Sunday, April 22, 2018

Acharay-Kedoshim: The Scapegoat's Testimony

Acharay-Kedoshim: The Scapegoat’s Testimony

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Call me Azazel, the Scapegoat. When my Brother Goat and I were chosen and brought forth as sacrifices—he to serve as a burnt-offering, and I—well, I will tell you of my fate—I thought little of it. We goats are not deep thinkers, and sufferance is the badge of all our flock. I overheard Aaron, the High Priest, telling his sons Elazar and Itamar that they were to tie a red thread between my horns. A red thread, for me? I thought. I imagined myself the handsomest goat of our kind—who else qualifies to wear a thread, or a red ribbon?
            Only after Itamar tied the scarlet thread between my horns, talking all the while of my coming death, did I begin to comprehend my fate—to bear all the sins of Israel into the wilderness, and be thrown off a cliff, to be crushed on the rocks below.
            “What have I done?” I bleated at Itamar in goat-language, but he, of course, could not understand me.
            Itamar was a mild, loving soul—in this, he somewhat resembled his austere, distant, commanding father, Aaron, in his younger days—he patted my head, and whispered into my long, dangling ears,
            “You will be flung off a cliff, poor goatling. Still, this is necessary: we must absolve our People Israel of their sins against the LORD GOD, and we must also placate Azazel, the Desert Demon.”
            What is a demon? I thought.
Itamar did not answer, but instead penned me up with other sacrificial goats, near the Tent of Meeting where their prophet, Moses, receives messages from their God. I am a goat, of weak, animal mind, and cannot receive prophecy, but I certainly do not wish to die.
             It was good to be among my goat-people, and I brushed up against a nanny goat who appeared older and more experienced than the younglings who galloped round the pen, kicking up their heels—
Poor fools, I thought, not knowing that they are about to be sacrificed! And as for me—
Well, my fate was equally painful, if not more. I beheld my soon-to-be-late brother being led away by Elazar, who had a sharpened knife concealed on the side which my Brother Goat could not detect.
            “You poor fellow!” the Nanny told me, “I heard you were to be scapegoat this year.”
The young kids slowed their capers and quietly eased over to listen to us.
            “If I am to die, I will,” I replied, feeling the fatalism of it all, “but what is my purpose, besides being a bearer of sins which I did not commit? We goats are pure of heart and animal soul, and, besides occasionally stealing grass or hay from one another from sheer hunger, are incapable of sin.”
            “For the heart of Man and Woman is exceeding deep,” said the Nanny, nodding wisely, “Who can know it?”
            “Tell me my fate, Mistress Nanny,” I begged, since she appeared to know more of man’s ways than I.
            “You will plunge over the cliff, and your death will come in an instant,” she told me, grimly
            “To what purpose?” I pressed her.
            “There is the mighty Demon Azazel,” she answered, her eyes narrowing at his name, “and you are the tasty morsel which the Israelites have prepared for him.”
            “Is his purpose good or evil?” I asked.
            “He is the King of Evil,” said the Nanny, and the kids trembled at this, “but the Israelites placate him with a choice dish—that is, yourself—in hopes that he will not afflict them.”
“Are not the Powers of Good and Evil ultimately in the hands of the Israelite God?” I persisted, wishing to know more about the purpose of my death.
            “Azazel is a general in the Army of God, only an evil one,” replied the Nanny, “and, just as these humans offer their finest food to a mercurial general, in hopes that he will look upon them kindly and not afflict them, so do they send you out into the wilderness where Azazel dwells.”
            “Does Evil reign over humanity, then?” I asked.
            “All is in the hands of their God,” said the Nanny, “both Good and Evil, and ultimately serve God’s ends, no matter how obscure they appear to us.”
            The kids were horrified, galloped off to the pen’s farthest reaches, and stood there, trembling. Only not for long: as the Nanny and I watched, a sub-Levite undid the latch, and gathered three kids for a guilt-offering. We listened to their mindless, innocent bleating as he led them to the slaughter.
            Now, I wander through the desert, watched from a distance by three appointed Levites, who will force me over a cliff. I can see the edge of the mountain as I slowly climb up. The Nanny cautioned that I will have no choice in the matter, no means of escape.
            “At the cliff’s edge,” she said with an air of finality, “a strong wind will lift you up, and dash you against the rocks. Go in peace.”
            I am resigned: I am no philosopher, merely a goat. As I approach the cliff—and I note that my Levite escorts are closing in all around me, ready to fling me down—I cogitate that, perhaps, this goat-world which I inhabit, in which Man controls who lives and dies, is an entirely imaginary one. I study the rocks, both whole and broken, which lie about the cliff’s edge. My grave awaits at the foot of the cliff; who knows what kites and vultures will feast on my remains? And I know that, come next year, another innocent goat will be offered up—and cast down—to Azazel, for the reasons of God and Man—reasons I cannot begin to fathom.
            As for me, here and now, I will go joyfully. Whatever fate awaits me after death will be real, with no complications, ridicule, or deception. May God, or Azazel, be praised: in that other-world, even I, the Scapegoat, cannot be deceived.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Tazria-Metzorah: The Ordeal of Kevudah, Daughter-in-Law of Aaron, Wife of Eleazar


