It was the last summer before they gave the Sinai back to Egypt. I was thirteen and I drove with my parents and their friends down to Ras Burka. I think that must have been our last big family trip. After that, I preferred going with my friends. In any case, one of the families traveling with us had a son with cerebral palsy. They put up their tent a little bit away from the rest of us so it took a few days before I even noticed him. And that was purely by accident too. I went into the water to snorkel and the current carried me too far out. The waves were high, salt water seeped into my snorkel and my mask steamed up. I wanted to go back to the shore but didn’t know how. After a long momment, I found a sandy path that wound through the corals and swam along it till I reached the shore. I rested there for a while, got my breathing regular again, took off my fins and started walking back toward our tent, swearing to myself that this was the last time I’d go underwater myself.
And then I saw him.
He was sitting in a wheelchair near his family’s tent.
I couldn’t decide whether to go over to him, but he seemed to be smiling at me, so I turned away from the shoreline and walked toward him. When I got closer, I saw that the smile was actually an involuntary twitch that distorted his mouth.
But that wasn’t the main thing.
Dozens of flies were sitting on his face. There were flies on his lips, on his nose, inside his nose, in his ears, on his cheeks, his neck, his chin, his hair, his weird thick glasses. Big flies, small flies, flies that weren’t moving, flies that were rubbing their hands together in pleasure. Where were his parents? How could they have left him there like that?
“Do something,” his eyes pleaded from behind his glasses. “Save me from this torture.” He moaned, the sound an animal makes. A wounded animal.
I peeled off my shirt and started flapping it wildly around his body. Some of the flies took off. And some didn’t. I waved my other hand too, and kicked the air with my foot, close to his face. I did everything but touch him. I jumped and stamped, even went into their tent and brought out a piece of cardboard meant for fanning the barbecue coals, and waved it hard next to the back of his neck where an especially stubborn guerilla of flies was hanging on.
Finally, after a few minutes of hard work, I managed to cut down the number of flies by half. I knew that as soon as I left him, the flies would come back and retake his face easily. But there was no choice. I had to go back to the main tent for help.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. He didn’t nod his head and he didn’t shake it. I thought I could see a thank you in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure of that either. “I’ll be right back,” I repeated. And again, not a muscle in his face moved.
I started running back to the main tent, the soles of my feet burning in the sand, but before I reached it, I ran into his parents, who must have been on their way back. The mother was carrying their new, blond baby girl. The father was carrying two folding chairs.
Your son, I blurted out, he’s there… alone… the flies. The words were all jumbled in my mouth.
We know, the father said in a firm voice. Confident. What can we do, the mother said with a sigh. We can’t stand next to him all day and swat them away.
Yes, but… I wanted to object. To demand. To wave my fins around. But my protest couldn’t find its way into words, into a coherent argument. I was only thirteen and still a little bit afraid of grownups.
But thanks for taking an interest, the father said, and started walking again. She has sensitive skin, it isn’t good for her, being in the sun like this, the mother apologized, gesturing to the little blond girl, and walked past me. The little blond girl herself was asleep, her face bright and beautiful.
That night, I told my parents about it. I was sure they’d be outraged. That they’d use the same expressions they used when I did something to make them furious: “shameful,” “disgraceful,” or worst of all – “deplorable.”
To my shock, they were indifferent. Even worse: it turned out that it was nothing new for them. The boy had been with the group on their vacation at Lake Kinneret, and then too, he sat in his wheelchair outside the tent and the flies set up residence on him.
I agree with you, it’s not a pretty sight, my father said. But what can they do? Stand next to him all day and swat away the flies?
I actually think it’s nice that they insist on bringing him, my mother added. After all, they could leave him in the home. But they want him to grow up like a normal child.
So why do they hide him? the question burst out of me at full volume, volume that was fine for home, not the Sinai. If it’s so nice and they have nothing to be ashamed of, why did they put up their tent so far from everyone else?!
Because it took them a little more time to get organized and that was the only place left for them, my father said.
Yes, my mother backed him up – I hadn’t heard her back him up on anything for a long time – it’s purely by chance. At the Kinneret, they were right in the center of things.
Their arguments, added on to his parents’ arguments, paralyzed me. It all sounded so logical and convincing. But still, I had the feeling that an injustice was being done here. My father put out the candle and in the dark, my mother said it was nice that I thought about others, not only about myself, and maybe I should put that virtue to use by washing the plastic plates every once in a while because it makes no sense that she’s in the Sinai and the only thing she does all day is cook and wash up after us.
When we woke up the next morning, we saw that a lot of other Israeli families had come during the night and planted their tents on the beach. You can’t imagine, Rina, the whole country came to say goodbye to the Sinai, my father said after finishing his morning exercises outside the tent. Oh my God, my mother said when she went outside, the whole country really is here.
I hated it when they talked like that. As if they weren’t actually part of the country. But I didn’t say anything. I went outside and scanned the beach. The boy’s tent wasn’t on the edge of the camp anymore, but right in the middle of the rows of tents that now filled the small inlet from the little hill to the dunes. Terrific, I said to myself, now the whole country will see that boy being tortured on his wheelchair and someone will definitely say something to his parents.
That day, when the sun had begun to sink toward the hills, I went into the water with my snorkel and swam back to the spot where the narrow sandy path wound between the large fire corals. After I came out of the water and dried myself off on the beach, I began looking for their tent. It wasn’t easy to find anymore because there were so many other tents surrounding it, but the flash of the sun’s rays on the iron of the wheelchair showed me the way.
He was sitting there in the same small square of shade. I searched his eyes for a sign that he recognized me, remembered something. And didn’t find it. There were a million flies on his face. A billion. The whole country has been walking past him since the morning, I thought. And didn’t do a thing.
I started the work of swatting them away. This time, I was determined to get all the flies, every last one. I wanted to see his face completely clear for once, I wanted to give him a few seconds of grace free of irritation.
It took a long time – the sun was already turning the hilltops golden – but in the end, I did it. The last three flies turned out to be dead, and I peeled them off his cheek with my fingers. But while I was moving back a little to check if any flies had gotten away from me, four new ones landed on his nose.
Furious, I went back and slapped the air next to his nose until they gave up and flew away. Then I stood beside him for a few minutes to make sure that not a single fly dared to come back. It was starting to get dark and I hoped my parents were already worrying about me, so I promised the fly boy that I’d come back the next day at the same time, and left.
I’d like to say that I went back the next day and the day after that. I’d like to say that, in the end, I started a protest demonstration, maybe even a hunger strike, near the fly boy’s wheelchair until his parents had no choice but to stand on either side of him waving huge palm fronds all day long.
But at the moment, the truth is stronger stronger than me
That evening, near one of the circles of people listening to a guitar player, I met a fifteen-year-old girl. I lied to her, said I was fifteen too, and she believed me and told me that in Ashdod, where she lived, there are some girls who’d gone all the way with older boys. She had big green eyes and chocolate skin, and she always wore a white bikini, day and night, and spoke loudly about her boobs, how big and beautiful they were. I fell in love with her instantly, of course. And I spent the next few days playing endless games of backgammon with her and her cousins, trying desperately to impress her.
One afternoon, her cousins went into the water and just the two of us were left on the beach. The sun was behind us. I didn’t turn around, but I could picture it turning the hilltops golden now.
We didn’t talk. I felt that it was my responsibility to rescue us from the silence.
There’s this kid here, I said. He has some disease, I don’t what. Anyway, his parents leave him in a wheelchair outside their tent the whole day, and all the flies in the Sinai come and sit on his face.
How disgusting, she said.
Yes, I agreed. And added, spitting out the words quickly, I go to see him every once in a while and swat away the flies. Want to come with me?
What, now? she asked and buried her tan legs in the soft sand like someone who has no intention of going anywhere.
No, I said, alarmed. Who said now? I was thinking later, tomorrow.
We’ll see, maybe, she said, and jumped up suddenly. are You coming to the water?
I didn’t see the boy with the flies anymore. I was sure I’d see him the last day when my parents’ whole gang took down their tents and gathered together to make the trip to Eilat in a convoy of Subarus. I planned to tell his parents a thing or two, or at least say goodbye to him and apologize for not keeping my promise, but when we got to the meeting place, his family wasn’t there.
They left yesterday, my mother explained. Their little girl had a bad upset stomach.
And what about the… I started to ask, but my father changed the subject. Son, he said, take one last look at the beach and make sure you remember what you see. Inside of a year, the Egyptians will build an army base here. And that’s the end of the corals and the fish.
No, my mother said, I think they’ll develop the place for tourism.
And he answered her.
And she answered him.
And they were off, arguing till Eilat, and maybe even till we were on the Arava Road, I don’t know, because after Kibbutz Yotvata, I fell asleep.
A few months later, the Sinai went back to Egypt and became cleaner and quieter.
Ras Burka was taken over by an obnoxious blue-eyed Egyptian sheikh and his German wife. They let Israelis in the first few years, but then the intifada started and they hung out a little cardboard sign saying that only people with European passports could enter.
The pretty girl from Ashdod starred in my fantasies for a few months. And when I couldn’t summon up her face anymore, I replaced her with Sharon Haziz, the latest, hottest singer.
I haven’t thought about the boy with the flies for years, but during my last stint in the reserves – I was posted in Nablus, and when it was over, I asked for a transfer to a different unit – I suddenly remembered him. I was sitting alone in the small shed at the Ein Huwara checkpoint counting stars, listening to fragmented conversations on the radio, and I don’t really know why, but that boy’s face floated up before my eyes and my heart swelled all at once to the size of a watermelon, good God, there were even flies on his eyelashes, in his nostrils, in his ears. And I’d promised him I’d come.
A thought buzzed in my mind: it’s funny that I never mention the incident to anyone. After all, I’ve revealed more embarrassing things to the world – secrets, lies, perversions – but for some reason, not that. I promised myself I’d tell my wife when I got home, I felt that I had to tell at least her, but when I got home, the twins had fever and we took turns sitting with them and hardly had any time to talk –
Later I forgot about it. And I have no idea why I remembered it now, of all times. That terrible reserve duty was a year and a half ago, and I’m sitting at the computer now to prepare a laser optics marketing presentation for tomorrow morning. All the company’s head honchos will be there, and I still have a lot of work, so many slides that aren’t ready yet, so many slides I have to proofread, and obviously, this is a text I won’t show anyone. Obviously, it’ll be buried in the depths of my hard disk, where it’ll keep buzzing.
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.
Prison more like, said Madeleine.
Come now, said Mr Kramer.
If I run away they bring me back, said Madeleine.
Yes but, said Mr Kramer.
Mr Kramer often said, Yes but to Madeleine. Something to concede, something to contradict. Now he said again how kind everyone in the Unit was, all his visits never once had he seen any unkindness and couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice raised in anger against any girl or boy. So: not really like a prison.
Then why’s she sitting there? said Madeleine, nodding toward a nurse in the doorway. The nurse did her best to seem oblivious. She was reading a women’s magazine.
You know very well, said Mr Kramer.
So I won’t suddenly scratch your face and say you tried to rape me, said Madeleine. So I won’t suddenly throw myself out of the window.
That sort of thing, said Mr Kramer.
The window was open, but only the regulation few inches, as far as the locks allowed. Mr Kramer and Madeleine looked at it. She’d get through there, he thought, if she tried. Not that I’d ever get through there, said Madeleine, however hard I tried.
The walls of the room were decorated with images, in paintings and collages, of the themes and infinite variations of body and soul in their distress. A face shattering like a window. A range of mountains, stacked like the hoods of the Klan, blocking most of the sky, but from the foreground, in a red zig-zag, into them went a path, climbing, and disappeared. Mr Kramer liked the room. Waiting for Madeleine, or whoever it might be, he stood at the window looking down at a grassy bank that in its seasons, year after year, with very little nurture or encouragement, brought forth out of itself an abundance of ordinary beautiful flowers. At this point in his acquaintance with Madeleine it was the turn of primroses. The air coming in was mild. Behind the bank ran the wall of the ancient enclosure.
Asylum, said Mr Kramer. What is an asylum?
A place they lock nutters up, said Madeleine.
Well yes, said Mr Kramer, but why call it an asylum? Because they’re liars, said Madeleine.
All right, said Mr Kramer. Forget the nutters, as you call them, and the place they get looked after or locked up in, and tell me what you think an asylum-seeker is.
Someone from somewhere bad.
And when they come to the United Kingdom, say, or to France, Germany or Italy, what are they looking for?
Somewhere better than where they’ve come from. What are they seeking?
And what is asylum?
Sanctuary, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good word. Those poor people come here seeking sanctuary in a land of prisons. An asylum, he said, is a refuge, a shelter, a safe haven. Lunatic asylums, as they used to be called, are places where people disordered in their souls can be housed safely and looked after.
Locked up, said Madeleine. Ward 16, they took Sam there last week.
So he’d be safer, said Mr Kramer. I’m sure of that. Madeleine shrugged.
OK, said Mr Kramer. A bit like a prison, I grant you. Sometimes it has to be a bit like a prison, but always for the best. Not like detention, internment, real prison, nothing like that.
Mr Kramer’s spirits lapsed. He forgot where he was and why. His spirits lapsed or the sadness in him rose. Either way he began to be occluded. An absence. When he returned he saw that Madeleine was looking at him. Being looked at by Madeleine was like being looked at by the moon. The light seemed to come off her face as though reflected from some far-away source. Her look was fearful, but rather as though she feared she had harmed Mr Kramer. Rema says Hi, she said. Rema said say Hi from me to Mr Kramer.
