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Ezra Chapter 9: Blue Eyes (poll on bullying at end)

At long last, Chapter 9 of Ezra the Dream-Traveller. Parents, children, and teachers, what do you think of the bullying incident?


Chapter 9: Blue Eyes

I hate it when my mom yells. Aba was doing it toward the end, too, but only because sometimes I would take Ruchama upstairs to watch TV when it was time to eat breakfast and go somewhere. I don’t know why she doesn’t climb the steps like Aba does. I really get mad, but I can’t show it, because she will keep shouting, and she shouts louder than me.  Today, she had no idea why I was upset, and she didn’t really ask. I guess she cared, but I couldn’t tell. Maybe I didn’t want to tell. Maybe I was just too sleepy. I just yelled back something – who knows what? It mustn’t have been vulgar, because she didn’t yell back.

I turned around and checked my bed. It was soaked. Horrified, I sniffed. No, I didn’t have an accident. It was sweat. It was like I had really hiked that forest and rowed across that bay. And the angry red holes – eyes – still made me shudder.

I don’t notice people’s eyes much; there’s a lot going on in a face. I knew that my mom’s eyes were crystal blue. My dad had told me how he fell in love with her because of the “color, cut, and clarity” of her eyes. Those three C’s are used for judging the quality of gemstones. My dad said they were sapphires. They could also be ice crystals as he found out. I’ve seen both.  But I don’t depend on them so much, because I can’t read a mom who wants to keep the kids from seeing their dad. Sorry, Mom, you’re wrong on that one.

I lumbered down the steps with a pair of socks in my hand. “Ezra, where’s your homework?” Mom asked. I had done it, but it was still upstairs on my desk.

“Thanks, Mom,” I replied, and retraced my steps. This was a ruse by Mom. She had made an apple stew last night, which she served over a steaming matza ball. I had never had a breakfast that she made that even came close to Aba’s matza bries and bread puddings. This smelled great, and tasted better. Aba would have said a special bracha, a blessing, for a special treat. I just said “Thank you, Mom!” and let my eyes twinkle.

Heike, my neighbor from around the corner, lives across the street from Jacob, my best friend whom I had let get bullied last month. We used to walk to school together two or three days per week. She still walks with Jacob pretty often, but Jacob says he feels betrayed by me. I feel that he was betrayed by me, too. This morning I asked Mom if she would let me walk, because the time had come for me to be honest with Jacob.

Ruchama asked, “I get to walk with Ezra?”

I hadn’t thought of that, but Mom interrupted. “No, Ruchama, I’ll drive you and Ezra will meet his friends. Great. I didn’t have to choose.

I cleaned up the delicious, home-cooked apple dumpling, gave my mom a kiss, and asked her, “Do I get seconds for lunch?” “No, for dinner,” she replied.

I took my lunchbox out of the fridge, stuffed in my backpack, and headed off to the door.

Jacob and Heike were waiting for me at the bottom of the block. I knew that Heike knew, and that Heike knew that I knew and I knew that Jacob knew that Heike knew and so forth. So I just blurted out, “Sorry.”

“Well good morning, Kazakh warrior, how are you today?” teased Heike.

“You’re right on time,” Jacob added. “What are you sorry about?“

“Guys, I haven’t been myself lately. I let you down, Jacob.  That was awful of me to leave you defenseless against Brandon and Braden.”

“I felt terrible, and they haven’t stopped, either.”

“I miss you, Jacob. Let me walk with you all week.”

Heike spoke up. “I don’t know what would be so hard about it. You just walk, right? They haven’t bothered us since we started walking together.”

“Maybe they made their point,” Jacob replied.

I figured that they were both wrong. “I think that you added safety because they couldn’t do anything to Jacob because you’d run and get help. Buddy system.”

Jacob stopped walking and looked at me. This seemed like a moment that I could make it up to my friend. Aba has taught me that in such situations, listening with real intention is better than saying the smartest thing in your arsenal.

“But we had to change everything we did; everywhere I went. I missed a violin lesson because my mom couldn’t pick me up, and I wasn’t gonna bring the violin around where those two pigs could get us. They expected you to defend me. Since you didn’t, they figured you didn’t care.”

There. He said it. I knew it was going to come, but it hurt just as much as I thought it might.

“Well, I do care. I’m sorry. When we cross Lincoln Drive, I’ll walk ahead, and if they want to get you, they’ll have to go through me.”

