The False Bride
Outside of Simon’s office, the hum of angels’ wings moved the air like an evening breeze. The pair, one young and one old — ageless really — but one wise, one unknowing, innocent, rested on the air and waited. The wise one we will call Gabriel, not because that is his name; angels are nameless but instead are called by a chord of music, bright and blaring, rich and resonant, depending. But you, gentle reader, you can use his name to summon him. The other we will call Micha. Gabriel and Micha rested on the air outside and above Simon’s office, which was actually a converted garage and would have to be restored if he ever sold the house. Gabriel, bored of waiting, asked Micha what he had. Micha reached from under his wing and brought forth a story that would break the heart of the reader. It played out in the air between them — something like a hologram, but with gidicht (Yiddish for substance). The characters in the story were not ephemeral, but utterly real, and gasped the air they were brought into like an infant born. Micha presented the beautiful story to Gabriel.
“It is a love story,” he begins.
“Of course, a love story. What else would it be?” Gabriel shifts into the soft air and settles in more comfortably.
In the house there is a beautiful girl sweeping. She is singing to herself and crying. Micha almost forgets himself and moves to reassure her, but he cannot, because unlike in the world, he has no influence here; he cannot change the shape of her life, he can only watch it unfold. The sound of her sweeping echoes her loneliness and sounds like the brooms on the stone steps of Jerusalem in the Old City at sunrise. A man enters the room, and it can only be the girl’s father. He is poor, that is certain, and in the brief moment that the door is ajar, on the air drifts the smell of a bereft soup — the earth of the potato that can only wish to be more, the fleeting sweetness of the carrot. The father crosses to the girl and, standing before her, sets aside her broom and lifts her chin. Her eyes remain cast down. “Fegele,” he calls her, “Little Bird. — It is the day of your sister’s wedding.”
“Acch,” cries Gabriel; he can see where this is going. “The sister will marry the one she loves. What is new under the sun? Nothing.”
“Wait,” says Micha, pleased to have bested his mentor. “That much is true, but this is also true.”
The girl dries her eyes and curtsies in her worn dress to her father, who leaves the room. The house disappears behind her as she climbs the stairs to her room in the attic. She draws her dress over her head, and we see that she is in fact a little bird — the plane of her back like the snowy pages of an unwritten book. She takes the pillow from the bed, draws it to her chest and sobs silently. At that moment, her older sister enters, and we see that while one is graceful and the other plain, one cream and the other water, they are in their bodies sisters. Side by side, they undress in the weak light of the candle — they could be twins. The wedding dress hangs on the closed door, and as they stand, each in her thin cotton slip, the bride does the most extraordinary thing. She takes her sister’s hands in hers and kisses her tears away. She turns, and taking the wedding dress from the door, slips it over the head of her younger sister. In this moment, they conspire to deceive the congregation. Like Leah and Rachel in reverse, the older, less-extraordinary sister makes a gift of the groom. The younger sister makes a show of resisting, but the elder insists. She places and lowers the veil on the false bride, then crawls under the down covers of the bed and wraps a shawl around her own face. The false bride kisses her sister and races downstairs to her wedding.
“Such is the gift of love,” muses Micha. Gabriel huffs.
“But the story is not over,” Micha reveals with pleasure, as if unfurling the tapestry of a rich silken carpet.
From under his wing he produces a shimmering silken chuppah, embroidered by the steady hand of both daughters as they waited to be married off — the edges decorated with split pomegranates, the jeweled seeds sparkling and edged with golden thread. The angel sprays the sky with stars, and the small klezmer musicians play their aching clarinet. And, disguised by the veil, the false bride is married to her beloved. He paces around her seven times and shatters with force the cup they have both sipped from. As the newlyweds drive off in their carriage, a fallen star is reflected in the window where the unselfish older sister watches the pair ride off.
Micha disperses the scene with a puff of air and we enter instead the bridal chamber. The bride, shy of her deception, is concealed by the darkness and still wearing the veil as her husband makes love to her, kisses every inch of her body, tasting her, his hands learning her at once. She arcs and hears a startling sound escape her mouth, astounded at her own freedom and passion. She knows she will do anything for him. He collapses beside her, spent. She surprises herself, her own body new to this, ready again. She clings to him. He draws himself away, leaving her aching, her skin cool where he had warmed her. “I cannot love you,” he tells her. “I love someone else.” She is about to reveal herself, when he begins to extol her own virtues. It is impossible to resist the compliment, so she leans out of the moonlight as he speaks. He tells her that she is water and that her sister is cream. That she is only bone and her sister is fire. He enumerates each of her qualities, and with distilled bitterness, tells her what her sister is not. She grows cold and draws the thin sheet around her, astounded and distressed at what he has said to her beloved sister on her wedding night. The light of the moon casts across his pale skin and she sees that he is nothing — his cruelty to her dear sister unprovoked and selfish. When she reveals herself to him, she draws up the sheet and sees that it is bloodstained. And though his apologies are desperate and earnest, she is deaf to them.
