1879: A Shocking Delivery
Here’s the first of potentially a few stories about Dr. Max Keblovszkij, the veterinarian with the encyclopedic knowledge of European animal folklore.
Cultural Consult: Jonathan S. Works
The old man in the black suit and the broad-brimmed hat crossing Favart Road from Eel Brook Common drew a few quick looks. A Jew, and a highly observant one from the beard and the sideburn ringlets and the fringe peeping out from under the hem of his plainly-cut coat, stood out in a neighbourhood much more Catholic than the eruv on the far side of the Common. Half the houses he passed on his stroll up Basuto Road had statues of Mary in their tiny patches of front garden, the concave backdrop like half a bathtub. The old man shook his head over that as if just not sure about it, taking up half the room, leaving only the space of a windowbox for anything green.
He made his way up the residential street, two and three story townhouses mostly cut up into flats these days as the neighbourhood had declined, a lot of children playing in the street. Well, you could hardly expect them to play in the alleys, those were full of ancient muck that the landlords never paid the cesspit men enough to clean up properly. The last cress girl passed him going the other way, tiredly calling her wares, but stopped and openly gawped at the stranger. As he went by, he nodded gravely to her and said something that sounded kind of like a blessing, but it wasn’t in any English she recognized.
A left on Irene Road, more of the same really, and then across the street and a right up into Jigsaw Mews took him out of much of the street noise and into the shade of a narrow lane once used for carriages and wagons, when the neighbourhood had been a little more prosperous. The stables and carriage houses that had lined the mews had all been converted into workshops and homes long ago, after the upper class moved north and west into more fashionable areas. A haze of sawdust hung in the air, the result of the carpenter’s tool that gave the place its name. Down at the end on the right, a big carriage house had been converted into a home suitable for a large family if they didn’t have airs, a nice place painted bright green with red and yellow trim around the back of the Parsons Green high street. A wooden plaque affixed to the wall by the door, a careful few inches down from the mezuzah screwed tight to the door-frame, read simply, 10 Jigsaw Mews, Keblovszkij, Max, Erma, Molly.
As he raised a hand to try the brass knocker, a grimacing thing vaguely like a bulldog, a fearful howl arose from somewhere beyond, in the area between the house and the veterinary offices on Parsons Green Road that Dr. Keblovszkij used for kennels and such, the sausage making of an animal medical practice that most people don’t like seeing so much. A great ape with appendicitis, the old man decided, or a bear with its manly bits caught in a trap and suddenly singing in a higher register. He paused, a perplexed frown creasing his features and adding a little to the wrinkles already there, wondering if this was perhaps not the best time to be dropping by.
Then the door flew open, and a young woman burst out and nearly ran him down. A quick pivot on her part avoided disaster at the last possible instant. She wore men’s work clothing, rough-spun shirt, weskit, wool trousers, and a demure kerchief over her hair instead of a man’s bowler, he gave her that much, at least she tried a little bit, a stained and worn leather apron over it all, and boots fit for a navvy.
“Sorry, Rabbi! Got to rush, go on in, Mame’s in the kitchen,” she rattled off without stopping for a breath, still partway in motion, making a hasty excuse as she reoriented, then pelted off down the mews like a teenager, moving way too fast for a respectable woman of her age. The rabbi shook his head. Exigencies of the healing profession. He kissed his fingertips, touched the mezuzah, and let himself in, closing the door behind him.
He could have stepped all the back to Krakow. The gingerbreading all around the room, so different from British wainscoting, the bright pale yellow of the walls, the lace frames around the portraits, the sad gaps here and there in the arrangement, and the smell of baking bread wafting from the kitchen over what he suspected was a very cheap joint of beef from the kosher butcher simmering over something pickled or fermented, turning something only fit for dogs into a feast for someone of humble origins. Like he’d never left the eruv, in so many ways.
Erma bustled out of the kitchen, breaking his train of thought, probably for the best, he tended to get maudlin these days. “Rabbi Mandelbrot!” she exclaimed, obviously delighted to see a religious scholar in her house the way only a grandmotherly Polish woman can be. “Let me bring you a chai and a fresh roll, I’m baking today.” She held up her hands, showing sleeves tied up and forearms dusted a little with flour.
He made a bit of a show of sniffing the air. “I can smell burnt bread, it’s a big batch then, who are you expecting?”
