I am the grand inquisitor. My piercing Spanish eyes are wide with righteous indignation beneath my great black hood and cowl. I have the Jew in my grasp, but he refuses to recant. He assaults me with his spurious Hebrew logic. My mind storms at the sacrilege. I must restrain myself from wringing his neck like the chicken he resembles. Instead, I survey my armory of more persuasive implements and consider, with pleasure, which to use on this very special day: the tongs, the thumb screw, the rack, the fire. I sneeze.
This dungeon, my domain, is raw with winter. I can hear the wind rushing through the cracks between the enormous gray stones. Odors of mold and putrefaction are borne along like fish in the sea. Gusts find their way under my cassock, ripple my thighs like a horse’s flanks. My arthritic fingers clutch Ecclesiastes to my chest, and I think that the Jew must suffer similar pangs without similar comfort. At least I am accustomed to this spiritual netherworld, while all he knows is his warm thatched cottage, homey with the moist heat and smell of his grandmother’s soup. Not soon will he feast on beans and the blood of Christian children. Not soon will he escape the benevolent clutches of the Inquisition. I hold my lantern aloft to examine his fear, but when I sneeze again I drop it and the flame gutters and dies.
Despite the intense cold, I am sweating as I make my way down the darkened corridor. Is it the supernatural illumination that guides me through the pitch black labyrinth beneath the castle which is burning me up from within or merely my hatred of the Jew? A fire out of control on a glacial slope, the extremes of temperature wrack and contort me to their whim. Tapping this bone this way and that bone that, they play upon my brittle spine like a musician. We undergo the same tortures, myself and the Jew, but it is a small price to pay for eternal salvation. Each howl of agony that drifts through the walls is bringing some lucky soul closer to God. I envy them. Then I feel it, an awesome winged presence in the corridor with me. A silent, dreadful, magnificent visitation. The Holy Ghost?
From somewhere in the midnight passage comes a voice. “Who are you?”
“Your faithful servant,” I reply, and drop to genuflect.
“I see no servant of the God of the Cross,” the angry voice intones. “I see only… a Jew.”
A Jew? “No, no, my Lord. Here,” I tear at my hood, but where the black crest was is a knitted skullcap. “Here,” I rip my shirt to reveal the crucifix ever upon my heart, but in place of the penitential hairshirt is a flannel nightgown, and beneath it a star of David.
What a dream, what a terrible, frightening dream! I am back in my Toledo four-poster bed, Spanish lace hanging from its carved mahogany peaks. My red-cassocked junior brothers surround me, praying. Their voices are sweet, and far away, beneath my chamber, I can make out the restful undertone of the prisoners’ cries. My court physician is in attendance, bending over me, peering intently through his gold-rimmed spectacles, attaching a leech to suck the fevered blood from my still pulsing forehead. I try to speak, but I have been too exhausted by my recent ordeal. Even now it is not over, and there is something wrong about these people I think I know so well. They are engaged in a hushed conversation, so I only hear fragments.
“Raving since he got home.”
“…could have happened?”
Gradually their mellifluous Iberian accents become harsher, more guttural. Then their words themselves grow vague, then strange.
“On his way home from the cheder.”
“Church,” I rasp to correct them.
“It was something the blacksmith’s son said.”
“The blackness. What the blackness said.”
But they ignore me, so I scrutinize them. I catch a whiff of something fishy. My God, they protect me, the court physician smells of herring! He is an imposter. I try to writhe from his insidious grip, but he and his aides hold me down. Sweat springs to my forehead, floods into my eyes, burns them with salt. I shut them against the pain and sight of the Jew.
It is not enough to banish the vision of treachery. Words come through, in Yiddish. Miraculously, I understand the infidel tongue. I reopen my eyes in wonder at their magic and in order to remember their faces on the day of retribution.
“Who was last to see him?”
A man dressed as a schoolteacher answers, “The students all left together, but he ran ahead of the others. He often does.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if he were more friendly.”
“So then Zevchik, the blacksmith’s son, went up to him. There were words, then a fight.”
“That Zevchik is a terror.”
“Nonsense,” a new voice declares. “When haven’t young blacksmiths beat up young Jews? Zevchik is neither better nor worse than any Pole.” This speaker’s face is different from the others. It is less cared for but more caring. It is sensible, but it is also sensitive, and despite its lowly position on a straight-backed wooden chair in the corner it obviously commands a great deal of respect.
