Copyright is held by the author.
IT MAY seem a blessing to cheat death, to rise to the heavens in a fiery chariot then to return to earth, disappointing to the Angel of Death. And, yes, it’s true that has privileged me to witness much of the history of this world–daily millions, no billions of astounding performances no writer or poet could create from imagination alone.
Yet so much of the story of this planet has been torment and pain, cruelty and injustice. Living forever means the acquisition of a bucket full of the ugliness humans inflict upon one another–the container filled with the loathsome will forever overshadow the one with the good.
In my wanderings I emerge briefly from the shadows, do the occasional miracle, then disappear. Thus, do I pass through time and space wearing diverse guises–a mustache here a beard there, hats of all imaginable variety, never aging, nary a wrinkle beyond what graced my face that day in Jericho when I waved farewell to my protégé Elisha, little knowing I’d be back within the hour.
And at the pinnacle of that trip in the fiery chariot there ensued a chat with the Master of All Things.
“Be a presence down there,” said the Voice. “But don’t reveal yourself. Don’t be concerned if they discover you once in a while, I suppose. Give a few gifts—modest presents, quietly and not often. And never make a big show of it.”
“What should I do with the rest of my days?”
“But what do I do?”
“Your presence will suffice. Your life will serve as a shimmering beacon of hope and a reminder that I live.”
“And why shouldn’t I reveal myself too often?”
“Your presence alone,” said the Voice.
And since the Voice does not lie, I’m forced to conclude that my mere presence has made at least a modicum of a difference, that I’ve served as a thin light, that less bad happened because I live.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is pleasure being a legend, the man who rose up to God. At every brit, every ritual circumcision, performed among my people, there’s a special seat set aside bearing my name upon which the sandak, the baby’s godfather, sits holding the unsuspecting eight-day old infant in his lap. Kisay Eliyahu they call it, Elijah’s Chair. Thus, they welcome the baby boy into this world with me in mind.
Then there’s the moment during the Passover seder, when everyone’s groggy from excess of food, wine, and conversation, when Jews all over the world open the door and invite me in to drink a sip of that hyper-sweetened concoction they call wine from a silver goblet they’d set on the table awaiting this moment. Year upon year they open the door. But I’m never there; only the dark night greets them. So, they sing wistfully to me. Elijah, they sing. Elijah, come soon and bring the Messiah, Elijah, and get us out of this hash we call reality.
So, instead of passing on like normal humans and turning to dust, I’ve roamed this Earth. And it is my destiny to continue roaming it, until we melt this world, or blow it all up, or cannibalize ourselves, or the planet just gets too pissed off and extinguishes itself of its own accord. Me bring the bloody Messiah and end this awful hash? Uh uh, man. Never going to happen.
One June day there I was in Philly. I like Philly a lot, a medium sized town that’s had its share of ups and downs over the years, especially with its sports teams. I spend a great deal of time there walking about Center City, the museums, the restaurants, a quick glance of the statue of William Penn staring down at his handiwork, a city with a noble history going back to the 1700’s, and more college students than Boston.
So, I found myself in a Starbucks on Spruce Street and ordered a venti macchiato, the big one. I sat down at a small table next to a window to read the Times on my smart phone while Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” competed with the sounds of baristas preparing expensive caffeinated beverages. I’d intended a leisurely morning at my coffee, perhaps a croissant and the news and a poem from my favorite poetry website, then a walk through North Philly and into the suburbs, perhaps onward to Bucks County, then end up in Trenton. I’d have my coffee there next morning.
A guy with a lot of past etched on his face plopped himself down across from me: crow’s feet to his temples, worry furrows half an inch deep, matted hair, scraggly beard, raggedy clothes, a Phillies cap so filthy the red had all but gone brown.
“Buy me a coffee, pard?” he said.
I had to think a moment. You see, though immortal, I’m not swimming in cash. Made some very bad investments along the way and then got out of that game altogether. But what the heck? I bought this disheveled soul a small coffee, added some half and half, a little sugar and handed it to him, hoping he’d leave me to my solitude. He took a long, indignant look at my drink, then his, then back at mine.
“Something of a piker, ain’t you, buddy?”
A prophet dislikes having his spending habits disparaged, so I got up and returned with the same as mine, adding an everything croissant for the both of us.
He leaned back in the chair, took a lazy sip and a chew on the bread, and said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
“Mind telling me who you are?” I asked.
