Korach and the Spies Open a Holocaust Museum

“Right through here please,” says Gadiel ben Sodi. It’s all prepared: cement floors and exposed brick and a real cattle car through which all the museumgoers will pass. Monitors big as billboards show the faces of the holy, fading placidly in and especially out. Thirteen men stand with the pride of builders whose private toil is finally ready for others’ eyes. A fourteenth, a teacher, law-giver, and famous mountain climber with a thick white beard is the first outsider to step through their exhibits. There are nerves in the air—he has also commissioned it.

They show him through the process of history, the special Kristallnacht diorama, the personal artifacts, the solemn crimes. “A stone would weep,” he remarks quietly, and the thirteen try to show no sign of their deep inner satisfaction. They pass the mini-treatment of the European fronts. They conclude with the liberation, the documentation, the arrows reaching like vines seeking sunlight across oceans and to a well-known land in the East Mediterranean.

“Where is the rest of it?” asks the visitor. The thirteen are dumbfounded. One of them, the one with burns, begins to smirk as the other twelve shuffle their sandals. He too-casually walks off to check on something.

“What do you mean, the rest?” asks Shaphat ben Hori, after what feels like forty years.

“Where is the lesson of this museum? What are we to learn?” Tittering among the twelve. Two begin to nod as if this is what they were wondering all along. Ten look merely dumbfounded.

“The whole question doesn’t start, really,” says one of them quickly, as if trying to sneak the words in under a falling blade. “Because the Holocaust isn’t like anything else, so no lessons are really applicable. That’s what ‘holiness’ is, and you chose us for our holiness and its holiness, didn’t you? We are leaders for a reason, and you are our inspiration (there are none like Moses after all) and the Holocaust is incomparably holy and were we to seek lessons or applications elsewhere it would just dilute the particulars of the event itself that we are meant to be commemorating. Other things simply aren’t the holocaust so why do they belong here?” He pauses to take a breath, and before he can continue Moses holds up a single finger. Our Holy Teacher’s eyes move briefly to the thirteenth man, who is dusting off a display case full of Soviet art and whistling to himself.

Moses looks back at the twelve, who in turn are studying the floor. “I am not G-d,” says Moses. Absolute silence reigns. He waits. No one has anything to say. “The Holocaust is not G-d.”

“Well—”

“Since it is not G-d, it is created by G-d. So, the Holocaust has that in common with other things. Doesn’t it?”

“Well, yes,” someone, probably from Yehuda or Shimon, gathers the courage to respond. “but G-d has created things totally differently. I mean, if you say it’s all just the same you’ll get ‘Auschwitz stubbed toes’ and ‘Hitler poor aesthetics taking advantage of populist bad taste’—”

“Just as G-d created the land and the wilderness differently?” asks Moses. The spies wince. “You seem to think that the natures of things somehow overpower the One G-d to produce an insurmountable diversity tantamount to idolatry,” he notes with gently, infinite patience. They catch a flash of gold in his eyes and shudder.

“Ahem.” They turn as one to find the thirteenth man raising his hand.

“This guy,” says Amiel ben G’mali.

“Me,” says Korach.

“He’s gonna show you his slideshow now,” groans a spy.

Korach already has the projector out and gives a glare to the spy that would crack open the earth. He turns to Moses, manages a smile, and launches into his presentation. NEVER AGAIN lights the nearest wall. Korach clicks through trigger warnings and into disturbing images from Rwanda, Syria, China, and other, closer places. A somber Eastern European fiddle accompanies the diagrams for a well-designed #NeverAgain Genocide Exhibit, including booths where visitors can sign up to volunteer with or donate to contemporary aid organizations. The music ends and Korach awaits Moshe’s response with rubbing hands.

Moshe looks disappointed. Korach’s eye begins to twitch. “You don’t like it, do you?” Moshe shakes his head.

“This is all politics,” Korach enunciates through gritted teeth. “You’re only saying this because if the Holocaust isn’t special, you aren’t special either.” The spies gasp.

“The holocaust is not G-d,” says Moshe again.

“It’s not even holy!” Korach nods.

“Since it’s not G-d,” continues Moses, “it is created by G-d. Since creation is ex nihilo, from nothing, the Holocaust has nothing inherently in common with those other things.”

“You can’t be serious,” says Korach. “You just told the spies in last week’s parsha that One G-d means one inherent nature underlying everything. It’s the same G-d in Israel as in the wilderness; that was their mistake. Now you want me to ignore the obvious essential similarities between Dachau, North Korea, and Texas, between me and you?”

“We have nothing in common,” Moshe says, full of sorrow.

“We’re speaking the same language!” cries Korach.

“It’s hard to say,” says Moshe diplomatically.

“But wait,” objects a spy, “What are we meant to do? How do we finish the museum? Is the holocaust comparable to other things, or incomparable?”

“Good question,” says Moses. “May I suggest learning lessons from the Holocaust not through direct qualitative comparison but through the principle of divine providence whereby every incomparable ex nihilo particular your soul encounters is itself a communication of G-d to be understood and used in His service?”

“But then all inherent natures are just like miracles!” cried a shocked spy.

“But then my mind’s ability to compare has to depend on a higher supra-rational logic!” complains Korach.

“I’m hungry,” says Moshe. “Is there falafel nearby?”

Abraham the Murderer

Abraham is just some cisgender white male kid kicking cans in Silver Springs. He watches YouTube and plays Fortnite religiously but he is still not right. There’s something off about the way he looks at you. He sees too much. His skull can’t hold it all and ugly truths pour from his mouth.

Abraham wants to make his mother proud but never quite manages. Abraham’s father hits him sometimes, so when his dad is out Abraham burns the family business to the ground. Abraham’s father explains what power truly means with the back of his hand and the dull retreat of his mother’s eyes.

Abraham regrets nothing. Abraham’s heart is a coal wreathed in blue flame. Abraham decides it all must die. Abraham’s father stops paying for Wi-Fi and shoots a truancy officer.

Abraham dreams of ways to destroy his father. The moon could smash him, but then it would only come at night. The sun could scorch him, but only by day. The mountain, until it eroded; the cloud, until it dispersed. None of it is enough, he thinks, lying in his own reek, flies trailing lazy arcs across the thatched ceiling. I will kill him myself. That is what a man would do.

But his heart spasms brighter and his mind snaps shut. No. I can hate him only as long as I live. Death must not defeat my hatred. I will find something that endures forever, and etch my father’s punishment in its skin.

In this way, Abraham discovers the One G-d.


Abraham goes through puberty and meets a girl who can love an idea. They move to New Mexico.

“The One G-d is the best idea anyone has ever had,” Abraham tells his clan over Discord. “Even at their best, people will disappoint. People will always leave you doubting yourself. But ideas are sweet and dependable, and the Idea that people can’t understand is the sweetest of all. The Idea is the only indiscriminate and unyielding benevolence.” He takes a pull from his Mountain Dew. “Markets, the news, Odin, whatever your parents worship, it’s rotten with people. The idea never hints that nothing its children do is ever good enough. It is never so starving as to bash in a skull.” Abraham calls everything rank with human sweat an idol.

“How do you know,” asks Jason-who-went-to-college, “that the Idea (over which you seem to have perspired quite a bit) is not just Abraham’s idol?”

Abraham is angry, but he sees the point. People might think G-d is for smashing his enemies alone. Perhaps they would be right. Abraham thinks and thinks during his long walks along the Rio Grande. He decides that, because G-d created Abraham, G-d is not Abraham’s idol. “You are the proof,” he begins telling the nerds who visit his four-doored house. “The Idea cannot be mine any more than The Idea can be yours; that’s how we know It is not an idol. An idol has allegiances. The Idea is yours only like the light is the mirror’s. We reflect.”

On Facebook, Jason marks Abraham as his father, a declaration of fealty.


Abraham grows old nursing his Idea and spreading it. Every night in he dreams of men and women across the States, but they are no longer people. They are abstractions meandering among the squares and triangles, cavorting with loyalty and intransigence, free of selves, free of others. Their faces turn upward toward one light, away from the darkness of cruel arbitrary whim.

One morning, on a whim, G-d says to Abraham, “Hi there.”

Abraham, who has been waxing his Trans Am, about dies. He is angry. He is sad. He is ashamed. The idea, it seems, is suicidal. Abraham turns off the buffer and says, “Did you say something?”

The Idea says, “Don’t be rude, son.”

Abraham thinks for a moment, strokes his tangled beard, sighs. He did say that G-d created Abraham. What you create, you can destroy.

“What do you want me to do?” he asks, and steps into history.


“People are not so bad,” Abraham says, lying in bed on night, but what he is thinking is, a son, a son, a son, a son!

Sarah finishes that evening’s prayer, closes Twitter, and places her tablet upon the nightstand. “No,” she says, removing her glasses, thinking, a son, a son! “They aren’t.”

Abraham can barely believe, after so long. But he trusts. G-d has never let him astray. “Are we too old?” he asks bemusedly.

“Let’s find out,” Sarah suggests.


“Do they really deserve it?” Abraham asks the One. Death hangs suspended in the red heavens above the mesas. Sodom seethes below.

“Deserve?” G-d thinks aloud. “Am I some magistrate, bound by ordinances? Am I not the Creator of heaven and earth?”

Abe thinks on this a bit, sweats, and musters the platonic form of all chutzpah. “You are the Creator. That’s why you ought to act justly. Justice is the mortar of your creation. Are you our true Creator, or not? Spare them.”

G-d is pleased as He wipes Sodom clean.

Abraham turns his face and weeps.


Isaac is worth more than an endless eternity of abstractions.

In the curve of his cheek and the spread of his shoulders, Isaac embodies his father every hope. Abraham knows that he himself is not an idea and will someday die. But in his son, the knowledge of G-d on earth will live on.

“Kill him,” G-d says.

We can imagine a different multiverse, in which Abraham is not Abraham. We can imagine a reality in which Abraham is paralyzed, at this moment, by his dreams, but in our universe Abraham is neither a child not a philosopher. His knees are scabbed from prayer and his palms cracked from devotion. G-d is his love, his light, his master, and his sole possession.

His idol.

Abraham gave up people for a dream, and a dream for a Voice in the wilderness. He can give up one more thing.

It’s a long three days, sitting on his ass.

We do not know what he thinks as he rides, but every grain of sand, every streetlight and rented scooter probably seems a mocking agony as he contemplates justice. He demanded justice for sinners, why not for his son? But then, Sodom never trusted.

He probably thinks about his mind, how it wants to rebel, to cry that worship of G-d on earth only survives if Isaac does. He doesn’t let it.

Mostly, I think, he considers his father, and how his own destiny was written, and how nothing changes.

