I finished my law studies about five years ago. Nothing brilliant, my mother insisted that her son should become either a lawyer or a doctor. And who could resist a Jewish mother? Surely not her son. The problem being, that all I had to do in order to faint without indulging in simulations was to see a drop of blood, human, animal, or even fish. For Yom Kippur my parents, who were on the traditional side, had to accept that the traditional sacrifice chicken supposed to carry away all my sins, would be a plastic one. They found somewhere a rabbi that for a few dollars accepted to see it as a kosher ritual. So you understand that anything to do with doctors was out of the question. Therefore I became a lawyer, or rather finished my studies on the subject. The enthusiasm I displayed at my brand new diploma which, must be mentioned, did not place me in the top tiers of student achievements, was obvious in the temporary career I chose while waiting for a position in my uncle’s law firm. Temporary career which consisted of playing the night bartender in a New York suburb’s almost respectable club, with my mother only aware that I am heavily involved in the drinks industry. With a slight parallax view that I did my best to maintain. And when my uncle’s business got involved in some legal tax evasion schemes that proved not quite legal, I exploited the opportunity to extend my temporary career indefinitely.
I liked the job. All you had to do was understand the mumbled occasional Cuba Libre, know how much water to add to the whisky on the rocks before it became discernible, and disregard certain activities that even law college freshmen know they should be disregarded. A question of personal health hazards. The human landscape fascinated me. I observed the regulars, the random one timers, the rare show-offs that appeared with a married ring on their finger and with a peroxided blonde who clearly had nothing to do with this ring. A real, true to God, American melting pot, predominantly white males, a few blacks from time to time which I took extreme care with to call Afro Americans (shall I demand to be called myself Judeo American, or Polish American, or maybe Polo American... I kept laughing to myself), and I even recognized once a guy from my community and was wondering to myself in which pocket he hid the kippa. The bar owners did not discriminate any color - all dollars were green to them.
Specifically, the drinking girls were my greatest source of fascination. I knew all of them by name, at least those who survived for longer than a week, most using Hollywood names like Rita, Dorothy, Marilyn, and here and there the occasional real thing that didn’t give a damn about using their real name as long as the pay was good and the involvement minimal. I was surprised actually that some of them were not real professional hookers and tried to make an honest living out of it. There were the occasional physical touches of course, it was inevitable. Some clients acting quite ugly about it, some just leaving their hands lingering on the way of a passing girl as if by chance, touching a breast, a buttock. Some squeezing quite hard in, on the few occasions that they claimed to try to dance. The girls were tolerant. They knew the money was kosher, the tips fat, and the touch to be forgotten in an hour or so. A well paying game. The few who left with the clients, trying for an acting career’s foggy promise - well, they were just... a few.
I never got involved with any of them, my mother would have killed me with a frying pan, but at times, before the first clients were getting to the tall stools or at times even after the last one left, we engaged in serious discussions, sometimes going deep into their personal lives. I never knew some scars could go so deep, be so well hidden, and occasionally, never healing. I remember a special one, when was it, some years ago? So different to the others. She wasn’t the normal run of the mill candidate for the job. Beautiful, not very tall, nice figure, yet I was intrigued by her from day one that she took her place at the bar. Not very talkative, even a bit retracted. But there was pain in those incredibly big and blue eyes. Real pain. I remember the first time she laughed, it was part of the job to laugh and get customers to drink and forget the drink’s taste, of course. And with passing time the laughter became more free, the simulation more realistic, even probably quite real. But this first time, it was clear that the pain took over the laughter and if it wasn’t for he partly drunk client, she might have lost her job. She saw that I observed her, and her eyes implored me not to say or do anything. It wasn’t my intention to, I served the drinks, observed for my own self, and for the rest the bosses could well take care of the business themselves. But this first time, this first look, created a strange, unreal bond between us. As if I knew her so well, though, I hardly knew her at all. And it seemed at times that I was the only one which met with a real smile from her. For all the others she was the accomplished professional. I admit, it induced me into covering up a bit for her, when she was pushing a bit too aggressively from an embrace that became too demanding, when she was sliding away from the regulars that were known to be the professional ass holes of the joint. I didn’t have to do it, she never asked or inferred that she would expect it, but every time it happened I saw a thankful glint in her eyes and short nod of her head telling me she appreciated the gesture. And I kind of enjoyed my invisible protector’s role. Kids at play in the real world.
