Joyland

Consulate |

Justice Is a Myth

by Cady Vishniac

edited by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

I’m a shad, or a שד, plural שדים. I render toxic any food humans leave under the bed; I used to have an eye in my heart and live in the roots of sorb trees. One moment I suckled on the teat of my mother לילית, who is also called Lilith, in גהנום. The next moment I was in the parking lot of a school in a state called Washington—a kind of school called a liberal arts college, according to the witch. It was after dinnertime, the twenty-third of אב, summer of 5777. The witch kicked me out of something she called a Ford Escape. I could see a cafe across the street. I could see the stupid building where, I knew, the stupid writers were already gathering for their stupid conference.

“זײַ געזונט,” the witch said in Jargon, then she drove away. Taken literally, an injunction to stay healthy—but שדים are never unhealthy, and the witch doesn’t care about my health.

I approached and entered the workshop building, spotted the paper sign on the correct door, and swung it open. Diane was already sitting inside at the head of a table. Two or three of the stupid writers were also at the table. They were only human, each staring at the patch of table directly in front of them, each so young I could poke my witch body’s little toe right through their souls. I’ve since come to understand they were Millennials.

“Peace on you,” I said to them all.

“Let’s wait until everybody’s here,” said Diane. Her eyes were set far back in her head. I knew even then she was unwell.

A few more humans straggled in. Diane cleared her throat, the same gurgle of my mother לילית. “Introduce yourselves,” she said, so we did. The other writers were Colby, Shana, Preeta, Cecile, Jared, Delia, and Sydney. They said what their jobs were or where they went to school, where they were from. They sounded eager to please, but not enthusiastic.

I pretended to be the witch because that was my job. I told them I missed my young son, but at least nobody had peed on me all day. Preeta and Delia giggled.

The whole room looked to Diane. She was supposed to be teaching us.

“Welcome,” she said. “Tonight you get unpacked. In the morning, you’ll bring me three hundred words about a ghost. The ghost wants something, but can’t talk or touch. How does a ghost make its needs known?”

That night, I lay and practiced my breathing. The liberal arts college had small apartments, called dorms, for all the stupid writers. The bed was hard and narrow, like my mother לילית’s demonic embrace. The room was hot and windowless and reminded me of home. I blinked my eyes to make sure I could, then rolled them up into my head. I dreamed that Colby played piano, that Shana was aptly named because she was such a beauty, that Cecile was a smug lawyer. I dreamed that Preeta came from somewhere called Canada but was scared of a Canadian animal called moose, that Sydney was allergic to everything, that Jared was Diane’s son and wished we’d all go away.

***

Diane is dead now. She’s here in hell, but hell’s not bad. Hell is גהנום, a waystation. Diane is taking the vapors. Her soul gets steamed and pressed flat like a wrinkly dress. Sometimes lower שדים do the pressing and sometimes it’s me, but she doesn’t really mind. When she’s done being purified, when her soul sparkles with righteousness and justice and she learns to like Millennials, Diane will ascend.

I can’t go with her for that part, the ascension, so I make the most of now. On Shabbes, which is also שבת, when Diane is tired from all the soul cleansing, I bring her a bottle of wine and we listen to Colby’s music. He’s still up on Earth, and I like his music even if he’s not my people.

The tragedy is that to Diane, I still look like the witch. The witch is as Millennial as any of the stupid writers from Diane’s workshop, but Diane’s no fan of Millennials. So she sees me as the thing she can’t stand.

She’s learning to be gracious about it.

***

I woke up early the morning of the second workshop to write the ghost story for Diane. In the end I only needed a hundred or so words. I memorized what I was going to say—I can do that, obviously, my memory is longer than time. When the workshop reconvened to discuss our ghosts, I recited the following:

Ghosts are really souls who won’t shut up and go to hell already. All of them are men, some of them שקצים , which are also called Gentiles. They like to possess my people, especially the women, because we’re more interesting. Possession is how a soul tells you what it wants. It sneaks into your body while you sleep and makes you lose your mind, and then either you do what it tells you or your loved ones go find a rabbi, or a רב . Whoever makes the soul go away has to also be a man, because the ghosts will pretend they can’t hear a woman.

Diane said, “Is that it?”

“Good souls are righteous men who make you perform miracles,” I said. “They leave when the miracles are over.”

“You should write this over so it’s a story.” Diane coughed. Her coughs were wet, even grosser than my mother לילית’s coughs. “When you redo the assignment, think about one of the good ghosts. Create moral ambiguity.” She pulled out a pack of tissues and held one to her face.

