How could I serve myself from such distant
plates, when the home had broken, when not
even mother could be forced from the lips.
How could I dine on nothing.
I was born to words of condolence, “everything will work out,” “you’ll make it through,” “a child is always a blessing,” “everything happens for a reason.” I ask myself: why didn’t you just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why was this asshole kid in a school uniform at the hospital waiting to meet his son? Why did this idiot girl nearly shred her uterus so she could feel more grown up? Wasn’t there a pharmacy nearby? Hadn’t they ever heard the story of the little seed? Couldn’t they take her temperature to check if it was ovulation day? Horny dogs; and me, an unexpected gift that will never go away. I was born standing up, about to suffocate, threatening to rip apart my mother’s insides, requiring an emergency C-section to save both our lives. Later, like three siblings, we shared the same room, even the same bed. Who cried more, you or me? My bawling kept them from sleeping. My dad took the equivalency test over summer vacation. My mom finished her courses the following year. Neither one did well on the college entrance exams.
But you weren’t the average teenage couple, you wanted to start a revolution, so I was a double burden, to your youth and to your politics. I was born listening to the music of the nova trova, seventies rock, cultivating an ear for distorted melodies. The first words I learned were: values, ideology, party, people. Words I imagined my parents pronouncing in all caps.
The following summer Dad went to the south for a meeting of the party youth, we didn’t hear from him for three months. A neighbor started hitting on Mom. He brought books, they wrote pamphlets, they went to secret meetings—which I also attended with my coloring book. One morning he came by with a handkerchief over his mouth, worn so loose that more than a disguise, it looked like a sad attempt at seduction. He stayed the night. Through the wall of the bedroom I heard the moans and laughter of two people enjoying each other. In an obvious ruse, he returned the following day with a gift for me, a racecar track that made a lot of noise. I thought a train would’ve been better, with its intermittent whistle and its sinuous wheels. When Dad got home, there was a big fight that all the neighbors heard, the usual words were thrown around like boomerangs: values, commitment, ideology, party, people, in all caps. I’m not sure of the exact order but those were the words they always used: values, commitment, ideology, party, people. I drew a star with five points and made a mark for each repetition.
Once, a friend of my mother’s I’d become very fond of showed up at the house disguised in a beard, a wig, and an Uruguayan accent. I gave him a sidelong glance. As he planned the commando operation, I pictured him snoring in Mom’s bed. From then on, we became the chromosome 21 family: two mothers, three fathers, five grandparents, ever-multiplying aunts and uncles. I lived in several homes, in boarding houses, in abandoned apartments.
There was nothing I hated more than the word mission; it meant that my father or mother would be gone for a long time. Confronted with my sobs and pleas, they repeated the magic words: “the Party’s orders,” “the party’s orders” I said, in lowercase. Those words were the reason for everything: sudden moves, absences, families separated, partners changing. A while later, among the furniture displaced by another move, I read the news of a failed attack and the names of the people captured. I understood then, that muggy afternoon, that my father was imprisoned in a narrow room with the sun bouncing off the beat-up cars outside. I think I fainted as the other kids sweltered in the mirage created by the 4pm midsummer heat. I never dared to go visit him in prison. Everyone came back after the visits shaking their heads, commenting on how skinny he was. I preferred to maintain my image of the nervous man, smoking cigars while his hand drew an arc on his forehead. I had a photo of my dad under my pillow and I talked to him quietly every night.
When he was set free he came to stay with us. I noticed he was softer in his treatment, his gestures, his tone of voice. “What’s going on with you and Mom?” I asked. They both shrugged their shoulders, spit out trite expressions without saying anything that made sense. I imagine it must be difficult to have a kid look at you with such confusion, demanding a response from two confused parents. She peeked into the hall, made coffee, pointed to a spot on the sofa. She told me that they were trying again. “Trying what?” I said. “Being together, doesn’t that make you happy?” But, as was to be expected, that happiness was very fragile. One day Mom came home to solemnly announce: “I’m going to the Soviet Union for a year. They’re sending your father to Romania, it’s dangerous for him to stay here, they’ll put him back in prison. You’ll stay with Marta, you’ll be safe with her.” I stared at her without understanding what was going on inside me. I waited a few seconds then left, slamming the door behind me.
I spent my fourteenth year collecting rubles with Cyrillic writing, stamps with Lenin’s face, all from my mother’s friend’s home, where I was welcomed. You guys traveled all over the Soviet bloc and sent me postcards. My father met with Josip Broz Tito, Marshall Tito, I got an envelope with a Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija stamp and a twenty dinar bill. I became a desperate collector of bills and stamps. I’d hold my breath waiting to intercept the postman. He didn’t even get the chance to ring the bell; I was already there with my hand out to receive the foreign envelopes with three stamps and two seals of entry and exit. I learned more and more names, cities and countries that I located on the world map that hung on the wall. I’d cut out the stamp, soak it in water until the glue came off and add it to the album made from alternating pages of cardboard and wax paper.
As I chopped the carrots for dinner, I asked Marta what her job was in the party. “To take care of the kids of comrades who are on a mission,” she responded as she hummed a song by Silvio. Marta had a seventeen year old daughter, Lili. I’d stare at her, unable to hide my fascination with her long eyelashes, her strong legs. She’d say to me “I’ll tell you the truth.” I asked her about her dad and she pointed to a photocopied image on the wall: the blurry face of a man with a sentence underneath: “Where are they?” I looked at the flyer but didn’t say anything. Out of revenge, she called me a “curfew baby,” which I didn’t find funny.
My first time was with Lili. I still have the scene recorded on my retina, searching for explosives in the backyard shed only to end up ripping each other’s clothes off. We were brought together by an atypical biography, our childhood innocence colored by our parents’ decision to take up arms. I asked if she had any memory of her father, “none,” she answered bitterly, as she handed me a stake. We made a tent against the wall of the shed, we gathered sticks, odds and ends, and we built our home. That was a sacred space, with its own set of rules. A place where the prying eyes of fathers and mothers couldn’t reach us. Lili took my clothes off and noticed the fuzz under my arms and the strip of brown hair that went down my belly and beyond. Sometimes I had an acrid, adult smell. She gave me a sort of crash course in obscene words. She got me pornographic magazines and books, she demanded that I memorize some poem from the Golden Age and then whisper it in her ear. Lili had a calendar in which she marked a day with a circle and the following five days with an ellipsis. Those days we’d go right up to the edge but she’d push me away when I reached the limit. I always felt like I was another mission for her, one she took on with the dedication of a disciplined militant. My romantic apprenticeship was her responsibility.
We formed an organization, she was the boss, and I was the subordinate. We fought against the bad guys, who were the military, in the name of the good guys, who were our parents. Later, we’d turn to the lessons of desire: how to press a hand against the secret spot, push the button with circular movements as if it were the joystick of an Atari, leave a finger in this position, know how to wait, recognize the appropriate wetness, tongue kiss without brushing teeth, reach that intense spasm with your eyes closed in a meadow.
Marta never asked, I don’t think she even suspected the tenor of our time spent together, she saw me as a little boy and her daughter as a woman. Anyway she was always busy, making visits, typing documents. I can picture her seated on the floor, with the Olivetti typewriter on her lap and her cigarettes nearby, talking to foreigners, diplomats, and intellectuals, in two or three different languages, passing from one to the other with a minute twist of the lips. I must admit that in some way that environment was exciting to me. There was hope in that parade of hands tightly gripping documents and walking out the front door. More than one visitor asked if I was a “son.” Marta nodded, throwing me a solemn glance, I felt a mix of self-pity and pride.
Back from her long Russian trip, which lasted almost four years, Mom returned married to the neighbor. She’d changed her way of dressing, she wore a fur hat and silk scarves. I didn’t know whether to greet her with a cold kiss or to throw myself at this beautiful woman. It was hard to pretend to be a family with a man I’d always disliked. At that point I was an early adolescent and I knew that when I sat down to the table they didn’t see me, but my father. His dominant genes made sure that his paternity was obvious even in his absence. I stabbed the food with a fork and brought it to my mouth, my face buried in the plate to avoid awkward gazes. In this way I protected myself from what I imagined were their inner thoughts: “there’s the guy that got her pregnant, that never sent money, off who knows where.” The young revolutionary had become an orderly functionary of an ecological ONG in the United States and he was constantly out of work between projects or consultations. I’d been living with them for a few months when the attack on Pinochet occurred, it was a Sunday, we were having a snack, and the special bulletin from 60 Minutes shocked us. Aware of my gaze, Mom seemed to measure her reaction, hiding her happiness, her guilty happiness. But she couldn’t suppress a “finally something happens to that motherfucker.” I remained focused on my bread and mortadella. The neighbor paced back and forth making enraged comments: “All those years of training and I bet they used a homemade grenade, the lazy bastards.” Another gray Sunday, several dead bodyguards, the ferret-like eyes of Pinochet’s grandson injured by shards of glass. At night they repeated the words: guerilla, Nicaragua, subversives. I was so anxious, I’m not sure why, but I went to see Lili, who was also upset. We locked ourselves in her room, there was no time to take precautions. There was only an urgency, to be inside her, to distract ourselves from the drama. We didn’t look at the calendar, we needed to protect ourselves from the future.
My father came to my graduation, they’d taken the letter L from his passport and he entered through the International Police, older, with the typical wide fatness of the gringos, wearing clothes that were of high quality but out of fashion. At dinner after all the speeches I finally had my parents together again. I asked them to be silent, no to interrupt.
“It’s my turn, I get to talk now, I’ve listened to you for years.”
I have to tell you, your youth was confused by the revolution. First, the daily urgencies: bombings, men hiding in the shadows, nighttime shootings, martial law, curfew, burned books. But you were late to the revolution, twenty years too late, stubbornly insisting on something that didn’t work, because human nature is imperfect. Has there ever been equality among the citizens of one country? Could all the people possibly have the energy and conviction to work for others?
Looking back, I think it was a cocktail of youthful effervescence and raging hormones. Now I doubt your true courage, I think you took unnecessary risks, blamed personal problems on “the cause.” You believed you were messiahs of the future, bearing arms, wearing camouflage, always talking about the future in the first person plural. You played at war, but with lead soldiers on a checkerboard. It wasn’t such a bad deal for you guys, you learned languages, studied postgraduate degrees thanks to scholarships from international organizations. But I think you were both guilty of arrogance, foolhardiness, false heroism. You should’ve just stepped aside and let the dead file past. What did you think you’d accomplish with your weak efforts? In the end, everyone tells themselves the lies they need to live. No, don’t look at me like that. Yes, I confess that I do feel some admiration, but why didn’t you ever see me as a soldier for your troops?
Things didn’t get any better in the period that followed. My father returned to the United States, my mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. I’d sit next to her and we’d study the horizon. I talked and talked. I have an idea for a better world. Let’s get out of this kitchen. Let’s get away from the cups, the spoons, the photos of you as a young guerilla on the refrigerator. No, let’s look at the bus tickets, the maps, the rolling suitcases, the pamphlets, the Che Guevara posters… Lili calls with an “I think maybe, come quick.” In less than an hour I’m at her house. She’s waiting with a test she’d bought at the pharmacy. She gives me a dry kiss and goes into the bathroom. Sitting on the bed, I unfold the test instructions, it says that it measures the presence of a hormone in the urine called Human chorionic gonadotropin or Beta-hCG. The five minute wait seems infinite. I think about my childhood, the postcards, about Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija, about the “Where are theys,” about the bread and mortadella, about the stamps of Stalin, about our love tent, about the Olivetti typewriter. Lili comes out waving a strip marked with a red plus sign between two holes; I never liked addition and subtraction. And of course there’s a firestorm of recriminations. Why didn’t I just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why am I still such a horny dog? I think about my desperate need to be a son before I become a father. I feel the unstoppable urge to heave and wonder what ideology I can use to mask my lack of desire to be a father.
In the geography lesson the teacher, Mr. Levy, was talking about the Yarkon, and for this reason Hefzibah locked herself in the Girls’ Room during the morning recess.
At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher announced that the class was going to study the Yarkon and “when we’ve finished, we’ll make a field trip to the headwaters of the river to see for ourselves how things are running.” And while the class was still laughing, and the teacher was saying that they wouldn’t be able to visit the Fortress of Antipater because the area was still mined, images rose in her mind of a visit she had made with her mother and brother to the Yarkon Hospital in Tel Aviv four years earlier, images suffused with an element of remoteness and disjunction because of some turbidity which screened them from her. They were nevertheless vivid and sharp and burdened her with painful guilt feelings. A strong light spilled into the room through the windows facing south—it was early afternoon—and the whiteness of the walls dazzled her. Because of the glare, she chose to reexamine for a moment the darkness of the night before, when she was startled out of her sleep and didn’t understand what the commotion was all about and what her father’s bridge partners were doing in the house. Later she was able to discern the doctor passing by her bed in the anteroom leading to her parents’ bedroom, and in some vague way began to realize that something serious had happened. Hefzibah asked herself if she had gone back to sleep that night and remembered that the next day the British declared a curfew, scheduled to start at four in the afternoon and include the entire country, and that before her mother climbed into the ambulance she told her that she wasn’t sure she would be back by four and that she should take care of her small brother and give him lunch. Hefzibah recalled the terrible tension which had wracked her the whole day and so she switched her thoughts back to the white room. The light that had dazzled her focused her glance on the black spot on the pillow: thin straight hair parted on the left and combed over the right temple.
“The mills on the river, Hefzibah!” The voice of Mr. Levy, the teacher, suddenly burst upon her and she turned her head in his direction. Her eyes glazed, curtained by those distant images, and she said nothing.
“Again you’re not paying attention, Hefzibah,” he chided her. Hefzibah lowered her eyes and returned to the scenes in her mind. It was in the fifth grade, she remembered, and her home teacher, Dr. Eisner, who was their neighbor and her parents’ friend, left at the end of that year and moved with his family to the new Rasco housing project on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, right next to the Yarkon. During the summer vacation, when she went to visit him with her little brother, the bus took them past that same hospital and she remembered being struck by some kind of momentary fear which froze the flow of her exhilaration. The family was happy to see them and Dr. Eisner, her former teacher, took them and his own children rowing on the Yarkon. Her brother was very frightened and wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Esther Strauss, who was her best friend and sat next to her, nudged her suddenly and she heard the teacher ask: “Have any of you ever gone rowing on the Yarkon?” But Hefzibah didn’t raise her hand, and her eyes went back to the glaring light, to the dazzling whiteness, and she remembered how frightened she was of looking at him—he was so strange and unfamiliar, covered up to the neck with a stiff starched sheet, his head on the pillow: the black spot where his hair was and his white face with a bluish hue on his cheeks. Hefzibah clearly remembered that she had been more interested in the good-looking boy lying on the next bed than she had been in her father, and her pencil sketched the memory on the piece of paper on her desk: a room, a row of beds, a head on a pillow. Only the face escaped her and she couldn’t understand how she had forgotten it so quickly—after only two weeks—and she asked herself why the features were so blurred: the eyes, the nose, the lips, the wrinkles—everything had been sucked into an elliptical void resembling an ancient theatrical mask, perhaps a Greek one like the mask she had once seen in a book. The name of the book slipped her mind.
Mr. Levy, the teacher, said: “Hefzibah, instead of paying attention you have been doodling the whole time.” Hefzibah said: “I’m not doodling, Mr. Levy, I’m drawing.” The teacher lost his temper and said: “Talking back again, are you? For tomorrow you can copy Psalm 82 one hundred times.” Hefzibah shrugged her shoulders and remembered that Dr. Eisner, her teacher in the fifth grade, had been sympathetic, had never reprimanded her. On the contrary, he would jokingly tell the class that Hefzibah could do anything, even listen and draw at the same time. It really didn’t bother him that she drew during class. That’s why Hefzibah showed him the journal she kept where she had written about Impressionism and why Van Gogh cut off his ear, and where she had copied her own poems and even a little story about three old women in a secluded house. But she was sure Mr. Levy wouldn’t appreciate things like that and there was no point in explaining them to him.
During the recess, then, Hefzibah locked herself in one of the bathroom stalls. She pulled down the cover of the toilet seat and sat there, her face crushed in her hands. She went through her memories and tried to capture the features of the face on the white pillow in her parents’ bedroom when her mother had sent her in to look at him for the last time. But now, returning to the room, she couldn’t see anything. Her mind was unable to catch hold of any likeness and she was angry with herself and decided that as soon as she got home she would look at the photograph album and then close her eyes and summon up his picture over and over again until it was indelibly engraved in her mind and could never be lost again so thoughtlessly. The door to the Girls’ Room opened and Hefzibah heard someone come in, turn on the faucet and speak. She recognized the voice of Bracha Shvili and heard her say: “Did you notice that she was wearing the jumper at the funeral?”
“Yes,” said the voice of Shula Reisser. “So what?”
Bracha Shvili said: “She repaired the place where the rabbi tore it. It’s not done.”
“Is it forbidden?” asked Shula Reisser.
“I’ll have to check that ,” said Bracha. “I’ll ask the Talmud teacher.”
Meanwhile someone else came in and now Hefzibah heard Esther Strauss, her best friend, saying: “Did you hear how Hefzi laughed out loud. She should be ashamed of herself.”
The girls left the Girls’ Room and Hefzibah’s hand went up to her heart, fingering the place where the rabbi had rent her jumper.
She usually sat in class next to her best friend, Esther Strauss, but now she took the seat next to Eli Weiss. And during the lesson, when Mr. Levy, the teacher, was explaining the characteristics of the idyll, Eli Weiss wrote in her notebook:
“Your eyes exude a verdant light
Just like two sparkling emeralds.”
Hefzibah read the lines and smiled. Suddenly, Mr. Levy said: “Hefzibah! What are you doing over there? Take your things and come sit here”. He pointed to the empty seat in front of him.
Hefzibah took her time changing places and the teacher bellowed at her: “Hurry up! You’re wasting the whole lesson.” Hefzibah sullenly began to gather her things together. Eli Weiss whispered: “Why is he always picking on you?” She winked at him unobtrusively and he returned a shy smile. When she finally sat down in front of the teacher, she saw that Eli was flushed with anger and plea. Towards the end of the hour she tore a page out of her notebook, wrote a few words on it, folded it and tossed it to the back. Mr. Levy shouted: “This is too much! You are going to stay after school tomorrow for two hours. Tell your parents—I mean your mother—not to worry.”
Hefzibah thought: The whole class noticed his mistake. She was seething with anger and she said: “But, Mr. Levy, you already gave me a punishment…”
“No ‘buts’,” he broke in. “Psalm 82 a hundred times and two hours after school and if that won’t help you’ll have to bring your par.. your mother.”
