Here, people are only observed by the eyes of the night watch. The walls of Acre have not yet been completely built. Nor its lighthouse that looks over the sea to the west. The stones are cleansed by the sweat of the builders, scorched by day and then are cooled down at night by the waves of the sea.
The family sleeps, and Laila goes out under the cover of darkness. She shelters in the space between the piles of huge cut stones that are laid out east of the sea and the waves coming from the west. It does not occur to anyone that the night watch has eyes amidst the waves and in the labyrinth of emptiness among the stones.
Their love was forbidden. ‘Azim, a soldier in the guards of Ahmad al-Bushnaqi al-Jazzar, was not allowed to marry, and Laila was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. They used to meet clandestinely there under the moonlit darkness where Acre met its waves.
“ ‘Azim, look how the sands of the beach delight when the waves break over them.”
“Laila, I will love you all my life. We will sit here, just the two of us, looking at these sands of ours.”
“But the sands of Acre will not be satisfied with one wave breaking over them.”
As dawn broke there came the din of the builders as they shifted the great building blocks day after day to line them up to make the great towering walls. Not one of them realised that the damp patch yet to dry on a stone was ‘Azim’s semen. It was not the only stain on the rocks.
“The eyes of the night watch never sleep,” whispered ‘Azim’s comrade at the barracks into his friend’s ear.
On that morning, 13 October 1784, the din of the builders was unusual. For some minutes it masked the tapping of the chisels, and only shouts were heard.
On the site for the construction of Acre lighthouse, there were only men and one woman. She had been brought to trial for cheating on her husband with a lover from the neighbouring village, who was reputed to be a maker of fine ceramics and an innovative artist. His pieces filled the houses of the wealthy and well-off of Acre. But as for her, nobody could remember her name or family. All that was said was that her husband was a butcher who had been stricken by illness for a long time, that his skin was covered with pustules, and that he had been married to four women before here and had no offspring.
On this morning the two of them were buried alive beneath the lower stones of the lighthouse. Builders’ clay covered their bodies until they suffocated.
The commotion did not die down, but changed just as the tones of music change in a stirring symphony. After the shouts and cries for help, the roaring of the soldiers and the curses of the angry husband came the turn of the chisels and the orders of the soldiers as they tried to get the work going in an orderly way once again.
Life returned to its natural order until the setting of the sun.
‘Azim stuck to the peripheries of the city, leaving the barracks heading westward. Laila would be waiting for him after sunset. If anyone saw him in the darkness he would not be able to avoid suspicion. Indeed his tumultuous thoughts were audible behind the dark sleeping windows. “The eyes of the night watch never sleep” repeated unceasingly in his mind. He suddenly gave a secret smile, “But I know them all. If any of them saw me, would they denounce Laila and me?” He went on smiling and shaking his head, “Impossible, under any circumstances. I know how to conceal myself and protect her from any scandal. I will go to Laila and snatch delight from her after the toils of the day.” That was what went on in the mind of ‘Azim as he made his way to meet Laila.
She was waiting for him. She was sitting on the stone that had been laid out that day, its edges sealed with damp mud. ‘Azim reached her. His desire for her was like a volcano about to erupt. She turned into red-hot lava when she caught sight of him. They embraced, exchanging lascivious kisses as if they were at war, using every part of their mouths as weapons. Wildly, impatiently, they pulled off each other’s clothes. He fondled her breasts with his rough hands. Her trembling hands undid the cord of his trousers searching for his penis. She grabbed it at its base and took it up to her hungry mouth. She loved to savour its heat in her mouth, and relished its gradual swelling, inwardly proud at her ability to make it stand to attention. She looked at it fully erect and said with a chuckle, “There’s no need for the builders to wake up tomorrow. The lighthouse is already lit up.”
There was a crescent moon. Stealthily, it watched over the land. The eyes of the night watch never sleep.
I must go back to the barracks now. Before they notice my absence. He wiped the head of his penis against her breasts. Her mouth was still full, so she nodded her consent. She swallowed her saliva and whatever was with it. “You go first,” she said, “and I’ll follow after a little while.” This was what usually happened so they would not be seen together.
‘Azim went back to his barracks. He slept long and soundly.
On the western shore the waves crashed violently against the sands one after another.
Laila was down on her knees on the cold rough stone; she sucked the cocks of the watchmen one after another.
The spume of the waves drenched the sands.
“The invention of the soul allows us to conceive of the body as a parasite. Hands can be objects that are devoid of feeling during the day but soft and tender at night. These actions do not contradict one another. They take part in the dual situation of not being me and nonetheless being mine.”
The phone rang, and when I answered it I heard a mumble and a stammer, then a cough. A few seconds later I heard a male voice: “You’ve most certainly forgotten, but you once promised to publish my book. We met in Baqa, Baqa al-Gharbiyye. You gave me your phone number and your email address. You haven’t changed it, but you’ve not been answering.”
He tried to refresh my memory about the conversation we had that evening in Baqa. As it turns out, it was an event that took place some ten years ago. “Are you in hiding?” he asked, “or has it still been possible to reach you?”
“No, it’s just that…”
“I do that too. I distance myself from people.”
He chuckled. “It’s a long story, and I promised myself I wouldn’t take up your time.”
“Email me the manuscript,” I said. “I promise, I’ll read it and write to you.”
“I would prefer to show it to you.”
His persistence annoyed me.
“I won’t take up much of your time.”
Based on his rich Hebrew vocabulary, it was clear to me that he was a man who had read many books in Hebrew, although his heavy Arabic accent smoothed it somewhat, and the language sounded affected at times. “OK,” I heard myself say.
It was August, and I was exhausted by the humidity. I never left the house and I did not feel like hosting, as I am fanatical about my freedom. What had come over me to make me acquiesce? I dialed his number with the intention of postponing the meeting but I hung up at the sound of the ringtone and grumbled to myself. I suspected that it was the fact that he was an Arab that had caused me to acquiesce. I stood by the window and peeked outside at Rothschild Boulevard. The street was packed and the sky had a reddish hue. The air-conditioner gurgled softly, producing sounds reminiscent of the large fan my father had installed behind the “cooling rack” he attached to the window in their small apartment on the kibbutz. Another person trying to fix the world… An hour passed, and the man did not turn up. I searched for stars in the sky which had grown dark, but I knew I would not find even one in the Tel Aviv sky. Then I heard a sort of scratching at the door. I went to open it. In the entrance stood a tall man wearing a white shirt, a yellow bow-tie, and black patent leather shoes. With his right hand, he grasped the handle of a blue trolley bag. “Doesn’t your door have a doorbell?” he asked.
“The button’s right here,” I said.
“Is it? I’m half-blind. It comes with the years. We don’t die all at once. We do it in installments.”
“Come on in,” I said. He walked in, pulling the trolley behind him, and he stopped in the middle of the room.
“Aren’t you hot? You’re dressed as if it’s not sweltering outside.”
“Hot? No. My father, may he rest in peace, used to say: ‘What people see is more than what they think. How you dress is your opportunity to be who you want them to think you are.”
He smiled, and I noticed that his two front teeth were broken. I gestured with my hand toward the sofa. “Please, have a seat. I’ll bring us something cold to drink.” He followed my movements. I could feel his eyes boring into my back. I almost turned to face him. What was I thinking when I invited him over? When I returned he was seated calmly on the sofa, his right hand grasping the trolley handle. I put the glass of cold water down on the table, and my gaze swept over his face. It was narrow and emanated fragility. For a moment he seemed to tense up inside himself, but then I saw him relax, lift the trolley and place it on his lap, open it, and remove a tall stack of pages that were tied together with twine. He placed the bundle on the coffee table. It was at least thirty centimeters high. Printed across the top page, in large letters, was the title: “Kaddish.”
“Wow.” The word escaped my lips. “How many years did it take you to write that book?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? My grandfather started writing it, and then my father. I finished it, or at least it seems that way to me. You tell me.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“I don’t live anywhere.” He cleared his throat. “In our little village by the sea, where I come from, there were guys who ate in a different house every day. My father used to say, ‘They don’t want to forget their true home.’ I spend every night in a different house. I have a brother-in-law, my late sister’s husband, whose house I sleep at two nights a week. I have a friend, a fisherman, and I can sleep at his place when I need to. I once lived in Baqa, but the house was designated for demolition and then demolished. I rented a place, but when I got sick and was in the hospital they stole everything I had except the manuscript and the books. The fisherman is keeping them for me, and I keep the manuscript in the trolley. After everything that happened to my family in the village by the sea and to me, I don’t want to settle down permanently anywhere.”
“What did you do before they demolished your home?”
The man wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief and smiled at me. “I did what you told me to do, during that conversation in Baqa – you told me to smuggle myself, to sneak about, to slip away. You said then that this was human nature, that people cannot do anything in a straight line. That one always needs to maneuver between the forces of evil and insanity.”
I smiled. I did not remember telling him anything of the sort. He looked at me and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them he said: “The moment a person acquires the power of some kind he becomes evil. Someone holding a knife – stabs. Someone holding a gun – shoots. And someone holding a pen writes laws that are always on the side of the thieves and the murderers. This applies to the entire human race, as well as to animals. Wolves devour sheep, lions devour zebras. I read what you wrote – that even when your father tried to fulfill dreams of justice and equality it turned into a nightmare. Dreams are only good when they remain in your head. If you want to fulfill them, it becomes a nightmare.” He took a sip of water from the glass. “It’s impossible to resume living normally after they demolish your home. And if you’re an Arab, you best learn how to speak about.”
Something inside me wanted him to leave. I stood up and opened the window. The air that flowed into the room carried the sounds of a piano as if trying to say: “Look, Iftach, I brought such and such, and such and such – that is, this and that type of jazz, and a good imitation of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me.’ Free yourself of this guy…he brings nothing but trouble!” But I immediately became suspicious of myself and asked: “How do you make a living?”
