Lights in Darkness
Stories never end. Writing stories never ends.
I had decided to post an excerpt* from my young adult novel, Bird. This story is a series of lost conversations between sisters, mothers and countries. By revisiting this story, I was gifted with a conversation of two songs, each with their own version of light in darkness.
It was night two of Hanukkah and they would light three candles. Somehow the conversation always worked three ways. It was raining outside. She would keep the window closed when she lit the candles so they wouldn't blow out. Ester reminded herself, “There is a difference between watching and knowing when a light goes out.”
Yuli barked at a car engine that revved in the street and Ester realized that the sun had set. Compared to lighting the gas stove, Lila awkwardly struck the match and angled the flame until the tiny white wick caught. Ester remembered Ori standing on a stepstool and having to light multiple matches until the wick finally caught. He would become startled by the sudden heat and draw back. A long time ago, she sighed, in a galaxy far, far away.
Ester stared at the three flames lilting. Each needed to burn for at least a half an hour, but they never died out at the same moment. Someone always went first. Maybe Ori would celebrate with his grandmother. When Ori was a child, if he found a broken candle in the box, he would always try to place it in the Menorah anyway, hoping it would seal back together. Usually when he turned his back to select a donut, she switched them. The fact he still loved sweets made her hopeful somehow.
The clock ticked; the blue wax dripped. Ester heard nothing but her own breathing, alone. Ester closed her eyes and the dreidel spun on the table, nun. You get nothing.
The dreidel spun again, shin. Put one in.
Ester felt dizzy as if she was the dreidel, hay. Ester had won half of the pot.
Ester lured Yuli with the promise of a donut and clipped the leash to her collar. The heavy door folded shut, clasped like a hand across the top of pursed lips. Ester heard an alarm sound. Now she felt the clock, tick.
In the apartment building lobby, the doors started Yuli as they swooshed open, unrestrained. A phone rang somewhere in an unknown apartment. As its audience let it ring, Ester heard Mamá twenty years earlier sitting in her bedroom praying. She stepped outside into the cool evening, more blue than black, violet, even. A gust of wind expelled from nowhere pushed into Ester’s skin like a fist. The night was a bruise. Yuli strained and Ester willingly unclicked the leash and let her go find her own corner to do her business. She sank onto the chipped cement step with her back against the brick wall. Back flat against the wall, Ester attempted to calm herself by listing her grocery list in her head while she waited. Ester needed another box of candles to finish the holiday. Somehow the extras from one year became not enough by the next. Her bones vibrated with every car, and she had to stand up.
Without moving her head, Ester’s eyes swept up and down the street. The sky had cleared. Her window was dark.
“The miracle of Hanukkah,” she remembered repeating Mama’s words. “The miracle was that the oil that supposed to only last for one night, lasted for eight.”
Yuli scraped at the door. Ester unlocked it and pressed the one red ember in her home, the answering machine indicator light. Lightning flashed outside the window. Yuli ducked under the chair, making herself as small as she could. Ester picked up the phone and dialed the extra international digits for Mamá’s apartment. At the other end it was ringing.
“Ori?” Ester grabbed the counter to steady herself. She felt her fingers flick and snap the toy across the smooth surface. Many had gambled and lost.
“Haim sheli.” The dreidel spun again, gadol. Take everything. Maybe Ori was the gambler like Mamá said. Maybe Ori was the gambler who won.
“Nes, Gadol, Hayah, Shin. A great miracle happened there.” Rivka’s voice sang while they had played before she knew the stakes they were playing for.
After dinner, Ori told Savta Hanna that he was returning to the hostel to sleep so that he was ready for interview with the author the next day. Ori waited outside on the step. He began to hum to himself an old melody in twice borrowed words. He had mouthed the words of his preschool song, “We Came to Drive Away the Darkness,” but these words that welcomed Hanukkah light and memory together he always sang even if he was, especially when he was, alone.
And while we are dancing, the candles are burning low.
Ori attempted to remove his lighter from his pocket. He realized that his right hand had been shoved under his leg so long that it had fallen asleep. He tried to move his fingers, but they weren’t connected to his body.
One for each night, thought they shed a sweet light.
Ori struggled with the left hand, working the igniter more slowly until the lighter sparked, then the cigarette.
To remind us of days long ago.
Going back was not the same as looking back, but Ori didn’t know the questions to move forward. On the first night of Hanukkah, there were two candles. Ori. One. Ester. Two. Ori inhaled and still sensed the candle’s short burst of smoke mixed with the scent of wax, bleach and fried dough wrapped in sugar. Ori watched his grandmother’s window until it went dark. Then, he hailed a cab. He was well past two candles, two figures, two voices and being afraid.
Ori is a twenty-one-year-old who recently completed his service in the Israel Defense Forces. While attending a concert at a Tel Aviv University to mourn Aryeh, a close friend and fellow soldier, Ori meets Lila. Lila is the daughter of a visiting professor teaching a course about the military coup that forced his own escape from Argentina twenty years ago. Ori doesn’t want to hurt his aunt, Ester, the woman who saved him, nor his grandmother, who still lives, in Buenos Aires. However, his mother’s death in 1981 now increasingly haunts him. With support from Lila, Ori wins the opportunity to travel to Argentina through a student research grant the course offers. Arriving in the country of his birth, Ori is a tourist. He initially sorts through academic contacts and informal encounters for the “real” woman behind a “fictional” guerrilla fighter, Norma Arrostito, his professor sent him to research. While he finds similarities between her and the fictional novels, she remains mostly elusive as does his mother, until one visit to his grandmother’s apartment. Ori’s suspicion grows that the names of “Judith” and “Ester”, Jewish feminist heroines, his aunt and mother often exchanged as children are more than symbols. Moreover, the women he knows as his aunt and mother are more than the literary characters and guerilla fighters he was assigned to research. Ori’s research questions begin to take the form of one last conversation with his mother as he looks for acceptance, he didn’t realize he sought from his own family, not as the child who lost his mother, but as an IDF soldier who killed someone else’s mother.