By Avi Burton- 13 minutes read - 2632 words
Content warning: Holocaust, child death
I woke up unable to breath, a choking weight on my chest. I wheezed and struggled under the weight of a stone—large, gray, round—pressing down on my ribs. I rolled over in bed; the stone clattered to the floor. It made a dent in the rug.
I looked to the ghost of my great-grandmother in the corner of the room and said, “I wish you’d stop doing that.”
She did not respond. Her translucent knitting needles bobbed like ocean waves: up and down, up and down. Each line of stitches vanished as she finished it—some unspoken rule of phantomry kept her in stasis, stopped her from making anything new.
I sighed and stood up. I carried the stone over to the door, where it rested with a cairn of others like it. I had no doubt that my great-grandmother would move it again while I slept. She didn’t say anything as I adjusted the stack, just stared with unblinking eyes as the needles ducked through her ghostly yarn. The ritual was somewhat monotonous now, a regular part of my morning routine.
Before I left for work, I bid my great-grandmother goodbye. I kissed her withered cheek. My mouth passed through her. She tasted like dust.
As I closed the door behind me, I double-checked, triple-checked that my pockets and purse were empty. Yet as soon as I stepped outside, I felt a weight by my hip. A heavy gray stone jutted from each pocket. The weight pulled tight on the seam of my pants, forcing me to hunch over to carry the burden.
I had played this game before—almost everyone had played this game before. We all had our fits of teenage rebellion, our desperate attempts to escape our stones: throwing them, breaking them, burning them. They always came back. As an adult, I would have barely noticed the weight if it weren’t for my great-grandmother’s meddling. I swore the stones hadn’t been so heavy before she arrived. But, like the rocks, I couldn’t get rid of her. I hitched up my pants and headed to work.
— # —
People didn’t usually notice the stones I carried. I passed enough that I had to point them out to people—to remind others, on occasion, that I was not like them. I was just assimilated enough to blend in, just Jewish enough to stand out. Most of the time I kept my stones in my pocket as a silent burden. They weren’t anything special. We all had our dirty little histories that we tried our best to hide. No one else saw, but everyone knew.
My cubicle neighbor, Imani, had just returned from maternity leave. She looked tired but healthy, and wore a new necklace of three small pebbles on a string. I realized with a jolt that these were the only stones I’d ever seen her carry. She seemed unburdened, floating above the rest of us, but the sadness in her eyes told me she had secrets.
Imani noticed me staring and raised an eyebrow. I blurted out: “Is that all?”
She understood what I meant, and pressed her palm to the pebbles strung around her neck. “They’re symbolic,” she explained. “For my children, who are too young to hold their own stones. They don’t understand their histories yet. But they will.”
Then she took my hand and guided me over to a storage closet. Inside was a boulder twice my height, sheer gray stone. It rose up like a monument. “This is for the rest of my family. This is what we carry. My children will carry it, too, and I pray it never grows bigger.”
I gaped. I’d never seen a rock so large, so heavy, so hidden. I tentatively touched it—it was warm, like a just-dead body. “I never knew,” I said, an unspoken apology in my voice. “How did you keep it so secret?”
“It’s easy, really,” Imani said. “People don’t like to look.”
What would happen, I wondered, if all of us climbed to the top of a mountain and let go of our stones with a wild cry? What if we made an avalanche big enough to shake the world and sent it hurtling down the hill? What could we wreck?
Not much, I decided. We were aiming at ghosts.
I thanked Imani for showing me her stone. She shrugged. “Sometimes I like to pretend I’ve got no rock,” she said. “But I hate when other people ignore it, you know?”
“I know,” I said, and weighed my own stones in my palm.
— # —
I didn’t want to go home after work. The ghost of my great-grandmother would be waiting for me there. She would have moved things around in my apartment, hidden my stones so she could drop them on me in the night. She made the place smell like potpourri. I supposed she wasn’t technically a ghost, if she could move things—maybe poltergeist was the better term. Regardless, she was a haunting, and I didn’t have the energy to deal with it.
So I went out for a drink, and I met my first stoneless man.
We spoke at the bar, where smoke from a fog machine curled catlike around our feet and dim lights obscured the stains on wood-paneled walls. He was all-American attractive; I was not, but he seemed to enjoy me anyway. We spoke of the things in our pockets—everyone always did, like they talked about the weather or games of golf. I showed him my awkward, overburdened stones. He laughed.
