The Deerskin Torah
By Nomi Eve
1860, St. Petersburg
The first time Herschel Lefletsky’s suspicions were aroused was the day that the scribe from Dubno came to inspect the sanctity of the deerskin Torah. Nobody knew the origin of the deerskin Torah. It was a mystery how the precious scroll had ever come into the family. But in the Lefletsky household, it was a treasure, passed down from father to son for innumerable years.
The very presence of the deerskin Torah in the Lefletsky household raised many questions. First of all, it was made of ruddy deerskin, even though the Lefletsky family had lived in Russia for generations. Torahs written in Russia were made of cow or goat hide, not deer. They were cream colored, not reddish toned. The deerskin, as well as the style of script used to fashion the letters, signified Persian, Iraqi, Yemeni, or Libyan origin. When had the deerskin Torah been brought out of the Levant? And how had it come into the Lefletsky family? Was it a purchase or a payment? A bribe or a present? How old was the Torah? Various scribes had estimated at least three hundred years. But they all said it could be even older. Who had originally acquired the deerskin Torah? Who had been the first Lefletsky father to pass it down to his son? No one knew the answers to these questions, though generations had asked them.
The deerskin Torah occupied a place of honor in a holy ark, in Herschel Lefletsky’s St. Petersburg parlor. It was dressed like a king in a blue and red golden-threaded Bukharin tapestry mantel. Its wooden spindles were topped with silver crowns in the shape of pomegranates, and a silver breastplate hung across its middle, guarding the heart of The Law. Over the breastplate lay the silver pointer hand. It was forbidden to touch the Torah with one’s own hand, and so the Lefletskys, like all Jews, used the small silver pointer with its outstretched finger to underscore the words as they chanted the weekly portion.
Every five years, a Jew is supposed to commission a scribe to inspect a Torah for imperfections. An imperfect Torah is pasul—invalid for ritual use. Herschel Lefletsky had been remiss in this duty. Actually, in the sixteen years since his own father’s passing, when the Torah had come into his possession, he had never had it inspected. But finally he had written to the scribe, and the day had come for his visit. Lefletsky knew it was his duty to ensure not only that the deerskin Torah be kosher, but also that it be lovingly preserved so that he could one day pass it down to the next generation—his only son, Sender Tzvi.
The scribe from Dubno arrived just after breakfast. He was an elegant little man with one bug eye, and a golden monocle. Lefletsky gave Sender Tzvi the honor of helping the scribe that morning. After all, the Torah would one day be his. But it was a beautiful day, and after lunch Lefletsky released the boy, exhorting, “Go, go and get some fresh air.” Sender Tzvi thanked his father, took respectful leave of the scribe, and went through the parlor and out the kitchen door. Lefletsky left the scribe to the thorough and exacting job of examining the scroll, and went back to his own work. He was a master perfumer and was preparing an extract of tuberose for a finicky customer. Lefletsky’s laboratory was in a turret room, on the second floor of the house. Sun streamed in through the turret windows, which looked out over his aromatic garden, as well as over the garden of the Petroviches next door. Lefletsky mixed the tuberose extract with tincture of orris, vanilla, and rose water. The hours passed quickly, and soon the light streaming in from the windows turned golden and amber with the coming sunset. Lefletsky heard laughter. Ready to be distracted from his work, he went to the turret window, and caught a glimpse of Sender Tzvi and his best friend Peter Petrovich. They were wrestling on the bank of grass under the oak at the foot of the aromatic garden. Sender Tzvi’s black curls mingled with Peter’s blond locks. Lefletsky smiled. Boys will wrestle, won’t they? But then he frowned, aren’t they too old for such horseplay? Why, they are both seventeen, almost men. But he himself had fond memories of wrestling his brothers, his cousins. Surely, he had wrestled when he was well past his own bar mitzvah? Or had he? Lefletsky watched as Peter pinned Sender Tzvi’s arms, then rolled him over, Sender Tzvi grabbed Peter’s forearm, tilting him off balance, and Peter landed smack on Sender Tzvi, but instead of getting up, he lay there, and Lefletsky watched as Sender Tzvi’s legs wrapped around Peter, pulling him closer down. Their hips were touching. Were they still wrestling? Did they know he was watching? The boys weren’t laughing anymore. The moment lasted just a second. There was stillness in place of movement, movement in place of stillness. Or were his eyes betraying him? Lefletsky rubbed his eyes, and looked back up; the boys had rolled off of each other, and were lazing back in the bank, yards apart. Peter had a piece of grass in his mouth. Sender Tzvi had mud on his forehead. No, thought Lefletsky I am a fool, they are just boys, and don’t all boys play like puppies? And then the scribe was knocking on the door. “Excuse me, I have not, of course, finished examining the entire scroll, but I have already found that it is pasul, invalid. I will have to take the Torah with me, to make the necessary corrections. . . .”
“Pasul? Are you certain?”
“A misshapen aleph in the first line of Lech Lecha, and the crowns of the head of a lamed in Genesis 36 are flaked away. Also, the binding between scrolls is damaged in Miketz and because of that unfortunate stain I will need to replace an entire panel of Yitro. I don’t know if I will be able to find a matching shade of skin. But I will do my best. Unfortunately, these repairs will take time, and I have other work to do. Hopefully, I can have it back to you by the New Year.”
Lefletsky showed the scribe to the front door, and supervised the careful loading of the Torah onto his carriage. Then he went back up into his turret. Before returning to his work, he looked down at the garden, but the boys were gone.
Sender Tzvi had been a lithe curly-haired boy. Now, at seventeen, he was taller than his father, and his sweet face was engaged in the process of changing itself into the face of a handsome man with high cheekbones, big eyes, and a cleft chin. He had informed opinions on almost every subject but managed to keep them mostly to himself until he came out with philosophical bon mots that always radically changed the course of a conversation. He had always possessed the remarkable ability to seem smart, sad, happy and silly at the same time. The best tickler, torturer, and brooder in the family by far. And even though he was the eldest, his four younger sisters coddled him like a baby.
