by Orli Robin
I was once told that the philtrum—the flesh above the mouth and below the nose—became an imprint on human faces because of an angel. According to Judaic mysticism, in a mother’s womb by flickering candlelight, an angel teaches the child everything the angel knows about the inner-workings of the child’s soul. Yet, when the child must leave the pre-world of the womb and enter the world to come, the angel takes her finger, places it firmly on the fleshly space above the mouth and below the nose—she says, Shh. The child forgets everything learned in the womb, but retains the rectangular imprint of a past.
I have one.
She kissed me.
She kissed You, too.
Here is the paper womb for the Jewish girls.
It’s winter in Ma’ale Adummim. Brisk. Zatar spice, sesame, cloves, and diesel tickle our tongues. Night. Dark. Except for the harvest gold light bulbs of the lampposts. The stars strewn across Jordan’s skyline. See the white room with mint rectangles imprinted on bright white walls. My brother’s third child—Eleora—dances in a blue tutu the color of a Robin’s egg. She dances and I look up at the Jerusalem moon of now in this land and begin to wonder.
I think my blue eyes see differently than others’ eyes—I think—perhaps. In my world, each letter of the alphabet has its own color. The four letters of my name look bright white and creamy yellow, but the “R” bleeds a midnight purple. I see colors in music. Chords in music have powdery connotations that I cannot explain, and music overtones look like helices. I sense a resonant hum and buzz that means something and wholly encompasses my heart and my head and encircles my body. Ideas and thoughts look like metallic sparks and strumming and they float from my fingertips.
The white van pulls up next to the makolet. Eleora steps out first, then me. Two girls rush to meet her before we reach the entrance of the studio where her class will be held. I see the girls and think how one of the girl’s purplish sweats looks like the color “C.” Her shirt—the color “L.” The other girl has dark hair. Her shirt the color “R,” pants the color “K”—peach and fleshly pigment pink. “R” and “K” girl asks, “Eleora, imah shelach?” I wonder, why did the girl ask Eleora if I am her mother? I am nineteen. Nineteen. Nineteen. Why? Why would she have asked that? It’s just because we look alike, right? Right? I wonder and I think. Do their mothers look this young, too?
— “pirouette à la seconde.”
At Kibbutz Lavi, it’s quiet. Lush and hushed. Country and soil and flowers on mountains. Even in winter. See pistachio and olive and apple green rectangle farms that seem fuzzy. Let’s stretch
apart the sky. The Sea of Galilee looks still from up here. But, now it is night and it is dark. We’re standing on the bridge. The one with the glass windows that connects the two buildings of Hotel Lavi at the center of the kibbutz. A long and narrow hallway lit with golden light bulbs. I am at one end. You at the other. You composite, young-old married wife. You’re dressed head to toe in black. Black sheitel with black bangs. No twirl. No spunk. No funk. The tips of my fingers, fumbling. You come closer and conceal the heat of my perfect starry gleams and blinks when my fingers make friction. You come closer, you shadowy woman. I’m searching. My head turning. Averting Your eyes. Hoping you can’t see it and me. Your eyes seem angry. My knees peek and seek. Thing one and thing two. Picture little knees inside forbidden temples. You bore into my soul with the daggers of Your eyes.
I think Eleora will need me. I wrote about him and when he will break her and tear up her tutu. He will chop off her blonde hair and cloak her scalp with black fabric. She will be a Deadhead. Sign her life away with a roofless and rootless ketubah. But, Eleora will walk to me from far in the distance. On the winding Jerusalem stone paths that cave in, she will see her aunt in a bright berry peacoat. I will take her by the hand. Together we will find the spirit of a kind child her husband calls a dancing whore.
I think of You everywhere. When the fingers of my mind whisper and wish and peek through shutters, leafy webs of trees blanket our leaden skies. The leaves look back at me. Beseechingly. When the invisible powers of the shower tick back like a clock, my sun stained hair clings to my Temples. I twist my hair around my soapy fingers and it begins to look black. The silence and steam rise like columns and ghosts imploring me to remember. When I remember the Jerusalem women with black wigs and black skirts, I see a sea. The bobbing women. Always shopping. Always rushing.
Make it stop. Make them stop. Make it stop. Make them stop.
