Authors: Stephanie Feldman
In memory of my grandfathers, Robert Feldman and Bernard Weiss
I envy those who enjoy the quiet of the Grave: But Death eludes me, and flies from my embrace. . . . I plunge into the Ocean; The Waves throw me back with abhorrence upon the shore: I rush into the fire; The flames recoil at my reproach: I oppose myself to the fury of Banditti; Their swords become blunted, and break against my breast: The hungry Tiger shudders at my approach, and the Alligator flies from a Monster more horrible than itself. God has set his seal upon me, and all his Creatures respect this fatal mark!
—THE WANDERING JEW,
BY MATTHEW LEWIS
hen Grandpa came to live with us, he brought the White Magician with him. Holly and I were children, still excited for a night of checkers and pizza on those Saturdays when our parents went out to the one nice restaurant in our little town off the turnpike. “Tell us a story!” we would cry, tucked beneath our blankets in the room we shared. “Tell us a story about the White Magician!”
Sitting in the undersized armchair, spotlit by the weak light from our pink lamp, he looked like a wizard himself, his white hair unruly and his large hands sculpting the air as he talked. I would close my eyes and see a cloaked figure luminous as snow, staff in hand, a hero with Grandpa’s aquiline nose and blue eyes.
That image stayed with me long after Grandpa recounted the final tale of the White Magician, the year I was ten and Holly was six. So did every detail of his story.
It goes like this.
ONCE AGAIN, THE VILLAGE AT THE REALM’S MUDDY EDGE FOUND
itself at the mercy of the evil king. He was a cruel ruler, who demanded impossible amounts of gold from his subjects, kidnapped their pretty daughters to be his wives, and proclaimed mandatory celebrations in his own honor, which took farmers from their fields and left the crops to wither.
Now, a child from the king’s court had been murdered. The body was found near the little village, and the king was certain that the culprit would be found there too. Bring the murderer to me, the king said, or I will punish you all. Days went by and no one stepped forward to admit his guilt. The king’s anger festered. He threatened: Bring him to me, or I will imprison all of you until the murderer confesses. Bring him to me, or I will burn your houses to the ground. Bring him to me, or I will unleash my soldiers on your village and no one, not one of your children, will survive.
Holly climbed out of her bed and into mine. We huddled together with the comforter at our chins.
Soon after, Grandpa said, an old man in a cloak appeared in the village, counting his steps with a walking stick. His long beard was white and his eyes were blue and shining as the lake in summer. It was the famous White Magician.
He sat quietly in the town square as the villagers told him their sad story. When they were done, he pledged himself to their plight. The villagers watched in silence as he stood and walked into the gathering darkness; then they waited, restless in their homes, through a black night punctuated by distant flashes and cooled by strange winds, their hope now tinted with fear of the power they courted. When the White Magician appeared again in the morning, he announced that he couldn’t help them. There was no murderer in the village. There was no villain to be discovered.
But the king would not be appeased, and the villagers persuaded one another that the White Magician must be wrong, that the guilty man hid among them. They chose a murderer to placate the king: the shoemaker, a quiet man with no family, a man who swore he was innocent.
The villagers tied the shoemaker to a tree in the town square, where just a day earlier the White Magician had sat, and invited the king’s knights to claim the scapegoat. All night the shoemaker wept. The villagers closed their shutters, put linen in their ears, but still his cries swept through their sleep, a tide of troubling dreams for some and anxious wakefulness for others. At daybreak, they found him slumped against his restraints, staring down the road on which his certain death approached by horseback. The villagers stood at the perimeter of the town square while the White Magician held a cup of water to the shoemaker’s lips, and then a piece of bread, and the shoemaker drank and ate. The magician stood steadfast beside the innocent prisoner all day. At dusk, the earth began to rumble with the terrible sound of hooves, and when the military party finally arrived, they saw the king’s old foe keeping watch over their quarry.
Have you come for this poor man? the White Magician asked. Or have you come to find the killer of the court’s child?
