By Jennifer Fliss
*Chosen for inclusion in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology.I am here. My grandmother is dead.
I like it when my gums bleed. When I spit peppermint and a string of fire red trails in the sink. When I bruise, a yellow gray blossom flowers beneath my skin. The blood is so close and yet, hidden. I pluck and I pop and I squeeze to try to get everything out.
“What are you doing?” my husband asks. I stare into the mirror, tweezer in hand. I am plucking errant hairs. But are they errant? Placed there by G-d. Or by Mother Nature. I shouldn’t even be looking in the mirror; we are sitting shiva.
My grandmother was eleven when liberated from Auschwitz. When I was eight, my parents were killed in a car accident. I went to live with my savta. When she plucked lice from my head at ten, she said the parasites had been the only thing in the camp that let her know she was alive.
Arbeit Macht Frei, she would say to me, when she insisted I do homework. Later I learned she co-opted the iron saying over the gates of her death camp. Work makes you free.
Nothing makes you free.
She had gone first to Israel and then to Brooklyn. Human relations were nothing like the give and take of a parasitic relationship, she said. She and my grandfather divorced before it was common; left him behind in Ra’anana.
“Just tweezing,” I tell my husband.
“There’s nothing left to tweeze.” He takes the utensil from my hand. Brushes his thumb over the bare and tender space above my eyes.
We get into bed and I feel a hair above my right eye. It’s sturdy, upright and thick. I want to get out of bed and pull it out. It feels so alien there. Alone. Tomorrow is the funeral. It’s only been twenty-four hours. In Jewish tradition, it all happens so quickly. My husband turns to me. Says stay.
It is not long before his snores fill the air, his arm slung over my chest. I stir; he grumbles and holds me tighter. I cannot think of anything else. The hair. The foreign object. My hair. Her hair. The curls. The shaving. The lice. The sores. The moment a man tells you you are free but can you believe them is this a trick and who will watch me I am only a child and I have no one but the parasites on my body. What will happen when I clean them away?
I fall asleep. The next morning, we say the mourner’s kaddish, a prayer I know by heart. I see my grandmother in a picture frame. Scowling, as she did, but with light in her eyes and I think if she can, so can I.
The night of my parents’ funeral, she told me that the most important thing you can tell people, dead or alive, is that you are here. On this earth. To live what they could not or what they will not. Hineni, she said and made me say it out loud.
Hineni, I tell the me in the mirror, and I leave the single hair above my eyes where it grows.