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Authors: Lisa Goldstein

The Red Magician

BOOK: The Red Magician
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The Red Magician

Lisa Goldstein

Erzsébet: Air-zhay-bet

Imre: Im-ray

István: Isht-vahn

Jancsi: Yahn-chi

János: Yah-nosh

Kicsi: Kit-chi

László: Las-lo

Sándor: Shahn-dor

Tibor: Tee-bor

Vörös: Vuh-ruhsh

1

In the town where Kicsi grew up there was a rabbi who could work miracles. It was a small town, and borders—Hungarian, Czech, Russian—ebbed and flowed around it like tides. Once, Kicsi remembered, she went too far from home and came to a place where the people spoke a different language. In the distance, on the horizon, stood the mountains, fat and placid as cows.

The rabbi who could work miracles was sitting in the living room talking to her parents as Kicsi came down the stairs early one morning. Outside the sun was rising slowly, its light falling on the trees and fields and the high tops of the brown and gray houses. Everything was silent, expectant, as though the town were spinning itself a tight cocoon of wool, preserving itself intact for future generations. The birds sounded muffled and far away.

“I'm sorry,” Imre, Kicsi's father, was saying, “I don't agree with you. I don't see the point. Why should you—” He broke off as Kicsi came into the room. “Good morning, Kicsi,” he said.

“Hurry and eat your breakfast,” said Sarah, Kicsi's mother. “All the others have eaten and you'll be late for school.”

“Let her stay,” said the rabbi. “This concerns her too. She will not be going to school.”

“Not going—” said Kicsi. “But why? What has happened?”

The rabbi leaned forward onto his walking stick to face her. The tips of his white beard nearly touched his knees. “You see,” he said, “I've heard that the Hebrew language is being taught there as if it were Yiddish or—or Magyar. Is this true?”

Bits of Hebrew conversation came to her. My house, your house, our house. Hello, how are you? “Yes, it is,” she said. “But we learn other things too. We learn—”

“They speak Hebrew now in Palestine, the immigrants,” said Imre. “The school is keeping up with the times.”

“Palestine,” said the rabbi. “Immigrants.” He scowled. Kicsi played nervously with a fold in her dress. “You see,” said the rabbi, “Hebrew will be spoken only when the Messiah comes and we return to the Holy Land. That is to say, when God wills it. Until then Hebrew is to be spoken only in prayer.

“You must not send your children to this school, Imre,” he went on. “They blaspheme against the Holy Name.”

Imre looked at the rabbi. He was obstinate. He had been obstinate even as a young man, when he had overheard his parents making plans for his future. “And Imre,” his father had said, “I think Imre will study to be a butcher.” The young man had been so horrified at this that he had run away from his village. Twenty years later he had a house and a printing company next door.

“I want to give my children a good Jewish education,” he said now. “Where else could I send them?”

“At the school they will learn only lies and half-truths about their traditions,” said the rabbi. “You could teach them better yourself, at home. For reading and mathematics and so forth they could go to the public school.”

“I don't agree,” said Imre. “Kicsi is thirteen, too old to be taught at home. And the rest of my children are older. They will continue to go to the school.”

The rabbi looked out the window. The only things that moved outside were shadows and chimney smoke. He raised his heavy eyebrows and turned to Imre. “I'm afraid not,” he said. “You see, I will put a curse on the school.”

Imre moved awkwardly in his chair. Sarah, watching him, felt a touch of terror at the rabbi's words. Five years ago Imre had gone to Budapest to have a delicate operation on his spine, and Sarah, fearing that he would die, had asked the rabbi to pray to God to save him. The operation had been successful, but Imre had lost the use of his left arm.

“I am telling you this,” the rabbi went on, “because you are one of the most influential people in the town. If you take your children out of the school, the rest of the townspeople will soon do the same.”

“I'm not afraid of your curses,” Imre said finally. “My children will continue to go to the school.”

“You will delay things for a while,” said the rabbi. “But the school will die all the same. Soon your children will be the only ones attending.”

He grasped his walking stick and stood up. “No need,” he said, as Imre stood to walk him to the door. “I hope you'll reconsider. Good day.” He opened the door and let himself out.

Kicsi ran to Sarah and held her. “What will happen?” she asked. “Can he kill us? What will he do?”

“Hush,” said Sarah, still badly frightened herself. “You shouldn't let the devil hear you say such things or they may come true. Everything will be all right.”

Kicsi hugged Sarah tightly. The overstuffed chair smelled of lavender and chamomile.

“Hush,” said Sarah again. “Now, go to school.”

“Cursed be the school,” said the rabbi. “And cursed be those who go there to study, and cursed be those who send their children there to study. Forty demons will dwell with them for forty days and nights, and their life will be filled with torment. And cursed be those who talk to them, and those who call on them, and those who sit at their table. Twenty demons will dwell with them for twenty days and nights, and they will have no peace.

“And thrice cursed be those who teach at the school, for they have blasphemed. From them the Holy Name has turned His face, and they are damned eternally.”

The rabbi paused. He remembered vividly the time Sarah had come to see him, her look of helplessness and the quick grateful smile she had given him when he had promised to pray for her and her husband. He felt no anger against them now. Well, perhaps Imre would change his mind. He sighed and said, “Amen.”

