Monday, August 31, 2015

The Parasol: New Flash Horror Fiction

Chloe loved the umbrella-- she preferred to call it a parasol-- from the moment she saw it in the corner of the Parish Thrift Shoppe. 

She was down on her luck-- just having lost her job as a server at that diner, the one where the boss kept trying to pinch her bum, or made suggestions about how, if she wore a push-up bra, she might get better tips.

"Hell, Chlo'," he would guffaw, "I'll tip ya, meself, sure I would, if'n ya'd slip behind the pop-bottles with me. Ha!"
She slapped his face, kicked him in the essentials, leaving him moaning on the floor, and ran out into the rain, not forgetting her little parasol, which she had left alone in the corner. 

She had begun to think of the little thing as more of a pet, a friend, not just an umbrella, and often whispered to it as she walked in the rain.... She began to love the rain, to prefer it to the sunny days which were so rare in London, in the late fall, when the days grew so short, and the cold came so early. 

The umbrella-- parasol!-- sheltered her; it was her friend, her only friend. 

She spoke to it: "Just a little bit more walking, Parry, and then we will go home; I promise."

But she didn't want to go home-- back to her sad little flat with the thin walls, and the neighbors always quarrelling on the other side--she was certain that they drank. They were always either screaming at one another at all hours, or having sex-- she would never call it making love; no. Not with their mattress, that old bare, smelly bedspring skrawking and squeaking away, over and over and over again.

So she walked. In the rain. It splashed and plashed atop her friend, her Parry, and underneath it, she was safe. 

It seemed to make a drumming noise, the rain, and she could hear it-- almost as if it were speaking to her:

Where was that coming from?

It must be-- yes!-- her friend. Parry was speaking! How lovely-- at last!

"I will walk with you, Parry; don't you worry," Chloe said, smiling for the first time in many days, through the rain-spatters on her face.

It was raining harder now: would it ever stop?


"Why, yes, I could do that," Chloe answered her friend, her only friend, her parasol, Parry, "We will cross the bridge together-- and, perhaps (she added, philosophically), find new beginnings on the other side!"

And so, they slogged on--her shoes were damp clear through, and even the extra-heavy socks she had put on that morning, expecting to walk from store to restaurant to shop, seeking work, were two enormous balls of soaking-wet wool and cotton.

They reached the bridge.

She heard Parry saying.

"Yes yes, I am doing that," she said, gaily, kicking at the enormous puddles, the rain pouring down on her parasol, as if it would never stop.

They were at the center of the bridge now; she could see the Thames rolling hard and fast, on both sides. Dark water dark.

And the voice of her parasol, Parry, in her head:

"Why, I--" stammered Chloe.

She threw the parasol down, and began to run, to the bridge's edge....

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Parshat Kee Tavo: "Everybody, Get in Line"--Not Always a Good Idea.

Kee Tavo

“Moses and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe all the Mitzvote/Commandments that I command you this day. …Silence! Listen, Israel! Today you have become the People of the Lord your God: hear God’s voice and perform His commandments and laws. …After you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mt. Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken…. And for the curse, the following tribes shall stand on Mt. Ebal….” (Deut. 27: 1-13, translation mine).

            Here, Moses divides the entire People of Israel into two groups and assembles them on the slopes of two opposing mountains, one to hear the blessing, the other, the curse. If they perform the mitzvote properly and follow the Torah to the letter, God will bless them; if not, He will curse them.

Moses was no youngster, and, even with the assistance of his home tribe, the Levites, maneuvering all those people like chessmen must have been enormously challenging, added to the Absolutely Good vs. Evil nature of their destination. Who would willingly choose to climb Ebal, the Mountain of the Curse? Would not everyone wish to ascend Gerizim, the Mountain of Blessing? Who made the final decision, which tribespeople received the blessing, which the curse?

Reading this portion year after year, have we ever imagined how difficult it must have been for our ancient leader, Moses, to choreograph the movement of thousands of Israelites to go left or right? Consider his ordering their steps, and telling them, “You, Chaim, go left with your family; you, Zev, go right”?

It reminds me of the very end of a funeral interment (God forbid), where it is customary to ask the mourners’ family and friends to divide into two lines, leading away from the grave, so that the mourners may pass between their lines of supporters. The idea is for the grief-stricken mourners, having heard the sound of the shoveled-earth-clods striking the casket—there is no sadder sound in all this lonely world—to be comforted by the sight of the many people who love, admire, and cherish them, and have come to be with them in their darkest hour. Imagine: friends wherever they turn! As the mourners pass through the double-line, I stand behind and chant consoling words: “May God comfort you with the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

