Monday, January 31, 2011

Mothers & Sons, IX

When Claudia returned she had changed into a robe. Servi was still at the kitchen table, drinking a coffee.

“Do you mind if we do it on the couch?” she asked, moving past Servi and into the tiny living room. “I share the bedroom with Paulo and he is a light sleeper.”

“Do what?” Servi asked.

“Sex,” the woman answered quizzically. “I have never been stalked before but I imagine you did not follow me around all day to just eat my pasta? From what you have said you have been in Rome sometime, doing nothing really, and must have seen all the sights, and you don’t speak French, German, or Hebrew, no? And besides, your eyes never left me…”

“I thought we could talk first,” Servi said, rising from the table and moving toward her. Claudia had removed her robe and reclined on the threadbare couch without a stitch of clothing. Servi loomed over her for a moment and she pulled him down to her. “No time for talk Americano,” she continued, grappling with his clothes. “I have my first tour at 7:30AM. It’s now or never.”

As it was apparently now, Servi helped her removed his clothes.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mothers & Sons, VIII

Servi sat and watched Claudia prepare Paulo for bed. She fed both Servi and her son at the kitchen table. The little boy appeared unabashed by a strange man at supper, but when Servi mentioned he was from New York City, the boy brightened somewhat, and asked a series of questions about the city formed from a pastiche of movies, TV, and international cliché which floats rumors about large cities like pollen in a great meadow.

“You talk too much, Paulo,” his mother scolded him. “Eat. Don’t wear our guest out for me.”

But the boy continued, and Servi felt a bit like the older brother returned from the great overseas voyage. Feeling like Claudia’s son did not damped Servi’s attraction toward her, but the source of the sensation unsettled him, and he pushed it to a remote corner of his addled mind. All evening long he had watched her in a little sun dress, studded with daisies, moving about the kitchen like an Italian matron: padding back and forth on bare feet from the stove to the sink, the sink to the kitchen with pasta, bread, wine. Servi watched with devotional awe the surge of muscle beneath the sheer material of her skirt, and marveled at her slim arms and sharp elbows, as if the dichotomy of this woman made in flesh was also etched in the universal form of Female Herself.

When the meal was over and the boy was in his pajamas Claudia told him to kiss Servi. The boy did so dutifully on the cheek. It was 9PM in June, and streaks of ruddy light arched over the Roman sky, as if the sun had not really set, but was merely hiding beneath the horizon, awaiting for an unsuspecting and auspicious moment to reappear where it has just gone missing.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mothers & Sons, VII

Claudia led Servi through a winding alley which ended in a high courtyard. A line of clothes hung above them; shirts and pants rustled stiffly in the warm breeze. Servi felt yet another shiver at the confluence of memory and experience: he had, as a boy, escaped from nearly every institution designed to provide him with care. Most of the time, he knew his way home, but once, during afternoon religious instruction at his local Roman Catholic Church, he was following his class down a hallway when he saw a door. Doors are for exiting, so Servi found himself on the street. He was not familiar with the neighborhood around Saint Jude’s Church, so after wandering around for a half hour, he began to cry. After another half hour, he was in front of the rectory. An old nun saw him and accompanied him back to his class.

Servi was suspended in some form of half-life, some purgatory designed not to expunge his soul of sin, but to keep him from choosing between either or or. He wanted to be home but despised it; he fled his mother only to return. He corroded the valves of his heart with emotions as conflicting as identical poles of two magnets, forced together again and again without natural compliance or complicity.

And now he was here, at twenty-three, being led by a mother to a son, an escapee who had so ritualized the routine that it had become as mundane as a neighborhood football game.

Claudia entered a rectory and on a broad, wide oak table sat her son in front of a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. An old priest with wide, round glasses like an owl’s eyes and a head shaved to a gray stubble, was quietly speaking with the boy in the soft accents of the Roman dialect which are employed domestically, over a supper table or in a bedroom.

“Ahh, Senora Sacredotte,” the priest rose up from his chair. “You are here for Paulo, no?”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mothers & Sons, VI

Servi walked quickly alongside Claudia Sacerdotte. She asked him several pointed questions about his visit to Rome, and upon hearing his answers, clicked her tongue in evident disapproval.

“A young man should not waste his time like that,” she said, glancing at him as they walked. “How old are you, anyway?” Servi told her. She clicked her tongue again. “I have ten years on you, so I should know about lost time.”

From the flow of the conversation, from the biting edge of her words and her teasing, tense and imaginative sense of the world, Servi thought they may sleep together. He imagined her as the tour guide of eros, giving him instructions in French, German, Hebrew, English, Italian, in technique, speed, etiquette; she would attach to sex the same commando style which she imposed on a group of aging Germans: firm, gentle, brisk, polite, but always with one eye on the clock, continually aware that days and nights and sex were cycles to be enacted, and that like a guided tour around the heart of the capital of Christendom, it must come to a conclusion, whether satisfying or not.