One day, about three months after she joined the club, she came to see me as I was cleaning the bar top at an early morning hour, we were the last two in the place and I was the one closing the joint. She took me by the hand and led me to a thinly illuminated corner of the room. We sat down and she started pulling up the hem of her short dress. I stopped her fast, whatever her intentions, they were clearly not in line with mine and my relatively conservative upbringing. Working in this joint may have been acceptable within the wide range of possible personal interpretations, which my long years of legal studies taught me to be able to justify under reasonable duress; sex with a potential whore, and I squirmed at the use of the word in my mind but nevertheless used it, would have been more difficult to sustain. She laughed, not smiled, laughed. It was the first time I heard her laughing this way, so different, so like the real stuff that kids laughter is or should be made of, I was taken aback as if hit by an underground train losing its brakes. She removed my clenched rigid and unresponding hand from her wrist and kept raising her dress, turning her back to me. I stood there, frozen, my eyes tracing old blue lines and patches across her back, already fading away yet clearly once dark, painful and bleeding. Then she proceeded to remove the shoes and the stockings, her bare legs not anymore sexy and enticing but pale and fragile, her ankles showing horizontal lines of healed skin above healed scars. And, after pulling her skirt back in place, with me embarrassed to a red color to the tips of my ears, she turned her palms up close to my face and the same whitish horizontal lines decorated her thin wrists side to side. I didn’t ask - did he tie you? did he beat you? did you try to commit suicide? I didn’t want to ask, don’t know why, embarrassed, didn’t want to know, or was I too curious and ashamed with being exposed so brutally to someone’s pain?
She did not wait for me to ask. She was far too gentle to let me parade my obvious embarrassment, she started talking. In a monotonic tone, trying to be as dispassionate as possible yet failing at many of the crossroads of her narrative, hardly able at times to contain her tears or a twitching chin. But telling it as it was. So clear, so unexpected, so terrifying. It started as puppy love. The most popular girl in school with the best looking guy, everybody’s envy, the ideal couple. Not even engaging in sex before marriage night. So free, so excited, yet so clean in mind and body until that first night of all nights... it was paradise and she was a bird captured in it and happy to be. Until soon after, when it started changing, imperceptibly. He started getting upset at her gaiety, at her friends, started demanding that she stays at home, that she never sees anyone unless approved by him, the demands becoming more and more insistent, then violent. He started beating her. Mindlessly, furiously. She was still a bird but frightened and lost, paradise turned into a torturer’s cage with all doors locked. She accepted she pleaded, afraid to call for help lest it becomes worse, afraid to run to her family lest they may get hurt as well. Paradise, then hell, then pregnant. A few moments of magic, a short respite - he was soft, loving again, looked like he was his old loving good looking boy... birth... and hell again. She carried on, through it all she carried on, terrible pain in body, terrible pain in soul, and all the time the devoted loyal wife. One year, two years... I saw her struggling to go on with the story, wanted to tell her to stop but I knew I should not, she had to say it, what was coming was more terrifying than the rest, her chest was raising and falling gasping for air, sorting memories, arranging them in ascending pain order, like a human computer sorting out pieces of its life. She started talking again, eyes closed, reliving the moments or trying to kill them?... One day he pulled a gun. It was loaded. He caught my head in his strong hand and put the muzzle against my temple - I am going to kill you, I could kill you any time I want, he said. He pointed it to the ceiling and pulled the trigger. I was frightened to death, shivering. There were five bullets left, was the next one for me? ...She shivered under the pale light, as strongly as she shivered then, maybe more? For a moment I was afraid she may get into a fit of hysteria and start screaming in pain. Not this lady, God, where did she take this strength from? I knew she was reaching the last piece of the story, the last, most painful slice of the puzzle ready to fall in place... He tied me up. He tied my feet, he tied my legs. He beat me. Then he raped me.
