Jacob and Joseph of Krakow

Jacob and Joseph of Krakow

A tale by Eugene Marckx

In the night Jacob was startled awake by a dream voice. It called him to leave his dying wife and go west from the town of Krakow to the city of Prague. “Don’t leave me,” his wife whispered, and so he stayed by her side and sent his son Joseph into the forest to cut deadwood and sell it as firewood to the people in town. But on the next night again he was awakened. “Go to Prague,” said the dream voice. “Your wealth and wisdom are at the Charles Bridge.”

What to do? This day Jacob saw his wife begin to fade. “Please,” she whispered, “please don’t leave.” He was not wise and had no wealth, or he would call a physician. As it was, he might end up singing the mourner’s kaddish. But again, on the third night he was awakened. “Go to Prague. Stand on the Charles Bridge that spans the Vltava River. Wealth and wisdom will come to you.” Jacob felt on the edge of despair. Now his wife’s sister brought black bread and chicken soup. His wife opened her eyes. “Go, husband. I release you. Our son will provide.” He nodded to Joseph. “Keep working, son.”

Jacob set out on the long road to Prague. His crust of black bread did not last. He came half-starved to the Charles Bridge. He tottered among the day-vendors there, who turned a blind eye on this ragtag peasant. By evening they took their wares and went home.

A guard came out of the castle. “You peasant, why are you here, to bring us trouble?”

“No, sir, I was commanded here by a voice in a dream.”

“A dream? I will set your head full of dreams.”

The guard knocked Jacob, so hard in the head that he fell off the bridge, into the dark Vltava. The dowse in the river cleared his head. He swam ashore, crawled over mud and gravel to rest under a bridge peer. Then he cursed himself for ever listening to the dream-voice and fell asleep sopping wet.

When daylight came slanting under the bridge. Jacob awoke to see a glitter among the shadows of gray stones, a small green stone – glittering. He took it up and held it in the morning light. Now it looked gray, not glittering at all. But in the shadows, it glittered. Jacob had gone this far for his dream. He searched under the bridge but saw no stone like this one, glittering green. It might be just what he needed. Here in the shadows, an eye opened in that glittering, a green eye. The eye gazed upon Jacob, sending calm into his heart. All at once he felt assured in a way he never had been. He was known. Within the glitter, a presence here favored him.

Sore-headed and ragged, Jacob begged his way home to his wife in Krakow. When he tottered into his house, it was empty. He was about to faint from starvation. Right behind him came his wife’s sister with a bowl of chicken soup.

“Your wife has died. And your son is lost in the forest, chasing his own crazy dream, just like you.”

With his dear wife dead and his son gone, Jacob felt so alone that night. He was a complete failure. In this dark house, he wished for nothing more than to hear his wife whisper again, asking for one sip of water. The dream voice had led him to this utter desolation. But not quite. He looked at the glittering stone. Its green eye opened and calmed his heart. He slept with it in a corner.

The next morning, he staggered into the forest to cut deadwood and sell it in town for people’s fires. Day by day he worked, with loneliness heavy on his shoulders. One evening on his return, he saw a candle glowing in the house. It was Joseph, home again. The two men embraced and told each other all that had happened.

“Your mother has died.”

“Yes, Father, I left after she died, but no, she is not far. Her voice called to me as I cut wood in the forest. A flock of pigeons swooped in on me as I was cutting, and then sailed over the trees. I followed, hearing Mother calling out there beyond. After three days of scrambling, tumbling, and learning to take care, I came to the edge of a deep crevasse. Pigeons down there flew up into the sunlight and circled above me. I heard Mother singing in their midst. I opened my throat and began to sing. Father, that voice – in that moment – became my own. The birds flew away, but I could not stop singing all morning. Then I made my way back home to you.”

Jacob smiled and led him to the corner and showed the green stone glittering. When its green eye opened on him, Joseph fell silent and bowed.

“Father, I see now that I am not a madman to follow a voice, and neither are you.”

Jacob and Joseph slept in that house. In a dream Jacob heard his wife whispering – and then softly humming. When morning came, they went to cut deadwood in the forest. Birds were singing. Jacob could not remember hearing them like this, their peeps, trills, and squawks. Joseph began to sing, and Jacob opened his throat in the tones of a kaddish, joining his son in sweet mournful harmony. They went about cutting deadwood, but at midday returned to singing and again at day’s end. Selling firewood in the streets of Krakow, they continued singing, even when their cart was empty. The people cheered from their windows at the mournful harmonies and threw them coins. Jacob and Joseph gathered enough coins to share with their family.

In days after they left off cutting deadwood, but they still ventured into the forest to listen for new melodies to sing in the streets. Yet Joseph never again heard his mother’s voice. The glittering stone in the corner of home became the source of their songs.

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