The day after the scribe took the deerskin Torah, Lefletsky gave Sender Tzvi extra work cleaning the alembics. As he worked he regaled his father with funny observations on disagreeable customers. The next day Lefletsky supervised while Sender Tzvi prepared an Extract d’Ambrette. While he worked, Sender Tzvi complained to his father about the slaughter of gorillas in Gambia, which he compared to the flogging, debasement, and miserable treatment of Russia’s own serfs. When Lefletsky asked Sender Tzvi why he cared about the lives of far-off monkeys, Sender Tzvi said, “because they would care about us, now wouldn’t they?” Lefletsky never had proper answers to Sender Tzvi’s rhetorical questions. So he just said, “hmmm,” and only pretended to follow the rest of the conversation. The next day Lefletsky set his son to work distilling verbena. In other words, Lefletsky did what he could to ensure that Sender Tzvi didn’t have his freedom.
But five days after he had witnessed whatever he imagined he had witnessed, Lefletsky released Sender Tzvi after lunch. It was hot in the laboratory and he took pity. He was thinking—I am sure I was imagining things. My mind just strayed. He is a good child. A fine young man. He still deserves some freedom. That evening, Sender Tzvi returned alone. He was a charming companion at the dinner table, teasing his sisters, and complimenting his mother’s rice pudding. Afterwards, in the parlor, he bent studiously over the charts of recipes for cassolettes and fumigating pastils. Lefletsky looked up from his journals, and thought: such a good son. An honorable son. I was a fool to have suspected him of anything untoward.
A few days later, Sender Tzvi begged out of the laboratory to attend a circus of acrobats and clowns from Moscow. Lefletsky let him go. He spent the day working on an extract of hovenia for a portly Grand Duchess. As he measured and mixed, his thoughts sometimes hovered uncomfortably around the question of Sender Tzvi and Peter Petrovich. Lefletsky wondered, is it so unusual for a Jew and a gentile to be such good friends? Is that the heart of my spiritual discomfort? This social intermingling? Lefletsky had never imagined that a son of his would have so much in common with a gentile boy. But the Petroviches were neighbors, and proximity breeds familiarity. The boys had grown up as playmates, and now, well, they were young men who still enjoyed each other’s company. As for Mr. Petrovich, he had made a fortune in dealing in armaments during the Crimean War, and was currently a member of the council of commerce of the Treasury Department and an alderman of St. Petersburg. Lefletsky had the utmost respect for the man. But they were not friends. They were considerate neighbors, that’s all. When Petrovich’s cherry tree grew over Lefletsky’s aromatic garden, Petrovich amiably pruned the offending branch. When Lefletsky’s stone wall crumbled onto Petrovich’s rose arbor promenade, Lefletsky quickly hired masons. But the two men had no common language, other than that of their sons. Most of their conversation over the years had been limited to quick statements concerning the whereabouts of their sons. For example: “Is Peter with your son at the gymnasium?” or “Will you please send Sender Tzvi home for supper.”
Lefletsky finished the hovenia. It was growing late. He heard voices coming from the window. Lefletsky got up from his bench. From the front turret window, he could see his son’s face, and the back of the Petrovich boy. The boys had stopped in front of the Lefletsky house, talking animatedly. Sender Tzvi watch Peter Petrovich walk towards his own house. And that’s when Lefletsky knew that what he had seen that day on the grassy bank was real. His suspicions were warranted. How did he know that his son, Sender Tzvi was in love with Peter Petrovich? Sender Tzvi didn’t do anything. He just leaned against the doorpost and watched Peter walk away. On his face flashed a highly concentrated distillation of love, desperation, frustration, and desire. As a master perfumer, Lefletsky’s senses were attuned to detect the smallest particles of precious volatile ingredients. He read his son’s expression, felt a shudder go through his heart, opened the window, and ordered, “Inside!” Sender Tzvi jumped, and then looked at his father innocently, in a way that seemed to suggest he had no idea why he was being spoken to so harshly.
That night, Lefletsky tossed and turned. In the morning, he barely dragged himself out of bed. After breakfast he had a very long and serious conversation with his wife, the esteemed and opinionated Mrs. Maida Lefletsky. Lefletsky said nothing directly, everything obtusely, and in the end was confident that he and his wife were of exactly the same opinion as to how to proceed on a sensitive subject that they would never, in their right minds, mention by name, or admit to discussing in the first place. Next, he wrote a letter to his second cousin in Moscow. This cousin had three marriageable daughters. The letter began, “Dear cousin, My how the years have flown. I am both incredulous and overjoyed that the time has come to arrange a match for my son.”
The deerskin Torah had long cast a spell over the Lefletsky household. It was their exotic totem. Their prized Levantine possession. Their link to an inscrutable past as enigmatic as the very name of God and as palpable as the deerskin itself—a soft and hearty parchment that was copper colored in places, orange in others, earthen red and other ruddy hues. They were careful to touch the Torah only with the ceremonial pointer. The pointer, which hung from a chain over the breastplate, was shaped like a little silver hand with an outstretched finger. On his bar mitzvah day, Sender Tzvi had gripped the pointer, underscored the words, and proudly chanted his portion without a single mistake. Though of course there were accidents. Over the years, as they traded turns reading from the scroll, both Lefletsky and Sender Tzvi had accidentally grazed the parchment with an elbow, a fingertip. The skin was soft, gritty, and smelled of cured meat.
Now that the Torah was gone, a depressing malaise descended. The summer’s stifling heat seemed even hotter than in previous years. Why, it was as if the deerskin Torah had emanated a cooling breath, and now, without it, the Lefletskys were doomed to suffer from the unusually scorching weather. And in this heat, the search for a bride for Sender Tzvi was undertaken.
