Night has descended on the military headquarters. Darkness veiling the barracks like a dewy tarpaulin. A man’s shadow stretches from the top floor of the Ministry of Defense’s office like a large bird, then vanishes, leaving Yair alone in its calm decampment. ‘Like a killer around the corner,’ Psoriasis had said, while putting on his full pack in the dark. Yair knew how to hide his feelings, and would have given a lot for these moments to last for he loved his new army buddies, his comrades from all sorts of places across the country, all sorts of medical conditions. Among them was even an epileptic guy, as well as three asthmatics, four with ulcers, and two suffering from depression. All had been enlisted for one reason or another, and guarded for one reason or other the state’s most sensitive mastermind – not counting the U.S Embassy, which was guarded by Marine soldiers. Yair enjoyed sitting with them in their rooms, while they got ready for the night watch, and could have even forgiven his father, who forced this enlistment on him, for maybe this was what his father had had in mind, that he would go out a while into the world and make new friends. After all you can’t be caged up at home like a nocturnal reptile not even knowing the names of the kids in class (he knew, he knew, he knew very well, he only told his father that he didn’t know), and yet he will never forgive his father. After all, the joy flooding through him now has nothing to do with his enmity towards that shadow falling from the window, that transient fear like an invisible gust of wind, not fear, but a clear knowledge that he is doomed, and that he must not fear, for nothing will alter the verdict. Not murder, nor madness, nor suicide. Dad sits and watches over him here as well. He is here because of Dad, and Dad is here because of him. And no, not suicide. He would never commit suicide, he is of sensitive skin, and his life is not worth the drama.
He loved his friends from the unit, particularly because they made fun of themselves, called themselves by the names of their medical conditions – even though he was the only man in the platoon who was known by his real name, that is the one given to him by his parents. He too had wanted, hardly dared, but had almost asked to be known by his, but something prevented them from doing so. How very much he longed to be nicknamed like them with contemptuous names, only that his father did not allow him to mock himself, did not sanction this kind of humour, believed that with this kind of humour his son would never get well, that this kind of humour was too Jewish, not Israeli enough. So supposed Yair, for he had never told his father a thing of his friends’ customs and certainly didn’t dare confess that here too he was an alien, an outsider, and yet, on the other hand, here he loved them, a great love he loved them, and was capable of standing up and hugging everyone.
During the day, when they would see an officer marching their way, even if they were walking in a group, they would immediately disperse, and switch to walking in a long line, so that each of them could salute the same officer separately, and keep him saluted in earnest for a long time, with a muscular arm, and back stretched, for, as it’s written in the General Staff Order, an officer must return a salute to every saluting soldier. They did so because they were individualists par excellence, and yet also cultivated a platoon’s pride, a culture of collective memory, in addition to a sense of humour. They called themselves ‘The Swiss Guard, with no colours’. Psoriasis was the cadet on duty, and his roommate’s name was Gastritis. In the neighbouring room lived Bronchitis, and with him also lived Psychosis and Sclerosis. Those who knew nothing about diseases thought that the group in question was a bunch of modern Greek poetry aficionados, and those who knew nothing about modern Greek poetry, thought it had something to do with classical Greek poetry – classical Greek poetry being a heritage that belonged to us all, although Hitler too prided himself on it.
Today is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death and in front of the guard barracks flickers a memorial candle. The soldiers are sitting out in the open by the picture, and saying things about him, some things they had already heard and some completely new. They are stern. In the ‘commemoration corner’ of the Guard Room hangs an enlarged photograph of Bronstein, who was nicknamed ‘Meningitis’. Below the photograph flickers a memorial candle. Above the photograph inscribed in big letters are the dates of his birth and death; at hardly twenty years of age Bronstein-Meningitis had died in the line of service, from Meningitis officially (and in truth from suicide by hanging, once he found out that he was originally not enlisted only because he wasn’t Jewish). The commemoration corner for Private Bronstein was vigorously cared for, only during free time of course, and their own commander, Sergeant Nisim – no official disease, but in secrecy they called him ‘Borderline’ – was extremely proud of the red geranium garden and the nasturtium flowers which, according to him, he nurtured almost single-handedly. Beneath the photograph also lay a large book of commemoration. Once in a while the guards wrote in it in memory of Bronstein, and even urged officers passing through – some of whom were of considerable importance, their contribution to the state’s security invaluable, some even having won the Israel Security Award, or reached such grave heights as the Israel Prize for Literature, or for Social Work, only more confidential – to sign, as a sort of a yearly petition in memory of Bronstein. Many senior officers had written words of praise to the obstinate soldier.
Major General Zalman Zal – whose ass was kissed every two weeks in his own office by Israel’s writers and poets – signed as well, before dashing off to watch the new video for the ‘Ezekiel 4’ tank, which he had only just developed, much to the dismay of those who extolled the next armoured war. ‘Parachuting is dispensable too,’ ruled Major General Zalman, ‘and yet you don’t abdicate parachuting, so what’s it to you if more and more tanks are getting built? Yes, more and more and more.’ And since Zalman Zal did not know how to operate the VCR, and never learned, at his disposal stood one of the soldiers – not Yair, he did not want to go up there, and his friends understood, it not being so bad having to scrounge cookies with cheap chocolate filling, and see all the important people from the bureau telling each other military secrets. Besides, the soldier on duty’s task was simply to freeze, using the remote control, the picture on the screen at precisely the moment when ‘Ezekiel’s’ belly rose up over a deep-water obstacle.
Night after night Major General Zal would watch the video, as well as during lunch breaks. Every viewing he’d roar with pleasure, ‘Now, now,’ just as the tank stopped, rose, and revealed its undercarriage like the belly of a giant crocodile, hungry for pray after a long winter, or however those writers who kissed Zalman’s ass described it, because Zal had studied Philosophy just as they had. Each year a new movie about ‘Ezekiel’ came out. From what’s been said up till now, it should be understood that Israel’s writers also sat and watched the tank lifting its belly like the white marble horses of Piazza Venezia. And as mentioned, the task of pressing pause and serving cookies to the writers and painters was always given to one of the soldiers. When Zal screamed: ‘Where’s the dork?’ the soldier, who’d be waiting in the hall behind the door, would immediately come in, and say: ‘Here, Sir!’
‘Who’s here? What’s here?’
‘The dork’s here, Sir.’
When Yair’s father came to visit, Zalman Zal remembers… a gentle man, very complex, at nights he invented tanks, and in the mornings urged his office manager, Lieutenant Vered, to recite for his friends lines from the greatest poet ever to rise to military commission, Natan Alterman. And Vered would indeed recite: ‘And the land will grow still/ crimson skies dimming, misting/ slowly paling again/ over smoking frontiers,’ and sometimes she’d get the rhymes wrong intentionally (Vered Tsela may have been a big coward, but she loved to provoke danger, danger to be honest aroused her, and instead of ‘dimming’ she’d sometimes say ‘brimming’, or ‘slimming’, but it made no difference, because what mattered was the rhyme and the metre)… Well, only when Yair’s father came for a visit, did Major General Zal remember not to joke like that, because Yair too served under the Chief of Staff Guard, which was the highest up he was allowed, and that too only with Dad’s intervention with the Major General and the Major General’s intervention with another Major General and the intervention of that other Major General with a Colonel and downwards to Sergeant Borderline. Yair’s limited service pained his father. Not that he would have liked to see his son fall in the line of duty. On the other hand, most fighters didn’t fall in the line of duty and why must one always think the worst?
Evening. Yair sat on a prickly mattress covered by a wool blanket (emitting an odour of flee repellent and damp wool), watching the others, as they got ready for their watch. In the neighbouring room someone had forgot to put on his long johns, and everyone burst out laughing at how he’s have to take everything off again, in the dark, the full pack too, only to put on his long johns. Without complaint, they would agree to leave the lights off each night, before going out to their watch, making all their preparations in the dark, even checking the magazines, and Yair loved them for this sacrifice, for him. He was loved in turn, not only because he had brought so much candy from his leave (his father had wanted so very much for him to have friends, and so had, himself, baked abundant cookies and even bought a large quantity of chocolates). It’s possible that Yair’s friends noticed his efforts to endear himself to them, gently, without imposing himself. He would laugh at the drop of a hat. Any talk of theirs provoked his laughter, as if he had never come across unserious people, and now any unserious expression seemed hilarious. He himself did not know how to be funny. Yair was extremely handsome, and any laughter would tear him up like a child awoken from sleep. And if they went into a huddle, he did not squeeze in to listen, nor was he hurt, but assumed it of matters beyond his capacity. Perhaps he did not dare to be angry at them since he was in their debt. After all it was because of him that they were constantly being watched from up there.
Bewilderment would spread across Yair’s face every time he was asked too blunt a question. He never raised his voice. Sometimes he would picture himself with his head tattered, or hung, or both, veins slashed. Ah yes, why did they do it all in the dark? Because of the father’s observations from the window above.
After a four hour patrol around the fences, they would approach parked vehicles and peep, by command, into them, later they’d return to wake the next shift, take off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and through their connections in the next shift, would go out, without permission, from the base, into the city whose electric rashes were as colourful as an eczema. They would sit together in a bar – Yair would not come with them, afraid to run into his father with some woman, literature or film lecturer – speaking quietly, like a national minority, mocking themselves in the ear of the waitress. That’s how they would pass their nights and their days, patrolling, sleeping, taking walks in the city and sleeping again and again patrolling.
Yair did not partake in guard duty. He was exempt, a red written note which said he was prohibited from guarding, because of the night and the fog and the smog. Instead his duties included a weekly roll-call and a talk with the commander. Were his friends hurt by the fact that he did not guard? Not in the least. (Again, for this, he loved them). In their platoon they had plenty of guard soldiers, after all so many parents tried to enlist their sickly sons, and each of them got here thanks to some connection. Perhaps they were not angry with him because he was such a beautiful boy, pale and soft spoken. His gentleness he got thanks to his two older sisters who spoiled him – Yair had grown up without a mother, a son to his father’s old age.
The father’s heart would sink, almost give in to his son’s refusal to enlist, when he heard the boy’s screams at night. ‘I am not Erlking,’ he said to himself in horror, not knowing if his own dream was provoking those screams, or the child’s, and yet, at breakfast, from within the stillness, the boy’s plea fell on deaf ears, because the father knew he was doing this for his son’s sake, or at least he told himself as much, and told his son, and the two girls who wouldn’t dare argue, and Zalman Zal, yes, he said so too to Major General Zalman Zal. One can sympathize with the father. All his life he had wanted to escort a son to the Enlistment Office, and later escort him to the Absorption and Classification Base. All his life he had wanted to attend the Basic Training graduation ceremony, and had wanted to attend the section commander’s course graduation, and the officer’s training course graduation. Very gradually, when the child’s health did not improve, the father let go these dreams. But of an unglamorous military service, a grey service, he did not let go, could not have let go.
At first he would say these things to Yair with a smile, as if the son’s declaration of not going to the army was a sort of a joke. Of course it had nothing to do with the fact that the father was a national figure. All fathers are national figures, perhaps the other way around, all national figures are fathers, never mind. For he never said a word to him of the nation and its needs, because in any case Yair did not demand of him what the nation needs, paratrooper officers, for instance, rather it was all about, son – he called him son, his sad smile did not waver – he had a sad smile, the father, and his son hated that sad, photogenic smile – it’s all about, son, the duty bestowed upon you to overcome your ailments and to be like everyone else, after all one day I will not be in the world, and who will take care of you then? The son wanted to say: ‘When you won’t be in the world, I’ll take care of myself just fine,’ but checked himself (was terrified of his father; his father will never know this, because fathers are doomed not to know): ‘Arabs also don’t go to the army’. His father nodded in comprehension and did not reply. He had a deep comprehension of his son’s need to rebel against him. He did not comprehend anything that was not from within himself, as the son’s father, and comprehended the son only as the father’s son.
When Yair had persisted in his refusal to enlist, the father took him to Major General Zal’s office for a conclusive discussion. It was a difficult moment for the father. Up until that day Zalman Zal knew just a small portion of the father’s agony over the son. After all the father had never spoken of the son, always just of the girls. The Major General knew of the older daughter’s marriage and of the other’s doctorate, but even of them they had spoken very little and preferred to engage in nominating laureates for the Israel Prize, the Hebrew Literature, Science of Judaism, Social Work and of course the prestigious National Security Award. Yair, on his part, was not aware that the beautiful walk through the city, and along its beaches, would end in an office overlooking the guard barracks, in which he would be serving in two months time. It was truly a fun day. Dad had never had so much time for him. They went to the movies, later sat in a café, and even though many people approached Dad, Dad was not nice to them at all and insisted on sitting with Yair alone. Later they went to clothes stores, shopped for fragrant oranges at the market, and went to the port. They even tried to sneak onto one of the boats anchoring there, and in short, Yair tried to get his dad to do things that the dad was embarrassed to do, and dad went everywhere Yair led him to, because he was a good father. They stopped by a fishing boat, which had brought up in its net many revolting octopi, and since octopi are not only revolting, but unkosher, they had no buyers. Except for Yair who wanted an octopus. His father bought him one, under the condition that he would not ask him to carry the small bag after fifteen minutes, as had happened with the dog they bought him: Dad had to take him out every night so that he would poop outside and not in the living room, in front of the guests. So, Yair promised and picked the biggest octopus, and off the two walked down the streets, the son carrying a huge octopus in a small plastic bag, the father walking a little ahead, perhaps out of embarrassment, even though the town’s dogs were chasing both of them. A fight between two of the dogs shortly broke out – guessing that soon Yair would throw the octopus, and only one of them would win it – and went on and on, they almost bit one another. And people trailed behind the dogs. Maybe they were the dog owners, maybe they were passers-by who thought this was some sort of street theatre, Holbein or something. A few of the dance macabre participants knew the father, and followed him being dragged by his son holding a stinky octopus and ten dogs, two biting each other, through the city streets, and since Yair had now thrown the octopus to the dogs, the fight between the two big ones stopped, because a small dog, carrying away the small bag in his mouth, had escaped. Dad said something about Manfred Herbst, whose legs had carried him without him knowing where to. ‘Do you know who Manfred Herbst is?’
‘You’ve already told me this so many times and in relation to practically any subject… Is there any other book you know?’
Yair was tired and suspected his father of trying to improve his physical fitness. And it was as if by chance that they arrived at Major General Zalman Zal’s office. At the gate they let the father through without checking his documents, he was a regular bore there and the soldiers did not read anything of his whatsoever; what did they care? Zal was sitting, of course, in front of his VCR. As they arrived he was calling Vered, asking her to turn it off, and return the cassette to the video library, where all had been marked ‘Ezekiel 1’, ‘Ezekiel 2’, ‘Ezekiel 3’, etc.
The father didn’t know how to begin the meeting, after all they had gotten there by chance, as it were, perhaps embarrassed by the thought that the octopus odour had stuck to them. Zal did not stall, saying that he himself had ordered his granddaughter to enlist in the army, despite her being mad, as everyone knew, mad as a hatter, a drug addict and even more so a man-addict (worse than drugs, believe me, I know men), and that to be on the safe side he had ordered Vered to help his granddaughter in all sorts of matters which she could not manage herself, like renewing her driver’s licence, or managing her bank account, or paying her electric bill, because here we are all one big family. Yair too, of course, would be a part of this family, and Zalman Zal launched into stories of his clerks’ devotion, especially Vered Tsela’s, whom he loved like his own granddaughters, which is why she recited rhymes and metres for him, and she of course saw her service here as a great honour. Major General Zalman Zal, let’s be perfectly clear, did not screw any of his clerks. On the contrary. He took care that they would not be harassed by all kinds of males, and took care to make sure the girls kept secret all kinds of love affairs they had, with all kinds of officers, because crazy is the girl who’ll pass up the opportunity to fuck a little in the army, and here everyone is one family, said the Major General. Indeed all the clerks ranking all the way up to Lieutenant-Colonel had to listen to every phone conversation the Major General had, on the amplifier, and on the extensions – a part of their culture being an expansion of the Major General. On this rested their pride, or pleasure, or both.
