Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
TAKING SHELTER
b y   r i c h a r d    j a y   g o l d s t e i n   ~   s a n t a   f e,   n e w   m e x i c o

ABRAHAM COWERS behind the couch as concussions shake the room. He can just see the window through its plastic cover, bowing in and out in slow motion like a bubble. Each time it bows he thinks it will break, fly inward like a thousand tiny knives. He imagines that the sweat trickling over his face and neck is blood. But each time the window holds.

He squeezes his eyes shut, starts to wipe them with his fingers, but bangs into the plastic lenses of his gas mask instead.

"Fucking Jerusalem," he says to himself through clenched teeth. "Why didn't I stay in fucking Princeton?"

He adjusts the straps on his mask. Suddenly he can't breathe. Why can't I breathe? he thinks wildly. Is it gas? My fingers are tingling. It must be gas!

He sits up in panic.

The old man is still sitting in his chair, wedged into the corner furthest from the window. He isn't wearing a mask, of course. Only his tallit, his prayer shawl. And his little knit kippah is perched as usual on the back of his head. The old man's name is Aaron, but Abraham still calls him Zayde, grandfather.

Aaron is sitting bolt upright with his prayer book, his siddur held before him, his lips moving, his eyes closed, his body swaying. He doesn't seem to be having any trouble breathing, so maybe there isn't any gas after all.

"Zayde," calls Abraham, his voice muffled behind plastic, "you should be wearing your mask."

"How can I daven with that drek on my face?" Aaron says in disgust. They have been through this before.

"So if there's gas," says Abraham, "then you'll be dead. Dead, you can really pray good, directly to God."

"If these attacks continue," says Aaron mildly, "and I don't pray, what then? You think missiles are more important than prayer? You never heard of the Thirty-Six Zaddikim (1), the Holy Ones for whom the earth is kept turning?"

"I never heard you were one of them," says Abraham with exasperation.

"I know, I know," says Aaron, with equal exasperation. "To you, if it's not science, it's all folktales."

"Zayde…" begins Abraham, but then another concussion rattles the room. Abraham ducks back down. If it's just explosives, he thinks, maybe we should be down in the basement. But they say if there's gas, then below ground is more dangerous, because the gas can settle and seep down. Why can't they make up their minds?

A silence slowly filters into the room. Abraham can just faintly hear the air-raid siren, and over it the sirens of emergency vehicles, like a dusty tapestry of sound. Why can't I hear better? he thinks. Is there something wrong with my ears? Maybe that last bomb ruptured my ear drums!

Abraham gets up from behind the couch and pulls his gas mask up onto his forehead. He goes quickly to the window. The plastic he has taped over the window and all around the frame seems to be okay. This is their sealed room, as ordered by the civil defense people. He wishes again that they had an inside room, without windows at all. But this is the best they can do, this little study with only one window, small and high up. Of course, Aaron refuses to stay anywhere else. Well, he thinks, if the window does break either the plastic will hold or it won't.

By standing on tiptoe, Abraham can just pry up the corner of the tape and peer down through the glass. He can see rubble filling the streets and uniformed men trying to clear a way. A Red Mogen ambulance stands by, its blue light pulsing like a heart.

Abraham presses the tape back into place, then goes to check the door. The plastic seal is intact there, too.

"Are you all right, Zayde?" he asks.

Aaron continues to pray, to daven, for a moment, then looks up with his eyes still squinted half-shut. "I'm fine, thank you, now stop interrupting me. It's close, so close, chas v'shalom (2). You should daven, too. It won't matter if there's thirty-seven temporarily. Here, take my siddur."

"You know I don't read Hebrew," says Abraham with irritation.

Another blast comes, filling the room with green light and sounding like a slap to the ears. Abraham dives behind the sofa. He quickly yanks his mask back into place, presses his fists against his temples. A second blast follows the first. The room rings like a bell. Maybe he cries out loud.

"It's my fault you're in this. I'm sorry, Abraham," says Aaron from across the room.

Abraham squirms around on the linoleum floor, so he can see Aaron in his chair. He can see Aaron's lips moving, but can't hear what he is saying. Zayde is the only reason I'm here, he thinks, the only reason why I'm lying on this stupid floor in this suffocating mask in this doomed city in this fool's war.

"What?" asks Abraham, taking his fists away from his ears.

"I said I'm sorry I got you into this," says Aaron again.

Abraham sits up. In his mask he looks to Aaron like a giant insect. "No, Zayde, no, it's not like that at all," says Abraham. "It's not your fault. It's those crazy bastards out there. Anyway, we could still get out if you'd listen to reason."

"We've been through that a million times," says Aaron, turning back to his siddur. "I'm not going back to the States with you. My home is here now, war or no war."

