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A Toitele

All that remained of Chana came back from Kraków in a little wooden box: a golden chain with a pendant, a palm facing out with a carved unblinking eye to protect from evil.

Chana’s death lived on the mantle in the main room of the house, where it would gather dust if Rochel didn’t clean it once a week before shabbos, along with everything else in their little home. There had been no note, but even if there had, Rochel knew that Dovid wouldn’t have read it. The only reason she knew the box contained a chain was because he had opened it for half a heartbeat before snapping it shut again.

“What did they even have to send back, Dovid?” she’d heard a friend ask him more than once, but Dovid never said. Dovid had banished memories of his sister to a part of his heart no key could unlock. Rochel wondered if he would have told her if he hadn’t caught her looking. If she didn’t already know.

It had been six empty years since Rochel had last seen Chana, since Chana had tied tight the laces of her worn leather shoes, belted her jacket closed around a narrow waist that dipped in from wide hips and shoulders, and whispered, Come with me, Rocheleh, before disappearing into the rain, leaving nothing but the scent of lilies in her wake.

Those six years had been childless—something Dovid never beat her for, though she knew he was disappointed. There was no childish laughter in their house, no scattered toys. Their children were only dreams and ghosts, but the dullness left in Chana’s wake was what made the place feel so empty, for Chana had taken her vibrance with her and Dovid never even mentioned her name.

A sister who left the derech, who turned her back on the path of righteousness, she was as good as dead to Dovid. He mourned her in his own way—being quiet on Chana’s birthday, or sometimes staring a little too long at the rocking chair that had been her favorite. Rochel had once wondered if leaving the derech was worse than dying, because if you died, you weren’t choosing to leave those you loved behind.

The box meant there was no hope anymore, which meant that Rochel did her best to ignore it, even as it sat above her fireplace.

She didn’t want to believe that Chana would never be back. It was just a necklace, not a body. Maybe there’d been some kind of mistake, and Chana was still in Kraków. Chana had chosen to leave them behind, that didn’t mean she was gone forever.

That she was never coming back.

When they’d been girls, she’d sat next to Chana every shabbos they’d shared a meal, whispering behind their hands like a pair of young rabbits—soft and plump and all too aware of a harsh world. When your parents were friends, you ended up spending a lot of time together, especially when your mother was sickly and your father’s work took him in and out of town. When they were very little, they whispered about how Chana would marry Rochel’s brother, and Rochel would marry Chana’s and they would be sisters for real. They even practiced kissing together with whispered, breathless, heart-racing promises never to tell, just to see what it would be like one day.

But Rochel’s brother died young, and as they got older, Chana would grimace whenever Rochel mentioned marrying Dovid so she stopped bringing it up because she would do anything to keep a glowing smile on Chana’s face. When Chana left, Rochel couldn’t tell if she was relieved she wouldn’t have to see her grimace when she married Dovid. She never dared ask what had made her grimace like that.

She thought about Chana every shabbos when they murmured blessings over candles. She shared looks with Dovid sometimes, but no one had ever replaced Chana’s capacity to take one look at Rochel’s expression and know exactly what she was thinking. Together she and her husband welcomed in the sabbath bride, and whenever they sang, she remembered her own wedding day, wrapped in a white lace shroud, surrounded by women and yet feeling so alone. No amount of shabbos guests, no amount of women singing at her wedding could replace Chana and their silent conversations while their fathers droned on and on.

These days, Rochel only had silent conversations with herself, and blinked back tears when she remembered that all that remained of Chana was the little necklace in the little box on the mantle. She can’t be gone. Her memory isn’t a blessing just yet.

There had been no body, no note. You didn’t just die and leave no body behind.

“If you get nervous while I’m gone, you can always go—”

“Yes, I know.”

“I don’t want you to be lonely, Rochel.”

Dovid worried whenever he left Rochel alone. She kept the door locked whenever work took him to the city, and she wasn’t far from neighbors and friends. If she was worried, or if she was in danger, there would be places to go, and people to come to her need.

Dovid hadn’t always worried. It had gotten worse since Chana had gone away, and then his parents had died, leaving his home empty. He dreads losing me too, she thought one night after he’d returned from a trip, clinging to her in his sleep when their twin beds were pushed together, as though afraid she wouldn’t be there when he woke.

But she waved him off and closed the door behind him and he was gone—a week on the road and then coming back the day after Shabbos.

The silence was so loud whenever it was just her in the house. And this time, impossibly, she thought she heard her own beating heart echoing from the box on the mantle.

Rochel opened it. The gold was gentle in the early morning sunlight. The eye at the center of the palm stared up at her unblinkingly. The craftsman had done a good job with it: she almost felt as though the gold could truly see her.

She traced her fingers over the pendant’s thumb and—


She stumbled back, her heart slamming against her ribs.

The house was silent; the house was empty.

The box was loud—and not empty at all.

But no, she was imagining it. She had to have imagined it.

But her heart hadn’t stopped slamming against her chest and when she took a step closer, she was sure she was going to close it. She was going to close the box and never look at Chana’s necklace again.


The gold glinted so beautifully, so gently.

