Petite Suite Impropre
1. Problème Final, Marche en Si-Mineur, pour Hautbois, Basson et Orchestre, Joyeux mais néanmoins Mysterieux
My friend, Sherlock Holmes, had been in a worrying condition for more than a week. At first I could ascribe his state to exhaustion from his exertions in the affair of the Rotterdam-Javanese Holding Company, so quickly followed by the case of the Whitmarsh Ewer. According to Mrs. Hudson, Holmes exceeded by two his usual four hours of sleep a night and delighted her by eating heartily. "Just look, Doctor. He's cleaned his plate," she confided joyously to me that Friday evening as she cleared away the things. As I feared, though, now that Holmes was fully recuperated his condition grew worse as it invariably did when he was left unoccupied. The man's mind was a powerful apparatus, bursting with steam, which, if not put to use—indeed, to exacting use—begins to turn dangerously on itself.
Once or twice a week I would make a point of visiting Baker Street between closing my surgery and going home to my wife. My dear Mary understood how concerned I was about Holmes' doldrums, the more so as I was his physician as well as his only friend. When we were lodging together Holmes had only once disclosed his feelings about his melancholia, but he did so in an unforgettable metaphor.
"You know what an oubliette is, Watson?"
"Some medieval dungeon, I believe."
"Near enough. It's a sort of hole beneath a dungeon with only one opening, at the top. A wretch thrown in one of those things would be forgotten—thus, the name. Well, I feel myself in just such an oubliette, one with steel sides so highly polished that the more I struggle to climb out, the further I slip down."
In retrospect, I realize that Holmes must have been a little frightened to have spoken so candidly. I cannot think of another occasion when he was eager to communicate to me his ennui and despair, rather than to deride my anxiety on his behalf.
All the signs that he was slipping again into that fearful oubliette were present on that Friday. He lounged in his chair in a position of utter lassitude, like a rag doll. His violin had been laid aside and his experiments abandoned. I perceived the peril. Holmes had fallen into a state of inanition, had lost all interest in external events, had given up reading the newspapers. He even declined to join me in a postprandial pipe.
I sat opposite him with the Times and my briar. "Holmes," I said at length, rising to tap out my pipe in the fireplace, "it's obvious the violin and your experiments aren't enough, and you know my position on your peculiar weakness."
"My dear Watson, it is impossible to be ignorant of your position on anything," came his peevish retort.
As it happened, I had come across an article in the afternoon edition of the Times that I expected might pique my friend's interest and at least divert his attention briefly from the self-destructive course on which it appeared bent.
"Look here, Holmes," I said, handing over the newspaper. "Page fifteen, third column. Just a small notice, but, I think, of some interest."
"How stale, flat, and unprofitable," groaned Holmes, drawing the back of his hand across his high forehead; but I was heartened that he took the paper all the same.
The article was one likely to attract the attention of only mathematicians, suffragettes, and astronomers; yet I considered that it would appeal to Sherlock Holmes, even in his current deplorable state. The article bore a rather tendentious title, typical of the prejudices of the Times.
Mathematics and the New Woman
Seven years ago, Professor James Moriarty, late of Durham
College, astounded the learned community with his acclaimed treatise,
The Dynamics of an Asteroid. This work made such radical advances in the
field of pure mathematics that, while experts were willing to acknowledge its
excellence, no one in these Isles was found sufficiently confident to venture
a critical review. Last night, however, a young lady, Miss Vivian Wycliffe,
spoke by special invitation of the Earl of Suffolk to a gathering at the
Royal Academy on the subject of the professor's work. Not only did
Miss Wycliffe elucidate Moriarty's abstruse calculations; she also
criticized them, pointing out an error on page 132 which, while
it by no means invalidated Moriarty's work, did materially alter
its conclusions as well as its application.
The Royal Academy is unaccustomed to hearing women;
however, those who may have come to mock lingered to admire.
