Carolyn Butler_Out of the Past
Out of the Past: Carolyn Butler

Sid Filkow

The Man Who Spoke Nareshkeit


It was obvious to everyone, except perhaps to Needlemeyer himself, that he spoke nareshkeit. Spontaneous utterances, such as: “A wet bird never flies at night” or “Tippy canoe, tie your camel too” escaped excitedly from his mouth, out of the blue, apropos of nothing being discussed or even contemplated by those around him. At such moments when he was a child, his mother, exasperated, would shout at him: “don’t talk narishkeit!” This Yiddish epithet Needlemeyer took to mean - simply: “don’t talk nonsense.” His friends (at least those Needlemeyer considered his friends) saw these outbursts as “Needlemeyer moments” (“chewchew-tabacca!” and “Take my wife please.” were others) distantly related to some elliptical thought streaking through his mind. And although they avoided telling it to his face (for the usual reasons friends don’t tell friends things they were better off knowing) Needlemeyer heard enough whispers to know they too thought he spoke narishkeit. As a matter of fact, Needlemeyer raised the speaking of narishkeit to new heights. Not only were his remarks rambling and pointless, they were peppered with words, phrases and the occasional sentence that neither he nor anyone else could understand. When these utterances sprang forth from his mouth, unannounced and uninvited, he would repeat them, giving them a slight French inflection,relishing them with a deep, guttural sound, pursing his lips, screwing up his face as if he were wearing a pince-nez and making such grand gesticulations with his hands that the unfortunate listener would usually flee.

“Zelem,” for example, would often appear, as a word that is, in mid-Needlemeyer speech. In fact it had appeared so often that Needlemeyer would now take it upon himself to utter it quite deliberately - for emphasis mostly - letting it roll off his tongue, playing with it - “zelllll-emmm” - at the end of a sentence usually so that in Needlemeyer’s mind the work had meaning, substance, finality - something akin to "amen” and “I have spoken.” Needlemeyer’s abode was a small basement suite on the edge of Portland’s trendy North West side, within walking distance of its ethnic, over priced restaurants and ubiquitous coffee shops. Surprisingly the suite was more pleasant and bright than it seemed from the outside thanks to several above ground leaded windows, a French door with stained-glass windows, and an ample yard with flower garden and fruit trees – cherry and apple – kept trim and tidy by the elderly owners who lived upstairs.

Needless to say he lived alone, for between his reputation for speaking narishkeit and the actual experience of an encounter with him, Needlemeyer did not fare well socially. Not that he was uninteresting, at least at first blush. No, Needlemeyer was erudite. He could speak with intelligence and passion about many subjects: botany, music, art, history and, especially, psychology, which was his major in college. Invariably though, at some point in a seemingly harmless but enthusiastic Needlemeyer discourse, the recipient of Needlemeyer’s verbal attention would realize Needlemeyer was speaking narishkeit. Seasoned Needlemeyer observers could guess, nay, predict, the precise moment when meltdown or what had become known as the “Needlemeyer effect” would occur. Bets were made. Money changed hands. More often than not it was the eyes that gave the Unfortunate away. A slight anxious flickering followed by a fearful darting in a silent plea for rescue. Some simply bolted. This was harder to predict.

Needlemeyer sold carpets from a small, below ground (again by only a few steps) shop in the heart of the North West side. Twenty-third avenue: a street of stylish turn-of-the-century, mostly three story, houses converted to stylish boutiques. Not wall-to-wall carpets, but Oriental. Not antique, which he could not afford, but older, collectible, rough, hand-knotted Baluchis in dark blues and madder reds and inexpensive kilims from Turkey and Iran, in bright, bold geometric yellows and turquoise. Savoring his designer coffee, Needlemeyer sat atop a low pile of Baluchi prayer rugs and surveyed his collection. He did not have many large pieces - mostly six by eight, or smaller - but well chosen - affordable to young, couples wanting their first hand made carpet. They lay stacked in several piles, sorted and to size and type.

Those Needlemeyer thought especially attractive hung on the wall. This was always his favorite time of day. Before opening. Just him, his coffee his shop and his carpets. A feeling of warmth and intimacy engulfed him. Along with thoughts of muffins. Why muffins? Who knew why thoughts came to him?

Chess was Needlemeyer’s only hobby, apart from collecting carpets. He was not a half bad player, especially strong in the end game. Working his rooks and knights into position, slowly strangling the opposing king. There was little or no talk to speak of during, so people seemed more friendly. Last night at the chess club: the stranger. Needlemeyer had won three games in a row from him, the last in an intricate mate in three. The stranger didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact he seemed genuinely to enjoy the surprise ending of the last game.

