(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Daniella Carmi
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
How Zohara Balaban managed to find the two security prisoners from the district jail to take the place of her husband at night, God only knows. But it really happened, we were right there in the room, me and the three others, ‘inmates’ they called us, with our hair washed and combed we lay in our beds, drowning in Zohara’s intoxicating scents, and trying to stifle our giggles, but they refused to be stifled. Zohara’s recovering thighs writhed like a couple of cobras, and together with them the bedsprings danced, mattresses were tossed in the storm, walls were scratched, moans rose in the air and grunts broke out of the depths of our stomachs. Yes, we were all there with her when she took off, and honey dropped on us from the sky.
Before Zohara arrived, that institution was the dreariest place you ever met. And I – still almost a child, with the blue pajama pants turned up three times, so they wouldn’t drag on the floor. When I saw myself for the first time in the head nurse’s room I said: All you need is a helmet with a little antenna, and you can fly straight to the moon. The head nurse tested me to see if I was at least a little suitable for the world, and I, who had already spent time in a few such places during the course of my short life, was sure that I knew the questions.
For instance, if they ask you what would you do with a stamped, addressed envelope you found in the street, you have to answer in a clear voice that you would immediately drop it into the nearest mailbox.
If you hesitate – they narrow their eyes and survey your terrible future in silence. Anyone who doesn’t know the answer could easily get mixed up, because you might, for example, give the envelope to a counselor or a teacher or even a policeman – but then you’re not independent, and they take off points. If you put it in your bag, by the time you found a mailbox the envelope would be stained by make-up or chocolate – and then too they would narrow their eyes and take off points. You’re not allowed to throw the envelope away, even if you’re in a hurry, on no account are you allowed to open it, and God help you if you read the letter. If that’s what you’d do – you start again from zero points, and by the time you get out of the institution you’ll be an old woman.
So there I stood on my first day, drowning in the pajamas but sure of the answer, only this head nurse who I didn’t know, Alina they called her – had innovations of her own, and also a smile she hid between her lips when she questioned you, because she was a big expert in this whole business of suitability for the world, and nobody could pull the wool over her eyes. And I, when I saw that smile smiling all inwardly, said to myself, say as little as possible and keep strictly to the point. And even though she didn’t narrow her eyes, and only offered me a big apple which she took out of her pocket – I was too shy to take it and also, I didn’t know yet but it was as if I knew that I was supposed to refuse – underneath it all, perhaps in the way she bit into the apple herself, I could see that there was something missing in my answer. But I repeated it anyway, like a little child, while she went on chewing and looking at me, in her head she’d probably taken off a hundred points already, and when the instrument she had on her belt beeped, she switched it off, so that she could concentrate exclusively on me and my pajamas, and after she’d finished the apple she sent me to room 7, where a bed would be made up for me, and said no more.
It was only a month later that Larisa, one of the girls in my room, explained to me that for a long time now you weren’t supposed to pick up anything in the street, but to keep the passersby, especially children, at a distance, and apply with all possible speed to a security office – where you were supposed to find this office she didn’t know – because the stamped envelope was now suspicious by its very nature, and liable to blow up in your face.
In room 7 the hours are long and time stands still. And even though my feet are actually touching Larisa’s, whose bed is a continuation of mine along the same wall, she sleeps most of the time, even when they bring her food tray she sits up with her eyes closed. And I discover that this girl has a talent for managing a spoon and fork rare even among the open-eyed. She functions brilliantly as a professional blind girl, but she has no inclination to talk. Even when her mother comes to visit she remains half asleep, and when she says something – it’s in Russian. It’s only for Hebrew that she opens one eye, but that’s when she addresses a member of the staff, and if any of us speak to her, she doesn’t hear.
Sharon, in the bed opposite, speaks in a whisper under her blanket to some American Indian who apparently understands Moroccan quite well. And Mali, a big woman in the bed next to the door, prefers to butt the wall with her head and snort when I ask her where I can get hold of a cup. But nevertheless, on the following mornings I begin to feel quite fond of this Mali when she wakes, because then she smiles at the world like someone who’s just this minute been born, and she even answers questions, but all this is only on waking, after that you have to wait for the next morning again.
