Before Elyakum reached the age of seven, he had found the woman of his dreams and swore he would marry her. She was round all over, even her nose was round, not protruding very far from her face. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. The fact that she limped merely gave her an added quality of softness, and instilled all manner of chivalrous thoughts in his mind.
She came to the school as a temporary substitute for a teacher who had taken ill; and since she wasn’t a certified teacher, she occupied the children by reading them stories from a small, thick book as plump as she was. She had a deep, warm, whispery voice, and many children fell asleep at their desks. Elyakum remained alone in the room with her, his eyes fixed upon her; and when she stole an occasional glance at the sleeping children, his look felt like the lick of an excited puppy on her cheek, and she quickly lowered her gaze to the book. His burning, somewhat mad look caused a slight blush to spread over her face, so pale that it appeared to be have been dusted with flour. She looked infinitely more beautiful to him then.
Several children, who lived on Yonah ha-Navi Street near the school, quickly discovered that the substitute teacher was actually only a seamstress who lived alone in a one-room house on the seashore. This discovery led to the appearance of several drawings and comments on the classroom chalkboard. The seamstress broke into tears, got up and left the room, limping more than usual; and as the children continued to shout and stamp in victory, Elyakum made an effort not to let his tears burst forth, and, out of the fear that his secret would be discovered, he tried to pretend indifference and detachment. For the first time in his life, he experienced the taste of betrayal, and he wanted to die. Although he was quite familiar with the taste of being betrayed, he now discovered that the betrayer suffers even greater torments.
The seamstress never returned to the school. Several years passed before his parents moved to another neighborhood and he—to another school.
And this is where the story begins—the story of Elyakum’s second encounter with his bride.
When he was twelve, still short and an easy target for the pranks of other children—who enjoyed kicking him in the rear end because there was no danger of retribution from its owner—his body rebelled against his humble soul, and it shot up, growing in every direction. His shoulders suddenly broadened, his arms thickened and lengthened, and his legs pushed him up to such a height that, as he approached bar-mitzvah age, he looked liked a seventeen-year-old, even taller than the boys who were about to finish their last year of compulsory education at the Herzliya High School.
This natural phenomenon brought about several changes in his life. His peers began to behave with excessive caution toward him, and those same youths who had rained blows upon him less than a year earlier, now labored to erase the memory of their crimes through extravagantly friendly behavior that saddened him. Several girls from the higher grades dropped hints that the surprised and unprepared Elyakum refused to interpret. But he never received an offer of genuine friendship, and he learned that the fear he now inspired in his peers, together with the clumsy affection proffered him by large-breasted, impudent-looking young girls were worse than what he had previously experienced as the target of pranks. But then, at least, his conscience had been clear, since all the justice, honesty and integrity were on his side. He knew enough about fairy tales to compare himself to the ugly duckling that became a beautiful swan overnight; however, he concluded with great sadness that, contrary to expectations, not everyone falls in love with the swan, nor do they bow down before it, or ask for its forgiveness. Perhaps that’s what they did in other countries, but not here.
Nevertheless, there was one person in the entire school who realized the true advantages to be gained from the revolution that had taken place in Elyakum’s body; that person was the physical education teacher. Elyakum was not outstanding, heaven forbid, in any area of athletics; but the very fact that he was in the 12-14 year-old age group made him a potential winner in several competitions. For his age, he had remarkably long legs that promised he would be the first to reach the finish line in the 200-meter race. Such was also the case in shot-putting, discus-throwing, and javelin-throwing. His shoulders were solid, and his muscular arms guaranteed victory even without much training. The physical education teacher rejoiced at this find, and designated Elyakum the class representative in those four Olympic events.
The Maccabiah Games for Young People were supposed to take place in the spring, and in the remaining two months, Elyakum grew, soaring to the status of class king. Forty young boys and girls would sit idly in a semicircle during their physical education classes, watching the teacher lavish attention on Elyakum, training him for his lofty mission. Other boys and girls, who were lucky enough to be thrown out of their classes, would join the circle of admirers and spread the word of his strength and prowess to the other classes in the school. Elyakum was ultimately seduced into seeing himself as a kind of king, albeit not from birth.
