The Mourner’s Kaddish

[Author’s note: I’m finally home for the holidays! and thought I’d put up a piece I wrote in my Intermediate Creative Writing class this semester that my professor particularly liked. Hope you enjoy!]

Zanna likes to shuffle the cards when there aren’t any customers in the tent. There’s something calming about it; her deck is larger than the usual decks of cards, the ones the boys use for gambling after-hours. They stretch her hands out; they make her feel like she’s holding something strange, something wild, something that might at any time leap from her control.

She flips the cards over, shuffles them backwards, watches them clatter into a pile in front of her: nine of swords, two of cups, the Moon. She has a habit of telling customers they were passed down from her great-great-grandmother, in Romania or Greece or wherever she’s from this week. They’re not. Sam bought them for her, ten years ago.

But she’s not putting that up on the sign. And besides, it doesn’t do to fall into the habit of telling customers the truth.

And speak of the devil; here’s a apple-cheeked blonde girl, can’t be more than sixteen, with a spindly, scrawny stick of a thing limping up behind her. Zanna tries not to smirk in his direction. Boys like this one, healthy enough to stay out of a hospital but too sickly to go to the recruiter’s office and ship off to Europe or Japan with the rest of their friends – boys like this don’t like women like her. Something about aggression, something about the male mind, she doesn’t care to analyze it. No matter what the sign by the entrance to the tent says, she’s no mind-reader. People aren’t half as interesting as Sam’s books liked to pretend they were.

Still, it doesn’t pay to make customers angry. Zanna offers her widest smile, lets the cards in her hands settle to the floor, turns her palm up. “Madame Shoshana reads the cards, darling,” she says, in her best accent. She lost it years ago, let the American vowels bleed into her mouth loud and easy, but it doesn’t pay to let customers know that, either. They don’t like their witches local, do the Americans. Foreign and exotic is good enough for them.

“See the past,” she says, and shows her teeth. “See the future.”

The girl hesitates, then presses three quarters into Zanna’s palm. The coins go swiftly into the folds of her dress; the smile doesn’t falter. “Anything in the world, darling,” she says. “Family, career – romance. Anything you like.”

The blonde girl glances behind her, at the boy; he’s sulking by the door of the tent, his face sullen. It’s his quarters that Zanna has in her pocket, she’d guess, and she smiles at her cards. He’ll want the girl to say romance, and she won’t. She’s too good for him, she is; later in the night she’ll smile politely at the door and vanish forever. Zanna knows her type, too.

“Can you,” says the girl, and bites her lip. “Can you see my family? How they’re – if they’re.” She pauses. “One specific person in my family?”

“I can see your brother, darling,” says Zanna, and carefully doesn’t look up from the cards to see the expression on the girl’s face. Yes, it’s a lucky guess. Of course it’s a lucky guess. People say lucky guess so casually, as if there’s nothing about that to take pride in.

A three-card spread for the girl, then, right to left along the purple tablecloth Zanna’s always claimed was silk. “Past,” says Zanna, “the page of wands. A message, bringing a great change. A new beginning.” Her finger, painted the same color as the tablecloth, moves to the left. “Present, nine of wands. Perseverance, stamina.” She allows herself to look up, give the girl a private and secretive smile. “Your brother is so strong, darling, among the fire and flames. Like an oak in a forest. He’s brave. He’ll stand tall for a long while yet.”

The girl’s face is a mixture of a hundred emotions – fear, longing, confusion, hope. “The last one?” she says. “Is that the future?”

Zanna looks down again, at the spread she’s laid out on the table. For a long moment, she can’t meet the apple-cheeked girl’s eyes.

Page of wands: impulsiveness, poor decisions, quick changes, fire. Nine of wands: defensiveness, paranoia. A reminder to expect the worst. When Hazel taught Zanna to read that deck of cards she’d been carrying around, just after Zanna had joined up with the carnival, she’d told Zanna not to believe half of what she read. The trick, she’d said, was to get the customer to see what they wanted to see.

Still, though-

“Future,” says Zanna, and taps gently on the last card. “the Tower.” On the scrap of cardboard, bent by age and use, a bolt of lightning plunges from the sky; the tower, made of brick, is collapsing into the earth. Pain. Conflict. A drastic and terrifying climax to a horrifying story.

“An ending,” she says. “The great hard things he’s been living with for a long time, darling, they’re coming to an end. Something new.” She hesitates over the outright lie, then glances down, away from the girl’s eyes again. It can’t hurt. She says, “Something better.”

The girl pauses, then turns to look at the sullen-faced boy behind her. “You do it, Bobby,” she says, “you see the future too.” The boy’s frowning, and the girl’s brows furrow. She’s about to wheedle. “You promised, Bobby,” she says, “you promised you’d do it with me, so-”

“Madame Shoshana is closed for the night,” says Zanna.

