Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2014
Grand Jeté (The Great Leap) by Rachel Swirsky
Act I: Mara
As dawn approached, the snow outside Mara’s window slowed, spiky white stars melting into streaks on the pane. Her abba stood in the doorway, unaware that she was already awake. Mara watched his silhouette in the gloom. Shadows hung in the folds of his jowls where he’d shaved his beard in solidarity after she’d lost her hair. Although it had been months, his face still looked pink and plucked.
Some nights, Mara woke four or five times to find him watching from the doorway. She didn’t want him to know how poorly she slept and so she pretended to be dreaming until he eventually departed.
This morning, he didn’t leave. He stepped into the room. “Marale,” he said softly. His fingers worried the edges of the green apron that he wore in his workshop. A layer of sawdust obscured older scorch marks and grease stains. “Mara, please wake up. I’ve made you a gift.”
Mara tried to sit. Her stomach reeled. Abba rushed to her bedside. “I’m fine,” she said, pushing him away as she waited for the pain to recede.
He drew back, hands disappearing into his apron pockets. The corners of his mouth tugged down, wrinkling his face like a bulldog’s. He was a big man with broad shoulders and disproportionately large hands. Everything he did looked comical when wrought on such a large scale. When he felt jovial, he played into the foolishness with broad, dramatic gestures that would have made an actor proud. In sadness, his gestures became reticent, hesitating, miniature.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
In deep winter, their house was always cold. Icy wind curled through cracks in the insulation. Even the heater that abba had installed at the foot of Mara’s bed couldn’t keep her from dreaming of snow.
Abba pulled a lace shawl that had once belonged to Mara’s ima from the back of her little wooden chair. He draped it across her shoulders. Fringe covered her ragged fingernails.
As Mara rose from her bed, he tried to help with her crutches, but Mara fended him off. He gave her a worried look. “The gift is in my workshop,” he said. With a concerned backward glance, he moved ahead, allowing her the privacy to make her own way.
Their white German Shepherd, Abel, met Mara as she shifted her weight onto her crutches. She paused to let him nuzzle her hand, tongue rough against her knuckles. At thirteen, all his other senses were fading, and so he tasted everything he could. He walked by her side until they reached the stairs, and then followed her down, tail thumping against the railing with every step.
The door to abba’s workshop was painted red and stenciled with white flowers that Mara had helped ima paint when she was five. Inside, half-finished apparatuses sprawled across workbenches covered in sawdust and disassembled electronics. Hanging from the ceiling, a marionette stared blankly at Mara and Abel as they passed, the glint on its pupils moving back and forth as its strings swayed. A mechanical hand sprang to life, its motion sensor triggered by Abel’s tail. Abel whuffed at its palm and then hid behind Mara. The thing’s fingers grasped at Mara’s sleeve, leaving an impression of dusty, concentric whorls.
Abba stood at the back of the workshop, next to a child-sized doll that sat on a metal stool. Its limbs fell in slack, uncomfortable positions. Its face looked like the one Mara still expected to see in the mirror: a broad forehead over flushed cheeks scattered with freckles. Skin peeled away in places, revealing wire streams.
Mara moved to stand in front of the doll. It seemed even eerier, examined face to face, its expression a lifeless twin of hers. She reached out to touch its soft, brown hair. Her bald scalp tingled.
Gently, Abba took Mara’s hand and pressed her right palm against the doll’s. Apart from how thin Mara’s fingers had become over the past few months, they matched perfectly.
Abba made a triumphant noise. “The shape is right.”
Mara pulled her hand out of abba’s. She squinted at the doll’s imitation flesh. Horrifyingly, its palm shared each of the creases on hers, as if it, too, had spent twelve years dancing and reading books and learning to cook.
Abel circled the doll. He sniffed its feet and ankles and then paused at the back of its knees, whuffing as if he’d expected to smell something that wasn’t there. After completing his circuit, he collapsed on the floor, equidistant from the three human-shaped figures.
“What do you think of her?” abba asked.
Goosebumps prickled Mara’s neck. “What is she?”
Abba cradled the doll’s head in his hands. Its eyes rolled back, and the light highlighted its lashes, fair and short, just like Mara’s own. “She’s a prototype. Empty-headed. A friend of mine is working on new technology for the government—”
“A prototype?” repeated Mara. “Of what?”
“The body is simple mechanics. Anyone could build it. The technology in the mind is new. It takes pictures of the brain in motion, all three dimensions, and then creates schematics for artificial neural clusters that will function like the original biological matter—”
Mara’s head ached. Her mouth was sore and her stomach hurt and she wanted to go back to bed even if she couldn’t sleep. She eyed the doll. The wires under its skin were vivid red and blue as if they were veins and arteries connecting to viscera.
“The military will make use of the technology,” Abba continued. “They wish to recreate soldiers with advanced training. They are not ready for human tests, not yet. They are still experimenting with animals. They’ve made rats with mechanical brains that can solve mazes the original rats were trained to run. Now they are working with chimpanzees.”
Abba’s accent deepened as he continued, his gestures increasingly emphatic.
“But I am better. I can make it work in humans now, without more experiments.” Urgently, he lowered his voice. “My friend was not supposed to send me the schematics. I paid him much money, but his reason for helping is that I have promised him that when I fix the problems, I will show him the solution and he can take the credit. This technology is not for civilians. No one else will be able to do this. We are very fortunate.”
Abba touched the doll’s shoulder so lightly that only his fingertips brushed her.
“I will need you to sit for some scans so that I can make the images that will preserve you. They will be painless. I can set up when you sleep.” Quietly, he added, “She is my gift to you. She will hold you and keep you…if the worst…” His voice faded, and he swallowed twice, three times, before beginning again. “She will protect you.”
Mara’s voice came out hoarse. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You needed to see her when she was complete.”
Her throat constricted. “I wish I’d never seen her at all!”
From the cradle, Mara had been even-tempered. Now, at twelve, she shouted and cried. Abba said it was only what happened to children as they grew older, but they both knew that wasn’t why.
Neither was used to her new temper. The lash of her shout startled them both. Abba’s expression turned stricken.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“You made a new daughter!”
“No, no.” Abba held up his hands to protect himself from her accusation. “She is made for you.”
“I’m sure she’ll be a better daughter than I am,” Mara said bitterly.
She grabbed a hank of the doll’s hair. Its head tilted toward her in a parody of curiosity. She pushed it away. The thing tumbled to the floor, limbs awkwardly splayed.
Abba glanced toward the doll, but did not move to see if it was broken. “I— No, Marale— You don’t—” His face grew drawn with sudden resolution. He pulled a hammer off of one of the work benches. “Then I will smash her to pieces.”
There had been a time when, with the hammer in his hand and a determined expression on his face, he’d have looked like a smith from old legends. Now he’d lost so much weight that his skin hung loosely from his enormous frame as if he were a giant coat suspended from a hanger. Tears sprang to Mara’s eyes.
She slapped at his hands and the hammer in them. “Stop it!”
“If you want her to—”
“Stop it! Stop it!” she shouted.
Abba released the hammer. It fell against the cement with a hollow, mournful sound.
Guilt shot through her, at his confusion, at his fear. What should she do, let him destroy this thing he’d made? What should she do, let the hammer blow strike, watch herself be shattered?
Sawdust billowed where the hammer hit. Abel whined and fled the room, tail between his legs.
Softly, abba said, “I don’t know what else to give.”
Abba had always been the emotional heart of the family, even when ima was alive. His anger flared; his tears flowed; his laughter roared from his gut. Mara rested her head on his chest until his tears slowed, and then walked with him upstairs.
The house was too small for Mara to fight with abba for long, especially during winters when they both spent every hour together in the house, Mara home-schooling via her attic space program while abba tinkered in his workshop. Even on good days, the house felt claustrophobic with two people trapped inside. Sometimes one of them would tug on a coat and ski cap and trudge across the hard-packed snow, but even the outdoors provided minimal escape. Their house sat alone at the end of a mile-long driveway that wound through bare-branched woods before reaching the lonely road that eventually led to their neighbors. Weather permitting, in winter it took an hour and a half to get the truck running and drive into town.
It was dawn by the time they had made their way upstairs, still drained from the scene in the basement. Mara went to lie down on her bed so she could try for the illusion of privacy. Through the closed door, she heard her father venting his frustration on the cabinets. Pans clanged. Drawers slammed. She thought she could hear the quiet, gulping sound of him beginning to weep again under the cacophony.
She waited until he was engrossed in his cooking and then crept out of her bedroom. She made her way down the hallway, taking each step slowly and carefully so as to minimize the clicking of her crutches against the floor.
Ima’s dance studio was the only room in the house where abba never went. It faced east; at dawn, rose- and peach-colored light shimmered across the full-length mirrors and polished hardwood. An old television hung on the southern wall, its antiquated technology jury-rigged to connect with the household AI.
Mara closed the door most of the way, enough to muffle any sound, but not enough to make the telltale thump that would attract her father’s attention. She walked up to the television so that she could speak softly and still be heard by its implanted AI sensors. She’d long ago mastered the trick of enunciating clearly enough for the AI to understand her even when she was whispering. “I’d like to access a DVD of ima’s performances.”
The AI whirred. “Okay, Mara,” said its genial, masculine voice. “Which one would you like to view?”
More clicks and whirs. The television blinked on, showing the backs of several rows of red velvet seats. Well-dressed figures navigated the aisles, careful not to wrinkle expensive suits and dresses. Before them, a curtain hid the stage from view, the house lights emphasizing its sumptuous folds.
Mara sat carefully on the floor near the ballet barre so that she would be able to use it a lever when she wanted to stand again. She crossed the crutches at her feet. On the television screen, the lights dimmed as the overture began.
Sitting alone in this place where no one else went, watching things that no one else watched, she felt as if she were somewhere safe. A mouse in its hole, a bird in its nest—a shelter built precisely for her body, neither too large nor too small.
The curtain fluttered. The overture began. Mara felt her breath flowing more easily as the tension eased from her shoulders. She could forget about abba and his weeping for a moment, just allow herself to enter the ballet.
Even as an infant, Mara had adored the rich, satiny colors on ima’s old DVDs. She watched the tragedies, but her heart belonged to the comedies. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pineapple Poll. Ashton’s choreography of Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Madcap Coppélia in which a peasant boy lost his heart to a clockwork doll.
When Mara was small, ima would sit with her while she watched the dancers, her expression half-wistful and half-jaded. When the dancers had sketched their bows, ima would stand, shaking her head, and say, “Ballet is not a good life.”
At first, ima did not want to give Mara ballet lessons, but Mara insisted at the age of two, three, four, until ima finally gave in. During the afternoons while abba was in his workshop, Mara and ima would dance togher in the studio until ima grew tired and sat with her back against the mirror, hands wrapped around her knees, watching Mara spin and spin.
After ima died, Mara had wanted to ask her father to sign her up for dance school. But she hated the melancholia that overtook him whenever they discussed ballet. Before getting sick, she’d danced on her own instead, accompanying the dancers on ima’s tapes. She didn’t dance every afternoon as she had when ima was alive. She was older; she had other things to do—books to read, study hours with the AI, lessons and play dates in attic space. She danced just enough to maintain her flexibility and retain what ima had taught her, and even sometimes managed to learn new things from watching the dancers on film.
Then last year, while dancing with the Mouse King to The Nutcracker, the pain she’d been feeling for months in her right knee suddenly intensified. She heard the snap of bone before she felt it. She collapsed suddenly to the floor, confused and in pain, her head ringing with the echoes of the household’s alarms. As the AI wailed for help, Mara found a single thought repeating in her head. Legs don’t shatter just because you’re dancing. Something is very wrong.
