Monday, July 14, 2014

Coda IX

VII.     More planes swooped low but either they did not care about Boris, or the drooping, interlocking branches of the hummock concealed him.  It was then that Boris realized he was in great peril, that he was in the very midst of a war zone.  He felt giddy with a dizzy, irrational delight.  Two great armies were encircling the Farstuken Swamp.  Boris looked up.  Some planes bore the swastika, and some the hammer and sickle.
            “After finding Schulevitz,” Boris said aloud, “I’ll try my luck with the Soviets.  I’m blacklisted by the regime --- and they’ll probably kill me.  But I know the Germans will kill me…”
            So Boris plodded on.  As he moved from hummock to hummock along the trail, he finally reached a hut.  It was standing in a circular clearing no more than forty feet in diameter.  It was constructed of rough logs and had a thatch roof of twigs and branches; only a wool blanket between the chinks in the logs as a door.
            Boris pulled the curtain aside and bending low, for the aperture was narrow, and stepped inside.

            There was not a soul there.  There was a simple bunk, the remains of an old study house bench.  There was no fire pit in the floor.  There was a loaf of bread on a board and a basket of apples.  And that was all except for about a dozen books, elevated on pine boards so that no sacred tome should touch the ground.
            Boris bent down and gazed at the covers and bindings.  Most were the works of old Chasidic masters of great piety who bore the Torah on their shoulders like a yoke on an ox.  The Duties of the Heart, The Righteous Path, The Pious Exertions. All were old volumes and as Boris flipped through them, and he saw that the margins were annotated in a precise, small hand in Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic.  There was a sheaf of loose papers next to the volumes, but nothing was written on them.  Boris looked about:  this could only by Yasha Schulevitz’s hut, he decided, almost mouthing the words.  But where was the old lunatic? 
            Outside the noise of the battle grew dim.  Boris became aware of his great hunger.  He ripped a hunk of bread from the loaf and chewed an apple.  Then his body grew heavy.  He sat on the study house bench and reclined.  Before he knew it, he was fast asleep.

VIII.    Boris awoke with a start.  What sounded like distant gunfire may have only been the pounding of his heart.  He had a terrible headache.  He hadn’t had a dram of liquor in days.
            A few snatches of verse filled his clouded mind.  Boris had not written as much as his name in a year, so this sudden desire to write a bit of poetry surprised him with its urgency.  He grasped the pen and wrote some verse on the yellowing sheaf of papers:

            Alive, her black hair
            Like a sheen of lustrous silk
            Alive, her skin, white
            Like a vessel of alabaster
            Alive, her very carriage
            That motivates her core
            Love lerches forward, like matter
            Blind to the forces that created her
            Alive, the mother of all things
            Crouching in her womb
            Alive, until death overtakes her
            That pull is ancient, but futile
            In the face of her life!

