“What Jew has a wake?”
The young woman, Merika, turned at that familiar volume, that comforting loudness. She remembered being enveloped by it so often. A little girl protected by a blanket of voice.
“Uncle Mel!” She wrapped her arms around his neck, still having to stand on tip-toe to do it. Melchizedek Weir was 6’ 2’’ if he were an inch, and age had not stooped him a bit. Nor quieted him.
“The kind of Jew,” she answered, “who hated being one.”
Rabbi Weir looked over at his dead friend, still characteristically tieless. Still scowling, despite the undertaker’s best efforts to the contrary. The Order of the Red Star still manifestly pinned to his chest.
“He missed you,” Merika managed a smile.
“He was the one who moved clear across the continent,” his friend replied.
“He said it was to get away from you,” she whispered, though they were alone in the parlour, excepting the dark-suited attendant, doing his best to stand still as the room’s thin, flared lamps.
“More to get you away from me, Pits’l.” It had been a long time since anyone had called her “adorable child.” She could never remember her father doing it.
They sat down together on the mandatory, burgundy cushioned, metal folding chairs. — the elderly rabbi, whom his congregants described as “the ageless elder,” and the grieving young woman for whom he was now her only family, even if not actually related. “Uncle” is a very fluid term.
“Who was my mother?” Merika asked, right out. No warm up, no sidling in. One of the many things Mel admired about her. “He wouldn’t ever tell me.”
“He couldn’t.” Melchizedek turned his amber eyes directly toward hers. Many a theological debater had been caught in that amber, unable to proceed. But for his niece, his gaze was translucent, right down to the heart.
“Because you didn’t have one.”
Marika’s eyes widened, although you’d have to look close to see it. “Ocular albinism” – her eyes had no color at all. Just white, pupils, iris, and all. Each only the slightest of white silhouettes, one upon the other.
She looked up at the discoloration where the cross had been taken down from the papered wall for the occasion.
“Didn’t that only happen once before?” she managed a weak laugh, “and it didn’t turn out so well for that Jew, either?”
She turned a little from the rabbi and scanned the unoccupied rows. “The University sent flowers,” she motioned to arrangement behind the coffin, “but nobody came. Better this way.” She exhaled, as if for the first time in a while. “No one to tell me that ‘he really did love me.’ ”
“He didn’t, Pits’l.” Soft amber bluntness. “You weren’t his.”
“Then whose, Uncle?” She stood up, animated. The attendant remained unmoved. “Yours?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Seriousness filled the empty room.
She flopped to her knees, sat on her heals before him. “Please, Uncle. Enough mystery! Tell me!”
Rabbi Mel, with surprising grace, slid himself down from the chair and sat, lotus pose, in front of her. Lowered his bearded chin and inhaled deeply. Only then did Marika notice the silver ॐ in the center of his kippa.
He looked up at her. “Do you remember the game we used to play when you were little, sitting just like this?”
“The Dream Game.” She smiled finally. “We’d close our eyes, and you’d lead me to The Dream Place. It was so beautiful.” She closed her eyes and mused. “A golden field of tall grasses. It was so real.”
“It was real, little one.” He took her hand. “It was no dream.”
She looked up at him then, and the shadows of her eyes seemed to remember something. To deepen.
“Your strange old Uncle Mel is a shaman, dear one. Did you know that’s a Hebrew word? A shaman and a mizemann. A summoner.”
“And did you summon me?’ she said, so softly that her father’s soul, still lingering for its three days, could not hear her.
Melchizedek rose to his full height and gently raised her with him.
“A shaman walks between this world and Spirit World.” He was almost intoning. “A summoner can call upon the spirits of the passed to meet him or her in the sedah zahav, the Golden Field, at the border between worlds. There, questions can be conveyed from the living and answered by the dead.”
“Was I . . . am I . . . dead?” There was no fear in her voice. It would explain so much.
“No, no,” the rabbi shook his salt and saffron hair, (red became Russian Jews). “Avikai and I were friends in the old country. In Stalingrad. The siege changed us both. The death. The despair. I turned even more closely to YHVH Elhoim, and His mercy; your father to the Party and its promises.”
