Matisse Has the Sun in His Belly
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Judith Katzir
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
The car with the lovers inside it raced to the edge of the bridge, overturned, and plunged into the river. The title ‘FIN’ appeared, white against the background of the graveyard. The scratched rectangle of light flickered and went out. For a moment she panicked at the darkness, like when she was eight or nine years old and woke in the middle of the night, her hand groping for the light switch, and the lamp failed to go on, and she knew that she had gone blind for the rest of her life, but she didn’t leave the room or call anyone, she sat up in bed and planned how she would learn to read Braille, and how she would graduate from the university in spite of everything, and write a book about her life, like Helen Keller, until the long lines of eyes between the slats of the shutters peeped at her, dark blue, a shade lighter than the blackness of the room, and she laughed at herself in a relief diluted with a drop of disappointment, and ever since then she had slept with the little light in the passage on.
Now too, already twenty-two years old and living alone in a rented apartment in Yohanan Hasandlar street, she left the lavatory light on at night, even though it was wrong to waste electricity, and whenever her mother gave her the check for the rent and the utilities she said, ‘I don’t know why you have to live in Tel Aviv, it’s not as if you’re doing anything except wasting time and money, at least if you were learning a profession,’ and she didn’t answer, she had known for a long time that there was no point in arguing with her mother, because she had everything written down in some inner canon where not even a comma could be changed, what was right and what was wrong and how everything was supposed to be, and for a long time now, from the age of thirteen or fourteen, after her parents got divorced, she did what she wanted to without asking or telling.
And now too she didn’t tell her about the things that she knew were the most important things she had ever done in her life – a knowledge based on the feeling that nothing was due to chance, and everything that happened to her, for good or ill, was directing her towards a goal which although she didn’t yet know exactly what it was, she could already guess, even if it turned out in the end that it was only to construct her life like a rich and riveting novel, chapter after chapter, but she had the feeling that it would be more than that, and that all these months in Tel Aviv were preparing her for it - wandering round the streets and bookshops, sitting on the beach for hours and reading, occasionally looking at the sea, which was sometimes gray and slippery as a fish lying on its side with its scales shining in the sun, and sometimes the waves were blue and tall as glass castles, their white towers shattering in the wind, crashing onto the shore and foaming like beer or Sprite, and sometimes they were a transparent green and you could see the reefs and rocks beneath them, and then she would think of the dark, fathomless depths where the drowned ships lay still and silent and all the clocks had stopped, and sometimes she would take out a sheet of paper and a pen and try to write a poem.
She had been writing ever since she found the collection New Poetry in the school library and decided not to return it, since the orange card inside the cover showed that the last time anyone had taken it out was five years ago, and even though she was afraid that the theft would be discovered one day, Giza the librarian went on smiling at her and appeared to have forgotten about the book, which she kept next to her bed and read until she knew almost all the poems by heart, without really understanding them, spellbound by the sounds of the words, the rhythm, the images and the smells they conjured up. It was only a few years later that she began to distinguish the poets from each other, and bought books by the ones she liked best; when she was twelve all the poems – as well as the names of the poets, whose sounds enchanted her and sometimes rhymed with each other, like ‘Anadad Eldan’ and ‘David Avidan’ – seemed to her as if they had been written by one being, whose presence she sensed within herself too when she wrote, and then her pulse would quicken and the lines would deafen her ears from inside as she gave birth to them, but when she read the poems afterwards she knew that they were immature and amateurish. And this was also the verdict of Benjamin Keinan, her literature teacher, to whom she showed the poems because she valued his opinion very highly, and mainly because she was in love with him throughout her years in high school, and it gave her a thrill to watch him reading her love poems so attentively without knowing that they were written to him. She remembered his kindly smile and his brown eyes looking at her affectionately and slightly mockingly from behind the thick lenses of his glasses when he said, ‘Sweet-and-sour poems, like in a Chinese restaurant,’ and told her that she should continue her studies at the university, because ‘a writer, in addition to talent, needs a broad, humanistic education.’
And in fact she had registered at the university this year, for a general BA in the humanities and the arts, and she was taking courses in history and philosophy and art history and cinema and psychology and literature, and a few nights ago she had dreamt, for some reason, about one of her lecturers on cinema, a man neither young nor handsome, who had not aroused any particular interest in her, and in the dream he came to her house and sat on the floor at the foot of her bed and stared at her with moist brown eyes and said, ‘I’ll sit here until you love me,’ and she woke up thrilled, not by him but by this absolute devotion, whose like she had never known in any of her boyfriends up to now, certainly not from Shai, and the dream accompanied her all day at the university, and in the evening too, at the Hungarian Blintzes House in Dizengoff street, where she worked as a waitress three nights a week, because her mother had informed her that there were limits to the extent to which she prepared to support her.
But even in this hated work she found an interest in observing the people, who usually looked bored and rather miserable, chewing their blintzes with a kind of mute avidity, and since the place was neither new nor fashionable, the only people who went on coming there were those not up-to-date in the changing fashions of the city, or those who didn’t care – people from out of town enjoying a night out in the big city, or old folks settling down in their seats to stare at the black-and-white TV over the counter, and sometimes a few soldiers on leave. And then the lecturer from the dream suddenly came in, alone, and ordered a blintz with eggplant and Bulgarian cheese, and when she brought it he looked at her with tired brown eyes and asked, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ and she said, ‘I’m doing a course on Italian cinema with you,’ and she felt herself blushing to the roots of her hair. They spoke for a few minutes about movies, and she showed herself to be very knowledgeable, because she spent all her free evenings at the Cinemathèque, sometimes seeing one movie after the other in her search for the thing whose name she did not know, she only knew that it was the essence that made her path the right one, and made everything worth it, and that’s exactly how she feels now, after this movie, ‘Jules et Jim’ by Truffaut, and the lights go on in the hall and everyone gets up in a kind of voluptuous laziness, blinking and stretching, and moves in the direction of the exit, and she goes on sitting there, pressing her knees against the hard wood of the back of the seat in front of her, and letting the picture of the black car plunging into the Seine, and Catherine’s smile, cruel in its innocence, sink into her.
And then she’s outside, in Ibn Gvirol street, on an early April night, with a hot hamseen blowing and a stray scent of orange blossom in the air, drawing the lustful and the howling cats into the street, and her eyes are fixed on a dark square on the third floor of one of the buildings: Shai’s gone to bed, or he’s not there, and she decides again not to get in touch with him, maybe she’ll see him at the university tomorrow, although it’s days since he’s been there, not since the last time she saw him in the cafeteria, with that red-haired girl who’s doing her master’s with him, and he waved at her from a distance with a stiff, forced smile, and she’d had the feeling for a few weeks already that something was wrong – in fact, she’d had it almost from the beginning, only the first two days were really wonderful, the way he’d accosted her in the cafeteria and said with a kind of astonishment, ‘What a beautiful woman you are,’ and his eyes were full of light, and she had laughed in surprise: her mother was beautiful, she had seen that every day, all her life, and everybody said so too, but she wasn’t in the least like her mother, that too wasn’t hard to see, and this too she had been told, with a certain disappointment, ever since she could remember herself, her mother was slender and delicate and her curls were blond and her big eyes changed color from blue to green to turquoise, like two spectacular peacock’s tails, and her nose was straight and sculpted, and her lips a perfect cupid’s bow, and her neck long and noble, and her figure curved as a Coca-Cola bottle, and her legs fantastic, while she herself was tall and a little broad, especially at the shoulders and the hips, and her breasts were small, and her long brown hair was dense and wild and hung in sunburnt locks down her back, and her eyes were gray and narrow under thick brows, and the bridge of her nose was too broad, and her lower lip thicker than her upper lip, and her hands and feet were almost as big as her father’s, whose walk she had also inherited, long, quick strides – when she walked down the street with her mother she always had to stop and wait for her – and she had also inherited the color of his skin, which tended to turn brown in summer, while her mother, as fair as an English princess, always sat in the shade so as not to burn, and her short-sightedness came from him too, and all her childhood and youth she had been obliged to wear glasses that hid half her face and slid down her nose in gym lessons and hikes and parties, and their lenses fogged up in the rain, and misted over when she cried, and pressed against her face when she fell asleep in the middle of reading, and sometimes the legs got bent and broken, and above all the glasses set her apart from the others and separated her from what she was looking at, and she didn’t even know, until she decided, before being drafted into the army, to go to an optician and get contact lenses, and only then, the touch of the air on her eyelids, her cheeks, she said to her mother, surprised, ‘You know, suddenly I can really see.’
