Sister Salamander and the Dybbuk

Antique vase full of flowers

When we discovered the blood on Shira’s bed, we knew she had been possessed by a dybbuk. Grandma Mira used to tell us stories about the dybbuk—how it was a ghost that left a trail of blood on your bed, how it entered your body through the tips of your fingers or toes, how it made you convulse and foam at the mouth, how it enlarged your pupils to the size of matzah balls. The dybbuk’s name came from the word for glue—it stuck to you, clung to you, and never let go. It stayed inside of you until it completed its task on earth, and then it dissolved to the spirit world, left only darkening blood under your nails. That morning, we saw Shira whispering with Mom, the bloody sheet spinning in the laundry machine. They looked worried, huddled in their tents of hair. They left in a hurry, without telling us where they were going, and returned with a bag from the pharmacy. Shira wouldn’t show us what was inside.

“Maybe they bought anti-possession medication,” Yorai said.

“It could be Grandma Mira’s spirit,” I said.

Before Grandma Mira died, she went to the Ministry of Interior and legally changed her name, so we weren’t sure what to put on the grave’s headstone. She changed it to Salam Andra because of her belief in the magical properties of salamanders. No one called her that except for her hairdresser. The salamander, she told us, was created out of a fire that burned for seven years, but it only appeared after a rainstorm. It looked like a lizard with leopard-star dots on its back. Its body was cold as ice and extinguished any flame that it touched. Grandma told us that she survived the flames of Auschwitz because she was a magical salamander.

Grandma Mira would always talk about her invisible sister. She used to invent strange stories about her. Her sister was a nun who lived in a remote monastery in the hills. She prayed every day and forgot she was Jewish. She would water the cacti and sip tea in the garden every day. Above her bed was a woven tapestry of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus and a small wooden cross. Grandma Mira said that she had gotten into a fight with her sister, and they hadn’t spoken in a long time. Grandma told us she still came to the monastery to check up on her little sister. She would stay hidden, invisible as a salamander, and watch over her. Maybe one day, she said, she would let herself be seen.

At the age of eighty-three, Grandma got a flame tattooed on her lower back. She pasted stickers in the shape of fires all over the house, on our car and bicycles, on the door by the mezuza. She refused to eat anything cold. She drank only hot chamomile tea. Sometimes, she even burned her tongue, but she didn’t admit it. She insisted we always keep a light on in the kitchen since she was always getting hungry late at night. Once, without the light, she bumped into the kitchen table, broke a vase, and woke the entire house up.

“Maybe it’s because you’re invisible,” Dad muttered. “That vase couldn’t see you coming.”

Grandma Mira had picked out Shira’s name. She knew everything about symbols and astrology and the meaning of names. Shira was the word for song. Grandma Mira hoped that her granddaughter would become a famous opera singer who wore fur-lined robes, diamond necklaces, and tiaras. She wanted her to sell out auditoriums and theater halls. However, the only place Shira sang was in the shower, to an audience of one, with the spouting water drowning out most of her performance.

Shira was at the kitchen table braiding necklaces made of red and orange string. That was another sign she was possessed by Grandma. Grandma would weave ugly scarves and sweaters for us, using only fire colors. We hated wearing them. They were scratchy and left red strings in your armpits. Luckily, we lived in the Middle East and hardly wore winter clothing. Yorai came up to Shira with his hands behind his back, like a scientist observing an experiment.

“How does it feel?” my brother asked. “Can you describe it to me?”

“It hurts,” Shira said.

“Can you walk on burning hot coals, now?” I asked.

“Every woman can do that,” Mom said. “Your sister is a woman now.”

Grandma Mira loved telling us about the dybbuk. She told us that the dybbuk could cause the body to change and swell, to disfigure and melt. We watched Shira for any signs of change but couldn’t detect anything noticeable, until she stepped out of the shower once with a towel wrapped around her body. We saw that her chest was larger than it had been before. Her breasts pressed against the towel were more noticeable, like Mom’s. The dybbuk also affected the tongue and mouth, so we listened for any changes to her voice. Perhaps the hidden musical talent Grandma had foreseen would bubble up to the surface and reveal itself. We pressed our ears to the bathroom door while Shira showered, listening for a hint of musicality. Her voice didn’t seem to have improved much.