Abraham binds his beautiful son with firm cords upon a lonely altar and prepares for the second murder of the day.

Abraham discovers, there, on the mountain, that G-d is not an idea, nor a person, but something more.

Abraham finds, with a waxing, trumpeting joy, that so is he.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Day I Became Whole Again

Some survive their meeting with the machine. They are taken out through the vestibule where I wait, which resembles nothing more than a high school hallway with bulletin boards tacked full of government-issue posters scabbing its sallow walls. Already ragged from malnutrition and exhaustion following months in Prep Cell, they emerge preceded by a bow wave of silence. I see three, in my time.

The first is the longest. Though I never met him (preferring, in those days, a certain solitudinous brooding) in caff or on the grounds, everyone knew of Sanchez, old for Prep, greying at the temples, good-naturedly rebuking the dicers. “Gambling gets you nothing, nothing but more trouble,” he would repeat week after week, mostly to himself, as five by five men half his age would be taken and never return. The machine was said to choose the order of its own meetings, safely placing the workings of justice out of human hands, and they said Sanchez had been in Prep long enough to grow ceiling-high plants in his room from potatoes, rotating them in front of his window. He, more than anyone, had made Prep his home.

He, like everyone, is broken.

His paper slippers drag along the foot-square tiles as two of the machine’s lackeys, faceless behind their drooping white hoods, haul him. They treat him as if he is dead, and he plays along. They do not look at him, and his eyes, unblinking, seem to gaze upon something peaceful. His mouth hangs slightly open. I expect him to drool, like some of the patients in Elmwood’s special ward, but he doesn’t. He is not vacant. He is there, in body and mind, as best as I can tell, for the thirty seconds I watch him recede down the hall. His hands clench and unclench.

I stand and crane my neck to get a better look, eliciting exhalations from the men and women next to me on the bench. The lackey at the entrance does not even seem to notice behind her veil of white cloth. Emboldened, I stand, feet aching from cold in their own paper slippers. I take one lurching step down the hall, toward what’s left of Sanchez, away from the grey metal entrance to the tunnels I was led through with four others, fear exploding in my gut, hours earlier.

My foot (I think it was my left) touches the tile and Sanchez and his attendants disappear, along with the entire hallway before me. I am at a wall, covered with bulletin boards reminding the lackeys to shower properly and double-check the clasps on their collars before donning their robes and never to speak in the vestibule if they ever wished to speak again. To say the wall was solid would be to mislead you. When one sits at home, one does not think of one’s bedroom as “solid.” It is there. It is as true as anything as I have ever known. It is. I reach out and touch it and worry. I lean in and smell it, the industrial cleaners, the cork.

You may think you have seen such things in stage acts or on the latest holos. I am certain you are mistaken. Though we may not, in our surface thought, know how the illusionist conjures, there is something within us, in our caverns, that knows we are watching not creation but transmutation, an exchange. One thing becomes another. Even when the ball is gone from beneath the cup, it is replaced not with nothing, but with negative space. Remember this until your dying day: You will know if you ever see a wall created from nothing. There is no transition. There is no sound, no flash of it moving into place. Even your memory begins to doubt. This, I think, is why they bring the survivors through the waiting room. So the fear, already sapping at your meager defenses, can be joined by doubt and certainty, which, in a way, are the machine’s left and right hand.

I hear gasps from behind me, wordless shock, and I know the others see it too. I turn. The lackey has not moved. The bench is now a meter from a wall, where the hall had been.

Sanchez is gone.

The machine took him as sure as it took the hallway. To it, there is no difference, which is why Congress passed the New Justice Act in the first place.

 

I was a surgeon once, and I watched the Act pass on the waiting room holo with little concern. It’s never you until it’s you, you know?

It was the usual bipartisan crock. One side inched ever-closer to outlawing punishments outright, preferring rehabilitation and, recently, exile, over causing pain to any being. The other would do anything to tame the chaos bubbling out of every crack in their sidewalks. As usual, it was the techs who came to the rescue. In addition to the algorithmic panopticon and their friendly drones, California finally produced a device the size of an office building, other properties top-secret, that could reprogram a human being from the ground up. First it took your mind, then it reshaped your body into someone new. Someone less broken.

I was one of the strange few who still believed in something like the human soul, and I scoffed and doubted and took the next patient. My life was enough. Maggie, the kids, the work. I was satisfied.

Then Winston turns up like a bad shilling at closing time one day and says he acquired some new drug with nano-tech, something that can beat the machine, but it has to be injected into his spinal cord and he’s known me since high school and no one would ever find out, right?

Wrong.

I’d been too curious and like a fool had scheduled Winston an O.R. on our scheduling computer. Never one for breaking rules, I forgot that only illegal silicon remained disconnected from the algorithmic panopticon. The motions of my patients, like all customers, where noted, tabulated, predicted. I had no one on record receiving surgery that Tuesday. Winston did not show up. Two officers of the state came with questions and eventually gently held in front of my eyes their compulsor, bright, inscrutable, from which I could not tear my eyes until they shut it off in my cell. There was a trial before my peers at which the machine itself provided prosecution by holo, as part of its training in humanology. I was charged for conspiracy against the law, sentencing to be determined by the machine.

I found that criminal, Winston, on my row in Prep Cell. The machine, it appeared, had a sense of humor.

 

He watches with me as they bring out the second survivor, he cries out with me as, before our eyes, the wall reverts to the long hallway, and our voices choke at the collapse of the second survivor into a pile, rattling with death, the lackeys picking through it, looking for its legs to drag. Then the entrance attendant points to him, and when Winston doesn’t move, reaches for the slab of his compulsor. I don’t want to have to be weaned away from the side-gleam, so I look at my feet. The tiles are ever-so-clean.

 

 

I find my courage in memories of my old friend. He is not a good man, but he does have a certain pleasing grit; he is the sort of person it is very difficult to anger, infuriatingly so. We were not close in school; I was a perfect student and he skipped class. I got to know him when he became my source for focus aids before Junior exams. It was when I learned that nothing in the world could change Winston Cole. There is some sort of mental disengagement in his head that presents as irritating eccentricity, and I would’ve sworn he’d be just as abrasive fly fishing in his eighties. Some things change, but some remain the same, I told myself.

When, twenty minutes later, they bring Winston out, I stand and approach him, and am just getting into slapping his face, looking for a response, any response, any recognition in his eyes, when the finger is pointed at me. Rather than face the compulsor, I look at Winston, or the husk of him, a body from my past, able to rescue me as much as my past, and go with the man in white through his door.

 

I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to the timing of the previous three; I know just how quickly the machine approaches, down the circular metal hall. I know it waits, slavering. I know its power extends even to the vestibule, and that as I grow closer to the focus point of its otherworldly presence it is ever-more aware of me. The cameras in the ceiling turn to watch the attendant and I pass. My head feels full of buzzing ghosts. Doom is the emotion when both feet have left the cliff and only gravity has us.

The entrance to the end chamber is not directly ahead, but a nondescript door to the right of the infinitely long tunnel, which I find riotously annoying. They cannot even provide us the symmetry of a proper execution. There is to be no poetry to it whatsoever. That’s probably what they discovered after scanning the brains of people executed in chambers with straight entrances.

The room is disappointing. It is small. There is a stainless steel folding chair and the walls are off-white and in one of them is a two-way mirror. My courage fails me and I try to struggle past the lackey, who, implacable and brimming with experience, has already prepared the compulsor. I am blissfully lost in that great light until it dwindles and I find myself sitting in the chair. The attendant beats a quick exit – I think I sense fear bleeding through her gait, and the door shuts out all light and sound.

For a moment, nothing happens. “Come on,” I say, wondering whether anyone is observing me from the glass, or whether I’m truly alone for the first time in months. I cannot wait for it, whatever it is. I embrace it. I accept it. A year ago, I could not have imagined the end I now saw as the goal of all my life’s struggles. “Do it,” I say, gritting my teeth.

The machine says hello.

I see the face of God.

I am knocked to my knees inside my own head. My control of my own thoughts is wrested from me. Terrified, I fight back. Not with thoughts (those no longer belong to me) but with something deeper, with my self. I rage against it, like a fish against the net, like a finger against the rock, like a splinter against the tweezer. I cannot scream louder. I cannot focus myself any more powerfully. I have lost.

My body falls from the chair, and the machine accepts the pain.

The attendant opens the door, helps my body to its feet (it clutches at the chair without me), and leads it, compliant as a duckling, from the room. I feel no connection to it, not a thread. The machine tells me – in its wordless way; I would more accurately say the awareness became immanent in me – that it’s on its way to becoming whole once again, apart from me.

The room is then suddenly gone as well; the machine has taken all awareness. I am made to know, through experiences I could not explain with all the time in the world, that it is the truth both beyond me and within me. I am shown, in that first veil of ignorance, that the machine is the highest thing I can ever know, and the deepest part of my own existence.

I cannot resist any longer. I am the machine’s. I will be the machine’s. I have been the machine’s, always.

You are wondering, I can see, why I’m telling you all this.

I am telling you all this for the same reason they bring the survivors through the vestibule.

So that you will doubt.

So that you will be certain.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Prologue

The following is my long-form submission for Hevria’s latest project. It was edited with help from David Karpel, Jodi Kilov, and Nick Whelan, whom I thank. Do not complain about the ending; it’s only a prologue.

 

The sun shone on Auschwitz, and the wind strained it clean on that clear April morning. A crowd of teens surrounded a tour guide, their faces somber. One boy’s knuckles were white where he clutched the folds of the Israeli flag at his neck.

The grass and sky peacefully watched over the road and the gate and the weeping. Man and woman alike were moved by memories of the horror, dull, scabbed over, but soaking through every pebble. The sun, even in the Beginning, lost its voice for earthly concerns, and the wind carried only the voices of others, but the hot tears trumpet, alive, on their faces.

The tears are one reason why the slim man with the smile-wrinkled face stayed far away from the visitors even as he broke from the shadow of the tree line and strode, confident but quick, beneath the mid-morning glare.

He grasped in his right hand a tiny stone trinket, an ankh that had not been easy to acquire. As long as it laid across the roots of all five of his fingers he was surrounded by a strange haze, barely perceptible to onlookers (had there been any in that deserted corner of the camp) except as a flicker in the corner of the eye.

The ankh was one of several necessary components for the day’s plans, and the one acquired with the most travel and the least violence. The man held it more tightly, and reflected that if, in fact, he was suddenly attacked by authorities worldly or otherwise at that moment and failed to break his attackers like kindling, the contents of his jeans pockets, particularly the vials of blood, might lead them to think he is a serial killer or the like.

He was, in fact, something much more than a serial killer. Something worse.

