Dad’s friend Nitzan says the messiah will be come in five years. We’re sitting around the dinner table at their place. It’s high on the hill, overlooking the sprawl of light that is Johannesburg. Their maid is making the main course in the kitchen. Nitzan makes us all put on yarmulkes and blesses the food. “The messiah is nigh,” he says.
“Like a horse?” my brother says. Nitzan says, “What?”
“Nigh,” my brother says. “Like a horse.”
“Neigh,” Nitzan says. “And you —” and here he points his finger at the table, going from person to person until the pointing finger comes to me—“you should be prepared.”
“What do you mean?” I say. To show I’m not nervous I take a sip of the soup. It’s too sweet.
Nitzan says, “When moshiach comes—” he likes to slip Yiddish into his conversation, even though he doesn’t actually speak it—“each and every one of us will be seen by God. We shall be evaluated. You can’t hide secrets from God,” he says, still looking at me.
When I put down the spoon it hits the plate and makes a noise. Nitzan smiles, like he knows something I don’t.
“You must follow the mitzvahs,” he says.
At that moment their maid appears from the kitchen and serves us the main course of the meal.
There are 613 mitzvahs a Jew must follow, plus 7 rabbinic commandments. There are 365 negative commandments (thou shalt not…)—one for every day of the year—and 248 positive commandments (thou shall…).
They include Number 26, which is not to blaspheme, and Number 33, to burn a city that has turned to idol worship. There is Number 43: not to listen to a false prophet, and Number 45: not to be afraid of killing the false prophet. Some of them are easy: Number 163 says, not to let Moabite and Ammonite males marry into the Jewish people, and there aren’t any Moabites or Ammonites any more. 165 is easy too: not to refrain from marrying a third generation Edomite convert. There are no Edomites any more, even if you wanted to refrain from marrying one. There are a lot of mitzvahs for resting: 96 (rest on the first day of Passover), 100 (rest on Shavuot), 102 (rest on Rosh Hashana), 104 (rest on Sukkot). 186 (not to eat worms found in fruit on the ground) is fairly easy. Same for 192 (not to eat blood).
A lot are to do with the temple, and there hasn’t been a temple in two thousand years, so I guess they’re not applicable. Therefore, I am not in danger of 347: not to burn honey or yeast on the altar, plus I think only Cohens and Levis can work in the temple anyway. I’m exempt from 454: observe the laws of menstrual impurity, or at least I think I am. 290 is also sort of easy: to blow the Shofar on the tenth of Tishrei to free the slaves. I guess we don’t have to do that any more since we have no slaves to free, only maids.
On the drive back I ask my dad if it is true, if the messiah really is coming. My mother sighs. My dad says, “He has already come.”
This contradicts Nitzan, and I’m taken aback a little, because in our house Nitzan is generally considered something of an authority on things.
“He was a rabbi in New York,” my dad says. “That is in America.”
“Why do you say was?” I say.
“The rebbe,” my dad says—like Nitzan, he likes to work a bit of Yiddish in when he can—“or rather, the physical incarnation of the rebbe, has passed away. But the rebbe will return.”
“What do you mean?”
“What is there not to understand?”
I think about the awesome power of God and I realise what is going to happen. “In five years?” I say.
My dad shakes his head. “I don’t know about that. But soon. Then the dead will rise and it will be paradise on earth.”
“Stop filling your sons’ heads with nonsense,” my mother says. My dad shakes his head. “And what will you say when you come before God?”
But my mother has no answer for that.
I wake up in the night and my skin is dry and itching and my throat is sore, and it’s hard to swallow. I dreamed about a man dressed all in black. He wore a long black coat and a wide-brimmed black hat and he was very old. At first I didn’t see him. I was in a cemetery. Then the ground kind of shook and this old hand, with paper-thin yellowing skin, burst out of the black earth of the cemetery. The hand grabbed hold of the ground and seemed to push. More earth was disturbed and something rose from below the ground, a thin emaciated body, a head that was not much more than a skull hanging from it. Its eyes shone, a terrible yellow. It saw me.
“Five eight five!” it screeched at me. “Fear your father or mother!” It raised a long, bony finger. “Four nine four! Make a guard rail around flat roofs!”
“Please,” I said—I remember saying, “please, I don’t—”
“Rise!” the creature shouted. “Rise!”
Everywhere, gravestones shook, the earth rose and trembled. Hands, skeletal hands reached up from the ground, thousands and thousands of hands like a garden of bones, sprouting. “Two three six!” the first-risen shouted, coming towards me. “Do not cross-breed animals! Eighty-five, you must bless the food after eating! Sixty-two, do not engage in astrology! Sixty-four!”
It came closer and closer and its hand landed on my shoulder and I think I screamed. “Sixty-four,” the old voice, the terrible old voice whispered in my ear.
It was then I wake up.
I sit on the bed and hug myself and know I have to be prepared. Sixty-four. I know sixty-four. Sixty-four is: do not attempt to contact the dead.
For the next several days I make plans. Our house has a basement. There is an old wardrobe down there. It used to belong to my mother but now she has a new one, and this one’s too heavy to do anything with. I make a secret door in the bottom of the wardrobe and cover it with a false bottom. That takes me some time. When it is done I hammer the doors shut from the inside. Now, the only way in is from the bottom, where you have to crawl to reach it, and once inside the hole is closed shut. Next time we go to the supermarket, I get my mother to buy me a can of tinned meat and I put it into the area I designate for the food. I start taking tea and coffee and sugar from the kitchen and hear my mother complain to my dad about the maid. “She is stealing the sugar,” my mother says. “I am sure of it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my father says.
“Is everyone going to rise from the dead when the messiah comes?” I ask my dad. He shakes his head. “Of course not,” he says. “Only Jews will.”
This is good news. It means I would have a lot less to worry about than if everyone came back to life. I take my brother’s air-gun when he isn’t looking and put it in the shelter, and then I worry about the mitzvah that says do not steal, but I don’t steal it, I merely borrow it, and he will thank me when the time comes.
To be on the safe side I begin constructing a second shelter, under the bed. When I think about it, it is a much better hiding place. Less distance to travel, small and snug. I put cookies, my comic books, juice boxes, the air-gun and a few tins down there. My mother has had enough. She fires the maid. I’m jealous of the maid. If she dies, she won’t have to come back as an undead thing. I don’t understand why I have to. At night I pray to God. I say, “God, if I die, please don’t make me come back from the dead.” I think about it for a moment. “Or Grandpa, or Grandma, or Cousin Avi who drowned in the swimming pool.” I stop, then say, “Thank you.”
Five years, Nitzan said. I have five years to prepare. Learn kung fu. Buy an Uzi. Run to Antarctica. There are no Jews in Antarctica. At night I dream of Cousin Avi. He stands in a puddle of water beside my bed. His eyes are bloated and his skin is blue. “Seventy,” he says. “Men must not wear women’s clothing.”
“I have a gun, Avi,” I say. “So step away from the bed with your hands up.”
The corpse’s mouth opens in what could be a smile or a scream. “Guns won’t help you when messiah comes,” he says. “Four. Love God. Five. Fear God.”
“How many are you?” I say. The corpse seems to smile again. “Untold millions,” it says. “And we shall inherit the earth.”
I fire at the corpse and hear a sound like bubbles or laughter and Avi disappears and I wake up and my bed is wet.
But I have time. I have five years to get ready.
They’ll never take me alive.
* * *
When messiah comes
I will be prepared
I have made a safe shelter
Under my bed
I have a matte-black bible
And my comic books
And when messiah comes
I will know what to do
So when the dead shall rise
I will be prepared
All comfy and snug
Under my bed.