Blood Libel

Copyright © 1991, Leigh Ann Hussey

Adam staggered a little as he walked. Such a night it had been! A little more schnapps than was good for him, he had, maybe. But did not the Law say that the Sabbath was for rejoicing? And the announcement of a wedding, still more cause for joy -- and how much more so, when it was his own sister who was to be wed.

He had felt big with pride when his brother-in-law to be had invited him to drink with the men of the families. True, he had been an adult by Law since his bar mitzvah three years ago. But being able to drink with the men -- that was much more real.

His own marriage had been delayed somewhat because of his studies. Maybe, when he had finished them, Adam would be able to marry his own sweetheart. Rachel had already been chosen for him, but luckily she would be easy for him to love. What a wedding that would be, for the rabbi's best student!

His mind was far away, under a wedding canopy, and Adam never heard the step behind him. All at once there were powerful arms around him. Before he could even begin to struggle or cry out, he felt a sharp pain near his throat and the night was suddenly blacker.

He woke slowly, his head throbbing. And no wonder, after last night! What a horrible dream he had had. But of course it had been only a dream, for who would want to cut his throat here in his safe little village? Thank God, he was now awake. And indeed, with his eyes still closed, he did thank God in the words of the prayer for waking: I give thanks unto thee, O King, who liveth and endureth, who hath mercifully restored my soul unto me; great is thy faithfulness ...

He couldn't have found his way home somehow, because whatever he lay on was hard. Maybe he was in a side street somewhere Heavens, if he did not come home last night, his mother would be worried! He must rise immediately.

It was still dark. Perhaps it was yet before dawn, and he could slip in and sit at his desk as if he had studied Torah all night. Yes. But what was the matter with his arms? Why could he not rise? Was he bound? Had he fallen among thieves after all?

He shouted, and his voice bounced right back to him as though he faced a wall, but it was somehow muffled. And then he felt the cloth on his face and smelled the sweet anointing oils, and knew terror. He was buried alive.

His screams drowned the sound of rending cloth as he struggled in his shroud, and he blindly beat his fists against the wood as he wept and prayed for help. He felt the box splinter before him, and then there was earth in his face. Miracle!

But had he broken free of his coffin only for the earth to smother him? Surely God was with him and gave him Samson's strength, as he reached and scrabbled above him, throwing the loose earth into the empty space of his coffin, driving upward with clenched teeth and tight shut eyes, sitting up, then trying to stand by pushing himself up on the dirt he had thrown behind him. Then his hand touched air.

Out of the grave he climbed, naked and dirt-covered, as he had come from the womb, naked and bathed in the blood of his mother. He sat on the edge of the hole and wept for relief.

It was night still. But was it the same night? It could not have been. What sickness had he had, that he should have slept a whole day, that his family should have thought him dead, and buried him? How many days had it been? Thank God there had been enough air for him to live until he woke. But he must go home, tell them that he was alive. What joy then! He reached back into the hole, snatched the torn shroud to cover his nakedness, and ran out of the graveyard.

When he threw open his front door, he saw that they were all still sitting in mourning for him, and the rabbi was there. "Look, everybody, I'm not dead!" he cried.

There was complete silence, white faces turned up to him. Then his smallest sister began to wail in fear, and the rabbi, his beloved teacher, rose up with anger and fear in his face. "Get you gone, spirit!" the rabbi roared. "By the Holy Name of God, I command you to leave this place!"

"But wait, master, I'm not dead, I swear it!" There was more shouting now, and screaming, and nobody would touch him or listen to him, and the rabbi stood before him like the angel defending the Tree of Life, with power like a fiery sword in his hands. Even his mother turned away.

Before he knew what had happened, Adam had fled the house and was walking bewildered down the street. What could have happened, that his family should turn against him? Surely in the bright day, they would come to their senses, but he would have to find somewhere to wait. He passed Dov the butcher's shop. He didn't like to look at the raw sides of meat Dov hung there to keep cool in the nights of oncoming winter, and would have turned his face as usual. But he suddenly knew he was not cold, for all his near-nakedness, and more, that the bloody meat he usually found repulsive was luring his steps toward it.

