The Wife

 

The Wife

By Gail Labovitz

 

Was a time when one of our kind would have strangled the wife, right off, if necessary, although the best didn’t need to. This is deep folk logic we’re talking here. We Daughters of Lilith trade stories (more like fantasies, really) about the old times, the good old days, the Old Country, where (so they say) you couldn’t spit for hitting a supposedly pious Yiddishe man, ripe for temptation. Back then and there, if you knew what you were doing, you could be set for life, magically plopping your luxurious boudoir into his closet, or cellar, or storeroom, and telling him to be there every afternoon at two o’clock sharp please, you’ll make it worth his while, and the human wife none the wiser. But how many Yidn believe in us anymore, let alone takes one of us into his home and lives with her as man and wife? Those days aren’t coming back – not here, anyway.
 
I work the greater Tri-State area. Which is really only New York City most of the time: I’ve been to Teaneck, New Jersey, and on an occasional summer jaunt to the bungalow colonies of the Catskills, but by and large I concentrate on just a few neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn. Connecticut, no, we gave up that territory a long time ago. There it’s all about money – not our kind of sin, and they hardly need our intervention anyway. It’s a pretty good posting as these things go – not Jerusalem or Safed, but way better than Cincinnati, where I first started, where you might get a job only once every six months, if that.
 
Where the trembling Jews are, the true believers, the ones who want to live in the 17th century, only with 21st-century amenities, that’s where we still thrive. Even in these places, you wonder sometimes, what’s another woman in a state of undress? Have you seen some of those artsy-fartsy types in Williamsburg on a humid day in August?
 
 
 
Here, there’s even enough work – just enough – for us to justify having a regional supervisor and dispatcher. Mahalat has her office hidden in the restroom of a taxi company in Rego Park. It’s her idea of a joke.
 
She lays a file on the desk between us. I eyeball it, but don’t reach for it yet.
 
“Is he a scholar?” I ask.
 
“Of course he’s a scholar.”
 
I raise my eyebrows and wait.
 
“Okay,” she says, “An up-and-comer.”
 
I smirk. “We certainly hope so, no?”
 
“Please, Belusia, be professional.” But I know my success rate and what that lets me get away with, and I know I just saw the corners of Mahalat’s mouth turn up for the briefest instant. “He’s in the kollel”  – a full time student – “at a goodyeshiva. Mishnah, gemora, rishonim, m’forshim – this one is learning them all.”
 
“Kabbalah?”
 
“Too young. Besides, this is New York, not Safed. They dabble, they don’t even know how much they don’t know.” Too true. We sigh in unison. Seducing a kabbalist is a challenge and success means pretty much automatic promotion: a supervisory position, a better posting. But this one sounds like almost no challenge at all.
 
“Why me? I’ve earned better opportunities than this.”
 
“What better opportunities? Someone finally sends in an assignment . . .”
 
“Do we know who?”
 
She shrugs. But then, sometimes specimens like this one come to the attention of our Higher Ups of their own accord. “Don’t be greedy. It’s a good job, as good as we get these days. Besides, there’s something telling me I’m supposed to assign this job to you. An intuition, if you will.”
 
She slides the file closer to me. So I take it.
 
 
 
I don’t open it up right then and there, but start reading it on the subway to Williamsburg. No reason not to get started right away. Let’s get the low-down on this . . . there it is, Yankele son of Mendel.
 
So it’s a bit crowded on the G train. So there’s not a lot of privacy, and I have to do that hold-it-half-open-and-steal-glances thing. Maybe, given the circumstances, I don’t read it as thoroughly as I could. Still, if there’s further information about the source of the assignment, I don’t notice it. Also, I’m pretty sure I don’t see any mention of a wife. It could just be that she’s beside the point. He’s the one who’s the target, after all.
 
 
 
But there’s a wife alright. This becomes immediately apparent when I slip myself, hair-thin, under the crack in the windowsill and into the bedroom. Two single beds.
 
You could have warned me, Mahalat, I think, but I know she would tell me, “What did you expect? We should be the only ones who think he’s a good catch?” And she’d quote Talmud at me, “When a man gets to twenty unmarried, the Holy One says ‘Blast his bones!’” Our man is over twenty, and his bones appear to be in working order. Until I blast a few other parts of his anatomy, that is.
 
