Everyone dies, everyone kicks the bucket, spills the milk. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the milk bucket with a clang and in 1871 the city of Chicago went up in flames. The whole rickety wooden city. A kerosene lamp had ignited the hay. His mother told him that story. Now she was dead. And he was rickety. An old man, flammable–dried-out timber with an inflamed heart. He shuddered, imagining his heart popping its husk, or incinerating. Hellfire! Stop! He couldn’t stop imagining death. The whine from a heart monitor across the hospital hallway had awakened him out of his dreams.
Oy, gut in nu, he had too many dreams.
Why flames? He didn’t believe in hell. Hell was life, this life you actually live. Sartre said that. No exit. He wasn’t ready to exit. Not most of the time. Sheol, the Hebrew word for Hell, always too vague in his mother’s explanation, meant “the grave,” a pit of gloom and darkness. No flames. Flames were the Christian idea, the conversion of sheol to Hades. “In Judaism, every dead person waits in sheol, good and evil, until the Messiah comes,” his mother said. “Must be stuffy and crowded down there,” he joked until the one time when his childish tease made her cry. She died that year. He’d been raised later by strangers. An orphan. He couldn’t stop thinking about her though. He imagined her crouching in sheol with random people from history, all eras, speaking different languages, puzzled, unable to understand. That was like life too. Who understood anybody?
At least Christians came up with the notion of Heaven. An appealing compensation. Hell squirmed with bodies and hyperactive demons, a riveting vision. But Heaven was grace and glory and acceptance.
He dwelled on that image. Fra Angelica, inviting the viewer to contemplate peace. Frescoes painted on the walls of the monastery. Very convincing. And then the images in his book. Painted by a monk too. His book. The vanities of ownership. He would give up that vanity.
He remembered that he’d been dreaming about the book again, dreaming about it even before the dream images of his mother and of the flames. Ever since he’d entered the hospital this time most of his dreams were about the discovery of the book and the treasures. How he’d stolen them from the cave during the War so long ago, the wooden crates splintered, lying all over floor-planking, iron boxes jimmied and McGonnigal, that funny thieving mick who’d been his best buddy in the Army, squatting over dazzling wreckage, his pal’s dusty curls falling over his face. The dream was perfect in every detail. McGonnigal hunkering on skinny haunches under the dangling lightbulb with his bayonet glinting to gouge the silver box that housed old church relics they’d been recruited to guard. Sweat hopping off McGonnigal’s brow, as if in a comic strip. McGonnigal laughing as he pried loose each jewel.
Plenty of jewels encrusted that silver box too. Rubies? Not too sophisticated in those days about gemstones, was he? Emeralds and a huge topaz? But then, as now, it was the old book inside the box that radiated sensuous illicit mystery for him. The old book with what he now knew were rows of tiny aquamarines flanking the creamy ivory carving of the Virgin and Child on its dark leather cover. Light refracted and shone through its facets, reminding him of sky, of water, of celestial possibilities that he’d desperately wanted to believe in back then after all the shredded flesh, the blasted craters and blasted comrades he witnessed fighting in Germany during the War. And he wanted to believe in those possibilities now, but couldn’t.
Stealing the book had made him nervous. Even back then he’d been a private, taciturn man, the flip side of McGonnigal’s animated wiseacre who delighted in playing the angles. It was only the coincidence of geography–McGonnigal came from New York too, from Hell’s kitchen to be precise–that had immediately bonded the two of them in an understanding he lacked with the good-natured Honeycutts, Dinwoodies and Crocketts in his platoon, Southern boys all. Though he was younger than McGonnigal, he was a family man already settled in Brooklyn when the Army called him up-“a family man saddled in Brooklyn, you mean,” McGonnigal cracked–and he was brand-new to crime.
“Crime? Who’s calling it a crime? A few souvenirs, that’s all we’re talking about. It’s S.O.P.,” McGonnigal scoffed, mocking the insinuation he might be a crook. “Standard Operating Procedure. If anybody asks, tell the Krauts that rats ate them. Tell ’em to shine a flashlight up a rat’s ass. After we pack up these boxes again, the Krauts won’t miss a thing until we’re Stateside.”
