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AUGUST 30, 1939: 11 A.M.
My doom was trapped inside a tin of Hungarian paprika.
I rolled the thin metal canister between my fingers and almost dropped it; the tin was hot enough to burn my skin. In the silence of my dusty little kitchen on Dohány Street, in Budapest's Seventh District, my pulse pounded in my ears. I knew that if I could not control the demon I had captured, Hitler would invade Poland. And the world would explode.
The situation was just that simple and that difficult. I had captured Hitler's personal demon. But I didn't know how to use him.
We simply didn't have any time left. Hitler was going to invade Poland in two days, on September 1, 1939. I knew it. Gisi had seen this dark future in a vision more than a month ago. And knowing this, as a Jewish witch, I was in mortal danger.
But on this hot and over-bright August morning losing my own life was the least of my problems. My breath caught in my throat. I longed to put the tin down, curl up on my cot, and hide from the demon in dreams.
But I could not rest—not with war so close. I had warned the diplomats of the Polish embassy of the imminent war. I also had sent word to the Zionists through my best friend, Eva Farkas, who had joined their number. But now I had to put this demon, Asmodel, under my power, somehow.
I licked my lips and forced myself to breathe. It was time to call forth the bound and hidden Asmodel; only he could tell me what September first would truly bring. Only he could stop Hitler before he unleashed the war.
I had the strength to bind him, but I had to find out whether I had enough magic to compel him to my will.
My little sister Gisele had begged me not to take Asmodel out of the tin; my beloved Raziel, once an angel but now a mortal man for my sake, only shook his head and laughed when I told him I meant to challenge my captive spirit.
I sat in my chair at the kitchen table and cupped the paprika tin in my hands, my fingertips dancing over the hot metal. Raziel stood behind me, and I was grateful that I could not see the expression on his face. Only a day or two before, the demon had fought Raziel, an angel of the Lord, hand to hand, and Raziel stopped him, but at the cost of sacrificing his very place in Heaven.
Gisele, trembling like a wind-tossed leaf, sat next to me, her left arm trailing over my shoulder as we stared together at Asmodel's makeshift prison. The paprika tin Gisele had found proved a surprisingly sturdy prison for Asmodel's soul, with only a dusting of paprika left inside.
"Have a care," Gisele whispered, and her arm tightened around mine. Her sweet solicitude drew tears to my eyes. The cleverest part of me, the part that had seen Gisele and me through the hard years after my mother's death, wanted nothing more but to throw the tin in the Danube and run away to Paris, like my friend Robert Capa had done. I could save Gisele that way.
But Gisele, my little mouse, was also the one who had dared me to rise above my craving for self-preservation. In her quiet way, Gisele dared to resist. Some heroes, like my little sister, are born that way. Other people, like me, are forced by sheer desperation into daring.
I struggled to hold back the tears, and tried to paste a brave-looking, enigmatic smile onto my lips—bravado will carry a person surprisingly far in this world of illusions. The demon was well bound with the spells I had recently learned from an ancient and powerful witch in Amsterdam. But despite all these precautions, Asmodel was by far the stronger of the two of us, and we both knew it.
I flipped open the sifter with my thumb, and immediately I heard Asmodel's low, creepy laughter. Powdered paprika wafted out of the sifter like a pestilent little cloud, and I fought the sudden urge to sneeze. I ran my palm over the top of the sifter, made sure Asmodel wasn't trying to slip into the little cloud and away.
I took a deep breath and a sudden calm descended over me. "Peace, ancient one," I said. I recited the central verses of the Testament of Solomon, the ones that the king himself had used to bind Asmodel, to make sure the demon stayed put.
Somehow the great king had compelled this very demon to serve a larger good, long ago. I was a Lazarus, a witch of the blood, and I now had the power to cast spells. Could I too rule Asmodel?
The low, rumbling laughter stopped, and for that I was grateful.
"You disturb my peace, Jewish witch."
His peace? The creature locked inside the paprika tin disturbed my peace far more, as did his former host and master, the Führer of Germany. In fact, like Hitler, Asmodel disturbed the peace of all the world.
