The wedding ceremony was over and the rabbi lowered himself into an armchair, then he stepped outside and saw the tables set up all along the courtyard. There were so many of them that they stuck their tail right through the gate onto Gospitalnaya Street. The velvet-draped tables wound through the yard like snakes with patches of every color on their bellies, and they sang in rich voices, these patches of orange and red velvet.
The flats had been turned into kitchens. A meaty flame, a plump, drunken flame, gushed through their sooty doors. The aged faces, wobbly jowls and grimy breasts of housewives baked in its smoky rays. Sweat rosy as blood, rosy as the foam on a mad dog’s lips, streamed down these piles of overgrown, sweetly stinking human flesh. Three cooks, not counting the hired help, were preparing the wedding feast, and over them reigned the eighty-year-old Reyzl—tiny, humpbacked, and traditional as a Torah scroll.
Before the feast got going, a young fellow nobody knew wormed his way into the yard. He asked for Benya Krik. He took Benya Krik aside.
“Listen, King,” said the young man, “I’ve got a couple words for you. Aunt Hannah sent me, from Kostetskaya Street…”
“All right,” said Benya Krik, whom everyone knew as the King. “You got words? Spill.”
“Aunt Hannah, she told me to tell you there’s a new chief in town, took over the police station yesterday…”
“Knew about that the day before yesterday,” said Benya Krik. “Keep talking.”
“The chief, he got all the cops together, gave them a speech…”
“New broom sweeps clean,” said Benya Krik. “Wants a raid. Keep talking…”
“But when, King—you know when he wants it?” “The raid’s tomorrow.” “King, it’s today.” “Who says, kid?” “Says Aunt Hannah. You know Aunt Hannah?” “I know Aunt Hannah. Keep talking.” “…The chief got the cops together and gave them a speech. ‘We’ve got to stifle that Benya Krik,’ he says,‘because where there’s an emperor, there can’t be no king. Today, when Krik’s marrying off his sister and they’re all in one place, that’s when we raid…’”
“…Then the coppers, they got scared. They said, if we raid today, when Benya’s having a feast, he’s gonna be sore, gonna waste a lot of blood. So the chief says, pride’s more important…”
“All right, get going,” said the King.
“So what do I tell Aunt Hannah, raid-wise?”
“Tell her Benya knows, raid-wise.”
And he left, this young man. Three of Benya’s friends left too. They said they’d be back in half an hour. And they came back in half an hour. That’s all there was to it.
The guests weren’t seated according to seniority. Foolish old age is no less pitiful than cowardly youth. And they weren’t seated according to wealth. A heavy wallet is lined with tears.
The bride and groom had first place at the table. This was their day. Next came Sender Eichbaum, the King’s father-in-law. That was his right. And Sender Eichbaum’s story is worth hearing, because it isn’t a simple story.
How did Benya Krik, gangster and king of the gangsters, become Eichbaum’s son-in-law? How did he become the son-in-law of a man who owned no fewer than sixty milk cows? It all goes back to a shakedown. Only a year ago Benya wrote Eichbaum a letter.
“Monsieur Eichbaum,” he wrote, “I ask you to come to 17 Sofiyevskaya Street tomorrow morning and place twenty thousand roubles under the gate. If you do not do this, what awaits you is unheard of, and you will be the talk of all Odessa. Respectfully, Benya the King.”
Three letters, each more direct than the last, went unanswered. So Benya took certain measures. They came at night—nine men with long sticks in their hands. The tops of the sticks were wrapped in tarred hemp. Nine blazing stars lit up over Eichbaum’s stockyard. Benya knocked the locks off the shed and led the cows out, one by one. A guy with a knife stood waiting. He tipped each cow over with one blow and plunged the knife into its bovine heart. The torches blossomed like fiery roses on the blood-soaked ground, then shots rang out. Benya started shooting to drive away the milkmaids, who’d come running to the cowshed. And the other gangsters followed suit, firing shots in the air, because if you don’t shoot in the air you could kill someone. And then, when the sixth cow fell at the King’s feet with a dying moo, Eichbaum himself ran into the yard in nothing but his long johns and asked:
“Benya, what’s this?”
“Monsieur Eichbaum, I don’t get my money, you don’t keep your cows. Simple as that.”
“Step inside, Benya.”
Inside they came to terms. The slaughtered cows were split evenly between the two of them. Eichbaum was guaranteed immunity and issued a stamped certificate to that effect. But the miracle—that came later.
During the shakedown, on that terrible night when the stabbed cows bellowed and their calves slipped and slid in maternal blood, when the torches danced like black virgins and the milkmaids squirmed and screamed before the barrels of friendly Brownings—on that terrible night, old man Eichbaum’s daughter, Celia, ran out into the yard in her nightshirt. And the King’s triumph proved to be his downfall.
Two days later, without any warning, Benya returned all the money he had taken from Eichbaum, and then he came calling in the evening. He had an orange suit on, a diamond bracelet gleaming beneath his cuff; he came into the room, greeted Eichbaum, and asked for his daughter Celia’s hand in marriage. The old man nearly had a stroke, but he stood up. He still had a good twenty years in him.
“Listen, Eichbaum,” said the King, “when you die, I’ll bury you at the First Jewish Cemetery, right by the gates. I’ll put up a tombstone of pink marble, Eichbaum. I’ll make you an Elder of the Brodsky Synagogue. I’ll abandon my profession, Eichbaum, and we’ll partner up in business. We’ll have two hundred cows, Eichbaum. I’ll kill all the other dairymen. No thief will walk down the street where you live. I’ll build you a dacha by the beach, at the sixteenth tram stop… And remember, Eichbaum, you weren’t no rabbi in your youth either. Just between us, that will didn’t forge itself, did it? And you’ll have the King for a son-in-law, not some snot-nosed kid—the King, Eichbaum…”
And Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world. The newlyweds spent three months in fertile Bessarabia, swimming in grapes, plentiful food and the sweat of love. Then Benya returned to Odessa so as to marry off his forty-year-old sister, Dvoyra, who had a goitre that made her eyes bulge. And now, having told the story of Sender Eichbaum, we can get back to the wedding of Dvoyra Krik, the King’s sister.