But in the dream tonight, McGonnigal’s bayonet had slipped.
“Shit!” McGonnigal’s cry pierced his sleep as he watched a blade slice through McGonnigal’s palm, drenching jewels in blood.
“My God,” he’d yelled, grasping at McGonnigal’s wound, wrestling with McGonnigal, both of them slippery with blood, heavily shadowed under the jury-rigged lights. In the dream he tried to stop McGonnigal from dripping blood onto the book. His body, wiry as it had been back then, was strong, surprisingly nimble. Remarkable to remember with joy that freedom of flesh, swaddled here now in this hospital bed.
But it was the agility of his words, not his body, that he’d counted on in real life when he struck the deal with McGonnigal, halting him in mid-act as he yanked the tarnished binding off the book and thrust the knife-point under the ivory Virgin.
“You keep the rest of the jewels, I’ll take the book.”
“What do you want it for? It’s not worth much.” McGonnigal dodged his head and narrowed one eye in quick suspicion. “You’re a Jew, right?”
“A souvenir,” he’d repeated, echoing McGonnigal. It was the truth.
“Revenge, is it?” McGonnigal nodded, as if he understood.
Already the rumors were reaching them, Jews stacked like cordwood in the camps, still living, or disappearing into ovens and returning as stench and smoke, nothing like the sanitized German internment center for Jews that they’d been shown in Army training films. And revenge was a desire that McGonnigal could understand–he used to belong to an Irish gang, boasted occasionally of dropping a rival off a six-story roof. Since their proposition had been to split the contents of the crate fifty-fifty, anything they could stuff into their duffle bags and mail home through the A.P.O., McGonnigal must have reasoned why else could he want the book, some Church-y text, bulky to conceal and harder to sell, except for revenge?
“I’m no avenger–” His anger was instant. He was offended.
Did McGonnigal think that he planned to conscript the old manuscript into some kind of Jewish Black Mass? He wasn’t surprised to find a wriggle of the old superstitions alive in McGonnigal though they’d never surfaced between them before.
But he stopped this protest cold when he saw McGonnigal didn’t seem to mind or even to take his anger personally, and he didn’t know another way to explain his sudden desire to possess this old book. The force of his feelings, his need to rescue the manuscript from McGonnigal’s casual desecration, surprised and embarrassed him. So accustomed had he become to marching with detachment down winding cobblestone streets past crowds of enemy civilians after bomber attacks or artillery fire that he honestly believed he had developed a marching man’s calloused soul along with his feet.
But the book was his destiny, its Christianity aside–less important then and now than the wonder and the mystery it represented for him, even though–or maybe because, he had never seen such a book before. All those intricate miniature hand-painted illustrations, decorated and embellished with gold, and the ornate Latin calligraphy that he had not yet learned to read. He was good at languages. He spoke German, of course–that was how he’d gotten himself and McGonnigal this cushy guard job–but he couldn’t decipher the inscription on the frontispiece, only the handwritten date: A.D. 1144.
McGonnigal said, “Are you going to answer me? No cat around. Did you gobble your tongue?”
He remembered hesitating for a long time before he answered McGonnigal’s question. His verbal skills, he knew, lay in silences as much as speech. The skinny Irishman was eying him nervously, afraid that he would change his mind.
“You’re sure about making that trade?”
“Partners forever,” he’d sworn to McGonnigal.
“Partners forever,” McGonnigal asserted. “You’re sure it’s fair?” McGonnigal studied him for a long moment.
At the hint of his nod, McGonnigal pocketed the gems.
He hadn’t bothered answering. He quickly wrapped the old book in his undershirt. He stashed it with the rest of his gear.
With silent efficiency, the two men re-packed the jimmied crate, and stacked it behind the other boxes against the wall of the cave, alert to the scrunch of guards’ boots on the gravel outside, the arrival of the next shift. He was scheduled to ship home in three weeks, McGonnigal in eighteen more.
“Hoist a pint on 42nd Street for me and I’ll be turning up on your doorstep one day.”
But years had passed. McGonnigal never appeared. Only the letter finally, and that a long while later.