Ms. Wycliffe, a comely and humble personage as well as an obviously
gifted one, was asked about her training. She stated that she had been
privately educated. Miss Wycliffe demurely added that she was not
the first female to take up mathematics and mentioned that her
heroine was Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron.
"Well, well," said Holmes after he had read the notice.
"Yes, I thought you'd be interested. Must have given Moriarty a real turn, a come-down or a come-uppance."
"Moriarty's come-uppance is my affair, Watson; but this woman does seem to have handed him a rotten egg. I suppose she is good-looking?"
This un-Holmes-like question surprised me. "The reporter says comely."
"Yes. Almost a cry of admiration for the Times."
"Then this Miss Vivian Wycliffe interests you?"
"A beautiful woman is not interesting because of her beauty, Watson."
This amused me. "No?"
Holmes got to his feet—energetically, I was glad to see—and made for the Persian slipper. He filled a pipe with his horrible shag as he lectured me.
"The interesting is always a border category, as a Danish writer put it. It is what is both beautiful and significant. His example is the life of Socrates."
"So a woman would be interesting if she were both beautiful and possessed a first-rate mind," I hesitated to mention The Woman's name but did so, "like Irene Adler's?"
Holmes threw me a pointed look. "Yes," he said. "Or, looked at contrariwise, a gorgeously wrought plan that also happens to be diabolical is interesting."
"There speaks the consulting detective."
"Moriarty's scientific work is beautiful, though his soul is twisted. Now, it would appear, his calculations are, as we've often found of his criminal plots, not without flaws."
The upshot was that I left Holmes in better spirits than I found him. I even took away with me his solemn promise to refrain from giving in to his weakness for the drug. I was well satisfied.
A journey to Scotland kept me away for a fortnight. On my return I went at once to see my friend and found that he was not at Baker Street.
"He's been out every night these ten days," said an amazed Mrs. Hudson. "Heaven knows where." I presumed that some new client had fortunately come his way. Mrs. Hudson added, "But really, Doctor, he's quite changed."
"Disguised or back to his old self? How changed?"
She drew close and almost whispered. "He's been dressing up, he has. Mr. Holmes had himself fitted for a new evening jacket, Doctor. Can you imagine?"
At my surgery the next morning I received a summons from Sherlock's formidable brother. The urgency of Mycroft's apprehension was indicated by the messenger, a young porter from the Diogenes Club who told me he had never seen the elder Holmes so unsettled. "Told me to hurry and tipped me double, sir," the fellow said.
It was late afternoon before I was free. I took a cab to the Diogenes, whose dim, dignified interior always made me feel a decade had been subtracted from my age. Mycroft, stout and immobile as ever, but looking pale, received me in an antechamber off the Club's library, a fine room with a red Turkish carpet, soft leather wing chairs, and exquisite racing prints. Mycroft came directly to the point.
"You've heard of this Wycliffe woman, I presume, the putative mathematical genius?"
"Yes," I said. "I showed Sherlock the article about her in the Times."
Mycroft frowned at me. "Rather wish you hadn't."
"I have reason to believe my brother has become infatuated with her. They are constantly seen together."
Sherlock? Infatuated? "Come now, Mycroft," I said. "This is your brother. I've been out of London but hardly long enough for such a revolution."
"All the same," said Mycroft dryly.
"Well, even if it is true, which I certainly doubt, is it so terrible?"
"Yes it is, and for two reasons."
"First, because Vivian Wycliffe is the half-sister of James Moriarty."
"Same mother, entirely different fathers. James' sire was a wicked rascal who escaped prison by fleeing to the African gold fields where he succumbed to a fever. Vivian's was an upright man, a military man like yourself. He served with some distinction in India and retired a major. Wycliffe died last year which, I have reason to believe, is when Moriarty contacted his sister and, I make no doubt, coached her on the error in his asteroid book."
Mycroft shrugged. "Certainly to some nefarious purpose or other."
"I see. And what is your second concern?"
