Assther Medina’s happy childhood ends when her mother dies of cancer. She knows there are mysteries about her birth, but the suicide of her best friend forces her to finally confront the secrets that her father has been keeping for her entire life.
Assther pushed her sluggish eyelids open and blinked several times, then turned her head to each side. Groggy and disoriented, she tasted metal. Almost immediately, her senses were absorbing the surroundings and transmitting the information to her brain for analysis. It would take some time to collect and organize the onslaught of data her brain was receiving. However, Assther was hammered by a barrage of questions and was caught in an endless loop of fear and despair. It was imperative, she realized, to control her racing thoughts and direct her mind to the critical situation at hand.
“Where am I? Why am I here?” Assther asked in a hoarse voice; her throat was parched. “What are you going to do to me?” she added, her voice trembling. Something approached Assther and regarded her with its enormous eyes for several minutes. Then it blinked several times and silently joined its colleagues on the other side of the room.
Glancing around, Assther saw beings wearing red suits moving from station to station. Each of them had a large hump on its back, and they seemed to glide over the polished floor. Numerous beds with motionless figures were situated around the egg-shaped room. Oblong bulbs glowing alternatively yellow and green illuminated the space. The bioluminescent lights cast a soothing glow over the room. The scent of lavender and chamomile permeated the room, and the intensity ebbed and flowed.
Scanning the room, Assther located a silver canister affixed to the clay wall from which a fine mist hissed out at regular intervals. In addition, she noticed compound eye-shaped orbs throughout the room. She was being watched.
Assther turned to inspect her own condition. She was blanketed with a transparent gelatinous cushion and attached to sensors monitoring her vitals: blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and others she couldn’t decipher. These devices were different than any monitors she’d d ever seen; the displays were more sophisticated and emitted a low melodious chime, which comforted her. Where exactly am I? Who are these entities who have this type of technology? she wondered.
Black tubes were inserted on either side of her, and Assther discovered that she was naked. Despite seeing no restraints, she was unable to move freely. Assther’s anxiety increased as she struggled against them and the pipes hindered her movements. Why am I naked? What are the tubes for? she thought in despair.
Where is my father? What had happened to him? Is he safe? What will my future be with these beings? Her emotions were in turmoil. Assther’s concern for her father’s safety and alarm about her own well-being were increasing by the minute.
Initially, Assther feared that something bad had happened to her father, but this idea was instantly dismissed; she was unable to process it. Every nerve in Assther’s body was ablaze. Surely these creatures wouldn’t have brought her here to cause her harm, she reasoned.
Where’s Suzie? Assther thought with a sudden flash. Her heart was choked with concern and despair. Forcing her mind to retrieve her last memories, Assther remembered she’d visited her father at his house, and they were discussing something important. Her father’s face had been haggard and worn as he explained the situation to Assther. She’d listened silently, absorbing all the facts. After her father had finished, the two of them had decided on a course of action. Why didn’t he keep his promise?
Meanwhile, several feet away and in another room, Assther’s father was restrained on a similar bed, attached to similar sensors, monitored by similar beings, and undergoing a similar evaluation. Unfortunately, Assther was unaware of it.
The din of blaring alarms wrenched Assther back to reality. A creature unfurled its gossamer wings and darted to her bedside. Assther turned just in time to see the being fold them behind its back. A black-gloved extremity reached out, and the digits danced across the screen in front of it.
“Could you please cover me?” Assther asked, scrutinizing the beings closely.
“No need,” replied the being as it adjusted the monitor to address Assther’s agitated state. It was completely masked, and Assther could only see its humanoid eyes. The creature was slender and bony, and Assther sensed a low musical hum emanating from it whenever it approached her. The sound rose and fell in intensity like a string quartet.
“Please cover me up.”
The creatures continued with their tasks, busying themselves around the room. Finally, one stopped, turned, and asked, “Are you cold?” Without waiting for her reply, it darted away.
Of course the gelatinous mat must be keeping me warm, Assther thought, but why don’t they understand why I want to be covered?
