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(Ali Cherkis)

 

Pavel Zitskovich Bitsnikov gathered his last belongings and put them into his pinewood trunk. If the residents of Myshkov did not want him to be their mohel then he would go elsewhere. Bitsnikov had enough troubles without all the hooing and haaing of the Myshkovites. So he had cut off one penis by mistake. These things happened. Collegiate Councilor Ivan Gregorievich had wanted to become a Jew and now all he had to show for it was a dangling bit of flesh where the penis should be. It was terrible, but what could be done? Bitsnikov had never circumcised an adult before. The babies he could hold down with one hairy forearm across the tiny waist. Ivan Gregorievich was a big man, the type of man who could eat two sandwiches at midday and only half an hour later remove a hunk of dried fish from his pocket and shout, “Snack time.”

Ivan Gregorievich had jerked. Bitsnikov’s knife had slipped. Life continued.

Bitsnikov put his trunk down next to the door, wrapped his wool scarf around his neck, and coughed twice. He did not need to cough but having been terribly ill years before, the habit of coughing had stayed with Bitsnikov, and now he found that he could hardly speak without first clearing his throat several times. From Myshkov Bitsnikov would take a carriage to Gornishovka. There he would work as a mohel without all the hooing and the haaing. To hell with Myshkov. What did one mistake matter in a world with so many mistakes?

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In Gornishovka, Bitsnikov found a single room in a small tavern and put away the contents of his trunk. His folded prayer shawl he placed with his shirts and trousers in the dresser. His chess set and scarf found a home atop the pinewood trunk. His ritual knife he hid under his pillow for safekeeping. In the drawer of the chestnut desk in the far corner of the room, Bitsnikov put the spare button for his coat and his portrait of the woman with the blue eyes. He had found the portrait lying in the street atop a pile of potato peels years before. The drawing had never been completed and the girl had neither ears nor lips—but what beautiful eyes! Bitsnikov could look into those eyes for the longest periods without blinking even once.

Tomorrow Bitsnikov would go and see the rabbi. The people of Gornishovka would be thrilled to have such a distinguished mohel in their midst. If a mohel already resided in the town, he would become Bitsnikov’s assistant. This assistant would quiet the room before Bitsnikov was to perform—for what was a bris other than a magnificent performance, the opening act in the great play of life—and then wipe the blood from Bitsnikov’s knife. Should, heaven forbid, Bitsnikov have to again circumcise a grown man, the assistant would sit on the man’s chest. “Yes, that would keep the rascal still,” Bitsnikov thought, unable to keep the smile from advancing up his face.

Bitsnikov slept comfortably in his new residence and awakened with a sense of excitement in his heart he had not felt for some years, perhaps not since Chava Vilniksky had told him that she admired the stitching on his wool coat and then batted her eyes at him in such a way that she left no doubt that she would like for Bitsnikov to engage in immoral relations with her. Bitsnikov wanted very much to engage in immoral relations with Chava Vilniksky, but when, the following week, he arrived unannounced at the home of her family, Chava Vilniksky acted as if she had never met Bitsnikov before. “But my coat!” Bitsnikov said, extending his arms and turning them this way and that so that Chava Vilniksky might again see the fine stitching.

“Ah, yes, you are the mohel,” Chava Vilniksky said. “What a well-stitched coat you have.” With that Chava Vilniksky retreated to the back of the house, leaving Bitsnikov to stand alone in front of her open door until finally Chava Vilniksky’s father appeared and asked Bitsnikov what he was doing on his property. Too embarrassed to admit the true purpose of his visit and unable to think of a quick response, Bitsnikov simply stood in silence. After some minutes, Chava Vilniksky’s father apologized and closed the door.

The problem with Chava Vilniksky, Bitsnikov thought, is that she is a citizen of Myshkov. If in all of God’s great kingdom one thing was clear, it was that the citizens of Myshkov did not know a good thing from a bad one. Yes, Bitsnikov reflected, the old saying is true: “At a feast for goats, you might as well serve garbage.”