Yes, she wasn’t in the least like her mother, and only her broad, open face, her Slavic cheekbones, were a little reminiscent of her mother’s family, the photographs of Grandma Rivka, who was also said to have been a very beautiful woman, and she didn’t feel as if she was a woman at all, or a child or a girl come to that, but simply a human being in the world, and she had never done the things her mother spent so much of her time doing, like going to the hairdresser and the beautician, or rubbing creams into her face, and painting her nails, and painfully removing the hair from her legs with sheets torn in strips and dipped in reddish wax; there were only a few golden hairs growing on her legs and they didn’t bother her, and she never wore a bra, or used make-up, and she always went about in jeans and T-shirts or big sweaters, and sneakers, and it was funny but also pleasant to hear this boy with the childish, bespectacled face and the straight hair and the finely-drawn lips, who she had sometimes looked at in the classes they attended together, and whose name she already knew to be Shai, suddenly saying to her out of the blue, ‘What a beautiful woman.’
And that same day they had decided to play hooky from the rest of their classes, and they rode to the sea on his motorbike, and drank beer in the sun on the beach, and he told her about his patients in the closed ward in the hospital where he was doing his internship at the same time as finishing his degree, and she asked him to describe the way they each behaved to him, and how they spoke and thought, she had always been fascinated by the mentally ill in books and movies - she recalled Bergman’s ‘Face to Face’ which she had seen recently at the Cinemathèque, and some of the characters in Dostoevsky; the ability to create a different reality, bordering on hallucination and nightmare, whose laws were no less valid, and to believe in them and live according to them, and also the ability to cross all the boundaries, like when she was younger and had suddenly felt a tremendous urge to stand up in class and say quietly to the teacher, ‘You’re a stupid cow,’ or to pull up her blouse before the outraged eyes of the principal, when he summoned her to his office to warn her again about wearing the school uniform, or to laugh wildly at the graduation ceremony of the basic training course at Ammunition Hill, when they were called upon to swear that they were ready to lay down their lives for their country, the urge to do these things had been overpowering, almost irresistible – and she had been especially won over by the way he talked about his patients, warmly and without condescending, and towards evening, when the water grew warm and turned orange, they went in, she in her panties and T-shirt which plastered itself wetly to her body, and they clung to each other and kissed with a taste of salt-water, currents of warm and cold water between their legs, and they went on kissing later that night in his bed, from the lightest brushing of the corners of their lips, breath touching breath, to wrestling tongues and wounding bites, and again and again she wanted to suck his lower lip, swollen and firm as a plum, and when he entered her she was so excited that she didn’t come, she was too intent on the new skin and the smell and the touch of his hands and his eyes and how his face broke up at the end in the piercing pleasure, and herself she already knew and it wasn’t so important. But towards daybreak she rode him with a wildness she couldn’t restrain, and when he fell asleep on his back, his arm bent on his forehead hiding his eyes – her mother slept like that, as if protecting herself – she said to herself that she probably loved him.
Somehow, after a few of days, something started to go wrong; he told her a couple of times that he couldn’t meet her because he had to study, and she stopped calling and waited for him to call her, and when he called they would go to a movie and afterwards to bed, and again he would disappear for a few days, sometimes a week or two, and she said to herself that he was probably seeing someone else too, and she started going to the movies by herself again, so as not to sit and wait for a call she knew wasn’t going to come, and so as to leave room for doubt at least, that he had called when she wasn’t there, and now on her way home she couldn’t resist passing his place to see if the motorbike was outside and if there was a light on in the window, and afterwards she went on walking down Ibn Gvirol street with a lump in her throat, because the night was warm and scented, and the movie had given rise in her to a desire to embrace the whole world, or one person at least, but she said to herself that even love wasn’t the goal, it was just a kind of mental substance, the yearning for which was sometimes stronger than the thing itself, because loves were born and died like the seasons of the year, and only what remained behind, the residue, was really important, and she already knew that she was glad to feel this sorrow, like the touch of the hot wind on her skin, like the smell of the sea suddenly coming from the distance, like the memory of the beautiful face of Jeanne Moreau.
And then a white Alfa Romeo stopped next to her, and a flower was offered to her through the window, a big, dark rose. She smiled briefly in the direction of the out-thrust hand and went on walking, amused and a little annoyed to think that she looked like someone who could be picked up in the street, and he went on driving – and it was only some time later that she said to herself and him, ‘What a fool I was, if you hadn’t turned back then, I wouldn’t have met you at all, and my whole life would have been completely different,’ and he said, ‘That’s why I love you, because you forced me to drive around in all kinds of side streets so I could turn round and come back for you’ – and now he loomed up again behind her, offering her the same rose with the same ceremonious flourish. She peered at him and saw a salt-and-pepper beard, long wild hair, blue sailor’s eyes.
‘Why don’t you park somewhere and get out,’ she said quietly, knowing that he would, and he did. He parked the car and got out, bent his knees in a little curtsey, holding his arms out sideways like a ballet dancer, and she saw that he was a little shorter than she was, and noticed that the tails of his shirt – the top and bottom buttons were missing – were hanging out over his jeans to hide his paunch, and that he was wearing boyish thongs on his feet even though he must have been about forty-five years old, and that he smelled of cigarettes, sweat and vodka.
‘I stole it for you from the most beautiful rose bush in Tel Aviv,’ he offered her the rose for the third time. The trace of a soft accent she couldn’t identify.
‘What’s you name?’ She took the open rose, and raised it to her nose.
‘Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, who knows what my name may be…..’
‘You’re Rumpelstiltskin?’ she opened her eyes wide and raised her eyebrows in pretended amazement.
‘She-devil! I’m Yigal. And you are?’
‘And behold Rivka came out with her pitcher upon her shoulder, and the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her….’ His eyes shot sparks.
‘Stop that right now,’ she commanded in pretended anger. Laughing they crossed Malchei Yisrael square and walked up Ben Gurion street in the direction of the Red Bar.
‘What do you do when you’re not picking roses and picking up girls in the middle of the night?’ She tried to sound amused.
‘In the morning I sell bagels, at night I’m a hit-man. What about you? Wait a minute, let me guess, in the morning you decorate the lawns and break the boys’ hearts on the campus, at night you sell food and drink in one of the city taverns.’
‘And you’re a scientist, or an artist, ‘ she guessed.
‘Mainly a loafer.’ He was suddenly glum. ‘Yes, I teach math at the Technion.’
‘You live in Haifa?’
‘No, I drive down twice a week. But you’re from Haifa, right?’
‘How did you know?’ Now her surprise was genuine.
‘You have a certain smell about you…..of pine gum and factory smoke.’
‘If you’re going to insult me I’m leaving, and you’ll never see me again.’
‘A thousand pardons, kochanka.’ He took her hand and raised it to his lips.
‘It’s Polish,’ he looked at her with laughter in his eyes, ‘it means beloved.’
