(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Sami Berdugo
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
The bedroom remains protected. I lie in bed and David comes in. He is holding a white diaper in his hand and dragging it on the floor, cleaning up his soft bare footsteps behind him. In spite of his age he still clings to the cloth of the diaper, attaches himself to it as soon as he gets up in the morning and presses it to his face. This makes the first minutes of the day easier for him.
My eyes are still bleary, but the sleepy seconds fade from me. David comes closer and grows slowly clear. In my dim thoughts I try to hold him back from approaching me and talking to me at this early hour of the morning. The bed is warm and pleasant. The blanket rests on me like a second skin. My head is straight on the pillow and I can’t move. Now his face is opposite mine and he is bigger. He takes another step and says to me, ‘Mommy’s not at home.’
David, you’re so pleasant, I want to say to him. The tranquility stored up inside him is wonderful. I drag out the few moments left and remain still as a stone on the bed. David waits for me to talk to him and raises his hand to his head, scratching with his fingers and moving his fine hair, bends his head a little to align it with mine, and stabs me with a questioning look. I count a final second and begin to sense his alarm. I have to get up and see what’s going on in the house.
‘Just a minute, David, I’m getting up,’ I say to him and he nods his head. ‘I’m getting up, okay, David,’ I say to him again and throw off the blanket, sit up in bed and see him leave the room.
Rachel isn’t in the room with me. I put on trousers and a long-sleeved undershirt. It’s cold in here and I need to wear something warm. The silence grows. I don’t hear the children playing. What happened to their gentle murmuring? Is it late already? I go out into the passage. Where is the cold coming from at this hour in summer? There must be cracks that I have to find and stop up against the wind not moving between the rooms. I rub my hands to warm myself and I don’t look round. David and Dror are standing next to the low table in the living room and looking at me. I glance into the open kitchen. It’s still tidy from yesterday.
‘Mommy’s not at home,’ says David again and looks at Dror. He hasn’t got the diaper with him any more, he must have left it in the bedroom. Now he needs support from another source.
‘Where’s Mommy, Daddy?’ he asks me.
‘I don’t know.’
‘But where’s Mommy now?’ he insists.
‘I don’t know now.’ I try not to alarm them.
‘She’s not at home? She went out eargly?’
‘Early, David, early. Yes, she went out early,’ I say and look round.
‘Bread and milk, Daddy,’ David requests and comes up to me, raises his eyes and tries to trap me and get me to say something to him. I evade his eyes and understand that I have to get the children ready this morning. They have to leave the house organized after giving me the message that Rachel is missing.
I know the bread and milk they like. They eat it next to me almost every morning. Rachel pours them each a nearly full glass of milk, she has accustomed them to the taste of milk with one percent fat, because she thinks it’s cleaner.
‘Don’t you get dressed first?’ I ask, and they shake their heads.
‘Okay, bread and milk,’ I say and advance to the kitchen, stand in front of the sink and see two glasses in it, with the dregs of a red liquid in them. I pick them up and smell the familiar taste of the wine, I drank wine yesterday. Rachel must have been lying on the couch in the living room. I wanted her to drink it with me and let her head fall onto me in a beautiful movement that would arouse me with hints of closeness, perhaps she would even speak to me in late evening words without thinking about what I could do to her in the still hours of night.
But I think I went on sitting in the kitchen. I played in my head with pictures of Rachel yielding, and then I went to bed. I wasn’t out of it, but I felt a pleasant tiredness, as if I had gotten rid not only of one day of bearing the burden, but of an accumulation of months and years not related to the time of my life. And Rachel? What was happening to her? I didn’t look at her as I let my head droop and last night came slowly and peacefully to a close. I pushed away the worries about her and about these dangerous days. In bed I dwelt enjoyably on a rare memory and laughed to myself at myself and at those times, when I was light and without any obligations to anyone, long before I lived in this house and this country.
