• Joanna Seldon


    Telling Father

        Cold; always so cold in the room, and dark, even when outside it’s bright and sunny.  Cold smudges through the inkstain damp walls; darkness is slammed across from that other wall, too close, far too close, the wall of the house next door.

        The woman shivers, then removes her shawl.  For a second, it is like plunging outside, but she rallies quickly, concentrates on spreading the shawl over the blankets.  It might help, after all – an additional layer.  The wool, though rather coarse, is thick, and Ruth has knitted it well.  The woman pauses for a second, hearing in her head the click of needles through the evenings that led up to her birthday in October – a few days after Succot it was, this year.  Ruth.  Such a competent, thoughtful girl.  The woman puts finger and thumb round the top right hand corner of the shawl, tweaking it away from the pillow.  The blue colour seems already fading to grey.

        Pulling herself upright, she feels silence swallow the darkening room, smells the Shabbos meal that Ruth is cooking downstairs.  That broiling beef scent, rich, thick and fatty, sweet with onions, seeps soup-damp through the floorboards.

        From the shawl comes the slightest of shudders, like a pool’s surface skimmed by the breeze.  The woman feels her breath catch; kneels quickly; bends over the pillow, whispering into it.  In the dusk, Leah’s hair and profile seem melting as one onto the pale linen.  The head turns; eyes gleam in a white face.  A cough; a quiet moaning.  The woman reaches over to the little bedside table and, finding the water glass almost empty, tops it up from the jug.  The rush of liquid brings the freshness of mountains into the room, for an instant only.  Then the walls close them in once more.

        “Here, drink this.”

        Smoothing the sticky hair away from Leah’s forehead, she steals her hand round to support her daughter’s neck as, with the other hand, she brings the water glass to her lips.

        Again, Leah coughs.  The glass wobbles in the mother’s hand, and the surface of the water slops a little over the edge, onto the woollen shawl.

        “You need to drink.”

        She wants to say more; she wants so much to utter sounds of love, to smooth the edges of her words with an endearment.  But they have always stumbled out haltingly, fading before they finish.  (Silly woman - say “darling” or “dearest” and have done with it.  Why so shy with your own child?  It never works.)

        “No water.”  Leah speaks just above a whisper.  Her voice is winter in dead branches.  “I’m so cold.”

        She might pile the bed high with woollen shawls, thinks the woman, and the story will be the same.  Cold.  Cold as death.

        Under the bedclothes at the bottom she touches the metal of a stone cold water bottle.

        “I’ll re-fill this for you.”  She pauses.  David would have added, “Fagele.”  That’s what he’s always called Leah.  His little bird.  His Vogelein.  But then, the woman reminds herself, that is his privilege.  The father’s right.  She has other things to think of.

        “And I’ll bring you up some cholent.”

        Again comes the faintest of moans.

        “Leah, it will do you good.  Just a small portion; have it tonight, while it’s fresh.” 

        Downstairs a door is opened; as though on cue, the fatty fragrance creeps up in a sudden rush; Leah coughs – almost angrily, this time.

        “I’m not hungry.”

        “Well, I’ll bring you some anyway, when I come back with the hot water bottle.”

        It’s with a sensation of relief that she escapes from the room, closing the door carefully behind her.


        In the kitchen, Ruth is queen.  The woman is in awe of her older daughter, who cooks and sews and knits so much better than she.  Like a servant, she will silently clean up afterwards – that is, if there’s time before they light the Shabbos candles.

        Now, moving to the stove for some hot water, she treads like a cat, fearful that she might be in the way of “the Macher”.  That’s David’s name for his other daughter.  Taking a cloth to protect her hand and lifting the iron kettle from the heat, she tests the temperature.  There.  Perfect.  As she drains the contents of the water bottle into the sink, she allows herself to think – just for the time it takes for the water to gurgle away – of the lost baby, the only son.  Right now he would have been in shul with David, singing “Lecha Dodi”, welcoming the Shabbos bride.  Then they would have walked home together.  Through the window, as they approached, they would have seen the Shabbos candles which she and Ruth are now about to light.  As he walked through the front door with David, her son would have stretched out his arms towards her and they would have embraced.  It would have been easier to show affection for a son.  Of that the woman is certain.

        “Sorry, Ruthi.  I just need to reach past you to take some more hot water.”

        “How is she?”

        Ruth is stirring the cholent.  Beef flank, potato, beans and barley, onions, carrots, compact greyish kneidlach balls, all in a heavy juice.  It will sit there stewing all through Shabbos.  They’ll have hot food without lighting a fire.  Never light a fire on Shabbos.  Never break the commandment.  Create nothing on the seventh day.  And, like the Lord, you should rest and rejoice.  From sunset until the first star appears on the next evening, more than twenty-four hours, sorrow is forbidden.