Years later, a long time after their parting and already after her mother’s death, when she decided to write about him in order to lock him up in one place, so that he wouldn’t get in the way of her life with another man, and also so that he wouldn’t be able to forget her, and she wondered what name she should give him, so no one would know, and envied the French writers, Marguerite Duras and Colette, who wrote about their loves with the lightness of a breath of perfume – she would try to reconstruct what she remembered of those first months, when he courted her like someone who had nothing to lose, with a boyish ardor that only a man of his age could afford, and she refused him obdurately, taking with both hands from the abundance that poured out of him so generously and refusing to accept him himself, and his fears, and his craving body; but above all she would try to locate the moment when everything turned around inside her like in a painting by Escher, black birds on a white background and in the blink of an eye white birds on a black background, because it’s impossible to see both the black and the white birds simultaneously, and from that moment on she would no longer be able to see the black birds.
She would remember that on the first night, when she got out of his car outside the house on Yohanan Hasandlar street at four o’clock in the morning, and climbed the stairs heavy and tipsy, her heart beating loudly and an uncontrollable smile on her face, she knew that she had had an adventure, and the man who was still something of a mystery to her, who had courted her with food and drink and amusing anecdotes and quotations from the poems of Shlonsky and Alexander Penn, and taken her to a pub in the south of the city and a bakery that stayed open all night to sell bagels sprinkled with sesame seeds and wild thyme, was married: he had taken a passport photo out of his wallet and looked at it for a moment as if trying to engrave something on his memory, and then laid it down on the white tablecloth, next to the glass with her screwdriver, among the rose petals she pulled off and rubbed unthinkingly between her fingers – she always had to feel something with her fingertips: a leaf plucked from a hedge, or a bus or cinema ticket, or the hem of her blouse, or the corner of the sheet in her sleep, and now the petals of the rose which she would no longer be able to take home and put in water as a memento of this night.
‘This is Galya,’ he said.
She looked at the picture and said, ‘She’s beautiful, she looks like Julie Christie, what does she do?’
‘She teaches the history of Christianity at Tel Aviv University.’
‘And she doesn’t mind you going out at night like this?’
‘We each live our own lives,’ he said. ‘She knows I’m a bit restless.’
After that he showed her a picture of his son, a boy of eight who also looked strangely like Julie Christie, intelligent green eyes and straight honey-colored hair, and she said to herself, But why are his hands gripping his beer glass so tightly, as if they want to crush it, and why are his fingernails long and dirty, and why are there two buttons missing from his faded shirt, and why does he pinch bits of his beard between his fingers and put them in his mouth and chew them, and his laugh is hoarse and bitter, and his blue, bloodshot eyes, with the lovely laugh crinkles at the corners, why are they looking at her like that, with longing, and yes, also with a certain despair?
And she still didn’t know if she would ever see him again. He didn’t ask for her phone number, and she didn’t offer it, and the next day, at the university, scanning the cafeteria for Shai, who was nowhere to be seen, she thought of him and smiled to herself. But early that evening, when she came home and saw the patches of color in the distance, red and blue and green and yellow and pink and white and purple, there were seven of them, floating lightly in the breeze above her balcony, she wasn’t even surprised – he had tied a bunch of balloons to the balustrade, how had he done it, he would have had to climb up onto the gas tanks, at his age, with his paunch – and laughter burst from her belly.
On the days when she had no classes at the university, and he didn’t have to go to Haifa, he would knock on her door in the morning, pull faces through the peep-hole, hiding his right hand behind his back, and when she opened the door he would turn round to reveal a bag of croissants, or freshly ground coffee, or a flower – he never came empty-handed, as if he felt that he himself wasn’t enough – and they would have coffee and then go out to wander round the city, which was still, after living there for less than a year, new to her; the taste of the cheeses and piquant sausages in the Levinsky market, the smell of cardamom and curry and cinnamon in the Yemenite quarter, beer and home made gefilte fish and picked cucumbers in the little Jewish restaurant in the south of the town – ‘Vos makht a Yid?’ Zuker would come out to greet them from behind the counter, wiping his fingers swollen as stuffed kishkes on his stained apron, shaking their hands with a beaming face, and Yigal would reply, ‘Nishkoshe.’
They would often go into one of the second-hand book shops in Nahalat Binyamin street, sit down on the floor and turn the rust-stained pages smelling of dust and tobacco, and in spite of her protests she would always emerge with booty in her hands, the books of his boyhood that he wanted her to read – Eugene Onegin, Cyrano de Begerac, Pelle the Conqueror, Beau Geste, Til Ulenspiegel, and him at her side, hands in his pockets, humming ‘Tum-balalaika’ to himself.
Or they would stroll through the flea market in Jaffa, where he would pat a table or chest of drawers as if it were a pedigree horse, and say, ‘A fine example of Art Deco,’ or ‘Genuine Jugendstil.’ The merchants knew him as the ‘Doctor of Arithmetic’ who bought old chairs, and they would invite them to sit down and drink Turkish coffee in tiny cups, stealing no more than sidelong glances at her, out of respect for him, while slipping their amber worry beads through their fingers. ‘You should have some worry beads too,’ he said to her at the fish restaurant on the docks, and took hold of her fingers that were rolling the paper napkin into a little ball, ‘You know, the Chinese say that massaging the tips of the fingers sharpens the memory.’
‘That must be why I remember everything,’ she said with rash, childish pride.
‘So in thirty years’ time, when you come to visit me in the geriatric ward – I’ll be a drooling, senile old man in a wheelchair and you’ll still be full of beans, a good-looking woman of fifty – you’ll remember that, at this minute, with the sun and the wine and the good food and your lovely face opposite me, I was happy.’
And she wasn’t even sure that she remembered this sentence properly, even though she had learned it off by heart, like other things, for ever since she was a child she had commanded herself, You must fix this moment in your memory for ever, without knowing why she needed to preserve it or what use she might want to make of it.
At night they would go to drink at the ‘Red Bar’ or the ‘Taboo’, pushing their way through the thick smoke, between the wooden tables. Middle-aged men with hungry, muddy eyes, slapped him on the shoulder, women who had once upon a time been beautiful greeted him with hoarse voices and kissed him on his beard. Yigal drank iced vodka or cognac, and they talked, mainly about her, her studies and her work, and the books he had bought her, and her family, her mother and David and her two younger brothers.
‘You never talk about your father,’ he said to her one night.
‘I have no father.’
‘Is he dead?’ he frowned.
‘No, he disappeared.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘One day he just wasn’t there any more, vanished like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, like Saint-Exupery in the desert, like a ship in the Bermuda Triangle,’ she laughed. ‘When I was thirteen he left home and made a new family for himself in Beit Shemesh, and that was it, since then I’ve hardly seen him.’
‘Fathers and adolescent daughters are a problem, there isn’t a father in the world who doesn’t want to go to bed with his daughter, even if he doesn’t know it. He took the easy way out by going away and breaking off contact.’ He narrowed his eyes in the cigarette smoke. ‘If I had a daughter I don’t know how I would resist the temptation, lucky I have a son, and even with him, when we take a shower together, I sometimes get an erection.’
I’ve never heard anyone talk like him, she thought, he tells the truth, plain and unadorned. And later, when he took her home, a Beethoven sonata, the ‘Pathétique’ playing in the background, always the ‘Pathétique’ – until she bought him a Simon and Garfunkel tape, a few months later, when they had already become lovers – she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, at his strong, curved nose, at his firm mouth hidden under his beard, and at his light eyes fixed on the road ahead. He stopped outside her house and said quietly, gently pushing a lock of hair off her forehead, ‘I have a lot of patience, kochanka, I know that one day I’ll catch you and hold your little soul like this,’ he made a fist, and she got out of the car without a word and slammed the door, feeling his eyes on her back until she disappeared into the stairwell.
And during all those months she went on meeting Shai from time to time, mainly in order to go to bed with him, his smooth slender body and his lovely skin and his lips, and one evening, when she was in bed with him, she heard the familiar knock, and went to the door naked and said through it, ‘Yigal, I’m busy now, come another day,’ and he said, ‘I’ll come,’ and she was flooded with regret, and after a while she asked Shai to leave too, and the next morning, when she went out she found lines written in a thick black marker on her white-painted door:
Nobody knows the night like me,
Nobody lives the night like me,
Nobody dies in the night like me
In the one-way street of sadness.
