Second – Michele Barker

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When Nancy Kunin, the new girl, arrived at our school, I thanked God. She smelled like sausage grease. Her unwashed hair was a mess of tangles that Mama would have called a bird’s nest. When someone in our grade six class got lice, everyone blamed her. Even while they were yelling, “Keeneem!” and running away, I was grateful because if they were running away from her, it meant they weren’t paying attention to me.

I knew what they all thought. Mama made me wear my uniform tunic longer than anyone else’s, for modesty’s sake.

“Becca looks like the rabbi’s wife!” Serena and the others would tease.

My parents were so much older than the other girls’: “Are they your baba and zeyda?” Abba’s thick accent:  “Where’s he from, anyhow?”

Mama’s cane and limp: “What’s wrong with her?”

And my parents insisted on calling me by my Hebrew name, Rivkah, which was okay for the teachers at Talmud Torah, but embarrassing anywhere else.

My parents hadn’t grown up in Canada; they’d both been orphaned by the war. Their weird ideas made me conspicuous, and I didn’t know how not to care. Books were fine but Barbies were forbidden. I had one friend, Rachel Weisberg, depending – though I was never sure on what. All I knew was there was Piano Lessons Rachel and Playground Rachel, and they weren’t the same person.

***

In my family, my brother Nachum had come first; then me, three years later.

There was nothing my parents hadn’t photographed Nachum doing: Nachum sleeping, Nachum drinking his bottle, Nachum in this hat or that one. He had his own photo album, separate from mine.

Sometimes I sat in my room and studied the pictures of my parents holding me. It looked like they were memorizing my face. Were they thinking of him while looking at me, the way they did later on?  I traced the photographs like Braille, looking for those sharp raised points of grief.

“The second baby is never as big a deal,” I’d heard other mothers say.

***

Only the Orthodox synagogue offered the group option for Bat Mitzvahs. Instead of just two girls at the front of the shul, there could be six or seven. But, there was no singing. It was a big draw for twelve-year-old girls who were nervous about the ordeal. That was how Serena and one of her sidekicks ended up having their Bat Mitzvahs with me, and with Nancy Kunin.

For the first Bat Mitzvah class Serena and her friend showed up wearing embroidered overalls. I probably should have been appalled that they were wearing pants in shul, but secretly I admired the flare at the bottom. Rachel tagged along with them. I could tell she wasn’t really included because her overalls weren’t embroidered and she spoke louder than the other girls and then checked to see who was watching.

Rachel and I were friends because of the piano lessons we both took on the same evening at the Lachlan Academy of Music. Our mothers alternated driving. Once I mentioned duets when Serena was nearby and Rachel’s face went limp. When she answered in a mumble, I understood that piano wasn’t something I was supposed to like.

Shul was another of those things, but I found the stained glass and smell of candle wax soothing. I loved the Cantor’s rich voice and the way the men danced down the aisles after Bar Mitzvahs or during Simchat Torah. Most of my classmates complained about morning prayers at school but for me they were a reassurance, like the sunrise.

“God is what is,” Abba would say. “He’s in everything and everyone.” It made every single thing and person in the world important. This was an idea I could cling to, if only I didn’t imagine God as a scary old man who sounded like Charlton Heston assigning chores.

Altogether there were six girls in the Bat Mitzvah class. The two popular girls plus Rachel stuck together, whispering and giggling. I overheard them talk about the new Bay City Rollers album, which I wasn’t allowed to buy, and about a movie called Rocky, which I wasn’t allowed to watch.

As the girls made their way down to the shul basement on that first day of lessons Serena declared, “She’s going to ruin everything.” She was looking at Nancy. Nancy glared back at her.

The room used for Bat Mitzvah classes was cold and bare and smelled like glue. The teacher, Rabbi Morgenstern, had a bushy black beard that always looked like it was in his mouth, and a crocheted kippah that sat crooked on his head. Also he was very fat and he’d had a wife who’d died young. The boys at school said it was because he’d sat on her.

The mitzvah project was Rabbi Morgenstern’s idea. He said fulfilling a mitzvah meant more than just following a commandment or doing a good deed. It was a way of bringing people together, which then brought us closer to God.

“The mitzvah project will help you all remember this event in your lives as more than just the time you spoke in public,” he explained.

The first thing Rabbi Morgenstern did was break the group into pairs. I was desperate to have Rachel as my partner, but Rabbi Morgenstern paired her with Serena. Rachel almost jumped out of her seat, but only half of Serena’s face rose in a smile. When he announced that my partner was Nancy Kunin, I started fidgeting with my pockets. I could feel the weight of the other girls imagining me and Nancy becoming friends.

