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The accusation made by mother Earth against Uranus, Father Sky, was that he hid their children. "Who will rid me of this tyrant," she asked. Their child Cronos responded. The dark blanket of the sky was pierced with a scream and much later with the light of a moon.
- after Hesiod, "Theogony," ca 800 BC
The Sky at Night
I have told you most everything about me already, but I have not told you this. I used to sleep with my sisters when I was young, in a room opening up to where my parents slept. We actually slept in the second floor living room, with uncurtained windows facing the street. I used to watch the sky at night, from our bed, seen in a mirror above a dresser. Only a small portion of the sky could be seen, reflected from the window next to the bed, but at times I would see the moon in its first quarter, waning in the mirror, and inching slowly from right to left. Then I could see the clouds which hide the stars.
Here is a picture: I'm thirteen years old, and I declare that I want to become a Kosher butcher. I study the knives, and the sweeping gesture used in severing the throats of cattle with a single stroke. It seems like an attainable occupation, even for a woman.
I don't know where the idea came from. Maybe from one of the conversations in the kitchen of my father's restaurant. I was wielding knives there, helping out, by the time I was eight years old. We all helped; we were, in fact, employed, put to work. Mother too. We ate our meals there also, in the kitchen, for very little was cooked upstairs in our apartment. It seemed right at the time, for from my earliest memories the restaurant was part of our home.
My father therefore provided the meals in our household. He also ran the house, that is, he controlled it, most visibly by taking on all the repairs and by initiating all sorts of alterations, although he never seemed to complete any of them. Parts of walls between rooms were removed where changes were started to increase space, heating ducts were partially installed on the second floor, but there was as yet no heat on the third floor. Exposed lath and conduit indicated were changes had been made to the house wiring. Doors were missing, windows were patched awaiting repairs at a future date. The kitchen of the restaurant and the basement looked similar, and were in addition inundated with food provisions, and with used gadgets and machinery envisioned as improvements in the operation of the restaurant.
Within this tumultuous structure, where my father's hand was everywhere, although everywhere equally indecisive, we were ruled, not by the hand, but by an intellectual pressure which had the easy force of a honed razor. No comment or observation made by any of us could not be bested or refuted by my father. As children we were actually drawn to this, for just by being in school we understood the difference between blind authority or the liberal attitudes of our parents which sought to treat children as if they were adults. It bothered me little, early in life, that on any topic from the Talmud to Thermodynamics my father was the final authority or had the final opinion. Conversant on any topic, and skilled at many crafts, he also spent endless hours in talk with customers, while snapping orders at the hired help, and often at us.
I was ten years old when I first ran away. I took my Swiss Army knife, my pillow, fourteen dollars, and a pair of sox, all stowed in a backpack -- the emblem of independence -- and bicycled six blocks to the family of a friend's house. Late in the evening they asked me to call my father to tell him that I had run away, and to let him know where I was. At ten the whole world conspires to keep you bound in circling your generative luminaries.
I visited the restaurant during the two day I was a runaway, demanding a parley on my grievances concerning the restriction which work in the kitchen imposed on my life. I don't remember much; I probably thought my actions as appropriate and reasonable, but I suspect that talk just shifted to higher levels of abstraction so that my concerns were never addressed. That is the way things went in our house. The need to have me back in the kitchen was probably never admitted to the negotiations.
All issues in our household regularly dissolved into rhetoric. Guilt was avoided with talk, and order was kept with it. It was an order of supremacy; one person was always right, knew the answers, and knew what everyone needed. It was an order which in other ways did not exist, neither in the disorder of the apartment, or in our freedom as children. Actually, and from an outsider's point of view, we were our own caretakers. We did our own laundry, we saw to it that we got to school on time. As the youngest of five I was largely raised by my brothers and sisters.
