yet again the droplets of hope
such small hands, small hands
caress the knobby pearls of soil
soil alone, so many baubles repelling the water
yet pop! this evening a triune smile, a strawberry
rises over the gnarled pebbles of earth
promising weeks of juice running down chins
of children; and – oh my God! another! and another – hello!
check behind you, could it be?
seeds sprouting – beans will celebrate the sweet
season of first fruits. Lettuce will laugh in song.
Renewed, the farmer will plant
melons and okra, collard greens for neighbors
let children wash, check for bugs.
Blessed art Thou Who brings forth fruit from the earth
and sends children to harvest
The first thing I noticed when I drew myself to standing on that red stone was that I was barefoot. Why didn’t I dream myself into my hiking boots? Note to myself: if I have to come back here, remember to fall asleep with boots on. So I felt the smooth, cold surface of the stepping-stone, and spread out my toes for better grip. I gripped the front of the stone with my left foot, and placed my right foot on the next stone before I transferred my weight. It worked! So I did it again. I brought my left foot just to the edge of the stone, and lifted up my right foot. Something darkened behind me. It was the stone I just left. I turned my head slowly. On a moonless night, you can’t always tell darkness-no reflection from darkness-nothing-there. I was still halfway scared out of my mind.
Out of my mind. I get it. I really looked around like my eyeballs were attached to my head with antennae. Each step brought an awareness that I never could have imagined. I was able to tell the difference between the rush of blood through my eardrums and the soft chirping of crickets back in the forest. I was acutely aware that Orion’s belt was emerging over the northern horizon – a sure sign of the oncoming winter – even though my focus was on staying upright on the blood-red stepping-stone.
Left toes. Right leg up. Right foot down. Shift my weight. Left leg up. Left leg down. Shuffle left foot forward. Repeat. Another thing Aba taught me when rock-climbing. Make sure that the step is true before you shift your weight. It’s not a step at a time; it’s a motion at a time. Check the eyelid; that’s your target. Glance back down. Repeat. Almost there. One more step. There you go. Up and over the eyelid – wait! I can’t see my right foot! Pull it out. Look back. The boat’s gone! Didn’t Caesar do that – burn the boats on the shore of Gaul? I guess it was the message that I had to do this. For Aba. Forward. I was in.
Now I can see myself again. That’s a relief. The rest of the eye was almost black now, no longer red. There was no light source here; how could I see myself? The ground, or eyelid, or uveal fluid, or God-knows-whatever-I-was-standing-on, was cool and spongy, like a tumbling mat at Ru’s gym. Just a little softer. It was comforting, after all that I had been through to get in here. Now I just imagined my candle in front of me, so that I could let the terror drain out my feet into the soft, cool whatever. And there it was – my candle!
I. Just. Looked. And. Stared. And. Stared.
Have you ever seen a moth get drawn in to a light source, especially a flame? You see the dance of attraction and escape, like the bug has a will to live and to fight, but it’s an addict and it can’t break free. Finally it gets sucked in and Zzzzt! Evaporated moth guts. I started this very dance. Forward. Shift. Sidestep. Stop. Breathe. Repeat. What was I looking at? Was this the Burning Bush – the candle wasn’t going down. Like a bolt of electricity between my temples, the realization hit me that the candle wasn’t illuminating anything, either. Seven scrawny cows. Ate the fat ones and you couldn’t tell; they were just as scrawny as when they started their cannibalism.
Did I mention my dad was a cantor?
So here I was, closing in on a flame that wasn’t a flame, on a mat that wasn’t a mat, in angry red eyes that were black, having crossed blood-red stepping-stones that were invisible, in a boat that disappeared as soon as I looked back at it. I reached my hand out to the flame. You guessed it. no heat.
“EZRA!! YOU’RE LATE AGAIN – GET DOWN HERE NOW!!!!”
I shuddered and pushed myself to standing. The hardwood floor creaked under my sudden weight. Despairing, I opened my eyes.
Chapter 7: Dreaming on Purpose
I didn’t eat dinner Tuesday night. In fact if I would not have gotten hungry I wouldn’t have ever eaten again. Mom knew exactly what was on my mind.
“I better not catch you sneaking food upstairs, young man!” You know a parent is full of rotten eggs when she calls you a “young man.”
I adopted what Aba calls my zombie face.
I tried to dream. Nothing. Not Tuesday. On Wednesday, I was supposed to talk to the family counselor. I didn’t. I sat stone-faced, for the whole hour. I didn’t dream Wednesday, either. Mom found me sleepwalking Thursday morning. I had a knife in my hand.
Thursday night, the eyes showed up. Annemarie wasn’t there to help me. “Challenge it,” she would have said so I walked toward that forest and I called to it.
“Yooooo-hoooo!” I cried. “Nyah-nyani-nyah-nyah! Where are you? Get your big, ugly, hemorrhoidal face out here!”
I kept walking. I would walk all night if I had to. Mom was not going to get me up for school Friday without a winch.
“Yooooo, whatever your face is! I’ve faced down tougher bullies than you. Now you come out and tell me what you’re gonna tell me.”
I was deep into the forest when I saw a red glimmer through the darkness. I knew this path – at the end of the trail is where the fishing boat sat to take the Jewish family on its next step to Sweden. Everything was just as it was in Number the Stars. I felt like I had tripped on the root the first time because an unseen force was working on me.
Out in the waking world, the time it took me to cover the half-mile to the dock may have been a nanosecond. In here, it was long enough, and the terrain rugged enough, that even as an experienced hiker I could hear my own breath. As I pushed through the thicket at the end of the trail, I saw the fishing boat, tied right to the mooring where I remembered it. Across the bay the telltale red holes glimmered, gashing the blackness of the night.
