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strawberries, for a.g.

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

Ezra the Dream Traveller Chapter 8: In the Eye of the Storm

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.

A Song for Aba Chapter 7: Dreaming on Purpose

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?”

No response.

“Tell me why you brought me out here,” I asked.

Nothing.

“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.

Chapter 6: Hiding in Full View

From Ezra the Dream Traveller: A Song for Aba 

Chapter 6: Hiding in Full View

I was ready to see my dad, but I wasn’t ready to talk to him about this yet. I considered going to Safe Aba’s safe bed. This is one way that Aba always makes me feel safe. Mom might be able to protect my body, but Aba makes me feel safe inside. He would criticize me for using a cliché, but I’ll say it – Aba can protect my soul. I didn’t want to disturb him – yet.

I lay in my bunk staring at the ceiling that Aba painted for me when he moved in. I rehearsed the conversation in my mind – not wanting to trouble him, not wanting to deceive him. Do I even tell him about these dreams? This is about the eighth time I had the same type of dream, one adding something new to the next. Why the girl? Why the forest? Why the Nazi? And what is happening with those angry red holes, that I now see as eyes?

Remember Ezra, I told myself. Aba hasn’t been the same since the breakup. Don’t give him anything he can’t handle. But then I thought, He’s my dad! Who else can I tell?

I was not happy. But I had to wake up in a few hours. I could head upstairs and watch some TV. There’s a Scooby-Doo DVD up there. If that wouldn’t do it, nothing would.

That morning, Aba made banana walnut pancakes. I spent more time than usual with Ruchama upstairs and, when we went to her gymnastics classes (my excuse to get out of going to synagogue! Whee!) I spent more time than usual commenting on the class. Then we got to go to my golf class. Pizza for dinner. No gruyere, gorgonzola, or fresh mozzarella. No problem. Videos. Bed. No eyes.

Religious school Sunday morning. Eagles game at 1. Aba kind of likes football, although he played the world kind and not the American kind when he was my age. He lived in Israel. We throw footballs around on the street. They kicked soccer balls around the cheder-ochel, the dining hall. But this was the first time I ever watched a whole game with him. I don’t much care about any sport unless I’m playing it. Ruchama kept taking Aba to the third floor to practice her tumbling routines. Then we headed out to the playground at ChestnutHillAcademy and climbed the spider web.

I got home on Tuesday to learn that Mom took me away from Aba. Why? I told her not to! I told her that the man Aba was tring to help back on his feet was harmless. I told her I wanted more time with Aba, not less! But NOOOOOOO. She keeps me safe. That’s what she does. And the hell with my heart if I don’t like it.

I knew I had to go to the angry red holes.

Would someone tell me how I make this an icon???

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Chapter 5: Come and Get Me

 

It’s funny how you can become a different person because of things that don’t have anything to do with you. The day after the first time I had the Number the Stars dream, I was carrying my saxophone in to school, having just eaten a cinnamon-Neufchatel cruller at the High Point Café with Mom. I remember two years ago when I was carrying the same sax on the same strip of grass, when some eighth-graders were starting to circle around a few little kids. I remember marching right into that situation and looking up at the bullies and asking the biggest one, “Are you their older brother?” and when he told me no, I said, “Then move aside and let me take these kids to class.” I took one of the kids by the hand and wrapped my sax case around the other, and walked them both up to the school door and took them right in to Ms. Durkin. Aba told me that I lived up to my name. “Ezra” means “help,” remember?

This time, it was one of my closest friends who was getting bullied, and I was almost as big as the bullies. The bullies were making fun of Jacob, and I was trying to ignore them. But they weren’t being ignored very easily.

“So Ezra, don’t you think that your friend here’s a punk?” That was one of the twins in eight grade, Braden.

I didn’t answer.

The other one, Branden, continued. “What’s wrong, Ezra? You must not think much of dweeb-nerd here and his violin seeing as how you can’t say anything. Come on tough guy, don’t you think your friend is a dweeb?”

“And his parents. I saw them kissing. Jacob has two mommies!” Branden leered.

I whispered to Jacob to run, and I marched forward, head down, through their pushing and shoving and got myself inside. I was humiliated.

No. I humiliated myself.

I spent the whole day pounding the walls at Henry Elementary. Why? Why? Where did I go? When did I get replaced by this squishy, spineless alien that I morphed into? I liked myself so much better two years ago. I debated with myself whether I should tell Aba when he picked us up for the weekend.

Aba got us early this Friday. He said he had a treat for us. We drove off to Roxborough.

Ruchama started. “Are we going to the Y?”

Nothing from Aba.

“Are we going to get some new fish?” Ru continued.

“Are we going to Toys-R-Us?” I offered.

“OK, kids, chill. ”Whenever Aba uses kid language, his Israeli accent comes back. “It’s no secret if I tell you.”

