Zach Marson holds a MA from Virginia Commonwealth University where he engaged in workshopping his prose with some of his favorite writers in Virginia. Currently, Zach lives in Richmond where he works at his local Jewish Community Center as a counselor for children.
They Knew the Land Was Beautiful
Before Asher died, Zelig was I and Asher was Arthur. Names are important when they are not, so I would soon learn after Arthur’s funeral. Arthur was I’s grandfather. He was a dentist, but he was also an artist, and when he died I found a drawing titled The Great Blue Heron hanging in his room of the assisted living home. The heron was colored in sky blue, grey and white. It stood in water looking out at the horizon. Arthur loved to draw scenes that involved water: his boat on the ocean, the epic setting sun sinking into the Atlantic.
“When did he draw this?” I asked his father, whose name used to be Scott.
Scott said that someone else came into the home one day and drew the heron. Arthur was supposed to color it. Scott pointed to a grey smudge on one of the heron’s legs. “He made it that far and when he couldn’t color it he got really pissed,” he said. “I don’t know who colored the rest.”
Arthur and his wife, Vivien, once took I and his brother down to the docks in Savannah to see all the birds resting and bathing in the water. Out of all the birds, one was tall and skinny. It was the most regal of all the birds and had the biggest beak.
“That is called a heron,” Arthur said to I.
“Heron,” I repeated.
When Arthur became sick and his mind began to wander, he and Vivien moved to Richmond and lived with I’s family for three months. One afternoon Arthur was taking his regular nap outside on the deck with the family dog when the dog started to bark. Arthur woke with a start and saw the dog barking up a tree. At the top of the tree was a great blue heron staring down at the mad dog. Arthur looked for his camera but the summer heat tired him easily. The dog’s bark and the image of the heron became distant as he slipped back into dream.
I stood in the room in which Arthur died staring at The Great Blue Heron remembering, remembering. Could Arthur remember the name of the bird? Could he remember his own name as he colored in the leg? Arthur’s body and the invisible footprints of death were resting as I pondered.
“We have to go and make arrangements for the funeral now,” Scott said.
“Okay,” I said.
After I became Zelig and Scott became Schlomo, they would return to where Arthur passed away to collect The Great Blue Heron. But Arthur and the invisible footprints of death were in another place.
Next to The Great Blue Heron was Arthur’s rendition of “Study of the Hands of an Apostle” or “Praying Hands” by Albrecht Durer. Arthur spent hours penciling the hands, their shadows and their grace. He let the picture hang in his local temple at Port Jefferson until he and Vivien moved to Savannah years and years later. They did not hang the praying hands in the temple in Savanah. I could tell that they did not move to Savannah for newer Jewish pastors. Almost all of the synagogues there had once been churches. The buildings were big and old and beautiful. There was no place to hang the old rendition.
House guests would often ask Arthur what was the name of the painting. I asked Arthur why he would want to share such a piece of art when the people of Savannah didn’t even know the name of it. “You don’t have to know the name to appreciate it,” said Arthur.
Arthur’s funeral was strictly a Jewish one. Scott had to pry Arthur’s wedding ring off of his dead flesh because the body couldn’t be buried with jewelry. The funeral had to be within forty-eight hours after death. There was an exception made for this rule, though. The same hour Arthur took his last breath, a snow storm raged across the East Coast. The storm froze the ground. It was impossible to bury Arthur’s body.
Arthur’s coffin had to be kosher. It is disrespectful to see the dead in their final resting place. There was no wake, no open casket. In the limo at the graveyard, I’s cousin, Joshua, explained a prayer that would be recited at the funeral called the mourner’s Kaddish.
“There are several names for God in the prayer,” he said. “The point is to remind us that we will never know God’s real name.”
I watched a hawk fly from the sky and land on a grave.
“Look a hawk!” I said. Everyone looked out their windows.
The family watched the hawk. It pecked at the ground and then stood for moment, head against the wind and eyes to the sun and the clouds above.
“Are you sure that’s not an eagle?” asked Vivian.
“Whatever it is,” said Scott, “it’s pretty amazing.”
The bird flew away. I wondered what Arthur had called God during his final hours.
