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Mark Levenson
On Jewish fantasy, folklore, and more

For one hundred generations: a short story

A lonely inn on a seldom-traveled road… a strange woman on a stormy night… the time and place for an answered prayer.
"Jews in Front of a Village Inn" by Apoloniusz Kędzierski. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In theory, it had been a reasonable place to build an inn, midway between the village of Lizensk and the much larger town of Brinnitz. And when the now-ancient inn was young, perhaps there had been sufficient traffic between the village and the town to support an innkeeper and his family. But, if so, those days were long gone. If a peddler stopped for a drink and a meal before nightfall, it was a good day. If the inn was graced by a wagonload of rabbinical students on their way to their academy, or of pilgrims beginning the long journey to the Holy Land or concluding their long journey from it, it was a day to remember. Mostly, though, the inn remained a forlorn outpost on a half-forgotten road, its thatched roof thinning in ragged spots like an old beggar’s balding pate, its aging brick peeking out here and there from behind the walls of weathered and peeling dun-colored plaster.

The lack of business weighed upon Yankel, the leaseholder and innkeeper, but mainly because it meant that Reva, his wife, was denied the material pleasures he would otherwise have taken such joy in giving to her. But there was a far graver gap in their lives than the absence of porcelain dishes or silver teapots. Perhaps because of the physical toll of maintaining the inn, perhaps because of some demon curse, perhaps because of a sin of which they were unaware, Yankel and Reva had no children. Reva had miscarriages the way other women had birthdays but, still, they tried. In the meantime, the inn was their child, and a backward one at that.

On fierce, stormy nights like this, Yankel and Reva warmed themselves by the hearth and celebrated the good fortune they had, at least, in each other. It was said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, found it easier to part the Red Sea than to make a match between husband and wife; if so, He had achieved a great miracle indeed by bringing together Yankel and Reva.

The door of the inn opened and a figure stood in the frame, silhouetted by the curtain of moonlit rain. The inn’s lanterns swayed in the wind, sending shadows flying across the walls. Before the innkeeper and his wife could rise, the figure had stepped into the inn and closed the door.

As the figure moved closer to the lights, it took on both age and sex: it was an old woman, short and shapeless in a coarse brown cloak that reached to the ground and a hood that shadowed and obscured her features. When she dropped the hood, Yankel and Reva saw a well-lined, jowly, and squarish face. Her brows were gray and bushy, and her small, twinkling eyes were framed by heavy lids above and heavy bags below. A pair of perfectly round spectacles were perched atop her great mound of a nose. Below it was one of the smallest, thinnest mouths that the innkeeper and his wife had ever seen. The old woman wore a dark kerchief from which strands of gray hair sought to escape. The same thought occurred to Yankel and Reva at the same time: it was remarkable that this old woman had made it to their inn on such a night—and from where could she have come?

The woman approached them, moving with a deliberateness of purpose that seemed at odds with her many years, and making her presence at least somewhat less improbable—although what that purpose might be, Yankel and Reva couldn’t think to guess.

“A guest! Welcome!” said Yankel, straightening himself up and stepping forward from the fire. “You’ve come to the right place. We haven’t had the opportunity to welcome a guest in several days.”

The old woman turned a bit to face them, as if seeing them in the dimly lit room for the first time. She scrutinized them—first Reva, then Yankel, then Reva again—and then she smiled. “Yes, quite; for a moment, I wasn’t sure,” she said, somewhat cryptically, in a gravelly voice. “But I do expect this is the right place.”

“We’ve been busier, that’s true,” said Yankel, oblivious to the discordant note in her reply. “But no matter. A guest, a guest!”

He lifted his black skullcap with one hand and ran his other hand through his unkempt black hair as though to comb it. He plopped the skullcap back down on his hair, which remained unkempt. “Delighted to have you here—and, especially, in here, when it’s so inhospitable outside.”

Yankel introduced himself and his wife. “Pleased to meet you,” said the old woman, removing her cloak to reveal a squat frame almost as wide as it was tall.

Reva stepped forward. “You must sit down. Would you like something to drink? Some tea to warm you, perhaps?”