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I am Kevudah, the “honored one,” wife of Eleazar, Aaron’s third son—but his eldest, now that Nadav and Avihu are dead, killed by the hand of God—the flames of God, I mean. They offered “strange fire”—some mistake in preparing the incense, we believe, as well as guilty of taking a drop of mead prior to the service—we will never know for sure, since the two young men—boys, really—were totally immolated by God’s fire. Just as they were about to wave their incense-pans, too. Horrible, horrible way to die, at the hands of the God we are commanded to love. And Who loves us, as Uncle Moses reads to us from his Sacred Scroll.. I wonder….
Since that horrible tragedy—losing two sons in one day—my mother-in-law, Elisheva—you will not find her name mentioned in your Holy Torah, Stranger, for she is a woman, and therefore unworthy. Elisheva has left our family, our tribe, and the camp, and entered the Black Tent of Isolation. She wears only black, cries continually, and may never cease her mourning. You see, her faith is gone, and our women’s hearts break for her. Moses, her brother-in-law, visits her daily. He tries to offer her prayer and comfort through the door of the Tent, but she will not see him, nor respond to his prayers.
Aaron, our High Priest, the dead boys’ father and my father-in-law, goes about his business in silence. He offers sacrifices to the God who slew his sons like cattle. He visits the Israelites who quarrel, and makes peace, or tries to, between them. But the light of happiness is gone from his eyes; it vanished on the day that God took his sons.
And what of Eleazar and Itamar, my husband and brother-in-law, the surviving sons and brothers of the Dead Priests Nadav and Avihu? Aaron will not speak to me—why should he talk to a mere woman, though I am his daughter-in-law? Still, Aaron has spoken to Eleazar, who passed the message along to me. Yesterday, Eleazar entered the tent, stood before me where I knelt on the woven-rush mat, sewing a hole in his priestly garb, and announced:

            “Father wants us to have a baby. A boy baby. To replace Nadav and Avihu.”

            “How does he know we are able to have a baby?”

            “God has told him. Father Aaron is a prophet. And Uncle Moses has verified it, as well.”

            “What if it’s a girl? I would love a girl….”

            “Kevudah, in the Name of the Eternal, you must harken unto me,, Eleazar, your husband and master. We will have a baby. It will be a boy. A boy, for the LORD GOD of Hosts has spoken it.”

            And so, he made me pregnant. I did yearn for his love. And God planted the seed in my womb. At first, I felt ill: the morning sickness, needing to leave the tent so often, the changes in my body…. But the wise women and the doulas of the tribe came to see me, knowing I was only seventeen, and that this was my first child, grandchild of the great Aaron, and grand-nephew of Rabbi Moses. To the Tribal Elders and the rest of the men, I was less a person than a treasure-vessel, insuring the future of the Priesthood. But the women, bless them,  handled me tenderly, keeping the men away. Which was fine: men are such idiots where babies are concerned, anyway.

