Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel

Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel

   Peter S. Beagle was born in Manhattan in 1939, on the same night that Billie Holiday was recording "Strange Fruit" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" just a few blocks away. Raised in the Bronx, Peter originally proclaimed he would be a writer when he was ten years old. Today he is acknowledged as an American fantasy icon, and to the delight of his millions of fans around the world he is now publishing more than ever.
   In addition to being an acclaimed novelist and writer of short stories and nonfiction, Peter has also written numerous plays, teleplays, and screenplays, and is a gifted poet, librettist, lyricist, and singer/songwriter including The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place, and I See By My Outfit.
   Beagle produced a small but significant body of short fiction during the first thirty years of his career. Recently he has become a prolific short story writer, regularly producing stories that rank amongst the best of the year. In 2008 alone he published half a dozen stories, any of which could have graced these pages.

Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel by Peter S. Beagle

   My Uncle Chaim, who was a painter, was working in his studio — as he did on every day except Shabbos — when the blue angel showed up. I was there.
   I was usually there most afternoons, dropping in on my way home from Fiorello LaGuardia Elementary School. I was what they call a "latchkey kid," these days. My parents both worked and traveled full-time, and Uncle Chaim's studio had been my home base and my real playground since I was small. I was shy and uncomfortable with other children. Uncle Chaim didn't have any kids, and didn't know much about them, so he talked to me like an adult when he talked at all, which suited me perfectly. I looked through his paintings and drawings, tried some of my own, and ate Chinese food with him in silent companionship, when he remembered that we should probably eat. Sometimes I fell asleep on the cot. And when his friends — who were mostly painters like himself — dropped in to visit, I withdrew into my favorite corner and listened to their talk, and understood what I understood. Until the blue angel came.
   It was very sudden: one moment I was looking through a couple of the comic books Uncle Chaim kept around for me, while he was trying to catch the highlight on the tendons under his model's chin, and the next moment there was this angel standing before him, actually posing, with her arms spread out and her great wings taking up almost half the studio. She was not blue herself — a light beige would be closer — but she wore a blue robe that managed to look at once graceful and grand, with a white undergarment glimmering beneath. Her face, half-shadowed by a loose hood, looked disapproving.
   I dropped the comic book and stared. No, I gaped, there's a difference. Uncle Chaim said to her, "I can't see my model. If you wouldn't mind moving just a bit?" He was grumpy when he was working, but never rude.
   "I am your model," the angel said. "From this day forth, you will paint no one but me."
   "I don't work on commission," Uncle Chaim answered. "I used to, but you have to put up with too many aggravating rich people. Now I just paint what I paint, take it to the gallery. Easier on my stomach, you know?"
   His model, the wife of a fellow painter, said, "Chaim, who are you talking to?"
   "Nobody, nobody, Ruthie. Just myself, same way your Jules does when he's working. Old guys get like that." To the angel, in a lower voice, he said, "Also, whatever you're doing to the light, could you not? I got some great shadows going right now." For a celestial brightness was swelling in the grubby little warehouse district studio, illuminating the warped floor boards, the wrinkled tubes of colors scattered everywhere, the canvases stacked and propped in the corners, along with several ancient rickety easels. It scared me, but not Uncle Chaim. He said. "So you're an angel, fine, that's terrific. Now give me back my shadows."
   The room darkened obediently. "Thank you. Now about moving . . . " He made a brushing-away gesture with the hand holding the little glass of Scotch.
   The model said, "Chaim, you're worrying me."
   "What, I'm seventy-six years old, I'm not entitled to a hallucination now and then? I'm seeing an angel, you're not — this is no big deal. I just want it should move out of the way, let me work." The angel, in response, spread her wings even wider, and Uncle Chaim snapped, "Oh, for God's sake, shoo!"
   "It is for God's sake that I am here," the angel announced majestically. "The Lord — Yahweh — I Am That I Am — has sent me down to be your muse." She inclined her head a trifle, by way of accepting the worship and wonder she expected.
   From Uncle Chaim, she didn't get it, unless very nearly dropping his glass of Scotch counts as a compliment. "A muse?" he snorted. "I don't need a muse — I got models!"
   "That's it," Ruthie said. "I'm calling Jules, I'll make him come over and sit with you." She put on her coat, picked up her purse, and headed for the door, saying over her shoulder, "Same time Thursday? If you're still here?"
   "I got more models than I know what to do with," Uncle Chaim told the blue angel. "Men, women, old, young — even a cat, there's one lady always brings her cat, what am I going to do?" He heard the door slam, realized that Ruthie was gone, and sighed irritably, taking a larger swallow of whiskey than he usually allowed himself. "Now she's upset, she thinks she's my mother anyway, she'll send Jules with chicken soup and an enema." He narrowed his eyes at the angel. "And what's this, how I'm only going to be painting you from now on? Like Velбzquez stuck painting royal Hapsburg imbeciles over and over? Some hope you've got! Listen, you go back and tell—" he hesitated just a trifle—"tell whoever sent you that Chaim Malakoff is too old not to paint what he likes, when he likes, and for who he likes. You got all that? We're clear?"
   It was surely no way to speak to an angel; but as Uncle Chaim used to warn me about everyone from neighborhood bullies to my fourth-grade teacher, who hit people, "You give the bastards an inch, they'll walk all over you. From me they get bupkes, nichevo, nothing. Not an inch." I got beaten up more than once in those days, saying that to the wrong people.
   And the blue angel was definitely one of them. The entire room suddenly filled with her: with the wings spreading higher than the ceiling, wider than the walls, yet somehow not touching so much as a stick of charcoal; with the aroma almost too impossibly haunting to be borne; with the vast, unutterable beauty that a thousand medieval and Renaissance artists had somehow not gone mad (for the most part) trying to ambush on canvas or trap in stone. In that moment, Uncle Chaim confided later, he didn't know whether to pity or envy Muslims their ancient ban on depictions of the human body.
   "I thought maybe I should kneel, what would it hurt? But then I thought, what would it hurt? It'd hurt my left knee, the one had the arthritis twenty years, that's what it would hurt." So he only shrugged a little and told her, "I could manage a sitting on Monday. Somebody cancelled, I got the whole morning free."
   "Now," the angel said. Her air of distinct disapproval had become one of authority. The difference was slight but notable.
   "Now," Uncle Chaim mimicked her. "All right, already — Ruthie left early, so why not?" He moved the unfinished portrait over to another easel, and carefully selected a blank canvas from several propped against a wall. "I got to clean off a couple of brushes here, we'll start. You want to take off that thing, whatever, on your head?" Even I knew perfectly well that it was a halo, but Uncle Chaim always told me that you had to start with people as you meant to go on.
   "You will require a larger surface," the angel instructed him. "I am not to be represented in miniature."
   Uncle Chaim raised one eyebrow (an ability I envied him to the point of practicing — futilely — in the bathroom mirror for hours, until my parents banged on the door, certain I was up to the worst kind of no good). "No, huh? Good enough for the Persians, good enough for Holbein and Hilliard and Sam Cooper, but not for you? So okay, so we'll try this one . . . " Rummaging in a corner, he fetched out his biggest canvas, dusted it off, eyed it critically—"Don't even remember what I'm doing with anything this size, must have been saving it for you" — and finally set it up on the empty easel, turning it away from the angel. "Okay, Malakoff's rules. Nobody—nobody—looks at my painting till I'm done. Not angels, not Adonai, not my nephew over there in the corner, that's David, Duvidl — not even my wife. Nobody. Understood?"
   The angel nodded, almost imperceptibly. With surprising meekness, she asked, "Where shall I sit?"
   "Not a lot of choices," Uncle Chaim grunted, lifting a brush from a jar of turpentine. "Over there's okay, where Ruthie was sitting — or maybe by the big window. The window would be good, we've lost the shadows already. Take the red chair, I'll fix the color later."
   But sitting down is not a natural act for an angel: they stand or they fly; check any Renaissance painting. The great wings inevitably get crumpled, the halo always winds up distinctly askew; and there is simply no way, even for Uncle Chaim, to ask an angel to cross her legs or to hook one over the arm of the chair. In the end they compromised, and the blue angel rose up to pose in the window, holding herself there effortlessly, with her wings not stirring at all. Uncle Chaim, settling in to work — brushes cleaned and Scotch replenished — could not refrain from remarking, "I always imagined you guys sort of hovered. Like hummingbirds."
   "We fly only by the Will of God," the angel replied. "If Yahweh, praised be His name—" I could actually hear the capital letters—"withdrew that mighty Will from us, we would fall from the sky on the instant, every single one."