"Simply that my brother, should he persist in this romantic fad of his, will inevitably lose his distinctive abilities."
"You, Doctor, are to warn him. He will not deign to see me but he might just listen to you. Sherlock has had, as you know, no romantic experience whatever. Where such feelings are concerned he is, in consequence, no more than an adolescent. According to my sources, he's been behaving like—well, like a Frenchman. I want you to tell him from me that women are all about distraction and domestication. If he is not already too entangled in this net of pubescent sentimentality, perhaps when you inform him of who Miss Wycliffe's half-brother is, he will grasp the danger in which he has placed himself."
I did not remark on the suitability of a confirmed bachelor giving a married man such a sermon. I was too astonished. Holmes in love? And with the sister of Moriarty? It was beyond belief and I was about to say so again when I had a thought.
"Might he not be using the sister to get at the brother?"
Mycroft shook his large head. "I only wish it were so—and not, as I fear, the other way about."
Holmes had called me the one fixed point in a changing age. Now I realized that it was rather he—his unique personality, his detachment and rigorous logic, above all his imperviousness to passion—who had been that fixed point. I simply could not conceive of Sherlock in love. It overturned the order of things.
As I was leaving Mycroft looked at me with ironic anxiety tinged with irony and remarked, "You might advise Sherlock to take a good look at the eighteenth chapter of Judges." He was, of course, referring to the story of Samson and Delilah.
I rearranged my schedule so as to see Holmes the following morning. It was as Mycroft feared. All he could talk about were the charms of Miss Vivian Wycliffe: the seriousness of her mind, the breadth of her reading, the subtlety of her wit, her modesty, calm, and her high estimation for him and his methods. "To converse with this woman is, what shall I say, Watson? It is Heaven."
"Please sit down, Holmes," I said. "I have something to tell you."
He made an effort to appear concerned. "You sound grave. I hope neither you nor your good lady are unwell?"
"It has to do with Miss Wycliffe."
"Ah," he said, looking amused. "And what do you have to tell me—or rather, I should say what is it my brother has employed you to tell me?"
I looked at my friend, as I so often had, with surprise.
He grinned. "A trifle, Watson. Until two days ago you were gamboling around Scotland; my brother's been demanding to see me; you show up this morning with news of a person you've never met."
"She is Moriarty's sister, Sherlock, his half-sister."
"You think she wouldn't have told me?"
"My dear brother is an unsympathetic prig. Watson, there is a whole world which, like my maiden aunt of a brother, I used to despise. You above all should understand me, you who are so happily married."
"Marriage! Sherlock, marriage—you don't mean to say—"
"Precisely. And soon. May I ask you to do me the honor of serving as my best man? I certainly prefer you to my brother."
The pace of events left me breathless. How much had happened while I was in Edinburgh? I stammered, "Have you, um, asked the young lady?"
"Indeed, I have, and she has accepted. Look at me, Watson. I am the happiest of men. Rejoice for me."
On the way home through the fog of a damp November noon, I could not help reflecting on Mycroft's warning. Holmes discontent, Holmes neurasthenic, Holmes unable to sit still, was a singular genius. Holmes content, Holmes as paterfamilias—what might a happy Holmes be like?
The couple chose a small country church in Dorset near where Vivian had grown up. The wedding party was not large. I stood up for Holmes, of course. Mycroft declined to attend, though I saw Colonel Sebastian Moran smirking in the last row. Lestrade was there as well. The bride was indeed beautiful, with a high forehead surmounted by a glory of blond hair. She looked not only happy but triumphant; her eyes were warm and sparkling. The organist struck up Wagner's Wedding March and she was conducted down the aisle by her half-brother.
2. Cinq et Douze, Duo Incongru en Mi Bémol majeur pour Violoncelle et Petite Flûte, Grave et Indécent
I wonder, Professor, if you really think it proper to require students to tell the truth, especially about their families. I confess I have my doubts. However, that said, I'll do my utmost to fulfill your assignment.