Yair’s father had thought that his old and admired friend would have a few more convincing arguments, but all Zal’s explications came down to the importance of serving in the army, for the people and for the son of the people. For the people, why? Because the people need an army. For the son of the people, why? Because the son of the people must be a soldier for at least some time during his life, if not throughout his life. Well, Yair already knew all these arguments, and yet, Major General Zalman Zal was not finished. For a long time now he’d been suspecting: the instant coffee that you drank here, gave him gas, therefore he farted. He had no problem with farting. He who sits in a tank all his life, learns not to be shy. All you need to do is lift one side of your behind and let it out. Yair was stunned. He searched for his father’s eyes, but Dad pretended, as if he too farted whenever the need arose, and perhaps he did fart. At home – he didn’t.
‘You probably believe that the paratroopers are the force of the future. Am I right?’
The Major General spoke in a loud voice, looking over at Lieutenant Vered Tsela, whose eyes washed over beautiful Yair in jet streams of light. Ah, how Vered loved boys like Yair. Yair too. And the Major General, with the bitterness of a veteran of the Armoured Corps, spoke, and the son looked at his father, and the father was flooded with admiration for the Major General, or perhaps was flooded with bewilderment, in any case, his dismal and famous smile did not leave his face. ‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ cried the Major General, and waited for Vered to reiterate – she was an outstanding memoriser, but that said, as much as she was taller than Yair, and even older, she could not take her eyes off of him.
‘Nonsense, the next war will be armour vs. armour war. Anyone can see that. Tanks will pound along the deserts from here to Kuwait, and our soldiers of the Armoured Corps will gallop like the Formula Uno drivers, especially in the new tank, ‘Ezekiel 4’, watch the screen. Where’s the dork?’
The smile did not leave the father’s face, like a Chinese diplomat, and the dork came in, froze the screen, grabbed a cookie and left quietly, so all watched the rising tank, like a giant turtle, threatening never to land, ‘Ezekiel 4’, or ‘3’ froze.
‘Why would you volunteer for the Parachute Corps? For the parachuting? This parachuting business doesn’t impress me. I refused to take a parachuting course. I just didn’t want to. Not afraid, no. Because of the hassle. You see?’
Yair nodded. Zal went on, as befits a military leader, noting the slow penetration of his forces into the boy’s mind: ‘What do they do in those famous commandos of theirs? Sit and wait and wait and wait. What are they waiting for? For the day when they will be able to attack missiles bases in Caucasus’ mountains?’ Now he turned to the father, who was trying to say something, but Zal continued: ‘And in the meantime, I ask, in the meantime what do they do? In the meantime they kill people up close, with knives, or guns, in Tunisia, in Beirut. And to keep an entire army for this? Just because one day there will be a commando war?’
When they left – Vered had not dare say a word to them – Yair told himself that everything, this entire wonderful day, was just to get him to this talk with the commander. He’d been deceived all day. His great love for his father had swallowed a fruit, and in it a large pit, bitter, asphyxiating, stinging. He hated his father. They did not speak all the way home. In the cab he was suffocated by the desire to cry. The father was offended. It is unclear to us why, but every so often the father would get offended and would not talk about it – a nightmare for his kids – for hours, and all that they could do was guess what had offended Dad. Go deal with your father’s childhood memories!
Later the son surrendered. What had he gone through from his desire to cry in the cab to this surrender? A great deal. But in the end, he’d been promised that he would serve down there, beneath the office, and ever since his father has come everyday to spy on him from the high window. Every once in a while the father would walk over to the window, and the Major General say to him: ‘Sit, sit, he’ll see you watching him. It’s not good. Let him be a man already.’ And the father, his eyes shrinking involuntarily, as if he carefully selecting his words, would say without turning around: ‘He doesn’t know I am here’. The father knew of course that the son knew. After all the son had asked him during one of his leaves: ‘Why do you even go there so often? To spy on me?’ Yair had wanted to say so much more, wanted to say every night, wanted, since that walk in the city, to say something that swelled and swelled, and turned into something violent, contemptuous, offensive, like ‘I wish you had loved Mom the way you love this fat Major General, I wish you had loved us like you love him, I wish you had loved me like you love yourself, but you are not even in love with him for being him, you are in love with him because he is a Major General, and when you find another Major General, woosh, you will ride off to the other Major General. Why do you love Major Generals so much? You probably want me to become a Major General, that’s why I’m so sick, because you’ve always wanted me to become a Major General.’ He did not say all this balderdash, but once he dreamt that his father was pissing through him, holding him like in an opened-jawed stone fountain, and urinating through his mouth. Sometimes he thought of hanging himself in the guard barracks, in the light, so that his father would see him from up there convulsing, and would rush down to save him, but would be too late, and would only manage to get him down from the ceiling, a corpse. One day Dad will lose it, one day I will wipe that constipated smile off of his face.
Well, today, as mentioned, is the anniversary of Bronstein’s death, may he rest in peace. Everyone respects this anniversary, and as of last year, thanks to the petition, it has become a General Staff event, meaning an event of this base, ours. After a prolonged informatory effort, he is now mentioned, in the basic daily order, which Sergeant Borderline pins up on the cork boards, while two guard soldiers stand to attention by the candle. A soldier on duty asks the passers-by to lay a flower, or put down a few words in the commemoration book for the soldier who fought such a long battle just so the army would enlist him, in spite of his poor health. And here comes a Major General, Moti the moron. Conversing loudly, because that’s how he talks, with a girl soldier, an admirer, who also talks in big voice so that everyone can hear her talking with Moti the moron. Yesterday her father reprimanded her, when she told him how careful she was not to be alone in a room with Major General Moti. He was extremely insulted by this remark, her father. ‘I don’t like your delusions. I never liked your delusions. For as long as I remember you, everyone hits on you. One day you will say the same about me. It’s the fashion now, isn’t it? But Moti is a Major General in the IDF. You can behave like a human being and refrain from implying dirty insinuations.’
And since the guard soldiers had been preaching all day to the passers-by in their barracks to act appropriately, one of them now steps up to Moti as well. To the Major General’s credit, let it be said, he apologises right away, attempts to stretch his sloppy shirt, stands at attention for a moment, and suddenly salutes, sticking out his chest and forcefully stretching his palm to his temple. The soldier with him, being very moved by Moti’s invitation to escort him again to his office, she too salutes, and a button, exactly between her two squished breasts under a pointy bra, snaps. Gastritis, for his part, wants Major General Moti to end his salute, and approaches him cautiously, saluting, taking two measured steps backwards, standing to attention, saluting again – there is probably some kind of order, thinks Major General Moti but he is not familiar with the procedure. It does not cross his mind that he is being mocked here, who would conceive of it? – Later Gastritis says quietly: ‘Major General your honour, asking permission to speak’.
‘Make it short, I’m busy.’
‘Major General, I’ll make it short: we need help.’
The Major General hates requests for help, but Gastritis tells him, that the guard is trying hard to establish an award on behalf of the army in their friend’s name, Bronstein may he rest in peace. The Major General is impatient, although the soldier with him waits. He has already envisioned her in his mind’s eye pacing back and forth in his room, naked, with only the black army shoes and white socks to her feet. ‘Who is this Bronstein?’
‘I’ll make it short. He wasn’t enlisted on account of health problems, insisted on enlisting, and ran a public campaign. His parents turned to the army authorities, and participated in the public campaign for his enlistment, along with his high school friends. The press were also involved in the campaign. We have a bellicose press, like any democracy, and ardent editorial articles spoke of the struggle against this refusal to enter the Israeli army, which should begin with the positive, not the negative. In the end the army surrendered and despite the sensitivity he had been inflicted with as a child, he served in the guard platoon. He died in his uniform, while guarding. Recently we turned to the Base Commander asking him to establish an award for the sick soldier for distinctive service in Bronstein’s name. Our appeals have been to no avail.’
‘But why should someone who could have evaded the army and didn’t take advantage of that be given an award?’
‘Because otherwise life is not the same.’
The Major General looks into the soldier’s sad eyes, and promises to help.
Everything might have gone as planned with the committed soldiers, if it weren’t for the fact that the Major General tended to forget the promises he made, and perhaps his soldier’s naked parade made him forget this one. Luckily for us it was so. In that respect, a Major General’s flawed memory is a source of hope for the entire nation. May there be many such forgetful leaders and commanders. And anyway, it would have been a great embarrassment to us all, if the truth about Bronstein’s life and death were to come out. He did not have a memorial day, because he did not die, because he was not born, because there never was any Bronstein. Because he was the heart of our platoon’s service: we made him up in order to sanctify him and to mock the entire world through him.
When Yair was let in on this comical secret, that was of no interest to anyone, and gave us a strange satisfaction, he’d been explicitly asked not to reveal the secret to his father. He was not offended by the request. On the contrary. He felt very proud to have been given a chance to betray Dad. The idea of betraying Dad, and with this beautiful story of a soldier that never existed to boot, excited him, and he volunteered to tell the life story of the deceased. Yair wrote beautifully. If it wasn’t for his father, he would have really accomplished something through this, but his father did not like his writing, was afraid that he would only be praised because he is his son. ‘Bronstein’s Memoirs’ by Yair was the most touching chapter in the book, because it was written out of rage. No one could believe that the boy made the story up. We will never know what is real with people that do not hesitate to use their tongue.
Evening descended. Lights rose from the guard barracks. The father walked over to the window, but Yair was no longer there. He’d tricked his father again, taken off under the protection of the darkness, and instead of feeling gratification, felt a great sadness, once again seeing himself hung, his veins slashed, as he walked towards the gate. At times he thought of going on watch with his friends, but feared his father would take it as his triumph.
Outside the gate a Major General, Moti the moron, picked him up in his car, and asked: ‘Where are you headed, soldier?’ Yair shrugged and said in his typical impudence in places we have yet to encounter him: ‘Are you checking if I have a pass, or what?’ The Major General said: ‘No, no, I’m just driving to the north of town and thought you wanted a ride’. Yair went with him, and suddenly, just as he was about to get out, not far from the beach, he said: ‘Tell me something, this army really doesn’t bore you?’ The Major looked at him and said: ‘You know what? Now that you ask, I think so, yes. But they need us, don’t they?’ Yair said: ‘No, I don’t think so’. The Major thought a moment, then assumed Yair was joking. Yair looked at the grand night and the lights, and imagined seeing a huge bird flying and taking up with her the entire city.
How could Edgardo have hunted an animal if he didn’t even know how to love, much less kill. He’d become a useless idler, sitting all day in front of the television set or on the computer raising cattle, setting up cities, conquering nations, stealing gold, feeding entire zoos while the yard was overrun by weeds. How could he have killed an animal if he only killed monsters and mutants by way of cables and a keyboard. But all of a sudden in real life, killing a creature as tough as that one? It was incredible.
He entered the kitchen drenched in sweat that morning very early and threw it on the table. The shell slid across the old Formica top, and he, changing his voice, imitating I’m not really sure who, said to me, “Here, woman, cook it up.” The animal had its eyes closed. I thought it was alive, and I screamed as soon as I saw it there on the kitchen table, loose dirt on its paws.
“Get that creature out of here,” I said angrily, but Edgardo, triumphant, playing the role of hunter, just laughed with his hands on his hips as if he were wearing two silver pistols, a cowboy like the ones he’d admired so much in his childhood. Or one of his electronic avatars that he dressed up to go out shooting in the alleyways of virtual cities. He was playing his part. Ha, ha, ha, he laughed falsely. I’d stopped screaming when he turned around, a cowboy who’d just won a duel, and returned to the yard to continue his battle with the weeds. He’d finally decided to clear the ground, to abandon his games momentarily.
In this game I was his opponent, and I’d lost. My punishment was the animal, hard as a battle tank, resting on the table. It was as if he’d said to me, Oh, didn’t you want to live in the country? As if he’d shouted at me, Didn’t you want to return to your hometown? Then I told myself that the duel wasn’t over, and I remembered Antonia’s stories as she’d prepared the animals that my dad brought in from the woods, so many years ago in this same house. Antonia’s large hands cutting their throats, removing their skin, ripping out their long intestines like an infinite piece of bubble gum. I played with that bubble gum and with the little hearts until one day it all started to disgust me. At a certain age we became aware that they were the bowels of the animals, the ones Dad used to kill by shooting, stabbing, or bludgeoning them. From then on I told myself that I’d only eat chicken breasts, meat butchered by other people, placed in white trays and covered in sheets of transparent plastic. Pink breasts, thin, soft, with all vestiges of blood and guts cleaned and boiled away. Any traces of savageness erased by bleach and hormones. My life in the city was a life of chicken breasts until they stopped selling them, or until we couldn’t buy them anymore, it’s the same thing. Edgardo lost his job, and I was too fat for the catwalk or photo shoots, no one remembered that I had almost won Miss Venezuela. Then began our decline. The punishment for having insisted on returning to this town was having to give up the fillets butchered by others or an imposed macrobiotic diet. Having to face this armored animal.
The duel was not over, I told myself, and I took the horrible animal over to the sink. Determined to defeat him, I stabbed at it with the biggest knife in the kitchen, making it impossible to tell whether the poor creature showed signs of previous violence. How had Edgardo killed it if he didn’t have guns, or knives, or clubs, just a rusty rake and a machete that he barely knew how to use to cut back the brush?
I saw him go back to the end of the yard, near the ravine. I saw through the window that he’d abandoned his role of macho hunter and reassumed the role of farmer, rake and machete in hand. He disappeared from my view around the spot where we were supposed to build the shacks for the mushrooms or anything else we could sell. The idea had been to grow some crop and sell it, but with my drowsiness from the pills and his non-stop games the days passed quickly. Pills for sleeping, pills to wake up, to keep from eating, laxatives, birth control. Games of building, destroying, devastating, and killing. The blood spurted out, thick like oil, I remember. Black. The shell cracked much more easily than I thought it would. The little eyes remained closed as if nothing had happened. My hands were guided by my memory, by my images of Antonia cutting the throats of animals. The rest, I don’t remember. The guts and all that . . . Just the pleasure, the wet sensation of the meat inside. A warmth that took me straight back to my childhood. It wasn’t blood, no, it was the little hearts beating in the palms of my little hands.
I looked at the sink splattered with blackish red, and I wondered how, dear God, Edgardo could’ve killed an animal like this if he couldn’t even pull the weeds that threatened to strangle us all, his son who’d come for the weekend included. Toño had come under obligation. After a two-hour trip, his mother dropped him off with his little backpack. He got out of the car wearing headphones and that eternal look of disdain. Edgardo asked him to at least take off the headphones to say hello. He was thirteen, and he wasn’t at all pleased to be trapped in the country with us. He was bored.
“Let him help you in the yard,” I said.
“What are you thinking?” he said as if the suggestion was monstrous, as if the most natural thing would be for Toño to shut himself away with his games and messages. “I’ll find someone local,” he continued before going to the end of the lot where the abyss of the valley began. Why had that kid even come? He continued his routine of games and messages as if he weren’t even here, while his father broke his back clearing the ground.
The duel was not over, I told myself as I cleaned the purple meat. Yes, I’d wanted to come, to leave behind the mediocrity of Maturín, that rainy city that didn’t have anything to offer us, I told myself as I placed the meat in a white nest of salt and tried to remember the recipe. Edgardo had accepted without any objection: he thought growing mushrooms was the business opportunity of the century: all you needed was manure and some cold damp shacks. The weather would take care of the rest, the cold air that blew between the mountain and the valley. He didn’t think twice when I suggested we move here, and he immediately had the idea to grow mushrooms.
