THE INNOCENT CREATURE • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

How many angels can dance on a flake of snow?

Winter’s black-nailed hand has come early to the village. From under its beautiful white mantle it will reach deep into the wombs of wives ripening with hope; it will choke babies in their cradles.

Benyamin is walking home from shul. One of his feet has started to ache from the cold. There’s a small — a tiny — little hole in his boot and a few of those swirling flakes have already found their way in.

He moves faster, though mindful of the dignity of the hour. Raizel his wife has welcomed the Shabbos Bride and is waiting to welcome him. He’s close to his own house when he thinks he hears something.

These are not times to mind anything but one’s own business. The world is eating itself and slaking its thirst on the blood of the innocent.

Inside his boot, two angels — one bright and one dark — gnaw vigorously on either side of his anklebone.

He hesitates.

Benyamin is a man of modern sensibilities; he has short black hair and a short black beard; he looks vigorous, strong and practical. And yet — parallel to this world is that other, invisible world, full of things that beguile, that lure, that entrap, that dissuade from righteousness. There can hardly be a more foolish action in life than stepping off the known path.

His foot is throbbing terribly now; Benyamin is hungry for his bowl of hot soup and a piece of fragrant challah to dip in it; he wants only to take ease and comfort in the presence of his wife.

The sound, like mewling from a living throat, reaches him again. A favorite trick of demons.

He decides — he turns left, steps into the birch woods.

Gottenu!”

A small white goat is lying on the ground, encircled by a rising nest of snow. It’s a miracle he can discern her. She has delicate curved horns and for a mad moment Benyamin thinks she looks like a lost bride, head wreathed in orange blossoms fluttering down from the sky. She’s hardly the size of a large dog.

When he picks her up, he sees that her legs have been savagely bitten. She had defended to the last the treasure within her swollen flanks.

***

Raizel was watching for him from the parlor window and she has the door already open.

Benyamin says “I’m sorry I worried you—”

Raizel pulls him inside. “To the kitchen,” she says. “Never mind the carpet.” She follows him, moving a little heavily; she takes down the tin washtub from its nail; goes to the barn for straw.

***

The goat had been too famished to lap any water; too thirsty to nibble at a morsel.

Raizel dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and then into the goat’s mouth, over and over, until the little tongue was no longer parched. Then she fed the goat slivers of apple, slowly, patiently, bit by bit.

The goat had ankles as delicate as a child’s and exquisite little pointed hooves. “Like little pink ballet shoes,” Raizel had said, smiling through tears as she washed its wounds and bandaged them with strips of clean sacking.

Benyamin had brought his bowl and the platter of challah from the parlor. He sat at the kitchen table, dunking a piece of bread into the bowl of soup, taking a bite, leaning to give the other mouthful to his wife as she sat on a stool near his feet, tending to the goat.

“Gut Shabbos, froy,” he had said.

“Gut Shabbos, man,” she had answered. “And this guest you have brought with you, heymishe bashefenish — poor little innocent creature — in the name of the Almighty she is most welcome!”

***

Raizel had set a pail of water for the goat and a handful of scraps from what would go to the chickens in the morning. Then she and Benyamin sat together in the parlor, everything late and done a little out of order this one time, but Benyamin thought no man’s Shabbos table could have more satisfied the soul than this, this night.

They went early to bed.

***

Saphireh the cat was greatly interested in Benyamin’s boots, drying next to the back door.

The dark angel, lacking in patience and utterly deficient in cunning, took on the appearance of a spider and swung down to the floor on a bootlace.

Saphireh bit it in half — crunching twice for certainty — and swallowed it. She flicked her tail disdainfully; she washed her face with meticulous care; she settled comfortably into her own basket and purred with satisfaction.

The oven fire shifted. Sparks rose, twirling in the updraft of heated air.

The bright angel, restored to its aspect of a being of light, waited patiently.

In the darkest hour of the night came a knock on the kitchen door. Only two inside heard it.

“You are not welcome!” hissed Saphireh. She knew who it was.

