They took off for Buenos Aires from Kennedy at dusk of a perfect late October day. Sixty-nine year old Jeremiah Sapir had breakfasted on black coffee and strawberries that sparkled like rubies in cream in his room at the Essex House overlooking the autumnal splendor of Central Park. He had lunched among the fronds in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel with his daughter Sonia. They had had a nice visit. Sonia, nearing forty-five, was displeased with this and that. She tried to hide it from her father.
But it glimmered through and roused him to indignation. It charged him with energy and made him feel young again. For an hour or so, she was once more his. He had given her a check for five thousand dollars. That was modest. Did his mind play tricks on him? Or did she look now exactly as Estelle had once looked? If Sam didn’t like it that he gave her money, then she didn’t need to tell him. Truth was always a relative matter. Where his daughter was concerned a father had ineradicable privileges. He’d paid for them.
Magnificently awkward as Noah’s ark reincarnate in steel and aluminum, the 747 quivered and shook as it started down the runway. Yet it managed to lift itself up into the air, to become a shining snub-nosed creature of the ether. Jeremiah Sapir loved to fly. Jonah had never known the belly of a whale like this one. Jeremiah was of the generation for whom flying could never become matter of fact.
Although he’d flown in his lifetime more than a million miles, it stayed fresh. He loved the skyscape, the variety of luminosities, the panoply of the clouds, those perpetually vagabond shapes of mist. He particularly cherished the display of dusk, when it seemed that God himself set his angels to perform a requiem for the day, one that diminished into the subtlest swathes of rose and blood strung out along the horizon. This evening it was especially delicious to contemplate the reversal of the seasons. They embarked from fall and would land in spring, the tentative leaves of trees nuzzling out in new green filigree along the boulevards and in the parks. Anything was possible.
“Nu, in the heavens my children want to go flying,” Asher, his father, had chided him.. “Just watch you don’t crash into the chariot of Ezekiel. And if seraphim you should see, then bring them news of one Reb Asher.”
That was 1946.Jeremiah was older now than his father had been then. It seemed impossible and yet it was so. Jeremiah held a glass of Scotch in his hand as he looked out the window. It was real glass, not thin plastic. That was because this was first class. And the Scotch was good. His bodyguards, Aryeh and Pinchas, were traveling coach. This was a matter not so much of economy as of discretion. He had spotted them both while he was waiting to get on the plane. Aryeh had flown in earlier in the day from Spain. Pinchas had come from London. Usually, they travelled openly with him. But this wasn’t routine.
“It’s too dangerous, Jeremy,” his older sister Malka had objected.
Her voice had quavered with just that note of worry which had once belonged to their mother. Malka had a colostomy now. She’d had cancer of the colon four years before. They’d cut it out. It was cancer of the colon that had killed their mother. They hadn’t gotten it in time.
“You should let a younger man go.” “Nonsense,” Jeremiah had reassured her in that bass voice that flowed sonorously from his chest, itself surprisingly broad for such a short man, “I have every intention of dying in my sleep in my own bed.” “Oy,” Malka shook her head, “but Kravitz they poisoned.”
So Herschel, a sun baked man from Mosad with a precise black mustache and limpid reptilian eyes had told him. Despite his name, Jeremiah’s disposition was a sunny one. In his mouth, bitterness melted to sweetness, sour became savory, gall was transmuted to marzipan. Although he was of the generation that had known Hitler, a charm had been on his life since earliest childhood. The expectation of good fortune had long since become second nature. He was the very youngest of the nine Sapirs, five brothers and four sisters. They had been poor and industrious. Inklings of opportunity had galvanized their energies. They had rolled cigars to make ends meet. Jeremiah’s older brother Eli, now stricken with Parkinson’s so that his hands enacted a continual involuntary parody of their past prowess, had received each week an extra egg because he was the fastest roller of cigars.
The brothers Sapir had divided up the world of the professions by informal concordat. Joe, the eldest, became a rabbi. He died suddenly of meningitis before his twenty-ninth birthday, so that his name was never mentioned among the brothers without their remarking that he was clearly the most talented of all. Abe became a doctor, a nephrologist. Eli became a dentist. Nahum, his heart scarred by rheumatic fever, became a pharmacist. He died in his early fifties. Only Abe and Jeremiah were still active. Jeremiah himself was hale and hearty, his mind as good as it had ever been. It wasn’t exceptional, but that, in itself, had spared him a good deal of trouble, for, as he was fond of observing to junior colleagues, the law often treated the brilliant capriciously, but it invariably rewarded the thorough and the painstaking.
He had had, as he put it to himself, some minor repairs made on his plumbing. But wasn’t that to be expected by this time in life? The marvel was that the repairs worked so well. He didn’t dribble. He didn’t have to get up to go in the night. His stream was full and it started easily. Marty Puretz, the gimpy legged insomniac urologist who had burst full of good cheer into his room each morning between 3AM and 4AM, did fine work.
“Sometimes,” Herschel had ruminated, speaking as if Jeremiah were not actually present with him, “the best hiding place is right out in the open.† Sometimes the most useful form of guile is the appearance of mild ineptitude.”
Jeremiah had declined to be insulted. It came naturally to him not to take things personally. It wasn’t that he was obtuse, but rather that he was quite unshakably secure in his good opinion of himself. In fact, Jeremiah felt concerned for Herschel because the man seemed so tense, as if his responsibilities threatened to consume him. Jeremiah simply said that he would be only too happy to do whatever he could to help, inexperienced and untrained as he was in this sort of thing.
He was not, however, quite so inexperienced as he represented himself. In the depths of the Depression, he had made, fresh from law school, an excellent marriage. Estelle’s family’s social connections had certainly not hurt either his law practice or his move into local politics. By the end of the war, he had had already a good deal of spare money, some of which he used to buy land. Remembering the old country, his mother and father had both wept openly when he had driven them out to see a farm he had acquired just outside the city.
“Jews with land, with, ach, what do you call it?” his mother had begun, groping for the word. “Real estate,” Jeremiah supplied. “…it’s like a dream.† I should pinch myself.”
“Nu?” his father asked. “So maybe it’s too good to be true. Eretz Yisroel it’s not,” she retorted. “She wants the Messiah should come in her own lifetime. You think he’s got nothing else to keep him busy, he should think only of you night and day?” his father objected, fondly.
Even now it pleased Jeremiah to remember their joy. His mother had died that next winter, so thin her skin seemed to let a pale light shine out through it from within her body. The land he bought started to appreciate immediately. In the fifties and sixties it gained in value beyond his wildest dreams. In the seventies, its worth quadrupled again. If he was now a multi-millionaire, it was not by greed or grasping or even by particularly penetrating calculation. Something inscrutable in the order of things, beyond the orb of personal influence, had ordained him wealthy. It was as if, by a hidden principle of justice, he was the recipient of compensation paid for the collective sorrows and travails of his people over the ages.
This idea, deeply rooted in him, influenced naturally the second use to which he put his surplus capital. He could not remember a time when he had not been a Zionist. The concentration camps had missed him. He had not been in the front lines in 1948. But he had been responsible for smuggling a considerable quantity of arms from the United States to Israel. It had been wholly illegal. But that had given him no qualms. They’d packed the guns and ammunition in crates marked, “MACHINE TOOLS.” Irving Kronenberg had gotten his friend Tomasek, who owned a shop and was also a fervent Czech patriot, to let them ship under his name. Jeremiah had paid the port officials in New York to wink at the cargo.
Israel was a miracle. It had grown and prospered.† It lived in a continuous state of mortal crisis. That was not so important as the simple fact that it lived, provided a haven into which Jews could be gathered from their far flung predicaments. Now the light had faded entirely from the horizon. The night was dark. The noise of the plane had become a settled drone. Jeremiah stretched in his seat and felt sleepy. Estelle was ten years dead. She had died in the springtime, in May. Life had tricked him and left him with what had been an unbearable burden of loneliness. But, within five years, it had passed. Or he had gotten used to it. What was left, then, was a peculiar kind of freedom. Whatever he did, he risked only himself. And he had already tasted most of what was best that life had to offer.