Out of the corner of her eye, Assther saw a group of them moving toward her and felt her stomach tighten. What’s going on? What are they going to do to me now? She began struggling for air. One of them, observing the change on the monitor, increased the volume of the chimes. Soon, Assther felt a wave of euphoria, and as she struggled against drowsiness, she heard a voice say, “Time to access her memories.”
The day Assther’s mother was buried was a typical Bay Area winter day. A thick fog enveloped the city, and intermittent drizzle and heavy showers were forecasted. The cemetery, which was over a hundred years old, was located on the outskirts of town and was ringed by a metal fence. Many of the weather-beaten tombstones were fragmented, rendering the names of the deceased virtually unreadable. The grassy knolls were soggy and the dirt pathways muddy from the rain that had fallen the previous days.
The group of mourners gathered at the cemetery to honor the life of Hannah Medina, which had ended too soon. They stood close to the gravesite, which had been dug by the gravediggers the night before; the wooden casket would soon have its final resting place.
Shortly after the group begun to say the Mourner’s Kaddish,”Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra-,” the rain intensified, and a driving wind upended several umbrellas. Most of the mourners raced for cover to their cars, leaving only the immediate family behind. The prayer was finished hastily, and the casket was gently lowered by the cemetery workers.
Assther, her father Carlos, and Hannah’s family took turns throwing dirt onto the casket, emblematic of the phrase “dirt to dirt, ashes to ashes.” Later, the workers would cover up the grave, and a small marker would remain with the name, Hannah Medina. The following year, Assther and her family would return to the gravesite to commemorate the unveiling of the tombstone.
Standing by the grave using a shovel, Carlos could smell the earth and see the casket where his beloved Hannah’s body was encased. As he took his turn scooping the earth into the grave, Carlos observed himself floating over the gathering watching the service. He performed the task mechanically because his mind couldn’t accept that he would never see his beloved again.
Hannah’s parents were visibly distraught and clinging to each other. His teenage daughter was sobbing softly, her petite frame trembling. Moving closer to her, Carlos wrapped his arms around his daughter and embraced her.
As the rest of crowd dispersed, Carlos remained at the gravesite with Assther. They were both soaked. A light rain continued to fall, and they abandoned the umbrella. Carlos gazed up at the maple tree, now leafless but still magnificent with its extended boughs. The last time he’d seen it, the tree had been full of life, its large canopy of deep green, fan-shaped leaves softly fluttering in the spring air. The insects were gorging on the vibrant and assorted plants on the hillside.
Carlos looked at the barren and lifeless scene, which reflected his own state. In a few months, the tree and surrounding hillside would be transformed by the splendor of spring’s metamorphosis. But Carlos knew he would never feel alive again.
Feeling unsteady, Carlos leaned against his daughter for support. Oh Hannah, I can’t believe you’re gone! he thought. After several minutes, Carlos and Assther departed slowly toward the car and drove home. It was time to sit shiva for Hannah.
As a child, Assther didn’t understand the concept of visiting people in mourning. The only other funeral she’d attended was when her great-grandmother Ruth had died in her sleep three years before. Nana Ruth had been independent until the day she was found deceased by her neighbor in her apartment. Her passing was a great shock to the entire family. At the shiva, Assther remembered hearing her Aunt Leah say, “At least she went peacefully and didn’t suffer.”
Driving home after the funeral, Assther remembered people had brought a lot of food when her grandmother passed. In her opinion, they’d stayed too long and talked too much. It would be the same people at her home today and she would have to be the hostess. The last thing Assther wanted to do was entertain people.
Entering her home with apprehension, Assther was relieved that the role of hostess was taken by her Aunt Leah, who was bustling around ensuring everyone had enough food and drinks. As soon as Aunt Leah saw Assther, she rushed toward her and instructed, “Go upstairs and quickly change out of those wet clothes. Then meet me in the kitchen. I need your help.” Immediately, Aunt Leah turned on her heels and disappeared into the kitchen.
Terrific! All Assther wanted to do was be in her room by herself. Was that too much to ask for?
After changing her clothes, Assther descended the stairs and walked toward to the kitchen. On her way, she noticed that the mirrors in the house were covered in black cloth. After entering the room, Assther swept her eyes over the scene. The granite counters contained enough food for two banquets. Assther’s aunt owned a catering company and had provided the food for the shiva. Aunt Leah had a fear of running out of food, and she usually prepared too much.
