Featured Prose | March 25, 2020
“The Wall” by Emma Törsz
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today’s selection is Emma Törsz’s “The Wall.” In this 2015 Jeffrey E. Smith Prize-winning fiction, set in contemporary Israel, a young Jewish woman seeks to bridge the divide between life and death as she mourns the loss of her brother.
By Emma Törsz
After my brother Jonah’s funeral, I didn’t fly home with my parents. Instead I stayed behind with Eva in her shoebox apartment in Tel Aviv and spent a couple nights learning to go down on her, an act that felt surprisingly natural once I got used to the right-up-closeness of it. I’d never been with another woman before, but we didn’t talk about that. Mostly we were quiet or talked about Jonah. Though Eva and I had only met for the first time at his funeral, she’d been serving with him for over a year, and he’d shown me many pictures of the two of them in their sand-green IDF uniforms, their arms slung around one another’s shoulders in the casual way of soldiers everywhere. In e-mails he’d referred to her breezily as “my best bud,” but when he’d come home on leave the last time, he’d gotten uncharacteristically wasted on a twelve-pack of High Life and said to me, “I can’t stand it, Miri. I want her so badly I can’t pray, I can’t sleep. I’m on my knees asking God to either turn her straight or gun her down so I don’t have to look at her anymore, and then I spend all night begging forgiveness for thinking such fucked-up shit.”
Before Eva, I had never seen my twenty-three year-old brother in love or even in lust, which I’d pop-psychologized as a reaction to the trauma of his puberty; he’d dreaded its coming for years even before the physical changes began. He was terrified of losing his voice. And I was frightened too: just a year and a half older than he, I’d grown up to the sound of his blue-sky treble floating around our house, the foresty trill of arpeggios from behind his bedroom door, and I was used to a life organized by his choir practice and performances. He’d been singing since he was four years old and had been gifted in the oldest sense of the word, as if a hand had reached down and pressed light into his throat. We’d both been raised by secular Jews, but Jonah was raised by his choir as well and was a believer. He’d been raised on music steeped in God.
“The Christian God,” I’d argued once, home freshman year of college for winter break. I was sitting at our kitchen table watching him blend peanut butter and bananas into ice cream, as always working tirelessly against his twiggy teenage metabolism. “All those old songs are about Jesus.”
“It’s got nothing to do with words,” Jonah said, over the screech of the blender. “I didn’t listen to the words. I listened to the feeling.”
He was seventeen then and had known for several years that his voice was never coming back. He could still sing better than most, but his tone was uneven, his range stilted, all the buttercup richness graveled down. His coach had told our parents there were some boys who never came to terms with the change, never figured out how to handle their new instrument, and gently recommended that Jonah begin to see a therapist instead, “to address the mind behind the larynx.” But by that time he was beginning to lift weights and had subbed out choir practice for the temple and the gym, and my parents figured he was moving on.
“All praise music, all worship music, it’s the music that tells you what the song’s about,” said Jonah, pouring his viscous beige shake into a glass. “The lyrics are just a key, like on a map. A compass rose. But you don’t need the idea of North if you know which way is up.”
He took a sip of his drink, his corded neck contracting and releasing. This new body of his called attention to itself in a way that frightened me: the popping veins, the hammy arms swinging from bricked shoulders, the pulse beating beneath the stretched-tight skin of his temple, all of it a constant unwelcome reminder of human meatiness. Only his face was the same as it’d always been. Narrow, alert, a delicacy about his mouth like he was holding a diamond on the tip his tongue. He’d begun wearing a knitted black kippah, and the whole effect—the jacked-up body, the little Jewish head—was disconcerting.
“You weren’t this religious when you were actually singing, though,” I said. “Why now?”
He sat down across from me. “God gave me my voice,” he said. “And then He took it away. Think about it, Miri. Why would He do that?”
“Punishment?” I said.
