The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six

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9780812978971: The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six
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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.

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About the Author:

Jonathon Keats is the author of 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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...

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