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  • Written by Jonathon Keats
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Tales of the Thirty-six

Written by Jonathon KeatsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jonathon Keats

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On Sale: February 10, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-782-2
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Marvelous and mystical stories of the thirty-six anonymous saints whose decency sustains the world–reimagined from Jewish folklore.

A liar, a cheat, a degenerate, and a whore. These are the last people one might expect to be virtuous. But a legendary Kabbalist has discovered the truth: they are just some of the thirty-six hidden ones, the righteous individuals who ultimately make the world a better place. In these captivating stories, we meet twelve of the secret benefactors, including a timekeeper’s son who shows a sleepless village the beauty of dreams; a gambler who teaches a king ruled by the tyranny of the past to roll the dice; a thief who realizes that his job is to keep his fellow townsfolk honest; and a golem–a woman made of mud–who teaches kings and peasants the real nature of humanity.

With boundless imagination and a delightful sense of humor, acclaimed writer and artist Jonathon Keats has turned the traditional folktale on its head, creating heroes from the unlikeliest of characters, and enchanting readers with these stunningly original fables.

Excerpt

alef the idiot

Everybody knew that Alef was a fool. By trade he was a fisher­man, but folks had seen a lowly carp outsmart him. Even the fish that Alef landed seldom made it past his fellow sailors, who took turns at snookering him, to decide who among them was smartest. One might lead him to believe that the rock cod in his bucket would dry to stone, and generously offer to trade it for a worm with which to try his luck again. Another might persuade him that his flounder was no odd fish, but rather the castaway face of a diver gone too long underwater, and gra­ciously volunteer to return it to its rightful owner. To all these propositions, Alef eagerly agreed, blessed to have friends who accepted his dim wit, and looked after him.

Alef’s wife, on the other hand, was less forgiving of his shortcomings. Chaya was the daughter of a rabbi celebrated as a sage in the town where she was raised, and, while she had her mother’s dark hair and stormy eyes, she’d inherited her father’s luminous mind.

Since no one else in the rabbi’s village had been bright enough to comprehend him, least of all his wife and sons, the rabbi had taken little Chaya into his library and taught her the sacred tongue, to have someone with whom to study all that was holy. She’d mastered Hebrew with alacrity, and had learned to argue fine points of doctrine by the time she was ten. A year later, she’d trounced her father in a dispute over laws governing seminal discharge when the Sabbath sundown was occluded by a solar eclipse, from which she’d deduced that she was wiser than anyone, and, therefore, no longer had to obey her mother.

That had resulted in arguments of an altogether different order, fought in shrieks and fits and, more than once, with a hurled pot of boiling water. Scarcely his daughter’s height, and half the weight of his wife, the rabbi had studiously avoided these disputes, and even Chaya’s brothers, muscular thugs sev­eral years older than she, had learned to slip out the door whenever the stormy eyes of mother and child met.

Many times while his wife was away at market, the rabbi had tried to persuade Chaya to show compassion for her, or at least to respect her, as required by law. But Chaya had con­tested his interpretations, and even the ancient commentaries on which he based them, with such furious logic that the rabbi had been forced each time to concede defeat. Finally he’d gone to his wife, the rebbetzin, to explain how Chaya was different from other girls, and why obedience shouldn’t be expected of her. His wife hadn’t needed any fancy wordplay to reply. She’d simply accused the rabbi of loving his daughter in lieu of her.

This, too, he’d been unable to deny: Chaya’s body was as lithe as a serpent’s, and his weakness for dark hair and stormy eyes had already, of course, been established. He’d nodded and dumbly looked on while his wife had sent for the matchmaker, to get rid of the little nuisance.

In that village, the marriage broker was famous for cou­pling children the day they were born. Her trick was to know folks’ fortunes, and to reckon love economically, according to the supply and demand of dowry. But the rabbi had forbidden her from prematurely pairing his little Chaya: He couldn’t tol­erate predestination from an omniscient god, let alone a know-it- all yenta. So the old woman, sturdy like a pruned tree, had come to the rebbetzin without a suitable man.

– There must be someone.

– The locals are all taken.

– Chaya is the daughter of a rabbi.

– She comes with no dowry.

– My husband is not a rich man. But our Chaya is a pretty girl, after all.

– A pretty shrew, if you’ll pardon my saying so.

– Then you see why she has to go.

– I do, I do. Perhaps I can help you. There’s a man I’ve heard of who lives by the sea, and for some years has sought a bride.

– Is he crippled? Is he cruel?

– Rebbetzin, folks say that he’s a fool.