   "Doesn't bear thinking about," Uncle Chaim muttered. "Raining angels all over everywhere — falling on people's heads, tying up traffic—"
   The angel looked, first startled, and then notably shocked. "I was speaking of our sky," she explained haughtily, "the sky of Paradise, which compares to yours as gold to lead, tapestry to tissue, heavenly choirs to the bellowing of feeding hogs—"
   "All right already, I get the picture." Uncle Chaim cocked an eye at her, poised up there in the window with no visible means of support, and then back at his canvas. "I was going to ask you about being an angel, what it's like, but if you're going to talk about us like that — badmouthing the sky, for God's sake, the whole planet."
   The angel did not answer him immediately, and when she did, she appeared considerably abashed and spoke very quietly, almost like a scolded schoolgirl. "You are right. It is His sky, His world, and I shame my Lord, my fellows and my breeding by speaking slightingly of any part of it." In a lower voice, she added, as though speaking only to herself, "Perhaps that is why I am here."
   Uncle Chaim was covering the canvas with a thin layer of very light blue, to give the painting an undertone. Without looking up, he said, "What, you got sent down here like a punishment? You talked back, you didn't take out the garbage? I could believe it. Your boy Yahweh, he always did have a short fuse."
   "I was told only that I was to come to you and be your model and your muse," the angel answered. She pushed her hood back from her face, revealing hair that was not bright gold, as so often painted, but of a color resembling the night sky when it pales into dawn. "Angels do not ask questions."
   "Mmm." Uncle Chaim sipped thoughtfully at his Scotch. "Well, one did, anyway, you believe the story."
   The angel did not reply, but she looked at him as though he had uttered some unimaginable obscenity. Uncle Chaim shrugged and continued preparing the ground for the portrait. Neither one said anything for some time, and it was the angel who spoke first. She said, a trifle hesitantly, "I have never been a muse before."
   "Never had one," Uncle Chaim replied sourly. "Did just fine."
   "I do not know what the duties of a muse would be." the angel confessed. "You will need to advise me."
   "What?" Uncle Chaim put down his brush. "Okay now, wait a minute. I got to tell you how to get into my hair, order me around, probably tell me how I'm not painting you right? Forget it, lady — you figure it out for yourself, I'm working here."
   But the blue angel looked confused and unhappy, which is no more natural for an angel than sitting down. Uncle Chaim scratched his head and said, more gently, "What do I know? I guess you're supposed to stimulate my creativity, something like that. Give me ideas, visions, make me see things, think about things I've never thought about." After a pause, he added, "Frankly, Goya pretty much has that effect on me already. Goya and Matisse. So that's covered, the stimulation — maybe you could just tell them, him, about that . . . "
   Seeing the expression on the angel's marble-smooth face, he let the sentence trail away. Rabbi Shulevitz, who cut his blond hair close and wore shorts when he watered his lawn, once told me that angels are supposed to express God's emotions and desires, without being troubled by any of their own. "Like a number of other heavenly dictates," he murmured when my mother was out of the room, "that one has never quite functioned as I'm sure it was intended."
   They were still working in the studio when my mother called and ordered me home. The angel had required no rest or food at all, while Uncle Chaim had actually been drinking his Scotch instead of sipping it (I never once saw him drunk, but I'm not sure that I ever saw him entirely sober), and needed more bathroom breaks than usual. Daylight gone, and his precarious array of 60-watt bulbs proving increasingly unsatisfactory, he looked briefly at the portrait, covered it, and said to the angel, "Well, that stinks, but we'll do better tomorrow. What time you want to start?"
   The angel floated down from the window to stand before him. Uncle Chaim was a small man, dark and balding, but he already knew that the angel altered her height when they faced each other, so as not to overwhelm him completely. She said, "I will be here when you are."
   Uncle Chaim misunderstood. He assured her that if she had no other place to sleep but the studio, it wouldn't be the first time a model or a friend had spent the night on that trundle bed in the far corner. "Only no peeking at the picture, okay? On your honor as a muse."
   The blue angel looked for a moment as though she were going to smile, but she didn't. "I will not sleep here, or anywhere on this earth," she said. "But you will find me waiting when you come."
   "Oh," Uncle Chaim said. "Right. Of course. Fine. But don't change your clothes, okay? Absolutely no changing." The angel nodded.
   When Uncle Chaim got home that night, my Aunt Rifke told my mother on the phone at some length, he was in a state that simply did not register on her long-practiced seismograph of her husband's moods. "He comes in, he's telling jokes, he eats up everything on the table, we snuggle up, watch a little TV, I can figure the work went well today. He doesn't talk, he's not hungry, he goes to bed early, tosses and tumbles around all night . . . okay, not so good. Thirty-seven years with a person, wait, you'll find out." Aunt Rifke had been Uncle Chaim's model until they married, and his agent, accountant and road manager ever since.
   But the night he returned from beginning his portrait of the angel brought Aunt Rifke a husband she barely recognized. "Not up, not down, not happy, not not happy, just . . . dazed, I guess that's the best word. He'd start to eat something, then he'd forget about it, wander around the apartment — couldn't sit still, couldn't keep his mind on anything, had trouble even finishing a sentence. One sentence. I tell you, it scared me. I couldn't keep from wondering, is this how it begins? A man starts acting strange, one day to the next, you think about things like that, you know?" Talking about it, even long past the moment's terror, tears still started in her eyes.
   Uncle Chaim did tell her that he had been visited by an angel who demanded that he paint her portrait. That Aunt Rifke had no trouble believing, thirty-seven years of marriage to an artist having inured her to certain revelations. Her main concern was how painting an angel might affect Uncle Chaim's working hours, and his daily conduct. "Like actors, you know, Duvidl? They become the people they're doing, I've seen it over and over." Also, blasphemous as it might sound, she wondered how much the angel would be paying, and in what currency. "And saying we'll get a big credit in the next world is not funny, Chaim. Not funny."
   Uncle Chaim urged Rifke to come to the studio the very next day to meet his new model for herself. Strangely, that lady, whom I'd known all my life as a legendary repository of other people's lives, stories and secrets, flatly refused to take him up on the offer. "I got nothing to wear, not for meeting an angel in. Besides, what would we talk about? No, you just give her my best, I'll make some rugelach." And she never wavered from that position, except once.
   The blue angel was indeed waiting when Uncle Chaim arrived in the studio early the next morning. She had even made coffee in his ancient glass percolator, and was offended when he informed her that it was as thin as rain and tasted like used dishwater. "Where I come from, no one ever makes coffee," she returned fire. "We command it."
   "That's what's wrong with this crap," Uncle Chaim answered her. "Coffee's like art, you don't order coffee around." He waved the angel aside, and set about a second pot, which came out strong enough to widen the angel's eyes when she sipped it. Uncle Chaim teased her—"Don't get stuff like that in the Green Pastures, huh?" — and confided that he made much better coffee than Aunt Rifke. "Not her fault. Woman was raised on decaf, what can you expect? Cooks like an angel, though."
   The angel either missed the joke or ignored it. She began to resume her pose in the window, but Uncle Chaim stopped her. "Later, later, the sun's not right. Just stand where you are, I want to do some work on the head." As I remember, he never used the personal possessive in referring to his models' bodies: it was invariably "turn the face a little," "relax the shoulder," "move the foot to the left." Amateurs often resented it; professionals tended to find it liberating. Uncle Chaim didn't much care either way.
   For himself, he was grateful that the angel proved capable of holding a pose indefinitely, without complaining, asking for a break, or needing the toilet. What he found distracting was her steadily emerging interest in talking and asking questions. As requested, her expression never changed and her lips hardly moved; indeed, there were times when he would have sworn he was hearing her only in his mind. Enough of her queries had to do with his work, with how he did what he was doing, that he finally demanded point-blank, "All those angels, seraphs, cherubim, centuries of them — all those Virgins and Assumptions and whatnot — and you've never once been painted? Not one time?"
   "I have never set foot on earth before," the angel confessed. "Not until I was sent to you."
   "Sent to me. Directly. Special Delivery, Chaim Shlomovitch Malakoff — one angel, totally inexperienced at modeling. Or anything else, got anything to do with human life." The angel nodded, somewhat shyly. Uncle Chaim spoke only one word. "Why?"
   "I am only eleven thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two years old," the angel said, with a slight but distinct suggestion of resentment in her voice. "No one tells me a thing."
   Uncle Chaim was silent for some time, squinting at her face from different angles and distances, even closing one eye from time to time. Finally he grumbled, more than half to himself, "I got a very bad feeling that we're both supposed to learn something from this. Bad, bad feeling." He filled the little glass for the first time that day, and went back to work.