Yes, for a few weeks you don’t know how to get through the day there. When Larisa isn’t sleeping, she blinks a lot, not only with her eyes, all kinds of different parts of her body blink too. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t listen to you. Because she has to concentrate on what’s going to happen to her body the next minute. One night, when she can’t sleep, Mali tells me that once little puffs of smoke came out of Larisa’s ears. I don’t know whether to believe her, until I find out that Larisa’s family came here from the vicinity of an atomic reactor in Russia, and everybody knows that living in a place like that can make things happen to people that you would never believe in a million years.
Every morning a neurologist taps Larisa’s knee with a little hammer, and precisely there nothing moves. He taps a few other spots nearby, and when nothing happens, he says ‘Good.’ And I thank God that someone in this place has something to say at the start of the day. Only once her knee jumped suddenly and he said ‘Great’, but however many times he tapped there again – nothing more happened.
To the male nurse who hands out the medication Larisa talks a lot, and she also examines the pills, because they make mistakes all the time, she says, she can never be sure that the pills he gives her are hers. He keeps quiet, and her forehead begins to blink when she asks him why her side effects have changed completely in the past month. It’s obviously a sign that she’s drinking somebody else’s pills, Larisa answers her question herself. The nurse has a few other explanations to offer, for example the pollen in the fields, or the sewage pipe that burst in the yard, or changes in the currents of the wind. When he says these things, Larisa closes her eyes again. Because when a thought comes into her head it’s hard for her to part from it. After the nurse leaves, Larisa goes on reflecting aloud about someone who is no doubt at this minute receiving her pills, and then Mali snorts into her ear and laughs: Nobody wants to steal your sickness, honey.
The situation improves somewhat at the end of the first month, and it turns out that I was particularly unlucky, because the day before I arrived Mali was put under sedation on a temporary basis, and Sharon wasn’t getting the yellow pills that make her high, without which she’s flat on her face, but the day that Mali begins to emerge from her stupor, she disappears from the room to seclude herself with Ezra the store man for a bit of touching, and comes back after a while with Kent longs for everybody and yellow pills for Sharon’s high. For Sharon touching has been a no-no since she was a child, which is why she gets so excited whenever she describes how Mali once stuck herself to Ezra by the backside in the ECT room, just so he would bring her yellow pills from the Georgian market for Sharon. Lucky there was a power cut exactly then, Mali remarks and bellows with laughter and wobbles her thighs and shakes them like a heavy rock singer. But a few hours after Mali refreshed herself with the store man and finished two packets of cigarettes, she starts to snort and butt the wall again, and Sharon’s high is completely silent, even her relations with the Indian under the blanket are broken off, and once more nothing happens in the room.
And one day Zohara Balaban arrived in our room. There was no space next to the walls and they looked and looked, and in the end they moved Larisa to under the window and put Zohara’s bed in her place. Larisa sat up in bed with her eyes closed. There was no sign that she was aware of what was going on. I saw tears trickling from her eyes, but that happened to her a few times a day in the normal course of events as well. She didn’t notice when the nurse moved the shoes lined up next to her bed to the new place either. A row of rather shabby shoes, including a pair of slippers that looked as if they’d been through a forced labour camp or something, not that the state of her shoes mattered, since Larisa never got out of bed. That morning she took the pink handbag that she always slept with out from under her blanket and began to rummage through her documents, all with her eyes closed.
I hoped that something would happen in the room now, but Zohara disappeared into her bed as if she wasn’t there, all we could see was the tip of her head peeping out of the blanket. A nurse came and brought crutches and put them under the bed, and then another nurse came and took the clothes out of Zohara’s suitcase and hung them up in the closet. You could see what a great time she was having, that nurse, with Zohara’s vast collection of perfume bottles and hairbrushes, which she arranged for her on the locker next to her bed. And all the time she kept on humming some tune or other, and nothing as far as you could see was going to stop her, although she did stop once – in order to bend down to Zohara and warn her against thefts, but Zohara didn’t seem to hear her.
Throughout Zohara’s first week in the room life goes on as before. If she lets down the blanket a bit you can see that she’s awake, staring at the ceiling. Once she asks the nurse in a whisper if anyone has phoned or come to see her, and then she falls asleep again. Another time they bring a telephone specially to her bed, and she asks for Nimrod Balaban, the prison warden. She speaks in a whisper, without any intonation, and when there’s no response, she goes to sleep again.
