The next time Seth heard Thea’s voice was a week later, in the library carrel spaces. He was spending his lunch break with his CD player and a pile of books that might help him write a paper. He was walking down the row when he saw the tops of Thea’s and Isaac’s heads bent in mutual study, the latter covered by a skullcap. Seth immediately sat down in the carrel opposite theirs. He arranged his books in front of him and opened one to somewhere in the middle. Then he turned it so that the words faced him. He put his headphones on his neck, failed to turn the music on, and listened.
Her soft voice fit the library setting well. “This… ‘Tanakh’ is a long work. At this rate, we will not finish it for months.”
“This is a great amount of study, Isaac. Why is it so difficult to join your tribe? To eat of my fruit is a test of faith; to read this book is a test of… ah… ‘attention span.’ Is your god not afraid that its people will fade away?”
“Um, no. Frankly, it’s difficult on purpose, to keep out the people who don’t really mean it. If you’re having doubts, this is probably a good time to rethink things. Why do you want to be Jewish anyway? Not that I mind, but….”
“Do you have a soul?”
“I have no soul. I am an intelligent manifestation of an aspect of nature, given life by a knot of energy remaining from the original primal chaos.”
“Don’t start that again!” Isaac sounded upset and frustrated, as if it were a recurring issue.
“As you wish. But if I become a worshipper of another god, will I not gain a soul that lives forever? I will never be a mortal servant to any of my family, nor any of the other families like mine, even if I knew how to find them. Call it a matter of convenience.”
“We’re not a business like the goyim are. Go Episcopal if it’s convenience you want.”
Seth’s hackles went up. Thea apologized without any change in tone. “I did not mean to insult your ancestral allegiance. My meaning was that yours is one of the few beings I feel worthy of my worship left in this world. I will accept that the God described in these books is one, and mine, so that I may gain such a soul as human people have.”
“But why Judaism? This isn’t a small thing, to become Jewish, no matter how famous we are. We’re a weird little bunch, and not everybody’s going to be as friendly to you as I am.”
“I have made my choice, and will see it through. To always be making another choice would be to never see an end.”
Isaac returned to amusement. “I know of several people who converted in order to marry. I’ve heard of people who converted to reverse their parents’ or grandparents’ apostasy. Theoretically, some even convert because they learn about Judaism and think it makes sense. But I’ve never heard of somebody stepping over because they think it will get them a soul.”
“It is what I believe. Why do you argue?”
“Hey, they won’t let you join until the rabbis try to talk you out of it three times, I’m told. Consider this a warmup.”
“May I accompany you to your workplace some day? They do not allow visitors unaccompanied, but I would like to see the grounds around the Serif building.”
Seth’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah, right,” he muttered.
“No.” Isaac was adamant. “It would be better for you to stay away.”
“There is an abandoned sacred grove there. I would like to say farewell, and plant my bush there, before I leave my old ways.”
“I’m glad that you want to convert, Thea. We’ve destroyed a few pagan gods in our time, and you stepping over will mean you and I don’t have to fight. But work is still work, and the commanders don’t like civilians wandering around and getting in the way. The wooded area is where the upper levels hold their wargames.”
“I see. …Will we read this book again after learning Hebrew?”
“That would be good. Why are you taking the class, anyway?”
“I wished to learn about those who have survived and prospered. I am concurrently studying Greek, and the Arabic course was full when I attempted to sign up. Hebrew is the only other modern holy tongue available to me here.”
“Right. Well, we’ll start talking about Yaakov—Jacob—next time. He’s my son, you know.” Isaac sounded pleased with himself. The two stood; Seth watched as Isaac removed his yarmulke and the pair walked out of Seth’s field of vision.
As they went deeper into the books, the two moved their study sessions progressively into Seth and Isaac’s room. By midterms, they had entirely abandoned the library, so that at intervals Seth was treated to a seemingly endless parade of odd names and ancient laws. At first, during the transition, he would leave the room abruptly and wander the campus or play overpriced arcade games in the Campus Underground. Then he began taking pleasure in staying, reading or just staring into space with his headphones on, never allowing Isaac time alone with her. When the spice of that had worn off, he had become accustomed to their crosslegged presence in the corner. He sat on his bed and pretended to read, listening to the way her voice softened and complemented Isaac’s insistent pedantic droning, like water smoothing the edges of a canal.
He tried not to watch her. It made him nervous, as if she were always just about to pause and look up at him as she had the first time, long ago under a tree. Sometimes he was afraid that her eyes would be penetrating, knowing, that they would tell him with silent primeval laughter that she knew each time exactly when his gaze was drawn back to her, and why. Usually, though, it seemed inevitable that her face would be expressionless, unmoved. That would have been worse. And so he kept his eyes studiously on the page of his Macroeconomics text, occasionally flipping a page back or forth to make it seem realistic.
They didn’t just read the Jewish Bible, of course. At times, discussing a bit of text or some rabbinical commentary that Isaac had found and referenced, they would wander off on tangents that ate up the rest of Thea’s visit. Eventually Seth, still not looking at Thea, started making comments. He liked to point out the bloodier parts and watch Isaac dive into contextual explanations, feeling that this was a time when he could really make his roommate sweat.
