Treasure Island

Abraham Sutzkever

(1913 - 2010 / Smorgon, Russian Empire)

The Red Foot


Daybreak. A hut in the steppe under lanterns of snow.
My father is sick. His soul wanders off
Naked in the snow. I see its footsteps.
Days, waiting for a doctor. Suddenly — a neighing,
Like redhot stones rolled in ice-cold water.
Mother, in hairy felt boots, opens the door,
Father — his leaden eyes. Bending over the porch,
A horse — a bonfire in his mouth, smoke in his nostrils —
And someone above him pulls on his reins and stops
The horse from galloping in to my father.
Soon a head appears in a snowcovered, outlandishly high
Sheepskin hat — you could use it as a dovecote —
And Yiddish words melt the fear on the windowpanes:

'I saw on the doorframe glimmers a mezuzah —
So I don't need to ask if Jews live here.
In short: on my heels, a gang of Kirghizes,
They want to take me alive. My name is Lipa.
And she … (He points to a blond creature, lovely,
Cuddled in the foamy milk of his open fur) —
She's my girl, my woman, her name is Nina.
Allow me to leave her with you. A good soul
And doesn't eat much. Like a bird: peck, peck.
See you, friends! Hey, and let our enemies choke!'

And before Mother puts two and two together —
The horse strikes up his oars in the snowy waves,
As if each of his legs were a separate pony,
And Lipa — a wolf, nails sunk in the flesh, on his saddle.

A sleigh, seven bell-bedecked northern dogs in the lead.
He finally came, the only doctor around.
At first he refused. It's war. The money's no money.
Till we promised to give him a pouch of salt —
And it helped. A dark softness in the house.
The beams drip gummy tar like honey.
Such an otherworldly creature will heal my father?
One eye running over — a rotten eggyolk…
The other eye, twitching, drowns in swampy tears.
His face — a beggar's moldy loaf of bread.
And no one understands his strange, one-syllable language …

With hasty, straw fingers he feels the dying man.
And out of his doctor's breast, as out of his heart, he pulls
A handful of leeches. He licks them to see if they're alive —
They are! (In my eyes, they are enchanted rings
Around his straw fingers …) The leeches alive —
But lifeless, outside the whole scene, is my father — — —

Barefoot, I lie close to him. His legs grow cold.
I am a heap of silence older. A silkworm
Spins with his innards white stretches of cloth.
And the Creator creates the melody of life:
Facing the misty body, that just now was
My own father, from behind a skinny sheet,
Where the girl was quartered, the abandoned Nina —
A concert erupts. A chirping that pierces the ceiling.
Amazing: not at the head of the dead is
Our only wax candle — now mama, candle in hand,
Is with the stranger behind the sheet.

The candle — a golden owl. The sheet — a tempest.
Mother and doctor — two sunset shadows in a storm.
Both draw out a dark little man,
Tied to the homey bed with a string.

Drunk on the shadow-potion, I run to the sheet.
On the border, my foot is flooded with the blood of the storm.
Barefoot, I flee outside, to blue-covered snows,
I sear them with fear-hieroglyphs, breathing and dazzling.
And to this very day, behind me, a red little foot pursues:
— This is how you are born, my boy, always and ever.

1958

Submitted: Monday, July 21, 2014

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