The first two prospects were the cousins from Moscow (the third daughter was sickly, and was not expected to live past her twentieth year). But these two young ladies were quickly rejected—not by Sender Tzvi, but by his mother. Mrs. Lefletsky had an innate bias against redheads (the first) and a morbid fear of smart skinny girls (the second). After the cousins came the daughter of a Torah scholar from Kiev, and after her, came the daughter of an esteemed accountant who worked for Baron Gurwitz. But in hot sweaty bumbling interviews, each of these girls were found wanting. Mrs. Lefletsky, who swore she only wanted what was best for her boy, decreed this one too tall, that one too short, this one too quiet, that one too loud. But the fourth was promising—the daughter of a poor but virtuous traveling maggid from Kharkiv. But soon she too was rejected—as she was found to have had asecret prior contract with another suitor.
Sender Tzvi did not participate in his own undoing. He took no interest in meeting the girls and when they or their representatives came calling, he rolled his eyes and disappeared for hours at a time, or whole days, coming home only to sleep too long, or to eat too much before disappearing again. By late August, Lefletsky gave up looking for a bride. Perhaps it is too early to marry off the boy, he told himself; the pressure is leading him to bad habits, and dissolute living. Anyway, I haven’t seen Peter Petrovich around anymore. So maybe there is no need to worry.
The truth is that Lefletsky hadn’t seen Peter Petrovich because he was gone from his father’s house. One day, in late September, when he saw Mr. Petrovich in front of his residence, Lefletsky asked about the whereabouts of his boy. Mr. Petrovich said that he had been sent away to school in Paris. Later up in his turret, Lefletsky chuckled at his own foolishness. I was probably wrong about the whole business, he mused; their friendship is just a friendship, a harmless, pure friendship, that’s all. But still, Sender Tzvi can’t go running wild, can he?
In October, just before the holidays, the deerskin Torah was returned to its place of honor in the parlor ark. Lefletsky decided that the boy needed more responsibilities in the laboratory, and gave him the job of developing a complicated variation of Eau de Fee. Sender Tzvi took quickly to the work, and the months of stifling heat and abortive matchmaking slipped way, and were replaced for Lefletsky by the cool autumnal joy of working side by side with his only son.
Sender Tzvi took care with his work. As the months passed, Lefletsky noticed that his son was surprisingly disciplined and deft at the perfumer’s bench. He measured precisely, followed instructions to the letter, and was fastidious in the laboratory, never leaving a mess, and always cleaning up after his distillations. Sender Tzvi finished his first solo concoction perfectly. The customer was overjoyed with the tincture, and soon Sender Tzvi had his own orders to fill. At Sukkot the family gathered in the parlor to read from the deerskin Torah. Sender Tzvi chanted the first three portions. Lefletsky followed along with his son, correcting him only twice. Lefletsky himself finished the reading. That night, the family sat around the parlor and Lefletsky counted his blessings. One day he would be able to hand over his business to his son. He was talented; that much was certain. And the business of a bride would be reconciled sometime in the not too distant future. The right girl would be presented, and Sender Tzvi would find her enchanting.
And perhaps that is what would have happened. But in December, Peter Petrovich came home for Christmas, and the boys fell straight away into their old habits. They were inseparable confidants—losing themselves for hours in the streets of the imperial city, or lolling about in the Petroviches garden, leaning too familiarly together, with one boy’s arm flung casually over another’s shoulder. Sender Tzvi neglected his work. His orders weren’t filled, and Lefletsky was left alone at his bench with his suspicions curling up into the air, and then drifting back down to instill in his perfumes and unguents a bitter taint. And things would have probably continued this way—with the changing of the seasons, Peter would have come and gone from his father’s house. Lefletsky’s suspicions would have ebbed and flowed like a strong tide, had something not happened to change the circumstances of the boys’ friendship.
During the end of the second year of his son’s studies, Mr. Petrovich hailed Lefletsky in the garden. “Come, drink a toast with me.”
“For what occasion?”
“The engagement of my son.”
“Yes, Peter. He is marrying the daughter of the esteemed Doctor Rostov who saved the life of Prince Feodor Dashkov. A tremendous match.”
Lefletsky raised his glass, clinked it to that of his neighbors, but before he brought it to his lips, he said,
“And the boy?”
“Yes, your Peter, how is his happiness?”
Petrovich grew silent, and the warmth between neighbors dissipated as quickly as it had been kindled. But then Petrovich recovered, and replied,
“Overjoyed of course. What boy wouldn’t be? The girl is a great beauty, and she is known to be kind, graceful, and smart but not nearly smart enough to make trouble for a husband.”
Back in his garden, Lefletsky tripped on a flagstone and fell flat on his behind. He sat there for a moment, rubbing his buttocks and feeling foolish and wrong. Why did I speak so indelicately? he wondered. What was my intent? To cause trouble?
No, I am not a troublemaker. And what is wrong with asking after the fortunes of a boy whom I have seen grow from a child? Happiness in marriage is no small thing. And it need not be mixed up with my own unpardonable suspicions to be called into question.
Satisfied that he had done nothing wrong, Lefletsky picked himself up and went inside to his laboratory. Sender Tzvi was hard at work on an extract of rendelatia. Lefletsky thought, do I tell him? Does he already know? He decided to err on the side of caution, and not say anything about Peter’s nuptials, but then, later in the afternoon, he thought, “If there is nothing wrong, then there is no reason not to tell him. This entire mess exists only in mind. And by not speaking out of suspicion I only perpetuate my own false anxieties. Lefletsky opened his mouth. But then he shut it again. But Sender Tzvi had caught him about to speak.
“What is it, father?”
“Peter’s engagement, such wonderful news.”
Sender’s Tzvi’s face lit up in a smile, “Rascal, isn’t he? He’ll make a terrible husband, I pity the girl. But I am happy for Peter.”