Hefzibah thought about Dr. Eisner and about the fact that since he left, no other teacher had understood her. She remembered that on the way to visit them with her brother, the bus had passed between mounds of red earth carved out on either side of the road as if by a knife. She remembered that he had kept her journal for a few days and when he had come over to return it, he had said to her parents: “You have no idea what kind of girl you have.” And after that, her memories returned to the hospital and to the white room and the sharp light and the boy lying in the bed next to her father’s and she thought: I was more interested in the boy than I was in my father. Now I keep telling myself that I was afraid to look at him. But that’s not true. I was simply indifferent. I didn’t want to know.”
During the recess, Hefzibah stood on the terrace, leaning over the ledge, watching the boys and girls in the yard playing ball or jumping rope.
Dr. Moskowitz, the Talmud teacher, had taken out a chair and sat down in the sun. Hefzibah saw Bracha Shvili walk over to him, bend down and say something. Her hand moved up her jumper and she fingered the place where the rabbi had rent it. Only by actually touching it could you tell there was a defect in the weave.
Shula Reisser came over to her. “Look at that pair of turtledoves,” she said, motioning with her head towards a corner of the yard. Hefzibah saw Mr. Levy and Bracha Shvili standing and talking together. “Disgusting,” said Shula. “First she sucks up to Dr. Moskowitz and then to Mr. Levy.”
“I see that it’s been repaired,” said Shula Reisser, pointing to the top of the jumper.
“Yes. My mother gave it to invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Is that allowed?” asked Shula.
“I never asked the rabbi,” said Hefzibah contemptuously. “I like this jumper. Maybe you think I should have walked around with it torn till doomsday?”
“You should find out if it’s allowed,” said Shula, annoyed.
“And if it’s not allowed, so what? What’s it your business? Maybe everybody’ll stop watching me like a hawk all the time?”
“You’d better watch out,” said Shula. “Everybody’s talking about you. They say you laugh too much.”
Hefzibah walked away and, standing by herself, again leaning on the ledge and watching the children play, she realized that there was no one in the world she could talk to: Esther Strauss, her best friend, was just a hairbrain and Eli Strauss was still a baby and didn’t understand a thing.
Now Bracha Shvili approached her. She fixed her eyes on the jumper and said: “They fixed it for you. You can’t see a thing.”
“Invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Hefzi,” said Bracha Shvili softly, “they say it’s wrong. I asked Dr. Moskowitz. He teaches Jewish law. He should know. He says it’s forbidden.”
“And the fact that you’re so palsy-walsy with Mr. Levy, that’s not forbidden? He’s a married man with a wife and children in Jerusalem,” said Hefzibah, carpingly.
Bracha Shvili turned red and retorted: “Why are you always insulting people?”
“Look who’s talking about insults,” said Hefzibah.
The next day Hefzibah gave Mr. Levy the pages on which she had copied out Psalm 82 a hundred times.
“I hope that you now know the Psalm by heart,” he said.
Hefzibah didn’t answer and he said: “Don’t forget. You’re staying after school today for two hours. Did you tell your mother?”
“Yes,” lied Hefzibah and asked: “How can you be sure I won’t slip out in the middle?”
“I’m staying with you, that’s how. What did you suppose?”
“So then you’re also being punished,” she laughed.
“No,” he smiled, “I’ll be correcting homework.”
First she took out her sandwiches and ate them in silence. Then she took out a pad of drawing paper, a small glass and some tubes of gouache. “I’m just going to get some water,” she said to Mr. Levy. Then she painted for two hours without saying a word, inwardly abusing and vilifying the teacher the whole time, pouring out her wrath in strong colors, frenziedly covering the paper with paint, one coat on top of the other, page after page.
Suddenly the teacher said: “You can go. The two hours are over.”
Hefzibah screwed on the tops of the tubes, cleaned and dried her brush and put everything into her schoolbag. As she was leaving, Mr. Levy said: “I didn’t know you paint.”
“I only doodle,” she said.
Outside she saw Bracha Shvili. She’s waiting for him, she thought, and hid behind a wall to see what would happen. Mr. Levy came out of the school and Bracha Shvili went up to him. They exchanged a few words and then left together.
Crazy nut, thought Hefzibah. What can she possibly see in that revolting man? As for him, she thought, he punishes me on the slightest pretense while he himself goes for walks in the evening with Bracha Shvili, and him with a wife and children in Jerusalem.
Hefzibah sat in the kitchen picking over the rice. On one side she put the chaff and the tiny stones, and on the other the rice, until there was a small white mound. Her mother was standing near the kitchen counter changing the wick in the kerosene cooker. Hefzibah’s grandmother, who had just finished cleaning the house of their well-to-do neighbors (whom her mother had in mind when she said that in Palestine all the parvenus had made it big while people of culture and learning were starving), came in and asked if they needed any help. Hefzibah believed that if it weren’t for Hitler, her grandmother would have had servants of her own and wouldn’t have to clean house for other people and, maybe, her father would still be alive. She thought: It’s this country that killed him and maybe it’s true that mother shouldn’t have given my jumper to invisible mending.
Out loud she said: “You know, the girls say that it’s against Jewish law to mend the tear.”
“But you have nothing to wear,” her mother answered, “and winter clothes are awfully expensive.”
Hefzibah was late coming to meet her friends. “Where is everybody?” she asked the boy who was waiting for her.
“They left,” he said.
“Where to?” she asked irately.
“Nowhere in particular. Just strolling—in pairs.”
“Eli wasn’t here?” she asked.
He went off with Rickey,” the boy said.
Hefzibah’s heart sank and she thought: What a traitor. He didn’t even wait for me.
“Come on, let’s go over to the park,” said the boy, “maybe they’re there.”
They walked up the hill in silence. The silence weighed on Hefzibah and she said: “Are you from Jerusalem?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then where did you go to school before?”
“The Yeshivah,” he answered.
“Your people are that religious?” she asked, stunned. He didn’t look like that—like those ultra-orthodox from the Yeshivah.
“No,” he answered.
Hefzibah had no more questions and the boy was silent. They reached the top of the hill and Hefzibah said: “I don’t see them anywhere. I’m going home.”
The boy walked her home and quickly took his leave. In the front yard of the house a lantana bush grew wild around the fence, creating a small den. When she was small she would play there with her brother. Now she discerned a crouching figure, a large grey hulk, hiding in the foliage. She began to run in the direction of the house. The figure detached itself from the bush and ran after her, massive and floundering. “Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed. Her mother appeared at the door. “Get out of here, do you hear me, or I’ll call the police!”
He would always lie in ambush for her there, fat crazy Shaul, trying to catch her and kiss her.
When he would pass her in the street he would shout after her:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head,” or
“Shalom is crazy, Hefzi is good,
The rabbi’s going to marthem because he should.”
Hefzibah found him repulsive and terrifying. Her mother always said: “one day I’ll lose all my patience with you and go to the police.” But she never did. She pitied him and his parents. “If I go to the police,” she said, “they’ll lock him up for good and finish him off with electric shocks.”
Saturday afternoon, Hefzibah went to the girls’ club. She didn’t pay attention to what the leader was saying. Later they were joined by the boys and began to play guessing games. Hefzibah sat on the side, not taking part. Eli was sitting next to Rickey and didn’t look at her even once. When evening fell and Sabbath was out, they went inside for folk dancing. Hefzibah stood around watching. She loved dancing. Bracha Shvili went over and stood next to her.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” Hefzibah asked her.
“I’m not in the mood,” answered Bracha Shvili.
Someone called for a krakowiak and Hancha pulled out his harmonica to play. Hefzibah noticed that Eli picked Rickey for the dance.
Bracha Shvili said: “Eli and Rickey are going together.”
Hefzibah didn’t say a word and Bracha Shvili said: “Somebody saw them kissing. On a bench on Rothschild Boulevard. That Rickey’ll give it to whoever asks.”
“He’s just a big baby,” said Hefzibah. She watched the dancing couples spinning around before her eyes. She thought she had better go home and learn the chapter in Jeremiah by heart. Otherwise Dr. Moskowitz would punish her. But she didn’t feel like going home alone. She was afraid that crazy Shalom would be waiting for her behind the lantana bush. She figured that if she waited until the dancing was over, she would find someone to walk her home.
There was a gallery running along the walls of the club about halfway to the ceiling and Hefzibah decided to go up and sit there alone, in the dark. When she entered the darkened gallery, she was surprised to see a figure sitting on one of the benches. She stopped, ready to turn back and retrace her steps, when the voice of Bracha Shvili, a little choked and hoarse, called to her: “Come over here, Hefzi.”
“Why are you sitting here alone in the dark?” Hefzibah asked, surprised.
“Come and sit down,” said Bracha Shvili and Hefzibah sat down next to her and asked: “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
But Bracha Shvili didn’t answer. Only choked sobs escaped.
“Stop it! That’s enough!” said Hefzibah, a little frightened, put off by this display of uncontrolled grief.
“I love him so much,” Bracha Shvili sobbed, “I really don’t know what to do. When he goes home to his wife and children I feel completely lost.”
“But how can you? He’s an old man. I can’t understand what you see in him,” said Hefzibah.
Bracha Shvili took Hefzibah’s hand and began caressing it.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” she moaned. “I can’t begin to tell you how crazy I am about him.”
And then, before Hefzibah’s darkening eyes, Bracha Shvili began to sway back and forth, her eyes closed, her voice whispering: “I love you, I love you so much. I can’t live without you.”
Hefzibah studied her in her anguish, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly Bracha Shvili embraced her and whispered in her ear: “You’re mine, only mine.” Hefzibah was appalled and tried to break loose from the girl’s embrace but Bracha held on and whispered: “You won’t leave me. You’re mine alone.” And then she kissed her passionately on the mouth. Hefzibah pushed her away savagely, disgusted. “You’re out of your mind!” she whispered harshly, getting up and running down the stairs.
“Hefzi, Hefzi, wait for me!” the voice importuned her, but Hefzibah didn’t stop. When she reached the bottom she immediately joined the circle of dancers, now in the middle of a tempestuous hora. They stamped their feet and clapped their hands at a furious tempo, their voices emitting a frenzied gibberish: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya! Lefti, befti, belabelabefti, tchingileh, mingileh, loof, loof, loof!!!” The intense fervor drove the nausea out of her system and she gave herself up to the beat, oblivious to everything.
Only later, when the circle of dancers dissipated and the frenzied “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” stopped throbbing against her temples did she realize what she had done. She didn’t stay a moment longer but left the club immediately.
Hefzibah walked rapidly, her knees shaking, as she tried to blot out everything. Still, her mind kept churning up the terrible question: “What will they say? What will they say?” Every so often she took a long deep breath in order to fortify her battery of counter-arguments, such as: “It’s my own business. It doesn’t concern anyone else.” But the question was overpowering, attacking her with renewed force.
When she reached the fence, she examined the yard carefully and, seeing no one, entered quietly, making her way stealthily past the thicket of the lantana bush. She kept as close as possible to the opposite hedge, her head bent a little, fighting the urge to look back at the dark shadow of overgrown foliage. But halfway to the door, a heavy, obese body sprang out and, stamping like a clumsy, tottering bear, fell upon her. He grabbed hold of her with his coarse, heavy hands, murmuring; “Hefzi, my beauty, the joy of my life. I’ve caught you!”
“Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed, but his moist lips were already on her face, his hands red-hot tongs piercing the flesh of her arms.
In the square of light of the opened door, she saw her mother for half a second, standing and looking and suddenly running down the steps, waving a broom and shouting: “Get out of here! Now! Or I’ll call the police!” The demented man let Hefzibah go and disappeared into the overgrown bushes, an obscure mass sinking into the mouth of darkness.
Hefzibah broke into a loud wail and her mother took her in her arms and helped her into the house. In the foyer she held onto her a little longer, caressing her head and saying: “Daddy would have broken all his bones, only we have no daddy. Tomorrow I’ll tell the landlord he has to uproot that whole bush and I’ll go over and talk to that maniac’s parents.”
On Sunday the seat next to Eli Weiss was empty again and Hefzibah decided to sit there. Eli Weiss wrote her a letter of apology during class. He explained that he loved her, only her, that Rickey had provoked him and that his biological urge had gotten the better of him.
On the note she returned she wrote only: “Hope you had a good time.” That’s all.
While passing the note to Eli she felt the teacher’s menacing glance on her and she understood that if she wasn’t careful she might be punished again. When the bell rang, Eli Weiss got up but Hefzibah remained seated. She took the Book of Jeremiah out of her schoolbag and began to learn the assigned chapter by heart. The classroom emptied out slowly and in the end only a few girls remained, among them Esther Strauss, her best friend, Bracha Shvili, Shula Reisser and Leah Katz. Hefzibah was reading under her breath and her lips were moving:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?
Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep…”
And while she was still absorbed in the Bible, committing the passage to memory, she was suffused by the fear that some menacing presence was approaching, throbbing in the air, spinning towards her and crying: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” She tried to ward off the oppressive feeling, returning to the text:
“Thou art ever on their lips,
yet far from their hearts.
But thou knowest me, O Lord, thou seest me;
thou dost test my devotion to thyself…”
But some commotion deflected her from the passage and she noticed that her friends had gathered around her, randomly, in a horseshoe. Then all of a sudden, as if in a phantasmagoria, she saw Bracha Shvili spinning towards her, her arms outstretched. And before she realized exactly what was happening, she felt the full force of an open hand strike her on the cheek. Hefzibah lifted her hand to her face, utterly nonplused, and heard Bracha Shvili saying: “It’s forbidden to repair the tear. Dr. Moskowitz says it’s a terrible sin.”
Esther Strauss, her best friend, came up close and, pointing at her with hfinger, shouted: “You were dancing the hora last night at the club!” Bracha Shvili took her cue from that: “You should be ashamed of yourself! You slut!”
“Are you out of your minds?” said Leah Katz. “Leave her alone! What do you want from her?”
“You shut up, you scaredy-cat,” said Shula Reisser.
Hefzibah bent her head over the Bible on her desk and the tiny black letters grew before her eyes, crying out:
“Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
But Bracha Shvili swung again, striking her on the other cheek.
“Stop! I’m going to call the teacher!” cried Leah Katz, but Shula Reisser caught hold of her and said: “Shut up! You’re not going anywhere right now! We have to show her a thing or two. What does she think she’s doing? Laughing all the time. Dancing a hora. Sending her jumper to invisible mending.”
“She must be punished!” cried Bracha Shvili, but Esther Strauss said to her: “That’s enough.”
“She must be punished!” shouted Bracha Shvili, grabbing hold of Hefzibah’s hair and pulling. Esther Strauss pushed her away and said: “That’s enough. Stop it!” But Shula Reisser had meanwhile edged closer, holding a scissors.
“Gimme the scissors!” shouted Bracha Shvili and to Hefzibah she said: “Invisible mending, huh? We’ll show you how it’s done, Hefzi’leh.”
She caught hold of Hefzibah’s jumper from the front. Hefzibah resisted and from the back Esther Strauss caught hold of Bracha Shvili and pulled her away. The moment she was free, Hefzibah ran to the door. But Bracha Shvili, still holding the scissors, ran after her and caught her from behind.
Leah Katz screamed: “She’s liable to kill her!”
At that moment Hefzibah turned around and with all the force she could muster punched Bracha Shvili in the face.
“She broke my nose,” howled Bracha Shvili.
“Serves you right!” said Hefzibah, and Esther Strauss, her best friend, took the scissors out of Bracha’s hand. The sound of the bell, metallic and heavy, jolted them and they looked at one another, their faces flushed and angry, and Hefzibah was conscious of the fact that the prolonged ringing sound was cutting through her like the knife that had cut the top of her jumper not so many days past in that strange, remote place, just before she bent down to pick up a handful of moist red earth.
A sudden light suffused the room. Boys and girls burst through the door and on the threshold stood Dr. Moskowitz. He waited until everyone was standing in place, after which he walked up to his desk and said: “Be seated.”
He read out the names from the roll book and when he finished he said: “I hope that you’ve all learned the chapter by heart. Hefzibah, please begin.”
Hefzibah was sitting with her trembling hands folded under her chest. The seat underneath her was hot and sticky. For a moment she didn’t understand what he wanted but Eli Weiss, sitting next to her, nudged her, and she began:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?”
And Eli Weiss continued:
Thou has planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
Hefzibah raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room. The teacher gave her permission. Walking, she felt the blood sticky between her thighs. Thank God the jumper is thick and dark,” she reflected.
Outside, she unlocked her bike with trembling hands, gave it a push, mounted and rode home. The house was empty and silent. Hefzibah washed herself, changed her clothes and placed a thick wad of cotton in her underpants. “Why did it come early?” she asked herself, and she answered out loud without knowing quite why:
“If you have raced with men and the runners have worn you down,
how then can you hope to vie with horses…”
She folded her bloodstained jumper, wrapped it in a newspaper, went out into the yard and stuck it into the garbage can.
As she went up the street, riding her bicycle back to school to pick up her schoolbag, crazy Shalom came towards her from the opposite direction. He called out:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head.”
Hefzibah got back to school during the recess and, ignoring all the eyes digging into her, went straight into the classroom. Her schoolbag was where she had left it, under the desk, and she took out her English notebook to study the new vocabulary. Esther Strauss, her best friend, went up to her and said in a muted voice: “Good that you changed your clothes. That wasn’t right, that invisible mending. It’s forbidden.”
Hefzibah fixed her eyes on the notebook in front of her and said:
“My own people have turned on me like a lion from the scrub, roaring against me; therefore I hate them.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Mr. Harlamov was a big man. He was a fearless man too and when he sat himself down at the harmonium (which was a kind of piano played with a foot bellows, or a kind of accordion with legs like a piano’s, an exotic instrument that served as the standard medium of instruction in Music Pedagogy and Appreciation at the Bet Hakerem Hebrew Teachers College of Jerusalem)— when he sat himself down, as big and fearless as a bear tickling a kitten, and picked out the keys with his big, fearless fingers whose palms covered the keyboard while pumping the bellows with his feet, the whole harmonium shook with its wheezing, creaking pedals as if about to give out in one last excruciating and unmusical gasp. Above the crash of its chords, Mr. Harlamov sang in his big, fearless voice. If he hadn’t had to work the pedals he could have easily strode around the room with it instead of intermittently rearing in his seat to scan the class for anyone slacking or off-key, calling out parenthetically to the culprit without breaking the tempo of the song, You there, or That young lady in the back. Which was enough to make whoever it was cringe and join the mighty chorus.
If truth be told, the monumental sight of Mr. Harlamov thumping away at the wheezing harmonium while the class accompanied him at full volume was impressive. It was also comical, mixing giggles into the harmonies whose frequent parentheses were filled with a Hebrew that was far from untainted by Mr. Harlarnov’s big, fearless Russian errors. You please to sing, he would scold. You no laugh, you. And with a scowl he went on adjusting our mighty chorus to his big, fearless notes, hunching over his harmonium and fiercely rearing up to review his troops.
