Simet felt him coming closer every day. Dreams troubled her; they seemed like messages sent ahead by Moritz from every dark waystation on his infernal high road towards home.
He had broken himself on the wheels of vanity and falsehood, and then cracked his skull open on the cobblestones of another town, after a night of drinking.
“This is what I am!” he’d shouted whenever she urged prudence in anything; “this is who you married!”
“It was the better man within you,” she said, “that I saw and still see.”
Her love withstood even the blast-furnace of his resentful fury. But when he profaned their home —
“You put me out, like a dog?” he’d shouted, incredulous. “Bitch that you are, what surprise in it?”
Well, said some — now he’s saved you a lifetime of grief by dying. You were foolish to choose him —
“The instrument by which God gave me the treasure of my life,” said Simet, “should I regret that?” And she looked at the little boy who made her heart whole.
Well, said some, the house and the little shop were hers outright; many would value such a widow and kindly accept her child.
“God knows better,” said Simet, when urged to remarry; “all is as He wills.”
She had charmed hands; even those who thought her too much of her own mind conceded that her pastry was delectable. A pleasure merely to pass her doorstep when something was fresh from the oven.
A girl helped mind the child, a boy helped with the shop — life certainly goes on, most said.
First came the starling. Bent-winged, lame-footed, it blew against the window in the last shudder of a storm.
“Ah, poor thing, poor thing!” Simet said, picking it up. She smoothed honey on its blistered foot and devised a tiny bandage; bound up its wing, and put it in a box with a scattering of millet seeds and a saucer of water.
Its eyes brightened.
The little maid called to Simet from the kitchen, summoning her to approve the child’s porridge.
The starling grew agitated; its black eyes burned; it overturned its water and cried out harshly.
Simet looked at it carefully. Those eyes!
“Take this,” she said to the little maid, “to Hirsch the cobbler. He’s skilled with such things, and may like its company at his bench.”
So the starling was not allowed to stay.
“It died,” Hirsch said, a week later; “it showed no interest in life.”
Then came the carp. Simet checked the bucket when the boy returned from the fishmonger — and even for a carp, it had a wild eye. It smacked its tail eagerly against the wood as though it could hardly wait to be eaten.
“I’ve not yet given in charity this week,” said Simet; “and this is too much for us. Take it to Reb Yoishe’s widow, that she and her children may have a good Shabbos, and then bring me a smaller one.”
Reb Yoishe’s widow was originally from Kiev and put pepper in her gefilte fish. Anything troubling that carp, she would surely sweat out of it.
The spider had no chance at all.
“Moritz, how far will you degrade yourself?” asked Simet, finding it in the midst of its handiwork. “Such a web not even an infant would spin.”
The creature glared at her with all its eight angry eyes and she looked sternly back.
“Has death taught you nothing? Face yourself, and the Almighty, and then may you rest in peace!” She dropped it out the window, and a sparrow caught it.
And for a time it seemed — well, thought Simet, relieved — wherever Moritz is, at least he isn’t here.
Then spring came — when sleeping things wake up. Simet always found solace in her garden.
But this year her rosebush looked surly, as though it too had slept poorly.
Inside, all was quiet. The child and the little maid slept contentedly after the Shabbos meal.
Simet took her ease in the garden, on the bench under the cherry tree.
Nearly everything was in bloom. The little hedgehog who lived beneath a cracked flowerpot led her children out to bask in the sun.
This, thought Simet, must be the fragrance of the world to come.
The rosebush shook angrily. It had begun to rend its own leaves.
Simet’s heart ached with pity.
“To torment a rosebush, Moritz! Even death has not moderated you!”
If Moritz continues in this direction, thought Simet, he will end by inhabiting a rock.
And may he be stuck in one, she thought, for all eternity —
Then she felt ashamed.
Does my son deserve a father, she asked herself, whose soul might reside in a stone?
“Truly, Moritz,” said Simet, “you have made yourself ridiculous. How many times can you choose badly?”
Baking at this hour? Simet kneaded dough with righteous intention and made four tiny loaves, inscribed with letters of holiness. She buried them under the rosebush, in the first glimmering light from the new moon.
The perfume of fresh bread entered the neighbors’ dreams and made their stomachs rumble. They tossed yearningly on their pillows all night, but woke entirely satisfied in the morning…
“Such a lovely garden!” said Reb Yoishe’s widow, Manya.
She and her children had been invited for the midday meal on Shabbos. It is a good thing for women to hearten and befriend each other.
“It gives me heart’s ease,” said Simet; “I felt it would do the same for you.”
“The rosebush especially,” said Manya, bending to breathe in its fragrance, “what is your secret for such beautiful flowers?”
“You’d never believe how much trouble it gave me,” said Simet; “I was doubtful I could save it. But I applied a little yeast, which went straight to the root of the problem.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)