How dramatic is all of this marching, teetering atop mountain-slopes, double-lining at the time of burial, and how ineffably solemn and sad! Is our God, then, mainly a Judge, a harsh Cosmic Magistrate, who lies in wait, certain that we mere mortals will fail? Or is He a lovingly patient Mother-Father, Who wishes and hopes for us to succeed in our divine service to Him and his Creation, and rules us with compassion and forbearance?
Sadly, this Parsha bears strongest evidence of God as Judge. Indeed, this particular section of Torah is so harsh, that it is known as the Tochacha, the “Rebuke.” Traditionally, the Ba’al Koray, or Torah-Chanter, sings it in a softer tone than the remainder of the Torah, since it is considered a major “kinehurrah,” or Evil Eye. One does not read bad tidings aloud, because, Jewish superstition holds, that might cause them to take place. It is curious that we Jews, a people who boast so much education—80% of Jewish youth of college age are, indeed, attending college, and many of their parents have, not only college degrees, but post-graduate ones, as well—still rely on these age-old superstitions, which we nonetheless deride as bubbe mysehs, “grandmothers’ tales.”

I grew up haunted by superstitions, and recall when, as a teenage high school student at Yeshiva University HS, having difficulties in Math class, my mother a’h would instruct me to sleep with my Math textbook under my pillow, which, she was certain, would cause the pesky Geometry proofs to magically filter into my overtaxed brain while I slept. Of course, all that I got was a headache from a hard pillow. During Final Exams Week, Mom would instruct me to put money into the pushka/Charity box, and to leave the house in the following manner: kiss the mezuzah with my left hand, holding my bookbag in my right, and step out the door on my right foot.
In the end, despite my mother’s Jewish voodoo, I barely passed Geometry. I would also point out that my superstitious mother was herself a college graduate, a teacher and administrator, and earned a Master’s Degree in her 70s. She remained superstitious all of her life. You never know.

 With the approach of the High Holy Days, we may well ask how to take the “curses,” or sins, from our lives, and turn them to good deeds which will speak in our favor. Being a good Jew is not a matter of superstitions, spitting three times, or kissing the mezuzah upon leaving or entering the house. This last is not a bad habit to develop, but only if it reminds us to perform as many mitzvote as possible, when progressing through this wicked old world.

During this month of Elul, try performing a Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, a Soulsearching, at the end of each day, or at least, before Shabbat: have you done something today which brought you closer to God? How many times did you help someone else? Did you remember to pray, whether verbally or physically? Did you thank God for all that is good and rare and true in your life? Did you accentuate the positive, and learn to endure the negative? It is easy to thank God when things are going well, but do you have the courage and gumption to turn to God for support when the day is long and the weather (either literal or metaphorical) not in your favor?

Not by words alone, but by our actions, will God judge us. A new year is coming, a new chance to improve. “As long as the candle burns, there is a chance to get the job done,” said my great-uncle, Velvel the Shoemaker. As the years go by, I realize, more and more, the wisdom of his words.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Chap. 11, My Study Partner is a Vampire: A Post-Battle Victory Dinner at Luigi's Kosher Italian Ristorante

Chap. 11, My Study Partner is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            After our cosmic battle with Prince Shalmaneser and his Demon Duo, we were hardly in the mood for espresso. And so, as it turned out, we wound up in Little Italy at the legendary Luigi Cohen’s Tarantella, not the Café Inferno, and the drink of choice was Chianti Classico da Medici, with a kosher Antipasto preceding, featuring pareve cheese—the pepperoni was some kind of tofu—and eggplant parmesano following, together with big plates of spaghetti. Mutik was feeling expansive before the meal, and we were all feeling the same way following.

            We were all feeling achey from the battle—Chaya had wrenched her shoulder, Becca had a scorch-mark from Hellspite’s flame-spew against her wand-hand, and I had a big scratch on top of my head that my kippa irritated, so I had to wear the thing across the front of my scalp, like a New Year’s Eve cap. Mutik kept making jokes, like nothing had happened.

            Becca was swirling her Italian bread in the red sauce, and we were listening to Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore” on the Muzak for the twelfth time, when I could restrain myself no longer.

            “More Chianti, Nister?” asked Mutik, pouring into my glass with a free hand. Still, I would not let him go, this time. There had been other occasions when he had slipped away from my questioning—the Havdalah-ceremony, the Silent-Amidah-Prayer, in which he did not, could not, refused to, participate; why not?

            “Did I miss you, during the demonic battle?” I asked him, point-blank.

The conversation stilled; Chaya Me’irah had been laughing at one of Mutik’s many jokes—he had a gift for word-play, that one, truly. And now, Becca Bikka, who knew him as well and deeply as any half-mortal could, lay back against Luigi’s deep-dark leathern cushioned chairs—we had taken a lounge in the corner, where it was darker, and most secluded, away from the noisier, livelier yeshiva groups—and waited for his answer, though I suspected she knew it already. Her red hair spread out against the black leather, and the candlelight reflected in her eyes.

My Chaya Me’irah sat forward in her chair, head cradled in a delicate fist, tapping her chin with one hand, looking at me, and smiling. It was hard for me to remember that this beautiful girl had, just a short time before, taken on a giant and two lesser demons, singlehandedly, albeit in the shape of a winged-lion-dragon-goat-with-serpent-for-a-tail. I kissed her other hand, and she squeezed mine.

