Say You Remember
By Zvi Vapni
Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green
I’m getting weaker. Something is fading in me, like the dimming of lights or a slow sunset – almost unnoticed – into the gloom. In the morning I’m wrapped in a chill even on the hottest days of the year. My body obeys me out of habit, but nothing is awakened in me. The room, the woman sleeping next to me, the alarm clock, the wardrobe and even the garden outside surround me like fences. I don’t dream much, and when I do dream, my dreams are mixed up with each other, and there’s no reason to take the trouble to interpret them, meaningless remnants of half thoughts, unfocussed longings.
We’re sitting at the breakfast table, and I look at the kitchen curtains that sway lightly in the breeze. Hedva pours tea for herself and looks out at the lawn and at the orchard beyond it. She’s very quiet, and I know she’s sunk in thought. The children are on her mind, I don’t have to ask in order to know. She looks out at the familiar landscape and sees nothing, and I prefer not to think about what she would say or do if she saw everything. Slowly I eat my omelet and go over the newspaper. Like someone putting off the end. Once I remembered every word I read. I used to say, “Did you read the article about...?” and I would quote it word for word without difficulty. No longer. The letters flit past my eyes, join together for a moment, and burst into little bubbles that hover in the air of the kitchen. Just the smells coming from the orchard are sharp and distinct from one another.
The sprinklers start working in Kahanov’s garden: a soft clicking, distant and quiet, contrasting with the pretentiousness of their garden. There are two ornamental palms there, banana trees, rounded bushes, herbs, paved paths that remind me of the magic yellow brick road in the Land of Oz. Where can you go on those paths? You’ll find out you’re walking around in circles. From time to time they host friends or relatives there, and then sounds of laughter and music can be heard from over the high stone wall, and even the shouts of children. Mrs. Kahanov’s voice drowns them all out as she scolds them for walking on the grass, warning them not to touch the statue of the frog, to stay on the paths.
I finish the omelet and the slice of rye bread, empty the coffee cup, and keep looking at the newspaper for a few more minutes. That’s how I learn about the jellyfish that have come back to the beaches in Israel, about the distress of the Ethiopian immigrants, and about the national water crisis. In Tel Aviv, so I read, hi-tech is flourishing, and casually dressed young people run empires from tall, glass buildings. Their photographs appear in the newspaper, sitting in front of their computers like cobblers sitting in front of a tattered shoe. Two years ago my son Shai was photographed just like that, and Hedva was so proud then. I stared at the expression of his face, at his serious, almost dark look, and I wondered what my daughter-in-law Liat thought about it. I have one unprofitable orchard and rural tranquility that other people envy.
When I go out into the living room I’ll be able to see the driveway that forks off from the central road of the village. At one time bicycles would be strewn along that path. Balls, hats, damp bathing suits that sank into the sandy earth. Young, naked bodies of adolescent boys shed those bathing suits under the cover of darkness after a forbidden swim at night in the little reservoir. I would warn them: “One day I’ll smash your bicycles by mistake if you’re not careful!” But they kept on being careless, so I would drive slowly, pressing up close to the bushes until the entrance of the parking area, afraid to hear the sound of something being crushed. Afterward the motor would rumble for a moment or two, and after it turned off, the silence would take over again. There’s a lot of silence here, and even Kahanov’s sprinklers or the roar of a distant tractor can’t vanquish it. Years ago crop-dusters would buzz in the sky on their way to the fields on the horizon, but over time the fields and orange groves have gotten farther and farther away. Orchards like mine and pretentious gardens like the ones the new neighbors created do not need to be sprayed from the air.
My pecan trees stand in the orchard and spread their arms to the sides. Big, proud Carya illinoinensi, that cast their shadows and may still dream about the abundant rivers and streams of North America that nourished the long roots of their ancestors. I make sure to give them enough water in the summer, fight against aphids and pecan scab, and at the end of the summer I gather up the fallen nuts from among the dried leaves on the earth.