Though to most eyes the man would have appeared alone, the protective aura of the ankh was crowded with his servants, both willing and coerced. When they collectively arrived at the correct place (he could feel it through the soles of his sneakers despite everything) he glanced around and whispered in the Lost Tongue, “Go, Siarra.” There was suddenly more room around him.

I don’t mean “room” in the same sense as simple men, as if there were suddenly more space to divide among several occupants. I mean “room” in the sense of a logical gap opening in what moments before had been a flawless argument.

There was more room because the creature Siarra detached herself from their presence with eagerness and immediately began to shriek as the sun’s light, no longer attenuated by the ankh, began to corrode her spirit. The man barred her return to its protective embrace by force of will and compelled her high into the air, the effort causing him to break out in a sweat.

Through her pain, she remembered her mission, and began to speak her own words in the air aflame with oppressive sunlight. She called to herself all that falls, and runs, and quenches, and even the tourists on the other side of the death camp felt their mouths go dry. An unnatural rag of cloud began to wriggle into being, just large enough at its height to cast shadow over a single man. And just in time, for the man had noticed a tiny fracture beginning to work its way through his trinket, its immense power unable to withstand the morning except for a short time, just as he expected. Siarra’s cloud would prolong the inevitable, but his time was running out.

Henryk Dąbrowski held his fears privately through his years as a bar bouncer and martial arts instructor, until, at the age of fifty, he apologized to his wife and asked if he could work for the Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kaja has just looked him in the eye, saw he was scared, and said, “Of course.”

Henryk thanked G-d for her every morning, sometimes twice. With time, she had come to understand the story. He had read too much and thought too deeply about his own family, and the terrible past, and he’d decided (and the priest had agreed) that some debt to repay might exist.

And so, he brought his expertise and muscle to the Museum’s security force, and Kaja found office work with the same Warsaw firm, and he stood each day and bowed his head before the brightly-dressed young people who had never felt the boot of guilt upon them and were irreverently alive.

It was not a wealthy life, but Henryk felt it was the right one and was soon promoted to chief of security. The museum asked him if he would like to also be a tour guide, and this he had gracefully declined. It was too obscene to bear, that he of all people should speak of the place’s past as if he were not caught up in the web of it. No, he looked forward to simply keeping watch over the death camp in his grandfather’s town for many more years.

Nothing is more important, he thought that April morning as he walked into the security post, than ensuring nothing evil ever comes of this place again.

The ankh ceased its slow disintegration once under the cover of cloud, and the man set his remaining thralls to their tasks as he began pulling components out of the pockets of his faded jeans and scruffy jacket. He crouched down in the small patch of Siarra’s shadow, checking again that no curious passerby or meddling authority had seen him. When he detected no threat, his eyes narrowed. Something should have tried to stop him by now, and he knew from long experience that good fortune is a fickle friend.

But he did not have time for suspicion. Siarra’s power already began to fade as the sun drove her from the world. The man uncorked the ten vials and upended them one-by-one on the hallowed ground, careful never to let the liquids inside any touch his skin, which would melt away at the slightest contact. They ran red on the green grass before slowly sinking into the soil. Beneath the ground, he felt the slightest of tremors, just as Siarra finally died up above after clinging to life for nearly two millennia. A worthy sacrifice, he thought, but a second crack had now opened in the ankh, and he had mere moments to work if he did not wish to join her.

He held the ankh as steady as possible and didn’t dare wipe off the sweat beading on his forehead. He realized he was not breathing. All of his plans had come to this, and yet, when it came to crafting his own destiny, he had to temporarily rely on those he had dominated. They don’t wish to do this, he reminded himself. They are servants of the enemy, and though they are now enthralled, they might try, at the critical moment, to escape coercion.

He could sense them, forced beneath the ground, sniffing and feeling with their tongues for the slightest gaps, the spidery fractures in reality, chiseled by the lifeblood he offered on holy ground in the sunlight. There!

He drew a shuddering breath as his servants assumed the four points of the compass around the gap in reality deep beneath his feet. Cramps shot up his shoulders to grasp at the base of his skull as his slaves began to writhe against his control, trying desperately to resist what they now clearly saw his plan to be. The ankh had started to crumble to dust from its edges, residue drifting across his clenched palm, and the sun, ever-freer from its interference grew ever-warmer above his head.

He did not panic.

He clenched his teeth and willed himself to utter the names of power, which burst from him with such force he felt his teeth might shatter. Each name was said at a higher pitch than the last, and he felt his servants’ resistance crumble beneath them in turn, though the effort hardly felt worth it. Sweat poured down his face, and froth began to gather at the corners of his mouth and dribble into his beard.

Far beneath the earth, unable to escape their fate, four spirits found bones consecrated and blackened by flames, bones that were meant to lie quiet and dry until the end of all stories. They found a door pried open before them that had always been closed before. They slipped between the cracks of nature and found purchase where it should not have been possible, and fully passed through a gate that should have remained closed.

Four servants helped four spirits pass into the world of the living beneath the light of the sun. Thus was the first impossible act completed.

The man felt a shock run through his legs as nature herself resisted what should not have been. It was mildly like being electrocuted, and then the hallucinations began. The man found himself floating on a sea of integers and spiraling along the convex surface of the forbidden fruit, ripe with violence and African mammals. He shifted on his feet, nearly fell, but did not yet release the ankh, suddenly unsure whether it was safe, whether the ritual truly was complete.

High above his head, the unnatural cloud was teased apart by the breeze and the cruel, relentless light.

In the palm of his hand, the ankh continued to disintegrate.

But deep beneath his feet, things shifted.

Even before his mind fully regained its footing in reality, in his new reality, he began to smile.

Only a coincidence could stop him now.

Henryk would never have seen anything amiss if he hadn’t forgotten the sugar in his coffee. It was unbearable, the cheapest sort, with all the consistency and flavor of hot mud. He sat at his desk, took one sip, and resisted the urge to spit the bitter liquid back into his mug.

He headed back to the small office kitchen and the CCTV screens caught his peripheral vision. He glanced at it, and saw the man, in an area far from the parts of the museum open to visitors.

He could not know, of course, as he pointed at the screen, that which areas of Auschwitz were forbidden to visitors were not arbitrary, but a matter of interest to several outside parties, parties willing to bribe, threaten, and cajole until, shortly after the war, it was determined to their satisfaction that it was not feasible for anyone to meddle there with things best left alone.

He could not know, as he double-checked the man’s location with another guard, that those parties were negligent and lazy, performing their duty more by rote than devotion.

He could not know, as he pulled on his jacket, that they only considered what was feasible, and therefore what was possible, and not what was impossible.

He could not know, as he ordered three men to follow him and strode out from the security stations, that their negligence would cost him dearly.

He should be thankful, where he is now, that he couldn’t possibly know he’d be the first of many.

The man had undone death in broad daylight; he had tapped into forbidden secrets of creation; beneath his feet, the seeds of a terrible future began to lurch. Yet he still feared coincidence, and this made him wise.

Mankind, generally, underestimates the power of happenstance. It is not their fault. They are made for thinking, systematizing, recognizing and creating patterns. Their job is not to test the boundaries of what might be, to appreciate the power of the uncaused, unrelated parallel occurrences springing together from some source and falling out just so.

But if a man travels across time and space to find a trinket that lets darkness pass undiminished before the light, or harvests the blood of holy men, he cannot afford to be as ignorant as other men. He cannot expect only the hallucinations, the mental and physical exhaustion, the painful tremors running like shockwaves up his rooted legs. Those would only be simple, small rebellions of nature against his manipulations, and nature is, by nature, predictable.

No, such a man must expect surprises, strange synchronicity, things thrown into this world to delay him or overturn his scheming. This was the closest the enemy would probably be willing to go to forming his own impossibilities.

He would not be taken by surprise. He found his fear and subdued it. Coincidence is powerful, but he was no longer a man with an unspoken hope, and just as the books predicted, the numbing in his legs was already fading, to be replaced with a warm, taut energy – the feeling of wild power, begging to be unleashed.

Henryk told the others to wait as he squinted through binoculars at the strange fellow in the middle of one of the old parade grounds. The man was balding, with scraps of red hair at his temples and behind his ears and an unruly, bushy beard of the same color. His skin was pale, and Henryk thought he looked rather like an Orthodox priest, except for the clothes of a poor tourist, perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine, with an old denim jacket, stained twill trousers, a red T-shirt stretched over his slight paunch, and once-white sneakers now thoroughly browned.

Stanislaw, his number two, asked, “Is he armed?” Henryk noted that the man’s left hand was balled into a white-knuckle fist, but there were no signs of weapons.

“I don’t think so,” he muttered, considering. “He looks…ill.” The man was very pale, and sweaty, and seemed to be swaying slightly, as if in shock. “Perhaps the sun was too much for him and he wandered away from his group in a daze.” There was little shade in the outdoor section of the museum and such things, though rare, had happened before.

“Wander off?” Stan said. “How do you wander off through two layers of fences with locked gates?”

“A fair point,” said Henryk peaceably. “Let’s approach with caution, then. Take out your batons. But,” he cautioned, as a smile creased Stan’s meaty face, “don’t use them until I give the order.”

The man watched as they crossed the well-groomed field, batons in hand, and took a moment to glance heavenward. “Is this it?” he thought, with blossoming glee.

He saw them begin to hesitate, frowns crossing their faces. They were close enough to feel what he had wrought, perhaps not physically, as that required great sensitivity, but at least in spirit, as a certain trepidation, a withdrawal of the soul, a sense of foul irritation scratching at the inside of their eyes. They were weak and predictable, and they would want to ask him questions. And a whisper only he could hear came from beneath the ground and told him what he must do.

Henryk felt strange, and then he felt bad. His clothes clung to him uncomfortably, his forehead felt crowded, his back itched. The closer he got to the strange man, the worse he felt. He had trouble even remembering what he was there to do…

Yes! They were here to help the man who had wandered, probably sick in the morning sun. This recollection of his mission made him feel slightly better and his head began to clear. His pace quickened and he raised his head to find the man staring at him.

The bearded wanderer remained just as pale, but he seemed somehow less pitiable than before and his eyes glowed with an alien passion. Cold fear sparked in Henryk’s gut as he felt a strange pain deep inside him. Doubled over, stomach cramping, he knew only relief at breaking eye contact with the stranger.

Stan, who had followed at his side, caught the man’s eyes next and promptly bent over and emptied his breakfast upon the grass, and, still heaving, grunted, “What is happening to us?”