Mutik sipped thoughtfully at his glass, and his eyelids narrowed—was he preparing his response? I had drunk with him before—that vodka he had produced last Purim had knocked me flat, truly fulfilling the mitzvah-commandment to become so drunk on the holiday that one must be unable to distinguish between the statement, “Blessed is Mordecai, cursed is Haman,” but instead reverses them, the story, and God’s intention, though God is hidden in that story, as He is, so often, in real life—and he was well-able to hold his liquor.

            “Are you accusing me of cowardice, bookworm?” he said, lightly.

            “I did not see you during the battle, either against Shalmaneser, or his two underlings,” I replied, looking him straight in the eye, while he balanced a fork on his knuckles, “can you bring a Talmudic proof for your not being there?”

            “First off, I was there,” he said, suddenly banging a fist on the table, reaching across, and pointing a finger at my face, “and damned be he who doubts it! You did not see me, in my Cloak of Invisibility—Chaya did, and so did Rivka, did you not, Ladies?”

            The two women nodded.

            “But,” he continued, “as long as you brought it up—there is ample Talmudic precedent for why I, a mazzik—yes, it’s true; I am a shade, a mazzik—the two are interchangeable in the Talmud, and are a particularly underappreciated class of demons; only Rashi cares to differentiate between us, and the Zohar’s explanation, while I treasure the Zohar in general, is foolish on this one—“

            “I—“ I protested, but he waved his hand at me.

            “Let me finish—” he said, “It is important that you know all this, if we are to work effectively together.”

            I sat dumbly, and nodded. I was learning Torah of a different sort, now.

            Mutik sat back, drained his glass, smacked his lips, said “Ah!” and turned back to me: “And now, here is your Talmudic proof, you ilui-prodigy, you: Pesachim, daf 110, amud alef [Tractate Passover, Page 110, side A]. You can look it up, if you care to:

“And if a man forgot himself and drank exactly two drinks and happened to go out, what should he do to correct himself and prevent the onslaught of mazzikim? Let him take his right-hand thumb in his left hand, and his left-hand thumb in his right hand, and say the following:
‘You two thumbs and I, surely that is three [i.e., an odd number, hence not susceptible to demons]!
But if the mazzik-demon hears him and replies, ‘You and I, surely that is four [i.e., three plus the demon are four, an even number, and susceptible to demons], let the man reply to the demon,
‘You [the demon that is now four] and I are surely five [the man cleverly finds something to add to the grouping]!’
And if the man hears a demon saying, ‘You and I are six,’ let the man reply to the demon, ‘You and I are seven.’
This once happened until the man reached the count of one-hundred-and-one, at which point the demon exploded.”

“In other words, Friend Nister, with three mazikkim on site already, it would not have done, numerically, for me to join them. They would have won, you lost. I had to absent myself, and fight from afar. I am aware that you are not a Math Major, but numerology is a significant factor when fighting supernatural foes. Luckily, Shalmy and his boyos are not too bright, and were unaware of my invisible tweaks during the fray, here and there.”

I still was not convinced; it all sounded much too slippery, and, as a practiced Talmudist myself, I was well-familiar with the pilpul-hairsplitting method of reasoning that could allow a skillful debater to prove most anything, even demonological numbering.

“How am I to believe you?” I said, leaning forward. I felt Chaya’s hand on my arm: “Nister—please—remember that he is a mazzik, after all—“ but shook it off. I was angry, and my head ached from the Prince of Halflight’s backblast.

Mutik had been fingering his glass, idly, moving his index-nail ‘round-and-‘round the top-rim, and tracing the remains of the liquid, and, vampire-like, licking it off his nail, flicking serpentlike tongue in-and-out. Now, abruptly, he picked the becher-cup up by the stem, and, exerting a small bit of force between thumb and forefinger, snapt it in two.

I watched, astonished: why did he not bleed?

“Speaking about the Zohar, as I was before,” he said, “I disagreed with that holy, time-honored tome’s explanation of Mazzikim-origins. We Mazzikim are a proud and ancient race, and are not, I repeat, not, created from the spirits of evil men after they die. We have free will, as do you mortals, Nister. I make my choices, daily. I have done so in the past; I will continue to do so in the future. Tonight, I fought Shalmaneser, a fellow Mazzik, on your side. I did so, invisibly.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, stubbornly, “Have you wounds to show? Look at Chaya’s shoulder, or Becca’s right hand, where she was scorched, wielding her cedar-wand; look at my forehead-scratch, and this headache that won’t quit.

“Where are your wounds, Nachtlieber? Where are they?”

“I carry mine within,” he hissed, and suddenly, reaching across the table, across the broken glass of his his winecup, he grabbed me by the neck of my shirt and my Arba Kanfote, my Personal Fringed Garment, while Becca and Chaya seized him by the arms and begged him to let me go. Finally, he did so.

