Both his sons were gone. In his fury he would come to think they had abandoned him-“My plans for them. Betrayers!”
With time, with brooding, drinking late into the night staring toward his blurred reflection in a window, that looked like a drowning man, he would come to see that his sons had been taken from him.
It was a conspiracy. A plan. For they hated Jacob Schwart. His enemies.
Wandering in the cemetery, amid the thawing dripping trees.
He read aloud: “”I am the Resurrection and the Life.“” It was a blunt statement, wasn’t it?-a remarkable claim of power, and consolation. Words carved into a weatherworn gravestone from the year 1928.
Jacob’s voice was playful but hoarse. Nicotine had scorched the interior of his mouth. He was thinking how, when Herschel had been still in school, years ago, he’d been working with his son here and he’d read these very words aloud to Herschel and Herschel had scratched his head asking what the hell was that-“”Rez-rectshun‘“-and Jacob said it meant that a Messiah had come to save the Christians, only the Christians; also it meant that the Christians expected to be resurrected in their own bodies, when Jesus Christ returned to earth.
Herschel made a sniggering noise, perplexed.
“What th‘ fuck bodiez, Pa? Like, dead bodiez inna grave?”
Yes, that was it. Dead bodies in graves.
Herschel laughed his breathy heehaw laugh. As if this was a joke. Jacob Schwart had to smile: his elder, illiterate son had an eye for the tragic farce of human delusion as perceptive as that of the great German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. He did!
“Jeezus, Pa, they’d be nasty-lookin, eh? An how in fuckin hell they gonna get out?”
Herschel struck the rounded curve of a grave with the flat of his shovel as if to waken, and to mock, whatever lay inside, beneath the grass.
God damn: he missed Herschel. Now his son (whom he’d been barely able to stomach, in fact) had been missing for months, now Jacob missed Herschel like something eaten out of his gut. To Anna he might grunt, “All of that, that we had then. Gone with him.”
Anna did not reply. Yet Anna knew what Jacob meant.
All that we had then, when we were young. In the old country. When Herschel was born. Before the Nazis. Gone.
Here was a theory: Herschel had been hunted down like a dog, shot in a ditch by Chautauqua County sheriff’s deputies. Gestapo. They would claim self-defense. “Resisting arrest.” In the mountains, it might’ve been. Often you heard gunfire from the mountains-“hunters.”
Herschel hadn’t been armed, so far as Jacob knew. Maybe a knife. Nothing more. He’d been shot, left to bleed to death in a ditch. Residents of Milburn would never forgive Herschel for beating and scarring their Nazi-sons.
“I will exact justice. I will not be unarmed.”
It was a freezing spring! A hell of a spring. Too many funerals, the gravedigger was kept busy. This accursed year 1949. He missed his younger son, too. The puny whining one with the skin rashes-“August.”
“August”-named for a favorite, older uncle of Anna’s who had died at about the time Anna and Jacob were married.
For a while he was furious with August for behaving so insolently and stupidly and running off where Jacob Schwart could not find him to talk sense into him but then it seemed to him only logical, August too had been taken from him, to render Jacob Schwart helpless. For hadn’t the boy been beaten, streaming blood from a nasty gash in his face…
A slow-witted boy but a good worker. A good son. And August could read, at least. August could do grade-school arithmetic.
“I will not be unarmed…I will not be ”meek.“”
Strange, and terrible: the paralysis that had overcome those declared enemies of the German Reich. Like hypnotized creatures, as the predator approaches. Hitler had not obfuscated. Hitler had been forthright, unambiguous. Jacob Schwart had forced himself to read Mein Kampf. At least, he had read into Mein Kampf. The lunatic certainty! The passion! My battle, my campaign. My struggle. My war.
Set beside Hitler’s rantings, and Hitler’s demon logic, how flimsy, how vulnerable, how merely words were the great works of philosophy! How merely words the dream of mankind for a god!