The rebbetzin had laughed at that. She’d squeezed the matchmaker’s hand. She might even have kissed the old maid, had the rabbi not walked in, roused by the unfamiliar sound of mirth in his house. The rebbetzin had stood, then. She’d told her husband that a suitable groom had been found.

– He lives in this town?

– There isn’t a man in this village who deserves her.

– Then he is a great scholar?

– What man could be as wise as Chaya?

Naturally, the rabbi hadn’t had a response. And, because he was too frail to travel, the next morning he’d stood helplessly in his doorway while his wife had put their daughter in a carriage with a loaf of bread and a note bearing the name of her be­trothed. He’d waved farewell, but the girl, wrapped tight in a black shawl, hadn’t even looked at him. Only out on the open road had she allowed herself, inaudible amid the horses’ clamor, to loosen the cloth and pour out her tears.
. . .
Alef’s fellow fishermen seldom saw his wife after their wedding. Chaya refused to mingle with the common folk, lest they mock her, cultured rabbi’s daughter, for being married to the village idiot. But, as much as she dreaded their jeers, what upset her more was to hear them tease her husband: Certainly Alef was a fool, as she told him whenever he was dumb enough to utter a word in her presence, yet cuts inflicted by others, which he was too dull to feel, pained her as if she were the one being gutted. Chaya might have thought that this was just one more symptom of her humiliation, were it not accompanied by another emotion–the insatiable urge to be held by him.

Alef was a large man, framed like a boat, into which slender Chaya fit as if he’d been hewn for her. Not that she believed those old romances that for every girl in the world a special boy was born: She could refute such notions historically, philosoph­ically, and mathematically, to name but a few possibilities. Yet none of her arguments could hold up, even for a moment, to the force of a kiss. Every night came to the same conclusion. And every morning, lying in bed long after her husband had gone fishing, she’d wonder what, for all her reason, had happened.

By evening, she’d be seething, blaming Alef for taking away her sapience and saddling her with love. She never spoke to her husband in such terms, which would have been wasted on him. Instead, each night, when he returned to their home and con­fessed what had become of their evening meal, she’d drag him inside and squeal: Are you a fool? If he tried to respond, to justify his fishlessness, she’d recite her favorite proverb in the ancient tongue: The ignorant cannot be righteous. Since he couldn’t reckon what she was saying, he’d accept all blame and listen to her sputter and curse until, exhausted by her own fuming, she’d come to be embraced by him. Then he’d take her to bed, where their differences were what brought them together again.

Chaya’s behavior bewildered Alef. Why did her feelings for him turn with the hours of the day, while he adored her with the constancy of years? What could he do not to lose her each afternoon? What was wrong with him?

He pondered these questions at sea and on land. He asked the opinion of the carp he caught, but, knowing no affection outside of spawning, they didn’t respond. His fellow fishermen, on the other hand, were eager to assist him, if only he’d request their advice. Every day they asked about his wife. They in­quired about her scholarship. Was she still intent to unseat the village rebbe, as she’d threatened to do following a doctrinal dispute on Alef’s wedding day? Did she plan to take the old maggid’s place? Or did she want to put Alef on the pulpit? At the height of his confusion, the fishermen would act as if he al­ready were the village pontiff and ask him to deliver a sermon, and, when he stuttered that he didn’t know what to say, they’d applaud him for his wisdom.

Then one day a storm grounded every sailor except for Alef. (The weather didn’t bother him, as he never thought to fear it; sweeping the world of hubris, the torrents always took care to let his small vessel pass.) When he harbored in the late afternoon, the docks were all but abandoned. Only Yudel, one of the shrewdest fishers, was there, repairing his mast. He called Alef over.

– What are you doing on the water in this weather?

– I’m trying to catch some fish.

– Swells like these could swallow your boat, Alef. You’re a married man. What would your wife do without you?

– I’m sure she’d get along.

– She must love you, though.

– I don’t know.

– What’s the matter? You can’t satisfy her?

– I guess not.

– For some men, it’s like that. I can tell that you’re miserable. I know that you’ve been meaning to confide in me for a while. So I’ll let you in on a secret. There is a cure for your ail­ment. Would you do anything for Chaya, no matter what?

When Alef shyly nodded, Yudel told him where he must go and what he must do. He insisted that Alef not see his wife first, and made him swear never to tell her where he’d been: If he did, he might not see her again. Yudel accompanied Alef to the forest floor. Then he scurried to the tavern to tell the other fishermen about the fool’s errand.