“You cannot keep me out,” said the Angel of Death. “What I come for I must take. I have been sent for the mother with her unborn child, sleeping in this house. You must let me in.

“Which mother?” asked the bright angel. “This one? Or that one?”

For the bright angel had filled the house with light as the Angel of Death approached and blinded it to the presence of a guest.

It’s almost unheard of that the Angel of Death should be baffled in his mission, but now and again it happens. He had no answer.

***

Raizel, up early after a restless sleep, came down into the kitchen to make a glass of tea, and saw the little goat standing, her eyes bright and the brush of her tail quivering with joy, and beside her, Saphireh purring.


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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 average 3.8 stars • 46 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Good to see you back, Sarah. I enjoyed this piece. To me it read like a crossover between magical realism and horror – quite unique in my experience. I did feel that you should have kept it in the present tense all the way through. The latter two sections lost the crispness of the first part. Since I can’t give three and a half stars, I’ll round up.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I was really glad, Paul, to be greeted first by you,. It wasn't a conscious intention--but after I wrote the first few beginning paragraphs--before Benyamin steps off the path--they took on the emotional feel to me of being in a sort of snowglobe--that this was a moment caught in time, almost independent of the rest of the story; that his actions later are within an ordinary narrative of time, but in an almost metaphysical sense, he will always be in that beginning, just before making a vital choice. And as that feeling got stronger for me, it seemed necessary to emphasize that with the change in tense. I also felt the softening of the mood by doing that, and that readers might possibly dislike that.
  • Barely needed to look for the name of the author – always meticulously crafted.

  • Carl Steiger

    Oh, yay! Great to see EDF back in action, and great to see Sarah again too! As Suzanne already noted, there’s no doubt who the author might be.

    A question for all: I made use of a handy on-line Yiddish dictionary, but it was pretty clear from the context what the meanings were of the phrases sprinkled in here. But is there a stylistic rule governing the use of foreign phrases? It certainly added a richness here, but I expect the characters would really conduct their entire conversations in Yiddish, as translated for the English-speaking reader.

    • You're probably right, but for me that sprinkling of words gave me the cultural context I needed and generated a voice in my head to go with it. A wholly spurious one, I'm sure, but it did the job and no one has to know :)
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        Suzanne: I think as long as the reader believes she or he is hearing a voice that sounds authentic--not necessarily perfectly accurate, but believable in context--then the writer has succeeded in making the characters live. It's a tightrope for the writer and for me as a reader, it's often the crucial element--if I'm not able to believe in the voice, for whatever reason, I can't get properly into the story.
    • MPmcgurty
      Hi, Carl. I still don't know what a couple of the words mean, but I agree with Suzanne that their presence enhances the voice. A stylistic rule? I don't know of one. It seems to me that I've read other works where authors are adept at deciding whether to let the reader understand within context or they need to follow it with the translation. Sarah is quite good at it.
      • Carl Steiger
        I definitely agree, it enhances the voice. But my left brain just had to ask the question.
    • J.C. Towler
      The guide I've always found helpful is that if the word or meaning can be discerned from the context of the sentence/situation, then it usually works for the reader.
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        Carl and MP and J.C.: For me an essential part of the decision where and how to use foreign words and phrases is the texture of the words themselves, the syllables that either establish or keep the rhythm of a sentence, or disrupt the flow. For example "shul" is a small, intimate word, but "synagogue" feels like an out-of-place mouthful in that first scene, and much too formal. When Benyamin and Raizel greet each other, I wanted a powerful feeling of intimacy between them, of really tender speech, and I felt that for them to address each other as "wife" and "husband" would make them sound like characters in a Grimm's fairy tale and not like two living people, finally having time to pause from their emergency mission, to belatedly give the most important greeting of the week for people such as they, in that place and time where a haven of peace was so fragile and so precious. But then Raizel has a big awkward mouthful to express, and I felt that was OK because you don't welcome a guest intimately, but with a sort of formal embrace. This was sort of micro-mood-management...
    • Vicki Doronina
      I think that the number of cultural references in "Dreidel of Dread" is just right, but too many in this story, rather like too much spices in rugelach.
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "I expect the characters would really conduct their entire conversations in Yiddish..." Yes--this is always an essential problem for me to overcome as writer or reader. In the end I just go by what feels right in my head, even if that defies a sense of consistency, or even logic. I have to make myself believe in my own characters first. This story went through a complete re-write after being declined a couple of years ago, and when I went back to it, I had the awful feeling that parts of it sounded like an episode of (the original) "The Goldbergs," or something. But I wanted this very strongly flavored of its place and time, plus the element of menace which is not usually perceived in a Yiddish accent. So it was very tricky.
  • MPmcgurty

