In my other life I lived in a suburb of Ohio or Michigan with Paul-Marc, my husband, and the child. The houses were planted on manicured lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see, circling an artificial lake, all of them were similar, nearly identical, manufactured on the same assembly line, with the same faux brick siding and grey gables, two front steps and a large wooden front door or was it faux-wood I couldn’t tell and in any case no one ever used the front door except when delivering groceries or take-out, everyone always used the garage door entry, which was also identical in every house, and every garage was equipped with a second refrigerator and had a side-door leading to the kitchen and various items stuck in that uncertain realm between utility and garbage, crammed in between the two cars.
The houses looked so much alike that when I took the child out in his stroller for a walk the first week we moved in, I couldn’t find my way back; I finally managed to recognize the house thanks to two old ladies who were still standing there with their dogs, chatting, when I returned. There were no fences and therefore the endless green grass was also everyone’s own private backyard and no one added much to it, as if all those miles of grass had suppressed their impulse to garden, at most there was a single tree, a shrub or two, or a few tulips in spring that needed to be sprayed with a smelly solution in order to keep the deer from eating them up. The deer were a real nuisance and once Paul-Marc almost ran one over, but the child was enthusiastic about them and about the squirrels and he would tirelessly point and call out: “Squiwel!”, “Mamby!”.
Sometimes at night, lying beside Paul-Marc who slept as if knocked unconscious after a long day at work and the commute, I would listen to the rain, fighting the urge to jump out of bed and go to the window to see whether it was real. The sound of the wind in the trees was wonderful until I realized it sounded precisely every 2:15 minutes and I also remembered that there weren’t enough trees outside to generate that sound, but I was afraid to get up because if I stepped on the laminated wood floor it would unavoidably creak twice on my way to the window, and wake the child, who could wake Paul-Marc, who needed to be up at five thirty a.m. for work. The monthly payments on our mortgage kept rising and were more than we had planned for, and I hadn’t returned to work after the child was born, in any case the cost of childcare would’ve swallowed up my paycheck and the child was better off with me than with a stranger during those early years.
I tried saving up by using coupons, buying things on sale, and special offers for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and once in a while I shopped online, without Paul-Marc’s knowledge, either ordering an item of clothing that was too tight – it’s hard to get the sizing right on the internet – or something too pretty that was left hanging in the closet, some fancy bath toy for the child, which admittedly, required removing other toys, but still, most definitely stirred up some excitement at least twice or three times, or kitchenware (only some of which ended up adding to the pile in the garage) and of course, plenty of beauty products which are so much cheaper online, especially if you buy one and get the second one half price, or buy two and get one free, shipping included.
I tried walking on the treadmill that I got from Wal-Mart – which was fairly expensive, but I explained to Paul-Marc (I couldn’t hide the treadmill) that eventually the investment would pay off, help me get back in shape, back to myself, back to work – but most of the time I sat in front of the tv, the couch too soft to get up from, and rocked the child’s stroller vigorously, to be honest, even when he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping, and watched fitness and healthy living programs with tips for well-being that I tried to commit to memory, most if not all of the commercials were for diet products and cosmetics that presented body and face as a battle there is no chance at winning, the most you can do is minimize the damage with the help of buy-one-get-the-second-half-off or buy- two-get one-free.
Apart from that I didn’t do much during the day, sometimes by the end of it I couldn’t recall a single real thing except for the sharp motion when rising from the couch and hitting “off” on the remote control while attempting to quickly quiet down the child as soon as I heard the garage door opening for Paul-Marc’s car, but the days slid through my fingers somehow and when the weather was decent I would go out with the child. Once I had settled in the neighborhood and took every possible route from the house to the artificial lake, I began to discern subtle differences between the houses, ones that indicated their financial states, for example, the families that were more well-off had built-in swimming pools, while the others had round plastic ones that were far cheaper but had other advantages, for example, you could take them with you when you moved. I got ours on sale at Amazon for only 299.99$ and it took Paul-Marc two weekends to install. For an extra 59.99$ you could add a safety fence for the pool but that made the whole deal a lot more expensive and as long as the child was small we didn’t find it necessary.
Alright. You don’t need to have read The Iliad or Crime and Punishment (in any case I hadn’t read them in my other life) in order to guess the end, to picture me staring at the tv then suddenly becoming aware of the strange silence or the strange lightness of the stroller that I’m still rocking, getting up from the couch and seeing the child gone, running up the stairs and not finding him in our bedroom or in his room or in the bathrooms, going downstairs again to the living room and suddenly spotting the open front door, I didn’t shut it after the grocery delivery, freezing in terror for a moment and then racing outside to the pool, seeing from afar, face-down, floating in the water, the worst sight I would ever witness in my entire life but still running – and sometimes I cannot bear such a cruel fate for my other life and I reach the pool, the scream still stuck in my throat, and I see a large stupid squirrel that fell in and drowned, his eyes open and his paws still outstretched, and Paul-Marc Jr. sitting on the grass and staring at me puzzled.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
At the beginning of winter my father fell ill and took to his bed. He lay in bed for a long time with his bedroom door closed, and we would walk around the house on tiptoe so as not to disturb his rest.
A lot of people came to the house to inquire after my father’s health, but my mother refused to let them into his room, explaining that his sick heart needed rest and quiet. Once a woman we did not know came to the house. She handed my mother a woolen scarf and said:
“You don’t know me. Once I came to see the doctor with a high fever and a sore throat. He gave me medicine and also this scarf to wrap around my neck. He said that when you’re sick in winter you have to keep your throat warm. Now I’m well again and I want to return it to him. I owe him money too, but I haven’t got it now, and the doctor said I should pay when I can.”
That was typical of my father. Sometimes my mother would lose her temper and haul him over the coals for not only treating poor patients for nothing, but even giving away medicines for which he himself had paid the full price. “How do you think we’ll ever make a living”—she would say—“when the only patients we get are all poor people? In any case, people only know how to appreciate what they have to pay for.”
“God will help us,” my father would say serenely, “God helps those who place their trust in him.”
Mother told me that in the old country too father had been a poor man’s doctor, and there too he had never taken money from patients who could not afford to pay. “I remember,” she said, “how a fisherman once brought him three fish instead of money. It was on our betrothal day. His parents came to call on my family, and I cooked the fish for them. They said they had never tasted such delicious fish in their lives.”
Years later, when I grew up, I went to pay a visit to the old country, and in one of the small villages, in the district where my father had worked as a doctor, I met an old woman who said to me: “So you are his daughter. Of course I remember him. Yes, of course, it’s more than forty years ago, you’re right, how the time flies… but we still remember him, we still remember. How could we ever forget a doctor like him who never took money from the poor…”
At the beginning of that winter, when my father took ill, the rains stopped and in the afternoon, when I was doing my homework in the kitchen, my little brother went out to play in the yard.When darkness fell he would come in and play with his cars on the floor in the passage. At this hour the hall of our house would be empty of my father’s patients, who were now being treated by my mother, who was also a doctor. I would go and sit there, in mother’s big armchair, and read. Sometimes, after supper, my father would read aloud to us. We would go into his room for a few moments and he would ask us about our school work and look at my brother’s note-books, which were full of all the words he already knew how to write. When I said goodnight to him he would kiss me and stroke my hair.
At the end of the month of Tevet my father had begun to recover from his illness, and it was precisely then that the weather changed and heavy rains began to fall. It rained without stopping, day and night, and father said jokingly: “I get better, and the deluge comes.”
On the fourteenth of Shevat1 it was still raining, and my father, who was always worried about my health, said that he would not allow me to take part in the tree planting ceremony the next day. I was dying to take part in the ceremony because I had fallen in love with our new youth leader, Raffi. All day long I begged and pleaded with father, until in the end he gave in.
On the morning of Arbor Day it was still raining, and as I was about to leave the house my father said to me:
“Take another sweater and try not to get wet.”
A fine drizzle was falling on the mountainside, and as we walked to the spot where the ceremony was to take place my shoes got full of mud. Raffi was walking next to me and once my hand unintentionally touched his. A sweet feeling filled me for a moment.
