a short story
'Spare some parts?' the beggar asked hopefully.
The gaggle of American tourists, replenished in their khaki shorts
and Hawaiian shirts, knee-high white socks tucked comfortably into open
sandals, waddled past him without a glance.
'Enjoy your stay!' the beggar called after them. His voice, he noticed
without much surprise, was becoming distorted. He gave himself a loud
smack on the chest, causing several alley cats to jump in alarm. 'Spare
some parts? Change?' he tried again, finding to his relief that his
voice was once more, if not exactly booming, at least in the audible
-- and, more importantly, decipherable -- range.
It was no use. The Via Dolorosa was emptying fast, the approach of
the sunset -- and thus of the Shabbat -- driving people away. The Arab
traders were packing up, Chasidic Jews snatching at bargains to be had
at the end of day, ready to head home for a day of solitude. Tourists
were making their way back to hotels and hostels, scattered like warrens
in the Old City and the New, ready to put aside sightseeing for a while
and party hard at any number of bars and clubs.
He sighed, a rasping, metallic sound that grated on the ears. It was
no good. The beggar, with some difficulty, pushed himself away from
the stone wall he was leaning against and shakily stood up. It was time
His melancholy steps, not echoing so much as clanging, led him off
the main thoroughfare of the Via Crucis through dark and narrow paths
which seemed to spiral forever, a spider's web of eternal white stones.
He carried his day's earnings with him tucked carefully in an elderly
carry bag that bore the name of a long gone missionary travel agents,
somewhere in the U.S. of A. Inside it, the day's pickings made strange
keening sounds as they made contact with each other, regardless of how
slowly he was moving. Twenty Jerusalem Shekels, a good hard currency
that would be recognized by all the various city authorities, and may
well buy him a full body work in one of the more sympathetic workshops;
an old long-wave radio transistor, its electronic components dull and
brittle; a small bottle of gasoline, begged early in the morning outside
the Jaffa Gate from Sa'eed, the petrol-pump attendant who could usually
be relied on, as long as no one else was around to see; a wrench; and
a small bar of pure heaven that was Jerusalem's greatest gift, and its
curse: liquefied religion.
The beggar hurried his steps at the thought. Liquid R, Heaven Pills,
Crucifixation, Religious Nuts, God's Teardrops; labels, brand names,
street codes for what the locals called, half-jokingly, The Jerusalem
Syndrome, after the long-standing phenomenon that made visitors to the
ancient city go mad, and sometimes talk to God.
'And I said, fuck you Dr. Azminov, there ain't no positrons
in this here head!' Laughter like distant thunder halted the beggar's
steps. Distracted by the thought of a religious dose, he piloted his
way on automatic, only coming out of his reverie beyond the gates of
the Russian Compound. He looked around him. The place -- once home,
in successive order, to Russian Pilgrims, the British colonial administration
and later the Israeli police headquarters -- was now full of the din
and clatter of clumsy metal. Smoke rose from a hundred open fires, sparks
flew perpetually from antique hand-welders, the smells of gasoline and
chemical wastes permeated every corner of the vast edifice. In every
corner of the yard, in every one of the shelled-out, burned rooms of
the giant structure, Robotniks lulled, worked, bartered and fought.
'Yanks,' said the owner of the laugh. He coughed, an unpleasant, creaky
sound that shook his entire body. 'Can't stand 'em.' He turned around
and spotted the beggar, who was standing nearby. 'Moshe! Nu, miracles
never cease! The prodigal son has returned!' his cackle was the sound
of a broken record.
The beggar stood motionless, clutching his bag of earnings tighter
by his side. 'Ian'ko.' His voice rasped.
'You don't look so good, Moshe,' the large Robotnik said. 'In
fact, you look a little rusty, if you know what I mean.' Laughter
shook him again. 'Come and join us, come and join us.' He motioned expansively
with his arm, his palm a polished multiplicity of blades that stood
in bright contrast to his dull-grey body. The laughter has very suddenly
left his voice. 'I insist.'
The beggar moved cautiously to join Ian'ko and his mates. They were
standing around an open fire, Ian'ko towering over his three companions.
