Monday, August 11, 2008

Friday Fiction for August 8th, 2008

This post catches up this blog with my participation in the Friday Fiction blog to date. New submissions will be posted here, rather than on the website.
This week's story is a complete re-write of a short story I wrote several years ago, and which the original is lost somewhere on old media (probably a dead 3.5" floppy in my desk). The first draft was never published anywhere, so this counts as the story's debut.
Since this story contains a few Hebrew terms, I have included a glossary at the end of the story. The title is "Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)". It's pronounced Yah-meem Nor-ah-eem, and refers to the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. In Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur the books are closed. Which book a name is written in depends on how the person has lived, and there is a special focus on doing charitable deeds just in case one needs a bit more "push" towards the Book of Life. The number ten in Jewish culture symbolizes the whole, and the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are seen to represent the entirety of history from the creation to the final judgment. While one lives with a particular attention to righteousness during the Yamim Noraim, on Yom Kippur there is an additional portion of the liturgy called the "Al Chet". In the Al Chet, the sins of the community are confessed - even those that may have been committed unconsciously - and God's forgiveness and mercy is humbly requested. I hope you enjoy the story.
Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)
By Rick Higginson

She hurried back along the dirty street towards her favored spot, wishing that the impractical footwear wasn’t part of her work couture. Her mind worked over things as she walked, remembering the background noise of the television in the motel room. The announcer had said it was Rosh Hashanah, and one of the large synagogues in the city had staged a particularly special ceremony to mark their one hundredth year as a congregation. Her father would be blowing the shofar that night for their own small shul in Ohio, commencing the Yamim Noraim leading up to Yom Kippur in ten days.

There would be deeds of tzedakah – righteousness – during those ten days, per the idea of tipping the scales in one’s favor before the traditional closing of the books on the Day of Atonement. She gave a soundless and humorless laugh. There isn’t any righteousness in your life anymore, is there Suzi? she thought. You came here to be an actress, didn’t you? Well, you’re acting all right; acting like all those vile things men pay you to do are enjoyable. If the books are closed on Yom Kippur, then they closed on me already.

Turning the corner to the street she worked, she nearly tripped over the old man on the sidewalk. “Excuse me,” she said, slightly annoyed. “You know, you’d be better off sitting a little farther from the corner, so people could see you before they stepped on you.”

“Yer prolly right,” he said, the voice hoarse and weak. “Ya couldn’t spare somethin’ fer a hungry old man, could ya?” he asked, and turned his face up towards her.

She paused and looked at him. The wrinkled skin and thick beard definitely went with the homeless life, but his eyes were clear and full of hope. He certainly didn’t look like so many of the bums that wanted money only for drugs or booze. It wouldn’t be much, compared to the life I’ve been living, but it would be a deed of tzedakah to help him, she thought. She opened her small purse and dug out one of the twenties her last “client” had paid her with. “Here; go get yourself a decent meal,” she said, pressing the folded bill into the gnarled hand.

He slipped the bill into his pocket without looking at it. “Thank ya muchly,” he said, lowering his face again. When she was maybe ten steps away from him, he added, “L’shanah tovah.”

She stopped with her mouth slightly agape. Did he just say what I think he did? She spun around, but he was no longer sitting on the sidewalk. Shaking her head, she started back up the street. How long has it been since someone said that to me?

Lost in her thoughts, she paid no attention to the figure in the alley until he reached out and grabbed her, yanking her into the shadows. His hand clamped over her mouth before she had a chance to cry out.

“Givin’ away my money, Suzi?” he said, putting his face so close to hers just to blow his cigarette smoke into her eyes. “I guess you forgot who you work for, so it’s time for a little reminder.” He dragged her deeper into the alley, and held out his hand.

She gave him the money from her purse. “Razor, please, I just-”

“Shut it,” he said. “I don’t wanna hear your excuses.” Slamming her against the wall, he wrestled both her hands up over her head and pinned them there with his right arm. He flicked the ash off the cigarette with his left, and took a drag off it to heat the cherry on the end. “I’m gonna let you off easy this time with the reminder, but the next time you try to steal from me, you’re gonna lose something, you understand?” He brought the glowing cigarette towards her exposed underarm – his favorite “reminder spot”, where the wound and the scar wouldn’t show and potentially lower her appeal to the clients.

“Why don’t you let Shoshannah go, Roger?” a strong, masculine voice said from deeper in the alley.

Shoshannah? No one in the city knows me by that name.

Razor dropped the cigarette and clamped his left hand to her neck. With his right, he drew the pistol he liked carrying and turned to face the voice. “Whoever you are, this ain’t none of your business.”

Stepping into a small area of light coming from a sign atop the building, the homeless bum to whom she’d given the money shook his head and smiled. He held the folded bill in his hand. “Is this what you want, Roger?”

“The name’s Razor, and it ain’t just the money.”

“Razor; so much tougher sounding than Roger from a quiet, suburban Vermont neighborhood, isn’t it? After the number of taunts you heard with your name in school, you couldn’t wait to get rid of it when you moved to the city, could you?”

He thumbed back the hammer on the pistol. “Who are you, old man?”

“Just a messenger, Roger.”

“Don’t call me that!” There was fear in the pale blue eyes.

“It doesn’t matter what I call you; Roger Prosowski is what they will put on the paperwork when they log you into the morgue tomorrow night.”

He raised the pistol higher, aiming it at the man’s face. “Are you threatening me? I could blow your brains all over this alley right now, old man.”

