Culture

Across the River

River rapids in the mountains surrounded by pebble stones and trees
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Leah Cypess

 

When the sorcerer walked through the town gates, I was standing with my friends Reuven and Yitzchak in the square, which was not where we were supposed to be. Reuven should have been in the study hall, where his wife had directed him to go. Yitzchak should have been at the market, helping his father. And I should have been resting my voice, since that evening, for the first time, I was going to be allowed to lead the prayers in synagogue—an honor I had been hoping for and practicing for, but that I now, somewhat nervously, wished was not coming so soon.

We were all, mind you, on our way to where we were supposed to be. We were obedient young men, with no inner drive for trouble. Reuven loved his studies, and I loved the taste of prayers in my mouth, the feeling that came when I hit the right accents with the right emotions. Yitzchak, while he did not exactly love trade, certainly appreciated the money he would take home. But we were all still young, and it was a warm lush day with the first hint of summer twining through the breeze. It had been a long time since the three of us had sat together under a teacher’s stern eye, and though we saw each other in passing almost every day, we always had something to catch each other up on.

“My wife,” Reuven said—he was newly married, and always blushed slightly when he said my wife—“tells me her sister is ready for marriage, and her parents are talking to the marriage broker. What do you say, Yitzchak? You won’t find a better family.”

“Eh,” Yitzchak said, lifting a shoulder. “I admire her parents well enough, but I’m not sure I like who my brother-in-law would be.”

Reuven made a show of punching him, and I gave them both a sharp look. Not too sharp—I didn’t want to appear insulted that I, apparently, was not a good marriage prospect for Reuven’s wife’s sister—but really, we were no longer children. If the rabbi’s wife was at market, and saw me behaving like a wild animal, she might mention it to the rabbi, and he might decide I wasn’t ready to lead prayers after all.

“I have to go,” I said. “I need to practice for tonight.”

Yitzchak lifted the corner of his mouth—once he was in a jocular mood, it was hard to get him out of it—but Reuven nodded. “Of course. Are you going to sing one of your own poems?”

“No!” I hadn’t even considered it. No one but the two of them and my father had heard my compositions. And though they all assured me my prayer-poems were wonderful, I knew they were just shells of what they could have been. They needed an infusion of words and songs I couldn’t yet give them. And though I knew where I could go to find that music, I wasn’t ready.

I could not possibly explain. So I said, “It’s only my first—”

Then a hush fell over the square, and we turned just in time to see the sorcerer walk through the gate.

He was dressed like a monk, but his cassock cast a shadow darker than itself, so we all knew immediately what he was. He walked past the beggars at the well, past the women herding mules along the street, past the children playing near the walls, straight toward us. The only three Jews in the square.

We should have run. We would have, if he hadn’t come so fast. Next thing we knew, he was beside us. His sleeve fell back to reveal a gnarled hand with too-long fingers, and with the knuckles of that hand, he brushed Reuven’s cheek.

Reuven let out a small, strangled sound. Yitzchak and I stepped back.

The sorcerer smiled at us, then turned and kept walking, farther into the town.

* * *

News of the sorcerer had been passed along by traders and travelers from the other towns along the Rhine. He was from the east, they said, from the land of the Byzantines, and he was headed back there to help the Byzantine emperor fight the Moors. On his way, he was killing as many Jews—only Jews—as he could.

This was no real surprise to us Jews, though it was quite a relief to our Christian neighbors.

He had already killed many of us. He touched people, and they went home, and then they weakened and died. The travelers were unclear on how long it took.

But they were clear that he never stopped with only one. After Reuven died, there would be dozens more… maybe hundreds. First here in Worms, and then in another town, and another. There was nothing we could do to stop it.

I helped Yitzchak walk Reuven home to his wife and waited with them until the sun dipped low. And then I went to the river.

* * *

Years later, when I was much older and living in another land, I discovered that scholars had been searching for centuries for the Sambatyon River. It puzzled me at first, because of course I had always known where it was. It was right behind my house.

It took me longer than it should have to realize that I was the only one who had ever seen it. Not merely in my hometown—that, I had always known—but in the entire world. That was why others searched for it in distant deserts and faraway jungles. They did not know that the Sambatyon came to those it chose.

By then, I was ashamed to tell them it had chosen me.