They both brightened.
Thank you, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Please give her my best regards next time you speak to her. How is she?
Can’t tell with her, said Madeleine. She’s such a liar. She says she’s down to four and a half stone. Her hair’s falling out, she says, from the starvation. She says she eats a few beansprouts a day and that is all. And drinks half a glass of water. But she’s a liar. It’s only so I’ll look fat. She phones and phones. She wants to get back in here. But Dr Khan says she won’t get back in here by starving herself. That’s blackmail, he says. She might, however, if she puts on weight. Show willing, he says, show you want to get better. Then we’ll see. She says if they won’t let her back she’ll kill herself. Thing is, if she gets well enough to come back here, she thinks they’ll send her home. Soon as she’s sixteen they’ll send her home, her aunty says. But Rema says she’ll kill herself twenty times before she’ll go back home.
Home’s not a war-zone, if I remember rightly, said Mr Kramer.
Her family is, said Madeleine. They are why she is the way she is. So quite understandably she’ll end it all before she’ll go back there.
Rema told me a lovely story once, said Mr Kramer.
Did she write it?
No, she never wrote it. She promised she would but she never did.
Typical, said Madeleine.
Yes, said Mr Kramer. But really it wasn’t so much a story as a place for one. She remembered a house near her village. The house was all shuttered up, it had a paved courtyard with a sort of shrine in the middle and white jasmine growing wild over the balconies and the wooden stairs.
Oh that, said Madeleine. It was an old woman’s and she wanted to do the Hajj and her neighbours lent her the money and the deal was they could keep her house if she didn’t come back and she never came back. That story.
Yes, said Mr Kramer, that story. I thought it very beautiful, the deserted house, I mean, the courtyard and the shrine.
Probably she made it up, said Madeleine. Probably there never was such a house. And anyway she never wrote it.
Mr Kramer felt he was losing the encounter. He glanced at the clock. I thought Rema was your friend, he said.
She is, said Madeleine. I don’t love anyone as much as I love her. But all the same she’s a terrible liar. And mostly to get at me. Four and a half stone! What kind of a stupid lie is that? Did she tell you she wanted to do the Hajj?
She did, said Mr Kramer. Her owl eyes widening and taking in more light, passionately she had told him she longed to do the Hajj.
So why is she starving herself? It doesn’t make sense.
I told her, said Mr Kramer. I said you have to be very strong for a thing like that. However you travel, a pilgrimage is a hard experience. You have to be fit.
Such a liar, said Madeleine.
Anyway, said Mr Kramer. You’ll write your story for next time. About an asylum-seeker, a boy, you said, a boy half your age.
I will, said Madeleine. Where’s the worst place in the world? Apart from here of course.
Hard to say, said Mr Kramer. There’d be quite a competition. But Somalia would take some beating.
I read there are pirates in Somalia.
Off the coast there are. They steal the food the rich people send and the people who need it starve.
Good, said Madeleine. I’ll have pirates in my story.
Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. Find an image like one of those on the wall. I have, she said. My image is a war-zone. My story is about a child in a war-zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum.
Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Tell me in a word before I go what feeling you know most about and what feeling the little boy will inhabit in your story.
The sleeves of Madeleine’s top had ridden up so that the cuts across her wrists were visible. Seeing them looked at sorrowfully by Mr Kramer she pulled the sleeves down and gripped the end of each very tightly into either palm.
Fear, she said.
Mr Kramer might have taken the bus home. There was a stop not far from Bartlemas where that extraordinary enclosure, its orchard, its gardens, the grassy humps of the ancient hospital, touched modernity on the east-west road. He could have ridden to his house from there, almost door to door, in twenty minutes. Instead, if the weather was at all decent and some days even if it wasn’t he walked home through the parks and allotments, a good long march, an hour and a half or more. That way it was late afternoon before he got in, almost time to be thinking about the cooking of his supper. Then came the evening, for which he always had a plan: a serious television programme, some serious reading, his notes, early to bed.
On his walk that mild spring afternoon Mr Kramer thought about Madeleine and Rema. It distressed him that Madeleine was so scathing about Rema’s story. How cruel they were to one another in their lethal competition! For him the abandoned house had a peculiar power. Rema said it was very quiet there, as soon as you pushed open the wooden gates, no shouting, no dogs, no noise of any traffic. The courtyard was paved with coloured tiles in a complicated pattern whose many intersecting arcs and loops she had puzzled over and tried to follow. The shrine was surely left over from before Partition, it must be a Hindu shrine, the Muslim woman had no use for it. But there it stood in the centre of the courtyard, a carved figure on a pedestal and a place for flowers, candles and offerings, and around it on all four sides the shuttered windows, the balcony, the superabundance of white jasmine. The old woman never came back, said Rema. It was not even known whether she ever reached Mecca, the place of her heart’s desire. So the neighbours kept the house but none had any real use for it. Sometimes their cattle strayed into the courtyard. And there also, when she dared, climbing the wooden stairs and viewing the shrine from the cool and scented balconies, went the child Rema, for sanctuary from the war-zone of her home.
Mr Kramer was watching a programme about the bombings, when the phone rang. Such a programme, after the cooking and the eating and the allowance of three glasses of wine, was a station on his way to bed. But the phone rang. It was Maria, his daughter, from the Ukraine, already midnight, phoning to tell him she had found the very shtetl, the names, the place itself. He caught her tone of voice, the one of all still in the world he was least proof against. He hardly heard the words, only the voice, its peculiar quality. Forest, memorial, the names, he knew what she was saying, but sharper than the words, nearer, flesh of his flesh, he felt the voice that was having to say these things, in a hotel room, three hours ahead, on a savage pilgrimage. The forest, the past, the small voice from so far away, he felt her to be in mortal danger, he felt he must pull her back from where she stood, leaning over the abyss of history, the pit, the extinction of all personal relations. Sweetheart, said Mr Kramer, my darling girl, go to sleep now if you can. And I’ve been thinking. Once you’re back I’ll come and stay with you. After all I cannot bear it on my own. But sleep now if you can.
Mr Kramer had not intended to say any such thing. He had set himself the year at least. One year. Surely a man could watch alone in grief that long.
The Unit phoned. Madeleine had taken an overdose, she was in hospital, back in a day or so. Mr Kramer, about to set off, did the walk anyway, it was a fine spring day, the beech trees leafing softly. He walked right to the gates of Bartlemas, turned and set off home again, making a detour to employ the time he would have spent with Madeleine.
In the evening, last thing, Mr Kramer read his old notes, a weakness he always tried to make up for by at once writing something new. He read for ten minutes, till he hit the words: Rema, her desire to be an owl. Then he leafed forward quickly to the day’s blank page and wrote: I haven’t thought nearly enough about Rema’s desire to be an owl. She said, Do you think I already look like one? I went to the office and asked did we have a mirror. We do, under lock and key. It is a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass. I held it up for Rema. Describe your face, I said. Describe it exactly. I was a mite ashamed of the licence this exercise gave me to contemplate a girl’s face whilst she, looking at herself, never glancing at me, studied it as a thing to be described. Yes, her nose, quite a thin bony line, might become a beak. Pity to lose the lips. But if you joined the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl. The longing for metamorphosis. To become something else, a quite different creature, winged, feathered, intent. Like Madeleine’s, Rema’s face shows the bones. The softness of feathers would perhaps be a comfort. I wonder did she tell Madeleine about the mirror. Shards, the harming.
The Unit phoned, Madeleine was well enough, just about. Mr Kramer stood at the window. The primroses were already finishing. But there would be something else, on and on till the autumn cyclamens. It was a marvellous bank. Then Madeleine and the overweight nurse stood in the doorway, the nurse holding her women’s magazine. Madeleine wore loose trousers and a collarless shirt whose sleeves were far too long. She stood; and towards Mr Kramer, fearfully and defiantly, she presented her face and neck, which she had cut. Oh Maddy, said Mr Kramer, can’t you ever be merciful? Will you never show yourself any mercy?
The nurse sat in the open doorway and read her magazine. Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other across the small table. All the same, said Madeleine through her lattice of black cuts, I’ve made a start. Shall I read it? Yes, said Mr Kramer. Madeleine read:
Samuel lived with his mother. The soldiers had killed his father. Some of the soldiers were only little boys. Samuel and his mother hid in the forest. Every day she had to leave him for several hours to go and look for food and water. He waited in fear that she would not come back. There was nothing to do. He curled up in the little shelter, waiting. One day Samuel’s mother did not come back. He waited all night and all the next day and all the next night. Then he decided he must go and look for her or for some food and water at least because the emergency supplies she had left him were all gone. He followed the trail his mother had made day after day. It came to a road. She had told him that the road was very dangerous. But beyond the road were fields and in them, if you were lucky, you might find some things to eat that the farmers had planted before the soldiers came and burned their village. Samuel halted at the road. It was long and straight in both directions and very dusty. A little way off he saw a truck burning and another truck upside down in the ditch. But there were no soldiers. Samuel hurried across. Quite soon, just as his mother had said, he saw women and girls in blue and white clothes moving slowly over the land looking for food. Perhaps his mother would be among them after all? At the very least, somebody would surely give him food and water.
Madeleine lifted her face. That’s as far as I got, she said. It’s crap, isn’t it? No, said Mr Kramer, it is very good. Crap, said Madeleine. Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, did you write this before or after you did that to your face? After, said Madeleine. I wrote it this morning. I did my face two nights ago, after they brought me back here from the hospital. Good, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good thing. It means you can sympathise with other people’s lives even when your own distresses you so much you cut your face. I know the rest, said Madeleine with a sudden eagerness. I know how it goes on and how it ends. Shall I tell you? – Will you still be able to write it if you tell? – Yes, yes. – You promise? – Yes, I promise. – Tell then.
She laid her sleeves, in which her hands were hiding, flat on the table and began to speak, rapidly, staring into his eyes, transfixing him with the eagerness of her fiction.
In among the people looking for food he meets a girl. She’s my age. Her name is Ruth. The soldiers have killed her father too. Ruth’s mother hid with her and when the soldiers came looking she made Ruth stay in hiding and gave herself up to them. That was the end of her. But Ruth was taken by the other women and hid with them and went looking for food when it was safe. When Samuel came into the fields Ruth decided to look after him. She was like a sister to Samuel, a good big sister, or a mother, a good and loving mother. When it was safe to light a fire she cooked for him, the best meal she could. After a while the soldiers came back again, the fields were too dangerous, all the women hid in the forest but Ruth had heard that if you could only get to the coast you could maybe find someone with a boat who would carry you across the sea to Italy and the European Union, where it was really safe. So that’s what she did, with Samuel, she set off for the coast, only travelling at night, on foot, by moonlight and starlight, steering clear of the villages in flames.
Sounds good, said Mr Kramer. Sounds very exciting. All you have to do now is write it. You’ve looked at a map, I suppose? The nearest coast is no use at all. That’s where the pirates are. You need the north coast really, through the desert. And crossing the desert is said to be a terrible thing. You have to pay truckers to take you, I believe. Yes, said Madeleine, I thought she’d do better on the east coast, with the pirates. A pirate chief says he’ll take her and Samuel all the way to Libya but it will cost her a lot of money. When she says she has no money he says she can marry him, for payment that is, until they get to Libya, then he’ll sell her to a friend of his, who will take her and Samuel into the European Union, which is like the Promised Land, he says, and there she will be safe, but she’ll have to marry his friend as well, for the voyage from Libya into Italy. I asked Rema would she do it and she said she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, because of the things at home, but she said I could, Ruth in my story should, it would save the two of them, they would have a new life in the European Union and God would mercifully forgive her the sin. She says Hi, by the way. She asked me to ask you are you all right. She said it seemed to her you were a bit lonely sometimes. Thank you, said Mr Kramer, I’m fine. And guess what, said Madeleine, she doesn’t want to do the Hajj any more, not till she’s an old woman, and she doesn’t want to make Dr Khan have her back here either. No, she’s decided she’ll be a primary school teacher. Plus she’s down to four stone. So it’s all lies as usual.
A primary school teacher is a very good idea, said Mr Kramer. But of course you have to be strong for that. As strong as for a pilgrimage.
I told her that, said Madeleine. So she’s still a liar. Anyway, another thing about Ruth is that when she’s with the first pirate, as his prostitute, all the way up the Red Sea he sends her ashore to the markets – Samuel he keeps on board as a hostage – and she has to go and buy all the ingredients for his favourite meals, I’ve researched it, baby okra and lamb in tomato stew, for example, onion pancakes, fish and peppers, shoe-lace pastry, spicy creamy cheeses, all delicious, up the coast to Suez. So she makes her Lord and Master happy and Samuel gets strong.
Will they stay in Italy, Mr Kramer asked, if the second pirate keeps his word and carries her across the Mediterranean? No, said Madeleine, breathless on her story, they’re heading for Swansea. There’s quite an old Somali community in Swansea. I’ve researched it. They’ve been there a hundred years. At first she’ll live in a hostel, doing the cooking for everybody so that everybody likes her. Samuel goes to school and as soon as he’s settled Ruth will go to the CFE and get some qualifications.
Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, it’s very hard to enter the United Kingdom. Ruth and Samuel will need passports. I’ve thought of that, said Madeleine. The first pirate chief has a locker full of passports from people who died on his boat and because Ruth is such a good cook he gives her a couple and swears they’ll get her and Samuel through Immigration, no problem.
Rema should go to the CFE, said Mr Kramer. I believe the Home Office would extend her visa if she was in full-time education. And if she trained as a primary school teacher, who knows what might happen?
She’s a liar, said Madeleine, very white, almost translucent her face through the savage ornamentation of her cuts. She’s supposed to be my friend. If she was really my friend she’d come back here. Then we’d both be all right like we were before she left me.
You want to stay here?
Yes, said Madeleine. It’s safer here.
Why overdose? Why cut yourself?
The nurse was watching and listening.
Because I’m frightened.
My daughter was frightened, said Mr Kramer, and she’s twice your age. All the time her mother was ill, four and a half years, she got more and more frightened. And now she’s gone to the Ukraine, would you believe it, all on her own and not speaking the language, to research our family history. She phoned me the other night from the place itself, a terrible place, I never want to go there, all on her own, at midnight, in a hotel. Write your story, won’t you? You promised me. Somalia is very likely the worst place in the world and Swansea is a very good place, by all accounts. What an achievement it will be if you can get Ruth and Samuel safely there!
Madeleine’s white hands with their bitten nails still hid in her sleeves. All the animation had gone out of her. I’ll never get to Swansea from Somalia, she said. Never, never, never. I can’t even want to get out of here.
First the story, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. First comes the fiction. Get Ruth and Samuel out of the killing fields, get them by the cruelty and kindness of pirates into a holding camp on the heel of Italy, get them north among strangers, not speaking a word of the language – devise it, work out the necessary means. You promised. Who knows what might happen if you get that lucky pair to Swansea?
*This story is taken from: In Another Country: Selected Stories Copyright © David Constantine, 2015.
Once I ran away. It was in kindergarten. I had known for some time that the fence between the schoolyard and the adjoining public park had fallen over. A thicket of oleander grew behind it. One day at noon I stood in front of the opening and saw that I could pass through it and leave. I couldn’t understand why all the other children had not passed through the opening. I felt no fear, nor a particularly strong desire to escape the kindergarten. It was not especially bad but mostly a little boring. I stepped over the loose wire and pushed my way through oleander branches, then found myself on a small path in the Pardes Hanna public park , which was planted around the Yad Labanim memorial.
I can clearly remember the cool breath of freedom that touched my face and the odd, fresh notion that attended it – I am alone. I walked quietly and left the public park, then turned onto the street of the palms and from there to the main village square. By Café Simone, in the open sandy space next to the pharmacy, some horses stood harnessed to their carts, and in the café sat the newspaper man Kovalik who scared me a little because I had once seen him lying on the road rolling around by his black tricycle with white foam coming out of his mouth, and Mom, pulling me aside, had explained that he was an epileptic.
“Where’s your mom?” Kovalik asked.
“Home,” I whispered.
“Go home,” said Kovalik and turned back to his newspaper.
I knew that no one knew where I was, and I was feeling untethered. There was no happiness or joy in it, and no anxiety either, but rather peace and an alert wakefulness. I went to get a good look at things that had caught my eye a couple of times before, when I had gone to town with Mom or Dad: to see the tinsmith’s shop and the fishmonger’s.
The tinsmith’s shop was the most fascinating of all market shops in town. Besides the basins and buckets that he would make, there were also funnels and brushes and a great garland of loofahs, and most importantly: a marvelous set of kerosene burners and primus stoves. The primuses shone in their burnished copper and stood like an entire family according to size – from the smallest one to the enormous father primus, which was thick all over; that is, every part – the legs, the pipes, the hinges and rings, slender and fragile in the small primuses, grew and grew in proportion till in the largest primuses they were looking very coarse indeed but also very beautiful and dangerous. What a great, noisy flame they were to make.
Having satisfied myself with all the shiny devices, I walked over to the smelly fishmonger’s, where I had never been allowed to linger by the carp pool and watch and watch the breathing fish, swimming with such beauty, so alive, so desirous, so packed together, twisting around each other in a never-ending dance.
“Where’s your mom?” asked the fishmonger who came to catch a fish with a net in his hand.
“Home,” I whispered.
“Go home,” he said, and a cigarette sticking to his lips, to the side of his mouth, trembled as he spoke.
He caught a big fish. I didn’t go. I watched, mesmerized, as the hunted fish flapped about with frightening force inside the net. Never before had I seen such a thing and never had I imagined that this is what was done with these fish. The fishmonger took the flapping, struggling fish in his hands and slammed it on the filthy wooden board that lay on his workbench, held it there with his left hand and picked up a big thick hammer with his right and dealt a terrible blow to the fish’s head. The fish flapped a terrible flap, which inexplicably carried directly into my own body. The fishmonger hit it again, and this blow as well carried into my head. I stood riveted. I remember how the choking feeling built up in my throat and stayed there throughout that day, then rose up again so many times later.
The fishmonger turned the dead fish around, picked up a large knife and slashed its stomach open. Every movement, every act and every detail from the opening of the fish’s gut and the pulling out of its intestines made the horror more thunderous. Yet I could not budge. Only when the slaughtering was done and the fish was packed in newspaper did I walk away with difficulty. My entire body was trembling with weakness. I wanted to go home and could barely walk.
Slowly I crossed the expanse of the market and then moved on to the grove by the wadi, through a large pile of feathers – feathers plucked from plenty of chickens slain in the nearby slaughterhouse and thrown away here by the trees by the wadi by the donkey and horse yard, and the smell of filth that suffused the place – a place of corpses and garbage and junk: shoes, rusted broken machinery, chopped-off chicken heads and feet. Then, on to the wadi itself, the dry channel growing deeper, twisting around the trees in the grove all the way down to the bridge.
I crossed the bridge crawling. For some reason, I chose to cross it from below, inside its culvert, in a crawl, and then emerged by our field, the wide field between the street of the pines and the houses beyond the wadi with the eucalypti to the west. From the wadi I went up the main lane of the field, peppered with the footprints of beetles, tortoises and birds, and then onto the dirt road which was our street, where, as always, I took off my sandals and walked home barefoot.
Suddenly the black truck stopped by my side and Dad stepped out very angry.
“There you are. Where were you? The kindergarten teacher said you ran away. How could you?!”
He almost shouted as he spoke. Then, in a grave descending tone, the very worst was uttered:
“This I did not expect from you.”
And he said no more.
I climbed quietly into the truck, and Dad drove us the rest of the short way home. My eyes welled up. My innards burned.
“I am angry with you,” Dad said, and my silence grew, hurting and rising from my gut to my chest. I turned towards Dad. There was nothing but anger and utter gravity in his face, and he did not look back at me. Something settled at the edge of my throat, something big and hard.
When we stopped at the house, just before opening the car door, I said in a whisper:
“You’re not my dad anymore.”
“What?” he asked, surprised.
“You’re not my dad anymore,” I repeated the words in a whisper.
He kept quiet for a moment, then smiled suddenly and said,
“This you cannot have, I will always be your dad.”
“No.” I said in complete earnest and did not take his outstretched hand. “You will always be a dad, but not mine. That you are mine – only I can decide. And I decide that you are not my dad. And I will give notice that you are not my dad.”
“And how will you do that?”
“I will go to the council and I will inform the head of the council that you are no longer my dad. It’s my decision” – I said in that same whisper, with tears in my eyes, bitter tears, of a step that cannot be unwalked.
Dad kept his silence and I repeated the words in a choked whisper: “It’s my decision.”
Dad looked at me in smiling seriousness, and then his face transformed and he said in a different voice, in complete earnest: “You’re right. It’s your decision.” Then he looked straight at me and offered me his large hand again and said: “Perhaps you will agree to delay your notice at the council, and maybe allow me to remain your dad for just a little bit longer?”
I remember well his large hand reaching out to me and my own small hand reaching out to him and the big warm fingers closing around mine and then the two of us climbing the small hill home to Mom, and I couldn’t say “yes” because the tears were choking my throat.
How could I serve myself from such distant
plates, when the home had broken, when not
even mother could be forced from the lips.
How could I dine on nothing.
I was born to words of condolence, “everything will work out,” “you’ll make it through,” “a child is always a blessing,” “everything happens for a reason.” I ask myself: why didn’t you just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why was this asshole kid in a school uniform at the hospital waiting to meet his son? Why did this idiot girl nearly shred her uterus so she could feel more grown up? Wasn’t there a pharmacy nearby? Hadn’t they ever heard the story of the little seed? Couldn’t they take her temperature to check if it was ovulation day? Horny dogs; and me, an unexpected gift that will never go away. I was born standing up, about to suffocate, threatening to rip apart my mother’s insides, requiring an emergency C-section to save both our lives. Later, like three siblings, we shared the same room, even the same bed. Who cried more, you or me? My bawling kept them from sleeping. My dad took the equivalency test over summer vacation. My mom finished her courses the following year. Neither one did well on the college entrance exams.
But you weren’t the average teenage couple, you wanted to start a revolution, so I was a double burden, to your youth and to your politics. I was born listening to the music of the nova trova, seventies rock, cultivating an ear for distorted melodies. The first words I learned were: values, ideology, party, people. Words I imagined my parents pronouncing in all caps.
The following summer Dad went to the south for a meeting of the party youth, we didn’t hear from him for three months. A neighbor started hitting on Mom. He brought books, they wrote pamphlets, they went to secret meetings—which I also attended with my coloring book. One morning he came by with a handkerchief over his mouth, worn so loose that more than a disguise, it looked like a sad attempt at seduction. He stayed the night. Through the wall of the bedroom I heard the moans and laughter of two people enjoying each other. In an obvious ruse, he returned the following day with a gift for me, a racecar track that made a lot of noise. I thought a train would’ve been better, with its intermittent whistle and its sinuous wheels. When Dad got home, there was a big fight that all the neighbors heard, the usual words were thrown around like boomerangs: values, commitment, ideology, party, people, in all caps. I’m not sure of the exact order but those were the words they always used: values, commitment, ideology, party, people. I drew a star with five points and made a mark for each repetition.
Once, a friend of my mother’s I’d become very fond of showed up at the house disguised in a beard, a wig, and an Uruguayan accent. I gave him a sidelong glance. As he planned the commando operation, I pictured him snoring in Mom’s bed. From then on, we became the chromosome 21 family: two mothers, three fathers, five grandparents, ever-multiplying aunts and uncles. I lived in several homes, in boarding houses, in abandoned apartments.
There was nothing I hated more than the word mission; it meant that my father or mother would be gone for a long time. Confronted with my sobs and pleas, they repeated the magic words: “the Party’s orders,” “the party’s orders” I said, in lowercase. Those words were the reason for everything: sudden moves, absences, families separated, partners changing. A while later, among the furniture displaced by another move, I read the news of a failed attack and the names of the people captured. I understood then, that muggy afternoon, that my father was imprisoned in a narrow room with the sun bouncing off the beat-up cars outside. I think I fainted as the other kids sweltered in the mirage created by the 4pm midsummer heat. I never dared to go visit him in prison. Everyone came back after the visits shaking their heads, commenting on how skinny he was. I preferred to maintain my image of the nervous man, smoking cigars while his hand drew an arc on his forehead. I had a photo of my dad under my pillow and I talked to him quietly every night.
When he was set free he came to stay with us. I noticed he was softer in his treatment, his gestures, his tone of voice. “What’s going on with you and Mom?” I asked. They both shrugged their shoulders, spit out trite expressions without saying anything that made sense. I imagine it must be difficult to have a kid look at you with such confusion, demanding a response from two confused parents. She peeked into the hall, made coffee, pointed to a spot on the sofa. She told me that they were trying again. “Trying what?” I said. “Being together, doesn’t that make you happy?” But, as was to be expected, that happiness was very fragile. One day Mom came home to solemnly announce: “I’m going to the Soviet Union for a year. They’re sending your father to Romania, it’s dangerous for him to stay here, they’ll put him back in prison. You’ll stay with Marta, you’ll be safe with her.” I stared at her without understanding what was going on inside me. I waited a few seconds then left, slamming the door behind me.
I spent my fourteenth year collecting rubles with Cyrillic writing, stamps with Lenin’s face, all from my mother’s friend’s home, where I was welcomed. You guys traveled all over the Soviet bloc and sent me postcards. My father met with Josip Broz Tito, Marshall Tito, I got an envelope with a Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija stamp and a twenty dinar bill. I became a desperate collector of bills and stamps. I’d hold my breath waiting to intercept the postman. He didn’t even get the chance to ring the bell; I was already there with my hand out to receive the foreign envelopes with three stamps and two seals of entry and exit. I learned more and more names, cities and countries that I located on the world map that hung on the wall. I’d cut out the stamp, soak it in water until the glue came off and add it to the album made from alternating pages of cardboard and wax paper.
As I chopped the carrots for dinner, I asked Marta what her job was in the party. “To take care of the kids of comrades who are on a mission,” she responded as she hummed a song by Silvio. Marta had a seventeen year old daughter, Lili. I’d stare at her, unable to hide my fascination with her long eyelashes, her strong legs. She’d say to me “I’ll tell you the truth.” I asked her about her dad and she pointed to a photocopied image on the wall: the blurry face of a man with a sentence underneath: “Where are they?” I looked at the flyer but didn’t say anything. Out of revenge, she called me a “curfew baby,” which I didn’t find funny.
