Black Heart – Chapter III Part IV
by Steppen Sawicki
Oh god I am really self-conscious about this section. I don’t really know much about Judaism or rabbis. I’ve taken religious studies classes, but all of the cultural stuff here is only what I’ve learned on the interwebs. If any Jewish people read this and are like WTF please let me know what I should fix.
They knocked twice before the door was answered by a slight man who seemed to be in his 30s despite sporting a head of gray hair.
“Rabbi Daniels?” Harper asked.
“Daniels, sure,” he said in a baritone. “The jury’s still out on the rabbi part.”
“Ah, well I’m Agent Harper and this is Agent Ivers with – ”
“The Office. Yes. I already unlocked the doors for you all earlier today. Come in.”
He moved aside and waved them in. Bryan’s first impression was that the man was in the middle of packing. There was sparse furniture, only the bare essentials – couch, chairs, dining and side tables. And nothing on the tables, nothing on the walls. Then he realized there were no boxes. Everything was eerily and spotlessly clean. He felt he was dirtying up the place just standing there.
“We wanted to ask you about the synagogue,” Harper said.
“You want to know what went wrong,” Daniels said, falling into an armchair.
“Well, yes.” She and Bryan sat on the couch, both of them gingerly as if not to break it.
“Where do I start?” He threw his hands in the air. “Where are my manners? You want some coffee?”
The taste of the dust still lingered on Bryan’s tongue. “Yes, please,” he said eagerly.
Daniels pulled himself out of the chair and went into the kitchen. Bryan leaned over to Harper.
“Doesn’t seem like a rabbi,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “You know many rabbis?”
“Um. No.” He felt his cheeks flush and turned away to find something to study, but only saw the empty dining table. He didn’t say anything else until Daniels came back with two mugs of coffee and a glass of iced amber.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I need something a little stronger if we’re to talk about this.”
“It’s your house,” Bryan said, taking a swig of the coffee. He wouldn’t have minded some whiskey himself. He was grateful Harper was there to ask the questions.
Harper placed her mug on the table without drinking from it. “So you knew something was happening at the synagogue?”
“Something, sure,” said Daniels. “But damned if I know what.”
“When did it start?”
“That’s just it. It didn’t start. There wasn’t a defining moment. It just grew without our noticing.” He gulped from his glass. Bryan was struck by how old he seemed, even though he couldn’t be over 35. But what happened in the past seemed to wear him down.
“But surely it was noticed eventually,” Harper pressed.
“Oh, yes, it was noticed. Well, no, not even noticed.” He sighed. “Look, when I joined Agudas Achim, I was mostly interning with Rabbi Sobol. He was old and not in the best of health. He was on his way out, but he still had a good year left in him. I was fresh out of school, excited, with a shul in the heart of a major city. Everything going for me, you know, and everything going for our synagogue. So what if there was a chill in the air in the evening. So what if there were unexplained sounds or smells or…feelings. We had a good congregation, and they really appreciated what I was doing, made me think I was doing right by them. Things were fine.”
He gulped at the glass again, wiped his lips. “Then people quit coming to night Shabbat. They were still coming in the next morning, just not the sunset service. And I would ask them why we hadn’t seen them and they would always have some excuse – the kids were sick, the car broke down, such and such. But I knew the real reason, and I felt bad for even pointing out their absence, because I felt it every Friday night when I stood at the bimah. Felt it even in the office if I was around late enough. A stifling feeling of total oppressiveness, forming there and then blown out over the city.
“Now keep in mind this was before the Office, before anyone knew much or thought anything of demons as we know them now. Back then, demons were the mythical religious demons, evil spirits working against Hashem. My thoughts at the time… Well, it might be silly. Might be vanity to think my own synagogue might carry such a weight. But I had thoughts that this immense power must be the Almighty. This was a synagogue, after all. What else would visit such a force on us?
“But if it was the Almighty, why were people refusing to show on Friday nights? Why did the same people stop coming to Saturday Shabbat as well? Why did the shul dwindle away more and more? Why did the rabbi himself decide to retire earlier than expected, leaving the place to me? Why did I not want it? Was this the power of the Almighty? The hand and beneficence of the Almighty?”
He downed the rest of the drink and gazed at the spotless carpet. “Fuck. You didn’t come to hear that.”
“But you know now,” Bryan said, “that it had nothing to do with God. It certainly has to do with demons. A great number of them. We saw it tonight.”
Daniels grinned wryly. “Damage already done, I’m afraid. What god would – hm. Never mind. You didn’t come here to debate either, I think.”
“No,” Harper said. “We’d like a time frame though. Were there any problems before you started interning at Agudas Achim?”
He shook his head. “No. Well…I don’t think so. At least I don’t like to think so.”
Harper huffed. She was clearly losing patience with his unsurety. “So when did it start?”
“It didn’t start,” Bryan said. “He already said so. But it was happening before people generally knew demons were around.”
“All right,” Harper said. “Then when did you join the synagogue?”
“Thirteen years ago,” Daniels answered.
Bryan gave a start. Harper looked at him questioningly, but he only stood and gulped down the rest of the coffee in his mug.
“Thanks for your time, Mr. Daniels,” he said.
“Thank you,” Daniels said.
Bryan blinked at him. “What for?”
“For not calling me rabbi.”
Cold rain was beginning to patter the ground as they stepped outside. Harper was studying Bryan as they walked to the car.
“What’s with you?” she asked.
He opened the car door and looked at the impeccable house, paint and plants and fence all in order. “Thirteen years ago is when I joined the Office.”