Before the soldiers could answer his question, the magician tapped his wooden staff on the ground, once, twice, three times. A murmur arose from the square, and the people began to shift. They wrapped their arms around one another; they covered their eyes; they gasped and whimpered. There, next to the bound shoemaker and the White Magician, stood a young child, a boy. His face was drawn, sharp as a rodent’s skull, and his cloak was black with blood, and though he was dead, still he breathed: a horrible, rasping breath, like a claw dragging through his insides.
Here is the soul of the murdered boy, the White Magician said. He will lead you to his killer. He will find the man who deserves the king’s noose.
The child took a step toward the road, toward the woods in which he had met his end. He didn’t flinch; he didn’t blink. He took another step, and then another, past the shoemaker, past the magician. He approached the king’s men, still mounted, and the horses strained against their harnesses. The ghost boy, who came just to the soldiers’ boots, threaded his way between them and away from the village. The soldiers lifted their torches so that they wouldn’t lose him in the growing darkness, his slight and tattered silhouette, his bare feet, his black and shining head. They turned their mounts and followed him, and as they withdrew back toward the castle, the villagers drifted after them, following the ghost’s path, until only the betrayed man and the White Magician remained in the town square.
The White Magician tapped his staff against the earth, and the prisoner’s bindings dissolved. The shoemaker fell, a heap of limbs in the mud, and the magician helped him to his feet. The air buzzed with the remnants of the storm, or perhaps the coming of a new one. The White Magician spoke. It is time for me to leave. The shoemaker saw an old man—exhausted, distracted, perhaps even afraid—in the place of the powerful wizard. The magician turned and walked away into the descending darkness. Within minutes, he disappeared into the night.
LATER THAT NIGHT HOLLY WOKE UP CRYING. “THE GHOST!” SHE
sobbed. “He’s here!”
“What ghost?” my mother asked. She turned on the lights, lifted the bed skirt, opened the closet, but Holly wouldn’t be comforted.
I knew what ghost. I had seen his face in the dark: the little boy with the pallid skin, the gaunt face, the bloodied clothes.
As our mother tried to lull Holly back to sleep, I listened to the vague sounds on the other side of the wall. Grandpa was awake. I slipped away to his door and knocked. He opened it, just a crack, and looked at me curiously. Hadn’t he heard her crying?
“Holly’s afraid,” I told him.
“Of what?” he asked. He blocked his doorway, as if I were a stranger not to be admitted.
“Of the ghost,” I said. “You have to finish the story.”
“Finish?” He touched his chin. “Didn’t I finish it?”
“No,” I insisted. I had just then realized that his tale was incomplete. The ghost never identified his killer. The magician never put him to rest. How could the magician let the suffering boy wander indefinitely? How could the killer live on, unnamed and unprosecuted? No, he had to send the ghost back to where he came from.
“What happened after the White Magician untied the shoemaker?”
“He left,” Grandpa said. “The villagers never saw him again.”
“What about the little boy?” I pressed. I was frustrated, and a little frightened, by the note of confusion in his voice.
His eyes turned sharp now, fixing on me. “Don’t ever ask about the boy again.”
My stomach turned. My eyes stung. Grandpa had never spoken to me with that kind of anger. I stood there until my father appeared and sent me back to my room. I hesitated in the hall while Dad placed a hand on Grandpa’s shoulder, forcing him back into his room, and then closed the door behind both of them.
Soon Holly forgot her nightmare. When Grandpa tucked us into bed, when we colored at the kitchen table, when we ate ice cream, she would beg him to tell a story, but he always declined. I remained silent, remembering his anger. Long after the ghost boy stopped haunting my sister, he stayed with me, a relic of Grandpa’s fury, a scar in my love for him. Grandpa never gave any hint that he remembered our exchange in his doorway. It was as if it had never happened at all.
pring and now summer had passed since I’d last seen Holly. The southbound train brought me under the river, over the marshes, past the airport, and through spells of righteous anger, guilt, and nostalgia. I was nearly home, neat houses visible beyond the trees clustered by the tracks, before I recognized something else—a small bit of hope that maybe this time, it would be okay. We would get along; we would laugh. But as the train pulled up to my old stop, I saw Holly in the parking lot, pregnant, so very, very pregnant, and that tiny flame of hope flickered out.
