All the Wonder in the World
by Lavie Tidhar
It began, the way these things usually do, with a rain of frogs.
The frogs made a sound like wet pebbles as they hit the old copper roof of his shack; Ibrahim the alte-zachen man sat outside in the shade of the fig tree and watched out over Haifa’s harbour.
The secular press reported the phenomenon as natural, but did not forget to quote the Rabbis and the Safed Kabbalists who both pronounced it an Act of God. As usual, both sides were wrong: Ibrahim recognised the signs the night before when the frogs first began falling from the skies. And he recognised the wild scent that blew on the sea breeze inland and suffused the air over the city; it had the tang of salt and an ancient wildness only a few remaining might have recognised.
Ibrahim had sent Noah the blind beggar to sit in the harbour and watch the ships come in. Noah was perhaps slow, at times, but his missing left eye had been replaced – how long ago or by whom even Ibrahim didn’t know – by a stone of amethyst, enabling him to sometimes see further than others.
The alte-zachen man sat in the small junkyard high on the slopes of Mount Carmel, amidst the unwanted and discarded property of the people of Haifa that he collected six days a week on his cart.
He watched the sea. He looked out for the seed to come floating, invisible, from the depths of the Mediterranean. His suspicion of what was to come was confirmed earlier that morning, when Ibrahim opened the tap in the yard and watched a rusty, red liquid trickle from it. Not blood, exactly, and not yet – but all the signs pointed to one unavoidable answer.
The plague reached the city of Haifa in the hours of the early evening; the sun had only just begun to set and a burgundy haze lit up the skies like a wound. It appeared as a ship that made no sound, that gathered the darkness about it like a cloak.
“A Phoenician ship,” Noah said and shook his head as if to deny the very idea. “Amongst all those great big iron vessels, a Phoenician ship!”
“Describe it,” Ibrahim said. He had felt the taut pressure in his body building all day, expecting Noah’s return, expecting confirmation of what he already knew. And he said again, almost in hunger, ‘describe it to me.’
The words spilled from the beggar’s mouth like a flood of frogs. “A ship, nu, a ship with ten pairs of oars, a cedar ship with sails of gossamer, a ship of light and darkness…” he trailed away, his blind face turned up towards the sun as if worshipping it.
“Who else saw it?” Ibrahim said, feeling the edge of his words slip away from him even before he saw Noah’s startled reaction.
“No one. Just… just me.”
The beggar lifted his face to the sun again, and Ibrahim knew he would not extract anything more out of him. Not today.
“Here,” he said, and put into the beggar’s outstretched hand a number of the small, white pills Noah liked. Noah felt them with the edges of his fingers and put one in his mouth. “Crucifixation,” he sighed, then turned his back to the alte-zachen man and walked out of the yard.
Ibrahim breathed in the air of the city and tasted change on the wind.
Old powers, of which he was the only one remaining in animation, were nevertheless waking in one final bid for dominance, in one final desperate attempt to bring change, to bring back old wonders. He wondered who it would be, Mot, Leviathan, Lilith…
But he had already tasted the scent of a woman on the breeze, and he sipped arak all through the night and thought about old loves and old arguments.
The plague hit the city with the setting of the sun and lasted seven days. It began with the appearance of green shoots, poking out of pavement and stone and breaking through asphalt. On the second day dark clouds massed over the sea and attacked the city in a downpour. On the third day the shoots grew, supernaturally-quick out of the ground, and formed wide nameless trees and giant flowers whose petals littered the street like a cloud of torn, colourful notes. Strange lights appeared on the fourth day, dancing and ebbing in the streets, and on the evening of the fifth day two moons appeared in the skies like watchful eyes. On the sixth day the city was covered in new forms of life, in fat flying lizards and talking butterflies, and the fishermen complained that the fish jumped out of the water and laughed at them with strangely-human sounds. Glowing snakes warmed themselves on the pavements and wrapped around the feet of the few passers-by.
On the seventh day Ibrahim knew he had to act, or lose the city he had made his home.
