Is it possible to describe and show what one sees when the eyes close and open alternately? Alma Ganihar takes the reader on a journey that passes through a storyline that expresses hope and anticipation, penetrated by a flood of occurrences that are at once realistic and dream-like, hallucinatory. Cruel and ugly thoughts and sights of reality almost force a kind of harsh self-examination of the face: the chapped lips, the teeth that are planted in disarray and covered in yellow plaque, the pimples. Have we come to resemble calves, our protruding eyes no longer expressing interest in what they meet? Does emotion no longer remember to awaken when it encounters injustices? Alma Ganihar does not relent, she asks that we stare into this beastly reflection, that we recognize ourselves in it. This reflection, allegedly, has nothing special to tell us. It is simple, like the calf, like a stone or water. It gazes at us with bizarre politeness, a politeness that allows us (the readers) to look at it. To really look. Surprisingly, we find out that the calf reflected in the cracked mirror expresses no resistance or reaction. It’s submission is obvious, reassuring, and then disconcerting—eventually we realize that there is something very troubling about this story.
Francesca, a leggy young woman with a blue streak running through her thick mane of hair, crossed the park quickly. The dry leaves on the path crackled pleasantly beneath her feet. The scent of roasted chestnuts was coming from the nearby boulevard and she could hear the rattle of the spoons as they clanked against the cups in the cafe with the red chairs. Tempted by the coffee and the idleness of the cafe goers, she vowed to return there with him.
The heavy shadow of winter that had hung over the park was receding, and radiant sunlight pierced through the clouds, lighting up Francesca’s reddish-brown hair and transforming it into a crown of fire. The octagonal lake was awash in gold and the little girls playing beside it looked like fairies. The whole garden seemed like a snow globe to her, and she was inside of it, immersed in joyous confetti. It was the power of first love: it can bring the rain, make the sun rise and set, make deserts bloom. Francesca laughed, she couldn’t possibly contain all of this happiness and she was still too young to realize how rare it is and that she should seize it in preparation for the bad days to come.
It seemed to Francesca that a hundred years had passed since she last saw Paolo, although it had only been a week. She pictured his train slowing to a stop, his dark face in the window. She imagined his light, secretive smile and could see him descending the steel steps to the platform with his backpack slung over his shoulder, promptly lighting a cigarette. She’d kiss his cheek and the sharp bristles of his beard would scratch her lips and they’d wander over to their cafe locked in an embrace. She’d have white wine and Paolo would drink something strong, whiskey perhaps, and he’d show her photos of the event and she’d be jealous of every woman that touched him and he’d press his hand to her thigh and she’d feel his warmth– suddenly, she heard quick steps and heavy, urgent breathing. A thin woman dressed in rags, wearing a dusty headscarf with her gaunt face twisted in rage, burst into the snowglobe, and before Francesca could realize what was happening, the woman pushed her and Francesca fell to the ground, landing on the gravel, which scratched her back. The contents of her handbag scattered all over the path. A terrified Francesca screamed but no one in the garden could hear her. No one came to her aid. The thin woman’s quivering shadow struck Francesca and she screamed again. The woman laughed loudly and, with her ripped-up sneakers, she proceeded to stomp on Francesca’s slightly childish make-up case and on the gift that she had bought for her beloved.
I can see the woman’s dull eyes, her wrinkled skin, her filthy neck. The stench of her clothes overpowers the light scent of Francesca’s perfume and the fresh smell of rain.
“Who are you?” I ask frantically. “Where did you come from all of a sudden?”
She does not respond, she doesn’t even glance at me before vanishing through the trees.
I hurry over to Francesca. “Are you alright?” I ask, concerned, and she nods. I help her up and gather her belongings, sit her down on the bench, and offer her a glass of water. She thanks me and sips the water. She looks at me, confused, and asks if I know why the thin woman pushed her.
“No, I don’t know,” I tell her. Her pretty eyes cloud up momentarily and then she says that she knows that she is in a hurry to get somewhere, but she has forgotten where. I remind her that she was on her way to the Gare du Nord to meet Paolo, and she thanks me and races out of the garden, leaving her sweater on the bench.
