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Ten Short Pieces

The Artist's Likeness Is Like an Artist

This tale is rather old: Two painters wanted to see which of them could paint the painting that best imitated reality . . . One of the painters painted the front of a house, and the illusion was so perfect, so exact, that at first his competitor believed he had lost, but then understood that he simply had to enter the painted house and hang the painting that he had painted on a wall inside.

The Angel Who Photographed God

Who, these days, hasn't woken from a dream of murdering an angel? A real angel, sporting fancy wings that sparkle bright as snow, a heart in the shape of a Star of David, et cetera, et cetera. And with a dagger even, oof, such a pleasant twist! (Why a dagger, by the way, and not a rifle, for example? Clearly a rifle is the weapon of cowards. An ice pick? Too exotic. A flamethrower is just an attention-getter. Even a harmonica, of course, can kill. But only in legends.) And all for what? For some album of boring photographs. And never mind boring—also proving nothing. A sea, a sea, and another sea! What was he thinking, this winged creature, only photographing the sea? Here, for example, the last picture in the album—exactly the same as the photographs that preceded it. Maybe with just one more look, careful, it's possible to identify that in the upper half of this photo we can see . . . what the hell—another sea. And maybe in the lower half—sky. Nobody can see in either of these two spaces the legs of some tiny figure, drowning, that entered the frame by mistake.

A Story in Which No Snow Will Fall

Also in this story no snow will fall, the surrounding margins aren't wide enough. And in general, all I want to say is that sometimes it's worthwhile to go out into the hall without first peeking through the peephole, so as to run into the old man in the apartment across the way. For fifty-three years he was married; now he doesn't even have someone to turn on the light for.

Gloss

Their love story ended many years ago. He still writes her name as a solution to crossword puzzle clues of suitable length. Two words: four letters and five letters. Once, at a bus stop, he thinks he recognizes her waiting for a bus across the street. His hand trembles when he takes his new book of crossword puzzles from his bag. He opens it to the first one and quickly finds a suitable clue. Even afterward, on the bus, the trembling in his hand does not stop. The tip of the pencil breaks against the bright paper.

The Woman Who Dreamed of Imaginary Chansons

She keeps his documents on the highest shelf of an old armoire in her bedroom, the room closest to the rain and at the same time farthest from the rain and from the dream in which she enters a store that sells record albums in a foreign city. The salesclerk tries to help her. She remembers a sketch of a bridge on the cover. No, he has never heard of the old chanson that she is looking for, which begins with the words "Love is a new stamp in a dead man's passport."

Edgar Allen Poe in Yiddish

Meanwhile, I have found no new evidence on Google as to the truth of this story. Some months ago, when I was in New York, an old man wearing a beret sat down next to me on the subway. He took his wallet out of his back pocket, examined something in one of the compartments, and returned the wallet to his pocket. After peeking at the book I was reading, he asked me in English if I was from Israel.

"I recognized the letters," he laughed. He told me that in the 50s he had translated some stories of Edgar Allen Poe into Yiddish (he was particularly proud of his translation of "The Gold Bug"), but he couldn't find a publisher for his translations. When I told him that these days it would be easy to publish his translations on the Internet, his face lit up.

"My daughter can help me," he said. "She understands computers." Again he pulled his leather wallet from his pants pocket; maybe he meant to show me a picture of his daughter, but he again put it away.

"Her name is Linda," he said. "Actually, I should go over the translations again. I don't remember where I kept them. It was such a long time ago . . . You know, he's a chilling writer, Poe—I translated him just so that I could feel like I was normal." He paused, wrinkling his forehead as if trying to remember. "Later I thought that maybe I had made something of value after all."

"My stop," he said when we arrived in Queens. (He stood up and felt for his wallet in his pocket.) I watched him from the train window: the old man in the beret lingered on the platform. He seemed to be letting the crowd disperse before he turned toward the escalator; maybe he was about to board a train going the opposite direction.

Gibraltar, a Love Story

Forgive me for all the flaws in this story, about an African elephant who escaped one winter from a zoo in Gibraltar, and appeared a week later, early in the morning, circling in confusion beside the exit to the Casa de Campo metro station in Madrid, and then some several hundred meters from there, leaping with the steps of a giant in love, approaching the entrance to the zoo of the capital of Spain.

Lullaby for an Old Chess Player

The forecast raised the possibility of rain, but in the meantime the sky was clear. Long, ragged clouds drifted in the skies, nothing more. An old man stretched his arms out on the marble table in the park, laid his head on his hands and fell asleep. Some children playing in the park snuck up on him, moved the pieces on the board, laughed and ran off. The old man woke from his short sleep and contemplated the position of the pieces on the marble table. He moved a pawn forward.

On the Time Difference Between Poetry and Prose

The wall clock read one minute after midnight. A poet and a writer met. "My muse," said the writer, "has deserted me." The poet responded, "So write about it." The writer wept softly. "And she is with someone else right now." The poet said, "So write about it." The writer said, "But I suspect that he has blue eyes." "So write about it," the poet advised, "or just beat him up." "Maybe she didn't love me," said the writer. "Yes, maybe she never loved me." The poet said, "So write about it. Or beat him up. Is he strong?" "I didn't say that he was strong," objected the writer, "I said that he had blue eyes." "So write about it." "Tell me, what is it that you want from me?" shouted the writer, "you write about it." The poet said with surprise, "Why suggest that I write?" "Because you suggested it to me," answered the writer. "You advised me to write." "I didn't advise you to do anything," said the poet, shrugging. "What do you mean—you just suggested it. Five times." "I don't know what you're talking about." "About my muse leaving me . . ." "So write about it . . ." "You see, again you . . ." The writer jumped up, tore the clock from the wall and struck the poet with all his might. The time was three minutes after midnight.

Blue Has No South

One night, in a surfeit of sleeplessness, the poet leapt suddenly into a dream in which he stood in a room in a ramshackle house. In his hand was a paintbrush dripping with blue paint. An insistent voice instructed him to paint a wall of the room in black. Is it even possible, thought the poet, to paint black with blue? And then he woke. And waking, he remembered that the Italian word for room is stanza. The poet reflected on this with growing amazement: The room he dreamt of was the stanza of a poem. He wondered if it wasn't time he turned to writing prose.

From La-Kachol Ein Darom. Copyright Alex Epstein. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Becka Mara McKay. All rights reserved.