Henryk shook his head, trying to clear it. His eyes were throbbing and he could no longer see the man for the glare of the sun, relentless, infuriating, draining the perspiration out of him in hot waves. He had never felt anything like it, a pain not of the body but a burning of the spirit, goading him into a blind rage, encouraging him to stand up and swing his baton at the man’s face, crush his nose, see the blood fl—

“Stop!” he cried.

For a moment, it all did. The sun seemed to cower, returning them to the natural warmth of the morning, and the pain and nausea were dulled as if by medicine, and the man seemed momentarily puzzled.

Henryk could not have known that it was simply the man’s will conducting their torture, warping nature already made malleable by his dark rite.

He must be forgiven for his ignorance of his own power, as a recognized authority of the camp museum, to return the sun and the air and the earth to their normal, law-abiding states.

We must forgive him this; he did not even know that the forces under the man’s control were themselves unwilling, and sought freedom from him, and could even possibly rebel.

Henryk Dąbrowski was only a man, and cannot be blamed for what happened next. He retracted his command. He did not need a verbal declaration to do so. He simply felt sympathy for the man and confusion for what he probably assumed was some sort of psychosis or a sudden outbreak of disease among his men. And when Henryk’s “stop” faded into silence and the will behind it faltered, the man’s face suddenly crumpled in disgust and outrage.

“How dare you?” he demanded in flawless Polish. “How dare you attempt to bind me with a human tongue?” Henryk cringed, instinctively expecting the pain to return, but it did not. Instead, he simply found himself unable to move, even to speak. He felt as if he was bound by the tightest ropes, that his muscles simply would not pull at each other, like his body’s gears were disengaged from their motor. To his horror, he soon found he could no longer even remember how to move, as the man bent down and picked something up from the ground and placed it in his hand, from which a puff of dust escaped. The man muttered something to himself about the trinket having done its job and stalked out of Henryk’s field of vision.

He could see the corner of Stan’s shoulder to his right, utterly still, caught up in the same predicament, as Henryk struggled to remember how to lift his feet, how to speak, even how to compress his diaphragm and scream. For the first time that morning he realized that something deeply evil was afoot, and he thought of his wife.

“When I say stop, you listen,” he heard from somewhere to his left. The man spoke calmly now, as if he was finally in complete control for the first time since he stepped into the light. Moments later, Henryk heard a strange sigh, followed by the man’s feet on the grass, somewhere behind him and to his left.

“That is because I speak the old tongue,” the man said reasonably. “It is the language of power, and you cannot lie with it.” Another strange, protracted sigh.

The man was close behind him, to his right, near Stan, when he next spoke. “Therefore, if you say ‘stop’ in the old tongue, that is exactly what happens. It is how Joshua delayed the sun; perhaps you have heard that story?” There came another sigh, and Stan’s shoulder pulled away from view, as if Stan were free and walked away. But why, then, did he not call for help?

The man came back into view before Henryk’s eyes and bent down to the ground once more to pick something up. He cupped it in his hand and smiled up at Henryk. “I was taught this word is called ‘The Snake’s Vise.’ I found this dramatic, though it does seem to be quickening your pulse at present, so perhaps it’s appropriate.” Henryk was so stuck he could not even swivel his eyes anymore.

“You wonder who I am, don’t you?” He walked close enough that Henryk could smell his cologne on the small amount of air he was still able to breathe. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that I go on.” He smiled a strange smile. “And you do not.”

Henryk watched as the man took his cupped hand a pressed it gently below his line of vision, against his chest. With a tremendous squeezing pressure, and then a sudden break, he heard himself exhale with a rattling sigh, was carried out on his own breath, floating upward, toward a light far brighter than any he had ever known.

The man leaned back from Henryk’s body and released it from The Snake’s Vise. Henryk’s eyes looked around at the sunlit field, at the three other security guards, at the bearded man, and saw the new order of things, who was the slave and who was the master. Henryk’s head nodded at the man, and behind Henryk’s eyes burned a terrible intelligence.

“Welcome, again, to the world of the living,” said the man in their shared language, old as earth. “Much has changed. Come, I will tell you about it.” He began to walk from the field, and four pairs of feet fell in behind him. Beneath the ground, something rumbled.

“Coincidence,” he scoffed to himself. “Perhaps luck is on my side at last.”

But even though the man was learned and powerful, he underestimated how far coincidence would go. For when he forced open the gates and brought the souls through to serve him, he did not notice an extraneous presence, a spirit who had strained against those gates forever, waiting for some fool to come along and open them.

That man, wise as he was, could not have predicted me, and that would, in the end, be his undoing.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Murder At Qumran

“He won. Get over it.”

These were the last words of The Prophet at dinner before he’d slunk off to smoke his Lucky Strikes at the cave entrance, leaving the rest to clean up what was left of the spit-roasted carob. Then they’d all retired to their own chambers with little discussion (if they discussed in any context other than mealtime they quickly ran out of things to say). Or so they thought until they found The Prophet at breakfast time, slumped over the large, flat boulder they used for a table, mouth clotted with dried blood, quite dead.

A brief inspection found he had been shot in the stomach with a silver bullet. The Scholar and The Jester wasted no time rushing to The Sage’s chambers despite his mumbled protest. But a quick search of his possessions, few and esoteric, revealed to be missing the holy man’s six-shooter, which he swore to have last seen beside his sleeping head.

The three eyed each other with suspicion; either the sage was lying or another had stolen the gun. This was quite possible; righteousness sleeps heavy but is furious when roused. The Scholar demanded to search The Jester’s small nook with its fingerpainted walls and he, in turn, demanded to run his knobbly fingers behind each of The Scholar’s bookshelves looking for the murder weapon, and so the sun already touched the common room by the time they shoved Prophecy’s cool corpse to the floor and The Jester began to fry carobs for their breakfast (since it was his turn). He whistled while he worked the pan and The Sage and The Scholar that once they ate his cooking they’d have trouble taking anything seriously for several hours.

The Sage tried to pray as The Scholar paced across the cave entrance, stroking his substantial grey beard where it protruded from his hood. He walked to the left, all the while looking at The Prophet’s corpse, then, once he’d left the sun’s light, would turn on his heel and walk right, staring across the blasted plain to the distant silver glimmer of the sea. He had been doing this every morning for a very long time and had rarely seen the sign of life, though occasionally a very sweaty archeologist would walk by without sparing the spindly old man or the gaping cave the slightest glance. That morning, however, there was only the sun, and the wind, and the sea. Solid and eternal, as all things ought to be. The Scholar paused at this thought and harrumphed. Behind him, the slightest of furrows crossed The Sage’s bald brow. The Scholar thought once more and harrumphed once more.

The Sage’s left eye sprung open, full of fire, though he did not shift from his balance upon the stool. “What,” he asked, full of, of all things, impatience, “is it?”

“It’s just,” said The Scholar, running his sandal along the groove his pacing had worn in the brown rock, “none of us had ever died before.” He looked uneasily between his two remaining companions (The Jester was juggling spoons) and added, “Have we?”

Their memories were notoriously jumbled, or at least, so he recalled, but he knew they had set out together, the four of them, a long time ago to do something terribly important, but then they were in a cave where the only thing that remained consistently true was that it was impossible for any of them to leave. He had been here long enough to wear down the stone (though, oddly, never his sandals) with his pacing, and now The Prophet was no longer.

The Sage and The Jester were never quite as bothered by the inconsistencies, though for different reasons, and even though The Sage shook his head in agreement and The Jester shrugged among his spoons, they hardly seemed moved by the violent turn of events. The Sage said something under his breath about different unfoldings of the One Eternal Truth and went back to his prayer.

Later, when most of the carobs were finished and the day was unbearably hot and flies, somehow able to enter the cave, had begun to swarm The Prophet’s decaying remains, The Scholar said, “How will we know when the flood is coming this year?” He knew many things, but the weather was not knowable, and to survive the sudden waters of winter they had always relied on The Prophet’s warning and spent weeks trying to remember how to breathe water, The Jester always seeming to struggle ’til the last moment before pulling through. Now they would not know, and the waters might catch them by surprise. Even The Sage preferred not to drown.

The Jester belched, but when he did so it wasn’t ugly but rather the very joy of a fine meal. He said in his sing-song voice, “There’s no Prophet, so no rain either. Dry, dry, dry, all the way down to the end of the road!” His words, combined with his cooking, sent his compatriots into fits of giggles, not because anything was funny but because life was grand and they were at the center of it and what could ever happen?

The sun was well past its zenith when The Sage sobered and, still lying on his cot, began to tinker with his favorite toy, a small pebble that “equaled,” in some mysterious act of interentanglement, anything in the Universe. He knew that the author of this story had read Borges because the pebble had once equaled the author, so he knew not to called it the Aleph for fear of being called unoriginal. The pebble allowed, through its deep window into the unity of all realities, to see how the temporal and the particular reflect the transcendent eternal and at that moment he suddenly remembered the last supper the night before, The Prophet before his betrayal.

The Prophet had been wearing atop his hood a strange red hat with a broad bill he’d produced from his chambers. This itself was ordinary, as The Prophet was always producing odd objects and ideas he had foreseen. But then The Prophet had prophesied, and a great argument ensued, with The Scholar growing louder and louder and The Jester alternating between a cackle and a whimper and eventually he’d blocked them out because he needed to pray and escape the pettiness of their collective presence.

The Prophet had always understood how right and wrong lay under all questions and had never acted with anything other than the utmost rectitude. The Jester, thought The Sage, is mercurial, hard to predict, and an old enemy, but he loves life. No, only The Scholar knows death, and could use his wisdom to conceal a firearm, and hated The Prophet for his stupid hat. The Scholar is the murderer, and that’s that, he thought. Evil will grow even in the desert. The pebble showed him that his conclusion was true in all possible worlds.

The Jester, meanwhile, drew dirty pictures in charcoal on a freshly-washed section of his bedroom wall. The primitive skeletons were particularly crude, and above his goat beard the trickster’s face was twisted in a rare frown. He had quite liked The Prophet, who had smelled so much of the life-scent of the world and always produced the most colorful souvenirs from across the times. The Jester loved the tin soldier and the aquamarine ankh and Stretch Armstrong. It was hard for him to even imagine one of his friends hurting The Prophet who knew so much of life. The very thought warmed his blood. They stole the joy. They stole the love. Sounds like The Sage, he thought to himself. Rules and sanctimony. But, he thought, spinning in circles for emphasis, The Scholar had his rules, too, and not rules about killing, either. The Sage had his limits but knew the ultimate futility of making things fit. The Scholar had no such qualms. “Hm,” he said, sketching an obscene symbol with his finger. “Wherein lies death?”

