Deep Dark Blue
An excerpt from Uncovered, a memoir of a hassidic woman
by Leah Lax
Both little ones go back to sleep mid-morning after the others are off. The house seems to be waiting for end of day, for in out door slams, the smell of sweaty children, games and fights, homework and dinner, baths and bedtime. What’s new is that for a few hours each day the house is my private space, alone with this new little voice that in the quiet I can’t help but hear.
The rabbi’s admonition after he permitted the abortion pings through my days. No one must know. One step out of the circle, and it’s a threat to the whole. Any of us could lose status if we did that, lose husbands, friends, our children shunned as well. Maybe that’s why we’re so afraid of gossip, and probably why we deflect gossip by passing it on.
There are more secrets among us. Many. Plenty are open secrets. We all collude.
The weight grows. No one must know. Finally I think, if I can’t speak about it, I’ll write.
Late one night, I sit up in a pool of liquid light at the bedroom desk, at the computer. Levi’s papers are piled at one side of the room, his sleeping form behind me. Shalom is in the bassinet nearby. He’s finally stretching his sleeping hours.
No one must know. I’m afraid. I decide I can’t write the actual story. I’ll just put down the sense of it, not the facts.
But then, I don’t have the words.
So I sit and wait. Around me, shadow piles of boxes, stacks of religious books, business books, a deeper shadow through the blinds and across my hands from the lone tree in the yard. Snuffling from the baby. Levi’s light snore.
Nothing. Shalom whimpers, then sinks back into sleep with tiny sucking sounds.
There’s a ghost girl in the room in elastic waist shorts and a sleeveless top, long sand-colored hair. She’s reaching out as if blind, creeping down a hallway toward her mother.
Who do I think I am. I wonder what I dared think I might write. I don’t know the answer. I think of the years of swallowing words, always waiting, attending, in my covered silence.
Soon the ghost girl will learn to climb the cottonwood tree in front of her home with a journal and a pencil tucked into her waistband, up to the rooftop where she’ll write and muse and wonder, her back against the warm brick chimney, chewing on her pencil. She becomes a dot in a vast field of roofs and treetops and sky.
But she had words. Now my “we” overshadows my “I,” and we have no language for what I’m trying to do. We don’t have language of our own.
What do I do when the very act of writing threatens the “we?”
Who is this tiny “I” that is left?
Well, I think, trying. I’m a flawed mother, but, I’m a mother. A mother is a bridge to new language. That’s who she is. Maybe from motherhood I’ll know what to do. I’ll find the words. At least I’ll know not to give up.
So I write a single word. It stands bare and exposed on the page. Uncovered.
I plunge down, down, beneath the long modest dress, trying to see more of who is there, so that she can write.
Levi takes off his glasses and folds the earpieces in, first one, then the other, lays them face up on the counter in front of the mirror. Then he moves them farther away from the edge in a precise and measured gesture. He’s at the vanity, ready for me to cut his hair. “Okay,” he says.
I cup his chin in my hand, feel the bony contour beneath his black wire beard going gray. I turn his face to me. His dark brown eyes still spell out an earnest necessity that once almost held me. He trusts me, I think, as I trace the curve of his head with the clippers, high forehead, receding hairline, the gentle curve above of his ears and long neck. I mow a month of hair away, careful to leave an extra tuft over his temples as the Law requires. I trim his wild eyebrows with a comb and scissor, his breath warm on my hand. He is uncoiled for now, I think, but his shoulders, they’ve curved. I think, he’s shrinking. This man has a fear of falling. He clings to the set order of items on his dresser; his comb, his wallet, his keys.
But his dresser, his piles of stuff, his work to support us, his hours each day whispering prayers in a tense and driven kind of obedience, are on the other other side of the door. The trimmer hums between us. I run my hand over his head, brush off the broad shoulders. Then we clean up the shavings together, like freshly cut black grass.
“Leah,” he says.
“What?” I say. I can’t make myself want him. I don’t know how to make him want me. I don’t even know if I want him to want me. For a moment, I stop blaming him for my loneliness.
“Thank you,” he says. He looks almost shy.
“Oh,” I say. “The haircut. You’re welcome.”
I am often pulled to the computer at night now, although most of the time I just sit and think, then write hanging phrases, cryptic unfinished poems, nothing more. I don’t know how to pull words out of years of silence, and I don’t know why I keep trying. Trying doesn’t give me relief. Maybe I keep writing because it feels as if I’ve stepped one tiny step into some vast space, some place where I know there’s a breathtaking view if I could just get it into focus. Or maybe I keep doing it because, with each day, I’m more fascinated with trying to attach words to wordless things, like hooking them to clouds.