   But if there was to be any learning involved in their near-daily meetings in the studio, it appeared to be entirely on her part. She was ravenously curious about human life on the blue-green ball of damp dirt that she had observed so distantly for so long, and her constant questioning reminded a weary Uncle Chaim — as he informed me more than once — of me at the age of four. Except that an angel cannot be bought off, even temporarily, with strawberry ice cream, or threatened with loss of a bedtime story if she can't learn to take "I don't know!" for an answer. At times he pretended not to hear her; on other occasions, he would make up some patently ridiculous explanation that a grandchild would have laughed to scorn, but that the angel took so seriously that he was guiltily certain he was bound to be struck by lightning. Only the lightning never came, and the tactic usually did buy him a few moments' peace — until the next question.
   Once he said to her, in some desperation, "You're an angel, you're supposed to know everything about human beings. Listen, I'll take you out to Bleecker, McDougal, Washington Square, you can look at the books, magazines, TV, the classes, the beads and crystals . . . it's all about how to get in touch with angels. Real ones, real angels, never mind that stuff about the angel inside you. Everybody wants some of that angel wisdom, and they want it bad, and they want it right now. We'll take an afternoon off, I'll show you."
   The blue angel said simply, "The streets and the shops have nothing to show me, nothing to teach. You do."
   "No," Uncle Chaim said. "No, no, no, no no. I'm a painter — that's all, that's it, that's what I know. Painting. But you, you sit at the right hand of God—"
   "He doesn't have hands," the angel interrupted. "And nobody exactly sits—"
   "The point I'm making, you're the one who ought to be answering questions. About the universe, and about Darwin, and how everything really happened, and what is it with God and shellfish, and the whole business with the milk and the meat—those kinds of questions. I mean, I should be asking them, I know that, only I'm working right now."
   It was almost impossible to judge the angel's emotions from the expressions of her chillingly beautiful porcelain face; but as far as Uncle Chaim could tell, she looked sad. She said, "I also am what I am. We angels — as you call us — we are messengers, minions, lackeys, knowing only what we are told, what we are ordered to do. A few of the Oldest, the ones who were there at the Beginning — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael—they have names, thoughts, histories, choices, powers. The rest of us, we tremble, we hide when we see them passing by. We think, if those are angels, we must be something else altogether, but we can never find a better word for ourselves."
   She looked straight at Uncle Chaim — he noticed in some surprise that in a certain light her eyes were not nearly as blue as he had been painting them, but closer to a dark sea-green — and he looked away from an anguish that he had never seen before, and did not know how to paint. He said, "So okay, you're a low-class angel, a heavenly grunt, like they say now. So how come they picked you to be my muse? Got to mean something, no? Right?"
   The angel did not answer his question, nor did she speak much for the rest of the day. Uncle Chaim posed her in several positions, but the unwonted sadness in her eyes depressed him past even Laphroaig's ability to ameliorate. He quit work early, allowing the angel — as he would never have permitted Aunt Rifke or me — to potter around the studio, putting it to rights according to her inexpert notions, organizing brushes, oils, watercolors, pastels and pencils, fixatives, rolls of canvas, bottles of tempera and turpentine, even dusty chunks of rabbit skin glue, according to size. As he told his friend Jules Sidelsky, meeting for their traditional weekly lunch at a Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue, where the two of them spoke only Russian, "Maybe God could figure where things are anymore. Me, I just shut my eyes and pray."
   Jules was large and fat, like Diego Rivera, and I thought of him as a sort of uncle too, because he and Ruthie always remembered my birthday, just like Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke. Jules did not believe in angels, but he knew that Uncle Chaim didn't necessarily believe in them either, just because he had one in his studio every day. He asked seriously, "That helps? The praying?" Uncle Chaim gave him a look, and Jules dropped the subject. "So what's she like? I mean, as a model? You like painting her?"
   Uncle Chaim held his hand out, palm down, and wobbled it gently from side to side. "What's not to like? She'll hold any pose absolutely forever — you could leave her all night, morning I guarantee she wouldn't have moved a muscle. No whining, no bellyaching — listen, she'd make Cinderella look like the witch in that movie, the green one. In my life I never worked with anybody gave me less tsuris."
   "So what's with—?" and Jules mimicked his fluttering hand. "I'm waiting for the but, Chaim."
   Uncle Chaim was still for a while, neither answering nor appearing to notice the steaming varyniki that the waitress had just set down before him. Finally he grumbled, "She's an angel, what can I tell you? Go reason with an angel." He found himself vaguely angry with Jules, for no reason that made any sense. He went on, "She's got it in her head she's supposed to be my muse. It's not the most comfortable thing sometimes, all right?"
   Perhaps due to their shared childhood on Tenth Avenue, Jules did not laugh, but it was plainly a near thing. He said, mildly enough, "Matisse had muses. Rodin, up to here with muses. Picasso about had to give them serial numbers — I think he married them just to keep them straight in his head. You, me . . . I don't see it, Chaim. We're not muse types, you know? Never were, not in all our lives. Also, Rifke would kill you dead. Deader."
   "What, I don't know that? Anyway, it's not what you're thinking." He grinned suddenly, in spite of himself. "She's not that kind of girl, you ought to be ashamed. It's just she wants to help, to inspire, that's what muses do. I don't mind her messing around with my mess in the studio — I mean, yeah, I mind it, but I can live with it. But the other day—" he paused briefly, taking a long breath—"the other day she wanted to give me a haircut. A haircut. It's all right, go ahead."
   For Jules was definitely laughing this time, spluttering tea through his nose, so that he turned a bright cerise as other diners stared at them. "A haircut," he managed to get out, when he could speak at all clearly. "An angel gave you a haircut."
   "No, she didn't give me a haircut," Uncle Chaim snapped back crossly. "She wanted to, she offered — and then, when I said no, thanks, after awhile she said she could play music for me while I worked. I usually have the news on, and she doesn't like it, I can tell. Well, it wouldn't make much sense to her, would it? Hardly does to me anymore."
   "So she's going to be posing and playing music? What, on her harp? That's true, the harp business?"
   "No, she just said she could command the music. The way they do with coffee." Jules stared at him. "Well, I don't know — I guess it's like some heavenly Muzak or something. Anyway, I told her no, and I'm sorry I told you anything. Eat, forget it, okay?"
   But Jules was not to be put off so easily. He dug down into his galushki poltavski for a little time, and then looked up and said with his mouth full, "Tell me one thing, then I'll drop it. Would you say she was beautiful?"
   "She's an angel," Uncle Chaim said.
   "That's not what I asked. Angels are all supposed to be beautiful, right? Beyond words, beyond description, the works. So?" He smiled serenely at Uncle Chaim over his folded hands.
   Uncle Chaim took so long to answer him that Jules actually waved a hand directly in front of his eyes. "Hello? Earth to Malakoff — this is your wakeup call. You in there, Chaim?"
   "I'm there, I'm there, stop with the kid stuff." Uncle Chaim flicked his own fingers dismissively at his friend's hand. "Jules, all I can tell you, I never saw anyone looked like her before. Maybe that's beauty all by itself, maybe it's just novelty. Some days she looks eleven thousand years old, like she says — some days . . . some days she could be younger than Duvidl, she could be the first child in the world, first one ever." He shook his head helplessly. "I don't know, Jules. I wish I could ask Rembrandt or somebody. Vermeer. Vermeer would know."
   Strangely, of the small corps of visitors to the studio — old painters like himself and Jules, gallery owners, art brokers, friends from the neighborhood — I seemed to be the only one who ever saw the blue angel as anything other than one of his unsought acolytes, perfectly happy to stretch canvases, make sandwiches and occasionally pose, all for the gift of a growled thanks and the privilege of covertly studying him at work. My memory is that I regarded her as a nice-looking older lady with wings, but not my type at all, I having just discovered Alice Faye. Lauren Bacall, Lizabeth Scott and Lena Horne came a bit later in my development.
   I knew she was an angel. I also knew better than to tell any of my own friends about her: we were a cynical lot, who regularly got thrown out of movie theatres for cheering on the Wolfman and booing Shirley Temple and Bobby Breen. But I was shy with the angel, and — I guess — she with me, so I can't honestly say I remember much either in the way of conversation or revelation. Though I am still haunted by one particular moment when I asked her, straight out, "Up there, in heaven — do you ever see Jesus? Jesus Christ, I mean." We were hardly an observant family, any of us, but it still felt strange and a bit dangerous to say the name.
