by Frume Halpern
translated from Yiddish by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Excerpted from Blessed Hands: Stories by Frume Halpern; translated from the Yiddish by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (Philadelphia, Pa.: Frayed Edge Press, forthcoming)
Translator’s Notes: “Rusty, My Friend” is a story in Blessed Hands: Stories by Frume Halpern, my forthcoming translation of her Yiddish-language Gebenshte hent: dertseylungen. Halpern wrote with tremendous empathy about the lives of those marginalized by a range of causes and conditions, include illness, physical handicap, poverty, and racism. In “Rusty, My Friend,” Halpern creates a delicate meditation on aging and lost love as conveyed to humankind’s best friend.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Robert Linn and Victor M. Linn and Judith Linn, for kind permission and support and to Norman Buder for very helpful responses to queries on Yiddish language matters.
Rusty, my friend, even though you’re four-legged and I’m two-legged, we have a lot in common. My affinity for you is profound. It seems to me that I feel you the way I feel myself, that I hold you the way I would hold my own self. Like me, you’ve been forgotten and sidelined because of your age. You’ve lost your practical utility to humans, a quality you’d mastered throughout the years. Now, nobody cares about you. Like me, my four-legged friend, you’re alone and not attractive to people’s eyes, and as for your practical utility to dogs—well, that’s also been lost.
I feel you, my friend, and I don’t let you out of my mind’s eye. Now I see you, my little lump. You’ve selected a sunny spot of earth on which to curl up and bury your head in a few wet blades of grass, and with sleepy, cloudy eyes, you look dully at your “hims” and “hers” racing after summer butterflies and the cheerful children around them who fill the air with raucous laughter.
No one can compete with you when it comes to sniffing something from a distance or when you get the urge to play with the “she” around whom everyone is now dancing.
Based on your phlegmatic cleaving to the ground, one might presume that their activities don’t matter to you; after all, you’re not even looking in their direction. But, my friend, I know that’s just a show. I sense your internal pain. I see your twitching nose. I see how you flap an ear and give a snort with your shivering nose, and although I can’t claim to be an expert in canine psychology, I could swear that you, with the whole of your ungainly body, are now with them, with the young “puppies” that don’t even send a friendly sniff your way…
It’s already happened several times. There you were lying down in your loneliness, like you were already buried in the ground, when suddenly, as if the earth whispered a secret in your ear, you leaped up, like you did in your youth, and headed off like a whirlwind. Those around you tried to follow your example by running for a bit, but they soon returned, as if they’d decided: We won’t catch him, in any case. Let him run, that old fool. When you returned like a victor, with a guest, no one even looked at you. Your master didn’t even offer you a caress in thanks.
After one such expedition, I notice a flicker of old age in your eyes. This much is apparent: It’s all too much for your current capabilities. You flop to the ground, your usual resting-place, utterly spent. Just a moment ago, you detected from quite a distance with a sense of smell that has yet to let you down, someone from your household, but he doesn’t give you what you deserve. It is he, Grazia, who receives the special treats, the kind words, the caresses. It was he who danced around the guest, not you. He is beautiful. No one can resist his black, gleaming pelt with the white spots. The spot at the very center of his forehead adds a world of charm. Now Grazia rejoices in his conquest!
I’ve gone through the same thing, and so I feel for you. Oh, how I feel for you, Rusty, my friend. I know you’re exhausted and that you have pain in your sides from the running you just did; here you are lying in the tumult, with shortness of breath and sleep in your eyes. I feel for you, Rusty, my friend. Forgotten one, like me. I read all your resentments. Right now, I see that you are tired, that you tremble from time to time. Your muzzle rests on your weak front paws, your wide, pendant ears are even with the ground, and your half-open eyes are veiled with a slimy membrane. It’s hard to know whether you’re asleep. It’s already dark. The setting sun sets a slice of sky aflame. A few rays stumble upon your head and make their way through the dark recesses of your dozing brain to illuminate the remembrances and desires there. You glide in the past, my friend. Here too, I feel for you, Rusty, my friend, because the setting sun has also stirred up for me times past, yet not forgotten… You are still feeling at this moment how and in what way to throw yourself upon your enemy, upon any dog who stands in your way and doesn’t let you get anywhere near the female your heart so desires… A burning fury is ignited within you. You let out a wild howl! You give yourself a shake and there you are again lying on the ground. You woke up…
Oh, Rusty, my friend, how well I understand you. Oh, those years, when your legs were even, flexible, nimble, and swift as an arrow released from a bow! Why, your legs ran so quickly that they were invisible. I, too, Rusty, my friend, when I close my eyes, see myself long ago… the only difference is that I sit on a bench and you—on the ground.