“No,” said Jonah, and he’d made a swishing, side-to-side motion with his hand, almost like the Queen’s wave. “Redirection. I have a new compass now.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but his compass was already set east, toward the Israeli army, and that very spring he made aliyah to Israel and became a chayal boded: a “lone soldier.” At his funeral four years later, I saw the phrase written down in English characters for the first time and realized it wasn’t “loan,” as I’d always thought of it—like we were loaning Jonah out and would get him back eventually—but “lone” like only, like alone.
The night after Jonah’s funeral, Eva had come to my hotel room while my parents were out. It was the first time I’d seen her out of uniform. She was Israeli but of Russian-American descent and was as blonde and pale-eyed as an Iowa farm girl, though slight rather than sturdy. Her short curls were wild outside the confines of her green cap, and as a civilian she was wearing Chuck Taylors and boys’ skinny jeans like a beautiful, clear-skinned version of the skaters I’d had crushes on in junior high. We’d sat pressed close together on my parents’ enormous hotel bed and watched the videos of Jonah that Eva had shot with her phone. She said, “I know some people won’t want to look so soon, but I brought them just in case,” and I said, “I want to see anything you have.”
The videos were small on the phone’s screen but the sound was clear and very loud, and the first voice from the speakers was Jonah’s. He was speaking Hebrew, a language I’d only heard him use during prayer, never like this, in everyday life, sitting on a stone wall in his uniform and chatting to someone just beyond the screen.
Eva tried to translate—“He says, Does anyone have a pen?”—but I shushed her. I wanted to hear only Jonah. Better, maybe, that I couldn’t understand him: the sound of his voice alone had lined my eyes with tears. He was laughing, tan, dusty. Coke-commercial happy, the way you want your loved ones to look in memory. A black-nosed machine gun was hanging at his side, loose and casual like I’d carry a purse, and behind him I could see the turrets of Old Jerusalem and the golden gleam of the Dome of the Rock.
Another soldier had come into the picture to hand him a pen and a small pink notepad. She was narrow as a dart and moved in flutters. I vaguely recognized her from the funeral, remembered her dark hair sticking to her tear-wet face like a net.
“That’s Noa,” Eva whispered, her lips nearly touching my ear. “She likes your brother. Look! It’s so obvious.”
Noa was flickering her fingers through the ends of her ponytail, and I saw that she couldn’t meet Jonah’s eyes when he spoke to her, though she was smiling, closemouthed and nervous. For a moment I let myself spin my brother’s life out past the frame of the camera: Noa in white, shards of wedding glass beneath their feet, a faux-Bauhaus apartment in Tel Aviv and a yarmulked toddler with a serious brown face and Jonah’s lost little eyes. But even had he lived, that life was only fiction. He was looking uncaringly beyond Noa, at the camera, at Eva.
I was crying, and Eva took my hand to squeeze it tightly. I felt so heavy—drowning in silty water—yet at her touch I felt, too, the lifting of my lungs, a surface-focused surge between my legs: the lightness that comes from desire, from wanting something. I thought, simultaneously, This feeling means I’ll be okay and This feeling means I’m lost forever. The contradiction made me dizzy.
“What is he writing?” I said, in part to distract myself. “On that little pink paper?”
“A prayer,” Eva said. “For the Wall.”
“What do you mean? What wall?”
“The Western Wall,” Eva said. “Come on. You know this wall. In Jerusalem?”
“What kind of prayer?”
“It’s custom,” she said, “to write a prayer and put it in the wall. In between the stones. If you go and you look, you can see all the cracks are filled with paper.”
“What did Jonah pray for?”
Eva lifted one shoulder and looked down at our hands, still intertwined. “He didn’t say. You know, it’s private.”
“When was this?”
“A week or so ago. A few days before the accident.”
We were talking over the recording of Jonah, and I felt a pang of guilt for muffling his voice. When he’d been sad he’d always wanted silence, but I was unlike him in that regard. What I wanted was to hear everything, to know what was running through Jonah’s inscrutable head in his last days, whether he knew they were his last days, whether he was happy, miserable, yearning; I wanted to know what he had prayed for at the end. I wanted a window beyond the screen—I wanted that piece of paper.
