Photo: Roberto Drilea and Colleen Cassingham
By Jane Mushabac
Translated from Ladino by the author
Give me the kisses of your mouth— they are as sweet as the water that runs from the Catskill Mountains to the city of New York.
I am brown and beautiful. I am a young woman, and I have let you into the chambers of my heart.
I was alone, watching a red-tailed hawk on a branch high up in a great tree. I could see it because the green of the leaves at the time was delicate. I stopped without a thought in my mind. I myself was like a new leaf resting on the air. I could see the bird, her strong chest, her wings drawn in. As I’ve done this long year, I wore the mask that I was accustomed to, but I didn’t feel the soft blue cloth covering my nose and my mouth. I didn’t think about the terribly tragic winter of Corona, tragic, but miraculous because no one in my family died.
And now May brings emotions of beginning. Don’t stare at me, please. My siblings were unkind to me, but it didn’t matter. I am brown and I am beautiful. I walk in this grand but narrow park which is truly a great road winding north. The stones of the road, each one a plain flat hexagon, fit together like a simple puzzle. And the great trees lining the road—American elm, sycamore, and oak—speak plainly: this walkway was made a hundred years ago for the people then, and for us.
The hawk on the branch high up was big—so it was female. The early morning breeze was fresh, a gift like the road itself.
I saw you, my love. You saw that I was watching something. You are strong, your eyes steady, your back muscular like a wall.
You said nothing. Like me, you stood silent. Suddenly a slender long white ribbon left the bird, the ribbon gracefully descending through the air in a delicate voyage to paint a white stain on the ground.
I asked: Where do you bring your little cousins? When I’m not working, I care for my nieces and nephews outside, bring them to play near the large stone turtle.
You said: Come with the children, my beauty, near the house on the hill in the park, the one with a lovely view.
I am the yellow shiny flower called the king’s cup. I am the yellow shiny flower in the garden on the side of the little staircase of stone, the stairs turning as they go down. I cherish the bench where I sit at your side. Amidst green leaves, for the first time, we see many of these shiny flowers. The winter is gone, is it possible, I ask you. They say soon we can take off our masks. Tell me all you know, my beloved, you who protect the city from Corona. He took me by the hand toward the river where the cherry trees flower pink and gorgeous, the crown of each tree a mother’s large beautiful breast in the midst of a happy life. The Japanese gave these trees to this park a hundred years ago, each tree with thousands of flowers bursting pink.
Suddenly workers arrive in their small trucks to clean the walkway, and they do it with care. On the side, four of the workers are planting grass, working without speaking, an entire great square. They put up a sign when they finish: “Watch the grass grow, you can do that.” Slowly, bit by bit, the seed will grow, and we will no longer have a square of dirt, dry and thin, but a lush green carpet the color of hope.
Rise, my beloved, he tells me, it is the time of the beginning of time, of the birds whistling, the squirrels running and dashing, the doves flying and cooing. It is the hour of the sweet songs of zu-zu-zee-zee and de-wilit-wil-wilet wil wi. I tell the young women, my friends, one must wait until love is ready in its proper time. My beloved is mine and I am his. He visits me in the garden of the king’s cup. We dream of the hills of spices.
On my bed at night I sought the one my soul desires. I sought him but did not find him. Now I get up to roam the city to find him. I will search the streets and the squares of the city. All in darkness, the city empty of people, I look for you. On the far corner in front of the Schinasi Mansion of white marble, the watchman, the Russian, saw me. I asked him if he has seen the one my soul desires. Just then, I found you, my beloved. I held you tight and didn’t let you go. Walking through the darkness, I told you the story of my mother conceiving me in a faraway place. I warn my friends, the young women, leave love alone until it is ready.
I remember that night in the dark cold of last winter, the siren screaming through the streets. In the Schinasi Mansion at the top of the white marble stairs is the bed made of gold and silver, with its purple cushions lovingly arranged, the bed surrounded by sixty screens to guard against the terrors of the night. But it was the Corona that had come. In the street the man left the car and slowly methodically changed his clothing into a moon-suit in order to enter the mansion, the way you, my beloved, taught him. You will receive the crown of gold for wisdom; your mother will give it to you on the day of your wedding.
My beloved speaks. You are beautiful with your brown eyes, he says. You are strong like the officer in his booth guarding the university, he says; you stand tall like the soldier in a cape saluting the revolution with twenty-five thousand onlookers; you are fierce like the firemen of old with their helmets and spears, their horses dashing to fires, straining at a gallop.
Your throat, he tells me, is like the entranceway to the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue that was built more than a century ago by an army of men in prayer shawls. And your breast is like the shield made of pure silver to honor the scrolls of the Torah.