When we reached the spot we were met by a man from the Jewish National Fund who told us that we were going to take part in the planting of a forest in honor of the Jewish martyrs. I saw boys and girls all over the mountainside with spades in their hands, planting saplings in basins of loose soil. When I planted my own little sapling and tightened the soil around it black earth stuck to my fingers. “Will my sapling live?” I Asked myself. An inexplicable dread suddenly took hold of me. My heart went out to Raffi, who was standing next to me planting a tree. Perhaps he would say something to comfort me. I straightened my back and looked in his direction. When my eyes met his he did not smile, and I knew that he would not be able to save me.
In the evening, when I came home, I saw my father sitting in his armchair in the hall. He smiled at me. I wanted to run up to him and kiss him, but something stopped me. It was a long time since he had sat in the armchair, and now I saw he was looking better.
On the days that followed the rain went on falling steadily. My father wandered around the house wrapped in his brown woolen dressing gown. He would often come into the kitchen, lean over my shoulder and peep into my exercise books.
Six rainy days went by, and on the seventh day after Arbor Day the sun came out. My father sat with us at the lunch table. He sang the blessing. When we had finished eating he went out to sit on the porch. The sun shone and a light breeze brought sweet scents from the orange groves. My mother sat next to my father and they spoke to each other.
I knew that soon my parents would be relieved of their worries about money. Soon, when my father was well again, he was going to get a job in the hospital.
I sat in the kitchen and did my homework. I soon tired and stood up. The sun had made my father’s cheeks pink and his eyes were shining, and when he smiled at me I forgot all my troubles.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I still have to write a composition in English,” I said.
“Go and do it then,” he said.
I moved my place from the kitchen to the hall. The window onto the porch was open and I could see my father and mother and hear them talking. Father said little and mother too fell silent. After a while, when I was absorbed in my composition, I suddenly heard my father say in a queer sounding voice: “I don’t feel well.”
As I was about to rise to my feet, overcome by panic, the door opened and I saw my father coming in, his hands clenched on his month, his back bent and his face very white. I saw my mother supporting him, leading him down the long passage to their room, and I went on standing rooted to the spot. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other end of the house:
“Quick, run for the doctor!”
For a moment longer I went on standing there, seeing my father’s pale face before me, his eyes blank. Then I rushed into the yard, jumped onto my bicycle, and went to fetch the doctor. When he opened the door I couldn’t speak.
“Hurry, “ I stammered, “hurry…father…” and I raced away.
Instead of going straight home I rode to the wood at the top of the hill not far from our house. I sat down on a bench and my heart was empty. Afterwards I mounted my bike again, and as I rode past our house I saw the doctor crossing the yard on his way in and I knew that only a short time had passed. I was afraid to go home and I rode aimlessly up and down the village streets. In the end I landed up at the wood again and sat down on the bench. How long I sat there I don’t know, but by the time I came home the door of my parents’ room was closed. There was not a sound to be heard. I went into the kitchen and sat down by the table.
There were a few slices of bread lying on a plate. I took a slice and started eating it. After a while the door opened and the doctor came out. I heard the front door slam behind him. A little while later I heard the front door open and a woman neighbor came in, a friend of my mother’s.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I said nothing.
Then the door of my parents’ room opened and my mother stood in the kitchen door. She looked at me and said:
“Your father is dead,” and then she turned to the neighbor woman and said in their language: “His beautiful daughter is fatherless now.” Then she turned back to me: “Come and see your father for the last time.”
My father’s eyes were closed. His face was blue and there was a faint smile on his lips. His face had never looked so beautiful and so kind as it did then.
When I left the room I went into the bathroom. My father’s brown dressing gown was hanging on a hook on the wall. I buried my head in the gown and kissed it. Afterwards I held the empty sleeves and stroked my face with the rough, warm wool. “I won’t cry, “I promised myself.
The next day a lot of people gathered in the yard of our house. Friends and relations, and my teachers and friends from school. And when the rabbi came they brought my little brother too. He walked with us after the coffin as far as the first synagogue on the way. There he said mourner’s kaddish and afterwards a friend of the family took him away.
My mother did not cry, and my eyes too were dry. Once my glance encountered Raffi, my youth leader, who was walking not far from me, and for a moment the sobs welled up in my throat. I remembered the sudden dread which had seized me when we were in the hills planting the trees, and again I said to myself that he would not be able to save me.
At the cemetery they tore my mother’s dress and mine too. Several people eulogized my father. The coffin was lowered into the hole and the people standing around took spades in their hands and earth fell onto the coffin and began covering it up. I copied my mother and bent down to the ground. My fist fastened round a little clod of earth, wet and black and sticky to the touch of my palm. A clod of earth from a hard land. Perhaps there was a seed in it and in the spring a flower would bloom on my father’s grave. And perhaps then too the little sapling I had planted on the hillside in memory of the martyrs would put out its leaves too. And I—would the ice in my heart ever thaw?
Yesterday the sun shone. A mild spring breeze brought sweet scents from the orange grove. My father sat on the porch of our house and said that soon it would be spring and that in the summer he would start work at the hospital. But now the earth was still muddy, for it had rained the whole month long: water flooded the land and the farmers rejoiced.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
When I think back on it, I feel like digging a hole in the ground and crawling right in. I want to crawl right in this minute, so I’m thinking back on it.
Someone once gave me this blue pill; God, what a feeling that was. He said, Down the gullet, so I downed the gullet, whatever that means. I downed that pill, and while I was doing this bummer trip, I followed a guy who told me to get lost on Melchet Street. It was getting late, and I was under the influence of that pill. I didn’t know exactly what belonged where, or whether all the knots I was seeing were causes that had become entangled in effects, or buses going uptown.
I downed that pill and waited downstairs for the guy. What a fuckup that turned out to be. He went and phoned his real girlfriend, who, as you can figure out, wasn’t me. He went and phoned her to tell her something. I waited downstairs – how embarrassing, how I’d let myself go. He came down and said: Listen, my real girlfriend doesn’t buy my story, so I’m off, bye. That was long ago; I was twenty-two and a half.
You leaving? I asked him, and he said he had to. You can just imagine what I felt like on Melchet Street back then. There wasn’t a drop of moisture left in my cheeks, just that slap in the face. How did I get home? Down the main road, I guess. I got my legs over to the main road and they took it from there.
I was consistently disoriented and lost in those days, so I figured I might as well be told to get lost and then drift on; I’d wind up somewhere eventually.
I let myself go, all the way home. Boy, what a downhill trip that was. Nobody saw me, I hope.
It’s been light years since then. Sometimes I still look around for the guy who told me to get lost. I want to tell him I was under the influence of that pill, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s that I wasn’t sober enough to tell him: “Mikey, you got a dime for my bus fare?”
Life is a snowball of lost meaning. I let myself go day by day, trying not to lose my innocence all at once, in a matter of days, but gradually, in a matter of years. My hourglass is running low, and I get it going again with sublime feelings of freedom and complacency. My sanity scores are playing tricks on me, and I don’t understand the rules of the game. One day I’m cool, and five minutes later I’m hypnosis or a talking extrasensory system – I’m not me any more; they call me all kinds of names, and I answer to all of them and none of them, or else I turn around just as suddenly when they call someone else.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
A Turkish philosopher from Istanbul once visited me in Berlin. He was only there for a few days. He looked at the street and said quietly, ‘I don’t think I could live here.’
Not the summer planes but the winter planes brought many people who were crying from Europe to Istanbul, crying because their fathers or mothers had died in Turkey. Three years ago, I was on a winter plane. Suddenly, a woman got up from her seat, threw herself on the floor of the plane and started wailing. All the people stood up.
‘What’s the matter?’
Two of the woman’s children had died in a car accident in Istanbul, and she had to go to the funeral. The stewardesses put her back in her seat, held her hand. The woman wailed, ‘Open the door. Throw me out. I want to look for them in heaven.’ She kept looking out of the window, as though she could see the dead in the sky.
‘Open the door.’