At the end of the evening, when they parted, Needlemeyer had mentioned he was in the carpet trade and when the stranger said he was in the market for a piece Needlemeyer had invited him to stop by the shop in the morning. He regretted it now. Everything had gone so well he preferred to continue this relationship over a chessboard. Needlemeyer opened for business and busied himself with rearranging the piles of carpet and replacing items on the wall with others which fancied him that morning. It was just before noon when Needlemeyer looked up to see his chess opponent from the previous evening peering down at him through the window from the sidewalk at the top of the stairs. The stranger smiled. Needlemeyer smiled. Descending the steps he entered the shop, extending his arm in Needlemeyer’s direction with a hearty “Well, Needlemeyer. Good to see you. It’s me, Schtarke. Remember last night at the chess club? But then you wouldn’t forget a triple play like that, would you?” Schtarke rattled on. “Charming shop,” turning around, mid floor. “I like that,” pointing to one of Needlemeyer’s favorites: a Turkish kilim with mihrab design. New, but soft colors - probably chemically washed, but to nice effect. Drifting from pile to pile Schtarke flipped carpets backwards before moving onto another, leaving half rolled carpets in his wake. Needlemeyer sadly contemplated the effort which would be required to resort the stacks to their former symmetry. Schtarke was his age, Needlemeyer surmised. In his fifties, perhaps taller than him, five foot ten or so, neatly dressed, slimmer by a few pounds. “I don’t know what I want,” Schtarke said, half under his breath, “but I will know it when I see it.” A minute or two later: “This is nice, if only the colors were different.” Needlemeyer sighed. It was at such moments he saw himself as a shoe salesman, with dozens of boxes strewn about him, sitting at the feet of a customer who, of course, wanted the shoe in the one color he didn’t have. Schtarke continued to mutter.

“What did you say?” gasps Needlemeyer, startled.

“I still like the one on the wall,” responds Schtarke, casually.

“No. I mean the word you just used.”

“What word?”

“The word at the end.”


“At the end of the sentence.”


“Yes. That’s the one.”

Needlemeyer’s heart raced. He tried to appear calm, but his knees sagged and he sat heavily on a pile of delicate Konya kilims. He wiped his sweating palms on his trousers.

“I know that word from somewhere. What does it mean?”

“It’s Narishkeit,” replied Schtarke. “I’m sorry; I sometimes throw these words in. It’s a habit. I apologize.”

“No, no it’s fine” blurted Needlemeyer, trying to speak more calmly.

“I mean, tell me about Narishkeit. Do you make these words up?”

“Heavens no, It’s a language spoken by a tribe of Indians living in the jungle of Guyana. At least that’s what they say.”

“So it’s a language,” mused Needlemeyer, stunned. But why would his parents prohibit him from speaking it?”

“Not their native language,” continued Schtarke. “It’s a sort of pidgin they learned from non-natives – a mixture of native and Hebrew. Some say they are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Personally I don’t buy it, although it does make an intriguing story.” Schtarke chuckled, oblivious of Needlemeyer’s predicament. Looking at his watch, Schtarke excused himself, confessing that he taught at Oregon Slate University in the Anthropology Department, remarking that he was late for class and that he was still interested in the kilim on the wall. Needlemeyer seized the opportunity to continue contact with Schtarke by lowering his price substantially, tearing the carpet from the wall, folding it and thrusting it at Schtarke with the offer for him to take it home and try it: “No obligation.” They agreed to meet at the chess club the following evening by which time Schtarke would decide on the carpet.

That night Needlemeyer slept fitfully, plagued by dreams of being lost in strange cities, fleeing from shadowy pursuers. He awoke abruptly, bathed in sweat, just as he was plunging to his death from an office tower. Unable to fall back asleep he regretted, for the first time, not having access to the Internet so he could research the country mentioned by Schtarke. Exhausted, Needlemeyer survived the following day by napping on a special selection of thick rugs he kept in his office for such purposes.

He arrived the at chess club twenty minutes early. The club had moved frequently over the years in a constant search for lower rent. It was now situated close to Powell’s Books on Burnside in the rear of Fran’s cafe. The relationship between the club and the café was symbiotic. Both had seen better days. The clubroom was small, filled with smoke, a half dozen or so small wooden chess tables and a quiet handful of players. Needlemeyer slumped into the one worn armchair in the room anxiously to await Schtarke and was relieved to see him appear, some ten minutes late, rug tucked under his arm.

