Short Stories from the Balkans/Foolish Jona

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FOOLISH JONA

FOOLISH JONA was as if made for the amusement of unrestrained youth. He was about eighteen years old but he looked like a thirteen year old child. When he came back from the huckster or the merchant where his mother was in the habit of sending him on errands, the boys ran after him and teased him:

“Jona! Foolish Jona!” they called. He kept on his way slowly, just as if he saw and heard nothing putting forth all his strength to control himself, and breathing heavily. Sometimes he was so frightened that he trembled, and his thin legs were scarcely able to uphold his weak body. When they barred his way and began to threaten him, he turned upon them his expressionless, white, moon-face, that looked as if it were embossed in wax, and a timid questioning peered out of his eyes. For a moment he stood dumb and motionless, as if death were stretching hands toward him, and then sought to escape one way or another.

“Jona! Jon-a-a!” they called after him in the street boy jargon, as soon as they saw him begin to tremble. He never tried to defend himself. As soon as he reached home he gave over his purchases and then sat down in a corner by the oven.

“Come here, dear little brother! Take your stool and sit by me,” coaxed his sister, who was only a year older. She was a pretty, slender, yellow haired girl, and she put her sewing aside at once.

He dragged the stool slowly along to her feet. She took the poor confused head to her breast. He sobbed as if his heart would break. She petted and caressed him, restraining her own tears with difficulty.

“I'm not foolish, am I?” he at length managed to say. His weak voice trembled.

“Of course you are not! You have sense, little brother. Let them talk!”

“And you like me, don't you—and I am not foolish!”

And over the face of the idiot there spread something that resembled a smile.

“Now get your violin—and play something!”

“I don't want to hear any more of that noise of his now! He can play at night all he wants to—up on the roof,” grumbled his mother. Jona sat where he was and kept looking up at his sister. He watched her slightest movement.

The mother and the brothers did not love him. He had only his sister, and to her he clung with all the emotion of his weak mind. But in the neighborhood it was said that he was inspired by the Holy Ghost. No one taught him to play upon the violin. And no one could imitate him. He had never had a teacher and he played only his own pieces. And they were strange and sad and foolish, like himself.

Jona lived in the same house where I lived as a child. He knew me. Whenever he met me he nodded his head and smiled. I can truthfully say, that although I was a child myself, too, I never injured or annoyed him. There was some thing about his wax-like face that was sacred for me. My childish imagination saw in it a resemblance to the dead, waxen faces which I had seen under glass behind the altars in the churches.

It was Saturday evening. The late summer twilight veiled everything in a mystical veil. The sky was blue and at the same time dark, and here and there trembled silver stars like the thoughts of the saints, and between swam the great, yellow moon in all its splendor, throwing light upon lowly huts, and proud, towering churches.

The unusual activity which is common in homes on Saturday night, had gradually become quiet. The women, who had been so busy earlier and had been talking loudly on the wooden balconies, the stairs, and in the court yard, had gone to bed. Only on one balcony of the third story, a girl and a young man were engaged in conversation. They were betrothed, and the next day they were to be married. Pretty Mitzerl, Jona's sister, was to be the bride, and a diligent young workman in the factory, the groom. He had just been offered a more lucrative position in the country and because of this, the wedding was to be hastened.

They had sat here some time. While people were still up and about, indoors, they talked in whispers, as if they feared the outside world. But now that there was silence everywhere, their conversation could be heard, as if they wished the calm and splendid night to bear witness to their happiness, their pledge, their plans.

There was one person in their neighborhood who was speaking his feelings just as plainly as they, but it did not disturb them. But the emotions which he expressed were not so happy, so confident, and care free. Foolish Jona was playing his strange, fantastic music on the roof. People said that this speech of music could not have come from his own head, which was confused and dim. When his white fingers swept the vibrating strings, now loudly, now softly, when his bow described mighty and majestic tones, the listening people said that it was the Holy Ghost that spoke.

The conversation of the lovers accompanied without any interruption the sad violin song upon the roof. They were too much interested in each other, and too much accustomed to his music, to pay attention to it. Jona himself did not see them because he was playing upon the roof above their heads.

The house in which we were living was old fashioned. It had a saddle roof which, toward the street and court, had two projections. In fine weather Jona took his violin and hid himself in the depression between the roofs. He was sitting concealed there when the young man came to see his sister, and he was playing madly as if he would never weary. In fact his improvisations were nothing short of works of art.

Tonight suddenly he stopped in the midst of an unfinished passage, just as if the strings had refused to obey him. The hand that held the violin dropped limply down, but his haggard face, which was turned toward the moon, was as if hardened to stone. After a little time, he got up slowly. Carefully he placed the violin and the bow upon the roof, and then walked softly as if he were afraid of hearing the sound of his own feet. He walked to the edge of the roof. Here he leaned against a spout and looked down upon the pair of lovers. A cloud drifted across the moon. They were talking about him now in lowered voices.

“I think your brother is unusually sad to-day! Is he going down hill, do you think?” inquired the young man.

Jona nodded his head.

“He is always sad—poor fellow—and especially so the past few days,” replied Mitzerl. “He keeps asking me if I am really going away from him. You'll let me take him with me, won't you?”

“Not at first. Later, perhaps you can have him.” Mitzerl embraced him. Jona drew slowly back from the edge of the roof and walked carefully away to his place. Here he sat down again, rested his head on his hand and looked up at the moon. Over his cheeks rolled tears but no sound of sobbing was heard. His lips opened slowly and he said in despair: “I knew it! She doesn't love me so well as she does him!

He sat there a long time, and tears rolled over his face. As if grief were choking him, he took the neck cloth from his neck, and with it dried his eyes. At length he got up quickly and disappeared. The violin and bow he left upon the roof.

Jona had spent many nights upon the roof, so they did not look for him until the next day when Mitzerl was putting on her wedding dress. Then they found him. He had hanged himself with his neck cloth. It was some months later when Mitzerl celebrated her wedding.