Then she looked at the other passengers behind her, as though she wanted them all to walk into the sky with her to look for her dead. She wanted the plane to move around like a car, left, right, back, forward, and look for the dead. But the plane flew straight ahead, as though pulled across the sky along a rail…
Back when I still lived in Istanbul, twenty-five years ago, I got on a ship one summer night, and it took me from the European side to the Asian side. The tea-sellers brought people tea, small change jingling in their pockets. The moon was huge, as though it lived only in the Istanbul sky, loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city. Wherever it looked, all doors would instantly open to let the moon wax in. Wherever you touched, you touched the moon too. Everyone held a piece of moon in their hands. Now the moon lit up two faces next to me on the ship. A boy, a girl. He said, ‘So, you gave Mustafa your key too. I’m leaving. Goodbye.’ He leapt from the ship’s deck into the sea and dived into the moonlight. The ship was exactly mid-way between Asia and Europe. Not saying anything, the girl stayed in her seat in the moonshine. All the other people dashed to the ship’s rail, the boat leaned with the crowd, and the tea glasses also slid towards the rail on their saucers. The tea-seller shouted, ‘Tea money. Tea money.’ I asked the girl, ‘Is he a good swimmer?’ She nodded. The crew threw two lifebelts after the boy but he didn’t want a lifebelt. The ship turned and sailed after the boy, a rescue boat pulled him out of the sea. The moon watched everything that happened, and when the boy had to go to the captain with wet clothes and wet hair, the moon lit him up with a circle of light like a clown in the circus. The ship turned back towards the Asian side, the tea-sellers found their customers and collected up the change. The moon shone on the empty tea glasses, but suddenly the ship turned back for the European side, because it had left the lifebelts behind in the sea. And the moon was always there above Europe and Asia.
At the Istanbul airport, the people waited, a long corridor of people, some of them crying.
How many doors were there now in Istanbul? Twelve million people, how many doors did they open? And can the moonshine wax in under all the doors? Can the moon manage that?
When I was a child, four hundred thousand people lived in Istanbul.
Our neighbour Madame Atina (‘Athena’), one of Istanbul’s Greeks, used to pull back her aged cheeks and tape them in place behind her ears. I was supposed to help her with it. She told me, ‘I’m a Byzantine like the Hagia Sophia church, which was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great, 326 A.D., a basilica with stone walls and a wooden roof. In the Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines believed they were closer to God than anywhere else, and I too believe I’m closer to the moon in Constantinople than anywhere else in the world.’ With the tape behind her ears, Madame Atina would go to the greengrocer’s. I’d go with her. She looked young with her cheeks pulled back so I walked quickly. She wanted to walk as quickly as me and sometimes she fell down on the street. The greengrocer was a Muslim, and he’d joke with Madame Atina, ‘Madame, a Muslim angel came, he put his finger in a hole in a pillar and turned the Hagia Sophia to face Mecca.’ I loved the Hagia Sophia; its floor was uneven and the walls sported frescoes of Christ without a cross, a muezzin sang the ezan from the minaret, and in the night the moon shone on Christ’s face and on the face of the muezzin.
One day, Madame Atina took the ship with me to the Asian part. I was seven years old. My mother said, ‘Look, the Greeks of Istanbul are the city’s salt and sugar.’ And Madame Atina showed me her own Istanbul. ‘Look at that little tower by the sea. The Byzantine emperor, who had received a prophecy that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and killed, had this Tower of Leandros (Maiden’s Tower) built and hid his daughter inside it. One day, the maiden longed for figs, so a basket of figs was brought to her from the city. She was bitten by a snake that had hidden in the basket, and she died.’ Madame Atina cupped my face in her hands and said, ‘My girl, with those beautiful eyes you’ll burn many men’s hearts.’ The sun lit up her red-painted fingernails, behind which I saw the Maiden’s Tower by the sea.
Then Madame Atina walked with me across the Bridge of the Golden Horn. As I walked across the low bridge that moved with the waves, I didn’t yet know that Leonardo da Vinci – the Ottomans called him Lecardo – had once written a letter to the sultan, on the 3rd of July 1503. The sultan wanted him to build a bridge across the Golden Horn, and Leonardo sent the sultan his suggestions in that letter. Another suggestion came from Michelangelo in 1504. But Michelangelo had a question: ‘If I were to build this bridge, would the sultan demand that I adopt the Muslim faith?’ The Franciscan abbot who discussed the sultan’s suggestion with Michelangelo said, ‘No, my son, I know Istanbul as well as Rome. I don’t know which city holds more sinners. The Ottoman sultan will never demand such a thing of you.’ Michelangelo couldn’t build the bridge in the end, though, because the pope threatened to excommunicate him. For centuries, the Ottomans didn’t build a bridge between the two European parts of Istanbul because Muslims lived in one and Jews, Greeks, and Armenians in the other. Only fishing boats ferried the people to and fro. It was Sultan Mahmut II (1808–1836) who wanted to bring Muslims and non-Muslims together at last in Istanbul and had the famous bridge built. Once it was finished, the fishermen beat at the bridge with sticks because it had taken away their work. The bridge became a stage: Jews, Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Europeans, Persians, Circassians, women, men, horses, donkeys, cows, hens, camels, they all walked across the bridge. One day there were two crazies, a woman and a man, both of them naked. The man stood at one end of the bridge, the woman at the other. She shouted, ‘From here on, Istanbul is mine.’ He shouted, ‘From here on, Constantinople is mine.’
At the airport, I took a taxi. Since Istanbul had become a city of twelve million, the taxi drivers would no longer find the addresses and they’d lose their tempers. ‘Madame, if you don’t know where you want to be driven, why did you get in my car?’ I wanted to go to a friend’s house, I no longer had a father and a mother to go to first.
Years ago, I had come to Istanbul once before on a winter plane to bury my parents, who had died three days apart. My mother was the first to go. My father had sat in his chair, the opposite chair empty. He took out a pair of false teeth with sheep’s cheese still stuck to them, and said, ‘Here, your mother’s false teeth.’ Two days later he died too, and his coffin stood on a raised stone slab for the dead in the mosque’s courtyard. There were two other coffins on the other slabs, and the mosque got the coffins mixed up. They didn’t know which dead man belonged to which family. At the cemetery, the gravediggers took the corpses, wrapped in shrouds, out of the coffins, and a man from each family – the women weren’t allowed to stand near the graves – had to see which of the dead belonged to them. My brother looked at the three dead men’s faces and said, ‘That’s our father.’
In the taxi, I now drove past the cemetery where my parents were buried. I couldn’t remember which grave was my father’s. All I knew was that you could see the sea from his grave. Since Istanbul has become a city of twelve million, the cemetery management has demanded that relatives buy up the graves, otherwise new dead are laid on top of the dead. At the time, my brother called me in Germany: ‘What shall we do? Buy the grave or let him get lost between the other dead?’
‘What do you think?’
‘We can let him lie with the other dead, that suits him better.’
As no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, we didn’t mind where the dead would lie. The cemeteries are empty, the only quiet places in the city. As a young girl, I sometimes used to go to the cemeteries with a poet. He had written down what it said on the gravestones. He said, ‘These are people’s last words. There are no lies.’ He wanted to use those words in his poems.
Although no one visits cemeteries in Istanbul, every cemetery has its own crazy. They wander between the gravestones, and cats wander after them because they give the cats cheese and bread. At my parents’ cemetery, there were two crazies who lived there for years. One of them would always give the other a lira. One day, he gave him three lira instead of one. The other man got angry and said, ‘Why are you giving me three lira, I only want one lira.’
‘My son, have you not heard of inflation? Three lira is one lira now.’
The other man started to cry; his friend gave him a handkerchief.
The taxi driver couldn’t find my friend’s address and he broke out in a sweat. I gave him a paper tissue and said, ‘Drive me to the city centre.’ Thirty years ago, there was a film producer in Istanbul who only filmed sad stories. He knew all the viewers would cry, so he had handkerchiefs made out of the finest cotton. He stood outside the cinema himself and handed the handkerchiefs to the moviegoers. He laughed all the while. In those days, there was a famous cinema crazy in Istanbul, who especially admired a particular Turkish actor. Because that actor was killed in a film role, the crazy came to the cinema with a gun one evening and tried to kill the murderer before he could shoot – and fired six shots at the screen. Istanbul loves its crazies. The city gives them its breast and suckles them. It has been ruled by several crazy sultans. When a crazy comes along, Istanbul gives him a place.
I got out of the taxi right outside the cinema where the crazy once shot at the screen. Before I left for Berlin twenty-two years ago, I would often stand outside that cinema waiting for my friends.