I tried to explain. “There’s no such thing as moral ambiguity. The scales weigh our good and bad deeds. They tip one way or the other.”

Diane doubled over, coughing so hard her chair fell backwards. Jared, who’d been sitting next to her, caught the chair with his mother still in it. He grabbed her tissue, crumpled it in his hand, and left the room. I could have sworn I saw blood, but who knows? He was awfully fast.

“I can read next,” Shana said.

“Yes,” said Diane. “Please distract us from this crazy person.”

***

I was not offended by being called crazy. Why would I be offended? I don’t humiliate easy. One time, I was married to the king of Persia. He asked me to dance naked for his whole court, so I murdered him. מגילת אשתר provides some other story, but I remember differently.

Another time, I came upon a traveler from Chelm napping in the road like a fool. His shoes were pointing east, so when he woke up he could follow them to Odessa, where The Name used to live in his many mansions. I turned the Chelmer’s shoes around, so when he woke up, he walked west back to Chelm.

Another time, I brought lotus to grow in King Solomon’s garden.

Another time, I called out to אדו, wife of Lot. She spun around without thinking. “What?” she said, and turned to salt.

***

If I learned anything over the course of my week with Diane, it’s that I have no literary talent. The witch would have been better off attending her own writing conference, because I made her look stupid. On the other hand, that’s no loss for me, a שד, a demon. I love making people look stupid.

Diane’s next assignment was five hundred to a thousand words of a first-person plural narrator predicting the future. For that one, I proclaimed a few passages from זוהר חדש, after which Diane said, “Oh boy.”

Shana and Colby both wrote from the point of view of the crickets who’d been sitting outside our dorms, keeping the stupid writers up all night, only Shana’s story was better. Diane said as much. Cecile wrote about a country called America and America’s leader, who sounded to me like he might himself be some sort of שד. Diane called this story interesting, then she asked for my opinion.

“We’re in America now, right?” This was a serious question, because I was sleepy and it can be confusing to have my infinite perspective on time and space.

Cecile narrowed her eyes. I didn’t like her.

“Jesus, never mind,” Diane said. I agreed with her. We should never mind Jesus. He’s not my people.

Sydney wrote the future from the perspective of her cats, Delia from the perspective of her three biggest pairs of underwear, which would fall out of use after she went on a thing called Weight Watchers. Diane referred to both works as “competent.” Preeta wrote from the perspective of every moose in North America, all of whom dropped dead at the end of a story Diane called “self-serving.” Jared read about a young man and his aunts arranging a funeral for the boy’s mother.

“But those are plans, not prophesy,” Diane told him.

Jared jutted out his jaw the way men do when they want to talk back.

***

What did the witch do while I was her? It’s not my job to know. She signed up for whatever prestigious conference, I think, just to say she’d gone. The witch has a boy, and I imagine she, like my mother לילית, would rather be with her child than with stupid writers. Millennials love their children. Delia told me she wanted to be with her daughters always, but then she and her husband would lose their house.

It’s easier for me in גהנום, because my mother לילית is my house, and I only have to leave her when I’m summoned. We bathe, always, in the stolen light of Creation.

It’s harder for Diane in גהנום, because Jared can’t be here yet. She can watch him, but not from nearby. She can’t even possess him. She’s no ghost.

Sometimes, Diane and my mother לילית and I eat dinner together. We talk about how much we hate The Name. For dessert, we steal human babies and dance them through the fiery skies of יענע װעלט, but then we give the babies back to their parents in places called Luxembourg or Cape Town. Diane always thanks my mother לילית for allowing her to visit.

Would the witch and I be friends when she gets to גהנום, like me and Diane? No. She’s used me before, many times, for jury duty and doctor’s appointments. There’s always someone like that, someone who’ll pay anything to avoid life’s laundry list of petty inconveniences. Even her own delicious soul. It’s true: my mother לילית will devour the witch just as she enters the gaping maw of our abyss. For such a one, there is only the final, the absolute death.

***

Next we had to write a two-sentence story about “our people.” Diane winked at me when she announced this one, and I felt special, like when my mother לילית taps me on the upper lip.

Preeta ruined everything by going off about how she considered herself more Canadian than anything else. Canada, I gathered, is north of America. Sydney joined in to say she didn’t even know who her people were, since she was adopted by white lesbians.

“You could write about lesbians if you want,” said Diane, then she let us out early again.

Jared stayed at the table with his mother. I saw him put his hand on her back. The rest of us left. I liked the look of the cafe, so I went and got an iced mocha, which is chocolate with a powerful medicine, served cold. I didn’t have money, but a שד has no use for money. I looked at the youth behind the counter and told him I knew how he used to put lizards in something called a microwave until they melted.

