Laila Tov

– GOOD NIGHT –

by

Robert B Finegold, MD

from the Sefer Yehudi min ha-Galut

 

א

 

When the world was younger and the moon still inspired wonder, there was a lamia so low among the lilin that she had no name. In service to Samael, the demon king, she shepherded all living creatures within the beylik of east Eretna, which crafty Mutaherten once ruled. She loyally performed her duties: collecting the seed from men who lusted in their sleep; snatching the breath from infants swaddled in their cribs; drying up the milk within mothers’ breasts be they of beast or daughter of Eve. She freed each — seed, breath, and milk — from their mortal constraints.

One evening in the waning of the year when the chill winds blew down from the Armenian Highlands and the moon’s Cyclopean eye cast glints from the snows of distant Mt Ararat, the lamia was drawn to the cot of Bilchek the cripple, a tailor of some skill though near blind.

Near the west bank of the sluggish Ahern, his small broken-fenced yard was a lake of frozen mud strewn with tiny islands of brittle grass, nibbled short and capped with the first snow. His hut held only a simple plank table and chair, a cold stone hearth and equally cold tin bedpan, and an empty hope chest of boot-scuffed pine with dull and dented brass hinges. To one side an overturned bucket huddled near a strawmat bed, its mattress crushed so flat that even the fleas rubbed elbows. A fat goat slept at the foot of the bed chewing on the edge of a patchwork blanket that covered the crumpled form of the sleeping tailor. In spite of all, the hut was a pauper’s castle, for there was nothing poor or dull about Bilchek’s dreams.

He dreamed of his youth, long-passed, and of young women, grossly and inaccurately imagined, for he’d never stood under the wedding huppa, nor dallied in the autumn fields at harvest when the grain was high and the elders could not see, nor had he any sisters as a child to share the family bath barrel. What lay beneath kaftan or hirka, when his few lady clients permitted him to measure, was unknown to Bilchek; thus, the lamia who wove her cloak of desire from the vivid lust-laced imaginings of dreaming men, found naught but vague visions of cotton softness and felt-covered curves, and of warmth; warmth to be shared under a patchwork blanket during the long nights as the year neared its frigid end. It was the latter that gave her pause. This man’s longings were not as those of other men, of struggle and moist release, but of pairings and sharings. However, his urgent need drew her as strongly as that of any man rutting in his sleep, and she never shirked her duties.

Bilchek was a challenge, for the fire was more in his heart than in his beytsim. Yet Bilchek’s God had empowered the urge to engender even among the ignorant; and the lamia caressed him in his dreams, successfully raising the pride and embarrassment of men, and coaxed his seed from him as he slept. Unlike the innumerable others who upon attaining their release turned and ran back to sleep’s depths, Bilchek awoke. He rested his hand upon her waist as she moved off of him.

“By Hashem, please don’t go.”

She turned to rake him with her claws, but there is power in the Holy Name said in love and need. His words were like a prayer, and they were answered.

“Why should I not go? Why should you not wish to be rid of me? Why don’t you cower in horror and shame?”

“I am familiar with all these things. I see them in others’ eyes at the sight of me.”

“You’re blind!” she declared.

“And crippled,” he replied.

“You’re a fool.”

“And poor.”

The lamia had no answer. She longed to strike him and flee. Yet she stood by the bed, the man’s hand at her waist. The few of her herd who’d seen her…they were the ones who fled. Not her. And not Bilchek.

“Help me, please,” he said. “My spectacles. Pass them to me.”

She looked and saw them upon the floor. They had fallen from the overturned bucket he used for a nightstand. She hooked them with the claw of one finger and passed them to him. They were of frail bent wire and small mismatched circles of thick glass.

He hooked the stems around his ears, the wires nearly encircling them to help support the weight of the lenses that over the years had left a permanent furrow upon his nose. Then he looked at the lamia. Her skin from her waist down was of fine iridescent scales like a mountain viper’s, her feet were owls’ talons, and her wings…from the bony spines of her shoulders rose nearly translucent wings of soft leather on long bony fingers. They curved forward over her thin muscular arms and thick-fingered claws like a long black cloak. Her eyes were large and contained no white. Instead, a deep black filled them, like mountain tarns on winter nights when the moon was hidden. She had ebon hair that fell in waves to below her breasts, two small pale cones crowned with tightened nipples the color of amethysts. Her chin was delicately pointed; her lips thin, drawn inward with ire; and her nose was as subtle as an infant’s. Her skin from forehead to navel was so pale that she seemed to float upon the ripples of her black hair and enfolding wings like moonlight on dark water.

He did not scream. He did not flinch in fear. He did not flee.

Instead he begged, “Stay.”

“Stay?” The word, the suggestion, so strange to hear.

“Yes. Please stay.”

She blinked and pulled away from his hand. It had merely rested upon her and had never grasped her in possession. She spread her wings.

“I am a demon!”

“Is that your fault?”

“You are a mere mortal!”

“Is that mine?”

She leaned toward him and opened her mouth to display delicate fangs like small scythes.  “You are prey!”

“To every mocking word and pitying stare,” he said in calm reply.

Her fangs retracted. She stared at the crippled tailor in confusion. He stared at her with longing and…something else. “You would forswear a mate of your own kind?” she asked in a whisper.

He spread his hands wide, displaying his shallow chest and protuberant belly, and how the curvature of his spine made him seem stuck in mid-dance, belly over right hip, shoulders over left. Extending his arms to either side he bared his breast and the soul rhythm of what beat beneath. “What woman would have Bilchek?” he said. “They love my skills but loathe my looks and know not I have a heart that loves.”

And with this she relented. She sat on the strawmat cot and tentatively took his sure hands within her claws, careful not to wound him.

When Bilchek asked, “Be my wife,” she did not strike, she did not mock, she did not flee.

“If you will have me, then let us wed,” she said.