“Got a last name?”
“Nope,” he said, sipping some more, now with his eyes shut. “But I know your name.”
“Eli. It’s Eli these days. You change the name from time to time, but you always keep it close to the original, Eliezer, Elmer, Elizedek, Ellison, Elkatraz. That last one was a bit of a stretch.”
His knowledge of me startled me. “I was out in San Francisco at the time,” I said. “If I’m ever in Memphis maybe I’ll call myself Elvis.”
“Maybe one reason you keep getting caught is because of the names you pick.” He sipped again. “Course, it’s just possible you want to get caught and that’s why you pick ‘em,” he said, looking at me over his cup. I saw only eyes, but I saw a smile in them. “Like I caught you.”
We sipped our coffees and ate our croissants. He put down his cup and looked at me with his full face. “It’s possible we might be able to do some good together,” he said.
“Give me your phone.”
I handed him my phone and he punched up a website.
“Look at this.”
On the screen appeared the image of an enormous weeping willow. Beneath, the caption read, “A Tree Grows in Philly.”
“What about it?”
“Let’s take our coffees and go sit under it,” he said. He lifted his cup as in a salute.
We caught an Uber, on my dime, and headed out to the tree.
“I see you’re going out to that willow,” said the driver, noting the address on his GPS. “Strange thing that tree coming out of nowhere like that, fully grown like it was planted by Ben Franklin himself.”
“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “My friend and I here are going to sit under it before it unplants itself and goes somewhere else.”
The driver nodded sagely, as if this possibility had crossed his mind.
We travelled for a time until we reached the edge of town, a spot not far from the Philly airport located amidst several Jewish cemeteries. Set back from the road, in the middle of a barren lot, the tree stood, alone, bent, its slender branches thick with yellowing leaves, swaying back and forth in the breeze, as if it were waving at all the sadness in the world, as if by swaying a mere weeping willow tree could bring comfort to an anguished world or perhaps it recited the mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“Come, sit,” Harry said as we exited the car.
We walked to the tree. I sat and leaned my weary self onto its trunk while Harry stood. It pulsed slowly.
“Can you feel that?” asked Harry.
“What is it?”
“It weeps inside, too.”
“It grieves for the world. You and I can feel it, though not everyone can.”
I pressed harder into the tree and closed my eyes. The weeping willow communicated with me the bitterness wrought by humankind. It had been a passive receptacle for all the anguish that ever was. The tree knew every pained soul, every starving child, every act of injustice–it embraced it all. But the tree had reached the end of its capacity.
“What’s to be done?” I asked Harry.
“Probably, nothing. The world has finally overwhelmed the willow. Notice the color of the leaves?
“Yellow is the color of autumn,” Harry said.
“But it’s summer.”
“Exactly,” said Harry.
“Next time she moves she’ll uproot herself and flee to some forest to lay down and die, taking hope with it.
I looked at the willow, its withering leaves pointing downward as if its death had already taken hold.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“You’re the embodiment of hope, my man.”
“Me,” he said, sitting down next to me. “I’m just the guy who knows a few things, one of which was to bring you here to bear witness.”
“What can two men do?” I asked.
I agreed, tut it did seem unsatisfactory. “Do we just allow the tree to surrender to the world?”
Harry looked hard at me for several moments. “We’ve been put here for slightly different purposes you and I,” he said. “You witness and now and again, here and there, raise a hope or two through your presence, through those tiny bits of good you do. Me, I do nothing but wait for the call that has never come, maybe never will. That’s my job.”
“Who calls you?”
“Well you do, of course.”
“That’s news to me.”
“No, it isn’t. You pretend you don’t know, but our people sing about you and your job all the time.” He paused as if caught by a thought. “Maybe,” he said, “till the moment actually comes, you really don’t fully understand. But when the hour’s right, as sure as you’ll know as sure as you’re the one who calls me, and I show up. It’s a dance we’re going to do in the future, whenever that future comes, though that future may never come.”
“So, what am I supposed to do now?” I asked.
“You know how you’re expected on Passover?”
“But you never show?”
“Yeah,” I said, entertaining the notion, as I did every Passover, of the intimidating task of visiting every seder in the world, sipping at every cup set out for me on every table. How could that even be possible, even for a supposed miracle doer like me?
“So maybe it’s time you show up.”
