The Eternal Jew in combat

The time: approximately 1375 CE. The place: Poland. The situation:
Batkol, the wife of Saadya Mishon the Eternal Jew, has been kidnapped by Bogdan, the lord of a decrepit manor. With the help of the region’s rabbi, Reb Susya, a plan has been hatched to rescue her by calling on a Jewish soldier of fortune and thief, Yiftakh, who once served under Bogdan, raiding Ruthenian villages.

Here’s the “old English” (what you probably know as “modern English”) version of the poem, translated into prose from Steevtok, MetaEnglish:

Sunrise. A gang of armed men approach the soldier Yiftakh’s house. His dogs snarl. Yet ten steps away, he opens his door, sword in hand, and confronts us all,
“Confess your sins, as, one more step and you’ll meet your God.”

“Trouble not! We’re Susya’s men. We come as brothers in need of your help. That wild ox Bogdan kidnapped my wife. If you will lead us and liberate her and break the oppressor’s grippin’ hand, we’ll succor Vladislov’s court to transfer Bogdan’s manor to you. What say you, captain of arms?”

“If Susya sent you, hear my demand: Let me hear that Susya’s wife supports this caper. Hers the voice that, in that house, lays the law. If she say ‘yes’, I swear by the Lor, I’ll storm that hideout and the first thing I see, I’ll cut it down, as the Lor lives.”

Pointin’ to me,
“You! Follow me,”
and we runs to a nearby clump of trees, and there, tied up, two horses paw the ground and ‘nay’ as we approach.
“Stole these last week,”
he grunts with a grin.
“They’re a bit wild. You know how to ride?”
“I lived with the Mongols these last many years.”
And bareback we gallop to Susya’s wife. She’s still standin’ at the broken door with her sleepin’ cap on and a knife in her hand.

“What did you come for, Yiftakh, you dog?”
“I comes to hear the word from your mouth, and your thoughts on the plan your husband devised. Your opinions* might darken the hue of my heart, but your thoughts are sharper than your blabbermouth man’s.
* others say, ‘pinions’

“The scheme to rescue that wife of his? Reckless and foolish, and what else to do? Naturally, it appeals to you, you and your gang and your Polish ways.”

He stares her down like Satan himself, and I watch his hand, waitin’ to see if he pulls his sword and slices her neck.
“Then yours is the seal and mine is the sword.”
And he whips his horse and we gallop away.

It seems the sky isn’t lighter now than when we left Yiftakh’s some time ago.

“We’ll go off-road. I knows a trail by Bogdan’s house and the huts of his serfs. One or the other, she’s sure to be there. But he’ll have sentries, so shut your traps right now! If they hear us there’s little chance they won’t be slittin’ your woman’s throat.”

Five of us clompin’ and thrashin’ our way through branch and brush. Atop a rise Yiftakh spies a curl of smoke in the hollow where the serfs have huddled their huts.

“Smoke! No reason for fire today, and the bake-house is back at Bogdan’s place. That’s probably our target. Follow me.”

Down in the glen there was nary a guard posted at the house. Sure of surprise Yiftakh spreads us out as we crawl thru bramble and bush. Ready, poised, hardly more than a few steps away from the hut, when sudden, out of the door, here comes Batkol, a babe in her arms. Like a bolt of lightning shot from a cloud – and who can predict its where and its when – out shoots Yiftakh from a thorny bush and strikes her down; then shouts ‘Attack!’ The rest of the men charge from the brush and burst on the hut, like to trample it down. And me, I hardly remembers a thing, just screamin’,
“No! Batkol! No!”

And it seems I rushed in with ill intent to kill Yiftakh for what he done.

Some time later, there I were, leanin’ against a parched trunk, some twisted, ghastly, leafless tree with its crooked branches clawing at the sky, silent as a corpse in a wordless howl.

In the moment I couldn’t remember where I were. Then up struts Yiftakh, and scowlin’ says,
“You dumbshit donkey. Should have cut your neck.”
Midst howlings and weepings, off he gone, mutterin’ to himself, ‘damn the whole world,’ and begun to lope up the road back to Lutsk.

I get up, all shaky, and walk to the hut. Batkol’s still lyin’ face down in the muck, and another woman’s in a bloody pool on the floor of the hut. And like a pile of rags, crumpled on the ground, a hefty man – women kneelin’ on either side – gaspin’ wheezin’ gurglin’ blood. Looks like Bogdan. Just about then pain starts shootin’ across my skull and down my arm and into my back.

