One night, when I was sixteen, the Prophet Elijah appeared in my bedroom. He was the hairiest man I’d ever seen, with wild gray curls and a beard that snaked down into his chest fur. He wasn’t wearing much either, just a loincloth and my dad’s old bathrobe, the white one with navy stripes, open in the front. Seeing the bathrobe gave me as much of a jolt as seeing Elijah. As far as I’d known, Mom had thrown out all of Dad’s clothes after he died.
“Mara,” Elijah said. “Don’t be alarmed.”
As strange as it sounds, I wasn’t. Growing up, I had read enough Elijah stories to know that dropping in unexpectedly was kind of his thing. In the Torah, he was the only person who never actually died, but instead was taken directly to heaven in a whirlwind chariot of fire, and so could still travel at will between the worlds. The moment I saw him, I knew my father had asked him to come see me.
“Do you have a message?” I asked. “From my dad?”
Elijah gestured to my bed, which was strewn with clothes. “May I sit?”
“Of course.” I rushed to clear him a spot. Before he’d appeared, I’d been trying on outfits to go out with Rocco. I wasn’t technically allowed out on school nights, but my mom had picked up a graveyard shift at the hospital, and I was taking full advantage. Since Dad died, she’d been working all the time. She said we were broke, but she was also avoiding my brother Sammy and me.
Elijah smoothed out a corner of the comforter and sat down, carefully crossing his legs and draping the bathrobe over his thigh. I was relieved he didn’t flash me in his loincloth. He folded his hands over his stomach and cocked his head to the side, birdlike. He seemed to be waiting for me to begin.
“Do you have a message from my dad?” I asked again.
“Not one for small talk, eh?” Elijah fiddled with the frayed edge of the bathrobe. “But no, sorry, bubbeleh, no message.”
I was stunned. “Then what are you doing here?”
“Can’t a prophet stop by for a visit? Does everything have to have a reason?”
I tried to remember the stories I’d read in Hebrew school. Elijah never actually came out and stated his purpose. You had to get at him sideways. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to say directly that he had a message, but could still tell me something about my dad.
“Okay,” I said, “but you’ve met my dad, right? In heaven?”
Elijah looked away. “Oy, bubbe, I’m afraid not.”
My heart started racing. “What are you saying? That he’s in hell?”
“Maraleh, it doesn’t really work like that,” he said.
“Then how exactly does it work?” I didn’t even realize I’d been shouting until Sammy knocked on my door.
“Mar?” he called out. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. Don’t come in!” I shouted.
“Whatever, I was just trying to be nice.” Sammy was gone before I could say anything else. A few strains from the Cabaret soundtrack leaked from his room before he shut the door.
Elijah was still sitting with his legs crossed, a vacant smile on his face, as though he hadn’t just materialized in my bedroom and implied that my father had been turned away from heaven. I made my voice hard and bored, like the college girls at the parties Rocco would take me to, with their septum piercings and clove cigarettes. “Look, I appreciate the drop-in, but there’s this guy who’s about to come get me, so you know. Time’s of the essence and all that.”
“Bubbe, I’m sorry. We got off on the wrong foot. Come, sit.” Elijah patted the bed.
“Suit yourself. Let Elijah tell you a little story.” He cleared his throat. “Once there was a factory owner, a most cruel, stingy man. Each day he devised new ways of cheating his workers. And every night, while the poor laborers choked down bread with sawdust, the boss man dined on savory dumplings in gravy, quail, and poached pears.”
There was a pause. I looked at Elijah. He stared back at me. Finally, I asked, “Is that the end?”
Elijah recrossed his legs, extending a slender ankle in my direction. In spite of my growing frustration with him, there was something about old-man ankles that got to me. They were so fragile, the skin like a single layer of silk draped over knobby bones.
