(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Avirama Golan
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Sari asked Didi if she met Shimon at the university. No, said Didi, I met him long before. Where? It’s a long story, ask my mother. Whenever anyone asks her, she volunteers her refined version.
Shimon was two years ahead of Didi in the regional kibbutz high school, but he wasn’t one of ours, he was a boarder from outside the kibbutz, and Sarka, Didi’s mother, who before embarking on her nation-wide activities in the movement was regarded as an outstanding educator, called him in him two or three times for a talk, because he was a boy from a difficult background. I’m not saying, God forbid, that he himself is depressive, said Sarka, but there’s clearly a strong influence on the part of a self-sacrificing mother figure. Women from the Sephardi community were educated to passive suffering, she explained to the embarrassed homeroom teacher.
I think you’re exaggerating, said the homeroom teacher. His father was a prominent personality in the Yishuv,* and Hannah – she pronounced the name with the stress on the last syllable – is not a primitive woman from an immigrant transit camp. After all, when she was young she was a member of the underground in Iraq. Who knows what she went through.
Don’t get me wrong, said Sarka to the homeroom teacher. I have nothing but admiration for the boy’s inner strength, and by the way, I have no doubt that he has been influenced to some extent by our basic egalitarian values, but you can’t treat my instincts with contempt either.
I didn’t say anything that could be interpreted as contempt, said the homeroom teacher.
Sarka is a broad-boned woman, but not fat, because she is very strict with her diet. Her breasts are heavy and her face is round and her hair is drawn back and swept up in a French plait. She is not the kind of mother who preaches. Nor is she in the habit of interfering, just as she never took pity on her daughter when she cried in the baby-house. The night nurse would come to call her, and she would tell her, let her cry a little longer, I know there are mothers who want you to call them. I’m not one of them. A little crying never hurt a baby.
She may have gone a little too far with this approach; today opinions on the subject are divided. In any event, the daughter grew tough, but not necessarily for this reason, perhaps it was simply because she inherited Sarka’s characteristics. Not those of Duvid, who is moved to tears by every little thing, and whose lips immediately start to tremble. Anyway, that’s how things turned out, and Dina – or as she was called on the kibbutz, Didi – personally Sarka can’t really stand this name, or pet names in general – Dina grew stubborn and strong. So much so that sometimes she would shut down for days on end and refuse to cooperate with her teachers. The child doesn’t accept authority easily, Sarka explained to them, at her age there’s nothing wrong with it. The only problem with Dina, Sarka thinks to this day, is that she is easily confused between reality and imagination.
I still don’t understand how you met, said Sari. Didi didn’t tell her. For six years, during the entire period of her studies at the kibbutz high school, she searched ceaselessly for a moment’s peace and quiet, a moment to be by herself. Even the toilets were hard to get into. People stayed inside as long as they could. To gain fifteen minutes on their own. And there was always someone in the room. When she couldn’t stand the suffocation, she would run away, in the middle of a class. What is it now, Didi? I don’t feel well. I can’t breathe. Nitza the homeroom teacher would look at her suspiciously, but she didn’t say anything. Didi would crawl through the hole in the fence and emerge into the orchard of blue plums behind the school.
At the beginning of summer in the tenth grade the dark heavy soil would be cracked with dryness and covered with a bed of leaves that had not yet started to rot. In the cool shade priests’ hoods and bindweed and wild fennel would sprout. The fruit pulled the branches to the ground. The plums that had ripened prematurely and not been picked fell and split apart, slowly and silently. The juicy pulp stuck to Didi’s fingers. Fat bulbuls and tiny humming birds nested in the tangled growth of the honeysuckle. One minute they approached her with wary hops and flew away, the next they pecked busily. Didi lay among the trees and read The Squaw’s Revenge and Little Fadette. She already knew them by heart. She should have outgrown them long ago. But nobody was going to tell her what to do. If Sarka and Nitza and Miki the house-mother had only known. But none of them knew.
