Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of learning to play the guitar. With time, this passion turned into a weevil, a gluttonous one that nested in my brain, grew up as I grew and shared my life.
My guitar weevil turned into a series of misfortune: whenever I saved enough for the guitar something would happen, and the money would go up in flames. For starters, when I was in school I saved my money for a whole year. During the summer vacation I broke the piggy bank; the amount was decent enough to buy a good guitar. But I went to play with the neighborhood kids, we played street football and instead of hitting the goal I hit the glass façade of the neighbor’s balcony. It rained down glass and insults. Our ball was stabbed. At night the neighbor came to our house and said that I broke his mother’s vase, and so the guitar turned into a vase.
When I was appointed as a traffic policeman I said I would buy a guitar with my first salary, but when I got home, my mom said that the water boiler in bathroom had exploded and ruined the ceramics. The guitar turned into ceramic tiles with musical notes.
Then I got married, and with my meager salary and the obscene price tag, the guitar turned into bread, yoghurt, eggs, treatment bills, diapers, milk boxes and small gifts for my wife.
Now, the children have grown up, most of them are married, and I am nearing retirement. The weevil is now dancing in my head. I will buy a guitar and a Mexican hat and play music for the rest of my life.
My wife said that she also has an old weevil in her head that nags her and wants to travel to Beirut.
We travelled to Beirut and on our first day I bought a guitar and I hugged it all the way from the store to the hotel.
I must have looked like an idiot but I was afraid that the guitar would jump out of my lap or would turn into something else, something that was not very interesting.
When I arrived at the hotel I did not wait to go up to my room. I sat on the big sofa in the reception, asked for a bottle of water, took a deep breath, and started playing my first melody on my guitar.
My fingers moved on the strings. A single move then everything exploded; the whole front glass of the hotel, vases and chandeliers- all of it exploded because of this unfortunate guitar!
In the hospital, when they heard my story they laughed and told me I was scammed: the guitar was made out of weevil-rotted wood.
Emerging from his plastic cave awash in filth, Crow “J” toddled unsteadily over to the paved road with sullen, terse gasps. The radiant disk was rising from the mouth of the earth as he advanced through the wild cawing of his fellow creatures.
Along the sides of the path that led to the hole where he worked there were large numbers of crows. Some were copulating, exposing their genitals to the rays of the disk, while others quarrelling and fighting to death, and still others gleefully burying each other to the sound of drum rolls
With difficulty he found a place in the packed line of rank, naked bodies. He tried to move away from a pair of bulging tits that had been rubbing obnoxiously against his back, but whenever he managed to escape them he felt his organ rubbing colliding with another crow’s rump. He was stuck between a bunch of charred, filthy sticks routinely sliding towards the road’s downward slope.
Throughout the long march, he heard pained groans and dismal memories emanating along with broken songs, whose indistinct lyrics trembled in horror on darkened lips, yet without being released.
When the black caravan reached the grain mine deep in the Earth, the stern, reprimanding voice of the master hastened their steps, intensifying their dread and their fear of losing the accustomed meal. “J” looked into the master’s crimson eyes taken aback by the sight of his shiny feathers and his elegant suit. He was likewise taken aback by his bizarre obesity. It was the first time he had actually looked at him. His surreptitious gaze had hardly gone on for a couple of seconds before the crush of bodies thrust him forward to his workplace like a huge wave.
He took the pick and got to work. The mine floor was slippery and especially filthy, saturated with the stench of urine, blood and semen. He clung to the flickering pillar of light lest he fall or lose his job. As the disk of light retreated for some rest into the mouth of the Earth, the line surged forward again with flaming enthusiasm in anticipation of the meal. “J” found himself standing before the master’s assistant, having forgotten momentarily that he had been waiting for his turn. Jolted into awareness by the doltish smile that would appear on the assistant’s lips every day as he distributed the grain of wheat that constituted the longed-for repast. Holding the grain in his rigid grip, he felt like flinging it in his face. However, flustered the hungry shouts behind him, he refrained from the gutsy deed.
On his way back to his plastic cave, he looked back and forth at the swings-turned-gallows hanging from the trees and gazing to the red sky that had left him drenched to the bone.
As he entered the dusty, dark grotto, it wasn’t the sky alone that was weeping. He, too, was weeping, though he had not felt it outside. Rather, he realized it only when he had come inside.
He lit his only candle. Then, as usual, he took the letter that he kept hidden under the plastic blanket, trying, if he could, to find something new in it.
“Be well, Jameel.. I will return soon. Don’t see the world as it is. Rather, try to see it with our eyes: as free and agile as a butterfly.” From Maya, your beautiful and playful sweetheart
He tried with all his mind, but wasn’t able. Instead, he fused with the voices behind him, and became one of them
This city — this city is so fucking expensive that I can’t bear it. And it’s so fabulous that sometimes I can’t bear it. Expensive and horrible — that would be better. To enjoy it, you need money; to have money, you need to work a lot; but when you work a lot, you don’t have the energy or time or desire to enjoy it.
The endless list of unpaid bills was like a noose around my neck. Debts to my friends and acquaintances. About ten thousand.
All of this — the debts, the fears, the fatigue — all of it has been building up for the last six months, and finally I began to think about getting free of it all — about suicide. The contemplation stage changed to the planning stage.
In the past I was always stopped by three things: my own cowardice, hope that things would get better, and my mother. But now I’m at the point where I’m alone with a storm cloud of shit hanging over me. I know that if I stay here, all that shit will rain down on me and I’ll never dig my way out. Why wait? Better to get free. The only thing left was to decide how to do it.
I read up on it. Drowning, hanging, shooting — too painful. I’m in enough pain as is it, and I don’t want to end it the same way. All that’s left are pills. Take enough, fall asleep and don’t wake up.
If you’re alive, at least once you’ve thought about having the power to end it. Don’t tell me you haven’t. I won’t believe you.
But I didn’t have the money to buy the pills, so I went to my best friend. I already owed him 6,750 shekels.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.” I wasn’t lying. This really would be the last time.
He made me a meal of rice and salad with tahina, put me in a cab, paid the driver, and sent me off.
It turned out awkward — this was the last time I’d see my best friend and I didn’t even really hug him. My taxi was holding up traffic, the cars were honking like crazy, so in the rush I didn’t even have time to say anything of substance to him.
One box of pills wasn’t enough to kill me — they must be popular with suicides so that’s why there weren’t many of them. In one box, I mean. That’s what I figured. To kill myself, I’d need four boxes. I decided it wouldn’t be right to buy all four of them in one Super-Pharm — I was afraid I’d get suspicious looks — so I decided to go to four different drug stores and buy a box in each one.
I bent down to tie my shoelaces — that happens to me a lot, my shoe laces coming untied — and when I stood up and reached for the little pouch bag that held my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I realized that it was gone. I spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel and saw an Eritrean boy, about 13 years old, running away with my bag. I ran after him. He saw me and took off like a panther. Today was not my lucky day.
I wasn’t going to catch him, and I wasn’t going to die.
The screech of brakes — still playing in my head on a loop. A crowd of onlookers, the driver in a panic, the boy screaming, and next to him — my bag, and in it my liberation, while I stood rooted to the spot.
Then: ambulance, stretcher, doctors… They drove off, and I remembered that the 200 shekels my friend gave me weren’t in my bag but in my pants pocket. I raised my arm and a cab appeared instantly.
“After that ambulance!”
They took the boy to Ichilov Hospital. Like a scared rat hiding behind the column of people, I followed them — the doctors, the stretcher and the boy.
He was playing with his phone when I went into the ward and sat on the chair next to his bed. He was already feeling better. The nurse told me he’d dislocated his arm. The boy looked up. We locked eyes and he cringed. I held out some chips, an apple and a Kinder chocolate.
“I didn’t know which you’d like.”
“I like chips,” he said, and took the packet.
We didn’t speak as he munched. His mother, a thin black woman, flew into the ward, hugged him and then something caught her eye and she shouted, “You’re doing it again!” She grabbed my bag, which had been lying on the bedside table. “You’re stealing again! I told you that I’d manage. I’ll save your sister! You hear me? She’ll live!”
And then she finally saw me and stopped talking.
I walked out of the ward without saying a word. I’d forgotten what it was like, what it was like when you wanted to live. I called my mother, told her that I loved her, and then I called my best friend and asked him out for a beer. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, you know?
But all that disappeared really fast. Only a few days went by before that storm cloud of shit was hanging over my head again. Only this time it was even worse.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.
This time I hugged him and told he was the best.
My friend suddenly said, “Tonight there’s going to be a great concert at Kuli Alma. Nina Simone’s songs. We ought to go.”
I almost burst into tears, so I quickly jumped on my bike and rode off. When I chained my bike by the Super-Pharm on Allenby Street, I saw that my shoe laces were untied — you know how that happens with me, my shoe laces come untied — and when I stood up and reached for the bag that had my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I saw that it was gone. He took off like a panther.
But it’s always noisy on Allenby and the kid probably didn’t hear me. Just in case I checked my pockets. There was only my phone, which rang.
“You won’t forget? Tonight. Kuli Alma. Nina Simone. At ten.”
Looks like I won’t die today either.
The day I moved from the city to the country my dog returned his spirit to the God who gave it. I do not know whether it was the shock of the move or just a coincidence. Nevertheless, at one-thirty in the morning, after a death rattle that appeared suddenly and lasted a few hours, he lay his head in my lap, shivered one last time and went limp, while defecating on our new wooden flooring. Throughout that evening I could hear the jackals howling from the dry riverbed nearby. I don’t think there was any special reason, certainly nothing symbolic. The jackals were being jackals, and their howls were just howls. Yet back then their sound was still foreign to me and struck me as ominous. Moreover, at the very same moment the dog endured his final spasm, I heard a loud, guttural howl that was altogether different from those that had preceded it. I’m a rational person, but I must admit – it sent a shiver down my spine, and for a moment I was almost convinced it was the dog’s soul, parting from this world in fury and disappointment. Still, I ultimately dismissed it as just another of the jackals’ howls. For who can comprehend all their words and cries? And besides, whatever its source, the howl too ceased definitively after a few moments. Just like the dog.