“No, I’m not threatening you. I’m here to warn you that your weakened heart is going to stop tomorrow afternoon, as a result of your drug habit. You can save your life if you go to the hospital tonight, or even in the morning. What’s more important, though, is that you have a chance to save your soul.”

The barrel of the gun lowered a bit as he started to laugh. “What? You some kind of Jesus freak, is that it? You are some piece of work, you know that? Do you really expect me to believe that?”

He shook his head with a sad resignation in his eyes. “No, I don’t expect you to believe me, but I have to tell you anyway. At the very least, call your grandmother tonight. She worries about you and prays for you every day. She should have the chance to hear your voice one more time.”

“So my grandmother sent you to find me, is that it?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes; the One your grandmother prays to sent me.”

“You’re crazy, old man. You’re freakin’ nuts.”

“I’m not the first prophet to be told that.” He pointed with an open hand. “Your left arm is tingling now, because your heart isn’t strong enough to keep the blood flow to it in that position.”

He yelled an expletive, and brought the pistol back to level. The hammer fell with a hollow click. “What the -?” He pulled the trigger again with the same results.

The old man didn’t appear surprised. “Please listen to me, Roger. God does not take joy in the death of the wicked, and you still have time to save yourself.”

He was trembling as he released her neck. “This ain’t happenin’; it can’t be.” With a string of profanities, he ran from the alley.

She slumped to the pavement, and pulled her arms tight across her chest. Her fear felt worse, despite the threat being over, and she concentrated on keeping the emotions hidden. Never let them see you cry, she remembered one of the older girls telling her when she’d first been forced onto the streets. Never act afraid; it only makes them bolder.

The old man stepped up next to her, looking in the direction Razor had gone. “He isn’t going to listen,” he said. “He is going to go hide in his drugs, and they will find him tomorrow afternoon. Your slavery to him is finished, Shoshannah.”

“It’ll just be someone else, then.” She looked up at him, and it seemed his wrinkles were gone. “There’s nothing else in this city for girls like me.”

Holding his hand out to her, he smiled. “You can go home.”

“I can’t even afford bus fare to the suburbs, let alone back to Ohio.” Her voice dropped to an ashamed whisper. “I don’t want my family to see me like this, either.”

The hand was still extended. “Walk with me, Shoshannah. I’d like to show you something.”

She took the hand, surprised by how strong it was. “Who are you, really?”

“Like I told Roger; just a messenger.” He removed the coat from his back and wrapped it around her shoulder. It had seemed worn and dirty when she’d first happened upon him, but proved instead to be clean and well-cared for. “Did you know your great-grandfather played the shofar for a synagogue in this city?”

She shrugged; it seemed a trivial thing to discuss, and for some odd reason it just made sense that he knew so much about her.

“He sounded the shofar for their first Rosh Hashanah service a hundred years ago.” Leading her out the opposite end of the alley, he turned right on the sidewalk and maintained an easy pace for a few blocks. Rounding another corner, they approached a row of hotels.

Her heart sank. Is that what this is all about? He’s just another client taking me back to his room? She opened her mouth to say something just as the old man stopped next to a cab that had just pulled up to the curb.

“You have been inscribed for a good year, Shoshannah,” he said. “This is as far as I go.”

“What are you talking about?” she said.

He gestured towards the cab as the back door opened, and her eyes locked with recognition with the passenger. “Daddy?”

“Shoshannah?” Her father stood from the cab and leaned against it for support.

She turned towards the old man. “I can’t face him; not like this.”

There was strength in his voice. “You already have.” He gestured to her father with his hand.

“After the life I’ve lived here?”

Her father pulled her into an embrace, weeping as he kissed her repeatedly. “Shh; it is for HaShem to judge and HaShem to forgive. We thought we would never see you again,” he said. “How did you find me?”

“I didn’t, Daddy. It was him,” she replied, nodding towards the old man.

Her father reached a hand, and the old man took it. “I cannot thank you enough, friend. Will you join us for dinner?”

He shook his head. “I have other messages to deliver tonight, Levi ben Sh’muel. Give your praise to HaShem and welcome your daughter home.”

“There must be something I can do for you?”

“Spread my message; Moshiach is coming.”

“Moshiach?” Her father turned his face and stared for a moment into the old man’s eyes. The disbelief turned to realization. “Eliyahu?”

The old man smiled, and gave just the slightest of nods as he took a step backwards.

“Wait, please,” her father said.

The screeching of brakes distracted them for just a moment as a car narrowly avoided hitting a jay-walker. When they turned back, the old man was gone.

“There was so much I wanted to ask,” her father lamented, and then turned his gaze to her. “He brought you back to me, though. Baruch HaShem; what more could I ask?” He led her towards the hotel. “We must call your mother and tell her that you are coming home.” Pausing at the door to take one more look down the street, he added, “And that Moshiach is coming.”

Glossary, in order of appearance:

Rosh Hashanah – Literally, “Head of the Year”; modern Jewish New Year.
Shofar – traditional trumpet, usually made from the horn of a ram or antelope.
L’shanah tovah – Shortened version of traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting that translates to “May you be inscribed for a good year.”
HaShem – Literally, “The Name”, used in place of the Holy Name of God in conversation.
Moshiach – Hebrew word from which we get “Messiah”
Eliyahu – Hebrew form of Elijah
Baruch HaShem – “Bless The Name”; roughly equivalent to the English, “Praise the Lord”

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