There were several components to the mitzvah project. We would go to the Louis Brier Home to visit old people. There would be a food drive. We would study mitzvoth. But the first assignment the rabbi gave us was to visit one another on a Sunday afternoon.

As Nancy pulled her chair closer, I glanced at Serena, wondering how much I would suffer for this at school. Oddly enough, it didn’t work like that in the schoolgirl market. My stock rose in sympathy. “Poor you,” Serena said. For the first time, the popular girls invited me to play Truth or Dare at lunchtime. The prospect filled me with dread – being pressured to make a choice that always involved embarrassment. I invented an excuse about helping in the library, which they accepted reluctantly.

Mama heard about Rabbi Morgenstern’s project at her weekly Talmud class.  She’d had polio as a girl and now had one bad leg and walked with a cane. She had a soft spot for the underdog. A visit to Nancy’s house was the sort of thing she would have thought up herself.

“I don’t want to go,” I said.

“Already you kvetch about it?” This meant, “Too bad.”

The following Sunday Mama drove me to Nancy’s house, a mere three blocks away. She patted my hand. “They’re new in town. She must be lonely.”

Nancy’s house looked tired. The paint was peeling, the grass needed mowing, and the cement walk was uneven. I spied Nancy’s thin face at the window and then she was opening the door and shouting, “Becca!” before I even got there. But that was not what surprised me.  Nancy had an older brother – maybe sixteen, though it was hard to tell.

“This is Carl,” she said. The best word to describe Carl was crooked. I didn’t know if he was born this way or if there’d been an accident, and it wasn’t something you asked. Carl threw both arms around me and squeezed until I cried out, and then he laughed and yelled something to his mother, which she appeared to understand, but I didn’t.

“Don’t mind Carl,” Nancy’s mother said. “He’s like a big puppy.” But I did mind. I wanted to go home. Carl seemed like a bomb that might explode at any time. His voice was loud.  His words were a jumbled train wreck. When he walked, he stomped; when he shut things, he slammed them. Nancy offered me no guidance; she was busy pulling out crumpled board game boxes and complaining about missing pieces.

“Want cookie!” Carl said. His pants drooped and half his bare bum showed. He got his cookie, took a slobbery bite, and then offered me some. Thank God Carl’s mother stepped in and gently redirected the cookie towards Carl.

“How about we play Barbies in your room?” I asked Nancy. Barbies were the standard fallback for a looming afternoon and best of all, they wouldn’t interest Carl.

“Carl play too!” he cried.

“I don’t have Barbies,” Nancy said. “They’re stupid.”

“Want Barbies,” Carl screamed. His mother had to lead him to his room, her calm reasoned voice sounding beneath his yelling and crashing. Nancy and I managed to reach the safe haven of her bedroom and shut the door.

I wanted to say something“Is he always like this? How can you stand it?” but it was like walking on a frozen lake where I wasn’t sure how thick the ice was. Nancy glanced over as if sensing the unasked question, and shrugged.

“People stare,” she said. “My mom says just don’t pay attention, the nice people will be nice and the nasty ones don’t matter.”

We stood at the windowsill where there were about twenty little pots of soil carefully labeled:  bean, pumpkin, beetle, toenail. “My experiments,” she said. She checked the pots, humming to herself.  I sat on the edge of her bed and watched her, her dirty fingernails and tangled hair, the striped pants nobody else would ever have worn. It wouldn’t have taken much to clean her up. I wondered if she got forgotten in the chaos of Carl.

Later on, Nancy’s mother offered food that seemed as worn out as the house – wilting sandwiches, drooping celery sticks, milk with that just-off sourness to it – and I understood. I was worn out from being there, and it had barely been two hours. Even the air felt heavy.

When it was finally time to go home, I had to restrain myself from running. Revealing the secret of Carl would have been the ultimate way to raise my status at school, but I knew I wouldn’t tell the other girls. Still, I could barely contain it, as if it were something I had done and should confess to – so when Mama asked, “How was your visit?” I told her the truth. That way she’d never make me go to Nancy’s house again.

“Carl was scary and loud. I don’t know how anyone can live with a brother like that.”

“For shame!” Mama cried. I was so startled I spilled my milk. “Hashem forbid, you should care about another human being!”

My eyes filled with tears. “But I do care,” even though I wondered, did I?

