I said to Tehilla, “If Shraga’s dead how can you want to send him a letter?”
“You must be thinking that after so many years the old woman’s gone crazy, trusting the post office to send a letter to the dead,” Tehilla said.
“If that’s not the case, then what are you going to do?” I asked. She stood and took the pitcher on the table and raised it up and spoke in a kind of song.
“I’ll take the letter, put it in the pitcher, take sealing wax, seal the pitcher, and take the pitcher with the letter with me.”
I thought in my heart, “And if she takes the pitcher with the letter I still don’t see how the letter will get to Shraga.” I looked at her and asked, “Where will you take the pitcher with the letter?”
Tehilla laughed sweetly and said mildly, “Where will I take the pitcher? I’ll take it to my grave, to my grave I’ll take the pitcher with the letter. And there in the higher world they’ll know Shraga and know where he is. And faithful are the emissaries of the Holy One Blessed Be He who shall deliver the letter to his hand.” She laughed sweetly again, the victorious laugh of a little girl who had outwitted her elders. Then she lay her head on her cane and it seemed as if she were napping. But presently she raised her head and peered at me with a piercing gaze and said, “Now that the whole matter has become clear to you, you can write the letter yourself.” While she was speaking she again rested her head on her cane.
I took up the quill and wrote. When I had finished, Tehilla raised her head and said, “Have you finished?”
I stood before her and read, her eyes tightly closed, as if she had put the whole affair from her mind and had no desire to hear.
When I had finished reading, she opened her eyes and said, “Good, my son, good, exactly as I wanted. The words could have been written in another way, but nevertheless, the way you’ve written it, the words are as clear as they need to be. Now, my son, give me the quill and I’ll sign my name on the letter and put it in the pitcher, and then I’ll go validate the contract.”
I dipped the quill in the ink and held it out to her. She took it and signed her name. Then she passed the quill over a few letters in need of minor correction. Then she folded the letter, placed it in the pitcher and stuck a piece of parchment over the lid. She lit a candle and took sealing wax and held it before the candle until it softened, and then sealed the pitcher.
She rose from her seat and walked towards the bed. When she arrived she lifted up the blanket and laid the pitcher underneath the pillow.
She looked upon it with contented eyes and said softly, “I’ll hurry to go to validate the contract. Blessed may you be, my son, for you have not withheld any of your efforts from me. From here on I won’t bother you.”
While she was speaking she smoothed the blanket, took up her cane, walked towards the door, and stretched herself out in order to kiss the mezuzah, then waited until I stepped out. She exited, locked the door and walked off hurriedly. I followed in her footsteps.
While walking she gazed with contented eyes at every place she passed and every person who crossed our path. She paused suddenly and said, “Tell me, my son, how does one lay aside holy places and faithful Jews like these?”
I was unsure of her words’ direction. When we arrived at a fork in the road, she paused and bade me farewell.
“I’ll go with you,” I said.
We walked a few steps before she paused again and said, “I’ve already come to where I was going. Farewell.” She saw I was determined to go with her and spoke no further. She ascended the broad steps that led the courtyard of the burial society. She went inside and I went after her.
We entered the burial society building, the building the oversaw the living and the dead. Three of the society scribes were seated there, their registry books before them and their pens in their hands, writing as they blew on glasses of black coffee. When they saw Tehilla they laid down their pens and stood in deference to her and said welcome and hurried to find her a chair.
The eldest among them said to her, “What is it that’s brought you here?”
“I came to renew the contract,” she said.
“You came to renew the contract,” he said, “but we were sure it was time to void it already.”
Tehilla looked astonished. “What are you saying?”
“Haven’t you already removed yourself from the ranks of the shtarbers?1”
The smile still on his face, he turned to me and said, “Tehilla, may she live and her days and years be lengthened, makes it a custom to come here every year to renew the bill of sale for her plot on the Mount of Olives. It was the same last year and the year before, three years ago, ten years, twenty, thirty, and it seems she’s destined to do the same until the coming of the Redeemer.”
“May he come, may he come,” Tehilla said. “I wish he’d hurry up already. But I won’t bother you anymore.”
“Are you going off to a commune, like those young people who call themselves pioneers?” the scribe asked in wonderment.
“I’m not going to a commune, I’m going to my place.”
“You’re going back Outside the Land?”
“I’m not going Outside the Land, I’m returning to the place I came from, as it’s written, and to the dust you shall return.”
The scribe whistled and said, “Please, please, please. You must think the burial society has nothing to do. Believe me, wait another twenty or thirty years. Why all the hurry?”
She whispered, “I’ve already summoned the purifiers and the bathers and it’s just not polite to fool such fine women.”
The scribe’s face fell and it was clear how sorry he was. “How fine it is that we can see you here with us, for every time we see you we see a picture of a lengthy life, and that you want to leave us G-d forbid it’s like you’re taking it away.”
“If I still have years to live,” Tehilla said, “behold, I grant them to you and anyone else who desires life. Here’s the contract — sign it.”
After the scribe had signed the bill of sale, Tehilla took it and placed it within her clothes. “From here on I won’t bother you. May G-d be with you, my dear Jews, and now I shall go to my place.” She rose and walked towards the door and paused to raise her lips to the mezuzah, kissed it and went out.
She saw I was walking with her and paused. “Return to your affairs, my son.”
“When you told me you were going to validate the contract, I was sure you were talking about your house, and in the end…”
She followed the drift of my words and said, “And in the end it was the contract for my grave. Hopefully I won’t need to stay there long and I’ll rise again with all the dead of Israel. Farewell to you, my son. I must hurry home, I’m sure the purifiers and the bathers are already waiting for me.” I stood silent and mute and she disappeared between the buildings and alleys.
In the morning I went into the city to check on Tehilla. I came across that same scholar whose house Tehilla had shown me. He stopped and drew me into his conversation. When I finally pulled away he asked to accompany me.
“I’m not going home,” I said, “I’m going to Tehilla’s.”
“You’ll have to go a hundred twenty years.” He saw that I was confused, and added, “May you live. That same righteous woman has left us.”
I took my leave and went off alone, walking and musing. Tehilla had gone and passed away. Gone and passed away. Sure enough, I found myself at her house. I opened the door of her room and stepped in.
- Yiddish, “those who die.” ↩