She smiled to herself and wondered whether to erase the lines, in case her landlady turned up or one of the neighbors complained, but she decided to leave them there for the time being, as a kind of witness, and she copied them down on the yellow folio pad where she sometimes took lecture notes, in sudden excitement, as if they were her own, and she thought that before her first class she would drop in on Golden and look for the whole poem, whose author she didn’t know, perhaps it was Alterman, or Alexander Penn, or maybe Halfi, and Golden, who everybody called by his family name and only a few people knew his first name, which was Shimshon, would probably invite her to coffee, which he would bring on a round tray, with hurried little steps, from the café across the street, as he had always done, ever since she first discovered the shop a few months after arriving in Tel Aviv, and opened the blue-painted door and peeped inside and was immediately captivated: the old floor tiles with their faded pattern of green and orange flowers, the dark wooden shelves laden with books from the floor to the high ceiling – in order to reach the top shelves Golden would nimbly climb a long, narrow wooden ladder – the heavy brown counter with its little drawers for pens and rubber bands and ribbons for gift wrappings, the theater posters from the sixties and seventies hanging at the entrance, and the low table with the two wicker stools where she would sit for hours poring over plays and poetry, and upon which Golden now placed the two cups of coffee.
She didn’t mind missing her first class or her second one either, because she loved sitting there with him and listening to the story of his life, which was woven into the life of the shop and the life of the town, and which he would unfold to her chapter by chapter, without any chronological order, for in his eyes everything was one continuous, living present, and he sometimes spoke of people long dead in the present tense too, and she guessed that it was not because of the dulled wits of old age that he spoke like this, but because of the same tendency that caused him to regard the writers and composers he admired – Kafka and Proust and Flaubert and Verdi and Mahler and many others – as his close friends and to acquaint himself with every detail of their lives, for ever since arriving in Palestine as a child in the thirties, with his mother and father – a noble, scholarly man who had worked all his life as a proofreader for the Srebrek publishing house – he had been known as a dreamy lad, absorbed in books and music and an ardent admirer of the art of the theater, and when his peers in the Herzliya Gymnasium were active in the ranks of the Hagana and later put on khaki and joined the Palmach, Golden put on a three-piece suit of English cloth made to order by a master tailor in Nahalat Binyamin Street and sneaked into the Mann Auditorium to listen to the rehearsals of the Philharmonic in the mornings, and in the evenings he went to the Habima theater, where he held his handkerchief at the ready to stifle the consumptive coughing that sent him periodically to small hotels in Jerusalem and on the slopes of the Carmel in order to breathe the dry mountain air.
Up to the age of twenty-five, she knew, Golden had lived with his parents, who had resigned themselves to the idea that their sickly son was unfit for work, but in 1949, after a brief courtship – ‘she was the one who did the courting,’ the bitterness of the coffee seeped into his laughter, ‘and the courtship lasted exactly two minutes; she said, “Don’t you think we should get married?” and I agreed immediately’ – he married Miriam, who was two years older than he was, a practical woman with a short body, a short neck, and thick red lips; she quickly confronted him with the question of how he intended to make a living for her and their future children, and he decided to open a bookshop.
And so, on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Mapu streets, between an ‘Ata’ clothes store and a pharmacy, his father bought him the lease hold on a shop with key money, and together they put up the sign saying ‘Golden – Books and Newspapers’, to the annoyance of Golden, who wanted only the word ‘books’ to appear on the sign, since he intended selling only books and journals about art and music and the theater in his shop, and on the first day of business he put The Magic Mountain and Remembrance of Things Past in the original languages in the window and stepped out onto the pavement to contemplate his handiwork with a swelling heart, but his wife insisted that newspapers would provide them with a much more reliable income – ‘You have to read the news? You have to wipe your bum? Newspapers are used every day. A book you read once, and you still have to wipe the dust from it every year before Passover’ - and Golden was obliged to agree.
In the early years his was the only place where you could find books from Europe, plays and art books, and the shop became a meeting place for young actors and musicians, and also for novice poets, who more than buying books came to talk to Golden, who knew so much about European literature and poetry, and who was always ready to listen to their verses.
‘Yes, that was Golden’s golden age,’ he sighed.
In the course of time most of his customers became his friends, and you didn’t sell books to friends but lent them, and they didn’t always remember to return them, and if they did remember, they didn’t always return them in a state fit to be sold, and Miriam, who was in charge of the accounts, because her husband didn’t even know how to write a check, kept coming up with figures that showed they were operating at a loss, and Golden’s aged father would cover their losses out of his own pocket, until one winter day he died of a heart attack. And after those early years, during which their only daughter Ariela was born, things went downhill. Competition grew stiffer,the new bookshops took a big slice of the trade in foreign literature, and although Golden went on selling books here and there, his living came mainly from newspapers. During this period he met Amos, a nineteen-year-old soldier, who had published a few poems in the journal Masa and in the literary supplement of Al Hamishmar, and a special friendship grew up between them. Amos, who was serving at staff headquarters in Tel Aviv, would come to the shop every evening before seven. Golden would close the shop, and they would go to have coffee at the Vered Café on the corner of Dizengoff and Keren Kayemet, and sit there for a couple of hours, after which they would stroll up and down the street together.
She could see them in her imagination, the thin young soldier whose picture Golden kept under the counter, with his dark, curly hair and his burning brown eyes, and at his side a man of medium height with glasses and a small gray moustache wearing a jacket of checked English cloth; Golden accompanying Amos to his home on the corner of King George, and then both of them turning round and walking back to Golden’s house in Nordeau Boulevard – and still they can’t part; Golden describing to Amos in detail – just as he described to her fifteen years later – plays which had moved him in his youth: Mirele Efrat and Michal Bat-Shaul with Hana Rovina, Crime and Punishment with Finkel as Roskolnikov, Menahem Gnessin as Marmeladov, Bartonov as the examining magistrate, and in the role of Sonia – Fanny Lubitsch, who Rivi had seen several times in the shop with her friend Manya Olenskaya, both very old by now but whose wits and tongues were still as sharp as ever, after being whetted by years of competition, jealousy and mutual admiration, with each of them secretly sure that the other was the better actress – and Golden remembered all the lines by heart and acted all the roles for Amos, and without realizing what they were doing they turned round again and started back in the direction of Amos’s house, and so it went evening after evening, sometimes until midnight, and when Golden came home at last Miriam would grumble, ‘I can’t understand what you see in that boy, who’s young enough to be your son, when you’ve got a daughter you barely know at home,’ but Golden was intoxicated by his conversations with the youth, who was fluent in four languages, and like him worshipped T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and Verdi and Mahler and Chekhov and Gogol and Shakespeare and Proust, and who read all his poems to him, and after his release from the army, at the beginning of the seventies, went to study theater and English literature at the university, and started publishing articles in literary journals, and one summer Golden, who foresaw a brilliant future for him as a director or a professor, spent what remained of his father’s inheritance on taking his protegé to see the theater in London, ‘and it was the happiest summer of my life,’ he said to her, and the lenses of his glasses misted over.
During this period the shop deteriorated to what Miriam called ‘the lowest of the low’ and she demanded that they shut it down, and Golden, worn out by her interminable nagging, started thinking seriously about doing so; even though Amos told him that ‘the day you shut the shop you may as well go to Shnell’s hardware shop and buy a rope to hang yourself,’ he made up his mind to give in, and Amos asked to meet Miriam privately to explain how important the shop was to her husband’s mental health, and also to offer to paint it, after twenty years of neglect, himself, and to assist in the sales when he wasn’t studying, and Miriam – who had always borne a grudge against Amos, and especially after their ‘honeymoon in London’ which she could on no account forgive – agreed, surprisingly, to meet him at the Mersand Café on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Frischman streets.
