"Why do you insist on quantifying your reality in such vulgar and inaccurate measures, son of my son?"
I focused more intently on my sweeping. The Rabbi was undeterred by my renewed interest in cleanliness.
"It is either a wise man or a fool who does not answer when posed so direct a question."
The Rabbi tugged his beard as I began moving the pile of debris toward the door belying a sense of agitation neither his eyes nor face seemed to show.
"Or a mute," chuckled the old man, working his spectacles from the bridge of his prodigious hawk-like nose. The Rabbi sighed, and set aside the book he was studying. He stood from his stool, and his spine popped like a wheat stalk in a summer hay fire.
"Enough with the broom son of my son. Come, to the kitchen. We will converse more there."
I rested the broom on its stiff bristles up against the wall, and followed the fading light of the Rabbi's candelabra up the stairs. The Rabbi was far too frugal to spend any money on lantern oil, particularly in the winter. When the nights were longer, and the oil much more dear, he swore by tallow candles. The Rabbi did not swear often.
I found him in the kitchen, a cup of wine poured, and a bronze dagger in the hearth for mulling. I fetched the butter from the larder and began to slice the remainder of the loaf of hard brown bread from breakfast. When this was set before him on a platter, I took the dagger from the banked coals of the hearth. I lost myself in the moment of hissing and sputtering when the dull red blade found the wine resting in the Rabbi's rough goblet.
"You know, son of my son, that soon you will be alone. My days under the sun number less than the first sons of Adam. Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, they will come and take me, and you will be alone."
Somewhere in the stillness of the Prague night, a dog howled. I took up the small tablet of clay and sand sitting on the table. I quickly scratched a response into the pliant surface with the rough bone stylus affixed to the tablet with a bit of horsehair twine.
The Rabbi grunted as I slid the stylus towards him. Crumbs fell into his beard as he chewed a piece of heavily buttered bread with one hand and slid the small slat of wood across the tablet’s surface with the other, clearing what I had just written.
“No, you will not be coming with me. The reason we have been talking nothing but deep thoughts for the past fortnight is because I know what is coming. Moishie called my name to the Emperor. Regardless of whether he did so to save his wrinkled balls, or if he did it when they put the hot irons to them, they will come for me.”
The Rabbi took a draught of his wine as I scowled and scribbled a reply in the tablet. Again, he read through his owl-eyed spectacles, and again he cleared my words.
“The decision is not mine to make, it is yours, son of my son. You will be named or unnamed, and that decision lies entirely on your desire to do good or ill in this world. I am not some cheap charlatan that will have my book of tricks stolen and mistranslated into German. You will be a living testament to the will of God and our People, or you will be no more.”
I paused for a moment. It had never occurred to me that the Rabbi would consider me a liability, under any circumstances. I started to respond on the tablet. Then I slowly erased what I had written and started anew. The Rabbi saw this hesitation in me and paused his sipping, his eyes two glimmering blue moons over the edge of his goblet. I scratched my response with a finality I knew would put the man at ease or end my life.
The old man’s reaction was not what I expected. His laughter exploded from his scrawny chest like a flock of ravens startled from an iron maiden and quickly gave way to a rattling cough.
“You are truly a wonder I wish were born of my loins, son of my son. Fetch me my tallit. Don’t look at me that way; I know the sun is down, but this must be done as well as possible, and I cannot turn back the time of day.”
I did as I was asked with a tremor in my hands that came from a fear of the unknown. When I returned to the kitchen, the fire was roaring in the stove, and the Rabbi was standing before it, his silhouette giving form to his body in a way which both terrified and mystified me. He thrust out one hand for the robe and drew me before him with his other.
I trembled in the shadows before him as he fit the shawl over his shoulders. He began his prayers as soon as the fabric was fastened around his waist. Each syllable he uttered resonated through me like thunder; and as his tempo and voice increased, I was sure I would not be able to keep my feet to the end. He must have sensed this, for the hand which was not holding the scroll he had produced for the start of the ceremony found my quaking shoulder. His grip was made of ice-steel, riveting my posture and drawing my eyes to his. His bespectacled gaze was like staring at two chips of azure ice by the time his reading stopped, and a sheen of sweat coated his wrinkled face as he blinked, perhaps for the first time since he started speaking.
