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Ten 'energized, irreverent stories'

'For the Relief of Unbearable Urges'
By Nathan Englander

(CNN) -- Described as a work of stunning authority and imagination, Nathan Englander's debut contains ten energized, irreverent stories rooted in the weight of Jewish history and the customs of Orthodox life.


rule

The Twenty-seventh Man

The orders were given from Stalin's country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge with no greater emotion than for the killing of kulaks or clergy or the outspoken wives of very dear friends. The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and--with a gasp and simultaneous final breath--be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.

It was not an issue of hatred, only one of alle- giance. For Stalin knew there could be loyalty to only one nation. What he did not know so well were the authors' names on his list. When it was presented to him the next morning he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty-seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.

No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh.

The orders left little room for variation, and none for tardiness. They were to be carried out in secrecy and--the only point that was reiterated--simultaneously. But how were the agents to get the men from Moscow and Gorky, Smolensk and Penza, Shuya and Podolsk, to the prison near the village of X at the very same time?

The agent in charge felt his strength was in leadership and gave up the role of strategist to the inside of his hat. He cut the list into strips and sprinkled them into the freshly blocked crown, mixing carefully so as not to disturb its shape. Most of these writers were in Moscow. The handful who were in their native villages, taking the waters somewhere, or locked in a cabin trying to finish that seminal work would surely receive a stiff cuffing when a pair of agents, aggravated by the trek, stepped through the door.

After the lottery, those agents who had drawn a name warranting a long journey accepted the good-natured insults and mockery of friends. Most would have it easy, nothing more to worry about than hurrying some old rebel to a car, or getting their shirts wrinkled in a heel-dragging, hair-pulling rural scene that could be as messy as necessary in front of a pack of superstitious peasants.

Then there were those who had it hard. Such as the two agents assigned to Vasily Korinsky, who, seeing no way out, was prepared to exit his bedroom quietly but whose wife, Paulina, struck the shorter of the two officers with an Oriental-style brass vase. There was a scuffle; Paulina was subdued, the short officer taken out unconscious, and a precious hour lost on their estimated time.

There was the pair assigned to Moishe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin. One would not have pegged him as one of history's most sensitive Yiddish poets. He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse. Once a year, during the Ten Days of Penitence, he would take notice of his sinful ways and sober up for Yom Kippur. After the fast, he would grab pen and pad and write furiously for weeks in his sister's ventless kitchen--the shroud of atonement still draped over his splitting head. The finished work was toasted with a brimming shot of vodka. Then Bretzky's thirst would begin to rage and off he would go for another year. His sister's husband would have put an end to this annual practice if it weren't for the rubles he received for the sweat-curled pages Bretzky abandoned.

It took the whole of the night for the two agents to locate Bretzky. They tracked him down in one of the whorehouses that did not exist, and if they did, government agents surely did not frequent them. Nonetheless, having escaped notice, they slipped into the room. Bretzky was passed out on his stomach with a smiling trollop pinned under each arm. The time-consuming process of freeing the whores, getting Bretzky upright, and moving him into the hallway reduced the younger man to tears.

The senior agent left his partner in charge of the body while he went to chat with the senior woman of the house. Introducing himself numerous times as if they had never met, he explained his predicament and enlisted the help of a dozen women.

Twelve of the house's strongest companions--in an array of pink and red robes, froufrou slippers, and painted toenails--carried the giant bear to the waiting car amid a roar of giggles. It was a sight Bretzky would have enjoyed tremendously had he been conscious.

The least troubling of the troublesome abductions was that of Y. Zunser, oldest of the group and a target of the first serious verbal attacks on the cosmopolitans back in '49. In the February 19 edition of Literaturnaya Gazeta he had been criticized as an obsolete author, accused of being anti-Soviet, and chided for using a pen name to hide his Jewish roots. In that same edition they printed his real name, Melman, stripping him of the privacy he had so enjoyed.

Three years later they came for him. The two agents were not enthusiastic about the task. They had shared a Jewish literature instructor in high school, whom they admired despite his ethnicity and who even coerced them into writing a poem or two. Both were rather decent fellows, and capturing an eighty-one-year-old man did not exactly jibe with their vision of bravely serving the party. They were simply following instructions. But somewhere amid their justifications lay a deep fear of punishment.

