ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
Josef was regarded as strange by the other apartment residents in our building. He was never nagged to be a member of the apartment committee. “It doesn’t pay to antagonize Josef,” had become almost a maxim on the lips of the residents. Josef wasn’t married. Well, not in the conventional sense, that is—but I am getting ahead of my story.
Josef was a cobbler. I liked to drop into his shop in order to let him fix the soles or heels of my shoes, or to add new ones if the old ones were unsalvageable. I doted on the aromas of leather and glue in the shop, aromas which I found exhilarating. From my childhood I was drawn to cobbler shops where I would watch, fascinated, the shoemaker take out the nails held between his lips and hammer them into the sole of the shoe on his knees, or operate the sewing machine, or work a shoe on the anvil. Besides enjoying his shop, I liked Josef. True, one didn’t really “like” Josef—he was too put-offish—yet he was interesting. I am attracted to interesting people; people who are too “likeable” bore me. Sometimes Josef would catch me scrutinizing him and give me a penetrating glance in return. Other times, he seemed amused and a shadow of a smile would appear on his lips, which was something in itself, as Josef rarely smiled, let alone laughed.
Josef was also my personal physician. He was more effective, in my experience, than the health fund’s doctors, and I didn’t have to wait in line for his services. He practiced unconventional medicine—today called alternative medicine—before it became popular.
There were rumors that Josef was a healer, but nobody spoke openly of it. He did not fit the image of your kindly doctor honed in the bedside manner. He possessed sharp features in a gaunt face as seen in many men from the Atlas Mountain area of Morocco. There Josef grew up as a boy, and it was said of him that he learned his medicinal skills from his father. And from a book—the Book of Names—which was forbidden to all but certain initiates (like the Kabbalah once was). There were also whisperings that he banished demons, or employed them for his healing needs or for other purposes. Even that he was married to one!
This last rumor I heard myself from an elderly lady of Moroccan origin, whom I had helped on many occasions by carrying her cart full of purchases from the market up to her fourth floor apartment. She deigned to vouchsafe me the rumor a few weeks before she moved to a new place of residence. I wonder whether she would have told it to me had she not been aware that she was going to move, thus putting some distance between herself and Josef. I smiled when she told me that it was said that Josef was married to a demon, though I could not refrain from shaking my head in disbelief. I happened to mention what she had said, as a humorous incident, when I took a pair of shoes to Josef to be resoled.
I had expected Josef to join me in laughing at her claim—or smiling, as Josef was not given to laughing; apparently the region of the Atlas Mountains produced few stand-up comics. He simply nodded. I thought he was nodding in appreciation of the joke I had told him. But that was not the case as I discovered when I chose to add, “These grandmother stories are amusing.”
Josef fixed me with one of the most severe looks ever bestowed upon me; even more severe than the look of my grandfather that had once frozen me on the spot when, at a young age, as a special gift joke in honor of his birthday, I filled his slippers with his beloved spicy mango sauce. I hastened to ask Josef if I had said something to offend him. “No,” he said, “but Madam Boskila was not telling a grandmother story.”
I stood there open-mouthed. “You don’t mean—?!” I exclaimed.
“I was married to a female demon,” he said to me as matter-of-factly as if he had said that Maccabe Tel Aviv’s basketball team would win the league title.
I scrutinized his rough features for a sign of his pulling my leg. I found none.
“Why?” I could only ask, for lack of anything else to say. I didn’t want to continue to contradict him, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to accept what he had said.
“If you need the help of a demon, you sometimes have to marry one,” Josef answered my question.
Yes, there was some logic in that, I ruminated, at the same time wondering why one would need a demon’s help. And then I remembered the rumors that he used demons to help in his cures. I thought the best strategy on my part was to say nothing. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps Josef sensed my discomfort, or knew that I was no great talker, for without saying anything more on the subject, he handed me my resoled shoes. I took this as a sign that we had conversed sufficiently for the day.
I’m not sure that afterward Josef remembered our conversation, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
And there it would have remained but for that evening when I was invited to a Purim party. On my way to the party, as I descended the stairs dressed in my costume of Puss-in-Boots, my left boot got caught in a groove under a step which pulled off the heel. I hopped on one foot to the next entrance and up the stairs to Josef’s apartment in the hope that he would do a quick repair job. I knew he kept some tools there for minor repairs. I knocked on the door (to ring Josef’s bell seemed somehow an intrusion). Josef opened the door and a puzzled expression formed on his face; then he apparently made the connection between my attire and the fact that it was Purim.
“My boot,” I said, holding up the wounded object. Josef nodded, and then contemplated my costume with a certain interest. “Puss-in-Boots,” I explained. “Or Puss-in-One-Boot,” I added, tapping the boot that I held in one hand with the fist of my other hand. “The rascally cat from the children’s story,” I elucidated further. He continued to stare at my costume, his brow furrowed. “Something wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing is wrong, but there is something familiar about you—ah, you remind me of my wife—she is rather feline in appearance.”
