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Short fiction contest second-place winner: The Afterlife

When God made the world, she said, He had already made many trial worlds that didn’t satisfy Him, and these half-worlds lay scattered at His feet like shells or husks or… peelings, I think it was… and though they are lost to us, their sparks swim into own world, and we feel the divine sparks in the breezes and rustlings and the tall museful trees at dusk… and in the Challah bread that is warm with Creation.

Interesting idea, he said.

The sick will heal when they can heal others, she continued. When you find the place where healers and sufferers have the same faces, set down your roots, for there is a community.

I think I’ve heard something like that before, he said.

Maybe. A lot of these ideas are not really old-world Jewish or – what do you call it? – Ashkenazi Jewish. They’re too wild.

She closed her eyes, disappearing inside herself, as she often did.

Here’s one I really like, she said, if I can remember it… What is the afterlife? It is not what we’ve been taught – not one grand life, but the coming together –

She opened her eyes.

 – or maybe it was the flowing together… the flowing or commingling together of all lives. Perhaps when we die, we will wake to find ourselves living inside the head of someone else, harboured far inside their skin – and then we will move on to another person, and another, and another; and eventually we will live inside every person alive, putting on the something-something… what was it?… putting on all the wandering skins of the world, all the wandering skeins of memory. Maybe that’s heaven. Are you sour to hear this?

She narrowed one eye at him.

Are you? she said.

Am I what?

Sour to hear this about heaven?

A bit, yes. I thought heaven was… a lot more alone time for everybody.

Her eyelids fell and she breathed out, as if wafting a bit of dandelion fluff into the air – which for her was a full-body laugh.

Well, she said, it might be nice to inhabit the mind of somebody you’re curious about. At least for a while…

Everything about her was sturdy and even overstated except her amusement.

And I like that phrase, she added – wandering skeins of memory. It’s like memory is a kind of yarn that you can unwind from one skein and add to another.

I am amazed that you still remember it all, he said.

Not all of it… Her brow furrowed; now she looked troubled. Not even most of it.

But the best parts. I can’t believe you just volunteered to memorize it.

It just seemed so… exotic.

And your parents didn’t know.

What, tell them I was going to a synagogue to memorize a book by an old rabbi? I don’t think so.

And we’re talking word for word here, right?

Outside, the winter afternoon surrounded them in its blue shamanic light. He sat a bit stiffly, conscious of a fluttering question – the question he’d come to ask – skittish in his mind.

Word for word, she affirmed. Rabbi Emeth was very patient. He would write out a passage on his slate, and we’d recite it together, and then he’d start rubbing out bits of the passage…

But you were a gentile, he said. And a girl.

Rabbi Emeth was a bit of a rebel. Anyway, he had no one else.

She looked troubled again. What features, he thought. A pastiche for the ages. Broad face, large-jawed and soft-cheeked, with an incongruous rosebud mouth. Not a beautiful face, not celestial, not symmetrical, not even pretty – all blue notes, in fact. But with sustain. Down her back ran a reddish-blonde braid, as densely plaited as a sonnet.  

She must have caught him studying her because she said briskly: Orange?

The fruit she handed him was minutely dimpled and sun-infused, its apex slightly flattened where it had come off the tree.

I have to pick up the kids soon, she remarked, peeling her own orange.

How are they doing? he said, sliding into his usual role of family friend.

Provokingly well.

At her smile, he imagined her lying back in her bath, lying back long and slender-ample, some burnishing of age around her eyes but her skin still auroral under the water…

To conceal his thoughts he said quickly:

But I still don’t understand why he chose you, this rabbi. Weren’t there any Jewish students around?

Well, she said, I chose him, in a way. I used to see the little sayings he’d written on the hillside beside the synagogue. In the snow. God is both your sun and shadow; that was one. Every day on my way to school I’d stop to read them –

She pinched an orange seed delicately from her tongue and placed it beside her coffee cup.

 – they were in English rather than Hebrew because he wanted to reach as many people as he could. And one day I saw him on the hillside, this little old man with his big round fur hat, writing in the snow with an umbrella. And he told me they were all thoughts from his book.

Writing a book in the snow, he remarked. Interesting idea.

She gave him a fragment of a smile and continued:

At first I wasn’t really taken with him – a little bent man with this bristly beard who smelled of onions. But then he told me about this book, how it had been passed down from father to son for a hundred years…

So you became his son, he said.