She left the bar job about one year later. I knew the rest of the story from broken fragments she told me at times when the clientele was thin. And calling at times after she left. She succeeded to run away with her baby, only to find out she was rape pregnant. But decided to keep the baby and this time to fight back. Running, hiding, fighting, she got her divorce. Then she started working and still living in fear to be found. Until her last phone call. She found a nice block, he fell in love with her and they married. I remember when she called to tell me the news. I was upset, cannot deny it, but glad she settled at last. Why was I actually upset? I didn’t love her really, not in a man woman way at least. But for some obscure reason I worried about her, even after she called me with the good news. Funny, she wanted my assurance about something, and it was my Jewish assurance the Catholic girl was looking for. And this last phone call ended as the strangest discussion we ever had. She said - “You know, one of the ten commandments is: thou shall not commit adultery. And I am now committing adultery with my second husband”. I didn’t know for a moment what the hell was she talking about, was it some kind of joke? But she was dead serious. “And God will punish me for that, correct?” Was it a question, a statement? All my law studying years rushed back to me in a mix of pity, misunderstanding, precedents, actually my head was such a mess of mis-indexed notions that the only thing I could tell her was to forget what her ignorant Catholic friends were telling her, and look at all those who divorced and re-married and lived forever, including Catholics, and Jews, and Indians... And I could just feel her on the other side of the phone, nodding her head sadly, in forgiveness to my great ignorance, wish me all the best and thanks for trying to advice me wisely, and the line went dead.
Twenty five years ago.
I didn’t marry. No real reason I could point to. Just didn’t feel like it. My mother passed away ten years back, and it left a certain melancholic stain in my heart. One of many. From time to time I had flashes of the procession in the cemetery, then the prayers in the synagogue, saying kaddish for her for a full year. Something was missing somehow in all this ceremony, the synagogue was kind of... too clean, too aseptic, too electric, no real soul in the old books, no real pain relief in the newly printed prayers books. I was in one of those moods. The bar, which by now I owned, was empty. I cleaned the counter, put some glasses back on the shelves, and prepared to close. It was almost 3am and I felt strangely tired. I chuckled to myself - probably a beginning of Alzheimer’s... I locked the door with a simple one turn key, what could they steal from me, some diluted liquor and a few glasses? and turned to get upstairs to my bed. Funny, I wasn’t at all surprised and just looked kind of askew at the ten seated shapes, all along one wooden table at the far end of the room, the yellow unwashed bulb hardly allowing any facial feature be seen. Did they have faces at all? Five were dressed white, five black. One, which I didn’t see previously, was dressed red. He advanced towards me and placed a small card sheet in my hand. I didn’t look at it and just waited for the vision to clear before going on to my bed. The vision did not clear, and I started feeling a bit uneasy, could be it was not a vision after all?
She chose you to be her defense lawyer. I heard a voice saying, but it did not seem to come from anybody in particular. Who chose me to be what and when and why? Would you respectable visions be so good and disappear and let me go on to my bed and with my life? Strangely, I didn’t feel in any way impressed or awed by what I was witnessing, it just irked me into an impatient state of mind. Listen gentlemen, or... things, I am really in no mood for a practical joke or even for a supernatural one, seriously, these days are over, take as much drink as you would like, or my back ache, or whatever else and please be gone. If it pleases you then I will call the cops. But please, only tomorrow morning, ok?
