He did not look up from his book, but Chava had the uncanny feeling that he was watching her out of the back of his leather cap. She wondered if everyone from Kiev was like that.
"Perchik, I was in town today. I brought you an apple."
The book had not closed, but his posture was noticeably more alert.
Perchik's shoulders sagged a bit as he turned to face her. She wished he hadn't. One of his eyes had turned into an ugly, swollen mass despite Hodel's tender ministrations. The fact that his smirk was untouched made the sight even more unnerving. Chava swallowed hard.
"I didn't know money could make an apple taste different," she said lightly, trying to joke.
"Money is the world's curse, Chava."
"You always say that."
He smiled and patted the ground beside him. Chava handed him the apple and dropped to a seat in the grass.
"Thank you, Chavaleh."
"Mama said you would need it, after what happened last night."
He blinked. "I'm not a medical student, but I've never heard of apples curing a black eye."
"I don't think Mama has either. It's her way of saying sorry."
"For what?" Perchik took a bite out of the apple and gave her a quizzical look.
"Last night, I suppose."
"You were struck in our family's name." Chava's tone was slow and deliberate, as though explaining to a child. "She considers us responsible."
"But your family did nothing. It was those Tsarist pigs who punched me, not you."
Chava bit back a retort. None of them was worth defending. Her eyes wandered over to the book he had set down.
"Hm? Oh, thasa buk." His mouth was full of apple.
"I know it's a book. What book is it?"
He swallowed. "It's called 'The Communist Manifesto'."
"Is it good?"
Perchik shrugged. "It is, but Hodel doesn't seem to think so."
It was amazing, Chava thought, how red he could turn and still seem so careless. Did all city people have that talent?
"You got my sister to read a book?"
His mouth twitched. Somehow, he was still keeping a straight face. "Not exactly."
"What do you mean?"
"She…well, she read to me. Last night. I asked her to."
Perchik quickly took another bite of the apple. "I promised your papa I would give you girls lessons. I was simply educating Hodel in—"
"Do you like her, Perchik?"
She thought he was going to choke. "Like her?"
"Yes. How Tzeitel and Motel like each other."
"Well, I…" His voice died off for a moment. She peered at him. "I am very much in favor of the institution of marriage, being as it is a socioeconomic alliance designed for all parties involved."
"Meaning, that as a social institution, it…ah…must be founded on certain principles and…ah…"
"Are you going to ask for permission to marry Hodel?" Chava had picked up his book and was leafing through it.
"Well, in a strictly hypothetical sense…yes." His eyes flashed at her. "I'm not going to ask your Papa for his permission, though. Only for his blessing."
Her head shot up. "You're not? Why?"
"She should decide for herself, shouldn't she?" He laughed, but it was a laugh of disbelief. "I do like your Papa, but I don't want to marry him. Why should he be the one to say yes or no?"
"Because it's tradition."
"Damn your traditions!"
There was a sudden, tense silence. Chava's mouth fell open and the book slid from her fingers. Perchik glared at her.
"I wouldn't have thought it of you, Chava." She cringed. "You, yourself, break tradition a thousand times a day and yet you criticize me."
Panic rose in her throat. "I don't know what you're talking about.
Perchik snatched the dropped book and tapped the back of her head with it. "Silly girl." His tone was a bit lighter, but not by much. "Talking with a man, dancing with the rabbi, buying books for yourself when you have a bit of extra money…"
Chava hoped she wasn't turning too red.
His voice drifted off and they sat in silence, with only the bugs and the sound of the river in the background. Chava picked absently at the grasses beside her feet. Perchik stretched out on his side and picked up his book, just as footsteps sounded on the bridge.
"Good day, Chava."
She froze. The footsteps had stopped and she didn't look up. If she could swear properly, she would have done so.
"Good day, comrade."
Perchik had seen him. Chava kept her head down, praying that Fyedka would go away.
"Good day to you too. Aren't you the student living with Tevye?" His voice was pleasant, but Chava heard the hidden edge.
"Yes. I am Perchik." He'd heard the edge too. "You know Chava?"
She flinched, willing him to disappear.