There was really nothing very fierce about him. There was even an inherent good nature that might have prevailed were it not that nothing was as it should have been – neither the poor substitute for a piano, nor our voices that kept going flat, nor our young, grinning faces that showed scant respect for The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord. He was constantly correcting us. C! he would shout. C Major! The more roughshod we ran over the music, the more desperately he increased the volume of the harmonium to salvage what he could of its beauty, doing his best to drown us out while bent over his instrument, a very lonely, uncompromising man.
I never had much luck with Mr. Harmalov. I didn’t even notice it when, while we were singing a choral number one day, he reared up and signalled for silence so that he might spot the villain who was making a mockery of the music. For a moment nothing was heard but my unsuspecting voice, booming out the words of the Internationale. You, Mr. Harlamov whispered in a voice that made the ceiling recoil. You. Mr. Dinburg. Scram you from here! I tell dean he give you boot. I tell you without with no, murder music. I tell, for what I work? And maybe I tell too: if you know what is Russia and what is do to me there, you not sing that song. It wouldn’t have helped if I had sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was only a harmless joke. It wouldn’t even have cleared my own conscience. Why did I do it? Sometimes the only answer is because, and this because was a feeble one. Unless (but this wasn’t something I could have said out loud, not even to myself) it was to make an impression on the flushed wearer of a brown sweater who was singing her heart out next to me.
Little wonder that I received a “D” in music at the end of the term and even that was an act of mercy to the young buffoon on the great man’s part. Next to my “A”s in Bible, Literature, and History, it stood out like a sore thumb. (Not that my Arabic was any better; I flunked with an “F” courtesy of the esteemed and resplendent Jerusalem orientalist, Yosef Yoel Rivlin. And my English too, in the words of Mr. Morris, a short but stern pedagogue whose heels clicked when he walked, left “a great deal to be desired.” To say nothing of math, all my efforts at which satisfied neither the sphinx-like Mr. Hevroni nor the laws of algebra. I didn’t do very well either when I tried pacifying Mr. Harlamov by remarking as I walked beside him, half-running to keep up with his big, fearless steps in the portico flanking the rocky lot that was slated to become an athletics field for our fabled gym teacher Mr. Yekutieli, that I, simple farm boy though I was, was so musically sophisticated that I had actually listened at my friend Habkin’s house to records of Beethoven (mainly the Fifth), Mozart (the E-Minor), and Bach (the Third Brandenburg). At which point I committed the grievous faux pas of adding enthusiastically that I also liked the symphonies of Chopin. Breaking off his fearless stride, Mr. Harlamov threw me a downward, withering glance. Chopin write no symphonies! he said with disgusted finality, walking on to leave me more foolish than ever and unable to explain that I had meant Schumann, and especially the Spring Symphony, which had left me damp- eyed with weltschmerz, most of all for the wearer of a brown sweater whose shy beholder found her more adorable than approachable.
The fact was that all those European names, like Schumann and Chopin, could have confused anybody, especially if he was bad at languages, and most especially if he had an idealistic father who had insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home because that was what a proud Jew should speak. But go explain all that to Mr. Harlamov. The man was as big as the steppes of Russia, where he would have had a great future had not a cruel fate reduced him to a Palestinian music teacher who did not even have a proper piano.
Who could count the times I had been corrected with a tolerant smile by Habkin, who, with his gramophone, his record collection, and his violin, had so much knowledge that, when he wasn’t eking out a living as Professor Gruenfeld’s secretary, he was copying scores in a calligraphic hand I never tired of watching, scrolling clefs and staffs and bars and notes, multi-angled and magical with the secret glyphs of music-making: It’s not Ber Ahms. It’s not Yiddish. It’s Brahms, in a single syllable: Johannes Brahms.
Once, though, it was different. Once, as Mr. Harlamov was playing and singing while we sang along with him, grinning as we sometimes did, we suddenly found ourselves listening as if something were happening and we had to know what it was. All at once, without even a rear or a scowl, Mr. Harlamov was transformed at the faltering old harmonium, which gasped out great chords that seemed beyond its powers of endurance. Something was definitely happening. The chords and music were no longer the same. Although Mr. Harlaniov was still singing and playing while hunched over the keys like a giant snail, or an eagle feeding its fledglings between its talons, the whole class had fallen silent with a great, concentrated attention. He was singing differently too, as though to himself, as though he were alone and had suddenly realized something and didn’t care that no one else knew, or had discovered a new truth that was now coming into focus and of which he only knew meanwhile that it was on its way. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, in case you’re wondering. It wasn’t Borodin, or Scriabin, or one of your Rimski—Korsakoffs. It was different and special, not yet itself as he sang hunched like a snail in his big voice, which came through slightly muffled but clean the way something sounds when it’s true and you know it’s happening and that he isn’t here and is perhaps more than you always thought, beyond all your stupid jokes when you knew nothing about it.
It was happening to us too, so that, humbled and longing for what we now knew was there and had never known before, we listened with a catch in our throats. It would be easy to spout something about the vast steppes of Russia sobbing in that harmonium, or the Cossacks, or the Tartars, or the cold winds of Siberia, or something of the sort, but it wasn’t that at all. It was only a man singing and you hearing and knowing that was it, a place beyond the class and the room and the Bet Hakerem Teachers College of Jerusalem, something coming from afar that was maybe a bit like the child Samuel when he heard the voice in the quiet of the night the voice that said Samuel Samuel and he answered here I am.
Then there was silence and it was over. Nobody knew \vhat to do next, not even Mr. Harlamov, who finally rose all at once to become as tall as the ceiling and then let his shoulders slump and grew smaller again, his big hands dangling in air. His wiped his big, bald skull with a handkerchief and grew even smaller, and then he turned and walked without a word to the door and turned again when he reached it and waved a limp hand and was gone.
And still no one spoke. A few of us began getting to our feet. One by one, we stooped forlornly out of the classroom. I started down the stairs, not knowing what to say. Which way are you going? asked the girl in the brown sweater, who did not know what to say either. It was such an unanticipated question that the young man it was asked of forgot how long he had been waiting for it, and how many wonderful stories he had told himself about it, and how now that it had happened he had never imagined that it would be like this. They descended the stairs. How about you? he asked with an awkward gesture. I’ll walk you. He couldn’t believe that it was so simple or that he had been so bold. I live quite near here, at the bottom of Hehalutz Street, she said. The Jerusalem cold brought a flush to her cheeks, and when, in her brown sweater, she noticed that he’d noticed, she blushed until she was as red as an autumn apple in a poem. She was so scandalously red that she would have liked to run away, but she raised her collar to blush level and the two of them headed for the steps of Hama’alot Street, skipping down them as if dancing not only because they were so skippety young, but because dance is a wordless art form. Of the sort we’re most in need of at this moment, she added without words, the casuarina trees dripping wet pearls on a rain-washed street that was already Hehalutz. Three or four houses further on they turned to the right and there, on the ground floor, she lived.
They stood there, the rosy girl and the young man with the wild head of hair and the too-slender back. He gives me piano lessons, she confessed. Mr. Harlamov. I didn’t ask for them, but he asked me if I’d like them, and I asked if it wouldn’t put him out, and he said no, he’d be glad to, I had a talent and he didn’t even want to be paid. Believe me, that’s the kind of man he is.
They stood there a while longer without thinking of anything to say, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Then they leaned their arms against a tree, an electric charge flowing between their fingers that were not yet ready to touch. the blush gone from her face that was now simply ruddy with cold. His heart was in his throat. He couldn’t think of a word. It was great, what he played, she said. Tremendous, he said. Utterly fantastic. Extraordinary. Unbelievable. The drops falling from the needles of the casuarina trees were clean and pure enough to drink.
If he were to shake a branch it would shower down on her and make him laugh at her sudden shriek. Well, she said.
Yes, he said. All right, then. She stood a while longer. I guess I’d better turn in. Good night. Good night. And still neither of them made a move to go. Well I’ll see you, she said. She had chestnut hair above the warm brown of her sweater. Look how pearly the raindrops are, he said. Yes, she said. And he said, Yes, well, so long, and she came running back to him and planted a kiss on his cheek and spun around and fled down the stairs.
Incredulous, he stood there, his hand on his cheek. It was too much to take in but there it was.
Like a drunk he staggered up the wet, empty street. under his breath breaking into The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord and then beginning to hum and then to sing until he was roarine like an ox in the sleepy streets of Jerusalem whose good folk he was keeping awake. He wasn’t thumbing a proletarian nose at them, he was simply 1etting them know the great truth newly revealed to him on Hehalutz Street that the heavens told the glory of the Lord. He went on singing even when it began tc rain so wonderfully hard that he only wanted to let it be and to turn cold and wet inside him. He only wanted to sing with the choir— -three, four! “His handiwork is written in the sky.”
*This story is taken from: S. Yizhar, Asides, Zmora-Bitan, 1996.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
*Image: Yochanan Simon, “Youth in the Kibbutz”, 1950, (mural on the dinning room, Gan Shmuel)
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.
At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.
“And why can’t you?” I asked.
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
“It’s well for you,” she said.
“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.
On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:
“Yes, boy, I know.”
As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:
“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”
At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the halldoor. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.
“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.
I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:
“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”
My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.
I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a … fib!”
Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
“No, thank you.”
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
A few months before Mother’s madness was officially announced, though there were hints that something out of the ordinary was happening, and our daily routine suffered small blows, life went on and the days were all pretty well alike.
She spread slices of pickled cucumbers on the windowsill and said that once the sun dried them out pure cucumber would be left, that there was enough water in the tap anyway and it was just inflating the cucumber, but the sun shrivelled them into transparent greenish rags spotted with dried seeds which she ate and ate and her mouth reeked of rotten bay leaves and neglected teeth. Then there was the business about the windows, that we mustn’t close because there wasn’t enough air for five pairs of nostrils and if everyone exhaled their carbon dioxide into the closed apartment the air would be poisoned. But when the strong autumn winds blew through the rooms and the windows swung wildly on their hinges, banging and rattling the panes, it was clear that something new was happening.
Father oiled the wood of the windowsill because the vinegar from the pickles had erased the paint and eaten away the glaze. He didn’t tell Mother to stop it, just as he didn’t tell her that the cold coming in through the open windows gave us goose flesh, just as he didn’t tell her that there was nothing wrong with her stomach, but the more she folded her hands over her stomach and said she was wasting away, the more reason he found to look after his Subaru. He tightened bolts, stretched belts, wiped the panes with damp cloths until they shone like mirrors and you could see the neighbours’ houses reflected in them. He shook out the rubber mats and spread them on the asphalt driveway and he scrubbed the headlights with the green washing-up soap, and only when the darkness thickened so that he couldn’t tell the pliers from the screwdriver did he close his toolbox, gather up the rags and go upstairs.
There were no signs that Mother was wasting away. After all, when someone is wasting away they get smaller and smaller, but not one centimetre of Mother’s metre sixty-two was missing, her ring stayed attached to her finger like a thin gold canal between two banks of thick flesh, her belt was buckled as always on the third hole and as always, when she leaned against the doorjamb, the top of her head reached the bottom nail of the mezuzah. I believed that she was wasting away from the inside, that her intestines were growing shorter, her blood drying up, her heart shrinking and only her outer skin remained blown up and covered the general withering away taking place inside.
So many things changed all at once that from fear I began to count the things that were still the same and did not panic because of sudden tears or shrieks that turned into laughter. One of those things was Talia’s morning. She would stand in front of the mirror combing her hair to her heart’s content, the black plastic comb shifting rearranging the varying shades of brown and gold and the steady rhythm of Talia’s hand remained constant despite Mother’s screaming enough with that mirror. The shouts grew louder, rattling the mirror, but Talia would slowly and painstakingly continue to arrange each strand of hair. When it became unbearable Father would try to imprison the noises and violated the latest decree by closing the kitchen window but the insulation was less than perfect and the neighbours heard. The Baumans’ curtains moved and half of Mrs Bauman’s face filled the slit between them, then the opening narrowed to the width of her ear and she had to decide whether to devote it to her eye or her ear.
I didn’t understand how Talia was able to wrap herself in a kind of membrane and detach herself from the screaming and how day by day she perfected this membraning ability of hers. I thought that if I tried hard enough I could be as good at it as she was. When I wrapped my sandwich in waxed paper and Mother screamed that I was getting on her nerves with that noisy paper and enough and get on with it, I couldn’t go on like Talia and I didn’t finish folding the paper over the sandwich and the mayonnaise dripped on my fingers and then she screamed you think I didn’t see you wiping your hands on your dress, and I didn’t answer. The truth is that I didn’t wipe them on my dress, and when I bit my nails in the first lesson the nail slivers I swallowed had enough mayonnaise on them to last me the whole lesson.
With Talia and me Mother’s nerves were like a lizard’s severed tail. Only Uli didn’t irritate her, and when she ran her fingers through his soft hair they stayed straight and didn’t curl on his forehead and didn’t feel his hot scalp and all the fears accumulated inside his little skull. He sat on the living-room floor for hours lining up a long row of red Lego pieces, attaching one to the other, making sure that their sides fitted together without a crack. When there were no red pieces left he pulled out his shoelaces and tried to thread them through again, pushing the hard plastic tip of the lace into the holes until the plastic began to split and spread from so much pushing and wouldn’t go through and Uli tried again and again and the tips of the laces broke altogether, and finally he went to kindergarten with his shoes untied and the teacher glued the split plastic, re-threaded the laces and tied two bows.
Those shoes of Uli’s had a function, those two little brown things were part of the arrangements I made to maintain order amid all the changes taking place in the house. Every evening after he fell asleep I pressed them together between the legs of his bed and every once in a while I checked to see that the angle hadn’t changed, that the soles touched each other neatly with the little hollow in the middle. Those shoes that had taken the shape of Uli’s feet were a kind of good-luck charm protecting me from the chameleons of that house.
More than once I woke up in the middle of the night and heard the bats that had deviated from their usual route and were flying through the yard upside down like a plane that had been hit, crashing into the window, their black bellies gleaming in the dark, and the moths began hovering backwards, their antennae gone. I threw off my blanket and ran to Uli’s bed to check if the shoes were obeying the order I had imposed on them, to be sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were still in the same position, the heels a centimetre from the edge of the floor tile, and then I went into the kitchen to see if the tap was still dripping at the same obedient rate. Talia said that the tap got on her nerves and ouf when were they going to fix it, but I hoped they wouldn’t fix it so that I would still be able to hear an old familiar sound amidst all the new sounds that cropped up every day in that house.
Official confirmation of madness arrived on the Sick Fund’s white stationery, with the words Mental Health Clinic printed in blue on either side of the red emblem. Father ran around with it to the National Insurance Institute and the municipality to arrange for allowances and discounts, and from being opened and refolded by a lot of clerks it became smudged at the edges with brown fingerprints until the letter looked like paper which had been left to spin in the washing-machine and came out wrinkled like an old cotton handkerchief
You could say that that paper reorganized our lives and the days took on a new routine. Even Uli knew that Mother was in a special hospital and that if Bauman or other neighbours asked questions, we had to say that she had stomach problems. Father stopped taking care of our Subaru, and the back window was once again covered with dust, and children drew the word slob and all sorts of other comments in the dust, and on the damp nights water dripped onto the windshield from the roof, leaving muddy brown circles.
We only visited Mother once, and in honour of the occasion I picked an anemone from the flowerbed at school. Talia, in a tight-fitting denim skirt and a black blouse, her brown-gold hair combed back, resting on the back of her neck like a honey-coloured scarf, rattled the house-keys and hurried me, come on now, so we can catch the three-o’clock bus. I put the anemone in an empty olive jar and we left. The bouncing of the bus shook the water in the jar and a woman said, little girl what is this, you shouldn’t take water on a bus, and when we got off a little water spilled on my shoe and my sock got wet but the anemone stayed fresh and its petals looked transparent in the sun, so that you could see their network of thin veins.
Mother was wearing her green track suit and eating chicken and rice. Some crumbs of rice fell on the suit and some hung from the corners of her mouth. She didn’t say hello, or sit down, or anything. The man sitting next to her had the same exact food on his tray, and he was chewing on a chicken bone. Mother smiled at him and put the remains of her rice on his plate, saying take it, eat, and she tidied up his plate, separating the rice from the gnawed bones, and he scraped the rice from Mother’s mouth with a long yellow nicotine-stained finger. Talia twisted the strap of her handbag tightly around her thumb, her nail turned blue but Talia didn’t stop and she stood there taut as an ironed sheet and when Mother said again eat, eat, she roared Hello Mother in a voice I had never heard before. Three patients stopped eating and stared at her with empty eyes, and rice fell from their spoons which hung in the air on the way from their plates to their mouths, but Mother didn’t hear and kept on with her eat, eat and her thigh inside the green sweat suit brushed against the blue pants he was wearing. Then he pushed his plate to the middle of the table, and when he took Mother’s hand and placed it on his knee and began to move it very slowly up his thigh to the wild place of his pants. Talia pulled me out of there and water spilled from my jar onto the bathrobe of one of the patients. Talia was silent all the way home and didn’t wipe the tears that ran down her cheeks. Once the wind blew one of her tears on my chin and I didn’t wipe it off either. There was practically no water left in the jar and nobody scolded me on the bus, but two women stared at us and whispered to each other, I don’t know if it was because of Talia’s beauty or because she was crying. Talia remained silent and I noticed that the black eye of the anemone was watching the petals the whole time, but it couldn’t prevent the widest petal from starting to wrinkle.
In those days there was no-one around to demand explanations when I came late from school, so I could drag out the steps on my way home. I stood for hours under an almond tree, watching the wind scattering the blossoms, thousands of bits of white blossom drifting along the sidewalk. I gathered them up into the empty sandwich bag and when I opened it at home, the delicate scent of the almond tree emerged and overcome the smell of mayonnaise, and I crushed the petals and smeared the damp mess on my forehead and throat. There was a kind of relief about this blooming of the almond tree, it was so completely certain that every year in the early spring the branches would be covered with the white plumage which would then change to green, always in the same order and at the same time. The almond tree is not one of those types that you can surprise, what does it care if the wind bangs windows that must not be closed for fear of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t count the loaves of bread growing more numerous every day because there is no cooked food. I was so envious of the patience of the trees and the exact order in which things happened to them, I lingered outdoors for hours to gather more proof of this. After the almond trees in Shevat anemones bloomed in the flowerbeds at school and then tulip bulbs thickened under their winding green leaves, and during the Passover holydays on the school-yard turned yellow with wild mustard and chrysanthemums. Under my bed, ficus leaves piled up and yellowed while remaining on their stems, Talia said I should throw out all that rubbish but I knew that when the windows started banging and the noise hurt my ears, all I had to do was look at those leaves and I would calm down.