The worded letters struck home. With such force that I estimated a small miracle the fact that it did not shatter into tiny bits of unkosher flesh my suddenly rushing heart. The echoes sounding loud and refusing to die in the suddenly discovered hollow space inside my body. K.T. The name she allowed no one else to call her by. K.T. A memory. Realizing in one sharp, bright instant that I may not be dreaming. Something was happening here, something real and beyond my comprehension, and I was supposed to play a part in it, willing or not. Not - was not an option. The seated shapes stared at me impassively. Stared? Maybe. Whatever they were doing they did it impassively and it was crystal clear to me that I was given some kind of a one off choice here, and all they were doing was waiting for my decision. Take it or leave it. Take or leave what? Time stopped. It would go on ticking the moment I said my word. I knew as much. I said it. Yes. I said it almost automatically, not caring about the who and what and when and why. Something was expected to be done and I was chosen to do it, no other option existed and I could have refused. I could say - K.T.? I said - yes. Thoughtlessly. Did she really choose me? I doubted, she probably forgot me a long time ago but someone decided that she chose me. So I was chosen. And I just accepted. For what?
I asked - for what?
The same voice continued what looked like an uninterrupted speech. This court will decide, based on evidence presented by the prosecution if the person standing trial committed the crime of adultery in life as stated in the laws book of the ten commandments as known to the person standing trial on committing the crime of adultery in life as stated in the laws book of the ten commandments. As lawyer for the defense you are granted three time-slot requests to refute the allegation of committing the crime of adultery in life as stated in the laws book of the ten commandments. Failure of which will result in the crime of committing the crime of adultery in life as stated in the laws book of the ten commandments being punished. Sounded to me they were a bit overdoing it, repeating themselves as if their language was limited to two-three phrases. Maybe they were afraid of procedural mistakes like earthling - did I say earthling?... funny - lawyers?
There were three transparent sand hourglasses on the desk. As the last word died in my mind, one of them was turned over and the sand started to flow. I didn’t see the hand that did it. I wondered for a moment, wasting precious time, if it was real sand flowing. I don’t really know why, maybe stress, maybe memories, but suddenly I burst into an uncontrollable laughter. Wait a moment, wait a moment, if you or whoever chose me for defense lawyer then I must see the case file, the witnesses, where is the accused, she must be present at the proceedings otherwise there is an inherent procedural flaw and she must be declared innocent based on the basic assumption of innocent unless proved guilty... and some more of the same bla... I didn’t seem to be making much of an impression. Was I digging into dusty recollections and reciting real paragraphs from long forgotten out-dated law books that I had once studied, or just quoting a stream of irrelevant lines from a pseudo realistic scenario of a TV show that stuck into my mind? This court seemed to be ruled by unknown laws, acting in unclear ways and I was supposed to do a better job than I was doing. How? And how was I supposed to know? I felt anger bubble inside me choking the hysterical laughter, but could not let it out. The sand grains kept trickling as impassively as the images sitting at the table. I felt like screaming - is this farce the thing that you, whoever you are, call justice? But I began to realize that I would be just wasting additional time. And the time kept flowing in the filling up bottom jar. You mentioned three slot requests, whatever you mean by it. I hereby request to get immediate access to the city university’s law books library. I used ‘hereby’ to make it sound like I knew what I was talking. I don’t think I really did. I think at that very moment I even forgot how to spell the word ‘bed’, yet I definitely remembered all four lettered words in the dictionary and made skillful use of each and every one of them. Not loudly. Not that it mattered.