She laughed. “It’s for the RSPCA. They’re doing a pet show on the Green tomorrow to raise money for the Hammersmith animal shelter.” She paused, thought a moment, then asked, “Rabbi, they’re always after me about Animal Sunday, and they want to know if we do a sermon about proper treatment of animals on the Sabbath the day before it, but the d’var Torah has to follow the progression of the Torah reading, doesn’t it? What do I tell them?”
“Tell them we teach kindness and responsibility every day,” he replied carefully, making it a bit of a pronouncement, then shrugged. “And maybe I can think how the parshas on that date might apply, and speak to it.” Then the back door opened and Dr. Max trudged in, red in the face and dishevelled, dressed much like his daughter in wool shirt and trousers, workman’s boots, leather apron, but an embroidered kippah instead of a scarf.
“Max!” Erma snapped. “You’re tracking in mud!”
He grinned, flash of teeth behind a heavy black beard at the bottom of a face round as the moon, waved to the rabbi and went back out. A little theatrical production later, he came back in carrying his boots, still dripping a little, in his left hand so he had his right for the mezuzah. He gave a mocking bow, a little bending at what you could assume was his waist, the man was built like a bear ready for hibernation, stocky like a dwarf and big like a barrel. “Do these meet with your approval now, oh Queen of my household and all that she surveys?” He grinned again, wider if it was possible.
She levelled a glare at him that clearly said he better know he was pushing it. “You should know to take them off when you come in, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I have been working all morning and maybe my wife will let me take a little break now while our daughter runs to the market.” Dr. Max dropped the boots onto the little rug by the door, and strode around the dining room table to greet Rabbi Schmuel with a warm handshake. “I apologize for smelling like wet bear. We still don’t know how a buggane got all the way into Hammersmith, although from the stink when we first found him, I’m thinking through the sewers. Oyyy.” He drew out the syllable with a sigh. “Four baths we have given the beast and it still smells like yesterday’s cabbage. It’s the railroad’s problem after tonight, be thankful for small favours, but we have to get it sedated and quickly. I’ve got just the thing but we need something the beast will get over its being angry enough to eat.”
“Thus an unmarried woman flying out of here like a girl chasing a hoop,” Rabbi Mandelbrot said, a little reprovingly.
Dr. Max shrugged. “Exigencies of the profession.”
The rabbi gave a slow nod, and took the chair in the parlour Max directed him to. “What you said when I last asked you, more than once, yes, I tend to be a nudzh, I know this, why here, why right across Parsons Green from the Catholic church? And you shrugged, and said, well, this is where the market is, you know?”
Dr. Max poured a little cordial for the rabbi and a little for himself, from the cut glass bottle on the table between the rabbi’s chair and the one he’d taken, the big overstuffed wingback with the loose-knit blanket thrown over it that was the focus of the room. “I came to London eighteen years ago, my Molly just a toddler, and she’s a vet herself now, you know, I thought, this is where women wealthy enough to have cats are going to live, and they fuss over these cats, and a man could make a steady living in the illnesses of rich women’s cats. And I do okay, I have a nice practice, and then this teufelscheiss, you should excuse me, this Rabbit Hole thing, it opens up, and now I got afancs in the ponds and gryphons chasing the trains and oy vey ez mir! I’m on the train more often than I sleep in my own bed.” He took a sip of the cordial.
The rabbi nodded, and said, “God has given you a gift with this knowledge and the way you have with these the strangest of His Creations, you know you cannot stand by and still be a mensch, you have to go and take care of these things when you are called. That said, you are so busy you do not come to synagogue last Shabbos? Can you at least be at minyan tomorrow night?”
Max shrugged. “I know, I know,” he said, a nod of his entire upper body, “I can still kvetch about it, you know? So you want to know about this past Shabbos, let me tell you. We’re getting ready to sit down for Shabbos dinner, Erma’s already lit the candles. We join hands for the challah blessing and such a pounding there is at the door you’d think the mews was on fire. Molly gets up to open the door, makes a joke about the Prophet showing up, and this boy tumbles in, he’s losing his mind. He’s got to have Dr. Max right now, please, his father sent him, got one of those new electric pigs, all in a rush like he’s got so many words his head’s going to explode if he doesn’t get them all out at once. He’s wheezing for breath like he lives in London and smokes on top of it, breech birth, he says, snart at the resident farm at the abbey, five stops up at Kensington High Street, and please and sir more times than I’ve heard since that awful Dickens play Molly made us go see.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Erma put in from the kitchen. She brought in a tray with a handful of ponchiks and put it down between the men. “You didn’t start kvetching about it until next week when Jozep at the dairy store said something about how funny it was, and then you had to be against it so you could disagree with him.”
