When Jude Kafkowitz awoke one morning from a night of pleasant dreams, he found himself transformed on the ground into a small dog. His little body was snuggled into his human clothing. Cool, early October air caressed his fur through the artfully placed rips in his jeans. All he saw was a rippling cloud studded with drops of rainbow. He knew it was just his paint stained tank top undulating with the breeze, but for one more moment, Jude let himself believe the absurd and live in that liminality. He wasn’t fully asleep or awake, neither human nor beast. He was just himself, breathing in another morning.
Jude longed to stay in that state forever. But articulating that desire made him remember that it was just a wish, which made him remember that it couldn’t come true, which made remember that today, he was a dog.
He groaned. Or at least, did the closest thing his canine vocal cords would allow, which was more of a strangled snarl. Jude wriggled out of his cocoon into the piercing morning brightness.
His nakedness hit him like a flash flood, forcing his hands over himself, but his paws couldn’t do what he wanted and Jude panicked until he yelled at his racing heart that he wasn’t human anymore. He had no dignity to defend. Then he hesitated for a moment, staring at his clothes. God, he wished he had opposable thumbs.
No, not God, you roach, Jude scolded himself. Anything else but God.
Delicately, Jude bit down on the corners of his shirt and pants and pulled them under a honeysuckle bush. Jude had slept outside that night, curled up and shivering under some shrubbery, hoping desperately he’d be unconscious when the change overtook him. He could have slept in his dorm, of course, but Jude would rather take a hammer to his skull than let his roommate know he was a Sheretz. He told Leo he’d be spending the night at the library. Jude prepared a whole story about a history paper for when his roommate, a fellow freshman, grilled him on the excuse. Leo merely grunted and resumed his German homework.
Jude’s paws folded the garments as neatly as possible, and then his wet nose shoved them into the brambles and out of sight.
Jude had only discovered his college’ garden a few days ago, but already it was one of his favorite places on campus. St. Anne’s University maintained the finest collegiate garden in the Midwest, though that wasn’t saying much. Besides, no college makes their garden a selling point. St. Anne’s selling points were its small class sizes, cozy college town, and excellent pre-law and art programs. The art program is why Jude chose St. Anne’s. He also chose it because no one in his community had ever heard of the school and his parents couldn’t come visit him if he was hiding in some Missouri backwater.
Thirst scraped Jude’s throat. It always did after the transformation. His people called it tzoimke– the thirst for lost humanity. If he was home right now, Jude would be crouching around a ceremonial tzoimke bowl, saying prayers before taking turns lapping at liquid inside with his family. But Jude wasn’t home, so he told himself he could feel thirsty without assigning it some metaphysical meaning.
He approached the fountain in the center of the garden. It was a gorgeous, cake-like thing, two tiers tall and carved of milky marble. The midmorning sun drizzled honey light over stone. Hopping up on his hindlegs, Jude saw his wavering reflection in the lower pool. Curly tangles of brown fur, perky ears, nothing special. He ignored it.
Jude sipped the water slowly, like his parents showed him to do around the tzoimke bowl. He drank like a king caught up in conversation. A sip here, pause, a sip there, pause. Too fast and he’d be soaked with water and saliva like an animal.
There was nothing worse in Jude’s mind than being an animal.
When he was seven, Jude stayed up late to watch it happen. Navy darkness blanketed the bedroom he shared with his younger brothers. Moonlight slipped in through the window by his pillow, only to vanish as clouds drifted across the sky.
Jude lay on the bottom bunk bed above his blankets. He wasn’t cold; Sheretzes wore as many layers to sleep as they did outdoors. He could hear his siblings breathing. In and out and in and out rocked back and forth like a cradle. The quiet rhythm caressed Jude’s cheek, lulling him to sleep.
Moon rays reappeared and threw light across his eyelids. Jude blinked himself awake. What time was it? Probably close to midnight. Not real midnight. Shrutz midnight, which at that point in the year was closer to eleven thirty. It was also late September, not early October, as Shrutz dates were just like their times- devious little beetles that scurried around with no regard for human convenience.