Until the night before the Young People’s Maccabiah.
That night, Elyakum was supposed to go to bed earlier than usual, as athletes do on the eve of a big event; but before doing so, he once again arranged all the accessories of his victory at the side of his bed: lightweight, spiked-soled leather shoes; an undershirt white as snow, with the three blue letters of the school insignia sewn on its front; and his beautifully-starched white shorts with the 4-centimeter-wide blue stripes on either side—the colors of the nation’s flag.
Then, Elyakum had the excellent idea of trying on the shorts; he had a premonition. Those shorts from last year were now too small for him. It was seven-thirty in the evening, the stores were closed, the world was hostile and his parent’s indifference—as usual—was terrible. His mother, for example, naively thought it was possible to appear in the Maccabiah Games wearing regular school shorts. His father thought that a bathing suit would suffice for the competition. Their neighbor—a photographer who owned a studio—had a grown-up son and the son had shorts, but they were blue with red stripes, because he trained with ha-Poel, the sworn enemies of Maccabee.
Elyakum made one final desperate effort: he stretched his shorts across his thighs and they split at the seams, both on the side and in the middle, if you’ll pardon the expression.
His father was angry; the neighbor’s son gloated; and only his mother—like in the fairy tales—came to her son’s assistance. She found some thread in a drawer, measured Elyakum’s waist, and cut. She measured the width of his thighs, and cut. She measured the length from his waist to twenty centimeters above his knees, and cut. Holding several pieces of thread in her hand, she ordered Elyakum to bed and promised him that the shorts would be ready that very night. Then she left the house.
Elyakum tried to fall asleep. He trusted his mother’s good will, but he wasn’t sure that, at that time of night, she would find a seamstress willing to take on the job. Perhaps he should wait for his father to fall asleep, and then get out of bed and go to the physical education teacher’s house. When it came right down to it, he was the one interested in victory, for Elyakum desired no honor or athletic glory for himself. Let the teacher worry about the shorts. He would certainly worry about them—Elyakum thought—but where would he get a new pair? Although one could assume that the physical education teacher had some influence in the world of sports, and would find a solution. In any case, his father did not fall asleep, but brewed himself a of tea instead, and settled down to read the newspaper. That damned newspaper had about a hundred pages. It’s printed in America, in Yiddish; and the Americans do not lack for money. Every newspaper—a book. Half of it was pictures, but his father was capable of looking at one picture for fifteen minutes. He once discovered that one of the pictures showed his uncle on his mother’s side, wrote a letter to the editor and received a reply saying that his uncle was dead. Later on, he received another letter telling him that it actually hadn’t been a picture of his uncle, but of Rockefeller. That meant the uncle was alive, and my father was still trying to find him.
Elyakum fell asleep, dream after dream moving quickly before his eyes, and in each and every one, a jeering face jumped out at him; jumped out at him and disappeared. When he tried to see up close who the face belonged to—the door was slammed in his face and the sound of the slamming door woke him up, as his mother returned. It was nearly midnight. She wasn’t carrying new shorts, but she had good news: they would be ready at five in the morning. A good-hearted seamstress had agreed to sew the shorts, but she had to finish some other work first. At five in the morning, Elyakum would go to the seamstress’ apartment and get his new shorts. The Maccabiah opened at seven in the morning, so there was nothing to worry about. And why wouldn’t his mother go to the seamstress? Because Ekyakum himself had to try them on. Perhaps some alterations would be necessary. There was time for that too.
This being the situation, he was once again unable to fall asleep. He wanted to turn onto his other side, so as not to fall asleep on his left side, but he was afraid to move his body around too much, because right before the competitions, it was important to conserve every drop of strength. If he turned from side to side, how would he win?