I take out the earplugs. All at once, the silence is broken and the sound of jackhammers mercilessly pounding the earth bursts into my head like a band of thieves. It’s coming from the construction site nearby. I go to the kitchen and fix myself an avocado cheese sandwich but am overcome with disgust and promptly spit it out. The air is dense and hot, I am dripping in sweat. The thin woman’s dull eyes stare at me everywhere I turn. I go to the bathroom and wash my face, pour myself a little whiskey and enter my room, close the windows and turn on the air conditioner. I re-insert the earplugs. The thieves retreat. Silence is restored. I sit down before the computer.
Francesca ran to the platform. Beads of sweat had formed under her arms, she was restless because of the strange, violent attack in the garden. She was worried that the fall had soiled her pretty dress, and that her hair, which she had washed before she left the house, was now covered in dust. She noticed that she forgot her thin sweater and regretted leaving it behind. She wanted so badly to arrive on time. She raced towards platform three, praying that he would be there waiting for her. The station was filled with people. They hurried along, dragging their suitcases, bags and skis. They embraced, saying goodbye or reuniting, their arms opened and closed and they were all in her way. She pushed them, squeezing by, they yelled at her but she paid no attention and hurried to the platform. It was empty. She wasn’t sure– had the train already stopped and then continued on its route, or maybe it hadn’t arrived yet? She raced to the digital board scanned it and immediately calmed down– his train was late and was due in eleven minutes. Francesca sighed in relief. She’d have time to fix herself up. She rushed to the ladies room, fished through her purse for a coin and handed it to the attendant at the entrance. Inside, the stench, a blend of cleaning products and urine, was overpowering. Her head spun and she leaned against the sink, studying her reflection in the mirror. She didn’t seem like the same Francesca that had left the house that morning. She felt that something about her face had changed but she didn’t know what it was. She cupped her hands, filled them with water and washed her face. She felt better, straightened up. The color returned to her face. She took out the make-up case that the thin woman’s foot stomped on and was pleased to discover that her tube of lipstick had survived the attack. She painted her lips dark red, dabbed some perfume on her neck and wrists and brushed her thick hair with the blue streak. Her eyes were shining again and once more, she was excited at the prospect of seeing him. She exited the bathroom. There were still two minutes left before his train arrived and she turned her back to the busy station and stared at the black net of tracks, the intertwining electrical cables and the weeds that grew wildly alongside the tracks. She loved stories about big cities that began with a train arriving at the platform. A group of boys passed by. They were cursing. She looked away. The boys did not stop. She edged away, trying to blend in with a group of Japanese tourists that were standing nearby; she was intrigued by the sound of their incomprehensible words. The boys kept their distance, but continued to stare at her and curse. Two of them had unsightly pimples and the third looked like an overgrown baby. The baby caught her looking at them and made a crude joke. His friends laughed.
The sound of the loudspeaker echoed in the enormous station and the train appeared, coming around the bend. She saw the fiery sparks on the burning track. Francesca abandoned the group of Japanese tourists and walked towards the platform. The boys hurried after her, surrounding her. She looked at them. They seem foreign to her, as if they did not belong to the human race. There was an odd madness in their eyes. Frightened, Francesca called out. An armed soldier, the kind that can be spotted around the city ever since the terror attack, noticed her distress and came over. The boys scattered and ran off. She could hear their laughter fading in the distance. The train came to a stop and she tried to guess which direction he would come from. The doors opened and people began disembarking, dragging their suitcases and overstuffed bags. He didn’t appear, but Francesca wasn’t at all concerned. There were still lots of passengers on the train. She took out a tobacco pouch, spread a pinch of tobacco on the thin paper and rolled herself a cigarette. She could hear the wheels of the suitcases scraping on the platform. She licked the paper, sealed the cigarette, lit it and waited. He promised to return. She believed him. She is allowed to believe. She is young and it is her right.
There’s a light knock at my door. It’s already evening. I hadn’t noticed. “Yes,” I say and he enters, hugging me from behind. His shirt is sticky. I take out the earplugs and discover that the jackhammers have quieted down.
