SEPTEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 4200 WORDS
Avram Mordecai sits shiva for his dead sister Tamar with only Tamar herself in attendance.
The memorial yahrzeit candle of remembrance burns auburn, lurid shadows waltzing upon Tamar’s face. Avram sits on a mourner’s seat, but the only meals laid out for him are horror and self-contempt. Tamar sits across from him, watching him endlessly.
Shiva is meant to be held for seven days, with the Mourner’s Kaddish for the deceased spoken thrice a day. Avram has not managed to say the prayer for Tamar even once. He tries to forgive himself, but the sight before him blocks his attempts.
His sister remains as he last saw her, with straight black hair, dark skin, and sundered skull. Her smile is hollow, her eyes windows to a vacant house. The wound in her head is dark as wine. The edges of her white skirt drip with tendrils of red that vanish like dew against the cream curls of the carpet.
The candle burns in memory, bright as her soul in life. But memory is meant for the departed, and Tamar refuses to depart. She clings to him, a knot that cannot be severed; gazing upon his haggard face and reddened eyes. No mourners come to this cramped, cheap Virginia apartment, nobody remembers another broken body in an alleyway. Hate crime or pogrom, no matter what the era, this world refuses to offer its compassion to dead Jews. All they had was one another, and now he has naught but himself and her ghost.
On the first day, he was alone, wishing nothing but hate upon the world. Avram could only think of the call that told him that his world had ended in that small hospital, with a too-small bed and white pillows soaked black in dull lamplight.
He hid in their apartment all through the riot, too afraid to leave and face a reality where the demons in his mind were made flesh and blood. Avram’s world extends to the front door, for the world outside is vast and brutal. Both he and his sister have been hurt in the past, Avram still bearing the scars over his arms. Only Tamar has the courage to set foot in the world outside.
Had, he reminds himself, just as she smiles at him again with a hollow and broken grin, a sunken expression that brings him fear as well as despair.
“What do you want?” he asks her, not for the first time.
The ghost refuses to stop staring at him. Her presence is a coiled snake of ice in his heart, letting him feel every gelid instant of her. She arrived on the second night of shiva, taking a place in the mourners’ bench as though agonizing over her own demise.
It is now the fifth night of shiva. His clothes are soaked with sweat, his face thick with stubble. He watches her, then the candle, wondering how it can reflect her soul with such intense and renewed heat when that soul radiates a frigid cold.
He sits as he has for five days, the candle burning without end despite that he has not relighted it once. “What do you want?”
His voice comes out in a hoarse plea, dry from repetition. Through a swimming haze of tears and regret, he tries to mouth an apology in English or Hebrew, to offer repentance, teshuvah, so he might achieve absolution.
He did not protect her, his sister. He failed, as legions of Jews throughout history failed to protect loved ones.
“You look afraid,” she says in a chill breeze, her voice the tender brush of wind over the gravestone where her body now lies. She extends a hand, the fingers a velvet brush of ice as it touches his cheek. “You know what I am.”
It is the first time she has spoken since her unnatural arrival days before. Her tone is a skeletal remnant of her strong voice in life. He cringes from her voice, all but drowning in terror at the proclamation. Pain lances through him at her words. He does know what she has become, recalls it from the tales of childhood stories.
Dybbuk. The restless dead called forth from the sunless lands, returned for their unfinished business to find purchase in living vessels. He is her suit, her home, her harbor, with only her condemning smile fixed on her face.
The lights are off. Darkness reigns outside. He has scarcely moved in days. He barely remembers to take enough water to keep himself alive. All this while the ghost sits and stares, a bleeding memory of failure. “Are you sure I’m the one who’s dead here, Avvy?” The soft whisper of her voice is tender, soft snow packed into his brain.
He pulls himself up, finding some secret strength inside himself. He turns, trying to flee, for the sound of her voice coupled with those words terrify him so much more than the mere sight of her. He rushes for the door, nothing keeping him bound in the room.
Only the fog in his brain, the demons in his mind, and the rattling, shivering tremor of his bones stop him when he stretches forth a shaking hand for the brass handle of the apartment door.