“I’m a smuggler,” he said. “My father was also a smuggler. After your War of Independence, the people who fled to the Gaza Strip wanted to move back to Israel. He would smuggle them. When the Egyptians came to the Strip to introduce order, they closed off our village. He smuggled us out. That’s how we got to Baqa. My grandmother was also a smuggler. During World War II my grandfather was drafted and she smuggled meat, tobacco, and other contraband.”
“What do you smuggle?” I asked.“I smuggle myself. I’m the only one left from my family. My sister got married and died of an illness. My older brother went to Jordan and was killed in Black September. I stayed in the house until they demolished it, and since then I’ve been smuggling myself.”
“So, the book is your family’s life story?”
“No, no. The book is about the war against ego. That is, war against the temptation of believing that you have the ability to change things. It was my grandfather who started the war. He would say Kaddish for the ego every morning and every night, in Hebrew, to make his life miserable. This book contains the history of all the wars against ego.”
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
The man slowly untied the knot on top of the bundle, pulled out the first page, and said: “This is the preface that my grandfather wrote. He was a fisherman, but he had books that he would copy out of: ‘God is a cosmic wolf, the tyrant of all tyrants, everything is his work: the hungry wolf, the frightened sheep, the struggle for existence, cancerous illnesses, heart attacks, insanity. He created all the evils that you know and can imagine. They say he also creates new angels every day. They ingratiate themselves with him and sing him songs of praise, and then when their ego sprouts and grows they are destroyed.’”
“So, your god is some kind of a heavenly wolf?”
He was silent. I walked over to him and picked up the stack of pages, read two of them, and said: “Leave it here. I’ll read it. Do you have a copy?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t plan on leaving you the book. I also didn’t intend on you publishing it. Who needs books in our day and age? Not even the authors themselves. All I wanted was to speak to you.”
“I know a few people who need to do that,” I said.
“No. It’s surrendering to the ego.”
He straightened up, retied the twine carefully around the stack of pages, and placed it back in the trolley that was on his lap. Then he stood up and made his way to the door, pulling the trolley behind him. I walked him to the hallway, and I told him again that I’d be happy to read the book. “Thank you very much,” he said. “But what can literature do? Nothing. Good night.”
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun. Being sociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston—with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.
The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbor.
Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.
She was a till woman of imperious mien, handsome, with definite black eyebrows. Her smooth black hair was parted exactly. For a few moments she stood steadily watching the miners as they passed along the railway: then she turned towards the brook course. Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. After a moment she called:
“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly:
“Where are you?”
“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.
“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.
For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.
“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook—and you remember what I told you—”
The boy did not move or answer.
“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”
The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.
As they went slowly towards the house he tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.
“Don’t do that—it does look nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of the small train was imminent. Suddenly the engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.
The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.
“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion.
It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned.
“I didn’t come to see you on Sunday,” began the little grey-bearded man.
“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.
The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:
“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think—?”
“I think it is soon enough,” she replied.
At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:
“Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And if I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late—what does it matter to anybody?”
The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returned with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.
“You needn’t ‘a’ brought me bread an’ butter,” said her father. “But a cup of tea”—he sipped appreciatively—”it’s very nice.” He sipped for a moment or two, then: “I hear as Walter’s got another bout on,” he said.
“When hasn’t he?” said the woman bitterly.
“I heered tell of him in the ‘Lord Nelson’ braggin’ as he was going to spend that b——afore he went: half a sovereign that was.”
“When?” asked the woman.
“A’ Sat’day night—I know that’s true.”
“Very likely,” she laughed bitterly. “He gives me twenty-three shillings.”
“Aye, it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!” said the grey-whiskered man. The woman turned her head away. Her father swallowed the last of his tea and handed her the cup.
“Aye,” he sighed, wiping his mouth. “It’s a settler, it is—”
He put his hand on the lever. The little engine strained and groaned, and the train rumbled towards the crossing. The woman again looked across the metals. Darkness was settling over the spaces of the railway and trucks: the miners, in grey sombre groups, were still passing home. The winding-engine pulsed hurriedly, with brief pauses. Elizabeth Bates looked at the dreary flow of men, then she went indoors. Her husband did not come.
The kitchen was small and full of firelight; red coals piled glowing up the chimney mouth. All the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire. The cloth was laid for tea; cups glinted in the shadows. At the back, where the lowest stairs protruded into the room, the boy sat struggling with a knife and a piece of whitewood. He was almost hidden in the shadow. It was half-past four. They had but to await the father’s coming to begin tea. As the mother watched her son’s sullen little struggle with the wood, she saw herself in his silence and pertinacity; she saw the father in her child’s indifference to all but himself. She seemed to be occupied by her husband. He had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting. She glanced at the clock, then took the potatoes to strain them in the yard. The garden and fields beyond the brook were closed in uncertain darkness. When she rose with the saucepan, leaving the drain steaming into the night behind her, she saw the yellow lamps were lit along the high road that went up the hill away beyond the space of the railway lines and the field.
Then again she watched the men trooping home, fewer now and fewer.
Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red. The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving. Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door. Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.
Her mother chid her for coming late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.
“Why, mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet. The lamp’s not lighted, and my father’s not home.”
“No, he isn’t. But it’s a quarter to five! Did you see anything of him?”
The child became serious. She looked at her mother with large, wistful blue eyes.
“No, mother, I’ve never seen him. Why? Has he come up an’ gone past, to Old Brinsley? He hasn’t, mother, ‘cos I never saw him.”
“He’d watch that,” said the mother bitterly, “he’d take care as you didn’t see him. But you may depend upon it, he’s seated in the ‘Prince o’ Wales’. He wouldn’t be this late.”
The girl looked at her mother piteously.
“Let’s have our teas, mother, should we?” said she.
The mother called John to table. She opened the door once more and looked out across the darkness of the lines. All was deserted: she could not hear the winding-engines.
“Perhaps,” she said to herself, “he’s stopped to get some ripping done.”
They sat down to tea. John, at the end of the table near the door, was almost lost in the darkness. Their faces were hidden from each other. The girl crouched against the fender slowly moving a thick piece of bread before the fire. The lad, his face a dusky mark on the shadow, sat watching her who was transfigured in the red glow.
“I do think it’s beautiful to look in the fire,” said the child.
“Do you?” said her mother. “Why?”
“It’s so red, and full of little caves—and it feels so nice, and you can fair smell it.”
“It’ll want mending directly,” replied her mother, “and then if your father comes he’ll carry on and say there never is a fire when a man comes home sweating from the pit.—A public-house is always warm enough.”
There was silence till the boy said complainingly: “Make haste, our Annie.”
“Well, I am doing! I can’t make the fire do it no faster, can I?”
“She keeps wafflin’ it about so’s to make ‘er slow,” grumbled the boy.
“Don’t have such an evil imagination, child,” replied the mother.
Soon the room was busy in the darkness with the crisp sound of crunching. The mother ate very little. She drank her tea determinedly, and sat thinking. When she rose her anger was evident in the stern unbending of her head. She looked at the pudding in the fender, and broke out:
“It is a scandalous thing as a man can’t even come home to his dinner! If it’s crozzled up to a cinder I don’t see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him—”
She went out. As she dropped piece after piece of coal on the red fire, the shadows fell on the walls, till the room was almost in total darkness.
“I canna see,” grumbled the invisible John. In spite of herself, the mother laughed.
“You know the way to your mouth,” she said. She set the dustpan outside the door. When she came again like a shadow on the hearth, the lad repeated, complaining sulkily:
“I canna see.”
“Good gracious!” cried the mother irritably, “you’re as bad as your father if it’s a bit dusk?”
Nevertheless she took a paper spill from a sheaf on the mantelpiece and proceeded to light the lamp that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. As she reached up, her figure displayed itself just rounding with maternity.
“Oh, mother—!” exclaimed the girl.
“What?” said the woman, suspended in the act of putting the lamp glass over the flame. The copper reflector shone handsomely on her, as she stood with uplifted arm, turning to face her daughter.
“You’ve got a flower in your apron!” said the child, in a little rapture at this unusual event.
“Goodness me!” exclaimed the woman, relieved. “One would think the house was afire.” She replaced the glass and waited a moment before turning up the wick. A pale shadow was seen floating vaguely on the floor.
“Let me smell!” said the child, still rapturously, coming forward and putting her face to her mother’s waist.
“Go along, silly!” said the mother, turning up the lamp. The light revealed their suspense so that the woman felt it almost unbearable. Annie was still bending at her waist. Irritably, the mother took the flowers out from her apron-band.
“Oh, mother—don’t take them out!” Annie cried, catching her hand and trying to replace the sprig.
“Such nonsense!” said the mother, turning away. The child put the pale chrysanthemums to her lips, murmuring:
“Don’t they smell beautiful!”
Her mother gave a short laugh.
“No,” she said, “not to me. It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.”
She looked at the children. Their eyes and their parted lips were wondering. The mother sat rocking in silence for some time. Then she looked at the clock.
“Twenty minutes to six!” In a tone of fine bitter carelessness she continued: “Eh, he’ll not come now till they bring him. There he’ll stick! But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him. He can lie on the floor—Eh, what a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door. Twice last week—he’s begun now—”
She silenced herself, and rose to clear the table.
While for an hour or more the children played, subduedly intent, fertile of imagination, united in fear of the mother’s wrath, and in dread of their father’s home-coming, Mrs Bates sat in her rocking-chair making a ‘singlet’ of thick cream-coloured flannel, which gave a dull wounded sound as she tore off the grey edge. She worked at her sewing with energy, listening to the children, and her anger wearied itself, lay down to rest, opening its eyes from time to time and steadily watching, its ears raised to listen. Sometimes even her anger quailed and shrank, and the mother suspended her sewing, tracing the footsteps that thudded along the sleepers outside; she would lift her head sharply to bid the children ‘hush’, but she recovered herself in time, and the footsteps went past the gate, and the children were not flung out of their playing world.