        “She’s not good, Ruthi.  Not good at all.”  Impossible to talk about it.  Welcome the Shabbos bride instead.  “That smells nice.”

        “Thank you, Ma.”  The corners of Ruth’s mouth turn up, but you can’t exactly call it a smile on her face.  She narrows her nostrils, and little pinch marks appear on the side of her nose.  Her mother steals a glimpse of her profile: it seems leaner and sharper than ever.  Her eyes, slightly protruding, cholent-brown, are half-hidden by heavy lids.  They swivel suddenly sideways.

        “Are you taking some up to her?”

        “I don’t suppose she’ll have any, but yes.”

        “Here.  Take this bowl.”  Ruth starts to ladle it in.  Slops of starchy mass drop, with a slight splash, into the broth.  The hot steam condenses swiftly on the woman’s face.  Is it the heat, or the rich scent, or the overpowering anxiety that makes her reel with giddiness?

        Ruth sticks the ladle back inside the mess and rests a hard, dry hand on her mother’s wrist.  “Hey, steady there, Ma.  Shall I carry it up?”

        The bulging, heavy-lidded eyes are half-lit with the nearest thing to kindness the woman can hope to scoop up.  She is suddenly frightened – as though seeing this strange thing is a sort of sign.

        “No.  No.  Don’t worry.  If you could just make sure the table is laid.  What time is Shabbos?”

        Ruth puts a lid on the cholent pan and glances up at the kitchen clock.  “Twenty minutes – just under.”

        “Fine.  I’ll try this on Leah, then I’ll be down again in time for us to light the candles together.”

        The hot water bottle nestling, a rigid baby, under her arm, she slowly climbs the stairs with her offering.  She can’t even claim to have made it herself for the invalid.  It’s like the story of Isaac, she decides, re-arranging her burdens as she turns the knob of the bedroom door.  But Jacob bore the broth made by his mother; in this family, it’s the other way round.  Persistent, however, is that feeling of deception.  And the other feeling too, that makes it like the Bible story: she doesn’t want to think of that.

        She places the bowl on the bedside table, then gently raises the blankets and slips the renewed hot water bottle inside.  The back of her hand brushes against one of daughter’s feet.  It is ice cold.

        Fear squeezes her entrails.  But then, when she leans over the pillow, she catches Leah’s breathing.  It’s reassuringly peaceful and regular.  She will leave her to sleep; just sit by her as day fades.  Then, after she’s lit the Shabbos candles, she’ll come up again; stay here till David arrives home.

        Taking care to keep it raised from the tell-tale floor, she carries a small chair over to the bedside.  Leah’s navy-blue coat hangs over the back of it.  With only a snag of guilt, the woman puts it on, doing the large, man-sized buttons up to the neck against the cold, even tying the belt.  She can smell her daughter on it.  When was the last time Leah wore this?  She remembers them going out together in early summer.  It would have been May, for she recalls the hawthorn blossom on the tree outside number twenty-two.  A breeze sprang at them as they passed, and a white drift, like stuff thrown over a goyishche bride, scattered onto Leah’s black hair and – yes, onto the navy coat.  She can picture it now, the snow-speck blossom on the dark felt shoulders.  It must have been cold even then, what with the late spring wind.  And Leah has always had to be careful, because of her chest.

        As though responding to this memory in her dream, the girl stirs slightly.  Her mother, alert as a bird, is watchful.  Sees her sink back into sleep.  The faintest of steam is now rising from the bowl of cholent.  Soon it will be cold.  The woman registers the layer of grease that has started to congeal on its surface.

        When she sat by her daughters’ bedsides in their childhood, she used to tell them stories.  Sitting here now, the straight-backed chair stiffening her back, the buttoned up coat scratching against her chin, she tells stories to herself.  She thinks once more of Isaac and Rebecca and their two sons, is thankful that her two daughters have never been rivals.  Too different, she supposes, the “Macher” and the “Fagele”; the doer and the dreamer.  She wonders, without conscious sadness, what the son would have been like.

        They might have had two sons.

        And so she repeats to herself the story David once told her – of the two sons of Rabbi Meir.  His wife, Beruriah, was beautiful and wise.  When both boys died suddenly and together of some mysterious illness, she laid them on the bed, and wondered how to break the news to her husband.  So she made up a tale about a man who had been lent two precious jewels for safe-keeping.  Now their owner had returned to claim them back.  What, she asked her husband the rabbi, should the man do?

        Of course the response was instantaneous.  The man should naturally return the two jewels to their rightful owner.  It was only a temporary loan, after all.

        At that point Beruriah uttered the lines, as beautiful and as wise as she: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed is the name of the Lord.”  It was a quotation from the Book of Job, that tale of a man who suffered more than most mortals could endure.

        And then she showed her husband the rabbi the corpses, stiff and cold, of their beloved sons, and they both wept, and rent their garments in traditional style.  And then, the woman’s story went on, Rabbi Meir assembled a minyan and said Kaddish, that unfathomable prayer of mourning which does not once mention the word ‘death’. 