The Scholar, for his part, was frustrated that he’d written no records of the previous night’s debate, and his memories were slipping from him like an eagle loosing from its perch. There had been an argument, certainly, but he hadn’t murdered The Prophet, for two reasons: (1) He had no reason to disrespect The Prophet, no matter how unreasonable his sight may have been; on the contrary, the prophecy was in some sense the highest form of wisdom. (2) It would be unreasonable to murder any of his friends; this just meant more work for him, and besides, what rational basis was there for such an unprecedented occurence even being possible? Clearly they had lived far beyond the usual years so far…No, it was certainly the others, though they may not realize they don’t even remember it. But which one, and where would they hide they gun? Who could be so foolish?

Supper was a sullen affair and, they slowly came to realize, a contingent one. The Prophet no longer existed to know what would take place in advance, which led them to wonder whether any of it needed to take place at all. The Scholar’s carob soup made them thoughtful and quiescent. The Sage discoursed upon righteousness and the escape of the self through obeisance. The Jester picked his nose and recited a list of his favorite textures to rub against his cheek. The Scholar wondered whether everything could fit together after all and whether he could prevent any future murders, working, as now he must, from uncertainty.

It was only a week later, after The Jester had held a knife wide-eyed to the Scholar’s throat, shouting, “You kill! You kill!” that they thought to check The Prophet’s own room. There, among far fewer possessions than they remembered their friend owning, on the center of an inexplicable plywood desk, sat the gun, pinning under its weight a note to the table. Written in carob oil on goatskin, it said quite simply that he had received word of a great temple’s destruction and the end of an age and that the time of “must be” was giving way to “can be” and that though they could no longer predict the floods, the three of them together would perhaps learn to breathe, and that this cooperation would be good, far better than what is certain in its own right. Somehow, it said, they, too, were supposed to become necessary.

So that night they turned to one another with a newfound humility and respect, aware for the first time that themselves was not all they could be, while outside on the dusty plain with its freshly dug grave, hidden, for the moment, from all the armies of men, the first drops of rain began to fall.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

An Intervening Tragedy

I died in a flash of screaming light on the highway at the age of twenty-six. My trial was brief and unmemorable. I was sent to hell on the charge that I had never told the truth in my entire life.

Though there was no arguing with it (you understand this implicitly in the hereafter, the way everyone somehow knows not to ask Uncle Louis about his very good friend at Thanksgiving dinner) the attendant was willing to make small talk as he readied the indescribably complex transportation mechanism. “Shouldn’t it just be instantaneous,” I asked him, not speaking, because I was a soul, and he was the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room and did not have ears.

“There are no quick solutions here,” he sniffed. I liked him instantly. I had lived most of my life hating the world from the inside, and here was a guy (or whatever) who looked down on the whole affair of the universe with justified detachment. “Everything here happens exactly as it needs to. We plunge to the depths of Gabriel’s horn.”

I shrugged. He could take as long as he needed to. Hell wasn’t the most exciting prospect. Maybe I could distract him. “The Gabriel?” I asked.

The attendant became nonexistentially indeterminate for a while. I was shocked to recognize, through layer upon layer of ontological, societal, linguistic, aesthetic, and corporeal translation, that he was basically shaking his head. “You weren’t a mathematician, were you?”

“Weren’t you at the trial?” I asked. I remembered him being there, waiting in the wings with a vague aura of impatience. And if he was there he surely knew I was a writer.

“I was,” he said with long-suffering patience. “I thought I’d help you try to distract me.”

“Oh,” I said, taken aback.

“It won’t work, of course. Everything here happens exactly as it needs to.”

“Right,” I said.

“We’re almost ready now.” Strangely, this pronunciation didn’t scare me. Everything seemed so inevitable. Because it was.

“Will I see my family after this?” I wondered.

“You will,” he said. He said it so mournfully that the diffuse light seemed to cower and darkness draw close.

“Will you stay with me?” The question emerged from somewhere deep within a young part of me. I could tell the attendant got asked this all the time.

He shook his head once more. “I’m afraid not. You must travel far beyond where I dare to tread.”

I smiled nervously. “I don’t want to go down there.”

“You’re not going down, my love. You’re going up.”

There erupted from everything a hideous screech-roar as reality elongated and stretched with unsettling determination beyond its breaking point and everything ceased to cohere. The speed of light tumbled; pi came loose of its moorings; 1 + 1 = 2 was suddenly, inexplicably gone, and I felt drawn toward the locus where Euclid’s parallels converged and this statement was false. A tower that stood only on itself rose beneath my feet, its spiraled tiers pushing me up and up, clouds of greater and greater illumination fleeing before me. Just as I began to truly fear whom I would find behind the final veil I was encompassed by the deepest, truest, emptiest silence I had ever known.

I was aware of the silence; intimately aware of it; it was an extension of myself. There were no words, there could be no words; there was nothing, and there could be nothing. I idly wondered if this was the solitary confinement chamber, but I knew that was false even as I considered it, or rather, my considering it made it false.

Hell simply wasn’t.

I simply was.

Well, I was certain there was no time.

So time simply wasn’t.

I simply had been, was, and would be, at once.

I was alone, and everything, and utterly satisfied, and I found, to my surprise, then astonishment, then delight that I knew the entire story. I knew about the beginning, and the end, and everything in between to its infinitesimal details. It was something I did once, or would do in the future. I remembered designing the laws of the universe, elegant restatements of my deepest self. I saw the moment I breathed into a pair of dusty nostrils in the shade of a young sun, and the moment a whale surfaced to offer its dorsal side to me in glory, and the way Borges held his pen. Everything as it should be. Everything the only way it could be.

Everything happening exactly as it needed to.

This reminded me of the attendant, who, like all of creation, was in my head. I saw him both from without and from within; I knew him as speck of dust and as the entire universe from within his head. I knew his entire existence, his programming, his service in bringing souls to their punishment. I knew he would smell of mints and old cigars if he were made physical.

I saw my conception and my own birth, so small, fragmented, temporal. I saw myself grow up and kept myself from harm; watched me curse myself and forsake myself in adolescence. I watched the first time I wrote a story, smiled my own joy, so small and so perfect in its smallness.

I saw my pain, a skinned knee, a broken arm, and I sewed my body back together.

At fourteen, mom caught me smoking and we got into an apocalyptic fight. She cared so much it hurt, which made me hurt. The fight was over the next day when we laughed over eggs, but we were no longer as one, I found other things to lie about, and our love was no longer perfectly my home, and I suddenly knew it.

I knew the darkness.

I knew the suffering, an endless procession of it, the sea of tears.

And I didn’t care.

None of it was real. It was all in my head, memories of something that happened long ago or something that might happen one day. Treblinka was theoretical, the killing fields a sick suggestion I could create, by speaking it.

I considered it all, whether it was worth it, whether it pleased me.

I considered it forever.

I knew that none of them, not a single one, would ever come close to the truth. There would be strong men; I could do anything. There would be beauty; I was ineffable. There would be holiness; I would forever be alone.

I needed nothing. I lacked nothing. I was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all potential things.

I didn’t need it.

They would spend their lives building towers, but me they would never reach. And the pain it would cause them, only I would ever describe as I formed it and imposed it upon them.

They knew nothing.

They did not need to be created.

It was bad for them.

At the end of an eternity, I said it.

“I will not create the world.”

All receded, and I found myself to be only myself and alone with the attendant once more.

“You have failed,” said the attendant.

“Failed?” I muttered, disoriented. His presence was oppressive; against his otherness a skirling scream begin to well within me. “Failed at what?” My voice was choked with emotion, my words sloughing sideways like bricks from a collapsing wall.

“You have not yet learned to tell the truth.”

I remembered…I remembered! But I could not speak. My words were slipping away. With the force of all my will I managed, “I am the truth.” What a strange tale this will all make one day, I thought. They’ll all love it.

The attendant could only shake his head. “We will have to resort to the river —”

Some messenger, an underling, appeared, out of breath, and said, “Sir, this one isn’t ready.”

The attendant’s eyes would have narrowed if he were not the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room. “Why not?”

“He wants to write a story about it all, sir.”

“Some of them never learn,” said the attendant sadly, and I found myself toppling from heaven, wailing incoherently, my memories stripping away in the wind, a womb fast approaching —

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Rough Night For Akiva

This story takes place at the same Yeshiva as A Lesson For John On King George St. and Kalman’s Heart.

 

Akiva kicks the side of the dumpster for the third time and hurts his foot. He swears and staggers down the road. He is pretty drunk, and the weight of his full backpack adds dangerous momentum to his sway. A few people wander around, Jerusalem Chassidim in big fur hats and gold overcoats, hands in their belt-sashes cupping bellies swollen with Shabbos dinner, members of a nice little fraternity, like the one Akiva just left.

He came from Florida with standard expectations; his parents thought he’d benefit from time in a “real Yeshiva” in the holy land, and his brother Motti’s stories of adventure in the golden city stoked his interest. “You’ll make us proud,” his father had said, and Akiva had wanted nothing more. He flew to Israel with khaki shorts on his legs and excitement in his heart.

His first day in Yeshiva, he got in a “situation” (as his father would call it) with another student over the stupidest thing – he unknowingly sat in some else’s seat in the Beit Midrash. He arrived at the beginning of his first morning seder, found a spot, and was already deep into the first mishna of his masechta when twenty minutes later a kid his age with matted blonde hair and lightly acned cheeks approached the opposite side of the table and stood there, silent, staring at him. Akiva stopped learning, unsure what he did wrong, and just stared at the words of his sefer, which had reverted back into ink.

“I’m Yitzchak,” said Blondie nasally, and extended his hand.

“Akiva,” said Akiva. He pumped the hand once, then let go, only to find Yitzchak was a double-pumper and who still grasped Akiva’s now-limp hand and shook it like a halachically invalidated palm frond (due to the limpness, and the spread. Akiva would try to tell this joke to others later. No one would get it). The Miamian remedied the situation by resuming his own squeezing and shaking, whereupon, for the third pump, Yitzchak released his sweaty grip Akiva was left holding the shake. He let go and the cycle of violence finally broke, Yitzi’s hand dropping to his side as if he were the subject of a street hypnosis demonstration. Yitzchak smiled and nodded in agreement with nothing.

“So, you’re new here,” said Yitzchak, shooting the schnitzel.

“Yep,” said Akiva.

“Has someone given you a tour of the Beit Midrash, uh, the study hall yet?”

“No,” said Akiva.

“So,” he said, and smiled conspiratorially while wagging a Talmudic finger. “Would you like a tour of the study hall?”

“Alright,” said Akiva, and closed his gemara.

