Flash Fiction: The Hands Which Hang Down by Austin Ross

Their electricity has been cut off, so they cook outside as best they can over the grill, coals slowly whitening beneath cast-iron pots while cicadas chirrup from the maple tree in the backyard. Thomas has not made the Seder meal since his childhood in Israel, but there will never be another opportunity to make it. He has spent all day preparing the food, carefully showing his teenage daughter Alicia how each dish is prepared. He still remembers with vivid clarity every detail of the meal despite having not observed it in any meaningful sense for thirty years. He tells Alicia about all these things, about the Maror and the Chazeret, their bitterness symbolic of the harshness of slavery in Egypt; about Karpas, the salt water into which the boiled potato is dipped symbolic of tears and pain; the Z’roa, the sacrifice made on that first Passover night, today represented by these chicken wings, the best he could find at such short notice.

After this, he goes over the emergency plan for if—when—the two of them are separated. He has put in Alicia’s bag enough cash to last for perhaps a few weeks, but the most important thing, he tells her, is to lay low—leave as small a footprint as possible. Buy supplies in small amounts from gas stations and mom and pop grocery stores. Try not to speak if possible. Leave no identifiable mark or pattern of your existence. They each have an orienteering compass, the plastic kind with a needle inside a liquid-filled capsule. They have watched clips online of how to build makeshift shelters, but have not yet had a chance to practice. He has shown her how to quickly swap out license plates and hotwire cars—which models and makes are old enough for this to even work. They have prepaid cell phones with the other’s number programmed. If they are separated, the plan is to meet in Detroit and try to cross the border together.

Alicia cries softly as he explains all these things to her again. Thomas grips her by the shoulders, says to her, “You must listen and repeat. You must know all these things by heart.”

When the food is prepared, they carry it to the living room and sit on the floor at the coffee table. He remembers how his mother would strive for greater purity of the ingredients each year. He wishes he could have matched her level of skill and care tonight, but he is not practiced enough and there is no time. When she would cook the meal, she would speak over him all her wishes for his life, blessings that must be spoken aloud to come true. And you, my son—strengthen the hands which hang down. This is from the Christian Bible, she would say, but we won’t hold it against them.

After reading the four questions, Thomas gets his old copy of the Tanakh from beside the boiled eggs. He opens it to Exodus and reads in a quiet voice:

“‘And they shall take of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel. And they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. And you shall not leave any of it until morning, and whatever is left over of it until morning, you shall burn in fire. I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments. And the blood will be for you a sign, and I will see the blood and skip over you, and there will be no plague to destroy when I smite the land of Egypt.’”

They sit and eat in silence for a time. Even with the windows open, the summer heat is oppressive, and they sweat through their shirts. The sun sets over the horizon, burning red against the clouds. Outside is still the chattering chorus of cicadas. It has been constant for three days now.

As Alicia finishes preparing, Thomas walks through their home one last time, fingers brushing across walls and counters and furniture. It seems to him that the whispering memories of Lauren and the twin boys would remain here forever. It is better that they rest here, he thinks, than where they had died, mangled in wreckage. Thomas, though he tries not to, perfectly recalls the moment he had heard the crash, ran out of Mrs. Marty’s Deli with two bags of sandwiches for their Sunday lunch, and seen their Prius overturned on the asphalt like a turtle on its shell, one side caved inwards.

It was a swift goodbye. He wept, yes, but he worked also. He knew what this meant: the umbrella of her citizenship no longer applied. They were no longer safe. Afterwards, after all three deaths had been officially pronounced and he had signed the paperwork for them to be cremated, he went to the bank and withdrew as much as he could before the accounts were frozen. He buried the cash in a metal case beneath his back porch; a few days later, he found that his credit card no longer worked. He and Alicia packed that night; he had let her drink some wine—not much—and they stayed up later than usual, laughing and crying as they told their favorite memories of Lauren and the twins and their old life, the one they would never get back.

He hears Alicia moving upstairs, focuses his mind on the present. There is a bucket of red paint in the basement, left over from a project for the boys’ nursery. Thomas brushes some across the front door’s lintel, then, on the blue accent wall in their living room, paints a message for those who would soon be here: Strengthen the hands which hang down. Beneath this, he writes the names of his wife and two boys. He feels compelled to let the world know that they had lived, that they had mattered.

Alicia comes back downstairs. The sun has passed below the distant mountains, and darkness is coming.

“It’s time,” Thomas says.

Alicia shrugs her backpack over her shoulders and goes to the car. There are cicadas everywhere now. They seem to have grown in number over the last few hours, and the sound they make is deafening as they swarm in great clumps. The trunk of the small maple tree Lauren planted all those years ago is covered in their shells. They, too, had left everything behind. Thomas closes the car door and enters relative silence, puts an arm around his daughter. He feels a sudden hope, and it is as though God is saying, as He did in the days of Moses: This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It is as though, in the days of Thomas Abramov, Jr., He is now saying in His great wrath: There will be no plague to destroy when I smite the land of Egypt.

Austin Ross’s fiction has appeared at Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, Every Day Fiction, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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