A mournful woman beside the chair sniffs, “He shouldn’t fight.” Her face is soft, madonnalike, haloed by a checkered handkerchief, but I will not allow myself to be seduced. It smells of soap and the other domestic chores of the faithless Jewish home.
The schoolteacher continues: “They were pulled apart, and he could hardly walk. Already he was crazy. So we brought him here, and he’s been like this ever since.”
They physician says: “I can find nothing drastically wrong with him. There are bruises but they’re minor.” He pulls the engorged slug off my forehead and drops it into a glass container, which he seals. “I don’t usually advocate leeching, but in this case I thought there might be too much pressure on the brain. It will make him weak and light-headed, neither of which can hurt him more than his delirium.”
Delirium, they say! Just because I can see through their pitiful masquerade they are desperate to convince me that I am mad. Endangered, yes, insane, never. I have fallen into the hands of Marranos, false converts, mockers of the sacrosanct baptismal ceremony. Pretending to be good Spaniards, they are merely cowards evading the snares of the Inquisition, secret Jews. I shall tear their disguises from them, strip them bare, flay them, burn them, and consecrate their ashes to the greater glory of Christ. “Jews!” I scream at them.
“Yes,” the quiet man in the corner responds.
“Jews! Jews!” There is no worse insult.
“You are a Jew,” he says.
“That’s a filthy, degenerate lie. I was born to be a sainted Christian woman, brought up in the household of the Lord, and have taken my place as the father of his earthly ministry… I am Torquemada.”
Most everyone in the room blanches and starts back in horror. They cannot help but accord the truly righteous a certain esteem. I can see the effect my name has on all of them — except the one in the corner. He seems saddened but not fazed. He says, “Then Torquemada is a Jew.”
I spring up and at his neck. My fingers are ten wriggling snakes, reaching to sink their fangs through the soft flesh.
He does not move to defend himself. It is the other Jews who subdue me and tie me to the bed.
“A dybbuk,” the mystic utters.
“No, a delirium,” the rationalist maintains.
“Who,” the woman hovering by the man in the corner pleads, “can help,”
First it is the doctor’s turn. Besides leeching me he forces me to drink a vile liquid that tastes like tree bark. I feel it knotting my stomach, coursing through, and purging me from within. My pillow is drenched with seat, but I will not succumb. When he lays hands on me, intruding on my privacy, I must endure the offense. Wrapped as securely as a baby in swaddling clothes, I have only my words. “Do you not see the error of your ways, Jew? How dare you refuse to acknowledge the divinity of the one Lord above?”
As this is a matter for theology, the Rabbi steps in. He is an ugly, cantankerous old goad, a pious criminal. I can smell his beard and rank gabardine coat. I can smell the pungent reek of his faith, like rotting moss caught in a castle wind. “We are the ones who recognize the one Lord,” he says. “It is you who divide him into three.”
“The Trinity, most hallowed, most ineffable of mysteries. One in three, three in one. You cannot understand.”
“Then how can we believe?”
“You claim to understand your Lord, Rabbi? A minor God he must certainly be.”
The Rabbi steps warily about this bed that imprisons me, as if afraid that I might break loose. He explains, “No, we do not understand our Lord. His ways are beyond human comprehension. But we do know that he is One.”
“As is mine,” I tell him. “One in three, three in one. A mystery greater than yours. If there are two great mysteries, must not the greater be attributed to the greater God?”
The Rabbi tugs at his smelly beard, then replies, “Then why not one in five, five in one, one in a million, a million in one, the greater the mystery….”
I have underestimated him. He has a point. Stalemate. I try another attack. “And the words of Christ on the cross?”
“Moses in the wilderness.”
“Pope Innocent III.”
“The Baal Shem Tov.”
“We can banter religious authorities all night, Rabbi, but how can you deny the lay opinion of the citizens of the world? How can you deny their choice, which has given the community of Christ to be fruitful and multiply while you shrivel in this Polish backwater? How can you deny history?”
“Truth is a matter of majority rule. How could we otherwise deny the words of the ancients as to the circulation of the blood, the roundness of the earth. A minority with truth on its side will always prevail, must always deny.”
