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Osnat went back to talk to the dybbuk again. Usually she liked walking up from the subway station, so close to the pulsating holiness of 770. Different though Osnat’s own traditions were, the pull of the Lubavitch synagogue was impossible to ignore. But this time, her shift at the hospital had brought her to Kingston Avenue not long after the schools finished for the day. She turned up the volume on her Walkman to drown them out, but that didn’t hide the kids turning to stare at her, or the demons writhing around them, invisible to most. She’d been taking cases in Crown Heights for long enough that she should be old news by now, but it seemed the students hadn’t received the memo.
“Too young to have learned enough Qaboloh…”
Osnat jammed the headphones tighter against her ears. Ruaḥ HaQodesh and impeccable hearing were a terrible combination. Sometimes she wasn’t even sure whether she was hearing with physical ears or spiritual ones. Either way, they were just kids.
“And a girl. It’s ossur.”
“Bet she’s a fake.”
Just kids. Osnat passed a hand over her mouth and the kid stopped talking, face bright red. The child’s right-hand demons reared up, but Osnat held firm. She’d seen worse. “It’ll come back after you’ve had some time to think,” she said, and turned down President Street.
A garbage bag filled with donated clothing was propped against the Steins’ front door; Osnat picked it up and held it behind her back before she knocked.
“Thank you for visiting again, Dr. Rodriguez.” Bleary-eyed, Chaya Mushke opened the door without meeting Osnat’s gentle gaze. Her face was scrunched like discarded foil, although even her demons of despair were tamed with good deeds done sincerely. “Like I said, she’s the same.”
Osnat shoved the bag next to the door, glad her young client was distracted. High school and siblings were enough responsibility without your mother—single mother, at that—being possessed by a malevolent spirit. The poor girl didn’t need the added embarrassment of receiving well-meant tzedaka in front of an audience. “Let’s see if her visitor has anything to say now.”
Mrs. Stein lay rigid on her bed, face locked in a pained expression. The woman was dressed modestly in a nightgown and tucked tightly into her sheets. Only the rise and fall of her chest differentiated her from whatever corpse the dybbuk had recently vacated.
Osnat settled a new candle into the tarnished stick on the dresser and lit it, resting her elbow carefully to minimize her hands’ shakiness. They always trembled in the late afternoon, as the effects of fasting kicked in—one of the reasons she’d opted for physician training instead of surgical. “In Your light, we see light,” she quoted Tehillim. The dybbuk shuddered inside Mrs. Stein.
“Tell me about it,” Osnat coaxed. Sure, she could force the dybbuk out with the right Name, but that risked the host’s life to a degree Osnat found unacceptable. This one, however, was quiet. Usually they couldn’t wait to spew whatever poison had tortured and twisted their souls before death. Unless… she tried Hebrew. Spanish, unlikely though it might be. And finally, hesitant Yiddish, her weakest language. Osnat braced, waiting for the dybbuk to laugh at her—wouldn’t be the first time—but there was no response. “I’ve got time.” She pressed a palm to Mrs. Stein’s clammy forehead.
Nothing. After an hour of reciting Tehillim by Mrs. Stein’s side, Osnat slipped out of the room. She shook her head when Chaya Mushke looked at her hopefully.
“They’re a stubborn one,” Osnat said. “May I ask some more questions?” When Chaya Mushke nodded, Osnat continued, “You said your mother hasn’t been to the cemetery for a while.” No need to repeat the obvious; the first soul Osnat had ruled out was Mr. Stein’s. “Is there anyone in the community who passed away recently? Someone who might have had some kind of relationship with her? A friend, a mashpia… anyone?”
Chaya Mushke was already shaking her head when a pair of enormous brown eyes—darker than Osnat’s—peered out from behind her. “Shmueli, don’t distract Dr. Rodriguez,” Chaya Mushke said, even as Osnat waved discreetly.
“It’s okay. You must be worried about your mommy,” Osnat smiled down at Shmueli. Encouraged, he wriggled out from behind his sister, still silent. He couldn’t have been much older than seven, and he was Chaya Mushke in miniature. To his sister, Osnat said, “If you’re not sure, I’ll pay the Chevra Kadisha a call.”
“I wanna go,” Shmueli said.
Chaya Mushke clicked her tongue. “It’s no place for a kid.”
Osnat considered Shmueli’s crestfallen expression, then the dark circles under Chaya Mushke’s eyes. The younger siblings would still be at home, but they were too little to ask painful questions. “I won’t be at the mortuary, just talking to the coordinator at her home. I’d be happy to take him.”
In a flash, Shmueli was hovering behind Osnat.
“Thank you, it’s a help,” Chaya Mushke said.
Having Shmueli with her made her feel conspicuous. They were a mismatched pair: a rail-thin brown woman with hair that looked sun-kissed even though it wasn’t, and a pale freckled kid. People might assume she was his nanny if he weren’t so obviously dressed in second-hand clothes. In that respect, at least, they matched; Osnat’s ankle-length corduroy skirt and green long-sleeved tee were as worn as Shmueli’s shirt and pants.
