ו , ז , ח by Cheryl Spinner

ו: There was a famine in the town. Raizel went to Ben-Yeti and inquired if it would be permissible to eat one’s paper and ink since that was all there was left. “Why, of course,” he answered, “Do what you must.”

“How should I ingest it?” She asked.

“Just open your lips and swallow.”

And so she did. She swallowed the ink, which filled her stomach with inky pools, and alternated by nibbling bits of paper—enough to trick her insides for a while. When food is short, she thought, paper and ink are simply that—items that can be swallowed—not items that could create indelible symbols or language or beautiful imagery. The paper with important recorded information, the paper with creative musings, the paper with her grocery list: that was all in her innards, where it belonged.

Rudashevky’s wife hovered in a nearby jeweler’s shop, with the glinting gold and rare stones rubbing against each other in the store front each other waiting to be fashioned into a new piece.

Only ladies should touch pearls, Mina thought as she plucked a handful from the jeweler’s grip.

“I would like the black ones. Yes the black ones—deep as ink, almost blue, with the diamond clasp,” she motioned to the man behind the counter, gaze steady, violet eyes locked. And now she began to coil the pearls around her fingers, placing them in her black gloved hand. They would have disappeared into the blackness if not for the diamond brooch.

“Yes, I’ll take that one,” Mina breathed out while placing the pearls along her neck. They disappeared once more into the black of her dress as she reversed the necklace so as not to reveal the diamond broach at its center, which now lay on the back of her neck, concealed by a shoulder skimming hair.

“Miss, why, you can’t even see the pearls now that you've turned them in such a way. It’s a pity.”

“I don’t wear them for ornament.” And with that Rudashevsky’s wife left.

He adored his wife and her loveliness, a loveliness that was not merely confined to the body. Oh yes, she was beautiful, but there was something else about her that made her different from the rest—a glow, a sort of invisible ring, hung about her wherever she went, which made her not merely beautiful, but striking. Rudashevsky would not settle for anything less.

But Mina detested him—his small stature and bulbous head, which made him physically revolting to her—and she detested those masks even more. She couldn’t escape his grotesqueness; it followed her wherever she went in the crowds of the people with masks.

Why had she married him? Few knew, and most importantly, Mina had forgotten. “There had to be a motive,” she’d think, trying so hard to remember, wringing a handkerchief between her hands. “There’s got to be a reason, there’s just got to.” It was on the tip of the triangle of her tongue, but she always lost it when it reached the apex of that fleshy geometrical point. “Oh, but if I only knew.”

It’s like the photograph upon the retina, she thought. The eye that snaps, that receives, that retains light. Light, light, oh joyous light! But, No, it’s the face that gets etched upon the retina: his face. The jutting bulbs and the outline of an uneven face. Hideous! Hideous!

She began photographing her own subjects: beautiful men and women, to counter the sheer ugliness that surrounded her. She posted adds in the paper:

No Rudashevsky masks, please

Raizel entered Mina’s studio: she wasn’t sure if she was beautiful enough; she figured it couldn’t hurt to try since ink and paper proved unsatisfying to her sensitive bowels.

Mina draped in a dress of deep velvet, purple, that hung in a small pool on the floor; her camera in the center of a white room with an even whiter sheet in the center, surrounded by lights and umbrellas, a camera in the middle: Mina wore a mask of her own: a mask of her face. She chose to go out like this sometimes; the mask of her face hid the essence of her own, and therefore made her unidentifiable. It gave the appearance of someone who might look like Madame Rudashevsky, but who couldn’t possibly be her.

