The Book of Jonah

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The sky was already turning grey by the time Jonah got to the ferry, burdened with a small suitcase and a few plastic bags announcing their origin as Zabar’s in garish orange lettering. Only a handful of passengers were there, looking nervously at the stacks of black clouds piling on top of each other, but Jonah only felt a deep weariness. As the mainland disappeared into the drizzle, Jonah sunk onto a bench and closed his eyes.


Jonah opened his eyes, trying to blink the fog out of his vision, but it remained. A young man was shaking his shoulder with one hand, holding a faded orange life vest in the other. Rain is slashing sideways through the ferry.

“You gotta put this on!” The kid was shouting over the storm, his eyes wide with worry. The rain was beating down, percussive against the steel ferry. Jonah took the vest, and started to offer some words of reassurance to the young sailor, to let him know these sudden squalls are common this time of year. But the kid was already moving away, skidding slightly as the ferry listed to port. Instead, he slid his arms through the jacket, moving toward the rail.

For a moment, Jonah wondered whether he will be swept over the side. It didn’t seem like a bad idea. He imagined sinking below the waves, spiraling down into the deep, swallowed up by a big fish, like his namesake.

And in the imagining, the prayer swims up through the layers of memory.

“I called out of mine affliction unto Hashem, and was answered; out of the belly of the nether-world I called, and You heard my voice.

“For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas and the flood was round about me; all Your waves and winds passed over me.”

Mouthing the words, the smell of his grandfather’s tallis, the cigar-scented wool fills his nostrils. The comfort of being tucked under his father’s prayer shawl clung to him. “I am cast out from before Your eyes, yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.” His eyes sting with unexpected tears. His memories rarely stray so far into the past, and the sweetness was like honey on his tongue. Then the ferry rolled again, and the sweetness slid away with the tilt of the deck. He braced himself, physically and mentally, for the next surge.

As anticipated, a wave crashed hard against the port side, and the howling of the wind merged with the remembered wailing of his mother after she found him kissing a schoolmate.

“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the deep was round about me; the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars closed upon me for ever,” he prayed, one fist unconsciously beating against his thigh. The pain helped steady him as his memory inexorably continued to the shouting threats of sitting shiva if Jonah ever brought a boyfriend home. He watched the shoreline draw closer through the rain, feeling comfort in his remembered anger.

He could hear the shouts of the sailors as they wrestled the ferry through the squall. They nearly crashed into the dock. Some of the other passengers weakly cheered, but Jonah didn’t join them. He peeled of the life jacket, handed it to the shaking young sailor, said “it’ll be better on the way back.” The kid looked uncertain, but even as Jonah was walking down the dock, the rain let up and the clouds moved out to sea.

He continued past the collection of bars huddled at the base of the dock, and turned down a sidewalk of planks to a shingled cottage. A piece of driftwood attached to the exterior next to the door, the name “Tarshish” burned into the wood in a pseudo-Hebrew lettering style. Jonah sorted through his keys, finding the one that fits the doublelock, and let himself in.

The cottage smelled like cedar and lemonseed oil. Light filtered in from the large windows facing the ocean. Jonah carried the shopping bags into the kitchen, and unloaded the groceries. He poured two fingers of scotch, and carried it into the living room, where he settled into a comfortable chair to watch the last vestiges of the storm from the comfort of Tarshish.

It was an in-joke. Jonah’s greatest love, Amos, was also named for a prophet. Unlike his own parents, who threatened to sit shiva for him if he ever brought a boyfriend home, Amos’ parents, Sam and Hannah, welcomed him with open arms. It was a blessing, to have such acceptance and love at such a vulnerable time in his life. Jonah learned to live with loss when his family turned their backs on him. It was Amos who taught him that we can create new families. Family and friends filled the cottage each summer, spilling out over the decks, making a joyful noise. Jonah remembered the smell of the ocean, the cries of the gulls, and the beautiful, beautiful men walking the beach. Surrounded by the chaos of love and acceptance at the cottage on the island, Jonah once confessed to Hannah over a pitcher of sangria that he thought of the place as a special haven. She patted his hand, and smiled. “Even your namesake needed Tarshish to run to. You’re just lucky enough to get there.” The next time Jonah went out to the cottage, he found the driftwood sign nailed to the front of the cottage.

Jonah smiled as he remembers how he laughed to see it, loud enough for Hannah to hear him and open the door. Greeting him with a hug, and a motherly kiss, gathering him into her arms.

“Yet You brought up my life from the pit Hashem my Lord.” The years of estrangement from his parents, made so much easier because of the acceptance from his lover’s family. “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Hashem , and my prayer came in unto You, into Your holy temple.”

Jonah sipped his scotch, his thumb running across the edge of the key to the cottage. The first summer after Amos died, Jonah almost didn’t go. But then Sam called, and in that deep, gravelly voice, he commanded Jonah’s appearance. Together, the men walked the beach, talking about the man they both loved so dearly. Before they returned to the cottage, Sam gave him a key. “This is your home, too, my son,” he said gruffly, and they embraced, weeping silently against each others’ necks.

Three days later, Jonah turned his phone back on, answered the call, and agreed to travel upstate.

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