Suddenly he went a little mad. Without even thinking, he opened the door he knew would be unlocked, reached in and snatched a leg of lamb, slipped out again and fled the street. When he came to his senses, he tasted blood in his mouth, and found that he had been tearing at the meat like some kind of animal.

Horrified, he threw the shredded thing from him. What was the matter with him? He must go to the ritual bath and clean himself, assuming he could be cleaned now.

The dawn was breaking, and he stood up to greet the sun. But how hot its rays were, burning him! Again his feet moved without his will, propelling him into the shadows. The village was beginning to stir, and when people came out, seeing him naked and filthy, the women turned and ran from him, shrieking. Men tore their shirts, crying for God to forgive them, and he fled the village, overcome.

Later that day, he hid behind a tree in the graveyard and watched people come and wail over his empty grave. He dared not show himself as the rabbi sifted the earth between his fingers, scowling. The rabbi was still angry with him, somehow, but Adam in his sorrow could not guess why.

As the days passed, and Adam hid from the sun by day and the people by night, he realized what had come to him. The daylight hurt him; such food as he could steal, good food, was not nourishing him; his family shunned him. One night, he sat in thought as he used to in study, engaging himself in rabbinic dialogue.

"What is the evidence? What are the indications? These things combine somehow.

"It is said--but not by the rabbis, no. It is said in whispers in the dark, that these things can mean but one thing.

"Yes, I have been attacked indeed, but by no mere cutthroat--" here he broke into a hysterical, sobbing cackle. Bite-throat was more like it. "I have been robbed. Thieved of my life--too young! By nosferatu. The immortal evil. Now I am nosferatu myself." And when he knew this, he beat his breast in grief.

At first, he tried not to eat. Not only was it against religious Law for him to consume blood, his thoughts were repulsed by the idea. But that could not last. His head might have shunned blood, but his animal hunger could not long be controlled. Then he bethought himself of the exception to the Law: any of the Laws may be set aside to save one's life, if it is a matter of life and death. He did not know how the Law applied to him, since he was neither alive nor dead. But then, none of the Laws might apply to him any more. It was only for the conscience he still had that he tried to rationalize his appetite.

He came to his grave one day, hiding in the shadows, trying still to behave like a normal man, so it was some while after dawn. Somebody was lying on the ground there -- who? He ran up, calling, "Can I help?" But the one on the ground there had been helped as much as he would ever be.

"So," said he, looking down at the stout stake of wood jutting up from the other's chest. "So you returned, and they caught you." And as he looked, the rays of the sun touched the one on the ground, and where the light touched, ashes were left.

"See here," he said, "I do not suppose you will mind if I change clothes with you. This way, my mother will know for certain that I am dead, when they come back and see my fringed shirt on your ashes. Perhaps it was dark when they caught you, eh? And you did not reckon with the strength of so many. So for all the pain you caused, you will help me relieve at least one pain."

Flinching a bit from the sunlight, he carefully took up the stake, and shook the ashes out of the old clothes. Then he laid his own garment down on the ashes. "And this is for my pain," he whispered, stabbing the stake down again.

He threw the old clothes into his grave and threw dirt on them. "Now I am dead indeed," he said, looking down at the stake through his garment. "But now this naked body has a new life."

He did not want to prey upon his own people. So that night, he slipped like a ghost into his own house, where all were asleep sitting up in chairs in the front room. They must all be exhausted, he thought. Now they need not fear to sleep.

He looked at his mother's face for a moment, grieving for how old she looked. Then he crept around to his room, and gathered up another fringed shirt and other clothes. He paused a moment over his phylacteries, considering. No, he thought. They will never miss my clothes, but these they would miss, and wonder that they were gone, and fear.

He went out the window, not daring the squeaking of door hinges again, and dressed quickly in the moonlight. Then he returned to his grave, took a little earth from it, and put it in a small sack made of his shroud-cloth to wear around his neck, such as pilgrims took earth from Jerusalem.

"Has it not been said," he said to himself, "that the nosferatu must stay near his grave? This way I need not stay, for I will carry its earth with me. And as the Jews from Jerusalem, am not I myself exiled now from my own land?" He glanced around.

