By Jonathan DeCoteau
“Words are the only things that last forever”—Winston Churchill
Let’s say that this isn’t one of those “it’s all a dream” stories or “he’s really a ghost” stories or any of the other myriad clichéd stories Elihu Abramov dreamt of writing before the Nazis took him. Let’s just say the situation is simple, blood on skin simple, like Elihu’s death.
There is a dead man in a room, and he must choose a word. For eternity. Just one word. That word is him, and he is that word — and all that comes with it.
Why? Why does death take a pear-faced boy playing with oblong green marbles, prodding him into a cattle car, and not an old man hacking away his last toothless moments in a mite-ridden bed? Who knows? All that Elihu knew was that for his entire writerly life words were sacred, the living breath of The Torah, and that to be a word, to achieve utterance, was to be a step closer to God. Elihu thought himself honored to go to the afterlife of writers, to sit at the same desk as Hayim Nahman Bialik or the great master he’d studied overseas, Saul Bellow.
If the reader is willing to accept the premise that not everything makes sense or has a neat little resolution, like the lives of those who died, as Elihu did, during the darkest of days, then this overly painful and excessively awkward exercise in storytelling will go more smoothly.
If so, let us begin . . . If not, well, choose another word, just one word, in another story and keep reading.
A for AHAVA, Elihu’s first choice of word
Noun. Hebrew word for love
Oh, sure, at first Elihu asked the usual things any protagonist stuck in the confines of a poorly developed story — or poorly developed afterlife, for that matter — might ask. Am I dead? Are you God? Am I dreaming? How did you allow something so vicious to happen? And finally, just one word: Why?
But like most writers who transitioned — that’s our word for it, you see, whoever we are — Elihu eventually accepted his new reality. Sure, like Victor Hugo, he waved an angry fist and cursed us. And, like Edgar Allan Poe, he critiqued the absurdity of the premise and provided another. But like Homer, he eventually got cracking. He was handed a dictionary — a massive tome of every word ever uttered in any language — and got to work. As you can see from the above word, Elihu did not make it far.
Yet, ahava had its possibilities.
Ahava was the Jewish word for love. To Elihu, love embodied the actions of both receiving and giving. As an aspiring writer, Elihu thought he might wrap himself in this word for eternity like he might his wife Ziva’s black pool of hair.
After all, ahava was the word that described what life was like before the occupation. In a town near Kolo, Ziva and their young son, Kaleb, had tended a garden full of imported azaleas, while Elihu chased a song around by its tail, playing anything from the guitar to the timbrel as he sung to the lively boy. Now Elihu shook his dead head as he recalled his brief days in America, to which he’d always longed to return, to write space adventures for the silver screen. Instead, he’d chronicled and sung to his family the burgeoning stories of space and the other-worldly. And how joyfully his lyrics had been received by his wife and boy!
And so ahava seemed to hold so many possibilities: the embodiment of Elihu’s love for his wife and son, of his writerly dream, and of the concreteness of their love for him in return.
Yet, no sooner had that word hung on Elihu’s ruined lips than an image crept in of his wife speaking the very word to him: on that same day when the first Nazis came in, smiling, waving, asking for quarters as they introduced themselves to the town elders. Even in death, the bitter herb of their memory was still strong.
L for LAUGH, Elihu’s second choice of word
Noun. Motor movements of the mouth that indicate lively amusement
Thinking back upon his life and of his joy in playing with wife and child, Elihu was reminded of an English word that he had always loved: laughter.
Laughs were big, booming sounds that cascaded from lips, down chins and rolled past shoulders before crashing onto the elongated ground. Laughs could leap, vault, somersault, even circle in the air, poking everyone with the soft fingers of warmth, tickling them with their child-like touch, even in the unlikeliest of moments.
And so, Elihu leapt and bounded as laugh, becoming Kaleb’s first sound on this earth, then whirling in the moment in which Ziva handed him a red azalea, signifying her acceptance of his proposal to marry.
And the sound was sweet, like honey even, until the rest of history caught up with the word. Then Elihu became the hard edges of an Egyptian overlord’s laugh as he lashed the whip against the sun-scarred back of a Hebrew slave. He became the guttural bellowing of the kapo who split him from his wife and son. Elihu became the kapo’s laugh circling their upstretched shoulders as his wife headed to the bleeding machines of the factories, as he headed to the callous steel of the labor camps, and as his son joined with soot and ash in the great black chimneys of the death camps that lorded over the whispers of the ghetto Jews at night.