She had to have imagined it.

She had to have.

She dropped her fingers into the box once again, just to prove to herself she had, brushing them against the surface of the pendant.

Don’t be afraid.

That was Chana’s voice, humming in her head, flitting at the corners of her mind like a butterfly.

Her fingers were still pressed against the gold. It took her several long breaths to realize that she felt hope for the first time in years.

“Chana?” she breathed.


“Am I going mad?” She lifted the necklace from the box and quickly unclasped it. It was Chana’s necklace. Chana was in there, somehow. The palm and eye warded against evil, and that calmed her thundering heart.

No, my love.

Rochel shivered.

No, you’re going to be free.

I made it all the way to Paris, Rocheleh. It was beautiful. They hated us there, too, but I still danced on a golden stage and drank champagne from the beautiful Mireille’s lips. I felt alive in Paris in a way I never did here.

“How could you feel alive if you were hated?”

I was hated here too, or don’t you remember my brother cursing me as I left?

(It was raining again, Dovid was shouting after her in the darkness that she was as good as dead if she left. Tears mixed with thunder but she didn’t look back.)

(How strange it was to see and hear Dovid this way, like looking through some poorly-blown glass and seeing his head bigger and his frame smaller in Chana’s memories.)

They hated what I was, but they didn’t always hate me once they knew me. There were people who didn’t care because they didn’t care about their god either. Mireille’s grandmother was one of us too. I think that was why she always looked at me with that twinkle in her eye.

“They thought you were safe because you stopped believing. That didn’t mean you weren’t one of us.”

I know that, Rocheleh. You aren’t listening.

“You cannot live if you aren’t yourself entirely.”

I was myself. I never pretended I wasn’t Jewish the way I would pretend I would be happy to marry for so many years. I didn’t have to pretend at all.

(The memory flashed behind her eyelids—a young woman, brown curly hair fanning out across a pillow. She was naked, her hand resting on her neck as she looked down her body at Rochel. “Please,” Mireille whispered and Rochel kissed her way up Mireille’s legs to taste the nectar dripping between them.)

(Heat flooded Rochel, her breath caught in her throat, and when the vision vanished at Chana’s next words, she found herself bereft.)

Did you like that?


I think you did.

(She should not like that. She should not dream of lips like lilies, but she could still taste nectar on her tongue.)

You did. Which one of us is pretending now, I wonder?

“I am married, and Dovid is a good man.”

Good is a funny word to use for a brother who drove me from his life because he would not love that I was undaunted. He fears and cowers where he should love and take strength from that love. Does he love you?

“In his own way.”

That is not a good answer. That is a compromise. There are many things in life worth a compromise but love is not one of them.

“It’s the truth. He loves me in his own way, and he loves you.”

That is a lie.

“He grieves you. Would he grieve you if he didn’t love you?”

He doesn’t grieve me.

“Then why keep the necklace to begin with?”

To prove to me and everyone else he was right.

(That was wrong. He told no one what was in the little box on the mantle; he sat quietly, staring out the window for hours on days he thought of Chana.)

(Chana had always had blistering angers, but usually there was clarity in them. This anger was as distorted as the memory of Dovid.)

“What is said in anger and pain isn’t always the truth of someone’s heart. He misses you. It doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt you but—”

He tried to break me. And the compromise you feel for him will break you too.

“What am I to do? I won’t go to Paris, I won’t dance on a stage or lick champagne from her lips.”

(She tried to ignore the amusement, the flicker of memory, of lips that quivered between legs and not a drop of champagne in sight, but oh how sweet they tasted.)

But you want to.

“This is temptation and you are a serpent.”

(A tongue flicked. Mireille cried out, but it was not in pain.)

You want to.

“I should never have opened that box.”

Because you want to. You are afraid to want. You always have been. We were taught to be afraid to want more. More is for men, not for us. But you want more.

(Rochel ached. What lay between her legs curled and uncurled like a cat in the sunshine. Mireille was still on her tongue, her cries echoing in her ears, a quiet harmony to the memory of Chana’s voice.)

(Of Chana’s arms around her waist as they walked to the center of town together. “Won’t it be nice to be sisters one day?”)

“Why did you have to leave?” (More a whimper, than a question. Is that because of her racing heart or the empty box that left her hopeless she’d ever hold Chana in her arms again.)

I came back, didn’t I?

“You came back, but you’re not here with me.”

Aren’t I? (A breath, a sigh, a hint of warmth along the shell of Rochel’s ear.)

(She closed her eyes, her fingers trailing down her side. They hovered by her breast while she held her breath.)

(She was standing on a precipice. It was her hand, she knew, just as she knew that it was Chana’s voice in her head, Chana’s soul in her body, sitting alongside her own. It was Chana’s soul that was holding the hand back. Temptation?)

You cannot live if you aren’t yourself entirely.

(She was the one who cupped her own breast. She was the one who closed her eyes and let herself sink into Chana holding her, Chana wanting her. She was the one who brought her hand down lower, and lower until she found wet heat. It wasn’t Mireille who moaned this time.)

Dance with me, my love. Dance with me.

