I’ve been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book of short stories—“A Crown of Feathers,” in rather a bemused fashion-not really sure what to make of them, alternately amused, horrified and disturbed by the stories. I found the story that I read yesterday rather adhesive and went back to it to find out why. I mean this is a small patch of words—that covered a hole; and surely that hole would not be visible to bother me? But it did. This story deals with disappearance, and perhaps the reason it surfaces in the mind with a shiver is because, it is something that happens to all of us. We put something down in a place –we know the place we put it—and then we go back and try to find it and it is gone. We never find it. The difference in this story, seems to be the disappearances seem to happen sometimes in front of the characters. Yuck.
And so what happens? Do the characters in this story have some sort of tear in the bubble of their existence so that they are able to have matter become nothingness every so often? Or is it like some sort of delusion that brittles the sanity of all those concerned in this story so that there is a hysteria of sorts –so much so that they believe that things are disappearing in their presence or out of their presence?
The story begins with an elderly man of 83 years old called Shmuel Opalovsky in Poland –who is now known as Sam Opal in the new country. He has arrived at the newspaper office of a man who writes an advice column—but he hasn’t come for advice for as he tells the columnist—“What advice can you give to a man of eighty-three? I have everything I require, and when I die there is a cemetery plot that my landsleit have prepared for me.” This is a composed, intelligent man who knows that there isn’t much time left but he has something that he would like cleared up in his mind before he dies; and he hopes the columnist would be able to provide some sort of resolution to this matter that he brings before him.
But what matter is this? A matter of many losses. First, he tells the columnist that in the ship coming to New York, he had been with a young Jewish girl –by the name of Anna Davidovna Barzel—a well educated, reserved and proud young thing who was going to America to meet her fiancé—Vladimir Machtei. The old man remarks that he felt that this was “an unusual name.” Hmm... I wonder why?
In any case, they chatter and seem superficially to get to know each other on the trip. Then, one day he finds the girl decomposed completely, almost on the verge of throwing herself off the ship; and he asks her to explain why she is so upset. Well, apparently, one day she woke up and the money and address she had been carrying in a pouch around her neck has had its contents removed, and a worthless ticket stub was placed in the place of the valuable things. How she had managed to lose the money and the information to contact her fiance is not explained. But when Sam kids her about it—with reference to a possibility of an on board romance and an associated theft, the girl rejects him completely. This then is the state of affairs until they arrive in America. Sam Oppal has enough currency on him to avoid the sequestration on Ellis Island which was then the fate of all new arrivals in America and since apparently the fiancé never shows up for Anna Barzel, she is about to be taken to Ellis Island as well; but for the good efforts of Mr. Oppal.
And to make a long story short, they marry –and as Mr. Oppal says to the columnist:
“My dear friend, I know that you are a busy man, so I will give you the bare facts. We got married. I have a daughter by her, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The baby was born two years after we married.”
Apparently they were married for six years; during this interval, Mr. Oppal was harassed and made afraid by the entire relationship. His wife was for the most part silent—only speaking when things disappeared. What do I mean by disappeared? Apparently –throughout their time together, things would go and never come back—which would drive his wife to words.
This is how Mr. Oppal explained it:
The fact is that things literally disappeared before her eyes and sometimes before mine. I would bring her a book from the library—a Russian book, for she never learned English. Suddenly it would vanish. I brought her a diamond ring and shortly there was no ring. I gave her household money, and I myself saw how she put the ten dollars into her purse. A half hour later, the money was gone. Each time she lost something, she became hysterical. She literally turned over everything in the house. She went so far as to rip open the mattress. I am by nature a social person, but as long as I stayed with her I remained practically in isolation.
Imagine how it is when you misplace-say the car keys –as I do on regular occasions –and run round the house to look for them. I do a circuit of all the places I have been in before I lost them –and eventually find them. But Mr. Oppal isn’t speaking about misplacements of things here. He has seen her put something in her purse and yet a short while later, it isn’t there. Now how can that be? How can two people have the same hallucinations?
It really creeped me out. (Yeah, I’m easily creeped out.) What is going on? I asked myself. Are they both mad?
