The old man carefully placed the onions and carrots into the sack his wife had given him. He thanked the farmer, paid him, and stepping into the square, began to make his way home. At about the same time, four soldiers, having just finished lunch at one of the market inns, entered the square from the opposite side. They were laughing, patting their bellies, and walked with the swagger of conquerors. The old man and the soldiers approached each other near the center of the square.
Spotting the old man, one of the soldiers turned to his companions and said loudly, “Something really stinks. Do you smell it? Smells like pigs in garbage.” The other soldiers, seeing the old man, laughed. One of them called out, “You there. Jew. Did you bathe today? Clearly you forgot to shave.” The old man stopped. He wanted to avoid the soldiers, but was boxed in.
“We can help you with that,” one of the soldiers said. He reached into a bag at his side and pulled out a large pair of scissors. “Hold him,” he said to his friends. Two of the soldiers held the old man by his arms. A third pushed back the man’s forehead with one hand and pulled his beard forward with the other so that the soldier with the scissors could more easily cut it. In three or four rapid jagged cuts, most of the man’s beard was removed. The one holding it cocked his head to one side, looked at the old man and said, “Ah. Yes. Much better. Not too ugly considering you are a Jew.”
Some in the crowd that had gathered to see what was going on laughed. The soldier holding the man’s cut beard in his hand, raised it high in the air, then released it to the vagaries of the wind. Done with their fun, the soldiers continued on their way and the crowd, except for one young boy of eight or nine years, dispersed.
When the soldiers had grabbed the old man’s arms, they had done it so roughly that he had dropped the sack he had been carrying. One of the onions had spilled onto the market square and been kicked away by one of the soldiers. “Panie, pozwól mi sobie pomóc,” the boy said, running after the stray onion. He picked it up, rubbed it against his shirt to clean it, and brought it to the old man. He handed him the onion. “A dank,” the old man said. “A dank.” He placed the onion back into his sack.
Arriving home, the man entered the house as quietly as he could. He stood in the entryway, letting his eyes adjust to its darkness. Though he had been quiet, his wife, standing in the kitchen with her back to him called out, “What took you so long? I was beginning to worry.” She turned round and seeing her husband cried, “Avram, what have they done to you? Are you all right?”
“Yes, Yemima,” he replied, “Boruch Hashem.” But then his strength left him. He could hardly stand. He began to weep. “I’ve never cut it,” he said. “Never. Yemima, soldiers cut it.” She walked to him, placed her hands against the sides of his face, kissed him, and then helped him to the table. “Sit down,” she said. She dampened a towel and gently rubbed his face. He had bled some from the rough cutting and the blood had congealed in what was left of his beard. It gave a pinkish tinge to the towel as his wife cleaned his face.
* * *
In the square, a turtledove sitting on a drain spout at the corner of the inn where the soldiers had eaten had seen everything. She flew off to where she and her mate were building their nest. “Come with me,” she said. They flew back to the square. Sitting on the roof of the inn, she told him all that had passed and what they needed to do. She flew to the well at the corner of the square and stationed herself beside one of the large puddles there. The rest of the afternoon her mate searched the square. When he found a hair of the man’s beard he would fly it to his mate. She would wash it carefully, and place it in a growing pile. Women drawing water at the well remarked on how carefully the birds were gathering material for their nest.
In the early evening the male told his mate, “This is the last one.” She washed it and placed it with the others. The male put one foot on each end of the pile, holding it in place, while his mate carefully wove a string around it, tying it at the end. The male picked up the bundle in his beak, and the two of them flew to where the old couple lived. They flew to the back of the house and landed on the couple’s bedroom windowsill. The male placed the bundle gently against the wood.
* * *
In the heavens, the Holy One, Blessed be He, called for His Master Weaver – the angel who had woven the robe, the train of which the prophet Isaiah was privileged to see filling the Temple in his vision. “I have a mission for you,” the Holy One said.
That night, at midnight, the angel entered the couple’s bedroom. He found them in the sleep that only the righteous sleep. The man was lying on his back, his wife on her side with one arm on her husband’s chest, and the fingers of her hand resting on his wounded chin. The angel walked to the bedroom window, quietly raised it, and brought in the bundle the doves had left. He circled round to the man’s side of the bed. He placed the bundle on a table beside the bed, and carefully untied it, setting the string to one side. All through the night, until just before dawn, the angel wove each strand of hair back into the man’s beard. He did it so beautifully that no one would be able to tell it had ever been cut.
When he finished, he walked with the string to the window and raising it higher leaned out and warbled in a low cooing sound. Soon the two doves appeared. They landed on the sill. “Take this string,” the angel said, “and weave it completely around your nest. The Holy One will use it to bless you and your little ones forever.”
* * *
Now, many years after the tale related here, if one finds himself sitting in the market of a certain small town in eastern Poland, sipping his drink, while the sun slowly sets, he will see many birds in the square, walking this way and that. And if he looks carefully, and the sun is just right, among them he will see doves with specks of gold in their feathers, blessed doves with specks of gold.
*Originally Published 2014 Summer Print Edition of “Poetica Magazine: Contemporary Jewish Writing”