Eternal Jew in Volhynia

Of the many layers built into my epic poem The Atternen Juez Talen, I have a particular fondness for integrating folktales, fables, and legends into my stories, modified to fit the time and location. The following scene integrates components of a traditional Slavic fairy tale, to help build out the detail. I have translated it back into Old English (standard English) prose, to make it more accessible.

“I once was a poor man, just like you. Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose around my neck. I could hardly breath. Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me. Indentured myself to a local knight who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword. All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart, and he turned his eye on my darling child. Ever and again, with leer and with sneer he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl. Oh, her tremblin’ and, oh, her tears and oh, the appall that blanched her face. She who could buy us an honorable life, but I, I preferred my poverty than to sell my child to that viperous knight. And so I endured indignities rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes of cow dung, while he cursed and spit. Nor did he spare the lash to my back, until my heart were cold as ice.”

“An indentured man is owned like a mule but I decided to run away. Troublous times, skirmish and raid. Our lor be off lootin’ in slaughter and rape. That’s when I ups and decides to flee. I borrows an oxcart out of his barn, me as the ox; and my wife and my girls begins to load it with all we own. Now I hears a moan from the stove, and louder it groans, so I peek inside. Scrape and grate and out of the coals like a wisp of smoke, a spirit emerges, pale as a corpse, nor more than ash. Children scream and my wife faints, and me, I spits and calls on The Name.

“‘I ain’t no dybbuk. Be not afeared. I am your Poverty, indentured to you like a servant. I go where you go.’

“Wondrous strange and my mind a-race that such a one is bound to me.

“‘Well, there’s nothin’ for it. You are ours, and those who serve must do their work, so help us carry some of our things.’

“The wraith glides over to pick up a dish but my children say, ‘nay, that’s for us.’ Me, I pulls out a bottle of schnaps and sets it in front of the fireplace, then says,

“‘I need your help out here to put the choppin’ block in the cart.’

“I takes my ax and swings it down to wedge its blade into the block.

“‘Where can I grab this heavy block?’

“asks she. I points and says,

“‘There by the blade of the ax the wood be split. Slip your fingers into the crack.’

“So done. And me, quick as a cat pulls out the ax and the crack squeezes closed, and her hand is caught in the block like a clamp. Oh cry; oh scream; oh bitter her moan and me and my girls we hustle away down the road to Rovno, here.

“Now soon the gnarly knight returns, and there, our house open wide as a barn and nothin’ inside, but a bottle of schnaps.

“‘Them bastard Jews be run away,’

“he growls, and takes a gulp from the crock. And another gulp and he hears the moan of the wraith outside,

“‘Help me, oh Lor.’

“Thinkin’ a spirit be callin’ on him, another gulp and he pokes his head out the window, and there, the girl.

“‘Who be you, oh prissy maid?’

“And she, a-thinkin’ of what to do, and sees there’s nothin’ for it, says,

“‘Oh handsome knight, oh savin’ lor, see here. My hand be caught in this block.’

“And the tipsy knight, his head a swirl, comes to inspect, and the wraithy girl kisses his neck, and a fire begins to warm the old man, and he frees her hand. Not many days and the two are betrothed. Now see how Poverty clings to his arm, and soon that knight has lost his lands and now he’s livin’ in my old hut. And here I am attached to a prince, keepin’ accounts and managin’ his lands. Now lift your eyes and looky ahead. There be his castle and that’s where I live.”

Portraits from a Jewish orphanage

In my ongoing translation of The Atternen Juez Talen back into “old” (ie, normal) English, I came to this short portrait I thought you might like. It takes place in Georgia (in the Caucasus) around 800 years ago, in the midst of the Mongolian invasions. In the aftermath of one battle, the Eternal Jew and his wife set up an orphanage for the children who survived. In the morning they would teach the children some Torah, and in the afternoons they would send the children out as apprentices.

Here’s a portrait of one child, and the setting he lived in.

Samson. Well, that's what he come to be called. Funny how a person lives into a name. Built like a bull, and tough as one too, like a thunderstorm that flashes from afar, threatening, but rare to strike home. But when his tears welled up you were best to run. He would sit stone still in our Torah talk, and silent as stone and probably as dull. But the butchers and porters, they all competed when they seen his arms, shoulders and neck. With clever cajolin' and callin' in debts they bartered til butcher Zev prevailed. Zev could hack thru an ox's flank with a single stroke; and cut to the heart of our Halakhah* as quick and sure. In the butcher's prayer house he was the rabbi.