I sat back, trembling and coughing—I had not known he was so strong, he who was so slim and lithe!—while he stretched his arms back, put his hands behind his head, looked at the ceiling chandeliers and watched the busboys cleaning the tables—it was late, and time to go—and finally, looked across the dimlit table at me.
He narrowed his eyes, hunched over—his hair sprang out, black and shiny; his nails grew longer, as he tapped them on the white, if stained-red tablecloth, to make his point. The chandeliers’ dim light reflected off the shiny black buttons on his white shirt, and his cloak spread out around him, like the wings that carried him wherever he wished to fly.

Mutik Nachtlieber, Talmudist, Night-Flier, Mazzik, Demon-Mortal-Scholar, had never looked so demonic, so mazzik-like, as he did, just then. Even Becca, his chief admirer, moved away, and I swear, I thought I could see, out of the corner of my eye, my Chimera slightly take on the guise of the Beast she was, within—in case she had to protect me, her lover:

“Listen, Ben Adam—Mortal,” Mutik whispered, threateningly, his eyes moving towards the very few remaining people at the other tables.

I wondered—he had never called me that before—there was so much, so much about him I yearned to know!

Wheels within wheels
Fires within fires

“You are being shown more than you can comprehend,” he said, “Mark me, Nister: You are being shown more than you can comprehend. V’hamayvin yavin—Those who can understand, will understand.”

“Ahem,” we heard a throat clearing, and all four of us looked up.

It was the waiter. He must have been seventy-five, or older: bald, and walked with a limp. His nametag said, “Benvenuto a Ristorante Kosher da Luigi—MY NAME IS MOISHE.”

“Time to go, Kiddies,” he said, “It’s not me throwing you out; it’s Laybel—I mean, Luigi. He’s got his uncle’s funeral in the morning. Here’s your check. Lailah tov—Good Night.”

It was 3 am.

Time for sleep.

Or something else, for those living in heaven or below the earth….

Friday, August 28, 2015

Chap. 10: My Study Partner is a Vampire--"Shalmaneser, Daemon-Prince of Halflight, stood a full three storeys tall."

Chap. 10: My Study Partner is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            Having lived in New York City all of my life, I was naturally accustomed to seeing the strangest sights, especially after dark. It was a cool October Saturday Night, with many young couples strolling, a goodly number of them Orthodox: I could see many a kippah as I swoopt into the fray. Boys and girls out for a nice, pleasant, tsniusdik (modest) time, pushing the sexual envelope just a wee little bit.

            Now, that would have been me on a date some other evening, certainly, I remember thinking.

But then, I drew closer to Shalmaneser, “Sub-Demon, Third-Class Hellhound, Fourth Circle of Gehenna,” as Mutik had described him, and could not agree.

            Shalmaneser, Prince of Halflight, as he called himself, stood a full three storeys tall, to judge by the Miller Shoe Shoppe against which I measured him: his skin was red-gold-black in colour, muscled from head-to-toe, with scaley armour protecting him from any bodyblasts a foe might offer—though I had yet to see what power we kosher-mini-mites could bring to bear against His Virulency. His tail was a serpent, which lashed about, smashing windows and coiling about streetlamps, traffic lights and the like, hissing as loudly as an A-Train screeching ‘round the half-bend between 59th and 125th Streets.

            Like Goliath, though, Master Shalmy was nearsighted and roaring epithets against the sky, the moon, and the world in general, with special attention bestowed against poor Becky, who cowered behind the watertank atop the Slaytham.

            Oh, and he breathed fire. Yes. Very hot, too.

            His lesser-mazikkim stood behind and laughed—their original names were Akkadian, but these were their “traveling names”—that is, the ones they used in This World, when the Supreme Archangel, Metatron, gave them leave to depart Gehenna—as I was to learn later.

            As I dove down behind my brave Chaya Me’ira, I beheld her change—literally change before my eyes, into her namesake, as I recalled from my studies in Homer: "She was the Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire.

The only difference between my Jewish Chimera was that my darling had wings, of course—great, sky-blue ones—and she retained her face, as well.

            Shalmaneser soon espied us: “Ah, more imps to taunt me! Shall I fry you midgets, or parboil you? Come to me, my boys—quickly, Curlew, Hellspite! Join me in scorching these scraps of holiness! Send them to their heavenly rewards, suddenly and soon!”

            The three joined together, and roared bolts of fire—it was not unlike anti-aircraft tracer bullets I had seen in old World War II movies. Shalmy’s breath was red-gold in colour; Curlew’s black, if such a thing be possible, and Hellspite’s greenish-brown. It lit up the night, truly, and I was a fool to fly straight into it, while Chimera dodged nimbly. It hit me with immense force, and sent me tumbling, though the angelic wings gave me a measure of goodly protection. I smashed into the cornice of the Slaytham, and fell stunned to the sidewalk.

Three pedestrians ignored me almost totally, though one of them muttered, “Crazy drunken college kids,” as he picked his way delicately around me.