I am exasperated. I cannot contain myself. “Your minority is a rag-ridden, flea-bitten race of whorish, usurious, inbreeding Christ-killers and should be exterminated.”
The Rabbi sighs, “No doubt if you have anything to say about it, we shall.”
“Yes, I can see such a day, and not so long from now. It will be a splendid day, bathed in light and blood. There, on the white shore of the eternal kingdom, the good people shall be gathered. At sea, aboard a raft as large as an ark, the total remains of international Jewry are tied one to the other. The angels demand an end to the pestilence. I am proud to dip my torch to the scattered bundles of straw, which crackle and smoke until the oils of the wood and the sinews of the flesh catch fire. The flames mount. The last blasphemous prayers to a pagan God are drowned by the hosannas of the righteous Christian multitude as the final glorious auto-da-fe sinks sizzling beneath the waves. Rid forever of the Jewish contagion, it shall be a day of universal thanksgiving and universal belief in the one true God.”
They are mute, agape before the power of my vision. Again, it is only the quiet man in the corner who can summon the will to speak to me. He asks calmly, “Are you a priest of a prophet?”
I could confound the doctor, refute the Rabbi, but this strange man’s soft-spoken questions are beyond my ability to scorn. I can see the marks of my hands on his neck. I feel obligated to explain as best I can, and I do so with surprising modesty, in a voice almost like his. “It comes upon me at times.”
The man merely nods. He puts a hand on the shoulder of the sobbing woman with the sweet face. “Go, Lie down,” he advises her, and where the ministrations of the Rabbi and the potions of the doctor had failed to soothe her, his words have an inspirational effect. She nods and leaves, and I almost feel sympathy until I choke it back and remember that these are killers of my Lord. Nursing dreams of revenge, I fall asleep.
When I wake, the man is still beside me, watching me.
“How did you sneak up on me, Jew?” I demand, and the man’s eyelids shut and his head bows beneath their weight into his hands, as if my words were a magical incantation turning his flesh to stone. “I asked you a question, Jew. Now answer me. I say, ‘Answer!'”
He moves no more than he has over the long course of the night.
“Answer me, dammit! Do you know who I am?”
In a weak, weary voice he moans, “Torquemada.”
The man’s head perks up, like a dog on its master’s return from school, his eyes suddenly bright. Tentatively, hopefully, he asks, “You’re not Torquemada?”
“What is this gibberish you keep repeating? Of course I’m not,” I say the alien name with distaste, ” Torquemada!”
The man rises, arms outstretched as if to embrace me.
“I am Saladin, Caliph of Egypt, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, Ruler of the East and Representative of Allah.”
The man collapses in a heap at the foot of the decadent Western bedpiece I am confined to. I would prefer a straw pallet on a baked mud floor to this frivolous, womanly cushion, shackles to the leather thongs that coddle as they bind me, the dungeons of Christ to this Jewish notion of luxurious imprisonment.
The woman with the sad face comes rushing to the aid of the man on the floor. Kneeling beside him, she turns to me, and cries, “What have you done to him, you ungrateful child? What have you done to yourself?”
“I do nothing for myself. My life is in the service of Allah.”
The Rabbi, newly entered with pie crumbs upon his beard, looks as if I have just condemned him to his decapitation. “Why do you do this?” he whines.
The man on the floor whispers, “Leave him be.” This is a curious type of charity he practices. Notwithstanding his moment of weakness, I have the feeling that he is the only one who is a worthy antagonist.
“What has happened to you?” I ask him. “We were born together in the desert of the patriarch Abraham. We are cousins, yet you have left our common inheritance. Your faces are white from lack of the nourishing sun. You have no strength, no stamina. You are no better than Christians.”
He seems staggered by my accusation, but before he can respond I continue: “Look about you. A cottage instead of a tent, an oven instead of an open fire.” At the mention of warmth the European cold comes through the walls to freeze me. “Look at this feather quilt, ” I chatter, “and the worst of it is that it may be necessary in this godforsaken climate. You may have managed to capture me, but you are the ones who are prisoners in your comfortable homes.”
I strain against my bonds, but I no longer have the power to resist them. I am betrayed by my own muscles, which have sunk into and become as one with the jelly of the mattress. The color is draining from my face, and the extra flesh shrinking from the head of my penis. Circumcision is the last indignity; I am becoming Jewish, and I cannot stand it. They are everything I despise. They are feeble and overintellectual, servile, cultish. They smell of the shop and the shul. Every one of them is as prematurely old as their race.