Perched on a stool near the counter, Aunt Leah sipped her Pinot Noir, holding the wine glass with her right hand. A half-empty bottle sat nearby. Upon seeing Assther enter, she turned her head and her eyes were moist.
“Hello, honey,” Aunt Leah said, her voice faltering. “Come here, please.” She extended her arm toward Assther. Cautiously, Assther approached.
Aunt Leah lifted her hand and gently stroked Assther’s right cheek. “How are you doing, Assther?”
“Okay …I guess,” Assther replied.
“Good,” Leah said, hanging her head. “That’s good.” Tears were silently streaming down her face. After exhaling deeply, Leah looked up at Assther and said, “I need you to take the food out there.” She paused. “I …I just can’t do it right now.” Leah buried her face in her hands and wept, her thick shoulders trembling.
Assther embraced her aunt and fought to suppress her own emotions. “Don’t worry, Aunt Leah. I’ll take care of it.” Assther picked up the tray and rushed out of the kitchen into the living room.
While moving around the room offering refreshments to the guests, she was approached by a lanky man with slender fingers.
“Thank you, young lady,” he said as he reached for an hors d’oeuvre.
“You’re welcome, sir,” Assther said, slightly unnerved by the enormous man.
She deliberately avoided the foyer, where an enlarged picture of her mother was being displayed on a stand. A guest sign-in book was placed on a wooden table next to the photo. When she entered the house earlier, Assther had seen both items. In the picture her mother was youthful and vibrant. Assther couldn’t reconcile the person staring back at her with the how her mother had changed at the end of her life.
The incessant murmur of the whispering voices grated on her nerves and she couldn’t believe the small house could accommodate so many people.
Placing the half-empty tray on the coffee table, Assther went to check on her father.
Carlos had collapsed in the living room in his chair and was staring at the mantle where his wedding picture rested. Looking at the image of his dearest, resplendent in her wedding gown, Carlos’ fingers clenched the arm rests. Then his hands began to tremble. Despite hearing the distant chatter of the assembled guests and the clanging of silverware against the china, Carlos didn’t register it. When approached by family and friends, Carlos uttered short, one-word replies. Still soaked from the rain, he didn’t t feel it. He was immobilized and numb from grief.
Gazing up at the picture of his beloved, Carlos saw her brown eyes looking back at him, and in his mind he spoke with her just as they always had. What do I do now? he implored. How do I survive without you? Don’t you know that I was worthless without you? Now I’ll return to being worthless once more. How do I care for our daughter without you? He received no response.
Rising from his chair, Carlos walked to the record player and turned the machine on. He placed an Oscar Peterson album on the turntable and shifted the arm, dropping the needle into the groove. The saxophone solo wailed, and the noises in the house stopped momentarily as the mourners looked at Carlos. Oblivious, Carlos returned to his chair and shut his
After bringing her father a plate of food, Assther knelt down next to him. Carlos was in his chair with a vacant gaze and an anguished expression on his face.
“Papi,” Assther whispered softly, “please eat something.”
Mutely, Carlos continued to stare at the picture.
Assther touched his arm softly. “Papi,” she said, “I need you to eat for me.” Assther kissed her father gently on the cheek and sighed heavily. She was beginning to worry about her father, but she needed to help her aunt.
“I’ll check on you in a little bit.”
While Assther was clearing the plates and picking up the garbage, she noticed her Aunt Judy sitting on the couch nearby. Aunt Judy’s had a tendency to talk loudly and Assther heard parts of the conversation.
“First my dear sister married a goy,” Assther heard Aunt Judy say. Assther turned in her aunt’s direction and saw that her aunt’s mascara was smeared, and the makeup looked worse than usual. Aunt Judy was speaking with another woman Assther didn’t recognize. Assther moved closer and busied herself with the cleaning, sensing she needed to hear the rest of this conversation.
“Then Hannah couldn’t have any kids,” Aunt Judy said, dabbing her raccoon eyes with a tissue and leaving stray bits of paper on her face.
Assther had been aware that her mother’s family hadn’t initially approved of her father. But they love him now. Right? What’s Aunt Judy talking about my mother not being able to have children? She must be wrong!
