“Oi weh! How it shines the beautifulness!” exulted Hanneh Hayyeh over her newly painted kitchen. She cast a glance full of worship and adoration at the picture of her son in uniform; eyes like her own, shining with eagerness, with joy of life, looked back at her.
“Aby will not have to shame himself to come back to his old home,” she rejoiced, clapping her hands—hands blistered from the paintbrush and calloused from rough toil. “Now he’ll be able to invite all the grandest friends he made in the army.”
The smell of the paint was suffocating, but she inhaled in it huge draughts of hidden beauty. For weeks she had dreamed of it and felt in each tin of paint she was able to buy, in each stroke of the brush, the ecstasy of loving service for the son she idolized.
Ever since she first began to wash the fine silks and linens for Mrs. Preston, years ago, it had been Hanneh Hayyeh’s ambition to have a white-painted kitchen exactly like that in the old Stuyvesant Square mansion. Now her own kitchen was a dream come true.
Hanneh Hayyeh ran in to her husband, a stoop-shouldered, care-crushed man who was leaning against the bed, his swollen feet outstretched, counting the pennies that totaled his day’s earnings.
“Jake Safransky!” she cried excitedly, “you got to come in and give a look on my painting before you go to sleep.”
“Oi, let me alone. Give me only a rest.”
Too intoxicated with the joy of achievement to take no for an answer, she dragged him into the doorway. “Nu? How do you like it? Do I know what beautiful is?”
“But how much money did you spend out on that paint?”
“It was my own money,” she said, wiping the perspiration off her face with a corner of her apron. “Every penny I earned myself from the extra washing.”
“But you had ought save it up for the bad times. What’ll you do when the cold weather starts in and the pushcart will not wheel itself out?”
“I save and pinch enough for myself. This I done in honor for my son. I want my Aby to lift up his head in the world. I want him to be able to invite even the President from America to his home and shame himself.”
“You’d pull the bananas off a blind man’s pushcart to bring to your Aby. You know nothing from holding tight to a dollar and saving a penny to a penny like poor people should.”
“What do I got from living if I can’t have a little beautifulness in my life? I don’t allow for myself the ten cents to go to a moving picture that I’m crazy to see. I never yet treated myself to an ice-cream soda even for a holiday. Shining up the house for Aby is my only pleasure.”
“Yah, but it ain’t your house. It’s the landlord’s.”
“Don’t I live in it? I soak in pleasure from every inch of my kitchen. Why, I could kiss the grand white color on the walls. It lights up my eyes like sunshine in the room.”
Her glance traveled from the newly painted walls to the geranium on the window-sill, and back to her husband’s face.
“Jake!” she cried, shaking him, “ain’t you got eyes? How can you look on the way it dances the beautifulness from every corner and not jump in the air from happiness?”
“I’m only thinking on the money you spent out on the landlord’s house. Look only on me! I’m black from worry, but no care lays on your head. It only dreams itself in you how to make yourself for an American and lay in every penny you got on fixing out the house like the rich.”
“I’m sick of living like a pig with my nose to the earth, all the time only pinching and scraping for bread and rent. So long my Aby is with America, I want to make myself for an American. I could tear the stars out from heaven for my Aby’s wish.”
Her sunken cheeks were flushed and her eyes glowed with light as she gazed about her.
“When I see myself around the house how I fixed it up with my own hands, I forget I’m only a nobody. It makes me feel I’m also a person like Mrs. Preston. It lifts me with high thoughts.”
“Why didn’t you marry yourself to a millionaire? You always want to make yourself like Mrs. Preston who got millions laying in the bank.”
“But Mrs. Preston does make me feel that I’m alike with her,” returned Hanneh Hayyeh, proudly. “Don’t she talk herself out to me like I was her friend? Mrs. Preston says this war is to give everybody a chance to lift up his head like a person. It is to bring together the people on top who got everything and the people on the bottom who got nothing. She’s been telling me about a new word—democracy. It got me on fire. Democracy means that everybody in America is going to be with everybody alike.”