Servi watched Claudia speak with one of the day school attendants, who told her that her son Paulo was nowhere to be found.

“Oh Jesus,” the attended explained, looking about. “He’s escaped again.” On hearing this, Claudia did not register any visible distress. She just glanced at Servi knowingly.

“They can’t even keep track of one little boy,” she said to him loudly, so the other woman could hear. “I can lead forty French pensioners around by their noses but they can’t hold onto one boy.”

“We have a dozen little boys here, Senora Sarcedotte,” the woman answered primly.

“Your son is missing?” Servi asked Claudia, alarmed.

“Don’t worry,” Claudia pulled Servi away by his arm. “He is only ritually lost. He always goes to the same place.”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mothers & Sons, V

The day went on like this: three German groups, two French, a group of Scotswomen in English. The guide did not stop even for lunch. Servi did not get off the bus. The woman changed languages but not the intensity of her presentation and the veracity and firmness in which she projected it: the Vatican, the Pallazo Nova, the Pantheon, the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus, the Forum, a roll call of Roman antiquity in four languages and four gears, with marginalia presented by the bus driver, who grunted and groaned at the woman’s whispered commands. This was the same will which she had used to drop off her reluctant son at the day school. The impulse which Lot’s wife succumbed to, but not this woman.

Then it was all over. Servi was once again alone on the bus but no other group came on. The woman was in front of him, casting him a wan smile, an expression which all at once seemed to inform and confuse him about her motivations and drives. She threw a bag over her shoulder and placed both her hands firmly on her hips.

“Now you have to get off,” she said in English, only to finish in Italian. “The bus goes back to the garage and I must go fetch my son.”

“I can come?” Servi asked.

“To the garage?” the woman answered, raising her eyebrows.

“No, to get your son.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, turning away. So Servi followed her into the street.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mothers and Sons, IV

Servi did not look out the window. He simply watched the woman speak Hebrew into the microphone. The hail of words were incomprehensible, but occasionally Servi could hear such terms at Vatican City, the Pope, Michelangelo, the Sistine Ceiling, and noticed without intersest that he was in front of such and such a monument to human artistic achievement.

They would get down on the street, and the woman would point and speak, and then they were on the bus again, moving rapidly down the Via Veneto. Scooters surrounded the bus, like sucker fish near a shark, moving ahead and behind, forward and back, of the larger beast. Servi saw this only through the corner of his eye, for he solely watched the woman.

Now, after nearly an hour of surveillance, he thought that perhaps she was not really like his mother at all. Her face was far more theatrically inclined; the lines beneath the eyes gave the woman a certain gravity to her expression which offset her quick step, her fast talking, and the glimmer of her white skin like light kissing the surface of polished marble.

And then it was over. Servi was all alone on the bus, and the woman was no longer at the microphone. All the elderly Israelis were gone, and Servi sat in the seat in front of some second class hotel he did not recognize on some side street he could not name.

The woman was talking to the bus driver in Italian. The man was grunting in response. Then she was in front of Servi. She did not even try to address him in Hebrew, but in English.

“You need to get off,” she said primly. “We have to clean the bus for the next group.”

“How did you know I speak English,” Servi answered in Italian. The woman just flicked her wrist.

“I do this for a living,” she answered in Italian. “I can tell from a glance who is who and where they are from… even someone like you, who tries to hide it with your big beard and shabby clothes. You can’t hide it from me,” she wagged her finger at him, as if he was a naughty child. “It’s in the face, the hands, the walk, America, America, America.” She seemed irritated, but she smiled at Servi. “You have to get off, another group is coming.”

“What language?”

“German,” she explained, placing a hand on her hip. She gazed inscrutably at Servi.

“I can’t understand German either,” Servi answered.

“Well,” the woman explained, dropping her hand from her hip, “then there is no harm in staying on, I suppose.” She smiled brightly at this idea, but then the smile fell from her face, as if the notion pleased and displeased her in such rapid succession, the sensation was irritating.

Then Servi was once again surrounded by elderly people, and the woman took up the microphone and addressed them in German.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mothers & Sons, III

Servi watched the woman as she approached a door surrounded by a phalanx of other women and children. The woman passed off the boy somewhere in the scrum, and  walked briskly away, never looking back.

Servi followed her. She trotted down the street in medium sized heels. He watched the long arch of her legs, her sturdy calves as they tensed and flexed as she skipped down the sidewalk, the hint of strong thigh revealed through the tight outline of her skirt. Her upper body was skimpy compared to her lower, as if a creator had meant to fashion a woman out of hardy, peasant stock and ran out of material above the waist. She wore some sort of uniform on her tapered upper half, a vest emblazoned with words which Servi could not read.

