Churches are just buildings, and temples, too. Synagogues are structures just like the sock rental place on the Main Drag, but people have more invested in them. Like sweat equity, but for faith. You took your children there when they were born, and you brought your parents there when they died. You were bored there as a teenager and swore you’d never come back, and then you found yourself there one afternoon with a pint of banana schnapps and a gun and a half-written note. Could be there was a meeting in the basement you liked to attend. Consecration means “to imbue with holiness;” there are special prayers and a ceremony to be said before the church opens, but that is not the end of the dedication: the building is re-consecrated with every prayer, and every tear, and every marriage, and every youth group mixer.
But they’re just buildings, and they’ll burn like any other.
Earnest Hubbs and Kischka lived in Torah, Torah, Torah, the synagogue on Rose Street. He was the handyman, and she was the cat. Earnest had a small bedroom with a smaller bathroom attached in the basement. He was paid in cash at the end of every day, and he would walk down to the Hotel Synod and then walk back to his small bedroom in the basement. Earnest’s hands were rough, but his face was unlined and you could not tell how old he was.
It was 3:58 a.m. when Kischka started screaming, and then clawed Earnest on his bare, snoring chest. The smoke burned his throat and he leapt out of bed and ran out of his small bedroom in only his light-blue boxer shorts with Kischka under his arm. Then he ran back into the small bedroom and grabbed the shaving kit he kept his money, stash, and works in. It was hot in the stairwell, and Earnest Hubbs believed that he was going to die. He remembered the lessons taught to him in childhood about fire, and when he got to the door that led to the shul, he placed his palm on the wood: it was warm, but not hot, and so he barely poked the doorknob with one finger, and then quickly pressed two fingers, and then he grabbed and turned the sucker which was not hot and opened the door.
The walls had caught. Pews, too, but not evenly. There were patches unburnt, but the maroon carpet was smoldering and throwing off tendrils that were not steam but looked like it. Earnest Hubbs was not a Jew, but he had worked for the synagogue for a decade and he was a reader without much money for books, so he had been through all of Rabbi Levy’s library and half-taught himself Hebrew, and he had sat in for services most every week, mostly to hear Cantor Manevich sing. Funny thing about music, Earnest Hubbs thought: it translates itself sometimes. The cantor had no microphone and the room was large with a high ceiling, but she filled it with her joyous alto and Earnest would close his eyes and smell the desert and the diaspora.
And he liked Jewish food. Whatever the opposite of an antisemite was, Earnest was that. He gave some thought to converting–he was a Baptist–but the Rabbi told him that circumcision was a non-negotiable requirement, and that was the end of the thought. He would remain a fan rather than join the team.
“This is the gartel,” Rabbi Levy said as he untied the simple bow knot in the velvet sash.
“Gartel. That’s Hebrew?”
“You told me Yiddish was a modern language.”
“It is. I mean, it’s an almost-dead modern language, but modern enough. Way younger than Hebrew, put it that way. But all this stuff?”
The rabbi had put on his jacket and tie, and Earnest was wearing a tie, as well. The rabbi was a casual man, but he believed the Torah had a dress code and so when he took it out of the covered space behind the bema called the ark, he put on his tie and jacket.
“The mishegos on the Torah? That’s modern, too. Well, you know: past thousand years. Modern for the Jews.”
“Y’all operate on, like, geologic timescales.”
“Heh. Yeah. Lot of history. Luckily, most of it wasn’t written down.”
There was a purple cover folded over the scroll. It was velvet like the sash, and embroidered with gold and solver thread. Two vertical columns of five Hebrew letters; this represented the Commandments. Two lions sat facing each other atop the columns; they represented the cherubim who defended the Ark of the Covenant.
“Cherubim were the warrior angels, right?”
“The cherubim fought for God so the seraphim could worship God. Don’t get me started on powers and principalities; we’ll be here all afternoon. This is the yad.”