Last autumn, when we walked slowly between two rows of trees, I saw her put her hand out to one of the tree trunks and feel it, and with her bare feet she surely felt contact with the earth, which had already seen the first, hesitant rain. When she raised her eyes to look at me, there were tears in them.
Usually Hedva’s the first one to leave the house in the little Nissan we bought last year. Every morning I can hear her start the ignition, step on the gas before she’s in first gear, and it isn’t hard to imagine the cloud of pollution that leaves the exhaust pipe and surrounds the trees in the orchard and seeps into the pores of the wood, to pop out in the end as little stains on the elongated leaves. At last the sound of the engine is also swallowed by the silence. During the morning there are few people here. Their houses are used only as dormitories, a quiet and tranquil shelter from the commotion of the city and the glitter of the tall, glass, air-conditioned buildings where they work.
After their wedding I told Shai he could build a house here. I said I’d gladly give up another corner of the pecan orchard, and they could put their house up there. I saw a glimmer kindled in Liat’s eyes, but Shai only looked at me in silence. I didn’t mention it again. “You’re putting pressure on him again,” Hedva said to me when we were alone. “You want to make him into somebody else instead of accepting him the way he is.” I didn’t know whether she had learned to say things like that in her psychology courses at the regional college. I wanted to ask, but I kept silent. I remembered Shai at other times, when the earth made him happy, when the orchard pleased him, not only the taste of the pecans, but the work itself. If only I had known what he was angry about all that time.
Once everybody wanted to run away from here, to live their lives somewhere else, to escape from this remote, rural boredom. Today they want to surround themselves with a little grass, some country smells, and the semblance of tranquility between one commotion and another. I stand at the window for another minute and look at the driveway. Then I go outside to the front lawn, and I sit on the two-seater rocking chair and drink another cup of coffee.
In the fall we went to the orchard, and I said that this year maybe I’d cut down some trees and sell them to the furniture factory here. The price of pecans is low this year, I said, and the wood is a better deal. Maybe I wanted to sound practical, connected to the rise and fall of prices on the market, but those words made her sad, and I didn’t go on.
My office is on the second floor, a few steps away from the bedroom. Until twenty years ago, this was Mickey’s room, and his bed still stands in it, covered with a plaid bedspread and waiting for guests. Two posters of jet fighters are hung over his bed, the ones he so much wanted to fly. In the end he served in army headquarters in Tel Aviv, deciphering aerial photographs, and on weekends he would bring various girlfriends home and pass the time with them in the orchard or in this bed, underneath the pictures of the planes. The shelves that I put up for him when he was a boy are still in place, and now they’re full of my documents and catalogs from abroad. My suit carrier leans against the wardrobe, worn in the corners and festooned with stickers from airports. Morning after morning I open the windows and wait for the rain to fall, kind and soft, on the grass and the orchard, and on the driveway, whose earth will turn into mud.
The early rains had fallen on that early autumn morning, but the later rains were delayed. The rain, so I told myself then, will wipe away footprints, make everything that was stamped into the earth of the orchard disappear, erasing everything and making it possible to start afresh. And maybe not.
Mickey comes on weekends with Tal and Naor, and they start running around on the grass right away, checking the solidity of the swing, trying to climb the wall the separates us from the Kahanov family. “Those children,” Hedva says. “There’s something unsettling about them.” She falls silent, and I know where her thoughts have wandered. Finally she says, “It will be interesting to see who Liat and Shai’s child will look like,” and I turn my eyes to the window and to the treetops beyond, and I say nothing. Later Mickey takes the children for a walk in the village or to see a movie at the shopping mall on the main highway. In the evening he drives them to their mother and returns to his one-room apartment.
Yif’at comes with Shaul and their baby daughter Natalie. She goes into the house, and he sits down on the rocking chair and starts talking about politics as though it were one of the cases he’s handling. Even when he’s sitting with us, he’s appearing in court. Baby Natalie stretches her legs out on the mat that Hedva spread out for her on the grass, and her parents surround her with small, round colorful toys, but it’s still hard for her to grasp them. Yif’at doesn’t talk a lot, and her throat tends to choke when she finally does decide to join the conversation. Hedva says that Yif’at lacks the ability to be happy, and I don’t say anything about that. When Yif’at brought Shaul home, we thought things would change, that something would wake up in her, and a smile would finally appear on her lips. But happiness - and who knows this better than I? - is so elusive. Shai, for example, could have made Liat happy if they came to live here in the village, but he decided to stay in the city. Is she happy now?