“Och! Stop your dreaming out of your head. Close up your mouth from your foolishness. Women got long hair and small brains,” he finished, muttering as he went to bed.
At the busy gossiping hour of the following morning when the butcher-shop was crowded with women in dressing-sacks and wrappers covered over with shawls, Hanneh Hayyeh elbowed her way into the clamorous babel of her neighbors.
“What are you so burning? What are you so flaming?”
“She’s always on fire with the wonders of her son.”
“The whole world must stop still to listen to what news her son writes to her.”
“She thinks her son is the only one soldier by the American army.”
“My Benny is also one great wonder from smartness, but I ain’t such a crazy mother like she.”
The voices of her neighbors rose from every corner, but Hanneh Hayyeh, deaf to all, projected herself forward.
“What are you pushing yourself so wild? You ain’t going to get your meat first. Ain’t it, Mr. Sopkin, all got to wait their turn?”
Mr. Sopkin glanced up in the midst of cutting apart a quarter of meat. He wiped his knife on his greasy apron and leaned across the counter.
“Nu? Hanneh Hayyeh?” his ruddy face beamed. “Have you another letter from little Aby in France? What good news have you got to tell us?”
“No—it’s not a letter,” she retorted, with a gesture of impatience. “The good news is that I got done with the painting of my kitchen—and you all got to come and give a look how it shines in my house like in a palace.”
Mr. Sopkin resumed cutting the meat.
“Oi weh!” clamored Hanneh Hayyeh, with feverish breathlessness. “Stop with your meat already and quick come. The store ain’t going to run away from you! It will take only a minute. With one step you are upstairs in my house.” She flung out her hands. “And everybody got to come along.”
“Do you think I can make a living from looking on the wonders you turn over in your house?” remonstrated the butcher, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Making money ain’t everything in life. My new-painted kitchen will light up your heart with joy.”
Seeing that Mr. Sopkin still made no move, she began to coax and wheedle, woman-fashion. “Oi weh! Mr. Sopkin! Don’t be so mean. Come only. Your customers ain’t going to run away from you. If they do, they only got to come back, because you ain’t a skinner. You weigh the meat honest.”
How could Mr. Sopkin resist such seductive flattery?
“Hanneh Hayyeh!” he laughed. “You’re crazy up in the air, but nobody can say no to anything you take into your head.”
He tossed his knife down on the counter. “Everybody!” he called; “let us do her the pleasure and give a look on what she got to show us.”
“Oi weh! I ain’t got no time,” protested one. “I left my baby alone in the house locked in.”
“And I left a pot of eating on the stove boiling. It must be all burned away by this time.”
“But you all got time to stand around here and chatter like a box of monkeys, for hours,” admonished Mr. Sopkin. “This will only take a minute. You know Hanneh Hayyeh. We can’t tear ourselves away from her till we do what wills itself in her mind.”
Protesting and gesticulating, they all followed Mr. Sopkin as Hanneh Hayyeh led the way. Through the hallway of a dark, ill-smelling tenement, up two flights of crooked, rickety stairs, they filed. When Hanneh Hayyeh opened the door there were exclamations of wonder and joy: “Oi! Oi!” and “Ay! Ay! Takeh! Takeh!”
“Gold is shining from every corner!”
“Like for a holiday!”
“You don’t need to light up the gas, so it shines!”
“I wish I could only have it so grand!”
“You ain’t got worries on your head, so it lays in your mind to make it so fancy.”
Mr. Sopkin stood with mouth open, stunned with wonder at the transformation.
Hanneh Hayyeh shook him by the sleeve exultantly. “Nu? Why ain’t you saying something?”
“Grand ain’t the word for it! What a whiteness! And what a cleanliness! It tears out the eyes from the head! Such a tenant the landlord ought to give out a medal or let down the rent free. I saw the rooms before and I see them now. What a difference from one house to another.”
“Ain’t you coming in?” Hanneh Hayyeh besought her neighbors.
“God from the world! To step with our feet on this new painted floor?”
“Shah!” said the butcher, taking off his apron and spreading it on the floor. “You can all give a step on my apron. It’s dirty, anyhow.”