I wait for this Zohara to show a sign of life, and in the meantime I look out of the window above the sleeping Larisa, this is how I spend most of the day. Towards lunch time a bus arrives with donors, the doctor with the moustache takes them straight up to the roof on the building opposite, where he explains the view to them, and the donors listen attentively, but however hard you try you can’t guess what he’s saying about the three bald hills and the telegraph pole, which constitute our view.
From the toilet window I can see the swimming pool in the new wing. But I’ve never seen any water in it, even though it has a transparent roof and walls and we could have spent the time that refuses to pass there in winter too.
At three o’clock, from the toilet window, I see the doctors and almost all the nurses getting into their cars and going home. Even during the morning when they’re up and down the corridors there isn’t much to do here, but when they get into their cars and you know that the most exciting thing liable to happen to you in the evening is that Larisa’s cheek might blink – you feel yourself sinking a little. Quite soon after that the sun outside begins to sink, too, and the sky, however surprising the colors it’s painted, recedes from you, until the blackness finally obliterates the world.
Only on the visiting day, about two weeks after she arrived, Zohara sits up in bed. She hangs onto the iron handle they installed for her, and drags herself laboriously into a sitting position. They say that a few days previously she had the plaster cast removed from her hips in a private hospital, in any case she sits up, takes a little bottle with a picture of a primrose on it from her locker, and splashes herself with scent. After that she asks Larisa in a low voice if she can lower the blind a little. Larisa isn’t sure she can get there, she opens her eyes and puts on her thick glasses, and I think that perhaps she’s only realizing now that her bed has been moved to the window.
A nurse comes with a basin of water to wash Zohara, and when she opens the curtain and leaves I see Zohara sitting in exactly the same position, only her hair is damp now and combed onto her forehead, and her eyes are clear and wide open, but she doesn’t seem to see the room and the girls in it.
First to arrive is Sharon’s sister. Like every fortnight, she shows us all the photographs of her wedding five years ago. Here the photographer told her to look at the groom, here at the flowers, here at the sun setting on the horizon, with an expression of hope. Now she has two children and one on the way, and her husband beats her up on weekends. She doesn’t scream, because it’s hard for him being unemployed. Does he still have that dimple today? Sharon inquires.
Larisa’s mother comes bringing a small teapot and plum jam which she spreads on old crackers and dishes out to everyone. After that she reads rhymes out loud from a Russian newspaper, and it’s pleasant to listen to, even if you don’t understand the words. Larisa and her mother sip the tea and suck sugar cubes in their mouths and daydream, perhaps about Ukraine, and Larisa with her eyes closed keeps feeling her passport, which is one of the documents in her pink handbag. When she opens her eyes and begins making preparations for the trip, her mother becomes concerned. Larisa takes out red boots and sunglasses and her mother scolds her briskly in Russian. In a minute Larisa is ready to set out, and now her mother grows alarmed, she calls a nurse passing in the corridor and asks him why there is no progress, and why they don’t try to relax Larisa’s body a little, because at night her legs clamp round the pink bag like a vice.
This Ethiopian nurse isn’t even qualified yet. Not only hasn’t he heard of Larisa’s nocturnal paralysis, he looks as if he’s never heard of paralysis at all. So bright is his smile when he walks round the room with it that I wish he’d come here all the time, and without meaning to I burst out laughing when Larisa’s mother tries to explain her illness to him in complicated names. She gives me a beaten look, but I don’t know how to stop it, this wild laughter of mine, because the nurse is laughing too. Maybe it’s because he’s still a student nurse. You have to get up early in the morning to see the veteran nurses laugh – I remind myself and fall silent. Alina, the head nurse, even if she’s in the furthest wing, is capable of popping into the room just when you least expect her, and the balance of your points is recorded in her head down to the very last point.
When you’re new here, they say, on one of your first days, she turns up as if by accident in the dining room, instead of eating with the staff on that day she sits down at a table in the corner and watches you. According to the way you eat – she knows what your illness is and what your past is, she doesn’t need to read files or documents, all she has to do is look at you over the soup and she knows everything there is to know about you.
And in fact, on my first day here there was an old woman sitting opposite me at lunch, cutting bread into cubes and drowning them in her soup. Don’t look now at the last table on the left, she whispered to me, and I wanted so badly to look to the left and nowhere else, that my neck began to burn from the effort I was making to turn it to the right. Keep calm, the old woman hissed over the soup and pressed the pieces of bread to the bottom of the plate with her spoon until they stopped breathing.