I stand at the center of it all, at the center of the pinwheel created by the bobbing, my colors flushing. Bleeding. I remember and I think and I see water. I see drowning. My brain battles with the women to stop. They rush toward me, with their strollers and with their long skirts, moving to the center where I stand. The women. They are angry and they don’t stop, obsessed with the fabric. The length of my skirt, the length of my sleeve. The waves of my brain make more water. The women cry tri-tonal screams and drown with strollers in sapphire blue seas that bleed indigo spirals. They are tugging at my white sleeves. They are tugging at my skirt. But it won’t go longer and it can’t. I’m starting to drown and You are watching. The composite figure of a woman who looks like my sister, but I refuse to believe it is You.
As a tiny girl, I felt like a little majestic and magical person in a land with an ark and a Torah and black hats and tall men. Small. Blonde hair and blue eyes—a tiny spy. With powers and an imaginary wand. This wand. This hand. These fingers—small. My peanut butter hands plucked strings and made harps. Blow kisses with a dozen white petals. Me. Small and knowing. Me and My wand.
— “Plié. Demi Plié. Temp lié.”
Alina Robin is engaged. Alina Robin is engaged to Yaakov Stern. Last Thursday. Last Thursday. Just last week. Alina Robin became engaged. Engaged. She will live in Far Rockaway now. Far Far Far Rockaway. Alina Robin turned twenty on October 25th. It’s 2013. It’s April 28, 2013. She’s twenty. Alina Robin is twenty. Twenty. TWENTY. But, I’m twenty. She’s Twenty. Engaged.
She twirled once.
Do You see the berry pink paper napkins? There. On the rectangular table in the middle of the Sterns’ dining room. The table with the white velvet tablecloth. The glass vase holding the phlox paniculata flowers. He brought them for her. For Alina. I am in a room of deadheads. The Alinas. Their sisters talking about engagements and proposals and births and lunch boxes and Shabbos when life and living is so much more than a house.
The Golden Spiral: The spiral that comes from the rectangles. When you square it, it leaves an even smaller rectangle, with the same golden ratio as the previous. That’s Eleora. No other rectangle has this capability. If you make a curve and connect the corners of these concentric rectangles, you have the golden spiral. The golden spiral in the starry sky. That’s what I see.
“The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea was sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
— “bras en couronne.”
Here is the photo of me in white tulle. The dress with the white and pink flower petals tucked inside. I wore flowers on my head. White and pink ones. I placed the headband with the flowers right above my eyes to make sure You could see them. You pushed it back up. Away from Your eyes. You wore black. But, You held me. Tightly. I remember Your angel face.
“Remember the story you learned as a child: When the hour arrives for us to proceed into the next world, there will be two bridges to it, one made of iron and one made of paper…
The wicked will run to the iron bridge, but it will collapse under the weight. The righteous will cross the paper bridge, and it will support them all.”
The shadowy women see a majestic girl make creamy waves of light behind a curtain and beneath a round moon in a Jerusalem winter.
Deadheading: to remove the dead flowers; to inspire more flowering.
“Please come. Please. Please, Orli. You will love it. Come with me to ballet. Please.”
Eleora twirls on her toes and spins colors and music out of thin air.
“Mazal Tov, Alina, on your engagement. That is so exciting. I wish you a lot of happiness.”
“Orli, you remember Chaya Rivka…we met her at Kibbutz Lavi?
“Sure, of course.”
“She just got married.”
“Wait, wasn’t she, like, twelve?”
I pace. Rush. Hush.
In a white room with mint rectangle imprints, Eleora dances in a blue tutu the color of
There is the girl dressed head to toe in black, back bent, staring up above, beneath the Endeavor. Her face looks silver with hope.
“—but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone.”
“Happy, Happy Engagement to my beautiful and talented niece Alina and her fiancé, Yaakov! Many, many years of happiness to both of you.”
“Here is a piece of the starry sky, Orli. I went up into the sky to get it for you. Close your palm. Squeeze it tightly and dream.”
I was once told that dreams about teeth falling out, crumbling, becoming dusty, ashy powder—mean death.
Starry brain, flicker. Peek. Hum. Buzz. Glow, beseechingly. Stop—where is Your flicker? Where is Your beseechingly?