The story goes on that the poor man had to endure this type of loss/hysteria/silence for most of his married time with this woman who also was going through purgatory (no wonder she was silent—terrorized no doubt by when the next horror would happen.)
Then they have a little girl—Natasha-and it gets weirder. The poor woman doesn’t even speak to the child and then, the horrible day when a teddy bear is grabbed out of the baby’s hands and the poor woman has a fit.
I heard the baby screaming. I went back to the living room, and Anna stood there, white.
‘The teddy bear is gone,’ she said. ‘The fiend tore it from her little hands.” I felt furious and I yelled, ‘You’re a liar!...
As you can see Anna, herself –is overcome with this whole business. Or else why would she say that “The fiend tore it from her little hands”? This must have been the work of hysteria but it was enough to break her down more than usual.
This is how her husband remarks on her condition at this incident:
Anna seldom cried. This time tears streamed down her cheeks. In all the years, I never spoke about these things—people would have considered me mad. Even after what I am about to tell you occurred, I never told the whole story to anyone.
So they both kept silent about this horrid business between them and now the baby. For who would believe them? They would have been locked up and the baby given into foster care for sure. Things go missing, misplaced. Things do not get snatched into nothingness.
So if Mr. Oppal had kept silent for all these years, why was he now telling the columnist his story? Well apparently the columnist had reported on the strange case of David Lang, a farmer from Gallatin, Tennessee, who was documented by the columnist as having vanished before witnesses. No one could explain the vanishing. And since the columnist had encountered one such disappearance, of a human being—into nothingness-Mr. Oppal felt he could trust him with the rest of his story.
Apparently, they had left Natasha with a baby sitter they trusted, and gone together to do shopping. Partway through, Mr. Oppal, as men are wont to do, tired of the whole business and parted from his wife. She continued shopping. And she never came home.
When authorities were informed, they did not take it seriously. She never came home. He was completely done in of course. After six years of disappearances of things now—a person-how was he to trust his sense of reality? As he puts it:
What does it mean? How can a thing become nothing? The Pyramids have stood in place for six thousand years, and unless there is an unusual earthquake, they may last for another six thousand—or sixty thousand. In the British Museum and here in the Metropolitan, you find mummies and artifacts that have endured for many centuries. If matter can turn to nothing, all of nature is a nightmare. This is what my logic dictates to me.
And I have to admit, I understand his perturbation. When you compare the presence of the Pyramids, the mummies etc that are solid and present, for many years; and here you have a woman disappearing before her time—it is bound to mess with your sense of reality. And confuse how you will live your life. And it certainly did have a negative impact on poor Mr. Oppal himself-as he remarks here:
A person who has witnessed what I did can no longer make plans, build a house, attach himself to people. Spiritually, I became lost myself.
Surely this makes sense? If you can’t depend on things and people being around you –if you can’t have your reality stocked with stable entities—then why bother doing anything? It may be that in the next minute the frame one person exists in will not be the frame the other person exists in.
In any case, Mr. Oppal, at the end of his life, unable to offer himself a rational reason for his wife’s disappearance after six years of disappearing things-comes to this columnist who happens to believe in supernatural events and creatures and asks for some sort of response to his story. And what does the columnist say?
“Since I am not a scientist I will give you my own unscientific theory.”
“What is it?”
“Vladimir Machtei was the demon who stole Anna’s money on the ship, took away little Natasha’s teddy bear, and later kidnapped Anna. She was engaged to a demon to begin with.”
“Why would the demon pick on her?”
“They are said to be attracted to the shy and the beautiful.”
Now that’s a sorry reason to prolong possession of the poor woman until the end of a six year period but I guess there would be no story if he had just absconded with her right away. I found this story unnerving simply because, hey maybe this is the reason I can never find the other partners for all my sock pairs. One of the pair just disappeares --matter becoming nothing. Maybe, also-- this is the reason why there are no more pencils left in the house despite the fact I buy millions of them. Or could this be why we have no money left in the bank? You see how tenuous it all gets after a while. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll get up and be in a parallel universe with my family gone. It’s too horrible to continue on in this manner. I’ll go read another story in the book.