Nancy Ludmerer is the 1st place winner of Streetlight‘s 2020 Flash Fiction Contest
The Lubavitch Hasidim are sending two teen volunteers to spend time with our daughter. I resist at first, but Mattie’s Special Ed teacher explains that it’s a mitzvah for the girls, who are sixteen—a special program started by a rabbi’s wife. She says I should let them come; it might be good for Mattie. She hasn’t seen Mattie smile in the eight months since her mom died.
If Kayla were alive, she would have fumed: “We’re not religious. What will they do with Mattie? Pray?” But when I say this to the Special Ed teacher, she says you don’t have to be religious to qualify for a visit. You don’t even have to be Jewish.
Without Kayla’s moxie, I give in.
I miss her too.
A half-hour before they’re due, Mattie’s running circles in our parched backyard. “My friends are coming, my friends are coming!” She’s ten, barefoot, friendless. The play dates I arrange don’t return—too sad, too weird, too slow. They want to talk about Harry Potter. She’s stuck on Katy No-Pocket.
It’s been a dry Spring and I keep forgetting to water the yard. The bottoms of Mattie’s feet are already caked with dirt. The doorbell rings. No time to do anything about that.
“Dad, they’re here!” Mattie races to greet them, ballerina skirt and pink top glittering. Talia and Deb, longhaired, long-skirted, grin at her. “Hi, Mattie! Nice meeting you. What pretty hair! What a pretty skirt!”
I am determined not to eavesdrop, to let them be. I offer them lemonade but they have brought their own bottles of Poland Spring, and one for Mattie too. Meanwhile I finish the laundry. Sometime after I’ve hung the delicates to dry, the girls turn on an ancient CD player they’ve brought. They remove their shoes like Mattie and join hands with her in a circle dance. The word “mayim” repeats endlessly: mayim, mayim, mayim, mayim, hey mayim bisason!” I have heard this song, seen this dance, at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, but don’t know what it means. Although I don’t ask, a breathless Talia translates for my benefit. “Water of joy,” she says. “Pioneers found water in the desert after seven years. Somebody wrote a song.” Eventually the music ends. All three girls collapse laughing in a heap.
Mattie’s childish underpants—embroidered with the days of the week—hang on the clothesline alongside another ballerina skirt and matching tights. My wife and I often talked about whether Mattie would always stay a child. I no longer consider the question.
Talia and Deb gather their shoes and the CD player. Will they come back?
Mattie hums, practicing a step.
Then the girls chorus: “See you next week!”
Our daughter’s clothes rustle in the dry wind. The ballerina skirt balloons like a sail. If I were religious, I might say a prayer of thanks or of hope. But I don’t even know a prayer.
Instead I whisper mayim.
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