Bitsnikov laughed at the image of goats at a feast, then, after briefly wondering if he understood what the expression meant, he laughed even harder. Who cared what an expression meant? Probably the Myshkovites had made up the expression just to fool him. And so be it. Now they would have no mohel and so who would be the fool in the end?

After pulling his finest white shirt over his head, Bitsnikov examined his teeth in the cracked mirror and then pinched his nostrils between his thumb and forefinger exactly four times, a habit with origins not even Bitsnikov could remember. Only when the nostrils had been pinched for the fourth and final time did Bitsnikov hear a soft tapping on the door of his room. But who could it be? Who in all of Russia knew that Bitsnikov was in Gornishovka? “It must be the keeper,” Bitsnikov thought. “She’s one of the nosy types you find in these small taverns who like to knock on the door every few hours, ostensibly to ask if you need something but really to see that you have not moved the dresser even one inch, or, heaven forbid, let a single feather spill out of your mattress.” Bitsnikov, annoyed at being bothered when he had such important business to attend to, hurriedly opened the door.

No one was there! Bitsnikov leaned forward so that he could see all the way down the hall in both directions, and, satisfied that the knock had in fact been the creaking of the roof, he reached to close the door. It was at that moment that he heard a voice from below: “Good evening, Pavel Zitskovich Bitsnikov.”

It was Ivan Gregorievich’s penis. Bitsnikov recognized it immediately—a pale uncircumcised penis, some four inches in length, standing at his door. It was impossible, but there it was. Ivan Gregorievich’s penis bowed politely and then, without being invited in, scooted past Bitsnikov and into the room.

“But how…” Bitsnikov pleaded. “It’s a dream…” Bitsnikov slapped his own cheek so that he might awaken himself.

“A mistake is a mistake,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis, startling Bitsnikov with its firm tone, “but we must also take responsibility for our mistakes.”

“Yes, but what can I do for you?” Bitsnikov was now bright red and hopping about as though someone had dropped a large samovar on his foot.

“I ask only for a roof over my head and a bit of quiet,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis.

“But … But … Can’t you go elsewhere? Why not go to Ivan Gregorievich?” Bitsnikov cried and then again slapped his own cheek.

“Impossible,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said. “My presence would only increase his suffering. No, it cannot be. To lodge with you is my only possibility.”

By now Ivan Gregorievich’s penis had already made its way to the far corner of the room where it stopped beneath the chestnut desk. “I have had a long journey, and now I will rest,” it declared. “If you find it necessary, we can discuss the matter further when I have more strength.” And with that Ivan Gregorievich’s penis fell silent, failing to respond no matter how many times Bitsnikov cleared his throat and said, “But but but …”

“Very well,” Bitsnikov thought when his heartbeat resumed its steady pit-pat. “I will go to see the rabbi as I had planned. When I return, I will insist that Ivan Gregorievich’s penis leave at once.”

The rabbi of Gornishovka was a hunched old man who put so much effort into stroking his beard that at times it seemed that, just as coal must be shoveled into a stove, so the stroking of the beard was necessary to keep the old rabbi’s fires burning. Upon climbing up to the rabbi’s private chambers in the attic of the synagogue, Bitsnikov introduced himself and announced what he knew in his heart to be the truth. “I am the finest mohel in all of Russia,” Bitsnikov said. “I ask for no special favors, only the opportunity to carry out God’s commandments here among the good people of Gornishovka.”

The rabbi looked Bitsnikov up and down. He had seen this type before. The face was not unhandsome and yet there was something not quite right about it. Was the forehead too big? The ears too small? “A fine wool coat indeed, but probably he has very little else to show for himself,” the rabbi thought. “Probably he had spent his very last kopeck on this coat and had come to Gornishovka thinking he might charge twice the rates for a bris here.” No, no, the rabbi was now quite sure: Pavel Zitskovich Bitsnikov, whoever he was, could not be trusted with the sons of Gornishovka.

“I’m very sorry, but we have already a mohel,” the rabbi said.

“Of course,” Bitsnikov, said, as though he had expected this response all along and was not already wishing for the rabbi to be bitten on his toes by a thousand small insects. “What Jewish community could function without a mohel? A foreskin cannot be removed by magic! Poof! It’s gone!” Bitsnikov laughed and flung his arms out in either direction, frightening the old rabbi and causing him to jump backward.