The river behind my house wasn’t usually the Sambatyon. Normally it was the Rhine, flat and gray, with ripples that were slow and languid, as if they didn’t quite have the desire to make it all the way to the sea. As if, like the rest of us, they had nowhere to be but here.

It was only when I was alone, but not always when I was alone, that I felt the change: a restless surge within me, as if my mind was a maelstrom, full of thoughts and words and images desperate to get out. As if the prayers I practiced so diligently—prayers that I loved, that I longed to share with my community and devote my life to perfecting—were too rehearsed, too calm. Missing something I could not find in my synagogue or my town.

Then I would go to the river and find it wild and turbulent, waves rearing high above my head and crashing down in a fury of white froth. Rocks the size of a man’s fist were tossed among the waves like goose feathers at a slaughter, clashing against each other and smashing the waves into glittering bits of spray.

The violent waters were always blue, a brighter, more crystalline blue than the sky above Worms ever was. And on the other side—which I could glimpse in bits and pieces, scattered and distorted through boulders and froth—I saw no houses and gardens, no chickens or pigs. I saw tents, and long leonine creatures that looked like neither dogs nor cats, and dark-skinned figures in strange white clothes moving among them.

I wanted to see more, but not nearly as much as I wanted to hear their songs—prayers which must be so like, and so unlike, our own. I knew their music would fill the gaps in my own hymns, that if I infused my compositions with their prayers, it would make us whole. Bring us closer to God and to what we should have been. But the river, with its frantic rocks and roars of spray, was unceasingly loud, drowning out any sounds from the other side.

By then, of course, I knew what the river was, though I still didn’t know why it was what it was. I had learned our history: how a thousand years ago, ten of Israel’s twelve tribes were exiled before the rest of us. How they passed through Assyria and found a place, safe and secure, beyond the Sambatyon River: a river that ran wild six days a week, but became calm and smooth between sundown on Friday and nightfall on Saturday.

Living in isolation, the Ten Tribes could atone for the sins that had caused their exile and prepare for their eventual return. They had their own kingdom, their own customs, unchanged over the hundreds of years during which we, descendants of the other two tribes, had mingled with our neighbors and been downtrodden by them. The Ten Tribes had kept their original customs, their unique ways, their native skills.

Which would, I hoped as I watched the waves shoot billows of white spray into the air, include sorcery.

Two boulders crashed against each other, sending shards of wet rock flying. I flinched away, but felt a sharp pain right under my eye. When I touched it, my finger came away with a smudge of blood.

It was the first time anything from the river had touched me. As if it could see the rowboat I had dragged over—borrowed from a sympathetic Christian neighbor—and knew what it meant.

As if the river was warning me.

I did not step back. I was afraid that if I did, the rocks would disappear, and I would be facing only the Rhine: flat and wide and still, with nothing on the opposite bank that couldn’t already be found on this side.

The sun touched the horizon, a blaze of orange drawing a host of blue and pink after it.

The rocks fell into the water, a sudden avalanche of deadly splashes. The froth settled into a swirl of bubbles, the ripples going as still as fractured ice.

It was the Sabbath, and on the Sabbath, the Sambatyon River ran smooth and tranquil.

I had thought that in its stillness, it would look ordinary, like any other river. But its sudden serenity looked more unnatural than its usual chaos.

And now, at last, I could hear voices from the other side.

I had dreamed of this moment for so long: my chance to take the music that drifted across the water and weave it into my own prayers. To reunite the Tribes of Israel, in song if not in reality.

Until tonight, I had spent my Friday evenings at synagogue with my father. I went with him even when he said I was too young, in order to pay close attention to the cantor. I had to know the prayers from our side of the river, to know them in my bones, before I could mix them with those from the other side.

They were singing in words I recognized as Hebrew, but so strangely accented that I couldn’t make out their meaning. Not that I needed to: I knew what the songs were about. They were singing on their side, as we were on our side—as I should have been, at synagogue—to welcome the Sabbath.

I could have stopped and listened. Could have held those prayers in my mind, to bring back and mingle with my own compositions. Even at that moment, with the palpable terror that was strumming through every Jew in Worms filling my body, I considered it. Just for a few moments. It was what I had been born to do, and surely it wouldn’t make a difference….

