The rav replied with a weary sigh,
“Ever the search for a better place and a better time and a better spirit, but the world runs backwards away from the Lor, and the soul, like a man, grows weary and old. So our great feats and heroic deeds are all behind us, and unless God will send a savior, all is lost. Best to stay near the Holy Land, so when satan sets us ablaze, our passage through the furies is brief and the salvin’ land can restore us right quick.
“But I will send a sh’liakh* with you to find you a guide thru Assassia’s lands. Without a guide abandon hope ye who enter, to reach Hama.”
* agent, representative
Chiseled stone and fired brick wall us in through our narrow maze; and awnings and balconies over our heads. Neither light nor air, as the heat bakes the sewage in the street befoulin’ our feet.
A courtyard. Our sh’liakh taps on a door and we wait in the thick shadows and stench. Shuffle. Eyes peer through a crack.
“Is Master Bilal acceptin’ guests?”
The door creaks and we slip from the gloom into utter darkness as the door creaks shut. “Wait.” Footsteps shuffle away.
Slowly our eyes adjust in the dark. A tiny room and a moldering hall. Damp the air, like to breed disease. Shuffle. A tiny and wrinkled man in a white robe and a white beard. “Come.” His slow unsteady steps, like a dirge of death he leads us down the hall and down a coiling stair, like a narrow cave into the maw of the moldery earth.
There like a king of the underworld, crosslegged, sittin’ on a prayer rug, an idol of stone, its arms as thick as any man’s legs; neck like a tree trunk and a massive head made larger still by a shock of hair and ringlets of beard that tumble and boil into his lap.
The idol talks and my heart near stops.
“Who’re you servin’ up to me, Yacoob? Offerings meant to burn in the Old Man a the Mountain’s grove?”
Our envoy smiles and climbs the stair, leaving us alone in this devil’s den.
A cascade of shock and fear and rage tumbles down the edge of me --
betrayal by that Yacoob scum or by his rav an evil sect in Homs like Sodom’s predators I remember that white robe priest serpent coiled in Palmyra’s ruins that demon boy down his cave I’m bound and gagged by Berber thieves hit him stab him gouge his eyes an idol that devours men this the idol that I serve my scarlet sins these harlot jinns is this justice my reward *v’uttah tzuddeek ulkoel habbah allanu,kee emmet ussetah, v’unnukhnu heershunnu*...--
*-* the vidui, the confession at death;
this the last line: You are righteous
in all that is come on us; You create
truth; we, wickedness.
“You two ain’t in Damascus now, and its little men and little cares. You jus’ moseyed into the lion’s den; the asp, it slithers; jackals swarm. And you, all blind, would trip along. Your sugary times is behin’ you now. Now is the tastin’ a fear and blood.”
Like a rumble from the guts of the earth, or the sound of thunder down from the hills, or maybe like a wolf’s growl when it sees you sittin’ in its lair, my thoughts continue their cascade while he growls and while I talk.
“We heard the road is straight from here -- Hama, Aleppo, Gaziantep -- and Seljuk soldiers secure the way.”
“Seljuk guards? What a pile! Offal pours from the mouth a the king and the people grovel and eat it up. Hashashin rule this countryside. There’s no imam or sheik or prince safe in sleep or on the street, safe indoors or safe with troops, but the Ismailis have their way. Aleppo is seven days from here, in the daylight and on the road. Thrice that time if you wanna live.”
“So we must find our way by night on goat paths and through wadi beds?”
He frowns like I’m some addled goose.
“I’m the way and I’m the light, and I’m the one that you’ll serve. Or else fuck off and take your chance and end up Ismaili slaves. Unless they choose to cut your froat. I leave tonight jus’ after dark. When you hear the muezzin’s call you bes’ be here. I won’t wait.”
The ancient white-robe leads us out.
And then that monologue returns,
...betrayal never trust that bull what is lie and what half-true...
Call to prayer to the faithful, with all their doubt and all their crud and all their fears and all their sins, sunk in illusions, sunk in muck. Most get sorrows, some get luck. The door creaks and we go from the gloom into utter dark as the door creaks shut.
“Carry this!” and he shoves a skin full of water into my hand. “And this!” A sack of white cheese and figs, raisins, olives, nuts and seeds, as he eyes Batkol like a horse to ride.
I have been in this place before. Bilal is here, Batkol, of course. No moon. No clouds. A star-flicker sky. A candle flickers in a hut nearby, and fades away with the deja vu.
I have a dagger strapped to my calf and my walkin’ stick will serve as a club. Butkoel has a blade in her walkin’ stick and a well-stropped razor in her belt.
We never sleep at the same time. Eye on Bilal; hand on my knife.
Fearflash. A sack over my head. A rope tightens around my neck. I try to shout but only gag, and gags beside me. My hands are bound. Then a shootin’ pain flames through my head.
My head throbs in blindin’ sears. I can’t see. I can’t move.
Kicked in the back. A bucket of swill splashes on my chest.
“Wake up you dog.”
“I can’t see. I can’t breathe.”
“Shut up. Who’s that woman with you?”
“My wife, Batkol. Where is she? Is she okay? Where is she?”
“You wanna see her? You wanna see us cut her froat? You wanna see her bound and raped, red hot iron jammed in her eyes? You wanna see her safe and whole? You better talk.”
Searin’ pain across my back. I twist and howl. Sizzlin’ smell, my back charred. I howl and cringe.
“Who’s that woman?”
“My wife, my wife.”
“Batkol. Really, Batkol.
Again the searin’ white-hot pain.
“Batkol. Batkol. Batkol.”
“What kinda name is that -- Batkol? That ain’t no name. Who is she?”
“Batsheva Koltov. A Hebrew name. Batsheva -- the favorite wife of Da-ood, the prophet king. You know of him. Koltov, like ‘good in every way’. Made short to Batkol, which our Talmud says means ‘a voice from the Lor,’ ‘an inspired call.’ It’s not a Christian or Zoroastrian name. Not Seljuk or Persian. It’s a Hebrew name.”
Noise. Maybe the irons being cooked.
“Batkol. Believe me. Just Batkol. It’s a Jewish name. We’re not from here...”
I babble on for awhile. No use. Silence.
“Where have they gone?” I moan.
In fear and pain; mindless moans; horrors thinkin’ of Batkol’s fate.
Rattle of chains dragged on the floor. Grunts and panting, ‘ooof’ and ‘ecch’.
“Who’s this man and who’s he serve? You lie to me, we’ll cut his froat.”
“He’s my husband, Saadya Mishon. He don’t serve no one ‘cept maybe the Lor. We’re not from here, nor been here before. Runnin’ from the Franks and their harsh oppressors, to the far north, to Poland’s lands where we hear they welcome even us Jews.”
“She says you’re a Jew. Prove it to me.”
And I get a kick in the burn of my back. In the depths of the pain all I can say,
“*Sh’ma Yisroyel. Uddoniy Ellohanu, Uddoniy ekhud. Borukh shaem...*”
Silence. Whispers. Another kick.
“Whatsat mean in Arabic?”
*-* the most basic statement
of Jewish identity/faith
“Listen Israel. The Lor our God, the Lor is one. Bless the name, honored... er, also like ‘revealed’, like ‘present in our world’ or at least our soul...”
“Shut up! Sheikh, what to do?”
“ Remove the sack from his head; untie his hands. Unbind her from lash and chain. Let him read from these books in his bag. Her, we’ll test her in other ways.”
As they drag her away I blurt out,
“ Sheikh, she reads as good as me, and she bound those books, the ones I wrote. Test her right here. Show ‘em, Batkol.”