Ardor in and out of the Catacombs by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

During the hours of the sun, she worked behind the counter and among the shelves. Only the sun never reached her or her charges who had to be safeguarded from the devastation of its rays. If she’d been permitted, she would have worn a hat with an awning of a brim, not to shield her pallor from that orb aforementioned, not to be fashionable, not to make a statement of some kind, but to deflect attention: the side-eyed scorn, the glowers. If only I could be invisible, she thought. She understood what a visitor—an interloper—was really asking: the goal behind the question, the Eden vibrating beneath the paltry articulated. It was there, waiting to be excavated, she would tell her interns.

But she herself was happiest when she was away from the questions, far from the oily hands grasping for, groping those pages. From the eyes. Even with the many regulations, she feared for her charges’ safety, for their longevity. She was happiest in the frigid, windowless catacombs, where she could whisper and hum and listen and coax documents into protective coverings that would ensure their enduring beyond her. The crackle of envelopes, folders, and boxes, seemingly so banal, could never diminish the splendor of her slog. Of that she was certain.

She understood systems of knowledge organization: where to place things and why.

Without proper placement, an item is gone to the generations. The key to ending disease or genocide might be lost—a mile of a folder or box away—or at least until randomly uncovered by an underling, a youngster hadn’t quite absorbed the scope and urgency of her doctrine, who perhaps had been solving a calculus problem or thinking about the best pizza in town, or cheerleader practice, or why Jimmy still hadn’t called while she was expounding—compellingly she had hoped—on those very systems of knowledge organization. She thought she had an unfailing eye for discerning talent, kindred spirits. Only her eye was not infallible. Even she, anchored in the shrewdness of her ministration, could be misled.

Yet, for all her rigor during the hours of the sun, night was her milieu. For it was then that she took to her desk, where words of pleasure and cleaving came to her. She wrote freely, without anxiety, or consideration of condemnation. Here were contained images of the body, of bodies linking, some might say fornicating, in delight. Bodies of all shapes and sizes and colors. There was no angst or uncertainty or inadequacy. With her words, she had solved the flesh-spirit dilemma. Or rather skirted it altogether. They were one, her delicate, fiery constellations maintained. Here was the unification, the love, that the philosophers and poets had been seeking all this time.

And her writings did find their way into the world. Yes, she did receive messages of admiration, adulation even, for she always wrote under her birth name. And so she was known, or rather, not at all known. For none could understand how such texts could have emerged from her, from such a…here, they resorted to animal comparisons—mouse-, frog-, horse-like—creature. How could her configuration of words, with their texture and carnality and specificity of experience, arise from someone who seemingly had none. Really, the audacity! How indeed, they wondered, as they whispered in the marketplace (prodding the cantaloupe) and tut-tutted at her latest offering, now well-worn, almost threadbare, as it was, after all, too delicious, too terrible, not to be shared.

And thus, the mystery of her remained, for no one could bring themselves to ask her. They didn’t dare. It wouldn’t be right to the poor thing. And perhaps, too, they preferred not to know. As it is said: Some things are best left unsaid. Yet when they glimpsed her departing the temple of learning, when they beheld her lack of response to the carpenter’s “Good morning,” when they decided not to tell her that it wouldn’t hurt her to smile or say “Good morning” back now, would it, when they found their usual pity for her strangely misplaced, or even absent altogether, they couldn’t help but marvel at her devotion to a life of the mind and of the flesh, for her elegant insistence on their inseparability. Fleetingly, they imagined that only she had the answer to the essential riddle of existence, that only she truly understood (they weren’t exactly sure of what), that she must be a witch or a prophetess or, at the very least, a high priestess of the night. And they decided that it was time to get ready for dinner. Yes, it was high time. And as they served the brisket and string beans and mashed potatoes laced with garlic, they wondered what she was ingesting, what fleshly delights she was conjuring and when they would get to devour them. And, too, whether the moon would soon illuminate her pale figure beneath a garret skylight as she slipped beneath the heirloom quilt and into the embrace of the silver nocturne.

Picture of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is a poet, writer, and translator of Yiddish literature. He is the author of two books of fiction and six volumes of poetry, including A Mouse Among Tottering Skyscrapers: Selected Yiddish Poems (2017). His recent translations from the Yiddish include Dineh: An Autobiographical Novel (2022) by Ida Maze and Blessed Hands: Stories (2023) by Frume Halpern. Please visit his website. Taub lives in Washington, D.C.

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