On the television screen, the filmed version of Mara’s mother entered, dancing a coy Giselle in blue tulle. Her gaze slanted shyly downward as she flirted with the dancers playing Albrecht and Hilarion. One by one, she plucked petals from a prop daisy. He loves me, he loves me not.
Mara heard footsteps starting down the hall. She rushed to speak before abba could make it into the room—“AI, switch off—”
Abba arrived before she could finish. He stood in the doorway with his shoulders hunched, his eyes averted from the image of his dead wife. “Breakfast is ready,” he said. He lingered for a moment before turning away.
After breakfast, abba went outside to scrape ice off of the truck.
They drove into town once a week for supplies. Until last year, they’d always gone on Sundays, after Shabbat. Now they went on Fridays before Mara’s appointments and then hurried to get home in time to prepare for sunset.
Outside, snowflakes whispered onto the hard-pack. Mara pulled her knit hat over her ears, but her cheeks still smarted from the cold. She rubbed her gloved hands together for warmth before attaching Abel’s leash. The old dog seemed to understand what her crutches were. Since she’d started using them, he’d broken his lifelong habit of yanking on the strap and learned to walk daintily instead, placing each paw with care.
Abba opened the passenger door so that Abel could clamor into the back of the cab. He fretted while Mara leaned her crutches on the side of the truck and pulled herself into the seat. He wanted to help, she knew, but he was stopping himself. He knew she hated being reminded of her helplessness.
He collected her crutches when she was done and slung them into the back with Abel before taking his place in the driver’s seat. Mara stared silently forward as he turned the truck around and started down the narrow driveway. The four-wheel-drive jolted over uneven snow, shooting pain through Mara’s bad leg.
“Need to fix the suspension,” abba grumbled.
Because abba was a tinkerer, everything was always broken. Before Mara was born, he’d worked for the government. These days, he consulted on refining manufacturing processes. He felt that commercial products were shoddily designed and so he was constantly trying to improve their household electronics, leaving his dozens of half-finished home projects disassembled for months while all the time swearing to take on new ones.
The pavement smoothed out as they turned onto a county-maintained road. Piles of dirty snow lined its sides. Bony trees dotted the landscape, interspersed with pines still wearing red bows from Christmas.
Mara felt as though the world were caught in a frozen moment, preserved beneath the snow. Nothing would ever change. No ice would melt. No birds would return to the branches. There would be nothing but blizzards and long, dark nights and snow-covered pines.
Mara wasn’t sure she believed in G-d, but on her better days, she felt at peace with the idea of pausing, as if she were one of the dancers on ima’s DVDs, halted mid-leap.
Except she wouldn’t pause. She’d be replaced by that thing. That doll.
She glanced at her father. He stared fixedly at the road, grumbling under his breath in a blend of languages. He hadn’t bought new clothes since losing so much weight, and the fabric of his coat fell in voluminous folds across the seat.
He glanced sideways at Mara watching him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mara muttered, looking away.
Abel pushed his nose into her shoulder. She turned in her seat to scratch between his ears. His tail thumped, tick, tock, like a metronome.
They parked beside the grocery. The small building’s densely packed shelves were reassuringly the same year in and year out except for the special display mounted at the front of the store. This week it showcased red-wrapped sausages, marked with a cheerful, handwritten sign.
Gerry stood on a ladder in the center aisle, restocking cereals. He beamed as they walked in.
“Ten-thirty to the minute!” he called. “Good morning, my punctual Jewish friends!”
Gerry had been slipping down the slope called being hard of hearing for years now. He pitched his voice as if he were shouting across a football field.
“How is my little adult?” he asked Mara. “Are you forty today, or is it fifty?”
“Sixty-five,” Mara said. “Seventy tomorrow.”
“Such an old child,” Gerry said, shaking his head. “Are you sure you didn’t steal that body?”
Abba didn’t like those kinds of jokes. He used to worry that they would make her self-conscious; now he hated them for bringing up the subject of aging. Flatly, he replied, “Children in our family are like that. There is nothing wrong with her.”
Mara shared an eye roll with the grocer.
“Never said there was,” Gerry said. Changing the subject, he gestured at Mara’s crutches with a box of cornflakes. “You’re an athlete on those. I bet there’s nothing you can’t do with them.”
Mara forced a smile. “They’re no good for dancing.”
He shrugged. “I used to know a guy in a wheelchair. Out-danced everyone.”
“Not ballet, though.”
“True,” Gerry admitted, descending the ladder. “Come to the counter. I’ve got something for you.”
Gerry had hardly finished speaking before Abel forgot about being gentle with Mara’s crutches. He knew what Gerry’s gifts meant. The lead wrenched out of Mara’s hand. She chased after him, crutches clicking, but even with his aging joints, the dog reached the front counter before Mara was halfway across the store.
“Wicked dog,” Gerry said in a teasing tone as he caught Abel’s leash. He scratched the dog between the ears and then bent to grab a package from under the counter. “Sit,” he said. “Beg.” The old dog rushed to do both. Gerry unwrapped a sausage and tossed it. Abel snapped and swallowed.
Mara finished crossing the aisle. She leaned against the front counter. She tried to conceal her heavy breathing, but she knew that her face must be flushed. Abba waited at the edges of her peripheral vision, his arms stretched in Mara’s direction as if he expected her to collapse.
Gerry glanced between Mara and her father, assessing the situation. Settling on Mara, he tapped a stool behind the counter. “You look wiped. Take a load off. Your dad and I can handle ourselves.”
“Yes, Mara,” abba said quickly. “Perhaps you should sit.”
Mara glared. “Abba.”
“I’m sorry,” abba said, looking away. He added to Gerry, “She doesn’t like help.”
“No help being offered. I just want some free work. You up for manning the register?” Gerry tapped the stool again. “I put aside one of those strawberry things you like. It’s under the counter. Wrapped in pink paper.”
“Thanks,” Mara said, not wanting to hurt Gerry’s feelings by mentioning that she couldn’t eat before appointments. She went behind the counter and let Gerry hold her crutches while she pulled herself onto the stool. She hated how good it felt to sit.
Gerry nodded decisively. “Come on,” he said, leading abba toward the fresh fruit.
Abba and Gerry made unlikely friends. Gerry made no bones about being a charismatic evangelical. During the last election, he’d put up posters saying that Democratic voters were headed to hell. In return, abba had suggested that Republican voters might need a punch in the jaw, especially any Republican voters who happened to be standing in front of him. Gerry responded that he supported free speech as much as any other patriotic American, but speech like that could get the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of his store. They shouted. Gerry told abba not to come back. Abba said he wouldn’t even buy dog food from fascists.
The next week, Gerry was waiting on the sidewalk with news about a kosher supplier, and Mara and abba went in as if nothing had ever happened.
Before getting sick, Mara had always followed the men through the aisles, joining in their arguments about pesticides and free-range chickens. Gerry liked to joke that he wished his children were as interested in the business as Mara was. Maybe I’ll leave the store to you instead of them, he’d say, jostling her shoulder. He had stopped saying that.
Mara slipped the wrapped pastry out from under the counter. She broke it into halves and put one in each pocket, hoping Gerry wouldn’t see the lumps when they left. She left the empty paper on the counter, dusted with the crumbs that had fallen when she broke the pastry.
An activity book lay next to where the pastry had been. It was for little kids, but Mara pulled it out anyway. Gerry’s children were too old to play with things like that now, but he still kept an array of diversions under the counter for when customers’ kids needed to be kept busy. It was better to do something than nothing. Armed with the felt-tip pen that was clipped to the cover, she began to flip through pages of half-colored drawings and connect-the-dots.
A few aisles over, near the butcher counter, she heard her father grumbling. She looked up and saw Gerry grab abba’s shoulder. As always, he was speaking too loudly. His voice boomed over the hum of the freezers. “I got in the best sausages on Wednesday,” he said. “They’re kosher. Try them. Make them for your, what do you call it, sadbath.”
By then, Gerry knew the word, but it was part of their banter.
“Shabbat,” Abba corrected.
Gerry’s tone grew more serious. “You’re losing too much weight. A man needs meat.”
Abba’s voice went flat. “I eat when I am hungry. I am not hungry so much lately.”
Gerry’s grip tightened on abba’s shoulder. His voice dropped. “Jakub, you need to take care of yourself.”
He looked back furtively at Mara. Flushing with shame, she dropped her gaze to the activity book. She clutched the pen tightly, pretending to draw circles in a word search.
“You have to think about the future,” said Gerry. His voice lowered even further. Though he was finally speaking at a normal volume, she still heard every word. “You aren’t the one who’s dying.”
Mara’s flush went crimson. She couldn’t tell if it was shame or anger—all she felt was cold, rigid shock. She couldn’t stop herself from sneaking a glance at abba. He, too, stood frozen. The word had turned him to ice. Neither of them ever said it. It was a game of avoidance they played together.
Abba pulled away from Gerry and started down the aisle. His face looked numb rather than angry. He stopped at the counter, looking at everything but Mara. He took Abel’s leash and gestured for Mara to get off of the stool. “We’ll be late for your appointment,” he said, even though it wasn’t even eleven o’clock. In a louder voice, he added, “Ring up our cart, would you, Gerry? We’ll pick up our bags on our way out of town.”
Mara didn’t like Doctor Pinsky. Abba liked him because he was Jewish even though he was American-born reform with a degree from Queens. He wore his hair close-cut but it looked like it would Jew ’fro if he grew it out.
He kept his nails manicured. His teeth shone perfectly white. He never looked directly at Mara when he spoke. Mara suspected he didn’t like children much. Maybe you needed to be that way if you were going to watch the sick ones get worse.
The nurses were all right. Grace and Nicole, both blonde and a bit fat. They didn’t understand Mara since she didn’t fit their idea of what kids were supposed to be like. She didn’t talk about pop or interactives. When there were other child patients in the waiting room, she ignored them.
When the nurses tried to introduce her to the other children anyway, Mara said she preferred to talk to adults, which made them hmm and flutter. Don’t you have any friends, honey? Nicole had asked her once, and Mara answered that she had some, but they were all on attic space. A year ago, if Mara had been upset, she’d have gone into a-space to talk to her best friend, Collin, but more and more as she got sick, she’d hated seeing him react to her withering body, hated seeing the fright and pity in his eyes. The thought of going back into attic space made her nauseous.
Grace and Nicole gave Mara extra attention because they felt sorry for her. Modern cancer treatments had failed to help and now Mara was the only child patient in the clinic taking chemotherapy. It’s hard on little bodies, said Grace. Heck, it’s hard on big bodies, too.
Today it was Grace who came to meet Mara in the waiting room, pushing a wheelchair. Assuming it was for another patient, Mara started to gather her crutches, but Grace motioned for her to stay put. “Let me treat you like a princess.”
“I’m not much of a princess,” Mara answered, immediately realizing from the pitying look on Grace’s face that it was the wrong thing to say. To Grace, that would mean she didn’t feel like a princess because she was sick, rather than that she wasn’t interested in princesses.
“I can walk,” Mara protested, but Grace insisted on helping her into the wheelchair anyway. She hadn’t realized how tightly abba was holding her hand until she pulled it free.
Abba stood to follow them. Grace turned back. “Would you mind staying? Doctor Pinsky wants to talk to you.”
“I like to go with Mara,” abba said.
“We’ll take good care of her.” Grace patted Mara’s shoulder. “You don’t mind, do you, princess?”