            It was only in the late evenings, when it was hard for me to sleep, and Eleazar would query me with his endless questions: “Are you eating enough, Kevvy? What did Sarah-Bracha the Doula say? Did the baby move at all? Can I feel? Do you need another pillow? This son of mine must be prepared to lift the carcasses of enormous cows, sheep, goats! Kevvy, why do you turn away? I am your husband and master! It is I, your husband and lord, who orders you! Kevvy? Kevvy, please…!”

            One would have thought he was having the baby, and not me. I began to grow nervous: what if I lost the baby? Would I be banished from the tribe? Would they examine my background, and find that I had an Edomite great-great-grandmother? O God….

            Which is why I awoke one morning, and, feeling a pimple on my upper lip, and wishing to cover it with face-powder before the midwives arrived—I still had enough self-respect to wish to do that—I saw my face in the polished bronze mirror. And sat, staring.

            My face was covered—and, after ripping open my blouse, I saw my chest and entire body covered—with white scales. They itched.

            I could only remember the verses that Aaron himself had read to us Israelites in assembly, just the previous week:

            “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the infection…if hair in the infected patch has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin…it is a leprous infection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce [the victim] impure” (Lev. 13:2-3).

            I was in shock: how could this happen to me? How could the same God who killed Nadav and Avihu afflict me, innocent me, as well? Was I guilty for wishing my husband Eleazar to be quiet and let me sleep, last night? Was I stricken for wishing secretly to bear a girl-child? Was I overly worried about my mother-in-law, Elisheva, for shutting herself away from this Man’s World, and this Man’s God? Was I….

Suddenly, I felt faint; I rose from my sleeping mat, and staggered a couple of steps, feeling a wetness between my legs…. I stumbled to the door-flap of my tent, and collapsed. I reached down; my hand came away bloody. A young boy was passing by, whistling. I waved my bloody hand at him: he startled at the redness, but came over quickly.

“Help you, Missus?” he said, looking worried.

“Yes,” I said, through dry lips, “Go to—to—the Tent of Meeting. Fetch me Aaron—Eleazar—Itamar. Or any of the Levites. Go—go quickly!”

My head was spinning; I passed out.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Casual Death: For Syria's Children

A Casual Death

by David Hartley Mark

The Eagle soars in the summit of heaven,
And somewhere in Syria
Ravaged and raped country,

A screaming father holds
His infant daughter
Dead of chlorine gas

Her only crime
Was living, and
Being on the wrong side

Or any side at all.

The World goes on,

And from my front stoop
I carefully release
A tiny white chameleon
That blundered into
Our house

And crawled over the walls
While the dog barked

Until I imprisoned it in my hands
And brought it out of the door

It skitters away,

Far luckier than
A tiny dead girl.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

President Trump Seeks Assistance: A Tribute to Guys & Dolls

President Trump Seeks Assistance:
A Tribute to Guys and Dolls

(with apologies to Damon Runyon)

By David Hartley Mark

I am sitting in Mindy's Restaurant on 44th Street and Broadway on a fine, crisp, spring day, putting on the gefilte fish and horseradish, which is a dish of which of I am very fond, and looking through Mindy's very wide and shiny picture windows at the guys and dolls passing by outside. I am also viewing the local scenery, such as the Naked Cowboy, and Big Elmo, and Bert and Ernie, who are about to be discontinued on Public Television, with the exception, of course, of the Cowboy, who would be deemed unfit for small children to be watching, since he is wearing little more than a washcloth over his personal bits, except for, of course, the cowboy hat and boots, which cover areas which are normally OK for small children to be seeing.

And I am wondering why it is no longer appropriate for small
Children's TV programming to be receiving money from the federal government, since there is nothing harmful in Big Bird, or Bert, or Susan, or any other of the Sesame Street denizens, but this is not for me to wonder, and I have some more of the gefilte fish, which is very tasty, at that.

It is ironic that I should be thinking about our president and his particular way of looking at the world, because what should happen next, but a great many black Chevy Suburbans, with large tires which I assume are bulletproof, and blacked-out windows, and many lights, and red-white-and-blue light displays on top, and sirens, and many other ways of announcing their presence, suddenly come to a screeching halt in front of Mindy's scattering the various Guys and Dolls who are promenading, and causing them no small amount of distress.

