Cow’s Tongue
By Chaim Bertman

On Elm Street in December, you expect it to rain. Close your ears, close the blinds. Do what you have to do: eat a bag of raisins, watching television in your underwear. Sometimes, one should live on the surface of things.

On a Tuesday night, it is normal that the streetlight’s orange glow past midnight shadow-box the blue glow of the television, and normal that you are an idiot wearing funny checkered pants, with a cow’s tongue, too fat for your mouth.

So, you’re a boy of thirty-five when an old man dies, and alone, so what?

A person can’t expect to live forever.

Close the lights. But leave a light on under the door, as if Grandfather was in the other room watching television, like normal.

But if you are an idiot, don’t pick up a pen. There are certain things an idiot knows, even if he has no tongue to tell much of what he feels. If you had a pen, you would say what it is like to have a heart with no brain to give it words, like a cat, or an elephant at the zoo.

Even you know that there are truly two kinds of death, and that they bend us in two different ways: your own death is a work of the brain, a question mark on either side of the soul, around the Judge of souls, Nothingness, or the Other World. But the deaths of other people, people that you love with an undiluted heart, deaths which bruise the very muscle of the archaic brain inside your ribcage, and cause salted water to pour out your eyes, only rarely do they enter this abstract mode. The latter deaths are of the Earth, and on Earth remain; and the latter deaths tend to be by far the more profound.

But an idiot doesn’t know so well how to live on the surface of things. For him, ideas of the world to come do not take root, to wash away the tears of the world of life.Last June, Zayde came into my room to tell me that his bride (whose soul rests in Eden) had died in her sleep. He broke into shivers, and lay on the floor, pounding his old gray fists on the floor, sobbing, even as the ambulance arrived. They took him away for a few weeks; and he missed his wife’s funeral. When Zayde returned, he was truly an old man. He said a soft shalom, and made me scrambled eggs and a tomato. In the kitchen, he took out a vial of pills, and sat down to talk to me. "Yosef, you can’t live forever. (May you live to a hundred and twenty!) The doctor says my brain is turning to oatmeal. Soon I’ll be in the hospital, talking to voices, waiting for the end, like an animal waits. This is the way it must be, so we’re not going to be bad and mope, right? But listen: when I begin to forget, Yosef, I want you to remind me to take these pills. I’ve gotta take one pill every day with breakfast..."

For eight months Zayde and I fought over everything. Sometimes people forget that they’re talking to an idiot. He yelled at me while we watched television.

"Ach, a regular Golem, he can’t find himself a Jewish girl?"

(By Golem, he meant idiot, plain and simple.)

Then, after his second stroke, Zayde stopped fighting. Finally, he was able to see the way I sat by the window all day long. Knowing my heart wanted to leave Brooklyn, he softly tried to talk me out of it.

"But Yosef, we have already had great kings in Israel — do we need another? What could be better for Jacob in his old age but to study quietly, and let Esau have the world?"

"But Zayde, I’m an idiot. Books flow over me like water, and I’m not even damp."

"So? An idiot also has his commentary: study, stay in Brooklyn."

"But Zayde..."

"Listen, Yosef, the Earth, as usual, is at war! Stay in Brooklyn. A tree grows here."

That said, he grew weak, he could only groan. But he refused to go to the hospital until he had lost control of all his functions and fingers.

It’s a shame the end has to be so ugly. But time remembers the good things better than the bad. Gershom came to the hospital with a few of the old guys from Beth Peniel to see Zayde one last time. Gershom put his hand on an idiot’s shoulder, and in Yiddish starkly said, "Your grandfather was a Tzaddik. Have strength, Yosef: G-d will provide..."

(By Tzaddik, he meant a righteous man.)

By the end of the week, Zayde was dead. We buried him in the ground beside his wife.

Two more Creations had been taken apart, by the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who said that they were very good, and let them live long years.

There is one thing that even an idiot knows: that the Ancient of Days puts cows and children on the Earth like toys, and at the end of the day takes them away with His fingers, and washes His hands with morning dew, with the waters of the Abyss.

And an idiot knows that the mourner mourns a low, low mourning song: Holy, Holy, Holy is the One Above the Stars, Who puts cows and good children upon the Earth.

