A Garment for the Moon by J. Hannah Orden How can you tell the
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A Garment for the Moon by J. Hannah Orden How can you tell the exact moment when day ends and evening begins? Ellen watches from the window of her attic apartment on the third floor of a rambling Victorian house. A narrow slice between two buildings across the street affords her a glimpse of the river and the sky above. Both are slate gray, but whether from cloud or dusk, Ellen can’t determine. The sun has not shone for a week. Somewhere there must be a table or chart that lists the time of sundown. Can she look in the newspaper or is there a special number to call? Ellen doesn't want to insult Art and Sophie with a ringing telephone on Shabbat, but she has to catch them before they leave their house, to tell them she has changed her mind. Over and over she picks up the phone and puts it down, wondering why she ever agreed to go to a Megillah reading in the first place. Her memories of Purim are anything but happy. Ellen pictures her sister Mimi prancing around dressed as Queen Esther, brave, pretty girl, savior of the Jewish people. Everyone agreed that Mimi was a perfect queen with her round, rosy cheeks and dark curls. What had Ellen dressed up as? Had she put on a fake mustache and beard and pretended to be Esther's uncle Mordecai? Or had she trailed around in her little sister's shadow as a pale imitation of a queen? For the past few weeks Ellen has been under a spell, not quite herself, disoriented from the moment she first saw Pinchas at Howie’s party. She was on her way out, too shy for parties, even when the hosts were her closest friends. Worrying that Sarah might catch her leaving too early, she snatched her coat from a pile in the bedroom and was sneaking down the hall when a man appeared. With his long black coat, wide-brimmed hat, and bushy, dark beard, he looked more out of place than she felt, not simply shy and awkward, but belonging to a completely different world. Ellen tried to walk past, but the man, large and loose-limbed, filled the hall. She pressed herself against the wall and inched toward the door, unaccountably apprehensive. Glancing at the man’s face, she saw something burning in his eyes, intense and yearning. She was caught there for a moment, trembling and confused, thinking the yearning was for her, until she remembered that she had never seen this man before. Something welled up inside her, her own yearning perhaps, and something like shame, and she was seized with a wild urge to run. As she hurried down the stairs, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being followed. She kept looking behind her, but no one was there. The next day Ellen was back at Sarah and Howie’s apartment eating leftovers and helping Sarah relive every glittering moment of the previous night. Ellen asked what a Hasidic man was doing at Howie’s fortieth birthday party. She wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to discover that she had imagined the whole thing, but Sarah admitted that Howie had met Pinchas at a used bookstore in Harvard Square and they had struck up a conversation. Howie kept going back after discovering that Pinchas worked at the bookstore, and somehow they had become friends. Ellen pressed Sarah, wondering out loud why Howie would want to make friends with a Hasidic Jew. "Since when is Howie interested in religion?" she asked. "Why do you think Howie became a lawyer?" Sarah answered Ellen with a question. "You know he loves a good argument. So, what could be better than sitting around arguing about the existence of God and the value of a life devoted to bringing the Messiah?" The question hung in the air. Howie had married Ellen’s best friend, and over the years he and Ellen and Sarah had spent hundreds of hours talking about justice and change and politics. Rarely had any of them mentioned God. "I invited Pinchas to the party, but I didn’t expect him to show up." Sarah continued as though Howie’s interest in bringing the Messiah had been firmly established. "I warned him that we would be serving shrimp and playing Sympathy for the Devil. Men and women would be dancing together in public. All that forbidden stuff." Laughing gaily, Sarah told Ellen about the night she awoke and heard voices in the living room. She stumbled down the hall, half-asleep, wearing only an old T-shirt, and found Howie deep in conversation with a bearded man in a black hat. When Howie introduced her, Pinchas turned away, covering his face with his hands. "What did you do?" Ellen asked. "I stood there, blinking