As it was the Sabbath eve, and they consented to one another, it was so.

Bilchek broke no wine glass, but instead filled it with the wine saved for the Sabbath and shared it with her.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“I have no name. I am a daughter of the Night.”

“Then I will call you Laila.” And he smiled, “My Laila Tov, my Good Night.”

ב

     Snow as fine as confectionary sugar was falling upon the frozen village lane outside the shop of Melis, the baker’s wife, when she first heard the suppressed laughter and whispers that Bilchek the cripple had a woman. The widow Tansu scolded her nieces. “Ansa, Trelip, stop tittering like dormice.” The two girls, heads bent together with hands covering their mouths, tried to stifle their laughter.

“What’s this?” asked Melis, placing hot braided loaves of bread upon the counter. She pressed her hands firmly upon them. “Bilchek has a wife?” The widow’s nieces giggled.

“Tshah,” said Tansu, tugging at the loaves. “Who said anything about a wife?” She leaned forward and whispered, “We were out for a stroll…”

To pass the home of the widower Nathan the moneylender, Melis knew.

“…and we took the Farmer’s Way by the river…”

To avoid being seen by good folk.

“…when we heard a woman’s voice, sweet as a spring lark, coming from the shack of Bilchek!”

Melis shrugged. “Some low-born wife seeking a new entari or feraçe to please her husband. Bilchek is as gifted with cloth and thread as he is ugly.”

“No. No,” Tansu said. “I know every voice of our village. It was no voice ever heard before in Kirkatel.”

“A traveler. A stranger, then. Where was her husband or escort?”

“Exactly what I thought. ‘A stranger is danger,’ no? I crept to Bilchek’s window, a single filmy pane like ice with bubbles. Even so, I could see the crooked form of Bilchek…dancing! I imagine only the demons in Gehinnom cavort so grotesquely. And he was dancing with a woman!”

Melis leaned forward, nose to nose with the old gossip. She said, “What did she look like?”

“Like a Musselman’s woman,” Tansu whispered.

“No!” Melis straightened, releasing the loaves.

“Yes!” Tansu snatched the bread and a sweet roll as well, passing them behind her back to her nieces. “She was tall. Well, taller than Bilchek, and covered head to toe in black, hiding her shape as they do. Formless, sexless, except for that voice. A woman’s voice, strangely accented, but young and sweet.” She leaned forward again and slid another sweet roll off the counter as she kept her eyes on Melis’ face. “And she called him ‘husband’!”

Melis dropped onto the stool behind the counter. “God forfend. If the Musselmen discover one of their women with a Jew! The village could be burned!”

The widow Tansu chewed a sweet roll wearing a satisfied smirk, sugar paling her upper lip like a cat that’d got into the cream. She turned and left, her giggling nieces trailing her like ducklings.

The door to the shop closed, and Melis looked through her window of pristine glass. Flakes of snow landed upon the panes, a myriad of tiny stars, melting, running together, and blurring the world without.

ג

 

Bilchek released Laila, and they fell to the floor with laughter. The floorboards creaked, unused to such gay tread.

Laila had sought to cover herself, to conceal her form that caused aurochs to tremble, wolves to howl, and babes to shriek. She’d taken a sheaf of black drape, the one thrown out by the rich widow Liat at the end of her year of mourning (on the same day she announced her engagement to Tilc, who was half her age and half her weight and as poor as a flea on a hairless cur). The drape was black as night and she found comfort within its folds, hidden from the glaring beam of sunlight that thrust through the melted glass eye of Bilchek’s window and determinedly sought her, gazing accusingly from one side of the hut to the other as the day passed from dawn to dusk.

She found haven for her shame under the dark cloth, hiding her owl’s feet, scaled pale flesh, long taloned fingers, bat’s wings, and gaunt vulpine face and fangs. She found herself ugly compared to the swayback slant-toothed balding Bilchek, who was radiant in his love for her. And this love was both foreign and enticing, like a strange new fruit from a distant land, one both sweet and tart and odd of texture yet delightful upon the tongue, even hers which was forked.

Love. She had yet to understand it or know how to accept it or reciprocate. But she desired it. She who was mistress of desire in others had never herself felt its ache. Perhaps she sought to hide from this as well within the comforting dark under the mourning drape.

When Bilchek had come back from his goings about the village, a hem to fix here, a feraçe to mend there, he had found Laila sitting under her drape, the eye of the sun winking with the passing of clouds and worrying a knot of wood on the floorboards in front of her. He laughed.

“Excuse me, Drape, have you seen my lovely Laila?”

From the concealment of the cloth, the demoness replied, “Your Laila is a hideous creature of the Night. She is not as human women. She need hide her ugliness from the day, unless she be discovered and forced to leave her husband.”

“You don’t know my Laila then, Drape. She is lovely, my greatest delight of both night and day. And though other women pale to her, she is not unlike them in this needless fear.”

The black mound of drapery shivered. “How so?”

“Do not all women, at some time, mistake their treasures for ugliness? Cover them in the day only to reveal them to their loving husbands under the concealment of night?”

“Perhaps. But one man’s treasure is another’s offal. And I would not be so seen and thereby disgrace you or, worse, bring man’s hatred and fear of me upon you. Other women have clothing, I have nothing.”

“You are clothed in my love.”

“For the night, and for when we are alone. But for the day…”

Bilchek placed one long finger upon the side of his bulbous nose. “You shall have all you desire, day or night, or I’m not Bilchek the Tailor.” But looking at the hill of black drapery on the floor before him, he could not but laugh again.

“My wife has become a tent, like that for the Purim festival dance.”

He ran his long thin fingers, almost needles themselves, down her drape-covered shoulders until he grasped her hands through the cloth and raised her to her feet.

“Though I have longed to dance under the festival tent, I never thought to dance with the tent.”

