The Eunuch, The Colombian, & The King

By MENACHEM KAISER

The Eunuch

In the courtyard were more of these men and women who—how should I describe them?—who still were. They didn’t do anything except exist. They sat, alone or in silent clusters. None would say yes to an interview. I circled the courtyard, asking. Most did not even say no.

I approached two men playing checkers. They sat low, elbows on knees. Each man was on a cinderblock, and the board topped a third cinderblock. The checkers were surplus brass buttons, no two a pair, though the board was sturdy, wooden, of quality. Both men were leaning over so that their heads nearly touched; from a distance it looked like they were in the middle of a joined prayer, or—better—a lovers’ quiet skirmish. I said to myself, That could be a nice description.

Good morning, I said. I spoke in Yiddish. Can I ask you some questions? One of the men looked up. The other kept his heavy gaze on the board. Perhaps it was his turn. Not many moves had been made—most of the buttons were still in play. I decided that the man who hadn’t looked up was winning.

The man who’d looked up—his eyes were exceptionally dark. A black that seemed to have behind it more black. What is your name? I said. If he didn’t tell me his name, I would call him Morris.

The player with the black eyes—Morris—said, New York?

Yes, I said. I write for Der morgen zhurnal.

You write in Yiddish, he said.

Yes, I said. Sometimes in English.

He said, Your Yiddish is terrible. Rotten, treacherous. Go back to New York.

I want to tell your story, I said.

Morris threw his head back. In derision? In amusement? Itchik, Itchik, he said, did you hear? He wants to tell your story.

The opponent, Itchik, stood up. He was short, he hardly reached my shoulders, but he had about him an air of violence, a mien which I want to describe as “purple.”

Stories! Itchik said. His voice was high and scratchy. I nodded. I was afraid he might hit me. I was excited he might hit me. If he hit me, what would I do? How hurt, how surprised, how generous should I be?

Itchik did not hit me. He unknotted his belt and let his canvas trousers fall. Instinctively I leashed my curiosity, kept my sight on a plane with his, but he nodded downwards, nodded again and again, hammering my gaze down. What was exposed, what did I see? Thighs whittled away to two parallel sticks a shocking distance apart. A distinctly unhuman geometry; he looked like a wishbone. The prongs of his hipbone threatened to pierce right through the skin. He had no pubic hair. Below his curled and desiccated penis was a mangle of corrupted flesh, dry bunches of boluses of redgray skin and scar. I couldn’t think up an appropriate metaphor.

I looked away, I looked around—no one in the courtyard paid us any attention—I looked at Itchik. His eyes were waiting for mine. Ah, I said to myself, now here is a story. Can I ask you my questions? I said.

Itchik said, You came from New York and you didn’t bring a camera?

 

The Colombian

I turned from Itchik and his unnamed opponent and walked along the edge of the courtyard. I felt tired; I felt oppressed by the horizonless despair. There was nothing to grasp onto. It’s important to tell these stories? I believe this, and I do not believe this. I came across a woman I hadn’t approached before. She was standing next to a wall but not touching the wall. Her shirt and pants were loose and dirty, and it seemed probable—it seemed to me a reportable fact—that these were clothes someone had died in. I made a deal with myself that if she said yes to the interview, I’d write that she had a “faded beauty.” Something like, You could tell she had once been beautiful.

Shalom aleichem, I said. Can I ask you some questions? I write for Der morgen zhurnal.

Questions? she said. Questions? What about? Her Yiddish was native, but her accent was strange. Her Yiddish seemed squeezed.

Your story. Your experiences.

My story is not like the other stories.

I took out my pad and uncapped my pen. I said, No one’s story is like anyone else’s stories.

She lowered her voice. My name is Esmerelda, and I am from Bogotá. Bogotá is the capital city of Colombia. It has a population of 1.2 million people. How could I know such information if I wasn’t from Bogotá?

I believe you, I said. You are from Bogotá.

I can prove to you I am from Bogotá, she said. If I was not from Bogotá, if I was from—if I was from wherever all these other people are from, if I was from whatever nasty, harsh countries they are from, then, tell me, would I like potatoes?

I don’t know, I said. I capped my pen, lowered my notebook. Esmerelda’s story of her story need not be recorded. But I let her say it nonetheless.

Potatoes are very important to these northerners. But do you know what my favorite dish is?

No, I said.

My favorite dish is ajiaco.

I said, How did you get here from Bogotá?

