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It was the longest night of winter. At the bottom of the sea, an old fish gathered together 12,000 of her children and grandchildren and began to tell them this story:

Once upon a time a little black fish lived with her mother in a small pond on the side of a mountain. Their home was behind a black, moss-covered rock, under which they both slept at night. The little fish longed to see the moonlight in their home just once. From morning till evening, the mother and child swam after each other. Sometimes they joined other fish and rapidly darted in and out of small crevices. The little fish was an only child, for of the 10,000 eggs which the mother had laid, only she had survived.

For several days the little fish had been deep in thought and had talked very little. She swam slowly behind her mother around the pond and did not play with the other fish. Her mother thought her child was sick and would soon be well. In fact, the black fish’s sickness was really something else!

Early one morning before the sun had risen, the little fish woke her mother and said

“Mother, I want to talk to you.”

Half-asleep, the mother responded

“Child, this isn’t the time to talk. Save your words for later. Go swimming?”

“No, Mother! I can’t go swimming anymore. I must leave here.”

“Do you really have to leave?”

“Yes, Mother, I must go.”

“Just a minute! Where do you want to go at this hour of the morning?”

“I want to go see where the stream ends. You know, Mother, I’ve been wondering where the end of the stream is … I haven’t been able to think about anything else. I didn’t sleep a wink all night. At last, I decided to go and find where the stream ends. I want to know what’s happening in other places.”

The mother laughed – “When I was a child, I used to think a lot like that. But, my dear, a stream has no beginning and no end. That’s the way it is. The stream just flows and never goes anywhere.”

“But mother dear, isn’t it true that everything comes to an end? Nights end, days end, weeks, months, years …”

“Forget this pretentious talk,” interrupted the mother – “Let’s go swimming. Now is the time to swim, not talk.”

“No, Mother, I’m tired of this swimming, I want to set out and see what’s happening elsewhere. Maybe you think someone taught me these ideas but believe me, I’ve had these thoughts for a long time. Of course, I’ve learned many things here and there. For instance, I know that when most fish get old, they complain about everything. I want to know if life is simply for circling around in a small place until you become old and nothing else, or is there another way to live in the world ?”

When the little fish finished the mother exclaimed – “My dear child, are you crazy? World! … World! What is this other world! The world is right here where we are. Life is just as we have it…”

Just then, a large fish approached their home and said: “Neighbor, what are you arguing about with your child? Aren’t you planning to go swimming today?”
Hearing her neighbor’s voice, the mother came out of the house and said, “What’s the world coming to! Now children even want to teach their mothers something!”
How so? “asked the neighbor.”
Listen to the places this half-pint wants to go!” replied the mother. “Saying over and over again I want to go see what’s happening in the world. What pretentious talk!”

“Little one,” said the neighbor, “let’s see. Since when have you become a scholar and philosopher and not told us?”
“Madam,” answered the little fish, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘scholar’ and ‘philosopher,’ I’ve just gotten tired of these swims. I don’t want to continue this boring stuff and be happy as a fool until one day I wake up and see that like all of you, I’ve become old, but still am as dumb as I am now.”
“Oh, what talk!” exclaimed the neighbor.
“I never thought my only child would turn out this way,” said the mother. “I don’t know what evil person put my sweet baby up to this.”

“No one put me up to anything,” said the little fish. “I have a reason, and intelligence and understanding. I have eyes and I can see.”
“Sister,” said the neighbor to the little fish’s mother, “do you remember that twisted-up snail?”
“Yes, you’re right,” said the mother. “He used to push himself on my baby. God knows what I would do to him!”
“That’s enough, Mother,” said the little fish. “He was my friend.”
“Friendship between a fish and a snail,” said the mother, “I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
“And I’ve never heard of a fish and a snail being enemies,” replied the little fish. “But you all drowned the poor fellow.”

“Let’s not bring up the past,” said the neighbor.
“You brought up the subject yourself,” said the little fish.
“It served him right to be killed,” said the mother. “Have you forgotten the things he used to say everywhere he went?”
“Then,” said the little fish, “kill me too since I’m saying the very same things.”

To make a long story short, the arguing voices attracted the other fish. The little fish’s words angered everyone.

One of the old fish asked, “Did you think we’d pity you?”
“That one just needs a little box on the ears,” said another.

“Go away,” said the black fish’s mother. “Don’t you touch my child.”
Another of them said, “Madam, if you don’t raise your child correctly, you must expect it to be punished.”
The neighbor said, “I’m ashamed to live next to you.”
Another said, “Let’s do to the little fish what we did to the old snail before it gets into trouble.”

When they tried to grab the little black fish, her friends gathered around and took the fish away from the brawl.

The black fish’s mother beat her head and chest and cried, “Oh, my baby is leaving me. What am I going to do? What a curse has fallen upon me!”
“Mother, don’t cry for me. Cry for the old fish who stay behind.”
“Don’t get smart, half-pint!” shouted one of the fish from afar.
“If you go away and afterwards regret it, we won’t let you come back,” said a second.
“These are useful fancies. Don’t go,” said a third.
“What’s wrong with this place?” said a fourth.
“There is no other world. The world is right here. Come back! Said a fifth.
“If you turn reasonable and come back, then we’ll believe you really are an intelligent fish,” said a sixth.
“Wait, we’ve gotten used to having you around …” said a seventh.
The mother cried, “Have mercy on me. Don’t go! Don’t go!”

The little fish didn’t have anything more to say to them. Several friends of the same age accompanied the fish as far as the waterfall. As they parted, the fish said,
“My friends, I hope to see you again. Don’t forget me!”
“How would it be possible to forget you?” asked the friends. “You’ve awakened us from a deep sleep. You’ve taught us many things that we had not even thought about before. We hope to see you again, learned and fearless friend.”

The little fish swam down the waterfall and fell into a pond full of water. At first, the fish lost its balance but after a while began to swim and circled around the pond. The fish had never seen so much water collected in one place.

Thousands of tadpoles were wriggling in the water. They laughed when they saw the little black fish,
“What a funny shape! What kind of creature are you?”
The fish looked them over thoroughly and said, “Please don’t insult me. My name is Little Black Fish. Tell me your names so that we’ll get acquainted.
“We call one another tadpole,” replied one of the tadpoles.
“We come from nobility,” said another.
“You can’t find anyone prettier than us in the whole world,” said another.
“We aren’t shapeless and ugly-faced like you,” said another one.
The fish said, “I never imagined you would be so conceited. That’s all right. I’ll forgive you since you’re speaking out of ignorance.”
In one voice the tadpoles demanded, “Are you saying we’re stupid?”
“If you weren’t ignorant,” replied the fish, “you’d know that there are many others in the world who are pleased with their appearances. You don’t even have names of your own.”

The tadpoles became very angry. But since they knew the little fish spoke truthfully, they changed their tone and said, “really, you’re wasting words! We swim around the world every day from morning till evening, but except for ourselves and our father and mother, we see no one. Of course, there are tiny worms, but they don’t count.”
“You can’t even leave the pond,” said the fish. “How can you talk about traveling around the world?”
“What! Do you think there’s a world other than the pond?” exclaimed the tadpoles.
“At least,” responded the fish, “you must wonder where this water comes from and what things are outside of it.”
“Outside the water!” exclaimed the tadpoles, “Where is that? We’re never seen outside of the water! Haha …haha …You’re crazy!”

Little Black Fish also started to laugh. The fish thought it would be better to leave the tadpoles to themselves and go away, but then changed its mind and decided to speak to their mother.

“Where is your mother?” asked the fish. Suddenly, the deep voice of a frog made the fish jump. The frog was sitting on a rock at the edge of the pond. She jumped into the water, came up to the fish and said:
“I’m right here. What do you want?”
“Hello, Great Lady,” said the fish.
The frog responded “Worthless creature, now is not the time to show off. You’ve found some children to listen to you and are talking pretentiously. I’ve lived long enough to know that the world is this pond. Mind your own business and don’t lead my children astray.”
“If you lived a hundred years,” said the little fish, “you’d still be nothing more than an ignorant and helpless frog.”

The frog got angry and jumped at Little Black Fish. The fish flipped quickly and fled like lightening, stirring up sediment and worms at the bottom of the pond.

The valley twisted and curved. The stream became deeper and wider. But if you looked down at the valley from the top of the mountains, the stream would seem like a white thread. In one place, a piece of large rock had broken off from the mountain, fallen to the bottom of the valley, and split the water into two branches. A large lizard the size of a hand, lay on her stomach on the rock. She was enjoying the sun’s warmth and watching a large, round crab resting on the sand at the bottom or the water in a shallow place and eating a frog he had snared.

The little fish suddenly saw the crab, became frightened, and greeted him from afar. The crab glanced sideways at the fish and said,
“What a polite fish! Come closer, little one. Come on!”
“I’m off to see the world,” said the little fish, “and I never want to be caught by you, sir!”
“Little fish, why are you so pessimistic and scared?” asked the crab.
“I’m neither pessimistic nor afraid,” answered the fish. “I speak about everything I see and understand.”
“Well, then,” said the crab, “please tell me what you’ve seen and understood that makes you think I want to capture you?”
“Don’t try to trick me!” responded the fish.
“Are you referring to the frog?” queried the crab. “How childish you are! I have a grudge against frogs; that’s the reason I hunt them. Do you know, they think they’re the only creatures in the world and that they’re very lucky. I want to make them understand who is really a master in the world! So you don’t have to be afraid, my dear. Come here. Come on.”

As the crab talked, he was walking backwards towards the little fish. His gait was so funny that the fish couldn’t help laughing and said,
“Poor thing! You don’t even know how to walk. How did you ever learn who runs the world?”
The black fish drew back from the crab. A shadow fell upon the water and suddenly a heavy blow pushed the crab into the sand. The lizard laughed so hard at the crab’s expression that she slipped and almost fell into the water. The crab couldn’t get up.

The little fish saw that a young shepherd was standing at the edge of the water watching the fish and the crab. A flock of sheep and goats came up to the water and thrust their mouths in. The valley filled with the sounds of “meh meh” and “bah bah.”

