Never Trust the Silence II
This is the second page of a continuing story. It's time to hear from another point of view, so let us set the scene in Atlanta. The narrator goes by several names, but remember, Dibri is an ugly name. Brunei is the name people use when they want to pretend she is part of the tribe (You'll find out which tribe). She doesn't use the name her parents gave her, and her real name is Anotnia. She is a complex person with a complex history. Life is never simple, and in any time or place, you have to be suspicious of the sounds you don't hear and the secrets you don't see. Never trust silence!
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Stories Run in Circles
I was awake before dawn out of habit. Even Ki who rises with the sun was still asleep. I checked Yitzi. He snores. Ellen Charlotte Savina's door had come open. Her bed clothes were in disorder. Her makeshift nightshirt had rolled up, and the hall light caught the two moons of her little kid buttocks. I closed the bedroom door.
I padded into my study. I wanted to make sure I got someone home, and that meant waking someone in Toronto up, probably Abishag (with luck), or her husband. I set my sweet little bucket of bolts, computer, up as a comm phone and dialed the number Bonnie Sorensen had given me. A sleepy male voice answered. I asked for Abishag.
"She doesn't live here any more," male voice in Toronto gruffly replied.
"I'm sorry," I answered reflexively and with some sincerity. I had not expected Abishag's marriage to come apart, but in an odd way it made sense.
"It's not what you think," male voice corrected me. "I'm just the communication liaison here. Abishag's base of operations is out of Montreal. I'll give you the number for the house there." I wrote down the number, put it in contacts, thanked the communications liaison and hung up.
"Montreal," I thought. "Still in the Eastern time zone." I don't know why I thought that. I dialed the new number and a different male voice answered in French. "Allo."
I switched to French and apologized for waking the sleeper. He said he had to be at work at six am these days. He babysat in the afternoon for a housemate who worked second shift. I was getting the impression that C-Branch is a twenty-four/seven operation. I was probably right.
I asked for Abishag Philippi. "She's away on assignment," the French speaking voice answered.
"Is there a way someone can reach her?" For the first time, I felt desperation. I tried not to think of Yitzi with his plastic comm phone. Of course that thrust a picture of him front and center into my mind.
"Email works sometimes. You send it to me and I forward it to her."
That was great except Yitzi couldn't read. "What about when she wants to speak to Violet?" Violet was Abishag's now ten year old daughter who was at an International Harmony Branch clan house in Iquitos, Peru. It pays to know your Amazonian jungle well sometimes.
"Who are you?" asked the male voice.
"I'm Antonia Mandel, sometimes called Brunei when people can't take a Latinate first name, and sometimes called Dibri when people decide they don't like divorced ladies with gentile exhusbands. I was helping to feed Dov, Kayla, and Yitzi after Leigh Weisman fired Abishag."
"I'm Armand Toussange, Abishag's husband," male voice answered, "Setting up comm phone communication with my wife is a bit difficult even for me. Abishag is doing some sensitive work and needs to stay underground most of the time. I will get word to her and she can get word to you and set something up. I wish I could do better. She became very attached to those children in Atlanta. She would say: 'When children don't have a house, they need someone to take care of them.' She was it and then that bitch who just gave birth..."
I knew the rest. I thanked Armand. He answered: "Je vous en prie." which I thought was sweet. Ed-Branchers aren't the only ones with a corner on courtly manners. I disconnected the comm features on my bucket of bolts and put it away in its satchel. I don't like leaving it out on the desk.
I slipped out of the study to find half my household awake. There was a light under Ki's door, which meant she was doing some sort of morning prayer ritual. I am not fool enough to let such things bother me. Ki did not proselytize and spoke of her faith only when asked.
In the kitchen, a disc player churned out a dance tune with Japanese lyrics and a synthesized little girl voice that was somehow quite sexy if you liked that sort of thing. Akiba kneeded dough. "Again," I thought reflexively. Meanwhile, Orphia was peeling and seeding her third papaya. There was a huge pile of papaya debris spread on a large plastic shroud and one neatly halved and one broken apart papaya waiting to be cut in cubes and put in a large plastic bucket.
Someone had been shopping. "How much papaya did you buy?" I asked Orphia. "Two cases," she answered. "A lot of them were ripe though. Fresh fruit is always a good thing." I shrugged, and thought back to my teens when the fruit bowl in my mentoring house always had to be well stocked, and there was always one girl in the house who was happy to peel and dismember a dozen mangos. "Wanna suck a pit anTonia?" she'd ask, since she had pits aplenty. Mangos have huge seeds to which a lot of pulp sticks. It is somewhat sour pulp, but why waste it?
The kitchen could make me extremely nostalgic at times. "Akiba," I turned to my other boarder who had the smaller share of the kitchen table. "Don't we still have bread."
"This is going to be grissini, Italian bread stick rolls for Shabbos. It's Thursday remember?" I had to laugh. "The little rusk eater will probably enjoy them."
"What's on the rest of the menu?" I inquired. "Moqua salad which I made late last night," Orphia began. "Roasted white turnips and cabbage, red peanut sauce, black radish, and egg noodle casserole. Nobody's allergic to peanuts in this family. Canary and string bean salad with red peppers from a jar, and of course plenty of fresh fruit for dessert. The peaches are mostly ripe for a change. I'm glad we moved them yesterday. They were in that big red, square plastic container. No, it's not fleshig. It's a fruit and vegetable box."
I sighed. Orphia's efficiency and cleverness with Ed-Branch girl cuisine could outstrip even Abishag's. "They lost a good intern down on Ponce," I rubbed salt in my boarder's ancient wound.
"I don't have the patience for young kids, or for all the bullshit and paperwork they make you do. If it had just been kitchen, it would have been fine."
I didn't answer. I put up water for matte. I had yerba matte tea bags. I had lemon juice and a bit of honey. I was going to make a great iced pitcher of safely stimulant laced drink. Ellen was still recovering from the difference in time zones, and I still craved trimate which is not addictive, but the ritual of the drink and the place where I drank it were tenacious memories. Everybody gets homesick.
By the time the water, boiled, Ki came into the kitchen. The controlled chaos always amazed her. She asked for some of the mate hot and found a drinking straw for it. "You're not supposed to drink this stuff like coffee," she complained. "I prefer to drink it like ice tea," I told Ki. She sighed. "I probably have to go in and get the mail today," she told everyone and no one. I did not answer. I heard a car in the street. It sounded like it was moving slow, and it was still fairly early.
The car parked. Orphia finished processing her fourth papaya and reached for number five. By the time Orphia was on papaya number six, another car slowed down and parked. I checked the hallway. Yitzi had gone to pee leaving the bathroom door open. He had pulled down his pants. I saw him from the rear. He did indeed hit the target and remembered to lower the seat when he was done. "Wash your hands," I called out to the boy who pulled the stool to the sink, climbed up, and obeyed.
In the living room, Ki sipped mate through a straw and read a book, on motivational speaking. This was to be Ki's future. She would be a proselytizer. Maybe she'd even be a good one. The reading lamp and her straight, dark brown, hair made shadows on her sallow face with its Asiatic features. Meanwhile, a third car slowed and parked. "Who has visitors?" I wondered. Ki put down her book and pushed open the living room curtains.
"That's the Sherrif's Patrol. We don't have Security any more," she commented as if being guarded by the DeKalb County Sheriff's Patrol was a regular occurance. "I'm not leaving this shit in the kitchen to atract flies!" declared Orphia.
"Be careful with your language. Yitzi's up," I told my boarder. "As if he doesn't know that word all ready," Orphia snapped back. "It's safe to put out the trash," Ki informed her fellow boarder. "Cops are here?" Orphia asked. Ki nodded. Orphia headed out the door.
"We have visitors," Orphia declared when she returned. "I'll get the cups," answered Ki. "Tell Akiba to wash her hands." I peered through the curtains. I counted six protesters. There would be more as the morning progressed. They weren't really protesters. They were gawkers. The new paint on the house all but screamed who lived here and by now, everyone knew the story, so why not get an eyeful.
Of course someone could always lose it and throw a rock through the window or spit on one of my boarders. I had to be able to come and go freely as did the two children who now lived here. Yes, I was grateful for the Sheriff's Patrol, though it was probably not the easy gig they expected for obvious reasons stated above.
Someone, an adolescent boy, pointed at my face in the window. It was probably still cool enough to be pleasant outside, prime gawking weather. I watched Ki get the folding table from the cupboard. Akiba helped her, and Orphia opened the front door. Out went Ki and Akiba. By now Yitiz was in the living room. "Can I have some papaya fruit?" he asked.
"How do we ask for fruit?" I knew Abishag had taught him, and if she hadn't I would.
"PLEASE!" Yitzi all but screamed. "Sorry, I forgot."
"Not a problem," commented Orphia. "You'll get your fruit in a bit, Yitzi. Can you bring me the spoons please. They're in the blue box on the table."
Yitzi gave Oprhia the box of plastic spoons and she took them oustide along with a large bag of disposible cups. Orphia brought out the papaya last.
I took Yitzi by the hand and slipped out through the front door. The police stood between Ki, Orphia, Akiba, Yitzi, a table with a large bucket of papaya chunks and me, and a crowd of nine or ten individuals including the rabbi with the shtreimel who had blessed my kitchen yesterday. Had he forgotten that Orphia and I had thanked him with flowers. Half the crowd was teenage kids.
"Good morning everybody!" A cheerful Orphia called out to the group. "We'll begin serving the fruit to anybody who wants it shortly. It's just papaya from the DeKalb Farmer's Market, but it's cut up with kosher utensils in a fully kosher kitchen. Ask Rabbi Goldberg if you don't believe me. He supervised the kashering yesterday."
Rabbi Goldberg cleared his unhappy throat and then thought better of whatever he was going to say. He came forward to glance at the fruit. Akiba served him a cup full with a spoon. He said a blessing and tasted it. Several teenage boys came forward, followed by two girls in black jumpers an white shells. Soon, most people in the crowd had a cup of fruit to enjoy.
"Now that you're all fed," Orphia announced. "We can begin this morning's entertainment."
Rabbi Goldberg stepped forward. "Not again," he said. He was looking at Akiba.
"Excuse me. This is our show," Akiba told the rabbi. "Anyway, Ki would like to tell everyone in this crowd a story."
Orphia took out a toilet paper roll kazu from her pocket and blew a brief fanfare. "Presenting!" Akiba cried out. "The story of the Wounded Crane!quot;
"Excuse me!" Rabbi Goldberg cried out. "But you can not tell a story like that here!"
"Oh yes she can!" I intervened. "This is my property. If you don't like the stories we tell here, you can leave."
"But do you know what kind of a story this is?"
I had a pretty good idea. "Mythology," I answered. "A large part of religion is how you act. You can leave if you don't want to hear the story. You can listen to it quietly as you would any one else telling a fictional tale, or you can be rude and ugly. If you are rude and ugly, it will reflect on this neighborhood as a rude and ugly place and upon we Jews as rude and ugly people. Think about it." I finished my lecture.
"Are you a teacher?" asked one of the younger adolescent girls.
"Yes, I am. I teach English an Luso Portuguese as second languages."
"She works for the Priests," A man with a long, brown beard corrected me.
"I work for the Wounded Crane Priests. They hired me for my skills. Adopting their religion was not part of the job. Now let's begin the tale"
Orphia blew once again on her toilet paper kazoo and the story began. "Once several hundred years ago in rural Japan upon the sea coast, an old man and his wife watched the sun set. A bunch of cranes landed in the trees. Cranes always landed in the trees, and the old couple did not have much to do. They did not have much money for light to light their lamps, or fuel to heat their hut. Quite often they went to bed hungry. Now they were waiting for it to get dark and not talking much because they were a little bit hungry and they knew once it got dark, they'd have to sleep anyway.
"The next morning, the man got up and went to look for wild roots and grasses to gather. There was almost no rice in the house, and no money to buy more. He also went looking for drift wood for his fire, because they had no money for charcoal. That is when he noticed the crane on the beach. She hadn't flown off with the others. The old man picked her up. I don't know what he was thinking. You..." Ki turned to her audience. "can only eat certain kinds of birds, but Japanese can eat anything. Still, the man felt sorry for the poor wounded bird. She was not far gone enough for him to put out of her misery. In fact, she only had an arrow through the fleshy part of her wing. A little first aid fixed her up just fine, and after that...Well, the crane flew off.
"'Now I'll watch her in the trees wtih all the others at sundown,' thought the old man. His wife nodded and wondered if the act of kindness she did toward the poor bird would come back to them.
"That night there was a terrible snow storm. The sea was whipped into angry, grey waaves, and the wind lashed the house, and the elderly couple shivered under their thin quilts on their cotton mattresses. Suddenly they heard a knocking at the door."
Orphia pounded on the table. "Who could that be?" the old man asked. The wife said she did not know but got up to answer the door. "If it is a stranger," she thought, "we have nothing to give her but shelter from the storm. It indeed was a stranger. It was a young girl. That night the young girl slept on the hard floor by the stove. The next morning when the sun was out, the girl went walking on the beach. She gathered drift wood and built a loom in the shed behind the old couple's house. She said she was a weaver by trade and wanted to make them some cloth. She asked them only never to go in the shed at night.
The old couple said they would charge the young girl rent once she sold her first cloth. Having a boarder would bring in extra money, they reasoned. The girl stayed on and in a day or so had her first piece of cloth. She told the elderly couple to sell this cloth to pay her rent. The elderly couple were BEDAZZLED. The cloth was utterly beautiful. It shimmered it shown. It was the softest, smoothest, shiniest silk they had hever seen. When the couple sold it, they had sacks of gold. They could buy fish, oil, rice, charcoal, and the girl kept weaving and the gold kept coming.
The couple fantasized about what they were going to do with the money, build a bigger house, get a huge fishing boat and hire a crew, buy land and rent it to share croppers. It's easy to have business fantasies.
Of course the old couple had a party to celebrate their wealth, and they bought a lot of rice wine. The old man, had a little too much to drink. He was unused to rich food and strong drink, and...he got sick." Several of the little kids giggled.