“Yoooo-hoooo! Chicken! Come across and let me know your deal. Did you take my dad away? And who are you!? Come on! I am WAAAIIIITING!”
The specter sat across the bay not moving. I realized with a shudder that, although the eyes glowed red, and the lava flowing from its left socket seemed just as hot as ever, there was absolutely no reflection on the water. It was as if one of my classmates had done a crude painting, or maybe a wax etching. A total mystery, but one with its talons embedded in the pit of my stomach. I was not going to leave this world without getting some answers about the one I had come from.
I untied the boat from its moorings. I jumped in the boat, tumbled to my knees to keep from going overboard, and grabbed the oar. It was heavy. Aba would have been more comfortable with it than me. But I was going to rescue Aba, and it didn’t matter that the boat was too big, and that the oar was too heavy. Now if I could figure out whether to sit at the front or back of the boat.
Keep calm, Ezra. Remember that the outboard motor on a powerboat goes on the back. I crawled back to the back bench, and dipped my oar to port (I tipped further leeward than I liked, and no, I didn’t remember that I knew those words). So I put my weight on my left hip, stroked starboard, and breathed a sigh of relief when the boat moved forward and didn’t rock too much. I kept it up. Left hip, right stroke. Right hip, left stroke. I could see the fore tip of my boat lift over the shiny black water. I began to regret all the junk food I secreted up to my room, and the extra cargo weight that was slowing my progress.
Is that my destiny, over there, leering at me through those demon sockets? I was halfway across the bay, I figured, and I still had energy to burn. Let me get a look aft. Behind the boat, the smooth ripples looked like a hundred flocks of geese flying in V-formation. I was in a rhythm now. Stroke right, lean left. Breathe. Stroke left, lean right. Breathe. Look up. Almost there. What now?
I quit rowing about a hundred yards away from the eyes. Far enough away that I can turn the boat and beat it? No, I don’t think so. The die is cast. Let’s have a look at this thing. I didn’t see a membrane. No cornea, red or otherwise. No molten lava. No hissing steam where the angry redness met the water. I recalled a cardinal, then a robin, and thought that to an ant or a mosquito, those red breasts might look angry.
Stroking slower, I approached the red orbs, no longer fiery. The effluent of lava that looked so sinister in the meadow just looked like stepping stones. Maybe they were just tears. I planted the boat parallel to the stepping stones and addressed the cipher again.
“I wrote a poem about you. You know that, right?”
“Tell me why you brought me out here,” I asked.
“OK, chatterbox, did I dream you or did you dream me?”
Slowly, the magma stepping-stones changed the intensity of their glow. I touched one of the stones, and finding it cool, tied my canoe to it. I felt an odd mash-up of relief and foreboding as I crawled out of the boat, climbed up on a stone, and started walking toward the left eye.
I read a book this year called Number the Stars. It’s a Holocaust book, but it doesn’t have dead people or gas chambers in it. In fact, there are two things I really, really adore about the book. First, the heroine, Annemarie Johansen, reminds me a lot of Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s sidekick. Second, there are all kinds of ‘ǿ’s in there. It reminds me of cheese. I think the title comes from the Bible, from a promise God made to Abraham about being able to number his descendants if he could number the stars. Did I tell you that my dad was a cantor? That’s the Jewish clergy who sings. My mom loved him when he was a cantor. I don’t know why it makes any difference what somebody does for a living.
So I wasn’t alarmed when my thoughts turned to stars as I was slipping off to sleep on the Thursday before my next visit to my dad’s. Usually, I don’t remember most of my dreams. This time, I remember really, really well.
Scene 1: I am walking through the woods with a pail of fǿǿd. The night was moonless, but I knew where I was going somehow. I tripped over a root, and as I stumbled, I realized there was another set of footsteps on my left. That was the heroine, Annemarie. She didn’t stop. My dream, the way dreams do, cut to –
Scene 2: The Nazi that stopped Annemarie was getting too close to the bottom of her pail of food. There were documents underneath the food that would allow a Jewish family to escape to Sweden, but the Nazi would seize her and imprison her if he found the papers. I was invisible to the Nazi, or at least he wasn’t paying me any attention. So I moved away to create a diversion. I reached down, picked up a stone, and threw it into the brush. The Nazi’s Doberman pointed to the brush and the Nazi let us pass.
Scene 3: In a moonless night, you can see the stars through every break in the clouds. When the Nazi and his rabid Doberman turned away, the clouds parted and I saw hundreds of stars. Then the stars did the Fantasia thing and started swirling. It was a really nice spiral! But then –
Scene 4: The spiral split in two. The white-yellow of the stars started to turn rusty, then angry red. All I could see were the angry red holes. I looked frantically for the girl, but I couldn’t call out for fear of the Nazi and his Doberman. I woke up shuddering.
I was just about to get down from my bunk and wake up Aba when I realized that I was in my other home, at Mom’s. I know that I can go in to Mom’s room without any penalty. She has made it clear that she doesn’t like it, but she expects it if we have gale winds. Ru and I get scared when the wind blows, but I don’t usually have nightmares, certainly not this nightmare. I didn’t want to have to explain it, so I lit a candle and watched it until I fell back to sleep.
The next day, I would be going to my dad’s for the weekend. Maybe I had my encounter with the holes and I was done with it. I packed my Aba backpack and my school backpack, and I tried to shake the sleep out of my head and the angry red holes from under my eyelids.