Army red tape had been impossibly thick right after the War, but he heard stories from other guys in his platoon–possibly true, possibly not–about the nervy Irishman on the barracks-ship traveling home and falling into a drunken knife fight with another soldier, unable to resist flaunting a Nazi dagger and other souvenir plunder.
“Did you say something?”
In the dim fluorescent light over the sink, he saw someone moving.
That little night nurse had slipped into his room, a pretty young handful. He must have been talking to himself. Yes, Elfenbein, he realized he had been murmuring. The German word for ivory, the carved Madonna on the book. Appropriate though. The little nurse had ivory skin.
“No. I just woke up out of a dream I was in Germany.”
“Germany, huh? Travel a lot? I can’t handle jet-lag myself.” She glanced from the foot of the bed and flicked a confiding smile at him, a lovely smile, although her face itself was plain. She finished recording the amount he’d pissed and shit on the daily intake and output chart. He stifled a sharp laugh. Very sweet, her morale-boosting; almost flirtatious. Irony nipped his sense of humor, its bite laceratingly close to pain. Here he was, lounging in pajamas near a woman who knew his body so intimately she daily sampled him, like a lover.
In the old days he could have joked about the absurdity of being flirtatiously patronized in this colorless clinical setting. Joked her right down onto the bed, if possible, testing, cajoling with his eyes, a sweet shtup. But now he saw himself reflected in the way she refused to look at him, his face old and fallen like a mudslide and a nimbus of white hair, ill and helpless. And his helplessness abruptly enraged him. He imagined swooping out of bed, waltzing her around the room on vinyl tiles, lightfooted and graceful as in his dream, smiling at her astonishment, angling her narrow pelvis, insinuating fingers into her curve of flank. Too bad reality caught up with the fantasy before he could relish it. He imagined what would happen if he tried. His shuffling footsteps. The clank of the heavy IV-stand falling over, tubes tangling his limbs, and the tentacles of stickers on his heart monitor ripping from his chest and dangling.
“I sometimes dream in German but I haven’t been there in a long, long time.” His voice came out scratchy.
He turned and gazed out the window. Snow etched lacy patterns on the corners of the glass. A record cold snap outside, brittle weather, according to the TV that his room-mate blared all day yesterday. Funny, you barely knew there was an outside in this overheated hospital room.
Across the corridor, the feeble whimper he now heard regularly began again. “Yo! Help me, nurse! Help me, help me! Somebody stuck a rope up my pecker. Get it off me, get it off!” The little nurse stiffened and she finished his chart, pretending not to hear.
As soon as she left, his mind twined round the problem of the book again.
His legacy. His secret legacy. As if he’d known right from the beginning in the cave that this single theft would open him to a whole new life. More than a private passion, it had become an obsession, a self-labeled destiny. But what kind of crazy destiny? What kind of joke of G-d? That the son of a poor Jewish girl smuggled across Europe and through Germany in a potato sack to escape persecution in order to get to America should he be singled out for honor years later by Army brass? And singled out to guard German national treasures, of all things! Chosen because he could speak Yiddish, the tongue of his shetl forebears who were so fast being killed off, a language so similar to German that naturally he could converse with locals, when necessary. German had come easy to him.
That the old book had been painted, penned, polished, and assembled by hand, was what first impressed him. And back in New York the book became his jumping-off point into the study of art in museums and libraries. Of history. Of architecture, like the castles he’d seen in Germany that looked like they came from fairy tales written by the black witch his mother used to warn him about when he misbehaved. Without the book–or was it the War? because in his mind the two were inseparable–his world would have been dull. Untraveled. He would have regarded Brooklyn, or maybe Manhattan, as the center of it. As the years went by, how easily he could have grown sour with self-pity and curdled mutterings that he tried to pass off as jokes about the once-irresistible and flamboyant wife he’d courted madly but with whom he ceased having interests in common. And his incomprehensible misfit son.