I buried him in the riverbed the following morning. It seemed more respectful than taking him to the vet, where they would have undoubtedly sent him off in a black trash bag to a crematorium for biological waste. There was also the issue of transportation: conveying a dead body, albeit canine, in one’s trunk is a rather messy affair for the average law-abiding citizen. A burial felt more dignified. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Since you’ve already made it to the valley where we hoped you would roam, at least your bones will be laid to rest honorably in its soil. I do not wish to exhaust the reader with the fine details of the burial. In a nutshell, the dog was somewhat overweight, and the dry rocky ground of early summer refused to accede to my shovel’s pleas. Eventually, I buried my beloved dog in a hole not as deep as I would have wished for him, and tried to compensate for it by mounding a large pile of stones I had collected from nearby.
In the days that followed, I refrained from going anywhere near the grave. Maybe I was just being sentimental, or perhaps it was the strange odor that had come to envelop the yard, suggesting that the grave had not been properly sealed. All the same, after observing the traditional shiva week of mourning, I was overcome by an urge to check what had become of him, especially as the odor had begun knocking gently on the windows of the house during the nights. My heart told me that the scene I would encounter would not be a pretty one, but I was motivated by a sense of responsibility: what if a child walks by and comes across the grave, which I now began to suspect was open? Again, I will not tire the reader with graphic details. Suffice it to say that a half-eaten leg was protruding from the ground, like a strange summer bloom. The foot was completely intact, including the fur in its original honey hue: a true collectors’ item. Below, however, there was only gnawed red flesh with pieces of brown bone poking out. I fled home, praying the jackals would finish their sloppy work as quickly as possible.
A few weeks later, on a mid-summer Saturday morning, I was out having a light breakfast in the garden when I suddenly heard another strange cry coming from the valley. This time, I was not under any kind of hurry, and could consider the sound more intently. It was a throaty, agonized cry, like the one a moose or a giant rooster might produce, though neither have ever lived in the southern Judean foothills. My next speculation was that a dog or a jackal had gotten caught in a leg trap, the kind that locks onto the bone and bores a serrated hole into it. I once heard that there were partridge hunters in the area, so it was possible one of them might have set up a trap and mistakenly caught an animal with which he could do nothing except toss it away on the roadside. I waited another minute to see whether the sounds would subside, and when they did not, I set out running through the back gate to see if I could help. As I ran downhill, a potbellied man of about fifty appeared before me, wearing a woolen sweater and hat, despite the hot weather.
“Did you hear the hyena down there?” he asked.
I held my tongue. For a moment I was filled with a strange fear that he was an inspector who suspected I had buried the dog against the regulations.
“I saw it there, on the path.” He turned and pointed. “You’d be better off not going down there.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you’re a carcass,” he laughed. “No. It’ll just run off the moment it realizes you’re after it. They’re smart animals, those hyenas. Smarter than dogs.”
I got the hint, so I thanked him and walked back home. I waited quietly behind the orange tree in my yard until I saw him come up the path, pass the garden, and continue on to the street.
Every day since, with complete disregard for his instructions, I walk across the valley to look for the hyena. It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. I fill a thermos with coffee, find a good vantage point, and wait. Mongooses pass me by in wonder; partridges march their chicks across; and one time I even inadvertently frightened a gazelle. But no hyena. Not once. Apparently, the scent of my yearning fills the valley.
And yesterday, on top of everything else, my house was broken into. I guess I forgot to lock the door when I went out for my daily walk. Upon my return I found it hanging from its upper hinge. I went through the rooms to check what had been taken. I do not possess many valuables. Still, there is my laptop, phone, car keys, wallet. All were left at home, and all remained untouched. I could not be certain that all the cash in the wallet was in place, but the credit cards were, along with a few bills. I figured no thief would take only some of the money. On one of the walls, in the corner, just above the floor, I found a small drawing of a dog, sketched in black chalk. “This is not a pipe,” was written beneath it.
I set out to look for a hyena in the valley near my home. Of course, I set out to look for a hyena. A genuine hyena, flesh, and blood. What else could I possibly be looking for there?
*The story has won the first place at “My one-hundred meters” competition, that took place during the Coronavirus lockdown.
I learned of the character of drugs and the nature of poisons from an alchemist – an Arab alchemist from the outskirts of Baghdad who had come to work as a physician in the palace of one of Van’s magistrates. This alchemist guided me to the knowledge of every herb from which lethal poison could be extracted.
He opened every sealed door to me and revealed all the secrets of alchemy, except how to mix mercury and lead! Since the dawn of time, it has been the alchemists’ practice never to reveal that secret nor that of converting base metal into gold. In the end, however, and before I had fully satisfied my thirst for knowledge, that Arab alchemist swore by the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdel Qadir Jilani that the amalgam of mercury and lead was a pure lie. They could never be blended, he said, and one who did so would reign over East and West.
The tale of my mother’s slaughter and what followed
My father – known by the name of Berzine Alchakordi – killed my mother in front of my eyes when I was a ten-year-old child. A dagger in his hand, he was bellowing like a bull: “Whore! You have defiled my honour!”
I didn’t understand what was going on nor why my father was so enraged. I was crammed in a corner of our small house, hiding behind the curtain and slyly peeping at their quarrel. I didn’t think my father would kill my beautiful young mother. Yet my thoughts were killed when my mother was killed. My father was still raging and holding my mother’s severed head when I escaped. I ran and ran, not looking back, until dusk; the sun sinking behind the mountains seemed like a severed head. I haven’t met my father again since. I thought he would kill me too if he saw me.
In a city about thirty or forty parasangs away, I fell into the hands of a gang of bandits and hashish fiends. I became the boy in whose inkwell they dipped their nibs to inscribe their lusts on my back. I suffered greatly to begin with, but got used to it after so many times and started to take some pleasure.
I was attractive and handsome, nicely plump and with glossy flesh. I feared the men and I wanted them to protect me. The cost of sheltering me and shattering the jar of fears in which I cowered was for them to quench their burning lust inside my body. Then I started wanting it, and if there was no one there to do it with, I would roam the alleys and proposition dervishes. They recognized boys like me and seized the first opportunity, throwing their beggar’s bags behind a rock and inviting me to follow them down into the valley. Once a dervish saw my smooth naked body, he would exalt, stuff his long beard in his mouth, and push his plough through my furrow.
I grew up like that, surrounded by bandits and hashish addicts in the village, and I started frequenting inns. Isolated inns far from the cities were a den for homosexuals, fornicators, merchants, Mullahs, students of jurisprudence, and every no-good sort. From the first glance I could pick out those who liked boys; their looks, their way of staring at the boys’ buttocks, the glint in the eyes, the spittle in the corners of the mouth…all that revealed they were sodomites.
My first victim:
One summer I was on my way to Diyarbakir. I had crossed the Mourad river and was welcomed by the Mouch plain. It was nightfall and I was exhausted, so dozy the drowsiness of a whole city was attacking my eyes. I couldn’t shake off the sleepiness no matter what I did. True, I was wearing my dagger tucked below my belt, but thieves on the road are many. I had to have a rest and get a little sleep. That night was gloomy and dark except for someone’s fire to which I was strongly attracted. All the fear of sinners and robbers filling my heart dissolved like a pinch of salt and the fire drew me like a magnet.
In short, I approached the fire and glimpsed the ruins of an inn, but nobody was by the fire. I recited some verses, thinking it was probably the work of the jinn or spirits. Fear gripped me and I thought of leaving that place, when I heard a clattering from the ruined inn followed by a human voice shouting, “Who’s there, is it human or jinn?”
He sounded no less afraid than me, and my fear vanished. “I’m human like you.” I called out. “A traveller on the road.” I headed towards the ruins of the inn, leaving the dying fire behind me. I and that man could barely see each other as it was pitch dark inside the inn except for the light of some stars and that almost dead fire.
No longer feeling afraid, the urge to sleep assailed me again. Without even letting the man ask my name and origin, I said, “I’m going to faint from lack of sleep. I’ve been walking a whole half day and I’m exhausted. Do you mind if I spend the night here?”
“Ace! And why, young man, would I mind? The inn is deserted and not my property. God has blessed me and sent you this night. I would have found the place desolate all on my own.”
He then withdrew into a corner, took off his shoes, and put them under his head. The handle of his dagger gleamed in the pale light . I desired him, so I went and lay down next to him. I took off my shoes and rested my head on them like him.
After an hour, I felt his hand running over my body, stroking every part of it. I kept calm and the man went further and caressed one curvaceous buttock. When he saw I was quiescent and did not object he fumbled for the drawstring of my trousers and hurriedly untied the knot. From behind, my hand fell on his hot cock, stiff as a tent peg! Aroused by flames of lust, I took off my trousers. Everything happened under the cloak of darkness and silence. Sexual pleasure heightens when one is half-asleep, so I kept my eyes shut while the man, whose face I still hadn’t seen, pulled me close and banged in his tent peg with consummate skill.
I had spent hundreds of nights like that one, but I had never met a man with such a thirst for sex. As soon as he finished with me, he turned on to his back, fell asleep, and started to snore.
Out of the eastern window I spied the full moon. I’d been afraid of the moon since infancy, and didn’t dare look too long at it. My mother would say: “One who looks too long at the moon or in the mirror will go mad!”
I put on my trousers, tying them tightly around my waist, and got up to cast an eye outside. I turned towards him and looked carefully at his face, then I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
That man was my father. His beard had gone white a little, but his face was as I remembered it: round with a flat nose and thick eyebrows.
Startled by such a high-pitched scream, he jumped to his feet in panic, fumbling for the handle of his dagger. When he saw me straight on he said in a shaky voice, “Who are you?”
I pulled out my dagger and leaned against the window. I saw sparks of death fly from his eyes and reflect in the glow of the moon. It was him, definitely him, with his frame, his voice, his stature. It was my father!
For a while I was dumbstruck then I said, “It’s better not to recognize me.”
But he replied with a voice that could split granite: “Who are you, boy? Come on tell me your name and your clan!”