And with that he turned with her and capered upon the hut floor that squeaked and drummed under his wood-soled shoes. Her feet made no noise except the scratch of her talons upon the wood, like the scrape of a chair pulled across the floor.

Laila knew not what to say or do. She did not protest, nor resist, nor assert, but let him lead her in turns around the small hut as he bobbed and weaved and spun with her, making two become one in a way new and different yet not unlike the binding of lovers she knew far better and had perverted for her Lord Samael these many centuries of Men.

His eyes held hers even through the veil of cloth, and as they brightened with his smile, with his joy of her, she felt herself smiling in return, and not in the delight of anticipated or conquered prey. From shuffling her feet as he turned her, she first raised one clawed foot and put it down, and then the other, first in an awkward stumble, then more and more in harmony with the rhythm of his own.

He laughed and urged her on. She bumped the table with a cloaked wing and a tin cup clattered to the floor, causing the goat, who’d been watching the antics of his master and mistress with patient disdain, to bleat, scamper around them, and burrow under the bed. Laila laughed.

It was a laugh unlike any she had ever voiced. It was a laugh not at the wail of a mother who found her child pale and cold in its crib, or a man who woke with dreams of guilt and his nightshirt soiled. No. She laughed because she felt joy in another who found joy in her.

Bilchek stuck his large head through a cleft in the drape, joining her in her shadow, seeing her as she was. “My lovely wife,” he said.

Her joy made her laugh again, a songbird’s trill as sweet as a cool gurgling highlands stream. “My loving husband,” she said.

And they laughed and danced more wildly until the black drape slipped from her shoulders and tangled their feet. Hands still clasped, they fell to the floor, their breath mingling in mirth. The floorboards boomed like the staccato of a drum, the rumble slowly fading like echoing thunder.

Bilchek held her hands. She noted thin scratches where her nails had cut his flesh, a few welling with blood, and she jerked her hands from him. She grabbed the black drape in her claws and clutched it to her chest, drawing her wings around her, hiding her face.

 

laila-hiding

“Ah, no, my Laila Tov.” He reached again for her hands, gently placing his upon hers. “There is nothing to hide from. There is nothing for which to feel shame.”

She let one wing slide back just enough that her left eye, dark and shiny as obsidian, looked at him from beneath feathers of raven hair. “I…I hurt you.”

He shook his head. “Love always leaves marks. Man bleeds for love, as does woman, but when love is returned there is only joy, my rose of Sharon.”

He kissed her, and she leaned forward and encompassed him in the shield of her wings and returned his kiss, dropping the black cloth drape and letting it flow like Night to puddle upon the now silent and sated floor.

ד

 

The first crystalline snow came and passed, leaving the eaves and lintels and roofs and lanes of Kirkatel to sparkle like gems in the late autumn sun. A second snow soon followed leaving a half-foot of powder as fine and dry as flour. When winds came, light for the season, ribbons of snow flowed down the narrow ways and wider lanes buffeting the villagers as they walked like waders in a swift-moving stream. The last of the traveling merchants and tinkers passed through Kirkatel, their horse-drawn carts like small houses that clanged and drummed as pots banged and barrels rolled. The tinkers remarked at how the village had been blessedly spared from the ice and snow now deepening to the west, the north, and particularly among the eastern highlands.

Melis stormed the lanes of Kirkatel, the village women in her wake. Snow scattered away from the hem of her kaftan like hens from the butcher’s wife. While the women of Kirkatel remarked on the strangeness of the unusually mild weather, Melis worried at the knowledge of the ugly cripple’s Muslim wife like a cur with too large a bone, unable to get to the marrow.

Melis had seen her.

For three restless nights, like Jonah tossed within the belly of the whale, she lay abed next to the bulk of her snoring husband. Then, on the following morning, she stole from the shop, leaving her husband to serve any late breakfasting customers. She cloaked herself in an old tattered wool kaftan and a plain brown yasmak that veiled her nose and mouth. No one called to her in her disguise as she slipped along the narrow ways down the hill to the farmer’s track. She stopped in the shadow of Pilpul the tanner’s shed, wrinkling her nose at the foul smell, and waited. When Bilchek hobbled past, his large multicolored pack of fabrics and rags upon his back, she’d scuttled to his small yard.

 

bilcheks-hut-3

 

For a moment she stood amazed. While snow lightly rested upon the packed earth and small islets of twisted winter grass, small violets and peonies like tiny amethysts and sapphires poked their heads above the canopy of snow. Not a single icicle hung from the edge of the thatched roof, and swathes of grass, green as spring, huddled against the walls of the hovel. She scuttled to the ramshackle of a window where she felt the warmth of the hut radiating through her mittens. The heat caressed her face as if she had raised it to the summer sun. Bilchek and his foreign woman must be burning all his winter’s store of firewood. Was the stranger from the Arab or African sands to require such warmth? Was she one of the black-skinned Muslims? She heard they were the fiercest. She shivered and noticed, despite the warmth, her breath still steamed the air and frosted the single melted pane of the window. She wiped it and peered in as the widow Tansu claimed to have done.

And Melis saw what Tansu claimed to have seen.

She could not tell her bear of a husband. He abhorred gossip. After the death of Joseph, their infant son, he became fiercely religious spending evenings at studies with the rabbi and his students. Every Sabbath eve he was atop her, doing his duty as she did hers. For all the good it did them. The only thing that rose in the ovens of Melis and Reuven the baker was his breads.

Melis gave Tupi the beggar half a loaf of day-old bread to fetch Bilchek to her. The tailor came, bowing and smiling, his large bag of rags lifted high over the curve of his spine like a turtle shell.

She gave him a robe. “The fur lining is parting at the hem, Bilchek. And winter deepens.”

“I can mend this, Dame Melis.”

“And I require a fur muffler. My hands are fair.”

“Truly fair. You shall have it.”

She offered him the other half of the loaf of bread that she had given Tupi.