It was not yet dawn and Zunser was already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea. The agents begged him to stand up on his own, one of them trying the name Zunser and the other pleading with Melman. He refused.

"I will neither resist nor help. The responsibility must rest fully upon your conscience."

"We have orders," they said.

"I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear responsibility."

They first tried lifting him by his arms, but Zunser was too delicate for the maneuver. Then one grabbed his ankles while the other clasped his chest. Zunser's head lolled back. The agents were afraid of killing him, an option they had been warned against. They put him on the floor and the larger of the two scooped him up, cradling the old man like a child.

Zunser begged a moment's pause as they passed a portrait of his deceased wife. He fancied the picture had a new moroseness to it, as if the sepia- toned eyes might well up and shed a tear. He spoke aloud. "No matter, Katya. Life ended for me on the day of your death; everything since has been but nostalgia." The agent shifted the weight of the romantic in his arms and headed out the door.

The solitary complicated abduction that took place out of Moscow was the one that should have been the easiest of the twenty-seven. It was the simple task of removing Pinchas Pelovits from the inn on the road that ran to X and the prison beyond.

Pinchas Pelovits had constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies--testing them sometimes more with joy and good fortune. He recorded the trials and events of this world in his notebooks in the form of stories and novels, essays, poems, songs, anthems, tales, jokes, and extensive histories that led up to the era in which he dwelled.

His parents never knew what label to give their son, who wrote all day but did not publish, who laughed and cried over his novels but was gratingly logical in his contact with the everyday world. What they did know was that Pinchas wasn't going to take over the inn.

When they became too old to run the business, the only viable option was to sell out at a ridiculously low price--provided the new owners would leave the boy his room and feed him when he was hungry. Even when the business became the property of the state, Pinchas, in the dreamer's room, was left in peace: why bother, he's harmless, sort of a good-luck charm for the inn, no one even knows he's here, maybe he's writing a history of the place, and we'll all be made famous. He wasn't. But who knows, maybe he would have, had his name--mumbled on the lips of travelers--not found its way onto Stalin's list.

The two agents assigned Pinchas arrived at the inn driving a beat-up droshky and posing as the sons of now-poor landowners, a touch they thought might tickle their superiors. One carried a Luger (a trinket he had brought home from the war), and the other kept a billy club stashed in his boot. They found the narrow hallway with Pinchas's room and knocked lightly on his door. "Not hungry" was the response. The agent with the Luger gave the door a hip check; it didn't budge. "Try the handle," said the voice. The agent did, swinging it open.

"You're coming with us," said the one with the club in his boot.

"Absolutely not," Pinchas stated matter-of-factly. The agent wondered if his "You're coming with us" had sounded as bold.

"Put the book down on the pile, put your shoes on, and let's go." The agent with the Luger spoke slowly. "You're under arrest for anti-Soviet activity."

Pinchas was baffled by the charge. He meditated for a moment and came to the conclusion that there was only one moral outrage he'd been involved in, though it seemed to him a bit excessive to be incarcerated for it.

"Well, you can have them, but they're not really mine. They were in a copy of a Zunser book that a guest forgot and I didn't know where to return them. Regardless, I studied them thoroughly. You may take me away." He proceeded to hand the agents five postcards. Three were intricate pen-and-ink drawings of a geisha in various positions with her legs spread wide. The other two were identical photo- graphs of a sturdy Russian maiden in front of a painted tropical background wearing a hula skirt and making a vain attempt to cover her breasts. Pinchas began stacking his notebooks while the agents divvied the cards. He was sad that he had not resisted temptation. He would miss taking his walks and also the desk upon whose mottled surface he had written.

"May I bring my desk?"

The agent with the Luger was getting fidgety. "You won't be needing anything, just put on your shoes."

"I'd much prefer my books to shoes," Pinchas said. "In the summer I sometimes take walks without shoes but never without a novel. If you would have a seat while I organize my notes--" and Pinchas fell to the floor, struck in the head with the pistol grip. He was carried from the inn rolled in a blanket, his feet poking forth, bare.