I stepped forward and said, “I am your son. I am Yaouz. Yaouz, whose mother you slaughtered before his eyes. I am your son who, because of you, has spent his life wandering in the wilderness! Your son who…”
He didn’t let me finish and, like a wild boar, attacked me with his dagger as he said, “Son of that whore, you’re still alive! I spent ten years looking for you.”
He stabbed me in the face, but when I lunged at him, he ducked and stepped back, and the blow went wide. He attacked again, repeatedly stabbing me in the face. I stabbed him in the neck and we exchanged thrusts until I killed him. I was drained, exhausted, by multiple cuts to the face. My lips were slit. One final blow had reached my chest without penetrating deep. Although none of my wounds were serious, I slipped into unconsciousness and remained sprawled in that deserted inn.
*An excerpt from the novel Mirnameh – Poet and Prince by
Hilik arrives at about 12. “Am I interrupting you?” he asks. I gesture for him to come in, but he still hesitates on the threshold. “If you’re busy working,” he says, “I’ll come back later. I don’t want to bother you or anything, I was just curious.”
I make coffee and we sit in the living room. He doesn’t drink the coffee, doesn’t even taste it, just sinks into the couch and tries to smile. “I only dropped in to see how it’s going,” he says. “The people at the publisher’s are on pins and needles, dying to read it.”
“Great,” I say, “it’s going great.”
“Terrific,” Hilik smiles, “I’m glad. Because you know, it’s nine years already. In March, I mean, it’ll be nine and you haven’t written anything since then…”
“But I have,” I say, “I write all the time. It’s just that it isn’t good enough.”
“I want you to know,” Hilik says as he holds his hands above the coffee so they can catch the steam, “that with your reputation, even not-good will sell. I swear, during Book Week, someone came up every ten minutes and asked when you’ll be publishing a new one. Ask Dubi. After almost ten years, even really-bad will sell. But if you’re not writing at all, then…”
“I’m writing,” I say, “all the time. But I don’t feel like publishing a not-good book, even if you or Dubi…”
“Of course,” Hilik interrupts me, “no one said it has to be not good. It can be good too, goodwill sells even better. Just finish a book already, for God’s sake.”
I know him. This isn’t the first time he’s come here. Soon he’ll start talking about his daughter, the paralyzed one, and then he’ll cry. He always cries in the end. “I’m almost finished,” I say, trying to head him off, “another fifty pages, tops.”
“Fifty?” Hilik repeats suspiciously. “Yes,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, “fifty tops. I just have to get the protagonist to kill someone who has it coming, in self-defense. Then he’ll sleep with the sister of the dead guy without her knowing that he’s the one who killed him. And then there are a few more pages of his thoughts as he walks on the beach in Caesarea. And a short epilogue with him in a taxi on the way back to his apartment when he hears about the Coronavirus outbreak on the radio, you know, so the reader can place the plot in a historical context.
“Fifty pages, you say,” Hilik says, clutching the handle of his mug of coffee, “fifty tops and the Coronavirus?” He pauses for a second and then hurls the mug at the wall. A black stain appears on it and begins to ooze towards the floor. “Remember what you told me last time? Twenty pages, you said, Twenty! Twenty pages and the last Gaza War. If you’re not writing, then don’t write, but for God’s sake, we’ve known each other for more than 25 years, even before my Yifat was born, so don’t lie to me.
I don’t say anything. Neither does Hilik. I see him slowly realizing what he’s done. The stain is still oozing, it’ll reach the carpet soon. “Do you have a rag?” he asks after the brief silence. “Don’t get up, just tell me where and I’ll clean it up.” I shake my head, I really don’t think I have one.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I lost control. It’s not like me. I’m just going through a bad time now. I apologize. Do you forgive me?” I nod. “Good,” Hilik says, “so I’m going now. I don’t want to disturb you… Fifty pages, you said? Great, you really are almost done. Don’t make the ending too depressing, okay? Leave a sliver of hope. People like to feel there’s still a chance.” He stops at the door and says, “I’m really sorry about the coffee. You’re not angry, right? It’s just that, my daughter, she’s in a bad way…” And he starts to cry. I put a hand on his shoulder. Exactly the same one I put a hand on last time.
“Life is cruel,” Hilik says, “a real bitch. Heartless. It grinds you down until there’s nothing left but dust. Write about that. Write something about that. Not now, in your next book.”
“I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done,” I say before I close the door, “it won’t take much longer. I’m right at the end.”
After Hilik goes, I sit down in front of the computer and surf a few porn sites. One shows a young girl with a braid whose name is Nikki. She speaks a language I don’t understand and drinks cum from a glass that someone hands her. I close the site and open my word processor. I have a lot of ideas in my head. Too many, in fact. This time, I tell myself, I’ll do it differently. This time I’ll try to start from the end. “ ‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Nikki whispered, covering his mouth with her soft hand, ‘Let’s not even think about it. Let’s just kiss and watch the sunset.’ The sun had almost completely sunk into the black sea, and only a single, stubborn ray of light flickered in the sky in a final, desperate effort to give the very dark world another sliver of light.”
Like at other periods of metaphysical ardor, at this time too, the body (that of a woman, to be sure) wasn’t taken very seriously. This may be why even the dockworkers in the port that day didn’t notice a woman disembarking from a dinghy in the port of Jaffa, whose legs, below her dark, collared dress, were without feet. These were, as said, times of metaphysical ardor, and we must understand the lack in that very spirit, and include this woman in the family of creatures that culture has crossbred between fantasy and biology: the unicorn, the child immaculately conceived, ministering angels, Mephisto, and the Loch Ness monster.
She was assigned a house on the beach of Tel Aviv. It did not
take long before she was joined there by a well-known editor of matters of
public and spiritual interest, at a paper in which she published her stories –
stories that charmed him greatly. As was to be expected, in the deep sea
tradition, he was doomed to drown. But before this came to pass, the woman gave
birth to his daughter, a regular girl in all respects, and so as soon as she
stood on her own two feet, she was put in charge of looking after her mother,
whose only nourishment was grains and grasses which the girl collected from
neighbors’ gardens and from the beach. And claiming that her mother was her
teacher, the girl never visited school.
When the father crossed the sea to collect money from
Diaspora Jews for building up the country, the girl and her mother stayed in
this wooden house by the sea, as though they were living on an island, and other
than the writers and poets who wrote for the paper, and who got together in
their house once a week, no one came in. Like buzzing flowers, they circled the
figure of the hostess, slim like a black wasp, who lay in bed, all covered, her
hair tied together, exposing her dark, heart-shaped face, the white collar of
her dress accentuating the hue of her eyes that burned with a black fire, part
evil and part mournful. The girl too
hovered like a dark butterfly with one damaged wing, pouring tea into tin mugs for
the guests. They were all men, except for one English woman, who got herself
into trouble with a man who brought her here and then ditched her. She did not
return to her own country, her parents’ home, maybe out of pride, or for other
Because it was dark, those who looked through the window could
not make out the sea, but the waves’ tumult entered the room, rising and
falling, by turns, as if the little house were a shell or an ear whose depths
the boom was supposed to drown out, to reveal something, to conceal completely,
and get in the way of making any sense.
Meanwhile, the visitors sat and discussed Hebrew literature
and what made it stand out, about its connection to the renewal of life here in
this land. Lisbeth, the English poet, who in the yishuv was called by
the name Elisheva, tried to raise her voice above the sea’s din and the others’
voices and said that literature needs its conceit, much like poetry, whose
truth is at the same time its lie, that is, the attempt to catch hold of the
stream of nothingness, the void, above which everything hovers, the absence in
the very belly of words; being before the first day. The gentlemen seated
around the bed protested vigorously: It’s sinful, they said, to think of poetry
as a kind of hovering over the abyss. After all, we find ourselves in this life
for the purpose of confirming it and to create a new world, to write new
literature which replaces zero by one, and all this, in order to create the New
Man. For what is literature if not a looking glass which reflects to man asleep
his image fully awake.
“I drink to the life of contemporary man,” said one of the
gentlemen and raised his empty tin mug, and all the gentlemen raised theirs and
called out: “Here’s to the community, the individual’s salvation!” And this is
how the evening came to its end.
“Will you be writing to Rabinovitch?” asked the visitors, as they were taking their leave, one after the other – S.Czaczkes, 1 S. Ben-Zion, 2 A. Siskind, 3 and Y. Zarchi 4 – adding, before stepping out onto the sandy path, “Give him our best regards and tell him we’re keeping our eyes open.” And Lisbeth too, a little embarrassed, sent her wishes so it wouldn’t seem that because of one man’s offense she was now holding a grudge against all the men in the world.
The hostess however felt no need to justify the letters she
did not write. Privately she believed that every husband is nothing but his
wife’s hangman, and also the other way around.
She had a personal memory of a garden full of wild raspberry bushes
which covered the riverbank, the river whose waters set her father’s flour mill
into motion. That was where she and her brother played before her mother died,
and also, after some time, where she joined him to study from his books by
night what he studied during the day. Though that room held no more than a
small table, one chair and a bed, she lacked for nothing. It was only after his death, when she arrived
at the coast and disembarked onto this land, that she felt her feet had
remained there, and maybe she had never
had any in the first place.
Now the sea’s din abated. She turned down the oil lamp, whose
shadow fell onto the tense face of the girl asleep in the chair – she who was
born to a sorrow not produced by her life’s experience but which was
nevertheless beyond her power to keep at bay. She returned to the table, opened
the window, and looked out. The sea was utterly quiet. No one passing could
have known that this expanse of dark continent was nothing other than the sea.
She pondered what the gentlemen and the lady had been talking about. What is this here and what this now, she
wondered, and what is the manifold, if only one sorrow always enfolds all wars,
epidemics, and disappointments, because what you are able to suffer is necessarily
the greatest suffering you can experience in this world. And time, what is time
if it isn’t small links of pain that keep emerging every moment. She dipped the
quill in her ink and began to write.