There was a clock in Jude’s room, a bulky digital thing with a garishly green glow, but Jude couldn’t see it from where he lay. He didn’t dare get out of bed, though. The Kafkowitz’s apartment-sized house creaked and groaned with every footfall. If he so much as stirred in his bed, the house would grumble like the stomach of some oversized fish. Jude was sure he’d wake not only his brothers, but his sisters and his parents and his gruntma and all of Flat Heights. So Jude lay very still and counted the freckles on his arms. He had as many flecks of melanin on his skin as there were stars in the sky or sands on the shores. He also had slightly oversized ears, but so did most Sheretzes. Even when he was little, Jude enjoyed how his freckles were just his.
Somewhere past one hundred, sleep brushed its fingers across his eyelashes again. Jude tried to snap at himself to stay awake, but all he managed was the dull, shushing sound of rubbing fingers. His eyes shut slowly, like a well loved book closing once again. His body curled up tight and small; a blanket swaddled him, soft and snuggly.
Jude hadn’t been under his blankets.
His eyes flew open. He looked at his arm. Droopy ringlets of fur hid his freckles. A stubby paw replaced his hand. Jude watched in amazement as fingernails thickened into claws. He scrambled up onto all fours and tried to make out his reflection in the window. A teddy bear-like puppy matched his gaze. Jude wiggled his ears and wagged his tail; the pet in the window did the same. It had happened. Just like it happened last year and the year before that and the year before that, all the way back to when God sculpted the first Sheretz out of resin and mud.
Yem Kylba had begun. The Day of the Dog.
Jude’s vision shifted from his reflection to the view behind it. Brooklyn was beautiful that night. In the distance, onyx buildings dripped gold and silver out their windows and into the ebony sky. But Jude focused on his own neighborhood. On the squat houses with lightbulbs and bricks and trash cans out front. Jude’s heartbeat quickened. On those streets, in those houses, through those windows, were thousands of humans just like him. The Sheretzes of Flat Heights were all growing tails and teeth at that very moment. And so was he. He belonged here. He belonged like a neuron in the brain, like a capillary in the lung. These were his people. And they were a people touched by God.
At that moment, Jude loved his nation and his God and himself so much it boiled up from heart to lung to throat to mouth; Jude howled.
He hadn’t howled since. Nineteen year old Jude thought of the incident the same way he though about how in preschool, he would walk back to his room naked after a shower.
He knew better now. He knew what was worthy of shame.
Jude lay under the honeysuckle bush when he heard a rumbling. The sun hung at an eleven-ish in the sky, too lazy to reach for noon. Nearly two boring, blasted hours had passed since he’d woken. His plan was to wait out the day in the garden, but he’d spent so much time perfecting the excuses he’d make to everyone about his absence that he neglected to think of how he’d fill the day. Jude spent the time wishing he could be anywhere and anyone else. Then he’d chide himself for being a lazy, fat bellied rat who couldn’t do anything productive with their time, making himself more upset and starting the cycle again.
He smelled them first. A putrid waft snuck in through the flowers and smacked Jude’s sensitive nostrils. He sniffed the air again, picking out a particular blend of body odor and beer.
Of course. Jude’s garden was wedged between the frat houses and the football stadium.
A pack of wild jocks stumbled towards him. For a moment, he froze. What if they saw him? Really saw him. What if they recognized him as the pathetic, naked vermin he was? A blonde mass of rhinoceros muscle blundered into the clearing. All of Jude’s thoughts funneled into one explosive commandment. Run.
Jude bolted from his haven. Paws pounded against the path, pushing him away from the garden and the colosseum behind it. Tree roots and sidewalks blurred underfoot. He didn’t even realize where he was going until he got there.
After squeezing through a hole in a chain link fence, Jude found himself panting on a lawn so well manicured it looked like Astroturf. Reclining elegantly on the greenery was a handsome, modern mansion. Not modern as in contemporary, Modern as in inspired by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. A spark of pride flamed in Jude for recognizing the pilotes and giant panes of glass as homages to the International Style. He was, after all, an art major. And he’d spent more time here, at the campus art museum, than in his own dorm room.
