by Jose Rabinovich
Note: The following short story is reprinted from Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, edited by Alan Astro and published by University of New Mexico Press. José (or Yoysef) Rabinovich (1903-1977) was born in Bialystok and arrived in Argentina in 1924. The lyrical tendencies of his first works gave way to a portrayal of Argentine poverty. His later work in Spanish is typified by the poetic volume, El violonista bajo el tejado (“The Fiddler Under the Roof”), which was published in 1970.
Editor Alan Astro is a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity University in San Antonio. “A Man and his Parrot” story was translated from the Yiddish by longtime TO contributing writer Debbie Nathan. It is published with permission from the University of New Mexico Press.
It is barely six in the morning and the stars are still out, but Manuel has to get up.
It isn’t a job that wakes him. That obligation used to get him right to his feet, but now? Now just getting dressed is drudgery. His pants, his shoes—they resist when he puts them on. His hands have become so powerless that they can hardly drag his clothes on. He and his clothes are mutual enemies. His feet, like an old man’s, don’t want to walk—they balk. He can’t stop yawning. What is he yawning about? Maybe he didn’t get enough sleep? On the contrary, he slept too much. If only someone would knock on the door and say “Manuel, time for work!”
He is itching to do something so his hands will turn back into hands. So his body will be hard and strong. So he will stop yawning. So he will be a real man! But since nobody comes to his door or into his heart, Manuel moves like a phantom, with his socks in one hand and a shoe in the other. In his hands his clothes look like rags. His hands, too.
Manuel gets up to make maté for Matilda. He rolls the bitterness inside his mouth and catches it in his throat, unable to swallow, but unable to spit it out either. And the harsh taste refuses to stay in his throat. It goes all through his body and is concentrated around his heart. What a life!
Matilda needs a maté brought to her in bed and put in her hand to drink. His wife deserves this: after all, she is supporting them. It would be so good if he didn’t have to do this. His excuse is that she is not sustaining only them but also another life inside her. In such a case, a man should take care of his wife. He dotes on her a bit more to make it easier for her to carry the burden he put in her body.
But ever since he became the housewife and she the breadwinner—even though she still seems like the same old Matilda—something has been piercing him like cats’ claws, destroying him. It’s a good thing to serve one’s wife a maté in bed. It’s an honor for the wife and no disgrace for the husband. But the terrible thing is that his wife knew this is only a duty he is forced to carry out because she brings home the rent money. Too, she buys him socks on the street, and she—not he—instructs that money be taken from the box on the table to shop for what they need. That is why it’s no good, bringing his wife a maté in bed. Still, he knows Matilda isn’t that kind of woman. She cares about him. She doesn’t mind going to work, or even that he is unemployed. She doesn’t think the things he imagines that she thinks. But she could be thinking them. After all, any woman would, and besides, Manuel is forcing her to think that way. It is thus no surprise that his clothes look like rags in his hands when he gets dressed at six o’clock to bring his wife a maté in bed.
The stars are still in the sky, and it is still dark outside. It is winter. If it were summer it would already be light by now, bright and pleasant, and he would not have to turn on the electricity in the kitchen. Matilda can make maté in the dark. Manuel can’t, even though he would rather be in the dark. In the dark, the work doesn’t seem so distasteful.
There’s maté, and sugar too, but no coffee to sprinkle in. What a numbskull he is —they were out of coffee yesterday, too. And she can’t drink maté without it. Or maybe she can, but she claims she can’t. She usually says that everything he does is fine. But it seems to him that she really feels just the opposite, yet doesn’t want him to feel bad that he’s the housewife. So she says she can’t drink maté without coffee so that he will be encouraged to learn how to run the house.
He sneaks into the kitchen on tiptoe so their parrot won’t see him. Damned parrot! They’ve put up with so much from each other; they’ve had a longstanding, bitter war. Who will be the victor? Who will survive? Manuel, of course. After all, he has more years left to live than the parrot. Still, the parrot has given Manuel so much heartache, so much real anguish, that he is letting him die of thirst. As long as the parrot screams “Master!” Manuel will not put water in the cage.
The parrot is just another problem. He would let it scream if there were no neighbors in courtyard—would let the bird yell “Master!” until it exploded, and who would care? If no one else could hear, Manuel would not be taking it to heart. Of course he would not feel happy about being mocked. After all, how can anyone be happy who peels potatoes, lights the stove, stokes the fire, cracks eggs, washes dishes and who also hears—screaming right over his head—”Master! Master!”? It’s O.K. when the parrot screeches once then takes a break.
But as soon as it notices Manuel it starts up and will not stop. More than once, Manuel has been so enraged that he has felt like throwing a plate at the parrot’s head. He is sure that his neighbors are quietly quaking with laughter. And that even Matilda is laughing. Back before he was unemployed, she never laughed when the crazy parrot screeched “Master! Master!” until it got hoarse. That is because Manuel was the breadwinner then. He liked it that the parrot recognized him. Back then, everyone enjoyed the shrieking, even though there really was no reason to laugh. And now, since he has become unemployed, even Matilda has begun to snicker when the parrot starts in with its cheery screech. The more the bird screeches, the more his wife’s snicker reveals its teeth. But would she laugh if she knew about the relentless, bitter war being waged so stubbornly and silently by Manuel, so he won’t have to listen anymore—and by the parrot, so Manuel will put a drop of water in his bowl? Would Matilda laugh then?
What is more, if Manuel thought it was merely in the bird’s nature to scream, the same way a rooster has it in him to crow, maybe he wouldn’t care. The neighbors wouldn’t laugh either. But everyone sees and hears how hard it is for the bird, who shrieks “Master!” as tragically as if someone were cutting its throat. The parrot’s labored cry to Manuel whenever he goes into the kitchen provokes laughter from wives in the other kitchens—so much laughter that the women could explode from it.
When the bird lets out its mocking fury, Manuel would just as well heave the whole thing, parrot and cage, out the window, and do it so hard that even the Messiah, were He to come, could not revive the bird. But that would be the end of Manuel, too, because people would run after him through the streets, as though he were a madman. Better to carry the parrot quietly out and get rid of him. But people would discover that trick, too.
The parrot has already been without water for three days. Manuel gives it seeds and little pieces of stale bread, but he wouldn’t be feeding the bird either if he weren’t scared about being seen starving it. So he merely denies it drink. They can see from outside the cage if the parrot has food or not. But no one can see the tin water bowl.
Matilda drinks her maté and leaves for work. Manuel gives her a hug, just as he should. His situation demands it. He receives instructions on what to cook for lunch. He listens, smiling. His situation demands it.
The parrot notices him and starts choking, screeching. “Master!” Manuel gives an involuntary glance at the sky, which is gloomy and on the verge of rain. Something about its appearance presses down on that place, the one in both beast and man, where anguish lies hidden. He goes back in the room, starts making the bed, and notices tiny infant’s undershirts beneath the pillows. Matilda had been sewing them before she went to sleep and left them there. Tiny shirts. Manuel starts thinking. He cannot see anything in front of his eyes. Later, when he is again able to see, he rushes to give the parrot a drink of water.