They crowded in on the outspread apron and vied with one another in their words of praise.
“May you live to see your son married from this kitchen, and may we all be invited to the wedding!”
“May you live to eat here cake and wine on the feasts of your grandchildren!”
“May you have the luck to get rich and move from here into your own bought house!”
“Amen!” breathed Hanneh Hayyeh. “May we all forget from our worries for rent!”
Mrs. Preston followed with keen delight Hanneh Hayyeh’s every movement as she lifted the wash from the basket and spread it on the bed. Hanneh Hayyeh’s rough, toil-worn hands lingered lovingly, caressingly over each garment. It was as though the fabrics held something subtly animate in their texture that penetrated to her very finger-tips.
“Hanneh Hayyeh! You’re an artist!” There was reverence in Mrs. Preston’s low voice that pierced the other woman’s inmost being. “You do my laces and batistes as no one else ever has. It’s as if you breathed part of your soul into it.”
The hungry-eyed, ghetto woman drank in thirstily the beauty and goodness that radiated from Mrs. Preston’s person. None of the cultured elegance of her adored friend escaped Hanneh Hayyeh. Her glance traveled from the exquisite shoes to the flawless hair of the well-poised head.
“Your things got so much fineness. I’m crazy for the feel from them. I do them up so light in my hands like it was thin air I was handling.”
Hanneh Hayyeh pantomimed as she spoke and Mrs. Preston, roused from her habitual reserve, put her fine, white hand affectionately over Hanneh Hayyeh’s gnarled, roughened ones.
“Oi-i-i-i! Mrs. Preston! You always make me feel so grand!” said Hanneh Hayyeh, a mist of tears in her wistful eyes. “When I go away from you I could just sit down and cry. I can’t give it out in words what it is. It chokes me so—how good you are to me—You ain’t at all like a rich lady. You’re so plain from the heart. You make the lowest nobody feel he’s somebody.”
“You are not a ‘nobody,’ Hanneh Hayyeh. You are an artist—an artist laundress.”
“What mean you an artist?”
“An artist is so filled with love for the beautiful that he has to express it in some way. You express it in your washing just as a painter paints it in a picture.”
“Paint?” exclaimed Hanneh Hayyeh. “If you could only give a look how I painted up my kitchen! It lights up the whole tenement house for blocks around. The grocer and the butcher and all the neighbors were jumping in the air from wonder and joy when they seen how I shined up my house.”
“And all in honor of Aby’s home-coming?” Mrs. Preston smiled, her thoughts for a moment on her own son, the youngest captain in his regiment whose home-coming had been delayed from week to week.
“Everything I do is done for my Aby,” breathed Hanneh Hayyeh, her hands clasping her bosom as if feeling again the throb of his babyhood at her heart. “But this painting was already dreaming itself in my head for years. You remember the time the hot iron fell on my foot and you came to see me and brought me a red flower-pot wrapped around with green crêpe paper? That flower-pot opened up the sky in my kitchen.” The words surged from the seething soul of her. “Right away I saw before my eyes how I could shine up my kitchen like a parlor by painting the walls and sewing up new curtains for the window. It was like seeing before me your face every time I looked on your flowers. I used to talk to it like it could hear and feel and see. And I said to it: ‘I’ll show you what’s in me. I’ll show you that I know what beautiful is.’”
Her face was aglow with an enthusiasm that made it seem young, like a young girl’s face.
“I begged myself by the landlord to paint up my kitchen, but he wouldn’t listen to me. So I seen that if I ever hoped to fix up my house, I’d have to spend out my own money. And I began to save a penny to a penny to have for the paint. And when I seen the painters, I always stopped them to ask where and how to buy it so that it should come out the cheapest. By day and by night it burned in me the picture—my kitchen shining all white like yours, till I couldn’t rest till I done it.”
With all her breeding, with all the restraint of her Anglo-Saxon forbears, Mrs. Preston was strangely shaken by Hanneh Hayyeh’s consuming passion for beauty. She looked deep into the eyes of the Russian Jewess as if drinking in the secret of their hidden glow.
