The following pages by Melinda Davis originally appeared in The Quarterly, Vol. 14, edited by Gordon Lish.
It was by brick he died, they decided–what else?–a young bridegroom, married only the seven nights of the sheva brachos, not a trefah mark on the body, money in the wallet, hands and clothes clean. A cigarette they find in his beard, burning. Books on the ground. A bag of soft peaches. A brick, spent, at rest, such a brick as could kill a person, plumbing the air above a head without even a whir, a clean plummet, a clean kill, kerplunk, dead, finished. The young wife takes off her shoes and tears her clothes and goes to the kitchen, cutting cake for faces, for mouths. Two men from the camera store come and bring another–the accountant? the carpenter? the one who sells hats?–and they take ladders from the back of an automobile (ah, you see, the carpenter) and they place the young bridegroom in the back where the ladders had been and they take him to a place where such a bridegroom as this is taken and they say to him, listen, you are only dead. You are dead only, nisht geferlich, not so terrible, it happens. Relax. Take it easy. Do not be afraid. You are in our hands. We will lift you up. You do not have to lift a finger. We will take care of everything, all of those things that are done for the dead. We will take away the evil that remains on your skin, the last traces of evil that cling to your lips as your soul leaves your body through your mouth to the mouth of God. We will explain it all for you. We will give you time to adjust. We will use warm water while it lasts. We will hold you in an upright position. We will not allow the flow of water to stop during purification. We will not allow your hair to stick to your eyes. We will do things for you now you may think are too sad to mention, but these things are the right things to do, these things we are doing, with all of this nice clean white cloth and these buckets of water and this white of an egg and this bag of sand. And listen, by the way, do us a favor, we mean only respect, we do not expect from you even a thank you, so forgive us, please, if we leave something out.
We are only human.
We are all going to die.
In the night, I hear frozen wings battering the ceiling, shards of ice and brick and plaster falling on the sheets, a siren, men shouting, a baby crying in a wall, large metal cans, a bus, a clock, nothing. In the morning, I see tea towels on my mirrors and people in my chairs, a woman cutting cucumbers, checking lentils, boiling eggs…men huddled, hidden in fringes, speaking in words for winged instrument and flute, a psalm, a song for a lyre, a low stool, no one answering the phone. This may all be true, all of it. Do I know? It has been a shock.
They keep coming to me with their questions. They keep coming to me wanting all the things that people want…they should find a house, a husband, their keys. They should know only simchas. It should be for the good. There should be a nice family to rent the basement. It should be, please God, not that word we do not say, that they find tomorrow morning, with their tests, in his gut. There should be a bocher to cross the children at the corner. There should be (you could help?) a little money for the wedding. There should be no harlots among the daughters of Israel. There should be rain for our land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and we should gather in our grain, our wine and our oil. It should happen in our day that a redeemer should come to Zion. There should be resurrection of the dead.
I dream that I am carrying him in water, water whirring between my skin and his, water-marked skin, the color of onions, smelling of wood, scenting the water, water fluttering, dry, feathered, lifting him up as I hear him breathing, lifting him away until the hearing stops. I wake up and I see that I have dirty hands.
What can I do, do I have control over bricks? This brick they found, they brought me, this brick that did the deed. A red brick, a brick not so different from the bricks I have that hold together my house, my rooms, my life. Here it is, this brick, this brick that got past the code: a crumble in my hands, red, redder where it hit him, worn, worn down by what, the wind? The sun? The moon? The stars? A government inspection? The hand of a child? From bricks I know nothing. Nothing is what I know from bricks. These are the prayers we say for the dead. Tehillim, kepittel chof gimmel. Tehillim, kepittel tzadik aleph. Tzidduk ha’din. Av harachamim. Tehillim, kepittel mem tes. Tehillim, kepittel yud zion. Tehillim, kepittel chof bais. Tehillim, kepittel koof yud tes. Keil Malei Rachamim. Kaddish.
There is meaning here and I will find it. Something in the hour, the weekly portion, the seventh day…the number that derives from joining our names together, the names of our fathers and our father’s father’s father…a movement of spheres, a concealed light, a correction in the world for holy purpose: a tikkun. A tikkun, they tell me. A tikkun, a brick, a blooding. Do you remember how the first blood was mine? A separating blood, a first showing on the sheets, opening me, a knife in me, a sacred blooding before separation. A blooding, a brick, an unspeakable blooding. I sweep the floor while the living men watch me, before they lower you to the floor, before they close your mouth with a string and lower you to clean straw, clean sheet…a bed overturned, the smell of a match, a spilling of water on the floor. I had not seen the whole paleness of you as you breathed.
