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Thorns

Sharon Horodi | from: Hebrew

Translated by : Daniella Zamir

Introduction by Gadi Goldberg

Sharon Horodi’s stories, many of which have been published in various journals, are characterized by very precise language, which manages to penetrate the essence of momentary occurrences and existential situations and place them on the operating table in front of the reader. In the story “Thorns,” the protagonist returns to her parents’ moshav. Random meetings evoke within her the memory of a crucial event that took place in her past. Horodi excels in describing the atmosphere of life in a moshav in Israel, with its sounds, smells, conversations and remarkably precise dialogues. From within the smells, the sights and the sounds emerges the protagonist’s—and the readers’—great longing for the past, that seems more perfect and reconciled than the changing and shaky present. But the temptation Horodi presents us, to return to the past, confronts us unwillingly with the illusion of its magic, and the event that the protagonist experiences again in her memory, threatens to dispel the illusion. The way the Thai workers are treated, for instance, which seems in the beginning of the story like racism that was unfamiliar to the moshav in the past and only came when the foreign workers themselves did, is perhaps rooted deeper in the past than we first thought. With delicate yet confident artistry, Horodi spins webs between the “new” situation she faces in the moshav, and the past, which, from the moment the thorns of the prickly pear pierce her flesh, no longer seems so magical.      

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“Did he talk to you?”

“Not a word till Bilu Junction.”

“And then?”

“And then he slowed down and showed me the ugly shopping center they’re building there.”

“Well, it all came as a surprise to him, you know.”

Dad returns with an orange and rolls it down the counter, Mom catches it, slits the peel with a knife and passes it on to me to peel. The hands get covered with sticky juice. Segment after segment I eat all of it.

“I forgot how sweet your oranges are,” I say to Dad, who ignores me and walks out.

Next to a stack of pipes in the middle of the yard stands a figure, completely covered, a sweater, a wool face mask that only reveals the eyes, boots and work pants.

“What’s that?”

Mom peeks out of the window and goes back to pounding the chicken breasts she took out of the fridge.

“Yael, you mean who’s that, not what’s that. That’s Swai.”

“Everyone’s taking Thais now, there’s no choice, the Israelis don’t want to work.”

“Why is he covered like that?”

“It’s the same over at Zukerman’s and Dagan’s, they brought five-six each, all covered, scared of the sun but do well, hard workers.”

I go out to the yard to sit on the wicker chair that survived the years. Where once stood rusty barrels and an old thatch, rose bushes now grow. Mom finally managed to convince Dad to make her a garden. Dad and the Thai are moving the stack of pipes to the rear of the chick-brooder. Against the nimble Thai, Dad seems old, panting laboriously as he loads the pipe on his back. I put my hands on my stomach and feel him move a little.

The Thai returns for another pipe, only the small, brown eyes peeping out of the hole in the mask are visible. I hear Dad’s voice from behind the shed, he rushes away and doesn’t look at me.

The door of the chick-brooder, which had stood empty for years, ever since Dad gave up on raising chicks, has been painted blue and the walls renovated and whitewashed. Next to it stand a pair of work boots covered in mud. I go in. The place has been converted into a small studio: a wooden bed against the wall, a round table in the middle of the room and three chairs around it, a stove and a cabinet beneath the small window that overlooks the rear gate, the corner close to the yard has been boarded up and turned into a shower and toilet. A pair of work pants and a wool mask are tossed on the bed. I peek inside the cabinet: a bag of rice, two bowls, a bottle of oil and a pile of onions emanating a sharp smell.

“What are you doing here?” Dad grumbles in the doorway.

“It’s nice here.”

“Yael, come on, stop snooping.”

“How long has he been here?”

“Six months.”

“Does he speak?”

“Yael, enough, let’s get out of here.”

The suitcase is placed in the room that was once mine and has been turned into a guest room. I’m not going to open it “and organize everything in the closet” like Mom asked. The suitcase will serve as a closet, in the meantime. The room changed. The walls are painted a soft yellow. A small table stands next to the bed, ochre curtains hang on a wooden rail, and a reading light with a beige lampshade is attached to the wall. Mom’s attempt to give the room a hotel-like feeling.

Despite the heat I lie on the bed and cover myself with the pique blanket. You can still detect the faded stain of the teabag I flung to the ceiling. I used to stare at it for hours. Now it’s looking at me, humiliated. All the years I’ve been gone shrivel in front of this stain.

