When you are a girl who cuts herself, for years, with the clean antiseptic edge of a razor blade that once belonged to—well, no. Deborah never told anyone that. The first owner of the blade, that was her secret. But it never belonged to her father, or even her younger brother. She knew the therapist believed the slice of metal had family significance. But even a good therapist can carry a bad idea, a wrong idea.
Anyway, she never told, and years afterward, when the cutting had (mostly) ended and she only wore long sleeves to hide the scars, not to cover any new weeping wound, there came a day when she put the blade into a place she planned to forget. She didn’t write the location, or even photograph it with her smartphone. Goodbye, little comforting knife. Goodbye, farewell, try not to rust.
Yet somehow she remembered the exact place. She didn’t go back to check, but in her dreams she counted along the stone wall on the college campus, seventeen stones from the pillar, and found the single-edge razor blade gleaming, reflecting starlight. Not in her daily life, you see? Just in her dreams. Still, even a dream is a kind of memory, isn’t it?
She found her soulmate, her beshert, the year after her daughter left home for college in another country. Text messages and occasional e-mails arrived several times each day, even now that her daughter’s citizenship in the new place had become official. “I sent a seed into the world and it became a forest,” Deborah hummed to herself, using a tune from the Friday evening prayer service that Louis attended every week, rain or shine, summer or New Haven winter with its icy winds and slick sidewalks. She liked being there with him—not in adjacent seats, of course, since he sat with the men and she davened with the women. But the gentle fluttering of the curtain between them comforted her, and the electric pulse from heart to heart never ceased. In fact, sometimes she felt the voltage of that pulse rise up, with certain prayers, like the Shema. How strange to wait until your silver hairs emerge to find the one meant for you. But it was true, and it was true love.
Even their bodies showed they were meant for each other. Each questing scar on Deborah’s right arm matched a leaf-adorned branch inked onto Louis’s left arm. And her left arm, to his right. Oh, she knew Jews weren’t supposed to get tattoos. That echo of the cattle-car blue-ink numerals on the prisoners’ inner arms, that painful assertion of labor demanded and death by starvation most likely to follow—Deborah knew about those memories. Her grandmother, her bubbe, used to point silently to the marks that Mrs. Worob down the block usually hid under her sweaters, displayed once each year, bared, at the swimming beach. Deborah understood silence, understood hiding, and the moment of revealing. Many times, she tried to shape those numbers from the fine red lines she cut into her skin, but the curves of the two and the five defeated her. You could still see the seven if you knew how to look.
The first night that she lay with Louis and traced the lines and leaves on his skin, she marveled. The Tree of Life, living and warm, stirring and vibrating against her own chest. On Louis, the twigs, branches, and finally trunk, accompanied by colorful birds that resembled exotic pigeons, came together in a rooted unity. He told her how he’d marked time with each added detail, and for him, the week that the last trembling leaf appeared on the back of his left hand, he saw her cross the road to the old cemetery, and he knew. A day after that, when he called out across the street to her, the thundering sky itself echoed the new connection. Something old, something new, something remembered that went deeper than a blade—or a needle—could reach. And it was Good. They married a month later, at the old synagogue, on a quiet November morning. Not much fuss, but still, they smashed the glass for luck and blessing. Meant to be.
One spring morning—New Haven spring: rain and hail interrupted by tender blue-sky hours, circling back to soft warm breezes, then a hint of frost, despite April—Deborah woke to Louis’s absence from their bed. She tugged a velour robe around herself and padded on bare feet to the kitchen, where she found him, as expected. But he was not sitting at the round table with an early cup of coffee, not even fixing the coffee yet. Instead, he stood at the window, gazing across from their third floor to the little old cemetery at the end of the block.
Louis reached behind to hold her hand, without turning from the view. “Look,” he said. “Someone is planting something. At the cemetery. Should we do something? What should we do?” Deborah paused to think before replying, and rubbed the warmth of Louis’s hand, then stepped closer to curl under his arm, comforted against the side of his chest. Perhaps this comfort led her to the wrong words. She wondered afterward.
“Why should we do anything? It’s a nice thing, to plant something there. With all the traffic and such dry soil, maybe it won’t grow anyway. Let it be—and let the person feel good about it.”
Person: She meant to say man, digging in the soil along the fenceline of the dry, sorrowful place, but the more she looked, the more she thought, “Woman. Heavy-set. Veil.” Maybe what looked like a black veil from here could really be one of those insect-protection nets. She’d seen explorers wear them in nature programs, and even some advertised on TV. But grief is grief, and the darkness around the gardener’s head spoke of mourning. “Veil,” she said aloud.
“Might be.” Louis glanced at her, unconvinced but not arguing. Morning and beloved, not mourning and sorrow. Louis started the coffee.
More people noticed as the season warmed and the plants grew. The person planting them tended them at dawn or in the last hour of twilight. As May turned to June, twilight came very late, and dawn very early, but still. “She must not sleep a lot,” Deborah mused, thinking of how her mother became so restless among the dozens of deaths that old age witnesses. Buds formed on the new hedge of plants. Roses.
The cemetery association held a meeting. Louis attended. He told Deborah afterward, “Nobody knows who it is. But the roses—they have already taken over along the entire eastward wall. People are worried they will catch in the lawnmower when Harry mows that side. Harry’s going to take them out.”