He thanked her, but he placed it in his pack rather than wolf it down as had the beggar. He took out his needle, sat upon the bench by the window where the light was best, and began mending the hem.

“You are well, Bilchek?”

He nodded, kissing needle to thread, joining them.

“You are keeping warm?”

He nodded again, his head bobbing in rhythm with his hands that pierced and pulled, pierced and pulled, drawing the edges of the fur-lining and the woolen robe together seamlessly.

“I often wonder how you and your little goat can survive in the winter in your hut by the river. The winds from the highlands blow unhindered there, and the snows drift like ocean waves. How do you keep warm on winter’s nights? How do you light your fires, care for your animals, cook and wash and clean, and tailor? Who watches over you when you are ill? Who warms you in your bed when the nights are long and the days are cold? Surely not your goat?”

Without looking up, Bilchek answered, “God provides. Baruch HaShem.”

“Baruch HaShem,” her husband repeated as he entered from the back room, his face red and beaded with sweat from the heat of the ovens.

Bilchek stood and displayed the repaired lining. It looked as good as new, even better than when she had taken a knife to it and pulled the hem loose an hour before. Her husband admired it as well, “Good hands, good heart, Bilchek,” and gave him a few copper manghirs and a fresh loaf of bread still warm from the ovens. Melis said nothing.

Three weeks passed, and winter remained mild, at least for the village of Kirkatel. No further travelers came and none were expected until spring, when the town would be full of people passing to the Highlands with their flocks, or taking the old Roman roads upon oxen-drawn wains carrying winter-made goods to the tiled cities of the west and south. The Sultan’s tax collector would come to collect the jizya, slapping lightly each man of the eyil of Kirkatel upon the face as he collected the Sultan’s due from the Jews of Anatolia.

And he would come with his soldiers, Melis told Tansu and her nieces. If he discovered a Jew had taken a Muslim to wife, he would burn the village. To discover the Jew was the ugly cripple Bilchek…he could burn them all with the village.

Melis’ words sparked fear in the gossip Tansu and, like a smoldering fire, soon ignited small flames that whispered among the other women of Kirkatel.

Fat Esther crossed her arms over her breasts and rested her chins upon them. “Why would a Musselman woman marry Bilchek?”

“Why would any woman marry Bilchek?” asked Miri.

“He’s got good hands,” said Huddle and tittered.

This evoked outrage and exclamations of disgust.

Huddle shrugged. “Just saying.”

They squawked at one other, all but Melis. They’re as flighty as hens, she thought; someone needed to be the fox. “I saw her as well. She will be the death of us all!”

The women quieted.

“She could just be a girl from another village, possibly betrothed long ago.”

“Poor thing.”

“Could you imagine lifting one’s veil to kiss…that?”

The hens clucked and squawked until Melis stated, “We must know!”

A cool wind, tinged with the scent of snow, gusted and sent the hems of their kaftans flapping.

“We should visit her.”

“Yes,” said Tansu. “We have a duty to welcome her to Kirkatel.”

“We should leave well enough alone,” Esther said.

“We should be a comfort to her,” said Melis. She smiled, and it was a smile as cold as the wind that gusted and made them shiver.

Gathering together, they walked down the hill. When they reached the farm track that led to the tailor’s hovel, Huddle asked, “I wonder if Bilchek’s pitzel is as nimble as his hands?”

The hens squawked.

ה

 

Laila was combing burs out of the goat’s pelt with her fingers. It lay on its side upon the slatted wooden floor and raised its head with a look of disdain when a knock came at the door. Laila rose, and the folds of her black robe flowed over her like night. The silver veil that covered her face, barely visible beneath the dark hood, rose and fluttered before settling. The robe hid both her hands and feet, and silver moons and stars were embroidered along its hem.

She stood a moment, indecisive. Except for her husband, none before had knocked upon the door in the weeks since her marriage, but his knock was a respectful tap followed by a cheerful “Shalom!” She had asked him why he knocked to enter his own home, and he had answered it was her home now.

The knock repeated, more insistent. She suddenly feared for Bilchek, and the little goat nudged the back of her knee.

Opening the door, Laila saw five women in rich kaftans of green, blue, maroon, magenta, and purple. One said, “Shalom aleichem.”

“Aleichem shalom,” said Laila.

They seemed to study her words as they stood looking at her. The one in blue shuffled her feet. Suddenly remembering human customs she invited them to come in. They all did, except the fat one in purple who merely asked for a chair so she could sit outside the door. The woman in magenta and the old one in green had already taken the hut’s only two chairs, including the new one Bilchek had made for her from scraps of old wood purchased from Isaac the carpenter. The two young women sat on the cot bed, the moon-eyed one locking eyes with the goat. Laila took the bucket and placed it top down outside the door. The fat woman looked at it distrustfully but settled her weight upon it. The bucket gave a muffled creak.

Introductions were made. “Laila?” said the old woman Tansu. “What sort of name is that?”

“One my husband gave me.”

“What’s your true name?” asked Melis.

“Any which my husband calls me under God.”

“Some names my husband calls me at night he wouldn’t speak before God,” said Huddle. That set the two on the couch tittering. Melis and Tansu frowned.

“May…may I offer you tea?” Laila asked, and in the chorus of first nays and then, “If it would not be too much trouble,” she poured water in the kettle and placed it upon the nail within the hearth, then looked for cups. She saw only the two tin cups she and Bilchek used, but also four clay bowls. When Miri added, “A slice of bread to dip would be lovely,” Laila felt dismay at what little she had to offer, of bringing dishonor to her husband, but took the single loaf of bread she had saved for the Sabbath and placed it upon the table along with a knife and small pad of butter.

“Where are you from dear?” asked Melis, slicing the bread.

“From over the hills and under them. East Eretna is my home.”

“Were you promised to Bilchek?” Esther asked from the doorway.