Alef hiked long hours through woods midnight deep and darker than the day before creation. Wolves surrounded him, spiraling like planets through the heavens. He welcomed their stoic company, for walking through forest at night is lonely. He told them of all the fish he knew, and praised his sagacious wife. But when he told them what he was about to do on her behalf, their eyes widened and, in a blink, they scattered.

Alone again, he came to a clearing. In the moon’s ancient light, he saw the silhouette of a small windowless shack, seem­ingly built in the cast of its own shadow. He climbed onto the deck, soft as tar beneath his boots, and pounded the door three times with his fist.

The old dybbuk who answered fit Yudel’s description, as much as any description could fit such a demon. His skin seemed to be molded of the same dark substance as his home. He wore no clothes, yet only his face and hands appeared naked; on the rest of his carcass, the wrinkles of black hide hung as heavy as an overcoat.

The dybbuk invited Alef inside. A faint glow illuminated the hovel, light seeping from a barrel such as those in which herring is pickled. The demon stood back while Alef ap­proached the vat, having never known fish to be radiant.

He stared at them for a long while. They had no eyes, nor had they scales. They were slippery and pale, protoplasmic lumps no larger than Alef’s hand, sunken under a thick, clear syrup.

– Where do they come from?

– They’re human.

– They don’t look like people.

– That’s because you’ve seen only the parts folks show. These are people’s souls.

– Those are souls?

– The most in captivity anywhere in the world. Now tell me: What can I offer for yours, Alef? What brings you here?

– Yudel the fisherman tells me that you can help me satisfy my wife.

– You’re flaccid?

– People say that I’m stupid. I don’t know. Every day, my Chaya asks me if I’m a fool. I just want to give her an answer.

– You think an answer would satisfy her?

– She’s a great scholar. If she has to wonder, it must be the deepest mystery.

– Yes, I see. You drive a hard bargain, but I’ll do it. You’ll give your soul to know if you’re a fool.

The dybbuk asked Alef to take off his cloak. Then he sat the fisherman on a squat wooden stool in the middle of the room. With a tin cup, he drew some syrup from the pickling barrel and washed it over his arms. He took another draft. Pinching Alef’s nose, the dybbuk poured it down his throat. As Alef choked, the demon thrust a black hand down his gullet, gripping the spasm at the nub, withdrawing a pallid gland. He held it, still heaving, in front of Alef, and then dropped it in the vat.

The room glowed much brighter than before. Alef could see that the demon’s living conditions were awfully poor. He’d nei­ther hearth nor bed. That dybbuks naturally have want of nei­ther food nor sleep only added, in Alef’s estimation, to the demon’s destitution. As he took his leave, he didn’t wonder, as previous victims of the dybbuk invariably had, whether giving up his soul was a foolish thing to do. After all, he’d a brick oven and straw mattress, and even a wife with whom to share them. Evi­dently the unblessed creature needed his soul more than he did.
Chaya waited up for Alef, restless. Ever since their wed­ding, she hadn’t passed a night alone, and, because she’d never had occasion to miss him, she didn’t appreciate that the aching she felt in every organ was but a symptom of separation, an in­flammation of love. Nor did it comfort her to visit the tavern at midnight, asking if anyone had seen her husband, and to be met with derision. Probably mistook you for a bearded clam and drowned, the sailors jeered. Then Yudel followed her home, tried to fondle her, and offered to dive for her oyster. She hurled an iron pot at him, hitting him in the groin. He staggered back to the tavern, to drink away the pain. And what did she do? She attempted to pray.

The liturgical training that Chaya had received from her father told her what words to say, with which rituals, but, as unimpeachably as she knew how to worship in theory, the truth is that she’d never before done it in practice. Prayer was for peasants, witless folk who’d good reason to be subservient. Chaya had been dependent on no one before Alef. Only the agony of his absence brought her to her knees, on the cabin’s hard dirt floor. From down there, she whispered some sacred words, found they had no substance in her mouth. She uttered others, still holier. She could not feel them on her breath. She sputtered secret incantations, heavenly formulations that mor­tals were never meant to possess. She couldn’t even hear her own voice. She started to cry. Her throat opened. Her chest filled. Her sobbing sounded like great bells pealing, ringing in a new dawn.

She did not hear her husband return. He softly shut the door. He came close, knelt in front of her. He touched a finger to her cheek, caught a falling tear.

She screamed. She staggered backward. He wondered if she didn’t recognize him, if he looked different, soulless. Had he blackened like the dybbuk? Would Chaya be upset by that? Then he heard his name. She was cursing him, her persecutor, for making her adore him, only to abandon her.

