Tales Of The Patriarchs
I cannot talk. I cannot sing.
I cannot do the buck and wing.
Possessing all these fatal strictures,
What chance have I in motion pictures?
When he came to America Jacob Lasky already knew the difference between a craftsman and an artist. As a boy of eight in the village of Uzhgorod in the wilderness south of Minsk, he helped stitch together the handgloves his sisters and his mother sold in the town square. Once a week he went with his father to trade for skins with the tanner whose rank tannery stood beside a foul rotted pond. As they approached the man’s fearsome dilapidation of a farmhouse, Jacob’s eyes began to water and his nose to run. He felt a sharp scratching in his soft palate that reached into his throat, as if something were trying to crawl inside him to escape the noxious fumes that poisoned the tanner’s grass, befuddled his cows and made his nervous chickens walk in erratic circles like drunken soldiers on guard duty. Behind the house chemical vats sat in the earth like great cups of reeking spirits. New skins sank to the bottoms of the vats and curled up to drown in their sorrows. Finished skins floated back up to the top and lay spreadeagle on the surface like ghosts hovering in an ether of dreams.
Jacob’s father never paid with coins for the skins he needed. He bartered instead. The coins the women brought home from the town square his mother used for food and clothing when necessary. Some weeks there were only enough coins to buy a chicken for the Sabbath. Some weeks the chicken was a miserable excuse for a chicken.
The tanner was a bitter stinking man. Jacob rarely looked him in the eye, and when he did the man seemed to be looking out from Hell, threatening to pull Jacob into the tide of dead souls in which was drowning. The man’s eyes were almost black. The sockets had been carved into his narrow head with a deep knife and had bled and scarred over to form the dark hard rims. Jacob could feel the pain when the tanner squinted or opened his eyes wide. The skin of his face was pitted with chemical burns from the tanning fluids he used. His brow was deeply creased, his hair bedlam. His weary redveined nose seemed to be on the point of exhaustion, as if it could bear no further toil in the service of the taskmaster for whom it labored. The words he spoke he tore from his throat like barbs that were sunk in his flesh. All this made him a difficult man to do business with, but his stubbornness made him worse. Invariably when the tanner had prodded, pushed and dickered beyond all reason, Jacob’s father rose from the slab of a table, slamming his palms into the stained grainy wood, grabbed Jacob by the hand and stalked out exasperated, until he was were almost out of earshot; at which point the scabrous tanner summoned him back to complete the deal. Jacob’s father told him that the man’s heart had been burnt to a crusted rind of a muscle from his years of working with the caustic compounds of his trade.
Jacob feared the tanner, but he also felt pity. One day on his way to the tanner’s sullen tannery and home, as he stopped in the sticky spring heat to wipe his brow with the sleeve of his tunic, Jacob gathered wildflowers from the roadside and placed them safely in the cart he pulled. After the men had finally made their deal Jacob unloaded from his exhausted cart milk, bread (the tanner had no wife and made no bread), cheese and cucumbers withering in brine that reminded him of the tanner’s brain. He placed them on the table where the tanner ate and apparently drank judging from the sour smell coming from the tall wooden mug that exhaled indecorously on the curious visitor. He thought to leave the flowers as well, scarcely able to contain himself at the thought of the tanner seeing them there and handling them suspiciously as if they were some kind of trick. Jacob saw a metal flask upended in a corner of the main room, hiding behind a broom made from strips of hide. Jacob picked the bottle off the floor, blew the dust off its cracked mouth and wiped some of the grime off its face, enough to see it was empty of poisons, although it smelled inhuman and vaguely shameful. He placed it on the wooden table worn smooth from the press of the tanner’s hands, the weight of his elbows and the scrape of his tin plates. He threaded the flowers into the bottlemouth and stood back. As he did, the tanner struck open the door and poured into the room like a river overflowing its banks. Where was Jacob’s father? He needed him. Before he could think what to do, the tanner growled and pursed his lips against his teeth as if he had a living thing trapped within his mouth. “Flowers? Flowers from God’s green earth, boy? You give me flowers for this miserable room?“ He laughed, a bitter grin across his face. He picked the flowers out of the bottle and pressed them to his useless nose. “I couldn’t smell these…. I couldn’t smell these….” And he rubbed the flowers into his face until the petals fell like embers from a burning branch.
