Calling the Snakes
I KNOW THIS story can’t be true. But I remember it. I can close my eyes and see it. I’m eleven years old. I know this because it’s my birthday, and it’s hot as Texas outside. 92 degrees in the shade. It’s the first day I’m allowed to go barefoot all year. But I have to ask permission from my dad who says it’s never hot enough to take off your shoes. Why? He’s from Memphis. My mom hates heat because she’s from Boston. I wonder if all marriages are like that. I think so — but that’s not what this story is about. Maybe it’s not even a story. Maybe I just dreamt it. To explain things — like why I don’t like the number eleven. Two ones, side by side, two skinny legs. Stilts, awkward to walk on. Eleven, too old to be a kid, too young to be a woman. I still wear underpants with the days of the week embroidered on each one. Seven pairs, seven colors. My sister is fifteen, and she has a whole collection of pink brassieres. My sister wants to go fishing over at Milton’s pond, and she says she will take me because it’s my eleventh birthday. But I know that’s not why. She doesn’t give a hoot about my birthday. Oh no. She knows that if we fish, then Jimmy will fish too. He will talk to me and glance at her. Me, I want to say. Look at me. But he won’t. He’ll just brag. And I don’t want to be there, listening to Jimmy tell stories. Like the one about snakes. Jimmy says he can call the snakes. I don’t believe him. I call him a liar. I say, Go ahead, prove it then. And he does. Jimmy calls the snakes. Sitting beside us on the bank of Milton’s pond, looking at my sister, he makes a strange noise with his throat and then smirks. He’s full of shit. I think he’s just showing off. Creep, I say, and stare past him and out at the lake. That’s when I see them. Two water moccasins, side by side, a perfect eleven, swimming. Jimmy sees them too, so he starts tossing pebbles at the water. They turn their heads in our direction. I see their sleek heads, the glint of their eyes, the U-swirl in the water as they change directions. The snakes head right for us, and they don’t just stop at the water’s edge. No Sir, they glide up the red-clay bank, slipping over rocks as Jimmy sings snake tunes and laughs until they’re so close he could pick them up. Then he pelts them with stones. When they’re almost dead, he slices their heads off with his jack knife, but their bodies continue to dance in slow S’s. Why? I ask. Why’d you do that? Because they’re two of them, he says. One snake never comes by itself. I’m so mad, I want to punch him, but my sister is shrieking and crying, putting on a big show so Jimmy will put his arm around her. And he does. And they walk off across the meadow towards home, leaving me with the fishing gear. I hear them laugh a little, and watch Jimmy lean his face into hers. Their faces glow in the late afternoon sun. That’s the first time they kiss. I hate them then. I hate them both.
Letter to my sister
Katherine, when you came back,
I fought your words. How could I
believe what’s impossible to see
past the camera jarred by gunfire?
In our oak and maple suburb,
unreal, occupied, you caressed an olive tree
necklace, talked of ancestral homes
bulldozed for settler roads, olive groves
torn from the ground, your Palestinian love
unable to leave, his passport denied
at the airport. He’d never tell what he did
to be detained. He didn’t want
to give you words that could be taken
against your will. Instead, he gave you
this olive tree to hang around your neck,
said a country is more important
than one person. I don’t know—
I’ve read emails of the new torture
(an overhead projector behind a prisoner,
turned on, until he feels his head
will catch fire.) Last week, over baklava and tea,
pounding rain outside, “Ashraf”
spoke of barbed wire, boycotts and curfews—
how his dozen siblings split
into sides. Israeli soldiers
hurt you, and we wanted them to hurt.
We couldn’t imagine any other way.
When I wrote this story down, we met
once again. He said I still didn’t understand.
He said write me out, keep only
the general outline, not how I slipped
through checkpoints or where I hid
when they came for us. What I wrote or said,
each revealing detail, could spell
someone’s end. When the story appeared
in the Voice, he only ghosted its margins, shadow
to a place not fully his. But there’s no story
without particulars. What resistance could live
on the stale bread of statistics, the drought
of broken accords? It almost requires
bloodstained walls of a mosque,
prostrate backs shot through — a visible sign
of an invisible disgrace. Today, I open
the newspaper, try to peer between the grain
of a photo: a staggering crowd, arms entwined
and straining, as if to hold something back.
