
“Worry not. This shorter way is cooler; nor wolf nor thief hide here.”
And he lifts the bag slung on my back and loops it onto his saddle bag. Batkol and me on high alert.

“I once was a poor man, just like you. Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose around my neck. I could hardly breath. Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me. Indentured myself to a local knight who was granted a fief as reward for his sword. All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart, and he turned his eye on my darling child. Ever and again, with leer and with sneer he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl. Oh, her tremblin’ and, oh, her tears and oh, the appall that blanched her face. She who could buy us an honorable life, but I, I preferred my poverty than to sell my child to that viperous knight. And so I endured indignities, like rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes of cow dung, while he cursed and spit. Nor did he spare the lash to my back, until my heart were cold as ice.”

Then he stares at us with glassy eye, as the copse grew thicker and the way obscure. And suddenly I’m chilled. Is it his stare or the damp and sulphurous air of the wood?

“An indentured man is owned like a mule but I decided to run away. Troublous times, skirmish and raid. Our lord be off lootin’ in slaughter and rape. That’s when I ups and decides to flee. I borrows an oxcart out of his barn, me as the ox; and my wife and my girls begins to load it with all we own. Now I hears a moan from the stove, and louder it groans, so I peek inside. Scrape the grate and out of the coals like a wisp of smoke, a spirit emerges, pale as a corpse, nor more than ash. Children scream and my wife faints, and me, I spits and calls on The Name.

“‘I ain’t no dybbuk. Be not afeared. I am your Poverty, indentured to you like a servant. I go where you go.’

“Wondrous strange and my mind a-race that such a one is bound to me.
“‘Well, there’s nothin’ for it. You are ours, and those who serve must do their work, so help us carry some of our things.’
“The wraith glides over to pick up a dish but my children say, ‘nay, that’s for us.’ Me, I pulls out a bottle of schnaps and sets it in front of the fireplace, then says,
“‘I need your help out here to put the choppin’ block in the cart.’
“I takes my ax and swings it down to wedge its blade into the block.

“‘Where can I grab this heavy block?’
“asks she. 

I points and says,
“‘There by the blade of the ax the wood be split. Slip your fingers into the crack.’
“So done. And me, quick as a cat pulls out the ax and the crack squeezes closed, and her hand is caught in the block like a clamp. Oh cry; oh scream; oh bitter her moan and me and my girls we hustle away down the road to Rovno.

“Now soon the gnarly knight returns, and there, our house is open wide as a barn and nothin’ inside but a bottle of schnaps.
“‘Them bastard Jews has run away,’
“he growls, and takes a gulp from the crock. And another gulp and he hears the moan of the wraith outside, 

“‘Help me, oh Lor.’

“Thinkin’ a spirit be callin’ on him, another gulp and he pokes his head out the window, and there, the girl.
“‘Who be you, oh prissy maid?’
“And she, a-thinkin’ of what to do, and sees there’s nothin’ for it, says,
“‘Oh handsome knight, oh savin’ lord, see here. My hand be caught in this block.’

“And the tipsy knight, his head a swirl, comes to inspect, and the wraithy girl kisses his neck, and a fire begins to warm the old man, and he frees her hand. Not many days and the two are betrothed. Now see how Poverty clings to his arm, and soon that knight has lost his lands and now he’s livin’ in my old hut. 

“And here I am attached to a prince, keepin’ accounts and managin’ his lands.
“Now lift your eyes and looky ahead. There be his castle and that’s where I live.”

Our trail crosses a well-rutted road, and there, a roadhouse with painted trim, thick-thatched roof and shingles and planks. Before it, a cart and an arbored porch, and some locals workin’ a crock of ale. Behind, a woman, bent at a pond washin’ children, dishes, and clothes. Our guide whistles and waves at her.
“My daughter and her husband lease this place, and down by the river my son and his wife lease the prince’s granary and mill. This, our haven, guarded from above. Our castle withstood the Mongol onslaught and these lands never succumbed to their rule.”
Its walls were stained with scorch and soot where burnin’ tar was hurled and dripped. And there’s new stone work where catapults caved a corner tower’s base and rim.

We enters a modest wing in the rear. Must have been added after the wars, timber and thatch and a steep pitched roof with stenciled shutters and icicle-like trim.

He washes his hands in a waterin’ trough then *blesses them*, shakin’ spray everywhere. And we enters a dark and smoky room.
*-* ritual hand washin’

“Hetya, I swept up some guests from the road. Send Khezi to bring the rav* for meat.”
* rabbi

Then lifts up a loaf and blesses it and stuffs a giant hunk in his mouth.
“As my mife ekha khiem khoob,”
he says, crumbs a-spray from his mouth.
And me, I don’t understand a word. Batkol, who’s ever proper and polite:
“My man is Saadia. I’m Batkol. and who be you and all of yourn?”
“Like I just says, that’s Hetya, my wife and I’m Yakoob,”
crumbs flyin’ still. Then he flies out the door and rides away.


In the next episode a lost bag of dinars, full of lies.

About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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