"The old man stumbled outside in the dark to find the necessary; for this family did not have indoor plumbing. Remember this was a long time ago. He lost his dinner somewhere on the beach and then noticed that there was a lantern burning in the shed. He realized that the girl who made them rich with her weaving had left the party and wanted to invite her back inside the house so she could get drunk and eat her fill.
"The old man knocked on the door of the shed." Orphia again supplied the appropriate sound effect. "There was no answer." Orphia rapped on the table again. "The old man who was still a bit drunk, opened the shed door and there he saw, a crane pulling feathers from her chest, leaving behind bloody wounds, and making the most beautiful cloth.
"In a FLASH, the crane turned back into the girl. 'You have seen me and broken your promise and now I must leave you!' she told the old man.
"'No!' he begged her. 'I promise...."
"'What do you promise?' asked the crane girl. The old man thought and thought and then realized he would say something very stupid because he was drunk. 'Please stay until I am sober and can give you a really good prommise.' The crane girl had compassion upon the old man and his wife, and she stayed until the next morning.
"By then the old man and his wife woke up in a house full of leftover scraps which they took out to feed the cranes, and empty saki bottles that they had to take back to town for a deposit, and lots of garbage, and the old man thought: 'this is what wealth has bought me. What a fool I am, and I even lost the source of my wealth. I need to do better with my wealth or I deserve to lose it.
"Just then the crane girl appeared outside the garbage pit and asked the old man what his promise was from the night before. The old man knew what to say. 'If you stay I will use my wealth that you give me to help the poor, and the injured, and the sick.' Needless to say the crane girl stayed with the old man, just as the spirit of the Wounded Crane stays with us in our order because we dedicate our lives to helping the poor, the sick, and the injured. The Wounded Crane only stays where wealth is used for good. "
Orphia blew a final fanfare. I waited for the crowd to start clapping, but they stood sullenly in the shimmering heat of the now well-risen sun of a hot 'Lanta day. I noticed that two of the adults and some of the small children had left. They had done so quietly which was all I had asked.
Tonight, no doubt people would be arguing whether Ki was an idolator for telling a story about a wounded crane who became a girl who wove feathers into gold. "Tomorrow we should do Rumple Stiltskin," I told Orphia.
Not Rumple Stiltskin
"Can I tell a story?" asked a pudgy boy of about eleven or twelve with sandy hair cut in a scisor crewk. I hadn't bargained on this, but I said why not. "Just don't cuss out me or my boarders, got that?" The boy blinked. Several of his friends laughed nervously.
Orphia blew her toilet paper roll kazoo to announce the new tale with fanfare. "My story is the Women of Midian and it comes from the Torah in the Book of Bamidbar," the boy began. The crowd clapped wildly. "The Jewish people were camped beside the cities of Midian in the kingdom of Moab, and the Midianites and Moabites were scaird because they knew the Jewish nation had HaShem on its side and was going to defeat them and take the land, so Balam, the crafty profit came up with a plan.
"He said let's let our women corrupt the men of Israel. Then we will take them to our idolatrous temples to watch our sacrifices. This will be easy since one of our gods loves shit and we keep him in the toilet. All we have to do is have the men go to the bathroom and they will have become idolators.
"So the women of Midian put the plan into action, and the children of Israel came down with the plague, and they asked Moses for help. Moses said to kill the idolators but nobody listened except for Pinchas who was awarded with an enternal priesthood for slaying Zimri and Cozbi.
"At least Zimri stopped the plague, but HaShem told Mosesl to tell the Israelites to slay the Midianites in revenge for what their women had done, so Moses put together an army of 12,000 men, 1,000 from each tribe, and they attacked the Midianites by surprise, and you know what? Not one man was killed. They killed all the Midianite men, and they brought the women, children, and livestock to the camp as captives.
"And Moses asked them: 'What did you do?'
"The men replied. 'We have slain all the Midianite men, but we have taken the women and children along with the livestock as a prize of war.' Moses answered: 'It is the women who corrupted you. Kill every male child and every woman who has known man.' So the men killed the women and the boy children. And we had victory over the corrupt Midians. The End!"
The crowd on my lawn cheered. They liked this story better than fresh papaya and certainly far better than the tale of the wounded crane. Ki stood dumbfounded with her hand over her mouth. She sidled over to me. I still had Yitzi standing with me holding my hand. He had watched the dueling stories in silence. He was a good listener, and knew both tellers of tales. Ki took Yitzi by the arm. "Come on inside," she said softly. "I'm going to see if Ellen is awake."
I had forgotten about Ellen. I slipped inside. One of Rabbi Goldberg's students was giving a lesson based on the story of the Midian massacre. I closed the house door. "Wow, I bet my bread's all ready risen," complained Akiba who bounded back into the kitchen.
"Is that story really part of your religion?" asked Ki.
"You mean the story the boy told?" I asked.
"Yes!" Ki looked dumbfounded as Ellen poked her face out the kitchen door. She had taken her own breakfast and sat at the table fully clothed in her freshly laundered old clothes. A bit of prune butter and some rusk crumbs clung to her lips. She did not notice the kneeding board and slicing boards all over the kitchen table. She took up whatever space she could find, hungry and just barely out of her own world or so it seemed.
"Did I miss something?" Ellen greeted me.
"Not much," I replied. "Ki can tell you the wounded crane story when you feel like hearing it. It's based on a Japanese folktale and is quite interesting."
"With all due respect, Antonia, I don't believe you," Ki returned to our conversation. I led Ki into the study. Yitzi followed us along with us. He wanted more stories. Well he'd get one. I pulled down my Living Torah and turned to Parshas Mattoh. I let Ki read for herself. She did not read aloud. Yitzi shifted impatiently from one foot to the other.
"You're right," sighed Ki. "What do your Priests tell the children about the Midianite girl children?"
"Nothing usually," I replied. "Some say they were slaves and that was that. They deserved their fate and were lucky they were not dead. Some say they became Jews because their god was defeated and they were not allowed to practice idolatry, but usually nobody talks about them."
"This is very bad," Ki answered. "There were girls out there. Don't they ever think of what their lives would have been like if they were Midianite instead of Jewish?"
"They usually don't think that way," I replied.
"Did you think that way?"
"Yes, but I was sixteen when I read the parsha. I thought worse. I thought that they took the teenagers and the ones who were virgins, let's just say they weren't virgins any more when they died. I also thought the surviving Midianite girls hated the Israelis. If someone took you as a slave after killing your brothers, sisters, parents, and friends how would you feel?"
"What did your Priests tell you?" asked Ki.
"They didn't like my answers but to them the Midianite girls were unimportant, so they really didn't care."
"And what did you think of that?" asked Ki. "I thought, at least they read the Bible and care about it. That's more than a lot of other people do. At least they are glad I am studying the Bible. This is the faith that connects me to my Fathers and Mothers, and to God. You have to read the hard parts of the Bible, the ones that make you sad and angry, just like you have to do hard assignments at school. I still feel that way."
"OK," sighed Ki, and she put an arm around me. "I think I understand, but it is hard to teach caring if you don't talk about people who are hurt. Remember the old man and his party. He had a good heart, but it took him a while to learn."
I wondered how to explain to Ki the long history of Jewish charity, but Jews can be ugly on the battle field or as settlers. These ugly stories in our Torah simmer beneath the skin. I was glad in a way the boy knew and told the story. The only way to confront our potential for evil is to read the story and discuss it. It was out in the open today at least. Now whether any one would go beyond the first step today in Atlanta was q uestionable, but at least we were at step one. You had to be grateful for small movements. I huged Ki back. "We're very much like the old man and his party here. We just haven't knocked on the crane girl's weaving shed yet." I hoped my boarder, Ki understood.
Just then Ellen appeared in the study doorway. Her breakfast was done, but the girl needed to wipe her face. I wanted to order her to wash it off but before I could do so, she asked if she could use the comm set up on the computer for a native tongue lesson in Inupiat. Ellen had words in English she needed to translate, probably for the first time. This was exciting in its own way.
I got out the computer and noticed I had email. It was from Armand Toussange. In it was a link to encryption software and a secure site where I could pick up Abishag's encryption key. I told Ellen to wash up, installed the software picked up Abishag's key and created one of my own. I then found an email that was encrypted in my box. I decrypted it with Abishag's key and sent back an encrypted email to Abishag and another email to Armand with my key to send to Abishag. Ellen watched me do most of this. So too did Yitzi. "Abishag needs special top secret email because she has a special top secret project," I explained to the children.
"What's she doing?" asked Ellen.
"I don't know. It's secret like the crane girl," I replied. Ki laughed. Then she shook her head and went back to the living room. She'd had enough of the protesters who were now listening to a lecture about avoiding corrupting influences.
I turned the computer over to Ellen after setting up the speaker, mike, and projection cloth which served as a large and friendly screen. I did not have to listen to the lesson and took Yitzi into the living room so Ellen could learn to keep her tongue alive. I thought of the Midianite slave girls hating their new masters with an undying and smouldering hatred, just as Ellen hated those who let her baby sister die. To grieve and to hate when we are wronged are what make us human. The alternative is to forget and have the feelings of a stone.
I decided to take both children shopping that morning for clothes. I was not sure I would be able to get anything for Ellen. Somewhere along the line, Ellen had accepted new panties, a backpack, a purse, and possibly a wrist watch, but she had refused to part with her ratty sneakers and jeans and t-shirt. That and the sweater and jacket were all that she had for a wardrobe. I wondered if any one in Alaska had tried to buy Ellen clothing or whether they had just worked around the issue or not cared. It was inconcieveable that they wouldn't care, I told myself, but then again, assuaging Ellen's grief and dealing with separation issues might have come first. Clearly someone had cared very much about my foster daughter's stomach, and perhaps a child who smelled of eating seal and living on the beach did not stink as badly to a nose in Fairbanks or Barow than to my Toco Hills nose.
I opened the study door. "We're going shopping in half an hour!" I informed Ellen and then got out of the way. I helped Orphia and Akiba bring the tables and unused disposible cups and spoons inside. On the lawn two rabbis had set up impromptu lessons. Some protesters had left. The others looked hot and bored. The Sheriff's Deputies looked extremely bored and unhappy. I offered each of them an extra cup of fruit. The woman accepted. The man shook his head. I offered him ice tea and brought him a glass of freshly cooled mate tea with honey and lemon. "Is this green tea?" he asked.
"It's yerba mate from South America," I answered.
"Is that kosher?" he asked.
"As long as it's unflavored when you buy it, yes," I rseponded, "just like coffee or tea."
The Deputy shook his head and gave me a second look. "You're one of these people aren't you?" he asked.
"Yes I am," I answered. "That's why they ate my papaya this morning."
"Why don't you cover your head or wear a wig then?" asked the female Deputy.
"Because I've been divorced for many years," was my reply.
"Divorce is allowed?" the female Deputy asked.
"Yes, it's even in the Bible, Old Testament. We don't consider the New Testament part of the Bible, so there's no problem with divorce." I did not tell the Deputies that Jews on average had a higher divorce rate than the general population. One in every four of our marriages fail. Among the American population as a whole it's about one in fifteen.
I did not look behind me as I walked up LaVista with Ellen and Yitzi. Yitzi did not need a stroller. A summer of free ranging had given him strong legs and patience with walking. Sometimes he wanted to race and play games. Ellen of all people obliged him, but I had to hold her pack in which she had her looseleaf and her purse, in which I felt a wallet that felt fat. Someone in New Jersey had probably taken her to buy that wallet, I thought or someone in Fairbanks. I could find out, but I needed to keep my eyes on two small running children who really didn't mind the heat.
They did not complain. They did not whine, weedle, or ask for cold drinks. When we reached the new mall though, Yitzi's eyes grew wide with fear. "We can't go in there! Abishag said 'never go in there.'"
"It's all right Yitzi," I began explaining. "You're too young to be taken. Ellen and I have all ready been taken. We're safe."
"What if they take Ellen again?" Yitzi looked up to his new, older playmate.
"They'll send her home because it's Reunion," I answered with enough confidence my foster son believed me...I hoped.
Well, we got into the mall at least, but Yitzi was unprepared for how far we would travel. "Does this place go on forever?" he asked. I strongly suspected it did and that it was connected by interdimensional portals, silent, stable, propped open portals. I knew we crossed one four escalators down, and around the corner one level below where I caught the subways. This was where I bought my scrub shirts. This was a custom (on-demand) clothing store. Our mall chit would let us buy whatever we needed here. The wall terminals with their projected touch screens on sensitive, burlap textured, white walls stored all the patterns and sketches of the styles. There were sample shirts to try on and tape measures as well. You could tap in a child or an adult's measurements on a projected, optical key pad onone of several tables. I staked out a table.
I had my tape measure. I put a sizing chart on the wall. Ellen sat against an unused portion of the wall. She got out her looseleaf from her backpack and I could see her reading and sometimes writing and sometimes mouthing words silently. She read something that looked like a synagogue newsletter. It turned out to be a weekly Inupiat magazine called by the Inupiat word for Midnight Sun. Stays Light Late is actually a better translation.
I had yet to learn to be very careful when translating Inupiat into English because English routinely steals words from other languages or plays with poetry when it does not have a word for something. The aurora borealis is a case in point. The English word for the lights at the horizon seen in northern skies is a poetic piece of Latin. Orphia's and my names are both Latin as well. If there's no real word for something in English, why steal a third language's word to fill the hole?
Ellen's lack of interest in browsing the touch screen catalog, something the store staff actually coaxed her to do (How many little scholar girls get hooked on on-demand clothes is astonishing.), only half surprized me. Ellen reminded me of the stories rabbis tell about prodigies in cheder and yeshiva who learn for hours a day. I could fully understand Ellen not wanting to lose her native tongue.