“But, if you don’t mind my asking,” Bitsnikov continued, “does your mohel come, as I do, from a line of mohels that dates back seven centuries? And, if I may be so presumptuous as to ask, is it a common occurrence for the most beautiful women in town to approach your mohel and comment upon the fine stitching of his coat?” Bitsnikov turned his sleeves this way and that just as he had done on his visit to the home of Chava Vilniksky.

The truth was that Chava Vilniksky had been the only woman ever to notice Bitsnikov’s coat. And Bitsnikov did not have seven centuries of mohels in his lineage. He had become a mohel only four years earlier when the current mohel of Myshkov had choked on the ritual shank bone during a Passover Seder. The mohel had survived, but he took the choking as a sign from God that he should not be in the business of fulfilling His commandments. Bitsnikov, having overheard the story in the marketplace and, having nothing else to do, had simply declared himself the mohel of Myshkov.

The rabbi of Gornishovka gazed at Bitsnikov in confusion. “In fact, our current mohel is … ”

“Your current mohel shall be my assistant,” Bitsnikov declared, as though reading an edict from the tsar himself.

The rabbi twisted his mouth in such a way that Bitsnikov was not sure if he was smiling or if, as can happen after one eats a good Russian breakfast, a sudden pain had arisen in his insides and climbed its way up to the face—one hop to the kidney, a second to the heart, a rest on the Adam’s apple, and all the way up the pain went.

“It can’t be,” the rabbi said, his right hand now immersed all the way inside his beard. “But please come back tomorrow. Perhaps I will have found some work for you.”

Bitsnikov boiled with such anger that, had the rabbi looked closely, he might very well have seen the smallest puffs of steam coming out from Bitsnikov’s ears. After thanking the rabbi for his time, Bitsnikov made his way out of the synagogue and into the streets of Gornishovka. “Probably the rabbi was born in Myshkov,” Bitsnikov thought as he returned to his room at the tavern.

Bitsnikov’s fury at the rabbi did not last long. Like a drunk peasant who has been walking in one direction and then looks up to see that he has no idea where he is and so turns around and walks back, Bitsnikov’s thoughts moved instantly from the rabbi to Ivan Gregorievich’s penis.

“Responsible or not, I absolutely cannot live with a penis,” Bitsnikov told himself. “It will have to find another arrangement. If I must, I will pick it up and carry it out of the room myself.”

But no sooner had Bitsnikov returned to his room to the sight of Ivan Gregorievich’s penis resting on the cold floor beneath the chestnut desk than his resolve to be rid of his surprise guest left him.

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was sound asleep. “Well, I can’t wake him,” Bitsnikov thought. “When he rises, I will send him away and be done with this madness.”

In the meantime, Bitsnikov did his daily exercises, lifting his arms in the air as high as he possibly could and then letting them collapse to his sides. When he had completed 20 arm lifts, Bitsnikov felt refreshed and ran his hands along his muscles with a feeling of good fortune.

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis awakened from its nap several hours later and said good evening to Bitsnikov. It then began to sing quietly and, Bitsnikov thought, quite beautifully.

“So you have had your rest,” Bitsnikov said when Ivan Gregorievich’s penis paused between songs.

“So I have,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said.

“Well, you can’t stay here,” Bitsnikov said. “There is no space.”

“I assure you, Pavel Zitskovich Bitsnikov,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis, “that this is not how I would wish to live out my days either. But here we are. I will stay out of your way, and you, I shall assume, will stay out of mine.” And with that Ivan Gregorievich’s penis resumed its singing, again in a voice so lovely that Bitsnikov could not bear to interrupt.

***

Bitsnikov arrived at the synagogue the next morning to find the rabbi standing on the doorstep next to a large woman with a round pink face. Her red hair had been shaped into such an enormous ball of curls that Bitsnikov wouldn’t have been surprised to see a small bird shoot out, gather a few twigs, and then disappear back inside the nest.

