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Ishmael

Shimon Adaf | from: Hebrew

Translated by : Leanne Raday

Introduction by Alona Kimchi

The blend between Adaf’s poetic and eloquent prose and the science fiction plot it relates, which painstakingly observes the rules of the genre, creates a rare literary hybrid. The nightmarish present – or is it the future in which the story takes place? – is perceived as an alienated, synthetic existence that adheres to a perverse but concrete logic. Adaf invents a world that has been thought out to the last detail and although it is clear that he is revealing only the tip of the iceberg of the sum of phenomena that comprise it, the picture portrayed before the reader is sharp and is impressed in the consciousness as a complete and conceivable reality. The reason for the presence of human beings on the satellite of this huge, unknown planet is revealed through nothing but insinuations – rebellion, sterilization, exile, the supporters of the regime and its opposers.
The father goes to meet his six year old son. At first it is only a lump of flesh that is to receive its form, a child’s form, via special programming. The child’s consciousness is empty. He remembers and knows only that which he remembered and knew two and a half years earlier, when he went to sleep and was “frozen”. This is a periodic meeting with his father. After it is over, the child will be put back to sleep outside the laws of time and space. He will remain forever six. Forever remember only what happened until he was frozen. His name is Ishmael; the banished, the rejected, the one who was expelled by his family and people. A child who lives forever in perpetuum mobile; falls asleep and awakens time and again, identical to himself, never growing, never wilting, eternal in his hermetically sealed bubble.
The meaning hides in the shadows – enigmatic, dark, a nightmare, a bleak prophecy or maybe a metaphor of something deeper, something nameless that cannot be described but by creating a virtuosic texture of language, images, sights, characters and the interaction between them, whose simplicity and humanity only accentuate the formless, primeval horror that is immersed in the inconsolable sense of loss that lies at the very basis of the work of prose before us.

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Lacking any alternative image, we turn to the moment of creation. The form bursting from the awkwardness of matter. No, not the awkwardness, the indifference towards being. This time, I am ready; this time, I’ve prepared. Through the night I lay awake, going through the stages in my mind. Not to waste precious time on nausea, panic. The technodroid told me, there’s no need, you can wait in the waiting room, you can go and come back, I’ll bring him to you. I said I wanted to see. In the morning, at the entrance, I tell him again, I want to see. I gaze at the chrysalis of flesh in the glass chamber. I don’t know whose child he was yesterday, the child of which exile. He is featureless for the time being, only the possibility of a body. The optic fibers extend from the top of the chamber, interfacing with the radiant artificial skin. I envisage a sucking sound; I envisage the sound of entrenchment. But the data that accelerates along the fibers is soundless; not a murmur. The technodroid is also inaudible behind the monitors, his eyelids shut. I’m convinced that he is only an extension of the loading room, its manifestation. In the glass chamber the chrysalis of flesh is taking form, fumbling for the mold saved in the data transferred to it from the backup copy. The reprogramming of the neural matrix is concealed from me, but its passing impressions are apparent in the looming face, the expressions, each conjuring up the face I know, I remember, more than the previous one. He is naked and trembling in the glass chamber, my son, forever six.

He surveys the unfamiliar surroundings suspiciously. Despite the careful preparations I am paralyzed. This is the second time. His name, as it escapes my lips, is a limp sequence of syllables. Dad, he says, where am I. The tremor in his voice is multiplied by the dozen and reverberates within me. I am hollow, this is the second time, and the technodroid touches my shoulder. The synthetic chill punctures through the thickness of the clothes. How long has it been, almost two and a half years on this satellite; four hundred and ninety three local days. In my mind I still count the days according to the earth’s turning upon its axis at an immeasurable distance from here, but habit is blinding. I often have to glimpse at the watch, the double calendar.

My voice returns to me, to itself, with the power of the instilled chill. Ishmael, I say. He is named after my father. He smiles, a smile as pale as his paleness. I walk up to him, grip his shoulders and pick him up. You’re heavy, I say to him. He laughs. I lower him to the floor. His toes wriggle with the sensation. The technodroid hands him some clothes. He wore the same ones last time. The sizes never change.

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It’s a hospital, he says, almost asking. My lie is ready for me, polished. I tried to explain The first time, despite the technodroid’s briefing. His last memories, he told me, are from the backup. As far as he’s concerned, he went to sleep in his bed. There is no way of creating a new backup. Each download will produce the child who went to sleep in his bed. Yes, I tell Ishmael, you were sick, we had to move you to this place. The lie is easy and light on my tongue. Where’s Mum? He says. She’ll come visit tomorrow, I say. My voice doesn’t tremble. He says, I need to go to Yaron and Efrat’s party. Oh, I say, they’ve postponed it for you, until you get better. For me, he is astonished. The brief happiness holds him, sustains him. He wasn’t a popular child at school. I begged before the twin’s parents to intervene on his behalf and get him invited. It was years ago. Who could have imagined that they had backed up our children during medical examinations, who could have known that the mutiny would break out only a month after those arrogant twins’ birthday party. The irony of history intensifies when we try to anchor it in the events of our lives. We leave through the door of the loading room. He doesn’t ask where to.