Yitzi did not really know how to browse constructively, so I guided him. I showed him solid colors in several styles of fabric for shirts. I let him feel the samples of the different styles. He said he liked them all, especially the cotton of t-shirts. I ordered him mostly smooth, jersey polos for that reason. He'd need shirts with collars for schul, but I also ordered him several noncollared shirts. He preferred primary colors to match his plastic comm phone. In fact he tried for an exact match several times. I had nothing against a boy in day-glo red though I preferred Chinese or true red myself. I also took the liberty of picking out several argyles and stripes. Pants were easy, two pairs of cargo pants, two pairs of cargo shorts, two pairs of jeans, navy, brown, burgundy, and medium blue and also light grey. I'm not a big fan of kahki when a child wears mainly red, blue, yellow, and a bit of burgundy, and plenty of flaming scarlet along with a green not found in nature.
"It's good he wants to wear colors and you're encouraging it. A lot of women don't do that in boys," commented the clerk, a plump woman with greying hair and a round, pink face. "He won't be afraid of colors when he is older, and he'll know how to get a look together."
"I'm going to look LOVELY!" cried out Yitzi as he ran around the store in a circle for which I normally would have disciplined him, but he came back to me and giggled.
"You are indeed," replied the clerk. "Now what about your sister?" She had noticed Ellen which meant the world would notice this child.
Ellen looked up. She undid her Indian style position and drew her knees into a fortress of hills. She put her looseleaf on top of the ramparts and put down her head. "I'm busy," she announced. I walked toward her.
"Ellen," I said calmly. "You don't have a bathing suit. You need a bathing suit if you are going to swim. They don't let kids swim naked in Atlanta."
Ellen blinked. Slowly she closed the looseleaf and put it carefully in her backpack. We used the private changing area to get my foster daughter's measurements. The clerk agreed to watch Yitzi. "We shoulda done this at home," Ellen told me as I took the child's diagonal torso length.
"You were studying and I didn't want to disturb you. How are the lessons coming?"
I checked Ellen's measurements against the size chart on the wall, and sent her to try on one of several sample suits. She was a fairly standard size except her shoulders were skinny. There were styles with fly backs, x-backs, and keyhole backs that kept the shoulder straps from slipping. I remembered my mother and Placement Speclialsts tying my straps together with string to keep them on.
Then it was Ellen's turn to browse the touch screen. She knew how to do this once I gave her a quick refresher. She skipped the solids and headed to the patterns. She liked the more muted ones and finally found a less than subtle, faux blue denim print which she could get with orange stitching.
"That might look cute," mused the clerk. With her naturally conservative taste, Ellen might have made a good frum girl, I thought. It was a sad thought somehow. I had one more errand to run, but Yitzi was at the end of his rope. I got us paper cups of cold drink to sustain us and we drank them as we walked. We rested a bit in the fresh air outside the mall but in the shade of the overhang.
I thought I saw the Weisman's car pass by, but I could have imagined it. Shimon could have shown up at the protests. He would have been able to have supervised visitation with his son. He of course was absent, and the car did not stop even to look at us.
I was hot and tired by the time I got home. Orphia and Akiba were cooking but they made room for us at the table and served me an iced mate tea and made a smaller one for Ellen. Yitzi threw himself on the couch and then remembered his toy comm phone. In the living room, he talked to Abishag.
I decided to see if I could get Ellen to show me her wallet. I was not sure why I wanted to see it. Ellen scooped it out of her purse which she had rested on her lap. The wallet was old but not falling apart.
"Where did you get this?" I asked. It was a navy blue, leather wallet with white whip-stitch trim. A perfect little kid's wallet, if your little kid did not want something brighter.
"North Jersey Mall," Ellen did not skip a beat.
"Do you miss Highland Lakes?" I could feel myself descend and wondered what Yitzi had felt when we rode the escalators four levels down. Little kids are sometimes more sensitive than adults.
"Sometimes. I miss my parents too, and my brothers. I even miss the Elder, even though he is the Nalaqi-yo. That's a spirit of getting lost. He confuses people. He hurts people. He can't help being who he is, and at least we both spoke the Old Tongue. When you speak the Old Tongue you understand things."
"I'm sorry." It was reflexive and sincere.
"It is good that I'm Tricia because if I weren't I'd hate it here and I couldn't have lived in New Jersey. This time I got a lot farther and I'm not even eight years old yet. Tricia was eighteen when she got to Fairbanks. She graduated from high school. It was boarding school in Fairbanks. It sucked."
"Did someone tell you this?" I asked.
"No I remember it. She could read and write English and do math, even algebra. She wanted to be a dancer like she saw on TV on the Sonny and Share show.
"That was me, but I don't care about dancing any more, even if Share was totally beautiful with black hair like mine in both lives. I care about being a big success and that means lots of school and then..."
"I don't know. I just know people in stories learn from their mistakes. I think the stories are true. It is true sometimes, isn't it?"
"Do you think your parents can learn from their mistakes?" I asked, "or the Elder?" I dropped two bombs for the price of one.
"My parents maybe. The Elder is who he is. Nalaqui-yo isn't really a person."
"But he was born human, you agree?" I wish Rabbi Goldberg were here, not that he shared Ellen's spiritual beliefs, but he was probably more of an expert on mysticism than I was.
"Well doesn't that change things?"
"Not if you drink," was Ellen's reply that returned her to earth. I thought of a metaphore, the Spirit of Misdirection becoming lost, ensnared in his own spell, and pulling others down with him. Sometimes metaphores can be outrageously tragic.
I checked my email after lunch and found an encrypted message from Abishag. I decrypted it and learned she would be available to receive or send phone calls at 10pm Eastern time. That was late, but she was two time zones behind me, and did not want to travel too much on dark, unlit roads to return to wherever she was staying. Calgary, Alberta was where she would be and it was in the Mountain time zone, two hours behind Atlanta, and the sun went down later because it was further north. "Stays Light Late" I thought. We only gave the long day length poetry in English because we thought it pretty unusual.
If you speak additional languages, old, new, holy, or mundane, you understand things. How much did I understand about Ellen. I ran a database search on "Sonny and Share" and found an old singing act from over a hundred years ago called "Sonny and Cher." I even found a picture of Cher Ullman. Her husband Sonny Bono died in a plane crash and had an act about copyrighting music named after him. Tricia must have watched reruns or DVDs of the old television show. I suppose I could ask Rabbi Goldberg, but what did any of us really know?
"Ellen," I asked myself. "Does a human who becomes lost and then pulls others in with him have to be a Spirit of Misdirection?" I had no answer and I did not bring up the question.Antonia Mandel
1278 Christmas Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30029AB123
An Old Song
I had Akiba take Ellen swimming Thursday afternoon. I decided Ellen had spent enough time studying, and physical activity would do her good. Besides, our kitchen was going to overflow with baked goods, if I did not bookt out Akiba along with Ellen.
Meanwhile, I piled a reluctant Yitzi and his cell phone into the car. I was burning fuel as if it were leftover newspapers or drinking it as if it was water. I had the chits for this kind of riding around. Being a foster parent made me feel very rich indeed.
We drove toward Avondale Estates. "I don't want to see the babies!" Yitzi declared to me. "They're just babies."
"They're your brother and sister," I responded. Facts weren't going to do much good, or rather there were other far more distasteful facts that I was conveniently overlooking as a smooth talking adult. The Weisman siblings clung to and competed with one another. Yitzi who had "become a big boy" now saw Yoni and Hulda as competition, since the babies were always fed. Quil (formerly Dov) considered Ahava and Shlomo-Yitzakh both selfish and trecherous, since they had connections for food and the connections did not extend to him. Ahava was particulary out for herself since she had an Ed-Branch stipend and got fed luxuriously at Druid Hills Magnet Academy. I wished I had not overheard all this gossip.
"Don't you think Yoni misses you?" I turned the situation around. "Remember how you missed Kayla in Scottdale?"
"I still miss Kayla."
"You'll see her around 8:30 tonight," said and then stopped. Yitzi would not tell time. Maybe he would know what tonight meant. Yitzi was only a big boy in his mind.
We took the city streets to the house a few blocks from the historical landmark buildings of cream stucco and brown wood that made up the pretty, main drag of Avondale Estates. Away from the fancier neighborhoods, Avondale Estates resembled either generic apartment complexes or Scottdale. Eastern deKalb County was Eastern deKalb county when you thought about it.
Yoni and Hulda Weisman were in a three bedroom apartment in a greyish white complex on the main drag. It was decently landscaped. Someone picked up the trash. There was no litter of children's toys on the lawn, and plenty of broken ones inside. Amber, the wet nurse, age fifteen (How does a fourteen year old become pregnant? Amber must have bled for a year or two before she was settled. That can happen, but it is still so young?) took up half a saggy living room couch. She had golden brown skin, hair curled around a plump face, plenty of body fat to spare, and two enviably huge and useful tits. One was for her daughter, Caramel, and the other for Hulda Weisman. She could and did nurse both babies at once, her shirt entirely removed and thrown carelessly over the back of the couch like an antimacasser.
I noticed she used a football hold on each baby, the same hold I had used on Alfred, who is now Moses. Seeing Amber I felt sad and achingly nostalgic. I had only nursed for less than a year and that was the only child I ever nursed. I felt my own breasts ache with longing that made me want to look at the floor.
Amber smiled sweetly. "This is really good work," she confessed. "I like being able to do something useful."
Just then, Marilyn, the foster mother came out of the kitchen along with Yoni who wore only a diaper and nothing else. His brown curls framed a cherubic face on which something reddish was smeered. In one small hand, Yoni held a bright, yellow sippy cup. "No more bottles," I thought. Yoni's lips were reddish with some kind of fruit punch.
"Hi Yoni," I greeted Leigh and Shimon Weisman's second youngest child. Yoni responded, but it was hard to tell what he said. "We're getting him evaluated once he gets used to his mommy not being around," Marylin explained. "Right now they think some of it is just stress." I did not ask what it was. I suspected "it" may have been related to malnutrition and neglect.
"The other kid is doing real good," Marylin continued. She was a thin, square shoulderd woman with skin a shade darker than Amber's and hair going grey in salt and pepper wisps. She wore a smock over her scrubs. She sat on a chair and glanced at Amber doing the effortless double feed.
"This is my comm phone," Yitzi told Yoni. "You can talk to any one you want to on it. Who do you want to talk to?"
Marylin smiled. "You got the sweet one," she said.
"I have the moody one," I answered. I did not tell her I also had the crazy one, but it was grief that made her crazy. We probably would all be as crazy as Ellen in the same situation.
"Come on, you gotta pick someone or you can't use the comm phone," Yitzi urged his little brother on.
Yoni did not seem all that interested. He drank from his sippy cup and sat down next to his older brother. I looked back at Amber, and thought back to nursing Alfred. I remembered the first time I put my son to the tit. As I've said before, Alfred's birth did not go as expected. At my thirty-seven week visit, my midwife complained that Alfred had still not turned himself head first in my womb. I was at risk for a breach delivery, something beyond a midwife's abilities. I would have to give birth in the hospital and possibly not in the birthing room on the stool as I had practiced. That would mean a harder birth. I hoped and prayed that Alfred would turn.
Ten days later, I went into labor. It was hard and violent and painful. I imagined myself on the stool putting an end to it with a few good, hard pushes. Somehow, Alfred felt stuck. I was not all that surprized when the midwife and doctors (There were doctors by then.) confirmed that Alfred had still not turned over. He was happily (I imagine) sitting butt-first on the bottom of my uterus. Oh, it must have been comfortable there, but it was not the right position for a birth.
A generation or two ago, I would have been a candidate for surgery. Today doctors turn most breach babies so they can be born vaginally. Turning babies is an art. The baby turning doctor had an assistant who was learning the craft. Turning babies is a two person job. Actually, it is a three person job. The third person was me.
Instead of being able to walk around, squat, sit, lean on walls, hang on to stool or labor ball, I was rolled over on to my side, and a big needle stuck in my spine. That hurt, but being m ade to lie flat on my back with my legs raised really was the worst insult. My body could no longer help with labor. The doctors draped my legs with green cloth and would not let me watch what they were doing. They talked a lot though.
I was supposed to feel like I was a car in a garage being worked on. The mechanics chuckled as they went about their repair job. "Vital signs look good....We got plenty of room....We can take our time and really get this one right. OK, we're making a K-turn. Keep an eye on the cord. Push him to the right." I could feel dll twinges of pain through the epidural. Someone or something had stretched open the opening to my uterus to give the doctors room to work. The good news long term was that I'd be able to give Alfred a sibling and birth him vaginally, since I'd have a lovely, intact uterus when this was all over.
The bad news was, this was not how I imagined giving birth. I imagined my body, pushing and me pushing with it, and the baby dropping out, all easy and mechanical and done quick so it wouldn't hurt too much. Instead, the doctors were inside me. I FELT VIOLATED. I cried and moaned and even screamed. I was glad my husband was not with me. He was not allowed to be present for the turning. Once Alfred was turned, he could be with me for the delivery. I was glad he was not there to see me go all to pieces. The nurse who had held my hand gave me a big rubber sqeeze toy and held my shoulder. She told me to bite or squeeze the toy. I got to take the toy home because I put tooth marks in that thing to stifle my animal cries. Tears rolled down my face. One of the doctors noticed I was shaking and asked me to relax. I laughed and then cried some more.
None of this hurt the baby. Turning is painful. The doctors were used to "crazy ladies" on the table. Finally they announced that Alfred was pointing the right way. They also said they still felt contracts and strong ones and since I was dialated thanks to the version procedure, I could just push.
I stared up at the ceiling, exhausted, angry, hot faced and told those doctors. "How can I push when I'm lying flat on my back?"
"A hundred years ago most women gave birth on their backs." answered the doctor who had just helped reposition my son.
"Then those women were fools. They couldn't bare down well and they had to work twice as hard because the baby couldn't drop easy...Please I need to sit up."
"You can't Mrs. Mandel. You have an epidural," the assistant explained.
The nurse came to my rescue. "Let's raise her up a little bit. The nurse adjusted the table so I could see over my green cloth hills of knees. That was how I saw all the blood on the padding. It was mostly show, from burst water and an insulted uterus, but it was still quite impressive. I gave a push.