The youth cried a little. Before he came back with my free drink, I stole a pen from his counter, some new kind that didn’t even need an inkwell, and a paper napkin to write on. I’d noticed all my classmates brought in paper copies of their work, that this was something we were supposed to do.

Shana and Delia came into the cafe just as I finished, and paid for their drinks and sat at my table. I didn’t stop them.

“Do you hate it here?” asked Shana. She really was pretty. Usually, שדים hate pretty things.

“She definitely hates it here,” said Delia. “I hate it here too. I thought I was coming to learn how to write my novel, but so far, all that happens is Diane puts us on a break.”

“Maybe that’s supposed to teach us something,” I said.

“All I know is I could be with my kids.” Delia pulled out a tiny box with moving pictures on it, pressing and turning the box until on its surface, I made out a balding man and two baby girls in his arms. “My family.”

I looked into the picture, then deeper still, into the soul of Delia’s man. He was okay.

“He’s okay,” I said.

Delia patted me on the shoulder. “He’s okay. How are you?”

“She hates it here,” said Shana.

***

About her people, Sydney wrote: As the only black woman at this conference, I resent this assignment.

Colby wrote: I grew up one of six brothers in a parish house in Marfa, Texas. When we were kids we used to play hide and seek, but now we’re in a band.

Preeta wrote: I am Canadian. It’s cold there, and some of us speak French.

Shana wrote: I come from a sad home and don’t want to talk about it. Now I live with a handsome fireman who brings me ice cream when I have menstrual cramps.

Delia wrote: My Italian grandmother taught me I’m already perfect, and I still believe her. I showed you all something about going on a diet the other day but in real life I’ve never even considered a diet. That’s why it’s called fiction.

Jared wrote: My upbringing is entirely unrelated to my ethnic background, which I’m not even sure of. What I am sure of is that my mother is a gift to the world who did a great job raising me.

I wrote: My people are better than your people. Get over it.

***

Diane pointed at Colby and Shana. “I wish I could invite you both to my novel workshop.”

“I saw that was cancelled this year,” said Shana.

Diane stared off into space.

Jared tapped her shoulder. “What did you think of mine?”

She pointed at him. “It was beautiful.” She turned and pointed at Delia. “Yours was funny, but I said two sentences, not three.” Then Diane pointed and said Preeta’s assignment was uninspired, and then she pointed again and said Sydney’s was fair enough. Then she looked at me and said, “What’s your problem? You’re killing me.”

I couldn’t tell if she meant my assignment or the fact that I wrote it on a napkin. I guess everybody else was writing on some other kind of paper. Either way, it wasn’t fair of her to say I was killing her. I wasn’t the thing killing her.

“I can tell you’re good enough. I saw your application. What happened between then and now?”

“Maybe I’m just a different person,” I said.

Diane pointed at me then, and not in the casual way she’d pointed at the others. She made a proclamation. “You’re a smart asshole. I’ve got to hand it to you, they’re usually men. You’re like a twist on all the smart assholes I’ve met over the years. But you will never, ever have a career. You won’t publish; you’ll run agents away from lunch dates. You’ll live in obscurity and die under a mountain of napkins.”

So she was angry about the napkin. It was still sitting in front of me, my sentences in the middle and a brown dab of mocha in the corner.

I imagine her words would have wounded the witch, or any other human writer, but I’m hard to offend. I knew Diane was in a bad place. She really was dying, and scared, because she knew her soul still needed some work before she could ascend. She’d incurred several debts with no intention of paying them off. She hadn’t observed a שבת, hadn’t lit a single candle, since she was five. One of her sisters was a drunk and Diane didn’t especially care. The Name was going to be angry with her.

“Screw this,” Diane said by way of letting us leave. It wasn’t even noon, but all the stupid writers walked out. All except Jared, who sat rubbing his mother’s back. And me. I stayed. But Diane coughed again, and reached out and grabbed my napkin from in front of me, sentences, mocha, and all. She coughed into the napkin until I definitely saw blood, then she told me to fuck off.

So I went to the cafe. I told the youth behind the counter, the one who used to melt lizards, that I knew he once beat a woman after laying with her.

“What are you?” asked the youth. He gave me not only an iced mocha but a ham and cheese pastry, then he cried some more.

That’s when saw I them together, on the grass outside our classroom building. Jared said something and Diane pinched his hand. Though she tried not to show it too much in workshop, she loved Jared like the witch loves her baby, like my mother לילית loves me, the motherlove that could drown every world. She knew she was dying, so she’d decided to teach him. That was the whole point, the excuse of the workshop. My classmates, the witch, they didn’t really matter to Diane. Jared may have been a Millennial, but she adored him.