He’d never liked the town, it was true. In the pharmacy where I bought my pills they always had Pink Floyd playing as background music, and Edgardo thought that was a bad sign. In the movie that he directed in his head we were a couple of city folks who’d come to a godforsaken town. Soon blood would spurt from the faucets or things of that nature. It’s not normal, he’d said, that music and all the bottles of aspirin. Just because of Pink Floyd in the pharmacy and the pharmacist ready to sell us any kind of pills without a prescription, Edgardo began to presage our ruin. He put off the mushrooms. However, he hadn’t looked closely at that animal he’d found as he cleaned the leaves and brush. He hadn’t noticed that its little eyes were already closed. I’m certain that it was not killed by Edgardo’s hands, delicate hands accustomed only to the keyboard and the remote control.
I baked the animal in the oven and not like Dad would’ve done it, out there, on the grill that was now knitted with vines.
In the movie I’d begun directing in my head, the vines would knit itself around our arms and legs until we were no longer able to leave the house, also knitted over with green. We wouldn’t die of starvation but of withdrawal. Withdrawal from Lexotanil or some other tranquilizer; from Age of Empires or some other computer game. Knitted in. Toño wouldn’t even realize it thanks to his headphones, the messages he constantly sent and received, because he was capable of entering such a state of absorption that hunger or any other need could be ignored or even made to disappear. However, as soon as I called him to eat that day at lunchtime, he came running.
“The power’s out,” he said, and that explained everything.
The spot where the shacks for the mushrooms would be built had been halfheartedly raked, but Edgardo looked like someone who’d cleared an entire hectare with his bare hands. He was sitting on a rock continuously wiping away sweat with the sleeve of his shirt, his back curved and a vacant look in his eyes. The solitary cowboy had been stripped down, and he was now just solitary. I didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t talk to me either, his exhaustion making him unable to speak. I handed him a bottle of water and laid the foundation for my victory: a tablecloth spread across the ground, the silverware, a bottle of juice, and in the center the trophy. The meat gleaming on the plate, along with rice and plantain. With my hands on my waist, as if in place of these wide hips I had a pair of silver pistols, triumphant, I said, “Come on, man, eat.”
I’d wanted land, yes. I’d wanted to return to the town where I’d been born.
The farmer, Edgardo that is, wiped the sweat off his forehead, stamped a grudging smile on his face and sat down. We looked like the happy couple inside the farm game. He began to eat with a hunger earned through physical labor. He’d never eaten like that, not even in his days as an accountant, not even in his nights as a strategic builder of civilizations. I’d never cooked with more zest, not even in my days as a bulimic or my nights as an anorexic.
I sat on his rock as he tasted the first bites. I looked at him without looking at him because, in reality, my eyes were seeing Antonia’s hands, her large frame walking this same lot, hanging clothes, butchering Dad’s animals, telling us stories all the while. Her stories weren’t about ghosts but about death, poisonings, abortions. Mom forbade us to listen to her, but it was impossible to pull ourselves away from her skirts. Antonia, her hands, her stories, and her recipes. When he was finally able to speak, Edgardo asked me if I was going to eat.
“I’m on a diet,” I said.
“You and your endless diets,” he said and continued eating.
I decided to leave before the illusion of the happy couple came crashing down again with one of my outbursts. I wanted to say, And you, you’re OK with your belly hanging out? but instead I said, “I’m going in. I have to give Toño his lunch.”
He wanted to say, What good do your diets do? but instead he said, “A boy I hired is coming to help me finish clearing.” Maybe he wanted to say what he said. Maybe it was true that I was always putting words in his mouth, sentences that he hadn’t even thought of. What was certain was that without the cowboy gestures Edgardo looked like a third-rate actor and anything he said would’ve sounded insincere.
Back inside, I served Toño a full plate. The power’s out, he said before sitting and eating his lunch in silence. The only thing on the table was his plate. Edgardo ate at the end of the yard; he’d probably already finished, and I wasn’t planning to try a single mouthful of that animal. Toño ate without asking what it was he was eating. So distracted that he probably thought it was pork as he took hasty bites so that he could return again to his world. He’d brought a load of batteries just in case, he said.
The sink still had blood in it, little droplets that had splattered here and there, that hadn’t been washed away by my initial cleaning. Blood wasn’t gushing from the faucets but from the animals found by chance. With a rag dipped in bleach I scrubbed away the hard, black blood. Time was a drop of coagulated blood, everything was still that day with the feel of something lying in wait, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary to me because that’s the way time was in the country. I’d always known that.
I’d defeated Edgardo and his animal. I’d gutted and cooked it, I’d erased the stains from the sink, I’d put the creature’s armor out to dry in the sun like Antonia would have. Toño finished eating and went back to his games or messages, his headphones, or his books. And I was debating whether to serve myself some of that meat or finish off a pack of chocolate chip cookies I had hidden at the back of the pantry, when a stranger came into the kitchen through the back door, which was always open. Covered in sweat, smelling like burnt wood, he shouted that Edgardo was dying, that we had to take him to the medic, fast. He barely paused between words, he could hardly breathe, his chest rose and fell violently. For a minute I couldn’t make sense of what I was hearing, I just asked myself who this man was, whether this might be a robbery, thinking that Toño with his headphones surely wouldn’t hear anything and they could kill me right here in the kitchen, take everything we have, and Toño and Edgardo wouldn’t hear a thing. The slamming door maybe.
The stranger tugged on my arm and repeated his rushed refrain. Suddenly the midday stillness was broken, my stomach closed up like a fist: no meat, no chocolate chip cookies. Run.
We ran to the cleared section of land. It was close to the house but it seemed so far away. Rocks, branches, and Antonia’s hands slowed me down. Words, warnings, the vine that quickly knitted itself around my legs. The stranger was much faster, agile, and he leaped over the uneven ground, the branches, the brush. Once near the rock beside which Edgardo’s body had fallen, he started to shout. He’s dead, I said to myself, and I stopped running. I looked down into the valley. The green bluffs, the disorderly orange trees, the mass of dry limbs.
The boy gestured for me to help him lift the body, shouted that we had to take him quickly, that it seemed like he’d been poisoned, to hurry.
“Come on, run,” he shouted waving his arms.
I couldn’t approach the fallen soldier, the cowboy slain by the poisoned arrow, the farmer attacked by wild animals. His body lying on the ground cleared for the mushrooms and the voice of Antonia warning my father: Only eat what you kill yourself. Don’t try to take advantage of death or of other people’s hunting.
How could Edgardo have hunted an animal if he didn’t even know how to love, much less kill. I should never have asked him to abandon his digital world and enter this land of dirt, shit, snakes, and weeds. I turned around instead of running to him. I thought of Toño, who no one would miss or look for in the house. He surely hadn’t heard the shouting, lost in his world. I wanted to find him, pull him from his room so he could help me with Edgardo, to save him, too. But my foot got caught, and I fell over the edge into the ravine, dragged down by the weight of the silver pistols.
I was away from my children for a while. They’d gone to the seaside with my sister and my mother, I stayed in the city, my mother was angry at me because I wrote and showed myself nowhere often enough. I’d talk about work appointments, none of which existed. I lived in a small hotel whose caretaker reeked, the smell of her body and her dress had risen violently with the heat. I’d head to the office every day, but I worked very little, I mostly went to the office to pretend I was a man, I was tired of being a woman. Everyone seems to enjoy entertaining for a while a role that isn’t theirs, the role I played was that of a man, I’d sit at the filthy office table and eat at an osteria, lazily hang out on the streets and in cafés with friends, come home late at night. I’d surprise myself thinking how different my life had once been, when I cradled my children and I cooked and I washed, how there’s always so many ways to live, and each of us can make a new being of ourselves, at times even enemies of each other. Then I got bored of that new role I was playing too, I’d be living the same life without any of the pleasure in it. But I wouldn’t go to my mother’s, at the seaside, I wanted to be away from the kids, be alone: I thought I couldn’t show myself to them as I was at that moment, with that loathing in my heart, I felt like I’d loathe them too if I ended up seeing them. I often thought it was like elephants and how they hide away to die. They hide to die, they spend a long time in the jungle looking for a secluded spot, full of trees, to hide the shame of their big, tired body dying. It was summer, summer was hot, blazing in the big city, and whenever I cycled on the tarmac under the trees, my heart was choked by a feeling of loathing and love towards every road, every house of that city, and several memories were born of different natures, burning like the sun, as I fled, ringing my bell. Giovanna was waiting for me in a café: when I left the office, in the evening, and I’d sit next to her at the table, I’d show her my mother’s letters. She knew I wanted to die, that’s why we no longer had that much more to say to each other, but we still sat one opposite the other, smoking, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. I wanted to die because of a man, but also because of so many other things, because I owed my mother money, and because the caretaker stank, and because summer was hot, blazing, in the city full of memories and roads, and because I thought that I could be of no use to anyone, in that state.
So my children – just as they had lost their father one day – would also lose their mother but it didn’t matter, because the loathing and shame assault us at a certain moment in life, and no one has the power to help us when they do. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d bought some sleeping pills from a pharmacy. I walked all day in the empty city, thinking about me and my children. Bit by bit I was losing awareness of their young age, the timbre of their young voices had died in me; I told them everything, about the pills and the elephants, of the caretaker and what they should do when they grew up, how to defend themselves from what would happen. But then I suddenly saw them as I had last seen them, on the floor, playing with bowling pins. And the echo of those thoughts and words resounded in the silence, I was stunned by seeing how alone I was, alone and free in the empty city, with the power to harm myself as much as I desired. I went home and took the pills, I dissolved all of their contents in a glass of water, I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to sleep for a very long time or die. The caretaker came the following morning, she found me asleep and after a while went to call for a doctor. I stayed in bed for a week, and Giovanna would come every day and she’d bring me oranges and ice. I’d tell her that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive, and she’d smoke in silence and watch me, blowing away the smoke through closed lips. Other friends would come too, and everyone gave me a piece of their mind, everyone wanted to teach me what I had to do now. But I’d reply that those who have a loathing growing in their heart should not be alive. Giovanna told me to leave the small hotel and move in with her for a while. She lived alone with a Danish girl who walked around the place barefoot. I didn’t feel like dying now, but I didn’t feel like living either, and I lazily hung out at the office or in the streets, with friends, people who wanted to teach me how to save myself. In the mornings, Giovanna would slip on a prune-coloured towelling robe, brush the hair away from her forehead and wave at me with disdain. In the mornings, the Danish girl would walk barefoot into the bedroom, and start writing all the dreams she’d had the previous night on a typewriter. One night she’d dreamt that she picked up an axe and killed her mother and father. But she really loved her mother and father. They were waiting for her in Copenhagen but she didn’t want to move back, because she said we all need to live away from our roots. She’d read out loud to us her mother’s letters. Giovanna’s mother had died and she had arrived too late to see her die, when she was still alive they had tried to no avail to talk to each other. I’d say that a mother is only needed by children when they’re small, to feed them and cradle them, but then she’s pointless and it’s pointless to talk to her. You can’t even tell her the simplest of things and so what can she do to help? She becomes a burden with that silence that is born out of trying to talk to each other. I’d say that my children no longer needed me, because they no longer needed to be fed and cradled, kids with dirty knees and patches on their shorts, and they weren’t old enough to be able to talk to each other either. But Giovanna would say that there’s only one good way to live, and it’s to get on a train headed to some foreign country, possibly at night. She had everything she needed for a trip at home, she had several thermos holders and many suitcases of all sorts, and even a sick bag for the plane. The Danish girl would tell me to write down my dreams, because our dreams tell us what we’re meant to do, and she’d tell me I should think back to my childhood and talk about it, because the secret of who we are is hidden in our childhood. But my childhood felt so remote and distant, and so remote was the face of my mother, and I was tired of all this thinking about myself, I wanted to look at others and understand what I was like. So I started watching people as I lazily hung out in cafés and on the streets, men and women with their children, maybe some of them had once had that loathing in their heart, then time had passed and they’d forgotten. Maybe someone had waited pointlessly on the corner of a street once, or someone had walked for a whole day in the silence of the dusty city, or someone looked at a dead person’s face and asked them for forgiveness. One day I got a letter from my mother, telling me that the kids had scarlet fever. And so the ancient motherly anxiety paralysed my heart. I took the train and left. Giovanna came with me to the station, and she smelled the smell of trains with desire, brushing the hair away from her forehead with her disdainful smile.
With my forehead stuck to the glass, I watched the city move further away, empty of any evil power by now, cold and harmless as spent embers. The ancient, known motherly anxiety was turmoiling inside me along with the thundering of the train, crushing like a storm the Danish girl, Giovanna, the small hotel’s caretaker, the sleeping pills and the elephants, as I wondered bemusedly to myself how I could’ve been so interested in such trivial things for a whole summer.
At the beginning of winter my father fell ill and took to his bed. He lay in bed for a long time with his bedroom door closed, and we would walk around the house on tiptoe so as not to disturb his rest.
A lot of people came to the house to inquire after my father’s health, but my mother refused to let them into his room, explaining that his sick heart needed rest and quiet. Once a woman we did not know came to the house. She handed my mother a woolen scarf and said:
“You don’t know me. Once I came to see the doctor with a high fever and a sore throat. He gave me medicine and also this scarf to wrap around my neck. He said that when you’re sick in winter you have to keep your throat warm. Now I’m well again and I want to return it to him. I owe him money too, but I haven’t got it now, and the doctor said I should pay when I can.”
That was typical of my father. Sometimes my mother would lose her temper and haul him over the coals for not only treating poor patients for nothing, but even giving away medicines for which he himself had paid the full price. “How do you think we’ll ever make a living”—she would say—“when the only patients we get are all poor people? In any case, people only know how to appreciate what they have to pay for.”
“God will help us,” my father would say serenely, “God helps those who place their trust in him.”
Mother told me that in the old country too father had been a poor man’s doctor, and there too he had never taken money from patients who could not afford to pay. “I remember,” she said, “how a fisherman once brought him three fish instead of money. It was on our betrothal day. His parents came to call on my family, and I cooked the fish for them. They said they had never tasted such delicious fish in their lives.”
Years later, when I grew up, I went to pay a visit to the old country, and in one of the small villages, in the district where my father had worked as a doctor, I met an old woman who said to me: “So you are his daughter. Of course I remember him. Yes, of course, it’s more than forty years ago, you’re right, how the time flies… but we still remember him, we still remember. How could we ever forget a doctor like him who never took money from the poor…”
At the beginning of that winter, when my father took ill, the rains stopped and in the afternoon, when I was doing my homework in the kitchen, my little brother went out to play in the yard.When darkness fell he would come in and play with his cars on the floor in the passage. At this hour the hall of our house would be empty of my father’s patients, who were now being treated by my mother, who was also a doctor. I would go and sit there, in mother’s big armchair, and read. Sometimes, after supper, my father would read aloud to us. We would go into his room for a few moments and he would ask us about our school work and look at my brother’s note-books, which were full of all the words he already knew how to write. When I said goodnight to him he would kiss me and stroke my hair.
At the end of the month of Tevet my father had begun to recover from his illness, and it was precisely then that the weather changed and heavy rains began to fall. It rained without stopping, day and night, and father said jokingly: “I get better, and the deluge comes.”
On the fourteenth of Shevat1 it was still raining, and my father, who was always worried about my health, said that he would not allow me to take part in the tree planting ceremony the next day. I was dying to take part in the ceremony because I had fallen in love with our new youth leader, Raffi. All day long I begged and pleaded with father, until in the end he gave in.
On the morning of Arbor Day it was still raining, and as I was about to leave the house my father said to me:
“Take another sweater and try not to get wet.”
A fine drizzle was falling on the mountainside, and as we walked to the spot where the ceremony was to take place my shoes got full of mud. Raffi was walking next to me and once my hand unintentionally touched his. A sweet feeling filled me for a moment.