Amos came straight from the university, and when he got off the bus he saw to his dismay that he was already ten minutes late, and since he did not want to spoil what he saw as a positive gesture on Miriam’s part, he started to run, and when he reached the corner of Frischman the traffic light was red, and he didn’t stop running and ran across the street and a black taxi hit him and sent him flying into the middle of the road, and he lay there bleeding and unconscious until the ambulance came and took him to the hospital, where he died the next day at dawn.
And the shop was not closed down. Miriam understood that after Amos had been taken, if the shop too was taken from him her husband would break down completely, while he blamed her in his heart and never forgave her, or himself either. He put together a modest collection of Amos’ poems, and petitioned the publishers until in the end one of them, worn out by his persistence, took pity on him and agreed to publish the poems, and the slim volume came out and was sold in a few dozen copies, mostly in Golden’s shop, where he filled the window with Amos’s book and begged his customers to buy it until they were too embarrassed to refuse.
And ever since, he had scrutinized every young man who came into the shop: ‘That boy has burning brown eyes exactly like his,’ he sometimes whispered to her – he never pronounced his name. During the course of the years he had made friends with a few other young men, especially with Amnon, a gifted young musician studying composition and conducting, and Mica, a student of French literature – she would sometimes see them in the shop – but his new friends, with whom he also drank coffee and strolled the streets at length, could not erase the grief, longing and guilt staring from his face.
He would often describe theatrical performances to her, or regale her with theatrical anecdotes, like now, as she sat on the wicker stool, holding Alexander Penn’s One-way Street of Sadness, a book smaller than her hand, which Golden had given her as a gift despite her protests, and even objected to her thanking him – ‘What’s the matter with you, one doesn’t say thank you for books’ – he had already been talking for a long time, and she had to go, but she couldn’t bring herself to interrupt the flow of his speech: ‘And Rosa Lichtenstein, have you heard of her? A wonderful actress. Always dressed in clothes that have been through three flea markets at least, with two mangy stray cats hanging round her neck like a fur, and she comes into the shop with her hair wild and a mad look in her eyes and an entourage of cats behind her, eight or nine of them, and speaks only German, doesn’t know a word of Hebrew, and in the evening I see her at the Cameri Theater, playing the matchmaker in The Miser, and on the stage she’s wearing an elegant gray dress, with a gray hat and gloves up to her elbows, a proper lady, and she acts in fluent Hebrew, without the trace of an accent, and the next day - she comes into the shop again with her rags and her cats, and asks me – Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’
‘I’ve never seen her here,’ she wondered, and Golden laughed, ‘How could you, she died before you were born,’ and Rivi said, ‘I have to go, I have a class at two,’ but when she was already outside she turned back on a sudden impulse and poked her head in at the door and asked the surprised Golden, who had already washed their little coffee cups in the sink at the back of the shop and was about to close for lunch, ‘Tell me, do you know a man called Yigal Lieberman?’ Golden laughed, ‘Do I know him, what a question, he’s been buying books here since he was a boy of fourteen, the first one “bought” on credit as they say, it was a small art book on Russian Constructivism, and I didn’t even realize it was missing, you know, boys come in, sometimes one of them goes out with a book under his shirt, even if I see I don’t say anything, not to shame them, they haven’t got any money and they want to read, and the books belong to the world, not to me, how can I stop them, but in his case I really didn’t notice, until one day the lad comes in with the book in his hands, his face as red as borscht, and says, listen, yesterday I stole this book from you and I couldn’t sleep all night, so I came to give it back, and I was really touched, nobody had ever brought a stolen book back before, I immediately invited him to coffee and offered to give him the book as a gift, but he said no, I’ll buy it when I have the money, and after some time he really did come back and buy it, and ever since then he insisted on paying the full price for every book he bought, he wouldn’t even accept the ten percent reduction I usually give, and he never agreed to have coffee, he would talk to me for a few minutes and go, but once, when he was already a student at the Avni Art School, I met him there at their end of the year exhibition, I went there with him’ he was silent for a moment – ‘yes, Yigal’s work was very interesting, I remember a wooden cross with three rusty crooked nails stuck in it, and a poem by Abba Kovner carved into the wood. After the exhibition the three of us went to have coffee at the Vered, and he told us that he came to the country with his mother after the war, and she put him in some kibbutz, and when he was fourteen she was making some sort of a living and she brought him to live with her in Tel Aviv, this was round about the time I met him. But in his second year at art school he suddenly left and went to the Technion to study mathematics, I think, or physics, I haven’t got a clue about such things, but he went on buying books after that too, to this day he comes by at least once a month, and his wife comes in a lot too, a very nice woman, she looks a bit like that actress, what’s her name, Lauren Bacall.’
‘Nonsense, she looks like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago,’ said Rivi, and kissed his cheek over the counter, and said, ‘Thank you, I have to run,’ and outside, rejoicing in her discoveries, and already planning how she was going to take Yigal by surprise with her newly acquired information, she heard Golden whistling the theme tune from the movie to himself.
‘Yes, sometimes I play around with all kinds of junk,’ he admitted. He had picked her up from work at the end of her shift, and they had gone to sit in the ‘Red Bar’. ‘For the past twenty years I’ve been doing sculpture for my own amusement,’ he laughed. ‘I left the Avni school the day I saw a photograph of a piece by Picasso – the seat of a bicycle joined to the handlebars, and there was the head of a bull. It bowled me over. So simple, so brilliant. The day I realized that I was no Picasso I packed my bags and went to study at the Technion.’
‘And the teachers at Avni, what did they say about your work?’
‘They encouraged me to carry on, especially Streichman, he was great, but I’d made up my mind. A person has to choose his own judges, and as far as the art world is concerned I’d already realized that it was a swamp full of people driven by the lust for power and prestige, envy, pettiness, megalomania, they’re prepared to eat one another alive, and for what, a piece of a wall in an exhibition, a couple of lines in a newspaper. It was only later that I understood academic life here was exactly the same, the fact is that we haven’t emerged from the shtetl yet.’ He pinched his beard between two fingers. ‘I won’t say that I’ve invented some theory that will change the fate of mankind, but mathematics at least I know that I know. Woody Allen once said you can’t control life, only art and masturbation.’ He laughed, ‘I can add mathematics to his list.’
‘Will you show me one day?’ she asked carefully.
‘On condition you show me first.’ Dancing imps in his eyes.
‘What, my poems?’ she asked, and immediately she understood, and laughed.
She had wanted to give him the poems to read for a long time now, but something stopped her. She knew she had chosen him as her judge, together with Noa and Golden and Benjamin Keinan, and she was afraid of what he would say. But a few days later, when they were sitting in her room one evening, she gathered up her courage and took out a few pages she had typed on the old pale green Hermes he father had left behind on top of the porch cupboard, taking with him only the Deux-Chevaux, which was already limping and croaking like an old frog, and a single suitcase with his clothes, and she had played with the idea that he had left it there on purpose, so that she would write, he had always taken such pride in every poem of hers published in the children’s supplement of Davar. She put the pages in his hand and went into the kitchen to make coffee, and when she returned with a yellow mug in each hand he said to her, 'Don’t be angry, I think they’re not good enough,’ and she took the pages and put them back in the folder.
At the end of summer, a few days before the high holidays, they were having lunch in a tiny restaurant in the Yemenite quarter, she was scooping up humous with beans and he was eating hot, spicy oxtail soup that made his face blaze,and suddenly he said, ‘I’m going to Europe for two weeks, will you come with me?’
She could almost hear the expectation in his voice, like the long, sharp note of a metronome.
Yes, I’ll go – she knew at once, but she paused before she answered: He wants me, that’s what this whole trip is about, and I don’t know if I can receive him into me, not just his body but all the years and memories and the bitter desire.