In the light cast through the window by the street lamp outside, I can also see that the two beds are currently pushed apart. That means the woman is niddah, menstrually impure. This is good news – for one thing, she’s not in the bed with him. Even better, since he’ll have no sexual access to his wife at the moment, there’s sure to be sexual frustration I can exploit. I’ll need to place some sort of deep sleep on her or lure him out of the bedroom, but those are minor logistical considerations. I move to his bedside, consider his pale fingers that clutch at the blanket, the wisps of beard that bunch about his chin against the pillow. Not unattractive if you like that sort of thing. I’ve seen – I’ve worked with – worse. With any luck, this job will be a quick shtup and done.
 
I’m already in my professional attire, which is, no surprise, no attire at all – unless you count the long black hair that spills off my head over my breasts, hips, buttocks. But I haven’t yet decided on a plan of attack, when I get the distinct sense that I am being watched.
 
The wife is sitting up in bed. The wig that signifies her status as a married woman is resting on a styrofoam mold on the night table; she looks at me from under a head of cropped hair that would be fetchingly butch if not for the high-necked, long-sleeved nightgown she is wearing, modest even in sleep.
 
I turn my gaze fully on her, my eyes fiery and my teeth bared. She’s trembling a little, but does not cower or break eye contact.
 
“You’re here for that one?” she asks, speaking Yiddish. “I’m sorry to tell you it’ll be a waste of your time.”
 
“How do you know what’s a waste of my time or not?”
 
“Oh, I just mean you won’t get anywhere with him. He won’t be interested.”
 
“Your dear Yankele is too pious to be tempted by the likes of me?” Defiantly, I sweep my hair back so that the curves of my breasts and torso are fully visible. But she only smiles ruefully, and runs her tongue over her dry lips.
 
“It’s a week past when I was supposed to go to mikveh, and he hasn’t even noticed.”
 
The thought, Maybe that’s something about you, crosses my mind. But why am I talking to her at all? Send her back to dreamland and get on with it. I lift my arms to start summoning power, but she surprises me.
 
“You know his name, but you don’t know mine, do you?” she says. “Too bad you can’t bind me more quickly that way.” She shifts into that other language, the one they call the Holy Language: “In fact, Belusia, daughter of Lilith, I bind you, in the name of Sanoi Sansanoi, and Samangalof. Igrat, Izlat, Asya, Belusia have been bound by nets. Shabrire: Shabrire, berire . . .”
 
But I don’t need to hear the rest of the incantation. She knows my name! My feet are already rooted to the floor.
 
 
 
Once the binding spell is on me, I have no choice but to stay where I am until she tells me where to go. She gets out of bed, grabs a turban-like wrapping, and covers her head with it. From the closet, she tosses a robe at me and quietly but firmly tells me to put it on. I can’t resist the command itself, but at first I tie it only loosely so that it falls open to my belly and hardly covers or hides my breasts.
 
She gives me a half smile, as if to say “I should have expected that from you,” and then says “Cover up.” And so I must.
 
 
 
“Come,” she commands, and I do.
 
A kitchen. Yes, humans all have them, but it’s not like our kind are used to spending time in them. Like humans, we eat and drink, but conjure or take what we need. Mundane tasks – cooking, cleaning up – those are for human women, part of the curse of Eve, the second, the also-ran, the subordinated one. We carry our own curse, but at least it is the curse of Lilith, the true first woman, the one who would not be Adam’s doormat. Because of our foremother, our kind have been both burdened and gifted with the task of turning our curse back on him (or Him?) who first bestowed it.
 
Cursed by, a curse to – we both have our beef with the Sons of Adam, don’t we, human women and us sheydot of the Other Side. You would think there might be some kind of kinship, even sisterhood between us. Maybe someday. But it won’t be beginning here and now with Mrs. Yankele and me, I can tell you that.
 
 
 
“Tea?” she asks me, as if now that I am sitting at her table I might be a neighbor or friend who dropped by for some conversation, or even some forbidden gossip (an easy sin, beneath the need for our intervention).
 
