And Some by Water
A week before you disappeared, I started grinding my teeth. I wouldn’t have known this had you not woken me up in the early hours of the morning, your hot breath hitting the back of my neck as you whispered to me that I was “doing it again.”
We would change positions, burrowing our limbs into new crevices before tucking the blankets tightly around our exposed feet. But sleep would overcome us and it would start again, my upper and lower jaws scraping against each other like a fault line. It wouldn’t be long before these tremors would stir us both awake, and even though I couldn’t see you through the darkness I could feel your worry filling the space between us.
That animals are able to sense or even predict natural disasters before they occur is a widely-recorded phenomenon. The first reported instance of animals fleeing before a seismic event occurred in 373 BC in the ancient Greek city of Helike. Five days after the creatures departed an earthquake struck the sleeping city, spurring a tsunami that swept the crumbling coastal plane beneath the sea along with all of Helike’s inhabitants. For centuries the tragedy of Helike was known only through the records of classical writers, and until the ruins of the lost metropolis were discovered in 2001 the story was largely chalked up to legend. The only remaining evidence of the once-influential city in the years following the earthquake was a bronze statue of Poseidon, god of the sea and of earthquakes, that had once stood in the temple built by the people of Helike in veneration of their patron god. Fishermen who still sailed in the area would tell passersby about the statue submerged beneath the lagoon that covered the ruins of the city, the prongs of Poseidon’s trident rising above the surface of the still water.
They pulled your body from the East River on a cold February morning at dawn. I do not know who found you, but I think about them often. Your sister told me that she felt you had chosen to reveal yourself to us, when you thought the time was right. It took months before I could get that image out of my head, you rising slowly from the depths like the cream blooming in my morning coffee, your body turning gently to face the pale winter sun.
During the two months of your disappearance a leak was discovered in the gas line of your family’s apartment building. Your mother had to borrow a friend’s kitchen in order to bake the traditional prosforo bread, which is kneaded by hand and stamped with a round, wooden seal called a sfragida. Greek families will keep a sfragida in their homes in preparation for marking life and death events, a constant reminder of mortality wrapped in cloth and tucked away on a high shelf. Your mother told me that she would offer the bread to the priest at the Greek Orthodox church, who would then consecrate it in your memory for the day’s communion.
You had taken me to this church once before, on a bright afternoon in early fall after we had warmed ourselves with bowls of roast duck noodle soup on Mott Street. Your family started going to St. Barbara’s when you were a teenager, you told me, because the church that you went to for Easter services as a child had stood underneath the World Trade Center. You wrapped your arms around me heavily as we stared up at the building’s stone facade; it was apparent from the architecture that it had originally housed a synagogue. “I don’t think you should grope me like that in front of a church,” I said when you slipped your hands under my shirt. The steady stream of cars and trucks ascending the Manhattan Bridge thudded rhythmically behind us. “This isn’t groping,” you told me as your fingertips traced the wire of my bra.
The day I went with your family to give the offering it was snowing large, whispery flakes that clung to the fur of my coat and flattened my hair as they melted. I pushed back against the spasm of guilt that hit me as I sat in the sanctuary, a dark, cavernous space whose high walls were cluttered with gold-flaked iconography. I recalled the surprise in my mother’s eyes a few days before when I told her that I would be attending the church service. She asked me if I was planning on taking communion along with your family.
“Of course not,” I told her. I had been in the process of converting to Judaism for almost a year, and was already in talks with my rabbi about setting an official date sometime after Passover. Some exceptions can’t be made. But as the thick smell of incense settled over the room, I couldn’t help but become transfixed by the way the priest moaned the liturgy, his white robes softly dusting the floor as he swayed back and forth over the wine and bread. I strained to follow the movement of the priest’s lips until he turned his back on the congregation. Your mother had said that the priest would repeat your name more than once as he prepared to consecrate the communion, but even when I closed my eyes in concentration I couldn’t hear you.
When the congregation finished taking communion, several of the black-clad Greek women began passing around napkins heavy with kolyva, a powdery-sweet mixture of boiled wheat berries, nuts, fruit, and spices. The break from the service was welcome and I carefully scooped the kolyva into my mouth. The kolyva would appear again in the coming days, at the multifaith service your family held at the United Nations chapel where, in lieu of your ashes, an enlarged photo sat adorned with olive branches flown in from California. It wasn’t until many months later that I would recognize the kolyva’s allusion to Jesus as he anticipated his own death: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Manhattan is an island, and after you disappeared I couldn’t walk along the edges of the city. The sight of water made my feet tingle like it does when I’m at the top of very tall buildings or when I see videos of skydivers jump out of their quaking planes into the hazy blue. I would take the long way to your parents’ apartment to avoid catching a flash of light reflecting off the Hudson at sunset, and I no longer asked my mother to take walks along FDR Drive when I stopped by her apartment on a Sunday afternoon. In late spring I moved to Brooklyn and would take the subway over the Manhattan Bridge with my eyes closed. After a week of feigning exhaustion from an imagined graveyard shift or a particularly exhausting day at the office, I took to walking the extra ten minutes to the L train, which remains underground. This way I could be safely shuttled from one borough to the other, a momentary tightness in my ears the only sign that we were at the bottom of the East River.
