The Rabbi Under the Northern Lights

Eric Margolis
Featured Image: From “Thoreau Noir” © Charles Philip Brooks 2020

“Shanah tovah, Rebbe,” said Petunia.

“Shanah tovah, Petunia,” said the rabbi.

“5870, huh? Sure sounds a lot cooler than 2109. The twenty-second century just doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”

The rabbi’s feet dragged as he walked. His legs were short, stumpy, and bent. He leaned into the railing of the small wooden bridge. Watching him, Petunia realized she was holding her breath, and exhaled.

A small red church stood on the hill behind them. The rabbi had led Rosh Hashanah services there earlier that day. The rabbi stared over the flat blue sea and the many small stony islands of Nuuk, Greenland.

The cold wind against the rabbi’s face and beard signaled winter. Pale reddish clouds floated in the sky—an omen of the weather phenomenon known as blood clouds. The rabbi tasted slime dripping in his throat and a baked flesh smell stirring in the wind.

The rabbi bent his neck to face Petunia. He smiled at her to join him. He did not want to appear distant.

Petunia came and stood beside the rabbi. She was at least six inches taller. She wasn’t Jewish, although her doting grandfather had been. She maintained an interest in Judaism on her grandfather’s behalf although he had passed away twenty years ago.

She watched the rabbi with concern. “You should get a chair, Rebbe,” Petunia said.

“I had one and I didn’t like it,” the rabbi told her. “It’s not that I can’t stand and walk.”

“But you suffer.”

“Suffer isn’t quite the right word for it,” he said. “I’m burdened with the responsibility of my body, yes. But it’s a burden that I’m happy to bear.” He tried to straighten up and felt the sear of pain in his legs. “Petunia, tell me, how is your family?”

“Oh, they’re all well. Tianzhi is doing marvelous and Priscilla is, you know, Priscilla. Can’t catch a man! You know, always blathering on about it.” She smiled quickly. “But, you know, we’ve gone and decided to take in a refugee from Europe. He’s a little African boy, or half-African, you know how they’re mixed down there. Who knows how he got on the list to get out! I hear they live underground nine months a year. The black fog is sticking around until late November, so I hear, at least in Spain or Italy, those far-southern countries. Thank God—” she winced, “—sorry Rebbe, I mean, we have our freakish weather too, but I’m so grateful we don’t have any of that. Are you going to get out into the Valley this autumn, Rebbe?”

“My wife and my daughter are,” he said. “I’ll stay here. It’s a little too much movement for me.”

Evergreen Valley had become one of the most scenic destinations in Greenland just a few years back after a remarkable growth in luminous emerald pines. Now it was a federally protected park and boasted a resort that grew more popular each year. The wildflowers bloomed in June and lasted all summer. The animals—beaver, hare, elk, lark, robin, bluebird, fox, caribou, hummingbird, ground sloth, wolverine, muskox, reindeer, and tiger—were entirely unafraid of humans. Tourists flocked to the far side, along Greenland’s southern coast. Hotels and condominiums popped up like mushrooms.

The rabbi tried to continue the conversation with Petunia about the Valley, but found his mouth gummy, sealed tight.

The gumming happened to the rabbi often. Sometimes his body and mind simply caved in. One way to put it would be that he overheated. Another would be that he overflowed. But the gumming didn’t happen when thoughts and feelings built up, accumulated, and spilled out. The gumming just happened. Out of the blue, when he was otherwise quite happy or had been gummed up just moments ago. Heavy glue-strips seemed to sprout and seal him up. They cocooned him. It felt like being wrapped in straw—something raw and living but stiff and not quite dry. The world keeps spinning and the rabbi keeps stuck, dipping in and out of conscious, out of life, and his eyelashes flick at the waves and wind.

“Let me help you to your car, Rebbe,” Petunia was saying.

The rabbi couldn’t even say “thank you.” He was gummed.

With the rabbi’s arm draped around Petunia’s tiny shoulders, the pair moved jerkily across the bridge and down two steps, beneath the approaching red clouds like scars of rust. They followed a dirt path around the hill to a grassy field with a few cars. The rabbi’s crumpled feet drew a trail in the dirt.