The doctors told me wait to five and do it again. And then they said: "Harder!" They clearly enjoyed watching this. "Keep going...atta girl. Nice pushing...good job....I just saw the head..whoops...there it is again. He's crowning. OK one more push, and then...silence."
I saw my son. He was purple. Most of the purple was bruises. His head was misshapen and he did not cry. The doctors clearned his throat and nose and gave him the ritual pat on the buttocks, and he made a small weak cry, followed by many others.
"He's breathing on his own. He'll have an APGAR of ten in five minutes. He had good signs through the whole birth."
"He's not crying loud enough!" I felt panicky.
"Not all babies scream," the nurse explained. She handed me my son. He was bruised all along one side and on a good deal of his back. His head was misshapen and there was a bruise above one eye. "Damn!" I thought. I did not count his fingers or toes. Instead, I put my finger in his mouth and felt him suck it. He stopped crying. I felt relieved.
By now Corliss was in the room. He was shocked by all the blood which one could even smell in the air as well as my nasty attitude. Then I realized I was acting like a fool.
"Corliss," I called to my husband, "Can you untie my gown?"
I lifted my head and Corliss undid the bow and then I asked him to help me off with one shoulder. Corliss looked around the room. He did not want his wife doing a public strip-tease, and he'd forgotten we now had a hungry child. The nurse offered to take Alfred for a minute. He started crying again. With a free hand she got the top of my gown off and raised me up a few more degrees for a good football hold. I took back Alfred. "He needs more than a finger," I commented.
"Don't be disappointed if he doesn't latch on," the nurse cautioned me. I saw Corliss shake his head. Alfred began to suckle. I had plenty of milk, but of course Alfred got colostrum which was the best thing for all those ugly bruises. The doctors sewed up my appesiotomy while I nursed. They said I'd heal easily since I had so much milk and was nursing so easily. Then I gave Alfred to Corliss when he finished nursing so the doctors could take the needle out of my spine. By now Alfred was asleep in his father's arms. He wore a diaper and a hospital bracelet. I scrambled back into my hospital gown and got wheeled to the nursery, where I'd spend one night rooming in wtih the baby. Corliss gave me Alfred to nurse again in private. I noticed my poor husband was red faced.
"It's OK," I told him. "I hurt like hell but it's OK." I was exhausted, bruised, plagued by after cramps, sloppy. I was glad it was only March. I was glad I could keep Alfred in the office and that he slept in a canvas baby box (a kind of portable bed) while I taught classes. My two back-to-back afternoon classes were a challenge. I fed Alfred right before and he lasted through them most of the time. I did have to feed him in the hall a few times. He was a hungry baby. My office door had a sign on it: BABY on the TIT.
Somehow we survived those first grueling months of that spring semester, and by the time I was grading finals and final projects, I was actually enjoying my son and appreciating his beauty. Corliss had also gotten somewhat used to the sensual unity between a nursing mother and child.
Still he was glad we had the summer off and we went for a month to visit his parents at their summer place on a lake in Western Massachussetts. The water was cold. It made my tits feel good. I worked on my dissertation proposal and later the dissertation itself. I could work now, when Alfred slept. I often nursed Alfred on the beach, both of my bathing suit straps down. There is nothing lewd about a woman feeding a child. Any person of any sense knows this.
Oddly enough, Corliss' parents lacked sense. They spoke in whispers to their son. I tried not to pay attention. "If it bothered them," I wondered. "Why didn't they confront me?" They were independents. That meant they were rich, but they could have different mores about modesty and babies. I had seen nursing mothers in malls, on park benches, wherever. If a baby is hungry, a baby needs the tit. Case closed.
One afternoon on the beach I sang to Alfred as I nursed him:
"There she goes
I realized Corlisss parents had watched the whole performance. "Is that our grandson's lullaby?" asked Grandma dePalma.
"Yes," I smiled. "We used to sing this in college. We'd gather on the frat house lawns and sing it in big groups, especially when one of the girls had been broken up with by one of the boys inside. It was kind of self defense."
Grandma dePalma shook her head and Grandpa dePalma laughed. Then Grandma dePalma stated: "You're a female employee. That's what you are." There is no shame in being a female employee, unless you are independent. The message was clear, and I understood the whispers now. Corliss' parents knew that he had "married down."
Now the grandparents were concerned with how this would "hurt their grandson." Corliss' and my divorce hurt him more, but that is another story. They asked me what plans I had for the boy. I said I'd like him to attend a religious nursery school. I wanted to teach him to read and write. And then...he'd need a good placement. That wasn't easy for boys. Ed-Branch even in those days was a matriarchy, and not all males were a good fit. There was Tech-Branch, but it required yet another sort of personality, but starting school knowing how to read and write was a very good start for a boy.
Later, when Alfred proved a less than enthusiastic pupil of his religious education, I wanted him to stay in a religious day school, and Corliss' parents helped me. I was never greedy which they liked. I don't think they approved of Corliss' divorce. I'm not sure how they felt towards his second wife. Independents are choosey among themselves, and for all I know, Corliss "married down" again.
I thought about sitting on the hot sand with Alfred curled under my arm like a football, latching on and drinking effortlessly. He had no teeth then. Nursing was painless. The setting was lovely with sun reflecting off the cold water and a straw mat under my butt. I needed the peace to write, nurse, and not think or worry, a few good months of mommy time, that would never come again because Alfred would have no sibling. We stayed with Corliss' parents the next summer, but by then Alfred was weaned, and walking or stumbling. One magic had replaced another. I was ABD and couldn't get academic politics out of my head. As I said before the academic rat race and discrimination against Ed-Branch women pretty much destroyed our marriage. I could work with Corliss' parents. I had a much harder time working with my own lack of success and worries. I paid the price and so did Alfred. Moses (once Alfred) is an only child because I could not get my life in order and lost Corliss.
"You OK?" Amber asked me. She had finished nursing both babies who lay in one large wheeled crib. It was a round crib, with room for at least another baby.
"Has Leigh Weisman been here to see her daughter?" I asked.
"No," Marilyn answered. Amber sadly, slowly shook her head. "I've asked her to come by. I've asked her if she wanted to pump so she could keep nursing her child....nothing. She doesn't answer my phone half the time and when she does...and that husband of hers. I've dealt wtih rude birth parents before, but he has a way of treating us like dirt. I mean we could get them all the supervised visitation they want...It's the way back. People don't want to separate a nursing baby from its mother. I might have to keep Yoni for a while longer, but Missus Weisman could get the little girl back if she'd work at it."
I had nothing to answer. On the floor Yitzi showed Yoni how to talk to imma on the cell phone. Marilyn had figured out that imma was Yoni's word for mother. "Imma I wan jus. I wan coo-kie! I wan tuba and boobla," Yoni gave a litany of demands into the plastic cell phone. "You're supposed to say PLEEZE," Yitzi counseled his younger brother. Part of me wanted to laugh, but the laughter came out as tears. If there had been cookies, juice, and toys, Yoni would not be in Avondale Estates. I was glad I did not have to explain it to him.
"My God, when do you get up?" asked Athalie Stonecrock over the comm phone which was really my sweet, bucket of bolts computer in the study. I had the door closed for the kind of privacy this beaurocratic wrangling demanded. Athalie was reasonable enough. Ed-Branch had been more than good to Kayla. All that went without saying.
Still I needed two favors. One was routine. Today was eruv Shabbos, and there would be both an oneg at this house for any Ed-Branch children who came to services and a lunch on Saturday for the same group. I did not think it would be that hard for Ed-Branch to pencil in both events and provide transportation and indeed it wasn't.
Then Athalie asked if this was why I had called her at eight o'clock in the morning. By the way the fact that I had been up since 4:30am did not impress her. "I got placed in Gerlach, Nevada," Athalie informed me.
"How did you go to high school?" This was a natural question.
"All two way computer-based education. We had a big study hall and a few quiet rooms. It was a good size compound for a house with twenty-five kids. You don't see anything this big back east, but the first days I was out there...."
"I've got the time zone problem in reverse with Ellen," I confessed.
"Give it a few days," Athalie advised. "Now what else do you need?" Oh Athalie was all business. Meanwhiel on our front lawn, Orphia and Akiba began a Bowdlerized version of Rapunzel. Rapunzel has to be Bowdlerized because the young princess in the tower becomes pregnant by the visiting prince and you can figure out the rest.... Also, Akiba wanted to make the princess stronger, smarter, and more intelligent and less passive than in the original. Oh well if Disney could rewrite fairy tales so could we.
"I need to get a sibling discount for my foster son at Torah Day Academy," I told Athalie. "I'd like to enroll him in pre-K. I think he got admitted before DFACS swooped in. I know Kayla is attending Torah Day and she's Yitizi's sibling."
"So we get a sibling discount or a free pass or you get a free pass for a kid too young to place..."
"All you have to do," I soothed Athalie, "is provide the paperwork, proof that Kayla is registered for first grade and enrolled. I can provide proof that Yitzi is her sibling. The school probably has him registered all ready."
"I guess this is doable," sighed Athalie. "You caught me on a morning that I was not scheduled at the Creche. I'm going to be glad when it's reunion. Let's schedule for when they actually open. How about 9:30am." I had nothing against this. This was going to be a morning filled with errands. I thanked Athalie and hurried outside.
"And what did Rapunzel and the prince do together in the tower?" asked Orphia. She scanned the crowd. The rabbis shook their heads, but the girls, especially the girls were enthralled with the tale of the beautiful, imprisoned princess.
"They played board games!" I shouted aloud.
"And what games do you think they played?" asked Orphia. The kids blinked than slowly began to raise their hands.
"Scrabble," announced a giril in a white long sleeved shell, matching tights, and a black jumper.
"Puzzles," lisped a little boy. An older boy corrected him that puzzles weren't a board game. I said they probably played puzzles too.
"Monopoly," suggested a young man with a red beard.
"Life," said a girl with green eyes and blonde hair, and on it went.
"So every day, the princess in the tower and the prince would play board games, after the prince did what?"
"After he climbed Rapunzel's hair?" suggested the first girl who spoke up.
"And what did the prince have to say to climb Rapunzel's hair?" asked Orphia.
Before the rabbis could step in, the girls and some of the boys shouted: "Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair so I can climb the golden stair."
"Well, the old witch," Orphia continued. "She didn't like that Rapunzel was having a good time playing board games with her prince. She could hear them talking and laughing, and it made her very jealous and angry, so you know what she did...." There was silence. I knew my part. I picked up the kitchen shears I had brought out with me and I grabbed Akiba's hair holding it up like a pelt. It wasn't really that long, but I prtended it was and pantomimed it.
"OK, Rapunzel, time for a haircut!" I cried out. I could see the stricken look on my body-art covered, compulsive baker's face, but she did not get to scream in terror. Instead, Yitzi did. "Don't cut her hair imma!" he called out. "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" I froze. The front lawn and skirt of walkway swirled around me.
"It was the witch who cut Rapunzel's hair, not your Imma," Orphia announced trying to salvage the story.
"My imma cut my sister's hair. She said it was cause my sister was vain and selfish!" Yitzi had started to cry. I took him in my arms and brought him inside. I tried to visualize Leigh Weisman and again saw nothing. I was glad of that. Yitzi shook convulsively with sobs.
"Want to talk on your comm phone?" I asked. I was clueless. Yitzi was too distraught to seek comfort in a plastic toy. We sat on the living room floor and listened to the performance through the window. I knew I should take Yitzi in to another room, but instead I hoped he would not understand.
"...And so the witch waited on Rapunzel's bed for the prince. Eventually he showed up at the base of the tower and what did he say...Come on....you remember." Silence...but only for a second.
"RAPUNZEL RAPUNZEL LET DOWN YOUR HAIR SO I CAN CLIMB THE GOLDEN STAIR!" shouted the raucus crowd waiting for what would happen next. They really didn't know this story. It was new for them, and I had a part to play. I picked up my shears and slipped out through the front door. Yitzi followed me.
I pantomimed holding a rope. "The witch had the princess' hair, a big long hunk of it," Orphia explained what I was doing, "and she dangled it out the window, and the prince climbed it and then..."
I confronted Orphia with the kitchen shears. "No more board games for you stupid!" I cried. "How dare you come in my tower and have fun while I work my fingers to the bone. Now you're going to be sorry, sorrier than you've been in your entire life."
"Noooooooooooooo!" screamed Yitzi. If the scream had not been real it would have been a great effect. I chased Orphia around the fruit table with the kitchen shears. We circled it once, and then Orphia dived underneath. We had a plastic table cloth that hid both of us from sight. I dove in after Orphia who screamed..."No!!!!!1" louder than Yitzi. "Please, please don't. I'm sorry I didn't mean it. No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" screamed Yitzi again.
I climbed out from under the table. I brushed off my hands after I lay the deadly kitchen shears on the table. I brushed my hands. "Well that took care of that, sighed the witch," I smiled at the crowd. Yitzi was whimpering again, as Orphia emerged from under the table unhurt. "Of coruse, the Prince managed to jump out of the window and escape. He broke his leg, but it healed in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I have a question for all of you?"
Yitzi threw his arms around Orphia's legs. He clung to her sobbing and reunited. Later she would explain about play acting violence. Play acting for Yitzi came way too close to reenactment. "What happened to Rapunzel?"
"Well the witch left the door unlocked while she was busy attacking the prince with the scisors and Rapunzel escaped. She went into town. She'd had it with being a princess. She'd had it with being locked up in a tower. She was going to take care of herself so she would never have to steal stupid cabbages and get her kid locked up.
"She went into town and got a job at the mall at a store specializing in...."
"Board games!" I cried out. "And what kind of games did the store sell?" I waited to hear the replies. They came happily and predicatbly.
Well the prince's leg heals. He looks all over for the princess but she is gone. "Finally one day the prince's friends took him shopping at the mall to cheer him up. He stopped by the board game store and guess whom he saw working at the counter."