But at last Annie sighed, and gave in. She glanced at her waggon of slippers, and loathed the game. She turned plaintively to her mother.
“Mother!”—but she was inarticulate.
John crept out like a frog from under the sofa. His mother glanced up.
“Yes,” she said, “just look at those shirt-sleeves!”
The boy held them out to survey them, saying nothing. Then somebody called in a hoarse voice away down the line, and suspense bristled in the room, till two people had gone by outside, talking.
“It is time for bed,” said the mother.
“My father hasn’t come,” wailed Annie plaintively. But her mother was primed with courage.
“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does come—like a log.” She meant there would be no scene. “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”
The children had their hands and faces wiped with a flannel. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. The mother looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, at the little black head of the lad, and her heart burst with anger at their father who caused all three such distress. The children hid their faces in her skirts for comfort.
When Mrs Bates came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. She took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger was tinged with fear.
The clock struck eight and she rose suddenly, dropping her sewing on her chair. She went to the stairfoot door, opened it, listening. Then she went out, locking the door behind her.
Something scuffled in the yard, and she started, though she knew it was only the rats with which the place was overrun. The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway lines, bulked with trucks, there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She hurried along the edge of the track, then, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the white gates, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her shrank. People were walking up to New Brinsley; she saw the lights in the houses; twenty yards further on were the broad windows of the ‘Prince of Wales’, very warm and bright, and the loud voices of men could be heard distinctly. What a fool she had been to imagine that anything had happened to him! He was merely drinking over there at the ‘Prince of Wales’. She faltered. She had never yet been to fetch him, and she never would go. So she continued her walk towards the long straggling line of houses, standing blank on the highway. She entered a passage between the dwellings.
“Mr Rigley?—Yes! Did you want him? No, he’s not in at this minute.”
The raw-boned woman leaned forward from her dark scullery and peered at the other, upon whom fell a dim light through the blind of the kitchen window.
“Is it Mrs Bates?” she asked in a tone tinged with respect.
“Yes. I wondered if your Master was at home. Mine hasn’t come yet.”
“‘Asn’t ‘e! Oh, Jack’s been ‘ome an ‘ad ‘is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ‘alf an hour afore bedtime. Did you call at the ‘Prince of Wales’?”
“No, you didn’t like!— It’s not very nice.” The other woman was indulgent. There was an awkward pause. “Jack never said nothink about—about your Mester,” she said.
“No!—I expect he’s stuck in there!”
Elizabeth Bates said this bitterly, and with recklessness. She knew that the woman across the yard was standing at her door listening, but she did not care. As she turned:
“Stop a minute! I’ll just go an’ ask Jack if e’ knows anythink,” said Mrs Rigley.
“Oh, no—I wouldn’t like to put—!”
“Yes, I will, if you’ll just step inside an’ see as th’ childer doesn’t come downstairs and set theirselves afire.”
Elizabeth Bates, murmuring a remonstrance, stepped inside. The other woman apologized for the state of the room.
The kitchen needed apology. There were little frocks and trousers and childish undergarments on the squab and on the floor, and a litter of playthings everywhere. On the black American cloth of the table were pieces of bread and cake, crusts, slops, and a teapot with cold tea.
“Eh, ours is just as bad,” said Elizabeth Bates, looking at the woman, not at the house. Mrs Rigley put a shawl over her head and hurried out, saying:
“I shanna be a minute.”
The other sat, noting with faint disapproval the general untidiness of the room. Then she fell to counting the shoes of various sizes scattered over the floor. There were twelve. She sighed and said to herself, “No wonder!”—glancing at the litter. There came the scratching of two pairs of feet on the yard, and the Rigleys entered. Elizabeth Bates rose. Rigley was a big man, with very large bones. His head looked particularly bony. Across his temple was a blue scar, caused by a wound got in the pit, a wound in which the coal-dust remained blue like tattooing.
“Asna ‘e come whoam yit?” asked the man, without any form of greeting, but with deference and sympathy. “I couldna say wheer he is—’e’s non ower theer!”—he jerked his head to signify the ‘Prince of Wales’.
“‘E’s ‘appen gone up to th’ ‘Yew’,” said Mrs Rigley.
There was another pause. Rigley had evidently something to get off his mind:
“Ah left ‘im finishin’ a stint,” he began. “Loose-all ‘ad bin gone about ten minutes when we com’n away, an’ I shouted, ‘Are ter comin’, Walt?’ an’ ‘e said, ‘Go on, Ah shanna be but a’ef a minnit,’ so we com’n ter th’ bottom, me an’ Bowers, thinkin’ as ‘e wor just behint, an’ ‘ud come up i’ th’ next bantle—”
He stood perplexed, as if answering a charge of deserting his mate. Elizabeth Bates, now again certain of disaster, hastened to reassure him:
“I expect ‘e’s gone up to th’ ‘Yew Tree’, as you say. It’s not the first time. I’ve fretted myself into a fever before now. He’ll come home when they carry him.”
“Ay, isn’t it too bad!” deplored the other woman.
“I’ll just step up to Dick’s an’ see if ‘e is theer,” offered the man, afraid of appearing alarmed, afraid of taking liberties.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of bothering you that far,” said Elizabeth Bates, with emphasis, but he knew she was glad of his offer.
As they stumbled up the entry, Elizabeth Bates heard Rigley’s wife run across the yard and open her neighbour’s door. At this, suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart.
“Mind!” warned Rigley. “Ah’ve said many a time as Ah’d fill up them ruts in this entry, sumb’dy ‘ll be breakin’ their legs yit.”
She recovered herself and walked quickly along with the miner.
“I don’t like leaving the children in bed, and nobody in the house,” she said.
“No, you dunna!” he replied courteously. They were soon at the gate of the cottage.
“Well, I shanna be many minnits. Dunna you be frettin’ now, ‘e’ll be all right,” said the butty.
“Thank you very much, Mr Rigley,” she replied.
“You’re welcome!” he stammered, moving away. “I shanna be many minnits.”
The house was quiet. Elizabeth Bates took off her hat and shawl, and rolled back the rug. When she had finished, she sat down. It was a few minutes past nine. She was startled by the rapid chuff of the winding-engine at the pit, and the sharp whirr of the brakes on the rope as it descended. Again she felt the painful sweep of her blood, and she put her hand to her side, saying aloud, “Good gracious!—it’s only the nine o’clock deputy going down,” rebuking herself.
She sat still, listening. Half an hour of this, and she was wearied out.
“What am I working myself up like this for?” she said pitiably to herself, “I s’ll only be doing myself some damage.”
She took out her sewing again.
At a quarter to ten there were footsteps. One person! She watched for the door to open. It was an elderly woman, in a black bonnet and a black woollen shawl—his mother. She was about sixty years old, pale, with blue eyes, and her face all wrinkled and lamentable. She shut the door and turned to her daughter-in-law peevishly.
“Eh, Lizzie, whatever shall we do, whatever shall we do!” she cried.
Elizabeth drew back a little, sharply.
“What is it, mother?” she said.
The elder woman seated herself on the sofa.
“I don’t know, child, I can’t tell you!”—she shook her head slowly. Elizabeth sat watching her, anxious and vexed.
“I don’t know,” replied the grandmother, sighing very deeply. “There’s no end to my troubles, there isn’t. The things I’ve gone through, I’m sure it’s enough—!” She wept without wiping her eyes, the tears running.
“But, mother,” interrupted Elizabeth, “what do you mean? What is it?”
The grandmother slowly wiped her eyes. The fountains of her tears were stopped by Elizabeth’s directness. She wiped her eyes slowly.
“Poor child! Eh, you poor thing!” she moaned. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t—and you as you are—it’s a thing, it is indeed!”
“Is he dead?” she asked, and at the words her heart swung violently, though she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the question. Her words sufficiently frightened the old lady, almost brought her to herself.
“Don’t say so, Elizabeth! We’ll hope it’s not as bad as that; no, may the Lord spare us that, Elizabeth. Jack Rigley came just as I was sittin’ down to a glass afore going to bed, an’ ‘e said, ”Appen you’ll go down th’ line, Mrs Bates. Walt’s had an accident. ‘Appen you’ll go an’ sit wi’ ‘er till we can get him home.’ I hadn’t time to ask him a word afore he was gone. An’ I put my bonnet on an’ come straight down, Lizzie. I thought to myself, ‘Eh, that poor blessed child, if anybody should come an’ tell her of a sudden, there’s no knowin’ what’ll ‘appen to ‘er.’ You mustn’t let it upset you, Lizzie—or you know what to expect. How long is it, six months—or is it five, Lizzie? Ay!”—the old woman shook her head—”time slips on, it slips on! Ay!”
Elizabeth’s thoughts were busy elsewhere. If he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly. If he was hurt—they wouldn’t take him to the hospital—how tiresome he would be to nurse!—but perhaps she’d be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways. She would—while he was ill. The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture. But what sentimental luxury was this she was beginning?—She turned to consider the children. At any rate she was absolutely necessary for them. They were her business.