Furthermore, the Naked Cowboy, and Bert and Ernie, and even Elmo, quickly take it on the lam, because, while they are not entirely illegitimate in their purposes, nonetheless do not possess a City License for panhandling, which is the genteel way of describing what it is they do, though the City of New York has turned a blind eye to their activities for a great many years now, especially the Naked Cowboy, though I suspect that we have been through a number of Naked Cowboys, and perhaps a few Semi-Naked Cowgirls, as well.

As I say, I am sitting there minding my business, and working away at my gefilte fish, when a large number of tall, buff guys in black suits and sunglasses come into Mindy’s in a hurrying sort of way, so that a good many of Mindy’s regular customers, most of whom I know and am friends with, quickly pay their bills to Mindy’s cash register girl, or not, and race out the back door, remembering that they have an urgent dentist’s appointment in Jersey City, or something of that nature.

These large guys in the black suits quickly scan the interior of Mindy’s, taking great trouble to peer under tables, and into the kitchen, and even to check out the gift shop, from which it is possible to order many tasty comestibles, such as brisket or cheesecake, in order to send them to your ever-loving aunt and uncle in Biloxi. Three of them come to stand around me, and I notice the telltale bulge under their suit armpits, which denotes that they are packing heat.

This latter fact disturbs me no little, as I have just lately returned from doing a favor for a friend of mine in Chicago, after which I was careful to chuck the implicating object into Lake Michigan, after checking to make sure that the serial number had been removed by Godfrey the Gunsmith, who is a close personal friend of mine, mainly in the area of business. Besides, the Chicago party had it coming, but I prefer not to discuss this fact with the G-men standing all around me.

“Are you Gefilte Fish Gabe?” asks the biggest of the three, scowling at me through his Foster Grants, “We need to talk to Gefilte, and him alone.”
“Who wants to know?” I answer him crossly, realizing that my lunch is irretrievably spoiled, and not feeling much like cooperating, even if it is with G-men, whom I assume can put some serious legal hurt on me.
“If you are Gefilte—and I assume that you are,” says the Chief G-man, “you are in no danger. The President wishes to speak with either you, or your close associate, Smoked Sturgeon Stanley.”

“I might be him, or I might not,” I reply, looking steadily at the government gunsel, “but you are mistaken in suggesting that the Sturgeon and I are particularly chummy. Besides, he is currently visiting his maiden aunt in Phoenix.”

“Agent Bates,” says the G-man standing behind me and making me nervous, “I just heard on my wrist that the Sturgeon was found floating, belly-up, in the Hudson River around Spuyten Duyvil, just last night.”

“As I say,” I smile at the agents.

“Well, that’s matter for the FBI,” says Bates, “but I must tell you, Mr. Gefilte, that we know about your recent junket to Chicago. The party you plugged left a full description of whom he was spending the evening, just prior to being found dead in Lake Michigan. And that party was you.”

“You can’t prove a thing, Copper,” I reply, “since I have an airtight alibi. My girlfriend, Tessie the Taxi Dancer, will swear that I spent the evening with her. We were dancing the night away, to Benny Goodman and Michael Buble.”

“Agent Bates,” says the agent covering my right side, “this is wasting time. The President wishes to speak to someone in Mr. Gefilte’s profession, and then we have to high-tail it back to Washington for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Conference. The President wants to get the US back into the agreement, after taking us out, abruptly, when he was about three days in office.”

“The President? For me?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Bates, “and I would suggest that you straighten your tie, and brush that horseradish off your lapel, before he comes in.”

“Sure,” I say, and stand up.

Just then, two of the agents open the doors, and, off in a corner, one of the other agents plays “Hail to the Chief” off his cellphone music. The G-men salute, and I go along. The President walks in, along with a tall, thin drip who seems to be his son-in-law, and a glamorous blonde model-type whom I recognize as his daughter.

The son-in-law—I now recall that his name is Jared—sits down with us. Is he Mr. Trump’s consigliere? I do not know this. The blonde sits down in a table by the window, staring out and ignoring us, and lights up a Virginia Slims. She inhales deeply, and goes into a fit of coughing. One of the agents has to whack her on the back to get her to stop; then, a waiter brings her a bottle of Perrier and a cut-crystal glass.

