by Mark Jay Mirsky
There is no independent force of evil in the Hebrew Bible or the Thousand Nights and One scholars have pointed out. A djinn or genie taking on the identity of a court appointed tempter, the Satan of The Book of Job, may be an emissary of ill report, the spy of the Oriental court, a Shaytan, sworn to the harm of man. Or he or she can simply be a creature of another realm. There are no witch-hunts, no searches for warlocks in the Arab or the Jewish world. Even the intercourse of men and women with djinns has its laws.
Were you a witch? I wanted to ask the young woman, Hannah, whom I had met in Berlin. Not a witch from the dogma of belief in Jesus, his temptation by a force of evil almost as powerful as the Unknown, that Manichean idea hidden in the heart of the Gospels. Were you an idea from the world of daemons, intermediaries between the perfect forms and this rough sphere of earth? In a single moment, whole lives flash. What is false in one moment may be true in another. Could you bring me to a place beyond the present one?
Why did I quicken, suddenly, in your presence, and believe that I was touched by a force beyond us both, and then, recalling your form, long to meet it in dream or a world of fixed hours and appointments? Was my ascription of the demonic, my response to the story I heard about you appearing unbidden in a young man's chamber? You were, at the very least, a strange spirit of the green, overcast world of Berlin.
What did it mean for Jews holding fast to a dream, the return to Paradise, to go north into latitudes of dark gloomy skies, cloudy hours during the reign of the Roman emperors? Here the laughing spirits of the desert settle on the mountain tops, in cold forests, coal burning cities, smokestacks; angry weather, bitter at man and woman, determined to tempt them into the embrace of cruel actions. Here the housewife, thinking of how far she is from the dream of nakedness and beauty that does not fade with time, shakes with tears. Her husband roused from sleepy indolence looks for a man to blame for his mate's anguish. It is the peddler who has knocked, timidly, at the back door, but shows an object flashing in his pack that promises, that far off magic that will annul the curse of time. Is it the Jew who first tells the story of a moment coming for which we must all abandon whatever certainty the present toiling on, from pleasure to pain, ground out of the day's routine, holds?
The Jewish peddler has been lured by the housewife's eager eyes, the sudden blush, a girl's in her cheeks, as she sees in him the mysterious foreigner who holds the trick of disappearing into time. The peddler's weariness falls away in the laughing invitation of her shape, swaying in the doorway. He is not a priest with a story about a man crucified who will lift her through prayers into a life after her death; or the gypsy puttering with her pots, who reads a fortune in her palm, is said to eye the baby in her cradle. It is the woman whom the peddler fixes his look upon.
"What do you have for me?" she asks.
"What do you want?"
She is afraid to answer.
Under his breath he mutters, "I will dream about you."
Her eyes tell him that she has heard, and reply with their steady gaze, "You will see me in your dream."
It comes to me in a start at my desk. I put a stopper in the bottle into which I might have disappeared into another dimension. I refused to enter her dreams when she told me how old she thought I was. For her form was still waving before me, in a cloud of cinnamon from the large bowl of cappuccino under my nose on the table, while I wavered before her as the traveler come out of the curious hopes and imaginings of letters.
Why had I insisted on what I stoutly considered to be the truth? As if what I might be, meant less than what I was in the mirror, which reflected an aging satyr six months before, in the castle. "Do you regret anything?" my wife asked me, not long ago.
"No," I answered; speaking what I thought was true.
Only now what I had done to my own image overwhelms me. I had misunderstood the question, Hannah's teasing guess was not meant to elicit a simple truth, but shimmer in the winter sky, that circumference of the Reich over our heads as if the firmament here in January had been fashioned from half a mussel shell. I should have flown with her image of me into its mottled cloudy silver shot through with tints of pink and blue. The cold Berlin sun did not beat down but like a ghost showed in the faintest streaks and tints through the pearl of that overturned bowl what I could be.
What comfort do I have--only Thoreau's cry in his journal, to seize upon regret and live in it.
Regret is the touchstone of the Christian epics. Man is born in guilt and likewise, woman, to receive the gift of hope and pardon only through the grace of a Redeemer. In this universe, age has no meaning; yet still I cannot live as Thoreau did, in the posture of that grace, regret. Did I regret my age? Her forefinger stoppers my lips.