One evening Father came home from work, stuck his head in the kitchen sink and turned the tap on full force and the water dripped from his tangled hair on the floor and the counter and he dried himself with a worn kitchen towel and said, children Mother is coming back tomorrow. His face was red from being rubbed and his hair stood on end like a porcupine’s, and once again I felt that noise that hurt my ears because the kitchen window was banging like crazy. Uli stopped chewing his bread and ran to his Lego, and Talia wrapped herself in her membrane, detached from Father’s words, her face closed up tight, her eyes staring at a colour photo of a model in a magazine. I tried to learn from her whether this was good or bad news but I didn’t succeed, I only saw how her jaw protruded, and I knew that she was clenching her teeth very hard. In the long silence it seemed to me that the walls were breathing, small squeaks could be heard, something cracking, I was sure they were groaning in distress and I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I said too bad that she’s coming back, and my hand moved of its own accord to protect my cheek from the expected slap, but Father didn’t slap me, he stood like a solid troll doll, a big drop of water glistening on his earlobe like an earring.
Why now, I thought, maybe we can delay her, maybe somebody can run over there and close the heavy gates. Why right now when I have almost silenced the commotion in my head and I already have ways of calming myself, and I have even got used to the glittering eyeballs of the neighbours peering out at us from their doors. They peered at us through their peepholes, and have long ago dismissed the story about stomach problems. I wanted the days to remain equal and there really was a kind of uniformity about them, and suddenly she’s coming back.
When we heard the doors of the Subaru slam shut we stood in the hallway like an honour guard, Talia first, then me, and Uli after me, close together, and because I was in the middle I could feel the heat coming from both of them and the trembling. I had some round margosa seeds in my pockets for security, and I kept feeling them until they become warm and moist. They helped me to overcome the terrible ringing that sent sparks flying up into my brain and stopped up my ears.
I didn’t give Mother my hand when she came in because it was in my pocket clutching those seeds, and when she bent over Uli I saw that she had grown thin, her bones stuck out under her purple blouse. Father led her into the living room as if she were a glass stem, her white elbow grasped in his big hand, and she let him lead her to the biggest and most formal of our three armchairs. She sat down very slowly without moving her head, as if it was fixed rigidly on her neck, folding only her body into a sitting position and said, I’m terribly thirsty, those pills dry me completely. Talia rushed to the kitchen to make lemonade, Uli sat on the floor near the TV and stirred his Lego and I stood still with the seeds in my hand and I had no idea what is done on such occasions. Father helped her unbuckle her shoes, there were red marks on her white feet from the straps, and I decided that the best thing for me to do was to concentrate on the feet business and think about nothing else.
Why are you afraid of me, she asked and all the windows banged at once, don’t be afraid, I take medicine and I’m fine, I just need to get stronger, and I saw that her ring had slipped down to her knuckle and stopped and she was twisting it around and around on her finger. Ignore it, I said to myself, think about the patience of the old ficus, go to your room and touch the leaves, but the space under my bed was empty and clean, Talia had removed everything.
They didn’t suspect anything at the grocery when I took five jars of pickled cucumbers and said that Father would pay later. The jars were much heavier than I expected and my right shoulder hurt. Everyone was still sitting in the living room when I poured the contents on the windowsill in the kitchen, five rows, ten cucumbers in each row, dark green, close together, glittering in the sun. The strong wind blew out the Baumans’ curtains, now and then enlarging the opening between them. I had been careful to open all the windows earlier, even the small one we never opened in the shower, and all the cabinets and all the drawers, everything was open to enlarge the space and lessen the danger of carbon dioxide. And now that everything was open and air flowed freely from wall to wall I could allow myself to stand quietly in the kitchen and look at what was happening outside. The Baumans’ curtains fluttered like a giant butterfly, thin fringes edging the pink gauze flew about in the wind like Talia’s hair, I think Mrs. Bauman’s eye was blue, or maybe it just seemed that way because the sky was reflected in her glasses.
Winds blew back and forth in the space between our house and theirs, the last fingers of light played on the walls. I waited for darkness when the flight of the bats begins, they take off all at once from the south side of the building and the moon shines on their heavy bellies. Strange creatures, thick membranes connect their limbs and they fly through the yard in total blindness, and perhaps this whole flying business is not as complicated as I thought. I emptied my pockets of the seeds to get rid of the weight, and they bounced against the windows of the neighbors below us until they landed on the ground. I rolled up my sleeves and exposed my elbows and started to move them up and down in a uniform, controlled motion, and felt that with only a little improvement I could detach myself from the ground and hover, and then my flight would be as transparent and delicate as a dragonfly’s, and Mrs. Bauman’s shrieks, help! the girl is jumping, did not divert my mind and the motion of my elbows became smoother, more delicate and exact, almost perfect.
*This story is taken from: Mira Magen, Well Buttoned-Up, Keter, 1994.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.
There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighbourhood.
Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.
At last the mother said: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as expensive.
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be smirking all the more self-consciously because of it. The foolish puppy, too, that took the place of the teddy-bear, he was looking so extraordinarily foolish for no other reason but that he heard the secret whisper all over the house: “There must be more money!”
Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle’s, or else a taxi?”
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.”
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And are’nt you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, it I married an unlucky husband.”
“But by yourself, aren’t you?”
“I used to think I was, before I married. Now I think I am very unlucky indeed.”
“Well – never mind! Perhaps I’m not really,” she said.
The child looked at her to see if she meant it. But he saw, by the lines of her mouth, that she was only trying to hide something from him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother, with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!”, she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s exclamations.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.
He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck’. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him.
When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He’s always riding like that! I wish he’d leave off!” said his elder sister Joan.
But he only glared down on them in silence. Nurse gave him up. She could make nothing of him. Anyhow, he was growing beyond her.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in when he was on one of his furious rides. He did not speak to them.
“Hallo, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know,” said his mother.
But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would speak to nobody when he was in full tilt. His mother watched him with an anxious expression on her face.
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.
“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her.
“That’s right, son!” said Uncle Oscar. “Don’t you stop till you get there. What’s the horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have a name,” said the boy.
“Get’s on without all right?” asked the uncle.
“Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week.”
“Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know this name?”
“He always talks about horse-races with Bassett,” said Joan.
The uncle was delighted to find that his small nephew was posted with all the racing news. Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been, was a perfect blade of the ‘turf’. He lived in the racing events, and the small boy lived with him.
Oscar Cresswell got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can’t do more than tell him, sir,” said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters.
“And does he ever put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“Well – I don’t want to give him away – he’s a young sport, a fine sport, sir. Would you mind asking him himself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and perhaps he’d feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don’t mind.
Bassett was serious as a church.
The uncle went back to his nephew and took him off for a ride in the car.
“Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?” the uncle asked.
The boy watched the handsome man closely.
“Why, do you think I oughtn’t to?” he parried.
“Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the Lincoln.”
The car sped on into the country, going down to Uncle Oscar’s place in Hampshire.
“Honour bright?” said the nephew.
“Honour bright, son!” said the uncle.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil! I doubt it, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know the winner,” said the boy. “That’s Daffodil.”
There was a pause. Daffodil was an obscure horse comparatively.
“You won’t let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett.”
“Bassett be damned, old man! What’s he got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. We’ve been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t let it go any further, will you?”
The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily.
“Right you are, son! I’ll keep your tip private. How much are you putting on him?”
“All except twenty pounds,” said the boy. “I keep that in reserve.”
The uncle thought it a good joke.
“You keep twenty pounds in reserve, do you, you young romancer? What are you betting, then?”
“I’m betting three hundred,” said the boy gravely. “But it’s between you and me, Uncle Oscar! Honour bright?”
“It’s between you and me all right, you young Nat Gould,” he said, laughing. “But where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partner’s.”
“You are, are you! And what is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as I do, I expect. Perhaps he’ll go a hundred and fifty.”
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, with a surprised look at his uncle. “Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.”
Between wonder and amusement Uncle Oscar was silent. He pursued the matter no further, but he determined to take his nephew with him to the Lincoln races.
“Now, son,” he said, “I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said the child.
“Good! Good! Right you are! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on Daffodil.”
The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down, yelling “Lancelot!, Lancelot!” in his French accent.
Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boys eyes.
“I suppose we’ll talk to Bassett,” said the boy. “I expect I have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him for some moments.
“Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I am. But it’s between you and me, uncle. Honour bright?”
“Honour bright all right, son! But I must talk to Bassett.”
“If you’d like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could all be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honour bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it was your ten shillings I started winning with …”
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon, and there they talked.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would get me talking about racing events, spinning yarns, you know, sir. And he was always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. It’s about a year since, now, that I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the luck turned, with that ten shillings he had from you: that we put on Singhalese. And since that time, it’s been pretty steady, all things considering. What do you say, Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re not quite sure that we go down.”
“Oh, but we’re careful then,” said Bassett.
“But when are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” said Bassett in a secret, religious voice. “It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln. That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Oscar Cresswell.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett was obstinately silent, looking at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred, didn’t I, Bassett? I told uncle I was putting three hundred on Daffodil.”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it safe locked up, sir. Master Paul he can have it any minute he likes to ask for it.”
“What, fifteen hundred pounds?”
“And twenty! And forty, that is, with the twenty he made on the course.”
“It’s amazing!” said the uncle.
“If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you: if you’ll excuse me,” said Bassett.
Oscar Cresswell thought about it.
“I’ll see the money,” he said.
They drove home again, and, sure enough, Bassett came round to the garden-house with fifteen hundred pounds in notes. The twenty pounds reserve was left with Joe Glee, in the Turf Commission deposit.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure! Then we go strong, for all we’re worth, don’t we, Bassett?”
“We do that, Master Paul.”
“And when are you sure?” said the uncle, laughing.
“Oh, well, sometimes I’m absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,” said the boy; “and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven’t even an idea, have I, Bassett? Then we’re careful, because we mostly go down.”
“You do, do you! And when you’re sure, like about Daffodil, what makes you sure, sonny?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” said the boy uneasily. “I’m sure, you know, uncle; that’s all.”
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say so!” said the uncle.
But he became a partner. And when the Leger was coming on Paul was ‘sure’ about Lively Spark, which was a quite inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on putting a thousand on the horse, Bassett went for five hundred, and Oscar Cresswell two hundred. Lively Spark came in first, and the betting had been ten to one against him. Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” he said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand.
“Look here, son,” he said, “this sort of thing makes me nervous.”
“It needn’t, uncle! Perhaps I shan’t be sure again for a long time.”
“But what are you going to do with your money?” asked the uncle.
“Of course,” said the boy, “I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why – why” – the boy fidgeted – “why, I don’t know. But it’s always short of money, you know, uncle.”
“I know it, son, I know it.”
“You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the uncle.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your back. It’s awful, that is! I thought if I was lucky -“
“You might stop it,” added the uncle.
The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word.
“Well, then!” said the uncle. “What are we doing?”
“I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky,” said the boy.
“Why not, son?”
“She’d stop me.”
“I don’t think she would.”
“Oh!” – and the boy writhed in an odd way – “I don’t want her to know, uncle.”
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.”
They managed it very easily. Paul, at the other’s suggestion, handed over five thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into his hands, which sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
“So she’ll have a birthday present of a thousand pounds for five successive years,” said Uncle Oscar. “I hope it won’t make it all the harder for her later.”
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been ‘whispering’ worse than ever lately, and, even in spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter, telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials, so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and absent.
She went away to town without saying more.
But in the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had had a long interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think, uncle?” said the boy.
“I leave it to you, son.”
“Oh, let her have it, then! We can get some more with the other,” said the boy.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, laddie!” said Uncle Oscar.
“But I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them,” said Paul.
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five thousand. Then something very curious happened. The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a blossoming of the luxury Paul’s mother had been used to. And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”
It frightened Paul terribly. He studied away at his Latin and Greek with his tutor. But his intense hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had gone by: he had not ‘known’, and had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand. He was in agony for the Lincoln. But even for the Lincoln he didn’t ‘know’, and he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
“Let it alone, son! Don’t you bother about it!” urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn’t really hear what his uncle was saying.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
His mother noticed how overwrought he was.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the seaside, instead of waiting? I think you’d better,” she said, looking down at him anxiously, her heart curiously heavy because of him.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
“I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, mother!” he said. “I couldn’t possibly!”
“Why not?” she said, her voice becoming heavy when she was opposed. “Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your Uncle Oscar, if that that’s what you wish. No need for you to wait here. Besides, I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My family has been a gambling family, and you won’t know till you grow up how much damage it has done. But it has done damage. I shall have to send Bassett away, and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing to you, unless you promise to be reasonable about it: go away to the seaside and forget it. You’re all nerves!”
“I’ll do what you like, mother, so long as you don’t send me away till after the Derby,” the boy said.
“Send you away from where? Just from this house?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at her.
“Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much, suddenly? I never knew you loved it.”
He gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
But his mother, after standing undecided and a little bit sullen for some moments, said: “Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the Derby, if you don’t wish it. But promise me you won’t think so much about horse-racing and events as you call them!”
“Oh no,” said the boy casually. “I won’t think much about them, mother. You needn’t worry. I wouldn’t worry, mother, if I were you.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what we should do!”
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother, don’t you?” the boy repeated.
“I should be awfully glad to know it,” she said wearily.
“Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn’t worry,” he insisted.
“Ought I? Then I’ll see about it,” she said.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse, that which had no name. Since he was emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess, he had had his rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about,” had been his quaint answer.
“Do you feel he keeps you company?” she laughed.
“Oh yes! He’s very good, he always keeps me company, when I’m there,” said Paul.
So the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in the boy’s bedroom.
The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town, when one of her rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she could hardly speak. She fought with the feeling, might and main, for she believed in common sense. But it was too strong. She had to leave the dance and go downstairs to telephone to the country. The children’s nursery-governess was terribly surprised and startled at being rung up in the night.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Oh yes, they are quite all right.”
“Master Paul? Is he all right?”
“He went to bed as right as a trivet. Shall I run up and look at him?”
“No,” said Paul’s mother reluctantly. “No! Don’t trouble. It’s all right. Don’t sit up. We shall be home fairly soon.” She did not want her son’s privacy intruded upon.
“Very good,” said the governess.
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house. All was still. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur cloak. She had told her maid not to wait up for her. She heard her husband downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. There was a strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She ought to know. She felt that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
“Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s Malabar!”
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.
But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!”
So the child cried, trying to get up and urge the rocking-horse that gave him his inspiration.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the heart-frozen mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father stonily.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby,” was the answer.
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, and himself put a thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: they were waiting for a change. The boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones. His mother sat, feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone.
In the evening Oscar Cresswell did not come, but Bassett sent a message, saying could he come up for one moment, just one moment? Paul’s mother was very angry at the intrusion, but on second thoughts she agreed. The boy was the same. Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul’s mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You’ve made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you’ve got over eighty thousand. Malabar came in all right, Master Paul.”
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that lucky, don’t you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure – oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”
“No, you never did,” said his mother.
But the boy died in the night.
And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice saying to her, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
Before Elyakum reached the age of seven, he had found the woman of his dreams and swore he would marry her. She was round all over, even her nose was round, not protruding very far from her face. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. The fact that she limped merely gave her an added quality of softness, and instilled all manner of chivalrous thoughts in his mind.
She came to the school as a temporary substitute for a teacher who had taken ill; and since she wasn’t a certified teacher, she occupied the children by reading them stories from a small, thick book as plump as she was. She had a deep, warm, whispery voice, and many children fell asleep at their desks. Elyakum remained alone in the room with her, his eyes fixed upon her; and when she stole an occasional glance at the sleeping children, his look felt like the lick of an excited puppy on her cheek, and she quickly lowered her gaze to the book. His burning, somewhat mad look caused a slight blush to spread over her face, so pale that it appeared to be have been dusted with flour. She looked infinitely more beautiful to him then.
Several children, who lived on Yonah ha-Navi Street near the school, quickly discovered that the substitute teacher was actually only a seamstress who lived alone in a one-room house on the seashore. This discovery led to the appearance of several drawings and comments on the classroom chalkboard. The seamstress broke into tears, got up and left the room, limping more than usual; and as the children continued to shout and stamp in victory, Elyakum made an effort not to let his tears burst forth, and, out of the fear that his secret would be discovered, he tried to pretend indifference and detachment. For the first time in his life, he experienced the taste of betrayal, and he wanted to die. Although he was quite familiar with the taste of being betrayed, he now discovered that the betrayer suffers even greater torments.
The seamstress never returned to the school. Several years passed before his parents moved to another neighborhood and he—to another school.
And this is where the story begins—the story of Elyakum’s second encounter with his bride.
When he was twelve, still short and an easy target for the pranks of other children—who enjoyed kicking him in the rear end because there was no danger of retribution from its owner—his body rebelled against his humble soul, and it shot up, growing in every direction. His shoulders suddenly broadened, his arms thickened and lengthened, and his legs pushed him up to such a height that, as he approached bar-mitzvah age, he looked liked a seventeen-year-old, even taller than the boys who were about to finish their last year of compulsory education at the Herzliya High School.
This natural phenomenon brought about several changes in his life. His peers began to behave with excessive caution toward him, and those same youths who had rained blows upon him less than a year earlier, now labored to erase the memory of their crimes through extravagantly friendly behavior that saddened him. Several girls from the higher grades dropped hints that the surprised and unprepared Elyakum refused to interpret. But he never received an offer of genuine friendship, and he learned that the fear he now inspired in his peers, together with the clumsy affection proffered him by large-breasted, impudent-looking young girls were worse than what he had previously experienced as the target of pranks. But then, at least, his conscience had been clear, since all the justice, honesty and integrity were on his side. He knew enough about fairy tales to compare himself to the ugly duckling that became a beautiful swan overnight; however, he concluded with great sadness that, contrary to expectations, not everyone falls in love with the swan, nor do they bow down before it, or ask for its forgiveness. Perhaps that’s what they did in other countries, but not here.
Nevertheless, there was one person in the entire school who realized the true advantages to be gained from the revolution that had taken place in Elyakum’s body; that person was the physical education teacher. Elyakum was not outstanding, heaven forbid, in any area of athletics; but the very fact that he was in the 12-14 year-old age group made him a potential winner in several competitions. For his age, he had remarkably long legs that promised he would be the first to reach the finish line in the 200-meter race. Such was also the case in shot-putting, discus-throwing, and javelin-throwing. His shoulders were solid, and his muscular arms guaranteed victory even without much training. The physical education teacher rejoiced at this find, and designated Elyakum the class representative in those four Olympic events.
