by Rena Rossner.
It started with a kiss, the first time I dreamt of Elijah the Prophet. He came to me completely naked under his dust-strewn white robes. I remember the dust because of its smell, somewhere between old books and mildew, and the powdery feel of him on my hands. He was kissing me, oh yes, in that shadow of time between wakefulness and death, and he muttered holy words like sonnets, love poems. That’s what I imagined them to be, because, even though I know Hebrew, I have absolutely no idea what he said. His wooden staff was in bed with us too, waxy and gnarled. And as I reached for him under his robe, his eyes caught fire. “The Little Death” they call it, that’s what came next and I didn’t know if I was in this world or the next.
I woke up the next morning, a bit embarrassed. Searched my sheets for dusty evidence, a stain. There was nothing. Just the memory of his pale and wrinkled flesh on mine, his soft gray beard against my chest. I shook my head. Rubbed my eyes. An old man? I’m dreaming about making love to a long-dead, geriatric prophet. What’s wrong with me? I made myself strong Turkish coffee, laced with cardamom and regret.
All through the day though, at the bakery where I work, on the main drag of the knobby old stone-strewn mystical city of Safed, I kept seeing his eyes – that fire, feeling his breath on my neck like a cold rush of heat from the ovens, and dismissing it each time with a slight shiver that returned me to the day. Elijah the prophet? Me?
I rang up customers, arranged loaves in wicker baskets, stared out the window through green wooden frames at the greener Mount Meron across the way. Isn’t Elijah supposed to come over that ridge? On a white donkey? Not to me, naked. In my dreams.
“You okay Mia?” Avi asked as he walked in off the street for his shift. He lifted his purple messenger bag over his head, put it down behind the cash. I looked at him, crossed and rubbed my arms as if cold, though between the ovens and the heat outside, and despite the fan, it was certainly at least 90 degrees inside.
“Just daydreaming,” I smiled, “you’ll take the cash? I think they wanted my help in the back.”
“Got it,” he said with a salute.
I took an apron off the hook by the white wooden swinging saloon doors that led to the kitchen in the back.
“Avi’s just come. What can I do?”
Tami, the owner, nudged me towards the sink, her arms elbow deep in dough.
“Go scrub up and take this over for me. It’s Walnut Spice.”
Half an hour later, with 24 loaves neatly rounded and scored, I washed up and got ready to go home for the day.
“Hey, Mia” Avi said to me as I untied my apron.
“Want to hang out with us later tonight? Just going out for some tea, maybe a nargila smoke with Tali and Michael.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Maybe another night, I’m bushed.”
I walked home past hidden alleyways and buildings that looked likely to topple any minute. The sun was setting over the mountains, and the fringes of the tzitzit and white undershirts that blew on laundry lines in the soft breeze like jellyfish tentacles, looked tie-dyed in the light: purples, pinks, golds and blues.
The next time he came for me I was ready. Waiting for his kiss. My eyes closed against the fact that I was actually doing this. That I wanted him. What the heck was wrong with me? I thought as I lay there, waiting for the visitation of a holy prophet, dressed in shorts and a tanktop, feeling like I should be wearing some frilly cotton nightgown, something more suitable. What do prophets like in a woman?
I waited for what seemed like hours. He didn’t come. I couldn’t sleep. I was too anxious. I got up to make tea. Something herbal, calming. I dunked the dried verbena leaves I’d picked the day before into my cup and boiled water. I opened the window wide and looked out at the sky. Drank my tea. Closed my eyes as the midnight air blew in and wafted verbena-scented steam onto my face and neck, like some kind of witches brew, I thought, and grinned.
As I climbed back into bed, sleepier now from the calm of the tea and the air, I thought, drunk on the thrill of the night and my own daring stupidity, maybe I could seduce Elijah. Maybe he’d like me naked under the sheets. I stripped my clothes off and climbed under covers now cool from the draft, luxuriating in the chill of the cotton on my skin. I thought with a grin: “Take me, Elijah!”