Even as Kaleb’s old rattle fell to the earth with his toddler-sized laugh, Elihu circled in the laugh of the treacherous kapo as that man grabbed his only son.
At last, Elihu said, “No, no more.”
“Laugh is still available,” we — whoever we are — said, “but you must realize that with every word you might choose comes every memory ever associated with that word. Such is the afterlife of writers: they exist only as their words.”
“No,” Elihu said, shaking his head in vehemence. “Laugh has too many negative associations.”
“Most words do.”
“Can’t I just have a happy memory of myself with my wife and child? I died so miserably, as did they. Can I not see them again, even once more?”
“Sorry,” we told him, “that’s not how eternity works. Would you like another word?”
Elihu nodded and then sighed. “It was a language few of the Nazis spoke.”
Words like warmth, catharsis, passion, peace and harmony suggested themselves, and Elihu wrapped himself in those words. But as the souls of writers invariably do, his looked at the words from all sides, and some sides were just plain ugly.
Warmth was the first thought of an accused witch before her skin tasted fire.
Passion might blur into sensations like obsession and even hate, with murderers screaming the word before they strangled their spouses, and with warriors screaming love or peace or even God before they set entire villages on fire.
To be God was to hear the prayers of endless petitioners Elihu was unable to help, including those trapped in the same concentration camps that claimed everyone he’d ever loved.
Elihu took the great eternal book and shoved it away.
“I’ll make a new word,” he said.
We shook our heads. “Every word of every language capable of utterance has already been spoken at least once in this universe alone.”
Elihu ran his fingers along his shaved scalp and shook his head. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Elihu looked carefully at the words piled up from other souls unwilling to own them. Sorrow, loss, grief, war, famine, holocaust and pain twisted and twirled in ghostly winds.
“What happens,” Elihu asked, “to the words that aren’t chosen?”
“People forget them,” we said, “and so they return to the earth below and circle like falling ash until they settle.”
“Like my son,” Elihu whispered.
We said nothing, for what could we say?
“So if I take a word like love, there’s no longer love below?” Elihu asked.
“No — it’s just that you become associated with that word more and others less.”
Elihu nodded. Memories of all those words not taken circled around his wasted body, and he wept for himself and for his people.
We — whoever we are — went up and touched his shoulder. “Perhaps the matter is simpler than you think. Perhaps you should choose whatever you think should be remembered.”
“To feel an eternity of grief or loss — I cannot take another second of either.”
“But if I don’t, how will anyone remember?”
“How you died?”
“How they should live.”
Elihu thought back to the moment of his death — so many skeletal hands, fingers and joints pushing until he fell and was trampled by a near weightless mass that nonetheless crushed his vertebrae and then his neck and finally his skull. He was watching as the death marchers treaded past him in steel rains, hoping, against all reason, to see that, among the living, moved his son.
At long last, once the memory soaked itself into his spiritual skin, Elihu raised his head and said, “I’m ready. I’ve chosen my word.”
S for Shoah, Elihu’s final choice
Noun. Literally, in Hebrew, catastrophe; now used, in English, in place of the Western term, Holocaust, to remember all of those who died in the great catastrophe
As his new word, Elihu floated around, keeping alive the memory of all those who had died of exhaustion, disease, bullet or fire. As floating letters, he whispered to disparate winds of his brother, Aaron, the athlete of the family, of his wife, Ziva, and of all the other Zivas that came before and after her, tracing all the way back to the roots of Israel and all the way forward into the distant future. It was a future in which he hoped his word would be spoken only as warning and as remembrance, among the living, long after the passing of his son, until the last generation.
And so, whenever anyone spoke Shoah upon Earth, for the briefest of seconds, the image of a man came to mind, not of a sub-human, not of a corpse or skeleton, but of a man with a wife and a child, so that his beating heart might be a warning to future generations, a song to the ashen slaughter of those who came before.
Through Elihu, Shoah was spoken with the reverence of the holiest priests of old, and descended, for just a moment, like a kiss, on the shoulders of Elihu’s wife and son and, in their last moments, on the cheeks and shoulders of all those slaughtered in the camps: a consolation, a commitment, and a curse.