One of them, a compact Robotnik spray-painted in the olive and
green colours of the Israeli army, offered the beggar a small plastic
cup. 'Please,' he said. His voice was flat, lacking in discernible intonation.
The beggar sipped the purified gasoline slowly, savouring its taste,
allowing the burning liquid to rest awhile before seeping down to be
absorbed in his body.
The compact Robotnik lifted his cup. 'Biz hundert un tsvantsik, Moshe.'
'Biz hundert azoi ve tsvantsik,' the beggar answered.
They emptied their cups to the sound of Ian'ko's laughter. 'Nu, the
two of you live to a hundred! You should be so lucky.' He raised his
own cup in a mocking salute. 'L'choim.' He emptied his cup. 'So nu,
Moyshe Pupik,' his voice boomed, sharper and more defined now that he
has drank. 'What have you got for me today?'
The beggar found himself the centre of a small circle, as the other
Robotniks surrounded him. 'I certainly hope that it's worth the
price of a drink.' Ian'ko's blades flashed red in the dim glow of the
'I don't want any trouble,' the beggar said, quietly. 'Please...' But
he knew what was coming. He doubled over as the Robotnik behind him,
his body covered in a multitude of day-glo paints, grabbed a metal pipe
and smashed it into his back. He knew better than to try and rise, kept
only clutching hopelessly at his bag as the four Mafiya hit him,
over and over.
The beggar was lying on the ground, his metal body dented and bruised.
His leg was twisted on its hinges, oil leaking furtively into the muddy
ground. Ian'ko motioned for another of his underlings, who carelessly
grabbed the bag from the beggar and rummaged through it. He discarded
the wrench and the radio with a sound of disgust, kept the gasoline
bottle after an appreciative sniff, and passed the money, with a satisfied
grunt, to Ian'ko.
'So nu, Moshe,' Ian'ko said appreciatively. He seemed to contemplate
the money in his large palm. 'What do you know?' He bent down creakingly,
lowered his face to the beggar's. 'Next time, make sure you give it
to me first, OK? Then we'll have no problems. OK? I don't like to see
you get hurt. Us comrades need to stick together, after all.' His laughter
rolled over the beggar like a roaring wave. 'Shainera menchen haut me
gelicht in drert, aye Moshe? They've buried nicer looking people than
that!' He slapped the beggar's head, still laughing. 'Boss?' The small
green and olive Robotnik said. He picked up the bag discarded
by his comrade and was giving it a once over.
The Robotnik handed him a small item. 'Goddess Tits,' he said, his
inflectionless voice still conveying a note of distaste.
'Fucking beggars.' Ian'ko said. He stood up to receive the drug, and
now landed a kick at the beggar's side, creating another dent in the
metal. 'Why, Moshe, why? Why do you need this? This... sick religion.'
A kick to the knees sent more oil spraying. 'You know you were
made, you know who made you -- ' he demonstrated each point with
a kick -- 'you're a fucking product of fucking science
-- look at you, begging for spare parts in the streets from people who
made you, used you, and now can't find the heart to send you to the
scrap pile where you belong.' He threw down the little capsule where
it hit the beggar in the face and landed on the ground besides him.
'Take it, and may God be with you. Come on boytchiks, let's go.' He
started to move away, the other three Mafiya following. 'It will
rot that organic mess of yours you call a brain,' olive-and-green delivered
as a farewell.
For a long while, the beggar lay on the ground, his eyes staring at
the smoke-filled sky. It will take another week of begging, he figured,
before he could have the leg seen to, and who knew how much longer for
a full body haul. And by then, of course, Ian'ko and his friends will
be waiting again, ready to claim their protektsia money once
more. The beggar sighed, its voice coming out hollow and wheezing. He
reached for the capsule that was lying in the mud, his arm creaking
and protesting all the while, and finally managed to put it in his mouth.
Then he closed his eyes, and prayed.
© Lavie Tidhar 2005, 2006.
This story was previously published in Apex
Digest, 2005, and in French in Utopiae, 2003. It has
also appeared in Hebrew and Greek.
Lavie Tidhar's An Occupation of Angels was published
by Pendragon Press in December 2005 (ISBN: 095385986X; 90
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