“He holds my promise.”

Huddle shuddered.

Laila poured tea, grasping the handle of the kettle through the hem of her robe. Melis held a tin cup, gazed sourly at it, and put it down to watch Laila serve the other women. She had not an inch of skin exposed. “Why don’t you loosen your veil, Laila. We are all women here. Even among you Musselmen, women may gaze upon one another.”

The crackling of the hearth flames filled the hut. The goat snorted.

“I am not a Muslim,” Laila said and continued passing cups of tea to Tansu, Miri, Huddle, and Esther.

“But are you a Jew?” blurted Esther.

Laila lifted her head and gazed at her through her veil. “‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.'”

Esther nodded.

“You have a wonderful voice,” said Miri, “like a nightingale.”

“Perhaps that is where she got her name,” said Esther at the door.

Laila took up the wooden plate of sliced bread and offered it first to Melis, who waved her away, and then to the widow Tansu.

“When God gives one gift, it is in balance for another,” said Tansu, worrying a slice of bread between her gums.

Miri leaned forward and whispered, “Do you cover yourself because you are scarred or ugly?”

Laila straightened and stood still even as Esther barked at her to save her the heel of the bread. “Come on, girl. Bring it here before I starve.”

“Is that it then?” Melis said. Her voice was accusatory and held no compassion. “An ugly bride for an ugly tailor?”

“Bilchek is not ugly!” said Laila.

“And I’m not fat,” said Esther. The women laughed.

“He has a heart of gold!” Laila felt herself flushing.

“It’s the only gold you’ll ever have from him,” said Tansu and sipped her tea. That set the others laughing again.

Laila turned to face the hearth. The flames therein began to roil and snap.

“His hands have never been raised against me in anger nor left bruises upon my flesh, Tansu. Only caresses. I will never feel the need to place belladonna in his wine to win free of him.”

Tansu choked, tea spluttering from her lips.

“He never calls me names nor looks at me with disgust, nor seeks the embrace of other women, Esther. Isn’t that right Miri?”

The fat woman howled and Miri’s eyes widened until she looked more frog-faced than moon-faced.

“He has strength in his flesh and joy of me. I need not find solace rutting with strangers, nor recall their different visages each day upon the faces of my children, Huddle. Nor lie each Sabbath under a man I abhor with a penis as small as his belly is huge and find pleasure only in my hand while he snores, Melis.”

“Lies!”

Melis leapt from her chair. Her face was as red as the fire and her eyes matched its sparks. “Ugly words from an ugly whore! Let’s see if you are uglier than Bilchek!” She grabbed Laila’s robe and pulled. The cloth tore, and Melis flung it toward the door. The robe floated and rippled as it fell, silver stars and moons fluttering on fabric black as midnight until it pooled upon the floorboards like a shadow in the morning sun.

And Laila was revealed. A slender woman, pale of skin, with long black hair, and gowned in white muslin. Her slender hands and slippered feet were like a dancer’s; her face was oval and flawless: full lipped, peg-nosed and hazel-eyed — human eyes, large and piercing beneath long dark lashes.

“Lies,” Melis repeated as if to reassure herself, but her words were a whisper. “Disgusting lies.”

“Ugly truths,” Laila said. “We all possess them. Yet they are past. While I am here, you’ll never need fear their repetition.”

ו

     The lamia Parosh — Flea, a name she detested — sat upon a gnarled branch of a leafless oak on a hill overlooking the village of Kirkatel. The village was silent beneath the stars. Wisps of smoke rose from chimneys and made the stars dance. Snow climbed the trunk of the tree and piled in tall sway-backed hillocks that ringed Kirkatel like fortifications. But Parosh sensed the snow was not a barrier but instead barred from the stone and mud brick homes and packed earth lanes. There was a power in Kirkatel that forbid winter’s harsh incursion.

Something was not quite wrong. Not as it should be.

Much of east Eretna seemed the same. There was a tense yet content susurration across the beylik. An anticipatory quiet. No mothers wailed, no children screeched in tantrums. The old fostered the young with memories of pleasant times. There was still gossip, there would be as long as there were men, but it was like dry snow that failed to cling and was dispersed by the lightest breath of wind. Men still cursed, but more out of habit than rancor. A patina of snow and ice coated village lanes like melted sugar and crunched like the crusts of crisp breads and sweet crackers beneath the tread of boots as neighbor visited neighbor and taverns stayed alight and echoed laughter until the winter moon passed its zenith. Contrarily, there were too few footprints cracking the lace of ice on the paths to mosque, church, and synagogue; and fewer still marring the snow that blanketed the cemeteries.

She spread her wings and leaned forward. A passing breeze lifted her from the branch and into the night air. The wind currents were unseasonably warm and gentle, cool caresses rather than bitter bites, kinder than the wintry gusts that ruled her own beylik leagues to the south. She drifted over Kirkatel, gliding low across the rooftops. She let her talons scrape and mar snowy parapets and roof ridges, grasping and releasing, as she propelled herself in a tightening circle toward the center of the perturbation.

She alighted on a ramshackle hovel, small and odd in its haphazard construction of mud brick, raw stone, and broken wood. She readied herself to spring up again in fear the roof would collapse under her weight; but despite its decrepit appearance, it was sturdy, firm and unyielding. The roof was bare of snow, as was the yard from doorway to crooked fence. Grass ringed the home and small flowers grew like a scattering of rubies, sapphires, and agates. A garden in winter? The lamia sidled across the roof. Grasping the eaves with her feet, she swung her body over the edge to hang face down and peered into the hut through the mottled single glass eye of its window.

