Painting by Daniel Kabakoff
Until our tenth birthday, my sister and I were one person. Fraternal twins, our closeness was not hindered, but enhanced, by our difference in gender. Our thoughts were as one thought. Since we could feel what the other was thinking, we had no need to speak. It was not until our third birthday that we spoke our first words, and then at the same time according to our mother, “Only because you had to communicate with the outside world,” by which she meant the rest of the family. When reminded by the shtetl women about our slowness in speaking – for signs of intelligence were eagerly sought and speaking early was one of them – she would reply, “Why should they speak? They speak to each other without speech. Even after they learned to speak, they talked with their father and me less than other children talk with their parents.” It was clear that she felt apart, especially from her daughter whom it was her duty to train in the ways of the home. As for me, Miriam, my sister, my twin, was a mother to me.
We preferred our own company to that of other children. On the infrequent occasions when we joined their games, we had the advantage. In hide-and-seek we knew where the other was hiding and would mentally warn whoever was “it”. And when one of us was “it”, we never “found” the other person – that was a rule unspoken, like all our rules. The game, like everything we did, was our conspiracy against the rest of the world, against our parents, against everything that was not us.
We were the darlings and the mystery of the shtetl. Adam and Eve we were called, since we seemed each a part of the other.
While I learned Torah, Miriam, as a girl groomed for the home, was taught only a few prayers, yet, to the astonishment of everyone but us, she knew as much as I did. Whatever I learned she absorbed simultaneously. When I was honored with a ceremony on completion of my studies, she felt she had earned it, too. The neighbors began to call us “Double Ayin” for the Hebrew verbs where two same letters coming together are written as one letter. “Hello, Double Ayin,” they would say, addressing me, or Miriam, or us together.
Our most amazing feat was our ability to suddenly start singing the same song at the same time without previous signal, even if we started in the middle, as we sometimes did. In this we were like the shofars of Reb Zalman and Reb Elya: if one was blown, the other reverberated.
Our closeness continued, two magnets in each other’s pull, until our tenth birthday, when, as on every one that had gone before, we received gifts we considered ours rather than mine. But then, at 10 o’clock in the morning – so vivid in my memory – it happened.
We were sitting in the kitchen, when my twin began singing a song I had never heard, a song without words. It was not the melody that turned my blood to ice. She was singing alone, and not because I chose not to join in: I hadn’t felt the song. I could only stare at her, speechless at our failure to communicate, and if she was aware of my surprise, she showed no sign. From that moment, we were two people instead of one.
Each day our separation increased, gradually. It did not involve hostility, it was simply her refusal to share – an absence, rather than a conflict–a withholding of herself that grew. In the beginning, I implored her with thoughts, “What has happened? Why?” but she closed her mind to me.
What happened to the Double Ayin? people asked.
“They are growing up,” Mother answered. “One’s a boy and the other’s a girl; they have different interests.” She believed this explanation, and so did everyone else. People began to call us by our separate names.
Miriam would sing none of the old songs, only that wordless song she refused to share, walking to it in the slow steps of a pavan; and if I was present, it was as if I was not.
Except for the song, she became silent–not only to me, but also to others. The neighbors began to contrast her conduct to mine, treating us as different instead of the same–to the praise of me and criticism of her. But I felt no glow in their praise. I had become one of them, and Miriam was alone.
In addition to her silence, Miriam began to sleep during the day, and our mother’s imploring was met with silence. At night Miriam would walk through the house, singing the song, which by now was called “Miriam’s song”.
I would watch her sleep-like walk. When I placed myself in her path, she walked around me in her slow, dignified pavan, as if I were a chair that had been moved from its place. I was tempted to grab her, stop her, clamp my hand over her mouth to end the song. Something restrained me, perhaps the fear she would leave for good.
If Miriam was not already the object of whispers, her conduct now made her so. She would leave the house at night to sing her song as she used to do in the house. My mother feared what people would think. The women began to murmur “Lilith”.
Unable to sleep, I worried. Miriam’s song would enter my mind when she was singing and when she wasn’t–the song was as much a part of me as of her, but I never sang it with her; she alone sang it in my mind, a song that divided us.