“Would you take food from me if our roles were reversed?” I ask.
 
“Ah, yes,” she says, “I’ve heard that rule. Don’t take any food one of the sheydim offers you, or you’ll be their prisoner on the Other Side for all time. Never thought of whether it worked the other way around. Then again, it’s just a cup of hot water with leaves soaked in it, not food. You’re already in my power until I decide to release you anyway.”
 
I say nothing, but she goes to put a light under the kettle on the stove.
 
While we wait for the water to boil, she takes a seat across from me. Though she is trying to be surreptitious, I can tell that she is studying me. The little points of the goat horns peeking above the hair at the top of my head and the red centers of my eyes, sure, but also the buxom curves of my build. Measuring, I would guess, her own figure by mine, assessing what appeal I have to male desires that she, at least as far as her husband is concerned, lacks. It’s a simple secret, actually. A basic fact long since forgotten: not for us this modern trend to the pitifully thin and insubstantial, the whole body like a dry bone with no juicy meat on it. Everything about us is lush and fleshy and abundant, globes of breasts and buttocks you can actually get your hands on, belly and hips like pillows to lay yourself down upon, thighs that will nestle you in their embrace.
 
I lift one of my legs up onto the table so she can see the chicken foot below my ankle, and waggle the talons I have in place of toes at her. And if the robe happens to part and reveal bare skin and other parts underneath, do I care?
 
But she’s resolute, this Mrs. Yankele. She reaches out and puts a hand on my calf, nudges my foot back off the table, and wipes down with a napkin the spot where it rested.
 
Of course, I am studying her too, but I don’t hesitate to stare right at her. Her eyelids flutter, but she doesn’t break away.
 
I realize, now that I can see her up close, that she can’t be more than nineteen or twenty years old. Relatively good-looking, by human standards. How long can she and her Yankele have been married?
 
What I haven’t seen, around the bit of the apartment I’ve been in so far, are bottles in the sink, or pacifiers on the floor, or drip clothes by the washer. No babies yet, and if she’s pregnant – but no, she can’t be, since she’s told me she recently menstruated, and they haven’t been intimate since.
 
Well, well. But of course.
 
Even if we overlook the rather obvious professional slip-up I’ve just recently embroiled myself in – not that I expect Mahalat will overlook it if she learns of it, and one of our kind would be embarrassed for her if she did overlook it – perhaps the real mistake here isn’t mine. Perhaps this is a job at which none of Mahalat’s girls could succeed. “Won’t be interested” indeed – What if piety has bubkes to do with Yankele’s lack of response to the feminine charms of his wife?
 
 
 
Enough. The task I need to be focused on right now is figuring out how I get myself free of Mrs. Yankele’s binding.
 
First, let’s see if we can learn her name.
 
“So what should I call you, Daughter of Eve, wife of Yankele, Ma’am?”
 
“‘Ma’am,’ huh? Nu, not bad. Yes, you can use that for the moment.”
 
So much for trying to catch her off guard, not that I really expected it to work. Clearly, this one knows a little something. So few of even the most pious Jews know any of the old arts, anymore. But this one does. How? How much? I can only hope not too much. She is but a woman, barred by her men from the true knowledge of the tradition, is she not?
 
I will just have to find the proverbial chink in her armor.
 
“So, Ma'am, what is it you want me to do for you? Beauty? Money? Health? Children?”
 
“Make me a love potion. Or a spell, or an amulet.”
 
“To beguile your Yankele?” She merely shrugs. “Is he such a prize? At least I’m just fulfilling a contract.”
 
“Everyone here” – she waves a hand around, taking in the building, the street, the whole neighborhood, no doubt – “is ‘fulfilling a contract,’ as you put it. Be modest, suppress your sinful thoughts, make holy children for the Holy One. Blessed be He.” This last like an afterthought.
 
“So walk away. It's the 21st century, the Home of the Free. You have rights . . .”
 
At this she juts out her chin. “I’m not walking away with nothing to show. What’s it to you if I want to be loved, and not just dutiful? Is there any sin in being loved? Just tell me, can you do it or not?”
 
