The peasant screwed up his doughy features thoughtfully; here was a language he understood. “Fifteen zlotys,” he said at length, “and she’s yours.”
It was an astronomical sum, which the peasant was of course aware of, but Salo continued to keep up his end of the bluff. He sucked a tooth and gave the woman a once-over as if to assess her value. Then he was surprised to find that her spindly frame and sour face, furious despite her oppressed situation, engendered in him a mellow throb of desire. Here was a new sensation and, vibrating like a plucked fiddle string, Salo marveled at the range of passions the wide world afforded. He turned his head to spit an imaginary plug of tobacco.
Meanwhile the peasant had begun to eye the weathered casket in the bed of the wagon. Salo followed his glance, anticipating what would come next: how the man would ask to see what was concealed in the box, and Salo would comply to encourage further negotiation, after which the peasant would promptly cross himself and make tracks along with his captive. To avoid this eventuality the young man blurted, “Tell you what I’ll do,” and offered a straight swap. “This fine brood mare for your broken-down hag, what do you say?”
The peasant was caught off guard. He looked first suspiciously at Salo, then swiveled his head from the mare to the woman, as if torn between the audacity of such an offer and a horse-trading impulse he couldn’t resist. “Which is more broke down?” he wanted to know.
“Why, just look at her,” said Salo, beginning to find his stride. “What use can you expect to get from her? A few months, a year at the most, and she’s finished—you’ll dig her grave. Whereas, the mare will probably outlive you.”
The peasant was incredulous. “The nag is more decrepit than the hag! It’s already glue. Besides,” with a simper that invited Salo’s collusion, “women are better for fucking.”
Uncomfortable with this turn in the conversation, Salo nonetheless rallied. “Are you crazy? The woman’s bones will snap like matchsticks, while the mare will bear you a fresh foal every year.” He was himself a little unclear as to the implied paternity of the foals.
“I’m crazy?” The peasant could scarcely believe what he was hearing.
“That’s right,” said Salo. “You would settle for a moment’s pleasure with a tainted female whose pox I can sniff from here”—he was conscious that even in harness the woman was seething—“when you could enjoy the years of prosperity that only a good draft horse can provide?”
Amazingly, the peasant was beginning to waver, though he stiffened again when Salo began to lay it on a bit too thick, making claims for Bathsheba’s thoroughbred bloodline. In the end, though, the youth moderated his tone, and the yokel, making a great show of reluctance, accepted the deal, handing over the tether in exchange for the reins of the unhitched mare. Once the bargain was struck, however, the peasant began to gloat, saying “Good riddance” to the woman as if he had suckered Salo all along: He had out-Jewed the Jew. Watching the man leading away his father’s gangle-shanked jade, her tail raised like a mophead as she dropped a load in the muck, Salo felt sorry for the animal; her fate would not be a happy one. But life, though harsh, was full of unexpected gifts, and pleased with what he deemed (despite the peasant’s response) a successful transaction, the young man turned to face his prize.
She spat at him, at first actual sputum, then a venomous stream of execrations: “Shtik drek! Gruber yung! I pish in the milk of your mother!” But Salo, as he endeavored to remove the taut noose from around her neck, took no offense. If anything, he felt a pang of nostalgia for the curses his father used to heap on his head.
“A finsternish, may your testicles soon toll your death knell!”
Then even as she continued spewing bile, she took up the traces, without prompting or inquiring as to what the coffin contained, and began to help Salo pull the wagon along the furrowed road. In the name of her martyred family and herself, Basha Puah Bendit Benchwarmer’s, she denounced her rescuer as she did the God of Abraham for his discourteous treatment of Jewish daughters. She lamented her lost dowry—which had consisted of some pewter spoons, a milch cow, and an Elijah’s chair—and reviled the world that had deprived her of her due. Enjoying the music of her waspish tongue, Salo wondered how she might look with a little meat on her bones, though he expected that her raw bones would always shun flesh. But vinegar-pussed harridan that she was, at least a decade older than he, she was still a woman, and having never spent time in the society of women, Salo was greatly excited, his loneliness dispelled.
Warmed though he was by her litany of complaints, the young man begged leave to interrupt. “I respectfully submit,” he said with a bashful formality, “that for the sake of decency we should marry as soon as we can.”
Snarling as she resolved never to forgive him for the humiliation of having been traded for a horse, and for all the future offenses she anticipated in his miserable company, Basha Puah ungraciously accepted Salo’s proposal.
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