Tuesday afternoon they saw Harry arrive with his mower, his truck of tools. Together, holding hands, Louis’s leaves entwined with Deborah’s thin net of scars, they walked down the block to sit by the west wall and watch Louis across from them, digging and tugging. Deborah felt bad that she couldn’t help. Arthritis in her hands already, and the therapist said to choose tasks wisely. She waited as long as she could, then told Louis she’d be right back—at least she could fetch a bottle of ice water and some fruit to share with Henry. Maybe a slice of poundcake, too. Everybody liked poundcake.
By the time she returned, carrying it all (with paper cups, little plastic plates she could wash afterward, napkins) in a shopping bag, Louis had left the west wall. He stood across the cemetery with Harry. Deborah joined them to contemplate the roots in the pale, dry soil. She looked at their solemn faces.
“So, there’s a problem, maybe? Some trouble with the shovel, a rock?” She didn’t see anything like a rock in the long slice of open soil along the fence line, but who knew?
“It’s not going to work, just taking them out like this,” Louis explained, while Harry poked his shovel at the roots again. “They’re already outside the wall, making a hedge along the outside. They could spread back inside any time.”
“So you take them out from the other side too,” Deborah commented. “If you really don’t want them here, you have to do it all, right?”
Harry grunted a negative. “Can’t do the other side. The cemetery stops here. That’s someone else’s land, that is.”
Deborah watched the two men shake their heads. She turned aside to lay out her water, her food, on a nearby bench. Harry took a short break with them, then loaded his uprooted bushes from the near side of the wall and shoveled the soil back into place. In the back of the truck the displaced roses looked sad and crowded, but strong anyway. Some pink blossoms showed among the branches and sandy roots.
Along the other side of the wall, roses already had opened. From more heat on that side, sunshine soaked up by the wall, Deborah speculated. She tiptoed around to the other side, knowing she was trespassing, just to inhale the fragrance. She remembered her mother’s rosewater scent, the least expensive and with a clean, gentle aroma that blended well. With his penknife, Louis cut a few blooms for her to take home.
After that, Harry often stopped at the cemetery for a few minutes on his way home from wherever else he mowed lawns, and pulled out any young rose stems that erupted on the cemetery side. Deborah noticed how quick he was, but also she could see how he frowned. It’s just roses, she wanted to say—let them grow, let them bloom, no matter what the cemetery association says. But of course she didn’t say it.
There was an argument with the city at the end of the summer, something about taxes. Louis sat on the committee doing the arguing. Deborah baked a little more often, with the cooler weather and with the need she saw in him, that need for comfort, for remembering what his mother used to serve. Rugelach, kichel, apple cake rich with cinnamon. The roses bloomed a second time, wild pink absurdity that lured passers-by to pause. It felt like a blessing.
One day Deborah saw in the paper a name she hated, a name she’d hoped to never see again. But it was in the Deaths column, which felt like removing a dark veil. Still, it stirred up something. She walked to the college campus and counted the stones along the wall. She didn’t lift the seventeenth stone that day. She waited. Each day the bitterness, the shame, the old ache smoldered. Louis asked what was wrong, but she couldn’t tell him. She began to grieve for this closed-off place between them.
So she went back to her wall, her stone wall, on a Saturday morning, and took the blade out of its darkness. Rust coated it, although the edge seemed sharp, not pitted. She rested it against her wrist, wondering. She ached to make a cut, a simple thin line where the red blood could ooze in relief. But— and this was a big important but—if she did this, her body and Louis’s would lose their perfect match, their symmetry.
Instead, on the way home, she stopped at the old cemetery. She used the blade to cut the last roses, letting them tumble into the top of her shopping bag. Back in the apartment, with Louis still at his after-services meeting at the shul, she pulled out the old newspapers and found the obituary and tore it to carry with her. To carry, along with the roses.
It took almost an hour to walk across the city to the goyishe burying ground. She needed her freedom, after all these years. She paced herself, sipping now and then from a small bottle of water.
Statues of saints and rich men decorated the grounds. The last autumn flowers, mostly chrysanthemums, decorated many of the graves. She found the one she sought, easily enough, its green plastic blanket of fake grass and the white cross adorned with multiple wreaths calling out to her, the way he once called her to stay after school: too colorful, too charming, too dangerous.
Why were there no other living people visiting the dead in this place? Deborah puzzled over the absence. It was good. She stepped toward the raw grave and turned her shopping bag upside down, letting the autumn roses cascade down. She saw the glitter of the blade falling, and did not try to find it among the petals and thorns. No blessing or curse came to her to speak, just the roses, and a hope for freedom.
Beyond some trees, she thought for a moment she saw the rose gardener from the old cemetery, that hunched stocky form with the black veil. Just as she might have walked over to check, a new sound and scent and a flare of light by her feet stopped her.
Flames flickered on the ground. A thin column of gray-black smoke lifted and curled. It smelled like flesh burning, heavy with ash and bitterness. An ember landed in her shopping bag, and Deborah hastily dropped the burning bag onto what was, a few minutes earlier, a mound of cut roses.
Still, she let the blade vanish among the ashes. When she looked up, the figure in the veil had vanished also.
And a little New Haven snow began, the flakes hissing as they rested on the hot ashes, then melted, too soon for winter, after all.
Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads, and shapes Vermont novels, with notes on her research and writing at BethKanell.blogspot.com.