There was length of sterling silver hanging on a chain from the scroll’s left handle. It was as long as a pencil, but twice as thick and there were Hebrew letters engraved in the handle and at the other end was a tiny carving of a human hand with its index finger extended. Rabbi Levy handed it to Earnest.
“Yad means pointer.”
“I can dig it.”
“The Torah’s not for skimming. There are 79,847 words. 304,805 letters. Each one is the most important. Torah is not a sprint. It’s not a marathon, either. It’s not a race at all. You read letter by letter, word by word. Best way to do that is to read with your finger as well as your eyes. But you can’t put your hands on the Torah.”
“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”
“And spitting into the wind is advised against. This is the hoshen,” the rabbi said as he removed a breastplate that hung on a chain just like the yad, but from both handles. Ornate, with more Hebrew letters.
“Same letters from the cover,” Earnest said.
“Excellent. Ten Commandments again. Moses coming down the mountain. Like, the Jews’ primal scene. We can’t get over it. And now the crown.”
There was a bulging silver topping covering both of the upper scroll handles, curlicues and filigree and with a high shine. The rabbi took it off with both hands and exposed the dark walnut grips to the rollers.
“The Torah is written on parchment called gevil. The gevil is attached to the rollers, which are called atzei.”
Rabbi Levy flipped the purple velvet cover back, and then he took off his yarmulke, kissed it, pressed it to the parchment, replaced it on his salt-and-pepper head, and called out to the empty shul,
“Bar’chu et Adonai ham’vo-rach!”
And no one was there, so they could not respond,
“Baruch Adonai ham’vo-rach l’o-lam va-ed
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech
ha-o-lam, a-sher ba-char banu mi-kol
ha’a-mim, v’na-tan lanu et Torah-to.
Baruch Atah Adonai, no-tein ha-Torah.”
So the rabbi said their lines for them, and Earnest Hubbs prayed along with him, though he did not know what for.
Rabbi Levy unrolled the Torah, and there it was: off-white the color of an old egg with stark black lettering in an alien alphabet that flowed backwards.
“A Torah is written by one man. Called a sofer. He uses a quill that he sharpens with a knife, and the ink is kosher. There are 79,847 words. 304,805 letters. If he makes a mistake on a word that is not the name of God, then he may scrape the ink off the gevil and go about his business. If he makes a mistake while writing the name of God, then the whole megillah is no good. You have to bury it like you would a person. Say the Kaddish, the whole thing.”
“High suicide rate. Takes a year-and-a-half.”
The rabbi was not looking at the Torah, or at Earnest Hubbs, just staring into the empty pews.
“How long can your eyes hold up? Hands, too. 30 years? Say you got 30 years to be a sofer. That’s 20 Torahs. A man’s entire life’s work summed up in 20 things. Things get lost, broken, stolen. Things are flammable. The Torah is the Word of God, but this Torah? This Torah was the work of a man.”
“Is this the official view of the Jews?”
“The Jews don’t have an official view on anything. No one’s in charge. Popes are for papists.”
“I believe that’s what’s called a tautology, Rabbi Levy.”
“Mm. Tautology. Greek word. They slaughtered us. And the Romans and everyone else. While they did, men spent their lives in rooms with not enough light copying Torah over and over. No more Ancient Greeks. No more Romans. Torah remains because it is perfect. The Word of God and the work of man. You need both to do anything worthwhile.”
Earnest Hubbs was closing in on the door to the synagogue when he remembered the Rabbi’s sermon about the Torahs. He had not realized it was a sermon at the time, but now with the building on fire he did, and he ran to the double doors, unlocked them, threw Kischka the cat into a bush by the steps–she shrieked like a demon at this treatment–and Earnest ran back into the shul and up the center aisle in between the pews that were ablaze to the bema and the ark which contained the congregation’s Torah.
The smoke was very thick.
“Can’t we do this outside?”
“It’s just that my eyes are burning and it’s tough to breathe,” Cannot Swim said.
