The Things We Do

In celebration of our 25th anniversary LILITH sponsored its first Jewish feminist fiction contest.  We called for "vibrant, compelling, original stories with heart, soul and chutzpah."  This short story is the first prize winner.  LILITH's editors are grateful for the support provided by Joyce Elsa Goodman, which made possible the publication of this outstanding piece of original fiction.

There is so much food here for the living. With each taste of strudel you and I mourn the dead’s missed chance, and celebrate our luck at living, the flavors of cinnamon and apples mixing on our tongues. We grieve by chewing; it is always this way at shiva.

All week I have thought about how to answer your question, though it turns the figs I pluck from the plate to mush, the wine to vinegar: “Great-aunt Isabel,” you said “why did you never marry Grandpapa?” The laws of shiva tell us there is to be no idle conversation, no easy greetings as in normal life, but this question, though not idle, is a transgression, too. Not because we sit shiva, but because of our family. Here the secrets are as layered as the buttery, honey-soaked baklava your father eats. Watching you tuck your dark hair behind your ear, I understand that you ask because you are sleeping with your paratrooper friend. I am no longer ashamed to talk of such things. My body is old and I’m used to its mysteries and yearnings, its quiet accounting of kindnesses and losses. If we could speak now, I would tell you this story because you are like me—the same long legs with thick ankles, the same distrust of those who would dote on you. Look at our hands. See how they can open to hold so much.

Eight days ago we buried your grandpapa. Lev, your father’s father, my sister Maria’s husband. All this you know, already. And that Maria fell sick and how I came to stay with her, to nurse her to look after the children, your father just an infant, and to cook and clean for Lev, this you know too.

He was the only man I ever loved. Did he love me? Isn’t that the question you mean to ask? But I ask you, don’t love and need become the same beast? I’ve seen love murdered in an instant, killed by Nazi boots, by the Mufti’s knife, by our tanks, rusting now on the highway. 1 never expected to live this long, to bury so many, and still I don’t pretend to know what love is.

Sometimes I dream of all the people I’ve nursed. They sit together in one big bed, propped up on fluffy pillows. The fringe on the lamp shade moves in the breeze and the room is full of a pale green light. 1 see Mama with a book resting open on her chest. Papa wearing his fez at a jaunty angle. Maria is there, her jet hair falling softly around her face. She wears the garnet necklace Lev gave her on their wedding day—^perhaps it will be yours someday.

During the Great War, Papa sent the other children off to school in Egypt, but I stayed home to care for Mama. I knew exactly what she wanted without her having to ask—a damp washcloth, some weak tea, the blinds pulled shut against the afternoon sun. 1 practiced reading from the Bible to Mama or sat with her in the dark. I kept myself entertained by thinking of the stories my sisters told me in their letters, or by remembering my classmates. I thought often of a girl who sat next to me at school the year before. One day during geography, I saw her burrowing her hand between her legs. It was hot in that classroom, especially since we still wore long woolen dresses and covered our legs, but this girl wasn’t adjusting her leggings or itching from the scratchy wool. “What are you doing?” I hissed. She pulled up her skirt, while the teacher showed us the borders the Brits promised to set up in the Balfour Declaration, and showed me her hand rubbing deep inside her. “You should try it,” she said, “It’s wonderful!” I asked for a different seat after that and then I didn’t go back at all, but I would think again and again about the hot classroom, the smell of indigo ink, and her hand darting in and out of her bloomers like the sleek rats in our wood pile.

Without Mama, Papa was aimless. Within a year, he was sick, too. When I nursed him, he mistook me for Therese, his favorite, called me turtle-dove and praised my intelligence. I tried on those compliments, pretended they were mine. Therese was in Paris at Faculte de Droite—this was before the next war, when Jews were still admitted. I tried to imagine living her days filled with books and lectures, meals in cafes with young men in spectacles, but somehow it had been decided that I would nurse.

Before he died, my father gave his blessings to my marriage to Eli. I was 17 and lonely for my mother who might have told me what to expect from marriage, how it fell on the woman to make two people happy. Eli had escaped Latvia only to sit on our balcony over Dizengoff Street. I tried to draw out of him stories about Latvia, his journey to Palestine, but he answered in short sentences, gazing out into the busy street, his pipe smoke spiraling above him like Arabic script. 1 tell you, even now when I think of Eli, 1 see his hairless, dry chest as he lowered himself over me, once a week as regular as the Sabbath. I thought maybe there would be babies to fill in the quiet of life with Eli, but they never came.

I tried with food, too—rich stews and pastries, artfully sliced vegetables, but Eli ate each dish quietly as he had the last. Still 1 shopped carefully, imagining the feast, my husband’s face breaking into a smile of delight. Instead, it was the grocer who noticed me. He started leaving me notes tucked into the egg cartons or at the bottom of a sack of plums, so his words, though not his meaning, were lost in the thick purple blotches of juice. Hans would lock the door and we would make love in the back of his store. The slate floor was cool beneath us, but we sweat—a sweet garlicky smell that mixed with the odor of ripening fruit, and the saffron sold to the Spanish Jews, the vats of Greek olives in their oily brine, salty feta, and fancy imported biscuits.