But tonight more than at other times, perhaps because of the
gentlemen’s words which still lingered in the room, she felt the impotence of
tales of the past: the small town, her father’s flour mill, her grandmother the
rabbi’s wife and her spotted cow. She obviously must be wary of these gentlemen
and stay safely in the little house, keep intact her world which was so
fragile, so transparent that it took just one word to burst the bubble. Not an
incessant nothingness, she thought, but an incessantly flickering electricity
with which the brain hit the word, or the other way around, and one dead word would
do to remove its root of fire and turn it into a mummified part.
She knew that those little stories would come back to
her, but not tonight, and she felt how
her gray brain lay orphaned from itself, heavy and lifeless, in the crown of
her head, like a stone or a dead fish. Then she opened the door and sat down on
the bench on the porch.
A tiny fishing boat, it must be Arab, cast a very slim ray of
light which entered through the eyelashes like a net.
Someone approached from the sea and sat down by her side. It
was a woman, a lady, and she introduced herself:
“Je suis Madame Bovary”.
Worried, the owner of the house looked to her sides. Madame
Bovary, of all people, who the yishuv members, and the editorial board,
considered the epitome of vacuity, of the corruption of feeling, was it she of
all people who had to appear and sit down here by her side on the bench? In
fact, even though the owner of the house felt a mixture of fondness and
revulsion for her, she had always believed that if she ever got the opportunity
to meet her, she might give her some useful advice. First, that the men she had
decided to love, this Madame, were chosen neither intelligently nor in good
taste. Even had she not been one of those women possessed by the dybbuk of
having children, she might definitely have done with a little more imagination and
delight in her genius for falling in love, and understood, after so much
experience, that true hunger is a hunger never stilled; yet now that she
actually emerged from the sea and sat next to her and she moreover had the
chance to say it, she wondered whether there was any point left to it.
Madame was sitting there, wrapped in her black hood, like a
Capuchin friar, but the owner of the house did not immediately say what was on
her mind; instead she said: “Madame, what are you looking for here, at my
Her coarse intonation made Bovary shiver, an intonation of
the kind they used, in the yishuv-under-construction, with those women
who were considered useless citizens, those who yearned for flirtations on
nights when the hot desert wind deprived them of their sleep, for salons
bathing in shadow, for pianos and for the touch of silk on a white, smooth
thigh, for wild senseless weeping; but Madame did not reply and did not even
remove from her head the dark hood which hid her face. The sound of the sea
rose momentarily, blotting out this malicious remark to the visitor: “What was
this mythology of love such that, in your foolishness, you assumed your role was
that of a goddess, and to make it worse, alongside those who were many times
cleverer than you, foxes of a minor existence?
“And on what intuition?” she continued with a lowered voice,
because in those days that substance was not really recognized. “And if
dramatic theater was what you were after, what kind of heroes did you come up
with – some village apothecary and a
bank clerk, and then that pathetic finale you arranged for yourself?”
“L’amour,” spoke Madame, and the word quivered, lifting
briefly above the smooth Jaffa sands before being swallowed: “Who can even
imagine a life without love?” Having
said this, she held her head high like a heroine facing the guillotine. “I had
to fall in love with one idiot or another. How could I have left it to the
writer?! How could I trust him to give me a decent hero who would be able to
make use of everything he himself, the writer, had put into me, all my gifts,
my power, my will; so what if I used my own imagination a bit to help him along?
The heroine, too, after all, has some responsibility for the story.”
The sea crashed, its sound like the wind blowing through corn
stalks. The two women looked each other straight in the eye. Madame was the first
to lower her head and she whispered: “And if you want to know the truth, all
this didn’t depend on me. It was Gustave
who took me for a ride.”
“It’s hard to blame another person when you’ve allowed him to
live in your stead,” said the owner of the house, her voice harsh, “But letting him get away with dumping
you just because his imagination had run
dry, that’s overdoing it. Nobody told you to. And you should have known that,
being a man, he was never on your side.”
Now the little boat near the beach could be made out. The
lights on its deck swung in the wind making it hard to tell in what direction
it was heading, or whether it was coming or going.
“What did you want me to do?” asked Madame, “We’re all actors
performing the dialogue we were given, whether by nature, culture, the times,
or God above, you might call it catechism, apology, karma, fate. It’s like when
that nun confesses to the priest about the man who appears in her erotic
hallucinations, and the priest answers her mockingly: “All you need is to wake
up, dear lady. The dream, including its heroes, are the products of your
She’s right, thought the owner of the house, without
admitting it, of course we cannot wake up from our dream. Only the convinced,
priests and the like, they are the ones who pretend, moronic enough to believe
it. For the dream is our true nature – and how can we escape it? She was at a loss.
The two sat there in silence.
“But anger?” the owner of the house suddenly said,
remembering somewhat hopefully. “Isn’t anger even more powerful than the
imagination?” She turned to with renewed vividness, “You should have taken your
revenge on that feeble fat man La Bovary who took his pleasure from you as if
you were him, when he pretended that your deceit rather than his own inability
led to your end. Why didn’t you revolt?”
Madame rose from the bench, her figure darker even than the
“I never could,” she said and lifted the hem of her dress, exposing
her feetless legs – and then she vanished.
The owner of the house remained seated as she was for a long
time, until the dark air grew thinner, like aluminum foil children smooth with
their nails, and turned transparent until the morning’s white light pierced it.
Still, she said to herself, as she got up from where she had
sat, I won’t allow anyone, not even fate, to pull me along like that as though
I had no anger. I will stand within my anger like Honi the Circledrawer who
drew a circle around himself. And as for the foot, even if it’s only in our
imagination, even then we must dedicate ourselves to it lovingly, no matter to
whom it belongs – the writer or the hero of the story – for no one can tell us
that the foot on which we stand in our imagination, against the story, exists
more, or less, for real than the story itself.
She entered the house, picked up the book she was reading
from the table, got into her bed, rested the book against the slate she held on
her knees, and began to pour the sentences from French into Hebrew: “That
wonderful spectacle that was so deeply engraved in Emma’s memory, seemed to her
more beautiful than anything a person could imagine.”
One morning, after a fall of snow.
Yasukichi sat on a chair in the physics teachers’ lounge, watching the flames in the heating stove. The flames licked up yellow one moment, then fell to sooty ruins the next, as if they were breathing: proof of their continued struggle against the cold that filled the room. Yasukichi thought of the interplanetary chill beyond the earth’s atmosphere, and felt something akin to sympathy for the brightly glowing embers.
Yasukichi looked up at the physicist called Miyamoto who had stepped in front of the stove. Hands tucked into his trouser pockets, the bespectacled Miyamoto wore a good-natured smile beneath his thin moustache.
“Mr. Horikawa. Tell me, are you aware that even women are physical objects?”
“I’m aware that they are physical beings.”
“Not beings. Objects. It’s a fact that I’ve recently discovered myself, after no small effort.”
“Mr. Horikawa, you mustn’t take Mr. Miyamoto too seriously.”
This was the other instructor, a physicist called Hasegawa. Yasukichi turned to the desk behind him. Hasegawa riffled through some exam papers as a self-conscious smile made its way up toward his balding forehead.
“Why, the cheek — I know for a fact that my discovery is making you very happy indeed. Mr. Horikawa, are you familiar with the Law of Heat Transfer?”
“Heat transfer? Something to do with moving coal?”
“You literature fellows are quite hopeless!”
Even as he said so, Miyamoto tipped another pailful of coal into the mouth of the stove, which glowed as it reflected the flames.
“When you take two physical objects of differing temperatures, and cause them to come into contact with one another, heat transfers from the object with the higher temperature to the object with the lower temperature until their temperatures become equal.”
“Isn’t that simply common sense?”
“Well, that is what we call the Law of Heat Transfer. Now, say that a woman is an object. Agreed? If a woman is an object, then so – undoubtedly – is a man. In which case, passion must equal heat. If we now cause a man and a woman to come into contact with one another, passion must surely transfer like heat, from the more impassioned man to the less impassioned woman, until her passion equals his. Mr. Hasegawa’s case is a perfect example.”
“Here we go.”
In spite of his words, Hasegawa looked delighted, and made a noise as if he was being tickled.
“Now, call E the quantity of heat that transfers within time T across a surface area S, when – are you following? – H is the temperature, X the distance in the direction of heat transfer, and K the conductivity of the material in question. Now, in Mr. Hasegawa’s case…”
Miyamoto started writing what appeared to be a formula on a small blackboard, but then suddenly turned around and threw aside his piece of chalk, looking quite discouraged.
“It’s no use trying to get a layman like you to appreciate my discovery, Mr. Horikawa. In any case, what matters is that Mr. Hasegawa’s betrothed would appear to be warming up nicely, as per the formula.”
“The world would certainly be a simpler place if such a formula really did exist.”
Yasukichi stretched out his legs, and gazed aimlessly at the snowy view outside the window. The physics instructors’ lounge being at the corner of the first floor of the building, he could easily take in the athletic field, with its sporting apparatus, and beyond that the line of pine trees, and beyond that, the red brick buildings. And the sea, too — the sea was visible between the buildings, sending up indistinct grey waves.
“But then the literature fellows would be out of a job. How is your latest book selling?”
“Not at all, as usual. It seems heat transfer doesn’t take place between writers and readers. By the way, Mr. Hasegawa; it can’t be long till your wedding?”
“Yes, only a month or so. There are quite a few arrangements that need taking care of before then — it’s a nuisance not being able to get any work done.”
“Too distracted to work, eh?”
“I’m not you, Mr. Miyamoto! For one thing, we need somewhere to live, and I simply can’t find anything for rent. Just last Sunday I walked across most of town searching. But even when you think you’ve managed to find a house, it’s snapped up before you know it.”
“What about over by me? Provided you don’t mind getting the train in every day.”
“You’re a little too far out. I hear there are houses for rent over there, and my wife would prefer it; however — Why, Mr. Horikawa! Isn’t your shoe getting singed?”
It appeared that one of Yasukichi’s shoes had somehow come into contact with the body of the stove, and was giving off a cloud of steam along with the smell of burning leather.
“There you go — that’s heat transfer again.”
