On warm afternoons, after the last of Gavriella’s visitors have gone, Ranya carries her to the river. In bed the child looks frail, but as Ranya descends the bank her daughter feels heavy in her arms. Today they nearly fall on logs the brothers have rolled onto the base of the path to discourage the curious from entering the compound from behind. Trespassers Prosecuted warns a sign posted on a birch, although it’s more a matter of pride than of security. Far better for visitors to Chavurat Messiah to approach from the front, to be greeted on the porch of the main house by an elder and to park beside the garden, than to come from the back, past the outhouses and the small cabins that serve as sleeping quarters for eighty.
Regaining her balance, Ranya glances down at Gavriella. She is awake, her eyes reflecting the trees overhead. Before she can drift away again, Ranya lays her on the bank, slides her nightgown up and diaper down. Gavi is twelve, still smooth and hairless, with breasts that have just begun to bud. Ranya gathers her own skirt at her waist then lifts the naked child and steps into the water. The river here is lazy, slowed by its width and heated over slabs of granite. She wades thigh-high. “There you go, sweet girl,” she says.
As Gavi’s buttocks touch the water, her arms rise and her head tips back until her long hair floats. Her expression barely changes, yet Ranya senses a smile. Even after Gavi’s eyes close again, she remains present in a way she never seems when the visitors kneel to pray beside her. An intercessory soul, Ranya’s husband Isaac calls Gavriella, although more and more he seems the intermediary himself, managing how and when she is available to the public. It bothers Ranya – the donation box labeled Yahshua’s Work beside Gavi’s bed, the breath of so many strangers on herface – but Isaac is convinced of the child’s calling.
Gavi lets go a stream of urine. Ranya allows the current to wash it away, keeps a hand on her daughter’s back and hums. They stay like this a long time, until Ranya is drowsy and the heat of the August sun has dwindled. Only then does she pull a sliver of soap from the pocket of her blouse. Carefully she suds Gavi’s back and underneath her arms. People say her daughter takes after her – same fair skin, same dark hair and eyes – but Ranya was never this slight.
Ranya hears the shout before she sees the rubber raft rounding the upstream bend. Two boys paddle toward them.
Clutching Gavi, Ranya stumbles toward shore as the raft draws closer. Her daughter is sopping, slippery in her arms. Ranya reaches for the towel around her neck only to find she’s dropped it. They make it over the logs and onto the path. Finally the jeers fade. Panting, half-crying, Ranya stops to catch her breath. “Bastards,” she whispers into the top of Gavi’s wet head. She’s been heckled many times before, in town with the sisters or out front of the compound working the garden. But by the time she goes back for Gavi’s clothes, she’ll be late to prepare dinner. And the towel – a good one – is gone, sunk into the Mascamaquot, disappearing downriver and away.
Twelve years ago it was Isaac who happened to be sitting outside when Ranya showed up at Chavurat Messiah one October night. Only she wasn’t Ranya then; she was Kathleen DiMarco, Kat, twenty-four years old and seven months pregnant. As the baby – active and nocturnal – shifted inside of her, Isaac directed her to park alongside the other cars. He didn’t seem surprised to find her there. Yahweh led those in need of Him to Chavurat, Isaac would later tell her, while Satan, in the form of worldly parents and spouses, occasionally took them back.
There was no one to come for Kat. She’d moved to northwestern Maine a few months earlier from Biddeford, where she’d left a string of failed relationships and a stint singing back-up in the downtown clubs. Neither the men nor the clubs were a good fit, too boisterous for Kat’s brooding ways. Her father had died when she was thirteen, her mother finishing the job of raising her before moving south for good. If Kat wanted to be an artist or a singer, that was fine by her mother, as long as she didn’t have to fork over money.
In a mill town an hour from the Canadian border, Kat found a job in a strip-mall health food store and learned she was pregnant. She stole vitamins and goat’s milk from the store, tried without success to get in touch with the likely father of her child. The idea of a baby was not displeasing. She quit smoking, started going to bed earlier. Sometimes on weekends she drove along the Mascamaquot River, past the paper mill and the pulp canals, and farther up, to where the road narrowed and the foothills began.
Chavurat Messiah was five miles outside town. Kat would slow to catch sight of the black-clad men and women in the gardens, the many children with them. They were polygamists, she’d been told, a fact that scandalized residents of a place settled by Puritans and inhabited by their descendants along with the French Canadians who’d come to work the mill. Kat felt sorry for the women inside the compound’s fence. Misled, they must have been, to have chosen such a life. But the one time she stopped there, to ask directions, the woman who helped her had a gaze so clear it lingered with Kat for days.
