Aunt Franny says she is changing her name to Yocheved. She is cutting her long hair, is moving to a different country, is marrying an old man she’s never met. “It’s been arranged,” she says, and I picture these words in the swooping calligraphy she’s been practicing in her notebooks, inky Hebrew letters crowding the pages. She and my mother whisper together in the hallway. Voices low: upstairs, my grandmother is dying. I repeat what they say in my own whistle language.
“What about equality?” my mother hisses. “This is not how we were raised. You’re dreaming if you think this won’t put Mom over the edge.”
“We’ll all meet together in the Holy Land.” Aunt Franny’s voice is soft and careful, barely audible. “Baruch Hashem.” She likes this phrase. She’s been repeating it since we picked her up at the hospital.
“Oh Franny,” my mother shouts. “What a way to live.”
“Quiet!” I scream in my whistle language.
My mother snatches her purse from the chair. “Enough with the whistling. Now’s not the time.” Outside, she slams into the car.
I mash my forehead into the screen door, touch my tongue to its ancient-tasting metal. My throat feels red. It must have been sore already, but this is when I notice it.
Aunt Franny comes up behind me. She picks me up, squeezes tight. Makes a noise like eeeeeeee. Together we watch my mother drive away. “I love you so much I want to eat you up! You love me too?”
“I do,” I whistle, but her eyes don’t change. So I repeat the Hebrew she taught me. “Bli sof,” I say. Without end.
Aunt Franny has long limbs and a long face. A jutting collarbone. Three black hairs on her chin. She is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. The saddest one, too. She reminds me of the tall, braided candle she lit the night before, bent and dulled from use. Bright flame. Smudged smoke filling the room after it’s been blown out.
We go upstairs to the bedroom Aunt Franny shares with my grandmother. The curtains hang limp in the dim light. Their orange and pink butterflies slump together. The room smells like stale spit, old flower water. My grandmother sighs and shifts in bed. I try not to look at her.
“Mama,” Aunt Franny says, then nothing else. She rummages in a drawer. When she takes off her nightgown, I am mesmerized by the sharpness of her hipbones, the etched lines of her ribcage. She tries to hide her wrists, but I already know. She pulls on a dark turtleneck, a scratchy blouse embroidered with flowers. “Soon,” she says, “I’ll be dressing very differently.”
I laugh, because maybe she’s joking, but the red burns my throat. I imagine sharp needles weaving in and out in loopy stitches, like the ones Aunt Franny uses to sew her puppets. Two of them lie on the floor near her bed—all done except their faces. They are made of a nubbled, musty material Aunt Franny stores in large trash bags in my grandmother’s basement. The room smells like that, too. I want them to be us so badly my tongue is heavy with it. So heavy it seals my mouth shut. I wonder if she can still be an artist wherever she’s going.
My grandmother coughs and coughs. Aunt Franny makes a scream face in the mirror. Everything is so quiet except for the coughing. When Aunt Franny sees me watching, she sticks out her tongue. She turns her fingers into monster claws. She wiggles them at me.
We tiptoe downstairs. In the kitchen, Aunt Franny takes a strange piece of fruit out of a paper bag. It looks like it’s been dipped in paint. “It’s a mango,” she says, and puts a piece in my mouth. I feel shy. Its taste and smell remind me of a part of my own body. When she looks away, I hide it in my pocket.
I sit on a phone book at the kitchen table, legs swinging. I swallow once. I swallow again. Aunt Franny brings paint and brushes, thick white paper. A mason jar filled with water. The air between us is a thick, friendly thing. The fruit in my pocket. Her coffee breath. The sharp whisk of body odor. Aunt Franny swirls her paintbrush in the water. Wispy violet trails into muddy green. I scrub my brush in red. I paint a heart. I paint her name.
“I’m not Franny,” she says, and my throat is redder than ever.
“Yocheved,” I say, but I don’t paint it. In my whistle language I say “No no no.” “My throat hurts,” I scream in that language.