It was quiet. Dismally so. The little girls and Golde were still outside cleaning up the bits of feather bed and broken glass that had been scattered in the yard. Tevye had gone to bed, too overwhelmed by the events of the night to do anything else. There was a single light in the house; the woodstove in the kitchen had been lit. And for good reason.
"Hold still, will you? I can't help you if you keep moving."
"It stings," Perchik grumbled, flinching away from the cloth in Hodel's hand.
"That means it's working," she said briskly. "Now hold still!"
"What is this, anyway? It smells like sage."
"Arnica root. Tip your head back and close your eyes, it might be easier this way." She laid her palm on his forehead as he did so as if to keep him there. The little smile that formed on his lips did not escape her. It was a good thing that his eyes were closed; she was smiling as well. He was incorrigible. "Keep your eyes closed. It can't sting you that way."
Hodel's fingers brushed against his hairline as she removed her hand. It was strange. She'd never seen a man without his head covered, and yet, to her surprise, the lack of cloth against her hand didn't unnerve her in the slightest. The contrast between the expected feel of the leather bill of his cap and the actual sensation of his hair was not unpleasant. His curls were so soft, like the down of—
"Not to be rude, Hodel, but my eye is burning from holding it shut. If you would…"
"Of course! Of course, one moment." She briefly submerged the rag in the infusion on the woodstove and brought it to him. His eyes were open.
"Apologies." He closed his eyes again. Hodel gently placed the rag over the ugly bruise that had begun to form around his nose and right eye. His body tensed, then relaxed. "You said this was arnica root?"
"Mmhm." She dragged her father's stool next to the bench where Perchik was seated. "We grow it by the river. It works well for bruises. And you could lie back, if you like," she added. "It might be more comfortable."
"I'll do that." He swung his feet over the bench and stretched out the full length, crossing his legs at the ankles. The position was at once endearingly vulnerable. "So you still use herbs for medicine in Anatevka?"
"Yes. Shouldn't we? We can't very well let things go untreated—or can you cure diseases with advanced thinking?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes. The University's Department of Medicine has been working on treating certain illnesses with new methods—even preventing them."
"How?" She was finding it difficult to keep her eyes off his mouth.
"With the diseases themselves, I believe. I don't know very much about it; I wasn't studying to be a doctor."
"What were you studying?"
Perchik turned his head to look at her with his one uncovered eye. "Philosophy. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and More, among others. You've read them?"
She shook her head. "Chava would know more about that. I don't read much."
"Mama doesn't approve. It's better to keep her happy than to defy her and cause strife."
"Without strife, there can be no change. But I don't suppose you want the change, do you?"
"Why should anything change?"
The derisive shrug he gave quickly turned into a wince. "I'll tell you after I change the cloth."
"Let me do it."
He made as if to sit up. "Hodel, I—"
"Let me do it." Her voice was firmer this time. "You're hurt. It's really no trouble." There was no way he could protest effectively anyway. She was already halfway across the room. "It's the least I can do for you."
"Thank you, I suppose."
"You're welcome." She returned with the re-soaked cloth and draped it over his eye. The swelling hadn't changed, but Perchik seemed more comfortable. Hodel moved towards her stool.
"Hodel…" His voice was unsure, which surprised her.
"This bench doesn't make a particularly nice headrest."
"Oh!" She straightened up immediately. "I can go fetch the pillow from my bed, I'll only be a moment—"
"Not…not what I had in mind."
It was difficult to make out colors in the dim light of the stove, but she could have sworn his face darkened a few shades. His gaze, though, remained steady. "There's room for two of us."
She raised an eyebrow. "Perchik, you take up the whole bench."
"In terms of the current situation, yes. But we could always displace part of me."
"You're talking nonsense."
"Not at all. I'm very sensible." He raised his head. "See, I've displaced part of myself. Now you can sit down."
She laughed nervously. "And where will you put that displaced part, oh learned student? In my lap?"
"That is exactly what I intend to do."
"You…you can't be serious!"
"I am completely serious." His uncovered eye twinkled at her. She opened her mouth to deliver a sharp rebuke and wish him a good night, but he held up his hand. "No tradition tonight, Hodel. You already broke one of your most sacred tenets at the wedding, and you're breaking another one by being alone with me. See? You are a rebel." He smiled at her. The horror died away in her chest. "Now sit."
Guiltily, as though she had already been caught, she took the seat he had offered. He lay back again. The gentle weight of his head on her thigh sent a not-unpleasant shudder up her back. She tried not to look at him, tried not to acknowledge the strange new position, but her hand had already found its way back to his hairline. He smiled again.
"Not so bad, is it?"
"N-no, I suppose not."
"Good. Would you like to have a lesson?"
She blinked. "Now?"
"Yes, now. No time like the present." He gave her a conspiratorial look. "It will be a very special lesson."
"Don't talk down to me. How do you mean, very special?"
He drew a small book from the inside pocket of his coat and passed it to her. "I would like it very much if you read this to me."
"The whole book?"
He shook his head as best he could, under the circumstances. Hodel shifted awkwardly. "Just the first section. Then we can talk about it."
"What if Mama comes in?"
"Then I'll tell her this is how we treat head wounds in Kiev." He reached up and touched the hand on his forehead, sending another shiver up her back. "Please read to me."
There was something about the way he said please that made it impossible to deny him. She opened the book.
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." She stopped. "Perchik, what is this?"
"Words, Hodel. Beautiful words of struggle, of revolution and of freedom. Keep reading."
"Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight…"
Outside, another dish broke.