When the owner of the health food store caught Kat stealing and fired her, she had money enough for one month’s rent. Soon she was spending days in the library and nights in her car in the mill parking lot. The machines clanked and roared around the clock, filling her sleep with the sounds of great chained animals. One night she woke so cold her fingers could barely start the ignition. It was only 8:00 – she’d gone to bed at sunset – and as the car coughed to life, she sat up and took the wheel. Driving along the Mascamaquot Road, she considered her options: Portland, her mother’s Florida condo, the river itself. Inside her, the baby somersaulted into wakefulness. Kat’s ribs began to ache. When the lights of Chavurat Messiah appeared, she turned without consideration down the driveway. A man was outside on the porch, in a rocker that kept going after he stood. He was short but well-built, with long hair and a beard.
“You might like tea,” he said after she’d parked. Kat mouthed no but followed him inside anyway, to a pine-finished room that took up most of the first floor. He motioned to a chair at one of a dozen tables. “Please, sit.” And she did, hearing a clatter of dishes and glimpsing women through the swinging doors. The room was cold but warmer than the car, and it smelled of lemon. Kat put her head in her arms and wept.
After a while a tray with tea and toast was set in front of her. She looked up into the face of a woman who introduced herself as Judith. Lines fanned from Judith’s eyes as she smiled, and her hand on Kat’s shoulder was steady. “You should eat something,” she said. “Then, if you’d like, I’ll show you to the sisters’ cabin.”
That night Kat tried to sleep surrounded by others – twenty women in beds above and around her. Through the walls she could hear the snores of men in an adjacent bunkhouse and, more faintly, conversation from several smaller cabins that Judith had offhandedly described as “conjugal” when they’d passed them. Judith herself was absent from her bunk. It was hours before Kat finally recognized her voice, soft from one of those cabins, followed by even softer moans. As Kat’s hand settled between her own legs, the dark began to thin and the baby quieted, both of them stilled by a momentary peace.
“Check that one,” Judith nudges Ranya toward the stove. “Why’s your backside wet?”
Ranya lifts the lid from a vat: brown rice cooked with chicken broth – a staple at Chavurat. A faint crackle comes from the bottom, but there’s no charred smell so the rice isn’t burned. She switches off the burner, pulls an apron from a peg and ties it around her waist. The other pegs are empty, the kitchen filled with purpose. Around her, women chop vegetables, slice bread, pour milk. The swinging doors whoosh as dishes are carried into the common area that doubles as dining room and religious sanctuary.
“This is done, Judith. What’s in the oven?”
“Mutton. We roasted turnips too.”
Ranya sniffs for the scent of the softening roots, the overlay of meat. Chavurat elders prescribe a diet as close as possible to the one eaten by early Christians. The foods give health, but they take hours every day to prepare. Judith is in charge of the kitchen, which she rules with the same gentle diligence she did the community’s first group of children. At forty-two, she is the oldest of Isaac’s three wives. Ranya is the middle, neither as industrious as Judith nor as fertile as Abrah, who has borne five children in five years and is expecting a sixth. But Ranya is the mother of Gavriella, Yahweh’s gift to the Chavurati, and so she has a place.
“Those look beautiful,” she tells Judith, who is frosting the last of six cakes, applesauce raisin. The cakes are for Sunday, when Brother Eli will celebrate his Ruach, marking his transition to elder and making him eligible to take a wife.
Judith retouches an imperfect whorl. “Thank you. I hope his cabin’s ready soon.”
“All that’s left is the siding.”
“And the porch. There’s three feet of air under the door.”
Ranya laughs. “What about the plywood ramp that’s still on Isaac’s?”
“Excuse me, sisters.” In front of them stands Abrah, a small woman with a platter held against her pregnant belly. “Should I take the rice now?”
Ranya reaches for the platter, begins to scoop rice onto it. “Here. I’ll carry it.”
“Ahhh.” Abrah puts her hands on the counter. “Thanks. Everything’s so heavy.”
As Ranya turns to go, Judith touches her shoulder. “Ranya.” She lowers her voice. “Isaac was here, asking us to switch nights.”
“I don’t know.”
Ranya pauses. It can be delicate, who sleeps when with Isaac, which is why they have a schedule. “You don’t mind?”
