When Tevye woke up it was already nighttime. He had no way of knowing the hour. Clouds had gathered over the coastline, blocking the moon’s light. The sand dunes looked foreboding, like giants curled up in sleep. The black, tempestuous ocean roared with a steady growl. At least, Tevye’s weakness had left him. Once again, his mucles responded to his commands. He had mixed too much vodka and wine, that was all.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he said to the mule, untying its rope from the tree.
Unlike Bilaam’s ass, the mule didn’t answer. But that didn’t stop Tevye from talking. On the contrary, a companion who quietly listened was a man’s truest friend. And in the unfamiliar darkness, talking to the dumb creature made Tevye feel less alone.
Not that he was afraid to journey at night. Hadn’t he ridden his horse through the black forests of Russian on his way home from peddling his cheeses? But then, he had known the paths in the forest like the prayers in his faded and page-torn siddur. The road home to Olat HaShachar was a much greater mystery. In fact, in the darkness, Tevye didn’t know the way back home at all.
“Don’t worry,” he assured the mule as he mounted onto its back. “All we have to do is head east away from the ocean. In no time at all we’ll be home. You can put your trust in old Tevye.”
The creature moved off in a mule’s slow, steady pace. When it reached the summit of the sand dune bordering the beach, Tevye stopped for a look around, but in the darkness, he couldn’t see any paths or tracks in the sand.
“Surely at the top of the next sand dune, we’ll find our way,” he said, more to assure himself than the mule.
In his heart, he felt a faint twinge of worry. It was true that the settlement was only a kilometer or two away, but somewhere up ahead lay the swamp.
The mule made its way down the sand dune and obediently climbed the next hill. The roar of the ocean receded in the distance. At least that was a sign that they were on the right course. Once again, at the summit, Tevye paused for a look, but the landscape seemed even blacker. The moon, which was always full on the first day of the Passover holiday, was shrouded in a thick blanket of clouds.
“It looks like it is going to rain,” Tevye noted.
The mule did not seem to care. Patiently, it waited for a kick in the side and started off down the sandy descent. When they reached level ground, the beast decided to halt on its own. Tevye clicked his tongue several times and flicked at the rope, but the creature stood frozen. In the stillness, Tevye got a whiff of the swamp. Inhaling its musty, stagnant stench, he squinted into the darkness ahead of’ them, but he couldn’t make out a thing.
“Good boy,” he said. “You’re not as dumb as you seem. Now let’s see if we can find the path to the colony. You know where it is. Lead the way.”
Tevye held the rope loosely and gave the animal a kick. He knew there was a trail because they had traveled over it that morning. It was the path the settlers would take when they met the supply boats from Jaffa. The mule had often made the short journey to pick up shipments of lumber and food. Surely, if Tevye was light on the reins, the creature would find the way home by itself.
At the top of the next sand dune, the mule once again jerked to a stop. Tevye gave it a kick, but it stood firm like a rock. Peering forward, Tevye discovered the reason. They were poised at the edge of a cliff! One additional step forward and they would have plunged into the chasm below. Earthquakes along the coast had left fissures and craters, and the caverns were treacherously deep.
“Woooo,” Tevye said.
The milkman gave a cautious tug on the rope. Obediently, the mule responded. It took a few careful steps backward, then turned around on the spot and retraced its path down the slope. When they once again reached the edge of the swamp, Tevye guided the beast to the right. Surely, the road lay in that direction.