"Here is my beloved home, the village where I grew up. For that very reason I cannot stay, thieving from my own people," he said firmly, to fortify himself. It would not be easy. He put the sack around his neck and left his old home without looking back.

Going from place to place, he found other villages, Jewish and not, but even living by night he soon became familiar with the lives and people of those places.

"Here comes the milkman, talking to himself as usual," he would murmur. "In a minute, the marriage-broker will come out and ask him for the hundred-fifteenth time when he will marry his daughters."

And each time, after a week or two, he would tell himself, "It is too soon. But I must leave. Now I know these people and wish not to harm them. And I do not know when I might lose control and attack one of them."

At last, he took to the woods, trying to find a place as far away from humankind as possible. He hated to hunt, because that, too, was prohibited by the Law, and he hated to kill animals when he could see their fear, for that was also prohibited. But always he reassured himself, "Any of the Laws may be set aside to save your life."

In the days that passed, he slept where he could find places out of the sunlight -- in the hollows of trees, under rocks, in the abandoned dens of animals. And he came to live like an animal, hunting his food at night, always moving, never staying in one place. After a time, he could scarcely remember the name by which he had been called.

Still he was drawn to the places where people lived, despite himself. Often he would find himself standing at the edge of the wood, looking out at the houses of men. Then shaking himself, he would flee back into the trees.

Winter dragged on. He pounced on a rabbit he had stalked a long while one night, and just as quickly men sprang out of the trees. "So, you filthy poacher," one growled, "you think it is still easy to steal from our lord? Even now, when you know we are more watchful because food is so short?"

"Hey, men, what shall we do with him?" said another.

"The punishment is clear and stated," said a third, in lofty tones. "His hand must be cut off."

"Then hold him fast," said the first one, drawing a forester's axe. They laid hold of him, stretched out his arm, and again he went mad. He flung their binding hands from him, feeling the Samson-strength still with him, hearing the sound of breaking bones.

He heard the twang of a crossbow and turned toward it, hurling the bowman stunned into the snow before he noticed the bolt in his side. He pulled it out and ran from there, not caring where he went as long as it was deeper into the woods. And only after he had run so far he did not know where he was, did it occur to him that the bolt had not wounded him at all. Thank God he had not killed them!

"I cannot eat," he told himself. "I must not. Perhaps if I could fast, perhaps I would become weak, and then be no danger to any living thing." So when night came, instead of prowling like a wolf, he stayed put, trying to pray and think pious thoughts.

He stayed so for a long time. Then, one night, he came up uneasily out of a dream in which he was walking, walking, without stopping. And as he came more awake, he found that he was on his feet, moving. He stopped himself with some effort, leaning against a tree. Only the darkness of the forest can have saved me from the day's sun, he thought. And then he looked up and saw the roofs and roads of human homes. Even in his sleep he was drawn to them.

It was a town this time, he did not know what kind or where. He moved through it like a shadow. When he heard footsteps on the cobbles, his head t old him to retreat so as not to be seen. But already he was moving forward, treading silently as a cat. And then he smelled blood and was leaping on the man who came into his sight.

But it had been a long time since he had eaten, and he was weak; also he had come upon the man face to face. So the man shouted and tried to defend himself. "Help! Help! Thieves, murder, help!" shouted the man, while the attacker hung on, silent and grim, snapping with gleaming teeth.

And then, there was a light on the street, and a door was flung open. A dark-clad man with a full, white beard, rushed out and pulled them apart. The attacker sank to the stones.

"Bless you!" said the victim. "May your God reward you for your timeliness! And as for you..." he turned to the other with anger in his eyes and clenched fists.

"Now, none of that," said the older man. "Remember your own humanity. As for you, what a fellow like yourself is doing in this part of the town at this hour, I know not, nor wish to know. Get back outside the gate the same way you got inside it. Really, I do not know what the town is coming to, with all sorts of God-knows-what kind of people coming in here. Go on, I'll deal with this one next. Go!" And he shooed him away like a hen-wife shooes chicks.

The older man watched until he was sure the fellow had done as commanded, then he turned and said, not unkindly, "Surely there is yet another way for you than that of the night-creature, stranger?"