“I am eager to see that wonderful kitchen of yours,” she said, as Hanneh Hayyeh bade her good-bye.
Hanneh Hayyeh walked home, her thoughts in a whirl with the glad anticipation of Mrs. Preston’s promised visit. She wondered how she might share the joy of Mrs. Preston’s presence with the butcher and all the neighbors. “I’ll bake up a shtrudel cake,” she thought to herself. “They will all want to come to get a taste of the cake and then they’ll give a look on Mrs. Preston.”
Thus smiling and talking to herself she went about her work. As she bent over the wash-tub rubbing the clothes, she visualized the hot, steaming shtrudel just out of the oven and the exclamations of pleasure as Mrs. Preston and the neighbors tasted it. All at once there was a knock at the door. Wiping her soapy hands on the corner of her apron, she hastened to open it.
“Oi! Mr. Landlord! Come only inside,” she urged. “I got the rent for you, but I want you to give a look around how I shined up my flat.”
The Prince Albert that bound the protruding stomach of Mr. Benjamin Rosenblatt was no tighter than the skin that encased the smooth-shaven face. His mouth was tight. Even the small, popping eyes held a tight gleam.
“I got no time. The minutes is money,” he said, extending a claw-like hand for the rent.
“But I only want you for a half a minute.” And Hanneh Hayyeh dragged the owner of her palace across the threshold. “Nu? Ain’t I a good painter? And all this I done while other people were sleeping themselves, after I’d come home from my day’s work.”
“Very nice,” condescended Mr. Benjamin Rosenblatt, with a hasty glance around the room. “You certainly done a good job. But I got to go. Here’s your receipt.” And the fingers that seized Hanneh Hayyeh’s rent-money seemed like pincers for grasping molars.
Two weeks later Jake Safransky and his wife Hanneh Hayyeh sat eating their dinner, when the janitor came in with a note.
“From the landlord,” he said, handing it to Hanneh Hayyeh, and walked out.
“The landlord?” she cried, excitedly. “What for can it be?” With trembling fingers she tore open the note. The slip dropped from her hand. Her face grew livid, her eyes bulged with terror. “Oi weh!” she exclaimed, as she fell back against the wall.
“Gewalt!” cried her husband, seizing her limp hand, “you look like struck dead.”
“Oi-i-i! The murderer! He raised me the rent five dollars a month.”
“Good for you! I told you to listen to me. Maybe he thinks we got money laying in the bank when you got so many dollars to give out on paint.”
She turned savagely on her husband. “What are you tearing yet my flesh? Such a money-grabber! How could I imagine for myself that so he would thank me for laying in my money to painting up his house?”
She seized her shawl, threw it over her head, and rushed to the landlord’s office.
“Oi weh! Mr. Landlord! Where is your heart? How could you raise me my rent when you know my son is yet in France? And even with the extra washing I take in I don’t get enough when the eating is so dear?”
“The flat is worth five dollars more,” answered Mr. Rosenblatt, impatiently. “I can get another tenant any minute.”
“Have pity on me! I beg you! From where I can squeeze out the five dollars more for you?”
“That don’t concern me. If you can’t pay, somebody else will. I got to look out for myself. In America everybody looks out for himself.”
“Is it nothing by you how I painted up your house with my own blood-money?”
“You didn’t do it for me. You done it for yourself,” he sneered. “It’s nothing to me how the house looks, so long as I get my rent in time. You wanted to have a swell house, so you painted it. That’s all.”
With a wave of his hand he dismissed her.
“I beg by your conscience! Think on God!” Hanneh Hayyeh wrung her hands. “Ain’t your house worth more to you to have a tenant clean it out and paint it out so beautiful like I done?”
“Certainly,” snarled the landlord. “Because the flat is painted new, I can get more money for it. I got no more time for you.”
He turned to his stenographer and resumed the dictation of his letters.
Dazedly Hanneh Hayyeh left the office. A choking dryness contracted her throat as she staggered blindly, gesticulating and talking to herself.