The girl blinks at her, surprised. Zanna tries not to look surprised herself; she hadn’t expected to say that.

“Closed for the night,” she repeats – in for a penny, in for a pound – “the Fates have shown me all they choose to show me, darling. Go,” she waves a hand, trying not to look like she’s shooing them out of the tent. “Go, and,” she struggles for a moment, “go, and may Destiny turn her face towards you, smile upon you, do something nice for your mother, oh, dwaj z was może spieprzaj.” The girl looks terrified by the Polish; she flees. The boy, with another glare in Zanna’s direction, pushes through the flap of the tent after her.

Zanna puts her head in her hands, pushes on her eyeballs until spots burst in front of her closed eyes. She shouldn’t have done that; she needs the extra change, God knows Walter will swipe half of whatever she makes tonight in any case, and she’s been saving up to buy a new winter coat.

But she can’t stop seeing image of the Tower, floating in front of her. The lightning, the split sky; the collapse of the building, brick by brick, to the earth.

She needs a drink.

She pushes through the flap of the tent, glances to see if the apple-cheeked girl and her unlucky beau are anywhere in sight; they’re long gone. Good.

“Betty,” she calls without looking, “can you tell Hazel to keep an eye on the tent for me?”

“Sure thing,” says a voice to her left. Zanna smiles, quick and grateful, at the pretty young girl at the Find the Lady booth, whose hands are moving too fast to follow along her table. It’s another card game, and one even less honest than Zanna’s: somewhere in the gathered crowd, quick and silent, Betty’s partner Hazel already has her quick fingers in a customer’s purse.

Beyond Betty, glittering gold and red, is the rest of the carnival. There’s a Ferris wheel, turning slowly against the flat blackness of the sky; there’s the slow slithering calliope tune of the carousel winding its way through the air; there’s the buzz of the neon sign advertising the funhouse, the whoops and screams from the strength test and the balloon game. A plume of fire goes up in the air; Eugene, it must be. He has a habit of eating fire once the handsome boys in the crowd have bought him a few drinks, if they smile at him right and drop the right phrases. There are more than a few friends of Dorothy in this crowd.

Zanna glances right, along and away from the glittering hoopla of the fairground. They’ve parked on the edge of a forest. It looks dark in there. Quiet, maybe.

She ducks around the side of the tent, and – yes, there’s her vodka, safe and sound. Walter usually swipes any scrap of alcohol on the fairgrounds he can find, but he must not have made his way over here yet. She picks it up, tucks it under her arm, heads out into the darkness of the woods.

The leaves crunch under her feet. Though it’s hard to see the canopy against the darkness of the sky, she doesn’t think there’s any green left on the trees; the branches scrape, thin and bare, against the stars. The air’s still warm, but the forest isn’t fooled. Winter’s almost here.

She picks a likely-looking tree, settles at its base, and unscrews the top of the bottle.

It’s been ten years since Sam bought her the cards.

Which means she’s twenty-eight years old.

“Sto lat,” she sings, under her breath, “sto lat, niech zyje, zyje nam,” and lets her voice trail off. The woods seem to swallow up all sound.

The vodka burns down her throat – a few swallows are enough, she screws the top back on and lets the bottle thunk against the side of the tree. Sam, now, Sam could drink like a champion. She’d seen him win contests, back in the pubs in Warsaw; men had bet on him, bet against him, stood astonished while the rake-thin boy had tossed drink after drink down his throat. Some had accused him of cheating. Zanna didn’t know how one could cheat at a drinking contest, but if anyone could, she had faith: of course it would be Sam, king of pubs, king of Poland, who else –

Zanna blinks. The woods swim into view in front of her.

“This vodka,” she says aloud to the woods, in English, “is too damn strong.”

“Everything’s too strong for mouthy bitches,” says a voice from out of the dark, and Zanna closes her eyes, swears very quietly. So this is where he disappeared to.

“Go away, Walter,” she says.

“Talking to yourself alone in the woods?” says Walter. He’s visible, now, among the shifting shadows of the trees; the moonlight is reflecting off his bald scalp. He’s grinning. “Ain’t that the first sign of madness?”

“Maybe I’m talking to the Devil,” says Zanna shortly.

Walter spreads his hands. “You’re talking to the Devil all the time, far as I can see. You in your little tent down there.”

“Well,” says Zanna, “I’m about to break your heart, Walter, but there are a lot of little tents down there. That’s what happens, when you actually work for a living, instead of hanging around carnies and taking half of what they get every night.”

“I own this carnival,” says Walter. Zanna glances up; his face is dark.

“You do,” she says. “You own all those little tents down there, the ones I talk to the Devil in. A plague of them. Lots of devils, maybe. Maybe they’re all coming after you. Maybe you ought to be clearing out of here.”