Only Shimon, the silent boy from outside, found her out. He was thin, and his skin was darker than that of the kibbutz children, even though they hung out at the pool till dusk while he sat for hours on the tractor and never took off his clothes. He always wore a faded blue shirt. He sat down beside her, and she trembled, and he leafed through her book and gave it back to her, and a week went by and then another, and on the third week he suddenly dared to touch her, and they still hadn’t spoken a word to each other.
Her mouth and throat were dry and she was afraid. A spell led her hand to his lean body, and a spell allowed him to massage her groin until he almost hurt her, but also sent a strange vibration though her. He’s the wicked robber and I’m the princess, and in the end I’ll die here like this, because who knows where he comes from, and where he gets his knowledge of how to cause this forbidden pleasure.
At night, in bed, she told herself that he was forcing her. That she had no choice, and that was why she agreed. But every morning, in the middle of school, her body rose from the chair and took her to the hole in the fence.
Even before the harvesting was over, Nitza saw her once bending down next to the fence and sent her back to class with a reprimand. What does she think, that lily of the valley, that princess, she said to the school principal, that if she’s Sarka’s daughter she can do whatever she likes? She’s not the first to step out of line with me. We’ve seen sluts like her before. From that day to the end of the term she wasn’t allowed to leave in the middle of class, and she, in revenge, held her tongue and refused to eat. One day they served a bowl full of blue plums in the school dining hall. Blue? said Varda the fatty. What’s blue here? On the inside they’re completely yellow, only the skin’s purple. The fact that you invented the name blue plums doesn’t obligate the group. Didi swept them all onto her plate and didn’t touch anything else.
You’re such an egoist, said Varda. Can’t you consider other people? And she went to fetch another bowl. In the evening Didi had an upset stomach and kept on throwing up, and when her fever rose they took her to the ER at the Valley Hospital. When she returned she went to sleep in Sarka and Duvid’s room. On the kibbutz the rumor circulated that she had been hospitalized in the gynecological ward, you know why.
I’m not going back to school, she said. Duvid pleaded: Dideleh, you can’t set yourself apart from the group like this, but Sarka said to him, leave the child alone, a few days apart won’t hurt her. I’ll speak to Nitza. So what, every time she isolates herself and withdraws from the group you’ll back her up against her teachers? We’re talking about normal adolescent crises here, said Sarka. There’s nobody on this kibbutz with a better understanding of education than me, and with all due respect to Nitza, nobody understands the girl’s psychology as well as I do.
But you don’t understand anything, Mother, Didi said silently. And in the middle of the vacation, when severe menstrual pains cramped the lower half of her body, she got out of bed, put on her bathing suit, took a towel from Sarka’s closet, and announced that she was going to the pool. At the end of the vacation Shimon was drafted into the army and he didn’t return to the kibbutz even when he had leave. Didi didn’t see him again. So what, she said to herself on the first day of eleventh grade. In the first place, nobody knows what happened there, and in the second place – what happened already?
Before long Didi succeeded in reversing the reputation she had acquired as a girl who didn’t fit in. Towards the end of school she was already in a good position, thanks to sport: the long jump, the one hundred metre sprint. She always came first, or at least second. Once she came home from the championship at Sha’ar Ha’amakim with a big gold medal. Duvid, with his chin trembling, took down the beaten copper plate which had been hanging on the wall ever since they moved into the senior members’ housing, and with slow movements, as if performing some solemn rite, hung the medal in its place. By the end of the week it was no longer there. Sarka gave it to the school and hung a bunch of mummified flowers in its place.
There’s no contradiction between my consistent struggle against blatant individualism and my support for her individual ego, she said to Duvid. We’re talking about competitiveness here, and you know very well that I consider competitive individualism out of place in an egalitarian society. The child is already seventeen, she’s strong enough, it’s time she understood that with us competitive sports too are a contribution to the collective. No, no, there’s no need to put the copper plate back. I could never stand it.