The nosferatu shook his head, and his voice came rasping from disuse. "I have tried them all." "Come now, there is always another way. God has not given us a head that we should scorn His gift. Come in with me, and eat, and we shall see if your burden may not be l ightened by sharing."

"But it is eating that is the problem," he began. "Come, let us not stand in the street and wake all the neighborhood. I am Simcha ben 'Hayim, and I see by the fringes of your garment, though it is dirty and beyond repair, that you, too, are a Jew. We must all care for each other in these times, not so?" Simcha lifted him up, and helped him inside.

But if he could not eat what the older man put before him, neither could he hope to explain his affliction. He put his head in his hands, shuddering from weakness and sorrow. He felt a touch on his shoulder, and the older man's low, rich voice said, "Now, my son, do not despair. You are among your own people." And he cried even harder, chokingly, without tears.

But the gentle voice said soothing words, asking, "Now, tell me your name, and your story." Simcha was a good listener, and after the story was done he sat silent yet for a while.

Finally he said, "Well, you are not the man you were, so you should not keep the name you had. Your old name came from a group of words sketching a constellation of ideas, in a mere two letters: dalet and mem -- the earth, the color red, blood. Adamah, Adam, Dam. Our father Adam was made of the red earth of the Garden. And blood is red. Shall we call you 'Damish'?"

He nodded. "I am Damish."

"So," Simcha said. And he thought a little bit more, while Damish, feeling human for the first time in months, looked around him with a little more interest. More books than he had ever seen cluttered every flat surface -- many of them open. There was a sheaf of papers piled near one open book, the top sheet half-covered in a neat hand. The nearest book, he saw, contained the words of the Torah, with the ta'amim notations for singing them written above.

He looked at his host with new understanding. That book alone might indicate that Simcha was a cantor, but all the other books, their spines showing names of books of the Talmud, showed that Damish's host was a rabbi. And so many books! Surely, this man was a greater rabbi than the rabbi that had banished Damish from his old home.

But the smell of leather reminded Damish of food. He shook himself, and turned back to his host. "As I see it," Simcha was saying, "your problem is not that you are nosferatu, but that you are a man alone. A man without a community is not a man, but an animal. And a Jew without a community is not a Jew. Must we not have a minyan even to celebrate Shabbat? How much more so must we seek each other out in need.

"You see, you have only partially understood the Law. You have much yet to learn. Indeed, to save your life, you may set aside the Laws of the Torah, all except these two: you must not deny God, and you must not kill another man. And are not these things one and the same? To kill a man is to destroy the world, say the sages, and to destroy the world is to deny God, for the world is God's creation.

"And again, as you have denied yourself the community, you have killed yourself as a Jew. So, your rabbi turned you out? Then he has made an error, but you must not compound the error yourself. And to be sure, your concern for the Law shows that you have still the soul of a man and a Jew. You must not deny that soul by living like an animal."

Damish was torn between despair and exhilaration. At last, to be again with another human being, to be thinking good thoughts, to speak of holy things! And yet -- "What am I to do?" he asked.

"That is a simple matter," Rabbi Simcha replied. "We will take you in and give you charity. You shall drink from each of us a little in turn. None shall be drained of blood and die, so none shall become nosferatu."

"How can I take your charity?"

"Take comfort," said the rabbi, "through you we are doing good deeds."

"But," Damish objected, "why should you do this thing? I am a stranger, you don't know me."

The rabbi chuckled. "Now I know you are a Jew: you are as contentious as the rest of us. Does it not say in the Hagadah, 'All who are hungry, let them come and eat?'"

Damish thought for a little while. Then he said, "Shall I be a night shammes? I can take care of the synagogue at night, when your own shammes is asleep. Perhaps there are those here who have sleepless nights, as I have, who wish to comfort themselves in study..."

Simcha was nodding. "That is a good thought. Natan could use the help. And Hillel says, 'Lift your brother up.' So be it."

Then, as Damish watched, the Rabbi started rummaging around on his desk. He came up with a pen-knife and drew the blade across his left palm. Before Damish could speak, Simcha held out the bleeding hand, like a cup of wine. Damish's throat choked with dry tears. "Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the World," he said. And looking at Reb Simcha, he said, "Blessed are you," before he touched his lips to that gift.