The rabbi’s car turned on and opened its doors when Petunia took the rabbi’s thumb and swiped it across the door handle. She deposited him. Breathless on the cool gray polyester seat, the rabbi un-gummed.

“Yom Tov, Petunia,” he croaked, attempting to bend his knees and twist his crooked neck. “Tell Tianzhi and Priscilla I say hello. And Lee too. And Damian.”

“Thank you Rebbe.” Petunia looked down at him and suddenly blushed pink. “Your sermon was marvelous, Rebbe, I swear, I’ll never forget it.”

The rabbi felt his face blush too. Warmth ebbed into his fingertips. He paused, and reached his hand out and placed it in Petunia’s. “Scripture is true, but so is your life,” the rabbi said. “I try to figure out what truth in my life I can turn into scripture. My sermons consist of those scraps of life.”

“Thank you, Rebbe,” Petunia said. The rabbi saw small tears budding at the corner of her eyes. Embarrassed, he swiped his thumb on the dash and the car turned on and set its destination to Home.

It had been a very long time since anyone had praised his sermons. Even his wife, Mabel, who respected him as a partner and scholar, never explicitly discussed sermons with him. She seemed to know—as he did—that it was just a part of the job. As a U.N. Director of Government, Mabel held weightier responsibilities. She was the one tasked with managing the relocation of the refugees. The rabbi wondered if she knew about Petunia’s particular case.

The one person who seemed to recognize that his sermons had a life beyond work was his daughter, Clara.

The rabbi stared out at the hills. The orange and brown rushes glittered in the slanted sunlight, stamped with the pale shadows of those ominous red clouds in the sky. He remembered that a few years back, Clara had gone through a phase where she considered her father’s sermons quite boring and simplistic and she gave him sharp feedback.

“You spent too long on the story bit, and you didn’t tell us why it mattered,” she said matter-of-factly.

The rabbi had frowned. “But the story, the story is one of the best of them all! It’s Passover, Clara, Pesach, and a climactic moment beyond recognition—wild beasts on rampage! Locusts devour the crops of the Egyptians! The river is blood, frogs are in people’s homes, new sicknesses spring up on skin, red boils, and the sky is blacker than black! And yet the Hebrews, the Hebrews do not suffer any of the devastating environmental consequences. The power of God, in this instance, perhaps more than any other since the moment of creation, in radically and totally transforming the face of the Earth, is horrifyingly supreme!”

“It’s just genre horror. You know, one of those old horror movies. You need to modernize it, Dad. Make it resonate with today.”

And a different time, she told him: “You need to stop speaking so quiet all the time. When things are happy, you should speak in a big, loud voice. And save your quiet voice for when things are very sad. You do it very well, but it should be for sad times only.”

Clara didn’t comment on his sermons anymore. She was thirteen, out with friends more often than not and the rabbi couldn’t help but feel that she had a strange, sad look in her eyes lately. But whenever he wanted to talk about it he gummed up, and even when he wasn’t gummed he didn’t know quite what to say.

The rabbi’s house was a post-war refurbished two-story, the lower floor completely underground to maximize winter heating and summer cooling. After heaving his body over the doormat and into the kitchen, the rabbi grabbed potatoes from a basket.

Mosses and shrubs clouded the skylight. Tall grasses grew halfway up the height of the top-floor windows, so the house slept and woke in a cloudy gloom. In the short summers, the skylight shone bright enough to cast shadows along the narrow gaps between the wooden floorboards. In the long, cold winters, the rabbi’s wife kept the electric stove burning, though they had central heat as well. They used far more energy than local laws allowed, but Clara was prone to fevers if the house temperature fell below sixty degrees. Even if they were to keep the house at sixty flat, they would easily surpass the winter heating limit. They had only been fined once, about five years back, and it was a sum they could afford.

“Just be grateful we aren’t living in Europe,” Mabel would always say. “We wouldn’t need to heat in the winter, but they’re not allowed to cool in the summer there. We wouldn’t be allowed to have a top story above ground in the sunlight and open our windows for fresh air. Hallelujah for that.”