Pinchas awoke, his head throbbing from the blow and the exceedingly tight blindfold. This was aggravated by the sound of ice cracking under the droshky wheels, as happens along the river route west of X. "The bridge is out on this road," he told them. "You'd best cut through the old Bunakov place. Everybody does it in winter."

The billy club was drawn from the agent's boot, and Pinchas was struck on the head once again. The idea of arriving only to have their prisoner blurt out the name of the secret prison was mortifying. In an attempt to con- found him, they turned off on a clearly unused road. There are reasons that un- used roads are not used. It wasn't half a kilometer before they had broken a wheel and were off to a nearby pig farm on foot. The agent with the gun commandeered a donkey-drawn cart, leaving a furious pig farmer cursing and kicking the side of his barn.

The trio were all a bit relieved upon arrival: Pinchas because he started to get the idea that this business had to do with something more than his minor infraction, and the agents because three other cars had shown up only minutes before they had--all inexcusably late.

By the time the latecomers had been delivered, the initial terror of the other twenty-three had subsided. The situation was tense and grave, but also unique. An eminent selection of Europe's surviving Yiddish literary community was being held within the confines of an oversized closet. Had they known they were going to die, it might have been different. Since they didn't, I. J. Manger wasn't about to let Mani Zaretsky see him cry for rachmones. He didn't have time to anyway. Pyotr Kolyazin, the famed atheist, had already dragged him into a heated discussion about the ramifications of using God's will to drastically alter the outcome of previously "logical" plots. Manger took this to be an attack on his work and asked Kolyazin if he labeled everything he didn't understand "illogical." There was also the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren't the same, up-and-coming editors, and, of course, the gossip, for hadn't they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?

When the noise got too great, a guard opened the peephole in the door to find that a symposium had broken loose. As a result, by the time numbers twenty-four through twenty-seven arrived, the others had already been separated into smaller cells.

Each cell was meant to house four prisoners and contained three rotting mats to sleep on. In a corner was a bucket. There were crude holes in the wood-plank walls, and it was hard to tell if the captors had punched them as a form of ventilation or if the previous prisoners had painstakingly scratched them through to confirm the existence of a world outside.

The four latecomers had lain down immediately, Pinchas on the floor. He was dazed and shivering, stifling his moans so the others might rest. His companions did not even think of sleep: Vasily Korinsky because of worry about what might be the outcome for his wife; Y. Zunser because he was trying to adapt to the change (the only alteration he had planned for in his daily routine was death, and that in his sleep); Bretzky because he hadn't really awakened.

Excepting Pinchas, none had an inkling of how long they'd traveled, whether from morning until night or into the next day. Pinchas tried to use his journey as an anchor, but in the dark he soon lost his notion of time gone by. He listened for the others' breathing, making sure they were alive.

The lightbulb hanging from a frayed wire in the ceiling went on. This was a relief; not only an end to the darkness but a separation, a seam in the seeming endlessness.

They stared unblinking into the dim glow of the bulb and worried about its abandoning them. All except Bretzky, whose huge form already ached for a vodka and who dared not crack an eye.

Zunser was the first to speak. "With morning there is hope."

"For what?" asked Korinsky out of the side of his mouth. His eye was pressed up against a hole in the back wall.

"A way out," Zunser said. He watched the bulb, wondering how much electricity there was in the wire, how he would reach it, and how many of them it would serve.

Korinsky misunderstood the statement to be an optimistic one. "Feh on your way out and feh on your morning. It's pitch dark outside. Either it's night or we're in a place with no sun. I'm freezing to death."

The others were a bit shocked when Bretzky spoke: "Past the fact that you are not one of the whores I paid for and this is not the bed we fell into, I'm uncertain. Whatever the situation, I shall endure it, but without your whining about being cold in front of an old man in shirtsleeves and this skinny one with no shoes." His powers of observation were already returning and Yom Kippur still months away.

"I'm fine," said Pinchas. "I'd much rather have a book than shoes."

They all knitted their brows and studied the man; even Bretzky propped himself up on an elbow.

