THE LOST TRAIN
God never does the same thing twice. When a soul returns, another spirit becomes its companion.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
As translated from the Yiddish by my grandmother, Meta Tannenbaum
ONE. THE WORLD
The world is like a revolving die, and everything turns over, and man changes to angel and angel to man, and the head to the foot and the foot to the head. So all things turn over and revolve and are changed: what is above to what is beneath and what is beneath to what is above. For in root all is one, and in the transformation and return of things redemption is insured.
The first time my grandmother visited me after she was dead and in her grave, I had just gotten off the phone with the mechanic and was standing next to the sink scraping hardened egg from a plate with a knife. She stood by the table in a red dress with a white collar, resembling exactly how she looked most of my childhood. My life on that morning tallied up to one runaway dog (not answering to the name Hannibal), a man named Adam I could sleep better without but needed at the moment to drive me to pick up the car from the mechanic's, and twenty-three fourth grade themes needing grades, entitled: "Me, My Family, and My Community," written on rough woody paper that aged in my hands.
I knew what she would say about this. "From hunger it looks. Can't rub two nickels together to get a dime, you run around like a poisoned rat. After I die everything goes out the cow's ass." She had a way of making sure that everything somehow had her at the center.
It all started with my grandmother's belief that spirits would come to visit their relatives and past lovers after they moved into a new home. Every time we moved, she would spend the first six weeks watching and waiting for them. So she willed it—a visit to my house in what she called the "country” where western New York begins to give way to Pennsylvania coal mines, a house cheapened by its proximity to the railroad tracks, haunted by high-pitched whistles every four hours. This "country" wasn't the achievement that the Catskills were—a name she dropped out with a click of the tongue—but rather an undistinguished landscape where people shopped at Sears and ate casseroles. Husbands grew fat on beer in this landscape, and their wives put down roots sitting at the kitchen table.
WHEN I WAS a child, the essential chemical elements of death on my periodic table were gas, fire, and smoke. I was terrified of the dead. I thought they were all on fire constantly. Almost everybody my grandmother spoke of in her stories went up the chimney in smoke at the end. And she insisted that the closer the embers were packed together, the longer the fire burned, the thicker the smoke. "The ember that sparks and then comes to rest away from the burning log will burn to ash faster than the log," she said. "When the embers begin to go out, you need to take the poker and scrape them all together so that they will not die down." I always saw them like that—burning piles. Auntie Tal's and Uncle Shaul's ashes emptied into the Vistula River and then were carried out to the sea. At night I dreamt they rose out of the ocean dressed in skirts of seaweed. My grandmother would correct my notions of the dead. "The spirit," she said, "does not do anything willy-nilly. Now go back to sleep."
It was on a trip to the Catskills when I was eleven that I first remember trying to imagine a different life in a more subtle town, a Hanover or an Amherst—a soft accent. My name would be Ann or Katharine, the name of a girl on a beach, like in some movie. My imaginings would begin as I lay on the back seat of the car with comic books scattered around, rereading the good part on page seventeen. "Water, Water," I would moan, pretending that I was in the French Foreign Legion. And after having trudged halfway across the Sahara (in order to forget bad love) I would be kidnapped and tortured for information, but would not break. This was how I began to define heartbreak, bravery, and loyalty.
"Esther, shut up that nonsense," she would say.
At the bungalow colony, six weeks' rent paid, she would saunter along the path to the clubhouse in a big straw bat and a short sundress. She liked to show a lot of leg.
For a while she had been a famous translator. She could render books, letters, and articles in and out of languages the way a dancer changes costumes between acts—Polish, German, English, Yiddish, not to mention a host of Slavic languages. Her landmark translation was a comparative study of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the Tales of the Upside-Down Town of Cheim. Not too many people know that she was the only Yiddish translator of both Twain and Washington Irving. But she made her living giving language lessons and doing translations for whoever needed them. People would come to her clutching letters from relatives in America, mail-order brides in Latvia, business partners in Palestine. Often she took great liberties with a text, and the changes she made seemed to her only for the better. Her transformations of a text always began simply, without direction. Once a man came to her needing a translation of a letter from his arranged fiancée in Crakow. The woman had changed her mind and had chosen to marry a newspaper publisher in her town. The man who stood rubbing his bald head seemed so elegant, so deserving, that instead of revealing the true content of the letter, Meta recited a steamy, impassioned love letter from a woman who was faithful and impatient.
Sometimes rich people sent their entire personal libraries for her to translate. Boxes and boxes of books, articles, and publications were carried up the five flights of stairs for her to work over. When a bit of religious or scientific material passed her desk, she took a special delight in translating it. These particularly pleased her; to Talmudic material she inserted unanswerable questions and extensive textual glosses. In those days she wore her dark brown hair in a blunt, shoulder-length cut that framed her large face, a style that seemed both too severe and too plain for her features. Her chin appeared square and her face long. She always worked in her best dress. It made her feel more competent, able to alter the world.
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This story originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review
This story originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review