8] And you, Son of man, hear what I say to you: do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I am giving you. 9] As I looked, there was a hand stretched out to me, holding a scroll of a book. 10] He unrolled it before me, and it was inscribed on both the front and the back; on it were written lamentations, dirges and woes. -Ezekiel, Chapter 2
“Asher Grunfeld! What are you doing?” Mrs Blackstone thundered across the classroom, peering over the rims of her thin grey spectacles, pursing her lips like a raisin. She stopped writing the Hebrew letters she had been tracing on the board, still holding the chalk.
Asher froze in horror. His right hand remained outstretched and unmoving, still holding the tiny slip of paper that held the damning note he had just written. And somehow, he could not pull his hand back - could not speak - or move at all. With grim horror, he watched Mrs Blackstone turn around from the blackboard and march down the row of desks towards him. All eyes turned towards him now, fifteen small children fixating upon him.
“Drop it” hissed one of them, Big Jonny behind him, but his arm muscles refused to work.
“What is the meaning of this?” she barked, snapping the note out of his hand.
Asher felt all the blood and life draining from his face. Had he been able to see a mirror, he was certain that he would have seen the reflection of a ghost or spirit; hands shaking, heart sinking into the depths of his stomach.
Mrs Blackstone read the note. She said nothing. Turning back to her desk, she folded the paper carefully and placed it in her pocket, walking slowly back to the front of the classroom.
Shame like he had never known before burned into Asher’s ears, burrowed and gnawed at his bowels; a shame so deep he had no name for it, so all-consuming it drove all other thought from his mind.
Please don’t read it out, he whispered inside his head, not certain if he said it aloud or not. Please don’t read it. Perhaps he was praying.
Mrs Blackstone reached her rickety wooden desk, strewn with papers, adjusted the grey sack of a dress she wore, and sat down. She took Asher’s note and put it down in front of her.
Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t.
A black grin spread over her face, a vile, skeletal, thing like nothing Asher had ever seen. Black and dripping.
“Let’s see now,” she whispered, her voice reverberating through the silent classroom, unfolding the scrap of paper before her and scanning it with her darkened eyes.
No no no no…
“Now someone” she hissed, “in my precious class-time wrote ‘who do you like?’ What do you think Asher wrote back?”
This couldn’t be happening, could not be happening, every child’s eyes burned into him, boring holes in skin and bone.
“‘I like Lilly,’ he wrote, and added a little smiley face, isn’t that cute?” She folded the paper with her talon-like fingers, dropping it neatly in front of her. “What do you think about that Lilly?”
She rose from her chair, two seats ahead and one to the right, and turned to face him, face pale and dark. The look on her face rent his heart in two - pity, disgust, cruel laughter dancing on her lips. “Asher? Ugh, he’s disgusting.”
One of the other girls giggled. A boy behind him laughed. “Disgusting” someone repeated.
Asher’s head began to swim, his arm trembled uncontrollably. Had he been able to move his legs, he would have run from the classroom but he couldn’t move. Hot tears burned down his face.
“He’s crying!” shrieked Lilly, thick with laughter, “what a cry baby!”
“Oh, we made him upset,” rasped Mrs Blackstone.
Asher leapt to his feet and fled the room, breaking doors, walls and boundaries.
The last few words of the haftarah blessing somehow tumbled their way out of Asher’s mouth, his voice managing not to quaver for the final notes. After two years of planning, learning and preparing he was nearly there.
“…Hashabbat,” he finished with what he hoped was a flourish.
The congregation’s amen resounded through the shul as a wave of relief washed through and through him. He had done it, he hadn’t let anybody down.
The unfamiliar tallis he wore itched the back of his neck but Asher barely noticed anymore. He was smiling, beaming light all around.
His father, standing beside him gave him a hug and a kiss - the comfortable scent of his aftershave put him at ease.
“I’m so proud of you, Asher,” he whispered, as sweets began to rain down on him and the congregation burst into the old song mazal tov v’siman tov.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispered again, an odd tone creeping into his voice, biting and sarcastic.
Asher spun around in shock - black bubbles frothed inside his father’s open mouth, foaming and dripping - “so proud of you son,” he said again, a voice like sandpaper.
One of the sweets hit him in the cheek - it ripped into his flesh and Asher felt the blood welling up. Another tore into his neck. This couldn’t be happening, could not be happening.
“So very, very proud,” his father reached out towards him, the familiar hands suddenly like glass knives approaching his neck. The sharp sweets continued to hit him, faster, harder, leaving cuts across his hands and face.
“No!” he shouted, flinging wide his tallis, the one they had gone to buy in Israel together - it spread like wings behind him, frozen in place. Nothing moved, utter silence fell.
Awareness began to grow in Asher - he wasn’t thirteen anymore, didn’t live in London, and his father was no longer…
This was a memory - no, a dream - it hadn’t been like this - had it? What was going on?