Dr. Max stared at his wife for a moment, then turned to the rabbi in appeal. Rabbi Mandelbrot gave a slow shrug, and helped himself to one of the fruit-filled donuts. Dr. Max shook his head sadly.
“This, in my own house, and from the wife who had no trouble wrapping up a few things from the table after a hasty blessing, and I saw you slip that boy a chunk of the challah with a bit of roast beef folded inside, first time I bet he’s tasted anything like that, he was skin and bones under a coat so thin you could count his ribs through it. Of course I went. I took the duffel with the German suit in it and my Gladstone, and Erma my kind and loving wife – “ he emphasized the compliment pointedly, and she relented “ – tucked a decent dinner in my pocket with a bit extra just in case, and we walked up to the railway station past the northern tip of the Green. No, I wasn’t moving any faster than that, had to tell the boy a couple of times, I’m old and fat and this is how fast I can move, and I got this duffel you see it here? On my shoulder? Weighs almost as much as you soaking wet, you want to try to carry it? No? Then you wait on an old fat man and God will see to the pig.”
“A phrase I never thought to hear,” the rabbi laughed. “So what is this pig that it’s so special they have to get you for it? With all the livestock in London, surely there are other veterinarians, that aren’t trying to sit down with family on Shabbos night?”
“Ehh, the Germans, they call them Leydenschweine, but Albert, he finds out that the British are not so excited about German names many years ago and they have not changed so much. They call these pigs snarts, after the farmer up in Leonardston that first imported them, and now they’re showing up all over on their own. They build up an electrical charge like a Leyden jar, and can let it off by touch from pretty much anywhere. Grab the tail of one of these and you’ll be on your tuchus on the other side of the pen. The piglets are born carrying a charge.”
Rabbi Schmuel raised an eyebrow. “And you’ve got a breech birth of one of these?”
“That’s why they call for me,” Dr. Max replied, nodding sagaciously and helping himself to another ponchik. Erma pointedly moved the tray a little closer to the rabbi as she went by and Max watched her go with a sigh. “I love my wife,” he affirmed plaintively.
“So you get to the train,” the rabbi prompted.
“Oh, we get there. The boy finally remembers he’s got food, and tears through the challah and roast beef like a starving wolf, can’t get a word out thankfully until we’re on the Up platform. Finally gets his name out, he’s Kevin, talks about how his Da comes from a line that’s held a warrant to raise pigs and sheep on the Abbey green since the reign of William and Mary, God save them, and how one of his Da’s brood sows, a young one just past her proving, started lighting up after the Rabbit Hole opened, and they had to keep her in a separate pen from the others.
“So we get to Kensington, and as soon as we’re off the train, the boy’s bouncing around like a spaniel again, goes running ahead and running back and still trying to make me hurry, I’m not going to go any faster. We get there, and his father, he looks kind of like you might expect a pig farmer at a monastery to look like, all out at the elbows and knees, three colours of patches and two of dirt, a face like God pinched too hard when He was shaping it, and he’s this cranky old man. I mean, he’s got a hard situation, little patch of green with some trees in the middle of the snootiest part of the entire city and he’s a pig farmer, people are going to look down on him. But he comes up to me from half a block away, fretting and clucking like a hen, what took so long, as much as I charge I could get there faster. I ask him, you want I should go? I got a dinner with my family to get back to. No, he wants me there, he waves money at me, on Shabbos night, he doesn’t know any better. I wave him off, tell him, show me your pig. He gives Kevin a look I’ve seen before on these people, so I shift my bag, I get it in between him and the boy, the boy gets out of harm’s way and this little putz, he gets into my face, and starts in on me again, who he wants should save his pig but he’s got all these opinions he wants to share with me, no extra charge. I tell him, you want to stand there shouting like a meshugganah, I’m fine with that, you’re paying me to stand here while your pig dies, keep shouting like a crazy person, and I put my duffel down and fold my arms and stare at him like when Zelitsky tries to raise the price of brisket on Friday morning.”
Rabbi Mandelbrot frowned. “He’s doing that again?”
“He never stopped!” Erma put in from the kitchen. Dr. Max nodded agreement.
“Oy.” The rabbi decided this needed a second pastry. “I got to have a word with him on my way back. We talked about this.”
