| Family Tempo |

Case in Point 

How could Tzip get engaged to the rav’s son?


ery few people were surprised when Tzip Helbach left school, and fewer still when she began working at a neon-lit 24-hour sandwich shop, but the neighborhood of Audley kept on talking about it, and would  continue to do so until someone gave them something more scandalous to chew. Which Tzip did five years later, by getting engaged to the rav’s son.

Many theories circulated, none of which were complimentary to Tzip. The girl had dingy black hair that hung around her waxy face. Her posture was dismal, her attitude was worse, and her clothing could charitably be described as “weird.” She had potential, the local women agreed, shaking their heads over the local dry cleaner’s wayward child. Her older sisters had been good-looking, classically beautiful, and then there was Tzip, looking like she’d snuck onto the planet illegally. She rarely made eye contact, and when she did, they wished she hadn’t: It was like getting your soul X-rayed by a malevolent technician.

There was something wrong about that girl.

And there was nothing wrong with the rav’s son! Asher Eitan Stern was a young man who did everything by the book, going from one right school to the next, never causing a ripple except for the time when he made a siyum haShas on his own schedule. The Golden Son of Audley was destined for greatness. He couldn’t marry just anyone; he’d have to marry someone special. One of the town’s normal daughters, for example.

The women of Audley waited to hear of a gently broken-off agreement, a kind and neutral statement from the rav that blamed no one and absolved all parties. They followed the news in an exhilarated, insatiable mass, like college football fans (except that they were interesting and intelligent), waiting for things to normalize, as things do.

Instead, things got weirder.

Rebbetzin Stern took Tzip to get a wig, and what a wig! Oh, the women of Audley wouldn’t speak lashon hara, no, but they could confirm that no one in the Stern household had possessed such a wig before or since, not them, no sir.  And when Mrs. Chaya Liba Blumenthal saw them buying this wig — with her own eyes she saw this, as she stood on the sidewalk and peered into the sheitel store, saw it without a shadow of a doubt! — did Rebbetzin Stern blush? Did she look down? No, she did not! The First Lady of Audley wrapped an arm around Tzip and drew her close, beaming back at Mrs. Blumenthal like she was ushering the daughter of a rebbe or a millionaire!

And Tzip, wrapped in this embrace, wearing high laced boots and an oversized black shirtdress, glowered at Mrs. Blumenthal with a force field that made Mrs. B. step backward, stumble, and drop her bag, ruining two dozen eggs and the pink suede shoes upon which they exploded. Chaya Liba Blumenthal subsequently developed an undiagnosable rash that lasted three weeks, almost certainly from the acid-wash of that stare.

There was something unnatural about a girl who could win a staring contest with the Mona Lisa. That’s what the women of Audley would tell you. If they lived in the times of Sanhedrin, something could have been done. That girl was a… was a….

The population of Audley may have thought that Tzip didn’t know what they said about her, but Tzip just never cared. Much.

Tzip was a person who made simple calculations within life’s chaos. Sandwiches, for example: A hungry person plus a sandwich equals a full person. Hunger is a puzzle with a solution more beautiful than its mystique.

People who said they wanted tuna didn’t mean that they really wanted cream cheese and that you should have somehow figured that out by their tone. In other words, the sandwich shop was the opposite of Audley. A sandwich will never let any creature down.

Plus, there were dozens left at the end of the day, and Tzip knew dozens who wanted them. And those fools said she had no friends.

Tzip stood in her yard, tossing bits of old sandwiches to the birds. The entire color spectrum shimmered in the dusk of their wings. Society says that crows and ravens are ugly annoyances, but society never looks closely.

“Hello, beautiful,” Tzip said. She’d been doing this for so long that she could recognize several specific crows. “Here, Quoth. For you, Grip. Good boy, Edgar. Off you go now! That’s enough of that. Don’t be a piggy, Lenore.”

It was the same lines she said every day, because corvids are so, so smart. They could learn what these phrases mean.

After just one week, the birds had begun waiting for her at twilight, filling the trees abutting her yard. Her sunless audience grew nightly. After two months, they started bringing her shiny gifts. Tzip now owned a box full of gears, coins, quartz pebbles, and one safety pin. When they brought her the diamond earring that Mrs. Blumenthal had lost on Main Street, Tzip enlisted her mother to return it, so the women wouldn’t say that Tzip had stolen it deliberately. They ended up saying that anyway.

