Battlement of Rubies
by Barbara Einzig
1 While all this was going on, they were trying to prepare for the event, the bat mitsvah, the rite of passage. It was not like anything they had done before, either singly or together. They were a family of two -- a mother and a daughter, with the father usually visited by plane and now expected shortly with other guests from out of town.
They lived in a snug high-rise apartment flooded from the north with light and a magnificent view of the Hudson and through the front door with waves of the stuff that now accompanies growing up. As in most families, none of it had been foretold but one thing led to another, and they had settled by continually working in New York in a big building that could not burn down.
In this eastern city the Jewish girls studied Hebrew after their regular school was over, and so the daughter, a very bright and high-spirited redhead named Sarah, began to study with the others, although her mother had come from a perplexed background and had only learned the aleph and the beth and gone no further.
Without the benefit of this knowledge the mother had understood (in translation) and assembled many stories of preparations, events, aftermaths, births and deaths, creations and destructions. But out of all of these stories not one was a continuous family story of a family of two in history and with ancestors. When the mother had been the daughter's age she had been glad to try out many new things, but her own mother called it "going your own way," and said they would never be close again, for her daughter was not worthy. And she stuck to that story. The story of Carol's husband, the father, is a sad story and cannot fit here.
The rabbi was orthodox. Aware of the imperiled state of this tradition, he was intent upon creating new openings. Girls read from the book of Prophets, Sarah's portion being from the Book of Isaiah, the part about Noah and the flood. At the morning services the rabbi made a prayer for the president of our nation, and he told about how in synagogues all over the world this same portion was being read. The mother imagined this all happening in one moment, although she knew that times all over the earth are different, and so really the singing is not in unison but is more like a round.
The rabbi said that the sages had differed concerning the word used in the directions for Noah's ark. Some said it meant "window," an opening, but others held it was "crystal," referring to the world of ship-building. Carol had seen on a replica of Captain Cook's ship small upside-down pyramids of glass set into the ceiling, through which light, magnified, streamed in to the hold. The sages had wondered if those within the ark could look out at the destruction of the world while all this was going on. And if they could, in what way were they still part of that world? For in a more superior generation, said the rabbi, a man like Noah might have been considered an ordinary man and not a righteous one, but living in a time of so much corruption he must be considered the only one worthy of that hold, that hold into which the light was beautifully let in by these things of some stone, something right in front of them that might have been opaque or transparent.
2 On the morning before the family was to arrive, Carol and her daughter Sarah felt imperiled, as if there were something heretical in their trying to do this thing themselves, unblessed by those usually in attendance at such ceremonies. Above them the air was crowded with the burdens of the past, things that those who came before them found too terrible to look at. Sarah was supposed to go to school now and her mother to attend to all the arrangements remaining. This afternoon, Sarah's dad and her best friends from Boston would arrive. The aunts from California, Maggie and Ellen, were already here, asleep in a borrowed apartment downstairs. Carol, a morning person, willed everything to go forward, especially today. She stood by the ordinary window, resting against the cold metal sill. Far below, the ferry pulled in to the dock with its deck full of strangers, jostling the white canvas tent still glowing with sulfur lights. The people on the boat got out and hastened toward the city, as they did every day. How was it possible? Arriving together in unison before scattering to jobs, their black-and-white clothes were faintly visible in the lifting darkness. They reminded Carol of cows seen roaming farmlands from a rolled-down window on a car trip. The sky above the river was stacked with clouds, and a breeze that was part of winter pulled the surface of the water in a number of directions at once, like a sheet going over a bed being made.
The night before her mother had watched Sarah standing before the bathroom mirror, one hand expertly lifting her great mane of red hair. She had just returned from studying with the rabbi and was confident of everything except the last two lines. "I'm not going to be prepared," said Sarah gravely.
"You will do just fine," her mother said, thinking that she too was unprepared. To understand what her daughter had been studying, she had been reading Isaiah: "So you shall summon a nation you did not know,/And a nation that did not know you/Shall come running to you ..." Two nights before this Uncle Ben, Carol's mother's brother, and his wife Rose had called from West Bloomfield, Michigan, to say they were getting in the car to drive to New York. She had last seen them in fifth grade. Ben sounded charmingly reckless as he explained that they were driving, as if this were a trick that would make them get there sooner. "Have a good trip," Carol called out loudly and cheerfully, as if the telephone were a recent invention.
3 She tugged on her daughter's foot, still encased in the athletic sock she had been wearing before collapsing on the bed the night before. She opened the blinds a little more. Sarah cringed as a ray of unexpected, violet light was reflected from the giant mirrored building onto the innocent plain of her warm skin. Crying out as if wounded, she fled to the bathroom. Through the closed door, Carol heard Sarah chanting. It sounded expert, not like practice, natural. Soon she pulled her backpack onto her thin frame and kissed her mom goodbye, out the door.
4 The doorbell rang almost immediately. It was Maggie, dressed and ready to go find whatever blossoms the farmers had delivered today. She drank her tea without milk and without sugar, and explained she had done this a million times in Seattle, before her corrupt partner had brought her floral business to an end. Carol sat down listening, as if sitting in her apartment in the morning and listening to an adult were something she regularly did.
5 The phone rang almost immediately. It was the driver from the wine store, his voice surrounded by the static of his cell phone and the sea of traffic surrounding his truck. "I have the wine for your delivery to White Street and I can't deliver it. What do you want me to do?" The parade for the victory of the Yankees was marching up from City Hall, and the area around the synagogue was to be blocked to traffic until mid-afternoon. The challah also must be walked in.
Just after she'd arranged for these reroutings, now also maneuvering around the sabbath, the intercom rang. The girls from Boston had arrived. They had big bags with them, full of very high heels and small, shining dresses. They would wait patiently for their friend's return and, at the ceremony, they would be honored to light the candle and hold the fragrant spice box.
6 Soon, as it appears, the world as we have known it will cease to exist. It will be over, the tiny families not much larger than a splintered singularity. But before then, this ceremony will occur. At the morning service, the sister is heard singing behind Carol. When asked what prayer this is, she replies, "This is the one they sing." Incomprehension is our greatest common knowledge, thought Carol.
7 Sarah wore mint green with a sweater to keep her modest. She chanted too quickly but with great confidence and power. While all this was going on, it was dark in the synagogue, and all the people who had come from so far -- come back from the directions in which they had been pulled -- listened with rapt attention. After this Sarah said she had realized that one person alone could save the world.
Carol congratulated her daughter and welcomed everyone. There had seemed to be so many people they had invited, but the number before them appeared intimate, everyone they held dear. While she was saying what she had prepared it was for that moment no longer necessary to prepare, either singly or together. Far away Carol imagined her agnostic parents thinking wistfully of the event or being preoccupied, but she also remembered how, when she was a child, they had remembered what they had gone through. At the time these memories had just been expressions on their faces and not anything they could tell stories about. In front of her, at the podium, there seemed to be a thick window, made of a heavy stone. Awaken, awaken, put on your strength.
The foundation was of sapphires. One sage described it as a white stone, another red, while yet another called it bluish-black. Another said this stone found in the Orient has a color resembling saffron, another took it as hard and therefore a diamond, another said it is a black pearl.
Whatever it was, it was present. She could feel, outside the building in downtown New York, something as large as a world being destroyed while, in this hold, with all of them here together, the windows were closed like eyes. They were all, each and every one, carrying with them in that contained space everything come this far.