The little black fish waited until the sheep and goats had drunk their water and left, then called the lizard,
“Dear lizard, I’m a little black fish who’s going to search for the end of the stream. I think you’re wise, so, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Ask anything you want.”
“All along the way, they’ve been frightening me a great deal about the pelican, the swordfish and the heron. Do you know anything about them?”
“The swordfish and the heron,” said the lizard, “aren’t found in this area, especially the swordfish who lives in the sea. But it’s possible that the pelican is farther down. Be careful he doesn’t trick you and catch you in his pouch.”
“What pouch?”
“Under his throat,” explained the lizard, “the pelican has a pouch which holds a lot of water. When the pelican’s swimming, fish, without realizing it, sometimes enter his pouch and then go straight into his stomach. But if the pelican isn’t hungry, he stores the fish in his pouch to eat later.”
“If a fish enters the pouch, is there any way of getting out?” asked the fish.
“There’s no way unless the fish rips open the pouch,” answered the lizard.
“I’m going to give you a dagger so that if you get caught by the pelican, you can do just that.”

Then the lizard crawled into a crack in the rock and returned wit a very sharp dagger. The little fish took the dagger and said:
“Dear lizard, you are so kind! I don’t know how to thank you.”
“It’s not necessary to thank me, my dear. I have many of these daggers. When I have nothing to do, I sit down and make daggers from blades of grass and give them to smart fish like you.”
“What?” asked the fish, “Have other fish passed here before me?”
“Many have passed by,” the lizard replied. “They’ve formed themselves into a school and they give the fisherman a hard time.”
“Excuse me for talking so much,” said the black fish, “but if you don’t think me meddlesome, tell me how they give the fisherman a hard time.
“Well,” answered the lizard, “they stick together. Whenever the fisherman throws his net, they get inside, pull the net with them, and drag it to the bottom of the sea.”

The lizard placed her ear on the crack, listened and said, “I must excuse myself now. My children have awakened.” The lizard went into the crack in the rock. The black fish had no choice but to set out again. But all the while there were many questions on the fish’s mind. “Is it true that the stream flows to the sea? If only the pelican doesn’t catch me! Is it true the swordfish enjoys killing and eating its own kind? Why is the heron our enemy?”

The little fish continued swimming and thinking, In every stretch of the way the fish saw and learned new things. How the fish liked turning somersaults, tumbling down waterfalls, and swimming again. The fish felt the warmth of the sun and grew strong. At one place a deer was hastily drinking some water. The little fish greeted her.
“Pretty deer, why are you in such a hurry?”
“A hunter is following me,” replied the deer. “I’ve been hit by a bullet … right here!”
The little fish didn’t see the bullet hole, but from the deer’s limping gait knew she was telling the truth.

At one place turtles were napping in the sun’s warmth. At another place the boisterous noise of partridges twisted through the valley. The fragrance of mountain grass floated through the air and mixed with the water. In the afternoon the fish reached a spot where the valley widened and the water passed through the center of a grove of trees. There was so much water that the little black fish had a really good time.

Later on, the fish came upon a school of fish. The little fish had not seen any other fish since leaving home. Several tiny fish surrounded Little Black Fish and said:
“You must be a stranger here!”
“Yes,” responded the black fish, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away.”
“Where do you want to go?” asked the tiny fish.
“I’m going to find the end of the stream,” replied the black fish.
“Which stream?”
“This very stream we’re swimming in,” answered the black fish.
“We call this a river,” stated the tiny fish.
The black fish didn’t say anything.

“Don’t you know that the pelican lives along the way?” inquired one of the tiny fish.
“Yes, I know,” answered the black fish.
“Do you know what a big wide pouch the pelican has?” asked another.
“I know that too,” replied the black fish.
“In spite of all this, you still want to go?” exclaimed the tiny fish.
“Yes,” said the black fish, “whatever happens, I must go.”

Soon a rumor spread among all the fish that a little black fish had come from far away and wanted to find the end of the river. And the fish wasn’t even afraid of the pelican! Several tiny fish were tempted to go with the black fish but didn’t because they were afraid of the grown-ups. Others said, “If there weren’t a pelican, we would come with you. We’re afraid of the pelican’s pouch.”

A village was on the edge of the river. Village women and girls were washing dishes and clothes in the river. The little fish listened to their chatter for a while and watched the children bathing, then set off. The fish went on and on and on, still farther on, until night fell, then lay down under a rock to sleep. The fish woke in the middle of the night and saw the moon shining into the water and lighting up everything. The little black fish liked the moon very much. On nights when the moon shone into the water, the fish longed to creep out from under the moss and speak with her. But Mother would always wake up, pull the fish under the moss, and make it go to sleep again.

The little fish looked up at the moon and said
“Hello, my lovely moon!”
“Hello, Little Black Fish. What brings you here?”
“I’m traveling around the world.”
“The world is very big,” said the moon. “You can’t travel everywhere.”
“That’s okay,” said the fish. “I’ll go everywhere I can.”
“I’d like to stay with you till morning,” said the moon, “but a big black cloud is coming toward me to block out my light.”
“Beautiful moon! I like your light so much. I wish you’d always shine on me.”
“My dear fish, the truth is, I don’t have any light of my own. The sun gives me light and I reflect it to the earth. Tell me, have you heard that humans want to fly up and land on me in a few years?”
“That’s impossible,” exclaimed the fish.
“It’s a difficult task,” said the moon, “but whatever they want, humans can …”
The moon couldn’t finish her sentence. The dark cloud approached and covered her face.

The night became dark again, and the black fish was alone. The fish looked at the darkness in surprise and amazement for several seconds, then crept under a rock and fell asleep.

The fish woke up early in the morning and saw overhead several tiny fish chattering. When they saw that the black fish was awake, they said in one voice:
“Good morning!”
The black fish recognized them right away and said, “Good morning! You followed me after all!”
“Yes,” answered one of the tiny fish, “but we’re still afraid.”
“The thought of the pelican just won’t go away,” said another.
“You worry too much,” said the black fish. “One shouldn’t worry all the time. Let’s start out and our fears will vanish completely.”

But as they were about to set out, they felt the water all around them rise up and a lid was placed over them. It was dark everywhere and there was no way to escape. The black fish immediately realized that they had been caught in the pelican’s pouch.
“My friends,” said the little black fish, “we’ve been caught in the pelican’s pouch, but there’s a chance to escape.”

All the tiny fish began to cry. One of them said, “There’s no way to escape! It’s your fault since you influenced us and led us astray.”
“Now he’s going to swallow us all, and then we’ll die,” said another.
Suddenly the sound of frightening laughter twisted through the water. It was the pelican. He kept on laughing and said, “What tiny fish I’ve caught! Ha. Ha. Truly, my heart bleeds for you. I don’t want to swallow you! Ha, Ha …”
The tiny fish began pleading, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican! We’ve been hearing about you for a long time. If you’d be so kind as to open your distinguished beak a little so that we might go out, we’ll always be grateful to you.”
“I don’t want to swallow you right now,” said the pelican. “I’ve some fish stored. Look below.”
Several large and tiny fish were scattered on the bottom of the pouch.
“Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican!” cried the tiny fish, “we haven’t done anything. We’re innocent. This little black fish led us astray …”

“Cowards!” exclaimed the little black fish, “are you crying like this because you think this dishonest bird is merciful?”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” said the tiny fish. “Just wait and see … His Excellency, Mr. Pelican, will pardon us and swallow you!”
“Of course I’ll pardon you,” said the pelican. “But on one condition.”
“Your condition, please, sir!” begged the tiny fish.
“Strangle that meddlesome fish, and then you’ll get your freedom.”

The little black fish moved aside and said to the tiny fish,
“Don’t agree! This deceitful bird wants to turn us against each other. I have a plan …”
But the tiny fish were so intent on saving themselves that they couldn’t think of anything else. They advanced towards the little black fish who was sitting near the back of the pouch and talking slowly.
“Cowards! Whatever happens, you’ve been caught and don’t have a way to escape. And you’re not strong enough to hurt me.”
“We must strangle you,” said the tiny fish.
“We want freedom!”
“You’ve lost your senses,” said the black fish. “Even if you strangle me, you won’t escape. Don’t fall for his tricks…”
“You’re talking like this just to save yourself,” said the tiny fish. “Otherwise you wouldn’t think of us at all.”
“Just listen,” said the black fish, “and I’ll explain. I’ll pretend I’m dead. Then, we’ll see whether or not the pelican will free you. If you don’t agree to this, I’ll kill all of you with this dagger or rip open the pouch and escape while you …” “Enough!” interrupted one of the fish. “I can’t stand this talk. Oh, wee …oh, wee …oh wee …”>
“Why did you ever bring along this crybaby?” demanded the black fish upon seeing him cry. Then the fish took out the dagger and held it in front of the tiny fish. Helpless, they agreed to the little fish’s suggestion. They pretended to be fighting together. The black fish pretended to be dead. The others went forward and said, “Your Excellency, Mr. Pelican, we strangled the meddlesome black fish …” “Good work!” laughed the pelican. “Now, as a reward, I’m going to swallow all of you alive so that you can have a nice stroll in my stomach!”

The tiny fish never had a chance. Quick as lightening they passed through the pelican’s throat and were gone. But, at that very instant, the black fish drew the dagger, split open the wall of the pouch with one blow and fled. The pelican cried out in pain and smashed his head on the water but he couldn’t follow after the little fish.

The black fish went on and on and still farther on until it was noon. The river had passed through the mountains and valleys and now was flowing across a level plain. Several other smaller rivers had joined it from the right and the left, increasing its water greatly. The black fish was enjoying the immensity of the water.

Soon the fish realized the water had no bottom. The fish swam this way and that way and didn’t touch anywhere. There was so much water that the little fish got lost in it! No matter how far the fish swam, still the water was endless. Suddenly, the fish noticed a large, long creature charging forward like lightening. There was a two-edged sword in front of its mouth. The little fish thought, “The swordfish! He’s going to cut me to pieces this very instant!”