Grandma told us about different ways of exorcising a dybbuk. Traditionally, the best way to exorcise a dybbuk was through song. Yorai argued that the Ghostbusters movies never had any singing in them; they had used vacuum cleaners that sucked up spirits. If you won a singing contest against the dybbuk, Grandma Mira said, it would leave forever. No need to buy a vacuum cleaner. Unfortunately, Shira couldn’t sing. In the Bible, King David had banished an evil spirit inhabiting Saul by plucking the harp. We tried to do the same with Shira, except we didn’t have a harp. We sat her down in the living room, next to the big speakers.

“What song should we put on?” I asked.

“How about Highway to Hell?” Yorai said. “Send that thing back where it came from!”

“You idiot,” I whispered. “You want Grandma’s spirit to go to hell?”

“Oh, better put on Stairway to Heaven, then.”

We danced around her when Led Zeppelin came on, jumping up and down and performing shooing motions with our hands. When the long guitar solo began, we thought the dybbuk would escape, but Shira looked unfazed. She just pulled her phone out of her pocket and started texting. We knew that you could also exorcise a dybbuk with sulfur and smoke, or by drowning the possessed person, blowing the shofar, reciting prayers from scrolls, and sending a kvittle, a kind of letter which begged a Hasidic master to help. We didn’t know any Hasidic masters, didn’t have a shofar, and didn’t want to drown our sister. We discovered that there were two kinds of dybbuks: the good kind and the bad kind. The bad dybbuk hid inside someone to escape being punished; the good dybbuk stayed in someone’s body to complete an unfulfilled task. Grandma was probably the good kind. We wondered what kind of task she needed Shira for.

Shira’s bat mitzvah was coming up. She had to make a family tree for a school project and present it to her class, listing her relatives and writing about their lives, but she was too busy planning the party with Mom—deciding on a venue, the catering, the DJ and playlist. Shira bought a new dress that was not Grandma’s style, so we decided the dybbuk had let her make the call. Dad kept complaining about how much it was going to cost, sitting in the kitchen with a worry-creased forehead, a calculator, pen and paper. Shira had to study a portion of the book of Proverbs for her bat mitzvah ceremony. Sometimes, she recited little phrases and passages to us without any reason. How useless to spread a net in full view of the birds! Locusts have no king, and yet they all advance in formation. A lizard can be caught in the hand, but it is also found in royal palaces.

Shira practiced singing her part of the Torah with a female Rabbi who came to our house once a week. The Rabbi was fat and toad-like. Mom always left plates of rugelach and chocolates, which the Rabbi ate one after the other. Apparently, the Rabbi had not heard the proverb eat just enough honey, too much of it and you will vomit. Our entire extended family was invited to the ceremony, as well as Shira’s classmates. The party was held at a large hangar space in the port. A slideshow of pictures of Shira played on a huge screen when you walked in. In one of the pictures, Shira and Grandma Mira were dressed up for Purim together in matching lizard outfits, their long tails sticking out behind them. I wondered if Grandma had chosen to possess Shira because she liked her best out of all of her grandchildren. For a moment, I was jealous that Grandma’s dybbuk was inside of my sister. At the end, we got to throw candy at Shira. She brought a fake medieval toy shield and used it to protect herself from the hail of sweets.

The girls all danced, while the boys stared and made jokes. A disco ball spun, casting colorful shapes on the walls and on everyone’s faces. The DJ played a slow love song. Shira asked a boy to dance, and they got really close to each other, their noses almost touching, and then they kissed.

“I wish Grandma Mira was here to see this,” Mom said.