    I like this very much. I always enjoy the lyrical lushness and use of cultural language in Sarah’s stories. Sometimes her writing plays at the edge of being enigmatic, and I wonder if that throws readers, especially at the beginning of a tale.

    Welcome back, Sarah.

    I’m not sure how we alert editors to typos now, but in the second to last section the cat’s name is spelled two different ways.

    • Camille Gooderham Campbell
      I've fixed the typo in the cat's name, thank you. Our contact us page should be working just fine, for typo reports and anything else (please let me know if it's giving you trouble).
      • MPmcgurty
        For goodness' sake, I completely missed the top menu. Sorry.
        • Camille Gooderham Campbell
          Not your fault; it is a bit more subtle now than it used to be. There are even drop-down menus for sub-pages below the main links... I'm not sure how obvious that is.
  • J.C. Towler

    Oh my goodness your words have been missed. This was wonderful. Thank you.

  • S Conroy

    Lovely to see you and your writing voice back, Sahrah. Enjoyed the read a lot and was specially pleased that the goat was a hero rather than representing something devilish.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Really glad to be welcomed back so warmly, S. Conroy. The germ of the story was inspired by an explanation of the meaning behind the (then) newly-chosen logo for The Yiddish Book Center. There's an old Yiddish song about a little white goat sleeping beneath a child's cradle, and the Center explained that it was not such a fanciful idea--that in the worst of East European winters a village family was indeed very likely to bring a goat inside, into the warmth, and they translated the idiom to describe domestic goats as "innocent creature." My own Yiddish is less than what many NY Italians know, despite being the child of people born into Yiddish-speaking families (my parents used it when they didn't want the kids to understand...)--but anyway, the adjective they used as "innocent" is really closer in meaning to "homelike, familiar" etc. The unspoken meaning is really "a creature like us, helpless against the forces of the world, just trying to survive and raise its children as best it can, as any of us do." And I found that so moving--especially since I have a real weak spot for goats...
      • S Conroy
        Very interesting. Thanks for that. (My parents spelled out the words, so that even before we children could read, we knew exactly what BED stood for.)
  • Good story. In my opinion, Yiddish words certainly added to the atmosphere.

  • Vicki Doronina

    If the second mother was the goat, why was it alive?
    Also, carpets in a poor house are unlikely

    • J.C. Towler
      Respectfully, I don't see where the story alludes to the family's poverty and it is fairly clear from the ending that the Angel of Death was " baffled in his mission" (ie. thwarted). When the Angel of Death has no answer for the Bright Angel as to the question of which mother to take, to me that means he takes neither.
      • Vicki Doronina
        "There’s a small — a tiny — little hole in his boot and a few of those swirling flakes have already found their way in". Good point on taking neither because of the bafflement.
    • I took the carpet reference to mean rug. I can envision several strewn over rough floors of a rural cottage.
    • MPmcgurty
      When I read "carpet" I visualized a smaller area rug, perhaps because I felt I was in an older time.
  • My first reaction to this story was, what is the intended audience? As a nearly 70-year old, often curmudgeonly, Southern-raised, active reader and writer I had great difficulty becoming involved with the story.

    If I allowed myself to become a youngster around 6 years of age, I could imagine myself sitting in my mother’s or grandmother’s lap and having this read to me from an oversize book with large type and colorful illustrations. I could also see me reading this to a grandchild with my voice in storyteller mode. This said, in spite of the story being written in a style that might possibly be beyond the comprehension of a child that age.