I put the bread on hard blue plastic plates. I spread the slices with margarine and put jam on the side for whoever wanted it. They eat next to me in silence, moving their heads a little. David hums snatches of something. They still aren’t dressed. The living room seems far away, and perhaps the couch Rachel was lying on yesterday is different. Yesterday I left her lying there, curled up as usual. And then, what happened then? I think I got up and left the kitchen and went sunk into myself to the bedroom. Did I fall asleep at once? I haven’t seen Rachel since yesterday.
‘Daddy, different jam.’ David pushes the saucer with the plum jam away.
‘Red, the color of red.’ David points at the fridge.
‘The red jam’s in the fridge?’ I ask and they both nod their heads.
I go to the fridge, look in the door and see a jar of strawberry jam. I knew that Rachel would put it there and involve me in a long search. Just so they don’t think that something out of the ordinary is happening here, so they won’t notice the slight deviations of the morning and the unknown moments. I would like to describe these moments, but I can’t, because they are still blurred.
In a minute the children will come out of their room dressed and tidy with their bags ready and their hair combed. I asked them if they could go by themselves, ‘Yes, it’s close to here,’ said David, and I was glad, because his kindergarten really is close, a few buildings ahead on our street and then left, I think the second house. Dror will have to continue to the end of the street, and then turn right, and walk five or seven minutes until he reaches the school.
It’s okay for them to go by themselves this morning. Rachel doesn’t always go with them either. Sometimes she sees to it that they go with other children, or another mother. But it really is all right for them to go alone. After they come out of their room and I look at them and give them my approval, I’ll lead them to the door, and they won’t look at me when they go down the stairs and into the street.
In a little while I’ll phone the office and say I’m not coming in. Today is Thursday, tomorrow’s Friday and the office is closed. So I have a long weekend without asking for it. Now I have to stay here even if I feel like going out. There is a bright, almost glittering light at the edges of the window. Outside morning has arrived. I would like to go out into it. The shining morning spreads itself over the plain streets and over the low building whose ground floor houses the quiet Welfare Bureau of the town of Petah Tikva. You enter it through a wooden door which has not yet been replaced. It has a sign in the letters they wrote in then, strong and modest, which for me stand for what was once here, at the time of my beginnings, when I arrived in the country and met them and little by little, with a simple effort, identified what they said and felt the joy of a pioneer.
Every day those letters are there, waiting for me with the desk standing in the corner which is like the other corners. This is our pleasant office, it always looks neglected but clean, almost like an orphan next to the building opposite it and underneath the storeys above it, where four families live. The residents have already grown accustomed to the municipal office in their building, they treat us like a family that comes to the building for a few hours and lives half their lives with them. We too, the people in the office, recognize some of the faces of the residents above us. Sometimes we meet them at the entrance and we don’t feel like strangers in contrast to them, even though they live in the building all day and can think about what happens on our floor in the evenings too, when darkness comes and we workers have left the place deserted, and are sitting at home and not thinking about the divided rooms of the office, or the rooms above them.
There is no point in trying to find out if Rachel decided to go to work today. For the past two days she was even weaker and only wanted to rest. Yesterday she didn’t tell me that she would like to go back to work. I think she didn’t speak at all. All day I didn’t hear her say a word, not to me or the children. If she wanted to work today she would have prepared for it. Surely she would prepared herself in the bedroom, lain close to me all night in order to sleep soundly and store up strength for the coming day. Rachel is always organized. Preparations for the day and for work are natural to her and no surprise can change that.
But what should I do first? The children have already left the house and Rachel didn’t leave a note. Perhaps there’s a hint next to the couch that could reassure me. I pick up the plates and cups next to the sink and wash them together with the glasses from yesterday, cleaning every vestige of red sticking to them. The water is cold and makes my hands come out in goose pimples, like a rough extra coating rising on my skin and shrinking unhealthy liquids in my veins. After washing the dishes I’ll go to the bedroom and put on something warm. Impossible to think ahead. Just finish running the water and wipe the dark marble counter and the table, and then get warm with a woolen sweater buried in the top drawers of the closet. I always forget about it when winter comes, and a year passes and then another one and it remains folded up and abandoned. Now even though it’s summer I want it on me so that I can go to the couch and think about where Rachel is and what happened last night before I parted from her without saying goodbye.
