09/25/2021

Henry Alan Paper ~ Friday

When I asked him why he had made Aliya – that is, why he had decid­ed to live in Israel for the rest of his life – and why, so unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, he had decid­ed to do so as an obser­vant Jew – this is what he told me.

~

He was not at all a reli­gious per­son, let alone an obser­vant Jew, when he was giv­en what one Groznian pros­e­cu­tor (and not a judge) smirk­ing­ly told him was an inde­ter­mi­nate sen­tence. He was then thrown into a soli­tary cell with­out any fresh air or light.

This was in ear­ly 1994, fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, when Chechnya, like so many oth­er break­away coun­tries and would-be coun­tries in Caucasus was attempt­ing to go through a tran­si­tion from com­mu­nism to cap­i­tal­ism, autoc­ra­cy to democ­ra­cy, iso­la­tion to inter­na­tion­al­ism, and was try­ing to find the light itself. In Chechnya’s case, no one knew, between the Chechnyan repub­li­cans and the oppos­ing Russian polit­i­cal fac­tions and all the oth­er var­i­ous sep­a­ratists and nascent jihadist mili­tias, what gov­ern­ment or army or eth­nic­i­ty would be wait­ing at the end of the long tun­nel, and for a while there was a des­per­ate anar­chy in the region.

What per­haps was clear­est was that there was no room in this mael­strom for an Ashkenazi Jew (there had been ten thou­sand of them in Grozny alone, but most by this time had fled to Russia or Israel). Yet that he had remained didn’t ful­ly explain why he had been arrest­ed. What instead came to his fever­ish­ly-search­ing mind were bribes he had final­ly refused to pay the import licens­ing com­mis­sion for goods, includ­ing com­put­ers, that were just begin­ning to come into the coun­try; or the time dur­ing the bliz­zard of ’91 that he had insult­ed a police­man for issu­ing a park­ing sum­mons whose fine he could ill-afford to pay when his car had become iced in and snow-removal was typ­i­cal­ly delayed; or per­haps the small study he had added on to his apart­ment, for busi­ness files and a place to write, that he had failed to report; or, most like­ly, now that he was think­ing about it, the sto­ries he had writ­ten that many con­sid­ered both anti-Russian and against the Dudeyev sep­a­ratist régime that cir­cu­lat­ed in under­ground mag­a­zines and were just now begin­ning to gain him a small rep­u­ta­tion abroad.

The lat­ter, of course, was the most obvi­ous expla­na­tion; it was why he had stayed: Grozny was not only his home and his hope, it was also his sub­ject. Although the obvi­ous was nev­er so obvi­ous in a closed soci­ety with an opaque government.

~

What he knew was that his incar­cer­a­tion was, hor­ri­fy­ing­ly, the oppo­site of the sto­ry of Creation. At a time when there was light, he was a man walk­ing around in it, tak­ing it all for grant­ed. Then, like a sud­den implaca­ble cur­tain, he was in the darkness.

His future, he knew, was uncer­tain – per­haps non-exis­tent – his present where­abouts, at least by him, unknown. So to cer­ti­fy that he exist­ed, and to learn how to live with the dark­ness, he began to evoke the light of his past.

His ear­li­est mem­o­ries, since he nev­er knew his father, who had been killed in a truck acci­dent some­where in the Caucasus moun­tains dur­ing the then Soviet manda­to­ry mil­i­tary enlist­ment for Jews, were of his moth­er. In his mind her image float­ed in and around the com­plex of squat ten­e­ment build­ings where he grew up, through its court­yards, and hang­ing clothes lines, its nar­row brick alley­ways smelling of fry­ing grease and wood smoke; open crowd­ed mar­kets by the Shelkovsky rail­road tracks with rick­ety stalls of old clothes and tables adorned with large musty roots and rust­ed pots filled with fra­grant meat stews his moth­er for­bade him to eat.

He remem­bered a round wood­en ball she had giv­en him that fit his hand per­fect­ly but refused to roll in a straight line, which sig­ni­fied to him, even then, that life didn’t go in a straight line.