   The blue angel turned from cleaning off a palette knife and looked directly at me, really for the first time since we had been introduced. I noticed that the color of her wings seemed to change from moment to moment, rippling constantly through a supple spectrum different from any I knew; and that I had no words either for her hair color, or for her smell. She said, "No, I have never seen him."
   "Oh," I said, vaguely disappointed, Jewish or not. "Well — uh — what about his mother? The — the Virgin?" Funny, I remember that that seemed more daringly wicked than saying the other name out loud. I wonder why that should have been.
   "No," the angel answered. "Nor—" heading me off—"have I ever seen God. You are closer to God now, as you stand there, than I have ever been."
   "That doesn't make any sense," I said. She kept looking at me, but did not reply. I said, "I mean, you're an angel. Angels live with God, don't they?"
   She shook her head. In that moment — and just for that moment — her richly empty face showed me a sadness that I don't think a human face could ever have contained. "Angels live alone. If we were with God, we would not be angels." She turned away, and I thought she had finished speaking. But then she looked back quite suddenly to say, in a voice that did not sound like her voice at all, being lower than the sound I knew, and almost masculine in texture, "Dark and dark and dark . . . so empty . . . so dark . . . "
   It frightened me deeply, that one broken sentence, though I couldn't have said why: it was just so dislocating, so completely out of place — even the rhythm of those few words sounded more like the hesitant English of our old Latvian rabbi than that of Uncle Chaim's muse. He didn't hear it, and I didn't tell him about it, because I thought it must be me, that I was making it up, or I'd heard it wrong. I was accustomed to thinking like that when I was a boy.
   "She's got like a dimmer switch," Uncle Chaim explained to Aunt Rifke; they were putting freshly washed sheets on the guest bed at the time, because I was staying the night to interview them for my Immigrant Experience class project. "Dial it one way, you wouldn't notice her if she were running naked down Madison Avenue at high noon, flapping her wings and waving a gun. Two guns. Turn that dial back the other way, all the way . . . well, thank God she wouldn't ever do that, because she'd likely set the studio on fire. You think I'm joking. I'm not joking."
   "No, Chaim, I know you're not joking." Rifke silently undid and remade both of his attempts at hospital corners, as she always did. She said, "What I want to know is, just where's that dial set when you're painting her? And I'd think a bit about that answer, if I were you." Rifke's favorite cousin Harvey, a career social worker, had recently abandoned wife and children to run off with a beautiful young dope dealer, and Rifke was feeling more than slightly edgy.
   Uncle Chaim did think about it, and replied, "About a third, I'd say. Maybe half, once or twice, no more. I remember, I had to ask her a couple times, turn it down, please — go work when somebody's glowing six feet away from you. I mean, the moon takes up a lot of space, a little studio like mine. Bad enough with the wings."
   Rifke tucked in the last corner, smoothed the sheet tight, faced him across the bed and said, "You're never going to finish this one, are you? Thirty-seven years, I know all the signs. You'll do it over and over, you'll frame it, you'll hang it, you'll say, okay, that's it, I'm done—but you won't be done, you'll just start the whole thing again, only maybe a different style, a brighter palette, a bigger canvas, a smaller canvas. But you'll never get it the way it's in your head, not for you." She smacked the pillows fluffy and tossed them back on the bed. "Don't even bother arguing with me, Malakoff. Not when I'm right."
   "So am I arguing? Does it look like I'm arguing?" Uncle Chaim rarely drank at home, but on this occasion he walked into the kitchen, filled a glass from the dusty bottle of grappa, and turned back to his wife. He said very quietly, "Crazy to think I could get an angel right. Who could paint an angel?"
   Aunt Rifke came to him then and put her hands on his shoulders. "My crazy old man, that's who," she answered him. "Nobody else. God would know."
   And my Uncle Chaim blushed for the first time in many years. I didn't see this, but Aunt Rifke told me.
   Of course, she was quite right about that painting, or any of the many, many others he made of the blue angel. He was never satisfied with any of them, not a one. There was always something wrong, something missing, something there but not there, glimpsed but gone. "Like that Chinese monkey trying to grab the moon in the water," Uncle Chaim said to me once. "That's me, a Chinese monkey."
   Not that you could say he suffered financially from working with only one model, as the angel had commanded. The failed portraits that he lugged down to the gallery handling his paintings sold almost instantly to museums, private collectors and corporations decorating their lobbies and meeting rooms, under such generic titles as Angel in the Window, Blue Wings, Angel with Wineglass, and Midnight Angel. Aunt Rifke banked the money, and Uncle Chaim endured the unveilings and the receptions as best he could — without ever looking at the paintings themselves — and then shuffled back to his studio to start over. The angel was always waiting.
   I was doing my homework in the studio when Jules Sidelsky visited at last, lured there by other reasons than art, beauty or deity. The blue angel hadn't given up the notion of acting as Uncle Chaim's muse, but never seemed able to take it much beyond making a tuna salad sandwich, or a pot of coffee (at which, to be fair, she had become quite skilled), summoning music, or reciting the lost works of legendary or forgotten poets while he worked. He tried to discourage this habit; but he did learn a number of Shakespeare's unpublished sonnets, and was able to write down for Jules three poems that drowned with Shelley off the Livorno coast. "Also, your boy Pushkin, his wife destroyed a mess of his stuff right after his death. My girl's got it all by heart, you believe that?"
   Pushkin did it. If the great Russian had been declared a saint, Jules would have reported for instruction to the Patriarch of Moscow on the following day. As it was, he came down to Uncle Chaim's studio instead, and was at last introduced to the blue angel, who was as gracious as Jules did his bewildered best to be. She spent the afternoon declaiming Pushkin's vanished verse to him in the original, while hovering tirelessly upside down, just above the crossbar of a second easel. Uncle Chaim thought he might be entering a surrealist phase.
   Leaving, Jules caught Uncle Chaim's arm and dragged him out of his door into the hot, bustling Village streets, once his dearest subject before the coming of the blue angel. Uncle Chaim, knowing his purpose, said, "So now you see? Now you see?"
   "I see." Jules's voice was dark and flat, and almost without expression. "I see you got an angel there, all right. No question in the world about that." The grip on Uncle Chaim's arm tightened. Jules said, "You have to get rid of her."
   "What? What are you talking about? Just finally doing the most important work of my life, and you want me . . .?" Uncle Chaim's eyes narrowed, and he pulled forcefully away from his friend. "What is it with you and my models? You got like this once before, when I was painting that Puerto Rican guy, the teacher, with the big nose, and you just couldn't stand it, you remember? Said I'd stolen him, wouldn't speak to me for weeks, weeks, you remember?"
   "Chaim, that's not true—"
   "And so now I've got this angel, it's the same thing — worse, with the Pushkin and all—"
   "Chaim, damn it, I wouldn't care if she were Pushkin's sister, they played Monopoly together—"
   Uncle Chaim's voice abruptly grew calmer; the top of his head stopped sweating and lost its crimson tinge. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Jules. It's not I don't understand, I've been the same way about other people's models." He patted the other's shoulder awkwardly. "Look, I tell you what, anytime you want, you come on over, we'll work together. How about that?"
   Poor Jules must have been completely staggered by all this. On the one hand he knew — I mean, even I knew — that Uncle Chaim never invited other artists to share space with him, let alone a model; on the other, the sudden change can only have sharpened his anxiety about his old friend's state of mind. He said, "Chaim, I'm just trying to tell you, whatever's going on, it isn't good for you. Not her fault, not your fault. People and angels aren't supposed to hang out together — we aren't built for it, and neither are they. She really needs to go back where she belongs."
   "She can't. Absolutely not." Uncle Chaim was shaking his head, and kept on shaking it. "She got sent here, Jules, she got sent to me—"
   "By whom? You ever ask yourself that?" They stared at each other. Jules said, very carefully, "No, not by the Devil. I don't believe in the Devil any more than I believe in God, although he always gets the good lines. But it's a free country, and I can believe in angels without swallowing all the rest of it, if I want to." He paused, and took a gentler hold on Uncle Chaim's arm. "And I can also imagine that angels might not be exactly what we think they are. That an angel might lie, and still be an angel. That an angel might be selfish — jealous, even. That an angel might just be a little bit out of her head."
   In a very pale and quiet voice, Uncle Chaim said, "You're talking about a fallen angel, aren't you?"
   "I don't know what I'm talking about," Jules answered. "That's the God's truth." Both of them smiled wearily, but neither one laughed. Jules said, "I'm dead serious, Chaim. For your sake, your sanity, she needs to go."