            Boris finished writing, and then read what he wrote.  He laughed aloud.  It was a Hebrew poem of Yasha’s.  He had even heard the man recite it in Warsaw some ten years ago.  An uncanny sensation gripped Boris, as if he had lived this moment, in this very hut, with this identical poem, once before.  And then there was a man in the threshold of the door, gazing at him.
            “The armies of Gog and Magog are battling,” the figure said in Warsaw accented Yiddish.  The man wore a long white beard, tangled with streaks of black.  His bedraggled ear locks hung limply from his temples like banners on a windless day.   His capote was filthy.   By looking past the thick patina of old style Chasid Boris could see that this was Yasha Schulevitz standing before him. 
            “No, Reb Schulevitz,” Boris answered, standing up, his head scrapping against the branches of the thatch roof.  “Only the Poles fighting the Germans and the Poles fighting the Russians and for all I know the Russians now fighting the Germans.”  Yasha responded at first by flipping his wrist dismissively.
            “Goyim… goyim…” and he washed his hands in a bucket near the wall, saying the benediction before sitting and eating a slice of bread slightly larger than an olive and taking a small bite into an apple the size of a plum.  He sat across from Boris on the old study house bench.  Boris could see as Yasha ate that he had lost most of his front teeth.  Yasha Swas nearly fifty, but to Boris he looked close to seventy.
            “What have you written there?” Reb Schulevitz asked, gesturing toward the sheaf of papers.  Boris handed the poem to him and Schulevitz, squinting and tilting his head, as if his eyes were no longer acute, read the words with his mouth moving.
            “What is this?” Reb Schulevitz asked.  “A poem about God and Israel… an allegory?  The woman is Israel, but where is God?  Or is this, Heaven forbid, some sort of profane tavern ditty… and in the Holy Tongue no less.”
            “You wrote it Reb Schulevtiz,” Boris answered.
            “But that is not my handwriting,” the man said, placing the paper down.  “So it can not be.  What can I do for you, good Jew, beggar that I am?”
            “I came to haul you back to Warsaw,” Boris explained.  “But that can’t happen now.”
            “Why must you haul me back to Warsaw?” Reb Schulevitz asked, perplexed by both the statement and its rejoinder.  “And why can’t it happen?”
            “I made a vow to bring you back?”
            “A vow?” Reb Schulevitz asked, raising his bushy eyebrows, exposing his gray, dim eyes. “Vows are not to be taken lightly.  Look at Jephthah and his daughter.  How grotesque.  I have the Gemara here, what was the nature of the vow, perhaps you can be released from it without profaning the Holy Name, Blessed Be He.”
            “That’s not important now, Reb Schulevitz,” Boris answered, moving forward, nearly cutting his head on the overhanging twigs.  A plane flew over the hut.  Boris could see the swastika through the branches, as if he was in a sukka properly constructed, and the sky was visible in patches and swatches. 
            “Why is it not important?” Reb Schulevitz asked, genuinely perplexed.  “What is more important than a vow to the Almighty?  If you made such a vow, it must be carried out, or we must find some precedent to relieve you from carrying it out...”
            “I was drunk,  Reb Schulevitz,”  Boris explained.  “As drunk as a Cossack.  I made the vow to a room full of poets… the vow is meaningless.”  On hearing this, Reb Schulevitz shook his head mournfully and clucked his tongue.
            “That is too bad, my good Jew, too bad, such a thing…”
            “It makes no difference now,” Boris said, louder than before, pulling Reb Schulevitz closer to him, even enfolding his arms around the man, who was tiny, his bones thin like a bird’s.  “The world being smashed like glass under a wedding canopy.  But the bride is the Nazis and the Groom is the Soviets and at the wedding banquet we shall be eaten as the meal to break the marital fast…”
            “Goyim against the Jews,” Reb Schulevitz intoned, as if he was chanting from the Talmud.  “Our father Abraham at his wells… Queen Esther and Haman, may his name be blotted out…  The Holy Name, Blessed Be He, delivered them all…”
            “Not this time, Reb Schulevitz,” Boris pulled the man outside.  In the distance, a percussion of bombs were being dropped from a great height.   “God won’t deliver us, Reb Schulevitz.  He has withdrawn his favor from Israel.  Germans are coming from the west, and Russians from the east.  The Germans will kill us like flies, while the Russian like dogs.  I’d rather die like a dog.  Come with me…”
            “I do not wish to go,”   Reb Schulevitz pleaded.  “All my books are here.  What shall happen to them?  My body means nothing to me.  It is the spirit that is paramount.  If it is The Name’s decree, Blessed be He, that I should die, my soul may come back in the body of a humble Jewish, ready to perform the mitzvah in joy and gratitude… ”
            “If you die, Reb Schulevitz, there may no longer be Jewish bodies for your soul to inhabit.  Your precious soul will flit about this swamp and have to inhabit a pike.”
            “You should not say such a thing,” Reb Schulevitz stuttered.  “That is for God, Blessed Be His Name, and not man to decide…”
            “Man is deciding everything, Rebbe.  Man will decide who will live and who will die.” Boris laughed, pulling Yasha with him.  “How about this… perhaps this will make your departure easier for you.  I swear by the God of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob that I will rescue you from the hand of the Gentile oppressor or may my name be blotted out like the Amalekites, who refused passage to the Children of Israel into the Holy Land…
            “You must not swear!”  Reb Schulevitz sobbed.  “And such a vow is not valid without two witnesses…..”
            But there was no more time to discuss the legality of vows: a formation of planes began to bomb and strafe the Farstuken Swamp.  Bombs wailed as if they were reluctant to explode, only to do so with tremendous force, sending plumes of mud, water and reeds into the air.  Boris Kahanowitz dove onto Reb Schulevitz and covered him with his bulk.

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