by Shana Cohen
This story is an excerpt from the new book, Winners, a collection of winning short stories by teen girls. Click here to buy the book.
I stood behind our newly built log cabin, gazing at the wondrous land of towering oaks and pines that seemed to have no end. A dove perched on a low-hanging branch seemed to be calling out to me, beckoning me to enter its enchanting world. The heady smell of pine propelled me forward, drawing me into the woods. The chirping birds and scampering chipmunks in the canopy of leaves above my head were enthralling. I hadn’t realized how far I’d wandered, when suddenly I saw sunlight streaming through the trees, outlining the silhouette of a girl standing in the clearing.
I walked closer.
She had beautiful, deep brown eyes, and long, sleek black braids cascading down her back. The fringed hem of her sweeping deerskin dress was crowned with delicate red-and-white beading.
There she stood in the clearing, gazing at me as if I were the strange one. She looked puzzled and amused and inquisitive all at once; it was written all over her dark face as she nodded silently and stepped toward me, extending her slender brown hand in greeting. I walked forward from between the lagging forest trees, squinting in the sunlight shining brilliantly from the clear blue sky.
“Behne (hello),” she said, bowing slightly. A smile spread across her face, glittering in her eyes. It was a warm smile and I liked it. I grasped her hand with my weathered one, as if letting go would mean dropping this magical moment.
Still holding my hand, she lifted her other hand to her chest. “Tenisuante.”
I lifted my hand to my chest. “Rachel.”
She mouthed after me, “Rachel.” She loosened her grasp and lifted her arm, gesturing toward the scene behind her. I looked beyond her shoulder and my eyes widened. Rows and rows of brown leather tents stood together pompously. Children frolicked about, jumping on each other playfully, and occasionally a squeal of glee echoed through the air and bounced off the surrounding hills. Mothers, some holding swaddled infants, busied themselves over steaming pits in the ground, pouring and stirring sizzling concoctions. The pungent smell of smoke and fish wafted through the air. It smelled good.
As I drank in the scene, Tenisuante observed me with interest. I could tell she wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her how wonderfully magical this world was, how everyone seemed to belong, how they all seemed so happy. She must have read my thoughts, for she spontaneously enveloped me in her arms.
“Nuun bui-en binnaqwase (I hope to see you later on),” she said warmly, smiling. Her voice tinkled like happy chimes.
“Good-bye,” I returned softly, smiling back.
We waved to each other in parting. We’d just met and yet I felt as if we’d known each other for months. Tenisuante’s culture was so rich, so much a part of her and our meeting. I wondered about my own culture…Sometimes it felt like it was just beyond my grasp.
As I trudged home on the dirt path through the thick forest, I contemplated our unusual encounter. Away from it all it seemed as if it were just a dream, a figment of my imagination. They seemed so perfect, so content. But what about me? Where did I belong? After months and months of riding in a rickety prairie schooner, traveling through grasslands and deserts, and up and down hills and mountains, always heading westward, I hadn’t the faintest idea where we were and where I fit in.
The journey had been difficult, with Mama falling ill in the unbearable heat and Chanina’s starved cries; though he wept constantly for food, all I could offer him was my thumb. But was my sense of unfamiliarity now just the result of a difficult journey?
We had finally reached our destination, but what kind of home is a land of hills and valleys? The only humans within a thousand acres were these surreal brown-skinned people living in leather tents. Their world was enchanting, but not one I could ever be part of. Didn’t I have a culture of my own?
The image of Bubba bentching licht back in the heim, a glow of serenity ensconcing her wrinkled, loving face, filled my mind. Bubba had passed away on the long journey to the goldene medinah. Our family’s Yiddishkeit seemed to have died too on that journey too. Papa tossed his yarmulke and tzitzis into the crashing waves of the ocean as the sailors threw the body of his dead mother overboard. Tears coursed down Mama’s face; I’m not sure which part of that painful scene made her cry more. But since then Mama hadn’t been well, and Papa had final say on everything—including the discarding of Shabbos. My heart now pounded in defiance. I wanted my Shabbos back.
The last gleaming rays of sunlight splashed through the branches of oaks and pines, and I entered the clearing, facing a brilliant Friday sun setting on the horizon.
My chance is now.