Eva leaned into me, her shoulder warm and strong, while offscreen she laughed, the camera shaking up and down. I leaned back into her and stared at my brother’s pixelated hands, now folding up that slip of pink, his words disappearing within the pleats. When Eva kissed me a while later, I couldn’t tell if I was stealing Jonah’s dearest wish or granting it.
The next morning my parents flew home and I stayed. After I dropped them off at the airport, I went walking in Jaffa alone, my eyes swollen nearly shut from crying, the sun hovering dry and hangover-bright. The interior of the neighborhood was packed with market stalls, densely colored and clattering with jewelry and knock-off sunglasses, but I was too dazed to shop and too superstitious to indulge in shallow pursuits so soon after Jonah’s death. Instead I aimed for the narrow outlying roads and the shade of buildings constructed like tight-fitting castles, made to withstand heat, salt. The crackling blue of the Mediterranean winked from the gaps between their roofs. There was a promenade that drew a line between the city and the sea and looked out over the ancient port, but I wasn’t ready yet for tourism, or beauty. I wanted hush. I wanted to be alone with four thousand years’ worth of ghosts who’d walked these streets, among them Jonah. His was the direct gaze turned at me from a blind and phantom crowd.
“Think of all the grieving sisters who’ve come before you,” our rabbi had said to me at the memorial service back home. “You’re in eternal, sympathetic company. Take strength from them.”
But this was like being told to choke down an unwanted meal because somewhere starving children were sucking on rocks: the knowledge of their pain only served to magnify my own. I’d feed those children if I could! And were it up to me, we all would have our brothers back.
A surge of American teenagers spilled out from a nearby alley, bleary-eyed and sweaty and sucking on Nalgenes. Birthright: you could spot them a mile away. I hadn’t gone on the trip, though it was free, but I’d applied as a freshman, while Jonah was skipping his eleventh-grade classes to go to synagogue and before he’d mentioned anything about the army. I was attending a private liberal arts school in the West, and my friends had shamed me into declining the offered acceptance. “It’s brainwashing,” they’d said. “It’s propaganda to support an apartheid state.” Almost nobody at home knew my brother was a soldier. If asked about him, I usually said he was in security.
When I got back to Eva’s apartment I told her about leaving my parents at the airport, about how at the last minute I hadn’t been able to stop reaching for my mother. We would back away from our embrace as if to end it, and then suddenly we’d stumble forward again, magnetized by grief.
“Well, of course,” said Eva. “Now you know what it really means to say good-bye.”
For Eva, everything was, “Well, of course,” It was one of the things I liked best about her, her ability to accept, to explicate. Her shelves were full of Buddhist koans and illustrated nature guides, and she watched TED talks on the power of positive thinking. She never seemed to question her own emotions, and, more importantly, she never questioned mine. Probably this was also what Jonah had liked about her.
That night, wrapped in Eva’s yellow sheets, I said, “You and me, us sleeping together—do you think it’s just, I don’t know, a product? A reaction to the situation?”
“Definitely,” she said, and I surfaced from my bog of sadness for long enough to feel indignant. I guess I’d wanted her to say something like, You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, who wouldn’t want to sleep with you? “We were already connected,” she continued. “We shared somebody between us. So I think it’s natural to want to extend our connection because in this way we extend our connection to Jonah, too.”
I brushed my knuckles across her bare breast and watched the pink skin around her nipple tighten and wrinkle. How many times had Jonah imagined touching Eva like this? Was he all-knowing now, could he see me? I wished I could open up my body to his spirit and let him have this in my place. “Did you love my brother?” I asked.
“He was my favorite person,” she said. The whites of her eyes began to redden, and I watched tears rise up. “I loved him a lot.”
I wanted to ask, of course, if she’d known how he felt about her, but it wasn’t my secret to give away, and I didn’t want to complicate her memories or sully them. So I said, “I guess you know a lot of people who have died.”
“No,” she said, and her hand, which had been resting on my waist, slipped away.
“But you’re all soldiers,” I said.
“We’re not all of us in the army very long,” she said. “And some of us have more dangerous jobs than others.”