Mara shrugged. Her father shifted uncertainly. “What does Doctor Pinsky want?”
“He’ll be out in a few minutes,” said Grace, deflecting. “I’m sorry, Mr. Morawski. You won’t have to wait long.”
Frowning, abba sat again, fingers worrying the collar of his shirt. Mara saw his conflicting optimism and fear, all inscribed plainly in his eyes, his face, the way he sat. She didn’t understand why he kept hoping. Even before they’d tried the targeted immersion therapy and the QTRC regression, she’d known that they wouldn’t work. She’d known from the moment when she saw the almost imperceptible frown cross the city diagnostician’s face when he asked about the pain she’d been experiencing in her knee for months before the break. Yes, she’d said, it had been worse at night, and his brow had darkened, just for an instant. Maybe she’d known even earlier than that, in the moment just after she fell in ima’s studio, when she realized with strange, cold clarity that something was very wrong.
Bad news didn’t come all at once. It came in successions. Cancer is present. Metastasis has occurred. The tumors are unresponsive. The patient’s vitals have taken a turn for the worse. We’re sorry to say, we’re sorry to say, we’re sorry to say.
Grace wheeled Mara toward the back, maintaining a stream of banal, cheerful chatter, remarks about the weather and questions about the holidays and jokes about boys. Mara deflected. She wasn’t ever going to have a boyfriend, not the way Grace was teasing her about. Adolescence was like spring, one more thing buried in endless snow.
Mara felt exhausted as they pulled into the driveway. She didn’t have the energy to push abba away when he came around the truck to help her down. Mara leaned heavily on her father’s arm as they crunched their way to the front door.
She vomited in the entryway. Abel came to investigate. She pushed his nose away while abba went to get the mop. The smell made her even more nauseated and so when abba returned, she left him to clean up. It made her feel guilty, but she was too tired to care.
She went to the bathroom to wash out her mouth. She tried not to catch her eye in the mirror, but she saw her reflection anyway. She felt a shock of alienation from the thin, sallow face. It couldn’t be hers.
She could hear abba in the hallway, grumbling at Abel in Yiddish. Wan, late afternoon light filtered through the windows, foreshadowing sunset. A few months ago, she and abba would have been rushing to cook and clean before Shabbat. Now no one cleaned and Mara left abba to cook alone as she went into ima’s studio.
She paused by the barre before sitting, already worried about how difficult it would be to get up again. “I want to watch Coppélia,” she said. The AI whirred.
Coppélia began with a young woman reading on a balcony—except she wasn’t really a young woman, she was actually an automaton constructed by the mad scientist, Dr. Coppélius. The dancer playing Coppélia pretended to read from a red leather book. Mara told the AI to fast-forward to ima’s entrance.
Mara’s mother was dancing the part of the peasant girl, Swanhilde. She looked nothing like the dancer playing Coppélia. Ima was strong, but also short and compact, where Coppélia was tall with visible muscle definition in her arms and legs.
Yet later in the ballet, none of the other characters would be able to tell them apart. Mara wanted to shake them into sense. Why couldn’t they tell the difference between a person and a doll?
Abba lit the candles and began the prayer, waving his hands through the smoke. They didn’t have an adult woman to read the prayers and abba wouldn’t let Mara do it while she was still a child. Soon, he used to say, after your bat mitzvah. Now he said nothing.
They didn’t celebrate Shabbat properly. They followed some traditions—tonight they’d leave the lights on, and tomorrow they’d eat cold food instead of cooking—but they did not attend services. If they needed to work then they worked. As a family, they had always been observant in some ways, and relaxed in others; they were not the kind who took well to following rules. Abba sometimes seemed to believe in Hashem and at other times not, though he believed in rituals and tradition. Still, before Mara had become ill, they’d taken more care with halakha.
As abba often reminded her, Judaism taught that survival was more important than dogma. Pikuach nefesh meant that a hospital could run electricity that powered a machine that kept a man alive. A family could work to keep a woman who had just given birth comfortable and healthy.
Perhaps other people wouldn’t recognize the exceptions that Mara and her father made from Shabbat as being matters of survival, but they were. They were using all they had just by living. Not much remained for G-d.
The long window over the kitchen counters let through the dimming light as violet and ultramarine seeped across the horizon. The tangerine sun lingered above the trees, preparing to descend into scratching, black branches. Mara’s attention drifted as abba said kiddush over the wine.
They washed their hands. Abba tore the challah. He gave a portion to Mara. She let it sit.
“The fish is made with ginger,” abba said. “Would you like some string beans?”
“My mouth hurts,” Mara said.
Abba paused, the serving plate still in his hands.
She knew that he wouldn’t eat unless she did. “I’ll have a little,” she added softly.
She let him set the food on her plate. She speared a single green bean and stared at it for a moment before biting. Everything tasted like metal after the drugs.
“I used turmeric,” he said.
Mara’s stomach roiled. She set the fork on her plate.
Her father ate a few bites of fish and then set his fork down, too. A maudlin expression crossed his face. “Family is Hashem’s best gift,” he said.
Mara nodded. There was little to say.
Abba picked up his wine glass. He twisted the stem as he stared into red. “Family is what the goyim tried to take from us with pogroms and ghettoes and the shoah. On Shabbat, we find our families, wherever we are.”
Abba paused again, sloshing wine gently from side to side.
“Perhaps I should have gone to Israel before you were born.”
Mara looked up with surprise. “You think Israel is a corrupt theocracy.”
“There are politics, like opposing a government, and then there is needing to be with your people.” He shrugged. “I thought about going. I had money then, but no roots. I could have gone wherever I wanted. But I thought, I will go to America instead. There are more Jews in America than Israel. I did not want to live in the shadow of the shoah. I wanted to make a family in a place where we could rebuild everything they stole. Der mensch trakht un Gatt lahkt.”
He had been speaking rapidly, his accent deepening with every word. Now he stopped.
His voice was hoarse when it returned.
“Your mother…you…I would not trade it, but…” His gaze became diffuse as if the red of the wine were a telescope showing him another world. “It’s all so fragile. Your mother is taken and you…tsuris, tsuris…and then there is nothing.”
It was dark when they left the table. Abba piled dishes by the sink so that they could be washed after Shabbat and then retired to his bedroom. Abel came to Mara, tail thumping, begging for scraps. She was too tired to make him beg or shake hands. She rescued her plate from the pile of dishes and laid it on the floor for him to lick clean.
She started toward her bed and then changed her mind. She headed downstairs instead, Abel following after. She paused with her hand on the knob of the red-painted door before entering abba’s workshop.
Mara hadn’t seen abba go downstairs since their argument that morning but he must have managed to do it without her noticing. The doll sat primly on her stool, dignity restored, her head tilted down as if she were reading a book that Mara couldn’t see.
Mara wove between worktables until she reached the doll’s side. She lifted its hand and pressed their palms together as abba had done. It was strange to see the shape of her fingers so perfectly copied, down to the fine lines across her knuckles.
She pulled the thing forward. It lolled. Abel ducked its flailing right hand and ran a few steps away, watching warily.
Mara took hold of the thing’s head. She pressed the tip of her nose against the tip of its nose, trying to match their faces as she had their palms. With their faces so close together, it looked like a Cyclops, staring back at her with one enormous, blank eye.
“I hate you,” Mara said, lips pressed against its mute mouth.
It was true, but not the same way that it had been that morning. She had been furious then. Betrayed. Now the blaze of anger had burned down and she saw what lay in the ashes that remained.
It was jealousy. That this doll would be the one to take abba’s hand at Shabbat five years from then, ten years, twenty. That it would take and give the comfort she could not. That it would balm the wounds that she had no choice but to inflict.
Would Mara have taken a clockwork doll if it had restored ima to her for these past years?
She imagined lying down for the scans. She imagined a machine studying her brain, replicating her dreams neuron by neuron, rendering her as mathematical patterns. She’d read enough biology and psychology to know that, whatever else she was, she was also an epiphenomenon that arose from chemicals and meat and electricity.
It was sideways immortality. She would be gone, and she would remain. There and not there. A quantum mechanical soul.
Love could hurt, she knew. Love was what made you hurt when your ima died. Love was what made it hurt when abba came to you gentle and solicitous, every kindness a reminder of how much pain you’d leave behind.
She would do this painful thing because she loved him, as he had made this doll because he loved her. She thought, with a sudden clenching of her stomach, that it was a good thing most people never lived to see what people planned to make of them when they were gone.
What Gerry had said was as true as it was cutting. Abba was not the one who would die.
Abba slept among twisted blankets, clutching his pillow as if afraid to let it go.
Mara watched from the doorway. “Abba.”
He grumbled in his sleep as he shifted position.
“Abba,” she repeated. “Please wake up, abba.”
She waited while he put on his robe. Then, she led him down.
She made her way swiftly through the workshop, passing the newly painted marionette and the lonely mechanical hand. She halted near the doll, avoiding its empty gaze.
“I’m ready now,” she said.
Abba’s face shifted from confusion to wariness. With guarded hope, he asked, “Are you certain?”
“I’m sure,” she said.
“Please, Mara. You do not have to.”
“I know,” she answered. She pressed herself against his chest, as if she were a much smaller child looking for comfort. She felt the tension in his body seep into relief as he wept with silent gratitude. She was filled with tears, too, from a dozen emotions blended into one. They were tears of relief, and regret, and pain, and love, and mourning, and more.
He wrapped his arms around her. She closed her eyes and savored the comfort of his woody scent, his warmth, the stubble scratching her arm. She could feel how thin he’d become, but he was still strong enough to hold her so tightly that his embrace was simultaneously joyful and almost too much to bear.
Act II: Jakub
Tour en l’air
(Turn in the Air)
Jakub was careful to make the scans as unobtrusive as possible. If he could have, he’d have recorded a dozen sessions, twenty-five, fifty, more. He’d have examined every obscure angle; he’d have recorded a hundred redundancies.
Mara was so fragile, though; not just physically, but mentally. He did not want to tax her. He found a way to consolidate what he needed into six nighttime sessions, monitoring her with portable equipment that he could bring into her bedroom which broadcast its data to the larger machinery in the basement.
When the scans were complete, Jakub spent his nights in the workshop, laboring over the new child while Mara slept. It had been a long time since he’d worked with technology like this, streamlined for its potential as a weapon. He had to gentle it, soothe it, coax it into being as careful about preserving memories of rainy mornings as it was about retaining reflexes and fighting skills.
He spent long hours poring over images of Mara’s brain. He navigated three-dimensional renderings with the AI’s help, puzzling over the strangeness of becoming so intimate with his daughter’s mind in such an unexpected way. After he had finished converting the images into a neural map, he looked at Mara’s mind with yet new astonishment. The visual representation showed associational clusters as if they were stars: elliptical galaxies of thought.
It was a truism that there were many ways to describe a river—from the action of its molecules to the map of its progress from tributaries to ocean. A mind was such a thing as well. On one end there was thought, personality, individual…and on the other…It was impossible to recognize Mara in the points of light, but he was in the midst of her most basic elements, and there was as much awe in that as there was in puzzling out the origin of the universe. He was the first person ever to see another human being in this way. He knew Mara now as no one else had ever known anyone.
His daughter, his beloved, his sheineh maideleh. There were so many others that he’d failed to protect. But Mara would always be safe; he would hold her forever.
Once Jakub had created the foundational schematics for manufacturing analogues to Mara’s brain structures, the remainder of the process was automated. Jakub needed only to oversee it, occasionally inputting his approval to the machine.
