First Edition | Prose

Fire Year

by jason k. friedman

First Edition features original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.

Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at prose@jweekly.com or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at poetry@jweekly.com. Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at jweeklylit.wordpress.com.

This excerpt is from the title story in “Fire Year,” a collection of short stories.

The town sprang up at the intersection of roads leading to the district center and to the city. It was a region of lakes, banked with soft carpets of grass in summer, covered with crystalline ice in winter. But from the start, when the king granted its charter, the town was a rude place, with a plain wooden church and an assembly hall and an alehouse around a square, with pestilential ditches and muddy lanes. The townspeople were craftsmen and merchants, they traded anything they could make or grow in the dirt behind their houses. There were Jews in this town, and the king granted them the right to work and to build their own house of worship, as long as it wasn’t as tall as the church. The Jews made a living and survived periodic slaughters and lived their lives mostly unchanged as war came and went. The area already divided into quadrants was further divided among three kingdoms, with districts and counties and even cities split in two, along natural borders like rivers and unnatural, invisible lines. But the town remained whole. The kingdom became the dukedom and then the dukedom ended, and the Jews multiplied until they were the town’s most numerous inhabitants.

Twenty years after it was built, the synagogue burned down. Seven years later a fire swept through the town and seven years after that another fire blazed. The town’s actual age continued to appear in official histories, but for the Jews the destruction of the synagogue became year zero. Even a century later the fires continued to return, and in those years the town, with its modest houses clustered around the market square, knew once again the suffering it had in the quiet years forgotten. It was a town full of numerologists, they counted things obsessively, and not just years—and to count they used letters as well as numbers, for every letter corresponded to a number, and so words of more than one letter were not just words but also sums. The number seven and the seventh letter of the alphabet, while unavoidable, could at least be used sparingly, so as not to tempt fate.

Rabbi Aryeh led no congregation and had no formal training in Talmudic studies—but he had a group of devoted students. He preemptively pointed out to his fellow numerologists, many of them his elders, that it was tempting fate not to use the letter zayin in names, and that if the Lord so blessed a family with seven sons and the mother of these sons was tired, then may she be entitled to a little rest! (At the time of this remark Reb Aryeh had only one son himself and didn’t seem to acknowledge or even notice the misfortune of having so small a family.) And so it came as a shock but not such a surprise when he did what no one in living memory had done: to his second son born in a seventh year, he gave the name Zev.

His wife, Rokhl, was delighted with this slap in the face of superstition. She understood without ever having discussed it with her husband just what his choice of name meant. She herself had fallen under suspicion two years earlier for parading her firstborn baby, Isaac, in the market square. She left his face uncovered despite his blue-eyed beauty, thereby affronting the townspeople with her lack of fear of the evil eye, a lack that seemed to stand for some greater and more threatening one that nobody, out of respect for her husband, dared even think. For her part she felt that the presence of such beauty in that rotten mouth of a town should be made known, so as to increase the general happiness; and she was proud of him. The townspeople avoided looking at the baby when they greeted her in the square—but the subject was never discussed, and so she never had to defend herself. Two years later Reb Aryeh had to defend his own affront only once, when Reb Shimon, head of a rival school and of the Society for Morality in the Young, appeared at Reb Aryeh’s schoolroom door and asked if the prohibition against using the letter zayin in the name of a male child born in a seventh year, whether this prohibition that perhaps, for who knew God’s mind, was responsible for the new synagogue never having burned again and for the town never having burned down to the ground, whether this prohibition was now declared over.

 “The new synagogue is made of stone,” Reb Aryeh pointed out, then invited Reb Shimon to come in.

They sat across the long scarred table from each other. Reb Shimon looked around. It was a rougher room than his own school, it certainly didn’t look like the site of a teaching phenomenon. He could not imagine it packed to the rafters with students, though he knew Reb Aryeh got more than his share of students, and not just from the town but from as far away as the district center, where they had their own, superior schools. But of course it had nothing to do with the room and everything to do with Reb Aryeh, whose every word his students took as holy. The new synagogue is made of stone—was this an example of Reb Aryeh’s famous wisdom?

Reb Shimon had come hoping for Reb Aryeh to admit his error or at least clarify his position, explain how much weight it was meant to carry. The entire town was waiting for guidance from this strange man. Reb Shimon had no illusions about the task at hand. For despite the town’s longstanding bias against sevens, the number was, as everyone knew, the luckiest of all. He had expected Reb Aryeh to bring this up, perhaps not even bothering to cite the Midrash: “All sevens are beloved.” Reb Aryeh might simply have moved on to the more obscure Talmudic recipe to combat tertian fever that began, “Take seven prickles from seven palm trees, seven chips from seven beams, seven nails from seven bridges . . .” Like a good chess player Reb Shimon made no move without knowing how his opponent would respond, and he had an answer prepared for each citation Reb Aryeh might bring up. But Reb Aryeh (who, despite Reb Shimon’s suspicions, was as wedded to numbers in his daily life as any of the town’s other numerologists) did not talk about numbers at all.