I dashed through the doorway of our cabin and scanned the room for candles. I found them under Mama’s bed, in a box with several other cherished heirlooms. I tiptoed across the earth floor, over to where Mama lay. I bent down, quietly lifted the worn leather box and carried it to the table. Gently, I pried the lid open. Bubba’s gleaming candlesticks beamed up at me, two candles melted into them, as though eagerly waiting to be lit again. I brought them to the windowsill and struck up a flame with a flint stone. As I lit them, a flame within me ignited as well. Standing there with my hands covering my eyes, I could feel my bubba. I knew she was looking down at me from On High and smiling her warm, loving smile. My hands dropped to my sides and I gazed at my two dancing flames.
Then I felt it. Someone was standing behind me, staring. Ripping my eyes from the glorious scene, I turned around.
He stared at the candles, long and hard. Then he turned to me stonily. “There will be no Shabbos candles in this cabin again. Ever.”
Though I had donned my nightgown and climbed into bed three hours ago, I still lay wide awake. How could I possibly fall into a peaceful slumber after such an encounter? Papa was furious. He would’ve whipped me too, if not for Mama’s feeble protests.
Oh, Mama. When will you recover? I need you. I need your supportive words more than ever before.
The doctor had stopped by earlier that evening. I shuddered at the memory.
“The woman is hanging onto life by a thread. I would advise that you say your farewells before it is too late.”
Those callous words had chilled the air of our cabin. Nobody dared to look another in the eye. Papa and I tiptoed about quietly after that, each of us minding our own matters, careful not to shatter the menacing stillness in the air.
And now I lay in bed, unable to sleep, yet equally unable to face the reality of my life.
It was a faint whisper, like the wind brushing past the shutters. The word pulled me out of a dreamless sleep just as the light of dawn flitted across the horizon.
Was I imagining it?
“Rachel.” I heard it again, the effort to talk audible in each syllable.
I sprinted out of bed and dashed over to her side. Getting down gently onto one knee, I gazed into the face of my dearest friend in the world. She was slipping away from me. I could feel it. I wanted to scream, “Mama! Don’t leave me!” But I bit down on my tongue and leaned closer to hear what she had to tell me.
“My Rachel,” she whispered, her voice faint. She reached out with difficulty and stroked my hand. “Keep lighting…” She struggled with each word. She inhaled deeply. “…Shabbos candles. Stay strong…Rachel’e.”
Mama closed her eyes. A peaceful look spread across her face. Her cool hand, still touching mine, lay limp and lifeless.
She was gone.
I began to tremble. My mama! My pillar of strength had just dissipated before my eyes. How could I go on? How would I continue to cook and tidy up and perform all the mundane actions of everyday life when I had a bleeding hole in my heart?
Chanina’s cries pierced my hazy cloud, thrusting me out of my trance. I dragged myself up and staggered over to his cradle.
I lifted him out and nuzzled my wet cheek next to his velvety one. His sobs subsided into a whimper, then a hiccup, then silence. Did he sense the gravity of the moment?
Orphans. Against our will we had just acquired this new title.
You poor child. I caressed Chanina’s back soothingly. You barely got to know Mama. You probably won’t even remember her in a year from now. Will you even feel the gap in your childhood, the aching emptiness of your loss? No mama to clean your scraped knee, no mama to wipe your tears and dispel your fears and sing you loving lullabies every night…
Then realization dawned. At the mere age of fourteen, I had just gained the responsibility of raising a child. I would be the one to tend to Chanina’s scrapes and wounds, both physically and emotionally. And spiritually…where would Papa come into the picture? What kind of upbringing would Chanina have, hearing the stony, faithless words of his father?
Chanina, I will be a pillar for you to lean on, I promised fiercely. No matter what happens, I’ll be there for you.
Somehow the day passed. I walked around the cabin in a daze, murmuring Tehillim constantly and tending to Chanina when he cried.
And then came nightfall. Papa’s heavy steps resounded in the distance.
I tensed. It was time. I would have to greet Papa and inform him of the tragedy. Our tragedy. It would be the first thing we’d share since…since back on the ship when the crack between us had formed. The crack had widened over the days and weeks of our journey until a gaping chasm now stood between us.
Now was the chance. I had the opportunity to build a bridge.
The door to our log cabin was thrown open. Papa came in. His shoulders sagged, as if the heaviness in the air was weighing down on them. I walked toward his drooping figure, slumped in the doorway. Those five steps felt like five hundred.
I whispered one word to him. “Mama.”
He drew himself upright and hurried to her room. I followed behind him and stood in the doorway. His glazed eyes appeared to see it all without believing: her white, translucent skin, her blue lips. I could still barely believe it myself.