“Ay!” repeated the old woman, “it seems but a week or two since he brought me his first wages. Ay—he was a good lad, Elizabeth, he was, in his way. I don’t know why he got to be such a trouble, I don’t. He was a happy lad at home, only full of spirits. But there’s no mistake he’s been a handful of trouble, he has! I hope the Lord’ll spare him to mend his ways. I hope so, I hope so. You’ve had a sight o’ trouble with him, Elizabeth, you have indeed. But he was a jolly enough lad wi’ me, he was, I can assure you. I don’t know how it is…”
The old woman continued to muse aloud, a monotonous irritating sound, while Elizabeth thought concentratedly, startled once, when she heard the winding-engine chuff quickly, and the brakes skirr with a shriek. Then she heard the engine more slowly, and the brakes made no sound. The old woman did not notice. Elizabeth waited in suspense. The mother-in-law talked, with lapses into silence.
“But he wasn’t your son, Lizzie, an’ it makes a difference. Whatever he was, I remember him when he was little, an’ I learned to understand him and to make allowances. You’ve got to make allowances for them—”
It was half-past ten, and the old woman was saying: “But it’s trouble from beginning to end; you’re never too old for trouble, never too old for that—” when the gate banged back, and there were heavy feet on the steps.
“I’ll go, Lizzie, let me go,” cried the old woman, rising. But Elizabeth was at the door. It was a man in pit-clothes.
“They’re bringin’ ‘im, Missis,” he said. Elizabeth’s heart halted a moment. Then it surged on again, almost suffocating her.
“Is he—is it bad?” she asked.
The man turned away, looking at the darkness:
“The doctor says ‘e’d been dead hours. ‘E saw ‘im i’ th’ lamp-cabin.”
The old woman, who stood just behind Elizabeth, dropped into a chair, and folded her hands, crying: “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“Hush!” said Elizabeth, with a sharp twitch of a frown. “Be still, mother, don’t waken th’ children: I wouldn’t have them down for anything!”
The old woman moaned softly, rocking herself. The man was drawing away. Elizabeth took a step forward.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Well, I couldn’t say for sure,” the man replied, very ill at ease. “‘E wor finishin’ a stint an’ th’ butties ‘ad gone, an’ a lot o’ stuff come down atop ‘n ‘im.”
“And crushed him?” cried the widow, with a shudder.
“No,” said the man, “it fell at th’ back of ‘im. ‘E wor under th’ face, an’ it niver touched ‘im. It shut ‘im in. It seems ‘e wor smothered.”
Elizabeth shrank back. She heard the old woman behind her cry:
“What?—what did ‘e say it was?”
The man replied, more loudly: “‘E wor smothered!”
Then the old woman wailed aloud, and this relieved Elizabeth.
“Oh, mother,” she said, putting her hand on the old woman, “don’t waken th’ children, don’t waken th’ children.”
She wept a little, unknowing, while the old mother rocked herself and moaned.Elizabeth remembered that they were bringing him home, and she must be ready. “They’ll lay him in the parlour,” she said to herself, standing a moment pale and perplexed.
Then she lighted a candle and went into the tiny room. The air was cold and damp, but she could not make a fire, there was no fireplace. She set down the candle and looked round. The candle-light glittered on the lustre-glasses, on the two vases that held some of the pink chrysanthemums, and on the dark mahogany. There was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room. Elizabeth stood looking at the flowers. She turned away, and calculated whether there would be room to lay him on the floor, between the couch and the chiffonier. She pushed the chairs aside. There would be room to lay him down and to step round him. Then she fetched the old red tablecloth, and another old cloth, spreading them down to save her bit of carpet. She shivered on leaving the parlour; so, from the dresser-drawer she took a clean shirt and put it at the fire to air. All the time her mother-in-law was rocking herself in the chair and moaning.
“You’ll have to move from there, mother,” said Elizabeth. “They’ll be bringing him in. Come in the rocker.”
The old mother rose mechanically, and seated herself by the fire, continuing to lament. Elizabeth went into the pantry for another candle, and there, in the little penthouse under the naked tiles, she heard them coming. She stood still in the pantry doorway, listening. She heard them pass the end of the house, and come awkwardly down the three steps, a jumble of shuffling footsteps and muttering voices. The old woman was silent. The men were in the yard.
Then Elizabeth heard Matthews, the manager of the pit, say: “You go in first, Jim. Mind!”
The door came open, and the two women saw a collier backing into the room, holding one end of a stretcher, on which they could see the nailed pit-boots of the dead man. The two carriers halted, the man at the head stooping to the lintel of the door.
“Wheer will you have him?” asked the manager, a short, white-bearded man.
Elizabeth roused herself and came from the pantry carrying the unlighted candle.
“In the parlour,” she said.
“In there, Jim!” pointed the manager, and the carriers backed round into the tiny room. The coat with which they had covered the body fell off as they awkwardly turned through the two doorways, and the women saw their man, naked to the waist, lying stripped for work. The old woman began to moan in a low voice of horror.
“Lay th’ stretcher at th’ side,” snapped the manager, “an’ put ‘im on th’ cloths. Mind now, mind! Look you now—!”
One of the men had knocked off a vase of chrysanthemums. He stared awkwardly, then they set down the stretcher. Elizabeth did not look at her husband. As soon as she could get in the room, she went and picked up the broken vase and the flowers.
“Wait a minute!” she said.
The three men waited in silence while she mopped up the water with a duster.
“Eh, what a job, what a job, to be sure!” the manager was saying, rubbing his brow with trouble and perplexity. “Never knew such a thing in my life, never! He’d no business to ha’ been left. I never knew such a thing in my life! Fell over him clean as a whistle, an’ shut him in. Not four foot of space, there wasn’t—yet it scarce bruised him.”
He looked down at the dead man, lying prone, half naked, all grimed with coal-dust.
“”Sphyxiated,’ the doctor said. It is the most terrible job I’ve ever known. Seems as if it was done o’ purpose. Clean over him, an’ shut ‘im in, like a mouse-trap”—he made a sharp, descending gesture with his hand.
The colliers standing by jerked aside their heads in hopeless comment.
The horror of the thing bristled upon them all.
Then they heard the girl’s voice upstairs calling shrilly: “Mother, mother—who is it? Mother, who is it?”
Elizabeth hurried to the foot of the stairs and opened the door:
“Go to sleep!” she commanded sharply. “What are you shouting about? Go to sleep at once—there’s nothing—”
Then she began to mount the stairs. They could hear her on the boards, and on the plaster floor of the little bedroom. They could hear her distinctly:
“What’s the matter now?—what’s the matter with you, silly thing?”—her voice was much agitated, with an unreal gentleness.
“I thought it was some men come,” said the plaintive voice of the child. “Has he come?”
“Yes, they’ve brought him. There’s nothing to make a fuss about. Go to sleep now, like a good child.”
They could hear her voice in the bedroom, they waited whilst she covered the children under the bedclothes.
“Is he drunk?” asked the girl, timidly, faintly.
“No! No—he’s not! He—he’s asleep.”
“Is he asleep downstairs?”
“Yes—and don’t make a noise.”
There was silence for a moment, then the men heard the frightened child again:
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s nothing, I tell you, what are you bothering for?”
The noise was the grandmother moaning. She was oblivious of everything, sitting on her chair rocking and moaning. The manager put his hand on her arm and bade her “Sh—sh!!”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at him. She was shocked by this interruption, and seemed to wonder.
“What time is it?”—the plaintive thin voice of the child, sinking back unhappily into sleep, asked this last question.
“Ten o’clock,” answered the mother more softly. Then she must have bent down and kissed the children.
Matthews beckoned to the men to come away. They put on their caps and took up the stretcher. Stepping over the body, they tiptoed out of the house. None of them spoke till they were far from the wakeful children.
When Elizabeth came down she found her mother alone on the parlour floor, leaning over the dead man, the tears dropping on him.
“We must lay him out,” the wife said. She put on the kettle, then returning knelt at the feet, and began to unfasten the knotted leather laces. The room was clammy and dim with only one candle, so that she had to bend her face almost to the floor. At last she got off the heavy boots and put them away.
“You must help me now,” she whispered to the old woman. Together they stripped the man.
When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed. Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.
She rose, went into the kitchen, where she poured warm water into a bowl, brought soap and flannel and a soft towel.
“I must wash him,” she said.
Then the old mother rose stiffly, and watched Elizabeth as she carefully washed his face, carefully brushing the big blond moustache from his mouth with the flannel. She was afraid with a bottomless fear, so she ministered to him. The old woman, jealous, said:
“Let me wipe him!”—and she kneeled on the other side drying slowly as Elizabeth washed, her big black bonnet sometimes brushing the dark head of her daughter. They worked thus in silence for a long time. They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man’s dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.
At last it was finished. He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
“Bless him,” whispered his mother, looking always at his face, and speaking out of sheer terror. “Dear lad—bless him!” She spoke in a faint, sibilant ecstasy of fear and mother love.
Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his. A great dread and weariness held her: she was so unavailing. Her life was gone like this.
“White as milk he is, clear as a twelve-month baby, bless him, the darling!” the old mother murmured to herself. “Not a mark on him, clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made,” she murmured with pride. Elizabeth kept her face hidden.
“He went peaceful, Lizzie—peaceful as sleep. Isn’t he beautiful, the lamb? Ay—he must ha’ made his peace, Lizzie. ‘Appen he made it all right, Lizzie, shut in there. He’d have time. He wouldn’t look like this if he hadn’t made his peace. The lamb, the dear lamb. Eh, but he had a hearty laugh. I loved to hear it. He had the heartiest laugh, Lizzie, as a lad—”
Elizabeth looked up. The man’s mouth was fallen back, slightly open under the cover of the moustache. The eyes, half shut, did not show glazed in the obscurity. Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. He was no more responsible than she. The child was like ice in her womb. For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: “Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.”—And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt.
In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely. And he was the father of her children. Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
And all the while her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered? What stretch of horror for this helpless man! She was rigid with agony. She had not been able to help him. He had been cruelly injured, this naked man, this other being, and she could make no reparation. There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. But the children did not unite them. Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. Yet he had been her husband. But how little!—
“Have you got his shirt, ‘Lizabeth?”