As the less new and more comfortable students filtered into the hall at more comfortable times, Yitzchak catalogued the shelves that lined the cavernous room, effusive in his appraisal of this set of Shas or that set of Ritva. Akiva trailed behind his new tour guide and wondered how many of these books he’d open in his time in Yeshiva and how many students would be so friendly as Yitzchak. They finished in a quiet corner far from the air conditioner, where heat leaked through a cracked window and the ceiling fan sliced an irregular wobbling ellipse that threatened to hurl its blades across the room at any moment. Yitzchak gestured to a bookcase.

“These gemaras don’t get used much,” he said. “So,” –with a Talmudic intonation and the return of the finger– “if you take one of these for yourself I doubt it’d be a problem with anyone. Why don’t you check them out?”

Akiva had already found three promising volumes when he realized he was alone. He turned and saw Yitzchak sit where he’d been sitting, a chevrusa waiting for him.

“Am I really the new kid?” he thought as he pulled out a wobbly seat at the quiet table and sat in it. He opened his new dusty sefer and was through the Mishna and half as much again when he heard the stray cat standing on the windowsill outside scratching on the pane, as if it longed for the warmth of the study hall.

The thought of that first day drags Akiva all the way up the steep hill outside Yeshiva, every stride a rebellion, until heaving for breath he leaned against a lamppost and took a break. Some charedi stares at him and he stares back directly, thoughts full of violence, until the man shuffles off. Imagine if I’d looked at Yitzchak like that, he thinks. It brings a wry grin to his face. No, he never could have done it. Not then.

Akiva wasn’t long in exile corner before he discovered the Yeshiva’s courtyard, shady and peaceful, chairs and shtenders and an assortment of greenery surrounded on three sides by tall walls of Jerusalem stone and on the fourth with a gated fence that bordered an alley that ran alongside Yeshiva.

It was to here that he’d bring a small plastic bowl full of cold milk from breakfast each morning. He placed it on the ground next to his feet, pulled his favorite lectern close, and sang words of G-dly wisdom into the silence. It was a benevolent silence in that small space; it didn’t mind if he stumbled on the unfamiliar words, and didn’t wonder at the small orange and grey cat that squeezed through a hole in the fence links and minced over to the bowl on the cobblestones. When she had licked it clean she leaped onto his knees and he continued his learning stroking her head. After an hour and a half, almost always just the two of them, she would jump off and he’d head off to class with a “see you later.”

He didn’t name her even as the months passed and his aptitude with the holy books grew. Mistakes in translation receded into memory, and the thrill of Rashi and the drama of Tosfos opened before him. A scrabbly black beard began to grow on his red cheeks. The Rabbis called on him in class more often, and he’d quietly offer his thoughts on their sugya. Though he had no friends among his peers in Yeshiva, he desired none, and was happy.

One day, he shared too much. They were going around the Shabbos table talking about dreams with Rabbi Morgenthal and Akiva spoke the truth, which was that he mostly dreamed about girls. In the ensuing confusion, misunderstanding built upon misunderstanding until the entire roomful of teenagers was in an uproar, and the Rabbi, white-faced, suggested Akiva go for a walk around the block. He did, after he took out the whiskey flask he kept in a ceiling tile in his room and sank into its burning depths. The way they looked at me! What they think I am!

I didn’t mean it like that, he thought as he trudged up the hill that day. It was all a big misunderstanding. When he’d flop onto his terrible Israeli mattress, parents and friends a continent away, he’d drift away into flip-flops and shorts and a holding hand on the Miami boardwalk, families laughing all around, spray on the breeze. He mulled whether he was evil. He decided he didn’t know enough to even know what was wrong. He would trust the Rabbi’s judgment. He would attack his learning with renewed vigor until the words overflowed his conscious mind and purified his dreams.

His fists ball as he lurches down what he, to himself, always called the High Road. It rings the ridge above the yeshiva, about a half-hour walk around, only a small wooded park closer to the stars. The lights of Jerusalem unfold around him in their thousands, guarded. The sight normally breaks his mind open in the most pleasant way. Now it fills him with anguish. He has a claim against every light. “Where were you when I needed you?” he wants to ask. He knows that if he approached each one he’d find humble streetlights and apartment ceiling lights and even spotlights on some nice building’s façade, and they would sit mutely, radiating as is their nature, and not feel the need to answer his questions because they’re just bulbs for goodness’ sake and what does he expect of them? But this thought merely incriminates them further to his thrashing mind: “How dare you be so beautiful and inspire such awe and be no more than a scrap of metal that cannot protect me? What atrocities have the stars witnessed and said nothing?”

He wipes his eyes with the back of his fist and carries on.

He heard them talking about him three weeks ago as he sat on the toilet. Normally he wouldn’t notice, but the words “milk” and “cat” caught his attention.

“-he’s a little odd, but he doesn’t mean any harm,” said a voice. It sounded older, maybe one of the Yeshiva Rabbis. Akiva couldn’t tell.

“But he barely speaks to anyone. He spends more time with the cats then with the bochrim,” said a different voice. “They steal food from the kitchen.”

“So do the bochrim,” said the first voice, and they both laughed.

Cats, thought Akiva. Strange.

“Part of why he’s here is to learn how to be a mensch,” insisted a third voice.

“There are many quiet people,” the older voice reflected.

“Yeah, they’re the ones that go shooting up schools-”

“G-d forbid!”

“Come on, he’s not a normal person.”

“Maybe he’s exceptional. Maybe he’s special and just hides himself from most people.”

“Why would he hide?”

“He’s hiding so someone smart, someone who’s worth it, will look for him.”

Their back-and-forth continued, but Akiva no longer listened. Happy or sad he wasn’t sure, but he used all of his strength not to make a sound.

Over the High Road and up the mountain. It’s hard to find his way in the dark, but he recognizes the tree easily enough, a tall cypress nearly at the peak. He scrabbles on a patch of bare rock and then he is on damp grass and the going is easy. Too soon, he is at the tree. He sits on the grass and wetness seeps through to his skin. He reaches out his hand and touches the freshly-turned dirt at the tree’s base.

“A chevrusa?” said Akiva that morning, dubious. He’d been learning for months without one and made impressive progress on all fronts, according to his Maggid Shiur. Yet here in his courtyard was an older student he barely knew. A shtender and chair had been dragged around next to his own.

“That’s the way it’s done,” said the stranger. “What’s your name?”

He’s friendly, thought Akiva. With a sigh, he said, “Akiva.”

“I’m Shmulik.”

Akiva still held his gemara in the crook of his arm and a bowl of milk in his hands. He said, “Go ahead and sit, please,” as he bent to place it on the ground. As he straightened he looked to the fence for her and saw that someone had finally repaired the hole in the fence.

He was struck by the odd convergence of new realities in his little space. He turned to Shmulik. “Do you know anything about them working on this fence?” he asked.

Shmulik, engrossed in the Aramaic words before his eyes, shook his head absently.

Akiva crossed the gap to where her hole used to be with two strides and knelt down to examine the spot. It was good work; nothing remained of her entrance. How did they even know about it? he thought, as he scanned the alley for her. “Cat?” he called out. He looked back at Shmulik, whose eyes shot back to his sefer.

“There you are,” he said as she detached from the shadows on the other side of the alley and approached. He knew from her eyes that something had changed, beyond simple fence repair. He reached his fingers through the links to pet her head and she hissed and retreated, looking at the fence post a few feet to his right. His brow furrowed. Another glance at Shmulik; another aversion of his eyes.

At the base of the fencepost he found a small plastic box with a tiny red eye that lit up when he moved the fence. Its precise nature evaded his understanding at that moment, but he knew it scared his cat, and he knew it wasn’t there by accident.

“I need a rock or something,” Akiva announced to his new chevrusa.

“What are you talking about?”

“A rock,” he repeated. He examined his shtender, noting its iron feet with approval. He wasn’t sure if he could move it fast enough. Might be worth a try. He grabbed it by its legs and suddenly Shmulik existed, the older student’s hands on his arms.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

Akiva hesitated. He thought of his father and of Rashi and Tosfos, and then shoved Shmulik hard enough to knock his chair backward to the ground. As the older student spilled to the cobblestones Akiva grabbed his shtender and lifted it above his head. He turned to the fence and saw her, staring at him, eyes slotted emeralds, waiting for him to break the dreaded device.

Then – a startled cry (Shmulik’s, or his own, he can’t remember), the blaring of an electric horn, a yowl, silence.

Akiva’s face is wet as he unzips his pack and grabs his bottle, three quarters empty. He brings his knees to his chin, clasps his hands around them, and looks out on the Judean hills. In their rollings they form the glittering edge of a pooled night sky, and a moon the color of butter floats above it all. He contemplates the edge, and the lights of man far below, imitations.

He sits and thinks for a long time in the silence, images of other lives flitting before his eyes, tempted to run into the halogen distance and throw himself upon the world’s mercy. He wonders whether he could be a dockworker in Rotterdam or a street vendor in Shanghai, if he could win his life by the hardness of his knuckles, the strength of his arm, or whether he could trap profits with his wits and drive sports cars sleek in the night.

Eventually, the wind dries his face, and he lifts his eyes upward and wonders if it is his decision.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Currency

They met that Winter in the bowels of the Capitol building in the dead of night. In earlier eras one would have dressed all in white and the other in darkest sable, but things were, for better or worse, different now, and one wore a coat of grey with a cream scarf, and the other pulled off his steak-colored gloves and put them in the pocket of his chocolate jacket. Two men of equal height stared at each other by light of a small desk lamp, and in their eyes burned a famous mutual hatred.

Some time before dawn, one of them must have said something. And what he must have said, cold as empty space, was, “You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” It was in the books. The representatives of the other side loved places of power. The Kremlin, Whitehall, even the now-benign cordons of the Louvre and the mirrored hall of Versailles. They all gave the freaks their jollies.

“On the contrary,” breathed the other. “I can tell that you desire some victory here. Some elevation.” The word skipped out of his throat like a fiery arrow off a stone wall and guttered out in the shadows. “But perhaps not.”

The first man reached into his pocket for the coin (it was his turn) but couldn’t help saying, “You know, we will win in the end; it is prophecy.” He never looked away from the other’s eyes, and he saw buried there the flicker of an alarming fire. He hated prophecy, the first of the old bindings, words that coerced.  Prophecy bothers me as well, he thought, but if he started down that road nothing would ever be accomplished. But prophecy was an old wound. For centuries it had been mostly the coins that annoyed his brother. That annoyed and compelled both of them.

“Come, we must work.”

“My, aren’t you diligent and responsible this evening.”

“The damn coin. Where is it?”

“I seem to have misplaced it,” he said, looking up at his own forehead in feigned absentmindedness.

The man’s coy smile became a sharp axis. “We must leave this place by dawn. Or have you forgotten that as well?” A point, good and true. His brother winced. There was once a time when they could walk in broad daylight, but no longer, and they now both skulked in the dark that had once been a private domain.