Zunser laughed, and then the other three started in. Yes, it would be much better to have a book. Whose book? Surely not the pamphlet by that fool Horiansky--this being a well-publicized and recent failure. They laughed some more. Korinsky stopped, worrying that one of the other men in the room might be Horiansky. Horiansky, thankfully, was on the other end of the hall and was spared that final degradation before his death.

No one said another word until the lightbulb went off again, and then they remained silent because it was supposed to be night. However, it was not. Korinsky could see light seeping through the holes and chinks in the boards. He would tell them so when the bulb came back on, if it did.

Pinchas could have laughed indefinitely, or at least until the time of his execution. His mind was not trained, never taught any restraint or punished for its reckless abandon. He had written because it was all that interested him, aside from his walks, and the pictures at which he had peeked. Not since childhood had he skipped a day of writing.

Composing without pen and paper, he decided on something short, something he could hone, add a little bit to every day until his release.

Zunser felt the coldness of the floor seeping into his bones, turning them brittle. It was time anyway. He had lived a long life, enjoyed recognition for something he loved doing. All the others who had reached his level of fame had gone to the ovens or were in America. How much more meaningless was success with the competition gone? Why write at all when your readers have been turned to ash? Never outlive your language. Zunser rolled onto his side.

Bretzky sweated the alcohol out of his blood. He tried to convince himself that it was a vision of drink, a clearer vision because he was getting older, but a hallu- cination nonetheless. How many times had he turned, after hearing his name called, to find no one? He fumbled for a breast, a soft pink cheek, a swatch of satin, and fell asleep.

Before closing his eyes only to find more darkness, Pinchas recited the first paragraph a final time:

The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone, and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died. This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin. When the light came on, Korinsky stirred noticeably, as if to break the ice, as if they were bound by the dictates of civilized society. "You know it isn't morning, it's about nine o'clock or ten, midnight at the latest."

Pinchas was reciting his paragraph quietly, playing with the words, making changes, wishing he had a piece of slate.

Korinsky waited for an answer, staring at the other three. It was hard to believe they were writers. He figured he too must be disheveled, but at least there was some style left in him. These others, a drunk, an incontinent old curmudgeon, and an idiot, could not be of his caliber. Even the deficient Horiansky would be appreciated now. "I said, it's not morning. They're trying to fool us, mess up our internal clocks."

"Then go back to sleep and leave us to be fooled." Bretzky had already warned this sot yesterday. He didn't need murder added to his list of trumped-up charges.

"You shouldn't be so snide with me. I'm only trying to see if we can maintain a little dignity while they're holding us here."

Zunser had set himself up against a wall. He had folded his mat and used it like a chair, cushioning himself from the splinters. "You say 'holding' as if this is temporary and in the next stage we will find ourselves someplace more to our liking."

Korinsky looked at Zunser, surveying him boldly. He did not like being goaded, especially by some old coot who had no idea to whom he was talking.

"Comrade," he addressed Zunser in a most acerbic tone, "I am quite sure my incarceration is due to bureaucratic confusion of some sort. I've no idea what you wrote that landed you here, but I have an impeccable record. I was a principal member of the Anti-Fascist Committee, and my ode, Stalin of Silver, Stalin of Gold, happens to be a national favorite."

"'We spilled our blood in revolution, only to choke on Stalin's pollution.'" Bretzky quoted a bastardization of Korinsky's ballad.

"How dare you mock me!"

"I've not had the pleasure of hearing the original," Zunser said, "but I must say the mockery is quite entertaining."

"'Our hearts cheered as one for revolution, now we bask in the glory of great Stalin's solution.'" All three heads turned to Pinchas, Korinsky's the quickest.

"Perfect." Korinsky sneered at the other two men. "I must say it is nice to be in the presence of at least one fan."

Among the many social interactions in which Pinchas had never before been involved, this was one. He did not know when adulation was being requested.

"Oh, I'm no fan, sir. You're a master of the Yiddish language, but the core of all your work is flawed by a heavy-handed party message that has nothing to do with the people about whom you write." This with an eloquence that to Korinsky sounded like the fool was condescending.

"The characters are only vehicles, fictions!" He was shouting at Pinchas. Then he caught himself shouting at an idiot, while the other two men convulsed with laughter. "They are very real," said Pinchas before returning to his rocking and mumbling.