“Too large,” apologized Schtarke. Needlemeyer barely heard him. They moved to a table cluttered with chess pieces, coffee cups, and cigarette butts and, after a cursory clean-up, proceeded to play two games which Needlemeyer lost in rapid succession. Schtarke remarked on Needlemeyer’s obvious inability to concentrate. Apologizing in turn and pleading lack of sleep, Needlemeyer proposed that the two of them retire to a nearby brew pub, one of Needlemeyer’s favorites, offering a cozy, burnished atmosphere, booths and sofas with more than the usual privacy, and a heady selection of home-made brews of varying thickness and potency. They sank deep into a sofa set back from a low, dark, stained, coffee table. There were few patrons so they spread themselves out comfortably, extending their arms along the ridge of the sofa’s back. Needlemeyer ordered two pints of Exterminator stout. His usual. Prompted by Needlemeyer’s questions and the Exterminator, Schtarke soon warmed to relating and embellishing his post-graduate adventures in Guyana. Reflecting on his own past wanderings through the General Humanities Department, Needlemeyer envied Schtarke more for having made an adventurous choice than for the adventures themselves.

During the course of the evening Needlemeyer was given a crash course on the history of Guyana, formerly British Honduras, and the Terrara Indians, the most recently discovered and most remote tribe in Guyana. The speakers of Narishkeit. Needlemeyer paid rapt attention, recognizing the occasional Narishkeit word which salted Schtarke’s discourse.

“Yes,” said Schtarke expansively, “rumors of a tribe who spoke Hebrew go back to the sixteen hundreds. No one really believed it, of course. It was an amusing legend. But then, back in the seventies, when I was doing post-graduate field work in the jungles of Guyana, I worked alongside an anthropologist who spoke some words of a strange language which he claimed to have learned from an Indian who helped him at an excavation some years before.”

“A Terrara Indian?” Needlemeyer spoke for the first time in many minutes.

“Well no, not exactly,” replied Schtarke. “He lived with them for a few years after his own village was wiped out by loggers.” They sat silently for a while, sipping their third glass of Exterminator. The irony of the name of the stout was not lost on them. Choosing his words carefully, Needlemeyer spoke slowly, trying to hide his excitement. "What you are saying is that the Terrara Indians haven’t really been discovered… I mean, not by any non-native… it’s still rumor. In fact this could all just be part of an elaborate, continuing, four hundred year old hoax.”

“True,” sighed Schtarke. “There is no verified contact by the outside world. All the expeditions to find them have failed.”

“So?” queried Needlemeyer, “What do you think?”

Schtarke grew quiet as he considered Needlemeyer’s question. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I haven’t thought about this for some time. I once thought of organizing my own expedition. What a find that would have been…” His words were wistful. “Anyway, it’s an amusing story” said Schtarke brightening as he rose and began putting on his coat, turning up his collar in anticipation of the rain now falling outside. “I hope I didn’t bore you with all this narishkeit” He turned to leave and received Needlemeyer’s “Not at all” with his back.

A week later every game at the chess club opened, not with the king’s gambit, but with “Needlemeyer has disappeared.” That Tuesday evening with Schtarke was the last time anyone who knew Needlemeyer remembered seeing him. His shop - sold. His apartment - for rent. His absence - a relief. For a time he was remembered for that relief. In time of course, relief from Needlemeyer not being an issue, Needlemeyer himself was forgotten and life, as it usually does, carried on.

Two years later. Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. Early June. About noon. Schtarke is dockside, supervising the loading of expedition supplies and equipment onto a small boat for two of his students on their first field trip – crates of food, mosquito netting, camping gear for them and the guides – machetes, fish hooks, batteries and other gifts for the natives. Low clouds, heat-swollen, prepared for their mid-day deluge. The air sweats, leaks from under Schtarke’s hat, cascades down his neck. Shirt soaked, Schtarke watches glistening bodies of porters and guides as they strain, longs for the mid-day break and reflects both on his weariness and his foolishness in organizing a field tripe at his age, and after so many years. At last jerry cans of gasoline for the second phase of the journey are stowed.

Schtarke draws his sleeve across his cracked lips in anticipation of a cold beer, turns and weaves through the chaos of the street – honking taxis, cars, lorries, shouting street merchants and beggars - towards a sidewalk cafe on the other side, sits heavily and orders a dark, local beer. Thick, bitter, rich, cold. Perfect. The taste and texture remind him of… what? Somewhere he has tasted this taste. As Schtarke tilts his glass he becomes aware of a presence standing beside him. He looks up. A thin, almost cadaverous figure of uncertain vintage stares down. Hair - long, oily, matted, thinning. Skin - flaccid, aged – although possibly from something other than age. Naked - except for a pair of dirty, ragged, orange cutoffs. Swathed - from head to foot in indigo tattoos. Scarified. Piercings (recently filled with bright parrot feathers and quills, Schtarke surmises) gaping from his ear lobes and septum. Caucasian. But how…? Schtarke stares up, questioning. A pause.

