Benjamin Mendel looked at Sarah. She was sitting across the breakfast table, eating her cereal with slow deliberation. He felt his frustration boiling up inside. He wanted her to scream at him, to hurl that bowl of cereal in his face, to bang her fists on the table! If only she would openly accuse him of the terrible crime he had committed, give voice to the awfulness they both knew was between them. If only she would tell him, just once, “You are a murderer, Benjamin! You killed our son!”
Instead, “Would you like some more cereal, dear?” she asked in the same toneless voice she had used in all the torturous months that had passed since the accident.
“No, thank you, sweetie,” he said quietly, fighting back tears.
When the doorbell rang, they looked at each other like rats whose hiding place has been exposed. It had been months since they’d last heard that sound when they were both at home. Once their friends, relatives, and well-wishers felt they had done their duty of comforting and condoling, they had simply stopped visiting. It seemed as if they feared death might be contagious.
“Go see who it is,” Sarah said. Her voice retained its monotonous quality, but her eyes were wide, wondering who could be braving the silent, emotional desert their home had become.
Benjamin subdued the urge to say, I know who it can’t be. It can’t be Daniel, because Daniel is dead. Because I saw his head crushed like a watermelon, his eyes popping out of their sockets as he bled to death in my arms.
The doorbell rang again.
“Benjamin,” Sarah repeated, more urgently this time. “Go see who it is.”
Benjamin nodded. He rose from the table and walked slowly out into the hall. “Who is it?” he called.
There was no answer.
Benjamin opened the door. At first he didn’t recognize the boy who stood on the doorstep, smiling. He was about twelve years old and looked at Benjamin through deep brown eyes under thick eyebrows. His hair curled all the way down to his shoulders, and his skin was neither black nor white, but olive-colored.
“Who are you?” Benjamin demanded, then realized his tone was too harsh. That was no way to address a child; it was certainly not the way he would have liked people to address his Daniel.
Despite Benjamin’s tone, the boy’s smile widened, and he held up a small photograph in his right hand.
“Who is it, Benjamin?” Sarah cried out from the kitchen.
Benjamin stared at the photograph, perplexed. It was a photo of himself and Sarah taken years ago, right after Daniel was born. Sarah held Daniel in her arms, smiling. It was a picture taken in a different life, a different era, a time when there had still been hope.
“Where did you get this?” he murmured. He studied the face of the smiling child. Then, suddenly, he realized who the child was, and his legs seemed unable to support him.
“My god!” he exclaimed.
“Benjamin, who is it?” Sarah’s voice was now tinged with panic.
He went on staring, open-mouthed, but when the child advanced toward him, his arms closed around the boy in an embrace. He heard a breakfast chair being pushed back and the sound of Sarah’s feet shuffling slowly toward them.
The child disengaged himself from Benjamin and gave Sarah that same charming smile, revealing even, pearl-like white teeth.
Sarah was still holding the empty bowl; now she let it fall from her fingers. It shattered on the floor.
This was the sound that Benjamin had yearned to hear through all their silent breakfasts since the day of the accident, and its effect on him was immediate. “Stay calm, Sarah,” he said. He knelt and stared at the boy’s face, admiring the beauty of his deep brown eyes. “How did you find us? How did you get here?”
The boy showed Benjamin the photograph again and began to speak in an odd-sounding language. It didn’t resemble any dialect Benjamin was familiar with.
“I know this picture,” Sarah said in the voice of a somnambulist. “We mailed it to that boy in—what was that place, Benjamin? But how did…?”
She began to laugh, softly. It was a sound Benjamin had not heard for a long, long time.
The child went on speaking in his unfamiliar tongue, showing them the photograph as if all the answers to their queries were hidden in it if they only looked hard enough.
“Are you alone here?” asked Benjamin. “Where are your parents?”
Sarah stopped laughing. “Of course he’s alone. Why are you pestering him with silly questions? Can’t you see he’s hungry?”
Before Benjamin could react, she ushered the child into the house. The boy followed her with easy familiarity, as if he had known her for years, as if he were stepping into his own home.