He loved the trol­ley car, with its clack­ing, screech­ing wheels; pun­gent, oily smell, and infi­nite­ly reced­ing tracks. His moth­er would take him on the trol­ley car to the heart of the city, to Avgustovskaya Street just to win­dow-shop, or some­times just for the ride. They would pass the lav­ish Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, then in scaf­fold­ed recon­struc­tion, a whole long block in length, like round col­or­ful hats piled sky high of top of each oth­er and four thin pil­lars, one on each cor­ner, like crab’s legs reach­ing taller than he could see through the win­dow, then past the school that his moth­er would tell him had once been a syn­a­gogue. Sometimes they would get off at the Kultury Zvoda Krasniy Mollot, a park inside the wealthy dis­trict where there were geese and sail­boats and flow­er­ing shrub­bery that was delight­ful to play hide-and-seek behind. But most days she would push him in a stroller on long walks through the neigh­bor­hood, a kalei­do­scope of city scenes – some­times she would pause to chat with peo­ple on chance encoun­ters, or with friends sit­ting in front of their own squat build­ings. Sometimes she would – dar­ing­ly, it seemed to him – put him by him­self on a pony ride offered by gyp­sies who every autumn clut­tered the streets with their car­a­vans and carts. In the open mar­ket she bar­gained ruth­less­ly. When he was old­er, it came to him that she was, in all this walk­ing and talk­ing and bar­gain­ing, try­ing to sat­is­fy some curios­i­ty in her own life she had oth­er­wise been pre­vent­ed from pursuing.

In the apart­ment, she was often qui­et, clean­ing and wash­ing, method­i­cal­ly replac­ing one set of dish­es with anoth­er; some­times, for hol­i­days, whole days devot­ed to noth­ing but clean­ing, in which she would enlist his aid. He remem­bered, on these occa­sions, mov­ing fur­ni­ture, while being fas­ci­nat­ed by the sun­lit dust motes com­ing through the win­dows. At night she read by candlelight.

The per­pet­u­al dark­ness of his cell put him in glad touch with the light of his child­hood; yet he also remem­bered a won­der­ful and mys­te­ri­ous dark­ness back then: a secret in every cor­ner and nar­row dim cor­ri­dor of their apart­ment, a mys­tery in every book he could just bare­ly read but still not under­stand. There was a dark­ness in the still, silent fur­ni­ture on shab­bot nights, when the lights could not be turned on; a dark­ness in the low somber notes of the sym­phon­ic music his moth­er some­times played on the Victrola; and a spe­cial dark­ness in the clos­et where his father’s two black suits, along with his tal­is and tef­fil­in, still hung. And, yet, anoth­er kind of dark­ness: of oth­er sullen unshaven fathers who slapped their chil­dren in front of his eyes, of muf­fled shout­ed con­fu­sions behind closed doors in oth­er fam­i­lies he was grate­ful he was not a part of. And, of course, the approach­ing dark­ness at the end of the long day, the peach-col­ored light wan­ing from the sky as moth­ers called their chil­dren home. And, final­ly, the absolute dark­ness of still nights, lying in his bed, when the occa­sion­al sound of hors­es and carts clat­ter­ing along cob­ble­stones streets, or the trol­leys ratch­et­ing on their tracks (he pic­tured them sway­ing side­ways in time to their rhythm), or a lone voice call­ing, or a dog bark­ing, would final­ly smooth his way to sleep.

In the midst of this light and dark­ness, or, indeed, as though encap­su­lat­ing it, he could see his moth­er light­ing the Sabbath can­dles each Friday night – then slow­ly wav­ing the flick­er­ing light toward her closed eyes while inton­ing the bless­ing. In this crèche of his mem­o­ry he saw the halo of light waver­ing around the two small can­dles; the oval of his moth­er’s ker­chiefed head – the move­ment of her lined and grace­ful hands, mim­ic­ked by his own, beck­on­ing the bride of Sabbath toward the infi­nite dark­ness sur­round­ing just the two of them. It was she who taught him to light can­dles, before he was taught by the old­er men to pray in shul.

It was, of course, a prac­tice, along with oth­er obser­vances, he aban­doned once he left sec­ondary school for lit­er­a­ture and engi­neer­ing and, final­ly, com­put­ing. This was when he had been select­ed for uni­ver­si­ty train­ing by a Soviet gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee that vis­it­ed his school once a year and hard­ly said a word. Eventually, in uni­ver­si­ty, the only can­dles he saw were on the tables of out­door cafes and, lat­er, in extrav­a­gant bright­ly lit church­es where his friends were married.

