On Two Streets, with Three Languages

Sonya Taaffe

The exorcism has failed. Dead Khonen in his bridegroom’s stainless kitl lifts white-gowned Leye into his arms, into the golden ghost-light, two halves of one neshome as dark-haired and slender in embrace as twins or a trick with mirrors, their mouths annealing to one another as the rabbi cries out in despair—Too late!—and the grandmother rocks and mourns the black shawl that is the bride’s discarded body, shadows of the world of illusion. Two men who loved one another stand thunderstruck on either side of the mirror, the abandoned ghost and the forgetful survivor: their children are gone forever beyond either of their reach. The messenger from another world witnesses, blesses, shoulders an eternal knapsack and moves on. Borukh dayan ho-emes.

Between which two worlds are you, Semyon Shloyme-Zanvl Akimovich Rappoport An-sky? Between which languages, which loves, which politics, which names? Whose voices did you call into your throat? Salt mills, prayer books, soldiers’ camps, board meetings, pages upon pages of questionnaire hidden like a genizah while the century moved over your memory and left your shtetl hauntings to speak for you instead—shape-changer, hiding in the mouths of lovers who never existed and tales you gathered yourself on the rutted roads from Kremenets to Kiev, a tall and beseeching chameleon in a khasid’s kapote and a narodnik’s dream of belonging, bright-eyed, white-haired, tzaddik in spite of yourself. You stole a woman’s voice from the air, a broken skull from cemetery earth. You stole yourself from each new mask, restless as a melody. You left the clothes from your back, suitcases of books, a deskful of papers, the records of a vanished world: wax cylinders of silenced singers, kvitlekh from holy graves. Yiddish stories, Russian journalism, the Hebrew of the Haskalah. A diaspora of one, roaming endlessly through yourself. Was it Edia in that golden light, reading Merezhkovsky and Asch, or was it Chaim, lounging curly-haired as in your boyhood in Vitebsk? Who gave you earth to rest in, root into? Who did your heart wind its ivy around?

None of us are your children, An-sky; ghosts quicken only with memories and the dead bear only grief. Dancing forever on a darkened stage, Khonen and Leye engender between them the flame of their lost and shared soul, their bodies the wick it draws to burn: all that remains is the imprint of light in the dark. The voice that goes on speaking after the breath is gone. The spirit that is neither body, incomplete so long as it lives on a single street. We are your hauntings: we learn to speak through you, of lives between worlds and bodies, words and souls, claiming for our own the voices that welcome us in. Set up your gramophone, zamler, take out your notebook and call your cousin to photograph. The language of dybbuks is the third language, An-sky, and it is not a language only of the dead.

Taaffe photo 2015Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press),A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), andSinging Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and in various anthologies including The Humanity of MonstersDreams from the Witch-House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian HorrorGenius Loci: The Spirit of Place, and The Best of Not One of Us. She is currently senior poetry editor at Strange Horizons; she holds master’s degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats.