NEA Literature Fellowships

Julie Orringer

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(2004 - Prose)

From the short story "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones"

All day I keep the Shabbos. This means I do not turn on a light or tear paper or write or bathe or cook or sew or do any of the thirty-nine kinds of work involved in building the Holy Temple. It is difficult to remember all the things one cannot do; as I sit in the tall grass, playing a clumsy round of duck-duck-goose with the little step-cousins, I am tempted to pull a grass blade and split it down its fibrous center, or weave a clover chain for one of the girls. But the Shabbos is all around us, in the quiet along the road and the sound of families in their yards, and I remember and remember all day. My cousin spends most of the day alone. I see her praying in a sunlit patch of yard, swaying back and forth as she reads from her tiny Siddur; then she lies in the grass and studies Torah. When she disappears into the house I follow her. She's closed herself into our closet again, the door wedged tight against intruders. I imagine her undoing this morning's work of repentance, learning new body-part names, new positions. When I whisper through the door for her to come out, she tells me to go away.

All day I'm not allowed to use the telephone to call my mother. I walk around and around the yard, waiting for the sun to dip toward the horizon. Aunt Malka watches me from the porch, looking worried, and then she calls me over.

"What's all this pacing?" she says.

"I'm keeping Shabbos," I say.

"You can keep it right here with me," she says, patting the step beside her.

I sit down. Before us the older children are trying to teach the younger ones how to do cartwheels. They fly in awkward arcs through the long grass.

"Your mother sounds much better," she says. "You'll be going home soon."

"Probably," I say.

"There's a lady I know who lives near you," she says. "I'll give you her number. She and some other women run a mikveh near your house, on Twenty-second and Third."

"What's a mikveh?"

"It's the ritual bath," she says. "It cleans us spiritually. All women go. Men, too. Your mother should go when she gets out of the hospital. You can go with her, just to watch. It's lovely. You'll see." One of the little boys runs up and tosses a smooth black pebble into Aunt Malka's lap, then runs away, laughing. "We're commanded to go after childbirth," she says.

"Commanded by who?"

"By Hashem," she says, turning the pebble in her fingers. Through its center runs a translucent white ribbon of quartz.

"Even if the baby dies?" I ask her. "Do you have to go then?"

"Yes," she says. "Especially then. It's very important and beautiful. The bath is very clean, and this particular one is tiled all in pink. The women will help your mother undress and brush her hair, so the water will touch every part of her. Then she'll step down into the bath - it's very deep and large, like a Jacuzzi - until she's completely covered. They'll tell her what B'rachot to say. Then she'll be clean."

"Everyone's supposed to do this?" I ask her.

"We're commanded to," she says. "Adults, anyway. For women, it's every month unless we're pregnant. When I'm here I do it right in the lake. There's a woman who had a special shed built on her property, and that's where we go in."

"What if my mother doesn't want to go?" I ask.

"If you tell her how important it is, I'm sure she'll go," she says, and hands me the black pebble. I rub it with my thumb, tracing the quartz.

My aunt gathers the little step-cousins for a walk down the lake road, smoothing their hair, retrieving their lost shoes, securing their kippot with metal clips. I imagine her walking into the lake, her dark curls spreading out behind her, and my skin prickles cold in the heat. When she invites me to come along on the walk, I tell her I will stay home. I lie down in the grass and watch her start off down the road, the little step-cousins circling her like honeybees.

Julie Orringer's short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf), was a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Northern California Book Award. Orringer is a graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she was a Truman Capote Fellow in the Stegner Program at Stanford. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Best New American Voices, and The Best American Non-Required Reading. She is working on a novel set in Budapest and Paris in the late 1930's.

Author's Statement

What an honor it was to receive the NEA fellowship - and what an inestimable relief! Thanks to the grant, I took a hiatus from university teaching and focused on the novel I've been working on since 2002. It was such a pleasure to wake up every morning knowing that the day could be devoted to writing. The grant was an enormous help with research needs, too; last spring I traveled to Budapest and Paris to address questions that had arisen as I wrote the novel's first draft. In Budapest I conducted research at the National Library and at the archives of the Jewish Museum, where I had access to photographs, government documents, and letters pertaining to the Hungarian Labor Service; in Paris I conducted research at the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, where I studied bound volumes of Parisian newspapers from the late 1930's and early 1940's. I visited the neighborhoods, schools, and synagogues where the novel's Parisian sections are set; I studied photographs, documents, and artifacts at the Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais. Now, thanks to the fellowship, I've finished a draft of the novel and am in the process of revising it. As I continue the work, I feel the deepest gratitude for the time and freedom the NEA Fellowship gave me. Thanks to that long, sustained block of creative time, I've come closer to understanding the novel as a whole, rather than as a collection of disparate chapters; I've identified thematic connections between the novel's three intertwined storylines, and arranged the novel's sections to reflect not only the historical events that give the novel its shape, but also the character relationships that constitute its heart. It's a terrifying and difficult thing to write any novel, and a first novel especially - but the NEA grant gave me the encouragement and the resources to make it happen.