Now I’m standing here again, looking at the faces of the people walking past. It looks like films from all different countries are being screened one over another. Humphrey Bogart is speaking to an Arabic woman, asking her the time. A Russian whore is speaking to a man who moves like Woody Allen.
I look for my friends from back then in these people’s faces, but I’m looking for them in the young faces of today, as though my friends hadn’t got older over these twenty-two years, as though they’d waited for me with their faces from back then. As though Istanbul had frozen to a photo at the moment I left for Europe, to wait for me – with all its baths, churches, mosques, sultans’ palaces, fountains, towers, Byzantine walls, bazaars, wooden houses, steel lanes, bridges, fig trees, slum houses, street cats, street dogs, lice, donkeys, wind, sea, seven hills, ships, crazies, dead, living, whores, poets, porters. As though Istanbul had waited for me with its millions of shoes, all waiting for morning in the houses, with its millions of combs left below mirrors spotted with shaving soap.
I’m here, so now all the windows will open. The women will call out to their friends from window to window. The basil plants in the flowerpots will give off their scent. The children of the poor will throw themselves into the Marmara Sea in their long cotton underpants to wash. All the ships between Asia and Europe will sound their horns. The cats will yowl for love on the roofs. The seven hills of Istanbul will awaken. The gypsy women will pick flowers there to sell in the city centre later on. The children will climb the fig trees. The birds will peck at the figs.
‘Mother, do you make fig jam from the male or the female fig trees?’
‘The male ones. Look, their figs are small and hard.’
In the tulip gardens at the sultan’s palace, the tortoises will walk around with lit candles on their shells, the tulips will bend their heads towards the sea in the wind, the tortoises’ candle lights will flicker in the same direction. The wind will push the ships along today and make them sail faster, the passengers will arrive home sooner. When the men are at home, the lights will go on across the seven hills. The fathers will wash their hands. Sounds of water. ‘My daughter, will you pass me a towel?’
Opposite the cinema were a few shops. Some of the shopkeepers recognized me and said hello; they all had white hair and white eyebrows.
Next to the cinema stood a poor man, perhaps a farmer, trying to photograph the people passing by with a Polaroid camera.
‘Photo souvenir of Istanbul, photo souvenir of Istanbul!’
I let him take my photo; the picture was blurred. ‘Take another picture.’
‘I haven’t any more film.’
A beggar woman took the photo out of my hand and said to the photographer, ‘You’re the artist, aren’t you, why didn’t you photograph this lady in front of McDonald’s?’
She looked closely at the photo and exclaimed, ‘Oh, how beautiful my treasure is, how beautiful.’
I thought she meant me, but there was a cat on the wall behind me in the photo. I was blurred but the cat was in focus.
Then I called the Turkish philosopher who didn’t want to live in Berlin.
‘Where are you?’
I took the ship over to him, to the Asian part of Istanbul. Sailing alongside the ship sailed a fishing boat transporting two horses. The moon shone on the faces of the horses, which were perfectly calm. I dipped my hands in the sea to touch a little moonshine; the moon looked suddenly like it had in my childhood – as though it lived only ever here in the Istanbul sky, as though it loved only Istanbul, and polished itself every day only for this city.
*This story is taken from: Der Hof im Spiegel by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. © Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
Miriam tells them that he built the house himself with his own hands. She tells them how he piled up the rocks on rainy days, so that they’d get good and soaked before he soldered them into the cement. She tells them that it’s on the border of two regions, a magical place, inhabited by spirits, meigas. She explains what meigas are, using the original name, they repeat it, stopping on each syllable, with the respect of someone reciting a prayer.
Miriam makes up this whole story, jumping from one sentence to the next on tiptoes, like agile feet over river rocks, and she modulates her soft voice in such a way that he himself ends up believing this distorted version of the truth. Miriam goes silent, a pause long enough for Rafael to glance at his hands, no longer rough like before. Then he arches his back, now less flexible, and thinks that soon it will all be gone, this house, filled up with the careless junk collected by Miriam, who hasn’t shut up since they arrived.
“I’m going out to get some air.”
When Rafael says this, she gesticulates for the English. She begins to smoke an invisible cigarette and blows out smoke no one can see. She looks like a showgirl. He’ll wait till he’s outside to light it. In the entryway, he’s distracted by the wallpaper, which she hung haphazardly one Sunday morning, just to see how it looked, just to try it out. One corner wants to come unstuck. He rubs his fingertips over it, caressing it. The paper peels up like a strip of beech bark.
The cold surprises him. He lights the cigarette and walks in circles, staring at the orangey ember of its tip. He turns and looks behind him. He takes it in from this perspective. The land is on a hillside. There’s a part where the slope flattens out. On really rainy days, the water flows rapidly in that direction, as if it’s being chased by a bird of prey. Inside, someone uncorks another bottle and immediately a peal of laughter is heard. He thinks it was Miriam. Then he thinks that it could’ve been any woman.
“In a year, maybe two, you won’t even remember this place,” she’d said to him.
They’d arranged to meet the English to close the sale.
He went alone in the morning. The highway seemed more empty of cars, more hollow. The ploughed fields blurred past in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take one last look,” he’d said picking up the car keys. “I’m sure there’s something we left behind.”
He closes the door. He doesn’t expect an answer.
When he arrives, he goes up to the top floor. The fluorescent light in the bathroom trembles. He looks at himself in the mirror, opens the side sections and sees his face triple. It’s the last time I’ll shave in this sink, he thinks, and he doesn’t know if that’s why he does it so slowly, sliding the razor several times over the same grooves. Before pulling up the metal stopper, he looks for the crack in the tile behind the hot water tap. He only has to feel around for a few seconds. There it is. A quarter turn of the wrench scraped the enamel when it was installed. He moves a bit closer, raises his chin to shave a dimple, then he wipes his face. He packs everything up with the carefulness of a murderer and goes outside.
He needs a ladder from the garage to take down the swing. He remembers when the girls swung in it, a photo of Miriam rocking back and forth with the littlest one in her arms. He wondered where that photo was, if it had been lost in the most recent move. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The girls are grown, they’re busy with other things. He tries to remove the nails, but they’ve been encrusted in the tree for so long that they’ve become part of the branch. He gets the pruning shears and cuts the ropes. The seat hits the ground with a thud.
He’s tired from the effort. His heart pounds, for a different reason than it did back then, a faraway sound, like from the bottom of a well.
The lounge chair is still in the garden. He straddles it and looks at the woods in front of him. Someone has left behind a book of crossword puzzles, open to the middle. It must’ve been Miriam. She always starts things with manic enthusiasm then never finishes, he thinks. He picks the book up by its spine, the same way he’d pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck, and tries to fill in the three horizontal lines that are missing. Mesopotaminan River, six letters. Roman emperor, eight. C-L-A-U-D-I-U-S. Claudius fits, but he doesn’t have a pen. He’d have to go inside and rummage through the drawers to find one. He crumples the book and throws it against a tree. The wind violently ruffles the top pages.
“I’ll put it all in the car and get rid of it,” he says aloud.
He remains in that position for a few seconds. He caresses the striped fabric of the lounge chair, the holes that time and use have left on its surface. He should fold it up, but he’s not sure he remembers how. He could stuff it in somehow, even if he had to leave the trunk open, and toss it onto the dump, beside the shredded couches, washing machine chassis. To seal the goodbye, he takes the keys out of his jeans’ pocket and stabs the longest one into the foam cushion. Another hole, new, fresh, intentional, separates a blue stripe from a white one. And no one will ever bother to sew it up.
He stands up and drags himself out of the small garden, his eyes fixed on the river. He can see it through the trees which have become denser with the summer. He feels like he’s following someone’s trail, a guide, past the property line. Under his feet, the ground is wet. In the canopy of the tallest tree, he hears a bird singing. He listens. He wonders if it will still be perched there when this place no longer belongs to him and he thinks that it will be, for a long time, until the next cold season. He turns around, admires the overgrown lawn that reaches the base of the house, the subtle yellowish color, the gray stone wall. He continues walking. He pushes aside some branches that weren’t there last year, or any previous year. It’s like pushing back a lush curtain. Then he can see, from afar, without having to walk down to the bank, Ruth’s silhouette stepping out of the water, her legs, her rounded shoulders, her hair soaked from the swim, with the unsteady wobble of someone standing on rounded pebbles.