I was there, in the library. Not interested for a moment how I got there, I just rushed to the ranks of books and started a febrile, disoriented search along the shelves and cabinets. Hardly knowing what I was looking for. Things changed dramatically since I had last visited the place, when was it, thirty years ago? Hundreds of desks, computers on every desk, scanners, printers, I didn’t see even one photo copier in the whole huge hall. And the books arranged according to the strange librarian rules which I never quite understood, with additional computer indexing rules overimposed upon those, I was lost. I looked at my watch, realizing the futility of the gesture - I have no idea how much time is left, I have no idea how to make efficient use of my request... Powerless frustration tears blinding my vision mixing with the sweat trickling from my brow in the dead, hot, airless room. I knew for a one hundred percent certainty that I was not going to give up. It was clear. I had to start concentrating. So I slowed down the rush, trying to forget the trickling grains, the unclear visages, the colors... looking for books, for counsel, for the ten commandments. I touched my breast pocket, suddenly remembering the piece of card sheet which I stuffed there mindlessly the moment it was handed to me. I took it out and read the lines, frowning at the irrelevance of the data there - just the list of the ten commandments, as any child could recite in their sleep - I am the Lord..., honor you father and your mother..., thou shall not... Big deal, what does this advance me with?
I put it back in my pocket and continued my rummaging. I disregarded the time, confident I could buy additional time using some sharp legal lingo remarks, if necessary. So I concentrated wholly on accumulating information. Soon I had about twenty thick legal books on my desk, several old testament translations, several new testament translations, the declaration of independence, some poems books, collected anything or rather everything I could identify that had something to do with rights, and wrongs, and crime, and punishment, and belief, and had even a remote link to the ten commandments. I even took a copy of the Hollywood movie, ruthlessly cursing myself for the stupidity of this act. But doing it nevertheless. I tried to work my way through this pile of random documentation, feeling at times my eyes closing heavily, then as if by magic opening again and sifting further on through the paperwork and material gathered. Were these hours I passed there? Days, months? I laughed at the notion, but since I did not know on what kind of time scale I was measured I really didn’t know it. Until at a certain moment I felt, mainly subconsciously, ready. Probably part of it was simply feeling tired, but somewhere along the way I thought I had found defendable arguments, provided of course the prosecution would proceed with elaborating on the definition of the crime which was still fuzzy in my mind. I felt there were a few meaningful bullets in my legalities’ gun and was ready for the battle. Crossing imaginary fingers. I was ready.
They knew it too. I faced then again, shooting a fast look at the hourglass and finding with relief that it was at the same level it was at the moment I, let’s say, left. So there was some kind of basic justice there at work, though not clear which. Being a bit disoriented, I asked for permission to approach them by calling them ‘gentlemen’, or ‘members of the court’, just for simplicity’s sake, taking their silence for approval. A white dressed figure rose and the simplicity of reading (reading, ha...) the act of accusation was as expected. Following evidence of denial of marriage to her husband as united under sacred conjugal law, and renewed conjugal life with a second man, the person under trial is guilty of breaking the fundamental commandment of Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery. I expected actually a much longer description, or sentence, but I was not surprised at the very concise presentation. I was just surprised by the irrelevant fact that the “bad guys” were the white dressed ones. Was this actually a correct interpretation? I refrained from trying to understand the setting, focusing on my carefully prepared arguments and statements. The white figure remained standing.
Gentlemen. The United States Declaration of Independence: “... Men are created equal, ... they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, ... among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness ...”. Gentlemen. The Constitution of the United States, article XIII, Section 1: “ Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States...”. I was satisfied with my introductory phrases. Took me a long time to decide on the right formula among the many options proposed in the various books. I decided on this one, and actually felt a certain confidence return to me. I wouldn’t say I started feeling smug, but I was certainly getting a bit less apprehensive as I carried on with my monologue. Following the introduction I continued with a few famous maxims, part biblical, part contemporary, trying to impress I guess. Then started bringing forward facts, various precedents, religious essays, classical interpretations. I didn’t actually know with exactitude what it was that I was fighting and if facts was what they were looking for, but I was certain that the more facts I accumulated in favor of my invisible client (I even smiled at the word client in my mind) the better the chances that I would hit the one chord that would solve the case in her favor. The sand kept trickling, I stopped paying attention. I brought forward the fact that she was beaten, chained, treated as a slave, her basic human rights denied, the quest for happiness forbidden to her, it was her duty as human to free herself from slavery and seek happiness and love with another partner... all the time wondering how the hell did I remember all these details so many years later, so many more details than I consciously remembered her telling me... I moved on to religious paths, making the ten commandments the symbol of liberation from oppression to freedom, asserting with personal conviction that Catholics such as she and her teachers were misinterpreting the adultery commandment by forbidding divorce, and as proof pointing to the real descendants of the Hebrews who had given the commandments to the world, the rabbi’s, that allowed and practiced divorce themselves... and then I followed with a tirade about the virtues of the woman under trial (still wondering, where did it all come from?) in the last years with her incessant help to the weak and support of charities and volunteering passionately for good causes... I kept going on, and on, well... until I stopped. Satisfied, I didn’t think any experienced and exercised criminal law defense lawyer could have done any better. My breathing was regular, funny, I wasn’t shaking at all.
