On the darkest night of the year, Mattie wishes she could slow down. She wants to slink into the darkness, let it cradle her to sleep like a baby. To disappear into a place where she can escape from the endless tasks and anxious thoughts that never stop rushing through her head.
The winter solstice is still two weeks away, but Mattie has learned from an online article skimmed in between rocking her daughter to sleep, making lunches, and a midnight binge of work emails, that this first night of the Jewish month of Tevet, which is also the new moon and the seventh night of Chanukah, is in fact the darkest of the year. Because in addition to the sun going down at the ungodly hour of 4pm, there is no moon to light up the sky, not even a sliver. Mattie peeks out the window and notes what would be pitch blackness if not for the twinkly lights on the trees of the boulevard and the dots of electricity lighting up the houses. In modern times, at least, the darkness is never complete. Within her house, too, there is light: the yellow glow of the lamp beside her, the flames of the Chanukah candles as they dance above the Menorah on the windowsill. Nearly extinguished, except for two hangers-on that burn more slowly than the rest, casting shadows around the living room, each melting at its own rate. The lights from Mattie’s phone blink on as she touches her screen, which she does often. More often than she intends.
Breathe and be mindful, she tells herself, as she tries to focus on the candles, to empty the jumble of thoughts dashing through her brain. Fire, Light, Warmth. Peace. In this moment, perhaps, there can be slowness.
But she knows that in the bedroom she has a child with the sniffles who will likely be up again for much of the night, keeping Mattie up in turn. As a recently single mother, time is not something she has a lot of. Neither is rest. It seems like no one has enough of either, these days. There is always work to finish, laundry to wash, a child to tend to. Orders to place, bills to pay, research to perform, and messages to respond to through more platforms than she can keep track of. Mattie has become addicted to her phone. When she picks it up, a minute turns into an hour, then two hours. The time disappears. It is sucked into a vacuum of no-time, of scrolling through photos and articles and likes and emojis. Her pastime for the darkness of the night.
Mattie stares at the Menorah and at the two surviving candles, purple and yellow. Like living creatures, she thinks, striving to stay in existence, gasping for their last breaths. From the corner of her eye she notes the pile of wrapping paper on the floor, the gifts tossed aside by her daughter earlier in the evening. There had been ecstatic delight at the presents, followed by a quick forgetting. Everyone racing along, dashing from one thing to the next, Mattie thinks– even children. Like the candles: hurrying to get to the finish line, yet never wanting to be extinguished.
An image of her to-do list enters Mattie’s mind suddenly, as it often does, sauntering in like an uninvited guest, handing her an infinity of tasks that she knows she can never complete. The car that needs fixing, groceries that need to be bought. The list keeps growing, even as items are checked off, and the guest, as usual, refuses to leave. Mattie plays with this metaphor, tosses it around in her head.
Will I have enough personal fuel, she wonders, to burn for one more night, let alone eight?
Rest, she thinks. It is the seventh night, and I want to stop feeling obligated to create. I want to rest.
Who can re-tell
The things that befell us,
Thinking of all that has befallen her, Mattie finds herself humming this particular Chanukah song, drawn to it more than to other, more popular holiday tunes. Of miracles she cannot sing. Nor of dreidels—a game of chance that she is not willing to play. For who is to say that she won’t end up with the letter Shin, requiring her to give away everything, when she has already given away so much? Or Nun: Nothing. To be obliterated- neutral- neither here nor there, good nor bad, giving nor receiving, seems to her like the worst fate of all.
A patter on the stairs. Leora. At five, already a beautiful child. But Mattie fears for her. What is there for her in this darkness? Time rushes forward too fast. Mattie can see it already: Leora, a teenager, angry and rebellious. Sad and withdrawn. Losing her father at such a young age, Mattie knows, will likely have repercussions on Leora for years to come.
“Mommy, is it morning yet?” Leora stands at the foot of the stairs, sniffling, the feet of her pajama bottoms brushing against the wooded surface of the floor.
“No, sweetie, not yet,” says Mattie. “Don’t you want to go back to sleep?”
“I’m not tired,” says Leora. “Can I light the Menorah with you?”
