Our hero has turned back from Khorasan (now Afghanistan), and made his way to Volhynia, a region largely in the Ukraine now. He meets a fellow Jew…
Just before Rovno here come a Jew
ridin’ a horse like a noble man.
*‘Shalom Aleikhem’s’ and ‘Barukh HaShem’s’.*
A little chit and a little chat
as we try to assess the taste of this land.
*-* ‘Peace be upon you and
‘Bless the Name’ (that is, God)
With a flick of his reins the horse turns aside
into a dark and narrow trail,
and the Jew beckons, “Follow me...”
Batkol yanks my sleeve and frowns.
“...And I’ll tell you about this Volhynia.”
Wary, our steps get slow and short.
“Worry not. This shorter way
“is cooler; nor wolf nor thief hide here.”
And he lifts the bag slung on my back
and loops it onto his saddle bag.
Batkol and me on high alert.
“I once was a poor man, just like you.
“Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose
“around my neck. I could hardly breath.
“Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair
“so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me.
“Indentured myself to a local knight
“who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword.
“All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart,
“and he turned his eye on my darling child.
“Ever and again, with leer and with sneer
“he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl.
“O, her tremblin’ and, o, her tears
“and o, the appall that blanched her face.
“She who could buy us an honorable life,
“but I, I preferred my poverty
“than to sell my child to that viperous knight.
“And so I endured indignities
“rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes
“of cow dung, while he cursed and spit.
“Nor did he spare the lash to my back,
“until my heart were cold as ice.”
Then he stared at us with glassy eyes,
as the copse grew thicker and the way obscure.
And suddenly I’m chilled. Is it his stare
or the damp and sulphurous air of the wood.
“An indentured man is owned like a mule…