I resettled into working in the kitchen and running errands, and silently, but visibly, carried my displeasure. I think I would have receded permanently into an angry silence, except that my composure changed for the better the following year, thanks to my maternal grandfather, with whom I stayed four months when I was twelve. I admired him immensely, for his relationship with others was built around a desire to entertain. During this exile (I had run away again), I memorized all his raunchy jokes and stories, and learned their effective delivery.
As the youngest in the family I had grown up with the vocabulary surrounding the adolescent sexual concerns of my older siblings. I knew, before I could experience, more than my age would admit. My grandfather enjoyed the precociousness of that knowledge, untainted as yet by self consciousness, for the bloody clock had not yet started its imperious ticking.
Thus, as my grandfather presented his endless repertory to an open and appreciative audience, it was totally absorbed. The theme of half or more of his jokes centered on sexual relationships, and I was soon the more knowledgeable and opinionated. Here certainly was a new body of rhetoric, where wisdom wasn't begged from knowledge, and humor did not depend on the incongruity of behavior to reason - as it was presented in my home. Wit additionally put off the strain of authority, something my mother had always displayed in her relationship with my father.
It was my mother who had managed to turn my second escape into a furlough, for I had managed to make it to New York, and to my grandparents' house, the second time I ran away. Entered into under the aegis of a broadening, and hopefully a quieting, experience, the idea was accepted by my father if only as a relief from the badgering of my mother and the growing ill will which I presented. But my exile was also to be lengthened with an additional stay at my father's parents, who had retired to Jerusalem.
The stay with my father's parents turned out to be a hardship. It was not the displacement to a foreign country, as much as the foreignness of their orthodox household, that was at cause. I felt my behavior becoming duplicitous just to accommodate them. My grandfather kept the Law, and read, and this seemed to occupy all of his time. I got on with my grandmother, but spent most of my time with school work. I learned Hebrew. As soon as summer came I found excuses to cut back my planned stay. I actually looked forward to a return to my father's universe.
Whatever clearing of the air had been intended to be achieved with my absence was not accomplished. I returned with my eyes opened, knowing now, through having lived it, a pre-history of my parents' relationship. I saw the bickering and tendentious arguments more clearly now, no longer as a game. And I became convinced that the cause of all the tension was grounded in my father's dismissal of his orthodox traditions. His intellectualizing as well as his adeptness with things physical seemed like a desperate maneuvering to fill the gap he himself had opened.
Of course some of this is an interpretation gained from a later retrospective view. At that time, at age thirteen, I more keenly felt the disappointment of the hypocrisy. It was at this time, also, that the concept of becoming a Kosher butcher first took hold, for it reconciled elements of my tradition with the secret desire of expressing the power of being female. It was at once genuinely appropriate -- for every thirteen year old has a chosen future occupation of heroic proportions -- as at the same time I realized the irony inherent in the idea of being an aggressive Jewess in a gentile world. The idea of being able to deal a deadly slash without spilling a drop of blood had a certain elegance about it. It was a joke used to gauge the responses of others, and it was also a secret fantasy.
After my return I retreated again, watched the relationship between my parents degenerate at the same time that the freedom of my brothers and sisters became more circumscribed. It had taken a long time for us to realize the insincerity of our freedom. We made the choices of what to wear, when to eat, at what time to get up in the morning -- but the major decisions, where to go to school, what to study, who to associate with -- were made by my father, not by imposing direct authority, but from a presentation of endless arguments, a rhetoric which could suddenly change from a clear logic to an impassioned pleading -- if the latter seemed of benefit. The point of it all was a presentation of correctness, of all-knowing superiority. It became infuriating, and my oldest sister simply moved out, and left for New York.
My father's response was inexcusable. He called relatives in New York to warn of her coming, and to exhort against aid. This extension of his control frightened me, and I thought back to when I had run away at age ten. I realized now how that had been allowed because it had been regarded as a joke at the time, and therefore was not a major decision that needed to be interfered with.