My first time was with Lili. I still have the scene recorded on my retina, searching for explosives in the backyard shed only to end up ripping each other’s clothes off. We were brought together by an atypical biography, our childhood innocence colored by our parents’ decision to take up arms. I asked if she had any memory of her father, “none,” she answered bitterly, as she handed me a stake. We made a tent against the wall of the shed, we gathered sticks, odds and ends, and we built our home. That was a sacred space, with its own set of rules. A place where the prying eyes of fathers and mothers couldn’t reach us. Lili took my clothes off and noticed the fuzz under my arms and the strip of brown hair that went down my belly and beyond. Sometimes I had an acrid, adult smell. She gave me a sort of crash course in obscene words. She got me pornographic magazines and books, she demanded that I memorize some poem from the Golden Age and then whisper it in her ear. Lili had a calendar in which she marked a day with a circle and the following five days with an ellipsis. Those days we’d go right up to the edge but she’d push me away when I reached the limit. I always felt like I was another mission for her, one she took on with the dedication of a disciplined militant. My romantic apprenticeship was her responsibility.
We formed an organization, she was the boss, and I was the subordinate. We fought against the bad guys, who were the military, in the name of the good guys, who were our parents. Later, we’d turn to the lessons of desire: how to press a hand against the secret spot, push the button with circular movements as if it were the joystick of an Atari, leave a finger in this position, know how to wait, recognize the appropriate wetness, tongue kiss without brushing teeth, reach that intense spasm with your eyes closed in a meadow.
Marta never asked, I don’t think she even suspected the tenor of our time spent together, she saw me as a little boy and her daughter as a woman. Anyway she was always busy, making visits, typing documents. I can picture her seated on the floor, with the Olivetti typewriter on her lap and her cigarettes nearby, talking to foreigners, diplomats, and intellectuals, in two or three different languages, passing from one to the other with a minute twist of the lips. I must admit that in some way that environment was exciting to me. There was hope in that parade of hands tightly gripping documents and walking out the front door. More than one visitor asked if I was a “son.” Marta nodded, throwing me a solemn glance, I felt a mix of self-pity and pride.
Back from her long Russian trip, which lasted almost four years, Mom returned married to the neighbor. She’d changed her way of dressing, she wore a fur hat and silk scarves. I didn’t know whether to greet her with a cold kiss or to throw myself at this beautiful woman. It was hard to pretend to be a family with a man I’d always disliked. At that point I was an early adolescent and I knew that when I sat down to the table they didn’t see me, but my father. His dominant genes made sure that his paternity was obvious even in his absence. I stabbed the food with a fork and brought it to my mouth, my face buried in the plate to avoid awkward gazes. In this way I protected myself from what I imagined were their inner thoughts: “there’s the guy that got her pregnant, that never sent money, off who knows where.” The young revolutionary had become an orderly functionary of an ecological ONG in the United States and he was constantly out of work between projects or consultations. I’d been living with them for a few months when the attack on Pinochet occurred, it was a Sunday, we were having a snack, and the special bulletin from 60 Minutes shocked us. Aware of my gaze, Mom seemed to measure her reaction, hiding her happiness, her guilty happiness. But she couldn’t suppress a “finally something happens to that motherfucker.” I remained focused on my bread and mortadella. The neighbor paced back and forth making enraged comments: “All those years of training and I bet they used a homemade grenade, the lazy bastards.” Another gray Sunday, several dead bodyguards, the ferret-like eyes of Pinochet’s grandson injured by shards of glass. At night they repeated the words: guerilla, Nicaragua, subversives. I was so anxious, I’m not sure why, but I went to see Lili, who was also upset. We locked ourselves in her room, there was no time to take precautions. There was only an urgency, to be inside her, to distract ourselves from the drama. We didn’t look at the calendar, we needed to protect ourselves from the future.
My father came to my graduation, they’d taken the letter L from his passport and he entered through the International Police, older, with the typical wide fatness of the gringos, wearing clothes that were of high quality but out of fashion. At dinner after all the speeches I finally had my parents together again. I asked them to be silent, no to interrupt.
“It’s my turn, I get to talk now, I’ve listened to you for years.”
I have to tell you, your youth was confused by the revolution. First, the daily urgencies: bombings, men hiding in the shadows, nighttime shootings, martial law, curfew, burned books. But you were late to the revolution, twenty years too late, stubbornly insisting on something that didn’t work, because human nature is imperfect. Has there ever been equality among the citizens of one country? Could all the people possibly have the energy and conviction to work for others?
Looking back, I think it was a cocktail of youthful effervescence and raging hormones. Now I doubt your true courage, I think you took unnecessary risks, blamed personal problems on “the cause.” You believed you were messiahs of the future, bearing arms, wearing camouflage, always talking about the future in the first person plural. You played at war, but with lead soldiers on a checkerboard. It wasn’t such a bad deal for you guys, you learned languages, studied postgraduate degrees thanks to scholarships from international organizations. But I think you were both guilty of arrogance, foolhardiness, false heroism. You should’ve just stepped aside and let the dead file past. What did you think you’d accomplish with your weak efforts? In the end, everyone tells themselves the lies they need to live. No, don’t look at me like that. Yes, I confess that I do feel some admiration, but why didn’t you ever see me as a soldier for your troops?
Things didn’t get any better in the period that followed. My father returned to the United States, my mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. I’d sit next to her and we’d study the horizon. I talked and talked. I have an idea for a better world. Let’s get out of this kitchen. Let’s get away from the cups, the spoons, the photos of you as a young guerilla on the refrigerator. No, let’s look at the bus tickets, the maps, the rolling suitcases, the pamphlets, the Che Guevara posters… Lili calls with an “I think maybe, come quick.” In less than an hour I’m at her house. She’s waiting with a test she’d bought at the pharmacy. She gives me a dry kiss and goes into the bathroom. Sitting on the bed, I unfold the test instructions, it says that it measures the presence of a hormone in the urine called Human chorionic gonadotropin or Beta-hCG. The five minute wait seems infinite. I think about my childhood, the postcards, about Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija, about the “Where are theys,” about the bread and mortadella, about the stamps of Stalin, about our love tent, about the Olivetti typewriter. Lili comes out waving a strip marked with a red plus sign between two holes; I never liked addition and subtraction. And of course there’s a firestorm of recriminations. Why didn’t I just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why am I still such a horny dog? I think about my desperate need to be a son before I become a father. I feel the unstoppable urge to heave and wonder what ideology I can use to mask my lack of desire to be a father.
In the geography lesson the teacher, Mr. Levy, was talking about the Yarkon, and for this reason Hefzibah locked herself in the Girls’ Room during the morning recess.
At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher announced that the class was going to study the Yarkon and “when we’ve finished, we’ll make a field trip to the headwaters of the river to see for ourselves how things are running.” And while the class was still laughing, and the teacher was saying that they wouldn’t be able to visit the Fortress of Antipater because the area was still mined, images rose in her mind of a visit she had made with her mother and brother to the Yarkon Hospital in Tel Aviv four years earlier, images suffused with an element of remoteness and disjunction because of some turbidity which screened them from her. They were nevertheless vivid and sharp and burdened her with painful guilt feelings. A strong light spilled into the room through the windows facing south—it was early afternoon—and the whiteness of the walls dazzled her. Because of the glare, she chose to reexamine for a moment the darkness of the night before, when she was startled out of her sleep and didn’t understand what the commotion was all about and what her father’s bridge partners were doing in the house. Later she was able to discern the doctor passing by her bed in the anteroom leading to her parents’ bedroom, and in some vague way began to realize that something serious had happened. Hefzibah asked herself if she had gone back to sleep that night and remembered that the next day the British declared a curfew, scheduled to start at four in the afternoon and include the entire country, and that before her mother climbed into the ambulance she told her that she wasn’t sure she would be back by four and that she should take care of her small brother and give him lunch. Hefzibah recalled the terrible tension which had wracked her the whole day and so she switched her thoughts back to the white room. The light that had dazzled her focused her glance on the black spot on the pillow: thin straight hair parted on the left and combed over the right temple.
“The mills on the river, Hefzibah!” The voice of Mr. Levy, the teacher, suddenly burst upon her and she turned her head in his direction. Her eyes glazed, curtained by those distant images, and she said nothing.
“Again you’re not paying attention, Hefzibah,” he chided her. Hefzibah lowered her eyes and returned to the scenes in her mind. It was in the fifth grade, she remembered, and her home teacher, Dr. Eisner, who was their neighbor and her parents’ friend, left at the end of that year and moved with his family to the new Rasco housing project on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, right next to the Yarkon. During the summer vacation, when she went to visit him with her little brother, the bus took them past that same hospital and she remembered being struck by some kind of momentary fear which froze the flow of her exhilaration. The family was happy to see them and Dr. Eisner, her former teacher, took them and his own children rowing on the Yarkon. Her brother was very frightened and wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Esther Strauss, who was her best friend and sat next to her, nudged her suddenly and she heard the teacher ask: “Have any of you ever gone rowing on the Yarkon?” But Hefzibah didn’t raise her hand, and her eyes went back to the glaring light, to the dazzling whiteness, and she remembered how frightened she was of looking at him—he was so strange and unfamiliar, covered up to the neck with a stiff starched sheet, his head on the pillow: the black spot where his hair was and his white face with a bluish hue on his cheeks. Hefzibah clearly remembered that she had been more interested in the good-looking boy lying on the next bed than she had been in her father, and her pencil sketched the memory on the piece of paper on her desk: a room, a row of beds, a head on a pillow. Only the face escaped her and she couldn’t understand how she had forgotten it so quickly—after only two weeks—and she asked herself why the features were so blurred: the eyes, the nose, the lips, the wrinkles—everything had been sucked into an elliptical void resembling an ancient theatrical mask, perhaps a Greek one like the mask she had once seen in a book. The name of the book slipped her mind.
Mr. Levy, the teacher, said: “Hefzibah, instead of paying attention you have been doodling the whole time.” Hefzibah said: “I’m not doodling, Mr. Levy, I’m drawing.” The teacher lost his temper and said: “Talking back again, are you? For tomorrow you can copy Psalm 82 one hundred times.” Hefzibah shrugged her shoulders and remembered that Dr. Eisner, her teacher in the fifth grade, had been sympathetic, had never reprimanded her. On the contrary, he would jokingly tell the class that Hefzibah could do anything, even listen and draw at the same time. It really didn’t bother him that she drew during class. That’s why Hefzibah showed him the journal she kept where she had written about Impressionism and why Van Gogh cut off his ear, and where she had copied her own poems and even a little story about three old women in a secluded house. But she was sure Mr. Levy wouldn’t appreciate things like that and there was no point in explaining them to him.
During the recess, then, Hefzibah locked herself in one of the bathroom stalls. She pulled down the cover of the toilet seat and sat there, her face crushed in her hands. She went through her memories and tried to capture the features of the face on the white pillow in her parents’ bedroom when her mother had sent her in to look at him for the last time. But now, returning to the room, she couldn’t see anything. Her mind was unable to catch hold of any likeness and she was angry with herself and decided that as soon as she got home she would look at the photograph album and then close her eyes and summon up his picture over and over again until it was indelibly engraved in her mind and could never be lost again so thoughtlessly. The door to the Girls’ Room opened and Hefzibah heard someone come in, turn on the faucet and speak. She recognized the voice of Bracha Shvili and heard her say: “Did you notice that she was wearing the jumper at the funeral?”
“Yes,” said the voice of Shula Reisser. “So what?”
Bracha Shvili said: “She repaired the place where the rabbi tore it. It’s not done.”
“Is it forbidden?” asked Shula Reisser.
“I’ll have to check that ,” said Bracha. “I’ll ask the Talmud teacher.”
Meanwhile someone else came in and now Hefzibah heard Esther Strauss, her best friend, saying: “Did you hear how Hefzi laughed out loud. She should be ashamed of herself.”
The girls left the Girls’ Room and Hefzibah’s hand went up to her heart, fingering the place where the rabbi had rent her jumper.
She usually sat in class next to her best friend, Esther Strauss, but now she took the seat next to Eli Weiss. And during the lesson, when Mr. Levy, the teacher, was explaining the characteristics of the idyll, Eli Weiss wrote in her notebook:
“Your eyes exude a verdant light
Just like two sparkling emeralds.”
Hefzibah read the lines and smiled. Suddenly, Mr. Levy said: “Hefzibah! What are you doing over there? Take your things and come sit here”. He pointed to the empty seat in front of him.
Hefzibah took her time changing places and the teacher bellowed at her: “Hurry up! You’re wasting the whole lesson.” Hefzibah sullenly began to gather her things together. Eli Weiss whispered: “Why is he always picking on you?” She winked at him unobtrusively and he returned a shy smile. When she finally sat down in front of the teacher, she saw that Eli was flushed with anger and plea. Towards the end of the hour she tore a page out of her notebook, wrote a few words on it, folded it and tossed it to the back. Mr. Levy shouted: “This is too much! You are going to stay after school tomorrow for two hours. Tell your parents—I mean your mother—not to worry.”
Hefzibah thought: The whole class noticed his mistake. She was seething with anger and she said: “But, Mr. Levy, you already gave me a punishment…”
“No ‘buts’,” he broke in. “Psalm 82 a hundred times and two hours after school and if that won’t help you’ll have to bring your par.. your mother.”