Didi shrugged her shoulders and walked out of the room. A few months later, in the army, when she passed a sports instructors course with distinction, she forgot to invite Sarka and Duvid to the graduation ceremony. How can you forget something like that, Dideleh, said Duvid sadly. How should I know? she said, I was terribly tired. For God’s sake, don’t make a fuss. Everything was screwed up because of Yom Kippur and the war. Half the instructors are at the Suez canal anyway. So I forgot. So what.
Sarka was silent. But a week later Didi received a reproachful letter from her: Dina, my dear. There are certain fundamental values we live by, and lying is no trivial matter. We both know very well how often I was obliged to cover up for you in front of the whole kibbutz. Perhaps I was wrong. In any case, it doesn’t exempt you from responsibility. I want you to know that your father is very hurt.
The day after Didi was discharged from the army she notified the kibbutz secretary that she wanted to leave. For a trial period. She would definitely be coming back, but she wanted to try living in the city for a bit. Duvid arranged a job for her in a small printing press in the south of Tel Aviv, which belonged to a friend of his and Sarka’s from their early pioneering days, and a room with a relative, who lived on the second floor in Frischman Street. Didi never mentioned her name. If anyone asked she said that she was living with some woman, a widow but not so old.
Two months after coming to town, at the end of winter 1975, she went into Café Vered in Dizengoff Street for a cup of hot cocoa. Every evening she looked for a different place to pass the time until it was late, so she wouldn’t have to sit with the widow. She climbed the café’s curving staircase slowly and sat on the second floor. The glass lamps shed a murky yellow light, and the old people sitting around the little round tables and drinking boiling tea from glasses in decorative metal holders looked to her greedy, spiteful and scheming. The coats hanging on the backs of their chairs gave off a smell of naphthalene, like the smell that came from the wall closet painted in beige oil-paint in the widow’s apartment. She didn’t know anyone, and nobody knew her.
The old feeling started settling in her stomach again. A yawning, churning whirlpool, climbing to her gullet. The kibbutz, with the mud sticking to rubber boots, with the sooty kerosene stove in the room curtained in brown and yellow stripes, lay in wait in the distance, holding out long arms and imploring her to crawl back to it. She couldn’t drink the cocoa. Nausea filled her throat. She felt stifled. Now, she knew, according to the familiar sequence, the pounding in her temples would begin. Afterwards the breathlessness.
Suddenly a tall, thin young man climbed up the steps, and it took her a few minutes to remember who he was. He looked at her in surprise, and she smiled with an effort in the pain tightening round her forehead and the back of her neck. He said, hi, you’re Didi from the kibbutz, right? You haven’t changed, and he sat down next to her and called the waitress and ordered tea and a doughnut. All this time he didn’t take off his coat. He had come to meet someone, and the person hadn’t showed up.
How are you? What are you doing in town?
I live not far from here.
What do you say. So you left?
Yes. But it’s more or less temporary.
Because I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do. It’s good that I can always go back.
He was silent. She thought he said something. What?
Yes, he said. That’s how it is with you people.
I had no reason to go back there after the army.
So what are you doing?
I’m in the middle of doing a degree in economics, and a few months ago I started working in my father’s factory. Floor tiles. No, he smiled at the face she pulled, it’s actually interesting. I like it. Why are you laughing.
What do you like?
The production, taking nothing and making something from it. Don’t laugh. But I’m only at the beginning.
Are you cold? he asked and touched her hand. No. Because you’re shivering. It’s nothing, she said and shivered harder. Afterwards he accompanied her to her room. Didi told him that she felt really strange in the city. There was nowhere to be alone. There were strangers around all the time and it bothered her. And nevertheless she didn’t move from his side all evening, and the evening after that too, in the café and the cinema and even in the street, when they walked. He didn’t talk much, only asked her questions, and she answered, and almost from the first evening they held hands and clung to each other. One evening they came out of a movie and it was raining and they got wet. You know, she said, it’s like a picture I once saw, I don’t remember exactly, but there were two people in it who were saved from a shipwreck.