“I would like to introduce you to the widow Kolkonsky,” the rabbi said to Bitsnikov. “The widow needs some help around her home for which she can pay you a generous sum. Perhaps you would like to assist her?” The widow smiled and let out three great sneezes.

Bitsnikov understood right away what was going on. The rabbi had met him and immediately thought, “Ah, now here’s a fellow I can sucker into marrying the widow Kolkonsky. He has a handsome face and a rather noble manner—and just look at that coat. Oh, yes, it’s perfect. He will be left with all of the widow’s nagging, and I will be free to stroke my beard in peace. No longer will I have to make small talk with the widow after the Kiddush. Now when she sneezes it will be Bitsnikov’s handkerchief that she reaches for.”

“Well, why not beat the rascal at his own game?” Bitsnikov thought. “I will work in the widow’s home for a generous sum, but marry her … not before the cow dances a troika with two sheep.” Here Bitsnikov chuckled softly; then, realizing he was chuckling aloud at his own thoughts, he excused himself and began to cough.

“I would be delighted to assist the widow Kolkonsky in her home,” Bitsnikov said to the rabbi who now—was it possible?—had both hands all of the way inside of his beard.

“I knew you would be pleased,” the rabbi said.

“Did you really know I would be pleased?” said Bitsnikov, making no effort to hide his suspicion of the rabbi.

“Yes,” said the rabbi, removing one hand from his beard while the other remained warm inside. “That’s why I said it.”

“You did say it, didn’t you?” Bitsnikov shot back, himself unsure of where the exchange was now heading.

“Yes,” the rabbi said again. “I did say it.”

“And so you did.”

The rabbi studied Bitsnikov’s face. “It’s his nose,” he thought. “It doesn’t fit. It’s as though it got lost from another face and somehow ended up on this one by accident.”

Bitsnikov stepped forward and peered down into the rabbi’s eyes so that the two faces were now only an inch apart.

“I imagine you’ll need me for the afternoon minyan,” Bitsnikov said.

“Actually, we’re all set,” the rabbi said.

“Of course,” Bitsnikov said, turning to the widow Kolkonsky and giving her a look that, if it could have talked, might have said, “We both know this old rabbi is losing his mind, but we might as well play along, as it’s a sin to insult a rabbi in his own shul, though, then again, we are only on the doorstep of the shul, and it would serve him right …”

Bitsnikov was busy forming the insult in his mind—something about the beard, perhaps?—when the window Kolkonsky, having grown tired of watching the two men stare at one another in silence, began to walk away in the direction of her estate.

***

“And what a fine piece of land you have,” Bitsnikov said, as the two passed through the gates to the widow’s home.

“My husband was a great scholar,” the widow announced, as though Bitsnikov had asked. “How rare it is for such a wonderful husband to walk the earth.”

Bitsnikov thought of Chava Vilniksky gazing at his coat. “True love is a rare bird of exquisite colors and full wings,” he said.

Inside of her home, the widow Kolkonsky put Bitsnikov to work fixing the broken leg of her armchair, and that is how Bitsnikov spent the rest of the day—a hammering here, a bit of sawing there. When the sun began to set, the widow Kolkonsky told Bitsnikov that he had done enough for the day and that he should rest. Bitsnikov, exhausted, plopped himself down on the sofa.

“Perhaps you would like me to scratch your heels?” the widow Kolkonsky asked. “My late husband, may his memory be a blessing, loved nothing more than a good heel scratching after a hard day’s work.”

“Why not?” Bitsnikov thought. He had never had his heels scratched before and the idea seemed not unappealing. Bitsnikov removed his socks and shoes and put his feet upon a pink pillow the widow had brought into the room.

“Oh, but it tickles!” Bitsnikov shrieked, the very moment the widow brought her fingers to his heels.

“Shall I stop?” the widow asked.

“No, no, don’t stop,” Bitsnikov managed to squeak out, his body still writing with his laughter.

When Bitsnikov’s heels had been scratched to the point beyond which further scratching would have drawn blood, the widow brought her hands back to her own lap and looked up at Bitsnikov. “Perhaps you would like to share a roasted chicken with me?” she said.

