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'Old Shloyme' by Isaac Babel

Introduction by Sara Lippmann

I knew I wanted to pick a story by Isaac Babel. Born in Odessa, celebrated as one of the most vital Soviet writers of his day, he was arrested in 1939, falsely accused of espionage, rushed through a bogus trial, and executed by firing squad on January 27th 1940. He was 44. For fourteen years, his extensive body of work was erased until his name was cleared following the death of Stalin. Much was lost, confiscated, destroyed. Stories remain. To read him is to experience the inimitable lilt of his voice and its off kilter mix of darkness and humor, of corporal lust and pungent humanity, the fierce pulse of life. Writing against a violent landscape ravaged by antisemitism, his voice feels ever pressing and timely. The question was merely -- how to pick just one? I considered options, The Story of My Dovecot, DiGrasso, Guy de Mappausant, At Grandmother's, The King. His mastery of compression is evident in all his work but short, I was advised, keep it short. So I picked up my trusted volume of The Collected Stories and started from the beginning with OLD SHLOYME. Published in 1913, it was Babel's first published story. My penchant for old Jewish men, in life and in art, is no secret, and so the choice is perhaps too on the nose. A seemingly simple story, the narrator bounces along benignly under an increasing cloud of dread until it pivots sharply to darkness. But it was the final, gutting drop of violence that struck me with startling recognition. I do not recall ever reading this story before and yet, it reminded me of the first story in my (now, long abandoned) graduate school thesis, which culminates in a similar desperate act of inevitability. Had I read OLD SHLOYME and simply forgotten, "the way you forget an unnecessary thing that doesn't jump out and grab you"? Or was it possible to imagine his voice somehow living inside me all this time? Could there be a loftier, more presumptuous form of deja vu? And yet: a girl can dream. Look at how swiftly Babel moves from body to soul. I recommend them all.

Old Shloyme

Although our town is small, its inhabitants few in number, and although Shloyme had not left this town once in sixty years, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single person who was able to tell you exactly who Shloyme was or what he was all about. The reason for this, plain and simple, is that he was forgotten, the way you forget an unnecessary thing that doesn't jump out and grab you. Old Shloyme was precisely that kind of thing. He was eighty-six years old. His eyes were watery. His face—his small, dirty, wrinkled face—was overgrown with a yellowish beard that had never been combed, and his head was covered with a thick, tangled mane. Shloyme almost never washed, seldom changed his clothes, and gave off a foul stench. His son and daughter-in-law, with whom he lived, had stopped bothering about him—they kept him in a warm corner and forgot about him. His warm corner and his food were all that Shloyme had left, and it seemed that this was all he needed. For him, warming his old broken bones and eating a nice, fat, juicy piece of meat were the purest bliss. He was the first to come to the table, and greedily watched every bite with unflinching eyes, convulsively cramming food into his mouth with his long bony fingers, and he ate, ate, ate till they refused to give him any more, even a tiny little piece. Watching Shloyme eat was disgusting: his whole puny body quivered, his fingers covered with grease, his face so pitiful, filled with the dread that someone might harm him, that he might be forgotten. Sometimes his daughter-in-law would play a little trick on Shloyme. She would serve the food, and then act as if she had overlooked him. The old man would begin to get agitated, look around helplessly, and try to smile with his twisted, toothless mouth. He wanted to show that food was not important to him, that he could perfectly well make do without it, but there was so much pleading in the depths of his eyes, in the crease of his mouth, in his outstretched, imploring arms, and his smile, wrenched with such difficulty, was so pitiful, that all jokes were dropped, and Shloyme received his portion.

    And thus he lived in his corner—he ate and slept, and in the summer he also lay baking in the sun. It seemed that he had long ago lost all ability to comprehend anything. Neither his son's business nor household matters interested him. He looked blankly at everything that took place around him, and the only fear that would flutter up in him was that his grandson might catch on that he had hidden a dried-up piece of honey cake under his pillow. Nobody ever spoke to Shloyme, asked his advice about anything, or asked him for help. And Shloyme was quite happy, until one day his son came over to him after dinner and shouted loudly into his ear, "Papa, they're going to evict us from here! Are you listening? Evict us, kick us out!" His son's voice was shaking, his face twisted as if he were in pain. Shloyme slowly raised his faded eyes, looked around, vaguely comprehending something, wrapped himself tighter in his greasy frock coat, didn't say a word, and shuffled off to sleep.