He could not say that he’d been away for her sake without divulging where he’d gone, and since she did not ask the ques­tion for which he’d so dutifully sought an answer, all that he could do, as she battered him with accusations, was to look on in dumb innocence. That only made her angrier. She invoked every curse of antiquity. The ignorant cannot be righteous, she screeched.

Silence is the fence around wisdom, the fool at last replied. He said it almost in a whisper, but what stunned Chaya was that he’d spoken it, flawlessly, in the ancient tongue.

– Where did you learn that, Alef?

– I’m not sure.

– It’s a line from Talmud.

– The words just came to me.

– You don’t even know Hebrew.

– I’m not learned.

– Yet you’re speaking to me in Hebrew now.

Alef recognized that she was right. He also noticed that she’d become quiet. When he embraced her, she held him even tighter than on their wedding night, peering into his eyes with even greater wonder than when they’d first come together.
The following morning, Alef found that he knew more than Talmud. Out at the seashore, sailors pestered him with trick questions of an arithmetical nature to make him blush and stammer–if you lose four of the three fish you catch, how many are left?–but he calmly responded by giving them a les­son in negative digits. Then he unmoored his boat, and, while the others puzzled over the proofs he’d written in the sand, sailed into open waters.

He dropped his line. The string went taut. He tugged to see where it had snagged–and hauled a fluke into the boat. No sooner had he cast again than he hooked another one. He pulled in five of them, then ten. His hull was just about full when he remembered that his wife didn’t like fluke, which she considered common: At their wedding, Chaya had declared that she ate only salmon. So he dropped his line, and hooked her one.

It was still early when Alef sailed back into harbor. The other fishermen were where he’d left them, quibbling. Some argued that the old dybbuk was playing with them, using soul­less Alef as his puppet. Others maintained that, by forsaking his soul, Alef himself became a demon. They agreed only that Chaya must not know what had happened, must not discover where they’d let Yudel send her husband, for her pot- hurling fury raged fiercer than damnation.

Then Alef was upon them. He smiled. Nervously, they grinned. He presented each with a large fish. He gave away all that he had except for the salmon, which he proudly carried home to his wife.

He handed it to her when she opened the door. The fish was as large as her torso. She did not ask if Alef was a fool. She looked at the salmon, dripping cold water down her chest, and then at her husband, blond head beatific, crowned in sweat.

– Where did you get this fish?

– I caught it. It’s the kind you like, Chaya.

– I know that. But most days you can’t even land an an­chovy.

– In the Talmud it says . . .

– Don’t quote that book to me.

– Then mathematically speaking...

– What the hell is happening?

– I just know where fish are in the ocean.

– Every one?

– Even the clams.

– Those aren’t fish. They’re forbidden.

– I can tell which oysters have pearls.

– Those can’t be eaten either. But it wouldn’t be criminal to give me a few jewels.

Alef pulled a couple of oysters out of his pocket and opened them with his thumbs. From each, he plucked a little oval pearl. Later, after they’d gorged on fish and on each other’s flesh, Alef laid the pearls on Chaya’s cheeks, where, the night before, tears had shimmered.

He slept soundly, dreaming of quantum mechanics and rel­ativity. By the time he awoke, his wife was no longer in bed be­side him. Instead there was a note, telling him that she’d gone to visit her parents.
Chaya had not been home in the year since her wedding. She hadn’t even responded to her father’s letters, laden with questions she’d have been humiliated to answer and money she’d have been ashamed to spend. She wrapped herself tight in her cloak as she neared the town gate, covering her face in the manner of a foreigner, lest anybody recognize her, pathetic creature, driven away by carriage, hobbling back shoeless.

She arrived at dusk. The house was quiet. The rebbetzin had gone to market, and Chaya’s brothers were now married to the daughters of a wealthy merchant, who had given each a small estate. She opened the door to her father’s study, and slipped inside. Without looking up from the tract he was writ­ing, he asked her if an omniscient being could know ignorance.

She started to answer, and then stopped. She tried a differ­ent approach, which brought her to another impasse, or per­haps the same one from a different direction. At last she confessed that she wasn’t certain.

He set down his pen. With both arms, he embraced her.

– For months, I’ve been trying to solve this problem, Chaya. In the first month, I was certain that I could do it. In the second month, I was comforted that, if I didn’t, then you would. In the third month, I became troubled that you could, yet I couldn’t. And in the fourth month, I became distraught that you could, but wouldn’t. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to write a word in these commentaries. All year, I dreamed that you would come to me like this, break the riddle, and spring me from my trap. But now that you’re here, and I hear that you don’t know either, I realize that the resolution doesn’t matter. I remained imprisoned by it only because I wanted to see you, but couldn’t. Your father is not very wise.