Jude scurried into the shadows of the museum. The wall before him was mostly glass with a strip of opaque plaster at the foot, just the size for Jude to hide behind. If he popped his head up, he could see inside with little risk of being seen. It was perfect.
Jude gazed into the gallery. He’d have grinned if he’d been able to. The exhibit inside was his favorite- ancient statuary. St. Anne’s owned an unusually exceptional collection of Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman figure art, which they kept in a sunny atrium. After only a matter of weeks away from Flat Heights, the exhibit became Jude’s new home. He knew all the statues and the security guard by name. He knew the best angles to practice his figure drawing.
He also knew that, as a Sheretz, he was forbidden from going inside.
Despite what he believed at age nineteen, Jude hadn’t always hated himself.
It began on a field trip to the Met in seventh grade. Jude’s school was like every other Shrutz geshivka in that it swarmed with hundreds of tiny creatures and didn’t make any money. Field trips were more rare than a working water fountain in their building. The Met was having a special exhibit on medieval Shrutz ritual artifacts, so the school board scraped together enough funds to bus a load of middle school boys to what they were sure would be an enriching intellectual experience.
The only thing the boys remembered about the trip was their tour guide. She was a scrawny woman with mousy hair. No one seemed to have told her that her group would be a bunch of Sheretzes, because when she came out to greet them, the woman paused. Her face contorted like she’d been asked to solve world hunger on live TV, and make it snappy. After several stretched out seconds, it clicked: why these tweens were completely covered from head, with a flat cap, to toe, with thick stockings. A smile stretched across her thin lips, revealing rat-like front teeth.
“A bruchta mokemen!” she said, enunciating each letter like she was talking to a baby. The tour guide kept smiling her too-wide smile. Clearly, she was proud to have communicated with the Sheretz in its native tongue.
The boys made fun of her the whole bus ride back. They butchered their ‘chk’s and mangled their ‘oi’s and stuck out their teeth until every middle schooler was shaking with laughter. No Sheretz had actually used ‘A’bruchkta moichkemen’ as a greeting since the nineteenth century. Even back then, it would never have been directed at a twelve year old boy. The phrase meant “May they be a blessing unto you”; it’s what you said to a woman who just gave birth.
Jude remembered this trip for a different reason, though. For him, the tour guide’s most significant blunder wasn’t her attempt at speaking Shritish. It was when she tried leading them through the hall of Greco-Roman statues. Just as they were about to enter the room, an emmoret grabbed the tour guide’s arm and whispered something in her ear. The woman reddened, apologized and led them back to the main lobby so they could trek around to their exhibit the long way.
Statuary was forbidden in Shrutz belief. They couldn’t make it, they couldn’t buy it, they weren’t even supposed to walk into a room if it was sullied by a sculpture. Jude’s fifth grade madidyos emmoret, in an effort to sound cool, had compared statues to social media filters in her theology class. No one in Jude’s geshivka was allowed to own a smartphone until they graduated, but the sheltered kids still got the reference. His teacher went on about distorting reality, unrealistic standards, and yada yada yada. Jude thought their God was just jealous all the other gods got such cool statues. The Shrutz God couldn’t be sculpted or symbolized or even sensed. At nineteen, Jude would liken his people’s god to UV light. You just sorta had to believe it was there and could give you cancer.
But at thirteen, Jude wasn’t swayed by the melody of religious cynicism. At the time, he wouldn’t have be able to explain himself why he did what he did next. Perhaps it was because the gallery looked so enticing. From his spot near the back of the group, Jude could only see the skylights. The gallery looked like it was roofed with heaven. Or perhaps it was because of that smarmy smile on the tour guide’s face. Or perhaps it was because when he was five, a blue-eyed girl at the playground asked him if he ever got hot under all those layers of clothing.
The reason didn’t really matter. He wouldn’t be that before-boy much longer anyway.
Jude mumbled some excuse to his friends, then slipped away as their group turned a corner. His school shoes clicked against stone floors. The sound echoed into the chambers of the museum’s heart, becoming one with its ambient thrum.
And then he was there. The room glowed so brightly, it barely seemed of this world. Objects wavered with light, subtly stirred by beating angel wings. The marble floor was a sunlit cloud and the glittering columns were pearl.