Then it all became apparent: she bounded on a tour bus and quickly addressed the driver, who was waving a hand dismissively toward her. She picked up a microphone and was about to address the crowd behind her as Servi moved  to take a seat near the front.

For a moment, she looked at the young man keenly, as if she may know him, but then blinked and the expression fell from her face, like a curtain falling from a window and revealing a rainy day. She licked her lips and began to speak. She spoke to two dozen elderly men and women quickly in a language Servi did not recognize. She spoke rapidly but efficiently in this strange tongue, harsh with gutturals and sudden with full stops and brimming with brisk, skipping vowels. Servi thought it was Arabic, but then saw an Israeli newspaper in an old man’s hand and realized it was Hebrew.

The woman began to gesture with her right hand out the window as the bus pulled away from the curb and into a harrowing wall of Roman morning traffic.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mothers and Sons, II

Servi’s first real memory floated to the service, like a bubble rising through the taut surface of a heavy liquid: Servi was in the basement of a Roman Catholic Church. Despite his protests in the morning, here he was with other children.

Servi remembered the casual anarchy of the room: work tables and play areas and he was supposed to move from one to the other with the regularity of a tide. But Servi clung with tenacity to one task, not for the joy of doing it, but because of the fear of novel arrangements. Every now and again a Mother-Helper would coax Servi to adjust the horizons of his expectations and move on to another task. Servi continued on because his mother promised him she remained in the parking lot in the car. He realized that she was out there, above ground, waiting for him to complete his circuit of tables; to perform the tasks he was meant to finish for goals which were as inexplicably hidden, as obscure as the knot of life tight and clean he held within him.

One fine day the children were brought into the parking lot to complete a task in the open air, and Servi did not see his mother’s familiar blue car. Servi cried without a thread of consolation. When his mother arrived to pick him up, she explained that she simply went to buy the Newsday. The lie was apparent, but when Servi returned to the Volkswagen he accepted it as a natural truth. It was his first real breach of trust, and it passed by without evident notice or regard, only to be played out later, on a wider screen, in different cities, houses, apartments, with other women.

From then on, the world had a solid surface, but the hot magma beneath could burst at any moment. Servi walked on the eggshells of disharmony; he felt at any moment that the chasm would open between his feet.

He knew the lie was not an unpardonable monument to neglect. It was merely a question of the abuse of fundamentals. It was the carrot offered to a young boy on the end of the maternal stick, the incentive to get him to do what he did not want to do, which is the prerogative of mothers; that this was Servi’s first memory, the anchor by which all his other memories hinged, formed a disagreeably fragile impression of the solid forms of the world. Like a keystone in a bridge, this was the piece which held up the entire edifice of Aaron Servi’s past and present.

And although he laughed at the lie, mocked it, held it up into the sun for casual ridicule or gleeful scorn, even bloodied it with a thorny switch, its power was magisterial. In the arena of Servi’s psyche where matters ran deeply, darkly, it held the paramount position.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mothers and Sons, I

[This was part of a longer work, tossed aside for what seemed like good reasons at the time.  The 'novel' does not have a very elegant name, which I won't reveal here.  As far as I can tell this story deals with Italian mother fixations, that old myth, secret Jewish tendencies, yet another nice fiction, and the urge of men to control women, even obliquely - probably true most of the time, but not as much as some may think. EM]


1. There was something about the woman which reminded Aaron Servi of his mother. Perhaps it was the way she towed her son along, like a ship bringing some object across its wake by an unskilled helmsman, dragging him to and fro in choppy, unsettled waters.

Perhaps it was her bobbed brown hair, her hazel eyes, and her pert, impertinent nose, so much like his mother's that Servi blinked again and again to force the persistent image to fade away. Perhaps it was none of these elements. Something dark and evasive moved across this busy, sun drenched street in Rome, like a rumor of some sin or malfeasance which no person could name or utter, but which rested over the avenue like a miasma, a concealing pall, the very form of something broken with a world that remains settled in the shell of a dark mystery.

Servi did not doubt that she was dragging the boy to some day school on her way to work. They were speaking to each other rapidly and in the bustle of the street and the wail of the scooters, Servi could not hear a clear word. But from the texture of the sounds they produced, he could tell that neither was truly listening to what the other said.  Their words were carried aloft in the rush and tumult of the morning avenue, never to meet.

