2 I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My beloved is knocking:
“Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”
3 I have taken off my robe— must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet— must I soil them again?
4 My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.
5 I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.
6 I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had left... he was gone.
-The Song of Songs, Chapter 5
1st Av 5775 - I slept but my heart was awake
Asher had been sitting in the bath for the better part of two hours when the knock came. The water had long since become tepid, his skin wrinkled as too much liquid passed the boundary of his skin. He watched the tap drip, slowly adding more and more water to the tub.
The knock came again.
Deep down, Asher knew that he should get out of the bath and answer the door. Put on his bath robe, brush his teeth, and go to bed. He should get up tomorrow morning bright and early, shave, get some fresh coffee and apply for a new job. And he should start this moment by getting up, and opening the door.
But he didn’t. His body refused to respond to the signals he was sure his brain was sending.
Come on, you lazy shit! Get out of the bath. You hardly ever spoke to the guy. Just because he was your father. Get out the stupid, fucking bath and get on with your life.
Asher didn’t move. He watched a ripple of water extend from his big toe, protruding above the surface of the water. Tiny breakers ebbing and flowing, intersecting and dividing each other.
The news had come earlier that night, a hurried email from his mother in Netanya - “Your father is dead, don’t know how. I’m flying out to London to deal with it. Call you ASAP. Lots of love, Mum.” And that was it.
He began to hum a melody to himself “The water flows, the tide goes but no one knows, oh oh oh, no one knows...” Asher hummed a few experimental bars and then forget them.
Another knock, louder this time, even more insistent.
Still Asher did not rise. There simply was no point. It was probably the super of the building wanting to adjust the radiators or inspect the apartment or just make sure that Asher was still alive. No one else ever knocked. It could wait.
He looked at his watch that he’d left on the floor beside him. It was five to three in the morning. It was unlike the super to come by so late. Well, he has my number, Asher thought. He’ll call me if it’s really important.
After five minutes of silence, when the knock did not return, Asher relaxed. Nothing to worry about.
And then a massive hole was torn out of the wall.
Bricks and mortar simply fell away into space. The stifling heat of the New York summer burst into the bathroom like a kiss, sticky and wet.
Asher pushed himself up with all his might, scrabbling to keep his footing on the slick tiled floor, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him - the wall had been ripped out.
And standing in the breach, was himself. Not quite himself of course - Asher’s eyes were brown and rather normally sized, he also could not stand in mid-air forty feet off the ground.
Asher’s mind was struggling to keep up.
The best it could do was: What did you do to my bathroom? and that didn’t seem to quite cut it given the situation.
“They said it would be easy” whispered the not-Asher in a voice like stars and sandpaper. “But I did not expect this naked creature to be the source of such trouble.”
The not-Asher began drifting through the gaping hole as Asher leapt out of the bath and backed against the door.
“What are you? What do you want from me?”
“I am Ashmedai, the king of Demons. I want you to die, screaming your pain to your God. You are entitled to three questions - you have one remaining.”
Asher fumbled for the lock behind his back, not daring to take his eyes off the creature before him. Black smoke and grey mortar dust swirled in his wake, forming glowering eyes and monstrous fangs. He must be dreaming, he thought, though the drying water and the dust underfoot did not feel like a dream.
“One question then, and you can’t kill me until I ask it” began Asher, taking care not to phrase anything in a way that could be taken as a question.
Not-Asher began to look bored. A sword of smoke and flame began to appear in his left hand.
“Then the question I want to ask is,” his mind churned, “why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“What? What sort of question is this?”
“Well? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“May the evil eye turn its gaze upon you!” shouted Ashmedai, his sword fading, his feet touching the floor for the first time. “What is the answer?”
Asher felt the lock click and grabbed the handle.
“No idea,” he said before flinging the door open and running down the corridor, kicking the door shut behind him.
The king of the demons screamed in rage. Behind him, Asher heard the door splintering and flying off its hinges but he didn’t look back. Naked and dripping wet, he ran from the apartment, slammed the door and headed for the stairs. He jumped the stairs three at a time, darting across landings. Asher hit the first floor and made for the exit. It didn’t open. He pushed and pulled at the door. Nothing. He tried to smash the glass with no effect. It seemed as though there was something keeping him inside.
A smell of dust and burnt flesh wafted from the stairs. Asher turned to face the twisted, familiar features. There was nowhere to run.
“Mortal man his days are like grass that withers, like a cloud that passes, a dream that fades.”
Ashmedai appeared behind him, teeth growing into sharp points, claws sprouting from his fingers. Asher slipped to the floor.
“Now, you die.”
The king of the demons brought forth his sword of smoke and swung it at Asher as fast as a bullet. This was it, then.
But the sword was suddenly blocked. A golden shield was being held over Asher’s head, crackling and glowing. The demon seemed to sharply inhale.
Asher looked behind and saw a huge figure standing in the now-open doorway, encased in glittering armour plates, carrying the enormous round shield that had saved his life.
He didn’t need to be told twice. He climbed to his feet and ran with everything he had left. He heard the sounds of shouting, of metal clashing on metal, a scream and a shout.