I didn’t really know what kinds of jobs Jonah and Eva had; all I knew was they weren’t high-risk. Jonah had wanted combat, had wanted “to protect,” which I’d always heard as “to kill,” though perhaps that wasn’t fair to my righteous little brother—but after training and testing he’d been assigned a different position, instead, one that he’d described in an e-mail as “essentially fucking useless, pardon my Hebrew. Everyone keeps saying every position is important but you know they don’t have to say that to some of the other guys. Those guys know without being told.”
He had claimed he was in no immediate danger, yet he’d died. He had fallen from a rooftop, off duty, late at night. So the story went.
“You don’t think Jonah jumped,” I said to Eva, trying hard to leave the question mark out of it.
“An accident,” she said.
“He couldn’t have been buried on Mount Herzl otherwise, could he?” I said. “Aren’t those the rules?”
“Rules, rules,” she said, guttural and gentle. “What does an American know about rules?”
I swallowed down a lozenge-lump of tears. I knew that Jonah had wanted them, rules and structure, but he’d signed his life over to chaos instead. The army was all directive, yes, but war was the opposite; war had no boundaries. It was insubordinate. Yet I couldn’t help but wish that Jonah had gone in an explosion or a hail of gunfire, something heroic, something conclusive, something I could mourn as tragedy alone without the complications of if and why. I’d never before wished such brutality on another person. I thought of Jonah wishing Eva dead out of his thwarted love for her, and wondered if our violence stemmed from the same dark place in our hearts.
I reached out and placed my hands around Eva’s slender throat. I felt it move as she swallowed, but she didn’t pull away. I ran my thumbs across the soft underside of her chin. “I want to go to Jerusalem,” I said. “I want to go to the Western Wall and find out what Jonah wrote on that piece of paper.”
“You can’t,” she said. “There are thousands of prayers in that wall.”
“I’ll find it.”
“Miri, Jonah was on the men’s side. The Wall is divided between men and women, and it’s illegal for you to cross over.”
“It’s a place of worship,” she said. “Let go of my neck.”
I was crying. I kissed her throat where my fingers had been squeezing. “Please,” I said. “Please help me. Please at least help me look.”
Finally she said, “Maybe it could be good.”
So two nights later, in our bedroom at the hostel in Jerusalem, Eva helped me bind my breasts with an Ace bandage and blue duct tape, straining and tugging like a maid squeezing a lady into a corset, while I tried not to inhale.
“Your left one is bigger,” said Eva, reaching around to smush it down with her palm.
“Someone once told me everybody’s is,” I said. “To protect your heart.”
“The men’s side is on the left,” said Eva. “It’s bigger, too.”
It took me a moment to realize she was speaking not of breasts anymore but of the men’s side of the Wall, and a needle of nerves pierced my foggy resolve. I hadn’t asked the consequences—hadn’t wanted to know—but it was religious and therefore military law I was defying, so were I caught I’d be—arrested? Deported? Stoned to death by a hollering crowd? This was the Middle East, after all . . but was it that Middle East?
I imagined my brother turning over in his fresh grave, despairing of my ignorance.
Eva handed me a gray button-up shirt, a boy’s size large: hers. The baggy men’s khakis were hers too, as were the high-top sneakers. My short hair was slicked up beneath a kippah, and with eyeshadow I’d darkened my brows, added tentative sideburns and shaded the hint of a mustache on my upper lip. The whole dress-up procedure had felt goofy, almost Chaplin-esque, but then I straightened the shirt and turned to the mirror on the back of our door and found a boy staring back at me. Over my reflected shoulder I saw that Eva’s face had gone very still, her eyes locked on mine in the glass, and I knew that she saw him, too: my brother. I looked just like Jonah.
Or—though Eva couldn’t know this—I looked like Jonah at fourteen, the year he’d received a razor and a can of shaving cream for Hanukkah. “Time to get that awful fuzz off your face!” my mother had said, trading a grin with my father, and only I had seen the panic quiver briefly in my brother’s mouth, the way his hand had gone slack around the gifts. Already his voice had begun to crack. My face, now, was a parody of Jonah’s prepubescent face, before the final breaking of his voice. Before the protein shakes, the push-ups, the long hours at the synagogue and then the gun range. I felt a telltale tremor in my eyes.