“Take off that old jacket,” she’d shout from the water, her arms outstretched.
Miriam welcomed them today with her arms outstretched.
“Welcome to your home,” she’d said, fluidly, but her pronunciation had been better when she’d rehearsed it beforehand.
Miriam speaks only basic English and the English don’t speak any Spanish at all. It doesn’t matter. They really like the Galician wine Rafael keeps in the pantry.
“Bueno, muy bueno,” they say in unison. That much they can say.
Rafael goes inside proceeded by a mouthful of smoke that he doesn’t try to hide. In front of him, Miriam holds a bottle by the neck. She wipes it with a cloth before removing the cork. The English are starting to get a little drunk, they speak quickly to each other and Miriam can’t keep up. They’ve sat on the couch with their glasses in their hands. You’d think they’d lived there all their lives. Miriam has turned on the television and tries to explain a game show. They seem interested, but maybe they’re just being polite and don’t actually understand anything.
“Come here, sit with us,” Miriam says.
But he remains standing beside the window, hoping they finish all the wine, until there’s nothing left there.
Outside the window, on the other side of the garden, the hillside waves gently, like a huge carpet being shaken out and left flapping in the wind.
Ruth worked at his company, which made their meetings very easy. They left work at the same time, met on the second level of the parking garage. No one parked there because they could park on the street level and save themselves a few flights of stairs. Ruth was twenty-five years old, her eyes were murky and her nose was straight. She was always preceded by the echo of her heels on the cement floor of the parking garage.
In the beginning, he didn’t take her to the house. At first they went to the hostels on the outskirts of town, trying not to repeat the same ones too often. Ruth reserved the rooms herself. He remembered her boldness, always ready to play. On one occasion, they’d ended up in a hotel at the airport. The planes roared like furious elephants and then they couldn’t hear anything. Then a terrifying silence. Out the window, like now, but in another place, was the glass-walled side of a terminal.
As he drove, Ruth sat beside him, her svelte ballerina’s neck, her cheeks, her perfume mixed with the smell of the office collected behind her neck.
“I like your car,” she’d say. “Have I ever told you l like your car?”
They’d sit and have coffee at the metal table in the garden. Ruth’s blouse wet from her hair. She stretched out sometimes on the striped chair, recently purchased at the time, and closed her eyes, but she didn’t fall asleep. Without makeup or with smudges of mascara under her eyes she was even more attractive. Rafael walked around barefoot and he didn’t think about her, he thought about the days that would come, about all the Fridays of his life that would be completely uneventful, exactly the same as that one.
“Is there any cheese left in the fridge?” asked Ruth.
On one occasion they shared a cake, him standing, her sitting on the countertop. They didn’t even use plates. Rafael doesn’t want to recall whether it was left over from a kid’s party, one of the girls’ birthdays.
“Is there any wine in the kitchen?” Miriam asks. “I think these people drank it all.”
“If there’s none left in the pantry, we’re all out.”
He looks Miriam in the eye. Her face reminds him of all the photos they’ve put into the photo albums.
The English finally understand how the game show works and are overcome with a kind of euphoria. It consists of guessing a location through images that appear for a few seconds on screen. They assure them that there is a similar TV program in their country. They go silent when the image of a very tall tower shaped like a mushroom appears.
“Toronto, Canada,” says the English man, accentuating the first A.
The game show host confirms the answer. Miriam claps.
“Muy bien, muy Bueno.”
She says this in Spanish. They understand and the English man responds by sticking up his thumbs in a gesture of triumph.
Rafael sits in one of the chairs at the table where they had dinner, at a prudential distance from the others. Crumpled paper napkins and breadcrumbs on the tablecloth, dried pâté on the dessert plates. He rubs his chin, shaved this morning. The glass of the window returns his translucent and deformed reflection, his hair gray and too long, his bulging abdomen that now makes him uncomfortable in certain positions, like when tying his shoes or fertilizing the hydrangeas.
“We’ll be good friends for a long time,” Ruth had promised.
He’s suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief, deep relief and sadness. He tries to remember the name of the blond guy, Julian or Jaime, the reason Ruth never went back into the river. When the company retired him early, he drove by the new offices many times. Sometimes he was tempted to go down into the parking garage, look for her red Golf. He never had the nerve. She’d probably bought a new car by now, a convertible. She might even have a child.
The English sleep in what is now already their former bedroom. Rafael can’t fall asleep. He hears distant noises in the night, an intermittent flapping of wings. His insomnia pulls his thoughts to the tank of the toilet on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. He imagines the trickle of water, the calcium solidifying slowly on the walls of the bowl. Miriam drank a little too much and her breathing, from the other single bed, is rhythmic. She hugs a pillow tightly.
They’re spending the night in the room where the girls used to sleep. There’s a sky of glowing stars above their heads, missing the heavier planets which over time came unstuck as the glue deteriorated. Rafael sleeps in some uncertain location between the moon and Orion.
In the morning a sharp light comes in through the vertical slats of the shutters. He feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, man, get up.”
His head is heavy. He slept badly, in fits and starts, waking up every once in a while and wondering where he was. He suddenly remembers. The last hours of light, some loose tiles on the shed that he fixed that morning, the hands of the English man gripping the right side of the page, the tip of the pen signing the check. He feels an almost imperceptible twist of his heart, which disappears almost immediately.
“Let’s go, what are you waiting for, let’s get out of here.”
It’s the first time he’s heard Miriam use this expression. He sits up, annoyed, and puts on his jacket. He slept in his clothes. His body leaves a deep groove in the bedspread. He rubs his hand over the top, but the wrinkles don’t disappear. It’s Miriam who closes the front door, after placing the set of keys on the table in the entryway.
“You think they’ll see them?” she asks once they’re already outside.
Rafael shrugs his shoulders. He stares into the hedges with an expression of boredom, he sighs. He remembers for an instant Ruth’s face with her makeup smudged and all he knows is that one of her nostrils was smaller than the other.
“They’ll see the keys, right?” Miriam asks again.
Miriam looks up to the windows on the second floor. A few fluffy clouds chase each other across the bright blue sky. Rafael is certain Miriam is going to say something to him, that she’s going to ask him to force open the door to write them a note and stick it to the fridge or something like that, but then she gets in the car and says in a girlish voice: “Will you drive me to the city?”
The gravel crunches under the weight of the tires. Rafael reverses. He’s always afraid of running over the dog when he does this and he opens the door to see better, but the dog died of old age and is buried under the oak. He pictures the girls’ hot tears as he threw shovelfuls of dirt over the animal.
Under the back wheels there’s nothing but a gentle slope and the white rocks marking the way out.
That summer, I’d go there sometimes, and this week, I went again. It was a hot day at the end of summer. A hot wind blew from time to time, stopped suddenly and returned suddenly, full of dust, and when I entered, the place was empty. Not a living soul. I thought of wandering around a bit and then, on the other side behind the shed, I saw the gardener standing and talking with a young woman who sat bent over the stone, moving her head as she spoke, a head wreathed in balls of red curls, glowing like balls of fire in the hamsin light.
As I said, the place was empty. The paths had just been swept, sharpening the clean orderly lines of perspective, and in the heavy hamsin light it looked more colorful and shining than ever, wrapped in a thin pink coat of fresh watering and new blooming, almost a shining sheath of shining lacquer. And it was very quiet. Not even a sprinkler moved. But as I went along the path everything seemed full of rustling and talking and raspy sounds, rising from both sides of the path from the colored patches of the dense vegetation, as if someone there were grinding glass under the earth.
That was in the most beautiful section, the newly flourishing section of the Lebanon War, which was laden with a rich growth of living flowers and silk flowers and velvet flowers and flowers of thin copper plates and flowers of burlap and flowers of gauze and rust-colored bandages and long serrated cacti with fleshy shoots like explosive caps and tops shaped like an axe.
The woman lifted her face to me.
Do you have somebody here? she asked.
She clasped her knees to her body, didn’t take her eyes off me.
I’ve got somebody here too, she said.
Her knees were really up to her body, and she didn’t take her eyes off me.
My husband, she said.
Yes, my husband.
She turned half her body to me.
My husband, she repeated a third time.
It was quiet. Her eyes were fixed on me, pale, very bright, wide open in dark brown lashes that had nothing to do with the balls of fire, and I don’t know, maybe because of the quiet, I said I came here sometimes, hadn’t seen her.