It could be us, facing a danger constantly
off-screen. No, we were born here.
On the stove, potatoes boil.
NPR segues labor strike
and missile strike, with witty violin.
Twilight, I’m looking out the window,
trying to strike a few words
into flame. The dark lowers its wet sack,
then hoods the whole house. Outside,
something is falling. I strain to see it
past the glare of the kitchen light.
Eva Marie Ginsburg
The Village Vampire
NONE OF US found it very peculiar when Yossl Wulf was seen out sleepwalking late at night, and returned feeling weak and complaining his dreams were crowded with demons, bats, and terrible weather, not only because Yossl had always been a strange dreamer, but also because, here in Ankavitch, we are well acquainted with lunacy. It’s something we encounter in daily life, part of our surroundings like the woods, the brook, the apple orchards and the willful sky: We have the old maid called Moushka who screams like an angry goose, and Pinchas who’s so frightened of robbers (although he owns absolutely nothing of value) that he changes the locks on his doors at every new moon, and there is Miriam the Lewd who wanders about with her blouse full open, carrying a stuffed doll whom she pretends to nurse, and Peysa who never speaks to people, but only to her goats. Even the brightest student in our village, Leib Yitzchak Mender, has delusions that all the married women are forever trying to seduce him, and draws charts of his ancestors to show he’s descended from King David.
In addition to these notable cases, we have some older people who are quite demented, and then there is my sister Rochel the idiot — my brothers and I must constantly watch out for her, and protect her from the likes of Moishe Finkel, who tries to lure her away with sweets to a secluded place where he can have her drop her drawers, something she will cheerfully agree to do whenever asked, sweet Rochel, she has the mind of a three-year-old.
But I outstrip myself. All this is only a way of explaining that with so many strange characters here, when one goes a little off, nobody thinks much of it, we even expect it to happen, the way we expect that when one berry in a basket goes moldy the ones most near it are likely to follow.
So Yossl Wulf was seen sleepwalking, spoke of strange dreams, and had little red wounds on his neck, which, when anybody asked where they’d come from, he claimed he didn’t know, causing Moishe Finkel to declare that Yossl had been holding secret trysts with Miriam the Lewd who had bitten him there. And then one morning Yossl wandered off, declaring he was going to see a Gentile doctor in the next town whom he thought might help him, but he certainly never made it there because two days later we found him in the woods, my brother Yehudah and I, while we were out looking for mushrooms but also talking of women, because Yehudah was seventeen and wanted women just as desperately as he wanted to do the right thing, to walk a righteous path.
Talking of women we found Yossl’s body there, looking white as our goat and with blood on his neck. I have never been so frightened by anything, not by my worst dreams, but Yehudah, who had never been afraid, said it was the right thing to do, and so we carried him back, my brother and I, Yehudah looking down at the path and I at Yossl’s boots, which looked quite new though dirty with mud, while telling myself, over and over again, I was doing the right thing and that it was the only thing to do. My brother began reciting psalms for Yossl, and I joined in because it wasn’t right that he had been dead there for however long–two days maybe — with nobody there to sit with him and say psalms. We began with “Ashrei Yoshvei,” because it was easy to remember and then went on to some others, and carrying him like that we brought him to Shraga Feivel, who was the village undertaker, and my brother stayed there with the body saying psalms while Shraga Feivel went to tell Yossl’s family and the rabbi. But I ran home and played with my sister to forget what had happened.
They buried him the next day. The week of mourning wasn’t even over before Yocheved Davidov, the butcher’s daughter who it so happens is uncannily beautiful, woke saying she had dreamed Yossl was at her window, knocking, trying to get in, that he was very white and had sharp teeth, but that when she rose to look out at him he averted his eyes to avoid seeing her in a state of undress; then she reported having the dream again, and then began to think it wasn’t a dream after all, but a real demon there at her window, and a week later her friend Rivka reported the same thing, after which the village suffered a plague of bats, and a young wife named Malkah Libba told of waking to find Yossl leaning over her bed but said he’d gone away when she announced she was unclean. Thus, while you might imagine that in a place like Ankavitch such reports would go ignored, seeming to be only further outbreaks of lunacy, the village began to grow fearful because, as my mother was always quick to point out, insanity is one thing, but demons are a different story altogether.