As I'm sure many undergraduates have done before me, I'll start my composition by quoting my grandfather:
Fame means being known by people you don't know—most of whom
you wouldn't want to. Being famous means living undemocratically,
particularly in a democracy. You get treated well, just as if you deserved it;
people defer, sometimes even bow—just a minuscule bow, almost a nod,
that vestigial smidgen of feudalism.
He wrote that in a letter to me when I was ten years old and at summer camp. I suppose Grandfather must have known all about fame. He'd been famous since he was twenty-six years old. He won two Pulitzer Prizes. According to his obituary, he nearly won the Nobel Prize, three times. So, when he died—and that's what this is about, his dying—he was, for a short while, mourned practically everywhere.
Grandfather wrote a lot of poems, essays, reviews, and puffs, but it's his five novels that made him so famous, beginning with the first, There Was a Naughty Boy. This is still a favorite with maladjusted young people and edgy high-school English teachers. I noticed at the Bookstore that it is on the required reading list of two courses here. Not everyone knows that the title comes from a poem Keats wrote about himself. I think Keats yearned to be famous but he died far younger than my grandfather and so had little opportunity either to enjoy or despise being famous. Poor Keats didn't even have much time to be naughty.
Grandfather's first novel made him a hero back in the day, a hero to what they called the Counter-Culture. He once appeared on stage with Peter, Paul, and Mary and Joan Baez. But the older Grandfather got the more his politics turned fascist, or perhaps imperial would be the better word. He embraced, I think, a sort of inverted utopianism. The Great Good Place became the past; I mean the far past, back before things like democracy, advertising, and no-fault insurance, and what Grandfather once called "Irving Berlin patriotism." According to a recent essay by a brash critic, reactionary political views accorded well with Grandfather's "so-called late artistic experiments," the stories in which he fooled around with point of view, chronology, setting, and language. The young critic has a theory about how radicalism in art makes for conservatism in politics; he compiled a list of artistic progressives whose politics were regressive or worse. He irreverently observes that my grandfather's final experiments "resemble the accents of the more frequently interviewed European pundits; that is, they are not only intelligible but easy to understand." Though the strangest of Grandfather's political views were generally known, this did not affect his fame, except perhaps to burnish it. People seemed to look on his zealous right-wingedness as a charming eccentricity entirely unrelated to his artistic talent and the moral authority that attended it. His devoted readers took his politics as merely one more proof of his contrarianism and admirable life-long non-conformity.
In the last year of his life, his seventy-third, my grandfather became infatuated with my best friend. I'll call her Beatrice because that's what he called her, though her name, which I'll keep to myself, was something less fancy. Beatrice and I were fourteen. We talked about boys and clothes and school and movies and music and celebrities, as you'd expect. One Saturday night, I invited her for dinner and a sleep-over. My grandfather happened not to be on the road that week and he also came at dinner. He couldn't—or didn't bother to—take his eyes off Beatrice and pretty much ignored the rest of us. He asked Beatrice all sorts of questions and smiled at her replies and was pleased when she indicated that she knew how famous he was. Physically, Beatrice was precocious, an early-developer—but still, she was just fourteen. When we first became friends she asked about my grandfather; people usually did. I gave her a copy of There Was A Naughty Boy as a birthday present. She not only read it but said she "adored" it. As for me, I felt entitled to be proud of my grandfather and wasn't above craving a little reflected glory. Silly me.
So, Grandfather asked Beatrice all these questions over the roast beef and asparagus spears. "What do you think of springtime? Who are your favorite athletes? Do you like the President? Have you ever been to Europe? What's the latest you ever slept?" My parents thought it kind of him to pay her so much attention and so, at first, did I.
As it was still light out, after dinner I asked Beatrice if she'd like to shoot some baskets. We were both into basketball that year and on a couple of afternoons we had played Horse or one-on-one out in our driveway where my father had put up a backboard and hoop.