My voice trembled as I spoke, though my nerves stayed steady. "September first, Hitler invades Poland."
The demon scrabbled against the bottom of the tin like a trapped mouse, and the tin twisted ominously in my fingers. "Maybe, maybe not," he growled. "Who knows?"
Tension knotted the base of my skull. "You know, Asmodel. And you will tell me."
The laughter rose again, muffled but clearly intelligible from inside the tin. "How will you make me? You have the power to bind me, but not the power to compel my speech, witchling."
"And yet, a baby witch like me somehow bested and captured an ancient, cunning creature like you. How embarrassing. Your humiliation was witnessed by my own army of imps and demons, by other mortals. And by the Angel Raziel himself."
The laughter devolved into an inarticulate, furious roar. But I ignored Asmodel's outburst; he still resisted me. "I cannot summon the truth out of your soul, demon. But I can convince you to speak the truth of your own volition."
I began singing the Ninety-first Psalm to him in Hungarian, my favorite psalm for banishing and parrying evil spirits. I am not known for my melodious voice, so I am not sure whether it was the substance or my delivery that tormented him more.
After a minute or two, Gisele joined me in the tender serenade; Raziel's hard laughter from behind my shoulder fortified me even as Asmodel snarled.
Gisele and I started singing again, and tried harmony this time. The snarl rose to a shriek. "Stop it! For Lucifer's sake, shut up!"
I paused, took a deep breath to steady myself. I had won the first move in the deadly game we played. "So shut me up then, Asmodel. Tell us."
"Tell you of your death? Tell you of death? It is too late to avert the future, you hapless bitch. What more do you need to know besides the fact that you die?"
Gisele's fingers dug into my shoulder. I ignored her. "Tell me."
"You die at Ravensbruck. Tortured to death—the SS interrogators there are under orders to take their time. They break you, you betray your fellows, and you die in disgrace. Mortals warded from magic murder you—none of your spells and tricks will stop them."
I did not know what Ravensbruck was, but it did not sound good. I swallowed hard. "Go on."
"Your insipid little sister dies right here in Budapest, machine-gunned along the railroad tracks after the local commandant is done with raping her. A pity, he won't know what he has, the potential you have. A waste. Your entire life."
A tear dripped onto my forearm. "He sees, too," Gisele said. "The things that I see he knows."
Gisele was wrong. She had to be. Asmodel knew nothing except how to conjure fear and despair like demonic minions. Raziel and I had fought too hard, stirred up too much celestial mayhem, for his words to remain true.
I pushed forward. "It's too late for all that, Asmodel. Your prophecies are out of date. Raziel and I have turned them aside. Tell me something that is of use to me."
"Oh, I don't think I am wrong about you, witchling child. The world has a date with destiny on September first, and so do you on the day of your death."
"You lie. I have already had a date with death, a number of them in fact. And still I walk the Earth, quite alive."
The vehemence of his roar rattled me. I rocked back, clutching the tin to keep it from wriggling out of my grasp altogether. We wrestled for a few minutes and I stood up to brace the tin better against the table.
The white metal grew even hotter in my hands, and his low growl rose from between my fingers. "See if I speak right, bitch, then know your end is foreordained. Hitler will orchestrate a provocation. He is staging a supposed act of terrorism by Poles on the border, at the radio station in Gleiwitz. Every detail has been arranged. They will dress the corpses in partisan costumes, though the dead men are concentration camp prisoners.…"
The demon spoke faster and faster, a litany of overwhelming destruction and misery, echoing like gunshots. He unfolded a grim picture of the war to come, Hitler's plan to crush Poland, to buy time with guns and lies until he could turn his sights to further conquest, richer prizes to both the west and the east.
Asmodel finished his litany of curses and bellowed with laughter. "You little fool. It is too late for you to avert the destiny of the world. You struggle like a fish already on the hook. You are already caught. And every twist and turn only brings you closer to the fishermen's deck. You are already dead!"
My stomach churned, I tasted acid in my mouth. "Death is nothing new to me," I stammered out. "If the Nazis murder me at this Ravensbruck, so be it. I will only summon myself back."