“Not a Socialist, eh?” Elijah said. “Okay, let me try again. Once there was a very old, very poor couple. Their only possession was a single cow. She was old too, but still a good milker, and each day at dawn the man would go out to the barn and fill a pail. Then one morning, he went out and saw that the cow had died in the night. He sat down on his stool and buried his face in his hands. What to do? Without the cow, they would starve. Finally he worked up the courage to go back into the house and tell his wife, but when he did, he found a note on the table: Fayvel, I’ve left you for another man.”
Elijah stopped and gave me such a significant look I was sure I had missed a hidden meaning. Finally, I asked, “Was the other man the cow?”
“The cow? Is that what they teach you?”
“No, it’s just, never mind.” As Elijah launched into a new tale, I checked my phone for messages from Rocco, and then nodded along, half-listening. Elijah actually reminded me a little of Dad, when he used to hold forth at dinner. He’d go on and on about some article he’d read that day on the GDP of Tunisia, or water on Mars, or the discovery of some new type of plankton, without ever noticing that the rest of us were falling asleep in our mashed potatoes. At first, when Dad stopped his nightly lectures, we’d all been relieved. That was before we realized it was another sign of his depression.
My phone beeped. Rocco had texted to say he was almost there.
“Look,” I said, “I have to leave. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
“Mara,” Elijah said. His voice was stern. “Don’t go out with this boy.”
“Rocco? You came here to tell me about Rocco?” I grabbed my jacket off the bed and zipped it up. “Thanks, but I know how to take care of myself.”
I dug under the bed for the rubber fireman’s ladder that Dad had given me last year. It was supposed to be in case of emergency, but how would I know what to do in an emergency if I didn’t test it out? I staggered a little under its weight, but carried it over to the window, secured the metal hooks to the sill and tossed the rest of the ladder out the window. The rungs unfurled like a waterfall until the bottom thudded against the ground.
“So tell me, what’s so wrong with the stairs?” Elijah asked.
I said, “They’re broken.”
Of course the stairs weren’t broken, but they were next to Sammy’s room and I didn’t want to risk him hearing me sneak out. At thirteen, he was old enough to be home alone, but as a younger sibling, he never missed the opportunity to rat me out to Mom. There was still a chance he’d realize I’d left, since he sometimes made midnight snacks and came by my room to offer me some. But I couldn’t do anything about that.
I stepped out over the windowsill and swung my body around to face the house. As I descended, Elijah stood in the open window, staring down at me. He didn’t look fragile anymore, but wild and imposing, his tangled hair picking up in the wind. For a moment, I wondered if I was making a mistake—maybe he really did have something to tell me and I was failing the test—but then I heard Rocco’s muffler rattling down the street.
Rocco was twenty-one, a senior at Mass Art. He was pale and skinny, with wavy black hair and two lip rings. I met him last spring when I was taking an art class at Centre High. One of our assignments was to attend a local opening. I went to Mass Art’s junior showcase, where Rocco had entered a series of photographs of nude women encased in Saran-wrap and doused in red paint. They were amazing, and I kept flirting with Rocco until he asked for my number.
The weird thing was that the showcase took place a couple days before Dad died. So when Rocco texted me that week to see if I wanted to hang out, I had forgotten all about him. My brain was like a gray felt hat, soft and spongy. But then I remembered who Rocco was, and he offered to pick me up and drive me anywhere, and best of all, he didn’t know anything about what had happened to my dad.
At first, I meant to tell him about my dad once we had gotten to know each other better. In the meantime, I looked online for corny jokes that I could say Dad had told at dinner, theories on the war in Syria, daddish gripes about the Red Sox. One weekend I even pretended he’d grounded me for breaking curfew and stayed home and watched Hedwig with Sammy for the millionth time. Before long, my time with Rocco had become an alternate reality, a place where Dad was still alive.
Rocco pulled up to the curb and honked. His passenger door was broken, so I had to climb in through the window. As we drove away, I looked back at my bedroom window, but Elijah had disappeared from view.
“I thought your folks didn’t let you out on school nights,” Rocco said.
I said, “They went to the movies.”
“Hot Heimlich is playing tonight.”