“How is your Francesca?” he asks with a smile. I tell him that she’s doing great and don’t mention the woman with the wrinkled skin. He suggests that we go out, and I accept the suggestion. My back hurts. He showers while I change clothes and afterwards we venture out to the street. It’s my first time out today. I’ve been writing all day. At first the street looks like a movie set and only gradually does it transform into a street again. We walk with our arms around eachother, heading to a bar on Geula street. Alley cats stretch on garbage bins. The air is cramped and hot, smelling of the sea. We sit down outside, I drink araq. His friend arrives and they chat. The araq slowly goes to my head and I feel a sense of serenity, tenderness. I close my eyes and sigh in contentment. The day has come to its end.
“How dare you?” A woman’s voice, low and hoarse, whispers in Arabic in my ears. “Enjoy yourself like that while I am about to die?” I whip around in fright and spot the thin woman with the dull eyes sitting at a table beside me; she is wolfing down lupines from a small dish. Strange, I think, I just started to learn Arabic, and yet I can understand her so well, it’s as if it were my mother tongue.
“How did you get here? And who are you?” I ask her in the Arabic that I can suddenly speak.
“I’m from al Yarmouk,” she replies.
And then I suddenly understand: “Listen,” I say to her, “I don’t know anyone from al Yarmouk, I was never there. I don’t want to go there. You’ve got the wrong writer.”
I’m proud of myself because my Arabic is perfect. She looks at me, smiles, and her dull eyes suddenly gleam mischievously, sharp as a knife.
“I’m not mistaken.” She says. “It’s you.”
“That’s impossible,” I correct her. “Refugee camps are not my style.”
She bursts into laughter, which then turns into a severe, hacking cough.
“Enough,” I tell her. “I don’t have the time or the energy for this anymore.”
“What do you mean, you don’t have the energy?” She wonders. “This is my life.”
“I understand,” I tell her. “But nonetheless, it’s always the same story. And now you’ll have to excuse me, I’m here with my boyfriend and I’m very tired and I don’t have time for you.” She edges closer until she’s practically lying on top of me. I choke on her sharp scent. “It’s you I want,” she whispers.
“Stop it! Get away from me,” I scream and shove her away. She disappears.
He looks at me: “What’s going on?” I smile sheepishly and apologize.
I drink another glass and afterwards I want to go home. I’m tired. The bedroom is cool and dark. We lay side by side, covered in sheets that smell of fresh laundry. Before he falls asleep he says, “Maybe we’ll go to the beach tomorrow morning.” “Maybe,” I reply. No promises. He falls asleep right away. I try to sleep too, his breath is heavy and comforting beside me. I doze off, but only for a brief hour. I head to the kitchen for a glass of cold water. I am not entirely awake. I go into my room and turn on the computer and find Francesca at the station, still smoking, waiting for Paolo. She is thinking that she needs to quit smoking so she won’t get brown spots on her teeth and ruin her skin – but suddenly, Francesca and the entire train station are instantaneously sucked up, they disappear into a void and instead of them I see the old woman lying on a tattered mattress in a room with cracked walls and the sound of bombs and shelling is echoing all around.
A cloud of smoke pierces the room, a fighter jet roars across the grey sky. She doesn’t flinch. I scream in panic. “It’s alright,” she soothes me. “It’ll be over soon, follow me, do what I am doing.” She covers her ears with her hands and buries her head between her thin legs. She must have gone mad. “How does that possibly help?” I ask in terror. She doesn’t answer. There is another blast and I feel the earth shake beneath my feet, I feel it flying overhead, the walls are dancing around me.
“Gravity doesn’t exist here. Instead of falling, people fly.” She laughs, revealing broken teeth. Silence. The dust falls.
“That’s it,” she says, then adds: “for now.”
“Aren’t you scared?” I ask her. She laughs again. “Scared?” There’s nothing left to be scared of.” Although I haven’t yet learned the present tense, I understand it all and am proud of myself.
“How can you keep living as if nothing is going on?” She asks me again.
“Fuck you,” someone yells and I rush over to the window and see a woman throwing rocks at the synagogue facing my house. A police siren approaches. The gabbai, the warden, must’ve called the police and informed them that someone is desecrating the synagogue again. I think I’m falling asleep.
In the morning I awake on the couch in the study. By my head is a note that says “I’m at the beach, x.” I leap up to the computer. I breathe a sigh of relief. The dull- eyed woman is gone. I am angry with myself. Poor Francesca slept on a bench. Paolo didn’t arrive.
