The clock struck thirteen!
Don't imagine I am joking, I am telling you in all seriousness what
happened in Mazepevke, in our house, and I myself was there at the time.
We had a clock, a large clock, fastened to the wall, an old, old clock
inherited from my grandfather, which had been left him by my
great-grandfather, and so forth. Too bad, that a clock should not be
alive and able to tell us
something beside the time of day! What stories
we might have heard as we sat with it in the room! Our clock was famous
throughout the town as the best clock going--"Reb Simcheh's clock"--and
people used to come and set their watches by it, because it kept more
accurate time than any other. You may believe me that even Reb Lebish,
the sage, a philosopher, who understood the time of sunset from the sun
itself, and knew the calendar by rote, he said himself--I heard
him--that our clock was--well, as compared with his watch, it wasn't
worth a pinch of snuff, but as there were such things as clocks, our
clock was a clock. And if Reb Lebish himself said so, you may depend
upon it he was right, because every Wednesday, between Afternoon and
Evening Prayer, Reb Lebish climbed busily onto the roof of the women's
Shool, or onto the top of the hill beside the old house-of-study, and
looked out for the minute when the sun should set, in one hand his
watch, and in the other the calendar. And when the sun dropt out of
sight on the further side of Mazepevke, Reb Lebish said to himself,
"Got him!" and at once came away to compare his watch with the clocks.
When he came in to us, he never gave us a "good evening," only glanced
up at the clock on the wall, then at his watch, then at the almanac, and
But it happened one day that when Reb Lebish came in to compare our
clock with the almanac, he gave a shout:
"Sim-cheh! Make haste! Where are you?"
My father came running in terror.
"Ha, what has happened, Reb Lebish?"
"Wretch, you dare to ask?" and Reb Lebish held his watch under my
father's nose, pointed at our clock, and shouted again, like a man with
a trodden toe:
"Sim-cheh! Why don't you speak? It is a minute and a half ahead of the
time! Throw it away!"
My father was vexed. What did Reb Lebish mean by telling him to throw
away his clock?
"Who is to prove," said he, "that my clock is a minute and a half fast?
Perhaps it is the other way about, and your watch is a minute and a half
slow? Who is to tell?"
Reb Lebish stared at him as though he had said that it was possible to
have three days of New Moon, or that the Seventeenth of Tammuz might
possibly fall on the Eve of Passover, or made some other such wild
remark, enough, if one really took it in, to give one an apoplectic fit.
Reb Lebish said never a word, he gave a deep sigh, turned away without
wishing us "good evening," slammed the door, and was gone. But no one
minded much, because the whole town knew Reb Lebish for a person who
was never satisfied with anything: he would tell you of the best cantor
that he was a dummy, a log; of the cleverest man, that he was a
lumbering animal; of the most appropriate match, that it was as crooked
as an oven rake; and of the most apt simile, that it was as applicable
as a pea to the wall. Such a man was Reb Lebish.
But let me return to our clock. I tell you, that was a clock! You
could hear it strike three rooms away: Bom! bom! bom! Half the town went
by it, to recite the Midnight Prayers, to get up early for Seliches
during the week before New Year and on the ten Solemn Days, to bake the
Sabbath loaves on Fridays, to bless the candles on Friday evening. They
lighted the fire by it on Saturday evening, they salted the meat, and so
all the other things pertaining to Judaism. In fact, our clock was the
town clock. The poor thing served us faithfully, and never tried
stopping even for a time, never once in its life had it to be set to
rights by a clockmaker. My father kept it in order himself, he had an
inborn talent for clock work. Every year on the Eve of Passover, he
deliberately took it down from the wall, dusted the wheels with a
feather brush, removed from its inward part a collection of spider webs,
desiccated flies, which the spiders had lured in there to their
destruction, and heaps of black cockroaches, which had gone in of
themselves, and found a terrible end. Having cleaned and polished it, he
hung it up again on the wall and shone, that is, they both shone: the
clock shone because it was cleaned and polished, and my father shone
because the clock shone.
And it came to pass one day that something happened.
It was on a fine, bright, cloudless day; we were all sitting at table,
eating breakfast, and the clock struck. Now I always loved to hear the
clock strike and count the strokes out loud:
"One--two--three--seven--eleven--twelve--thirteen! Oi! Thirteen?"