“May the Almighty repay your kindness through a hundred generations,” said the old woman appreciatively. The sad look that passed between the innkeeper and his wife was so quick that the old woman could not have been expected to notice it. Yankel took her cloak and ushered her to a table. He offered to take the parcel she carried but the old woman declined, keeping it at her side. She took a quick glance about the room as she eased her great bulk into the chair. “So I’m your only guest?”

“Tonight, last night, the night before… but we manage.”

Reva was pouring tea for the old woman as the door burst open again.

The peasant who entered strutted to a table, his muscular body evident under the filthy, torn clothes that flapped about him. He dropped into a chair, its thin legs creaking with an audible gasp under his weight.

“Innkeeper, some ale!” he barked, pounding the table. He scowled and his unwashed face looked even more malevolent than it had a moment before.

The old woman raised a bushy brow and glanced at her hosts, who shared a knowing, wary look. They were familiar with Henrik and, even given the paucity of business, were not particularly happy to see him. Henrik was probably as unhappy to see them, since he would much rather have been in his own bed, rattling the walls with his snoring. It was only an errand for his employer, the Polish duke who owned all the land for miles in every direction—including the inn—that could cause him to be out on such a foul night. But nothing, apparently, could cause him to be happy about it. Henrik snorted. The best approach to keep him from breaking the furniture, Yankel knew, was to humor him.

“Ale. Of course. Coming right up.”

“And some food!” Henrik bellowed, just as Reva was bringing a bowl of stew to the old woman. Henrik grabbed the bowl from her and set it down before himself.

“But that’s meant for this lady,” protested Reva, without thinking of the argument she might be provoking. Henrik looked at her, his eyes narrowing as though he were considering whether to snarl at her or strike her as, indeed, he was.

“That’s quite all right, my dear,” the old woman interjected in a voice that was calm and matter-of-fact, as though they were talking about a few drops of tea spilled on a tablecloth.

“See?” said Henrik with a broad smile that displayed as many gaps as teeth. “It’s quite all right. And more ale, keep it coming!”

Henrik laughed, a deep braying sound that filled the room. For the next half hour, Yankel and Reva brought Henrik ale, and mead, and wineskins, and every bit of food they had. The man was insatiable and ate like an animal, lowering his head into the food as though at a trough and tearing at it with his teeth. Through it all, the old woman sat impassively, almost as though she were not there.

“More, more!” Henrik growled after a lull in the arrival of bowls and dishes containing the last of the stew and some chicken that had been broiled in the fire.

“There is no more, I’m afraid,” said Yankel, wiping the sweat from his pale, high forehead. “We weren’t expecting so much… business.”

“And you call yourselves innkeepers!” Henrik rose and started for the door. “I have half a mind to tell the duke to throw you two out of here.”

Yankel thought that Henrik’s estimate of his intellectual capacity was probably generous, but it was a thought he knew to keep to himself. There was another matter, however, that he did need to broach. He coughed meaningfully. “Um… about the bill?”

“You can get it from the duke,” Henrik replied, snorting at his own joke. So that would be that. Yankel and Reva looked down, afraid to make the situation worse.

The old woman hoisted herself up from her chair. In a voice that was as soft as Yankel’s, but with unmistakable authority, she said simply: “That’s not right.”

“What’s that, grandma?” Henrik came threateningly close to her. His massive bulk towered over the short, squat woman. She appeared not to notice.

“Please don’t—” began Yankel, knowing this could not end well for the old woman.

“I said,” she repeated to Henrik in her matter-of-fact tone, “that’s not right. You took their food. You owe them payment. Surely the concept is not beyond you?”

“If you weren’t an old woman…” Henrik’s nostrils flared and his face reddened as though her age and sex might not be sufficient to keep him from fulfilling the unexpressed threat. Then Henrik saw a coin on the old woman’s table. He picked it up, wondering for a moment about the strange marks on it. It wasn’t a groschen or a kopeck. It certainly wasn’t a ruble. It didn’t even look valuable. But a coin was a coin. “You’re so concerned that I pay the innkeeper, you loan me the money,” he leered at her.

Through her nose spectacles, the old woman held his gaze as though he were no more a threat than an unruly schoolboy. “You don’t want to use that coin.”