    Unfortunately, all we (I) have to go on is that this is in the category of fantasy.

    In a story featuring an Angel of Death and a dark angel in conflict with the bright angel, I longed to be drawn into the conflict between evil and good. I was able to envision the pastoral setting of the cottage and the characters.

    I was confused on the entrance of the dark angel – who is introduced rather matter-of-factly, out of the blue (unless I missed something). Then, after its demise by the cat, we now have the Angel of Death trying to gain entrance.

    i am unable to star-vote on this story. Sarah’s writing is nearly impeccable. Her style is unique. And, in spite of my criticism, I remain her biggest fan.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Jeff: As I revised this one, I really wanted to infuse it with a strong sense of marital eroticism, but there was no natural place to--uh--enlarge upon that. So I hoped that the scene in the kitchen would be very intimate for the reader, and that the couple going "early to bed" would underline that, and that atmosphere would lift it past a tale only for children. It's the writer's failure if the reader doesn't feel that. The struggle between good and evil took place on the path, with the two angels struggling to influence Benyamin's choice--to just go home, or to investigate a potentially very dangerous, unknown situation.
  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    I’m really glad to be back. EDF is unique, and there’s nothing that can compare to this particular forum of readers and the liveliness of the discussion. I’ve said before that the editorial feedback is like a hyper-warp-speed MFA course, all given for free, and between that and the opportunity for readers to vigorously weigh in, there is no more valuable experience for authors anywhere, at any price. It’s just not possible to grow as a writer if you don’t welcome this gauntlet. I’ve missed all of you.

  • Chris Antenen

    Lovely, Sarah.

    The walk through the woods and the temptation he answers gives Benyamin some urgency. Then the word ‘gentle’ comes to my mind. Everything is infused with it, angels dancing on a snowflake, the goat’s feet ‘like little pink ballet shoes,’ the soaked bread Benyamin gives to his wife.

    I know there were sharper parts, but the overall picture was soft, quiet–a sparkling winter night–one where it’s impossible to tell the source of light. Does it come from stars shining on snow? I can close my eyes and feel it around me because I’ve been there. And I’ve made the transition from the cold outside to the warmth within. You captured it beautifully.

    I was lost at the angels residing in Benyamin’s boots, and it didn’t seem necessary for the story. Am I missing some reference? To me, angels just appear out of nowhere, bad or good, because I’ve had one or the other on my shoulder a time or two!

    Being a cat lover, I especially liked the part Saphireh played when the dark angel changed itself into a spider. Crunch! And behold! The scene now belongs to the bright angel.

    Wonderful winter story and the Yiddish words added much, even though I don’t know what any of them mean. Easy five.

    Welcome back Sarah and EDF! Missed both of you.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Chris: I'm grateful to have been given the privilege to submit this story. I had to do an almost total rewrite of a previously-rightfully rejected version, And I had one of the worst writer's nightmares to deal with--a number of fabulous images that did nothing to further the plot. In earlier versions, I used the mystical tradition of the two angels--one good and one bad--accompanying men home from Sabbath eve services. That left the beginning--with the snowflakes getting into Benyamin's boot--a lovely lyrical purposeless passage... And once the angels got into his boot, I had a new opening line that played on the traditional question. But I still had no conflict after the initial one. Yeah, great, they wrestle with him and he makes the right choice. Then what? It took a lot of sweating over this one until I was able to connect all parts of this story to that beginning. I missed you too.
  • Nice story. Great prose – put me right there.

  • Michael Stang

    Am late coming to the party. When I saw Sarah’s name on the email my heart stuttered and I got the good old feeling of EDF all over again. Congratulations for being the literary strength we all knew you to be.
    As far as Sarah’s story it’s been through enough already. I was star gazing to be reading (after all this time) something, anything again by Akhtar

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Michael--this is the second December in a row that you've given me the best gift any writer could hope for.