He made the corners of his mouth into a wry grin, all private in his seat in the first class lounge up on top of the world. If there was such a thing as the international Zionist conspiracy, he was it. And what was he? An old man with, so far as he knew, malice toward none in his heart. He traveled the world, maintaining contact between the Jews of the Diaspora and Israel. The relationship was vital to both, for Israel could not survive without the sustenance and subtlety of Jews of the Diaspora any more than in unpredictable hours of crisis the Jews of the Diaspora would be able to survive without an avenue of retreat.
He was a wandering Jew, only he wandered the air.
Argentina had very strict currency regulations. Their enforcement was variable. The generals and their cronies had no difficulty slipping huge sums of money out of the country, to Spain, to numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. The most influential of the labor leaders behaved no differently.
Prominence was a risk. Like all risks, it demanded a hedge.
Enforcement of the currency regulations against Jews who wished to contribute to the sustenance of Israel was another matter altogether. It was pursued with a zeal that verged on the inquisitorial. Some Jews had done well in Argentina. Since their good fortune was viewed as a form of treachery, any proof of their infringement of a currency regulation served to establish what was already dogma. Kravitz had been an undercover courier. When he turned up dead in his hotel room, his wallet was left undisturbed. Certain papers and his luggage had disappeared. His body was flown back to Israel. Sophisticated pathological testing revealed the presence in his body of tiny amounts of an exotic poison. Of course, there was no legal recourse.
Jeremiah was scheduled to give a series of talks about Israel to Jewish groups scattered across the country. He had been twice before to Argentina, but never ventured beyond the giant metropolis of Buenos Aires. The prospect of the vastness of Argentina excited him. Who knew what lay in store for him? He had been told he was simply to accept whatever was given to him. The less he knew, the safer he was.
People were disappearing every day in Argentina. Vigilantes of the left and right were cooperating to wage a savage civil war. The whole populace of ordinary people who wished simply to attend to their private destinies was, as usual, trapped in between. Jeremiah could disappear, too. That he was a foreign national, a citizen of the United States as well as of Israel, offered no guarantee of safety. In fact, it might well put him at higher risk.
A strange thought crossed his mind in the taxi from the airport to the hotel. Because Aryeh and Pinchas were at some distance, this was a moment of danger. Was he, Jeremiah wondered, seeking his own doom? With cabbage ears and eyebrows like slashes of black shoe polish, the cab driver had a pug’s face. He bobbed his head, as if eluding unseen punches, smiled and chattered on in Spanish, oblivious to the fact that Jeremiah had no idea what he was saying.
Suppose he was expected, as most likely Kravitz had been? Suppose the taxi driver was a ringer? Suppose he was an unreconstructed Nazi who had simply blended into the Argentine landscape over the years?
Jeremiah had an instant of private terror, during which he felt the sweat break out on his palms. The taxi screeched to a halt at a red light. He had to throw his hand out to brace himself against the back of the seat as he was thrown forward. The taxi driver gestured at the light and pounded his fist against the dashboard. A tango was playing on the radio.
The moment passed and the fear ebbed. Partly it was the intoxication of being immersed in a new city. Partly it was a process more personal. Native to the New World, Jeremiah, the youngest son, had set out to be different than his father, a project in which he’d been underwritten by his entire family. If they were both preoccupied with law, it was not the same law. Yet, in these last few months, pieces of his long dead father would come floating up from within him and demand to be recognized.
For three weeks a tune haunted him. He couldn’t quite place it. It was like an image ever so slightly out of focus. Then, waking up one bright morning in Jerusalem, he remembered it was the tune his father used to hum to himself as he combed his long white beard in preparation for the Sabbath. As Jeremiah walked through the old city, he felt a certain posture take hold of him, his neck making a precise angle with his trunk, his torso tilted forward just so, his hands clasped in the small of his back. It was his father’s posture when he was lost in thought.
Jeremiah found in himself a passivity, a capacity simply to abide, that was new and also familiar, as if it had been there all along, waiting. If his life was in the hands of the Almighty, then what was the point of fear? It was as if a merger had occurred over the years. No less himself, Jeremiah felt a closeness with his father, his fathers. Although the shadow he cast was still single, Jeremiah did not have to go quite alone.
On the fourth day in Buenos Aires, at a reception at Anshe Zedek synagogue, Jeremiah saw her. He had just given a speech. He had the capacity to move an audience, to breath life and fire into it. It wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it. He knew where the strings of the heart were and how to put the bow to them. It seemed to him he had always known this. Maybe his mother had taught him before he was even aware of learning. Maybe it was a gift, near musical, he had brought with him into the world. Yet, like any other virtuoso performance, it took effort.
On this particular evening, despite the fact that his complexion was ruddy and he was beaming, the effort had left him feeling a little sad, a little bit drained, even a little bit sorry for himself. The last rays of the sun set the stained glass windows of the hall’s western exposure aglow. Anshe Zedek was a wealthy congregation of merchants, industrialists, financiers, doctors, lawyers and professors. The windows on both the eastern and the western walls were not by Chagall but abstract, by Yarmolinsky, a Littvak who had come to Argentina after the first world war and made a living as a gaucho on the pampas for the first decade he was in the country.
Food was laid out along a table clad in white linen. Pinchas was spreading chopped liver on a piece of pumpernickel. Pinchas’ back was to Jeremiah, but, even so, there was no mistaking the power of those shoulders. As Pinchas turned and bit into the chopped liver, his eyes sought and found Jeremiah, then quickly scanned the room. Pinchas’ beard was black as coal.
It was as black as her hair. She wore a scarlet dress. Before he ever saw her face, she had captured his imagination. It was a quality of her movement. It was swift and sweet, precise and inventive. She was young and yet in full possession of herself. She said something to Pinchas. The top of her head did not reach up to his chin. As she addressed him, she presented her profile to Jeremiah.
Pinchas was merely polite. He ducked his head and tilted it, listening. He smiled. He gestured with his free hand, finished devouring the chopped liver. Jeremiah did not take his eyes off her. She wasn’t a girl, but a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, perhaps in her late twenties. Jeremiah couldn’t help himself. Even with bifocals, his vision wasn’t as good as it had once been. He started across the room. He wanted to be near her. He wanted to see her face.
Unfortunately, very early in his progress across the room he bumped into Lazaro Cohen, one of the wealthiest and most influential men not only of the congregation of Anshe Zedek but of the entire Jewish community of Argentina. Lazaro Cohen was a man in his late fifties, just an inch or two taller than Jeremiah himself, with a hooked nose and shrewd mistrustful hazel eyes that yet had an uncanny depth to them. Jeremiah had not yet been introduced to him, but he had had Lazaro Cohen pointed out to him. Lazaro Cohen had made his fortune in plastics after the war, then branched out into shipping. He had a reputation as a commercial genius. He was said to have flourished trading on the spot oil market.
There was no alternative but to stop and talk. Lazaro Cohen was in his shirt sleeves.† He had a black yarmulka perched on top of his head, slightly off center. He still had hair. Jeremiah’s eyes fell on Lazaro Cohen’s forearm. It was unmistakable, faintly blue gray, a series of digits tattooed indelibly into the skin. Jeremiah remembered what else he had been told. Lazaro Cohen had survived Dachau, where his four brothers and sisters as well as his parents had perished.
It was always a shock to discover those digits. Jeremiah remembered a late spring day twenty years earlier when he had stopped for a corned beef sandwich in a tiny place a few blocks from the boardwalk in then rundown and ramshackle Atlantic City. It was before the casinos came. It had been already hot, a summer day ahead of its time. He was looking at a parcel of land which, in the event, he hadn’t bought. The woman who waited on him was just about his own age. She was very thin. He had been struck by the fact that she was wearing a long sleeved blouse. It was only when she reached for the knife to spread the mustard on the rye for his sandwich that he saw the number and understood the long sleeves.
He had wished he hadn’t seen. He spent the rest of the day brooding on it, although that wasn’t like him and he didn’t know a thing about the woman. For all he knew, she was happy. Maybe it was because of her that he hadn’t bought that particular parcel of land. When he’d gotten back to his hotel in the city that night, he’d had a splitting headache.
There was nothing shy about Lazaro Cohen.
“They tell me you want to see the real Argentina and what lies beyond the facade of these modern cities, what lies locked in the heart of this great land.”
He spoke in Yiddish, the indispensable lingua franca, but even so a rhetorical flamboyance that was Latin and belonged to the history and destiny of his adopted land came through. What was his own, the distillate of his own remarkable and unfathomable experience, was the tinge of irony, the sense that speech and meaning were layered, that surfaces were never to be trusted for they might give way to reveal abysses at any moment.