Yes, I come once a year, she said. Her voice was low-pitched, almost masculine, almost basso, and she spoke like someone continuing a conversation that had been broken off.
And it usually falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. Always on a hot day like this, a hamsin. She banged her knees together, clutched her leather bag to them. And I sit alone. Sometimes with the gardener.
I said I had met him here, the gardener.
She fixed me again with bright, wide-open eyes, raised her hand in the air with a quick movement.
I’m talking to you like I know you, she said.
Maybe we did know each other once.
She laughed, repeating the nervous gesture in the air.
Yes, could be.
Maybe, I said.
She laughed again, covering her knees with both hands. Then she shifted her eyes from her knees and moved closer to me on the stone frame surrounding the small, beautiful garden. She smiled. He’s a good man, the gardener.
The sun apparently blinded her, since she was facing the wrong way, and she closed one eye, and now she looked at me with one eye, round as an animal’s eye.
I said: Yes, a good man, the gardener.
She changed eyes, blinking, bent farther over the stone, and opened a cactus coiled up near the stone pillow. Apparently she saw me looking at the date on the pillow. No, No, I come on our anniversary, that’s the day I come here once a year.
Now, too, she spoke slowly, emphasizing every word.
I don’t come on any other day. Why should I come any other day?
It was quiet, and even quieter between one word and the next.
And I said, it always falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. In fact, it was a hot day like this then too, a hamsin. She banged her knees together hard, pressed the palms of her hands on them, and said it was impossible to talk about it. I said she didn’t have to. She said: I can’t talk about it.
You don’t have to.
Yes, but when you think.
Better not to think.
That’s it, better not to think. That doesn’t always work. You understand.
Yes, I understand.
It was quiet. She bent over a bit, leaning forward, unzipped her purse, pulled out a pair of big grey glasses, and put them on.
Believe me, you learn it, and aside from that, time –
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
It was quiet. She zipped up her purse and put it back on the stone.
Yes, time. You think time can?
I could see her dark lashes drop and open all at once through the big glasses. She took them off a moment and straightened up again, looking around leaning her head back, the way you look out a train window. In the meantime, everything, almost alive, years, almost alive, she said, turning around to me, and the word almost was doubled in the empty garden, hit the air like a pneumatic hammer, and I felt something heavy in my ears and some desire to cover my ears. It seemed that was what she did too, but the wind waved her hair, exposing her ears and they suddenly looked small, almost like a little girl’s ears. Her eyes moved slowly, wandering over the garden, as if the garden were fleeing behind her, and I thought I should say something but I didn’t know what. The light became even lower. The sky a bottomless dome. The blooming roses and chrysanthemums in the beautiful garden burned like scarecrows, and I wanted to tell her that there are many forms alive, and something about the length of the day and the length of the night, and the simple truth of death and loneliness when that truth comes from the earth and enters your feet and climbs on you through the soles of your feet. Suddenly I remembered the custom that women once used to measure their lovers’ graves with strings, and then they folded the strings and doubled them and made wicks of wax candles in honor of their lovers from the wrapped doubled string, and at night, in little cans, they lit the wax candles and all night the long wicks burned in the cans and the wind was forbidden to put out the fire in the cans, and I wanted to tell her something about the cans. But she sat quietly, gathering up her hair that was waving from side to son her neck, moving her fingers slowly through her hair as if the strength had gone out of her hands.
That’s it, she said. Her hair was now gathered on the back of her neck and she put her hands back on her knees. In the light you didn’t see her eyes, only the lenses of the glasses. She smiled weakly and took off the glasses, closing one eye again as if it were more and more blinded. It really was very hot. The air grew heavy, taking on an ashen color, holding the movement of a hot dry wind that suddenly approached from some unknown gate, covering that clean, well-swept expanse with a cloud of dust. You smelled a thin odour of smoke and resin. Stone tablets looked taut enough to burst. The fresh paths were filled with arteries of lead and the broken sound of broken flutes approached as if it were going into a cave. The woman facing me pressed her hands to her knees as if she wanted to say: quiet, quiet, but the sound of broken flutes just grew louder, the leaves over the garden plots folded into burned strips of paper, scattering torn petals all around like grains of oats, and I saw the slight trembling of her hands on her knees. Once again she seemed to want to say something, but I didn’t hear what, only how she closed both hands on her knees. The sound of broken flutes grew even louder, the light became really low, almost touching, and in the low light the stones suddenly seemed to be moving, waving like curtains, changing that strange architecture of cut off limbs and turning into a thick dough over the colorful fermentation over the cracks in the earth, contorting the precision of the well-chiselled tablets, and the paths, the markers, the signs at the corners of the paths, the cracks of radiance and the broken screens, and you couldn’t identify any stone now. The roses seemed to be plastic, and the grass full of heat worms, and when the wind passed as it had come, the black inscriptions on the stones still ran around in the air a moment and after a moment only the young woman was seen sitting alone, quiet, in the weary garden. Now too her hands were folded on her knees and she sat in silence.
She opened her eyes, looking at me with a special intimacy.
I’m lucky, there’s never anybody here on this day, I’m always here alone.
That really is nice, I said.
Yes, it’s nice. And I’m always scared they’ll come all of a sudden. But you see, God watches over me, until today that hasn’t happened, every year I’m here alone, sitting like this, alone.
Her eyes were fixed on me all the time, with that special intimacy that exists only between strangers.
It doesn’t bother you that we’re talking, she said.
No, of course not, it’s nice, I said.
She said: Sometimes, you know –
Yes, of course, I know.
It’s that, when you sit there, looking –
Of course, I understand.
She quickly rearranged her clasped hands, and asked if I had to go and I said, No, I’ve got time. She said: I’m glad. Then she said: Sometimes, you know, you want to talk. The light fell on her face, where two thin serpents of sweat ran down, and she wiped them off with the palm of her hand—Nothing special, just, to talk. She smiled in pain—You know, and I said certainly, I know. She smiled again in pain—You always think everything happens to other people. Even when it happens to you , it’s like it happened to other people. Her face now rested between the palms of her hands and she lifted it a little, turning aside. Some noise was heard and stones rolling around as in an execution by stoning, and she straightened up, looked, and took off her glasses a moment, putting them back on immediately, shifting them as if she couldn’t put them on right. She had long beautiful mocha-colored hands, and I looked at her hands which were circled with wide copper bracelets and rings, a ring on every finger, sometimes two, and when she lifted her arms, the bracelets dropped toward her elbow, linked together making a plate of thin copper. She smiled, bringing the bracelets close to her wrists while looking at me through the sparkling lenses. Then she bent over the took out a blue Hebron glass pitcher, put it next to the stone pillow, and said something about the glass and asked if it was beautiful, and I said to her it was very beautiful. Then she said she wanted to bring velvet flowers because she liked very much to make velvet flowers, especially since fresh flowers would fade tomorrow and she only came once a year, and I said yes, that’s how it is. She said: Yes, that’s how it is, and stopped a moment, once again moving the glasses that gleamed like two tin tablets. What can you do, that’s how it is, she repeated. Her eyes lit up with a strange passion and she shook her head, passed her hand over her throat, and once again I looked at her hands and at the bracelets, and every movement changed their position, making a dull noise of copper striking. They were very beautiful bracelets, and I noticed that every bracelet was set with different stones, and there was a bracelet with yellow amber and a bracelet with red amber and a bracelet with turquoise and a bracelet with small blue lapis and a bracelet with pink coral stones, as if she had a collection of bracelets on her arms. She said: Yesterday I almost made baked apples, every year I want to do that and I don’t, baked apples. She laughed a little—That’s what we used to do every year on this day, baked apples. Her voice was parched a moment, and I said that was really good, baked apples. She said: With raisins and nuts, you know that, and I said it was really good with raisins and nuts. She said: And cinnamon, of course cinnamon, and you burn the sugar a little, it’s very good when you burn the sugar. She moved away a bit on the stone. We didn’t put in honey, but he called it apples in honey, she said. She spoke very quietly now, the shaded dark lashes grew wet from one word to the next, and I said I also make that sometimes, especially at the end of summer. She asked why at the end of summer. Her face grew tense, firm, and I didn’t know why I had said that or why at the end of summer, and I felt I had to say something and I didn’t know what, and I said it was best to make it with Grand Alexanders, and that I always looked for Grand Alexanders. She listened quietly, and I said it was good to peel a thin strip around the apple so it wouldn’t burst when it was baking. Now too, she listened quietly. Once again her hair was undone and waved from side to side, and she pressed it, clasping it to her scalp, then she stuck her hand in her hair and wound the ends around her finger.