Shalmaneser’s laughter echoed through the night. “I am I, King of Demons! Let Lucifer, Son of the Morning, himself beware! I shall make my moves on his throne! I shall—“

The rest of his speech degenerated into hellish laughter, shared among himself and his compatriots.

As my vision cleared, I looked to see Chaya picking me up—she had turned into a woman-girl again.

“What is with you, Nister?” she hissed, “First time I trust you in combat, and you wuss out on me. Mutik can’t stand them off all by himself, and Becca is about to be fried alive. Can you pick yourself up, now, please?”

I shook the cobwebs off, crouched, stood, and flapped my new-fledged wings. I was ready for action again.

“Here’s the plan,” said Chaya, “you’ve been davening all of your life, haven’t you? Well, this is the True Power of Prayer against Evil. Watch and learn.”

Before my eyes, she transmogrified into a Chimera again, roaring her defiance at the tall Sub-Daemon. Flying straight and fast directly at his head, she opened her mouth, and let loose—not a ray of fire, but words of prayer, in Hebrew:

For God loves justice and does not forsake His devoted ones,
But he will cut off the wicked.

“Arghh—my hearing—you are destroying me!” screeched Shalmaneser, clapping his claws to his horny ears.

“We will pulverize her, Master!” roared Hellspite, taking wing and flying at Chimera’s flank, while she dove away, desperately. The smaller, tightly-muscled Demon reached out a claw to seize my Beloved—he was close, so close to her, and Curlew loosed a spew of flame to roast her wings—I sprang off the ground, beat my wings hard as I could, and called out,

The wicked drew a sword and bent their bows
To bring down the poor and destitute,
To slaughter those of upright ways.
Their swords will pierce their own hearts
And their bows will be broken.

Before my very eyes, the spew reversed in midflight, and enveloped Hellspite’s own face.

“Aiee!—it burns, O-my-devils it burns….” He cried.  

“Leave some for me!” called out Becca Bikka, seemingly recovered from the demonic assault, and waved her cedar-wand against Shalmaneser and his pards, while chanting the formula for the Gates of Solomon’s Holy Temple:

Lift up your heads O’ ye gates
And open up, you Everlasting Doors,
That the King of Glory may enter.
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

Before my eyes, a golden cloud streamed forth from the tip of the cedar-wand, enveloping the three Sub-Daemons. They beat against its sides, as against a cage, but in vain. It carried them inexorably toward the East River, as they screamed, roared, and tried to flame-roast their way out, but the flames redounded on their own bodies.

“We are not done!” screamed Shalmaneser at us, as the Golden Cloud enveloped them more and more tightly, “Not done, do you hear me, Imps of Divinity? You mortals, with our cheap, easily-spoken Words of Godly Prayer! I will catch you, unawares—beware my power, Mortals! Hear the words of Shalmaneser, Prince of Halflight: We. Are. Not. Done! I will eat your bones, and drink your blood….”

That was all we could hear; the Golden Cloud grew tighter, more constricted, until, finally, Shalmaneser sank down, weary of shouting, and his comrades contented themselves with beating vainly against the cloud’s interior, until they, too, slumped down, beaten and weary.

Once the Cloud floated past the East River Drive and the railings and fences of the park, the Atlantic’s chilly, dark green-grey waters began to churn ‘round and ‘round—they formed a mighty waterspout, bursting the golden cloud and catching the three demons in their salty grasp—screaming and frothing, their flame-bursts no longer a threat, the three daemons spun around dizzily.

Over the waters, Becca’s wand conjured up red-green-blue-yellow Kabbalistic colors, which whirled like a kaleidoscope. With a massive popping noise, like water going down some sort of cosmic drain, the three hell-dwellers disappeared.

The three of us—Chaya, Becca, and I—sat, our backs against the statues of caryatids Persephone and her mother Ceres, exhausted and panting—was my darling Chimera licking her shoulder, like a bruised cat?—with pedestrians again ignoring us. 

It was then that Mutik appeared—where had he been? Taking a handful of dried-out Hebrew letters from the pouch of his cape, I saw him fling them, ninja-like, into the East River where the daemons had sunk, as if stapling down their entrypoint to Our World.

“Well!” said our friend, smiling, “There’s a good night’s work done. Who’s for espresso and a game of shesh-besh at the Café Inferno in the Village? My treat. The night is young yet, for men or beasts.”

Where had he been, during our daemonic battle?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chap. 9, My Study Partner is a Vampire: Becca Bikka Opens a Hell-Portal in Midtown Manhattan.

Chap. 9: My Study Partner is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            Exhilarated by my newly-found power of flight, I cartwheeled through middle air, narrowly missing a stanchion of the 59th Street Bridge (Slow down—you move too fast—echoed through my mind) as we beat our wings toward Downtown, and the Maiden of Ludomir Dormitory of Levana College for Orthodox Women.