"Rapunzel!" cried Yitzi.
"Oh you're so right," Akiba answered as she lifted up Yitzi and put him on the table. He beamed at the crowd. "And right there and then," Orphia continued the tale, the prince asked Rapunzel to marry him, and they lived happily ever after, and they had lots of children and played lots of..."
"BOARD GAMES!" I shouted.
"Wow that was good," sighed Orphia. Yitzi was shaking. "I'm sorry that story brought up all those memories," I told my foster son. We needed the stories to keep control of our lawn and to make sure that the tone of the demonstration became a teaching session not a riot. We had to get this house safe. Yitzi could survive being triggered better than he could survive a rock through the window or someone spitting at him.
At least Yitzi had gotten to speak to Abishag last night after a visit with Kayla where Yitzi saw the girls learn line dances, at least the girls not reading or writing. Yitzi tried to line dance too which made the grownups laugh.
He talked about the dancing to Abishag and told her about his special cell phone which keeps him from getting lonely. He also said that his mother had lost Yoni's favorite toys. I was not sure if it was Leigh Weisman or DFACS. I suspected it was Leigh. Damn that black hole of an unfit parent!
Abishag talked about living on the prairie and how it stayed light until nearly ten PM and how the sky stretched in a supersize arc of blue that turned orange briefly during the late twilight and sunset. She talked about herds of cattle with brown bodies and white faces.
"Do people eat the cows?" asked Yitzi.
"Yes," answered Abishag.
"They make them into hamburger and hotdogs," Yitzi proudly displayed his carnivorous knowlege.
"I like stew meat myself," Abishag had answered.
In the kitchen as Orphia and Akiba cleaned up from the morning's fruit giveaway, Ki and Ellen talked. "I can't send your letters until your foster mother says 'yes,'" Ki said rather stiffly to a girl child who stood in a boy's raggedy pajamas. I could still smell the seal meat seeping through Ellen's pores. "I want to send my letters to Alaska," the child announced.
"Who are you writing in Alaska?" I asked.
"My brothers," Ellen answered.
"Do you know where they are?" I asked.
"My Placement Specialist tells me."
That was good enough. The kitchen clock said 9:25am. I washed my face and hands at the kitchen sink. Ellen sniggered. I thought about sniggering back, but I had more work to do and this was not going to be nearly as much fun as playing a witch.
A Thousand Miles Away
Ellen did not go to services Friday evening. That did not surprize me. She was not Jewish. She had nothing to wear. She had been to the library, and had a pile of books in English to enjoy, including children's illustrated fairy tales and folktales. To function in two cultures, Ellen would have to know both cultures. This made sense. This was progress.
Ki also let Ellen mail her letters to her two brothers back in Alaska, one in foster care in Barrow. One in a hospital down in Fairbanks where he had been quite ill. Ellen had nearly lost a second sibling. Leon had a long recovery. He would survive with a disfigured face. Ellen would probably not see her parents or brothers again for several years. Ellen's baby sister, Charlotte, was dead before she could even begin to enjoy life. To see Ellen was to see a small person bravely walking along the edge of an abyss most of us did not even want to know existed, yet there she was writing to her brothers, learning her native tongue, and singing to her dead baby sister at night in the old tongue that helped her "understand things."
Any fool would know that Ellen needed in some way to "understand things," and understand them in whatever way worked for her. That Ellen worked to "understand things" could only be to the good. I was not going to stand in her way one bit. I told Ki that Ellen could mail any letters she wanted and that she could have free postage whenver she asked for it and permission to type her letters on the computer if she so chose. Neither of her brothers could receive comm mail.
I also realized why taking away Ellen's soon-to-be-filthy-again clothes from her was so wrong. Ellen's plate was full. Stripping her naked of one of her last attachments of the world from which she was exiled was just a cruel reminder of that exile. It as gratuitous harm at this stage of the game. Let Ellen read about her new world in books from the library. Let her take swimming lessons. Let Ellen ride MARTA buses with Ki to run errands and see the city. When Ellen had enough of a new life, she could shed her old life and not have to wear her grief or she could find a new, less smelly way to wear her grief. What was on the inside mattered more than what was on the outside when you really thought about it, and Ellen needed to take the lead in how to handle her pain and how to adjust.
Ed-Branch did not let its charges wall the five miles to Beth Jacob Village. Instead it parked its chenille (Yes, it had a nice, emerald green cheille with lots of ridges and nubbles) beside the massage therapy office on the side of Druid Hills Road opposite Toco Hills Plaza. I counted eight girls crossing the street including Kayla and two grown women, Athalie Stonecrock with her amazing nails and Li-Av, a more senior Placement Specialist who was an expert in old-time video and cinema and also Jewish.
The girls had books under their arms and all wore brightly colored, below the knees skirts and dresses. Many had ornaments in their hair. Kayla wore a brooch on her brick red jumper under which was a navy blue shirt with a brick and yellow foullard paisley pattern. The brooch was an antique man in the moon cameo, white on blue with the sun and moon both smiling. It was a very handsome thing.
"Kayla! Kayla!" Yitzi called out. The other girls, some of whom were much older than Kayla talked coolly among themselves. Then the conversation turned to activities and Reunion and the present and recent past and near future. It was a high buzz of talk. Three of the girls all ready had clan first names. They were pre-placement which meant they would be spending most of seventh or eighth grade looking for a house.
Kayla nad another first-second-third, talked about the merits of the respective first-second-third groups. Kayla was a proud Swallowtails. The other girl who had a head of wonderful, close-cropped curls and a flaming red henley shirt tucked into an ankle length army skirt with lots of pockets and thick soled sandals on her feet (and no jewelry!), was a Praying Mantis. Mantis' kicked Swallotails asses, according to the rival girl.
"No they don't," Kayla argued back. "Who told you that. Our evening activities whip yours. You kids wish you were us every night."
"Yeah, what do you do?"
"Line dancing," Kayla answered, "and we get extra crafts."
"We get to play in the courtyard. Ever play firing squad?"
"Isn't that a boys' game?"
"Girls can play it too. We have four boys in our group."
"You don't mind playing firing squad?"
"It's a cool game. We have a real little kid, Louann. She can duck and the boys on the other team haven't figured it out. We play Centipedes. They have five boys, but they're too dumb to be in Ed Branch if you ask me."
"Line dancing's better than firing squad," Kayla told everyone. "It's very complicated."
"You really line dance?" asked a bigger girl, a round faced, round shouldered thing in a striped waffle textured shirt and an apple green skirt with lots of pockets. Skirts with pockets were all the rage, except for one girl who wore a black dress with a bright floral pattern on it and a man-tailored collar and long sleeves.
"I can do it a little?" Kayla replied basking in the big girl's attention.
"You know the electric slide?" asked round face.
"What about the Virginia reel?" asked flowered dress.
Kayla's face brightened. "They learn something in the south wing," flowered dress hooted.
I was sad to reach Beth Jacob Village. The kid talk went quiet. We entered as a troop. I could feel the stares. I would have attracted them anyway, but the crowd of new, brightly clad female faces sent off waves of something in the air. It was the girls forced by their school to attend Friday night services who noticed the new comers and sized them up. Then one of them saw Kayla. She pointed. Kayla smiled back and walked toward her friend. She grabbed the erstwhile friend by the arm.
The two talked a mile a minute interspersing English words with Hebrew. Then Athalie intervened. She asked Kayla to handle the introductions. Kayla who had had etiquette and deportment class knew what this meant and went to work. She explained that these were all Ed-Branch girls who lived in the Creche on Ponce de Leon.
"Are you Jewish?" asked Kayla's friend. Kayla's friend who had a black bowl bob and wore a black princess dress with a silky black poof of a skirt, black patent leather shoes and clashing pale, pink socks had not had classes in etiquette and deportment. She did not have a branch whom she had to do proud.
"Of course I am," replied flowered dress. "Do you think I'd waste my time here if I weren't?"
An uneasy silence settled on our group. The friend turned to Athalie. She did not try to pull away her stare. She looked Athalie up from top to bottom. Athalie had on a yellow blouse with capped sleeves and a high neck and a just below the knees straight black skirt. There were black sandals trimmed with gold and silver tone rings on her feet and her nails were made up like miniature bumble bees.
"Are you Jewish?" friend asked Athalie.
"No," Athalie replied, "but my grandmother on my father's side was."
Friend glanced at me, but my religious affiliation was beyond question. Jews don't excommunicate other Jews even if they fall off the derech. She turned instead ot Li-Av who wore a bright orange dress, full of pockets and a ceramic brooch in the shape of Asiatic lilies.
"Are you Jewish?" friend interrogated Li-Av.
"Yes, Li-Av answered. Are you aware that a synagogue is a public place and that visitors of all faiths are welcome here?" Li-Av had squatted down to look Friend in the eyes. Her tone was that of a teacher. The child blinked. She looked up at the kids fresh from the creche. We were now a horde of her own faith or welcome guests. We belonged here, no matter what questions she asked.
"Wanna come sit with us?" Kayla asked her friend. The girl looked around. "Let me check something," she said and hurridly disappeared into the crowd on the wings of a fairly well finessed polite excuse. I went off to grab seats down by the rail on the female side. As in nearly all Orthodox synagogues men and women prayed in separate seating sections separted by a low barrier called a mehitzah. The mehitzah reached up to my ribs and above that was a metal grill work through which it was possible to watch the men's side which was where the service actually happened. With a good seat on the feamle side, one could see and hear everything.
Besides wanting to watch the men at the bimah where most of the action of a Friday night service was, I wanted to look for.... Yitzi was with me. Maybe his father would come to the rail to greet his two children. I was sure Shimon was here. Leigh was probably home preparing Shabbos dinner or getting ready to go out, fed by some generous soul in the community.
I thought I saw Rabbi Goldberg. I smiled at him and waved. He did not wave back. He was helping me arrange a chauffeur for Yitzi to take him from Torah Day Academy to the Female Employee Nursery in South Atlanta where he could spend the afternoons and early evenings and nap and play games with other children. For a kid Yitzi's age, this owuld be a much healthier environment than staying at home with minders. It also meant I'd be able to return to the teaching job I loved when Reunion was over.
Then three little girls came barreling into the female side of the sanctuary. They gathered prayer books and got to the top of the aisle that led down to our colony of seats by the rail. Kayla waved to them and they came down slowly. They were not used to sitting "on the rail." The Ed-Branch girls made room for the newcomers.
The children exchanged synagogue siddurim and Torah for Easy English siddurs with supplemental readings, and modern English Jewish Bibles. "These books are in case you get bored," explained the girl who was an expert in line dancing. "This way you still get to pray and don't disturb others." Her own supplemental books were a bit beaten up from heavy usage. She even had them bookmarked. Friend found the adhesive markers especially fascinating. One was pinned to the story of Jonah and the whale.
Line Dance said it was like the story of Pinocchio who also gets stuck in a wail until he gets the creature to sneeze him out upon a big raft from which he floats in safety back to Italy.
"Do you know the story of Rapunzel?" friend asked. I winced, though I should have felt proud. Rapunzel had been a big hit. I thought of my kitchen shears.
"Rapunzel is just a story," I reminded Yitzi.
"It's a lot of stories," answered Kayla.
"Huh..." Friend said.
"There's only one part that's written down. The rest of the stories are like the Oral Torah."
Just then the service started. It started with very impressive singing that welcomed the shabbos. The accoustics in the hundred and fifty year old, round sanctuary were utterly impressive. The singing was full of spirit. Athalie wiped away a few stray tears with a napkin.
I had no time to cry. He was there, down by the bima, with his favorite rabbi. I picked up Yitzi. I did not care that he was heavy. Yitzi was surprized. "Look," I told my foster son. He had to look. He might be going back to his abba. Yes Shimon Weisman was still Yitzi's abba, which is the Hebrew word for father, but Shimon pretended not to notice his next to youngest son. I thought of Corliss right after the divorce. Why can't men see in a two year old child of tehir sex, a fellow male? I always saw the boy and man in Alfred even when he was a babe on the tit. I knew it when I changedh his diaper. I heard it in his lusty cry or as he read his battle books. I heard it in my moments of maternal tenderness. I heard it when he showed me the otherness that a Y chromomosome brings.
We women accepted girls as future members of our order, even six year olds with uneven hair and big brooches and purses stuffed with playing cards and lucky charms. We saw it in the beginnings of their walking tall and imitating us. We saw it in our memories of our own girlhoods reflected back at us. Why did males so often lack this same vision?
"Shimon!" I felt like screaming. "Look who is with me!" I wanted him to come up to the rail so badly his heart ached. I wanted him to lift Shimon out of my arms and into his own even though I would have had to deny him this pleasure. Yitzi had supervised visitation only, and to have him disappear into the crowd of the male side of the sanctuary was to lose his supervision, but there was nothing to stop Shimon Weisman from worshipping beside his two children by standing down near the rail. Instead, he clung to the bimah with his favorite rabbi and their coterie, like a bunch of boys roaming the neighborhood. It was hard to suppress that thought. Maybe it was very easy to forget being a father. Maybe it was too easy.
Finally the men began to dance around the bimah. They did not really dance. They merely shuffled their feet. No one had taught them any steps. Even six year olds learning lines were better. Suddenly round face was on her feet. "Electric Slide," she commanded. Four or five gilrs including Kayla got up. The friends looked baffled. "Electric Slide," round face announced. "Just do what we do. We danced with our back to the bimah and then out into the aisles. Turning and clapping in unison. High school girls stared at us. Even the six year olds knew the steps of the easy version of the slide. Now the slide is not a disrepectful dance. Girls don't wiggle their hips or arch their backs. They are just much more precise and graceful than the untrained males who want only to moan and shuffle. Still several of them stopped to watch us. One of them was Rabbi Goldberg. What could he be thinking? I put it out of my mind.
