All this week Kill Your Darlings is showcasing extracts from this year’s KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work at Varuna, the Writers House in the Blue Mountains, thanks to the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Lisa Emanuel’s The Covered Wife follows Sarah, a smart young lawyer living in Bondi. She meets Daniel, and falls for him quickly and deeply. He introduces her to a charismatic young rabbi and his wife, whose teachings reach into her soul. Months later, Daniel and Sarah exchange their modern Sydney lives for a community of true believers in the Blue Mountains, where every aspect of their being is structured around the ancient laws and traditions of Torah. But four years on, youthful enthusiasm has given way to fanaticism and repression. As the community prepares for an auspicious occasion, shocking events rock Sarah’s world and cause her to question everything – her faith, her marriage, and her future.
Cockatoos swoop off the eucalypts – their usual morning racket. Daniel is up. I know, without opening my eyes and raising my head to check. It’s been hours since I heard him shift on the mattress, or his breath, scratchy at the back of his throat, almost a snore.
I lie on my side, stiffly, beneath the covers; and still, except for the nail of my right index finger, which I run along the inside edge of my thumb, over and over. The nail is split and jagged; it cuts into skin scratched raw; makes sharp, stinging pain. But, I don’t stop. I don’t think I can.
I think I have been here, like this – still, but awake; quiet, but wound tight as a spring shoved into a box – since I lay down, just before midnight. But, I must have slept, slept then woken, shifted from blessed nothingness to this tense, trembling waiting.
Now, Yossi is here. He stands beside the bed, although I didn’t hear him come in. His breath crackles through his nose, plugged still from a lingering cold. He leans closer, and I feel it – a warm, wet whisper on my cheek. I brush the spot as if it is a mosquito, and he squeals, delighted. I open my eyes. What a sight rewards me. He beams at my awakening, shivers with anticipation. I could eat him up; such is the surge of love that swells inside me. The feeling is mutual. He beams at my awakening, trembles with anticipation. There is nothing so magnificent, I think, than to be the centre of his universe, the object of his devotion, and for a moment, I forget the rest. He waits. I shuffle over, lift the edge of the bed covers, and he clambers on, wriggling in beside me, placing his narrow face, his delicate features so close to mine that our noses almost touch. I smell last night’s frankfurters on his tongue.
‘Imma, can I tell you a secret?’
He cups his hand over my lobe, and speaks straight into my ear.
‘Imma, I love you so much. I love you to the moon and back one thousand million fifty eighty three times.’
He lowers his face to the sheet, and wipes his nose vigorously across it.
There is nothing so magnificent, I think, than to be the centre of his universe, the object of his devotion, and for a moment, I forget the rest.
‘Possum, I love you to the moon and back ten hundred million times.’
He frowns, and I see his brain working, calculating the distance of my love, and I can resist no longer, pull him close, squeeze him tight, kiss his cheek again and again, the softest kisses, my loosely puckered lips scarcely touching his skin. Angel kisses we call them. He submits momentarily, before thrusting me off, pushing himself upright, and rubbing at his cheek.
‘Ick! I only like giving kisses. I don’t like getting kisses.’
I look to the ceiling and wipe away tears.
‘I forgot,’ I say. ‘I’m very sorry.’
He regards me through narrowed eyes.
‘Imma,’ he says, finally, as if I am a dim child, ‘the blessing.’
We say it out loud, his words chasing mine.
‘Modeh anee lefanecha chai vekayam,
‘We’re thanking God for waking us up,’ I say. ‘We’re bringing Him into our day.’ If only it were that simple, I think.
He nods, as if it is obvious, and slides from the bed.
We pass Daniel on our way to the kitchen. He stands as usual in the far corner of the living room, in front of the small wooden side table, looking out through the window onto the lawn. He is shrouded by the loose folds of his prayer shawl. It cradles the back of his head, makes rolling hills of light and shade down his spine. Its knotted tassels tickle his shins. He is framed by first sunlight. It will be warming his face, as it did mine in the early days, when I too stood in that spot, my favourite patch of our cottage, when I too looked out on that view and felt the certainty of God’s hand in it.
He bows from the waist, over and over. I know his face without seeing it: eyes closed tightly below heavy eyebrows, forehead creased with yearning, pale thin lips moving quickly, murmuring the ancient devotions by rote. He lifts his long hands to the ceiling, and I see the leather straps of his tefillin winding tightly down his arm, around his hand and middle finger, starkly black against his lightly freckled skin. He arches back to gaze upwards, twists from side to side, then pounds his chest with his fist, slowly, repetitively, drumming the beat of his heart. He reaches forward to take his prayer book from the table top and buries his face in its pages.
In the early days I too stood in that spot, I too looked out on that view and felt the certainty of God’s hand in it.
‘I’m hungry.’ Yossi shifts in my arms and Daniel stiffens.
‘Shush.’ I press his cheek to my chest, and carry him quickly away.
Half an hour later, I wash up at the sink, Yossi playing between my legs. On the back lawn, the roos graze near the lemon tree.
I jump at his voice, spray soapy water down my dress.
‘Avital wants you there.’ He drags a chair from the table. ‘She insists that you come.’
I lower my hands into the water, and close my eyes.
‘I said you’ll be there soon.’
From the bottom, I retrieve Yossi’s cereal bowl, still caked with most of the Wheatbix I put out for him. It sticks, cement like, to the melamine.
‘Straight after breakfast.’
I press my belly into the edge of the bench until it hurts. Yossi digs his nail into the dip beside my ankle.
‘Get out from there,’ Daniel rages without warning, and I grab Yossi by his underarms and hoist him onto my chest. He burrows his face into my neck, and claws at my shoulders. His nose is wet against my skin. I lower my head, so we are cheek to cheek. His heart beats hard and fast through his onesie.
‘Perhaps it was for the best.’ Daniel speaks gently. ‘We grow the most when we are challenged.’
‘Sarah, I know you’re hurting.’
I straighten, and turn back to the window. I peel Yossi’s fingers off my shoulders, and prop him beside me on the bench. I crouch until our eyes meet, and smile reassuringly. I rub the frown from his brow with my fingertips.
‘Sarah.’ He taps the sole of his shoe on the linoleum.
I place my elbows on the bench and lean onto them. ‘Yes.’
‘It’s hard, I know.’
There are four roos by the lemon tree. As if he senses me watching, the largest lifts his head and looks towards the house. He startles when he sees me, and all of them freeze, as if this makes them invisible. Stupid animals, I think: afraid of everything, yet unable even to flee.
‘Perhaps it was for the best.’ Daniel speaks gently, and I almost turn towards him, before I catch myself. ‘We grow the most when we are challenged.’
I say nothing, and there is a long silence. I feel Yossi watching me, but I don’t dare look at him in case he speaks. Finally, Daniel clears his throat, scrapes back his chair, and leaves through the sliding door. We listen to his feet through the gravel, fading to silence.