My soul and bosom bared, I fell asleep. The spiritual release came under the sheets that night. I’ll never forget. He sealed my fate with his wrinkled kiss. I woke the next morning and grew pink as I searched my body for signs of him. Nothing. Not even dust. No holy stains. Just the memory of his scent – like dust in the rain. And his hands – rough, leathery but indulgent and kind. Suffused with the wisdom of thousands of years. Thousands of women…
Was Elijah a player? Had he been doing this for thousands of years? Visiting unsuspecting women in their beds for centuries? Preying on innocent girls? The perks of being famous and holy, let me tell you.
I kept his visits as my closest guarded secret. I mean, who would believe me anyway? Nobody would understand. Why would anyone want to fuck a elderly ghost? But he was all I thought about. His nightly visitations, full of stardust, holy language, and sex.
Our trysts went on for a week (with Friday night being the most memorable of all…making love on the holy Sabbath? With Elijah? What could be more magical than that?) And then one night, on my way home from my shift, my heart already racing with what I knew awaited me, not even noticing the bright otherworldly hues of the setting sun against the graying stones, I nearly stumbled. Reaching out to open the door to my apartment and tripping, falling down onto a bundle of rags on my doorstep.
I cried out, then cursed, because I’d stubbed my toe. Stood up, wrinkled my nose at the rotten smell that my fall had released from the package, squinted my eyes in the darkening dusk, and realized it was not a bundle of rags at all, but a man. A bum. A smelly, drunken, sleeping, man, barring the entrance to my apartment.
I cleared my throat. Again. Louder, then louder still. Leaned over and tapped his arm, keeping my distance. Tapped him again, harder.
“Excuse me?” I said in a feeble voice, caught by the wind. Then louder. Then I shook his arm, and said it again.
“Hello?? Excuse me, sir?”
I slumped down, my back up against the wall of the building, not caring that I was getting coated in the grime of centuries, my jeans dusted with sand. I put my head in my hands and took a deep breath. What to do? Call 911 and tell them there was a bum blocking my way into my house and could they please come and remove him? Do they even offer that? Bum removal services?
I called Tali. I didn’t know what else to do.
“A bum?” she said, incredulous.
“Yeah.” I sighed. “A freakin’ bum.”
“So wake him up or something.”
“Tried that already.”
“Yeah, but not all nice-like, Mia-style, you know, scream, smack him, shake him, you know, really wake him up, not just nicely ask him to please move.”
“You smacked him?”
“I knew it! Come on Mia, smack the man.”
“But that’s rude.”
“So is sleeping on your freakin’ doorstep.”
“Okay…okay. I hear you. Shouldn’t I just call the police?”
“Trust me, Mimi, they have better things to do than wake up bums, you know, like hunt terrorists, chase drug dealers, catch thieves.”
“Yeah. Ok. I hear you.”
“Just do it. And if that doesn’t work dump a bucket of water on his head, yeah?”
“I guess so.”
“Call me back when you’re inside, k?”
“Ok…” I said, taking a deep breath and looking over at the massive mound of tattered cloths and filth lying next to me.
“I can do this,” I said to the wind. It didn’t respond. Not even with a howl.
I tried again, all the things I’d tried before. Tapping, shaking, calling out, nothing worked. I even smacked his back, sort of hard, I mean, not hard enough to really hurt him, just to sort of shock him a bit. He didn’t budge. Then I started to really worry. What if he was dead? Maybe I really should call the police.
It was dark outside. I was cold. Shivering. Summer was waning and the nights were getting cold. Really cold. I was all alone in a small alleyway with a drunken bum at my feet. Not a great situation. I screamed in frustration and kicked the form at my feet with all my strength, not out of a desire to hurt him so much as just out of sheer frustration and rage.
I heard a groan.
My heart started beating fast – I stepped away. Ok. He’s alive. I tried to calm myself. At least he’s alive. Now what?
He continued to groan.
Fuck. What if I broke a rib? And then thought, get real Mia, you’re not that strong.
“Excuse me, are you okay? Umm. You see, I kind of can’t get into my house.”
More noises, some of which sounded a little like words.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh! Water? You want water? Umm. Ok, I can get you some water, if you move off my doorstep and I can get into my apartment. Ok?”
