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Authors: Stephanie Feldman

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BOOK: The Angel of Losses
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But you are supposed to be our hero, Eli said quietly, feeling as if he might weep, the flash of hope followed by the searing defeat nearly too much for him to bear. Nearly.

If I had died, the White Rebbe said, I would have been a hero. But I lived. And in living, the most important pieces of me have died one by one.

If you will not be a hero, Eli declared, I will.

The White Rebbe raised his sleeve, releasing a wave of light. Eli’s eyes burned as if a great gust of wind had assaulted them with grit, but he forced them open. He forced himself to see it through his tears, the vague and shifting shape.

This is the Sabbath Light, the rebbe said. It’s the final letter of the alphabet, the letter that completes creation. It was the Angel of Losses’s greatest treasure and greatest secret, until our ancestor, the first Berukhim Rebbe, compelled him to share it. Now the angel has been punished, cast out of heaven. It is why he wanders like a penitent—he is bereft, he is desperate to return home, beyond the River of Stones, to paradise.

I would give it back to him, if I could, but it belongs to humanity now. It illuminates the passage between this land and the land beyond, between our bodies and our souls. I cannot relinquish it without choosing a successor, and I can’t foist it on an unwilling host.

I will carry it, Eli said. He recognized the Sabbath Light as the source of the White Rebbe’s magic, and magic might be the only thing that could save Josef and himself. Nevertheless, he felt doubt. The White Rebbe of the stories had been noble and holy, and Eli believed himself to be neither.

There is a price. A debt owed to the angel, one that every Berukhim Rebbe has failed to fulfill.

I don’t care.

No, the rebbe said. You will listen.

The old man told his story, the secret history of the White Rebbe and the Angel of Losses. Yet Eli’s mind wandered. Half of him listened and half of him only waited, for he cared little for the rebbe’s warnings.

I had become crafty in my desperation to escape, to survive, prepared at any second to argue for my worth, my life. Concerned only with this moment, and the moment next to come.

Eli agreed to the old man’s terms. He would take the Sabbath Light and its magic, along with the promise his ancestors, every rebbe since the Holy Land, owed the Angel of Losses; and the White Rebbe would finally lay down his centuries and rest.

 

THE NIGHT OF THE JUDENRAT’S PLAY, THE BROTHERS
performed their ritual a second time—dressing in two pairs of pants, two shirts, their father’s prayer shawl wrapped around Josef’s body. He was so skinny by then that it fit easily beneath his other clothes. Don’t worry, Eli told him. The White Rebbe will protect us.

But when he opened the cellar door to bid farewell to his uncle, and to receive the Sabbath Light, there was only blackness. Eli reached into the space, but on all three sides his hands hit walls. He closed the door and opened it again. He thought that in his haste, in his fear, he had become turned around in the small room, but no—it was the only door, and it led nowhere.

 

JOSEF AND I FLED INTO THE NIGHT. A STAGE HAD BEEN
built outdoors, and a huge crowd gathered before it. We walked through the front doors of homes and out the back, bypassing the audience. Everywhere we went, we could hear their swells of laughter, their clapping.

The long years of his unnatural life had worn away the goodness in the White Rebbe; the lost letter had engulfed him with a yearning to cross the River of Stones, where the same light illuminated the land. Or perhaps his fear returned, and he had abandoned us upon sensing the approach of his old enemy, the Angel of Losses.

Our escape was up to me alone.

Fortunately, I had already devised a plan.

But I want to see the play, Josef said, between fits of coughing.

Shut up, I said.

The alley by the ghetto wall was empty. We would have to escape through the hole—I had a pass that would let me walk freely through the front entrance tomorrow morning, but this was Josef’s only exit.

Someone’s crying, he said.

A voice hung over the night like a shroud. O Israel, it cried. Arise, arise!

It could have been one of the ghetto’s mournful mystics. Their number was growing as fate closed in. But I believed it was the Angel of Losses, the original penitent. He had finally arrived.

I came to the hole in the wall and scratched at its edges. Mortar crumbled to the ground. I moved my face into the gap. A breeze blew from the invisible other side.