"Oh no, you won't," he replied, the low rumble rising to a horrible bark of laughter. "This last death will be so agonizing, so dehumanizing, you will run toward death. You will embrace it. They will burn your body before you will even consider coming back again. And supreme evil will reign over all the Earth."
His words made me queasy. They hung like acrid smoke in the kitchen, as if Gisele had burned a cake made out of brimstone. I understood better now why Gisele had tried to stop me from speaking to the demon. "You never told me all that," I reproved her mildly.
She shrugged, even as the tears poured over her cheeks. "I told you what you needed to know. Like you said, the details don't really matter, do they?"
Unfortunately, they did. Though Asmodel's words sucked the very air out of the room, I took faint comfort in the fact that if he was right, at least I had nothing much left to lose.
But we were at an impasse, now. Asmodel and I both knew the only way I could control him for sure, force him to serve my purposes. Gisele must have caught the rebellious glint in my eye, for she shook my shoulder.
"No!" she cried, and I winced—her voice wasn't too loud in my ear, but the pain in it pierced my heart. "Please, Magduska. You overreach yourself. Close up the tin and rest."
I had a hard time replying; my jaw was clenched too tight. I kept my eyes on the tin, knowing that Asmodel was ready to pounce at the slightest evidence of weakening in my resolve. "My darling, of course I overreach. I must."
She knew what I was after; she wanted me to find it, too, as long as I didn't lose my soul in the hunt. The Book of Raziel: the ancient book of spells that Raziel himself had given to Eve when the world was young and human beings faced existential danger, as they did now. And everyone in that room, demon, fallen angel, and mortal, knew that Book was my rightful inheritance.
A version of it resided with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, but I could not let that fact stop me now. Perhaps I could find a way to force Asmodel to get it for me, somehow.
To find out, I needed to converse face-to-face with my nemesis. "Asmodel," I whispered. "Come forth, still bound by spell, but in your chosen guise."
Asmodel materialized on the splintery wooden surface of the round kitchen table, in the form of a breathtakingly beautiful youth, completely naked, curled up like a fern frond on the mossy, slippery banks of a hidden stream in Eden. Slowly he lifted his head, and his enormous almond eyes met my gaze. The breath caught in my throat.
"This is my true aspect, Magduska," he said, in a soft, warm baritone. So changed, so transformed, yet I recognized him in this guise.
His beauty threw me off balance, and I struggled to maintain my self-possession. "Don't say Magduska," I shot back. "Only those who love me may call me that."
His smile was gentle. "You invoke love? I know of love. Your Raziel fell from Heaven the same way as did I, for love of a woman. Naamah was as beautiful as you, her kisses were as sweet as yours. We had many hours of bliss, lying together and knowing love when the world was young and such things were common."
My cheeks burned. About the ways of magic, I had few illusions left, but I was still a novice at the sorcery of the love a man and a woman might share.
Raziel drew closer to the back of my chair, and his mere presence cut through the confusion of Asmodel's words.
"You lie," Raziel said, and though he spoke bitter words, his voice remained kind. "Brother, you descend not to help humankind in their exile, but to grind them into the dust. You want the Earth and all its dominion for yourself."
The demon's honeyed smile grew jaded. "What of it? That is no secret, not like your blessed secrets, the secrets of your blasted Book with its elemental magic."
I gathered up my strength, leaned back in my chair, and looked directly into the demon's eyes for the first time. "Yes, the Book. We must talk about that Book. It is mine by birthright. I want it. You will help me. I am willing to go to Berlin to get it if I have to."
Asmodel stretched his arms over his head and smiled at me, the sleepy rapturous grin of a lover who wants more satisfaction. "Magduska, the copy of the Book in Berlin means little. Not even Hitler himself can use it without cracking open its magic and mastering it. His best wizards could not do it. He needs a witch like you."
The very thought of serving Hitler as a witch of the Reich made my skin crawl. "I will never serve Hitler, and you know it. But the Book will serve him, if they can find a dark sorcery to enslave its magic. I won't let that happen, Asmodel. The Book is mine, in its every form."
"You can forget the Book in Berlin, little fool. You do not need it. The original of your Book still exists."