The man lifted his head and looked at me for a minute, squinting his eyes as if he wasn’t sure if I was an apparition or a real girl.
He looked up at me again, searching for something, then up at the sky as if deciphering the stars, then arching his head still further back until he could see my door, just behind his back. And then, as though something fell into place in all the computing he was doing in his head, he lifted himself up off the ground enough to sit and moved away from my door just enough for me to open it and slip inside – which I did as fast as I possibly could. I entered my apartment and slammed the door behind me, feeling for and putting on the deadbolt before I even turned on the lights. I leaned against the door from the inside and took a deep breath of complete and utter relief. I’d never been so happy to see the inside of my apartment in my entire life.
I’d nearly forgotten about the bum still camped outside my front door.
“Waaaterrrr” I heard him say.
“Ok!” I yelled. “Coming!”
Fuck! I didn’t want to open that door again as long as I lived.
I undid the deadbolt and opened the door a crack.
“How about tea?” I said, thinking that in the cold night that might be a kinder thing to offer.
He grunted in response.
“Ok, that will take me a few minutes. I’ll be right back.”
I closed and locked the door.
It was nearly ten o’ clock at night. I was exhausted. All I wanted was a hot shower and some sleep. But I flicked the switch on the kettle and went to the bathroom to wash my face. When I came back the water had boiled, and I made two cups of tea – some chai – with milk and honey, figuring the extra calories and nutrients wouldn’t hurt him at all.
I unbolted the door and peeked outside.
He was gone.
My eyes traced the alleyway. Was he hiding somewhere? Waiting to jump out of the shadows at me? If I opened the door more would he jam a hand or foot inside and try to grab me? But there was only silence and moonlight on the cobbled stones of the quiet street. I inched the door open, further, then further still. Craned my head out around to the left, then the right, cleared my throat, closed the door, put on a sweatshirt and slippers, and with chai in hand I ventured outside, keys in my pocket. The door was still slightly ajar, and the sliver of light from the doorway illuminated the street like a slice of golden pie. He was gone. I shrugged my shoulders and nearly went inside, then thought, perhaps he went to pee or something, so I placed the cup of tea just outside my door, almost as an afterthought, and figured, if someone stole my glass mug, they probably needed it more than I did.
I sat down at the small wooden table I’d bought at IKEA the last time I’d been down south to visit my parents, and drank my Chai alone. Then cleaned out the cup, went to the bathroom, ran a shower. I washed away the long day at the natural bakery, the dough still beneath my nails, the flour that always seemed to scent my hair. I washed away the two hours I spent sitting outside in the cold next to a bum that smelled like bad milk, and the dirt and grime I was sure had seeped through my clothes as I sat there. I felt warm for the first time in hours and relaxed in the scents of coconut and lavender, feeling guilty for my creature comforts, when, despite the fact that he had barred my front door, there was a man out there who had no shower, no home, and maybe not even a cup of tea.
I toweled off and put on my pajamas. Climbed into bed, turned out the lights, and as I was drifting off to sleep, thinking that my pillow had certainly grown more comfortable in the past 24 hours since I last lay my head on its downy softness, that I’d completely forgotten about Elijah, and hazily I thought that he’d be disappointed to see me in pajamas, I hadn’t worn them in a week, but I was too tired to care.
He came that night. And he silenced my apologies with his kiss. I remember thinking that he’d found a magic way to take my pajamas off without even waking me up, and then I thought no more. As we moved together under the sheets, his wooden staff safely tucked up by my side, and the trunk of his body lean and hard up against mine, despite the frailness of his skin, and the soft tickle of his curly white leg hair where my shaved and tanned calves met his, I twined my hands into the rivers of gray hair that tumbled around our heads like a nest and arched up to seek his lips. I opened my eyes and stared into his fiery gaze and realized as he came with me, muttering sweet holy words that meant nothing into my ear, his breath smelled an awful lot like chai. But then I realized I was so tired I had probably forgotten to brush my teeth. I sighed in ecstasy and feel into a deep dark sleep.