“I want to see where Jews live and how they live,” he said simply.
This was true. He was curious to see where Jews might be dropped, deposited as by the wind, what they might become and still remain, at the core, Jews with the essential preoccupations of Jews. How was it his father had once put it, apparently in jest?
He almost heard the words in his father’s voice.
“To be a Jew is to argue with men in the name of the Lord and to argue with the Lord in the name of men, but at least to argue, always without taking for granted that you know what you are arguing about, for the Lord has surprises and wonders beyond imagination or number.”
Lazaro Cohen was measuring Jeremiah with his eyes. Jeremiah felt those eyes found him wanting. “You must come for dinner to our home,” Lazaro Cohen said, staccato.
“I’d be delighted,” Jeremiah replied, but with a sense of unease.
They settled on an evening. Lazaro Cohen promised to send a car around to pick him up. Suddenly, then, Lazaro Cohen became preoccupied. His nostrils twitched, as if he were sniffing for danger. He furled his brow, cast a glance at his watch. Abruptly, he asked Jeremiah to excuse him. He was gone after less than a minute’s conversation.
The woman in the scarlet dress was nowhere to be seen. Jeremiah didn’t know her name. He didn’t even know what she really looked like. He had had only a glimpse. So he was at a loss as to how to inquire about her. If he hadn’t been at a loss, he would still have been embarrassed to ask. What, after all, was the nature of his interest in her?
He was old. She was young.
Feeling just slightly strained, Jeremiah plunged back into the familiar business of socializing, pressing this hand, beaming at that face, appreciating an anecdote, choosing the right story to tell in response. He was a hit. He almost always was.
One old lady grasped his thumb with her whole hand, squeezed it hard, as if she meant to milk from it life itself. Her back was bent. Her neck no longer quite supported the weight of her head, which drooped forward so that her nose was nearly level with the line of her shoulders. A slight hump was rising in her back. Her hair was white, thin and wispy. And yet, although it seemed virtually unimaginable given present appearances, Jeremiah was sure that, in her time, she had been beautiful, so that now in the midst of sorrows and decay dreams and memories mingled to make a sweet deceitful music to keep her company.
Jeremiah mentioned to Eli Adolfino, himself a lawyer, that he had agreed to have dinner at the home of Lazaro Cohen. Adolfino was surprised. Lazaro Cohen’s wife had gastric cancer. She was terminally ill, kept alive only by hyperalimentation. Lazaro Cohen changed the bags himself, every twelve hours. He had once been a plump, prosperous looking man. With his wife’s illness and other troubles in the family, he had lost an alarming amount of weight. Yet, his mind remained as sharp as ever. He managed his business affairs impeccably. He could always be counted on to help out with a communal project. He had only one requirement, which was that his name be kept out of it.
Although Jeremiah wanted to know what the other troubles in the family were, his tact was automatic. Eli Adolfino had already told him a lot. To ask more was to presume.
In the days before he was to go to Lazoro Cohen’s home for dinner, Jeremiah found his mind going back again and again to that evening at Anshe Zedek. Who was the woman in scarlet?† Why did it seem to make so much difference to him? Why was he so interested? Why did she turn up in his dreams? Why were his dreams suddenly so vivid and compelling that he looked forward each evening to the time when, released from waking, he would be able to re-enter those charmed provinces?
On the morning of the day he was to go to Lazaro Cohen’s, Jeremiah, normally a sound sleeper, woke in a cold sweat at 3AM. His heart was pounding and he was breathing fast. He had a sensation of pressure that was almost pain in his chest. At first, he was convinced he was having a heart attack. He had trouble remembering where he was. When he was able to place himself, the idea that he deserved to die in Argentina came to him.
Why? How had he sinned? Was it simply that he had not suffered enough, that he had been too fortunate?
His breathing slowed. The tightness in his chest eased and faded away. He wiped his brow. He could still feel his heart racing. It was a warm night. He had been sleeping with the window open. His hotel overlooked a small park with a statue of a horse and military rider. The moon cast a pale light. Even though it was just a few minutes after three, birds were already beginning to sing. He heard fragments of high bright sound, not a chorus, but individual voices.
He slept in the nude, with only the sheet to cover him. His penis was fully erect, throbbing. It tented the sheet up over it as if it were a pole protuding from his groin. Nothing like this had happened to him in years. He had once heard it said, he could not remember when or by whom, that it was written in the Kabbalah that just prior to his death all a man’s passions came back to visit him so that he could savor for a moment just what this life was that was about to forsake him and that, in this moment, a man might gain a glimpse of the true order of the Creation behind the tumult of ordinary everyday appearances and events.
He was thirsty and he wanted a glass of water.
Just as he was about to slide out of bed, the dream came back to him.
He was a small boy. Jerusalem was on fire. The fire raged in the city and on the surrounding hills, flames dancing up against the pale distant sky. He was trying to escape alone from the old city. There was confusion everywhere. It was not modern Jerusalem, but rather a mixture of the Jerusalems of different eras, so that people running in panic through the streets and alleyways wore different garb and spoke different languages. An invader was at the gate, but different people had different ideas of who it might be.
Jeremiah was looking for his father, for he meant to save him if he could.
It was getting hotter and hotter.
He caught sight of a woman dressed all in red. She was slim and quick and she had jet black hair. He never glimpsed her face. She beckoned him to follow her. He did, running through the flames, the panic, the heat. He ran with all his might, until, in the dream, he felt that his heart would burst within his chest.
The woman in red turned suddenly through an ancient stone archway into a courtyard. Under a fig tree in its center lay an old man. A lion with a tawny mane stood guard over him. At the sight of the woman, the lion roused himself. He took a threatening step towards her and let out a tremendous roar, showing his teeth. The earth shook as the lion roared. The woman in red caught fire and vanished.
The lion lay down beside the old man and began immediately to sleep.
The old man was Jeremiah’s father, serene in the midst of all that was going on around him. Jeremiah tried to wake him. There was no way to do it. He tried to wake the lion. There was no way to wake the lion. He watched the lion’s rib cage. The lion wasn’t breathing. He looked at his father’s rib cage. It wasn’t moving.
The woman in red looked down on him from a branch of the fig tree.
That was when he awakened in terror.
Immediately, he connected the woman in red of his dreams with the young woman in scarlet whom he’d glimpsed at Anshe Zedek. Why should a woman whom he’d barely seen make such an impression on him?
He had no explanation.
What did the dream mean? Dreams had never particularly interested him.† He wasn’t sure that they meant anything at all. He had never shared the penchant for trying to unravel hidden meanings. What he had always loved about life was its surface.
And yet the dream was tantalizing. It was convincing from within, without appeal to reason and argument. It was convincing without appeal to any law.
When he entered the large living room at Lazaro Cohen’s home, a magnificent structure occupying a walled compound of some fifty acres at the edge of the city, and was greeted by a young woman with jet black hair who was unmistakably the same person of whom he had caught a glimpse that evening at Anshe Zedek, Jeremiah was virtually struck dumb.
He never had a chance effectively to recover.
Rosa’s mother did not appear for dinner. Rosa did not talk.
Lazaro Cohen and Jeremiah discussed the state of world Judaism, the conditions in Israel.
“Nothing on earth is stable. Nothing on earth is secure,” Lazaro Cohen said. “Even love can fuel the whirlwind.”
Jeremiah had the impression Lazaro was referring to his daughter and found that he was keenly interested. Jeremiah was glad he had come to Argentina, even though for the moment he had entirely forgotten about the mission that had brought him from so far away.
Why didn’t Rosa speak?
She’d been forward enough the other night at Anshe Zedek. Pinchas had been the reticent one. Like many sabras, he had an instinctual aversion to deviations from the mental norm. This rankled Jeremiah, creature of the Diaspora that he was, even as he could not help but admire it. It took so much for granted.
Was Rosa mentally ill, emotionally unbalanced? Or was it that her mind was on her mother, who might be at this very moment lying upstairs in agony, hoping against hope for death as deliverance from pain, that most pressing of all the world’s immediacies?
Plaintive and promising all at the same time, a fantasia of melancholy gripped Jeremiah.† Even as he ate, he felt inordinately tired. Vague figures saturated in colors at once intense and muted, glowing from within like denizens of a sunless deep, resolved themselves against an indefinite background, then flowed one into the next, as if each partook of a primitive magma, a common effort to solve an elemental riddle.
Jeremiah had an intuition of connections lost. Without a word, Rosa got up after dessert. Her face held for an instant the trace of an expression, possibly regret, as if she were sensible of the implicit discourtesy of her silence but, due to the magnitude of her own personal crisis, powerless to do anything about it beyond pleading, and obliquely at that, unspecifiable mitigating circumstances.
Lazaro Cohen sighed after she left the table. It was barely audible. It seemed to escape him without his being aware of it. An observer less accustomed to attend to small cues to others’ inner states than Jeremiah might well have missed it.
Lazaro Cohen rose from his chair and invited Jeremiah to follow him into a mahogany paneled study for cigars and coffee. With a gesture of his thin right arm, he motioned Jeremiah into a huge dark leather armchair, cool, yielding and deep. Before Lazaro sat down, he offered Jeremiah a Havana cigar, Baron de Rothschild size, from before the days of Fidel. Jeremiah lifted one out from the humidor, even though he did not normally smoke. This was, he sensed, a special occasion.
Without relaxing his aura of vigilance, Lazaro Cohen subsided into a duplicate of the armchair Jeremiah occupied. This one was older in appearance. Though it still kept its luster, the leather had myriad wrinkles, like an aged face that has known cares beyond counting. This, Jeremiah assumed, was where Lazaro Cohen sat habitually after dinner and pondered. It was a beautiful spring evening. The sun was going down, streaming across the lawn whose green expanse was broken by irregular golden clusters of naturalized daffodils. Birds were singing. Away from the western horizon, the sky was as blue and fragile as a robin’s egg.
The matches hissed against the surrounding quiet as they caught fire. The two men puffed in silence. Jeremiah watched the pattern of light and shade out the window to avoid intruding on Lazaro Cohen.
A servant brought espresso. Next to the cup was a small golden spoon. The aroma of the coffee was dark and fierce. It mingled with the mahogany color of the wood of the walls, the soft smooth sombre flavor of the cigar. The gold spoon caught a ray of light from the window, shone.
“Of course,” Lazaro Cohen began, sighing, this time apparently quite well aware of what he did, “you have noticed that the atmosphere of this house is poisonous.”
Lazaro spoke as a man does when he is struggling to gain the courage to unburden himself. Jeremiah was a stranger. Yet he was less surpised by Lazaro’s urge to take him into his confidence than he might have expected himself to be. Who knew what thoughts Lazaro had thought as he sat in that leather armchair? Jeremiah had had a relatively easy life. He had never been seriously tested. Fortune had smiled on him. Fortune had smiled, too, on Lazaro Cohen. But it was a crooked smile.
“I’m going to ask you a favor. I hope you will feel free to refuse me. But it is not really in the first instance for myself that I am going to ask it, so perhaps my request is a legitimate one,” Lazaro continued, not meeting Jeremiah’s gaze.
“In order to ask, I have to tell you at least a little bit about myself and my circumstances, circumstances which have a long history. As you probably already know, I came here to this country immediately after the war. I don’t know why I survived. But I did and that was a fact. My entire family was dead, so far as I knew. My coming here wasn’t a question of plan. It was pure chance. At that time, I wasn’t really able to think. When pain and loss are too close, you can’t think. I suppose that I wanted to leave Europe and all that I had experienced there behind, as if such a thing were possible. But when one is young and desperate, one can not help but have illusions. It’s through just those illusions that life makes its demands. I came here to Argentina simply because a visa was available. I knew nothing about Argentina. I had to look at a map to see where it was.”
He puffed at his cigar. The end glowed red as a brand.
“I was lonelier than I knew. I was possessed with the urge to make something of myself, not solely for myself, but for the sake of all those others just like me who would never have the chance. I thought of myself as a kind of representative of the dead, a creature of ashes if you will. I didn’t see their faces or hear their voices. That came only many years later. I was too close to it all, then.† I was possessed by them and I didn’t sleep well. After I had saved a little money, I bought a short wave radio. When I had trouble falling asleep or a dream woke me up, I would lie in bed and listen to these disembodied voices from all around the world. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was listening to the voices of the living or the dead, real men and women or their ghosts.
This habit has stayed with me. I prospered. That wasn’t difficult. Work distracted me. Money meant next to nothing to me. I had had so little. I knew all that I earned could be wiped out in an instant. So I didn’t worry. I simply did what there was to be done and awaited the outcome. I helped others out as best I could. I never passed an orphan in the street without handing out a few coins. I thought often of marrying and having a family. It seemed an enormous step. I doubted whether it was an honorable thing to do to bring innocent children into this world. The project of marriage remained for years a fantasy, alluring and galling both at the same time.”
He shifted his posture in the chair, letting Jeremiah know he was about to move closer to the core of what he had to say. Jeremiah rearranged himself, too, stole a glance out the window, as if to maintain a measure of detachment.
“I met my wife in the wintertime, in July it was. I had stopped in a cafe for something to eat. It was early in the evening. Outside, a few flakes of snow were drifting down from a gray sky. The cafe was nearly empty. In addition to the waiters, there were not more than three or four other customers besides myself. The ambiance was very European. A young woman was sitting at a table just a few feet from mine, all alone. She sat very still, as if she were brooding or waiting for someone else. There was something about the quality of her silence, the quality of her physical stillness that attracted me. Never before in my life had I approached a young woman alone in public like this.”
Lazaro Cohen shook his head, as if he were seeing it all new again in his mind’s eye and remained just as puzzled as he had felt all those years ago.
“Why did I approach her then? Who can truly say? Memory’s real job is to falsify the past. Yet, it seems to me I must have approached her because she seemed already familiar. My heart pounded in my chest. My hands shook. I hadn’t been so frightened since the early days in the camp. It seemed to me a very important step I was taking. I was embarrassed because my Spanish was still contaminated with an accent, a trace of Europe. Her Spanish was perfect. I remember nothing of what we said to each other, only that as we talked I found it impossible to gauge her reaction to me. This made me feel as helpless as a fish out of water who is powerless to prevent himself from thrashing. She finished her meal and made a motion as if she were ready to go. This filled me with terror. I asked her if she could give me an address, some means by which I might go about contacting her. I had no experience in these matters. I expected her to refuse with indignation. Yet I had to ask. To my astonishment, she took a fountain pen out from her purse and wrote her address down on a slip of cream colored paper for me. She said she lived with an aunt. Then she smiled at me and disappeared.”
A smile’s ghost flickered about Lazaro Cohen’s lips, accentuating by contrast the anguish that was contained in the rest of his features.
“I was flattered. I was excited. I was on top of the world. Something had been awakened in me whose existence I had never previously suspected.”
Jeremiah was struck by the parallel between what Lazaro Cohen was recounting and what had happened to him when his eyes chanced to fall on Rosa Cohen that night at Anshe Zedek. He was aware that he and Lazaro Cohen were now sharing between them an excitement that was almost sexual. Or perhaps it was sexual. As he hung on Lazaro Cohen’s words, Jeremiah felt a stirring in his loins. Out the window the light was softening and the edges of the shadows were not so sharp as they had been.
“You see,” Lazaro Cohen said very softly, resignation in his voice, “the worst thing about the camps is something that is never discussed, because even to hint at it is to feel a certain sense of self-revulsion, as if one’s own skin was disgusting. Perhaps it shouldn’t be discussed. Perhaps not discussing it minimizes the damage. I don’t know. Some things belong in the darkness and should be left there.”
Jeremiah remained silent.
“The worst thing about the camps,” Lazaro Cohen pronounced, meeting Jeremiah’s eyes for just a second before he broke his gaze away, “is that they were successful. They made us feel less than human, as if we were the representatives of a dark and evil force, some wretched ambition against the natural order of things that had somehow wormed its way into history. We loathed ourselves every bit as much as we loathed our keepers, if not more.
“You see, it had to do with the dependence. We were absolutely dependent on our oppressors. We were dependent on them in the way babies are dependent on their mothers. We had no recourse. For whatever reason, they were all we had. They made up our entire world. We needed them so much more than they needed us. There was no doubt about it. They looked so much better than we did. They looked like human beings, however inhuman their actions were. We knew they had homes and children and families. We knew they had food. That was the most important thing of all. They had food. They went to bed at night warm with full bellies. That made them better than us. We knew it in our bellies.