There were two dramas being enacted here, the mother’s and the son’s, and they only glancing intersected along this busy street, in the hustle to get somewhere, in the crevices between the need to arrive and the desperate posture to love and protect. Servi saw the connections between this scene and the scenes of his own existence grow like a vine spreading up a tree, prepared to choke it of nourishing light and water and air

He felt  sadness for the boy. The sadness resembled the melancholy of Servi as a youngster to such a vivid extent that he became the boy, looking up at his lovely mother, assembling some plea which she would only dissemble with a hail of biting words.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reuven's Vow V (End)

The next day, Reuven was summoned before the court. They ordered Reuven to do penance. He was to pay a certain sum to charity. He was to lay on the threshold of the synagogue until each congregant touched him with their shoe, a symbol of his disgrace. All his charms and books of magic were to be collected and burned. Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem scolded Reuven, and by implication, the Jews of Safed, for their mystical excursions. Such activities, he explained, make a man perform heresy with his body and speak blasphemy with his lips. The court, before they disbanded, ordered that the corpses’ remains be buried according to Jewish law. They commanded the keeper of the graves to sit near the tomb every night for two years and recite psalms, lest the corpse emerge again to make claims on the living.

And Reuven Ben Sosa? He married his betrothed, of course. He no longer made amulets, recited spells, or studied the Cabbala. Considering his experience, this was not surprising. But his penance went even further. He banished all frivolity from his life. For the rest of his days he never smiled, laughed, or told a joke. What can you expect from a man who betrothed a corpse in a moment of jest, and then got out of it on a mere technicality? For Reuven Ben Sosa the earth became but an ante-chamber to the World to Come.

To him, this was no joke.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reuven's Vow IV

Later the court met behind closed doors and debated the case.

“The case is clear,” Rabbi Gershom of Hebron stated. “The dead have no claims on the living, especially in matters of marriage. The vow is null!”

“But,” the rabbi from Safed explained. “A vow is a vow. Even if made in jest, and even to a corpse, it must be fulfilled, and it abrogates previous vows…The assertion had strong precedent." Everyone began to speak at once. Eventually, Rabbi Menachem of Tiberias was able to make his voice heard above the rest.

“Good Jews, if we allow this corpse its claim, bodies will rise from the hollowed ground to redeem all manner of things, from marriage rights to property claims, and there will be no end to this. This court will never adjourn. The earth will shake to its very foundations and God, blessed be his name, will damn our generation. A way must be found to annul the vow!”

There was a great deal of bickering. It seemed the case could not be resolved in Reuven ben Sosa’s favor. He would have to marry the corpse and, God forbid, consummate the marriage. Then a rabbi from Beersheba  burst into the chambers with a old book of rabbinical responsa, crumbling about its bindings.

“Holy men,” he proclaimed, “I have found a way out!”

The court reconvened. The whole town was crowded into the crusader castle to hear the verdict. Reuven was brought in, followed by the corpse. When it appeared again, there was a fresh round of fainting. It was no less terrifying from repeated exposure. Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem spoke for the court:

“A vow is sacred,” he started, “and should not be entered into frivolously. Japheth vowed to sacrifice a human being and was forced to slay his own daughter! Reuven ben Sosa has committed a grave sin and vowed a binding vow in jest…” and here the crowd murmured, thinking Reuven would have to marry the corpse.

“In such a case,” Rabbi Simcha continued, “the conclusion is foregone. The most recent vow is the binding one… its abrogates all previous vows, whether it was made in seriousness or in jest, to the living or the dead…” There were a great many screams. Reuvan’s mother collapsed, imaging a corpse for a daughter-in-law. When the turmoil ceased, Rabbi Simcha continued.

“However, this is a special case. The bride and groom were betrothed before each of them was born. The vow was made not by the bride and groom, but by their parents. There is a precedent: Rabbi Meir bar Pinchas, the great sage of Babylon, wrote that such a vow can not be annulled unless one of the party dies before the day of the wedding. Such a vow is ordained in the chambers of heaven, since the souls of the bride and groom are still dwelling in our Father’s Mansion. Therefore, this court annuls the vow of Reuven Ben Sosa to this corpse, and commands this poor body to return to the earth!”

The corpse let out a wail in one moment and in the next fell to the floor in a jumbled heap of bones and tattered shroud. Half the Jews in the hall fled in terror while the other half wailed and cowered. When things calmed, the Burial Society was summoned to claim the remains from the crusader castle. They carefully removed Reuven’s ring from its finger.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reuven's Vow III

Reuven’s father smacked his son’s right cheek, and then the left. The young man stood silently in front of his father, the shame dripping off him like lather from an overworked mule.

“Fool,” his father hissed. “This is what you get from joking… from pranks.”

The rabbi met with Reuven’s father and the elders of Safed. No one knew what to do. The corpse stood in the town square, where the chuppah had been erected, stock still. No one dared approach it. No one went to the marketplace or study house. Life in Safed ground to a halt. The elders poured over the responsa to find a precedent for the case. They could not find one. They would need to convene a rabbinical court to decide the case.

