Ari Belenkiy

"These are your gods, O Israel, which brought
you out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus, 32:4)

At Mount Holyoke College, in a small museum of Japanese art, I saw a strange ivory couple: Tenaga and Ashinaga. The long-legged one with short arms carried the short-legged one with long arms on his shoulders. Legend says that they traveled through the world for many days. It also says that they met and separated on the same mountain. The tradition preserves but few details.


The man had come from afar, and his parched lips were ready to suck up the whole river. He threw his coat on the ground and slept for two days and two nights with his eyes open. No bird dared to steal the stale crumbs of bread from his beard. When he woke, he was in the circle where elders chose names for newcomers. He told them that he was a shepherd and that he came from a place where the sun sleeps at night in the embrace of the big snake. But they did not believe him because he had short legs and because he stammered. The ugly words which his heavy tongue freed from his mouth seemed sodden and dark.

There was a rumor that the man knew black magic, which he neither confirmed nor denied. When he was angry his face became pale and the rod in his hand shone like a sword. All refused to marry their daughters to him, and so he lived as a hermit in a small tent outside the village and had little contact with the community.

Misfortunes came: violent snow storms and voracious fires, rain for days on end and plagues of wild beasts. Crops perished, flocks died, and people visited the hermit for advice. He asked for time to reply, and disappeared for a month or so. Some said that he hid on the top of a mountain, others that he lived in the reeds. Finally he arrived back at the village on the shoulders of the tall man in a black hooded cloak and said that their only chance to survive was to leave. They laughed at him: they did not want to leave the river which fed them nor the stones under which their fathers were buried.

Then the short-legged one lifted his rod and pointed at the sky: the sun disappeared. Darkness lasted for three days and during those days babies were stillborn. Seeing what had come to pass, the people arose, took what they could on their donkeys and on their shoulders, and followed behind the strange couple.

Of the two men, no one understood the nature of their relationship. The elders always kept silent in couple's presence and tried but failed to decipher the signs the couple exchanged. Legends grew. Some said that, once, in the desert the short-legged one begged his carrier to give him some water - and was severely rebuked. Others said that the short-legged one tried to look under the other's hood - and was immediately punished.

The long-legged carrier at first caused amazement and, later, fear. No one knew when or even if he slept; he met each dawn at the entrance of his tent facing the rising sun with crossed hands. No one knew when or even if he ate: fruits, bread and wine which they put before him disappeared without pits, peels, or crumbs. Questioned, he barked a response which sometimes sounded like the cry of a calf and sometimes like the roar of a volcano. He never took off his hood and people were forbidden to cross his shadow.

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Image: Doraku, Ashinaga and Tenaga with a fish (mid 19th C.)

July 2004

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Lag B'Omer:
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Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

Ari Belenkiy

One Ring Zero
Paul Fischer

Josh's Jury Duty
Josh Ring

Our 480 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

Harvard Death Fugue:
The Exploitation of Bruno Schultz

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T Cooper: No Fences
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