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Rothschild’s Fiddle

—adapted from a story by Anton Chekhov
Ed Sanders words, Jay Ungar music

It was a small town
filled with old people who rarely passed away
and Yakov the coffin maker
had not much business
He lived in a one room cabin
with Marfa his wife
a stove, a stack of coffins,
a carpenter’s bench, a bed plus cooking utensils.

Yakov was tall and stout and seventy
He made his well-joined coffins stout like he,
all of a size, modeled on himself.

He also made some extra money
playing fiddle at weddings
with a Jewish orchestra.
He was very skillful at Russian songs
tune here) Over time Yakov had grown anti-Semitic
for no good reason
especially at the flute player Rothschild
who played the flute sadly
even on merry tunes
Yakov yelled at Rothschild
and shook his fist at him
and was rarely hired after that

The coffin business, as we have said, was scanty
& Yakov waited impatiently for sick people to worsen
Sometimes someone ill would pass away elsewhere
and he would tally up the money he had lost

Then he would pull out his fiddle late at night
to play a sad, mournful melody

(mournful tune)

Then his wife Marfa suddenly was ill

She had difficulty breathing
and in the morning slowly went on her daily walk
to fetch water
but in the late afternoon she lay down

“Yakov, I am dying,” Marfa said.

For fifty-two years they were married
yet Yakov had never rubbed her sore back
or given caresses during the long nights
sleeping by the stove

He’d never paid any attention to her
any more than if she were
a cat or dog by the house
nor given her any presents
and thought he might now get her one
but it was too late.

Never bought her a winter kerchief
never brought any cake home for Marfa
from any of the weddings
but oh so often rushed at her with fists
and when he lost a coffin-making job
he blamed her
and because he didn’t want to spend the money on tea
she drank hot water in the mornings

He took her in a neighbor’s cart to the hospital
where Yakov was glad they had only to wait
for three hours

The doctor would not see them
so the assistant looked at Marfa

“She seems to have influenza and some fever,” he said
“Typhus has also come to the town.

How old is your wife?”

“Sixty nine”

“She’s an old woman. Maybe it’s time.”

Yakov bowed and replied, “Thank you for your
remarks, but you know, every insect is fond of life”

The doorman said “I will tell you what to do.
Put a cold compress on her head, and have
her take these powders twice a day.
Now goodbye”

When they returned to the cabin
Marfa was unsteady and held onto the stove
She was afraid to lie down
lest Yakov shout she was lazy
and doing no work

Yakov knew he would soon have to
build a coffin
and so went to his wife and measured her

after which she lay down once again
Yakov made the sign of the cross
then began to saw and nail

When he was done, he put on his reading glasses
and entered into his book of losses
“Marfa Ivanovna’s coffin— two rubles and 40 kopecks”

Toward nightfall, she called out to him
“Do you remember, Yakov”

she had a face of joy as she looked over at her husband
“remember how fifty years ago great God
gave us a baby with yellow hair. You and I, o my Yakov,
used to go down to the river every day with the baby
and sit under the willow tree and sing songs.”

Then Marfa laughed with utmost bitterness.
She said, “the baby died.”

“That’s just your imagination,” was all that Yakov could
think of replying
in this most ultimate of talks

Later that night the priest came
and just before dawn Marfa Ivanovna
returned to starlight

The women of nearby houses
washed her and wrapped her in winding sheets
Four men carried the coffin to the graveyard
followed by a cortege of old women,
beggars and two cripples

He admired how well he had made the coffin
as he said goodbye to Marfa
for the final time

Yakov felt so weary walking back home.
He sat in the cabin
regretting his neglect and disrespect
of his wife
all the years of angry toil
the scrimping when yet
enough largess was there to help ease pain

Suddenly, the man named Rothschild
from the village band
came to the door,

“There’s a big wedding on the weekend”

Yakov spumed with hostility
“Get out of here! I have no peace with Jews!”
he shouted

Rothschild replied, “You’d better be more
polite, or I will toss you over the fence.”

Then Yakov made fists and rushed at Rothschild
and Rothschild
ran for his life

As he hastened away
boys in nearby houses
ran after him, chanting “Jew, Jew, Jew....”

Later that day Yakov walked the path by the river’s edge
He looked to the other shore
and noticed that the big birch forest had been chopped down
and he saw the thick ancient willow tree
with a huge hollow and a raven’s nest
when suddenly he remembered the child with the
yellow hair Marfa had mentioned

Ahh, it was the same willow. How old it now was!
Ahh, why had they cut down the beautiful birches
from 50 years ago?
He wondered why he had rushed at Rothschild
as if to beat him up
And why had fate brought him to the making of coffins
And why did not people
ease each other’s suffering in peace?

That night Yakov’s sleep was full of dreams
He saw Marfa, the willow tree, the river,
the cut down birches, and the sad face of Rothschild.
He arose several times in the night to play the violin

(short violin melody)

Yakov awakened ill and trembling
then walked to the hospital
where they gave him useless compresses
He knew his life was almost done

He was not sad to die
but wondered what would happen to his beautiful fiddle

Everything was doomed
just like the birch and pine forest
everything would ooze into decay

Back at home he sat on the door sill
then lifted up his fiddle and
began to play
with the tears rolling down from his eyes
a sad rolling music of final times

While Yakov was playing Rothschild approached
opened the gate latch
spotted Yakov in the doorway,
and turned as if to run away

“Come on in, don’t be afraid,” said Yakov
with a friendly voice

Rothschild said, “I apologize for bothering
you, but the band leader has sent me
There’s a big wedding coming up in town
and he begs you to join us”

“I cannot go,” said Yakov. “I am ill, brother.”

Then he began playing again
Rothschild listened closely
and became engrossed in the suffering and grief
in Yakov’s melody.

He rolled his eye, and exclaimed “wacchchch,”
and Rothschild’s tears made dark splotches
on his green frock coat

“Give the fiddle to Rothschild,” Yakov
told the priest
just before his final sleep.

Later those in the town wondered with marvel
how Rothschild acquired such a treasure

He no longer played the flute
and when he performed the violin tune he’d learned
from Yakov, the audience always wept.

This new song was so well liked in the town
the wealthy merchants and public officials always
hired Rothschild for their parties and events,
and sometimes he was forced to play
the melody ten times or more.



from Rothschild's Fiddle, by Ed Sanders, Music by Jay Ungar, released September 25, 2014



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