When we reached the spot we were met by a man from the Jewish National Fund who told us that we were going to take part in the planting of a forest in honor of the Jewish martyrs. I saw boys and girls all over the mountainside with spades in their hands, planting saplings in basins of loose soil. When I planted my own little sapling and tightened the soil around it black earth stuck to my fingers. “Will my sapling live?” I Asked myself. An inexplicable dread suddenly took hold of me. My heart went out to Raffi, who was standing next to me planting a tree. Perhaps he would say something to comfort me. I straightened my back and looked in his direction. When my eyes met his he did not smile, and I knew that he would not be able to save me.
In the evening, when I came home, I saw my father sitting in his armchair in the hall. He smiled at me. I wanted to run up to him and kiss him, but something stopped me. It was a long time since he had sat in the armchair, and now I saw he was looking better.
On the days that followed the rain went on falling steadily. My father wandered around the house wrapped in his brown woolen dressing gown. He would often come into the kitchen, lean over my shoulder and peep into my exercise books.
Six rainy days went by, and on the seventh day after Arbor Day the sun came out. My father sat with us at the lunch table. He sang the blessing. When we had finished eating he went out to sit on the porch. The sun shone and a light breeze brought sweet scents from the orange groves. My mother sat next to my father and they spoke to each other.
I knew that soon my parents would be relieved of their worries about money. Soon, when my father was well again, he was going to get a job in the hospital.
I sat in the kitchen and did my homework. I soon tired and stood up. The sun had made my father’s cheeks pink and his eyes were shining, and when he smiled at me I forgot all my troubles.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“I still have to write a composition in English,” I said.
“Go and do it then,” he said.
I moved my place from the kitchen to the hall. The window onto the porch was open and I could see my father and mother and hear them talking. Father said little and mother too fell silent. After a while, when I was absorbed in my composition, I suddenly heard my father say in a queer sounding voice: “I don’t feel well.”
As I was about to rise to my feet, overcome by panic, the door opened and I saw my father coming in, his hands clenched on his month, his back bent and his face very white. I saw my mother supporting him, leading him down the long passage to their room, and I went on standing rooted to the spot. Then I heard my mother’s voice from the other end of the house:
“Quick, run for the doctor!”
For a moment longer I went on standing there, seeing my father’s pale face before me, his eyes blank. Then I rushed into the yard, jumped onto my bicycle, and went to fetch the doctor. When he opened the door I couldn’t speak.
“Hurry, “ I stammered, “hurry…father…” and I raced away.
Instead of going straight home I rode to the wood at the top of the hill not far from our house. I sat down on a bench and my heart was empty. Afterwards I mounted my bike again, and as I rode past our house I saw the doctor crossing the yard on his way in and I knew that only a short time had passed. I was afraid to go home and I rode aimlessly up and down the village streets. In the end I landed up at the wood again and sat down on the bench. How long I sat there I don’t know, but by the time I came home the door of my parents’ room was closed. There was not a sound to be heard. I went into the kitchen and sat down by the table.
There were a few slices of bread lying on a plate. I took a slice and started eating it. After a while the door opened and the doctor came out. I heard the front door slam behind him. A little while later I heard the front door open and a woman neighbor came in, a friend of my mother’s.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
I said nothing.
Then the door of my parents’ room opened and my mother stood in the kitchen door. She looked at me and said:
“Your father is dead,” and then she turned to the neighbor woman and said in their language: “His beautiful daughter is fatherless now.” Then she turned back to me: “Come and see your father for the last time.”
My father’s eyes were closed. His face was blue and there was a faint smile on his lips. His face had never looked so beautiful and so kind as it did then.
When I left the room I went into the bathroom. My father’s brown dressing gown was hanging on a hook on the wall. I buried my head in the gown and kissed it. Afterwards I held the empty sleeves and stroked my face with the rough, warm wool. “I won’t cry, “I promised myself.
The next day a lot of people gathered in the yard of our house. Friends and relations, and my teachers and friends from school. And when the rabbi came they brought my little brother too. He walked with us after the coffin as far as the first synagogue on the way. There he said mourner’s kaddish and afterwards a friend of the family took him away.
My mother did not cry, and my eyes too were dry. Once my glance encountered Raffi, my youth leader, who was walking not far from me, and for a moment the sobs welled up in my throat. I remembered the sudden dread which had seized me when we were in the hills planting the trees, and again I said to myself that he would not be able to save me.
At the cemetery they tore my mother’s dress and mine too. Several people eulogized my father. The coffin was lowered into the hole and the people standing around took spades in their hands and earth fell onto the coffin and began covering it up. I copied my mother and bent down to the ground. My fist fastened round a little clod of earth, wet and black and sticky to the touch of my palm. A clod of earth from a hard land. Perhaps there was a seed in it and in the spring a flower would bloom on my father’s grave. And perhaps then too the little sapling I had planted on the hillside in memory of the martyrs would put out its leaves too. And I—would the ice in my heart ever thaw?
Yesterday the sun shone. A mild spring breeze brought sweet scents from the orange grove. My father sat on the porch of our house and said that soon it would be spring and that in the summer he would start work at the hospital. But now the earth was still muddy, for it had rained the whole month long: water flooded the land and the farmers rejoiced.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Prison more like, said Madeleine.
Come now, said Mr Kramer.
If I run away they bring me back, said Madeleine.
Yes but, said Mr Kramer.
Mr Kramer often said, Yes but to Madeleine. Something to concede, something to contradict. Now he said again how kind everyone in the Unit was, all his visits never once had he seen any unkindness and couldn’t remember ever hearing a voice raised in anger against any girl or boy. So: not really like a prison.
Then why’s she sitting there? said Madeleine, nodding toward a nurse in the doorway. The nurse did her best to seem oblivious. She was reading a women’s magazine.
You know very well, said Mr Kramer.
So I won’t suddenly scratch your face and say you tried to rape me, said Madeleine. So I won’t suddenly throw myself out of the window.
That sort of thing, said Mr Kramer.
The window was open, but only the regulation few inches, as far as the locks allowed. Mr Kramer and Madeleine looked at it. She’d get through there, he thought, if she tried. Not that I’d ever get through there, said Madeleine, however hard I tried.
The walls of the room were decorated with images, in paintings and collages, of the themes and infinite variations of body and soul in their distress. A face shattering like a window. A range of mountains, stacked like the hoods of the Klan, blocking most of the sky, but from the foreground, in a red zig-zag, into them went a path, climbing, and disappeared. Mr Kramer liked the room. Waiting for Madeleine, or whoever it might be, he stood at the window looking down at a grassy bank that in its seasons, year after year, with very little nurture or encouragement, brought forth out of itself an abundance of ordinary beautiful flowers. At this point in his acquaintance with Madeleine it was the turn of primroses. The air coming in was mild. Behind the bank ran the wall of the ancient enclosure.
Asylum, said Mr Kramer. What is an asylum?
A place they lock nutters up, said Madeleine.
Well yes, said Mr Kramer, but why call it an asylum? Because they’re liars, said Madeleine.
All right, said Mr Kramer. Forget the nutters, as you call them, and the place they get looked after or locked up in, and tell me what you think an asylum-seeker is.
Someone from somewhere bad.
And when they come to the United Kingdom, say, or to France, Germany or Italy, what are they looking for?
Somewhere better than where they’ve come from. What are they seeking?
And what is asylum?
Sanctuary, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good word. Those poor people come here seeking sanctuary in a land of prisons. An asylum, he said, is a refuge, a shelter, a safe haven. Lunatic asylums, as they used to be called, are places where people disordered in their souls can be housed safely and looked after.
Locked up, said Madeleine. Ward 16, they took Sam there last week.
So he’d be safer, said Mr Kramer. I’m sure of that. Madeleine shrugged.
OK, said Mr Kramer. A bit like a prison, I grant you. Sometimes it has to be a bit like a prison, but always for the best. Not like detention, internment, real prison, nothing like that.
Mr Kramer’s spirits lapsed. He forgot where he was and why. His spirits lapsed or the sadness in him rose. Either way he began to be occluded. An absence. When he returned he saw that Madeleine was looking at him. Being looked at by Madeleine was like being looked at by the moon. The light seemed to come off her face as though reflected from some far-away source. Her look was fearful, but rather as though she feared she had harmed Mr Kramer. Rema says Hi, she said. Rema said say Hi from me to Mr Kramer.
They both brightened.
Thank you, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Please give her my best regards next time you speak to her. How is she?
Can’t tell with her, said Madeleine. She’s such a liar. She says she’s down to four and a half stone. Her hair’s falling out, she says, from the starvation. She says she eats a few beansprouts a day and that is all. And drinks half a glass of water. But she’s a liar. It’s only so I’ll look fat. She phones and phones. She wants to get back in here. But Dr Khan says she won’t get back in here by starving herself. That’s blackmail, he says. She might, however, if she puts on weight. Show willing, he says, show you want to get better. Then we’ll see. She says if they won’t let her back she’ll kill herself. Thing is, if she gets well enough to come back here, she thinks they’ll send her home. Soon as she’s sixteen they’ll send her home, her aunty says. But Rema says she’ll kill herself twenty times before she’ll go back home.
Home’s not a war-zone, if I remember rightly, said Mr Kramer.
Her family is, said Madeleine. They are why she is the way she is. So quite understandably she’ll end it all before she’ll go back there.
Rema told me a lovely story once, said Mr Kramer.
Did she write it?
No, she never wrote it. She promised she would but she never did.
Typical, said Madeleine.
Yes, said Mr Kramer. But really it wasn’t so much a story as a place for one. She remembered a house near her village. The house was all shuttered up, it had a paved courtyard with a sort of shrine in the middle and white jasmine growing wild over the balconies and the wooden stairs.
Oh that, said Madeleine. It was an old woman’s and she wanted to do the Hajj and her neighbours lent her the money and the deal was they could keep her house if she didn’t come back and she never came back. That story.
Yes, said Mr Kramer, that story. I thought it very beautiful, the deserted house, I mean, the courtyard and the shrine.
Probably she made it up, said Madeleine. Probably there never was such a house. And anyway she never wrote it.
Mr Kramer felt he was losing the encounter. He glanced at the clock. I thought Rema was your friend, he said.
She is, said Madeleine. I don’t love anyone as much as I love her. But all the same she’s a terrible liar. And mostly to get at me. Four and a half stone! What kind of a stupid lie is that? Did she tell you she wanted to do the Hajj?
She did, said Mr Kramer. Her owl eyes widening and taking in more light, passionately she had told him she longed to do the Hajj.
So why is she starving herself? It doesn’t make sense.
I told her, said Mr Kramer. I said you have to be very strong for a thing like that. However you travel, a pilgrimage is a hard experience. You have to be fit.
Such a liar, said Madeleine.
Anyway, said Mr Kramer. You’ll write your story for next time. About an asylum-seeker, a boy, you said, a boy half your age.
I will, said Madeleine. Where’s the worst place in the world? Apart from here of course.
Hard to say, said Mr Kramer. There’d be quite a competition. But Somalia would take some beating.
I read there are pirates in Somalia.
Off the coast there are. They steal the food the rich people send and the people who need it starve.
Good, said Madeleine. I’ll have pirates in my story.
Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other in silence across the table. The nurse had closed her magazine and was watching them. Mr Kramer was thinking that from many points of view the project was a bad one. Madeleine had wanted to write about being Madeleine. Fine, he said, but displace it. Find an image like one of those on the wall. I have, she said. My image is a war-zone. My story is about a child in a war-zone, a boy half my age, who wants to get out to somewhere safe. Asylum, said Mr Kramer. He seeks asylum.
Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. Tell me in a word before I go what feeling you know most about and what feeling the little boy will inhabit in your story.
The sleeves of Madeleine’s top had ridden up so that the cuts across her wrists were visible. Seeing them looked at sorrowfully by Mr Kramer she pulled the sleeves down and gripped the end of each very tightly into either palm.
Fear, she said.
Mr Kramer might have taken the bus home. There was a stop not far from Bartlemas where that extraordinary enclosure, its orchard, its gardens, the grassy humps of the ancient hospital, touched modernity on the east-west road. He could have ridden to his house from there, almost door to door, in twenty minutes. Instead, if the weather was at all decent and some days even if it wasn’t he walked home through the parks and allotments, a good long march, an hour and a half or more. That way it was late afternoon before he got in, almost time to be thinking about the cooking of his supper. Then came the evening, for which he always had a plan: a serious television programme, some serious reading, his notes, early to bed.
On his walk that mild spring afternoon Mr Kramer thought about Madeleine and Rema. It distressed him that Madeleine was so scathing about Rema’s story. How cruel they were to one another in their lethal competition! For him the abandoned house had a peculiar power. Rema said it was very quiet there, as soon as you pushed open the wooden gates, no shouting, no dogs, no noise of any traffic. The courtyard was paved with coloured tiles in a complicated pattern whose many intersecting arcs and loops she had puzzled over and tried to follow. The shrine was surely left over from before Partition, it must be a Hindu shrine, the Muslim woman had no use for it. But there it stood in the centre of the courtyard, a carved figure on a pedestal and a place for flowers, candles and offerings, and around it on all four sides the shuttered windows, the balcony, the superabundance of white jasmine. The old woman never came back, said Rema. It was not even known whether she ever reached Mecca, the place of her heart’s desire. So the neighbours kept the house but none had any real use for it. Sometimes their cattle strayed into the courtyard. And there also, when she dared, climbing the wooden stairs and viewing the shrine from the cool and scented balconies, went the child Rema, for sanctuary from the war-zone of her home.
Mr Kramer was watching a programme about the bombings, when the phone rang. Such a programme, after the cooking and the eating and the allowance of three glasses of wine, was a station on his way to bed. But the phone rang. It was Maria, his daughter, from the Ukraine, already midnight, phoning to tell him she had found the very shtetl, the names, the place itself. He caught her tone of voice, the one of all still in the world he was least proof against. He hardly heard the words, only the voice, its peculiar quality. Forest, memorial, the names, he knew what she was saying, but sharper than the words, nearer, flesh of his flesh, he felt the voice that was having to say these things, in a hotel room, three hours ahead, on a savage pilgrimage. The forest, the past, the small voice from so far away, he felt her to be in mortal danger, he felt he must pull her back from where she stood, leaning over the abyss of history, the pit, the extinction of all personal relations. Sweetheart, said Mr Kramer, my darling girl, go to sleep now if you can. And I’ve been thinking. Once you’re back I’ll come and stay with you. After all I cannot bear it on my own. But sleep now if you can.
Mr Kramer had not intended to say any such thing. He had set himself the year at least. One year. Surely a man could watch alone in grief that long.
The Unit phoned. Madeleine had taken an overdose, she was in hospital, back in a day or so. Mr Kramer, about to set off, did the walk anyway, it was a fine spring day, the beech trees leafing softly. He walked right to the gates of Bartlemas, turned and set off home again, making a detour to employ the time he would have spent with Madeleine.
In the evening, last thing, Mr Kramer read his old notes, a weakness he always tried to make up for by at once writing something new. He read for ten minutes, till he hit the words: Rema, her desire to be an owl. Then he leafed forward quickly to the day’s blank page and wrote: I haven’t thought nearly enough about Rema’s desire to be an owl. She said, Do you think I already look like one? I went to the office and asked did we have a mirror. We do, under lock and key. It is a lovely thing, face-shaped and just the size of a face, without a frame, the bare reflecting glass. I held it up for Rema. Describe your face, I said. Describe it exactly. I was a mite ashamed of the licence this exercise gave me to contemplate a girl’s face whilst she, looking at herself, never glancing at me, studied it as a thing to be described. Yes, her nose, quite a thin bony line, might become a beak. Pity to lose the lips. But if you joined the arcs of the brows with the arcs of shadow below the eyes, so accentuating the sockets, yes you might make the widening stare of an owl. The longing for metamorphosis. To become something else, a quite different creature, winged, feathered, intent. Like Madeleine’s, Rema’s face shows the bones. The softness of feathers would perhaps be a comfort. I wonder did she tell Madeleine about the mirror. Shards, the harming.