Now this is a bind, isn’t it? That is, a theoretical bind, not the kind I’m in already. Love I should be able to do, but if my suspicion is right, turning the true desire of Yankele to his wife, or anything female, is above my pay grade. You think even some of the greatest Kabbalists haven’t tried, whispering incantations over desperate men and putting them through mystical trials and rites, all for naught? Even the One Upstairs seems to find this beyond His abilities, or at least His interest, to alter.
 
Besides, as far my assignment is concerned, I should be happy to have things just the way they are. I need only leave Yankele as he surely is, and won’t he be tempted soon enough on his own into what his precious Torah tells him is a sin of the worst kind? It wouldn’t be necessary for me to become personally involved – if you know what I mean, and by now you surely do – to complete the task. Frankly, now that I’ve caught sight of the bocher, this is no great loss to me.
 
But I’m not at my leisure to refuse the request.
 
Aware of her watching and waiting for a response, I look away instead at the pots and pan, the kettle on the stove, the dirty dishes in the sink. I consider my tea cup, an inch of brown liquid still pooled at the bottom, some stray leaves swirling in its cavity. Its cavity! As if someone (who?) had dropped it through a mail slot into my mind, I suddenly have an idea.
 
More important than the state of Yankele’s soul at the moment is the state of my own freedom. Perhaps there is a way I can get her name and free myself – even take my revenge!
 
“A bowl,” I say. “We need to make a magic bowl.”
 
“A bowl?”
 
“Get me an earthenware bowl. Something we can write an incantation on.”
 
“Like a soup bowl, or a cereal bowl?”
 
“Right, bring me one of those.”
 
She turns to the cabinets, then stops in the middle of the floor and giggles. “How silly. Do you know, I just had the thought, Would it be better to use a dairy bowl or a meat bowl for this?” But before I can think of an answer, she continues, “Dairy, I’d say. Yes, dairy seems more appropriate.” She takes one off a stack in a cabinet. “See, they’re white, we’ll be able to write on it. Like you said . . .”
 
I have no idea if making a bowl in this haphazard way can even work, but I don’t mean for it to. After all, according to the ancient Babylonians – who, I tell you, buried these things around their doors and yards and even sometimes under the dirt floors of their houses as if they were dogs hiding their bones – a well-made and well-placed bowl didn’t just perform the task inscribed in the incantation. No, the reason one uses a bowl is because one traps beings under the bowl. Beings who have powers you can appropriate, beings that will grant wishes and desires in return for being free again. Can you guess who?
 
So, a demoness assisting in the making of a magic bowl. Best it doesn’t work at all.
 
“Now we need a way to write on it. Hmm,” I continue, as if a problem has only just occurred to me. “Normally, we’d need gall-nut powder, mixed with ash, to make it dark. And resin, to seal it onto the surface of the bowl. It has to be permanent.”
 
“How about nail polish?”
 
“Oh, you have nail polish? Not very modest of you, is it, Mrs. Yankele? I mean, Ma’am.”
 
“It’s for sealing holes in stockings.”
 
The polish is black, and the name on the bottom of the bottle is “American Goth.” I raise my eyebrows, but she has a response: “Our stockings are black, you know. Mustn’t be something a man could see through, or a color that would attract his attention.” She’s got me there.
 
“Fine, pass it here and I’ll start writing the incantation.”
 
“I’ll write it myself,” she says, “I know my alef-bet.”
 
A school child knows his alef-bet, but what else does he know?Fine, let her do it. As if I have a choice when she dictates what I will or won’t do, what will or won’t happen next. Though I can hope that this ups the chances that nothing comes of our little spell.
 
She opens the bottle, wipes the brush against the rim so that it won’t blotch. “Okay, tell me exactly how this is done. Do I write on the inside of the bowl or out?”
 
“Inside.” And because that word “exactly” hangs between us, I am compelled to add, “Starting in the center and working out in a spiral to the rim. And then we char the bowl – ‘As the flames lick this bowl, so may the flames of love lick the heart of Yankele . . .’ And so on and so forth . . .”
 
“Good,” she says, “now, once more, the words of the spell. Not too fast, so I can write them down correctly.”
 
So I dictate.
 