To flee will be to enter the world, to see people staring at him, their eyes needles of judgment. To flee is to enter a world that will persecute him, judge him for his heritage. He envisions the mob, their torches brighter than any candle. They will come for him, he thinks. His mind snarls invectives that drive spikes of doubt through his feet.
Better to stay with ghosts. At least the terror with them is known. Head slumped, shoulders squared, he attempts a prayer in Hebrew for benevolence from a God whose mercy has never extended to the plight of the Tribe. People of the Book, divested of a homeland thousands of years ago and driven all through the world.
He turns from the door, that portal to persecution. He shuffles to return to the living room, feet plodding upon the pale carpet. The only other sounds are the buzzing crackle of the wick and the drip of ethereal blood.
Her grin is ephemeral, insubstantial by flickering candlelight. “Avvy.” She rasps it gently. “Did you try to go out?” Her head cocks, her body moving as if through water. From her leaning head, a splattering of pale red falls to the floor, vanishing like dissolving dewdrops in morning heat. “Why would you try to leave?”
To go, he thinks. To run, to flee. “To get away from you.”
An admission. Honesty at last. If the Dybbuk is displeased, she gives no sign, though her tongue clicks, rattling off her teeth like pebbles bouncing against rocks. “Do you think you can?”
He has no idea.
“Do you even want to?”
His mind roils, a stew of anxiety, just one more fearful Jew. He is a punchline to the world, with the collective trauma of thousands of years to cage him. He lives separate and apart, with only Tamar to help him.
The candlelight dims, as though the flame has reached the end of its trail upon the wick. The glow of the fire is eclipsed by Tamar. “You stopped,” she says in a flat monotone, eschewing emotion or condemnation. In life, Tamar always attempted to push him beyond his shell with infinite patience.
“I can’t.” He manages only a frog’s croak, a lamentation of his own weakness. Tears flee Avram’s eyes and roll down his cheeks as the Dybbuk continues to watch him. “Nobody’s here,” he mutters while he runs hands against his arms, rubbing firmly as though the friction might banish the spectral cold.
Tamar’s form burns bright despite the weak candlelight, a lucent, argent glow emanating from her like the moon has taken his sister’s shape. “Why not?”
“Because nobody cares. Not about us.” Avram falls back into the mourner’s seat, the apartment his entire world and yet a cramped coffin all at once. There are only a few rooms, Avram’s bedroom so near to Tamar’s now-empty one. Her things sit unmolested and unmarred, exactly where she left them, from her computer to the stuffed animals that were mementos of a happier childhood.
Their parents are long gone, Tamar’s life insurance all that keeps Avram from destitution and ruin. Avram has nothing but the computer and meager skills to compensate for his strong sister.
The news reported the crime was without motive, meaningless and without further investigation required. The man who struck Tamar blends faceless and wordless with a thousand others, Avram conjuring his face a million times in his sleep. The news has already moved on, Tamar a forgotten footnote three clicks away from the front page.
If they are very lucky, it will read “Tamar Mordecai,” with the proclamation she was Jewish. It should be important. It should matter.
She died for it.
“Nobody cares about us at all, Tamar.”
“That’s not true.” Tamar’s rattling voice escapes her throat. She watches him as she has, unceasingly, just as she watched over him in life. She makes no move to harm him, nor to comfort him. “I always cared. It hurts me to see you like this.”
“I’m sitting shiva. Shouldn’t I be mourning?” He slumps back in the seat, his head caressed by the soft cushion behind him. Avram shuts his eyes, the tears stinging at his lashes. “I have to. Nobody else will for you.”
“Who says I need them to?” Tamar asks, as though it is the most natural thing in the world for the dead to ask. Another dead Jew, that’s all Tamar will be in a week, banished to the infinite recesses of the forgotten for everyone except Avram. Only he will remember her warm, encouraging smiles, her laughter as she spun the dreidel on Hanukkah or baked fresh babka on Rosh Hashanah. And yet she sits there, her words selfless. “Do you understand what the shiva is for, Avvy?”
He does not respond, his hands roaming against old scars on his arm as fear overwhelms him again. Not fear of the world, but fear of the answers. “To remember the dead.”