The Maccabiah Games for Young People were supposed to take place in the spring, and in the remaining two months, Elyakum grew, soaring to the status of class king. Forty young boys and girls would sit idly in a semicircle during their physical education classes, watching the teacher lavish attention on Elyakum, training him for his lofty mission. Other boys and girls, who were lucky enough to be thrown out of their classes, would join the circle of admirers and spread the word of his strength and prowess to the other classes in the school. Elyakum was ultimately seduced into seeing himself as a kind of king, albeit not from birth.
Until the night before the Young People’s Maccabiah.
That night, Elyakum was supposed to go to bed earlier than usual, as athletes do on the eve of a big event; but before doing so, he once again arranged all the accessories of his victory at the side of his bed: lightweight, spiked-soled leather shoes; an undershirt white as snow, with the three blue letters of the school insignia sewn on its front; and his beautifully-starched white shorts with the 4-centimeter-wide blue stripes on either side—the colors of the nation’s flag.
Then, Elyakum had the excellent idea of trying on the shorts; he had a premonition. Those shorts from last year were now too small for him. It was seven-thirty in the evening, the stores were closed, the world was hostile and his parent’s indifference—as usual—was terrible. His mother, for example, naively thought it was possible to appear in the Maccabiah Games wearing regular school shorts. His father thought that a bathing suit would suffice for the competition. Their neighbor—a photographer who owned a studio—had a grown-up son and the son had shorts, but they were blue with red stripes, because he trained with ha-Poel, the sworn enemies of Maccabee.
Elyakum made one final desperate effort: he stretched his shorts across his thighs and they split at the seams, both on the side and in the middle, if you’ll pardon the expression.
His father was angry; the neighbor’s son gloated; and only his mother—like in the fairy tales—came to her son’s assistance. She found some thread in a drawer, measured Elyakum’s waist, and cut. She measured the width of his thighs, and cut. She measured the length from his waist to twenty centimeters above his knees, and cut. Holding several pieces of thread in her hand, she ordered Elyakum to bed and promised him that the shorts would be ready that very night. Then she left the house.
Elyakum tried to fall asleep. He trusted his mother’s good will, but he wasn’t sure that, at that time of night, she would find a seamstress willing to take on the job. Perhaps he should wait for his father to fall asleep, and then get out of bed and go to the physical education teacher’s house. When it came right down to it, he was the one interested in victory, for Elyakum desired no honor or athletic glory for himself. Let the teacher worry about the shorts. He would certainly worry about them—Elyakum thought—but where would he get a new pair? Although one could assume that the physical education teacher had some influence in the world of sports, and would find a solution. In any case, his father did not fall asleep, but brewed himself a of tea instead, and settled down to read the newspaper. That damned newspaper had about a hundred pages. It’s printed in America, in Yiddish; and the Americans do not lack for money. Every newspaper—a book. Half of it was pictures, but his father was capable of looking at one picture for fifteen minutes. He once discovered that one of the pictures showed his uncle on his mother’s side, wrote a letter to the editor and received a reply saying that his uncle was dead. Later on, he received another letter telling him that it actually hadn’t been a picture of his uncle, but of Rockefeller. That meant the uncle was alive, and my father was still trying to find him.
Elyakum fell asleep, dream after dream moving quickly before his eyes, and in each and every one, a jeering face jumped out at him; jumped out at him and disappeared. When he tried to see up close who the face belonged to—the door was slammed in his face and the sound of the slamming door woke him up, as his mother returned. It was nearly midnight. She wasn’t carrying new shorts, but she had good news: they would be ready at five in the morning. A good-hearted seamstress had agreed to sew the shorts, but she had to finish some other work first. At five in the morning, Elyakum would go to the seamstress’ apartment and get his new shorts. The Maccabiah opened at seven in the morning, so there was nothing to worry about. And why wouldn’t his mother go to the seamstress? Because Ekyakum himself had to try them on. Perhaps some alterations would be necessary. There was time for that too.
This being the situation, he was once again unable to fall asleep. He wanted to turn onto his other side, so as not to fall asleep on his left side, but he was afraid to move his body around too much, because right before the competitions, it was important to conserve every drop of strength. If he turned from side to side, how would he win?
His mother woke him in the morning and handed him the seamstress’ address. He stood knocking on her door, his heart pounding, and when he entered the house after hearing a voice call out, “Come in”—he saw the seamstress standing before him. She was the same round woman with the astonishingly beautiful face, whose eyes—he now saw their color for the first time, in the light from the lamp on her sewing machine—were brown and whose hair was dusky gold. Her complexion was as pale as it had been then, as if it had been dusted with flour, and she was a bit younger than she had been when he saw her last.
For a moment, he thought he would turn and bolt from the room; but she waved a pair of white shorts with blue stripes on the sides at him, and said cheerfully, “I’m ready. You can see that I’m ready. I made a promise, and I kept it.”
He wanted to say: “I’m the one who made a promise, but I still haven’t kept it. Now, I will.”
But, at first, he thought he should say: “Do you know who you are? Do you know that you’re the substitute teacher that read us stories?”
And he also wanted to say this: ”Don’t think I forgot you. I only thought I forgot you, but I really didn’t.”
He stepped forward, reached for the shorts, and once again thought that as soon as the shorts were in his hand, he would bolt. But instead of bolting, he said, “My mother will pay you. I don’t have any money.”
She smiled, got up from the sewing machine, limped towards the door and locked it.
“You have to try them on. Maybe something has to be fixed,” she said. “I’ll go into the kitchen, and you try them on. Okay?”
She limped towards the kitchen door and he clearly felt how the heat rising from her body moved away from him. He remained alone in the room that had been warm until she left it, and had suddenly become cold.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” she called from the kitchen. It was the same voice he remembered. Nothing had changed. Only that she was a bit younger. That’s because I’ve gotten older, he explained to himself.
He placed the shorts up against his body without putting them on, and he thought they would fit. But he immediately changed his mind. The thought that he would be standing there naked, even for just a minute, a doorway away from her, dizzied and overwhelmed him. He took off his shirt as well, and stood in the cold room, naked as the day he was born. He hurriedly put on his shirt again, and only then did he try on the shorts. They fit around his thighs perfectly. He stood with his legs apart, silent.
“Are you ready yet?” she asked from the kitchen.
“They’re fine” he whispered in a thin, squeaky voice.
She came towards him, heavy and slow, and he was encompassed, embraced by the circle of heat she brought with her, the body heat of a woman who had only just arisen from her bed in a room that had been closed all night, suffused with the scent of warm sheets and the wafting fragrance of bath soap. And something else. Something suffocating, that aroused in him the desire to scream. Perhaps it was her loneliness.
“They’re fine,” he said again, after strengthening his voice with a small cough. “Perfectly fine. Do you know that I know you?”
The seamstress, who did not trust his judgment, got down on her knees and, with a trained hand, pulled the waistband of the shorts to the left and to the right to make sure they were not too narrow. Then she ran her hand down the blue stripes, which had not been properly ironed, straightening them on his thighs and pulling the hem to make sure they weren’t too short or too long.
“You know me?” she said, completing her examination, still on her knees. “I think I should iron them again, so they’ll look new and beautiful. Where do you know me from?”
“You read me stories in the first grade, at the Geula Elementary School.
She uttered a cry of alarm, a kind of abrupt intake of air. “No, no,” she said. And instead of getting up from her knees, she pulled a pillow that had been near the wall towards her and sat on it.
“That’s impossible,” she said again, looking at him almost fearfully.
“Yes, yes,” Elyakum said, speaking in his natural voice this time. Her agitated response infused him with courage. “Definitely yes. You came to substitute for a sick teacher, and you stayed with us for only a few days, maybe a week.”
“But how could that be?” she scrutinized him, as if she wanted to find proof of what he was saying in his body. “That was how long ago? Six years, maybe seven… If I had been there, in that class, then you should be twelve or thirteen years old now…”
“I’m almost thirteen,” he said, not without pride.
“You are? Thirteen?” The smile returned to her face. “You’re not thirteen; you’re at least sixteen.”
If I were seventeen, Elyakum said to himself, then I could jump on you, just like that, straight onto the floor where you’re sitting, and I could hug you so hard that you’d break into pieces. It would scare you to see how strong I am. And I could tell you that I swore to marry you and that I’m ready to do it, whenever it’s possible, it doesn’t matter when, I’m ready, I swear…
“I wasn’t the one who drew those pictures on the chalkboard,” Elyakum said. “I really loved listening to the stories…”
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and she rose to her knees in front of him again, as she had been when she was checking his shorts. She seemed to reach out with her hands for a moment, then folded them across her breast. “You, you were the little boy who looked at me all the time, all the time, while I was sitting there and reading, and everybody else fell asleep?”
“That’s me,” Elyakum said. And if he had really been seventeen, he would have added, “And nothing has changed between us since then… and if you’re ready, then so am I, just say the word…”
“My God,” she said, “my God, how happy I am… I’d like to thank you, will you let me? I want to hug you.”
Elyakum could have died at that moment; but since he was very strong young man, he didn’t even faint. And at that moment, God gave him wisdom beyond his years, and he did the absolutely right thing—he closed his eyes and kept silent.
The seamstress crawled towards him on her knees. She embraced his thighs and buried her head in his new shorts, the coldness of the stiff, starched fabric tickling her pale skin, while Elyakum stroked her dusky gold hair with both hands, his knees trembling. He may have been a very strong young man, but he wasn’t strong enough to stand firmly on his legs for a long time in such a situation, such a totally new situation, that suddenly seemed perfectly natural, but quite difficult.
The marvelous things happening to him that morning rendered him momentarily insensible, and when he revived, he heard the voice that had spoken to him in the early days of his childhood say: “My little love, my dear child.”
On that day, he still did not know what to say; and in the days that followed, when he did know what to say in such cases, he did not have many opportunities to say them. For there are things that happen to us only once, and never again.
The seamstress made him a cup of hot chocolate with milk and advised him to hurry to the bus at the school so that he would reach the stadium on time. And he ran through the yards between Javitz and Kalisher Streets, leapt over fences and reached the bus on time.
With seven thousand eyes upon him, Elyakum stood in the row of runners in the 12–14 age group, far taller than any of them, and, for a moment, asked himself if he shouldn’t conceal his height a bit in this pack of hooligans and punks that surrounded him. When the starting shot was fired, Elyakum burst forward, and the roar of thousands of spectators reached his ears almost immediately.. Astonished by the thunder of the voices, he looked over his shoulder towards the audience; and only then did he notice that all the other runners had been left ten meters behind him. Nothing like it had ever happened in the history of sports in Eretz Israel, not since the Maccabees triumphed over the Greeks. At that moment, Elyakum’s heart filled with conceit and arrogance, and he did something that is not done, something he thought he had once seen in a movie starring Charlie Chaplin, or was it Buster Keaton? He stopped running and waited until the swarm of his competitors were a meter behind him; only then did he resume leading the pack, until he again left them all fifteen meters behind, and became an unprecedented winner.
The crowd burst into tumultuous cheering, hurling handkerchiefs, hats and paper-wrapped sandwiches into the air. Other objects were not available in those days.
When it was his turn to throw the javelin, he was careful to move slowly, effortlessly, demonstrating to all the spectators that he was investing only half of his strength, if not less, in this trifling competition, which was beneath his dignity. His javelin landed almost a meter and a half in front of the others, as did his discus in the discus-throw.
The boys in his class burst onto the field, hoisted him onto their shoulders and paraded around the track with him, as all the spectators chanted: El-ya-kum, El-ya-kum.
And then, suddenly, he remembered the seamstress. That is to say, he remembered that he had forgotten her completely; not that he had really forgotten her, but in the intensity of his concentration on the competitions, he was able to think of only one thing, which might have been a totally pointless thing, if he hadn’t done it all for her, so that she would be pleased with him. For that was the only thing he could do for her in the meanwhile, until the right time came. And when it did, no power in the world could stop him from having that woman. How foolish you are, Elyakum, not to have told her to come to the stadium. Why did you let her stay home, when you could have invited her here to see for herself what you’ve done for her. If she were here, she would hear the voices, see the parade, and savor the moment.
She could have sat comfortably somewhere in the stands, in a good, center seat, and watched. She would have sat there and eaten chocolate and watched. It’s not tiring. And Elyakum would do the work. She wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Simply watch. When the Maccabiah ended, he would go to where she was sitting, and, without saying a word, he would place the four medals on her lap. He didn’t need them, of course. Then they would get up to go, waiting a while, until most of the crowd had left the stadium, so there wouldn’t be too much pushing in the stands. He’d hold her arm, as is done in such cases, and no one would notice that something was wrong. And what, in fact, was so unusual? Haven’t you ever seen a pair of lovers walking arm-in-arm? So, if you please, let us pass. You can see that it’s not easy for her to walk. Ladies are frail and delicate in all kinds of ways. That’s right, all ladies. Even the youngest. Even the girls in his class have their delicate sides, sometimes. If some pretty young girl, for example, had some small difficulty in doing something—so what? And how much truer this was for someone who wasn’t a pathetic little tenth-grade girl, of the sort who, apart from being a pain in the neck and being able to dance, don’t know a thing. His girlfriend, his future wife, is not exactly that sort, thank God. Why are you gawking at us that way, like idiots? Who said something? I’ll let him have one right in the teeth, I’ll tear him apart. Not a word! Do you hear me? What do you know anyway, you damn babies. I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be with you. Leave me alone, dummies.
Elyakum began to kick, and his friends let him down off their shoulders, watching him with shock as he galloped, like a drunkard, towards the locker room.
When he was alone, he took off his shorts, folded them carefully, looked at them for a while, sat down on the stone bench, buried his head in the blue-and-white bundle of fabric, and burst into tears.
Hearing voices outside, he leapt to the door and locked it. “Go away,” he cried to the people outside, “get out of here, you bastards.
After a while, the voices outside abated, and the stadium emptied out. Elyakum went onto the field. It was noon, and the sunlight burned his eyes, which had not known much sleep since the day before. He glanced around at the empty seats and began walking along the track.
“Don’t think I would have been ashamed of you because you’re older, or even because you limp. I’m not ashamed of you. I love you, but they don’t understand. They would have laughed at you if I had brought you here. They would have ruined everything. Not that winning was important to me. I don’t give a damn about winning But I didn’t want them to laugh at you. I don’t understand why, but you didn’t belong here today. You simply didn’t belong here, and I’m a complete shit. Nothing but a shit. Look, now I’m going to run just for you, without anyone else. Only you and me. Here, look.
Elyakum moved his left leg forward, the right one back, placed his palms on the track, sounded the signal and began to run. He passed the place where the seamstress was sitting and waved at her; he did the same when he again reached that spot on the track. He ran with all his strength, did not pretend indifference, did not try to please the crowd, did not show off for the other runners, as he had done earlier, by stopping and letting them catch up to him. This time, he invested all his strength, ran with every ounce of his being and, every time he passed her, he waved and smiled at her. And she smiled in response. When he had run past her who-knows-how-many times, he saw her get up, limp through the rows of benches towards him, walk down the field and wait for him on the track.
“Enough,” she said, taking his hand.
They fell onto the ground together, smiling at each other, and fell asleep.
When he awoke, the sun was setting.
My parents are worried crazy, he said to himself, awake, troubled, hungry, his limbs aching. His body screamed for more sleep, it didn’t matter how much, as long as he could wake from it and remember nothing. He was afraid that that, when he awoke from his s, he would be different.
“I want to sleep now and never wake up,” he said, yawning prodigiously. “I want to die.”
*This story is taken from: The Bitter Scent of Geraniums, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1980.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Holger’s parents had already gone to bed.
The taste of unfamiliar toothpaste on my tongue, I was sitting on the duvet in my pyjamas.
Holger was standing by the aquarium and feeding the guppies. ‘Oh no, not Jimmi,’ he said.
He pronounced it the German way; not Jimmy but Yimmi, like denim yeans and Yava tobacco.
‘They’re doing Jimmi again.’
I had no idea what he was talking about. All I heard was a quiet, rhythmic squeaking that I couldn’t place. It sounded a little like a car’s starter motor whirring. Or it could have been a bird. Maybe a pigeon; they sounded like that, only deeper. A small pigeon? On the other hand, the sound seemed to be coming directly from the wall or the master bedroom behind it, which meant neither was an option. A mystery, and Holger made no attempt to explain what was going on. He just rolled his eyes and went on tapping the fish-food can with his index finger.
Holger and his father had taken me back to their place after the game. I’d been looking forward to staying over there for weeks. Holger had told me so much about his magnificent home that I’d got stage fright. The two security officers assigned to protect me had followed us in their car, keeping a close eye on our Beetle. Outside the three-storey building where Holger’s family occupied the middle floor, they had got out and had brief words with his father, probably arranging when I’d be picked up the next day. As they drove away I’d waved at them, and Herr Danner, at the wheel, did his Red Indian How while his new colleague, Herr Volquardsen, stared out of the window on the other side.
The sound was now clearly audible. Rhythmic squeaks, obviously of mechanical rather than vocal origin, the cause of which I began to intuit through Holger’s annoyed silence.
Jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi – jimmi.
He left the fish tank for the record player and put on the Slade album the team had given him for his birthday. ‘Mama, weer all crazee now.’ Despite the music now drowning out the other sound, my attention was fully focused on the wall, almost as though I were just waiting for the empty groove on the LP, the gap between one track and the next, to listen for the state of play next door.
A while ago, our goalie Nettekoven had told us about how his parents, who apparently had a fold-down double bed kept in a cupboard, got buried alive under this very contraption for hours after the wall unit collapsed on them and proved impossible to remove.
It was only their son returning home on Sunday who managed to fetch help, eventually rescuing his trapped parents. Nettekoven had squealed that his parents had been engaging in ‘nookie’ when the accident happened, which had increased my suspicion that the whole thing was made up. Eavesdropping on Officers Stöckl and Danner, I had once heard the former reading a similar story out loud from the Express, in which Nettekoven’s choice of noun had of course not appeared, but it had been humorously paraphrased. In this case, a couple had got wedged inside a car and been liberated with the aid of a blowtorch, on top of which the incident had taken place in England. Whatever the case, Herr Danner could hardly control his laughter.
We got under the covers, me on the foam rubber mattress on the floor, Holger in his bed, where I’d been sitting before. The lamp in the aquarium cast a violet glow on the ceiling and wall, creating a cosy but slightly spooky atmosphere. Jimmi and Slade had fallen silent, and I looked up at Holger but saw only his bristly hair standing up on the pillow and casting its shadow on the wall. After a short while I heard regular breathing.