No, I couldn’t think of anything but that head nurse, Alina. Resolutely I tried to concentrate on my soup. Sit up straight, the old woman scolded me, and all my appetite vanished. But still I tried to bend over the plate and keep my back straight at the same time. After a few spoonfuls I dared to raise my head and I saw that the old woman wasn’t eating, just sitting and staring at me, with a disapproving look. She didn’t say anything, apparently she had given up hope as far as I was concerned. She herself sucked the soup from the spoon with lips shaped like a duck’s bill, to demonstrate, but in spite of all her precautions, a sound like the gurgling of water running down a dilapidated gutter broke out of her mouth, and I could no longer swallow a thing.
Most of the diners had already departed, the old woman too had already fished the last of the bread out of her soup and left, and only then the head nurse stood up and walked out of the dining room. When she passed my table I saw that her eyes were narrowed.
Eliyahu from the ‘rehabs’ comes to our window, to visit Mali, and we enjoy a few precious moments of entertainment. First he shows his big belly to all of us through the bars, this Eliyahu, and Mali kneels on Larisa’s bed and strokes it for him and shows him hers, which is just as big. Afterwards she tells the whole room how Eliyahu was once a promising soccer player and what luxuriant long hair he had, and how they once used him for a shampoo commercial. We drink in every word, even though we’ve heard it all before and we also know how to sing the shampoo jingle in the rhythm that Mali taught us, and while Mali talks she sways to this rhythm on the bed, and Eliyahu behind the bars wags his head happily from side to side.
In the afternoon we get a visit from Leon, who was in charge of Sharon's sheltered housing, from the period when she was trying to live in a rented apartment with another girl. With a light step Leon enters room 7, and I remind myself to restrain my laughter, because when Leon looks at you it makes you lose your head a little. How she managed to fail in independence with someone like him in charge I really don’t know. She doesn’t even look admiring when he comes in. Maybe she’s too busy whispering to her Indian to pay attention to the world.
Leon sits down on her bed, even though it’s not recommended for visitors. He grew up on a kibbutz, they say, I don’t know if there’s any connection, in any case Sharon begins getting up every minute, she goes to the toilet, comes back to the sink, it’s plain to see that no way does she know what to do with Leon. Maybe because the minute she sees a man on the horizon, she begins to think about touching. Even though Leon is sitting there quietly with his hands in his pockets.
A guy of maybe forty and his eyes are still so lake-like that you can’t take yours off them. Mali says that Leon can’t look at a girl without making eyes at her, but perhaps it’s all from friendliness. Anyway, the minute he looks at you all you want to do is run away with him to the ends of the earth.
The head of the home I was at before I came here always tried to be friendly. He told you about his safari trip to Africa, and the crocodile that almost ate him up, and about how he loved the natives there who had never set foot in a school, which allowed them to be wise with their own special wisdom that was unique to them. But with him you didn’t feel what you feel with Leon, because with a really friendly person, it doesn’t make that much difference to you if he talks or if he keeps quiet and he’s never been to Africa.
I ask myself how he can go on sitting there on Sharon’s bed, this Leon, because when she finally sits up, she rolls up her pajama sleeves and starts scratching her arms. Something which I don’t know if it began here or if she already had it in the rented apartment, but judging by the way she scratches it looks as if she’s been practicing it for years. Anyway, he stays where he is, trying to be with her, because he’s still responsible, he’s the one who’ll have to return her to independence one day. He tries to get her to talk a bit, after the doctors complained that she doesn’t tell them anything. Sharon isn’t keen on talking, but nevertheless he says his quiet words to her, a word here and there, no more, and he looks around and only occasionally gives her a glance, so as not to burden her.
Sharon sits there crouching from the long time she spent huddled together with all the members of the tribe under the blanket. You don’t think that anything will really come of this conversation, you don’t know how he does it but little by little she begins to listen to him. Not that she looks at him or anything, but she has a surprised expression on her face, as if she has just discovered the human voice, I at any rate have never seen her with an expression like that in the company of the Indian.
Then he says in a louder voice – there’s no one in the room who doesn’t hear – how he’s going to kick up a fuss, he has no intention of letting them get away with everything they did to her, that family of hers. On Larisa's body all kinds of places begin to blink, a sure sign that she’s listening, to tell the truth all of us are listening, you can’t not listen when this man talks. Even Sharon hangs in there, until in the end she retires under her blanket to rest.