And then the earth rumbled and there was a flash of light, and I saw him, the Angel of Losses, right in front of me—his hair rippling smoke, his eyes slick river stones, his teeth sparking flint, his beard a dark cataract, his skin veined green, his eyes roiling flames, his teeth hailstones, his blood a stream of boulders hurtling like a train.

I jumped back. Fire bubbled into the sky, like God appearing to Israel in the desert. A bomb had exploded in the ghetto center; someone, some group, was sabotaging the performance. Before I could collect myself, another went off. I grabbed Josef and we plunged through the wall. We ran through the streets until we came to the home of the Christian janitor who had saved the temple books. He and his wife sheltered us until morning. When they fed Josef an egg for breakfast, I cried, my first tears of sorrow since the demons had come to our home.

Daylight brought news that the ghetto was on fire. The janitor left, and his wife sent their children to school. My husband said you’re a very hard worker for such a young boy, she told me. Since my parents had been taken, I had been very busy, it was true—I was always busy. But it wasn’t a sense of duty or love of work. I just wanted to be alive.

She looked over my shoulder. How long has he been like that?

Josef had fallen asleep on the floor. His face was gray. His hands were curled into fists the size of cat’s paws. His breath was a ragged labor. It sounded like an animal had colonized the empty cabinet of his chest. He coughed.

He was far sicker than I had realized. No egg would cure him.

The janitor returned from the Jewish library. Weiskopf had arranged with another woman, a Christian librarian at the university, to hide us at her sister’s farmhouse at the edge of the city. The janitor would take us as far as the woods, and then we would follow the creek until we came to her house; we were to look for a green barn, a chicken coop, and a dying tree split in half by lightning.

In the company of a free Christian man, we would probably be safe from the police, especially since they were distracted by the unrest in the ghetto. I held Josef close to me as we went on our way, and for the first time I saw how different we looked, his hair black and my hair blond, his eyes brown and mine blue. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to mistake me for the janitor’s son. Josef looked nothing like him.

Before leaving us, the janitor took me aside. You’ll have to be very quiet when you’re hiding in her home. Her neighbors will not only turn you in if they learn about you and Josef, but they’ll turn in her family too. I wanted to promise that we would be quiet, but before I could, Josef’s cough began, possessing his whole body.

If she hears him cough like that, she’ll turn you away, he said.

For the second time, I led my brother into the woods. Only once did Josef speak. What happened to our uncle and all his books? he asked.

I had no answer. I hated our uncle. And then, as if the strength of my fury had conjured him, he appeared beside the creek. His clothes hung on his body, as caked with dirt as our own. No coat. Empty hands. Blue eyes blazing.

He had come for me after all. But I had sat with his story for two days, and it had bloomed inside of me like mold. I had seen the Angel of Losses, and it had frightened me more than anything—more than the war, the wizened children, the train that emptied Ghetto 2, even more than Josef’s cough. I could not survive the ghetto only to be beholden to that creature.

I grabbed Josef’s wrist and ran. I dragged him across the thick rot of fallen leaves, over roots broken through the mud, and finally we hid behind a tree. I held him against me and peered around the thick trunk. The White Rebbe came toward us, undaunted by the rocks and pools of mud and snaking roots. A golden aura rose from his shoulders like steam. The letter burning in his flesh—he had called it the light that maintained the world, that illuminated the passage between this realm and the next. He wanted to carve it into my own skin. He wanted me to become like him. I didn’t know what he was, exactly, but I knew he wasn’t a man like the rest of us. He was strange and he was wrong, and I would never, never put my life in his hands.

I ran without a destination, out of hope, out of fear.

When I lost my breath, I braced myself against another tree, studying the woods in every direction, remembering how he had appeared at my back—impossible—in the cellar. But now he was gone. Maybe he had never been there at all—just a figment of my imagination, a delusion.

Something broke the eerie silence of the woods. It was my brother’s lung-shredding cough. I’d run a great distance—when I looked in the direction of the sound, I couldn’t see him. I hadn’t meant to drop his hand, to speed away and leave him alone—I had been driven by fear of the White Rebbe, the promise he meant to extract from me, to deliver me to the terrible angel.

Panic rose within me. I nearly bolted into the clearing. I nearly shouted his name. But then I heard him again. The whole forest, which at that moment was the whole world, shook with Josef’s uncontrollable hacking.