I thought about the wonderful evening behind us. We had watched Wim Thoelke’s Three Times Nine show with Holger’s parents, scarfing down Holger’s mother’s open sandwiches with mushroom-flavoured cheese spread and salami served on a wooden platter. Between the pieces of bread, she had fanned out semi-sliced gherkins. I had surreptitiously edged the parsley garnishes and enzyme-browned apple slices to the side of my plate, but Holger’s mother had noticed anyway. When she’d pointed it out – I had blushed bright red, caught in the act – Holger had saved me by taking the little pile and stuffing it into his mouth in one go, prompting laughter. Later, there’d been a portion of Neapolitan ice cream with a waffle poked into it for everyone, and to finish off, brightly coloured bowls of Goldfish crackers and wine gums had graced the table.
‘What a shame you can’t stay for lunch tomorrow,’ Holger’s mother had said. ‘We’re having Siegfried’s favourite, tongue in madeira sauce.’
My smile could have meant anything; I’d copied it from my mother. Now, though, I was hugely relieved to be far away by tomorrow lunchtime. Holger’s parents had drunk beer, Kurfürsten Kölsch, we’d had Tri-Top mandarin squash, there’d been coasters made out of Fimo modelling clay by Holger’s older sister Biggi, and I was utterly impressed by how well ordered their lives were.
Everything and everyone seemed to have a fixed routine and a fixed place, running along considered and predetermined tracks like a Märklin model railway, with absolutely no risk of deviating or crashing. I got the impression that here, any action tested out and found worthy was performed in exactly the same way from then on. There seemed to be none of the questions that arose for me on a daily basis, requiring a large part of my time to answer.
For instance, at a sign invisible to me, perhaps at the same time every day, all the family members had disappeared to their bedrooms only to return to the living room in various types of leisurewear several minutes later to watch TV.
Holger and I had put on our pyjamas, while his father reappeared in a luminous blue tracksuit with a black-and-white eagle emblem and the word Bundeswehr on his left breast, lending his already stocky figure a rather more boxy shape. The jacket was unzipped, revealing his vest and copious chest hair, gently embedding a small golden medallion on a thin chain that bore the symbol of Aries the ram. On his feet, he wore Romika-brand cord slippers ‘with cushioned foot beds’, as he’d told me on one occasion. I’d complained of pain in my right Achilles tendon at training, and Holger’s father had been certain it was due to my shoes lacking a decent foot bed. The subject had come up several times, him asking me in an earnestly concerned tone whether any progress had been made on the foot-bed front. He seemed to be obsessed with it. My mother, however, presented with my request for shoes with decent foot beds, had merely shrugged uncomprehendingly.
Now dressed in a one-piece orange towelling suit with a golden zip, Holger’s mother had brought us another plate of sandwiches, she too wearing slippers that left no doubt as to their meeting the highest demands in terms of joint protection and arch support, possibly even including a splay-foot truss pad, who knows.
Holger’s sister Biggi, already fifteen and going to a party that evening, was staying over with a friend of hers. I wasn’t quite sure whether I regretted that or was actually relieved. Probably both at once.
Holger’s new-build apartment consisted of the living room and master bedroom, Holger’s and Biggi’s rooms, plus kitchen and bathroom. They all branched off the hallway, where a coat rack was fixed to the wall by the front door and an occasional table faced the kitchen door, complete with brocade-upholstered telephone and matching directory. I had been instantly impressed that everything in the flat had been improved upon by its diligent inhabitants, both optically and practically.
The living room was a rather small, almost square space carpeted in moss green, with a window overlooking the road and the car park. Now, though, the shutters had been let down, as I could see through the crocheted net curtains. The walls were painted medium brown, the low ceiling a paler shade.
On entering the room there was a corner settee for four, upholstered in beige cord, against the right wall, where Holger’s father had his place on the window side. Holger and I had sat on the main section, in front of which a coffee table with a chrome-coloured frame and a dark smoked-glass top stood on a small shaggy rug. On top of it, a twist-top crystal ashtray and matching table lighter were flanked by cigarettes, one pack each of Kim and HB brand. Above the settee hung a framed reproduction of an oil painting, which depicted the lighthouse at Sankt Peter-Ording, as I’d read while sitting down.
On our left, Holger’s mother had taken a seat in the colour-coordinated armchair. Just above the coffee table hung a lamp made of glazed clay; I’d had to watch out that its white spiral cable didn’t cut off my view of the TV. The set was nestled into the oak unit occupying the entire opposite wall. During the day it was hidden behind a folding door, which Holger’s father had opened, humming in joyful anticipation. The top of the wall unit had neon tubes installed in it, switched on along with the pendant lamp and making it much brighter than I was used to at home. The moment darkness fell, my mother, who hated overhead lighting, would begin clicking on various lamps and dim lights, some concealed, being of the opinion that was more pleasant. Here, though, the television – a brand new Nordmende model – had been turned on, and Holger’s father had slumped back onto the cushions, rubbing his hands.
The show had started, and Holger and his mother had sung along to the theme tune as his father whistled an accompaniment.
‘Join in, tonight good luck’s the star, join in, and Fortune won’t be far.’
That kind of enthusiasm had been new to me; at home, my parents tended to ridicule this kind of programme, falling asleep in front of the TV or getting up after five minutes and leaving the room without comment, raised eyebrows at most, usually leaving me alone with the TV unless my mother took pity on me.
Holger’s family had followed the entire programme with unfailing attention, joined in the quizzes (the living room’s occupants chorusing ‘Rii-isk’ at appropriate moments) and sung (‘You sound unknown chords in my soul, Grand Prix d’amour, for me that’s your role’), sharing their assessments of the host’s and his celebrity guests’ condition: ‘He’s put on a few pounds, old Thoelke.’
After the last note of the closing theme performed by Max Greger and his Orchestra, Holger’s parents had exchanged brief nods, the TV was switched off, and the family had got up and swiftly cleared the table, following a well-oiled ritual. I had tried to conform intuitively to the rules of this procedure, sadly in vain, which meant I was constantly in everyone’s way. Then Holger and I had gone to brush our teeth, and by the time we left the bathroom the hallway was dark and empty.
I found it hard to settle down as I lay there listening to Holger’s breathing, excited by the evening spent in this wonderful world. The past few hours had shown me how and where I wanted to live; this was what it would look like, my future life!
All the things going through my mind! Perhaps I too could work in parliamentary administration, follow in Holger’s father’s footsteps and become a clerk, why not? But not until Holger and I had completed our four years with the army, which, as his father had explained to us, not only brought comradeship and strengthened body and character, but also had financial advantages. To take a random example, there was car insurance, where we could claim the reduced rates for civil servants after getting our driving licenses for cars, motorbikes and lorries for free in the Bundeswehr! To say nothing of capital-forming benefits, where Father State made a decent contribution.
The snugly fitting swaddling of this world’s way of thinking had instantly lulled me into submission. Yet I now also saw that this was the opposite of my home in every respect. Or perhaps rather, my previous home? On the one hand, I pitied myself because fate seemed to hold this conflict in store for me, while on the other hand I was veritably euphoric about the alternative life awaiting me, shown to me so vividly that evening.
I had a sudden urge to laugh, remembering the story I’d heard that afternoon. I had praised the towelling toilet-lid cover, colour-coordinated with the little rug around the base, and told Holger how homely I found it, whereupon he’d raced into the kitchen with me and begged his mother to tell the story of Auntie Otti, which she’d willingly done.
The following had taken place: Holger’s father had an aunt in Dresden, Frau Otto, to whom they sent regular parcels of food, clothes and other goods not available in the East. A while ago, one of these parcels had contained one of the towelling lavatory sets I had so admired. A few weeks later, Holger’s parents had received a thank-you letter from said aunt, which included the line: ‘Thank you for the nice scarf but I’m afraid the hat’s much too big for me.’ Holger’s mother had barely managed to finish the anecdote, her son rolling on the kitchen floor in laughter, whereas I didn’t understand why it was funny until they explained it to me: it seemed the old lady had misconstrued the items’ purpose and put the lavatory lid cover on her head and the rug around her neck.
No one expected me to feel sorry for her, as the family’s reactions made clear. That too had been unfamiliar and bewildering.
During my evening with Holger’s family, I had felt like I so often did: if I liked a place, I felt compelled to assimilate fully into my environment. I didn’t want to be merely like the people around me, I wanted to be more them than they were themselves! At the same time, I felt a deep rage arising towards my home, especially at my parents for keeping so much from me, as I now knew. Everything, to be precise, everything that made life worth living. Why did I have to be torn the very next morning from the bosom of the family where I’d spent such a magnificent evening, where I felt like an established member?
At that moment, I had not a drop of love left for my own relatives. But that bitter realization caused me no grief or melancholy, and it seemed as though the cold clarity of the insight would lend me the necessary strength for the inevitable letting go, the cut I would one day perform. If all parties were to act sensibly, we would certainly find a dignified form of separation; there was no other option now. Ultimately, no one could help that coincidence had cast me into the absolutely inappropriate surroundings of my so-called home. No, there was no going back from the path now drawn up for me. Touched by my own courage in the face of this test at such a young age, I did fall asleep in the end, earnestly and calmly confronting the inevitable.
It took me a while to realize the whimpering that had woken me up was my own. I was briefly disoriented in the unfamiliar room. I rubbed my eyes and, touching my pillow with the back of my hand, felt that it was damp. I sat up, a draught caressing my teary cheeks. I needed a moment to recognize the cause of my unhappiness, but then it hit me full-force. My stomach jerked and another sob wrenched itself out of my constricted throat.
And then, my consciousness more sluggish than my body, came the thoughts and images that had obviously been behind this welling up for some time. I heard my mother quietly wishing me good night, felt my forehead leaning against my father’s shirted chest and knew I had betrayed them and their love. I knew I now longed for them more than anything else, but they, I feared, were lost to me because I had denied them so ruthlessly a few hours ago. I held the pillow in front of my face, afraid Holger would wake up. I wanted only one thing – to go home as soon as possible – but I had to stay here until the policemen came to fetch me. At that moment I couldn’t imagine surviving the hours until then. A heavy burden settled on my chest, and I felt more alone than ever before. How I wished I could unthink the thoughts I’d had before going to sleep. But there was no way to do that.
Next to me, Holger grunted and rolled onto his back; I quickly turned away. My father had once – when I’d asked him what exactly homesickness was – told me a story from the olden days about Swiss mercenaries in the French army, around whom the government had issued a ban on singing a certain folk song, on pain of death, because that tune had made the soldiers collapse with longing. They had immediately deserted and set off for home.
I missed Gabor so much, all that space, being alone but not being lonely. At some point I fell back to sleep, exhausted and perhaps a little relieved, because I noticed that my pain was nothing but the realization of where I belonged.
At breakfast with Holger and his parents, I chewed at half a bread roll for politeness’ sake, although I could barely swallow. I had to find a way to avoid eating the slimy boiled egg, but I played for time. When Holger’s father opened the fridge to take out the jam, I looked swiftly away, afraid to see the blueish cow’s tongue to be served for lunch. I had no wish to risk being asked what was wrong and thus threatening my hard-maintained composure.
I took surreptitious glances at the kitchen clock above the door every few minutes. Funny – only when I looked at it did I hear how loudly it ticked. As though it were answering my stares. At the same time I listened out through the glass door for the sound of Officers Danner and Volquardsen’s engine, come to rescue me. They had arranged with Holger’s father to collect me at ten. I only had to survive a little while longer, and once I was in the car I’d be redeemed.
It was a Sunday morning so I heard the Audi from far off; there was barely any traffic. I leapt up, dashed to the balcony door and saw the car turning into the car park. I could no longer maintain a calm appearance with the best will in the world; I ran into Holger’s room to fetch my long-packed bag and raced from there to the coat rack in the hall, where I put on my jacket. I quickly shook hands with Holger’s parents in the kitchen and took a bow. What I actually wanted was to thank them for their hospitality and the lovely evening, but the instant I opened my mouth my lower lip began to tremble and tears pricked my eyes. I snorted as loud as a horse, then turned away and left without a word. The family were left standing in confusion.
Luckily, the key was in the lock inside so I could open the front door and skip down the stairs two at a time. Outside, I ran to Officer Danner and gave him an unexpected hug. Officer Volquardsen had stayed in the car. ‘Good morrrning!’ he grunted, his eyes fixed straight ahead in a way that made clear this was both the beginning and end of our conversation. The two of us would never get on, but I didn’t care a bit at that moment. Even his bad mood prompted cosy feelings of being at home. Strange – in my present euphoria, I could barely remember my absolute despair of a few hours before.
During the drive I spent a long time gazing from the back seat at the Saint Christopher plaque stuck to the dashboard.
As the gate glided closed behind me Gabor came barking and lolloping up; I knew he must have been sick with worry while I was away. I said hello to him and then I looked up at the big white house in which we all missed each other so easily.
This was where I wanted to be.
With them. For myself.
*This story is taken from: “Raumpatrouille” by Matthias Brandt © 2016, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co, KG, Cologne/Germany.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute
It was the end of January, not long after the Christmas holidays, when the fat girl came to me. That winter I had started lending books to the children from the neighbourhood, who were supposed to collect and return them on a particular day of the week. Of course I knew most of them, but sometimes children who didn’t live in our street would come as well. And although the majority only stayed for as long as it took to exchange their books, there were a few who would sit down and start to read right there on the spot. Then I would sit at my desk and work, and the children sat at the little table by the bookshelves, and their presence was enjoyable and didn’t disturb me. The fat girl came on a Friday or Saturday, not on the lending day in any case. I was planning to go out, and was just taking a snack I had made myself into the room. I had had a visitor a little earlier, who must have forgotten to shut the front door. And so the fat girl appeared quite suddenly, just as I had set the tray down on my desk and turned round to fetch something from the kitchen. She was about twelve years old, wearing an old-fashioned loden coat and black knitted gaiters, and carrying a pair of ice skates on a strap. She looked familiar, though not very familiar, and because she had come in so quietly she had given me a fright.
‘Do I know you?’ I asked in surprise.
The fat girl said nothing. She just stood there and folded her hands over her round stomach and looked at me with eyes as light as water.
‘Would you like a book?’ I asked.
Again, the fat girl didn’t reply. But I wasn’t too surprised by that. I was used to the children being shy and having to help them. So I took out a few books and placed them in front of this unknown girl. Then I started filling out one of the cards on which I recorded the books I had lent out.
‘So, what’s your name?’ I asked.
‘They call me Fatty’, said the girl.
‘Shall I call you that as well?’ I asked.
‘I don’t care’, said the girl. She didn’t return my smile, and now I seem to remember that at that moment her face twisted in pain. But I took no notice.
‘When were you born?’ I went on.
‘In Aquarius’, the girl said calmly.
The response amused me and, half in fun, I wrote it down on the card. Then I turned back to the books.
‘Is there something specific you would like?’ I asked.
But then I saw that the strange girl’s eyes were not on the books at all, they were resting on the tray that held my tea and my sandwiches.
‘Perhaps you’d like something to eat’, I said quickly.
The girl nodded, and her look seemed rather hurt and surprised that this thought had only just occurred to me. She got to work, devouring one sandwich after another and doing so in a particular way that I only managed to describe to myself later. Then she sat still again and let her cold, languid eyes roam around the room, and there was something about her that filled me with resentment and loathing. Yes, it’s true: I had hated this child from the start. Everything about her had repelled me: her lethargic limbs, her fat pretty face, her way of speaking, which was at once somnolent and presumptuous. And although I had decided to forgo my walk for her sake, I was not at all kind to her, but cruel and cold.
Or could it be deemed a kindness that I then sat down at my desk, took up my work and said over my shoulder, ‘Read now’, although I knew very well that this unknown girl had no desire to read? And I sat there and wanted to write and got nothing done, because I had a strange, tormented feeling, like when you are supposed to guess something and have not guessed it, and as long as you have not guessed it, nothing can ever be the same. And I held out for a while, but not for very long, and then I turned round and began a conversation, and I could come up with only the most foolish of questions.
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘Do you like going to school?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the girl.
‘So what do you like most?’
‘Sorry?’ said the girl.
‘What subject?’ I asked, desperately.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
‘German, maybe?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl.
I twirled my pencil between my fingers, and something began to grow inside me, a dread that was out of all proportion with the girl’s arrival.
‘Do you have friends?’ I asked, trembling.
‘Oh yes’, said the girl.
‘And I’m sure you have a best friend, don’t you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know’, said the girl, and sitting there in her hairy loden coat she looked like a fat caterpillar; she had eaten like a caterpillar, too, and like a caterpillar she now started sniffing around again.
You’re not getting anything else, I thought, filled with a strange vindictiveness. But then I went out all the same and fetched some bread and slices of sausage, and the girl stared at it with her dull face and then she started eating, like a caterpillar eats, slow and steady, as if driven by an inner compulsion, and I looked on, hostile and mute. For by now everything about the girl had begun to upset and anger me. What a silly white dress, what a ridiculous stand-up collar, I thought, when the girl had finished eating and unbuttoned her coat. I sat down to my work again, but then I heard the girl smacking her lips behind me, and this sound was like the slow lapping of a black pond somewhere in the forest, it made me conscious of everything dull and watery, everything heavy and brackish in human nature, and it angered me. What do you want from me? I thought. Go away, go away. And I wanted to push the child out of the room with my own hands, as you might drive away an annoying animal. But then I didn’t push her out of the room; I spoke to her again, and in the same cruel manner.
‘Are you going out on the ice now?’ I asked.
‘Yes’, said the fat girl.
‘Are you good at ice skating?’ I asked, gesturing to the skates that were still hanging over the girl’s arm.
‘My sister’s good’, said the girl, and once more an expression of pain and sadness appeared on her face, and once more I took no notice.
‘What does your sister look like?’ I asked. ‘Is she like you?’
‘Oh, no’, said the fat girl. ‘My sister is very thin and has black, curly hair. In summer, when we’re in the countryside, she gets up at night when a storm comes and sits on the edge of the upstairs balcony and sings.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I stay in bed’, said the girl. ‘I’m afraid.’
‘Your sister’s not afraid, is she?’ I said.
‘No’, said the girl. ‘She’s never afraid. She jumps off the highest diving board, too. She dives in head-first, and then she swims a long way out…’
‘And what does your sister sing?’ I asked, curious.
‘She sings whatever she wants’, the fat girl said, sadly. ‘She makes up poems.’
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t do anything’, said the girl. And then she got up and said: ‘I have to go now.’ I held out my hand, and she put her fat fingers into it, and I don’t know exactly what I felt – something like an invitation to follow her, an inaudible, urgent call. ‘Do come again’, I said, but I didn’t mean it, and the girl said nothing and looked at me with her cool eyes. And then she was gone, and really I should have felt relieved. But the apartment door had hardly clicked shut when I was dashing out into the corridor too and putting on my coat. I hurried down the stairs and reached the street just as the girl disappeared round the next corner.
I have to see how this caterpillar ice skates, I thought. I have to see how this lump of lard moves on the ice. And I quickened my pace so as not to lose sight of her.