Miyamoto, who was polishing his spectacles, peered up myopically toward Yasukichi, grinning.
* * *
Four of five days later – a frosty dull morning.
Yasukichi, trying to catch his train, was hurrying as fast as his legs would carry him past the outskirts of a seaside town. The path was on an embankment about six feet wide, with wheat fields to his right, and train tracks to his left. The deserted fields were replete with a very slight sound which he could only take to be that of someone walking between the rows of wheat; however, it seemed in fact to be the sound of needle ice beneath the ploughed soil, collapsing under its own weight.
Soon enough, the eight o’clock up-bound train passed by on the bank, keeping up its speed, and giving a long toot on its whistle. The down-bound train that Yasukichi needed to catch departed half an hour after this one. He took out his watch. For some reason, it was showing nearly a quarter past eight. He decided his watch must be at fault for the discrepancy. He even thought, with good reason: No fear of missing my train today. The wheat fields along the path gradually gave way to hedges. Yasukichi lit an Asahi cigarette and went on walking, feeling less hurried than before.
The cinder-laid path sloped upward to a level crossing. Yasukichi had come up to it just as usual when he noticed people gathered on either side of the tracks. Some part of him immediately thought: Someone’s been killed. Fortunately, he spotted the butcher’s boy with his laden bicycle propped beside the crossing railings. Still holding his cigarette, Yasukichi tapped the boy on the shoulder from behind.
“Hey, what’s happened?”
“Got run over. Run over, by the last up train.”
The boy spoke quickly. Under his rabbit-fur ear muffs, his features seemed to sparkle with a strange vitality.
“The crossing guard. He was trying to save a schoolkid that was about to get run over. You know the bookshop called Nagai’s, opposite the Hachiman Shrine? Their little girl.”
“The child was all right?”
“Yes, she’s the one crying over there.”
The boy indicated the crowd on the other side of the crossing. Yasukichi saw that there was indeed a young girl, who was being questioned by a constable. Beside him, a man who was evidently the stationmaster’s deputy put in a word from time to time. As for the crossing guard — Yasukichi spotted the corpse under a straw mat, in front of the guard’s hut. He had to admit that it inspired curiosity in him as well as aversion. Even from this distance, he could make out the guard’s shoes peeking out from beneath the screen.
“Those men moved the body.”
Two or three railway men stood under the crossing’s signal post on the near side, surrounding a small bonfire. The fire with its yellow flame emitted neither light nor smoke, and looked all the more chilly for it. One of the men was drying the seat of his knee-length trousers by the fire.
Yasukichi started over the crossing. This close to the station, numerous tracks intersected the crossing. Each time he passed one, he wondered just where it was that the crossing guard had been run over. But it was immediately evident. Blood on one of the rails told of the tragedy that had taken place only a few minutes ago. Almost reflexively, he looked away to the other side of the crossing, but it was no use. The image of the viscous red substance pooled on the coldly gleaming face of the iron had instantly etched itself onto his memory. The blood was even giving off a faint shimmer of vapor from upon the rail.
Some ten minutes later, Yasukichi was pacing on the station platform. His head was filled with the unsettling sight he had just seen. In particular, he vividly recalled the shimmer of vapor rising from the blood. He thought of the notion of heat transfer, which had been discussed only the other day. The life heat contained in the blood was transferring to the rail according to the law that Miyamoto had taught him — cruelly, and without a modicum of error. It made no difference whose life it was; whether that of the crossing guard killed performing his duty or that of a convicted felon, the heat would be transferring just as cruelly. He knew, of course, that these were meaningless thoughts. He tried repeatedly to convince himself that even a dutiful child must drown in water, even a devoted wife must be burned by fire. But the scene he had witnessed had left such a burdensome impression that it did not easily admit such reasoning.
Meanwhile, the people on the platform seemed for all the world contented, oblivious to his state of mind. That, too, upset Yasukichi. In particular, the loud chatter emanating from a group of Navy officers was viscerally offensive. He lit another Asahi, and walked to the end of the platform. From there, the crossing was visible a few hundred yards ahead. The crowds on either side of the crossing seemed to have mostly dissipated. Only the workmen’s bonfire by the signal post waved its yellow flame.
Yasukichi felt something akin to sympathy for that distant fire. But being in sight of the crossing still made him anxious. He turned his back on it, and started back along the platform toward the mass of people. He hadn’t gone ten steps, however, when he realized that he had dropped one of his red leather gloves, which he’d been carrying after taking it off his right hand to light his cigarette. He turned and looked back. The glove lay fallen at the end of the platform, palm side up. Wordlessly, it seemed to be calling to him.
Beneath the dull frosty sky, Yasukichi sensed the heart of the red leather glove as it lay left behind. In that moment, he knew that even this chill world would someday be pierced by the first warm rays of sun.
The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston—with seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.
The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbor.
Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung dishevelled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.
She was a till woman of imperious mien, handsome, with definite black eyebrows. Her smooth black hair was parted exactly. For a few moments she stood steadily watching the miners as they passed along the railway: then she turned towards the brook course. Her face was calm and set, her mouth was closed with disillusionment. After a moment she called:
“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly:
“Where are you?”
“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.
“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.
For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.
“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook—and you remember what I told you—”
The boy did not move or answer.
“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”
The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.
As they went slowly towards the house he tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.
“Don’t do that—it does look nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of the small train was imminent. Suddenly the engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.
The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.
“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion.
It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned.
“I didn’t come to see you on Sunday,” began the little grey-bearded man.
“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.
The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:
“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think—?”
“I think it is soon enough,” she replied.
At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:
“Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And if I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late—what does it matter to anybody?”
The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returned with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.
“You needn’t ‘a’ brought me bread an’ butter,” said her father. “But a cup of tea”—he sipped appreciatively—”it’s very nice.” He sipped for a moment or two, then: “I hear as Walter’s got another bout on,” he said.
“When hasn’t he?” said the woman bitterly.
“I heered tell of him in the ‘Lord Nelson’ braggin’ as he was going to spend that b——afore he went: half a sovereign that was.”
“When?” asked the woman.
“A’ Sat’day night—I know that’s true.”
“Very likely,” she laughed bitterly. “He gives me twenty-three shillings.”
“Aye, it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!” said the grey-whiskered man. The woman turned her head away. Her father swallowed the last of his tea and handed her the cup.
“Aye,” he sighed, wiping his mouth. “It’s a settler, it is—”
He put his hand on the lever. The little engine strained and groaned, and the train rumbled towards the crossing. The woman again looked across the metals. Darkness was settling over the spaces of the railway and trucks: the miners, in grey sombre groups, were still passing home. The winding-engine pulsed hurriedly, with brief pauses. Elizabeth Bates looked at the dreary flow of men, then she went indoors. Her husband did not come.
The kitchen was small and full of firelight; red coals piled glowing up the chimney mouth. All the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire. The cloth was laid for tea; cups glinted in the shadows. At the back, where the lowest stairs protruded into the room, the boy sat struggling with a knife and a piece of whitewood. He was almost hidden in the shadow. It was half-past four. They had but to await the father’s coming to begin tea. As the mother watched her son’s sullen little struggle with the wood, she saw herself in his silence and pertinacity; she saw the father in her child’s indifference to all but himself. She seemed to be occupied by her husband. He had probably gone past his home, slunk past his own door, to drink before he came in, while his dinner spoiled and wasted in waiting. She glanced at the clock, then took the potatoes to strain them in the yard. The garden and fields beyond the brook were closed in uncertain darkness. When she rose with the saucepan, leaving the drain steaming into the night behind her, she saw the yellow lamps were lit along the high road that went up the hill away beyond the space of the railway lines and the field.
Then again she watched the men trooping home, fewer now and fewer.
Indoors the fire was sinking and the room was dark red. The woman put her saucepan on the hob, and set a batter pudding near the mouth of the oven. Then she stood unmoving. Directly, gratefully, came quick young steps to the door. Someone hung on the latch a moment, then a little girl entered and began pulling off her outdoor things, dragging a mass of curls, just ripening from gold to brown, over her eyes with her hat.
Her mother chid her for coming late from school, and said she would have to keep her at home the dark winter days.
“Why, mother, it’s hardly a bit dark yet. The lamp’s not lighted, and my father’s not home.”
“No, he isn’t. But it’s a quarter to five! Did you see anything of him?”
The child became serious. She looked at her mother with large, wistful blue eyes.
“No, mother, I’ve never seen him. Why? Has he come up an’ gone past, to Old Brinsley? He hasn’t, mother, ‘cos I never saw him.”
“He’d watch that,” said the mother bitterly, “he’d take care as you didn’t see him. But you may depend upon it, he’s seated in the ‘Prince o’ Wales’. He wouldn’t be this late.”
The girl looked at her mother piteously.
“Let’s have our teas, mother, should we?” said she.
The mother called John to table. She opened the door once more and looked out across the darkness of the lines. All was deserted: she could not hear the winding-engines.
“Perhaps,” she said to herself, “he’s stopped to get some ripping done.”
They sat down to tea. John, at the end of the table near the door, was almost lost in the darkness. Their faces were hidden from each other. The girl crouched against the fender slowly moving a thick piece of bread before the fire. The lad, his face a dusky mark on the shadow, sat watching her who was transfigured in the red glow.
“I do think it’s beautiful to look in the fire,” said the child.
“Do you?” said her mother. “Why?”
“It’s so red, and full of little caves—and it feels so nice, and you can fair smell it.”
“It’ll want mending directly,” replied her mother, “and then if your father comes he’ll carry on and say there never is a fire when a man comes home sweating from the pit.—A public-house is always warm enough.”
There was silence till the boy said complainingly: “Make haste, our Annie.”
“Well, I am doing! I can’t make the fire do it no faster, can I?”
“She keeps wafflin’ it about so’s to make ‘er slow,” grumbled the boy.
“Don’t have such an evil imagination, child,” replied the mother.
