Mattie watched the second hand make a full circle, then waited as the minute hand jumped forward with a click. She willed the class to end. Her teacher, Mr. Aron, was reading aloud from the text in front of him, Kohelet was the name of the book, otherwise known as Ecclesiastes, but Mattie had lost the place and was staring around the classroom, out the window, anywhere. “’Utter futility’, said Kohelet, ‘utter futility, all is futile.’” She only had a vague idea about the meaning of the word futility: she had somehow forgotten to listen at the end of the last class. But she knew, at least, that it was something negative.
In preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, Mr. Aron had insisted that they spend the week reading from this book, which he explained was traditionally chanted in synagogue during the holiday prayer service. Mattie wasn’t impressed. She had never woken up early enough to get to synagogue in time to hear Kohelet; and anyway, it sounded depressing. Right now, Mattie wanted to be outside. This was the week when the leaves were turning colors: bright yellow, orange and red, and today of all days the sun was shining in a deep blue sky. Those colors wouldn’t last forever; by the end of the week, they’d be gone. Outside the window of the classroom, Mattie could see one tall tree whose leaves wore the colors of the rainbow, tempting her with their transient beauty. Today was not a day for sitting inside.
“Who can tell me the meaning of the word ‘futility’?” asked Mr. Aron, looking around the class, as though reading her mind. He repeated the verse in Hebrew: “’Havel havalim’, said Kohelet. ‘Havel Havalim, Hakol Havel’.” Although she intended to listen to the answer, Mattie zoned out again, unable to concentrate. After school she had to go visit Grandma Etta at the nursing center, like she did each Wednesday. It was two bus-rides away and it would be best if she left as soon as the class ended. But if she was able to get her things together quickly, she might have fifteen minutes free before she had to catch the bus; just enough time, maybe, to go and sit under that tree.
Eyes back on the clock, Mattie tuned in temporarily as Mr. Aron read another verse: “There is nothing new under the sun.” In an effort to distract herself, Mattie lifted her pen and began doodling random words and zigzags on the page: SUN, FUN, RUN. The sun was certainly shining today. All summer long, it had rained, but now that school had started up again, it was sunny; go figure. Mattie thought back to past summers, of the beach near Grandma Etta’s apartment, before Grandma went to live at the nursing center. Tiny grains of sand flowing through her fingers as she sat with her sand toys where the water met the shore, anticipation and a feeling of freedom as Grandma smeared her with sunscreen. Finally, entering the water, the ocean waves wrapping themselves around her body: salty, tan, and cool. Grandma Etta saying, “The ocean I saw for the first time when I was nineteen, when I came to America in a boat.” And Mattie asking, “Why didn’t you see the ocean?” And Grandma Etta telling her not to ask too many questions.
Mattie’s thoughts turned now to Grandma Etta’s hands, how they had looked last week, folded in her lap on her chair at the nursing center, withered and light-weight as though they had never seen the sun. Grandma’s days at the beach, Mattie supposed, were in the past. To brighten Grandma’s pale skin, Mattie had taken to bringing nailpolish along with her to the nursing center. After the first time, it became a hit, not just with Grandma but with the other ladies too. Mattie tried to apply the color artistically, pretending she was a real manicurist instead of a high school student, visiting her grandmother once a week on Wednesday evenings. Her favorite shade was Wild-Berry: she liked the effect of the deep red polish on Grandma’s white hands.
To get to Grandma Etta’s room at the nursing center, Mattie mused, she had to walk through a long corridor where men and women sat bent over in wheelchairs, covered by blankets despite the building’s heat. The hallway smelled of stuffiness and disinfectant. When she reached Grandma Etta, she always had a moment of panic. It was something about the way Grandma sat, amused, dignified, her glassy eyes fixed toward a point on the wall. “Oh, it’s you,” she would say to Mattie. “You know, I forgot to bring my good shoes. Can I have Wild-Berry today?” Sometimes, when Grandma’s mind wandered far away from reality, Mattie had to stop herself from crying.
“Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth!” Mr. Aron was reading emphatically, causing Mattie to look up. “…banish care from your mind and pluck sorrow out of your flesh; for youth and dark hair are fleeting…”
Mattie could picture every detail of Grandma Etta’s old apartment by the beach: blue carpet, round table, terrace overlooking the ocean. On the table there was always food, a pan with leftover omelet: greasy, fried. A bag of potato chips, a container of milk. Mattie would invent schemes for hiding some of the food so that she wouldn’t have to eat it. And Grandma Etta would tell her that she ate like a bird, that in Poland they never ate like birds, in her family they had healthy appetites, even Chaya, the slender one.
