On a fine April Sunday in 1669, a crowd of citizens poured from the gates and spread out along the western wall of the Ruthenian city of Kristyrmishl. Lit by the afternoon sun, the stones, pockmarked with mementos of three recent and overlapping wars, turned a warm orange. Market women had set up stalls selling chicken, potatoes, stew with dumplings. There were also pears and marzipan on offer. Three tradesmen made a bar of a bench and served up home-made plum brandy and beer straight from the barrel. These provisions were for the common people; the gentry brought their own provender, trunks of it carried by servants, many in livery. For their comfort, Turkish rugs and silk pillows were laid over the new grass. Some even brought chairs. The wealthiest of the grandees, the sort of men who always contrive to hide jewels and gold during wars, ordered that they be placed as far as possible from the rabble. Something about the affair made them uneasy yet they did not want to miss it, despite the unruly mood of the crowd and the dubiousness of the whole business.
A monsignor and a prior stood by a copse monitoring the scene. “It’s almost a pity that nothing’s going to happen,” remarked the monsignor.
“Let’s hope the mob doesn’t tear the charlatan to pieces,” said the prior. “Like Dionysus.”
The monsignor made a face. The prior was, as usual, attempting to impress him. “The dismemberment of Dionysus marked the winter,” he explained coldly. “It had to do with pruning back the vines. But this is Eastertide, not December.”
The monsignor gestured upwards to the budding branches above them. “Resurrection.”
“Just as you say, Monsignor. I only meant. . . But what if something does happen?”
“Then we shall be obliged to request the secular arm to arrest the man. And so on.”
“Doesn’t the fool realize his danger? I mean what he’s in for whether he succeeds or fails?”
“Vanity, Father. His recent success with parlor tricks has gone to his head. Vanity.”
“And hubris,” added the prior.
A rough platform had been erected about thirty feet from the wall. Dymytrii Lemko, a lean young man with a well trimmed beard and wearing a royal blue cloak, ascended it by means of a ladder. He was followed by a boy of fifteen, the little Jewish servant he pompously referred to as his famulus.
While it was under Polish administration, Ruthenia experienced an influx of Jews and Armenians. The prosperity no less than the population of Kristyrmishl was expanded by these enterprising and grateful immigrants. They got on with one another perhaps because neither was welcomed with much warmth by the local population, but, of the two communities, the Jews were by far the more mistrusted and despised, the Armenians being at least Christians of some kind. Still, social relations in the city were stable until the Khmelnytsky uprising, the Russo-Polish War, and the Swedish invasion known simply as The Deluge. These blows came so quickly upon one another as to be virtually continuous. Kristyrmishl was besieged four times, occupied twice, partially destroyed and left to rebuild without help from a central government. In fact, the city had changed hands so often that nobody was entirely certain under whose rule it fell. One consequence was that the Church exercised unusual political influence. After the death of Archbishop Ryazanov, an anxious and not exceedingly bright cleric, the Pope appointed as the new bishop of Kristyrmishl a stern Silesian named Alardus who, less for reasons of state than out of personal conviction, stirred the people up against the Jews. The inevitable pogrom broke out on Good Friday, 1666. Two of the city’s three synagogues were razed and Torah scrolls desecrated. Nearly a hundred people were murdered and many more injured.
Among the dead were Reuben’s parents Yehuda and Malka, also his sister Brina. Their tailor shop was attacked late in the afternoon and set alight. As the three fled, they were grabbed by the mob and dispatched like cattle, with clubs and axes. Reuben ben Yehuda, twelve at the time, survived only because he had been at the study-house preparing for his bar mitzvah. Though it too was attacked, he managed to crawl out a small rear window. When order was restored the following Monday, Reuben was discovered hiding in the cellar of a bakery. As the baker did not know what to do with the orphan, he thought it best to turn the boy over to the Church.
