It wasn’t much of a house, really. More like a country cottage, but not in the country. Or exactly the suburbs either. One of those locales that’s almost one but not quite the other. A bit disappointing, to be honest. Especially for the great Abramovich.
We’d been invited for shabbat dinner, the first since pesach. A group of us, four or five. I was the wife of his publisher. Or ex-wife. Quite awhile now. I was surprised by the invitation. I didn’t really know the others. Some older, some younger. Colleagues? Not peers, surely, not by the set of their eyes. (Did Abramovich have peers?) And students? Most probably. By the setlessness of their eyes. Taking in everything. Radars made of sponge.
Not that there was much to take in. The house was distinctively ordinary, even a little shabby. White shingles, looked like they’d been installed by the WPA. White dormers on each side, like the place was squat with its elbows out. A covered porch hugged round its middle, its top sloping like a washed-out poster of a Tolkien roofscape. Almost rickety outdoor stairs leading God knew where.
Inside was better. Again, lots of white. Woodwork. Hutch. Tightly stuffed white couches one would never call sofas. Natural oak chairs set around the table; natural top set on a white base and legs. White ceramic pitcher and plate set in its center. Fireplace, ash-sprayed bricks over the grate, like a fanfare.
We expected, at least I expected, something unusual at this shabbat. Considering. The closest we came was the blessing, sung by some little, accented girl with a voice too big for her nose, which she sang through, nonetheless, like an angel filling a shofar:
………………………………….Thy name is my healing, O my God,
………………………………….And remembrance of thee
………………………………….Is my remedy,
………………………………….Nearness to thee is my hope
………………………………….And love for thee is my Companion.
………………………………….Thy mercy to me
………………………………….is my healing and my succor
………………………………….in both this world
………………………………….and the world to come . . .
That, and the orange peels and pits that suddenly seemed to appear around the white pitcher in the white plate.
After dinner (at which I cannot remember Abramovich saying anything expect “Is that so?”), he leaned back in his chair, surveyed all around like a compass, and said, “Would you like to see the garden?” I was sitting next to him. He placed his hand in the underside of my elbow.
Of course, it was dark already. But the night stars were clear. Went out the back door; the porch floor was unfinished, unstained. Down uneven slate steps that seemed to my feet backwardly familiar, as if I’d climbed them before, but not descended. Not back.
The garden was a stone’s throw from the house, or better, a seed’s throw. I could imagine Abramovich, sitting on his porch, evening after starry evening, munching on one fruit or another, throwing the seeds through the open door, and planting.
There seemed a short, thick hedgerow before the actual garden, with a break about a couple’s width apart. To its left side stood a diminutive but solid linden, just above the height of a man. Below its crown, only one lone branch extended toward the opening, its bright yellow undercurls of leaves hanging like cherubim feathers. Adjacent, a swath of red-winged blackbirds spread their fire at our coming, but then folded it in again. As if they knew him, us.
Did the linden point the way to the entrance, an after you gesture, bowing as it swayed?
A few steps and we had come to a tree — huge beyond any I’d seen. My in-laws had had a copper beech on their summer property in . . . where was that? But this was taller by far, and more . . . outreached. In the white star light, its bark and leaves seemed like paper, marked with lined shadows of themselves.
Abramovich stopped and turned, his back against the tree. Lowered his hands beneath his beltline. Uh-oh. What was this? Should I need my husband?
Then he stooped a little, interlacing his fingers into a sort of step.
“Alley-oop?” he smiled, anything but wickedly. Almost.
And me, I said just the opposite of what I always say. “Why not?” And found myself sitting from a silvery branch, feet dangling. In a moment, he was beside me, or his feet and ankles, anyway. He kept climbing further. “Up and in,” he said, and disappeared altogether into the star shadows.
I followed. Not easily. But surely. It was dark, but the light always seemed to be where I next placed my hand.
Then there he was, sitting — cross-legged? — on a branch, swaying, humming. Humming and singing? It was the same tune we had heard at blessing.
Thou verily are the all bountiful,
The all knowing, the all wise . . .
There were others. The guests? But how had they gotten here before us?
I raised my eyes. North, south, east, west. The tree was filled with people. In the evening, details and distinctions I could not see, but shapes I could make out against the star shade. Suit jackets and throbes. Gowns and housecoats. Kaftans and coveralls. Fur-lined, wide brims and draped burnooses. Flares and spats swung in the branch spaces.
They peeled away sheets of bark, and I could see them holding their scrolled surfaces and shadowed lines close to their faces. I did the same.
Abramovich was beside me then.
“How can I read in just this light?” I asked.
“Don’t read it,” he replied. Most distinctly. “Eat of it.”
“Really?” I said.
“Genesis 3: 6 — ‘the tree was good for eating.’ Not the fruit. The tree.”
I ate. And my eyes were open.
I looked down the core of the great tree. I saw something like an information super highway. Channels and lines of light — red, orange, yellow; green, blue, indigo, violet. They were streaming and flowing up into the limbs, the leaves, the pages, the words.
I looked further. Below the trunk, where the roots just entered the garden earth. There was a deep, rumbling hum, and just beneath the tree a space was turning, turning, filled with the hardnesses and definites, the unmovables and the stonings, all being slowly, inevitable softened and smoothed into gems. The hum was the blessing.
And below this space lay the most naturally beautiful woman I had ever seen, naked and unashamed. She was pregnant, and from her belly rose a cord, providing smoothness and ease, kiss not conflict, in the turning and meeting and parting of the stones. And it was this sustenance, energized by the deep motion, that channeled up the tree to its every tip.
And I saw even more deeply, at the first of it all, a great sea of red fire, basic and primal, upon which floated the woman and the stones, the roots and the tree, and which was a swath of red-wing blackbirds, spread at the entrance to the garden.
I looked up. Sprays of prismed light seemed to leap from the top of the tree, arc in uncountable comet trails of color, song waves become visible, near. If I stared, they seemed almost solid, like flying buttresses for a firmament, supporting the covering; when I blinked, they returned to rising and falling, reaching and returning. Each comet, each trail, each arching solidity and its dissolution had a sound, a note, a name splashing down into the great basin below. Remembrance. Remedy. Healing. Succor.
And the red sun had begun to rise over that shabbat morning.
Up came the early breeze, surging the limbs in the garden, flouncing the white curtains by Abramovich’s table. At which we all sat, trying to look ordinary, trying not to notice our each holding tight the arms of our natural chairs.
“So,” said Abramovich, voice a queen’s gate hinge, opening. Mine.
“Companions. Nearness. Hope.”
Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, teaches Humanities at Nichols College, Dudley, MA. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His novella, Everything We Want, was published in 2018 by Bloodstone Press. A poetry collection, The Realm of Blessing, will be published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press