Marty, Marty, my likeness, my son. Marty’s birth had thrilled him. A man with no father was now father to a redheaded son, redheaded like me, this long-legged, fat tushy-ed baby. When he returned from the army, Marty was almost three-years old and frightened of him, shrieking as if he were some stranger when his father swung him high in the air, and screaming whenever his own Papa tried to kiss him. His wife laughed at first, accused him of being rough. (“He can’t remember you. Your mouth is open, you’re grinning but he doesn’t understand. He thinks you’re going to bite him.” “I want to kiss his little belly like I used to.” “Do you kiss like you bite?” his unpleasant sister-in-law asked, coquettish.)
The pattern continued, Marty almost jumping, starting backwards, at his attempts at affection. But that was the beginning of an awkwardness, a shadow, that fell between them. A mommy’s boy! Though he never mentioned his fear to his wife, he privately worried his son was a softie, a faggeleh, so when the boy became engaged to the pretty, gangling half-Jewish girl across the street he’d been overjoyed–despite his stern insistence that Marty hold off nuptials until college graduation. Marriage would set him straight.
The girl broke it off. How come?
Gay! He’d been right. How he hated that word! Was gloomy Marty, sarcastic Marty, so quick to find fault back then, “gay” in the word-sense he knew? Red hair was the one trait he shared with Marty. He would never have grandchildren. How sad! His own hair began to turn white.
Yet he prided himself on loyalty: he loved his son.
The tricky ticker of heart started acting up. To fend off fear he concentrated on practical matters. What would he leave behind? For his wife, ample life insurance. And for Marty? He wanted to bequeath more than a flag of bright hair. A legacy. The book! Or funds the old book could provide.
He’d never thought of selling it before. When he’d found out how much the book could be worth, he was stunned. It was more valuable still if its leaves were cut and framed separately for collectors as individual miniatures, something he would never allow. The work was stolen. No provenance. Who would buy it?
So it was by chance, by destiny again, that the one person he trusted with the secret of his book, the rare, sensible person he still voiced feelings to, had finally helped him find the perfect buyer for it after months, then years, of searching. Negotiations were long and evasive. Even showing the book had been risky. But now he was glad. This buyer they’d found truly appreciated the manuscript’s historic value, intact. He could leave Marty pure cash.
He knocked on wood. G-d willing, he thought–now that the doctors had given him the “go” signal, he was going to make it out of the hospital all right. The bedside night-table he rapped was plastic. His pills shook in their paper cup upon the simulated wood. He laughed softly at his mistake, because he could afford to laugh now. He had survived another crisis. His family would be taken care of, the deal completed, and in ten days he’d be a rich man.
Still, a puzzle more troubling than his heart thumped inside him. Since turning up the perfect buyer, which seemed a fluke, a possible second buyer had emerged. Very persistent. Pushy, then threatening. What gives? He began to suspect the old book held an even greater secret than he’d imagined.
In his zeal to memorize its glorious paintings before he let the Manuscript out of his grasp, to trace its incredible iconography of flowers and creatures and angels, he poured over the vellum pages again and again, until the familiar images started swirling before his eyes. And suddenly he started seeing new patterns. Noticing new messages in the illumination, could that be? The transformation of his vision was so complete that it was as if he were looking at the book now with entirely different eyes.
It worried him. Frightened him, perhaps. Before, even its blemishes, like the tiny gold smudge on the corner of the margin, had always pleased him, a touch of human error reaching across history to pluck at his sleeve. He’d reached across history too, with help, and left his own mark. He risked photocopying it. Only once. Otherwise, the old pages and pigments could be destroyed by heat and light.
He pulled himself up in the hospital bed, jamming a pillow behind his back. He jotted down a thought that had just occurred onto a yellow pad with a scrawl of notes.
His hand wavered. He didn’t want to be right, he wanted to be wrong. If his suspicions turned out to be true, the book could not–it must not–be sold.
His worries tired him. Family and friends and dutiful acquaintances had brought him bon-bons and blowsy flowers earlier but they all left, probably hours ago. Maybe dreaming about the book again would give him a clue to its final secret.