“Kneel, son of my son.”
My knees found the rough-packed earth of the kitchen in less than a heartbeat.
“When you arise, you shall be son of my son no longer. You shall be Tzofi. Your days shall be as long as the earth finds light under the countenance of Him. You shall be the protector of the sons of Adam from all those who would do them harm. When the sun breaks the night’s back tomorrow, you shall find a voice; and with that voice you shall impart all I have taught you to the Rabbis in the Temple. You must never reveal to anyone else who or what you are, and you must never give in to the base temptations which all the sons of Adam have borne on calloused shoulders. When the sons of my sons are long dust, you shall remain, protecting not just the blood and well being of the Chosen, but the knowledge of our People.”
With a shuddering sigh, the Rabbi took the dagger from the table, and cut deeply into my forehead. The pain was the agony of a thousand beestings; and in my suffering, I found my mouth masked in a silent scream. The scroll the Rabbi held in his other hand was roughly shoved into my mouth; and as he removed the dagger from my brow, he commanded me to swallow it.
The paper was bitter, and the ink that seeped onto my tongue tasted like Egypt. I looked up at the Rabbi, barely able to make out his face in the haze of pain which still throbbed through my head. His hand found my chin, and he raised me to my feet with his hand. As my world blurred in tears, he was overcome with a fit of coughing. His breathing had just returned to normal when the rattling shock of the knocker at the front door boomed through the house.
“They are here. Go let them in.”
His words seemed weak to me, as if they were spoken from another room, rather than by the man sitting before me. He was right. When I let lose the bolt on the door, three of the Emperor’s guardsmen, along with a fourth whose finery connoted rank, stood on the darkened stoop of our house. The commander looked through me rather than at me, as he demanded to be brought to the Rabbi. The men flanking him all had their hands on their swords. I realized these were the men who would doubtless end the life of the man who had just given me a name and a soul. These would be the killers of the Rabbi.
Their swords were of no avail against my speed and strength. Bone and sinew snapped like kindling. Before one of them could even give a start of alarm, three necks were broken, and the commander’s throat was clutched in my hand as I held him aloft over the stoop. He batted at my arm with all his strength as he twitched in my grasp, a marionette in the guttering light of the dropped torches of his comrades. I tightened my fist and tore his windpipe from his throat with a twisting wrench of my wrist. I stamped out the torches and hid the bodies behind the privy in the back courtyard.
I worked with mad diligence, using a ratty rag from the entry hall to mop up the small puddle of blood at the front door, which I could barely make out in the slight light of the coming dawn. I ran to the privy with it, intending to throw it down into the shaft. It would be safe there with the rest of the human waste I had so many times over the years had the burden of removing. I entered the privy and turned to drop the cloth into the hole beneath the rough wooden bench. A cock crowed by the henhouse. The door to the privy slammed open, and the Rabbi stood behind me, leaning heavily on the door latch. I turned to face him. His eyes had a wild look about them, and they shot from my eyes to the bloodstained rag I clutched in my hands.
“What have you done?”
Each of his words was a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil. My eyes could not meet his gaze. I twisted the rag in my hands, turned back to the bench, and threw it down into the cesspool. When I did this, the Rabbi moaned deeply.
“What is done, is done. Wash your hands in the basin. I will have no gentile blood defacing my home this morning, or any other.”
I turned to the small bowl cut into the stone wall opposite me. The cock crowed again, this time twice, as the first rays of the sun broke across the courtyard creating a starlight dance of reflections across the water that lay in it. I washed my hands as well as I could, then I dried them on some of the fresh hay on the floor of the privy. The Rabbi coughed dryly, still hanging onto the doorjamb. After a rasping hack, he sucked in a deep breath and addressed me in a near-whisper.
“You have a voice now, Tzofi. You must use it. Before you set off on the tasks I have appointed you, kneel before the basin and read what is writ upon your forehead.”
He moved away from the door, and the small room was flooded with light from the fast-rising sun. I knelt before the water and stared intently at its still surface. The cock crowed again as I cleared my throat and read my name, right to left, as it appeared before me in the reflection staring back at me from the water.
The Rabbi cried in the morning sun outside the privy as his golem unmade itself with its own voice.