Now it was my turn to notice Heike’s bright blue eyes. They were wide, suddenly, and the sun in the southeast glinted off them.  I think I had a chance of getting both my friends back. I missed them.

I stuck my hand into the space between us. I looked into both sets of eyes and back to my hand. They reached in and put a hand on mine.

“Excelsior, on three.”

“ONE, TWO, THREE, EXCELSIOR!” We shot our hands up in the air, and in a gesture that was totally Aba, I put one arm around each set of shoulders and squeezed.

According to plan, I took the lead at Lincoln Drive. As we approached Carpenter Lane, just before the school, we saw them. The twins. Brandon and Braden, almost three hundred pounds of solid bully. They were walking side by side, sweaters rolled up at the sleeves.

“Dweeb and girl-dweeb! How the hell are you?” That was Braden.

“How’s your little girlfriend, Dweeb?” That was Branden. Now it was my turn. The bullies now stood side by side, and blocked the way.

“You’re seventh graders; we’re in fourth grade. Who’s the dweeb?” They did not expect to meet any resistance from me. I didn’t feel like doing this, either. No way. And let me be honest. If I hadn’t done it for the kindergartners I never would have done it now. My mind was spinning. I was in full fight or flight mode.

Branden stepped up and made a fist with his right hand. Then he made a motion with his left hand, as if he were dusting off his knuckles. If I ran, I don’t think I would ever be able to come to school without being bullied again.  If I fought, I would likely get pummeled. My friends would not be able to help much, and if they ran, they couldn’t even bring help in time to do anything. I think Heike and Jake read my mind, because they stepped up, Heike on my left, and Jacob on my right. A ray of light penetrated the stew of ineffective strategies, visions of ambulances, and projections of two years of trouble – my friends were about to jump into a fight in my defense, and the bullies wouldn’t even feel their best punch. I had to match their bravery, while at the same time keeping us safe. But I had to think fast; Braden had just tossed his book bag aside.

Safe! That’s it! One of the few things we could actually do together with my mom was to watch Star Trek. A vision of Quark, the Ferengi, challenged for the hand of a Klingon woman by a Klingon warrior, had cast aside the bat’leth given him in a battle of honor and told the badass Klingon that when the song of this encounter was written, it would sing of how the brave Klingon warrior had struck down an unarmed Ferengi half his size.

“Guys,” I told Heike and Jake, “we are going to stand here and we are just going to wait. Let’s let the teenagers decide what they want to do.”

I crossed my arms and stood up straight. My friends followed my lead. I amped up my voice just enough so that the parents who were still dropping their kids off would hear. I hoped that the pressure from my crossed arms against my chest was enough to hide the pounding of my heart and the wobbling of my knees.

“We are going to stand right here, and we are going to see how brave these two teenagers are. Braden, I see you polishing your knuckles. I guess it’s up to you, because none of us are even going to block your punch.”

A boy in the other fourth grade – Jerome, I think – stopped about twenty feet behind Branden and Braden. He had his sister, a first-grader by the looks of her, by the hand. Both of them had Thomas the Tank Engine lunchboxes. Branden’s eyes broke their focus on mine for a second, so I figured out that an audience was forming on our side of the standoff, as well

We stood impassive. That’s a new word for me, and it tells the tale well. Bullies and their targets stood at an impasse.

Time was on our side. Another few kids joined the two young kids behind Branden and Braden. Ask any kid, any grade, any school. Everyone was ready for a little excitement. But sooner or later, something would break. Braden recognized this too; he stepped up and flicked his right fist backward.

I braced for impact.

A gust of air hit my cheek as the fist flew. My face prepared to be broken. It was a reflex. I couldn’t stop it. But the blow never came. The bully held his fist a half-inch from my eye so that I could recognize what could have happened. Duh. As if I hadn’t recognized it minutes, or even weeks, ago. I had the zombie face on.

“Count yourselves lucky, punks,” Branden sneered from behind Braden. “C’mon, bro, we gotta go.”

“Yeah,” Braden added, polishing his fist again. “We’ll see who goes to the office for tardy.”

I stood, motionless, too scared to budge, and hoping that I hadn’t had an accident. Jake tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Let ‘em go. He had to save face. You won.”

Heike saw that I was frozen in place and gave me a big, big hug. Jake joined the hug, and we were one big, hugging bundle of victorious kid that had just faced down the Klingons and won.


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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

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.


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.


“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.

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