Ibrahim abandoned his yard and went out into the city. In the harbour the ships were covered in wet vegetation that seemed a trap; and the head of a giant octopus rose from the water and stared at him for a long while. On Ibn Gvirol St. the butterflies flew and sang in high voices and an incomprehensible tongue. When they noticed him a great shout rose from them and they scattered high into the skies, a patchwork umbrella opening.
Ibrahim followed the scent and the scent led him; and at last, he arrived at the doors of the old department store, Ha’mashbir La’tzarchan. Twisted cars lay broken on their backs in the street, vines growing from their insides, so that they seemed to him a row of pots along a windowsill.
He hesitated before entering the Mashbir: the darkness both called to him and repelled him. When he entered at last his footsteps echoed in the dark hall and the wild scent of the plague mixed with the stench of broken perfume bottles.
The escalators, of course, did not work, and Ibrahim climbed heavily up the stairs, his hand brushing the wall, looking for signs.
On the first floor crusaders ignored him while fighting Saracens; the two ghostly armies clashed in silence, weapons made rusty and dumb. On the second floor the Fathers of the First Aliyah argued without sound, and on the third floor young IDF men in uniforms and haircuts from the sixties lay pointlessly in wait for unseen enemies. Finally, on the sixth and final floor, between piles of scattered cooking pots and the faded scent of old burekas baking, Ibrahim met her.
The Phoenician ship floated on a carpet of darkness in the middle of the hall, its sails taut in an invisible wind. Dark oars moved soundlessly on its sides.
She stood on the prow and looked down at him. She looked like she had always looked, the way he had always remembered her down all the long and empty years. He said her name. Then she was standing opposite him.
“I expected you sooner.”
He opened his mouth to say her name and she silenced him, pressing her finger to his lips. He tasted salt on her skin and his old heart beat faster, loud in his ears.
“Aren’t you happy to see me?”
All arguments fled from his mind as he looked into her face. No longer young, but still she was beautiful, the way she always remained in his mind. He made a vague gesture with his hand, coughed.
“There are people…” he said.
“There will always be more,” she said. She moved closer to him, and he felt her breath, the same smell of unbridled growth. She reached for him, grasping the back of his head with her hand. Her fingers dug into the soft flesh just above his neck. Her head moved closer. He felt, for just a tiny moment, young again.
She kissed him.
He pulled away, at last, and held her far from him. His mouth tasted of an ancient wine.
“You no longer exist.”
She laughed. “Don’t I feel real?”
He said, “The deaths you cause will be real.”
She read the desire in his eyes, and reached for him again. Ibrahim, with an effort made painful by recall, held her away.
“Please. Go back. Sleep.”
Her face twisted, as sudden as a heart attack. Anger made her beautiful. “While you stay here, old and decrepit and alive, to make the world mundane? People need something to believe in. Who better than old gods?”
“No,” he said. Already she was giving up, the spark of vivacity fading. She was but a shade, and he was weak and old. He longed to join her, suddenly and with painful clarity. He thought about the others, Mot, Leviathan, and with an effort said, “People need a chance to believe in themselves.”
She was giving him this present, he thought. She had roused herself from the deep chambers of the sea, a shade of her, to come and give him this odd choice. To give up a love, or give up a world.
She was no longer before him. Faintly he saw her silhouetted against the sails and then she was gone, back to the ship growing smaller as it sailed into the dark; and Ibrahim stood motionless and watched her go for the final time.
The secular press claimed an enemy attack had inserted a dangerous payload of drugs into the urban water-works, but did not forget to quote the Rabbis and the Kabbalists, who insisted this was the first stage of the coming of the Messiah. As usual, both sides were wrong; and Ibrahim sat by the fig tree and looked over the calm Mediterranean Sea and thought about the woman he loved, who had left him lonely and alone, the last guardian of a world from which all wonder has fled.
Israeli-born writer Lavie Tidhar has been called an ’emerging master’ by Locus magazine, and has quickly established a name for himself as a short fiction writer of some note. He has traveled widely, living variously in South Africa, the UK, Asia and the remote island-nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, and his work exhibits a strong sense of place and an engagement with the literary Other in all its forms. Here is his Amazon book page. (Years ago he withdrew this story for inclusion in a print anthology, and we are pleased to have it back in our archives! – Ed)
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