“Yes,” Here And There said
She threw green powder onto the small fire burning in the center of her kotcha and it glowed yellow the same color as the nuggets in the stream that fed the lake. She and Cannot Swim were seated cross-legged on the ground on either side. Black Eyes, who was a dog, had refused to come in and was sleeping outside the leather flap that was the door.
Here And There was lit up, face crackling and wavering with flames that produced a strobe and Cannot Swim saw many faces in hers; he recognized some, and feared others. Her corneas and pupils were the same shade of dead black that most of her hair was; it was run through with seven white streaks of varying length. Here And There had a story for each stripe that she would sing to the village on Midsummer’s.
Both of their feet were bare.
“Drink your tea,” she said.
She pointed to the cup besides him that he noticed for the first time. It was made from a dried coyote gourd, and the size of a shot glass. Cannot Swim picked it up and brought it halfway to his nose.
“Don’t smell it. Drink it.”
And then he altered the cup’s trajectory to his mouth, slammed it back, did not grimace even though the tea tasted a corpse made out of vomit.
Here And There lived two miles to the south of the Pulaski village, on the edge of the wood where the clearing gave way to the wilderness. She kept her own fire. Fish and vegetables were brought to her, and a choice piece of whatever game the hunters brought back. The Pulaski would set her food outside her kotcha and try not to run away. Some did. Here And There was a powerful shaman, and the Pulaski understood the true nature of power: you never wanted to be anywhere near it.
The most powerful thing in the solar system is the sun. In fact, the sun is so powerful that the whole solar system is named for it; it’s like how Elvis lived on Elvis Presley Boulevard. 93 million miles in between us and it, which means it’s eight minutes away if you’re traveling at the speed of light. The trip would take 120 years in a Cadillac. 93 million miles away. Try looking at it. Power that’s not dangerous to bystanders isn’t real power.
So Here And There lived two miles to the south of the village. She smiled to herself and cried out,
From outside the kotcha, Cannot Swim heard the hundred-pound dog growl low, and then a familiar voice.
“It’s me, jackass.”
“You want belly rubs?”
“I should leave?”
And then the sound of a sixteen-year-old jogging away.
“Your cousin is loyal to you,” Here And There said.
“Yes,” Cannot Swim answered.
“And very foolish.”
“I am your cousin, too. Are you loyal to me? All of the sleeping Pulaski are your cousins. Are you loyal to them?”
There was no air left in the kotcha at all, and Cannot Swim’s head was full of shooting stars. He had the distinct impression that his eyeballs were in his nostrils.
“You are a child, still. You are as tall as a man, but you are not a man. You have not been given the Assignment.”
“You will be sent into the hills.”
“I know, yeah.”
“I know this fact because the Tree Who Will Always Grow told me. How do you know it?”
“Me and Talks To Whites eavesdropped on my dad talking to the elders when they decided.”
“That’s a good way to find stuff out, too.”
Cannot Swim swayed ten degrees to the left, righted himself. He could hear the frogs by the lake, and their heartbeats and the tendons in their froggy little legs tensing, and he could hear his own throat dry up and then there was no kotcha and no village and he and Here And There were sitting in a room made of concrete and machine-cut wood with such noise–such unholy and unfamiliar noise–loud and stabbing his ears that were just filled with frogs and their processes. They were at a bar, and surrounded by Whites wearing pants and hard shoes, and a man with a mustache and neat, white teeth was on the other side.
And now there was nothing but flowers.
And now great and strange beasts that may or may not have been feathered.
And now a room made of rough-hewn wood with a balcony that immodest women hung over. Cannot Swim tried not to look at them. They were White women, and they were soft and fleshy and sad, and he could not understand their eyes so he looked away. He had a cup in front of him that was not made from a dried coyote gourd but glass–the Pulaski did not have glass–and Cannot Swim held it up in the light streaming through the smeared windows and watched the echos of photons that came from 93 million miles away as he twisted the mug this way and that.
And now the kotcha again. Nothing in his hands. Here And There across the fire from him with seven white stripes in her otherwise-black hair.