Prominent rabbis from the four sacred cities in the land of Israel, Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, and elsewhere, gathered in Safed. Seventy in all convened, and the Jews of Safed were in awe. Not since the days of the Great Sanhedrin had such an august body been assembled. The court did not meet in the synagogue, for there was not enough room to accommodate the judges and the great crowds of spectators. The large hall in the old crusader castle was used instead.

The rabbis first called Reuven’s two companions. Meekly, they told the story of what happened on that terrible day: their merriment and drinking; the finger jutting out of the ground; the dare that Reuven ben Sosa should place his wedding ring upon it and his compliance; and finally, the horrifying flight from the mad, pursuing corpse. Most of the rabbis on the court, aged men who had heard many strange cases, shook their heads in amazement.

Reuven was then brought in and testified. He confirmed the details of the story. Several members of the court scolded him for his frivolity and arrogance. He hung his head very low.

Finally, and with great trepidation, the court called in the corpse. The clerk raised a quavering voice to summon her, and in a few moments, the body entered through the door. Her shroud trailed behind her like a flitting shadow. The people closed their eyes with their hands, moaned and wailed as the corpse entered. Several people fainted, and had to be carried out. Only with effort was order restored. The great Rabbi Simcha of Jerusalem addressed the corpse first.

“Is it true that Reuben ben Sosa placed a ring on your finger?”

“It is true,” the corpse hissed. It shifted its weight, and its bones rattled like loose stones in a sack.

“Were there two witnesses in attendance,” Rabbi Gershom of Hebron asked, waving a yellow finger aloft.

“Yes, and he recited the vow in accordance with Holy Law,” the corpse answered, and on hearing this, the people cried and moaned again. Rabbi Menachen of Tiberias held up his hand to restore order.

“You must relinquish your claim,” he yelled sternly at the corpse. “You are dead, and the defendant is living!”

“I died before I could marry, esteemed rabbi,” the corpse moaned. “I died before I had my hour of joy. I demand it now, even in my cerements. I demand that the vow be fulfilled and the marriage be consummated!”

A great uproar arose. Some of the oldest rabbis in the court fainted. People tried to revive them with smelling salts and slaps on the face. Men and women tore at their hair and ripped their clothing. That such a thing could happen, they cried, must be birth pangs of the coming of the Messiah!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reuven’s Vow II

The next day, the day of Reuven’s wedding, his companions begged him to tell his father and the rabbi about the corpse. But Reuven refused. He told them the dead did not have long memories, not like the living. The corpse would grow confused in the hills and move away from Safed, or else return back to the earth.

Reuven found another ring in his young sister’s room, and prepared for the wedding. He was confident that yesterday’s experience was simply some trick. He had been exorcising dybbuks and demons for years, and now, on the eve of his wedding, one was trying to play a joke on him by animating a corpse.

Reuven stood under the chuppah next to the rabbi. All Safed turned out for the wedding. A feast fit for a Pasha has been laid out for the reception. The veiled bridegroom was escorted to the canopy by a gaggle of maidens and stood next to Reuven.

The rabbi was about to begin the service when a strong wind suddenly kicked up. Men’s hats flew off their heads and women’s dresses flared up to their waists. The day was warm, but there was the unmistakable smell of snow and ice held aloft. Then the wind turned into a shrill, sustained hiss, and then a scream. People at the back of the crowd began to wail, and the crowd fainted or scurried away in a quickly disappearing mass, like frost melting on a window.

The corpse in its the shroud was making its way to the chuppah. Everyone took several steps back. Reuven’s bride fainted dead away. The corpse screamed, and then found a voice. Her shroud moved as if breath was issuing from her mouth. She lifted her arms as she spoke and the shroud rustled like a curtain flying off its rod.

“Why do you marry, Reuven ben Sosa, when you are betrothed to me?” she said, her voice was high and reedy, as if a breath of air had been squeezed through a narrow crag in a rock. On hearing this, the people standing near the chuppah gasped and wailed. Many men tore their garments. Reuven, never at a loss for words, could not find his tongue. All eyes went from him to the corpse and back again, but he could not utter a sound. It was the rabbi who spoke.

“Dead woman,” he asked with a quiver in his voice, “why do you rise from your grave to aggrieve the living?”

“This man is my betrothed,” the corpse answered without hesitation.

“How can this be?” the rabbi stated, his tone more firm. “A corpse cannot marry the living.”