At dinner Mama spoke more calmly about the poor Kunin family and how nice it was that Nancy finally had a friend. It took a moment for me to realize she meant me. She arranged a visit for the following Sunday afternoon even though the assignment was over.

On Friday at school I told Nancy I couldn’t make it, and then all through Shabbat I stewed. Not going meant either admitting to Mama that I was mean, or else lying and pretending to go. Jews are supposed to live by truth, the swear-on-the-Torah type of honesty, if they want to receive the blessings God has in store for them. But really, what would happen? Once I heard Rachel tell Serena she’d gone clothes shopping in Bellingham, even though on the way to piano lessons her mother had yelled, “Bellingham, Shmellingham, what are we made of money?” And? Lightning didn’t strike.

On Sunday I left the house, telling Mama I felt like walking and would be back from Nancy’s in a few hours. And then I wandered the neighborhood, certain I’d get caught and God would punish me not only for lying, but also for being cruel.

I arrived home at the appointed time, and braced myself.

“How was it?” Mama asked.

“Fine.” The truth must have been leaking out of me somewhere.  But it wasn’t. Mama had baked rugelach, my favourite – miniature crescent rolls covered in cinnamon sugar and walnuts, and filled with cream cheese. “Just for you,” she said. “You’re doing a great kindness by visiting this family.”

I ate, if only to keep my mouth from betraying me. I waited to feel terrible about not having gone to Nancy’s house; instead I felt relieved. But Mama was just getting started. “Next time she’ll come to our house.” When she picked up the phone to call Nancy’s mother, I quickly said, “I’ll ask Nancy at school.” And I didn’t.

It took several Sundays of pretending to go to Nancy’s house before I finally hit on the idea of dance class. Nancy had started dance class and couldn’t play on Sundays anymore. Was there such thing as dance class on Sundays? Mama wouldn’t know.

***

My parents kept Nachum’s bedroom just the way it must have been when he’d been a baby. The crib Abba had made was still there, and a mobile of jungle animals, and a stuffed bear wearing a long nightcap. Blue baby clothes were carefully folded and placed in the drawers.

My parents argued about this room. Mostly this happened on Nachum’s birthday, which was November fourth. That year he would have been fifteen. On the night of Nachum’s birthday Mama drank wine with dinner, and after dinner, and after that. Too much Nachum-talk made her like that, which was why Abba and I had agreed not to mention Nachum in her presence unless absolutely necessary. I stayed out of her way on November fourth. The way she swung her cane when she got worked up made me think of a scythe.

“I suppose you think we should sell the crib,” she said to Abba.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s time.”

“So we forget our Nachum, is that it?”

“Not forget. Move forward. You can’t keep blaming yourself for what happened.”

“Who else should I blame?” Mama snapped. “God?”

I hated November, the short days, the rain – colder in Vancouver even than snow – and the way my feet were always wet by the end of a school day. In November the whole world seemed to be sitting Shiva.

Sometimes I sat cross-legged on the carpet in Nachum’s bedroom when Mama wasn’t home, wound up the mobile and watched it spin. I imagined what it would have been like to have an older brother, to sit on his bed after school, to have someone to talk to about things like Nancy Kunin. Maybe he would have been tall, dark-haired like me. By then he might have had a shadow of moustache above his lip. Or maybe he would have been like Carl. Before going to Nancy’s house I would never have entertained that possibility.

Nachum’s absence was a strange thing. I couldn’t miss him – I’d never known him. I could only miss the idea of him, which didn’t count. My parents’ sadness was a club to which I could never really belong. Abba tried to include me, on quiet Saturday afternoons when it was just the two of us in the living room.

“He had long legs, for a baby,” he said. “And blue eyes.”

“Blue?” Everyone else in the family had brown eyes.

“Baby-blue. They hadn’t changed yet. Yours changed quickly. You knew who you were.”

“Would he have been perfect, Abba? Do you think?”

“Perfect?” Abba laughed so hard his shoulders shook. “He would have pulled the cat’s tail and tramped through the kitchen in his muddy boots and forgotten to wear his kippah like every other Jewish boy in Hashem’s universe. But he would have been perfect to us, just like you.”

***

On Tuesday they asked, and I had to say yes. The day was cold and clear and everyone was obliged to play outside. The popular girls sat in a circle behind the hill where the first graders played. If there was a rule about who started, I couldn’t fathom it. The only rule I knew of was that whatever they asked or said, you had to do it.