At four Mom turns on the radio to afternoon songs and comes knocking on the door, “You have a visitor.” A visitor? What did she manage to do already? Run to the grocery store to announce that the daughter has returned, that she knew she would eventually return. Who did she coax into coming?

Anat is sitting on the porch, came by to see what the years did to me. They haven’t touched her. Maybe the mop of curls is neater and the makeup accentuates her mousy features. I sit in front of her without saying a word and she does all the work. Going into detail about each one of “our classmates”, Reut finished her teaching degree, Dganit married a guy from a kibbutz, Eyal is rearing horses in Australia, Yonatan is deep into the computer world, that genius, and Gilad took on the farm, what he’s done is just amazing, how he managed to turn his dad’s measly farm into a national empire, everywhere you go, even in Tel Aviv, the Grishpan farm eggs is a household name.

Gilad pierces and sticks in the throat.

Mom arrives with a tray of ice tea and cookies.

“What a wedding it was, Anati, truly wonderful.”

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“Thanks. It was important to us to make it special.”

“Yael, you should have seen it, they had a wedding in the style of the moshav in the forties, with haystacks and a Chuppah that everyone got to stitch something on.”

Anat smiles and rubs her fashionably designed wedding ring. The Thai outside is sawing branches, which fall with a thud one after the other.

“Did you hear?” Anat asks.

“What?” Mom answers and sits beside me.

Anat sips her tea, as if she has no intention of telling us.

“Those,” she finally says and points toward the yard. “Weird things have been happening since they came. I’m not saying they’re not good workers, but you can’t ignore the fact that in the past month alone three dogs have disappeared, and one of them was the Schneiders’, you know, their German Shepherd, gone.”

“They steal dogs?”

“Not only that, it’s a known fact that in Thailand they eat dog meat.”

The Thai finishes the job and sits down on the stairs to the house, scratches his head, but doesn’t take off his mask.”

“Mom, did you ever see his face?”

“They all look the same,” Anat answers instead, and looks at her watch.

“Well, I have to go, Uri is with my mother and she can’t keep him amused for more than an hour.”

She walks down the stairs, ignoring the Thai who’s sitting there, gets into her car, backs up the entire pathway and disappears.

Mom doesn’t say a word, only clears the tea glasses with resolve, and cleans the small puddle that spilled on the table with exaggerated thoroughness.

“Mom, isn’t it weird that Anat didn’t say anything to me?”

“What do you mean didn’t say anything? She wouldn’t stop talking.”

“You know what I mean.”

“It doesn’t show, Yael, especially with that dress.”

“Yeah, such a thing is probably unimaginable to her.”

The early hours of the evening bring no relief from the heat. I break the childhood rule and enter the cold storage room. I spread my hands against the chilly wall. In the dimness you can imagine that he’s here, like back then. The hand travels across his face, rests on his lower, fleshy lip, and then shifts to grope the strong arms that lifted dozens of crates every day. I inhale a bit more of his sweat, he closes his eyes and moans, not a word uttered, only flesh touching flesh and the pleasure of breaking the rules. When I leave the cold room it’s already dark.

“Are you stalking me?” I ask Dad, who’s standing near the door, smoking.

“I do that too sometimes.”

“What?”

“Go into the cold room to escape the heat.” Dad hands me the pack of cigarettes, but thinks twice and returns it to the pocket of his shirt.

“Dad, what happened to Rafik?”

He sighs, takes a long drag from his cigarette and then throws it on the floor and squashes it with his shoe.

“I don’t know.”

“The guy worked for you since he was fourteen, you should have at least taken an interest in what happened to him.”

“You think I didn’t? What haven’t I done, I drove to the checkpoint, I begged the commander there, I asked Arnon Dagan to help, they wouldn’t let me in.”

“And…?”

“And that’s it. Gaza was closed off and no employee could get here. I still waited, every morning I’d drive toward Ashkelon, thinking maybe they’d somehow allow them to return.”

“He’s twenty-eight now, if he’s still alive.”

“What do you mean still alive?”

“I don’t know, maybe he joined Fatah, maybe soldiers killed him, Israel took out heaps of them in the past few years, didn’t it?”

“Oh please, Yael, you always see things so simplistically.”

“And you’d rather not see what’s happening right under your nose.”

“I see everything and I’ve seen everything,” he says decisively. I feel pressure in my chest and know that if I try to answer him it will end in tears.