“He gave me his ring,” the corpse answered, holding aloft its bony left hand. The rabbi took a reluctant step toward the corpse. The ring clearly bore Reuven’s initials. People began to scream and shout. To the Jews of Safed, it was as if the sun had stood still in the sky.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reuven’s Vow (a story based on a Jewish folktale, in VI parts)

Safed is called the town of a thousand mystics. Thrust a rod out, the saying goes, and hit a Cabbalist. But it is also said: Safed is a town where Jews scream out their prayers, and mumble their heresies.

In a town where everyone’s nose is between the pages of The Zohar, it is said that men often fall over even tiny stones in the road. When a man’s head contemplates the ten divine sephiroth, he often fails to see the two mounds of manure in his path. And this was the case with Reuven ben Sosa and his terrible vow.

Reuven ben Sosa, at seventeen, was already a noted Cabbalist. He knew vast tracts of The Zohar by heart. He wrote amulets which could cure all manner of ills, from a tooth ache to a tumor. If someone was possessed by a dybbuk or demon, no one thought of calling anyone else but Reuven ben Sosa. He would walk right up to the possessed person, and speak to the demon in a strange language. He would cajole, threaten, scold or even praise it to leave the unfortunate body it had stolen, and he never failed. Reuven ben Sosa, at such a tender age, spoke the language of the shades. People respected and feared him. He also came from an old family, who had lived both in Safed and the land of Israel as long as anyone could recollect. His father was a noted Cabbalist and his father before him. In Safed, Reuven ben Sosa’s family were leading citizens.

If Reuven ben Sosa had one fault it was a certain sense of frivolity. He enjoyed a practical joke, and was fond of telling humorous tales. His father frowned upon it, but what could he do? Reuven never told a joke or played a prank in front of his father, and no one could deny the boy’s great gifts. If anyone said anything bad about Reuven ben Sosa it was something along this line: even the greatest diamond has some flaw. But in Safed, if you had an illness or needed mediation with the unseen, who else could you call? Safed needed Reuven ben Sosa even with his little pranks.

As Reuven approached his eighteenth birthday, the date of his wedding was set. He had been betrothed to a girl from another prominent Safed family before Reuven or the girl were born.

Listen: on the day before his wedding, Reuven and two young companions took a lighthearted stroll through the hills around Safed: . It was early spring, and in the evening it had snowed. Safed was muffled in a blanket of white, but the sun was warm, and the southern slopes of the hills quickly melted, revealing spring’s first swaying flowers. The ground thawed, and the mud became churned up.

The young men walked to the banks of a stream and sat on a large stone. One produced a bottle of sweet red wine and the young men all drank to Reuven’s marriage, tipping the bottle back. They teased him about the great beauty of his betrothed (whom he had never seen) and the prospect of joy on the wedding night. One of the young men rose to relieve himself. Near an exposed embankment, he saw a strange thing thrusting out from the ground. He called over Reuven and his other companion.

“What is it, Yitzhak, did you find King Solomon’s treasure?” Reuven asked

“I don’t know, Reuven,” the young man answered. “It looks like a finger stuck in the ground.”

Reuven ben Sosa bent down. It did indeed look like a human finger thrusting out of the earth. The three young men began to joke about the finger. One dared Reuven to place the ring destined for his betrothed, and engraved with his initials, onto the finger. Reuven, never shy about taking a humorous dare, placed the ring on the brown, chalky finger, its bones clearly visible beneath a sheath of mud. He then recited the benediction: harai at m’kudeshet li, you are betrothed to me, three times. Nothing happened. One of Reuven’s friends chuckled. They all listened: all they could hear was the rushing of the stream, swollen with snow melt.

Suddenly, the stream stopped its roaring. The birds, who had been chirping in the trees above them, fell silent. It was as if a great muffling veil had been thrown over the land. A cloud moved across the sky and the spring sun and the hills were smothered in cold. A great roar then peeled. It sounded not unlike ice cracking during the spring thaw, but with a tinge of human sorrow, like a cry.

Reuven bent to remove the ring and the finger twitched. The moan, which to that point had not been localized (it seemed to emanate from all around them, in every rock, tree and clod of dirt) now was clearly coming from the finger; or more properly, from the wet hole of mud opening around the finger. The hole grew in depth until an arm, shoulder and then quickly, like a baby sluicing from his mother’s womb, the torso and legs emerged in front of the young men.

She was clad in a tattered funeral shroud, shredded and caked with mud, and it covered her head; only the blank orbit of her eyes were visible, like a tracing beneath transparent, sodden paper. A twisted knot of hair still clung to her skull and fell down her neck in ragged streamers. The corpse howled and moaned.

At first, Reuven ben Sosa held his ground. For a moment he entertained the notion that he would tackle the corpse and wrestle the ring from her. But his companions grasped him by each arm and began to run.