“Remember the story you learned as a child: When the hour arrives for us to proceed into the next world, there will be two bridges to it, one made of iron and one made of paper.”
I mourned Your wedding day—the day You turned blonde to black.
Eleora twirls and radiates white and amber yellow helices. When she dances, memories of
times when I felt tiny—memories that look like white and yellow helices—begin to flood my mind.
Why did the men all look at me like that when I peered through the curtains of the mechitza? I could see them. They shook their heads with their black hats. My tiny fingers clasped to my tiny wand making waves in an ocean of Jewish fabric.
There are the spirals inside of the rectangles. Spiraling. Towards me. Beseechingly.
Pythagoras saw the spirals in the rectangles.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam…where is the blessing for Your souls?
There in the crossroads of Geula and Mea Shearim, a white van with black Hebrew letters sits. It has a loudspeaker that calls out the names of the deceased.
The spirals come from rectangles. The madness comes from Your death.
What if Eleora becomes a bobbing head? What if she drowns? No—let us dance and sing and revel in the promiscuity and swirl like the helix spirals of the yellow and white colored thoughts. Let us. Please. Please. Please. I won’t let Eleora die like You.
I don’t know what to do, Orli. I’m nineteen. Nineteen years old. Nineteen. NINETEEN. I defended him. I defended his practices and this house is my whole fucking life. I defended his locking me up. And for what? For the fucking longevity of the Jews? What about my longevity? Didn’t He give me a life, too? What about me? It’s killing me, Orli.
This is what Eleora will say. I think—perhaps.
—“Plié. Demi Plié. Temp lié. Á la seconde.”
“How’d it go? Eleora, do you want to change, sweetie?”
“No, abba. That’s okay. I’ll wear my ballet clothes while we eat.”
“Are you sure?”
I see Your little spirit in the ink of my pen—your soul. You’re bleeding—I think.
Eleora sits at her seat at the dining room table with the white tablecloth—Her back facing the glassless rectangular pass-through to the kitchen.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
“Adam, she’s good. Really good.”
“That’s great, Eleora.”
In the bathtub drain, I see starry nights—stars that blink and look like eyes—eyes that miss You. Starry night, please don’t swallow my fingers, or my toes. Just bring Her back—to me.
“Adam, I think she could be one of those girls who goes to Juilliard and dances and could be a professional…”
“That’s nice. But, she can’t. Will you pass the pita bread?”
He sits at the head of the table while we speak.
“But, she could if she wanted. She’s that good. She has so much potential. I’m serious.”
“But, she can’t.”
“But, she could. That’s what I’m saying.”
“But, you don’t understand. She can’t.”
“Its hands rest on its temples, its elbows rest on its legs, its heels rest on its backside, and a lit candle shines above its head. And from behind eyelids folded closed like blank paper, it can see from one end of the world to the other.”
With her knees folded in child’s pose, she peers downwards at the dining room floor. The fluorescent kitchen light highlights the sunny strings of her hair. Her white headband with five-pointed stars. Her ivory Temples.
“Paper is the only eternal bridge. Your purpose as a writer is to achieve one task, and one task only: to build a paper bridge to the world to come.”
When You defeat the rectangles, We will become free. We will spin and We will twirl.
But, for now, shh
Here are my 54 Torah portions for You.
also known as light pink flames. these flowers have magenta eyes. keep in sunlight. full sunlight. soil. dampish soil. give air. desperately. remember to deadhead.
kate chopin, the awakening.
dara horn, the world to come.
kate chopin, the awakening.
dara horn, the world to come.
fifth century. greek philosopher. golden spiral.
dara horn, the world to come.
A poet and synesthete, Orli Robin is an MTS Candidate, studying Religion, Literature, and Culture at Harvard University. She holds a BA and High Honors from the University of Southern California (USC), where she studied Creative Writing, Judaic Studies, and Genocide Studies, and co-founded the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics’s e-journal, The Social Justice Review. In Summers 2012 and 2013, she studied creative nonfiction and poetry at the Yale Writers’ Workshop, and she was recently accepted to attend the 2016 Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop: “The Art of the Text.” Her work is also featured in The Altar Collective, Adsum, and Laboratories Theories du Politique, University of Paris 8. Currently, Orli is an editorial assistant at Harvard Theological Review.