I thought of Reuven’s wan, hopeless face. My shoulder muscles knotted. I drew in a deep breath, closed my eyes, and pushed the boat into the river.

* * *

During the week, it was the rapids and the rocks that kept the Sambatyon impassable. Any attempt to row across it, or even to step into it, would have torn a man’s body apart.

On the Sabbath, it was something else that made the river into a barrier: God’s law. For a thousand years, no single person from the Ten Tribes had taken advantage of the river’s calm. A boat ride, a transgression of the Sabbath, would tear a Jew’s soul apart. To them, and to us, it was just as real a blockade as the deadly waves.

Something inside me shrank as I picked up the oars. And yet it was such a simple thing. The river didn’t fight me; it was glassy and smooth, stained pink by the sunset. My body didn’t fight me; my hands were sweaty but firm around the oars, my arms pulling rhythmically. I thought of all the Jews in my town, of my father’s white-streaked beard and my mother’s tired smile, of my little sister who climbed trees like she was half-squirrel. She was small and fast and lithe, and had not yet learned to be afraid.

She would learn it today.

In other towns, the sorcerer had killed children as well as adults. Entire families had vanished. In some cases, he had killed all but one, leaving a lone soul to bear all that grief.

The oars dipped in and out of the water, forming ripples that looked like quenched fire. If my soul fought me, I didn’t hear it.

Souls can be very quiet, sometimes. That’s why we need to raise our voices in prayer.

* * *

A man was waiting for me on the other side of the river. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his face set in a forbidding scowl.

I decided not to get out of my boat just yet.

I dug one oar into the bottom of the river and heard a snap—the ground was covered with rocks, not dirt, so there was nothing to dig the oar into. I should have realized.

Since the oar was already broken, I kept pushing until the boat was high enough on the bank that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t drift away. Then I pulled the oar—or half of it—into the boat, and laid it carefully next to the few items I had flung in at the last minute: a glass jar, a sack, a woven basket. I was surprised but pleased that my hand did not shake through any of this.

Then I turned to face the man.

He stepped closer, with a little lurch. “You should not be here. You are in violation of the Sabbath.”

He spoke in Hebrew. Though his accent was strange, I was able to understand him. His voice was clear and slow and faintly melodic.

My own Hebrew was creaky and limited, used only for prayer and study. But for this, a matter of law, it was not hard to find the words I needed. “It is permitted to violate the Sabbath to save a life.”

“Whose life are you saving?”

These words were harder to find. But I managed, in embarrassing fits and starts, to explain. The man listened without changing expression until I reached my point: “We do not know magic anymore, and we do not use weapons. We cannot kill him on our own. We need help. We need someone to cross the river and challenge him.”

The man sighed, and I heard his answer in his sigh. “We cannot cross the river.”

“To save a life, it is permitted—”

“It’s not that. This river is not meant to be crossed.” He stepped back, away from the water. Away from me. “Not yet.”

I had been thinking this through all day. There were so many arguments, subtle and persuasive, that I could have made. But my limited words would have come out in a tangle, and all I could manage was, “We need you.”

I put all my despair, all our helplessness, into those three words. The man bowed his head, and I had a moment of hope.

But his eyes remained on mine, and my hope died as I recognized the firmness behind his gaze. It wasn’t sadness—or at least, not the type of sadness that would do me any good.

It was regret.

“You need us on this side of the river,” he said, “more than you need us on your side.”

My hands were shaking now, but I managed to pull the glass jar out of the bottom of the boat. I hadn’t been certain, when I grabbed all these receptacles, what they might be for. Perhaps some part of me had feared, or known.

“Then give me something,” I said, “to take back to my side.”

He reached down, pulled a few weeds from the ground, and held them out to me, mud still clinging to their roots.

“Do you have these,” he said, “where you come from? They possess healing properties. Perhaps they can help your friend, the one who has already been touched.”

I tossed the weeds into the basket, but didn’t break his gaze. “What about the rest of us? We will all die, if the sorcerer is not stopped. I need some…” What was the Hebrew for spell? “Some thing. That I can use to—to fight—”

He was shaking his head even before my words stuttered to a stop.

“You are not a fighter,” the man said. “You were not meant to carry weapons across this river.”

My jaw clenched. “Weapons are what we need.”

“We have,” he said kindly, “nothing to send with you.”