Quickly the fish jumped out of the way and swam to the surface. After a while the fish went under the water again to look for the bottom. On the way the fish met a school of fish-thousands and thousands of fish.

“Friend,” said the fish to one of them, “I’m a stranger. I’ve come from far away. Where is this place?”

The fish called his friends and said, “Look! Another …” Then replied to the black fish, “Friend, welcome to the sea.”

Another said, “All rivers and streams flow here, except some which flow into swamps.”
“You can join our group anytime you wish,” said one of the fish.

The little black fish was happy to have reached the sea and said, “I’d like to travel around first, then I’ll come join your group. I’d like to be with you the next time you pull down the fisherman’s net.”

“You’ll get your wish soon,” answered one of the fish. “Now go explore. But if you swim to the surface, watch out for the heron who isn’t afraid of anyone these days. She doesn’t stop bothering us till she’s caught four or five fish a day.”

The black fish then left the group of sea fish and began swimming. A little later the fish came to the surface of the sea. A warm sun was shining. The little black fish enjoyed feeling the sun’s bright rays on its back. Calm and happy, the fish was swimming on the surface of the sea and thinking, “Death could come upon me very easily now. But as long as I’m able to live, I shouldn’t go out to meet death. Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death-as I shall-it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others . . .”

The little black fish wasn’t able to pursue these thoughts. A heron dived down, swooped up the fish, and carried it off. Caught in the heron’s long beak, the little fish kicked and waved but couldn’t get free. The heron had grabbed the fish’s waist so tightly that its life was ebbing away. After all, how long can a little fish stay alive out of water?

“If only the heron would swallow me this very instant,” thought the fish, “then the water and moisture inside her stomach would prevent my death at least for a few minutes.”

The fish addressed the heron with this thought in mind. “Why don’t you swallow me alive? I’m one of those fish whose body becomes full of poison after death.”
The heron didn’t reply. She thought, “Oh, a tricky one! What are you up to? You want to get me talking so you can escape!”

Dry land was visible in the distance. It got closer and closer.
“If we reach dry land,” thought the fish, “all is finished.”
“I know you want to take me to your children,” said the fish, “but by the time we reach land, I’ll be dead, and my body will become a sack full of poison. Why don’t you have pity for your children?”
“Precaution is also a virtue!” thought the heron. “I can eat you myself and catch another fish for my children… but let’s see… could this be a trick? No, you can’t do anything.”

As the heron thought she noticed that the black fish’s body was limp and motionless. “Does this mean you’re dead,” thought the heron. “Now I can’t even eat you! I’ve ruined such a soft and delicate fish for no reason at all!”
“Hey little one!” she called to the black fish. “Are you still half alive so that I can eat you?”
But she didn’t finish speaking because the moment she opened her beak, the black fish jumped and fell down.

The heron realized how badly she’d been tricked and dived after the little black fish. The fish streaked through the air like lightening. The fish had lost its senses from thirst for sea water and thrust its dry mouth into the moist wind of the sea. But as soon as the fish splashed into the water and took a new breath, the heron caught up and this time swallowed the fish so fast that the fish didn’t understand what had happened.

The fish only sensed that everywhere was wet and dark. There was no way out. The sound of crying could be heard. When the fish’s eyes had become accustomed to the dark, it saw a tiny fish crouched in a corner, crying. He wanted his mother. The black fish approached and said:
“Little one!… Get up! Think about what we should do. What are you crying for? Why do you want your mother?”
“You there…Who are you?” responded the tiny fish. “Can’t you see? …I’m …dy…ing. O, me …oh, my …oh, oh …mama …I …I can’t come with you to pull the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea any more …oh, oh …oh, oh!”
“Enough, there!” said the little fish. “You’ll disgrace all fish.”

After the tiny fish had controlled his crying, the little fish continued, “I want to kill the heron and find peace of mind to all fish. But first, I must send you outside so that you don’t ruin everything.”

“You’re dying yourself,” replied the tiny fish. “How can you kill the heron?”
The little fish showed the dagger. “From right inside here, I’m going to rip open her stomach. Now listen to what I say. I’m going to start tossing back and forth in order to tickle the heron. As soon as she opens her mouth and begins to laugh, you jump out.”
“Then what about you?” asked the tiny fish.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not coming out until I’ve killed this good-for-nothing.”

The black fish stopped talking and began tossing back and forth and tickling the heron’s stomach. The tiny fish was standing ready at the entrance of the heron’s stomach. As soon as the heron opened her mouth and began to laugh, the tiny fish jumped out and fell into the water. But no matter how long he waited, there wasn’t any sign of the black fish. Suddenly, he saw the heron twist and turn and cry out. Then she began to beat her wings and fell down. She splashed into the water. She beat her wings again, then all movement stopped. But there was no sign of Little Black Fish, and since that time, nothing has been heard.

The old fish finished her tale and said to her 12,000 children and grandchildren, “Now it’s time to sleep, children. Go to bed.”
“Grandmother!” exclaimed the children and grand-children, “You didn’t say what happened to that tiny fish.”
“We’ll leave that for tomorrow night,” said the old fish. “Now, it’s time for bed. Goodnight.”
Eleven thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine little fish said goodnight and went to sleep. The grandmother fell asleep too. But try as she might, a little red fish couldn’t get to sleep. All night long she thought about the sea…..


*Published with the permission of Iran Chamber Society

8

“I haven’t written a word for a year (…) I’ve tried to write. Every day I sit at the typewriter, but I can’t get started.” – J.D Salinger

“What’s a director if he can’t engage in direction? He’s like a projectionist without a movie, or a mill without grain. He’s a nobody.” – Anonymous

“Even on my best days I haven’t been able to write more than a page or two. I seem to be afflicted or cursed with some failure of mind that keeps me from concentrating on what I’m doing.” – Paul Auster

***

Salinger, Anonymous. Auster. Don’t let names frighten you. I’ve read these confessions more than once. They’re nothing but a thorn prick. But I ask you: What’s a thorn prick compared to a piece of hot metal searing your foreheads and sides?

For two and a half years—let’s call it three, I found no words. All of a sudden, they evaporated. Writing a sentence consisting of a subject, a verb and an object had become a superhuman effort, the outcomes of which were nothing to be proud of.

Unlike Arturo Bandini, unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to find a great editor named Hackmuth that I could write to in complaint, “My God, Mr Hackmuth, something’s wrong with me. The old zip is gone and I can’t write anymore. Do you think, Mr Hackmuth, that the climate here has something to do with it? Please advise me. Advise me please!” Then he would say reassuringly, “Take it easy. Get out and about. Words can’t abandon you forever. And one last piece of advice: Don’t strain your eyesight. Remember what happened to Tarkington and James Joyce!”

It was the longest siege of determination ever, the longest siege in history. Longer than the Siege of Leningrad. I love the look of this sentence in Russian: Блокада Ленинграда. And the result? Nothing. I won’t delve into the causes of this disability, whose scars I’ll carry inside me forever. As for my body, there was no way to hide its fingerprint anymore: sunken eyes and a distant gaze, like that of a devil in torment amid a crowd of guffawing angels.

Throughout that period, I watched a lot of movies and read still more books. I slept like a polar bear, without a hope of anything. And the poetry that had once placed a golden crown on my head, I flung in the dirt. As I read, I became more alert, more sensitive to words, and my undisputed insightfulness expanded. Still, though, words receded into the distance. As soon as I put my hands on the keyboard, they would tuck their long ears like rabbits and go scurrying terrified for cover into the writing field. Then, nothing would happen but the swaying of dry grass.

I got up from the table and went to stand by the window that looked out over the mountain, but I went on hearing the grass swaying. I slipped into bed, and the swaying slipped in with me. Bleak tall grasses like violin bows at a funeral moved with a black subtlety and grace, as though they were congratulating themselves on the abundance of water and nourishment in my nightmare-rich soil.

My eyes went on sinking, and my gaze grew more and more distant. As the days go by, it became more and more similar to the look of Van Gogh—the Vincent Van Gogh that you all know. And I mean it literally, not figuratively. My gaze terrified me. The fear raging in my heart terrified me too. But I wasn’t afraid. Believe me—never once in that entire period did I feel afraid. You know what the movement of the grasses did to Van Gogh. It drove him out of his mind. And you know what it did to Hemingway. He endured it for a while, but ended up blowing his head off with a shotgun. Believe me. Even after seeing a picture of his brains congealed on the kitchen wall like quince jam, I didn’t feel a grain of fear.

I don’t mean to brag. However, it’s the truth, and not in comparison with these two men only, but with everybody. My stamina is incomparable. I’ve put it to the test on more than one occasion. In the military barracks, when I was in the army, I outdid everybody, soldiers and trainers alike. When everybody else was out of breath and blue in the face from fatigue, there was one lung that went on working, one that kept on breathing comfortably. And when everybody stopped, one person kept on running to the end of the barracks racetrack. As I said, I don’t mean to brag, but I think you know who I’m talking about.

I’d never known where this muscular strength came from. However, I did know that it had to be the source of every other kind of strength, be it spiritual or emotional. As for how to translate this muscular prowess into a spiritual and psychological immunity, and into a poetic and aesthetic salvation, this was the mystery I had to solve.

Three years in a strange city, in a house consisting of two cramped rooms, a bathroom with an area of two square meters, and what looked like a hallway that was supposed to be a kitchen furnished with a single chair and a table for both eating and writing. There was an Olivetti typewriter, two brown sofas, a vertical window opening onto a balcony overlooking the mountain, a horizontal window overlooking the forest, a couple of flowerpots, a couple of oil paintings, a couple of deluxe bronze frames housing photographs of my father and mother, and two vertical bookcases affixed to the living room wall, with books placed under them on a wooden stand, and others on the floor. There was also a bookcase in the bedroom. And there was nothing else. N-o-t-h-i-ng but that sound that roamed from room to room, a sound that resembled the movement of dry grasses in a field whose inhabitants had all died.

