Do Not Strike the Wall
(Excerpt of a Novel)
By Mira Magen
Translated from Hebrew by Yael Lotan
Elisha Malchin was nineteen when he got off the village bus that Friday noon, and a girl he did not know got off before him. His soldier’s shirt was too big and his kitbag almost floored him. He put the kitbag down on the bus-stop asphalt and showed her the way to the secretariat. You see those three poplars? There, on the right, you go down six steps and walk to the building with the blue shutters. She turned right towards the three poplars and he turned left to his house, and in the oval shadow cast by the kitbag on the limestone gravel he saw a slim brown ankle and a white sandal strap. Her name was Almah, and she’s been gone these past eleven years, and all these years the cantor of the burial society prays for her to rest in peace and his request is denied, because two are troubling her rest - Elisha, about whom they say that his love is as strong as death, which is why death has no advantage over him, and me. Now he’s already thirty-eight, and he has a daughter and an orange grove and a white house down our street and ugly shrubs in his yard, and me - I’m twenty-five.
Seven in the morning, his Hedda is wandering about his yard, gathering poinciana pods, to pierce and make into a mobile. The ceiling of her room has sprouted swollen pine-cones, chicken feathers and acorns. The wind enters the mobiles, making shivery shapes on the wall, striking the hanging things against each other and produces sounds out of them. She’s drooping her shoulders again, it’s only when Mother touches her back and says, Straight, Hedda, stand straight, that she pulls herself up for a moment and promptly droops again, unconsciously choosing a skimpy outline and making it fit her form. This child can’t imagine exceeding even by a jot what nature has allotted her. A thick pouting lip, a soft curve of the buttocks, a tilted neck, she moves her thin limbs in droopy socks in an awkward, listless gait between the chicken coop and the storage shed, the three elderly hens waddling idiotically behind her.
Six years after her birth and her mother’s death I went to Jerusalem to the midwife Violette, to see which corridor Elisha Malchin had waited in, though which wall he heard the noises, in which room he was informed. In the village it was said that on that day the colour of his eyes changed, that in the morning they were still blue and when he returned in the evening they were grey like the doors of the synagogue. They also said that this trauma was worse for him than the death of his mother Nehamah, though when his mother died he was still a boy, not even a bar-mitzvah.
It’s just seven in the morning. For the past hour or more the wind has been striking the roof of the storage shed as if possessed. Mother says, No wonder, at the end of Tishre the wind is confused, it hasn’t been told if it’s a summer or a winter wind. She lays a hand on my papers and slams the window and can’t resist saying, What are all these papers for, Ossi, are you opening an office here? And when Mother lays a hand down the wind might as well give up. Her hand is swollen and heavy - the whole field crop of marrows and carrots that she has peeled, the fowls she has skinned, the nuts she has cracked, they have all thickened it. Her sleeve is rolled up to the elbow, her bare forearm takes into account standing water, blocked sink drains, soup splashes and a rebellious water-sprinkler. One day, when I can no longer contain myself, I’ll pull down her sleeve so that it will enclose her wrist and explain to her that I’m not opening any kind of office, that these papers are here because memory is the last thing I’d rely on, which is why I didn’t wait with the story that Violette told me and hurriedly wrote down how Almah died, though not word for word:
All night long Almah’s shrieks pierced through the labour-room ceiling and the floor of the internal wards, into the orthopedics floor and via the roof of the fifth floor up into the sky, and the soundwaves trapped in the porcelain wall-tiles rang in the ears even after Almah had filled her quota of groans and lay still.
That night, accompanied by an entourage of residents, Dr. Sheinfeld demonstrated how to do a correct episiotomy and the proper stitching to follow, and they clustered around him, watching the needle twisting through the torn flesh and sheltering their ears from the echo. The episiotomy was perfect and so was the seam, the thread united the flesh and each resident in turn examined the fine needlework between the spread thighs and stepped aside to let the next one come close.
The baby weighed three kilos, six hundred and fifty grams, her colouring was pink and her muscle tone was all right, only her cries sounded feeble and somewhat shallow, perhaps because of the sounds that filled the room. They were about to move the stool that stood between Almah’s legs, that the doctor had sat on, when he rose and peeled the sterile rubber gloves off his white fingers, saying,
‘You’ll see, in less than three weeks this will be back in business, what has to go in will go in, and what must come out will come out, a year from now she’ll be back here.’ But when he said, ‘You know these religious types, every year...’ Violette, the slimmest of the midwives, pointed her little finger at the childbearer, and the doctor caught the gesture and looked up from the flesh he had patched, followed the finger and yelled: ‘Blood-pressure, idiot, blood-pressure.’