The rabbi gathered a bundle of potatoes in his two hands. They were lumpy and colorful—reds, blues, purplish-grays, browns, wan yellows. He set them on the cutting board and skinned and chopped them in half. Bake in salt and sugar, toss onions, blue turnip, rutabaga and Metameat in the fry pan. Two ounces of duck fat, one of those illegal products his wife could turn up, for flavor.

“Hey Dad,” said Clara. Her voice bounced ahead of her body up the stairs and into the kitchen. She popped up beside him. For a moment, his fingers caught and wobbled as he tried to slice the potato. He blinked several times. He felt his body quake and seize. Not again.

Clara waited.

Choke-soil in his throat and little fires at the corner of his eyes, sparks at his fingers and glue on his tongue. His empty gaze flashed at the window and the clouds streaming solemnly across the sky.

The feeling dropped away and the knife sliced cleanly through a dark yellow potato.

“Hey Dad,” Clara repeated. “Have you thought about what I told you?”

The rabbi couldn’t quite turn his head to see her. People always seemed to be behind him somewhere, just out of his peripheral vision. He focused on peeling and cutting the potatoes.

“What about, Clara?”

“Taking in a refugee. From Europe or America or somewhere.”

“I remember,” he told her.

“I’ve looked it up, Dad.” Clara took a step and the rabbi thought she might have gotten closer, so he could see her. But instead she had wandered to the window. “You can do it online, it’s really easy. And we don’t have to pay any of the expenses, only for leisure or vacation and stuff like that. We can even choose what country we’re adopting from, they have these fun quizzes about the culture so we can see if it’s a match. I’ve looked it all up and think we should adopt from Israel. That’s the Jewish country. And they speak English so there’s no language barrier. They have a really casual culture there so there’s no formality or anything and there haven’t been any incidents with the refugees running away or violent crimes. And I promise, I’ll keep them busy and help them fit in at school and stuff. My friends are always bored so they want a new person to hang out with anyways. What do you think, Dad? It seems really important. I mean, aren’t we not allowed to stand by when evil is happening to someone? Doesn’t God say we aren’t allowed to just watch it happen? So I think we should do it. I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s what we can do, after all, and I don’t understand why you and Mom don’t want to.”

The rabbi knew it was written in the Babylonian Talmud, How do we know that if one person pursues after another to kill him, the pursued person must be saved even at the cost of the pursuer’s life? From the verse, ‘Do not stand upon your neighbor’s blood,’ (Leviticus 19:16). But who is the pursuer? Mother Earth? Humankind? The rabbi felt that they stood not just upon the blood of neighbors, but upon the blood of the Earth and of humanity. The blood seeped up into their floorboards. It ran down the gutter and trickled down the windowpanes. The eagles at high noon and the herons at dawn, the hissing flies and the white ladybugs, they were reared on blood, as were the forest pines and the June wildflowers.

He sensed himself about to make an excuse involving his wife. He stopped. “I thought about it, Clara.” He tried to look over at her by the window but his neck stuck, though his lips kept moving. “I think we should do it. I think it’s a great idea.”

She was closer than he had realized. She hugged him suddenly from behind. His daughter’s warmth spread up his back. She was nearly as tall as him and clearly stronger. All the days in the Valley and playing sports at school and all the other things the rabbi had never been able to do—they had made her strong, in body, mind, and heart. Some days the rabbi looked at the quickly-growing pines that soared in the yard and street-side, by the sea and on the hills, and felt the quiet tug of his California childhood, before it became inhabitable and the blood clouds started in earnest. He remembered his hands covered in sap, stuck to pine needles and coarse bark like a leaf plastered against the stucco wall in a wind. Before his body and mind had stunted.

“Thanks Dad, I know we won’t regret it.” She pulled away and ran to the stairwell. “I know we won’t. Thanks Dad. Thanks Dad! I love you!” Her voice rose up the stairs as her feet splashed down them.

The rabbi thought about the Rosh Hashanah haftarah. He warmed the oven and prepared the pan with foil and salt. Was his own daughter not unlike Hannah, praying for a child to give to God? Praying for a child for the sake of charity and goodness? But there was no guarantee that the refugee would let no razor touch his head. The world was a fountain of blood. The work of a modern Samuel would be far too great for a single soul to bear.