“Oi weh! The sweat, the money I laid into my flat and it should all go to the devil. And I should be turned out and leave all my beautifulness. And from where will I get the money for moving? When I begin to break myself up to move, I got to pay out money for the moving man, money for putting up new lines, money for new shelves and new hooks besides money for the rent. I got to remain where I am. But from where can I get together the five dollars for the robber? Should I go to Moisheh Itzek, the pawnbroker, or should I maybe ask Mrs. Preston? No—She shouldn’t think I got her for a friend only to help me. Oi weh! Where should I turn with my bitter heart?”
Mechanically she halted at the butcher-shop. Throwing herself on the vacant bench, she buried her face in her shawl and burst out in a loud, heart-piercing wail: “Woe is me! Bitter is me!”
“Hanneh Hayyeh! What to you happened?” cried Mr. Sopkin in alarm.
His sympathy unlocked the bottom depths of her misery.
“Oi-i-i! Black is my luck! Dark is for my eyes!”
The butcher and the neighbors pressed close in upon her.
“Gewalt! What is it? Bad news from Aby in France?”
“Oi-i-i! The murderer! The thief! His gall should burst as mine is bursting! His heart should break as mine is breaking! It remains for me nothing but to be thrown out in the gutter. The landlord raised me five dollars a month rent. And he ripped yet my wounds by telling me he raised me the rent because my painted-up flat is so much more worth.”
“The dogs! The blood-sucking landlords! They are the new czars from America!”
“What are you going to do?”
“What should I do? Aby is coming from France any day, and he’s got to have a home to come to. I will have to take out from my eating the meat and the milk to save together the extra five dollars. People! Give me an advice! What else can I do? If a wild wolf falls on you in the black night, will crying help you?”
With a gesture of abject despair, she fell prone upon the bench. “Gottuniu! If there is any justice and mercy on this earth, then may the landlord be tortured like he is torturing me! May the fires burn him and the waters drown him! May his flesh be torn from him in pieces and his bones be ground in the teeth of wild dogs!”
Two months later, a wasted, haggard Hanneh Hayyeh stood in the kitchen, folding Mrs. Preston’s wash in her basket, when the janitor—the servant of her oppressor—handed her another note.
“From the landlord,” he said in his toneless voice.
Hanneh Hayyeh paled. She could tell from his smirking sneer that it was a second notice of increased rental.
It grew black before her eyes. She was too stunned to think. Her first instinct was to run to her husband; but she needed sympathy—not nagging. And then in her darkness she saw a light—the face of her friend, Mrs. Preston. She hurried to her.
“Oi—friend! The landlord raised me my rent again,” she gasped, dashing into the room like a thing hounded by wild beasts.
Mrs. Preston was shocked by Hanneh Hayyeh’s distraught appearance. For the first time she noticed the ravages of worry and hunger.
“Hanneh Hayyeh! Try to calm yourself. It is really quite inexcusable the way the landlords are taking advantage of the situation. There must be a way out. We’ll fix it up somehow.”
“How fix it up?” Hanneh Hayyeh flared.
“We’ll see that you get the rent you need.” There was reassurance and confidence in Mrs. Preston’s tone.
Hanneh Hayyeh’s eyes flamed. Too choked for utterance, her breath ceased for a moment.
“I want no charity! You think maybe I came to beg? No—I want justice!”
She shrank in upon herself, as though to ward off the raised whip of her persecutor. “You know how I feel?” Her voice came from the terrified depths of her. “It’s as if the landlord pushed me in a corner and said to me: ‘I want money, or I’ll squeeze from you your life!’ I have no money, so he takes my life.
“Last time, when he raised me my rent, I done without meat and without milk. What more can I do without?”
The piercing cry stirred Mrs. Preston as no mere words had done.
“Sometimes I get so weak for a piece of meat, I could tear the world to pieces. Hunger and bitterness are making a wild animal out of me. I ain’t no more the same Hanneh Hayyeh I used to be.”
The shudder that shook Hanneh Hayyeh communicated itself to Mrs. Preston. “I know the prices are hard to bear,” she stammered, appalled.