In the European Jewish tradition there is a custom of tossing bread into a natural body of water during the two days of the new year’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah. This ritual is meant to represent the casting away of sins in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The first time I took part in this tashlich ceremony was in the late summer of 2014, months before you disappeared. I was traveling back to the small Appalachian town where I grew up to give the Rosh Hashanah sermon on my conversion story and the meaning of home and belonging. The sermon was well-received, and after the morning service a small crowd of us walked down the main street towards a quiet pond on the edge of campus.
The September air was thick and sweet with the smell of cut grass when we reached the water’s edge. I closed my eyes and tried to meditate on the ritual I was about to perform. I thought of you, and the moment I found out I was pregnant, and our decision not to keep it. I remembered how we laid in bed the night before the abortion, only a few hours after I had taken the first round of pills that shut down the growth of the fetus like a fly caught in amber. As you held me you had marveled at the fact that my body could give life in this way, and for just a moment I let myself indulge in this idea, the three of us there together.
Someone in the congregation handed me a slice of store-bought bread. The mayflies flicking across the surface of the water scattered when I ripped off a piece of the crust and tossed it into the pond. I felt nothing, so I kept ripping the bread into smaller and smaller pieces, hoping that this time I would feel guilty; this time I would want repentance. But eventually the bread was gone, and I still felt nothing, so I dusted the crumbs from my fingertips and walked back into town.
The rabbi who runs the suicide support group that I started going to after they found you warned us that the high holidays would be one of the most difficult times of the year to endure. I did not need to ask what he was referring to; I was already anticipating having to recite the holiday’s central liturgy. The Unetanneh Tokef prayer lists the many ways in which a person can be given over to death, one of the first of which is by water. In an attempt to buttress myself I was staying with a close friend in Washington Heights. For months I had avoided this place, until I discovered that the rabbi at my friend’s synagogue had added your name to the list of those whom the community had lost that year, even though he had never met you. After that I made a point of coming once a month so I could hear your name reverberate against the high walls of the auditorium. I would make sure to sit on the south side of the room, so that as night fell I couldn’t see the headlights of the cars passing over the Hudson River through the window.
The George Washington Bridge looks different in the daylight. For months I had felt its energy pulsating towards me from out of sight, a sfragida at the bottom of a drawer. But now, on the first day of the new year, I was ascending its pedestrian walkway. I squeezed the chunk of challah that I had taken from my friend’s Rosh Hashanah meal earlier that day. The afternoon heat hung in the air, and now that I was alone I removed the sweater that I wore during morning services to cover my tattoo. The Greek letters run vertical down my back like a second spine. In the letter you left you asked that your family bring your ashes to Greece, when they felt ready. In June they released you into the sea at the cusp of morning, somewhere off the coast in the Peloponnese. I got the tattoo the next day, the second half of the tattoo on your right arm that you never had the chance to complete.
I stopped walking when I reached what I thought was the center of the bridge. I closed my eyes and placed the bread on my tongue. My mouth watered at its yeasty softness. The same impulse had overcome me before; it felt natural, even necessary, as if some kind of transformation had to take place. I held the bread within myself for only a moment before I took it in my hand and and threw it over the edge. The bread spun and twirled like a seed pinwheeling from the sky towards the uterine soil. I did not wait to see it consumed.
In the Jewish tradition, natural bodies of water are believed to have transformative properties. When a Jewish temple still stood in the heart of Jerusalem, the priests who guarded this holy place could not step foot within its walls without first immersing themselves in the purifying waters of a mikvah. This temple was eventually destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again, the city laid to waste and its people exiled. The aftermath of the siege is recounted in the Book of Lamentations, in which the prophet Jeremiah calls to the fallen people of Jerusalem, Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.
The rail line that runs along the eastern bank of the Hudson River is easily visible from the height of the George Washington Bridge. We took this train a year before in search of a waterfall near where you went to college upstate. You had suggested this place when I insisted that I perform the ritual immersion that is required of a Jewish woman after she loses a child before birth. We both requested the day off work seven days after the bleeding stopped, when tradition dictates that the mikvah ceremony must take place. The trip took longer than we had expected, and by the time we found the waterfall the sun was just touching the tops of the trees. We left our clothes in a pile by the water and tiptoed over the rocks together, holding onto each other’s shoulders for balance as we made our way towards the bluish center.
The cold water choked my exposed body as I plunged below the surface. With each immersion I tried to stay below a little longer, suspended in that liminal space where the profane becomes pure. Only the woman is required to complete the mikvah ceremony, but when I finished you demanded that you be allowed to immerse as well. We switched places, I now the witness from higher ground. I nearly forgot about my dripping hair and chattering teeth as I watched you disappear below the surface of the water, the crown of your head shattering my reflection each time you returned to me.
Alana Dakin hails from Appalachia and is currently based in Brooklyn, NY. She is working on a series of essays and stories that explore the many facets of Jewish conversion, religious ritual, mental health, and female resilience. Her fiction has previously appeared in PANK Magazine. Follow her online at www.alanadakin.com and @alanadakin.