He listened to gushing wind outside the house. When would his wife return? What did she do with her days and nights? So many nights he sat alone on his side of the bed (because lying down was too painful, and if he went down he’d never be able to get back up on his own). Half-dreams brought thick, glassy memories of running and climbing, chapters of Leviticus, a static photograph of baby Clara standing upright for the first time, eyes like lanterns in the dark room, and the fingers of shadows, his only company in the icy morning.

As the vegetables sizzled and smoked in the pan, the rabbi hobbled to the doorway. He took care not to trip over his own half-lame legs and immobile feet. What was he doing, after all? He had a congregation of ten, which made minyan only when every member was in attendance. There was one tattered Torah, midcentury digital prayerbooks, neither cantors nor scholars. Judaism was a rabid zombie in Israel, a stone’s worth of moss in Greenland, and the silhouette of ghost on planet Earth.

His hand turned the doorknob. The heavy wood opened into the dark. Small blue lights marked the walkway to the road. What kept him going? The work of keeping an ancient tradition alive? His inability to find meaning and purpose in life and death elsewhere? To continually pray that the power of God could keep him moving when his mind and body froze? To sacrifice his soul to work so that he could be forgiven for his helplessness against the tidal wave of blood? He hobbled as fast as he could down the dusty walkway to escape out from under the soaring evergreens.

The red colored clouds, massive scars of rust, split the skin of the sky with claws and fangs, laid siege to Greenland, advancing with a menacing odor.

The rabbi shivered. The slime had grown into a trail of mucus streaming down the back of his throat and the rot livid in the air gathered at the corner of his eyes and in the gap of his parted lips. Holding himself against a tree, he turned upwards to face the sky.

The Northern Lights. They were out and living, leaping in the gaps between the evergreen’s shadows. Deep violet wings flurried and swept a stream of fluorescent green. The pine needles caught shards of the pale light and pulsed like fireflies. The violet wings flapped and showered the stream with sparks of gold and fiery red.

The advancing rust scar clouds suddenly eclipsed the gap between the trees.

It was a blood cloud. He had to get inside, and fast. But he couldn’t move his legs.

The rabbi was heaving against the cold wood of the tree, holding in vomit amid the overwhelming smell of dead flesh and burnt skin and the tumbling guttural bellow of rain and thunder intertwined, and the rabbi gummed, gummed, gummed, gummed up as the blood cloud crashed against the western Greenland coast.

A thick warm cake of leaves, mud, mosses and dead birds, flies, ants, beetles, and rotting flesh fell out of the red scar and hailed against the trees, eclipsed the northern lights, and beat the rabbi with fists. The clatter of tiny exoskeletons slithered wet over his hat and battered his boots; syrupy leaves that reeked of blood stuck to his coat and the tree as solid chunks of plant and animal flesh pounded against his body and slapped twigs off the trees and screamed in the roar of the slashing wave. Dead bugs and shredded flowers stuck to one another and the rabbi’s clothes as warm accumulating matter felt like departed flesh had returned to life and began to cling to and scramble up the rabbi’s legs, a heavy belch spitting gruesome slime across trees and a full evergreen branch cleaving from the street, barreling into another tree just a few yards above the rabbi’s closed and twitching eyes. The onslaught barked and battled on, clawing at the rabbi’s tightly shut eyelids and quivering lips. There were never chunks of human remains large enough to be seen, but the rabbi could smell the burnt hair, and the rabbi could taste the human excrement and blood.

And the quiet.

The rabbi ungummed. He wrenched open his own eyes and mouth. The deposited muck crawled like a river over the evergreen roots and he vomited into his own hands. He fell against the wet tree and clinging desperately to its bark, desperately in the warm wet mass of dead and rotten matter, the rabbi twisted his neck to stare back up at the night sky, where the lights danced on in a steady cascade of green light and unfolding purple wings.

Eric Margolis is a writer and translator based in Nagoya. His stories, nonfiction, and translations have been published in Vox, Slate, The New Republic, Eclectica Magazine, Metropolis Magazine, The Times of Israel, The American Library of Poetry, and more.