Before I could give in to grief, Eva grabbed my arm and spun me away from the mirror.
“Kiss me,” she said. “I’ve never kissed a boy before.”
I took a breath and imagined myself three inches taller, imagined my shoulders were broader and my arms stronger. I pulled her close and kissed her with Jonah’s lips. When we pulled away, her brow was furrowed and she shook her head. “This is a terrible idea,” she said.
“Too late,” I said.
It was a half-hour walk from our hostel to the Old City of Jerusalem. The evening was warm, filmy. I felt conspicuous in a way I’d never before experienced, fearful of being looked at and discovered, and I was terribly aware of the eyeshadowed stubble on my upper lip and the sweat that was beading there. I kept turning to Eva for her to check. “It’s not running? It’s not smudged?”
“It’s fine,” she said. Her mood had darkened in a way I couldn’t define. She kept looking at me, then looking away, shaking her head a little, mouth set.
“Are you scared?” I said.
“Of course not,” she said.
“You’re acting strange.”
She was quiet, but she looped her arm briefly in mine, pressed her cheek against my T-shirted shoulder and then released me.
The modern Jerusalem was both familiar and foreign, a Western-style city that wouldn’t quite let you forget the history it had paved over, but as we neared the great stone walls of the Old City things took on a storybook sheen. There were rustling palm trees, cypress, streets of ecru cobblestones and, in the distance, the calm green rise of the Mount of Olives. Hawkers and tourists of every ilk milled about, snapping pictures and reading aloud from tour books in the fading light, and when the Muslim call to prayer sounded from a loudspeaker within the walls, I saw a group of gold-decked, lipsticked women make the sign of the cross and bow their heads in synchrony. Was it a show of solidarity or a ward against difference? Either way, the sight chilled me.
We followed a group of forelocked, hatted Hasidim through the tall arch of a dark-hollowed doorway in the side of the wall, and I reached for Eva’s hand, but she pulled away, neatly, instantly. Up till then, she’d always been under my reaching fingers when I needed her. “Do you want a tour?” she said. “Or straight to the Wall?”
“Straight there,” I said, and added, “Maybe next time,” feeling the dishonesty even as I spoke. Already I knew I didn’t ever want to come back. It should have been Jonah at my side, showing me around with a proprietary grin and narrating the history of every rock with his blend of solemnity and irreverence. This is where Solomon built the first temple, this is where Muhammad prayed, this is where Jesus stopped to take a piss. Even as devout as he became, Jonah could always take a joke. I felt a flash of pure resentment toward Eva: for not taking my hand, for not being Jonah. Then wondered if she felt the same toward me.
“This way,” said Eva and gestured toward a crowded, fast-moving line. “Security.”
“How do I look?” I said.
“No one will say anything.”
Again I tried to take her hand, and again she evaded me, flushing this time. “Eva,” I said, very quietly, “as far as anyone knows, I’m a guy. You can hold my hand.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “I just don’t feel like touching right now.”
When she said that, suddenly it was all I wanted, to be close to her, to hold her hand in mine and get my body up against hers. I moved so I was flush against her back, and she stepped forward so quickly she nearly collided with a small child in front of her. “You don’t have to act like a boy,” she snapped.
“I’m nervous,” I said.
“Deal,” she said, terse like a soldier. She was a soldier. For a second this fact calmed me, as if she were an authority, a protective force, but then I remembered that everyone in this country was a soldier. I was surrounded by them. My pulse banged up again.
Yet despite my frantic heart, we made it past security without a hassle. There were two gun-strapped young men operating the x-ray machine through which I fed my backpack, and they seemed both more and less alert than I was used to: more alert to the prospect of violence but less interested in me as a body, their eyes flicking over me incuriously in a steady non-gaze. Behind me, Eva said something in Hebrew, and all three of them laughed.
“You see?” said Eva, herding me toward the mouth of a small tunnel. “They’re looking for weapons, metal. Not for cross-dressing American girls.”
