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He lit the second candle. It added no more warmth or light to the room than the first. Weak orange licks of flame could not reach the blackness that hung outside the windows. The glass of wine stood, filled, near the center of the table. Its swollen redness defied the clean white tablecloth. Atop a simple silver platter, the braided loaf of bread remained untouched.
He occupied the chair at the head of the table. Or perhaps the tail. There were three other seats spread around the oval, all empty. He hissed in pain and the match dropped from his fingertips. Its tiny smolder quickly gave up atop the muslin. The fingers went to the bridge of his nose. This provided a warmth between his eyes that dulled the pain. His other hand reached out for the book at his elbow. One hand on the cracked leather binding, his lips parted. No words came out.
“Is this really necessary?” came a voice from across the table. “We already get it. No reason to beat the horse to death.”
He left his eyes closed, not wanting to dispel the voice. “Beat a dead horse,” he corrected quietly.
“Stop being pedantic. You know what I mean.”
“To beat a horse to death would imply a destructive intention.” His voice solidified; the engagement of a practiced lecture. “To beat a dead horse is to carry forward despite an intention already being achieved.”
“Fine. Then remind us of your intention for tonight.” The voice was pleasant, if a bit fragile at the edge. He couldn’t tell if the playful note was genuine or a compensation for vulnerability.
“It’s our havdalah. The reconnecting of the threads of our week after a day of separation. The chance to enter the week renewed, restored, made new and prepared for another opportunity at life.”
Silence from the other side of the table.
“You disagree.” The question trailed into a familiar acceptance.
“This isn’t how I taught it to you. There’s only supposed to be one candle, two colors braided to make a single flame.”
He nodded. Two separate candles had felt more honest this time. “Since when are you a stickler for details?”
“I learned from the best.” She chuckled, and the candlelight flickered against his eyelids. He was tempted to look then, to remind himself what wasn’t there. Maybe what had never been. He was not brave enough to prove the moment. Not yet.
“You haven’t set the table.” She sounded disappointed. More likely she was baiting him. “Didn’t you think that we would come?”
“I didn’t know,” he answered honestly. He had hoped for something tonight though he would have had a hard time explaining exactly what.
“Did you at least prepare a meal?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Enough for everyone?”
His lids tightened involuntarily and the world darkened around him. “I only hear your voice.”
“And whose fault is that?”
His eyes snapped open, momentarily blinded by the twin points of fire. The candles were shorter now, half consumed. The table remained empty: both the facing chair and the seats to either side. He reached out and took up the brimming cup of wine, carefully lifting it toward his lips.
“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, who brings us the fruit of the vine.” There was a prayerful cadence to his words. He took a deep sip from the wine. His eyes pressed closed beneath the moment’s contentment.
“Remember the first time you let me taste the wine?” This voice was lighter, brighter, more confident. It came from the left side of the table. “Not the Manischewitz but the dry stuff you and mom keep for yourself.”
“Your lips didn’t unpucker for a month.” He smiled to himself, or maybe to her. “You said we broke your taste buds.”
“Mom blamed you the first time she caught me out drinking.”
“She was probably right. I let you get away with too much.” He shrugged. “You were a good girl though. I never forgot that.”
He could imagine her biting her lip, though he couldn’t hear it. She had always been so careful with how she spoke to him.
“I wish you hadn’t made us take sides. That wasn’t really fair.”
He swallowed the sudden weight he felt in his mouth. He wanted to take another drink. Maybe a few more. “I know,” he finally managed.
“We didn’t blame you for any of the rest. I hope you know that.” He couldn’t bring himself to respond. He didn’t know any such thing. “Sometimes I wonder though, what would have happened if you’d been with us.”
His hand trembled and he felt a wetness rush over his knuckles. He looked down to see the purple-red stain soaking into the table. He set down the cup before any more damage could be done. The vessel was nearly empty anyway. Had he spilled that much? Had he drunk more than he thought?
He pushed his own chair back and stood. Unsteady steps took him through the door to the kitchen. Everything was laid out and exposed, bathed in fluorescent white atop the stainless steel island. It was a clean kitchen; mostly testament to its recent disuse. The food was separated between heavy ceramic serving dishes. It was simple fair: grapes, a green salad, roast eggplant. Not his type of food. Not quite his family’s either, but the closest he could approximate. He picked up the dishes one at a time and set the table without any further spills.
Reseated, he took a long, loaded breath. A cleansing breath his wife might have called it. The scent was light but familiar. He reached out and lifted the canvas cloth bag to his eye level. He closed his eyes and gave voice to another song, the quiver remaining just beneath the surface.
“Blessed our you, oh Lord our God, creator of all spice.”
His fingers wrapped around the rough cloth and he could feel bits of material crushing together inside. He could smell the powerful mixture of aromas: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and something else he couldn’t quite place.