Among his enemies here in the Chautauqua Valley, Jacob Schwart would not be hypnotized. He would not be surprised, and he would not be unarmed. History would not repeat itself.
He blamed his enemies for this, too: that he, Jacob Schwart, a refined and educated individual, formerly a citizen of Germany, should be forced to behave in such a barbaric manner.
He, a former math teacher at a prestigious boys’ school. A former respected employee of a most distinguished Munich printing firm specializing in scientific publications.
Now, a gravedigger. A caretaker of these others, his enemies.
Their Christian cemetery he must maintain. Their grave sites he must keep trimmed. Crosses!-crucifixions!-ridiculous stone angels!
He maintained the graves, oh yes. When no one observed there was Jacob Schwart “watering” the graves with his hot-acid piss.
He and Herschel, years ago. Laughing wild as braying donkeys.
Gus had never. You couldn’t joke with Gus, like that. Pissing with his father, unzipping his trousers and taking out his penis, the boy would be mortified, embarrassed. More like a girl, Jacob thought.
That was his shame, he had lost his sons.
For this, he would come to blame the Township board. For it was too confusing otherwise.
“You will see. Soon, your blind eyes will be blasted open.”
He’d memorized their names. They were Madrick, Drury, Simcoe, Harwell, McCarren, Boyd…He wasn’t sure of their faces but he knew names and he could learn where they lived, if necessary.
So grateful, sirs. Thank you sirs!
Rural idiots. Wrinkling their noses at his smell. Seeing that he was unshaven, a troll-man with a broken back, twisting his cloth cap in his hands…In pity of him, in contempt of him, explaining to him shameless in their duplicity that the budget, the budget was, budget cuts were, maybe next year Jacob, possibly next year we will see Jacob. Thank you for coming in, Jacob!
Some kind of a long gun he would purchase. A deer rifle, or a shotgun. He had money saved. In the First Bank of Chautauqua, he had nearly two hundred dollars saved.
“”Genocide‘ it is called. You are young now, you are ignorant and are being falsely educated in that school but one day you must know. In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of. You must hide your weakness, Rebecca!“
He spoke with alarming vehemence. As if she had dared to doubt him. Though in fact she was nodding, yes Pa.
No idea what he was saying. Uneasy that in his excitement he might spit at her. For he chewed an enormous wad of tobacco, acid juices leaked down his chin. The more vehemently he spoke the more spittle flew from his lips. And if he should lapse into one of his coughing spasms…
“You are listening, Rebecca? You are hearing me?”
His sorrow was, he had no sons remaining. He had been castrated, unmanned. His shame.
Only the girl. He must love the wretched girl, he had no one else.
And so he told her, he lapsed into telling her, in the evenings sometimes, couldn’t recall what he’d said or when he’d begun instructing her, how in Europe their enemies had wished not only to kill him and his kind “as in an action of war” but to exterminate them utterly. For they were believed to be “pollutants”-“toxins.” And so it was not merely war, which is a political action, but genocide, which is a moral, you might say a metaphysical action. For genocide, if carried out, is an action that time cannot undo.
“Here is a puzzle worthy of Zeno: that, in history, there can be actions that history-all of ”time‘-cannot undo.“
A profound statement. Yet the girl merely stared at him.
Damn, she annoyed him! Awkward child with skin olive-dark as his own. A Gypsy look. Beautiful dark-luminous eyes. Not-young eyes. Anna was to blame, obscurely he blamed Anna for the girl. Not that he did not love the girl of course. But, who knows why, in a family a mother is blamed sometimes, simply for giving birth.
Another child? I cannot bear it. No.
In the blood-soaked bunk bed, in that windowless “cabin” of unspeakable filth. How easily the infant girl might have been smothered. And what a mercy to smother her. An adult hand pressed over the small wizened face red as a boiled tomato. Before she could draw breath and begin to howl. Before the boys saw, and understood that they had a sister. And in the days of Anna’s dazed slovenly nursing she might have been suffocated as well. Might have been dropped onto the floor. Might have been lifted carelessly out of her crib, her disproportionately heavy head not supported on its fragile neck by an adult’s protective hand. (His!) The infant might have been taken sick, mucus might have clotted her tiny lungs. Pneumonia. Diphtheria. Nature has provided a wondrous assortment of exits from life. Yet somehow little Rebecca had not perished but survived.