I looked at the seated images, the standing one, not quite knowing what the next step was. A vote, a decision by the red gowned one, a counter argument? There was not much more sand left in the glass so if the same clock was working for the “other side” they did not have much time left for any counter argument. Feeling quite confident, wondering in the back of my mind about the drinks orders I had to place the following day. Playing the detached, the cool. Feeling actually as such. And nothing happened for a few minutes. Making me jump, startled from my background reveries when I heard it. And it was the same voice that earlier on read the accusation. Saying, actually quoting one word only from my presentation, the first word: Men. And in one terrific, awesome, blinding flash, I crumbled. Recognizing the whole terrible deadly reality of this one key word expressed in this Kafkaic setup. I opened my mouth to protest, to shout ‘I object’, my eyes sneaking an involuntary regard to the hourglass, just in time to see the last grain passing the narrow opening and floating lazily down to the top of the small mound underneath. The trial was over. I felt like cursing, like calling them bastards, like throwing bottles at them. But I didn’t, and watched fixedly as five white figures and three black ones put their left arm on the table. Two black ones put their right arm on the table. It was easy to interpret - guilty by majority decision. I felt wobbly, the room running round and round me, the pain of failure, the pain of failing the only one time when a forbidden memory asked for my help, unbearable. The red shape advanced towards me and put forward a card sheet. Another one? I felt like telling him, thanks but no thanks, I have one already, keep your presents to yourself, look - and put my hand in my shirt’s pocket. The card was not there. What the hell, pardon the expression, I remember sticking it there. I took it from the shape’s extended... arm was it? knowing already with increased certainty where I failed, extrapolating from this one single word ‘Men’ to the whole decision cycle and the final irrevocable verdict. Of this session, I thought with gloom and with some grains of hope leftovers. Yes, I started with the word Men and they were judging a woman. All those wonderful, penetrating and sharp arguments wasted on a literary grammatical interpretation error, so stupid. Felt like telling them - hey, there, wake up, welcome to the twentieth century where men stands for men, women, children, even vegetal life sometimes, c’mon, it is time you creatures emancipate. Let there be light. Yeah, but I discovered also with unbroken clarity, the moment the new card was pushed in my hand, that there was one additional factor which I kept denying from my mind until I had no choice but to face it. Yeah, Freedom, Liberty... arguments so foreign to the accusation that they were irrelevant to the case before them. And therefore meaningless. I felt really pissed off, with them, with myself. How was I supposed to know, who am I, Houdini? I had to use the information on the card, I knew. Now I knew. That’s where the accusation originated from. That’s where any defense, if possible at all, should come from. This was the laws book. None else. As much as possible none else. They were still there, which meant that I still had a chance, the trial was going on, I had to decide on my second request. And I did not feel like researching anymore. I voiced my request. The second hourglass was turned. I was in the middle of the cemetery.