Judith shrugs. “I’m tired anyway.”
In the dining room, chairs scrape against the floor as the last seats are taken. The six elders sit together in the center, surrounded by tables filled with their wives and children. Unmarried Chavurati sit along the walls – brothers to the east, sisters to the west.
Elder Daniel lifts his arms for quiet. “Barukh ata adonai, eloheinu melekh ha’olam,” he begins. After the blessing he asks Yahweh to be present as they prepare for the Ruach, to let the event manifest His will. The prayers continue long enough that when they’re finished, steam is no longer escaping the serving dishes. Even then no one eats, instead observing the long silence that represents eighty individual recommitments to Yahshua the Messiah.
The quiet deepens. Children fidget. Lines appear around Judith’s mouth, the way they do each night as the food grows cold. And though Ranya keeps tugging it back, her mind wanders – to the faces of the boys in the raft; to her damp lap; to the distant roll of thunder that for the last ten evenings has warned of rain. After a while she hears something else: cries from her daughter’s room at the back of the house. Gavriella is never unattended – the sisters rotate sitting with her during dinner – but she grows restless without Ranya. The sound causes Ranya’s neck to break out in perspiration. Other than the two nights each week she’s with Isaac in his cabin, she spends almost all her time with Gavi, even sleeping beside her at night. She welcomes the dinnertime respite.
Finally Elder Daniel brings the session to a close. “El shaddai, el shaddai, el-elyon na adonai,” he begins to sing, and the family joins him. Ranya sings too, lifts her voice then lowers it, with shame at her relief that she can no longer hear her daughter.
By the time Gavriella was born, Kat had been renamed Ranya – Hebrew for joyful song, for her ability to harmonize the most difficult of the Chavurat praise music. The community gave every member a new name to signify a gift possessed by each: perseverance in Judith’s case, nurturance in Abrah’s. Years earlier Elder Daniel had been Gordon Booker, a Nazarene pastor from Kennebunk who while preparing an Easter sermon late one night received a vision instructing him to move north and found a community based on plural marriage and Mosaic law. Isaac – formerly Michael Breau of a Mascamaquot dairy family – was recruited at eighteen during a Chavurat revival.
In spite of her new name, Ranya didn’t sing during the last part of her pregnancy. She felt heavy and unwell, with a headache that would not abate. The Chavurat midwife held compresses to Ranya’s forehead, and she prayed assiduously. But she didn’t check Ranya’s blood pressure, and so she failed to detect toxemia.
During labor Ranya’s uterus lost tone. The midwife had to call for help to force the baby from the womb. After the infant emerged limp and gray, the family wrapped her in a shawl and commended her to Yahweh. But by morning the baby’s breathing had regulated, and when Ranya put her to the breast she suckled with such vigor it was as if she was deriving strength from a source other than herself. That evening the newest sister – a woman afflicted with psoriasis – held the infant in her arms. Within seconds she felt heat envelop her chest and spread to her limbs. By morning, all signs of the disease had vanished.
The baby’s eyes did not track or seem to focus. Her arms and legs were limp. The town doctor, when they paid him to visit, said the impairment from lack of oxygen during the delivery was profound and permanent.
Yet the child emanated a certain peace. They named her after the eighteenth-century victim-soul Gavriella Sawat, whose entrapment in her earthly body had allowed others to go free. Slowly the visitors began to come to Chavurat, to pray with Gavriella in hopes that they would be relieved of their own particular sufferings. And often they seemed to be healed, of lupus, paralysis, even tumors. At first Ranya was too close to her secular origins to be convinced, but the powers conferred by the Chavurati upon her daughter were affirming and broad – somehow inclusive of Ranya – and so she let them be.
She didn’t expect to love her damaged daughter the way she did – fiercely, absolutely. Nor did she expect the warmth she felt from the Chavurati, who attended her closely through the months as she healed from the delivery. In the afternoons before dinner, Ranya would take Gavriella outside to push her in a carriage down the dirt drive. Often Isaac joined them. Sometimes he lifted Gavi from the carriage to hold her while they walked. “She’s taking in the air,” he would say. “She’s happy.”
One September evening as they were returning, with Gavi drowsing on his shoulder, Isaac asked Ranya to become his second wife. He whispered the question over the dozing child, but his hazel eyes were lit. Ranya stopped to embrace them both, felt the solidity of Isaac’s chest and Gavi there between them. It seemed right. Even with his zeal, Isaac was a better fit than the callow men she’d known before. And the hours of prayer were coming more easily every day. “Yes,” she told him, and if her heart didn’t lift the way it might have, it seemed a small price for the gift of belonging.
