the short story project


Yehudit Hendel | from:Hebrew

The Dancer

Translated by : Miriam Schlusselberg

I used to meet him sometimes in the street or in the park opposite my house. Over the years we became friends in a way, and he would nod to me as old friends do, and perhaps we were old friends, because he apparently had lived here for years, like me. And over the years he also told me that his name was Haim-Shmuel. His name was really Shmuel, but he had been very sick and added the name Haim (life), in order to recover and have a long life.

Recently I met him in the park. I sat on a bench in the shade of the tall treetops, and he asked whether he could sit next to me.

Certainly, gladly, I said.

I’m glad to meet you too, he said, after all, we’ve known each other for years.

Gladly, I replied.

Suddenly he stood up and began to dance.

He dances like a monkey, said the children in the park laughing.

He stood under a tree as though confronting a storm. It seemed to me that the treetop bent over, as though bowing down to him and trying to protect him, and he jumped and hid behind the tree, standing there for a long time, hugging the trunk with his two hands and pressing himself against it hard. It seemed to me that it was a lone tree in the park, and he hugged it hard, waiting.

The children suddenly stopped laughing and didn’t open their mouths.

He’s not a monkey, he’s a human being, I said.

It’s all from God, he said, life, fate, and it’s all a mystery, me, you, dancing, life.

But he dances like a monkey, the children said again laughing.

I said again, he’s not a monkey, he’s a human being.

He’s a human being who dances like a monkey, laughed the children. But he appeared from behind the tree and resumed dancing in the park.

Is that what you do at home too? I asked.

Yes, I dance, he said while dancing, I dance all the time, as long as I dance I’m alive, because life is one big dance, you go around and around and get dizzy. And don’t you dance? he asked.

No, I said.

So what do you do all day?

I try to write, and it’s almost hard labor.

I understand, he said. Try to dance, release your hands and your feet, it will be easier for you, believe me.

I’ll try, I said.

Excellent, he said, a broad smile spreading over his face, and still he danced. You’ll feel better, believe me.

I believe, I said.

In God too? he asked.

I don’t know, I don’t have an answer to that, I said.

I believe in God because life is hard, he said.

Very hard, I said.

That’s it, he said, and only God knows why, because that’s how he wants it, the One who sits on high and rules the world and determines our lives and fate, and it’s all one big mystery. My dance, me, you, life, everything, in general.

A wind began to blow in the park, causing the treetops to dance.

Yes, God created the wind too, believe me, and it’s also a big mystery.

He continued to dance silently.

What can you do, he started talking again, that’s how God created the world, and it’s all one long darkness.

Perhaps, I said.

He laughed.

But the dear God has abandoned me he said, stopping helplessly.

A moment later he resumed dancing.

Sometimes I think about the force that ties a person to life, but in an old man this force disappears.

Now he stood as though a huge hole had opened up beneath him.

I ask too many questions, he said, but people think that there’s order in the world, and I think there’s chaos.

No, God forbid, I said.

He looked frightened now.

The worst thing is uncertainty, he said, looking around him as though a fire had broken out in the park.

And do you eat at home? I asked.

He laughed.

I like olives and fruit and a plate of soup.

You’re a lion, I said.

He looked at me, annoyed.

And perhaps nevertheless I’ll still enjoy God’s graces, he said.

Amen, I said, and I envy you, I would also like to dance.

That’s good, it does a person good, he said, starting to dance again.

Yes, yes, I said, looking at the man dancing in front of me in the park, twisting his body and waving his arms.

His face shone.

So that’s what you do at home all day, I said.

Of course, thanks to this force I’m alive, and I’m an old man.

But you dance like a young man, I said.

Because that’s how God wants it, he said.

This man is a strange bird, I said to myself. An old man dances in the park and he has a God.

Dancing is my life, he continued. If I stop dancing I’ll die, and I still want to live, as long as I dance I’m alive.

I see, I said.

That’s it, he said, I still want to live, I’m still dancing.

I’m happy, I said, and I see that you’re also happy when you dance.

Of course. as long as I dance. I know that I’m alive.

So please, I said, the entire park is yours, the entire street, the entire world.

I hope so, he said.

The gleeful children had already begun to jump around him and imitate his movements.

That’s not funny, I told them, it’s his life, you can see that.

But they continued to shout with glee around him, and he continued to dance, and continued even after they tired and returned to their game. 

And do you really dance all day long without a break? I asked.

Of course, because I don’t want to die, after all, death is man’s real enemy.

God save us, I said, you won’t die because you dance.

I hope, I hope, he repeated, and looked to the right, and to the left, as though bells were ringing in his head.