POLAND. Mattie traced the letters over and over in the corner of her notebook, until they were void of meaning. Land of the Po. POLly AND the parrot. DNALOP, she scrawled. The word for her was a shadowy ghost of cold rivers, grey photographs and lifeless faces, a past that existed only in dreams. A reality, it seemed, from a different dimension. It was hard for Mattie to imagine that Grandma had lived there until she was just a little bit older than Mattie was now. Even harder, still, to imagine this place existing in the present. And always, tied with Poland in Mattie’s mind like a bundle of loose photographs, was Chaya, the one who was left behind.
She was beautiful, Grandma Etta always said, my little sister. Then Grandma would grimace, look down at the floor, and the subject would be dropped. But some little details trickled through. That Chaya’s favorite color was blue. That she would spend time alone in the woods by the river, writing poetry, when the weather wasn’t too cold. That she had wanted to climb mountains, and had been in love with a boy who promised to take her to the Alps. Then there were the things that Mattie wasn’t sure if Grandma had told her, or if she had made them up herself: the steel grey-blue of Chaya’s eyes; the way her hair bounced around on her face; her mischievous smile when she was little. That she hated potatoes. Whether or not Grandma was willing to speak about it, Chaya was always there in the back of Mattie’s mind, imprinted into her consciousness like a twin. Her namesake; the cousin she never had.
Mattie scrawled her own full name in slanted letters across the page of her notebook: MATAT CHAYA. Matat, a Hebrew word meaning gift; nickname Mattie. And Chaya: her other name. The one Grandma Etta used to call her by when she was little. Since Grandma didn’t like the name Matat. “What kind of a name is that?” Mattie could remember overhearing Grandma say. Because of this, Mattie sometimes felt her own selfhood to be in question, as though she was not actually herself but a reincarnation of the other Chaya; that in Grandma’s eyes, they were one and the same.
“Do you know,” said Mr. Aron, interrupting her thoughts, “That every minute that passes is a minute closer to your death?” Mattie was startled out of her reverie by this declaration; she hadn’t realized she had been staring at the clock. “Sorry,” she muttered, looking back down at her notebook, with all of its scribbles. She drew a large circle on the page, with lines coming off the edges to form a sun. CHAYA, she wrote in the center, first in English, then in Hebrew. Meaning: a living creature. If you held down the pen just a little longer for the middle letter of Chaya in the Hebrew, you got Chava, mother of Cain and Hevel.
“All these things I observed, said Kohelet. I noted all that went on under the sun, while men still had authority over men to treat them unjustly.”
Mattie remembered the first time she had seen the curvy handwriting of Chaya’s postcards, familiar Hebrew letters forming foreign Yiddish words, the ink a bit runny on the yellowing paper. The words flowing together like a stream, indecipherable, within the small stack of fraying cards bound with a rubber band at the back of Grandma Etta’s jewelry drawer. Little Chaya liked to write, Grandma Etta said. Mattie had asked Grandma Etta to read what was written in the postcards, and Grandma had begun to translate: “Dear beloved sister, I think of you often…” and then, just as suddenly as she began, Grandma had stopped reading, put the cards back in the drawer, and gone to cook supper.
Later, when Mattie went to visit Grandma Etta she used to sneak into the drawer, take out the letters, and pretend that they were addressed to her, having just arrived: “Dear Mattie, See you soon!” she read. In this way, Chaya was her constant companion over time: bouncy blonde girl of five, playmate of ten, confidante of thirteen. Friend of sixteen. Frozen yet fluid in time, growing older with Mattie through the years. This year, however, Mattie knew that Chaya would no longer grow older with her. She had been eighteen. Approximately. Actually, no one knew exactly how old she had been, or what had happened. Only that one day, the letters had stopped coming.
“But what does futility really mean?” Rachel, in the front row, was asking a question. “Does Kohelet mean that just because something comes to an end, that it’s really worthless?” Mattie scribbled the Hebrew word for futility, Hevel, in her notebook. Cain’s brother. The one who was killed for nothing. Take out the middle letter in the Hebrew and you got something like “hell”. Change the first letter just a little bit and you got chevel, the Hebrew word for rope.
