Nathaniel’s mother was raised Jewish.
The Hatfords were hardly observant, but Mary’s mother was cut from a different cloth -- Nathaniel’s grandfather had married her for love rather than as a tactic, and she had long, dark curls and a hooked nose passed down from her own parents, and from their parents, and back a long, long time. She taught Mary singsong prayers and held her hands and whispered them to her as terrible things happened around them. She hadn’t known her husband before she’d married him, and she’d recited the Kaddish every night since she found out who he was.
Mary, for her part, was not an especially religious person. It was hard to have faith when your existence centered around survival. It was hard to believe in the power of prayers when your own had gone unanswered, month after month, year after year. She had prayed for safety, for happiness, and to be free from her upbringing, but none of them had been granted.
Instead, she had to throw herself further into the life she had been given. She wrapped cruelty around herself as a second skin and abandoned everything she had prayed for in favor of what would keep her alive.
Sometimes at night, when Nathan was asleep, she watched the ceiling and whispered the Kaddish in memory of herself. It hardly fit -- “amen” was a word unfamiliar to her sharp tongue, and she had no great love for G-d, but it was some of the only Hebrew she knew by heart, and she remembered standing over her mother’s grave and murmuring it to herself. There were days when it was all she had, so she clung to it like the lifeline it was.
Her Judaism was some of the only good, the only humanity left in her, and it was what she clutched onto in the midst of the darkness that was everything else about her life. It was the light at the end of a never-ending tunnel, the redemption she would never earn, but she hoped for anyway, yearning for the fool’s gold that was a better life. A holy life.
When Nathaniel was born, Mary held his fragile body in her rough, scarred hands and wept.
He was unimaginably small, and he nestled in Mary’s arms like it was where he was meant to be. He heaved a soft, sleepy sigh, shifting his head for comfort against her elbow, as if comfort was something he would be permitted, as if this world would be soft and tender and yield to his desires.
Mary’s heart ached. He was only minutes old, and yet there was so much disappointment heavy in his future, so much disillusionment yet to come. He was everything that she wanted to believe in, everything that she wanted to believe for, but she couldn’t. His face was wrinkled and red and his tiny hands were clenched into fists. He had toes and fingernails and sparse eyebrow hairs, and Mary decided at that moment that she could not believe in a god, because she could not stand to think that someone with the power to stop it would allow a child to be born into these circumstances, these shoes.
It was not until much later that Mary would understand that it was herself she had stopped believing in at that moment.
The child was named Nathaniel, after his father, which Mary thought was ugly. Nathaniel ben Nathan, she whispered to him, although it was of course not his name. No aliyah was given for Nathaniel’s birth, no blessing recited by Nathan for his wife and child, no brit milah performed with a sandek present to hold Nathaniel close. Mary had long stopped setting aside a chair for Elijah; she knew he was not there.
There was never a question of whether she would be allowed to raise her child with her religion. The Butcher did not care about any power higher than the head of the Moriyamas, and he would not allow anything to soften the sharp edges he intended to carve in his son, and that included faith.
Mary lived her life quietly, in secret, in the gaps between the time that Nathan spent at their home. He would come home covered in blood more often than not, and Mary would throw his stained clothes out, because it was hardly as if they couldn’t afford it. When he wasn’t home, she was caught in between the thrill of relative freedom and the sinking feeling of knowing what he was out doing.
She couldn’t protect Nathaniel from the truth, either. He never stood a chance at even a year or two of a normal childhood, not with the red stains in the floorboards and their five-bedroom house funded with equally stained money. Not with her husband and his associates pressing knives into his hands as easily as toys -- more easily, in fact. The only toys Nathaniel was indulged with were the ones Mary surprised him with, the ones that were hid away when Nathan’s car pulled into the driveway.
In the quiet moments, Mary gave her son their history. She held Nathaniel tight with her hands on his shoulders and told him about their temples burning, about their freedom in Egypt, about her grandmother and grandfather dying in a camp under a sky that was still, impossibly, blue. There was not a copy of the Torah in the Wesninski household, but Mary gave Nathaniel the aleph-bet and promised to teach him the words one day.