In all this, there was something that made me feel proud even when I was ridng the metro, a stranger among strangers. Even when I was drinking coffee at the rail workers’ canteen, or in restaurants that catered to petty officers, sporting the crown of thorns that had taken the place of the crown of gold, there was something that made me proud.

It’s inexplicable. But I might say I have a self-esteem that saved me throughout that period. Even when the water was up to my thighs, I was confident that I could bring the boat out of the storm.  My self-esteem kept me from leaving the helm even when the water had reached my manly 40-centimeter waist or was nearly in my mouth. When all I could do was stare up at the skylight, I kept hold of it, drawing the ocean air into my nostrils.

Meanwhile, on dry land, in noisy pubs, everyone was reporting the news of the boat’s sinking and its captain’s demise. Glasses clinked and sparkling toasts were drunk to the accompaniment of embraces and pats on the back.

The captain, of whom we heard no more until everyone forgot him, was now simply a “he”, free in the waters of the sea, and independent. As “he” was battling the waves alone, “I” was repeating the same monotonous cycle: drinking, reading, sleeping, waking, peeing, bathing, riding the metro, working, and leaving work.

Everything was quiet until I heard the sound of the engine roaring again, and the beloved words of Christ reverberating in the silence of the house, “He was unknown when He was alive.”

And I shed hot tears.

I went to sleep with wet eyes. As my eyelids began to drop, “he” and “I” plunged into each other with the grace of a rose stem as it plunges into the soil. Then the time that had separated us slowly disappeared, leaving a foamy streak like that left by the passing of a ship.

The sun rose.

I awoke beneath the weight of a feeling that a magnetic field was drawing me steadily toward dry land. Suddenly I was no longer certain whether I was in my room, or out on the ocean, whether I was “me” or “him.”

The boat wearied me as it was being drawn to shore.

As I tossed and turned under light blankets, it occurred to me that my long hours of sleep hadn’t been devoid of determination. I thought about the blank page that had humiliated me over the course of those three years, and how I could make public the agony those years had brought, even if the effort would be like emptying a waterlogged boat with a bucket.

Translating this effort into words, and from words into a mental image, is what prompted me to resort to silence. And it is this very thing that now prompts me to recognize that any style not dictated by your true situation is bound sooner or later to end.

 

 

10

This city — this city is so fucking expensive that I can’t bear it. And it’s so fabulous that sometimes I can’t bear it. Expensive and horrible — that would be better. To enjoy it, you need money; to have money, you need to work a lot; but when you work a lot, you don’t have the energy or time or desire to enjoy it.

The endless list of unpaid bills was like a noose around my neck. Debts to my friends and acquaintances. About ten thousand.

All of this — the debts, the fears, the fatigue — all of it has been building up for the last six months, and finally I began to think about getting free of it all — about suicide. The contemplation stage changed to the planning stage.

In the past I was always stopped by three things: my own cowardice, hope that things would get better, and my mother. But now I’m at the point where I’m alone with a storm cloud of shit hanging over me. I know that if I stay here, all that shit will rain down on me and I’ll never dig my way out. Why wait? Better to get free. The only thing left was to decide how to do it.

I read up on it. Drowning, hanging, shooting — too painful. I’m in enough pain as is it, and I don’t want to end it the same way. All that’s left are pills. Take enough, fall asleep and don’t wake up.

If you’re alive, at least once you’ve thought about having the power to end it. Don’t tell me you haven’t. I won’t believe you.

But I didn’t have the money to buy the pills, so I went to my best friend. I already owed him 6,750 shekels.

“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.” I wasn’t lying. This really would be the last time.

“How much?”

“Two hundred.”

He made me a meal of rice and salad with tahina, put me in a cab, paid the driver, and sent me off.

It turned out awkward — this was the last time I’d see my best friend and I didn’t even really hug him. My taxi was holding up traffic, the cars were honking like crazy, so in the rush I didn’t even have time to say anything of substance to him.

One box of pills wasn’t enough to kill me — they must be popular with suicides so that’s why there weren’t many of them. In one box, I mean. That’s what I figured. To kill myself, I’d need four boxes. I decided it wouldn’t be right to buy all four of them in one Super-Pharm — I was afraid I’d get suspicious looks — so I decided to go to four different drug stores and buy a box in each one.

I bent down to tie my shoelaces — that happens to me a lot, my shoe laces coming untied — and when I stood up and reached for the little pouch bag that held my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I realized that it was gone. I spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel and saw an Eritrean boy, about 13 years old, running away with my bag. I ran after him. He saw me and took off like a panther. Today was not my lucky day.

I wasn’t going to catch him, and I wasn’t going to die.

The screech of brakes — still playing in my head on a loop. A crowd of onlookers, the driver in a panic, the boy screaming, and next to him — my bag, and in it my liberation, while I stood rooted to the spot.

Then: ambulance, stretcher, doctors… They drove off, and I remembered that the 200 shekels my friend gave me weren’t in my bag but in my pants pocket. I raised my arm and a cab appeared instantly.

“After that ambulance!”

They took the boy to Ichilov Hospital. Like a scared rat hiding behind the column of people, I followed them — the doctors, the stretcher and the boy.

He was playing with his phone when I went into the ward and sat on the chair next to his bed. He was already feeling better. The nurse told me he’d dislocated his arm. The boy looked up. We locked eyes and he cringed. I held out some chips, an apple and a Kinder chocolate.

“I didn’t know which you’d like.”

“I like chips,” he said, and took the packet.

We didn’t speak as he munched. His mother, a thin black woman, flew into the ward, hugged him and then something caught her eye and she shouted, “You’re doing it again!” She grabbed my bag, which had been lying on the bedside table. “You’re stealing again! I told you that I’d manage. I’ll save your sister! You hear me? She’ll live!”

And then she finally saw me and stopped talking.

I walked out of the ward without saying a word. I’d forgotten what it was like, what it was like when you wanted to live. I called my mother, told her that I loved her, and then I called my best friend and asked him out for a beer. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, you know?

But all that disappeared really fast. Only a few days went by before that storm cloud of shit was hanging over my head again. Only this time it was even worse.

“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.
“How much?”

“Two hundred.”

This time I hugged him and told he was the best.

My friend suddenly said, “Tonight there’s going to be a great concert at Kuli Alma. Nina Simone’s songs. We ought to go.”

I almost burst into tears, so I quickly jumped on my bike and rode off. When I chained my bike by the Super-Pharm on Allenby Street, I saw that my shoe laces were untied — you know how that happens with me, my shoe laces come untied — and when I stood up and reached for the bag that had my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I saw that it was gone. He took off like a panther.

Shit.

But it’s always noisy on Allenby and the kid probably didn’t hear me. Just in case I checked my pockets. There was only my phone, which rang.

“You won’t forget? Tonight. Kuli Alma. Nina Simone. At ten.”

Looks like I won’t die today either.

8

The day I moved from the city to the country my dog returned his spirit to the God who gave it. I do not know whether it was the shock of the move or just a coincidence. Nevertheless, at one-thirty in the morning, after a death rattle that appeared suddenly and lasted a few hours, he lay his head in my lap, shivered one last time and went limp, while defecating on our new wooden flooring. Throughout that evening I could hear the jackals howling from the dry riverbed nearby. I don’t think there was any special reason, certainly nothing symbolic. The jackals were being jackals, and their howls were just howls. Yet back then their sound was still foreign to me and struck me as ominous. Moreover, at the very same moment the dog endured his final spasm, I heard a loud, guttural howl that was altogether different from those that had preceded it. I’m a rational person, but I must admit – it sent a shiver down my spine, and for a moment I was almost convinced it was the dog’s soul, parting from this world in fury and disappointment. Still, I ultimately dismissed it as just another of the jackals’ howls. For who can comprehend all their words and cries? And besides, whatever its source, the howl too ceased definitively after a few moments. Just like the dog.  

I buried him in the riverbed the following morning. It seemed more respectful than taking him to the vet, where they would have undoubtedly sent him off in a black trash bag to a crematorium for biological waste. There was also the issue of transportation: conveying a dead body, albeit canine, in one’s trunk is a rather messy affair for the average law-abiding citizen. A burial felt more dignified. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Since you’ve already made it to the valley where we hoped you would roam, at least your bones will be laid to rest honorably in its soil. I do not wish to exhaust the reader with the fine details of the burial. In a nutshell, the dog was somewhat overweight, and the dry rocky ground of early summer refused to accede to my shovel’s pleas. Eventually, I buried my beloved dog in a hole not as deep as I would have wished for him, and tried to compensate for it by mounding a large pile of stones I had collected from nearby.                     

In the days that followed, I refrained from going anywhere near the grave.  Maybe I was just being sentimental, or perhaps it was the strange odor that had come to envelop the yard, suggesting that the grave had not been properly sealed. All the same, after observing the traditional shiva week of mourning, I was overcome by an urge to check what had become of him, especially as the odor had begun knocking gently on the windows of the house during the nights. My heart told me that the scene I would encounter would not be a pretty one, but I was motivated by a sense of responsibility: what if a child walks by and comes across the grave, which I now began to suspect was open? Again, I will not tire the reader with graphic details. Suffice it to say that a half-eaten leg was protruding from the ground, like a strange summer bloom. The foot was completely intact, including the fur in its original honey hue: a true collectors’ item. Below, however, there was only gnawed red flesh with pieces of brown bone poking out. I fled home, praying the jackals would finish their sloppy work as quickly as possible.           

A few weeks later, on a mid-summer Saturday morning, I was out having a light breakfast in the garden when I suddenly heard another strange cry coming from the valley. This time, I was not under any kind of hurry, and could consider the sound more intently. It was a throaty, agonized cry, like the one a moose or a giant rooster might produce, though neither have ever lived in the southern Judean foothills. My next speculation was that a dog or a jackal had gotten caught in a leg trap, the kind that locks onto the bone and bores a serrated hole into it. I once heard that there were partridge hunters in the area, so it was possible one of them might have set up a trap and mistakenly caught an animal with which he could do nothing except toss it away on the roadside. I waited another minute to see whether the sounds would subside, and when they did not, I set out running through the back gate to see if I could help. As I ran downhill, a potbellied man of about fifty appeared before me, wearing a woolen sweater and hat, despite the hot weather.