 
 
When I have finished reciting the incantation, and she has finished transcribing it (may she have misspelled every third word), she puts it down by the stove to finish drying and rummages in a drawer for an oven mitt. Holding the edge of the earthenware carefully in the protected hand, she places the bowl over a lit stove burner, turning it little by little so the flames touch every part of the surface.
 
The bowl begins to char, but what’s this? I start to feel my body grow heavy, and sluggish. There’s a kind of tugging in my belly and my limbs – down, with gravity, yet also towards the stove. I can’t hold my body up standing. I slump back into my seat, knocking against the table leg and rattling the teacup.
 
“Ah, good,” Mrs. Yankele says, looking up at the sound. “It’s working, then.”
 
“Huh? What’s . . .working?” I can hardly shape my mouth to make words.
 
“The spell, what do you think? Yes, I know how a magic bowl works. It collects your powers into itself. I won’t be able to bury it, not in a third-floor apartment, but what if we place it under some dirt, at least?” She picks up a potted plant from the windowsill, places the bowl upside down in its place, and rests the plant back down on the bottom, now top, of the bowl.
 
“I’m very sorry about this, really. But you’ll feel better inside the bowl, you know. Where the spell, and hence your strength, is.”
 
It’s dead clever, all right. If I enter the space under the bowl, then I am admitting that she has completed her trap. But my only chance of finding the information I need is inside the bowl.
 
For a while it’s a game of chicken, a staring match, except that we don’t look at each other. I sit, sullen and weak, at the table, with only enough energy to stir the cold cup of tea around and around, clink, clink, clink with the spoon. She moves about the kitchen, breaking eggs into a glass, mixing flour and sugar and oil into one metal bowl, and cocoa and cinnamon in another, and I begin to see that she is baking a chocolate babka. All the while making a show of not glancing at me to see if I have yet moved. Once it goes into the oven, she folds a pile of laundry. Finally, when the kitchen is full of the aroma of caramelized sugar and risen dough, and there are no other tasks at hand, she sighs, leaves the cake cooling on a rack, and follows the snores of her husband back to the bedroom.
 
 
 
Shrunk down, like a single strand of the black hair of my head, I make my way under the rim of the bowl.
 
Despite the burned patches that cover the outer surface, the text of the incantation seems intact inside. The binding power of the magic drawn into them gives them an ethereal glow, black fire against the white ice surface of the porcelain.
 
I start reading at the inner part of the spiral, at the top of the dome that is now over me. The first part, I now see, is a demonic binding, the words that anchor me to the bowl, and to the bidding of the spell it proclaims. Words I did not dictate to her, but that she knew to include.
 
I skim over that part until I find the phrase, “As the flames lick this bowl . . .” She thinks she’s got me, but here she has to include the information I need: “As the flames lick this bowl, so may the flames of love lick the heart of Yankele son of Mendel so that it burns for insert name of Mrs. Yankele here . . .
 
But wait. There’s an ashy smudge over the spot where his name must be, and then again hers. I read on: a love of body and a love of soul, for the woman . . . And another smudge. And there’s more: As I have bound a daughter of Lilith, the sheydah Belusia, so may I  – smudge – bind the body and soul of  – smudge. . . . Similar phrases, both the ones I supplied and more like them, continue. In each, the names of the two parties are obscured.
 
Restoring myself to small, but humanish form, I put a finger on one of the smudges on the near side of the bowl, and try to rub the ash off the upside-down lettering underneath. Only to find a blob of nail polish where a name should be.
 
It looks almost as if it were part of the magic to obscure the names. Surely it is.
 
Now I’m truly trapped. Shrunken, curled into myself like a knot in a string, I lay in the dim cavity, the power-sapping, binding words of the spell glowing around me in the roof and walls of my prison.
 
 
 
I know it’s morning when the smell of coffee brewing and bread toasting is pulled under the rim by a draft from the window. Two sets of footsteps indicate that both Mr. and Mrs. are present, but I don’t hear any chatter between them. If the spell is working to bind me, shouldn’t it be making its effects felt on its actual target? As much as I hate to admit it, my only chance now of getting free again is for the spell to do its thing and be done with me. Hating every moment that I need to put into it, I muster what of my powers are still mine, and try to channel them into the words around me. And wait. Surely now he will compliment her, whisper a sweet endearment, say the words that will send her to the mikveh tonight and him to her bed again.
 