like an idiot, then I went back to bed. In the morning Howie explained that religious Jewish men are not supposed to see women’s bodies. They’re not permitted to dance with women or touch them or even be alone with a woman unless they’re related or married." Sarah’s story, however, only partly explained why, three days later, Pinchas slipped a note under Ellen’s door without knocking or introducing himself. The note, written in careful, oddly formal script, informed Ellen that there were some people she must meet and he hoped she would consent to come to dinner. There was an address in Dorchester, but no date or time was specified, leaving Ellen with the tantalizing impression that anytime she arrived, she would be welcome. Of course, Ellen had no intention of going. If Pinchas were trying to win converts to his way of life, he had picked the wrong person. Though born Jewish, Ellen had never had much interest in Jewish traditions, certainly had never considered herself a religious or spiritual person. How then, could she explain why she had not torn up the note, but rather had left it on the table beside her bed? The next morning, when she opened her eyes, the note seemed to shimmer in the faint light of dawn, whiter and brighter than any ordinary piece of paper. She tried to go back to sleep, but the note glowed in her mind until her whole body began to tingle. She sat up and pressed the paper against her cheek, discovering that warmth as well as light emanated from it. This was how Ellen knew she was under a spell: several days later, after returning from work, she saw an edge of paper, unmistakably bright, poking out from where she had buried the note under a stack of mail and catalogs on her kitchen counter. She drew it out and looked at it objectively — nothing more than a square of paper, folded over once. Cautiously, she opened it and read again three of the words that were written inside: Come to dinner. Suddenly angry, Ellen crumpled the note in her hand. The person who wrote it knew nothing about her, and she was not interested in knowing him. But she still did not throw the paper in the trash beneath the sink. Instead, she found herself rushing downstairs, unlocking her car, and turning the key in the ignition. Only after she had driven several blocks and had stopped at a red light, did Ellen open her fist and smooth the crumpled paper on the seat beside her. The house, when she located it, looked perfectly ordinary with paint beginning to peel and a neatly shoveled walk. Ellen sat in her car with the motor running. The blue numbers on the dashboard ticked off 18 minutes one by one before Ellen saw a woman’s face, round with wispy white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, in the window. In another moment the door opened and the woman was beckoning to Ellen to come inside. "I was just wondering who's been sitting out here for so long," the woman called as Ellen approached the door. "I'm Ellen. Ellen Rosen." The woman's face was kind and untroubled, but Ellen saw no glimmer of recognition. "Pinchas invited me," she added. "Oh Ellen! Of course. Pinchas told me he asked you to dinner, but I wasn't sure when you were coming. Anyway, here you are, standing in the cold. What am I thinking? Was I born in a barn? Come in. Come in. I'm Sophie. But you know that. Who else? The housekeeper?" Sophie's laugh was infectious. Ellen laughed along with her, though she actually had no idea who Sophie was. Pinchas’s mother? Grandmother? Great aunt? Landlady? Ellen followed her inside, noticed her sneakers and long wool skirt, her old blue sweater with a small hole in the back, near the left shoulder. "I was just making myself a cup of tea. Would you like to join me? Pinchas isn't here. He and Art are at the bookstore. But come, sit. We'll drink some tea." Sophie's kitchen was steaming. Pots were bubbling on the stove, and a greenhouse window overflowed with plants, blocking the snow, and giving the impression that in this house it would always be spring. Sophie waved Ellen toward a rocking chair beside the window. A colorful afghan was draped over the back. Sophie poured tea for both of them and set Ellen's cup on a small table near the rocker, but she never sat down to drink hers. She was in constant motion, stirring the bubbling pots, chopping, mixing, straining. As she worked, she talked incessantly about Pinchas, and Ellen listened carefully, piecing together the story of a lost and lonely boy who had wandered into the used bookstore Sophie's husband Art owned in Harvard Square, searching for something. He believed he found it in