“We confided part of ourselves to them. In a secret, terribly urgent and terribly shameful way, when we looked at them, we didn’t only hate and fear and loath them. We also loved them. We loved them as our last link to what it was to be human, to stay human and plump.
“I remember once I went to the race track. I owned a share in a beautiful bay stallion. I forget his name now. It was twenty years ago. I bought the share because it was the time when Rosa was crazy about horses. We had five at home even though Rebecca was frightened of them. She always worried that Rosa would be thrown and break her neck and be paralyzed from then on. But I thought we couldn’t afford to be so afraid.”
Lazaro looked rueful, like a very small child who sticks his lower lip out and pouts.
“Anyway, I went to place a bet on the horse, not for me, but for Rosa. I always bet on the horses for Rosa. Whatever she won, I put in an account for her. I did much better picking horses for Rosa, I think, then I ever would have done picking them for myself. This was during one of those times when I couldn’t sleep. It had been going on for three or four months. I was up most of most nights listening to the radio. I placed the bet and then walked back out to the track. There he was, that beautiful bay stallion in the parade to the post, kicking up his back legs and trying to throw his jockey as if he wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.
“I felt nauseated. I broke out in a cold sweat. Because, in my mind, I made the connection. This bay stallion looked like one of the guards at the camp, a young strong fellow with smooth easy features, full of life and good cheer, visibly thriving every bit as much as we were visibly dwindling. I don’t remember the horse’s name, but I do remember the camp guard’s name. They called him Karl Friederich. He had a devil may care grace, too.
“The camp guards had a soccer pitch. They made it on a green field just down a hill from where we were kept. We could watch them playing soccer. I think they knew that. I think it increased the savor of the game for them. But I remember how green the grass looked in the evening, how green and distant and beautiful, as if it were the grass on another planet, each blade as precious as emeralds because it was inaccessible. I always rooted for Karl Friederich to score a goal. No, it was more than rooting. I would stand there, right at the fence and I would watch and, for those few moments, whether Karl Friederich scored a goal became the most important thing in my life. It blotted everything else away, even hunger, as if my spirit floated out of my body and floated through the barbed wire fences and entered into Karl Friederich, so that I became him.
“I would have done anything for him. It was love, certainly, but the most hideous kind of love. We agreed with them. We were responsible for all troubles, all disappointments, all imperfections. We wanted a better world and our part in the bettering of the world was to take all that was wrong, all the hurt and all the horror into ourselves. We were prepared to cooperate, not all the time but some of the time. It seemed sometimes that we were behind the fences because we were not good enough at hating, try as we might do. This made a crazy kind of sense. Because we were not ourselves good enough at hating, we deserved to be the hated and the despised. Only when Rebecca smiled at me that day in the cafe did I begin to have an inkling of all this and start to be able to begin to doubt. By the way, after I made the connection between that beautiful bay stallion and Karl Friederich, I never went back to the track. It was ruined forever.
Very soon, too, Rosa gave up her interest in horses.
Lazaro puffed again.
“It’s a strange story, how I met Rebecca. You see, I lost the piece of paper. Normally, that wouldn’t have been any problem, because I have a virtually photographic memory. But I couldn’t remember this address. I couldn’t remember the aunt’s name. I was bereft. Search as I might, I couldn’t recover a trace. I felt like a man who has let go of the line that keeps him afloat and now is sure that he will sink. I ate dinner in that same cafe every evening for the next three months. I asked after the girl. None of the waiters knew anything about her. Evidently that was the only time she’d ever been in there. I slept even less than before. I think this was the closest I have ever come to being a true madman. It’s hope that makes us feel despair. I lay awake at night trying to remember that address, trying to imagine what might have become of that slip of paper. I had no success. I used work to keep myself going, sometimes arriving there well before dawn. If it hadn’t been for work, I don’t know what would have become of me. Finally, after three months of this, I made myself take myself in hand. I had lost weight and I looked gaunt and haggard. I stopped going to the cafe. I stopped thinking about her all the time. Not a day went by when she didn’t cross my mind, but it no longer had the force of an obsession.”
Lazaro bit his lip, as if he needed pain to push down the feelings that telling this story brought back.
“In this life, there’s no rest. We never know what the next day will bring, for better or for worse. I managed to stop thinking about her at all after six or nine months. I went back into a state of numbness. It was one year later, to the day. I happened to be walking around three in the afternoon no more than two blocks from that cafe. I saw her coming towards me on the street. I thought I was dreaming. I thought I had taken leave of my senses. The possibility that I had gone over the edge panicked me, so that I don’t think that I would have been able to say anything, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I saw her look up and recognize me. I saw the expression on her face change, mingle regret with astonishment and embarrassment. In a flash, I realized what a cruel and self-centered person I was. In all those hours and days, those weeks and months of being in anguish over what I had let slip through my fingers, I had never even for an instant stopped to consider what it might seem like to her that I had never called, that I had simply ignored her.”
“Would you like some brandy?” he asked Jeremiah.
It was clear to Jeremiah that Lazaro’s motive in offering was that Lazaro himself needed a respite from his narrative, a chance to gather himself to continue. Jeremiah accepted. Lazaro got up and opened a cabinet, from which he took a bottle of cognac. He poured Jeremiah a snifter and then one for himself. It was very special cognac, smooth and deep. Waiting for Lazaro to resume speaking, Jeremiah held the glass with the amber liquid up to his nose. There was a poignant contrast between the luxury of the surroundings and the demeanor of Lazaro Cohen and his daughter, the plight of his wife. Would they have been, Jeremiah found himself wondering, better off without all of this, or did it simply make no difference at all?
In many ways had not his own father, for all his limitations, really been a happier man than he was? Something in the aroma of the cognac brought this question to mind, muted his pride so that he could consider it without feeling himself dangerously diminished.
“This perception of my own cruelty gave me strength. I grabbed her arm, much to her surprise, and began to tell her how terribly sorry I was that I had lost the slip of paper with her name and address on it. I hoped she would consent to accept my apology, I said. I had no intention to hurt or slight. I was desperately glad to have had the remarkably good fortune to run into her again. Will she come and have a cup of coffee with me, or a drink, or anything at all, but simply come and sit with me for a few minutes? I am near tears.”
Lazaro Cohen had slipped into the present tense as he came to this climactic point of his narrative, so vivid was the experience for him even in the retelling. He took a deep breath and sipped his cognac. His cigar lay in the ashtray by his side.
“Unlike me, Rebecca was quite calm. If my outburst seemed unusual to her, she didn’t show it in any way. She simply said that she had wondered why I did not call, but assumed that I had been busy with other things. She said that she had read of my success in business and was pleased for me. We went back to the cafe. We sat and talked. We had dinner. Three months later, we were married.”
Lazaro shrugged his shoulders.
“Those were the old days. We didn’t behave like the kids do now, because we didn’t know how. So we were both surprised on our wedding night. I hadn’t told her that I’d been in the camps. I had simply told her that I was an orphan. She said she was, too. Neither of us was exactly lying. Neither of us had wanted to reawaken the horror. A deep shame had kept each of us from speaking. So we were both stunned when we saw that the other one had a tattoo on the arm. She was a virgin. I was, too. We slept together that night and then we lay awake until the dawn, talking, telling what it had been like, crying in each other’s arms, marveling that we were alive to see the sun come up and that we should have found each other. I think it must have been that very night that Rosa was conceived. We wanted sons, too. We wanted a large family. Ten or twelve children would have been fine with us. We wanted to repopulate the world, as if we were repairing the devastation of the flood. Only this was worse than the flood had been. But Rosa turned out to be the only child we got, for Rebecca never conceived again. This cast a pall not only on our lives, but on Rosa’s too, because she meant too much to both of us, more than any child should have to bear.
She was, in a way, our resurrection. We could not help ourselves. We were, after all, victims, too. We smothered her. Not that we didn’t love her. We did. We loved her so much that we always feared for her, feared for the least little thing. Without knowing it, without in the least suspecting it, we made it her responsibility to comfort us and prove to us that life was worth living when we had terrible doubts. This was an invisible process, something that grew up among the three of us without anyone willing it. We forced her to dissemble, to counterfeit for our sakes. She was a vivid little girl, a beauty, and as quick as they come, too quick, too intuitive for her own good. She soaked us and all that we had brought with us up like a sponge. And she seemed always perfectly in possession of herself, perfectly competent, perfectly attuned.”