The rabbi poked his head into the limo. “Shalom,” he said. He sat down next to Joshua. He passed around black ribbons to each family member. “Who here has read about Judaism and is familiar with its customs?” asked the rabbi.
Before anyone had a chance to reply Joshua raised his hand. “Me!” he said.
“Which book?” said the rabbi.
“To Be A Jew!” said Joshua.
“By Donin,” said the rabbi. “Very good. Donin has a lot of great insight on Judaism.”
Joshua smiled at this praise.
The rabbi went on. “The prayer we are about to say basically says that while we don’t agree with God’s decision to take the life of a loved one, we respect His decision. That we love Him.”
Don’t put words in my mouth! I thought.
“Then after we recite the prayer, you will place the ribbons over your chest and rip the ribbons. This is called Kriah.”
Off in the distance, I saw a vulture circling over a road. In certain Chinese provinces like Tibet and Mongolia, Buddhists believe that a corpse is simply an empty vessel. Since the poor soil makes it difficult to bury the dead and cremations are traditionally reserved for high dignitaries, many villagers practice sky burials. The body is taken high above monasteries, up rocky mountain terrain where large Griffon Vulture’s wait. The body is stripped naked and abandoned on the mountain and the vultures feed upon it, taking life from death. Arthur found this ritual remarkable but he did not believe in it. “It is not kosher,” he would say.
“Do their dead go to Hell?” I would ask.
“No,” said Arthur. “God is forgiving and loves them, just like he loves you and me.”
It was time to say the prayer the rabbi was blabbering on about. Together Zelig and his family spoke. Boruch atoh adonoy, elohay-nu melech ho-olom, da-yan ho-emes. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, the True Judge.” Then they ripped the ribbons with their praying hands.
The funeral went on quietly and without event. There was a time in which the rabbi said, “This is when we will take a moment of silence and pray to Arthur. You can speak to him, tell him anything you wish you could have told him in life, ask for forgiveness or possibly forgive him for something.” The rabbi and the family bowed their heads in silence.
It wasn’t until several days later that Zelig would pray to his grandfather for forgiveness. “Please, Grandpa,” he prayed. “Please forgive me for not liking golf, for not being interested at all in sports. Forgive me for never calling and never writing. Forgive me for using you as an excuse to break up with my girlfriend when you got sick. Forgive me for being afraid to visit you at the home when you were at your worst. Forgive me for feeling numb when you died. Forgive me for being a terrible Jew, for forgetting your traditions and your beliefs and your God. Please, Grandpa, forgive me.” During the moment of silence on the day of the funeral, however, I could not think of what to say so I repeated over and over again the words I love you, Grandpa.
When Arthur moved to Richmond he couldn’t subtract numbers very well. He had a hard time with dates, with making plans, with names. He lost things easily and always slept. I often slept in Arthur’s room after he and Vivien moved out. His bed from childhood was old and hard on his back. I often thought about how his grandfather used to sleep for hours on the comfortable mattress and dream. I liked to think that in his dreams he wasn’t sick. He was the smart and witty dentist I loved as a child.
I dreamt about driving Arthur’s ’75 Corvette Stingray down a forgotten dirt road in Georgia. Arthur was sitting shotgun and was smiling so big. I made it to 85mph before running out of road and the car would become hot and loud. Alligators stirred in the wet swamps and birds flew from branches on trees. Arthur and I breathed in the summer air. Arthur let the wind brush his comb-over off his scalp. I was laughing in the dream and then woke up in the bed Arthur had once slept on. Words like Corvette and alligator weren’t in Arthur’s vocabulary anymore and the time of day was always mystery. Could Arthur still remember the time he and I took the car out one day and drove fast away from everything?
At Arthur’s funeral, the rabbi spoke for a long time, but I remembered one thing he said. “When I asked Arthur’s son what he would say to his father if he were here right now,” said the rabbi, “he said, ‘I would honestly want to talk to him about sports.’ Now isn’t that beautiful? A father and his son just talking about sports?”
I wanted to crawl under the covers of that bed and cry.
After the funeral, Arthur’s family lined up to touch his coffin. Vivien went first but did not rest at the coffin long. She kissed her hand and touched the wood and moved on. Arthur was always with her, I thought. She didn’t care much for saying goodbye to a coffin.