Jakub found it unbearable to leave the machinery unsupervised, but nevertheless, he could not spend all of his time in the basement. During the mornings when Mara was awake, he paced the house, grumbling at the dog who followed him up and down the hallways as if expecting him to throw a stick. What if the process stalled? What if a catastrophic failure destroyed the images of Mara’s mind now when her health was even more fragile and there might be no way to replace them?
He forced himself to disguise his obsession while Mara was awake. It was important to maintain the illusion that their life was the same as it had been before. He knew that Mara remained uneasy with the automaton. Its very presence said so many things that they had been trying to keep silent.
Mara’s days were growing even harder. He’d thought the end of chemotherapy would give her some relief, but cancer pain worsened every day. Constant suffering and exhaustion made her alternately sullen and sharp. She snapped at him when he brought her meals, when he tried to help her across the house, when she woke to find him lingering in the doorway while she slept. Part of it was the simple result of pain displacing patience, but it was more, too. Once, when he had touched her shoulder, she’d flinched; then, upon seeing him withdraw, her expression had turned from annoyance to guilt. She’d said, softly, “You won’t always be able to do that.” A pause, a swallow, and then even more quietly, “It reminds me.”
That was what love and comfort had become now. Promises that couldn’t be kept.
Most nights, she did not sleep at all, only lay awake, staring out of her window at the snow.
Jakub searched for activities that might console her. He asked her if she’d like him to read to her. He offered to buy her immersive games. He suggested that she log into a spare room with other sick children where they could discuss their troubles. She told him that she wanted to be alone.
She had always been an unusual child, precocious and content to be her own companion. Meryem had said it was natural for a daughter of theirs, who had been raised among adults, and was descended from people who were also talented and solitary. Jakub and Meryem had been similar as children, remote from others their own age as they pursued their obsessions. Now Jakub wished she had not inherited these traits so completely, that she was more easily able to seek solace.
When Mara didn’t think he was watching, she gathered her crutches and went into Meryem’s studio to watch ballets. She did not like it when he came too close, and so he watched from the hallway. He could see her profile reflected in the mirrors on the opposite wall. She cried as she watched, soundless tears beading her cheeks.
One morning when she put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jakub ventured into the studio. For so long, he had stayed away, but that had not made things better. He had to try what he could.
He found Mara sitting on the floor, her crutches leaning against the ballet barre. Abel lay a few feet away with his head on his paws. Without speaking, Jakub sat beside them.
Mara wiped her cheeks, streaking her tears. She looked resentfully at Jakub, but he ignored her, hoping he could reach the part of her that still wanted his company even if she had buried it.
They sat stoically for the remainder of act one, holding themselves with care so that they did not accidentally shift closer to one another. Mara pretended to ignore him, though her darting glances told another story. Jakub let her maintain the pretense, trying to allow her some personal space within the studio since he had already intruded so far. He hoped she would be like a scared rabbit, slowly adjusting to his presence and coming to him when she saw that he was safe.
Jakub had expected to spend the time watching Mara and not the video, but he was surprised to find himself drawn into the dancing. The pain of seeing Meryem leap and spin had become almost a dull note, unnoticeable in the concert of his other sorrows. Meryem made a luminous Titania, a ginger wig cascading in curls down her back, her limbs wrapped in flowers, leaves and gossamer. He’d forgotten the way she moved onstage, as careful and precise as a doe, each agile maneuver employing precisely as much strength as she needed and no more.
As Act II began, Mara asked the AI to stop. Exhaustion, she said. Jakub tried to help her back to her room, but she protested, and he let her go.
She was in her own world now, closing down. She had no room left for him.
What can I do for you, Marale? he wanted to ask. I will do anything. You will not let me hold you so I must find another way. I will change the laws of life and death. I will give you as much forever as I can, sheineh maideleh. See? I am doing it now.
He knew that she hated it when he stood outside her door, watching, but when he heard her breath find the steady rhythm of sleep, he went to the threshold anyway. While she slept, Mara looked peaceful for a while, her chest gently rising and falling underneath her snow-colored quilt.
He lingered a long time. Eventually, he left her and returned downstairs to check the machines.
The new child was ready to be born.
For years, Jakub had dreamed of the numbers. They flickered in and out of focus as if displayed on old film. Sometimes they looked ashen and faded. At other times, they were darker than any real black. Always, they were written on palettes of human flesh.
Sometimes the dreams included fragmentary memories. Jakub would be back in the rooms his grandparents had rented when he was a child, watching bubbe prepare to clean the kitchen, pulling her left arm free from one long cotton sleeve, her tattoo a shock on the inside of her forearm. The skin there had gone papery with age, the ink bleached and distorted, but time and sun had not made the mark less portentous. She scoured cookware with steel wool and caustic chemicals that made her hands red and raw when they emerged from the bubbling water. No matter how often Jakub watched, he never stopped expecting her to abandon the ancient pots and turn that furious, unrelenting scrubbing onto herself.
Zayde’s tattoo remained more mysterious. It had not been inflicted in Auschwitz and so it hid in the more discreet location they’d used on the trains, needled onto the underside of his upper arm. Occasionally on hot days when Jakub was small, zayde would roll up his sleeves while he worked outside in the sun. If Jakub or one of the other boys found him, zayde would shout at them to get back inside and then finish the work in his long sleeves, dripping with sweat.
Jakub’s grandparents never spoke of the camps. Both had been young in those years, but even though they were not much older when they were released, the few pictures of them from that time showed figures that were already brittle and dessicated in both physique and expression. Survivors took many paths away from the devastation, but bubbe and zayde were among those who always afterward walked with their heads down.
Being mutually bitter and taciturn, they resisted marriage until long after their contemporaries had sought comfort in each other’s arms. They raised their children with asperity, and sent them into the world as adults with small gifts of money and few displays of emotion.
One of those children was Jakub’s mother, who immigrated to the United States where she married. Some years later, she died in childbirth, bearing what would have been Jakub’s fifth brother had the child not been stillborn. Jakub’s father, grieving, could not take care of his four living sons. Instead, he wrote to his father-in-law in Poland and requested that he come to the United States and take them home with him.
Even then, when he arrived on foreign shores to fetch boys he’d never met and take them back with him to a land they’d never known; even then when the moment should have been grief and gathering; even then zayde’s face was hard-lined with resignation. Or so Jakub’s elder brothers had told him, for he was the youngest of the surviving four, having learned to speak a few words by then but not yet able to stand on his own.
When the four boys were children, it was a mystery to them how such harsh people could have spent long enough together to marry, let alone have children. Surely, they would have been happier with others who were kinder, less astringent, who could bring comfort into a marriage.
One afternoon, when Jakub was four years old, and too naïve to yet understand that some things that were discussed in private should not be shared with everyone, he was sitting with bubbe while she sewed shirts for the boys (too expensive to buy, and shouldn’t she know how to sew, having done it all her life?). He asked, “If you don’t like zayde, why did you marry him?”
She stopped suddenly. Her hands were still on the machine, her mouth open, her gaze fastened on the seam. For a moment, the breath did not rise in her chest. The needle stuttered to a stop as her foot eased its pressure on the pedal.
She did not deny it or ask What do you mean? Neither did she answer any of the other questions that might have been enfolded in that one, like Why don’t you like him? or Why did you marry at all?
Instead, she heard Jakub’s true question: Why zayde and not someone else?
“How could it be another?” she asked. “We’re the same.”
And then she began sewing again, making no further mention of it, which was what zayde would have done, too, if Jakub had left bubbe at her sewing and instead taken his question to zayde as he replaced the wiring in their old, old walls.
As important as it was for the two of them that they shared a history, it also meant that they were like knives to each other, constantly reopening each other’s old wounds and salting them with tears and anger. Their frequent, bitter arguments could continue for days upon days.
The days of arguing were better than those when bitter silence descended, and each member of the family was left in their own, isolated coldness.
It was not that there were no virtues to how the boys were raised. Their bodies were kept robust on good food, and their minds strengthened with the exercise of solving problems both practical and intellectual. Zayde concocted new projects for them weekly. One week they’d learn to build cabinets, and the next they’d read old books of philosophy, debating free will versus determinism. Jakub took Leibniz’s part against zayde’s Spinoza. They studied the Torah as an academic text, though zayde was an atheist of the bitter stripe after his time in the camps.
When Jakub was nine, bubbe decided that it was time to cultivate their spirits as well as their minds and bodies. She revealed that she had been having dreams about G-d for decades, ever since the day she left the camp. The events of those hours had haunted her dreams and as she watched them replay, she felt the scene overlaid with a shining sense of awe and renewal, which over the years, she had come to believe was the presence of G-d. Knowing zayde’s feelings about G-d, bubbe had kept her silence in the name of peace for decades, but that year, some indefinable thing had shifted her conscience and she could do so no longer.
As she’d predicted, zayde was furious. “I am supposed to worship a G-d that would make this world?” he demanded. “A G-d like that is no G-d. A G-d like that is evil.”
But despite the hours of shouting, slammed doors, and smashed crockery, bubbe remained resolute. She became a frum woman, dressing carefully, observing prayers and rituals. On Fridays, the kitchen became the locus of urgent energy as bubbe rushed to prepare for Shabbat, directing Jakub and his brothers to help with the chores. All of them worked tensely, preparing for the moment when zayde would return home and throw the simmering cholent out of the window, or—if they were lucky—turn heel and walk back out, going who-knew-where until he came home on Sunday.
After a particularly vicious argument, zayde proclaimed that while he apparently could not stop his wife from doing as she pleased, he would absolutely no longer permit his grandsons to attend shul. It was a final decision; otherwise, one of them would have to leave and never come back. After that, bubbe slipped out each week into the chilly morning, alone.
From zayde and bubbe, Jakub learned that love was both balm and nettle. They taught him from an early age that nothing could hurt so much as family.
Somehow, Jakub had expected the new child to be clumsy and vacant as if she were an infant, but the moment she initialized, her blank look vanished. Some parts of her face tensed and others relaxed. She blinked. She looked just like Mara.
She prickled under Jakub’s scrutiny. “What are you staring at? Is something wrong?”
Jakub’s mouth worked silently as he sought the words. “I thought you would need more time to adjust.”
The child smiled Mara’s cynical, lopsided smile, which had been absent for months. “I think you’re going to need more time to adjust than I do.”
She pulled herself to her feet. It wasn’t just her face that had taken on Mara’s habits of expression. Without pause, she moved into one of the stretches that Meryem had taught her, elongating her spine. When she relaxed, her posture was exactly like Mara’s would have been, a preadolescent slouch ameliorated by a hint of dancer’s grace.
“Can we go upstairs?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Jakub said. “There are tests to perform.”
Tests which she passed. Every single one. She knew Mara’s favorite colors and the names of the children she had studied with in attic space. She knew the color and weight of the apples that would grow on their trees next fall and perfectly recited the recipe for baking them with cinnamon. In the gruff tone that Mara used when she was guarding against pain, she related the story of Meryem’s death—how Meryem had woken with complaints of feeling dizzy, how she had slipped in the bath later that morning, how her head had cracked against the porcelain and spilled red into the bathwater.
She ran like Mara and caught a ball like Mara and bent to touch her toes like Mara. She was precisely as fleet and as nimble and as flexible as Mara. She performed neither worse nor better. She was Mara’s twin in every way that Jakub could measure.
“You will need to stay here for a few more days,” he told her, bringing down blankets and pillows so that he could make her a bed in the workshop. “There are still more tests. You will be safer if you remain close to the machines.”
The new child’s face creased with doubt. He was lying to spare her feelings, but she was no more deceived than Mara would have been. She said, “My room is upstairs.”