To bring a child into the hellhole of the twentieth century, how could it be borne!
And now she was twelve years old. In her presence, Jacob felt his gnarled heart contract with an emotion he could not define.
It wasn’t love, perhaps it was pity. For Rebecca was Jacob’s daughter, unmistakably. She more resembled him than either of his sons resembled him. She had his sharp cheekbones, and a widow’s peak he’d had (when he’d had more hair). She had his restless hungry eyes. She was intelligent, as he was; and distrustful. So very different from her mother who’d been sweet-faced and pretty as a girl, fair-skinned, with fine, fair-brown hair and a way of laughing that was so delightful, you were drawn to laugh with her at the most trivial things. Long ago when Anna had laughed…But Rebecca, their daughter, was not one to laugh. Maybe as a child she’d sensed how close she had come to not-existing. She had a melancholy spirit, and she was stubborn. Like her father. Heavy of heart. Her eyebrows were growing in thick and straight as a man’s and never would any man condescend to her by calling her “pretty.”
Jacob did not trust females. Schopenhauer knew well: the female is mere flesh, fecundity. The female tempts the (weak, amorous) male into mating, and, against the inclination of his desire, into monogamy. At least, in theory. Always the result is the same: the species is continued. Always the desire, the mating, always the next generation, always the species! Blind brainless insatiable will. Out of their innocent joyous love of a long-ago time had come their firstborn, Herschel: born 1927. And then came August, and at last the little one Rebecca. Each was an individual and yet: the individual scarcely matters, only the species. In the service of that blind will, the secret female softness, moist smells; the folded-in, roseate, insides of the female, that a man might penetrate numberless times yet could not perceive or comprehend. Out of the female body had sprung the labyrinth, the maze. The honeycomb with but one way in and no way out.
Well! That his daughter so closely resembled him and yet was a small female seemed to Jacob all the more repellent, for it was as if Jacob Schwart did not fully know himself; and could not trust himself.
Saying, chiding, “Yes. You are ignorant now. You know nothing of this hellhole the world.”
He tugged at her arm, he had something to show her, outside.
Telling her how, in the twentieth century, with the actions of Germany and the so-called Axis Powers, all of the effort of civilization from the Greeks onward had been swept aside, with a demonic joy; abandoned and obliterated, in the interests of the beast. The Germans made no secret of it-“The worship of the beast.” Not a one of them now living regretted the war, only that they lost the war and were humbled, humiliated; and thwarted in their wish to exterminate their enemies. “Many in this country were of their beliefs, Rebecca. Many here in Milburn. And many Nazis have been protected, and will be protected. None of this you will learn in your schoolbooks. Your ridiculous ”history‘ books, I have examined. Outwardly now the war is over, since 1945. But only see how this country rewards the warrior Germans. So many millions of dollars given to Germany, lair of the beast! And why, if not to reward them? Inwardly, the war wages. Never will the war end until the last of us has died.“
He was excited, his spittle flew. Fortunately, in the open air, Rebecca could avoid being struck by any of it.
“You see, eh? Here.”
He’d brought her to the graveled lane that led past the house, into the interior of the cemetery. It was the caretaker’s responsibility to maintain this lane, to spread gravel evenly on it; yet, in the night, his enemies had come with a rake or a hoe, to taunt him.
Rebecca was staring at the lane. What was she supposed to see?
“Are you blind, girl? Do you not see? How our enemies persecute us?”
For there, unmistakably, were swastikas raked into the gravel, not blatant like the tar-swastikas of Hallowe’en but more devious.
Ah, the stubborn child! She stared, and could not reply.
Angrily Jacob dragged his heel through the gravel, destroying the most obvious of the mocking lines.
