The chain was hanging, suspended from the ceiling of the wood-shed, disappearing between the boards of the roof. Khane had been stooping down to gather firewood for the stove when she had felt its cool weight drop onto the back of her neck. For a moment, she had thought–but it couldn’t be. Dead was dead, unless he was a dibbuk. And even dibbuks required someone else’s body to walk around in.
She straightened up, and the cool thing draped around her, slipping down the front of her dress. That was when she realized it was a gold chain, thick and heavy and well-made, with links she could have poked her fingers through. Even in the dim glow of her lantern, it was glinting fiercely, as if it was hungry for all the light it could get.
She knew at once what to do. Sonye had told her.
Don’t blink. Don’t stand there gawping at your good luck. Such miracles happen sometimes, at the close of the Sabbath, though there are fewer nowadays.
Without a word, Khane knelt down, spread her apron, and began gathering the chain into it, pulling it down as if she were milking a cow. She worked with perfect absorption, not even answering when Velvl called her from the kitchen door.
Of course, the stories of such miracles always ended with somebody walking in and causing the good luck to depart–or someone insisting on re-counting the stock, going over the books, trying to discover the source of their good fortune.
Khane knew not to do that. She seized it very firmly with both hands and gathered it into her apron. She had received misfortune blankly enough.
The whole family was at the kitchen door now, calling into the garden. Her stomach growled for the borscht and potatoes, but she didn’t move. She watched the gold chain coiling in her apron like a whirlpool. It must have hypnotized her a little, because there was definitely a shock–a spell to be broken–when the ceiling-board above her creaked. It was as if someone were re-distributing their weight, shifting from foot to foot. A fine dusting of snow slipped down and turned to moisture on her fingers.
That was when it occurred to her to be suspicious of the gift. It was also when the gift ran out. She had been leaning most of her weight on the chain as she pulled it down, and now she suddenly fell forwards, as the last of it slipped from the ceiling and clinked onto the floor. Still, the boards above her shifted. Still, the snow feathered down between the cracks and beaded on her skin like sweat.
It was him. Masquerading as a miracle. That had always been his way.
Khane looked down at the gold in her apron and wanted to recoil from it, as if it was a bright, poisonous snake. How was he on the roof? Whose body had he got into?
Very slowly, without causing the gold in her skirts to give a single clink, she reached for the axe propped up against the wood-pile.
He had been a great scholar at the Yeshiva–a student of the Kabbalah. Could he have made a golem? The stories said that the golem of Vilna had been able to walk the rooftops, leap across them in a single bound, walk into the river and gather fish for the Sabbath by calling to them in their own language.
Perhaps Moyshele had made a golem and given it instructions before he died–not to walk the sea-bed or protect the Jewish people, but to hound her. It would be like his pettiness.
There was no more motion. There hadn’t been, she realized, for a minute–perhaps two. But now it occurred to her to wonder why Velvl and the others hadn’t gone on calling for her.
She got up, spilling gold out of her skirts. She thought she saw it writhing long after it had settled–as if it really was a snake.
She knew there was nobody to defend her. Velvl hated violence, even if he was still alive, and Sonye–but her mind clamped down on that thought before she could think it. Nothing had happened to Sonye. Nothing could happen to Sonye. She was too wise and wily; she knew the stories of the world too well.
She backed out of the door, still clutching the axe firmly in her hand. She would have to keep facing the roof. If it really was Moyshele, it wouldn’t do to turn her back on him. And besides, she didn’t want to see the door of her house standing open, and wonder about what she would find inside.
So she backed slowly down the garden path until the snow-covered slats of the roof came into view.
He was crouched on top of them, smiling. He looked like Velvl–and, for the barest skin of a second, she was fooled. But then she saw the way he carried himself, the insolence in his expression, the restlessness of his movements, and she recognized her dead husband in her new husband’s face.
In life, he had made a career as a balshem, a wonder-worker. She knew every one of his tricks, but had never given him away, though each one had built up her contempt for him, brick by brick.
He had once painted a cat in tar and feathers and sewn it up inside the mattress of a girl who was supposed to be possessed by a dibbuk. When the girl and her family had seen him driving a black, yowling creature out of her feather-bed, they had declared him to be a wonder-worker, and showered him with złotych.
