Eliza Master is a fiction author and a graduate of the Kidd Creative Writing Program. She is a member of the Oregon Writers Collective and Wordos Workshop. The One Million Stories Project, Words Apart Magazine, and Snapping Twig Magazines have published her stories. Eliza is also a potter and does humanitarian work internationally. Wayzgoose Press will publish her three novels; The Scarlet Cord, The Exotic Flower and The Shibari Knot in 2017. She has two sons and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Fanny the Dybbuk
Fanny stepped carefully to avoid the mounds of horse manure. She turned her nose away from the rubbish that street sweepers had swept into piles. New York was dark that January morning in 1928. Brooklyn, far from Manhattan, was lit with brilliant electric bulbs until daybreak. Wood smoke from winter heating settled between the row houses. Fanny’s destination was Hershal’s Bakehouse, where she had been making bagels for the last six months.
On the way Fanny paused at the haberdashery window to look at her reflection. In the window was a perfect picture of the brownstone across the street. The sky above was filled with smog from Brooklyn’s smelting factory. But Fanny only saw herself in the glass.
She inspected her gold silk stockings, white leather shoes, and work dress. Fanny wasn’t tall or slim, but she had a womanly figure at fifteen. She smiled devilishly and unbuttoned the top two buttons on the front of her dress, revealing the top of her brassiere. It was store bought and made of satin. She ran her finger across the bra cup. Looking around she quickly refastened the dress buttons. She watched herself bend down to see if her cleavage showed. Then she straightened the seam along the back of her stocking and tightened the garter clip.
Fanny worked with Ruben Hershal, the son of the bakeshop owners. He was handsome in his clean white skullcap. His beard made him look older than eighteen. Fanny felt a jolt every time she looked into his long brown eyes, so instead she watched his beautiful hands. His shapely fingers were like cabaret dancers. Every bagel was perfectly round. Last night he reached for her hands even though they were covered with bagel dough. Ruben said, “I love you, Fanny.” Her name from Ruben’s lips sounded American and new, like it never had sounded before.
Fanny was lovesick when she let herself into the bakeshop the next morning. She put on the electric light bulb and swept the floor, humming “Here Comes the Bride.” She stacked wood under the big vat of water for boiling the bagels. Then Fanny loaded the fire shelf with logs to heat the giant oven. She lit the fire in several places under the brick baking chamber. A splinter scratched her wrist. She hoped the Hershals would get a modern gas oven soon.
Fanny opened the oven door to give the inside a quick sweep. Ruben didn’t like the smell of burnt crumbs. In the back was an abandoned baking tray. The oven floor was barely warm so Fanny slipped off her white shoes and reached into the deep stove. She grasped the tray but it was wedged between two bricks and stuck. Fanny crawled farther into the oven balancing on her right knee, keeping her left leg raised to hold the door ajar. Yanking the tray, Fanny tumbled onto her elbows. Her left stocking caught on the bottom of the iron door and her garter unhooked. Fanny’s stocking grabbed and pulled the door shut as it slipped off her calf. The iron latch clicked closed. It was a terrible sound.
She kicked at the oven door with her bare feet but it would not open. Fanny’s dress was smoking. Flames roared, engulfing her screams. Then tears poured out, only to be scorched away. She knew the oven would be her grave. Submitting, Fanny flipped onto her back, letting death in. Her passing was eclipsed by the memory of Ruben’s soft lips saying, “I love you, Fanny.”
“Fanny? Fanny? Fanny!” called Ruben from the door. The bakeshop was warm with a strange smell. A gold stocking was hanging out of the closed bagel oven. Ruben pulled off the stocking and quickly hefted open the iron door. Inside was his love, Fanny. Ruben grabbed Fanny’s charred legs and pulled. Her legs came out easily into the frightened man’s hands. By using the hot pole the rest of Fanny came out in burnt pieces. Ruben wailed. He sat paralyzed in the corner of the baking room. He picked up the stocking off to the side of the burnt pile of remains and used it to wipe his tears.
“Stupid girl, stupid, stupid,” said Ruben’s father when he saw what was left of Fanny. Ruben was still weeping into the stocking.
Soon the whole neighborhood congregated at the bakeshop. Tears were shed about the loss of such a promising girl. Fanny’s father gathered her remains into an old flour bag and took them for burial.
Fanny’s spirit watched Ruben from above as he tried to save her from the oven. She loved him ferociously and wanted to be with him. If only she were still alive! He was wringing Fanny’s stocking with his beautiful hands and crying into it. Fanny flew into the stocking and sopped up Ruben’s tears.