At this wedding they served turkey, roast chicken, goose, gefilte fish and fish soup in which lakes of lemon glimmered like mother-of-pearl. Flowers swayed above the dead goose heads like lush plumage. But does the foamy surf of Odessa’s sea wash roast chickens ashore?
On that starry, that deep blue night, the noblest of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated across the land, did its destructive, seductive work. Wine from abroad warmed stomachs, broke legs in the gentlest way possible, numbed brains and brought up a belching as sonorous as the call of a battle horn. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had come in from Port Said three days earlier, smuggled in round-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from Pierpont Morgan’s plantations and oranges from the environs of Jerusalem. That’s what the foamy surf of Odessa’s sea washes ashore; that’s what Odessa’s paupers can hope to get their hands on at Jewish weddings. Odessa’s paupers got their hands on Jamaican rum at Dvoyra Krik’s wedding, sucked up their fill like treyf pigs and raised a deafening clatter with their crutches. Eichbaum undid his vest, gazed at the stormy gathering with narrowed eyes and hiccupped lovingly. The orchestra played flourishes. It was like a divisional parade. Flourishes—nothing but flourishes. The gangsters, who sat in serried ranks, were at first put off by the presence of strangers, but then they loosened up. Lyova the Russkie smashed a bottle of vodka over his beloved’s head. Monya the Gunner fired a shot in the air. But their enthusiasm reached its peak when, in accordance with ancient custom, the guests began to present the newlyweds with gifts. The synagogue shammeses leapt onto the tables and sang out the number of tendered roubles and silver spoons to the sound of the raucous flourishes. And here the King’s friends showed the true worth of Moldavanka’s blue blood and its yet unextinguished chivalry. Their careless gestures filled silver trays with gold coins, jewelled rings and coral necklaces.
These aristocrats of Moldavanka were squeezed into crimson vests, rufous jackets gripped their shoulders, and their fleshy legs nearly burst through leather of the purest azure. Standing tall and sticking out their bellies, the gangsters clapped to the music, shouted “give ’er a kiss” and threw the bride flowers, while she, forty-year-old Dvoyra, sister of Benya Krik, sister of the King, disfigured by disease, with an outsize goitre and bulging eyes, was perched on a mountain of pillows beside a frail boy who had been purchased with Eichbaum’s money and was numb with anguish.
The rite of gift-giving was coming to a close, the shammeses had grown hoarse and the bass wasn’t getting along with the fiddle. A faint odour of burning suddenly wafted over the courtyard.
“Benya,” said Krik’s papa, an old drayman who was known as a roughneck even among other draymen. “Know what I think, Benya? What I think is the soot’s burning…”
“Papa,” the King told his drunken father. “Please, I ask you, eat a little, drink a little, and don’t pay no mind to that nonsense…”
And Papa Krik followed his son’s advice. He ate a little, drank a little. But the cloud of smoke grew more and more noxious. Some patches of sky were turning pink. And a flame’s tongue had already shot up into the heavens like a sword. The guests rose in their seats and began sniffing at the air, and their women squealed. The gangsters exchanged glances. Benya alone, noticing nothing, was inconsolable.
“They’re spoiling my feast,” he cried, full of despair. “Friends, please, I ask you, eat, drink…”
But at that moment the same young man who’d come earlier appeared in the yard.
“King,” he said. “I’ve got a couple words for you…”
“All right, spill,” said the King. “You’re never short a couple words…”
“King,” the unknown young man said and chuckled. “Funny thing, the police station, it’s burning like a candle…”
The shopkeepers were numb. The gangsters grinned. Sixty-year-old Manya, matriarch of the Slobodka crew, stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a whistle so shrill it sent those around her reeling.
“Manya, you ain’t on the job,” Benya told her. “Cool your blood, Manya…”
The young man who’d brought this startling news was still choking back laughter.
“They left the station, about forty of them,” he said, his jaws trembling, “heading out on their raid. So they take about fifteen steps, and the fire, it’s already going… You can run over there, see for yourselves…”
But Benya wouldn’t let his guests go and look at the fire. He set out himself, with two friends. It was a proper fire, the station burning on all four sides. The policemen shimmied up and down the smoke-clogged stairwells, their rear ends jiggling, and tossed boxes from the windows. The prisoners took advantage of the hubbub and made a break for it. The firemen were zealous, to be sure, but there wasn’t a drop of water in the nearest hydrant. The chief—that very broom which sweeps clean—was standing across the street and biting his moustache, which reached into his mouth. The new broom stood motionless. Benya passed by and saluted the chief in military fashion.
“Sincerest greetings, Your Honour,” he said sympathetically. “What can you say at a moment like this? A real nightmare…”
He stared at the burning building, shook his head and smacked his lips:
“Oy, what a nightmare…”
By the time Benya came home, the lanterns were going out in the courtyard and day was breaking. The guests had gone, and the musicians were dozing, their heads resting on the necks of their basses. Dvoyra alone wasn’t ready for sleep. She was nudging her timid husband toward the door of their wedding chamber with both hands and leering at him like a cat that holds a mouse in its mouth, probing the creature gently with its teeth.
Excerpted from Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, Essential Stories by Isaac Babel available from Pushkin Press