What nonsense, he said.
Yes, she hurried to take it back. You’re right, it’s silly. There isn’t even a sea here, we’re in the middle of a park.
Of course I remember you, Shimon, said Sarka loudly. What a question. She called him Shim-on, with the accent on the last syllable. Her face was pale. It’s not so easy to forget a boy like you. Duvid smiled happily and said nothing. He had no idea what the excitement was about, and the young man – who hadn’t shown his face on the kibbutz for years, which was rather strange in itself – seemed like a nice lad to him.
And that’s what’s important, Sarka, he said when the young couple left to fetch soda water from the machine in the dining hall. Didi looks content, too. What are you talking about, said Sarka, it will be a catastrophe. He comes from a completely different background, and that’s a sure recipe for constant friction. What are you talking about, said Duvid, he’s like a son to Itka and Nahum, and Rafi and Yonatan are very attached to him. You know how happy it made Nahum to see him working in the fields? That’s a lad who knows how to work. What difference does it make where his mother was born? You know very well, Duvid, that I haven’t got a racist bone in my body. All I ask of you is not to encourage her. Dina’s quite capable of making a rash decision simply to spite me. Nu-nu, Duvid raised a hand and dropped it in a gesture of dismissal. You’re exaggerating as usual.
Didi stood outside with the soda water. Shimon had gone to see Itka and Nahum, and she had returned by herself. She heard. That night she said to him, don’t go to Yonatan’s to sleep. I’m sleeping in Ronit’s room, and Ronit’s not here.
And he was thin, and he was brown, and he had long strong fingers, and he didn’t say a word as he came close to her and caressed her, at first urgently and then very slowly, not like in the plum trees, but she was dizzy with happiness at what she was doing here, let the whole kibbutz know, let them tell Sarka, let Sarka open the door and see what she was doing with this outside child and yell at her and say that she was irresponsible and that it was a scandal.
Her back hurt from the hard mattress, and she felt every grain of sand on the sheet, and every fiber of the woollen blanket pricked her skin, and she thought, No wonder we used to call the winter blankets here thorns, and the thoughts made her head feverish, and when Shimon moved away from her abruptly, as if he had had more than enough, she clung to him and said, Shimon, Shimon, and her voice, which had always sounded hoarse and jarring to her, flowed softly out of her.
There was a book of fairy tales that Miki the child minder used to read to them in the children’s house. One of the stories, called “The heart-string,” was Didi’s favorite, and she always asked Miki to read it, until Rafi and all the boys pretended to throw up, yuk, not that pampered bourgeois story of Didi’s again, with the queen and the princess. The queen was sad because she had no children. She tried to catch the stork and force it to drop the baby in its beak into her hands, and the children’s fairy godmother, who was in charge of the storks, came to her.
Why do you want a child, she asked her, a child brings terrible pain too. The queen stood her ground. The fairy gave her a beautiful little baby. This little baby, said the fairy, has the heart-string. And indeed, a hidden golden thread, which nobody could see but for the two of them, connected the heart of the queen to the heart of the princess. When the princess moved away, the queen’s heart cracked in pain. Once she even pulled the invisible thread and pulled and pulled, and saved the princess – captured by pirates – from death by drowning.
If I concentrate hard, I’ll feel the heart-string stretching from his heart to mine, she thought. But she didn’t tell him because she was shy. Instead she said over and over, Shimon. Shimon. And he said, right, that’s my name. But you people call me Shim-on, and he mimicked the way her mother accented the last syllable mockingly.
So what, she said, that’s the way they pronounce everybody’s name. There, I said they. I’ve never called them ‘they’ before. Now they’re against us, and we’re against them. And she fell asleep immediately and slept soundly all night long, after months of restless struggling with the narrow bed, pushed against the windowless wall in the widow’s room.