The Unit phoned, Madeleine was well enough, just about. Mr Kramer stood at the window. The primroses were already finishing. But there would be something else, on and on till the autumn cyclamens. It was a marvellous bank. Then Madeleine and the overweight nurse stood in the doorway, the nurse holding her women’s magazine. Madeleine wore loose trousers and a collarless shirt whose sleeves were far too long. She stood; and towards Mr Kramer, fearfully and defiantly, she presented her face and neck, which she had cut. Oh Maddy, said Mr Kramer, can’t you ever be merciful? Will you never show yourself any mercy?
The nurse sat in the open doorway and read her magazine. Madeleine and Mr Kramer faced each other across the small table. All the same, said Madeleine through her lattice of black cuts, I’ve made a start. Shall I read it? Yes, said Mr Kramer. Madeleine read:
Samuel lived with his mother. The soldiers had killed his father. Some of the soldiers were only little boys. Samuel and his mother hid in the forest. Every day she had to leave him for several hours to go and look for food and water. He waited in fear that she would not come back. There was nothing to do. He curled up in the little shelter, waiting. One day Samuel’s mother did not come back. He waited all night and all the next day and all the next night. Then he decided he must go and look for her or for some food and water at least because the emergency supplies she had left him were all gone. He followed the trail his mother had made day after day. It came to a road. She had told him that the road was very dangerous. But beyond the road were fields and in them, if you were lucky, you might find some things to eat that the farmers had planted before the soldiers came and burned their village. Samuel halted at the road. It was long and straight in both directions and very dusty. A little way off he saw a truck burning and another truck upside down in the ditch. But there were no soldiers. Samuel hurried across. Quite soon, just as his mother had said, he saw women and girls in blue and white clothes moving slowly over the land looking for food. Perhaps his mother would be among them after all? At the very least, somebody would surely give him food and water.
Madeleine lifted her face. That’s as far as I got, she said. It’s crap, isn’t it? No, said Mr Kramer, it is very good. Crap, said Madeleine. Tell me, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, did you write this before or after you did that to your face? After, said Madeleine. I wrote it this morning. I did my face two nights ago, after they brought me back here from the hospital. Good, said Mr Kramer. That’s a very good thing. It means you can sympathise with other people’s lives even when your own distresses you so much you cut your face. I know the rest, said Madeleine with a sudden eagerness. I know how it goes on and how it ends. Shall I tell you? – Will you still be able to write it if you tell? – Yes, yes. – You promise? – Yes, I promise. – Tell then.
She laid her sleeves, in which her hands were hiding, flat on the table and began to speak, rapidly, staring into his eyes, transfixing him with the eagerness of her fiction.
In among the people looking for food he meets a girl. She’s my age. Her name is Ruth. The soldiers have killed her father too. Ruth’s mother hid with her and when the soldiers came looking she made Ruth stay in hiding and gave herself up to them. That was the end of her. But Ruth was taken by the other women and hid with them and went looking for food when it was safe. When Samuel came into the fields Ruth decided to look after him. She was like a sister to Samuel, a good big sister, or a mother, a good and loving mother. When it was safe to light a fire she cooked for him, the best meal she could. After a while the soldiers came back again, the fields were too dangerous, all the women hid in the forest but Ruth had heard that if you could only get to the coast you could maybe find someone with a boat who would carry you across the sea to Italy and the European Union, where it was really safe. So that’s what she did, with Samuel, she set off for the coast, only travelling at night, on foot, by moonlight and starlight, steering clear of the villages in flames.
Sounds good, said Mr Kramer. Sounds very exciting. All you have to do now is write it. You’ve looked at a map, I suppose? The nearest coast is no use at all. That’s where the pirates are. You need the north coast really, through the desert. And crossing the desert is said to be a terrible thing. You have to pay truckers to take you, I believe. Yes, said Madeleine, I thought she’d do better on the east coast, with the pirates. A pirate chief says he’ll take her and Samuel all the way to Libya but it will cost her a lot of money. When she says she has no money he says she can marry him, for payment that is, until they get to Libya, then he’ll sell her to a friend of his, who will take her and Samuel into the European Union, which is like the Promised Land, he says, and there she will be safe, but she’ll have to marry his friend as well, for the voyage from Libya into Italy. I asked Rema would she do it and she said she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, because of the things at home, but she said I could, Ruth in my story should, it would save the two of them, they would have a new life in the European Union and God would mercifully forgive her the sin. She says Hi, by the way. She asked me to ask you are you all right. She said it seemed to her you were a bit lonely sometimes. Thank you, said Mr Kramer, I’m fine. And guess what, said Madeleine, she doesn’t want to do the Hajj any more, not till she’s an old woman, and she doesn’t want to make Dr Khan have her back here either. No, she’s decided she’ll be a primary school teacher. Plus she’s down to four stone. So it’s all lies as usual.
A primary school teacher is a very good idea, said Mr Kramer. But of course you have to be strong for that. As strong as for a pilgrimage.
I told her that, said Madeleine. So she’s still a liar. Anyway, another thing about Ruth is that when she’s with the first pirate, as his prostitute, all the way up the Red Sea he sends her ashore to the markets – Samuel he keeps on board as a hostage – and she has to go and buy all the ingredients for his favourite meals, I’ve researched it, baby okra and lamb in tomato stew, for example, onion pancakes, fish and peppers, shoe-lace pastry, spicy creamy cheeses, all delicious, up the coast to Suez. So she makes her Lord and Master happy and Samuel gets strong.
Will they stay in Italy, Mr Kramer asked, if the second pirate keeps his word and carries her across the Mediterranean? No, said Madeleine, breathless on her story, they’re heading for Swansea. There’s quite an old Somali community in Swansea. I’ve researched it. They’ve been there a hundred years. At first she’ll live in a hostel, doing the cooking for everybody so that everybody likes her. Samuel goes to school and as soon as he’s settled Ruth will go to the CFE and get some qualifications.
Madeleine, said Mr Kramer, it’s very hard to enter the United Kingdom. Ruth and Samuel will need passports. I’ve thought of that, said Madeleine. The first pirate chief has a locker full of passports from people who died on his boat and because Ruth is such a good cook he gives her a couple and swears they’ll get her and Samuel through Immigration, no problem.
Rema should go to the CFE, said Mr Kramer. I believe the Home Office would extend her visa if she was in full-time education. And if she trained as a primary school teacher, who knows what might happen?
She’s a liar, said Madeleine, very white, almost translucent her face through the savage ornamentation of her cuts. She’s supposed to be my friend. If she was really my friend she’d come back here. Then we’d both be all right like we were before she left me.
You want to stay here?
Yes, said Madeleine. It’s safer here.
Why overdose? Why cut yourself?
The nurse was watching and listening.
Because I’m frightened.
My daughter was frightened, said Mr Kramer, and she’s twice your age. All the time her mother was ill, four and a half years, she got more and more frightened. And now she’s gone to the Ukraine, would you believe it, all on her own and not speaking the language, to research our family history. She phoned me the other night from the place itself, a terrible place, I never want to go there, all on her own, at midnight, in a hotel. Write your story, won’t you? You promised me. Somalia is very likely the worst place in the world and Swansea is a very good place, by all accounts. What an achievement it will be if you can get Ruth and Samuel safely there!
Madeleine’s white hands with their bitten nails still hid in her sleeves. All the animation had gone out of her. I’ll never get to Swansea from Somalia, she said. Never, never, never. I can’t even want to get out of here.
First the story, Madeleine, said Mr Kramer. First comes the fiction. Get Ruth and Samuel out of the killing fields, get them by the cruelty and kindness of pirates into a holding camp on the heel of Italy, get them north among strangers, not speaking a word of the language – devise it, work out the necessary means. You promised. Who knows what might happen if you get that lucky pair to Swansea?
*This story is taken from: In Another Country: Selected Stories Copyright © David Constantine, 2015.
My father died at six in the evening.
After the doctor told us the news, we went home. Ariane drove, and I sat next to her. Neither of us spoke. The taste of the coffee from the machine at the hospital still lingered in my mouth. I looked at the road illuminated by the headlights of our car and the cars coming towards us. There weren’t many; it was on a Friday evening.
When we got home, the kids were already asleep. Ariane paid the babysitter and walked her to the door. I went into the kitchen and sat down. I could hear Ariane saying goodbye, and the door closing. She turned off the living room light, came into the kitchen, and put on the kettle. Then she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee.
I told her I did. I listened to the spoon clanging against the mugs as she poured in the boiling water.
“It’s better this way,” she said. “He was only suffering. In the last few weeks, he was only suffering. Believe me,” she said. “It’s better this way. For everyone.” Then she said, “It’s not just the last few weeks. It’s been going on for a few months already. He never used to sit on the porch that way. I mean, a year ago, for example. He didn’t sit on the porch that way.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I thought about it.
She put my coffee on the table next to me, and stood there for a minute with her hands on the back of the chair. She touched her face. “I’m wiped out,” she said. “And I’m hungry, too. Do you want anything to eat?”
I said no. “But you go ahead,” I said. “Make yourself something to eat.”
“O.K.,” she said. “I’m wiped out.” She stood there for a minute, her hands on either side of her neck, then lit a cigarette and started taking things out of the refrigerator. While she got her food ready, I drank my coffee and tried to think about what had happened and what I was feeling. I thought about the last few days.
“I’ve got to call my mother,” said Ariane. “I almost forgot. I’ll call her right now.” She carried her ash tray over to the phone. She left the food on the counter.
There was still a lot to do before the funeral, and I had no idea where to begin. How would I publish a death announcement, for example? When my mother died, my father took care of everything. This was the first time I ever had to deal with these things myself. I could hear Ariane talking to her mother in the hall. I lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the sink. I thought about my father.
About a year after we got married, he started pestering me about the apartment. He didn’t like the fact that we lived with Ariane’s parents. Especially after the child was born. He kept on telling us that it wasn’t good for our son and it wasn’t good for us. But at the time, we had no choice. We didn’t have any money. He said he was willing to help us out, but I didn’t ask him how much he could afford. He didn’t have a lot of money, that much I knew. Not even enough to get us started.
It took another year or so until I was able to take out a mortgage and could finally buy this apartment. We moved in over the summer, while the building was still being renovated. I was still fixing things inside the apartment. Mirrors, closets, bathroom shelves, things like that. Ariane and the baby slept in the small bedroom, and I slept in the still-empty living room.
The day we installed the kitchen cabinets- and they were still empty, I hadn’t even had a chance to clean up the sawdust- my father came to visit.
We stood in the new kitchen. He was so happy that he was smiling to himself every time there was a pause in the conversation. He brushed some dust off the counter, and I looked at his hand, the hand with the ring. That’s how I always remembered his hand, ever since I was a little boy. A hand with a wedding ring.
After a few minutes, Ariane came back and lit up another cigarette. She sat at the table and put the ashtray between us. She glanced at the candlestick holder that I was using as an ashtray. “It’s O.K.,” she said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble. You can do everything over the phone. But it can wait. Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said, “there aren’t any papers. There’s nothing we have to do right now.”
Her coffee was tepid, and she went over to the sink and spilled it down the drain. I could see from her hair that she’d been pressing her forehead to her hand while she’d been on the phone.
It was a relief, that it was all over, I’m not denying it. At least I don’t have to go back to the hospital. I don’t know how many hours I spend sitting on that bench in the ward, staring at the doors. Almost ten days, almost all the time. I went home to shower and occasionally to sleep, but I spent most of my nights there. Sometimes Ariane took my place. Sometimes we sat there together.
Ariane put more water in the kettle. “Do you want some more coffee?” she asked.
I said no. Then she started putting everything back in the fridge. She hadn’t eaten a thing.
I rubbed my face. I felt tired and dirty. I felt the fatigue in my bones. But I didn’t have any desire to go to sleep. While Ariane was making the coffee, I stared at the table and tried to figure out what I was feeling.
“Do you want to shower first?” she asked. She threw her spoon into the sink. “Or do you want to have more coffee now and I’ll shower?” I looked at her coffee. She was holding it in the air, between us. She had just stirred it, and it was still swishing around inside the cup, a tiny whirlpool. One of us would have to drink it, and the other one would have to shower. That’s how it stood.
I closed my eyes and tried to calm down.
“Do you want it or not?” Ariane asked.
“I don’t want any coffee,” I said, “O.K.? You already asked me, and I told you I didn’t want any. Stop making me coffee. Go take a shower.”
She shrugged her shoulders and put the coffee on the counter. Then she said, “I’m going to shower. I’m falling asleep on my feet. I’m really wiped out.” She put her hands on my shoulders. “I’m falling off my feet,” she said. “Take a shower before you go to sleep, O.K.? Take a shower. You’ll feel better after you shower.”
“O.K.,” I said. I looked at her back as she left the kitchen.
A few years before my mother died, I suddenly noticed that my father was an old man. I hadn’t thought about it before. But one day, I think it was on Pesach, or maybe Rosh Ha-Shanah, I suddenly understood. It was a few months after I got married. I had brought them a toaster-oven as a holiday gift. For a long time, I’d been urging my mother to buy one, but she didn’t want to. And it irked me. She never liked new things, my mother. We’d always argue about it. But I knew how useful it was, so I bought them one anyway, for the holiday. It was a big one, top of the line. We took it out of the box, and my father and I went into the kitchen to try it out. But nothing happened. Nothing. We couldn’t even get it to turn on.
My father took out the instruction manual and we read through it a second time. Then he spread a sheet of newspaper over the floor and put the toaster oven on top of it, upside-down. It upset him that it didn’t work. We crouched down on all fours, unscrewed it, and took out the base. And then I looked at my father. He’d taken off his glasses and set them aside, on the newspaper. He looked strange without them. Like he was naked. He looked into the toaster oven, but I could tell he had no idea what he was looking for.
At that very moment, it dawned on me. I realized that all his life, my father’s had lousy luck. Life had screwed him over, and he’d never retaliated. I thought that whatever gift I’d brought, it wouldn’t have worked. It was doomed from the start. I could have brought him a television or a stereo or a lawn-mower or anything, and it wouldn’t have worked. But the worst part of it was that he always felt like he had to apologize. I watched him bending down, without his eyeglasses, telling me he was sorry I’d brought him something that didn’t work. That was the day I realized he was an old man. When I went to sleep that night, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. My father, without his glasses, leaning over the toaster oven.
I sat there in the kitchen and listened to the water running in the shower, then stopping. I thought about that young doctor who came out and told us that my father had died. And I suddenly wanted to hit him. I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it. I hadn’t noticed it when he spoke to us at the hospital, but I remembered it later. From the moment he opened his mouth, I knew. I shouldn’t have listened to the rest of it. He spoke like he knew exactly how he was supposed to do it. To make it easier for the family. He was pleased with the way he spoke. With the way he told me that my father had died. At that moment, when I remembered it, I could have killed him. I could have done it with my own two hands.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Here in the city lives a prince whose left arm is like any other man’s and whose right arm is a swan’s wing.
He and his eleven brothers were turned into swans by their vituperative stepmother, who had no intention of raising the twelve sons of her husband’s former wife (whose pallid, mortified face stared glassily from portrait after portrait; whose unending pregnancies had dispatched her before her fortieth birthday). Twelve brawling, boastful boys; twelve fragile and rapacious egos; twelve adolescences—all presented to the new queen as routine aspects of her job. Do we blame her? Do we, really?
She turned the boys into swans, and commanded them to fly away.
She spared the thirteenth child, the youngest, because she was a girl, though the stepmother’s fantasies about shared confidences and daylong shopping trips evaporated quickly enough. Why, after all, would a girl be anything but surly and petulant toward the woman who’d turned her brothers into birds? And so—after a certain patient lenience toward sulking silences, after a number of ball gowns purchased but never worn—the queen gave up. The princess lived in the castle like an impoverished relative, fed and housed, tolerated but not loved.