‘I’ll come with you,’ she said finally, ‘but without any funny business, I don’t want to get involved.’ During all those months she was giving birth inside her to a bold, stubborn fool, who dared to say yes to him – she would later write about that afternoon, when she sealed her doom with her own hands.
That evening she went to Yosef and Simcha his wife, the owners of the blintzes establishment; he was a Hungarian of about seventy, deaf as a post, with a hearing aid, who sat all day at a table in the back of the restaurant in a fish-net top and short pants, with a bundle of bank notes in his hands, counting them over and over with surprising speed, wetting his thumb on his tongue; his wife, twenty years younger than him, a corpulent Tunisian with a sharp tongue, ran the place and gave orders to the waitresses and the Arab youth who fried the blintzes. She assured them that she had already arranged for the second waitress, Zahavit, to take her place, because she knew that Zahavit would gladly agree –waitressing for her was only an appendage to her main occupation, the search for a husband, and she always arrived made-up and glamorously dressed, as if for a blind date, and she would say to Rivi, ‘Today’s the day, I can feel it in my guts,’ and whenever a young man who looked sufficiently ‘cute’ and ‘Ashkenazi’ walked in, she would pounce on him and trap him in the winding maze of her chatter, and after he got up and left, leaving a polite smile and a modest tip behind him, she would collect the empty dishes, tottering with the tray on her high heels, and throw out in Rivi’s direction, ‘Believe me, they’re all sex-maniacs, they’ve only got one thing on their minds.’ And at the end of the evening, when Simcha permitted them to sit down and eat while they waited for the last customers to finish their coffee – every evening they would try a different filling on the list – Zahavit would confide in her the fantasy of the Ashkenazi dentist she would marry one day; she had once worked as an assistant to a dentist who told her that she reminded him of Sophia Loren. She actually had very nice teeth, white and even, but her dark skin was pitted, and her nose looked broken, and she often looked enviously at Rivi and said, ‘If I looked like you do, I would have found a job as a flight attendant long ago, and caught myself some American millionaire. I can’t understand what you’re stuck here for, don’t you want to get married?’
‘No.’ She poked the blintz with her fork, fishing for the raisins.
‘What, don’t you want children?’ marveled Zahavit, who had eight brothers and sisters at home on the moshav in the south, and who for a number of years had already been regarded by her family as an old maid. She was twenty-four years old.
‘In a few years I’ll have a child with whoever’s around at the time,’ she smiled, ‘maybe with two or three. They won’t know which of them is the father, I’ll be the only one who knows. It’ll drive them crazy, and my child will have three fathers, who’ll compete for him with presents and stories and trips.’
‘You’re having me on.’ Zahavit’s eyes opened wide in horror.
Now she told Zahavit about her trip with Yigal. Ever since her best friend Noa had married and gone to the United States – not to study acting in New York, her plan since the age of fourteen, which she had elaborated in detail to Rivi, as well as reciting monologues from Chekhov and Hanoch Levine to her admiring friend, and sometimes mimicking their teachers and classmates too, making Rivi fall onto the hot asphalt of the school playground and kick her legs in the air in helpless spasms of laughter; but in order to join some sect in Oregon about which Rivi knew very little, since all contact between them had been broken off, apart from the regards she occasionally sent through her parents, and bland greeting cards on her birthday – ever since Noa had left so suddenly and painfully, she had no girlfriend to confide in, because at the university, except for her brief affair with Shai, she had not made any new friends, perhaps owing to the fact that she was attending classes in a number of different departments, and perhaps because the conversations in the cafeteria bored her and seemed to her to be a waste of time. She preferred listening to Zahavit’s stories, which starred thousands of brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law and adorable curly-haired nephews and nieces, all of whom she called ‘mammi’.
‘A married man of forty-six? Tell me, have you tripped over your brains?’ yelled Zahavit, and a number of heads turned towards them. ‘You’ll suffer, believe me, you’ll suffer. God punishes you for things like that.’
‘Leave God out of it, God’s a homeless AIDS victim in New York,’ she muttered a line from a poem she had written recently to herself, sorry that she hadn’t been able to resist telling the waitress.
‘You’re absolutely mad.’ Zahavit sprayed the cleaning agent from the blue plastic bottle and rubbed the table with a cloth. ‘What does he do, this old man of yours, is he a doctor at least?’
‘He’s a doctor of mathematics, he teaches at the Technion, and he’s not mine.’
The day before the flight she called her mother at the travel agency she had inherited from her grandfather when he died two years before, to say goodbye and confirm the departure time. She liked phoning the office, asking for Mrs. Carmela Shenhar, and when the clerk inquired, ‘Who’s calling?’ saying ‘Her daughter,’ in a tone of privileged pride, because ever since she was a child the employees had fawned on her and danced attendance on her whenever she came there to visit her grandfather in his splendid director’s office with its red leather furniture and its pictures of Swiss alps and Dutch windmills and tulip fields. She refused to tell her the name of her traveling companion. ‘A friend,’ she said and promised that she would come down for the weekend on her return. Since coming to live in Tel Aviv she had hardly been home, whether because of her work or because she enjoyed the quiet Saturdays in her apartment, or perhaps because ever since David had moved in to live with them the atmosphere at home had been strained, with frequent outbursts of petty squabbles. ‘Have fun and look after yourself,’ said her mother, and suddenly Rivi felt, as in her childhood, that even at a distance of a hundred kilometers she could see right into her and she knew everything.
In the afternoon – her case was already packed, except for the toilet bag – she went out on the spur of the moment to Allenby street, and took the number sixty-one bus to Ramat Gan, to visit her great-aunt Tehiya, Grandma Rivka’s younger sister.
She pushed the gate she had loved to swing on as a child – rough vertical planks, pointed at the top and painted green – and entered the garden where she had spent most of her holidays, since her parents had taken full advantage of the big reductions made available to them by her grandfather’s travel agency and made frequent trips abroad, and on their way to the airport they would drop her off at her great-aunt’s, who was like a grandmother to her, and who she now found on all fours, inspecting the lawn through narrowed eyes behind the glasses she had started to use after undergoing two cataract operations in recent years.
Rivi bent over her and kissed her on her brown cheek, criss-crossed with wrinkles, and Aunt Tehiya raised her head and studied her over the tops of her glasses and said, ‘Just a minute, monkey,’ and Rivi smiled to herself and looked at the trees surrounding the lawn: the loquat tree of her Passover vacations, whose fruit was small and sweet as bees, the mango of the long summer vacation, that dripped sticky orange juice on her T-shirt and her hands and left threads between her teeth after she sucked the pip, the guava of the Sukkot vacation, whose big fruits would burst in the night with moist explosions, and she would sit up in bed, anxious and wide-eyed in the dark, and listen to the beating wings of the bats, intoxicated by the smell, banging into the branches again and again. And here was the tall pecan tree in whose leafy crest she had read all the old books left behind them by Aunt Tehiya’s children when they grew up and left home. Riding on a thick branch, her face in the rust-stained pages of Yotam the Wizard or The Mystery of the Boxes until Aunt Tehiya’s perpetually hoarse voice came climbing after her, ‘Monkey, the mashed potatoes are getting cold.’ Now she shot out a nimble brown hand and pulled up a weed. ‘Look,’ she said triumphantly, ‘this is the lawn’s worst enemy, you can tell it by the tiny little yellow flowers, can you see?’ She looked at her inquiringly. ‘Yes,’ she said hesitantly, although she couldn’t see any difference between the noxious weed and Aunt Tehiya’s lawn, loath to confess her failure to master the family secrets regarding gardening, jam-making, and shirt- and sheet-starching, skills that Grandma Rivka and Aunt Tehiya had learnt from their mother as children and passed on to their own daughters, but which had survived in her own mother only in the home-made jam and a few potted plants on the porch, and in herself not at all.