Mostly, he had sold amulets and talismans for women hoping to get pregnant. Sometimes, he had winked at these women and told them he could help them by more earthly means if they cared to come back after sunset. He had used squibs and effervescent powders, chanted garbled phrases from the Torah and the Kabbalah. He had been a degenerate.
If this was another trick, it was a good one. Or had he finally–after his death–become the real thing?
His shoulders were white with snow, as if the dust of ages had settled on him. And, even as her throat seized up, Khane was still lucid enough to say:
“And to think–all that time I thought it was going to be a light-hearted tale about someone stumbling in on a miracle and causing it to take flight.”
He tilted his head in an eager, bird-like way, and spoke with the voice of Moyshele, even though he was using Velvl’s tongue, and Velvl’s vocal cords.
“Always a story, isn’t it? Even now, you’re thinking about how to moralize this, how to sum it up neatly.”
Khane shrugged. She could feel the warmth of the open door at her back. Had the others gone home? Please God, they were not lying there dead in front of the unlit stove.
She tried not to think about the fact that she had an extra life to consider. She was pregnant–although so far she had felt this, not as a quickening of life within her, but as a mild form of sea-sickness. Perhaps that made sense. You had a sea inside you when you were with child, and a little, ship-wrecked mariner, ready to be washed up on the shore of the world. She wasn’t sure she had any love for the mariner yet, but she didn’t like to think of it dying.
She didn’t know whether it was Velvl’s or Moyshele’s. The transition from husband to husband had been that fast–indecently fast, some of her neighbours had said. But she’d had her eye on that simple, honest-faced shoemaker throughout all her troubles: a man who didn’t pretend, a man who was as gentle with his loved ones as he was with his work–and, best of all, a man who had Sonye for his mother.
“You are a dibbuk?” she said, in the most matter-of-fact tone she could muster. “I should have known you wouldn’t lie quietly. You never did.”
He leapt down from the roof, landing lightly in the snow. She could see his footprints–the perfect impressions of Velvl’s well-made soles–as he walked forwards.
Khane knew her options were limited. Only a rabbi could cast out a dibbuk. You had to say holy words, you had to be sanctified.
“What do you want?” she said.
“You. You come with me to my grave, dead or alive. You met me under the wedding canopy, you can meet me under the earth.”
Khane shrugged again. “It’s an improvident waste to keep a woman from living just because her husband happens to be dead.”
Though he had kept her from living, she realized. She might just as well have been the golem of Vilna, she felt so cold. It was only when she and Sonye sat beside the stove swapping stories, their eyes glittering like live coals, that she felt alive.
“Your husband is not dead,” said the dibbuk. He let just enough of Velvl’s voice creep into this pronouncement to make her hesitate. “He’s right here before you, body and spirit. If the body and the spirit answer to different names, what of that? You met them both under the wedding canopy, at one time or another.”
Khane swung the axe, but he caught it in mid-air and wrenched it out of her hands, with the effortless strength of a golem.
She didn’t react. Her hopes had not been high in any case.
“What are you doing here?” she said. “Why aren’t you in the city charging five złotych for admission, now you can really work the wonders you boasted of all your life?”
He answered breezily enough, though his teeth were set.
“Because real wonders don’t look like wonders on the stage. Real possession isn’t accompanied by fireworks or a dramatic dimming of the lights.”
Khane thought about this. She supposed Velvl’s eyes were not gleaming with demonic fire–his voice sounded like Moyshele’s, but perhaps it was only because she knew them so well that she could tell the difference.
“I could have had the real thing,” he went on, “and been ignored all my life, if I’d chosen to. But I wanted to make an impression on people.”
“You made an impression on me,” she said, barely parting her lips.
It was a reproach, not a grudging admission, but still, it kindled something in him. There was a glimmer of excitement in his expression. It would have been unnoticeable on Moyshele’s face, but Velvl’s was so open.