“Oh, cool.” I didn’t really like them, but they were Rocco’s favorite band. They played at an anarchist co-op in lower Allston, where all the doors had been taken off the bathrooms.
“Who’s hot Heinrich? Some German?”
I whipped around. There in the backseat was Elijah. He was still wearing my dad’s bathrobe, a wide-eyed smile on his face.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I shouted.
“Um, Mara?” Rocco said.
Clearly I was the only one who could see or hear Elijah. I turned back around in my seat, tried to make my voice casual so Rocco wouldn’t think I was totally batshit. “I meant like in an existential way?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know what you mean.”
While Rocco talked about art, I flipped down the visor mirror and glared at Elijah’s reflection. He blinked innocently back at me. It was one thing to show up in my room unannounced, but another entirely to crash my date. And for what? To keep telling me Wise Tales from the Shtetl? I still didn’t know why he was here. Maybe Elijah didn’t even know. Maybe prophets could get old and doddering just like normal people.
We took the back roads through JP and West Roxbury. At night, the empty golf course was even more eerie than the cemetery. The tree my dad had crashed into was somewhere along this road, but I had avoided learning exactly where. I couldn’t keep the images of his accident out of my head until Elijah started humming an annoying little klezmer melody in the backseat.
Rocco never locked his car because then it would look like he had something to steal. The street where we parked in Allston was close to the highway overpass, and the cars rumbled distantly below. A rat scurried across the street with a half-eaten slice of pizza dangling from its mouth.
Hot Heimlich was playing in the co-op’s basement. The cinderblock walls beaded with water like the inside of a cave. Rocco knocked his head against an exposed copper pipe and pumped his fist into the air. I looked around to warn Elijah about the low ceilings, but already I’d lost him in the crowd.
I wanted to like moshing, truly. I knew that if I could just uncover the secret, then slamming my body up against other sweaty people and having them stomp on my toes and elbow my boobs would be just as much fun for me as it was for everyone else. In the meantime, I adopted my standard pose: arms in front, elbows cocked, a compromise between reckless abandon and full protection of my tender bosom.
Between songs, Rocco put his arm around me. “Just relax. It’s the same reason you can’t have an orgasm.”
“I have orgasms all the time,” I said. “Just not with you.”
Rocco laughed. “Good for you.”
The singer shook a bottle of beer and sprayed it over the crowd. Rocco pushed his way to the center of the pit and I lost sight of him. If I were to lie down on the floor, how long would it take till I was trampled? How long till somebody noticed? I knew I was being a sad sack, but I couldn’t stop. Then I caught a glimpse of Elijah on the other side of the room. Even he was throwing elbows and having a great time. I imagined him crowd surfing in his loincloth and bathrobe.
Between sets, Rocco and I went outside for a smoke. It was only September, but already the air had that crisp foretelling-of-winter chill. I shivered and Rocco pulled me in against his chest, but when I tried to kiss him, he turned away.
He held out two fists. “Pick a hand.”
I tapped one. He uncurled his fingers to reveal a single white tooth.
“Is that yours?”
Rocco grinned, revealing a bloody line of gum. “This guy punched me in the mouth, and my tooth broke off on the other side. The other side. Fucking physics, man.”
“Shouldn’t we put it on ice and go to the hospital?” I said.
“Nah, I’ll use it in for an installation.” He dropped the tooth into his shirt pocket.
A car cruised down the street, momentarily blinding me with its headlights. When it passed, Elijah came into view, standing on the sidewalk across the street, staring at me with terrifying intensity.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” Rocco said. “This’ll fuck you up.”
He had his hand out again. At first, I thought there were now two teeth. Then I realized they were pills.
Rocco grinned and popped one into his mouth. He held the other out to me.
Across the street, Elijah cried, “Mara, don’t do it!” He starting running toward me, waving his arms overhead.
I hesitated, then leaned over and sucked the pill out of Rocco’s hand. His skin tasted like smoke.