Hefzibah thought about Dr. Eisner and about the fact that since he left, no other teacher had understood her. She remembered that on the way to visit them with her brother, the bus had passed between mounds of red earth carved out on either side of the road as if by a knife. She remembered that he had kept her journal for a few days and when he had come over to return it, he had said to her parents: “You have no idea what kind of girl you have.” And after that, her memories returned to the hospital and to the white room and the sharp light and the boy lying in the bed next to her father’s and she thought: I was more interested in the boy than I was in my father. Now I keep telling myself that I was afraid to look at him. But that’s not true. I was simply indifferent. I didn’t want to know.”
During the recess, Hefzibah stood on the terrace, leaning over the ledge, watching the boys and girls in the yard playing ball or jumping rope.
Dr. Moskowitz, the Talmud teacher, had taken out a chair and sat down in the sun. Hefzibah saw Bracha Shvili walk over to him, bend down and say something. Her hand moved up her jumper and she fingered the place where the rabbi had rent it. Only by actually touching it could you tell there was a defect in the weave.
Shula Reisser came over to her. “Look at that pair of turtledoves,” she said, motioning with her head towards a corner of the yard. Hefzibah saw Mr. Levy and Bracha Shvili standing and talking together. “Disgusting,” said Shula. “First she sucks up to Dr. Moskowitz and then to Mr. Levy.”
“I see that it’s been repaired,” said Shula Reisser, pointing to the top of the jumper.
“Yes. My mother gave it to invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Is that allowed?” asked Shula.
“I never asked the rabbi,” said Hefzibah contemptuously. “I like this jumper. Maybe you think I should have walked around with it torn till doomsday?”
“You should find out if it’s allowed,” said Shula, annoyed.
“And if it’s not allowed, so what? What’s it your business? Maybe everybody’ll stop watching me like a hawk all the time?”
“You’d better watch out,” said Shula. “Everybody’s talking about you. They say you laugh too much.”
Hefzibah walked away and, standing by herself, again leaning on the ledge and watching the children play, she realized that there was no one in the world she could talk to: Esther Strauss, her best friend, was just a hairbrain and Eli Strauss was still a baby and didn’t understand a thing.
Now Bracha Shvili approached her. She fixed her eyes on the jumper and said: “They fixed it for you. You can’t see a thing.”
“Invisible mending,” said Hefzibah.
“Hefzi,” said Bracha Shvili softly, “they say it’s wrong. I asked Dr. Moskowitz. He teaches Jewish law. He should know. He says it’s forbidden.”
“And the fact that you’re so palsy-walsy with Mr. Levy, that’s not forbidden? He’s a married man with a wife and children in Jerusalem,” said Hefzibah, carpingly.
Bracha Shvili turned red and retorted: “Why are you always insulting people?”
“Look who’s talking about insults,” said Hefzibah.
The next day Hefzibah gave Mr. Levy the pages on which she had copied out Psalm 82 a hundred times.
“I hope that you now know the Psalm by heart,” he said.
Hefzibah didn’t answer and he said: “Don’t forget. You’re staying after school today for two hours. Did you tell your mother?”
“Yes,” lied Hefzibah and asked: “How can you be sure I won’t slip out in the middle?”
“I’m staying with you, that’s how. What did you suppose?”
“So then you’re also being punished,” she laughed.
“No,” he smiled, “I’ll be correcting homework.”
First she took out her sandwiches and ate them in silence. Then she took out a pad of drawing paper, a small glass and some tubes of gouache. “I’m just going to get some water,” she said to Mr. Levy. Then she painted for two hours without saying a word, inwardly abusing and vilifying the teacher the whole time, pouring out her wrath in strong colors, frenziedly covering the paper with paint, one coat on top of the other, page after page.
Suddenly the teacher said: “You can go. The two hours are over.”
Hefzibah screwed on the tops of the tubes, cleaned and dried her brush and put everything into her schoolbag. As she was leaving, Mr. Levy said: “I didn’t know you paint.”
“I only doodle,” she said.
Outside she saw Bracha Shvili. She’s waiting for him, she thought, and hid behind a wall to see what would happen. Mr. Levy came out of the school and Bracha Shvili went up to him. They exchanged a few words and then left together.
Crazy nut, thought Hefzibah. What can she possibly see in that revolting man? As for him, she thought, he punishes me on the slightest pretense while he himself goes for walks in the evening with Bracha Shvili, and him with a wife and children in Jerusalem.
Hefzibah sat in the kitchen picking over the rice. On one side she put the chaff and the tiny stones, and on the other the rice, until there was a small white mound. Her mother was standing near the kitchen counter changing the wick in the kerosene cooker. Hefzibah’s grandmother, who had just finished cleaning the house of their well-to-do neighbors (whom her mother had in mind when she said that in Palestine all the parvenus had made it big while people of culture and learning were starving), came in and asked if they needed any help. Hefzibah believed that if it weren’t for Hitler, her grandmother would have had servants of her own and wouldn’t have to clean house for other people and, maybe, her father would still be alive. She thought: It’s this country that killed him and maybe it’s true that mother shouldn’t have given my jumper to invisible mending.
Out loud she said: “You know, the girls say that it’s against Jewish law to mend the tear.”
“But you have nothing to wear,” her mother answered, “and winter clothes are awfully expensive.”
Hefzibah was late coming to meet her friends. “Where is everybody?” she asked the boy who was waiting for her.
“They left,” he said.
“Where to?” she asked irately.
“Nowhere in particular. Just strolling—in pairs.”
“Eli wasn’t here?” she asked.
He went off with Rickey,” the boy said.
Hefzibah’s heart sank and she thought: What a traitor. He didn’t even wait for me.
“Come on, let’s go over to the park,” said the boy, “maybe they’re there.”
They walked up the hill in silence. The silence weighed on Hefzibah and she said: “Are you from Jerusalem?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then where did you go to school before?”
“The Yeshivah,” he answered.
“Your people are that religious?” she asked, stunned. He didn’t look like that—like those ultra-orthodox from the Yeshivah.
“No,” he answered.
Hefzibah had no more questions and the boy was silent. They reached the top of the hill and Hefzibah said: “I don’t see them anywhere. I’m going home.”
The boy walked her home and quickly took his leave. In the front yard of the house a lantana bush grew wild around the fence, creating a small den. When she was small she would play there with her brother. Now she discerned a crouching figure, a large grey hulk, hiding in the foliage. She began to run in the direction of the house. The figure detached itself from the bush and ran after her, massive and floundering. “Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed. Her mother appeared at the door. “Get out of here, do you hear me, or I’ll call the police!”
He would always lie in ambush for her there, fat crazy Shaul, trying to catch her and kiss her.
When he would pass her in the street he would shout after her:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head,” or
“Shalom is crazy, Hefzi is good,
The rabbi’s going to marthem because he should.”
Hefzibah found him repulsive and terrifying. Her mother always said: “one day I’ll lose all my patience with you and go to the police.” But she never did. She pitied him and his parents. “If I go to the police,” she said, “they’ll lock him up for good and finish him off with electric shocks.”
Saturday afternoon, Hefzibah went to the girls’ club. She didn’t pay attention to what the leader was saying. Later they were joined by the boys and began to play guessing games. Hefzibah sat on the side, not taking part. Eli was sitting next to Rickey and didn’t look at her even once. When evening fell and Sabbath was out, they went inside for folk dancing. Hefzibah stood around watching. She loved dancing. Bracha Shvili went over and stood next to her.
“Why aren’t you dancing?” Hefzibah asked her.
“I’m not in the mood,” answered Bracha Shvili.
Someone called for a krakowiak and Hancha pulled out his harmonica to play. Hefzibah noticed that Eli picked Rickey for the dance.
Bracha Shvili said: “Eli and Rickey are going together.”
Hefzibah didn’t say a word and Bracha Shvili said: “Somebody saw them kissing. On a bench on Rothschild Boulevard. That Rickey’ll give it to whoever asks.”
“He’s just a big baby,” said Hefzibah. She watched the dancing couples spinning around before her eyes. She thought she had better go home and learn the chapter in Jeremiah by heart. Otherwise Dr. Moskowitz would punish her. But she didn’t feel like going home alone. She was afraid that crazy Shalom would be waiting for her behind the lantana bush. She figured that if she waited until the dancing was over, she would find someone to walk her home.
There was a gallery running along the walls of the club about halfway to the ceiling and Hefzibah decided to go up and sit there alone, in the dark. When she entered the darkened gallery, she was surprised to see a figure sitting on one of the benches. She stopped, ready to turn back and retrace her steps, when the voice of Bracha Shvili, a little choked and hoarse, called to her: “Come over here, Hefzi.”
“Why are you sitting here alone in the dark?” Hefzibah asked, surprised.
“Come and sit down,” said Bracha Shvili and Hefzibah sat down next to her and asked: “What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
But Bracha Shvili didn’t answer. Only choked sobs escaped.
“Stop it! That’s enough!” said Hefzibah, a little frightened, put off by this display of uncontrolled grief.
“I love him so much,” Bracha Shvili sobbed, “I really don’t know what to do. When he goes home to his wife and children I feel completely lost.”
“But how can you? He’s an old man. I can’t understand what you see in him,” said Hefzibah.
Bracha Shvili took Hefzibah’s hand and began caressing it.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” she moaned. “I can’t begin to tell you how crazy I am about him.”
And then, before Hefzibah’s darkening eyes, Bracha Shvili began to sway back and forth, her eyes closed, her voice whispering: “I love you, I love you so much. I can’t live without you.”
Hefzibah studied her in her anguish, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly Bracha Shvili embraced her and whispered in her ear: “You’re mine, only mine.” Hefzibah was appalled and tried to break loose from the girl’s embrace but Bracha held on and whispered: “You won’t leave me. You’re mine alone.” And then she kissed her passionately on the mouth. Hefzibah pushed her away savagely, disgusted. “You’re out of your mind!” she whispered harshly, getting up and running down the stairs.
“Hefzi, Hefzi, wait for me!” the voice importuned her, but Hefzibah didn’t stop. When she reached the bottom she immediately joined the circle of dancers, now in the middle of a tempestuous hora. They stamped their feet and clapped their hands at a furious tempo, their voices emitting a frenzied gibberish: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya! Lefti, befti, belabelabefti, tchingileh, mingileh, loof, loof, loof!!!” The intense fervor drove the nausea out of her system and she gave herself up to the beat, oblivious to everything.
Only later, when the circle of dancers dissipated and the frenzied “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” stopped throbbing against her temples did she realize what she had done. She didn’t stay a moment longer but left the club immediately.
Hefzibah walked rapidly, her knees shaking, as she tried to blot out everything. Still, her mind kept churning up the terrible question: “What will they say? What will they say?” Every so often she took a long deep breath in order to fortify her battery of counter-arguments, such as: “It’s my own business. It doesn’t concern anyone else.” But the question was overpowering, attacking her with renewed force.
When she reached the fence, she examined the yard carefully and, seeing no one, entered quietly, making her way stealthily past the thicket of the lantana bush. She kept as close as possible to the opposite hedge, her head bent a little, fighting the urge to look back at the dark shadow of overgrown foliage. But halfway to the door, a heavy, obese body sprang out and, stamping like a clumsy, tottering bear, fell upon her. He grabbed hold of her with his coarse, heavy hands, murmuring; “Hefzi, my beauty, the joy of my life. I’ve caught you!”
“Mother! Mother!” Hefzibah screamed, but his moist lips were already on her face, his hands red-hot tongs piercing the flesh of her arms.
In the square of light of the opened door, she saw her mother for half a second, standing and looking and suddenly running down the steps, waving a broom and shouting: “Get out of here! Now! Or I’ll call the police!” The demented man let Hefzibah go and disappeared into the overgrown bushes, an obscure mass sinking into the mouth of darkness.
Hefzibah broke into a loud wail and her mother took her in her arms and helped her into the house. In the foyer she held onto her a little longer, caressing her head and saying: “Daddy would have broken all his bones, only we have no daddy. Tomorrow I’ll tell the landlord he has to uproot that whole bush and I’ll go over and talk to that maniac’s parents.”
On Sunday the seat next to Eli Weiss was empty again and Hefzibah decided to sit there. Eli Weiss wrote her a letter of apology during class. He explained that he loved her, only her, that Rickey had provoked him and that his biological urge had gotten the better of him.
On the note she returned she wrote only: “Hope you had a good time.” That’s all.
While passing the note to Eli she felt the teacher’s menacing glance on her and she understood that if she wasn’t careful she might be punished again. When the bell rang, Eli Weiss got up but Hefzibah remained seated. She took the Book of Jeremiah out of her schoolbag and began to learn the assigned chapter by heart. The classroom emptied out slowly and in the end only a few girls remained, among them Esther Strauss, her best friend, Bracha Shvili, Shula Reisser and Leah Katz. Hefzibah was reading under her breath and her lips were moving:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?
Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep…”
And while she was still absorbed in the Bible, committing the passage to memory, she was suffused by the fear that some menacing presence was approaching, throbbing in the air, spinning towards her and crying: “Ho! Ya! Ho! Ya!” She tried to ward off the oppressive feeling, returning to the text:
“Thou art ever on their lips,
yet far from their hearts.