Last week, on Mattie’s eighteenth birthday, Grandma had placed a small package on the chair beside her bed at the nursing center. “For you,” she had said, clasping Mattie’s fingers with her cold, soft skin. The package was tied crudely with a thin piece of string, the knots hanging loosely like those on the ends of the ropes in Mattie’s gym class. Mattie had taken it hesitantly, untying the string and peeling off the tape with her index finger, careful not to tear the smooth crimson paper. Inside was a small heart-shaped pincushion, plush red felt trimmed with purple thread, that Grandma had made herself at the center’s arts and crafts sessions. “It’s very nice,” Mattie had said, struck by the childish stitching and the glow of accomplishment in Grandma’s eyes. Thinking: who here is the child, and who the adult?
Mattie was ashamed to admit that she had recoiled from accepting the gift. It was a gut reaction, a kind of repulsion, because of all of the gifts she had received from Grandma over the years. “For you, Mamele, my princess.” Grandma was always sending her useless presents, trinkets she picked up for herself in the bazaar and then decided to give to her only granddaughter. A purple brooch with shiny green beads glued to the sides, a Star of David ring as big as Mattie’s pinky, a glitzy handbag, a pair of slip-on sandals from the sixties. She had offered to give Mattie a quilt from her bed, paintings from her wall, her old television. Usually Mattie refused, but it was a slow battle of resistance. The presents made her feel guilty, somehow. As though she didn’t deserve them. Because after all, she wasn’t the real Chaya, only an imposter. And anyway, the gifts were mostly junk.
“Hey,” whispered Mattie’s friend Dina, from the desk next to hers, “What are you doing after school?” Mattie was about to answer but a glare from Mr. Aron stopped her. When he looked away, she glanced at Dina and shrugged, then mouthed, “Busy.” Suddenly, she remembered that she had a math test tomorrow, and would have to make some time to study. And then there was that paper on Edgar Allan Poe, due next week. She sighed, feeling like it was impossible to ever be finished with her homework. There were always piles of books to bring home, stacks of paper…again and again, more of the same.
When Grandma had to be moved out of her apartment six months ago, Mattie had looked for the stack of Chaya’s postcards. They were still there, in the jewelry drawer, and Mattie had made sure that they were carefully packed in a small box of Grandma’s special items. She also looked for the photo of Chaya, the one she remembered seeing as a small child, only once and then never again. When she was young, around twelve maybe, Grandma had found her looking at it and made her put it away. After that, it had disappeared, at least from the drawer that held the postcards. Mattie had always wished that she could find it again: she wanted to see Chaya as she really was, to match the picture with the imaginary figure that danced, later on, in her head. To see if the two looked alike: image and reality. To see whether she and Chaya resembled each other, as she believed they did. But during the move, when Mattie searched the drawers of the apartment, she couldn’t find it. Had Grandma put it somewhere safe, taken it with her? Mattie wondered at the time. Was she still lucid enough to have done that?
“Chayale,” Grandma Etta had whispered to Mattie from her hospital bed last week, calling her by the name she had used when Mattie was small—my little Chaya. After giving Mattie the pincushion, there was still something else. An envelope. Mattie had taken it, opened it slowly. Inside, first, was a check made out to Mattie, for eighteen dollars. “A dollar for every year,” said Grandma, “For a long life!” Mattie felt so happy when Grandma was in her clear-headed moments, when the things she said made sense. At first Mattie had not been sure if Grandma was calling her Chayale because she was confusing her with the other Chaya, but Grandma’s knowledge of Mattie’s age seemed to indicate that she was aware of her present surroundings. Mattie was just about to put down the envelope to give Grandma a kiss, when out fell something else. The photograph. Mattie bent to pick it up. It was so tiny and worn that she could barely make out the faces of the two young girls, holding hands and smiling. On the back was written: Etta and Chaya, 1937.
Mattie squinted, trying with everything she had to make out Chaya’s face, to see her eyes, her expression, anything. Maybe, this would help her to understand what it all meant. But of course, the picture was in black-and-white, not a hint of color. And just as Mattie remembered from last time, the picture was too small and too faded to see any details.
“Chayale,” Mattie could still hear Grandma Etta whispering, as though she were here in the classroom with her. “Chayale, stop looking at the clock all the time.” Mattie startled, realizing all of a sudden that it was Mr. Aron speaking, admonishing the boy sitting next to her. “Chaim, stop looking at the clock all the time! The class will end when it will end– I promise. Kohelet says there is a time for everything.”