– And your daughter is not very good. At least I should have written.

– Your husband’s a sage, Chaya. It’s right that he com­mands all your attention.

– Now you mock me. You know that Mama married me to a fool.

– He doesn’t understand the sacred texts as well as you do?

– He was illiterate until a couple of days ago. While you were busy with your learned commentaries, Mama married me to a fisherman who...who ...could be outsmarted by a lowly carp, and . . .

– Illiterate until a couple of days ago? You’ve been teach­ing him, then?

She shook her head. She told him everything that had hap­pened. She laid two pearls on the table in front of him. She was mystified. Could he explain?

The rabbi picked up the pearls, but did not scrutinize them. Instead, he peered into his daughter’s eyes. He saw that they had changed. It seemed that the light had dimmed, as he’d once observed in his own bride. Then he perceived that the fire he’d previously seen from up close was now distant, insur­mountably far from him, and, for the light to reach him at all, it must be orders of magnitude brighter than before. Chaya’s ardor made him shiver. He looked down and told her what the evidence made obvious: Her Alef had sold his soul to a dybbuk. Since she did not respond, he told her the consequences suf­fered by people who bartered their souls, the agonies that he’d witnessed, tortures that might have infected everyone had he not banished those cursed folks from the community. He re­minded Chaya that life was passed down the generations by the soul’s nocturnal secretions, and that, because a man without a soul could not have children, his wife could legally divorce him. Chaya said that she never would. The rabbi nodded, for it was the response that he’d expected. Then she asked him where she might meet this demon.

He stopped nodding. He stared at her. Even to utter the word dybbuk made him shudder, yet she wished to visit this crea­ture as if he were a country pawnbroker.

– Chaya, you can’t do that.

– Alef did.

– And look what happened to him. Nobody goes to a dyb­buk, except for one reason.

– That will give me an advantage in my negotiations. Trust me, Papa. My soul is not for sale.

Chaya put her hands on his. She contained their tremor. She gave him paper on which to draw a map. He made it swiftly, without lifting his pen, as if it were a sentence. The wet ink shone in the last sunlight. She kissed her father on the cheek, and hurried into the night.

The wolves already knew of Chaya, from what Alef had told them during his recent sojourn. They escorted her, a girl of much culture and little meat, at a respectful distance, discreetly protecting her from highway robbers and other predators who might take an interest in something other than her brains. They accompanied her to the forest clearing, where the demon was outdoors, tending his night garden. They watched her ap­proach him, regretting that it was not in their power to guard her from her own impudence.

The dybbuk cultivated mushrooms, each one as won­drously hued as an orchid. Chaya looked over his shoulder at the one he was watering, and pronounced its name. The dyb­buk dropped his cup. He’d never before heard the word spoken aloud. He asked her to say it again. She uttered the name more slowly for him. He sighed. As magnificent as his fungus was, the sound was more spectacular: He knew that, to have earned such an appellation, there must be a finer specimen of the mush­room elsewhere.

He might have enlisted Chaya’s expertise on care and feed­ing, were it not unseemly for a demon to seek a girl’s advice. In­stead, he invited her inside. He held the door for her. While he pulled it shut, she peered into the pickling barrel, at a thousand sunken souls.

She asked which one was Alef’s. The dybbuk shrugged. He didn’t keep records. I leave the auditing to the powers above, he said. And then he assured her that she needn’t be bashful about giv­ing up hers: The procedure left no mark on the body, and he guaranteed lifetime confidentiality. As long as she was discreet, no one would notice any change to her except, of course, that she’d be vastly richer, or prettier, than before.

– I’m not here to sell my soul.

– Nobody leaves my cottage without making a deal.

– Would you trade a soul for pearls?

– How many gems would you like, little girl?

Chaya frowned. She took the two pearlets that Alef had given her from a pocket in the apron of her skirt. She showed them to the demon. If he would return her husband’s soul, she said, he could have the gems, both of them.

He laughed at her. He laughed like a smokestack spouting soot. He told her to close her hand. When she opened it, there were twenty pearls. And as soon as she shut it again, there were none.

– What will you take for it, then? Our hovel? Alef’s boat? Would you return his soul if I offered you my body for the night?

– Don’t you understand, rabbi’s daughter? I’m not a ship­ping magnate or a real estate broker, and I’m not a playboy either. I’m a demon. Everything I want comes freely to me.

– Everything except a soul.

– So I collect them, one at a time, from folks who’ve had them, scarcely aware, all along. I deem myself a connoisseur.

– And I consider you a glutton.