“We already lit,” says Mattie, “Remember?”
This is not exactly true—tonight Mattie lit the Menorah late, when she’d had a minute to sit down after Leora was already in bed. But they’d lit the candles together the night before, and the night before that. She hopes that Leora, and any deity that exists, will forgive her this little fib.
“But I want to light again,” says Leora. “I like to watch the candles.”
“Again,” repeats Mattie, considering. “Okay, let’s do it again.”
Leora smiles, claps her hands. Mattie is once again struck by how easy it can be to please a child. And so what if she has already lit the Menorah, if the candles have already nearly burned down? Why not again?
She moves the Menorah onto the table so that it will be at eye-level for her daughter.
“Do you want to say the blessings with me?”
Leora nods, and so they say the blessings together. First the one for the candles. And then the one for the miracles: for the miracles that were performed for our ancestors, bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh. In those days and now.
Mattie says the words by rote, certain that she does not believe in miracles. But she notices how her daughter’s eyes have lit up, how Leora belts out the prayer as loud as she can over her crackling, congested throat. How the blessing seems to flow from Leora’s mouth like the wax of the candles dripping onto the table.
They stare a moment longer at the flames, hypnotized by the lights. Then they are both hungry. Mattie goes to the fridge, takes out the leftover latkes that are still covered in oil. Not the healthiest of late-night snacks, but she has committed these days to just doing the best that she can. There is only a little bit of applesauce left in the jar, but she thinks that she can make it last.
“Tell me a story,” says Leora, as they eat the applesauce-dipped latkes, greasy and delicious.
Mattie is tired, so she picks up the book closest to her on the coffee table: a children’s rendition of the creation story, modernized, from Leora’s school.
In the beginning, there was darkness.
And a wind danced across the face of the waters.
And Spirit said: Let there be light.
And there was light.
Mattie decides to improvise, adding in a story that pops into her head, a Midrash she must have learned decades ago and that she has recently come across in her online perusing.
And when the moon disappeared, it was very dark, and Adam was afraid. He worried that the light would never return. And that’s why God created Chanukah, so that we can burn candles every night until the days get a little longer, until the light begins to come back, begins to last a little longer each day.
“Is that true, Mommy?” asks Leora. “Is that what really happened?”
“What do you think?” asks Mattie, which is her pat answer now for questions that have no answer.
Leora closes her eyes, seemingly satisfied. The light from the new set of candles has made the room brighter, and Mattie is glad. She knows that these candles, too, will burn down, but at least she has a little more time to bask in their glow.
Mattie begins to doze, Leora in her lap. She dreams of her grandmother, now long gone, hands wrinkled during the last of her days in the nursing home, when Mattie used to go visit her after a long day at school. What was it that Mattie had learned during that time? There had been a lesson of sorts, she realizes in her dream, but she is having trouble remembering. I need to find it, she says to herself, and in her dream she starts running, thinking that maybe if she runs faster, she will get to the lesson. A gift. A life. Mattie’s eyes pop open from her dream. She remembers now what it was: finding meaning in the face of futility. She realizes, ruefully, that she has by now surpassed the age of Chaya, Grandma’s sister who died in the camps, by many years. But she has also not lived without death creeping into her own space, taking away.
Gratitude, she tells herself. I am supposed to have gratitude. For the oil in the Chanukah story that lasted eight days instead of one. For the miracles that happened then, and for the ones that happen now.
A wind blows in through a crack in the window, and the flame of the last remaining candle leaps and then subsides.
In spite of her best efforts to suppress her raw grief, the image of her lost husband appears before her now: Judah. More than a year later, she still can’t make heads or tails of it. A terrible accident. A random act of God. Bad luck. Crossing paths with a drunk driver; a series of chance circumstances that ended in an immutable, final outcome.
Mattie remembers ruefully that the name Judah means to give thanks: Yehudah.
Modeh Ani, she whispers into the darkness, thinking of the time she had with Judah, each day lived as though it were eight; and of the time she has with Leora, now. I will try to be grateful for what I had then, she thinks, and also for what I have now.