While we walk he realizes. Last time he also realized, at the very same second. I look back and estimate the distance. One hundred and fifty meters from the entrance. His eyes widen in amazement. I follow him. He realizes that the light is greenish, as though underwater.  The skies are tinted a stronger shade and yellowing at the rims. On the horizon to our right, as if sunken in the sharp summits of a mountain ridge, there is a huge planet surrounded by rings. The minerals of the rock belts are what give the reflected rays their color. His hand reaches out to mine of its own accord. I hold it. My hand is a little sweaty, despite the low temperatures. His artificial body regulates its temperature very well. He is wearing nothing but thin linen garments. Dad, he says. I say, it’s pretty, isn’t it, and the taste of the words is like metal in my mouth. Where are we, he says. I say, do you remember the virtual reality suits in the mall. Yes, he says. So, I say, this hospital is special. It’s like a virtual reality film. But what’s wrong with me, he says. I say, a rare illness, you’re staying in their hospital. Theirs, he says. Yes, I say, theirs. He nods. Even our children know that their technology is inconceivable. Come, I say, I’ll show you.

This time is untainted by the falters and apprehensions of the last time. This time I’m succeeding. I tell myself, this is Ishmael, who I haven’t seen in the two years of the mutiny, it is he; he was born from the thought and the longing; I summoned him across the barriers of place and time. And through his eyes I am, for a day, free of the hate, the desire to avenge. The beauty of this exile planet, the beauty of the sentence, is revealed before me. I take him to the waterfalls, and the water upsurges with a crystalline racket. The species of birds and animals that were sent with us in the cryogenic containers from earth have mutated. The swallows are as huge as ravens and their confused chirps continue with us into the thicket, where the native trees entwine their branches together and secrete lamentations. A law of astronomy asserts that every fourth moon of a planet with a ring system is usually habitable. Even the bulrush is hollow and emits secrets in a language that no one speaks.  Ishmael, he runs with joy, laughing at my lame jokes; the child of my memory, the creation of the thought and the longing.

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A purple coral-like plant climbs up the walls of the cave, delineating circles of sand within it. I demonstrate. If you poke a stick in, tendrils rise from the sand, a tiny mouth and teeth at their tips, and hum some sort of tune as they wrap themselves around the stick and bite it. The meat of the tendrils is delicious, fit for a king, if they are properly cooked. The mouth is poisonous, the mouth discharges acid and venom. I almost lose my balance when I pull the stick back with the bite marks on it. The fumes rising from them make out blurred pictures, vague outlines. The zealots use it as a means of prediction. I turn to him and smile a ridiculing smile, of myself, the clumsiness of my movement, but suspicion already fills his eyes, his gaze retreats, and his limbs clench. Suddenly he recognizes how old I am, older than the person fixed in his memories. Ishmael, I say. The next time I see him I’ll be two and a half local years older and he will be six, the apprehension will dawn on him sooner.

Who are you, says Ishmael. I am your father, I say. What happened to you, he says and steps back. Stop, I tell him, stop. His legs touch another edge of corals. There is movement in the circle of sand. For a moment a thought passes my mind, perhaps this is how it is supposed to end, an accident. Why has no one thought of it before. Twenty nine exiles refuse the embodiment of their children, claiming it is an abomination, but they are a minority. Then there are the zealots, the seventy eight who worship the embodiment, preach to it as a means of absolving sin. I’ve heard that they pray to the replica of their child when their turn comes. But to the rest of us, it is the cruel benevolence of our judges; the embodiment is the privilege of glimpsing at our children while still at the age of innocence. It is said that the harshness of the punishment is tailored to suit the proportions of the offense. We woke from our frozen slumber when the spaceship landed on the moon of an unknown solar system. The technodroid that oversaw the voyage announced that we had been sterilized, that the spaceship was equipped with a loading room where backups of our young children were kept, but with only one chrysalis of flesh. And the moon turns on its axis, rotates round the ringed planet, rotates with it round a foreign sun.  Ishmael, I say to him, my boy, don’t move, you’re… Who are you, he says, you’re like my father but you’re not him. I am, I say. He says, I don’t believe you. Neither do I. Perhaps it must end this way. I say to him, with teeth gnashed I say, listen to a story, in a faraway land there were three brothers. He stares at me for a long while. His brown eyeballs become somewhat brighter. He says hesitantly, is that the whole story, it’s a boring story. What would you want to happen. He smiles wearily. Yesterday, before he fell asleep, we played the same game. Every detail from the winter of that bedtime stays with me, the rhythm of the rain, the scent of the leaves, his hushed breathing, his persistent struggle against the angel or sleep, his head drooped on the pillow. Through him, through the restrained replica, I see him as he should be, his youthful flaws, his splendor, his desires and disappointments; and I love him, love his image from the approximated future of the past, coming to me with his pain and happiness, deserving of comfort, deserving of the healing power of the years.

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He says, what are their names. I say, Why, How and What Not. He says, and where did they live. I say, Why lived in the ground and ate turnips, How lived in water and hunted snakes and What Not lived in the air. In the air, he says. In the air, I say, he moved from one climate to the next, shepherding winds. Boring story, he said. And he would venture into the mist in search of the map of Pam-plapam-nam. Map of what, he says. Of what not, I say. He laughs, almost naturally. His leg brushes against the edge of the coral plant. I want to go home, he says. Me too, I say, although the pleasantness is already shrouded by a sense of alarm.  I stretch my hand out to him. He turns his head and looks at the surface of the sand, at the bubbling beneath it. Come, I say flatly, we’ll go back together. But he doesn’t turn back, doesn’t answer.

The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017

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