What is so hard is an idiot remembers everything. Like how Zayde, just before he died, became exceedingly lucid. He didn’t want to die in the hospital; he told me to take him home. And the nurse pulled tubes out of his nose, and stretched him upon a stretcher. And I rode with him in the ambulance home. And he held my hand all the way, saying, "Don’t cry, little Golem, don’t cry," as we sped along through the streets of Brooklyn in the cold rain. He made me promise not to cry and not to leave Brooklyn, until I was forty, and ready, and wealthy, and healthy. Uncle Zalman would take care of me for money, if I needed it. Not knowing what else to say, he sang an idiot a children’s song, "This is the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat my father bought for two zuzay…."

Three hours later, back at home, a look came over his bearded mouth. And I pulled on my own long red beard, and asked, "So, is that the face of wisdom?"

And I went into the stairwell, and sat on the steps.

All the while, the body lay there in the other room. And when it was very late, I went inside to shut the light and go to bed. I woke up every twenty minutes throughout the night.

But you gather up the minutes of sleep that your body can gather.

What else can one do for a Tzaddik, but offer him a decent burial?

You think, you sit on the floor; and if you talk, you talk with a heavy tongue.

You keep your head down, as you hear the angel of death flap its wings beside you; and you must not look at it, even as it brushes by you, with wings of warm taut human skin, the touch of which causes death. You must not try to run, as it flaps its horrible wings over the corpse. And even an idiot knows, you must not breathe into the bottom of your lungs, when there’s so much death in the air.

We buried Zayde on Staten Island, on the twenty-seventh of December.

At that time of year in New York, evening falls before four. By the time I got to the cemetery, the Sun was going down, the Earth was coming up, and there were already a few yellow stars over the city.

It was a small funeral; only four of the old guys from Beth Peniel had come. They each said a few words about Zayde, calling him a scholar, a lion, a good Jew, a sweet person.

"Oy, vae ist mir, but he lived to be old; and a person can’t live forever."

"Oh, woe is me, this one was a Tzaddik!"

A few, cold drops of December rain came down, as the rabbi let the prayers commence. Five elderly voices recited a solemn Kaddish by the hole in the ground where Zayde lay. Although an idiot doesn’t strictly know the meaning of words, the ancient Lament wrapped around me with its kind, elderly wings: Yitgadal, v-yitkadash, v-yitromam, v-yitnasseh... My own lips moved but I couldn’t hear myself through the thick wind off the water. I felt the pain in my belly that all animals feel at the smell of dam, blood, the oldest name of both Life and Death, when Adam first gave names to all things. Then, as the old men bent, and genuflected toward the East, I watched the horizon over Manhattan. As Babylon was good to its bakers and beggars and tailors and merchants for a thousand years, the sky-scrapers of this new Babylon watched over us, like a Gargoyle perched on its egg.

Finally, at the precipice, we passed a shovel from hand to hand, and buried my grandfather.

Each of the mourners tossed a few clumps of wet dirt on the coffin.

I don’t know how many shovelfuls I dropped. But by the time the rabbi tugged the shovel away from me, the coffin was completely obscured; there was no sign of wood, beneath those round splatters of mud and pebbles and rain.

And all of New York watched over an idiot burying his grandfather.

The rabbi dropped three shovels of mud onto the pine casket, maybe four.

And we walked away like Neanderthals from the first Neanderthal burial, our hearts bloated with blood. And even an idiot knows that it’s no good to push the pain out of the heart with ideas; therefore, you don’t talk too much; therefore, you don’t pretend about the world to come. Instead, you keep your head down, as you hear the angel flap its wings beside you. You must try not to run, as it flaps its horrible wings before your eyes. And even an idiot knows, you must not breathe into the bottom of your lungs, when there’s so little laughter in the air. But can an idiot learn to live on the surface of things?

At last, Zayde was in the Earth, where he would be comforted.

We went back to the boat, to sail past the bridges, past the great mounds of humanity and concrete, into the stale air, the caustic traffic horns of a thousand souls per cubic meter, to Brooklyn. We took the slow boat back to Brooklyn, as the December rain turned to a dry white powder, and a long Winter set in over the city.

In the end, these are small things, small things in the life of a soul: can a person expect to live forever? Therefore, if you are an idiot, do not pick up a pen. There are certain things an idiot knows, even if he has no tongue, or a tongue too fat for his mouth. If you had a pen, you would say what it’s like to stand beside a stone with no soul to give it life, like an idiot at the end of days. If you had a pen, you would draw a house and an apple tree, and everybody would laugh.

Chaim Bertman is the author of a novel, Stand-Up Tragedian (ZYZZYVA 2001). His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Quanta, Trimestre and Letter X. He buys spaghetti at the 99 cent everything store so he can afford to live and write in San Francisco.
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