“Did you hear the hyena down there?” he asked.  

I held my tongue. For a moment I was filled with a strange fear that he was an inspector who suspected I had buried the dog against the regulations.

“I saw it there, on the path.” He turned and pointed. “You’d be better off not going down there.”

“Is it dangerous?”          

“Only if you’re a carcass,” he laughed. “No. It’ll just run off the moment it realizes you’re after it. They’re smart animals, those hyenas. Smarter than dogs.”     

I got the hint, so I thanked him and walked back home. I waited quietly behind the orange tree in my yard until I saw him come up the path, pass the garden, and continue on to the street.

Every day since, with complete disregard for his instructions, I walk across the valley to look for the hyena. It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. I fill a thermos with coffee, find a good vantage point, and wait. Mongooses pass me by in wonder; partridges march their chicks across; and one time I even inadvertently frightened a gazelle. But no hyena. Not once. Apparently, the scent of my yearning fills the valley.

And yesterday, on top of everything else, my house was broken into. I guess I forgot to lock the door when I went out for my daily walk. Upon my return I found it hanging from its upper hinge. I went through the rooms to check what had been taken. I do not possess many valuables. Still, there is my laptop, phone, car keys, wallet. All were left at home, and all remained untouched. I could not be certain that all the cash in the wallet was in place, but the credit cards were,  along with a few bills. I figured no thief would take only some of the money. On one of the walls, in the corner, just above the floor, I found a small drawing of a dog, sketched in black chalk. “This is not a pipe,” was written beneath it.              

I set out to look for a hyena in the valley near my home. Of course, I set out to look for a hyena. A genuine hyena, flesh, and blood. What else could I possibly be looking for there?


 

*The story has won the first place at “My one-hundred meters” competition, that took place during the Coronavirus lockdown.    

13

About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.

Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.

Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.

Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.

The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.

For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.

The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.

Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.

Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin.  What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?

An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”

Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.

The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.

Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”

People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.

Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.


The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.

3

He played his role well. He showed no sign that he knew what was going on behind his back. He could be truly satisfied with himself. And when Bennet and Yossi Cohen told him why they had called him in, he feigned surprise. He had cooperated with the Mossad in the past, but for him, until today, Yossi had been only a voice. He recognized his captivating face from pictures that had appeared in the media. Yossi turned his blue eyes to meet his, an enticement that made him tense. Don Yossi – yes. Without a doubt – Don Yossi.

“Guarantees. What guarantees can you give me that when this is all over I won’t be the scapegoat of the story.” His nasal voice echoes slightly through the space of the empty room.

Bennet smiles. He stands facing him across the narrow metal table, the only piece of furniture in the bare room in the basement of the Mossad. “Breathe Gregorius, breathe. This is not an interrogation room. It’s a meeting room. This is going to be smooth and simple. No complications, right Yossi?”  

“This is Gregory, from Gregorovius, one of Cortázar’s protagonists. My mother loves him.” He smiles a lunar smile.

“Gregory, you’ve got an opportunity to soar here.” Yossi steps away from the wall he was leaning against. “Spread your arms as wide as you can, Gregory, and embrace everything possible.” As if trying to illustrate his intention, Yossi faces him and spreads his arms wide. “These are wings. Sometimes I flap them and fly high, and when I return my thoughts are clear and I know the world is mine.”

Bennet closes his eyes and spreads his arms, flapping them gently. “Believe him,” he says, trying a meditative tone. “As Director of the Mossad, he knows something about your future. About the future of all of us.”

“And how to direct it where we need it,” Yossi adds in his raspy bass voice, rolling the sleeves of his white shirt up above his elbows. “We’ve been following your ideas and you’re your work, and those of N.S.O. But you disappear on us quite a bit, if you know what I mean.” He closes one eye, lifts his arm, and forms his hand into the shape of a pistol. He takes aim at Gregory. “Bingo!” he lets slip.

Gregory looks down. “Yes, some of my time…but it’s not what you think,” he says in a grating, apologetic tone.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Bennet reassures him in a fatherly tone. “We know, we know.”

“I control it, although I don’t know completely how it works…” says Gregory in the voice of an embarrassed child, biting his lip and shrugging his shoulders, giving the appearance that his head is growing directly out of his rounded shoulders.

“It’s a simple matter of exchanging information. There’s nothing to apologize for. The country needs you, Gregory. It’s an honor!”

“Gregory,” says Yossi in a soft voice. “This is not an interrogation. Not at all. It’s a friendly negotiation for cooperation, okay? He drags over a chair and sits down across from Gregory, leaning toward him a bit. “You’re among friends here. We can do this nicely.”

Gregory’s thoughts are galloping in a different direction altogether, and he taps out a fast-paced rhythm on the table with his fingernail. “I wrote the algorithm, and even though algorithms are logical structures, something went wrong. It just disappeared. It’s hard to explain…” He hangs his head. “It’s all based on the premise that each of us is built from a repeating loop with infinite feedback, and we are therefore constantly becoming more sophisticated. Actually, we are all systems of identification and representation. Our ability to represent the reality around us for ourselves is what enables us to get along in the world. Now, imagine if were to introduce an algorithm to this loop that’s able to read this representation.”

He rubs his forehead and presses on it, making long, increasingly frequent movements from his forehead back to his neck. The room is narrow, and the walls appear to him to be moving, slowly reducing the space between them. Inside his skull, calculations of volume and air capacity are running. He thinks he feels an attack of claustrophobia coming on. For as long as he can remember, he has felt as if the world is closing in on him, imprisoning him. There has always been an invisible screen between him and those around him. He has attributed this limitation to some fault within him – a deep flaw that could not be seen; a partition that, at the same time, cultivated within him an inner sense of superiority and distance and gave him an active fantasy life and internal stories that occurred with the same intensity as the experience of reality itself.

“So what do you say?” Bennet stands behind him, massaging his shoulders. “Yossi, do you have some relaxing music? Perhaps something Buddhist?” 

Yossi produces a small remote control, and a moment later the sounds of burbling water and chirping birds can be heard. Bennet whispers in Gregory’s ear: “Loosen up. Let yourself be a marionette whose strings have been detached from its head.”

The three begin a long moment in a meditative state. When the music suddenly goes silent, and as if coordinated in advance, Bennet grabs Gregory’s skull and shoves his tongue deep into his ear. Gregory’s eyes open wide. He tries to shake his head free, but Bennet holds onto it forcefully.

“There’s been a fundamental error!” Gregory screams.

“Now you’re talking business!” Bennet let’s go of his skull. “You know how complicated it was to push through the decision to cooperate with N.S.O. without a tender? There’s a one-time offer on the table. Be a partner. We’ll share the information and we won’t disrupt your business. Fair enough?”  

Saliva drips out of Gregory’s ear.

Bennet’s repulsive breath hangs in the air, and Gregory ponders the condition of his gastric juices.

“I think that’s a generous offer,” Yossi says, shaking his head.

“We know what you’re capable of, Gregory. We supported N.S.O. for years. We turned a blind eye to the Trojan horses you created and that you all rode on. You made tons of money. But this is a time of national emergency – a time for joining forces!” Bennet clenches his hand into a fist, raises it in a Maciste-esque movement, and flexes his bicep.

For a long moment it is silent.

Gregory gathers his strength and stands up straight. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I need to put things into perspective for you,” he pants. “The coronavirus is a serious virus. And it’s not a matter of epidemiology. Vaccines are not our business. For us, a virus is a horse. We discovered the coronavirus back at the end of 2015. We identified its high level of communicability, but we weren’t able to mount on it the algorithms we had developed at the time. They were too unwieldy for such a noble steed. I was mesmerized by it. At first it was a game, a fantasy,” he looks dreamily at Yossi. “You must understand – the world of fantasy is a place of release, a place for maneuvering and for practicing tactics. If we free ourselves from the prison of time we can move freely throughout the space of fantasy, where one can design complex structures for observing the reality that lies beyond consciousness, for getting to know it. It’s a matter of practice, of the intensity of the fantasy that’s developed.” Gregory takes a breath of air and Bennet interrupts. “Yossi, it’s like we’re in a lesson about delusions by Bradbury or Huxley. Listen Gregory, Gregorius, Gregorovius – your active fantasy life doesn’t interest us. Get to the point!”  

“The point, uh…” Gregory removes a black leather-bound notepad from his pocket, opens it, and lays it on the table. “It’s all here.”    

Yossi picks up the notepad and leafs through it quickly. Each page contains diagrams and dense handwritten lists of numbers. He tears out the first page and lays it down in front of Gregory. Gregory gets up from his chair, stands in the corner of the room, and casts a worried gaze at Yossi.

“In your world,” Gregory says, formulating his words in a quiet tone, “actions of sophisticated listening and control are performed by physical means and devices. You accumulate information emitted in speech, movement, and facial expression, and you analyze it using complex processes. But you have no idea about the intentions of the mind, about what occurs there before intentions and thoughts are processed into words.”

Gregory takes off his sweatshirt and sits back down in his chair.    

“The most effective way to penetrate anyone is with a virus. Viruses are the best and deepest penetrating carriers. That’s what we’re doing: we’re mounting a sophisticated algorithm on the virus, which carries it in. The beauty of it is that when the virus is killed by the antibodies, the algorithm, which is actually a keen sensor, remains in the body and continues to transmit. We achieve an immensely high level of mapping by analyzing the sounds within the body. We are able to translate contractions of the intestine, beats of the bladder, movements of fluids in the kidneys, and even sounds of joints that are indicative of ligaments, tendons, and muscle tension. We listen to, sense, and analyze everything that occurs in the sack of skin in which we are all packaged.” A broad smile appears on his face. “In certain situations, when required to do so, we have the ability to take control of internal organs…I’m sure you can appreciate the significance of this trajectory.”