Dmytryii Lemko’s father had the knack of buying cheap and selling dear. Before the wars, he supported his wife and four children in comfort. He himself was uninterested in luxury and amusements; he was obsessed with profit and loss and seldom left his place of business. He was an all-powerful absence in the lives of his children, a God who provided bounteously but was essentially indifferent to them. The exception was the older of his two sons, Rodyon, who had to be prepared to take over the firm. If the other children saw too little of their father, then Rodyon saw too much. As for Dmytryii, he was impulsive, egoistic, fond of books and card games; he liked pulling practical jokes, teasing his sisters, mocking his brother, and saying indecorous things at table. He was occasionally indulged by his mother and frequently punished by his father. Despite his cleverness, both regarded him as a disappointment. His father delivered his verdict on his younger son in memorable words, “You’re not even ornamental.” The boy yearned to escape Kristyrmishl.
When he turned seventeen Dymytrii managed to persuade his father to send him to the University of Krakow, an institution which had been in decline for nearly a century. Here he would, he insincerely promised, master the Law and so make himself an asset to the family.
In the middle of his second year in Krakow the wars closed the university and Dymytrii had to return to Kristyrmishl. During his time in Krakow he had seldom attended lectures, preferring to spend his nights in taverns and whorehouses, his days in the Jagiellonian Library, the university’s one unquestionable glory. The collection was deemed so precious that the books were attached to their cases with chains just long enough to reach the massive oak reading tables.
One day, while exploring the depths of the old Gothic pile, Dymytrii happened on a door whose lock had all but rusted through. It took little more than a nudge to open it and this Dymytrii did not hesitate to deliver. The door opened on a small closet with shelves holding about a dozen tomes, all unchained. Dymytrii picked one at random. The title, Cabala del Cavalla Pagaseo, meant nothing to him, but the name of the author did. It was by Giordano Bruno. These were, he realized, forbidden books. With a mixture of audacity and prudence, Dymytrii appropriated three books, Bruno’s and two others he only chose because they were slim and would be easy to smuggle past the proctors. One turned out to be an heretical Albigensian tract on dualism, the other a volume written in two languages neither of which he could understand, though he recognized that one was Hebrew.
After a perilous journey from Krakow, Dymytrii arrived home to find his father expiring and the business also on the point of death. His sisters had been hastily married off, and his mother sat by his father’s bed in a state of catatonic stupor. And what of Rodyon, the hope of the family? During what was supposed to be a truce, he had gone to deliver a consignment of Macedonian figs to a wealthy customer in Szepes and had been caught in the crossfire of a skirmish. Dymytrii inherited the moribund family firm, liquidated what remained of the stock, consigned his widowed mother to the care of one of his sisters, and took two rooms in the city’s poorest quarter. With its low taverns and eight whorehouses, the district suited him. It was much like Krakow without the lectures and the library. But he had his forbidden books.
The pogrom broke out a week after Dymytrii’s return and when he heard of the Jewish orphan nobody wanted, he went to the bishop’s palace, begged for an audience, and offered to take the boy on as his servant. To this Alardus assented with an indifferent wave of the episcopal hand and a tight smile. To him, this was the fortuitous solution of a minor problem.
“What do you mean, tricks?”
“Tricks with coins and cards, with water, iron bars, with rabbits, pigeons, keys, apples and peppers. All sorts of things.”
“Then it’s a book of magic?”
“It was forbidden for a reason.”
“Perhaps only because the people who banned it weren’t able to read it.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“Oh no, sir. These tricks aren’t magic. Just sleight-of-hand. At least the ones in Hebrew.”
Dmytryii, always mercurial, was formulating a plan. These notions always came to him in images. Already he saw himself among finely dressed people, all of them smiling, applauding, and slipping him fat velvet purses.
“What’s the other language?”
“What my people spoke in Spain. It’s sometimes called Ladino.”
“You understand this Ladino?”
“A little only, sir, very little. My grandmother sometimes spoke it.”
“What’s it say?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe just more tricks.”
“Jewish tricks, eh? From Spain? Good. Work it out, boy. That’s why I’m feeding you.”
“It’ll take some time, I think.”
“Don’t shirk. In the meantime we’ll work up the Hebrew tricks.”
“Sir, you’ll need an assistant.”
“Then I’m lucky I’ve already got one.”
