Exalted Guests (or How Malka Raised a Dybbuk Army)

It happened quite by accident, the first time Malka raised a dybbuk army. It was the holiday of Sukkot, of the Tabernacle year and she had wandered down into Safed’s ancient cemetery. All the night’s ghosts had already been conjured. The ushpizin were carousing from home-made bamboo shelter to sheeted tent and palm-frond hut. Malka figured the cemetery would be empty, a place away from all the noise and song. She had had enough of all the holidays, too much food and togetherness, too much raptured prayer and forgiveness of sin.

As she wandered down the lonely city’s narrow lanes, she got further and further away from her family’s Sukkah. She drifted away from her father and mother, her siblings whose holiday finery was by now hopelessly stained with meatball sauce and dust. Her hand rested on each tombstone as she walked, her skirt hem brushed each granite-covered grave. The wind had obviously responded to the afternoon’s rain-prayer and she could smell the moisture in the air.

Malka closed her eyes and let the fingers of the wind stroke her face. The rain began and tickled Malka’s arms. She laughed, softly at first and then louder, risking her forbidden voice in the breeze. And then she felt the presence. It was chilling in a different way than rain and wind—a presence in her spine. It was a faint pressure, like a palm pressed gently at the small of her back, but from the inside. Forbidden. She tasted lightning on her tongue—smoky, slightly burnt. It had the heady scent of a havdalah candle—only just extinguished in Saturday-night wine, full of promise and cloves.

The next thing she knew she was howling, like something fierce had been released from within her. And even though she knew that she wasn’t exactly the one making those sounds, she felt wild and free. She danced and spun among the monuments, the turquoise skull-capped mausoleums that were the shrines of long-dead rabbis, the tzaddikkim. She sang the songs of men. The songs her father chanted in the synagogue, the kabbalistic incantations she was supposed to only hear, not speak. And it all rolled off her tongue in wild cantillation, sounding everything and nothing like a hymn.

Her hair lashed out, wet now, untamed. Her eyes: red-rimmed, angry. And she knew the wrath of the forgotten. She felt them all around her. The ones who never got invited. They simmered underground, trembling in silent rage. And with the voice of a forbidden one inside her, Malka knew them all: their names, their dates of death, their pain. They all spoke at once, threatening rift and disillusion. They creeped their earthworm-slow way, in the direction of Safed’s fault line.

And Malka, who was not-Malka, but aware of both her newfound body and its host, now knew that earthquakes here could happen in an instant, and they had nothing to do with rifts beneath the ground. And so she raised them all. She called to them by name. “Reb Dov ben Eliezer, Hannale bat Esther, Shlomo ben Harav Meir, Shayna bat Leah, Perel Beila bat Rivka, Avraham ben Natan,” and more. She crooned and wailed in voices not her own, in languages she’d heard but never spoken, spitting letters like curses onto the ground.

They rose. Sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, tiny babies, and great-but-since-forgotten Rabbis, thieves and drunkards, whores and scholars, the righteous, the sinful, the soldiers, the cripples, she raised a dybbuk army. And then she turned her back on them and walked back up the mountain, singing. The swirling horde followed her lead. They sang a niggun, a dirge, dancing on the shears of wind. And when she reached the holy city, first she took them to her home. Her family had long since finished eating. The men sang songs and drank hot sweet mint tea and with the wind and rain she ripped the sukkah open, and in her new-found shrieking voice she called: “I invite to my meal the exalted guests” and named them all.

She saw the looks on all their faces, her father Yosef, her brothers: Rafael, Shimon and Daniel. She saw her mother’s eyes dawn in recognition, the names she called at once familiar and strange. Her grandmother fainted. Her little sisters woke up from the benches where they had gone to sleep.

“May it please you, my exalted guests, that all the other exalted guests dwell with me and with you,” she finished, and with her voice she swept them in. They danced around the table, fanning the candle flames. They licked the icing on the sheet-cake and dipped their noses in the tea. Malka saw what no one else did, until the candles flickered and the rain took a deep breath. It was an instant, an eye-blink, the space between two heartbeats and the dybbuks flew in through every nostril.

That’s when the howling began in earnest. The frenzied song of the unhinged. The forgotten spoke so loudly that the town began to come. Slowly first, they peeked out of their home-made booths, but with the rise in shattered melody, they coursed on down through stair-lined streets. Malka laughed each time a chin fell, she giggled into every open-mouth, she snapped her fingers and they followed, a dybbuk for each resident, a forgotten one made whole.

It was the women she called loudest. Malka left the men to whirl. Naked with their payot flying, fur-lined streimels cast into the air. She took the women by their hands and led them to the shul. There she opened up the aron, the holy torah-ark. And as the women plundered all the prayer-desks, longing to see what really lay inside those holes, Malka took out all the shawls. She draped each woman with a tallit, and with these shrouds they howled more. Ghost-like in their frenzy, banshees finally released, the women calmed as Malka hushed them, and with reverence removed the scrolls. Ten torahs she took out and passed them, until each woman had a turn to feel its weight. Not of babies or of soup-pots, but of holy written words. And then the niggun really started, led by one of the little girls. Brachaleh bat Esther sang a dirge in grand-hasidic style. And the women-dybbuks danced around the bimah, no longer forgotten or afraid.

The men outside came in to see it, dripping wet and naked to the hilt. They climbed the stairs up to the women’s section, and watched wide-eyed from every balconette. They kept silent, for the first time. They watched their wives and daughters dance and sing, and even though their dybbuk souls were restless, they sat long enough to take it in.

Soon the women finished their carousing, the torahs kissed unabashedly and then returned. The men swarmed out of shul to heed the calling of the wind. The women shrieked their way out of the windows, they met the men out on the rooftops for the night, and every sukkah-house was visited, each and every cookie licked. But then they meted out destruction. Razing palm-frond roofs, collapsing sheds. The dybbuk army wouldn’t stop, until every sukkah started falling, and everyone remembered them.

Malka sat atop the synagogue. Her long blue dress was torn to shreds. She felt the warming sun begin ascent. She twirled her drying hair between her fingers, and spat the rain back through her teeth. She sang a lonely melody, a requiem that to the cats sounded like one in pain. And then she wandered down the alleys, back down the winding stairs and through the earthquake-ravaged city’s many falling stones.

She wandered through the gravestones as before, and climbed onto the tallest dome. She shrieked this time with both her voices, both dybbuk-speak and human tone. She called her army home. And one by one they came to her, out of body orifices the swarm escaped. Each soul-like shadow made its own dramatic exit, out of nostril, ear, eye, anus, hole and pore, each human staring at Malka in wonder, then wondering where went their clothes.

Malkah tucked in every dybbuk, smoothing down the granite stones and then she birthed the one inside her, tearing through her virgin core. She kissed her, lip on lip, and shed a tear. Then Malka wandered homeward, following the human tide. Each one to their deserted bed returned, where they slept and dreamt the dreams of the forgotten, and woke remembering nothing but a storm.