"Zayde, Zayde," says Abraham through his mask, "why do you have to be so stubborn? I want to take care of you, like you took care of me. It's not enough you had to bury your wife, and my father and mother both, and then raise me? And now, just when my career finally gets going, when I can maybe repay you a little, you move to Israel. Why won't you come home with me?"

"This is my home," says Aaron again, not looking up. "I'm sorry you got stuck here, but I told you not to come for me."

"I was afraid Israel would get pulled into another war," says Abraham. "Like it has. I wanted you safe. Anyway, what are you doing here that's so important?"

Aaron looks up from the siddur in his lap, looks for a moment at his grandson, the giant insect. "So there are four men," he says finally, "locked up tight in a little room. One is reading, one is sleeping, and two are just sitting there. The two who are just sitting suddenly begin to fight. This wakes the sleeper, who jumps up and tries to separate the two fighters. For his troubles, the sleeper gets punched in the face and sustains a black eye. The fourth man continues reading. Meanwhile, the two fighters knock each other out. So the man with the black eye says to the reader, 'Nu? Why didn't you help me? They might have killed us both. Is that all you can do, read?' And the reader says, 'Well, what I'm reading are the plans of this building. I want to see if there is a way we can get out of this place.' "

Aaron goes back to his book, as if he has answered Abraham's questions once and for all.

Abraham stares at him. All my life, he thinks, in every crisis, what do I get? Some meshugeh (3) story.

Another concussion lights the room, this one from further away. The whole building seems to sway. Abraham squeezes his eyes shut, trying to picture his safe and musty little office in Princeton, his chalkboard with its smudged jumble of equations.

Another blast, a sear of green light. He tries to remember pi to twenty places, tries to recite the prime numbers, but his mind is paralyzed. I hate Jews, he suddenly thinks. I hate all this creepy medieval crap. I don't want to die here, not here.

He feels like he can't breathe again. He rips his mask off, panting.

An instant later the room is filled with seething heat and sound beyond sound. Abraham is slammed face down against the floor. His mouth fills with blood. Against the roar that jams his ears he hears a musical sound, like stars against the black of space, which he knows is the window exploding inward.

Then it's over. The echo of the blast departs the room in waves, as if it is a symphony written by Beethoven. The air is like surf, dropping Abraham onto wet sand. He spits out blood and teeth. He rolls onto his back, groaning, realizes that he has crapped his pants. From where he is lying he can see tatters of his plastic moving like seaweed at the edges of the twisted window frame. He turns painfully the other way.

Aaron, his Zayde, is still upright in his chair. But now his eyes are open, his lips closed. A thousand pieces of glass pierce his face and chest. Blood wells weakly from a thousand wounds. His swaying has stopped. He is pinned in place by the glass.

"Zayde, Zayde," says Abraham, struggling to his feet. He stumbles across the little room. It seems to take a long time. At the chair, he reaches down and places his hand on Aaron's thin chest. There is no heartbeat, no rise and fall of breath. Glass cuts his hand.

Abraham backs up until his thighs bump the sofa. He stands there, swaying. Then he painfully removes his soiled trousers. He wipes himself with his handkerchief, pulls up the sheet that covers the sofa and wraps himself in it.

He goes back to the chair in the corner and looks down at the old man, his Zayde, glittering like a mosaic with glass. He stares a long time, his eyes glittering with tears, like glass.

He bends and gently lifts the old man, the zaddik, and stretches him out on the floor, pries the siddur out of his stiffening hand. He removes Aaron's kippah and tallit, hesitates, then puts them on himself.

And then he feels his heart: a pulsing blue light at his center, and the blood that spreads across and through him, as rivers across a dry land. He feels the sea lapping his eyes, laving the pain that burns there like the desert sun. His body becomes light, like an arc of night spanning the horizon, flurries of stars sweeping back and forth across him.

He folds himself into the chair, his sheet and tallit descending about him like mountain scarps. He raises the siddur and begins to pray aloud in Hebrew while outside a siren wail rises again and again, like water against his closed eyelids.

________________

(1) From Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: "The zaddik is an individual of extraordinary spiritual gifts whose devekut (the Hasidic objective of cleaving of the soul to God in worship) is nevertheless dependent on the congregation that gathers around him. His special task is to raise the souls of his followers toward the divine light, which means that he must at times step down from his own spiritual level to that of the common people [a concept known as yeridah letzorekh aliyah—"descent for the sake of ascent"]." Also: click here for one narrative extrapolation of the Zaddikim. Subscribers to the archives at Commentary magazine can also read more at this link to the article, "Cedars of Lebanon: The Zaddik and the People."

(2) chas v'shalom = God forbid (from the Hebrew)

(3) meshugeh = crazy (from the Hebrew)

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