By this time the sun had set completely, and we came out onto a crowded stone plaza that glowed under yellow floodlights, thick with tourists and armed soldiers and headscarved groups of teenage girls. Everyone moved as if in schools on the same tide, drifting closer to the lit-up stone facade of the Wall. Though it was straighter and more focal than the other walls of Old Jerusalem, at first it seemed smaller than I’d imagined—I could see the dark points of trees growing on a slope behind it. But then we drew closer, and it began to tower over us. It was very old, and you could feel its age. Here and there some greenery had sprouted from the pale limestone bricks and clung like floating bushes, with white birds darting between.
We walked to the metal and mesh partition that portioned out the space before the Wall like a stage. People filed in through the wide paths on either side. “There’s the entrance for the women,” said Eva. “And here is the men’s.”
The women’s side, the right side, was smaller by more than a third. While the men were shouting and singing and dancing, sending up a great noise, the women made barely a sound.
“We’re not permitted to pray out loud,” said Eva. “You shouldn’t either, they’ll hear your voice and know. So look—your brother was there, toward the end, and he put his paper into the rock about here.” She tapped her shoulder, chest-height for me, and it occurred to me to wonder how she knew this; she must have been watching him. Wishing she could join him? Wondering, as I did, what he’d prayed for?
“I’ll wait for you here,” said Eva.
“You’re not going in on the women’s side?”
Her arms were crossed, her gaze distant. “Been there, done that,” she said.
Nobody paid me any attention as I made my way to the men’s side, pulse racing. I tried to walk with utter certainty and confidence, as if I belonged, when in fact I was out of place from my body right down to the level of the soul. The faces of the men surrounding me were physically distinct from one another—darkly bearded Orthodox, gold-necklaced tough guys, gawky pocked and furtive teenagers—but they were united in their expression: awe. Reverence. As I entered the courtyard of the Wall, prayer rose up all around me, chanted, sung, murmured. Men spoke from memory or read from printed pages, their words one lost note in a full orchestra and becoming distinct only as I passed, like snatches from a car radio. The lights turned everything a variegated sepia. Of all the words I heard, I understood nothing save for Adonai. Some men had their eyes raised to heaven; some were staring at the ground. Many were shouting their prayers, hollering in big groups with arms linked like a sports mob. Many were weeping. Several had uniforms and guns.
Never in my life had I been exposed to so much male emotion, and never in my life had I felt so scared and faithless. The energy was palpable, and for me it was not the energy of God but of men. It pushed at me from all directions, and if a hot-blooded wind were to rise and billow, I knew I could be stampeded by it. I felt the press of tape and bandaging, as if my breasts were straining to break out and expose me, but really it was that my breath had quickened, so I was nearly hyperventilating, my lungs inflating too much and then failing to contract. I’d thought at least I might feel one wet wavelap of the oceanic love that Jonah had always professed to experience, but I felt only a titanic, formless terror. Would it be different on the women’s side, in silence? Would I feel differently if I were here undisguised?
I had just two options: backward, or forward. I sucked in a deep breath and tried to imagine how my brother would feel in this same situation. He no doubt would feel—had felt—elated. Full of God’s grace. Like he was part of something larger than himself, like he had a calling, like he was joined with these other men in an unearthly brotherhood that would protect and nurture him all through his life, and beyond. While he was alive I had been wary of these ideas, but now that he was dead, they felt sacred to me on his behalf. I would never be religious—but wasn’t I now feeling the foundation of all faith? Fear. And grief, which has its roots in fear and in love. Love and fear.