Its touch lingers as an invitation. Try.
"And" Sheherazade might resume, "it has come to our attention that there was a teacher in the study halls of the West, stricken in years, of obscure knowledge, who disappeared from his chamber one day in the hour before his class. The man might have been called out to some duty, or gone off on a whim, but this instructor was suspected of witchcraft and it proved, when the guards were summoned to force his door that he had vanished without note or explanation. They inquired for him at his home, but he had never reached its doorstep. Nor did he appear the next day at the study hall and was not found in the week that followed. This aroused the wonder of all for many disparaged him as an idle thinker, suspect of lechery and thoughts of heresy. He left naught behind but his clothes in a heap under the desk while on top lay a packet of old letters and a crumbling book. A curse of robbers had come upon the city and there was talk of some who could spirit away a soul. But one window let into this space but barred so straightly that it could not be opened and the thick dust on its sill spoke that in a century none had passed that way. Outside the glass, dim with filth, snow and ice unbroken were yet another seal upon passage. He had, before locking himself into the space where he was wont to meditate for long hours, made a fool of himself in the hallway, laughing and jibing with young women and feigning to touch the tips of their breasts--almost a dozen of his students had seen him thus employed. When the sun sailed westward into the lordly river, extinguishing light, he was not in his office nor did the guards at the portals recall his farewell.
Those who were appointed to watch at the doors of his hall, the officers of the school, and the guardians of the city summoned from their station in the streets below its gates, could not say what happened. Before the tears of his wife, and children they stammered; nor could the officers of the district excuse themselves to their captain, and he, in turn, must admit, searching for clues, he discovered none. His report but broke wind.
The teacher to most seemed no better than a moth-blighted rag. He had imagined himself as an architect, who could draw the secrets of another world, but his work was a gibe and a byword among his colleagues. They jested to his face that he was only fit to draw a jake, or a cell for madmen. For this man, when many cups had reddened his countenance in a wine feast, let slip to his fellows that he would build a tower in which time unwound. Those who went out with draftsmen and workers to construct the city's public places, arches, markets, spaces, broad plazas and fountains thereafter could not abide him. Even his students regarded him as but a dreamer who could not draw what he spoke about and whose teaching was often babble.
This man, though, had found himself almost naked in a place, he had never before been, whose air was as warm as an oven thrown. His feet, clad neither in leather, nor cotton, sandal or shoe, but bare from heel to toe were burning on a beach of deep sand like so many tiny grains of bright gold. Beside him a blue ocean beat in waves, so brilliant he could not behold its azure bowl but half blind hastened to its edge, to plunge in and cool the soles of his feet. For they had been scorched in the moment when still, amazed at his coming hither, he had paused to observe far away, the shape of a woman.
No sooner did he raise his eyes to this apparition, then she seemed to be almost beside him and darted back a look that set every bone in him aquiver. He beheld eyes, brown as melting figs, and smelled her fragrance of orange blossoms. A shadow danced about him, teasing as her robe flew open and he saw the form of a dancer, in the folds, long of calf and thigh. He stretched to touch it but she turned to run quite opposite than toward him. He hastened after, his heart resounded like a drum faster and faster, as if a mad pounding in his chest drove him. Fast as he followed, yet her steps fled apace ahead and he was no closer to her at the end of an hour that left the breast a hollow ache within his chest, than he was when he first began. Again and again he called, but she did not turn back, nor did she slacken. Veiled, and sheathed from head to foot in a long silken robe, as she skipped before, he beheld her narrow waist, her swelling flanks, and was like to faint until he cried at last, "Do you play with me?" She indeed then spun round, pausing as he drew near, loosed the veil in the flickering of an eyelid, and disclosed a downy chin of surpassing sweetness, dimpled with a pink rose, that seemed a slip of the white moon rising in the dusk. He came so close he thought to see her high breasts ripe as pungent oranges whose stems as nubs showed through the thin stuff of her robes, smelling the sweetness of her blossoms and the taste thereof, but even as he came so close he might have touched her foot, he stumbled, and she ran on, laughing. He rose befouled with sweat and sand; and swore to himself she was known to him--though from where? He beat his hands upon his temples, but could nowise recall, yet now he redoubled his effort though he was nigh to faint. He dared not dip his feet into the cool wet strand where the waves were beating or stray that way for fear of falling too far behind but instead kept up his chase higher on the shore where the tides had pounded it firm and the sun baked it into a crust. Though scant of breath, he kept pace with the lady, withal he feared for his heart, which ached as if about to burst. Her locks loosened and floated about her shoulders.