Chaya walked out on him. She trampled through his gar­den, squashing exotic mushrooms, and trudged into the forest.

After several hours, morning dawned. Chaya was still in deep wood, but up ahead she saw a man. His meager flesh barely stretched skintight over his bones. He sat in the dirt, neither home nor wife in sight, surrounded by sacks such as those she’d seen ragpickers carry. She asked if he was a beggar.

– You can’t help me.

– Who says I’m offering? I have troubles of my own. What’s in the sacks?

– The weight of my misfortune.

Chaya was a strong girl, given her slight build. She tried to lift a bag. She strained. She swore. She couldn’t budge it. So she looked inside, and was blinded.

While sight seeped back into Chaya’s eyes, she reached into the sack and scooped out a palmful of coins. They were unlike any she’d ever seen, even the ancient and arcane denominations in the synagogue coffers. She could not decipher the inscrip­tions on them, nor could she identify the species of beast adorning the face of each. Curiouser, though, was the sub­stance, as soft and sticky as honey.

As the bullion warmed in her palm and trickled through her fingers, she marveled at the purity of the metal.

– It’s twenty- five- karat gold. That’s what I get for selling my soul.

– Then you, too, visited the dybbuk last night?

– Last night? I was there a decade ago. It’s taken ten years just to haul my hoard this far into the forest.

– Why don’t you leave it, if it’s only a hindrance?

– Without my soul, this burden is all I’ve got. The burden of my greed. And what did you take in exchange for your soul?

– I didn’t sell.

– Then you’re a very fortunate girl. All through these woods, you’ll come across folks who bartered theirs.

– Are they hard to find? Do you know them well?

– What do I have to share with other people? We keep to ourselves.

Chaya soon found that the man had spoken truly. She saw many folks, always alone, some up in trees, others huddled on the ground. They shied like untame animals as she passed. She paused to gaze at a woman crouched in a bush. The girl wore nothing but dust and shadows. Blackberry brambles grew in her hair. Yet, even at a distance, Chaya could see that the girl’s softness would be the envy of a princess, and that her ripe lips could seduce a king. Chaya remarked that the girl was more beautiful than any she’d ever met, and felt tingling inadequacy in her own flesh. Glancing back at Chaya, the girl began to weep.

– What’s the matter?

– You can’t help me.

– I met a man who sold his soul for gold too heavy to carry. But what could be the burden of beauty?

– You’ve no idea. Before I went to that cursed dybbuk, I was an old hag. I lived by a lake, and I’d spit at my ugliness every day when I knelt to drink. Sometimes at dusk, peasant girls would come to bathe. They’d splash and play, and I’d imagine what a happy life I’d lead if I were pretty. That demon didn’t just snatch my soul, you see. When he gave me this flesh, he took away my dreams.

– But you could go to town and marry any man you wished.

– Marry? I’m a hundred years old, girlie.

Slowly she stood. Her back was bent, her legs bowed. She clamped a hand on Chaya’s arm, brittle bones quivering in their new skin.

– Do you still think I’m such a beauty? When the dybbuk took my soul, he left an emptiness. The ugliness festers there, where I can’t even spit on it.

Chaya shuddered. She pulled away and hurried home, hor­rified by the miseries that Alef must be suffering as his soul­lessness sank in. She steadied herself as she neared their hovel. Whatever his condition, she vowed not to put him down: Irre­deemably foolish as he’d been in his diabolical dealings, she would not call him a fool again. She opened the door. And found him humming to himself, cooking up a bouillabaisse.

Was Alef so stupid as not to be afflicted? Was he so smart? Chaya was befuddled, and more so by the bouillabaisse, which wasn’t even native to their region. She asked if he knew what he was doing. He shrugged and made her sushi.

He did not inquire where she’d been all night long. After supper, he simply brought her to bed and showed her how much he’d missed her. What could be said? In the essential re­spects, she had to confess, Alef was the same.

Only the implications were different. Instead of giving up one fish, or even a dozen, Alef handed out a hundred. He was equally free with his advice. He showed carpenters how to frame their houses taller, farmers how to plow their fields deeper, and millers how to motorize their operations, a plan that had to be scuttled for want of electricity. Day after day, Chaya watched her husband cure diseases and adjudicate dis­putes.

It was harder for her than when he’d been the town laugh­ingstock. Everything he knew taught her all that she did not. And what was the benefit? In the corner of the hovel, stewing like a bouillabaisse, she’d watch him dole out fish by the bucket while giving away ideas that made other folks’ fortunes: An anesthetic. Movable type. An assembly line. By evening her vow would be broken in all but name, as she berated Alef for stupidly helping strangers fleece him while he neglected his own devoted wife. To these complaints he’d respond not with words but with pearls, which he’d string together with kisses until all was well.