All the way back to Safed, the young men ran, and all the while the horrible moaning and wailing trailed them. It was only in the evening, as they entered the town in a sprint and barred themselves in the study house, that the infernal noise ceased.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Voice of Water VII (The End)

Was that his car? She turned around, but her hair was loose, and she lost sight of what she had seen. Was it the blue convertible? Was it him at all? There was a man approaching from Newberry Street. He was wearing the mafia outfit. But it wasn’t him, just a collection of his features hung on the wrong man. She crossed the street and there was the cowboy, with the ten gallon hat and the bolo tie, but the traits were arranged in the wrong configuration, making a mockery of his appearance. The man stared at her possessively. What gives you the right to be alone, his gaze said.

Her shoe almost fell off as she walked down the steep steps of the Arlington T stop. She waited for the train and when it came sat in an empty car with an old man. She felt as if she was wearing the wrong clothes again. She pulled at her collar and squirmed in her coat. She took off the hat which was suddenly as tight as a tourniquet. The old man was mumbling something. Then he started to scream.

“You have to get away! You have to run! You need to return from where you came! Do you think that this is a dress rehearsal? You’ll come back as a flea or a rat if you don’t run. You’ll fuck your shot. It’s all pussies and cocks, pussies and cocks, until they’re gone. Just  nothing. What will you have then, little girl? All that comes is the next thing and the next thing. When does it end? Does it come in one big pulse or in  short squirts? It is water or come? Are you going to drink it all at once? You’ll stumble around in the muck of and get stuck and then you’ll come back to blame me!”

He continued the tirade, screaming a roll call of crimes. A conductor entered the car and told the man to shut up.

“Are you alright madam?” he asked. “Do you want to have him arrested? Is he harassing you?”

“No,” Sarah smiled with fatigue. “He's telling the truth.”

And out on the street all the faces reflected the black and the white. The dry and the wet. And Sarah beamed at them, as if they had a gift to give her. And even the faces of the men, lean and hungry, yearning and hot, had a something special to impart to her, and she let it wash over her body greedily, even as she feared and hated them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Voice of Water VI

Then again knocking. Sarah was seated at the window, watching the leaves fall off the maple. She knew that he knew she was in; but he never did a repeat performance. Once again he was gone. She could see him get into his car, this time in a sailing outfit, a blue cap and white jacket with a nautical logo and dockers. He did not look up. If he did, he could see her. He was too disciplined to look, but his visits were becoming more frequent. She felt him wanting to look up, but shaking off the impulse. Then he was gone.

He came the next day, just as Sarah had on her coat and was about the leave. He knocked and she stood still. Then the unexpected. He knocked again; a peel of five knocks. She dare not look out the window. She knew he was looking up. Something had changed in the web they had built together. Sarah saw a small hole in the criss-crossing lines, and knew how she could make it wider with just her little finger. Then she could simply leap out.

She was sitting under an oak tree on the divider of Commonwealth Avenue. A fountain was gushing water. A great oak tree was shedding acorns. Squirrels dashed around; hoarding transformed them into dervishes. Then he was standing there in his herringbone coat, fedora hat, and high waisted paints: his F. Scott Fitzgerald look.

“I was with the Scientologists concluding a deal,” he told her. She did not believe him. He handed her a brochure she refused to take. “Even though I make them shit loads of money, they can’t resist. They want me to eat their crap sandwich and tell them it’s filet mignon. That’s their deal,” He waved a hand dismissively and studied her. “ I get the impression you’re avoiding me.”

“Avoiding is a strong word. I’ve been alone for days. I’ve hardly spoken a word.”

“You have the right. You’re you and I’m me. What can we do about that? To think there is more is preposterous. But I thought there was something there, a ligament that connected us. And I don’t mean the sex.”

“There was. There is” she concluded. And the nagging sensation was back. She could feel his desire to hit her. She wondered how she would react.

“There was,” he repeated and squatted beside her. He held his keys on the ring, as large and round as a warden’s, and jiggled them heavily. “I’m the ladder and now you’ve kicked it away? You’ve seen what life can be without the bullshit? I gave you a great gift and now you want to just walk away from me and stride off into some place of light?”

“There isn’t any place. You’ve said so yourself.”

“Oh, there is a place Sarah. Not a place like under this oak tree. Our in the bed of that little shit who laps you up. And not light like that light, coming down like these asshole acorns. But there is a place. And it can be dangerous to go there alone. You need someone to grasp you ankles. Hold you down. That can only be me and you know it.”

“You made a good pitch for everything. The moment. The fleetingness of things. The connectedness of everything. Now I can taste it, and you want to take it out of my mouth.”

“No,” he answered, shaking his head. “I just want to take my cut. I always take my cut. Money. Sex. This gift I’ve given you. Did you think it would come without a price?”

“There are no prices,” she stood up and straightened her skirt. “I got what I wanted and I did it alone. You said it was mine and that it had no price.”