In the chick-brooder the light is on and the door is open, the Thai is with his back to the door cutting onions, without the mask. I think he’s singing quietly or mumbling to himself.

“Hi.” He turns his head, he has a broad and flat forehead and a pug nose that covers a substantial part of his face, and also a small, flimsy mustache that sits above a button-like mouth.

“Hello.”

“I’m Yael, Giora and Ruth’s daughter, do you speak Hebrew?”

“Hebrew a little and also English a little.”

“I haven’t been here for a long time.” How old could he be? Maybe twenty, but he could also be forty, there’s something ageless about him. He just smiles and doesn’t say a word, waiting for me to leave so he can continue preparing his food.

“What are you cooking?”

“This?” he asks and points the knife at the chopped onion.

“Yes. What is it?”

“Onion.”

“Yes, I know it’s an onion, but what are you doing with the onion?”

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“Kao pad.”

“Kao pad?”

“Rice and onion, good.”

I want to ask him why he’s here and who he had left back in Thailand but he turns his back and continues chopping, I notice a slight tremor in his neck. I close the door quietly and walk into the darkness beyond the steel gate.

At first glance it seems that the shelter has disappeared, where once stood a large and exposed concrete cube, a prickly pear has grown to giant proportions, covering the shelter and appearing, in the dark, like a jagged mountain. I stand in front of it, a sourness rising in my throat.

The Grishpan’s farm is lit, their old chick-brooder has been torn down and in its place a chicken factory was built, a giant building made of blue steel that sits in the middle of their farm. Gilad Grishpan, probably finishing his dinner: a sunny-side up egg and a finely chopped salad that Rinat made for him. I think there’s also a boy or girl who looks like him, and also a bit like Rinat. Maybe he still maintains that athletic body, or maybe a small belly has already sprouted and his hairline is receding into his curly hair. Fifty paces. The exact distance from Gilad’s farm to the shelter, how I counted his steps, sitting on the mattress in the shelter and waiting, he has something important to talk to me about, I’m important to him, we’re all one big family. First his legs peek from the ladder, then the smile and the curls. It’s nice here, he says and sits down beside me in silence. Before I manage to say anything Avner and Shaul from the class above us also come down the ladder, they’re not smiling. The heart pounds and there’s not enough air in the shelter. I want to say something and can’t, Avner and Shaul keep standing with their arms folded like bodyguards and Gilad begins, “Yael, you know, we don’t do secrets here, so please tell us, we know everything and it’s better that it comes from you, there are things that can’t happen, you can’t think only about yourself, there are your parents and your brothers and the entire moshav, you don’t live alone, and there are things you don’t do.” “Gilad,” I try with a choked throat, but give up and get up to leave, Avner and Shaul blocking the way. Gilad puts his hand on my shoulder and pulls me back to the mattress, “we aren’t done, don’t be a bitch, you think we didn’t see? We understand that ugly and fat girls need it too, so why don’t you come and ask for it, we’re family, aren’t we?” Shaul laughs and Avner silences him, “shut up. If you want someone to fuck you, you just need to come and ask, there’s Avinoam, or Uri with the limp, they’d be happy to do you a favor, but whatever happens, you can’t go to the dirty Arabs.” “Let me go, Gilad,” I try and the tears suffocate me, but he’s holding tight and won’t let go, laying me down and sitting on my stomach, “every day at five Yael the whore goes into her dad’s cold room and a minute later the dirty Arab Rafik goes in and you can hear their groans all the way to the Grishpan farm, and then they come out and think no one saw. There will be no whores in my moshav, do you understand? So how long have you been like this? Who else? You also let Abu-Rafik inside your hole?” I dig my fingernails deep into his flesh, he answers with a slap and I can’t hear anything anymore, then comes the punch in the stomach, I try to get up, I yell, but I can’t hear my voice, I only see Shaul and Avner’s shocked expressions. I don’t remember more, only the yellow chicks around me as I wake up in the chick-brooder and the loud ringing in my ear.

Even in the dark you can see that the prickly pear is loaded with fruit, every fleshy leaf decorated with chubby fingers. Years of caution against the fruit’s ruthless thorns fly out the window, I don’t care anymore, with a bare hand I pick the soft fruit. “Yael Bar-Natan is fucking with Arabs” was written on the bathroom door, and I didn’t even try to erase it, I just started my countdown to the day I’d be able to get the hell out of here. The prickly pear’s drops of poison take a few moments to kick in, and then it strikes, like electricity, a burning that makes my hand shake, “this pain is better than the other,” I whisper, “it’s better.”