Lazaro Cohen laughed, not in merriment, but rather in sorrow and self-deprecation.
“Our ills always have longer histories than we like to think. Six years ago Rosa fell in love with a nice young man. He was studying in the United States to be a doctor. He was the son of one of the leading Jewish families in Buenos Aires. Who could ask for anything more? Rosa was radiant. We had never seen her so beautiful. Her mother and I stifled the pangs of parental sorrow. After all, these were not the first pangs of sorrow either one of us has ever had to stifle. We resigned ourselves to losing her and looked forward to having grandchildren. We even accepted the idea that she would go to live in the United States while her husband finished his training. We told ourselves it would be good for her to live away from us. She would have a chance simply to be young and happy. In our hearts we may secretly have envied her, but, if we did, we weren’t aware of it.”
Lazaro finished his cognac.
“How ironic it is,” Lazaro continued, licking his lips, “that the shepherd should fall asleep just when the wolf prowls nearest. The wedding was an elegant affair. I asked my friend Rabbi Raphael Merino to preside, but he was ill. So we did not offend the social sensibilities of my fellows from Anshe Zedek. The young couple spent three weeks by the sea. They came back to bid us good-bye before they left for Boston. Rosa wept and left. Her mother and I wept, too. But in our hearts we were pleased that she seemed so radiantly happy. We were proud of ourselves that we had produced such a wonderful daughter, even though such pride is not easy for either one of us. It brings too much fear along with it.”
Lazaro’s speech was clipped now.
“The first inkling we had that anything was wrong came when Rosa stopped writing every week. Her reticence hurt us, but we told ourselves that it was necessary. Then, a note of strain crept into the letters that we did receive. We tried to tell ourselves this was simply our imagination at work making troubles where in fact there were none. We tried to tell ourselves it was simply our missing her that made us lend the letters such an ominous tone. We went twice to visit.† Everything seemed all right. Rosa spoke of wanting to have children. We wondered whether she might already be pregnant but too shy to tell us. We considered going back for her husband’s graduation from medical school. Rosa discouraged this, just as he discouraged his parents from coming.”
Lazaro’s voice started to shake.
“He began his internship. He was gone one night out of three. Rosa became uneasy about the school’s failure to send him his diploma. He showed no signs of worry himself and became annoyed whenever she brought the subject up. She discounted this, thinking that he was working very hard and had other things on his mind. So, one morning early in September, she called the school to see what had happened to the diploma. She was only trying to help him out by taking care of the bothersome little chores for which he had no time. They said they had never heard of her husband. He had never been enrolled at that school. She called the hospital where he was working. They said they had never heard of him either. It was all a massive fraud. When she confronted him, he showed absolutely no remorse. He told her that her shock and unhappiness were her own fault, because she would never have experienced them if she had not meddled in his affairs.”
Lazaro stopped. Jeremiah sighed.
“Oy,” Jeremiah said.
He looked up. Lazaro Cohen was biting his lip, hard. His eyes were narrowed. His chin shook. Yet, he was not weeping. The man’s tremendous determination was written all over his face. He could not, Jeremiah realized, allow himself the luxury of ordinary human sorrow. That was the measure of the deprivation he had endured.
Jeremiah looked away. He did not want to violate Lazaro Cohen’s privacy. He had been fooled at first by Lazaro Cohen’s manner. Jeremiah had thought him out-going, self-assured, a man who judged other men. Now he saw that the man’s demeanor was intended to protect others against what tormented him, the deep and all too well founded doubts.
Lazaro Cohen drew one sudden spasmodic breath, as close to crying as one can get without crossing over the border, and then took up again his story. The hand that did not hold his cigar was clenched into a fist.
“Without warning, Rosa arrived back in Buenos Aires. She was pale. She was thin. She looked as if she had not eaten in a month or more than a month. I can not describe to you how bad she looked. She looked like she had been horribly mistreated. I need not tell you the memories looking at her in this condition brought back to both of us. Of course, we were glad to have her back. We could not help a certain selfish pleasure. But in such condition…”
His voice trailed off.
“Her mother was distraught. I was distraught. I was furious. I was, I would have to say, near to being out of my mind with rage. I have never killed anyone, but if he had been near, if I could have gotten my hands on him, I would have killed him. If I had had the chance to kill him, I think that I would have enjoyed it. I would have savored the moment. But he was too smart to be near. I was furious, too, with Rosa’s father-in-law. He had nurtured the viper. I went to see him in his office. He knew nothing of the whole affair. I raged at him. What he heard from me was the first he’d heard. He tried to deny it. Then he was crushed. He said he would check on it himself. He insisted it was impossible. Yet, even as he insisted, I could see that he had to struggle with himself, for with what I told him, his worst fears were confirmed. He had known all along, without knowing that he knew, that his son was an imposter. Of course, a call to the United States proved that what I had told him was true. When I went back to see him the next week, he had aged twenty years. I felt sorry for him. Not only for him, but for myself. I think I had an inkling that the boy was a fake, too. You see, there was absolutely nothing disagreeable about him, nothing contrary. That’s simply unnatural.”
It was beginning to get dark. The outside world was slipping away.
“Rosa didn’t eat. Rosa didn’t sleep. Rosa wouldn’t talk. She could talk, but she wouldn’t. She sat still all day long, lost in her thoughts. No, it wasn’t as she is now. Now she listens. She attends. And some days she can be just as she was before all this happened. The spirit was gone. What was left was only the empty shell of a human being. Neither of us knew what to do about it. A psychiatrist suggested hospitalization. We refused that suggestion. We each blamed ourselves and, secretly, each one of us blamed the other. After what he had done to her, we weren’t going to let anyone else take her from us, no matter how noble the intentions were that they professed.”
Strong emotion left Lazaro Cohen’s voice.
“Rebecca started with stomach pains. We ignored them for a year. We called them sympathy pains. A mother and her only child are very close. Rosa ate only enough to stay alive, so her mother’s stomach hurt. Rebecca became thin, too. Finally, she went into the hospital for tests. An ulcer was diagnosed. Treatment helped only a little bit. She got thinner. Another eighteen months went by before we put her back in. This time there was no doubt. It was cancer of the stomach. Rosa insisted that we fight it. Maybe Rebecca and I went along because we were prepared to do anything to bring Rosa out of her state of shock or mourning or whatever it was. It was horrible, the surgery, the chemotherapy, the pain and, worst of all, the living on false hope. Now the end of it all is near.”
The last was said near a whisper.
“I think my friend Raphael understands something of all this, something of the pride and the misery that is involved. Perhaps he wasn’t sick at the time of the wedding. Perhaps he sensed the boy was an impostor. I recall he asked me if I was sure of him. I said I was. Of course it would have been useless for him to object. We do what we are intent upon doing without regard for the future. That’s our pride. I want you to take Rosa with you to see Raphael. Rebecca won’t last another week. Rosa has agreed that she will go. Rebecca wants her to go, too. Rebecca is saying good-bye to all of us. By now, she hardly seems aware of me.”
Thirteen days later, Jeremiah found himself, much to his own surprise, perched uncomfortably atop an old bay gelding as it plodded along a dirt path in the foothills of the Andes 80 kilometers west and north of the town of Calingasta. The bay, which knew the way by heart, was heading for the establishment of Rabbi Raphael Merino.
Rapahel Merino had been born in this region of Western Argentina and then chosen at the age of forty-five to return to it. He had been living in the same settlement now for seventeen years. Raphael Merino’s father had been an itinerant and near illiterate Jewish peddler, whose one passion in life was that his son should become an educated man.
They were a party of eleven horses. Barely forty-eight hours after Lazaro Cohen had unburdened himself to Jeremiah, Rebecca Cohen had breathed her last. She was buried the next day in a private graveside service. Rosa now rode just ahead of Jeremiah. Pinchas rode near the head of the column. Aryeh rode just behind Jeremiah.† They were accompanied by three Indian guides and four pack horses.