“You are?” Lefletsky looked at his hands as he spoke. It was both the truest and the most dangerous thing he had ever said to his son. An innocent question with a snake coiled in the center, ready to bite.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Lefletsky took apart the different layers of his son’s voice. There was curiosity, a bit of annoyance, and befuddlement, and above all, a base layer of innocence.
Sender Tzvi went back to work, fiddling with the fire on the alembic. Once more, he smiled at his father. Lefletsky was working on an alcohol extraction of mignonette, but he kept stealing sideways looks at his son. And then he thought, Good Lord, the boy doesn’t know his own desires. Or if he does, he knows it in the inside of his soul, but not on the outside. These thoughts led Lefletsky to think about the Torah. Written on the outside, where the hairs grow, not on the inside of the flesh. Only a Torah written on the outside of the double-layered parchment is holy. But what of the internal Torah? The stories so secret we keep them even from ourselves?
Lefletsky imagined what life was going to be like for his child. He would watch Petrovich from afar, stunting his own prospects out of homage to misplaced longings. And yet, he did not seem to know himself. To know himself truly. And it was precisely Sender Tzvi’s ignorance of his own desires that could yet save the boy. Lefletsky took a deep breath, and thought that perhaps everything would be alright after all. He checked on the process of his distillation. To his side, Sender Tzvi was carefully adding lavender oil to the cloves, bergamot, and rose oil.
In honor of their son’s coming nuptials, the Petroviches held an engagement party at their residence. The Lefletskys received an invitation. The day of the party, the street filled up with handsome carriages in assorted colors—dark lush greens, blues, blacks, and greys. All day long richly befurred ladies, and top-hatted gentlemen came and went from the festivities. Lefletsky and his wife paid their proper respects, lingered for a while amongst the elegant throng, drinking Rheinish wine and politely nibbling on glazed cherry pastries. Then they unobtrusively escaped back to their side of the fieldstone wall. Lefletsky went right up into his turret, and worked on a Vinaigre Aromatique while listening to the revelry and wondering about the whereabouts of Sender Tzvi. The Lefletskys had all gone next door together, but when it was time for them to leave, they hadn’t been able to find him anywhere. But Lefletsky managed to blot out the world and focused instead on the retrieval of scent from color, the purification and distillation of oil of lemon, and the mixing of tonquin, storax, and musk. His thoughts were pulled back to the present with the muted chords of a mazurka. He went to the turret window. The house was lit from within. The large parlor had been cleared of furniture. They must be dancing, he thought, in honor of the engagement of a boy he had knownsince the child was in breeches. Peter Petrovich had been a pretty, white-haired, snub-nosed scamp. He had grown into a handsome, broad-chested, yellow-haired young man. Lefletsky’s attention was drawn to the garden. People were walking up the path. He leaned closer to the window, and squinted so as to get a better view. Yes, it was Peter and Sender Tzvi. Lefletsky’s first thought was, Oh that’s where Sender Tzvi was; of course with Peter. Next he thought, but surely Peter will be missed, his fiancé will look for him. But then he thought, no, he will not be gone long, by the time he returns he will have some clever excuse. The two boys stood talking inthe bower. Sender Tzvi, who was the smaller, slighter of the pair, was gesticulating with his hands. And then suddenly, Peter had his arms around Sender Tzvi. The noise from the party was growing louder, more decadently raucous. Peter bent to face Sender Tzvi in a burlesque of the soon-to-be wedding, when he would stand before man and God to proclaim his love and kiss his new wife. The two boys kissed passionately, recklessly, and expertly, as if they had been kissing each other forever. Lefletsky was unable to tear his eyes away from what was at once a humiliation and an abomination. But then it dawned on him that the two young men may do more than kiss in the rose bower, underneath the thorny red pregnant blooms. He ran from the turret window, shutting the door to the laboratory behind him with a slam that was intended to block out more than it ever would.
That night, in a feverish tumble, Lefletsky dreamt of the deerskin Torah. In his dream it was time to read the portion concerning Jacob’s ladder, but when he opened the scrolls to the portion, every single letter had sloughed off. Instead of text, there was only the shadow of biblical story, an alphabetical phantom.
Peter Petrovich and his bride were married at Easter. Immediately after the wedding they left on a honeymoon tour, and Sender Tzvi lapsed into a foul mood. To ward off the boy’s misery, Lefletsky gave him task after task in an effort to his distract his mind from his offending troubles. But Sender Tzvi was a disaster in the laboratory. He burnt his hand on the alembic fire, spilled the musk, shattered a glass cooling coil and put tincture of civet in place of ambrette in a Bouquet d’Alhambra. After a week of this, Lefletsky was ready to banish him from the turret. But first he needed to talk to his son. To say certain things. What he wanted to say was, “Son, if you let me, I will help you.” Instead he said,
“Perhaps like your friend, is also time for you to find a wife.”
Sender Tzvi didn’t respond. The two worked in silence for a long time. Then, just before tea, Sender Tzvi came out with one of his philosophical bon mots. He said,
“Father, sometimes I feel that this life is just a rehearsal for the real thing.”
“Blasphemy. We Jews believe that it is the duty of every person to live this
life to the fullest.”
“Not blasphemy, just a casual observation.”
“You should go to bed, rest, drink tea. A father hates to see his child suffer.”
Sender Tzvi widened his eyes. “But father, don’t you know? Suffering is a hallmark of this age. The young people all suffer today. It is considered fashionable.”
Lefletsky wanted to say, “Son, we are not fashionable people.” But he realized that this would be lie. A perfumer need always be fashionable or he risks commercial failure. So instead, he said, “Sender Tzvi, I have been thinking that it is time for you to travel.”
Lefletsky laid his plans. He wrote to an acquaintance in Palestine. The man had once been a customer of Lefletsky’s. Lefletsky asked, “Could you possibly sponsor my son on a sojourn to the Holy Land?”
