the short story project


S. Yizhar | from:Hebrew

The Tales of Hoomit

Translated by : Uri Ben-Ari

Who is Hoomit? What happened to her, and how did it all come to be?

Here, listen.

Every Friday, Zeevi and Father used to walk to the train station. And once, while they were on the dirt road by the ditch, it happened. A truck laden with sacks up to its topmost rung drove by, swaying, and as it reached the ditch and strove to cross – one sack up above shuddered, spilling a few grains to the ground. The truck recovered and pushed onward, but a pile of golden grains remained in the dirt. Zeevi gathered a few in his palm.

What will become of them now? – Zeevi asked Father, pitying them. He is always asking Father questions and Father is trying to guess and answer.

Once again Father told of the baker, the flour mill, the grindstones revolving heavy, and of those golden grains that are first ground to white flour and then baked into good bread. But what will become of these few grains here? Zeevi asked sadly – how will these become bread? Father did not know. Well, perhaps not a loaf of bread, only one cake? – Perhaps.

So afterwards they went their way. Here and there they stopped by some flowers on the side of the road, and in one spot they even saw a wagtail bathing and washing itself in a tiny puddle, splashing with its wings for fun and smartening itself for Shabbat. But on the big road, swarms and swarms of cars were running, racing home, as they will on Friday at twilight time.

Hand in hand, the two finally came down the road and reached the station. And then the big locomotive came blowing, clad in great smoke and great steam (for it was a long time ago and there were still locomotives of steam and smoke – today they are gone and you will not see them). And it came with a great noise and a mighty ringing, and a train driver, his head poking out of the high cab window. And dancing behind came a herd of carriages all in a row, all grinning at you with their door and two windows, all light of wheel, and a hundred or a thousand crates of oranges in the belly of each. Until all of a sudden the locomotive stopped and the stop sped backwards and passed from carriage to carriage, and their iron buffers clanged like cymbals – till they had all stopped, gray and silent and watchful, as if they had always been that way. But all at once they surged anew, and the surge rushed from the first carriage to the last and all were driven back again, rushed onto the rails of another track, and the little man tending the big boom-gate on the road hurried and lowered his gate with its red signs, and sliced the press of cars and buses on the road in two, these to one side and those to another, and then all were fuming and waiting impatiently till all the carriages had passed by and the big locomotive had passed by with its great smoke and great steam and its mighty ringing, and the train driver looking out from above, and only then did the gateman hoist and raise his boom-gate, and the convoy of arrested cars promptly rushed in to flow through the straits of the gate, crowded, honking, rattling and heaving along, for it was Friday and who will not make haste? 

And so the train drove and drove again, time after time, and the boom-gate was raised and lowered, until the day began to descend, and the sun was already low, and the white clouds in the west began turning pink above the eucalypti crowns, and Zeevi and Father turned to go, not without regret, and only the road was still all astir, and all aglow from the tide of cars – rushing homeward. 

Hand in hand Zeevi and Father turned toward their dirt road, their own peaceful dirt road, when Zeevi remembered:

And what’s happened to that pile of grains?

Father argued that it was time to hurry home, and the pile had probably remained as it was, in its place. But he was wrong. And Zeevi pointed with his finger: Look!

Ho, what! The quiet, golden pile was all teeming with a dark flurry, and as they squatted down to take a peek up close, they saw that an entire horde of ants had descended upon the forgotten pile.

The first thought that came to Zeevi’s mind was to brush off those invading ants. But Father suggested to wait awhile and watch and see.

Such a hustle and bustle! The whole pile was bustling with sheer bustle! Far greater than the bustle on the big road and those shining cars. Do the ants observe a Friday afternoon of their own?

No, but the pink clouds were gradually turning purple, and a few were now entirely red, even though some had changed and turned golden as chrysanthemums – and all of them may gather anytime now and let loose a shower as soon as the sun sets. Finish on time. On time to run and on time to return, and run again and return again, before night falls, before the rain falls and before the residents of yonder ants’ nest take notice and likewise swoop in to make off with some of the abandoned loot: finish on time, make haste, run, run, quickly, and finish on time!  

But wait – What size is an ant anyway?

Six legs, six legs has the ant, slimmer than slim, and all ants are running on all six of them, running and dragging those giant grains on the slender trail that leads to their nest.

