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2018 NonFiction

Shir Kehila

CALL ME SONG OR CALLS FOR PRAYER

 

“Women usually know,” my dad told me over ice-cream, whipped cream melting on the sides, “when they conceive. They feel it, somehow.”

                                                                             *

Summer: the weekly visits to my dad’s are netted with disclosures.

Coming home that night, I stood by the kitchen window with my mom, hanging laundry to dry between thoughts. “Why was he telling you that?” she asked, the rope tightened, socks clipped on. “Why now?”

Darkened by wetness, skirts and scarves curved the rope with their weight. It had a belly, we say in Hebrew: the rope like a shelf supporting books, sunk at its midpoint. The plastic basket emptied. “Yes, I think it was the first time we’d made love,” my mom said, “that I got you.”

Did my parents make love, that night? I only know they made me, and I was not love—not love-made. But if I must stick to their terms, I could only write this: at thirty-two and forty-five, my parents made careless love. They made love careless—right on their first date, after meeting on a bus, Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, across the aisledo I know you?

On the phone, when my mom found out my dad’s age and familial situationa bachelor in his mid-fortiesshe said, don’t call anymore. But he kept calling, listened and asked questions. He was thoughtful and intelligent, and she was alone. When she gave in, invited him overthere was no need to care, anymore, nor to be careful. Just hurry.

                                                                             *

From beneath her wedding dress, tight inside the growing belly, I asked my mom: call me Shir.

If I wanted to change my name, whenever I did, as many times as I did—my mom would say “It was your choice.” But it was only my choice in her story.

The ritual went on: my mom sipped wine, red and sour under her hinuma, then watched my dad almost break the aluminium-glass. Just almost—and that was it.

 

My dad hated presents and told his family not to bring any to the wedding. He was specific, repeating this request on the phone, in invitation-letters. My mom did not follow, and all the presents they got were brought in by her guests. Except one.

Knowing my dad’s stubbornness, nearly all his family members obeyedeven if reluctantly. One woman, Shifrathe mother of my dad’s brother-in-lawcalled my mom in private, to ask if she could keep a secret. “From me to you,” Shifra said. “He doesn’t need to know.”

The night after their wedding, my mom thought of Shifra’s present: a check she did not want all for herself, a secret she did not want to keep. Unable to foresee my dad’s reaction, she drastically misjudged the situation. Not yet, she must have told herself, it’s too early a time for secrets.

My dad was furious. “She should have known better, being on my side of the family!”

“But she gave it to me, Naftali: it’s under my name.”

This didn’t seem important to my dad. He told my mom she had to throw the check out, that she had no right to keep what wasn’t hers. “You either throw it out,” he said, “or too bad we ever got married.”

The check was tossed in the trash, and they stayed together. Over the next two yearspast the big fire in the Jerusalemite woods, past my birth and the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabinmy mom kept throwing things away.

In Pessah of ‘95, spring-cleaning before the holiday, she found a nine year-old matzot package in the kitchen cardboardbest before March ‘86. She thought they must have been forgotten, that it was obvious they had to be thrown out—but within a few days, my dad noticed they weren’t on the shelf. “I’m keeping them for emergency! How could you not understand?” His wrinkles were deep as gorges. “Never throw anything of mine away.”

And so my mom started throwing out her own things. The urge to clean was persistent, incessant, following her around the apartment. Like the muezzin calls for prayer, it echoed back from the corners of their bedroom. In the early morning hours, before sunrise, the deep male voice found its way to my mom, across the hills and border of East Jerusalem, cutting her nights in half. You should clean, the voice said to my mom, keep cleaning.

Was this her prayer?

My dad’s nights were different: he slept soundly inside his cocoon. There wasn’t much that could reach him in there, not a sound, not my mom. Their bed, like Jerusalem, was divided—split by a border of blankets, a confine marked by wool. My dad’s night were full, extensive. He was used to the muezzin.

 

Notes:
Shir​ is Hebrew for song or poem.
Hinuma​ is Hebrew for the white veil worn by women in the Jewish marriage ceremony


Originally from Israel, Shir Kehila has lived on Mount Desert Island, Maine for the last four years and received her B.A in Human Ecology from College of the Atlantic. Her poems have appeared in Beech Street Review and The Albion Review. She absolutely loves cats.