"Da. I know Chava, though not very well. I see her in town sometimes. The bookseller calls her by name." He was lying through his teeth, which did nothing for her confidence. Lying was only for shameful things. "I thought I would be polite. Good day, Chava. Good day, Perchik."
The footsteps changed from wood to dirt, fading away into the afternoon as they did so. Chava had never found the grass more interesting.
"So he knows you." There was no steel in his tone, only a mildly amused curiosity that frightened her more than his anger. "You're friends with a Tsarist, Chavaleh?"
"His name is Fyedka." When did her voice start shaking? "And he's very nice."
"Well done, you've just broken a tradition."
"I don't know what you mean."
"He went looking for you especially, didn't he?"
"No." She met his gaze, trying to mimic his glare from earlier. "He might have done it with any girl from Anatevka. He's very polite."
"Oh, really? Who told you this?"
She wished he would stop smirking. To give herself a moment to think, she rescued Perchik's abandoned apple and bit into it with a loud crack.
Perchik plucked the apple from her fingers and put it where his book had been in the grass. She looked away.
"People tell me," she managed. "Why does it matter who I heard it from?"
"People doesn't exclude Fyedka, does it." It wasn't a question and she knew it. There was no use lying to Perchik. Papa had always told her that city people were sinful. He wasn't. He'd probably spent enough time around liars to know when the Tsar himself wasn't telling the truth.
"No. It doesn't."
"Do you like him, Chavaleh? How Tzeitel likes Motel?"
"How you like Hodel, you mean?"
He wasn't going to have any of her distractions, either. "Do you?"
"I met him two days ago, Perchik."
"Your Mama and Papa met on the day on the day of their wedding and they liked each other."
"Yes, but they were both Jewish." She tried a different tactic. "Anyway, I thought you didn't like Tsarists."
"I don't. But you do, or one of them at least."
She blushed. "I don't."
He struck the grandest pose he could while propped up on one elbow, bearing a book and a black eye. "Thy countenance betrayeth thee, Chavaleh."
"Don't quote what I haven't read yet. It isn't fair."
"You ought to read it, then. 'Legends of the Jews' by one of your own. A Rabbi Ginzberg, I think."
She started. The book in question was hidden in her apron. "Really? How nice. I wonder if I'll be able to find it."
"I'm sure the bookseller would have it." His eyes twinkled. "Or perhaps your Fyedka could find it for you?"
"He's not my Fyedka. Must you keep on with this?"
Perchik smiled into his book. She looked at him in confusion.
"Perchik, you don't even like Tsarists! You said it yourself. Why do you insist on pushing me into the arms of one?"
He turned to face her, all traces of joking gone. "He's a good man, Chava. And he likes you, doesn't he?"
"Now you sound like Yente. Are you a matchmaker as well as a student?"
"You could say that. But be serious for a moment. Monarchists don't leave their packs for no reason."
"They don't. That's the thing. Not in Moscow, not in Kiev, and certainly not in Anatevka, among Jews. They're afraid of the people, and of the knowledge that the people have. How many of them have you ever seen reading, let alone admitting that he knew the name of a Jewish girl he sometimes saw at the bookseller's?"
"But…Perchik, he's not even Jewish. What does it matter if he likes me? Nothing could ever come of it."
"Why not?" His smirk was back.
"Papa would never give his permission."
"Fyedka is not attracted to your father, Chavaleh. And we're talking about permissions now?"
She blushed again. "I—"
Both turned to face uphill. Golde was standing at the bridge, staring down at the two of them disapprovingly.
"Come back to the house. There is work to be done, and more of it now that your sister is not here. You cannot spend all your time having lessons with Perchik."
"Yes, Mama." She scrambled to her feet, trying not to drop the carefully hidden book in the process. Golde had already disappeared down the road. As she made her way up the hill, she heard Perchik get to his feet and toss what was left of the apple into the river.
She turned to face him. "Yes?"
"Think about what I said. Tradition is not so very important in regards to affection."
"I will, Perchik. But will you do something in return?"
She smiled. "Teach me the dance you did last night. I don't want to misstep when I repeat it after your marriage to Hodel."
"Done." He made a deep bow. She returned it with an awkward curtsey. "Good day, Chava."
"Good day, Perchik."