But thou knowest me, O Lord, thou seest me;
thou dost test my devotion to thyself…”
But some commotion deflected her from the passage and she noticed that her friends had gathered around her, randomly, in a horseshoe. Then all of a sudden, as if in a phantasmagoria, she saw Bracha Shvili spinning towards her, her arms outstretched. And before she realized exactly what was happening, she felt the full force of an open hand strike her on the cheek. Hefzibah lifted her hand to her face, utterly nonplused, and heard Bracha Shvili saying: “It’s forbidden to repair the tear. Dr. Moskowitz says it’s a terrible sin.”
Esther Strauss, her best friend, came up close and, pointing at her with her finger, shouted: “You were dancing the hora last night at the club!” Bracha Shvili took her cue from that: “You should be ashamed of yourself! You slut!”
“Are you out of your minds?” said Leah Katz. “Leave her alone! What do you want from her?”
“You shut up, you scaredy-cat,” said Shula Reisser.
Hefzibah bent her head over the Bible on her desk and the tiny black letters grew before her eyes, crying out:
“Thou hast planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
But Bracha Shvili swung again, striking her on the other cheek.
“Stop! I’m going to call the teacher!” cried Leah Katz, but Shula Reisser caught hold of her and said: “Shut up! You’re not going anywhere right now! We have to show her a thing or two. What does she think she’s doing? Laughing all the time. Dancing a hora. Sending her jumper to invisible mending.”
“She must be punished!” cried Bracha Shvili, but Esther Strauss said to her: “That’s enough.”
“She must be punished!” shouted Bracha Shvili, grabbing hold of Hefzibah’s hair and pulling. Esther Strauss pushed her away and said: “That’s enough. Stop it!” But Shula Reisser had meanwhile edged closer, holding a scissors.
“Gimme the scissors!” shouted Bracha Shvili and to Hefzibah she said: “Invisible mending, huh? We’ll show you how it’s done, Hefzi’leh.”
She caught hold of Hefzibah’s jumper from the front. Hefzibah resisted and from the back Esther Strauss caught hold of Bracha Shvili and pulled her away. The moment she was free, Hefzibah ran to the door. But Bracha Shvili, still holding the scissors, ran after her and caught her from behind.
Leah Katz screamed: “She’s liable to kill her!”
At that moment Hefzibah turned around and with all the force she could muster punched Bracha Shvili in the face.
“She broke my nose,” howled Bracha Shvili.
“Serves you right!” said Hefzibah, and Esther Strauss, her best friend, took the scissors out of Bracha’s hand. The sound of the bell, metallic and heavy, jolted them and they looked at one another, their faces flushed and angry, and Hefzibah was conscious of the fact that the prolonged ringing sound was cutting through her like the knife that had cut the top of her jumper not so many days past in that strange, remote place, just before she bent down to pick up a handful of moist red earth.
A sudden light suffused the room. Boys and girls burst through the door and on the threshold stood Dr. Moskowitz. He waited until everyone was standing in place, after which he walked up to his desk and said: “Be seated.”
He read out the names from the roll book and when he finished he said: “I hope that you’ve all learned the chapter by heart. Hefzibah, please begin.”
Hefzibah was sitting with her trembling hands folded under her chest. The seat underneath her was hot and sticky. For a moment she didn’t understand what he wanted but Eli Weiss, sitting next to her, nudged her, and she began:
“O Lord, I will dispute with thee, for thou art just;
yes, I will plead my case before thee.
Why do the wicked prosper
and traitors live at ease?”
And Eli Weiss continued:
Thou has planted them and their roots strike deep,
they grow up and bear fruit…”
Hefzibah raised her hand and asked permission to leave the room. The teacher gave her permission. Walking, she felt the blood sticky between her thighs. Thank God the jumper is thick and dark,” she reflected.
Outside, she unlocked her bike with trembling hands, gave it a push, mounted and rode home. The house was empty and silent. Hefzibah washed herself, changed her clothes and placed a thick wad of cotton in her underpants. “Why did it come early?” she asked herself, and she answered out loud without knowing quite why:
“If you have raced with men and the runners have worn you down,
how then can you hope to vie with horses…”
She folded her bloodstained jumper, wrapped it in a newspaper, went out into the yard and stuck it into the garbage can.
As she went up the street, riding her bicycle back to school to pick up her schoolbag, crazy Shalom came towards her from the opposite direction. He called out:
“Pretty Hefzi is going to wed
Crazy Shalom with the hole in his head.”
Hefzibah got back to school during the recess and, ignoring all the eyes digging into her, went straight into the classroom. Her schoolbag was where she had left it, under the desk, and she took out her English notebook to study the new vocabulary. Esther Strauss, her best friend, went up to her and said in a muted voice: “Good that you changed your clothes. That wasn’t right, that invisible mending. It’s forbidden.”
Hefzibah fixed her eyes on the notebook in front of her and said:
“My own people have turned on me like a lion from the scrub, roaring against me; therefore I hate them.”
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Mr. Harlamov was a big man. He was a fearless man too and when he sat himself down at the harmonium (which was a kind of piano played with a foot bellows, or a kind of accordion with legs like a piano’s, an exotic instrument that served as the standard medium of instruction in Music Pedagogy and Appreciation at the Bet Hakerem Hebrew Teachers College of Jerusalem)— when he sat himself down, as big and fearless as a bear tickling a kitten, and picked out the keys with his big, fearless fingers whose palms covered the keyboard while pumping the bellows with his feet, the whole harmonium shook with its wheezing, creaking pedals as if about to give out in one last excruciating and unmusical gasp. Above the crash of its chords, Mr. Harlamov sang in his big, fearless voice. If he hadn’t had to work the pedals he could have easily strode around the room with it instead of intermittently rearing in his seat to scan the class for anyone slacking or off-key, calling out parenthetically to the culprit without breaking the tempo of the song, You there, or That young lady in the back. Which was enough to make whoever it was cringe and join the mighty chorus.
If truth be told, the monumental sight of Mr. Harlamov thumping away at the wheezing harmonium while the class accompanied him at full volume was impressive. It was also comical, mixing giggles into the harmonies whose frequent parentheses were filled with a Hebrew that was far from untainted by Mr. Harlarnov’s big, fearless Russian errors. You please to sing, he would scold. You no laugh, you. And with a scowl he went on adjusting our mighty chorus to his big, fearless notes, hunching over his harmonium and fiercely rearing up to review his troops.
There was really nothing very fierce about him. There was even an inherent good nature that might have prevailed were it not that nothing was as it should have been – neither the poor substitute for a piano, nor our voices that kept going flat, nor our young, grinning faces that showed scant respect for The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord. He was constantly correcting us. C! he would shout. C Major! The more roughshod we ran over the music, the more desperately he increased the volume of the harmonium to salvage what he could of its beauty, doing his best to drown us out while bent over his instrument, a very lonely, uncompromising man.
I never had much luck with Mr. Harmalov. I didn’t even notice it when, while we were singing a choral number one day, he reared up and signalled for silence so that he might spot the villain who was making a mockery of the music. For a moment nothing was heard but my unsuspecting voice, booming out the words of the Internationale. You, Mr. Harlamov whispered in a voice that made the ceiling recoil. You. Mr. Dinburg. Scram you from here! I tell dean he give you boot. I tell you without with no, murder music. I tell, for what I work? And maybe I tell too: if you know what is Russia and what is do to me there, you not sing that song. It wouldn’t have helped if I had sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was only a harmless joke. It wouldn’t even have cleared my own conscience. Why did I do it? Sometimes the only answer is because, and this because was a feeble one. Unless (but this wasn’t something I could have said out loud, not even to myself) it was to make an impression on the flushed wearer of a brown sweater who was singing her heart out next to me.
Little wonder that I received a “D” in music at the end of the term and even that was an act of mercy to the young buffoon on the great man’s part. Next to my “A”s in Bible, Literature, and History, it stood out like a sore thumb. (Not that my Arabic was any better; I flunked with an “F” courtesy of the esteemed and resplendent Jerusalem orientalist, Yosef Yoel Rivlin. And my English too, in the words of Mr. Morris, a short but stern pedagogue whose heels clicked when he walked, left “a great deal to be desired.” To say nothing of math, all my efforts at which satisfied neither the sphinx-like Mr. Hevroni nor the laws of algebra. I didn’t do very well either when I tried pacifying Mr. Harlamov by remarking as I walked beside him, half-running to keep up with his big, fearless steps in the portico flanking the rocky lot that was slated to become an athletics field for our fabled gym teacher Mr. Yekutieli, that I, simple farm boy though I was, was so musically sophisticated that I had actually listened at my friend Habkin’s house to records of Beethoven (mainly the Fifth), Mozart (the E-Minor), and Bach (the Third Brandenburg). At which point I committed the grievous faux pas of adding enthusiastically that I also liked the symphonies of Chopin. Breaking off his fearless stride, Mr. Harlamov threw me a downward, withering glance. Chopin write no symphonies! he said with disgusted finality, walking on to leave me more foolish than ever and unable to explain that I had meant Schumann, and especially the Spring Symphony, which had left me damp- eyed with weltschmerz, most of all for the wearer of a brown sweater whose shy beholder found her more adorable than approachable.
The fact was that all those European names, like Schumann and Chopin, could have confused anybody, especially if he was bad at languages, and most especially if he had an idealistic father who had insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home because that was what a proud Jew should speak. But go explain all that to Mr. Harlamov. The man was as big as the steppes of Russia, where he would have had a great future had not a cruel fate reduced him to a Palestinian music teacher who did not even have a proper piano.
Who could count the times I had been corrected with a tolerant smile by Habkin, who, with his gramophone, his record collection, and his violin, had so much knowledge that, when he wasn’t eking out a living as Professor Gruenfeld’s secretary, he was copying scores in a calligraphic hand I never tired of watching, scrolling clefs and staffs and bars and notes, multi-angled and magical with the secret glyphs of music-making: It’s not Ber Ahms. It’s not Yiddish. It’s Brahms, in a single syllable: Johannes Brahms.
Once, though, it was different. Once, as Mr. Harlamov was playing and singing while we sang along with him, grinning as we sometimes did, we suddenly found ourselves listening as if something were happening and we had to know what it was. All at once, without even a rear or a scowl, Mr. Harlamov was transformed at the faltering old harmonium, which gasped out great chords that seemed beyond its powers of endurance. Something was definitely happening. The chords and music were no longer the same. Although Mr. Harlaniov was still singing and playing while hunched over the keys like a giant snail, or an eagle feeding its fledglings between its talons, the whole class had fallen silent with a great, concentrated attention. He was singing differently too, as though to himself, as though he were alone and had suddenly realized something and didn’t care that no one else knew, or had discovered a new truth that was now coming into focus and of which he only knew meanwhile that it was on its way. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, in case you’re wondering. It wasn’t Borodin, or Scriabin, or one of your Rimski—Korsakoffs. It was different and special, not yet itself as he sang hunched like a snail in his big voice, which came through slightly muffled but clean the way something sounds when it’s true and you know it’s happening and that he isn’t here and is perhaps more than you always thought, beyond all your stupid jokes when you knew nothing about it.
It was happening to us too, so that, humbled and longing for what we now knew was there and had never known before, we listened with a catch in our throats. It would be easy to spout something about the vast steppes of Russia sobbing in that harmonium, or the Cossacks, or the Tartars, or the cold winds of Siberia, or something of the sort, but it wasn’t that at all. It was only a man singing and you hearing and knowing that was it, a place beyond the class and the room and the Bet Hakerem Teachers College of Jerusalem, something coming from afar that was maybe a bit like the child Samuel when he heard the voice in the quiet of the night the voice that said Samuel Samuel and he answered here I am.
Then there was silence and it was over. Nobody knew \vhat to do next, not even Mr. Harlamov, who finally rose all at once to become as tall as the ceiling and then let his shoulders slump and grew smaller again, his big hands dangling in air. His wiped his big, bald skull with a handkerchief and grew even smaller, and then he turned and walked without a word to the door and turned again when he reached it and waved a limp hand and was gone.
And still no one spoke. A few of us began getting to our feet. One by one, we stooped forlornly out of the classroom. I started down the stairs, not knowing what to say. Which way are you going? asked the girl in the brown sweater, who did not know what to say either. It was such an unanticipated question that the young man it was asked of forgot how long he had been waiting for it, and how many wonderful stories he had told himself about it, and how now that it had happened he had never imagined that it would be like this. They descended the stairs. How about you? he asked with an awkward gesture. I’ll walk you. He couldn’t believe that it was so simple or that he had been so bold. I live quite near here, at the bottom of Hehalutz Street, she said. The Jerusalem cold brought a flush to her cheeks, and when, in her brown sweater, she noticed that he’d noticed, she blushed until she was as red as an autumn apple in a poem. She was so scandalously red that she would have liked to run away, but she raised her collar to blush level and the two of them headed for the steps of Hama’alot Street, skipping down them as if dancing not only because they were so skippety young, but because dance is a wordless art form. Of the sort we’re most in need of at this moment, she added without words, the casuarina trees dripping wet pearls on a rain-washed street that was already Hehalutz. Three or four houses further on they turned to the right and there, on the ground floor, she lived.
They stood there, the rosy girl and the young man with the wild head of hair and the too-slender back. He gives me piano lessons, she confessed. Mr. Harlamov. I didn’t ask for them, but he asked me if I’d like them, and I asked if it wouldn’t put him out, and he said no, he’d be glad to, I had a talent and he didn’t even want to be paid. Believe me, that’s the kind of man he is.