My body stiffened in shock, and only with a desperate effort was I able to keep my composure. All of us had fought a terrible battle over the mere reconstitution of the Book only a day or two before. If Asmodel spoke the truth, if the unsullied original could still be found …
I closed my hand over the now empty paprika tin, the sharp edges cutting into my palm. I tried to imagine what the original Book, in my power, could mean to the future that Asmodel had predicted.
"You are the prince of lies," I said.
His gaze locked onto mine, and my heart raced at the sight of him. I blinked hard to keep my focus despite the seduction of his words.
Asmodel's smile grew even wider. "But I tell the truth. It is your beautiful love, your own fine fallen one whom you tempted, your Raziel, who murders truth now with his silence."
I tore my gaze away and twisted around to look at Raziel, standing tall behind my chair. His face was as still as stone.
Asmodel's voice, soft now, snaked into my ears. "Tell her, brother, of the elemental nature of your Book. Tell her of the Sapphire Heaven. And of the power your girl may command with the gem in her hand."
Raziel said nothing.
I knew the ancient one sought to divide us with his honeyed, poisoned words, but I listened to him anyway, hoping for a slip of the tongue that would help my cause. I kept my eyes trained on Raziel even as I spoke to the demon. "Raziel is not talking. So go on. I am listening."
Raziel closed his eyes against me, and I noticed for the first time the all-too-human stubble now tracing the line of his jaw. Raziel was no longer an angel, but a man. And men make mistakes.
I turned to face Asmodel once more, and the demon leaned forward, his smile broadening, close enough to kiss me.
"You speak in riddles, demon," I said, and I could not keep the tremor out of my voice now. "The Book of Raziel is a book, not a gem. And why did we all chase the handwritten copy of the Book to Amsterdam last month if the original could still be found?"
His gaze exposed me where I sat, my heart pounding so hard my pulse roared in my ears. Asmodel's eyes narrowed. "You think so little of your angel, now that he is shorn of wings. Unlike you, I have not tasted the pleasures of my brother's flesh. But he is no better than I; he is fallen as am I. He has no more reason to keep the secrets of God, not now. Make Raziel tell you, tempt him as Naamah once tempted me."
A trembling worked its way from the base of my throat to my lips. Again I blinked back the sting of tears and kept my voice as level as I could. "You are a liar. I cannot trust a thing you say."
Asmodel shrugged. "That is true," he said, his oily voice now maddeningly mild. "But the truth is worth my speaking when it serves my purposes. And you said you wanted the truth."
I clutched at despair as to the side of a lifeboat. "It doesn't matter now, regardless," I said. "I've already lost everything. Without The Book of Raziel, gemstone or book of spells in Berlin, I cannot stop Hitler. You are right after all … I am too late."
"You don't understand me, mortal girl. You cannot stop Hitler—but more than this, you cannot stop death. Now Raziel will die. No longer an angel, he will face the Throne upon his death, the Lord's wrath. Like Naamah, he will die. He is no demon like me. No witch like you, with the power to return from the dead.
"Raziel is now only a man. You cannot stop his death, you know that. As much evil as he has done to save you, you have gained nothing. But you can still save him, Magduska. Vanquish death itself! Forget Hitler—do it for Raziel's sake."
Gasping, I turned to face Raziel. This time, Raziel smiled, a small, knowing smile, one that confirmed everything that Asmodel had said. It occurred to me that Asmodel had tempted him to fall many times before, in times long gone out of human memory—and now Raziel had succumbed, given up his place in Heaven, for no other reason but to stand with me. And he could only watch now as Asmodel similarly tempted me.
I turned back again to Asmodel, my heart cold, an extinguished candle flame. "What is it like to be so very old?" I said, allowing my thoughts to take flight into words. "Killing humans must be like swatting gnats."
Asmodel sighed in what looked like bliss and closed his eyes. "Entertaining and useful gnats; foolish gnats, with the power to choose the way of the world."
"Do we really? Choose anything?"
The demon's eyes opened and he pierced me with his gaze, speared me. "You could make this world a paradise with your choices, Magduska."
This time I let him get away with the endearment. It was my turn to be silent and consider his words. I was listening, really listening.
