“Yash the Chimney Sweep” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

After a knock on the head, Yash, the chimney sweep, develops second sight, upsetting the social order of his village and drawing the attention of those in power.

A chimney sweeper at work

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There are knocks and knocks. A knock on the head is no joke. The brain is a delicate thing, or why would the soul be lodged in the brain? Why not in the liver or, if you pardon me, the gut? You can see the soul in the eyes. The eyes are little windows for the soul to look out of.

We had a chimney sweep in town, nicknamed Black Yash. All chimney sweeps are black — what else can they be? — but Yash looked as though he had been born black. His hair was spiky and black as pitch. His eyes were black, and his skin could never be washed free of soot. Only his teeth were white. His father had been the town’s chimney sweep, and Yash inherited the job. He was already a full-grown man, but he wasn’t married and lived with his old mother, Maciechowa.

He came to us once a month, barefoot, and every step would leave a black mark on the floor. My mother, may she rest in peace, would run to meet him and let him come no further. He was paid by the town, but the women would hand him a groschen or a slice of bread after he had done his work. That was the custom. Children were terrified of him, although he never harmed anyone. And while he was the chimney sweep, the chimneys never caught fire. On Sundays, like all gentiles, he would wash up and go to church with his mother. But washed, he seemed even blacker than before; maybe that’s why he had never found a wife.

One Monday — I remember it as yesterday — Feitel the water carrier came in and told us that Yash had fallen off Tevye Boruch’s roof. Tevye Boruch owned a two-story house in the market square. Everybody felt sorry for the chimney sweep. Yash had always clambered over the roofs as nimbly as a cat, but if a man is fated to suffer a misfortune, it cannot be avoided. And it had to be the tallest building in town, too. Feitel said that Yash had struck his head, but had not broken any limbs. Someone had taken him home. He lived on the outskirts of town, near the woods, in a ramshackle hut.

For a while nobody heard of Yash. But what did a chimney sweep matter? If he could no longer work, the town would hire someone else. Then one day Feitel came again, with two pails of water on his yoke, and said to my mother, “Feige Braine, did you hear the news? Yash the chimney sweep has turned into a mind reader.” My mother laughed and spat. “What sort of a joke is that?” she asked. “It’s no joke, Feige Braine,” he said, “it’s no joke at all. He is lying on his cot with a bandaged head and guessing everybody’s secrets.” “Have you gone crazy?” my mother scolded. Soon the whole town was talking about it. The knock on Yash’s head had loosened some screw in his brain, and he became a seer.

We had a teacher in town, Nochem Mecheles, and he called Yash a diviner. Who had ever heard of such a thing? If a knock on the head could make a man a seer, there would have been hundreds of them in every town. But people had gone there and witnessed it with their own eyes. A man would take a fistful of coins from his pocket and ask, “Yash, what have I got in my hand?” And Yash would say, “So many three-groschen coins, so many fours, sixes, kopecks.” The coins would be counted, and everything was right to the last groschen. Another man would ask, “What did I do last week at this time in Lublin?” And Yash would say that he had gone to a tavern with two other men. He described them as if they were standing before him.

When the doctor and the town authorities heard the story, they came running. Maciechowa’s hovel was tiny, and so low that the visitors’ hats touched the ceiling. They started questioning him, and he had all the answers. The priest became alarmed; the peasants had begun to say that Yash was a saint. A little more, and they would have started taking him around on pilgrimages, like an icon. But the doctor said he was not to be moved. Besides, no one had ever seen Yash in church except on Sundays.

Well, there he was lying on his pallet, talking like an ordinary fellow — eating, drinking, playing with the dog his mother kept. But he knew everything: what people had in their breast pockets and in their trouser pockets; where this one had hidden his money; how much that one had squandered on drink the day before yesterday.

When his mother saw the rush of visitors, she began to charge an admission price of a kopeck per head. She got it, too. The doctor wrote a letter to Lublin. The mayor of the town sent in a — what do you call it, now? — a report, and highly placed personages came down from Zamosc and Lublin. The governor himself was said to have sent a deputy. The mayor became frightened and ordered all the streets cleaned up. The marketplace was swept so clean that not a stick or a straw remained on the ground. The town hall was hastily whitewashed. And all because of whom? Yash the chimney sweep. The house of Gitel the innkeeper was in an uproar — who had ever dreamed of such important guests?

The entire company set off to see Yash in his hut. They questioned him, and the things he said struck fear into the hearts of the officials. Who knows what such people can be guilty of? They all took bribes, and he told them so. What does a chimney sweep understand? The most important visitor — I forget his name — insisted that Yash was crazy and should be sent to an asylum. But our doctor argued that the patient could not travel, it would kill him.