"What are you two fops making fun of? At least I have a body of work that is read."

Bretzky was angry again. "Speak to me as you like. If it begins to bother me too much, I'll pinch your head off from your neck." He made a pinching motion with his massive fingers. "But I must warn you against speaking to your elders with disrespect. Furthermore, I have a most cloudy feeling that the face on the old man also belongs to the legendary Zunser, whose accomplishments far exceed any of the writers, Yiddish or otherwise, alive in Russia today."

"Zunser?" said Korinsky.

"Y. Zunser!" screamed Pinchas. He could not imagine being confined with such a singular mind. Pinchas had never even considered that Zunser was an actual person. My God, he had seen the great seer pee into a bucket. "Zunser," he said to the man. He stood and banged his fist against the door, screaming "Zunser" over and over again, like it was a password his keepers would understand and know the game was finished.

A guard came down the hall and beat Pinchas to the floor. He left them a bowl of water and a few crusts of black bread. The three ate quickly. Bretzky held up the casualty while Zunser poured some water into his mouth, made him swallow.

"The man is crazy, he is going to get us all killed." Korinsky sat with his eye against a knothole, peering into the darkness of their day.

"Maybe us, but who would dare to kill the poet laureate of the Communist empire?" Bretzky's tone was biting though his outward appearance did not reflect it. He cradled Pinchas's limp form while Zunser mopped the boy's brow with his sleeve.

"This is no time for joking. I was going to arrange for a meeting with the warden, but that lunatic's screaming fouled it up. Swooning like a young girl. Has he never before met a man he admired?" Korinsky hooked a finger through one of the larger holes, as if he were trying to feel the texture of the darkness outside. "Who knows when that guard will return?"

"I would not rush to get out," said Zunser. "I can assure you there is only one way to exit."

"Your talk gets us nowhere." Korinsky stood and leaned a shoulder against a cold board.

"And what has gotten you somewhere?" said Zunser. "Your love ballads to the regime? There are no hoofbeats to be heard in the distance. Stalin doesn't spur his horse, racing to your rescue."

"He doesn't know. He wouldn't let them do this to me."

"Maybe not to you, but to the Jew that has your name and lives in your house and lies next to your wife, yes." Zunser massaged a stiffening knee.

"It's not my life. It's my culture, my language. No more."

"Only your language?" Zunser waved him away. "Who are we without Yiddish?"

"The four sons of the Passover seder, at best." Korinsky sounded bitter.

"This is more than tradition, Korinsky. It's blood." Bretzky spat into the pale. "I used to drink with Kapler, shot for shot."

"And?" Korinsky kept his eye to a hole but listened closely.

"And have you seen a movie directed by Kapler lately? He made a friendship with the exalted comrade's daughter. Now he is in a labor camp--if he's alive. Stalin did not take too well to Jewish hands on his daughter's pure white skin."

"You two wizards can turn a Stalin to a Hitler."

Bretzky reached over and gave Korinsky a pat on the leg. "We don't need the Nazis, my friend."

"Feh, you're a paranoid, like all drunks."

Zunser shook his head. He was tiring of the Communist and worried about the boy. "He's got a fever. And he's lucky if there isn't a crack in that head." The old man took off his shoes and put his socks on Pinchas.

"Let me," said Bretzky.

"No," Zunser said. "You give him the shoes, mine won't fit him." Pinchas's feet slipped easily into Bretzky's scuffed and cracking shoes.

"Here, take it." Korinsky gave them his mat. "Believe me, it's not for the mitzvah. I just couldn't stand to spend another second trapped with your righteous stares."

"The eyes you feel are not ours," said Zunser.

Korinsky glowered at his wall.

Pinchas Pelovits was not unconscious. He had only lost his way. He heard the conversations, but paid them little heed. The weight of his body lay on him like a corpse. He worked on his story, saying it aloud to himself, hoping the others would hear and follow it and bring him back.