He says: Your nieces and nephews are at your side, none of them missing, because of the sweet words you tell them, your hands firm on both sides holding theirs, and theirs holding each other’s. He says: You have captured my heart, you are a garden locked with a key, a stream sealed with rocks, a fountain on a pedestal.
I say, Awake, oh wind of the north, blow on my garden.
My beloved says the sickness in the world is without end.
I was sleeping but my heart was awake. Listen—my beloved knocks at the door.
Open, my love, he says. Let me in, my beloved, my dove; my hair is filled with the wetness of the night.
With anxiety and wearing two masks today I went to the healing place. Hundreds of people were waiting— brown, black, white, all standing, remaining calm. Because of an error, the nurse, young and brown like me, spoke to them with kindness and good sense and many left quietly. They’ll return another day. At home I washed my clothing and bathed myself hard to wash the Corona and the fear from my body.
Must I get up? My beloved touched the latch of my door. My heart was stirred for the one my soul desires. I got up in my nightdress to let him in. My fingers on the knob were wet with my night perfume. My mask on the table, not on my face, I opened the door for my beloved. But he had turned and gone. I sought him but he was not there. I shouted his name, but no reply came. I flew outside without a mask or shoes, looking for him. I met the Russian guarding the Schinasi Mansion. He shouted at me furiously. He approached me and struck me hard on my face. I beg you, oh my friends, should you see my beloved, tell him I desire him and am faint with love. The young women asked me why I love him above all the others. Why, explain it to us.
He rescues the city. The whole city knows him. He is steady and calm. His hands are of gold. His legs are like columns of marble, and his mouth is delicious and I treasure him, oh my friends.
Where has your beloved gone, my friends ask me, oh you most beautiful of young women? Where can we seek him with you? He went to the nearby synagogue. He is singing his prayers, seated by the mosaic proscenium arch.
I am his beloved and he is mine.
He speaks to me saying: you are beautiful like the River Hudson where the great barges carry petroleum to the north; you are powerful like the rough currents where the two rivers meet at Spuyten Duyvil; you are beautiful, turn your eyes away from me, because they overwhelm me. A hundred forty young women tell their stories on their sites but only you are my dove, you are the joy of the mother who birthed you. You are the beauty of the dawn, beautiful as the moon and the sun and powerful like the ship in the river, with its colors flying, the ship that fights for the purity of the river.
I went to the park again to see the blossoming cherry trees, the pink flowering crowns each a breast of joy, bigger than the earth, the shock of tumultuous beauty of each tree next to the next.
Return, our beautiful friend, they said. We want to gaze at you.
My beloved is mine and I am his desire. The green of the leaves has burst open, the grass is plush now.
He says, I saw you in the sports field down close to the river. You run like a mythic runner, slender, bold, fast. Your leaps and dives! Your arms are as graceful as the wind blowing the clouds across the brilliant blue sky. Your back is like a tower of glass where a thousand shields protect me while, with an army of others, I command the city. I didn’t see you before. My friends were laughing about something. But suddenly I saw you. Give me the kisses of your lips beneath your mask, my mouth is searching.
I tell my beloved: you are like the tall American elm, your legs strong as knowledge, your arms firm as wisdom like the branches of these trees. I see the muscles on the trunks of these trees planted by our forebears, and their bulbous above-ground roots sitting in tight knots with defiance and dignity. My beloved, I want to give you the fruits of my garden. I will give you my love.
If you were my brother, I could kiss you walking outside at dawn. No one could stop us and ask who are you and who am I holding your hand so lovingly? Tell me the story of your mother—who was she as a young woman? And where was she when she conceived you? Why did she want a child? And what did she want for you most of all?
I say, Let me be in your heart like the promise of life in the cells of your blood from the moment of your conception. Love is like death, and passion is like a terrible wildfire in the Paradise of our country. You understand, the rising waters of the seas cannot drown love—don’t make me laugh with scorn—nor can they wash love from our hearts. I say: Set the seal of my love on your heart. Let me be a seal upon your heart.
I have a little sister, we must protect her, build for her everything she needs, her aunts must guide her so she’ll grow up to find joy.
I have a breast like the hawk’s, and large wings that in my mind’s sky open wide ten feet across. I have a secret garden with a pear tree, flowering now, and in the summer laden with sweet fruit. I will take you there. The garden is high up, thirty steps up the staircase. You must enter on the street through a high gate that is locked. I have the key. We will climb up to where the flowers of every color bloom—blue, yes! yellow, white, bright pink and orange, some little and new, some great and imposing. The pond at the garden’s end has a fountain. Five goldfish dappled with white swim from one side of the pond to the other.
I hear your voice, my beloved, I say. Let’s hurry to the hills of spices.