It’s really hot, she said.
Her face was wet and she wiped it with the palm of her hand, moving her hand from her forehead to her throat a few times, then she put her hands down on the surface of the little garden and wiped them with leaves. Her head swayed a bit and for a moment she seemed to be dozing, and I thought about the plants that hoard water in their stems, producing giant thorns for defence. Suddenly I remembered a friend of mine who wanted to be buried under his cafי under his table, and they told him: It must be somewhere else. And he said: how can I be somewhere else? Under my table, he said, under the table, and even broken up it’s all right even taken apart it’s all right even with one leg it’s all right, and I looked at that strange cemetery, at the stone pillows and the beautiful gardens. Within the emptiness the black letters and the white spaces ran around, moving within air pockets, and that’s how she sat too. Her hair still moved from side to side and she pressed it to the back of her neck, then she leaned over, hastily opened her bag and hastily closed it again right away, and seemed to take some hairpins out of it, because she started sticking pins in her hair. It took her time to do it because the curls kept opening up again and fell on her throat, and maybe the pins weren’t strong enough to hold the burden of her hair, and she plucked off a branch, smelled it, and then stuck it in her hair, then plucked another one and held it close to me. It had the sweet rotten smell of soft wood and she stroked her face lightly with it, and I said she had beautiful hair and beautiful hands. She laughed a little: The bracelets, you mean the bracelets, and I said the bracelets really were very beautiful. She moved away a bit on the stone—Yes, every year, he would bring me a bracelet, that was his anniversary present. Her bass voice suddenly broke like a watch that falls to the ground, and she straightened up and stretched her back—But I don’t wear them, only when I come here. She stopped, rotated her wrist—He loved it when I had bracelets on my hands, so when I come here—her eyes became big, yellow, an owl’s eyes, unmoving, and I saw her taking out the bracelets at night and putting them on the table and arranging them in order, and in the morning putting them on in order, and looking at her arms and some bracelets are missing on her arms, and she moves them and counts the missing bracelets.
Her throat was taut and she sat, looking straight ahead.
This is from the first year, she said, pointing to the bracelet near her wrist, the one with the big yellow amber stone which her hand stroked a few times, and I understood that they were put on in the sequence of the years, and the second year he bought her the red amber, and then the turquoise, and then the lapis, and then the coral, and I tried to guess what he would have brought her the year after. Her face was still impassive and you saw only the eyes, and it occurred to me that that was what she was thinking now too and that was certainly what she did this morning and how she went to the mirror, standing, looking, and the amber and the turquoise stones, the blue lapis beads and the pink coral return in the mirror, and she doesn’t get the dates right, or the years, and she counts the years, and suddenly I didn’t see her but only the bracelets shrivelling, narrow, thin, closing on her like handcuffs.
She turned around to me now, making a noise that sounded like laughter, but wasn’t.
Usually my arms are empty, I told you, all year long I walk around with empty arms, she said. She laughed briefly again, and I said she really had beautiful arms and they were beautiful even without the bracelets, and I tried to imagine how they looked without the bracelets but I simply couldn’t. The copper stabbed my eyes like needles and I felt a slight pain in my eyes, and I didn’t even see her arms but only how the bracelets wrapped one of her arms, then the other, and her shoulders her stomach her chest, and she was sitting all wrapped as in a giant rack. No, no, I said to myself, it’s the quiet, very quiet, it’s a strong light, it’s the strong light, how they sparkle, the bracelets, in the strong light, and how she’s dressed up for him, living or dead, she dressed up for him, what a beautiful dress she put on for him, maybe she even washed her hair for him, its shine is so fresh, and how it waves, burning on her head, making a living crown on her head. She said: I don’t wear the rings either, not the rings either, and I tried to imagine her fingers without the rings. She had mother-of-pearl colored polish on her fingernails and I saw how delicate her fingernails looked. Suddenly I remembered the story of the apples in honey and the small annual celebration. She said: For our tenth anniversary he said he would bring me one with garnets, and I tried to guess when the tenth anniversary should have been, and what he would have bought on the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, but the needles stabbed my eyes, the amber got mixed up with the turquoise, the lapis with the coral, and I said to myself: No no, so much light, you can’t sit in such light, I said to myself that was what she was doing now too, the tenth, the ninth, the eighth, and like me she was counting backward and the count was short, and she was saying it will get longer, every year this will get longer, the bracelets will get short and the counting will get longer, and then the arms will get shorter too. But she sat quietly, playing with the bracelets that made the banging sound of copper and a dull ding dong ding dong and I thought I might have met her once in the street at the corner and hadn’t recognized her, she had empty arms and I hadn’t recognized her, and I said to myself: No no, not that, it’s not her, it’s the light, impossible in such a light, and it’s a mistake, it’s all a mistake, but the bracelets were already running around in the garden mixing with the fresh beautiful blossoming, with the black letters and the white spaces and the rings too, and suddenly I remembered empty of all body and his house empty and empty his soul and his prayer returning empty, I remembered don’t leave me empty-handed, oh don’t leave me empty don’t come empty, and I said no no, the air shrivels and we walk empty, why did I remember that? Where did I hear that? Many years had gone by since I heard that, we stand poor and empty, I heard that, I was a little girl when I heard that, it was always in summer, when my mother would murmur that, and our hut was across from the Muslim cemetery and the windows were open and I was afraid of the cemetery, and I said let’s close the windows, but she said, it’s not the open windows, it’s the bell it’s empty it rings empty.
Something wrong? said the woman. She was playing again with the branch in her hand, and I said I was tired and it was late and I had to go. She smiled. Of course, of course, and if you come next year you’ll find me here. She sounded very quiet, almost calm, and I said I would remember the date and come, certainly, I would come. Since she didn’t answer, I said it really was a very hot day and that wind, and I wanted to go in the evening but I was afraid it was closed in the evening.
She went on playing with the branch in her hand, passing it over her face. They don’t close a cemetery, she said.
When I left, I saw the gardener arranging his tools in the shed, lining up the hoes and the spades, the spare faucets, and a heap of new seedlings. He smiled when I asked about her. Come next year, he said, she’ll be here. He locked his shed. She always comes this time, every year.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
The last item on the shopping list was bread. Two o’clock in the afternoon. August. And the insistence to walk all the way to the bread shop. Specification is the sign of affluence and civilization; that which accommodates variety. I direct my steps toward the comforting scholasticism of bread, options of grain, types of pastry – and the choice made earlier, in a past time, at home – the thrill of finding the shape of a will. Despite the heat, this is what I need to pull myself together, the ritual of the hostess preparing for guests. The extended negotiation and the giving preceded by strategy. If I give as I wish, I could find rest in the giving. I take my place in line. An elderly couple: they too know in advance what they want, but somehow they lack the joy of simulated choice; pointing in itself is a sign of lost chances, of losing one’s hold on life. Having inquired what half-loaves are left and sampled some morsels, they decide in a whispered consultation to chose the sunflower bread once again. Though a bit pricy, it’s the best, they tell the saleswoman. The woman in front of me, dressed in red with large black-framed glasses, is hiding behind a big woman laden with shopping bags whose turn is coming up. The woman in red is ceaselessly groping the boxes of cookies stacked on our right, the ones you’re meant to take on your own. She takes one and puts into a plastic bag. Out of the
corner of my eye, only half seeing the motion of the theft, I am so stunned to see a thief in action, that immediately my face shows too great an interest, spoiling all her secrecy. Not looking at me she fiddles with the box of cookies, rattling it slightly, as though masking the secret by this delicate noise. By letting something slip by she leaves room for doubt. But I do not doubt. She backs away toward the door, giving me her place in the line. I know you, I tell her voicelessly. So shut up, her face retorts. We’ll see, I don’t know, I reply. I’ll kill you. You can’t – we’re surrounded by people. Profusion will protect me. You don’t say, she mocks – profusion whirls you in the wind till you rot in motion. Once a day I deserve something nobody knows of. Today it’s sesame cookies. And what about the young saleswoman and stocktaking and the boss’s accusations – who will pay for your desires. God
will pay. Oh, God, I pant. The only one who doesn’t surprise
himself, which is why we can no longer find refuge from the daily shock of loss. I feel her staring at my back. I’ve taken her place in line and she has withdrawn to its end. Other people press into the store. I see her turning to the shelves, taking the box out of her bag, replacing it among the cookie boxes. I feel somewhat disappointed. After all, who am I to know what she needs, and can one prevent matter from overflowing beyond its bounds – her obsession infects me, I’m already nearly drunk with some dark invisible substance that binds us together like love. No, not like love – we are each other’s riddle and we’re seeking an outlet for the wonder – how is it possible to recognize that which is sealed
inside its own nature – and the code, we already know, has been completely destroyed. I glance at her again. Once more she places the cookies in the bag and once more our gazes cross from behind. I am the victim of a crime. I want to tell the saleswoman politely, this woman is a thief, please. But my night is already lying there in mid-day, and my sins revealed to her – naturally, only sinners recognize their kind. I am familiar with all the motions of theft, the distractions, and the small noises of innocence. But she frightens me. The risks you take. The poorness of the truth. And the panic, the terrible panic that we shall never receive as much as we give, this
panic in its turn protects us from the disappointing feebleness of our generosity. The two of us, dreaming of robbery and revenge, standing in line for bread. She must have cookies, I must leave home. She wanted to have it for free and I’ve already made her pay with the anguish and rage of discovery; I want to betray effortlessly, with a kiss, but keep paying the price. Take it, take the goddamned cookies, I say, while asking for poppy-seed cake and three kinds of rolls – and I am overtaken by black vertigo.