David and Dror don’t have any thoughts about protecting themselves. On their way to school and kindergarten they know how to advance with every small distance they cover. They don’t look ahead and they concentrate on a single point on the pale asphalt of the narrow pavement, advancing half a meter, a meter, while conducting a conversation between themselves, one of them speaks and his brother answers him or perhaps keeps quiet. Walking together like this they are almost one, and to me they seem like strangers in the world of this morning outside. Even though everything is familiar to them and the sights repeat themselves – every new day they change on the pavements of the town.
I hope in my heart that they won’t be separated and won’t give me cause for concern. The concern now is for their mother. I don’t know where to look for her, and this awakens my fear. I have always been afraid of not knowing. Rachel hinted to me in the beginning that these were the seeds of an anxiety that grew and developed inside me, something that I brought with me from there. ‘It all comes from there,’ she said and touched my shoulder. I wanted her to say more and I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘The aloneness you thought about then is giving rise to this anxiety,’ she said, and she understood everything about me, thanks to the conversations I had with her in the first months we met. Without thinking about it, I told her about myself and my family. Rachel kept quiet or nodded her head, as if to say ‘Yes, yes, I hear every feeling of yours and you must tell me everything.’ I was happy to talk to a woman like Rachel and I felt that this was the celebrated love that I was supposed to prepare myself for. I understood that this was how the famous falling in love that acts on everybody according to its laws was happening to me too. Above all I was happy that it was happening to me precisely with Rachel here in this country, my white woman working her magic on me with the consenting gestures of her head and her thin body, which seemed to me then strong and suitable for every kind of weather. I had not known many women before her. I had never come close to a woman as I did with Rachel. I thought that most of the women in Israel were like this, and Rachel was one of them, even though she wasn’t born here. There was a quiet goodness in her, too, that I undertook to conform to, because I came from outside. Together we understood that this was the place for me and the people that I belonged to.
Afterwards I listened to her talking about herself and her small family. Rachel is the only child of parents who live in Petah Tikva not far from us. They took care of their daughter and they weren’t interested in having another child to keep them occupied and to worry about with red eyes. Alfred, Rachel’s father, has red eyes like that. He is already over eighty and he still walks well. Almost every day he carries out the instructions his wife gives him. Goes out to the grocery store, buys a few items, and stops at the post office to check for mail. I won’t call them. There’s no chance they know what happened to Rachel this morning, or last night. They won’t have any new details. Even though they keep up to date on our lives, especially since they became grandparents to David and Dror. Both of them are very happy about the little dynasty being continued, and about Rachel who succeeded in getting ahead and producing a new generation of two male heirs.
Rachel told me that every pain and unhappy thought about herself came from her parents. She explained to both of us the bond between her and them, two modest old people with fragile bodies that always look uncomfortable. Even when they’re sitting they want to get up. There is nothing exciting in their lives. The apartment they live in stays clean and tidy. Their retirement activities keep them going. I’m glad they’re not my parents. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like to live like them, always afraid of some incident that will happen from one moment to the next and turn things upside down everywhere in the world. Their neighborhood and their apartment are dear to them. And so is the country they chose to come to and live in, a state that is in the process of self-actualization. Now they are so sensitive to the times and the looming danger, that at certain moments every sentence or slight change in politics and in the Knesset undermines them. Sometimes they ask me if I heard what somebody said in the news, and how they analyzed the situation in a television programme, and how hard it is to hear it today and how can you avoid hearing it.
The whole country is almost breaking apart in front of their eyes and it can’t hold up. They hope that it will hold steady at least until they reach the end, they pray silently that nothing will eject them from their borders. At their age this fear is understandable, after they spent young years of childhood in a strange, cold country, which in the beginning was a wonderful dream and afterwards a nightmare, and left everything and arrived here without knowing what would happen to them. Rachel was a baby of hope for them, she made them forget the European horrors and concentrate on her and her education and the small apartment they bought. Now they want to return to those days and years, to bow their heads and live without worries.
