“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.
A minute had not transpired when the mule halted abruptly again. Its body shivered below Tevye as if it, like Bilaam’s ass, had seen the Angel of Death standing before it, grasping an upraised sword. The mule reared up its head and brayed. Tevye sat frozen. The smell of the swamp filled his nostrils. Frogs croaked. To his right, a shadowy creature leaped through the darkness and splashed noisily into the water. An alligator, Tevye thought, not sure if there were alligators in this part of the world. Or a bobcat. Or more probably, a wild, man-eating boar.
“Oy vay,” Tevye thought. Either he would fall off a cliff, drown in the swamp, or be eaten by some wild creature. He heard a voice in his head remind him of a famous quote from the Talmud: “It isn’t the bite of the snake which kills, but a man’s very own sin.” Tevye trembled. Why had he gone to the beach and gotten drunk like an ignorant peasant? Why had he treated the sanctity of the Festival so lightly? Surely, he was being punished for that. If he had stayed in his tent, studying Torah, he never would have gotten lost in the swamp. Why hadn’t he listened to Nachman?