Yossi’s facial features tighten somewhat. “That sounds fantastic,” he says.  

Gregory wrings his fingers. “But then we discovered that this coronavirus kills our algorithm. Drowns it. It’s horrible.” He reaches over and grabs the black notepad, tears out some more pages, sets them down in a jumble, and puts them together again and again, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

“Have you seen this shit?” He turns to Yossi. “It’s all messed up. I need to make another journey to the future in order to retrieve the necessary information.” He sits up straight, looking pensive.  

“You can fly to the moon as far as I’m concerned,” Bennet exclaims in a partial shout. “The important thing is that you return immediately, and that before you go you sign the contract!”  

“Shhhh…Shhhh…” says Yossi. “Let me try to understand this in peace and quiet.” He looks at the pages and screws up his brow.

“Look, Yossi. It’s a virus like any other virus, a product of the bang. It’s easy to map its movement, like we map astronomical objects. But with this coronavirus…it’s as if something went wrong and all the nano astronomy projections are invalid. We discovered that every unit of the virus follows its own separate path, like a life-loathing creature seeking independent survival.” Gregory breathes heavily, like an asthmatic. “We’ve never seen such behavior. Just try to map it. It’s impossible.”      

Bennet pulls a small nail file from his pocket, leans his elbows on the table, and concentrates on filing his nails.     

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Yossi says to Gregory. “He’s depressed. It’s an awkward situation, isn’t it Benito?”

Bennet stops filing for a moment. “Gentlemen, I need to get back to the Big Boss within an hour. Is there a deal or not? We simply can’t afford to find ourselves on ‘the day after’. Do you understand what I mean? The state of emergency won’t last forever, you know. If you think there’s a court of law in the country that will allow us to map people in this manner, you’re mistaken, gentlemen. We’ll be majorly screwed.” Bennet turns to Yossi. “Will you please explain to him what this means? He can travel wherever he likes – to the future, to the past, to Serum Norvera X. But in an hour at the latest, he signs and we get to work. Okay, Yossi?”

“Calm down, Benito. Calm down.” Yossi takes a handkerchief out of his pants pocket and offers it to Bennet. “Wipe the sweat off your forehead.”

Gregory pulls a pencil out of his shirt pocket and starts making quick calculations on one of the pages in the notepad. He leans back in his chair and sighs. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. I don’t understand it! I could have sworn we copied the maps exactly from the eternal source.” 

“The guys in my labs say that you erred in converting the measurements,” says Yossi, pointing at the small earpiece inserted in his right ear. “They suggest you rethink the cybernetic route to the bronchus. They think you made a mistake in checking the Polymerase Chain and converting the base units from the cosmic macro to nano-units.”

Gregory chews on the end of the pencil, leans over the pages of the notepad, and begins to quickly cover them with numbers.        

“Wow!” Bennet utters in amazement. “Did you see that? With such mathematical ability, it’s no wonder he can fly to the future.”

Gregory tosses the pencil onto the table, and with a sigh of despair he pushes his chair back, stands up, and begins pacing back and forth. 

“These routes were fed into the algorithms to enable them to disconnect in time, before the virus attaches to the cell and we lose it. We’ve already lost tens of thousands. Tens of thousands!”

Silence.

“Gentlemen.” Bennet folds the nail file and puts it back in his pocket. He looks at the clock and then looks Gregory in the face. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the algorithms you’ve lost. The same goes for the psychic-cybernetic structure of the virus. If Yossi wants to take part in this disgrace, he can be my guest. I’m leaving now, and when I get back…”

“There’s something you don’t understand,” Gregory interrupts. “Yossi, explain to him what a sleeper agent is! Explain to him what can happen when a sleeper agent awakens and operates uncontrolled.”

“Benito, Benito! Control yourself.”  

“Our algorithm is like one of Yossi’s sleeper agents.” Gregory’s eyes sparkle. He looks into Bennet’s eyes. “Imagine a world in which an algorithm is implanted in everyone – sleeper agents transmitting everything going on inside them when we need it. And they can also be activated!” He shakes his head. “A perfect world! Perfect! We could even divert people’s fantasies, create internal feelings. Now can you understand how dangerous an out of control sleeper agent is? It’s an algorithm that does as it pleases and that can cause fatal damage.”    

“I think we all need to calm down,” Yossi says, turning his head to the left to face the wall. “Bring us three espressos and a bottle of cold water.”

“Tea,” says Gregory in a reconciled tone. “Natural green tea, please. I’m strict about such things.”

“Did you hear that, guys?” Yossi calls to the other side of the wall.

“Can I get a sandwich, too? I’m hungry.” Gregory turns to the wall and continues apologetically: “Just make sure its vegan, alright?”   

“Ha, ha, ha.” Bennet leans back. “Did you hear that? The guy embarks upon deadly adventures with the bodies and minds of others and is a ‘strict’ vegan.”

“To me, it actually seems quite romantic,” Yossi says. “It’s nice. I appreciate romanticism. People need a non-destructive way of letting out their frustrations and their conflicts with reality. It’s a question of wise usage,” he smiles toward the wall. “Romance stimulates creativity.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bennet grumbles. “What’s happening to you, Yossi? The next thing you know you’ll want to fly to the future too,” he chuckles. “Don’t get carried away. I’m reminding you what the Big Boss wants, what he’s expecting.” He bends over to Yossi and whispers something in his ear. “Leave that to me, Benito, okay?” Yossi says with resolve. “That’s our responsibility.”

“Is something wrong?” Gregory puts the question out there.     

“Everything’s fine,” Yossi says. Benito here has to go, don’t you Benito?”

“Okay. I understand,” says Bennet and turns to face the wall. “Open up, guys. I’m done here.” He pushes back the chair, and then he walks toward the wall and is swallowed up by it.   

“I’ll give it to you straight, Gregory – I like you. It looks to me like we’re embarking on a joint path. We’ll share the victories and the disappointments. Sound fair to you?”

Gregory blows on his tea and takes a noisy sip.

“I think as you do on this matter. Fantasies sometimes come true.” Yossi laughs. “You know what I mean?” He touches his finger to his earpiece, pressing on it lightly. The psychologist from oversight whispers: “That’s a great direction, Yossi. Tactics from the good old days. Two or three more rounds and he’ll be with us completely.”     

“You know,” Gregory says, fixing his gaze on Yossi, “before I started the company I dug deep into the vast system of what we call fantasy. I was sure I’d be able to crack it, but the deeper I dug, the more the roots branched out to infinity.”

“Go with it, Yossi,” the psychologist says enthusiastically in his earpiece. “The fantasy, it’s there!”  

“Ever since I learned to read I’ve been a fan of science fiction,” says Yossi with quiet and contemplative candor. “A friend of mine introduced me to the magazine Amazing Stories, and I developed a boundless passion for the stuff. That is, to my parents’ consternation…” he laughs. The psychologist in the earpiece: “Perfect, perfect. Let him respond.”

“Yes, yes. I understand perfectly.” Gregory takes a bite of his sandwich and chews slowly. “My parents would also look at me in despair whenever they entered my lair and saw the piles of books I was engrossed in. Wells, Stapleton.”   

Yossi stretches out his legs and relaxes serenely in his chair. “In my youth, I investigated the semantics of cybernetics. I thought I would become a scientist or a mathematician, but I was recruited to here.” He laughs aloud. “Now they’re only hobbies – philosophy, advanced mathematics, astrophysics.” The psychologist in his ear: “Be careful there. We’re analyzing facial movements and expressions. It looks like you’re taking him back too far. His past is complicated, nightmarish, and problematic. Make sure not to slip into it.”   

Yossi straightens up. “Listen Gregory, we’re making an offer here. I’m putting it on the table as frankly as possible. Work with us. We’ll give you complete freedom of operation. Our labs will be at your disposal, along with our people and anything else in the world that can be acquired.”

“I’m sure I didn’t make an error in the calculations,” Gregory mumbles. “I’m sure of it. This virus is developing such complex, almost quantum movements… It attaches to a cell, sucks out the RNA, and reproduces like crazy. And then before my algorithm understands what’s happening, it suffocates.”

 “You better wise up, Gregory. If you continue with such fervor, your imagination will take you on a journey that will be difficult to return from. Believe me. I have a few here who are on that track. The game becomes a contest between dark forces of the mind. I’ve been there. When they recruited me, they activated an instinct of self-preservation within me so that the part of my brain that was still lucid could serve as a life preserver if I had to fight the temptation of fantasy.” The psychologist: “That’s great. The indicators show that it’s working. Let’s take a break. We’re sending in another cup of tea. And an espresso for you…”     

A young man with a waiter’s apron around his waist emerges from the wall and places a tray on the table. “Right on time, Termite,” Yossi says. “And also bring in some of those savory cookies for me. Would you like some too?” He addresses the question to Gregory, but Gregory is absorbed in chewing the remainder of his sandwich. His gaze is fixed on the tower of notepad pages that have piled up before him.

“What stage have you reached in the decoding?” Yossi asks.

“Decoding? What do you mean?”

“Of the internal sounds. The ones the algorithm is listening to.”       

Gregory shifts in his chair. “Oh, yes. I believe we’re at stage five, according to your criteria. Seventy percent statistical significance, based on the adjusted calculation of intestinal contractions, kidney compressions, liver vibrations, joint sounds, and saliva indicators. When we integrate all of this with the definite indicators for blood oxygen and pulse rate, we reach 95 to 98 percent. It’s hard to hide things from us.”     

Yossi rolls the espresso cup backwards and forwards between his hands and then takes a sip. “Listen Gregory, I’m sure you know that the Big Boss considers me his successor. It’s already appeared in the media and he’s never denied it. But you can never know with him. You know what I mean? For the time being, I’m working with analytical restraint and sticking to the myth of immunity. I can afford to. And all the more so if you join me – that is, join us …” Yossi rotates his forearm in circles, his finger pointing at the ceiling. “From here, we look realistically at everything that’s happening. Our prediction ability may seem outdated to you, but it gets the job done. You know what I mean. Together we can create something wonderful.”        