At last a rich merchant from the city, who’d heard rumors of Alef’s genius, paid him a visit, and begged his expertise: The merchant wanted to know how to transmute lead into gold. As the fisherman began to answer, Chaya sprang from her chair, and, screaming obscenities that would turn platinum into iron, chased the knave out the door. She stared at her husband, eyes ablaze. You are a fool, she hissed.

Alef nodded. A smile enveloped his face.

– For a long time, I didn’t know, Chaya. You asked me every day, and I couldn’t tell you until finally I went to the dyb­buk to find out.

– You didn’t have to do that.

– I did, though. It’s no simple question, like how to create gold. To comprehend what I don’t understand depends on knowing all there is to know.

– Alef, that’s nonsense.

– To discover the leak in a bucket, you have to fill it, Chaya. At first I thought that the dybbuk had misunderstood my wish, but the more wisdom I dispense, the more I find what my head never held.

– And you aren’t tormented by that?

– A fool is never tormented. Torment isn’t about what you don’t know. It’s about what you have and can’t give.

After that, Chaya no longer interfered with Alef’s generos­ity. Instead, she tried to emulate it. She found that giving was an effort, that, even with her impressive intellect, she couldn’t do as well as Alef did in his simplicity. She envied his foolishness. All night long she clung to him as her sole source of meaning.

And in the morning she’d go out into the forest to tend to the soulless. She’d bring them fish, which she taught them how to cook into a bouillabaisse. She’d tell them that they didn’t have to be tortured. She’d patiently explain that the torment they felt, they inflicted on themselves. They consumed her fish, but rejected her logic. They said that to believe the soul was in­significant, she must surely have lost her sense.
One day, after Chaya had given away every fish in her bas­ket, she found herself near where the dybbuk lived. She decided to visit.

She stepped onto his deck, which seeped through her toes in the afternoon heat. She called out the demon’s name. He opened his door a crack, squinting into the sun, trying to ascer­tain whether the heavens were in flames. Then he saw, standing on his stoop, hands on hips as if she were a neighbor, little Chaya.

– Don’t you see that it’s the middle of the day? I’m a crea­ture of the night. What do you have in the basket?

– It’s empty. There were fish in it.

– I’ve never tasted fish. You can’t imagine what it’s like having a mouth but no appetite.

Chaya looked at the demon under the bright sun. His black hide shimmered with sweat, but his mouth was a void that trapped even light. His was a deeper hunger.

– Do you still want my soul? I’ve decided that you can have it.

– What will you take in exchange? You’re pretty, but I can make you a queen.

– No, thank you.

– You’re clever, but I can make you a goddess.

– I’ll give you my soul, but I don’t want anything for it.

– Perhaps you’re not so shrewd after all.

In a single stroke, he reached his hand down Chaya’s throat and pulled her slender soul out. He brought it inside and plunged it, still breathing, into his vat. Then, because he wished her to have something in return, he showed her the exotic spi­ders he kept, ruby and emerald cabochon gems skittering around on their eight- point crowns. He offered her any one she liked. They climbed across his knuckles. He fancied that he’d never looked so princely. He didn’t even see Chaya wave good- bye.
Years passed. As Alef and Chaya aged together, each grew to fill the space in the other where there’d been a soul before. They never discussed it, for they’d become too intimate for words. And nobody else noticed, so busy were they taking all that the couple gave.

Folks prospered. Their village became a town. Fine houses were built, and neighbors complained about Alef’s ungainly hovel. The fool and his wife moved into the slums. What fish they didn’t give away was stolen. But that just saved them the hassle of distribution.

One evening they were visited by a very old man. While people often still came to profit from Alef’s knowledge, none looked as needy as this fellow. He wore a heavy old cloak and hat, and walked with a crook as knotted as his crippled body.

Chaya brought him a chair. She couldn’t see his face under the hat’s broad brim, but, the instant his eyes met hers, she felt sure that she’d encountered him before. She asked the man if there was something they could do for him.

He shook his head. It was winter and getting dark, and he simply wished for a place to rest.

Chaya went to Alef, who was standing by the hearth, ladling bouillabaisse into a copper cup. She brought it to their guest. She sat by him while Alef prepared the bed in the ad­joining room, where he and Chaya slept, so that the man could pass the night in comfort. The visitor didn’t talk. He raised the cup to his mouth several times, but, when he set it down, it was always still full. Chaya asked if there was another meal that he’d prefer, anything at all. Or perhaps there was some ailment he had, and Alef could tell him the cure for it. He shook his head again. She thought she heard him sigh, though it might have been the winter wind sweeping by.