But I didn’t need kindness from him. I needed help.

“What good are you, then?” I switched to Yiddish; it obviously didn’t matter whether he understood me or not. “Why can I see the river, if I was never meant to cross it? Why can I see you, if you won’t help me? Just to know that you’re here? What good does that do for anyone?”

From the expression on his face, I thought he might understand me after all. But I didn’t wait to hear what he might say, or not say. I turned myself around and used the broken oar to push my boat back into the smooth water.

* * *

It was much harder rowing with only one oar, and with no hope. By the time I reached my side of the river, my shoulders hurt as if the bones inside them had rubbed each other raw.

Which would have been a welcome distraction from the deeper pain in my chest. Except I wasn’t distracted at all.

I pulled the boat onto the shore and looked back over the water. I could see the man from the Ten Tribes still standing there, watching me.

I thought of the piece of oar I’d left in the rocks. At nightfall of the next day, when the Sabbath ended and the river started churning, would it be thrown up with the rocks, smashed between them and splintered into shards? Or would it be left behind, a piece of our land not subject to the river’s current, to sink into the mud beneath the water and disappear?

Either way, it would be as if I’d never been there.

I took the useless, broken half of the oar and thrust it, too, into the rocks, so hard the wood splintered my hand. I jabbed it again and again, my tears spilling into the water, where they, too, would leave no trace. Finally, I dropped the oar and watched it bob on the surface, which was so clear that I could see the deadly rocks lying heavy and still beneath the glassy water.

A few more plinks on the gentle current, and then nothing. My tears had stopped falling.

I stood staring into the Sambatyon for several minutes. Then I rolled my throbbing shoulders, reached into the water, and started pulling rocks out onto the shore.

* * *

I applied the weeds to Reuven’s forehead, and ground some into his water, but they did nothing. Over the Sabbath, he got weaker and weaker.

The sorcerer had not yet attacked any other Jews, possibly because we spent the day enclosed in our homes or praying in our synagogue. According to the travelers’ tales, the sorcerer preferred to touch us one at a time, when we were alone.

So I went out alone, after the late-afternoon prayer, under a sky bruised dark blue and purple. I went to the square where I had stood with my friends, dragging my sack along the street. It was filled to bursting with the stones I’d gathered from the river, and it was heavier than I had anticipated. By the time I let go of it, it felt like my shoulders would never recover.

Not that it would matter if I ended up dead.

I was fairly sure the sorcerer would find me. But the sack had slowed me down more than I had expected, and it was later than I had planned; I didn’t feel like taking chances. Also, I had spent much of the day listening to Reuven’s bride weep, and I was angry.

“Sorcerer!” I shouted into the twilight, in German, which I spoke better than I did Hebrew. “I challenge you to combat!”

I heard him laughing before I saw him coming. I blinked, and there he was: a tall shadow, like the night come early, that solidified into a cowled, black-clad man.

A man. But I could not quite convince myself that was what he was. I had left Reuven curled around his own body, shaking and covered with sweat.

“To combat?” he repeated, and laughed again. “Have the Jews of the Rhine learned sorcery, then?”

My hands were shaking, too, as I clenched one fist around a slick river stone. But they had been shaking since the night before. I had grown used to it.

“No,” I said, and raised my voice so those watching from their windows could hear. You need us on this side of the river, the man had said; and though I didn’t agree, I understood what he meant. What it had always meant, to know the Ten Tribes existed somewhere, safe and strong and free. “But the Jews on the other side of the Sambatyon have never forgotten it. They will come when we need them.”

I flung the rock, with all my strength, at the sorcerer.

All my strength was not a lot; studying to be a cantor does not do much to build one’s arm muscles, and mine still hurt from last night’s rowing. But my days of playing children’s games were not so far behind me, and I still remembered how to aim. The rock flew straight and true, directly at the face within the black cowl.

The sorcerer flung up one hand, palm out, his too-long fingers stretched wide. The rock stopped in midair and hovered several feet in front of him.

He clenched his gnarled hand into a fist and turned it, slowly. With a grinding sound, the rock shattered into pieces, and then into dust. The dust fell, a swift thick sprinkle, to the ground at the sorcerer’s feet.

I had expected as much. Even so, his deliberate ease sent fear shooting in sharp quivers through my feet and up my legs.