One afternoon, when Isaac had excused himself to get drinks from the vending machine downstairs, Seth risked a glance at Thea. She was leaning against the wall, idly paging through some minor prophet. Then she paused, and he watched her lips moving as she read to herself. They were soft and full.
Her feet were bare on the bed and her knees drawn up, so that her ankles showed below the hem of her black slacks. She wore a pine-forest green shirt just loose enough to show the softness of her neck and just tight enough to show the firmness of her body. Her only ornament was a necklace of tiny gold links with a deep magenta stone set in it, about the size of a cherry pit. Her hair had fallen forward to nest her face in dark ringlets.
Now that he had looked, Seth found he couldn’t stop. A curious warmth and tightness were spreading out from the pit of his stomach and from his throat. Words ran circles in his head, and at first he feared, irrationally, that he would never be able to speak again.
“What’s your major, then?” he asked. “I don’t think you ever said, and all I see you studying is religion and languages.”
She looked up quizzically—which was itself a mercy. “Classical studies.”
“You mean like ancient history and mythology? Shouldn’t you know that already, if you were there to see it happen?”
“I wish to understand the contemporary human perception of my history. It is as if you were to learn American history on the other side of the world.” He grunted and nodded, pretending to consider this wisdom and assimilate it into his worldview. “What are you studying?” she asked.
“Well… I’m technically a business major right now….” He paused, wishing her eyes didn’t seem to know and wait for the rest of his thought. “…But I’m still finishing up my core. I don’t know what I want to be.”
Her mouth moved as if in a reflexive desire to respond, but she was silent. Seth found himself taken by the simple humanity of the moment.
“You know,” he said.
After some silence, she asked, “What do I know?”
“You know,” he said, “if you want, you can come here some time when Isaac isn’t around. We could talk or something.” The tightness had vanished with the words, but the warmth now took possession of every inch of his body, from forehead to fingertips, as she looked at him with those impossibly deep eyes. He felt as if a spotlight had been turned on him.
“What would we talk about?”
“Well,” he said. “Well, you said you were a fertility goddess…. I’m sure we could think of something, you know?”
Then she laughed, with real amusement and something like pity, and now she was looking at him with the knowing face from his nightmares. “After your rejection those months ago it is a compliment from you, and I thank you as such. But as for that—I am too much for you, Seth,” she said. Her voice was clear and matter-of-fact. “I would destroy you.”
On the stairs, he met Isaac coming up. “Hey; if you wanted, I could have gotten you—” said his roommate, but then Seth was past him and on the next flight, head tucked into his shoulders, hands tucked into his pockets, shoes still untied. Isaac leaned over the railing. “Hey, are you ok?” But by then Seth was gone into the night.
Seth was writing yet another essay on some Sunday afternoon when the familiar knocking came at the door. He stood, crossed the room, and opened the door with a single swift motion. “Isaac’s not in today.”
He was closing it again when Thea said, “I know.”
“What?” The door swung back open and Seth stared down at her.
She looked up and down the hall. “May I enter?”
“Ok….” He stepped to the side to let her in, not bothering to hide his confusion. “So, what do you want this time? I don’t even know any philosophy, so I can’t help you with your Jew thing.” The warmth was creeping up on him again, and but he squelched it as best he could.
“I would like to visit the Serif building grounds. Isaac works there; we have talked about the plants and landscape. I wish to see them.”
“Ah.” He stared at her. He wanted to hit something very hard, and wasn’t sure it wasn’t her. She returned his gaze, waiting. Eventually he realized she was expecting him to answer her request. “So?”
“As his roommate, you are likely to have access to a map.”
Seth shook his head in exasperation. “Don’t tell me you don’t know how to use the Net. Look.” He led her to his aged computer and opened the university home page. “This… is the campus map, right? Click here, and it’s the whole county. Those yellow squares are off-campus buildings and grounds belonging to the University, like the married-student housing. That red area? That’s the place you’re looking for. Here, sit.”
Thea took the offered chair without looking away from the screen. “Continue.”
“Now, just click here for the road map. See? You follow the highway for like five miles, and then turn onto county road W22. Isaac does it all the time. He comes home late-late sometimes. He’s a moron; with the hills, traffic can sneak up on you. One of these days he’ll be biking home tired and wham! —A truck will take him out. Boom!”
“Is this the main entrance? What if I do not wish to be seen?”
“If you want to sneak in, take W24 up here and follow—there’s a clear-cut area under some power lines right up the northern face; follow it. There’s a fence, but you can climb it or find somewhere where a falling tree took part of it down. There’s barbed wire on top; take a blanket to put over it if you’re crazy enough to go in. Just if you do that, you’d better have a mountain bike and not a racer. And no cars if you want to be sneaky either, unless you’re planning on walking the last mile or two.”
“Thank you. I shall be careful. How do you know this?”
Seth coughed. “The woods behind the Serif grounds are a good place for minors to take a cooler full of beer and some friends where nobody can find you. Safer than trying it on campus or in town. That’s in theory, of course. I just like to hike.”
She thanked him with quiet sincerity and left. He leaned back in his chair, assignment forgotten. “You know, that’s right. It might be nice to just go hang out there for a while. The weather’s been nice, and…. God damn it!” He slammed his fist into the desk, and had to spend the next few minutes nursing his knuckles back to usefulness.
EEeee! There was a scream in the darkness.