Tunnel, she said. Tunnel and also airplane. I am a spy for the Irgun. My mother was a famous woman. Wealthy, educated, beautiful. She collected art and tapestries and fine China. She hosted a salon in our living room. Once a month. Specifically, on the first Friday of every month. Many remarkable people came to these salons. Dignitaries, diplomats, officers, artists and musicians and journalists. One of the men was a spy for the Irgun. He was in South America for special missions. Obviously I cannot tell you his name. He noticed me. He asked my mother about me. She told him about my intelligence, my gift for languages, my charm and charisma. We developed a special relationship. Soon, we were in love. He inducted me into the organization. I did not tell anyone. I did not even tell my mother, though I will, when I see her next.

But where is your mother now? I said. Is she still in Bogotá? Were you in a concentration camp? What is your mission here?

I’m sorry, she said. I’ve said too much.

 

The King

I had a desire to punish Esmerelda, to raze her delusions, but my attention was pulled away: around us I could sense movement, excitement. A feeling of collective agitation. These patient men and women were being drawn to something I mustn’t allow to go unrecorded. I touched Esmerelda on the shoulder—a gesture of sympathy, a gesture of valediction—and stepped into the crowd’s current; we flowed into a dense circle of spectators straining towards some spectacle in their center. I recognized, among the crush, faces of men and women I’d approached. They were excited. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but they were excited.

I wedged my way towards the circle’s inner rim. What we surrounded, I could now see, was an old man. His face was gaunt, sallow, but you could tell he had once been handsome. I had been hoping I might witness an altercation, but the old man stood alone. It was a show of sorts: the old man was the star, the enclosed space the stage. From the audience there were no jeers, no taunts or comments, but still there was a sense of pinched rowdiness, a roughedged eagerness for the merriment they had gathered for to begin. The old man stood loose and at ease; he stood as if unobserved, innocent of or inured to the hundreds of hungry eyes around him.

Someone poked me in my side; it was Itchik’s opponent. His face was close to mine, and I could feel his breath on my cheek as he spoke. Writer of New York, he said, in English, then switched to Yiddish: Here, watch carefully, he said. Here will be something to write about. I began to ask why everyone had gathered, who that old man was, but Itchik’s opponent motioned for me to be quiet.

Presently two men entered the circle. In their step was a skip, a bounce, that made them seem like eager schoolchildren. I might describe that skip as “merry,” but I might also describe it as “callous.” One of the men held a plain wooden chair that had thin armrests and no upholstery; the other held a canvas cap cut and shaped into a crown. I was standing too far to see, but I assumed they had affixed “jewels” (stones, fruit pits) to the crown. The chair was set down behind the old man, who slowly and dutifully took his seat. Like a weary royal, I’d write. He then leaned forward so that the crown could be placed upon his head.

The man who’d carried the chair bowed and departed, melding into the crowd. The man who’d carried the crown stood beside the chair. He stood at attention: legs together, arms at his sides. The crowd’s silence was total. The man who’d carried the crown paused—so the silence could deepen, I imagine—then, in a sharp voice that reminded one of daybreak, shouted, All hail Mendel the King! The cry echoed in the flat courtyard. Then the crowd—the court—shouted, in startling unison, Long live Mendel the King! Long live Mendel the King! Long live Mendel the King! Long live Mendel the King!

There would have been a fifth repetition, but a gesture—a handflick—from the King abruptly silenced the court. The man who’d carried the crown—the Page, I realized he was the Page—turned questioningly to the King. The King responded with another handflick. This time the gesture said, Get on with it. The audience cheered profusely.

The Page returned to his at-attention stance and in that sharp voice cried, The first visitor to the King’s court is Asa of Sosnowiec! With your majesty’s permission, he will recite a poem in your honor!

The King nodded; the Page receded. Asa of Sosnowiec entered and stood in front of the throne. From where I stood I could see only his back, but I’ll describe his forehead as broad and sweaty. The King I could see—he looked weary but patient. Asa of Sosnowiec coughed, cleared his throat—the crowd leaned forward—and in a soulless voice, a voice void of motion or emotion, recited:

Ruf mir Yoshke,

            Ruf mir Moshke,

            Aber gib mir die groschke!

The final -ke snapped in the air like a gunshot, and Asa stood still and silent, awaiting, along with the crowd, the King’s reaction. Mendel the King, with what seemed to me to be a touch of showmanship, paused, shifted in his throne. He then lightly touched his forehead, right beneath the crown. A sign of approval, it must have been, for the crowd cheered. Asa of Sosnowiec bowed—low, from the waist—then approached the King, kneeled, and kissed the back of the King’s hand.

Asa of Sosnowiec exited; the Page returned to his place beside the throne. Your Highness! he cried. Yocheved of Budapest has requested the honor of granting you a gift! Mendel the King touched his forehead in approval.