Isaac pulled her closer. “Yahweh is so good,” he said. “We will glorify him with the bounty of our lives.” They began to walk again, the scent of mown hay filling Ranya’s lungs with an ache.
Usually Ranya likes rain, but the din inside Isaac’s cabin underscores how flimsily the earliest outbuildings were constructed, with an abundance of fervor and a paucity of skill. The windows rattle in their frames, and the drumming on the metal roof is that of a percussionist gone mad. Drummers, madness: she tries to sweep such notions from her mind. Lately she’s been struggling with worldliness – a sign, the elders say, of mavak tov, the turbulence that precedes a closer walk with the Spirit. But too often Ranya finds herself outside the present, wishing for a daiquiri or a certain tank top she’d worn during her Old Port gigs with a restlessness she’s not experienced in a decade.
She smoothes her nightgown, runs a hand through her damp hair. “It’s coming down again tonight.”
Isaac is naked, his back to her. Ranya goes to stand by him at the window. Apart from a black stream of water on the glass, there’s little to see. Like theirs, the adjacent conjugal cabins are already dark. In the distance the rear lights of the main house pool diffusely. Gavi’s window is unlit, which Ranya hopes means her daughter is asleep. Earlier in the evening, when she’d dropped off a stack of diapers, Gavi was still fussy. “Not herself tonight,” said Sister Yael. Ranya lingered to reread Gavi Many Loaves and to hold her until her breathing deepened and she seemed asleep.
The pounding on the roof intensifies. Ranya turns to fondle Isaac, to help him along. Immediately he hardens. Warmth spreads from between her legs to her belly. Yahweh is everywhere at Chavurat, the elders teach, but especially between husband and wife when they are together. Ranya has come to believe this – usually she feels close not just to Isaac but also to Yahweh on the nights she spends in this cabin. She feels loved here, though sometimes it seems less for who she is than for who she might become.
“Wait a minute.” Isaac pulls himself free.
“What’s the matter?”
He switches on the lamp beside the bed. Heat drains from Ranya as she sits next to him. “What’s wrong?” she asks, working to keep irritation from her voice.
“I made a decision today.”
“To extend Gavriella’s in-prayer hours.”
“Oh, Isaac, already it’s too much. Even the sisters see it.”
“I don’t think she knows the difference.”
“Of course she does. She can hear their voices. She can feel their eyes.”
“Shhh.” Isaac’s pale stomach glows. “We must yield to Yahweh’s will, Ranya. He’ll protect her.”
Your will, thinks Ranya. And the unanswered questions: Why, if Gaviis protected, does she get sick so often, and why was she born damaged in the first place? “She was in prayer ten hours today. Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s her purpose. And you’ve seen the effect she has. She brings people to us. To Yahshua.” He glances at her meaningfully. “You should understand.”
As Ranya unfolds the blanket, an image rises from earlier this week: A rouged and lipsticked woman leans into Gavi’s bed, cheek to cheek with her. She clasps the child’s hands. Now, she tells a friend, who stands ready with a camera. Before Ranya can speak, a flash goes off. Gavi startles. The woman kisses her, Thank you, God’s angel, then turns to her friend. Did you get it? she asks. As the women pause in front of the donation box,Ranya reaches to wipe a smear of lipstick from her daughter’s cheek.
Isaac’s cabin smells of kerosene from the heater that runs year-round at night. Ranya pushes deeper into the covers, tries to shed her anger. Prayer, when she attempts it, slides away from her. Recently she’s preferred to pray alone, apart from the instructions of the elders, apart from her husband. She opens her eyes. Isaac is watching, his face inches from hers. He smiles, his square teeth gleaming. Usually his grin seems boyish, but here in the uneven light it brings to mind a ventriloquist’s doll. She closes her eyes again, turns toward the wall as Isaac’s arms encircle her. If not prayer, then something rote. Finally she settles on an Aramaic chant, silently begins the words, forgets, tries again but comes up blank.
By five in the afternoon, several visitors remain outside the door to Gavriella’s room. Although Ranya can’t see most of them from where she sits, she hears their voices in the hall. The room itself carries the road smells of fast food and sweat. Every weekday they come, these pilgrims in need of grace, from as far away as Colorado and Texas. Some have learned of Gavriella through word of mouth, others online through the Messianic sites. Unlike the locals, who remain curious but skeptical, these visitors are intensely receptive. Abrasions on Gavi’s forearms become stigmata, unseasonable bloom of the lilac outside her window a sign of holiness.