“And why not?”

“By the grace of the Holy One, Blessed be He, it sets things right.”

“All the better!” Henrik mocked. Then he squinted at the coin. “What do you mean: Sets things right?’” he asked.

“A little something I picked up in my travels.”

Henrik was unimpressed. “And now it looks like I’ve picked it up.”

The old woman appeared to make a decision. “As you prefer.” She turned away.

Henrik turned to Yankel and Reva and smiled. Paying them with a worthless coin that wasn’t even his seemed like the perfect joke. “Here’s your payment.” He tossed the coin to Reva and started to leave. He didn’t get far. Henrik began to gasp, and then to shake, and then to convulse. He jerked about the room, stumbling into tables and benches as though he were being pushed and pulled by invisible hands. His ears and nose began to twitch, to change colors, and to grow. His eyes grew large and black and moved to the sides of his elongating head. His hands became misshapen, big black things that clawed at the air. Something long and thick and dark dropped down from under the back of his shirt and hung there: a tail. He fell to the floor and began to run about on all fours. His clothes fell away from his body, which was now covered with gray fur. Henrik was a donkey.

Henrik brayed and brayed again, the sound a bizarre parody of the aggressive tone he’d taken before. He glared at Yankel and Reva with his large black eyes, half threatening, half imploring. They stared back, unable to move, let alone to help him, had they been so inclined. He ran into a table and, with a toss of his massive head and crest, threw it across the room. The sound of it crashing against the wall sent Henrik galloping in panic toward the old wooden door. He burst into it without pause, sending it off its hinges, and disappeared into the night.

For a long moment, all was still in the little inn. Then Reva ran to her husband and clutched him for safety. Only then did the couple remember that they were not alone. They turned to the old woman, who stood across the room, and stared at her in awe and trepidation.

“Now the outside reflects the inside; that’s all,” she said calmly, looking out through the broken door into the night, with an expression that could have been a smile—would have been a smile—had they known her better. “Sometimes the coin makes the inside reflect the outside. He’ll be back to normal by morning. But perhaps the experience will give him something to think about. One can hope.”

Reva looked down at her hand and her face grew pale. “I have the coin!” she cried. “I’ve got to get rid of it!”

The old woman hadn’t been standing next to them—or had she?—but there she was now. She closed Reva’s hand over the coin. There was no mistaking her smile this time.

“If you have the coin, then no doubt you were meant to have it,” she said, putting several kopecks on the table. “And here are a few more coins to pay for your charming hospitality.”

Whatever worries the couple had were washed away by the old woman’s soothing tone and generosity. But something else was on Yankel’s mind.

“Surely you’re not leaving in the middle of the night,” he objected. “It’s still raining. It’s dangerous. We could make up a room for you.”

“I’ll be fine – and there is somewhere I need to be,” she countered, casting her head upward a bit and tilting it to one side, as though listening to a sound they couldn’t hear. “I’m already late. I just hope I’m not too late.”

She went to the doorway, adjusted her nose spectacles, retrieved her parcel and her cloak, and turned to her hosts. “May the Almighty repay your kindness through a hundred generations,” she said and left.

Yankel and Reva went to the doorway—Yankel would have to put the door back on its hinges before they could sleep, if they could sleep—and watched the stranger disappear into the darkness. They realized at the same moment that they were holding hands and leaned into each other.

What they did not realize, could not realize, was that in nine months’ time, Reva would give birth to a boy, whom she and Yankel would name Gershom, meaning “a stranger there.” A remarkable student at an early age, Gershom would grow up to become a renowned scholar of holy books, a master of kindness, and the founder of a rabbinic dynasty lasting for a hundred generations.

Though they knew none of this, they continued for a while to watch the spot where they’d lost sight of the old woman. Then Yankel smiled with tenderness at Reva. She returned his smile and gently squeezed his hand.

About the Author
Mark Levenson is a journalist, dramatist, and novelist whose work in Jewish fantasy has won honors from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish University. His novel, The Hidden Saint, is out from Level Best Books (2022). Follow him at www.marklevensonbooks.com.
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