For a moment Benjamin stood by the threshold, unsure what to do next. Then he followed Sarah and the boy into the kitchen.
The boy—Adrimus, that was his name, thought Benjamin—had already sat down at the table, looking happily at Sarah as she fussed about with a fresh energy that disturbed Benjamin even more than her recent silences and apathy.
“Be a dear, Ben, and clean up the mess I made at the front door while I fix breakfast for Adrimus.”
“You remember his name?”
She looked at him in surprise, holding a carton of pancake powder. “Of course I do.” She started opening kitchen cabinets, taking out dishes and pans that had not been touched for months.
Benjamin took out a mop and a broom and walked slowly, unwillingly, to the front door. As he picked up the pieces of the broken bowl, he heard Sarah laughing and then the boy, also laughing. It made him angry. What right did this child have to laugh when Daniel couldn’t?
He returned to the kitchen and saw Adrimus holding a cereal bowl in both hands, gulping hungrily, milk dripping down his chin.
“Isn’t it funny, Ben? He doesn’t know how to use a spoon! I guess that’s not how they eat where he comes from.”
Benjamin felt his rage build into fully fledged fury. He tossed the broom and mop to one side. “Can I have a word with you, Sarah?” he said tightly, trying to control his shaking body.
“Can’t it wait?” asked Sarah. “I don’t want the pancakes to burn.” She hurried back to the stove as the aroma of fresh pancakes filled the room.
“No, Sarah, I’m afraid it can’t wait. It has to be now!”
She ignored him, humming a song in an off-key tone.
“Sarah!” Benjamin shouted.
She flipped the pancakes before looking at him. “Yes, Ben?”
It pained him to see traces of the beautiful woman he had once loved hidden behind that confused face, eyes staring from some distant, nameless place.
“I need to speak with you privately for a moment,” he repeated slowly, patiently.
“All right,” said Sarah. “No need to get excited, especially not in front of a child.” She turned the stove off, took a plate out of a cabinet, and piled pancakes on it. “There you go,” she said to Adrimus, placing the plate in front of him. “I already put the maple syrup on the table, and I’ll be right here in the next room with Benjamin, so if you need anything just holler, okay?”
The boy stared at her with the eyes of a lamb, and she brushed his hair with her pale fingers, the movement sending chills down Benjamin’s spine.
“Now what was so important?” she asked, as she and Benjamin stepped into the living room.
Benjamin struggled to keep his tears in check. He placed both hands on Sarah’s shoulders, a sailor clinging to the last piece of driftwood. “Listen, Sarah. I know we’ve been through a lot lately, but try to figure this out with me. Where did this boy come from?”
“It’s Adrimus,” said Sarah. “We adopted him, don’t you remember?”
“Yes, it’s Adrimus. But Adrimus is a child from some third-world country at the other end of the world!”
“Are we done here?” she asked angrily. “I want to go back to him.”
“Adrimus can’t be here!” Benjamin’s voice rose, his self-control waning. “He’s just a name on our credit-card statement. We joined an organization that collects funds and gives them to children in needy countries. We pay them $35 a month, and they give it to him, or his family, or God only knows which local organization that supports him. Adrimus is supposed to be at the other end of the planet! I don’t even remember which continent, and neither can you. Sarah, he can’t be here!”
The phone rang.
“Be a dear and answer that, won’t you, Ben?” Without waiting for his reply, she walked back into the kitchen.
Benjamin clenched his hands into fists and crossed to the telephone table. In the background, he could hear Sarah and Adrimus laughing again.
“It’s me, Esther, your mother-in-law. May I please speak with my daughter?”
Benjamin sighed. She always added the explanation “your mother-in-law,” as if he could ever forget. “Yes, hello, Esther. It’s Benjamin, your son-in-law. Hold on.” He put the phone down. “It’s your mother!” he shouted, louder than he had intended.
More laughter came from the kitchen. There was no response to his call.