Ranya herself has come to believe in her daughter’s power, not as miraculous but as something divine. Beside her, through her, it is possible to sense the presence of Yahshua. Whether Yahshua himself effects the healings or whether the visitors heal themselves she cannot say. She glances at the couple next in line: middle-aged, with ruddy complexions and khaki pants. Connecticut, she guesses. This time it’s the man who advances unsteadily toward Gavi, tears starting before he even reaches her. As he drops to his knees to grasp the bed rail, his wife stands pressed behind him. Together they begin to pray. Ranya looks away from their faces, from their desperation. Years ago she used to bow her head and pray along, but it was exhausting, and in any case the visitors didn’t seem to notice, intent as they were on their pain, and on Gavi’s intercession.
So Ranya focuses on Gavi, who stares unblinking at the ceiling. Each morning Ranya dresses her in a different colored nightgown. Today’s is red, which Ranya thinks unfitting for a child, but on this topic Isaac has prevailed as well. Color of martyrs, color of Spirit, he says. The room itself is intensely hued – walls, carpet and bedding in shades of magenta and gold. Elsewhere at Chavurat the tones are subdued; only here is color allowed, just as only Gavi wears anything but black or gray.
As the man breaks off mid-prayer, his chest heaving, the woman leans to hold his shoulders. The cross around her neck grazes his balding head. For the first time she addresses Ranya. “She hears us, doesn’t she?”
“Yahweh is indeed gracious.”
“Please, will your daughter convey our prayers?”
This is the time for Ranya to offer reassurance. Instead she simply says, “Surely she will,” then looks at her watch. Nearly a quarter after. In an hour the light on the river will be gone. Outside, the shadows of the willows are growing longer, darkening the driveway down which the visitors soon will disappear. Ranya feels an urgency, a physical need, to be anywhere but in this room.
As the couple moves toward the door, Ranya gets up to tell the remaining visitors she is sorry, that Gavriella’s time is finished for today, that they will need to come again if they wish to pray with her. As she reaches the hall she hears voices, laughter. Isaac rounds the corner with Eli, his and Abrah’s four-year-old son.
Isaac stops in front of the visitors, his eyes shining. “Praise Yahshua. Your patience will be rewarded.” A woman blushes; a man holds out his hand. Isaac has this effect on people, to induce both gratitude and shyness.
He turns to Ranya. “How is our Gavriella?”
“We’re getting ready to go outside.”
He cocks his head. “Surely not while these good people are waiting.”
Nodding permission to a pale young woman, the next in line, Isaac slips past Ranya into the room to stand by Gavi. “Bracha yal’dah,” he says. Blessed girl. “Your sister’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he asks Eli, arm around his shoulder.
The boy bumps his belly against the rail. “She doesn’t talk. She can’t get out of bed.”
Isaac hugs Eli closer. “You’re right, she can’t.”
Isaac, Eli and the young woman peer down at Gavi. The collective intensity of their gaze makes Ranya even more uneasy. She unfolds a blanket from the bottom of the bed, covers her daughter from chin to toes. The young woman sighs. “She’s lovely.” She reaches to stroke Gavi’s hair which, never cut, falls almost to the floor.
“Don’t.” Ranya resists the impulse to grab her arm. “Didn’t you read the sign? You may not touch her.”
The woman pulls back. “It’s alright,” says Isaac, gently, as to a child. “Ranya, do we have some oil for her?”
The oil: a vat of Wesson that Elder Daniel consecrates weekly by holding Gavi’s hands over it. Ranya was supposed to dip cotton balls into the most recent batch and seal each one in a tiny Ziploc bag. “None right now,” she says.
Isaac frowns. She’ll hear about his disapproval – the oil and, worse, rudeness to the visitor, who after all might be one of the few who linger when their time with Gavi is finished, to pray and ask questions, perhaps one day to join them – but now Gavi is coughing and scissoring her legs. While everyone else backs away, Ranya moves in. Unhooking a tube from the wall, she suctions her daughter’s mouth and throat, then sits on the bed to calm her. The red gown is splotched with saliva, the blanket heaped on the floor. Dully, Gavi’s eyes track the woman, Isaac, Eli. Surely she doesn’t want them here any more than Ranya does.