the old Jewish texts Art kept on a special shelf, but Sophie didn't know for sure. Maybe he found it in Art's friendship. Art was a special man, one in a million, though Sophie admitted that maybe she was just a little bit biased. According to Sophie, Pinchas’s interest in Judaism grew quickly. As he began to observe the strict laws of Orthodox Jews, he spent more and more time with Art and Sophie. He ate all of his meals with them because Sophie kept a kosher kitchen, and he could no longer eat at home. His parents, though Jewish, were mystified by their son’s desire to revert to ancient customs that they believed had no relevance to modern life. "Does he live here?" Ellen couldn't quite imagine Pinchas living anywhere. He seemed to have dropped from another century, a time traveler, an apparition, a dream, not quite substantial. Of course she knew nothing about him, really. Maybe he had an apartment, a job, a wallet bulging with cards — driver’s license, library card, credit cards — like anyone else. "He's always welcome here," Sophie answered. "But we try not to be greedy. He's left us several times to go to New York and Jerusalem. And when he’s in Boston, he often prefers to sleep at the bookstore. There's a cot in the back room, although, truthfully, I don't think he sleeps much. I worry about him, but what can I do? He stays up most of the night studying. He doesn't say so, but I can see the circles under his eyes." Sophie continued lifting lids, tasting and salting as she moved from one pot to another. Her nimble tongue moved on from Pinchas to Ellen. She asked Ellen question after question. Where did she grow up? Was her family religious? What brought her from Ohio to Boston, and why did she stay? How long had she been teaching? Did she enjoy her work? She stopped short of asking how old Ellen was, but Ellen could tell Sophie was keeping track in her head, the years of school, the years of teaching. Ellen guessed that she was being interviewed for the job of observant Jewish wife and mother. Surely, she ought to have apologized for giving Sophie the wrong impression by accepting Pinchas’s invitation. Probably, she should have excused herself and gone home, but she remained in the rocking chair, reluctant to leave the colors and smells of the kitchen, answering each of Sophie’s questions. "Please don't take this the wrong way," Sophie said finally. "You seem like a very nice girl. Only I'm not sure you understand what you are getting yourself into. Following all the Jewish laws is not easy, even for people who grew up this way. I keep a kosher kitchen, and Art and I observe the Sabbath. On everything else we are very lax. But Pinchas has chosen a life in which every moment is devoted to glorifying the Holy One, blessed be He. Such a life would be a tremendous adjustment. . ." Sophie stopped stirring and looked Ellen up and down. ". . .for someone like you." Ellen felt her face flush. What did Sophie see when she looked at her? Ellen didn’t even want this thing that Sophie was denying her, so why did she feel like a failure? "I don't mean anything bad," Sophie said. "But you're a modern girl. You have a career. You're not so very young. Maybe you're a little set in your ways." Sophie, pulling a kitchen chair near the rocker, finally sat down and took Ellen's hand. "It's not impossible," she said. "But you must want it very badly. Do you, Ellen? Do you want a life devoted to God?" Before Ellen could answer, a car door slammed outside, and Sophie was up again, hurrying toward the door. "They're here!" she said, her voice full, nearly bursting with joy. There seemed to be no possibility of escape, and if Ellen had really wanted to leave, she would have done so long before now. She stood next to the rocking chair, waiting for Sophie to return, triumphant, with her two men trailing behind her. "Look who's here," Sophie announced. "Your friend Ellen Rosen." Pinchas’s pleasure radiated from somewhere deep inside him. "So." Ellen had not heard Pinchas speak before, and with that one word she began to tremble like a new bride. She felt Sophie watching her, but she was powerless to control the effect Pinchas’s voice had on her. "I see you've met Sophie," Pinchas said. "And this is Art. They are my dearest friends." They are my dearest friends. That explained who these people were, but Pinchas still offered no explanation for Ellen’s presence. Ellen turned toward Art. He was small and impish with a grin that filled his whole face. His graying hair and beard were the only clues that he was no longer young. "I'm so glad to meet you," she said. "No, no. The