“Even when he came here, he never abandoned it,” Marika replied. ‘Stalin, Khrushchev, they were traitors to the Revolution,’ he would say.”
“We fought about it constantly,” the old Rebbe sighed. “He called my gifts ‘a syringe for the opiate of the people.’ I challenged him to try it for himself, to let experience be his teacher, if not me.
“One night, he came to my flat and demanded a demonstration. I went into shaman state, the trance. He asked to speak to the soul of a dead sister, killed by the Nazis.”
“I never heard of a sister?” Marika puzzled.
“Nor had I. But I knew his father had been married before and widowed. I should have realized what was truly happening, but I was too intent on showing Avikai up. I made the request.”
Every muscle in Marka’s face tensed itself into the silent question, “And?”
It was the first time in her life she had ever known the man before her to be hesitant. The first time in his, as well.
His eyes travelled around the room, as if trying to escape from amber. But there was no escape now.
“There was no sister,” the old man continued. “Your father just hoped to catch me concocting some elaborate message from a non-existent soul. So he could say, “Aha! All lies! Just as I knew!
“But Spirit is not mocked. If a mizemann called up a non-existent spirit, it became existent. A new life, a new soul would be born, right there in the Border Lands. Motherless, fatherless, it would attach itself to whomever perpetrated the fraud, to whomever had blasphemed against the Spirit.”
Marika lowered herself back down upon the burgundy-flecked, beige carpet.
“I screamed in my trance, ‘What have you done?!’ There, nestled in the tall golden grasses, was the most beautiful baby girl I had ever seen, with eyes the color of stillness. The stillness of Spirit World.
“I saw those eyes again, on your father’s doorstep, where you had mysteriously appeared, wrapped in a weave of golden grasses. He was afraid to pick you up, to take you in. He called me.
“I . . . I am a dybbuk? A demon?”
“No, no, not at all.” He bent to reassure her, the palms of his hands softly on the crown of her head. Like blessing.
“You are your own unique category of being, Pits’l,” he murmured. “A nefesh nefeshim. A spirit of spiritualness.”
She stood up, approached Avikai’s body.
“He named me ‘Marika.’ It means –”
“ ‘Empty.’ Yes, I know.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, like supporting someone saying kaddish.
“You stayed with me three days while he flew to Tel Aviv, picked up the adoption certificate I’d arranged from a former student in government there, and flew back. I begged him to leave you with me, but you know your father. Wouldn’t give the satisfaction.”
Melchizedek stared hard at the permanently scowling face below him.
“He couldn’t love you. You gave the lie to his cherished view of the universe, of true and false. In the end, he chose to continue false. With his beliefs. With you.
“And he feared you. And feared our love for each other, beloved uncle, beloved niece. Feared what I might tell you. That is why he eventually took the university post 3000 miles away. I sent letters, but I’m sure you never received them. Then came email, Facebook.”
“Tell me, Uncle,” she turned to him urgently, as if she might not be able to speak the words a moment later. “Is this why I’ve been unable to love? I thought I was just . . . cold. A victim of my father’s coldness. But ‘cold’ is not what I feel! I hear the Oneness singing in me! I feel the intimacy of all things. Only – I cannot seem to feel the intimacy of one for another.”
She hung her head, and so did not see the tall, ruddy-haired young man enter the parlour and stand next to her uncle. He must have been remarkably gentle-stepped.
“This is my son. Also Mel. Meli’ah. It means ‘Fullness.’ ”
Marika looked up, and saw eyes the color of stillness smiling back at her.
“My Avigail (of blessed memory) and I could have no children. One day, I asked Spirit to speak with a non-existent nephew.”
“Shabbat shalom,” the tall young man extended his hand.
“It is not the Blessed Day,” Marika replied. No sidling.
“Oh, but it is,” he responded. She noticed not a single scowl-line on his face.
Wayne-Daniel Berard teaches English and Humanities at Nichols College in Dudley, MA. Wayne-Daniel is a Peace Chaplain, an interfaith clergy person, and a member of B’nai Or of Boston. He has published widely in both poetry and prose, and is the co-founding editor of Soul-Lit, an online journal of spiritual poetry. His latest chapbook is Christine Day, Love Poems. He lives in Mansfield, MA with his wife, The Lovely Christine.