Soon the room was busy in the darkness with the crisp sound of crunching. The mother ate very little. She drank her tea determinedly, and sat thinking. When she rose her anger was evident in the stern unbending of her head. She looked at the pudding in the fender, and broke out:
“It is a scandalous thing as a man can’t even come home to his dinner! If it’s crozzled up to a cinder I don’t see why I should care. Past his very door he goes to get to a public-house, and here I sit with his dinner waiting for him—”
She went out. As she dropped piece after piece of coal on the red fire, the shadows fell on the walls, till the room was almost in total darkness.
“I canna see,” grumbled the invisible John. In spite of herself, the mother laughed.
“You know the way to your mouth,” she said. She set the dustpan outside the door. When she came again like a shadow on the hearth, the lad repeated, complaining sulkily:
“I canna see.”
“Good gracious!” cried the mother irritably, “you’re as bad as your father if it’s a bit dusk?”
Nevertheless she took a paper spill from a sheaf on the mantelpiece and proceeded to light the lamp that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. As she reached up, her figure displayed itself just rounding with maternity.
“Oh, mother—!” exclaimed the girl.
“What?” said the woman, suspended in the act of putting the lamp glass over the flame. The copper reflector shone handsomely on her, as she stood with uplifted arm, turning to face her daughter.
“You’ve got a flower in your apron!” said the child, in a little rapture at this unusual event.
“Goodness me!” exclaimed the woman, relieved. “One would think the house was afire.” She replaced the glass and waited a moment before turning up the wick. A pale shadow was seen floating vaguely on the floor.
“Let me smell!” said the child, still rapturously, coming forward and putting her face to her mother’s waist.
“Go along, silly!” said the mother, turning up the lamp. The light revealed their suspense so that the woman felt it almost unbearable. Annie was still bending at her waist. Irritably, the mother took the flowers out from her apron-band.
“Oh, mother—don’t take them out!” Annie cried, catching her hand and trying to replace the sprig.
“Such nonsense!” said the mother, turning away. The child put the pale chrysanthemums to her lips, murmuring:
“Don’t they smell beautiful!”
Her mother gave a short laugh.
“No,” she said, “not to me. It was chrysanthemums when I married him, and chrysanthemums when you were born, and the first time they ever brought him home drunk, he’d got brown chrysanthemums in his button-hole.”
She looked at the children. Their eyes and their parted lips were wondering. The mother sat rocking in silence for some time. Then she looked at the clock.
“Twenty minutes to six!” In a tone of fine bitter carelessness she continued: “Eh, he’ll not come now till they bring him. There he’ll stick! But he needn’t come rolling in here in his pit-dirt, for I won’t wash him. He can lie on the floor—Eh, what a fool I’ve been, what a fool! And this is what I came here for, to this dirty hole, rats and all, for him to slink past his very door. Twice last week—he’s begun now—”
She silenced herself, and rose to clear the table.
While for an hour or more the children played, subduedly intent, fertile of imagination, united in fear of the mother’s wrath, and in dread of their father’s home-coming, Mrs Bates sat in her rocking-chair making a ‘singlet’ of thick cream-coloured flannel, which gave a dull wounded sound as she tore off the grey edge. She worked at her sewing with energy, listening to the children, and her anger wearied itself, lay down to rest, opening its eyes from time to time and steadily watching, its ears raised to listen. Sometimes even her anger quailed and shrank, and the mother suspended her sewing, tracing the footsteps that thudded along the sleepers outside; she would lift her head sharply to bid the children ‘hush’, but she recovered herself in time, and the footsteps went past the gate, and the children were not flung out of their playing world.
But at last Annie sighed, and gave in. She glanced at her waggon of slippers, and loathed the game. She turned plaintively to her mother.
“Mother!”—but she was inarticulate.
John crept out like a frog from under the sofa. His mother glanced up.
“Yes,” she said, “just look at those shirt-sleeves!”
The boy held them out to survey them, saying nothing. Then somebody called in a hoarse voice away down the line, and suspense bristled in the room, till two people had gone by outside, talking.
“It is time for bed,” said the mother.
“My father hasn’t come,” wailed Annie plaintively. But her mother was primed with courage.
“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does come—like a log.” She meant there would be no scene. “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”
The children had their hands and faces wiped with a flannel. They were very quiet. When they had put on their nightdresses, they said their prayers, the boy mumbling. The mother looked down at them, at the brown silken bush of intertwining curls in the nape of the girl’s neck, at the little black head of the lad, and her heart burst with anger at their father who caused all three such distress. The children hid their faces in her skirts for comfort.
When Mrs Bates came down, the room was strangely empty, with a tension of expectancy. She took up her sewing and stitched for some time without raising her head. Meantime her anger was tinged with fear.
The clock struck eight and she rose suddenly, dropping her sewing on her chair. She went to the stairfoot door, opened it, listening. Then she went out, locking the door behind her.
Something scuffled in the yard, and she started, though she knew it was only the rats with which the place was overrun. The night was very dark. In the great bay of railway lines, bulked with trucks, there was no trace of light, only away back she could see a few yellow lamps at the pit-top, and the red smear of the burning pit-bank on the night. She hurried along the edge of the track, then, crossing the converging lines, came to the stile by the white gates, whence she emerged on the road. Then the fear which had led her shrank. People were walking up to New Brinsley; she saw the lights in the houses; twenty yards further on were the broad windows of the ‘Prince of Wales’, very warm and bright, and the loud voices of men could be heard distinctly. What a fool she had been to imagine that anything had happened to him! He was merely drinking over there at the ‘Prince of Wales’. She faltered. She had never yet been to fetch him, and she never would go. So she continued her walk towards the long straggling line of houses, standing blank on the highway. She entered a passage between the dwellings.
“Mr Rigley?—Yes! Did you want him? No, he’s not in at this minute.”
The raw-boned woman leaned forward from her dark scullery and peered at the other, upon whom fell a dim light through the blind of the kitchen window.
“Is it Mrs Bates?” she asked in a tone tinged with respect.
“Yes. I wondered if your Master was at home. Mine hasn’t come yet.”
“‘Asn’t ‘e! Oh, Jack’s been ‘ome an ‘ad ‘is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ‘alf an hour afore bedtime. Did you call at the ‘Prince of Wales’?”
“No, you didn’t like!— It’s not very nice.” The other woman was indulgent. There was an awkward pause. “Jack never said nothink about—about your Mester,” she said.
“No!—I expect he’s stuck in there!”
Elizabeth Bates said this bitterly, and with recklessness. She knew that the woman across the yard was standing at her door listening, but she did not care. As she turned:
“Stop a minute! I’ll just go an’ ask Jack if e’ knows anythink,” said Mrs Rigley.
“Oh, no—I wouldn’t like to put—!”
“Yes, I will, if you’ll just step inside an’ see as th’ childer doesn’t come downstairs and set theirselves afire.”
Elizabeth Bates, murmuring a remonstrance, stepped inside. The other woman apologized for the state of the room.
The kitchen needed apology. There were little frocks and trousers and childish undergarments on the squab and on the floor, and a litter of playthings everywhere. On the black American cloth of the table were pieces of bread and cake, crusts, slops, and a teapot with cold tea.
“Eh, ours is just as bad,” said Elizabeth Bates, looking at the woman, not at the house. Mrs Rigley put a shawl over her head and hurried out, saying:
“I shanna be a minute.”
The other sat, noting with faint disapproval the general untidiness of the room. Then she fell to counting the shoes of various sizes scattered over the floor. There were twelve. She sighed and said to herself, “No wonder!”—glancing at the litter. There came the scratching of two pairs of feet on the yard, and the Rigleys entered. Elizabeth Bates rose. Rigley was a big man, with very large bones. His head looked particularly bony. Across his temple was a blue scar, caused by a wound got in the pit, a wound in which the coal-dust remained blue like tattooing.
“Asna ‘e come whoam yit?” asked the man, without any form of greeting, but with deference and sympathy. “I couldna say wheer he is—’e’s non ower theer!”—he jerked his head to signify the ‘Prince of Wales’.
“‘E’s ‘appen gone up to th’ ‘Yew’,” said Mrs Rigley.
There was another pause. Rigley had evidently something to get off his mind:
“Ah left ‘im finishin’ a stint,” he began. “Loose-all ‘ad bin gone about ten minutes when we com’n away, an’ I shouted, ‘Are ter comin’, Walt?’ an’ ‘e said, ‘Go on, Ah shanna be but a’ef a minnit,’ so we com’n ter th’ bottom, me an’ Bowers, thinkin’ as ‘e wor just behint, an’ ‘ud come up i’ th’ next bantle—”
He stood perplexed, as if answering a charge of deserting his mate. Elizabeth Bates, now again certain of disaster, hastened to reassure him:
“I expect ‘e’s gone up to th’ ‘Yew Tree’, as you say. It’s not the first time. I’ve fretted myself into a fever before now. He’ll come home when they carry him.”
“Ay, isn’t it too bad!” deplored the other woman.
“I’ll just step up to Dick’s an’ see if ‘e is theer,” offered the man, afraid of appearing alarmed, afraid of taking liberties.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of bothering you that far,” said Elizabeth Bates, with emphasis, but he knew she was glad of his offer.
As they stumbled up the entry, Elizabeth Bates heard Rigley’s wife run across the yard and open her neighbour’s door. At this, suddenly all the blood in her body seemed to switch away from her heart.
“Mind!” warned Rigley. “Ah’ve said many a time as Ah’d fill up them ruts in this entry, sumb’dy ‘ll be breakin’ their legs yit.”
She recovered herself and walked quickly along with the miner.
“I don’t like leaving the children in bed, and nobody in the house,” she said.
“No, you dunna!” he replied courteously. They were soon at the gate of the cottage.
“Well, I shanna be many minnits. Dunna you be frettin’ now, ‘e’ll be all right,” said the butty.
“Thank you very much, Mr Rigley,” she replied.
“You’re welcome!” he stammered, moving away. “I shanna be many minnits.”
The house was quiet. Elizabeth Bates took off her hat and shawl, and rolled back the rug. When she had finished, she sat down. It was a few minutes past nine. She was startled by the rapid chuff of the winding-engine at the pit, and the sharp whirr of the brakes on the rope as it descended. Again she felt the painful sweep of her blood, and she put her hand to her side, saying aloud, “Good gracious!—it’s only the nine o’clock deputy going down,” rebuking herself.