I understand that you’re afraid, I said.

Every person is afraid, he said. Everyone wants to live and is afraid to die, and death is at the door, a terrible black angel.

Everyone has his own black angel, I said, he waits at the door for everyone.

Yes, it’s terrible, he said, but that’s how God created the world, he didn’t want us to live forever, he wanted everyone to die, everyone, and it’s impossible to get a reprieve from death.

Even though he smiled a small smile, his face was gloomy, and with a gloomy face he sat down next to me on the bench.

Maybe it’s good in the ground, at least it’s warm there , he said, do you think there’s no life in the ground? The ground is full of life. And here in the garden there are lots of ravens and bats, and the bats see at night, and what does a person see? He doesn’t see even himself, he doesn’t know even himself, as though he were a stranger.

They’re all strangers, I said.

Strangers even to themselves, he said.

There was a long silence.

I’ve been walking around for years already with my face in the ground, he said.

Yes, yes, strangers even to themselves, I repeated, that’s how it is in the world, and it’s cold in the world.

And even in the summer it’s cold inside, he said, but where will salvation come from?

He turned to me, waiting for an answer.

            When he saw that I was silent he continued, what can we do, but that’s how God wanted it, he created the world and the seas and the oceans, the plants and the animals, and he made human beings strange creatures.

Perhaps, I said.

He wants to win me over, I said to myself, he wants us to be friends, but we’re actually strangers.

Each to himself, I said aloud.

Each to his own body, he said. You don’t know what betrayal by one’s body means, only old people like me know that, and betrayal by the body is a terrible thing, and every night, every night, I think about my grave, that’s why I can’t sleep at night, and I lie awake and think and think; the night is very long, and there’s no end to thoughts, and thoughts are a cruel thing, they don’t give you a moment’s peace, they don’t give a moment’s quiet, every night I’m pierced by my thoughts until I bleed, and all in all, every person has an area the size of a grave, think about it.

And I thought, who knows about him? Who even knows of his existence? About the forces he expends on dancing in order to live. Maybe there’s even heroism in that. But what heroism? After all, that’s all nonsense, I said to myself. It’s as though by dancing he takes his revenge against life, against fate. But maybe it only seems to me that that’s what I thought. After all, thoughts are one great mystery, always, and great distress, I’ve learned that first hand.

He continued: Sometimes I tell myself that maybe I was born to dance, as though there were some relief in that thought, but that’s also nonsense, believe me, and an old man lives in darkness even in daylight.

He got up from his place and started dancing again like someone drugged, trying to dance high, as high as possible.

I watched him.

Only now did I see that he was dancing with large exposed feet. He looked pale, and in the sun his glasses looked like gold, and it seemed to me he was dancing in the sun as though dancing in the dark, in conflict with himself, as though some curtain had come down on him.

And still I watched him.

You know, he said standing in front of me, I once dealt in diamonds, and I thought then that diamonds are the stars in the sky, but I discovered that they bring only a curse, so I left the diamonds and began to dance. Would you believe it?

That’s your good fortune, I said, the fact is that you dance and it makes you happy.

A person is never happy, he said, he is always imprisoned in the splint of life, and at my age he already knows that everyone has an area the size of a grave, and there’s no escaping that, and every night, every night I say to myself that there’s the line of death and the line of life, and I’m still somehow on the line of life, but every night I’m abandoned to the line of death, and death is a black plague. They say that there’s a white cat and a black cat, but next to me at night lies only a black cat, and every day I get up in the morning and think, am I still alive? Am I still here?

My body is tired at night, but my mind works, he said, and it doesn’t let an old man sleep at night.

He spoke about the power of death, but I looked at him and thought about the power of life.

You’ll live for many more years, I said, and you’re strong, because you dance.

Because it gives me strength, and with that strength I live. At my age people already die. All my friends have died, all of them. Sometimes I think, where are my dear friends, but only empty houses remain, and I’m left alone in the world. You always remain alone and live alone, even young people, I said.

Do you think so? Do you really think so? He said.

Of course, I said, otherwise I wouldn’t be brave enough to say these words.

He gave me a strange, silent look.

And do you believe in the World to Come? I asked.

Of course, he said, otherwise how would I be able to dance? I believe that I’ll dance in the World to Come too, if God helps me a little.

Do you watch television? he asked suddenly.

I said I was addicted to television.

He laughed. And when he saw that I was getting up and wanted to go back home, he said, I hope we’ll meet again in the park, but an old man is not allowed to say I’ll be seeing you, and he resumed dancing, dancing several centimeters above the ground.

*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

*Translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.