In the family’s desperation, a decision was made to consult the Tsaddik. When he sent for her, Miriam walked to his residence beside me, as unaware of my presence as when she walked at night, her shadow more real than the person at my side.This conduct was remarkable and frightening: Miriam did not resist our efforts to “cure” her (this was the word my mother used) but neither did she respond, like wheat brushed with a stick. She let the Tsaddik lead her into his study. It was forbidden to listen through the door, yet I could not help doing so. A former part of me–a part I despaired of regaining–was inside. Behind the closed door, silence prevailed for the half hour that passed before I heard the Tsaddik’s footsteps. I hurriedly retreated from the door. “Silence cannot be heard through a door,” the Tsaddik said to me without anger, and in the same tone, “I can do nothing; she is beyond our help, for there is something that cannot be found, not even with the Tsaddik. Yet there is a place where you will find it.” Miriam’s face bore the same distant look as when she had entered.
Mother wept openly for twenty-four hours when I told her the words of the Tsaddik, and I wept inwardly for so much longer.
It was my uncle’s suggestion, not from a willingness to help her as much as get rid of her since, as a leader of the community, he suffered from the incessant talk of Miriam’s “condition” and the lack of anyone’s doing something about it. “The place hinted at by the Tsaddik is the Land of Israel. Perhaps the climate there will aid her,” he said, as if she suffered from tuberculosis. Even I chose to think of Miriam’s condition as an illness. My uncle did not hide his disapproval of the youth going there, but in my sister’s case–for reasons of health–he was willing to make an exception.
My mother reluctantly agreed, at panic’s end about her daughter. I, too, was willing to seize any hope to reunite my sister with me. I was given the task of taking Miriam to the Land of Israel, to one of the settlements in the Galilee where sun and work would be allowed to heal her.
The settlement brought a slight improvement, if in body, not mind. She became physically healthier–so that she worked rather than slept during the day and continued her night walks, now with the strength to do both. I, too, had benefited. The pain of estrangement from my sister remained, but I was no longer kept awake by her song. It remained below the surface, only occasionally troubling me with its seductive melody.
Otherwise there was no change: Miriam remained apart from me and the settlers, an isolation they accepted; they were tolerant of an individual’s habits so long as he or she was a good worker. If they wondered about her night wanderings and singing, they said nothing, for this was a peaceful time and there was no hostility with the Arabs to render her excursions dangerous.
It was to one of the neighboring villages she would walk, singing her song, as I learned from following her. It was not an Arab village, but a settlement of Yemenite Jews near the Sea of Galilee. She would stop before a certain house, no different from the houses surrounding it. She would gaze at it for long periods as if waiting for someone to emerge, but no one emerged, nor did she enter. The inhabitants sleeping inside seemed unaware of her presence. If they saw her on the occasions when I did not follow her, I had no knowledge. Perhaps, like the shtetl people, they thought her an evil spirit and locked the doors when she approached. She continued to treat me with the same indifference she showed to other members of the settlement.
During the second year that we dwelled in the Land of Israel, at the fall season for harvesting apples, Miriam spoke a bit more, and her secret–for the settlers suspected one–seemed less of a burden. There was a straining toward something, which lessened her somnolence.
One night after dinner, as I lay back watching the stars, so different from those above the shtetl that my sister and I used to follow, laughing whenever we came to the Twins–my sister approached me in her silent way. I was intent on tracing Aquarius and didn’t notice her presence. When I sensed her standing there, I jumped up, amazed at this sign of recognition after so long, my heart beating strongly like a lover who sees his beloved after an intolerable absence. I reached out to her, when her hand on my shoulder stopped me, so gently that I was grateful for it alone. But it was her expression, the same a fawn has when it is listening for something, that stopped me from trying to bridge a gap greater than me to the stars.
And then I heard her song. It did not come from Miriam, but from a flute somewhere in the darkness, distant, the sound growing louder as it approached.
Miriam turned, looked back at me for an instant–and then she moved in her silent pavan toward the sound. The figure playing it appeared, his face dark, his features not recognizable in the moonless night. He stopped as she approached him. The two shadows merged into one and moved toward the village. I took a step toward my twin who was not my twin, but a slight movement of her finger stopped me. I knew she would not stop outside the house in the village. I knew, too, as I felt the song pulled out of me forever, that in fusing her soul with another’s, she had freed my own.
Larry Lefkowitz’s book of Jewish stories, Enigmatic Tales, published by Fomite Press, is available in print from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and as E-book for most devices. 27 stories, including that some that appeared on Sasson. The book is not designed specifically for Orthodox readers.
Daniel Kabakoff is an award-winning watercolor artist. firstname.lastname@example.org