“The living are the ones who remember the dead,” the ghost returns. “Sitting shiva is for the living, Avvy. But living isn’t what you’re doing. That won’t end when the seventh day does.” Her hands fold delicately in her lap, her motions dreamlike, though she passes her limbs through ethereal liquid. “I need you to change that.”
He lives, breathes, and eats. He works sometimes, for what part-time work he can do from the sanctity of the computer. He ensconces himself in safety, where slings and arrows cannot harm him. There is nobody to assault him again, strike him again, spit on him and call him derisive names.
“I worry about you, Avvy,” the Dybbuk says. Her eyes are empty pools of ice, staring unceasingly into him. “What will you do without me now?”
The answer is obvious. He will exist, in a fugue state, passing aimlessly through the dance of life until Hashem claims him. Avram will bow his head on Friday nights and murmur the prayers of Shabbat. He will light the candles then, until the candles are all gone and he must go for more.
“You’ve neglected your looks.”
“It’s shiva. I’m supposed to.” The barest ember of sardonic mirth lights Avram’s face, bringing an identical expression to Tamar.
“We both know that won’t change when shiva ends.” Tamar admonishes him in the same manner she’d use to hurry him along for Sukkot dinner. The Dybbuk rises from her seat. “What can I do for you?”
“Come back to life.” That’s it, all he can think of. There is no other option that could heal the hole in his heart. He cannot remember the last thing spoken between them, the words that would be their sign of parting in this life. Nor does he recall what she shouted to him before the closing door took her from the apartment and from Avram’s life.
“Not on the menu, Avvy. The dead are the dead.” Concern drips into her voice. “Why are you so broken by it?”
“You’re my sister,” he answers. You always know what to do, he thinks. She is the younger, yet she takes care of him without regret or resentment. She always enjoyed sharing cups of wine on Shabbat and encouraging him to sit outside with her on the front steps to stare at the stars together.
But now her loving eyes are hollowed, narrow as she stands before him. “Don’t use me as an excuse,” she snarls. Avram sinks into his seat, ashamed. Tamar’s brief fury ends as soon as it begins.
“Everyone has it out for us, Tamar,” Avram whispers. “Isn’t that what you said? Every time, someone rises up to destroy us.”
“I think you forgot the point of that saying. We’re still here.”
Avram looks at the window, his portal to the outside world. It is pitch black outside, without any moon. He can already see the torches, hear the thundering footfalls against the ground, hear the enraged curses of the mobs. They’ll say the Jews will not replace them when they attack him, just as they did for his sister.
Tamar’s hands burn as ice on his shoulders. “We’re all still here. All around you if you let yourself see it. We’re little cinders of a fire that connect and burn all the brighter. Do you need mourners, Avvy? Look around you.”
Avram finds the strength to turn back to the room. He sees all of them bleeding through the walls, spectral figures as insubstantial as Tamar. He knows none of them. Not the men, nor the women, nor the children. There are so many he does not understand how they can fit in this room, this spectral parade of mourners. Their flesh is translucent, their eyes sunken pits, many bearing the signs of the world’s teeth upon them; dripping wounds that weep like sores.
Each and every one of them bears a smile tinged with sadness. They gather around Avram, alone in his seat. They crowd about awkwardly, for Avram had expected no guests and had prepared accordingly. They gather near Tamar, who leads them, conducting them like a phantom orchestra. They gesture to the table, though Avram finds no food there. The only banquet laid out is one of feeling.
Their emotions well up through the cold in him, as they cling to his very soul. He feels like drowning in the icy tide, but the feelings they offer are charity, support, kindness.
Community. A people. All of them Jews.
Though the dead weep and cry, Avram understands before Tamar says it. “They’re not my mourners, Avvy. They’re yours. The living mourn the dead. Should it not follow that the dead must mourn the living?”
Avram looks into each hollow eye, sees each gaping wound. He takes in the faces of ghosts who still wear the clothing of twenty-first century modernity, looks upon those in fashions he does not recognize. He sees his people, spirits of past times. There are those who resemble him and Tamar, reminders of family who gaze upon him with love and support. Each is a Jew whose life was torn from them prematurely.