They stood there a while longer without thinking of anything to say, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Then they leaned their arms against a tree, an electric charge flowing between their fingers that were not yet ready to touch. the blush gone from her face that was now simply ruddy with cold. His heart was in his throat. He couldn’t think of a word. It was great, what he played, she said. Tremendous, he said. Utterly fantastic. Extraordinary. Unbelievable. The drops falling from the needles of the casuarina trees were clean and pure enough to drink.
If he were to shake a branch it would shower down on her and make him laugh at her sudden shriek. Well, she said.
Yes, he said. All right, then. She stood a while longer. I guess I’d better turn in. Good night. Good night. And still neither of them made a move to go. Well I’ll see you, she said. She had chestnut hair above the warm brown of her sweater. Look how pearly the raindrops are, he said. Yes, she said. And he said, Yes, well, so long, and she came running back to him and planted a kiss on his cheek and spun around and fled down the stairs.
Incredulous, he stood there, his hand on his cheek. It was too much to take in but there it was.
Like a drunk he staggered up the wet, empty street. under his breath breaking into The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord and then beginning to hum and then to sing until he was roarine like an ox in the sleepy streets of Jerusalem whose good folk he was keeping awake. He wasn’t thumbing a proletarian nose at them, he was simply 1etting them know the great truth newly revealed to him on Hehalutz Street that the heavens told the glory of the Lord. He went on singing even when it began tc rain so wonderfully hard that he only wanted to let it be and to turn cold and wet inside him. He only wanted to sing with the choir— -three, four! “His handiwork is written in the sky.”
*This story is taken from: S. Yizhar, Asides, Zmora-Bitan, 1996.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.
When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.
At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.
“And why can’t you?” I asked.
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
“It’s well for you,” she said.
“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.
On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening. He was fussing at the hallstand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:
“Yes, boy, I know.”
As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlour and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
When I came downstairs again I found Mrs Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:
“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”
At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the halldoor. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hallstand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.
“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.
I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:
“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”
My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.
I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.
I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Café Chantant were written in coloured lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.
Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of the stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a … fib!”
Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:
“No, thank you.”
The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.
I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
A few months before Mother’s madness was officially announced, though there were hints that something out of the ordinary was happening, and our daily routine suffered small blows, life went on and the days were all pretty well alike.
She spread slices of pickled cucumbers on the windowsill and said that once the sun dried them out pure cucumber would be left, that there was enough water in the tap anyway and it was just inflating the cucumber, but the sun shrivelled them into transparent greenish rags spotted with dried seeds which she ate and ate and her mouth reeked of rotten bay leaves and neglected teeth. Then there was the business about the windows, that we mustn’t close because there wasn’t enough air for five pairs of nostrils and if everyone exhaled their carbon dioxide into the closed apartment the air would be poisoned. But when the strong autumn winds blew through the rooms and the windows swung wildly on their hinges, banging and rattling the panes, it was clear that something new was happening.
Father oiled the wood of the windowsill because the vinegar from the pickles had erased the paint and eaten away the glaze. He didn’t tell Mother to stop it, just as he didn’t tell her that the cold coming in through the open windows gave us goose flesh, just as he didn’t tell her that there was nothing wrong with her stomach, but the more she folded her hands over her stomach and said she was wasting away, the more reason he found to look after his Subaru. He tightened bolts, stretched belts, wiped the panes with damp cloths until they shone like mirrors and you could see the neighbours’ houses reflected in them. He shook out the rubber mats and spread them on the asphalt driveway and he scrubbed the headlights with the green washing-up soap, and only when the darkness thickened so that he couldn’t tell the pliers from the screwdriver did he close his toolbox, gather up the rags and go upstairs.
There were no signs that Mother was wasting away. After all, when someone is wasting away they get smaller and smaller, but not one centimetre of Mother’s metre sixty-two was missing, her ring stayed attached to her finger like a thin gold canal between two banks of thick flesh, her belt was buckled as always on the third hole and as always, when she leaned against the doorjamb, the top of her head reached the bottom nail of the mezuzah. I believed that she was wasting away from the inside, that her intestines were growing shorter, her blood drying up, her heart shrinking and only her outer skin remained blown up and covered the general withering away taking place inside.
So many things changed all at once that from fear I began to count the things that were still the same and did not panic because of sudden tears or shrieks that turned into laughter. One of those things was Talia’s morning. She would stand in front of the mirror combing her hair to her heart’s content, the black plastic comb shifting rearranging the varying shades of brown and gold and the steady rhythm of Talia’s hand remained constant despite Mother’s screaming enough with that mirror. The shouts grew louder, rattling the mirror, but Talia would slowly and painstakingly continue to arrange each strand of hair. When it became unbearable Father would try to imprison the noises and violated the latest decree by closing the kitchen window but the insulation was less than perfect and the neighbours heard. The Baumans’ curtains moved and half of Mrs Bauman’s face filled the slit between them, then the opening narrowed to the width of her ear and she had to decide whether to devote it to her eye or her ear.
I didn’t understand how Talia was able to wrap herself in a kind of membrane and detach herself from the screaming and how day by day she perfected this membraning ability of hers. I thought that if I tried hard enough I could be as good at it as she was. When I wrapped my sandwich in waxed paper and Mother screamed that I was getting on her nerves with that noisy paper and enough and get on with it, I couldn’t go on like Talia and I didn’t finish folding the paper over the sandwich and the mayonnaise dripped on my fingers and then she screamed you think I didn’t see you wiping your hands on your dress, and I didn’t answer. The truth is that I didn’t wipe them on my dress, and when I bit my nails in the first lesson the nail slivers I swallowed had enough mayonnaise on them to last me the whole lesson.
With Talia and me Mother’s nerves were like a lizard’s severed tail. Only Uli didn’t irritate her, and when she ran her fingers through his soft hair they stayed straight and didn’t curl on his forehead and didn’t feel his hot scalp and all the fears accumulated inside his little skull. He sat on the living-room floor for hours lining up a long row of red Lego pieces, attaching one to the other, making sure that their sides fitted together without a crack. When there were no red pieces left he pulled out his shoelaces and tried to thread them through again, pushing the hard plastic tip of the lace into the holes until the plastic began to split and spread from so much pushing and wouldn’t go through and Uli tried again and again and the tips of the laces broke altogether, and finally he went to kindergarten with his shoes untied and the teacher glued the split plastic, re-threaded the laces and tied two bows.
Those shoes of Uli’s had a function, those two little brown things were part of the arrangements I made to maintain order amid all the changes taking place in the house. Every evening after he fell asleep I pressed them together between the legs of his bed and every once in a while I checked to see that the angle hadn’t changed, that the soles touched each other neatly with the little hollow in the middle. Those shoes that had taken the shape of Uli’s feet were a kind of good-luck charm protecting me from the chameleons of that house.
More than once I woke up in the middle of the night and heard the bats that had deviated from their usual route and were flying through the yard upside down like a plane that had been hit, crashing into the window, their black bellies gleaming in the dark, and the moths began hovering backwards, their antennae gone. I threw off my blanket and ran to Uli’s bed to check if the shoes were obeying the order I had imposed on them, to be sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were still in the same position, the heels a centimetre from the edge of the floor tile, and then I went into the kitchen to see if the tap was still dripping at the same obedient rate. Talia said that the tap got on her nerves and ouf when were they going to fix it, but I hoped they wouldn’t fix it so that I would still be able to hear an old familiar sound amidst all the new sounds that cropped up every day in that house.
Official confirmation of madness arrived on the Sick Fund’s white stationery, with the words Mental Health Clinic printed in blue on either side of the red emblem. Father ran around with it to the National Insurance Institute and the municipality to arrange for allowances and discounts, and from being opened and refolded by a lot of clerks it became smudged at the edges with brown fingerprints until the letter looked like paper which had been left to spin in the washing-machine and came out wrinkled like an old cotton handkerchief.
You could say that that paper reorganized our lives and the days took on a new routine. Even Uli knew that Mother was in a special hospital and that if Bauman or other neighbours asked questions, we had to say that she had stomach problems. Father stopped taking care of our Subaru, and the back window was once again covered with dust, and children drew the word slob and all sorts of other comments in the dust, and on the damp nights water dripped onto the windshield from the roof, leaving muddy brown circles.
We only visited Mother once, and in honour of the occasion I picked an anemone from the flowerbed at school. Talia, in a tight-fitting denim skirt and a black blouse, her brown-gold hair combed back, resting on the back of her neck like a honey-coloured scarf, rattled the house-keys and hurried me, come on now, so we can catch the three-o’clock bus. I put the anemone in an empty olive jar and we left. The bouncing of the bus shook the water in the jar and a woman said, little girl what is this, you shouldn’t take water on a bus, and when we got off a little water spilled on my shoe and my sock got wet but the anemone stayed fresh and its petals looked transparent in the sun, so that you could see their network of thin veins.
Mother was wearing her green track suit and eating chicken and rice. Some crumbs of rice fell on the suit and some hung from the corners of her mouth. She didn’t say hello, or sit down, or anything. The man sitting next to her had the same exact food on his tray, and he was chewing on a chicken bone. Mother smiled at him and put the remains of her rice on his plate, saying take it, eat, and she tidied up his plate, separating the rice from the gnawed bones, and he scraped the rice from Mother’s mouth with a long yellow nicotine-stained finger. Talia twisted the strap of her handbag tightly around her thumb, her nail turned blue but Talia didn’t stop and she stood there taut as an ironed sheet and when Mother said again eat, eat, she roared Hello Mother in a voice I had never heard before. Three patients stopped eating and stared at her with empty eyes, and rice fell from their spoons which hung in the air on the way from their plates to their mouths, but Mother didn’t hear and kept on with her eat, eat and her thigh inside the green sweat suit brushed against the blue pants he was wearing. Then he pushed his plate to the middle of the table, and when he took Mother’s hand and placed it on his knee and began to move it very slowly up his thigh to the wild place of his pants. Talia pulled me out of there and water spilled from my jar onto the bathrobe of one of the patients. Talia was silent all the way home and didn’t wipe the tears that ran down her cheeks. Once the wind blew one of her tears on my chin and I didn’t wipe it off either. There was practically no water left in the jar and nobody scolded me on the bus, but two women stared at us and whispered to each other, I don’t know if it was because of Talia’s beauty or because she was crying. Talia remained silent and I noticed that the black eye of the anemone was watching the petals the whole time, but it couldn’t prevent the widest petal from starting to wrinkle.
In those days there was no-one around to demand explanations when I came late from school, so I could drag out the steps on my way home. I stood for hours under an almond tree, watching the wind scattering the blossoms, thousands of bits of white blossom drifting along the sidewalk. I gathered them up into the empty sandwich bag and when I opened it at home, the delicate scent of the almond tree emerged and overcome the smell of mayonnaise, and I crushed the petals and smeared the damp mess on my forehead and throat. There was a kind of relief about this blooming of the almond tree, it was so completely certain that every year in the early spring the branches would be covered with the white plumage which would then change to green, always in the same order and at the same time. The almond tree is not one of those types that you can surprise, what does it care if the wind bangs windows that must not be closed for fear of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t count the loaves of bread growing more numerous every day because there is no cooked food. I was so envious of the patience of the trees and the exact order in which things happened to them, I lingered outdoors for hours to gather more proof of this. After the almond trees in Shevat anemones bloomed in the flowerbeds at school and then tulip bulbs thickened under their winding green leaves, and during the Passover holydays on the school-yard turned yellow with wild mustard and chrysanthemums. Under my bed, ficus leaves piled up and yellowed while remaining on their stems, Talia said I should throw out all that rubbish but I knew that when the windows started banging and the noise hurt my ears, all I had to do was look at those leaves and I would calm down.
One evening Father came home from work, stuck his head in the kitchen sink and turned the tap on full force and the water dripped from his tangled hair on the floor and the counter and he dried himself with a worn kitchen towel and said, children Mother is coming back tomorrow. His face was red from being rubbed and his hair stood on end like a porcupine’s, and once again I felt that noise that hurt my ears because the kitchen window was banging like crazy. Uli stopped chewing his bread and ran to his Lego, and Talia wrapped herself in her membrane, detached from Father’s words, her face closed up tight, her eyes staring at a colour photo of a model in a magazine. I tried to learn from her whether this was good or bad news but I didn’t succeed, I only saw how her jaw protruded, and I knew that she was clenching her teeth very hard. In the long silence it seemed to me that the walls were breathing, small squeaks could be heard, something cracking, I was sure they were groaning in distress and I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I said too bad that she’s coming back, and my hand moved of its own accord to protect my cheek from the expected slap, but Father didn’t slap me, he stood like a solid troll doll, a big drop of water glistening on his earlobe like an earring.
Why now, I thought, maybe we can delay her, maybe somebody can run over there and close the heavy gates. Why right now when I have almost silenced the commotion in my head and I already have ways of calming myself, and I have even got used to the glittering eyeballs of the neighbours peering out at us from their doors. They peered at us through their peepholes, and have long ago dismissed the story about stomach problems. I wanted the days to remain equal and there really was a kind of uniformity about them, and suddenly she’s coming back.
When we heard the doors of the Subaru slam shut we stood in the hallway like an honour guard, Talia first, then me, and Uli after me, close together, and because I was in the middle I could feel the heat coming from both of them and the trembling. I had some round margosa seeds in my pockets for security, and I kept feeling them until they become warm and moist. They helped me to overcome the terrible ringing that sent sparks flying up into my brain and stopped up my ears.