pleasure is all mine," Art replied. "I have heard so much about you." Sophie patted him on the cheek. "All right, Arthur. Are you trying to make me jealous? Now, go and wash your hands, both of you. Everything is ready to eat." After dinner Pinchas and Art began telling stories. Pinchas spoke slowly, his voice resonant and deep. Art's voice was higher, quicker, dancing around Pinchas’s words as a butterfly flutters around a flower, both equally lovely. The stories they told were Hasidic tales, at once familiar and strange. They were fairy tales filled with quests and giants and gifts from wise men. Golden birds dropped magical feathers, and ministers disguised as beggars searched for lost princesses. Pinchas instructed Ellen to close her eyes and let the stories become part of her. These were stories that were understood not with the intellect but with the heart, he insisted. Only after he and Art had finished did Pinchas explain how the Hasidic masters used stories to teach lessons about the coming of the Messiah, the importance of prayer, and the need to reunite the masculine and feminine aspects of God. Ellen returned home well after midnight and lay on her bed, bewildered that she had never heard anything like this before. She had no idea Judaism had room for so many stories. Not tales from the Bible. Not sermons from a rabbi. Not lessons about planting trees in Israel or giving to those less fortunate. Ellen lay awake for a long time until the images from the stories dropped away and all that was left was Sophie’s question: Do you Ellen? Do you want a life devoted to God? Under the spell of Pinchas’s voice and the magic of the stories, Ellen agreed to celebrate Purim with Pinchas and Sophie and Art, and even now though she holds the phone in her hand, she knows she will not call to say she has changed her mind. At six o'clock she takes a shower and gets dressed. She's seen religious Jewish women wearing long sleeves and skirts down to their mid-calves, even in the heat of summer. Their heads always seem to be covered too. Ellen puts on a black wool skirt and a gray sweater, but her reflection in the mirror looks mournful, like someone who is going to a funeral. She exchanges the gray sweater for one that is pale blue and digs out a faded bandanna from the back of a drawer. The square of cotton, with edges beginning to fray, certainly doesn't look like something to wear to a celebration, but it's the only scarf she has. She ties it over her hair and hopes she won't stand out too much. Half an hour later, she is waiting downstairs on the porch when she sees a battered Ford station wagon with wooden side panels driving slowly down her street. Somehow she didn't imagine Art driving such a big car, but then she catches sight of books piled high in the back, and realizes that a bookseller would need a large vehicle. As the car pulls to a stop, she notices that Art is in the driver's seat with Pinchas next to him and Sophie in the back. Ellen slides in beside Sophie. She doesn't know whether Sophie is relegated to the back seat because she is a woman or whether the point is to keep Pinchas and Ellen apart. Either way, Ellen doesn't like it. "Ellen dear, we are so glad you are coming with us!" Art turns around and flashes his beautiful smile at Ellen. "Of course she is coming with us." Pinchas’s deep voice resonates through the car, though he doesn't turn around. "It is the month of Adar, the time when our people celebrate Purim, and Jews are absolutely required to be happy. What choice does she have?" Art chuckles and shifts the station wagon into gear. "Don't take him too seriously," he advises Ellen, who is at that moment considering jumping out before the car picks up too much speed. "Relax." Art’s voice is so bright and merry that Ellen actually feels herself sink back onto the vinyl seat. "We'll have a good time." As if to prove his point, he and Pinchas begin to sing. Though the songs are in Hebrew and Ellen doesn’t understand the words, she can tell they are songs of joy. Sophie leans toward Ellen and reaches out her hand. For a moment Ellen thinks that Sophie is going to pat her on the head, but she gently pulls the bandanna off and whispers, "Only married women cover their heads." Despite the kindness in Sophie's voice, Ellen feels judged. How could she be the right person for Pinchas when she doesn't even know such a simple thing? The service is held in a cafeteria in the basement of a religious school. Streamers and bunches of helium balloons attached to chairs and tables can't hide the linoleum floors, concrete walls, and fluorescent