"Thirteen?" exclaimed my father, and laughed. "You're a fine
arithmetician (no evil eye!). Whenever did you hear a clock strike
"But I tell you, it struck thirteen!"
"I shall give you thirteen slaps," cried my father, angrily, "and then
you won't repeat this nonsense again. Goi, a clock cannot strike
"Do you know what, Simcheh," put in my mother, "I am afraid the child is
right, I fancy I counted thirteen, too."
"There's another witness!" said my father, but it appeared that he had
begun to feel a little doubtful himself, for after the meal he went up
to the clock, got upon a chair, gave a turn to a little wheel inside the
clock, and it began to strike. We all counted the strokes, nodding our
head at each one the while:
"Thirteen!" exclaimed my father, looking at us in amaze. He gave the
wheel another turn, and again the clock struck thirteen. My father got
down off the chair with a sigh. He was as white as the wall, and
remained standing in the middle of the room, stared at the ceiling,
chewed his beard, and muttered to himself:
"Plague take thirteen! What can it mean? What does it portend? If it
were out of order, it would have stopped. Then, what can it be? The
inference can only be that some spring has gone wrong."
"Why worry whether it's a spring or not?" said my mother. "You'd better
take down the clock and put it to rights, as you've a turn that way."
"Hush, perhaps you're right," answered my father, took down the clock
and busied himself with it. He perspired, spent a whole day over it, and
hung it up again in its place.
Thank God, the clock was going as it should, and when, near midnight, we
all stood round it and counted twelve, my father was overjoyed.
"Ha? It didn't strike thirteen then, did it? When I say it is a spring,
I know what I'm about."
"I always said you were a wonder," my mother told him. "But there is one
thing I don't understand: why does it wheeze so? I don't think it used
to wheeze like that."
"It's your fancy," said my father, and listened to the noise it made
before striking, like an old man preparing to cough:
chil-chil-chil-chil-trrrr ... and only then: bom!--bom!--bom!--and even
the "bom" was not the same as formerly, for the former "bom" had been a
cheerful one, and now there had crept into it a melancholy note, as into
the voice of an old worn-out cantor at the close of the service for the
Day of Atonement, and the hoarseness increased, and the strike became
lower and duller, and my father, worried and anxious. It was plain that
the affair preyed upon his mind, that he suffered in secret, that it
was undermining his health, and yet he could do nothing. We felt that
any moment the clock might stop altogether. The imp started playing all
kinds of nasty tricks and idle pranks, shook itself sideways, and
stumbled like an old man who drags his feet after him. One could see
that the clock was about to stop forever! It was a good thing my father
understood in time that the clock was about to yield up its soul, and
that the fault lay with the balance weights: the weight was too light.
And he puts on a jostle, which has the weight of about four pounds. The
clock goes on like a song, and my father becomes as cheerful as a
But this was not to be for long: the clock began to lose again, the imp
was back at his tiresome performances: he moved slowly on one side,
quickly on the other, with a hoarse noise, like a sick old man, so that
it went to the heart. A pity to see how the clock agonized, and my
father, as he watched it, seemed like a flickering, bickering flame of a
candle, and nearly went out for grief.
Like a good doctor, who is ready to sacrifice himself for the patient's
sake, who puts forth all his energy, tries every remedy under the sun to
save his patient, even so my father applied himself to save the old
clock, if only it should be possible.
"The weight is too light," repeated my father, and hung something
heavier onto it every time, first a frying-pan, then a copper jug,
afterwards a flat-iron, a bag of sand, a couple of tiles--and the clock
revived every time and went on, with difficulty and distress, but still
it went--till one night there was a misfortune.
It was on a Friday evening in winter. We had just eaten our Sabbath
supper, the delicious peppered fish with horseradish, the hot soup with
macaroni, the stewed plums, and said grace as was meet. The Sabbath
candles flickered, the maid was just handing round fresh, hot,
well-dried Polish nuts from off the top of the stove, when in came Aunt
Yente, a dark-favored little woman without teeth, whose husband had
deserted her, to become a follower of the Rebbe, quite a number of years
"Good Sabbath!" said Aunt Yente, "I knew you had some fresh Polish nuts.