Jude stepped tentatively into the room, like it was a mirage that would vanish into vapor if disturbed. But the room held. Jude was inside. Later, he’d be shocked at his own temerity. Jude had disobeyed his God. The Shrutz God wasn’t the type to hurl lightning bolts of damnation, but It’d be very disappointed in Jude, which was really just as bad.
At that moment though, Jude’s God didn’t hold any power over him. Ogling his surroundings like Plato’s freed prisoner, Jude drifted past flanking sphinxes and vases offered to his eye on altar-like pedestals. A life-sized sculpture at the center of everything called to him like a siren. The marble rose in proud contraposto with an arm held high for victory. A helmet crowned his head; a cloth draped across his shoulder.
He was naked, other than that. Naked and unafraid.
Jude had never seen something so terribly beautiful. The man’s body was utterly exposed to the earth and the heavens. Anyone’s gaze could slither over his skin and steal the secrets of his soft parts. But the hero had no soft parts. He had no shame. He was stone, impenetrable, immutable, indomitable. He didn’t eat or excrete like an animal. Every inch of this god was sculpted to sublimity. Jude stood slack-jawed with awe.
The god stretched his pecs up to the morning sun, letting its rays dance across his perfection. Damn cowering like a dog, He had nothing to hide! Every muscle had been carved with such elegance that Jude felt the tenses and tugs in his own body. The god’s head tilted downward; he smiled at Jude, and Jude’s chest swelled to meet Him.
That day, Jude fell in love with an idol. And for the first time, he truly, deeply hated himself. That poisonous parasite of loathing wormed so deep into the soil of his soul, though, that Jude didn’t even realize he’d been infected.
He began a strange sort of worship. Jude started his Sunday mornings by lying to his parents. He’d tell them he’d be at the library or whatever, then grab his metrocard and ride to Fifth Avenue. There, he’d lie at the feet of his Pygmalion love, sketching each curve of His transcendency. Jude learned every way he was inferior to the god, and he practiced drawing them over and over and over again. Then he moved onto the next statue. And the next one. And then other exhibits. And then the people visiting the exhibits. They were so much like statues when he only beheld them for a moment. Standing there contemplating an urn, that man became a Romantic poet in Jude’s mind. A woman bent over an information plaque turned into a priestess through his pen. They were so unlike the bodies that birthed Jude, bodies that blessed and belched and breathed. Jude spent years capturing foreign figures in all of their refinement and nothing else. He could have drawn a perfect map of the museum and populated it with years’ worth of patrons.
Except he would have forgotten to add in the bathrooms.
Jude wouldn’t use the museum bathrooms. Somewhere secret in the back of his mind, he was afraid he was the only one who needed them. He waited until he got home. But Jude didn’t draw at home. He didn’t like to draw Sheretzes. Or animals.
Jude gagged at the stench of rotting fish.
It was well west of noon. The slanted sun hid behind the dining hall’s gabled roof, smothering the alleyway below with shadow. Jude crouched in that darkened slit next to the trash cans. He’d spend as long as he could looking at statues and pretending he was human, but a primeval punch of hunger forced him away. Jude tried to resist; he stayed until his thoughts grew musty and his feet felt like they were floating on air. But he couldn’t choose to fast in canine form; the under-creature of his stomach puppeted his limbs into a hunt.
It didn’t take long for him to find the garbage.
At home, it was called shondeh shudis– the meal of shame. Sheretzs were forbidden to prepare provisions for Yem Kylba. They couldn’t eat anything they owned or ask food from anyone else in advance. God wanted them to scavenge and beg. If It wanted them to gather around a table and say grace, It would have made them human.
The custom in Flat Heights, though, was for every family to leave a neat little basket of meats and treats on their doorsteps. Perhaps it went against the spirit of the day, but the Sheretzes of Flat Heights started doing that long before they swarmed into Brooklyn, long before Brooklyn even existed, so the tradition was as good as God’s word.
Besides, the shame still stalked them.
