MENASEH was an orphan. He lived with his Uncle Mendel, who was a poor glazier and couldn’t even manage to feed and clothe his own children. Menaseh had already completed his cheder studies and after the fall holidays was to he apprenticed to a bookbinder.
Menaseh had always been a curious child. He had begun to ask questions as soon as he could talk: ‘How high is the sky?’ ‘How deep is the earth?’ ‘What is beyond the edge of the world?’ ‘Why are people born?’ ‘Why do they die?’
It was a hot and humid summer day. A golden haze hovered over the village. The sun was as small as a moon and yellow as brass. Dogs loped along with their tails between their legs. Pigeons rested in the middle of the marketplace. Goats sheltered themselves beneath the eaves of the huts, chewing their cuds and shaking their beards.
Menaseh quarreled with his aunt Dvosha and left the house without eating lunch, He was about twelve, with a longish face, black eyes, sunken cheeks. He wore a torn jacket and was barefoot. His only possession was a tattered storybook which he had read scores of times. It was called Alone in the Wild Forest. The village in which he lived stood in a forest that surrounded it like a sash and was said to stretch as far as Lublin. It was blueberry time and here and there one might also find wild strawberries. Menaseh made his way through pastures and wheat fields. He was hungry and he tore off a stalk of wheat to chew on the grain. In the meadows, cows were lying down, too hot even to whisk off the flies with their tails. Two horses stood, the head of one near the rump of the other, lost in their horse thoughts. In a field planted in buckwheat the boy was amazed to see a crow perched on the torn hat of a scarecrow.
Once Menaseh entered the forest, it was cooler. The pine trees stood straight as pillars and on their brownish bark hung golden necklaces, the light of the sun shining through the pine needles, The sounds of cuckoo and woodpecker were heard, and an unseen bird kept repeating the same eerie screech.
Menaseh stepped carefully over moss pillows. He crossed a shallow streamlet that purled joyfully over pebbles and stones. The forest was still, and yet full of voices anti echoes,
He wandered deeper and deeper into the forest. As a rule, he left stone markers behind, but not today. He was lonely, his head ached and his knees felt weak. ‘Am I getting sick?’ he thought. ‘Maybe I’m going to die. Then I will soon be with Daddy and Mama.’ When he came to a blueberry patch, he sat down, picked one berry after another and popped them into his mouth. But they did not satisfy his hunger. Flowers with intoxicating odors grew among the blueberries, Without realizing it, Menaseh stretched full length on the forest floor. He fell asleep, but in his dream he continued walking.
The trees became even taller, the smells stronger, huge birds flew from branch to branch. The sun was setting. The forest grew thinner and he soon came out on a plain with a broad view of the evening sky. Suddenly a castle appeared in the twilight. Menaseh had never seen such a beautiful structure. Its roof was of silver and from it rose a crystal tower. Its many tall windows were as high as the building itself Menaseh went up to one of the windows and looked in. On the wall opposite him, he saw his own portrait hanging. He was dressed in luxurious clothes such as he had never owned, The huge room was empty.
‘Why is the castle empty?’ he wondered. ‘And why is my portrait hanging on the wall?’ The boy in the picture seemed to be alive and waiting impatiently for someone to come. Then doors opened where there had been none before, and men and women came into the room, They were dressed in white satin and the women wore jewels and held holiday prayer books with gold embossed covers. Menaseh gazed in astonishment. He recognized his father, his mother, his grandfathers and grandmothers, and other relatives. He wanted to rush over to them, hug and kiss them, but the window glass stood in his way. He began to cry. His paternal grandfather, Tobias the Scribe, separated himself from the group and came to the window, The old man’s beard was as white as his long coat. He looked both ancient and young. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asked. Despite the glass that separated them, Menaseh heard him clearly.
‘Are you my grandfather Tobias?’
‘Yes,my child. I am your grandfather.’
‘Who does this castle belong to?’
‘To all of us.’
‘To me too?’
‘Of course, to the whole family.’
‘Grandpa, let me in,’ Menaseh called. ‘I want to speak to my father and mother.’
His grandfather looked at him lovingly and said: ‘One day you will live with us here but the time has not yet come.
‘How long do I have to wait?’
‘That is a secret, It will not be for many, many years.
‘Grandpa, I don’t want to wait so long. I’m hungry and thirsty and tired. Please let me in. I miss my father and mother and you and Grandma, I don’t want to he an orphan.’
‘My dear child. We know everything. We think about you and we love you. We are all waiting for the time when we will be together, but you must be patient. You have a long journey to take before you come here to stay.
‘Please, just let me in for a few minutes,’
Grandfather Tobias left the window and took counsel with other members of the family. When he returned, he said: ‘You may come in, but only for a little while. We will show you around the castle and let you see some of our treasures, but then you must leave.’
A door opened and Menaseh stepped inside. He was no sooner over the threshold than his hunger and weariness left him. He embraced his parents and they kissed and hugged him. But they didn’t utter a word. He felt strangely light. He floated along and his family floated with him. His grandfather opened door after door and each time Menaseh’s astonishment grew.
One room was filled with racks of boys’ clothing—pants, jackets, shirts, coats. Menaseh realized that these were the clothes he had worn as far back as he could remember. He also recognized his shoes, socks, caps, and nightshirts.