***

I’m made of fire and air, not dirt or water. Only the humans are dirt. I have flown to visit the princes of the Zodiac.

I steal semen for my mother לילית—from the sons of her first husband, Adam—in order that she can multiply.

When I have no fear of The Name I am the lowest beast, and when I submit to His Torah, I am a Jewish demon, one of my people. Whether I submit or not, I am beholden to my mother לילית, the source of every winged miscarriage to render souls unclean. She must kill a hundred of her children each day; we cannot die.

***

In the cafe, in a corner, they had a piano. I didn’t notice it at first, but then Colby walked in and asked the youth behind the counter if it was okay to play the thing.

“I’m with the writers. My workshop keeps getting out early and I’m kind of bored,” said Colby.

“Saturday is open mic night,” the youth said.

“Let him play now,” I said from my table. The youth jumped. He wheeled the piano out just so Colby could fit in the corner, then, without fanfare, Colby proceeded to pick over the keys like The Name braiding universes together. I was lucky to watch this part. Colby’s voice was a keening with a melody, words about lions and a girl who hadn’t loved him enough, and I was in the sort of pain that couldn’t be located, the sort of pain that pulled on my witch joints. But it was also a good pain and it came from Colby’s music. Who knew?

Sometimes I think maybe the Gentiles, the שקצים, aren’t people. But then Colby went and proved me wrong. He’s קריסטלעך, a Christian to his core, but if his deeds were weighed in that moment the scales would have tipped to good. His song was a reminder—of what, I’m not sure.

When Colby was done, he sat at my table. “I think you might like this article,” he said, casually, as if he hadn’t just performed a miracle, proved himself one of the righteous. He pulled out a glowing box like the one Delia had and handed it to me. I didn’t know how to read it, but then he took the box back and explained how to do something called scrolling. He said it was wild how I made our instructor lose her mind and also didn’t know how to use the box, which he called a phone.

The article Colby had me read was about Millennials. I learned from the article that Millennials, ages twenty-something to thirty-something, get blamed for everything. In this way, I imagine, they are like my people. The article defended Millennials from accusations that they ate too much avocado and had killed a person named Retail. The article said Millennials didn’t buy new clothes because they had no money, not because they wanted to destroy the economy. Millennials, I discovered, were all allowed to go to colleges, but only if they then went into servitude for the rest of their lives.

“Is this why everybody in our workshop looks miserable?” I asked Colby.

He said, “We don’t look that miserable.”

That day made me especially happy to be a שד. I don’t need healthcare and could stop eating if I felt like it. Money is hard to come by for Millennials, but I get money by snapping my fingers. I don’t even know what an avocado is. People get mad at me, but I never have to take it personally.

***

That night in my dorm bed, I did things to the lives of my classmates. Not that I left the dorm; my powers are far-reaching. One of Colby’s brothers had developed a vocal node, so I shrunk it while he slept. I caused Shana’s fireman, who lay in bed with his second girlfriend, to fart mightily, and his sleep farts made the second girlfriend realize she ought to call things off. I conjured gold coins in Delia’s suitcase, to find when she unpacked later. In a city called Portland, Sydney’s moms decided she shouldn’t take a bus. They’d pick her up from the conference. I killed a moose for Preeta and left its head rotting in a bath in Cecile’s house in a place called Anaheim, a surprise for when she got home.

I didn’t do anything for Jared, because what could I do? He wanted his mother not to die, but The Name had already decreed Diane’s death. He’d been decreeing it back and forth through the ages, for centuries, in ways I’m not powerful enough to unmake. First, he created humans, then he allowed humans to create industrial manufacturing. Their world filled with poison. The poison got into the air and water. It flowed upstream, then nested in Diane’s lungs, under the protection of its benevolent God.

***

Our last assignment had to do with creating sympathy for a bad person, or a person who had done something bad. When we met I told Diane I hadn’t bothered. It was just too ridiculous. I understand I could have been more tactful.

“You know what? Fine by me,” said Diane. “Jared, read yours.”

But before Jared could get going, I said, “Not everybody deserves our sympathy.”

The stupid writers shifted in their seats, except for Jared, who was searching for the paper with the assignment on it. Colby mouthed something at me, but I’m no lip reader.

“Bad people are bad,” I said. “The problem with your world is a confusion on this point. Bad people are bad and need to make amends to The Name. Good people are good, and deserve better.”

“Can we just have a normal day?” asked Preeta.