"Mind if I watch?" asked Grandfather.
I shrugged, though he wasn't looking at me. Beatrice squinted sweetly said, "Sure."
My mother said it was sweet that Grandfather took an interest in the girls. Dad nodded. Remember, everybody deferred to him, even them.
"You're like a colt, a filly," he said from the lawn chair he'd pulled from the terrace to the drive. He obviously didn't mean me. When Beatrice stopped to pull her long hair into a pony tail, she whispered to me, "Your grandfather's so cool. Not at all stuck-up."
"Yeah," I said. "I guess he's pretty cool."
When it got too dark to play we went inside. Before Beatrice and I headed upstairs to get online, giggle, and gossip, Grandfather said his farewells to me and my parents. Then he took Beatrice's hand, struck a pose, and started declaiming at her in Italian:
. . . miei occhi apparve prima la gloriosa donna de la mia mente,
la quale fu chiamata da molti Beatrice, li quali non sapeano
che si chiamare.
Mom and Dad laughed; Beatrice laughed. But at what? His gallantry? His accent? Because they had no idea what he was saying? Anyway, that was when my friend became Beatrice.
The next Tuesday I got a text from Beatrice: yr grdad's on fcbk! asked me to go to dinner and then to see some play fri. yum!! told m & d I'd be at yr place. K?
I didn't think it was "K" at all but I didn't say so.
In the cafeteria on Wednesday Beatrice made me sit off in a corner with her and peppered me with odd questions. "Where does he get his ideas?" and "Don't you think he looks like a stud on the old book covers?" and "What was your grandmother like?"
After Friday, Beatrice became less forthcoming. She told me later this was because Grandfather had asked her not to say much to me or anyone because of how easily their friendship could be misunderstood. She didn't want anybody to keep them from spending a little time with each other, did she?
I saw him pick her up one day after school.
He gave her a silver necklace and signed copies of all his books, including the foreign editions. There were long inscriptions in the Italian ones. Later on, I found out all of these words were quotations from Dante, like the speech he'd made that first night, the one everybody found so charming.
A text from Beatrice: just had to tell u. he's given me my own reading list. enormous (lol). btw, waiter at restaurant thought i was u. ha ha.
I felt all entangled, couldn't move. Nothing good could come of saying something to my parents. I didn't feel I was in a position to interrogate my grandfather, and Beatrice was hard to read. At times she seemed flattered and privileged, at others perplexed or confused; worst of all was when she seemed knowing and contemptuous of the old man: thought he'd do anything i asked til he wouldn't let me have any of his wine. She was enjoying herself. How could I think anything was wrong? Didn't I trust the world-famous author, my own grandfather?
One night Beatrice's mother telephoned. I heard my mother: "No, she's not here." Then she called to me and asked if I'd invited Beatrice over. Even if I'd wanted to, there wasn't any room to lie.
That night, after taking her to—of all things—a poetry reading, Grandfather dropped Beatrice off at nine o'clock half a block from her house. Her father was waiting, had his eye peeled, his rage piled up like a series of Voltaic cells. He yanked Grandfather right out of his car and began to hit him. He hit him hard.
Beatrice, hysterical, called 911 on her cell phone.
Somehow somebody, no doubt many of those deferential people, contrived to keep the story out of the media and off the police blotter. And, since Grandfather never came out of the coma, perhaps it really was just as well. I can see how everybody might have seen it that way.
3. Mélodie Hébraique en Sol-Mineur pour Clarinette Juive et Instruments à Vent, Faché et Clopinant
The earliest story about Rabbi Zalman of Kitternitz dates from his time as a student of the Maggid of Mezrov.
In the Maggid's court, Zalman was thought backward, as he offered nothing to discussions and took no position in disputes. In fact, from the moment his teacher began each day's lesson by saying, "And the Lord spoke," Zalman would sit unmoving, mum, bent over his book so that no one could see his eyes.