        There is no steam rising from the cholent now.  Glancing at the window, the woman feels as if the wall of the house next door has pushed right up against them.  Darkness is almost here.

        With a final quick glance at the sleeper, she creeps quietly from the room.  As always, the third stair down creaks like a bough in the breeze.

        Ruth has the table ready, with silver candlesticks at the centre, and the Kiddush cup and chollah cloth so bright the woman guesses that the “Macher” has been busy polishing and washing as though to make up for the darkness that lies above them in the bedroom.  The dazzle hurts her unaccustomed eyes.  She removes Leah’s coat, puts on a headscarf.

        Ruth comes in with a taper from the kitchen.  She passes it over to her mother, who carefully lights the two white candles and then, blowing out the taper, closes her eyes, circles her hands twice over the flames, and, hands now covering her face, recites the blessing.

        “Baruch Ato Adonaoi, Elohenu Melech Ha’Olum, Asher Kid’shonu Bemitzvotov Vetzivonu Lehadlick Ner Shel Shabbos.  Amen.”

        She takes her hands away from her eyes to see Ruth considering her carefully from beneath her heavy lids.  Then the corners of the mouth are up again.

        “Good Shabbos, Ma.”

        “Good Shabbos.”

        Stiffly, they embrace.  Then the woman pulls away, clutched by an urgent fear.

        “I must go up and check on Leah.”


        The room is now in darkness.  As she enters, the woman comes up against the rancid smell of cold cholent.  More powerful, however, more powerful than any instinct that has ever seized her, springs the feeling that the room is empty.  Or rather, it is full of absence.  There is, quite simply, no-one there when she enters. 

        She doesn’t need any light.  As she steps over to the bed, she knows already what she will find.

        Leah lies on her back now.  In the faint silver glow coming from the street lamp outside, her opened eyes glint.  Her mouth, too, hangs slightly opened.  She seems almost surprised – taken aback by her silent final visitor.

        As she weeps over her, hot tears sprinkling on cold skin, the woman murmurs her anguish.  “And to think, I wasn’t with you when it happened.  I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry.  My Fagele, my little Fagele.  My baby.”

        The bedroom door clicks open.


        Ruth is standing against the light.  The woman can’t see the look on her face.  But the gasp comes immediately, then the wail and the dart towards her.

        At almost the same moment, a sound can be heard from below: a key turns in the front door.  It bangs shut.

        “Hello?  Where is everyone?”

        Silently, Ruth draws the sheet over her sister’s face.  The woman closes the bedroom door behind them, and they go downstairs together.  The third step creaks as usual, as though nothing has happened.  For a minute, the woman pauses on it.  Finding herself beginning to sway, she grabs at her strength and straightens.  But her knees still tremble.

        “Can you tell I’ve been crying?”

        “Here, let me wipe it.”  Ruth withdraws a handkerchief from her apron pocket, and they blot round one another’s eyes, the woman feeling, as she gazes, that the tears are springing afresh.



        “It’s Shabbos.”

        “Yes.”  There is a sigh, a tiny, hesitant intake of breath.  “She must have gone… just as the Shabbos came in.  Just as we were lighting…”

        “I know.  The Shabbos bride.”  The woman gives a dry, bitter laugh.  “But Ruthi…”  She grabs her daughter’s finger here.  The clench must be tight, for she registers her wince.  “Because it’s Shabbos, we can’t touch her.  Your know that, don’t you?”

        Ruth gives a slight shudder, averts her face.  “One of the many rules, I suppose…?”

        “That’s right.”  Once again, she thinks she might faint.  It’s the thought of it.  She closes her eyes and makes herself take two deep breaths.  “No dead bodies on Shabbos.  It’s forbidden to move her.”  She opens her eyes now, giving Ruth’s finger another squeeze.  “And the important thing… the really important thing…”  Slowly now.  Another deep breath.  “Father musn’t know.”

        “What?”  Ruth pulls her hand away, rubs it on her apron.

        “I mean it.  This is a day of rest.  The Lord’s day.”  She only half believes it, of course.  Why would God strike her such a blow, on this day, or on any day?  But then, she knows she needs time to prepare the ground, to confront her own grief before she takes David’s hand and leads him upstairs into his.  He won’t go up there on his own: he doesn’t enter the sickroom, a place only for women and professionals.  So he won’t find out until she decides the moment has come. 

        Hurriedly, she continues: “He commanded us to take pleasure in the Shabbos.  So no bad news.  All right?  Understood?  No sadness.”

        Ruth nods silently.  At the bottom of the stairs, she hangs her sister’s abandoned coat on a hook in the hall.  Then they go to welcome the man of house into his Sabbath home.  In the sheen of the two candles they have just lit, they catch a glimpse of his shadow on the wall, waiting.