My stepfather Yisroel is a pious Jew. He would never desecrate the Shabbes by striking a match or switching on a light. Except, one Friday night when I was 10 years old, a year before my brother was born, he ripped an entire bedside lamp out of the socket and threw it at my mother. The lamp missed her head. My mother swayed and lost her footing, she stumbled backwards into the corner. Yisroel then picked up one of his weekday shoes from beside the bed and hurled it at her.
My mother crumbled to the floor, her knees tight to her chest, her arms shielding her head. He bent down to pick up the other shoe. Maybe, I ran into my room covered my ears, and recited Psalm 23 over and over again, until it stopped. Maybe I screamed at him to stop. Maybe the words sat in my throat and refused to come out. My mother didn’t try to get up. Yisroel just left her there, sobbing. I left her too.
I knew that he wouldn’t let me skip the Shabbes meal. So, I stood by the dining room table while Yisroel—it’s not his real name—sang Eishes Chayil and recited the Kiddush. I sipped the wine, and took a bite of the challah that he offered me. In the kitchen, I sliced the gefilte fish, scooped out the inside of a cooked onion, and added a chunk of carrot to his plate, for color. I willed my hands not to shake, walked back into the dining room, and placed the food on the table in front of him, careful not to make eye contact. I didn’t eat. Instead, I watched as Yisroel’s beard bobbed while he chewed, caressing his chest with each bite. I didn’t go back and see if my mother was okay either. If I saw her there, reduced to nothing, cowering and helpless, I might turn to stone.
Yisroel read a story aloud from Tales of the Tzadikim. I didn’t want to listen to him read stories about righteous men. They were all the same. It would be a story from the olden days, about a pious rabbi lost in a Russian forest, or besieged by marauding Cossacks. The rabbi almost despairs, but then trusts in God, and prays. In the end his prayers are answered, and he is saved by a flicker of light in the distance, or an unassuming peasant who materializes out of the shadows.
I prayed too, every time he hit my mother. At sunset on Fridays my mother would cover her eyes after lighting the Shabbes candles and tears would seep from beneath her palms. I knew what she was praying for. Despite being surrounded by neighbors who could hear what was going on in our home, our prayers were not answered. There was no flickering light, no savior from within the shadows.
I had to sit there. But I didn’t have to listen to him. I drowned out his words. Interlocking my fingers and then gripping my hands in my lap, I rocked back and forth, between the table and the back of the chair. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I said those words over and over in my head until he finished reading.
Amidst our words I could still hear my mother crying. Then he drowned her sobs with his tuneless singing, and I was grateful. I knew it was wrong, I was supposed to be on her side, but I was relieved to be released from her cries for a time. If there was a cave that I could slink into, that would seal me up and suck out of my body the shame that I felt for being angry at my mother, I would gladly crawl into it and stay.
Yisroel hummed while he ate his meal. He hummed as if he was happy, as if nothing was wrong. I served him three courses: fish and salad, chicken soup with kneidlach, chicken and kugel. All the while wishing that he would disappear. He could lean over the Shabbes candles that my mother and I had lit at sunset. His beard would begin to singe, then it would smoke and the smoke would start to swirl. Yisroel would get sucked into the swirl of smoke and drift out of the window, as if it was a chimney. The wind would carry him far away, and all there’d be left of him would be a slight smell of singed hair.
When it was all over, when he finished eating and praying, I cleared the table and tended to the kitchen. I put the food in the fridge. I washed the dishes with extra precision, lingering on spots of caked-on food that weren’t really there. It was good to have something to anchor me in place while I figured out where to put myself next. There was only a wall that separated my room from theirs, and Yisroel’s presence seemed to take up all of the air in the dining room and attached living room. In the end I fell asleep sitting up on the floor beneath the kitchen window.
The year that I turned 18, before I left that house, I killed Yisroel with a cast iron frying pan, at night, in my dreams, again and again. Even so, even with him lying on the floor, his skull cracked open, snakes slithering where his brain should have been, even then, the mother in my dreams wouldn’t look at me. In my dreams, she didn’t hear me calling to her.
Later, when I was grown, my mother and I sat at my kitchen table and talked about it. I told her that I used to cower in my room and pray, begging God to make him stop. I wanted her to say that she was sorry for staying with this man who had terrorized us.
My mother didn’t apologize. Instead, she told me about the time he pulled the Buick over to the side of the road, and beat her, with my baby brother watching from his car seat.
“That was before I figured out how not to make him so angry,” she said.
“God I hate him,” I said. “How can you stay with him?”
She leaned across the table and narrowed her eyes.
“Let me ask you this,” my mother said, “if it was so bad, if you hated him so much, how come you never called the police?”
She held my gaze and waited.
A sensation bloomed in my solar plexus and spread up through my chest and back. It was hot and spiky, pricking at my skin from the inside.
My mother’s eyes demanded an answer.
The feeling oozed up through my neck and face like an internal heat rash. When it reached my eyes, tears welled up and spilled over. I wasn’t expecting to cry so many years later. My mother’s eyes softened at the sight of my tears. She reached over and placed her hand over mine.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s better now.”
The feeling continued past my eyes and pushed right through the top of my head. So, she had expected me to save her: a child still proud to wear dresses that her mother had sewn, a girl not yet wearing a training bra.
I pulled my hand away from hers, interlocked my fingers, gripping my hands tight in my lap.
Had it never occurred to her that I needed rescuing, too?
Gila K. Berryman received her MFA in creative writing from New York University and is finishing her first novel.