“Sarah, it’s your goddamn mother on the goddamn phone!” he screamed. The blood rushed to his face as he banged his fist against the table. Too late, he realized that Sarah’s mother—his mother-in-law—must have heard his scream loud and clear.
The joyous sounds from the kitchen ceased, and Sarah, anger flaring in her eyes, appeared. “I’ll deal with you later!” she muttered to Benjamin, and picked up the phone.
The forced cheerfulness in her voice sickened Benjamin.
“I’m glad you think I sound better,” she said after a few seconds.
Benjamin paced back and forth like a trapped cockroach. Sarah’s mother had detested him from the first day she’d met him, a dislike she had never bothered to hide. And after the accident her hatred of him had grown exponentially, growing into something far deeper, far more malicious.
“Yes, of course, Mom. I thought about it too. I just know how busy you are.”
Now, after Daniel’s death, it was as if all Esther’s suspicions, all her hatred, had received a seal of approval from God himself. She could look back with pride on all her past threats and warnings about how unstable Benjamin was, how bad a choice Sarah had made—a true prophetess of misery. Sometimes Benjamin thought the old serpent was actually happy that Daniel had died, because their son’s death had made her right.
“It’s a bit short notice, Mom, but you’re always welcome here, for a week or however long you’d like to stay.”
The blood that had earlier suffused Benjamin’s being with anger now drained from his face. He wished uselessly that he had misheard what Sarah had just said.
“We’ll see you tomorrow afternoon, then. I love you too, Mom.” Sealing his fate, Sarah broke the connection and put the phone down. “What the hell is wrong with you?” she spat at him.
Benjamin blinked. With this latest threat to his sanity, he had forgotten his earlier outburst.
“Shouting like that when my mother can hear you, when there’s a child in the house!”
“Your mother can’t come!” he exclaimed.
“She’s my mother, Ben, she can come whenever she wants to. How many times do we have to go through this?”
We’re having a fight! thought Benjamin, almost with glee. We’re actually having a fight! How long had it been since they had had anything to argue about? In a way, this new nightmare felt better than the one preceding it. Anything was better than the memories. Like the one, for example, that constantly filled his ears, the gurgling sounds that had come out of Daniel’s mouth in the seconds before the end.
“What about Adrimus?” he asked triumphantly. “How will you explain Adrimus to her?”
“What is there to explain? He’s come for a visit, that’s all. It’s not like we don’t know who he is.”
The doorbell rang again, harshly intruding. They exchanged a frightened look.
“Go see who it is,” Sarah said in a whisper.
Sighing heavily, Benjamin went to the door, wondering if he was dreaming but knowing he wasn’t, because he always saw Daniel in his dreams—Daniel bleeding in his arms.
“Who is it?” he asked through the door.
“Agent Dwight Harris, Mr. Mendel. Open the door, please.”
“Agent Dwight Harris…” Daniel echoed softly. He unlocked and opened the door.
The tall man standing on the threshold was wearing a long coat that made him look like an actor in a film noir. He flashed two rows of white teeth in an alligator smile.
Benjamin felt so confused that he didn’t even consider asking the man for ID, nor did he try to determine which agency the man worked for. Before he knew it, Agent Harris was inside, marching into the living room, looking left and right as if seeking clues to some unknown mystery.
“Who is this man?” Sarah demanded angrily, stepping in from the kitchen. Her eyes skewered Agent Harris. “What are you doing in my house?”
“A thousand pardons for the interruption, ma’am.” Agent Harris flashed his alligator smile again.
“Get him out of the house, Benjamin.” Sarah’s voice cracked, then became a whine. “I don’t like the look of him.”
“I apologize, Agent Harris,” Benjamin said. “My wife is unwell. We’ve been through a lot lately. Could you perhaps come back later?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Agent Harris, and headed toward the kitchen.
“Don’t let him go in there!” Sarah screamed.
Benjamin rushed after the agent, only to discover that the kitchen was empty. There was no sign of Adrimus. The cereal bowl remained on the table alongside a plate with a half-eaten pancake on it.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Agent Harris.” Benjamin’s voice was barely audible.