She sat still, listening. Half an hour of this, and she was wearied out.
“What am I working myself up like this for?” she said pitiably to herself, “I s’ll only be doing myself some damage.”
She took out her sewing again.
At a quarter to ten there were footsteps. One person! She watched for the door to open. It was an elderly woman, in a black bonnet and a black woollen shawl—his mother. She was about sixty years old, pale, with blue eyes, and her face all wrinkled and lamentable. She shut the door and turned to her daughter-in-law peevishly.
“Eh, Lizzie, whatever shall we do, whatever shall we do!” she cried.
Elizabeth drew back a little, sharply.
“What is it, mother?” she said.
The elder woman seated herself on the sofa.
“I don’t know, child, I can’t tell you!”—she shook her head slowly. Elizabeth sat watching her, anxious and vexed.
“I don’t know,” replied the grandmother, sighing very deeply. “There’s no end to my troubles, there isn’t. The things I’ve gone through, I’m sure it’s enough—!” She wept without wiping her eyes, the tears running.
“But, mother,” interrupted Elizabeth, “what do you mean? What is it?”
The grandmother slowly wiped her eyes. The fountains of her tears were stopped by Elizabeth’s directness. She wiped her eyes slowly.
“Poor child! Eh, you poor thing!” she moaned. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, I don’t—and you as you are—it’s a thing, it is indeed!”
“Is he dead?” she asked, and at the words her heart swung violently, though she felt a slight flush of shame at the ultimate extravagance of the question. Her words sufficiently frightened the old lady, almost brought her to herself.
“Don’t say so, Elizabeth! We’ll hope it’s not as bad as that; no, may the Lord spare us that, Elizabeth. Jack Rigley came just as I was sittin’ down to a glass afore going to bed, an’ ‘e said, ”Appen you’ll go down th’ line, Mrs Bates. Walt’s had an accident. ‘Appen you’ll go an’ sit wi’ ‘er till we can get him home.’ I hadn’t time to ask him a word afore he was gone. An’ I put my bonnet on an’ come straight down, Lizzie. I thought to myself, ‘Eh, that poor blessed child, if anybody should come an’ tell her of a sudden, there’s no knowin’ what’ll ‘appen to ‘er.’ You mustn’t let it upset you, Lizzie—or you know what to expect. How long is it, six months—or is it five, Lizzie? Ay!”—the old woman shook her head—”time slips on, it slips on! Ay!”
Elizabeth’s thoughts were busy elsewhere. If he was killed—would she be able to manage on the little pension and what she could earn?—she counted up rapidly. If he was hurt—they wouldn’t take him to the hospital—how tiresome he would be to nurse!—but perhaps she’d be able to get him away from the drink and his hateful ways. She would—while he was ill. The tears offered to come to her eyes at the picture. But what sentimental luxury was this she was beginning?—She turned to consider the children. At any rate she was absolutely necessary for them. They were her business.
“Ay!” repeated the old woman, “it seems but a week or two since he brought me his first wages. Ay—he was a good lad, Elizabeth, he was, in his way. I don’t know why he got to be such a trouble, I don’t. He was a happy lad at home, only full of spirits. But there’s no mistake he’s been a handful of trouble, he has! I hope the Lord’ll spare him to mend his ways. I hope so, I hope so. You’ve had a sight o’ trouble with him, Elizabeth, you have indeed. But he was a jolly enough lad wi’ me, he was, I can assure you. I don’t know how it is…”
The old woman continued to muse aloud, a monotonous irritating sound, while Elizabeth thought concentratedly, startled once, when she heard the winding-engine chuff quickly, and the brakes skirr with a shriek. Then she heard the engine more slowly, and the brakes made no sound. The old woman did not notice. Elizabeth waited in suspense. The mother-in-law talked, with lapses into silence.
“But he wasn’t your son, Lizzie, an’ it makes a difference. Whatever he was, I remember him when he was little, an’ I learned to understand him and to make allowances. You’ve got to make allowances for them—”
It was half-past ten, and the old woman was saying: “But it’s trouble from beginning to end; you’re never too old for trouble, never too old for that—” when the gate banged back, and there were heavy feet on the steps.
“I’ll go, Lizzie, let me go,” cried the old woman, rising. But Elizabeth was at the door. It was a man in pit-clothes.
“They’re bringin’ ‘im, Missis,” he said. Elizabeth’s heart halted a moment. Then it surged on again, almost suffocating her.
“Is he—is it bad?” she asked.
The man turned away, looking at the darkness:
“The doctor says ‘e’d been dead hours. ‘E saw ‘im i’ th’ lamp-cabin.”
The old woman, who stood just behind Elizabeth, dropped into a chair, and folded her hands, crying: “Oh, my boy, my boy!”
“Hush!” said Elizabeth, with a sharp twitch of a frown. “Be still, mother, don’t waken th’ children: I wouldn’t have them down for anything!”
The old woman moaned softly, rocking herself. The man was drawing away. Elizabeth took a step forward.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Well, I couldn’t say for sure,” the man replied, very ill at ease. “‘E wor finishin’ a stint an’ th’ butties ‘ad gone, an’ a lot o’ stuff come down atop ‘n ‘im.”
“And crushed him?” cried the widow, with a shudder.
“No,” said the man, “it fell at th’ back of ‘im. ‘E wor under th’ face, an’ it niver touched ‘im. It shut ‘im in. It seems ‘e wor smothered.”
Elizabeth shrank back. She heard the old woman behind her cry:
“What?—what did ‘e say it was?”
The man replied, more loudly: “‘E wor smothered!”
Then the old woman wailed aloud, and this relieved Elizabeth.
“Oh, mother,” she said, putting her hand on the old woman, “don’t waken th’ children, don’t waken th’ children.”
She wept a little, unknowing, while the old mother rocked herself and moaned.Elizabeth remembered that they were bringing him home, and she must be ready. “They’ll lay him in the parlour,” she said to herself, standing a moment pale and perplexed.
Then she lighted a candle and went into the tiny room. The air was cold and damp, but she could not make a fire, there was no fireplace. She set down the candle and looked round. The candle-light glittered on the lustre-glasses, on the two vases that held some of the pink chrysanthemums, and on the dark mahogany. There was a cold, deathly smell of chrysanthemums in the room. Elizabeth stood looking at the flowers. She turned away, and calculated whether there would be room to lay him on the floor, between the couch and the chiffonier. She pushed the chairs aside. There would be room to lay him down and to step round him. Then she fetched the old red tablecloth, and another old cloth, spreading them down to save her bit of carpet. She shivered on leaving the parlour; so, from the dresser-drawer she took a clean shirt and put it at the fire to air. All the time her mother-in-law was rocking herself in the chair and moaning.
“You’ll have to move from there, mother,” said Elizabeth. “They’ll be bringing him in. Come in the rocker.”
The old mother rose mechanically, and seated herself by the fire, continuing to lament. Elizabeth went into the pantry for another candle, and there, in the little penthouse under the naked tiles, she heard them coming. She stood still in the pantry doorway, listening. She heard them pass the end of the house, and come awkwardly down the three steps, a jumble of shuffling footsteps and muttering voices. The old woman was silent. The men were in the yard.
Then Elizabeth heard Matthews, the manager of the pit, say: “You go in first, Jim. Mind!”
The door came open, and the two women saw a collier backing into the room, holding one end of a stretcher, on which they could see the nailed pit-boots of the dead man. The two carriers halted, the man at the head stooping to the lintel of the door.
“Wheer will you have him?” asked the manager, a short, white-bearded man.
Elizabeth roused herself and came from the pantry carrying the unlighted candle.
“In the parlour,” she said.
“In there, Jim!” pointed the manager, and the carriers backed round into the tiny room. The coat with which they had covered the body fell off as they awkwardly turned through the two doorways, and the women saw their man, naked to the waist, lying stripped for work. The old woman began to moan in a low voice of horror.
“Lay th’ stretcher at th’ side,” snapped the manager, “an’ put ‘im on th’ cloths. Mind now, mind! Look you now—!”
One of the men had knocked off a vase of chrysanthemums. He stared awkwardly, then they set down the stretcher. Elizabeth did not look at her husband. As soon as she could get in the room, she went and picked up the broken vase and the flowers.
“Wait a minute!” she said.
The three men waited in silence while she mopped up the water with a duster.
“Eh, what a job, what a job, to be sure!” the manager was saying, rubbing his brow with trouble and perplexity. “Never knew such a thing in my life, never! He’d no business to ha’ been left. I never knew such a thing in my life! Fell over him clean as a whistle, an’ shut him in. Not four foot of space, there wasn’t—yet it scarce bruised him.”
He looked down at the dead man, lying prone, half naked, all grimed with coal-dust.
“”Sphyxiated,’ the doctor said. It is the most terrible job I’ve ever known. Seems as if it was done o’ purpose. Clean over him, an’ shut ‘im in, like a mouse-trap”—he made a sharp, descending gesture with his hand.
The colliers standing by jerked aside their heads in hopeless comment.
The horror of the thing bristled upon them all.
Then they heard the girl’s voice upstairs calling shrilly: “Mother, mother—who is it? Mother, who is it?”
Elizabeth hurried to the foot of the stairs and opened the door:
“Go to sleep!” she commanded sharply. “What are you shouting about? Go to sleep at once—there’s nothing—”
Then she began to mount the stairs. They could hear her on the boards, and on the plaster floor of the little bedroom. They could hear her distinctly:
“What’s the matter now?—what’s the matter with you, silly thing?”—her voice was much agitated, with an unreal gentleness.
“I thought it was some men come,” said the plaintive voice of the child. “Has he come?”
“Yes, they’ve brought him. There’s nothing to make a fuss about. Go to sleep now, like a good child.”
They could hear her voice in the bedroom, they waited whilst she covered the children under the bedclothes.
“Is he drunk?” asked the girl, timidly, faintly.