The mercury slid down quickly and only when it dipped below eighty did the doctor’s ear catch a faint beat through the stethoscope. He squeeze the arm, but not until he dug in his fingers, leaving marks in the flesh, did he get the pulse’s thin thread, such weak thrusts against the artery wall, and such a crazy rhythm - the heart straining its failing powers to compensate the organs for the deficient blood supply. The labouring woman's heavy hair spilled from the top of the bed into the gap between the mattress and the floor, and sweat dripped on the green linoleum. There was nothing in the room to compare to her pallor, because the sheets and dressings were white in the ordinary sense of whiteness, whereas the skin stretched over the cheekbones was a drained white, and there is no name for an absent colour.
Violette bent down, freed her ear from the sterile cap, and brought her thin earlobe close to Almah’s lips, trying to catch the words that trembled on her mouth, and if she was not mistaken it was ‘Eli shema’, or ‘Elohai neshamah’, or ‘Elisha’, but nothing quite clear, because her mouth was open and she could no longer bring her lips together.
Dr. Sheinfeld needed nothing more, he was experienced, he saw the white belly which was swelling instead of subsiding and drawing down to the shrinking womb. ‘Damn, a hemorrhage,’ he yelled, and the emergency bell started to ring. Like a swarm of locusts, the male nurses appeared in their green uniforms, as well as an anaesthetist and the duty surgeon, but the mercury plunged to the bottom fifth of the column and there it balled up and did not rise any more.
Elisha Malchin was waiting in the corridor, leaning against a wall enamelled pale grey, reciting the psalm, ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice...’ He couldn’t guess what was happening inside, because the walls kept throwing back the sounds, and the echo curled like smoke even from the ceiling of the corridor and the pipes running along it. And when the doctor gently touched his flannel sleeve, Elisha closed the Book of Psalms on the finger that marked his place, detached his back from the wall, and raised a pale young face to the doctor.
For some reason, Sheinfeld would remember a network of fine blood vessels in the young man’s blue eyes, and would also remember that at that point the silence was absolute, as though the labour-rooms, with their staff and machinery, and even the humming of the fluorescent lights, had suddenly frozen still.
The doctor asked if he was the husband of Almah Malchin, though he knew the answer - he remembered them walking towards him, the pregnant woman leaning on the young man’s arm, and it was plain to see that the fetus was already pushing into the birth canal, the belly being very low, and he could not resist turning around, and saw that her back was slim and long and stretched backwards, and noticed the blue wool cap which enclosed her hair, and said to himself that there are some really attractive ones among them, and wondered if the young Orthodox man appreciated the goods he’d got.
You have a daughter, three kilos, six hundred and fifty grams, he said, and indicated to Elisha to follow him to his office, slowed down and motioned with a raised chin that he should go in first. Only rarely did Sheinfeld’s clients walk with their backs to him. Later he would say to the young residents that he believed in straight talking. Let him enter the room before you, go in after him and close the door, direct him to the chair in front of the desk, and don’t allow yourselves to slouch smugly, but sit up straight and in a matter-of-fact manner, with creases of compassion on your brow, give him the news - compact, sharp, clear and immediate, it’s better for it to strike like an arrow and make an elegant entry wound. The listener will lose his head for a moment and by the time he’s regained his wits he will be on his way to the bureaucracy in the ground floor offices, since every piece of bad news has its own paperwork to arrange. A softening hint before the news may miss its target; the listener after all has an intuition, which may confuse his mind if it is not presented with an unequivocal objective.
The doctor could not know that this skilful sequence of actions would be disrupted when the double cuff of his shirt would get caught in the door just as he was about to shut it with the proper emphasis. By no means to slam it - a slammed door is reserved for scenes of reproof and a lecture to a bungling resident, whereas scenes like this call for a slow, considerate door-closing. But the caught cuff, the clumsy attempt to free it, and the button which flew off and rolled under the bookcase of up-to-date gynecological literature - all this caused the door to slam into its frame and rattle the shelves above it and bring down a magazine of obstetrics. Dr. Sheinfeld hated objects which rose up against him. With people he knew how to conduct himself and put them in their place, but a misbehaving sleeve... But Elisha Malchin couldn’t know that in the growled command ‘Sit down,’ the tone was meant for the sleeve rather than for him.
He was twenty-seven when he was informed of her death, and she was thirty. But the news utterly contradicted the physical evidence, since her shrieks continued to creep into the doctor’s office through the gap between the door with the sign ‘Head of Department’ and the floor.
The midwife Violette has not forgotten how the echo hung in the labour room like a mist, and was dispelled only when morning came. Nor has she forgotten how the young man bent down to the dead woman, gathered up her hair and pulled the sheet up to her neck and tucked it around her shoulders, as though against the cold, and pressed her limbs together, leaving only her cold white head uncovered, and touched his lips to the moist brow but did not quite kiss it, only pressed them down hard and very slowly detached them. In the meantime they packed into a bag her clothes and the blue wool cap and the flat shoes, and took the ring off her finger before rigor mortis set in and put it in a white envelope and sealed it with a transparent plaster.