I think that we are born with our thoughts already dwelling in our brains. Try as we may to consider other points of view, we always return to the place where we started. I know in my blood that I must kill the Jew, and that is all there is that. We are family, but there are no more bitter hatred than those among close relations. Yes, there are reasons for this eternal enmity, their stubborn refusal to acknowledge the one true prophet, Mohammed, their pious stance that makes the rest of us feel like dirt, their ugly habits, their evil nature, but as sufficient as all this may be, it is also superfluous. The main reason Jews must be killed is tautological, because they must be killed.
As if he can read my mind, the solitary man still on the floor asks a simple question, “And what will the world be like when you have killed all of us?”
The answer is so simple I cannot understand how he does not see it. “Why, it will be like a world without Jews.”
The man nods sagely and returns to the chair to resume his vigil.
Night and day the man stays with me as I sleep to the fevered dreams of Judaism and wake to the might and glory of Jew-haters everywhere. I am Pharaoh, watching the pyramids rise on the mixture of limestone bricks and Hebrew sweat. I am Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem. I am Herod and I am Haman. I am Persian, Roman, Briton, and Turk. I am every prince or pope who has ever stoned or hung, drowned or burned the Chosen People. I am the proud persecutor ranging through the millennia, searching out my victims wherever they hide, for the taint of their blood always gives them away. The despised race always dies, but they always survive as a remnant that troubles my dreams.
The doctor and the rabbi must admit that I am too powerful for their meager talents to deal with, but given their one-track minds, they can only think to call in other doctors and rabbis. These celebrated men in three-piece suits and silver-rimmed prince-nez jab needles into me, infecting and extracting various vital fluids. They recommend diets and physical regimens. They mumble words of prayer and parade Torahs before me with alleged teachers and neighbors and pallid bookworms whom they claim are the companions of the imaginary childhood they have constructed for me. One wants to beat me, saying, “A good switching is all he needs,” while another dangles a gold watching idiotically back and forth in front of me. Whatever their remedy for whatever Semitic disorder they have attributed to me instead of themselves, they are equally flawed by their bad blood and incapable of effecting any change in me.
The only one I have a hard time with is the man in the corner, who, as far as I can tell, never leaves the room. It is small compensation that the rabbis also seem to have problems with this contemplative statue of a man. When urged to some violent action by one of his failed wonder-workers, he answers with a definitive incongruity that will brook no response, “The boy always had a good imagination.”
Second only to the man is the woman who is frequently brought in and out of my cell, where she sobs, the self-made martyr of some private tragedy. Still, when one of her washerwoman companions makes a snide remark about me, the woman reins in her sorrow and answers, “At least he’s eating.”
Suddenly, I have an idea. I understand why this couple does not disturb me as much as the others. They too are prisoners. She was my chambermaid, he perhaps an aged retainer. Now I have a plan. I bide my time, and when I am alone with them I whisper, “Listen, I know who you really are, and I know that you know who I really am, so help me escape. I will reward you with half of my kingdom.”
But the man only mutters, “And I would reward you with my entire kingdom,” and again we all lapse into a silence as deep as the ocean.
The woman’s long-drawn out sigh is like a bubble floated from the depths to break at the surface of the ocean. “I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t know where to turn.” A hysterical note comes into her voice and she yearns to leap. “We’ve had every Jew between here and Warsaw here, and none of them can help. What can we do?”
“Wait for the Lord, blessed be He,” the man reassures her, but despite himself he raises his eyes, entreating his Lord to stop taking his own sweet holy time and grant deliverance now. There is an ominous rumbling in the skies the room grows dim. A ray of light pierces the dusk like a spear. It is as if the desired redemption has indeed come down from the heavens and struck the man between the eyes. He asks the woman to repeat himself.
She is baffled and hesitant. “I don’t know where to turn?” she says phrase by halting phrase, like a youthful violinist. “I just don’t know where to turn?”
“Yes. Yes. Go on.”
“We’ve had every doctor and Rabbi and teacher and ev-”
“No,” he cuts her off, “that isn’t what you said.” He has a strange wakeful gleam in his eye, like someone with a present hidden behind his back. “You said that we’ve had every Jew in here.”