* * *

Grandma Mira had an extraordinary memory and could recite by heart when and where her parents and grandparents were born, the exact time of their deaths, and everything in between. She used to tell us about her father, Meir Meiri, who escaped execution. He had been sentenced to death and was waiting in a prison cell for the firing squad to come. He wished he could just fade into the wall and disappear. In his cell was a lizard. Meir Meiri watched as the lizard came in and out of prison, as if it could walk through walls. It was so small and malleable it could fit through the tiniest cracks, climb up the ceiling even. At that moment, he wished he could be a lizard. Meir Meiri’s father was the Rabbi of the town. He performed rituals and ceremonies and his other Rabbi duties in secret since being openly Jewish was not allowed. Among his secret duties was saying the kaddish funeral prayer over the dead. When the chief of police’s father died, he came to the Rabbi and begged him to say kaddish. He confided in him that they were secretly Jewish, that he would owe him a big favor if he would do this for his father. After the Rabbi said kaddish over the chief of police’s father, they released Meir Meiri from prison and he escaped the death sentence. It was Grandma Mira’s father, Meir Meiri, who taught her about salamanders and being invisible.

To complete the family tree project, Shira needed more evidence. She spread out Grandma Mira’s old letters, receipts, postcards, and photographs in the living room. We watched her scan each piece of paper like a detective hunting for clues. The photographs were sepia-colored, faded, and torn. They showed men in top hats and silk waistcoats, women in pale gloves and pearls. One photograph, taken at a studio, showed Meir Meiri in chains, wearing the uniform of a prisoner, a recreation of his near-death experience. In the background, a Rabbi was praying over a body, reciting kaddish. When Shira came across a postcard from a monastery in Ein Karem, with a letter written on the back in tiny handwriting and signed Yours, Sister Salamander, she announced that she had discovered a new family member.

“She’s not exactly new,” Shira said, “we just didn’t know she existed.”

It was our great-aunt, Grandma Mira’s long-lost sister, who lived in a Catholic monastery in Ein Karem, in the hills of Jerusalem.

“The invisible one?” I asked.

“She’s not Jewish?” Mom asked. “That’s exactly why we didn’t know about her!” Shira said.

“She was hidden in a Catholic monastery in France during the war. She grew up believing she was Christian. Grandma Mira was too old, they wouldn’t take her. They were separated. They never found each other.”

“Grandma talked about her all the time,” I said. “You just didn’t listen.”

“What’s her name, this nun?” Dad asked.

“Her name is Sarah, but everyone calls her Sister Salamander.”

That Friday, we drove to Ein-Karem and parked under the shade of a spruce in front of the enormous metal gates of the monastery. Tiny nuns with bowed heads drifted down the winding garden paths, stopped to gaze at a cactus or count rosary beads. Sister Salamander was seated on a stone bench. At her feet was an actual salamander. Or maybe it was a gecko. She told us she got her nickname because lizards had been following her everywhere since she had come to the Holy Land. We stared at the two reptiles, who worked hard at doing nothing. Watching them was like watching the most boring reality TV show, where the best moment was when one of them blinked.

“That’s so funny,” Mom said. “Grandma Mira was always talking about salamanders.”

“I was the one who called earlier,” Shira said, sitting next to the shrunken old nun and taking out her notebook. “Can I interview you for my family tree project?”

The nun nodded. The lizard, too, moved its head, but that could have been for a different reason.

“Did you know you had a sister, Mira?” 

“As little girls,” the nun said, “we used to call each other sister salamander. We would play together all the time. She was older, of course, but kind to me. We would lie very still on a rock and pretend we were lizards. It was a game, a competition. The first person who moved, even a little bit, lost. We loved playing that game. We got so good at it we were almost invisible.”

“But you both survived the war,” Shira said. “Why didn’t you reach out to one another?”

“We had a fight,” the nun said. “I don’t remember what it was about now.”

“And then you never saw each other again?”

“Of course we did. Mira used to come to the monastery all the time. She would stand very still and watch me, but I could see her. She wasn’t really invisible, you know. We continued playing the game even though we were too old for it.”

Afterwards, we wanted to drive back home, but Sister Salamander insisted we stay the night. There were guest bedrooms on the second floor; the monastery also operated as a bed-and-breakfast for guests looking to book a silent retreat. The monastery creaked and whispered like a living, breathing thing. That night, I pressed the tip of my finger to a needle until it bled, making sure that any dybbuk would now have a way out.

