A Chicken for your sins
I was five when Mrs. Ginsburg took me to the poultry market to do the kaparot ritual. It was the day before Yom Kippur, and as we hurried down the city sidewalk, the September wind unexpectedly cold and her grip on my wrist unforgiving, she explained that we were buying a chicken to atone for our sins. I had never heard a chicken could do that for you. But I did know about sins.
It’s a sin what she charges us, my father would shout, and my mother would reach across the table and touch his wrist, saying, Shush. She’ll hear you. And then what?
She lived downstairs, and the smells of her simmering onions and stewing cabbage and boiling fish filled our rooms like her lurking presence, waiting to catch us staining her stove or scratching her wood floors or letting her faucet drip. Anytime she wanted to, she could march up the stairs and throw us out on the street.
She could throw us out on the street, my mother would say if I wouldn’t stop jumping or singing or rolling my ball across the floor. In those days I had a recurring nightmare in which all my things were scattered across St. George Avenue, and I had to dodge four lanes of traffic to save my stuffed dog and my striped shirt.
I thought of that dream when I woke up that day — the day of the kaparot — to the nightmare of Mrs. Ginsburg bending over me. I was in the wrong bed, in a strange room.
“I’m here,” Mrs. Ginsburg said in her man voice. “It’s okay.” Which was ridiculous, since the very fact that she was there was what meant it wasn’t okay. “You don’t remember coming down? Kids can sleep through anything. I’ve been up since five.” She frowned at me, as if I had spoiled her sleep on purpose.
“I came down?”
“Your parents brought you.” She laughed, all pink gums and yellow teeth, pleased by my stupidity.
“Because of the baby?”
The gums and teeth disappeared behind pressed lips. She nodded.
The conversations had been going on for months, tense whispers they thought I couldn’t hear or understand. Not enough room. Not enough money. And what about when it cried?
She wouldn’t evict us because of a baby, my mother had argued. She’s not a monster.
I wouldn’t be so sure, my father had answered.
And now they had left me with her.
“How long do I have to stay?”
“Until your mother comes home, I suppose.”
“With the baby?”
Her lips moving over something too sour to swallow and too awful to spit out.
“God willing,” she finally said.
There was no word about the baby all through the awkward breakfast, Mrs. Ginsburg slurping her coffee on the other side of her newspaper while I nibbled my toast If I can make this piece of toast last fifty bites, no word through the endless morning, Mrs. Ginsburg dusting and vacuuming her already immaculate rooms while I drew a proper family with a mother and a father and only one child If I can draw this person this person this person without lifting my pencil and then stacked building blocks she said once belonged to her own children if I can pile all the blocks without them falling down, no word as I watched the traffic on St. George Avenue if I can hold my breath until I see a blue car a red car a black car a white car there will be no baby.
The call came during lunch. Mrs. Ginsburg looked hushed and grave, and then she held out the receiver.
“Talk to your father.”
He mumbled something about the baby and something about supper, and then Mrs. Ginsburg was hanging up the receiver and pulling me against the hard buttons on her dress. She smelled like baby powder and old meat.
“Your poor mother,” she said when she finally let me go. “You’ll have to be extra nice to her when she comes home.”
“With the baby?”
My words angered her. “Did you even listen to what your father said?” That’s when I understood: my prayers had been answered, and praying them had been a sin.
We went to the poultry market after lunch. Shivering, cackling chickens stared out of stacked wooden crates with frantic eyes. Feathers flew. It smelled bad. The soles of my sneakers stuck to the pavement, then pulled free with little kisses as Mrs. Ginsburg pulled me along, marching purposely in her square black shoes.
A man with a black beard held out a white chicken. His apron and glove were spattered with red. Mrs. Ginsburg fished a folded bill from her bag. Then she took the struggling bird, pinched its wings behind its back, and raised it over her head. Rotating the bird in slow circles, she read from the sheet the man held for her.
“This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this hen shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.”
She hadn’t said anything about my sins. She probably thought I was too young to have any. But I knew better. As I watched our landlady carry out her ritual, I whispered my own prayer, so soft beneath all the squawking and talking that no one but God could have heard me.
“I’m sorry about the baby.”
Mrs. Ginsburg gave the bird back to the man. He tucked it under his arm, and with one swift motion of his knife, drew a red stripe across its throat. Then he dropped the chicken head-first into a metal cone at his feet. The toes kicked and pedaled until the man wrapped them in his gloved fist. When he let go, the legs were still.
We carried the chicken home, still warm in its bag.
Mrs. Ginsburg said, “This will make a nice soup for your mother.”