Years ago all the land around the village belonged to Yekhiel Katz. He grew oranges, apples and pecans there, but he also had all kinds of businesses with banks and investment companies. When he got into trouble, people in the village said we had to help him, that we had to get him out of the mess. It could happen to any of us, they said then, and our thirty years together isn’t something to sneeze at. Instead I offered him a low price for a good part of his land, and he had to give in. He gave me a long, sad look then, but he shook hands with me in the end. Sometime later they said he had gone back to France, opened a restaurant there or maybe a garage, and that a picture of the fields of the village was hanging there. We were young then, and that land provided a good living to anyone who took the trouble to work it, but that didn’t stop Hedva from clicking her tongue and looking at me as if I had stolen the property from its owner.
That’s also how she responded when Shai introduced Liat to us for the first time. “A divorced woman,” she said and clicked her tongue, as if being divorced were a physical handicap.
“And four years older than him, too, and without children.” I kept my silence, as I usually do every time she gives voice to her anger at things that can’t be changed, but Hedva didn’t let up. Liat’s first marriage disturbed her, her divorce disturbed her, and when we were alone she asked me again why five years of her first marriage hadn’t produced a child. “It doesn’t seem to me,” she said, “that he even knows what kind of package he’s taken for himself.” But Liat, as though reading her future mother-in-law’s thoughts, said at her first meeting with us that she very much wanted children. Time is short, her eyes said, too, and Shai listened and stirred the coffee in front of him. Then she asked to see the orchard, and we all went out of the house to stroll among the trees. From the joy that glowed in her eyes, I knew she’d come back here.
In the end, after the children go, the table is left full of plates and bits of cake and cups with the dregs of juice and pieces of fruit that have been bitten into and a kind of sourness that arises from all that disorder. Hedva and I clear it all off without haste, and then together we drag the table to the corner of the lawn until next week. Baby toys peek out on the grass near the hedge: a stray ball, a plastic bracelet. We pick them all up, bring them inside, and put everything on top of the cupboard in the dining alcove. On their way back, the children will call us to make sure it’s all here, and they’ll promise the weeping grandchild that the toys will be returned soon. Oppressive silence reigns afterward, and we each sink into our own affairs. Hedva talks on the phone, waters her flowers, and I go out for a long walk on the paths of the village, looking for something undefined. In the evening, when the figures on the paths are blurred, and the only thing that’s left of the landscape are vague outlines of dark and darker, I return home, make a cup of tea for myself, go up to my office, and sit down in front of the computer, worn out from the walk and the cold that has seeped into my bones. I wasn’t always this way. There were years when I would rush to get up before dawn and go out to the orchard, energetic and full of strength. That’s where my day would begin.
I love pecan trees on hot summer days, when the scorching sun filters through the big branches and the sweat flows on my back. I also love the orchard in the midst of the winter, when I trudge through the mud and the rain falls on me, cold and merciless. I love the touch of the heavy, red earth and its smell when it is saturated. I even love the scramble before the end of the year, when I’m left for hours and hours in the darkness of the trees before the first rain, trying to gather every single nut. I love walking to the orchard, the little detour from the driveway, after which you’re in another world, whose only sounds are the rustle of the leaves.
Last fall, a few hours after the first, hesitant rain, the two of us went out there together, to the orchard, whose cycle of growth was about to begin anew. I said then, “It would be better to take off your shoes.” We walked barefoot on the moist earth and were swallowed up in the world of the trees. Our bare feet turned red from the damp soil, and above us, from the treetops, the sky was visible, with a gray cloud hovering in it.