Six months passed, during which time Lefletsky exchanged three letters with his acquaintance. The man promised to host Sender Tzvi. Peter Petrovich and his bride were absent on a European honeymoon expedition. Sender Tzvi mixed bad perfumes, slept late, moped about the house in a foul mood, disappeared from home for days at a time, and twice was hauled home in an opium stupor by tall apologetic strangers whom Lefletsky had never seen before.
The month before his journey, Sender Tzvi seemed to come to his senses. His lethargy lifted, he returned to the laboratory, worked assiduously, and was once again a good companion to his father. Lefletsky was sure that the boy was anticipating his journey with optimism, and took this as proof that the decision to send him so far away was the right one. The day before his departure, father and son worked together all day. At five o’clock they retired to the dining room. Over dinner, Sender Tzvi regaled his mother and sisters with tales of his coming journey. Where he would get what carriage, what ship, what berth, what dock. What he didn’t know, he conjectured in great detail. Where he would live? He described a hilltop airy, a mountainside laboratory made of a domed roof and tile floor such as he had seen in a travelogue. Lefletsky listened to his son out of one ear while pretending to read his periodical. Then the family bid each other goodnight and went to sleep.
In the morning, the family gathered for the morning service. It was a Monday, and therefore the Torah needed to be read. For the last time, Lefletsky listened to Sender Tzvi read the portion from the deerskin Torah. The young man chanted boldly. Lefletsky followed along, but the boy needed no correcting. Afterwards, they ate a breakfast of groats, dried apricots, and hard-boiled eggs. Lefletsky drank his coffee black. Sender Tzvi took his with sugar. Sender Tzvi left just after breakfast. Before the carriage took him away, Lefletsky walked with him out in the garden. When they reached the spot where they could see the bower, Lefletsky tried inconspicuously to search his son’s face for signs of either great relief or great sadness. Great something or other to signify that this momentous departure was either in vain or that it was the perfect antidote to the spiritual malady which ailed him. But Sender Tzvi refused to give any clues. His expression remained inscrutable. But just before they were out of the garden his face lit up. He said, “Peter wrote me from Athens. He said that they are contemplating continuing their journey through Antalya and then Mersin and then on to Cyprus and then to Alexandria. They may even come to see me in Palestine. Imagine that father, just imagine that!”
Lefletsky felt a great pain throb through is chest. He staggered, but caught himself before falling.
“Are you okay, father?”
“Fine, just fine,” Lefletsky lied. The only hint of his discontent was in the way he clutched Sender Tzvi’s arm as they walked back into the house. But the son let his father hold on as tightly as he needed. And when the droshky came, Lefletsky kissed his only son on the cheek and then stood back, stifling infinite sobs as the boy climbed up into the handsome little carriage. Madame Lefletsky collapsed in his arms, unable to pretend that she had faith that she would ever see her son again in this world. Sender Tzvi settled into the cab, and smiled gamely as he left them.
As it turned out, Petrovich and his bride did not travel to Palestine. The new Mrs. Petrovich took ill in Egypt, and the young couple returned to St. Petersburg immediately after the New Year. The young lady soon recovered. They took up residence in a house of their own. They didn’t visit the elder Petroviches so often. But every once in a while Lefletsky would see them. He would be sitting with a customer at a café or visiting the atelier that carried his perfume, and he would see them arm in arm about the city, promenading by the Moika, or shopping on Nevsky Prospekt. They made a handsome couple, wrapped in furs, robust and content in their marriage. It looked to Lefletsky, at least from afar, that they were lucky in their companionship and that they were tender towards each other in words and gesture. Or were they? Sometimes when he saw them, Lefletsky thought he discerned subtle wisps of pain, disappointment, estrangement even, on both of their faces. Once Lefletsky caught the girl with a haughty look, her pouty lips twisted in rebuke, towards Petrovich, who, in return, cast upon her an expression of archaic derision—as if he had been annoyed with her since the dawn of time.
Not long after the return of Peter and his wife to St. Petersburg, a series of catastrophes plagued the Lefletsky household. First, one of the middle daughters died of a brain fever. Then the youngest girl was run over by a carriage and bled to death in the street. Only the eldest two daughters were left. One married a young man from Kiev, who was disdainful of Lefletsky’s worldliness, and took Bella back to Kiev with him where they established a strict and sober household. The other married the son of a member of the council of commerce of the Treasury Department. They stayed in St. Petersburg, but rarely visited Lefletsky and when they did it was clear to Lefletsky that despite his own daughter’s warmth and wishes, her new husband—a sallow man with more eyebrow than eyes, and more chin than nose, had no interest in warmer relations. In the fifth year after Sender Tzvi had gone to Palestine, Maida Lefletsky died of a growth to the breast. Lefletsky was left alone with his oils, unguents, extracts, and alembics.
Next door, there were also troubles. The elder Petrovich succumbed to gout, Madame Petrovich choked to death on an olive, and the two younger boys were given to the guardianship of an aunt who lived in Moscow. At around this time, Peter and his wife, who still had no children, moved to Moscow too, where he took up in his uncle’s trading establishment.
For seven years there were no Petroviches next door. The house lay empty. Great patches of stucco were loosened by ivy, roof shingles flew away in an autumnal storm. The garden overgrew with weeds, and became littered with fallen branches. Sometimes Lefletsky would wander back in his aromatic garden, look over to the rose bower, and picture his son in the arms of the other young man. The image aroused conflicting emotions in his breast, for he desperately missed his boy and the days when both households were full with the sounds of happy families, small children, and the clanging of pots and pans that signified the putting together of great meals, enjoyed by a host of friends and family at festival table. It was painful to see this ghost of Sender Tzvi being kissed by young Petrovich, but it was also painful not to see him at all. The vision would fade, as it always did, leaving the bower even wilder and more overgrown than before. Sometimes, struggling with his own intentions, Lefletsky would blink his eyes and try to call it back, but he never could. The vision of the two boys only appeared when it wanted to, with no warning, at random moments.
