“Did I tell you what happened to me on Erev Sukkot?” my friend Atara asks me. We sit in her kitchen as she spices her salmon. Our children play outside in the Sukkah. Blessed Chol Hamoed.
“No. Tell me,” I say.
So she does.
Erev Sukkot. Atara poured apple cake batter into a flimsy tin, listening to the steady hum of the drill outside.
“Daddy, can I hang the decorations yet?” her daughter Orah asked.
“Not yet sweetie,” she heard her husband answer. She sighed and looked at the clock. Six hours until the chag would begin and they had to get to her cousin’s house which was nearly an hour away. She looked at the clock anxiously, wiped her hands on a towel and went outside.
“Look Mommy,” her son Ari said, holding up a miniature bundle of grapes he had made out of clay.
“Gorgeous,” Atara said. Ever since their recent aliyah to Israel she took newfound pleasure in the seven species of fruit – clay or otherwise. She looked at her husband.
“Eli, I’m worried about the time. We still have to travel today.” She knew her husband well and punctuality was not among his list of sterling attributes.
“Don’t worry,” he said, struggling to move a beam into position. He looked at his wife.
“You know I take my time about things,” he said. “Please, if you don’t mind, just let me work at my own pace today.”
Atara looked at the stacks of wood waiting to be hauled on to the sukkah roof. Glossy decorations sat in tangled heaps. She thought of the tables and chairs that they needed, folded into cobwebby corners of the basement.
Nagging won’t help matters, she thought. She smiled and went back to her apple cake, noting the browned edges of the batter. She could keep her mouth shut. She owed it to Eli.
The day wore on and the sun arced across an afternoon sky. The house was in shambles, clothing from newly showered children strewn about, dirty pots and pans piled on the counters, apple cake batter splattered in dry smudges. Atara zipped up the suitcases and inhaled the fresh sweetness of newly bathed children. Her husband passed by and she cringed at his slow gait as her watch ticked loudly. But she said nothing.
The children were getting edgy.
“Let’s get into the car,” she suggested. “I’m sure Daddy will join us soon.”
The children clambered into the minivan and Atara drummed her fingers against the dashboard. She picked her cell phone out of her pocket and considered calling Eli to hurry him, then thought better of it and tucked it back into her pocket. Finally, he appeared.
“And we’re off,” he said. They started the car and Eli began driving. The music blasted and Atara reveled in thoughts of Yom Tov with her family gathered around her. Far away from most of her family, she was so grateful to be hosted by her cousins Leora and Arik for Yom Tov. She looked out of the windshield and noticed the sun melting like an orange popsicle over the horizon. She looked at her watch.
“Eli, what time is sunset?” she asked.
“Sunset?” He squinted as he drove. “I meant to look that up.” He stepped on the gas. “Maybe give Leora a call and ask her. You know how times can vary from one city to another in Israel.”
Atara plucked her phone out of her bag. She knew that times could vary. A few minutes here and a few minutes there. They were clearly cutting it very close to Yom Tov. She spoke with Leora and hung up the phone, then spoke through gritted teeth.
“Sunset is in twenty minutes,” she said. Eli looked at the clock and then at the sky. He stopped the car.
“I don’t think we can drive on,” he said.
Atara knew it was true. She stared ahead, her face as still as stone.
“I’m so sorry,” Eli said. “We have to turn back.”
Turn back? Atara hit the switch on the music and the car was filled with the thick stench of silence. The children squirmed in their seats.
“So we’re not going to Aunt Leora for Sukkot?” Ari asked.
Nobody answered. Atara pressed her foot against the floor so hard she thought it might poke through to the ground. The car hummed and purred its way home as the sun hid its fiery spokes behind a shadowy hill.
“We’d better run,” Eli said as they pulled into their driveway. Atara quickly informed her cousin that they would not be making it. She imagined Leora’s counters groaning under mounds of delicacies that she had prepared for Atara’s family of six. She imagined Leora’s house, freshly cleaned and lemony smelling, candles glowing on the mantle, her Sukkah draped in glittery strings of decorations. Her insides churned. Why hadn’t she said anything to Eli?
Eli looked in her direction.
“Don’t,” she whispered, staring at the wall. “Just don’t say anything at all.”
She grabbed a suitcase and ran inside the front door of their house. The lights were off and the air smelled of burnt apple cake batter. The pan of chicken in her hands tipped and spilled grease on the carpet which was littered with toys. The dishes stacked like a standing army in the sink. Through the glass sliding doors she could see their Sukkah canvas flapping in the wind. They would eat in the dark, as the Sukkah light still rested on a musty shelf downstairs. All was quiet but for the leaky drip of the faucet.
Eli ran and grabbed some candles for Atara and she gained small solace in covering her eyes to the mess around her. She blessed the new holiday and then opened her eyes.
Then she ran upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door.
Why didn’t I rush him? She thought. I knew he didn’t know how to pace himself. She thought of the dark Sukkah and the cold chicken and the overly crisp apple cake. She thought of the clothing strewn about the house and the greasy dishes and the stained carpet. She thought of her little nieces and nephews reeling from the disappointment of it all. She thought of her gloomy house and the gloom seeped into her mind like an insidious vapor. She thought of this all and she burned with anger towards her husband.
She lay there for ten minutes and then twenty, still and silent on her bed. She heard the patter of her children wandering aimlessly downstairs and slowly a desperate ray of hope fingered its way through a crack in her heart.
It’s up to me.
Atara knew that this Sukkot could be shrouded in darkness. It would be the Sukkot that her children would remember forever. The one where Mommy was angry at Daddy the whole chag. The one where they sat in the dark Sukkah and ate cold food and sang cold songs and exchanged cold words.
Maybe it could be the Sukkot that her children learned about forgiveness. Maybe it could be the day her children learned that she was able to overlook a weakness in her spouse in light of his many luminous qualities. Maybe they could eat cold chicken and sing warm songs and exchange words that would light the darkest corners of their hearts.
And like many wise women before her, Atara knew that sometimes saying nothing was saying the most of all.
I listen to the end of Atara’s story as she slides the salmon into the oven. I am no longer hungry.
“So what did you do?” I ask breathlessly. “Don’t tell me you really said nothing.”
“I said nothing,” she said. “I opened the door of my bedroom, gently this time. I went downstairs and we had a beautiful meal in the dark.”
“And?” I said.
“And,” she said, shutting the door of the oven. “And I don’t regret it for a second.”
I think to myself that sometimes greatness is contained in the smallest packages. The slight turn of the face to a smile, a gentle swing of the door…or a word left unsaid.
Yael Mermelstein, winner of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award, writes regularly for publication and is the author of two children’s books; The Stupendous Adventures of Shragi and Shia published by Artscroll and The Car that Goes Far published by Hachai. She lives in the pastoral Judean Hills with her husband, their delicious children and her pet computer.
Yael Mermelstein is excited to announce the release of her new book; Moonlight, a collection of emotionally stirring and thought provoking short fiction stories, published by Targum Press. It is now available at your local Jewish Book store or at http://www.targum.com/product.php/1028/moonlight