“Do you know how the dreaming life is different from the waking life?”
“No, how?” Cannot Swim said.
“It wasn’t a rhetorical question. I was really asking.”
The first call came into 911 at four a.m. on the dot, and then there were more, but it was the first one that got the dispatcher to signal the LAFD at their firehouse on Alfalfa Street. Dwayne McGlory was the Captain, and asleep, and Pep Oneida was a probie, and also asleep. Probies watched the desk overnight, but Pedro Sanpedro spelled Pep and let him rack out. Pedro never slept, anyway.
There is a red phone on the desk that is actually off-white, and it rings at 100 decibels. Pedro Sanpedro picked up the receiver while ripping a fresh 302 off of the pad and placing it in a clipboard.
“Company One,” he answered, and wrote FIRE – 18 ROSE STREET down on the first line in careful block lettering, and then he said, “Responding.”
There is a red button on the desk that is actually red, and it is connected to a large metal bell that would startle the ear-less. Dwayne and Pep were down the pole and putting on their turndown gear by 4:01. Ash-Nine was barking and running back-and-forth between the pumper and the ladder trucks.
As the three men were hitching up their suspenders, Dwayne asked Pedro,
“The whole thing?”
“Dispatcher said the whole building.”
Dwayne McGlory gave the probie an order just by looking at him, and Pep Oneida ran back into the office to hit the other red button, the one that summoned all the off-duty firemen. Dwayne was driving the pumper truck out of the garage before Pep had finished, and he leapt up onto the running board and held on. The lights were going, but not the sirens. Shouldn’t be anyone out there at this hour.
East on Alfalfa and north up the Main Drag, and then west onto Rose. It was still pitch-black out and the glare from the fire washed out the stars so that there was nothing at all but the blaze. It was going. Oh, it was going like a riot. Torah, Torah, Torah had a roof like an upside-down boat, sloping inwards, and it concentrated the flames that leapt and flew onto the blacktop of the road, the paving stones of the sidewalk. the forced greenery of the lawn. The synagogue had a rose garden out front; there was an angry cat in it.
Attach the truck to the hydrant. Attach the hose to the truck. Repeat as needed.
The imam from the Al-Alamut mosque was waiting in the street. There’s a man who lives in there, he said.
He hasn’t come out, he said.
Please, he said.
A window blew out PRSHT from the synagogue, and there were sirens in the distance converging on the position. Dwayne McGlory pulled an air tank off the truck and hooked it to his mask. The halligan bar is three feet long and metal and has a shim on one end and an axe on the other, and he took that, too. Pedro knew what to do.
Dwayne McGlory threw open the front doors to the synagogue and disappeared inside. Pedro and Pep had the hose trained on the building already, and the billowing steam and smoke were killingly gray. The dalmatian named Ash-Nine was on the other side of the truck, in the street, defending his mobile territory.
Lookyloos and neighbors were on the sidewalk in their nightclothes–some were naked–and the flames rose in the the night that was technically the early morning.
Pedro Sanpedro and Pep Oneida poured as much water as the sewers would allow on the fire. Not enough. The synagogue was done for. At a certain point, you need to think about the surrounding structures.
The ladder truck pulled up. Flower Childs was driving.
The doors to the synagogue slapped open and Dwayne McGlory stormed out with Earnest Hubbs over one shoulder and a Torah over the other. He dumped them both on the grass, and leaned over to put his hands on his knees and breathe deeply once twice three times and then he straightened back up and looked around to see if he was still in charge. Chief Childs was on the scene and shouting orders, so he wasn’t, and he ran up to her to find out his assignment.
Earnest Hubbs was breathing again, and no one was paying attention to him so he picked up the Torah and he picked up his shaving kit that contained his cash, stash, and works. Kischka, who was a cat, was leaning against his left ankle. The building was eating itself as government employees fretted at it, and there was nothing he could do but protect someone else’s life’s work and wait for the rabbi in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.