Lefletsky would gather what flowers he needed for maceration, and go back into the laboratory. He didn’t mind the solitude so much, and every so often he employed an assistant. But more often he worked alone. Sometimes, when he would lapse into a daydreaming state, his mind would play tricks on him. He would forget that time had passed, and that he had sent his son so far away, to a foreign land. He would think for a few moments that Sender Tzvi was still there with him, working in the laboratory on the architecture of a new perfume. A few wisps of the novel scent would float up and enter his nostrils and he would smile at his son’s brilliant accomplishment, only to turn and find Sender Tzvi gone again, and the perfume also a figment of his own imagination.
Lefletsky continued to work. His aromatic flowers continued to bloom, and he invented new scents and distilled old ones, which were prized for their purity, and sold in the finest ateliers across Europe. As the years passed, Lefletsky stopped reading regularly from the deerskin Torah. His adherence to the rhythms and rituals of his tradition faded with the passing of time. Sometimes he would open the ark in the parlor and just stand before the Torah, facing it with a mixture of shame and sheepishness like an old friend whom one has neglected for too long. Sometimes he would spontaneously take it out and read the weekly portion, but with no one there to correct him, he feared he was making crude mistakes and twisting the meaning of the Bible story in coarse, fundamental ways. Sometimes, he took the Torah out, and didn’t read from it, but rolled and unrolled the scroll, finding different portions that reminded him of pivotal times of his former life. Sender Tzvi’s bar mitzvah portion. His own wedding portion, his own bar mitzvah portion, the portions that corresponded to the births and deaths and departures of his children, his wife. The portion that corresponded to his own birth. Every so often Lefletsky would wake up in the middle of the night, panicking, thinking, who will I pass the Torah to if not Sender Tzvi? How can I get it to him if he is not here? And what will become of me if I do not fulfill my obligation to this particular Torah? Lefletsky spun complicated and brilliant plots to lure Sender Tzvi back to St. Petersburg and then fell fast asleep, completely forgetting his failsafe plans. In the morning, when he awoke again, he told himself: don’t worry, don’t worry, he will eventually come back on his own.
Nine years after Sender Tzvi’s departure, the scribe returned, and found absolutely nothing wrong with the deerskin Torah—no cracked letters, no loose bindings. But as Lefletsky stood in the doorway and bid him goodbye, he fought an overwhelming urge to yell, “You are wrong, the Torah is damaged, please take it from me, take it out of my hands!” Even though there was no reason, for the deerskin had done its duty, and the letters of The Law held fast to the vellum, black as night.
And then, one day carriages pulled up and servants and workmen entered the Petrovich house. There was a great deal of noise, as carpets were aired out, windows flung open, and carpenters climbed up and repaired window trim and fallen shingles. Masons arrived to patch walls where ivy had eaten away at the mortar of the house. In the middle of April, Peter and his wife returned from Moscow and took up residence.
Peter was kind, but stand-offish towards Lefletsky. He was, in many ways, like his father had been before him, a neighbor not a friend. Lefletsky watched the goings on next door from his turret window. There were no children, and the household was focused entirely on the needs of the couple. Lefletsky became, unwittingly, a student of this marriage, examining it for surface cracks and ultimately pronouncing it a fundamental failure. It was clear that the warmth of the marriage had utterly cooled. They never touched—not even for Peter to take his wife’s hand as they strolled in the garden. And their every interaction seemed coated with frosty scorn. Of course, Lefletsky knew that they may be a modest couple who reserve their displays of affection for behind closed doors. But he doubted this. Neither Peter nor his wife struck Lefletsky as modest or reserved when it came to matters of love. Mrs. Petrovich even had visitors—when Peter was away, which he was often. One of these men, a fat bearded gentleman with Tartar eyes and a broken nose, would walk with Mrs. Petrovich in the garden with an arm flung possessively around her thin shoulders. Lefletsky saw them kiss, not under the rose arbor, but on the veranda, on a spring afternoon, when the chamomile was blooming, and the entire world seemed awash in scent and color. The other visitor was a man of some note—an Italian architect, a disciple of Rossi, whose handsome Roman likeness once appeared in one of Lefletsky’s journals in an article concerning the ongoing work on the Winter Palace. He visited Mrs. Petrovich many times over the course of a single winter, when Peter was absent. She even stepped out with this gentleman, riding in his open carriage, with her sable muff in her lap, his hands clasped in hers, warmed inside the fur.
As the years passed, Lefletsky kept abreast of his young neighbor’s prodigious accomplishments. Reading his evening journals, he often came across Peter’s name. His success in business and his father’s fortune had given him the opportunity to become a great philanthropist and public servant. At various times, he served on the committee of the Prince Oldenburg Infant Asylum, was a member of the Society for Improving the Condition of Poor Children of St. Petersburg, was an alderman of St. Petersburg, and the chairman of the house committee of the Women's Sewing-School of the Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna.
Lefletsky found himself eagerly scanning the papers for his young neighbor’s name. When he would, he would feel a warmth of ownership, a bit of nachus—family pride. Though he really had reason to. But he was proud of Peter Petrovich. He knew that this was absurd, that he had no claim on the man, or on the molding of his character, but he felt proud nonetheless.