Elizabeth turned without answering, though she strove to weep and behave as her mother-in-law expected. But she could not, she was silenced. She went into the kitchen and returned with the garment.
“It is aired,” she said, grasping the cotton shirt here and there to try. She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.
At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.
I’ve always enjoyed everyday violence. I remember one incident in particular: broken glass in the dark. I’m not certain that it’s a real memory but when I relive the scene, I find it hard to contain my pleasure: the object falling, shattering to pieces. The crash made and then the whirlwind of voices in the middle of the night. My mother turning on the light to reveal the glinting shards of glass. Her open palm swooping through the air. The sound of the slap, which was very different from the sound of the glass hitting the ground, and the feeling that came with realizing that this was all part of the ceremony. A form of violence that begins with glass and ends with pain inflicted by a mother upon her child.
Many years have passed and the glass, mother and shards are long gone, as is the boy I once was, his face still stinging from the slap. Now I live in Ehio with the rest of the community. Violence is present in this town, but harmony reigns too. Amalia comes by at intervals and we love Amalia very much.
We know when she’s coming back because the air grows thick, the horses whinny and the children scream for no reason. Sometimes they’re the first to know. At first, we think they’re crying because they have a toothache, or they’re just being fussy, but then the shutters start to bang against the walls, the weather vane begins to squeak and we know she’s coming.
When Amalia comes, the red earth on the path starts to shift, it lifts up in mini-tornados and spreads through the air.
When Amalia comes, some of us start to sing.
When Amalia comes, we cross ourselves and give thanks for the wind. We’re quick to put out our offerings before she reaches the houses.
In the fifteen months since she last came, we’ve barely had time to replenish the livestock, reinforce the foundations, rebuild the wall and make holes for all the people who have joined us in the last year. Cristian and the younger men and women built double roofs for all the houses and the rest of us took care of the food and water. The children drew coloured lines along the road so she can find her way. Everyone in town has chosen their offering: embroidered textiles, plaited hair, precious metals, wooden figurines and a few carved teeth. This year, the people in the third house are going to offer up their third child: the youngest one. He’s sick. They’re giving him to her so she can sweep him up and away to a place without pain. They believe; I’ve heard them whisper it to each other after the meetings, that Amalia is the invisible arm of God.
We leave everything in the road and make a big effort with the presentation and layout so she’ll be able to see all the offerings and be tempted to take them with her. But usually, she just takes everything. The years when she leaves something behind, the person who made the offering has to go so as not to bring misfortune down upon the entire community. This year, our daughter Sally decided that our offering should be Gianfredo, our bull, so we’ve painted him red and tied him to a post decorated with flowers. He’s a little anxious. He won’t stop mooing.
We still have time to watch the first trees disappear in the distance. We all stand together and hold hands as we watch her – a ghostly white shadow moving around apparently at random, but we know she’s coming towards us. She always does. We watch the earth move and the first carts get sucked into the funnel. The lighter objects are lifted into the air and spin around in concentric circles.
“Oh, messenger from heaven, Amalia, Lady of the Wind: accept our offerings.”
After the prayer, we let go of each other’s hands and lock up the animals we were able to catch in time. Then we run for shelter behind our stone and cement wall, our fort, and make sure that everyone has a hole to watch through. We stand still and silent. We don’t speak because we like to listen to her approach, the cracking windows, thousands of objects breaking, the first house collapsing. We hear the screams – weak, sickly screams – of the ailing child from the third house. I look at the family and see that they’re crying with smiles on their faces. It might just be my mind playing tricks on me but I think I can hear Gianfredo too. Whether I can or not, there comes a time when she is all we can hear. We all creep closer to our hole to watch. No-one wants to miss it.
Inside Amalia are all the things we’ve left in the road: three cows, a bull, five horses, a pack of cards, a bath full of milk, a sick child, a sculpture made of fruit, a string instrument, a collection of books, and plenty of food and water. There are also all the things that we didn’t leave but that Amalia has taken anyway: rocks, trees, carts, whole houses, fish from the river, a few errant sheep, a wild boar she must have found somewhere, and five dead people whose bodies look as though they’re being borne aloft on a cloud of flies.
They say – I’ve never seen it myself – that when you’re right underneath, right at the point where it all begins, that it’s like a tunnel leading directly up into the sky and that at that moment it’s completely quiet and calm, all you can hear is the music of the floating things. Everything slows down. The people this happens to find it to be a life-changing experience. They are looked upon with new respect from their peers. I’d like to experience it one day myself, to hear the void and understand that sense of fulfillment they talk about. Maybe what you hear inside isn’t silence but glass breaking in the darkness and the sound of a good, hard slap. I don’t know yet. Maybe next year, when Amalia comes back.
I . . . am a cheap sock, I cost half a dinar. An industrial cooperative manufactured me, and my profit margin was redistributed among the elements of production. An ordinary man bought me, a manual worker quite poor. This worker married an ordinary young lady, and they lived together in a small apartment. They were very happy together.
The bride was very gentle with me, washing me every day in warm water. She did not hurt my skin with soap, nor burn me with washing soda, and to refresh me she hung me out on the balcony so the gentle Benghazi breeze would dry me.
I confided in the gusts of wind, recalling the vigorous effect of her fingertips that were dyed with henna. She scrubbed me slowly as if she were chewing gum with her polished teeth. I used to look at the skinny socks hanging up under the cupboard mirror by the front door.
One day the bride was unwell. Perhaps she was pregnant. The groom washed me in cold water – it was midwinter. All that rough scrubbing was physically painful. It almost frayed my threads. It almost ruined the elastic around my ribbed cuff. It was God’s will that I hid from him in the soap suds. When he put me on the line, he forgot to peg me, and the winds tossed me far away. I dropped into the yard of an elegant house. The wind blew me around the house from one place to another, as if it was revealing to me the difference between the flat and this grand palace. In one corner of the house there was a laundry room. Cautiously I went near it. There was a rumbling noise coming from inside. I watched with my back caught on the door handle. I saw the servant toss some articles of clothing into a metal vessel, connected by a quivering thread that hung from a box attached to the wall. This vessel that made the rumbling noise was not some narghileh that was not connected to a hose. I was afraid that the servant would see me, assume I was part of the family, and throw me in. Then I would whizz round and round with the other garments in that tomb. I got away from the room and approached the clothesline. I saw a coloured silk sock, hanging like a peacock, and held in place by a beautiful peg. I asked it in sock-language about the vessel that devoured clothes. At first, it did not understand me because I was not making myself clear on account of the small holes around my big toe . . . I repeated the question and it answered me in broken sock-language, “This is a washing machine, imported from overseas.”
I thanked him without smiling. I found it strange that there was no washing machine like it in the house of my owner, the bridegroom. I reckoned that this was because of its great expense. But I was happy that they did not have one. The clothes revolved in the washing-machine at the speed with which peace agreements are passed! I had been quite happy with being washed by ten human fingers with their beautiful smell, gentle touch, and slow scrub, and the sight of the cupboard by the front door where the shy skinny socks were stored – Oh what a lovely flat it was! I was delighted to cast my mind back to happy memories and then a spiral hose sprang at me, coiling itself like a snake seizing hold of everything: soil, dust, leaves and scraps of paper. I was violently swallowed up into its depths, and I found myself within its darkness. I took refuge with the leaf of a tree and kept myself away from the electric wires that were inside. I was happy because I was not damp and electrocuted.
In the evening they emptied the vacuum cleaner into a large rubbish bin that was by the secure steel door.
I spent the night in the body of that disgusting bin in which dirty rubbish with its awful stench was kept, and I sought comfort in memories of the smell of the bride and her kitchen and the sweat of factory workers, men and women, even the oil from machinery: those memories came to mind and defended me.
That morning the bridegroom’s holiday was over. Life went back to happy normality after the sugar rush of the honeymoon and the simple worker went back to his work as a dustman. The contents of the bin were emptied into the back of a dustcart. I was visible among the piles of garbage and he saw me. He smiled, picked me up gently, and put me in his pocket in spite of my filthiness. I was close to his heart – had I not witnessed his wedding night? After his shift, he took me back to the apartment and handed me to the bride: she recognised me and was delighted. She whooped with joy then made sure her husband was not under a spell. She brushed the dust off me, gave me a kiss, and put me on her hand as if I was a glove.
I had headed out to buy a pack of cigarettes and a few tomatoes, and there was a black shoe in the entrance to the building. A black shoe, just one, on the second tile beyond the doorway near the stairs. The tiles were neither white nor coloured but varied between light and dark due to the passage of time and the passage of the shoes of people going up and down, whether to and from work or school, or visiting family and friends, or going out for no other reason than to relax on a pleasantly breezy evening or on a weekend morning. That’s to say nothing of going to a nearby café or cinema or a meeting for whatever purpose. They might be heading out to a shop, clinic, or market, or to pay the electricity and water bills at the bank or send a letter from the post office. Then again, they might have been obliged to come down from the floors above to show the gas delivery man, who was new at his job, the location of their empty gas cylinder that needed replacing. There were mouths and bellies to be fed, as well as hands and minds that wished to be mildly and pleasantly occupied for an hour or two cooking, distracted from work worries, family problems, and passing quarrels with family and friends, or the rising cost of living, or anxiety about what might happen to mother, who still had a strange pain in her side, or the lack of a reply about a job two weeks after sending out a CV.
Strange that a single shoe should be there like that, the heel towards the outside and the pointed toe towards the inside. It could still be worn, and might even be considered new given that it was quite shiny. A little black shoe polish and three or four deft, or even clumsy, strokes would make it as good as new again, refreshed, just like a person who’s taken a leisurely hot bath after an afternoon nap before going out in the evening to a restaurant with friends, or even alone to an unassuming café near by in the hope of meeting friends and acquaintances, or simply staying in and listening to music or reading a novel or the news or features in the paper, or even a few pages from last week’s supplement, or sit languidly and have a drink on the balcony.