I don’t know how long we went on like this, but then the war in Europe was over. Therese was back with her Catholic husband and talk of the Resistance. They had bombed collaborators’ homes and counterfeited papers for thousands of Jews. When I told her about Hans, she said “Bien sur, you were lonely, but couldn’t you find some progressive friends?” There were cities to be built, rubble to be cleared. A committee was modernizing Hebrew and soon it would be implemented as the national language. Therese refused to speak Ladino with me, the language Mama taught us and from which we were named. She spoke the French she had learned in Egypt and perfected in Paris. She knew so much, it was true, but I had been taught other things.

It was necessary to leave Hans and easy to leave Eli when Maria became ill. After your father was born, the doctor found a tumor, a growth like a tiny eggplant just under her skull. I moved in to care for Lev, for your aunt —just three years old—and for the baby. Everyone agreed it was best. Maria was still feeding the baby from her breasts, and I would bring Isaac to her in the middle of the night or at dawn, whenever his cries awoke me. As I carried him to Maria, he would root at my breasts, his mouth open, fierce and passionate in his hunger.

For Maria, I brewed chamomile tea with raw sugar, wiped spittle from the corners of her mouth, powdered her pale face and rouged her cheeks before Lev returned home. This was all she asked for directly: “Don’t let him see me ugly.” Because of my ministrations he never knew of her yeasty smell or the bed bruises— everything was covered with soaps and perfumes, lotions and powders. More lies, for the record.

Later that fall, we buried her next to Mama and Papa. Our living room was so often arranged for shiva that the rug beneath our low stools stayed indented, pocked by our grieving.

How differently we all grieve! Therese wept, refused to eat. Our youngest brother Roberto wouldn’t speak of Maria, as if her dying had shamed us. Lev and I were united in our unspoken belief that salvation lay in hard work. He mostly lived at the factory where he developed a triple-milled soap and a line of scented shampoos. He recruited clients in London and Paris. When we spoke, it was of these successes. In the early morning, I’d hear him returning for a change of clothes and a cup of chicory.

I washed and scrubbed that house, repapered the walls. The linens were as white and starched as angel wings. I polished the floors, the heavy dark furniture, the wedding silver so that it gleamed. When I caught a glimpse of myself in these shiny surfaces, I was surprised by my eyes—bloodshot, surrounded by dark circles, but brimming with something. When Isaac awoke, we’d go to the beach. Women in kerchiefs clucked over him, my nephew. “What a lovely baby you have,” they’d say. “Such hair!” “What a smile!” I stopped explaining that he wasn’t mine. Even later, it was with strangers and their quick assumptions that I most felt my shaky, questionable tenancy.

One night months later, Lev came home while I was cooking a stew. The heat had me flushed and my hair curled over my forehead. He grabbed me around the waist and spun me around. Did I see disappointment in his eyes when he realized I wasn’t Maria? Or did he want me—slim and limber already from giving? Funny what the brain holds and what gets lost: I know it was stew I was making, but can’t remember what we said then or later eating it together, Isaac cooing from his bassinet near the table. Was this the beginning or was it earlier? Do I remember a big picnic by a stream before he’d married Maria, his hand on my shoulder while he laughed with Roberto, or do I only wish it were so? Notice how there are more questions before there can be answers.

For the holidays we went to Jerusalem and stayed at the King David. The children had one room. Lev another, each connected to mine by a door. We ate at the restaurant on the hotel roof and looked down at the turbans of the Indian Jews, the broad black hats of the Polish and Russian Hasids, the soldiers’ caps. There was so much changing then. The waiter brought us dozens of Arab salads on small white platters. Lev laughed with the children. He’d point to a salad and say “Please pass number thirteen,” or “I believe I’d like a bit more number thirty two, if you please.” He stuck a whole hot pepper in his shirt pocket, hid it in your aunt’s hat.

Leaving the restaurant, a street photographer took our picture, as was the fashion then. He asked for our room number at the hotel and Lev paid him. The next day the photograph was at the front desk. In it the four of us are smiling, Lev’s hand is blurred, but looks like it is moving again towards my waist.

It was that night that he first came to me. The children slept in their room with the windows opened, the curtains swaying in the night breeze. I never heard the door open, but I felt the bed dip and Lev slide in next to me. The perfumes from the factory never lifted from his hair or skin; I smelled him before I saw him—a man sweet like frangipani, gardenia, lilies, those flowers with petals like pale thighs. “Isabel,” he said kissing my shoulder, “Isabel.” My body told me what to do then.

Did he think of Maria as he lifted his body over mine? Did I? We didn’t talk after-wards. As it is with shiva, presence was a comfort more than words. Early in the morning the sun woke me. I looked out the window at the pink hills of Jerusalem, blurry like a dream, and felt Lev’s legs still intertwined with mine. My mouth was dry. I lay awake wondering what this meant, until Lev stirred and took me in his arms. Again, our bodies seemed to know things we could not. When he left through the connecting door, I could smell his flowers on my skin.