We pulled in to a farmer’s market and garden center. What!!? What kind of a surprise is this? Booooo-ring.

“Come on, guys, we’re crossing the street. Hands.”

“Aba, why did we park here, if we’re not getting flowers?” I asked. My hopes rose from my shoelaces all the way to my kneecaps.

“Because the fish store is across the street, motek!”

“You’re the best!” I said.

“Fishies! Can I name them?” Ru added.

“Hey, Ru, don’t you want to pick them first?” Aba responded, tossing his hands up in a “don’t shoot” gesture.

We got two giant fantailed mollies. I called mine “Precious,” because he was really fat, and Ruchama called hers “Lionflame,” because she was yellow and orange, tipped with grey like smoke.

Aba told Ru that she had come up with a great name for a fish. They bumped fists, Obama-style. I was a little jealous.

This Friday night, we did our weekly Sabbath ritual, and we watched some episodes of Ru’s gymnastics teen drama, Make It or Break It. Ruchama watched while doing handstands and while walking on the arms of the chairs. Who needs chairs when you can use the armrests for balance beams? It was 8:45, according to the computer, when Aba told my sister that she could watch one more episode, but then she was going to bed. At about 9:30 Aba carried through on his warning.

“Ok, Ru-Ru, it’s time. Let’s go up.”

“Just one more.”

“No, you said that after the last episode. Come on up.”

“Will Ezra come up with me?”

“No, Ru, Ezra is older than you are, and he only has to shut it off at ten. So he’ll be up by the time you go to sleep.”

I heard this, but I wasn’t so willing to comply. I didn’t want to see the angry red holes again. At about eleven, Aba moved to unplug the modem. He didn’t threaten, he didn’t shout. Even when he was doing something I hated, he was always so gentle. I hit the escape key and closed the laptop.

“OK Aba back press and back rub?”

“Always, Ezra.”

When I was really little, Aba started doing acupressure on me. I can still feel his energy when he holds his hand over my butt without touching it. I hope he’ll always want to even out my chakras, as the Hindus call your energy centers,  and do acupressure wherever I hold my tension. I can feel his headaches, too, so I give him acupressure right back.

As usual, I didn’t hear him finish singing “Simple Song.” I was asleep.

It could have been a minute, or it could have been an hour, when the angry red holes opened. They were starting to glow in the background of my thoughts when Annemarie, the girl from Number the Stars, entered the foreground from Stage Right. I found myself in a meadow, surrounded by a bazillion bright yellow buttercups, with the forest from the Nazi scene in the background.  The red holes lurked behind the trees.

The girl talked to me! What did she say – I couldn’t make it out. Did that mean that she saw me? I thought I was invisible when I saw her in other dream. So I just had to answer back. A weird dialogue followed;

Me: “Do you remember when we came across the Nazi in the forest?

Girl: “I have to pretend to be a little, carefree girl. La-la.”

Me: “ Did you think that the Nazi was going to find the documents?”

Girl: “If the Nazis think I’m slow they will leave us alone, don’t you think?

Me: “They did in the forest, on the way to the boat.”

Girl: “What plans do you have for after the war?”

Me: “What war?”

Girl: “You have to challenge it sometimes – all I had to do was show that Nazi that I wasn’t afraid of him and he and his stinking dog went and had a nice day somewhere.”

Me: “That doesn’t make any sense. Do you really see me?”

Girl: “Yes, you’re there now. I just heard your thoughts before.”

Up to this point, if you understood the dialogue, you’re smarter than a fifth grader. My music teacher (and Aba) had a word for what this sounded like: “counterpoint.” Now comes what Aba calls the “stretto.” The voices overlap.

Me: “When before? I just saw you and asked you about the Nazi.”

Girl: “I heard your thoughts before I could see you. You were talking about red holes.”

Me:  “Is that what you were talking about when you said that about ‘challenging it?’

Girl: “Right. That’s what I did with that Nazi.”

Me: “Hey, I was there, too!”

Girl: “Since when?”

Me: “Since I threw that rock into the brush to distract Bowser. But leave the Nazi. What about challenging it?”

The girl dissolved. At this point, I noticed the red holes, looking like a set of demonic eyes, like Darth Maul from Star Wars. Yes, I was gripped with terror. In fact, my first impulse was to WAKE UP!!! But the girl had talked about “challenging it,” and I could not solve the riddle before the eyes started approaching. So I dug in.

Now I was watching the watcher. Now I could make out details. Now, I could see that the molten, stinking sulfuric mass was what that thing called optical jelly. The gloppy, angry smell was still unformed, but it had a boundary. Drops of nasty sludge shimmered in the light of the blood-red eyes, but it was not moving.

“Who are you?” I screamed, more than asked.

It just hovered. For the first tie, I noticed that someone had turned off the sun. Now I slapped the pine frame on my bunk to wake myself up.

Chapter 4: It Happens Again

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.

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