The woman bends over the donation box, then pivots back to pluck a long, dark strand from the sheets – Gavriella’s. As the woman runs the hair between her lips, Ranya presses Gavi’s face to her chest.
They always leave with something.
On Sunday the rain arrives early and heavily, with gusts so strong the Ruach tent is ripped from its tethers. In late afternoon, Ranya emerges from the kitchen door with one of the raisin cakes just as the canopy sails eastward over the willows. Several sisters stand where the tent had been, holding down their skirts and staring skyward while around them children run and shriek.
“Everything will be ruined,” wails Abrah as the tent disappears into the woods. The sisters hurry to cover the food-laden tables with whatever they can find: sheets from the line, towels, hastily untied aprons.
Ranya turns to go back inside. Already the cake’s frosting is smeared. In the kitchen she finds Judith unperturbed, stemming grapes as if unaware of what has happened.
“The tent –” Ranya begins.
“I saw it. We’ll bring everything indoors. Just put that in the dining room.”
Through the swinging doors, the men are moving chairs into worship formation. Lightning electrifies the horizon beyond the windows. Half a second later, thunder jars the walls. Two boys respond to the clap by skidding across the floor in their socks. In the middle of the commotion is Brother Eli, the color high in his cheeks. He has prepared months for this day: learned Hebrew, overseen the construction of his cabin, prayed for soundness of judgment.
While Ranya doesn’t want the Ruach to be spoiled, another part of her is glad for the distractions. Her decision, when it came to her last night as she lay on her cot in Gavriella’s room, was unclear in its details but obvious, as if it had been awaiting acknowledgement. Hugging the wall, she heads for the hallway. She will load Gavi into one of the Chavurat canoes, paddle five miles downstream to the sandbar above the mill and pull the boat ashore. Beyond that she’s uncertain, except that she wants her daughter never again to experience – as intercessor or otherwise – the stream of needy visitors.
She finds Gavi propped in bed, awake, wearing a yellow nightgown as bright as the day is not. Her hair has been braided and tied with ribbon. “Doesn’t she look nice?” asks Sister Yael. “All dressed up for Yahweh.”
“Thanks, Yael,” says Ranya. “Go ahead to the Ruach. We’ll be down later. I want to see if she’ll nap first.”
After Yael leaves, Ranya reclines the bed and wedges in beside her daughter. Even in her mother’s arms, Gavi remains restless, pulling at the ribbons and arching her back. “Shhh,” says Ranya, taking Gavi’s hands in hers. She closes her eyes, inhales the child’s scent of talcum and milk. The storm has abated. Through the wedged-open window she can hear the Mascamaquot, high in its banks – a silvery, rushing sound that makes her tighten her grip. When she tries to pray, her mind refuses to settle.
She gets up. From the dresser at the foot of her cot, she pulls a frayed envelope. It contains her driver’s license, six twenty-dollar bills, and Gavi’s birth certificate. She slips the envelope into a tote along with a stash of diapers, a suction bulb, some extra clothes for Gavi.
Their departure is simple. Ranya carries the tote and her blanket-wrapped daughter to the rear entrance, past the cabins and along the path to the river. She looks back a few times, but no one follows. When she reaches the row of canoes, she loosens the blanket, lays Gavi on it inside one of them. The child is awake but quiet now, her eyes taking on the same gray hue as the sky.
The rain starts up again, lighter than before. Droplets polka-dot the front of Gavi’s gown. Ranya gauges the distance from the canoe to the water – maybe fifteen yards. She’ll have to drag the boat down the path; that much is clear. The canoe, deeply keeled, resists as she pulls, and the path grows rutted. She takes off her shoes, tosses them into the boat. Her feet sink into the wet ground. Their exit will be obvious, not that it will matter much by then.
Gavi remains silent as Ranya tugs the canoe down the bank. Nor does she fuss when they finally reach the river and Ranya nudges the bow into the current. The rain is coming harder now. Large drops slide down Ranya’s forehead and into her eyes. She blinks to clear her vision. Even so, when she steps into the boat, she miscalculates, places her foot too close to the edge. The canoe rocks to its gunwales, almost tips, and she’s forced to jump aside. She lands hard, bottom-down in the shallows.
Muddy water sloshes into the nearly capsized craft before she can right it again. Gavi is shaken, soaked. Her mouth opens in a howl. The sound, when it comes, cuts straight through the din of the river and the rain. Ranya loses her grip on the canoe. The current picks it up. Panicked, she splashes after it as it shoots downstream.