I saw Papa’s eyes dart to his metal shovel in the corner of the room. My stomach fluttered.
There’s no chevra kadisha out in this wilderness. There isn’t even a minyan of men. How will Mama get the last respect she deserves?
I watched Papa shrink before my eyes, like a brown sunflower that has gone through a storm. His frame, usually squared and sturdy, now drooped over, and his eyes were cast downward. In one moment he had aged ten years. I dared not break the silence. There was nothing to say.
The dark clouds in the night sky seemed to be crying with us as Papa shoveled the damp earth. I held Chanina close. This can’t be happening!
But it was happening. It was a fact I would have to learn to accept.
Papa worked swiftly and silently. I watched his hands move mechanically as beads of sweat formed on his forehead and trickled down his face. It was slow, arduous labor.
He looks like he could use a drink.
I dashed inside. Balancing Chanina on my hip, I removed a mug from the cupboard with my left hand. Supporting Chanina still, I went back outside and walked down the hill to the well. I drew a pail of water and dipped the mug inside to fill it. Then I toddled up the hill, trying not to upset any of my cargo in this balancing act.
“Papa,” I called out as I approached him. He raised his head. I held out the brimming mug to him. A hint of a smile glimmered in his eyes.
“Thank you,” he murmured as he took the mug from my hand.
Those two words were the greatest comfort anyone could have given me on that mournful day.
Life goes on, even when we think that Heaven has suspended the hourglass of time. The searing pain is slowly replaced by a dull ache that fades into the background of everyday living.
I was thrust into shouldering the responsibilities of motherhood and housekeeping, leaving no space in my days for brooding. Chanina had to be constantly fed, changed, swaddled and most of all loved. I tended to his needs to the best of my ability; I gave him well water in a bottle and fed him tidbits of bread soaked in water, mashed yams and potatoes.
The food wasn’t the nourishing fare he needed, I knew, but what more could I feed him? The seeds of wheat Papa had sown were still a field of tiny green shoots no longer than my finger. The patch of radishes and potatoes I’d planted hadn’t grown much either. Papa didn’t know how to hunt, so the deer and birds of the forest could not be eaten. We’d have to wait for Papa’s first crop to sell to be able to afford a cow, a goat or some chickens.
We began to subsist on the goods Papa bargained for on Main Street. Papa made the arduous trip to town once a month. He rode in his wagon for fifty miles, through the thicket and the mud, to bargain for flour and oil, radishes and potatoes, and any other staples he could get. Every scant crumb was rationed, every morsel was scraped off of our plates.
On the first Friday after Mama’s passing, I was determined to keep my vow. It was nearly sunset when I padded over the moss-carpeted ground, through the growth of oak trees. I felt a surge of emotion pulse through me as I clutched a gray rag bundle close to my heart. I was well prepared for this secret mission. Wrapped in the bundle was a flint stone and two ivory wax candles set in my bubba’s precious candlesticks. There were two small loaves of bread and a flask of water too. Like a Marrano, I would light in secret. Like a knight in silver armor, I would fight until the end of this battle. And I prayed for victory.
I had left Chanina sleeping peacefully in his cradle. Papa was at the edge of the field, acres away. Surely he hadn’t noticed me escaping into the forest.
The moment had arrived. I struck up a flame and lit each candle. My eyes glittered with joyous tears. My heart sang as I recited the words that my bubba had chanted, just like her bubba’s mother had said before her. I was continuing a chain that had lasted for so long, a chain that had almost been severed. My gleaming link would secure continuity of my heritage for generations to come. It was a warming thought.
As I stood before my Maker, hidden behind my hands, between the protective oaks and pines, all my pent up feelings surged from my heart to my lips.
“Please make me feel close to Papa again…and please make him see the truth and the beauty of the path I’m returning to.” I started to sway gently. “And Chanina…Hashem, please keep him healthy and strong, as he grows up in this complete wilderness.” I felt so connected, as if I were standing right in front of Hashem and pleading with him like a child begging before his father.
He is my Father.
“Oh, Father! Help me keep my stand, no matter what Papa says to me! I want to keep all your mitzvos again, but I don’t know how I can…but I promise I’ll light Shabbos candles every week, come what may. Please, Father, help me keep my promise.”
My cheeks were wet, as I stood in solitude in the depths of the forest. All the pain and worry that had gripped my heart for so long now melted away, and a glow of serenity encompassed me.