By the time services were over, I was weak in the knees. The friends had turned talkative asking about evening activities in Creche. One or two invited themselves for supper, and I realized I would have to find their parents, but there was another parent I needed to find a lot more. Holding Yitzi firmly by the hand, I found Shimon Weisman and Rabbi Fleischmen and their coterie all happily talking like boys flipping baseball cards on the back steps of a school. Baseball, philosophy, religion, it was all the same. Males sometimes needed a world without us, but once they conceived our children, that was over, and only nostalgia and escape from reality was left.
"Shalom Mr. Weisman," I said formally to hide my anger which was probably oozing through my pores. "Your son has been here all evening. He would like to say 'hello' to you." HINT HINT HINT!
Rabbi Fleischman and Shimon stared at eachother as if I were not there. Finally Rabbi Fleischman spoke. "The child looks like a..." I will not repeat the three letter epithet here; for to put it on paper spreads the poison. I squeezed Yitzi's arm so as not to slap Rabbi Fleischman's face. "I bought the boy new clothes. He is a handsome child."
"I'm lovely," murmured Yitzi.
"A boy is not supposed to be lovely," thundred Rabbi Fleischman. "A boy is supposed to learn Torah."
"When he learns to read, but tonight he is honoring the Shabbos in a new shirt. He is honoring his abba by coming to schul. Mr. Weisman, you want him back don't you?"
"Not at the price of a chilul HaShem," Shimon Weisman answered.
"Don't you feel any guilt?" asked Rabbi Fleischman. "You brought on this situation."
"No, I just ended what had started," I said. "DeKalb County is not the Roman Empire. Think of your wife Leigh. Think of how she misses Hulda. HaShem has given you the opportunity to do tshuva. Why not take it, a little at a time?"
"Because I can't look at you or what you have done to that child?"
"You're a fool," I responded. "And the world destroys fools, and your children will mourn you." With that I turned and joined the Ed Branch girls and the few friends who had begged to tag along with us outside. The night was beginning to cool. I was not hungry. My fae burned. Yitzi was crying. I did not apologize.
It was my fault to get so angry. I have a hot head. A chilul haShem by the way is Hebrew for desecration of God's holy name. To cooperate with DFACS to get back his children was a chilul HaShem according to Shimon Weisman's mentor's logic and by extension Shimon's own. I had to remind myself that five years ago, this family had let the community turn against their eldest daughter and had even joined them in scorn. Why should their sixth child and second youngest son fare any better?
Kayla's friend who should have been a quick study, quickly forgot her lessons when Ellen emerged from the study when the Ed-Branch girls and I came home for the oneg on Friday night. Friend took one glance at Ellen in her once again, dirty t-shirt and blue jeans that would never again be clean if they ever were or got a whiff of her eau de seal meat and asked: Well you know what she asked to which Ellen replied quite honestly, "No, I'm Inuit."
Friend blinked. "What's In-u-it?" she asked.
"I'm from Alaska. My ancestors have always lived there. It's our country."
"Then you're American. Alaska is part of the United States."
"Yeah, but only since the 1800's. My people were there before Columbus."
"The Indians were there before Columbus."
"Inuit are NATIVE ALASKANS. That's what I am."
"Up in Alaska they have Eskimos."
"Eskimo just means eater of raw meat. Inuit is the right name just like Jewish is for Jewish people."
"OK, so what are you doing in Georgia?" Friend really did need lessons in etiquette and deportment.
"Ms. Mandel is my foster mom. I'm here because she's also my good friend, Ahava's foster mom." OK, explanation finished. I was glad Orphia had gotten out the snacks. I said kiddush on grape juice and the girls began to eat. Ellen stood off to the side. Was she insulted? I asked her quietly what was bothering her.
"I was working on a translation," she told me. I felt oddly relieved. "You want me to see it...." I did not want to give up supervising the party. Besides, Ellen was not going to hide in the study. I wasn't going to let her.
"How come you don't wear a fur coat?" The question floated out of the blue for Ellen. It came from an older girl in a black jumper similar to Friend's. This must have been a uniform of sorts. The big girl's shirt was lacey. She folded her arms. Ellen smiled sweetly at Lacey and replied. "It's too hot for fur in the summer. Besides when you have money you can buy synthetics. They're lighter and warmer than fur."
"Yeah, it's real cold in Alaska," another girl added. "How do you stand it?"
"It's good because the sun goes away in the winter and doesn't set in the summer. It stays out late." Ellen rocked on her feet. Did she know what was happening? I slipped away long enough to find the Atlas of the United States. It was in the study where a projection of Ellen's translatiion shown on the wall before the screensaver blocked it. One side was in English. The other was in the Roman alphabet in what the child claimed was Inupiat. It probably was, so Ellen really was bilingual, but the language written in familiar letters was utter gibberish. I suspected it had tonals and needed accent marks that were missing for the uninitiated. Ellen had probably started out learning the language as an oral tongue and then learned to read and write it righ along with English, much the way Kayla was learning Hebrew.
I returned to the oneg. "Ellen," I suggested. "Why don't you show our guests where you used to live?" Ellen opened the atlas to a map of Alaska. She found Barrow first and then began to use her fingers to trace along the mountains that came down to a plain by the sea. This sea was not the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific Ocean, but the Arctic Ocean, I told myself. I tried to picture the world north of the Brooks Range.
"Na'haquit is not on the map," Ellen explained to girls who craned their heads to look. Several glanced briefly and looked away. I realized they could not read a map. I retrieved the world atlas and showed them a map of North America and then pointed out the north coast of Alaska. "People really live there?" a young girl said in surprize. &qout;I thought there were only polar bears."
"There are Eskimos there...I mean In-you-it," explained Lacey. "They're used to the cold."
"Can we see Israel?" Friend asked. She said she had been born there. Ellen said that Ahava had gone there to see her brother, Shlomo-Yitzakh have a "bar mitzva ceremony. I don't know if she really went. My family was all ready in the bush by then."
"They have bushes in Alaska?" asked Friend.
"In the bush means out at hunting camp, not living in a village or a town or city. It's being way out in the country where it's really wild and there are no roads," Ellen explained.
"How do you get around without roads?" asked a small girl.
"Boat, snow mobile, food, sled, how do you think?" Ellen explained. "We had tents and we built houses. I helped with some of that. It was spring so the sun stayed out for half...the day. That would be all day down here, but we say half the day because sometimes the sun stays out so late, it is out all the time. In the winter the sun doesn't come out at all."
"That's terrible!" complained the small girl.
"I don't believe it," snorted Lacey. "How can you live like that. When HaShem smote the Egyptians one of the plagues was darkness."
"Why would night be a plauge?" asked Ellen. "There is a time when the sun goes away and a time when it stays out late. That is how it is supposed to be, though not down here. Here the sun has to stay out for the trees and plants."
"But how do you see?" asked Lacey.
"Ever hear of the stars and the moon and the reflection off the snow?" asked Ellen.
"I've only seen snow once. They closed school for it," Lacey explained.
"There was snow one winter in Israel," Friend answered.
"I have family in New York," the small girl said. "They have snow every winter there. They get to go down the hill on sleds. Do you have sleds."
"Yes, but snow mobiles are better. Sleds need dogs or people to pull them," Ellen answered.
"Do you eat dog?" asked Friend.
"If we're very hungry. You can't starve, but I've never been hungry like that. I've just heard stories. We usually eat caribou when we can get it, but seal is the best meat. It's redder than steak, and the fat can make ice cream. The organs are good too if you have fuel to cook them, though some people just eat them. They're not spoiled or anything and fresh killed meat tastes really good."
I let Kayla's school friends and the other Ed-Branch kids digest what Ellen had just confessed.
"That's disgusting!" Lacey was the first to declare. "HaShem won't let us eat seals. Their treif!"
"Then you would just eat fish or you would starve in the winter once the caribou ran out," Ellen replied.
"Yes, but HaShem had good reason for kashrus," Lacey slipped into teaching mode. "Our sages teach that every animal you eat has a nature, and if you eat that animal you become like it. That is why we don't eat pig."
"Well, then I should have a terffic nature," Ellen didn't quite get the stock lecture. "Seal is very hard to hunt. It is a smart creature and does not want to die, even though we need its meat. The men have to sit on the ice a long time. Sometimes women hunt seal too. You wait for the seal to come out of its breathing hole or you wait for it to surface on the rocks. Then you stalk it. If it smells you or hears you, it goes back in the water. Remember it wants to live, and it is fast and smart and it can outswim you. You have to kill it on the first shot with a gun. In the old days we used spears and harpoons, but today we always use guns. Then we finish it off with a second shot. We always thank the seal for giving us its meat and God for giving us the seal. We can sell the meat for twelve dollars a pound in Barrow to buy fuel, ammo, sugar, stuff like that. We can eat it too. We do a bit of both.
"I always just thought seal really tasted good and made money to help people live. I did not think it would make you smart and strong. Maybe you should eat seal."
Kayla's former school friends giggled nervously. The Ed-Branch girls smiled at Lacey caught in her own argument. "Is seal meat your favorite food?" asked the round faced girl who led the line dancing.
Ellen screwed up her face in thought. "It is, but I have other favorites too," Ellen groped for something. "I don't like to line up things because if something is a favorite or best, than everything else is not as good. I don't like to think about foods that way."
"You can have a tie or a dead heat," Athalie suggested. "Does that help?"
"Maybe," Ellen answered. "I think that's just a way of saying that you should have winners and losers but you don't."
"I think the fruits and vegetables in Georgia and New Jersey are really good. I think seal meat is really good. Sometimes I think jam or preserves is the best thing, but if I had to give up seal meat forever to eat preserves, I'd say no and if I had to giev up preserves forever to eat seal meat I'd say no. Do you understand? There are all kinds of foods for all kinds of places and all kinds of seasons. You shouldn't have favorites. It doesn't make sense."
"You're saying different foods are like football and baseball. You can like foodball players and baseball players and have bests in both and it's OK or maybe you can't compare them because they are different sports," a long faced Ed-Branch girl parsed out Ellen's philosophy of food.
"Yes!" Ellen cried.
"There are other ways of thinking about things than putting them in order and dividing them up," Athalie got back into the conversation. "Think of what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes."
"That's Kohelet," Li-Av gave Athalie the Hebrew name for the book of the Tanach.
"For every time there is a purpose under heaven," Athalie quoted.
"Do you worship idols?" Friend asked Ellen. The philosophical discussion had to have religion in it somewhere, and familiar religion.
I smiled. There was an answer to this, a stock Ed-Branch answer, the one Ahava had learned and even understood.
"I believe in things that you can't see," answered Ellen, "Though I could make statues or pictures of them. Those things are just symbols for an invisible thing. You worship the spirit or God, not the thing. And I'm not a Christian so I don't have statues of saints. I do believe in spirits and I also believe in God."
I turned to Lacey. Her name was Sarah. I asked it. "Sarah," it was time for the riot act. "People who worship God in some form, or even multiple gods are still worshipping God or trying to in their own way. They're not Jews so they don't have to obey our laws about graven images. People who believe something other than God will get them what they want and who worship something other than God, are idolators. Usually idolators don't even pretend to be worshipping. Usually they don't even know they have a statue of a god or a spirit."
Sarah blinked. "OK, how man of you watch TV somewhere?" Two girls raised their hands and the rest smiled uneasily. "Well you've seen commercials that promise you will be cool if you buy a certain pair of pants and wear them. Now we all know that clothes may make you look pretty, but they don't change you on the inside, so why should a pair of pants or a dress or anything else change you on the inside. That is magic isn't it?"
"You're saying there are people who worship pants?" asked Sarah.
"They worship the act of buying stuff, including pants, and probably other clothes. They think buying clothes will make them better people. That's how idolatry works. Of course the person who buys the magic pants won't admit he worships buying things. He or she will say she believes in God, but she really believes in commercials and pants."
The girls snorted. Several of the Ed-Branch girls, the older ones, shook their heads knowingly. "Then almost any other religion is NOT idolatry even if they don't worship HaShem!" Sarah made a grab for the philosophy.
"Yes," I answered. "We have more in common with seriously believing Christians or even Pagans than we do with the person who spends all her time at the mall, says she belives in one God, and does nothing about it, but does a lot about buying things."
"Do you ask spirits to tell you the future?" Sarah turned the conversation around for a third time. In a way this was good, since she was really going over this and showing the other religious girls hwo to take all of this apart.
Ellen for her part was unfazed. "No," she answered. "And how can you tell the future if you do something different you change it."
"Ellen," Athalie helped out. "Are you intrested in predicting the future at all?"
The child blinked. Was she getting tired?<> "No, I mean. I have to make a future. No one knows what it is. God and the spirits know that if I do the wrong thing I will get hurt or die, but they don't know much else. This is a new world for a lot of them. They don't know because it's all so new."
"Then your God is not omnipotent," it was Athalie now leading the charge.
Ellen sucked on her lip. "Does omnipotent mean very strong?" she asked.
"It means more then very strong, though that's a fantastic guess." It really was. "It means able to do absolutely everything. Potent means strong, and omni means everything. A better word is omniscient, which means knowing everything."
"You're right," Athalie laughed. "Ellen, do you believe that god is omniscient?"
"God can't know the future because it hasn't happened yet. He knows what I can do to mess it up, and He knows what I can do to succeed, and the spirits don't know taht, but God does, but...I think I have to find out what to do that's good on my own and with people helping me, OK?" Ellen looked tired. She rested her chin on her hand. I suggested she try some of the food.
"We should run a school here," declared Akiba as we cleaned up after the oneg. Ellen was off in her room. The Ed-Branch girls, including Kayla had all walked back to the shopping center and from there either walked or took a bus back to the Creche near Ponce.
"Philosophy for kids not yet in middle school," Akiba sing-songed.
"Don't forget theology," chimed in Orphia.
"Or anthropology. I think Ellen has had to learn to explain herself to the rest of us. At Wounded Crane, I have students who think very differently about time and religion and ordering things. I think Ellen did a really good job dealing with all that tonight."
"She's utterly impressive," sighed Ki. "I've never seen a kid that young explain complex concepts like that."
