Friday, Near sundown
13th Century AD, Jaffa (Tel Aviv, Israel)
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday…
Amara’s recitation of one of her favorite parts of the Ketuvim filled the confines of our humble abode. Amara, my mother, had been reciting the psalm over and over for more than an hour with my father Aaron inside the tiny space beyond the pantry that we call the living room. They had started the preparations in our home for the practice of the Shabbat, the day of worship. Later, I will join them. Not that I’m excited about praying and kneeling and all the other things that comprised worshiping. It’s a weekly tradition, so I have to be there.
You should be grateful, my son. The Shabbat is an opportunity to be thankful for the graces that we receive! It is a feast, after all! my mother would say if I showed the slightest sign of hesitating to participate. I would frown and pout my full lips, but my father would just give me ‘the look,’ and into the pantry I go to prepare the bread.
That’s exactly what happened earlier.
It’s Friday which meant all labor would cease at sundown to give way to the feast, only to resume tomorrow when the three brightest stars appear in the sky. After his work, my father gave me a long and dark glare which was his sign that I should get moving. So, against my will, I stood up from the low wooden stool and grabbed the rolling pin.
My father is a baker. As the firstborn son, well, the only son for that matter, I was tasked to continue the legacy of the Chazaklevs. Baking Challah bread. Yeah, I know. Not much of a legacy, but still.
I wiped the lentils of sweat on my forehead with the back of my arm and sighed. Kneading dough was tough work. My skinny arms and limbs tensed under the repetitive pushing of the raw bread across the kneading slab. After braiding three logs of dough together, I set the uncooked bread aside. When I was done, the heels of my palms were red.
It was hot inside the kitchen as the brick oven burned in front of me. Walking over to the side, I took a pile of firewood to feed the flames. My mother’s prayers could still be heard over the crackling of the coals. I craned my neck to look over my shoulder even though I knew I would not see my parents as a wooden panel blocked the view of the living room. Shrugging, I shifted my gaze back to what I was doing.
I stared at the fiery spectacle as I threw thick chunks of wood into the oven. The coals inside blazed red-hot, glowing with the intensity of a hundred small suns. I walked back to where I placed the rested dough and lifted the braid carefully using the wooden bread peel. I shoved the bread inside the oven, ensuring it was in the right spot to keep it from burning. Once the dough was in place, I set the peel paddle down. Going back to the kneading slab, I grabbed the rolling pin to return it to the jar where we kept our baking tools. I was about to lift the jar's lid when I heard a loud crashing noise.
I ducked and raised my arms above my head in reflex, the rolling pin still in my hand, as the western stone panel of our house burst open. Hewn rocks clattered to the floor as a huge gaping hole appeared in the wall, sending fine debris and dust to the air. Withdrawing my hands to my sides, I shifted my gaze to check what happened, but the dark cloud of minute earth particles made it difficult to see. Violent coughs rocked my lungs as I inhaled the floating billow. All of a sudden, the air smelled of rotten eggs and decaying flesh.
“Sh’muel!” my father yelled. “Are you hurt, child?” he asked over the noise of the settling rubble.
“I am unharmed, father!” I shouted back. “How is mother?” I didn’t get to hear what my father said as an insistent shrilling noise resounded through our home.
I looked to where the sound came from.
My heart pounded like drums inside my chest as I shifted my gaze to the retreating clouds of dust. I heard my mother scream an ugly noise as a shadowy figure emerged from the hole in the wall. My eyes went wide. It was not a man, nor was it an animal. I did not know what it was, but it looked sinister and hideous and wrong. It made chittering noises as it set its feet inside our house.
It had six.
Whatever the monstrosity was, it had three pairs of black, shiny legs that ended in claws.
Finally under the light of the lamp above, I saw the figure clearly. It was a scorpion. Not the regular kind of scorpion one can find along the bays of Jaffa. This scorpion was the size of a horse. Its head resembled that of a man’s, except that its mouth was lipless. Its black hide was a scaly metallic armor that gleamed under the lamp’s glow. The monster’s pincers snapped manically, and its stinger swung in the air. I was a grown man, but I screamed like a rattled little girl.
The creature seemed to hear me. The unspeakable abomination snapped its head in my direction. It tilted its man-like face to the side and shrieked at me, showing its needle-like teeth. Taking a step back, I screamed again. The monster rushed to me. Its tail whipped, and the wooden partition that divided the house fell down with a crashing noise. The creature’s six legs skittered over the rubble, and the thing crawled like a speeding nightmare. My muscles felt tense, but I forced my legs to move. I scrambled backward. Hitting my back against the wall, I realized I could retreat no further. The monster was just a step away from me when something struck it in the head.
