A short story by Amanda Leiserowitz
Photo courtesy of Nikko Tan
It was the year of b’nai mitzvah.
Objectively, Noa knew every year was the year of b’nai mitzvot for somebody. But knowing that – and attending a different classmate’s bar or bat mitzvah every month for the last year – hadn’t prepared her for her own. Not even the hours spent sweating over haftorah trope had prepared her. Sure, her discussion of the week’s portion had slowly been molded into something presentable for today. Yes, her mother had taught her how to use the curling iron, as if that would help tame her curly, dark hair. The shiny invites had been mailed to relatives across the globe. And now, everything was to begin in ten minutes. Everything was in place. Everything except for Noa, along with her new tallit and fancy dress.
Instead of counting down the minutes on the bimah, Noa was secluding herself in the corner of a shuttered balcony. Truth be told, Noa had only ever seen it open during the High Holidays, like Yom Kippur, the day when adults who didn’t normally go to services guilted themselves into showing up. From where she curled in the corner, she could peer down at the congregation between the bottom edge of the curtain and the floor. She could see her parents growing more anxious by the minute. Her mom glowed with sweat. Her dad kept checking over his shoulder, where Noa’s spot on the bimah remained stubbornly empty.
Her mom leaned over and murmured something in her dad’s ear. He gave her an exasperated look, shook his head. Noa could imagine the tone of voice he’d use to say, “I don’t know where she is. You think I know any more than you?”
Based on their rising levels of aggravation, her time in hiding was likely short. She sighed and kicked off one of her flats. It was pink, matching her special-ordered tallit. She’d loved the shoes when they’d found them at Payless, but now, they were pinching her toes. For good measure, she kicked the other one off, too. Then she flopped down onto her stomach, tallit fanning out on either side, and sighed again.
Noa did not want to have her bat mitzvah. The problem was thus: she wasn’t ready to be called an adult. She was thirteen, yes, but she was also self-aware enough to recognize that nothing good came with being an adult. As far as she could tell, adults were always stressed in some way or another. Exhibits A and B: her mom and dad.
She could admit some guilt that today she was only adding to that stress, but the alternative – getting up on the bimah, dutifully reciting every phrase she’d committed to memory, becoming an adult – made her feel even worse. Once she was bat mitzvahed, people, especially her parents, would expect things from her. Maturity. Rationality. Responsible decision-making. The pressure made her stomach churn.
She pushed the bottom of the curtain up again to peek at the congregation once more. There were her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her little cousin… but her mom had vanished. Even the rabbi was starting to look confused.
The curtain fell back in place and Noa pillowed her cheek on her forearms, studying the wall. Then, she squinted, her eyebrows scrunching together. Had that little door always been there?
It was square, made out of dark wood, and probably only about three feet tall, set close to the railing in front of the heavy curtain. She’d been here a few times before, playing hide-and-seek during Tuesday school, but she’d never seen this little door. Maybe it led to an attic? Did the temple even have an attic? This warranted immediate investigation.
Noa pushed herself to her hands and knees and crawled over to the door, where she sat back, feet tucked beneath her. She tested the door’s tiny knob, not expecting it to give, but the door opened easily. It was dark inside, like the room beyond had never seen daylight. She leaned forward and peered in; after a moment, her eyes adjusted. Murky silhouettes resolved into the shapes of boxes. It seemed everything in the room was a box.
There was dust in the air, and a thick coat of it on the floor, too. It would be a shame to get her new tallit dirty, so she compromised, shrugging it off and placing it on a nearby seat. Her dress she bunched up above her knees with one hand, and crawled through the doorway. It was just wide enough for her shoulders.
Inside, the room felt stuffy, too warm, air too thick. She sneezed twice and then froze, afraid she’d given herself away with the sound. Nothing happened, and she relaxed incrementally, tentatively standing up. The room was short; at Noa’s full height, the ceiling was only a few inches above her. An adult would have to crouch to avoid hitting their head.
Inside the nearest stack of boxes was a mountain of loose papers. Like the room itself, they were dusty. She scrubbed her nose with the back of her hand to prevent the itching from turning into a new bout of sneezing. Once it passed, she put a hand into the box and extracted the topmost paper. She squinted at it, gray in the dim light. The script on it seemed to be in Hebrew. With all of her practice in the last few months, the letters that were familiar to her, but she still couldn’t resolve their meaning.