We talk about Shai from time to time, but it seems that we don’t know enough about our son. His elusive business, his laconic nature and his rare visits confuse us. Though he is our son, he’s like a distant figure, one that makes us uneasy. Because he still doesn’t have children, our lawn and the swing hanging from the branch of the mulberry tree aren’t a big attraction for him. Even when he’s here, he seems immersed in himself, keeping some secret from us. And maybe Hedva was right when she said that he’s angry, that he holds a grudge against us, that he resents the way I educated him. A change took place in him over the years. What caused it? If he only spoke, if he would only open his mouth and tell me what he silenced within himself, if he only went with me to the orchard and reproached me once and for all for everything he holds against me. But maybe the silence is preferable.
When he sits with us in the yard, he tends to answer briefly, his lips barely open, and he always sounds as if he’s hurrying off somewhere else. His work lasts until late at night, and he talks on the phone a lot and sends emails to businessmen in New York and Tokyo, and he’s always terribly worried about things that have no reality for us – the stock exchanges all over the world or rates of foreign currencies, and how some venture capital funds are doing.
Rumor has it that he’s talented, and people say great things about him. The rare times when he does sit with us on the lawn, he gets up over and over again and steps to the edge of the yard to answer the ring of his mobile phone, and there he talks softly with anonymous callers. I think about him and my knees weaken.
He was different when they met. Something still drew him to the pecans and to the tranquility of the village, and she came after him with sparkling eyes. That was doubtless what attracted her to him - the closeness to the earth, the simplicity of life in the country – that’s how things look to people from the city. The fields and the orchards, the well-tended yards and the click of the sprinklers make them think that a different breed of people lives here. She wouldn’t think that way if she heard the wicked gossip that seethes here, about the hatreds that impose oppressive silence among neighbors, and about the merciless struggles over land that are waged here. Maybe she was also attracted by Shai’s open shirt, maybe even by the blisters on his hands after working in the orchard. After that, things started to change. Hedva was the first to notice the transformation as it was taking place. No more open shirts, no more sandals. The impeccable urban style he adopted erased every trace of what had preceded it, as if all at once coldness had developed in him toward the place where he grew up. The paths he ran on during his childhood and the orchard that had been like a second womb to him were forgotten.
“I told you so,” Hedva said to me then, without offering any real explanation. “Something there isn’t working like it should.” We looked at the two of them and didn’t know what was happening between them in private. During one of their dwindling visits, Hedva suggested they should take a vacation in the summer, that they should fly to Turkey or maybe even to Thailand. “Then,” she said hesitantly, “you can finally start a family!” A huge silence suddenly took over the room. Another minute passed until Shai got up and went out into the yard to answer his cell phone, and Liat lowered her head, and what filled her eyes made me tremble.
We got married young. I was twenty-one, and Hedva was nineteen. We were so young that sometimes I think about our life as the outgrowth of a youthful prank. Our life together isn’t a subject for discussion, and people, including our offspring, pass by us like two trees in an avenue whose branches have become entangled with each other with no way of separating them. The children – they were born into the tumult of our youth, which ended earlier than we expected. Suddenly we were called upon to provide, to take care of our children, to ponder every single thing with mature seriousness. When they got a little bigger and could play in the yard by themselves, we were still young enough to yearn for our youth and to know that it had passed, never to return. On my fiftieth birthday, on the lawn of our yard, among all our friends and acquaintances, my three children sat with the one grandchild. Life, so I thought then, six years ago, hadn’t left me any big tasks. Hedva and I had already passed on the genetic code imprinted in us. Now just she and I lived in this house. It had outgrown us, had left me a room for an office and had become so quiet that someone passing by might think by mistake that no one lived here.