It lurked behind every Sheretz like a phantom as they trotted up to a neighbor’s house, disappearing when they turned their head, its dread falling once more the instant they stopped looking. What if someone was watching? What if someone recognized them? What would those eyes think, seeing their emmoret or boss or colleague slobbering over a hunk of beef? For this reason, Sheretzes underwent shandeh shudis alone.
Therefore, Jude had never eaten as a dog in front of his family. But he’d also never eaten as a dog without his community. Jude knew what to do without their goody bags. He just really didn’t want to do it.
Sharp-toothed hunger slammed his head against a trash can, knocking the bin over. It clanged to the ground. Jude’s tendons tensed, ready to flee when someone came to investigate the noise. But compressed-hour seconds ticked by and no one came. Jude picked his way over to the garbage’s maw. It had vomited out a slimy lump of pink-grey that reeked like sour sea banks.
Shrimp. Or in Shritish, sisselkrat. Sea-insects. The Shrutz viewed eating shrimp the way humans viewed eating cockroaches.
Jude had actually tried shrimp before. On Yem Kylba, as a matter of fact, when he was fifteen. While his family scampered across the lawns of Flat Heights, Jude slunk away from his hometown. The neighborhood over was entirely non-Shrutz. It had mannequins in the store window displays and people walking around with exposed scalps and restaurants that sold vermin like pig and crab as if they were food. The animals were why Jude came.
He’d already begun changing out of his cap and overlayers on the Q to Manhattan. It had been terrifying, horrifying, to bare his freckles so flagrantly at first. Jude felt every stranger’s glance at his naked flesh like a tongue licking his skin. But he endured the plunge into frigid waters until it didn’t send a chill down his spine. No one at the Met had anything to conceal under long sleeves in August; Jude didn’t want to have anything to hide either. And if he could get used to human fashion, Jude reasoned he could get used to their food. Yem Kylba was the one day a year God didn’t care what he ate and his family wouldn’t know what he ate.
Jude found a seafood shop. He found the dumpster out back. A rancid stench leaked from the garbage, but a sweet smell he couldn’t name that wafted from the kitchen window smothered the worst of it. He elected to focus on the pleasant scent and dug up a lump of many legged crawlies from the refuse.
Jude spent the rest of the day retching and regretting his decision. Perhaps if he’d been born normal, he’d know that shrimp can not be consumed after rotting in a hot dumpster for several days. At St. Anne’s, Jude still avoided shimp. Gumbo night at the dining hall had been a horror. He decided from then on to claim he was allergic to shellfish, which wasn’t too far from the truth. Just eating next to someone with a plate of those insects made him sick.
Now, in the alleyway, Jude disciplined his hunger. It bucked underneath his will, but Jude gripped its leash tight. He would not eat shrimp. He didn’t care if he was a dog. He refused to lower his head to the bugs.
Overripe, floral perfume tingled Jude’s nose. He heard a mass jabbering, like the sound of birds greeting each other as they came home to roost. Jude slipped towards the noise.
A flock of girls fluttered down the street perpendicular to the alleyway. They flapped their jaws and squawked at each other. Jude trotted after them, unaware of his feet’s intentions until he was at the girl’s heels. His pointy ears caught a few phrases. The girls’ gossiped about the Menagemorah party that night. Jude’s art major friends had been talking about it for days; apparently, it was going to be epic. Jude couldn’t come; unfortunately, he was still going to be a dog.
But Jude hadn’t followed the gaggle of gals because of what they were saying. He wasn’t even following the group at all. His legs had taken him after Chrissy-Kat.
Every straight boy, gay girl and bisexual at St. Anne’s knew of Christina-Katherine. She possessed the sort of mind-melting beauty that let her purr a command and anyone within earshot would obey. Her eyes were emeralds and she kept her blonde hair in a tail down her back. In his human form, Jude tried to ignore her. Once, she posed herself on a chair next to him in the library. Jude grabbed his things and left. He couldn’t stand himself around her. She made him think of beastly things.
And something beastly closed its claw over his heart now. Jude squeezed his small self into the forest of legs. He was right behind Chrissy-Kat. Chrissy-Kat and her mini skirt. He could tilt his head, catch a glimpse-
No! No, you disgusting, disgusting vermin! You are nasty, you are a nauseating cockroach-make me sick, Jude, you belong in a trap with your neck snapped back-
Someone shrieked. Jude looked up. Every girl stared at him. Some pointed. He was naked and the thought hit like a beam of light on a robber at night. Chrissy-Kat bent down to the dog.
