I’ve seen people die of small wounds, large wounds, unseen wounds. Deaths by poison, starvation, drowning, exhaustion, animals. I have been witness to three defenestrations, one bludgeoning by chamber pot. Train accidents. Falls of every height. Butchers slipping during shochet. The most concentrated cluster of death occurred over three decades with Judah on his medical travels. Trepanning too hard. Catheter insertions that channeled the wrong way. I’ve seen more dead children than adults. I’ve seen more dead men than women.
The highlights are compelling, summarized up there. Colorful. But there’s a lot of
What am I looking for? It’s hard to think right now. They all came at me, these images, and I’m slower somehow. Interfered with.
Static. All that death is static, with a memorable signal breaking through once in a while. Or the smooth, dull line of a seismograph needle, drawing one peak for every decade of nothing. I don’t get tired, but weariness came over me, standing on the iced pavement in front of Tango Palace Coffee, watching Ruth at a table with a brown-skinned man I’d never met. The grayness of the possibility of more death.
I’m sorry Ruth, but that’s how it felt, at first.
When I stepped up to the table, Ruth had her greatest face on, the one she uses with people she doesn’t know, but can’t bring herself to dismiss. Which is to say, everybody. Ruth feels connected to humanity when someone she doesn’t know starts speaking to her, even if that person isn’t exactly speaking a language or knows precisely what reality is. They’re all fascinating, she says.
I don’t think danger even crossed her mind until I arrived. She looked at me, then back at this strange chatty man, then it clicked. The mute girl. The exile. My protectiveness. The man turned to me as if he’d known I was coming. He stood up grinning. Long camo coat, short-cropped hair, some crooked teeth. Lean, quick, slightly mocking, as if he’d just told Ruth a joke about me. He left without a word.
What did he tell you? I asked.
Ruth looked from the chandelier to the window to me to the floor. Something about innocent angel babies, and keeping safe. He asked if I knew the angel Damla.
9:49 p.m.Surveying the apartment. Our furniture is scanty. Mostly third-hand, mismatched. Not too many small items, either. Ruth buys and makes a lot of frippery, but she gives most of it to friends, so she won’t mind leaving what remains here. Ruth is not owned by objects. Her clothes are an exception, and she’s been grunting with her plaid suitcases for an hour.
I enjoyed this flat, with its painted-over wallpaper and splintery floorboards.
Reader H. Arthur Dawson writes, as a fan, Please don’t confuse me more than you must, but I’m afraid I will have to let him down again. Ruth will be heading to one place, I to another, in a roundabout way. After a time, I’ll join her. I can’t be more specific than that. And I don’t know if we’ll be coming back to Toronto. I’ll publish this entry well after we’ve gone.
Don’t write about this, she just shouted. Nobody cares about this. I don’t even know what this is. Write about the past. That’s what people are interested in. You haven’t even scratched the surface, have you? Your old hopes and dreams and shit. This, what we’re doing here is just stuff. And nothing bad is going to happen to me, ‘cause if I’m not around, you won’t write. She smacked the wall and left the room.
She’s been angry since I said I didn’t want to see her die. She said I would indeed see her diepeacefully, after she’s lived a long life. That made me look again at what I wrote about the possibility of more death. Because it’s never a whether, but a when, isn’t it? I would love to have another connection lasting a lifetime. There have been so few. But I’m not sure I even want to see a natural death anymore.
So, the past.
The first Christian I ever saw was also my first death. He was an apostate. Samuel was on an extended business trip to towns just outside of Castile, with Judah and me in tow. We were on our way to a wool merchant when we saw a crowd outside the house of a qadi. They were watching a man with a high-pitched voice yelling at the top of his lungs about the heresy of the false prophet Mohammed.
To appreciate the horror of this scene, it’s important to realize just how much freedom the two peoples of the book had enjoyed in Al-Andalus, Toledo in particular. We worshipped freely, if humbly. Forced conversions were few to none. We all spoke the same language(s). The caliphs saw what could be accomplished through harmony. The only sure way to put yourself in danger was to denounce the ruling religion.
The crowd was nervous, muttering, ready to bolt, but eager to watch. The apostate seemed on the verge of a seizure, so pained was his face. We looked from the man, dressed like a well-fed beggar, to the house. Figures appeared at windows, but not the qadi.
The qadi hung his head. He escorted the man away, hand on arm. Samuel shook his head. There had been a spate of Christian martyrdom hundreds of years before, but it had largely tapered off. It’s Alfonso’s doing, muttered Samuel. They’ll be coming in droves now. I had never been far from the Jewish quarter, and Toledo’s conquest by the Christian Alfonso was still fresh, so I wasn’t sure who they were. Judah, the scriptural phenom, explained Christ to me. He whispered, wide-eyed in the back of a wagon, while the man ranted.
Finally, the white-bearded qadi emerged, as a magistrate confronted with such a scene is obliged to do. The apostate brightened up. He rocked from one leg to the other, like Judah did when his bladder was full. The qadi gazed around severely, and a few people slunk away. He approached the man and they spoke quietly. The qadi hung his head. He escorted the man away, hand on arm. Samuel shook his head.
Not smart. They should be making nice for when the Christians finally march in here.
What else could he do? said Judah. Let people blaspheme?
Two weeks later, our wild Christian was decapitated before an even larger crowd. Samuel didn’t want Judah to see, but Judah demanded.
I’m sure you can picture it.
I’m sure the idiot thought he was Hamatbil, said Judah when it was over. Then he explained to me who the Baptist was. And 50 years later, Judah ended the same way, in the holy land. He had denounced medicine, philosophyhis own Kuzari!and his earthly pleasures, his lust. He had even questioned the goals of his community. They were all barriers to Hashem. He turned his back on the world, and the world crept up and killed him for his purse and clothes.
2:53 a.mLights are out, and I’m staring through the window. Ruth is well on her way. There’s a lingering figure across the street. Not trying to hide, but not moving.
Her dramatic last words: How do you decide how much to protect someone? Like, do you clear every little stone in their path? Make yourself a shield in case a meteor’s about to hit them? Why not just kill everyone around them, because you never know?
Not whether, but when.
4:31 a.m.Those closest to me, I never saw die. I just saw the bodies. Judah, Don Samuel, Byshievski the Torah-maker. I don’t even know how the first Samuelmy creatordied. I came back from Jerusalem; he and his family and most of the community had gone away.
Maybe Hashem thinks it’s too hard on me to see what He has in store for them.
I don’t get tired, so I don’t sleep, and I don’t dream, but I believe I have dreamed a handful of times. I can only describe the sensation as a strong memory that could not actually have happened. They didn’t occur during my time outs from the world, in Spain, in a Mazovian forest, then in Rupert’s Land. I was awake for them, I think.
In one, I was moving across a plain that appeared to be many plains, stretching to the horizon. Hashem was explaining his plans to me, the intricate system, why I was important. He even apologized. I wasn’t very frightened or awed, because I knew this could not be Hashem. It was an imposter. Hashem would never do such things. And I didn’t want Him to.
The figure has moved on. Soon, I’ll be out of here myself.