This was their second day on horseback. Jeremiah ached in every muscle, each sinew and joint. Again in the night, under the clear star frenzied mountain sky, he had dreamed of the woman in scarlet. He felt guilty that Lazaro Cohen should have entrusted his daughter to him, when his feelings towards her were so very impure. Yet, Jeremiah was enjoying the trip. The landscape was breathtaking. At each turn, there was a new vista of distant snow-capped peaks. The air was clean and crisp. It was as if they had wandered into another century. The people they saw were poor and lean but there was a stoic dignity in their eyes, an abiding patience you seldom saw in the city. They knew their destiny was simply to endure under the indifferent gaze of the far white peaks.
Rosa was no longer silent. She chattered with their guides in Spanish, kept them all in good spirits. Jeremiah could see Aryeh becoming hourly more taken with her. Pinchas alone was immune to her charms. A dark thought crossed Jeremiah’s mind. People who were resolved on suicide often showed a surprising gaiety just before the end. Might Rosa, now that her mother was dead, be planning suddenly to throw herself down one of those steep mountain defiles? If so, there would be no way to save her. This thought was enough to make Jeremiah’s face burn with the shame of his own helplessness. He did not let himself take his eyes off her.
Early in the afternoon of the third day, they reached their destination.† It was a small village of between thirty and forty small structures nestled in a high narrow valley. As they approached, they could hear the sound of water running over rock. The village was called, in one of the Indian languages, Initlopoco. It was a world all to itself, surrounded by mountains and sky.
Raphael Merino greeted them with evident pleasure. He spoke fluent Yiddish, so he and Jeremiah had no trouble communicating. He had a full head of curly brown hair and looked at least two decades younger than his years. He had studied in Spain and France and Italy, so he was a man of the world, in addition to being a Talmudic scholar of some note. Jeremiah wondered how Raphael Merino and Lazaro Cohen had crossed paths. They seemed such improbable friends, such different kinds of wanderers.
The settlement comprised approximately two hundred people, of whom two-thirds were Jewish and the rest were Indians. Initlopoco maintained a dispensary for the surrounding area, as well as a very small clinic, which was staffed by two young doctors from Leeds in England. Four young men lived in the house of Raphael Merino and studied with him. Also, there were ten or twelve unfortunates who were simply charges of the community. This was, Jeremiah thought, very much what the court of a very minor rabbi in Eastern Europe must have been like early in this century or in the one before it.
After a cup of tea, served by Raphael Merino’s wife, Jeremiah was shown to a small guest house, which had no bed, but rather only a large and beautifully woven hammock of many colors. One of Raphael Merino’s students, a slim, serious looking boy of twelve or thirteen, explained to Jeremiah how to lie in the hammock so that he would be comfortable. Jeremiah was dubious, but since he had little choice, he tried it. Part of the pleasure of the long nap that followed was the exotic setting.
When Jeremiah awakened, the sun was a ball of red just behind the peaks of the mountains. It made them glow like molten iron. It was as if the world was newly forged by an empyrean hand and just beginning to cool. He ached all over. Yet, he was strangely content. Never in his wildest dreams would he have been able to imagine the train of circumstances that led him to this remote perch in the Andes. An earthenware urn of water and a cloth had been left for him to use. As he washed, it occurred to him it was Friday evening. He found himself looking forward to the Sabbath service with real enthusiasm. In this place, it seemed an untamed God might lend an ear to the prayer and plaints of mere mortals.
In accordance with Orthodox custom, in this modest house of worship with a single window that faced east to Jerusalem, men and women were separated. The service had a quiet glow. Raphael Merino had a beautiful voice, so that in each Hebrew word he found music. He wooed the Sabbath Queen with all the power and guile of the most assured of tenors. Yet, he did it for the sheer joy of it, not for the thundering applause of any audience. Still, he held his congregation rapt.
When the service was over, the moon was a silver toenail in the sky. Jeremiah and Rosa and Aryeh and Pinchas went to the Rabbi’s house for a simple meal. They had brought flour with them as a gift. Raphael Merino’s wife thanked them for it. Jeremiah thought he had never tasted such challah in all his life. The conversation at the table flowed on in two tracks, some in Yiddish, some in Spanish, with occasional translations back and forth. Aryeh was seated next to Rosa. Jeremiah noticed that looks passed back and forth between the two of them. Aryeh was a married man, with a wife and an infant daughter in Hebron. Yet, Jeremiah, even if he did feel pangs of jealousy, could not condemn the younger man. Rosa was simply bewitching.
Could this be the same young woman whom he had suspected of readying herself to throw herself to her death here in the mountains?
In the days that followed, Jeremiah had occasion to return to this question, for Rosa’s mood was not always carefree and open. She spent each morning in private sessions with the Rabbi. It was evident from her bearing afterwards that serious matters were under discussion. Her face would be almost devoid of expression and, if she chanced to encounter Jeremiah, she would barely acknowledge his presence, so far lost in thought was she. This must, he thought, have been how she had been at home after the break-up of her marriage. More than once, Jeremiah was struck by the resemblance between her face and that of her father as he recalled it from that night when they had sat and talked into the early hours of the morning. The similarity was in the intensity.
Raphael Merino gave Jeremiah to understand that Rosa was struggling to reach a personal decision of great significance. Although he was no more specific than that, the man inspired confidence and admiration both. There was a power in him that was different than Lazaro Cohen’s. So, although Jeremiah found himself beginning to grow impatient after four days in Initlopoco, he bided his time and rested among the peaks, breathing in the sharp clear air. He went each afternoon to listen to the Rabbi discuss scripture and commentary with his young students. It fascinated him. He felt as if he were looking through a window at what his father’s boyhood had been like. Only here the community’s very life was not threatened, except perhaps by slow attrition. Yet, the same deep problems were under discussion.
On the sixth day, he was walking across the central square of the village. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was distinctly past its pinnacle. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So Jeremiah was surprised when suddenly a shadow fell upon him and dimmed the light. He saw it projected on the earth as it swept past him. It had the shape of an enormous bird. At the edge of the square, a child pointed into the sky and shouted excitedly. Barely a hundred feet overhead a condor glided by on extended wings, was gone within a few seconds, passing up on an eddy over the nearest peak.
In a dark way, the bird was glorious. He had never seen a condor before. In all probability, he would never see one again. It was a natural marvel. Yet the incident left Jeremiah feeling uneasy, as if he were a marked man. The second Sabbath came and went. Jeremiah began to think of the world he had left behind. He had not intended to stay this long in Argentina. He had other business to take care of. He was scheduled for a trip to Japan in early December. He needed some time in Jerusalem to take care of routine matters. It could take months for Rosa and the Rabbi to resolve whatever knotty problem it was that they were working on. He noticed that Pinchas looked sullen. Aryeh, by contrast, showed no sign of discontent.
On the tenth day, Rosa knocked at his door in the middle of the afternoon. He had not been asleep, just dozing in the hammock, letting memories parade before his eyes as people who have lived a certain while will do.
Rosa was embarrassed. She protested that she would come back to talk with him later. Jeremiah would have none of that.† He insisted that she come right in. He had a fleeting marginal thought.
“How often is a man lucky enough to have his beloved come unbidden into his presence in the middle of the day?”
Rosa allowed herself to be prevailed upon. She seated herself on a hand hewn wooden stool, while Jeremiah remained reclining in the hammock. He noticed the expression on her face was different. It was shy and serious, yet at the same time open. She had never been more beautiful.
“My father isn’t here,” Rosa said quietly, “so I’ve come to ask you for your blessing.”
It was an archaic turn of phrase. Yet it did not trouble Jeremiah.
“What is it?” he asked her. “I’ve decided to stay on here,” she said. “What will you do?” “I’ll work in the dispensary. I have a nurse’s training.”
Jeremiah wondered what it was she wanted from him. But he had no idea how to go about asking her, so he simply waited.
Silence stretched out between them, but it was a comfortable silence, the silence of accord rather than the silence of discord.
“Do you think,” Rosa asked him, “that my father will be able to forgive me, if I don’t go back to him?”
Jeremiah pondered what to say for a few seconds. But then the words came easily to him.
“He was the one who sent you away, wasn’t he?” he asked, rhetorically.
The matter was resolved. Jeremiah had given his blessing.
Raphael Merino asked him to stay for a few minutes after dinner that night. They had spoken a number of times before, gotten to the point where each knew quite a bit about the other. Yet, this night was different. There seemed to be more at stake.
“You will return to the Holy Land, won’t you?” Raphael Merino asked. “Yes,” Jeremiah agreed. “I want you to take with you the most precious of my possessions,” Raphael said.