“Don’t. You’ll ruin them,” said Jacob.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin them,” said the tanner mostly to himself with a look on his face like a man who had been struck by a thought more powerful than he knew he could comprehend. His hold on the flowers relaxed and he pulled them back from his face where he could look at them. Then he threw them down on the table.
“Don’t you have pity on me, boy. I’m not so pitiful as I look to you.”
“How do you know what you look like to me, sir?”
“You talk very smart for a little boy who doesn’t hold his father’s hand.”
“Where is he?” asked David.
“Where is who?” said his father stepping through the front door and seeing the flowers on the table. “Jacob, don’t leave your things in another man’s house. You make a mess.” Jacob picked up the flowers carefully and stepped back from the table. His eyes would not rise from its cracked and blistered surface, but he heard a thundercloud of suspicions pass over the tall still men. “Take your precious hides and go, Lasky,” said the tanner.
“Why don’t you come and count them again, so there is no doubt in your mind?” said Jacob’s father.
“I trust you, Lasky,” said the tanner.
“I don’t trust you,” said Jacob’s father. The tanner shrugged and walked past him through the doorway rattling the door on its loose leather hinges as he went. Jacob’s father followed him with a measured step.
“Where are those flowers?” asked Jacob’s father as they pulled the cart into the rut of a road that led from the tanner’s barn and began the long walk home, a pair of pack animals, father and son.
“I left them on the table,” said Jacob. His father stopped to examine his boy’s face. Was he looking for signs of idiocy? Defiance? Weakness?
“Why do you seek to please him?”
“Isn’t he a Jew, father?
“Was a Jew,” said Mr. Lasky.
“What happened to him?” Jacob asked.
“He was a great craftsman, but they say he lost his mind to some kind of obsession. He lost interest in life. He lost interest in God.” Jacob’s father shrugged at the impossibility of understanding such a man.
“What is he now?” Jacob asked softly.
“Now he is treyf. “
Like Jesus when they nailed him to a cross on the Sabbath and let the blood run out of him. Unclean. Jacob’s father took up the cart and Jacob pushed from behind as they worked their way uphill. As they walked, Jacob spied some yellowflowered stalks by the side of the trail at the crown of the hill. He ran ahead, waded into the field of grass and stooped to pick them. Suddenly the tanner stood before him in the road kicking at the crown of the wellworn rut with the toe of his swollen boot. His pale skin almost disappeared into the white sky as Jacob looked up at him, the hair on his head nearly coming to a boil on the stove of late day heat.
“A word with you, boy,” said the tanner, and he spread his arms and squatted down in the road like bird of prey coming to roost. “I think you forgot this, didn’t you.” He produced a beautiful soft gleaming skin. He held it gently in his hand and examined it as if it were the hand of his daughter coming to show him skinned knuckles, or a finger set off by a colored piece of glass she had made into a ring, or the kiss of her betrothed.
“No, sir. I didn’t,” said Jacob, his eyes wide, his forehead furrowed.
“Yes, you did. You forgot this in your haste. This is your skin.” He held it out to Jacob palm up. “Take it.” Jacob reached out politely and as he touched the skin his fingers recoiled instinctively as if they had touched something living, something that wished to escape his grasp, but something that might be tamed with patience. “I have been saving it,” said the tanner, “saving it for as long as I can remember.” He brought the skin to his cheek and held it there a moment. “Yes, very good. There was a time, you won’t understand, I thought I could give them life.” In Jacob’s mind, the crusted rind of the tanner’s heart became a soft brown rag.
The tanner gazed at the skin as if it could somehow answer the question. “I don’t remember. Does it matter, boy? ” “God would not like it.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Did he punish you?”
The tanner took Jacob’s hand in his and held it up. The tanner’s skin was hot like the barn in the August heat. In his broken swollen fingers he held Jacob’s as if they were seeds, as if he could plant them in the earth of time and watch them grow, husband them patiently, make them his life’s work. “Some things you do in spite of God. You can’t help it.”
“Do you regret it?” asked Jacob. The tanner looked away and then into the distance behind the boy. Something had gotten away and was out there beyond his reach, beyond his apprehension. And then in an instant his gaze hardened as if the thing had left unceremoniously and was gone for good.
“I am no Yiddishe Gorber ,” said the tanner. “I give you this skin, boy. Do you know what to do with it?” “No, sir.”
“You tell your mama to make you a pair of gloves.”
End of Prologue