The ants that were full hurried this way and those that were empty scurried that way. And all the while they would run into one another, touch one another a moment with the tips of their feelers, separate and rush off to hurry up and finish on time. And then, when it was already time to be going on home, we suddenly saw Hoomit.

Hoomit? Who is Hoomit?

One ant among the lot. No different than all the others, as brown, as nimble, as feely, and as one in a row as them all; and she was small, like all her friends, tinier even than all the clods on the trail, lower than all the little weeds, and the nail on Zeevi’s little finger was bigger than four or five of her kind.

And by what means did we know that she was surely the Hoomit of them all?

Ah, not by any means, only by the grain in her mouth. The grain was her sign. The grain was her flag. One big grain she held in her jaws, which for some reason had not been separated from the chaff, and on its tip the broken shard of the spikelet remained aloft – a load twice her size, and what a wonder it did not flip the tiny creature over, back down and feet up in the air.

It is true that a train carriage can be loaded with a hundred or a thousand orange crates – the load of that one grain was larger in length, width and weight, than this entire little ant: one grain larger than the entire carriage!

With just one step, our Zeevi can cross the distance which this Hoomit needed to run, run a hundred steps times six, her legs gliding as silken threads, while even her hips, the porter’s hips, were slenderer than thread, and a thousand times more slender even than the slenderest of hips, which the slenderest of girls can only dream of  in her slenderest dreams – and her feelers were slender and slenderer and twirling every which way – and even so her jaws were agape and burdened with a colossal load, and that big grain, big and gleaming, was gripped by those jaws as a workpiece in a smithy’s tongs.

We will follow Hoomit until she gets there! – Zeevi said excitedly, even though it was Friday, nigh on sunset, and Father had his reasons to hurry home. But Zeevi was already rushing on all fours, following Hoomit beside the slender trail, the ants’ trail; whereas the sight of such an ants’ trail would arouse some children rather to jump and trample it with their feet, to destroy and annihilate it.

Oh, the tough time this Hoomit was having! Now and then the enormous burden would block not just her own way, but all her sisters’ too, and more than once she would bash the butt of her load on the heads of her sisters coming ahead, and they became quite scared, yet were not harmed. And a few, however, in their haste even climbed and ran and passed over her back, as if she were to them a clod on the trail, and no objection from Hoomit. In any case her mouth was tightly locking the grain, and locked by the grain, and she was heedless of all else.

Then we suddenly saw how the spike of this strange grain got stuck in a crumb of rubble, and how poor Hoomit was suddenly hoisted aloft, but by no means loosening the grip of her jaws, and how she wrangled, with no small nor simple effort, till her feet returned and back to earth they came – and again she ran, pushing and carrying the weight of her burden before her.        

No sooner was she free of this obstacle and already she was entangled in another weed stalk, till she had no choice but to turn and drag her grain backwards, about-face, contrarily and without seeing her way – though while she was holding her grain right in front of her, earlier, this load of hers had covered and blocked her view of the world.

Indeed  all of them were hastening along. These hustled to her right and those bustled to her left, and others still, as mentioned earlier, hustled and bustled on her back, and yet she did not let go. Even when small clods of dirt on the trail suddenly beset her, like towering fearsome heights. On she climbed and up she climbed and rose on each of them and lugged up her luggage, and on she climbed and climbed down each one and lugged her luggage down, and pulled and pushed on, turned this way and tried that way, but always on the trail and never leaving it, and never loosening, even for an instant, her tightly closed mouth.

And all of a sudden it happened. For the grain caught atop one clump of dirt, low as a bump but high as Mt. Hermon’s hump, And there, in mid-run, Hoomit suddenly found herself hanging in mid-air, her six feet flailing and flailing at nothing, and only her jaws still hanging on to her load – and she was left hanging over the abyss, until, shaken from so much wrangling, she fell to earth. Do not be afraid. She came to no harm. Nor did she delay, nor moan nor bemoan, nor feel herself nor pity herself, but, even as she sensed the ground beneath her feet – on she hastened, and neither calmed down nor rested till again she had climbed up to the heights of that same bump-hump, and in a flash spread her jaws wide open and grasped that grain that had perhaps gone to sleep up there in the meantime, lying flat beneath the last beams  of sunlight that are known to put even the big hens to sleep, and with renewed strength Hoomit seized it, heaved a mighty backward heave, and with one sweep fell into the abyss, still clutching the grain in her mouth, and she fell and came down to earth, and now letting not a moment to waste, got her slender little self going – and already she was running without veering even a slender foot’s breadth from the proper course – rather, she doubled her stride to make up for all the time that was lost on the cliffs.