But the nice thing about Leon is that he leaves you alone as soon as he’s said what he has to say. He’s not the kind of person to keep on bragging about how he’s going to make sure that all the bad guys get what’s coming to them and what a saint he is. After that he suddenly discovers Zohara. Mali would say that he makes eyes at her, in any case Zohara doesn’t react. Well, she isn’t with us yet, this is the first day that she sat up at all.
A nurse comes into the room and Leon with his friendly smile asks her: And who’s the cute new girl? And he looks at Zohara, they’re all cute here, he adds, I’m only asking about her because she’s new.
That’s Leon all over, he couldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings even if he tried. I wonder if they’re all like that there on the kibbutz or if he’s a special case, you simply know that no sentence that comes out of his mouth will be capable of hurting a living soul, with him you know that he wouldn’t be alarmed by the kind of wild laughing that sometimes escapes you without control.
Even the nurse becomes friendly when Leon looks at her. She informs him quietly: That’s Zohara Balaban, the wife of the chief warden at the district prison. They live in a villa with a gold cock on the roof. All the girls now look at Zohara, even Larisa opens her eyes and puts on her glasses, I don’t really feel like looking, because Leon is already getting ready to go, and who knows when we’ll see him again.
That whole day nobody comes to visit Zohara. In the evening she lowers her legs over the side of the bed, she sits up straight, takes a deep breath, swings first one leg over and then the other, and breathes out again. A nurse brings her a wheelchair, but Zohara signals that she doesn’t need it and the nurse immediately gives in to her, quietly and without getting annoyed. That’s how they are with Zohara. You notice it from the first. But then the doctor on call shows up and asks her not to get out of bed before she practices walking with a special instructor.
Zohara doesn’t see him. Now she bends her neck and turns it carefully round in circles, but then Larisa wakes up and wants to know what exactly is this physiotherapy that you have to drive to the middle of town for, and then it doesn’t move what you can’t move, and what you can move it paralyses with pain. The doctor keeps his eyes on Zohara while he answers Larisa, and explains that anyone can spend an hour in the gym with the equipment, but in order to undergo a process, you have to do something that by the time he finishes talking about it you’ve already forgotten what it was, and by then Zohara is already standing too.
From the moment she’s standing on her feet she can no longer bend down for her crutches, and you hurry to her bed and crawl under it and fish them out for her and succeed in tucking them under her armpits like she tells you, and heightening them a little, and tightening the screw so it won’t come loose while she’s walking, and not letting go until she says so. They say that it was only a week ago that they removed the cast, and now she takes one step with a terrible effort, and immediately rests and straightens up her neck, takes a deep breath and waits, and stretching a different shoulder with every step, she breathes again according to some special inner rhythm of her own, and leads her legs instead of her legs leading her. She takes maybe four steps along the bed until her body is exhausted, the crutches fall, and she tries to stand for second without any help and lets out a wild cheer and throws herself onto the bed.
Listen girls, for three months I lay on my back like a tortoise in its shell, this Zohara declares. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry. You can smile girls, I don’t believe in manners. Zohara speaks and we all listen, because there was never anyone like her in room 7 before. From the minute they removed her blanket, in her short nightgown and transparent panty hose, with a sparkling shawl wrapped round her shoulders, you can’t take your eyes off her.
I see that when they switch off the lights they switch you off too, she scolds us as if she hasn’t been lying there like a corpse all this time. Now she giggles like a schoolgirl, even though it was only three months ago, they say, that she smashed her pelvis in the garden of the villa belonging to her and her husband, the prison warden Nimrod Balaban.
Why doesn’t she go home if they’ve already taken off her cast, Sharon hisses from under her blanket, sticking her arm up like a mast and scratching it from bottom to top, and Mali gores the wall with her rhino head, but Zohara isn’t put out. With frank eyes she looks round at us. The body they’ve nearly fixed, now they say the soul, and what do you know, she titters. No, seriously, girls, have they destroyed your minds here completely or what? From the way you’re stuck to your beds it doesn’t look as if there’s anything much in the way of entertainment in the vicinity, but from here to the district prison it’s only six minutes walking distance, and even if the men there aren’t all lions or tigers, with a bit of an effort you can find a few foxes at night. Every night they lie on their beds one on top of the other ready for the evening roll-call – and all they’re waiting for is one little sign, believe me. Haven’t you ever wanted to tickle the nights a bit?
