In this episode, you will read some portraits of orphans who grew up in our community.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Fourteenth Era, Part 23, ~1240 C.E.
A Mtskheta *Yizkor Book*, begun Tisha b’Av, 5000**
*-* A ‘yizkor book’ is a memorial book for the dead; Tisha b’Av is the day we remember disasters, especially the destruction of the two temples.
* The year 5000 is 1240 in the Christian calendar; 638 in the Muslim calendar.
Here are some portraits sketched from life like charcoals shaded with some colored chalk, like I used to see in Provincetown, (when it was still a haven for arts). This book to remember them orphan children, some newly buried; some long dead.
A sickly lad with a hackin’ cough and mucousy eyes; arms and legs like a newborn foal. The tradesmen wouldn’t even look at him; they wanted muscle and a donkey’s back, and the shepherds all scoffed in disdain — the wolf would eat him before the sheep. With many a doubt I sent him up to Batkol. She sized him up and down.
“Yes. I see a job for this twig.”
And she learnt him about healin’ herbs with a specialty of eye and ear and relievin’ coughs and fullness of breath. Like a mystic who ciphers the language of birds that boy seemed to listen to plants, and they would tell him all their secret arts. That boy grew like a poplar tree, tall and thin; the wind in his leaves, fragrant they rustle, a healthy shoot. He held a special place in our hearts — the first of our orphans to be betrothed — to a lovely lass, Hadassah her name. Side by side they gathered herbs whenever Hadassah weren’t big with child, which, it seemed, was rare those days.
Gomer, a child of forbidden love.
Livin’ on berries and weeds in the hills, wild as one of Enkidu’s* brood, a hunter bound her and brought her down. No tellin’ what he done on the way. And her, all that winter mute as the broodin’ hills. Nor do we know if she be Jewish, but never mind. Sits among the chitterin’ girls, her eyes followin’ every sound but nary a ripple on that glassy face. Nor did she join the girls when they worked. Eyes diverted and refusin’ to budge. Where could we place her? Her visage a scream whenever we dragged her away from Batkol. No. She moped in the dreary han where Batkol repairs damaged books. Though long our urgin’, she wouldn’t lift a hand to grind a pigment or boil paste. Spring. She fearfully eyed the fields, puddle and muddle and hacked off stalks. And there a shepherd with one of our boys leadin’ a flock out to the hills. Batkol seen a flicker of light down in her empty cavern eyes. Next day, hand in hand they gone to follow that shepherd across the muck. No more than a week, and her hand wriggled free from Batkol’s grip and off she gone. That night she spoke her first word…
* you know… Gilgamesh
“I know him…”
Her voice like a old rusted chain, raspy and grindin’ out of her craw like it’s chokin’ her, and she gagged it out. Stranger than that, that boy denied he knew her; whose the lie?
“Gomer me,” she gagged out as well,
Or maybe a serpent were coiled inside and it just broke loose. Not long aft, howls and screams from that boy’s dorm; scramble and tumble, I stagger in, groggy from sleep. In the candle light his face tore up. Scratches and bites like a nighthawk was tryin’ to tear out his eyes.
“Her! That witch! That demon girl!”
his terrified cries. And she was gone. A week later she straggled back filthy and draggled; all scratches and gash like she was dragged thru a blackberry patch. A wildcat she were, Lilith’s child, nor kindness nor horse whip changed her ways. Still young, we arranged a marriage for her, but boil and turmoil, it quickly unbound — the lurid details can rest in peace — and then she was gone, nor heard from again. And no one tried to search her out. Still, now and again a rumor come back… She’s a leader of thieves; she’s beggin’ for alms; she’s a bride to one the Mongol khans.
Then there were Amos,
a goggle eyed boy, gangly and clumsy like an unweaned lamb. Even Torah’s p’shat* was too dense for him to decipher. A silly grin or remorseful pout would paint his face a moment, and then all forgot. And he’d dance and hum around the boys, pinch one here, poke one there, mouthin’ the phrases as I read a text with nary a thought to what it all meant. Woodwork? He couldn’t cut a straight line. Blacksmith? He’s a-feared of fire and spark. Shepherd? He’s lost when he steps out the door. Porter? He could carry feathers and such. The house of study? That’s his place, sweepin’ the floor, snuffin’ out lights, cleanin’ windows, dustin’ shelves, with ever a smile and hummin’ the tropes the hakhamim** chant as they read and debate. A happy portrait if it ended there, and may his memory bless us all. But Amos grew surly in the course of that year like a demon were bitin’ him harder each day. One day two students provoked his wrath. Someone got hit but nothin’ is sure. Each pair of eyes seen a different thing. Then someone chased him out the door, just as a band of Mongols rode by and trampled him down. And there he died. May God repair this broken world.
* the literal or simplest layer; ** sages; students; jabberers
In the next episode, portraits of a highwayman and a ghost-talker.