In the morning, we ate grapefruit halves and drank peppermint tea. Sister Salamander removed her false teeth and set them, floating, in a cup of water on the table. Her gums were dark and empty. She dipped biscuits in hot water until they crumbled and sank to the bottom of the cup. She was bug-eyed, with one of the most wrinkled necks I had ever seen. She stretched her neck out every time she took a sip of her drink. We looked out of place among all the tiny, emaciated nuns. They did not smile.

After breakfast and prayer, Sister Salamander took us to the garden and taught us to be invisible. We stood in a semicircle surrounded by cacti jutting out of the earth like misshapen teeth. We had to stay very still, as if we were posing for a photograph that would take hours to complete. Next to me, Dad did not look happy to be participating. “I didn’t sign up for a yoga class,” he muttered. His gut hung over his belly and his legs wobbled slightly. Mom closed her eyes. Yorai kept pushing me when he thought no one was looking. Shira was the most invisible of us all, still as a petrified piece of coral. After enough time in the garden, the animals stopped being wary of us; we were scenery rather than predators. Tiny lizards came out of their holes to creep and slither among us, their long tails swishing back and forth. Even the insects, it seemed, had multiplied. A colony of busy ants congregated next to their sandy hole. Flies buzzed around, distracting me with their whine when they flew past my ear. A couple walked by and did not say a thing, but they could have been on a silent retreat.

When we were done standing around in the garden, Sister Salamander took us upstairs to her tiny room. Just as Grandma Mira had described, there was a tapestry of the Virgin Mary and a small wooden cross above her bed. A hologram postcard from Jerusalem’s Old City trinket vendor was taped to the bed frame. It showed Jesus with a crown of thorns. As I moved across the room and kept my eyes on the picture, the blood oozed down his temple, then retracted, a slideshow that never ended. I could have sworn that Jesus blinked at me. Sister Salamander lit a stick of incense, and the smoke perfumed the room. She opened a cupboard door, and we looked inside. Instead of a row of nun garments hung like dark sacks there was a row jars. In each jar was a preserved salamander floating in a clouded, ochre liquid. They looked like astronauts gliding around the atmosphere of the jar, their big, glassy eyes staring at nothing.

“These are all the salamanders I’ve had since I came to the Holy Land. Really quite special, isn’t it?”

Her tone of voice was that of an elderly lady showing off a prized silverware set or offering a tray of orange marmalade cookies to her grandchildren. She picked up one of the jars where a pair of conjoined lizards floated—Siamese twin salamanders with two heads and two tails.

“You can learn a lot from salamanders,” she said. “They are able to regrow their legs and tail. Did you know that? They are reborn, just like Jesus. Now, wouldn’t that be a neat skill?”

Dad agreed that it would be a neat skill. I wondered if he was wanted to chop off the nun’s head to see if it would grow back.

Sister Salamander gave Shira the jar. “I want you to keep it for me.”

My sister looked like she was about to faint, so Mom took hold of the jar before the two sister salamanders found their second death on the floor.

Dad was so excited to leave that he accidentally slammed the car door on Shira’s hand, causing it to swell and change color. I took the injury as a sign that the dybbuk had finally left her body. Grandma Mira’s task on earth was complete. Shira didn’t understand why Yorai and I were so happy to see her in pain, so she refused to speak to us the whole car ride home. Dad felt guilty for slamming the door on Shira’s hand, so he stopped to buy everyone baklava on the way back. We let Shira have the ones with pistachio, her favorite. Mom turned the radio on to the oldies station, and Shira sang along to The Beatles. She’s not a girl who misses much. Doo doo doo doo doo doo, oh yeah. She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand, like a lizard on the windowpane.

We kept the jar of Siamese salamanders in the living room on top of the cupboard next to the television, where other families might keep an urn of ashes. The jar glowed in the dark, which meant we could switch off the kitchen light at night, save money on electricity, and still navigate to the fridge. Shira finished her family tree and presented it to the class. It was a notebook with pictures pasted on it. Shira’s tiny handwriting filled the margins. In place of a photograph of her great-aunt, she drew a lizard wearing a nun’s robe. The teacher underlined the parts about the invisible salamanders, scribbled in red ink: What on earth possessed you to say this? Please rewrite.

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