Violette sat in the nurses’ room and smoked. For years and years she has been sitting on this chair between births and smoking, as if to count the number of newborns in the tally of burnt stubs. At first she made a mistake and talked about an Arab woman who died in childbirth, then slapped her head and said, Oh I’m mixing up two stories, you’re asking about that religious woman? Sure I remember, how can I forget? She asked who I was and why I was interested after all these years.
My name is Yiscah Simon, I said. I’m preparing a memorial booklet for her, I lied.
Iska? I’ve never heard such a name. Are you a relative of hers?
A cousin, I lied again.
Is that a Biblical name?
I said it was, and she twitched her plucked eyebrows and thin moustache and said, What did you say - Iska? I swear I never heard such a name.
It’s Yiscah, not Iska, but never mind, my parents didn’t get on with the name they gave me either, so they call me Ossi.
Ah, Ossi comes from Iska, well, that’s much more reasonable, she said, and didn’t ask any more questions, crushed her cigarette in a saucer, gave me a clean white coat and took me to the labour room to show me the bed in which Almah gave up the ghost.
You know what hair she had? It fell from the bed like black rain. With fingers corroded by nicotine and disinfectants she drew long movements from her thin hair and said, I’ve never seen such hair, and believe me I’ve seen a lot in my life.
I said I believed her.
A man in a stiff-starched white coat passed in the corridor, compressing his lips on an extinguished pipe. Though he did not turn his head, his eyes lingered on the brown legs I’d stretched out of the door of the nurses’ room into the corridor and didn’t pull back to let him have the full width of the passage.
Dr. Sheinfeld, said Violette after the back that vanished behind a door, leaving behind a faint whiff of aftershave.
I thought so, I said, like other things that I know and only ask to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, just as I knew he wouldn’t refuse me when I knocked on his door.
A sharp smell of tobacco blew at the door I opened. I asked if he could spare me a few moments, and apologized for not making an appointment in advance.
Depends what for, he said.
For some information.
He sucked on his pipe and looked me over, then said, Sit down, and told me what he remembered. When he finished he accompanied me to the door and said that if I liked, we could continue this dialogue sometime in a café in town. I said I would like it, the lie didn’t cost me anything, and only when I reached the end of the corridor I heard his door close and the dull echo of my clicking heels coming back from the high walls.
If Almah could read the description of her death she would have said, You’re making progress, not a bad essay, and if she’d said that not all the details are correct, I’d have answered that most of them are close to the truth, and I’d swear that the psalm Elisha Malchin read in the corridor was ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, Oh Lord,’ and that he was wearing a checkered flannel shirt.
I’d also have sworn that until she turned up in our godforsaken village I had never seen a slim long back rising from such a straight and narrow pelvis. But for the little breasts and smooth neck you might have taken her for a boy. Nor had I ever seen such untidy buckthorn bushes as the ones she grew in her yard, nor a women who’d cropped her hair down to the scalp. Naval Commando trim, whispered our whisperers. She only covered her head when she married Elisha Malchin, and her hair grew and filled the cap she wore over it.
Three days after she died Mother travelled to the hospital, equipped with all the necessaries, and returned with the baby. After dark Elisha Malchin crossed the street and came over to see his daughter, his face covered with mourning bristles, pale and distracted, accompanied by his father Yoel. With his hand over his mouth on account of his cough and the smell of cigarettes, Yoel said the little one had neither a grandmother nor a mother, only two useless widowers, and that his Nehamah, God rest her soul, she’d have sent us if she could a noodle cake with raisins from paradise. He pressed his green scarf to his mouth, bent over the little head and said, Judging by the colour, it’s a product of Hungary all right.
Yoel forgot the existence of Tziona and Avrum Shauli, Almah’s parents. But Tziona suffers with her back and can’t sit on the low benches they place for mourners in our village. In her house in Talpiot in Jerusalem she could sink into a soft living room armchair and give herself up to her grief without physical conditions to distract her. She telephoned twice to ask after her granddaughter and asked us to kiss her in her name and on behalf of her aunt Ofra, burst into tears, and after wiping her nose and her eyes, said, Excuse me and hung up.
During the seven days of the shiva the used basket cradle they’d hired was shoved between my parents’ bed and the chest of drawers. No one thought that it would then be decided to leave her with us till the end of the thirty-day period, and after the thirty days they would be used to the situation and wouldn’t mention further dates, and that when the cradle ends touched the baby’s head and feet they would look for a second-hand crib, and move the chest of drawers to make room for it.
