Authors: Evan Fallenberg
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Rebecca has a new morning ritual these past few weeks: She kneads her belly with the heel of her hand, low, where the babies once grew. How odd to feel a swell there again! She grins dreamily, recalling the pregnancies she enjoyed so much, even with the twins, when her stomach pushed forward so far she thought it might crack and ooze like an overripe melon, worried that one day she might find those babies tumbling out the front of her without warning, ripping through her clothes and rolling down her legs.
Now her skin is taut and shiny again but shapeless. Doughy. That is what they call it in Hebrew:
, from the same root as the word for dough. Her English dictionary calls it an edema, which she thinks would make a pretty name for a girl. She once heard of a baby called Placenta, so why not Edema? Still she prefers the Hebrew, like some slow-baking cinnamon
rising and swelling between her vital organs. She had felt that dough from the outside on her neighbor, Penina Belkin, through long months of nursing her, watching it swell until it seemed to swallow Penina’s insides altogether. Now Rebecca is getting to know her own
, from within. Loose, thick, wobbly. She kneads and prods, searching for its boundaries. Where does it begin, where does it end? What is it hiding?
Mostly Rebecca is neither frightened nor angered by her edema. In the morning she takes an interest but lets it slip her mind until bedtime, when she explores the contours again. This dough pouch is still her secret. She has resisted making an appointment with the new village doctor, a gaunt young man with the wild hair of a clown’s wig. She has not told her father-in-law or any of her sons. She did not mention it to her mother, Esther, during their weekly phone call. She would not be able to stand her mother’s bustling efficiency just now, as Esther would certainly catch the first Tel Aviv–bound flight from Zurich upon hearing such news. Rebecca wishes to become acquainted with her
In one sense she is almost grateful for the soft and shapeless bubble; it has brought sharp focus to her immediate plans or, rather, has awakened her to possibilities she had stuffed away like the odds and ends she finds around her house, hidden in old coffee tins or behind books on high shelves or in the rickety old shed in the garden. She wishes to visit her childhood friend Rosa, who lives now in Vancouver. She resolves to buy the silk scarf, wild with jungle colors and shapes, that she saw in town last week. She wants not to make a single preparation for the upcoming Passover holiday, then to close up her house and go away for the entire week.
Rebecca will be busy today, the Jewish housewife’s Friday busy, but even more so with Ethan unexpectedly in the house (now asleep for a few hours in his old room) and Daniel on his way from Tel Aviv to fix the toilet in his grandfather’s cottage. As always, she has no list of chores. They sprout throughout the day and she hacks away at them as they catch her attention: collect eggs from the coop, iron Manfred’s white Sabbath shirt, prepare the usual meals, bake the usual cake. She notices half an aging loaf of challah on the bread board and remembers her promise to whip up an
for Daniel and Ethan, so she rips it into thick chunks and leaves them to soak in egg.
With Penina it started in the ovaries, but little bits and pieces broke off and floated skyward like balloons, bumping finally into the top of her skull and settling in to her brain. She lost her mind, then her speech, then her life. Rebecca squeezes a chunk of sopping bread and wonders down what path her own
will propel her.
The screen door to the back porch creaks open and Daniel lumbers in, ramming his toolbox into the metal washbasin. The chicken coop behind the house comes alive with an indignant clamor, but to Rebecca the birds’ cackling seems like laughter at Daniel’s clumsiness.
“Good morning, son. Eat first or work first?” Rebecca rinses the slimy yolk from her hands, dries them on a tea towel slung over a chair, and cuffs her eldest son on the cheek. Just recently Daniel has been finding opportunities to talk with her, as candidly as he is capable of, and she hopes this will be such an occasion.
He stops to consider the question, halfway into the kitchen from the porch. His eyes shift but focus on nothing. She is free to stare at him now, since she knows he will not notice. It fascinates her to be able to look at this son—only this son—and see him at two years old, at five, at eleven. Nothing has changed—not his round, sad eyes or his slow smile or his tangled muss of curly hair. She waits patiently while he finishes consulting with his stomach.
