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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

Below them, a taxi squealed across Rivington. Ruby turned her head to squint at the East River, green-brown with muck and sewage.

‘A Hindu dies at home,’ she said. ‘They should be surrounded by family. Even Papa’s relatives in India wanted to come, but what could we tell them? Stay for two years? Then Papa heard of the rishika. He went to see her, and she gave him a date – the date Dadi was to die. We put Dadi’s bed in the front room, with her head facing east. We lit a lamp and kept vigil: praying, singing hymns. Papa’s brothers flew from Chandigarh. I sat on the floor with my cousins. There were twenty of us, maybe more. When Dadi died on May sixteenth, just like the rishika said, we cried with relief.’

‘You weren’t mad?’

‘Why would we be mad?’

‘That the woman didn’t save your grandma,’ Varya said. ‘That she didn’t make her better.’

‘The rishika gave us a chance to say goodbye. We can never repay her for that.’ Ruby ate her last bite of kugel, then folded the foil in half. ‘Anyway, she couldn’t make Dadi better. She knows things, the rishika, but she can’t stop them. She isn’t God.’

‘Where is she now?’ asked Varya. ‘Daniel heard she’s staying in a building on Hester Street, but he doesn’t know which.’

‘I wouldn’t know, either. She stays in a different place every time. For her safety.’

Inside the Singhs’ apartment, there was a high-pitched crash and the sound of someone shouting in Hindi.

Ruby stood, brushing the crumbs off her skirt.

‘What do you mean, her safety?’ asked Varya, standing, too.

‘There are always people going after a woman like that,’ Ruby said. ‘Who knows what she knows.’

‘Rubina!’ called Ruby’s mother.

‘I gotta go.’ Ruby hopped through the window and pushed it shut behind her, leaving Varya to take the fire escape down to the fourth floor.

Varya was surprised that word of the woman had spread so far, but not everyone had heard of her. When she mentioned the seer to the men who worked the counter at Katz’s, their arms tattooed with numbers, they stared at her with fear.

‘Kids,’ said one of them. ‘Why would you wanna get mixed up with something like that?’

His voice was sharp, as though Varya had personally insulted him. She left with her sandwich, flustered, and did not bring the subject up again.

In the end, the same boys Daniel originally overheard gave him the woman’s address. He saw them that weekend on the walking path of the Williamsburg Bridge, smoking dope while they leaned against the railing. They were older than he – fourteen, maybe – and Daniel forced himself to confess his eavesdropping before he asked if they knew anything else.

The boys didn’t seem to be bothered. They readily offered the number of the apartment building where the woman was said to be staying, though they didn’t know how to make an appointment. The rumor, they told Daniel, was that you had to bring an offering. Some claimed it was cash, but others said the woman already had all the money she needed and that you had to get creative. One boy brought a bloody squirrel he found on the side of the road, picked up with tongs and delivered in a tied-off plastic bag. But Varya argued that nobody would want that, even a fortune teller, so in the end they collected their allowances in the drawstring bag and hoped that would be enough.

When Klara wasn’t home, Varya retrieved The Book of Divination from beneath Klara’s bed and climbed into her own. She lay on her stomach to sound out the words: haruspicy (by the livers of sacrificed animals), ceromancy (by patterns in wax), rhabdomancy (by rods). On cool days, breeze from the window ruffled the family trees and old photos she keeps taped to the wall beside her bed. Through these documents, she tracks the mysterious, underground brokering of traits: genes flicking on and off and on again, her grandfather Lev’s rangy legs skipping Saul for Daniel.

Lev came to New York on a steamship with his father, a cloth merchant, after his mother was killed in the pogroms of 1905. At Ellis Island, they were tested for disease and interrogated in English while they stared at the fist of the iron woman who watched, impassive, from the sea they had just crossed. Lev’s father repaired sewing machines; Lev worked in a garment factory run by a German Jew who allowed him to observe the Sabbath. Lev became an assistant manager, then a manager. In 1930, he opened his own business – Gold’s Tailor and Dressmaking – in a basement apartment on Hester Street.

Varya was named for her father’s mother, who worked as Lev’s bookkeeper until their retirement. She knows less about her maternal grandparents – only that her grandmother was named Klara, like Varya’s younger sister, and that she arrived from Hungary in 1913. But she died when Varya’s mother, Gertie, was only six, and Gertie rarely speaks of her. Once, Klara and Varya snuck into Gertie’s bedroom and scoured it for traces of their grandparents. Like dogs, they smelled the mystery that surrounded this pair, the whiff of intrigue and shame, and they nosed their way to the chest of drawers where Gertie keeps her underclothes. In the top drawer, they found a small wooden box, lacquered and gold hinged. Inside was a yellowed stack of photographs that showed a small, puckish woman with short black hair and heavy-lidded eyes. In the first photo, she stood in a skirted leotard with one hip cocked to the side, holding a cane above her head. In another, she rode a horse, bent over backward with her midriff showing. In the photo Varya and Klara liked best, the woman was suspended in midair, hanging from a rope that she held in her teeth.

Two things told them this woman was their grandmother. The first was a wrinkled old photo, greased with fingerprints, in which the same woman stood with a tall man and a small child. Varya and Klara knew the child was their mother, even at this reduced size: she held her parents’ hands in her small, fat fists, and her face was squeezed into an expression of consternation that Gertie still frequently wore.

Klara claimed the box and its contents.

‘It belongs to me,’ she said. ‘I got her name. Ma never looks at it, anyway.’

But they soon found that was not true. The morning after Klara secreted the lacquered box back to the bedroom and tucked it beneath her bottom bunk, a caw came from their parents’ room, followed by Gertie’s heated interrogations and Saul’s muffled denial. Moments later, Gertie burst into the bunk room.

‘Who took it?’ she cried. ‘Who?’

Her nostrils flared, and her wide hips blocked the light that usually spilled in from the hallway. Klara was hot with fear, nearly crying. When Saul left for work and Gertie stalked into the kitchen, Klara snuck into her parents’ room and put the box exactly where she’d found it. But when the apartment was empty, Varya knew that Klara returned to the photos and the tiny woman inside them. She stared at the woman’s intensity, her glamour, and vowed she’d live up to her namesake.