            For a novice like me, who had yet learned, like Wart from Merlyn in Idylls of the King, to take time out to glide, but could beat his wings, it was exhausting. I finally made my way to the front, alongside my smiling Chaya Me’irah, my angel, my own, and a silent Mutik, who, in his usual Byronic way, was brooding more than usual.

            “Where is Becca Bikka tonight?” I asked.

            “She is—shall we say—doing a research project,” muttered Mutik, who had to repeat himself a few times to me, his low-spoken words being carried off by a wild West Wind.

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s Being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing….
--Percy Bysshe Shelley

            “Really?” I asked. Becca was a star pupil, and had no trouble, as far as I knew, keeping her grades up, while still engaging in matters both religious and metaphysical.

            “Let’s leave it at that, Nister,” said Chaya.

            As we neared Midtown and the sparkling lights of the Empire State—they were red and green, in honor of the arrival of the Palestinian Delegation to the United Nations, a development which had the New York City Jewish Community upset and tense, so close after the High Holy Days—was this to be the start of the New Year, with a roiling disagreement between hawks and doves, not to mention the positive eagles who wished to see the Dome of the Rock forever removed from the Old City of Jerusalem, and a new, Third Temple of David raised in its place? I was amazed to see yellow, red, and blue-gold sparks flying from the roof of the Hotel Slaytham, a short distance from the Ludomir Dorm.

            The Slaytham had a mixed reputation among us Hirsch Bochrim. Because women could not then make up a minyan, the prayer-quorum necessary for holding a full Shabbat service, we boys would volunteer to subway down to the Levana school and conduct services for the women. Our combined student governments would pay a group rate for us to stay at the Slaytham, a fleabag whose halls and stairwells were infested with women of ill repute, who had long ago given up on soliciting us yeshivaleit, knowing that Jewish Law forbade us from carrying money on the Sabbath.

            The Slaytham was a notorious place, full of drug dealers and hookers. Having us yeshiva boys staying there over the Sabbath, davening our personal prayers (for all public services took place in the Elijah of Vilna Memorial Auditorium in Levana Main Hall), while the prostitutes plied their trade in the next room, amounted to the oddest combination of holiness and depravity. We would often say our fKriaht Sh’ma ahl ha-meeta—Recital of the Sh’ma Prayer Before Going to Sleep—to the sound of groaning and mattresses creaking, just on the other side of a very thin paperboard wall.

            “What is all that business on the roof of the Slaytham?” asked Mutik, as we soared over the rain-puddled, tar-encrusted old surface of the ancient hotel.

            “Let’s go down, and see,” said Chaya.

            I nodded, never thinking it would be anything else than a drug deal that had gone wrong, with some street thugs arguing or fighting it out. Even if someone pulled a knife or gun, we would be able to escape, or hide behind a stout cornice of a nearby building. Those turn-of-the-century granite skyscrapers were thick enough to stop a high-powered bullet, and we were all, myself included, nimble enough on our wings to corkscrew away from an errant slug. Surely, nothing happening atop the roof of that old, disreputable hulk could concern us.
            Unfortunately, I was wrong.

            It was, it turned out, all because of Becca Bikka and one of her “experiments” gone wrong.

            First, we heard the screams; then, we heard the laughter—hideous chuckling that grew to a roar—too low and scrambled, like backwards-wording from a sound-laboratory, but then, as we drew closer, a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, but a type I had never heard of before—in truth, I never thought the Holy Tongue, the language of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Rabbi Akiva, and the Lord God Himself could be used in such a foul manner.

            From a distance, lower and farther off, we heard a woman’s high-pitched pleadings: “Stop—O God of Mercy—please stop….”

Sparks flew all about—red, green, blue, and yellow, near-blinding us, and Mutik wisely beckoned Chaya and me to hide behind the Caryatids of a nearby business building, staying perfectly still so that we could not be seen; we folded our wings over our faces.

            I could see people passing by; they did not notice That which we saw, All-Too-Clearly. Truly, crackling of energy, and sparks danced, lightning-bolts flashed, one going so far uptown as to strike the helmet of Winged Mercury atop the Grand Central Terminal on 42nd St., and traveled down to envelop both Hercules on the left, and Minerva on the right. It was a balefully magnificent sight. Fearful, cautious, we ducked farther behind our statuary shelter.

            From there, we could behold the Horror.

            Hawklike—the addition of the wings gave us increased power of sight—we could see our friend, herself garbed in long, flowing robes, and armed with a wand.

            “Magickal wand? What magickal wand? It’s just cedar—the same material as the gates of Solomon’s Temple—good for a beginner, but it can hardly protect her against the Mazikkim,” said Mutik, looking grim and shaking his head.

            “What are—“ I began, but they both ignored me.
            “Why, Mutik, how could you let her use it, then?” asked Chaya, as if I weren’t there. I closed my mouth, and listened; perhaps the explanation would follow.