My father's further response to my sister's leaving was to introduce a new order of control in our family: he conceived of a return to orthodoxy, and set about making preparations, planning to close the restaurant on Friday evenings and reopening on Saturdays after sunset. Late in life, and at a time when the habits of his children were beyond hope of reform, this seemed like a desperate act. He went about it with a methodical recklessness, attending first to physical aspects. I remember, for example, how the grill of the range on the second floor, despite the infrequency of its use, was to be kosherized. He found a potter with a kiln, and made arrangements to have it fired to a very high temperature. His concern over the correct temperature -- the detailed questions he put to the potter -- stood in contradiction to the observance which remained unimplemented while the physical changes were already underway.
We were submerged, hidden, controlled like planets senselessly describing their orbits around a saturnian sun. I retreated further. I commandeered a room on the third floor. I decorated it, moved in my possessions, and fancied it a safe place where I could wait. At this time I learned to play the flute, and joined a drama group at school. These were interests of my mother, and brought me closer to her again. I think today that the displacement of the theater was just a way of not being myself. I worry about that still.
Photography also dates from that time, and I do not know why I have not given that up, for it is also as distancing as the theater. I started with my father's camera, which like many objects around our house, he did not need, but needed to own. I have the camera still, but it no longer functions, perhaps because it's been cut off from its original owner.
Being allowed to use my father's camera was a painful experience, for it meant enduring all his instructions, as well as his gloating interest in my results. I was often embarrassed with the pictures I took, and was relieved when his interest abruptly stopped. My mother's attention, on the other hand, was sincere and sympathetic, although this only proved how mundane the images were. I graciously accepted it at the time, for it was part of an overall bond between us which reaffirmed our earliest intimacies. I was, after all, the baby of the family, and my precociousness and impending flowering were issues of a protective concern from her. I think that she somehow wanted to cushion the pain of metamorphosis even if it could not be prevented.
I was intent, however, to map my own course, and maintained a cunning silence. I kept my private room, and experimented with my powers. I selected boys at school and engaged them in lovemaking in my room. It was easy to bring someone onto the third floor without notice. Secreting them in was a matter of discretion, part of my overall plan of silence. Matters of sex were generally out in the open in the family, as for example among my older sisters, partially because of the tone of adventurous liberalism, and certainly because outright disapproval by my father would have undermined justification for his own behavior.
I played with these boys, that is, I played with their bodies, but discarded them, for it proved nothing but a disappointment. The fantasy of power in such favors was transparent. I recall observing at the time that I was myself still shaped like a boy, and thought that perhaps I needed to await the growth of my breasts and hips. I waited.
I would have to wait a long time, however, for the outward changes. What came first was menstruation, and when it came it came as a shock. Despite my intellectual awareness of what was expected, I was completely unprepared emotionally. From my first period on it was the importunity of the cycle, the total disregard of my body for my body, which startled me. I soon realized the enormous futility of that cycle, each blood- letting another reminder of the failure of a system which would impose itself on me forever, and with a punctuality in total disregard of my exterior life. It was, and is, as if I'm inhabited, implanted with something which disturbs my tides with the extreme indifference of clockwork, as pointless in its buildup as it is extravagantly vengeful in its repeated undoing. A machine inside me, churning away.
This happened as I turned fourteen, and as the onset of winter forced me to abandon my room on the third floor. I slept again with my sisters, and often with my mother. I felt suddenly confined to childhood again, in need, almost, of protective control and at the same time raging against it in the disappointment of impotency.
Here is another image from childhood, a last one. I'm lying with my mother in her bed. The room is dark and I'm near sleep. Only the doorway admits light. It is the soft light of streetlamps from the windows in the adjacent livingroom. I see them reflected in a mirror against the wall of the room almost directly above the bed. Beyond the windows seen in the mirror is the sky, seen only as a haze behind layers of glass. Beyond the sky are the stars. Suddenly a dark shape moves into the mirror and fills it. It blocks the light, obscures the sky.