What wife? I wondered. Instantly there popped into my mind the female demon he had once told me he had married. Did he mean that he was still married to her?
He apparently read my thoughts. “You want to meet her?” he asked. “She would love your costume.” I wondered if he hadn’t imbibed too much arrack—Josef liked to imbibe arrack—perhaps especially today in fidelity to the Purim injunction to drink “until one did not know the difference between a blessing of Mordecai and a curse of Haman,” let alone between Mordecai and Puss-in-Boots. He seemed to follow my thoughts without any difficulty. “My wife likes arrack, too,” he said.
“Your wife?” I asked, fearfully now.
“My wife,” he confirmed.
“Your wife,” I repeated.
“The demon,” he clarified. “I told you about her once.”
“Right,” I said, almost in a whisper. I feared my refusal to meet her, as he had suggested, might offend him, or her, or both. I had reached an age where I didn’t take chances: avoid problems, was my motto.
He offered me a chair.
I may need it, I thought.
“There’s no need to be afraid,” he said. “In fact, demons are put off by fear.”
His words didn’t reassure me.
“Perhaps a glass of arrack would help?” he said sympathetically, a rare departure from his usual hard image.
I nodded that it would.
He took the bottle of arrack which sat on the table and filled a large glass to its brim. There isn’t a host on the face of the earth more generous than a Moroccan to a guest inside his gates.
I drained the glass in one fell swoop. Immediately I felt less anxious.
“Before you meet her, I’d better remove the salt from the table,” said Josef. “Demons are deterred by salt.” He took the salt shaker away and returned with a bag of sugar, which he opened and put on the table. “Demons like sugar,” he explained.
Then he began to mumble some kind of incantation which sounded like a series of names, if unusual names. I half looked at him and half feared to look at him.
The moment he stopped murmuring the names, there appeared next to where he sat a short little woman. Despite the fact that she was only able to see over the table top, and that with difficulty, her green eyes suddenly seemed to widen and take on a gleam when they fell on the bag of sugar, or maybe it was the bottle of arrack. Or perhaps I only imagined this, as I was careful not to stare at her, lest I annoy her. One thing, however, was certain: she didn’t look like the demon queen Lilith, neither so pretty nor so threatening. And her husband was right: there was something feline in her features and even in her shape.
“My wife—Jacqueline,” Josef said matter-of-factly.
I stood up out of respect, yet I was unable to utter my name, to present myself. I simply stood there, mute and stationary as Lot’s wife after she looked back at Sodom. That she had been turned to salt may have inspired the analogy.
Josef made the introduction on my behalf, motioned for me to sit, and did the same to Jacqueline. The two of us sat down.
I half looked at her and half feared to look at her. The thought, Are you really a demon, Madam? formed in my mind.
“Yes,” she said in a kind of squeaky voice.
“That’s very nice,” I heard my voice say, though it sounded to me to lack conviction.
“I won’t harm you,” she said, apparently sensing my unease. “After all, you are a friend of my husband.”
I indeed suddenly felt most friendly toward Josef and nodded to emphasize the eternity of our friendship.
“Would you like to meet our children?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to answer.
Josef, bless him and his seed, came to my rescue. “I think he has seen enough for one day. Besides, we mustn’t cause him to be late for his Purim party.”
“Purim party!” Josef’s wife kind of squealed, and clapped her hands, or rather her paws. “Can we go, too, Husband?” she asked him, with a smile that seemed somehow familiar; for some days afterward the smile hovered in my mind until I succeeded in placing it: the smile of the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s famous story. It is doubtful that the smile of Josef’s wife inspired it, but who knows?
To his wife’s request, Josef demurred, “I’m afraid that without a costume, Jacqueline, you would stand out as too routine among all the other partygoers.”
If I said before that Josef lacked a sense of humor, I take it all back. And yet, looking back on it, I’m not sure he was joking.
Josef and I never spoke of his wife again. In his shop, I stuck to talking about shoes, or the weather, or whether Betar would finally succeed in reaching the upper half of the league’s ranking. I say that Josef never mentioned his wife (or children) again, yet sometimes a slight smile passed over his lips and I assumed he was recalling that Purim evening. The day following Purim, I got rid of the Puss-in-Boots costume. I wasn’t sure whether Jacqueline grasped that it was a costume and I didn’t want her paying me any surprise visits, cat to cat, so to speak. As much as I feared her, I feared Josef more—as quiet as he was, a man from the Atlas Mountains might not look with favor upon a visit of his wife, demon or no demon, to another man. Just to be sure, I keep a salt shaker in every room. And if I have cut down on sugar, it’s not only because of my health fund doctor’s recommendation.