Servant of the Bones - Page 1

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  • PSALM 137

    By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

    We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

    For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying. Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

    How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

    Remember, 0 Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

    0 daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

    Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

    PROEM

    Murdered. Her hair was black and so were her eyes. It happened on Fifth Avenue, the murder, inside a fine clothing store, amid hustle and bustle. Hysteria as she fell... perhaps.

    Soundlessly I saw it on the television screen. Esther. I knew her. Yes, Esther Belkin. She'd been a student once in my class. Esther. Rich and lovely to behold.

    Her father. He was the head of that worldwide temple. New Age platitudes and T-shirts. And the Belkins had all the money human beings could ever want or dream of, and now Esther, sweet Esther, that flower of a girl who had always asked her questions so timidly- was dead.

    On the news, "live," I think I saw her die. I was reading a book, not paying much attention. The news went on in silence, mingling movie stars and war. It made slow garish flickers on the walls of the room. The silent leap and flare of a television watched by no one. I read on after she died "live."

    Now and then in the days that followed I thought about her. Some horrors followed her death, having to do with her father and his electronic church. More blood shed.

    I never knew her father. His followers had been detritus on street corners.

    But I remembered Esther pretty well. She wanted to know everything, one of those kind, humble, ever listening, and sweet, yes, very sweet. I remembered her. Sure. Ironic, that doe of a girl slain and then the tragedy of her father's delusions.

    Part I

    I never tried to understand the whole story.

    I forgot about her. I forgot that she'd been murdered. I forgot about her father. I guess I forgot that she'd ever been alive.

    There was news and news and news.

    It was time to stop teaching for a while.

    I went away to write my book. I went up into the mountains. I went to the snow. I hadn't so much as offered a prayer in Esther Belkin's memory, but I am a historian and not a praying man.

    In the mountains, I learnt everything. Her death came after me vivid and lush with meaning, through the words of another.

    1

    THE BONES OF WOE

    Golden are the bones of woe. Their brilliance has no place to go. It plunges inward, Spikes through snow.
    Of weeping fathers whom we drink and mother's milk and final stink We can dream but cannot think. Golden bones encrust the brink.
    Golden silver copper silk. Woe is water shocked by milk. Heart attack, assassin, cancer. Who would think these bones such dancers.
    Golden are the bones of woe. Skeleton holds skeleton. Words of ghosts are not to know. Ignorance is what we learn.

    Stan Rice, Some Lamb

    This is Azriel's tale as he told it to me, as he begged me to bear witness and to record his words. Call me Jonathan as he did. That was the name he chose on the night he appeared in my open door and saved my life.

    Surely if he hadn't come to seek a scribe, I would have died before morning.

    Let me explain that I am well known in the fields of history, archaeology, and Sumerian scholarship. And Jonathan is indeed one of the names given me at birth, but you won't find it on the jackets of my books, which the students study because they must, or because they love the mysteries of ancient lore as much as I do.

    Azriel knew this-the scholar, the teacher I was-when he came to me.

    Jonathan was a private name for me that we agreed upon together. He had plucked it from the string of three names on the copyright pages of my books. And I had answered to it. It became my name for him during all those hours as he told his tale-a tale I would never publish under my regular professorial name, knowing full well, as he did, that this story would never be accepted alongside my histories.

    So I am Jonathan; I am the scribe; I tell the tale as Azriel told it. It doesn't really matter to him what name I use with you. It only mattered that one person wrote down what he had to say. The Book of Azriel was dictated to Jonathan.

    He did know who I was; he knew all my works, and had painstakingly read them before ever coming. He knew my academic reputation, and something in my style and outlook had caught his fancy.

    Perhaps he approved that I had reached the venerable age of sixty-five, and still wrote and worked night and day like a young man, with no intentions of retiring ever from the school where I taught, though I had now and then to get completely away from it.

    So it was no haphazard choice that made him climb the steep forested mountains, in the snow, on foot, carrying only a curled newsmagazine in his hand, his tall form protected by a thick mass of curly black hair that grew long below his shoulders-a true protective mantle for a man's head and neck-and one of those double-tiered and flaring winter coats that only the tall of stature and the romantic of heart can wear with aplomb or the requisite charming indifference.

    By the light of the fire, he appeared at once a kind young man, with huge black eyes and thick prominent brows, a small thick nose, and a large cherub's mouth, his hair dappled with snow, the wind blowing his coat wildly about him as it tore through the house, sending my precious papers swirling in all directions.

    Now and then this coat became too large for him. His appearance completely changed to match that of the man on the cover of the magazine he'd brought with him.

    It was that miracle I saw early on, before I knew who he was, or that I was going to live, that the fever had broken.

    Understand I am not insane or even eccentric by nature, and have never been self-destructive. I didn't go to the mountains to die. It had seemed a fine idea to seek out the absolute solitude of my northern house, unconnected to the world by phone, fax, television, or electricity. I had a book to complete which had taken me some ten years, and it was in this self-imposed exile that I meant to finish it.

    The house is mine, and was then, as always, well stocked, with plenty of bottled water for drinking, and oil and kerosene for its lamps, candles by the crate, and electric batteries of every conceivable size for the small tape recorder I use and the laptop computers on which I work, and an enormous shed of dried oak for the fires I would need throughout my stay there.