Elijah faltered in the middle of the road, the bathrobe sash dangling at his feet. I wondered if he’d been on an anti-drug mission all along and would leave now that he’d failed. To my surprise, I was a little sad to think of him going. Even though he got on my nerves and seemed more than a little senile, it was still like a strange little bubble of protection, knowing he was nearby.
Rocco grabbed my hand and led me over to the bridge overlooking the Mass Pike. He lit another cigarette and we leaned against the chain-link fence. Come morning, one of the cars below would belong to my mother, heading home from the Brigham, her clothes and hair reeking of Lysol and bleach.
I looked back over my shoulder. There was no sign of Elijah. “I don’t feel anything,” I said.
Rocco said, “You will.”
Twenty minutes later, I discovered the secret to moshing. The crowd moved in a finely choreographed ballet and I spun and twirled at its center. A vibrating hum started with the bass, filled the cavity of my chest, and connected me to every living person. Bodies flew toward me and I slid through them and reemerged on the other side.
After the show, we fell into Rocco’s car and he started kissing my neck.
“Isn’t dancing the weirdest thing in the world?” I said. “Like, where did it come from? Who invented it? And why can you do some dances some places but not others? The waltz! Remember the waltz?”
Rocco put his fingers against my lips, then slid his other hand under the waistband of my jeans. I laughed. “The only thing weirder than dancing is sex.”
Rocco pulled away and rested his forehead on the steering wheel. “I think I should take you home.”
“I’m sure Elijah would like that,” I said.
He frowned. “Elijah?”
“I don’t think he approves of you,” I said.
Rocco started up the car. “Who, your dad?”
“My dad’s dead.”
Rocco stared blankly at me. I couldn’t believe what I’d just said. Could I still take the words back, insist I hadn’t meant them? Or was this the truth revealed? Maybe on some level that was what I wanted. To speak about my dad and have it not be a lie.
Rocco put his hand on my leg. “Take it easy. You’re really high right now, but you’ll come down soon.”
I closed my eyes. There was my perfect, ready-made excuse. All I had to do was reach out and take it and my dad could keep on telling corny jokes at dinner and making me stay in to study.
“Yeah, I’m really fucked up,” I said. By the time we reached the house, I was able to convince myself I had never spoken the traitorous words.
Rocco shook my shoulder gently. “Wake up, Mara,” he said. Then he started laughing. I opened my eyes. He was pointing to the ladder hanging from my window.
“Dude, is that yours?” he said. “What, are you training for Spy Kids 3?”
“Fuck you.” I yanked on the door handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I had forgotten it was broken.
“Jesus, take it easy. Just get out on my side.” Rocco climbed out and held open his door. He caught my arm as I brushed past him. “Are you okay?”
His face swam out of recognition before me: two dark mouths for eyes, black hair like wet earth. “You should go,” I said.
“What did I do?” Suddenly, he seemed much younger. Unsure. It hadn’t occurred to me till then that there must have been as many things in Rocco’s inner world that he kept from me as I did from him. The thought made me incredibly lonely.
“I’m just tired. I’ll call you, okay?” I said.
Rocco looked like he was about to say something, but didn’t.
After he left, I stood on the sidewalk and stared up at my ladder. The street was quiet. An owl hooted somewhere and the wind rustled through the dry leaves. At night, the world is quiet, but sounds are louder.
I couldn’t help thinking of the noise Dad’s car must have made when it hit the tree. Was it a metal screech? A thud? One sound or many?
Dad hadn’t braked before the crash. Mom said that didn’t necessarily mean what we thought. He could’ve fallen asleep, or been looking down at his phone, or anything. She said, “No matter what happened that day, your father loved you.” And for a moment, I felt better. But then she added, “You can’t save people from themselves.”
I stepped onto the first rung of the ladder and looked up. The lines above me doubled and wavered. The rubber was slick with condensation. I knew this was crazy, stupid, reckless. I was nowhere near sober. It was the middle of the night. I had a house key in my pocket. But I refused to go in the front door. This was my father’s ladder, his gift to me.