Rabbi Simcha was indeed a better rabbi than Damish's old teacher. It would have taken a most eloquent Talmudist to convince a community that they should support a vampire, and indeed there was a great deal of argument back and forth. But at last Simcha convinced them all that it was the best way, and after a while life settled down around Damish and his blood need.

Each night, after supper, someone of the community would come and sit with Damish for a while, talking with him on scholarly matters. Everyone found him a willing talker and a good one. Surely an evil being could not think the holy thoughts to which Damish gave voice. Yehuda the cantor pointed out one day, "Well, anybody who lives all the time among the holy books cannot help but have a little holiness come off on him, not so?"

The men sitting around the pickle barrel nodded sagely. Yitzak the printer snorted. "Because a horse brushes up against a brick wall and gets red dust on him does not mean the horse is made of brick."

"Still, he speaks well," said Yehuda. "And listens well."

And the conversation moved on to other topics. When an evening with Damish was done, the visitor would cut himself -- some less willingly than others, but it would not do to have Damish bite them like an animal -- and Damish would take as little as he could.

One evening, Natan did not come as usual to wake him, and Damish rose a little later than usual. He said his prayers, dressed, and hurried to the synagogue. He was preparing an apology as he stepped up to the door, but loud, unhappy voices froze his words on his tongue. "And why should we not give him to them? He is nothing but a stranger who does nothing for us!"

"Yes, and who knows but that it is he who is stealing their children? Who knows what he does in the night with none to see him?"

"I tell you, he is a Jew, and shame be on us if we give him to them!" That was Natan's voice. "Would you give them your brother? Your cousin? Your neighbor? Would you tell them a Jew from another ghetto was bleeding Christian children for matzah?"

Voices raised and shouted all together, but Damish was already retreating from the door. On silent feet he moved down the street, his mind working furiously. What was this rubbish? Someone was accusing the Jews here of stealing Christian children? How could that even be conceivable? Christians were ignorant of Jewish ways, yes, but to go so far as to say Jews might consume blood... He stopped. "I am a Jew," he whispered to himself, "and I consume blood."

Yes, and these Jews were thinking of handing him over to their accusers, that he might bear their fear away from them like the scapegoat. His own fear moved him into the shadows, where he might not be seen. Even there, he kept thinking. If these Jews did turn him over to the Christians, perhaps during the daylight when he was weak, might not the Christians have still more reason to believe in their own ridiculous slander? Given one Jew who took blood, might they not be all the more willing to believe the next accusation? That would lead to terror for certain, with the whole community wiped out!

"No," Damish said out loud. "I will not let that happen here." For all that some of his own people might wish to make a victim of him, Damish knew them now and loved them. He must find a way to expose the lie -- not only to save himself, but to save them.

He spent that night in hunting, as he had in his animal days, but this time he hunted the truth, as intently as he ever hunted his food. He knew he could move swiftly, silently, unseen and untiring. Dark deeds were done in the night, and the night was his time. Night and blood: his elements. "I will find the truth of this blood libel," he promised himself.

For all his prowling, he found no clue that night. Nor the next. During the days, he avoided the ghetto, even though he knew that it made him look all the more guilty in the eyes of his people. Still, he was unwilling that they might catch him asleep and make the fatal error.

Thieves and prostitutes he found, and midnight assignations, but kidnappings he saw none. At each new wickedness he saw, he became angry, angry at how the big town fostered it, and angrier that he could not find the one wickedness he sought.

Then, the third night, near the ghetto, Damish saw someone climb from open shutters with a sack on his back. Not unusual that, in a town crawling with footpads. But this sack moved and made little muffled noises. Damish's lips slid away from his teeth in a snarling grin and he moved quietly through the shadows, downwind of the burglar. The scent the clean spring breeze brought to his nose left him no doubt. There was a human in the sack, young and frightened. Damish had an animal's keen sense of smell and he knew.

Silently as the kidnapper moved, Damish was more silent. Once, when there was no place for Damish to hide, the kidnapper looked around, as though a sixth sense had warned him. Frozen to the spot, Damish desperately willed the man not to see him, and the kidnapper's glance passed over him. Maybe, Damish thought, I am not worthy of notice. But he guessed that as nosferatu he had some kind of influence over a mind.