The twelve swan-princes lived on a rock far out at sea, and were permitted only an annual, daylong return to their kingdom, a visit that was both eagerly anticipated and awkward for the king and his consort. It was hard to exult in a day spent among twelve formerly stalwart and valiant sons who could only, during that single yearly interlude, honk and preen and peck at mites as they flapped around in the castle courtyard. The king did his best at pretending to be glad to see them. The queen was always struck by one of her migraines.
Years passed. And then… At long last…
On one of the swan-princes’ yearly furloughs, their little sister broke the spell, having learned from a beggar woman she met while picking berries in the forest that the only known cure for the swan transformation curse was coats made of nettles.
However. The girl was compelled to knit the coats in secret, because they needed (or so the beggar woman told her) not only to be made of nettles, but of nettles collected from graveyards, after dark. If the princess was caught gathering nettles from among tombstones, past midnight, her stepmother would surely have accused her of witchcraft, and had her burned along with the rest of the garbage. The girl, no fool, knew she couldn’t count on her father, who by then harbored a secret wish (which he acknowledged not even to himself) to be free of all his children.
The princess crept nightly into local graveyards to gather nettles, and spent her days weaving them into coats. It was, as it turned out, a blessing that no one in the castle paid much attention to her.
She had almost finished the twelve coats when the local archbishop (who was not asked why he himself happened to be in a graveyard so late at night) saw her picking nettles, and turned her in. The queen felt confirmed in her suspicions (this being the girl who shared not a single virginal secret, who claimed complete indifference to shoes exquisite enough to be shown in museums). The king, unsurprisingly, acceded, hoping he’d be seen as strong and unsentimental, a true king, a king so devoted to protecting his people from the darker forces that he’d agree to the execution of his own daughter, if it kept his subjects safe, free of curses, unafraid of demonic transformations.
Just as the princess was about to be burned at the stake, however, the swan-brothers descended from the smoky sky, and their sister threw the coats onto them. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them.
…there were eleven fully intact princes and one, the twelfth, restored save for a single detail—his right arm remained a swan’s wing, because his sister, interrupted at her work, had had to leave one coat with a missing sleeve.
It seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls. Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.
End of story. “Happily ever after” fell on everyone like a guillotine’s blade.
It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings.
The king’s consort made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were only meant in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries. His brothers’ wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner (he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall).
The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn’t manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset. Which wasn’t all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling metamorphosis, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing.
Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.
Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?
Yeah, right, sweetheart, it’s a wing, I’m part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil.
He couldn’t seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin.
He’s still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he’s grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He’s become possessed of a world-weary wit. He’s realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It’s better, it’s less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke’s on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands.
Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. Their children, having been cosseted and catered to all their lives, can be difficult. The princes spend their days knocking golden balls into silver cups, or skewering moths with their swords. At night they watch the jesters and jugglers and acrobats perform.
The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city’s outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all. There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, “No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,” into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. There’s the prince who’s spent years trying to determine the location of the comatose princess he’s meant to revive with a kiss, and has lately been less devoted to searching mountain and glen, more prone to bar-crawling, given to long stories about the girl who got away.
In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky.
His life, he tells himself, is not the worst of all possible lives. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s what there is to hope for—that it merely won’t get any worse.
Some nights, when he’s stumbled home smashed (there are many such nights), negotiated the five flights up to his apartment, turned on the TV, and passed out on the sofa, he awakes, hours later, as the first light grays the slats of the venetian blinds, with only his hangover for company, to find that he’s curled his wing over his chest and belly; or rather (he knows this to be impossible, and yet…) that the wing has curled itself, by its own volition, over him, both blanket and companion, his devoted resident alien, every bit as imploring and ardent and inconvenient as that mutt from the pound would have been. His dreadful familiar. His burden, his comrade.
*This story is reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd© Michael Cunningham, 2015.
Miriam tells them that he built the house himself with his own hands. She tells them how he piled up the rocks on rainy days, so that they’d get good and soaked before he soldered them into the cement. She tells them that it’s on the border of two regions, a magical place, inhabited by spirits, meigas. She explains what meigas are, using the original name, they repeat it, stopping on each syllable, with the respect of someone reciting a prayer.
Miriam makes up this whole story, jumping from one sentence to the next on tiptoes, like agile feet over river rocks, and she modulates her soft voice in such a way that he himself ends up believing this distorted version of the truth. Miriam goes silent, a pause long enough for Rafael to glance at his hands, no longer rough like before. Then he arches his back, now less flexible, and thinks that soon it will all be gone, this house, filled up with the careless junk collected by Miriam, who hasn’t shut up since they arrived.
“I’m going out to get some air.”
When Rafael says this, she gesticulates for the English. She begins to smoke an invisible cigarette and blows out smoke no one can see. She looks like a showgirl. He’ll wait till he’s outside to light it. In the entryway, he’s distracted by the wallpaper, which she hung haphazardly one Sunday morning, just to see how it looked, just to try it out. One corner wants to come unstuck. He rubs his fingertips over it, caressing it. The paper peels up like a strip of beech bark.
The cold surprises him. He lights the cigarette and walks in circles, staring at the orangey ember of its tip. He turns and looks behind him. He takes it in from this perspective. The land is on a hillside. There’s a part where the slope flattens out. On really rainy days, the water flows rapidly in that direction, as if it’s being chased by a bird of prey. Inside, someone uncorks another bottle and immediately a peal of laughter is heard. He thinks it was Miriam. Then he thinks that it could’ve been any woman.
“In a year, maybe two, you won’t even remember this place,” she’d said to him.
They’d arranged to meet the English to close the sale.
He went alone in the morning. The highway seemed more empty of cars, more hollow. The ploughed fields blurred past in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take one last look,” he’d said picking up the car keys. “I’m sure there’s something we left behind.”
He closes the door. He doesn’t expect an answer.
When he arrives, he goes up to the top floor. The fluorescent light in the bathroom trembles. He looks at himself in the mirror, opens the side sections and sees his face triple. It’s the last time I’ll shave in this sink, he thinks, and he doesn’t know if that’s why he does it so slowly, sliding the razor several times over the same grooves. Before pulling up the metal stopper, he looks for the crack in the tile behind the hot water tap. He only has to feel around for a few seconds. There it is. A quarter turn of the wrench scraped the enamel when it was installed. He moves a bit closer, raises his chin to shave a dimple, then he wipes his face. He packs everything up with the carefulness of a murderer and goes outside.
He needs a ladder from the garage to take down the swing. He remembers when the girls swung in it, a photo of Miriam rocking back and forth with the littlest one in her arms. He wondered where that photo was, if it had been lost in the most recent move. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The girls are grown, they’re busy with other things. He tries to remove the nails, but they’ve been encrusted in the tree for so long that they’ve become part of the branch. He gets the pruning shears and cuts the ropes. The seat hits the ground with a thud.
He’s tired from the effort. His heart pounds, for a different reason than it did back then, a faraway sound, like from the bottom of a well.
The lounge chair is still in the garden. He straddles it and looks at the woods in front of him. Someone has left behind a book of crossword puzzles, open to the middle. It must’ve been Miriam. She always starts things with manic enthusiasm then never finishes, he thinks. He picks the book up by its spine, the same way he’d pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck, and tries to fill in the three horizontal lines that are missing. Mesopotaminan River, six letters. Roman emperor, eight. C-L-A-U-D-I-U-S. Claudius fits, but he doesn’t have a pen. He’d have to go inside and rummage through the drawers to find one. He crumples the book and throws it against a tree. The wind violently ruffles the top pages.
“I’ll put it all in the car and get rid of it,” he says aloud.
He remains in that position for a few seconds. He caresses the striped fabric of the lounge chair, the holes that time and use have left on its surface. He should fold it up, but he’s not sure he remembers how. He could stuff it in somehow, even if he had to leave the trunk open, and toss it onto the dump, beside the shredded couches, washing machine chassis. To seal the goodbye, he takes the keys out of his jeans’ pocket and stabs the longest one into the foam cushion. Another hole, new, fresh, intentional, separates a blue stripe from a white one. And no one will ever bother to sew it up.
He stands up and drags himself out of the small garden, his eyes fixed on the river. He can see it through the trees which have become denser with the summer. He feels like he’s following someone’s trail, a guide, past the property line. Under his feet, the ground is wet. In the canopy of the tallest tree, he hears a bird singing. He listens. He wonders if it will still be perched there when this place no longer belongs to him and he thinks that it will be, for a long time, until the next cold season. He turns around, admires the overgrown lawn that reaches the base of the house, the subtle yellowish color, the gray stone wall. He continues walking. He pushes aside some branches that weren’t there last year, or any previous year. It’s like pushing back a lush curtain. Then he can see, from afar, without having to walk down to the bank, Ruth’s silhouette stepping out of the water, her legs, her rounded shoulders, her hair soaked from the swim, with the unsteady wobble of someone standing on rounded pebbles.
“Take off that old jacket,” she’d shout from the water, her arms outstretched.
Miriam welcomed them today with her arms outstretched.
“Welcome to your home,” she’d said, fluidly, but her pronunciation had been better when she’d rehearsed it beforehand.
Miriam speaks only basic English and the English don’t speak any Spanish at all. It doesn’t matter. They really like the Galician wine Rafael keeps in the pantry.
“Bueno, muy bueno,” they say in unison. That much they can say.
Rafael goes inside proceeded by a mouthful of smoke that he doesn’t try to hide. In front of him, Miriam holds a bottle by the neck. She wipes it with a cloth before removing the cork. The English are starting to get a little drunk, they speak quickly to each other and Miriam can’t keep up. They’ve sat on the couch with their glasses in their hands. You’d think they’d lived there all their lives. Miriam has turned on the television and tries to explain a game show. They seem interested, but maybe they’re just being polite and don’t actually understand anything.
“Come here, sit with us,” Miriam says.
But he remains standing beside the window, hoping they finish all the wine, until there’s nothing left there.
Outside the window, on the other side of the garden, the hillside waves gently, like a huge carpet being shaken out and left flapping in the wind.
Ruth worked at his company, which made their meetings very easy. They left work at the same time, met on the second level of the parking garage. No one parked there because they could park on the street level and save themselves a few flights of stairs. Ruth was twenty-five years old, her eyes were murky and her nose was straight. She was always preceded by the echo of her heels on the cement floor of the parking garage.
In the beginning, he didn’t take her to the house. At first they went to the hostels on the outskirts of town, trying not to repeat the same ones too often. Ruth reserved the rooms herself. He remembered her boldness, always ready to play. On one occasion, they’d ended up in a hotel at the airport. The planes roared like furious elephants and then they couldn’t hear anything. Then a terrifying silence. Out the window, like now, but in another place, was the glass-walled side of a terminal.
As he drove, Ruth sat beside him, her svelte ballerina’s neck, her cheeks, her perfume mixed with the smell of the office collected behind her neck.
“I like your car,” she’d say. “Have I ever told you l like your car?”
They’d sit and have coffee at the metal table in the garden. Ruth’s blouse wet from her hair. She stretched out sometimes on the striped chair, recently purchased at the time, and closed her eyes, but she didn’t fall asleep. Without makeup or with smudges of mascara under her eyes she was even more attractive. Rafael walked around barefoot and he didn’t think about her, he thought about the days that would come, about all the Fridays of his life that would be completely uneventful, exactly the same as that one.
“Is there any cheese left in the fridge?” asked Ruth.
On one occasion they shared a cake, him standing, her sitting on the countertop. They didn’t even use plates. Rafael doesn’t want to recall whether it was left over from a kid’s party, one of the girls’ birthdays.
“Is there any wine in the kitchen?” Miriam asks. “I think these people drank it all.”
“If there’s none left in the pantry, we’re all out.”
He looks Miriam in the eye. Her face reminds him of all the photos they’ve put into the photo albums.
The English finally understand how the game show works and are overcome with a kind of euphoria. It consists of guessing a location through images that appear for a few seconds on screen. They assure them that there is a similar TV program in their country. They go silent when the image of a very tall tower shaped like a mushroom appears.
“Toronto, Canada,” says the English man, accentuating the first A.
The game show host confirms the answer. Miriam claps.
“Muy bien, muy Bueno.”
She says this in Spanish. They understand and the English man responds by sticking up his thumbs in a gesture of triumph.
Rafael sits in one of the chairs at the table where they had dinner, at a prudential distance from the others. Crumpled paper napkins and breadcrumbs on the tablecloth, dried pâté on the dessert plates. He rubs his chin, shaved this morning. The glass of the window returns his translucent and deformed reflection, his hair gray and too long, his bulging abdomen that now makes him uncomfortable in certain positions, like when tying his shoes or fertilizing the hydrangeas.
“We’ll be good friends for a long time,” Ruth had promised.
He’s suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief, deep relief and sadness. He tries to remember the name of the blond guy, Julian or Jaime, the reason Ruth never went back into the river. When the company retired him early, he drove by the new offices many times. Sometimes he was tempted to go down into the parking garage, look for her red Golf. He never had the nerve. She’d probably bought a new car by now, a convertible. She might even have a child.
The English sleep in what is now already their former bedroom. Rafael can’t fall asleep. He hears distant noises in the night, an intermittent flapping of wings. His insomnia pulls his thoughts to the tank of the toilet on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. He imagines the trickle of water, the calcium solidifying slowly on the walls of the bowl. Miriam drank a little too much and her breathing, from the other single bed, is rhythmic. She hugs a pillow tightly.
They’re spending the night in the room where the girls used to sleep. There’s a sky of glowing stars above their heads, missing the heavier planets which over time came unstuck as the glue deteriorated. Rafael sleeps in some uncertain location between the moon and Orion.
In the morning a sharp light comes in through the vertical slats of the shutters. He feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, man, get up.”
His head is heavy. He slept badly, in fits and starts, waking up every once in a while and wondering where he was. He suddenly remembers. The last hours of light, some loose tiles on the shed that he fixed that morning, the hands of the English man gripping the right side of the page, the tip of the pen signing the check. He feels an almost imperceptible twist of his heart, which disappears almost immediately.
“Let’s go, what are you waiting for, let’s get out of here.”
It’s the first time he’s heard Miriam use this expression. He sits up, annoyed, and puts on his jacket. He slept in his clothes. His body leaves a deep groove in the bedspread. He rubs his hand over the top, but the wrinkles don’t disappear. It’s Miriam who closes the front door, after placing the set of keys on the table in the entryway.
“You think they’ll see them?” she asks once they’re already outside.
Rafael shrugs his shoulders. He stares into the hedges with an expression of boredom, he sighs. He remembers for an instant Ruth’s face with her makeup smudged and all he knows is that one of her nostrils was smaller than the other.
“They’ll see the keys, right?” Miriam asks again.
Miriam looks up to the windows on the second floor. A few fluffy clouds chase each other across the bright blue sky. Rafael is certain Miriam is going to say something to him, that she’s going to ask him to force open the door to write them a note and stick it to the fridge or something like that, but then she gets in the car and says in a girlish voice: “Will you drive me to the city?”
The gravel crunches under the weight of the tires. Rafael reverses. He’s always afraid of running over the dog when he does this and he opens the door to see better, but the dog died of old age and is buried under the oak. He pictures the girls’ hot tears as he threw shovelfuls of dirt over the animal.
Under the back wheels there’s nothing but a gentle slope and the white rocks marking the way out.
That summer, I’d go there sometimes, and this week, I went again. It was a hot day at the end of summer. A hot wind blew from time to time, stopped suddenly and returned suddenly, full of dust, and when I entered, the place was empty. Not a living soul. I thought of wandering around a bit and then, on the other side behind the shed, I saw the gardener standing and talking with a young woman who sat bent over the stone, moving her head as she spoke, a head wreathed in balls of red curls, glowing like balls of fire in the hamsin light.