A second door opened and he saw all the toys he had ever owned: the tin soldiers his father had bought him; the jumping clown his mother had brought back from the fair at Lublin; the whistles and harmonicas; the teddy bear Grandfather had given him one Purim and the wooden horse that was the gift of Grandmother Sprintze on his sixth birthday. The notebooks in which he had practiced writing, his pencils and Bible lay on a table. The Bible was open at the title page, with its familiar engraving of Moses holding the holy tablets and Aaron in his priestly robes, both framed by a border of six-winged angels. He noticed his name in the space allowed for it.
Menaseh could hardly overcome his wonder when a third door opened. This room was filled with soap bubbles. They did not burst as soap bubbles do, but floated serenely about, reflecting all the colors of the rainbow. Some of them mirrored castles, gardens, rivers, windmills, and many other sights. Menaseh knew that these were the bubbles he used to blow from his favorite bubble pipe. Now they seemed to have a life of their own.
A fourth door opened. Menaseh entered a room with no one in it, yet it was full of the sounds of happy talk, song, and laughter. Menaseh heard his own voice and the songs he used to sing when he lived at home with his parents. He also heard the voices of his former playmates, some of whom he had long since forgotten.
The fifth door led to a large hall. It was filled with the characters in the stories his parents had told him at bedtime and with the heroes and heroines of Alone in the Wild Forest. They were all there: David the Warrior and the Ethiopian princess, whom David saved from captivity; the highwayman Bandurek, who robbed the rich and fed the poor; Velikan the giant, who had one eye in the center of his forehead and who carried a fir tree as a staff in his right hand and a snake in his left; the midget Pitzeles, whose beard dragged on the ground and who was jester to the fearsome King Merodach; and the two-headed wizard Malkizedek, who by witchcraft spirited innocent girls into the desert of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Menaseh barely had time to take them all in when a sixth door opened. Here everything was changing constantly. The walls of the room turned like a carousel. Events flashed by. A golden horse became a blue butterfly; a rose as bright as the sun became a goblet out of which flew fiery grasshoppers, purple fauns, and silver bats. On a glittering throne with seven steps leading up to it sat King Solomon, who somehow resembled Menaseh, He wore a crown and at his feet knelt the Queen of Sheba. Apeacock spread his tail and addressed King Solomon in Hebrew, The priestly Levites played their lyres. Giants waved their swords in the air and Ethiopian slaves riding lions served goblets of wine and trays filled with pomegranates. For a moment Menaseh did not understand what it all meant. Then he realized that he was seeing his dreams.
Behind the seventh door, Menaseh glimpsed men and women, animals, and many things that were completely strange to him. The images were not as vivid as they had been in the other rooms. The figures were transparent and surrounded by mist. On the threshold there stood a girl Menaseh’s own age. She had long, golden braids. Although Menaseh could not see her clearly, he liked her at once. For the first time he turned to his grandfather. ‘What is all this?’ he asked. And his grandfather replied: ‘These are the people and events of your future.’
‘Where am I?’ Menaseh asked.
‘You are in a castle that has many names. We like to call it the place where nothing is lost. There are many more wonders here, but now it is time for you to leave.’
Menaseh wanted to remain in this strange place forever, together with his parents and grandparents. He looked questioningly at his grandfather, who shook his head. Menaseh’s parents seemed to want him both to remain and to leave as quickly as possible. They still did not speak, but signaled to him, and Menaseh understood that he was in grave danger. This must be a forbidden place. His parents silently bade him farewell and his face became wet and hot from their kisses. At that moment everything disappeared—the castle, his parents, his grandparents, the girl.
Menaseh shivered and awoke. It was night in the forest. Dew was falling. High above the crowns of the pine trees, the full moon shone and the stars twinkled. Menaseh looked into the face of a girl who was bending over him. She was barefoot and wore a patched skirt; her long braided hair shone golden in the moonlight. She was shaking him and saying: ‘Get up, get up. It is late and you can’t remain here in the forest.’
Menaseh sat up. ‘Who are you?’
‘I was looking for berries and I found you here, I’ve been trying to wake you.
‘What is your name?’
‘Channeleh, We moved into the village last week.’
She looked familiar, but he could not remember meeting her before. Suddenly he knew. She was the girl he had seen in the seventh room, before he woke up.
‘You lay there like dead. I was frightened when I saw you. Were you dreaming? Your face was so pale and your lips were moving.
Yes, I did have a dream.’
‘What kind of castle?’
Menaseh did not reply and the girl did not repeat her question. She stretched out her hand to him and helped him get up. Together they started toward home. The moon had never seemed so light or the stars so close. They walked with their shadows behind them. Myriads of crickets chirped. Frogs croaked with human voices.
Menaseh knew that his uncle would be angry at him for coming home late. His aunt would scold him for leaving without his lunch. But these things no longer mattered. In his dream he had visited a mysterious world. He had found a friend, Channeleh and he had already decided to go berry picking the next day.
Among the undergrowth and wild mushrooms, little people in red jackets, gold caps, and green boots emerged. They danced in a circle and sang a song which is heard only by those who know that everything lives and nothing in time is ever lost.