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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

‘Yeah,’ says Klara, ‘but which number?’

Daniel pulls a crumpled receipt out of his back pocket. When he looks up, his face is pink. ‘I’m not sure.’

‘Daniel!’ Varya leans against the wall of the building and flaps a hand in front of her face. It’s nearly ninety degrees, hot enough for her hairline to itch with sweat and her skirt to stick to her thighs.

‘Wait,’ Daniel says. ‘Let me think for a second.’

Simon sits down on the asphalt; the drawstring purse sags, like a jellyfish, between his legs. Klara pulls a piece of taffy from her pocket. Before she can unwrap it, the door to the building opens, and a young man walks out. He wears purple-tinged glasses and an unbuttoned paisley shirt.

He nods at the Golds. ‘You want in?’

‘Yes,’ says Daniel. ‘We do,’ and he is scrambling to his feet as the others follow him, he is walking inside and thanking the man with the purple glasses before the door shuts – Daniel, their fearless, half-inept leader whose idea this was.

He heard two boys talking last week while in line for the kosher Chinese at Shmulke Bernstein’s, where he intended to get one of the warm egg custard tarts he loves to eat even in the heat. The line was long, the fans whirring at top speed, so he had to lean forward to listen to the boys and what they said about the woman who had taken up temporary residence at the top of a building on Hester Street.

As he walked back to 72 Clinton, Daniel’s heart skipped in his chest. In the bedroom, Klara and Simon were playing Chutes and Ladders on the floor while Varya read a book in her top bunk. Zoya, the black-and-white cat, lay on the radiator in a square frame of sun.

Daniel laid it out for them, his plan.

‘I don’t understand.’ Varya propped a dirty foot up on the ceiling. ‘What exactly does this woman do?’

‘I told you.’ Daniel was hyper, impatient. ‘She has powers.’

‘Like what?’ asked Klara, moving her game piece. She’d spent the first part of the summer teaching herself Houdini’s rubber-band card trick, with limited success.

‘What I heard,’ said Daniel, ‘is she can tell fortunes. What’ll happen in your life – whether you’ll have a good one or a bad one. And there’s something else.’ He braced his hands in the door frame and leaned in. ‘She can say when you’ll die.’

Klara looked up.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Varya. ‘Nobody can say that.’

‘And what if they could?’ asked Daniel.

‘Then I wouldn’t want to know.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because.’ Varya put her book down and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bunk. ‘What if it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?’

‘Then it’d be better to know,’ said Daniel. ‘So you could get everything done before.’

There was a beat of silence. Then Simon began to laugh, his bird’s body fluttering. Daniel’s face deepened in color.

‘I’m serious,’ he said. ‘I’m going. I can’t take another day in this apartment. I refuse. So who the hell is coming with me?’

Perhaps nothing would have happened were it not the pit of summer, with a month and a half of humid boredom behind them and a month and a half ahead. There is no air-conditioning in the apartment, and this year – the summer of 1969 – it seems something is happening to everyone but them. People are getting wasted at Woodstock and singing ‘Pinball Wizard’ and watching Midnight Cowboy, which none of the Gold children are allowed to see. They’re rioting outside Stonewall, ramming the doors with uprooted parking meters, smashing windows and jukeboxes. They’re being murdered in the most gruesome way imaginable, with chemical explosives and guns that can fire five hundred and fifty bullets in succession, their faces transmitted with horrifying immediacy to the television in the Golds’ kitchen. ‘They’re walking on the motherfucking moon,’ said Daniel, who has begun to use this sort of language, but only at a safe remove from their mother. James Earl Ray is sentenced, and so is Sirhan Sirhan, and all the while the Golds play jacks or darts or rescue Zoya from an open pipe behind the oven, which she seems convinced is her rightful home.

But something else created the atmosphere required for this pilgrimage: they are siblings, this summer, in a way they will never be again. Next year, Varya will go to the Catskills with her friend Aviva. Daniel will be immersed in the private rituals of the neighborhood boys, leaving Klara and Simon to their own devices. In 1969, though, they are still a unit, yoked as if it isn’t possible to be anything but.

‘I’ll do it,’ said Klara.

‘Me, too,’ Simon said.

‘So how do we get an appointment with her?’ asked Varya, who knew, by thirteen, that nothing comes for free. ‘What does she charge?’

Daniel frowned. ‘I’ll find out.’

So this is how it started: as a secret, a challenge, a fire escape they used to dodge the hulking mass of their mother, who demanded that they hang laundry or get the goddamn cat out of the stovepipe whenever she found them lounging in the bunk room. The Gold children asked around. The owner of a magic shop in Chinatown had heard of the woman on Hester Street. She was a nomad, he told Klara, traveling around the country, doing her work. Before Klara left, the owner held up one finger, disappeared into a back aisle, and returned with a large, square tome called The Book of Divination. Its cover showed twelve open eyes surrounded by symbols. Klara paid sixty-five cents and hugged it on the walk home.

Some of the other residents at 72 Clinton Street knew of the woman, too. Mrs. Blumenstein had met her in the fifties at a fabulous party, she told Simon. She let her schnauzer out to the front stoop, where Simon sat, and where the dog promptly produced a pellet-sized turd of which Mrs. Blumenstein did not dispose.

‘She read my palm. She said I would have a very long life,’ Mrs. Blumenstein said, leaning forward for emphasis. Simon held his breath: Mrs. Blumenstein’s own breath smelled stale, as if she were exhaling the same ninety-year-old air she had inhaled as a baby. ‘And do you know, my dear, she was right.’

The Hindu family on the sixth floor called the woman a rishika, a seer. Varya wrapped a piece of Gertie’s kugel in foil and brought it to Ruby Singh, her classmate at PS 42, in return for a plate of spiced butter chicken. They ate on the fire escape as the sun went down, their bare legs swinging beneath the grates.

Ruby knew all about the woman. ‘Two years ago,’ she said, ‘I was eleven, and my grandmother was sick. The first doctor said it was her heart. He told us she’d die in three months. But the second doctor said she was strong enough to recover. He thought she could live for two years.’