That winter, with peace restored, life in Kristyrmishl gradually began to settle into something like normality. Rebuilding commenced, at least for the well off. The city fathers allocated money for reconstructing the City Hall tower but, at the insistence of the bishop, forbade the rebuilding of the destroyed synagogues. In addition, they issued new restrictions. Jews were now to be crowded into a ghetto sharply reduced in size and certain trades were forbidden to them, including goldsmithing. Business and social life both picked up; villas were refitted and places of business restored. The bishop was pleased and the wealthy were in a celebratory mood.
Dymytrii practiced until he had mastered three card tricks, then two with coins, plus an impressively complex illusion with four iron bars. Reuben translated the instructions and flattered his master’s performances even as he corrected them.
Through the influence of an acquaintance of his late father’s, Dymytrii secured an invitation to a dinner party in the home of a furrier. He promised to provide entertainment for the guests. In the days leading up to his debut his beatings of Reuben decreased in proportion to his need for reassurance. He bought some used clothes for Reuben who would serve as his assistant. The evening of the furrier’s dinner, Dymytrii was frightfully nervous, by turns whining and short-tempered. Reuben had all he could do to calm him down. “I’ll be right at your side,” he said soothingly, as if to a child.
It was all just as Dymytrii had imagined it. He basked in the delight of his audience, the ladies and gentlemen and also the children, who had been called into the parlor to watch.
Soon he was being invited to more parties, and Reuben always stood right next to him as he pulled off his illusions. Lemko pushed Reuben to teach him more Hebrew tricks. The boy translated patiently, gently correcting his master’s errors until perfect execution was achieved. It was Reuben who suggested the royal blue cloak and also the theatrical value of appearing to fail once in a while.
Dymytrii was happy yet unsatisfied. There must always be something novel, after all, something more impressive. Every day he pestered Reuben about the Ladino translation. The truth was that Reuben had completed it long before, but, for his own reasons, pretended to be making only slow progress. His intention was to wait until Lemko’s reputation, income, and self-confidence had swollen up like drowned rats.
They moved to Schalkov, a better neighborhood with neither taverns nor whores but plenty of trees and carriages. Lemko began an affair with the young wife of an elderly dealer in crystal. Before leaving for an assignation, he would deliver a few blows to Reuben to encourage him to work harder on the Ladino tricks. “Stock needs renewing,” he shouted at the boy. “A Jew ought to understand that!”
One morning Reuben woke Dymytrii, pretending great excitement.
“I’ve finished a whole chapter, sir. It’s a spell.”
“Yes and, if it works, it will astound everybody.”
Lemko was dubious. “A spell you say. Well, what is it, exactly? Some Jewish doggerel?”
“The book says it makes things disappear, sir.”
Dymytrii threw back his new eiderdown and leapt from the bed. Gaudy pictures were forming in his mind of a triumph so astonishing that it would make his name not only throughout Ruthenia but all over Europe. He pictured himself at the courts in Vienna, in Paris.
They practiced for two weeks, with time out only for sleep. Reuben wrote the spell out phonetically and solemnly informed Lemko that to work it required both celibacy and fasting. If he wished to achieve success he must consume no alcohol and eat only unleavened bread for at least two full days before pronouncing the spell; three would be even better. Reuben had invented these details himself and took spiteful pleasure in reminding Lemko of them. There was no way around it; the master must abstain. Lemko submitted to this, turned down all dinner invitations, and avoided his mistress.
They began with a rock. Reuben corrected Lemko’s pronunciation and stood close beside him as he declaimed the incantation. “Let the seen become unseen. Let this rock become a vanished dream.” On the fifth attempt they succeeded. The rock simply vanished.
Next they tried a worn out boot, then a broken chair. Reuben, to whom Dymytrii now deferred, was careful to choose only worthless objects, things the master would not want back. Because he was intoxicated by his ability to make things disappear, by dreams of the fame and the wealth that such a skill would bring him, Dymytrii neglected to ask Reuben two vital questions, which was just what the boy intended. Could the spell be reversed? And, if so, how?