(It was a promise that she would find herself unable to keep. When they studied together, poring over conjugations and declensions, her voice strained as she quizzed him about reflexive pronouns, it was in Austria, it was in France, it was in Montreal. It had to serve a purpose. It had to help them blend in, help them stay safe. She traded heritage for safety and didn't let herself feel the guilt. Years later, in his sophomore year of college, her son would drop Spanish in favor of learning Hebrew, because he would not let his life be dictated by what was most useful on the run. He was done running, and he was ready to remember.)
Mary held Nathaniel's hands in her own once-held palms and taught him every syllable of the Kaddish. “You remember that,” she murmured. “One day, you'll need it.”
There were no candles lit on Shabbat evenings, and Mary could not choose not to spill blood on Saturdays. Work was work, and work kept her and Nathaniel alive. She did not have time for holy concerns when she spent every day in hell.
They did not own a menorah, but one year, Nathan was gone on the third night and Mary bundled her son up and took him to a synagogue. She hummed along with the prayers and watched the candlelight flicker in the hanukiyot. Nathaniel's eyes were wide and wondrous. Mary helped him peel the golden wrapping from his gelt and let him try both sour cream and applesauce on his latkes. He was stuffed full with sufganiyot and amazement, and Mary's heart ached for what could have been.
Mary did not attend any seders in Baltimore. In the middle of the day on Yom Kippur, she slipped into the service and stood with her head bowed, and for a few hours she let herself believe that her sins could be forgiven. Once on Rosh Hashanah, she snuck Nathaniel away to the river and they sat together, dangling their feet in the water.
“It symbolizes the past being washed away,” Mary told him as they watched the rushing water, but Nathaniel was nine and too young to understand the heaviness of her words.
Nathaniel could take a gun apart and put it back together with ease, but he had never had challah. He had taken aim and watched animals die at his hand, but he would never become a bar mitzvah. It made Mary want to cry sometimes, but she grit her teeth and stuffed her pity deep inside her stomach. There was no use mourning spilled blood. Her past could never be washed away, no matter how many new years came to take her.
It didn’t get any easier to observe on the run.
There was at least one synagogue in most towns, and Mary would find herself watching them as she drove past with a sort of wistfulness she would deny if Nathaniel asked her about it, but it was too big of a risk. Going to a synagogue meant being part of the community. It meant talking to people, testing the limits of the backstories they had invented, seeing people on a regular basis.
It meant there would be people who noticed and cared when they were gone, and that would mean loose ends, and Mary couldn’t afford those. Not if she wanted to keep her son alive.
Mary did occasionally sneak into a service or two, because she missed her mother and she missed the feeling of being human. Every synagogue was the same: tight-knit but welcoming, strangers smiling at her and offering their hands to be shaken, a dozen introductions Mary didn’t let herself remember. They were warm and loving. Mary had challah for the first time since she was fifteen, and she had to excuse herself to the bathroom so she could cry in private. She wanted this, more than anything. She wanted to be the person whose stories she told. She wanted to be worthy of this, of candles and prayers and the World to Come.
It never lasted long, because Mary had to get home. She had guns to clean and a son to pick up from school. She could not worry about saving her soul for a future that she would not earn. She had to focus on saving her skin in the here and now. That was what mattered.
In San Antonio, Mary bought cheap, round candles and lit them for Shabbat. Nathaniel repeated the prayers after her, his pronunciation getting better every week. She could not tell him what the words meant, but it hardly mattered. Nathaniel grinned as Mary lit the candles with a cigarette lighter and then lit her cigarette. It was a ritual.
After they left San Antonio, Mary didn’t buy any more candles, but on Friday nights, she and Nathaniel would whisper the prayers back and forth, trying to keep the memory alive for both of their sakes. Those nights became rarer and rarer over the years, because more often than not, they needed their sleep with a desperation borne from years of nightmares and sleeping pills.
Sometimes, though, when they were sitting together on planes, Mary would trace Hebrew into her son’s palm, trying to remind him of everything it meant.
She did not pray for herself any longer. It had always been a far-fetched dream, the idea that she would find freedom or resolution at the end of her rope; now, as she was coming closer to it, all she found was a noose.
When she prayed, it was for Nathaniel. She prayed that there would be a place for him in the World to Come, that he could find the redemption she had lost along the way, and that he would not forget what he was, what she was, what they were.