“Aww, it’s adorable!” she squealed, her voice turned to helium. “Come here, puppy! Come here! I wanna squish you, you’re so cute!”
She grabbed his middle, cold fingers wrapping around him. Touching him. Jude yelped.
“Oh, it’s scared! Poor thing, it must be like, totally lost! You’re coming back to my dorm room until we find your Mommy, you wittle bittle-hey!”
Jude wriggled out of her grasp. The girls, giggling, snatched at him. He was trapped, surrounded, everywhere his eyes darted were more hands, fingers, nails all reaching out to clutch him and Jude could see himself at midnight transforming into something hideous in Christina’s bedroom and loathing tinged fear lurched from his stomach to his teeth and Jude bared his canines and bit down on something boney.
Chrissy-Kat screamed. Jude ran.
He was sixteen when he chose not to believe in God.
By then, Jude was on his eighteenth sketchbook and had purchased his first short sleeved shirt at a mall forty minutes from his house. He spent hours in that store, watching the boy in the dressing room mirror transform into one of the figures his fingers knew to trace. Jude started working out in high school. Sheretzes possessed the physique of accountants, not adonises, but while he’d never be big, Jude managed to burn his body into something less pathetic. Unburdened by the clothes he owned, Jude really looked human. If he grew out his tight brown curls to cover those big ears of his, he could blend right in.
Jude knew God was upset with him for going to the museum. At first, he’d even apologize during his night time prayers. But the night he bought the shirt, Jude stayed up until everyone else in his house had gone to sleep to try it on again. By the time he pried it off himself, arms goosebumped with excitement, he’d forgotten about God. The next night, he made himself forget again. Jude knew by rote what God wanted of him as a Sheretz. He knew this wasn’t it. But a new idea crossed his mind, an idea that made his gut plunge like a skydiver.
Why should he care what God wants?
Jude loved the way that question wriggled in the back of his mind. Like a maggot, it burrowed into his deepest truths, rotting them from the inside. The dogma of Jude’s childhood splintered into more questions, each sharp enough to draw blood. He could barely stand to sit in madidyos class as the emmoret droned on about the finer details of Shrutz ritual law. How could he care about ceiling moulding when his foundation was moldering? Instead of listening, Jude doodled on his worksheets, drawing cracks on photocopies of religious texts.
Until one day, his madidyos emmoret caught him. The wrinkled woman politely requested he put down his pencil and pay attention. The next day in class, Jude innocently raised his hand, something he hadn’t done in weeks. She fell for his trap. The instant Jude was allowed to speak, he pounded his questions into her. How did they know their god was good? Couldn’t the miracle of Yem Kylba just be biology? Why did they have to keep the laws when everyone else got along just fine without them? Jude kept going and going, ignoring the looks his classmates gave him and his lungs’ itch to breath.
At last, he’d spewed everything that had stewed in him for months. Emmoret D’beena pursed her lips. She adjusted her hair covering around her large ears. Then she told him those were all excellent questions, but they were not the focus of today’s lesson, so could everyone please open up to page forty one?
Jude sort of wanted to smirk. He’d won. This confirmed it. All those dark, deliciously treasonous thoughts he’d been stealing like chocolates for months were the truth. God was the lie. That knowledge didn’t sit as comfortably in his stomach acid as he thought it would, though.
When the school bell blared, Emmoret D’beena beckoned him to her desk with a bent finger. Jude stood there as she slowly printed something on a slip of paper. His heart thumped. Was he in trouble? Was she writing a note for his parents? The teacher pressed the paper into his hands. Jude looked down. It was a list of books.
“You’re not the first one to have questions,” said Emmoret D’beena, holding him in her gaze. “Every great Sheretz has wrestled with the angel of theology. Doubt will always slither at your ankles and snap at your heels. But you can become its master. The answers are out there. They are much better hiders than questions are. And it will be hard work to coax them from their holes. If you want to find them, though, you will. You’re a clever boy, Jude. You can see the stitchings where others only see the designs. You could be great. You just need to want it.”