It had been early afternoon when the fat girl came into my room, and now dusk was falling. Although I had spent a few years in this town as a child, I didn’t really know my way around any more, and I was so intent on following the girl that soon I didn’t know where we were, and the streets and squares that appeared before me were entirely unfamiliar. I also noticed a sudden change in the air. It had been very cold, but now a thaw had definitely set in with such a force that the snow was already dripping from the roofs and large Föhn clouds were moving across the sky. We came to the outskirts of town, where the houses are surrounded by large gardens, and then there were no more houses, and then suddenly the girl disappeared, diving down an embankment. And where I had expected to see a skating rink, bright stalls and arc lamps and a glittering surface alive with screams and music, I was now confronted with a very different sight. Below me lay the lake whose banks I thought had all been built upon: it was quite solitary, surrounded by black woods, and it looked just as it had in my childhood.
I was so stirred by this unexpected scene that I almost lost sight of the girl. But then I saw her again, perching on the bank. She was trying to cross one leg over the other, holding the skate onto her foot with one hand while the other turned the key. She dropped the key a few times, and then the fat girl fell onto all fours and slid about on the ice, searching for it, looking like an outlandish toad. Moreover, it was getting darker and darker; the steamer jetty, stretching out across the ice just a few metres away from the girl, was a deep black above the huge surface of the lake. The ice had a silvery sheen, but not all over: here and there it was a little darker, and in these cloudy spots the thaw was setting in. Hurry up, I called out impatiently, and Fatty did actually start to hurry, but not at my urging; out there, beyond the end of the long steamer jetty, someone was waving and shouting, ‘Come on, Fatty’, someone who was skating in circles out there, a light, bright figure. It occurred to me that this must be the sister, the dancer, the storm singer, the girl after my own heart, and I was soon convinced that I had been drawn here purely by a desire to see this graceful creature. But at the same time I became aware of the danger the children were in. For now, all at once, there came this peculiar groan, this deep sigh that the lake seems to give before its skin of ice breaks. The sigh ran through the depths like an eerie lament, and I heard it, and the children did not.
No, of course they didn’t hear it. Otherwise Fatty, that fearful little thing, would not have started out, she would not have ventured further and further, sliding her feet scratchily, clumsily forward, and her sister out there would not have laughed and waved and spun like a ballerina on the tip of her skate, and then returned to her elegant figures of eight, and Fatty would have avoided the black patch from which she briefly shied away, only to then cross it after all, and her sister would not suddenly have stood up tall and skated off, away, away to one of the secluded little inlets.
I could see all this very well, since I had begun to walk out along the steamer jetty, further and further, putting one foot in front of the other. Although the planks were icy, I made better progress than the fat girl down below, and when I turned I could see her face, the expression at once dull and yearning. I could also see the cracks that were now appearing everywhere and from which, like froth from the lips of a person in a towering rage, a little foaming water spilled. And then of course I also saw the ice break beneath the fat girl. It broke in the spot where her sister had been dancing, just a few arms’ lengths from the end of the jetty.
I hasten to add that this crack was not a life-threatening one. The lake freezes in several layers, and the second was only a meter below the first and still entirely solid. All that happened was that Fatty was left standing in a metre of water – icy water, admittedly, and surrounded by crumbling sheets of ice – and if she only waded a few paces she would be able to reach the jetty and pull herself up, and I could help her. But at the same time I thought, she won’t manage that, and it did seem as though she wouldn’t, from the way she was standing there, scared to death, splashing clumsily about, with the water streaming around her and the ice shattering beneath her hands. Aquarius, I thought, now the water bearer is dragging her down, and I felt nothing at all, not even the slightest pity, and I did not stir.
But then Fatty suddenly lifted her head, and because night had really fallen now and the moon had appeared from behind the clouds I could see clearly that something in her face had changed. The features were the same and yet different, they had been torn open by passion and determination, as if now, in the face of death, they were drinking in all of life, all the glowing life in the world. Yes, I’m sure I believed that: that death was at hand and this was the end, and I leaned over the railings and looked into that white countenance below me, and like a mirror image it looked back out of the black flood. But then the fat girl made it to the wooden stilt. She reached out and began to haul herself up, cleverly grasping the nails and hooks that stuck out of the wood. Her body was too heavy, and her fingers bled, and she fell back, only to begin all over again. And it was a long battle, a terrible struggle for release and transformation, like I was watching the cracking of a shell or a cocoon, and at that point I might certainly have helped the girl, but by then I knew I no longer needed to help her – I had recognised her…
I don’t remember how I got home that evening. I only know that on our staircase I told a neighbour that one part of the lakeshore was still covered with meadows and black woods, and she told me, no, it wasn’t. And that I then found the papers on my desk all mixed up, and somewhere amongst them an old photograph of myself, in a white woollen dress with a stand-up collar, with light, watery eyes, and very fat.
*This story is taken from: Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden. Vierter Band. Die Erzählungen. © Insel Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1983.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
“Squad, stand easy… and fall out!” crowed Corporal Billygoat, in a voice that betrayed it had only broken lately.
And at once, off duty now, he slapped Dragon on the back and said: “Hey, brother, go find out what’s for dinner.”
Dragon eagerly set off for the nearby farm buildings where we were having our break that day. The thick blue smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage where our commanding officer was billeted was giving us the hope that today’s dinner would make up for the last few days’ lack of food.
Meanwhile, idly swaying from side to side (he always had his legs bent at the knees, which made him look as if the chair had just been removed from under him), Corporal Billygoat went over to a pile of crumpled straw and, with a low grunt, sat down. Then he cheerfully surveyed the squad surrounding him. The lads idolised him ‒ or so at least it was said.
“Why are you all standing there as if you’re at a wedding? Onyourarses-sit! Aren’t your legs aching? Maybe you want some more drill?”
Corporal Billygoat was a fine fellow. Maybe just a bit too sharp. Though that probably came with obeying the rules ‒ he was a great stickler for the rules. Even after the longest march no one could lie down without roll-call and prayers. An hour before going into action he was quite capable of putting the platoon through his favourite drill. Truly, that drill was enough to put the keenest men off walking a step further. In any case, none of us had much faith in it ‒ why did anyone need to know how to march in swarm formation if the first random ricochet could finish him off? Whereas Corporal Billygoat felt wonderful during drill. He would choose a hilly site for our exercises. He would take up position on a natural rise and strike his crop against his boot tops as he shouted the commands in a shrill voice:
“Fan out, men!”
“Take your positions!”
“One by one at a jump forward march!”
Here, regrettably, I must add that Corporal Billygoat’s one weakness was that wretched shrill voice of his, totally at odds with the gravitas of the rank he held (leader of the first squad, sometimes deputising for the commanding officer). Apart from that, Corporal Billygoat was, to make no bones about it, the typical, all too familiar martinet of an NCO. Perhaps only slightly odder, because he was very young, and operating within the particular conditions of a partisan army. Several times since, from the distance of many years, which has galvanised me to take a more critical view of Corporal Billygoat, I have often wondered whether his entire attitude was actually a pose, adopted from something he happened to have read. But these thoughts may also have been prompted by the events I’m going to describe.
The sun was already brushing the threadbare tops of the pine trees, and there was a stink of sweat-soaked footwraps on the air. We were sprawled about on the grass beside the corporal’s pile of straw, none of us in the mood for talking, because it was quite stuffy, and a man becomes terribly idle in such a sultry atmosphere. Corporal Billygoat slowly pulled off his boots, then unwound his footwraps, sniffed them in disgust and spread them out on the grass. As the footwraps lay steaming, suddenly the corporal said: “Well, boys, what if the war were to end right now?”
We made cheerful but non-committal noises. For what could we say? It was often mentioned, but if it were to happen, we wouldn’t actually have known the whole thing had started ‒ “the whole thing” meaning civilian life, as lived at peace. Damn it all, we had grown up during the war and we’d got used to it.
Corporal Billygoat’s question was awkward. And yet I ventured to take up the debate.
“To tell the truth, sir, I’ve had enough of the war by now,” I said.
Billygoat gave me an indulgent look. I passed in the unit as a duffer – the intellectual sort who can’t even carry out a food patrol properly, “because it’s a pity to take the last hen,” as I had excused myself once to the corporal.
Billygoat disdainfully scratched his chin, on which the first few hairs had managed to push through, resembling gingery down.
“Bonehead” – such was the pseudonym they had given me, despite my desperate protests – “you’re an arse. Cos you’re afraid of everything. Can’t do this cos it’s a pity, can’t do that cos you’ll go to hell…”
I kept silent, in keeping with military form, while Billygoat turned his drying footwraps over. There was no sound, just a crane calling from somewhere in the marshes.
“You don’t win war by being kind-hearted, brother. If you don’t blast the bastard first, he’ll finish you. That’s the basic principle of war. We don’t take any prisoners here.”
His final words stirred the interest of the squad. I had already withdrawn from the debate, for in this situation what could a man say who until recently had recoiled at the sight of blood?
“So what if we were to take prisoners, sir? What would we do with them?” asked Mollusc timidly.
Corporal Billygoat didn’t lose his temper. He didn’t even show ironical surprise, but raised his right hand and motioned with his index finger, as if pulling the trigger of a rifle.
“We’d rub them out.”
“Shoot the bastards,” retorted Wiktor, famous among us for his courage.
“Sir, let’s have Chaffinch or Bonehead blow away the first Kraut we capture,” cried Blackbird, and the squad roared with laughter, making some anxious dogs respond with barking from the farm buildings.
Corporal Billygoat stretched his legs out and began keenly examining his dirty fingernails. We all knew he was on the verge of telling a story. I moved up, and lounged on the corporal’s straw, perhaps overstepping the mark, but he didn’t notice that, and after a glance at the yellow sky, he began his tale.
“Last summer, when I was still in Thunderbolt’s unit, three of us went to the highway. We were bloody short of guns in the company and there were nothing to eat. I was itching to get my hands on a Luger. So off we go, I’m leading the way. It’s quite hot, so we stop at this village for buttermilk.” (Corporal Billygoat always told his stories in great detail.) “Then we follow the borders of the fields to reach the highway. The corn ain’t been harvested yet, so we get up really close. We lie down in these bloody prickly juniper bushes. There was a ditch full of water by the highway. We were thirsty. So Pinetree – he was a brave lad – he crawls into it and drinks the rainwater. We lie there for an hour or so. Until we hear an engine…”
The corporal broke off his narrative and started fumbling in his pockets. He took out an old pipe tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette. Some cows were lowing on their way back from pasture.
Snorting smoke, Billygoat continued his story.
“So we look, and there from around the bend comes a truck, mottled all over. Meaning an army truck. I lob a grenade onto the highway, my mates blast a few shots at the engine, and we jump out into the road. The cab doors slowly open and, brother, two arms slide out. I look and there’s this dream watch. So then we drag out two krauts. Nothing special in the vehicle, just a bit of fuel. They got tins of food in the cab, a rifle and a sub-machine gun, the ones I’ve got now. We stripped the krauts right away – those bastards were quaking with fear something dreadful. Pinetree says: ‘Slug ‘em, sir?’ I just wink, and he drags one of them by the shirt and off into the bushes. The German starts moaning, but Pinetree says: ‘Zum Komandant’. I grab the other one and off we go the same way too. Just one blast from the gun – it was primed. We set the lorry on fire. Pinetree lugged the tins back with us. We counted – there’s seventeen of ‘em. It was just a shame about the truck. Great vehicle, but not much use if the cylinders are shot through…”
Corporal Billygoat was done, and looked around at the lads, who were silent. After a pause Chaffinch asked: “Sir, what about the watch?”
Billygoat stretched out a skinny arm, and there on his wrist we saw a bright nickel watch on a metal band, the first time we’d noticed it.
I don’t know why – somehow I always blurted things out at the wrong moment – but I said: “When is it so… like, er… killing prisoners…”
The lads exchanged glances and snorted with laughter. Corporal Billygoat laughed the longest. And then he grew serious and said: “Yes, brother, you don’t fight a war with books.”
I wanted to speak up again, but the corporal fell back supine and suddenly sighed: “Huh, I could do with a nice piece of arse…”
The conversation moved on to girls, and being no expert on this topic, I limited myself to listening. In any case I felt quite intimidated, and had no desire to take further risks.
But Corporal Billygoat was feeling pleased with himself, laughing in a rather squeaky tone that startled the swallows trying to get under the thatch of the barn outside which we were lying.
Our unit commander was a lieutenant not much older than we were. In fact, he was just a boy. He did look quite impressive – he was very tall, with huge black eyebrows, a massive hooked nose and rather bovine eyes. He was very concerned about the unit’s moral standards (not even Corporal Billygoat dared to curse or start up an indecent conversation in his presence), and generally he ran the unit in keeping with the rather literary rules of the gentleman commanding officer. He was also very strict. I don’t know if I can repeat this, but according to Wiktor, who had been in another unit with him somewhere else, our commander had quite a tragic past. At the end of his cadet training the top brass organised a combat mission for some of the novice cadets, including our commander, as one of the most promising officers. The aim chosen for the mission was to destroy a German Stützpunkt – a fortified strongpoint, which was held by the Lithuanians. The Stützpunkt was situated in one of the many manor houses in the area. That night the small unit, on their first mission, crept up to the estate’s outbuildings. The first men to go inside the manor house were to be our commander and a close friend of his. Their task would be to terrorise the Lithuanians, who would be taken by surprise. The rest of the unit were to provide back-up, and to occupy the remaining estate buildings. True to plan, our commander and his friend went up onto the porch of the house and stood outside an open door, through which light was falling. They were close enough to hear the Lithuanians’ voices. As it was their first mission, they were all extremely excited, which is quite enough to explain what happened next. Our commander’s friend was the first to race through the open door, shouting: “Hӓnde hoch!” There was a burst of gunfire, and minutes later when our commander’s friend came out again, in the total chaos our commander mistook him for a Lithuanian (they were wearing German helmets). A short volley of shots rattled from his Soviet PPD (a fine automatic, the commander’s pride and joy) and then he heard his friend groan: “They fucking got me,” before slumping into the darkness. The mission was a success. But one more birch cross was put up in the Gojcieniszki village graveyard. He was the only man killed during the mission. Apparently our commander had lost his mind for several months after that, but somehow his madness had abated and he had started to lead his own unit. He had been unlucky. The story wasn’t at all original, and Wiktor may very well have made it up, and yet the young commander’s permanent sadness and strictness lent some credence to the story. I was personally connected with the commander by some ties that were hard to define. At the start we had had a number of conversations. But in time this had come to an end, because the commander never allowed himself to distinguish me for that reason. Instead he was more demanding, and often punished me for various offences, which he called “Bonehead’s oafishness”. Whereas I did not want to create the appearance of imposing myself, and began to keep away from him.
So next morning my surprise was all the greater when, shortly before dawn, while I was on watch by a broken fence, staring at the rose-pink sky, the commander came out of the cottage, relieved himself under a lilac bush and slowly walked up to me.
“Well then, Bonehead, all quiet?” he asked, buttoning up his flies.
“All quiet, sir,” I said, straightening my hunched shoulders in military style.
“It seems we haven’t had the chance to talk lately, Bonehead. The way it goes I’m permanently exhausted and can’t pull myself together.”
I looked closer, and sure enough, I could see a fog of weariness in his eyes.
“I’m not doing too well, sir, I’m afraid I’m a bit of an oaf,” I started clumsily justifying both him and myself. “I’m no good at the requisition patrols. It’s like… bloody hell, like waging war on women. Because if there’s action, at least everyone’s shooting, so then I shoot too. And, apparently, I’m a coward,” I added after a brief hesitation.
I was expecting a protest, a denial on the part of the commander. But he gave me an almost hostile look, very harsh, and said: “Don’t you forget that I demand more of you than the others. You’ve got to overcome your intellectual complex. The fact that you don’t want to take anyone’s boots away isn’t an ethically justified gesture of honesty. Don’t forget this is war, and this is your unit. Any moment of weakness ricochets back on all of us.”
By now the sun had cut its way out of the purple strip of forest and was shuddering in the red mist. The day promised to be blazing hot.
“Yes sir,” I agreed in soldierly manner.
The commandant fixed his bovine eyes on me and stared for a while. Then he pulled his belt up and began to chew his nails. He knew he’d never be able to convince me. In any case, the point of our dispute was something we couldn’t easily define.
Now in an official, if not a hostile tone (or maybe it just seemed that way to me) the commander asked: “Who’s on watch after you?”
“Chaffinch, sir!” I said, clicking my heels.
The rifle was weighing me down, so I shifted it to my left shoulder.
The commander slowly walked back to the cottage, and I felt as if I’d broken an expensive watch.
Then roosters began to crow somewhere nearby, the cattle mooed as they were herded out of the barns, and a dishevelled girl carrying a bucket walked past the fence, heading downhill to a small well. Her shirt was open, making it easy to see her wobbling breasts. She laughed at me stupidly and lustfully. “What a bitch,” I thought, and angrily turned to face the cottage, where I could hear the rap of wood being chopped to light the stove. Then Chaffinch dragged himself outside, sleepy, sour, and shivering with cold.
“Screw the bloody watch,” he muttered. “Just make sure they replace me on time,” he muttered as I got myself ready to leave.
For an hour I dozed at the table, still conscious, but then I crashed on the straw and fell asleep.
When I awoke, the sun was high in the sky. The merciless heat had wrung large beads of sweat out of me. I raised my head. Beyond a rainbow of dust my comrades were sitting at the table, eating. The stink of small wooden tubs full of pigswill hung in the air. The dirty, sweaty housewife was clanking cooking pots on a large stove. Flies buzzed.
“On your feet, men!” joked Corporal Billygoat as I sat up, yawning, on the straw.
“Come and get your blinis,” Chaffinch invited me.
The squad was busily slurping away. Billygoat amicably drew up a bowl of blinis for me. I was hungry, so I set about eating.
“Tuck in, lads,” said the corporal, wiping his greasy chin. “We deserve a good rest. Looks like it’s quiet round here. We can sit in peace. This evening when it cools down we’ll do some exercises,” he added.
“Corporal,” argued Wiktor, “couldn’t we call it a day now? It’s so bloody hot it’s probably going to rain.”
“It won’t do you lot any harm to get some air in your pants. Are you an army or a bunch of civilians?” raged the corporal at such overfamiliarity. Then he rolled a cigarette and went to get a light.
After breakfast we went out into the yard. The sun was blazing down so hard that we even took off our shirts. At once there was a delectable sound of lice being squashed.
“Fuck this bloody war,” said Wiktor. “The lice bite worse than the Germans. And whose fault is all this? Those bastard krauts. Shoot the whole bloody lot of them and there’d be peace.” Furiously he hurled a stone against the side of a kennel, in which a moth-eaten mongrel was dozing.