“There used to be a time when poor people could eat cheap things,” the toneless voice went on. “But now there ain’t no more cheap things. Potatoes—rice—fish—even dry bread is dear. Look on my shoes! And I who used to be so neat with myself. I can’t no more have my torn shoes fixed up. A pair of shoes or a little patch is only for millionaires.”
“Something must be done,” broke in Mrs. Preston, distraught for the first time in her life. “But in the meantime, Hanneh Hayyeh, you must accept this to tide you over.” She spoke with finality as she handed her a bill.
Hanneh Hayyeh thrust back the money. “Ain’t I hurt enough without you having to hurt me yet with charity? You want to give me hush money to swallow down an unrightness that burns my flesh? I want justice.”
The woman’s words were like bullets that shot through the static security of Mrs. Preston’s life. She realized with a guilty pang that while strawberries and cream were being served at her table in January, Hanneh Hayyeh had doubtless gone without a square meal in months.
“We can’t change the order of things overnight,” faltered Mrs. Preston, baffled and bewildered by Hanneh Hayyeh’s defiance of her proffered aid.
“Change things? There’s got to be a change!” cried Hanneh Hayyeh with renewed intensity. “The world as it is is not to live in any longer. If only my Aby would get back quick. But until he comes, I’ll fight till all America will have to stop and listen to me. You was always telling me that the lowest nobody got something to give to America. And that’s what I got to give to America—the last breath in my body for justice. I’ll wake up America from its sleep. I’ll go myself to the President with my Aby’s soldier picture and ask him was all this war to let loose a bunch of blood-suckers to suck the marrow out from the people?”
“Hanneh Hayyeh,” said Mrs. Preston, with feeling, “these laws are far from just, but they are all we have so far. Give us time. We are young. We are still learning. We’re doing our best.”
Numb with suffering the woman of the ghetto looked straight into the eyes of Mrs. Preston. “And you too—you too hold by the landlord’s side?—Oi—I see! Perhaps you too got property out by agents.”
A sigh that had in it the resignation of utter hopelessness escaped from her. “Nothing can hurt me no more—And you always stood out to me in my dreams as the angel from love and beautifulness. You always made-believe to me that you’re only for democracy.”
Tears came to Mrs. Preston’s eyes. But she made no move to defend herself or reply and Hanneh Hayyeh walked out in silence.
A few days later the whole block was astir with the news that Hanneh Hayyeh had gone to court to answer her dispossess summons.
From the windows, the stoop, from the hallway, and the doorway of the butcher-shop the neighbors were talking and gesticulating while waiting for Hanneh Hayyeh’s return.
Hopeless and dead, Hanneh Hayyeh dragged herself to the butcher-shop. All made way for her to sit on the bench. She collapsed in a heap, not uttering a single sound, nor making a single move.
The butcher produced a bottle of brandy and, hastily filling a small glass, brought it to Hanneh Hayyeh.
“Quick, take it to your lips,” he commanded. Weak from lack of food and exhausted by the ordeal of the court-room, Hanneh Hayyeh obeyed like a child.
Soon one neighbor came in with a cup of hot coffee; another brought bread and herring with onion over it.
Tense, breathless, with suppressed curiosity quivering on their lips, they waited till Hanneh Hayyeh swallowed the coffee and ate enough to regain a little strength.
“Nu? What became in the court?”
“What said the judge?”
“Did they let you talk yourself out like you said you would?”
“Was the murderer there to say something?”
Hanneh Hayyeh wagged her head and began talking to herself in a low, toneless voice as if continuing her inward thought. “The judge said the same as Mrs. Preston said: the landlord has the right to raise our rent or put us out.”
“Oi weh! If Hanneh Hayyeh with her fire in her mouth couldn’t get her rights, then where are we?”
“To whom should we go? Who more will talk for us now?”
“Our life lays in their hands.”
“They can choke us so much as they like!”
“Nobody cares. Nobody hears our cry!”
Out of this babel of voices there flashed across Hanneh Hayyeh’s deadened senses the chimera that to her was the one reality of her aspiring soul—“Oi-i-i-i! My beautiful kitchen!” she sighed as in a dream.