Jude sat on his bed that night, flipping the page between his fingers. He remained fixed for over an hour, staring at nothing, seeing only with his mind’s eye. Awash with marble moonbeams, breathing so slowly that his chest barely fell, Jude looked like a-
He crumpled up the paper and chucked it in the trash. Jude knew what he wanted, yes, he knew, with absolutely, positive, definite certainty, what he wanted. And what he wanted was to sharpen his questions and cut every shameful bit of Sheretz out of him. Including their God.
Jude kept repeating that to himself. When he lied to his community about St. Anne’s having a large Canadian Sherertz population. When he waved goodbye to his parents and sisters and brothers and brothers-in-law and niece and nephews and gruntma at the airport, then rolled his eyes and didn’t look back. When he shoved the oversized duffle of clothes his family packed him under his dorm bed and spent his art contest money on a new wardrobe. This was what he wanted.
Jude wished he had someone to tell that to. If he could give his emotions over, let someone else hold them, feel their weight, his thoughts would solidify, become more real. But Jude didn’t have anyone to talk to. No one from his homeland or self-exile would understand.
So Jude talked to God.
It began a few days after move-in. Jude found himself wandering alone around campus at twilight with so much in his mind that it mumbled out his mouth. He hadn’t meant to speak to God, he had just meant to speak, but he knew It was listening. Jude felt God in his gut the way a blind person knows when someone stands before them. The whole thing was probably just his lonely imagination, Jude reasoned, a centipede pretending it could become a butterfly. But if no one was there to see him, why not indulge in fantasy?
“It’s not that I don’t believe in You, it’s that I don’t have to believe in You,” he whispered like a prayer, “Nothing personal, really.”
The words fell limp on his tongue. They felt too flat and foreign. Jude glanced around; no human silhouette stood out against the lavender sky or white shuttered buildings. He and God were alone.
“A’shoichkteh d’meir zye da brunen. Gshmachk ite l’zoonta a beh poichkti,” Shritish was an ugly language. You couldn’t speak it without sounding like you were horking up a hairball. But a thousand miles from home, Jude savored every throaty ‘chk’ and curling ‘oi’. He almost wished someone was listening. Someone who’d come up and ask him what he was doing. And then Jude would get to tell the whole story of himself, which started when God took a handful of resin and a handful of dirt.
Jude walked along like that for a long time, speaking himself to himself and to his God. Then he returned to his dorm room and neglected his nightly prayers. Because Jude had decided he didn’t pray anymore.
From mid afternoon to dusk, Jude wandered around the invisible crannies of campus. He had much on his mind, but his mouth was too full of tongue and teeth to turn it to words. His stomach was a scratching claw; Jude still hadn’t eaten anything. It was dinner time now. He smelled something sweet and spicy in the to-go bags students carried out of dining halls. Jude might have begged–apparently he was cute enough to–but the thought didn’t cross his mind. He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to help an animal. Sheretzes didn’t keep pets for the same reason humans didn’t keep excrement in the living room.
Jude felt the party before he saw it. The concrete under his paws vibrated with a pounding stereo baseline. Acrid whiffs of alcohol hung in the air like gunpowder. Some needle in Jude’s subconscious had prodded him to the Menegemorah.
In an all-American neighborhood like the one St. Anne nestled in, the Menegemorah stood out like a circus performer at a PTA meeting. The decrepit building had been a frat house. When the frat shut down due to undisclosed allegations, some pre-alcoholics started using the space to throw ragers. Years later, no one knew who owned the building, few knew who planned the parties, and everyone knew it was the hottest place to get wasted in northern Missouri.
A throng of hooting revelers barreled towards the doors, shoving Jude in with them. He was too hunger-weak to resist.
Inside reeked of heated sweat and drink. Red mood lights strobed over skin, revealing a mass of glistening bodies writhing like snakes in a pit. Males pawed their mates; females found flesh to slobber on. The bacchanalian worshipers slurped beer from Solo cups too fast and soaked themselves with intoxicants and saliva.