A single shoe in good condition at the entrance to a large building wasn’t something that happened every day. It might happen once a year to some, but only once every five years to others. Then again, it might not happen at all, even if one lived a long time. Take me, for example. It was the first time it had happened to me, as if there was something special, or even miraculous, about it, whether for good or ill, that only the lucky got to enjoy. It could be compared to unexpectedly falling in love, the reverberations of which could be heard in the racing of the heart inside the ribcage, and which you didn’t know how to handle. You’re as happy as a child about it but also as scared as a child at the way your loneliness has been invaded, loneliness which itself always makes you scared.
It was like hearing about an accident in which an old friend had died. A friend whom you hadn’t seen for a year and a half, and to whom you had given little thought and didn’t call, and in fact, when you missed his call once, you didn’t try to call him back. You would feel a sadness mixed with guilt and shame because you would be standing powerless right in the face of a death you never even thought about and that came knocking at your door in the black hours before dawn and shook you out of the warmth of your bed and the innocence of your dreams to make you get up in apprehension to open the door as you repeat inside, “Please God no more bad news.” Then, when you open the door and find that there’s nobody there, you only feel more apprehensive and disoriented.
Perhaps the single new shoe at the entrance to the building was more like seeing some clothes on the beach plastered with brownish-yellow sand that had belonged to someone who went into the sea and drowned. The waves had washed them up as a sign to the people on dryland that one of their sons or daughters had been swallowed up by the graveyard of the deep.
Going near the shoe was scary. It might have been packed with explosives and targeted one of the residents. That would mean calling the bomb squad. Perhaps there was something strange going on and it had been put here to signify emptiness. A shoe devoid of a foot next to the stairs, going up or going down, a shoe without its usual partner in a pair of shoes. Did that single shoe beneath five floors inhabited by dozens of people scream at all of them to pay attention to life? Did it want to tell us: “I am like the life which you will one day depart, with the same ease, indifference, and calm with which you take off your shoes before bed”? Was it there as a sign of death and death’s emptiness, like the verse saying: “Remind, in case the reminder should be of benefit”? Or was its presence here in all its blackness just one of those run-of-the-mill coincidences whereby people inundated with names, faces, and CVs die without having done anything to deserve being punished with so much death?
I kept going to the shop. They didn’t have my brand of cigarettes. I went to the shop in the next street. I headed back with my cigarettes, lighting one up on the way and forgetting the tomatoes. When I reached the entrance to the building, the shoe had vanished. A cold shiver ran through me. The place seemed so empty, emptier than ever.
Gentlemen, my name is Jamal Ahmad. I work as a signals private in Forward Reconnaissance Unit 312, engaging the American enemy in the south.
I confess in your presence, and I am of sound mind, that I killed Salim Hussein, signals corporal in our unit. I pulled out my revolver and shot him in the head, because he was quite simply a traitor, and the penalty for treason is death.
I do not deny it, and I am prepared to defend my action regardless of the punishment you impose.
I sentenced him to death and I carried out the sentence myself, with my own weapon. That was because as I went into the signals room I caught him speaking to an American intelligence officer. It was at noon on Monday, and I could not bear listening to him spouting abuse and filth. I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning army revolver. I fired three shots at him. I aimed right at his body so that one bullet lodged in his forehead and one in his heart, and I fired one at his balls.
I wanted to emasculate him because a traitor is not a man, and therefore has no right to die a man. These are the ethical values of we Arabs. Honour and the land above all. Whoever betrays honour has to die without balls, and whoever betrays the land has to die without a grave.
Gentlemen, I did him no wrong by this action, none. I went through an agony of reflection before I proceeded to kill him. I lost the ability to sleep, and for two months I didn’t sleep a wink. I even held a trial in my head. In my imagination I even gave him a lawyer. But in the end, I reached the conclusion that he was a traitor, and there is no escaping the fact that the penalty for treason is death.
I bid you, Gentlemen, not to imagine that the treason of the signals corporal in our unit is an enigma. I came upon him on Tuesday evening, and found him communicating with the Americans and giving them the coordinates of many military positions. I heard him with my own two ears, which will be eaten by worms after I die. I saw him with my own two eyes as he was committing an act of treason in front of me, without batting an eyelid about what he was doing.
He is quite simply a spy, and when I confronted him about it he confessed that he was a spy working for the Americans. But he felt remorse for what he had done or was afraid of being denounced. He asked me to shoot him once in the head. It would be a bullet of mercy, so I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning revolver and fired one shot. He fell to the ground.
Yes, one shot to the head was enough to kill him, and I don’t know about the other two shots. There was no need for more shots to kill the traitor, for the only punishment for a traitor is death as you know. I don’t suppose anyone in the whole world would dispute that.
Gentlemen, honour is our most precious asset. As you know, I am an honourable and courageous soldier, and so my military honour could not abide me coming across a traitor and a spy for the Americans in our unit and my not carrying out the sentence of death. There is no enigma about it at all, as I have explained to you. I came across him in the signals room and saw him laughing and speaking English with an American officer. I confronted him with the matter. He denied it however. He said he was talking to a certain corporal Adil in the Construction Unit who, like him, was practising speaking English. I knew that he wanted to deceive me. At that moment, Gentlemen, I did not have my revolver with me. But I looked to the right of the radio and noticed on the chair his 9 mm calibre Browning revolver. He sensed the danger and as he reached to get hold of it I pounced on it and snatched it from his grasp. I took two steps back. He stood there speechless, and I fired two shots straight at him, one at his heart, and the other to his balls, because a traitor is not a man.
I don’t know anything about the bullet that hit him in the head.
At that moment Signals Private Wahid came in. He came in immediately after hearing the shot that had been fired and saw the traitor spread out on the ground and me with the revolver in my hand. He was an eye-witness any way, and I suppose he told you that he entered the place after hearing the shot and found the corporal dead.
But what he said afterwards is not correct. I was not in the room at the initial moment. I was passing by in the corridor that led to the officer’s room and I passed the signals room by chance and heard Corporal Wahid asking me to come in. When I went in I found him shaking and in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had betrayed his military unit and had sullied his military honour. He had, in exchange for a sum of money, given the Americans the coordinates to enable American planes to bomb Iraqi forces. He was full of remorse for this and had decided to kill himself. I handed him my military revolver, and he took it from me with assurance. He stood in front of me, placed the revolver to his temple and fired one shot. He fell to the ground, the revolver in his hand. Then Signals Private Wahid came in. He had been smoking outside the signals room and found me standing there unarmed. The signals corporal had fallen to the ground, the revolver in his hand.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is an ignorant fellow. He can neither read nor write. He is a peasant from the south who knows no English and does not know whether the signals corporal was speaking with the Americans or with one of his friends in the Construction Unit. But this issue does not fool me at all. I was standing near the signals room and heard strange sounds and an argument going on inside between Signals Corporal Salim and Private Wahid. The signals corporal was receiving telegrams from an unknown source, probably the Americans. In the course of the argument a shot was fired from Private Wahid’s revolver that hit the signals corporal in his balls. Private Wahid accused the signals corporal of having relations with his wife when he had sent her via him a sum of money two months earlier. The traitor had taken advantage of this and had had relations with Private Wahid’s wife, as Private Wahid himself confirmed.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is lying when he says that the signals corporal was not speaking with the Americans. He said that he was on duty; that he was speaking with a soldier he knew in the Construction Brigade; that Corporal Wahid was asleep; and that it was me who went in and woke him up and accused him of having had relations with my wife when I asked him to take my salary to her when he was on regular leave.
It’s not like that. First of all, she isn’t my wife but Private Wahid’s wife, the man who accused him of treason. But afterwards I discovered that he had been talking with the Americans in English, and so, Gentlemen, I have not broken the law, but enforced it. The penalty for treason is death. When I caught him betraying Private Wahid and spying for the Americans, he stammered to begin with, then firmly denied it. He thought that I might let him get away with it. I said to him, “I’m not getting my own back on you, but there will be someone who does enforce the law against you.” I handed over my revolver to Private Wahid, and said to him, “Avenge your honour; this is the man who sullied your honour.”
As soon as Corporal Salim turned round, Private Wahid surprised him with a bullet to his heart. I took the revolver from Wahid and fired two shots, one at his balls so he would die without his manhood, and the other at his temple to kill him off.
The traitor, Gentlemen, deserved to die without mercy. These are our laws. He was not a human being, but a louse that had to be crushed!
Gentlemen, I am an honourable soldier. There is not a speck of dust on my honour. I have done nothing in my life out of order. It is now autumn, and this is the second year of my military service, and I don’t know why you have sent for me.
I don’t have any money and I don’t have any hopes. I never made contact with the Americans. Everything they have said about me is a fabrication to embarrass me in public, a character assassination. I did not kill Signals Corporal Salim because of a woman. The woman is my wife and not the wife of Private Wahid. He was not there and I don’t know who brought him as a witness. He did not see a thing. I have been living an insult for a long time, Gentlemen. My wife betrayed me and sullied my honour while I was here defending the honour of the fatherland. She deserved to die.
As for the signals corporal, I don’t know who killed him. Perhaps Private Wahid because one of those two was committing treason and spying for the Americans.
Much has happened to me whose meaning or causes I do not understand. The signals corporal tormented me for ages. He told me that to be a soldier in signals you had to have a voice that did not jar. You had to open your mouth and breathe out from your lungs as if you were singing. It was not necessary to speak but you had to know what you were saying.