"Stay," he called. "I will stop and not touch you, lady."
"Liar," she called.
"Why do you call me that?"
"You ravished me."
He halted in his tracks, confounded. For even as a boy without a beard only in dreams had he forced himself upon a woman, and never since long before the first down appeared under his nose did he think of doing such a thing, for however he had cajoled hard in his lust to obtain a woman, to take without consent of the desired was not his fantasy. Only once in memory, did he commit a deed of which the shame still clung to him and then whether it was jest or bitterness on his partner's side that bespoke it, he never knew, for warm with wine she had consented to sport with him, upon his promise that he would not enter, but he had sucked her tongue, and she his, in the heat of passion, her legs around his head, and she not protesting when he loosed her trouser strings, threw her on her back, and beheld the mound of goddesses while below it opened the surfeit and oblivion of all delights but rather melting-- he became enamored and thrust in rather than outside though afterwards, withdrawing, he regarding her with love, she spat, "You..."
"Do I know you?" he asked.
"You know me too well," she laughed.
"You are, indeed, a villain," the young woman whispered, letting the lowering of her veil disclose the delicacy of fluted nostrils and the curve of her upper lip, so that her noble beauty enchanted all his senses till he was wont to faint.
"Where am I?" he asked ashamed, in his nakedness. Only a cloth around his loin hid his manhood from the maiden and the rest of him he was as bare as a babe, come into the world from between a mother's legs.
"You are in your dreams," she laughed and sprinted.
Her long legs and the trembling of her backside aroused him as she sprang upon the hard packed sand, and bolted with a sure foot. As she bounded on, he heard, "For you belong to me."
Now I did, indeed, awake, not at my desk, but on the shore of an ocean so bright with reflection of the noonday sun, I could not bear its sight, and half blinded turned away. I was naked, except for the strip of cloth at my waist folded under my loins. On the blanket next to me lay Hannah.
"Where am I?" I asked.
She smiled, that slow languorous smile, which had drawn me to her in the smoke filled room on that first night when I noticed her, as she sat on the red plush couch exuding a lazy sweetness to which I flew as bee to honeycomb. The blanket, a thick white cotton banded in black like a prayer shawl, but as large and thick as a rug, extended past her naked heels and the red nail polish of her toes. Her breasts were covered by thin silk handkerchiefs and one fluttered over the small triangle between her thighs. The robe of the woman who had fled before me in the dream was crumpled in a heap between us. The heat of the sand was such that even through the blanket, one could feel it.
I had guessed at the long body under her clothes, whose rhythms I had glimpsed as she strode away or toward me, in the corridors of the opera, on the snow bound pavements, in Berlin, but now seeing it revealed, and as she turned, untying the kerchief knotted at her back, the silk fell away from her breasts, and the firm but large breadth of her buttocks was revealed, I seemed to sway, on the elbows which raised me up to survey her.
Are you interested in me? I wanted to ask, for how else had I come to be beside her? But I understood that by my being here, the question was forbidden. Nor could I ask about time or where we were. It was all was in her hands. Still, when I stole a look up and down the beach, I saw that we were not alone. Other couples had reclined upon the sand, likewise upon large blankets, and seeing as well, women in the trousers of the Ottomans, halting by these bathers, supposed we were, where a single teasing postcard had come from her, reclining on a golden beach along the coast of Turkey.
Mark Jay Mirsky is the editor of Fiction. He has published the novels, Thou Worm Jacob, Blue Hill Avenue, Proceedings of the Rabble, and The Secret Table. His collection of novellas, The Secret Table, is notable for its cover and type, which were designed by his friend, Donald Barthelme. Mark is also the editor of the Diaries of Robert Musil in English, the co-editor of the collection, Rabbinic Fantasies, and of The History of the Jews of Pinsk: 1506-1880, Among his other books are The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and My Search for the Messiah. His play, Mother Hubbard's Cupboard was performed at the Fringe Festival in 2007. He is a professor of English at The City College of New York.