And then came a weed-stem, the kind of slender seedling that Zeevi or anyone else, even a little baby, can send all the way to America with a single puff of breath. Though to Hoomit this seed thing was akin to a seventy years old eucalyptus trunk, the like of which,in thickness and in height, can be seen, perhaps, in Mikveh-Israel, and perhaps only a handful in Petah-Tikva.   

So many obstacles, that one may well cease to believe she would overcome them or would ever reach her goal, and one cannot bear to see her suffer any longer. Therefore one should not be surprised if Zeevi’s heart suddenly cried out within him, and he sought to extend a finger to her and elevate her and bear her to her place. To give her headway, as it were on the finger of a good, well-meaning, wonderful giant – one who has seen her plight and delivered her from it. But Father shook his head and hinted she should be left alone to do as she is wont and as far as she is able. Worker ants are bred to work, he said, without being extended a giant finger. Even though Zeevi did not understand why not.  

He was bent over the ants’ trail, his finger pointing all the while and his voice never ceasing to ring out and announce all that his eyes were seeing, and Father glancing beyond Zeevi’s shoulder would also raise his eyes from time to time to the reaches of the sky, to the clouds that had multiplied in the west, becoming grayer and grayer, and to the darkness that loured beneath them, and to the place where the sun had already been swallowed a short while ago, and beyond the darkening hills and the outlines of the black cypresses above them.

We must help her! – Zeevi’s eyes were now raised from below to meet Father’s eyes above, why not extend a bit of straw and lead her along? Or why not take two handfuls of the grains and spill them straight into the ants’ nest? Or why not do some good, any good at all? But Father only shook his head and, from on high, hinted not to intervene.

And in the meantime Hoomit continued to run. With all the might in her puny body. Locked with her load amid hundreds of her sisters, each locked with her own load, to each ant her load and her running pace, as though hers was the entire burden – but Hoomit was unlike the rest, hers was a burden more than any, her load was twice as heavy and twice as big. Why, is it not plain to see how they all rush and pass her by in their haste, for theirs is a lighter load – and hers a heavy one? And why will none help the miserable creature? Why are her sisters a-hastening? And perhaps it ought to be the rightful thing to do, to extend a finger in spite of all – as a reward for all her efforts?     

But in that selfsame moment it happened. An ant came up in front of Hoomit, and as she met her, paused, raised her feelers and said something to the feelers of Hoomit, a very short talk. And Hoomit took notice  and, believe it or not, that slight fluttering touch did to her what no hurt nor hindrance had made her do – for Hoomit took notice and opened wide her clenched jaws, and the grain was laid on the ground. And then she, the other, opened wide her own jaws and seized that silent, gleaming grain, and now she was promptly locking it and was locked by it, and she was now carrying it as if it were hers and as though this were all well and good; whereas Hoomit, who ought by now to have either seated herself awhile and reclined askance, mopping the sweat from her brow, if ants sweat too, and regained and fanned herself – if ants leisurely fan themselves too – or attempted to seize and carry the burden in tandem with her sister – yet she did neither this nor that, but promptly turned on all her six heels, and, wasting no time, began running back – to make it on time and fetch another grain before dusk .  

But, even as she set off, empty and light – there, it happened! What happened? Hoomit was no more! Lost amid all the running runners. Her flag, her sign, was lost. And she became one more ant among a great many ants of her kind, all racing to run that slender trail to make it on time, just before darkness fell, just before the rain, as long as may be, as long as there is a short, clear moment to spare – off she set, on she ran, and Hoomit was no more. 

But now, when it was finally truly time to get up and go home, something else happened.

That very short hour before dusk suddenly became different. A very great hour, an hour of openness and fullness, in which there is room for all manner of things and more. Nor was there any rush to hurry on home. Nowhere else is there more than what there is here now. One should only wish, perhaps, for this small hour, the hour of the ants, to linger with us awhile, and not pass by as swiftly as all things do.      

Will you wish?

I do.          

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