His mother woke him in the morning and handed him the seamstress’ address. He stood knocking on her door, his heart pounding, and when he entered the house after hearing a voice call out, “Come in”—he saw the seamstress standing before him. She was the same round woman with the astonishingly beautiful face, whose eyes—he now saw their color for the first time, in the light from the lamp on her sewing machine—were brown and whose hair was dusky gold. Her complexion was as pale as it had been then, as if it had been dusted with flour, and she was a bit younger than she had been when he saw her last.
For a moment, he thought he would turn and bolt from the room; but she waved a pair of white shorts with blue stripes on the sides at him, and said cheerfully, “I’m ready. You can see that I’m ready. I made a promise, and I kept it.”
He wanted to say: “I’m the one who made a promise, but I still haven’t kept it. Now, I will.”
But, at first, he thought he should say: “Do you know who you are? Do you know that you’re the substitute teacher that read us stories?”
And he also wanted to say this: ”Don’t think I forgot you. I only thought I forgot you, but I really didn’t.”
He stepped forward, reached for the shorts, and once again thought that as soon as the shorts were in his hand, he would bolt. But instead of bolting, he said, “My mother will pay you. I don’t have any money.”
She smiled, got up from the sewing machine, limped towards the door and locked it.
“You have to try them on. Maybe something has to be fixed,” she said. “I’ll go into the kitchen, and you try them on. Okay?”
She limped towards the kitchen door and he clearly felt how the heat rising from her body moved away from him. He remained alone in the room that had been warm until she left it, and had suddenly become cold.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” she called from the kitchen. It was the same voice he remembered. Nothing had changed. Only that she was a bit younger. That’s because I’ve gotten older, he explained to himself.
He placed the shorts up against his body without putting them on, and he thought they would fit. But he immediately changed his mind. The thought that he would be standing there naked, even for just a minute, a doorway away from her, dizzied and overwhelmed him. He took off his shirt as well, and stood in the cold room, naked as the day he was born. He hurriedly put on his shirt again, and only then did he try on the shorts. They fit around his thighs perfectly. He stood with his legs apart, silent.
“Are you ready yet?” she asked from the kitchen.
“They’re fine” he whispered in a thin, squeaky voice.
She came towards him, heavy and slow, and he was encompassed, embraced by the circle of heat she brought with her, the body heat of a woman who had only just arisen from her bed in a room that had been closed all night, suffused with the scent of warm sheets and the wafting fragrance of bath soap. And something else. Something suffocating, that aroused in him the desire to scream. Perhaps it was her loneliness.
“They’re fine,” he said again, after strengthening his voice with a small cough. “Perfectly fine. Do you know that I know you?”
The seamstress, who did not trust his judgment, got down on her knees and, with a trained hand, pulled the waistband of the shorts to the left and to the right to make sure they were not too narrow. Then she ran her hand down the blue stripes, which had not been properly ironed, straightening them on his thighs and pulling the hem to make sure they weren’t too short or too long.
“You know me?” she said, completing her examination, still on her knees. “I think I should iron them again, so they’ll look new and beautiful. Where do you know me from?”
“You read me stories in the first grade, at the Geula Elementary School.
She uttered a cry of alarm, a kind of abrupt intake of air. “No, no,” she said. And instead of getting up from her knees, she pulled a pillow that had been near the wall towards her and sat on it.
“That’s impossible,” she said again, looking at him almost fearfully.
“Yes, yes,” Elyakum said, speaking in his natural voice this time. Her agitated response infused him with courage. “Definitely yes. You came to substitute for a sick teacher, and you stayed with us for only a few days, maybe a week.”
“But how could that be?” she scrutinized him, as if she wanted to find proof of what he was saying in his body. “That was how long ago? Six years, maybe seven… If I had been there, in that class, then you should be twelve or thirteen years old now…”
“I’m almost thirteen,” he said, not without pride.
“You are? Thirteen?” The smile returned to her face. “You’re not thirteen; you’re at least sixteen.”