“Shai and Liat are coming today,” she said, as if I needed a reminder, but her words still made me a little dizzy. They’ll come and park the jeep in the shade of the eucalyptus, and as usual they’ll stay in their car for another phone call of Shai’s. When they get out, Shai will walk ahead of Liat, who will tarry for a moment to look at the big potted geraniums and the roses that Hedva tends with devotion in front of the yard. She’ll look at the lawn and at the orchard beyond it. She’ll devour our country house with her eyes and deeply breathe in the fragrance of the trees. She’ll listen to the soft murmur of the breeze, and her eyes will look for something on her way to the gate. I love the village. It’s my whole life. But for once I’d like to see it through Liat’s eyes, tranquil and bright, the way it’s supposed to be. Liat doesn’t like cities, to say the least, and not only the dense buildings and the busy streets, but also the whole way of life there.
When he comes into the house, Shai will kiss his mother and shake my hand, and Hedva will give Liat a motherly hug, as if she were another daughter of ours, quiet and uncomplicated. And I? I’ll stand there absentmindedly and look around, waiting my turn, and when it comes, I’ll accept Liat’s kiss on my cheek casually, and I’ll let my life drip from me like droplets falling from a branch after the rain has stopped.
From the window a mass of dark trees can be seen, beginning on the other side of the lawn and ending at the path, beyond which stands the home of the Barukhin family, among the founders of the village. When we came here, the orchard was the main feature of the landscape around us. I worked in it for many hours and never wondered exactly where the boundaries were. Later we marked them. Some of the land was rezoned for building, and it was sold. City people who had left town built houses around it, and they put a fence up, to separate themselves from us. In the end one green patch remained between the squares of the houses, with their small yards. Orchards, I think to myself from time to time, aren’t supposed to be bounded so strictly between one straight line and another. They’re supposed to fade away into open fields on the edges.
Some people in the village still call the land that was rezoned “Katz’s land,” even though I bought it from him legally. In their cowardly, gossipy way, they try to hint that the profit I made from selling it over the years wasn’t proper, as if all the labor that I invested in working the land was only intended for the moment when I could sell it for a profit. I always ignored all that, and when I met the slanderers on the paths of the village, I would look straight at them and smile with indifference. I’m not unaware of Hedva’s opinion about the matter either, and I live at peace with her, too. The land was bought legally and sold legally, and over the years all that will be forgotten. Let them make sour faces as much as they please, the world has changed, and no doubt it will keep changing.
When I was young, I drew contentment from the knowledge that my orchard would remain here after me, and the pecan trees would keep giving fruit. Today, in my fifty-sixth year, that knowledge no longer offers solace, just a reminder of the inevitable end. Nevertheless, on the day when the orchard is orphaned, I won’t be here. Maybe Liat will stand in it and breathe its fragrance in tranquility. A child’s hand will be wrapped in hers, and someone looking at them from a distance would mistakenly think they’re talking to each other in smiling calmness, and that the silence of the orchard lies upon them.
I’m getting weaker, fading from week to week. It’s not my body that is collapsing into itself that way, but the man inside it, as if the very will to live were abandoning me. Old age, or maybe something else. It’s easy to ignore things when they happen slowly, in total silence, without any protest. Now I’m alone facing the forces that are leaving me. In the early morning hours, when I open my eyes, it often seems to me that I’m in some place that has no clear sign of time. For long minutes I lie that way, and consciousness is in no hurry to return. I breathe deeply, turn my eyes to the ceiling, and afterward to the closed curtain and the shutter, and very slowly, in a choppy way, the image of the yard comes back to me, and the pecans beyond it, and beyond all that – houses and people and roads and frenzied activity. The smells arouse me in the end – the smell of grass in the morning dew, the distant smell of the cowshed, the pleasant smell of dampness like that of a humid cave on a summer day. It’s still the country, and those are still its smells, which have clung to my nostrils for so many years.
In the fall, after that first rain, I thought for a while that all those fragrances visit both of us together, and they would be united in a single odor, like none other in the world. I sensed everything with chilling sharpness, such as I hadn’t felt for years: in the contact of the soil with my bare feet, in the contact of her hand when she passed her fingers over the tree trunk. Everything around me breathed deeply and damply.