Throughout the shiva she didn’t have a name, and they said ‘the baby’. They thought he would name her after his late mother Nehamah, whose only son he was, and now that he was a widower who’s to say if there would be other Malchin offspring. But on the seventh day, when he returned from the cemetery and washed his hands in the basin in our shower room, after he’d purified them at the graveyard’s water pipes, Mother handed him a clean kitchen towel and said, The little girl needs a name. He was a head-and-a-half taller than Mother, but looked as if he was her son, the fuzzy bristles did not make him look older but on the contrary, detracted from his age and gave him a boyish look, since they covered his drawn cheeks in little clumps. It looked like his first beard. He clenched his damp fists into two tennis balls and said, Hedda.
Mother asked after whom he was naming her.
After the echo, he said (echo being hed in Hebrew).
Mother went on nodding sadly for many days after this, sorry for Nehamah Malchin who must have turned twice in her grave - once for the son who became a widower and once when he forgot her.
What do you want from him? said Father. That skinny Yemenite turned his head completely, and Mother put a stiff forefinger to her mouth and warned him, Sh... sh... and said, Ruben, she wasn’t entirely Yemenite, only half, you know her father came from Poland, and anyhow, that’s no way to speak about the dead.
So if she was only half, then her daughter is only a quarter, he replied and raised the blind to see how brown was the complexion of a quarter-Yemenite.
That week was my fourteenth birthday. I hid my new gold chain under the buttoned collar on account of the mourning, but when Elisha Malchin went home I pulled out the golden circle and it was warm and glittered as only new gold can. Suddenly I had a sister, and this sister had a strange father whose forehead was clear and white like the squill that grew ramrod straight in the borders of the plots. He came every evening to see her, and I would put on a thick sweater, to cover up and flatten, to seem like a child of unquestioned innocence, so that I could observe, listen and touch things that I would have to be wary of when my maturity became obvious.
For the past eleven years Elisha’s key has been hanging on the towel hook in our kitchen, so that Hedda can get into her father’s house. She knows she must put the key back, and may even realize that she is not the only one who uses it. Yoel’s house key also hangs on the hook, but his house is always open and she goes to his veranda and soaks dry bread in water for the three hens that remain from the old coop, and while the bread is soaking she eats bittersweet chocolate and wipes sweaty fingers on the picture of the cow on the wrapping.
People here say that her mother was punished twice, once by passing away and the second time by leaving nothing behind - not even a grimace, an expressive feature, nothing. The mouth is Elisha’s and even the brown curls that she might have had if Elisha hadn’t asked Mantzi Ulman to crop them on the first of every month, as if Mantzi’s scissors could snip off the bad luck that comes and hangs on her head every month anew. Only on the last days, just before the birth of the moon, do the germinating brown hairs begin to roll up and sketch the budding curls that are never allowed to ripen.
But me, no matter how hard I racked my brain, I couldn’t figure out why her mother deserved a single punishment, let alone two.
This morning, too, I passed my fingers over her mouth. I didn’t let her wipe the traces of cocoa herself. I can do it, she said and shook the black bread crumbs from her skirt, but obediently gave me her lips, as she obeys our other understandings, which I had taken pains to establish from the third day of her life, when she cried feebly and groped with an eager mouth for a breast that was not extended to her, and all at once gave up, lowered her tiny fists and sucked on the yellow rubber nipple of a baby bottle.
She’ll have a short neck if she continues to slump like this. Eleven years old, she hollows her narrow flat chest, kneels down and with her fingernails scrapes the sand off the pods she has gathered, feeling them one by one for a sunken pit to drill with a nail. Then she will gather up the folds of her dress, lay the pods in the cloth bowl and carry them to the veranda, oblivious of her exposed thighs and the sand falling from her knickers. Girls in her class already sweep aside their hair with a diagonal toss of the head, clasp their fingers under their chin and practise thrusting their neck forward. She too has some thin fuzz in her armpits, but she sits in class carving lines in the coarse wood of the desk, blowing on the fibres and watching the sawdust wander over her notebooks.
She does nothing to resist the wind which raises her skirt. For more than half an hour she squats on the ground, sorting the pods by length, and scratching them until the nail goes through the hole. The scraping sounds drive me out of my mind, but I keep quiet, because soon she will have a new mobile and Elisha will once again need the ladder to hammer nails in the ceiling, and I shall direct him left and right, and stand under him holding the ladder and see things that cannot be seen from any other angle.
Mira Magen was born in Kfar Saba, Israel, to an Orthodox family. She studied psychology and sociology before turning to nursing. She worked as a nurse at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Magen started writing in the early 1990s. She has published a book of short stories and six bestselling novels. She was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize in 2005.