She begins to look at him with the same concern that has so far been reserved for me. Warily, she asks, “So who else is there?”
“There are ‘his’ people.”
“Goyim?” The word escapes with horror.
“One in particular… the Zevchik lad.”
“The one who did this? No, no, I forbid it. You must be crazy too. No. Absolutely not.”
“He can’t have any worse reaction to Zebchick that he has to us. We have to.”
A sallow pimply youth is brought into my cell between the rabbi and the doctor. “You,” I call to him. “Boots!”
He cringes, but the boy does not obey.
“Are you deaf boy? I say that I wanted my boots, and meant now. So shine them, wax them, buff them, and bring them before I have you spitted like a pig… Don’t just stare, and while you’re about your task, bring my waistcoat, and also my saber then saddle my horse. The time has come, don’t you hear me, the time has come for action. Come on, snap to it! I don’t have to tell you why this is necessary. They poison our wells. They steal children like yourself to make their filthy matzos. They have fortunes hidden to seduce our maidens, subvert our morals, and corrupt our race, these Rothschilds.
“But we won’t let them. The international Jewish conspiracy must be smashed. It must be rooted out of the high places it has usurped and the low places in which it breeds. We shall start a pogrom that will inspire good men everywhere. God’s cavalry shall charge out of the steppes into the shtetls, and raze them flat. Get my boots, boy, for today, against the Jews, today shall ride Chmielnicki, the king of the Cossacks!”
The boy turns on his heel, but the man from the corner has risen in stealth and stands behind him like a wall. “Now tell me, son, exactly what happened between you.”
“Don’t say a word,” I order.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man says, “and please don’t be ashamed. We mean you no harm. You see we must find out what happened, and you’re the only one who can tell us.”
“Silence!” I am frightened as by none of the previous torturers. “Silence, I command you, silence, you peasant!”
“I cursed him,” the boy mutters, “I called him a dirty Jew”
“Who are you calling a Jew?”
“Please go on.”
“I said other things… I’m not sure. Whatever came to my mind. We always do. It’s what we always do.” His audience rapt, the boy becomes positively voluble. If I could I would strangle him, but I am trapped, and gnash my teeth fruitlessly. “Oh, he was a strange one,” the boy says. “He actually asked me why I hated Jews. Then when I answered him we started fighting.”
The calm voice makes one last query, “And what did you say?”
“I said it was a stupid question. I told him that he knew why we hate you… because you hate yourselves.”
They boy chatters on, and the rabbis exchange views on this new profanity, but an overpowering silence emanates from the man. He ushers the boy to the door and nods goodbye to the rabbis. He seems to sleepwalk to my bed, and for the first time during my captivity I am afraid that he may harm me. His expression wavers unnaturally, still it is his usual mournful tone that repeats to me, “because we hate ourselves.”
I blurt out, “Because your God hates you.”
“You need to ask why? Because of my Chmielnicki, and because of Herod and Haman, and because of Torquemada. Or will you tell me that’s how He shows His love?”
And I start to cry. I press my eyes shut, but the tears well up and squeeze through. I hold my breath, but sniffles choke me and I must gasp for air. I am a dam, leaking, cracking, crumbling, and with each tear I feel my ability to resist failing. My years seep away, and with each tear a Jewishness rises in me, and the more it grows the stronger it gets. Samson wasn’t a Jew until Delilah cut his hair. The dam bursts, and the torrential flow of Jewish lamentation sweeps my out to sea, to drown if need be with the rest of my people. My power gone, I succumb to the pathetic traits of my race with a rush of pure joy. I am sobbing uncontrollably now, because I think that if He doesn’t cry for us, someone has to, and it might as well be me.
“It’s all right. It’s all right now,” the man with me repeats over and over again, working swiftly to untie the straps that hold me down, hugging me as I spring up. His arms around me are just as strong as but so much more secure than the straps, and his voice is understanding and wise and loving. “It’s all OK, maybe the Messiah’s been a little late, maybe he’ll be a little later, but Torquemada’s gone, and we don’t have to worry. We have each other and it’s the twentieth century of civilized man. There, there. What have could possibly come to us in 1928?”
Between sobs I manage to gulp, “Yes, Daddy.”