Monday 16 July 2012
Radiance 23 - Descended in the cloud
Asher moved the cubes of chicken around with his plastic fork, watched them swim in the fatty gravy and over-cooked peas. In such a gelatinous mush, everything just blended into a single mass.
He persisted nonetheless, scooping plastic forkfuls into his mouth and swallowing with as little thought as possible. Even the slice of chocolate cake didn’t look exactly appetising, and Asher didn’t think he could handle the ‘salad’ at all - but it was better than not eating, so Asher tried not to complain.
Of course, Asher hadn’t really wanted kosher meals at all - it was Rahko that had insisted as he charmed the woman at the airline’s help desk. Not that it was a kind of charm Asher had ever seen before - Rahko had approached the woman, who looked to be hitting her mid-fifties, and smiled, asked her how she was. Within minutes the woman was sobbing out her problems, her son who was into drugs, her fear of divorce, and so on. Twenty minutes later, Asher and Rahko held two tickets to Tel-Aviv (with kosher meals). In fact, since they had begun this journey together last night, Asher hadn’t seen Rahko pay for anything. The taxi driver had fallen over himself to give them a free ride to the airport, the barista in JFK had hugged Rahko, kissed him on both cheeks, and immediately sorted out two cups of coffee and a fruit smoothie. No wonder Rahko had only smiled when Asher had asked him where they would get the money to fly to Israel.
When he had realised that Netanya was the best lead they had, Asher had assumed that Rahko would magic them straight there in a swell of ice and water - but Rahko had insisted that they fly.
“With the loss of the palace, I dare not simply bring us to Israel,” he had said, with a faint smile beneath his woollen cowl. “My energies are low, and we might end up being rather visible. We wouldn’t want to catch the sitra achra’s attention at such a critical moment. Besides,” Rahko had smiled broadly, his eyes glittering, “it will give us a chance to really get to know one another.”
Asher had tried to insist, for the sake of Mercury and Ostar, that they travel as fast as possible. He even considered whether his own powers might be sufficient to get them there, a feat he had never attempted. But Rahko had been adamant.
“They are still alive, my friend,” he had whispered, “I feel it down to my bones. Best to take a slower but more stealthy approach.”
And in the end, Asher had agreed.
So now he was cramped into a tiny aeroplane chair, swallowing jellied chicken with his knees pressed into the chair in front. And while Rahko was using the bathroom, Asher couldn’t help but wonder if he couldn’t have persuaded someone to upgrade them to first class.
Rahko sat down carefully next to him, having only picked at his meal. He picked up the carton of water that came with the meal and sipped at it.
“How’s the food?” he asked conversationally.
“Pretty poor,” Asher answered with a smile, “how’s yours?”
“Well, I can’t complain. I would have thought that after nearly seventy years of the Jewish State someone would have made better kosher airline food.”
Asher nodded in agreement, and tried a bite of the rather dry chocolate cake.
“Can I look at your hands?” Rahko asked.
Asher showed him the places where the crystal had bit into them. The shards were still there, faintly glittering in the cabin lights, and while they didn’t hurt at all, there was a distant itching, like a three day-old mosquito bite. An irritation but there had been no time to deal with it.
Rahko scowled uncharacteristically, and placed his right hand over Asher’s left, bathing Asher’s palm in a swirl of ice-cold water that vanished a few moments later as swiftly as it came.
“I’m sorry Asher,” he said, looking frustrated, “but I can’t seem to heal your injuries.”
‘It’s really no problem,” Asher replied, “they don’t hurt. I suppose we’re lucky that this is the worst we got.” Memories of flying glass and fractured light filled Asher’s mind, blinding pain and every colour he had ever known before he had found himself in the grey of Sheol. He had held back from telling Rahko about his father, his journey to Gehinnom. Now that several hours had passed, Asher was beginning to wonder whether it had all been a dream, some kind of fantasy or wish-fulfilment. Dad was dead, and dead was dead - wasn’t it? Somehow, he didn’t feel like discussing it.