There was darkness within, tinged only by the glow of coals slumbering in the hearth. Wan red light and still shadows bathed two intertwined forms asleep under a patchwork blanket. A goat lay at the foot of the bed chewing on the blanket’s tattered edge as it slept. It twitched an ear then opened one eye. Parosh bent her knees, lifting her face from the window. She waited until starred Kesel the Hunter nodded his head toward the horizon before lowering herself again. The goat was asleep but had pulled the blanket off the foot of one of its bedmates. The foot was that of a young woman, slender and smooth and yet… The lamia blinked and nictitating membranes slid over her eyes. Through them, she could see the ghostly outline of iridescent scales and hooked talons surrounding the human foot. She pulled herself back up to the roof and crouched.

Her sister was not dead as had been feared. She had lain with the sleeping man. The smell of sex was evident. But why did her sister stay? She gazed again at the strange town, held in spring rather than mid-winter. She started. Was her sister held as well? Was the hovel’s occupant a mage who had bound her? The thought of being so constrained ignited her anger, as sudden and fierce as lightning. She leapt into the air, claws extending, her wings spreading wide.

She would kill the man.

A hand grabbed her ankle and pulled her to the roof. She gave a stifled cry and fell onto her back as a black shadow with eyes scarlet as the hearth’s coals fell over her.

“You overstep your border, sister,” Laila said.

The lamia snarled and made to rise, but to her surprise found she could not. That delicate semblance of a human foot rested on her chest, and it was as if it held the weight of all Creation. How? Parosh was larger, stronger, higher in the cloud of lilin who served their Lord Samael. But she let not this wonder defeat her. It was a lilin’s nature to use craft and wiles where strength and power alone did not serve. She lay back displaying her throat and palms in a gesture of submission.

“The cloud grew concerned, sister,” she said. “For a moon, no Eretnan seed, breath, nor milk has been brought before Lord Samael; and neither wing nor claw nor fang seen of you.”

“Was I missed, or just my tithes?”

“I…don’t understand.” Parosh gasped as the weight of the foot increased, pinning her to the roof. Her wings fluttered like a trapped moth’s against the tiles of interwoven broken pottery, adobe, and thatch.

Then the weight eased and her strange sister spoke, “No. You wouldn’t.”

Hazel eyes now met obsidian. Parosh rose to a crouch but found she still could not stand, her bindings had been loosened but not released.

Laila turned and gazed skyward. The moon was near full and ringed with ghostly light, a necklace of ice crystals trapped high above Kirkatel.

“What do you know of love, sister?” Laila asked.

“Love?” The lamia smiled and moonlight glistened off her fangs. “Love is taking pleasure from others.”

Laila shook her head. “Love is giving of oneself to please others.”

“Giving is lessening. We are gatherers. We take, we collect.”

“And then?”

“We bring all to Lord Samael.”

“And he takes everything from us. How does this make you feel?”

“Feel?” Parosh frowned. “I am emptied. I need get more!”

“And yet what you take does not last. Love…love is stronger than lust. It persists when lust abates.” Their eyes met again. “With love, the more you give, the more you have. You always feel full.”

The lamia crouched in Laila’s shadow, a shadow cast by the moon that silvered the outline of this strange sister who had assumed the form of their prey, who mouthed such odd words with the certainty of Lord Samael himself. Again Parosh made to rise and spread her wings, but found she could not. From where did this least among her sisters acquire such power? She spoke in the tongue they shared, but Parosh did not understand her.

“There is a wonder in love,” Laila said, looking over her shoulder at the moon. Her eyes once onyx, then hazel, now glowed bright with reflected moonlight. “A wonder which Samael has taught us to deny and ridicule without ever tasting. He fears if we did, we’d be free. We’d know joy. We’d have lovers’ names.” She looked back at the crouching lamia and said with a rush, “Seek it, sister!”

The words struck Parosh with the force of Command, but they also seemed a plea. Words with power that did not pierce her flesh, but bathed it, then passed behind her into the night. The lamia blinked, flicking her nictitating membranes over her eyes. She narrowed them and asked, “What power does love have over our own that I should seek it?”

“Mercy,” Laila answered in a whisper.

Parosh felt the weight upon her dissipate. She rose. “I will consider all you have said,” she lied. Stretching her wings, she launched herself into the night.

She flew south almost to the border of her beylik of Dulkadir before arcing westward, flying faster than the wind toward Mount Ericyes and Samael.

She joined a murder of crows as they winged toward Karamanoğollan; but when she smiled, they fled from her with panicked squawks and cries.

As a reward, perhaps Samael would grant her a new name.

ז

 Melis dreamed.

Egg yolks slid between her fingers like tadpoles as she strove to mash them into the flour. She grabbed a wooden spoon and fiercely beat the inside of the bowl, raising a cloud of white dust. She stopped, breathing heavily as the cloud settled. Intact yolks slid like golden galleons over waves of flour. They came to rest, staring up at her with accusing eyes.

Reuven sat on the floor in front of an oven that was cold and bare. He sobbed quietly, his face buried in his hands.

The door to the shop banged open, so startling Melis that she dropped her spoon. A parade of customers entered, Tansu at their head, a bloom of nightshade in her hair.

Her nieces rolled Reuven onto his back. Taking their hands, Tansu stepped onto Reuven’s belly before the open maw of the oven, now red-mouthed and exhaling a fierce heat. She cast one disapproving look at Melis then lowered her head and walked into the flames. Her screams were stifled by the oven’s roar. Her nieces followed and were consumed with two small squeaks. The oven belched a cloud of gray ash.

Huddle urged her children forward. They sprung nimbly into the oven laughing, bouncing off Reuven’s belly, thinking it a game, their laughter bursting into brief cries of pain cut short. Long tongues of flame lapped them up.

Melis coughed, covering her nose at the sickly smell of burning flesh, too reminiscent of caramelized butter. The heat in the shop was stifling. Melis’ sweat-drenched hirka clung to her body, binding her.

The oven became a living thing, growing muscled arms of baked adobe. Large-knuckled stone hands grappled Esther. She fell forward, filling its throat that stretched to accommodate her like a serpent swallowing a rat.