“The town already has a lion,” Reb Aryeh said, referring to his own name, Aryeh. “Why not a wolf as well?” he added, referring to Zev’s.

“Reb Aryeh,” Reb Shimon said. “There are reasons behind traditions. In this case, the reason is so that the town will be spared from fire.”

“But even with entire classes free of Zevs and Zaks, classes full of misnamed Josephs and Aris and Moishes, it is still God’s will that the town burn.”

“Not lately!” Reb Shimon said. “We haven’t had a fire in a seventh year in decades.”

In fact it had been nearly half a century since the seven-year cycle had been regular, the fire coming six years after its predecessor, then eight years, then seven, then five, then four, then nine.

“You see?” Reb Aryeh said. “Perhaps God has freed the number seven of its curse.”

“Reb Aryeh,” Reb Shimon said, “I do not need to remind you that even in irregular times such as these, the fire returns every seven years on average.”

“And so how is a fire in a sixth year any less terrible than a fire in a seventh?” Reb Aryeh asked impatiently.

Reb Shimon had no answer for this. Instead he asked, “Do you see the town still standing?”

 “Reb Shimon,” Reb Aryeh said, “the town burns because we make fires in our homes and most of them are made of wood and still have straw roofs. For this reason the fire will return periodically like a beggar to whom you’ve given charity once, even if we give our sons the names of fish. Don’t worry, nothing will change.”

Reb Shimon felt a little sad, as he always did when someone he knew gave up a habit, even a bad one. What next, he wondered, what next? The second synagogue had been called the new synagogue for a hundred years, Reb Shimon suddenly realized, the modern-sounding Aryeh himself having used the word “new.” But the second synagogue wasn’t new at all! If anyone other than Reb Shimon himself realized this, would they all then be obliged to start calling the synagogue something else?

 “Don’t worry,” Reb Aryeh said again, this time sounding a little worried. “The sum represented by my younger son’s name is nine, and in this regard the name could be considered safe.”

* * *

In addition to Reb Shimon’s Society for Morality in the Young, that town of three thousand Hebrew souls had a Society for the Dissemination of Russian Culture, a Society for the Dissemination of German Science, a Resettlement in the Holy Land Society, a Resettlement (Anywhere) Society, a Society for Talmud Study, a Society for Torah Study, a Society for the Study of the Prophets, a Sickbed Society, a Burial Society, an Interest-Free Loan Society, and a Society for the Dissemination of Knowledge Among the Jews. Some of these societies were homegrown; others were funded by contributions from as far away as St. Petersburg. Out of the ashes of every fire rose a new society, as villages and capitals, as Jews and non-Jews, came to the town’s aid, opening it up to money and new ideas. To the great numbers of these societies Reb Aryeh had added another one, the Society for the Prevention of Fires. It was only thirteen years old, founded in the aftermath of a fire with money from a reform-minded nobleman in a nearby village, and already the municipal decree that it had engendered was responsible for nearly two dozen brick homes. The decree banned the construction of wooden houses in the center of town. The Society raised the money and provided the manpower to fight fires and help householders rebuild. In this way the fires became less and less destructive.

Some of the townspeople worried that the brick homes were a way of taunting God, who could easily find another way to torment them as He saw fit. Perhaps even a worse way. To this Reb Aryeh said, “Nonsense. This is just being careful. On occasion,” he conceded, “it’s careful to heed a superstition, as the Sefer Hasidim states. But to believe in a superstition at the expense of your livelihood and even, God forbid, your life, this is not showing proper care for God’s creation. We must stop the fires from destroying our town.” The municipal council agreed. Rarely again was the concern raised, though as the years passed, the townspeople could not help noticing that the Society for the Prevention of Fires had not prevented any fires—they came and devoured what houses they could. And though it was commendable that the Society always seemed to have the money to help a ruined townsman rebuild with the mandated but more expensive brick, it was also suspicious, considering the numbers of houses that burned. Was there not also the possibility—the unspoken question arose—that people were burning down their own houses in order to receive one otherwise reserved for the rich? Evidently those who held such suspicions did not notice the barren places everywhere in the town center. Although nearly two dozen houses had been rebuilt in the last thirteen years, almost twice that number had been lost, many of their inhabitants having lost their lives along with their homes, many more having left that cursed town for good.

Jason K. Friedman’s debut short-story collection, “Fire Year,” will be published later this month by Sarabande Books. Friedman won the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest for “Blue,” the opening story in “Fire Year,” and his work has been anthologized in Best American Gay Fiction. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, filmmaker Jeffrey Friedman. A book-launch party will take place 7-9 p.m. Nov. 16 at Bird & Beckett Books in Glen Park. Information: www.jasonkfriedman.com