On the third day of the holiday, Hillel suggested that they go to the beach for a swim. Nachman frowned at the idea. Swimming wasn’t exactly in the spirit of the exaltedly holy holiday, and the Rabbis had warned against treating the sanctity of the festival lightly. But his explanation was met with boos, and an outing was organized. Since there weren’t enough horses to go around, Tevye rode on a mule. He had given his own horse and wagon to Bat Sheva and Ariel as a wedding present. Moishe and Hannei rode in a mule-driven cart with Elisha’s younger children. Taking along matzot, fruits, water, and bottles of vodka and wine, the picnickers headed off to the ocean a short distance away. Relaxing on the beach was, in Tevye’s words, a life-giving “machiah.” Sitting on the shore with his butt in the sand and his feet in the cool frothing waves, the swamp-drainer felt new life seep through his body. The sky was clear blue with puffs of white clouds. A refreshing breeze blew in from the ocean. The water shone with a purity, as if it flowed out of the Garden of Eden. This, Tevye thought, was freedom. He lifted a bottle of vodka to his lips and took a generous swallow. He was accustomed every morning after praying to down a shot glass of vodka with quinine before heading off to work in the swamps, but the holiday was the cause for a little extra celebration. Munsho passed Tevye a bottle of wine, and the pioneer milkman made a healthy “L’Chaim!” Before long, his head was dizzy from the sunshine and spirits. Hilled played his accordion. The children splashed in the waves. One last time, Tevye made sure that Ariel was watching them, then he laid back in the sand and drifted off to sleep. A wave washed over him, splashing his face. Startled, he sat up and looked around in a daze. The children were frolicking happily in the water under Ariel’s watchful care. Satisfied that he could steal a few winks, Tevye trudged up the beach and lay down against the gentle curve of a dune. Soo he was fast asleep.
When he woke up, the sun was setting. It stared at him like a huge red, hungover eye, then sank slowly into the ocean with a radiant glow. He held his hand to his head and winced. A clanging in his brain rang from ear to ear like a blacksmith’s anvil. He recalled Ariel trying to wake him, and answering that he would follow right along. But apparently he had fallen back to sleep. Gazing around, Tevye noted that the beach was deserted. His mule stood tied to the trunk of a palm tree. Tevye braced a hand on the sand to get up, but an overwhelming weakness swept over him as if he had been hit by a gigantic wave. His limbs refused to obey him. Helplessly, he swooned backward onto the sand. With a sigh, he stared up at the darkening heavens, wondering what the Master of the Universe had in store for him now. Then he closed his cumbersome eyelids. In a moment, the sound of his snoring echoed over the shore. The mule clapped a hoof in the sand and brayed, as if to remind its master that nightfall was fast approaching.
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.