There were still kids out, talking on the street, sunning themselves on the steps of their brownstones. At least the ones from earlier had disappeared. Even so, Osnat’s free hand closed longingly around her Walkman.
“Heard she’s a giores,” one teenager stage-whispered to another.
“No, it was her mother who converted.”
“My sister said it was her father.”
“What if she’s a sh—”
Tiny Shmueli interrupted, bounding ahead. Gone was the shy boy Osnat had met; he stood with his hands on his hips and yelled. “You shaaa with that loshon hora, she’s a tzadeykes. And you should love the ger no matter what. Ahavas Yisroel.” High-pitched and earnest as he was, the teens giggled; at least that stopped them talking.
Osnat smiled. “Thank you, Shmueli, that was very brave of you.”
He shrugged off the compliment. “Chaya Mushke says you have to tell people when they’re doing the wrong thing.”
“Chaya Mushke’s a good big sister, huh.”
Shmueli nodded vigorously. “The best. I can say that because she’s my only big sister, but she’d be the best anyway. You’re gonna fix our mommy, right? Chaya Mushke said you’re a doctor and a tzadeykes.”
Osnat’s heart squeezed in an unfamiliar way. She wasn’t used to kids, not one on one like this. Most of the kids she encountered were patients, there with at least one parent. “I’m going to do all I can.”
Shmueli compounded the kindness by pointing to Osnat’s Walkman, still tight in her fist. “Miami Boys’ Choir?” he asked. This kid knew how to change the subject to defuse tension; Osnat was impressed. “They’re my favorite group. Chaya Mushke says I sing ‘Od Yishoma’ as good as they do.”
She tucked it into her bag, on top of her scrubs. “Not quite… it’s Ladino music. Prayers, mostly.”
“Is that Spanish davening? Can I listen?”
Their destination interrupted what would’ve been a long explanation; she strode up the path and knocked on the door. A clear voice sang out, “Who is it?”
“Osnat Rodriguez.” A pause. “And Shmueli Stein.”
Shmueli grinned as the door swung open, revealing a short, rounded woman with strong-looking hands. A silver-threaded navy scarf covered her hair, emphasizing warm blue eyes. She didn’t look like the stereotypical funeral director; probably because she wasn’t. She pulled Osnat inside by the elbow said, “Osnat, taken up babysitting in your spare time? I didn’t know you had any.”
“I’m her helper! We’re here on important business.” Shmueli held himself tall, but he couldn’t hide the quiver in his voice.
Osnat smiled down at him. “You want to say hi to Mrs. Perlman first?”
“Bless his heart, don’t worry. Come in. I have cookies. You want a coffee, Osnat?”
“Thanks Dina, but I’m still fasting.” Osnat followed her into the kitchen, Shmueli trailing behind.
Shmueli’s eyes widened as he clambered onto a chair. “Do you fast every day? You really are a tzadeykes. Can you see all the demons?”
“All those sheidim, bet you wish they were shadayim, huh Osnat?” Dina murmured, poking Osnat in the ribs.
“What’re shadayim?” Shmueli asked. His hearing was evidently as sharp as Osnat’s.
Dimly aware of Dina’s grimace, Osnat put her face in her hands. Puns about demons and breasts were not something she was equipped to explain to a child.
Face aflame, Dina pushed the plate over. “Uhhh… have a cookie, Shmueli. Say a brocha.” To Osnat she mouthed, “Sorry.”
As Shmueli recited the blessing with exuberance, Osnat allowed herself to smile and wave a hand. Her orientation wasn’t a secret, and Dina’s level of comfort with it was a gift from Hashem. “I need some help with a dybbuk.”
“Raḥmona litzlan,” Dina said. “You’re sure it’s a woman? Or did you come here first because you like me better?”
“I’m never sure.” She smiled. “But of course I like you better.”
“How can you tell if a neshoma is a boy or a girl?” Shmueli asked.
“It’s… complicated. A feeling, more than anything else. It’s not something anyone can be sure about, except for HaQadosh Barukh Hu and the neshama themself.”
Dina busied herself with taking a long sip of coffee, but Osnat knew her friend was taking in every detail. Only when Shmueli reached for another cookie, expression still thoughtful, did Dina speak once more. “I don’t know Shmueli’s family very well, but I don’t think I’ve had anyone in their circles lately. Definitely no one who jumps out at me as troubled.” She drummed her short nails on the formica as she mentally went down the list. “There was one a couple of weeks back who I didn’t know. Single lady in her fifties, back from Australia a few months. Heart attack.” She whispered the cause of death. “No one to sit shiva for her, poor woman.”
Osnat was dimly aware of Shmueli’s earnest, high-pitched voice saying, “Hashem yishmoreinu.” Long moments passed as she sat in silence, eyes closed. Tried to untangle her own emotions about the tragedy from the whispers of truth, the ones from a holy source. The fear of dying alone, unloved, like this woman—that was demons’ murmuring, not proof she’d found Mrs. Stein’s dybbuk. With both hands she pushed: right for lovingkindness, left for strength, a symbolic rejection of the demons that hummed endlessly. A prayer; the words she needed were in Tehillim, like always, Guide me in Your truth, and the false voices receded, leaving the image of a woman. The loneliness yawned out of her like a void. It could be what held her soul here. “Batya, the daughter of Levi and Sara Fleisher.”