“They’re late,” I say to Hedva. She’s in the kitchen, rinsing fruit in the sink, and after wiping it, she’ll place it in the big ceramic bowl that we bought years ago on a trip to Turkey. She likes to wash the fruit, to clean every trace of the earth from it, and every superfluous leaf, to dry it and arrange it, gleaming and colorful. Inviting people to bite into it. Around the bowl of fruit she’ll put little plates, like planets, with slices of cake on them, pistachios, butter cookies, and another empty bowl for the peels. Always the same structure, always the same refreshments. A heavy green and brown tablecloth, the tick of the pendulum clock, the blowing of the gentle wind in the leaves, and other signs of age that sneak through invisible cracks in the walls.
I wander through the rooms of the house, and I purposely do it very slowly, so that I won’t look like someone who’s upset by something. Everything is a pretense, but now there’s no other way. I hear, from deep inside the house, the sound of the jeep approaching, and my breath catches. It’s ridiculous, I say to myself after a moment, all this childish excitement, all this pounding of the heart, and at the same time I enjoy the feeling that may not return. I’m suffering and content and disturbed at the very same moment.
Then I sit down in the armchair, worn out and short of breath, and I curse myself for the misery that I feel. For a moment or two I tarry there, and from the next room I hear Hedva saying, “You’re here! Great, great!” As if they weren’t an hour late, as if they hadn’t refrained from visiting us for five and a half months. “Come in!” You have to forgive the children, as she always says, and all the despair in her rises up in that saying, without disguise. “Where’s Dad?” I hear Shai asking, almost impatiently, and Liat doesn’t say a thing. If I only knew what she’s thinking, the words she wants to shout but will never dare to say.
There was silence in the house then. She came to stay with us alone, a short time after the first rain, and she slept on Mickey’s old bed in his room, the one I made into an office. Shai called almost every evening from Houston, but the conversations between them were short. Hedva was at the regional college. When we came back from the orchard, our clothes were stained by the damp earth. We walked to the house without exchanging a word, and she got into her car. Through the gathering darkness I saw or imagined that I saw a tremor pass through her body as she placed her hands on the steering wheel. We didn’t look at each other. I heard her start the car, then I saw her moving slowly down the driveway, and I followed her with my eyes until the lights disappeared beyond the trees. The thought crossed my mind of the touch of her bare feet on the gas pedal, of the sandals she had left behind in the orchard. Silence awaited me in the house. There are silences whose weight is greater than the whole world, whose grasp is more stifling than death.
When I finally walk into the living room, I meet her eyes, and my head slips to the side with an involuntary movement. She asks me politely how I am, and then she retreats to the other side of the room. I want to say something, but I can’t find the words.
Shai is businesslike: he shakes my hand briefly and immediately sinks into one of the armchairs, like someone who wants to do a task he’s taken upon himself, and move on. During all the years of his childhood, farm tools lay in the yard, and I would still dirty my hands with clods of earth and open sacks of manure and fertilize the trees in the orchard. He would walk by my side and say that when he grew up he would be a farmer himself. “He just wanted to please you then,” Hedva said. “And you didn’t even take the trouble to look at him like you should have and ask him what really interested him!” Maybe she’s right, and he was just pretending to enjoy getting his hands dirty and feeling the moisture of the earth or the tickling contact of the seeds in his palm and coming home in stained clothes. But she’s wrong when she says that I didn’t look at him. I looked: I saw him grow up from year to year, I saw his shoulders broaden, his height increase, and all the other things that could have made him into a true farmer, if he only wanted to. Without difficulty he would shoulder sacks of fertilizer, clear away all the branches that I’d sawed. Dig the moats deeper around the trees. What else should I have known? Now he’s sitting in the living room of his childhood home in elegant clothes, clean, neat and distant. When did he start to change? Maybe it was the year he got married and maybe two years later, the day when he got sick of all the pretenses.
The bowls of refreshments are laid on the table, and hands reach for them now and then. Shai is talking about the mortgage market in the United States, about the excessive credit that’s given there, and he doesn’t hesitate to estimate how the present crisis will influence stock markets all over the world. Hedva speaks about Rosa multiflora and about Diplocarpon rosae, that injures the flowers. In contrast to Shai’s conceptual world, she enjoys using those terms, as if they were sufficient to increase her strength and bring herself close to him that way.