Asher ran, heading west on east 10th street. At least it was summer, he thought. But still, he didn’t really expect to be running naked past the park. He should have brought a towel, he thought. And then Asher stopped, and listened. He looked around.
New York was never this quiet, not even at three in the morning. There was no one to be seen. Not a single light was on in any apartment, no shops were open. No sirens, no cars. Whatever was happening, he hadn’t escaped yet.
The street lights flickered, once, twice. Each time, the shadows grew longer. Then they began to coalesce around him, taking on human form.
There was nowhere left to run, so Asher simply waited.
To his right, he saw the man in the golden armour coming slowly towards him, limping on his right leg. Great gashes had been carved in the metal, blood seemed to ooze between the joins. He still held his shield before him, with a roaring lion embossed in the gold.
And to his left, Asher saw someone new - a short woman, dressed from head to toe in silver chain mail that shone like the moon. And in her hand she carried a sword, so thin it was transparent, like a sheen of frost on the pavement.
They stood beside him, shield and sword at the ready. They looked at each other, then at Asher. He met their gaze, and smiled. They nodded. There was nothing to say.
Ashmedai emerged from the black, grinning and licking his lips. The similarity to Asher was almost entirely lost now. The demon king’s neck had stretched taut and thin, his arms had elongated, sprouted spines and extra joints, weaving his sword like a pencil on paper. He laughed as he approached.
“Well this is proving a most fruitful night - the unborn prince and two of the seven. I was paid handsomely but this is a pleasure”.
The golden warrior stepped in front of Asher, shield raised, visor lowered. The silver warrior did the same but paused by Asher’s side:
“Find the edges,” she whispered.
It made about as much sense as everything else that had happened so far.
Then the two warriors cried some sort of battle-cry, in a language that Asher thought he recognised but did not understand, and battle was joined.
They moved together like a single fighter, weaving and blocking in near-perfect unison, timing blocks and attacks to strike at Ashmedai from every conceivable approach, warding off the shadow sword that danced around them. The two seemed to be faster but Ashmedai had the longer reach and didn’t seem to tire. The longer they fought, the more Ashmedai seemed to grow in strength and stature, swelling in body, sprouting spikes and extra appendages. The result seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Asher couldn’t see a way out. It had to be a dream, of course, no matter how real it seemed. He must have dosed off in the bath. His father had always told him that he drank too much, maybe he was drowning and this was his brain’s way of dealing with the sense data his body was sending him.
Well, if this was his dream, he wasn’t just going to sit here and let some other characters (expressions of some dark recesses of his psyche, no doubt) fight his demons for him. He had to get up and fight for himself.
Asher cast his eyes around, looking for some sort of weapon. There were the usual black trash bags piled against the trees, some garbage cans. Nothing too useful. But there was a broken chair. Asher picked himself up, ran over to it and broke off a chair leg. He tested its weight. Well, he thought, time to stand up to the darkness.
No longer dripping wet, Asher leapt forward, waving his makeshift club. Ashmedai’s midnight eyes flashed his way, as the demon king easily parried a blow from the silver sword.
When suddenly time seemed to slow down around.
He watched a small grin spread across the too-wide mouth of the king of demons. The silver warrior’s sword had been deflected but already she was spinning behind the golden shield, whirling to strike once more. She had spotted Asher’s crazed assault, a look of shock and panic entering her eyes.
A black talon was reaching out to the golden fighter’s armoured leg - the claws were closing around his ankle. Dark blood dripped down the shining plate. He was beginning to fall, his grip of the golden shield was slipping.
And then the shadows ahead of Asher began to gather together, taking on a new definite shape. In what must have been less than a tenth of a second, a spear of volcanic rock was pointed at Asher’s heart. He couldn’t stop. Time seemed to have slowed but Asher’s momentum was still carrying him forward. And dream or not, Asher did not want to die.
Find the edges.
He cast his eyes around, searching for a clue but this strange New York seemed to stretch forever. The edge of what?
And then he realised he could feel each speck of dust pass his skin as he moved slowly through the air. Each particle of smoke met the surface of his body and left its mark, touching skin cells and tiny nerve endings. The very molecules of the air seemed to come alive and start to sing - Asher could feel them all, every movement, every vibration. And smaller still - the atoms that made up the molecules, the protons and neutrons at the heart of each atom, the electrons in their orbits. And between the subatomic particles the vast empty spaces of energy and potential.
And in that moment it seemed so obvious. Just as the black spear began to pierce his chest, Asher simply stepped through the gaps.
Asher fell to the ground in a heap, realising at once that somehow everything had changed. He got up and saw that he hadn’t moved at all but there were lights on in the apartment buildings, and cars whistling down First Avenue. Some kids down the street were looking at him like he might be dangerous.
As fast as he could he ran to his apartment block. He didn’t have his key but the door wasn’t closed. He jumped up the stairs until he reached his apartment. The door was closed but not locked.
Very carefully Asher opened it. The apartment looked the same as always. The bathroom wall was fine. It must have been a dream, after all, though Asher had no idea how he’d ended up outside.
He locked the door, put on a bathrobe and poured himself another whisky. With shaking hands, Asher downed it.
Something felt wet on his chest.
Asher looked down.
A three inch gash, just over his heart, was slowly weeping blood.