“Truth or Dare, Becca,” Serena said. Serena rolled up the sleeves of her uniform blouse in a way that was no different than anyone else’s rolled-up sleeves, except that they were hers which made them perfect. I’d tried rolling my sleeves up like hers but they came out puffy and Mama got angry and said I’d create extra ironing.

Truth or Dare. Truth seemed the safer option, since dare could involve kissing a boy or being made to do something humiliating that would be talked about for weeks. Now both seemed fraught with danger. What if they asked me about Nancy’s house? What if I had to tell about Carl?

“Dare.” My voice was smaller than I’d hoped.

Serena looked around, considering the options. Then she smiled. “See that pile of dog shit? Pick some up on a stick and throw it at Nancy Kunin.”

I held myself tight at the elbows.

“That’s too mean,” said Rachel. But she was not one of the popular girls; she just had the best Barbies. The only reason she was allowed in the circle was because Serena made her fetch things like sweaters and mittens. Rachel didn’t make the rules.

“Becca has to do what I say,” Serena said. “It’s a dare.”

I rose slowly. Took the stick Serena handed me. Poked at the turd.

“A big piece,” she said. Everyone laughed, including Rachel.

I wondered how to get out of this, and then I knew: I was a rotten shot. I’d throw it at Nancy – and miss. I slunk around the hill and spied her in a corner alone, reading. “God forgive me,” I murmured, and wondered if He would.

I drew closer. She saw me and smiled. Thought I was coming to sit with her. I shot the turd off the stick, aiming for a spot five feet away from her. But instead of hitting the fence, I hit her on the forehead. She stared at me, aghast, tears welling in her eyes. And then I ran.

Behind me, people were laughing. A teacher yelled, “Rivkah! Come back. You’re not allowed to leave school property.” But I was already out the gate.

That would have been an appropriate time to get hit by a car, but no car hit me. No rabid dog chased me. I ran until my sides ached. Breath ragged, I stopped. Wishing there were some way out of this; knowing that there wasn’t. Go back, or go home: those were the choices. Going home meant facing my parents. So I went back.

I was called into the principal’s office to discuss the dangers of leaving the school grounds. I waited to be confronted about the dog turd. The principal didn’t mention it. The popular girls laughed when I returned to class, and Serena said, “Way to go, Becca.”

“Yeah, way to go,” Nancy echoed, a crack in her voice. “Now you’re just like them.” For the rest of the day she wouldn’t meet my eyes.

***

Piano day. Rachel came over after school because her mother had a Hadassah meeting and anyway it was my mother’s turn to drive. She hid her Barbies in her knapsack because if Mama saw them, she’d make Rachel put them away.

Mama went over all the rules – what to do if a stranger showed up, the house burned down, a plague of locusts descended – and then left for Safeway.

“Let’s play in your room,” Rachel said.

Mama had always been careful about keeping Nachum’s door shut when guests were expected, but that day it had been left open and Rachel peeked inside.

“You guys have a baby?” She looked mystified.

“Not anymore,” I said. “He died.”

“Really? How?”

“It’s called crib death.” That was how I’d heard Mama explain it.

“He died right here, in his crib?”

“I guess. It was a long time ago. I wasn’t around. He was only three months old.”

“Creepy,” Rachel said. “Like, he choked? And no one noticed?”

My breath came faster. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask my mom when she gets home?”

“You don’t have to get huffy. I’m just asking.”

I could already imagine how this would be retold to Serena. Rachel set up the Barbie campsite but my heart wasn’t in it.

“Why does Barbie wear high heels when she’s camping?” I asked. “It’s stupid. No one does that.”

“Serena says high heels are sexy,” Rachel replied.

“Serena doesn’t know everything.”

Rachel’s eyebrows shot up.

I tried to straighten Barbie’s feet out of their tippy-toed position, but there was no give to the plastic. I felt like snapping Barbie’s legs.

“That dare she made me do was mean. Nancy Kunin isn’t so bad.” As soon as I said it, I knew it was a mistake. I thought of Nancy’s toenail plant, and Barbie’s high heels, wondering where I rated on that spectrum.

“Are you friends with her?” Rachel asked.

“No,” I said quickly.

Rachel’s mother had crocheted miniature sleeping bags for the dolls and sewn special camping clothes out of camouflage material, which didn’t exactly match the high heels, but still.

“Your mom makes these?” I said the way Serena might, giving ‘makes’ a little twist. Amazing what could be wrung from a single word. Rachel started packing it all up and I watched. I used to wish for Barbies, and a mother who made clothes for them. Sometimes I’d even longed for Rachel’s carefree life with her ham and cheese sandwiches and her little brother Aaron. Now I wasn’t so sure.