No banister. No alliance. No word of accord. Only seeing. And sedimented seeing. While I pay she gets back in line with the concealed cookies to continue the game – stay away from me or I’ll kill you, I signal to her as I step out of the store. Don’t worry, she replies – your kind I can recognize anywhere.
What you might think just after you’ve said goodbye to him and just before you leave the house:
1. What’s that photo on the wall?
2. Is that her in the photo on the wall?
3. She’s standing in front of a not very high wooden fence separating her from a small herd of geese, you might think. Her body taut, her head thrown back. You can’t see where she’s looking.
4. The photo is hanging on one of those small stretches of wall jammed between corners and doors; the kind of wall on which people hang calendars and not pictures; not the kind of wall you face as you walk through rooms; the kind of wall that gets walked straight past.
If you don’t walk straight past you see a photo she would never have hung on the wall when she was alive: standing in front of her fence, in front of her geese, while they waddle happily through the shallow puddles almost everywhere around their fanned feet. The geese aren’t looking at her, they’re looking at each other or at their own feathers. Their plumage isn’t dirty; quite the opposite, it’s very white. Some of them don’t have their beaks pressed to their chests; they are stretching their necks as though trying not to cross the puddles but to heave themselves out of them. And she too, you might think, looks like she’s trying to get herself out of something, out of a great big mess into extremely clean air, so deliberately strained that she must have briefly forgotten all notions of cleanliness she acquired over the years.
What you might think:
That she must not have noticed being photographed, her behaviour becoming a picture. She never engaged in excesses of the body; at most of her mouth. A remarkable number of people poorly disposed to her for certain reasons – idiotic reasons, she said – had died shortly after she quietly cursed them.
The path in the photo would lead her to the house, were she to continue along it: alongside the fence, over the edge of the photo, to the place where her photo is being looked at now, this picture of a body collapsed in almost stubborn permanence, which seems to have straightened up very suddenly, vertically towards the sun, towards the wind blowing on high, into which she has stretched. That’s how she’s standing there in front of the fence while on the other side of it common or garden geese waddle, avoiding looking at her directly as consistently as if that gaze had been practiced for centuries from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, migrating birds having flown it in from the most African of all countries and dropped it from the air onto these animals like heavenly providence.
At their feet, vaguely visible: goosegrass, gooseberries, gooseneck loosestrife, gooseplant, gooseweed. Geese live on an earth named only after them, which expands productively upwards every morning out of growing gratitude at being sidestepped, until its foreseeable end, a fence. On the sidestep is where she is, not looking around and not noticing she’s being photographed. Her arms outstretched alongside her, ahead of her dull wood, above her circling air.
She never behaved that way, neither outside nor inside this house she had moved into, coming from the town. For love – later she said: for sheer idiocy – she had married a man who had joined Hitler’s bodyguards at the age of 18; later, he gained a PhD in ornithology.
The camera had collapsed her and only unfolded her again over a sheet of paper, in a generous gesture – indiscernible whether she was the depicted or responsible for the depicting, on this narrowly passing rectangle of wall you’re standing in front of now: with him. And about which he’s attempting to provide information; in other words, he goes over to his books, opens them and closes them and does so again three rooms along, as you hear him murmuring: Deuterostomia, Deuterostomia. That’s the superphylum of all goose species, in ornithological terms, but what’s the phylum? It must be here somewhere – and also, why insight comes about by hitting something to make it open and hitting so that it closes.
By the side of the tiny herd of geese is a tiny stream. The water flows horizontally into the air, from right to left – against the motion of the thoughts circling above the photo. Possibly, as opposed to their peculiar eye contact behaviour, the geese’s sounds, albeit proceeding on invisible paths, were directed at the person standing by the fence, especially the lower and stronger, female sounds. Possibly, the geese were not chattering but screeching. Possibly, that’s why their beaks are so wide open. Possibly, she was screeching back, her head tipped, vertical into mid-air. Her body launching itself upwards as she screamed, a motion she hadn’t made for a very long time, or only in secret. Cursing someone as she did so, this time very loudly because she was alone. Possibly, that’s why the photographer never showed the photo to anyone but her, and he survived because he hid the evidence of her acrobatic soul from others until her death. Whereby the question in that case would be: with what intent did the photographer want to photograph her; had the camera happened upon her by chance; or had she perhaps cursed him audibly days before and he had been trying ever since, sweating with fear, to capture her in a position undepictable for her, an inconceivably depictable position, and to blackmail her with it. – Possibly, she had said nothing in view of the geese, in view of a subphylum from the superphylum of Deuterostomia; possibly, the air had been taut around her in the pose caught in black and white, taut as a net with hard or thin thread, at its loosest around her chest and tightest at her neck; possibly, she had realized how pretty and useless perspectives are when everything is so close to you, even if everything close immediately vanishes, like the brightness does in the evening, having spent all day shining from a sky filled to the brim with light.
Will he come up with the correct ornithological term for the phylum if he chants the Latin name of the superphylum to himself, as he’s doing now?
Above the white-feathered heads, the outstretched head in front of which she is stretched out: the pale leaves of the hornbeams, or white beeches. Are they too, going by the logic of the previous plant names, named after the animals beneath them? The leaves of the white beeches hang close to their branches and the branches don’t grow far away from their trunk, the whole ensemble more shrub than tree.
You might think: her parting looks rather messy in the otherwise very neat surroundings.
The hornbeams are still standing back there, you might think, just after you’ve said goodbye to him a second time and just before you leave the house. The fence still in front of it. In front of that the path. Walks are taken along the fence and glances are cast over it as you leave the house. Among the walkers is a child who tries to stop and look through the fence, his hand held by another walker’s hand. The child is very small and clumsy and tries hard to see what the fence posts alternately hide and reveal:
the subfamily of geese.
The weather was excellent that day, you hear him calling inside the house, as if searching for you and then at a window: The clouds stood still above the geese, not moving an inch!
You might think something now, but:
The child doesn’t manage to stand still. The fence posts the child is pulled past recall eyelids, fluttering and blurring what is seen; if they were mouths they would chatter without revealing anything of what they were saying. The child tries nonetheless to get through to the hidden things behind the fence, at least with his eyes. It doesn’t look as though the child might be lifted up so as to see more. Someone tugs at his arm (the same someone who was holding his hand) and tugs at his arm until all walkers have passed the fence; continuing along the path, the child’s head is slowly lowered, so slowly that it’s hard to watch the disappointed onlooker.
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.
The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017
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