“Hello, Schtarke… Zelem.”

Schtarke: at first, uncomprehending. Then, a shiver up his spine. His scalp quivers. “Whaaaa… Needle…? Needlemeyer? My God! What happened?”

“The Tarerra, Schtarke. It’s not a myth. I lived with them until... until, recently. Until two months ago or so, I guess. I can’t tell time any more. It took me six months to find them.  They found me, actually, half dead and delirious way up some tributary of the Essequibo. My canoe turned over. I thought it was a log. It was an enormous black cayman. Over twenty feet long. I waded to shore but my guide disappeared down its gullet in three tosses of its head. I still have nightmares.”

“My God. Needlemeyer. My God,” is all Schtarke can think to say. Then, seeing Needlemeyer’s gaze resting on the glass,

“I’m sorry, Needlemeyer. Forgive me. Sit down. Sit down.” He catches the waiter’s eye and gestures for another beer. Needlemeyer drinks a long draught. “Tastes like Exterminator,” he says, examining the bottle. His hands tremble.

Schtarke: “Tell me...”

Needlemeyer: “They took me in. I think at first they were trying to decide whether or not to kill me. They are one of the ten lost tribes, Schtarke, I know it. A lot of their language is Hebrew, although it doesn’t sound like it anymore. “Zelem” is their greeting and goodbye. They pronounce it “shelem. Shelem, Schtarke, shelem! They have one day of the week when they don’t hunt, fish or cook and… and the boys are circumcised! Circumcised when they are eight days old! Have you ever heard of that amongst the Indians of the Americas?” Schtarke thinks.

“I would still be there,” continues Needlemeyer, “but there was a bad lightning storm one night. All the huts caught fire and burned, even the big gathering house. Everyone was running. I tripped and hit my head and passed out. When I awoke everyone was gone. There was a place beyond a mountain where they would sometimes go for visioning. They said it was a place where present and future are simultaneously present. They never took me. I thinkthat’s where they went after the fire. They called it “Horkala.” I tried to find it, but got lost and really sick. I managed to find my way back to the river where I was found and brought back here. I’ve been watching you, Schtarke. You’ve got an expedition going. Change your plans. I can lead you to the old village. We can find them!” The afternoon deluge. Pedestrians and vendors scramble. Water bounces off tin roofs of buildings, shacks, vehicles, collects in great puddles on the street, storms into open sewers. The pair remains sitting, soaked, glasses filling with rain. Needlemeyer’s voice rises simultaneously with the crescendo of sound and his increasing agitation.

“Look!” Needlemeyer is almost shouting. “I retrieved this from the community house. They kept it in the doorway. Everyone touched it when they went in and out.” Needlemeyer reaches his hand into his waistband and produces a smooth, plain, hardwood box about the size of a package of Camels, but thinner, and thrusts it into Schtarke’s hands. Schtarke looks down at the object and turns it over and over, considering its patina, contemplating its wear. He cannot identify the wood. He knows it is not indigenous to South America.  The box is old. Very old. And is sealed with a thick layer of beeswax along its edges.

“I’m positive it contains parchment with Hebrew prayers on it. I haven’t wanted to… I’ve been afraid to open it. Go on, Schtarke, open it! Open it!”

Needlemeyer sways back and forth in his chair now, as in prayer. As he leans forward, Schtarke’s eyes focus on Needlemeyer’s necklace – a long rosary of small balls of leather. Curious. Curled and folded looking like dried leechie nuts or… Needlemeyer sees him staring.

“Foreskins,” says Needlemeyer. “They made me mohel after theirs died. I did all the  circumcisions. I think that’s what saved me in the beginning, my being circumcised.”

Schtarke. His eyes dart between the box, the necklace and the deserted street. Back and forth. Back and forth. Imploring. Fearful. Slowly Schtarke lowers the box to the table. A moment as he looks directly at Needlemeyer. Then he bolts. One evening, several years later, Schtarke happens to tell his story to a colleague from the Department of Theology and is surprised to learn that the word “zelem” appears in the book of Genesis to describe God’s creation of Man in his own image and that “Hurqalya” according to ancient Sufi teachings, is a celestial time/space here on earth.

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