In Vaysechvoos, it was not unusual for babies to be born dead or die shortly after birth. More didn’t survive their first year, and those who continued into childhood were always fraught with all kinds of illness and subject to accidents. If there weren’t illnesses, then there were pogroms, so that those who managed to live to become adults were certainly in the minority.
Malka was not given her name, though it was custom for Jewish girls to be given an appellation in their first week. Everyone believed that Malka would momentarily die. No one could recall if her father even went to the synagogue and declared her birth and gave her a name. It was said instead that the Malach Ha-Moves was seen in the reflection of her eyes. Thus, she was regarded as one whose death was imminent, and the name Malach Ha-Moves stuck. When it appeared that she would live ever so slightly longer, they called her Malka for short.
Malka had four older brothers and three older sisters, and as an infant she received much care. But then she always needed care. She didn’t have it in her to take much nourishment and often sneezed and coughed. At best, the family was just trying to keep her alive a little bit longer. She learned to walk, but just barely, because of a severe club foot. For that she earned the name de kalyaka. She learned to talk, but not very well because of a harelip. For that she was called de shtummer.
Malka received some of the most attentive healing the very experienced wives of Vaysechvoos might deliver. Because they noticed that the child’s legs were weak and she had difficulty learning to stand, they used the strongest of medicine–ground bone of an ox’s leg and very fine iron filings, which they applied as a poultice to her spindly legs. True, she didn’t develop a whole lot of strength in the legs, but the scarlet color and skin eruptions were evidence to the wives that their medicine was working.
Likewise, there were chicken dung and mustard plasters that helped with her lungs, not to mention the rendered chicken schmaltz that was poured into her ears in an attempt to heal her deafness. And one could go on and on.
It seemed that every month there was another life-threatening crisis for Malka. She would cough and wheeze and run a high fever, and sometimes she would stop breathing altogether. Members of the Chevra Kaddisha visited Malka so often it caused additional hardship, since Malka’s mother knew it was her duty to feed them. But the expense of feeding the members of the Chevra Kaddisha became a burden on the family, so they weren’t so inclined to encourage them to visit.
The family just prayed more that Malka would be revived. But if there was any illness in the village or anywhere else in the district, Malka had it. And because she couldn’t balance herself well, she had accident after accident. It seemed like at one time or another she suffered from a bone that was broken or a laceration that quickly became infected. But with each calamity, her family hoped and prayed that she would live a little longer.
Even as she entered the age when most girls become women, that part of her life never seemed to come to her. But if she didn’t have monthly cramps, she had every other kind of cramp. People knew that she lived in pain. That was why they called her Malka de choileh. It seemed to reflect everyone’s opinion of her.
Remarkably, she became taller if not stronger than most of the women in Vaysechvoos. Big-boned, she should have been able to lift a lot, but after all, she was only a choileh. The time came when her parents hopefully tried to arrange a marriage. But no one was interested because they knew that if she didn’t die in the first few months of marriage, it would happen the following winter. So Malka became an unclaimed blessing.
She never ate much. She never quarreled much because she never said much. She required little. Her palsied hands wouldn’t allow her to learn sewing or even yarn making. And though she was a burden to her family, they didn’t mind because they all knew that she’d be with them for only a little while.
The years went on, and when her parents went to be with the Almighty, her brothers and sisters took on the responsibility of caring for her. But they too passed on, and the responsibility fell to their children to tend to the aged and still sickly Malka. They reasoned that it would only be for a short time since she was now 94. But, in all honesty they and the rest of Vaysechvoos had given up all expectations of her imminent death.
But her passing came and she welcomed the one who was the constant companion of her life, the Malach Ha-Moves. And her soul flew away with him. The rabbi, who knew Malka to have been an example of patience and endurance, gave a eulogy at a funeral that was attended by everyone in Vaysechvoos. He explained that the meaning of her life was that the Almighty, blessed be His name forever and ever, had seen fit to keep this child, this woman from death as an example to show that he is the author and the giver of life under every circumstance. “Malka the Choileh” he proclaimed, “typified the nation of Israel. By the world’s standards, Israel should have been destroyed long ago, the Jewish people made extinct–but for one very important fact.” The Rabbi of Vaysechvoos paused and then with a knowing smile he concluded, “That fact is that we have a God who keeps his promises.”