A dull thud coincided with the end of Osnat’s trance. She opened her eyes to see Dina’s coffee cup dropped on the table. Dark liquid streamed away and onto the tiles below. “Wish I could get used to that,” Dina said, jumping up for paper towels.
Shmueli’s jaw was wide. “Whoa.”
Osnat’s body shook more than usual, but then it always did after prophecy. She tried to smile at Shmueli without much success, so instead she swiped at a small rivulet with a square of paper towel as she stood. “I’m sorry about the mess, Dina.”
Dina swept Osnat into a tight hug. “Oh, leave it, you have more important things to do. It’s a privilege, honestly. Next time I’ll put my cup down.”
“Are we going to save my mother now?”
“With Hashem’s help.”
Hands trembling, Osnat lit the candles she’d placed in a ring around the bed. Chaya Mushke hovered by the door; she had absolutely forbidden Shmueli from attending, and instead left him in charge of the babies. Like Osnat, she recited Tehillim ceaselessly; her words hummed with genuine power.
Osnat took Mrs. Stein’s hand. “I know your name now, Batya Fleisher.”
The dybbuk shuddered within, but Osnat continued. “In the name of the Name, I ask you, Batya bat Levi v’Sara, to leave this body.”
Silent moments passed; they might as well have been endless. Osnat found herself holding her breath more than once. She steadied her breath with another chapter of Tehillim, uninterrupted by the dybbuk or Chaya Mushke. With more force, she repeated her request, then added, “This woman is innocent and you must face your judgment, as will we all.”
Mrs. Stein sat up in the bed and wrapped her arms around herself. Her body shook as the dybbuk took control.
Osnat stayed the course. “Why? What did she do to you?”
“She never hurt anyone.” Chaya Mushke couldn’t hear the dybbuk, but she was sobbing. “My mother is the kindest person I know.”
Osnat looked from mother to daughter. Slowly, she raised a hand, gesturing for Chaya Mushke to wait. If what Chaya Mushke said was true, this dybbuk wasn’t likely to be here for vengeance. Which meant—she put her other arm around Mrs. Stein’s shoulder. “I know how it hurts. But it’s time to let go.”
The dybbuk resumed the silent treatment. Chaya Mushke made an anguished, choking sound. Seconds later, Shmueli slipped into the room. Osnat caught a brief glance of his defiant expression before turning back to Mrs. Stein. His sister would have to deal with his unauthorized presence.
“Batya, please,” Osnat said, praying her suspicions were correct. “I know you love her, but this isn’t the way.”
“You have to understand, you’re hurting her. And her family.” Tears streamed down Osnat’s face; she exhaled and chose her next words carefully. “I know how it feels, I’ve been there.”
Chaya Mushke clutched her volume of Tehillim to her heart; her brown eyes alight with understanding. She nodded—a small gesture, but Osnat understood its significance. Shmueli squeezed his sister’s hand.
The atmosphere shifted as Batya set aside her pain to consider Osnat for the first time. This was dangerous, letting a dybbuk see her as a person. Batya might consider Osnat a better host. But connecting could be her only chance.
“You can help yourself. You’re here because you hurt, because she never understood how you felt. It’s so hard for us, Batya, I know that. But you’re also here because you love her, because your soul is drawn to the soul of your beloved.”
Osnat continued, “What if you forgive her for not understanding? Then you can stand before HaQadosh Barukh Hu and say you did that final mitzva. That you let go.” She paused to let the idea germinate.
“Yes, you can still love her, and let go, and have faith you’ll be together, one day.” Osnat took Mrs. Stein’s hands in hers. “I won’t start until you’re ready.”
There was a long pause.
Usually Osnat didn’t watch this part. It was messy, and she had to conserve her strength for the host, who would inevitably need her other skillset once the dybbuk was exorcised.
But Batya wasn’t a dybbuk anymore. She had shifted her purpose, from selfish to selfless, from negative to positive. She was an ibbur now. As Osnat spoke the prayers, Batya flowed out of her beloved like water, so gently that it wasn’t an exorcism, only a farewell. Brief, in the lifespan of pure souls like these. She floated close to Mrs. Stein, taking one last look.
The word was a whispered question, halfway between this world and the next.
Osnat had no precedent for a spirit asking anything about her. She scrambled for words.
Still a question, but before Osnat could answer, small arms wrapped around her legs. Her Walkman jammed uncomfortably against her hip, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Shmueli.
“I… I feel that way sometimes, but I’m not.” She patted Shmueli’s head, and thought of Dina’s wry friendship. “I’m good.”
But before Osnat could ask whether Batya meant stay good, or stay in Crown Heights, or something else entirely, the spirit departed.