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The Wash Woman

(2008-07-01 11:50:58)

              The Wash Woman

                           Isaac Bashevis Singer

She was a small womam, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us, she was already past seventy. All the old womem in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was,possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would then lift the bundle, put it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it on the long way home.

She would bring the laundry back about two weeks or late. My mother had never been so pleased with any washwoman. Yet she charged no more than the others. She was a real find. Mother always had her money ready, because it was too far for the old woman to come a second time.

Laundrying was not easy in those days. The old woman had no running water where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry. So it had to be carried up to the attic and hung on clotheslines. Only God knows what the old woman had to endure each time she did the wash!

She could have begged at the church door or entered a home for the penniless and aged. But there was in her a certain pride and love of labour with which many members of the labour force have been blessed. The old woman did not want to become a burden, and so she bore her burden.

One day the washwoman, now nearly eighty years  old, came to our house. A good deal of laundry had accumulated during the past weeks. Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power. It was sad to watch the old woman stagger out with the big bundle and disappear.

Usually the old woman brought back the wash after two or, at the most, three weeks. But three weeks past, then four and five, And nothing was heard of the old woman.

For us the old woman’s absence a catastrophe. We needed the laundry. We did not even know the woman’s address. It seemed certain that she had collapsed, died. Mother declared that she had had a premonition that we would never see our things again. We mourned, both for the laundry and for the old woman who had grown close to us through the years she had served us so faithfully.

More than two months passed. One evening, while mother was sitting near the lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a huge buddle, entered. Under the buddle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. Mother uttered a half-choked cry, as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her buddle. She was even thinner now, more bent. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.

After the old woman had recovered somewhat, she told us that she had been ill., very ill. But God had not yet wanted to take this poor soul to Himself. She began to feel better, she became well, and as soon as she was able to stand on her feet once more, she resumed her washing. Not just ours, but the wash of several other families too.

“ I could not rest easy in my bed because of the wash,” the old woman explained. The wash could not let me die.”

“ With the help of God you will live to be a hundred and twenty,” said my mother.

“ God forbid!” What good would such a long life be?” The work becomes harder and harder… my strength is leaving me… I do not want to be a burden on any one!” The old woman muttered, crossed herself, and raised her eyes toward heaven. After getting paid, she left, promising to return in a few weeks for a new load of wash.

But she never came back. The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by a strong will to return the property to its owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.

 

                          洗衣妇

                               艾萨克.巴什维斯.辛格

她是个小个子的妇女,上了年纪,满脸皱纹。她开始为我们洗衣服时已年过七旬。我们这条街上所有的老妇人都是驼着背,拄着拐杖走路的。然而这个洗衣妇,虽然又小又瘦,却具有世代当庄稼汉的祖辈所传下来的一股子力气。母亲会把积攒了几个星期的一捆要洗的衣服一件一件数着交给她。随后她便提起那捆衣服,放到自己窄窄的肩头上,扛着它走很长的一段路回家去。

大约两个星期后,她会把洗好的衣服送回来。我母亲从来没有对哪个洗衣妇如此满意过,然而她要的工钱却不比别的洗衣妇要的多。她真是个千载难寻的好帮工。母亲总是先把工钱准备好,因为老妇人住的太远,不能让她再跑一趟。

那时候,洗衣服可真不容易。老妇人住的地方没有自来水,得用水泵把水抽上来。还有晒衣服的活儿!衣服不能晒在外面,因为小偷会把衣服偷走。因此得把衣服拿上阁楼,挂在晒衣绳上。只有上帝知道老妇人每洗一次衣服得吃多少苦头!

她本可以在教堂门口行乞,或是近贫民和老年人收容所。然而在她身上,具有一份许多劳动人民所特有的对劳动的自豪与热爱。老妇人不想成为别人的累赘,因此她负起了自己的生活重担。

一天,老妇人来到我家,当时她已年近八旬,过去几个星期已积下了许多要洗的衣服。母亲拿给她一壶茶让她暖暖身子,还给了她一些面包。老妇人坐在厨房的一把椅子上,浑身直哆嗦,把手捂在茶壶上取暖。她的手指甲异常苍白。这双手讲述着人类的顽强,诉说着劳动的意志——不仅在体力允许的情况下,甚至在超出体力极限的情况下顽强坚持的那份意志。目送老妇人扛着一大包衣服蹒跚而去,实在令人心酸。

通常,老妇人在两个星期或最多三个星期后,就会把衣服送回来。然而三个星期过去了,四个星期、五个星期过去了,却没有听到任何有关老妇人的消息。

对我们来说,洗衣妇没来简直就是一场灾难。我们需要那些洗好的衣服。我们甚至连老夫人的地址都不知道。看来她肯定是垮了,死了。母亲宣称她曾有种预感:我们再也看不到我们的衣服了。我们很伤心,即为那些衣服也为那老妇人——多年来她兢兢业业地为我们服务,和我们的关系已经变得很密切了。

一晃两个多月过去了。一天晚上,母亲正坐在灯下补缀一件衬衫,这时门开了,飘入一小团气雾,随后进来的则是个硕大的包袱。包袱底下,正是那位步履踉跄的老妇人,她的脸像亚麻床单一样苍白。母亲发出一声近乎哽咽的叫喊,仿佛是具死尸走进屋里来了。我跑过去,帮老妇人卸下肩上的包袱。她这时愈发消瘦、佝偻。她一个清晰的字眼也吐不出来,只是用凹陷的嘴巴和苍白的双唇在咕哝着什么。

当老妇人有所恢复之后,她告诉我们说,她病了,病的很厉害。然而上帝还不想把这个可怜的灵魂召回自己身边。她开始感觉好一些了,身子恢复过来了,而她一能再次站起来,便又开始洗衣服了。不光是我们家的,还有另外好几家人的衣服。

“因为有这些衣服要洗,我没法安心躺在床上休息,”老妇人解释说。“这些要洗的衣服还不肯让我死呢。”

“有上帝的佑护,你会活到120岁的,”我母亲说。

“但愿上帝不让这样的事情发生!活这么长有什么好处呢?活儿越来越难......我的力气也一天不如一天了......我可不想变成任何人的累赘!”老妇人含糊不清地说着,在胸前划了个十字,又抬眼望着苍天。领了工钱之后,她走了。临走时还答应几个星期后再来取一包新的要洗的衣服。

然而她再也没有回来。上次送回来的那包衣服,是她在这个世界上所做的最后一次努力。她为一种坚强的意志所驱使:要把物品还给物主,要完成自己所承担的那份责任。

 

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