Now Tzip had so many treasures she needed a bigger box. In her heart of hearts, she liked these gifts more than she liked the ring from her chassan, loved them with the sincerity of their giving. The ring failed to give her validity — the neighborhood seemed to reject her now more than ever. But Tzip smiled at pretty junk that glittered in the dark.

Five yards from Tzip, Mrs. Debra Helbach crouched near an open window, listening to a one-sided conversation while the worry in the pit of her stomach yawned. Her strange, strange daughter carpeted the yard in repulsive black birds and talked to them like the friends she never had.

The Sterns claimed to know Tzip’s whole history, claimed to accept her as she was. But they couldn’t know the wrongness of the girl without seeing this unholy communion. If they did see the black-haired girl who grinned and laughed as crows lined her arms, things would go south.

And for Tzip, having already fallen so far, going south would involve drilling past rock bottom and hitting an underworld.

The neighborhood of Audley may have registered no shock at Tzip’s job, but had they known her hours, brows would have risen. Certainly, those of Mrs. Siegelman and Mrs. Epstein went north on the morning they saw Tzip doing that strange, unnatural thing that no normal girl could or would do. If not for the hour and the fact that the Siegelmans and Epsteins live on Gravesend Way, the quiet street across from the cemetery, more foreheads would have pleated themselves down over noses like awnings.

Why was Tzip even walking on Gravesend, when there were at least four other ways she could have gotten to work? Most people didn’t walk along that high black fence if they had an alternate route. But Tzip looked positively jaunty as she strode, or as jaunty as a poor-postured person could look in the asymmetrical, handkerchief-hemmed tunic that, for reasons known only to herself, she was wearing that day.

Sara Dina Epstein, who had newborn twins and therefore every reason in the world to be awake and looking out the window at 5:30 a.m., saw moving shadows glide across the still-dark sky. Tzip, clearly visible against the waking horizon, looked up. She seemed unbothered at whatever was soaring. Sara Dina thought she saw the dark spots gathering, thought that the ominous smudges were filling the spiked branches impaling the sky through the cemetery gates.

Tzip looked over her shoulder and around the sleeping street. From behind sheer drapes, Esther Leah Siegelman, RN, just back from the night shift at the hospital, looked back. One story above, in a dark room, Sara Dina Epstein watched.

But Tzip saw no one. She raised her arms high and straightened her back for once.

And the women saw Tzip levitate an inch off the ground.

Hem billowing around her ankles, the girl was lifted on a breath of summer breeze. Just feet behind her, black shadows coalesced into a haze, which curled and swirled behind her. Without moving a limb, Tzip glided down the sloping hill of Gravesend and around the corner onto Grosvenor Street. There, one Ms. Rina Abdurashvili cracked her front door open, saw a woman in black sailplaning toward her with dark clouds of birds coiling in her wake, and shut her door closed again. Let her babysitting job wait. Her father had been right; leaving the house at this hour was unsafe. Why had she taken a job that required walking through the witching hour, anyway?

Tzip may have thought that the world was asleep, but she had been seen. Three women saw Tzip fly. That girl was a… was a….

That girl left the sandwich store at 8 p.m. that day, an hour that the town women agreed no normal girl would be walking alone. They later came to a consensus that Tzip had been asking for it, that trouble sticks to her like wet leaves on boots. Mrs. Friedlander was driving past and stopped at a red light, and Mrs. Kohn-Schwartz was across the six-lane boulevard at the bus stop. Mrs. Eisner was two doors down at the glass-fronted manicure place. Elderly Mrs. Savitzky was in her apartment over the sandwich store, and all four women saw the event firsthand. Plus, there was camera coverage, which went viral, not that any of Audley’s fine women would watch such a thing online! But what happened with that girl is a verifiable fact. That’s what these witnesses would want you to know.

She left that store at eight (“Like a fool!”) and started walking to the bus stop. And a man came staggering at her from the bus shelter; a short, swerving tramp from who-knows-where came over and said, “Gimme your wallet.”

Tzip just stood there, with a face that was blank for once instead of glaring. If she was a normal girl, the women would say she was shocked. The two of them — Tzip and the tramp — looked like a pair of parentheses, and there was indeed a fully formed, off-the-plot thought between them.

He was just about ten feet from her, stepping closer. “Give. Give. Give me your. Money!” he said. And that girl, the girl made out of iron and darkness, trembled. All four women saw it.

She shivered, and her eyes went big instead of mean and squinty, and her mouth quivered a little, and Mrs. Eisner thought that if Tzip could have behaved like this before they kicked her out of school, it might have done her some good.