If I were seventeen, Elyakum said to himself, then I could jump on you, just like that, straight onto the floor where you’re sitting, and I could hug you so hard that you’d break into pieces. It would scare you to see how strong I am. And I could tell you that I swore to marry you and that I’m ready to do it, whenever it’s possible, it doesn’t matter when, I’m ready, I swear…
“I wasn’t the one who drew those pictures on the chalkboard,” Elyakum said. “I really loved listening to the stories…”
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and she rose to her knees in front of him again, as she had been when she was checking his shorts. She seemed to reach out with her hands for a moment, then folded them across her breast. “You, you were the little boy who looked at me all the time, all the time, while I was sitting there and reading, and everybody else fell asleep?”
“That’s me,” Elyakum said. And if he had really been seventeen, he would have added, “And nothing has changed between us since then… and if you’re ready, then so am I, just say the word…”
“My God,” she said, “my God, how happy I am… I’d like to thank you, will you let me? I want to hug you.”
Elyakum could have died at that moment; but since he was very strong young man, he didn’t even faint. And at that moment, God gave him wisdom beyond his years, and he did the absolutely right thing—he closed his eyes and kept silent.
The seamstress crawled towards him on her knees. She embraced his thighs and buried her head in his new shorts, the coldness of the stiff, starched fabric tickling her pale skin, while Elyakum stroked her dusky gold hair with both hands, his knees trembling. He may have been a very strong young man, but he wasn’t strong enough to stand firmly on his legs for a long time in such a situation, such a totally new situation, that suddenly seemed perfectly natural, but quite difficult.
The marvelous things happening to him that morning rendered him momentarily insensible, and when he revived, he heard the voice that had spoken to him in the early days of his childhood say: “My little love, my dear child.”
On that day, he still did not know what to say; and in the days that followed, when he did know what to say in such cases, he did not have many opportunities to say them. For there are things that happen to us only once, and never again.
The seamstress made him a cup of hot chocolate with milk and advised him to hurry to the bus at the school so that he would reach the stadium on time. And he ran through the yards between Javitz and Kalisher Streets, leapt over fences and reached the bus on time.
With seven thousand eyes upon him, Elyakum stood in the row of runners in the 12–14 age group, far taller than any of them, and, for a moment, asked himself if he shouldn’t conceal his height a bit in this pack of hooligans and punks that surrounded him. When the starting shot was fired, Elyakum burst forward, and the roar of thousands of spectators reached his ears almost immediately.. Astonished by the thunder of the voices, he looked over his shoulder towards the audience; and only then did he notice that all the other runners had been left ten meters behind him. Nothing like it had ever happened in the history of sports in Eretz Israel, not since the Maccabees triumphed over the Greeks. At that moment, Elyakum’s heart filled with conceit and arrogance, and he did something that is not done, something he thought he had once seen in a movie starring Charlie Chaplin, or was it Buster Keaton? He stopped running and waited until the swarm of his competitors were a meter behind him; only then did he resume leading the pack, until he again left them all fifteen meters behind, and became an unprecedented winner.
The crowd burst into tumultuous cheering, hurling handkerchiefs, hats and paper-wrapped sandwiches into the air. Other objects were not available in those days.
When it was his turn to throw the javelin, he was careful to move slowly, effortlessly, demonstrating to all the spectators that he was investing only half of his strength, if not less, in this trifling competition, which was beneath his dignity. His javelin landed almost a meter and a half in front of the others, as did his discus in the discus-throw.
The boys in his class burst onto the field, hoisted him onto their shoulders and paraded around the track with him, as all the spectators chanted: El-ya-kum, El-ya-kum.
And then, suddenly, he remembered the seamstress. That is to say, he remembered that he had forgotten her completely; not that he had really forgotten her, but in the intensity of his concentration on the competitions, he was able to think of only one thing, which might have been a totally pointless thing, if he hadn’t done it all for her, so that she would be pleased with him. For that was the only thing he could do for her in the meanwhile, until the right time came. And when it did, no power in the world could stop him from having that woman. How foolish you are, Elyakum, not to have told her to come to the stadium. Why did you let her stay home, when you could have invited her here to see for herself what you’ve done for her. If she were here, she would hear the voices, see the parade, and savor the moment.