Bitsnikov had little desire to spend any additional time with the widow, but he was hungry and a good roasted chicken was not an offer he could easily pass up. He ate quickly, thanked the widow for an excellent meal, and hurried back to his room. To his great surprise, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was perched on the edge of his chessboard.

“Loshnikov versus Sobakievich,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said when it noticed Bitsnikov peering over it at the pieces. “Perhaps the greatest match every played.”

After studying the arrangement of the chess pieces for several minutes, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis scooted across the board and nudged the white queen three places forward. “Queen to knight’s fourth square—check,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said. Loshnikov’s master stroke.”

Bitsnikov waited in silence as Ivan Gregorievich’s penis played the match through to its dramatic conclusion.

“Perhaps you’d like a game?” Bitsnikov asked, hardly able to believe that he was suggesting a chess match against a penis.

“Well, it’s late, but why not?” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said.

Bitsnikov quickly set up the board but no sooner had the pieces been lined up and the first moves made than Ivan Gregorievich’s penis had pushed his bishop into the king’s sixth square and declared checkmate.

“Well, I’ve had quite a long day,” Bitsnikov said after looking over the board and verifying that he had indeed been mated in a mere 10 moves.

In the morning Bitsnikov went off to work at the home of the widow Kolkonsky and in the evening he returned to another chess match against Ivan Gregorievich’s penis. This, then, became his routine. After a hard day of work at the widow’s estate, Bitsnikov would allow her to scratch his heels and serve him a plate of roasted chicken. When the last scrap of chicken had been sucked from the marrow, Bitsnikov would excuse himself. Back in his room, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis would be waiting on the edge of the already set chessboard. Invariably Bitsnikov would lose within the first 20 moves, announce that it had been a long day, and go to sleep.

What changed in this routine over the next months was only the nature and length of Bitsnikov’s conversations with Ivan Gregorievich’s penis. Whereas at first they hardly spoke at all, in time Bitsnikov began to tell Ivan Gregorievich’s penis about his adventures at the home of the widow Kolkonsky. He told Ivan Gregorievich’s penis about the widow’s habit of over-salting her chicken and the way she shook her fists when she spoke. Sometimes Bitsnikov would even impersonate the widow’s fist shaking, and every now and again, these impersonations would tease the slightest chuckle from Ivan Gregorievich’s otherwise sober penis.

No matter how many stories Bitsnikov told, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis rarely spoke except to ask a polite question from time to time. Not once did Ivan Gregorievich’s penis ever mention how it occupied its own days. Indeed, if they were not playing chess, Bitsnikov almost never saw Ivan Gregorievich’s penis outside of his nook beneath the chestnut desk. It was only on the Sabbath that Ivan Gregorievich’s penis would take a stroll along the perimeter of the apartment singing melancholy folksongs in his small wool cap—where he acquired this cap that seemed to fit his head so perfectly Bitsnikov could only guess.

But Bitsnikov did notice a gradual change in Ivan Gregorievich’s penis. In the first weeks after its arrival, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis had been in the habit of calling Bitsnikov by his full name. Now he would sometimes say only “Bitsnikov” or even, or rare occasion, “Bitsnikov, my good man.” Having so rarely been shown even the slightest bit of kindness in his life, Bitsnikov was moved by these intimacies.

So warm did Bitsnikov come to feel toward Ivan Gregorievich’s penis that he found himself wanting to do something nice for it. “Ivan Gregorievich’s penis, I would like to give you a gift,” Bitsnikov said one evening after finishing a long story about the time he had ridden a horse all the way around Myshkov at a very rapid pace.

“I need nothing,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis, pushing his pawn to the rook’s fifth square.

“I see,” said Bitsnikov. “Well, then, perhaps I could, well …” Bitsnikov coughed twice. “Perhaps I could finish the job.”

“And what job would that be?” asked Ivan Gregorievich’s penis still seemingly focused on the chessboard.

“The bris,” Bitsnikov said. “I could remove your foreskin once and for all.”

“Thank you, but no thank you,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis. And the discussion ended there.