Mali springs to the window, sticks her head between the bars and yells to the courtyard my husband my husband, almost crushing Larisa who clings to her pink handbag. My husband my husband, calls Mali as if he’s waiting for her round the corner, the husband who doesn’t yet know that he’s married to her. Perhaps Zohara thinks that she’s married or something, but when she was working as a hostess in backyards where the sewage ran free this Mali went with any man who came along, she told us so herself.
What have husbands got to do with it, Zohara looks straight at Mali, and in the meantime she gently lowers and raises her head to free the vertebrae in her neck, all I’m talking about here is a little light entertainment. I have a list of candidates straight from the ‘district’ girls, believe it or not, the cream of the cream, all I have to do is read you the data and on the spot you can pick out the man of your dreams, all ready and waiting, each to her taste…..
Sharon peeks at Zohara with two eyes whitening in dread, she’s never heard such a terrifying idea in her life, even though she’s been brought up in institutions since the age of nine. Why didn’t they put her with the depressives and the Americans? she wails to Mali. What came over them to put someone like that in with us? Larisa empties all the documents from her pink handbag onto the bed. I don’t even want to hear it, she whispers with her eyes shut.
I myself had landed up there on my first day by mistake, in the new wing, I didn’t know then that I had entered the territory of the depressives and the Americans, because the walls are covered in marble there, and famous paintings look at you when you’re sitting in the toilet. And when I peek into one of the rooms there, a fat woman squatting on a bed waves to me and calls in an American accent, Hi, I’m Charlene and this is Shirley, and the one called Shirley is lying underneath her, thin and skinny-legged as a toad, while Charlene massages her naked body, trying to bring it back to life as it lies there indifferently without feeling her touch, and I know that I have seen this body somewhere else, in a different setting, I don’t remember where. In any case I turned around and left the room, I thought I would ask them to fix me up a bed in the corridor, so heavily did it suddenly weigh down on me, that strange sadness, but after that they took me to room 7 in our wing and I came out of it completely.
With Zohara, the thing that immediately got to me was how she observes and tries to learn from everything, she never dismisses an idea out of hand or gets into a panic. It’s our good she’s after, this Zohara, and you go understand. No, we’ve never had anyone here before who’s tasted the good life like she has.
She can get provide as much enjoyment as you can imagine, for all of us together and each one of us separately. Yes, there’s joy in the world, Zohara lets us in on the secret, and I want to leap out of bed and swing from the lamp, I don’t remember hearing this word even in a whisper in the corridors, but I restrain myself because you have to behave in case the head nurse suddenly peeps into the room, so I only jump three times on the mattress and come down on the fourth. Zohara carries on as if nothing has happened, don’t let them brainwash you that it’s only for the elect, this happiness, it’s not manna that descends exclusively on ski resorts and it’s not scattered only over the sands of the Riviera. And she comes from there, she lived there herself. You just have to get up and grab the good with both hands, she says, because they’re right there waiting for us every night, girls, and if somebody planned to build that prison right next to the hospital it’s not a coincidence, believe me.
And then Zohara delves under her pillow and fishes out a list of the cream of the men, and starts right in reading out the names aloud. I don’t remember how many candidates she mentioned that night, and the nicknames she gave them, and the portraits she painted of them, in some of which she got so carried away that if their own mothers had heard her they would have hidden their heads in shame.
It’s a little difficult to concentrate with Larisa shedding a tear, Sharon buried under her blankets and Mali snorting in the background, so Zohara won’t think she’s making an impression on anyone. And only when Zohara mentions a certain Amnon, who she calls ‘Blue-eye’, do we begin to take in a few fantastic details, something about a burglar who specializes in diamond-polishing plants, who only does big jobs, and who has one brown eye and one blue eye, but the blue one is uniquely beautiful, it opens doors for him whenever he’s forced to stand trial, an eye like that you’ve never seen, not even in your dreams.