Two cats in heat jump out of the bushes, pacing in circles, sharpening their tales, growling and glaring at each other. “Pss pss,” I call them, holding out my burning hand. “pss,” but they don’t respond, they only meow louder, meows that sound like human howls. “Pss,” I try again, the red cat takes advantage of the slight distraction to pummel his gray rival, they roll around and raise dust, and eventually the gray one manages to break free from the red one’s grip and runs to the bushes.

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The burning in the hand abates and the pain resettles in the chest. The Thai probably finished preparing his food and is now sitting at the table and eating, later he’ll take off his work clothes and maybe shower, or maybe just fall asleep exhausted on the bed, or maybe he even sleeps in his work clothes, afraid to expose his skin.

The stomach begins to tighten. I drag a wooden crate from the pile next to our fence and sit on it, giving in to the gentle kicks kicking inside me. The screeching of the gate breaks the silence, a pudgy figure leaves the farm toward the path, his steps hesitant, it’s Dad’s Thai, still in his work clothes but without the wool mask, he’s carrying a rustling bag in his hand, he passes me by without noticing my presence, stops beside the bushes and calls out “ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba,” he gets down on his knees and continues with his weird call, from the bush suddenly appears the red cat followed by the gray as if they hadn’t fought just a few moments ago, after them a black cat and another gray one come out, they meow at him and rub up against his pants, he takes something out of the bag and tosses it to them, they charge at the pile and eagerly gorge. He closes the bag and continues toward the Grishpan farm. The cats finish eating and escape into the bushes again. I approach the place where they stood but nothing is left.

The Thai stops close to the Grishpan farm and turns back, looks at me as if he recognized me, stands like that for several seconds and then turns and continues walking until he disappears behind the big metal building.

I return the crate to the pile, Dad doesn’t like it when people put his equipment where it doesn’t belong. Suddenly I hear a dog’s bark followed by a dull and I tense behind the crates. The Thai bursts into the field, the bag no longer in his hand, he walks quickly, almost running. A four-wheeler suddenly races out of the Grinshpan farm’s garage. The Thai starts running and the four-wheeler is after him. “You piece of shit,” I hear a familiar voice, “stop.” The Thai falls to the ground and the four-wheeler halts with a screech. A tall figure jumps off the vehicle, the Thai tries to get up, but the driver kicks him in the stomach, he squirms quietly. “If you ever come near my dog again, I’ll break your bones.” That voice, its owner unmistakable, continues, “Got it, mister noodle?” He finishes off with another kick to the face, then gets back on his four-wheeler and speeds away, passes by the pile of crates and zooms toward the orchards. The Thai is standing on his hands and knees, spits a few times and then manages to get up on his feet, holds his chest and starts walking. I quietly call out, “Swai.” He stops. “Swai,” I whisper again, but he ignores me and continues to limp toward our farm. From a distance I hear the sound of the four-wheeler’s engine and after a while a pair of lights illuminate the dark path but Swai is no longer on it. The four-wheeler speeds toward me, I step back in panic, and push the crates that roll off and block the path, he can’t stop on time and drives into the scattered crates, the back wheels go up and the four-wheeler flips over. The engine is still on and the driver is hurled onto the prickly pear with a thud.

I approach him. His face is buried in the ground. I study him from up close. Hasn’t changed, only chopped off his curls, the arms remained muscular and hairy, maybe he grew a bit thicker. I stroke his head, place my hand on his back and feel his body heat, he’s gurgling heavily but breathing.

Our gate opens with a shriek and Mom and Dad run toward us.

“What happened?” Mom asks.

“Gilad Grishpan had an accident with his four-wheeler,” I answer. “Call an ambulance.”

Dad moves me aside and bends toward him, “Gilad, Gilad, can you hear me?”

Mom runs home. I follow her slowly, walk onto the farm, open the door to the chick-brooder, the yard lighting penetrates the room and lights it a little, Swai is lying in bed, with his back to me.

“Swai, is everything okay?” I ask.

“Go home,” he answers, “I’m fine.”

Mom yells out from the porch, “Giora, they’ll be here soon, I also called Yaakov and told him to come.”

I sit down on the wicker chair, rest my hand on my stomach and wait for the little kicks, but there’s no movement inside me, only silence.

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