Aunt Tehiya switched on the sprinkler, which started spraying generous jets of water in a rhythmic, circular motion. A deep, drenched smell rose from the damp lawn and the flower beds surrounding the house, birds of paradise and nasturtiums and velvety pansies and lilies and sweet peas, blooming in extravagant colors and breathing bold scents under the touch of the fingers of Aunt Tehiya, who did not depend on the favors of capricious butterflies, or random breezes, but with her own hands took a little pollen from one flower and smeared it on the long, slender stamen of its fellow. And now too, as they walked down the path to the kitchen door, her long, earthy fingers fluttered over the flowers, but when she came to the birds of paradise with their spectacular, flame-like blue and orange blooms, she stopped for a moment and said, ‘I’m not pollinating these any more, it takes them five years to grow a flower, and I won’t be here to see them anyway, so why should I bother?’
On their recent meetings she had spoken a lot about death, even though she was perfectly healthy. Rivi knew that she hoped to meet her husband, Uncle Moshe, who had died suddenly fifteen years ago, when she herself was seven – one Saturday morning he had collapsed on the lawn never to rise again – and even more she longed for her son Uri, who had been killed a few years later in a traffic accident. ‘I’m 75 years old,’ she often said, ‘and I don’t understand why a human being should live so long.’
And nevertheless she tried to live her life to the full, and a few weeks before, in the middle of August, she had dragged the thirsty, exhausted Rivi in the heat of the midday sun, up and down Ben Yehuda street, going into all the travel agents in search of a package tour to China, and she took no notice of her explanations that there was no tourism to China, and only repeated firmly to the clerks, who looked at Rivi in embarrassment, as if seeking confirmation regarding the old lady’s sanity, ‘I’m interested in seeing China, I’ve already been everywhere else, and at my age I can’t afford to go to the same place twice.’ And only when they went through all the brochures with her and found a safari trip to Kenya, a country she had also never seen, was she satisfied, and she patted Rivi’s arm and laughed, ‘Well, if they don’t offer package tours to the next world here, or to China either, we’ll go to Kenya and see the elephants.’
Now they climbed the three steps to the narrow kitchen porch, which always smelled of the new-born kittens that were her very first memory, from the age of two and a half or three: the touch of the dusty porch floor on her bare feet, and Uncle Moshe, in short khaki pants with his chest bare, swinging her up to the balustrade in his arms, and in the corner was an orange crate padded with newspapers and inside it the kittens, tiny and damp and blind, crowding with piping mews against Kitzi’s stomach. They went inside through the screen door, and Rivi sat down on a white-painted stool at the little table, on which Aunt Tehiya rapidly set a salad of finely cut vegetables, and little pickled eggplants, and yogurt and apricot jam and fresh black bread, and when everything was ready she gave her a stern look, like then, and ordered, ‘Wash your hands.’
She went to the bathroom and opened the tap. She noticed that Uncle Moshe’s shaving brush was still in the little glass-fronted cupboard on the wall, and she took it down and put it to her nose, but the pungent smell that stung her nostrils when he kissed her on the cheek had been replaced by the smell of the hand-cream used by her great-aunt, who would come into the bathroom in a minute, a towel on her shoulder, like then, when she would open the tap and command, ‘Into the tub with you, monkey,’ and fill the bath with boiling hot water that scalded her skin, and scrub her body with a rough sponge and a big bar of soap, and sometimes, when she suspected lice, shampoo her hair with vinegar and kerosene, and afterwards she would let her splash in the water which had cooled down a little, while she herself would stand with her strong brown legs apart and comb her thick black hair, which came down to her thighs, swinging the soft curtain right and down and left, combing vigorously, and finally braiding it dexterously into a long plait which she coiled round her head, fastening it in place with the granny-pins that she removed from her mouth like a conjuror, just as she had done for close to seventy-five years, holding her head high with its heavy crown of hair, that never grew sparse or turned white, and once a year, when it reached below her knees, she would cut off ten centimeters herself.
She had never in all her life, Rivi knew, set foot in a hairdressing salon, and only once, on the occasion of her marriage to Uncle Moshe, which took place in haste in a little synagogue in Yehuda Halevi street on a rainy morning at the end of January, on one of his brief leaves from the British army, in which he served throughout the second world war as a driver transporting equipment and supplies from Lebanon to Egypt – did she undo her braid in his honor, and she made her appearance in her camel-hair winter coat, veiled in her black hair, and the old rabbi looked in alarm at the big man in his dusty creased uniform and the tall, dark young girl, who he could tell by the burning look she sent him was not only not a virgin, but had also failed to purify herself in the ritual bath of the mikveh, who were accompanied by two friends of the groom’s, big, strapping soldiers like himself, and by his black wolf hound, Valiant, and by two beggars, who for a few pennies and a glass of wine had agreed to hold the poles of the bridal canopy, one of them lame and the other one-armed, and both of whom were drunk and drooling, and the rabbi took Uncle Moshe aside and whispered to him in Yiddish, ‘It’s not too late to change your mind, take one of ours, that black witch will make your life hell.’ And even after Uncle Moshe assured him that Tehiya was one of ours and only looked like one of theirs, the rabbi was not reassured, and he conducted the service haltingly and nervously, as if his heart wasn’t in it, and when Uncle Moshe broke the glass under his clumsy army boot, the rabbi murmured ‘Amen’, and under his breath he said to himself, ‘A fine business,’ and after the bride and groom walked out of the synagogue into the rain drizzling down outside, arm in arm and married according to the law of Moses, with the dog frisking in front of them and the two beggars tottering down the street behind them, spewing drunken blessings and moist hiccups, and Uncle Moshe gave them a few more coins to go away, Aunt Tehiya stood still and braided her hair, and wound it round her head, and she never let it loose again, except for once a day to comb it, and once a week, on Friday afternoon, to shampoo it in a special herbal brew of her own concoction, that kept it dark and shining. Afterwards she would sit in a wicker chair on the veranda to dry it, while she peeled potatoes for the Sabbath cholent, and she would pretend not to notice the eyes staring at her over the pitango hedge, because all the children of the neighborhood would come to cram their mouths full of the red, sour-sweet berries, and to gaze at the long black snakes writhing from her head to the floor, and the good, sharp smell, the smell of lemon, cloves and mint, rose into the air and wafted into their mothers’ kitchens where it mingled with the smells of the Sabbath dishes cooking on their stoves, and gradually the snakes turned into a dark curtain, glinting blue and pink and orange in the rays of the setting sun. And whenever they sang in school, in honor of the approaching Sabbath, ‘The sun has gone from the treetops green, let us go forth to greet the Sabbath Queen,’ she would see before her eyes her great-aunt Tehiya peeling potatoes on the veranda for the Sabbath cholent, and drying her hair.
Aunt Tehiya stuck the last pin into her coronet and then helped her out of the water, which was already cold, and wrapped her in the white towel which was hard and scratchy from all the scrubbing and boiling and washing blue that she and Naomi, the Yemenite maid, poured into the tub on the day they laundered the sheets and towels.
Once a fortnight, she remembered – drying her hands on the towel which the years had not softened – in rain and shine, always on a Wednesday, Naomi would knock on the door at five o’clock in the morning, quickly kiss her hand and touch the mezuza on the doorpost, and put down her many baskets and bundles, whose contents always remained a mystery to Rivi, except for the bunch of mint from her garden, or the big jar of brown eggplants, or the bitter, crushed green olives she pickled herself, which Naomi would invariably take out and place on the kitchen table, and Aunt Tehiya would shake her head as if to say, you shouldn’t have, but her eyes would glitter as the taste rose pungently in her mouth. From the window of the room she slept in, which had once belonged to Nurit, the middle daughter, she would see them going to the garden shed, where she liked to hide in the afternoons, when fans of light and dust filtered through the cracks and spread out over the pieces of old furniture stacked there, and the tools and bicycle wheels hanging on the walls, and Uncle Moshe’s old black motorcycle with the side-car, which in the album with the red leather cover, in a snapshot dating from the early days of their marriage, she had once seen them riding on: Uncle Moshe in a close-fitting leather cap with ear flaps and goggles, smiling under his fair moustache, and perching on the passenger seat behind him Aunt Tehiya with a huge belly, wearing round sunglasses, the head scarf knotted under her chin flapping gaily in the breeze, and the dog sitting erect in the side-car next to them, valiant as his name. But now the motorcycle was broken-down and relegated to the shed where sunbeams danced on the thick veil of cobwebs covering it, and where the smells of sawdust and paint and kerosene assailed her and made her giddy.