The pity is that I've nothing to crack them with, may my husband live no
more years than I have teeth in my mouth! What did you think, Malkeh, of
the fish to-day? What a struggle there was over them at the market! I
asked him about his fish--Manasseh, the lazy--when up comes Soreh Peril,
the rich: Make haste, give it me, hand me over that little pike!--Why in
such a hurry? say I. God be with you, the river is not on fire, and
Manasseh is not going to take the fish back there, either. Take my word
for it, with these rich people money is cheap, and sense is dear. Turns
round on me and says: Paupers, she says, have no business here--a poor
man, she says, shouldn't hanker after good things. What do you think of
such a shrew? How long did she stand by her mother in the market selling
ribbons? She behaves just like Pessil Peise Avrohom's over her daughter,
the one she married to a great man in Schtrischtch, who took her just
as she was, without any dowry or anything--Jewish luck! They say she has
a bad time of it--no evil eye to her days--can't get on with his
children. Well, who would be a stepmother? Let them beware! Take
Chavvehle! What is there to find fault with in her? And you should see
the life her stepchildren lead her! One hears shouting day and night,
cursing, squabbling, and fighting."
The candles began to die down, the shadow climbed the wall, scrambled
higher and higher, the nuts crackled in our hands, there was talking and
telling stories and tales, just for the pleasure of it, one without any
reference to the other, but Aunt Yente talked more than anyone.
"Hush!" cried out Aunt Yente, "listen, because not long ago a still
better thing happened. Not far from Yampele, about three versts away,
some robbers fell upon a Jewish tavern, killed a whole houseful of
people, down to a baby in a cradle. The only person left alive was a
servant-girl, who was sleeping on the kitchen stove. She heard people
screeching, and jumped down, this servant-girl, off the stove, peeped
through a chink in the door, and saw, this servant-girl I'm telling you
of, saw the master of the house and the mistress lying on the floor,
murdered, in a pool of blood, and she went back, this girl, and sprang
through a window, and ran into the town screaming: Jews, to the rescue,
help, help, help!"
Suddenly, just as Aunt Yente was shouting, "Help, help, help!" we heard
trrraach!--tarrrach!--bom--dzin--dzin--dzin, bomm!! We were so deep in
the story, we only thought at first that robbers had descended upon our
house, and were firing guns, and we could not move for terror. For one
minute we looked at one another, and then with one accord we began to
call out, "Help! help! help!" and my mother was so carried away that she
clasped me in her arms and cried:
"My child, my life for yours, woe is me!"
"Ha? What? What is the matter with him? What has happened?" exclaimed my
"Nothing! nothing! hush! hush!" cried Aunt Yente, gesticulating wildly,
and the maid came running in from the kitchen, more dead than alive.
"Who screamed? What is it? Is there a fire? What is on fire? Where?"
"Fire? fire? Where is the fire?" we all shrieked. "Help! help! Gewalt,
Jews, to the rescue, fire, fire!"
"Which fire? what fire? where fire?! Fire take you, you foolish girl,
and make cinders of you!" scolded Aunt Yente at the maid. "Now she
must come, as though we weren't enough before! Fire, indeed, says she!
Into the earth with you, to all black years! Did you ever hear of such a
thing? What are you all yelling for? Do you know what it was that
frightened you? The best joke in the world, and there's nobody to laugh
with! God be with you, it was the clock falling onto the floor--now you
know! You hung every sort of thing onto it, and now it is fallen,
weighing at least three pud. And no wonder! A man wouldn't have fared
better. Did you ever?!"
It was only then we came to our senses, rose one by one from the table,
went to the clock, and saw it lying on its poor face, killed, broken,
shattered, and smashed for evermore!
"There is an end to the clock!" said my father, white as the wall. He
hung his head, wrung his fingers, and the tears came into his eyes. I
looked at my father and wanted to cry, too.
"There now, see, what is the use of fretting to death?" said my mother.
"No doubt it was so decreed and written down in Heaven that to-day, at
that particular minute, our clock was to find its end, just (I beg to
distinguish!) like a human being, may God not punish me for saying so!
May it be an Atonement for not remembering the Sabbath, for me, for
thee, for our children, for all near and dear to us, and for all Israel.