My sister was alone, leaning against her car, staring down at her phone. Her dark hair was bound up beneath a navy head scarf, and she wore a long black skirt and an enormous black dress shirt buttoned over her belly.
“You’re huge,” I said. “I mean.” I shook my head. It was the wrong thing to say—it was always the wrong thing to say. I was supposed to tell her she was glowing, beautiful, but I couldn’t manage to say that either. Doing so would have been too much of an overture. I didn’t want to apologize first.
She looked down. “Every morning I wake up bigger.” She was due in a month. We hugged, our hands light against each other’s shoulder blades. “When was the last time we saw each other?” she asked rhetorically. “I probably wasn’t even showing.”
In the car, Holly talked. She was always good at filling empty space. “I wish you hadn’t come rushing down, Marjorie. You’re so busy.” She was pale, her eyes pink and gray-lidded. She tugged at her collar, and I saw a flash of paper-white skin. I looked at my own skin. Just as pale. Neither of us got any sunlight, Holly bound up in modesty, me sheltered by the towering stacks of the university library.
“They’re my books. I should pack them up myself,” I said, as if my visit was inspired by generosity instead of suspicion, territoriality.
“Mom exaggerates,” Holly said.
I wondered if she knew how often my mother and I talked about her—more than I talked
her, certainly—and how easily our voices took on the timbre of gossip. This is what Holly said, and how she said it; this is what she wore, and how flattering or unflattering it was. It had been this way ever since Holly married Nathan, converted to Orthodox Judaism, changing her wardrobe and her diet, observing daily rituals and a cascade of holidays, dropping words and references I’d never be able to parse, answering to Chava instead of Holly. Barely a look over her shoulder as she went.
I think Mom sensed that I got along with Holly better when she was unhappy and on the other side of the Hudson River. My heart ached for her when she was lonely, and I was embarrassed with her when she didn’t understand her in-laws’ Yiddish. I rooted for her when she told Nathan she wouldn’t move to Israel and imagined how magnanimous I would be when she left him, never once reminding her of the great mistake that was her marriage.
That morning Mom told me that Nathan was planning to give away all of the books we had left behind. All of Grandpa’s books. Nathan could no longer tolerate their secular taint in his home, which I still thought of as my home.
I had immediately begun digging through drawers for the train fare, while she begged me to stay in New York, not humiliate Holly with a big confrontation. I didn’t want to humiliate my sister. Part of me felt sorry for her—she was twenty-one, married, pregnant, living in the house she grew up in. Holly said, of course, that she had everything she wanted, and though I was supposed to be the tough one and she the sweet one, the truth was, I had never seen her allow herself to be humiliated. She simply did as she was doing now: stared straight ahead, talked over and around the truth.
“We just needed to make room upstairs, but there’s space for everything in the basement. I’ve been so busy fixing up the house. Look, a new Thai place opened where Bishop’s used to be. So unfair.” When we were growing up, there were only pizza parlors and fast food. Now there was Thai and sushi, and Holly couldn’t eat any of it.
“You better get your curry fix before the baby’s old enough to tell on you,” I said.
“I make kosher curry,” she answered.
She pointed out the blocks that remained unchanged—the strip mall with the thirty-year-old diner and used bookstore—and the ones that were different—the woods razed for a big box store and a parking lot large enough to service an airport. She didn’t acknowledge Nathan’s school, a wide one-story brick building set behind a chain-link fence. I still remembered when the Baptist congregation sold the property and the new black-hatted owners put up a mysterious sign:
BERUKHIM YESHIVA: PARKING FOR STUDENTS ONLY.