The President is not appreciating all this pomp and circumstance; he looks worried. Now, I do not normally follow politics—my business goes on, irregardless of who’s in office or Congress—but I know that Mr. Trump is having a problem keeping help. Almost every day, I am reading in the news app on my cellphone how he is firing this one, or yelling at this other one.

Sighing greatly, the President sits down at my table. The agents quickly withdraw to the corners of the rooms, at times looking through the glass at the guys and dolls who, as I said, continually gallivant down Broadway. And they talk into their wrists more than somewhat.

“Hey, Moishe!” calls Mr. Trump, “Bring me two big slices of cheesecake. And pour some cherries on it. Double cherries, OK?”

Moishe, the oldest one of Mindy’s waiters, brings the cheesecake order quickly, angling for a tip.

“How’s it going, Moish?” asks the President.

“Can’t complain,” says Moishe, “and how are you and the family, Don—um, Mr. President?”

He leaves three clean forks and a pile of napkins, and hurries away.

“Fine, fine,” mumbles the President, but I can tell his thoughts are elsewhere.

I am feeling good at this, and flattered that the President, or the US Government, are buying me cheesecake.

“Thanks a bunch, Mr. President,” I say.

“Don’t thank me, Gefilte,” he says, “How are you, by the way?”

“Fine,” I say, taking my clean fork and reaching out for a chunk of Mindy’s cheesecake.

“What’re you doing?” asks the President, “these are both for me. When I’m not happy—and I’m for sure not happy, big time—cheesecake never fails to put me to rights.”

“What can I do for you, Mr. Trump?” I ask, in order to move things along. I really want to get out to Yonkers for the evening horse race. I have a double-saw riding on Democratic Comeback, a filly ridden by the great Eddie Pelosi Schumer.

I like the horse better than the jockey, but what can you do?

“I need a man of your talents, Gefilte,” says Trump, patting his hair and leaning close. I feel uncomfortable; his breath smells like cheesecake, but I can detect the thin but unmistakeable odor of Flop Sweat.

“Me, Mr. Trump?” I protest modestly, “I’m just a race track tout—I mean, handicapper.”

“Come on, Gefilte,” says Trump, staring me right in the eye, and I can hear my dear departed Uncle Maury telling me one of his noted bits of wisdom, “Never try to bullshit a bullshitter.” It is clear that Mr. Trump, who had the entire National Security Apparatus of the US at his command, knows how I spend my time.

I really hope that that serial number of the Chicago gun was filed out, I think to myself.

“I understand that you are very good at what you do,” says the President, “and I need you to do a little job for me.”

“A job?” I say, not believing my ears. The President of the US hiring a hitman? What for?

“I have a list,” he says, and pulls out a sweat-stained piece of paper reading

The Most Sumptuous Night You will Ever Spend!
For in-room companionship, dial the Concierge.
Tell him Donald Sent You!
Group Discounts.

And Mr. Trump starts reading off the names of all the hot shot lawyers involved in their investigation of him. I interrupt the recitation to say, “Excuse me a minute, Mr. Trump. I gotta go use the john.”

“Go ahead,” says the President impatiently.

I return to the table a short time later. “Let me give your proposition some thought,” I say, “It will surely take more than one hitman—I mean, operator—to carry this out.”

“Sure, sure,” says Trump,”by the way, my son-in-law Jared will be your contact.”

I have never before heard Jared speak, but he colors and cries out, “Why me? Why not your sons?”

Mr. Trump fixes an eye on him. “Because you’re smart,” he answers, “and you know that they’re idiots. That’s why you’re going to make peace in the Middle East, remember?”

Jared is silent.

Off in the corner, Ivanka lights her fourth cigarette. The ashtray is getting full of her butts, and I recall the NYC Ordinance forbidding smoking in public places. She yawns and watches the streetlights coming on.

“So it’s settled?” asks Mr. Trump.

I nod, “I guess so.”

“Great!” he says, “Sign right here. Your usual fee, I assume?”

“Probably three times as much,” I say, “seeing as how these guys are very important, and all in government. It will be tough making this out to be an accident.”

I hear the sound of distant sirens, and say, “I have to get to the race track before the opening bell. I’ll make my good-byes now.”