After a few moments Fanny’s spirit heard the bakeshop door open. It was Ruben’s father. Then her parents came. Fanny wanted to talk to them, but she couldn’t. Her ghost was stuck in the stocking. Fanny remembered the stories about dybbuks her grandmother had told her. She said they were unhappy spirits bound to the living world. They felt their lives were cut short unfairly. Grandma’s dybbuks wandered around causing trouble. They were never satisfied. Fanny hoped she wasn’t a dybbuk and vowed never to make Ruben’s life difficult.
Ruben kept the stocking with him for several months. He carried it in his pocket with Fanny’s spirit bound to it. Fanny could feel Ruben from inside the pocket. His leg was warm and he smelled like yeast. She loved him deeply. Fanny wished she could come back to life, but she had only the stocking. Her body was somewhere else. At least as a dybbuk, she could still feel Ruben.
Then one day the stocking fell onto the bakery floor. Ruben was embarrassed about keeping the dead girl’s clothing. Before anyone noticed he stashed it in an empty baking soda can. He buried it in the storage room under an old bagel boiler.
Fanny was trapped. She smelled the warmth of bread baking from inside the baking soda can. She heard children’s voices. Years flowed by. Then Fanny the dybbuk heard the croaky voice of an old man. She knew it was her love, Ruben. After that, everything went quiet for some time.
A song buzzed against the soda can. Fanny tried to understand what the words, “Let It Be,” meant. Every morning there was more music. She began to look forward to the new songs that vibrated her metal can. Soon bouncy footsteps wandered into the storage room. Someone picked up the dybbuk can and pulled back the lid. Fanny could see! She saw a young man with wispy blond hair. He saw the antique gold silk stocking and took a liking to it. He tied it around his wrist into a soft bracelet.
Fanny looked around the shop from the man’s wrist. The only sign of Ruben was a graying photo of him as an old man. It was hanging crooked in the baking room. Fanny missed Ruben and his bagels. She would have cried real tears if she could. Meanwhile the blond man was forming doughy bagels. His fingers were thin and pale. Then Fanny went home with him.
“Dylan,” said a woman at the door. She had a tight smile and frizzy black hair.
“Hi Mom,” Dylan said back, giving her a small hug. Then he went up to his room. Fanny watched him play music on a spinning machine. He rolled up something like tea into a white stick and smoked it. The cigarette and the music excited her. Fanny had been in that soda can for a long time. Being with Dylan made her smile.
Fanny was there when Dylan sang along to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” She wished she could join in. He was wearing a shirt with lots of colors in a spiral. Fanny favored Dylan’s friend George, who was bearishly handsome. Dylan and George ate something that made them laugh.
“Do you see trails? I see trails,” said Dylan. George liked tickling Dylan’s wrist under the dybbuk stocking.
“Make love, not war,” said George. The boys kissed like there was nothing else that mattered. Next they made love. Fanny liked it very much. Soon Dylan had more love encounters with Rodger, John, and Howard. Dylan’s lovers were tender to the stocking and Fanny. She forgot all about Ruben and her former human life. Fanny wanted to stay on Dylan’s wrist forever.
But that was not to be. One morning in the bagel shop, Dylan was crying buttery tears. George was moving to San Francisco. Fanny tried to soothe Dylan from his wrist but nothing happened.
As if he could feel Fanny, Dylan tore off the dybbuk stocking. He balled it up and stuck it into a hole where a wood knot had once been in the ceiling of the baking room. Fanny was stuffed into the insulation.
Again she was trapped. Living inside the ceiling was as bad as the soda can. She could listen, but couldn’t see a thing. She heard Dylan for a while, like she had heard Ruben. And then everything went quiet again. Fanny the dybbuk dreamed of her lovers for many years.
Noise woke Fanny up. People were walking around the bakeshop. Churning sounds with buzzers filled the air. It got warm and then cold in the ceiling. A loud conversation was going on.
“So is everything here really gluten-free?” said a woman’s voice.
“Yes, everything. It’s for our daughter. And we don’t miss wheat at all. Not with so much to choose from,” said another female voice.
“Sorry for the mess, we’re redoing the place,” the second voice went on.
At first Fanny didn’t know what gluten meant. In her dybbuk mind she thought it might be a beast or perhaps another type of dybbuk. She was glad they didn’t know about her in the ceiling all this time. She listened all day and heard the word gluten many times. Fanny learned that it was a different kind of flour.
That night, louder noise came. The bakery shook and what remained of the stocking shifted in the ceiling. Fanny could see out! Below her was a man installing cabinets. His electric drill made Fanny’s dybbuk head ache. Finally he left, slamming the door hard. Most of the decaying stocking, with Fanny in it, fell out of the ceiling. It was like a small hairball.
From the floor, Fanny saw the morning light streaming through a crack under the bakery door. She heard a key turn in the lock. The door opened.
“Oh Emily, look at our new cabinets!” the woman announced to the girl with her. She continued, “It will be your job on Saturdays to wipe down the counters and put on all the lights.”