   "And for my sake, she can't." Uncle Chaim was plainly too exhausted for either pretense or bluster, but there was no give in him. He said, "Landsmann, it doesn't matter. You could be right, you could be wrong, I'm telling you, it doesn't matter. There's no one else I want to paint anymore — there's no one else I can paint, Jules, that's just how it is. Go home now." He refused to say another word as he ushered Jules out of the studio.
   In the months that followed, Uncle Chaim became steadily more silent, more reclusive, more closed-off from everything that did not directly involve the current portrait of the blue angel. By autumn, he was no longer meeting Jules for lunch at the Ukrainian restaurant; he could rarely be induced to appear at his own openings, or anyone else's; he frequently spent the night at his studio, sleeping briefly in his chair, when he slept at all. It had been understood between Uncle Chaim and me since I was three that I had the run of the place at any time; and while it was still true, I felt far less comfortable there than I was accustomed, and left it more and more to him and the strange lady with the wings.
   When an exasperated — and increasingly frightened — Aunt Rifke would challenge him, "You've turned into Red Skelton, painting nothing but clowns on velvet — Margaret Keane, all those big-eyed war orphans," he only shrugged and replied, when he even bothered to respond, "You were the one who told me I could paint an angel. Change your mind?"
   Whatever she truly thought, it was not in Aunt Rifke to say such a thing to him directly. Her only recourse was to mumble something like, "Even Leonardo gave up on drawing cats," or "You've done the best anybody could ever do — let it go now, let her go." Her own theory, differing somewhat from Jules's, was that it was as much Uncle Chaim's obsession as his model's possible madness that was holding the angel to earth. "Like Ella and Sam," she said to me, referring to the perpetually quarrelling parents of my favorite cousin Arthur. "Locked together, like some kind of punishment machine. Thirty years they hate each other, cats and dogs, but they're so scared of being alone, if one of them died—" she snapped her fingers—"the other one would be gone in a week. Like that. Okay, so not exactly like that, but like that." Aunt Rifke wasn't getting a lot of sleep either just then.
   She confessed to me — it astonishes me to this day — that she prayed more than once herself, during the worst times. Even in my family, which still runs to atheists, agnostics and cranky anarchists, Aunt Rifke's unbelief was regarded as the standard by which all other blasphemy had to be judged, and set against which it invariably paled. The idea of a prayer from her lips was, on the one hand, fascinating — how would Aunt Rifke conceivably address a Supreme Being? — and more than a little alarming as well. Supplication was not in her vocabulary, let alone her repertoire. Command was.
   I didn't ask her what she had prayed for. I did ask, trying to make her laugh, if she had commenced by saying, "To Whom it may concern . . . " She slapped my hand lightly. "Don't talk fresh, just because you're in fifth grade, sixth grade, whatever. Of course I didn't say that, an old Socialist Worker like me. I started off like you'd talk to some kid's mother on the phone, I said, 'It's time for your little girl to go home, we're going to be having dinner. You better call her in now, it's getting dark.' Like that, polite. But not fancy."
   "And you got an answer?" Her face clouded, but she made no reply. "You didn't get an answer? Bad connection?" I honestly wasn't being fresh: this was my story too, somehow, all the way back, from the beginning, and I had to know where we were in it. "Come on, Aunt Rifke."
   "I got an answer." The words came slowly, and cut off abruptly, though she seemed to want to say something more. Instead, she got up and went to the stove, all my aunts' traditional querencia in times of emotional stress. Without turning her head, she said in a curiously dull tone, "You go home now. Your mother'll yell at me."
   My mother worried about my grades and my taste in friends, not about me; but I had never seen Aunt Rifke quite like this, and I knew better than to push her any further. So I went on home.
   From that day, however, I made a new point of stopping by the studio literally every day — except Shabbos, naturally — even if only for a few minutes, just to let Uncle Chaim know that someone besides Aunt Rifke was concerned about him. Of course, obviously, a whole lot of other people would have been, from family to gallery owners to friends like Jules and Ruthie; but I was ten years old, and feeling like my uncle's only guardian, and a private detective to boot. A guardian against what? An angel? Detecting what? A portrait? I couldn't have said for a minute, but a ten-year-old boy with a sense of mission definitely qualifies as a dangerous flying object.
   Uncle Chaim didn't talk to me anymore while he was working, and I really missed that. To this day, almost everything I know about painting — about being a painter, every day, all day — I learned from him, grumbled out of the side of his mouth as he sized a canvas, touched up a troublesome corner, or stood back, scratching his head, to reconsider a composition or a subject's expression, or simply to study the stoop of a shadow. Now he worked in bleak near-total silence; and since the blue angel never spoke unless addressed directly, the studio had become a far less inviting place than my three-year-old self had found it. Yet I felt that Uncle Chaim still liked having me there, even if he didn't say anything, so I kept going, but it was an effort some days, mission or no mission.
   His only conversation was with the angel — Uncle Chaim always chatted with his models; paradoxically, he felt that it helped them to concentrate — and while I honestly wasn't trying to eavesdrop (except sometimes), I couldn't help overhearing their talk. Uncle Chaim would ask the angel to lift a wing slightly, or to alter her stance somewhat: as I've said, sitting remained uncomfortable and unnatural for her, but she had finally been able to manage a sort of semi-recumbent posture, which made her look curiously vulnerable, almost like a tired child after an adult party, playing at being her mother, with the grownups all asleep upstairs. I can close my eyes today and see her so.
   One winter afternoon, having come tired, and stayed late, I was half-asleep on a padded rocker in a far corner when I heard Uncle Chaim saying, "You ever think that maybe we might both be dead, you and me?"
   "We angels do not die," the blue angel responded. "It is not in us to die."
   "I told you, lift your chin," Uncle Chaim grunted. "Well, it's built into us, believe me, it's mostly what we do from day one." He looked up at her from the easel. "But I'm trying to get you into a painting, and I'll never be able to do it, but it doesn't matter, got to keep trying. The head a little bit to the left — no, that's too much, I said a little." He put down his brush and walked over to the angel, taking her chin in his hand. He said, "And you . . . whatever you're after, you're not going to get that right, either, are you? So it's like we're stuck here together — and if we were dead, maybe this is hell. Would we know? You ever think about things like that?"
   "No." The angel said nothing further for a long time, and I was dozing off again when I heard her speak. "You would not speak so lightly of hell if you had seen it. I have seen it. It is not what you think."
   "Nu?" Uncle Chaim's voice could raise an eyebrow itself. "So what's it like?"
   "Cold." The words were almost inaudible. "So cold . . . so lonely . . . so empty. God is not there . . . no one is there. No one, no one, no one . . . no one . . . "
   It was that voice, that other voice that I had heard once before, and I have never again been as frightened as I was by the murmuring terror in her words. I actually grabbed my books and got up to leave, already framing some sort of gotta-go to Uncle Chaim, but just then Aunt Rifke walked into the studio for the first time, with Rabbi Shulevitz trailing behind her, so I stayed where I was. I don't know a thing about ten-year-olds today; but in those times one of the major functions of adults was to supply drama and mystery to our lives, and we took such things where we found them.
   Rabbi Stuart Shulevitz was the nearest thing my family had to an actual regular rabbi. He was Reform, of course, which meant that he had no beard, played the guitar, performed Bat Mitzvahs and interfaith marriages, invited local priests and imams to lead the Passover ritual, and put up perpetually with all the jokes told, even by his own congregation, about young, beardless, terminally tolerant Reform rabbis. Uncle Chaim, who allowed Aunt Rifke to drag him to shul twice a year, on the High Holidays, regarded him as being somewhere between a mild head cold and mouse droppings in the pantry. But Aunt Rifke always defended Rabbi Shulevitz, saying, "He's smarter than he looks, and anyway he can't help being blond. Also, he smells good."
   Uncle Chaim and I had to concede the point. Rabbi Shulevitz's immediate predecessor, a huge, hairy, bespectacled man from Riga, had smelled mainly of rancid hair oil and cheap peach schnapps. And he couldn't sing "Red River Valley," either.
   Aunt Rifke was generally a placid-appearing, hamishe sort of woman, but now her plump face was set in lines that would have told even an angel that she meant business. The blue angel froze in position in a different way than she usually held still as required by the pose. Her strange eyes seemed almost to change their shape, widening in the center and somehow lifting at the corners, as though to echo her wings. She stood at near-attention, silently regarding Aunt Rifke and the rabbi.
   Uncle Chaim never stopped painting. Over his shoulder he said, "Rifke, what do you want? I'll be home when I'm home."