***

Shabbat was the week’s deep breath. I wrapped myself in its rhythms and silences, its Friday night smells of red wine and fresh-baked challah. On Saturday mornings I walked to shul with Abba, holding his large calloused hand, sometimes talking about the week, sometimes not talking at all.

Mama stayed home. The shul was too far away for her to walk, and there was no question of driving on Shabbat. For as long as I could remember, Saturday had been her day to spend in the garden.

“But gardening is work,” I’d protested once to Abba. “And work isn’t allowed on Shabbat.” There were 613 commandments in the Torah and my father was determined to keep every one of them. This exception struck me as grossly unfair.

“Rivkah-le,” he replied, “every time your mother grows a flower it heals a piece of her heart. If this is work, then it’s Hashem who’s working, not her.”

At shul I sat in the balcony with the other girls and women. From there I could see Abba davening below. Many of the fathers had sons who stood next to them. My father stood alone, but I noticed how he kept a place on the bench beside him with his jacket.

Saturday afternoons were reserved for reading. Abba and I shared a love for books – the living room walls were packed floor to ceiling with them. So was my bedroom. So was his. That Saturday we sat side by side on the chesterfield as the large Shabbat candle flickered and hissed.  Mama passed through and kissed the top of my head, which only made it harder for me to concentrate on my book. I was thinking of Nancy and the dog turd and how if Nachum were alive he would never have done such a thing. My troubled thoughts must have shown on my face.

“What’s the matter, Rivkah-le?” Abba asked.

“I hate being second.” It wasn’t the first time I’d confided that to him, but then the next sentence came out before I could stop it. “I hate Nachum.”

Abba stroked my hair. “Do you know why Hashem is kind?”

“No.”

“Because He never denies us a second chance. A second chance, Rivkah-le, is the best news in the world.”

Later Mama brought in the bright red tomatoes she’d grown in her greenhouse. They smelled of summer sunlight, impossible in November.

***

The next day I told Mama I was going to Nancy’s house.

“No dance class?”

“It’s cancelled.” It disturbed me how easily the lie came.

When I arrived, Nancy wasn’t waiting at the window. It took a long time before she answered the door.

“What do you want?” She didn’t move to let me in. I looked behind her, but Carl wasn’t there.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you. I tried to hit the fence, but I missed.”

She looked as if she would burst into tears. “I almost thought we were friends.”

“They made me do it.”

Her forehead knotted in bewilderment. “What do you mean? How?”

“It was a dare. You have to do what they say.”

Nancy stared. “No you don’t.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I looked at my shoes planted on the mat marked, “Shalom.”

“At least this time when your mom calls to make sure you got here, I won’t have to lie.” She shut the door.

On the way home, I expected to be struck by a falling tree. But no, I arrived safely and started practicing my Bat Mitzvah speech, which was all about acts of loving-kindness.

***

On the day of the Bat Mitzvah my stomach was a wasp’s nest of nerves. Mama worked the zipper at the back of the dress we’d chosen. “Big day for my big girl,” she said in a misty voice. The one thing I didn’t want to do was disappoint her.

During the ceremony I’d imagined looking down on a body not quite my own – but in fact, when I spoke I could feel the breath move through my lungs. I felt my feet on the rug. And there were my parents in the congregation, Abba in the front row with the men, wearing tallis and tefillin, his square face beaming; Mama up above with the women, in a hat she’d bought special for this day, brushing at her eyes. When I sat down again, Rachel gave me a thumbs-up.

No one laughed when Nancy spoke. Her hair was brushed and her hands were clean, but that wasn’t why. She stood tall, and spoke with conviction. She was smiling. I spied Carl in the congregation beaming at his younger sister, looking as if he wanted to stand and cheer. People nearby watched him carefully, as if waiting for him to do something that would warrant asking him to leave.

Rabbi Morgenstern recited a blessing from the Talmud: “May songs of praise ever be on your tongue, and your vision be on a straight path before you. May your eyes shine with the light of holy words, and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.” These weren’t just pretty words. At a Bat Mitzvah they were more like commandments and after today I was literally a daughter of the commandment, which was what ‘Bat Mitzvah’ meant. I had mentioned this in my speech. I talked about acts of loving-kindness, which I intended to devote my life to as a full member of the Jewish community.