Then one day the Maggid did not begin by quoting the Torah. Instead, in a dispirited voice, he asked his pupils, "What is the worst thing about the Exile?"
One boy, a quick-witted one always eager to impress his teacher, answered, "To be without a home."
Said another, "The worst thing is to be deprived of Jerusalem."
When the Maggid said nothing a third piped up. "To have to live despised and persecuted by the Goyim."
The Maggid looked over his pupils and for some reason, perhaps out of impatience, decided to challenge Zalman. "I notice that you are silent as usual, Zalman. What do you say?"
The boy lifted his eyes from the page in front of him and looked with such intensity at his teacher that the Maggid actually drew back.
"In my opinion, Rabbi, the worst thing about the Exile is that we have become used to it."
The Maggid of Mezrov was so impressed by this answer that, on the spot, he predicted that Zalman would someday have a court of his own and many disciples. Of course this made Zalman even less popular with his classmates than when they simply thought him a fool. In later years he commented on this: "There are many ways to teach and to learn. The Maggid of Mezrov, blessed be his memory, knew very well that in saying what he did he was isolating me. That was, in fact, his purpose. Had I been embraced by the other boys I should have become more like them."
For ten years after he married and established himself in Kitternitz, Zalman's court flourished. His sayings and stories were repeated. People brought their hardest problems to him, and the inhabitants of Kitternitz were proud to support the community of Hasids who studied with Rabbi Zalman. But all this changed, and suddenly.
The trouble began one morning in the house of study when Zalman proposed he and his Hasids examine the twelfth chapter of Genesis. He recited the first two verses: "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.'" All the men knew these divine verses by heart and mouthed them along with the Rabbi.
The house of study was hardly the best building in Kitternitz, but it was bright, immaculate, and quite large. Its thin wooden walls were regularly painted with a white-wash made from Russian lime. The men sat at three tables: a place at the Rabbi's being the most coveted. From time to time, for good cause but sometimes just to keep them on their toes, Zalman promoted somebody from table three to two, or from two to his own. But it was a zero-sum game: promotion for one meant demotion for another. While this practice was not popular, no one dared to challenge the Rabbi's judgments, at least not out loud.
By custom, after Zalman had set a text for them to chew over, one of the men at the first table—his own—would speak first. That day, however, Mendel Fishbein, demoted from the Rabbi's table two days earlier, spoke up and in a truculent tone, too.
"Rabbi," said Fishbein, "why choose this text? First principles, as you yourself once said, cannot be proved or disproved. So what is there to discuss? These verses record the glorious moment when our religion began; everything else follows from it."
"And why is that?" asked Zalman with a little edge to his voice.
"Why is that? Because this was the moment when the Lord chose Abraham and, through the Patriarch, may his memory be blessed, chose all of us as well. It is, so to speak, the first clause of the covenant. Such a thing cannot and should not be. . . how shall I say. . . interrogated."
Zalman shot to his feet and looked over his followers. "Everything must be questioned," he declared. "There are always questions."
Fishbein was not to be silenced. "What questions?"
Zalman gave Fishbein an icy stare before replying. "This one, for instance. Why should the Lord choose Abraham, who was then still only Abram, not yet the Father of Multitudes?"
Shmuel Halleiter, at table two, saw an opportunity to get to table one and seized it. "Because of his outstanding goodness, because of his great merit, which God perceived and which He intended both to prove and reward." Shmuel looked around confidently and was pleased to hear murmurs of general approval.
The Rabbi, however, challenged Halleiter as well. "But if the Lord, as you say, perceived Abram's outstanding goodness, why did He need to prove it—indeed, to prove it over and over until, in his old age, the Patriarch was put to the most terrible test of all? Why is that?"
"To instruct us in the strict requirements of faith," Hyman Millstein chimed in with his usual sententious orthodoxy.
It was then that Zalman of Kitternitz proposed his fatal interpretation.