It was very early and there were only a few passengers at the station. Francesca woke with a start, as if jostled from sleep by an internal alarm clock. The train had left the station long ago, other trains had come and gone. Paolo didn’t arrive. Francesca rubbed her eyes and peeked at her phone. It died. She felt her tongue dry and swollen in her mouth. She was upset and worried about Paolo. She smelled fresh coffee coming from the large cafe at the station and stretched, her body stiff from the uncomfortable sleep. She straightened out her dress and went into the cafe. She ordered an espresso and a roll and recharged her phone while she waited. There were no messages from him. She called him, but there was no answer. She left a message on his machine, “Paolo, it’s me Francesca. I’m still at the station, waiting for you. Where are you Paolo?” A beep cut her off and she shut the phone. She glanced at the newspaper headlines, looking for news of train crashes. There were none. An accident-free day. Suddenly, her phone vibrated and she pounced on it. But it was just a reminder to book a reservation at his favorite restaurant, the one in Place des Vosges. A waiter served her the coffee and a basket of sweet rolls with a small jar of blueberry jam on the side. It began to rain, and Francesca felt a tremor of fear in her chest.
I’m tired and my back hurts from constantly hunching over. I get up and walk to the kitchen, fix myself an ice tea and then return to my desk. I hear loud seagulls calling in the distance and I know that the sound is made by the crows that imitate them. They squawk for almost an hour, as if in warning of an impending disaster, and then they fly off, and it grows quiet again. Later, I will find a damp black feather on the floor of my study and wonder how it got there, because the window was closed. I stretch and return to my file. To my great surprise, the woman with the dull eyes is at the cafe in the Gare du Nord railway station, and Francesca sits beside her, quiet and pale.
“Give me a name,” demands the woman.
“Why?!” I ask.
“Why?!” she asks. “Because I deserve a name.”
I pound the keyboard forcefully, but instead of driving her away, the screen fills with strange signs and jumbled letters that hide Francesca, and a window opens right beneath the bench that Francesca spent the night on, and through the window I can see the sky, it is black with smoke and I see narrow streets and the grey laundry that is draped between the rooftops. There is an upside down table hanging on a ruined wall. Someone once sat at it and ate or drank and read the newspaper. The table now hangs upside down on a wall. Forks, knives and a torn blue sheet are on the ground. The sheet used to be on a bed and the silverware was on the upside down table. A little girl dressed in rags is dragging a huge bicycle.
“Life used to exist here,” says the woman. “It was an island of tranquility in the midst of hell.” Now she is leaning against a shredded up piece of furniture that doesn’t resemble anything anymore. She looks so thin and small. “I can’t tell the fighters and the dead apart anymore. I’m hungry and thirsty and my soul floated away a long time ago.”
The last sentence is in the past tense, but I understand it and I can even conjugate the verb into the male form. The Arabic teacher will be proud.
I leave the house. Walk through the streets. It’s the eve before Passover. People are shopping like crazy, laughing. The wind blows, the waves thrust forth salty, wet mazahs that the dog wants to eat. I’m angry at him, enough I say. It begins to smell like summer. The farther I am from the house, the better I feel. A nightmare, I tell myself, it’s just a nightmare. I think about my Francesca, red-haired, about Paolo, her love. Will he come to her? Will she get on a train and go look for him? Maybe she’ll find him in the village church praying with his religious mother? Maybe she’ll find him bent over his mother’s grave? Or in the arms of another woman? Francesca wonders: will the days of happiness ever return?
Suddenly, sharp fingernails claw at the flesh of my arm.
“Wait a minute! Don’t run.” She says. “Look at the pretty dress in the window. Such a pretty dress, buy it for me.”
I look at her, confused, “You are there, in Yarmouk, how can I buy you a dress?”
“It’s possible,” she says with contempt. “The same way it’s possible that the Gare du Nord is in France.”
I look in the store window. The dress really is pretty, it’s a red sundress with little blue flowers. I smile: “It won’t suit you, it’s for a young woman.”
“Who cares if it suits me. I want small blue flowers on my dry body.”
“It’ll be perfect for Francesca,” I say, “with her long tan legs and delicate shoulders. That dress will look wonderful on her.”
“Please?” she begs.