   "So who's rushing you?" Aunt Rifke snapped back. "We didn't come about you. We came the rabbi should take a look at your model here." The word burst from her mouth trailing blue smoke.
   "What look? I'm working, I'm going to lose the light in ten, fifteen minutes. Sorry, Rabbi, I got no time. Come back next week, you could say a barucha for the whole studio. Goodbye, Rifke."
   But my eyes were on the Rabbi, and on the angel, as he slowly approached her, paying no heed to the quarreling voices of Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke. Blond or not, "Red River Valley" or not, he was still magic in my sight, the official representative of a power as real as my disbelief. On the other hand, the angel could fly. The Chassidic wonder-rebbes of my parents' Eastern Europe could fly up to heaven and share the Shabbos meal with God, when they chose. Reform rabbis couldn't fly.
   As Rabbi Shulevitz neared her, the blue angel became larger and more stately, and there was now a certain menacing aspect to her divine radiance, which set me shrinking into a corner, half-concealed by a dusty drape. But the rabbi came on.
   "Come no closer," the angel warned him. Her voice sounded deeper, and slightly distorted, like a phonograph record when the Victrola hasn't been wound tight enough. "It is not for mortals to lay hands on the Lord's servant and messenger."
   "I'm not touching you," Rabbi Shulevitz answered mildly. "I just want to look in your eyes. An angel can't object to that, surely."
   "The full blaze of an angel's eyes would leave you ashes, impudent man." Even I could hear the undertone of anxiety in her voice.
   "That is foolishness." The rabbi's tone continued gentle, almost playful. "My friend Chaim paints your eyes full of compassion, of sorrow for the world and all its creatures, every one. Only turn those eyes to me for a minute, for a very little minute, where's the harm?"
   Obediently he stayed where he was, taking off his hat to reveal the black yarmulke underneath. Behind him, Aunt Rifke made as though to take Uncle Chaim's arm, but he shrugged her away, never taking his own eyes from Rabbi Shulevitz and the blue angel. His face was very pale. The glass of Scotch in his left hand, plainly as forgotten as the brush in his right, was beginning to slosh over the rim with his trembling, and I was distracted with fascination, waiting for him to drop it. So I wasn't quite present, you might say, when the rabbi's eyes looked into the eyes of the blue angel.
   But I heard the rabbi gasp, and I saw him stagger backwards a couple of steps, with his arm up in front of his eyes. And I saw the angel turning away, instantly; the whole encounter couldn't have lasted more than five seconds, if that much. And if Rabbi Shulevitz looked stunned and frightened — which he did — there is no word that I know to describe the expression on the angel's face. No words.
   Rabbi Shulevitz spoke to Aunt Rifke in Hebrew, which I didn't know, and she answered him in swift, fierce Yiddish, which I did, but only insofar as it pertained to things my parents felt were best kept hidden from me, such as money problems, family gossip and sex. So I missed most of her words, but I caught anyway three of them. One was shofar, which is the ram's horn blown at sundown on the High Holidays, and about which I already knew two good dirty jokes. The second was minyan, the number of adult Jews needed to form a prayer circle on special occasions. Reform minyanim include women, which Aunt Rifke always told me I'd come to appreciate in a couple of years. She was right.
   The third word was dybbuk.
   I knew the word, and I didn't know it. If you'd asked me its meaning, I would have answered that it meant some kind of bogey, like the Invisible Man, or just maybe the Mummy. But I learned the real meaning fast, because Rabbi Shulevitz had taken off his glasses and was wiping his forehead, and whispering, "No. No. Ich vershtaye nicht . . . "
   Uncle Chaim was complaining, "What the hell is this? See now, we've lost the light already, I told you." No one — me included — was paying any attention.
   Aunt Rifke — who was never entirely sure that Rabbi Shulevitz really understood Yiddish — burst into English. "It's a dybbuk, what's not to understand? There's a dybbuk in that woman, you've got to get rid of it! You get a minyan together, right now, you get rid of it! Exorcise!"
   Why on earth did she want the rabbi to start doing pushups or jumping-jacks in this moment? I was still puzzling over that when he said, "That woman, as you call her, is an angel. You cannot . . . Rifke, you do not exorcise an angel." He was trembling — I could see that — but his voice was steady and firm.
   "You do when it's possessed!" Aunt Rifke looked utterly exasperated with everybody. "I don't know how it could happen, but Chaim's angel's got a dybbuk in her—" she whirled on her husband—"which is why she makes you just keep painting her and painting her, day and night. You finish — really finish, it's done, over — she might have to go back out where it's not so nice for a dybbuk, you know about that? Look at her!" and she pointed an orange-nailed finger straight in the blue angel's face. "She hears me, she knows what I'm talking about. You know what I'm talking, don't you, Miss Angel? Or I should say, Mister Dybbuk? You tell me, okay?"
   I had never seen Aunt Rifke like this; she might have been possessed herself. Rabbi Shulevitz was trying to calm her, while Uncle Chaim fumed at the intruders disturbing his model. To my eyes, the angel looked more than disturbed — she looked as terrified as a cat I'd seen backed against a railing by a couple of dogs, strays, with no one to call them away from tearing her to pieces. I was anxious for her, but much more so for my aunt and uncle, truly expecting them to be struck by lightning, or turned to salt, or something on that order. I was scared for the rabbi as well, but I figured he could take care of himself. Maybe even with Aunt Rifke.
   "A dybbuk cannot possibly possess an angel," the rabbi was saying. "Believe me, I majored in Ashkenazic folklore — wrote my thesis on Lilith, as a matter of fact — and there are no accounts, no legends, not so much as a single bubbemeise of such a thing. Dybbuks are wandering spirits, some of them good, some malicious, but all houseless in the universe. They cannot enter heaven, and Gehenna won't have them, so they take refuge within the first human being they can reach, like any parasite. But an angel? Inconceivable, take my word. Inconceivable."
   "In the mind of God," the blue angel said, "nothing is inconceivable."
   Strangely, we hardly heard her; she had almost been forgotten in the dispute over her possession. But her voice was that other voice — I could see Uncle Chaim's eyes widen as he caught the difference. That voice said now, "She is right. I am a dybbuk."
   In the sudden absolute silence, Aunt Rifke, serenely complacent, said, "Told you."
   I heard myself say, "Is she bad? I thought she was an angel."
   Uncle Chaim said impatiently, "What? She's a model."
   Rabbi Shulevitz put his glasses back on, his eyes soft with pity behind the heavy lenses. I expected him to point at the angel, like Aunt Rifke, and thunder out stern and stately Hebrew maledictions, but he only said, "Poor thing, poor thing. Poor creature."
   Through the angel's mouth, the dybbuk said, "Rabbi, go away. Let me alone, let me be. I am warning you."
   I could not take my eyes off her. I don't know whether I was more fascinated by what she was saying, and the adults having to deal with its mystery, or by the fact that all the time I had known her as Uncle Chaim's winged and haloed model, someone else was using her the way I played with my little puppet theatre at home — moving her, making up things for her to say, perhaps even putting her away at night when the studio was empty. Already it was as though I had never heard her strange, shy voice asking a child's endless questions about the world, but only this grownup voice, speaking to Rabbi Shulevitz. "You cannot force me to leave her."
   "I don't want to force you to do anything," the rabbi said gently. "I want to help you."
   I wish I had never heard the laughter that answered him. I was too young to hear something like that, if anyone could ever be old enough. I cried out and doubled up around myself, hugging my stomach, although what I felt was worse than the worst bellyache I had ever wakened with in the night. Aunt Rifke came and put her arms around me, trying to soothe me, murmuring, half in English, half in Yiddish, "Shh, shh, it's all right, der rebbe will make it all right. He's helping the angel, he's getting rid of that thing inside her, like a doctor. Wait, wait, you'll see, it'll be all right." But I went on crying, because I had been visited by a monstrous grief not my own, and I was only ten.
   The dybbuk said, "If you wish to help me, Rabbi, leave me alone. I will not go into the dark again."
   Rabbi Shulevitz wiped his forehead. He asked, his tone still gentle and wondering, "What did you do to become . . . what you are? Do you remember?"
   The dybbuk did not answer him for a long time. Nobody spoke, except for Uncle Chaim muttering unhappily to himself, "Who needs this? Try to get your work done, it turns into a ferkockte party. Who needs it?" Aunt Rifke shushed him, but she reached for his arm, and this time he let her take it.
   The rabbi said, "You are a Jew."
   "I was. Now I am nothing."
   "No, you are still a Jew. You must know that we do not practice exorcism, not as others do. We heal, we try to heal both the person possessed and the one possessing. But you must tell me what you have done. Why you cannot find peace."