But sometimes connections actually happen. When they do, I don’t quite know who it is that made them. Each night, I’m oddly surprised to see words appear in front of me. It’s like hearing from a stranger.
One night, I dream I am at the computer when the women of our group suddenly appear streaming across my screen. They are women of many shapes and sizes, the young ones still in their own hair, but they are all dressed alike and they all move in step, all facing the same direction, flowing on in a steady, relentless, silent stream. Then one of them stops. The others part around her and move on but the woman stays, an island in a moving current. She turns and looks at me and her eyes are as blue as daylight, as blue as my own. I can’t move, can’t take my eyes off of her. The women continue to pass, but she doesn’t move. Then she lifts one hand and smiles, beckoning to me.
She is waiting for me. I feel myself lean forward. I am drawn to her and to the other women, even though I know that the draw is toward some combination of bliss and oblivion. I stand up, reaching for her hand. I take a step forward.
Then she begins to sing to me. Her voice comes out as a man’s voice, a deep, grinding bass. I stop still. She is eviscerated, a soulless shell of a woman inhabited with a very old voice, the voice of rabbis, of men. A woman possessed. Eishis chayil, a woman of valor, she sings in that terrifying bass, who can find?
I wake up, sit up in the bed, shock vibrating through me.
More weeks, months. Finally, I write a story, a whole story, line after line. The woman in the story, Liba, she’s not me, I am sure of that, although she is also hassidic with many children, also defines herself through motherhood, also becomes driven to end a pregnancy she feels threatens her wellbeing. The difference is that her husband is her great love. She will discover within herself the ability to take his hand and lead him through this trial. They’ll come out of it together. And in stepping outside of the Law, she will find herself.
Also, she has eight children—as if my eighth got to live.
I buy a wire cart on wheels, wide and low to the ground. I print out the story and then delete it from the computer. I drop the pages into the cart and shove the cart deep under my bed to hide it there, just before I fall into the bed for the few hours left before morning.
Lying there, triumphant, scared, I think of our group. We are people of mystical words. God made the world with such words, words that create worlds. But our venerated writers are bearded scholars of the Law. Women who write, they write marginal work, in a man’s voice, and they write only for women, only to convince them to stay carefully within the fence of the Law.
The more that I do this odd thing, the more I seem to stand apart, and I don’t understand this need. I think of the stony silence the other women aim at anyone out of line.
In a way, I think, lying there, there is no group. We’re each alone with our secrets. I picture the stark isolation of a Giacometti figure, and then a whole field of them, set out on a colorless plane.
November, 1989. Shalom is ten months old. While the children shovel in cereal and milk before school, I open the newspaper to find that the Berlin Wall is coming down. I rush to the table, lay out the page. “Look!” I say, and try to make them understand the decades of remorseless cutoff for the people of East Berlin, what it might have been to have been kept in that box. And now, this opening, this freedom.
The children look bored. They don’t understand, as if blind to the fence of the Law. They look blankly at the page.
Within days, I will read of Rostropovich flying to Berlin to play Bach’s cello suites at the wall just before it comes down. The master sits down in front of the wall with his cello, his chair on the cracked concrete walk, puts bow to string, and plays. I can hear the music. It is sober, elegiac, yet resounding with understated harmony and joy.
Weeks pass. One story wasn’t enough. I’m at the computer every night now by around ten and don’t stop until three or four in the morning, or later. I write on and on, hundreds of pages. I don’t know why I do that.
My own secret wasn’t enough. It seems I am of the group, even now: bits of their secrets seep into my work as if they are my own—their open secrets, half-hidden problems. I write many more stories, and I fill them with sin and fear of gossip and struggles with faith.
In the morning, Levi notices the wire cart. “What’s that?” he says.
“Stuff I’ve been writing. Personal papers.”
“Oh,” he says. “I heard the printer last night.” But he’s distracted, late for work. He puts on his suit jacket, grabs his briefcase, rushes off.
All day I think, I am one terrible mother. I don’t know why I keep writing that stuff. If it got out, my husband could leave us, and in the community, my family would be labeled, ostracized. No one would let their children marry ours.
Worst of all, I’m not writing to inspire people to God. My newest secret: I don’t want to bring people to God. I don’t want God hovering between the lines, like a stowaway.
The group is a wall of eyes.
I share what I’ve written with no one.