In this scene, the laughter and snarl of hyenas and jackals.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Ninth Era, Part 2, ~1032 C.E., north to Andalus
With our weighty bags and the road a-waiting like a pack of jackals for an errant deer, and the night comin’ on, its fever, its frost, I stutter through prayers, the world like a loadstone grabbin’ my thoughts like iron shivers. Weary and agitated and sore depressed I lie there a-bed, all fidget and fuss. Batkol, eyes closed, she seems to snore, then she tosses and slowly sits up and sighs. And for the third or forth time, lights a lamp and picks up a khumash* and leafs to this week**. A moment or two and her head slumps down and slowly into the pillow she sinks. I rise in a groan. Lookin’ down on her she seems like she’s eighty, not twenty years old. Her hair all frizzy and gray and thin. Her face just as ashy, and dried and cracked, scored and scarred like the bark of an oak. In the flickery light, shadows a-sway like vines growin’ out of her mouth and ears.
* book (as opposed to scroll) of Torah; ** that is, to the portion of the week
All terrors I am, all horror, disgust. I cry for help but in my distress the only sound I make is a moan. And again I cry out and now my voice, like a raven’s, clak clak. And then I hear a tap at my door, and before I can rise a gnarled man steps into the room, dark of skin and raggy clothes yet with silver frayed threads, with a worn and shiny velvet edge. An exiled prince? A disgraced judge?
“Not an exile, prince or judge,”
says he, who seems to know my thoughts.
“I heard your throaty cry for help for your Batkol; a cry as well for your own soul aghast in storm.”
Raven-gripped, I have no words.
“Come with me to where I pray.”
He wraps me in a course tallit, and grippin’ my arm forcefully he leads me into a thick growth of tangly vines. With each step the vines shoot out and coil me more, gaggin’ my mouth, grippin’ my feet, noosin’ my neck, knottin’ my arms.
Tallit-gripped, I can’t move.
First light streaks the dawn. The vines, alive, are whisperin’,
“Aleinu l’shabayach l’adon ha-kol”
I stumble and fall in the tendrils embraces. Leaves cover my eyes in night.
*-* “It is on us to praise the Master of All”
Beset by harsh remembrances, like birds of prey divin’ at me: sailors with their knives and hooks; slavers with their chokin’ ropes; rabbis with their ruthless books. All around me demons dance, laughin’ at me hapless state.
“Lor of heavens, Lor of souls, teach me how to make amends.”
Prayer-gripped, but I, I have no worth.
A voice arises out of the earth.
Be it Hillel or ben Azzai? Now it sounds like ben Zakkai. No. Perhaps Elijah’s voice, or can it be Omar or Saul? I know the tone but not its face.
*-* First words of the prayer for the dead: A translation: ‘Made great and holy…’
And yet I also remember these:
That hand of God and the fish He sent to lift me out of the maw of the sea; the holy house of Khushiel that rescued me from animal-men; the divine vision and divine touch of my beautiful wife, my Batkol.
Remorse-gripped, my soul weeps.
A hand brushes the leaves away. It’s that gnarly man. Intent, he prays,
“‘*…v’al kol Yisroyel, v’imru amaen.*’ A long journey you’ve been on, cutting your way through these old roots and traumas which overlay a true vision of the road you’re on. Arise. A renewing world awaits. Look. Your Batkol sleeps in bed, her youth restored, so don’t be a-frayed.
*-* last words of the prayer for the dead; ‘…and all of Israel. And let us say amen.’
“Who are you?” I cry, deeply dismayed.”
“You call me Adam in your Holy Book, I, who dwell in your nether world, in that place called Aden which is reason-barred. You seek me to your own despair. The more you reveal my abundant light the more you will reap discord and fright.”
And now I open my eyes, and behold, it’s a dream. How long was I asleep? My door ajar, outside the sky is streaked with dawn. The air is fresh as after a storm. And there in bed my Batkol lies. She wakes. She smiles.
A dream and not a dream at all. There at my door a gnarly man, dark his face and sackcloth robes, but beneath I see the silver threads that distinguish Rav Khushiel’s prayer shawl. I look closer. It is the rav. Then I hear his sing-song voice:
“My son, I see you have chosen to leave, and I, the author of that cruel decree. Into your arms I laid a demand. I had hoped it would cling like a loving child, but instead, it clung as fire; it burned. Not you alone, but our whole community is now a-scar from the whip of me.
“The Lor called me, a fervid call to serve His Chosen, to unify us, that in one language and with one prayer our Messianic Voice will restore us to our land, and once again our Lor will arise, directing His fiery angels to open Aden to His holy ones.
“But all my fervors are also my sin, driving you out and dividing our house. I sin if I fail to serve my Lor, and I also sin if I serve Him too well. Sin has become a partner to me.
“Forgive me, son, if you can find a way. And until that time, please curse me not. They say you are heading to Andalus, and they say a Jew is ruling there, Shmuel *ha-Nagid* the king’s vizier. If what they say is true, I commend you to him. Find him and give him this sealed envelop, and may he reward you with sorrows surcease.”
*-* Hebrew for ‘the prince’
Then he hands me a tube, leather bound, sealed with his signet pressed in wax.
What could I do? As his hand reaches out to give me the tube, I wrestle the urge to turn away and slam the door; the urge to shout, “Deliver it yourself”; to fall on his shoulder and weep my love; to tell him my heart is east not west; to tear the tube in a thousand shreds; as I take it and say,
“In the mercies of God.” (But my own mercies, I don’t know them yet.)
In the next episode: a delightful caravan ride through some rugged landscapes.