The ladder twisted and knocked against the vinyl siding as I climbed. I had almost reached the window when my feet slid out from under me. I kicked at open air, then let myself hang there, body dangling. My full weight pulled heavy on my arm sockets. The rubber was slippery under my fingers. How easy it would have been to just let go. To unclasp one hand and then the other, feel the relief of not having to hold on any longer. Was that what it had been like for my dad?
Then there was a raspy crow noise above me. I looked up and there was Elijah, leaning out of my bedroom window. “Climb, Maraleh, climb!” he yelled.
I was so shocked that my hands gripped the rung more tightly. My feet found purchase.
“That’s it, ketseleh!” he said. “Now climb.”
Suddenly I was furious. Who did this guy think he was? Showing up uninvited in my bedroom, pretending he had a message from my dad when in fact he had nothing for me. “Why are you even speaking Yiddish?” I shouted. “Shouldn’t you talk in Hebrew or Aramaic or something? I don’t even think you’re the real Elijah, just some bootleg poseur.”
I climbed a rung, then another, and finally hoisted myself up and over the windowsill. As soon as I was in my room, the anger, along with everything else, drained out of me. I collapsed onto my bed, panting. Dimly, I realized what Elijah had done for me.
“Thanks,” I said.
But Elijah wasn’t smiling. “You have to get up. You have to go downstairs.”
“What?” I buried my face in my pillow. “It’s over,” I said. “I made it. I climbed up and didn’t let go. I’m okay.”
“You have to turn off the toaster oven,” Elijah said. “Your brother was making Bagel Bites and he forgot about them.”
I couldn’t move. “Maybe we’re supposed to let the house burn down. Maybe we were supposed to die in our sleep tonight.”
“Mara.” Elijah’s voice created a ripple in the air. “You have to get up now.” I dragged my legs over the side of the bed and let my feet hit the floor. Slowly I pushed myself up to sitting. Nausea bubbled up in the back of my throat. When I tried to walk, the floor dipped and rolled away from me. By the time I made it downstairs, my head was pounding and the air was thick with the stench of burning cheese.
There was a small fire raging in the toaster oven. I unplugged it and waited for the flames to die down. The toaster was scorched black and a plastic bag Sammy had left on top had melted. How could he have been such an idiot? After the fire had gone out, I stormed upstairs and pounded on his door.
But when Sammy opened the door, he had a look of such terror on his face that I froze. Somehow I had forgotten about that night, that moment when we woke up to the sound of the police knocking on our front door.
“What?” he said, his eyes wide. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” I wished I hadn’t woken him up. “You left the toaster on, but it’s fine. I already turned it off.”
“I’m such a fucking idiot.” He looked down. He was wearing a Bruins t-shirt that Dad had given him when he was little. Back then it had covered him neck to ankle. Now it stretched tight across his shoulders.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I shouldn’t have left you home alone.”
“I’m not a baby,” he said fiercely.
“I know that.” I wanted to tell Sammy I was sorry, that I didn’t want to run away from him, that he was the most important person in the world to me. I said, “You can tell Mom I burnt up the toaster.”
A half-smile curved on Sammy’s lips. “I won’t tell her you went out with your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.” I wondered whether I would go out with Rocco again. If I did, I couldn’t keep lying to him about my dad.
“Good night, Sammy.” I mussed up his hair and he batted my hand away.
On my way back to my room, somehow I already knew Elijah would be gone. I hoped I was wrong, but when I opened my door, the room was empty, just a spill of light on the foot of the bed. The wind rustled the curtains in the open window and I walked over to lean out into the night. A streetlamp was the only moon in the sky and the trees shone black and wet. It was almost impossible to think that I had school the next morning, that everything just kept on going until it didn’t. My dad’s ladder was still hooked over the sill and I reeled it back in, rung by slippery rung, until I held all of its weight in my arms.
Anna Silverstein was born in Boston and currently lives in Nashville, where she is completing her MFA at Vanderbilt University. She is the creative writing fellow at the Curb Center, where she leads expressive writing workshops for people who have been affected by cancer. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Gravel and Overtime.