Jude cowered in a corner as if it were a cage. High heels stomped around him, threatening to crush him like a beetle. His ears pinned down; his tail tucked behind his legs.
A familiar scent itched Jude’s nostrils. Cologne: artificial, manly and much too strong. His ears perked up. He recognized that smell.
Jude followed the scent around the edge of the room, down a little hallway and into the study. Of course. Leave it to the art majors to find a place to enjoy the party and critique it at the same time. His friends sat piled on a dingy sofa. Squeezed between a bookshelf and an umbrella rack, Jude could make out their voices over the screaming songs.
“Screw well-rounded education, if I spend another day in chem, I’m gonna pour chlorine in my eyes!” said Scott, brushing a hand through the dyed white stripe in his black hair. Jude caught another whiff of cologne.
Pink-pigtailed Peggy snorted, “Then drop it! Come take Sculpture 101 with Jude and me.”
Billy stopped stroking his goatee, “Yo, anyone know where Jude’s at tonight?”
“I think he went home or something,” said Scott. “He’s got that dog thing today.”
Jude’s world plunged out of orbit.
The house lurched.
His insides liquified.
Scott took another lazy sip of beer.
“Oh, is Jude Shrutz?” said Peggy.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty sure he is. He’s got those ears. And his last name is Kafkowitz; he’s not exactly trying to hide it.”
“Ay, that explains why he got so weird on gumbo night! His people, like, super hate that fish stuff,” said Billy.
“I would too if it was always the kind they had in the cafeteria,” Peggy grumbled.
Scott put an arm around her shoulder. “It’s eleven thirty Peg, spare us the rant-”
“It was spicy! Gumbo is not supposed to be spicy! I swear, my tongue is cauterized!”
Jude wasn’t listening. Bomb sirens shrieked in his brain. They knew, they knew, they knew! His naked fat was theirs to pin frog-legged, dissect, discuss and devoure. Everything he’d been trying to hide, every secret, every ounce of shame belonged to them.
And they didn’t care.
Another thought smacked him. Eleven thirty. Shrutz midnight was just past eleven thirty.
Jude dashed to the front door, frantically pawed at it–damn his dignity, he wouldn’t have any soon unless-someone noticed and pushed it open and he ran, concrete blur paws, ran like he could run away from that night, from his life, ran like he was spanning the thousand miles back to Flat Heights’s open arms, ran and ran like that deeply panting animal life, then leaped into the garden; his body unfurled and stretched like waking up, blankets off, cold lit by moon rock; he landed hard on all fours and Jude was naked in the garden again but so terribly unlike before- he could never go back to before; his body shivered in the darkness and Jude’s awareness pricked over each muscle and bone and flabby bit as they were, trembling like dew and squishy like worm and wondrously, imperfectly beautiful, an animal and an angel hunched bare-backed amongst the shrubbery, an infant bloody with ooze, born to a people breast fed on this truth, a people who knew to be human meant to be a bit of a beast and Jude hated them for it–hated how they were right and he was soft and un-still and sculpted of skin instead of stone, of resin and dirt by the hands of a God whom his life would be simpler if he didn’t own, but Jude breathed in the air scented with things grown, of honey and milk and olive and rose and his tongue hummed with an ancient ‘chk’s and ‘oi’s, his lips looped links, collaring him to a tribe he never chose but they chose him and he loved them for it-loved how they were his and they were real and they stank and snorted which meant they could hold him to their beating breast the way a moonbeam or museum never could, and that God, oh their God, oh his God; Jude hated himself and he loved himself and he hated that he loved himself- his soul was a tangle of poetry and it made no sense, made him mad miserable marvelous emotion burned up from heart to lung to throat to mouth;
Inspiration is taken from Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. The source below was consulted when determining how to adapt the opening line. The second citation is for the statue.
Gooderham, WB. “Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Its Mutations in Translation.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 May 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/may/13/kafka-metamorphosis-translations.
Unknown. “Marble Statue of a Wounded Warrior.” The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d., Metropolitan Museum of Art, Galley 153, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251929?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&ft=greco+roman+statue&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=4. Accessed 7 Oct. 2021.