Jeremiah felt uneasy.
“My father,” said Raphael Merino, “was a simple man, a peddler, devout in his own way, but also practical, compassionate. He had two dreams. One was that I, his eldest son, become an educated man. The other was that he might visit the Holy Land. As so often happens, he had to sacrifice one dream to the other. He never visited the Holy Land. Perhaps it is because I feel guilty about what I allowed him to do for me that I have never visited the Holy Land either. Nor do I think that I will. I expect to die right here. My wife and I had three children. They all died very young. They were blameless. But they will never visit the Holy Land either.”
He got up and walked over to a chest of drawers, the one formal piece of furniture in the room. It must have been, Jeremiah imagined, a tremendous chore to get the chest up to this height. It would have had to have been disassembled and carried up in pieces.
Raphael Merino reached into the top drawer and rummaged around in it for a few seconds. His shadow, animated by the candle light, danced around on the wall behind the chest. He found what he was looking for. It was nothing more than a ragged bag made of some sort of cotton gingham material. This he handed to Jeremiah. It took Jeremiah a few seconds to realize that the bag contained a pair of tefillin.
“Those are my father’s tefillin,” Raphael Merino said. “He always wanted to go and pray with them at the Wailing Wall. If I had a son, I would give them to him. But I do not. So I want you to take them and pray with them for my father and also for me at the Wailing Wall, for both of us are to be counted among the generations of the desert. And if you know a young man of some virtue who will do them honor, pass them on to him.”
It was not a request Jeremiah could refuse.
They left the next day. It made sense to Jeremiah that Rosa should stay behind. Yet, he felt a pang in his heart at leaving her. He doubted he would ever see her again. But her enigmatic image would stay with him until the day of his death. He knew that she had become a part of him. He did not relish breaking the news to Lazaro Cohen that his daughter was not returning. Even so, Jeremiah was in a cheerful frame of mind. His stay at Initlopoco had refreshed and reinvigorated him. He had come under the condor’s shadow and lived.
A single shot through the head ended Aryeh’s life three days later as they sat eating dinner in a cafe in Mendoza. Pinchas threw himself over Jeremiah’s body. Jeremiah tried to break his fall by throwing out an arm. As they hit the ground, Jeremiah felt the bone snap.
The police investigation was completely lackadaisical. It was designed more to harass Jeremiah and Pinchas than to arrive at the facts of the murder. Jeremiah spent two days in pain in police custody before they released him. They weren’t satisfied with his story. They seemed rather pleased that Aryeh was dead. Only after he was released was he able to get the broken bone set.
Jeremiah was shaken, for he assumed the bullet must have been meant for him. His own head had been not more than two feet away. He had leaned back just as Aryeh leaned forward. It would have been better, he thought, if he himself had been killed. It felt him to him as if Aryeh’s blood was on his hands. The man was a hero of two wars, having fought valiantly both in 1967 and in 1973. Pinchas had no patience with Jeremiah’s self recriminations. He told him curtly they all understood they might be killed at any moment
Jeremiah was spared seeing Lazaro Cohen, because Lazaro had gone to Ecuador on business.
When he left Argentina, Jeremiah was convinced he had accomplished nothing.
His pride received a further blow at the hands of Herschel during debriefing.
“Of course,” Herschel told him, with the faintest flicker of a contemptuous smile, “you were only a decoy. It was essential that you believe that you were something more so that you would behave with the proper air of self-importance. Aryeh was supposed to meet a young woman the next day in Vicente Lopez. She was poisoned.”
“Like Kravitz,” Jeremiah said, hating at that moment not the killers of Aryeh and of the unknown young woman, but rather Herschel himself.
It wasn’t until three months later that Jeremiah remembered about the tefillin. By then, he had been to Japan and back. The cast had come off his arm. He had spent a week in Paris and a week in Amsterdam. He had been to Johannesburg for five days. Still his spirits were low. He could not stop thinking about Aryeh’s death. He had never been that close to real violence before and the experience had made a rent in his sense of security.
He decided that the least he could do was to honor Raphael Merino’s request. A strange thing happened as he was getting ready to put the tefillin on. He noticed there was something else in with the tefillin. Ten large exquisitely cut sparkling diamonds came spilling out. There was also a small piece of parchment, on which was inscribed in Hebrew, “Shamir.”
The diamonds astounded him. He broke out into a grin. He remembered that Raphael Merino had described these tefillin as his most precious possession. Jeremiah went and prayed at the Wailing Wall in the name of an itinerant peddler he had never met. As he prayed, a cloud passed overhead, momentarily blotting the sun out, so that he thought of the condor and its shadow.
He had the diamonds appraised. They totaled forty carats and were valued, because of their remarkable quality, at $2.9 million.
He went and told Herschel from Mosad about the diamonds.
“It’s like the old joke,” Jeremiah said, “about the Jew who’s furious with his neighbor. `Why,’ he accuses him, did you need to deceive me? Why did you tell me you were going to Minsk, so, of course, I would think you were going to Pinsk, when actually you knew all along you were going to Minsk? Why were you so cruel to me?”
He beamed at Herschel.
In the following year, on his travels around the world, he told the story of Raphael Merino’s father’s tefillin wherever he went.
But the most remarkable was yet to come.
One day in late October, he received a telegram from Peru. It was signed Rachel Merino. It said she would arrive the following week in Tel Aviv. It took Jeremiah a few moments before he concluded that Rachel Merino must be Rosa Cohen.
He went to the airport to meet her. To his surprise, she was carrying a bundle in her arms. The bundle was a ruddy cheeked baby boy. He took them both home to his apartment in Jerusalem. Hannah, his housekeeper was furious with him, because she had not been warned. But, as usual, once she was finished fussing, she was able to accommodate and adapt.
Jeremiah was embarrassed at first to ask what he most wanted to know.† But, after a very few days, his curiosity got the better of him.
“So the child’s father is…”
He couldn’t quite bring himself to suggest that the child belonged to Raphael Merino. Maybe, he thought, it was base jealousy that stilled his tongue.
“…Aryeh,” she said.
She had taken the name Merino out of tact because she knew Aryeh had a wife and daughter. The child was called Chaim. Jeremiah meant to take them in only temporarily, until Rosa could make other arrangements. But five months after they arrived another telegram came. It said Lazaro Cohen had been found hanging from the shower in one of the bathrooms of his house. It was a suicide. Or at least so it seemed on the surface. A story immediately sprang up that he had been murdered by right wing anti-Semitic elements. Although Herschel confirmed this version, Jeremiah still had his doubts. But it was impossible to know.
When the child was three years old, he was playing in a closet in the apartment. He came across the tefillin of Raphael Merino’s father. He pulled them apart before anyone could stop him. The piece of parchment with “Shamir,” the name of Solomon’s magical worm, inscribed on it came fluttering out. It was Shamir who could split stone to any shape and hew wood in silence. It was Shamir who made it possible for Solomon to build the Temple without using any iron implements or materials tainted by association with war.
The piece of parchment caught Rosa’s eye. That very evening after dinner she approached Jeremiah.
“I think,” she said, “my father went mad with grief after my mother died, but quietly, as was his way, so, perhaps, no one around him recognized it. I don’t know. Who could blame him if, at last, he had finally had enough? One of the last letters from him spoke of a bank account in Lucerne. He gave no number. Nor has any of the correspondence from the lawyers settling his estate ever mentioned it. He said only that a clever worm could split any vault. He may have suspected that, no matter how careful he was, his letters to me might be read. I was in the mountains and I didn’t think much about it at the time.”
She handed Jeremiah a piece of paper. On it she had written a number: 3004010200.
“Using the system of gematria to relate numbers to letters that translates to `Shamir.'”
Jeremiah duplicated the translation: shin, 300; mem, 40; yud, 10; resh, 200.
Although he was skeptical, Rosa insisted. Since he found it impossible to deny her, in the end, he made the trip to Lucerne. The account there held $238,000,000
Rosa refused any part of it. She had, she said, more than anyone needed. She directed Jeremiah to make quiet arrangements for the administration of the funds for charitable purposes both in the Holy Land itself and in the Diaspora.
Just as he had prophesied, Jeremiah died in his own bed at the age of 77. It was only a single week before Chaim Merino’s seventh birthday.