Gregory rubs his face with his hands. “This is the moment of resistance,” the psychologist whispers. “You’re leading with almost 70 percent toward a positive outcome.”

Yossi folds his arms across his chest. “Gregory, don’t misunderstand me. This all has the Big Boss’s approval.”  

“And what if he changes his mind? What if something snaps and his obsession intensifies? What happens to me?”   

“You mean, what if I’m removed?” The psychologist in his ear is troubled: “Smile, Yossi. Smile.”  Yossi smiles. “I can’t imagine we would allow that to happen, can you?” Yossi locks onto Gregory’s eyes and, without a word, the two men begin a game of ‘who blinks first’.

“Let him win,” the psychologist in the earpiece instructs him. Yossi blinks.

An embarrassed smile spreads across Gregory’s face.

Yossi gets up. “I’ll inform Bennet that it didn’t work. I’ll tell him that you’re not there yet, that is, not in a technological sense. I’ll tell him that it’s not all ready yet. I’ll tell him that in principle you are willing to sign, but that first you need to be sure that the problems with controlling the algorithm have been solved.”

Gregory rises heavily from his chair.

Yossi reaches out his hand. “You are the ambassador of the land of magic, Gregory.”

They shake hands. Gregory gathers up the pile of notepad pages from the table and buries them in his pants’ pocket.

“I’m dying to piss,” Gregory says, sounding somewhat ashamed. “Of course you are.” Yossi smiles. “After all, we’re only human.”     

2

Someone looking at the large photograph hanging on the spacious sitting room wall would imagine that there was something anomalous about it. An anomaly impossible to define at first glance, and perhaps not at second glance, yet there was no shame in continuing to look. Afterall, these large photographs in their carefully chosen frames hung there for everyone to look at in contemplation of their static details. This picture, however, was not like other staid and solid wedding photographs, out of which beamed smiling faces and where gazes intersected or looked straight ahead. It was an old photograph, perhaps a touch faded, and the gazes were unusual, or perhaps their interplay was unreadable.

“Can the bride please look at me. Over here, here, towards the camera. No! No, not into the corner. Yes, you, hold her hand and look into her eyes, and you as well Dear, look into his eyes. No not like that! God, what’s the problem? Please, just look at the lens or into the groom’s eyes!

 

“No, don’t look at that bloody monstrosity,” he thought to himself, then gave up.

The shutter clicked at that instant, capturing it all, sharply and starkly. A groom with frozen features looking into the space in front of him, a bride looking to her right, where the enormous wooden side of what looked like a wardrobe was visible. Time gets canned like that, without regard for a history that is out-of-date. In the frame along with it we preserve some unspoken convictions and some satisfaction, too, at days when we ask, “Has it really been twenty years? Thirty?”

 

The mirror hanging in the bedroom with the ugly scratches on its surface belies the fallacy of photographs and preserved time. In front of it, the now-elderly bride counts her new wrinkles and laments her faded bloom, then pats conviction and satisfaction on the back before their serviceability expires.

 

The conviction was that she married for cultural wealth in the shape of a giant wooden wardrobe. That conviction itself bequeathed her the satisfaction, and both together ensured her survival. She did not know how far back the history of the wardrobe went, but it had been a reason for the tranquil married life of two or three generations of women up to her mother-in-law’s time. The fourth generation had begun with her.

Some married in exchange for ten gold bracelets, others for an elegant and spacious room in their mother-in-law’s house or as a pampered rival to a barren first wife. But Warda had married in exchange for a wooden wardrobe, behind whose solid panels she piled thick wool mattresses.

 

When still a radiant newlywed, over the wall she heard one woman say to another hanging out her washing, “She got married for a wardrobe. Everyone knows it. Her mother never pretended otherwise. They say that on her daughter’s wedding day, she said between one ululation and the next, ‘My daughter the bride has something that none of you have! A wooden wardrobe that goes from floor to ceiling. A dozen men couldn’t move it.’”

A giant made of wood overshadows the bride and groom in a traditional wedding photograph. They stand next to it, adjusting their looks and their awkward poses.

She had great respect for that wooden giant. As for her husband, she was confident that she fulfilled her duty towards him, as an obedient and conscientious wife. But the two of them brooked no comparison. The former won hands down. Were it not for its towering presence in the spacious sitting room, she would have felt that she had been led to the marital home like an underfed ewe. She maintained it like she maintained her dignity. She had sold off her few pieces of jewellery, and only kept hold of a few items of clothing that had not worn out and from which the whiff of memory had not faded.

But the wardrobe however! She took care of it just like one of her four children. The rituals of cleaning it and repairing its edges, which got scratched by a blindly wielded broom or a lazy body, were rituals that emulated the celebrations of joy in her immediate family, and sometimes surpassed them. In the hidden recesses of her mind, such a comparison caused her no embarrassment.

Almost all the village houses had dispensed with wool mattresses and heavy blankets. There was no longer a need for a large wardrobe with split doors to store their bedding. Only a few houses made washing and restuffing the mattresses a time for celebration, after which, revivified, they would be put away in a modest wooden wardrobe. Her celebrations were more than the mere washing of rarely used mattresses; they were times to restore the sheen to the idea that she was a dowried bride and that her dowry was no less than that of any of her married peers.

When her sons grew up, she married them off without any great worry. Little did she know that she would be recompensed with a great deal of worry when a young man, who owned nothing more than a modest room that he had partitioned off in his family’s home, asked for her daughter’s hand, and that her daughter would fall in love and insist on marrying him, despite his scant means. Back in the day, she had not allowed the women of the district to make fun of her situation, or did not like to let the feeling that she was inferior to any of them worm its way into her heart. Now, however, when she was marrying her daughter in exchange for nothing at all, how would she protect her from belittlement by the village girls? Since this did not seem to be of the slightest concern to her daughter, how then would she protect herself, having given her daughter away in marriage for nothing?

For nothing.

In the morning hours, as the whole household was busy preparing for their only daughter’s wedding, an enormous truck pulled up at the big gates and out jumped five burly men with bulging muscles fit to burst the sleeves of their tight shirts.

Within minutes, the five men were struggling to haul the heavy wardrobe into the truck to head off to the bride’s new home as a present from her mother. The eyes inspecting the blushing bride observed the compelling scene and watched the mother as she warned the men not to scratch their load. “Slowly does it, slowly! Watch out for the edge. Wake up man, there’s a step! Oooohhh, don’t you know how much a wardrobe like this is worth?”

Perhaps she wanted to say, “Don’t you know I bargained away an entire life for it?”

Perhaps none of them understood what the woman who had bargained away an entire life was referring to. No more than a heavy wardrobe with split doors.

“Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”

The phrase must have been on the lips of many, or at the very least come up when they tried to relate the details of the strange wedding to those who had missed it. During the rounds of morning gossip it was present with a vengeance, no doubt about it: “Here comes the bride, or here comes the wardrobe?”

“If only they’d taken the mattresses with them too. Weren’t they the pretext for keeping the wardrobe? The objects provided the rationale for their container, how unfair!”

For many days, and with a large empty space having taken over the sitting room, she was plagued by a strange question: Hasn’t the life I’ve lived also been a container? What excuses have I clung onto to keep hold of the container, I mean my life?

A few days later, her husband’s twenty-year-old sofa took up the space vacated by the wardrobe, and right above it hung the faded old wedding photograph. The husband did not ask and did not object. He sat on the edge of the sofa and shouted grumpily as usual for his coffee.

She laughed in her heart as she brought him his cup.

There was nothing more amusing than a wooden husband insisting on his sugary coffee.

 

11

I learned of the character of drugs and the nature of poisons from an alchemist – an Arab alchemist from the outskirts of Baghdad who had come to work as a physician in the palace of one of Van’s magistrates. This alchemist guided me to the knowledge of every herb from which lethal poison could be extracted.

He opened every sealed door to me and revealed all the secrets of alchemy, except how to mix mercury and lead! Since the dawn of time, it has been the alchemists’ practice never to reveal that secret nor that of converting base metal into gold. In the end, however, and before I had fully satisfied my thirst for knowledge, that Arab alchemist swore by the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdel Qadir Jilani that the amalgam of mercury and lead was a pure lie. They could never be blended, he said, and one who did so would reign over East and West.

The tale of my mother’s slaughter and what followed

My father – known by the name of Berzine Alchakordi – killed my mother in front of my eyes when I was a ten-year-old child. A dagger in his hand, he was bellowing like a bull: “Whore! You have defiled my honour!”

I didn’t understand what was going on nor why my father was so enraged. I was crammed in a corner of our small house, hiding behind the curtain and slyly peeping at their quarrel. I didn’t think my father would kill my beautiful young mother. Yet my thoughts were killed when my mother was killed. My father was still raging and holding my mother’s severed head when I escaped. I ran and ran, not looking back, until dusk; the sun sinking behind the mountains seemed like a severed head. I haven’t met my father again since. I thought he would kill me too if he saw me.

In a city about thirty or forty parasangs away, I fell into the hands of a gang of bandits and hashish fiends. I became the boy in whose inkwell they dipped their nibs to inscribe their lusts on my back. I suffered greatly to begin with, but got used to it after so many times and started to take some pleasure.

I was attractive and handsome, nicely plump and with glossy flesh. I feared the men and I wanted them to protect me. The cost of sheltering me and shattering the jar of fears in which I cowered was for them to quench their burning lust inside my body. Then I started wanting it, and if there was no one there to do it with, I would roam the alleys and proposition dervishes. They recognized boys like me and seized the first opportunity, throwing their beggar’s bags behind a rock and inviting me to follow them down into the valley. Once a dervish saw my smooth naked body, he would exalt, stuff his long beard in his mouth, and push his plough through my furrow. 