Shai says that the village council made a mistake when it divided the land into lots that were too small. “It’s gotten crowded here,” he says and looks at me as if I’d done it all. I gaze at him and wonder about the meaning of this renewed interest that he’s showing in the village. I still remember how he used to come here after finishing the army with Amir Brukhin, his childhood friend, and how they used to divide all the land of the village between them, as if they planned to take it over from all of us during our lifetimes in one ambitious grab. They exchanged long looks with each other, looks that I couldn’t figure out, but I laughed then at their impudence, and I made the mistake of thinking I had a son who would carry on. That ambition apparently disappeared with Amir Brukhin, when he left the village and went to live in San Diego or San Francisco, far from the village of which his grandfather had been one of the founders. All sorts of gossip was bandied about them, but I tried not to listen. There had been a time when they gossiped about me, and maybe they’d gossip again in the future.
Hedva urges them to taste the refreshments. Liat takes a small bunch of grapes, and Shai grabs a handful of pistachios, and after his hand is empty, he quickly shakes the shells off, with some crumbs that had clung to them.
I’m in my own world, all sorts of stupid sayings circle around and buzz in my head. Something tells me that maybe this is our last conversation in this format, that we’d never sit like this in this room again, with the tops of the pecan trees visible from the window. That knowledge frightens me, and it’s very important to tell once again, mainly to Liat, that there was a time, not so distant, when I was thought of as an innovative farmer: I was invited to lecture at the Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, and people talked about me the way they talk about Shai today – as a promising young man who would go far. Back then I possessed the assurance that things could be changed, and that I was the man who would change them. Right now, in my fifty-sixth year, in the presence of son and daughter-in-law, I’m painfully eager to get the admiring look I once got, but it’s all superfluous, almost childish. People of my age aren’t supposed to get involved again with what they once achieved. It seems to me that Liat on her chair is moving far away in the direction of the open window, not toward the nearby trees but toward the fields and orange groves beyond the horizon.
Then, a few hours after the first rain, she suddenly stopped in the orchard, and something in her broke, and she started crying. It seemed that not only her eyes were crying, but her whole body. “He doesn’t want a child,” she said in a broken voice. “Maybe he doesn’t want anything from me.” A tremor took hold of her, and she covered her mouth with her hand and wept, and she collapsed onto the reddish ground like a rag doll. We spent an hour in the orchard that gradually sank into the darkness of night. Then we walked on the path with bare feet, she before me, rushing to get away with steps too long. She hastened to enter her car and went on her way.
The official announcement comes as though by chance, in the normal flow of the conversation.
They’re leaving in two months.
No, they can’t put off the departure date.
Yes, they already reserved tickets.
They’ll stop in New York for two days and then they’ll fly to Houston.
They’ve thought about it, and decided it’s the right step. And I wonder whether Liat encouraged him to leave, to travel far from here.
It’s hard to know, Shai goes on, how long they’ll stay there. But it will at least be a few years.
“We have to leave now,” he says, and gives Liat a serious look. She’s passing her hand over her belly. “So that it won’t be too late. There are excellent hospitals there, and good doctors, and kind and efficient midwives.” I imagine white rooms to myself, murmuring with soft voices, women giving birth behind white curtains. In my heart I imagine Liat lying on a wide bed, and a strange woman in a white uniform strokes her sweating brow. “It’s the right step to take,” says Shai, as if that were enough to explain to his mother, whose look has been growing darker, why he is leaving. They’ll write, he promises, and they’ll talk to us on the phone or the internet. We’re invited to visit, he tells us, right after they get organized a little.
Hedva sighs and Shai says that today you can’t march in place, that everything is so competitive, and everyone wants to get ahead. “Just where are you getting ahead to?” Hedva asks in a rare moment of irritability, and immediately withdraws into a series of questions about the flight, about the apartment, about the car, and other little matters that Shai has no difficulty in answering. In the end, I think to myself, we’ll see them flickering on the computer screen, sitting in an unfamiliar room, bending over the camera. Then there will be digital photographs of the house or the car, of a trip to some tourist spot. The absence will get longer and longer. I fill up with fatigue, and my body sinks into itself.