“I’m not quite hungry yet. I’ll go over to Grandfather’s first.” All at once Daniel’s cell phone rings and his beeper chirps, creating an unusual din in Rebecca’s crowded kitchen. Her face contorts at the intrusion of these foreign sounds in her farmhouse, but Daniel ignores them. “Have you got powdered sugar for the
?” he asks on his way back out the porch door.
“Of course!” she calls after him, adding, “Be gentle with Opa, he’s not quite been himself lately.” She considers telling Daniel about yesterday’s episode, how she spotted Manfred wandering dazed out back behind the house, his trousers unbuttoned, his jaw slack, drool spilling from his mouth, and how she sat beside him in the emergency room, watching him slip from lucidity to befuddlement and back again until the doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with him and sent him home. But Daniel is out of earshot and she merely watches as he treads heavily through the back garden, weighed down by too much equipment. He has always been her biggest mystery, right from babyhood. She assumed they would all be like him: shy and quiet, filled with secrets, self-sufficient. But they were not. The others chattered and demanded her attention.
When she and Joseph were first married they liked to imagine filling this quiet old farmhouse with babies. A dozen, fifteen, as many as they could. There would be legions of them. The whole village would brim over with little Lichts. They would add rooms to the house and stack beds in each room and the children would share clothing and toys and chores. He had brought her an article about a family whose first seven children had raised their next seven children, which seemed quite enchanting at the time to Joseph and Rebecca, each of whom had grown up in a home with no siblings.
Thus it was no surprise to them at all when Rebecca became pregnant within months of their marriage. She felt exceedingly healthy and exuded a quiet contentment that grew with each passing day. She especially loved Joseph’s excitement, how he talked and sang to her burgeoning belly every night and told their unborn baby stories, which he would repeat each time he planted a new son in her womb. And when at the end of labor with Daniel she lay panting and spent on the birthing table and said it had all been lovely but that next time they would try this or that differently, it was clear that what she loved the most and did the best was growing babies.
Though he could be a difficult husband, Rebecca saw nothing but promise in Joseph’s fathering. He adored the boys as babies, tossing them in the air or hanging them from tree branches, and when the older three were toddlers he thought nothing of rolling on the floor with them for half an hour, fascinated by their incoherent gurgling and their chunky, compact bodies.
But he grew increasingly preoccupied and testy, and his patience waned as the boys stepped out of babyhood. Rebecca had felt her fourth pregnancy was ill-timed— indeed, a surprise, a result of their first lovemaking in many months—and when she discovered she was carrying twins she became doubly dismayed. But what frightened her most was the kernel of certain knowledge she felt one day in the depths of her belly, as solid and real as a tumor, that this would be her last pregnancy, that her womb would close before she had even reached thirty. She wept bitterly then, but never again.
When Ethan wanders into the kitchen fastening his skullcap to his thinning hair with a clip, he finds his mother in the center of the room, staring off at nothing, one hand on her belly and the other poised above a bowl of bread chunks floating in egg.
“Mom?” he half whispers, careful not to startle her.
“Oh, Ethan,” she says breathlessly, “why are you up already?”
“Well, I’m glad you’re so happy to see me.” Ethan tries to say this lightly, but fails.
Rebecca takes his face in both hands, bending his head and kissing him awkwardly on the forehead. “I know how little sleep you get up there in Lebanon and I hoped you’d stay in bed for a few hours more to catch up. You are worried about the base? There was no talk of Lebanon on the morning news.”
Ethan’s mind races to his outpost and back. He wonders if he has missed something important, something that would not as yet have reached the media. “Mom, what were you thinking when I came into the kitchen?”
It has come early this time, she thinks, this question he always asks. Why, she wonders, does this son want so much to climb inside her fuzzy old head? She eyes her kitchen, as if in search of an answer inside one of the cupboards. For years all the boys, except perhaps Noam, tried to get her to redo this room—the shabbiest, least comfortable, and most used space in the house—but Rebecca had become more and more stubborn about it with time. All at once she can see what they had been talking about: the flaking paint and the dented cabinets, the torn window screens and the crazy mix of colors and patterns; it made her head, her whole body feel tired and heavy.
“I was just trying to decide whether to start breakfast yet, or maybe to begin boiling the chicken for your grandfather’s Shabbat meal. It’s hard to know how long he’ll be over there.”
