How long have Herschel and Moishe been fighting?
As long as anyone can remember.
As children they were a blur on the splintered wood floor of their parents’ apartment. A constant tornado of fists and elbows clattering across the carpet, under the tables, between the legs of chairs. If Herschel broke his toy train he would not rest until Moishe’s had been broken also. And when Moishe found the wreckage of his little black engine he would not sleep until he had his recompense in blood. Their parents had no recourse but to buy two of everything. Two picture books. Two toy rifles. Two red India rubber balls, their names painstakingly inked against the surface so that there could never be any confusion as to which was whose.
After they found cause to fight anyway their father bundled up their toys in a tablecloth and sold them to the pawnshop. Life was hard ever since he and his wife had been exiled from their home, cast out into the wilderness. What little they had came only through painful toil, and he would have no more fighting in his home.
And still it happened.
At school the teachers were compelled to seat Herschel and Moishe as far away as they could from each other, but they wrestled in the hallway and threw punches in the lavatory. In the evenings the Poles and Hungarians would peer curiously from the fire escapes to watch the two of them boxing in the alley. Even when they met years later in the trenches, Herschel shoved Moishe and Moishe struck Herschel and both fell down in the mud and the blood, kicking and bucking and biting, twisting and turning over hunks of shrapnel and the fat carcasses of
And yes, even before.
Even in the womb the two of them had fought—struggling in the silence and darkness.
“I thought Herschel was older . . .” Mrs. Goodnow pondered, putting another log on the fire.
“Only by a moment,” Mr. Wolf replied, taking a long drag on his cigar.
But the mistake was an easy one to make. Herschel had a hard, squat figure and a leathery, ruddy skin. He had a square jaw and a wide, dour, froggish mouth the corners of which hung limply. Under his eyes were dark and oily bags, as black as his tangled, deflated mop of hair.
Moishe, on the other hand, was seraphic. Tall and blond and almost wispy with a long, pensive face and distant blue eyes. As a child it had made him look angelic, but as a man he seemed almost ghostly. Wrapped up in his white butcher’s apron. Towering among the meat hooks. Staring down with that blank, corpse-like face.
After the war, the two never spoke to each other and saw each other only rarely. By tacit agreement, Moishe was never to be so much as on the same street as Herschel, and vice versa. If Moishe took one flight of stairs up to his parents’ house then Herschel took the other flight down. And still they would pause on the same floor in opposing stairwells, sniffing the air like dogs for each other’s scent.
Now Herschel owns a greengrocer’s on First and Moishe owns a butcher shop on Second. And the poison has even drained into their employees. Herschel’s baggers, in their crisp, pine-green shirts and pinstriped slacks, will savage any of Moishe’s men who dare to stray onto their street. And Moishe’s apprentices, in their grubby, gore-flecked aprons, will knock the teeth out of any of Herschel’s boys who wander too far north. And on certain occasions—the Fourth of July Parade, Armistice Day, Purim—both sides will find an excuse to somehow happen upon each other and set to it with fists and bricks and sticks and boots and whatever they can lay hands on.
“Sir,” the policeman says, observing the apprentices nursing their bruises and black eyes with cold-cuts, “do you not take responsibility for the actions of your employees?”
“Whatever for?” asks Moishe nonchalantly, sharpening his knife of the whetstone.
“For this destruction! For the damage of property! For this—this feud with your brother!”
“Ah,” says Herschel, arranging the plums in a basket against the window, “I have no brother.”
And that was that.
Moishe fought Herschel and Herschel fought Moishe. Just as they always have done. Just as they always will. Over and over and over again, time after time, backward and forward they go.
Except for one day, coming once in a lifetime, when both men find themselves standing together on the stoop of their parents’ house. They do not speak to each other, but they do not jostle each other as they step through the door. Herschel carries his offering of vegetables; Moishe, his offering of lamb. If their father views one as more precious than the other, he does not say. And this time, as with every time, they scrape the dust from their feet. They hang up their jackets, their furs, their togas, their cloaks. They are called into the dining room.
Sit, their father says, and so they do.
Their mother passes the plate around. Great scoops of steaming barley heaped on with a spoon she brought with her from her old home. The handle is sculpted into the figure of the tree of life, and etched into the latticed design is what might be the curling image of a serpent.
But who can say for certain?
She takes her seat at the foot of the table, bowing her gray head in silence, but not submission. The father surveys the room, the food, the mother, the sons—grimacing but obedient.
Eat, he says.
And so they do.
Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, he has had work published in Danse Macabre and NoD and has forthcoming work in Burning Water Magazine and The Airgonaut. He spends his free time looking after his cats, of which he has none.