A few blocks away, Kicsi was working a different kind of magic. While walking home from school she had seen a nun, and she knew that if she made a wish and held the top button of her shoe until she saw a chimney sweep her wish would come true. Her arm hurt from stretching it and her legs were beginning to cramp, but she held on to the button as if it were a life raft. She wiped the hair from her face with her free hand as she looked hopefully up at the street, but she saw only a few students. Sighing, she lowered her head and looked again at her shoe, a hand-me-down from an older sister.

She was not quite sure what she had wished for. She knew it had to do with words—words that conjured up other words within her mind. Siam: silk, spices, tea, houseboats and jungles and sand under moonlight. Arabia: camels, figs, dates, leagues of desert sand, women with their faces hidden by veils of old coins. Paris, New York: fashionable dresses and silk stockings and more automobiles than she had seen in a lifetime.

Beyond the mountains, she knew, were other people, other ways of life. Her father had left his town, had escaped and made a new life; she wanted her turn. In her mind the suitcases were all packed, the good-byes all said. She was ready to leave, ready for whatever fate would send her.

She looked up again. There! It was a chimney sweep, unmistakable, covered with soot. She straightened slowly, stretched her legs, and flexed her fingers. She smiled with triumph.

That Friday at the synagogue Imre met a stranger. In a town where everyone knew everyone else the stranger stood out. He was tall, with bright red hair and beard, and his clothes—Imre did not recognize the fashion, but they were clearly not from Eastern Europe. Imre noticed the man during the services and planned to talk to him later and make him feel welcome, after he had talked for a while with the other men in the village as he had done every week for most of his life. But after the services the other men backed away when he approached them, smiling and nodding and making excuses about an early dinner. Word of the curse had spread. The school was half empty, and the parents of the children who remained were nervous and ready to change sides.

Finally only Imre and the stranger were left, standing in the shadows of the synagogue. The lamplighter made his slow way down the street, casting light against darkness.


Sholom aleichem
,” said Imre. “Where are you from?”


Aleichem sholom
,” said the stranger. “Lately? Lately I'm from Czechoslovakia.” Imre couldn't place his accent. It wasn't Czech or Slovak.

“Ah,” said Imre. “Czechoslovakia. When this town was part of Czechoslovakia, those were better times. The freedom—”

“You wouldn't recognize Czechoslovakia now,” said the stranger. “The freedom is gone now—the Germans have seen to that.”

“The Germans,” said Imre. “The Hungarian government signed a treaty with the Germans, only last year. But so far they have not acted against us.” He shrugged with his right arm, his left arm a dead weight against his side. “We are such a small village, after all, and so far from things …”

A look, almost of pain, crossed the stranger's face, but he said nothing. Sudden alarm took Imre. “Do you think—Are we in danger?” he asked.

“I think—perhaps you are,” the stranger said softly. “But perhaps not for a while. Still, if you have relatives in America”—he glanced at Imre, and Imre found himself wondering how the stranger had known about his family—“you should make plans to leave this place.”

“To—to leave?” Imre said. “To leave my village?”

“If you can,” said the stranger. “But come, my friend, let's talk of more cheerful subjects.”

“So,” said Imre, saying the first thing that came into his mind, “are you planning to stay here a while?”

“No,” said the stranger. “Only for a few days.”

“Do you have a place to stay?”

“No.”

“Then I insist you stay with us,” said Imre. “Though I should warn you—we've had a disagreement with the rabbi. And the townspeople, for the most part, have sided with him.”

“Your rabbi,” the stranger said. “They say he's a great scholar, or so I've heard.”

“He was at one time,” Imre said. “And perhaps he still is. Though I find myself disagreeing with him more and more.”

“Well, then,” said the stranger. “I would like to stay with you very much. What the rabbi thinks of you is not my concern.”

“Good, very good,” said Imre. “What is your name?”

“By my friends I am called Vörös,” said the stranger.
Vörös
means red or redhead in Hungarian.

“Very good. Let's go home.”

So, Imre thought, glancing at the tall man beside him as they set off through the evening streets, you don't want me to know your name or your business. Very well. You didn't want to know my business with the rabbi and the people of the village. You could be a political prisoner, escaped from those dogs in Germany, or you could be running guns to Palestine. Perhaps, perhaps. You could—who knows?—steal my silverware or one of my daughters, or murder me in my sleep. But I think not. I think you are an honest man, Vörös, and I think your business is your own.

The shadows were lengthening and the streets almost deserted as Imre and Vörös came home. “
Gut Shabbos
, Sarah,” said Imre. “I have brought a guest. This is Vörös.”

“Come in, come in, Vörös,” said Sarah. “Girls, one of you run and get another plate for our guest. We have company!”

Kicsi turned and saw the stranger in the doorway. Light from the house fell upon him, turning his beard and hair golden. He looked at her, and she thought that he could not be much older than Magda, the oldest sister. His skin was pale and his eyes in the light were very blue.

At dinner the girls made much of the stranger, laughing and softly teasing him about his hair. Their brother Tibor sat near Imre and watched Vörös quietly. “Where are you from?” asked Magda.

BOOK: The Red Magician
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