But I hear nothing except the scrape of utensils and the clatter of cups and saucers, until a single set of feet, his, head for the door.
 
As soon as he is gone, she begins to hum to herself. There’s more kitchen noise – clean up, I suppose – but something about her movements is different, lighter. Did I miss something, a word, a caress (forbidden while she is still unclean, but surely they wouldn’t be the first to bend the rules a little)?
 
I want to come out and surreptitiously investigate. It’s a struggle, given that I am still bound to the bowl until its spell is complete, but now that it’s starting its work, I am able to call on just enough of my own powers to slip, hair-thin, under the far side of the bowl towards the window, then scuttle up the glass to the ceiling in the form of a spider. From the fluorescent fixture over the table, I lower myself ever so slightly on a thread of something that might be spider silk or a black hair. From here I watch Mrs. Yankele at her domestic routine, but take away nothing of value other than a reminder of how grateful I remain not to be a Daughter of Eve. Finally, she gives her wig a quick check in a mirror by the door, and leaves, a string grocery bag over her arm. I settle in for a nap in a hair-silk hammock.
 
So tired am I from the restless time under the bowl during the night that I sleep deep and miss the soft click of the lock turning and the door opening, a woman’s feet on the area rug in the entranceway.
 
 
 
It’s the shrill whistle of the tea kettle that wakes me. The light and shadows suggest that it is now mid-afternoon. Just below me there are two plates, and slices of babka, and forks on the table. And there is an unfamiliar woman in one of the chairs. A little bit older than Mrs. Yankele, maybe three or four years. The loose breasts and widened hips of a woman who has born a babe or two. A neighbor, come by for a snack and some chat, a short break from the little ones while another long-sleeved, black-stockinged woman – her younger sister, say – watches them for a bit.
 
Except this is no neighborly visit. Mrs. Yankele is kneeling at her guest’s feet. The newcomer’s opaque stockings are pooled around her knees, and her skirt is hiked up her thighs, while Mrs. Yankele’s fingers probe under the remaining lip of fabric. The woman’s head is thrown back and her wig has fallen slightly askew. I recognize easily the expression on her face; it is the mix of shock and guilt and pleasure that I see regularly as I successfully fulfill an assignment.
 
I have no power to intervene. I shouldn’t have reason to want to. It’s a sin what they’re doing, isn’t it? A rather significant one, and this is what my kind have been created to instigate, right? Instead, I feel only growing anger at how cleverly I have been duped and used, resentment that the happenings here have been done through me, despite me, rather than by me.
 
Oh, hold on! Now that her spell is completing its workings – there’s nothing I can do about that –
I might even be restored enough to do a working of my own! With more malice than confidence, I send out a summoning.
 
 
 
The yeshiva must not be far for Yankele arrives in less than ten minutes.
 
“Shayndel?” he asks tentatively from the doorway, for if something has drawn him here, it must be some need of hers, no? What else could it be that would give him the sudden certainty that he must abandon his study partner, the heights of Scriptures and the wisdom of the great Sages throughout time, and hurry to return to this domestic, profane, feminine plane?
 
And what luck! For he arrives just as Mrs. Yankele – Shayndel, but of what use is the name to me now?  – has satisfied her need, or rather that of her enspelled beloved, who at this very moment gasps and moans and writhes in her place.
 
Both women start at the new voice.
 
“Fradye?!” he says, now catching sight of the second woman, too shocked even to avert his eyes.
 
Fradye grabs the hem of her skirt and yanks it down over her bare legs as she sprints for the first open doorway, into the bedroom. But Shayndel merely stares back at Yankele, resisting a display of any shame. It is he who breaks eye contact and backs towards the door.
 
“I didn’t mean for you to find out like this,” she says finally. “I have only a little more business here, and then Fradye”  – at the mention of her name, the woman in question appears as if beckoned, her face still flushed but her clothing and wig rearranged again to the appearance of a modest daughter of Israel – “and I will be the one to go. I’ve even left you some things in the freezer.”
 