Mr. Trump opens and closes his mouth, like a fish, but I have my coat and am ready to go out the door. Suddenly, a beefy arm in blue slams open the restaurant door, and a bunch of NYC cops storm in. The Secret Service agents go for their guns, but think better of it; this is a City matter.

A fortyish gumshoe walks determinedly up to the President.

“Are you Donald J. Trump, President of These United States?” he asks.

“You know that I am,” snaps the President.

“Then I have a warrant for your arrest,” says the cop, “Lopez! Come here and Mirandize Mr. Trump.”

“What’s the charge?” rasps Trump.

“Plotting to murder various government officials,” says the cop, “You’re looking at, probably, a life sentence.”

Trump starts to struggle as Lopez goes to cuff him, but realizes that it’s useless. He calls out to me as I open the door against the cops, “You, Gefilte! I trusted you. Did you blow the whistle on me?”

“Yes, Mr. President, I did,” I smile, “when I went into the men’s room, I placed a little call to Lt. Brannigan down at Police Headquarters.”

“You—you—“ sputters Trump, but I don’t hear him; I push the door open, and head for Yonkers and the racetrack.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Sad Tale of Edward Kitty, the Cat from the Crack House

The Sad Tale of Edward Kitty

By David Hartley Mark

                  Edward Kitty came to me last night. He looked as he had in life: scrawny body—he never ate much, our Edward—and disheveled, scruffy black fur, hardly shiny. In his narrow head, his Halloween-eyes, green as emeralds, glowed brightly. He looked vaguely sinister, but was harmless. Poor Edward.
“Poor Edward,” I said, “looking the same in death, as in life. How is the Rainbow Bridge?”
         “As Animal-Heavens go,” he replied, in a voice rusty with disuse, “it’s not bad. We get three squares a day, and treats are there for the asking.”
         “Have you made any friends?” I asked.
         “You know, Dave,” he replied, and I detected the ghost of a cat-smile, “that I am not a convivial sort. My experience has taught me that feline aphorism, ‘He prowls best who prowls alone.’”
         “Tell me your story again, Eddy,” I begged him, knowing that he had time here on Earth, and was in no hurry to return to the Enchanted Rainbow Bridge—though his steady diet and constant treating were certainly causing him to fill out. Well, better fat in the afterlife and thin on earth, than the other way around.
         “You know it very well,” he said, mock-crossly, but settled down, sphinx-like, and licked a paw before beginning his Cat’s Tale.
         “I was born in a miserable, ramshackle house that sold and smoked crack,” he said, “and this affected my kittenhood in many ways, all of them bad. My mother disappeared shortly after weaning us, as did my various brothers and sisters—I never knew them.”
         “That must have been sad,” I interjected.
         “Very sad,” he replied, his green eyes clouding over, “but I persevered. However, the crack-fumes had addled my poor little cat-brain. My mother’s being gone made it impossible for her to teach me how to groom myself, and so I never learned to lick myself thoroughly all over, and remove the excess hair. In particular, I did not know how to clean my nether parts.”
         “How tragic!” I commiserated.
         “Tragic, indeed,” he replied grimly, “but I pussycatted on, a lone black cat in a harsh, uncaring world. Many humans do not like black cats; they imagine that we are bad luck, or, worse, an embodiment of the Devil. In my case, however, the only one suffering the bad luck was I.”
         “Whatever became of you?” I queried further.
         “I was first taken in,” he replied, tapping his sable chin with a thoughtful paw, “by an Old Lady, who brushed me daily, striving mightily to teach me to groom myself. This was, alas, a useless exercise, as my feline brain remained crippled by the effects of the dread crack. At last, growing older, the Old Lady consigned me to the care of a local no-kill shelter, run by a well-meaning, but cat-illiterate woman. She was more of a Dog Person than a Cat Person.”
         “Did you come to any harm?” I asked, fearful for the fate of my feline friend.
         “There were two pugs,” he replied, gritting the teeth that we not there, his eyes slightly rolling back in his head at the sad memory, “who threatened to eat me, but I was not afraid.”
         “Were you not afraid of the Notorious Pug Brothers?” I asked.