“Okay, Mom,” said the girl. She had a pointy nose and chestnut hair. Her black pants were clingy and tight. She wore a shirt with the word “Glee” on it. Fanny had no idea what glee meant.
The girl stepped on the hairball of stocking threads. Fanny jumped out of the hairball right into the girl. She cleaved to Emily. This was her first time in a body since she had been alive. Maybe she would be able to feel what Emily felt.
But Emily was boring. She was scared of boys and couldn’t even eat real bread. Fanny missed the taste of warm bagels, especially the chewy ones. Emily spent most of her time reading books. Fanny missed Ruben and his bagels. She missed Dylan and making love with George.
Fanny could persuade Emily to do some things. She pushed Emily to secretly buy a bagel and lox after school. Emily threw up and got a rash. Then Emily decided to eat nothing at all and her parents were very worried. They sent their daughter to doctors and psychiatrists, but they were no help at all.
A few weeks later, Emily’s family went to a Passover meal at Aunt Sylvia’s. The matzo balls were light and delicious, just like the ones Fanny’s mother had made long ago. And of course they had gluten. Fanny made Emily sneak into the kitchen to eat one. Just as Emily was about to bite into the matzo ball, the prying eyes of Sylvia saw Fanny. No one had ever seen her as a dybbuk before and Fanny was scared. She hid deep inside Emily for the rest of the meal.
Sylvia told her sister, Emily’s mother, about the dybbuk. Aunt Sylvia had heard of a rabbi who specialized in this kind of thing. She scribbled down his number and pushed it into her sister’s hand.
Emily’s mother called the next morning. The de-dybbuking fee was seven hundred and seventy seven dollars and seventy-seven cents. The rabbi sounded very confident and was willing to do it that evening at the bakery.
The bakery was closed and quiet when the rabbi knocked on the door. Emily’s parents led him to the kneading table, where they had put out some special gluten-free bagels.
“Please help yourself,” said Emily’s mother.
Sitting with his knees wide the rabbi bit into the bagel. He seemed surprised at the taste but said nothing.
Fanny wouldn’t let Emily eat her gluten-free bagel. She crawled up into the girl’s mouth to make her say, “I want a real one.” Just then Fanny saw the rabbi peering at her. She peered back at him from inside Emily. He had a dirty beard and sharp blue eyes. The rabbi was thick around the middle. Fanny heard him breathing. He smiled at Fanny and she saw his yellow teeth.
“Please shut off the lights,” said the rabbi abruptly. He got up and walked under the spot in the ceiling where Dylan had stuffed in the stocking long ago. There was a single strand of golden silk there, hanging down. The rabbi reached above his head and pulled out the strand. He swallowed it in one gulp.
“Fanny,” the rabbi said out loud as the thread went down his gullet. Magically he had extracted her name from what was left of the stocking. The dybbuk uncleaved from Emily.
“I’m better, Mommy,” said Emily, letting out a big sigh. Emily’s parents didn’t know if they should believe her. But their daughter was smiling. Perhaps this was what she needed, they thought.
“Thank you very much,” said Emily’s father as he shook the rabbi’s hand. Emily skipped out the door, not missing Fanny one bit.
Fanny was in the body of the rabbi. She went down his throat clinging onto the silk stocking thread. Below the rabbi’s stomach rumbled. A gluten-free bagel bite was there floating in liquid like a life raft. Using the thread, Fanny lowered herself onto the morsel. Stomach acid was dissolving its edges.
Then she heard music. Was that klezmer? Fanny climbed back up the silk thread into the esophagus. She tore through its membrane only to be confronted with a bracket of tight capillaries. The music was getting louder. She rushed forward toward the sweet melody. There were old growth veins blocking Fanny’s passage, but she fought her way through.
The old rabbi put a hand over his chest. There was a sharp pain. But he had felt that pain before. It would pass.
Inside a clearing opened. Fanny saw the old rabbi’s heart. It was flaming and snapping like a campfire. Some dybukks were lounging on ligaments around it. The dybbuks were old with papery skin. One man was reading a book and another was playing the fiddle. A woman was dancing.
“Oy,” said the fiddle player, as he set down the instrument. His eyes twinkled playfully at Fanny.
“Welcome,” said the old man, closing his book. The dancer produced four gold-rimmed wineglasses and filled them with something red.
The dybbuks raised their glasses and Fanny raised hers, too. “L’Chaim, to life!” they cheered. Fanny drank in the sweet red spirit and warmed herself against the rabbi’s heart. Then she asked the old ones, “Is this the end?”
Photography by Toni Holtzman. Toni lives in Gaylord, Michigan, where she works as a hospice R.N. by day, and often night. She loves to travel, and recently returned from visits to Rome, Greece, and Israel.
All Special Issue photos are © 2016, Toni Holtzman