ז: Raizel had moved out and lived in an area of Williamsburg where beards bumped beards, where a hipster might be confused for a Chasid and vice versa. The men themselves often paused, looking each other in the eye, past the beard, scoping out the rest of the attire, to discern who was who. Things had gotten so confusing that a special meeting of the Chasidim in Williamsburg was convened to discuss “the question of the beard.” Some asked what use was the beard if they were beginning to become indistinguishable from the goyim? Others argued that the Torah says a yid may not bring a razor to his face and so it should stay. Taking both arguments into account, the council of Rabbanim that presided over the event concluded that the fashion of goyishe culture is always changing and therefore should not be a reason to alter their time-honored ways. “Recall,” they said, the 1960’s, “with the hippie-men who invaded the Catskills—our summer and weekend retreats—with their long beards. The current time is of course more dangerous because it has become “attractive” for a man to wear a beard, which means our men will just have to be more careful around the women who may throw themselves at them. This is a new nishayon that Hashem has given us. We will be strong.”

One morning, on her way to the parlor, Raizel walked. It is important to underscore that she walked because of the events that would follow. No hovering here. Instead, cloding, earth-trodden, gravity-ridden, thumping of legs, one after another. It was in this very mode that Raizel stopped suddenly. A woman appeared in front of Raizel and fixed her gaze on the artist. Raizel was so taken by the prolonged stare that it took her a moment until she realized that the woman before her was decked out in Victorian circus dress with tattoos draped along her limbs.

Raizel blinked and then chuckled. It was New York after all, there must be some circus revival event or the woman worked at a club where the bartenders dressed as circus performers.

But then the woman opened her mouth and Yiddish words started dripping from her lips.

“Shanda, charpa, shrayim, meshuganeh, nisht, nacht.”

Raziel looked at her again dumb-founded as the words continued to drip.

“Gaiveh, gemach, daven, chosen, kallah, nebbish.”

ח: It was only a matter of time before Rudashevsky began rounding up the Believers for execution. Raizel fled. In a small duffle she packed a few trinkets, her parents wedding album, and the sacred wedding contract, adorned with arabesques and calligraphic letters in the sacred tongue, tucked within it pages. She boarded a train headed to the other end of the continent, beyond the Rudashevsky boundaries. But this hope became impossible when spotted an inspector at the end of the train.

“Show me your belongings,” she overheard, and “I hope for your sake I don’t find any evidence of a Believer on you.”

In the quiet of her train coach, she leafed quickly through the wedding album. “Oh God,” she thought. Evidence everywhere. Her mother’s dress: signature of the Believer modesty laws; her father’s traditional garb. She pried open the window with a body that shook. She folded the contract and stuck it in the pocket of her breast. That she must tear out the photos was unquestionable; that she could bring herself to perform the act was less so. She skimmed through the pages searching hopelessly for a nondescript photo that might not signify her origins. Nothing. But she teared out page by page hoping there could be one.

“Where are you traveling?” an inspector asked, suited in a tightly fit uniform, black booted and black-hatted. Raizel turned her head, and dropped the album out the window, pages still fluttering out from its binding.

“I’ve never been beyond the continent and was curious.”

“You seemed to have dropped something. Is it important?”

“I dropped a book of riddles. They wearied me and draped my arm out of the window with the book. It was my fault. Maybe I wanted to throw it out.”

“I’m not much of a riddle man myself. May I see your bag? Okay, all clear. Your papers, my dear.”

“I kept them within the binding of my riddle book for safe keeping. Fancy that.”

“You should be more careful.”

“Yes, I know I was careless. I’m still adjusting to the new codes.”

“Well, you’ll have to come with me. I live nearby. You will need to stay under my watch until we can verify who you are.

They got off at the very last stop.

“You must be well-behaved. Rudashevsky is scheduled to meet with me tonight.”

“I am always well-behaved.”

“Just don’t tell him you don’t have your papers. I have suspicions about you but you remind me of someone I think I once knew, someone very special to me.”

Rudashevsky arrived and greeted the inspector. The meeting regarded matters of the state but when Rudashevsky laid his eyes on Raizel it was clear the meeting would take a different turn.

Cheryl Spinner currently lives in Durham, N.C., where she is a doctoral student in the English Department at Duke University. She received her Master's Degree in English at Georgetown University in the spring of 2010. A native of Queens, N.Y., her writing intertwines yiddishe kopf with a certain kind of New Yawk flair. You can follow her research blog at electricladieszap.wordpress.com.