    From that day on Shloyme began noticing that something strange was going on in the house. His son was crestfallen, wasn't taking care of his business, and at times would burst into tears and look furtively at his chewing father. His grandson stopped going to high school. His daughter-in-law yelled shrilly, wrung her hands, pressed her son close to her, and cried bitterly and profusely.

    Shloyme now had an occupation, he watched and tried to comprehend. Muffled thoughts stirred in his long-torpid brain. "They're being kicked out of here!" Shloyme knew why they were being kicked out. "But Shloyme can't leave! He's eighty-six years old! He wants to stay warm! It's cold outside, damp .... No! Shloyme isn't going anywhere! He has nowhere to go, nowhere!" Shloyme hid in his corner and wanted to clasp the rickety wooden bed in his arms, caress the stove, the sweet, warm stove that was as old as he was. "He grew up here, spent his poor, bleak life here, and wants his old bones to be buried in the small local cemetery!" At moments when such thoughts came to him, Shloyme became unnaturally animated, walked up to his son, wanted to talk to him with passion and at great length, to give him advice on a couple of things, but... it had been such a long time since he had spoken to anyone, or given anyone advice. And the words froze in his toothless mouth, his raised arm dropped weakly. Shloyme, all huddled up as if ashamed at his outburst, sullenly went back to his corner and listened to what his son was saying to his daughter-in-law. His hearing was bad, but with fear and dread he sensed something terrifying. At such moments his son felt the heavy crazed look of the old man, who was being driven insane, focused on him. The old man's two small eyes with their accursed probing, seemed incessantly to sense something, to question something. On one occasion words were said too loudly--it had slipped the daughter-in-law's mind that Shloyme was still alive. And right after her words were spoken, there was a quiet, almost smothered wail. It was old Shloyme. With tottering steps, dirty and disheveled, he slowly hobbled over to his son, grabbed his hands, caressed them, kissed them, and, not taking his inflamed eyes off his son, shook his head several times, and for the first time in many, many years, tears flowed from his eyes. He didn't say anything. With difficulty he got up from his knees, his bony hand wiping away the tears; for some reason he shook the dust off his frock coat and shuffled back to his corner, to where the warm stove stood. Shloyme wanted to warm himself. He felt cold.

    From that time on, Shloyme thought of nothing else. He knew one thing for certain: his son wanted to leave his people for a new God. The old, forgotten faith was kindled within him. Shloyme had never been religious, had rarely ever prayed, and in his younger days had even had the reputation of being godless. But to leave, to leave one's God completely and forever, the God of an oppressed and suffering people--that he could not understand. Thoughts rolled heavily inside his head, he comprehended things with difficult, but these words remained unchanged, hard, and terrible before him: "This mustn't happen, it mustn't!" And when Shloyme realized that disaster was inevitable, that his son couldn't hold out, he said to himself, "Shloyme, old Shloyme! What are you going to do now?" The old man looked around helplessly, mournfully puckered his lips like a child, and wanted to burst into the bitter tears of an old man. But there were no relieving tears. And then, at the moment his heart began aching, when his mind grasped the boundlessness of the disaster, it was then that Shloyme looked at his warm corner one last time and decided that no one was going to kick him out of here, they would never kick him out. "They will not let old Shloyme eat the dried-up piece of honey cake lying under his pillow! So what! Shloyme will tell God how he was wronged! After all, there is a God, God will take him in!" Shloyme was sure of this.

    In the middle of the night, trembling with cold, he got up from his bed. Quietly, so as not to wake anyone, he lit a small kerosene lamp. Slowly, with an old man's groaning and shivering, he started pulling on his dirty clothes. Then he took the stool and the rope he had prepared the night before, and, tottering with weakness, steadying himself on the walls, went out into the street. Suddenly it was so cold. His whole body shivered. Shloyme quickly fastened the rope onto a hook, stood up next to the door, put the stool in place, clambered up onto it, wound the rope around his thin, quivering neck, kicked away the stool with his last strength, managing with his dimming eyes to glance at the town he had not left once in sixty years, and hung.

    There was a strong wind, and soon old Shloyme's frail body began swaying before the door of his house in which he had left his warm stove and the greasy Torah of his forefathers.

SARA LIPPMANN is the author of the novel Lech (Tortoise Booksand the story collections Doll Palace (re-released by 7.13 Books) and Jerks (Mason Jar Press.) Her fiction has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her essays have appeared in The MillionsThe Washington PostCatapult, The Lit Hub and elsewhere. With Seth Rogoff, she is co-editing the anthology Smashing the Tablets: Radical Retellings of the Hebrew Bible for SUNY Press. She teaches with the Writing Co-Lab and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Find her

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