Sender Tzvi was another story. Lefletsky had good reason to be proud of his own son. Since he established himself in Palestine, Sender Tzvi began work on a series of scents based on biblical herbs, flowers, oils, and recipes. In time, he became a master in his own right. A decade had passed since he’d left St. Petersburg. He was now known throughout Europe as a manufacturer of rare sought-after perfumes that sated a hunger for the exotic nostalgia that was sweeping the continent in the face of modernist tides. Princesses from Paris to St. Petersburg were dabbing drops of his scents behind their ears, and intoxicating their suitors with oil of myrrh, cassia, frankincense, and spikenard. But as Sender Tzvi’s reputation grew larger and larger, his contact with his father shrunk. When he had once been able to depend upon a monthly letter, Lefletsky had stopped hearing from Sender Tzvi entirely. He knew that his son was alive, and that he was in good health. His acquaintance in Palestine did write, and often made mention of Sender Tzvi. But Lefletsky could never quite ask what he really wanted to know: does my son seem happy? Does he have friends? Companions? Is he lonely? And why doesn’t he write? In the years since Sender Tzvi’s departure, Lefletsky contemplated several times making the journey to Palestine himself. But in the end he never went. I am too old for such a sojourn, he always thought, and instead sated himself with a trip to Moscow, where he purchased two ounces of Sender Tzvi’s Huile Antique au Millefleur in a beautiful little green glass vial. Lefletsky inhaled the top note of styrax, the tang of the bergamot, the dusky bite of cloves. As the sent entered his body, he felt for an instant that his son was once again by his side: they were working side by side in the turret laboratory. But then the scent dissipated, and Sender Tzvi was as far away as ever.
Lefletsky often dreamt that Peter Petrovich came calling. In his dream, he always noticed that Peter, who must be approaching his forties, was thicker, but no less handsome than when he had been a boy. His well-trimmed beard had grey in it, as did his sideburns. By accident, dream-Lefletsky called dream-Peter, “Sender Tzvi.” Dream-Peter never corrected him. Once dream-Peter surveyed the aromatic garden, the sloping hill below the flower beds where he and Sender used to wrestle. He said, “He doesn’t write me anymore.” Dream-Lefletsky answered in a boasting lie, “My son and I enjoy a healthy correspondence, as well as regular reunions in a Bosphorus resort,”
Once Lefletsky dreamt that dream-Peter explained the circumstances of his marriage: “My father arranged the match,” dream-Peter said, “He was not a man to be defied. And what can I say? She was a pretty girl, and I didn’t put up much of a fuss.”
The years passed and still the Petroviches had no children. From up in his turret sometimes Lefletsky noticed a pair of children frolicking in the garden next door. He took them for a niece and nephew visiting from Moscow. But usually the house was empty of small voices.
Sometimes Lefletsky heard voices coming from behind the Petrovich house. He would look out the turret window and see nothing. But then he would squint and look harder. Were there two men in the garden? Or was he imagining things? Sometimes he was imagining things, and the bower would be empty. But sometimes there were men in the bower. Peter and a companion. Lefletsky would watch. His feelings would be at complete odds with each other and at complete odds with everything he believed in. Oh thank God it’s not Sender Tzvi, he would think, or how dare Peter embrace a man who is not my son? The ultimate collision of these twodifferent thoughts would muddle Lefletsky’s brain, and leave him afraid to approach the window at all for fear of what he would or wouldn’t see.
Lefletsky wrote to Sender Tzvi, but Sender Tzvi never wrote back. Lefletsky did keep hearing of his son’s professional accomplishments—of his glorious concoctions of spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, galbanum, and myrrh. Sender Tzvi’s much-lauded formulation of “Queen Esther’s Essential Oil” was being sold in Parisian ateliers side by side with Lefletsky’s own more staid accomplishments. Eventually, so much time had passed since he had seen his son, heard his voice, or read one of his letters, that an air of unreality began to surround the very notion of Sender Tzvi. Did I ever really have such a boy? he wondered. Or maybe I just made him up? When he was feeling most philosophical Lefletsky would think, Maybe he made me up, and I am just a dried-up husk in someone else’s soul—a residue of a thought some nice boy once had, and never really completed.
Sender Tzvi lived in a two-story stone house with a tile floor and a red roof, built into the side of a mountain. Orange Bougainville, white and pink Rose of Sharon, and his own multi-hewed aromatics grew in a kaleidoscope carpet all around. In front of the house was a stone well from which Sender Tzvi drew water for his concoctions. Like most mornings, Sender Tzvi spent that morning mixing a variation on the sweet incense burned on the altar of the Tabernacle. He varied the amounts of each ingredient and created a perfume he advertised as “inspired by” the biblical scent. He knew better than to try to duplicate the original. According to scripture, it was for this sacred use only. For God had decreed that “Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.” Sender Tzvi was not a believer, but he knew his perfumes wouldn’t sell if they were spiritually offensive. So he added more galbanum, and tripled the gum tragacanth. He cut the storax in half and for his own flourish added a tincture of orris. He worked for hours in utter solitude, alone with his scents and his thoughts. Just before he was going to break for the day, he heard a noise from outside the window. Footsteps. Sender Tzvi looked down and saw a man walking with his head bent into the steep incline of the sundrenched path. The man was cradling a big wooden box. Something about him was familiar, his gait, his build, but Sender Tzvi couldn’t place him. Sender Tzvi yelled, “Hallo, I’ll be right down.” He opened the door. How many years had it been? Seventeen, Eighteen? Or maybe an entire century had passed. Maybe more than a century had passed, and they were back in the days of the Bible, when the seeds of the seeds of the seeds of the seeds of the flowers that Sender Tzvi cultivated and concocted had been sown and harvested by other hands. The two men stood staring at each other for another century. The big box was between them. And the truth is that it was a relief to both—that there was something physical to keep them apart. Peter held out his arms and shoved the box at his old friend.
“Take it,” he growled, “It’s damn heavy. I’ve lugged it across the ocean and up your scorched desert hill. I can’t hold it any longer.” Sender Tzvi reached out, took hold of the box, hefted it into his own arms. It was a burden with a familiar weight.
“How can it be? How can you be here?”
“Your father sent me.”
“He is dead, Sender. I am sorry.”
“This?” Peter smiled, “This is your inheritance.”