I knelt down in the moss beside my candles. It was time for a Shabbos seudah. I removed the loaves of bread and flask of water from the bundle. I washed my hands and dried them on the rag. Then I held the loaves of bread together. I couldn’t recall the words of Kiddush, so I just made hamotzi, praying in my mind that Hashem count my berachah as Kiddush as well. I savored each bite of bread. It tasted heavenly.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps.
Oh, no. Papa. What will he say this time? How could I possibly appease him in the face of his accusations? Will the fury consume him forever?
I spun around, ready to face a lash out, maybe even a beating. I tried to contain the tears that were brimming, as my heart thumped wildly in my chest.
And then…emerging from the foliage I could see a pair of gleaming black eyes….
I stood rooted in my place, as two tears of relief trickled down my cheeks. Tenisuante came up to me and placed her hand on my wet cheek, her eyes radiating a deep understanding. Then, somehow, I found myself within her gentle arms. I rested my head on her shoulder, dampening her leather sleeve. I knew she wouldn’t mind.
After a moment that felt like eternity, she pulled away gently, leaving her arm around my shoulder comfortingly. We settled down together in the moss and watched the two flames dance in the darkness. The glow of the candles ensconced us in peace.
Why don’t I turn to Tenisuante for help? She surely knows the plants that grow in this forest, which are poisonous and which can be eaten. How wonderful it would be to feed Chanina nourishing vegetables, and to vary the meals for Papa and me as well. But how can I communicate with her? Anyway, I can’t ask her now because it’s Shabbos. I’ll have to return and find her after Shabbos.
“Chanina!” I suddenly cried out, remembering. I left him for a while already. Perhaps he had awakened and I hadn’t heard him.
I jumped up, leaning on Tenisuante’s shoulder for support. Her eyes mirrored my alarm, and she stood up after me, putting her hand on my arm in parting.
“Thank you, Tenisuante,” I said, addressing her directly for the first time that night.
“Nuun bui-en binnaqwase,” she returned warmly.
We shared a smile, and she squeezed my arm supportively. I knew she understood what I meant.
I took one last glance at my candles. They were dancing joyously together. I looked back up at Tenisuante, my alarm now overpowered by a sense of tranquility. I would face the adversity. I would stay strong.
“So long. I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.” I turned to face reality again, invigorated by this moment that my Father on High had so lovingly sent me.
Tenisuante and I did meet again. Somehow she knew exactly where and when she could find me next in the woods. I guess our meeting up again was as important to her as it was to me. I did recognize our differences in culture and beliefs, of course, yet in my dire circumstances she was a welcome companion.
Her strong pride in her culture served as a reminder of my own rich heritage. It was intriguing: We spoke different languages, yet we communicated quite well.
We strolled amiably beneath a canopy of branches and leaves. I held a gurgling Chanina in my arms, and Tenisuante turned every so often to smile and coo at him. She seemed to be a natural with children, for Chanina took to her immediately, giving her a wide grin and babbling back at her.
When we passed a bush of red berries, I stopped and motioned to it.
“Kitsaan! (It’s dangerous)” Tenisuante cried out, shaking her head vigorously and drawing me back. Then she took me to a cluster of shrubs, plucking blue berries off their branches. “Tsaande (good),” she said, holding them out to me. I scooped them up and tasted them. They were sweet and tart at the same time, and they left a tingly feeling on my tongue. I plucked another berry off a bush, squished it between my thumb and forefinger and held it to Chanina’s mouth. He stuck out his tongue and licked my thumb. Then he puckered his lips, spit it out and grinned. Tenisuante and I shared a hearty laugh.
We continued a few feet, and Tenisuante bent down and yanked at a stalk of dark green leaves. Shaking off the clump of dirt, she held up a root that looked like it might be orange, but I couldn’t know for sure under the layer of brown that still clung to it. Tenisuante proceeded to pull out a small metal knife from her pocket. She deftly peeled off the thin layer of dirt and skin, revealing a deep orange, brilliant as the midday sun. She held the root out to me. “Yamba (wild carrot).” I bit into it. It tasted crunchy and sweet.
And so we continued; Tenisuante pointed out which plants were poisonous and which were edible, giving me samplings to taste. Chanina enjoyed the adventure too, spitting some of the tastings out and devouring others, while holding his pudgy hand out to Tenisuante for more. I was a curious and diligent tyro, focusing on everything Tenisuante told me and pocketing each berry and root.