Rusty, do you remember those adoring, soft, and loyal hands that we both loved so? Between you and me, Rusty, there was no place for jealousy. I loved to caress your satiny curly fur—fur of a hue that, in the dark, looked like flames, the only-just vanished flames of the setting sun. Your eyes were so human that I often thought you understood a bit too much for a dog… And what a scamp you were! Your ears stood like a young hare’s. She and I, both of us loved to play with your ears. No less than me, you were greedy for the caresses of those hands with their magic-fingers.
Remember how those hands caressed you. You wanted to thank them with a kiss, and in the face, no less, right? Remember how she embraced your handsome head in her translucent hands with such tenderness so as not to cause you any pain. Then your eyes would ask me to come to your aid. Neck outstretched, you would look at me, a little embarrassed. I saw a tear in a corner of one of your eyes.
Ach, ach, Rusty, my friend, how foolish one can be when young and in love! Now, when I speak to you without words, I can say that to you. You know, Rusty, there was a time when I was jealous of you? No, you can’t know. More than once, when I spotted her sitting on a bench in the garden, you at her feet, your handsome head on her lap and she playing with your silky fur—oh, was I jealous of you! Oh, how I wanted to be in your place!
Ach, ach, how monstrous the years can be, Rusty, my friend.
You lie in the corner and although you’re always drawn to the ground, you turn your head to the slice of moon that leaps out now and then from the heavy, dark clouds as if seeking to free itself from their pressure. But the clouds are rushing off to who knows where. As recently as earlier today, my eyes followed you as those of your kind held sway over the meadows and you were seized by a sudden urge. You hastily got up from your bed, shook the dust from yourself, looked all around, and spotting a white “she”, for whom you apparently have a “weakness”, made off in her direction as one would to an old friend. But she, although no innocent young thing herself, started barking so forcefully as if you wanted to slaughter her. At the sound of her cries, the entire “dog brigade” came running and started barking, and you, poor Rusty, unfortunately had no alternative but to retreat…
The truth is, you left in dignity, albeit with a lowered head; you didn’t flee, but walked slowly, step by step, and then returned to your bed.
As it does for myself, so my heart ached for you, Rusty, my four-legged friend. I experienced something similar in my own life. Strange, but when I saw you coming back with sadness and awkwardness in your steps, it seemed to me that I heard your wide, hanging ears weeping over your bitter fate…
… It’s midnight. A stripe of light extends from a lamp hanging from a beam, cutting through the dark fog. You, Rusty, are seemingly enveloped in a shadow, but when an edge of the moon reveals itself, your presence on the ground is spotlighted. When one gets close to you, one might think that you are still, like the ground itself upon which you lie, and like the trees standing by your head. But that is not the case. It’s not just the ground that is still, but also the trees that are still. You, Rusty, are very far from still. In your subconscious, something is happening. It’s hard to say what. What I do see: Your body gives a shiver, a jerk, as if someone had stepped on it, and from your throat—as if you were enraged at someone—a kind of grrr can be heard… Any minute now you will be coming out with a true canine bark. Perhaps you’re angry at the moon… and perhaps the moonlight has brought memories of the past back to you? Perhaps the moon has awakened in you a longing for those tender hands—the hands with the magic fingers, for which I, too, yearn, yearn unceasingly?
Of one thing I am sure: Despite your awkwardness and your proximity to the earth, you’re a dreamer, and that makes me happy. Because you ought to know, Rusty, my friend, that to dream is itself an achievement. And there’s something else you ought to know—one can’t always dream. A dream, too, has its time…
So dream, Rusty. Dream, my friend!