For so many months, Jakub and Mara had taken refuge in mutual silence when the subject turned uncomfortable. He did not like to speak so bluntly. But if she would force him—“No,” he said gently. “That is Mara’s room.”
“Can’t I at least see it?”
A wheedling overtone thinned her voice. Her body language occupied a strange lacuna between aggression and vulnerability. She faced him full-on, one foot advancing, with her hands clenched tightly at her sides. Yet at the same time, she could not quite meet his eyes, and her head was tilted slightly downward, protecting her neck.
Jakub had seen that strange combination before. It was not so unusual a posture for teenagers to wear when they were trying to assert their agency through rebellion and yet simultaneously still hoping for their parents’ approval.
Mara had never reached that stage. Before she became ill, she had been calm, abiding. Jakub began to worry that he’d erred in his calculations, that the metrics he’d used had been inadequate to measure the essence of a girl. Could she have aged so much, simply being slipped into an artificial skin?
“Mara is sleeping now.”
“But I am Mara!” The new child’s voice broke on her exclamation.
Her lips parted uncertainly. Her fingers trembled. Her glance flashed upward for a moment and he saw such pain in it. No, she was still his Mara. Not defiant, only afraid that he would decide that he had not wanted a mechanical daughter after all, that he would reject her like a broken radio and never love her again.
Gently, he laid his hand on her shoulder. Softly, he said, “You are Mara, but you need a new name, too. Let us call you Ruth.”
He had not known until he spoke that he was going to choose that name, but it was a good one. In the Torah, Ruth had given Mara hesed. His Mara needed loving kindness, too.
The new child’s gaze flickered upward as if she could see through the ceiling and into Mara’s room. “Mara is the name ima gave me,” she protested.
Jakub answered, “It would be confusing otherwise.”
He hoped that this time the new child would understand what he meant without his having to speak outright. The other Mara had such a short time. It would be cruel to make her days harder than they must be.
On the day when Jakub gave the automaton her name, he found himself recalling the story of Ruth. It had been a long time since he had given the Torah any serious study, but though he had forgotten its minutiae, he remembered its rhythm. His thoughts assumed the cadences of half-forgotten rabbis.
It began when a famine descended on Judah.
A man, Elimelech, decided that he was not going to let his wife and sons starve to death, and so he packed his household and brought them to Moab. It was good that he had decided to do so, because once they reached Moab, he died, and left his wife and sons alone.
His wife was named Naomi and her name meant pleasant. The times were not pleasant.
Naomi’s sons married women from Moab, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. Despite their father’s untimely death, the boys spent ten happy years with their new wives. But the men of that family had very poor luck. Both sons died.
There was nothing left for Naomi in Moab and so she packed up her house and prepared to return to Judah. She told her daughters-in-law, “Go home to your mothers. You were always kind to my sons and you’ve always been kind to me. May Hashem be kind to you in return.”
She kissed them goodbye, but the girls wept.
They said, “Can’t we return to Judah with you?”
“Go back to your mothers,” Naomi repeated. “I have no more sons for you to marry. What can I give if you stay with me?”
The girls continued to weep, but at last sensible Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and left for home.
Ruth, who was less sensible; Ruth, who was more loving; Ruth, who was more kind; Ruth, she would not go.
“Don’t make me leave you,” Ruth said. “Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people and your G-d my G-d.”
When Naomi saw that Ruth was committed to staying with her, she abandoned her arguing and let her come.
They traveled together to Bethlehem. When they arrived, they found that the whole city had gathered to see them. Everyone was curious about the two women traveling from Moab. One woman asked, “Naomi! Is that you?”
Naomi shook her head. “Don’t call me Naomi. There is no pleasantness in my life. Call me Mara, which means bitterness, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
Through the bitterness, Ruth stayed. While Naomi became Mara, Ruth stayed. Ruth gave her kindness, and Ruth stayed.
Jakub met Meryem while he was in Cleveland for a robotics conference. He’d attended dozens, but somehow this one made him feel particularly self-conscious in his cheap suit and tie among all the wealthy goyim.
By then he was living in the United States, but although he’d been born there, he rarely felt at home among its people. Between talks, he escaped from the hotel to go walking. That afternoon, he found his way to a path that wound through a park, making its way through dark-branched trees that waved their remaining leaves like flags of ginger, orange and gold.
Meryem sat on an ironwork bench beside a man-made lake, its water silvered with dusk. She wore a black felt coat that made her look pallid even though her cheeks were pink with cold. A wind rose as Jakub approached, rippling through Meryem’s hair. Crows took off from the trees, disappearing into black marks on the horizon.
Neither of them was ever able to remember how they began to converse. Their courtship seemed to rise naturally from the lake and the crows and the fallen leaves, as if it were another inevitable element of nature. It was bashert.
Meryem was younger than Jakub, but even so, already ballet had begun taking its toll on her body. Ballet was created by trading pain for beauty, she used to say. Eventually, beauty vanished and left only the pain.
Like Jakub, Meryem was an immigrant. Her grandparents had been born in Baghdad where they lived through the farhud instead of the shoah. They stayed in Iraq despite the pogroms until the founding of Israel made it too dangerous to remain. They abandoned their family home and fled to the U.S.S.R.
When Meryem was small, the Soviet government identified her talent for dance and took her into training. Ballet became her new family. It was her blood and bone, her sacred and her profane.
Her older brother sometimes sent letters, but with the accretion of time and distance, Meryem came to think of her family as if they were not so much people as they were the words spelled out in Yusuf’s spidery handwriting.
Communism fell, and Meryem’s family was given the opportunity to reclaim her, but even a few years away is so much of a child’s lifetime. She begged them not to force her to return. They no longer felt like her home. More, ballet had become the gravitational center of her life, and while she still resented it—how it had taken her unwillingly, how it bruised her feet and sometimes made them bleed—she also could not bear to leave its orbit. When Yusuf’s letters stopped coming some time later, she hardly noticed.
She danced well. She was a lyrical ballerina, performing her roles with tender, affecting beauty that could make audiences weep or smile. She rapidly moved from corps to soloist to principal. The troupe traveled overseas to perform Stravinsky’s Firebird, and when they reached the United States, Meryem decided to emigrate, which she accomplished with a combination of bribes and behind-the-scenes dealings. Jakub and Meryem recognized themselves in each other’s stories. Like his grandparents, they were drawn together by their similarities. Unlike them, they built a refuge together instead of a battlefield.
After Meryem died, Jakub began dreaming that that the numbers were inscribed into the skins of people who’d never been near the camps. His skin. His daughter’s. His wife’s. They were all marked, as Cain was marked, as the Christians believed the devil would mark his followers at the end of time. Marked for diaspora, to blow away from each other and disappear.
“Is the doll awake?” Mara asked one morning.
Jakub looked up from his breakfast to see her leaning against the doorway that led into the kitchen. She wore a large t-shirt from Yellowstone that came to her knees, covering a pair of blue jeans that had not been baggy when he’d bought them for her. Her skin was wan and her eyes shadowed and sunken. Traces of inflammation from the drugs lingered, painfully red, on her face and hands. The orange knit cap pulled over her ears was incongruously bright.
Jakub could not remember the last time she’d worn something other than pajamas.
“She is down in the workshop,” Jakub said.
“She’s awake, though?”
“She is awake.”
“Bring her up.”
Jakub set his spoon beside his leftover bowl of chlodnik. Mara’s mouth was turned down at the corners, hard and resolute. She lifted her chin at a defiant angle.
“She has a bed in the workshop,” Jakub said. “There are still tests I must run. It’s best she stay close to the machines.”
Mara shook her head. It was clear from her face that she was no more taken in by his lie than the new child had been. “It’s not fair to keep someone stuck down there.”
Jakub began to protest that the workshop was not such a bad place, but then he caught the flintiness in Mara’s eyes and realized that she was not asking out of worry. She had dressed as best she could and come to confront him because she wanted her first encounter with the new child to be on her terms. There was much he could not give her, but he could give her that.
“I will bring her for dinner,” he said. “Tomorrow, for Shabbat.”
Mara nodded. She began the arduous process of departing the kitchen, but then stopped and turned back. “Abba,” she said hesitantly. “If ima hated the ballet, why did you build her a studio?”
“She asked for one,” Jakub said.
At last, he continued, “Ballet was part of her. She could not simply stop.”
Mara nodded once more. This time, she departed.
Jakub finished his chlodnik and spent the rest of the day cooking. He meted out ingredients for familiar dishes. A pinch, a dash, a dab. Chopping, grating, boiling, sampling. Salt and sweet, bitter and savory.
As he went downstairs to fetch Ruth, he found himself considering how strange it must be for her to remember these rooms and yet never to have entered them. Jakub and Meryem had drawn the plans for the house together. She’d told him that she was content to leave a world of beauty that was made by pain, in exchange for a plain world made by joy.
He’d said he could give her that.
They painted the outside walls yellow to remind them of the sun during the winter, and painted blue inside to remind them of the sky. By the time they had finished, Mara was waiting inside Meryem’s womb. The three of them had lived in the house for seven years before Meryem died.
These past few weeks had been precious. Precious because he had, in some ways, finally begun to recover the daughter that he had lost on the day her leg shattered—Ruth, once again curious and strong and insightful, like the Mara he had always known. But precious, too, because these were his last days with the daughter he’d made with Meryem.
Precious days, but hardly bearable, even as he also could not bear that they would pass. Precious, but more salt and bitter than savory and sweet.
The next night, when Jakub entered the workshop, he found Ruth on the stool where she’d sat so long when she was empty. Her shoulders slumped; her head hung down. He began to worry that something was wrong, but then he saw that she was only reading the book of poetry that she held in her lap.
“Would you like to come upstairs for dinner?” Jakub asked.
Setting the poems aside, Ruth rose to join him.
Long before Jakub met Meryem—back in those days when he still traveled the country on commissions from the American government—Jakub had become friends with a rabbi from Minneapolis. The two still exchanged letters through the postal mail, rarefied and expensive as it was.
After Jakub sent the news from Doctor Pinsky, the rabbi wrote back, “First your wife and now your daughter…es vert mir finster in di oygen. You must not let yourself be devoured by agmes-nefesh. Even in the camps, people kept hope. Yashir koyech, my friend. You must keep hope, too.”
Jakub had not written to the rabbi about the new child. Even if it had not been vital for him to keep the work secret, he would not have written about it. He could not be sure what the rabbi would say. Would he call the new child a golem instead of a girl? Would he declare the work unseemly or unwise?
But truly, Jakub was only following the rabbi’s advice. The new child was his strength and hope. She would prevent him from being devoured by sorrow.
When Jakub and Ruth arrived in the kitchen for Shabbat, Mara had not yet come.
They stood alone together in the empty room. Jakub had mopped the floors and scrubbed the counters and set the table with good dishes. The table was laid with challah, apricot chicken with farfel, and almond and raisin salad. Cholent simmered in a crock pot on the counter, waiting for Shabbat lunch.
Ruth started toward Mara’s chair on the left. Jakub caught her arm, more roughly than he’d meant to. He pulled back, contrite. “No,” he said softly. “Not there.” He gestured to the chair on the right. Resentment crossed the new child’s face, but she went to sit.
It was only as Jakub watched Ruth lower herself into the right-hand chair that he realized his mistake. “No! Wait. Not in Meryem’s chair. Take mine. I’ll switch with you—”
Mara’s crutches clicked down the hallway. It was too late.