"She has a huge vocabulary in two languages," I explained back. "Having the words really does help sometimes. It's also easier when you are younger. Just trust me on that one. When you get older, you doubt yourself a bit more." By the way, I was not unimpressed with Ellen's "performance," even if I suspected that I knew how it worked.
Back in the study, I stopped the screen saver, made sure Ellen's translation was saved to her data stick and then I printed it off. I couldn't read it, but maybe I would ask her to read me the Inupiat side of the page. A black line separated the columns.
I stared at the paper that came out of the printer. I had forgotten to ask what Ellen had translated. Now I looked at the English. It looked like the lyrics of a song:
HER: They say we're young and we don't know
We won't find out until we grow
It was a song I'd never heard. I wondered if Ellen had made it up and in which language she had written the original. People usually worked left to right. Inupiat read left to right or did it. I didn't even know that. I folded the paper into my skirt pocket. Yitzi's door was open. He slept with the plastic comm phone in his arms and he snored. Ellen's light was still on. Perhaps she was chasing the spirits, singing to the dead baby sister, or pining for the sun that should not have left so soon. I read the paper again, the part I understood or thought I understood.
HIM: I got you to hold my hand
Unlike HaShem, I was far from omniscient. I thought about Ellen's comment about making a future and about sin killing. That was an odd mix of hellfire, or maybe I just had the wrong paradigm. I put the translation in my night table drawer. Maybe I was just not asking the right questions. Question one: "Why was it so important to translate a love song?" That felt better, but I still was not sure I was on the right track.
I was on the wrong track, but I did not realize that until I fell asleep, dreamed of Alfred (now called Moses), and awoke thinking of Corliss. I think of Corliss a lot, sometimes sadly, sometimes warmly, and sometimes still angrily. He is my exhusband, remember. Corliss for all I have had to twist his arm to remind him of his first born son's existence, would NEVER have behaved as Shimon Weisman had done toward Yitzi. Instead, he would have greeted my son with either babyish or masculine pleasantries, and then made promises he would forget. This last irritated me, but Moses and Corliss correspond. I have seen my son's letters in the outgoing mail. Since I commuted daily to and from The Wounded Crane International Temple and Training Center at the Crossing, I often found myself with Bee's outgoing that Moses delivered. In among Bee's outgoing were my son's letters. Corliss, by the way was still in Atlanta. He never once attended his son's juvenile justice hearings last spring. Thank you for nothing, but Moses has visited Corliss and his new family, and even stayed overnight there from time to time. Compared to Shimon Weisman, Corliss DePalma has a shining record of parental involvement, but we all know that is not saying much.
Of course my own record of keeping my cool and trying to maintain Yitzi's connection to his biological family was hardly sterling, I realized as I woke up Saturday morning. I had blown it Friday in schul. Like the little kid who missteps when playing double dutch or just plain jump rope, I wanted a do-over. Well, there were services. I was going to services. Shimon's club of males went to services. I was going to get my chance. And I'd blow it again, or would I?
There were a dozen children from Ed-Branch crossing from their discretely parked chenille. The group now included three boys and an additional girl, and there was a male Placement Specialist in place of Athalie. This was a wise move, since Beth Jacob Village had a somewhat deserved reputation as a "hostile environment." One of the boys looked like a pre-placement, though it is hard to tell adolescent boys ages, since they mature later than girls. I wondered if the oldest boy, or oldest looking boy had been bar mitzvahed. All I could think was "awkward situation."
"Where's Ellen?" Kayla asked Yitzi who walked with her, the red head from the Praying Mantis group, and a new first-second-third girl with raven hair and olive skin.
"She's not Jewish," Yitzi explained.
"She's really smart," Red Curls told Yitzi and the rest of the group. "She's a phil-os-off-er."
"She's very articulate," I replied.
"Is that the same as being smart?" asked Red Curls.
"It means that you are very good at putting your thoughts into words. A person can be smart but tongue tied or good with math symbols or pictures but not words."
"That would make them an artist," the raven haired girl grabbed at the new word.
"Or a math-em-a-tishan," Red Curls gave my idea a verbal kick.
"Or an engineer," I played the game back. Somebody had been talking to these girls about adult careers, but that was good.
"What does an ar-tick-u-late person do?" asked Kayla who had fallen in with the game.
"She can give really good speeches," Red Curls was a quick study. "She could run for office. She could win debates!"
"She could be a teacher couldn't she?" Kayla asked.
"Yes, and a very good one," I answered.
"What about being a writer?" asked Raven Hair.
"That too," I answered. We were just at Beth Jacob. I felt my throat tighten. I was glad that my only real job was getting to the female side of the sanctuary. Kayla's school friends were not there yet. One of the mothers accosted our group and said that there was junior congregation at ten am. That would be in an hour. Li-Av and I exchanged glances. Then she pulled a dollar coin out of her pocket. Li-Av was Jewish but not Orthodox and the coin was not really for spending. "Heads or tails Antonia," she began.
"What do I get if I win?" I asked.
"You pick where to go. This complex has issues," Li-Av reminded me. I glanced at the men's side. If Shimon Weisman was there, his prayer shawl hid him. I noticed a familiar face though: Rabbi Goldberg, but he was too immersed in prayer to greet my group and me. It really was my group. "Tails," I told Li-Av. I was all ready scandalized. I'd ask her next time to use a lucky charm with two sides, instead of actual currency.
The coin came up tails and I found myself dispatched to junior congregation. That meant Yitzi had to go to the perschool room by himself. Technically, he became unspervised, but trouble lurked upstairs. The teachers, both nice middle aged ladies along with two minders in their early twenties, were not about to kidnap or hurt my foster son.
Junior congregation was chaos. My girls who were young enough to be downstairs were avid, enthusiastic, and asked way too many questions. Most were Hebrew challenged and demanded English translations of everything. Their books had most of this and it was constantly finding which page matched which song. When the teacher said she'd explain the songs later, Red Curls, Raven Hair both protested. "There's no point in learning prayers if you don't understand them!" I had brought down three intransigent girls and one intransigent boy and I agreed with all of them.
Then we attempted to discuss the weekly Torah portion or parsha, and the class careened off a cliff. All four of the children had read the plain English version of it (In their plain English Jewish Bibles) late Friday afternoon or Friday night. Red Curls asked the question: "Do you think HaShem was being fair to the Caananite children and babies who were going to get killed?" she asked. Red Curls had REALLY READ the parsha.
"It's not for us to question what HaShem does?" the teacher explained.
"HaShem is omnisient and omnipotent," Kayla explained back. Damn, that kid was a good listener!
The teacher gasped. I wanted to laugh. "So what," Red Curls would not be deterred. "If God can do and know everything, why can't we criticize Him. I mean it's not like we're going to hurt Him. We probably won't even hurt His feelings?"
"Do you girls know what an aveira is?" asked the teacher.
"It means sin in English," I translated. The teacher gave me a strange look. I smiled. I wasn't behind this, but boy was I enjoying it.
"How can it be a sin if I'm not hurting God?" asked Red Curls.
"Why don't we look at..." I stopped. I did not know Red Curls name.
"Mary," Red Curls answered. "Why don't we look at Mary's question. I think it's worth a discussion."
"These are small children!" one of the minders piped up.
"I'm only six!" Mary responded. "The youngest kids here are five. There's no babies here."
I could have kissed Mary. All those hours playing firing squad with bigger boys had done her good. This was not going to be an easy discussion, but hopefully Mary had dropped the question in a way that was genuine and not in a way that showed her sneering at the faith, as a more cynical adult might have done. The teacher had to see that. I hoped.... I had wondered similar things myself at sixteen when I was a spiritually hungry high school kid and then a desperate college student a few years later.
"Why don't you take your children in the hall and discuss it then," the teacher booted us out.
"Is there another classroom we can use?" I asked.
One of the minders had keys and unlocked a conference room. We sat around the table and I was suddenly in charge of a pint size but not pint brained seminar. "OK, now that we can talk, let's tackle that question. Asking if God was fair to the Caananite children and babies is one of the thorniest questions in Judaism. Even grownups have trouble with the war chapters in Devarim."
I asked Mary to explain why she thought HaShem was unfair. The answer was semi-obvious. Children and babies were innocent.
I explained that some rabbis had an answer to this that the children would grow up evil. "But how can anybody know that?" it was Raven Hair who asked. "Nobody knows the future." I thought about Ellen.
"God is omniscient," Kayla wielded her vocabulary again. "That means he knows everything."
"Yes, but we have free will," Raven hair answered. "It's like when we play firing squad. I don't have to get hit because some big boy throws a ball.I can squat down." Raven Hair gave a demonstration.
"Everybody deserves a chance to prove they are good. Innocent until proven guilty!&quoit; Mary added.
I suggested we read the command to destroy the Caananites in context. This was going to be comfort so cold that dry ice was warm by comparison, but it was the best I could offer. A bad thing with a tight fence around it was better than a bad thing left to roam wild.
"So you see, this was a one off. HaShem is telling the Jewish people, you aren't getting this through how good you are. You don't have the right to do this any other time or any other place. You don't have the right to murder Indians because you want their territory or bomb the Gaza Strip back to the stone age, or turn tribes in the African Congo back in to your slaves on your rubber plantations."
"You're reading this like it is a command to be good to everyone else but the Caananites..." Mary was going one-on-one with me which meant I still had twenty-five percent of the class. I glanced at the back of the room to see what the rest of my class was doing. They were seated quietly and listening and we now had a new member, Rabbi Goldberg. I wondered if his wife had been the teacher whom I had offended. I was two for two this weekend.
"You can look at it that way," I conceded Mary's point. "But at least this command doesn't let people do any more harm and say it is in God's name. That would REALLY BE UNFAIR."
"It's unfair the way it is!" Mary's face was reddening. She was on her feet.
"But what can you do about it?" Kayla challenged. "It's HaShem's word. Can you hate HaShem?"
"I can for this. I can think he was mean and unfair and I can call him mean and unfair and even evil. I can call him any name I want because he's omnipotent and omniscient. I can't hurt him with my thoughts. He may not like my thoughts, but they won't hurt Him. Besides he wants me to be good and honest and care about other people. Why shouldn't I care about Caananite kids. Everybody's not Jewish!"
"Are you going to find yourself another God?" asked Kayla. "Ms. Mandel says that's NOT idol worship."
"There's only one God," answered Mary. "But I can tell Him what I think and I think he was mean and unfair!"
"What if the souls of the Canannite children went to Heaven cause God knew they were innocent?" asked Raven Hair.
"Is that as good as being alive and growing up and having a chance to be good?" asked Mary.
"Why would there be Cannanaite children in Gan Aiden?" Rabbi Goldberg entered our conversation.
"Because they were kids and babies who didn't deserved to be killed. They were innocent. Don't you think HaShem gave them something back?" asked Raven Hair.
"And what makes you think they were not evil like their parents?" asked Rabbi Goldberg. He had no shame about apolagetics.
"Because babies aren't evil!" a boy replied.
"Are you going to rewrite every parshiot lesson in the Torah?" this time Rabbi Goldberg addressed me.
"No, we're going to discuss what questions the lessons raise," I answered. "And we're going to discuss them honestly. When you discuss something honestly, you show you care about it and that it means something.
"Have you seen how attentive this class is today? Doesn't that tell you something?"
"You teach college don't you?"
"I once did."
"Discrimination against married women with children. I teach adults ESL and LPS now, English and Luso Portuguesa. And yes, I'm an academic with a secular PhD. Now can we get back to our discussion." Then I stopped. I took a deep breath.
"I believe I offended your wife when I stuck up for Mary this morning. Can you help me apologize to her at kiddush?" Rabbi Goldberg blinked.
"Why are these children asking these questions?" Rabbi Goldberg pretended to ask me.
"Because we read the story?" a small boy replied. He really wasn't so small. He stood nearly a head taller than Raven Hair who was a shortie, but not a runt. She was too young to be a runt.
"And it's just a story to you?"
"I'm not used to calling it a par-sha," the boy confessed. "Most of us just speak English."
"And you're Jewish?"
"As far as we know," I replied. "I'm not preparing marriage contracts so I didn't look into any one's ancestry, but the kids come here by choice, so they're probably Jewish or have one Jewish parent."
"It has to be the mother," Mary explained. "Who has a Jewish mother?" I felt tense. This conversation had turned from productive to ugly in one fell swoop. Hands went up. All five hands went up.
"And who's mother's mother was Jewish?" asked Rabbi Goldberg. Did I kick him now or later?
All the hands went up again. HaShem was on my side for a few moments. "Then where is all this coming from, this...attitude?" Rabbi Goldberg asked.
"We read the story," Mary tried again. "That's all. There are bad things in the story. There are sad parts."
"Like when the Jewish people made the Golden Calf."
"That's not as sad as killing Caananite babies," Mary answered. "..." the rabbi groped for Mary's name. Then he seized control. "Mary," he began. "You can not just read the story in English without knowing what those who can read Hebrew said about it. All you get is just a reading on the surface. That is why you feel sorry of the Caananite children. The rabbis who have a deeper understanding, knew those children would grow up to be evil and so did HaShem."
"Are the rabbis omniscent?" Mary wielded her new word in the face of a rabbi who had just called her ignorant and stupid.
"No, but they study many years in Yeshiva. They know more than you." Rabbi Goldberg was unfazed. "How did you learn a word like omniscient?"
"At the oneg last night. Ellen and Ms. Mandel were talking about God and they used the word and explained it. God is omnipotennt and omniscient. He is strong which is potent and he can do anything which is omni. I'm not sure about omniscient but it has an omni in it."
"Scient means knowing as in scientist. You can see it when you write it out after Shabbos," I answered.
"Well," Rabbi Goldeberg mused. "This is like Torah mixed with General Studies," he said to himself. "Are these children coming next week?" it was time for adult-to-adult talk.
I shook my head. "Why not?" asked Rabbi Goldberg.
"It's Reunion!" explained Raven Hair. "We're going home to our parents for two weeks. After we start school they'll take us after a few more weeks. "I think we'll be in Atlanta for Rosh HaShannah."