“Now this happened,” Judy was saying. “It’s like the trials of Job!”
Aunt Judy’s tears were streaming down her face and her eyes were swollen and red. She blew her nose with a clean tissue.
Assther felt a wave of nausea and a knot forming in her stomach. Unable to listen any longer, Assther grabbed the soiled dishes and rushed into the kitchen. She slammed the dishes on the counter, almost breaking her parents’ wedding china.
What’s that old lady talking about? Assther thought, alarmed and angry. Assther’s tears felt hot against her face as she dashed up the stairs to her room and slammed the door shut.
As sunset approached, it was time to go to Temple to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for Assther’s mother. The prayer was a vital component of the mourning process, and Assther knew it was important to her father and would’ve been important to her mother as well.
“Assther, please open the door,” Carlos said, gently knocking. “Mija,” he said, “we need to go to Temple. Please open up.”
After Assther unbolted the lock, Carlos walked into his teenage daughter’s bedroom. Salmon-colored curtains adorned each side of the windows, posters of her favorite bands were affixed on the lavender-colored walls, and various stuffed animals congregated on the pink bedspread. The bookcase was full of books that Carlos and Hannah had read to her at bedtime. On the dresser was the picture of the three of them at the beach. Carlos could still smell the ocean and hear Hannah’s laugh as she tried to keep her hat from blowing away.
Holding her favorite brown stuffed bear, Juki, Assther was sitting on her bed rocking back and forth. Her face was wet, and her eyes were red. Silently, Carlos sat next to his daughter and pulled her close to his chest. Before long, they were both weeping.
“I miss her too,” he whispered. Carlos sighed heavily, feeling heaviness in his chest. Rhythmically he stroked his child’s hair.
The heavy double doors of the Temple swung open, and Assther and her father rushed through into the anteroom, which was decorated with large-scale multicolored stained-glass images of the Ten Commandments. They were just in time for the evening prayer services. Rabbi Tesfaye walked toward them at a brisk pace, his long legs moving him quickly along the carpeted floor. His gentle brown eyes locked on both of them, and he extended his olive-toned hand.
“Assther, Carlos, I’m so very sorry about Hannah,” Rabbi Tesfaye said. “She was a wonderful soul and we will all miss seeing her.” He paused. “This place won’t be the same without her. She is truly irreplaceable.”
“Rabbi, I want to thank you for everything you did for our family,” Carlos said. “It was only after you began working at the Temple that Hannah wanted to attend services. She enjoyed helping the community and felt this place was her home.” Carlos swallowed hard.
“I’m very happy to hear that,” the rabbi said. “I can assure you, we gained more from her contribution than she realized. Please, it’s time for the prayer. We’ve made a special place for the two of you. Follow me.” The rabbi led Carlos and Assther to the sanctuary. After settling in the pews, both retrieved the prayer books and prepared for the service to begin.
Prior to Rabbi Tesfaye’s arrival, Hannah had joked about the family being High Holiday Jews. With his arrival, the Medinas had become increasingly more involved in the Temple, which delighted Hannah’s parents. Hannah had even convinced Assther to have her Bat Mitzvah on her twelfth birthday.
Gazing up at the bimah, Carlos remembered Assther’s Bat Mitzvah. On that day, his daughter had recited a Torah portion in front of the congregation. After the rabbi had retrieved the coiled scrolls from the glass case, he had placed it gently on the podium. Draped in a tallit, Assther had gingerly smoothed the parchment with her fingers. Grasping the long pointer, she had begun to read. Carlos remembered Hannah’s proud face upon hearing her daughter chant those sacred words. He ached to return to that day.
As the congregation began the prayer services, Assther and Carlos joined in.
Prior to the Mourner’s Kaddish, various congregation members uttered the names of the ill or recently deceased, to which Rabbi Tesfaye added Hannah Bat Abraham.
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon …,” the group recited.
To honor Hannah, Assther and her father would return for the next six days.
Loved this book. It is captivating and keeps your attention as more information is shared throughout the story
The book is divided in small chapters which make it is easy to take breaks during a vacation. And to jump right back into it.