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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