“I don’t have any of my own,” he confessed to me. “I still carry things, though. My ancestors did terrible things in the war—lots of wars. In Germany, in Afghanistan, in Syria. This is what they left me.” He dug in his pocket and showed me a handful of bullets, greasy and oil-black.
I wanted to take my stones and throw them at his perfect Aryan forehead. I imagined him reeling back, his skull shattering against the bar. Blood and guts and gore. But he was not the crimes of his ancestors—that was the point of the stones, wasn’t it, to remind us we weren’t like what came before? That we’d survived and they hadn’t?
I took a deep breath and said, “That’s nice. You’re lucky.”
“I feel them in my pocket,” he said, “poking into my side.”
I did not say: stones weigh more than bullets.
I did not say: your ancestors left you live ammunition. You could put those bullets in a gun and kill anyone in the world.
I did not say: your past fits in an AR-15. I need a slingshot, I need David.
Instead, I spoke about the weather, and the conversation moved on.
— # —
On Friday, the ghost of my great-grandmother watched me make soup. I tried to ignore her as I set the table (one plate, one bowl) and stirred the pot. She squinted at me through the steam. She put a stone on my plate.
I looked at her. “Am I supposed to eat this? I can’t live off stones.”
“You did not make challah,” she said, like she was scolding a child. “You did not go to temple. It is Shabbos, and you did not even pray.”
“I lit candles,” I said. “I have wine. I made soup with my mother’s recipe, which she learned from her mother, which she learned from you. Isn’t that enough?”
My great-grandmother stared at me with beady black eyes. She didn’t have to speak for me to know her answer. In Germany, she would have wept for the chance to celebrate Shabbat again. Her synagogue had been looted and burned. Here I was—American, alive—and I could not even muster challah on Friday night. What right did I have to carry her stones?
I sighed. I searched my cabinets for bread. I’d bought some from the synagogue bake sale last week—surely, there had to be something left. I found only crumbs. So I said hamotzi over a crust of stone, instead.
Next week, I thought. Next week I’ll do better. But Friday came around once more, and I had forgotten the challah yet again.
It hadn’t always been this way. When I was a child, it was easier: my mother took me to synagogue every week, and I loathed and loved it at the same time. I studied for my Bat Mitzvah and we celebrated only the major holidays.
On Rosh Hashanah, my family had a strange tradition. It wasn’t uncommon for groups of Jews to gather by the lake behind the synagogue after the main service. Most threw crumbs of bread—the symbolic sins of the past year—into the water, but my family always insisted we throw our stones.
“Won’t they come back?” I asked when I was six. “The stones always come back.”
“It doesn’t matter,” my mother said. “It’s about the ritual, not the result. Here.” She guided my hand, helped me toss a pebble into the lake. “What are you sorry for?”
I pursed my lips. “When I stole cookies from the pantry last week.”
“Good,” my mother said. “See how the water has covered up your stone? That regret is gone now, sunken into the sand. As long as you have atoned—as long as you have tried to make amends with those you hurt—then your sorrow is gone, hidden by the waves.”
At the time, my great-grandmother was already frail, wheelchair-bound and trembling with Parkinson’s. Still, she determinedly lifted a stone and hurled it into the lake. Its impact was enormous—the splash soaked us all with salt-tinged water. My great-grandmother scowled at the lake, stiff and silently satisfied.
“Why doesn’t great-grandma say her regrets?” I asked.
“Not all regrets are as easy as stealing cookies, Rivkaleh,” my mother said. “Some sorrows are too big to be spoken aloud. Some things you can’t set right.”
As an adult, I learned there were ways to get rid of your stones. A surgery, they called it, a tailoring. They sewed up all your pockets so no rocks could get in. But nothing else could fit, either. Then they had to sew you up, too, because rocks would find any way to get inside of you. You wound up with big stitches across your lips, and everyone knew what you’d done. You’d never fit in with the stoneless or the stoned. But people tried anyway. Anything to get rid of the weight.
I understood the impulse: I’d considered it many times myself, secretly and shamefully in the dark. Yet I kept my stones, and I kept the ghost of my great-grandmother, though she guilted me worse than the burdens in my pockets. When I felt my conviction wavering, I turned a rock over and over in my head, smoothing the surface with my thumb. Sometimes, I thought the stones were all that kept me Jewish.
