The Gaon’s Revenge – Part III
A Short Story by Terry Brennan
The Ending from Part II:
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?”
~ ~ ~
Before he opened his eyes to the morning mist, the Gaon knew he would pay for this night sleeping on the ground, in the open air. Without moving a muscle, his frail, aged body was already sending signals of displeasure to his brain. When he tried to roll onto his back, the signals became an onslaught. Everything hurt.
The Vilna Gaon tried to remain still in his blanket, moving only his eyes. The sun had not yet cleared the rim of the canyon, the smell of damp ashes collecting on the hairs in his nose testifying to the now defunct fire. No, he would not yet remove the blanket. Not for a while.
Yehuda walked past the Gaon’s vision with an armful of dried, aged wood – branches; good-sized limbs – and bent down to tend to the fire.
“Good morning, Father,” he said.
“Not so good in these bones.” The Gaon deliberated. He decided that it served the greater good for him to remain still, in his blankets, and not get in Yehuda’s way. Perhaps when the fire got going, when warmth once again …
“Where have you sent Itzak?” asked Yehuda, his attention remaining on the fire he was preparing.
“Sent?” The Gaon turned his face toward his son on the other side of the fire pit. “Sent? I awoke only this moment.”
Yehuda jumped to his feet, the branches and limbs spilling across the fire pit. “He’s not here. I looked before I went to fetch wood.” Yehuda’s head swiveled with his body as he swept the clearing with his eyes. “Perhaps he went to find water.”
The Gaon felt a tremor of trepidation. He pushed himself to an elbow, his old bones rebuking and resisting him, then up into a sitting position. “Is there no water here?”
“No,” Yehuda said, pointing toward the mouth of the canyon. “Remember, last time, the stream …”
“Is outside,” said the Gaon. “Quickly, help me up.”
~ ~ ~
The leather sack of provisions … with the bronze box inside … they found in a tight cluster of brambles, to the side of the mule tracks, not far from the mouth of the canyon. They left it where it lay.
Just outside the mouth of the canyon, Itzak they found impaled into the trunk of a large tree. A shard of black stone, pointed like a spear, its edges serrated and lethally sharp, had – by some force – been driven through Itzak’s chest and was deeply embedded into the tree. Itzak’s eyes were wide open, both fear and surprise frozen upon his face.
~ ~ ~
Without a shovel, it took Yehuda more than half a day to dig – with a rock and bare hands – a proper grave. The Gaon had laboriously torn his spare shirt into long shrouds to dress the body, but there was no way to fulfill the ritual purification.
Both men were covered with dirt, reeking of sweat and near exhaustion as the sun began to slip behind the western wall of the canyon. Yehuda stared into the flames of the newly built fire with eyes that looked at nothing, but stretched into eternity. Itzak and Yehuda were nearly the same age. After nearly forty years of serving the Gaon and his family, Itzak was almost closer than blood. Both men grieved.
But the Gaon prayed.
~ ~ ~
It was a feeling that awoke the Gaon. No words had called out. No one had shaken him. Only … it was something he felt that forced his eyes open.
The leaves above him, in the small copse of trees that provided them some shade, were shimmering. But the Gaon felt no wind. The shimmering leaves merged, grew … Bayard?
An image of the angel, nearly three meters tall, hovered in the air above the Gaon. Not solid flesh and blood, but more like thin clouds scudding before the moon in a night sky.
Bayard must have noticed in the Gaon’s face the anger that rattled his heart.
“Be at peace, revered one,” said Bayard, the faint echo of bells sounding off the canyon walls.
“You allowed Itzak to die.” Only rebuke gave life to the words.
Bayard closed his eyes and firmly shook his head. “Itzak was a good man, loyal and true to you and your family. But he did not heed your warning.”
“You could have … should have … saved him.”
“Had I been here, yes. But I am neither omnipotent nor omnipresent,” said Bayard. “Itzak was not intended to depart from your side, this night. He left what was protected to follow his own curiosity. I regret his death … but I must prevent yours.”
An additional shape formed in the image, sitting in Bayard’s hand. “The box still protects you. But now you need to see what is inside.”
The lid of the box rose without being touched, a twilight glow illuminating the inside. Looking into the box, the Gaon immediately knew what he was to do.
~ ~ ~
Yehuda was shaken from his sleep, the Gaon reaching across the space between their blankets and grabbing his son by the shoulder.
“It’s still dark,” growled his son.
“But the sun is coming,” said the Gaon, “and we must move quickly. Please … help me up.”
In the grey half-light, Yehuda grabbed some sticks to resurrect the fire. “Leave it,” said the Gaon. “We’ll need no fire today. We must prepare to leave.”
Yehuda looked around him, shaking his head. “Except for our blankets, everything else is secure.”
Even in the dull, slate-colored morning dusk that replaced the darkness, Yehuda could see that his father’s face emitted a glow that had long been missing, ever since he started planning what was likely his last attempt at pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Something was stirring in the Gaon.
“Good. Then let us leave at once.”
The sun still hadn’t crested the eastern wall of the canyon as Yehuda led their mules through the narrow neck, its walls soaring above them.
“Look to your left,” his father’s voice came from behind him. “It will be over there, to your left.” The mouth of the canyon was just beyond a slight bend to the right. In spite of his growing apprehension at the idea of leaving the safety of their refuge, Yehuda’s eyes were scouring the brush to his left for the leather sack left behind as their protection two days earlier. He spotted it in a clutch of brambles.
Yehuda slipped off his mule and gingerly extricated the bag from the thorn bushes. When he turned back to the path, his father was awkwardly sliding down the saddle and across the mule’s flank. The old man turned. “Here … please, bring it here.”
Yehuda carried the leather bag to his father and set it on the ground. He watched as his father peered into the leather sack. The Gaon rummaged about, moving something, then pulled out an aged ram’s horn – his precious shofar – and then he withdrew the mysterious bronze box that was supposed to keep them safe.
His father cinched the leather bag closed and handed it to Yehuda, who slung it over his saddle. Then the Gaon held up the shofar towards his son.
“Here, take this Yehuda,” said the Gaon, “and keep it in your hands. Sound your horn at the signal.”
“What signal?” Yehuda was confused.
But his father, the bronze box held fast in his two hands, focused a hard gaze on his son. “You will know. Now, please, help me onto my mule.”
Read The Exciting Conclusion - Part IV - Here on Wednesday, March 10.