Later Ranya will wonder about the boat’s trajectory as she chased it, about why the current carried it not just downriver but toward an eddy in the center. In the moment all that registers is pain as her shins strike rock, then relief as she hears the keel scrape against a granite slab. The canoe stops. The spot is close to where they were three days ago when the jeering boys rounded the upstream bend.
Ranya holds the boat with one hand and reaches to soothe Gavi with the other. “You’re alright, sweet girl,” she says. “Everything’s okay.” Her heart knots in her throat. Get into the canoe, she tells herself. Pick up the paddle, push off and go. She doesn’t move. They will travel the five milesdownstream and come ashore above the mill. Then what? A hundred and twenty dollars will buy two nights at the Motel 6 with little left over for food. It will be just her and Gavi. She last spoke with her mother five years ago, and with friends from Biddeford longer ago than that. And she said goodbye to no one: not to Judith or Abrah, nor to Isaac. Her leave-taking will be much like her arrival – heedless and alone.
She pulls the canoe off the rock and toward the shore. When she reaches the bank, she lifts Gavi and begins to climb. Several times they slip. By the time they get to the top, Ranya is breathless and both of them are muddy.
The main house is lit now; its windows shine through the rain into the gathering darkness. Ranya cannot go inside. Instead she turns off at Isaac’s cabin, scrapes her dirty feet on the plywood ramp. Her shins are throbbing. At the threshold she stops short. Judith is there, lying on the bed with a book open in front of her.
Ranya hangs in the doorway. “You’re not in the house.”
“Neither are you.” Judith takes in Gavriella’s wet gown, Ranya’s feet. She raises her eyebrows. “You’ve been farther afield than I have.”
“We got caught in the rain. What about you?”
“I needed a break.” She smiles. “Everyone will think I’m in the kitchen.” Ranya lays Gavriella down on the bed. The child twists, pulling at her braids. “She doesn’t like her hair that way,” Ranya says.
“Let’s take it out.” Judith sets her book aside, pulls the gown over Gavi’s head and slips her under the covers. When she reaches to loosen Gavi’s braids, the child lies quietly.
The storm has returned full force, thrumming against the roof. The sound is loud and encompassing, the cabin warm. Already the thin cotton of Ranya’s dress is drying, the ache in her shins lessening even as bruises rise. She suddenly feels sleepy, leans back on the bed. Gavi begins to suck her thumb. Her daughter hasn’t been inside this cabin since infancy; except for the occasional hour at the river, she spends all her time in her room.
Ranya sits up. “Isaac is using her, you know.”
“Don’t let him.”
“He doesn’t listen to me.”
“We’ll have to see that he does.” Judith is untangling Gavi’s hair with her fingers. “Or find a way around him.”
Ranya looks at her. Judith gazes back. Finally Judith shrugs. “A mother understands her child best.”
Gavi’s hair is free now, damp across the pillow. Ranya uses a corner of the sheet to wipe the bits of mud that dot her daughter’s face. Bracha yal’dah, Isaac called her. How well does he know Gavi? When was thelast time he carried her outside so she could take in the air, the way he did when she was a baby? It’s been long enough that Ranya can’t recall. She knows this much: If she and Gavi do leave the Chavurat, they’ll have to do so differently, through the front door rather than the back.
Now Judith has turned to Ranya, unsnagging the wet strands across her back. Ranya yields to the touch. A warmth travels across her shoulders and into her neck. This time when she turns inside, the Spirit is there. It spreads and anchors her – in this cabin, her daughter’s room, Judith’s kitchen, the river. All of it: imperfect, hers, until she chooses otherwise.
Finished, Judith sets the comb aside and picks up her book. Gavi is asleep. “Can she stay here with you?” Ranya asks. Judith nods. Ranya gets up, smoothes her dress. The music from the Ruach has started, a hymn she knows well, the piano leading voices that grow louder as she steps outside.
This story was originally published in Indiana Review 35.1 and is now featured in CB Anderson’s collection, River Talk. It has been published here as part of a collaboration between La.Lit and Indiana Review that includes support for the short story competition Writing Nepal 2017, judged by Samrat Upadhyay.
Indiana Review is a non-profit literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the talents of emerging and established writers. Its mission is to offer the highest quality writing within a wide aesthetic. See more at https://indianareview.org.