In the end, in her letters, Chaya had begged her sister to get her a visa to come to America, Mattie remembered Grandma Etta telling her once, in a moment of openness. “Already more than once the sun has shone upon us and then again been extinguished,” Chaya had written, “Our dark fate follows us constantly and refuses to turn away from us.” She had then given specific instructions as to where to send the documents. “Do all of this as quickly as possible,” the letter continued, “Because later it will be too late.” Those words had haunted Grandma Etta, and Mattie, hearing them, was haunted too. I tried, I really did, Grandma said, over and over, tears streaming down her face. But the visas took time, they weren’t fast enough. The documents had been sent only days before the German invasion, but Chaya was never heard from again.
“If I hadn’t agreed to go to America,” Grandma had said, “they might have sent Chaya instead, even though she was still too young to work.”
“FUTILITY,” Mattie wrote in her notebook. Although she was still not paying attention in class, Mattie realized that she had understood what this word meant all along. She crossed out the first letter, F, turning the word into “utility”: a measure of something’s usefuless. Funny how changing one letter gave the word an opposite meaning…
“Grandma,” Mattie had replied last week, after taking the photograph, “I can’t take this. You give me so many presents. This is yours, for you to keep. I can come look at it, whenever I want. And maybe next time, I should give you a present instead.”
“I don’t need any presents from you,” Grandma had replied, taking Mattie’s hand with her smooth yet wrinkled, Wild-Berry-coated baby-skin fingers. “YOU, Chayale, are my gift…”
Fifteen minutes left. Mattie looked out the window, at her glowing tree which grew dimmer in the late afternoon light. She had missed her chance, perhaps, to enjoy its bright midday colors. Or was there still time? Mattie willed the hand on the clock to move; but then stopped, thinking of Mr. Aron’s comment that every minute that passed was a minute closer to her death. And a minute closer to darkness, when the colors of the leaves would be hidden from view. In that case, she thought, it would be better to leave now, and not waste these precious moments. Either way, though, the hour would pass. In the end, did it really matter what she did with it? Mattie remained glued to her seat.
“And so…” Mr. Aron was saying, as Mattie tuned in briefly, “we dwell in sukkot to remember life’s transience, that all is fleeting, like Kohelet says. But Sukkot is not a holiday of despair: it is a holiday of joy. We are commanded to be joyful. To rejoice, in effect, that although life’s moments are here and then gone, that each one is sacred and should be honored as such. This is the gift of which Kohelet speaks.”
Mattie sighed. She wanted to understand this concept, but with her eyes closing and the day nearing an end, she felt its deeper meaning eluding her. To what “gift” was Mr. Aron referring? She chided herself for not paying closer attention in class: clearly there was some link here, an important one that she had missed. Rejoice… because life is fleeting. Nap under the tree, eat in the temporary sukkah dwelling, sit with Grandma in the nursing center, that un-holy of holies. Accept the gift. Be the gift.
Frightened, suddenly, of the class ending, Mattie drew her full name in the top corner of her notebook in sharp, slanted letters. MATAT CHAYA: the living gift, the gift lives. If you took off one letter in the Hebrew, you got “met chaya”, the living one dies. Or: the dead one lives. Can it really be true, she thought, as the bell finally rang, its shrill tone piercing her eardrums for a full thirty seconds, that the difference between life and death is just one letter?
Mattie stayed in her seat as the other students filed out. She felt humbled, and scared. The minutes of her life stretched out before her. The tree outside was fading, in a shadow, and for the first time she noticed that some of its leaves were already brown, dead. She stared at it for a few moments, then started collecting her belongings. She would have to rush if she was going to catch the bus.
Sticking her hand in the pocket of her jacket, Mattie felt for the photograph, still there a week later. With her finger, she rubbed its worn edges. The lyrics of the song that had played on the radio earlier that morning ran through her head, an echo of the passage that was read today in class: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…” Lakol z’man v’et l’chol chefetz tachat hashamayim. Grandma Etta would be waiting. And Mattie realized that the best she could do right now, the only thing she could do, was to evaluate each moment as it came. And passed. On the wall, the minute hand of the clock started its next rotation. At the same instant, an image of Chaya flitted across her consciousness, like a playful dream of someone she knew but hadn’t seen in a long time. And would perhaps not see again; not for a while, anyway. Mattie picked up her bag. Time to go.
Deborah Flusberg works as a biologist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has mainly published scientific articles but has also always dabbled in creative writing. Her themes include science, language, psychology, Jewish metaphors, and life in Israel. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. This piece is dedicated to the memories of Aunt Helyn and Masha, and to the teacher who made her memorize sections of Kohelet before she understood what it meant.