Last night’s commotion had made sleeping difficult, dreaming impossible. His room-mate’s massive heart seizure had stricken him as well. His room-mate had been a Code, a friendless old geezer who wanted to be revived at all cost, refusing to sign a DO NOT RESUSCITATE waiver–the same waiver he had signed with a flourish, proclaiming to his family, “I do not intend to live like a turnip!” But the rattled breathing, then the nurse rushing in and curtaining him off, calling “Code! Code!” on the intercom. It was unnerving, though the nurse sent in a technical assistant to distract him and hold his hand. As if he wouldn’t know what was happening when all hell broke loose minutes later, a metal crash cart bursting into the room with what sounded like elephants thumping and trumpeting over his room-mate before they wheeled him out–or wheeled his carcass out, he’d been afraid to ask which–along with the whole damned bed.
Well, they wouldn’t have to do that for him. With luck, he would have the time and skill and inspiration to figure out the tricky puzzle of his book.
He flushed with elation, thinking about the book nestled safely in its hiding place. The image of the triumphal Ascension and jubilation of the astonished Apostles, and the Virgin surrounded by angels holding scrolls, shimmered in his mind’s eye, just as it shimmered in the book. The Son was all sons; and despite the fact that he was a Jew, that he loved his religion and his culture, he liked the story, the other myth too, the tale. But why the oddly numbered owls and the yellow spiders in some plates, he’d been asking himself lately. Symbols of evil, or at least all that was foreign, why were these symbols too haloed in gold?
No medieval codex he consulted answered those questions. No experts he had cautiously but thoroughly interrogated. Certain Latin phrases had startled him. It was almost as if–
He broke off to jot down a name. A name from the past. Then fell into troubled sleep.
Until the sting of the IV drip in his arm pricked him awake. He kept his eyes shut, pretending to be asleep. He wanted to drift some more, alone. At least one additional time during the night a nurse or one of the nurse’s assistants would come to loop another hanging bag of digoxin around the IV-pole, and check to make sure he hadn’t dislocated the oxygen tube clamped to his nostrils. But the nightly ritual was taking too long, the nurse clumsy at the task, slightly fumbling.
He swiveled his head, groggy. And cracked his lids, about to complain.
Someone he knew was smiling down at him.
He felt confused. Visiting hours couldn’t have started again, could they?
“You? What are you doing here?”
“Shhhhh . . . ” The visitor pressed a gentle finger against his lips.
He stirred sideways. The dream of the treasure was creeping up on him now. But the tube of the IV, hanging loose, tickled as it brushed his arm.
Why was the tube loose? He jolted awake.
The visitor was injecting him with a syringe.
“Help,” he whispered feebly, the nightly cry of disoriented heart patients up and down this floor. He groped for the call button.
The visitor placed it out of reach.
The pain. Abrupt clenching.
The visitor stepped back. The deadly injection began to work.
But for the old man flaring his eyes wide, jolting up for one moment, the room sharpened, focused, brilliant with flaming detail. Glowing like the calligraphy and vivid paintings in the book. Then luminous, pale, like the ivory Madonna whose face and body turned into his own mother, speaking Yiddish to him now, waiting, beckoning. He was back in the cave again, but a deeper cave this time, a cave that narrowed and undulated with glittering light striking crystal formations. In the distance prisms of radiance shone through a light blue stone.
The visitor dropped the empty syringe, still attached to the needle, into the deep pocket of the green lab coat lifted from the laundry room a few hours earlier, ignoring the disposable needle box hygienically mounted upon the wall–easily re-inserting the original port, and re-hooking the dismantled IV. Pages of the yellow pad were ripped out.
The hallway was empty. Security was always lax on the night shift.
The charge nurse looked up from the monitor screens at the nurses’ station just as the elevator door was closing. She caught the flash of green, and wondered briefly, was that one of her nurses leaving? It couldn’t be. A crusty old-timer whose starched cupcake cap signified her rectitude and long experience during a time when nursing staff came in every inexplicable type and age and nationality and color, she deplored the fact that no one took pride in uniform anymore, mostly dressing in lab coats and slacks.
Then the heart line flattened in Room 306 and the noisy whine of the monitor alerted her. DO NOT RESUSCITATE, the screen read. It must be the old man she liked, the one who appreciated women so much, even at his age. Even at hers. Too bad. At least he wasn’t a Code. That made it simpler. She picked up the call phone to break the news.