(It was like spending a week in bed with a lover. Rochel lay there, naked in the daylight on the twin bed she shared with Dovid only when they pushed them together, staring up at the ceiling, conversations in her mind flowing like water as she rubbed herself, tasted herself. Her cunt had never felt so full as when she slid her own fingers into it and let Chana guide her thumb to just the right place. Just like that, my love. Hear how your blood sings?)

(And oh, did her blood sing. Her blood sang, her body danced, her lungs labored in symphony with her rioting heart. This is what it could have been, my love. This is what it should have been.)

(When she did leave the bed, when she did dress and leave the house, she felt delirious, disoriented. Her hair was a mess beneath her tichel, and when she went to the market to buy food, she wondered if they could read her mind. Did they think she was just sick? Or did they know that it felt like Chana was sucking at her nipples even as she handed coin over to the baker for bread? She was wet as she walked, and the movements of her legs only made her want more. When she got back home, closed the door behind her, she sunk to the floor and oh, oh—her hands were magical—hers and Chana’s.)

What do you want, Rocheleh.


(The palm that Chana had worn at her throat hung between her breasts. This wasn’t evil if she was protected.)


(They spent shabbos together as they had not since they were girls. She couldn’t share looks with Chana, but they shared just about everything else. They hummed together, and laughed together. If anyone else was in the house, they would think she’d gone mad, talking and singing and rutting against the armchair with her head thrown back like this.)

(The whole world stopped on shabbos, but Chana was here with her now. Chana was alive with her now.)

(What would happen when Dovid came home, and she and Chana were still one like this?)

Don’t think about him. He doesn’t love you the way I love you.

“He’s my husband. I’m sanctified to him. And I do care about him.”

(There was no response except a growl.)

“He misses you, Chana. He grieves you. We don’t know when your yahrzeit is, but he grieves you all the same.”

(A chill crept up her spine. Rochel clutched at the little gold palm between her breasts.)

Rochel spent the next day feverishly cleaning, her eyes glazed, her hair a mess, her lips cracked because she hadn’t had enough water. She was sure she looked the part of someone too ill to join her neighbors for shabbos.

Dovid would be back that night, and the house was covered in dust and smelled of sex.

One more kiss.

“Stop, I need to clean.”

Just one more.

She closed her eyes and let herself kiss. One kiss before the world went back to normal.

Then she cleaned the kitchen. She threw away the bread that she had barely eaten and which was beginning to get moldy. She found some potatoes and onions and some cured beef and did her best to make a stew with it. All the while, Chana murmured in her ears.

You don’t have to take it off. We could stay together like this. We were supposed to be together. We should be. Dovid wouldn’t need to know. He probably wouldn’t even care.

“I do have to take it off,” she said. Dovid would be home soon. He had said he’d be home by sunset the day after shabbos. “I can’t very well just—”

You can, though!

Chana sounded annoyed.

You can. You always could! Don’t you see? There is more to life than righteousness. Righteousness cannot be righteousness if it doesn’t let you live.

“I can’t. He’ll know it’s your necklace.”

So what? We were friends. We were always friends. Don’t make me leave here alone again.

Rochel’s hands shook as she reached for the clasp of the chain. Shaking with dread, shaking with grief, shaking with fear, shaking because Chana didn’t want her to and Chana was in her mind too.

Please, Chana begged. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t let me die.

Rochel’s hands froze on the clasp, her eyes twisted closed.

A door opened; a door closed.

She opened her eyes and Dovid was standing in front of her—his eyes wide in surprise as he stared at the palm facing outward, protecting against evil, that sat on top of her bodice just above her heart.

His face changed instantly. His eyes went wide, his mouth opened in a sad square, while his lips trembled around Chana’s name.

How dare you grieve me! How dare you weep! You coward! You liar! You—

The screaming in Rochel’s head died before she unclasped the necklace, but the echoes lingered as she held the clasp apart until they were nothing more than a final, whispering gasp.

The world seemed a little duller, a little colder as she stared at her husband.

You were gone and I had Chana. She wanted to weep.

She sank to her knees, the little gold palm clattering now voiceless to the floor. Slowly, Dovid approached her. He plucked up the necklace. The palm reflected gold into each of his tear-bright eyes. His hands didn’t shake this time when he went to put Chana back in the little wooden box.

“Are you well?” Dovid asked quietly. His voice didn’t shake.

Silence rang louder than all the church bells in Paris, in Kraków.

His face was as neutral as it had been before he’d left town. It was as though he had not nearly wept for Chana, had not let his grief spark through. She was dead and all that remained of her would stay in that little box on the mantle.

His grief had silenced her; never mentioning any of it again would keep her dead forever.

“Were you lonely while I was gone?”

Rochel took a shaking breath. A crushing compromise, an empty house, an empty life. But safe.

“Not lonely . . . no.”

About the Author

Celia Rostow lives in Chicago and works in HR analytics. Her usually Jewish, frequently queer short fiction has been published in Lemon & Lime, with forthcoming publications by Brigid’s Gate Press and in the Days of Awe anthology. You can find her on Twitter at crossing_winter, Instagram at crossing.winter, or Substack at celiawrites.