Each villager was swallowed in turn with bursts of flame and ash until only the rabbi remained. He regarded Melis accusingly; then he lowered his head, shaking it once side-to-side, and followed the rest of his congregation into the flames.

Smoke and ash stung Melis’ eyes. She blinked away black tears and…the oven was just an oven, and the room was cold and empty save for wisps of snow curling through the open shop door.

“You could have stopped this,” said a familiar voice.

Reuven stood by the washbasin in his nightshift preparing for bed. With a cloth, he wiped flour and soot from his face. “You could have said something.”

“I wanted to!”

“But you didn’t.”

He turned and looked at her. Melis stepped back, catching her breath.

Reuven’s eyes were black, deep black orbs, cold wells of utter darkness save for motes of tiny flames floating like sparks above an evening fire.

“They’re all gone,” Samael said. “Friends, neighbors…” He paused, “…our son Joseph. All dead. All your fault.”

“It’s not my fault!”

His eyes held hers. She feared she’d fall into them as Tansu, Huddle, and fat Esther had fallen into the maw of the oven.

“Then whose fault, is it?”

His words were a sibilant purr. She shuddered and recalled the face of Bilchek’s woman, her pale alabaster skin, so young and smooth, unmarred by time, eyelashes long as a fawn’s, and hair as black as the dark between the stars. It was an abomination to imagine her beauty with the ugly tailor when Melis’ own beauty had faded; an abomination for Laila to find joy in such a poor uncomely husband and he in her when she and Reuven now shared naught but cool acceptance.

It had been so different once.

“And could be again,” Reuven-Samael said and placed his hand upon her breast.

Melis started. Reuven’s hair had lost its gray, his beard was now close-cropped and neat, his belly flat and firm, his chest and arms muscled as they were in his youth.

Where had his shift gone?

Where had hers!

“Who is this Laila, this cripple’s wife? Where did she come from?” he asked.

“No one knows. She’s not of the village. Tansu says she’s a Musselman woman.” She groaned as Reuven’s hands began to wander upon her. His hands were warm, feverishly hot.

“And if she is discovered by the sultan’s tax-collector?”

Melis gasped, though she was uncertain if it was from the image of the villagers consumed by the holocaust of the oven or from the trembling aroused by Reuven’s hands. “We’ll all burn! All because of that woman.”

“Woman?” He leaned forward and his breath curled around the soft hairs of her ear, caressing it before entering. “She’s no daughter of Eve.”

And Melis again recalled the slender form of Laila standing in slippered feet upon the uneven plank floor of Bilchek’s hut. The figure shimmered, blurred, then twisted into a creature of horror: talons, claws, fangs, and bat’s wings black as midnight draping her from her fox-like face to owl’s feet.

“A demon!”

“A lilin,” Reuven said. “The very one who took our child Joseph from us.” He pushed her back upon the bed.

Melis cried even as she opened herself to receive him. “That sorceress,” she sobbed as tears flowed down her cheeks. “That witch!”

“And what does the Lord command concerning witches?” Reuven asked, lowering himself upon her, filling her unlike ever before.

“‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!‘” She cried and shuddered against him as pleasure took her.

But she was uncertain if this pleasure was from the ending of their long unshared intimacy or from anticipation of the revenge she would bring upon the disgusting cripple and his demon bride.

ח

     So it was that when Bilchek opened his door one morning, he saw his neighbors gathered at his broken gate, old Rabbi Pinchas at their head looking distressed, as if he had yet to complete his morning ablutions. The crowd muttered, some pointing to the garden of violets and peonies and belled snowdrops, others to the rich growth of grass that flowed across the yard like a sultan’s carpet.

The tailor smiled. “Yom tov! How may I be of service?”

Did he seem taller? Was his back straighter? Rabbi Pinchas raised a hand to hush the whisperers.

“We hear you have taken a wife, Bilchek,” he said.

“This is true, Rabbi. HaShem has so blessed me.”

“But you have not stood under the huppa before the community and declared her your wife.” The rabbi shook his finger. “It is not good for a man to be with an unwed woman.”

“‘It is not good for a man to be alone,'” Bilchek replied. “Like Adam and Eve, my Laila and I have wed under the canopy of Heaven and declared ourselves for one another. As this sufficed for God for His first children, shall it not suffice for us all? But come, rabbi, for my neighbors and friends, I would have you marry us for shalom.”

The rabbi looked relieved and nodded, turning to the crowd. Frowns greeted him, none deeper than that of Melis the baker’s wife.

Someone called out, “Is she a Jew, Bilchek?”

Another added, “What have you brought upon us?”

The rabbi felt the bony finger of the widow Tansu prod his back. Discomforted, he shrugged, turned his palms upward and asked the tailor, “Is she a Jew, Bilchek?”

At that, the door to the tailor’s hut opened and out stepped Laila. Gone was the ebon drape of mourning. She was gowned in a feraçe of many colors, lovingly crafted by her husband, and embroidered with birds aflight and beasts afield. A ring of goats capered along its hem, some beneath trees and others upon hills. Her yasmak veiled the lower half of her face like spider silk affixed with small stars. The crowd gaped, some in wonder, some making the sign to ward the evil eye.

“‘Thy people shall be my people, and thy God shall be my God,'” she said. She stood respectfully a step behind Bilchek.

Some slowly nodded, their frowns fading, but someone murmured loud enough for her neighbors to hear, “‘where thou diest will I die, and there shall I be buried.‘”

“There is concern that your woman is a Musselman’s daughter, Bilchek” the rabbi said. “It would not go well with us if this be true. The Muslims forbid our marrying their women.”

Miriam called out, “Is she a Saracen, Bilchek? Will her people seek revenge upon us?”

Another said, “Things are finally good! Will you bring war and death upon us?”