As I said, the place was empty. The paths had just been swept, sharpening the clean orderly lines of perspective, and in the heavy hamsin light it looked more colorful and shining than ever, wrapped in a thin pink coat of fresh watering and new blooming, almost a shining sheath of shining lacquer. And it was very quiet. Not even a sprinkler moved. But as I went along the path everything seemed full of rustling and talking and raspy sounds, rising from both sides of the path from the colored patches of the dense vegetation, as if someone there were grinding glass under the earth.
That was in the most beautiful section, the newly flourishing section of the Lebanon War, which was laden with a rich growth of living flowers and silk flowers and velvet flowers and flowers of thin copper plates and flowers of burlap and flowers of gauze and rust-colored bandages and long serrated cacti with fleshy shoots like explosive caps and tops shaped like an axe.
The woman lifted her face to me.
Do you have somebody here? she asked.
She clasped her knees to her body, didn’t take her eyes off me.
I’ve got somebody here too, she said.
Her knees were really up to her body, and she didn’t take her eyes off me.
My husband, she said.
Yes, my husband.
She turned half her body to me.
My husband, she repeated a third time.
It was quiet. Her eyes were fixed on me, pale, very bright, wide open in dark brown lashes that had nothing to do with the balls of fire, and I don’t know, maybe because of the quiet, I said I came here sometimes, hadn’t seen her.
Yes, I come once a year, she said. Her voice was low-pitched, almost masculine, almost basso, and she spoke like someone continuing a conversation that had been broken off.
And it usually falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. Always on a hot day like this, a hamsin. She banged her knees together, clutched her leather bag to them. And I sit alone. Sometimes with the gardener.
I said I had met him here, the gardener.
She fixed me again with bright, wide-open eyes, raised her hand in the air with a quick movement.
I’m talking to you like I know you, she said.
Maybe we did know each other once.
She laughed, repeating the nervous gesture in the air.
Yes, could be.
Maybe, I said.
She laughed again, covering her knees with both hands. Then she shifted her eyes from her knees and moved closer to me on the stone frame surrounding the small, beautiful garden. She smiled. He’s a good man, the gardener.
The sun apparently blinded her, since she was facing the wrong way, and she closed one eye, and now she looked at me with one eye, round as an animal’s eye.
I said: Yes, a good man, the gardener.
She changed eyes, blinking, bent farther over the stone, and opened a cactus coiled up near the stone pillow. Apparently she saw me looking at the date on the pillow. No, No, I come on our anniversary, that’s the day I come here once a year.
Now, too, she spoke slowly, emphasizing every word.
I don’t come on any other day. Why should I come any other day?
It was quiet, and even quieter between one word and the next.
And I said, it always falls on a hot day like this, a hamsin. In fact, it was a hot day like this then too, a hamsin. She banged her knees together hard, pressed the palms of her hands on them, and said it was impossible to talk about it. I said she didn’t have to. She said: I can’t talk about it.
You don’t have to.
Yes, but when you think.
Better not to think.
That’s it, better not to think. That doesn’t always work. You understand.
Yes, I understand.
It was quiet. She bent over a bit, leaning forward, unzipped her purse, pulled out a pair of big grey glasses, and put them on.
Believe me, you learn it, and aside from that, time –
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
It was quiet. She zipped up her purse and put it back on the stone.
Yes, time. You think time can?
I could see her dark lashes drop and open all at once through the big glasses. She took them off a moment and straightened up again, looking around leaning her head back, the way you look out a train window. In the meantime, everything, almost alive, years, almost alive, she said, turning around to me, and the word almost was doubled in the empty garden, hit the air like a pneumatic hammer, and I felt something heavy in my ears and some desire to cover my ears. It seemed that was what she did too, but the wind waved her hair, exposing her ears and they suddenly looked small, almost like a little girl’s ears. Her eyes moved slowly, wandering over the garden, as if the garden were fleeing behind her, and I thought I should say something but I didn’t know what. The light became even lower. The sky a bottomless dome. The blooming roses and chrysanthemums in the beautiful garden burned like scarecrows, and I wanted to tell her that there are many forms alive, and something about the length of the day and the length of the night, and the simple truth of death and loneliness when that truth comes from the earth and enters your feet and climbs on you through the soles of your feet. Suddenly I remembered the custom that women once used to measure their lovers’ graves with strings, and then they folded the strings and doubled them and made wicks of wax candles in honor of their lovers from the wrapped doubled string, and at night, in little cans, they lit the wax candles and all night the long wicks burned in the cans and the wind was forbidden to put out the fire in the cans, and I wanted to tell her something about the cans. But she sat quietly, gathering up her hair that was waving from side to son her neck, moving her fingers slowly through her hair as if the strength had gone out of her hands.
That’s it, she said. Her hair was now gathered on the back of her neck and she put her hands back on her knees. In the light you didn’t see her eyes, only the lenses of the glasses. She smiled weakly and took off the glasses, closing one eye again as if it were more and more blinded. It really was very hot. The air grew heavy, taking on an ashen color, holding the movement of a hot dry wind that suddenly approached from some unknown gate, covering that clean, well-swept expanse with a cloud of dust. You smelled a thin odour of smoke and resin. Stone tablets looked taut enough to burst. The fresh paths were filled with arteries of lead and the broken sound of broken flutes approached as if it were going into a cave. The woman facing me pressed her hands to her knees as if she wanted to say: quiet, quiet, but the sound of broken flutes just grew louder, the leaves over the garden plots folded into burned strips of paper, scattering torn petals all around like grains of oats, and I saw the slight trembling of her hands on her knees. Once again she seemed to want to say something, but I didn’t hear what, only how she closed both hands on her knees. The sound of broken flutes grew even louder, the light became really low, almost touching, and in the low light the stones suddenly seemed to be moving, waving like curtains, changing that strange architecture of cut off limbs and turning into a thick dough over the colorful fermentation over the cracks in the earth, contorting the precision of the well-chiselled tablets, and the paths, the markers, the signs at the corners of the paths, the cracks of radiance and the broken screens, and you couldn’t identify any stone now. The roses seemed to be plastic, and the grass full of heat worms, and when the wind passed as it had come, the black inscriptions on the stones still ran around in the air a moment and after a moment only the young woman was seen sitting alone, quiet, in the weary garden. Now too her hands were folded on her knees and she sat in silence.
She opened her eyes, looking at me with a special intimacy.
I’m lucky, there’s never anybody here on this day, I’m always here alone.
That really is nice, I said.
Yes, it’s nice. And I’m always scared they’ll come all of a sudden. But you see, God watches over me, until today that hasn’t happened, every year I’m here alone, sitting like this, alone.
Her eyes were fixed on me all the time, with that special intimacy that exists only between strangers.
It doesn’t bother you that we’re talking, she said.
No, of course not, it’s nice, I said.
She said: Sometimes, you know –
Yes, of course, I know.
It’s that, when you sit there, looking –
Of course, I understand.
She quickly rearranged her clasped hands, and asked if I had to go and I said, No, I’ve got time. She said: I’m glad. Then she said: Sometimes, you know, you want to talk. The light fell on her face, where two thin serpents of sweat ran down, and she wiped them off with the palm of her hand—Nothing special, just, to talk. She smiled in pain—You know, and I said certainly, I know. She smiled again in pain—You always think everything happens to other people. Even when it happens to you , it’s like it happened to other people. Her face now rested between the palms of her hands and she lifted it a little, turning aside. Some noise was heard and stones rolling around as in an execution by stoning, and she straightened up, looked, and took off her glasses a moment, putting them back on immediately, shifting them as if she couldn’t put them on right. She had long beautiful mocha-colored hands, and I looked at her hands which were circled with wide copper bracelets and rings, a ring on every finger, sometimes two, and when she lifted her arms, the bracelets dropped toward her elbow, linked together making a plate of thin copper. She smiled, bringing the bracelets close to her wrists while looking at me through the sparkling lenses. Then she bent over the took out a blue Hebron glass pitcher, put it next to the stone pillow, and said something about the glass and asked if it was beautiful, and I said to her it was very beautiful. Then she said she wanted to bring velvet flowers because she liked very much to make velvet flowers, especially since fresh flowers would fade tomorrow and she only came once a year, and I said yes, that’s how it is. She said: Yes, that’s how it is, and stopped a moment, once again moving the glasses that gleamed like two tin tablets. What can you do, that’s how it is, she repeated. Her eyes lit up with a strange passion and she shook her head, passed her hand over her throat, and once again I looked at her hands and at the bracelets, and every movement changed their position, making a dull noise of copper striking. They were very beautiful bracelets, and I noticed that every bracelet was set with different stones, and there was a bracelet with yellow amber and a bracelet with red amber and a bracelet with turquoise and a bracelet with small blue lapis and a bracelet with pink coral stones, as if she had a collection of bracelets on her arms. She said: Yesterday I almost made baked apples, every year I want to do that and I don’t, baked apples. She laughed a little—That’s what we used to do every year on this day, baked apples. Her voice was parched a moment, and I said that was really good, baked apples. She said: With raisins and nuts, you know that, and I said it was really good with raisins and nuts. She said: And cinnamon, of course cinnamon, and you burn the sugar a little, it’s very good when you burn the sugar. She moved away a bit on the stone. We didn’t put in honey, but he called it apples in honey, she said. She spoke very quietly now, the shaded dark lashes grew wet from one word to the next, and I said I also make that sometimes, especially at the end of summer. She asked why at the end of summer. Her face grew tense, firm, and I didn’t know why I had said that or why at the end of summer, and I felt I had to say something and I didn’t know what, and I said it was best to make it with Grand Alexanders, and that I always looked for Grand Alexanders. She listened quietly, and I said it was good to peel a thin strip around the apple so it wouldn’t burst when it was baking. Now too, she listened quietly. Once again her hair was undone and waved from side to side, and she pressed it, clasping it to her scalp, then she stuck her hand in her hair and wound the ends around her finger.
It’s really hot, she said.
Her face was wet and she wiped it with the palm of her hand, moving her hand from her forehead to her throat a few times, then she put her hands down on the surface of the little garden and wiped them with leaves. Her head swayed a bit and for a moment she seemed to be dozing, and I thought about the plants that hoard water in their stems, producing giant thorns for defence. Suddenly I remembered a friend of mine who wanted to be buried under his cafי under his table, and they told him: It must be somewhere else. And he said: how can I be somewhere else? Under my table, he said, under the table, and even broken up it’s all right even taken apart it’s all right even with one leg it’s all right, and I looked at that strange cemetery, at the stone pillows and the beautiful gardens. Within the emptiness the black letters and the white spaces ran around, moving within air pockets, and that’s how she sat too. Her hair still moved from side to side and she pressed it to the back of her neck, then she leaned over, hastily opened her bag and hastily closed it again right away, and seemed to take some hairpins out of it, because she started sticking pins in her hair. It took her time to do it because the curls kept opening up again and fell on her throat, and maybe the pins weren’t strong enough to hold the burden of her hair, and she plucked off a branch, smelled it, and then stuck it in her hair, then plucked another one and held it close to me. It had the sweet rotten smell of soft wood and she stroked her face lightly with it, and I said she had beautiful hair and beautiful hands. She laughed a little: The bracelets, you mean the bracelets, and I said the bracelets really were very beautiful. She moved away a bit on the stone—Yes, every year, he would bring me a bracelet, that was his anniversary present. Her bass voice suddenly broke like a watch that falls to the ground, and she straightened up and stretched her back—But I don’t wear them, only when I come here. She stopped, rotated her wrist—He loved it when I had bracelets on my hands, so when I come here—her eyes became big, yellow, an owl’s eyes, unmoving, and I saw her taking out the bracelets at night and putting them on the table and arranging them in order, and in the morning putting them on in order, and looking at her arms and some bracelets are missing on her arms, and she moves them and counts the missing bracelets.
Her throat was taut and she sat, looking straight ahead.
This is from the first year, she said, pointing to the bracelet near her wrist, the one with the big yellow amber stone which her hand stroked a few times, and I understood that they were put on in the sequence of the years, and the second year he bought her the red amber, and then the turquoise, and then the lapis, and then the coral, and I tried to guess what he would have brought her the year after. Her face was still impassive and you saw only the eyes, and it occurred to me that that was what she was thinking now too and that was certainly what she did this morning and how she went to the mirror, standing, looking, and the amber and the turquoise stones, the blue lapis beads and the pink coral return in the mirror, and she doesn’t get the dates right, or the years, and she counts the years, and suddenly I didn’t see her but only the bracelets shrivelling, narrow, thin, closing on her like handcuffs.
She turned around to me now, making a noise that sounded like laughter, but wasn’t.
Usually my arms are empty, I told you, all year long I walk around with empty arms, she said. She laughed briefly again, and I said she really had beautiful arms and they were beautiful even without the bracelets, and I tried to imagine how they looked without the bracelets but I simply couldn’t. The copper stabbed my eyes like needles and I felt a slight pain in my eyes, and I didn’t even see her arms but only how the bracelets wrapped one of her arms, then the other, and her shoulders her stomach her chest, and she was sitting all wrapped as in a giant rack. No, no, I said to myself, it’s the quiet, very quiet, it’s a strong light, it’s the strong light, how they sparkle, the bracelets, in the strong light, and how she’s dressed up for him, living or dead, she dressed up for him, what a beautiful dress she put on for him, maybe she even washed her hair for him, its shine is so fresh, and how it waves, burning on her head, making a living crown on her head. She said: I don’t wear the rings either, not the rings either, and I tried to imagine her fingers without the rings. She had mother-of-pearl colored polish on her fingernails and I saw how delicate her fingernails looked. Suddenly I remembered the story of the apples in honey and the small annual celebration. She said: For our tenth anniversary he said he would bring me one with garnets, and I tried to guess when the tenth anniversary should have been, and what he would have bought on the ninth, the eighth, the seventh, but the needles stabbed my eyes, the amber got mixed up with the turquoise, the lapis with the coral, and I said to myself: No no, so much light, you can’t sit in such light, I said to myself that was what she was doing now too, the tenth, the ninth, the eighth, and like me she was counting backward and the count was short, and she was saying it will get longer, every year this will get longer, the bracelets will get short and the counting will get longer, and then the arms will get shorter too. But she sat quietly, playing with the bracelets that made the banging sound of copper and a dull ding dong ding dong and I thought I might have met her once in the street at the corner and hadn’t recognized her, she had empty arms and I hadn’t recognized her, and I said to myself: No no, not that, it’s not her, it’s the light, impossible in such a light, and it’s a mistake, it’s all a mistake, but the bracelets were already running around in the garden mixing with the fresh beautiful blossoming, with the black letters and the white spaces and the rings too, and suddenly I remembered empty of all body and his house empty and empty his soul and his prayer returning empty, I remembered don’t leave me empty-handed, oh don’t leave me empty don’t come empty, and I said no no, the air shrivels and we walk empty, why did I remember that? Where did I hear that? Many years had gone by since I heard that, we stand poor and empty, I heard that, I was a little girl when I heard that, it was always in summer, when my mother would murmur that, and our hut was across from the Muslim cemetery and the windows were open and I was afraid of the cemetery, and I said let’s close the windows, but she said, it’s not the open windows, it’s the bell it’s empty it rings empty.
Something wrong? said the woman. She was playing again with the branch in her hand, and I said I was tired and it was late and I had to go. She smiled. Of course, of course, and if you come next year you’ll find me here. She sounded very quiet, almost calm, and I said I would remember the date and come, certainly, I would come. Since she didn’t answer, I said it really was a very hot day and that wind, and I wanted to go in the evening but I was afraid it was closed in the evening.
She went on playing with the branch in her hand, passing it over her face. They don’t close a cemetery, she said.
When I left, I saw the gardener arranging his tools in the shed, lining up the hoes and the spades, the spare faucets, and a heap of new seedlings. He smiled when I asked about her. Come next year, he said, she’ll be here. He locked his shed. She always comes this time, every year.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
It has to be done, that’s clear, and today’s the day. Anne has an appointment – today, not tomorrow – and she’ll go there, and they’ll suck the embryo out of her. She’s going on her own. “Max,” she said, “I have to do this on my own. I don’t want you to come.”