"Then how long will you stay in Atlanta. Will you be here after the holidays?"
"Takings are usually two to four weeks so the answer is yes," I explained. "It's a new system. They just started it a year ago."
"I guess we need to do something about these children while they're here. They're going to disrupt the way we do things. You're right, my wife was very upset. Would you teach their class when they come here? I can come in to help you or send one of the buchurim [Yeshiva students]"
"Sure," I answered. "I think some of the Ed-Branch Placement Specialists and interns may want to help out too. Is that all right with you."
"Will they be Jewish?" asked Rabbi Goldberg.
"Probably," I answered. "If they aren't they will know that we only teach Old Testament. Comparative religion may be useful for children who live and go to school in a mixed environment."
Rabbi Goldberg pulled on his beard. "I'm going to supervise this class when it meets," he threatened. I shrugged. "I trust you totally," I smiled. Just then the shouts and door slamming in the hall indicated it was time for kiddush.
I climbed the stairs to the social hall with my legs feeling like rubber. Li-Av had Yitzi in her arms. He was giggling. He had on his acid green shirt and chocolate brown cargo pants and an emerald green kipah.
I glanced around the social hall. I wanted to find Rabbi Goldberg's wife to make my apology. You can guess who I found instead, and yes, I wished it were Corliss, not that Corliss would ever be caught dead or alive in Beth Jacob Village. He stood near the head rabbi who was about to make kiddush over tiny cups of golden wine. I eased through the crowd along with Yitzi. Kayla was with her classmates. I let that be. I'd get Shimon back to the children's tables where there would probably be a rowdy kids' convention arguing theology, and wanting to know if Mary, Raven Hair, and the rest were "in trouble."
I glanced at Shimon and glanced away. The rabbi began to recite the long version of kiddush. I heard none of it. Men and children grabbed at the wine. I pushed gently toward Ytizi's father. "I'm sorry about what I said to you yesterday," I began. Shimon pretended I wasn't there.
"I just apologized to you publicly!" I all but screamed. Sorry, my attitude is not the greatest. I hoped I looked like I was blaming the noisey social hall.
"What do you want?" snarled Shimon who really wasn't that good at the silent treatment.
"Your forgiveness for my insulting you last night,&quiot; I explained. Shimon blinked. He noticed I had Ytizi with me. He looked down at the boy. "Where's Kayla?" he asked.
"Probably at one of the children's tables. Shall we look for her together."
Shimon and one of Rabbi Fleischman's entourage followed me to the children's tables where a heated argument flared between Kayla's school friends and the Ed-Branch girls. "You have to really read the Bible and treat it like English homework,&quiot; explained Raven Hair. "Why should it be any different. It's words. You read, you understand, you learn?"
"Who are these children?" Shimon Weisman asked.
"These young women and gentlemen come from Ed-Branch Atlanta," answered Li-Av.
"Why?" asked Shimon's friend and protector. Did he have a minder?
"We want to come to services to worship God," answered Mary.
"Nobody makes them go," answered the male Placement Specialist. "But we know religion is important."
"HaShem is what is important and following his Torah and mitzvot," Shimon all but thundered.
"It begins with reading and learning and praying," Li-Av held him at bay.
Just then Rabbi Goldbeg joined us along with his wife. This was not going to be easy, but I made a real and sincere apology. " There are different approaches to learning Torah, especially for children from a secular background. These children want to be good Jews and they are here and they are reading and studying. It is good there are people who understand them."
"And what about my son?" asked Shimon.
"Which son," I inquired. "You have four of them?"
"All of them?"
"Shlomo-Yitzakh is in Israel."
"He's not in Yeshiva."
"He's in Dati Leumi. He hasn't lost his faith. He was bar mitzvahed in Jerusalem."
"And this one...." he skipped Dov. At least he asked about Yitzi. I did not expect him to remember Yoni. "He is here," I answered. "He went to tot shabbat. My kitchen is kosher. He's not far from you. He'll never be far from you.
"I know you can't see it Shimon, but there is a man inside a boy, just as there's a woman inside a girl. Yitzi is a gentle and well behaved child. Abishag and my minders taught him deportment and trained him to use the toilet in a house full of women. We also cut his hair so he could keep his curls. He is handsome. He is a charmer. That is a kind of man. That is the man in your son. Think of Absalom with pounds of hair that he weighed every year. Think of him trying to avenge his dishonored sister. That is the man I see inside Yitzi, Shimon."
"That is very poetic," commented Shimon's friend whose face I wanted to slap.
Slowly Shimon dropped in to a kid friendly squat. It surprised me that his long legs were still flexible enough for this. He silently put his arms around Yitzi. Yitzi asked: "Where's imma, abba?" I turned away. I did not want to hear Shimon's answer. He said she was at home because she did not feel well. I wondered when she would feel well enough again or if she ever would. Could Leigh Weisman be mentally ill? I hadn't thought about that. Sometimes it takes a child's words to remind us of compassion.
"Do you miss your abba too?" Shimon asked his son.
"Very much. I'm so glad I can come to schul and see you," Yitzi held no grudge against his father, and perhaps none against his mother as well. His parents were what they had always been. He had never reached the point of having to steal to eat. Maybe that helped.
I invited Shimon to eat at my house, but of course he refused. We had half a dozen kids and a few adults from the community as guests along with the Ed-Branch crew. We needed to set up extra tables in the living room to feed everybody.
After lunch the kids played firing squad. Mary and raven hair who was the "little kid" named LuAnn taught them the version of dodge ball which forces each team to line up on a line or against a wall and then to scatter as the ball flies their way or to catch the ball and send it back against the other side. Parents watched from the window as LuAnn deftly leaped out of the way of wildly thrown balls, and Mary knocked out a clumsy big boy with a deftly thrown shot.
"Do over!" the boy shouted.
"Why?" asked Mary.
"Fair shot," called out the male Ed-Branch Specialist. I thought about Shimon. Maybe there really was a way back, even for adults stained in their own stupidity. If God was fair, he gave more do-overs than referees in games of firing squad.
Now You See Her or Do You?
I awoke Sunday morning sweaty and wretched. There was no reason for me to be dreaming of Corliss, but dreams can come without reason. I sat up in bed in the not yet light bedroom and thought about when and how our marriage came apart. It did so in stages. The first stage was bloodless but harsh. Two months after Alfred's (now Moses) first birthday, I defended my PhD. I spent an anxious month awaiting the results. I guess I was on every one's nerves. Corliss still had his PhD to defend and was planning to do it in October. He called me "efficient." That was not a compliment. I was glad when Corliss' parents invited the three of us to their house in Western Massachusetts for a month.
Three days after I arrived, I got a comm letter from my dean asking me to come back to Atlanta. I did not think this was good news, though if it was bad news it came too late to do me or any one else good. I bundled up Alfred, bought a bus ticket, and rode for thirty some hours down to Atlanta. I remember changing in my apartment before travelling to Emory. I had no minder for Alfred. I carried him in a frame pack. I left him with some toys in the ante room. The Dean was gentle with me. First, I had my PhD. There was no question, my dissertation and defense were high quality stuff. That was not the issue. The issue was well ...me.... I was female. I was married. I was a parent. Nobody was going to take me seriously. The academic job market was supremely tight. The dean and my committee had to be sparing in their recommendations. How do you say blackballed?
I went back to Massachusetts. The only silver lining in all this darkness was that my committee would write me glowing letters if I applied to the company. Atlanta was one of its large hubs and they might have use of a translator. I'd have work at least and time to spend with my son. I was going to be a female employee, or I could earn a K-12 license and teach high school. Those were pretty much my choices, and I was damned if I was going to teach school to a bunch of local house kids expecting me to be their servant.
I told everyone the news. A few days later, Corliss flew off to a Philosophers' Convention. This was an academic conference and a "meat market" for those lucky enough to have letters of reference. I expected Corliss to be gone for four days. He was gone a lot longer. I spent a lot of time on the beach. Grandma dePalma watched Alfred when I wanted to swim. I played with Alfred in the water. We went through tons of swim diapers. I offered to make cole-slaw with pineapple from scratch so we could have some kid friendly salad.
After two weeks, Corliss returned. He was surprized to see me. He asked why I was still here. I told him we had been invited for a month. "That was before..." Corliss oculd not speak the words. "It doesn't matter," I told him. "You're the one who owes me an explanation."
"Don't you see the awkward situation you've created for my parents. Every one knows now."
"Nobody asks about my employment situation."
"Yes, but the other. When something like this happens," Corliss slipped into teaching mode. "The partner whose failed is expected to go away quietly, understand. You've been parading all over the beach and club house for two weeks."
"I'm your parents guest. My plane ticket is not for two weeks. Life is going to go on despite what happened to me. In fact, I'm going to be working by September if not sooner. We are just going to have one heck of a two body problem, since the company can only use translators in a few cities." I smiled.
Corliss put his hands on his hips. "You don't even know when you've become an embarassment," he all but spat. "That plane is a lame excuse. You hauled our child up and down the coast on a Greyhound bus."
"I don't have your family's wealth, Corliss dear."
"Well what do we do now?"
"In two weeks we go back to Atlanta."
"I start working for the Company. You defend your dissertation. Depending what kind of job I get, we still have two careers. Mine just won't be academic."
"And how do you think my family will deal with that?" Corliss asked. He also meant his old school friends from prep school, undergrad, and of course Emory.
"Tell them the truth. I finished my PhD and didn't get a recommendation, and I'm going to have to do something with my life for the next fifty years, because I have no intention of dying!"
"You're so EXPLETIVE DELETEDing dramatic sometimes, and so stinking self centered. It's over for you, understand that An-to-ni-a!"
Corliss stayed at his parents' house for three days. Then he left again. This time his parents sat me down at the kitchen table. I had a feeling I knew what was coming. They asked me what I planned to do. I told them I would work for the company. I said I knew that Corliss was upset. EXPLETIVE DELETED it! He was acting positively infantile. I was the one carrying the weight of my mixed success. I did have a game plan. It was not much. It was a come down, but I had to have a job to take care of a child because.... well I did not think my marriage was long for this world.
"We're worried about our grandson," which was what they called Alfred (now Moses).
"The Company in Atlanta has a female employee center. They have a nursery where he can spend the day. When he's three, I'd like to have the money to send him to Torah Day's nursery school program for part of the day, but with one income," I shook my head. "He won't starve. I'll pay the rent. I can be quite frugal if I have to."
"Will you accept our help from time to time?" Corliss' father asked me.
I said it would depend on the circumstances. Right now my first job was to see how much money I could make with my education. We left it at that. Corliss did fly home to Atlanta with Alfred and me. He stayed in the apartment in the complex on Houston Mill Road until he defended his dissertation. We spoke little. We hardly made love. Once and a while we'd fight over something small and ugly, just because we needed to have a fight, and because we could not fight over abandonment, failed expectations, betrayal, class difference. I could not stare the future head on in the face, even when I started out with thirty-one hours per week, to increase to thirty-six that winter and then decrease again. Work came for me, went, and came back again. It would take until Alfred was about five to be completely full time, but I had plenty of benefits and would soon have a cheaper apartment. The future that fall was an abyss. I was not going to be an academic. I was probably going to end up in divorce court. Alfred was going to be an only child.
When Corliss vanished in mid-October, I was glad, not just relieved. Corliss came and went after that, staying for a few days and then being gone a week or more. I asked him not to return home with dirty laundry. I refused to ask where he had gone. I suspected he was job hunting. He was actually doing more, but job hunting wounded me enough. The week after Thanksgiving, I came home from work one evening to find the apartment dark and a strange smell in the air. It was the smell of aired closets and old suitcases, and Corliss' stuff was gone. He had taken everything and a few of my things. This time I did not feel relieved or happy.
I told the landlord at the complex we were not renewing the lease. I moved to the Oakes. I paid a student with a truck to haul my goods, and it took two trips. I sent a comm letter to Corliss' parents to let them know where I'd moved in case their son inquired. They phoned me and asked when I was getting a divorce. "Soon," I answered. That is the story. And yes, it is amazing what a man and woman who are married can do to hurt each other. I am glad we left Alfred out of our ugliness. I was glad I had a job. I really was employable.
But what if I had not been so lucky and Alfred had not been so lucky? Slowly in my mind, Corliss' face morphed into Shimon Weisman's. I imagined waiting for Shimon to return form the kollel, or Shimon closeted with his computer, there but not there. Yes, he'd notice if I got pregnant. He did not leave. He earned some money. Children bring simchot, joy, recognition, support in the form of minders, and company of other young and then not-so-young mothers. Leigh kept getting pregnant. Shimon might have even liked it in an abstract way. I worked for the Company. I was also divorced. Ed-Branch helped me. Corliss' parents helped me give Alfred a religious education, something I wanted once I was close enough to move back "into the neighborhood." I even had minders, including one who acted as a chauffeur who daily told me how she wept to leave Alfred at the nursery. She lasted because she liked tears, and because Alfred liked the nursery.
I still couldn't fathom returning to playing carefree, optimistic, newlywed eight times in a row, but I could understand the yawping lonliness, the drifting, the ache. And Leigh did not even pretend to have her life together. I had lied to myself, and that made the biggest difference of all. I had even lied to myself when I sat in the judge's chambers last spring, believing I could tough it out. If you believe something, sometimes it happens. Is that faith?
From somewhere in the house, I heard singing, and it was not in English and it was off key or in a nonWestern key. I recognized the voice by now. It was too soft for me to make out the words, and besides I did not speak Inupiat. "What kind of a mother watches her child die and does not demand to see a doctor?" I asked Ellen's mother. Leigh Weisman simply shrugged. What kind of a mother drops her two year old son at the nursery so she can work thirty hours a week hoping it will be forty some day, believing it will be forty some day. What kind of a mother pursues a useless PhD, well not useless but a tight job market and my sex and marital status had made it so. I wondered if I was ready to talk to Leigh without screaming in rage. I wasn't sure.Antonia Mandel
1278 Christmas Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30029AB123