She could have sat comfortably somewhere in the stands, in a good, center seat, and watched. She would have sat there and eaten chocolate and watched. It’s not tiring. And Elyakum would do the work. She wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Simply watch. When the Maccabiah ended, he would go to where she was sitting, and, without saying a word, he would place the four medals on her lap. He didn’t need them, of course. Then they would get up to go, waiting a while, until most of the crowd had left the stadium, so there wouldn’t be too much pushing in the stands. He’d hold her arm, as is done in such cases, and no one would notice that something was wrong. And what, in fact, was so unusual? Haven’t you ever seen a pair of lovers walking arm-in-arm? So, if you please, let us pass. You can see that it’s not easy for her to walk. Ladies are frail and delicate in all kinds of ways. That’s right, all ladies. Even the youngest. Even the girls in his class have their delicate sides, sometimes. If some pretty young girl, for example, had some small difficulty in doing something—so what? And how much truer this was for someone who wasn’t a pathetic little tenth-grade girl, of the sort who, apart from being a pain in the neck and being able to dance, don’t know a thing. His girlfriend, his future wife, is not exactly that sort, thank God. Why are you gawking at us that way, like idiots? Who said something? I’ll let him have one right in the teeth, I’ll tear him apart. Not a word! Do you hear me? What do you know anyway, you damn babies. I’m not your friend. I don’t want to be with you. Leave me alone, dummies.
Elyakum began to kick, and his friends let him down off their shoulders, watching him with shock as he galloped, like a drunkard, towards the locker room.
When he was alone, he took off his shorts, folded them carefully, looked at them for a while, sat down on the stone bench, buried his head in the blue-and-white bundle of fabric, and burst into tears.
Hearing voices outside, he leapt to the door and locked it. “Go away,” he cried to the people outside, “get out of here, you bastards.
After a while, the voices outside abated, and the stadium emptied out. Elyakum went onto the field. It was noon, and the sunlight burned his eyes, which had not known much sleep since the day before. He glanced around at the empty seats and began walking along the track.
“Don’t think I would have been ashamed of you because you’re older, or even because you limp. I’m not ashamed of you. I love you, but they don’t understand. They would have laughed at you if I had brought you here. They would have ruined everything. Not that winning was important to me. I don’t give a damn about winning But I didn’t want them to laugh at you. I don’t understand why, but you didn’t belong here today. You simply didn’t belong here, and I’m a complete shit. Nothing but a shit. Look, now I’m going to run just for you, without anyone else. Only you and me. Here, look.
Elyakum moved his left leg forward, the right one back, placed his palms on the track, sounded the signal and began to run. He passed the place where the seamstress was sitting and waved at her; he did the same when he again reached that spot on the track. He ran with all his strength, did not pretend indifference, did not try to please the crowd, did not show off for the other runners, as he had done earlier, by stopping and letting them catch up to him. This time, he invested all his strength, ran with every ounce of his being and, every time he passed her, he waved and smiled at her. And she smiled in response. When he had run past her who-knows-how-many times, he saw her get up, limp through the rows of benches towards him, walk down the field and wait for him on the track.
“Enough,” she said, taking his hand.
They fell onto the ground together, smiling at each other, and fell asleep.
When he awoke, the sun was setting.
My parents are worried crazy, he said to himself, awake, troubled, hungry, his limbs aching. His body screamed for more sleep, it didn’t matter how much, as long as he could wake from it and remember nothing. He was afraid that that, when he awoke from his s, he would be different.
“I want to sleep now and never wake up,” he said, yawning prodigiously. “I want to die.”
*This story is taken from: The Bitter Scent of Geraniums, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1980.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.