From the dock he sends a sidelong glance – the judges are already softened up by his manner of speech which is quiet but washes over you like a waterfall – Larisa knocks on her locker: I have to sleep, I go off the rails, and Zohara stops for a minute like a teacher waiting for the class to settle down, and immediately continues – and they melt completely in the radiance pouring out of that eye, those high and mighty judges, even the Polish bitch from the district court, they say, trembles at the knees when he drips his bluer-than-blue charm on her, and reduces his sentence on the spot.
I myself am already melting here on my bed. Wondering how many points Alina the head nurse would take off if she saw me disappearing from the world like this. In the meantime I hear Sharon begging Mali to intervene, and she butts the wall and snaps: Even if the guy was coated in gold, there’d still be no difference between him and a common donkey.
You didn’t understand me, girls, Zohara clarifies quietly and sprinkles herself with a little perfume, his hands are very special too, with long pianist’s fingers. Whenever he gets out, he’s invited to play in concerts. In essence, he’s a true gentleman. If you open a safe full of money in front of him, he won’t touch it. There’s no question of avarice or brutishness here, you have to understand, girls, diamonds are an art with him, you should see how devotedly his fingers stroke a special stone, and if there’s no chance of the desired contact, he dedicates his hands to playing the piano. Zohara waves her shawl over the bed, and all I want is for her to go on and not stop.
Larisa whimpers, pardon, perhaps possible to talk more quietly, and blinks in all directions, and Mali announces to the room at large, my husband is going on guard duty now with his gun completely naked. Normally it brings Sharon to the verge of an attack when Mali goes into detail about the exploits of her various husbands scattered all over the world, but this time she laughs. I laugh too, because at that moment I suddenly begin to like Sharon. Her and everyone else too.
Because without paying attention, I have fallen in love with Blue-eye at first sight, I no longer have the patience to wait for Zohara to start and finish another nocturnal walking practice, I’m afraid that everything will be forgotten and she’ll go back to lying there dumb for another week. And even as I wonder whether to address her or not, an irresistible impulse makes me jump up and ask to be put on the waiting list for Blue-eye, because over here anything you want to ask for already has a waiting list.
Zohara laughs and sits up to change her shawl for a cardigan of soft fleecy wool. In front of the mirror on her locker she lights a rose-scented candle and informs me that there is no waiting list at all.
In the light of the candle her forehead gleams like that of a benevolent magician as she cleans her face with liquids from various bottles, and she stresses – so there won’t be any misunderstanding – that I can expect him, Blue-eye, some night soon, maybe even tomorrow night, she can’t say precisely when, because there has to be co-ordination between a number ofpeople. In those words exactly.
In the following days I don’t know if I’m coming or going, I’m so full of expectation. Every evening I’m the first into the shower, where I soap myself several times and dream for an hour under the streaming water, with the girls waiting in the queue outside about to tear the door off its hinges and drag me out of there by force. Afterwards I sit cross-legged in bed, the head nurse comes round for the last inspection and is surprised to find me so focussed and well-behaved. When she leaves I begin to rock to and fro a little, not knowing how to calm the laughter starting to fizz deep down in my belly, trying not to meet Zohara’s eyes, for fear of seeing there that the coordination hasn’t worked out yet and tonight isn’t the night, and as I rock I’m already praying that the dawdlers will hurry up and get into bed and cut short their evening rites, that Sharon won’t scratch her arms before she falls asleep, that Mali won’t grunt in her sleep, and that Larisa won’t page through her documents to make sure that first thing in the morning she can sail for the Ukraine.
They are in no particular hurry to settle down, the girls. After Larisa has organized her papers and resumed hugging her handbag, she rearranges her shoes and calculates aloud how many hours of sleep she’s going to lose. It takes time until everyone stops cursing and blinking and hiccuping, and then they carry on for a long time under their blankets too. I have only one small wish, for Zohara to leave the candle burning, so that I won’t miss seeing that blue eye.
And one evening Zohara sits up in bed, starts removing her makeup with terrible patience, massages her cheeks with delicate creams, every cosmetic she applies she wipes off thoroughly with the aid of another one, her hand moves with pampering pats. I watch every smoothing of her brows and every slight pursing of her lips with concentrated attention, and I can see on her face that the co-ordination will be perfect and no detail will be forgotten. I might even have enjoyed watching her, if only it didn’t go on for ever.
