Smoke

by Alisa Moskowitz

I must have been warned of this in a dream. You look so pale darling, please sit down. You look lovely dear, lovely but so pale. People act as though I have seen a ghost. And maybe I am seeing a ghost. There. Wearing a long white gown. She's in the mirror. Waiting.

I was at home last night. I slept in my little bedroom in the house I grew up in with my mother and father and sister on Chestnut Road. The house where I learned how to make Matzo ball soup just like Bubby used to before her memory began to fail her. Where I set the table for Sabbath dinner and lit the candles and said the prayers, ever since I was very small, standing beside my parents in the dim dining-room that glowed warm and golden. This house where I was a schoolgirl and wore my hair in long braids. This house where Isaac and I arrived one evening and announced our engagement.

Nonny sat upon the bed with me beneath the covers and brushed out my hair. Father lingered in the doorway: Your last night as my little girl. I'm giving you away tomorrow and I can't even believe it. It was the last night I would spend in that house and I knew it. I knew it but I didn't. Father smiled. I could tell he was nervous. He kept asking if I was sure I still wanted to be given away. Of course she's sure, daddy. She's in love, Nonny said. My father's smile went limp. I could hear Mother pacing up and down the stairs, mumbling to herself. Quit asking her such questions, Miles. The girl needs her sleep. It's tough work to be a bride-I remember. Father's voice was quiet, strained: Are you sure, sweetheart? Just answer me that you're sure. And I told him that I was. Last night, I was.

This morning I woke up early and my mother and Nonny helped me with the gown. Nonny chattered and bounced around the room while Mother was quiet, her face solemn. Do you remember your wedding day, Mom? Nonny's questions were unanswered amid the bustle. Thirty-two covered buttons in a tight row down my back. Four buttons at each wrist, and then we smoothed the gown over the wide crinoline. Wearing that dress, the room suddenly became smaller. The dresser, the bed-everything cramped in, rustling against the gown. It made a sound like waves crashing when I walked. My bedroom did not recognize me anymore.

I stood before the bedroom mirror before we left the house. Voices escalated beyond the oak door through a moment that seemed sacred, that should have been silent-maybe in a dream I'd had. That was all long ago. I have seen the ghost of me in that mirror, since.

We were in the bride's room at the temple. Nonny and I had already managed our brief morning escape into the parking lot to let the sunshine touch my hair for the last time. As Isaac's wife it will all be hidden under a hat. It's tradition, I explained to Nonny, who made a face. Who needs tradition? Who needs to wear a silly hat? Lena, you have such pretty hair. And she was helping me tie it up in a smooth twist away from my neck, revealing the row of buttons like cramped teeth down my spine when father entered, breathless. The ceremony was soon to begin. I was nearly ready.

Girls, it's the house. Something has happened. There was a fire.

I went to see the ruins and mother was so angry with me for coming along. She held onto my arm and cried. Something wrong with the stove, maybe, or a candle was left burning. We walked in and the air was gray. I tried to part it like curtains before my face. The walls black and charred, the dining-room table caved in upon itself, lying like a giant spider on the floor. What did more damage, the fire, or the firefighters? Hatchet marks buried in cabinets and desktops. The mirror in my bedroom—a silver spiderweb etched into the glass. Oh, Lena-and on your wedding day, Mother wept. I looked at my face, splintered in the glass. You look so beautiful.

You look lovely dear, lovely but so pale. Bubby Greta has bustled her way into the bride's room. Nonny sits in the corner facing the wall. You look as though you've seen a ghost. I think of the girl I saw in the mirror early this morning, standing in the bedroom of her childhood, her hair hanging loose, past her shoulders.

You love this young man Isaac, do you?

Yes, Bubby, of course I do. Her hair is pinned in place beneath a shiny silver wig. I wonder if she even has any hair left.

Well, maybe you should wait dear. Maybe God is telling you to wait.

But wouldn't God have warned me? In a dream, I mean-this seems just like the type of thing I would dream about. When I first met Isaac and we took a walk by the pond. When we first held hands. When we first kissed. If God saw something on earth that he didn't approve of, wouldn't he have let me know earlier? There must have been a dream waiting for me, somewhere, sitting like a cloud atop my pillow. Did I forget it? I try to remember the dream. Wherever I imagine it I cannot make it fit.

Sitting here in this cloud-like dress I feel that I am passing through a dream. Walking through fire, lifting my stubborn train. My slippers are covered in soot. The sounds of hatchets echo within me even though I was not in the house to hear. My dress smells musty already, like I've been closed up in Bubby's attic for years. I wrestle with the buttons at my wrist and they pop off-two lost teeth land in my lap. The smell of smoke is on my skin.


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