Towards this shed they would make their way in the half-light of five o’clock in the morning: Naomi, short and stout, hobbling ahead, dragging her weak, left leg, and carrying the laundry tied up in a sheet like a great white ball on her head, her puffy limbs encased in layers of long dresses, in summer too, her dark face gleaming, her lips thick and brown as pickled eggplants, wire glasses on her flat nose, and her hair – frizzy gray strings hard as steel-wool – peeping out under the floral scarf bound round her head and tied in a bow on her forehead. Together they would drag the enormous cauldron, its bottom half black with soot, out of the shed, together with the planks for firewood, the two corrugated tin scrubbing boards, the long stick for stirring. Then they arranged the planks under the pomelo tree, and surrounded them with the sooty bricks that were always stacked next to the kennel of the dog, Blackie, the son of Valiant’s old age, who was now very old himself, and who ever since that Saturday morning when Uncle Moshe fell never to rise again, had spent his days lying in the shade of the tree, his head resting on his forepaws, his white nose quivering, with tears of weakness and longing, and the memory of his wild and happy life trickling from his closed eyes, and only when he heard the noise of the cauldron being dragged down the path he would shift his position and turn his hindquarters to them, and thrust his muzzle into the opening of his kennel, because during the next few hours the yard would be full of the smell of soap flakes and kerosene and smoke, and Aunt Tehiya and Naomi would sit opposite each other on low stools, the scrubbing boards between their parted legs, and with their hands clenched into fists and their knuckles turning white and red by turn they would pummel the sheets and the towels, underwear and shirt collars, with gritted teeth, with clamped lips, the sweat streaming down their flushed faces, and from time to time one of them would let out a grunt of effort, and as they came to the end of their labors they would cast off all restraint and puff and pant and groan out loud, ‘Oy, oy, oy.’ Then they would straighten up and raise their arms to wipe their foreheads, revealing dark islands of sweat in their armpits. They would leave the laundry to boil a little longer in the cauldron, getting up every now and then to stir it and turn it over with the help of the stick, and in the end they would fish it out and put it into the peeling enamel tub to soak with the blue, first the tablecloths, then the towels, the sheets and pillowcases, the shirts, and lastly the underwear, and Naomi would tell Aunt Tehiya about all the calamities that had overtaken her during the last two weeks, about her daughter who smoked on the Sabbath, and her grandson who trod on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot, and Aunt Tehiya would frown sorrowfully and say ‘Oy oy oy’ again, but Rivi sensed that it was a different ‘oy’ from the previous one, and she didn’t know if there were suddenly tears in her eyes because of Naomi’s troubles or because of the smoke.
Then they would get up, necklaces of wooden clothes-pegs stuck onto fraying old dressing-gown belts dangling round their necks, and hung the washing up on the lines stretched above the beds of lilies, blooming brightly in hues of red, pink, orange and yellow. Together they overturned the cauldron onto the smoldering embers and dragged it back to the shed, and at 9:00 in the morning, with the white wash flapping limply on the lines, Aunt Tehiya, Naomi and Rivi sat down at the little kitchen table to eat their breakfast, fried eggs and finely chopped salad, pickled eggplant or olives and salty goats’ cheese, and they would dip crusts of bread into the egg yolks and chew energetically, occasionally taking noisy slurps of boiling hot mint tea that flushed their faces, and Aunt Tehiya would permit herself a long sigh of satisfaction.
Now she ate in silence, loading her fork with mashed potatoes and yogurt and dissolving them in her mouth with slow, rhythmic movements of her jaw, and Rivi said to herself that she had aged greatly in the past few years, and that she was growing increasingly like her great-grandmother Bathsheba, the mother of Tehiya and Grandma Rivka, who had died when she was five, and whom she remembered shuffling along the path, dark glasses on her eyes and a white stick tapping in front of her, and calling ‘Tehiya, Tehiya,’ in a voice that sounded exactly like Aunt Tehiya’s own.
‘Well, this fellow you’re going abroad with, is he a handsome man? Is he tall?’ Her voice rose at the end of her questions and she pierced her with her eyes.
‘He’s my height, and he’s got a bit of a paunch and a beard,’ Rivi smiled into her plate.
‘Older than you? Married?’ she suddenly pounced, like the crack of a whip, and Rivi remembered how she would chase her on the beach, and kick out with her long legs to pinch her with toes that were as strong as the claws of a crab, her laugher rising high above the waves, and she wondered if she could still crack nuts between them.
‘I can’t understand it,’ she went on without waiting for a reply, ‘just like I didn’t understand your mother, who went and fell in love with a married man and took him away from his wife - why, from the minute my Moshe set eyes on me, through the window of Mrs. Margalit Orenstein’s gymnastics studio, and after seeing his face pressed to the window pane for a few days he was already waiting for me outside at the end of the class, I was fourteen then and he was almost twenty, and I was no Greta Garbo, tall as a boy and wild and black, my mother used to call me Tzigeleh – a goat – but from that moment on he never looked at another woman as long as he lived, and if he did he didn’t see her, he would joke that I’d blinded him, and after he died you think I didn’t have suitors? But I knew that I could never love anyone the way I loved him. And we fought, oho you should have seen the boxing matches here on the lawn, and I was as strong as he was, I knocked him down more than once,’ a mischievous smile appeared on her face, ‘but you people are lazy, you want everything served up to you on a platter,’ she said bitterly, ‘and the minute anything grows a little old, the television or the car or the love, you quickly run to buy a new one,’ and Rivi knew that she was talking about her youngest son, Ami, who was about to get divorced for the second time, ‘but you go on your trip and enjoy yourself as much as you can, I’m not saying anything, you know I don’t like interfering, what’s this, you haven’t tasted my jam, it turned out very well this time. I’ll make you a cup of tea.’
‘But I’m not in love with him and I’m not taking him away from anyone, we’re just friends,’ said Rivi. And Aunt Tehiya, as if she hadn’t heard, said, ‘You have to be careful with that heart of yours that races at a speed of two hundred beats a minute; the number of times I had to run to Dr. Marshak with you in the middle of the night when you were small.’
That was because of the bats in the guava tree, she thought, but she didn’t say anything.
Late in the afternoon, when she closed the green gate behind her, carrying a basket with a jar of apricot jam and a jar of pickled eggplants and a bag of pecan nuts – Aunt Tehiya never let her leave empty-handed – as she walked along the pitango hedge, plucking a leaf without thinking and crushing it and raising it to her nose, she was already missing the house she had left behind her, not as if she would be back in two or three weeks, but as if it was lost to her forever, the way she would miss it many years later.
Copyright © 2011 by Judith Katzir. Worldwide translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Judith Katzir was born in Haifa in 1963, and studied literature and cinema at Tel Aviv University. At present, she is an editor at Hakibbutz Hameuchad/Siman Kriah Publishing House and teaches creative writing. Katzir, a bestselling author in Israel, has published two collections of stories and novellas, two novels and three children’s books. In addition to literary prizes for individual stories, Katzir has received the Book Publishers Association's Gold and Platinum Book Prizes, the Prime Minister's Prize twice (1996, 2007) and the French WIZO Prize for Matisse Has the Sun in His Belly (2004). Her work has been translated into eleven languages.