I said, “Are you sure? Do you not want me to collect you either? Think about it, please – you don’t really want to be alone when you wake up, do you?” But Anne tilted her head slightly to one side and gave me a stern look, as if to say, This is my body, and you know where you can stick your leading question, so please just accept it, OK. And that was that. The worldly-wise Anne. When she’s got that look, it means keep your mouth shut or soon we’ll be having a screaming match. That much I know. Call it empirical evidence. We’ve been together for over two years.
Anne is dolling herself up big time. She’s been in the bathroom for three quarters of an hour already. I could hear the hairdryer a while ago, and before that she took another shower. Whenever the two of us are going out she doesn’t take half as long, and she goes round the apartment at least twice, shouting that she has nothing to wear. Then she comes into my room and stands in front of me, always a little lopsided, one leg bent slightly, all stressed out and panting with effort, and asks if she looks OK like that. Each time I fall a little in love with that stance, and with the panting, and I say, “You look great. You look fantastic.” I say the same about every outfit. It’s a ritual.
She emerges from the bathroom in her underwear, heads straight for her room, and closes the door without saying a word. I have no idea what to do with myself. I sit on the kitchen couch and study my fingernails; every now and then I bite off a bit of cuticle. I’m waiting, waiting for it to be over. I’m listening for sounds in the apartment, so that I can hear what Anne is doing. I’d rather be drinking, to be honest, preferably since this morning. Anne is getting dressed.
Three months ago, none of this would even have been possible. Anne hardly ever felt like sex any more. It was frustrating, for her and for me, and getting a little worse week by week. At first the problem only arose when we tried to make love and it didn’t work. More and more, we ended up lying back to back until one of us would touch the other gently on the arm. Later, she rejected me before it even got to that stage. I assume she did that because she wanted to avoid my obvious disappointment and her anger at her own body. But it didn’t make things any better.
At some point our relationship began to suffer as a result. Our behaviour towards each other became more distant; Anne was less and less inclined to spontaneously sit on my lap after Sunday breakfast. We no longer gave each other a kiss when we arrived home. And we got annoyed with each other way more often, blaming one another for silly little things. It crept up on us; we didn’t realise it until it was almost too late and we found ourselves wondering, after a vicious row, if we still loved each other at all.
The gynaecologist said that the pill can be a contributing factor to a lower libido. So Anne stopped taking it. This did help, in fact; we slept with each other more often. Our love-making changed around then; the sex got better. Anne especially seemed to be getting more out of it. But we didn’t like condoms. And we didn’t use any other form of contraception. We ignored the risk of pregnancy; we didn’t talk about it either – it was more a case of letting things happen than actually doing anything. Ten days ago, I came home and Anne said, “I’m pregnant.” That was the first and last time she uttered the word.
It’s 4pm. The appointment is in half an hour. That was the earliest available slot; they squeezed Anne in. She has been fasting since breakfast.
She still has to get to the other side of town, but she’s taking her time getting dressed. I knock on the door of her room. “What is it?” she says.
“Can I come in?” I ask.
“If you must.”
She’s wearing a white blouse, a black trouser suit, and high heels. She’s got lots of make-up on. Red lipstick, foundation, powder, eye shadow, mascara, kohl, rouge, the works – too much of everything. You can see little skin blemishes beneath the make-up, and a line on her neck where the make-up ends. Her hair is tied back tight in a ponytail. Anne doesn’t look at all like Anne. She looks like a version of herself about to try and trade in a clocked car for more than it’s worth.
“Well, say something, “she says, “Tell me how I look at least.”
“You look great. You look fantastic,” I say. “The whole waiting room will fall in love with you.”
“It’s a gynaecologist’s, Max. The only people there will be women waiting for an appointment during which a stranger will peer into their vagina.” She’s looking in the mirror. She tugs at her ponytail, at her cleavage, and wrinkles her forehead. “No one is going to be falling in love with anyone there.”
“What’s the matter?” I say. “All I was trying to say is you look great.”
“OK, Max. OK.”
Up to this point the day had been pretty normal. The usual morning routines. Anne was first into the bathroom; I stayed in bed and told her how beautiful she was when she came back to the bedroom wearing just underwear and a towel around her head and stood in front of the wardrobe as usual. We used the time in the morning to spring-clean the apartment. Cleaning out cupboards, descaling the kettle, clearing drains. We hardly spoke. If we did say anything, it was to remark on how surprising it is that closed cupboards can get so dirty on the inside.
One of our big pasta plates got broken, the last of them. We’d had four, all kaput now. I dropped it as Anne was handing it to me. It hit the floor, shards scattering in all directions. Anne cursed in a loud voice and accused me of being awfully clumsy. Later I cooked some pasta for myself and ate it off a flat plate. Silently, Anne watched me eat, then she headed for the bathroom.
She turns to face me. “I have to get rid of it. Have you any idea what this is doing to me?” She turns back to the mirror and runs a hand over her hair. She presses a tissue to her lips to remove the excess lipstick. Then she picks up her handbag and walks past me out of the room. I follow her into the hallway and as far as the front door. “By the way, Marie is coming to meet me afterwards, assuming everything goes to plan,” she says. “We’ll probably go for dinner or something. I’ll give you a ring when it’s over. Don’t wait for me in any case – I don’t know what time I’ll be back.”
“What do you mean,” I say, “Is that how it is now?”
“Max, it’s me they’re going to be sucking an embryo out of – me! But don’t you worry, I’ll be fine.”
I knew straight away that I didn’t want it. My response was clear, right from the start. “I can’t imagine having a kid, not right now,” I said. Anne was crying. I said, “I mean, I can imagine it in principle, and with you, just not yet.” We’d only been living together for six months. Anne had just been put in charge of her own group at the kindergarten. I had a thesis to write and final exams to prepare for. We’d been planning a long summer holiday travelling in the USA. That’s how things were. We sat on the bed, held each other, and could not believe how stupid we had been. We thumped the mattress with our fists and flung the pillows across the room. We both agreed that being pregnant should be good news. We didn’t spell out what that meant; we just decided not to say anything to our parents. Anne said the smell of coffee and cigarettes already made her feel sick.
She’s leaving, heading down the stairs without giving me a kiss or a hug. I stay in the apartment doorway. “Have you got the certificate?” I call out after her. Anne pauses on the landing. She grips the banister, looks up over her shoulder. There’s a ceiling light immediately above her, and it casts shadows on Anne’s face, under her eyes, on her cheeks. She looks hard. My sweet little Anne, the girl who stood in front of the wardrobe after our first night and couldn’t decide which socks to wear; this same Anne is now standing half a storey below me, stiff, in heels and an ironed blouse; and her eyes are hard too. She says, “Yes, I have the certificate.”
“Are you sure?” I say. “No harm checking again. You need that piece of paper.”
But Anne doesn’t answer, just continues down the stairs. The clack of her heels echoes dully in the stairwell. I remain at the apartment door, picking at a spot on my neck. Then the front door clicks shut downstairs. Throughout the last ten days, I was never able to imagine what a heavily pregnant Anne would look like.
The last time we were at the gynaecologist’s, Anne cried on the way home. She’s been going to the same practice since she got her first period. The bus was driving through the neighbourhood where she grew up, and Anne spent the whole time staring out the window, crying silent tears. We’d got confirmation; the doctor had pointed at the ultrasound monitor and said, “Yes, look here, see that – you’re pregnant.” With a great deal of imagination, you could just make out a worm-like shape the size of your fingertip. She gave us a leaflet with addresses of places where you can get crisis pregnancy counselling, and we set off home, and Anne cried.
I go back into the apartment and look down at the street from the window. Anne is already out of sight. In the kitchen, I get a beer out of the fridge. I see that my hand is shaking. I put the opener down beside the bottle, lean against the worktop and take a deep breath. Then I stretch both hands out in front of me. I’m shaking. I look at my trembling hands and remember my father once telling me how, ever since the moment I was born, he had lost control of his life: all he could do from then on was react, not act; it was like navigating through a permanent fog. There was no accusation in his voice, more surprise at this realisation. We were sitting in my grandparents’ garden, drinking cool beer under a blossoming cherry tree. He stood up and went back to the patio, where three generations were sitting together. My father was twenty-six when I was born, the same age I am now.
We didn’t tell anyone our news. We went to the countryside for the weekend, to get away from it all. To a small guesthouse that had oak furniture in the breakfast room. We explored the village, barbecued on the terrace at the guesthouse and walked the country lanes.
In the evenings we tried to imagine how it would be if we kept the baby. We only discussed practical things. Money, parental leave, the apartment. We each identified a close friend we would confide in. We didn’t once, the two of us together, picture the baby on a nappy-changing table, how it would grin at us and fart at the same time, or nestle at Anne’s breast to feed, or crawl around the apartment, or say its first words.
Nor did we speak about the stressful aspects of the first few years of parenting, the sleepless nights, the general restrictions. None of that. “We’d have to move house” – that’s the way we talked.
It was only during our walks, or at night when I couldn’t sleep, that I wondered what it would be like to push a buggy or to hear someone else’s breathing in the bedroom besides Anne’s. But I didn’t speak these thoughts out loud. On the last evening, Anne was smoking and drinking again. The word abortion had not been mentioned.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table, three empty beer bottles in front of me at this stage. My forehead is propped on my hand, and I’m still waiting. It occurs to me that we ought to oil the table top again; the wood is all dry and bleached. In one place you can see a deep circular indent. The legacy of one of our rows. I was so worked up that I slammed the base of a tumbler down hard on the table.
I take a fresh beer out of the fridge and sit down again. The shaking is a bit better now. It is quiet, unbelievably quiet. All I hear is the ticking of the clock. It’s making me nervous, so I take it off the wall and remove the battery. The hands stop at twelve minutes past six. I put the clock face down on the table, beside the empty bottles. I think of my Anne lying there with her legs open and various doctors and nurses coming and going around her. A breathing tube in her mouth; the anaesthetist seated by her head, watching the cardiac monitor, keeping an eye on Anne’s heartbeat, while down at the other end people are shoving sterile instruments into her. I start sweating, on the back of my neck, on my forehead, under my arms. I wonder whether everything went OK, whether she has come round yet. Whether it’s over. I finish my fourth beer.
I reckon we were a straightforward case for the Pro Familia counsellor. We had already reached a decision. We needed the counselling certificate and we knew that anyone who went for a counselling session always got the cert. On a form, we were supposed to give reasons why the pregnancy presented a conflict. Items one and two on the list were “family or relationship problems” and “father of the child does not support the pregnancy/mother”. I ticked number thirteen, “financial/economic circumstances”, and number sixteen, “educational/professional circumstances”, and pushed the form across the desk. Anne could see what I’d selected. Then she turned her page face down and slid it across to the counsellor.
The counsellor looked at our forms, then asked: “On a scale of 0 to 100 per cent, how much would you say you do not want to have this child?”
“90 per cent”, I said.
Anne looked sideways at me, and then she said: “90 per cent.”
Thirty minutes later we had a stamped certificate confirming that we had been for counselling. Anne took several leaflets from an information stand as well and stuffed them in her bag. The allocated time for the counselling session was one hour.
It’s after nine o’clock. Still no word from Anne. I’m still drinking beer, downing it faster. By now I’m drunk, pacing up and down in the kitchen, in the hallway. I’m pacing round and round the apartment like a man possessed. I’m no longer worried, I’m furious – with Anne, with us, with everything. I wobble a bit and bang into a doorframe. Calm down, damn it, I say to myself. I turn on the TV but I can’t watch a single programme for more than five minutes. Something on every station triggers an unpleasant association. I can’t even watch a cookery programme. I switch channels when I see a honeydew melon being de-seeded. I turn the TV off again and close my eyes. Then my mobile rings.
“I meant to ring you,” says Anne.
I can hear music in the background, voices. “How are you?” I say. “Is it over? Where are you?”
“Haven’t a clue,” she says. “Somewhere or other. Marie is here. We’re going to have something to eat now.” She sounds exhausted; she’s speaking slowly, with a heavy tongue.
“Come home,” I say. “Please, come home.”
“I told you, we’re going to have something to eat here. Don’t wait up for me. I have to go now.”
“Wait,” I say. “Just wait a minute, damn it. Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, yeah. I need to go to the toilet,” she says.
Then the line goes dead.
I ring straight back, once, twice, and the third time she rejects the call. The fourth time, the call goes straight to voicemail. I fling my mobile on the floor and the battery falls out. I am struggling to breathe and have to sit down on the floor. I start crying, for the first time since Anne told me that she was pregnant. I weep hysterically and let out one loud scream. Then I get up again, wipe my hand across my face and piece my mobile back together again. I start searching the apartment for clues as to where Anne might have gone with Marie.
I read the notes on her desk. I turn her computer on and check her internet search history. I am determined to find out where she is, to go there and bring her home. She didn’t search for any restaurants or bars in the last three days. Instead, Anne seems to have trawled her way through every German-language discussion forum about abortion. Threads with titles like “Eternal memory” or “Anniversary of due date”. The pile of leaflets Anne picked up at Pro Familia catches my eye. The covers show happy-looking parents with toddlers: Child Benefits and Parental Leave, Studying and Parenting, Pregnant in Berlin. I delete the search history, grab the leaflets, take them straight down to the basement, and dump them in the paper bin. On the way back up, I hear my mobile ringing. I sprint up the stairs.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“It’s Marie,” says Marie, “Anne wanted me to let you know that everything’s OK. We’re in a restaurant. I’ll take her home later.”
“Which restaurant? I’ll come and get you,” I say.
“Max,” says Marie, “Anne doesn’t want you to come here. I’ll make sure she gets home, don’t worry. But please don’t ring again.”
She hangs up.
A few minutes later, I ring Anne again and get her voicemail. The recorded message is cheerful, she sounds good-humoured and happy, the kind of voice you’d like to leave a message for.
After the beep, I say in a faltering voice, “Anne, it’s Max. If I’ve done something wrong, I’m really sorry. But please come home now. Come home – OK? I can’t stand it any more… I love you.”
I’m standing at the window keeping an eye out. Every time a car approaches I hope it’s a taxi with its roof light off and Anne in it. Now I’m drinking the dregs of cheap schnapps on ice. My mobile is on the window seat beside me. In the building across the street, a couple is cuddled up on the sofa watching TV. Insects swarm around the glow of a streetlamp. Another car approaches slowly, but it doesn’t stop. I ask myself where I lost Anne along the way. I try to think of a moment, any gesture or phrase that ought to have signalled that what was running through her head in the last ten days was completely different to what was running through mine. I realise that I have no idea where we go from here.
I wake when I hear the key turning in the apartment door. The TV is flickering in silence, throwing faint light into the room in time with the scene changes. I get up and quickly head for the hallway. Anne bumps off the wall as she enters. Her make-up is smeared, her face oddly contorted; she has been crying. “Anne…,” I say and go to her.
She takes half a step back, holds her hands chest high, palms out, and looks past me. She looks like a stop sign.
“Anne…,” I say again, “it’s over now, isn’t it, you got through it.”
She doesn’t answer, just manoeuvres past me with her hands still raised, careful not to touch me. When she’s right beside me, I reach gently for her chin, to try and get her to raise her head, to get her to look at me at least, to find out what’s really going on. She catches my wrist, looks me in the eye and guides my hand down very slowly. It feels like a threat. The piercing disdain in her eyes brings goose bumps to the back of my neck. She goes into her room.
I hear her pulling something out from under the bed. I head for her room and stand on the threshold. Anne is packing a small suitcase. She says, “I’m staying at Marie’s tonight.”
*This story is taken from: “Das Licht der Flammen auf unseren Gesichtern” by Dorian Steinhoff © mairisch Verlag 2013.
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