Khane felt a kick of bitterness that made her want to laugh. He wanted to impress her. Was that why he was walking? Was that his unfinished business? She didn’t think she could bear to feign admiration for him, even if it would save her life. Much better to moulder with him under the ground, silently hating him, as she had in life.
But there was a grain of comfort there, though she had to look quite hard to unearth it. If he wanted her admiration, then it would do no good to possess her. What he wanted had to be given freely, or it would have no value at all.
“You will follow me to the graveyard and dig yourself in.”
“Digging is work,” said Khane solemnly. “I am not allowed to work on the Sabbath.”
The dibbuk hissed through his teeth, and almost at the same moment, she heard the clink of the gold chain. It had snaked out of the open door of the wood-shed, and now she felt its chill on her leg, inching up her skirts, binding her ankles together.
Still, she didn’t bow her head. She was grateful it was no worse. Knowing him, it might have been.
“I’ll check on the others before I go anywhere with you,” she said. She knew she was in no position to be making demands; she knew she couldn’t convince him she wasn’t afraid of him, but she would go to her grave trying–or, if necessary, to his.
He made a mocking gesture of assent, and Khane shifted in her chains, trying to work them loose enough for her to turn and walk. In the end, she settled for turning, with a little, clinking jump.
The door stood open, as she had feared. Velvl was not inside, of course, but Sonye was standing at the table, mid-way through stirring the sorrel soup. Leye and Miriam were seated on either side of her, their hands steepled in front of them, as if in prayer.
Khane waited a few seconds, but she knew, somehow, that there would be no change.
She tried to work her ankles free of the chain. She wanted to touch them. If they felt warm beneath her fingertips, then at least she would know they were still alive.
“They’re not aware of time passing,” said Moyshele. With his usual nervous energy, he had come to stand beside her, and was now shifting from foot to foot, glaring at the frozen figures, as if he envied their serenity.
Khane looked round at the other lighted windows of the shtetl. There was no movement. In the attic of the Weinreichs’ house, she could see Bubbe Rokhl in her rocking chair, not rocking. Yankl was standing on the steps, frozen in the act of stamping snow off his boots. Khane had a wild, stupid urge to throw her shawl around him.
They were not asleep. Somehow, Moyshele had put them outside of time.
Yet she could see why he was hunching his shoulders with annoyance. There was no spectacle, no audience. Real wonders didn’t look as good as carefully stage-managed tricks.
It made her think of the desperation you would need to be a dibbuk–to resist the steady, quiet pull of death. It would be like swimming upstream every second.
He had always been that desperate, she realized. He had lived his life in a flare of desperation, planning wonders, making speeches, dipping in and out of books for just long enough to glean impressive-sounding phrases from them.
And now he had all these powers, but not his name, not his face. He could perform wonders, but not as himself. He could use Velvl’s voice to proclaim his true identity, but what then? The rabbi would cast him out–and, even if people remembered, they would remember him as the villain, not the wonder-worker. He’d be on the wrong side of history. They both knew what that was like.
She had been surprised to learn he wasn’t in Gehenna, but perhaps he was.
“When you are beneath the earth with me,” he said, “I’ll let them go. Your shoe-maker too.”
He blew on his hands, restless and discontented. He couldn’t possibly be cold–dibbuks couldn’t feel the cold–but his earthly habits were ingrained too deep. No wonder he was walking.
“I think you’ll agree it’s a generous offer, in the circumstances.”
That was when Khane realized that she had seen the gold chain before. It was one of the bright, tinny stage-props he had used in his shows. She had kept it in a chest in the attic, along with the jars and powders and grimoires and other useless junk she had inherited when he’d died.
She set her jaw and wrenched her ankles apart. The chain dug deep into her flesh, but it still broke.
The dibbuk pressed Velvl’s face into a smile. “I had you fooled, though, didn’t I?”
“And what was the point of that?” said Khane. “When you can possess people and stop time and animate inanimate objects, where is the need for passing tin off as gold?”
“It’s more eye-catching,” he said. He had clenched his fists, but was keeping them close at his sides. He was still smiling. “I’ve missed this.”
“You’ll have it for a grand total of three minutes if you force me to share your grave with you.”