Alef helped him to bed, and bade him a good night. The guest lay down on the straw mattress without removing cloak or hat. He pretended to sleep. And then he really did.

Some hours later, he was awoken by a noise in the other room. Without moving, he strained to hear if the couple was speaking of him. But the utterances weren’t in any ordinary language. He concentrated on each syllable until it came to him that the two of them weren’t making conversation. They were making love.

He waited awhile, until they were quiet. He waited some time more. He gripped his crook. Slowly he stood up. He stepped out of the bedroom.

The couple lay on the floor by the hearth, entwined in sleep. In the embers’ glow, he could see that they were naked. Alef’s hands, creased with years, folded over Chaya’s shoulders. Her gray hair fell across his chest like an early frost. Their an­cient guest crouched close. He saw the faint line of a smile where their wrinkled faces touched.

He went away before the light arrived. At the foot of the forest, he dropped his crook. Coming into the clearing where he lived, he tossed away his hat and cloak. The dybbuk went home more mystified than he’d been when he’d left.

He peered inside his pickling barrel. Ever since Chaya had freely given up her soul, he’d wondered whether having such a thing was really so valuable. He’d comforted himself with the torments of the soulless folks who wandered in the forest. But to look at Chaya and Alef ...He gazed into his vat, and he no longer saw what he’d wanted.
The demon neglected his great occupation after that. He concerned himself with his collection of precious spiders, and with cultivating mushrooms in hues that illuminated the night. These hobbies pleased him. He grew so affable that the wolves no longer feared him. They visited often, serenading the brightest orbs in his night garden as if he were raising new moons.

Gradually the pickling barrel dried out. The wood warped and cracked. The glands shriveled. The dybbuk didn’t even no­tice as they dissipated, and the forest dwellers dwindled.

At last, only the souls of Alef and Chaya remained. They shrunk into each other, creasing into a faint smile. And as they lost substance, some say, the demon’s own soullessness passed away.
Jonathon Keats

About Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats - The Book of the Unknown
Jonathon Keats is the author of The Book of the Unknown and The Pathology of Lies and has written for Wired, The Washington Post, and San Francisco magazine, among other publications. Keats has been awarded fellowships by Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Ucross Foundation, and has chaired the National Book Critics Circle fiction award committee. He lives in San Francisco.
Praise | Awards

Praise

“Echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and S.Y. Agnon sound throughout this high-concept collection’s engaging stories….Unusual and charming stories that successfully revive a nearly forgotten form of storytelling. One hopes we will hear more of these Lamedh-Vov and their all-too-human struggles and triumphs.” — Kirkus Reviews

“These charming stories, told with authority–yet oddly delicate and wholly delightful–are enchanting. To read them is to become transfixed with that long-forgotten childhood wonder. One feels in the hands of a masterful and magical storyteller.”
–Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge

“In his fantastic and fantastical collection, Jonathon Keats creates an original and captivating world of surprise where scoundrels are saints and dreams descend on villages like rain. There’s mystery and magic on every page, and a deeply inspiring humanity at the heart of every fable. Finally, a writer who understands that adults need fairy tales as much, if not more, than children.”—Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus Christi: Stories, and director of the creative writing program at Harvard University

The Book of the Unknown is based on ancient Jewish lore and set in pre-modern Eastern Europe.  Add Jonathon Keats’  21st-century American sensibility,  and the result is a delightful and provocative brew–one of a kind.” —Janet Hadda, author of Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life, and Professor of Yiddish Emerita at UCLA

"The Book of the Unknown earns Jonathon Keats a place in line with Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In language at once phantasmagorical, seductive, and reverent, Keats imagines the preposterous misadventures of people who are so holy they are unknown even to themselves. And, in so doing, he reopens the Jewish folk imagination–and our own." —Lawrence Kushner, author of Kabbalah: A Love Story, and The Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco

“Keats’ world is a fun one. His allegorical world resembles some hybrid of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest and Shrek’s moss-covered environs.”--Booklist

“Keats seizes upon the idea of the 36 righteous ones who preserve the world from destruction by their goodness [and] brilliantly turns the concept on its head …Highly recommended.” –Library Journal, starred review

Awards

WINNER 2010 The Sophie Brody Award for Excellence in Jewish Literature

  • The Book of the Unknown by Jonathon Keats
  • February 10, 2009
  • Fiction - Short Stories (single author)
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $13.00
  • 9780812978971

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