“No! No—he’s not! He—he’s asleep.”
“Is he asleep downstairs?”
“Yes—and don’t make a noise.”
There was silence for a moment, then the men heard the frightened child again:
“What’s that noise?”
“It’s nothing, I tell you, what are you bothering for?”
The noise was the grandmother moaning. She was oblivious of everything, sitting on her chair rocking and moaning. The manager put his hand on her arm and bade her “Sh—sh!!”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at him. She was shocked by this interruption, and seemed to wonder.
“What time is it?”—the plaintive thin voice of the child, sinking back unhappily into sleep, asked this last question.
“Ten o’clock,” answered the mother more softly. Then she must have bent down and kissed the children.
Matthews beckoned to the men to come away. They put on their caps and took up the stretcher. Stepping over the body, they tiptoed out of the house. None of them spoke till they were far from the wakeful children.
When Elizabeth came down she found her mother alone on the parlour floor, leaning over the dead man, the tears dropping on him.
“We must lay him out,” the wife said. She put on the kettle, then returning knelt at the feet, and began to unfasten the knotted leather laces. The room was clammy and dim with only one candle, so that she had to bend her face almost to the floor. At last she got off the heavy boots and put them away.
“You must help me now,” she whispered to the old woman. Together they stripped the man.
When they arose, saw him lying in the naïve dignity of death, the women stood arrested in fear and respect. For a few moments they remained still, looking down, the old mother whimpering. Elizabeth felt countermanded. She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him. She could not accept it. Stooping, she laid her hand on him, in claim. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. The old tears fell in succession as drops from wet leaves; the mother was not weeping, merely her tears flowed. Elizabeth embraced the body of her husband, with cheek and lips. She seemed to be listening, inquiring, trying to get some connection. But she could not. She was driven away. He was impregnable.
She rose, went into the kitchen, where she poured warm water into a bowl, brought soap and flannel and a soft towel.
“I must wash him,” she said.
Then the old mother rose stiffly, and watched Elizabeth as she carefully washed his face, carefully brushing the big blond moustache from his mouth with the flannel. She was afraid with a bottomless fear, so she ministered to him. The old woman, jealous, said:
“Let me wipe him!”—and she kneeled on the other side drying slowly as Elizabeth washed, her big black bonnet sometimes brushing the dark head of her daughter. They worked thus in silence for a long time. They never forgot it was death, and the touch of the man’s dead body gave them strange emotions, different in each of the women; a great dread possessed them both, the mother felt the lie was given to her womb, she was denied; the wife felt the utter isolation of the human soul, the child within her was a weight apart from her.
At last it was finished. He was a man of handsome body, and his face showed no traces of drink. He was blonde, full-fleshed, with fine limbs. But he was dead.
“Bless him,” whispered his mother, looking always at his face, and speaking out of sheer terror. “Dear lad—bless him!” She spoke in a faint, sibilant ecstasy of fear and mother love.
Elizabeth sank down again to the floor, and put her face against his neck, and trembled and shuddered. But she had to draw away again. He was dead, and her living flesh had no place against his. A great dread and weariness held her: she was so unavailing. Her life was gone like this.
“White as milk he is, clear as a twelve-month baby, bless him, the darling!” the old mother murmured to herself. “Not a mark on him, clear and clean and white, beautiful as ever a child was made,” she murmured with pride. Elizabeth kept her face hidden.
“He went peaceful, Lizzie—peaceful as sleep. Isn’t he beautiful, the lamb? Ay—he must ha’ made his peace, Lizzie. ‘Appen he made it all right, Lizzie, shut in there. He’d have time. He wouldn’t look like this if he hadn’t made his peace. The lamb, the dear lamb. Eh, but he had a hearty laugh. I loved to hear it. He had the heartiest laugh, Lizzie, as a lad—”
Elizabeth looked up. The man’s mouth was fallen back, slightly open under the cover of the moustache. The eyes, half shut, did not show glazed in the obscurity. Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left him apart and utterly alien to her. And she knew what a stranger he was to her. In her womb was ice of fear, because of this separate stranger with whom she had been living as one flesh. Was this what it all meant—utter, intact separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly. Each time he had taken her, they had been two isolated beings, far apart as now. He was no more responsible than she. The child was like ice in her womb. For as she looked at the dead man, her mind, cold and detached, said clearly: “Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.”—And her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not; she had felt familiar with him. Whereas he was apart all the while, living as she never lived, feeling as she never felt.
In fear and shame she looked at his naked body, that she had known falsely. And he was the father of her children. Her soul was torn from her body and stood apart. She looked at his naked body and was ashamed, as if she had denied it. After all, it was itself. It seemed awful to her. She looked at his face, and she turned her own face to the wall. For his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself.—And this had been her life, and his life.—She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
And all the while her heart was bursting with grief and pity for him. What had he suffered? What stretch of horror for this helpless man! She was rigid with agony. She had not been able to help him. He had been cruelly injured, this naked man, this other being, and she could make no reparation. There were the children—but the children belonged to life. This dead man had nothing to do with them. He and she were only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children. She was a mother—but how awful she knew it now to have been a wife. And he, dead now, how awful he must have felt it to be a husband. She felt that in the next world he would be a stranger to her. If they met there, in the beyond, they would only be ashamed of what had been before. The children had come, for some mysterious reason, out of both of them. But the children did not unite them. Now he was dead, she knew how eternally he was apart from her, how eternally he had nothing more to do with her. She saw this episode of her life closed. They had denied each other in life. Now he had withdrawn. An anguish came over her. It was finished then: it had become hopeless between them long before he died. Yet he had been her husband. But how little!—
“Have you got his shirt, ‘Lizabeth?”
Elizabeth turned without answering, though she strove to weep and behave as her mother-in-law expected. But she could not, she was silenced. She went into the kitchen and returned with the garment.
“It is aired,” she said, grasping the cotton shirt here and there to try. She was almost ashamed to handle him; what right had she or anyone to lay hands on him; but her touch was humble on his body. It was hard work to clothe him. He was so heavy and inert. A terrible dread gripped her all the while: that he could be so heavy and utterly inert, unresponsive, apart. The horror of the distance between them was almost too much for her—it was so infinite a gap she must look across.
At last it was finished. They covered him with a sheet and left him lying, with his face bound. And she fastened the door of the little parlour, lest the children should see what was lying there. Then, with peace sunk heavy on her heart, she went about making tidy the kitchen. She knew she submitted to life, which was her immediate master. But from death, her ultimate master, she winced with fear and shame.
I . . . am a cheap sock, I cost half a dinar. An industrial cooperative manufactured me, and my profit margin was redistributed among the elements of production. An ordinary man bought me, a manual worker quite poor. This worker married an ordinary young lady, and they lived together in a small apartment. They were very happy together.
The bride was very gentle with me, washing me every day in warm water. She did not hurt my skin with soap, nor burn me with washing soda, and to refresh me she hung me out on the balcony so the gentle Benghazi breeze would dry me.
I confided in the gusts of wind, recalling the vigorous effect of her fingertips that were dyed with henna. She scrubbed me slowly as if she were chewing gum with her polished teeth. I used to look at the skinny socks hanging up under the cupboard mirror by the front door.
One day the bride was unwell. Perhaps she was pregnant. The groom washed me in cold water – it was midwinter. All that rough scrubbing was physically painful. It almost frayed my threads. It almost ruined the elastic around my ribbed cuff. It was God’s will that I hid from him in the soap suds. When he put me on the line, he forgot to peg me, and the winds tossed me far away. I dropped into the yard of an elegant house. The wind blew me around the house from one place to another, as if it was revealing to me the difference between the flat and this grand palace. In one corner of the house there was a laundry room. Cautiously I went near it. There was a rumbling noise coming from inside. I watched with my back caught on the door handle. I saw the servant toss some articles of clothing into a metal vessel, connected by a quivering thread that hung from a box attached to the wall. This vessel that made the rumbling noise was not some narghileh that was not connected to a hose. I was afraid that the servant would see me, assume I was part of the family, and throw me in. Then I would whizz round and round with the other garments in that tomb. I got away from the room and approached the clothesline. I saw a coloured silk sock, hanging like a peacock, and held in place by a beautiful peg. I asked it in sock-language about the vessel that devoured clothes. At first, it did not understand me because I was not making myself clear on account of the small holes around my big toe . . . I repeated the question and it answered me in broken sock-language, “This is a washing machine, imported from overseas.”
I thanked him without smiling. I found it strange that there was no washing machine like it in the house of my owner, the bridegroom. I reckoned that this was because of its great expense. But I was happy that they did not have one. The clothes revolved in the washing-machine at the speed with which peace agreements are passed! I had been quite happy with being washed by ten human fingers with their beautiful smell, gentle touch, and slow scrub, and the sight of the cupboard by the front door where the shy skinny socks were stored – Oh what a lovely flat it was! I was delighted to cast my mind back to happy memories and then a spiral hose sprang at me, coiling itself like a snake seizing hold of everything: soil, dust, leaves and scraps of paper. I was violently swallowed up into its depths, and I found myself within its darkness. I took refuge with the leaf of a tree and kept myself away from the electric wires that were inside. I was happy because I was not damp and electrocuted.
In the evening they emptied the vacuum cleaner into a large rubbish bin that was by the secure steel door.
I spent the night in the body of that disgusting bin in which dirty rubbish with its awful stench was kept, and I sought comfort in memories of the smell of the bride and her kitchen and the sweat of factory workers, men and women, even the oil from machinery: those memories came to mind and defended me.
That morning the bridegroom’s holiday was over. Life went back to happy normality after the sugar rush of the honeymoon and the simple worker went back to his work as a dustman. The contents of the bin were emptied into the back of a dustcart. I was visible among the piles of garbage and he saw me. He smiled, picked me up gently, and put me in his pocket in spite of my filthiness. I was close to his heart – had I not witnessed his wedding night? After his shift, he took me back to the apartment and handed me to the bride: she recognised me and was delighted. She whooped with joy then made sure her husband was not under a spell. She brushed the dust off me, gave me a kiss, and put me on her hand as if I was a glove.