The butcher’s face grew red with wrath. His eyes gleamed like sharp, darting steel. “I wouldn’t give that robber the satisfaction to leave your grand painted house,” he said, turning to Hanneh Hayyeh. “I’d smash down everything for spite. You got nothing to lose. Such a murderer! I would learn him a lesson! ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
Hanneh Hayyeh, hair disheveled, clothes awry, the nails of her fingers dug in her scalp, stared with the glazed, impotent stare of a madwoman. With unseeing eyes she rose and blindly made her way to her house.
As she entered her kitchen she encountered her husband hurrying in.
“Oi weh! Oi weh!” he whined. “I was always telling you your bad end. Everybody is already pointing their fingers on me! and all because you, a meshugeneh yideneh, a starved beggerin, talked it into your head that you got to have for yourself a white-painted kitchen alike to Mrs. Preston. Now you’ll remember to listen to your husband. Now, when you’ll be laying in the street to shame and to laughter for the whole world.”
“Out! Out from my sight! Out from my house!” shrieked Hanneh Hayyeh. In her rage she seized a flat-iron and Jake heard her hurl it at the slammed door as he fled downstairs.
It was the last night before the eviction. Hanneh Hayyeh gazed about her kitchen with tear-glazed eyes. “Some one who got nothing but only money will come in here and get the pleasure from all this beautifulness that cost me the blood from my heart. Is this already America? What for was my Aby fighting? Was it then only a dream—all these millions people from all lands and from all times, wishing and hoping and praying that America is? Did I wake myself from my dreaming to see myself back in the black times of Russia under the czar?”
Her eager, beauty-loving face became distorted with hate. “No—the landlord ain’t going to get the best from me! I’ll learn him a lesson. ‘An eye for an eye’—”
With savage fury, she seized the chopping-axe and began to scratch down the paint, breaking the plaster on the walls. She tore up the floor-boards. She unscrewed the gas-jets, turned on the gas full force so as to blacken the white-painted ceiling. The night through she raged with the frenzy of destruction.
Utterly spent she flung herself on the lounge, but she could not close her eyes. Her nerves quivered. Her body ached, and she felt her soul ache there—inside her—like a thing killed that could not die.
The first grayness of dawn filtered through the air-shaft window of the kitchen. The room was faintly lighted, and as the rays of dawn got stronger and reached farther, one by one the things she had mutilated in the night started, as it were, into consciousness. She looked at her dish-closet, once precious, that she had scratched and defaced; the uprooted geranium-box on the window-sill; the marred walls. It was unbearable all this waste and desolation that stared at her. “Can it be I who done all this?” she asked herself. “What devil got boiling in me?”
What had she gained by her rage for vengeance? She had thought to spite the landlord, but it was her own soul she had killed. These walls that stared at her in their ruin were not just walls. They were animate—they throbbed with the pulse of her own flesh. For every inch of the broken plaster there was a scar on her heart. She had destroyed that which had taken her so many years of prayer and longing to build up. But this demolished beauty like her own soul, though killed, still quivered and ached with the unstilled pain of life. “Oi weh!” she moaned, swaying to and fro. “So much lost beautifulness—”
Private Abraham Safransky, with the look in his eyes and the swing of his shoulders of all the boys who come back from overseas, edged his way through the wet Delancey Street crowds with the skill of one born to these streets and the assurance of the United States Army. Fresh from the ship, with a twenty-four-hour leave stowed safely in his pocket, he hastened to see his people after nearly two years’ separation.
On Private Safransky’s left shoulder was the insignia of the Statue of Liberty. The three gold service stripes on his left arm and the two wound stripes of his right were supplemented by the Distinguished Service Medal on his left breast bestowed by the United States Government.
As he pictured his mother’s joy when he would surprise her in her spotless kitchen, the soldier broke into the double-quick.
All at once he stopped; on the sidewalk before their house was a heap of household things that seemed familiar and there on the curbstone a woman huddled, cowering, broken.—Good God—his mother! His own mother—and all their worldly belongings dumped there in the rain.