EXCERPT FROM A MYSTERY NOVEL: Nine Tenths of the Law
My name is Zara. I was born Zara Persil. Now I’m Zara Persil-Pendleton. In college I said that Zara was short for Zarathustra. That’s the kind of pedant I was.
While ostensibly I’ve followed my husband Sam on his sabbatical to New York City, I’ve really come to New York to find my mother. She’s been dead for three years and her restless spirit plagues me with newsreel-style visions, jumpy, crackling, terrifying. My mother haunts me because I failed her, failed her in the way the world failed her, although with the best of intentions. I just don’t know yet how I failed and how I could have done otherwise, but still she haunts me, and she will, I’m certain, until I can figure it out. Too late to save her, in any case, but maybe I can appease that wandering spirit, and do right by her.
My sister, Lilly, lives in Katonah, one of the more northern suburbs of New York City. Lilly’s a middle-school teacher. She’s far taller, far more buxom, vastly more stylish than I am. She also has Anne-Frank eyes, not the hard ones I got. Even as she nears sixty she’s got thick almost-black hair to the middle of her back. Sure, Lady Clairol helps, but you can’t entirely fake this. She’s got mile-long legs too. She considers it her life’s work to make the most of her looks, and, as an extra-credit project, to make the most of mine as well.
Three weeks after we move here, my own daughter Angie comes to visit with her daughter, my perfect granddaughter Meghan Johanna. New York City is an amazing place with a four-year-old. Blasé from her own urban environment in San Francisco, Meghan takes most things in stride, but she’s amazed at all the yellow taxis and the hot dog vendors. Now that Angie and Meghan are here, Lilly and I make elaborate plans to show them the town.
“You going to actually wear that, Zara?” my sister says as we get ready to leave the apartment.
“No, I’m just trying it on before putting it on the Halloween scarecrow.”
“Pull your hair higher on your head. It’ll make you look ten years younger.”
“If I pull it any higher it will break off.”
“Have you tried a keratin rinse?” Lilly says, easily casting her eyes over the top of my head.
“Have you tried balancing your checkbook?” I reply.
After we cover Central Park, the Disney Store and the trash chute near the elevator, Lilly and I take my daughter and granddaughter to visit the Jewish Studies Museum. I’m surprised by Meghan’s excitement at the prospect, until I realize she’s excited about going to a “juice museum.”
They’re showing “Treasures of Lost Poland: a Retrospective”. We spend some time looking at the older items in the regular collection, and eventually make our way upstairs to the Retrospective. And there it is. I feel a shimmer in the air around me, a chill that’s somehow warm and also, somehow, green. My body tenses, my gut flutters. I feel the coldness of the glass as if I were touching it. And I hear my mother’s voice: that was mine.
* * *
When I was twenty-one I lived at home with my parents for a year…I also kept my mother company. It was in that year that I really became close with her. She had suffered a blood clot, and though it was a serious situation she felt fine, and her doctor recommended frequent long walks once the immediate danger had passed.
We went to the Bronx Zoo, we went plein air painting—she painted, I glowered and flipped off people who shouted things from the road—and we went to the Jewish Studies Museum in Manhattan.
I’d never even heard of the Jewish Studies Museum, but I followed along dutifully when she suggested it. We took the train into Manhattan, and because she was supposed to walk we strolled up Fifth Avenue, looking in the windows of the fashionable stores, until the stores petered out, and the gorgeous old houses began; then we cabbed it the rest of the way to a small building across from Central Park. This was in the late seventies, and it was the first time I had ever encountered a security check at a museum. Usually prickly about her privacy, my mother handed over her bag without a word, allowing it to be opened and all of its contents examined. I followed suit and filed away the memory. It was still dangerous, in my mother’s mind, to be Jewish.
I followed her as we acknowledged various exhibits: clothing, jewelry, dioramas of “real Jewish life.” She evidently had a specific purpose, though, one that she had not disclosed to me, but these outings were for her health so I didn’t ask a lot of questions. We took the elevator to the third floor, stairs not being included in the doctor’s walking prescription. Here was a display of Jewish ceremonial paraphernalia, including plates and cups ornately worked in silver and gold, bejeweled and carved; and menorahs, candlesticks, oil lamps, and bowls for ritual hand-washing.
As we walked along, looking at the dazzling display, my mother pointed out workmanship details.
Then she stopped in front of a glass case containing a menorah. The hand-lettered placard said, “Hanukkiah, Poland. Circa 1930.”
“This is what I wanted to show you,” she said. I knew there had been a reason. “You see that? My family had one.”
“A menorah exactly like that one. See that turquoise enameling? That’s a lost technique. No one does that any more. See the pattern? It’s like your ring.” I was wearing the family ring, worked in blue enamel.
I looked at the ring she had given me when I was eleven. It had tiny gold stars and planets orbiting a seed pearl in a sky of turquoise blue. The pattern was repeated on the menorah. “We had one just like that one,” she said for the third time. She put her hand up to the glass case, her lips parted.
“Do you think it’s yours?”
We were both very quiet. Finally, she said, “I don’t know how it could be. It’s here in the museum. I would never—”
“We should tell them,” I said.
She shook her head. I knew why: if we told them, we would be telling them that she was Jewish. And even thirty years after the end of the war, she couldn’t do that.
I should have taken her hand. I should have embraced her. I should have marched up to the museum’s head and told him that it was our menorah. Mom still had her hand on the glass, not quite touching the only piece of her past that she had seen since coming to America. It was there, on the other side of that barrier, and I failed her.
… I never told Lilly about that visit to the museum, and I never told anyone about the menorah.
Now we’re standing in front of it and my mother is speaking to me from the grave.
“I’m going to get it back,” I say. The shimmering diffuses and is gone.
“Get what?” says Lilly.
“You see that menorah?” I say to Lilly and Angie. “The small, carved gold one, with the beautiful turquoise inserts? It’s ours.”
* * *
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author from the first chapter of Nine Tenths of the Law, by Claudia Hagadus Long,
Kasva Press 2020. Available online and at your local bookstore, wherever and however you buy your books.