Mendel figured he'd best consult the local rabbi, who might be able to direct him in such matters. It was Mendel's first time visiting the rabbi in his study--not having previously concerned himself with the nuances of worship. Mendel was much surprised to find that the rabbi's study was of the exact dimensions of his missing room. In fact, it appeared that the tractate the man was poring over rested on the missing desk. The bulb glowed. And with light came relief. What if they had been left in the darkness? They hated the bulb for its control, such a flimsy thing.

They had left a little water for the morning. Again, Bretzky held Pinchas while Zunser tipped the bowl against the boy's lips. Korinsky watched, wanting to tell them to be careful not to spill, to make sure they saved some for him.

Pinchas sputtered, then said, "Fine, that's fine." He spoke loudly for someone in such apparent ill health. Zunser passed the bowl to Korinsky before taking his own sip.

"Very good to have you with us," said Zunser, trying to catch the boy's eyes with his own. "I wanted to ask you, why is my presence so unsettling? We are all writers here, if I understand the situation correctly."

Zunser used Bretzky to belabor the point. "Come on, tell the boy who you are."

"Moishe Bretzky. They call me the Glutton in the gossip columns."

Zunser smiled at the boy. "You see. A big name. A legend for his poetry, as much for his antics. Now, tell us. Who are you?"

"Pinchas Pelovits."

None had heard the name. Zunser's curiosity was piqued. Bretzky didn't care either way. Korinsky was only further pained at having to put up with a madman who wasn't even famous.

"I am the one who doesn't belong here," Pinchas said. "Though if I could, I'd take the place of any of you."

"But you are not here in place of us, you are here as one of us. Do you write?"

"Oh, yes, that's all I do. That's all I've ever done, except for reading and my walks."

"If it makes any difference, we welcome you as an equal." Zunser surveyed the cubicle. "I'd much rather be saying this to you in my home."

"Are you sure I'm here for being a writer?" He looked at the three men.

"Not just for being a writer, my friend." Bretzky clapped him lightly on the back. "You are here as a subversive writer. An enemy of the state! Quite a feat for an unknown."

The door opened and all four were dragged from the cell and taken by a guard to private interrogation chambers--Bretzky escorted by three guards of his own. There they were beaten, degraded, made to confess to numerous crimes and to sign confessions that they had knowingly distributed Zionist propaganda aimed at toppling the Soviet government.

Zunser and Pinchas had been in adjoining chambers and heard each other's screams. Bretzky and Korinsky also shared a common wall, though there was silence after each blow. Korinsky's sense of repute was so strong that he stifled his screaming. Bretzky did not call out. Instead he cried and cried. His abusers mocked him for it, jeering at the overgrown baby. His tears did not fall from the pain, however. They came out of the sober realization of man's cruelty and the picture of the suffering being dealt to his peers, especially Zunser.

Afterward, they were given a fair amount of water, a hunk of bread, and some cold potato-and-radish soup. They were returned to the same cell in the darkness. Zunser and Pinchas needed to be carried.

Pinchas had focused on his story, his screams sounding as if they were coming from afar. With every stripe he received, he added a phrase, the impact reaching his mind like the dull rap of a windowpane settling in its sash:

"Rabbi, have you noticed we are without a sun today?" Mendel asked by way of an introduction.

"My shutters are closed against the noise."

"Did no one else mention it at morning prayers?"

"No one else arrived," said the rabbi, continuing to study.

"Well, don't you think that strange?"

"I had. I had until you told me about this sun. Now I understand--no sensible man would get up to greet a dawn that never came."

They were all awake when the bulb went on. Zunser was making peace with himself, preparing for certain death. The fingers of his left hand were twisted and split. Only his thumb had a nail.

Pinchas had a question for Zunser. "All your work treats fate as if it were a mosquito to be shooed away. All your characters struggle for survival and yet you play the victim. You had to have known they would come."

"You have a point," Zunser said, "a fair question. And I answer it with another: Why should I always be the one to survive? I watched Europe's Jews go up the chimneys. I buried a wife and a child. I do believe one can elude the fates. But why assume the goal is to live?" Zunser slid the mangled hand onto his stomach. "How many more tragedies do I want to survive? Let someone take witness of mine."

Bretzky disagreed. "We've lost our universe, this is true. Still, a man can't condemn himself to death for the sin of living. We can't cower in the shadows of the camps forever."