— # —
I woke up suffocating under stones for the third night in a row, and I wondered if any of them had come from the lake by the synagogue. If every stone I had ever thrown would eventually return to me. The room smelled salty—not like seawater, but like sweat. I couldn’t quite catch my breath. My head ached from lack of sleep.
I went to take a shower and found my great-grandmother meticulously stacking stones in the bathroom. She stared at me for a moment, then turned away and went back to her work. Her blank indifference infuriated me.
“What do you want?” I snapped. “Why are you doing this to me? Isn’t it enough that I have to carry you everywhere I go—why do you have to torment me at home, too? Don’t I get one place to rest?”
She stared at me with those bitter black eyes. I knew I was asking too much of her. That she had suffered so I could survive, and God, wasn’t it selfish of me to complain about a burden when she had had so much worse. That she was dead, and she could never move on, because the dead were stuck. Ghosts were just people frozen in time. She didn’t have the capacity to change or understand—but I did. I did.
My great-grandmother returned to shifting the stones, almost childlike in her solemn slowness. They made a sound like bones cracking as they stacked atop one another. “Sometimes,” she said, “I just want someone else to feel the way I do.”
Her answer knocked the wind out of me. I sat down on the floor, cross-legged across from her. The fluorescent lights bathed us in yellow. She passed a stone to me: an offering. An absolvement. I placed the rock atop the pile. She placed another stone above mine. The cairn clattered to the floor, but all my great-grandmother did was start anew. I helped her pick up the pieces. We continued on this way, our strange, silent game, for the rest of the night.
— # —
That weekend, I drove to upstate New York, staring blankly past miles and miles of highway. My great-grandmother’s ghost sat in the passenger’s seat. My stones rattled in the glove compartment, and were the only conversation the entire way.
On the day her papers came through and my great-grandmother officially became an American citizen, she bought a plot of land in a synagogue’s cemetery. She purchased five plots: mother, father, sister, brother, and herself. All but her were buried bodiless. Their real corpses were cinders back in Germany. My great-grandmother held funerals for them anyway, and visited every month until her new husband moved downstate and took her away. My grandmother had gone to her family’s graves twice; my mother only once, for great-grandmother’s funeral. I had never been. They were never spoken about, these empty graves, but I felt them in my pocket.
The cemetery was empty. The day was a clear, cloudless blue. I parked in the vacant, desiccated lot and got out, gravel crunching beneath my feet. The graves were plain and mossy. I knelt before the cold stone and met my family for the first time: Rivka, the great-great grandmother who shared my name. Abraham, the patriarch. Lilah, my great-aunt, who defied the Nazis to the end. Little Yitzhak, only two—he cried too much on the journey to the camp, so a soldier took him and tossed him out of the train.
“His blood was red against the snow,” my great-grandmother told me. She was standing beside me at the gravesite. “His little knitted cap was all soaked through. The sound my mother made—that was when we knew. That was when we all died.”
But she had survived. She had lived through the camp and the gas and the war. She had carried her stones until the day she died, when they passed to her daughter (my grandmother), who passed to my mother, who passed to me. It was all the same stones. It was all the same grief.
I took a rock from my pocket and I placed it atop Yitzhak’s grave. Then another. Then another. I thought I would never empty my pockets. I thought the purging would never end. My family’s gravesite became buried in an avalanche of small stones, a monument of pebbles and rocks and rubble. Only the rounded tip of the headstones peeked through.
Then my pockets were nearly empty. I had one stone left. I placed it on the grave of my great-grandmother. It gleamed in the pale sun. It was the only apology I could give.
I stood up, brushed dirt from my knees. I felt lighter and heavier than ever before. I offered the ghost of my great-grandmother my hand. She took it. She was cold, hard to grasp, but I clung tight.
Together, we walked to the car.
© 2023 Avi Burton
About the Author
Avi Burton (he/they) currently moonlights as a writer and daylights as a university student. He enjoys studying theater and mythology. His stories often feature queer characters, revenants, and—on occasion—laser swords. You can find more of their stories on their website, https://aviburton.com, or find the author themself on twitter under @avi_why.