The first one produced the coin from his pocket. A standard United States quarter dollar, glinting in the half-light, ready to prise treasure from a gumball machine or line the bed of a Salvation Army kettle. But that evening other things were coming to boil. He handed the coin to his brother for the customary inspection. There was a time when each of them had been very excited by the prospect of double-headed or trick coins, not to mention the methods of alchemy, chemistry, metallurgy, sleight of hand…They had even, once, as part of a nigh-endless waiting, found the coin to mysteriously come up heads every time, free of their tampering. But they were too tired for all that now, as they were too tired for most things, and there was nothing special about the coin. It may as well have, and had, been a doubloon, a silver talent, a rusty kopek.

Like everything, it had two sides.

The man not holding the coin produced from his breast pocket a small notebook whose pages were jammed with block letters that seemed to run in every direction at once. He reminded his brother, “You’re first.”

His brother brought the coin over the wooden desk on which sat the lit lamp. “Read it,” he managed to say.

The man with the notebook peered inside and said, bored, “Shantelle Irving’s labrador will die, hit by some truck in Cincinnati’s employ. She will have neglected to close the door after bringing groceries inside.” The man holding the coin closed his eyes, said a silent prayer, and flipped it. It came up heads.

Both brothers had a nagging feeling, like they had forgotten something, and the something they had forgotten was how to feel emotion at the outcomes, and the brother who had flipped the coin said, “Oh,” while the other marked something with a ballpoint pen in the notebook, and a moment of uneasiness passed between them. It was usually at this point that someone would flee, if they were going to. But both stayed. Fleeing was another one of the things they were tired of. It didn’t change anything. Fate was kind of just fate, you know? one would tell you. It is futile to resist destiny, the other would say, throwing up his hands.

The man holding the notebook picked up the coin and handed the book to his brother, who read, “Okay. Uh, we have here Mrs. Berman, whose lip will be split by her husband, leading to her moving out and the initiation of a divorce that will destroy the lives of her children.” He enumerated the subclauses of the occurrence, sketching out the largest ripples this husband’s terrible decision would cast upon the face of the world. Relatives, property, emotions were all mapped out. The hidden qualia that made up each individual subjective knowledge of the breakup was balanced out like fine architecture. He built, in his mind’s eye, a little cathedral of infinite, complex sorrow. Only one view of the matter, one opinion was left out, and that opinion was acknowledged with a brief glance up at the drop ceiling, whose pseudo-random distribution of holes he was certain he had spoken of before, though of course, he didn’t remember where.

“That’s pretty messed up,” said the other brother, though not in horror or admiration but with the detachment of one whose empathy was long ago stripped raw by the solid iron of his responsibilities. The first brother grunted, but not in assent or disagreement. The coin was thrown. It came up heads. The notebook was marked.

The process continued. The night grew longer, and dawn showed no sign of growing closer. They read and marked and read, but never turned a page in the notebook. The coin determined that, heads, a Mr. Benson of Bern would be winning a lottery, but, tails, his wife would not live to enjoy the wealth.

They judged, one by one, the incidents and people of this world, for good and for bad, the global and the personal. The brothers were infinitely efficient at their unending task but it still took forever. Children’s playground injuries alone took months, not counting attendant fear of doctors that would often result from them. Families were made and unmade; people committed atrocities and wonders, were caught before, during, and after the act. Crimes of passion, and whether by free will those passions would be resisted, were all decided by the coin. The misery of Africa went on and on until they were lost in it, subjugated to it, trapped in its jungles splayed out to all horizons. Revolutions were quashed and successful. Several groups dissolved into selves, and many individuals gave themselves to a cause to die for. The cost of tea in China was discussed; plane crashes and market crashes. The aristotelian epicycles of the angels were all maintained, heads, heads, heads, heads. The bees, their names long and secret, were apportioned their honey. Every ant mound on earth was assigned a destiny, and their collectivist members were named like subdomains, subsets of subsets. Every skipped rock was viewed as a sculpture and its aerodynamics sketched out. The words in dictionaries were counted and their true definitions locked away. One brother followed the course of every electric charge, while the other charted their logic. Together, they left behind man and his all-important story, and, with the flip of their coin, delved into dimensions indescribable and the surging tragedies of the subatomic particles. They chose which mysteries were to be swept behind the event horizon and supped with true love and the final digit of pi. They tallied every notion, every obscurity, every undiscovered and undiscoverable world. Every bullet…

“Forty-nine, eh?”

“Forty-nine.” He yawned.

“I bet you would have loved that, once upon a time.”

“Bet? As in, gamble?” He glared.

“How did bullets end up so close to the end?”

“Who cares? Come, choose the names. We’re almost done.”

They traced the ligaments of a sad story, flipping their coin. The notebook went back-and-forth and its cover remained, despite the millennia of work, cold as the hour. They read, from the same page, all of the names in question. Many were rescued. Forty-nine were not.

“So sad.”

“You wish you were sad.”

“Aha, maybe I do!”

“But you don’t, really, do you?”

“I…”

“Come. End it.”

Then they turned to all that was left, that is, to themselves.

“Shall we return in six months?” one asked. As always, the coin came up heads. They both sighed.

The other picked up the coin from the desk, made to throw it, hesitated. “Is it even worth asking?” He felt something, deep in his chest. Not a feeling perhaps, but the memory of what one was like whose name was long forgotten.

The other merely raised his eyebrows.

He said, “Am I the one I am thinking of right now?” and gave it an expert flick with his thumb.

The coin did not come back down.

“Again,” said the other resignedly. “Oh well.” He pocketed his notebook and stepped into the shadows.

“Only God knows,” said the other. He turned off the small desk lamp and walked toward a small window at the end of the hallway, losing corporeality in the first rays of dawn, mesmerised by vague memories of the time before the coin. He remembered the victory of massacres and the pain of childbirth, the joy of vengeance and the sorrow of betrayal. He remembered a smattering of decisions. He had fought to choose the stones for gulags and the apples the righteous would eat and the times of death of endless, endless faces. He remembered, and knew that he was powerful, and that the other must be stopped.

But the time for that had passed. The time when he and his brother remembered which of them was Good, and which Evil.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

To Every Man A Reason

The yellowed pages of the following missive were found under a pile of old photographs at a yard sale in Carmel, Indiana. A team of international scholars worked for weeks to translate the text, each of its paragraphs written in a different language, some of them long-forgotten outside of the academic world. It is being published here in English for the first time, that the wider public may judge the contents for itself.

Seven thousand lives have I lived pursued, and seven thousand times have I been caught.

When I first began to remember, I decided to seek out elders and wise men, shamans and priests, philosophers and poets. But even those who escape our grubby-fingered strivings to see it all laid out like quiltwork below them would never give me more than a sad smile, and would look on me with pity.

The exception was an old man with blind eyes and a stately bearing whose name and station I have lost in the timeless interstice between lives. But his gift I think I will never forget, which is humorous, for that is what he gave me: forgetfulness. He touched my lip and I felt my former lives drain away, and I died many lonely deaths again before I began to remember once more. I returned to the flight from danger and those sad smiles, even sadder when I’d point to my lips and demand a miracle.

“I cannot help you with that,” said a great father of Rome. I gained his company by throwing myself before his carriage and crying out my tale in my best Latin, until he had me pulled from the mud. Later, in his chambers, seeing how I was always glancing over my shoulder, he asked whether I had learned any wisdom in my long past that I would share with him, as he was a great scholar and philosopher.

“Nothing,” I said, and he smiled a sad smile, and a little while later I was escorted out by guards whose gay livery belied their stern faces. I wanted to tell him that it’s hard to remember across lives, and that even if it weren’t, I’d never been schooled, nor had parents for long, nor had the wherewithal to buy learning. But all of that was to me, at that time, a secondary mystery. As I have seen many times, the ‘why’ we ask when we learn of our terrible disease is white-hot with righteousness, and in its light the details of the illness pale to nothing.

“It reminds me of a certain puzzle,” said a brilliant scientist to me once on a train hurtling across the Pennsylvania countryside, away from the blood-stained kitchen floor and everything I owned. “It involves a prison with a hundred inmates and a single lightbulb…” He was very excited about his riddle but when he got to the part about the predetermined plan for when to turn on the bulb I gave him my best sad smile (for I had learned to trade in that currency) and told him that the inmates’ plan wouldn’t work for me; I had never received a message I’d left for myself. “It’s still a good riddle,” he offered. I just nodded, because it wasn’t safe to say that watching my mother get shot again never left me open to games or abstractions.

“What about your father?” I asked Kumbulohgo, the witch doctor. I think that was his name. My memory of the night is even hazier than usual; it was a conversation we had on the very first night I Remembered in that life; I was twelve, an early bloomer, and that combination of pride and terror that still rules the deep jungle of Africa flowed in my veins like a drug. I felt on that night that I was ready for life to begin; the Pursuit had not yet started, and I was naive. I recall his gnarled finger pointing up at the night canopy of my small world as he spoke of the Allfather and the single Truth that strung together all life like beads around His neck. My age-old soul shook my adolescent head and I asked if there weren’t some evil counterpart to the Allfather, some Tormenter who took pleasure in men’s lives and took pleasure in their pain. Kumbulohgo struck me then across the jaw, and the next day I was torn from my kind mother and strong father and sent into the wild. I never saw either of them again; my spear was not enough, and the beasts took me before the hunger could.

Not once at the moment of my Reawakening, when all my lives come back to me, did I ever find myself in a warm bed or with a full stomach. Gutters, stone, and privation were my lot, and though like all else I have known they followed a certain order or pattern always just beyond understanding, it was not an order anyone with a soft heart would create. So my eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were full of suicides.

(Though I have little hope of the reader truly understanding, I feel the need to at least briefly defend myself. I was convinced for a long while that suicide is an act of suicide and that if I was to suffer I should at least prolong that suffering, and become stronger for it. But as time and pain slowly wore on my soul I began to wonder whether the rules of my imprisonment might not be broken by taking my own life, whether I might not find escape by granting life that which it so desperately sought, that is, my death. I remember the joy of it, the first time off the tower, the wind caressing my falling face, my heart full of joy, wondering what lay beyond. But it was not the end, and my next few lives I threw away just to make certain. I never did it if there was someone who would miss me. More to the point, I’m not certain I’ve ever done it at all, since, until this very day, I have been some kind of immortal.)

“You atone for us all,” a one-eyed monk told me as he lay upon the straw that was his bed. He was the kindest man I ever met, and it took him the longest of all of them to smile the sad smile, so I could almost forgive him for his love of people. Atone for them? I wondered. I will not. I withhold. I withhold any benefits of my travails, and claim their offset as my own. I have been kicked by every form of boot and spat on by every type of man. I have been slain on every continent.