Micha then gathers the story like jewels in a satchel and resists the temptation to look directly at Gabriel, whom he sees is dabbing his eyes and sniffing quietly. “Where is he?” Gabriel barks. “Where is Simon? Do we have all day?” Micha, though young, is wise enough to conceal his pleasure. It was a good story. He thought as much when he had selected it from the trove of words and images that are stored at the entry of the world to come. He feels reassured that he did not make the rookie mistake of selecting a story with a lesson — like an eager young rabbi who loses the string of his story, like a boy who leaves cheder, and in his daydreams, loses his way.
Gabriel and Micha yet waited. Micha saw that it was spring, that the lilac, which all the while had been a bony stick, had sprouted leaves of intention; that daily, hourly, it claimed its place. It was nearly Purim, when the ecstatic yelling and stomping of Jews celebrated their victory over a villain whose name they would write in chalk on their shoes. A story with all the best elements: a beautiful heroine, a deception, a villain, a revelation, a punishment so elegantly contrived that only the cruel perpetrator could become its victim. On Erev Purim, at the close of the Fast of Esther, Gabriel and Micha would fly around the world, moving toward the west so that the sun would set and set and set and the megillah would be unfurled and through the voices of men and woman tell the story that would not resolve till morning. But today they continued to linger, awaiting the writer, due to arrive, who was so late they wondered if he too was first encircling the world. Only Gabriel had begun to worry, but he saw that the young angel was so pure in his mission, so eager, that he did not flag, that Gabriel did not betray his concern, and instead made idle conversation.
“Do you know the story about Rabbi Hillel?” Gabriel tests, “the one where he lay on the roof of the cheder looking through the skylight?” Micha lifts his head from the leaves he is watching. This is how young he is, thinks Gabriel, he can wonder at leaves without thinking of death. Micha gives Gabriel his full attention. “What angel does not know that story? So great was his love for Torah that he did not know his own comfort, nearly freezing to death. So beautiful, like petals pressed between pages.” Gabriel is patient through the retelling. He takes his moment. “The story was almost lost.” Micha turns, his eyes widen. “I know, because I was there that day.” Micha is rapt, and Gabriel cannot deny the pleasure of it. “I was like you, new to it. It was my first delivery,” Gabriel continues.
“It was a bitter wind, and the fields and streets were an endless expanse of white. You could not see where the snow ended and the sky began; that is how white it was, blinding. My partner, Ishmael, held the story to his bosom like an infant through the relentless weather. I was a pisher, they gave me only the simplest tales to ferry, that I might not drop them and let them spill out like a case of souls. I had to struggle to keep up, though I was the younger, so intrepid was Ishmael, so urgent was the delivery of the story. The writer….” Here Gabriel stops himself, as if he can go no further with the story. Micha nearly topples, so far does he lean. The wizened angel draws him closer. “The writer,” he continues, like parsing bread to a goose, “the writer got lost in the storm. The story nearly…” And here he need not continue; the fate of an untold story is well known to Micha, who gathers his wing about “The False Bride” with still more care. He can hear the voices of the characters at a distance like the hum of bees.
“The writer, it seems, was hungry. His wife lay in bed, nursing a new son, and for days and days the writer had given his food to them — his wife unaware of her husband’s sacrifice. He had assured her that he had more than enough because he did not want the fear of their future to become the world of the baby she carried. When the child was born, he took all that he had and filled the house with food and wood and blankets made of wool, but in the end there was nothing left for him. And as he fed his wife so that she might feed their son, he told her that he had already eaten and could not eat a bite more. In her portion, he put a piece of meat, the broth rich with a bone and its marrow, and he stood over her so that she finished it and wiped the bowl with bread. She leaned her head on the pillow and lay watching her nursing son, and she thanked God for the child and the blessing of their bounty. The writer told his bride and his child that he needed to cut firewood and he went out under the stars and prayed. He wrote when he could in a small shed with a tallow candle. He promised himself that when he had chopped the wood, he would set a warm fire in the stove for his wife and child and return to the shed when she was sleeping. The world was still and silent but for the sound of Ishmael and me where we hovered above the shed and waited for him. When we saw that he had left the house, we rose and readied ourselves, presenting the story like a feast on a silver tray. But instead he turned away from us and went to the woodpile, the smoke from the chimney a thin grey ribbon on the darkening sky. We waited, and the writer raised the axe to split the wood, but the axe flew back heavy in his hands and he could not fell it. But it felled him.”