Grandpa was still living with us then. “Those people, they have so many children. They’re going to take over the neighborhood,” he grumbled, prescient in a way none of us could have imagined. His face would change when he saw the men in their black suits and rainbow belts at the grocery store or on the bus, their presence waking in him a latent anti-Semitism he had brought with him from Russia, and for the first time I worried about him embarrassing me in public.
If he had lived to see Holly now, exactly like the women he had stared at with such contempt, I would have been forced to defend her. I didn’t care that she was Jewish; I didn’t care that she wore long skirts, or had changed what she ate. I didn’t care that she’d fallen in love with God; her new agey phases had always passed near him. I cared that she had done all of it at once, without a moment’s hesitation about leaving me behind.
Grandpa moved out soon after the Berukhim Fellowship moved in, and only a few years later, he died. By the time Holly met Nathan, there was no one to force my generous instincts, and my anger grew and grew.
NOW THAT WE WERE ADULTS AND MY MOTHER’S PENSION VESTED,
my father had finally transferred to the Florida division, where they could live in the condo full-time and ease into retirement in warmer weather. They took the nicest furniture with them, and with Holly’s talk of redecorating, I was surprised by how much the house looked the same, felt the same, though I shouldn’t have been. Even with my parents’ help, Holly and Nathan had no money for new carpeting or a new couch. Holly wanted to find a job teaching art at a Jewish day school but was waiting until the baby was old enough—and by then, there would be another baby, I was sure. For now, Holly made a little money selling Jewish crafts on the web, and Nathan received a small stipend from the Berukhim Yeshiva and serving as a religious scribe, his only remunerative skill.
“I’m sorry Nathan’s not here,” she said. “He’s at the library. Studying all the time. You know how it is.”
“Sure,” I answered, swallowing the offense I felt at her comparison. I was earning a PhD from a top university. Nathan was—well, nobody knew, exactly, what he was learning or where it was intended to lead. But Holly was grateful for his studies. Nathan had wanted to remain in their one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up in deepest Brooklyn, even after she became pregnant. It had been admission to the Berukhim Yeshiva that persuaded him to move to our parents’ house in New Jersey.
Up to that point, the house had been promised to me—rent-free, distraction-free—for the year while I wrote my dissertation. Holly had suggested a compromise: We all live together. Passive-aggressive, I thought, though my mother insisted her offer was genuine. How could it be? Nathan and I would never get along.
“I made our room into a studio,” she said. The twin beds were still there, pushed up against the wall. A transparent mat lay over the rug, and a drafting desk with tiny jars of liquid ink and long pens like cigarette holders dominated the room. Behind it, a set of plastic stacking shelves held coils of leather tape, slick black on one side and raw on the other, and a heap of two-inch-square black boxes. A long, thin blade was balanced on the top shelf. They were supplies for constructing prayer boxes, cubes filled with tiny, calligraphed scrolls, built to be tied to the body—forearms, foreheads. Building and repairing them required absolute precision. Nathan had learned the craft in China or India, where he had spent six months ministering to some wayward Jews.
“What are these things called again?” I asked. The leather looked like silk, and I nearly reached out to touch the black tongue peeling from the roll. I held back; I didn’t want to be scolded for polluting their work with my gentileness or femaleness.
“Tefillin,” she said. “It means ‘phylacteries.’ You use them to pray.”
Phylacteries. That meant amulets. There was a new forbidden vocabulary; I sealed my lips against the
—and especially the
. “At least it’s a skill,” I said.
“Yes, only a little less practical than postmodern literary analysis,” she replied.
I felt my face flush. This was the room where we had whispered and laughed until we couldn’t stay awake any longer; where we had imagined our futures, trips abroad, a shared apartment in the city, the glamours of young adulthood; where we lay side by side in her twin bed the night before Grandpa’s funeral and wept.
I stuck out my forefinger and thumb and pointed at her. “Got me,” I said.
“Got you.” She smiled.