Early in the morning she woke up. He was still sleeping. Come on, she thought, let Sarka come and see and go crazy. But Sarka didn’t come, and when Shimon woke up they went to the dining hall together, and Sarka maintained a sullen silence, but ever since then he began to come to the kibbutz with her every weekend, as if that was how it had always been.
In the spring, in her parents’ room – when Duvid and Shimon listened to football on the radio – Didi leant over Sarka and said: We’ve decided to get married. Sarka stood up and cleared away the dishes. I hope you know what you’re doing. Have you spoken to his parents? Yes, Didi replied. And how did they react? They were very pleased, said Didi, and Sarka looked at her suspiciously. Have you thought of a date? Because we have to arrange it with the functions committee, you’re not the only couple getting married. Didi looked at Shimon. He said: What. Didi said: Do you want the wedding to be here? And Shimon shook his head hard.
No need, he said. We’ll have it at my parents’ place, on the lawn, in any case we’re not talking about hundreds of people. Sarka said nothing and Didi started to tell her in a low voice that it was terribly important to Shimon’s parents, and Sarka said dryly, Raise your voice, Dina, I can’t hear a word you say. Lately you’re been sniveling instead of talking.
In the evening they got on the bus to Tel Aviv, and Didi hugged the box of cookies in one hand and waved to Duvik with the other. Did I sound to you as if I was sniveling? she asked Shimon, and he said, I wasn’t paying attention, I was concentrating on the game. What difference does it make? Be careful of the box.
Two weeks later Shimon volunteered to take Sarka in his father’s station wagon to Afula, for a routine check up, which wasn’t supposed to give rise to any anxiety. Pardon me for taking the liberty of bringing it up, she said to him after a long silence, but when all is said and done you’re like a son to us on the kibbutz, and there’s a certain difference in age between us, so I can permit myself a bit of chutzpah. Why don’t you hold the ceremony at the kibbutz? Shimon didn’t know what to say. We’ll have the brit on the kibbutz, he joked, but Sarka was insulted and kept quiet.
Suddenly it occurred to her that Didi may have gotten herself into a situation. But by summer she realized that this was not the reason for the marriage. The devil knows what is, she said to Duvik. What’s driving her. You tell me, what’s driving her. My daughter – she said in disgust – will get married in a religious ceremony with a rabbi?
How about that, Sarka Nir – Didi almost gloated mockingly out loud as she stood in a long white strapless dress, with white lilies tied up with a shiny white ribbon in her hands, on the smooth green lawn next to Shimon’s parents’ house – we didn’t ride to the dining hall on a wagon heaped with sheaves of wheat, and you didn’t lead the choir in “Our barns are full of grain,” and I didn’t wear an embroidered white dress, like you, passed from wedding to wedding on the kibbutz, and I didn’t wear a wreath of wild flowers and lace flowers on my head instead of a veil, like you.
Sarka and Duvid looked shabby and odd to her in their festive kibbutz clothes, lost among all the important people and the piles of decorated food. Shimon’s father circulated between the tables in a suit and open-collared white shirt. He embraced Didi strongly and introduced her to everybody. So what do you say to my daughter-in-law. Gorgeous, eh? Didn’t I tell you she was gorgeous? Hannah, Shimon’s mother, stood to one side. Tall and thin, in a black lace dress, her face powdered in a thick pink layer and her eyes wide. Didi thought that she never blinked, but that was impossible, there was no such thing as a person who never blinked, she must blink when I’m not looking. When Shimon went up to his mother and asked if she wanted anything to drink, she shook her head, and Didi heard her say to him quietly, I don’t need anything, I’m fine, my son. Take care of your guests. And Didi saw too how she greeted the guests with a silent nod of her head. She didn’t touch any of them, and none of them touched her.
