“Maybe it isn’t too late to return to Morasha,” Guttmacher told Tevye on their first day of the job.
The undertaker stood on the bank of the swamp and reached out to grab a bucket splashing with rancid black water from Bat Sheva’s hands. Like all of the other workers in the swamp, she wore high rubber boots and long sleeves. But before long, she was drenched head to toe with the foul-smelling water.
“For what?” Tevye asked, reaching out to take the bucket from the undertaker.
“Haven’t you had enough of the plague?”
The swamp water splashed over Tevye’s hands as he passed the bucket on down the line.
“Is this any better, I ask you?”
“God will protect us,” Guttmacher said.
“One place is filled with the plague. The next place is a haven for malaria. What is person to do?”
“Pray,” Guttmacher told him.
Tevye reached out for the next bucket and passed it along to Reb Shilo’s oldest daughter. A mosquito landed on his forehead and took a hungry bite. With a slap, Tevye killed it and stared at the splatch of blood on his hand.
“Dear God,” Tevye said aloud, gazing up at the sky. “First, You almost killed us in a snowstorm. Then Cossacks nearly cut us in half with their swords. Then, You almost drowned us in the ocean, and when that didn’t work, You almost killed us with thirst. You took Tzeitl in Your mercy. When Arab marauders didn’t murder us all, You nearly finished us off with a plague. I ask You, haven’t we suffered enough? Must we also be eaten alive by mosquitoes?”
Guttmacher slapped at his neck. “Devils,” he said. “That’s what they are. Little devils.”
“You know,” Tevye said, taking another bucket from his friend, “when we left Anatevka, our Rabbi said that we shouldn’t go with the Zionists to Palestine. Maybe he was right.”
“Maybe he was wrong,” his friend countered. “For example, our Rabbi told us to go.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day all of the rabbis got together and decided the very same thing?”
“If that ever happened, the Mashiach would come for sure.”
In the middle of the swamp, waist deep in the water, Yankele was furiously swatting a cloud of mosquitoes. Apparently, in the middle of filling up buckets, he had stepped on a nest. With a scream, he made his way through the muck and climbed out of the swamp. Frantic to escape the angry mosquitoes, he threw himself on the ground and rolled over and over in the sand. When he stood up, he looked like a ghost. His body was trembling.
“I can’t take it,’’ he said.
“Take a rest,” Guttmacher advised.
“I can’t go back there,” the distraught butcher exclaimed.
“Sure you can. Because if you don’t, I’ll have to.”
Guttmacher stepped back into place and swung another bucket toward Tevye. In the swamp, Bat Sheva and Ariel kept working. They looked at each other and smiled. The buzzing mosquitoes didn’t seem to disturb them, as if they were in a cloud by themselves. Tevye was amazed at his daughter. All of her life, the girl had never been much of a worker. And if a spirit of self-sacrifice had been Golda’s emblem, their youngest child had grown up with an opposite nature. But suddenly, the girl had become an industrious pioneer, scooping up bucket after bucket without a word of complaint.
“I quit,” Yankele proclaimed, brushing the sand from his clothes. “I can’t take this anymore. You people can he heroes if you want to. I’m going to America.’’
“What do you think you are going to find in America?” Tevye asked.
“Swimming pools, for one thing, not swamps. I read your daughter’s letter. She didn’t say one word about mosquitoes, nor about Arabs, nor about plagues.”
“My daughter, God bless her, doesn’t always see things for what they really are. For instance, I would rather stay here with the snakes and mosquitoes and work in this swamp than live with her miserable husband who treats me with scorn because I work in a barn.”
“B’vakasha,” Yankele said. “By all means. You can have my place in line. Be my guest.”