The creature tumbled down and fell, but it got back up in a snap. I looked at what hit the monster and saw that my mother had thrown the menorah that held the candles at it. “Begone, demon!” my mother yelled. “I command you to be banished!” she shouted. “For the Angels He commanded concerning me, to guide me in all my ways. The Angels will lift me up in their hands so that I will not strike my foot against stone. I will tread on the head of the snake. I will trample the great lion and the dragon!” Amara prayed, but the thing-- the demon-- just stood and watched her with curiosity. As my mother continued with her psalm, the demon shrieked and crawled toward her.
Panic took its course all throughout my body. I watched as the giant demonic scorpion skittered to Amara and Aaron. My father grabbed my mother and shoved her behind him, shielding her with his body. Frantic, Aaron swung his head from side to side, looking for something to grab and shield himself with, but there wasn’t anything within his arm’s reach. My father shouted Heavenly names as he raised his arms to his face.
Needless to say, I was terrorized. I felt it as I wet my tunic with my own piss, but I knew I had to act. Without much thought, I ran to the demon armed with nothing but a wooden rolling pin. I screamed at the top of my lungs and leaped. My body landed on the scorpion’s shiny back. Its hard and scaly armor pressed against my skinny chest. I grunted, but I ignored the dull pain.
The scorpion demon shrieked. It thrashed its body in an attempt to get rid of me, but I held onto it like a clamp. With angry and scared shouting, I struck the demon’s head with the rolling pin over and over. It barely seemed to notice. The monster’s pincers were snapping above me, trying to reach and cut me, but I ducked. Hissing, the scorpion whipped its tail. Its stinger landed a few inches from my face. A green liquid spurted from the tip of its tail. Streams of smoke rose as the venom sizzled upon contact with the ground. I let go, and I fell on my back with a grunt. Scrambling to my feet, I stood between my parents and the ugly demon. It hissed at me, spittle frothing on its lipless mouth.
I raised the rolling pin in front of me as though it was a sword. I would have laughed at the stupidity of threatening a demon with a baking tool, but it was all I had. My heart danced between my lungs. I took a deep breath and mustered all the courage that I possessed. Planting my feet firm against the ground, I stared at the malevolent demon in front of me.
The demon’s head resembled that of a human's up close. However, it looked wrong. It had eyes. Four of them. It also had ears on the sides of its head. Two gaping holes that seemed to be the demon’s nose were at the center of its hideous and blackened face. “Come on, demon!” I taunted.
The demon seemed to smile. Its lipless mouth moved, and more of its teeth sprang outward. It retreated a few steps and leaped to the air toward my direction. It landed in front of me, its talons digging in the packed earth. One of its pincers clamped on the rolling pin, cutting it into two jagged pieces. The chopped half of the pin fell to the ground in a dull clatter, the other half still in my hand.
The demon jumped again. It pounced me square in the chest, and I fell on my back. The creature’s legs pinned me down. I could feel the monster’s weight on my body. Its clawed feet dug into my flesh, and blood spurted from my wounds.
I screamed as sharp stabbing pains flared everywhere in my body. The scorpion demon craned its head and faced me. Thick drool dripped from its mouth to my face. My skin burned and sizzled upon contact with its corrosive saliva. Another scream escaped my lips. I was scared witless, but I did not close my eyes.
A chittering noise came from the demon's throat as it seemed to laugh at me. I saw it whip its tail, the tip of its stinger gleaming with poison. In a swift movement, the scorpion demon struck. It moved so fast that I didn’t see it. I just felt it. The demon's needle plunged deep inside my chest. It was supposed to be painful, but there was no pain. My body was numb. My heart slowed down as shadows crept along the edges of my vision. This is it, I thought. I will finally meet the Maker... If there's one.
Before I succumbed to the call of darkness, I gathered what remaining strength I had. I gripped the broken piece of wood firmly in my hand. With tremendous effort, I lifted my arm and jammed the jagged piece of the rolling pin into one of the many eyes of the scorpion demon. The demon’s eye exploded into a burst of flesh and blood. My skin burned upon contact with the monster’s blood, but I was too lightheaded to care. I smiled as I heard the monster shriek an ugly ululation. When it stopped shrieking and fell on top of me, I knew it was dead.
I felt a small smile curl my lips as I realized I had killed a demon with a rolling pin. Over the demon’s putrid scent, I could smell the bread in the oven. Making bread and killing demons with baking tools -- that’s the Chazaklev legacy, I thought and closed my eyes as I lay there dying.