She paused in the doorway. She wore the blonde wig Jakub had bought for her after the targeted immersion therapy failed. Last year’s green Pesach dress hung off of her shoulders. The cap sleeves neared her elbows.
Jakub moved to help with her crutches. She stayed stoic while he helped her sit, but he could see how much it cost her to accept assistance while she was trying to maintain her dignity in front of the new child. It would be worse because the new child possessed her memories and knew precisely how she felt.
Jakub leaned the crutches against the wall. Ruth looked away, embarrassed.
Mara gave her a corrosive stare. “Don’t pity me.”
Ruth looked back. “What do you want me to do?”
“Turn yourself off,” said Mara. “You’re muktzeh.”
Jakub wasn’t sure he’d ever before heard Mara use the Hebrew word for objects forbidden on the Sabbath. Now, she enunciated it with crisp cruelty.
Ruth remained calm. “One may work on the Sabbath if it saves a life.”
Mara scoffed. “If you call yours a life.”
Jakub wrung his hands. “Please, Mara,” he said. “You asked her to come.”
Mara held her tongue for a lingering moment. Eventually, she nodded formally toward Ruth. “I apologize.”
Ruth returned the nod. She sat quietly, hands folded in her lap. She didn’t take nutrition from food, but Jakub had given her a hollow stomach that she could empty after meals so she would be able to eat socially. He waited to see if she would return Mara’s insults, but she was the old Mara, the one who wasn’t speared with pain and fear, the one who let bullies wind themselves up if that was what they wanted to do.
Jakub looked between the girls. “Good,” he said. “We should have peace for the Sabbath.”
He went to the head of the table. It was late for the blessing, the sun skimming the horizon behind bare, black trees. He lit the candles and waved his hands over the flames to welcome Shabbat. He covered his eyes as he recited the blessing. “Barukh atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam…”
Every time he said the words that should have been Meryem’s, he remembered the way she had looked when she said them. Sometimes she peeked out from behind her fingers so that she could watch Mara. They were small, her hands, delicate like bird wings. His were large and blunt.
The girls stared at each other as Jakub said kaddish. After they washed their hands and tore the challah, Jakub served the chicken and the salad. Both children ate almost nothing and said even less.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had three for Shabbat,” Jakub said. “Perhaps we can have a good vikuekh. Mara, I saw you reading my Simic? Ruth has been reading poetry, too. Haven’t you, Ruth?”
Ruth shifted the napkin in her lap. “Yehuda Amichai,” she said. “Even a Fist Was once an Open Palm with Fingers.”
“I love the first poem in that book,” Jakub said. “I was reading it when—”
Mara’s voice broke in, so quietly that he almost didn’t hear. “Ruth?”
Jakub looked to Ruth. The new child stared silently down at her hands. Jakub cleared his throat, but she did not look up.
Jakub answered for her. “Yes?”
Mara’s expression was slack, somewhere between stunned and lifeless. “You named her Ruth.”
“She is here for you. As Ruth was there for Mara.”
Mara began to cry. It was a tiny, pathetic sound. She pushed away her plate and tossed her napkin onto the table. “How could you?”
“Ruth gives hesed to Mara,” Jakub said. “When everyone else left, Ruth stayed by her side. She expected nothing from her loving, from her kindness.”
“Du kannst nicht auf meinem rucken pishen unt mir sagen class es regen ist,” Mara said bitterly.
Jakub had never heard Mara say that before either. The crass proverb sounded wrong in her mouth. “Please, I am telling you the truth,” he said. “I wanted her name to be part of you. To come from your story. The story of Mara.”
“Is that what I am to you?” Mara asked. “Bitterness?”
“No, no. Please, no. We never thought you were bitterness. Mara was the name Meryem chose. Like Maruska, the Russian friend she left behind.” Jakub paused. “Please. I did not mean to hurt you. I thought the story would help you see. I wanted you to understand. The new child will not harm you. She’ll show you hesed.”
Mara flailed for her crutches.
Jakub stood to help. Mara was so weak that she accepted his assistance. Tears flowed down her face. She left the room as quickly as she could, refusing to look at either Jakub or the new child.
Jakub looked between her retreating form and Ruth’s silent one. The new child’s expression was almost as unsure as Jakub’s.
“Did you know?” Jakub asked. “Did you know how she’d feel?”
Ruth turned her head as if turning away from the question. “Talk to her,” she said quietly. “I’ll go back down to the basement.”
Mara sat on her bed, facing the snow. Jakub stood at the threshold. She spoke without turning. “Hesed is a hard thing,” she said. “Hard to take when you can’t give it back.”
Jakub crossed the room, past the chair he’d made her when she was little, with Meryem’s shawl hung over the back; past the hanging marionette dressed as Giselle; past the cube Mara used for her lessons in attic space. He sat beside her on her white quilt and looked at her silhouetted form against the white snow.
She leaned back toward him. Her body was brittle and delicate against his chest. He remembered sitting on that bed with Mara and Meryem, reading stories, playing with toys. Tsuris, tsuris. Life was all so fragile. He was not graceful enough to keep it from breaking.
Mara wept. He held his bas-yekhide in his large, blunt hands.
Act III: Ruth
At first, Ruth couldn’t figure out why she didn’t want to switch herself off. Mara had reconciled herself to Ruth’s existence, but in her gut, she still wanted Ruth to be gone. And Ruth was Mara, so she should have felt the same.
But no, her experiences were diverging. Mara wanted the false daughter to vanish. Mara thought Ruth was the false daughter, but Ruth knew she wasn’t false at all. She was Mara. Or had been.
Coming into existence was not so strange. She felt no peculiar doubling, no sensation that her hands weren’t hers, no impression that she had been pulled out of time and was supposed to be sleeping upstairs with her face turned toward the window.
She felt more secure in the new body than she had in Mara’s. This body was healthy, even round in places. Her balance was steady; her fingernails were pink and intact.
After abba left her the first night, Ruth found a pane of glass that he’d set aside for one of his projects. She stared at her blurred reflection. The glass showed soft, smooth cheeks. She ran her fingers over them and they confirmed that her skin was downy now instead of sunken. Clear eyes stared back at her.
Over the past few months, Mara had grown used to experiencing a new alienation every time she looked in the mirror. She’d seen a parade of strangers’ faces, each dimmer and hollower than the last.
Her face was her own again.
She spent her first days doing tests. Abba watched her jump and stretch and run on a treadmill. For hours upon hours, he recorded her answers to his questions.
It was tedious for her, but abba was fascinated by her every word and movement. Sometimes he watched as a father. Sometimes he watched as a scientist. At first Ruth chafed under his experimental gaze, but then she remembered that he had treated Mara like that, too. He’d liked to set up simple experiments to compare her progress to child development manuals. She remembered ima complaining that he’d been even worse when Mara was an infant. Ruth supposed this was the same. She’d been born again.
While he observed her, she observed him. Abba forgot that some experiments could look back.
The abba she saw was a different man than the one she remembered sitting with Mara. He’d become brooding with Mara as she grew sicker. His grief had become a deep anger with G-d. He slammed doors and cabinets, and grimaced with bitter fury when he thought she wasn’t looking. He wanted to break the world.
He still came down into the basement with that fury on his face, but as he talked to Ruth, he began to calm. The muscles in his forehead relaxed. He smiled now and then. He reached out to touch her hand, gently, as if she were a soap bubble that might break if he pressed too hard.
Then he went upstairs, back to that other Mara.
“Don’t go yet,” Ruth would beg. “We’re almost done. It won’t take much longer.”
She knew he thought she was just bored and wanted attention. But that wasn’t why she asked. She hated the storm that darkened his eyes when he went up to see the dying girl.
After a few minutes, he always said the same thing, resolute and loyal to his still-living child. “I must go, nu?”
He sent Abel down in his place. The dog thumped down and waited for her to greet him at the foot of the stairs. He whuffed hello, breath humid and smelly.
Ruth had been convinced—when she was Mara—that a dog would never show affection for a robot. Maybe Abel only liked Ruth because his sense of smell, like the rest of him, was in decline. Whatever the reason, she was Mara enough for him.
Ruth ran the treadmill while Abel watched, tail wagging. She thought about chasing him across the snowy yard, about breaking sticks off of the bare-branched trees to throw for him. She could do anything. She could run; she could dance; she could swim; she could ride. She could almost forgive abba for treating her like a prototype instead of a daughter, but she couldn’t forgive him for keeping her penned. The real Mara was stuck in the house, but Ruth didn’t have to be. It wasn’t fair to have spent so long static, waiting to die, and then suddenly be free—and still remain as trapped as she’d ever been.
After the disastrous Shabbat, she went back down to the basement and sat on one of abba’s workbenches. Abel came down after her. He leaned against her knees, warm and heavy. She patted his head.
She hadn’t known how Mara was going to react.
She should have known. She would have known if she’d thought about it. But she hadn’t considered the story of Mara and Ruth. All she’d been thinking about was that Ruth wasn’t her name.
Their experiences had branched off. They were like twins who’d shared the womb only to be delivered into a world where each new event was a small alienation, until their individual experiences separated them like a chasm.
One heard a name and wanted her own back. One heard a name and saw herself as bitterness.
One was living. One was dying.
She was still Mara enough to feel the loneliness of it.
The dog’s tongue left a trail of slobber across the back of her hand. He pushed his head against her. He was warm and solid, and she felt tears threatening, and wasn’t sure why. It might have been grief for Mara. Perhaps it was just the unreasonable relief that someone still cared about her. Even though it was miserly to crave attention when Mara was dying, she still felt the gnaw of wondering whether abba would still love her when Mara was gone, or whether she’d become just a machine to him, one more painful reminder.
She jumped off of the table and went to sit in the dark, sheltered place beneath it. There was security in small places—in closets, under beds, beneath the desk in her room. Abel joined her, pushing his side against hers. She curled around him and switched her brain to sleep.
After Shabbat, there was no point in separating Ruth and Mara anymore. Abba told Ruth she could go wherever she wanted. He asked where she wanted to sleep. “We can put a mattress in the parlor,” he said. When she didn’t react, he added, “Or the studio…?”
She knew he didn’t want her in the studio. Mara was mostly too tired to leave her room now, but abba would want to believe that she was still sneaking into the studio to watch ima’s videos.
Ruth wanted freedom, but it didn’t matter where she slept.
“I’ll stay in the basement,” she said.
When she’d had no choice but to stay in the basement, she’d felt like a compressed coil that might spring uncontrollably up the stairs at any moment. Now that she was free to move around, it didn’t seem so urgent. She could take her time a little, choose those moments when going upstairs wouldn’t make things worse, such as when abba and Mara were both asleep, or when abba was sitting with Mara in her room.
Once she’d started exploring, she realized it was better that she was on her own anyway. Moving through the house was dreamlike, a strange blend of familiarity and alienation. These were rooms she knew like her skin, and yet she, as Ruth, had never entered them. The handprint impressed into the clay tablet on the wall wasn’t hers; it was Mara’s. She could remember the texture of the clay as she pushed in her palm, but it hadn’t been her palm. She had never sat at the foot of the plush, red chair in the parlor while ima brushed her hair. The scuff marks on the hardwood in the hallway were from someone else’s shoes.
As she wandered from room to room, she realized that on some unconscious level, when she’d been Mara, she’d believed that moving into a robotic body would clear the haze of memories that hung in the house. She’d imagined a robot would be a mechanical, sterile thing. In reality, ima still haunted the kitchen where she’d cooked, and the studio where she’d danced, and the bathroom where she’d died.
Change wasn’t exorcism.
