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In the seventh month of her pregnancy Henye dreamed of thirst. It was the month of Tammuz, but not like Tammuz. Nowhere was the high blue sky of previous summers, the afternoon breeze sweet with blossoming rye. The air was so thick with heat that the wheat in the field bent under the weight of it, and the sky hung yellow and low over the town, portending nothing good. Night after night, Henye lay on her bed dreaming of thirst. Such thirst as she had never experienced in her waking life. Unslakable thirst. Unearthly.
The pregnancy was her second. The first had ended in shocking misfortune. Shocking, because the signs -- until the birth itself -- had all seemed so favorable. Seven months into that pregnancy the kicking inside her had been so vigorous that she could place a crust of bread on her swollen belly just to have the pleasure of watching it fly across the room. It was a boy, she knew, and one endowed with such power and obvious strength of purpose that surely he could only be destined for greatness.
Her first mistake: second-guessing Divine intention.
Compounded by a second: she told the other women in the town. That was reckless. Foolhardy. The evil eye couldn't help but be tempted. Not to mention Lilith, who delighted in nothing so much as stealing other women's babies.
Still, the kicking persisted. And on the new moon of the month of Av, the first pangs of labor began. The midwife was called; pangs turned to pain. All seemed as it should: the crown appearing soon enough, followed by the torso, long and perfect, and finally the legs, kicking in movements by now so familiar to the mother.
"A boy," the midwife pronounced,but when he opened his mouth to howl, he couldn't take a breath.
He tried again. And again. Mouth open like a fish, he gulped and gasped, but to no avail. Used to the rarefied air of the other world, he found ours too thick. Too cluttered, maybe, with mortal desires and disappointments. It collected like mud in his lungs. He began to strain and thrash, his small back arching, his skin turning blue. His legs still moved, but in more of a twitch than a kick, like die dance of a chicken whose head is already rolling in the dirt. The midwife slapped him, shook him, breathed whatever she could spare of her own breath into his gasping mouth, but his lungs weren't like ours. More like wings than lungs, they flapped inside his chest, transporting him back to the world in which he belonged.
They named him just before he died. A final attempt, perhaps, to ensnare his fleeing soul. Yaakov, they named him, for his grandfather who had loved life.
The third mistake. They should have named him Yaakov Simcha. That was our grandfather's full name. Yaakov, who fought with the angel, and Simcha, who is joyful. A balanced name, full of luck-that's what should have been my brother's Instead, they returned him to the earth eternally fighting with his angel.
And fight he did. From the moment he crossed back into the other world his strength returned, but it was coupled now with a cruelty he hadn't exhibited before. His kicking resumed. Timid at first, daring only to interrupt her dreams. Then bolder, brasher, it began distracting her at all times of the day and the night. Those same kicks that had so delighted her once with their promise became taunts now, torments, a rain of blows and mockeryunder which she soon began to falter.
She conceived again quickly enough -- she was young and healthy in body -- but her spirit was changed. She could barely eat, would no longer meet anyone's eye, and as her pregnancy progressed she took on stranger and ever more disturbing behavior. She could be in the middle of a task, a conversation-it didn't matter what-when all of a sudden she would stop still, face frozen, as if listening to something far away. The daily tasks that root us to this world became odious to her. The elements left to women's care-water and fire -- she neglected. Her stove remained unlit, her cisterns collected dust. The call from the other world was relentless.
All through those months of pregnancy with me, she drifted further and further from this life-and me, all the while, trying to draw my nourishment from her.
Nights were the worst. The thirst. Tormented by it in her dreams, Henye tossed and cried out in her sleep. Night after night she cried -- rasping cries, half-strangled gasps. My father, Aaron Lev, upon hearing such sounds, feared for her life, for her soul, for the soul of the unborn child-my soul. But no sooner than he had decided to consult the rabbi, relief came. Relief in the form of a stranger, a boy carrying a jug of water. The boy poured some water into his hand, water so cool and refreshing that as Henye drank from his cupped hand, she moaned in pleasure. My father, hearing such a moan, mistook it for another kind of pleasure and woke her immediately. He was a pious man, you understand. He woke her so that she wouldn't have to carry the burden of sin along with the weight of the child growing inside of her.
But was Henye gratefultoward her husband for saving her from sin? How could she be? Her thirst had reduced her to a single longing, a perfect arch that strained toward its one point of desire. She was angry to have come so close only to be snatched away, enraged to be pulled back from the union she had been about to enter.
The boy returned. His Jug of water now empty, he took her by the hand and led her to the source: a pool smooth as glass and deep with water so pure and clear that she could see the speckled stones that formed its floor twenty feet below its surface...
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