Again Hedva urges them to eat, but from the way her eyes are drawn into their sockets, I see how hard all of this is for her. After all, I can interpret her signals right away. She, too, can read me effectively. Our years together make that possible. Did she read, after that first rain, something unfamiliar in my eyes, in the tremor of my hands, in my restless sleep on the following nights? If she knew something, she never hinted at it. Maybe there are things that can’t be deciphered, things that the brain refuses to acknowledge.
Outside, Kahanov’s sprinklers start their regular, nervous ticking. Shai looks at me. “Will you come?” he asks, and for a moment I imagine I can hear a real wish in his voice, and something twinges in my heart for his absolute ignorance. I answer after a moment that wherever there are fields and fertilizers, I go with my catalog and the knowledge I’ve accumulated, knowledge that’s piled up in my head like a pile of winter blankets on the top shelf of a wardrobe. To myself I think about my suitcase and about airports at night, about another local flight to Houston, and from there by cab to the green suburb where they’ll be living, and about climbing the stairs to their door. Then the door will open, and her eyes will look at me. I know all of that won’t happen, even if there were enough time for it.
Hedva wipes her nose and takes a breath, trying with all her strength to stop the tears that want to burst from her eyes. Later, as always in situations like this, she insists on showing Shai her flowerbeds. He’s willing to appease his mother now, and with a gesture of good will he even leaves his mobile phone on the table and follows her out. Now the two of us are alone in the room, and I dare to look at her. Quiet and soft, she’s sitting on her chair in the dining alcove, taking deep breaths and looking at her belly and then at me, and in her big, deep eyes I see large tears. Within me I know that we have nothing more to say to each other, that we’ll never meet again, that the things that bound us together in those moments are what will separate us from now on. Maybe, I think, Hedva was right all those years, and there were many things that I didn’t understand, things that evaded my eyes. I want to get up, to rise from the armchair and approach her, and from one step away, to whisper to her, “Liat,” but I’m totally turned to stone, and from the corner of my eye, I see her gaze turned away from me toward the window, not looking at the tops of the pecan trees, but at what’s beyond them, and the knowledge that she won’t look at me anymore slices through me.
If only she would rise to her feet and stand next to me, if only I could smell her fragrance once more, feel her body next to me, moist and breathing like in the darkness of the orchard. “Enough!” she would certainly say. “This is impossible!” And she would draw in all the air around me. “It’s best for us to go far from here,” she would whisper to herself, but I still want to hold her, to reach my hands out to her as to Hedva’s fruit bowl. Her breathing is near and soft. She and her swelling breasts, she and her warm voice. I would lay my hand on her stretched and rounded belly that slopes down from beneath her breasts to the depths of her loins. I would feel the touch of her warm skin under my palm, the touch of her hair, and then her lips with all their unimaginable softness. We could have been very close to one another, mouth to mouth or cheek to cheek, but a whole world already separates us. “Say you remember,” I would whisper in her ear, and perhaps she would sigh in sorrow.
But now there is silence between us. It all happened, and now it’s gone.
Copyright © Zvi Vapni 2011
This story was first published by Even Hoshen in Hebrew in 2010, as part of a collection of stories entitled Say You Remember.
Zvi Aviner Vapni was born in Israel in 1963 and grew up in Jerusalem. He received Bachelor and Master degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and taught history at the Open University. In 1991 he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and during the next two decades was posted to Sofia (Bulgaria), Atlanta, and Los Angeles in the U.S. In 2000 he became the Ambassador of Israel to the Philippines, where he spent four years. Vapni published short stories in Israeli literary periodicals including Keshet Ha'Khadasha, Masmerim, and Shvo. He published his first book in 2010: a collection of short stories in Hebrew, called Say You Remember. He is married with two children.
Jeffrey Green (the translator) has been translating from Hebrew to English since 1979.