“No, no. Daniel. He’s come to fix Grandfather’s toilet.”
“Daniel’s here now?”
She knows Ethan is doubly disappointed, having failed to coax a deep and meaningful reverie from her and cheated out of a morning with his mother all to himself. He falls into a chair at the kitchen table. Rebecca fills a teakettle with tap water and lights the gas flame. Just as she is about to put the kettle on the burner she notices Ethan’s eyes on her stomach. He opens his mouth. She sees the question forming in his mind and suddenly she knows, with a feeling of sadness and regret, that her secret will be short lived.
She chooses a voice that is brighter and cheerier than she feels to cut him off. “Yehoshua Belkin brought by some fresh cream last night, very thick, and I’ve bought myself some good coffee instead of that powdered instant, so we’re going to have a real treat.”
Daniel stomps onto the porch and throws open the kitchen door before Ethan can frame his question. “Mom, I need some rags. . . .” He stops just inside the door when he catches sight of his brother. “Hey, Ethan!” he cries heartily. Ethan does not rise from his chair but they slap hands in the air and hold on to one another for several moments. “When did you get in? I didn’t see your car.”
“My driver brought me. He’ll bring the car back later this afternoon.”
“Your timing is wonderful, Daniel,” says Rebecca. “The kettle is just boiling and I’m making us all a nice cup of coffee. Sit down for a moment.”
Rebecca sprinkles cinnamon onto the cream floating atop the coffee and hands him the first mug. Daniel accepts it but backs toward the door. “I’ve got a mess over at Grandfather’s. Do you have some old rags I can use?”
She points to a box of old cloth scraps on the porch. Daniel stoops and picks up the whole carton with one hand, the steaming mug still in his other. “See you both soon,” he calls over his shoulder on his way out the porch door.
Rebecca sets a mug down in front of Ethan. She leaves her own on the counter and is on her way to her bedroom before he can remember to ask what is on his mind.
* * *
Despite foul weather and disturbing dreams, Joseph’s spirits are high this morning. Today he performs only some of his morning toilette, skipping even the ritual shave and shower. Without regret he will stain his hands with floor wax and splatter himself with cooking grease. Besides, Pepe is gone and no stray caller could penetrate this fortified building. Except for an early-morning outing to the shuk for last-minute fresh produce Joseph will spend the day blissfully, busily alone. He throws on a powder blue jogging suit and sneakers, and has just buzzed the doormen to hail a cab for him when the phone rings. He does not answer, fearing a cancellation, a stray son with a change of heart. He listens as the call is picked up by the answering machine.
Bom día, querido
!” It is Pepe shouting down the line from Rio. Joseph considers ignoring him and heading out the door, then on an impulse grabs the receiver.
“Aha, Joseph, you were afraid I was one of the boys, eh? Didn’t want bad news?”
Pepe’s voice is nearly drowned out by the ferocious din of revelers. Before Joseph can respond, a different voice slobbers a tune into his ear: “She loves you blah, blah, blah.”
Pepe is on the line again. “Don’t mind these crazy drunken fools. What a Carnaval this year! People are wilder than ever. Or maybe I’m just not in the swing anymore. Do you think I’m an old man already?”
“Younger than springtime, are you, gayer than everybody . . .” Before the line goes dead, the slobberer’s voice erupts into a throaty laugh, or perhaps he is choking. For a moment Joseph does not replace the receiver and considers quickly slipping out the front door, but after giving it a second thought he returns the receiver to its cradle. A minute later, the phone rings again.
“I’m up in my room. Now you can hear me?” Pepe’s tone is conciliatory, amorous. He would be sliding his coarse and stubby fingers beneath the cotton cloth of Joseph’s sweat suit if he were at home now.
Joseph relaxes. He acquiesces. After all, Pepe is far away. “I hear you fine, Pepinho. How are you, my love?”
“Ah, there’s my Josi.” Pepe is clearly pleased. “I met with Carolina yesterday. She wants to visit us in Israel, and meet you. I’m getting to like her a lot; she’s special. Clever and sexy together. Maybe one of your boys will like to marry her and then you and I become family!” He breaks into a leering laughter that Joseph recognizes, and detests.