“So this little banty rooster,” Dr. Max went on, “he backs down, and I let him sweat for just a second, but no more, I mean, it’s a pig, it’s treyf, but it’s one of God’s living creatures, it shouldn’t suffer. So I pick up my duffel and we go around the back of the barn. He’s taken this stone toolshed, old thing with the mortar wearing away between the stones, hasn’t had maintenance in the last century, but it’s good enough to hold a pig, and he’s got the sow in there for brooding. I look it over, tell him he ought to turn the horseshoe over the door points up, all the luck will run out, he doesn’t think this is funny, he tells me so. I shrug, what can you do? And I find the closest thing to a dry corner, this pigsty it’s living up to its name, and start putting on the suit.
“Now this thing looks like a practical joke you play on first year students, made out of rubber over wire mesh, it weighs enough I worked off Erma’s pocket dinner just carrying the bag from the railway station to the Abbey. And it’s ugly, and it smells like a chemical factory, and Farmer Reilly he can’t see the need of it, wants me to hurry up, his pig’s been straining for two hours now, only delivered three piglets so far. Patience, I tell him, he’s got none, starts pacing back and forth between me and the gate. You’ll wear a rut, I tell him, he doesn’t care. I get my hair stuffed up under the bathing cap, pull the chin strap across and tuck my beard under it. I look like an overstuffed kielbasa and I waddle like a duck, but I’m ready. So these pigs, they get bigger than the usual, they’re not the little pink pigs they raise in the city usually.”
“What,” the rabbi said, “I’m going to know from pigs?”
“Ehhh,” Dr. Max replied, waving it off, “this one’s big, five hundred pounds easy, bristled like a boar, got three little ones each the size of a quartern loaf suckling, and she’s exhausted, I can see. Just lying there panting and occasionally trying to push. Reilly, he pokes his head in, tries to yell at me. This stirs the sow up, and she grunts at him and starts trying to get up, she’s got piglets, he’s being loud, she’s going to go eat him. Good riddance, I think, but I don’t need her stirring herself up right now. Go away, I tell him, you’re upsetting the patient. Let me work. He goes away, but he’s not happy, I can hear him swearing at his boy, at the pig, at me, at the rake he just stepped on, okay, okay, I’m embellishing, all right? Besides, you don’t want to know where I’ve got my right arm, or how deep. I find the piglet, it’s curled up with its feet pointing the wrong way and stuck like a cork in a bottle. I figure, two hours, I’ve got a dead piglet to pull out here, so I work a hand around, and I give a good yank. Pow! Sparks fly off my boot, where the wires go, and off the iron spike on the toe I’ve got dug into the dirt to ground me.”
“So it’s still alive, then,” says the rabbi, “you got there in time.”
“Oh, it’s alive all right, and now I have to get it turned and out, but it’s let off a big charge, so it’s got nothing to try to hit me with while I work, and it’s just a breech delivery.”
“Until?” Rabbi Mandelbrot asked. “You don’t start a story without a joke at the end.”
Dr Max grinned, and tipped the last drop of the cordial. “Until I get that piglet out,” he said. “I get her about halfway out, and there’s a rush and she slides out and three more right behind her. Farmer Reilly sticks his head in the door and barks ‘Well?’ at me like Mrs. Cohen at the butcher when she thinks his price is too high. The piglets all go off, and they’re right at the most sensitive place this sow has, and it’s just been through some indignity. She leaps straight up and lets out this shriek I never heard a pig make before, and she lets fly with everything the young ones just hit her with and some of her own besides. Big arc, I’m still blinking it away an hour later, makes a noise like a gunshot, and it hits Farmer Reilly. Goes up the side of his face, blows his hat off, and leaps up to the two prongs of that horseshoe, through it to the nail, and grounds out through the stone wall. And that is why the people up in Kensington now call him Old Scragglebeard.”
As the two men chuckled, the front door flew open, and Dr. Molly came in with a wooden bucket.
“Boots!” cried Erma.
“Passing through, Mame” Molly called back. “Sorry no time!” Then to her father, “I’ve got the leftover berries the market was going to throw out.”
Dr. Max heaved himself up out of the wingback. “Rabbi, I’ll be there Friday night for minyan, God willing. Erma, give him another roll to take with him.” And he and Molly hurried out the back door, leaving Erma to see the rabbi out politely like a decent person and clean up the mud her daughter had tracked through the house.