            It didn’t.
            “I?” said Mutik, “I? Miss Chaya, do you really believe that I, a mere Shade, have any power over your Little Miss Rivka bat Ruach? I protested her entire enterprise, down there—do you think she paid attention? Oh, no, but she would have her way. To watch her wield that little thing, that cedar-stick she bought for eighteen grush from some Jewish bookstore on 30th St., you’d’ve thought she had purchased it from Solomon himself. ‘That’s no Sixteen-sided Sword of Moses, Little Rivvy,’ I said to her, I said. But she wouldn’t listen to me; oh, no. She—“

            This was interrupted by a great crash, followed by hellish laughter:
“Will you surrender, Ruach-Whelp? It is I, Shalmaneser, Prince of Halflight, who command you!”

And the sobbing voice of Becca Bikka:

“No—never, never, you Hounds of Hell! I have my wand—and my friends, wherever they are. O Friends, O Father! Help me, please! O, help, Spirits of Fire and Air! My Father, Ruach! Mutik, Chimera, Aiyaychem—where are you?”

“Hm,” said Mutik, squinting at the tumult below our perch, “I count three-four Mazikkim; possibly more. Shalmaneser leading them: Sub-Demon, Third-Class Hellhound; Fourth Circle of Gehenna. Big mouth, no cattle. Perhaps we can take them. Worth a try, anyhow, to save poor Becca—(he sighed, dramatically)—again.

He looked at me, crouching behind a miniature of Persephone, my new-fledged wings a-tremble.

“Except I’m unsure of Mister Nister, here; he has no combat-flying experience, whatsoever….”

            “Right—“ said Chaya, “No time to talk more. Mutik, you know what to do. Divrei Tehillim—Word-of-Psalms, Holytongue is the plan. Nister: you are new at this. You are my wingman. Keep your swoops low; dart in, out, keep your actions fast; watch my six. Careful you don’t get your wings singed. Achat-Shtyim-Shalosh: One-Two-Three—Go!

            “Oh, and one more thing—“

            It was too late; she had leapt to her feet and soared off, into the night; I followed, fast as I could, and was lucky to hear her last-minute instructions, on How to Fight Mazikkim, the Hounds of Hell.

            Then followed the strangest battle I had ever witnessed….

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chap. 8, My Study Partner is a Vampire: Nister's Work on Judah Halevi is Interrupted by Two Visitors.

Chap. 8: My Study Partner is a Vampire

By David Hartley Mark

            I was anxious to please Rabbi Katz, who had become my idol; he was my escape route out of the stultified and fossilized Tradition, with its bypaths and turning-points into blind alleys and cul-de-sacs. I believed I could follow him onto a bold new path to bind Innovation and Tradition into a seamless Whole. New wine in old casks. Old wine in new casks. Indeed, I myself felt like old-new wine in a new wineskin, almost ready to burst.

            To forge my new vision of Judaism, I yearned to expunge any old traces of the timeworn notions I once possessed. These included the concept of the Chosen People, which I had learned a few semesters earlier, in Dr. Joshua Kiddushin’s Class on Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Granted, those thinkers—Judah Halevi, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Gersonides, and Saadiah HaGaon—had been living in the Middle Ages, hardly a salubrious time for the Jews, placed between the hammer and anvil of Christianity and Islam, but Halevi’s apologia for his embattled faith did, nonetheless, I believed, implant a form of genetic or ethnic superiority which was wholly inappropriate.

I was happy to read of Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Kaplan’s renunciation of it, while at the same time recognizing that every faith, every religious movement, strove to implant in its followers some notion of “chosenness”—the idea that they alone possessed a divine (or at least, special) spark, belief, or practice marking them as different or unique among humanity.

As with all of my scholarly activities, I entered wholeheartedly onto this new intellectual adventure, sublimating any other activity to my books. I became one with Halevi, and I followed the debate among his priest, philosopher, imam, and rabbi with passion and thirst. A week passed by.

It was Saturday night, again. I had joined my fellow Hirsch Yeshiva students during a restful Shabbat, to daven and follow the Torah portion together—it was early fall in New York City, with a whisper of the coming winter in the air. The fall holidays were past, and I had scarcely noticed their departure. Nor had Mutik or the girls made any appearance. I thought, perhaps subconsciously, that my holy studies were keeping them away, like a talisman.

I was wrong.

It all began that same night—just after watching the small blaze of the Havdalah candles, holding out my hands and baring my fingernails to the light, while focusing on the shadows my fingers projected against my palms, and uttering the Prayer-of-Division with my fellows, “Who divides light and darkness, Holy from Secular, Israel from the Nations,” I had sniffed the fragrant cloves that were passed ‘round, and sipped from the warming cup of Malaga wine.

As I walked up the scuffed, timeworn stairs to my sixth-floor room—my roommate, “Duke” Tabor, was still in New Jersey for the weekend—I could not miss the pungent aroma of another herb coming from neighboring rooms; some dateless Yeshiva men were prolonging their own particular “Oneg Shabbat.” And I heard the Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon, that was then very popular in our dorm:

Us Us Us Us Us
And Them Them Them Them Them
And after all
We’re only ordinary men
With With With With With
And after all
It’s what the fighting’s all about…..