After several hours of meticulous exploration, Tenisuante pointed up at the sky. Night was approaching. I patted my bulging pockets and smiled thankfully. “Good night, Tenisuante. And thank you.”
“Nuun bui-en binnaqwase.” Tenisuante beamed, pecking Chanina playfully on the cheek. We parted ways, knowing we’d both be back soon.
Papa was standing expectantly at the door of the cabin when we returned.
“Rachel, where have you been?” he demanded.
He’s actually speaking to me! “I’ve been…exploring.” I reached into my pocket, extracted a blue berry and held it out to him. He eyed it cautiously, then reached out gingerly and took it from my hand. He held it up between his thumb and forefinger, inspecting it like it was a rare ruby.
“It’s edible,” I assured him with a twinkle in my eye.
This is my Papa. He’s back to his real self again. I gave an inner sigh of relief.
He popped it in his mouth. His face puckered up, and then the hint of a grin touched his lips. His eyes held a glint of amusement and he looked straight into my eyes.
“Where did you find this?”
“In the woods.”
“How do you know it isn’t poisonous?”
“Well…I met this girl, and she showed me all these different plants we could eat. I’ll show you.”
We entered the cabin together. I placed Chanina gently on the smooth earth floor, letting him crawl around while I shared my findings with Papa. But Chanina, not wanting to miss out on the action, clambered behind me over to the wooden table near the fireplace.
Papa poked around in the ashes of the fireplace, stoking the buried embers from the night before. Soon enough, a little flame danced in the stone-framed area. Papa threw in twigs to strengthen the fire, and then added a few logs once the blaze was going.
While Papa worked on the fire, I emptied my pockets out carefully onto the table. Papa joined me soon after, inspecting my find with interest. We sat down together by the table, and I pulled Chanina onto my lap.
“So shall we have a grand dinner?” Papa announced after his inspection was through.
“That sounds like an idea,” I responded, rising and depositing Chanina on Papa’s lap.
Could this really be happening?
I hummed as I slipped the copper pot off the shelf, dropped in the roots and berries, added a dash of spice, and filled the rest of the pot with water from a glass jug on the shelf. Soon enough, the pot was hanging over the fireplace, and the flames were bouncing up and down beneath it, licking the bottom of the pot. As the strange soup started bubbling, our home was filled with a tantalizing aroma, the likes of which I’d never smelled before. I sliced a loaf of bread and placed a pitcher of water on the table. With a flourish I set out dishes, cutlery and napkins. Then I sat down opposite Papa to wait for the soup to be ready.
“Um…Rachel?” I looked at him keenly. He was fingering the edge of his napkin, and his eyes were cast downward. “I was thinking over the past few days…about the Shabbos candles….” He paused uncomfortably. My gaze was raptly fixed on him. “And I decided that…” He raised his eyes slowly. “I’m sorry.”
I leaned over and touched his hand softly. “It’s okay, Papa.” I rose from my chair and walked around the table.
Papa looked up at me. “Will you light candles in here…next Shabbos?”
I put my arms around Papa’s shoulders and whispered two words into his ear.
The next Friday afternoon, we stood together at the wooden table decked with the white tablecloth Mama had embroidered so long ago. Two gleaming candlesticks stood proudly in the middle, each one holding a tall white candle.
“I believe it’s time,” Papa murmured. Were those tears glistening in his eyes?
I struck up a flame and lit each candle. Covering my eyes, I gently swayed as I recited the berachah with fervor. And then I said a few words of my own, this time a prayer of joy. “Thank You, Father.”
Dropping my hands at my sides, I turned to Chanina, who gazed intently at me from his perch in Papa’s arms. I leaned over, put my hands on his silken cheeks and planted a soft kiss on his forehead. He smiled contentedly at me, his blue eyes sparkling happily. Then I lifted my gaze, and my eyes locked with Papa’s. His face glowed. “Gut Shabbos, Rachel’e.”
It would be a long journey, I knew, over hills and mountains and valleys. Sometimes the winding, bumpy road would seem never-ending. But I knew that though my flame might flicker at times, it would dance with a passion in my heart forever.
Wow! It’s such a nice story!
Beautiful story. Is it true? Made me cry……
Wow is all I can say! Is it true?
Wow. I have to get the rest of the book!
What a beautiful, meaningful, special story! It also made me cry. Thank you for sharing this story along with your light!