Back at home, we behaved the way we always had in public, in front of family and friends. My place in Lev’s home was sanctioned by my role as nurse, the sister-in-law, more spinster than divorcee, in most people’s minds. I might have acted this role too well with the children, might have been too strict with them. But because I had taken her husband, I couldn’t take Maria’s children, too, though I ached to gather them in my arms, sing them songs about cakes and trees and sleep.

All these years I have kept the back bedroom, though the children moved out long ago and I might have moved into Lev’s room then or even into a closer room, one with bigger windows, more closet space. At night, 1 never knew if he would come for me, but I’d wait for him, imagining his body pressed to mine until I could hear his silk pajamas brushing together outside my door. When we traveled, we took adjoining rooms. In cold damp places like Budapest, Berlin, Dijon, I’d wait in the dark for Lev and always I thought of the people Therese had helped save, people waiting in dark cellars, in hidden closets and attics for food or direction or hope.

Once Therese and her husband visited from America where they’d been living in California. They brought pictures of their big house and garden which was lush and green. There were honeysuckle bushes beneath her kitchen windows, Therese said, but she had longed for the smell of orange blossoms, the smell of our childhood. Once she was here, she complained of the heat, the rude drivers, the warm Coca-cola at restaurants.

“Why don’t you just marry him?” Therese asked.

We were sitting in one of those restaurants, drinking iced coffee when she asked me. I stirred my coffee with the long silver spoon. I had never mentioned anything about Lev to Therese. This wasn’t just dishonesty; I didn’t have the words to tell her what I felt, to explain.

“We couldn’t do that to Maria,” I said, setting the spoon on my napkin.

“Maria’s been dead for fifteen years,” Therese said. “Be practical.”

I looked at my sister, the intelligent one. I had missed her, even this smug certainty. I might have told her not to talk of practicality in this country, built on sand and rocks, old hatreds and myth. I laughed instead. “Oh Therese,” I said, “You’ve forgotten what it’s like to live here. You’ve forgotten the magic of a desert blossom in the middle of the Negev.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“We’ve had different lives,” I said. “We want different things.” But I could see she didn’t understand, and that the confusion would be transformed into something more concrete—pity and contempt. What I told her was all true and not true, too. It wasn’t about Maria anymore. I was tired of doing what was expected of me, so when Lev asked me if I wanted to marry, I said “No, let’s keep what we have.”

The family talk doesn’t disturb me. People will say you are wrong if you aren’t happy in their way. In all our years together, I never went to Lev, even when I most wanted him. Sometimes I’d be certain that he’d come and I’d stay awake until dawn, and then he wouldn’t come. My eyes the next day would feel dry and sandy, but I never asked when I might expect him. The night before he died, his hand rested on my shoulder as we saw off our guests and I felt certain he would come to me that night. I felt then, after thirty years, an urgency to touch every part of him. Was it so terrible to want that, to be expectant, waiting and hopeful? This is what I chose, if we are ever really given choices.

He never came that night. In the morning he was dead, as you know. The doctor said he suffered a cardiac arrest and died immediately. Here again, Therese would say I’m impractical. Had I married Lev, or given up our separate bedrooms, he might have died in my arms. But he might as easily have died in the garden or in the shower or driving his car to the factory. I know about death—and we do it alone no matter where.

In answer to your question, I can only give you my story. This is all true: I was the eldest and my mother said to me “the fish goes rotten from its head down; you are the head.” I minded the younger children, nursed the sick and dying, was married off unwisely. I was lonely. I was not the beauty or the intelligent one I was only Isabel. I didn’t expect to know love and when it came to me, I tended it like the dying—gently, quietly, with a tenderness that has no name.

It is time now to end shiva. We rise together, legs creaking from being bent so low to the ground. We are allowed again our leather shoes and there is some commotion by the hall, as we sort through the pile and slip swollen feet into good shoes. Behind me, your father breathes loudly through his mouth as he always has, even as a small child. “Isabel,” he says and hugs me. His dark hair is threaded with silver now.

When the door is pulled open, I am surprised by the light and the heat of midday. Together we walk down the steps to the sidewalk and begin our walk around the block, our return to the loud, bright world which looks unchanged by our loss. Above us people argue in their shuttered balconies, children jump rope on the sidewalk. I smell onion cooking and something else, lemon perhaps.

By the curb of the bus station, I see a Bedouin woman, her veil held in place by her chipped teeth. She is surrounded by bulky shopping bags and in her hand she carries a large yellow broom still wrapped in plastic and cardboard, bright against her heavy black dress. I imagine her riding the bus to the desert’s driest spot, descending into dust swirls. She will walk into the dunes, past the other villagers who will giggle at that yellow thing, call her frivolous, impractical. In her tent, she will sweep and sweep until cool, brown earth appears. She will insist that the men leave their sandals outdoors, that the children wipe their feet. The broom will have a special place by the door and no one shall use it but her.

“Look,” I say, nudging you, though it is Lev who I wish to show.

“Imagine,” you say, taking my hand in your smooth, young one.

The things we do.

Rachel Hall’s writing has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal, The Chicago Tribune and The Gettysburg Reviews. She lives in Rochester NY and is at work on a novel about a 19th-century religious utopian community.