“No,” he said, shaking Velvl’s head. “You’ll walk with me. I know another restless spirit when I see one.”
She walked after him to the graveyard by the synagogue, feeling the snow settle on her shoulders. For a long time now, it hadn’t bothered her. Some people reacted violently to the cold–shivering and stamping and chattering their teeth–but Khane had always felt it as a comfort. It settled on her shoulders now like Sonye’s hands.
There were no endings, Sonye said. Only beginnings somewhere else. And the Jews of long-dead generations lived on through their stories, and could never really come to harm.
Khane had her doubts on this matter, though she hadn’t voiced them. She had long suspected that stories existed to serve the purpose of the people telling them. In Brzezany, outside the ghetto–where Moyshele’s work had occasionally taken them–she had been known as the pretty Jewess, with eyes that could steal your soul away.
And that had not been the worst of it. She knew the fictions the Gentiles told themselves to get out of paying their debts, to make themselves feel better about rape and murder. That was why it was so important for her people to tell stories of their own: to preserve an image of themselves as something other than grasping money-lenders and servants of the devil, just in case the Gentiles got their way.
She had never really thought she was whiling away the time, when she’d sat beside the stove, swapping stories with Sonye. She had known it was important, that she was interceding on behalf of her people, just like the rabbis–just like the cantors in the synagogue.
Could a story save her now? She knew what he wanted. Could she make him believe he’d already got it? Not her admiration–that wouldn’t keep him satisfied for long–but the admiration of the whole world, or at least a chance of winning it?
“Everybody wept for you,” she said, watching his back as they walked.
“Hah,” he spat. “They wept for how difficult their lives were going to be without me.” He turned, and gave her one of his horrible, sarcastic snarls. “And you leapt into the shoe-maker’s bed before I was even cold.”
“I had to provide for our child,” she said.
Again, Velvl’s open face betrayed him. His lips parted with surprise. She could see him calculating–how long he had been dead, how far gone she could be, with no bulge showing at her belly.
“It’s his,” he said flatly.
“I haven’t bled in four months,” said Khane. “It is not his.”
The dibbuk didn’t speak.
“He’ll have your name, of course,” she said. “That’s only proper.”
She paused to let this sink in, then added:
“He will be a great man. Perhaps he will even look like you.”
His face was still tight with scorn, but she could see the greed in it. Something with his name–maybe even his face–could go on after him, and win all the admiration he was craving.
Would that mean he could rest? He was phenomenally selfish, but then this new creature would be himself, in all the shallow ways that mattered to him.
He clenched his fists once or twice, as if in indecision, and then he gave a little sigh, and all the tension in his body slackened. It was like rolling out pastry–all the bumps and wrinkles smoothed themselves out under the weight of this realization. Something with his name would go on living.
He staggered. And Moyshele’s stagger became Velvl’s fall.
She couldn’t explain how she knew that it was suddenly Velvl–his eyes were closed, his face devoid of all expression–but it was. The dibbuk had gone.
Khane staggered too. She fell on her knees in the snow, but couldn’t feel the cold soaking through her skirts. She would have liked to let her shoulders droop, and sob uncontrollably into her hands, but it would take a while for her to let her guard down. She had been reigning herself in so tightly.
Besides, she wasn’t perfectly convinced that she was safe. She could see motion at the windows of the nearest houses now. There was even a snatch of music, though it sounded tinny and discordant, as if the notes were being stretched out of their proper shape. Perhaps time was coming back in little bursts, and was having difficulty finding its rhythm.
She couldn’t believe he was really gone. She couldn’t believe she had really tricked the trickster.
Perhaps she hadn’t. Perhaps the child was his, and would grow to be just like him–or worse, perhaps dibbuks could inhabit unborn children, and her little, ship-wrecked mariner would turn out to be her worst nightmare. She knew enough about motherhood to suspect that this might be the case, whether her child was possessed or not.
There were no endings, Sonye said. Only beginnings somewhere else. Khane wasn’t sure what kind of story this was the beginning of–only that she knew a lot of stories, and could always find a way to thrive within them. Besides, she had Sonye, who knew even more.
She got up, seized Velvl by the legs, and began to drag him home through the snow.