Months ago, at the time of the initial desecration, he’d exhausted himself removing the tar-markings. He’d scraped tar off the front door of the stone house in a frenzy of loathing and yet!-he had failed to remove it entirely. All he could do was repaint the damned door a somber dark green, except: a large shadowy was visible beneath the paint, if you looked closely enough. He and Gus had repainted parts of the sheds, and tried to scour the defaced gravestones clean. Still the swastikas remained, if you knew where to look.
“Eh! You are one of them.”
A senseless remark, he knew even as he uttered it. But he was the father of this child, he might say anything that flew into his head and she must honor it.
His stupid, stubborn daughter unable to see what was before her eyes, at her very feet! He lost patience with her, grabbed her shoulder and shook, shook, shook her until she whimpered with pain. “One of them! One of them! Now go bawling to your ma!” He flung her from him, onto the lane, the sharp pebbly gravel, and left her there panting and swiping at her nose, staring at him with widened eyes, dilated in terror. He stalked off cursing to get a rake to erase the taunting swastikas, another time.
Dybbuks! He had not thought of it.
He was a man of reason, of course he had not thought of such a thing. And yet.
A dybbuk, cunning and agile as a snake, could take over a weak-minded female. In the Munich zoo he’d seen an extraordinary eight-foot snake, a cobra, so amazingly supple, moving in what appeared to be a continuous stream, like water; the snake “running” on its numerous ribs, inside its scaly, glittering, rather beautiful skin. His eyes rolled in his head, almost he felt faint, imagining how the snake-dybbuk would enter the female.
Up between the legs, and inside.
For he could not trust either of them: wife, daughter.
As a man of reason he did not want to believe in dybbuks and yet perhaps that was the explanation. Dybbuks had come alive, out of the primeval mud of Europe. And here in Milburn. Prowling the cemetery, and the countryside beyond. Dybbuks rising like mist out of the tall damp grasses that shivered in the wind. Snakeroot, cattails. Dybbuks blown by the wind against the loose-fitting windows of the old stone house, scratching their claws against the glass, desperate to gain entry. And dybbuks seeking entry into human bodies in which the souls are loose-fitting, primitive.
Anna. His wife of twenty-three years. Could he trust Anna, in her femaleness?
Like her body, Anna’s mind had softened with time. She had never fully recovered from the third pregnancy, the anguish of that third birth. In fact she had never fully recovered from their panicked flight from Germany.
She blamed him, he felt. That he was her husband and a man, and yet not a man to protect her and their children.
Yet in the night, another Anna came alive. In her sleep, in her lustful dreams. Ah, he knew! He heard her groaning, breathing rapidly. He felt her flesh-tremors. Their bed reeked with her sweat, her female secretions. By day she turned from him, averting her eyes. As he averted his eyes from her nakedness. She had never loved him, he supposed. For hers had been a girl’s soul, shallow and easily swayed by emotion. In their circle of young people in Munich, Anna had laughed and flirted with many young men; you could see how they were attracted to her, and she had basked in their attention. Now he could acknowledge, Jacob Schwart had been but one of these. Perhaps she had loved another, who had not loved her. And there came Jacob Schwart, blinded by love. Begging her to marry him. On their wedding night he had not known to ask himself Is my bride a virgin? Is hers a virgin-love? The act of love had been overwhelming to Jacob, explosive, annihilating. He’d had so little experience. He had had no judgment, and would have none for years.
It was on the ocean crossing that the dybbuk-Anna had first emerged. She’d been delirious, muttering and raving and striking at him with her fists. Her eyes held no love for him, nor even recognition. Demon eyes, tawny-glowing eyes! The coarsest German profanities and obscenities had leapt from Anna’s lips, not those of an innocent young wife and mother but the words of a demon, a dybbuk.
That day he’d found Anna in the shed. Hiding there, with the little one wrapped in a dirty shawl. Would you like me to strangle her? Had she been serious, or taunting him?-he had not known.