Gentlemen, he threatened me because I was not proficient in my work. He said he would kill me and dance on my rotten corpse. He used to shout at me whenever I made a mistake in relaying messages among the officers. He spat at me. He kicked me in the stomach.
I am a humble private, Gentlemen. I haven’t slept for two months, since the beginning of the American invasion to this day. Everyone has ganged up against me: Time, Fate, the Americans, the signals corporal and my wife.
The alien parked its car across the street and came and sat down in the waiting room. He must have seen this happen, peripherally. But he was busy settling the bill with a middle-aged woman with curly grey hair and substantial, attractive clothes, to whom he’d taken an irrational dislike. Those who deal with Joe Punter, day in and day out, especially Joe car-owning Punter, are prone to such allergies. He saw her start of concealed surprise, looked up, and there was the alien.
The other customers on the row of seats were pretending, in their English way, that nothing special had happened. He finished dealing with the woman. Other cars and customers left; the alien’s turn came. He went out in the road and hand-waved it into the bay with fatherly care, then sent it back to wait while he looked the red car over. He entered the car’s make and model in the terminal and began to check the diagnostics.
The mechanic worked this franchise alone with the robotics and the electronic presence of cashier, manager, head office. He was able to read print, even to write. It was a necessity of his trade. To be wired-up, routinely, among all this free-running machinery was against health and safety regulations. He used a hear-and-do wire only for the exotics, where the instructions came packaged with the part, and tried to conceal this from his customers. The mystique of craftsmanship was important to him.
Consequently, it took him some little time to examine the tired little runabout. He called in the alien and explained what had to be done, using a lot of gesture.
The convention was that if you couldn’t stomach calling another sentient being “it,” they were all called “she.” The mechanic eyed the alien covertly as he made his exposition: the soft, noseless profile, drooping shoulders, the torso thickened by layers of strange undergarments beneath its drab “overalls,” gawky backwards-jointed legs. It was about as female-looking as the dugongs sailors used to miscall “mermaids.” The confusion, he considered, was an insult to both parties. But it was nonsense to expect the denizen of another star system to be humanly attractive. He was in no hurry. He wasn’t affronted or frightened, as some people might have been, to see one running around loose, out of the enclave. No doubt the alien was going to tip generously, but it wasn’t avarice that made him willing to linger. He was simply, genuinely pleased to have one of them in his shop.
“I just want you to scrub the converter.”
He wasn’t surprised that it could speak English; he’d only imagined it would not trouble itself to do so. But the last thing he’d expected was for an alien to be mean.
“You know, it’s going to be cheaper in the long run to replace the whole exhaust system. You’ve been using a high methanol percentage, there’s a lot of corrosion here…”
The alien looked at the ground.
“Come away –”
He followed it out into the waiting room, where it folded down like a big dog on one of the seats, looking miserable, twisting its puckered, chicken-skin hands against its chest. “I’m going to sell it,” the alien explained. “I want you to do the minimum that’s legally necessary.”
He realized that the alien did not believe that its car could understand English. But nor did it believe that such understanding was impossible. It believed that if you have to say something unpleasant about someone/thing, you remove yourself from the immediate vicinity of the victim. The rules of etiquette were immovable, matter-of-fact, and binding. The car’s level of comprehension was a separate matter, a subject for abstruse philosophy.
It was not unusual for a mechanic to be familiar, as far as this, with alien psychology. Alien nature was the stuff of daytime television. The mechanic could have drowned in the subject, if he had enough idle time between customers.
“What’s legally necessary,” he repeated. He was disappointed, practically and emotionally, by his customer’s poverty; but mollified by its bizarre sensitivity.
Of course he knew that in an alien the state of poverty could only be temporary and relative. The tip dwindled but some other benefit was bound to accrue.
It (or she) nodded glumly.
They nodded. Their gestures were very human, but culturally diverse: for “no” they would jerk the chin, not shake the head. It was as if they’d borrowed a little, deliberately, from every human race, and maybe that was exactly so. Their journey into human space had been through such a saturation of human emissions, no one knew how much of alien behavior on Earth was natural, and how much a carefully devised presentation.
“Shall I wait or shall I come back?”
Throughout this exchange the other customers had remained painfully fixed in bored or casual poses. The mechanic was delighted by their intent, covert attention. Luckily there were no children involved, to spoil the effect of cosmopolitan unconcern.
He did not want it to stay. If it stayed in here it might strike up a conversation, become the temporary property of one of these mere punters.
“You’d better go,” he told it, feigning regret. “I have another job that I can’t put on auto. Come back in about an hour.”
When it had left, regret became real. He went out into the dusty street and stared up and down. It was October. The fronds of the banana tree, that grew over the wall of an unkempt yard next door were acid green under a lowering sky that had been promising rain for days. The tourist center was not far away: the massive grace that all the world admired, which had once been the center of a dock town called Liverpool. He could see the tiny points of the newly gilded Liver Birds, winking above their monument of vast commercial assurance. Far inland, the vague conurbation stretched up the flanks of the Pennines: the hills swimming there out of sight like drowned monuments, drowned in time and lost forever, like the great city.
There was no sign of the alien.
He went into the shop, checked the progress of various operations, and quietly – avoiding camera eyes – sneaked through the door at the back, and upstairs to his living quarters. His wife was at work. Their two children, seven and two years old, were with her in the workplace schoolroom and crèche. The rooms, which were small but well-supplied with consumer durables, seemed unnaturally tidy and silent. He stood in the living room and studied a row of books, discs, journals, on a shelf of the library unit. Dealing with the Alien; What Do They Think of Us; The Farcomers; Through Alien Eyes; Have They Been Here Before?; Xenobiology: Towards the Dawn of a Science… The mechanic and his family were no more than averagely interested in the alien visitors. The books had been bought, not read. But it would have been a strange household indeed, or a very poor one, that didn’t possess at least a few of these titles.
The mechanic did not feel, on the whole, that the human race was over-reacting. He and his wife had voted in favor, in the European referendum on the global change of era, which was now on its way to becoming law. This year, this present year, would be forever year three: 3AC, if the English-speaking lobby had its way. After Contact. It was official: this was the greatest thing that had happened to the human race since the dim and distant “coming of Christ.” And the aliens, unlike Christ, were here. They were in print, on the screen. They were indubitably real.
Everything on the shelves had been entered in their library; the mechanic’s wife was meticulous over this chore. His fingers hovered over the keypad. But the mysterious inertia of human adulthood defeated him. Only the seven-year-old actually used the database. He took a book down, and another: leaved pages, read a paragraph or two. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Surrounded by hard things that did not speak or look at him, he tried to imagine how it felt to be the alien. He had known sentimental drivers: cars with names, cars referred to as “she”; cars abused for bad behavior. He had caught himself (he dredged up fragments of memory), occasionally giving a glossy flank of robot casing an affectionate pat as he put it aside.
But the aliens did not know about animals. They had tools that crept, slithered, flew; but they had made these things. They had no notion of a separate creation, life that was not their own. It might be that conditions on the home planet were different, but the evidence, from their reactions and their own reporting, was otherwise. It seemed likely that they had shared their world with no other, no separate warm-blooded animals.
He went down to the service bay and checked the screen that showed the waiting room. All was quiet in there. It had not come back. He turned from that screen and made work for himself among the ramped vehicles and buzzing tools. He didn’t touch the alien’s car. When it reappeared he told it he was having a few problems. Please be patient, he said. Come back later, or wait. He took no new customers. The afternoon turned to dusk. The waiting room emptied until it (or she) was there alone.
The mechanic’s wife and his children arrived home, on foot from the tram stop, the baby in her buggy. He heard the childish voices chattering and laughing at the street door and gritted his teeth as if interrupted in some highly concentrated and delicate task. But he was doing nothing, just sitting in the gloom among the silent tools.
The alien was folded up on its seat. It looked like an animal dressed up, a talking animal of no known species from a child’s cartoon. It stood and smiled, showing the tips of its teeth: the modified snarl that might or might not be a genuine, shared gesture.
The mechanic was embarrassed because there was really no way he could explain his behavior. A human customer, stranger in a strange land, would by now have been either very angry or – possibly – a little scared. The alien seemed resigned. It did not expect humans to behave reasonably.
It made the mechanic obscurely angry to think that he was not the first person to give it the runaround like this. He would have liked to explain I just want to have you near me for a while… But that would have been a shameful confession.
“I want to do you a favor,” he said. “I didn’t like to tell you before, thought you might get embarrassed. I’m fixing up quite a few things, and I’m only going to charge you for the scrub.”
He thought it looked surprised, perhaps wary. It was impossible not to award them with human feelings; not to read human expressions in their strange faces. “Thank you.”
“The least I could do, after you’ve come all this way!”
He laughed nervously. It didn’t. They did not laugh.
“Would you like to come upstairs? Would you like something to eat, a cup of tea? My wife, my kids would be very pleased to meet you.”
The invitation was completely insincere. The last thing he wanted was to see it in his home. He didn’t want to share the alien with anyone. The alien gave him a dry look as if it knew exactly what was going on. According to some readings of their behavior they were telepathic: intensely so between themselves, mildly with humans.
On the other hand, it had probably been pestered this way before…performing animal. The thought made him wince, for himself and for those others.
“No thank you.” It looked at the ground. “Will the car be ready tomorrow?”
The street was dark. There was little lighting just here, away from the hotels and malls and the floodlit, water-lapped monuments. He felt guilty. The poor alien might be mentally counting up its cash, maybe wondering what the hell to do next. Aliens traveling alone were rarities anywhere. If it couldn’t take refuge in a big rich hotel it would be bothered. People would crowd around it heartlessly, pointing their cameras.