I don’t realize how much of my power I’ve expended and how low and visibly I am now dangling on my hair-silk until she reaches out and breaks it in a single swipe. I land on the floor in a heap and in my true (or truest) state, albeit still garbed in Shayndel’s robe.
 
Yankele starts at the thump, but his eyes never leave his wife.
 
She, on the other hand, looks to me. “You may not believe me, but I really do want to thank you, Belusia, for your assistance. Even if given under compulsion. You will remain barred only from following me, or ever trying bringing harm to me or to Fradye. Otherwise, Belusia daughter of Lilith, I hereby release you and reverse my binding. Re, rire, berire, shabrire. Shabrire. Unknot the nets of Belusia, Asya, Izlat, Igrat. In the name of Samangalof, Sansanoi, and Sanoi.”
 
The rush of my powers back into my body is like being thrown into a cold pool. I reel and stagger into a chair, as Shayndel takes Fradye by the hand and leads her out the door.
 
 
 
Yankele takes a seat at the table too. He twists a curl in his beard, pulls on his sidelock.
 
“But why?”
 
I remain silent. My kind aren’t made for giving comfort. We’re not even really about giving pleasure. Quite the opposite, our job is disrupting comfort. Which I seem to have done in spades when all is said and done, all without touching Yankele once.
 
Except there’s a little more for him to say. He picks up a fork and twirls it in his hand as he commences a monologue: “From the first time I ever saw Shayndel, dancing with the women at a cousin’s wedding, I starting bothering all the shadchanim, to introduce me to her. There were rumors that her father was poor, and perhaps half-mad from delving into the Kabbalah – ‘What did I want that for?’ they asked me. I could easily have had the daughter of a rich man who would delight to support a scholar like me. I should have listened . . .
 
“And Fradye! Three little ones she’ll be leaving behind,” Yankele continues. “Her husband will have to leave the kollel and take a job to support the children . . .”
 
I should be reveling in Yankele’s anguish, shouldn’t I? I could take this back to Mahalat as enough of a success, couldn’t I?
 
What does a human in distress need? They like sweet things, don’t they?
 
“Here,” I say, and push the plate of untouched babka towards him.
 
The fork hovers for just an instant, and then he stabs down, brings the severed bit of pastry veined with chocolate to his lips. And when he turns, and now finally looks at me, really looks at me and sees me, his face is so forlorn that, almost despite myself, I reach out to lay my hand over his.
 
He starts upright, and then before I can pull back, his head is on my shoulder and he sobs wetly into my neck.
 
Demon instinct takes over.
 
I press my chest forward and my shoulders back so that Shayndel’s robe spreads open a bit, and with a hand in his hair at the back of his head, I begin to ease his face down, down, to the cleft between my breasts.
 
He resists not at all.
 
Gazing over his head as he burrows, I notice the plate and realize: But of course. I’ve fed him, he took – knowingly?  – the food I offered. I could claim that as the reason for what will happen now. It is the story I should tell Mahalat. Even if it is a lie.
 
But I won’t tell her my real motives. If I even know them myself.
 
Instead, I push all other thoughts away as I guide him off the chair to the ground, throw the robe aside. He nearly tears loose the buttons in his haste to open his pants, and there on the kitchen floor, with one of his ritual fringes under my left knee, I straddle him.
 
 
 
All’s well that ends well, no? Got my man and helped a righteous daughter of Israel – no, two of them!  – go astray. And when the divorces are final, the very Altar of Jerusalem will shed tears.
 
Is that what I’ve just done?
 
If I tell the story right – meaning selectively – it could even be that I’ll be feted for this one back at headquarters.
 

But that’s not the story I’ve just told, is it?

         

 

Copyright © Gail Labovitz 2016

Gail Labovitz was born and raised in the Philadelphia area, lived in New York City for a number of years, and now resides in Los Angeles. In her “day job” she is an ordained Conservative rabbi and associate professor at the American Jewish University, where she teaches and researches rabbinic literature of late antiquity and Jewish law. She has studied creative writing with the Writers’ Studio in New York and the UCLA Extension Writers Program. In addition to several short stories published in Jewish and feminist journals, including prize winning stories with Lilith and Women in Judaism, she is also the author of the academic work, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature and numerous articles.

 



 

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