         “I was a bit nervous, that I will admit,” said Eddy, his tail lashing determinedly, “but I had learned a Wise Cat Aphorism from the Wise Cat of the shelter. He was an Ancient Tabby who, being old, was in the habit of sleeping a great deal. During his limited periods awake, he would cry, ‘Gather ‘round, ye younker cats!’ and we would encircle him, both for protection (There were a great many Dogs, and most of them ill-mannered, as only dogs can be), and to better hear his Words of Wisdom.”
         “What advice did he have for you all, sad cats, bereft of earthly owners?” I asked.
         “His words were pithy, and full of meaning,” replied Edward, half-smiling at the memory, and, when I asked him, ‘O Wise Cat! What advice hast thou for a self-raised feline such as I, whose very life and well-being are put in jeopardy by two disagreeable and barbaric pugs?
         “The Ancient Cat gazed upon me,” he continued, “and said, in a voice deep and sonorous—I hear it still, in my dreams. He proclaimed:
         “’Beware the two dogs, Brothers Pug,
         ‘Else they come upon, and swiftly mug
         ‘You. Their courage is a sham,
         ‘And if you tell them firmly, “Scram!”
         ‘They nevermore will trouble you,    
         ‘And henceforth, you’ll know what to do.’”
         “That is helpful advice, indeed,” I said, looking my friend squarely in the eye, “and worthy of a Cat of Age. And did it help you?”
         “Pugs think that they are miniature bulldogs,” said Edward, curling his cat-lip, “but they are rank cowards. I extended my claws at them, scraped them both slightly—oh, how slightly! On the nose, and they bothered me, never again.”
         “So the Ancient’s advice helped,” I said.
         “Not exactly,” said Edward, “for I was declared a Wild Cat, and the owner of the shelter decided to railroad me out at the soonest chance.”
         “How unfair! Unjust!” I expostulated, worried for my friend’s fate.
         “Yes, but it all worked out, in the end,” said Edward, “for I was adopted by a Kind Young Woman, who kept dogs and a cat in her home. The frenzy of the collection of dogs, however, forced me to take on a new habit of existence. I would hide during the day, and ask to be let out at night. This seemed to work out agreeably with everyone.”
         “And did you settle down to a calm, domestic life?” I asked.
         “It is not given for crack-cats like me to ever settle down,” said Edward, “but I enjoyed some years of tranquility with that family. I would always be finding new places to hide, and wandering in the woods at night gave me a new sense of self-reliance.”
         “Did you ever learn to groom yourself?” I asked.
         “No, alas,” my friend replied, “and so I had to be shaven once or twice a year, because my fur would grow weighty on my back, smelly and tangled. I regarded my fur as a psychological barrier against the world and its troubles—we cats often bear the brunt of humanity’s cruelties, which is why I learned to hide.”
         “But you got fed regularly, at least,” I said, trying to cheer him up.
         “Yes,” he said, “but you recall that I have no teeth—they also did not grow in properly, due to the influences of the crack-fumes. I had to chew very carefully. Putting in cat-teeth is highly expensive, and it never happened. My companion-cat, Buster, tried grooming me himself, but soon grew tired of the exercise. How can one cat, however well-meaning, groom two cats? I was left to the clippers, as I said. It was the best situation for me, in the end.”
         “And then you died,” I said.
         “Yes,” he replied thoughtfully, his green eyes gazing off at some imaginary point in the distance, “I had a weak heart, again the result of the—well, you know. As do all worthy animals, I ascended to the Rainbow Bridge, haven of furry and feathered folk.”
         “How is it at the Rainbow Bridge?” I asked, curious about the Animal Afterlife.
         “It isn’t bad,” he said, “after all my troubles and travails upon earth. My section is mainly cats, with a tiny dog or two thrown in for variety. The larger dogs are kept separate, racing around as big dogs do; the smaller creatures—guinea pigs, gerbils, and other Furry Folk—are in another section still.”
         “Fascinating,” I said, and reached out to stroke him, but he moved away.
         “You know that I’m touch-sensitive, Dave,” he said, “but I thank you for your concern, even love. And now, I can see that it’s time to go.”
         “Goodby, Old Friend,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes.
         “Goodby, Dave,” he said, his tail waving farewell.
         And he was gone.