“Gimme the bottle,” says Walter.

Zanna pauses, considers; he’s not drunk enough for her to fight him off. She feels for the bottle around the edge of the tree, lifts it up; he grabs it and tilts his head back. She can see the line of his throat working.

“You hate witches so much,” she says, “why are you hanging around me, Walter? Don’t you have something better to do than press your attentions on girls who don’t want it?”

“Pressing attentions on your vodka ain’t the same as pressing attentions on you,” says Walter, and at long last hands back the bottle. “Don’t flatter yourself, Suzie, I ain’t planning on sticking it in a Polack anytime soon.”

“My name isn’t Suzie,” says Zanna, “and I’m not – ” She stops.

“Oh, of course,” says Walter, gives an exaggerated bow, “my deepest fuckin’ apologies, Madame Shoshana, I should’ve guessed, a proper lady like you ain’t gonna stand for familiar address from big brutes like me – ”

“My name’s not Shoshana,” says Zanna. “It’s – I’m.”

“But you are a Polack,” says Walter, and he’s grinning at her, and he’s closer than he was before. “Ain’t you?”

Against her better judgment, Zanna says, “No.”

“No?” says Walter, frowning, exaggerated and confused. “No, you ain’t? Then you ain’t Zuzanna Gradowski?”

“Shut up, Walter,” says Zanna. She doesn’t like where this is going.

“Sure sounds like a Polack name to me,” says Walter. “Unless you got hitched to a Polack and had his babies? That it, Suzie?”

“Shut up, Walter,” says Zanna again, quiet and dangerous.

“You didn’t do that, did you,” says Walter. “Far as I can tell, you never got hitched to nobody, and never had babies, neither. So why is it you say you ain’t a Polack, Suzie?”

He’s grinning, wide, like a butcher knife. Zanna can feel the tension in her shoulders; without her realizing it, her fingers have curled into fists.

“Oh,” says Walter, “I know why. It’s because you ain’t a Polack. You ain’t an American, neither, are you. You’re a hook-nosed Hebe – ”

He goes down hard.

He’s up in a second, though, swinging at Zanna while she’s still shaking out her stinging knuckles; her nose crunches, hard, and she tastes something salty in her mouth before the pain spreads out hot and wet and sudden into her skull. She staggers a step back, trips over a tree root, goes sprawling onto the ground.

A pain, sudden and sharp, in her side; Walter’s kicked her. “Jesus Christ, you bitch,” he says, sounding more surprised than anything else. “I think you actually hurt me.”

There’s blood pooling in Zanna’s mouth, dripping down onto the back of her tongue. She thinks of spitting it up at Walter, or at least saying something nasty to him. She must be able to think of something that’ll hurt him. Anything.

There’s a grunt, and a slosh of liquid; Walter’s reached down to grab the vodka bottle. Zanna hears a pop, and then a glug, glug, glug.

“Shitty stuff,” says Walter shortly. “See you around, Suze.”

Zanna lets her breath hiss into the fallen leaves for a long while.

Then she pushes herself, very slowly, upright, and prods at her side gently. Everything hurts to touch, but when she shifts from side to side, there’s no flare of pain; nothing broken, nothing sprained, only a bruise that she’ll see in the morning.

Her nose might be a different story. Zanna raises a hand to her face, then thinks better of it, spits the blood in her mouth carefully into the leaves. If her nose is broken – and with this day’s luck, it’ll be broken badly – it’ll show.

“You were getting too old to be a pretty fortuneteller girl anyway,” she says to the woods, and grins, slow, pained, and bloody.

The moonlight’s not much, but it’s enough to catch the gleam of light off glass. She grabs the bottle, holds it up to the light, sloshes it back and forth. There’s still some liquid left at the bottom – half backwash, probably, barely enough to send a buzz going at the back of her brainstem.

She considers. It’s a cold night. And God knows she could stand to dull the pain.

Then she turns it upside down, lets it trickle down into the cold earth. Go too far along that path, and she might as well turn into Walter already.

It’s not as if she hasn’t been in fights with carnies before. It’s not as if she hasn’t been in fights with Walter before; hide the money from him, hide the booze, talk too loud, talk too smart, and Walter’s as like to hit you as he is to stay standing upright. And often it’ll be like tonight – Zanna won’t have done anything, will just be on her own, and Walter will be more willing than she is to pick as much of a fight as he can.

It is the first time he’s ever called her a – well. That.

And it is the first time she’s ever swung first.

Sam had been – not a boxer, not quite, not really. He’d fought a little, but he’d never fought for money; “if I let them bet on me,” he’d told Zanna, grinning at her through a split lip, “they’d be paying the heavyweights to lose against me, you know the odds would be a thousand to one.” But for a skinny, bookish Jew from what was already becoming the ghetto, he’d been a surprisingly good fighter: wiry, fast, smart. Always smart.