I didn’t give Mother my hand when she came in because it was in my pocket clutching those seeds, and when she bent over Uli I saw that she had grown thin, her bones stuck out under her purple blouse. Father led her into the living room as if she were a glass stem, her white elbow grasped in his big hand, and she let him lead her to the biggest and most formal of our three armchairs. She sat down very slowly without moving her head, as if it was fixed rigidly on her neck, folding only her body into a sitting position and said, I’m terribly thirsty, those pills dry me completely. Talia rushed to the kitchen to make lemonade, Uli sat on the floor near the TV and stirred his Lego and I stood still with the seeds in my hand and I had no idea what is done on such occasions. Father helped her unbuckle her shoes, there were red marks on her white feet from the straps, and I decided that the best thing for me to do was to concentrate on the feet business and think about nothing else.
Why are you afraid of me, she asked and all the windows banged at once, don’t be afraid, I take medicine and I’m fine, I just need to get stronger, and I saw that her ring had slipped down to her knuckle and stopped and she was twisting it around and around on her finger. Ignore it, I said to myself, think about the patience of the old ficus, go to your room and touch the leaves, but the space under my bed was empty and clean, Talia had removed everything.
They didn’t suspect anything at the grocery when I took five jars of pickled cucumbers and said that Father would pay later. The jars were much heavier than I expected and my right shoulder hurt. Everyone was still sitting in the living room when I poured the contents on the windowsill in the kitchen, five rows, ten cucumbers in each row, dark green, close together, glittering in the sun. The strong wind blew out the Baumans’ curtains, now and then enlarging the opening between them. I had been careful to open all the windows earlier, even the small one we never opened in the shower, and all the cabinets and all the drawers, everything was open to enlarge the space and lessen the danger of carbon dioxide. And now that everything was open and air flowed freely from wall to wall I could allow myself to stand quietly in the kitchen and look at what was happening outside. The Baumans’ curtains fluttered like a giant butterfly, thin fringes edging the pink gauze flew about in the wind like Talia’s hair, I think Mrs. Bauman’s eye was blue, or maybe it just seemed that way because the sky was reflected in her glasses.
Winds blew back and forth in the space between our house and theirs, the last fingers of light played on the walls. I waited for darkness when the flight of the bats begins, they take off all at once from the south side of the building and the moon shines on their heavy bellies. Strange creatures, thick membranes connect their limbs and they fly through the yard in total blindness, and perhaps this whole flying business is not as complicated as I thought. I emptied my pockets of the seeds to get rid of the weight, and they bounced against the windows of the neighbors below us until they landed on the ground. I rolled up my sleeves and exposed my elbows and started to move them up and down in a uniform, controlled motion, and felt that with only a little improvement I could detach myself from the ground and hover, and then my flight would be as transparent and delicate as a dragonfly’s, and Mrs. Bauman’s shrieks, help! the girl is jumping, did not divert my mind and the motion of my elbows became smoother, more delicate and exact, almost perfect.
*This story is taken from: Mira Magen, Well Buttoned-Up, Keter, 1994.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.
There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighbourhood.
Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.
At last the mother said: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as expensive.
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be smirking all the more self-consciously because of it. The foolish puppy, too, that took the place of the teddy-bear, he was looking so extraordinarily foolish for no other reason but that he heard the secret whisper all over the house: “There must be more money!”
Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle’s, or else a taxi?”
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.”
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And are’nt you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, it I married an unlucky husband.”
“But by yourself, aren’t you?”
“I used to think I was, before I married. Now I think I am very unlucky indeed.”
“Well – never mind! Perhaps I’m not really,” she said.
The child looked at her to see if she meant it. But he saw, by the lines of her mouth, that she was only trying to hide something from him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother, with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!”, she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s exclamations.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.
He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck’. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him.
When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He’s always riding like that! I wish he’d leave off!” said his elder sister Joan.
But he only glared down on them in silence. Nurse gave him up. She could make nothing of him. Anyhow, he was growing beyond her.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in when he was on one of his furious rides. He did not speak to them.
“Hallo, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know,” said his mother.
But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would speak to nobody when he was in full tilt. His mother watched him with an anxious expression on her face.
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.
“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her.
“That’s right, son!” said Uncle Oscar. “Don’t you stop till you get there. What’s the horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have a name,” said the boy.
“Get’s on without all right?” asked the uncle.
“Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week.”
“Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know this name?”
“He always talks about horse-races with Bassett,” said Joan.
The uncle was delighted to find that his small nephew was posted with all the racing news. Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been, was a perfect blade of the ‘turf’. He lived in the racing events, and the small boy lived with him.
Oscar Cresswell got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can’t do more than tell him, sir,” said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters.
“And does he ever put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“Well – I don’t want to give him away – he’s a young sport, a fine sport, sir. Would you mind asking him himself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and perhaps he’d feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don’t mind.
Bassett was serious as a church.
The uncle went back to his nephew and took him off for a ride in the car.
“Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?” the uncle asked.
The boy watched the handsome man closely.
“Why, do you think I oughtn’t to?” he parried.
“Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the Lincoln.”
The car sped on into the country, going down to Uncle Oscar’s place in Hampshire.
“Honour bright?” said the nephew.
“Honour bright, son!” said the uncle.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil! I doubt it, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know the winner,” said the boy. “That’s Daffodil.”
There was a pause. Daffodil was an obscure horse comparatively.
“You won’t let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett.”
“Bassett be damned, old man! What’s he got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. We’ve been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t let it go any further, will you?”
The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily.
“Right you are, son! I’ll keep your tip private. How much are you putting on him?”
“All except twenty pounds,” said the boy. “I keep that in reserve.”
The uncle thought it a good joke.
“You keep twenty pounds in reserve, do you, you young romancer? What are you betting, then?”
“I’m betting three hundred,” said the boy gravely. “But it’s between you and me, Uncle Oscar! Honour bright?”
“It’s between you and me all right, you young Nat Gould,” he said, laughing. “But where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partner’s.”
“You are, are you! And what is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as I do, I expect. Perhaps he’ll go a hundred and fifty.”
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, with a surprised look at his uncle. “Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.”
Between wonder and amusement Uncle Oscar was silent. He pursued the matter no further, but he determined to take his nephew with him to the Lincoln races.
“Now, son,” he said, “I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said the child.
“Good! Good! Right you are! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on Daffodil.”
The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down, yelling “Lancelot!, Lancelot!” in his French accent.
Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boys eyes.
“I suppose we’ll talk to Bassett,” said the boy. “I expect I have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him for some moments.
“Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I am. But it’s between you and me, uncle. Honour bright?”
“Honour bright all right, son! But I must talk to Bassett.”
“If you’d like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could all be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honour bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it was your ten shillings I started winning with …”
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon, and there they talked.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would get me talking about racing events, spinning yarns, you know, sir. And he was always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. It’s about a year since, now, that I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the luck turned, with that ten shillings he had from you: that we put on Singhalese. And since that time, it’s been pretty steady, all things considering. What do you say, Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re not quite sure that we go down.”
“Oh, but we’re careful then,” said Bassett.
“But when are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” said Bassett in a secret, religious voice. “It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln. That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Oscar Cresswell.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett was obstinately silent, looking at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred, didn’t I, Bassett? I told uncle I was putting three hundred on Daffodil.”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it safe locked up, sir. Master Paul he can have it any minute he likes to ask for it.”
“What, fifteen hundred pounds?”
“And twenty! And forty, that is, with the twenty he made on the course.”
“It’s amazing!” said the uncle.
“If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you: if you’ll excuse me,” said Bassett.
Oscar Cresswell thought about it.
“I’ll see the money,” he said.
They drove home again, and, sure enough, Bassett came round to the garden-house with fifteen hundred pounds in notes. The twenty pounds reserve was left with Joe Glee, in the Turf Commission deposit.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure! Then we go strong, for all we’re worth, don’t we, Bassett?”
“We do that, Master Paul.”
“And when are you sure?” said the uncle, laughing.
“Oh, well, sometimes I’m absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,” said the boy; “and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven’t even an idea, have I, Bassett? Then we’re careful, because we mostly go down.”
“You do, do you! And when you’re sure, like about Daffodil, what makes you sure, sonny?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” said the boy uneasily. “I’m sure, you know, uncle; that’s all.”
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say so!” said the uncle.
But he became a partner. And when the Leger was coming on Paul was ‘sure’ about Lively Spark, which was a quite inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on putting a thousand on the horse, Bassett went for five hundred, and Oscar Cresswell two hundred. Lively Spark came in first, and the betting had been ten to one against him. Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” he said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand.
“Look here, son,” he said, “this sort of thing makes me nervous.”
“It needn’t, uncle! Perhaps I shan’t be sure again for a long time.”
“But what are you going to do with your money?” asked the uncle.
“Of course,” said the boy, “I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why – why” – the boy fidgeted – “why, I don’t know. But it’s always short of money, you know, uncle.”
“I know it, son, I know it.”
“You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the uncle.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your back. It’s awful, that is! I thought if I was lucky -“
“You might stop it,” added the uncle.
The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word.
“Well, then!” said the uncle. “What are we doing?”
“I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky,” said the boy.
“Why not, son?”
“She’d stop me.”
“I don’t think she would.”
“Oh!” – and the boy writhed in an odd way – “I don’t want her to know, uncle.”
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.”
They managed it very easily. Paul, at the other’s suggestion, handed over five thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into his hands, which sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
“So she’ll have a birthday present of a thousand pounds for five successive years,” said Uncle Oscar. “I hope it won’t make it all the harder for her later.”
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been ‘whispering’ worse than ever lately, and, even in spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter, telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials, so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and absent.
She went away to town without saying more.
But in the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had had a long interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think, uncle?” said the boy.
“I leave it to you, son.”
“Oh, let her have it, then! We can get some more with the other,” said the boy.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, laddie!” said Uncle Oscar.
“But I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them,” said Paul.
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five thousand. Then something very curious happened. The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a blossoming of the luxury Paul’s mother had been used to. And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”
It frightened Paul terribly. He studied away at his Latin and Greek with his tutor. But his intense hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had gone by: he had not ‘known’, and had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand. He was in agony for the Lincoln. But even for the Lincoln he didn’t ‘know’, and he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
“Let it alone, son! Don’t you bother about it!” urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn’t really hear what his uncle was saying.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
His mother noticed how overwrought he was.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the seaside, instead of waiting? I think you’d better,” she said, looking down at him anxiously, her heart curiously heavy because of him.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
“I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, mother!” he said. “I couldn’t possibly!”
“Why not?” she said, her voice becoming heavy when she was opposed. “Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your Uncle Oscar, if that that’s what you wish. No need for you to wait here. Besides, I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My family has been a gambling family, and you won’t know till you grow up how much damage it has done. But it has done damage. I shall have to send Bassett away, and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing to you, unless you promise to be reasonable about it: go away to the seaside and forget it. You’re all nerves!”
“I’ll do what you like, mother, so long as you don’t send me away till after the Derby,” the boy said.
“Send you away from where? Just from this house?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at her.
“Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much, suddenly? I never knew you loved it.”
He gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
But his mother, after standing undecided and a little bit sullen for some moments, said: “Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the Derby, if you don’t wish it. But promise me you won’t think so much about horse-racing and events as you call them!”
“Oh no,” said the boy casually. “I won’t think much about them, mother. You needn’t worry. I wouldn’t worry, mother, if I were you.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what we should do!”
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother, don’t you?” the boy repeated.
“I should be awfully glad to know it,” she said wearily.
“Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn’t worry,” he insisted.
“Ought I? Then I’ll see about it,” she said.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse, that which had no name. Since he was emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess, he had had his rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about,” had been his quaint answer.
“Do you feel he keeps you company?” she laughed.
“Oh yes! He’s very good, he always keeps me company, when I’m there,” said Paul.
So the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in the boy’s bedroom.
The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town, when one of her rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she could hardly speak. She fought with the feeling, might and main, for she believed in common sense. But it was too strong. She had to leave the dance and go downstairs to telephone to the country. The children’s nursery-governess was terribly surprised and startled at being rung up in the night.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Oh yes, they are quite all right.”
“Master Paul? Is he all right?”
“He went to bed as right as a trivet. Shall I run up and look at him?”
“No,” said Paul’s mother reluctantly. “No! Don’t trouble. It’s all right. Don’t sit up. We shall be home fairly soon.” She did not want her son’s privacy intruded upon.
“Very good,” said the governess.
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house. All was still. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur cloak. She had told her maid not to wait up for her. She heard her husband downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. There was a strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She ought to know. She felt that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
“Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s Malabar!”
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.
But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!”
So the child cried, trying to get up and urge the rocking-horse that gave him his inspiration.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the heart-frozen mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father stonily.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby,” was the answer.
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, and himself put a thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: they were waiting for a change. The boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones. His mother sat, feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone.
In the evening Oscar Cresswell did not come, but Bassett sent a message, saying could he come up for one moment, just one moment? Paul’s mother was very angry at the intrusion, but on second thoughts she agreed. The boy was the same. Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul’s mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You’ve made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you’ve got over eighty thousand. Malabar came in all right, Master Paul.”
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that lucky, don’t you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure – oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”
“No, you never did,” said his mother.
But the boy died in the night.
And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice saying to her, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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