* Jewish law and rulings

In the strop and hone of rabbinic thought, where every moment is seen as unique, and law must flex itself to fit our twisted world, that we might bring God and justice down to us; in the butcher's blade and the gush of blood; in the splattered fat and splintered bone; there, Samson become a man under the knife of the butcher Zev. Nor dull and cold as I had thought, the lad's heart. He come to learn anatomy of the cow and sheep, and eternity of Jewish law. But stony, still. Nor smile nor joke bent his lip. "He needs a wife." his father-boss declared for him. But like his namesake, Samson preferred the Gathly girls, the Mongol ones. Wild of talk and morals loose, and neither Mongols nor us Jews were pleased to let our children mix. More than once did Samson face a gang of angry Mongol boys. And more than once he hung the dead on poles to give the crows a feast.

And more than once our Mongol lord demanded reprisals, gold or grain. Finally the khan sent a troop to take Samson as a prisoner. But word out-sped their horse. Samson fled and joined a rebel band. Some say he became a mercenary thief. Others say he was a Maccabee.** A future ballad told his tale: The Highwayman; shot down like a dog.

** Family that led rebellion against Hellenists, ~170 BCE

Notes from a Georgian Han, 2

About a week ago I posted 2 excerpts from The Atternen Juez Talen that I’m currently translating back to “old English”. Here’s another one you might enjoy.

To remind you: the setting is a small town in medieval Georgia; the year about 1270 CE. Our hero is recording some notable events that happen in the courtyard of the han (caravanserai) he’s working in.


At the gate of the han, stompin’ and screams; two wild men, hair matted in knots, beards that swallowed the whole of their face and it made their heads look ghastly large, like them demons the Tibetans paint on their scrolls. Their robes were a patchwork of scraps and holes stained and filthy and as foul as their mouths, them screamin’ for blood of some rascal thieves. With an elbow my neighbor gives me a poke:

“De-frocked Nestorian monks, I hear, beggin’ and pilferin’ and skulkin’ about. It seems some lad got the better of them.”

Curious and amused I finish the verse of *Pesukei Dezimra* I’m scribin’ for the rav, **“Supru v’goyyim et kavodo.”**

Then I wipe my quill and mosey on down to piece out the story from their monkey mouths. When I get there, one is pawin’ his purse lookin’ for something, with growl and curse.

“Here! You see this piece of shist? Genuine lapis that bugger swore, highest quality, finest kind, straight from Khorasan’s finest mine and carved by an artist in holy Mashhad. And more he’s got, that bastard says, him takin’ pity on us wanderin’ monks.”

He sticks out his grubby and scabby hand to show us a medallion, crude and dull, like the throw-away matrix you can find in a heap outside a shop for cuttin’ gems. Gray and black veins, splotches of white; some blue patches, them second rate. There’s chuckles and grunts and ‘you been stung.’

“But yesterday this here was blue as the sky, til we took it to sell at ‘Gems of the Shah’. That bitchbag dropped it in a boilin’ pot; when he pulled it out, he hands us this dungball, useless as tits on a bull. Help us find that pisspot runt that sold us this. We’ll cut off his nose.”

Then up rides a soldier, sword in hand, and me and the guys drift back to the han.

*-* ‘Verses of Song’; songs to begin morning prayers
**-** ‘Declare Hem glory to the nations’

Transmigrant Journals -- new story

One of my long term projects is to compile stories of odd events, other-worldly experiences, and strange dreams in a book titled Transmigrant Journals. Here's the opening scene of a story that I'm currently calling "Re-Education". 

1. Late August, first days
I was sent here as part of an educational program, government subsidized. It was a big honor. But it was far away. The flight seemed to take forever. I slept most of the way; dozed really, occasionally waking in a surge of anxiety or excitement. It was hard to tell the difference.

I was met at the gate, whisked thru customs, limo’d into the city, and escorted into a fancy apartment. All first class. Like I said, this was a big opportunity. They had plans for me. And I felt like I had earned them.

This city was unlike anything I had ever seen or read about. To my eyes everything around me looked like heavenly corridors. The buildings were as much art and sculpture as they were practical structures. Large and small were elegantly merged. Sunlight was directed or reflected into every carved niche. Often I couldn’t tell where buildings ended and botanical gardens began. But oh, such gardens! Nature’s abundant creativity delighted all my senses. And ever the transition between art and nature, and between edifice and artifice challenged my perceptual skills

I will not try to describe what I saw in each shop window. It would take too long and divert me from my purpose. Besides, who has the powers to describe such wonders? ...

Art and Nature