Well, he couldn’t bear the thought that it would end with him. And it wasn’t a religious book – not completely, I mean. There were all these wonderful almost-scientific passages about the starry meadows and the forms of water and time.

Why didn’t he just print it? he asked. Wouldn’t that have saved a lot of –

Because it was a memory book. It had to be passed down through the generations by listening and reciting. One skein of memory to another…

She shook her head. I just wish I’d kept my word to him.

What happened?

She had settled into weariness now. The space around her eyes was pale, as if she’d been sleeping badly. He wondered if she’d been thinking about her marriage.

Everybody has something in their past they wish they could change, right? she said. If they could go back?

Of course.

She tilted her head and, reaching behind, drew her long braid in front of her. For a moment she studied it absently, fingering the end as if testing fabric.

It just got to be a chore, she said finally. I was studying hard to get into university, and I started going to the synagogue just once a week instead of twice. One day I told him I had to go away for a few weeks, and he said all right, very quietly – I think he guessed. He didn’t get angry or upset, he just said all right. And I never went back.

I see.

But anything would have been better than just stopping.

She closed her eyes briefly and, sitting very straight, touched one lid lightly, as if the images in her head were too fragile to be disturbed.

And then the spring came and the snow melted, she continued, and he couldn’t write his sayings in the snow.

Maybe he found someone else to memorize the book.

She had drawn her braid before her again and held it firm, pulling her head away, drawing the roots tight – painfully tight, so it looked to him.

I wish I could believe that, she said.

She released her braid and sat looking out the window. In the silence he wondered if he should broach the subject in his mind, ask the question he’d come to ask – he’d waited so long to do so. But before he could quiet the fluttering, she said:

And I went to university and got my degree and got married. The usual story. But at every stage of my life, I always thought that the rabbi’s book was waiting for me. I always thought: I’ll find it again, somehow. Maybe I’ll even find Rabbi Emeth and he’ll say it’s all right, it’s all right…

Tell her, he thought. Tell her why you –

Do you have a rabbi Emeth in your life? she asked suddenly.

I guess we all do.

She sat looking at nothing, sat as if calcified, her eyes empty. Tell her… But now he was afraid of her response, afraid that everything might crumble – his friendship with her husband, the friendship among the three of them – everything would crack and crumble and blow away in the winter winds.

I have to pick up the kids, she said, rising.

When he hesitated, she gathered their coffee cups, gave him a quick look of entreaty and walked into the kitchen.

She was no longer the woman who had met him at the door, the woman with the soundless laugh, who found divine sparks in the oddest places.

He rose too and, saying goodbye stoically, walked out into the winter.

I have something to ask you, he said to the purple air, something to ask you…

She stayed with her husband while winter drifted into spring, stayed on while the years stained together, blurred like the type in damp newsprint; and suddenly her children were teen-aged and then gone from the house, and one day someone told him of her death and he wished he’d spoken.

Then he found himself in the old Jewish quarter of the city, walking the streets – it was winter again, with the sky like an erasure on a page and the snowdrifts high and grey – and he walked down every lane, following the same routes that she would have walked as a student of Rabbi Emeth’s. He passed several synagogues and wondered which was the rabbi’s. Could the man still be alive? No, no, hopeless. But there might be students, followers… He moved slowly, hardly aware of the cold in his lungs. No doubt she had silently recited passages from the Rabbi’s book while walking these lanes. Yes, he would find the synagogue, find out what had happened to the rabbi… Huddling inside himself, thinking of her featherweight smile, he gradually became aware of strange gleanings or sparks that kept slipping into his mind.

The starry meadows, the forms of water, time…

And if any of the passersby had stopped him to ask (as people sometimes asked the beggar-sages in Yiddish tales) what the afterlife really was, he would have been able to tell them.

— Jamieson Findlay is the author of two novels, The Blue Roan Child and The Summer of Permanent Wants, both published by Doubleday Canada. He is a past winner of the City of Ottawa (Canada) Book Award for fiction. A science writer by trade, he currently makes his home in Chelsea, Quebec. His enthusiasms are skiing, writing, trying different microbrewery beers and playing guitar with his musical group Buskers for Tuskers, which raises money for elephant and rhino conservation.