I grew up like that, surrounded by bandits and hashish addicts in the village, and I started frequenting inns. Isolated inns far from the cities were a den for homosexuals, fornicators, merchants, Mullahs, students of jurisprudence, and every no-good sort. From the first glance I could pick out those who liked boys; their looks, their way of staring at the boys’ buttocks, the glint in the eyes, the spittle in the corners of the mouth…all that revealed they were sodomites.

My first victim:

One summer I was on my way to Diyarbakir. I had crossed the Mourad river and was welcomed by the Mouch plain. It was nightfall and I was exhausted, so dozy the drowsiness of a whole city was attacking my eyes. I couldn’t shake off the sleepiness no matter what I did. True, I was wearing my dagger tucked below my belt, but thieves on the road are many. I had to have a rest and get a little sleep. That night was gloomy and dark except for someone’s fire to which I was strongly attracted. All the fear of sinners and robbers filling my heart dissolved like a pinch of salt and the fire drew me like a magnet.

In short, I approached the fire and glimpsed the ruins of an inn, but nobody was by the fire. I recited some verses, thinking it was probably the work of the jinn or spirits. Fear gripped me and I thought of leaving that place, when I heard a clattering from the ruined inn followed by a human voice shouting, “Who’s there, is it human or jinn?”

He sounded no less afraid than me, and my fear vanished. “I’m human like you.” I called out. “A traveller on the road.” I headed towards the ruins of the inn, leaving the dying fire behind me. I and that man could barely see each other as it was pitch dark inside the inn except for the light of some stars and that almost dead fire.

No longer feeling afraid, the urge to sleep assailed me again. Without even letting the man ask my name and origin, I said, “I’m going to faint from lack of sleep. I’ve been walking a whole half day and I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I spend the night here?”

“Ace! And why, young man, would I mind? The inn is deserted and not my property. God has blessed me and sent you this night. I would have found the place desolate all on my own.”

He then withdrew into a corner, took off his shoes, and put them under his head. The handle of his dagger gleamed in the pale light . I desired him, so I went and lay down next to him. I took off my shoes and rested my head on them like him.

After an hour, I felt his hand running over my body, stroking every part of it. I kept calm and the man went further and caressed one curvaceous buttock. When he saw I was quiescent and did not object he fumbled for the drawstring of my trousers and hurriedly untied the knot. From behind, my hand fell on his hot cock, stiff as a tent peg! Aroused by flames of lust, I took off my trousers. Everything happened under the cloak of darkness and silence. Sexual pleasure heightens when one is half-asleep, so I kept my eyes shut while the man, whose face I still hadn’t seen, pulled me close and banged in his tent peg with consummate skill.

I had spent hundreds of nights like that one, but I had never met a man with such a thirst for sex. As soon as he finished with me, he turned on to his back, fell asleep, and started to snore.

Out of the eastern window I spied the full moon. I’d been afraid of the moon since infancy, and didn’t dare look too long at it. My mother would say: “One who looks too long at the moon or in the mirror will go mad!”

I put on my trousers, tying them tightly around my waist, and got up to cast an eye outside. I turned towards him and looked carefully at his face, then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.

***                                            

That man was my father. His beard had gone white a little, but his face was as I remembered it: round with a flat nose and thick eyebrows.

Startled by such a high-pitched scream, he jumped to his feet in panic, fumbling for the handle of his dagger. When he saw me straight on he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you?”

I pulled out my dagger and leaned against the window. I saw sparks of death fly from his eyes and reflect in the glow of the moon. It was him, definitely him, with his frame, his voice, his stature. It was my father!

For a while I was dumbstruck then I said, “It’s better not to recognize me.”

But he replied with a voice that could split granite: “Who are you, boy? Come on tell me your name and your clan!”

I stepped forward and said, “I am your son. I am Yaouz. Yaouz, whose mother you slaughtered before his eyes. I am your son who, because of you, has spent his life wandering in the wilderness! Your son who…”

He didn’t let me finish and, like a wild boar, attacked me with his dagger as he said, “Son of that whore, you’re still alive! I spent ten years looking for you.”

He stabbed me in the face, but when I lunged at him, he ducked and stepped back, and the blow went wide. He attacked again, repeatedly stabbing me in the face. I stabbed him in the neck and we exchanged thrusts until I killed him. I was drained, exhausted, by multiple cuts to the face. My lips were slit. One final blow had reached my chest without penetrating deep. Although none of my wounds were serious, I slipped into unconsciousness and remained sprawled in that deserted inn.


*An excerpt from the novel Mirnameh ­– Poet and Prince by

 

 

9

Hilik arrives at about 12. “Am I interrupting you?” he asks. I gesture for him to come in, but he still hesitates on the threshold. “If you’re busy working,” he says, “I’ll come back later. I don’t want to bother you or anything, I was just curious.”

I make coffee and we sit in the living room. He doesn’t drink the coffee, doesn’t even taste it, just sinks into the couch and tries to smile. “I only dropped in to see how it’s going,” he says. “The people at the publisher’s are on pins and needles, dying to read it.”

“Great,” I say, “it’s going great.”

“Terrific,” Hilik smiles, “I’m glad. Because you know, it’s nine years already. In March, I mean, it’ll be nine and you haven’t written anything since then…”

“But I have,” I say, “I write all the time. It’s just that it isn’t good enough.”

“I want you to know,” Hilik says as he holds his hands above the coffee so they can catch the steam, “that with your reputation, even not-good will sell. I swear, during Book Week, someone came up every ten minutes and asked when you’ll be publishing a new one. Ask Dubi. After almost ten years, even really-bad will sell. But if you’re not writing at all, then…”

“I’m writing,” I say, “all the time. But I don’t feel like publishing a not-good book, even if you or Dubi…”

“Of course,” Hilik interrupts me, “no one said it has to be not good. It can be good too, goodwill sells even better. Just finish a book already, for God’s sake.”

I know him. This isn’t the first time he’s come here. Soon he’ll start talking about his daughter, the paralyzed one, and then he’ll cry. He always cries in the end. “I’m almost finished,” I say, trying to head him off, “another fifty pages, tops.”

“Fifty?” Hilik repeats suspiciously. “Yes,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, “fifty tops. I just have to get the protagonist to kill someone who has it coming, in self-defense. Then he’ll sleep with the sister of the dead guy without her knowing that he’s the one who killed him. And then there are a few more pages of his thoughts as he walks on the beach in Caesarea. And a short epilogue with him in a taxi on the way back to his apartment when he hears about the Coronavirus outbreak on the radio, you know, so the reader can place the plot in a historical context.

“Fifty pages, you say,” Hilik says, clutching the handle of his mug of coffee, “fifty tops and the Coronavirus?” He pauses for a second and then hurls the mug at the wall. A black stain appears on it and begins to ooze towards the floor. “Remember what you told me last time? Twenty pages, you said, Twenty! Twenty pages and the last Gaza War. If you’re not writing, then don’t write, but for God’s sake, we’ve known each other for more than 25 years, even before my Yifat was born, so don’t lie to me.

I don’t say anything. Neither does Hilik. I see him slowly realizing what he’s done. The stain is still oozing, it’ll reach the carpet soon. “Do you have a rag?” he asks after the brief silence. “Don’t get up, just tell me where and I’ll clean it up.” I shake my head, I really don’t think I have one.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I lost control. It’s not like me. I’m just going through a bad time now. I apologize. Do you forgive me?” I nod. “Good,” Hilik says, “so I’m going now. I don’t want to disturb you… Fifty pages, you said? Great, you really are almost done. Don’t make the ending too depressing, okay? Leave a sliver of hope. People like to feel there’s still a chance.” He stops at the door and says, “I’m really sorry about the coffee. You’re not angry, right? It’s just that, my daughter, she’s in a bad way…” And he starts to cry. I put a hand on his shoulder. Exactly the same one I put a hand on last time.

“Life is cruel,” Hilik says, “a real bitch. Heartless. It grinds you down until there’s nothing left but dust. Write about that. Write something about that. Not now, in your next book.”

“I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done,” I say before I close the door, “it won’t take much longer. I’m right at the end.”

After Hilik goes, I sit down in front of the computer and surf a few porn sites. One shows a young girl with a braid whose name is Nikki. She speaks a language I don’t understand and drinks cum from a glass that someone hands her. I close the site and open my word processor. I have a lot of ideas in my head. Too many, in fact. This time, I tell myself, I’ll do it differently. This time I’ll try to start from the end. “ ‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Nikki whispered, covering his mouth with her soft hand, ‘Let’s not even think about it. Let’s just kiss and watch the sunset.’ The sun had almost completely sunk into the black sea, and only a single, stubborn ray of light flickered in the sky in a final, desperate effort to give the very dark world another sliver of light.”

 

 

 

13

Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously.  This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet.  These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.

She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories – stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother, whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her teacher, the girl never visited school.

When the father crossed the sea to collect money from Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part evil and part mournful.  The girl too hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other reasons.

Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely, and get in the way of making any sense.

Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’ voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep his image fully awake.

“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is how the evening came to its end.

“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world. 

The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his wife’s hangman, and also the other way around.  She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died, and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing.  It was only after his death, when she arrived at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had remained there, and maybe  she had never had any in the first place.

Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea. She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about.  What is this here and what this now, she wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars, epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the quill in her ink and began to write.

But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.

She knew that those little stories would come back to her,  but not tonight, and she felt how her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on the bench on the porch.

A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.

“Bon soir!”

Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:

“Je suis Madame Bovary”.

Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board, considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.

Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my place?”

Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?

“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice, because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up with –  some village apothecary and a bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”

“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even imagine a life without love?”  Having said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts, my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along? The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”

The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all this didn’t depend on me.  It was Gustave who took me for a ride.”

“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh,  “But letting him get away with dumping you  just because his imagination had run dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that, being a man, he was never on your side.”

Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.

“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times, or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your sleep.”

She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced, priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it?  She was at a loss.

The two sat there in silence.

“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said, remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”

Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the darkness.

“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing her feetless legs – and then she vanished.

The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.

Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists more, or less, for real than the story itself.

She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”


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