Digging further, Noa found more papers, written over in Hebrew. She wondered how old they were; were they written by her peers, children practicing block letters over and over? Or were they older than that, some kind of ancient manuscript?
Movement caught the corner of her eye and she turned, startled, dropping the dusty papers back into the box. All she could see were murky boxes, haphazard stacks, cardboard shoved together. She held her breath and waited. Had she been found? Any second now, a sharp, angry voice would ring out and she’d be pulled by the arm back into the real world…
There. A shadow moved out from behind a box. But, no – it wasn’t a shadow, just a small shape, black as night.
“Hello?” Noa asked, softly, though she thought that the shape must be a cat, and wouldn’t be able to reply.
Two round eyes opened from the shadow’s lithe shape, bright blue. Two tiny lightbulbs in the dim room. “Hello,” the creature said.
Noa gasped. “A talking cat!”
“No, not a talking cat.” The creature leaped smoothly from the ground to the top of a stacked box, where it perched delicately. With the light coming from its eyes, she could see that it was telling the truth; though it had four legs and a tail, the tail ended in a staticky starburst and the back of its head and spine were decorated with thick spikes. She could see no nose nor triangular ears that would solidify this creature as a cat.
“Then what?” she wondered, stepping closer, the papers scrawled in Hebrew all but forgotten in the box behind her. Her stocking feet sank nearly half an inch into the thickly dust-covered floor.
“A shadow,” it replied. When she stepped closer a second time, its whole body bristled, and she stopped. “What are you doing here, human?”
Noa pushed her dark, curly hair away from her face. “Just exploring, I suppose…”
“Exploring,” the creature repeated. Its glowing eyes squinted at her. “Dolled up like that?”
“Hey, explorers can wear dresses.” Nevermind the makeup coating her face – her mom had done it, not that she’d permitted Noa to wear more than lipgloss and eyeshadow on any other occasion.
“Even if they can, I’m not certain they should.”
Noa puffed up her cheeks, determined to stick to her point. “But nobody said they can’t.”
The creature studied her. Its tail swished and swayed, and then wrapped itself around the creature’s hunched legs. “I suppose not,” it eventually agreed.
A call filtered into the little attic room, dimmed by distance. Noa recognized her mom’s voice, calling her name, and she bit her lip, worry rising in her stomach like a tide; for all she wanted to put it off, her bat mitzvah was supposed to begin any minute.
“Hey, can I come back here sometime?” she asked the creature.
It stood and in a movement so sudden that Noa barely had time to gasp, it leapt past her, a dark blur that came so close to her arm that the baby hairs there stood on end as the air was disturbed, cooled. Whirling around, she found the shadow creature now poised on the lip of the box she’d opened earlier.
“Do what you like,” it told her, and then ducked its spiked head down into the box. Noa watched as the creature vanished head-first into the box. The papers didn’t even rustle.
She hurried over and peered inside. All she saw were the same papers as before, tidy lines of incomprehensible characters.
From somewhere behind her, outside the dark, dusty room, came the pounding of feet. Without sparing the time to think it over, she grabbed a paper from the top of the box, folded it into a small rectangle, and pushed it down the front of her dress, where its sharp corner dug uncomfortably into her skin. Maybe, if she could translate it, she could learn about this mysterious storage room, the shadow creature, maybe more…
Her mother appeared at the top of the stairs as she closed the tiny door behind her. Noa held her breath, feeling red-handed, doing her best to shield the door from view..
“There you are!” her mother exclaimed. “What have you been doing? Your dress is so dirty!” She came over and vigorously shook out the skirt of Noa’s dress before brushing it down with her hands. The dust Noa had been wearing went flying, making them both sneeze.
“Put your shoes back on,” her mother commanded when she was upright again, now attempting to fix Noa’s hair. “And your tallit. Everyone is waiting.”
Her mother shook her head, exasperated. “Then why in – oh, for goodness sake, there’s no time for excuses right now. We’ll talk tonight.”
Noa slipped her narrow shoes back on as her mother wrapped the tallit around her shoulders, then pushed her towards the stairs. She could feel the paper hidden against her chest – real and sharp. The inevitable had come, yes – she’d be on the bimah soon. But the unpredictable had come, too; the paper folded against her chest was a burning reminder of that, and more than that, it was a hint of the endless possibilities the future held.