Fear, I had covered. Now to concentrate on the other. I had loved Jonah and would always love Jonah, but my love for him had nowhere to go anymore, except deeper. So I went deeper, I moved onward. And once I was close, I felt my panic subside. The Wall was cool to the touch, and the placid stone face of it soothed me. The men here toward the front were quieter than the men in back, many of them sitting on white plastic lawn chairs, books in laps, shawls on shoulders, foreheads touching or nearly touching the rock. Every available crack was stuffed with paper like multi-colored grout, and men were stepping forward to add their prayers. I laid my palm flat against the Wall as I could see others doing and then began to move slowly sideways, fingers trailing as I searched the cracks. Yellow, white, blue and, yes, pink, there and there and there and—
Everywhere, it was everywhere, pink paper folded up and crammed into the wall like gum in a shoe. From where I was standing—five meters in, chest height—I could count at least ten within arm’s length. I glanced up, around. The men on either side of me were both older, one bald and wearing the kind of comfortably hideous leather shoes I associated with German tourists and one dark-skinned and mustached in a navy suit. Behind me, of course, was the crowd, but why would they pay attention to me, one figure of many, my fingers hidden by my body as I picked loose a slip of pink paper? I closed it in my fist, shoved it in my pocket, moved down a step, removed another, then another, another. I lined my pockets.
Somebody spoke loudly in my ear, so close I could feel his breath, and I jolted, whirled around. The bald man was staring at me, his pale eyes wide under white eyebrows, his mouth moving in a language I didn’t know. Beneath the floodlights his face was shaded and bloodless.
“Sorry,” I said, in as deep a voice as possible. I was facing the surge again, and again felt the tide of panic begin to swell. My back was to the Wall now. I could be crushed against it.
“English?” the man said. I tried to edge away but was blocked in by plastic chairs and male bodies. I nodded, unable to unhitch my vocal chords.
“I said to you, what are you doing? Why you are removing these? Some kind of joke, hmm? I put mine just one minute ago and now. . . .”
“Did I take yours?” I squeaked.
“Yes!” he said. “You take mine, you take others, I see you!”
Other people were beginning to glance at us now, and I said, trying to stay quiet, trying to keep my voice boyish, “I’m looking for my own, I put it here yesterday but I—I changed my mind about . . .”
“You cannot take back prayer,” the man said, but he was lowering his voice to match my volume, and he nodded and smiled benignly at a Hasid who’d begun to glare at us. “They are in your pockets?”
I put a hand into the pocket of my pants and withdrew three of the four prayers I’d squirreled away, and held them out to him on a trembling palm. He snatched them up and quickly unfolded each one in turn, nodded in satisfaction when he found his own and then re-inserted all three into the Wall, muttering a prayer for each. I willed myself to leave, to walk away, but was frozen with fear and regret, and he turned back to me and grabbed my arm. He brought his face very close to mine, his nostrils flaring, eyes widening in recognition. My heart stopped.
“Who do you think you are?” he said.
I couldn’t speak.
“This is a sin against God,” he said, and his grip around my arm grew painful. His face burned dark with fury. “Should I shout and bring the soldiers?” He shook me hard, making my head wobble on my neck. Again people had begun to watch us, and his neck corded tight as I sweated and shuddered. “No,” he said. “I will not bring God’s eyes away from all these men and onto you. You don’t deserve the light of His attention.” He let me go and wiped his palms on his pants with pure, unfeigned disgust. “God turns his back on you,” he said. “He will never look for you.”
He put his own back to me, and for a moment I was still so petrified I couldn’t get my legs to move. Then my blood surged and I aimed my body toward the exit like a bullet. There was one remaining stolen piece of paper in my pocket, and it seemed like a sign, like a gift, like it had to be Jonah’s if there was any mercy to be found here. I pushed back through the crowd with my face hot and my heart banging, my mouth dry, my skin prickling each time somebody brushed against me. All the blood seemed to have left my extremities, and my fingers were cold even in the murky heat of the evening. When I stumbled out onto the plaza and saw Eva still standing cross-armed and patient, I felt relief pour over me like fresh water.
“You have it?” she said, straightening at my approach.
“I got only one,” I said. “I haven’t looked at it yet. I’m panicking.”
“Let’s go,” she said, and I let her lead me back through the dark tunnel and the lines of people waiting to be patted down, past the information booths and back through the arched gate, out of the Old City and into the new. We walked a block without speaking and then sat on a bench beside an Arabic gift kiosk, beneath a streetlamp. She didn’t touch me, but I leaned into her, wishing she were larger, wishing I could put my head on her shoulder and dissolve. The man at the kiosk glanced at us and then went back to fiddling with a staticky boom box.
“Someone saw what I was doing and knew,” I said. “He looked at me and knew.”
Eva tensed all over and glanced behind us, as if expecting to see soldiers come lumbering out of the shadows with their weapons raised. I said, “He let me go, but I think he put a curse on me.” I thought of original sin, of the original curse. “Am I the first woman to ever cross the line?”
Eva said, “Of course not. What did you find?”
I took the pink paper from my pocket with unsteady fingers and started to unfold it, then stopped and handed it to her. “I can’t,” I said. “Will you?”
She hesitated. “You know the chances are very small it’s Jonah’s.”
“Read it out loud.”
Eva held the paper with her thumb and forefinger, staring. Then she took a deep breath and unfolded it. There was an agonizing silence.
“It’s in Spanish,” she said.
I tried to latch onto that, my mind racing through all the possibilities—Jonah had taken Spanish in high school, he’d liked Bolaño, so maybe, maybe—
“Let me see,” I said, and snatched the paper. The handwriting, slanted and all caps, was nothing like Jonah’s neat, almost typset hand. It was the same phrase repeated three times like in a fairy tale, more spell than prayer. Que Sebas me ame. Que Sebas me ame. Que Sebas me ame.
“What does it say?” I asked Eva. “Can you read it?”
“I don’t speak Spanish,” she said.
“Shit,” I said and crumpled the paper in my fist. “Shit.”
“Miri,” she said. “Jonah probably wrote something stupid. Please, God, no more hummus for breakfast, or please, God, give us good wi-fi tonight. He always saved his real prayers for his own head.”
I wiped my eyes and didn’t speak. Even to myself I couldn’t quite articulate why the idea of finding Jonah’s prayer had meant so much to me, why I’d so badly needed to touch it and feel it manifest in my fingers. The radio at the kiosk behind us crackled through stations, searching, searching, and Eva plucked the pink paper from my grip. She smoothed it out against her knee. “Everybody wants the same thing, anyway,” she said.
“Do they?” I said and put my hand on her thigh.
“Stop,” she said, moving her leg. “Stop touching me with that stuff on your face. Wipe it away first. Take down your hair.”
“Why does it matter?”
“It scares me,” she said. “You look too much like Jonah.”
“Why does that scare you? You say you loved him.”
“Yes. Because I loved him.”
“How much, though?” I said. My hand had returned to her thigh and my fingers dug hard into her jeans. “How much did you love him?”
“Quit it, Miri.”
“Did you love him enough?”
Eva shoved my hand away and slid down the bench from me, her mouth trembling, her eyes full, breath coming hard. She sniffed wetly, and as I watched, a fleck of mucus flew from her nose and landed on her clenched fists. Suddenly I saw her clearly: a young girl crying on a bench, her skinny limbs shaking, her body blurred around the edges in the fading light, and me with my eyes flashing at her like bared teeth. I dropped my gaze. I had wanted to think of Eva as a simple gift, lovely and unyielding, a woman sent to comfort me and lead my body through the desert of my grief. I’d wanted to think of her as mine and Jonah’s. Ours. But I knew then she was nobody’s.
Jonah would disagree with me. He would say she was God’s. He would say it with desire for both Eva and for God, a longing so deep it had its roots in anger.
“Are people at peace when they pray?” I said. “Is that what God is for?”
Eva let out a shuddering breath. “Pray, and let me know.”
I tried one more hopeless time to kiss her, but she turned away, and my lips landed on her cheek, sisterly. Behind us, the man at the kiosk had finally found a song he liked, and he raised the volume till a single soaring melismatic voice was blasting through the cheap radio speakers, singing low, then up, and up.
Emma Törsz‘s fiction has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Narrative, Cincinnati Review, and others. Her work was selected for reprint in 2015 in the O. Henry Prize Stories. Other awards include a 2015 Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant, a 2016 Next Step Grant from the MRAC and the McKnight Foundation, a 2018 Artist Initiative Grant from the MSAB, a 2019 World Fantasy Award in Short Fiction, and fellowships from the Jentel, Ucross and Willapa Bay residencies.
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