“Well, I lied.”

“You said you never lie,” she answered him sternly.

“I lied about that,” he said low and even.

“Then we’re done. Don’t come around any more.”

“It’s not that easy,” he answered, smiling. “You have to pay for what I’ve given you. I never told you the price.”

But she did not hear his terms, for she had quickly walked away.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Voice of Water V

Sarah walked along the Esplanade. Ahead was the great shaved rump of Beacon Hill. A string of lights ran up its flank, like stars that had fallen from the sky and were extinguishing slowly in a field of melting snow. She reached out her hand, and felt the space between her and that unlikely field of light dissipate. It was as if her body and the lights had breached their distance for a few moments, hovering together in a dance that was outside of deliberation. When it was done she was weeping. She couldn’t stop crying. She thought of calling him to beg him. He could ground her with his earthy ways. But something was changing. An alteration was taking place. His voice had taken on a new tone.

He was sitting across from her in a track suit. He had returned from the gym with a large ring of keys in his hand, which he fingered incessantly. Sarah listened to him speak.

“Everyone thinks they know the score. Everyone has the angle. For most, it’s money. That’s the American way. If I had X amount of money, I could be free of Y and Z. But most people don’t realize what a terrible burden freedom is. Time that isn’t confined between two walls of compression is as valueless as fresh air or water that comes out of the tap. Time becomes crap. That is one of the reasons you are special.”

“I’m special,” Sarah answered, smiling. “That might be the first time you’ve complemented me.”

“You don’t fall into the traps. You don’t look for it here, or there, of over yonder, you know that it is right here, right now. It’s not over the next rise. It isn’t down in that valley. You won’t find it on the end of some guy’s prick deep inside your pussy. What does it matter, how many pricks you have? They don’t leave a mark. They couple with you and then they leave. What matters is this moment, right now. Be here in this moment. Otherwise, everything else is shit.”

“You talk more than ever.”

“Maybe,” he answered evenly. “My eyes are open. I can see it, whereas before I was chasing my tale. That’s why I like you. You’re like me. You don’t care what happened yesterday and you don’t give a shit about tomorrow. I don’t care if you were gangbanged this morning. All I care about is you, now.”

“You sure know how to sweet talk a girl.”

“Look what I have…” He opened his gym bag. He took out a roll of socks, a syringe and a bag. “Do you have an old spoon? Even a new one? Who gives a fuck, right?”

She could hear his knock. He wasn’t one to knock in multiple times. She heard a peel of knocking and then silence. He gave up quickly. He knew her habits of long absence. She gazed out the window to see him in the street. He jumped into his convertible. He was wearing his Mafia attire: a high navy turtle neck sweater poured into a gold blazer. His mirrored sunglasses glinted. Then he was gone.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Voice of Water IV

In the morning he had left his vest behind. She took it and tossed it with his other cast away garments. Her head felt clear and light. Her body, heavy and leaden. There was no hot water, so when she emerged from the shower, she was shivering. She found a terry cloth towel and wrapped herself but she was still chilled. Then she covered herself with every blanket she could find. But still she felt cold down to her bones. She turned the stove to 500 degrees and sat next to the open door, her teeth chattering and her skin stiff.

“Ya need ta call me, ya havta Sarah, your father is sick…”

Sarah listened to her mother’s messages. They came in a rapid salvo, four in a half hour. Then a day later, another message, swift but plaintive, explaining that her father was home. His heart attack was stress. The doctors ordered him to bed.

Sarah followed her father’s doctor’s advice. She removed her pants and crawled into bed. She realized that she sun was just rising. She smiled at the thought of her world turned upside down as she fell into sleep.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Voice of Water III

Sarah peered into the hall. He was there, in this three piece garment and the wide seventies tie. Under his arm was a briefcase. She let him in and he smiled warmly. He wore his gold rimmed glasses. His silver and rhino tooth cuff links glimmered in the light of the hallway.

“I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d drop by,” he drawled. He kept the case close to him as he pocketed his glasses.

“I was here yesterday Katz, but you were gone,” he said factually.“That’s just fine. You should take off. Why stay in one spot? I don’t. If you’re not here, I figure, hell, she’s off having a good time. She’s young, attractive. She has that great mane of black curly hair. That serious nose.Those dark blue eyes that fade to black. She can stride into any room and get exactly what she needs. Why not, right?”

“What’s in the briefcase you’re strong-arming?” Sarah asked, ignoring his wide insinuations.

“A little appetizer from a business deal I concluded today.” He laid it flat on the table and snapped it open. A bag of coke stared back at her. She looked at him through narrow eyes.

“It’s been a while,” he said, running a hand through his shorn hair. “How about a snort or two for old time’s sake?”