But the Germans were far away, the district was quiet, and soon we were sprawling on the grass, adroitly avoiding the chicken shit thickly strewn about the green yard.
For a while I stared into the heated sky, then lazily shifted my gaze to the ripening fields. Blackbird was on watch by the fence, wiping the stream of sweat that was pouring from under his helmet (on the commander’s orders we had to wear helmets; Corporal Billygoat made sure the order was obeyed). Past the fence, another guard was standing outside a second cottage, the one where the commander was billeted. Sometimes a breeze would briefly arise that did little to cool our burning bodies.
Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway of the cottage with a girl, the one I’d seen that morning.
Then I must have dozed off a while.
I was woken more by instinct than by any particular noise. I looked up and saw Blackbird come running from the fence. His helmet was bouncing comically on his sweaty head. I felt a wave of anxiety. The other lads began to look up nervously as well. I noticed Billygoat in the doorway, on his own now, after getting up in a hurry.
“Germans,” was all Blackbird could gasp breathlessly…
We were dumbstruck.
For some seconds there was such total silence that Blackbird’s panting brought the danger closer. We hastily jumped to our feet. I suddenly felt sick and almost keeled over. But the lads had already raced indoors. As I was running into the cottage Corporal Billygoat appeared in the doorway again, hurriedly loading his sub-machine gun. Inside the boys were silently turning the straw over to fish out the guns they had tossed there carelessly.
After some feverish clattering we ran outside again. As usual, I was the last. It seemed I was never quick off the mark.
Blackbird was already kneeling by the fence with his rifle to his eye. Slightly to one side of him, Corporal Billygoat was crouching under a lilac bush. We stealthily ran up to the bushes dividing the yard from the country road. I remembered my rifle. The butt was already slippery with sweat from my hands. I loaded it. The clank of the bolt was so loud that I thought it had caused an echo.
“Quiet, you bastard,” whispered Billygoat angrily and leaned forwards.
I heard a German voice.
A split second later, through a gap in the undergrowth I noticed a head in a grey forage cap about ten metres in front of me.
After that I couldn’t keep track of the rapid sequence of events.
It seems Billygoat leaped out from under the bushes screaming: “Hӓnde hoch!”
Several other voices instantly repeated this order in various tones. Before the astonished Germans – only two of them – had had time to make a move, the lads had torn their weapons from their hands. As I crawled out of the bushes (last again), Wiktor was patting down the Germans’ pockets. They stood with their arms raised, as if trying to check which way the wind was blowing. Their eyes expressed utter amazement and terror. Corporal Billygoat stood with his braces down in the middle of the road, brandishing his sub-machine gun. The rest of the lads, a dozen half-naked ragamuffins, surrounded the captives. My hands were shaking. I wanted to say something.
“Where are their weapons?” I asked.
There was no answer. Just heavy, rapid breathing. Then I noticed the two Mausers in Chaffinch and Blackbird’s hands.
From the Germans’ pockets Wiktor proceeded to remove some packets of cigarettes, boxes of matches, a wad of letters, wallets with documents, folding knives and some smaller items that I couldn’t see. Then he undid their cartridge belts.
“That’s all they’ve got, sir,” he reported.
Corporal Billygoat straightened his braces and thought for a while. Then in a voice that was almost calm he said: “Escort them to the cottages.”
Wiktor pointed the barrel of his Mauser towards the cottages and ordered: “Quick march!”
Not understanding, the prisoners turned on the spot and began to walk backwards in the direction indicated. They were still holding their hands hesitantly overhead. Wiktor prodded the one on the left with the barrel of his gun.
It was almost pitch dark in the cottage after coming in from the sunny yard. The prisoners sat down on the straw in a corner. Slowly they lowered their hands and gazed anxiously at the circle of men surrounding them. Through the window I saw Billygoat running to the commander’s billet. It was still unbearably quiet.
“Blackbird, why have you left your post?” I asked, to break the silence, and my own voice gave me a shock.
The prisoners glanced at me in terror. I felt sorry for them. Blackbird went back on watch. The housewife and her children were trembling by the stove.
By the time the commander arrived with Corporal Billygoat we had almost entirely calmed down. Wiktor had even tried to make a joke, saying: “Chaffinch, I can tell you got scared,” and then sniffing the air. But nobody laughed.
The commander took a look at the prisoners and told them to hand over their documents. I went closer, ready to help, though I didn’t know a word of German.
The commander turned in his hand a little green booklet, on which it said “Soldbuch” in Gothic script. Then he opened it and read out: “Erich Knothke.”
The straw rustled. It was one of the prisoners moving about. With some difficulty the commander translated the data from the army booklet. Obergefreiter – or Lance Corporal, born in 1925, conservatory student. The other NCO was a tailor by profession. The booklets smelled of sweat and army cloth. Flies buzzed against the window panes. The prisoners sighed in the corner.
Gradually we returned to our normal occupations. Wiktor and Chaffinch went outside, while Signal stood by the prisoners. He would keep watch on them. Corporal Billygoat even put his sub-machine gun down on a bench.
On his way out the commander said: “Keep a close eye on them.”
And that was all.
Corporal Billygoat gazed at the prisoners for a long time. Finally he stood up and approached them. He made signs to tell them to get undressed. They blinked, failing to understand. “Schnell,” Billygoat urged them. Suddenly the younger one began to sob. They held out their hands, begging for something. They thought there was going to be an execution. Corporal Billygoat started explaining, half in German, half in Polish and partly in sign language that he only wanted them to swap clothes because his soldiers were in rags. They understood, and quickly began to strip off their uniforms, while feverishly trying to explain something. They were clearly expressing their readiness to hand it all over in exchange for their lives.
Later, when we assembled in the yard, while the prisoners went on sitting in the cottage in torn rags under guard, Billygoat appeared, in spite of the heat, in a German NCO’s jacket. He seemed quite proud.
In fact all of us were feeling a certain joy. And a little anxiety. After all, they were our first prisoners. We were pleased. But as ever, I stupidly blurted: “Sir, what are we going to do with them? We’ll let them go this evening, won’t we?”
Corporal Billygoat laughed out loud. Several others joined in. For a while he examined the flashes on the epaulettes of his new, ex-German uniform and then suddenly, as if wearily, he said: “What? You know that ‒ they get rubbed out.”
I realised my arm had gone numb. I turned onto my other side. Somewhere crickets were chirping. I felt sorry for the prisoners. I always had been sentimental.
“Bang, and the head explodes,” said Wiktor, snapping his fingers, and laughed unpleasantly. I was afraid of him. A red-legged rooster strode across the yard. Dinner time was approaching.
We ate our dinner out of doors. I was pleased about that. I couldn’t bear the sight of the prisoners hunched in the corner. By a lucky turn of events I wasn’t tasked with guarding them either. The sun continued to blaze down on us. Still in the uniform, Corporal Billygoat smeared the bulging beads of sweat across his brow. The dog lay lifelessly by its kennel. “When will they do them in?” I wondered, as I gazed at the black hole of the window. The first small clouds were starting to appear on the horizon. The soup was impossibly hot. The conversation dragged along idly. Then we lay on the grass.
After recent events the exercises Billygoat had announced probably wouldn’t happen. The hens were moving their heads in a comical angular way. I was feeling anxious about the evening ahead.
Corporal Billygoat turned lazily from side to side, and then calmly, as if spontaneously, as if he’d only just remembered, said: “Hey, Bonehead, go and give the prisoners something to eat.”
I moved slowly on purpose, to avoid showing too much eagerness, in the hope that the corporal might yet rescind the order. In no hurry, I walked over to the dog and scratched him on his bony side. Panting fast, he glanced up at me from a festering eye. As I entered the cottage I felt the gaze of the lads on me. I tried to listen, in case they said something. But they remained silent.
Inside it was almost chilly. The prisoners were sitting still in their places. The guard was playing with the safety catch on his automatic. I didn’t look in their direction. I fetched two plates of soup from the housewife and put them down in front of the prisoners. Then I went back for some bread. The prisoners livened up. The younger one, from the conservatory, began to whine about something. His eyes were damp, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I guessed he was afraid. I looked out of the window. The curtains were rippling in a light breeze.
“Nicht Tod,” I lied. “Essen, then nach Hause,” I said, pointing at the bright rectangle of the door.
They looked at me mistrustfully. I smiled again.
They believed me. The younger one said something else, but in a calmer tone this time. Then he reached his bony white hands out for the plate. They ate in silence. The younger one just slurped away, while the Unteroffizier occasionally smacked his lips.
Noiselessly, to avoid attracting the prisoners’ attention and to escape their eyes, I slipped outside. It was quiet. A shadow of cloud slithered across the ripe corn and brushed soundlessly against a linden tree.
I lay down on the grass beside my comrades, and there we remained for ages, measuring the time by the narrow shadows of the clouds.
The day was still extremely hot, but luckily it was drawing to an end. A flock of crows gathered above the woods, debating loudly, and then flew off into the colourless sky. Then they reassembled, and the noise of their cawing muffled our heavy breathing.
Corporal Billygoat was sitting on the threshold, his right hand shamelessly fiddling with the girl’s breasts. Occasionally he laughed and cast a glance at the squad flopping on the grass, to see if anyone had noticed his love-making. But the lads were dozing. Somehow I felt anxious. I was afraid of the evening.
Wiktor was on guard by the fence.
At some point I heard footsteps. I raised my head. The commander was coming over to us from his billet. He had a jacket thrown over his sloping shoulders.
Quickly I got to my feet. Roused from their slumber, the lads looked up. The girl disappeared into the darkness of the cottage, and Corporal Billygoat came the other way.
“So what about the prisoners?” asked the commander.
“They’re sitting quietly, sir,” replied Billygoat. “They’ve been given dinner.”
The commander stood lost in thought. As we stood around them in a circle, my hands began to shake. The commander smoothed his hair.
“Billygoat, your squad will shoot the prisoners this evening,” he said firmly but quietly. I felt myself flush. Corporal Billygoat shifted from foot to foot and noisily swallowed his saliva.
“Yes sir,” he said softly and neutrally.
“You’ll draw lots. The two who draw the marked lots will shoot the Germans this evening when we’re on the march.”
We said nothing.
The crows cawed alarmingly in the yellowing sky.
“All right, Billygoat, get on with drawing the lots!” snapped the commander.
Billygoat stirred, then straightened up and said: “Yes, sir!”
Then he slowly walked towards the cottage. We followed him. The commander stood up straight in the middle of the yard. There was a moist breeze from the meadows. I shuddered.
We stopped outside the cottage. The corporal went inside. We could hear his footsteps and the rustle of straw. Soon he came back out with a page torn from an exercise book. Somewhere nearby cows were lowing.
The corporal addressed the commander, asking: “Do I have to prepare a lot for myself too?”
Billygoat slowly tore the sheet of paper into eleven strips. I leaned against the door frame. Then he licked the stub of a copy pencil, and on two of the strips he drew a crooked cross. There was total silence.
The commander was standing still with his eyes closed.
The corporal rolled up the strips of paper and tipped them into his greasy four-cornered cap. Then he stirred them with a finger. We all went up to the commander.
The first to draw was Chaffinch. As he unrolled the scrap of paper and glanced at it, his eyes hardened. We didn’t ask him the result. Then other hands plunged into the cap in turn and drew out more scraps of white ruled paper.
I stepped back to the outside of the circle, counting on someone else drawing the fatal lot before me. But I couldn’t keep still. I could feel a tight knot in the pit of my stomach, a familiar sensation from school. The lots were drawn in turn by Wiktor, Blackbird, Ploughshare, Button, Mollusc, Antek and Signal. Then Dusky went up. I held my breath. But he too tossed a blank scrap of paper to the ground. I turned round to face the fence. My hands were shaking. Now it should be Corporal Billygoat’s turn to draw, and to take out the slip of paper with the clumsy cross.
But I heard him saying irritably: “Who hasn’t bloody well drawn yet?”
I realised that mine was a lost cause. He was counting on the same thing as I was.
I went up to the circle. My comrades stepped aside in silence. The commander watched calmly and malevolently. As I reached into the cap, I noticed that Corporal Billygoat’s lips were quivering. Or maybe I just imagined it?
The ticking of Billygoat’s watch was loud, very loud in that silence.
I unrolled the slip of paper. A wave of heat flooded over me. The paper was marked with a cross. I made an effort to smile.
Billygoat asked calmly: “Well, so there’s no need for me to draw?”
The commander nodded.
“Ts-ts-ts-ts-ts,” cried the housewife, calling in the piglets. The dog began to bark by its kennel.
Without looking at us, the commander said: “So Chaffinch and Bonehead will carry out the execution. Chaffinch can use the corporal’s sub-machine gun and Bonehead can have my Luger. Once we’re on the march the corporal will explain the rest.”
And he slowly walked off to his billet. We saluted.
Then gradually normal conversation took off again, perhaps more animated than usual. Everyone, except for me and Chaffinch, was overjoyed. The corporal sat down on the threshold again.
I couldn’t gather my thoughts. I lay down on the grass, and listened to the blood pulsing in my temples. That brought me relief. I also avoided looking in the direction of the cottage. I felt stifled, even though the sun was sinking on us.
I lay there for ages, trying my best the whole time not to think about anything. I kept shifting my gaze to a different spot. I tried focusing on trivial things that would keep me from looking at the dark rectangle of the window that linked us with the prisoners. And yet time dragged very slowly. The yellow sun was bursting and turning red, getting ready to leap into the blackening horizon. I thought about other metaphors to describe the sunset. But my gaze kept creeping like a thief towards the cottage. I was sweating. I don’t know if I was feeling for the prisoners. I was just afraid to put an end to life. We had always valued life.
Then the cows came home. Earlier than usual, because the unit was to have a drink of milk before leaving. The piebald cows with drooping udders mockingly gazed at me with the eyes of the commander. The air was muggy.
Totally at their ease, my comrades were listening to Wiktor’s jokes. They had shifted the whole business of the prisoners onto me and Chaffinch. I suddenly felt thirsty. I walked around the house in search of a bucket, but didn’t go inside. Something rustled in the raspberry bushes, and I could hear squealing. It was Corporal Billygoat lustfully violating the girl. I walked downhill to the well. A crane let out an alarming screech. I leaned over the side of the well and saw an almost childlike face, which the wrinkles of water were twisting into a grimace of laughter. Quickly I turned away, and without drinking any water, went back to the yard. The sun was now touching the line of the forest. The cry of the crane rang out from the marshes again.
An hour after sunset the liaison officer came from the commander. We’d be marching out in fifteen minutes. We gathered up our kit. I hung an ammunition belt over my shoulder and put on a knapsack filled with bullet pans for the Degtyaryov machine gun. My rifle felt strangely heavy. We led out the prisoners. They scanned the sky, bright amid the falling darkness, and they were uneasy. Blackbird and I guarded them. They made signs to ask if they could go now. I shook my head. They were starting to guess what was up. The younger one burst into bitter tears. The Unteroffizier was silent. The younger one tried to ask if he could go to one side. I shook my head. I showed him he had to relieve himself on the spot. At gunpoint he lowered his trousers and began to do his business. I turned away from the stink. He hadn’t even the right to shame.
Then we went to the commander’s billet. The two other squads were already standing there in readiness. They stared in curiosity at the ragged prisoners with bare heads. Corporal Billygoat kept order in the uniform from which the Unteroffizier’s insignia had been freshly unpicked. It was getting cold.
I kept far away from the prisoners. The commander came out of his billet and disappeared at the head of the column. We got moving. We were seen off by prolonged barking from the dogs, answered by others yelping in the distance. The sky was going dark and the first stars were twinkling. Then Orion floated up, to be our guide that night. The Great Bear, our compass yesterday, remained to one side, behind us. We came onto a sandy road that was at once surrounded by forest. In my knapsack the ammunition in the machine-gun pans sang monotonously.
Once swarms of stars were crowding the sky, indicating a time of roughly an hour before midnight, the order went to the front: “Head of column, halt!” The column halted. My heart missed a beat. I knew this was it. But I didn’t move from the spot, as if hoping they’d overlook my presence and manage without me. But I could already hear Corporal Billygoat’s hushed voice: “Where’s Bonehead? Bonehead! Bonehead!”
I stirred myself.
“Here,” I whispered, using a hand to quieten the ammunition rattling in my knapsack. I walked up to the corporal. He sought my hand and stuck the Luger in it. By the faint light of the stars I noticed that the hairs on his juvenile chin were trembling. I was shocked by the gravity of the moment.
“There you are,” he whispered hesitantly.
He walked off, but immediately returned. He said nothing, but as he turned around, he waved a hand and muttered: “It’s loaded.”
I drew level with the column. At once against the background of the sky I recognised the bare heads of the prisoners. Chaffinch was already there too.
“I’ll take the musician,” I told him.
He didn’t reply.
Somewhere nearby Corporal Billygoat’s watch was ticking insistently.
I tugged the younger prisoner by the sleeve. He understood. He tried to kneel down, weeping and grabbing me by the hands. I pushed him away.
“Zum Kommandant,” I explained.
He didn’t believe me.
“Zum Kommandant,” I repeated, and dragged him along. I hid the Luger behind my back and noiselessly released the safety catch.
I told him to walk ahead, and we went in among the trees. He was snivelling the whole time. I was afraid of him, even though he had no weapon and very soon he was going to die. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I raised the Luger. At that moment the prisoner turned around and looked down the barrel of the pistol. He stepped back and shrieked – “Aaaaa…” – and without aiming, I pulled the trigger. A streak of flame touched his forehead. In the final split second his white sneering teeth shone in the dark. Then the top of his head disappeared, his body began to sway, and like a balloon deprived of air he wilted to the ground. On my way back I felt springy moss beneath my feet. A short volley clattered from the sub-machine gun. That was Chaffinch. As I was nearing the column, a startled tawny owl cackled. I squatted down in shock, and then quickly retook my place in the column. I tossed the rifle onto my back. Nobody came to get the Luger. I handed it forward to the front.
Then came the question: “All in order?”
We were silent.
Then someone said in an angry tone: “In order.”
We set off. I felt total emptiness inside, like the corpses that had remained there in the moss. I began to laugh nervously. Somebody took the rifle from me. A voice said: “Fucking hell.”
To one side I noticed that someone was hurriedly tearing off his jacket. German metal buttons flashed and a uniform floated down onto the road behind us. A shadow in a white shirt joined our column. At the rear behind us a shapeless patch remained on the road: the discarded Unteroffizier’s uniform.
Poetic Orion tirelessly guided us onwards amid the clamour of vigilant grasshoppers.
*From the Polish “Kapral Koziołek i ja” © Maria Konwicka, published by kind permission of the copyright holder.
*Image: Warsaw Uprising street mural art celebrating the 1944 Polish resistance fighters
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