Still, he took care not to be seen again as he followed the man to a wretched little house on the outskirts of the town. Damish stood by the window as the man went in, waiting to see what was there. Once inside, the man carelessly dumped the sack on the floor and a cry of pain came from it. "Shut up!" the man growled Thinking of his own brothers and sisters now lost to him, Damish ground his teeth. The man stooped and opened the sack, dragging out a little girl, still in her nightgown, no older than three years. "Sit there. And if you try to run, I'll kill you."

White-faced, the child obeyed, while the man opened a closet door and let out two other children, a boy and another girl, their tear-streaked faces as grubby as their nightclothes. Then the man dragged them over to the table and threw a loaf of bread on it. The bread made a thump and cracked in pieces, hard and dry. The two children from the closet grabbed hungrily for the bread, but the new-stolen girl began to cry.

"I told you to shut up!" the man roared, and cuffed her. His hand was raised for another blow, but there was a sudden crash from the window. He spun toward the sound, and saw -- an animal? a man? -- hurtling through the window, splinters of wood flying around it. In an instant, his wrist was caught in an iron grip. He looked up into dark blazing eyes in the softly-bearded face of a youth, and a mouth snarling like a wolf's, with a wolf's white and gleaming teeth.

"How dare you strike an innocent!" Damish roared, flinging the man against the wall. But this was no weak man to be cowed by a pale, slim youth. As soon as he saw Damish had no weapon, the man leaped up, a knife gleaming in his hand, and he stabbed Damish in the belly. There was a moment of silence, broken only by the stifled sobs of the little girl. The kidnapper leered into Damish's face, his breath rank. Damish reached out and took the man's knife hand, looking always into the man's eyes, and pushed it away from him, drawing the knife out. The man looked down, then back up with widening eyes as he realized Damish was not bleeding. With a flick of his fingers, Damish snapped the man's wrist. Even the kidnapper's lips were white as he backed away.

Then, a look of understanding came into his face and he fumbled in his shirt with his good hand, bringing out a crucifix on a chain. Damish murmured, frowning, "How often that sign has been used to destroy, though your priests say it stands for life."

The kidnapper shook the crucifix, babbling in Latin. Damish laughed, and that laugh was terrible and beautiful to hear. "You foolish man, that cannot stay me. I am God's messenger of justice. I saw no mark of lamb blood upon your door, so to me you are not redeemed. Now you shall be the victim you have tried to make of these innocents." He stepped forward. The man turned to run and Damish took him by the shirt collar, lifting him with one hand as a cat does a kitten. Then Damish turned to the children, who were clutching each other and watching with wide eyes and open mouths.

"Come, children," said Damish in as gentle a voice as he could manage. "Do not be afraid. I have come to release you, to bring you home to your mothers. Take my other hand." He held it out to them and they flinched away. Then, the newest little girl, perhaps not yet numbed with fear and despair, stepped timidly forward and put her tiny hand into Damish's great one. "Will you take the hand of this little girl, then?" Damish asked. And they did that.

Through the streets they went, Damish's voice echoing from the house fronts, like the shofar calling the people out of their depression, a sun of sound piercing the darkness. "Come out! Come out and see the real thief of your children. Come out and hear the voice of truth, the voice of justice. Come out! Feel the wind of the Lord moving through your streets, breathing life into desolation. Come out!"

By the time they reached the magistrate's steps, there was a great crowd with them. In the torchlight, with the villain in one hand and the children in the other, his face young and darkly beautiful, Damish seemed indeed like the avenging angel.

The magistrate's door opened just as the bereaved parents came plunging through the crowd. Even as the kidnapper was shouting, "He is nosferatu! Destroy him! He lies!" Damish whispered to the children, "Be not afraid. Tell the truth, and all will be well. He can no longer hurt you."

By the time the magistrate looked to see who had brought the criminal to justice, the avenging angel had vanished.