Ruth remained restless. She wanted more than the house. For the first time in months, she found herself wanting to visit attic space, even though her flock was even worse about handling cancer than adults, who were bad enough. The pity in Collin’s eyes, especially, had made her want to puke so much that she hadn’t even let herself think about him. Mara had closed the door on her best friend early in the process of closing the doors on her entire life.
She knew abba would be skeptical, though, so she wanted to bring it up in a way that seemed casual. She waited for him to come down to the workshop for her daily exam, and tried to broach the subject as if it were an afterthought.
“I think I should go back to the attic,” she ventured. “I’m falling behind. My flock is moving on without me.”
Abba looked up from the screen, frowning. He worried his hands in a way that had become troublingly familiar. “They know Mara is sick.”
“I’ll pretend to be sick,” Ruth said. “I can fake it.”
She’d meant to sound detached, as if her interest in returning to school was purely pragmatic, but she couldn’t keep the anticipation out of her tone.
“I should go back now before it’s been too long,” she said. “I can pretend I’m starting to feel better. We don’t want my recovery to look too sudden.”
“It is not a good idea,” abba said. “It would only add another complication. If you did not pretend correctly? If people noticed? You are still new-made. Another few weeks and you will know better how to control your body.”
“I’m bored,” Ruth said. Making another appeal to his scholarly side, she added, “I miss studying.”
“You can study. You’ve been enjoying the poetry, yes? There is so much for you to read.”
“It’s not the same.” Ruth knew she was on the verge of whining, but she couldn’t make her voice behave.
Abba paused, trepidation playing over his features as he considered his response. “Ruth, I have thought on this…I do not think it is good for you to go back to attic space. They will know you. They might see that something is wrong. We will find you another program for home learning.”
Ruth stared. “You want me to leave attic space?” Almost everyone she knew, apart from abba and a few people in town, was from the attic. After a moment’s thought, the implications were suddenly leaden in her mind. “You don’t just want me to stop going for school, do you? You want me to stop seeing them at all.”
Abba’s mouth pursed around words he didn’t want to say.
“Everyone?” asked Ruth. “Collin? Everyone?”
Abba wrung his hands. “I am sorry, Mara. I only want to protect you.”
“Ruth!” Ruth said.
“Ruth,” abba murmured. “Please. I am sorry, Ruthele.”
Ruth swallowed hard, trying to push down sudden desperation. She hadn’t wanted the name. She didn’t want the name. But she didn’t want to be confused for the Mara upstairs either. She wanted him to be there with her, talking to her.
“You can’t keep me stuck here just because she is!” she said, meaning the words to bite. “She’s the one who’s dying. Not me.”
Abba flinched. “You are so angry,” he said quietly. “I thought, now that you were well—You did not used to be so angry.”
“You mean Mara didn’t used to be so angry,” Ruth said. A horrible thought struck her and she felt cold that she hadn’t thought of it before. “How am I going to grow up? Am I going to be stuck like this? Eleven, like she is, forever?”
“No, Ruth, I will build you new bodies,” said abba. “Bodies are easy. It is the mind that is difficult.”
“You just want me to be like her,” Ruth said.
Abba fumbled for words. “I want you to be yourself.”
“Then let me go do things! You can’t hide me here forever.”
“Please, Ruth. A little patience.”
Ruth swung off of the stool. The connectors in her wrist and neck tore loose and she threw them to the floor. She ran for the stairs, crashing into one of the diagnostic machines and knocking it over before making it to the bottom step.
Abba said nothing. Behind her, she heard the small noise of effort that he made as he lowered himself to the floor to retrieve the equipment.
It was strange to feel such bright-hot anger again. Like abba, she’d thought that the transfer had restored her even temper. But apparently the anger she’d learned while she was Mara couldn’t just be forgotten.
She spent an hour pacing the parlor, occasionally grabbing books off of a shelf, flipping through them as she walked, and then putting them down in random locations. The brightness of the anger faded, although the sense of injustice remained.
Later, abba came up to see her. He stood with mute pleading, not wanting to reopen the argument but obviously unable to bear continuing to fight.
Even though Ruth hadn’t given in yet, even though she was still burning from the unfairness, she couldn’t look into his sad eyes without feeling thickness in her throat.
He gestured helplessly. “I just want to keep you safe, Ruthele.”
They sat together on the couch without speaking. They were both entrenched in their positions. It seemed to Ruth that they were both trying to figure out how to make things right without giving in, how to keep fighting without wounding.
Abel paced between them, shoving his head into Ruth’s lap, and then into abba’s, back and forth. Ruth patted his head and he lingered with her a moment, gazing up with rheumy but devoted eyes.
Arguing with abba wasn’t going to work. He hadn’t liked her taking risks before she’d gotten sick, but afterward, keeping her safe had become obsession, which was why Ruth was even alive. He was a scientist, though; he liked evidence. She’d just have to show him it was safe.
Ruth didn’t like to lie, but she’d do it. In a tone of grudging acceptance, she said, “You’re right. It’s too risky for me to go back.”
“We will find you new friends,” abba said. “We will be together. That’s what is important.”
Ruth bided her time for a few days. Abba might have been watching her more closely if he hadn’t been distracted with Mara. Instead, when he wasn’t at Mara’s bedside or examining Ruth, he drifted mechanically through the house, registering little.
Ruth had learned a lot about engineering from watching her father. Attic space wasn’t complicated technology. The program came on its own cube which meant it was entirely isolated from the household AI and its notification protocols. It also came with standard parental access points that had been designed to favor ease of use over security—which meant there were lots of back-end entryways.
Abba didn’t believe in restricting access to knowledge so he’d made it even easier by deactivating the nanny settings on Mara’s box as soon as she was old enough to navigate attic space on her own.
Ruth waited until nighttime when Mara was drifting in and out of her fractured, painful sleep, and abba had finally succumbed to exhaustion. Abba had left a light on in the kitchen, but it didn’t reach the hallway to Mara’s room, which fell in stark shadow. Ruth felt her way to Mara’s threshold and put her ear to the door. She could hear the steady, sleeping rhythm of Mara’s breath inside.
She cracked the door. Moonlight spilled from the window over the bed, allowing her to see inside. It was the first time she’d seen the room in her new body. It looked the same as it had. Mara was too sick to fuss over books or possessions, and so the objects sat in their places, ordered but dusty. Apart from the lump that Mara’s body made beneath the quilt, the room looked as if it could have been abandoned for days.
The attic space box sat on a low shelf near the door. It fit in the palm of Ruth’s hand. The fading image on its exterior showed the outline of a house with people inside, rendered in a style that was supposed to look like a child’s drawing. It was the version they put out for five-year-olds. Abba had never replaced it. A waste of money, he said, when he could upgrade it himself.
Ruth looked up at the sound of blankets shifting. One of Mara’s hands slipped free from the quilt. Her fingers dangled over the side of the bed, the knuckles exaggerated on thin bones. Inflamed cuticles surrounded her ragged nails.
Ruth felt a sting of revulsion and chastised herself. Those hands had been hers. She had no right to be repulsed.
The feeling faded to an ache. She wanted to kneel by the bed and take Mara’s hand into her own. She wanted to give Mara the shelter and empathy that abba had built her to give. But she knew how Mara felt about her. Taking Mara’s hand would not be hesed. The only loving kindness she could offer now was to leave.
As Ruth sat in ima’s studio, carefully disassembling the box’s hardware so that she could jury-rig it to interact with the television, it occurred to her that abba would have loved helping her with this project. He loved scavenging old technology. He liked to prove that cleverness could make tools of anything.
The complicated VR equipment that made it possible to immerse in attic space was far too bulky for Ruth to steal from Mara’s room without being caught. She thought she could recreate a sketchy, winnowed down version of the experience using low technology replacements from the television and other scavenged equipment. Touch, smell and taste weren’t going to happen, but an old stereo microphone allowed her to transmit on the voice channel. She found a way to instruct the box to send short bursts of visuals to the television, although the limited scope and speed would make it like walking down a hallway illuminated by a strobe light.
She sat cross-legged on the studio floor and logged in. It was the middle of the night, but usually at least someone from the flock was around. She was glad to see it was Collin this time, tweaking an experiment with crystal growth. Before she’d gotten sick, Ruth probably would have been there with him. They liked going in at night when there weren’t many other people around.
She saw a still of Collin’s hand over a delicate formation, and then another of him looking up, startled. “Mara?” he asked. “Is that you?”
His voice cracked when he spoke, sliding from low to high. It hadn’t been doing that before.
“Hi, Collin,” she said.
“Your avatar looks weird.” She could imagine Collin squinting to investigate her image, but the television continued to show his initial look of surprise.
She was using a video skin capture from the last time Mara had logged in, months ago. Without a motion reader, it was probably just standing there, breathing and blinking occasionally, with no expression on its face.
“I’m on a weird connection,” Ruth said.
“Is it because you’re sick?” Collin’s expression of concern flashed onscreen. “Can I see what you really like? It’s okay. I’ve seen videos. I won’t be grossed out or anything. I missed you. I thought—we weren’t sure you were coming back. We were working on a video to say goodbye.”
Ruth shifted uncomfortably. She’d wanted to go the attic so she could get on with living, not to be bogged down in dying. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
The next visual showed a flash of Colin’s hand, blurred with motion as he raised it to his face. “We did some stuff with non-Newtonian fluids,” he said tentatively. “You’d have liked it. We got all gross.”
“Did you throw them around?” she asked.
“Goo fight,” Collin agreed. He hesitated. “Are you coming back? Are you better?”
“Well—” Ruth began.
“Everyone will want to know you’re here. Let me ping them.”
“No. I just want to talk to you.”
A new picture: Collin moving closer to her avatar, his face now crowding the narrow rectangle of her vision.
“I looked up osteosarcoma. They said you had lung nodules. Mara, are you really better? Are you really coming back?”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But everyone will want to know.”
Suddenly, Ruth wanted to be anywhere but attic space. Abba was right. She couldn’t go back. Not because someone might find out but because everyone was going to want to know, what about Mara? They were going to want to know about Mara all the time. They were going to want to drag Ruth back into that sick bed, with her world narrowing toward death, when all she wanted was to move on.
And it was even worse now than it would have been half an hour ago, before she’d gone into Mara’s room and seen her raw, tender hand, and thought about what it would be like to grasp it.
“I have to go,” Ruth said.
“At least let me ping Violet,” Collin said.
“I’ll be back,” Ruth answered. “I’ll see you later.”
On the television: Collin’s skeptical face, brows drawn, the shine in his eyes that showed he thought she was lying.
“I promise,” she said, hesitating only a moment before she tore the attic space box out of her jury-rigged web of wires.
Tears were filling her eyes and she couldn’t help the sob. She threw the box. It skittered across the wooden floor until it smacked into the mirror. The thing was so old and knocked about that any hard collision might kill it, but what did that matter now? She wasn’t going back.
She heard a sound from the doorway and looked up. She saw abba, standing behind the cracked door.
Ruth’s anger flashed to a new target. “Why are you spying on me?”
“I came to check on Mara,” abba said.
He didn’t have to finish for his meaning to be clear. He’d heard someone in the studio and hoped it could still be his Marale.
He made a small gesture toward the attic space box. “It did not go well,” he said quietly, statement rather than question.
Ruth turned her head away. He’d been right, about everything he’d said, all the explicit things she’d heard, and all the implicit things she hadn’t wanted to.
She pulled her knees toward her chest. “I can’t go back,” she said.
Abba stroked her hair. “I know.”
The loss of attic space hurt less than she’d thought it would. Mara had sealed off those tender spaces, and those farewells had a final ring. She’d said goodbye to Collin a long time ago.