“Ah!” Micha gasps at the telling. Gabriel smiles and Micha rights himself.
“But you know the story, you know that it was written, so why do you worry?” Micha casts his eyes down, but Gabriel spares him. “The writer was exhausted from hunger. And the weight of the axe bore him down. He lay splayed in the snow, his eyes open but sightless, as the stars, first three, then as many as the sons of Abraham, filled the sky above him. He lay this way as the snow began to fall and, as if in a gentle sleep, the snow became a blanket for him.” Micha’s eyes implore Gabriel to go on. “What can we do? We are only angels. We have only to deliver the story,” cautions Gabriel. “We are not the authors of people’s lives.” He continues: “When the young mother awakens, the room is bitter with cold. She can see her own breath, and the cheeks of the infant feel cool against hers. She leaps from the bed and cries out to her husband. With the infant in her arms, his eyes wide to the world, she runs in her stocking feet out to the yard. She is stopped stark at the dark night, the sky black as the wet ink of the scribe, the only sound her hard heart pounding. She scans the yard and that is when she sees him, the shape of him, beneath the snow. She cries out and runs to the place where he had fallen, the weight of the infant and the slowness of her own movement a shock to her. Even as she bears him in her arms, she has forgotten that she is a mother, still so much a wife. She lays the swaddled child in the snow beside her husband and begins to dig with her bare hands to release him.”
Simon at last arrived, the sound of his Prius so nearly silent that he had arrived undetected by the angels at the door of his converted office. He struggled with the key, jiggling it just so — he would have to call a locksmith or not lock it. Well he’d better; there had been a lot of thefts in the neighborhood, and even though he saved what he was writing in the ether by emailing it to himself everyday, it would be a huge hassle to replace his laptop — though he liked the look of the one he had seen at the Mac store at the Grove, the one that was so thin you could slip it into an envelope. He gave the door a shove with his hip and felt a sense of relief wash over him as he entered this place — small, but his. He felt the hideous traffic of the 405 receding. He kept his Emmy here to greet him winged and feminine, years old, but joyful of his return. He had faith in only one thing, that if he arrived in the room every day, something would get written. He turned to shut the door behind him, and as he pressed the door closed he discerned the jasmine on the air, but not the angels who had whisked in with the speed of Elijah sipping from his cup of the Seder table and out again, leaving “The False Bride” behind.
Above Simon’s small workspace, Gabriel hastened to return to the gates of heaven, for this was to be his last assignment. Micha followed after him, breathless with the success of his mission, the fragile daughters safe in the hands of the writer. When he had made up the space between them, Micha tugged at Gabriel to finish the story of his first assignment. Gabriel pretended for his own amusement not to know what he wanted. They hovered then, the gates of heaven glistening in the distance, and Gabriel continued.
“The father? What became of him? When his bride cleared the snow from his eyes and his nostrils, he saw her and with her help he was able to stand. She carried the child in one hand and led her husband into the house with the other. She put him in her own bed with the infant, and she herself chopped wood and stoked the fire. She sucked out the marrow from the bones and fed it to him like the mother of a bird.”
“And then?” Micha could not bear it.
“And then, he was overtaken with fever and by morning he had died.”
Micha gasped. “Died?”
“Died and left the son an orphan and the bride a widow.”
Gabriel put his hand on the shoulder of the young angel; he knew how he suffered.
“How could he have died?”
“Because it’s not a story.”
Micha nodded. Of course it was not a story, but the helpless truth. He knew better. His heart ached for the widow and orphan. Together the angels moved up toward heaven and Micha felt the relief of knowing his days would be filled with the work of stories, each as achingly sweet as the lilacs that would bloom in just weeks outside of Simon’s office. Micha stopped and turned suddenly to Gabriel. “But the story?”
Gabriel looked at him, pleased as a father. “We gave it to the child. We set it in his cradle and he grew beside it and played with it as other children play with toys. Each day he rose, he saw Hillel search his empty pockets and climb the roof to lay on the skylight and listen to the reading of the Torah.”
“And the snow fell and covered him like a blanket and he nearly froze to death…” Micha continued. “Oh, no,” said Gabriel, correcting him. “That was not part of the story we delivered. That was the writer’s own invention.”