The sound of his illness and the space between us forced me to admit the truth.

There was no blessing coming our way. There was no passage to the Holy Land. There was no green barn for us—no Christian woman who would open her door to a child who could not be hidden. If I brought him with me, she would turn us away. If we returned to the ghetto, we would never escape again. Either way, there was only death.

I didn’t want to die.

I survived by killing my brother.

I left him in the woods. I left him by a tree, coughing in the cold forest of Lithuania. I left him all alone.

 

FOR DECADES AFTER I LEFT RUSSIA, I DIDN’T DREAM.
No fleeting images. No nightmares. No sharp sensation of tumbling. Just a sweet, thick blackness. The space where my soul once was. But in old age I dreamed again. Dreams about the great wonders performed in the small villages of Europe. Dreams about the White Rebbe, who traveled the world on the back of an angel; and the Gaon of Vilna, leading his congregation in prayers that repelled the bullets of Catherine’s army; and all the Hamans of history, defeated by tzaddiks born into each generation; and Miriam the priestess and her well of memory; and the faithful celebrating the Torah in the camps. I dreamt about the Artists’ Association of the Vilna Ghetto, and how if only they had gone into exile before the war, they could have performed on the Yiddish stages of the Lower East Side while Strashun Street was sacked.

I began to write my dreams down. I am a man without a village who has authored a hundred memorial books. I am a librarian, charged with watching over a small but essential wing of an infinite collection, the very stories the White Rebbe labored to hide: not his magical tour, his domestic miracles and isolated wonders, but his biography, the man who lived so long he became inhuman, just as his enemy, the Angel of Losses, became a specter.

 

WHEN I THOUGHT I WAS DONE WRITING, I WENT TO
the beach. I stayed there all day. I love the sight of the sea. In the evening I returned home and took a paring knife to my forearm. I had only seen the letter once, glowing in the flesh of an old man who sat in a labyrinth of books beneath a ghetto, but in my dreams it was as clear as my own reflection in a mirror—every curve, every slash. My skin tore easily, like tissue paper, and beneath the sheen of blood I watched it grow, that hieroglyph, something like a flame, something like a flower. My arm began to ache, and my body began to tremble. My mind’s eye had gone dark, and the letter was incomplete. But it was close. I opened my front door and I waited.

Day turned into night, and I must have fallen asleep. When I opened my eyes, the windows were black, and a man stood in the hall, an old man, old like me. Come in, I said. He sat in the armchair, and we stared at each other across a table piled with notebooks. His eyes were blue as frost.

I have found you, he said.

He no longer looked like that ancient scribe haunting the corridors beneath Vilna Ghetto Number 1. He looked like any other old man giving his final steps to the streets of New York. He looked like me.

No, I said to the man I had once called uncle. I found you. I extended my arm. Blackened. Torn. Trembling.

Men like you, he said. Nothing moves them but fear of their own death. You will give me what I want. Let me rest. Let me join that eleventh Lost Tribe, lost on the vast plains of war. My life is an error. Let me correct it. Take the Sabbath Light from me, he continued. Give me your death that I might cease my wanderings. Do for me what my brother did for my father, and what I did for my brother.

Look at me, I said. I’m not the man for it.

Do not underestimate yourself. You’ve done what none of us did. Created yourself as a new man. And I let you have that—decades of that—before calling in your promise.

If that’s so, I said, then I am a golem. Soulless.

Then it will be your son.

My son knows nothing.

Then it will be your granddaughter.

I realized I hadn’t escaped him after all. He had always been here, watching, waiting. My whole life was for nothing.

 

THAT NIGHT THE WHITE REBBE GRANTED MY REQUEST
for one last dream, that I might know my brother’s final chapter.

There was no miracle for Josef. He spent his last hours on earth watching dark descend on the woods, and frost rose from the ground and seeped between his ribs. Every sound was the footstep of a demon. He cried, as quietly as he could. He cried for his brother and mother and father. His coughing tore agony through his body. His hands and feet went numb. Soon he lost the strength even to cry or speak. There was only the shivering of his body giving way to a profound warmth, numbness, sleep. And then he died.

BOOK: The Angel of Losses
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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