That spring was especially lovely, temperate, and fruitful. It was as if the whole of nature rejoiced in peace. Seeds were sown over former battlefields; orchards bloomed and wagon traffic crowded the roads. The rebuilding of the tower was completed. As Holy Week approached, Dymytrii had bulletins printed and nailed up all over the city. These promised a grand demonstration of his abilities on the Octave of Easter, in the afternoon. The population of Kristyrmishl was encouraged to gather outside the city walls to witness an unforgettable spectacle. In accord with a suggestion from Reuben there was no mention of what the spectacle was to be. “It will raise interest and discourage scoffing,” said the boy drily.
On Easter Sunday, Bishop Alardus delivered a sermon excoriating the Jews, after which, in Frunzi Square, the guilds mounted the old passion play.
During Holy Week, Dymytrii resumed his adulterous affair and gorged himself on beef and fish, fortifying himself for the fast Reuben reminded him he would have to begin on Friday at the latest. Lemko also drank heavily and, one night, when he had fallen into a drunken sleep, Reuben paid a visit to the Jewish quarter. He climbed over the gate which, in the Venetian fashion, was locked each night. He made straight for the remaining synagogue where he roused Rabbi Yitzak and told him that the Jews had to depart the city that very week; moreover, he cautioned, in so far as they could, they must do so in secret. The sleepy rabbi listened but asked no questions. He merely mumbled a prayer for the boy’s family and yawned until Reuben approached him and whispered a Hebrew phrase in his ear. The rabbi’s eyebrows shot upward. Reuben left with a final plea, unsure whether he had convinced the rabbi.
The following night, the boy woke the priest at Saint Vartanatz’s Church so as to deliver the same message to the Armenians. Father Arshag was angry at being awakened and, while he did not strike Reuben or even threaten to turn him over to the authorities, he did curse him. With a heavy heart, Reuben begged the priest to spread the word quietly among his people then, not without compunction, he stole away into the night.
Dymytrii Lemko stood on the platform in his royal blue cloak. Reuben, close by at his side, held his transliteration of the spell which he had somewhat expanded for the occasion. Dymytrii was so nervous that, unwilling to trust his memory, he had to ask the boy for the parchment.
The crowd was noisy and some jeered, but everyone fell silent when Dymytrii turned away from them and faced the high wall. Then he began to read with a quavering voice and in a strange language.
Let the seen become unseen.
Let Kristyrmishl become a vanished dream.
Let it disappear like Purim treats,
its wicked lanes and vile streets.
Let the seen become unseen.
Nothing happened. There were jibes and the mob began to roar with laughter and disappointment. But then Reuben shouted out the phrase Dymytrii had never heard because, when they were practicing, Reuben had whispered it under his breath, just as he had to the rabbi. According to the Ladino text, the words “Bashem El Chai V’Kayyam” activated the spell. Do this in the name of the living, the enduring God.
In the blink of an eye, the city of Kristyrmishl vanished, everything and everyone in it. Where it had stood was only empty land.
The crowd stood hushed and stunned. Reuben took the opportunity to scramble down the ladder and run as fast as he could for the high road. On the way, he stopped by the beech tree under which he had concealed an old pilgrim’s knapsack. As for the forbidden book, he had burned it the day before in the courtyard at Schalkov as Dymytrii napped.
The monsignor and the prior were as dumb-struck as everybody else. Kristyrmishl was gone, truly gone. It was no illusion. Surely this was the blackest of black magic.
“Lemko will go to the stake,” said the prior.
The monsignor did not reply at once. “Then how do we get our city back?” he said at length. “Who else can restore it?”
“Ah,” said the prior. “Ah, hmm. I didn’t think of that.”
Dymytrii Lemko was sent to Szepes where he was thrown in a dungeon, repeatedly questioned and tortured, though not so as to threaten his life. “The Jews,” he groaned desperately as the screws were tightened.
“Not this time, Lemko,” growled his inquisitor. This was the monsignor himself, heir apparent to the vanished bishopric of Kristyrmishl.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction. His most recent book is The Artist Wears Rough Clothing. Another, Heiberg’s Twitch, is forthcoming.