A woman stepped onto the stage, into the court. She was wearing a loose green skirt; the crowd murmured in wonder: very rarely were skirts seen here. I wondered if Yocheved of Budapest was, or had been, a mother. I decided that she had been, and was no longer, a mother. Odds were. She bowed deeply—her body was a near-perfect right angle, her torso parallel to the ground.

The King touched his forehead, but Yocheved of Budapeset did not unbend. Instead, holding the pose, she turned around, so that her bent-over backside now faced the King, who looked on blankly, wearily, patiently. The crowd pushed forward; Itchik’s opponent jabbed me in the side. I readied my pad and began thinking about how I would order these episodes. Which of these characters were the most compelling? Also, what was the significance of the skirt? The crowd remained transfixed, huddled in an anticipatory hush.

From within Yocheved’s skirt something slipped down, slapped the concrete with a viscous noise.

Yocheved of Budapest slowly righted herself and faced the King. At her feet was a greenish puddle. The King glanced down—the puddle steamed and stretched—then looked at Yocheved. The crowd wasn’t sure where to look. At the King? At Yocheved? At the steaming puddle of fecal liquid? The King touched his head in approval. The crowd cheered wildly. Yocheved of Budapest stepped over the puddle—but let us say into the puddle—and approached the King. She bowed and kissed his offered hand.

Yocheved of Budapest exited; the Page returned to his place beside the throne. Your Highness! he cried. Adam of Kovno and Adam of Vilna have requested your wise counsel, so that they may settle a dispute! Mendel the King touched his forehead.

Two men stepped into the court. One man, I will assume Adam of Kovno, spoke first; the other, Adam of Vilna, waited patiently.

Your majesty, Adam of Kovno said. He spoke in an even tone; he had practiced his lines. The two subjects before you, he continued, share a single bed. The arrangement is not ideal, of course, but we have no complaints. Our situation is no worse than the others’.

Adam of Kovno stopped. Adam of Vilna began: To share a bed is to compromise. If one is quick to fall asleep and the other is slow. If one rises early and the other late. Snoring, tossing, turning, midnight bathroom runs. (At this, the crowd tittered.) It was not always easy, but Adam and I managed. We became, in nearly every respect, the most compatible of bedmates.

Then Adam of Vilna stopped, and Adam of Kovno resumed: The trickiest compromise was in regards to nightmares. Both of us experience nightmares. As so many of us do. Black, raging, echoing terrors. At first, it was a comfort, having someone to wake up to—when I sensed Adam’s trembles or he mine, we would soothe each other, subdue each other.

Adam of Vilna: But within a few weeks something strange began to happen. We slept in such close proximity that our nightmares and our dreams—but who among us is blessed with dreams?—began to seep out of our respective skulls. We began to experience each other’s nightmares. Can you imagine what this was like? Another’s nightmare, on top of your own. The terror, your majesty, was doubled, the distress intensified to hellish levels. The situation became unbearable.

Adam of Kovno: In order to avoid simultaneous nightmares, we agreed to a schedule. On Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday I have my nightmare, in which Adam participates, and on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday he has his nightmare, in which I participate. Fridays we alternate.

Adam of Vilna: For a few weeks the arrangement worked well. But soon it became apparent that our nightmares were not equal. Mine were far bigger. Whereas his nightmare is nearly always a near-static image—more of a sensation, really, than a story—mine are sequences, narratives, that simply cannot fit into three and a half nights per week. I do not want to suffer a half-nightmare. Our nightmares are also our memories, and if I cannot forget entirely, then I do not want to half-remember. It seems only fair, then, that the arrangement should be redrawn and I am granted more nights.

Adam of Kovno: Your majesty, I disagree. Firstly, an agreement is an agreement—if one party can simply change the arrangement when it is convenient to do so, then of what purpose is an agreement? Secondly, while I concede that his nightmare is longer than mine, I disagree that it is bigger. How can such things be measured?

The King nodded, touched his forehead: he had heard. Now he would judge. He shut his eyes in contemplation. The crowd dared not make a sound; I could sense their excitement. I silently cursed these men and women; I cursed their sufferings and their stories and their fictions. The King opened his eyes and stood. The Page came to his side to steady him. I have a verdict, he said. He was not speaking loudly, but the courtyard was still and he was perfectly audible. The matter is a complex one, he said. But, as in so many complex matters, the solution is simple. You must know each other’s lives and nightmares as well as you do your own. You must merge, he said. Then you may share the burden equally.

 

Menachem Kaiser is a writer based in Detroit and a Zell Fellow at the University of Michigan. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Fulbright Fellow to Lithuania. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, BOMB, Vogue, The Atlantic, New York, Tablet, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

 

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Sarah WhelanThe Eunuch, The Colombian, & The King

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