Agent Harris ignored him. He looked pointedly at the remains of the meal. “Mr. Mendel, I am going to ask you a question, and since you look like a straightforward person, I expect you to give me a straightforward answer.”
Keeping his eyes on the table, he took a photo from his pocket. It was a photograph of a drawing of Adrimus, executed with uncanny skill. The image looked so lifelike that it seemed as if the boy might jump out of the photograph into the real world at any second.
“Have you ever seen this child before?”
Benjamin shook his head. The lie came to his lips even before he understood why he felt the urge to utter it. “Not that I can recall, no, sir.”
Agent Harris’s eyes met Benjamin’s. It was clear that he knew Benjamin was lying.
“Actually, now that I think about it, can I have a closer look?”
Agent Harris nodded and handed over the picture. Benjamin marveled at its skill—the artist had used only a few lines, and yet it was clearly Adrimus, as if the essence of the boy’s soul had been laid out on the page.
“It does ring a bell,” Benjamin said slowly, sweat beading on his forehead. He knew he was a terrible liar.
“Mr. Mendel, why was your wife so apprehensive just a moment ago, when I came into the kitchen?”
“I told you, she is unwell. Anyway, I’m not sure that I have to explain myself to you. What agency did you say you work for?”
“I didn’t,” said Agent Harris. He changed the subject abruptly. “You said the photo rings a bell. Would you share your insight with me?”
Benjamin searched for a way through the quickly forming maze of lies. He heard Sarah crying in the living room.
“There was a boy we adopted some years ago,” he said. “Well, not exactly adopted. It was through one of those donation websites, the ones that help children all over the world. You donate $35 dollars a month, and they use it to help the child you adopt. We figured it was a good thing to do, plus it was tax deductible, so…” Benjamin shrugged.
Sarah’s weeping intensified.
“I really need to go to my wife now,” Benjamin said, and turned to walk out of the kitchen.
Agent Harris moved into his path, towering over him, his large nostrils flaring with the anger of a primal god. “Would you like to know, Mr. Mendel, what will happen if I leave this apartment with the slightest suspicion that you are lying, that you are in any way sheltering this boy?”
Benjamin stared at the massive man, mouth open. He shook his head like a child.
“In that eventuality, Mr. Mendel, less than an hour from now, a team of specialists will arrive at this location. You and your wife will be taken away to be interrogated. You will probably never be heard from again, as you will be considered a risk to national security. This apartment will then be taken apart block by block and inspected. The neighboring apartments will also be taken apart block by block, and eventually this whole building will be demolished.” Agent Harris smiled his alligator smile and backed away. “Now, would you like to reconsider and tell me the truth?”
It took Benjamin a good few seconds to find the answer he was looking for. When it came, he surprised himself. “Do you think you can come in here and threaten me?” He laughed for the first time in weeks. “You think I’ll care if you send men in here to take me away and torture me or even kill me?” Now it was his turn to walk menacingly toward the agent. “I’m living in hell, Agent Harris. I held my son’s dead body in my hands. If you think you can come in here, threatening us, looking for a child who lives on the other side of the planet, then I tell you this—do your worst!”
Agent Harris shook his head.
Sarah had stopped crying. Objects were falling in the living room. Something crashed to the floor.
“That was a very moving speech, Mr. Mendel,” Agent Harris said. “Unfortunately, it can do nothing to improve your situation.”
Benjamin’s momentary resolve had already vanished. He wished his hands weren’t shaking so badly, wished he could stare at Agent Harris with a cold and menacing look instead of avoiding the taller man’s eyes. “Why are you looking for him, anyway?” he asked in a low voice.
“That does not concern you,” Agent Harris said. “We’ll take him to a place where he will be safe. You should not—”
When the lamp smashed down on Agent Harris’s head and a halo of broken ceramics exploded around his face, Benjamin nearly laughed with shock. The sight of the large man collapsing to the floor, brains and blood spewing from the wound in his head, was so unexpected that it was almost comical. And Sarah…Sarah who couldn’t even speak during breakfast, Sarah who could barely move since the accident, was standing tall over the twitching body of Agent Harris, the broken base of the lamp still in her hand, an insane David victorious over Goliath.