It’s not that I’m saying anything against her, Sarka complained in Duvid’s ear, as he sat beside her in a folding chair, he himself folded up and shrunken. On the contrary, I knock myself out trying to find a good word to say about her. But where does she get off patronizing us like that? After all, who is she? An uneducated ex-businesswoman. Duvid, I’m talking to you. Leave it, Sarka, he said with an effort. What do you mean, leave it? she said, that woman has hardly spoken a word to me.
At the end of the evening Didi stood on the lawn. The damp seeped into her new shoes, and Shimon said, so take them off, and she said, I can’t, because of these stupid nylon stockings, and he said, never mind, anyway you’re going to change in a minute, no? And she said nothing, and he said, No, Didi? And she said, yes, yes, and he said, what’s wrong, are you angry with me about something? And she said, No, of course not, and she felt cold, but she went on standing.
The waiters cleared away the dishes and the leftovers, and Didi looked at the big house. Through the transparent curtain of the bedroom window she saw Shimon’s mother walking slowly to the rocking chair where she sat every evening.
Sarka came up to her. Look, Dina, it’s not that I want to pick a quarrel with you now of all times, but a honeymoon in a hotel? Is that what you want? And Didi said, enough Mother, really, we’ll come next week, and Sarka said, as you wish, and fixed her stiff hairdo, and walked away with pursed lips, erect and breathing heavily, in the direction of the kibbutz pickup, where Duvid had been sitting for some time, warming up the engine.
That night, in the strange room in the hotel in Tiberias, Didi lay in bed next to Shimon, bristling with cold in spite of the heat wave, and she couldn’t fall asleep. When she closed her eyes she saw the old screen door groaning as it opened and was immediately slammed shut by the iron spring. A gray concrete path stretched from the door, tired and dusty, its rough edges higher than the muddy dark-brown flowerbeds. The little sprinkler, turning with a steady hum, sprayed a long transparent arc of water onto the pale red gerbera buds and the jagged green leaves, and the water rose in a preening, self-satisfied sweep, climbed high, and at the tip of the arch, at its very end, dipped slowly to the ground. An old bicycle was standing there, leaning against the shoe cupboard, and Sarka, in blue work trousers that had been washed a thousand times, and had her name embroidered above their back pocket in a red thread, like the footprints of a little bird, pushed the bicycle purposefully into the middle of the path. She mounted it with an energetic bound and set off holding the three-tiered pot–which they called the tower pot–riding to the dining hall singing at the top of her voice, to the accompaniment of the even, indifferent squeaking of the wheels: Come let me swing you low and high, announcing your birth to the ends of the sky, the corn has sprouted in the fields and day is nigh. Even though she tried very hard, even though she bit her lip, Didi could not hold back her tears.
* Yishuv - the Jewish population of mandatory Palestine
Copyright © by Avirama Golan & Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House
English translation © 2012 by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Avirama Golan was born in Israel, in 1950. She studied literature at Tel Aviv University and later studied French literature in Paris. She has worked as both correspondent and editor for the daily Davar. In 1991, she moved to Haaretz, where she is now senior correspondent on social and cultural affairs and a member of the editorial board. Since 1999, she has also hosted a weekly literary magazine on Channel 2 TV. Golan has published two novels, a book of non-fiction and four children’s books. She has also translated many children’s classics and written screenplays for children’s TV. Both her novels were bestsellers in Israel. Golan received the Book Publishers Association’s Gold Book Prize in 2005.
Dalya Bilu (the translator) is a well-known translator of Hebrew literature who has translated many novels by Zeruya Shalev, A.B.Yehoshua, Yaakov Shabtai, Aharon Appelfeld, David Vogel, Joshua Sobol, Yoram Kaniuk, Orly Castel-Bloom, Edna Mazya, Yehudit Hendel, Yehoshua Kenaz, Alona Kimhi, Judith Katzir, Batia Gur and more. She has been awarded a number of prizes, including The Israel Culture and Education Ministry Prize for Translation, the Times Literary Supplement Prize and the Jewish Book Council Award for Hebrew-English Translation. She lives in Jerusalem.