I didn’t visit it, for how long, now? Ten years? Probably more. I lost my faith way back when my mother died, and occasionally visited her final home to voice a kaddish as she would have liked. Not because I believed in it. I moved slowly among the cold stones, saying hello to her silent neighbors, most of them old acquaintances, some new faces... yes, I smiled painfully to myself, faces... It was dark but I was not frightened, dead people did not frighten me, living ones do. I stopped in front of her stone, sat on it, and started chatting. Told her about my last eventless years, about movies I’ve seen lately, asked her advice on some issues I was having lately with the neighborhood’s committee that thought a bar such as mine had unsuitable educational value for their kids. Unsuitable educational value, what words? All of them running tax evasion schemes left and right. At least I paid my taxes honestly. Then I told her about the trial, asking for her advice. She always had good advice when it was about people, a natural gift that I didn’t inherit. And even to her last day I still asked for her advice when it came to such kind of matters. Like today. Only today it was not really clearly with people. Though close. I didn’t wait for an answer. Said a low voiced prayer, wondering that I still remembered it, left a small stone on her tombstone to ensure she would know I visited her. And I was back.
Didn’t look at the hourglass, somehow I knew it was meaningful yet irrelevant to the course this trial was going to follow. It would in the end decide the final outcome, but not yet. I was surprised to see this time a black shape standing up but it did not mean a thing anyway. So I disregarded it and went straight into my speech. Gentlemen. Members of the Court. We are talking here about a human life, one single human life. Not insignificant in its oneness. Wise people among my ancestors have said - he who saves one soul is as if he saved a whole world. This one human life is a whole world. The first four commandments are ordering us to respect God. They are the first because order matters. The fifth commandment is ‘Remember the Sabbath...’. It is the next most important commandment following respect thy God. And yet, my ancestors in their infinite wisdom rolled out an imposing ruling saying ‘Saving a life postpones the Sabbath’. Meaning saving a life cancels the Sabbath. Meaning saving a human life allows overruling God’s commandment. This human, this woman, had to save her life, she had to find a safe harbor to save her life and her children’s life. Even if the crime of adultery is withheld against her, the adultery commandment is the seventh of the laws, much lower than remembering the Sabbath. If ‘Saving a life postpones the Sabbath’, then ‘Saving a life postpones Adultery’.
I moved to the back of the room. If my earlier rejected and much longer speech left me relatively fresh, this new short one left me gasping for breath. I felt I was measuring myself against forces beyond my comprehension, beyond my reach, I was probably standing on trial no less than the accused woman. For a short moment I was even able to think of her in third non-personal person terms. For a very short moment, before my inner human workings took over and filled me with this terrible compassion I tried all along the way to hide. Now I waited. Looked at the hourglass. I could clearly see the last grain of sand sliding down and I could swear it stopped, hanging in the air. It was quiet. No more good guys, no more bad guys, no jury, just decision makers. Until I heard the words coming. Distinctly. Thundering in my ears. Words. The fifth commandment is ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’. This commandment is higher than ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ thus more important. The accused was informed by her maternal parent that she was committing an act of adultery. Thus she committed a crime of disrespect to her parents.
I was trapped. Laid out my reasoning, laid out my arguments, and then I was trapped in them being used against me. With knowledge unavailable to me. And it was completely irrelevant if the link was real, if their argument was meaningful, if the logic was there. We didn’t talk here about logic, we talked about laws. And subjective interpretation. And some kind of an outworldly... what? team?... that interpreted them. I looked at their hands. The floating grain of sand landed. The hands took a bit longer, at least in my mind, to voice their verdict. Was it some kind of good sign maybe, was there some hesitation? Three white right hands were on the table, two left ones. Four black left hands, one right. Six to four. Like a sporting event. With me on the losing team. No sound. Quiet.
I heard a dry dull noise. The third hourglass was turned. The final request. And I knew where my next station was going to be. That’s why they turned it.