Now, he could not trust Anna to prepare their meals correctly. It was her practice to boil their well water, for very likely the well water was contaminated, and yet he knew, she was careless and indifferent. And so they were being poisoned, by degrees. And he could not trust her with other men. Any man who saw Anna saw at once her femaleness, as evident as nakedness. For there was something slatternly and erotic in Anna’s soft, raddled body and slack girl’s face; her moist, brainless gaze that excited masculine desire, even as it revulsed.
The sheriff’s deputies, for instance. Since Herschel’s disappearance they came by the house from time to time, to make inquiries. Jacob wasn’t always home when they came, Anna had to answer the door and speak to them. Jacob was coming to suspect, these inquiries might be mere pretense.
Often there were men wandering in the cemetery, amid the graves. Seemingly visiting the graves. Mourners. Or assuming that role.
Anna Schwart had become devious, defiant. He knew she’d disobeyed him by daring to turn on his radio, more than once. He had never caught her, for she was too clever; yet he knew. Now the radio tubes were burnt out and would not be replaced, so no one could listen to the damned radio. There was that satisfaction, at least.
(Jacob had loosened the radio tubes himself. To thwart Anna. Then he’d forgotten he had loosened them. When he switched on the radio now, there was silence.)
And there was Rebecca, his daughter.
Her lanky body was filling out, taking on the contours of the female. Through a part-closed door he’d glimpsed her, washing her upper body with an expression of frowning concentration. The shock of the girl’s small, startlingly white breasts, the nipples small as grape seeds. Her underarms that were sprouting fine dark hairs, and her legs…He had known that he could no longer trust her, when she’d refused to acknowledge the swastika marks raked in the lane. And years before, when he’d discovered her picture in the Milburn newspaper. Spelling champion! Rebecca Esther Schwart! The first he’d heard of such a thing. She had kept it secret from him, and from Anna.
The girl would grow up swiftly, he knew. Once she’d begun school she had begun to turn into one of those others. He had seen her with the slatternly Greb girl. She would grow up, she would leave him. A man must surrender his daughter to another man unless he claims her for his own, which is forbidden.
“And so I must harden my heart against them both.”
From the proprietor of the Milburn Feed Store he would acquire secondhand a Remington twelve-gauge double-barrel shotgun, a bargain at seventy-five dollars.
Five dollars more for a near-full box of fifty shells.
For hunting, Mr. Schwart?
For protection of my property.
Pheasant season isn’t till fall. Second week of October.
Protection of my home. My family.
It’s got a kick, a twelve-gauge.
My wife, my daughter. We are alone out there. The sheriff will not protect us. We are alone in the country. We are U.S. citizens.
A good gun for protection if you know how to use it. Remember it has a kick, Mr. Schwart.
In the shoulder. If you grip the stock too loosely when you pull the trigger. If you are not practiced. A kick like a mule.
Jacob Schwart laughed heartily, baring nicotine-stained teeth in a happy smile. Kick like a mule, eh? Well! I am a mule.
“Fools! There was no one.”
Sometime in the slow dripping spring of 1949 the realization came to him. His deepest contempt wasn’t for the ignorant peasants who surrounded him but for the elderly Jews of his long-ago youth in skullcaps and prayer shawls muttering to their ridiculous god.
An extinct volcano god Yehovah.
In the night such truths came to him. He sat in the kitchen or in the doorway of the house, drinking. Exclusively now he drank hard cider from the mill down the road, that was cheap, and potent. The shotgun close by. In case of prowlers, vandals. He had no fear of the dead. A dybbuk is not dead. A dybbuk is fierce with life, insatiable. In this place where the tide of history had washed him ashore and abandoned him like trash. Yet his deepest contempt was for the bearded black-clad troll-elders of his long-ago boyhood in Munich. Cruelly he laughed seeing the sick terror in their eyes as at last they understood.
“No one, you see? God is no one, and nowhere.”
And Jacob Schwart was not a son of that tribe.