"Come with me as I restore the Garden," he said, his voice low and beseeching. "You could be the one to do it. The Book of Raziel was first inscribed in the sapphire, its wisdom encased in the structure of the gem. The Book exists. It is a lost treasure, but it is real. We lost it when the Temple was destroyed, but we have our theories of its location, do we not, my brother Raziel?"
"Why do you need the Book, copy or sapphire?" I asked. "You seem to exert your dominion quite well without it."
"Nonsense. I am in chains, dear sorceress," he murmured. "My dominion has ended—I went from the great Führer to nothing, nobody, my prison an old tin of paprika."
"But how did you conquer Hitler in the first place?"
"I already told you before, Magduska, and I do not lie. He invited me in, to augment his puny mortal powers. Had we but preserved The Book of Raziel as it had been transcribed, retained the original geography of the gemstone, no one could have stopped me."
"Not even Hitler himself," I remarked, more to myself than to him.
Asmodel shrugged and, like a cat, relaxed bit by bit against my forearm, the stubble of his cheek scratching through my flimsy cotton blouse. Abruptly I remembered his nakedness, and my cheeks flushed with shame.
The demon pretended not to notice my mortification. "Hitler wanted me to own him. How could he live a thousand years otherwise?"
"Could you give him a thousand years, demon?" I asked. My head throbbed and I was shrouded in weariness, dragged toward the grave by the hands of despair.
I sat perfectly still, unwilling to betray my weakness. But I feared that Asmodel somehow sensed it nonetheless.
"What does it matter? There is nothing more to say, my beautiful one," he murmured. "Let me in. Raziel and I will share you, and you will experience such pleasure as you cannot comprehend. Together we will find the gemstone; you will learn to call it from its hidden place. And you would vanquish both Hitler and Stalin, stop this messy war, and perfect the fellowship of mankind. You know I do not lie."
Not in the words themselves, but in the totality of their meaning, did Asmodel twist the truth. I tore my gaze away from the demon's nakedness, his deep, warm, amber eyes, and I turned again to look at Raziel.
Raziel had cast his lot with me, with Gisele, with all the rest of us cursed by fate to fight and die in the terrible year of 1939. He would stay with me, even if I chose wrong—especially if I chose wrong. And he would not rob from me the choice only I could make.
"What do you think, Raziel?"
I could not hide from him the desperation in my voice, the strain of the temptation. Raziel leaned in to murmur into my ear. "I was a powerful angel yesterday, Magda. Now I am only a man, and not much of a man, not yet."
He caressed the nape of my neck with his gentle, warm fingers. "It is like this, Magduska. The choice is impossible. You either let Asmodel in and try your best to control him from inside your body, or you keep him locked away, safe but useless. But beware. Hitler let Asmodel in, and look what has happened. Hitler's evil has only strengthened Asmodel's."
I imagined the cold touch of Asmodel inside my body, possessing my flesh, and I shuddered.
"I don't have the strength to use him," I confessed in a whisper. "And I don't have time to find that gem he speaks of, not before Hitler invades. We will have to find another way, at least for now. Gisele could hold him and not be tempted, but just holding him is not enough."
I looked deep into Asmodel's amber eyes. I could not afford to hesitate any longer. "Go back into the darkness," I said, even as Asmodel's face fell.
To spare us both another struggle I summoned a cone of silence to descend over the tin like a glass dome over a cake. The white tin with the red lettering looked sepia now, like a newsreel, and Asmodel gave me one last, despairing glance as he disappeared through the sifter into the darkness of his prison.
The sudden silence thundered in my ears. I sat at the kitchen table, drenched in sweat, sick with exhaustion, the tin—again scorching hot—clenched in my fingers. Asmodel was trapped inside once more, the stalemate still between us.
The demon was bound, certainly. And unlike most of my countrymen, I knew the time and place that Hitler would strike. I had tried my best to bend Asmodel's will to my purposes, as sages and kings had done in ancient times. But I was no sage. I had failed.
It was Asmodel, even trapped inside his tin prison, who held the upper hand.
Copyright © 2012 by Michele Lang