“Well?” he said. And when I just stood there, the shaking having taken over my entire body, he threw his cowl back so I could see his smile. “Have you nothing more for me?”

I turned and ran.

I heard him laugh behind me, long and slow. I heard his footsteps hit the cobblestones, unhurried but sure.

I did not turn around until I heard him scream.

Training as a cantor does not build muscles, but it builds a very precise sense of time. I need to know just when the sun appears over the horizon, which is when the recitation of the morning prayer is permitted. I need to know the moment the gates of Heaven close on Yom Kippur, which is when my pleas should reach their greatest intensity. I need to be able to judge precisely when the Sabbath begins.

And when it ends.

At the exact right interval after sunset, when the sky was dark enough to reveal three stars, the Sambatyon burst again into fury. Somewhere, behind my house or in another place, the rapids poured up into the sky and crashed down in violent waves.

And the rocks I had dragged from the Sambatyon whirled into the air in turbulent fury, bursting out of my bag, crashing and tossing and smashing, just as the sorcerer leapt over it. Even the droplets of water clinging to them did their best to form waves, hissing and scattering through the air, around and into the black-clad sorcerer.

He only screamed twice, so I think it was quick—that he was dead before the rocks pounded his body into a pulp.

But to be truthful, I can’t say I really care.

* * *

The rocks did not continue whirling in the square for long. Away from the river, I suppose, they lost the source of their movement; or perhaps they knew when they were no longer needed. By the time the moon rose, they were jagged and still, piled on the sorcerer’s corpse in a broken heap.

Which was just as well. The fact that Jews are mocked for not fighting does not mean we won’t also be punished when we do.

I gathered the rocks and threw them into the Rhine. Whether they made their way back home again, I cannot say. I walked by the river several times a week, for many years, but I never saw the Sambatyon again.

I always went on Friday nights, even though it meant giving up the chance to lead prayers. I stood by the gray sluggish water, and closed my eyes, and listened with all my might.

I never heard anything but the faint echo of our own songs. And when I opened my eyes, the river was always dull and gray.

I did find that broken oar, over a decade later, long after I had paid my neighbor for it. I stumbled across it the day before I left Worms to accept a position as the cantor in a much larger synagogue in a city far away. It was an opportunity I had dreamed of for years, so I didn’t understand my sudden reluctance to leave. My parents had both passed away years ago, and I lived in a house on the other side of town with my wife and children. Yitzchak had moved to Speyer. Reuven’s widow had remarried, and I rarely saw her. There was nothing to hold me here, to this town on the banks of a river I would never cross again.

I had gained some fame, by then, with my own prayer compositions. Some of my poems had spread up and down the river, been adopted by Jews in towns I’d never stepped foot in. Only I knew that my prayers, much as they were admired, were inadequate; that there was something missing, something I could not get down, no matter how hard I labored with pen and parchment. Something no scribe on this side of the river could force quill and ink to express.

A chance I had lost forever. A song neither I nor my people would ever get back.

When I found the broken oar, I turned it over and over in my hands. It was smooth and slick, whittled down by a steady current. I thought of taking it with me.

I left it there, in the mud.

It has been years since I last saw the Rhine. And as for the Sambatyon…

I keep the jar on my lectern, where I can see it when I lead services. I don’t need it; my sense of timing has always been excellent. But every once in a while, before I start the Friday night services, I glance over.

And when the water in the jar stops whirling and frothing, and settles into a smooth, tranquil stillness, that is when I begin to pray.

Afterword

Across the River is a retelling of a medieval story about the author of the Akdamut, a piyyut recited in most Ashkenazi congregations on the first day of Shavuot. This tale relates how Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak crossed the Sambatyon River to enlist the help of the Ten Lost Tribes so that the Jews of his town could fight off a deadly sorcerer. 

Several years ago on Shavuot, I heard Dr. Chaviva Levin of Yeshiva University speak about the Akdamut piyyut and its legend. Some time after that, I was invited to write a retelling of a myth for a fantasy anthology. The result was this story, in which I try to remain faithful to the spirit of the original while also adding my own twist.

The original legend of Rabbi Meir (or at least one version of it) can be found in this article by Jeffrey Hoffman. 

Across the River was originally published in The Mythic Dream, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (Saga Press 2019).