‘A watched pot never boils’, his mother would have said, but he didn’t like to leave the kitchen when the gas was on, not with Jonny wandering around and playing with everything he could get his fingers on.
And if he was being honest, some of his guests in the living room were a little… unsettling.
After that Saturday afternoon, he hadn’t expected Asher to show up again, not really. Five years without much of a word had felt like an eternity, even with the all-present Facebook keeping them in touch.
But then a text message from nowhere - ‘can we meet up? I’ll buy us some beers -Ash.’
And so they had met in a bar downtown, and, a little cautiously, renewed their friendship.
There had been something different about Asher in that meeting, and not just the missing hand that Dan hadn’t dared ask about - something deep and dark, lurking beneath his eyes, a greater seriousness than he had ever seen before.
“The daughter became the mother,” was all Asher would say about it, and laughed a little hollowly.
Not that Dan himself had been fully present in the conversation. Since the day of the ‘earthquake’, nothing had been quite right in his mind. He could have sworn that he remembered witnessing a sanity-defying serpent rise up from the Hudson, serrated teeth like swords, black poisonous spines, mile-long coils spreading and wrapping themselves around the city, people screaming and dying as the world crumbled around them.
But no one said a word about it - no one seemed to remember but him, and then only in the dark of night, when nightmares would find their way into his dreams.
No, Dan hadn’t been himself for a while.
Still, listening to his old friend talk about his parents - Asher’s mother had been found dead not long before in her Netanya Apartment, apparently having been dead for several days without decomposing - he knew he had to offer to help. “Can I do anything?” he had asked.
“Actually, yes” Asher had replied, “can you host a shiva?”
What could he do? No matter what Maria thought, he couldn’t deny his friend the chance to mourn. But then he hadn’t exactly expected guests like these.
Asher was there, of course, sitting on a low chair, telling the assembled crowd about his mother’s early life in Vienna. Seated beside him was a small, thin woman, with neatly flowing black hair, an ornate silver sword on her back. She had been introduced as Mercury, though that didn’t seem very Jewish, and she was mourning her husband.
There were a dozen or so friends from their Columbia days, people who still lived in New York and were able to make it, and even a British guy who seemed to have known Asher’s mother. They were listening intently, trying to avoid staring at Asher’s missing hand, paper plates full of bagels and chocolate cake - all very normal.
But then there was the older man spreading whitefish on a sesame bagel, his grey hair and beard wild and unkempt, with a glint in his eye. When Dan had answered the door, he thought the man had introduced himself as Elijah - but maybe he had misheard.
More unsettling still was the beggar, sitting in the corner by the door, nearly every inch of his body covered in bandages. He sat, watching the clock, wrapping and unwrapping each bandage one at a time. But out of the corner of his eye, Dan thought he saw a golden crown hovering above the beggar’s bedraggled head.
One visitor hadn’t even used the door. One moment there was nothing, the next something like the appearance of a human being appeared in the room, hovering off the floor, wrapped in six golden wings. The angel said nothing, and no one but Dan, Asher and Mercury even seemed to register his presence.
The kettle began to whistle.
Dan gingerly turned off the heat and made ten more cups of tea, arranging them carefully on a tray and carrying them into the living room. He put the drinks down on the table as Asher mentioned the names of both his lost parents, and began to recite the mourner’s kaddish:
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah…” he chanted, and the assembled crowd answered ‘amen’.
There was a knock at the door, three gentle taps. No one else moved.
Dan left as quietly as possible, stepped over the railway set that had somehow spilled onto the floor once more, and opened the door.
A familiar face looked back at him, a woman with dark skin, shining eyes, dressed in red and gold silk, carrying a wooden staff in her hands.
“Hello Dan,” she said.
And then he remembered - she had been at his door when he was living with Asher back at Columbia. But more than that: she had been at his first flute lesson, listening to his first notes; she had left him a voice message three years ago, that he had listened to on repeat and never understood.
“I’ve been knocking at your door for some time now, Dan,” the woman said, “don’t you think it’s time to let me in?”
“Who are you?” he asked, a quiver in his voice. “What do you want?”
“My name is Virgo,” she said quietly, almost sadly. “I want you to help me save the world.”