But he is here.
Just as so many others do, part of a great whole, even though they were scattered. They are a people even so. They gather around, not caring of their appearances, for it is shiva. They do not look at the mirrors, for they are covered. They offer their feast in Avram’s memory, of all he could have been.
But not what he could be. He takes them all in, a living ghost to stare at dead ones. His hands tremble at his sides. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s okay,” Tamar says. “You will. You’ll do your best. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll hurt. But you’ll also go on.
“You’ll live. Stop being dead, Avvy. For both of us.”
Avram cannot be sure he can, but her expression remains patient as ever. He finds himself focusing on it, not the wound at her head. She is again Tamar, the patient and caring sister, surrounded by community. “I should have been there for you, Tamar.”
“I’m not blaming you. Stop blaming yourself.”
“It’s terrifying out there.”
“It’s frightening. It’s uncertain. But that’s life.”
He sits there with her, two mourners on the same couch, surrounded by their congregation. “You say it,” Tamar says. “Say the words for me or I’ll have to say it for you. Please don’t make me do that.”
He knows what she means. One of them must speak the Kaddish for the other. He has not yet managed to because to say it will mean to acknowledge that she is gone, relegated to the past forever. But he knows she is right. Avram knows what he must accept.
He begins. “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di v’ra chir’utei.”
Avram speaks the traditional prayer for the departed. He says it flawlessly. The cold in him subsides, and the sun rises outside. The candle burns down to a wick at last.
He finishes the final word. “Amen.”
He sees her smile just one last time in the light of the shiva’s final day. The other ghosts are gone, fading to insubstantial traces and then not even that. Tears fill his eyes as he blinks them, trying to hold to that final image of love.
One blink clears his eyes. He sits alone when he opens them. There are no more dead in his home. Least of all himself. There is pain, but also honesty. He takes shuddering breaths, weeping at the newfound warmth and loss, permitting himself the sorrow. It takes a long time.
But he rises and uncovers the mirror, to stare at a resolute stranger with reddened eyes and an unshaven face. He looks at his scars and then outside, envisioning everything without. Avram could retreat and cover the mirror again, maybe even go back to his room.
But the shiva stands completed, for the living and the dead. Avram brushes his hand over his face. He is not sure he can do everything he should. But like their people, he will try. Life stretches out ahead, with all its uncertainties and pains.
Striding through a room once filled with ghosts, he prepares himself. Avram walks to the door.
He reaches for the brass handle.
Avram Mordecai hopes he no longer haunts the dead, for he feels back among the living.
Avram, now clean-shaven and well-groomed, sits behind the wheel of his car, having left work early on a singular purpose. Food and drink occupy the passenger seat, the eternal Jewish answer to any dilemma. A dark house awaits him, the window catching the flickering light of what he knows is a yahrzeit candle.
Someone needs him, and so he has come.
Avram recognizes fellow parishioners from synagogue and coworkers from the office. Not all of them are Jews. Richard Silver lifts a hand in greeting, smiling gratefully as Avram exits the car.
“You made it.” There is gratitude, but no surprise in Richard’s voice. All know that Avram fulfills a special role in their community.
“How is Benjamin?” Avram turns his gaze to the dancing light of the yahrzeit candle. He knows the tableau of grief he will find when that door opens. He has seen it many times after living it himself.
“I don’t think he’s holding up well,” Richard admits. Avram reads concern in the faces of all present, seeing them look to him for guidance, graciously greeting everyone he sees, taking a deep, brave breath. “I know he’ll appreciate seeing you.”
“Not just me. Everyone,” Avram corrects, looking to the face of each person who cared enough to come to pay respects while reminding himself to breathe steadily beneath the open sky. Being outside is still difficult sometimes. Unfamiliar sounds startle him and tighten a hard fist in his stomach. His therapist says it is an expected sign of trauma, and Avram privately doubts it will ever leave him. “When you’re hurting, it’s good to know that people care.”
One by one, they greet him with embraces. “Bless you, Avram,” one woman says. “Benjamin’s hurting so much. I know this will mean the world to him.”