Asher had been told that there would be cake but that hadn’t quelled his fears, the gnawing nervousness in his stomach. The house seemed strange and dark - the mirrors were covered with black sheets, the curtains were drawn, his parents were wearing dark, sombre colours. There was a large rip in the jacket his father wore, jagged and raw, as he sat in the low shiva chairs. Shiva - shiver, Asher thought, trembling as he tiptoed up the stairs, trying to avoid his father’s red-shot eyes. He needn’t have worried - his father seemed oblivious, barely aware of the bearded rabbi kneeling in front of him, saying words that Asher did not understand. Unnoticed, he headed to his bedroom.
His mother found him as he passed the hallway mirror.
“Oh Asher, I’m so sorry,” she said, clasping him to her and squeezing too tightly. She was crying now, holding him and crying.
The black cloth the veiled the mirror rippled in some draught or breeze, moving as if pulled by an unseen hand. A shudder ran through him, shaking him from head to toe.
Black claws reached out from behind the cloth, scratching and tearing at the fabric. Asher was frozen to the spot, still held in his mother’s arms, unable to tear his eyes away from the scrabbling fingers now reaching towards him.
“So sorry, Asher,” rasped his mother, in a voice so familiar yet strangely jarring - scratchy and grating.
He tried to break free of her grip but couldn’t. Hot, black tears fell on his head, burning his scalp. Obsidian claws reached out to his from spindly arms, maggots crawling along pallid flesh, breaking through the mirror towards him.
But then some music began to flow around him, rising from the living room. His father’s voice, warm and sad - El malei rachamim, it began. At the time, Asher had not understood what the words meant, just felt the emotions behind them, but now he understood - ‘God, full of mercy’. Now.
He wasn’t a child any more. And this wasn’t how it had happened.
Shochein bamromim - who dwells on high.
Asher was taller now, taller than his mother, and stronger. As the claws began to close around his throat, Asher’s soul swelled with the music and he found his strength.
With each beat of the rhythm, he began to divide.
The mirror was separate, its surface whole. The rotten arms were bound by the air, surrounding and enclosing them on all sides. He and his ‘mother’ were utterly differentiated.
The grip on his throat slowed and then loosened. His mother’s arms were forced back.
Ham’tzei menucha nechonah - who grants proper rest.
Asher grew in confidence - now time for a more serious separation - the memory from the falsehood.
The black cloth that covered the mirror wove itself back together.
Tachat kanfei ha’shechina - beneath the wings of the presence of God.
And now Asher began to pull the spirit from his mother, the shadow from the dream. With a scream of nails on glass, his mother was gone, and all that remained was the nameless one. He stood vaguely human, surrounded by a black miasma that blurred his boundaries and hid any precise details of form or features.
“You cannot hold me, Asher, I am inside your mind - I can infect any memory, move into any part of your brain and burn it out.” He spoke in many voices, myriad tones echoing over and above each other.
“Okay,” said Asher, “go on then.”
The nameless spirit shimmered slightly but did not move. A slight breeze made the lampshade swing.
“What have you done to me?” hissed the dybbuk.
“You know you should never have come here,” Asher said, “at school, in the synagogue, I was weak - but not here, not in this place. This house is where I grew up, even when the building is reduced to dust, this will always be my home, and in my home I have all the power.”
The nameless one charged towards him, growling, laughing, biting - now Asher parried him easily. His memories were a lucid dream, and Asher could rebuild them in any form he chose. With a series of quick blocks and a sweep of his legs the dybbuk was on the ground, Asher’s knee digging into its chest.
“Now” said Asher, “time to discover what is causing you so much pain.”
“Get off, get off!” shrieked a thousand thousand voices.
Asher smiled absently. “Not yet.”
Reaching into the miasma, Asher sought the edges, the borders of this dark soul, its outer limits. The nameless one was a creature of smoke and shadow but beneath it all there was a core of something frail and hard. Outer layers sloughed away like snakeskin, sighing and whispering into the rattan carpet.
And beneath it all was a shivering boy, naked and spindly, who couldn’t have been older than fourteen.
Asher stood carefully, watching the teenager pull his knees into his chest and begin to sob.
“It’s okay,” Asher said, putting a hand to his shoulder, “it’s okay.”
“No,” the boy said, “you don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I don’t but God does, and only God can forgive you now. It’s time to let go.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.” The boy looked up at Asher, with eyes pale blue. “I know it doesn’t count for much but I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you,” Asher said.
“You can’t,” the boy said, “not yet. Not until you know all that I have done. Only then.”
He closed his eyes and began to fade away, odd particles turning to motes of dust in the evening sun. A last echo of his voice lilted through the so-familiar hallway.
Only when you know can you forgive me… but then you never will.
And another person’s memories washed over Asher’s mind.