Every year at this time, the peasants began their long religious pilgrimage to Geed-leh, to visit the church there, and to pray for God's help. They walked or rode in wagons; they crowded the roads leading to the holy town, for Geed-leh was famous in Poland as a place where God did miracles. The cool autumn days also brought many beggars to Geed-leh. The peasants gave away more of their money on such a religious holiday as this. Some of the beggars were blind, some had no feet or arms. Some were very old and seemed like lost children looking for their mothers.
There was one among them who was called "the Mute Singer". He was given this name because he could not speak. There was a time when he was able to sing, while playing his guitar. But he lost his voice. Now he played the guitar and sang, but no sounds came from his throat. His lips just moved with the music.
The Mute Singer was a tall, strange-looking man. His face and hands were brown, like the color of copper. He had white hair and a white beard: he looked like one of the wise men you read about in the Bible.
Early one morning I saw the Mute Singer washing himself at the river. He smiled and touched the ground with his hand, meaning that I should sit down. Then, he pointed his finger straight up, to tell me that he had a surprise for me.
Suddenly, he put his hand into the water and rubbed two of his fingers together, making a strange sound, exactly like the sound of a croaking frog. He did it many times, then he lightly hit the top of the weater, sending little ripples of waves across the water to the other side.
Suddenly, everything around us seemed to be moving. I could not believe that it was real. Thousands of frogs came racing toward us, jumping, and swimming...under the water and on top of the water. I began to shake with excitement.
The frogs crowded around us, I could see their heads and eyes showing above the top of the water.
The Mute Singer found some snails and cut them into small pieces and began to feed the frogs. They came closer and closer, and the Mute Singer started to play his guiter. As he did so, the frogs became quiet and listened. And then they, too, started to sing. Young frogs, old frogs...every one of them began to sing. I never heard anything like it. Not a frog moved: they all just sat and sang.
No one ever saw the Mute Singer at night. Nobody even knew where he slept. But during the day he could be found at the same place, sitting near the church and playing his guitar while his lips moved silently with the music.
Everybody liked the Mute Singer-the peasants as much as the beggars. People threw their pennies into the cups of the beggars sitting on the ground, asking for help. But not so with the Mute Singer. Into his cup, they dropped their pennies gently. He used the shell of a turtle as a cup. He got much more money than the others, but this did not trouble any of the beggars.
At the end of the day, the beggars crowded around the Mute Singer in front of the church. He took a clean white handkerchief from the pocket of his old coat, and put it smoothly on the ground. He made it seem like a religious ceremony. Then he put all his money on the clean white cloth, he made all the beggars an equal share of the money but kept nothing for himself.
Sadly, he looked around at the baggars, covered with dirt and disease. The sun was sinking fast and the peasants had all left the church area. The Mute Singer lowered his head and started to pray; the baggars were on their knees, joining him in prayer.
Then the Mute Singer began to play his guitar, moving his lips with the music. The beggars sat still and listened. The music cut deep into their hearts. It cut through their years of pain and suffering and loss of hope. It made them feel human again. Many of them cried, and with dried okd hands wiped away their tears.
I heard a beggar say the Mute Singer was not a human being, but God dressed as a beggar. "If that is true," another answered, "he would not come as a beggar, but as a priest..."
One day, hundreds of new peasants entered the city. They were welcomed at the church by its religious leaders who dropped water on their heads and blessed them. Religious singing and church bells felled the air, as did the cried of the beggars asking for help.
As the peasants came out of the church, the Mute Singer began to play. The peasants crowded around him and dropped pennies into his cup. Suddenly, his fingers hit the wrong strings. He threw his arms into the air. His guitar fell to the ground and broke. One of the beggars caught the Mute Singer as he fell and held his beautiful head on his knees.
We carried him into my mother's empty barn and put him down gently. I held his hand and he slept a little, then opened his eyes and smiled weakly. He looked like a lost child.
The Mute Singer pointed to his chest and made the sign of the cross. A beggar said, "He wants me to give him the last rites. Can you get me a piece of bread?"
"But you are not a priest," I said.
"This is something any man would be glad to do for him it is an emergency. But I am dirty, my cothes are dirty. Hurry, get some bread and a white shirt."
I ran out and got some bread. Next to my house was a synagogue, and in the dark I saw the rabbi's finest white shirt hanging to be dried. I took the shirt and hurried to the side of the dying Mute Singer.
The beggar put on the white shirt, and gave me a candle to hould. Then he got down close to the Mute Singer and said:
"Hear me, my brother! Open your eyes if you can, so that you may see the sign of the cross made over you. Here is your Last Communion, a beggar's Communion of black bread."
The dying man looked at the beggar, smiled weakly and left us forever....
That night I had very strange dreams. In one dream, I saw something white moving slowly toward me. It was liike a flog. But when it got very close it changed into the shape of a man. It was the Mute Singer still holding his guitar. Then two angles floated out of the dark into my dream: they fell to their knees before the Mute Singer, kissing his hands while he gently touched their heads. It was like what I had often seen in old religious paintings.
I slept badly. I felt something heavy, and it was hurting me. I awoke and saw that I was holding too hard against my chest, the shell of a turtle. It was the turtle shell which the Mute Singer used as a beggar's cup for money. He gave it to me while he lay dying.