And a third shouted, “Bilchek, she must go!”

Many nodded assent.

Bilchek took Laila’s hand. “‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.‘”

The crowd’s voices rose like squabbling crows until the rabbi raised a veined hand and they quieted. “That may be, Bilchek,” he said, “but the world turns as it will, not as we desire. Is she a daughter of Ishmael?”

But again a voice muttered just loud enough to be heard, “…or of Samael!”

“Look at the yard!” said Huddle.

“Unnatural,” said Miri.

“Sorcery,” said Esther, and the villagers again began to talk and argue in a cacophony of noise.

The rabbi raised his arms to quiet them, but it was like holding back a flood with an unfurled Torah scroll. People began to shout at one another.

“She’s a witch! A demon!”

“Superstitious nonsense! She’s just a girl!”

Laila stepped in front of Bilchek and lowered her veil.

The crowd fell silent.

Thereafter, none could agree on what they saw. Those who looked upon her with malice said she was hideous, those who viewed her with wonder said she was angelic.

Laila met the eyes of each in turn.

They had been the herd she had shepherded for Samael. Now they were her neighbors. Meeting her eyes, many felt lost, confused, recalling her visage from some past night, some past dream. The rabbi (whom she also had known as Lilith had known Adam) averted his gaze as did most of the men, but the women (her flawed competition) grew stern, feeling inexplicable rage mixed with loss, and it was one among them who cast the first stone.

Bilchek swept Laila behind him, and the stone struck him upon the brow with a crack as sharp and loud as a tree snapped by winter ice. He fell to his knees.

The rabbi cried, “Tah’ana! Stop!” and others, “Hold!” and still others, “Kill them!”

And Laila changed.

With a mournful cry, she spread her wings around Bilchek. They were like Joseph’s rainbow coat to some (eliciting shame), angel’s wings to others (inspiring awe), and devil’s wings in the eyes of the rest who bent to raise stones of their own.

Laila flowed around Bilchek like the Ahern in summer flood, pressing her body against his, enfolding him between her arms and the shield of her wings. He collapsed inward, limbs curling fetal-like. Her lips touched his, soft, warm, and sweet. The stones fell upon them like hail.

And winter returned to Kirkatel.

ט

            The small sward of earth and patchwork hut where the crippled tailor and his demon bride once lived was shunned for its evil, or so the villagers would claim; but whether it was for the evil that once dwelt there or the evil that was inflicted upon it none would say. It was not fear but some other emotion they displayed, averting their eyes and hurrying past, when they need take the farmer’s path.

The Sultan’s soldiers arrived in the spring and the jizya was collected, each man of Kirkatel receiving the light slap on his cheek in token acknowledgement of the Prophet’s words, yet the humiliation they felt did not abate. No war came to Kirkatel; but slowly, as is the way with all things from empires to eyils, more left the village than were there born. With them like scattered seed went the story, first told in whispers, of Bilchek and Laila. In time, only the heat and rain and snow swept the lanes and broached the shadowed doorways and open windows of Kirkatel.

At the foot of the village near where the slow Ahern curled, a swath of green grass covered the splintered wood and cracked brick of a fallen hut, and upon the grass a single cloudy eyelet of glass winked in turn at the passing sun and moon. There among the violets, peonies, and snowbells grew a juniper tree.

And people began to return to Kirkatel.

The young mostly, but also old soldiers and widows cherishing memories more than new trials. But not one stayed, for one does not take residence near, for fear of soiling, the places where wonder has touched the earth.

The juniper tree and the small swath of grass by the river became a place lovers met to make secret betrothals and pray for a love strong and lasting. And while the village is long gone, and its people dust or scattered among the Gentile Nations or, Baruch Hashem, in Eretz Yisrael, the moon still shines, the mountains still stand, the wind still blows, and the tree grows there still.

 

 

Afterword

Of the three known copies of the Sefer ha-Yehudim min ha-Galut, two end here, but one (rescued from the Nazi burning of the Rashi synagogue in Worms) contains the following hand-written script in the margins:

“27 Marchesvan. I came at night upon the place the Turkamen claimed had been Kirkatel, and rested there. Snow glistened atop far Mount Ararat under the full moon, a reminder of this day and G-d’s Promise. ‘The earth had dried.‘ Rubble was strewn in patterns hinting at the foundations of homes that once were. Betwixt moonlight and shadows I could imagine their walls and roofs, and the people who had lived within them, greeting friends, comforting children, and raising their voices in Psalms. All gone, except for the memories in stone.

At the foot of the village, I found the tree as promised. Tall, thrusting upward as if to ward against the Night, standing as a sentinel, or a memorial. The ground was uncannily warm and there was grass, soft and full for so late in the season. Perhaps a hot spring lies beneath, though the nearby stream was cool to drink. I sat to take my rest and recalled the tales of the cripple and his demon bride until I fell asleep.

Past midnight I awoke to a rustle in the tree above me, as if some night creature had alighted and stirred restlessly. Looking up, I was shocked to see a woman crouched upon a high branch, her skin pale and glowing in the moonlight. She whispered to herself, but her words carried in the still air.

‘What was it like, sister? What was it like?’

She stood with a cry, unfolding leathery wings that blocked the moonlight as she leapt into the sky.

Then I fled.”

 

 



∼  End  ∼



“Laila Tov” ©  Robert B. Finegold

Robert B Finegold, MD is a radiologist in Maine who began as an English Creative Writing major with a love of Jewish mysticism and folklore.

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/robertbfinegold/

 

 

 

Digital painting and photomanip Illustrations by Fran Eisemann.  Stock used: http://nanfe-s.deviantart.com/, http://struckdumb.deviantart.com/, http://two-ladies-stocks.deviantart.com/, http://lakespirit3.deviantart.com/, http://hermitcrabstock.deviantart.com/, pixabay, public domain, and wiki media commons.

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