Diane leaned toward me, not just pointing this time but wagging her finger. “You hear that? Nobody likes you. Whatever possesses you … you’re not making yourself available. You’re sitting here making your stupid, sarcastic remarks like every other person your age. This place has so much to offer, and you’re squandering that with your entitlement. You all have such entitlement.”

What can I say? A שד is not meant to put up with this sort of abuse. We are capricious by nature, unruly. We like a good joke.

So I set the table on fire, just by looking at it a certain way. I can do that, obviously.

In my defense, it wasn’t a huge fire, and nobody had told me about sprinklers. The fire smoked for two or three glorious seconds, then the ceiling rained on us, everybody’s papers got wet, and we had to run out of the room into a stairwell. It was really something. Diane and I laugh about it now that she’s dead. At the time though, she wasn’t happy. She said she’d find a new room for all the stupid writers in the class, every last stupid writer except me. Definitely not me. In fact, she told me my conference was over. She told me she would call for security, which I understood was another word for guards.

”You can’t prove I did anything,” I said, then I walked to the building’s washroom. I felt raw, distinctly un-שד-like. Usually, I love to set things on fire, but then, what I most needed was to splash my puffy witch eyes, my hot witch face with cool water.

All the sinks at the liberal arts college were so clean. I’d never say it to her face, but my mother לילית isn’t the best housekeeper. גהנום is filthy.

I scooped up cool water from a sink and used it to wet my forehead.

“Seriously, how did you do that?” It was Sydney.

“I’m a demon,” I told her. “The woman who was supposed to be in your workshop brought me out of גהנום.” The towels in the liberal arts college were made out of a thicker paper than the napkins. I went to grab one but it was stuck.

“You need therapy. Diane said I shouldn’t come after you in case you murdered me.” Sydney pulled a lever for me, then the whole paper towel came out. “You need God.”

“I won’t murder you and I don’t need The Name,” I said. “Your moms are picking you up today.”

“They called me already. How did you know?”

***

I have spilt the milk of the בעל שם טוב, and when he hid it in a safe, I made his wife open the safe to spill the milk again. I have seen the שור הבר and the לויתן. I have been locked in an underground office where I explained to men in grey uniforms that I had no idea how the fire started. I have heard Diane say, “It’s profoundly disappointing I haven’t been able to reach you.”

The uniformed men wouldn’t let me leave at the same time as Diane, which felt unfair because they also couldn’t prove anything. Still, she left first, then the men made me sign a paper promising I would never come back to the liberal arts college. I considered setting another fire instead of signing, but I didn’t.

“Who’s coming for you?” asked one of the men.

“My sister. She’ll be here soon.” I wiped my witch nose, which had somehow become stuffy.

Only then did the men open the doors of the locked office and usher me through. They followed me to the steps of the cafe, where they sat on either side of me, oppressive, all of us facing the parking lot and waiting for the woman I’d called my sister. The men told me not to pull anything weird. They started to play with their glowing boxes. The Name beamed his sun straight at me with such a vengeance that sweat got into my stupid witch eyeballs. I ached to be banished back to the other world, יענע װעלט, where my mother לילית awaited in her glorious robes, my queen, the only shadow to blot out my shame, the only husk strong enough to contain the moment of Creation.

And yet, in some part of myself, I believed—I still believe—that my time at the conference was a success when it comes to my eternal mission, thwarting the will of The Name. So far as I can tell, The Name has decreed that all Millennials must suffer. Therefore, any succor I may have offered the stupid writers I’d met was a successful contravention of His dominion.

The witch drove up after lunchtime on the twenty-seventh of אב, summer of 5777. She wore sunglasses and had done something elaborate with her hair, so even if the men could have seen her through the dark windows of her Escape, we wouldn’t have looked exactly alike. They let me go, and one of them reminded me not to come back because I was banned. As if I wanted to come back.

I got into the Escape on the other side from the witch, and we drifted over the paved roads of the place called Washington. The witch didn’t say anything. She didn’t ask how things went, why the uniformed men had been with me in the parking lot, so I didn’t tell. She knows I have no soul. To her, I’m no different from the bridges we drove over, the trees we passed.

When we were far from the eyes of any stupid writers or other humans, she incanted my favorite word for death, which is “מת” in the Holy Tongue. I began to melt, relieved and oozing. My corporeal form, after all, is only a trick of my mother לילית. I wept like a wound and my tears, my whole body became steam. This steam flew out the window of the Escape, home to יענע וועלט, its gaping maw, where once again I stopped being real—I never was real and never will be. I’m fire and air, not something humans can touch. I’m the medicine in an iced mocha; my essence disperses. I’m poison in water; I cease to exist, then I cease to exist.