Sender Tzvi lay the box on his work table. He didn’t move. The truth is, he was stunned by this sudden news of his orphanhood. The news of his father’s death hit him in the gut, made him want to double over. But he held himself up straight. Then Sender Tzvi moved. He had to move. He fumbled around in his tools, and found a pry bar. The deerskin Torah was wrapped in its blue and red brocaded Bukharan tapestry. The smell of home wafted up from it— an amalgam of czarish St. Petersburg breezes, distilled florals from the aromatic garden, parlor room leather, and sooty ink from his father’s periodicals. Sender Tzvi closed his eyes, breathed. When he opened them, Sender Tzvi was stricken by the color of the parchment—it was both darker and more corporeal, more animal than he remembered, like the inside of a heart, or liver, it seemed to quiver with its own “beingness,” as if the scroll itself want to remind him that it had once been as alive as he.
Peter watched Sender Tzvi. The late afternoon light, streaming in from a window, bathed him and the Torah in a yellow glow. Outside, the trilling coos of a flock of hungry cranes filled the air. Somebody from down in the valley yelled at his donkey “Yalla yalla yalla,” and his voice carried, through some trick of acoustics up to where Peter stood. A hungry pair of cormorants grunted from the crest of the mountain. But Peter Petrovich heard none of this. Instead, he heard silence and secrets. Instead, his head was filled with the words of the last conversation with Mr. Lefletsky. The old man, near death, had sent a messenger next door with an invitation. Peter had not been inside the Lefletsky house in almost twenty years. Lefletsky, lying on a divan in his parlor, had scowled, and repeated himself. Each time his gravelly voice growing fainter and fainter. Three times he had said it, but still, Peter was incredulous.
“You are asking me to go to Palestine to find Sender Tzvi?”
“I am begging you to—”
“Yes, I understand, sir, you are asking me to go to Palestine, find Sender Tzvi and take him the deerskin Torah.”
The old man sighed.
“Forgive me, Mr. Lefletsky, but I must ask you. Why me? Why send me?”
“Who else could it be but you? My daughter’s husbands? Bah. They would sell it for cheap as an exotic bauble, or keep the Torah for themselves. But it belongs in our family; it belongs to my son, to Sender Tzvi. This Torah has been passed from father to son for generations. I know many things by now. And one of the things I know is that you will not disappoint me, Peter Petrovich. I will take this knowledge to my grave, that you will not disappoint me.”
“Hsset,” The old man made a hushing sound, and reached out to grab Peter’s hand. He clutched it too hard, digging his skeleton hands into Peter’s palm. He spat out the words between his three remaining teeth.
“Do not speak. Don’t speak. Now listen. You tell my boy that I have always loved him, that from my deathbed, I send him my blessing.”
“My Torah and my blessing, for I have learned that the two are indissoluble. Torah is blessing and blessing is Torah, and a son is both.”
Lefletsky shut his eyes, sighed, “The deerskin Torah is red. It is strange, you know, for a man like me to read from a red Torah. But this is my Torah. And before, when Sender Tzvi was here with me, the color behind the words was a red sunset, or sometime it was sunrise. The words of Torah were illuminated with a brilliant celestial tincture. Since he is gone? The deerskin Torah is the color of dried blood. I read the weekly portion and all I see is a hemorrhage, a plague, yes a plague on the parchment. Blood not light. No more, sha sha, quiet now. Here is money for the journey. I know you don’t need my money, but take it anyway. Humor me. Sail from Constanta to Haifa. He is in the north somewhere, working as a perfumer in the hills above Lake Galilee. You will find him.”
“Sha, I said, Sha, no more speaking. All you need to know, Peter Petrovich, is that you will not disappoint me. Do you hear? Do you?”
It was a command, and it was also a promise. A simple statement open to complicated midrashic interpretation. After uttering it, Lefletsky fell into a stupor, a dreamless, mindless proto-death sleep from which he would never awaken.
Peter Petrovich had sat listening to Lefletsky’s labored breathing. He reached out and put his hand on the old man’s hand, layering his life over death, and making promises to Lefletsky that he had never even made to himself. He didn’t speak. Not a word. But he wanted to say, “You are right sir, I will find your son.” He wanted to say, “I was born to find Sender Tzvi. I was even born to love him. What a fool I have been. What a fool I have been to wait for you to buy my passage.”
“Look,” Sender Tzvi motioned, “this is where the scribe made a repair when I was a boy.” Peter came up behind his old friend, and looked over his shoulder. He had only ever seen the unrolled scroll once before. They were still children—fifteen or sixteen. Sender Tzvi had taken his hand, led him through the house to the parlor. He had carefully taken the Torah out of the ark, and undressed it, laying bare the scroll, with its incomprehensible Hebrew letters like so many ants, marching like soldiers. He had explained that it was written on deerskin, and that it would be his one day. Sender Tzvi said, “There is even a deer in my name. Tzvi means deer in Hebrew. I once asked my father if I was named for this Torah, and he said, ‘No, you were named for the living animal before he died and sacrificed his skin to scripture.’”
After that, throughout the many years of absence and ache, Peter had often dreamt of Sender Tzvi. Sometimes he dreamt of the deerskin Torah. Exactly once he had dreamt of the two together. In this dream, Sender Tzvi had a Torah written on his flesh, every speck of his body was taken up by row after row of the words of the Torah of All Time—a holy book full of apocryphal tales of mystery, desire, and redemption.
Now Peter looked down, over Sender Tzvi’s shoulder. The Hebrew meant nothing to him, but the words on the old scroll were suddenly bold and clear and true, telling the story of his own life in ceremonial letters. Sender Tzvi put his hands on the spindles and rolled the Torah until it was closed. He dressed it back in its beautiful Bukharan tapestry. He hung the breastplate over the spindles. Then he turned around, took the silver pointer hand, and used it to touch and to know all that had been so long forbidden.