“You mean come in and drink at every wine-stained dining room table in the world?”
“That would be difficult.”
“Maybe you show up here and there and help out, not just stand and watch like the golem.”
“But the Voice told me…”
“The Voice is wrong,” said Harry. “Maybe it was a sensible mission back then, but now the world needs you present.”
The Voice had counseled reticence. But maybe I hadn’t listened properly or the message had changed and I’d been oblivious to the new moment in time.
“What do I do?”
“And do what?”
“Remember how you stood up to immense power, and humiliated them. Utterly.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
“You stood up against four hundred and fifty angry priests of Ba’al who stood on the precipice of capturing the hearts of all the Israelites, and with Divine assistance you defeated them.”
“One against four hundred and fifty– my finest moment defending the good. But that was before the chariot ride up and down.” I said.
“It surely was your moment of glory,” said Harry, who now looked less disheveled and more intentional.
“How do I begin?”
“How about with this tree?”
Harry finished off the last of the coffee and placed the empty cup on the ground.
“Maybe you can’t help. Maybe it’s over for the willow,” he said. “But maybe not. Maybe you can save it. Ask.”
I leaned back and addressed my thoughts to the tree, but received no response. I reported this to Harry.
“Try again,” he said.
So, I tried one more time; again, nothing.
“The tree’s not interested,” I said.
“Maybe the willow doesn’t believe you’re serious.”
“How the hell do I communicate to a tree that I’m serious?”
“Not sure. But you gotta keep trying, man. Let the tree know who you really are.”
“Who I really am?”
“The man beneath all that immortality crap. The man who weeps, too, but who’s also got the muscle when necessary.”
Why exert all this effort? I was sitting amidst of a bunch of Jewish cemeteries accompanied by a guy named Harry–whose real name I was now certain was not Harry–my back pressing into a melancholy tree filled with somber leaves outside and grieving for all creation inside.
Okay, I thought. I leaned hard into the tree fraught with a dark brew of images imposed upon me, that thick portrait of the wretchedness that had crossed my path through ages, as well as hers.
The tree moaned.
A soft female voice whispered from somewhere. “Elijah,” the voice said.
I looked at Harry and he nodded.
“Look around you,” she said.
And I looked at the cemeteries.
“People are dying,” said the tree.
“People die,” I said.
With a tone of impatience, she said, “But when people die without cause or suffer because of cruelty, both justice and mercy flee the world.”
I said, “It’s ever been that way.”
“There’s more of it now,” she said. “Why is that?”
“Ask Stalin or Mao. Ask anyone so easily lifted a sword or pulled a trigger or dropped a bomb, who’s ejected a family or let someone go hungry. Ask someone who didn’t flinch when men and women and their children fell.”
The willow heaved a sigh of such magnitude that her leaves whipped about in the wind.
“The dead themselves,” she continued, “care not whether what they were part of was a large or small cadre, or whether they fell at a lonely moment by a single hand. It matters not whether their bodies were incinerated or shared a grave with others or were interred individually, or not at all.”
Some of the willow’s branches closed in on Elijah, as if in an embrace.
“You can change things,” said the tree. “You walk the Earth. You spoke to God. You stood up to four hundred and fifty. You returned from the heavens.”
“Why does that single me out?”
“It does. You’re foolish if you think otherwise.”
“No one cares,” I said.
As Harry and I sat still, the willow’s leaves quivering, we saw that the yellow of the leaves was fading. The sun began to set. For a soul that just a few moments before was ready to surrender, this cautious optimism startled me.
“What would you have me do?”
“Change the world.”
“No, it’s not my job.”
“Who else can do it?” said the willow, and spoke no more.
Harry and I looked at each other, but said nothing more as we went our separate ways.
And so, it has come to be. No longer do I ramble. I walk with purpose. My appearances are more regular and potent, though I still prefer to hide my identity. When the powerful are stupid, which they are with stunning regularity, I perform miracles, like persuading people to rise in protest.
As for the weeping willow, all I know is the she is no longer in Philadelphia, and I know not her fate. I suppose a search of the Internet would reveal a story disclosing her appearance somewhere in the world, or, not finding one, I might deduce that her lonely death occurred deep in some forest. But I prefer the mystery.
And Harry, he’s gone too, perhaps back to begging for coffee. I’m confident that, given sufficient time and space, our paths will one day cross again. For what purpose—that remains to be seen.