That man took one more step toward her, and suddenly there was a shout. The homeless man who sat on a chair by the door of the grocery — it took several retellings before anyone was able to recall his name, Akiva  came hustling over. He was using a cane in each hand, but he stumbled as fast as he could, and he hollered. None of the women had heard his voice before, gritty and hoarse, as he yelled, “Ayo! Git! Git! Git away frim Sammitch Girl!”

Hearing the noise, Shopping Cart Judy, who lived behind the library, rounded the corner, and she did know how to run. To watch it, the women thought Judy was planning to flatten the tramp with her cart.

Both of Tzip’s defenders were pretty loud. Itta from the pizza store — you know, Itta with the big, fake flower on her caftan — heard from a block and a half away, and hobbled over, robe flapping, screaming, “Don’t worry, Tzip! We’re coming!”

Tzip and the mugger stood there, in an orange puddle of light from the buzzing streetlamp, as one, two, three — a total of seven homeless hobos showed up, screaming, “Get away! Get away from the Sandwich Girl!”

Those vagabonds made a raggedy circle around the two of them, shivering Tzip and staggering felon, waving shopping bags and canes and Akiva’s folding chair. But the guy didn’t stop. He grinned a grin that was several degrees south of toothsome, reached into his rags and pulled out a stick, and the stick unfolded into a knife. Mrs. Friedlander thought that he might have been a malicious underemployed garden gnome of a human, but she couldn’t deny that he came prepared. Which is more than she could ever say about Tzip when she was a student, not that she held a grudge.

The homeless people didn’t run away, but the yelling got quieter.

All four of the women watching from afar had called the police, and they thought that with all the taxes Audley paid, the cops would have shown up by then. It felt to them like hours that Tzip and the mugger and all the poor people were there, but it was only minutes. Mrs. Friedlander was still at the same red light. (Though it might have changed a few times. No one was behind her, so she might not have noticed.)

The demented man turned inside the frozen circle, laughing and spitting and daring anyone to come closer, his knife shining like a shard of light in your eye. Tzip wasn’t the only one shaking by then. It was a nightmare kumzitz; instead of singing together, everyone in the swaying circle was in the running to be crowned the craziest.

And that’s when it happened. The wild, unbelievable thing that the women of Audley have talked about and will keep on talking about until someone gives them something more scandalous to chew. (Which, frankly, doesn’t seem possible.)

Mrs. Savitzky later said it looked like a storm cloud, and Mrs. Eisner said it was like a smoke bomb, but neither one was exactly right. What it was was black birds, more than they’d ever seen in their lives.

They came in a swarm — a murder of crows — and they landed on phone wires, on the bus shelter, on awnings. They covered the sidewalk, and they landed on Tzip’s arms and head.

In one movement, the birds opened shining black beaks and showed throats made of raw red meat, and they screeched at the mugger. It was a scream that made fingers cold and hair turn white, and those birds kept screaming and screaming.

Tzip stood with her black hair blowing and the birds covering her, two arms raised like a mad orchestra conductor, and instead of shivering, she smiled a funny little smile that the women of Audley had never, ever seen before.

At this point, a police car drove up, and two policemen started edging to the circle — though Mrs. Eisner thought they looked pretty scared, and not of the robber. So it’s not just Judy and Itta and Mrs. Savitzky and Mrs. Eisner who witnessed this event. The police saw it, too, and the security cameras recorded with sound.

The birds stopped cawing all at once. The ones on Tzip’s arms turned their heads sideways.

And the black birds spoke to the man.

Yes, in human English. They spoke in Tzip’s voice. They said:

“That’s enough of that.”

“Off you go, now.”

“Don’t be a piggy.”

“Bye, Poe-Poe.”

And the man with the knife and almost no teeth, the man with more tattoos than fingernails — he shrieked. The women heard him over the birds. Mrs. Kohn-Schwartz heard it across six lanes. Mrs. Savitsky says she still hears it in her dreams. Mrs. Eisner just swallows and nods when asked, so all of Audley knows that it’s true.

Tzip, in her cloak of crows, threw her head back and laughed. That man screamed and ducked between Akiva from the grocery and Turnpike Joe (who has one foot shorter than the other and stands like an italic letter), and he ran. Birds boiled around his legs like black surf, and he stumbled and screamed.

That’s when the police got him.

(And can Mrs. Kohn-Schwartz just mention, forget all that “defund the police” nonsense, because those men did their jobs? Officer Caffrey might never be the same, after the way that bird landed on his shoulder and said, “Hello, beautiful!” Mrs. Kohn-Schwartz would take this opportunity to mention that Audley as a community must show the police some collective respect, maybe go over to the station with a thank-you note; that’s all that she’s trying to say.)