It had been a hundred years since the emperor's decree that one who accused the Jews of ritual sacrifice should be put to death, and that emperor had died in the meantime. So the kidnapper, Martin Beck, was merely imprisoned -- though there was some idea that he should be put in a mad-house, with his talk of vampires. And in the ghetto, life continued as usual.

But Martin Beck, imprisoned though he was, had two things: powerful friends and time to think. By the time his powerful friends had contrived to get him free, Beck had quite thoroughly planned his revenge. He might be discredited, and nobody would listen to his talk of vampires, but he still had men, servants of his family, who would follow him on any campaign. And he knew still other men who would jump at any excuse to make life a misery for the Jews, just as Beck himself had been trying to do all along.

He had failed once, that night when he had been attacked in the ghetto. He had failed again, this time. And both times, he knew now, he failed because of the vampire boy. He would not fail again. Leading his men, Beck could turn the ghetto inside out. Eventually, he would find a boy asleep who would not wake. He knew it with all his heart. And that boy, impervious to the crucifix though he might be, still had a head, and a body from which to cut it.

"And I will do that with this hand," he swore aloud, shaking the one Damish had broken. It had had plenty of time to heal.

The very day he was released, Beck gathered his men and strode into the ghetto. He knew nobody would stop him. The Jews had no power to stop a Christian from whatever he might intend, and most of the Christians cared little for the welfare of Jews. "Go." He snapped his fingers, and the men scattered like seeds of anger. He smiled as he heard shouts from the houses, a crash of broken crockery here and there, the shrieks of women.

A man came out of one house with a silver cup in his hand. "Confiscated it, did you?" Beck called. The man grinned, showing broken teeth. It was all justice to them.

"Nothing, Beck," his steward reported after a while. "And we have turned out every house in the ghetto."

"Of course!" Beck said, slapping his thigh. "There is only one place these blasphemers could be keeping their pet vampire. In their so-called holy place." He led his men up the synagogue steps. But before he could put hand to the door, it opened, and a white-bearded patriarch stood in the frame.

"And what might the Christian gentlemen desire of poor Jews, so late in the afternoon?" he asked mildly.

"Out of my way, old man!" Beck growled. "We are here to do you a favor by ridding you of a troublesome evil."

"Evil?" The rabbi looked surprised. "Evil? No evil plagues us, sir, I assure you."

Beck's lip curled. "No, I do not suppose it would plague you, infidel Jew, since you are already the most evil race on the earth."

The rabbi did not even blink. "Surely then, sir, you would be better off removing your sanctity from such sinful company, not so?"

"Pig of a Jew, how dare you mock me!" Beck raised his hand to strike the old man. A low, angry murmur stopped him. He looked around and saw that he and his men were surrounded by all the men of the ghetto -- far more men than he had expected.

"I think, perhaps," said the rabbi, quietly, "that it might be wise for you to go. Even so long after the kind emperor's decree, there are still Christians who would have little sympathy for one who bore false witness against Jews, and was perhaps less than kindly removed from a Jewish quarter."

Beck lowered his hand. "For today, you have won. But only for today," he growled. Then he turned on his heel and left.

The men of the ghetto followed him to the gate and made sure he was gone. Then they rushed back to the synagogue, all talking at once. Simcha hushed them. "We must wait," he said, "until tonight. We cannot make decisions for Damish until he is awake to hear them."

That night, the whole community -- men, women, young people, rabbi, Damish and all -- gathered in the synagogue to try and decide what to do. "If I run from here, Beck will only vent his anger on the rest of you. He must find me," Damish said.

"But if he finds you, then how if he takes you to the Christians?" asked Yitzak the printer. "How much the worse for all of us, when it is known there are vampires among us!"

"One vampire," Natan said, "does not make a community of vampires, necessarily."

"But how shall they think when they find we have sheltered an evil being among us?" said another man, looking somewhat shamefacedly at Damish.

"He is not an evil being," said Rabbi Simcha, "he is our brother. Shall we heap error upon the error made against him when first he was turned out from his home? No! He has a home here now, and he has kept us in our homes, saving us from the lies told against us, by risking his own safety. We owe him our lives. We cannot ask him to give up his -- such as it is."