This evening seems no different from all the preceding evenings. Everyone is already on the brink of sleep, and nevertheless I can feel them lying awake in an unusual kind of stillness. I have almost despaired of the longed-for visit and I lie there straining not to fall asleep, imagining again – for the last time, I tell myself – the blue eye and the light shining from it. As the shadows of the candlelight dance on the walls and Zohara hums a children’s song to herself, I try to remember if she has ever hummed on the nights before and I can’t make up my mind, because if she didn’t hum, it may be a sign that this night is special and unique.
Afterwards it seems to me that Zohara goes over to the little window above Larisa and exchanges a few words with someone in the yard, or maybe it’s only the flash of a dream, because the whole room is already breathing the quiet breath of sleep, and the song changes to a lullaby. Is this a hint from Zohara, telling me that nothing’s going to happen tonight either, and I should go to sleep now? I ask myself.
Sharon is still whispering under her blanket, this time she appeals to her guardian angel to please protect her from the Indian. Mali’s bedsprings can’t find any peace, because when Sharon talks under her blanket Mali doesn’t know what to do with herself, and it doesn’t make any difference if it’s to the angel or the Indian. Only Zohara is quiet. From time to time she sends me a tender look, maybe it’s to herself she’s smiling as she sings. Her song is still wafting round the room when I discover Blue-eye’s pianist’s fingers tapping on my bed.
I don’t know how he identifies me without any hesitation, it must be Zohara’s excellent co-ordination, I whisper to myself, and already he’s under the blanket, resting so close that my whole body beats together with the beating of his heart. For a few minutes he lies still, merging into the silence, waiting perhaps for me to take the first step. I’m quite happy with things the way they are, it feels so good that I don’t dare look into his eyes wandering round the room, I just put out my hand and gingerly touch the long finger resting on the pillow. Perhaps his hand is taken by surprise, because it tenses for a moment, and sinks back into its dreams again, or maybe it’s me that’s dreaming, until his finger seeks contact with my hand. It amazes me, this shy caress on the back of my hand, as if I’ve also got a pianist’s hands or something. Afterwards his other hand too emerges from the dark, warm and curious, and the two hands that have reached me from a distant land strum on my stomach, and the sound of angels singing rises from the corridor.
My thighs, even though they must be the size of a midget’s compared to Mali’s, wrap themselves round Blue-eye’s body. Larisa croons in her sleep: My Ukraine, and Zohara shuts her up in a whisper, she must be watching us from a distance, Blue-eye and me, rolling round on the bed.
He’s my third man, if you can count the first two as men. The first one, who was almost a child, I remember at this time as a distant dream that may not have happened at all, and Shimi, my ex-boyfriend from the home, has vanished completely from my head, because Blue-eye is a colt galloping down a steep slope, and now I too am a kind of animal, an animal without a head whose body charges downhill of its own accord, sending small stones flying into the yawning abyss below. And then I am the abyss, and the colt lands stormily in a crevice between the rocks which are my breasts, I myself am amazed at how my breasts have grown. Light clouds float above us, Mali groans in the next bed, I swear, like a hippopotamus sunk up to its ears in a swamp, Mali groans my groans, but it doesn’t bother me, because I amjust me and I am also all these women together, galloping among them barefoot and flying with the wind and touching the sky for them. They laugh in astonishment when I land with a light flap of my wings.
An eternity and then another eternity have gone by since Blue-eye came to me, and it seems as if only a few seconds have passed when I see him leaving on tip-toe, so as not to disturb anyone, and only when he passes the candle the blue eye shines radiantly for a moment, because he turns to look back at me. The room fills with a soft sky blue and I fall asleep till morning.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniella Carmi. English translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Daniella Carmi was born in Tel Aviv. She studied philosophy and communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and writes drama, screenplays and books for adults and children. She has published five books for adults and eight books for children and youth. Her young adult book, Samir and Yonatan, was awarded an Honorable Mention from UNESCO for Children's and Young People's Literature in the Service of Tolerance (1997), the Berlin Prize for Best Children's Book in Translation (1997), the Silver Quill Award (Germany, 1997), the Batchelder Award for Best Translated Book by the American Library Association (2001), and the Italian WIZO Prize (2003). Carmi has also received the ACUM Prize (2002) and the Prime Minister's Prize (2010), and has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Prize. In 2007, her story A Lady Hippopotamus on the Roof was performed at the Haifa Children's Theater Festival. Most recently, Carmi has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Prize. Her books have been translated into fifteen languages.