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The Messenger

"All Jews are responsible for one another"—but how do we define the boundaries between responsibility and guilt?

Sometimes I believe they are sent to me. God’s messengers. To test me. This one never smiled. He stood in the doorway of my office, solid as a tree trunk. The confusion of phones ringing, conversations of colleagues, urgent students, never fazed him. He was his grandmother’s emissary.

Which century had he come from? His dark hair was painted onto his head like the Golem’s. He stared at me as though I should recognize him. “You wrote the story about Singer,” he announced. And then he told me his name. Surely I had never met him before. In fact, I had never seen anyone who looked like him. Thick glasses. Inside them, his eyes floated like carp. I didn’t know which one to focus on.

He was clutching a thick manila envelope, the kind with a red string wound several times around the circular clasp. I offered him a chair. “My grandmother…” he began. I knew before he finished the sentence. I was to be the literary agent for his grandmother who had spent seven years writing this story. Well, actually it was a novel. The package contained a summary outline of the chapters and a letter from his grandmother as well as a few sample chapters. I was to find a publisher for his grandmother, arrange the best deal.

His short thick arms kept making gestures like speech that can’t quite leave the throat of its speaker, quick jabs. Arms, moving toward me and away, with that manuscript. I made no move to relieve him of his burden. I remembered a story about Alexander Pope who kept his arms folded behind his back on such occasions so that he would not appear to invite the flock of pages. But a grandmother. And this boy. An emissary in the long family of emissaries. She had written a novel which started with the Bible and spanned three millenia. And here was I, the sacred recipient, with my hands tightly clenched behind my back.

My officemate interrupted her conversation with a student to slyly watch me. But she never said a word to me about it afterward. I knew she wondered how I would handle this one. There had been others. Many others over the years.

The grandmother’s novel started in Biblical times, traveled through the Babylonian exile to the Roman period, continued to the Crusades, took in dozens of massacres, pogroms, mass suicides, heroic acts, false messiahs, cabalistic rituals, lingered for quite a time at the Holocaust and then spread out among the valleys and hills of Israel where it seemed to fuse with the landscape. Somehow it managed to separate itself once again, until it rapped soundly upon the door of the last quarter of the 20th century. It was all there, he assured me, in the package he still tried to shove toward me.

By now, my office chair had rolled into the filing cabinet. Soon I would be near the window. I watched a pigeon make his escape from a window across the parking lot. He was clumsy in his hideous red galoshes. I envied him. I would have done anything at that moment to escape the scrutiny of my messenger.

He was so serious, so earnest. He never smiled. He seemed to be taking a reading of my face, each eye deciding for itself. But whatever conclusion he came to, I could not fathom it.

Once, after I had given a talk in a synagogue an old Russian woman named Karamazov invited me to come home with her to live. But first she poured me a cup of tea, fed me three or four cakes, insisted that no one speak to me until I had eaten. She too was a messenger. I knew I must be careful, make no mistake. These messengers were like the Thirty-six Just, the hearts of the world multiplied, who take upon themselves the suffering of all. Without them, none of the rest of us would be alive.

But I said no to Mrs. Karamazov. I said goodbye to Mrs. Karamazov. And I never understood why I said no. I could feel the messenger recede, my opportunity disappear. I had failed a test whose purpose no one had ever bothered to explain to me.

What could he be thinking? Had he sprung whole cloth from an egg? From the hatchery or the sea? Who was he? Who had sent him to me that afternoon? He had only hesitated briefly at my door. He seemed to know me instinctively, seeking out my face as he pronounced my name. I felt outnumbered by him though I was taller and older. He seemed immovable, like a boulder, like a fire hydrant. He hadn’t called to make an appointment. Yet he’d found me in.

“I haven’t an agent myself,” I heard myself telling him. “I haven’t even a publisher,” I said plaintively, hoping he’d pity me. “And I don’t know anything about novels,” I said firmly. This time my chair had wedged itself against the radiator. I felt like I was on fire.

An inspiration: I began pulling open the drawer of the metal filing cabinet. I’d give him a list of agents. I’d find him the name of an editor who had published my article. Let someone else deal with his grandmother. I’d suffer whatever punishment clearly was in store for me. He didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t change his expressions. I watched him as I flurried through the papers in the file cabinet. I opened drawer after drawer, one yellow folder, one green. No luck. Finally I came to the brown paper with an address on it. “Here,” I said. “Copy down this address. Give it to your grandmother. No, on second thought, give the whole pamphlet to her, let her keep it.” And I spelled out the name of the editor.

He watched me, somehow unconvinced. He was on another track. Nothing I could do would derail him. “My grandmother,” he continued as though his sentence had calmly started years ago, “would like it if you could read her novel and write her a note afterward telling her what you think of it. It would be very important to her.”

“January,” I muttered, “nothing to read until January,” I stuttered, the words coming out wrong, as though January were a soggy log floating in the sea which I had just grabbed a hold of rather than permit myself to drown. “This is the end of the semester,” I heard myself tell him. “See these papers?” I threw them up into the air, a whole set of student papers to convince him. He never batted an eyelash. “I have to read all of this first. Besides, I haven’t anything to say to a novelist. It wouldn’t be of any special use to your grandmother, what I might think of her book.”

He rose, he rose in his chair like a battalion of sturdy soldiers, they all rose with him. The packet still in his hand, he turned away from me and walked slowly, slowly to the door and he never looked back. The place where he had been, that place above the threshold, seemed to retain his shape for a long time afterward.

He is gone now. I do not see him clearly in my mind’s eye. But that packet in his hand, those pages which I never asked him to hand to me, the story whose beginning I shall never see—how it burns there in my mind, how it stares at me. How curious I have grown to see how it all began, the letters moving together to make words, the words settling down alongside one another into sentences, the sentences telling their story. For days I have tried to imagine what that old woman could have written, what that solemn boy held in his hands that day. Messenger, emissary, shape in my doorway: Tell me what it was she wrote.

Myra Sklarew directs the graduate writing program at The American University™ Washington DC, where she is an Associate Professor. Her books of poetry include In the Basket of the Blind, From the Backyard to the Diaspora; Blessed Art Thou, No-One; Travels of the Itinerant Freda Aharon; and The Science of Goodbyes. “The Messenger” originally appeared in Crosscurrents magazine, in 1984.