Still, Bitsnikov wanted to do something for his friend. The next Sabbath, while Ivan Gregorievich’s penis made his rounds in his wool cap, Bitsnikov took a few feathers from his own mattress, stuffed them into an old sock, and placed it beneath the chestnut desk.

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis never once mentioned Bitsnikov’s gesture, but when Bitsnikov would awaken in the morning, there Ivan Gregorievich’s penis would be, fast asleep on its very own feather mattress.

***

Life was good, and so, as it must, everything quickly went horribly wrong. It was an ordinary fall night. As soon as the chess match began, Bitsnikov found himself telling Ivan Gregorievich’s penis about the time in the marketplace when the beautiful Chava Vilniksky had commented upon the stitching of his coat.

“Ah yes, Chava Vilniksky,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis.

Bitsnikov looked up from the board. “Did you once meet Chava Vilniksky?” he asked.

“I suppose you might say so,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis, capturing Bitsnikov’s pawn with his bishop.

“But how?” Bitsnikov had lost all focus on the game and was now gazing at Ivan Gregorievich’s penis with a look of wonder. If he wasn’t mistaken, the skin of the penis had taken on a faint red tint.

“I’d rather not discuss the matter,” said Ivan Gregorievich’s penis.

“No, no, let us discuss the matter this very instant,” said Bitsnikov. “How might you know Chava Vilniksky?”

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said nothing.

“Well … Out with it!”

“Some things are better left unsaid.”

Bitsnikov looked at the penis in amazement. “But … but do you mean …”

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis lowered its head.

Had a stranger on the street seen Bitsnikov’s face at that moment, he might very well have thought that someone had just poked him sharply in the center of the throat with two fingers. “Why you scoundrel! You villain!” Bitsnikov shrieked, his eyes bulging so far from his face that it’s a wonder one didn’t shoot out like a cannonball and knock Ivan Gregorievich’s penis on its side.

Bitsnikov raced to his bed and grabbed his ritual knife from beneath his pillow. By the time he turned back around, Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was already scooting through the crack in the open door and into the dark of the Gornishovka night.

***

Bitsnikov continued to visit the widow Kolkonsky, but now with no one to talk to when he returned home, his evenings were lonely. Sometimes Bitsnikov would sit and look at his half-finished portrait of the girl with the beautiful eyes. Other times he would do his arm lifts a second time or sit on his bed and do his best to think of interesting happenings from the previous week.

Nearly six months passed until Bitsnikov saw Ivan Gregorievich’s penis again. Bitsnikov was in the market buying radishes when he heard a beautiful song in the distance. The voice was faint, as if from weakness, but unmistakable.

Bitsnikov followed the sound to a small alley behind the cart of Shepsnokov the butcher. Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was hidden from sight between a loose cobblestone and a brick wall. Bitsnikov moved the stone with his foot and let out a small gasp.

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis leaned against the brick wall. It looked much more pale than Bitsnikov had remembered and a deep red gash ran along its side.

“Good afternoon,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said, doing its best to speak in a firm voice.

“You don’t look well,” Bitsnikov said, pointing to the wound.

“Cats,” Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said.

Bitsnikov saw that Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was shivering.

“Well, I’m sure it will heal soon,” Bitsnikov said.

Ivan Gregorievich’s penis said nothing. Bitsnikov stood in silence for some 30 seconds. “I have an important appointment,” Bitsnikov finally said before hurrying away.

Bitsnikov returned to the market the next day, his chess set tucked under his arm, but Ivan Gregorievich’s penis was no longer in the alley behind the cart of Shepsnokov the butcher. Bitsnikov walked all through the market listening closely for melancholy singing but heard none.

Every day Bitsnikov would return to the market with his chess set and every day he would return home disappointed. A full month must have passed before he spotted the two gray kittens batting Ivan Gregorievich’s penis about for sport.

Bitsnikov hurried to the penis and chased the kittens away. He was too late. With a heavy heart, he scooped Ivan Gregorievich’s penis from the ground and placed it inside of his chess set together with the pieces.

A mohel in his bones, Bitsnikov removed the foreskin before the burial.

***

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