“I’m not buying it for you!” I declare and shake her off, heading toward the Carmel market. It’s very crowded. People are shoving and it smells like squashed tangerines. You can hear French being spoken. Eritrean refugees drag carts piled up with tomatoes. I breathe a sigh of relief, as I’d hoped, I’ve lost her in the crowd. I cannot have her in my head all of the time like a louse, she should pick a different head. I fill my small portable shopping cart with all kinds of fragrant fruit, the first peaches of the season, loquats.
“If I live inside your head,” she whispers in my ears as I fill the cart, “it will be pleasant and I will be safe.”
“And what about me?” I yell at her, “what about me? I have family, friends, hobbies, I like to read and write. Why are you clinging to me? Go to your own kind, people from your countries, where no one knows who is fighting whom and why. Get lost already…” I hasten my step and am swallowed up by the crowd again. But she is relentless, chasing after me. “Wait for me!” she yells. “No one understands! I’m old,” she sighs, “I’m in pain and it’s bad.” She coughs and spits.
“What do you want?” I bark at her and drag my shopping cart home, it rattles and squeak. A potato falls and rolls off and she squeals with laughter. “If only I could have it, I’d even eat it raw. With no salt,” she says and her laughter dies down and she coughs a phlegmy, disgusting cough.
“I used to be pretty,” she tells me and I reply – “I don’t care what you used to be.”
I walk quickly down the hill on Geula Street, thinking about the dinner I will prepare for us. I’ll open a chilled bottle of white wine. We’ll sit on the balcony and smoke and I’ll listen to his stories. He’ll embrace me and pull me towards his chest and I’ll be able to cry a little too. I’ll tell him more about Francesca and Paolo. I’ll ask him whether Paolo will return, I’ll ask him what Francesca is willing to do for love –
“And what about my love?” she screams “he was beaten and murdered and he’s lying in some ditch. He has no grave, there are no flowers. Who will tell the story of our great love? Who will describe the way he used to drag deeply on his cigarette, breathing a blue cloud inside of me? Who will write about us dancing like crazy people? Swimming in the sea with our clothes on! Who will tell of our love?
I stop in the small public park, the kovshim park. I am facing a Yemenite restaurant and breathing heavily. My legs are shaking and I sit down on a bench spotted with pigeon droppings. I close my eyes and try to picture my pretty Francesca, but she dissolves and afterward the cafe she is sitting at dissolves and the train station and that country that has the season of fall dissolves, and instead of them I now hover over a thick cloud and I can see houses that have been stripped of their roofs, looking like mouths agape. I see a building flying through the sky, the bricks soaring like birds. I smell sewage and disintegration. Through the flames I can see men armed with guns, standing behind a stone wall. I smell the strong odor of male sweat and fire. I see a crow sitting on an electric wire and his beak is red with blood. I hear heavy footsteps, spiked boots. An army unit hurries past, running through the narrow alleyway. One of the armed men kicks a yellow ball that has been forgotten on the road, for a moment his eyes sparkle with childish joy. Some withered and pale mint leaves are scattered on a collapsed windowsill. Satellite dishes on pulverized roofs offer themselves up to the sky, from somewhere in the distance comes the cheerful ring of a telephone, no one answers.
“You see,” she whispers suddenly, “I have no home.”
“You promised me that you’d go away” I remind her angrily.
“Silly. Do you think I have the strength to go away? If I had the strength, I’d have run away a long time ago. But I’m old and weak and I don’t have money. I don’t even have a passport.” She laughs loudly.
“Stop it!” I scream at her, barely recognizing my own voice – “I just wanted to tell a beautiful love story!”
“You can tell a love story tomorrow too. Please, just let me stay and rest, a day or two inside of your head, instead of Francesca, even beside her if necessary. In the cafe, the station, the garden…no matter…please Ms. Writer. Please. A brief moment. Let me rest, please.”
I close my eyes tightly, and when I open them, I look over at the sweaty armed man who is waiting and I whisper in his ear: “Attack!” The man looks at me with burning eyes. “I’ll kill her,” he says, making sure I fully understand what is about to happen. “Kill!” I scream and my mouth fills with blood “Kill!”
I remember the knife passing in front of my eyes like a flash of silver. I suddenly forgot all of the Arabic I knew.