"As I see it," said one of the young Talmudic students, "the problem here is how to keep our brother awake during the day. If Beck is seeking one among us who sleeps as though dead while the sun shines, then we must make sure that such a one cannot be found among us. When he sees our brother awake under the sun, he cannot think our brother a vampire."

There were murmurs of assent, nodding of heads, stroking of beards.

"Excuse me," said Naomi, a bright girl and as avid a scholar as she was allowed to be. "Our brother is our shammes, or our shamash. Is not the name of the sun also shamash? If our brother is the sun, then how shall the sun hurt him?" The rest of them silenced her, saying "This is no time for word-play!" and continued their argument.

But Damish caught her eye, nodded and smiled. He had an idea, and when he t old them, they could not argue with it.

The next day, Beck returned, with more men, and again the ghetto was turned inside out. After all, what if the Jews had moved their vampire out of the synagogue? "Best to make sure," Beck called to his men. But in the end, the mob mounted the synagogue steps, as they had the day before, and this time the rabbi stepped aside and let them shuffle in.

There was one man there, wrapped in his prayer shawl, praying in a quiet, musical chanting. Even Beck moved a little respectfully, infected by the sanctity of the place. They did not turn the benches over, but only looked under them. The rabbi opened every door for them, and each man looked in every corner.

Beck was beginning to be angry. "There must be a hiding place somewhere. There must!" The singing of the one man at prayer was getting on his nerves. He stamped up to him and said, "Be still a moment and let a man hear himself think, why don't you!"

The man turned to him, and Beck's heart nearly stopped as he looked into the dark eyes of the boy who had broken his wrist.

"But it is in music that we can still our own thoughts and hear the voice of God, Martin Beck," Damish said. "Even you must understand that, who have spent so much time listening to the voice of your own anger."

"But -- but -- " Beck stuttered. The sun was shining on his enemy, through the bright-colored windows, and what he thought had been a vampire was only a young man with blessing and inspiration in his face.

Damish turned away from him, speaking to the air, to the Torah scroll in its ark, to all who were stilled and listening. "The light of God's presence is like a hundred suns, but the sweet presence of God is the nurturing dark of the womb. Blessed is the darkness, in which creation is formed, and blessed is the light, which is life to all creation! Shall not the one in prayer be lifted up to God, who is all light and all darkness? Shall not the sound of prayer clothe that one in divinity, and make him one with God? And how shall he who is one with God fear darkness or light, force or sadness, pain or death? For he who is one with God is beyond death, as God is beyond death, and he shall live in the Lord's light forever and ever."

"Amen," murmured one of Beck's men. Beck wanted to turn and glare at him, but found himself immobilized.

"Look at me," Damish said to him. "You are not entirely a bad man -- you could not make yourself kill children. Look at me and understand." And Beck looked into the eyes of darkness and found himself drawn through darkness, into light.

Shadow, giver of form, is no evil in itself. Only man's fear and ignorance make it so. Beck understood, and cast his eyes down, leaving the ghetto with his men, a changed man.

Then Damish lifted up his voice, and all the people sang with him, a song of praise and peace from the Time of Atonement.

Our Father, Our King, be gracious unto us and answer us, for we have no good works of our own. Deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.

And after a little while, some people noticed that Damish was not singing, but had sat down with his eyes closed, and there was great joy and peace in his face. "He has gone to sleep," whispered one. And they nodded, and picked him up gently and carried him to his bed.

He did not wake that night, nor the next, nor the third. And the third night, Naomi said, "He held the sun inside him, and he has died." But his flesh did not decay, so they could not know if he were truly dead or not. So they took him, as they had heard the Golem of Prague was taken, and put him in the room with the old Torah scrolls, wrapped in the prayer shawl he had worn on his last day under the sun.

The Nazis burned that synagogue during the war, but somebody saw a young man, wearing a great, old-style prayer shawl, striding through the flames, the Torah scroll cradled in his arms like a child, and the flames seemed to shy away from him. When the soldiers tried to stop him, their bullets made no difference to him, and they fell on their knees weeping when they looked into his eyes.

Nobody knew who he was, and nobody saw which way he went, but everyone remembered a fragment of the story. And that is what I have told you this night.

Copyright © 1991, Leigh Ann Hussey