lights. Ellen expected a synagogue with dark wood, velvet, and stained glass. She sits with Sophie behind a partition, surrounded by women in clothing as drab as Ellen's. The women hold books in their laps, quietly mouthing or mumbling words the men are chanting on the other side of the screen. Children in costumes run around the room, trying to reach the balloons. The girls are all dressed as Queen Esther in a variety of frilly dresses and glitter crowns. The boys' costumes are more varied. Two are dressed as Batman, one as a clown. Several are Mordecai with white cotton beards attached to their chins. The reading is long, and the only words Ellen understands are the names of Esther, Mordecai, and Haman. Of course, she knows the story by heart because at her parents' synagogue the Megillah was read in English. Now, as she listens to the unfamiliar chanting, Ellen realizes the story is a fairy tale, much like the tales Pinchas and Art told after dinner. The beautiful Jewish girl Esther is chosen from among the women in the kingdom to marry the king. When the wicked Haman convinces the king to murder all the Jews, Esther's uncle Mordecai discovers the plot and helps Esther to save her people. Ellen looks around at the little girls with their glittering crowns. Who wouldn't want to be Esther — beautiful, brave, and wise? Restless, Ellen gets up and walks around the room, smiling at the children when they twirl their noisemakers to drown out the awful name of Haman. Along the wall, tables are laden with platters of three-cornered cookies filled with prunes, apricots, and poppy seeds. Ellen walks from the back of the room down the row of tables and stops just at the point where she can see past the partition. Glancing back at the women, she meets Sophie's eyes. The shake of Sophie's head is almost imperceptible, tiny enough for Ellen to ignore. On the other side of the partition, the men are gathered in a tight group around a scroll on a table. Most of them are dressed in dark suits and hats. All of them have beards. One is wearing a bear costume. As they chant, their bodies sway, touching each other. Ellen searches for Pinchas and sees him near the back. There's something in the room that Ellen wants, something she can almost reach out and touch, yet it's forbidden to her. When Pinchas looks up and sees her watching, she expects him to be angry. She's not supposed to be there. Probably, women are not even allowed to look. But Pinchas’s face splits in half when he smiles, and out of each half sparks of light escape and dance in the air between them. When the reading is over, everyone gathers around the tables. Children, ignited by the combustion of sugar and excitement, are waiting for the announcement of the best costumes. Like the first Esther, one girl will be picked from among the others. This is a night when dreams can come true. One man is pouring Schnapps into paper cups. He hands a cup to Pinchas who throws his head back, swallows in one gulp, and holds his cup out to be refilled. "If we were in New York," he says between gulps, "everyone would be drunk and dancing in the street." "Even women?" Ellen asks. The silence is awkward. Sophie clears her throat. "All right, mostly the men," Pinchas concedes. "But there's no Jewish law that says women can't drink Schnapps." Behind her, Ellen hears clapping. She turns around in time to see the best Queen Esther receive her prize. It's a small box wrapped in tissue paper. What's in it, Ellen wonders. What can a group like this give a girl who wants to be queen? When she turns back, Pinchas is telling Art that he's going to the bookstore. He's not tired, and he wants to look at the new books that came in Friday. Art offers him a ride, but Pinchas says he’d rather walk across the river. "All right then, Ellen," Art says. "I guess you're stuck with us old folks. If you're ready — " "I'll walk with Pinchas." Ellen feels disapproval hovering in the air, and she looks directly at Sophie when she says, "Unless that's forbidden." "I suppose it's up to Pinchas," Sophie mumbles. Pinchas throws his head back again and laughs. Ellen has lost count of how many times he has refilled his cup. Is he drunk? "Go get your coat," he shouts. "It's Purim. We should all be dancing in the street!" True to his word, Pinchas dances through the streets, waving his arms, stamping his feet, and singing wordless melodies that are both cheerful and haunting. Ellen follows more slowly, mesmerized by the graceful sway of Pinchas’s body. "You know what's wrong with people in Boston?" Pinchas calls out to her. "They're all Puritans. Even