I looked away, my gaze landing on a waist-high canvas propped against the closet door. Four black figures were suspended against a swirling, midnight-blue background, hovering over a row of trees studded with apples. Their arms and legs were extended like da Vinci’s
. One’s eyes were open as wide as eggs; another’s were shut and bloody at the corners; another’s were as black as his coat. The fourth’s face was unfinished.
“It’s a Jewish legend,” Holly explained. “A rabbi and three followers attempt to enter paradise, even though it’s forbidden. One goes mad, one dies, and one becomes a heretic.” She pointed to the figure with the unfinished face. “Rabbi Akiba’s the only one who survives intact.” She paused, considering the image. “I can’t figure out what that looks like.”
We continued down the hall. “I’m painting the baby’s room blue,” she said. “Tell Mom that’s not a hint. We still don’t know the sex. Blue is just so calming, and I love this shade.”
I stopped, staring at the light spilling through the doorway. The room at the end of the hall had always been dark, the walls lined with bookshelves, the sun blocked by forest-green blinds. In all the time I had spent stewing over Nathan in
house, I hadn’t thought about what his presence meant for the back bedroom, where Grandpa had painted watercolors and read old books. After he moved to the apartment in Brooklyn, we had left his room as it was, even the bulletin board papered with comic strips and the nicked wooden desk, postcards sealed beneath the glass overlay. After he died, my parents filled the room with cartons from his apartment. We had never unpacked them. In death, his claim on this space only grew stronger.
“When we took away all the bookcases and stuff, it actually turned out to be bigger than our old room. Strange, right?”
“You already moved everything?” My voice was quiet. She walked down the hall, and I had no choice but to follow.
The room shone as if it were the source of light for the whole house. The floor was clear—no stacks of books, no file boxes, just a fluffy blue area rug over the old carpet, a rocking chair, and a crib. Three of the walls were white. The fourth was a patchy sky blue.
Holly turned proudly in the center of the room. “What do you think?”
I felt tears rise. It was as if Grandpa had been erased.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her smile disappeared. “You look—”
“I’m fine,” I interrupted her. I didn’t want her to say anything else before I managed to choke out something nice. “It’s perfect for a baby.”
We stood there in silence for a moment. Finally she said, “It always wakes up after lunch. I think it just kicked my kidney.” She paused. “Do you want to feel it?”
I looked at her, and she looked away, down at her fingers bridging the hump under her shapeless clothes. I realized she was a little afraid to be kind to me. I could be cutting.
“Yes,” I said, and then, “Thank you.”
I put my hand on the front of her belly, and she put her hand over mine, sliding it down to the side and pressing my palm against her. There was a sudden aquatic motion, a limb slipping along the inside of her skin and withdrawing again, and I was startled—how solid they both felt, how strong and unknowable. She let go of my hand, and I let it fall to my side.
“Have you picked out names?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you,” she said, and then quickly, “We’re not telling anyone.”
There was a time when I would have been an exception to the “anyone.”
“Do you remember special breakfast at the diner?” she asked.
“ ‘Make the toast hard.
’ ” I said.
and hard,’ ” she said, simulating Grandpa’s gruff tone and careful enunciation.
We’d spent so many Sunday mornings, just Grandpa and his girls, ordering the same breakfasts in the same peeling booth, buying more Nancy Drew and Baby-Sitters Club paperbacks, standing at the bus stop with our hands in his. “We should go sometime,” I said.
Holly didn’t say anything. She couldn’t eat there anymore.
My chest contracted. I had always been easily irritated—by my classmates and their frivolous interests, by the boys who couldn’t keep up with me, by my parents’ oblique good intentions. It had been different with Holly. We understood each other. Losing her had spun my impatience into a tornado, an anger I couldn’t put to rest. I didn’t like who I was becoming, but I couldn’t stop it either. “I’m going to get a glass of water,” I said.
I charged down the stairs and waited for her in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets, afraid to disturb her carefully arranged dishes and cups, listening to her slowly descend the steps. “It’s just hard to see all of his stuff gone,” I said when she entered the kitchen.
“Yeah.” We looked at each other. I had no idea what she was thinking.