Updated: Mar 8, 2021
The Gaon’s Revenge – Part II
A Short Story by Terry Brennan
The Ending of Part I:
“Father, it’s time to wake. Itzak has the mules packed and ready.”
The Gaon still sat in front of the now exhausted fire. Someone had placed a fur blanket over his body to keep him warm. His eyes opened and saw his son, Yehuda, a concerned look in his eyes. “You slept here?”
The Gaon stretched and felt the bronze box still resting on his lap. “Hmmm … yes, I slept.”
~ ~ ~
In the morning rays of the sun, the Gaon of Vilna, the bronze box cradled under his arm and held close to his chest, approached Yehuda as his son prepared his mule for the long journey back to Lithuania. The Gaon studied the face of Yehuda, his eldest son, father of his grandchildren. Yehuda, who needed to be home more than the Gaon himself … whose safe return meant more to the Gaon than his own life.
Looking left and right, as if searching for listening ears, the Gaon slowly withdrew the box from the safety of his embrace. “Here,” he whispered to his son, “put this in the bag that hangs over your saddle. And, Yehuda, stray not too far from me on the trail.”
Yehuda looked at the box then up at the Gaon, who – during a hasty breakfast – had shared with his son some of what had occurred in the early morning hours. His son hesitated in taking the box. “What is it?” Yehuda asked.
“It is safe … and it is safety for us, for our trip home,” said the Gaon. “Please, put it quickly away. We will speak of it more later.”
Yehuda opened up the leather bag, pushed aside the Gaon’s books and his well-worn shofar – the ancient trumpet of Israel that called men to war – and slipped the bronze box in among the other provisions that would hang from his saddle. Then he turned and helped his father gingerly mount his mule. As Yehuda swung himself into the saddle, Itzak started into the forest, setting a course for home.
Turning in his saddle, the Gaon cast a glance back to Rabbi Rosenberg who stood silently in the doorway to his house. Rosenberg’s willingness to accept and protect the second prophecy provided some relief to the burden the Gaon had long carried. Now only one of these prophecies remained his responsibility. The box of power, and the second prophecy, would never be far from the mind of the Rabbis of Konigsberg. But the first prophecy … the one that predicted the imminent arrival of Messiah … would remain close to the Gaon’s heart, and the hearts of sons after sons of rabbis, until it was time to be revealed.
~ ~ ~
It was on the second day of their return journey that Itzak first succumbed to fear.
Even though the Gaon had been specific in his warning of remaining a close-knit trio of travelers, that none of them should stray too far from the bronze box in the leather bag, Itzak took it as his responsibility to continually scout ahead or drop behind and protect their backs as they moved through the dense forest of central Prussia. He was perhaps two hundred meters behind the Gaon and his son when he first heard the voices.
They were whispers rustling the leaves of the trees, leaving an echo but no source as he scoured the canopy above him. He ignored it. Just the wind playing tricks.
But when the wind in the trees began calling his name, a bone-chilling fear, as if he stood at the edge of the abyss of damnation with no means of escape, seized his heart.
Itzak stopped his mule. He looked carefully around him, seeking for the threat, but found nothing … except a growing darkness – no, more a blackness – to the southeast, the direction from which they came. But the blackness was moving closer. Light fled from the forest and the vaporous voices calling his name were getting louder.
He slapped his mule on the rump once … again … and glanced over his shoulder as he passed through a clearing. The blackness was roiling. Like ebony thunder clouds surging through the trees. And the voices had become more urgent, more strident, angrier … bellowing his name with the vileness of a curse. The demons of hell were on his heels.
~ ~ ~
Pounding on the flanks of his struggling mule with the heels of his boots, Yehuda didn’t realize he was screaming into the wind. The only thoughts on his conscious mind were protecting his father and escaping into what – he hoped – would be the safety of the high-walled canyon they had rested in overnight on their way to Konigsberg.
With the reins of his mount held tightly in his left hand, his right hand holding a desperate grip on the Gaon’s cloak, Yehuda led their head-long flight from the demonic forces that pursued them.
They had endured – survived – attacks on their way here from Vilnius, but never anything like this. They were surrounded by a blackness that appeared to have a life of its own, that had a presence, that had a pulse, that had a voice. The blackness was a maelstrom of havoc, spewing forth brutally battering winds that bent the surrounding trees and tried to rip Yehuda, Itzak and his father from their mounts. The presence pressed down on every fiber of their being, a deadly weight that nearly forced the breath out of their lungs. And the voice wailed on the wings of the wind, calling for their destruction, threatening them with damnation.
“Father, the box!” Yehuda cried. “Why doesn’t the box protect us?”
But the only response from his father were his bellowing grunts as he thrashed about on the back of his mule.
Yehuda had never been so terrified in his life.
He had no idea if they were going in the right direction but he would not stop, he dared not listen to the voices of doom. And he refused to allow his father – wide-eyed, his mule running flank-to-flank on the right with Yehuda’s – to slip from his grasp. As they plunged through the blackness, Yehuda screaming in a desperate plea for protection from the box hanging from his saddle, two massive, soaring, blacker shapes burst through the darkness on either side. A scream of frightened despair erupted from Yehuda at the same moment he felt his father’s hand … and a weight slipped from his saddle.
And everything stopped.
Before Yehuda could suck in a deep breath to steady his nerves and slow his heartbeat, the blackness vaporized, the wind calmed and the voices fled from his ears. And he realized that they had burst through the canyon’s entrance he so desperately sought. They were racing through the narrow neck of the canyon, its sixty-meter high walls pressing in on them ever closer. They soon emerged into the small, open clearing where they had camped before. Stars twinkled in the night sky above.
To the side, Itzak fell off his mule and began to wretch in the long grass. Yehuda would have joined him, except that the death-grip hold he had on his father’s cloak also helped to keep him upright. Which brought his thoughts back to … his father!
Yehuda turned to his right. Seventy-three-year-old Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman sat straight on his mule, his eyes pressed shut, his voice barely escaping over trembling lips. “The Lord is my Banner,” the Gaon wheezed through his throat. “The Lord is my Banner.” There was a pause in the Gaon’s litany. Then he cautiously opened his eyes. “We’re not dead?”
Read Part III of the story here on Monday, March 8