In a situation like this, what could a Jew do but pray?
“Though I walk through a valley of death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me,” he recited, recalling the Psalm of Kind David by heart.
Insistently, Tevye gave the mule a kick. It stepped forward uncertainly, as if treading on treacherous ground. With a mind of its own, it refused to continue.
“Don’t be such a stubborn ass!” Tevye shouted, kicking its abdomen again. He flicked at the rein, urging it forward. The recalcitrant creature advanced a few short paces until it lurched forward. Its forelegs sank in the swamp. Tevye felt water splash into his shoes. With a growl, another invisible animal dived into the reeds up ahead.
“Eeeoooh!” Tevye yelled in alarm.
“Eeeaaah!” brayed the mule.
Fiercely, with all of his strength, Tevye jerked the reins to the left. The mule staggered forward and stopped.
“Yaaahh!” Tevye shouted, commanding the mule to respond.
“Yaaahh! Tevye screamed, booting the mule in its belly.
“Yaaahh!” Tevye bellowed, tugging the reins.
But the mule would not budge.
Angered, Tevye batted the mule on the head.
“Habyta, you jackass!” Tevye yelled out in Hebrew, urging the animal home. “Habyta!”
With a bellow, the frightened creature stumbled unsteadily forward. Once again its forelegs sank into the mud, this time up to its knees. The animal froze, its head slanting down toward the swamp, its rump in the air, as if it were a stallion trying to throw off a rider. Tevye grasped at the mule’s neck, bracing himself with all of his might so that he didn’t tumble forward into the water.
“CARMEL!” Tevye screamed. “ELISHA! NACHMAN! SOMEBODY SAVE ME!”
His shouts were answered by silence and the ominous buzz of mosquitoes.
“CARMEL!” he yelled, calling out for his wife. “ELISHA! NACHMAN! COME HELP!”
Certainly, someone was near. Certainly, his calls would be heard. The colony was only a short distance away, and certainly when Tevye was late in returning, a search party had already been sent out to find him.
But what if his shouts were heard by Arabs, not Jews? What if his yelling brought Bedouins? It wouldn’t be the first time that an Arab killed a Jew for his mule.
Tevye shut up. The buzzing of the mosquitoes grew louder. When one landed on his face, he gave it a slap, but the movement upset his already precarious balance. His legs squeezed the mule tightly as they both tilted dangerously towards the water.
“Oh Golda,” he whispered. “Don’t be angry with me. Get me out of this mess and I’ll leave my new wife.’
Again, a wild boar splashed into the swamp. Alarmed, Tevye tugged at the reins, pulling the mule backward. The animal made a great effort and staggered to unglue himself from the muck. But this time, his hind legs sank into the swamp. With a shudder, it stood rigid, unable or unwilling to budge.
“SOMEBODY HELP ME!” Tevye screamed.
His cry echoed over the swamp. Tevye looked up at the sky. The thick wall of clouds was beginning to scatter. The moon peeked through the umbrage as if to see who was causing all of the commotion below. For the first time, Tevye could see the reeds and bulrushes around him. In front of them was swamp. Behind them was swamp. All around them were bulrushes and reeds. Beneath him, Tevye felt the mule sink down another inch into the mud.
“Gevalt,” he mumbled. “It’s quicksand.”
The mule turned its head to look back at Tevye, as if to say, “Shmuck, why did you make me go forward?”
Tevye frowned. His legs dangled in the warm, musty water. Once again, he felt the heavy animal sink into the soupy floor of the swamp. He cried out again in the night, but the echo of his cry was swallowed up by the darkness. No one could hear him. And one wrong movement could topple him off the back of the mule to a lonely and ignominious finish. Until the whole swamp was drained, nobody would ever find him.
Tevye sat frozen, like a statue of some general on a horse. Terrified, he allowed himself just the slightest of movements, a lift of an eye up to Heaven.