   The change in Rabbi Shulevitz astonished me as much as the difference between Uncle Chaim's blue angel and the spirit that inhabited her and spoke through her. He didn't even look like the crewcut, blue-eyed, guitar-playing, basketball-playing (well, he tried) college-student-dressing young man whose idea of a good time was getting people to sit in a circle and sing "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" or "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" together. There was a power of his own inhabiting him, and clearly the dybbuk recognized it. It said slowly, "You cannot help me. You cannot heal."
   "Well, we don't know that, do we?" Rabbi Shulevitz said brightly. "So, a bargain. You tell me what holds you here, and I will tell you, honestly, what I can do for you. Honestly."
   Again the dybbuk was slow to reply. Aunt Rifke said hotly, "What is this? What help? We're here to expel, to get rid of a demon that's taken over one of God's angels, if that's what she really is, and enchanted my husband so it's all he can paint, all he can think about painting. Who's talking about helping a demon?"
   "The rabbi is," I said, and they all turned as though they'd forgotten I was there. I gulped and stumbled along, feeling like I might throw up. I said, "I don't think it's a demon, but even if it is, it's given Uncle Chaim a chance to paint a real angel, and everybody loves the paintings, and they buy them, which we wouldn't have had them to sell if the — the thing—hadn't made her stay in Uncle Chaim's studio." I ran out of breath, gas and show-business ambitions all at pretty much the same time, and sat down, grateful that I had neither puked nor started to cry. I was still grandly capable of both back then.
   Aunt Rifke looked at me in a way I didn't recall her ever doing before. She didn't say anything, but her arm tightened around me. Rabbi Shulevitz said quietly, "Thank you, David." He turned back to face the angel. In the same voice, he said, "Please. Tell me."
   When the dybbuk spoke again, the words came one by one — two by two, at most. "A girl . . . There was a girl . . . a young woman . . . "
   "Ai, how not?" Aunt Rifke's sigh was resigned, but not angry or mocking, just as Uncle Chaim's, "Shah, Rifkela" was neither a dismissal nor an order. The rabbi, in turn, gestured them to silence.
   "She wanted us to marry," the dybbuk said. "I did too. But there was time. There was a world . . . there was my work . . . there were things to see . . . to taste and smell and do and be . . . It could wait a little. She could wait . . . "
   "Uh-huh. Of course. You could die waiting around for some damn man!"
   "Shah, Rifkela!"
   "But this one did not wait around," Rabbi Shulevitz said to the dybbuk. "She did not wait for you, am I right?"
   "She married another man," came the reply, and it seemed to my ten-year-old imagination that every tortured syllable came away tinged with blood. "They had been married for two years when he beat her to death."
   It was my Uncle Chaim who gasped in shock. I don't think anyone else made a sound.
   The dybbuk said, "She sent me a message. I came as fast as I could. I did come," though no one had challenged his statement. "But it was too late."
   This time we were the ones who did not speak for a long time. Rabbi Shulevitz finally asked, "What did you do?"
   "I looked for him. I meant to kill him, but he killed himself before I found him. So I was too late again."
   "What happened then?" That was me, once more to my own surprise. "When you didn't get to kill him?"
   "I lived. I wanted to die, but I lived."
   From Aunt Rifke — how not? "You ever got married?"
   "No. I lived alone, and I grew old and died. That is all."
   "Excuse me, but that is not all." The rabbi's voice had suddenly, startlingly, turned probing, almost harsh. "That is only the beginning." Everyone looked at him. The rabbi said, "So, after you died, what did happen? Where did you go?"
   There was no answer. Rabbi Shulevitz repeated the question. The dybbuk responded finally, "You have said it yourself. Houseless in the universe I am, and how should it be otherwise? The woman I loved died because I did not love her enough — what greater sin is there than that? Even her murderer had the courage to atone, but I dared not offer my own life in payment for hers. I chose to live, and living on has been my punishment, in death as well as in life. To wander back and forth in a cold you cannot know, shunned by heaven, scorned by purgatory . . . do you wonder that I sought shelter where I could, even in an angel? God himself would have to come and cast me out again, Rabbi — you never can."
   I became aware that my aunt and uncle had drawn close around me, as though expecting something dangerous and possibly explosive to happen. Rabbi Shulevitz took off his glasses again, ran his hand through his crewcut, stared at the glasses as though he had never seen them before, and put them back on.
   "You are right," he said to the dybbuk. "I'm a rabbi, not a rebbe—no Solomonic wisdom, no magical powers, just a degree from a second-class seminary in Metuchen, New Jersey. You wouldn't know it." He drew a deep breath and moved a few steps closer to the blue angel. He said, "But this gornisht rabbi knows anyway that you would never have been allowed this refuge if God had not taken pity on you. You must know this, surely?" The dybbuk did not answer. Rabbi Shulevitz said, "And if God pities you, might you not have a little pity on yourself? A little forgiveness?"
   "Forgiveness . . . " Now it was the dybbuk who whispered. "Forgiveness may be God's business. It is not mine."
   "Forgiveness is everyone's business. Even the dead. On this earth or under it, there is no peace without forgiveness." The rabbi reached out then, to touch the blue angel comfortingly. She did not react, but he winced and drew his hand back instantly, blowing hard on his fingers, hitting them against his leg. Even I could see that they had turned white with cold.
   "You need not fear for her," the dybbuk said. "Angels feel neither cold nor heat. You have touched where I have been."
   Rabbi Shulevitz shook his head. He said, "I touched you. I touched your shame and your grief — as raw today, I know, as on the day your love died. But the cold . . . the cold is yours. The loneliness, the endless guilt over what you should have done, the endless turning to and fro in empty darkness . . . none of that comes from God. You must believe me, my friend." He paused, still flexing his frozen fingers. "And you must come forth from God's angel now. For her sake and your own."
   The dybbuk did not respond. Aunt Rifke said, far more sympathetically than she had before, "You need a minyan, I could make some calls. We'd be careful, we wouldn't hurt it."
   Uncle Chaim looked from her to the rabbi, then back to the blue angel. He opened his mouth to say something, but didn't.
   The rabbi said, "You have suffered enough at your own hands. It is time for you to surrender your pain." When there was still no reply, he asked, "Are you afraid to be without it? Is that your real fear?"
   "It has been my only friend!" the dybbuk answered at last. "Even God cannot understand what I have done so well as my pain does. Without the pain, there is only me."
   "There is heaven," Rabbi Shulevitz said. "Heaven is waiting for you. Heaven has been waiting a long, long time."
   "I am waiting for me!" It burst out of the dybbuk in a long wail of purest terror, the kind you only hear from small children trapped in a nightmare. "You want me to abandon the one sanctuary I have ever found, where I can huddle warm in the consciousness of an angel and sometimes — for a little — even forget the thing I am. You want me to be naked to myself again, and I am telling you no, not ever, not ever, not ever. Do what you must, Rabbi, and I will do the only thing I can." It paused, and then added, somewhat stiffly, "Thank you for your efforts. You are a good man."
   Rabbi Shulevitz looked genuinely embarrassed. He also looked weary, frustrated and older than he had been when he first recognized the possession of Uncle Chaim's angel. Looking vaguely around at us, he said, "I don't know — maybe it will take a minyan. I don't want to, but we can't just . . . " His voice trailed away sadly, too defeated even to finish the sentence.
   Or maybe he didn't finish because that was when I stepped forward, pulling away from my aunt and uncle, and said, "He can come with me, if he wants. He can come and live in me. Like with the angel."
   Uncle Chaim said, "What?" and Aunt Rifke said, "No!" and Rabbi Shulevitz said, "David!" He turned and grabbed me by the shoulders, and I could feel him wanting to shake me, but he didn't. He seemed to be having trouble breathing. He said, "David, you don't know what you're saying."
   "Yes, I do," I said. "He's scared, he's so scared. I know about scared."
   Aunt Rifke crouched down beside me, peering hard into my face. "David, you're ten years old, you're a little boy. This one, he could be a thousand years, he's been hiding from God in an angel's body. How could you know what he's feeling?"
   I said, "Aunt Rifke, I go to school. I wake up every morning, and right away I think about the boys waiting to beat me up because I'm small, or because I'm Jewish, or because they just don't like my face, the way I look at them. Every day I want to stay home and read, and listen to the radio, and play my All-Star Baseball game, but I get dressed and I eat breakfast, and I walk to school. And every day I have to think how I'm going to get through recess, get through gym class, get home without running into Jay Taffer, George DiLucca. Billy Kronish. I know all about not wanting to go outside."