At the reception there were long tables stacked with food: lox and bagels, gefilte fish, rugelach, blintzes. Rachel followed Serena around, their plates piled with identical food choices. On Nancy’s plate there were three huge kosher pickles.

Serena’s mother was complaining loudly about the food. Serena’s two older sisters were there, the tribe of beautiful Klein girls, the oldest propped against the wall in posed boredom, the middle one sneaking glasses of Manischewitz wine. Serena picked a slice of lox right off the serving plate with her fingers.

“Serena!” her mother gasped, and smacked her hand. Serena’s face clouded over. I was so spellbound I didn’t notice Mama storming towards me, thumping her cane on the floor with every step, Nancy’s mother in her wake. Mama’s dark eyes blazed. I steeled myself for public humiliation. Instead she pulled me down a quiet hallway.

“Have you ever known such chutzpah?” she said to Nancy’s mother. “She stands and eats like a chazzer when she should hang her head in shame.” I realized I was still holding my plate.

Nancy’s mother smiled weakly. “They’re young. It happens.”

“It happens?” Mama raised her voice. “In whose world do such things happen?” She turned on me. “Acts of loving-kindness! You lied to all of us.”

Her eyes were trained on me like salt on a slug, shrinking me to nothing. Then Rabbi Morgenstern appeared. He took the plate from my hand and led me to his office where I burst into tears and tried to tell him what had happened but it all came out in chokes and spurts. None of this seemed to matter to him. He handed me Kleenex, patted my arm, and when Mama banged on the door he told her to wait.

“You see?” he said. “Public speaking is nothing.” He smiled at me through his beard. “She’ll forgive you. She’ll forget.”

But I already knew Nancy Kunin would get pressed between the pages of the family siddur. Eventually she’d be pasted into Mama’s well-worn album of pain and suffering which she carried everywhere.

***

After the Bat Mitzvah and a silent ride home, the three of us entered the house. Mama went straight through to the greenhouse in the backyard without even changing her clothes. Abba sat on the living room couch and fixed me with his weighty eyes.

“You told a lie, Rivkah. Why would you do this?”

My skin went prickly. “Because I’m not perfect, all right?” And I stormed upstairs.

At first I headed for my bedroom, but Nachum’s door was open so I went in there instead. Once it must have smelled like baby powder. Now it was just a room that didn’t get enough air. I wondered which was worse, a dead brother whose ghost haunted every room, or a brother like Carl, alive and loud in whatever room he occupied.  I stood over the crib and wound the mobile, and Three Blind Mice began to play.

The tinkling music irritated me. I took the mobile down, hoping to make it stop. It was still spinning in my hand when I sensed someone behind me. Mama stood in the doorway, leaning on her cane, eyes fixed on the mobile.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“I just wanted –”

“Is it for you to decide how long I mourn?”

“Shiva only lasts seven days,” I said, before I could weigh the impact of my words.

Mama stepped forward and I pressed myself against the crib bars.

“Do you want to know the truth about grief?” Her quiet voice scared me.

“I wish Nachum was alive.” And then I thought of Nancy singing so boldly. I straightened my body and lifted my head. “He wouldn’t be as perfect as you think.”

“Is that so?” She lifted her cane as if she was about to say something important, and in that second she lost her balance. I reached out instinctively to steady her, feeling the trembling in her arm. And then I noticed she was crying.

“He wasn’t perfect,” she said. “He had colic.”

My face wrinkled.

“Gas pains. Little Nachum, he cried for hours. I didn’t sleep at night. I stopped going out. That night – I was exhausted, Rivkah, I hardly knew where I was. I went to pick him up. I was so frustrated. I should have taken my cane, but I didn’t think I’d need it. I’d just sit with him. I lost –” she faltered. “I lost my balance.”

Why didn’t you tell me this before? I wanted to ask. But I was already learning how shame kept a person from saying the important things.

A shadow loomed. Abba filled the doorway, looking from my face to Mama’s. He entered the room, gathered us to him. Pressed me against his chest, his skin warming mine. There was no space between the three of us. Maybe there never had been. The mobile’s jingling music wound down to silence.

 

Michelle Barker’s short fiction has been published in several literary reviews including “Grain,” “Freefall,” and “The Fiddlehead.” Her poetry was included in the 2011 Best Canadian Poetry anthology and in 2012, Leaf Press published her chapbook, “Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii.” Her first novel, The Beggar King, came out in 2013 with Thistledown Press. She lives in Penticton, BC, and is completing her MFA in creative writing at UBC’s optional-residency program.

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