What bothered her more was the lesson it forced; her life was never going to be the same, and there was no way to deny it. Mara would die and be gone, and Ruth had to learn to be Ruth, whoever Ruth was. That was what had scared Mara about Ruth in the first place.
The restlessness that had driven her into attic space still itched her. She started taking walks in the snow with Abel. Abba didn’t try to stop her.
She stopped reading Jewish poetry and started picking up books on music theory. She practiced sight reading and toe-tapped the beats, imagining choreographies.
Wednesdays, when abba planned the menu for Shabbat, Ruth sat with him as he wrote out the list he would take to Gerry’s on Thursday. As he imagined dishes, he talked about how Mara would like the honey he planned to infuse in the carrots, or the raisins and figs he would cook with the rice. He wondered what they should talk about—poetry, physics, international politics—changing his mind as new topics occurred to him.
Ruth wondered how he kept hoping. As Mara, she’d always known her boundaries before abba realized them. As Ruth, she knew, as clearly as Mara must, that Mara would not eat with them.
Perhaps it was cruel not to tell him, but to say it felt even crueler.
On a Thursday while abba was taking the truck to town, Ruth was looking through ima’s collection of sheet music in the parlor when she heard the click of crutches down the hall. She turned to find Mara was behind her, breathing heavily.
“Oh,” said Ruth. She tried to hide the surprise in her voice but failed.
“You didn’t think I could get up on my own.”
Mara’s voice was thin.
“I…” Ruth began before catching the angry look of resolution on Mara’s face. “No. I didn’t.”
“Of course not,” Mara said bitterly. She began another sentence, but was interrupted by a ragged exhalation as she started to collapse against the wall. Ruth rushed to support her. Mara accepted her assistance without acknowledging it, as if it were beneath notice.
“Are you going to throw up?” Ruth asked quietly.
“I’m off the chemo.”
Mara’s weight fell heavily on Ruth’s shoulder. She shifted her balance, determined not
to let Mara slip.
“Let me take you back to bed,” Ruth said.
Mara answered, “I wanted to see you again.”
“I’ll take you. We can talk in there.”
Ruth took Mara’s silence as assent. Abandoning the crutches, she supported Mara’s weight as they headed back into the bedroom. In daylight, the room looked too bright, its creams and whites unsullied.
Mara’s heaving eased as Ruth helped her into the bed, but her lungs were still working hard. Ruth waited until her breathing came evenly.
Ruth knelt by the bed, the way abba always had, and then wondered if that was a mistake. Mara might see Ruth as trying to establish power over her. She ducked her gaze for a moment, the way Abel might if he were ashamed, hoping Mara would see she didn’t mean to challenge her.
“What did you want to say to me?” Ruth asked. “It’s okay if you want to yell.”
“Be glad,” Mara said, “That you didn’t have to go this far.”
Mara’s gaze slid down Ruth’s face. It slowly took in her smooth skin and pink cheeks.
Ruth opened her mouth to respond, but Mara continued.
“It’s a black hole. It takes everything in. You can see yourself falling. The universe doesn’t look like it used to. Everything’s blacker. So much blacker. And you know when you’ve hit the moment when you can’t escape. You’ll never do anything but fall.”
Ruth extended her hand toward Mara’s, the way she’d wanted to the other night, but stopped before touching her. She fumbled for something to say.
Flatly, Mara said, “I am glad at least someone will get away.”
With great effort, she turned toward the window.
“Go away now.”
She shouldn’t have, but Ruth stood at the door that night when abba went in to check on Mara. She watched him kneel by the bed and take her hand. Mara barely moved in response, still staring out the window, but her fingers tensed around his, clutching him. Ruth remembered the way abba’s hand had felt when she was sleepless and in pain, a solid anchor in a fading world.
She thought of what abba had said to her when she was still Mara, and made silent promises to the other girl. I will keep you and hold you. I will protect you. I will always have your hand in mine.
In the morning, when Ruth came back upstairs, she peeked through the open door to see abba still there beside Mara, lying down instead of kneeling, his head pillowed on the side of her mattress.
She walked back down the hallway and to the head of the stairs. Drumming on her knees, she called for Abel. He lumbered toward her, the thump of his tail reassuringly familiar. She ruffled his fur and led him into the parlor where she slipped on his leash.
Wind chill took the outside temperature substantially below freezing, but she hesitated before putting on her coat. She ran her hand across the “skin” of her arm. It was robotic skin, not human skin. She’d looked at some of the schematics that abba had left around downstairs and started to wonder about how different she really was from a human. He’d programmed her to feel vulnerable to cold, but was she really?
She put the coat back on its hook and led Abel out the door. Immediately, she started shivering, but she ignored the bite. She wanted to know what she could do.
She trudged across the yard to the big, bony oak. She snapped off a branch, made Abel sit while she unhooked his leash, and threw the branch as far as she could. Abel’s dash left dents in the snow. He came back to her, breath a warm relief on her hand, the branch slippery with slobber.
She threw it again and wondered what she could achieve if abba hadn’t programmed her body to think it was Mara’s. He’d given her all of Mara’s limits. She could run as fast as Mara, but not faster. Calculate as accurately as Mara, but no moreso.
Someday, she and abba would have to talk about that.
She tossed the stick again, and Abel ran, and again, and again, until he was too tired to continue. He watched the branch fly away as he leaned against Mara’s leg for support.
She gave his head a deep scratch. He shivered and he bit at the air near her hand. She realized her cold fingers were hurting him. For her, the cold had ceased to be painful, though she was still shivering now and then.
“Sorry, boy, sorry,” she said. She reattached his leash, and watched how, despite the temperature, her fingers moved without any stiffness at all.
She headed back to the house, Abel making pleased whuffing noises to indicate that he approved of their direction. She stopped on the porch to stamp the snow off of her feet. Abel shook himself, likewise, and Ruth quickly dusted off what he’d missed.
She opened the door and Abel bounded in first, Ruth laughing and trying to keep her footing as he yanked on the leash. He was old and much weaker than he had been, but an excited burst of doggy energy could still make her rock. She stumbled in after him, the house dim after her cold hour outside.
Abba was in the parlor, standing by the window from which he’d have been able to see them play. He must have heard them come in, but he didn’t look toward her until she tentatively called his name.
He turned and looked her over, surveying her bare arms and hands, but he gave no reaction. She could see from his face that it was over.
He wanted to bury her alone. She didn’t argue.
He would plant Mara in the yard, perhaps under the bony tree, but more likely somewhere else in the lonely acreage, unmarked. She didn’t know how he planned to dig in the frozen ground, but he was a man of many contraptions. Mara would always be out there, lost in the snow.
When he came back, he clutched her hand as he had clutched Mara’s. It was her turn to be what abba had been for Mara, the anchor that kept him away from the lip of the black hole, the one steady thing in a dissolving world.
They packed the house without discussing it. Ruth understood what was happening as soon as she saw abba filling the first box with books. Probably she’d known for some time, on the fringe of her consciousness, that they would have to do this. As they wrapped dishes in tissue paper, and sorted through old papers, they shared silent grief at leaving the yellow house that abba had built with Meryem, and that both Mara and Ruth had lived in all their lives.
Abba had enough money that he didn’t need to sell the property. The house would remain owned and abandoned in the coming years.
It was terrible to go, but it also felt like a necessary marker, a border bisecting her life. It was one more way in which she was becoming Ruth.
They stayed in town for one last Shabbat. The process of packing the house had altered their sense of time, making the hours seem foreshortened and stretched at turns.
Thursday passed without their noticing, leaving them to buy their groceries on Friday. Abba wanted to drive into town on his own, but Ruth didn’t want him to be alone yet.
Reluctantly, she agreed to stay in the truck when they got there. Though abba had begun to tell people that she was recovering, it would be best if no one got a chance to look at her up close. They might realize something was wrong. It would be easier wherever they moved next; strangers wouldn’t always be comparing her to a ghost.
Abba was barely out of the truck before Gerry caught sight of them through the window and came barreling out of the door. Abba tried to get in his way. Rapidly, he stumbled out the excuse that he and Ruth had agreed on, that it was good for her to get out of the house, but she was still too tired to see anyone.
“A minute won’t hurt,” said Gerry. He pushed past abba. With a huge grin, he knocked on Ruth’s window.
Hesitantly, she rolled it down. Gerry crossed his arms on the sill, leaning his head into the vehicle. “Look at you!” he exclaimed. “Your daddy said you were getting better, but just look at you!”
Ruth couldn’t help but grin. Abel’s tail began to thump as he pushed himself into the front seat to get a better look at his favorite snack provider.
“I have to say, after you didn’t come the last few weeks…” Gerry wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I’m just glad to see you, Mara, I really am.”
At the sound of the name, Ruth looked with involuntary shock at abba, who gave a sad little smile that Gerry couldn’t see. He took a step forward. “Please, Gerry. She needs to rest.”
Gerry looked back at him, opened his mouth to argue, and then looked back at Ruth and nodded. “Okay then. But next week, I expect some free cashier work!” He leaned in to kiss her cheek. He smelled of beef and rosemary. “You get yourself back here, Mara. And you keep kicking that cancer in the rear end.”
With a glance back at the truck to check that Mara was okay, abba followed Gerry into the store. Twenty minutes later, he returned with two bags of groceries, which he put in the bed of the truck. As he started the engine, he said, “Gerry is a good man. I will miss him.” He paused. “But it is better to have you, Mara.”
Ruth looked at him with icy surprise, breath caught in her throat.
Her name was her own again. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
The sky was bronzing when they arrived home.
On the stove, cholent simmered, filling the house with its scent. Abba went to check on it before the sun set, and Ruth followed him into the kitchen, preparing to pull out the dishes and the silverware and the table cloth.
He waved her away. “Next time. This week, let me.”
Ruth went into ima’s studio. She’d hadn’t gone inside since the disaster it attic space, and her gaze lingered on the attic box, still lying dead on the floor.
“I’d like to access a DVD of ima’s performances,” she told the AI. “Coppélia, please.”
The audience’s rumblings began and she instructed the AI to fast-forward until Coppélia was onstage. She held her eyes closed and tipped her head down until it was the moment to snap into life, to let her body flow, fluid and graceful, mimicking the dancer on the screen.
She’d thought it would be cathartic to dance the part of the doll, and in a way it was, but once the moment was over, she surprised herself by selecting another disc instead of continuing. She tried to think of a comedy that she wanted to dance, and surprised herself further by realizing that she wanted to dance a tragedy instead. Mara had needed the comedies, but Ruth needed to feel the ache of grace and sorrow; she needed to feel the pull of the black hole even as she defied its gravity and danced, en pointe, on its edge.
When the light turned violet, abba came to the door, and she followed him into the kitchen. He lit the candles, and she waited for him to begin the prayers, but instead he stood aside.
It took her a moment to understand what he wanted.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Please, Marale,” he answered.
Slowly, she moved into the space where he should have been standing. The candles burned on the table beneath her. She waved her hands through the heat and thickness of the smoke, and then lifted them to cover her eyes.
She said, “Barukh atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu, l’had’lik neir shel Shabbat.”
She breathed deeply, inhaling the scents of honey and figs and smoke.
She opened her eyes again. Behind her, she heard abba’s breathing, and somewhere in the dark of the house, Abel’s snoring as he napped in preparation for after-dinner begging. The candles filled her vision as if she’d never seen them before. Bright white and gold flames trembled, shining against the black of the outside sky, so fragile they could be extinguished by a breath.