I recalled a story his grandmother always used to tell about the time she had to move to Brooklyn while Arthur was away serving in the air force. “When we moved to Brooklyn, Grandpa was still stationed in Illinois,” his grandmother would say, “so I had to do most of the moving myself. So there I was trying to find my way into Brooklyn with your father and Russell in the back of the car. They’re screaming their heads off, like they always used to do, and I’m lost. So I stop at a red light and see a man on the sidewalk, and I roll my window down. I say to the man, Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Brooklyn? And the guy looks at me and then to the crazy kids in the back and then to me. Then he starts cracking up. He looks at me and he says, Lady, you is here!”
The rabbi approached Vivian. “We will miss Asher,” he said.
“Who’s Asher?” I asked his father.
“Asher was grandfather’s Hebrew name,” Scott said.
“I never knew that,” I said.
“Everyone here has a Hebrew name,” Scott said. “Even you. Your Hebrew name is Zelig. Remember?”
I hadn’t been called Zelig since Sunday school, back when he was ten. Zelig had been a name forgotten by time, an identity never fully developed or realized. Since I flunked out of Sunday school, I was I, the speaker, the character in his stories—Zach to everyone else.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“My name is Schlomo,” Scott said.
“What about Uncle Russell and Joshua?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said. “I’ll have to ask Grandma.”
“You don’t know?” I said.
“We never go to synagogue,” Scott said. “You only use the names when you are in temple. Grandpa knew all of our names by heart.”
The hawks and the vultures flew over their heads. “Will we ever know the true name of God?” I said.
“No,” said Scott.
“Then when are you ever outside of temple?” Zelig said.
No one but Zelig looked back to Asher’s coffin as the family waited for the limos to pick them up and take them home. The casket was made of wood and included an engraving of the Star of David. Nothing else. No name. No dates. It was the same as all the rest buried bellow their feet. Kosher.
As Zelig and Schlomo drove back the Asher’s home they were interrupted by three men who were filling in a pothole in the road.
“The storm must have really done some work to these roads,” Schlomo said.
The hole was deep and wide. The men filled the whole with gravel and drove a pick-up truck over the gravel to flatten it out. When the men were done, they drove down the road in their pick-up and started filling in another hole.
“I’m surprised they covered the hole this fast,” Schlomo said. “It usually takes weeks.”
As they cleaned Asher’s room, Zelig tried on a sweater that belonged to Asher. It smelled like medicine, like cheap food. “This doesn’t smell anything like Grandpa,” Zelig said.
“It has been in the home for a long time now,” said Schlomo. “I wouldn’t be surprised if everything smelled that way now.”
Zelig took off the sweater and sighed.
“It is a good sweater,” Schlomo said. “You should keep it. After some time the smell will fade, but it will never smell like Grandpa again.”
The Great Blue Heron watched Zelig and Schlomo as they packed and cleaned. Zelig could feel its gaze on his back. “I could have sworn Grandpa had drawn that,” Zelig said.
“Your grandfather loved to draw nature,” Schlomo said.
“Why?” Zelig said.
Schlomo thought for a second. “I think it was because he felt free out there. He worked hard all his life. First he worked at a hospital and then he started his own practice which took a lot of work. When he painted and when he was outside he wasn’t so stiff. He had to go out in the open to feel at peace. At least that’s what I think. He didn’t talk much about it.”
When the two arrived home Schlomo retired to take a nap and Zelig went out into the backyard and sat in the chair that Asher used to sleep on. He didn’t have to talk about it, Zelig thought. Zelig knew. He knew Asher long before he realized. Only Asher didn’t have a name and neither did he. Not years ago on the open road in Savannah. Not in that T-top ’75 Corvette. Going 85 past the birds in the trees and the alligators in the water. Names didn’t matter. They didn’t know God’s name but they knew He was there just like they knew the land was beautiful. The trees were green, the birds were blue and white, the alligators were brown and muddy, the sky was blue, and the sun was yellow. The temple was kosher. You is here. You didn’t have to know it for it to be true.
Zelig drifted to sleep under the yellow sun. He felt warm and smelled the grass and the water from a nearby river. He heard the wind and the singing of birds.