Somehow, a feeling arose in my brain and heart against returning to my books that evening. I sighed—a sigh that seemed to rise from the depths of the earth, from my very soul’s core. I went to the sink in the corner of the dorm room, splashed my face several times with cold water, and drank three cups. I stood and looked at my face in the glass—not a bad face; not movie-star-handsome, but, overall, a young man’s face, not yet growing old. A face with potential. A face—

Who was that looking at me?

I sprang halfway ‘round, and saw, at the evening-darkened window, two faces: Mutik Nachtlieber, and Chaya Me’irah. Chaya smiled—how well did I remember that smile! And Mutik smirked, and then stuck out his tongue.

What was keeping them suspended, six floors up?

Then I saw: they both had wings—Mutik’s, of black-and-brown leatherlike substance, glowing faintly in the halflight dark; Chaya’s, of bluelight, a feathery substance.

I shook my head, to clear it of its fog, and went to the window. It skrawked as I opened it—no Yeshiva boys ever opened their windows, apparently; was night air poisonous, as the Talmud told us?

“About time you let us in, Nister,” complained Mutik genially, giving Chaya a hand to boost her in, “we were out there in the air on the ledge for the longest time—from about the time that young Shya Shaftesberg began his melodious—ha!—Havdalah, to about now. Don’t you ever look out the window?”

“Stop picking on him, Mutik,” said Chaya, “he’s thinking great thoughts. All about Judah Halevi, and that sort of thing. I don’t see you tackling the books, lately.”

“Not true, M’Lady!” said Mutik, climbing into his favorite chair, and swinging a familiar leg over the side, “I doth protest. I have been studying Hilchote Ruchin u’MachshayfoteThe Laws of Spirits and Shadow-Spells. And I have got a new Study-Partner, now, since Friend Nister has gone all Tenth-Century on me. What have you got to say for yourself, Reb Nister?”

I could not think of a quick, witty answer to this, and so changed the subject. “Where is Becca Bikka?” I asked.

“She is—um—indisposed, but will join us later,” said Chaya, licking her hand, and smoothing back her wings, which she afterwards willed-to-fold away neatly, until they disappeared beneath her flowing dress. She wore a dark-blue, loosefitting gown with a wide black belt, gold buckle, and tall boots whose sheen matched those of Mutik’s Wellingtons—indeed, she could have been his twin. I felt a bit out of place.

Then, she leaned over and kissed me on the mouth—bold, for a Levana Yeshiva girl. She must have read my thoughts, for she smiled.

“You are not the only progressive yeshivaleit student, Reb Nister,” she whispered, while Mutik busied himself at my desk, smiling or frowning over my various sefarim, “there are those of us womenfolk who might follow you, whether on this earth, or elsewhere.”

“Yes!” said Mutik, his back still turned to us, as he tossed Halevi’s Kuzari into the air, catching it neatly behind him, “Who’s up for an adventure? Saturday night’s the loneliest night of the week—I can hear your classmates moaning all the way down the hall, Nister. Don’t be lonely like them. A solitary shepherd winds a lonely horn, as the poet says. Come and follow my sheep: I have wool enow to spare.”

“Watch your metaphors, Dirtymouth,” laughed Chaya, “don’t be corrupting my pure and holy Secret One, here.”

She linked her arm through mine. “Are you ready for adventure?” she echoed, her eyes agleam. Her wings sprang outward, and pointed rigid and straight, beckoning us toward the window.

“Shall I drive, sweet boy?” she asked, but before I could answer, she pulled me by the shoulders of my sweater—it was the turtlenecked one, the one I had bought at Gimbel’s because I thought it made me resemble a young Hemingway, and the blue brought out my eyes—and leapt for the window—

“Hold on, Nister!” she called, and tossed me through the casement. For a slight, slender girl, she was amazingly strong—I was only later to find out how strong she was.

Before I could think to scream or fall, I felt the strangest sensation between my shoulder blades—a pair of my own wings reached out and flap-flap-flapped, pulling me upward. I could soar; I could dive, and narrowly missed crashing into Mutik, who had jumped off the windowsill right after Chaya.

“Watch yourself, Bachur!” he called, and the echoing voices rang off the alleyways where stray cats nosed through the dumpsters containing that afternoon’s chulent, and the broiled chicken, baked potatoes, and leftover chicken soup matzo balls of the night before. The pungent, souring aroma rose upward, like a misguided prayer.

“Follow me—to the Levana Residence Hall, there to liberate Mistress Becca Bikka!” called out Chaya, who cartwheeled and Immelmanned through the clear October air, up into the clouds, nearly touching the moon, and into the weekday night.

Smiling his secret smile, Mutik surged after easily.

I, flapping my new wings with all my might, labored behind.

God and the stars looked down….