It was rumored that the doctor and the governor’s deputy had strong words, and it had almost come to blows. But our doctor was an official himself; he was the county doctor, and he sat on the draft board. He was a hard man — nobody could ever buy him off, so he had no fear of Yash’s second sight. Anyway, the doctor won out.

But afterward the deputy reported that Yash was crazy, and he must have complained against the doctor, because he was soon transferred to another district.

In the meantime, Yash’s head healed and he went back to sweeping chimneys. But he kept his strange powers. He would come into a house for his groschen, and the women would ask him, “Yash, what’s there, in the left-hand drawer?” or, “What do I have in my fist?” or, “What did I eat yesterday at supper?” And he would tell everything. They asked him, “Yash, how do you know such things?” He’d shrug his shoulders: “I just know. It comes from the knock on the head.” And he would point to his temple. He could have been taken to the big cities and people would have bought tickets to see him, but who thought of bothering with such things?

There were several thieves in town. They stole laundry from attics, and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Now they could no longer steal. The victim would come to Yash, and he would tell him the name of the thief and the place where the goods were hidden. The peasants in nearby villages learned about Yash, and whenever a horse was stolen, the owner came to him to find out where it was. Several thieves were already in jail. The thieves had an eye on him and warned openly that he was a marked man. But Yash knew all their plans beforehand. They came to beat him up one night, but he had hidden himself in a neighbor’s barn. They would throw stones at him, but he would jump aside or duck even before the stone came flying.

People mislaid things — money, jewelry — and Yash always told them where they were. He didn’t even stop to think. If a child got lost, the mother ran to Yash, and he would lead her to her child. The thieves began to say that he had stolen the child himself, but nobody believed them. He was not even paid for his advice.

His mother demanded money, but he himself was a half-wit. He never rightly knew the value of a coin.

We had a rabbi in town, Reb Arele. He had come from a big city. On the Great Sabbath before Passover he preached in the synagogue. And what did he talk about? Yash the chimney sweep. The unbelievers, he said, deny that Moses was a prophet. They say that everything must be according to reason. Yet how does Yash the chimney sweep know that Itte Chaye the bagel baker has dropped her wedding ring into the well? And if Yash the chimney sweep can know hidden things, how can anyone doubt the powers of the saints? There were some heretics in our town, but even they had no answer.

In the meantime, news about Yash had reached Warsaw and other places.

The newspapers wrote about him. And a commission was sent down from Warsaw. The mayor again sent out the town crier to order the yards and houses cleaned up. The marketplace was swept again till it was spick-and-span. After Sukkoth, the rains began. We had only one paved street — the church street. Boards and logs were laid out everywhere so that the gentry from Warsaw would not have to wade through mud. Gitel the innkeeper prepared pallets and bedding. The whole town was agog. Yash was the only one who made nothing of it. He went his rounds and swept the chimneys as usual. He did not even have sense enough to be afraid of the Warsaw officials.

Now listen to this: A day before the commission arrived, there was a snowfall and a sudden frost. On the previous night, sparks and even tongues of flame had been seen flying from Chaim the baker’s chimney. Chaim was worried that a fire might break out and sent for Yash the chimney sweep. Yash came with his whisk and swept the chimney. A baker’s oven burns for many hours, and a lot of soot settles in the chimney. As Yash was climbing down, he slipped and fell again. Again he struck his head, but not as hard as the first time. There wasn’t even any blood. He picked himself up and went home.

My dear friends, the next day, when the commission arrived and began to question Yash, he did not know anything. The first knock had opened something up, and the second knock closed it. The gentry asked how much money they had, what they had done yesterday, what they had eaten a week ago at the same time, but Yash only grinned like a fool and answered, “I don’t know.”

The officials were furious. They scolded the police chief and the new doctor. They demanded to know why they had been brought all that way to see this nitwit, this bumpkin who was nothing but an ordinary chimney sweep. The police chief and the others swore that Yash had known everything only a day or two before, but the visitors would not listen. Somebody told them that Yash had fallen off a roof and banged his head again, but you know how people are: They believe only what they see. The police chief came over to Yash and started banging him on the head with his fist. Maybe the screw would fly loose again. But once the little door in the brain is shut, it stays shut.

The commission returned to Warsaw and denied the story from beginning to end. Yash went on sweeping chimneys for another year or two. Then an epidemic broke out in town, and he died.

The brain is full of all sorts of little doors and chambers. Sometimes a knock on the head upsets the whole business. Still, all of it has to do with the soul. Without the soul, the head would be no wiser than the foot.

 

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Comments

  1. This was an interesting story, made even more so by the foreign setting and Jewish aspects which I found colorful and fascinating. Yash’s head trauma not once, but twice though, is cringe worthy.

    It’s ironic that an epidemic two years later killed him, and not the head trauma from the first fall, which realistically should have but didn’t.

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