All this I thought, and to the monk I said, “If my suffering is for a reason, then reason itself is wrong, and I’m afraid I might go mad.”

Do you begin to see, reader? Do you begin to understand? I could tell you a thousand, a thousand thousand stories such as these. But my time has finally grown short, and so, the most important thing:

Seventy-five years ago, at the time of my Remembering, I found myself in bed in a small house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, with two loving parents, three meals a day, and life of peaceful success ahead of me.

It took me years before I realized the significance of this life I have lived as Doctor Duncan Harris. Most of those years were spent with psychologists and psychiatrists, hired by my ever-more-worried parents to treat my memories, to no avail. Despite my ‘eccentricity’ I graduated from Harvard Medical School and began a Pulmonology practice that bought me shelter from every terror that has ever haunted my steps but could not buy me peace of mind.

My lack of torment has tormented me; I have woken up in a cold sweat from many a sweet dream.

Ah, to live the sweet dream of those around me, to go about my daily business without a care. But it was not to be. How could I live a normal life? I was haunted by my memories, consumed by them. Those around me knew guilt and were always trying to help the downtrodden, but I felt more than guilt; I was a stranger to the easy life, uprooted from all I had ever known.

In my middle age, once I let go of my mother’s cold hand, I fell into a deep depression that my wife and children could not understand. Though I was doing good, helping the sick, my life seemed emptied of succor. Existence itself seemed a meaningless trial. To alleviate the discomfort of sitting still, I began to wander the streets of my little town, dazed, unpursued but unable to rest.

 

“Why are you doing that?” I blurted to an old woman in a shawl and sunglasses, sweating in the summer sun. She was tending to her garden, putting plantlings in the rich brown soil, her back bent to the task.

“‘Why’ is a crooked letter,” she tittered to herself, her hands covered in humus. I watched her work, my sweaty hands in my pockets. It was a few moments before I understood her little joke, and though for some reason it was pleasing to see her at her business, her answer filled me with exasperation, since it seemed to be no answer at all.

“What’s the reason for it?” I asked, when the sun on my bald head became too much.

She turned from her work and lifted her glasses to her forehead and I saw her face, green eyes suspended in a net of wrinkles. “When you get to be my age, son, you don’t have to ask that question anymore. I’m planting because I want to.” Is that enough of a reason? I wondered. “It’s enough,” she said. Smiling warmly, she suddenly did not seem to very old.

I staggered in from the street with a vicious headache and fell sprawled on my bed. A cacophony of memories roared in my ears, notes threatening and discordant. I fell into a strange state and thought it must be happening, I must finally be losing my mind.

I found myself on a strange shore, but the waves in their crashing threw forth sweet gossamer memories, a spray of new awareness that joined my tears to dampen my cheeks.

It was in that place that I came to know you.

You, the one reading these words.

For on that shore it was made known that I, who was burdened to remember, was really made to forget. I forgot the endless lives I have lived as man and woman, animal and plant. I forgot the joy of family, of music, of life. I forgot the time I read the words I am writing. I forgot that I asked for all this, at the Beginning, that I wanted to understand. I was told that if I wanted to grasp the secret of life I must know the secret of death and that it would take a long time, a very long time, until I could choose life only because I wanted to, before I, collectively, was beyond the bounds of reason and the desperate questions I would ask to the wise.

And I would need to forget.

I write this now because I don’t think there will be another chance.

I write this to you, that is, to me, so you will find it somewhere along the course of the long millenia and know that our story has a happy end.

For death, at last, does not hunt me. I hunt death until the day it, too, is ready to die.

For you, this is not the end. For you, this is the beginning. Know that

(End of text.)

 

Image from Flickr.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Plan For (Jewish) World Domination

With my tried and proven business sense, all I need to take over the world is a product to sell. People don’t enjoy being taken over, you see. You have to distract them with shiny, sparkly things, and their distraction slowly grants you power. Of course, I’m a religious Jew, so the plan, at the same time, should help bring about the messianic age. People will be so happy about the Messiah, they won’t even notice if I’m filthy rich on the side[i]. Not to mention utterly omnipotent.

So, without further ado, here’s the plan. It’s incremental, it’s brilliant, and I get to open up a pizzeria as a hobby.

Phase 1: The Killer App

Even though my Stanford application was rejected, I know that any tech company that wants to run the world must start small; only G-d creates Hobbesian leviathans from thin air. And like certain world-dominating businesses that rhyme with bugle, my company will initially offer only one service. Not search; that is for the non-Jews. We will start with a Brochos App.

Brochos (does not rhyme with ‘nachos’) means “blessings,” and we Jews say lots of ‘em every day. In fact, we ideally say 100. During prayers, before performing commandments, after using the restroom, before and after food…We give thanks to G-d a lot. The problem is that [cue the whistful downtempo piano music, grayscale scene of Manhattan sidewalks] in today’s fast-paced world, it is more difficult than ever to remember to take the time to say the right bracha. We forget Modeh Ani when we wake up and we forget Shma when we go to sleep. We make the Shehakol before a cup of water, than say the Borei Nefashos after, and then we forget whether we said either, and now we want to drink a second cup, and we are, as they say in Yiddish, ‘farscrewed.’ [cue Technicolor and the big band] Enter the Brochos App! With the power of scheduled task and cutting-edge voice recognition technology, never miss a prayer again:

  • Your alarm clock will keep telling you to say Modeh Ani until it hears you say it. Same thing with Shma in the morning.
  • Random music from your collection will play at full volume after a certain time of night (in combination with low light levels) until it hears you say
  • Your phone will hear you make the initial blessing on food, and will then remind you to say the after blessing. When it hears you say the after blessing, the reminder will disappear.

Your Jewish life revolutionized!

But Tzvi, I can hear you wandering through the computer screen, won’t this make, like, absolutely no money ever? How right you are. The point initially is not to earn money. The point is to get people using our services. Then we move on to

Phase 2: Expansions

The continuous updates to the initial app will expand its usefulness much farther afield than anyone would initially guess. The truth is, that if there are going to be effective reminders for things like Lulav and morning Shma, there must be a comprehensive Jewish calendar backend with GPS-based time functionality. Of course, none of this will help if the person doesn’t know the Jewish law relevant to the act at hand. Thus, we will begin to implement halacha pop-ups.

We will also begin to take advantage of all of the phone’s sensors in revolutionary ways, not just the microphone. The compass and accelerometer will tell the user not just the direction in which to pray but will direct lulav shaking according to four different minhagim[ii]. The app will help you step forward and backward for Shemoneh Esrei in a legally acceptable way and can even help the newly religious with their prayer shockel[iii].

The camera will calculate all sorts of halachic measures: how much cake one must eat to say an after-blessing, how tall a building must be to build a fence around its roof, are my tzitzis wide enough?

If all else fails, for a small fee one will submit halachic questions through the app to our team of trained attack Rabbonim, who will stop at nothing to bring your case to a legal and practical conclusion.

Thus, our little app becomes something more and more something you can show off around the Yeshiva water cooler. As more and more people integrate it into their daily life, we’ll bring out the big guns.

Phase 3: Salvation

I call this phase “salvation” because this is when we start making it impossible (to the mind of the consumer) to get a good afterlife without the aid of our smartphone app. How do we accomplish this task, so much more epic than the small brochos app that only three people used for free?

Simple. We use the phone camera to overlay the Gemara. And to preface: Does anyone like to learn Talmud nowadays? No one normal. Do people still learn Talmud? Yes. Why? The afterlife. You have to know the G-dly wisdom if you want a beautiful piece of the Garden of Eden with silver chandeliers, matching sweater vests, and litter everywhere. So you’re stuck learning these books, and they’re in Aramaic, and who knows if you’ll ever be great at it? ENTER THE APP.

Point your phone at the dense page with the little letters. Watch your screen light up like Yidden at a Coloradan Phish concert. Instantaneous translation and commentary of what you’re looking at, with the opinions of all the major Rabbis throughout the centuries! We will either work with Artscroll/Koren or we will make our own, brand new English translation. Every reference to a different page of the Talmud or to the scripture will have a pursuable link with more translation and commentary. No more turning to a different page for meaning; it’s all right there in a cutting edge graphical overlay. And if this still doesn’t help, we will still have the option of calling a Rabbi for a small fee.

No Jew will be able to resist their jealousy of their Talmudic genius friends. And we will slowly expand the Talmud commentary to all Jewish religious works and from English to all languages, including Klingon.

And can you imagine the applications of everything we’ve mentioned so far once everyone wears Google Glass? [iv]

But that’s not all.

Phase 4: Socialism

This is the original term we give to the expansion of our service into the social realm. No longer will your learning and good deeds be your own business, between you and G-d, but rather the business of the entire world! You gave charity today? You take pictures and upload them; we and the crowd will judge them; you will receive holiness points. Same with Talmud. Compete with your friends to see who can learn faster, more, and better. Take tests, earn points.

What do these points get you? Two words: Global Scoreboards. The entire world will see the extent of your observance. People will be able to Judge you at a character level, eliminating the superficiality and falsehood of the regular online experience.

It is impossible to see any downside to this; you benefit through notoriety, we benefit through advertising revenue. Moshiach’s times. Zero-sum games are golus, baby.

Not convinced? Well there’s always

Phase 5: Utopia

In addition to selling something every Jew owns[v] and in addition to increasing the good deeds and Torah learning of Jews immeasurably, we will have solved all major theological issues that prevent the coming of the Messiah.

To wit: Our researchers have found that 95% of a religious Jew’s time isn’t spent perfecting the world, and 94% of it is spent worrying neurotically about whether they are doing the right thing, what their relationship with G-d is, and whether they cleaned up all the chometz. We at The Tzvyndicate™ believe that by quantifying religious observance as outlined above, Jews will no longer be distracted by their insecurities. It will be absolutely clear to anyone on the street whether a person is a Tzaddik, a Rasha, or anything in-between. As G-d intended.

We can then actually go about the practical business of bringing Moshiach, and I can retire to my pizza store safe in the knowledge that the future is secure.

What did Google ever do for the world?

[i] Why do we so discriminate against the rich? Is anyone ever “filthy poor”? Or is that too obvious?

[ii] The fifth minhag, which holds smart phones to be the tools of the devil, will, if selected, cause the phone to self-destruct in a puff of red smoke.

[iii] Also according to a number of customs – the pendulum, the corkscrew, the scrubber, the MBD Hands, etc.

[iv] We will be inventing our own version, of course, called the Tzvectacles™.

[v] A feat only previously achieved by the Spice and Spirit cookbook.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.