Zanna blinks at the glass bottle. He’d been.

It’s the first time she’s ever really thought of him that way. The past perfect, he’d have called it, him and his books. The past that is past forever. The things that have happened, and can’t be brought back.

Something about the vodka. Something about the quietness of the night. Something about the fact that she’ll be twenty-nine next year, and thirty and thirty-one and thirty-two after that, and in Sam’s mind she’ll never be any older than eighteen.

A long time ago, he’d told her to keep her wits sharp, to be clever and wise. Good looks would fade, he’d said, and so would strength, and even riches could run away into the earth; but cleverness, that would stay with you, that would carry you through good times and bad. Hadn’t cleverness carried Mordechai and Esther? Hadn’t it carried the people of Prague, hadn’t the rabbi’s knowledge and schooling and wisdom raised the Golem?

She’d shoved at him. “You’re a grown man, stop telling fairy tales.”

He’d grinned at her, unrepentant. “You used to love fairy tales.”

“When I was six,” she’d said. “And you were eight. You want to be a rabbi, for God’s sake go and be a rabbi. If you want to be a housewife then go and do that.”

He’d rolled his eyes, affectionate. “You know I won’t be either.”

“Then shut up about kid’s stories, why don’t you,” she’d said, and then –

Zanna shakes her head as if she’s shaking water out of her ears. For God’s sake, it’s a beautiful night, one of the last warm nights left before frost cracks its whip down over the carnival. She ought to be out at the sideshows. She ought to be in her tent, collecting quarters. She oughtn’t to be standing in the middle of the woods, dripping blood down her front and remembering things long past.

She drops the bottle – the leaves will cover it – and lifts up her skirts. The way out of the woods is –

-is-

God damn it.

Zanna closes her eyes, tilts her head first one way and then another. The woods really do swallow up all sound – she’d appreciated that, hadn’t she, when she’d walked in. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Is that a noise, off to her left? A melody, maybe – the carousel?

Well, goddamn, it had better be; there’s nowhere else she can go.

The sky’s clouding over, the air growing colder. In this part of America storms come quickly, and doesn’t Zanna know it; the carnival’s been traveling through these plains slow and steady, and the rainstorms will sweep over like a curtain, rocking the trucks and flooding the roads and disappearing as quickly as it’s come. When it’s late at night and the rains are hammering on the roof like an army, they’ll tuck themselves into the truck, the men wrestling on the floor and the girls huddling in a corner for warmth. Ohanzee, the Lakota man who runs the balloon-and-darts game, will tell them stories about the rain then; he’ll call it Thunderbird. “A great big bird with a storm for its wings,” Ohanzee will say, and his grin in the darkness will be something quiet and private.

“Men like these,” he’ll say, and glance left, to where the boy who runs the carousel is trying to wrestle Walter into the dirt, “men like these, they think America is something you can fight for, something you can grab. Something you can hold on to.” He’ll shake his head. “It ain’t, girls, it ain’t. America’s just Thunderbird, and nothing but Thunderbird.”

The first raindrop lands on Zanna’s nose.

She closes her eyes.

It had been a rainy day then, too. She’d been at the train station; Sam had been grinning at her from through the window. He’d been talking to her about fairy tales.

“Come with me,” she’d said suddenly, interrupting him. “Come on, just – get on the train. They’ll never notice you’re on it.”

And he’d smiled at her, then, Sam Gradowski, brave and brilliant, her hard-drinking fistfighting clever, clever, clever brother, and her heart had been in her mouth, and she’d loved him more, then, than she’d ever love anyone again.

“Me?” he’d said. “Nah, little sister. Can’t.” And then he’d smiled, bright and brilliant. “But ten years, all right – ten years, I’ll have my university degree, I’ll have my medical license, I’ll have my own practice. And then you can tell me to come to America, and we can find whatever American diseases there are to cure. All right?”

And then the train had started moving –

The rain’s falling properly, now, and the leaves beneath Zanna’s feet are turning into mud. The music’s all but drowned out. Zanna crosses her arms across her chest, shakes her hair out of her eyes, looks up.

The lightning strikes.

She doesn’t see where it hits the earth; the trees are blocking her view. But there’s a crack, and a scream, and – no, there can’t be bricks falling, that’s got to be her imagination.

Zanna stares.

Then she laughs.

Or tries to. But it’s coming out choked, and then as great gulping sobs, coming straight up from her chest, from a part of herself she thought she’d walled off – and then she’s sitting in the wet leaves, her hands over her face, crying into her palms.

There’s blood in her mouth again.

She spits it out, carefully, onto the earth. Then she says, for the first time in ten years, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah.”

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