Understanding belatedly hit Benjamin, and he took two steps back from the agent, who had stopped twitching now and lay still. Blood seeped from his shattered skull.
“I won’t let them take another child away from me,” Sarah said, her voice steady and unfaltering. “I won’t let them take Adrimus away.”
In that moment, Benjamin was terrified of her. He felt like a child who desperately wants to run away and hide in his room. Maybe, he thought abstractedly, that was the trouble with being an adult: you never had a room of your own to hide in and be miserable.
Instead he muttered, “Okay, Sarah,” over and over again. “Okay, Sarah.”
He was suddenly conscious of his own shivering, as if he were in the heart of a winter storm with not a stitch of clothing to cover his body. “We should probably call the police,” he whispered.
“No!” Sarah shouted.
Benjamin took another step back. The blood, Agent Harris’s blood, was slowly spreading across the floor, reaching out to touch his shoes.
“You have to get rid of the body,” she said, putting down the broken lamp.
“I’ll do no such thing! Are you insane?”
“Oh, yes, you will!” Sarah said vehemently. “You owe me that.”
She did not add for killing our son, but Benjamin heard the phrase in his mind loud and clear.
In the living room, Adrimus was sitting on the sofa. He had materialized, as if from thin air, into their reality. Sarah sat beside him and held his hand. Adrimus laughed, a sound like bells that filled the air with a tinkling melody.
Benjamin looked again at the body of Agent Harris. Now his wife was a killer too. In the strangest of ways, they were suddenly even.
“Get rid of the body,” he murmured. He heard Adrimus and Sarah laughing in the living room. “Who is he?” he said to himself. “Who the hell is this child?”
Sarah had turned on the television, and Adrimus clapped his hands in excitement as she switched channels. “Don’t forget my mother will be here tomorrow morning!” she shouted.
Benjamin tried to think, but his mind seemed unable to hold onto any thoughts; they slipped through his mind without forming any solid notion.
Don’t think! That was the only way to survive this. Not to view the corpse on the floor as the remains of something that had once been a living, breathing human being but to think of it simply as a mess to be cleaned up, removed, disposed of. He set to work, humming as he did so to drown the sounds in his head, humming because now that he was busy dealing with Agent Harris’s body and blood, he could not see Daniel’s blood, nor hear his dying screams.
MODANIS was written with the aim of exploring two themes. The first: coping with grief, specifically with the death of a child. The second: the creation of a personal and new mythology. While writing the novel, I found myself surprised by its twists and turns. These supposedly unrelated themes kept interconnecting, creating a fantastical place that allows Benjamin, the novel’s protagonist, to come to terms with the death of his son and Benjamin’s wife, Sarah, to heal from her deep pain.
My obsession with stories and storytelling is also evident. Benjamin is an author who makes his living by writing a never-ending series of historical erotic novels whose protagonist, Captain Jack Marvelous, is a rebel of the high seas.
Going into Modanis, a mythological wonderland, in search of his dead son and in order to help Adrimus, a mysterious child from this world who shows up unannounced on his doorstep, Benjamin encounters heavens and hells, becomes his own creation, Captain Marvelous, and meets a taxi driver whose role is to drive history’s worst sinners straight to the gates of hell.
He also needs to guide his grieving wife and hateful mother-in-law through a twisted realm that reacts to their every fear and obsession, turning it into a reality. Together they must reach the heart of Modanis and help Adrimus and the gods in a quest to bring back Benjamin and Sarah’s son, which ultimately ends in healing, acceptance, and the creation of new life.
Yaron Regev lives in Israel. He is an author and translator, equally comfortable writing in Hebrew and English. His publications include two graphic novels, Ghosts of Love and Country (2019) and Descartes’ World (forthcoming), an upcoming YA fantasy series called The Door Behind the Sun, and several adult novels. More information about his work can be found in Hebrew on his website, asgardtranslation.com.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020