the Hasids are Puritans." Ellen laughs, though she's not even a little drunk. "Why don't you live in New York?" she asks when she catches up with him. "Did you know I grew up near here?" Pinchas asks, as if that explains everything. "Sophie told me." "Because I grew up here," Pinchas continues, "I recognized the river when I saw it in a dream." "A dream?" Ellen wants to tell him that she doesn’t believe in dreams, but then why is she here? Pinchas does not seem to hear the sarcasm in Ellen’s voice. "I dreamt that I was walking alone in a forest," he tells her. "Through the trees I glimpsed a woman walking ahead of me. She was enveloped in the most exquisite light that radiated from her hair, her clothing, her hands. I followed her, longing to see her face, but no matter how I hurried, I could never get any closer. The woman led me out of the forest and I followed until we came to a river." Pinchas is weaving a tale, as magical as the ones he told at Art and Sophie’s house. "On the other side of the river was a city. I watched the woman float over the river, but there was no bridge and I could not cross. I could only stand on the bank as she wandered along the city streets until she disappeared." "So you came to Boston to look for her?" Ellen asks. Pinchas nods. His lips part, teasing Ellen with the promise of something more, but he changes his mind and begins to walk again. They have almost reached the river when Pinchas says, "There's one thing I didn't tell you about the dream. The woman in the forest was you. I never saw her face, but it was you. I knew it the moment I saw you at Howie's party. I recognized you from the light that shone from your eyes. I know this sounds crazy, but you must believe me. It was you." For one startling moment Ellen believes him. She closes her eyes and turns around once. The sensation of her body turning makes her giggle. She opens her eyes and sees Pinchas watching her, but she can’t read his expression. Spreading out her arms, she spins, slowly at first, then faster and faster until she is dizzy. Her head is light, and she understands why Pinchas seems to be drunk. The world is spinning out of control. She steps toward Pinchas, wanting to feel his arms around her, his lips on hers, wanting to be chosen queen. But the world tilts, and she loses her balance, stumbles, almost falling onto the pavement. When she reaches for Pinchas, he steps away, and at the last instant she catches herself by holding onto a streetlight. She stands there, hugging the lamppost, breathless, shaken. The danger of enchantment, she realizes, can only be seen when the spell ends. Falling against the hard edge of reality, a person can shatter. "I’m not the woman you’re looking for." Ellen walks away quickly, ashamed to have been taken in by dreams and fairy tales. He's drunk. That's all. In the morning he won't even remember this night. Ellen steps onto the bridge that crosses the river. Though no stars shine in the city, the moon appears through a break in the clouds, almost full, visible in the open space above the water. "Ellen." Pinchas calls to something buried deep inside her, and it is that small, neglected thing that turns around, despite Ellen’s intention to keep walking. Pinchas is leaning against the railing of the bridge, staring at the moon. "There's a Hasidic tale about a poor tailor who weaves a garment for the moon," he says. "No one else can figure out how to do it because the moon is always changing size. But the poor tailor weaves the garment out of fabric made from the moon's own light. Because it's made of light, it grows and shrinks as the moon changes." Ellen tries to understand with her heart, not with her mind. The story has something to do with her, though she is not yet sure what it is. "When I’m lonely or afraid," Pinchas says. "I think of that story. I think of each of us warmed by our own light, the light reflected from a power greater than ourselves." Ellen leans over the railing and sees the moon’s reflection in the murky water of the river. Reflected too are the shapes of her body and Pinchas’s. The river is no longer frozen. Spring will come soon. A slight breeze ruffles the surface of the water, spreading ripples that extend between the three reflections. Ellen continues to stare into the water until she discerns the faintest glimmer of light shimmering from her own reflection. She glances back at Pinchas, grateful for what she has seen. There will be no tender kiss to transform her into a princess, like in the fairy tales of her childhood. Yet, there is magic in this night, and Ellen can be queen.