Then came a gov­ern­ment clerk­ing job with the new sta­tis­ti­cal depart­ment, polit­i­cal meet­ings, his own writ­ing that he spent ever more time at and that was to become the only impor­tant rit­u­al to him. After sev­er­al years, because of his busy sched­ule, and an unex­pect­ed pro­mo­tion, he stopped going home, but knew, despite his apos­ta­sy and absence, that his moth­er was proud of him. Then she was diag­nosed as hav­ing lupus, went in for a minor sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure, and died.

Now in prison, he thought about his moth­er – her pride, her qui­etude, her curios­i­ty, her rit­u­al obser­vance – and won­dered how she would feel to know that he was in this place.

~

After anoth­er day or so – inso­far as days could be reck­oned when there was no light, no dis­tinc­tion between day and night – it came to him how his moth­er indeed used to read by can­dle­light, and that this was exact­ly what he now need­ed to survive.

When they next deliv­ered his food – a thin por­ridge with bits of some kind of meat in it – through the slot he spoke, almost shout­ed, his request. He repeat­ed it when the shad­ow of the guard remained still. Reading mate­ri­als, he implored, writ­ing imple­ments, and a can­dle to do both by. He tried not to hope. He wasn’t entire­ly sure the guard under­stood him.

~

After sev­er­al more days the door clanged open and they trans­ferred him to anoth­er cell, this time with a tiny rec­tan­gu­lar win­dow high up. In the uneven gray light he could make out a bunk and a stained toi­let, though not well enough at first to also see if there was any graf­fi­tee on the walls. There wasn’t. This would have been com­pa­ny of a sort, though he would have been unable to respond in kind: he still had no writ­ing imple­ments; even his one cor­rod­ed eat­ing uten­sil was tak­en away after each meal.

But shards of hope now pierced the murky dark­ness. He won­dered what the move might have meant. Perhaps his case, what­ev­er it was, was being moved along in a direc­tion toward… even more light. He spent hours look­ing up at the tiny rec­tan­gle of gray light, imag­in­ing it to be an open door­way, and him­self going through it. Sometimes he had the feel­ing he would soon be released

Then the bomb­ing started.

At first he heard it in the far dis­tance – an unmis­tak­able rum­bling that, after a cou­ple of min­utes, built to a clos­er, loud­er rolling cas­cade. This new, alarm­ing fear was not less­ened when, in the midst of the bomb­ing, they at last brought him a half-used can­dle, along with a sin­gle match, and, refus­ing to answer his ques­tions, said, sim­ply, “reg­u­la­tions,” and left.

In a moment they blacked out the win­dow from the out­side, cast­ing him into com­plete dark­ness again.

He want­ed to use the can­dle. Was the bomb­ing get­ting near­er? And, when the bomb­ing did stop, would the lit­tle patch of light be returned to him?

He did­n’t use the can­dle. He might need it lat­er, for an emer­gency, if the win­dow light was not returned to him. But then he real­ized, in a sud­den rev­e­la­tion, he could use it to recre­ate that cher­ished Friday rit­u­al of his child­hood, that touch­stone of san­i­ty and warmth. He then found him­self cal­cu­lat­ing what day this was, try­ing to think back to what day it was he had been arrest­ed, won­der­ing how long he had been here. Monday – he had been on the way to the bank to deposit a check that missed his Friday deposit when they stopped him on the street. How long had he been here, there­fore? Three days, prob­a­bly four, per­haps even five, maybe longer.…

The temp­ta­tion, of course, was to say that this was Friday, that would make the rit­u­al per­fect – the only way, per­haps, it could be a rit­u­al. Then he could light the can­dle. Honesty, how­ev­er, (and he thought this with­out false mod­esty or moral irony) remained his curse, his stu­pid­i­ty. He thought the issue over and over, like a mantra, an accom­pa­ni­ment to the bomb­ing and his fevered calculations.

Was it Friday? Was it Friday? Was it Friday?

He guessed (and it could only be a guess) that it could be Friday, or might be Thursday, or even Wednesday. And mak­ing an accept­able com­pro­mise between urgency and hon­esty, set­tled on Thursday, and wait­ed out the bomb­ing’s end.

~

The next day, as the bombs again began to lay their car­pet of ter­ror and death, they brought him anoth­er can­dle, refused to answer ques­tions, and once again clanged the lit­tle patch of fad­ing light shut. This time, as soon as they had left, he lit one of the can­dles and, over the sounds of thun­der, found him­self say­ing the bless­ing, con­cen­trat­ing on the unwa­ver­ing flame and his words of bless­ing, recall­ing every detail of his moth­er stand­ing there beside him in the glow of light.