“It’s nothing you all didn’t do for me.” Two years ago, Avram stumbled to the local shul, the Rabbi introducing him to Richard and the others. They saw a nervous man trying so hard to live and gave him something he needed: his people. Richard and Benjamin helped him get a job to save money for school again. He and the others invited him to holidays and Shabbos dinner. “Benjamin said Kaddish for Tamar in synagogue. How could I call myself his friend if I wasn’t here now?”
Just as he always does before facing the grief of another, Avram takes a picture from his wallet and gazes upon the immortalized image of Tamar. The image in the photo is how he wants to remember his sister; not bleeding in her hospital bed, not a grinning shade still bearing a mortal wound. In this picture, Tamar smiles with radiance and life, her hair free and unbound. All the joy of a life ahead is reflected within her eyes.
“Grief,” Avram says, looking at that photo, “is something nobody should bear alone.” Tamar and his people taught him that. Now he carries it forward with him, doing his best to help others live in turn.
Sometimes, his own eyes fill with tears when he looks at her image, because it is a reminder she is gone. But is also the proof she lived, that she dreamed and hoped. Looking at her is an affirmation that the feeling she brought into his life will never fade. Without her final push, he might never have realized that.
Seeing her still brings soft splinters of pain and doubt sometimes. But most often she gives him comfort and drive. Avram believes himself weak in many ways, flawed and uncertain. But he is alive, and that means walking through the obscurity of the future. He has Tamar to remind him of that. Not just a picture, but a lifetime of memories. He walks forward as best he can, as their people have always done.
He salves the wound with the memory of his forebears’ faith in him. Dead or alive, they are a people. They are there for one another, just as Tamar was for him. In the corner of the picture is a phrase in Hebrew. L’chaim.
He will show his future children this picture and tell them of an aunt who never stopped living even when it seemed the world was against them. Who took Avram from the realm of the dead and restored him to life in that spectral shiva.
He puts the photo away, for that is his own grief and he must now focus on another’s. He and Richard retrieve the food Avram has brought: fresh challah bread and black-and-white cookies from the bakery, along with good, rich wine. Avram turns to the others and beckons them on to follow him.
“Are there any questions? I know for some of you, it’s your first shiva. I’ve known a few myself, so I can try to answer anything you have on your mind.”
Some of them ponder a moment. Kelly Hsu is the first to voice the obvious query: “You think Ben will be okay?”
Avram considers it, thinking of Tamar and the last smile of love she took with her into the realm of the dead. “Eventually,” he says honestly. “The important thing is we’re here for him now.” They all hold food, cards of condolences. Little things that mean so much. “That’s what shiva is for,” Avram adds. “For the living.” No, that’s not quite it.
“Because mourning is a part of death and life together. It’s to remind them to live after it’s done.” A rabbi might have another answer. Two Jews, three opinions, so the saying goes. But this is his answer. And he finds it a good one.
Avram leads them to Benjamin’s door, reaching out to take the brass handle in hand. Unlocked, it swings open with a creak. The first thing he feels is the same cold from two years ago, the frigid chill of death. Benjamin Kaplan is inside, reclining on the couch. Unshaven, tracks of tears marking his face and a picture clasped in his hands. His head is turned to the side, as though he is watching someone else on the couch.
A yahrzeit candle flickers in the darkness, resting on the windowsill near Benjamin. Though the flame is bright, no wax runs down the sides, the wick still pale white without a touch of blackening.
Avram holds up a hand to pause the others. “Give us just a few minutes,” he says. It is not the first time he’s seen this. He will ensure that Benjamin does not endure this alone. Avram walks inside to join another shiva, to say Kaddish and make sure the departed’s memory, as the Jews say, is a blessing. He sits on the couch, noting Ben tensing just slightly, his gaze a hair to Avram’s right. Avram shifts on the wide couch, leaving space for both man and Dybbuk until one is laid to rest and the other has a new beginning ahead.
Avram prepares to help another face his ghosts and then lead a community in sitting shiva.
Ensuring the dead will not mourn the living.
Dedicated to Harvey Lehner, who loved his family and his people. May your memory always be a blessing, Grandpa.