The Maiden of Brooklyn
Tablet Fiction: a haunting tale of sexual abuse among the Orthodox
In the turmoil immediately following her mother’s death, the soul still in its unsettled and agitated wandering state, neither in this world nor the next, Tema’s father assigned to her, their only child, the interim task of sitting guard over the body, which by the strictest law must not be left alone for even one second until it is pinned down under the weight of the earth and can cause no more harm.
Tema was eleven years old at the time, and what horrified her above all was not the waxen pallor of the still uncovered face of the corpse, or the fumes of liquefying organic matter already diffusing into the room, or even this cold stranger’s obstinate refusal to respond when Tema addressed her so politely. It was the open mouth, hanging down slack, like a dog’s—that was simply unbearable. Tema tried to slam that mouth shut, shoving the chin upward with the palms of her own hands, but it was hopeless—it just dropped down again and slung there, revealing everything, the deepest and most private secrets of the family.
She looked around the room—it was her parents’ bedroom—for a cord or a belt to strap around the face and hoist up that jaw no matter how unseemly and ridiculous such a contraption would be, like a gauze bandage wrapping for a toothache in an old-fashioned slapstick farce. There on top of the bureau, as always, her mother’s collection of three head-shaped wooden wig blocks were positioned on their stands—one for her everyday sheitel, one for her Sabbath and holidays sheitel, and one for her fanciest, most expensive sheitel reserved for very special occasions such as weddings. In a playful mood one evening a year or two earlier, as Tema was engaged in a favorite pastime, watching her mother getting dressed to go out—attending especially to how her mother, as if she were completely alone and unobserved, leaned forward with utter concentration toward the mirror to apply the red viscous clown gash of her lipstick and then blotted it on a tissue, sending up a stale spit odor mixed with the oversweet artificial fragrance of the lipstick’s perfume and the crushing smell of her mother’s impenetrable unhappiness that would nearly ruin Tema for life—on one of those evenings when she was once again keeping her mother company during this eternally fascinating feminine ritual, Tema had taped a photograph of her mother’s face to the front of each of the three heads on the wig stands, indulging the creative license of a child’s capricious arts and crafts project. Her mother had never taken down those pictures, and now her three faces were staring back at Tema from the wooden heads on their stems on top of the chest of drawers. The special-occasions head was alarmingly bald, its wig on duty on the unresponsive woman they claimed was her mother lying there on that bed with her mouth hanging open like a dog.
From this mannequin on the bed, Tema’s eyes moved to the nightstand, where she noted once again her mother’s favorite book, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the Modern Library hardcover edition translated by Constance Garnett—a very fat volume, nearly one thousand pages long. This is what Tema took to wedge under that chin and prop it up, succeeding at last to clamp shut that mouth with the moist scarlet rim of the lipstick that had exposed the fleshy tongue, the teeth packed with gold fillings, the obscenely dangling pink uvula—until her father, Reb Berel Bavli, strode back into the room, accompanied by the professional shomer who had been hired to take over body guarding duty from Tema, to escort the remains and recite the chapters of Psalms through all the stages from transferal to the funeral home to awaiting burial after the ritual cleansing away of all earthly nonsense and artifice including wigs, makeup, and jewelry, the purification with poured water, the dressing in plain white shrouds for the grave. With barely a glance at Tema or her mother, in a kind of backhanded stroke as if in passing without breaking his stride, Reb Berish flicked the book out from under his late wife’s chin, releasing the jaw to flop right down again and cast open the mouth in that imbecile expression. To Tema, the drop was audible. Reb Berish just shook his head. “At least you didn’t stick in there a holy book with God’s name,” he said. “Forty days you would have to fast.”
It is true that she could have used the Tanakh on the nightstand on her father’s side of the two pushed-together beds for this purpose, to elevate her mother’s chin and seal her lips, since it was more or less the same thickness and heft as the Tolstoy, but the presence of the divine name on its pages and especially the unmentionable Tetragrammaton between its covers rendered it unthinkable, even to one as young as Tema was then, to defile such a holy volume by contact with the dead. The Hebrew Bible was a book you just did not fool around with. You did not deface it, you did not underline in it, you did not scribble comments or exclamation points or question marks in its margins or doodles or drawings of idealized girls’ faces and fantasy hairdos during the numbingly boring bible and prophets classes, and if by some misfortune it fell on the floor you picked it up reverentially and kissed it in the hope of the unforgiving author’s forgiveness.
Nevertheless, though Tema exploited only the work of a mere mortal to prop up her mother’s face and restore it from the face of a dog, she still undertook over the course of the following year of mourning a series of mortifications of the flesh, including fasting from food and drink every Monday and Thursday when the Torah is read in the synagogue, and also a ta’anit dibbur, fasting from speech all week excluding Sunday after school, when she would take two trains and a bus out to her mother’s grave plot still unmarked with a stone in the Old Montefiore cemetery in Queens and pour out her heart like water lashing her mother’s face.
On top of that, she privately undertook several additional personal corrections, including sleeping with rocks packed in her pillowcase like Jacob Our Father in Beit El on his flight from his brother Esau to Haran, as well as the Tikkun Hazot, awaking at midnight every night and sitting barefoot on the cold floor of her locked room in a rent nightgown to mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile from Jerusalem for our sins almost two millennia ago. She also recited the Tikkun Ha’Klali, the ten psalms specified by the holy Rav Nakhman of Bratslav, and often for good measure she would even recite the entire book of Psalms, all one hundred and fifty of them, as well as immerse herself three hundred and ten times in her improvised mikva, which consisted of the bathtub filled with ice-cold water. All of these mortifications she undertook to repair the damage she had inflicted on her spiritual core when, while lying in bed awake, she could not in her weakness resist the temptation to explore herself in a place she could only think of as “down there,” somewhere on an uncharted map like the South Pole, or, while asleep, when she had no control over her thoughts or actions, she would be assaulted by a dream that she could never remember but that would startle her into consciousness with spasms of shocking intensity—spasms so powerful and so unlike anything else she had ever experienced that she wondered why human beings did not occupy themselves with trying to reproduce this sensation every minute of every day and night, but, at the same time, she understood without having to be told that, whatever this was, it could only be a sin, religion had surely been invented to keep this thing under control.
Now and then over the course of that year, someone would take her father aside in the synagogue or in one of the stores on Thirteenth Avenue to remark that Tema looked like she was losing too much weight or that Tema had become “such a quiet girl.” Reb Berel Bavli would simply absorb these presumably well-meant bulletins regarding the troubling changes in his daughter and shrug his shoulders, putting out both of his large hands with their meaty palms upward in a wordless gesture that translated, What do you expect? The girl just lost her mother.
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