Receiving the Kingdom of Heaven
Receiving the Kingdom of Heaven
Shani wore a white scarf, a talit, draped over his head. Michael was pretty sure they weren’t headed to temple.
He was three steps behind Shani as they walked through the dark spaces between steel structures. It felt like Shani had him on a leash.
Shani wasn’t big, but he was broad-shouldered, not exceptionally broad-shouldered though. Michael was trying to figure out what made him so scary.
They stopped in front of another steel-sided building, a bit taller than the others and with the lights on inside.
Amber light streamed through a hundred square panes overhead. The windows were too high to peek through, and Michael was sure he shouldn’t in either case.
Shani turned back. His beard was like a thousand wisps of black smoke, frozen in time, and his eyes were like deep wells; Michael remembered a story his father had told him. They used to bury people in old wells once they’d run dry.
Michael noticed Shani’s lips moving before he heard his voice. His voice was sweet, higher pitched than he would have expected, and oddly like his sister’s.
It seemed at first he was speaking gibberish, because his words lacked context, and Michael was distracted by the shiny boxes in his hands. Silver, chrome like the bumpers on his Oldsmobile. Uzis. Two of them. Smaller than they looked in the movies.
Even if it was long out of fashion, Michael’s marriage had been arranged.
Nessa, Michael’s wife, was a beauty. It felt more like fate than luck.
Before they’d met, Michael’s friends had told him she looked like a gnome, and Seth had said she smelled like feet, but it was more like roses. And even if she was a little short, Michael didn’t mind. Her cheeks always dimpled when she smiled at him, and he could never help smiling back.
The last six months had been the happiest in his life. Her family wasn’t quite as pleasant.
Michael’s dad, Levi Siskin, had been running for congress, US Congress, and he’d won. Michael didn’t expect thanks, but he’d won it for him.
Nessa’s dad, Ori, was a bad man, the kind you’d see in movies and tell yourself maybe, but I don’t think so. But he was as real as death.
Michael had married Nessa, and somehow or another Ori had put his dad in congress.
Shani was still muttering something, his eyes glaring, and Michael realized he’d been staring at his grizzled face while his thoughts had wandered.
A strange flash of memory popped into Michael’s head, distracting him again. It was something he’d forgotten until that moment, the kind of thing he would have liked to stay forgotten, to be forgotten by everyone.
A week before, he’d gone to the bat mitzvah for Nessa’s little sister.
He’d been having a really bad week, even if that wasn’t an excuse. At the party afterward, one of Nessa’s cousins had spiked their wine with X-brand vodka.
He’d made a complete ass of himself, and he seemed to remember puking on somebody’s dress. He hoped it had been Nessa’s, even if that was awful in itself, but he had a growing dread it had been her little sister’s.
At the party, he’d first seen Nessa’s definitely-scary older brother, Shani. He’d been sitting at the center of a long table, straight backed, with an empty plate in front of him. The other men at the table had looked more disreputable than frightening, but Shani had seemed at once, both like an actual holy man, and like the dark place shadows creep from at night.
The cousin had told Michael he was Nessa’s brother; Michael hadn’t believed him at first. He’d told him Shani never spoke unless he was saying the Shema, and Michael hadn’t heard him speak until a moment ago.
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad,” Shani muttered again, or more like sang in a whisper.
Rather than continuing his prayer, he started over, glaring into Michael’s eyes.
By the third or fourth repetition, Michael caught his drift and joined in. It might have just been his evening prayer, but Michael had the uneasy feeling this was more a last-words-kinda-thing.
Shani finished the final verse and waited while Michael rushed to catch up.
He nodded, tapping one of the chrome Uzis against his shawl covered head, staring at Michael like there was some understanding between them.
Michael nodded back.
Shani turned to a tall door in that steel building. He drew back and kicked, planting a booted heel next to the handle.
The door swung in with a crash, and Shani charged through.
Michael started to follow, but then he heard firecrackers. Firecrackers was what his brain had told him, but his body seemed to know different. He hit the asphalt on his knees and scrabbled, setting his back against the steel wall.
There was a pause in the gunfire. He heard screaming, and then the popping resumed.
It was quiet again, and no screaming this time. He thought of running away, or crawling away, as it seemed unlikely his legs would hold him. But something seemed to pull him, dragging him toward the open door. Yellow light turned acrid gray smoke into salamander breath.
Shani was crouched on the floor. Corpses were splayed out around him like the petals of a flower. He was kneeling at a dead man’s side saying the Shema again.
Michael had thought the man was dead, but he noticed his lips moving.
They finished their prayer staring into each other’s eyes.
The man’s mouth opened, but Shani covered it with his hand. He leaned down and pressed his lips to the man’s forehead. Then he pressed the muzzle of an Uzi to the same spot and pulled the trigger.
Blood sprayed on the floor, and Michael’s stomach clenched. Bile and Denny’s-waffles hit the floor too.
By the time he’d lost most of his dinner, Shani was standing over him with the barrels of his Uzis staring him in the eyes.
“Nessa…” Michael said. “I love her a lot.”
That didn’t seem to have helped.
Shani was still staring at him. Maybe his eyes were more like the barrels of his Uzis than graves.
“I’m really sorry- about Chava’s bat mitzvah- I’ll be better from now on.”
Shani nodded. “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai…” he said, but it sounded, maybe, like he’d forgiven him.
Shani walked past, tucking the Uzis back in his coat.
By the time Michael turned to follow he was out of sight.
Shani had given him a black sack to wear over his head during the ride there. He had no idea where he was now, but he figured he’d catch a cab.
Even if they shared just about everything, if he never had to tell Nessa about that evening, it would probably be for the best.