   Nobody said anything. The rabbi tried several times, but it was Uncle Chaim who finally said loudly, "I got to teach you to box. A little Archie Moore, a little Willie Pep, we'll take care of those mamzers." He looked ready to give me my first lesson right there.
   When the dybbuk spoke again, its voice was somehow different: quiet, slow, wondering. It said, "Boy, you would do that?" I didn't speak, but I nodded.
   Aunt Rifke said, "Your mother would kill me! She's hated me since I married Chaim."
   The dybbuk said, "Boy, if I come . . . outside, I cannot go back. Do you understand that?"
   "Yes," I said. "I understand."
   But I was shaking. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have someone living inside me, like a baby, or a tapeworm. I was fascinated by tapeworms that year. Only this would be a spirit, not an actual physical thing — that wouldn't be so bad, would it? It might even be company, in a way, almost like being a comic-book superhero and having a secret identity. I wondered whether the angel had even known the dybbuk was in her, as quiet as he had been until he spoke to Rabbi Shulevitz. Who, at the moment, was repeating over and over, "No, I can't permit this. This is wrong, this can't be allowed. No." He began to mutter prayers in Hebrew.
   Aunt Rifke was saying, "I don't care, I'm calling some people from the shul, I'm getting some people down here right away!" Uncle Chaim was gripping my shoulder so hard it hurt, but he didn't say anything. But there was really no one in the room except the dybbuk and me. When I think about it, when I remember, that's all I see.
   I remember being thirsty, terribly thirsty, because my throat and my mouth were so dry. I pulled away from Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke, and I moved past Rabbi Shulevitz, and I croaked out to the dybbuk, "Come on, then. You can come out of the angel, it's safe, it's okay." I remember thinking that it was like trying to talk a cat down out of a tree, and I almost giggled.
   I never saw him actually leave the blue angel. I don't think anyone did. He was simply standing right in front of me, tall enough that I had to look up to meet his eyes. Maybe he wasn't a thousand years old, but Aunt Rifke hadn't missed by much. It wasn't his clothes that told me — he wore a white turban that looked almost square, a dark red vest sort of thing and white trousers, under a gray robe that came all the way to the ground — it was the eyes. If blackness is the absence of light, then those were the blackest eyes I'll ever see, because there was no light in those eyes, and no smallest possibility of light ever. You couldn't call them sad: sad at least knows what joy is, and grieves at being exiled from joy. However old he really was, those eyes were a thousand years past sad.
   "Sephardi," Rabbi Shulevitz murmured. "Of course he'd be Sephardi."
   Aunt Rifke said, "You can see through him. Right through."
   In fact he seemed to come and go: near-solid one moment, cobweb and smoke the next. His face was lean and dark, and must have been a proud face once. Now it was just weary, unspeakably weary — even a ten-year-old could see that. The lines down his cheeks and around the eyes and mouth made me think of desert pictures I'd seen, where the earth gets so dry that it pulls apart, cracks and pulls away from itself. He looked like that.
   But he smiled at me. No, he smiled into me, and just as I've never seen eyes like his again, I've never seen a smile as beautiful. Maybe it couldn't reach his eyes, but it must have reached mine, because I can still see it. He said softly, "Thank you. You are a kind boy. I promise you, I will not take up much room."
   I braced myself. The only invasive procedures I'd had any experience with then were my twice-monthly allergy shots and the time our doctor had to lance an infected finger that had swollen to twice its size. Would possession be anything like that? Would it make a difference if you were sort of inviting the possession, not being ambushed and taken over, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I didn't mean to close my eyes, but I did.
   Then I heard the voice of the blue angel.
   "There is no need." It sounded like the voice I knew, but the breath in it was different — I don't know how else to put it. I could say it sounded stronger, or clearer, or maybe more musical; but it was the breath, the free breath. Or maybe that isn't right either, I can't tell you — I'm not even certain whether angels breathe, and I knew an angel once. There it is.
   "Manassa, there is no need," she said again. I turned to look at her then, when she called the dybbuk by his name, and she was smiling herself, for the first time. It wasn't like his; it was a faraway smile at something I couldn't see, but it was real, and I heard Uncle Chaim catch his breath. To no one in particular, he said, "Now she smiles. Never once, I could never once get her to smile."
   "Listen," the blue angel said. I didn't hear anything but my uncle grumbling, and Rabbi Shulevitz's continued Hebrew prayers. But the dybbuk—Manassa — lifted his head, and the endlessly black eyes widened, just a little.
   The angel said again, "Listen," and this time I did hear something, and so did everyone else. It was music, definitely music, but too faint with distance for me to make anything out of it. But Aunt Rifke, who loved more kinds of music than you'd think, put her hand to her mouth and whispered, "Oh."
   "Manassa, listen," the angel said for the third time, and the two of them looked at each other as the music grew stronger and clearer. I can't describe it properly: it wasn't harps and psalteries — whatever a psaltery is, maybe you use it singing psalms — and it wasn't a choir of soaring heavenly voices, either. It was almost a little scary, the way you feel when you hear the wild geese passing over in the autumn night. It made me think of that poem of Tennyson's, with that line about the horns of Elfland faintly blowing. We'd been studying it in school.
   "It is your welcome, Manassa," the blue angel said. "The gates are open for you. They were always open."
   But the dybbuk backed away, suddenly whimpering. "I cannot! I am afraid! They will see!"
   The angel took his hand. "They see now, as they saw you then. Come with me, I will take you there."
   The dybbuk looked around, just this side of panicking. He even tugged a bit at the blue angel's hand, but she would not let him go. Finally he sighed very deeply — lord, you could feel the dust of the tombs in that sigh, and the wind between the stars — and nodded to her. He said, "I will go with you."
   The blue angel turned to look at all of us, but mostly at Uncle Chaim. She said to him, "You are a better painter than I was a muse. And you taught me a great deal about other things than painting. I will tell Rembrandt."
   Aunt Rifke said, a little hesitantly, "I was maybe rude. I'm sorry." The angel smiled at her.
   Rabbi Shulevitz said, "Only when I saw you did I realize that I had never believed in angels."
   "Continue not to," the angel replied. "We rather prefer it, to tell you the truth. We work better that way."
   Then she and the dybbuk both looked at me, and I didn't feel even ten years old; more like four or so. I threw my arms around Aunt Rifke and buried my face in her skirt. She patted my head — at least I guess it was her, I didn't actually see her. I heard the blue angel say in Yiddish, "Sei gesund, Chaim's Duvidl. You were always courteous to me. Be well."
   I looked up in time to meet the old, old eyes of the dybbuk. He said, "In a thousand years, no one has ever offered me freely what you did." He said something else, too, but it wasn't in either Hebrew or Yiddish, and I didn't understand.
   The blue angel spread her splendid, shimmering wings one last time, filling the studio — as, for a moment, the mean winter sky outside seemed to flare with a sunset hope that could not have been. Then she and Manassa, the dybbuk, were gone, vanished instantly, which makes me think that the wings aren't really for flying. I don't know what other purpose they could serve, except they did seem somehow to enfold us all and hold us close. But maybe they're just really decorative. I'll never know now.
   Uncle Chaim blew out his breath in one long, exasperated sigh. He said to Aunt Rifke, "I never did get her right. You know that."
   I was trying to hear the music, but Aunt Rifke was busy hugging me, and kissing me all over my face, and telling me not ever, ever to do such a thing again, what was I thinking? But she smiled up at Uncle Chaim and answered him, "Well, she got you right, that's what matters." Uncle Chaim blinked at her. Aunt Rifke said, "She's probably telling Rembrandt about you right now. Maybe Vermeer, too."
   "You think so?" Uncle Chaim looked doubtful at first, but then he shrugged and began to smile himself. "Could be."
   I asked Rabbi Shulevitz, "He said something to me, the dybbuk, just at the end. I didn't understand."
   The rabbi put his arm around me. "He was speaking in old Ladino, the language of the Sephardim. He said, 'I will not forget you.'" His smile was a little shaky, and I could feel him trembling himself, with everything over. "I think you have a friend in heaven, David. Extraordinary Duvidl."
   The music was gone. We stood together in the studio, and although there were four of us, it felt as empty as the winter street beyond the window where the blue angel had posed so often. A taxi took the corner too fast, and almost hit a truck; a cloud bank was pearly with the moon's muffled light. A group of young women crossed the street, singing. I could feel everyone wanting to move away, but nobody did, and nobody spoke, until Uncle Chaim finally said, "Rabbi, you got time for a sitting tomorrow? Don't wear that suit."

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