Fully awake and ruminating in her thoughts and memories, Mattie knows that sleep will not come easily again tonight. Layers upon layers, oozing through her mind like the oil from the latkes. A sense of dread lying beneath her recently declared vows of gratitude.
What would you do if you had extra time in the week, if one of your days stretched into eight?
If your husband had more time on this earth?
If you had more time in each day to get done everything that needed to get done, to complete everything on your to-do list?
Would this be the miracle you are praying for, the miracle that we are all praying for?
Or would you just find more endless things with which to fill the extra time: more obligations, faster deadlines, more information, more scrolling on your phone?
Would it be possible to slow down time while keeping a finite number of things to do, so that the spaces between the things would grow larger?
What would you do if the world just stopped?
Mattie sits, Leora asleep in her lap, and ponders. There is so much she doesn’t know. After all these years, she still wants to understand the concept of time and where it goes. And so many things she wishes she knew how to do better with the time that she has. How to be mindful. How to make time stand still, with this warm body– her little miracle– in her lap. Soft curls brushing against Mattie’s skin, saliva trickling down the girl’s cheek and onto Mattie’s arm.
Leora: A light unto me.
The last candle burns down.
So much for miracles.
She carries Leora up to bed, wraps the blanket around her.
Outside, through the window, the darkness heavy like a quilt.
Let there be light, she wills, but nothing happens.
She could turn on the light switch; it would be easy enough. But she doesn’t want to wake Leora. Mattie tiptoes back down the stairs. She feels a sense of foreboding; for what, she doesn’t know. So many bad things have happened already. And yet also so much good. She sees the days of her life stretching ahead of her: so filled and busy and weighted down by grief that she forgets to watch her child grow up, forgets to create meaningfully as she has always wanted to do; forgets to experience joy.
The days will get longer from now on, she reminds herself. A little bit more light each day.
But what will I do with it?
The earth itself seems bounded by an ending it is hurtling toward, she realizes starkly: it, too, is running out of time. Species becoming extinct. Water rushing from melting ice, seas overflowing, fires burning. The beginning of the end. But can we stop it? If the world as we know it has only one hundred years left, can we turn it into eight hundred? Or eight thousand?
Again, she thinks. I want to light the candles again. I want another try.
Downstairs, she does just that: now lighting for the third time on this seventh night. She checks first: she will still have eight candles left for tomorrow. Even an extra one for the Shamash, the candle that lights all the others. Perhaps this is the miracle.
We all want another try.
This time, Mattie allows herself to loosen, to let go. Closes her eyes, sways in song. “Ner li Adlik…” she sings. I will light myself a candle…on Chanukah I will light up my candles, and I will sing songs…
A restart; a reboot.
The universe may have eternity, but humans have only hours and days, measured by darkness and light.
Everyone wants more time.
Mattie breathes in deeply, counts to eight, then releases.
Blessings. Gratitude. Infinity in each moment. The soul of Judah filling the room.
Her own internal shadows muting the light that she knows must shine forth.
The Maccabees with their swords and shields–an image carved into her Menorah–protecting against these very shadows. Daring her fear to blaze in light.
Mattie places the Menorah back on the windowsill, to publicize the miracle. As it is commanded.
Thank you, she whispers, to no one in particular. For winter festivals of fire and light. For the miracles that burn inside. And for those miracles, too, that are destined to melt before they have been actualized.
She spots the dreidel on the table, picks it up slowly and lays it down carefully next to the Menorah. If life is just a game of chance and luck, she muses, then is it certain, by the statistical odds of the dreidel’s spin, that although sometimes you will have to give away everything, and sometimes you’ll get nothing, that other times you’ll get it all back?
She wants to believe that the gift of life is still hers for the taking, if only she can figure out where to look.
The night stretches ahead, but this time Mattie feels prepared. The darkness is finite: morning light will come.
Debbie Flusberg works a biologist in the Boston area. In Those Days and Now is a follow-on to her story Keeping Time, which appeared in the Jewish Literary Journal in 2014 and again later as a JLJ podcast in the spring of 2020. She has also published short fiction in the online journal LabLit and is working on a collection of science-related fictional short stories.