Instead he turned to the other unasked question that had been burning in his mind since he awoke:
“What happened to Virgo and Li?”
Rahko shook his head. “I just don’t know, I’m afraid. I feel that they are still alive but without the Palace of Understanding I couldn’t tell you where, or how they’re doing. When the Palace shattered, I thought I saw the two of them locked together, still fighting. I still can’t quite believe it.”
“I know,” Asher said. Though he hadn’t known Li at all well, it was very strange to think that she had betrayed them all to their enemies. “You must have known Li longer than me - did you ever suspect?”
“I’m sorry to say that I didn’t, though the power of gevurah sometimes pulls a person off the path, drags them far from the light. But Li - I never thought. You know she and Virgo recruited me?”
“I didn’t,” said Asher. It was odd to think that Rahko, Virgo and the others had been recruited - they seemed such permanent fixtures in the Seven. “What happened?”
“It was after the war,” Rahko said, looking off into the middle distance. “I had escaped the worst of it, thank God. When war broke out I was living in Denmark, and the Danes got most of us to Sweden before the hammer fell. My father wasn’t so lucky. Still, it wasn’t so bad all things considered.”
Asher understood. His grandmother had survived the camps and he recognised the haunted look that lurked around Rahko’s downcast eyes.
“After everything that had happened, my mother and I decided we were better off in Israel, though it took a while to get everything together. We finally made it just after the war of independence in forty-eight. I served in the army for a few years, didn’t see much action. But in the end I took a job as a lifeguard on the beach of Tel-Aviv. The water always called to me, the deep blue of the mediterranean washing over the sand - have you seen it Asher?”
Asher nodded. “It’s been a few years but I’ve seen it. My mother lives in Netanya, remember.”
“Of course, of course, my apologies. Yes so I was working as lifeguard. Not great pay, but good hours and it meant I was close to the ocean. Back then we all felt like we were part of something big, all of us were part of making the state, building up the country from almost nothing. It was a simpler time.” Rahko sighed.
“Then one day, a kid got himself in trouble, couldn’t have been older then ten or eleven. He had swum out too far and the tide was too strong for him to make it to shore. I heard his shouts for help and ran out to save him but deep down I knew I wouldn’t make it. The kid was just too far away and was going under. No matter how hard I swam, there was no way I would get there in time.
“But something happened just then, as the salt water washed over my arms and legs furiously swimming towards his flailing arms. I began to realise that the water and my body were one and the same, that the waves were just an extension of myself, that I could feel the depths of the ocean beneath my feet, stretching to the Cyprus and beyond. And so I just reached out to him, and used the waves to pull him to shore.
“I had no idea what had happened, but I knew that I had saved this little boy through some miracle, and for the first time in my life, I found myself praying to God. I opened up my heart to Him, and let the words pour out as I swam back to the beach - praise and thanks, and hope for the future of the Jewish people and the world. It was the most profound religious experience of my life.”
Rahko paused to let his story sink in.
“When I got back Virgo and Li were there waiting for me. They told me about the Seven, and right away I knew that this was where I was meant to be.”
“So Li was already involved?”
“Yes,” Rahko said, “she was Virgo’s first recruit after the war - I was the second.”
“And what happened next?”
“Well, I joined Virgo and Li in the Palace of Understanding, learnt my role just as you did, though my place is somewhat different. We found Ostar and Mercury a couple of years later, followed in time by your father.”
“No, I meant what happened to the boy?”
“Oh, he was fine - went back to his loving family. He died in sixty-seven, fighting in the Old City.”
“I’m so sorry,” Asher said.
“Thanks but that’s the way life is - a generation goes and a generation comes, a time for living and a time for dying, and all that stuff.”
Asher said nothing.
“You can’t save everyone, Asher, we can only do our best.”
A flight attendant came by to take their trays away, breaking the conversation. When she had left, Rahko had put his hood up once more. “We should get some rest,” he said, “we’ll need our strength.”