I pushed the screeching door, kissing the mezuzah still hanging on one nail on the door, and putting a handkerchief on my head. I didn’t have a kippa. The smell, I just could smell it, the oily smell of once burning candles soaked in the walls, in the dusty broken furniture, soaking now back into my bones into my subconscious, my eyes closed, remembering the murmur of voices, the cantor’s heart wrenching call to the skies, to his God, to my God, to open the skies and let our prayers in... and still, this unforgettable smell, the smell of my childhood, my innocence, my bar mitzvah. I advanced slowly in the barely lighted synagogue. Some prayer books still lying around, old, with the old smell of sweating hands around dog eared corners, with the smell of old ink still lingering between their pages. My eyes misty, my heart rushing like a cornered animal in my ribs cage. Remembering some faces, remembering some chairs, here is where my father was sitting, there is where I could catch a glimpse of my mother peeking behind the screen. The holy ark. I opened it. It should not have been there, by all the human laws, and human decisions and ministries of culture it should not have been there. But it was. Old, dressed in a worn out dust cover and leaning on a wall, a holy Torah scroll, alone, orphan. I took it out, remembering how heavy it was, remembering how as a kid I was afraid to drop it and burn in hell every time I was given the honor to carry it around. I laid it out on the desk, unwrapped it and started rolling it back to the beginning. It was warm, the unmoving air was stale, drops of sweat were hanging from my eyebrows, my nose, my chin. I slowed down, looking for that special paragraph, that special verse written in the old, holy language. Exodus. Decalogue. The Ten Commandments. I tried to remember the language I once knew so well, deciphering the codes, the letters, the meaning. I read the verses, reading them again, several times. Branding them on my mind’s surface. Then I closed the scroll gently, wrapped it in its covers, put it back in the ark. For a few moments leaning my front against the wooden door. I closed my eyes.
Everyone was standing. The whites, the blacks, the red. I looked in their direction, seeing yet not registering. Were my eyes still closed? It didn’t matter. I knew what they were doing. I knew what I had to say. And I said it. I said: Men. I looked at the Hourglass. The small mound on the bottom was complete, no grain hanging in the air. It was the last request. The last decision. The final verdict. I counted. Five left hands on the table. Five right hands. The red figure’s hands were hanging at its side. Then it joined its hand to the others. The right one.
I woke up with a terrible headache. Brushed my teeth, showered, smelled the shirt I wore yesterday and decided that the smell may warrant another day’s use. I hated doing laundry and postponed it until choice was not an issue anymore. Then went down the stairs to the bar and poured myself a glass of clear water. I used it so that my customers would think I was a heavy drinker of vodka and wouldn’t feel so lonely at the counter. The morning supplies arrived and I opened the door. The guy, a jovial Irish redhead, “a proud stereotype of my race” as he used to joke, brought in the merchandise and felt like philosophizing a bit. Previous time he came with the illuminated statement that “Irish, Jewish, we all have already three quarters of shit in us”, and it took me a few worrying minutes until I deciphered his remark. We always took pokes at each other’s religion and never had any bad blood about it. It was my turn this time. You know, I said, I had a funny thought this morning. Women can actually sin all they want, they cannot be punished. He made his usual face when ready to let go a free punch remark about his wife, but I continued. You know that the ten commandments were written in Hebrew, don’t you? It was an old argument I had with him several years ago, and by now he learned to accept it. Well, the Hebrew language has different male and female extensions to its verbs. Now take for example the ten commandments, for example (I knew he was going to like this specific example) - Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery. In any other language, certainly in English, this commandment is asexual and refers to both man and woman. Yet in its original Hebrew the words are Lo Tin’af and they are purely directed to the male population. Meaning your wife can join me unpunished in bed but you cannot. He burst into roaring laughter, sent some disrespectful remarks in the general direction of my ancestors and promised to come back tomorrow with something Catholic of his own. I liked the guy, drunk or not. I bent down to pick up the drinks box he left on my threshold. Something floated down from my pocket and landed on top of the wooden box. I looked at it. A small whitish card, and one single word written on it in a language I forgot a long time ago. Solomon. I looked at it. For a long time.