And then Tzip opened up the white shopping bag she was holding and gave these homeless friends of hers sandwiches. Mrs. Eisner says she gave some to the birds, too, but not one soul in Audley believes that.

And now you know why the women of Audley tell this story, warning every person in town. L’toeles. That the girl is a machsheifah.

“SO you basically formed a street gang by giving away day-old sandwiches?” Asher grinned at his kallah. “And they called you a witch because of that?”

“Never did a single thing they accused me of,” Tzip huffed. But she was too busy to be really upset.

“Bro, we not a gang,” Judy slurred into her soup. “We a functional community, is what we are. We got yo back.”

Gray Anita, who always wears a Superman cape, nodded. “Crusty bozo outta Bushwick pulled up on my homegirl, and we low-key did her a solid. If that ain’t community, man. If that just ain’t.” Anita trailed off, chewing at air. Then she shrugged and bit into her sandwich in lieu of finishing her thought.

“Anita, you’re a poet,” said Tzip, grinning into her pile of potatoes.

“Those crazy rumors. What a thing to say.” Asher shook his head in disbelief while chopping celery.

Are you a witch?” Judy seemed genuinely curious.

“I never hurt anyone,” Tzip grumbled. “I keep halachah.”

“I don’t even believe it about the birds. That can’t possibly be true.” Asher’s eyes were sparkling.

Tzip sighed with the air of someone who has explained the same thing 52 times in one week. “That’s not magic. Corvids have a syrinx, like parrots, so they can talk. They just only do it when they feel like it. When they know someone well.”

“The birds love you,” Itta nodded. “They’d kill for you, Tzip.”

“More like they’d kill for their meal ticket.” Tzip snickered. But inside, she acknowledged that the police had come right in time. Crows can recognize faces, can tell a friend from an enemy, and sometimes work as a team. And they are omnivores.

Asher couldn’t stop laughing. “You didn’t need magic to get my attention.” He looked around Tzip’s basement, stocked with day-old sandwiches and produce that had been two minutes from the dumpster.

Three months before, Asher had stopped by the sandwich shop before driving his mother to an early flight. They had parked in the empty lot as light bled into the horizon, and Asher watched as one, two, three — a total of 11 homeless hobos gathered in the fluorescent glow. The young woman in the store seemed to know the unknowable ones, the untouchables and invisibles that Asher himself had only recently started seeing. He found himself wondering where exactly he was. He knew, of course, that he was at a small mall at the edge of town, at a time when most stores were closed, but his senses where overwhelmed with a feeling of other, elsewhere, a place outside of time. Asher had stumbled upon neon-lit holiness, wedged between a pawn shop and the library. He had turned to his mother in the passenger seat, checking if she saw what he was seeing.

As they watched, Tzip came out of the shop and walked to the edge of the parking lot. An unnerving number of black birds alighted around the lot, and they turned their heads to watch Tzip move. Rats streaked as she approached a dumpster, but the girl didn’t break her stride. She stopped only four feet from the skip, and there, she spoke to the pile of trash bags slumped against the metal sides. “I was waiting for you,” she said. “I need your help. Come tell me what’s too salty today.” Before the Sterns’ eyes, a trash bag separated itself from the pile, unfolded into a person, and shuffled after Tzip into the store.

So Rebbetzin Stern had seen Tzip, too. More: She saw Asher seeing Tzip. That woman is no fool.

Now, in her basement, Tzip imagined the faces of Audley’s women when not just she, but a whole coven from her Eastern Dance class, performed the Beryozka glide at the wedding. It was a convincing illusion, even in the light, even at close range. Maybe she would tell her friends to wear long skirts, just to increase the deception.

Tzip smiled. It was a funny little smile that the women of Audley had rarely seen, a smile that turned her beautiful.

Asher wasn’t surprised to hear the rumors about Tzip. Who can see the world’s camouflaged exiles but another outcast? A person who spends years hearing that she is unwanted will become the protector of every unwanted thing. In embracing the shunned, the shunted, and even the monstrous, Tzip is defending the still, small voice that whispers, you also deserve to be loved.

Besides, Asher knows beneath his skin that Tzip does have magic to her. Look how she can take stale food and can make it divine; transform it into friends who would die for her.

Asher Stern was destined for greatness. The Golden Son of Audley couldn’t marry just anyone; he’d have to marry someone special. Tzip, for example.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 889)

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