No no no no no no no no no no no no no no. A Jewish person does not worship the dead. For this we have the rest of the world. For this they have a world of dead Jews. For this they have the dead Yoshka. I can say this to her? I can tell her now, enough, finished? I can look at her, a child just, I danced with her on my shoulders, waving flags? I can look at her and say my darling, my maidel, the daughter almost of my almost daughter? Have we not seen death before, even of our littlest tinniest babies, our tiny babies? Do you think I do not also have pictures of death that come to me also in the night? That come to me over my fish…on the bus, in the toilet, in the mirror? My maidel? Do you think I do not have to push myself also from my sheets? To make a living, a cup of tea, what to give to the Brooklyn Union Gas? To show my face to God three times each day in shul? The IRS?
To what extent does one rend his garment? To exposing his breast down to the region of the navel; some say only down to the region of the heart. Although there is no authentic proof on this point, there is some allusion to it from the Navi’im, as it is written: Kiru l’vavichem v’al bigdeichem. Having reached to the navel on hearing another evil report, he moves away a space of three fingers from the former rent and rends afresh. If the forepart of his garment is become full of rents, he turns the garment front to back and then rends it again; if it becomes full of rents in the upper parts, he turns the garment upside down; but one who rends the lower part or on the sides of the garment has not discharged his duty, save the Kohen Gadol, who rends his garment below.
There is no new blood from me. There is to be no more sweeping away of life. I will be the mother. You will be the dead father. The child within me quickens and says kaddish at the appointed time. The child is surely a boy and should be standing nearer the ark.
There is a madness here, a madness. I must go over the text. It is all of it in the text, everything. Everything is in the text. There is a brick. It is written. It was by brick he died, they decided. Books on the ground. A bag of soft peaches. It is all written down.
She says she looks at the sky and can see the destruction of the wicked. She says the time has come for the coming of the moshiach, for bread to grow on trees, for women to give birth without labor. She says the time has come for the dead to awake in their graves and to roll underground until they reach Yerushalayim. She says redemption is here, in the merit of her bridegroom, in the merit of his death as our final sacrifice to God.
The shochet slaughters it, and the first Kohen at the head of the line receives it and hands it over to his colleague, and the Kohen nearest the altar sprinkles it once toward the base of the altar. He returns the empty vessel to his colleague, and his colleague to his colleague, receiving first the full vessel and then returning the empty one. There were rows of silver vessels and rows of golden vessels, and the vessels did not have flat bottoms lest they set them down and the blood become congealed. Afterwards they hung the offering, flayed it completely, tore it open, cleansed its bowels until the wastes were removed, and the parts offered on the altar were taken out, namely, the fat that is in the entrails, the lobe of the liver, the two kidneys with the fat on them and the tail up to the backbone, and placed in a ritual vessel, salted and burned by the Kohen upon the altar, each one individually. The slaughtering, the sprinkling of its blood, the cleansing of its bowels and the burning of its fat override the Sabbath, but other things pertaining to it do not override the Sabbath.
I do not believe the world. I do not believe how the world is going on, going to business, roasting chickens, boiling nipples, making beds. I have told them to gather their children, to clean their houses, to pack a bag, so that all will be prepared when the clouds come to lift them. I have told them to sound the sirens. I have spoken to a man from TV.
I have looked down on the men as they daven, as they dance, in great hammered waves of black and beard…their singing and their swaying, their egg and onion, their schnapps, their shoving for a place in the eyes of the Rebbe, their cries for redemption, their service of the heart. Until when? they shout with their children on their shoes. Until when? they shout with their fists full of bread. Can they not believe what they believe? Have they not read what is written?
Can they not write what must be written now?
Which of us is mad, then? Which of us? Am I to be the voice of the other side? Am I to speak for the evil inclination? I must go over the text from the beginning, taka. I must find the meaning in the words. It was by brick he died, they decided–what else?–a young bridegroom, married only the seven nights of the sheva brachos, not a trefah mark on the body, money in the wallet, hands and clothes clean. A cigarette they find in his beard, burning. Books on the ground. A bag of soft peaches. A brick, spent, at rest, such a brick as could kill a person, plumbing the air above a head without even a whir, a clean plummet, a clean kill, kerplunk, dead, finished. I look up and I see bread growing from the trees. I look down and I see the ground open beneath the bridegroom and I see his body begin to roll. On the street, the bricks of our houses are turned to sparks. I look up at the sky and I see the face of God.