"I would give anything to escape," said Korinsky.

Zunser turned his gaze toward the bulb. "That is the single rule I have maintained in every story I ever wrote. The desperate are never given the choice."

"Then," asked Pinchas, and to him there was no one else but his mentor in the room, "you don't believe there is any reason I was brought here to be with you. It isn't part of anything larger, some cosmic balance, a great joke of the heavens."

"I think that somewhere a clerk made a mistake."

"That," Pinchas said, "I cannot bear."

All the talking had strained Zunser and he coughed up a bit of blood. Pinchas attempted to help Zunser but couldn't stand up. Bretzky and Korinsky started to their feet. "Sit, sit," Zunser said. They did, but watched him closely as he tried to clear his lungs.

Pinchas Pelovits spent the rest of that day on the last lines of his story. When the light went out, he had already finished.

They hadn't been in darkness long when they were awakened by the noise and the gleam from the bulb. Korinsky immediately put his eye to the wall.

"They are lining up everyone outside. There are machine guns. It is morning, and everyone is blinking as if they were newly born."

Pinchas interrupted. "I have something I would like to recite. It's a story I wrote while we've been staying here."

"Go ahead," said Zunser.

"Let's hear it," said Bretzky.

Korinsky pulled the hair from his head. "What difference can it make now?"

"For whom?" asked Pinchas and then proceeded to recite his little tale:

The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone, and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died. This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.
Mendel figured he'd best consult the local rabbi, who might be able to direct him in such matters. It was Mendel's first time visiting the rabbi in his study--not having previously concerned himself with the nuances of worship. Mendel was much surprised to find that the rabbi's study was of the exact dimensions of his missing room. In fact, it appeared that the tractate the man was poring over rested on the missing desk.

"Rabbi, have you noticed we are without a sun today?" Mendel asked by way of an introduction.

"My shutters are closed against the noise."

"Did no one else mention it at morning prayers?"

"No one else arrived," said the rabbi, continuing to study.

"Well, don't you think that strange?"

"I had. I had until you told me about this sun. Now I understand--no sensible man would get up to greet a dawn that never came."

"This is all very startling, Rabbi. But I think we--at some point in the night--have died."

The rabbi stood up, grinning. "And here I am with an eternity's worth of Talmud to study."

Mendel took in the volumes lining the walls.

"I've a desk and a chair, and a shtender in the corner should I want to stand," said the rabbi. "Yes, it would seem I'm in heaven." He patted Mendel on the shoulder. "I must thank you for rushing over to tell me." The rabbi shook Mendel's hand and nodded good-naturedly, already searching for his place in the text. "Did you come for some other reason?"

"I did," said Mendel, trying to find a space between the books where once there was a door. "I wanted to know"--and here his voice began to quiver--"which one of us is to say the prayer?" Bretzky stood. "Bravo," he said, clapping his hands. "It's like a shooting star. A tale to be extinguished along with the teller." He stepped forward to meet the agent in charge at the door. "No, the meaning, it was not lost on me."

Korinsky pulled his knees into his chest, hugged them. "No," he admitted, "it was not lost."

Pinchas did not blush or bow his head. He stared at Zunser, wondered what the noble Zunser was thinking, as they were driven from the cell.

Outside all the others were being assembled. There was Horiansky and Lubovitch, Lev and Soltzky. All those great voices with the greatest stories of their lives to tell, and forced to bring them to the grave. Pinchas, having increased his readership threefold, had a smile on his face.

Pinchas Pelovits was the twenty-seventh, or the fourteenth from either end, if you wanted to count his place in line. Bretzky supported Pinchas by holding up his right side, for his equilibrium had not returned. Zunser supported him on the left, but was in bad shape himself.

"Did you like it?" Pinchas asked.

"Very much," Zunser said. "You're a talented boy."

Pinchas smiled again, then fell, his head landing on the stockingless calves of Zunser. One of his borrowed shoes flew forward, though his feet slid backward in the dirt. Bretzky fell atop the other two. He was shot five or six times, but being such a big man and such a strong man, he lived long enough to recognize the crack of the guns and know that he was dead.

Copyright 1999 by Nathan Englander. All rights reserved.
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