Before I recognize what is happening, my mother nudges me. Time starts up again. I realize it is my father come to bed. I slide to the edge of the bed and slip off, and move quietly along the wall to the doorway. As I turn, at the door, he is a dark shape hovering over my mother.
Whether he noticed me on these occasions I do not know. Certainly he ignored me, as he often ignored all of us. "Hyenas," he called us once. It was meant, perhaps, as "scavengers," but immediately as he had spoken an image sprang up in my mind of a wounded animal encircled. There were three of us in the restaurant kitchen when he said this. Spoken, he stepped out of the kitchen to deliver food in the restaurant. My brother, who had been stacking dishes into the washer, slammed a single cup into place and looked up, looked at the doorway. My mother was standing at the central counter with an onion in her left hand. She didn't look up, but lifted a small sickle shaped paring knife from the counter and addressed it with her eyes. I expected a mutilated onion, but she paused, drew a breath, laid down the knife gently at the edge of the counter, searched for another, chose a vegetable chopper, and cleaved the onion. My brother put a glass in place which he had been holding. I heard it break. "Damn," he said. I turned toward the back door, reaching it in two decisive strides, and stepped out into the night.
Later, or maybe the next evening, I removed the sickle shaped knife from the kitchen, and took it to my abandoned room. Cutlery in the arsenal of a Kosher butcher, I sharpened it with the whetstone I also used for my Swiss Army knife. I honed the gray steel to a razor edge.
I do not remember how much time passed between the day I picked up the knife and my father's accident. It may have been a month. I slept less frequently with my mother, I think for fear of being interrupted by my father's entrance. At times I would wait, curled up, hidden in a stuffed chair in the livingroom, waiting to see if he would show at all. If I woke, late at night when all was quiet, and he was not in my mother's bed, I would slip in with her to continue my sleep.
It is difficult to understand today why it took me so long to discover why my father frequently did not make it at all to my mother's bed. It came as a sudden realization one afternoon. I ran to my mother to confront her, "What are you going to do?" With reservation in her voice she answered, "I am going to leave him." My anger with him turned to a rage against her, "Why? How can you do that?"
"Your father started this violence," she answered impatiently. I burst into tears. It was true, but it made no sense to me, no more than continuing to do nothing made any sense. I ran to the third floor to hide my agony.
I did not feel the cold till late at night. I was numb, but steady with resolve. I uncovered the sickle knife, moved downstairs to the second floor. and stood at the door to my mother's room. Quietly I stepped into the room, and clinging to the wall I moved to the corner next to the doorway. I sat down on the floor next to the wall.
He came later, dragging a dark blanket behind him, expecting to make love to her. He mounted the bed on his hands and knees, straddling her body. I stood up. The first touch went unrecognized, confused with my mother's hand. In the swift second as my grip tightened he moved back and into the reach of my sickled hand. I can still feel, today, the resistance of the flesh against the edge of the knife. It was greater than I had expected, but the act was completed in a single motion, and without a sound. I stepped backwards toward the door, his genitals in my left hand. The scream rose and burst into the night, and blood showered like rain onto my mother's body. I turned, stepped through the doorway, and tossed his organ back into the room over my shoulder. Behind me the sound of breaking glass mixed with the scream. Without looking back I knew the mirror had broken and shards were spilling onto the two bodies. I fled to the third floor, my heart pounding, as the household stirred into turmoil. I stood very still, very long.
I suppose my father could have bled to death, but he didn't. My mother acted quickly, got him to an emergency room, although in a state of shock.
In my room I gently laid the knife at the edge of the window sill. There was blood on my hands. Outside a moon had risen. There were no clouds.
There was no accusation, and the tacit conspiracy went undetected. The mirror was blamed in the reconstruction of the event. But a hush set over the house. In the next two years my older brother and sister moved out without retaliation, and my mother took the youngest of us to New York. You know all the rest, for I have told you everything from that time on.
published somewhere at Cat Machine in 1995