But that wasn’t the mechanic’s fault. He didn’t want to capture it. He didn’t want to turn it out, either. He’d have liked it to stay here; to keep its real live presence. It could sleep on the seats. He would bring down some food. They liked some human foodstuffs: ice cream, white bread, hamburgers; nothing too natural.
“Yes, of course. Come back tomorrow. I open at nine.”
He told his wife that he had to work overtime. This never happened, but she accepted the idea without comment. The routine of their life together was so calm it could swallow the occasional obvious lie without a ripple.
He sat in the machine shop alone and looked around him. Cars.
It was strange how many static, urban Europeans still felt the need to own them, even with the fuel rationing and all the rest of the environmental-protection laws. The mechanic wasn’t complaining. It was a steady job, and often even enjoyable. These are my people, he thought, trying on the alien worldview. My people, the sheep of my flock. He had a grandmother who was a churchgoer. But there came the idea of animals again, the separation of one kind of life from another. That was not what happened between an alien and an alien machine. He went up to the car, clamped on its ramp in an undignified posture, a helpless patient.
“Hallo?” he said tentatively.
The car made no response, but the atmosphere in the shop changed. By speaking to it aloud he had shifted something: his own perception. He’d embarrassed himself, in fact. He could just catch the tail of a more interesting emotion. He was a child creeping past the witch’s door, deliciously afraid. But nothing he could do or say would make the imagined real: make him see the robot eyes wink, the jaws of metal grin or open in speech. Nothing but madness would change things that far.
He began to work, or rather he set the robotics to work. He had no choice now; he would have to do what he had promised and square the accounts somehow. Nothing that happened in his garage went unrecorded. The mechanic had never tried to hack his way around the firm’s system. He’d never been the type to be tempted by the complications of crime, and now he wouldn’t know where to start. He became very gloomy thinking about what he’d have to do: the awkward covering up for this strange impulse.
The free machines skated to and fro. Others slid along the overhead lines and reached down their serpent heads. The mechanic fidgeted. The little car, a fifteen-year-old Korean methanol/mix burner with a red plastic body, liquid clutch, and suspension, was a hardwearing complex of equipment, good for at least another ten years on the road. It needed a certain amount of attention, but it didn’t need his hands-on attention at all. He stood and watched.
I am redundant, he thought – a standard over-reaction to robotics. Why don’t aliens feel redundant? He struggled to perform the mental contortion of looking out of the mirror. If it were not for humans, if it were not for me, there would be no cars, no robots, no machines at all. I cannot be superseded. Even if the machines become self-conscious, become “human” (the ever-receding bogey of the popular media), I will still be God. The maker. The origin.
Upstairs the toddler would be in bed; and the boy too, tucked up with one of the home tutoring wires that supplemented the education provided by his mother’s employers. The mother would be relaxing into her evening, snug in a nest of hardware. Empathically, subliminally, the mechanic was aware of the comings and goings, the familiar routine.
He discovered why the alien filled him with such helpless, inarticulate delight. The machines promised, but they could not perform. They remained things, and people remained lonely. The mechanic had visited his country’s National Forests – the great tracts of land that must remain undisturbed, however small his sitting room became. He accepted the necessity of their existence, but the only emotion he could possibly feel was resentment. He had no friendship with the wilderness. Animals could be pets, but they were not part of you, not the same. The aliens had the solution to human isolation: a talking world, a world with eyes; the companionship that God dreams of. The alien’s visitation had stirred in him a God-like discontent.
He could not make it stay. But perhaps he could learn from it, share its enriched experience. He saw the bay as a microcosm of human technology and civilization – a world extruded like ectoplasm from its human center, full of creatures made in the mechanic’s own image: his finger and thumb, his teeth, his rolling, folding joints, his sliding muscle. His mind, even, in its flickering chemical cloud, permeating the hardware of his brain.
Excited by this insight, he jumped up and hurried to the bay’s keypad. He pulled the robotics out, the shining jointed arms sliding back and folding themselves away into the walls. He took out a box of hand tools. He would pay the alien’s car the greatest compliment in his power. He would give it the benefit of his craftsmanship, the kind of “natural, organic” servicing for which the rich paid ridiculous sums.
For a while he worked like Adam in Eden, joyfully naming the subcreation with his hands and mind. He worked, he slowed… He sat on the cold, dark-stained floor with a socket spanner in one hand and a piece of ragwaste in the other. The lights looked down. They built things with bacteria, as the mechanic understood it. Bacteria which were themselves traceable to the aliens’ own intestinal flora, infecting everything: every tool and piece of furniture, even the massive shell of their ship-world. Human beings, when they wanted to express feelings of profound communion with the planet, with the race, spoke of being “a part of the great whole.” Having lived so many years – from the start of their evolution, in a sense, the pundits reckoned – in a world created by themselves, the aliens could not experience being a part. There were no parts in their continuum: no spaces, no dividing edges.
He suddenly felt disgusted. Scientists had established that the alien bacteria were harmless. That was the story, but it might be wrong. It might be a big lie, maintained to prevent panic in the streets. He wished he hadn’t touched the car. The alien had been using it for months. It must be coated all over with invisible crawling slime.
What was it like, to be part of a living world? He stared at the spanner in his hand until the rod of metal lost its shine. Skin crept over it; the adjustable socket became a cup of muscle, pursed like an anus, wet lips drawn back by a twist on the tumescent rod. The mechanic was nauseated, but he could not put the tool down. He could not go away from it. This oozed drop of self, attached to his hand, would not be parted from him if he dropped it. Tiny strings, strands of living slime, would cling and join them still. The air he breathed was full of self, of human substance.
He stood up. He backed off. A robot casing yielded like flesh. The mechanic yelped and sprang away. His hand, with the rod-flesh spanner growing out of it, hit the keypad; and all the tools began to leap into action. He stood in his own surging, hurrying, pulsating gut – for an instant saved by the notional space of an anatomical drawing, and then the walls closed in. there was no light, only a reddened darkness. The mechanic wailed. He fought a horrible need to vomit; he scrabbled desperately at the keys.
When everything was quiet again, he sat for while. It might have been minutes; it felt like a long time. Eventually he stopped wanting to be sick and managed to put down the spanner. He sat with his head hunched in his arms; became aware of this abject fetal crouch, and came out of it slowly. He took a deep breath.
The garage was the same as it had always been: dead and safe. He realized that he had been highly privileged. Somehow, just briefly, he had succeeded in entering the alien mind, seen the world through alien eyes. How could you expect such an experience to be pleasant? Now that it was over he could accept that, and he was truly grateful.
At last he heaved a sigh and set about putting the bay to work again. He couldn’t bring himself to touch the red car with hand tools now. Besides, he was too shaky. But he would deliver the alien’s vehicle in the morning as promised, as near to perfectly reborn as was humanly possible. He owed it that much.
He had tried to take something from the alien by a kind of force. And he’d got what he wanted. It wasn’t the alien’s fault that he’d bitten off more than he could chew and gagged on the mouthful. Gritting his teeth against the ghostly feel of flesh in the machine, he set up the necessary routines.
In a short time, it was all done. But it was very late. His wife would have to ask questions now, and he’d have to tell her something of what had happened. He stood looking at the plastic shell and the clever, deviously economical innards under the open bonnet. The machines, they said, couldn’t live with the ecosphere. In the end the human race would have to abandon one or the other: motor cars or “the environment.” But “in the end” was still being held at bay. In the meantime this was a good, well-made little compromise with damnation.
He felt lonely and sad. He had seen another world walk into his life, reached out to grasp the wonder, and found something worse than empty air. He’d wanted the alien to give him dreamland, somewhere over the rainbow. He had found, instead, an inimical Eden: a treasure that he could no more enjoy than he could crawl back into the womb.
The mechanic sighed again and gently closed the bonnet.
The red car settled itself a little.
“Thank you,” it said.
In the morning at nine o’clock the alien was there. The car was ready, gleaming on the forecourt. The alien put down its bag, which it carried not on its back or at arm’s length but tucked under one armpit in that very peculiar, lopsided way of theirs. He thought it looked tired and anxious. It barely glanced at the car. Perhaps, like a human, it didn’t even want to know how badly it had been cheated.
“What’s the damage?” it asked.
The mechanic was hurt. He’d have liked to go over the whole worksheet with it: to extract the sweet honey of its approval, or at least to extend this dwindling transaction just a little further. He had to remind himself that the alien owed him nothing. To itself, its feelings were not romantic or bizarre in the least. The world it lived in was commonplace. The mechanic’s experience was his own concern, had been an internal matter from the start. The alien was not responsible for kinks of human psychology, nor for imaginary paranormal incidents.
“look,” he said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. My eldest, my son, he’s just passed his driving test. He won’t be allowed out on his own for a while, of course. But I’ve been thinking about getting him a little runabout. I don’t keep a car myself, you see, I’ve never felt the need. But kids, they like the freedom… I’d like to buy your car.”
In the cold light of day, he couldn’t bear to tell it the truth. He knew the car would never speak to him again. But he had been touched by the world of the other, and he simply had to bring away something: some kind of proof.
The alien looked even more depressed.
The mechanic realized suddenly that he didn’t have to worry about the money. He would tell the firm everything. They were human at head office: and as fascinated as he. The car would stay on the forecourt. He would call in and get it featured on the local news, maybe even national news. It would be extremely good for business.
For the alien’s benefit, however, he would stick to the story about his son. They really shouldn’t be encouraged to believe that human beings thought they were magic.
“List price,” he added, hurriedly. “And a little more. Because anyone would pay a little more, a car that’s been driven by one of our famous visitors. What do you say?”
So the alien walked away with its credit card handsomely e-charged. It turned at the corner of the street, by the yard where the banana fronds hung over the gate, and bared its pointed teeth in that seeming smile. The farewell could have been for the red car on the forecourt as much as for the human beside it, but it made the man feel better anyway.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999