illustration of main character Hannah opening a door which leads to a barbed wire fence

The Devil's Arithmetic

by Jane Yolen

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Chapter 5 Summary

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Hannah awakens early and feels her way through the unfamiliar darkness to the front door of the cottage. She opens it and sees the first signs of dawn beyond the rim of the field. She is overcome by a terrible longing for her family; it begins to seem like they exist only in a dream. Shmuel, who cannot sleep because of anticipation for his wedding day, joins Hannah, whom he calls Chaya, at the door. Hannah tries to tell Shmuel that she is not Chaya from Lublin but Hannah from New Rochelle in America—but Shmuel does not understand. Hannah accepts that to pursue her explanation is hopeless, so she decides that she has no choice but to go along with what is happening. She follows Shmuel to the barn, where they tend to the horses in “companionable silence.”

At breakfast, Hannah, who is used to having cereal or doughnuts or white bread for toast, is disappointed when Gitl places only a jug of milk, some coffee, and a loaf of dark bread on the table. She pours herself a glass of milk but chokes on it when she discovers that bits of cream are floating in it; it is fresh from the cow. Shmuel does not eat, claiming that he is keeping the traditional groom’s wedding fast; Gitl teases him, saying that he is not eating because he is so nervous.

There is a knock at the door, and Hannah hopes for a moment that it is her mother or father or Aunt Eva coming to get her. Instead, Gitl opens the door to a man “with shoulders as wide as the door itself, wiry red hair, and a bushy red beard.” The visitor is Yitzchak, the butcher, whom Shmuel greets heartily, inviting him in and introducing him to their newly arrived niece, Chaya. Yitzchak has brought some chickens as a gift for the wedding couple.

Gitl is gruff toward Yitzchak, who is seeking her hand in marriage. She grudgingly serves him coffee and, with annoyance, wipes up after him when he spills a little on the table. Yitzchak asks if he should leave the chickens there at the cottage or load them in the wagon with the other gifts to be taken to the ceremony. Gitl tells him they will take the chickens so that the bride’s family in Viosk “will not think [they] do not honor [their] own.” Shmuel laughs and explains to Yitzchak that he and his new bride, Fayge, will be returning that night to stay alone in the cottage while Gitl and Chaya remain in Viosk and come home in the morning to allow them some privacy. Gitl chides Shmuel, warning him not to go into detail about the wedding night in front of the child, but Hannah exclaims that she already knows about all that from watching General Hospital. Gitl, thinking Hannah is referring to the hospital in Lublin, is aghast that a child should have heard about such sensitive matters.

Yitzchak tells Gitl that he has come early to help her and Shmuel prepare for the wedding. He says he has brought his children, Reuven and Tzipporah, to assist also, and Gitl scolds him for leaving them outside with the chickens. Gitl calls to the children, who are “no more than three or four years old,” telling them to come to the table to sit with Chaya, who will pour them some milk and tell them stories.

Yitzchak and his children instead go to tend to the chickens, and when they leave, Shmuel teases Gitl that the man “is already henpecked and not even married to [her] yet.” Gitl retorts that Yitzchak is a monster for leaving his children outside “like chickens in cages.” When Hannah interjects that she thinks Yitzchak is nice, Gitl silences her with a sharp rejoinder.

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