“It’s jasmine.” This voice was uneven and a bit hoarse. It came from the right side of the table. “You can tell from the quality of the sweetness. It’s the kind that doesn’t make you hungry.” The voice flattened awkwardly and cleared itself with a cough to regain footing. “Sometimes we would use balsam instead, especially in the winter.”
He took another deep, soulful breath. The smells were vivid, they carried with them a cascade of memories. Little fingers trying to knot the silk cord of the bag. A toothy smile failing to bite through infectious giggles. A boy sitting in the corner of the room, his face in his hands. Large, wondering brown eyes staring, lost within the glow of a single candle flame.
“That’s cool,” the voice observed. “I stopped minding when you ignored me a long time ago. A lot easier to deal with unspoken disappointment, you know. At least that never ended up with you two yelling at each other. At least not as often.”
“I loved you.” His breath was long and regular now. “It hurt me how much I loved you.”
“Maybe,” the boy’s voice allowed. “The loves that come easiest are those that draw us to ourselves.” Or was it a man’s voice now? Something in between; something becoming. “But the loves that last the longest, though much more difficult, are those that bridge the divide between the other and the self.”
“Who said that?” the man wheezed. It sounded so familiar but distant. It was as if the words echoed, trapped within an empty spot in his brain.
“I did.” The voice was definitely older now. “Or at least I might have.” It resonated with a deep and rich confidence. It was a voice you wanted to follow to the next thought. “I think I might have been a poet. Perhaps a philosopher. You and I could have spent Sunday evenings steeping tea and discussing the Republic.”
“That…” The man’s train of thought faltered. He felt detached from the logical conclusion of his feeling. There was a thing growing inside him that was too big, too dangerous to allow. “That would have been nice.”
“Can’t you see us? Sitting on the porch, pointing to the shadows we cast on the wall behind us. Laughing at how small and fragile and unavoidable our arguments had been. Appreciating how much stronger we were for overcoming that silliness, those difficulties, together.”
His fingers were clinched into fists now, he felt the cloves grinding to dust within his hand. It felt like a price to pay; a thing to be sacrificed for the sharpening line of his thoughts.
“A little harder to ignore that, I suppose.” The voice was drifting now. Its confidence remained but it seemed to be coming from farther away, from the edge of the room. “I don’t mean to be cruel. Reminding you of the things you lost. The things you were not strong enough to keep. I just wanted you to take a moment to consider what you’d had within your reach. If you’d had the patience, the kindness required.”
The voice was gone long before the echo had finished in his head. He reopened his eyes to the empty room. The eviscerated bag lay atop his open hands, clumps of spice scattered across table. He let the bag fall from his finger and lifted the dusting that remained up to his nose. The scent had changed now, it was marked with the warm tang of sweat from his hand and salt from his skin. The hand covered his face and slowly descended. He felt the smell and texture smear tracks down his cheek and lips.
He stood again and surveyed the room. All was in place: the candles burned low but would last long enough; the food looked serviceable, if not inviting; the dark reds and browns of his recent spills lent a curiosity to the scene, but nothing out of place. He held his hands out and open in front of him, facing the flickering light.
“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, who separates between the light and the dark.” No lilt remained to his voice; there was no room for a cadence within the strain of his words. “Who separates between the holy and the profane.” He sat back down slowly and returned his face to his hands. It was only a few minutes before the light began to gutter. The wick had reached its end.
Darkness came upon him gradually. He knew the light had ceased to press atop his eyelids, but that signified little. His hearing did sharpen. He could make out the soft clicking of the mantle clock in another room. The light groan of the refrigerator came through the closed kitchen door. There were other sounds from outside but those were muted and alien, part of a separate world to which he did not yet belong.
The sound that finally caught his attention came from the far end of the table. It was a cough, or perhaps a short laugh. He opened his eyes. The darkness was not absolute. The coldest, thinnest of glows crept through the crack at the bottom of the door behind him. It was just enough to separate the room between lines of pitch and blurs of slate. No detail was left on the table, but contours of the surrounding chairs were distinguishable. As were outlines of the occupants seated there. Three guests had arrived.
He wanted to say a welcome but no longer had the courage. He wanted them to speak once more but no longer had the hope. Instead he stood and waited. It was many long hours before the dawn came to prove his eyes false. By that time he had reconciled himself, and was ready to face the world again. At least for one more week.
Derek Ivan Webster
Raised in a tiny Alaskan fishing village, educated at Yale University, Derek Ivan Webster is a writer that appreciates a good contrast. When not shepherding students seeking creative careers, Derek is happily enrolled in the MFA creative writing program at Fairfield University. He is well aware that it is only his wife, and their precious/precocious co-conspirators, that keep him sane. More at ivanhope.com, @ivanhope77.