People spoke of this Yossl-demon as they came and went and purchased amulets and said extra psalms for protection, but I personally thought nothing of it until the night when I saw him myself, standing at the foot of the bed, and I sat up and looked at him, too frightened to move, and as Yehudah was asleep next to me and refused to wake up, Yossl and I regarded one another in silence for a very long time, he looking hungry and quite unhappy, both of us not moving until I somehow found a voice and asked him what he wanted.
“Blood,” he said simply, looking more miserable than ever, then “blood blood,” and he turned away from me and said the word again, but his voice trailed off and he began to appear less and less like a demon and more and more like a haunted person, like a person whose soul is in the depths of despair, which come to think of it isn’t that different from the way he’d looked when he’d been alive. Even so he still frightened me, and I kicked Yehudah over and over so that he’d wake up, which finally worked, and so I had a witness, both of us awake to see Yossl standing by the bed, and then Yehudah let out a scream that Yossl didn’t notice at all, he just whispered “blood” again and began to float past our bed and into the next room, and when I lifted the covers and stepped onto the floor it was like stepping into an icy river, but I had to move quickly because no longer like one in despair but more like a goat who can’t wait to be milked, Yossl nearly ran floating toward my sister Rochel who sleeps the way she does everything else, that is to say, like a baby, and I knew she would never wake to defend herself. I told him to get away but he leaned far down over her while Yehudah and I ran to Rachel’s bed and when Yossl whispered something else about blood Yehudah, the righteous one, cried out that blood was trayf, not kosher, strictly forbidden, and Yossl made a kind of crying noise, more like a cat than a child, and Yehudah said it again and then I said it too and somebody woke and began to scream and then very quickly Yossl seemed to fade into the window. Afterwards he came back for several nights, each night looking sadder and more pale, always saying the same thing: it was blood he wanted, blood he needed to survive, and we had never heard of this kind of demon in our village, but Moishe Finkel told me later it’s a special kind of demon the Gentiles call a vampire — their vampire demons drink blood to stay alive, but blood is forbidden to us Jews and even this ghost or demon of Yossl Wulf, whatever it was, knew his commandments and therefore could not bring himself to take our blood, not even the blood of a goat or a cow — we may be lunatics here in Ankavitch, but we are always careful to follow the commandments. He kept coming back to our house, though, and Yehudah and I watched him grow weaker and weaker until in the end he couldn’t even stand up but crawled about on his knees, and he grew more and more pale and his visits briefer and briefer and he lost his voice and finally he vanished forever — only in this event, Yossl’s second death, there was nothing Yehudah and I could do to help him, and when Yehudah whispered psalms in the night it was not to assist the soul of Yossl Wulf but only because he was still afraid.
I asked Yehudah why Yossl would have chosen us to come frighten when it was we who had helped him, we who had carried his body back from the woods and recited the psalms, and Yehudah replied that perhaps it was the result of his having been alone in the woods a day or two before we found him, but that it really wasn’t a question anybody could answer, but that it might be a sign of spiritual weakness and that we should definitely recheck our parchment scrolls and say more psalms to purify ourselves. Then I began to think that maybe lunatic minds have lunatic souls, and no commandment in the world would change that. You can wash a body in the ritual manner and wrap it in the white linen shroud, you can bury it with holy soil, you can say psalms for the soul until your mouth dries out, but some still come at night and ask you for what you cannot give.
When I read about the eagle that soared
Down from its heaven, having spied from the heights
That lone duck it assumed would be its dinner,
And thought how its single-minded eye
Must have clicked on its prey like a camera’s shutter
Before it glided along its own rifling image
In the water, then caught in its relentless grip
The decoy a fisherman chained to the lakebed
Before it rose aloft, knowing itself
Again the flawless master of its realm,
I thought of the time I dialed by instinct
My dead parents’ phone, how I sat in the room
As the forwarded number came up as my own,
Like some unalterable link of fate
Snapping me back to my past, and think now
How I perched on the numbed edge of my world
The way the eagle must have hovered in bewilderment
After the anchor, immovable below, wrenched
The wooden bird from its talons, the chain
An iron cord splashing back into the deep,
Then silence. And both of us stunned by gravity.
Return to Past Selections