~

The next three nights, and once or twice a week over the next sev­er­al weeks, the bomb­ing would arrive, along with a new can­dle, and the sud­den pitch dark­ness. But, unless it hap­pened to be a “Friday” (which occurred three times dur­ing the suc­ces­sion of bomb­ings, he held off using a can­dle. He told him­self the bomb­ing could­n’t last for­ev­er, and that after each one he would have that num­ber of “Friday” night can­dle-light­ings that he could look for­ward to.

Finally, the bomb­ings did stop; but the “Friday” nights went on.

In between these Friday rit­u­als, he con­tin­ued try­ing to rec­ol­lect his past life, painstak­ing­ly exam­in­ing every detail to wring from it every nuance and essence; yet he saw a door that would remain closed to him for­ev­er: a large green hos­pi­tal door, just a piece of mute met­al, behind which lay his mother’s knife-exhaust­ed body, which the doc­tors hadn’t let him see much less attend to. Now he began writ­ing a nov­el in his head – writ­ing each sen­tence, para­graph, and chap­ter (the were now three) over and over, again and again; he slept as much as he could in order to be close to his free-float­ing dreams; awake, he had lengthy con­ver­sa­tions with friends he had­n’t seen in years, with peo­ple he had nev­er met, and with the dead. After a while, his reserve of can­dles (eleven at its glo­ri­ous peak) had dwin­dled down to three. He refused to think ahead to a “Friday” bereft of its mag­nif­i­cent light, of its hope, of its pre­cious bridge to the past. He almost wished for more bomb­ings, so he could have more can­dles. Yet each day, he told him­self, offered its own eter­nal hope; he tried to believe this. He won­dered if mem­o­ry itself reflect­ed or was imbued with light – and if that light might out­last death; he won­dered how long his rea­son could endure dark­ness and iso­la­tion – and if he would be able to tell when his own rea­son had gone. He won­dered if, after his last can­dle, he would be cut loose from all moor­ings in time – whether, in fact, it would be a just con­se­quence of the delu­sion, the betray­al, the ludi­crous­ness, of his cho­sen “Fridays.”

That night, a pre­sumed Friday, instead of light­ing a can­dle to remem­ber the world, the world burst in on him. The door was thrown open and in the gar­ish light stood two uni­formed fig­ures, like grey stat­u­ary. He stared at them for the longest time before he real­ized they were wait­ing for him to come out.

~

He was ush­ered down a long cor­ri­dor into the impos­si­ble glare of lights in a room that was filled with suits and uni­forms: men and women with iden­ti­ty tags that showed the names of Chechen and Russian, American and Israeli news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines many of which he now rec­og­nized, peo­ple with arm bands embla­zoned with a Red Cross, Red Crescent, or that said UN Immigration Human Rights, all  sit­ting or stand­ing on chairs with cam­eras or pens and pads of paper poised. They were call­ing out ques­tions, call­ing his name over and over. The bar­rage made him won­der whether he might be in some noisy and argu­men­ta­tive enclave of heav­en. Finally, when the noise had set­tled down, when the air assumed a pres­sured silence into which he felt oblig­ed, he real­ized, to respond, he offered not an answer (for he had none) but a ques­tion which, in his own unsure, dis­used voice, he felt the need to repeat, more firm­ly, more clear­ly, over and over:

Please, please, can you tell me, what day this is?”

At first, in the silence, they did­n’t seem to under­stand, it was not, appar­ent­ly, rel­e­vant to them. But final­ly, from the back of the room, came an answer that was echoed by some­one, a woman in front, a sin­gle word that at first he could­n’t believe, but that in a moment seemed to force open an inner door and offer an unan­tic­i­pat­ed yet some­how eter­nal­ly await­ed release, envelop­ing him in a mag­nif­i­cent light that spread through­out his body, and that he knew would nev­er leave him.

It was Friday.

~

Henry Alan Paper’s sto­ries have been pub­lished in The Sun, New Phase, Scottish Life, and Portland Monthly Magazine, Kerem, Response, Jewish Currents, and Webdelsol, an adap­tion of one of which won a NYU Filmmakers’ Award. He has been fea­tured numer­ous times on Connecticut Public Radio.