"As for me, I have come," said the Rabbi, "to the following understanding of this passage. There was nothing outstanding about Abram, or at least not yet. It is missing the point to say this passage reveals God's choice of Abram, much worse to presume that, through him—automatically, so to say—God has chosen us as well. It is conceit to presume that Abram had some special merit in which we all share."
"Outrageous!" "Preposterous!" cried the men. Mendel Fishbein shouted "Blasphemy!" and struck table three times.
"Blasphemy? You sound sure of yourself, Fishbein. Yet there is nothing in scripture to suggest that Abram—raised in Ur, journeying up to Haran with his father Terah, living as everyone in Mesopotamia lived, no doubt even bowing to idols like the others—had any special merit at all. I believe rather that God's offer to Abram was not made to him alone but to all the men of Ur and Haran. What was that offer, after all? It is an absurd one: to leave, at the age of seventy-five remember, the rich fields and pastures, the good wells, the cities and laws, all the advantages of a decent and advanced society, to go south into a waterless and backward wasteland, all for a vague promise about improbable, non-existent offspring."
"But, Rabbi—" Halleiter began to object.
Zalman raised his hand. "Ask yourselves how most men would react to hearing a voice saying such things, a voice heard by no one else. They would dismiss it as hallucination, a vagrant daydream due to some spoiled lamb perhaps, maybe a wild impulse to escape their responsibilities or, in Abram's case, disappointment over the barrenness of his wife. No, I have come to believe that Abram was simply the only one of the thousands to whom the offer was made who would accept it. It is not God who chose Abram, but Abram who chose God. His special merit was an effect, not a cause, won by a choice bound to look ridiculous to everybody around him, including his wife—yes, especially Sarai. And, just as the patriarch had the task of renewing that choice through test after test, so do we."
"It's heresy," said Fishbein, who got up and walked out. One after the other, the men followed him.
News of what Rabbi of Kitternitz had said spread quickly through the town, then to others, even to small shtetls. The house of study sat empty; Zalman's court unattended.
"What have you done?" complained his wife, Brina. "You've ruined us. How are we to live now?"
"I spoke the truth," growled Zalman.
"You spoke like a fool."
Zalman decided to punish his wife and Hasids. He locked himself in the synagogue's broom closet and would not answer when Brina begged him to stop acting like a spiteful child and come out. With a length of iron he dug a hole in the wall in order to observe the Jews at their prayers, led incompetently by Mendel Fishbein. He rejected all nourishment except a shallow dish soup which Brina pushed under the door every evening at dusk while mumbling curses.
One Sabbath eve, after the service, the Hasids began to discuss Zalman. They were having second thoughts.
"What if he's right?" said Halleiter.
"Was he ever wrong before?"
"Say what you will, he was a good shepherd. I miss our studies."
"Maybe we were hasty, walking out like that. That was your doing, Fishbein."
"After what he said? Certainly!"
"Still, perhaps he only meant to provoke us, to make us think more deeply."
Fishbein hastened to shore up his position. "You think he's God, is that it? You think he's withdrawn the way God did during the pogroms?"
"I don't know about that, Fishbein. But have you noticed how much colder winter has been without the Rabbi?"
All this Zalman heard through the hole in the wall and it disgusted him. What had they learned from him? Nothing. Their choice was to have their choices made for them, whether by him or Fishbein it hardly mattered.
That night he quietly let himself out of the synagogue, crept into his house, stuffed some things in a pack, and headed out on the road, "into the waterless wasteland," as he ironically said to himself, conscious that, unlike Abraham, he was leaving his people and his infertile wife.
Two days later he fell in with a sturdy, good-natured Gentile woman who was herding a cow to market. No one is sure if he converted her or she converted him or if there was any conversion at all. In Kitternitz people say that they moved either to Warsaw or Lodz where they lived together for many years, perhaps happily and perhaps not.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and a short novel, Losses. His novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction. A chapbook, The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, will be out in 2014 and a collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is also forthcoming.