Rachel too knows that this is how they think. If she was here with me, we would be able to bring it up and we wouldn’t be able to think of a plan that would reassure them. She was born into their fear, and she withdrew into the sweet indifference which is a kind of concern without their anxieties and a gaze that pierces my eyes, passes through the pathways of the head and goes down to the heart that recognizes it in a second. I want to embrace her every time anew, to feel her solidity through the clothes and to make sure that this is really her, the woman I examine all the time, afraid that she will disappear on me.
My wife is different from her parents. The forgetting and the detachment from them have become part of her nature, like a bleeding scratch on the skin, which later turns into a scab and leaves a smooth surface. She is something superior, a combination of kind-heartedness and consent, of covering up and revealing at the same time, something almost remarkable, which is impossible to get to the bottom of. All I can do is follow her brown eyes, which always look small. But at night, when she lies on her side parallel to me, her eyes become flat and give off a light color. In bed the color combines with sentences she says, telling me something about little David, about how he talked to the teacher in kindergarten and what he did at the dining table. Afterwards she wonders and tries to remember if it was the same with Dror, asking and answering in the musical voice that she lets out only at night, keeping the soft voice for our lying together. And then my sleepy breath becomes regular, and Rachel realizes that I am starting to fall asleep and disappear into a place where she doesn’t exist.
On the table is half a cup of instant coffee that I prepared earlier. I take a sip. The cold taste is unpleasant in my mouth. The liquid passes through my throat and washes down with it the irritation of an approaching cough. I drink it all and ask myself what to do now. What first? Maybe another cup of hot coffee? Every idea suddenly seems possible. My time is wide open and I am free to take advantage of it easily. The question of Rachel can wait a while. I can go on being the idle person of this rare moment, a moment that doesn’t often come my way and that isn’t connected to leisure and liberty. Sometimes, at work, a similar feeling would descend on me. Rachel knows what I feel and reminds me of the old anxiety. Again I asked her: ‘Why does it happen to me?’ and she said, ‘Don’t worry, today you’re in a good place.’
Truly those feelings have left me. I came to believe and know that I am a grown man, a mature person with the human strength to reject distracting things and ideas. In this way I distanced from myself the questions of the days when everything took shape and turned into the solid stuff of a body with a form like mine. Rachel spoke to me and explained that I was like everybody else, exactly like the person walking next to me in the street, like the upstairs neighbor and his wife with their four children, like the girls who work with me in the welfare bureau, and everything operates along the right lines, and there is no uncertainty, and anxiety is only an object you can see and also touch like a stone at the side of the road.
The children are in their place and don’t yet sense anything. I don’t want to get confused, but apparently something is starting in me. A latent pressure rises up from the reservoirs of the past and has to be controlled. I recognize the tremor and get up and go into the passage, peep into the children’s room and see the pile of clean laundry lying in the corner on the green carpet. Usually Rachel folds the laundry. Sometimes she comes to me with sheets and bed covers, hands me one end without speaking, and our ritual begins. She stands next to me and I rise from the chair and stand opposite her, ready for the duet of the clean fabrics, and the two of us stretch the corners of the sheet and try to get rid of the creases, and then Rachel splits it in two and makes the first fold, and right after her I fold my side, and again we stretch the material, this time harder, and Rachel makes the second fold and so do I and then she signals me to come closer to her, and I step up with the corners in my hands, advance towards Rachel’s holding hands, and the sheet folds in the middle and becomes shorter when I come right up to her and give it to her, and she quickly catches hold of the corners and she always succeeds in evading my hands, abandoning me and continuing on her own, drops the sheet into a half fold, and then puts it on the table, smoothes it with her hand and folds it again into a neat square that will fit into the closet.
It’s hard to know how many loads of laundry there are in the pile I see. Maybe I’ll fold it up later, but in the meantime it can stay there on the green carpet. We stretched this carpet to every corner of the room because it keeps out the cold from the floor tiles and guards the body in winter and summer. We want the children to feel comfortable when they sit and lie on it, shut up in a pleasant room. And soon I will be able to do the same, sit cross-legged like them and at my leisure fold the white and colored clothes, the tiny socks they put on their smooth feet, padded with fresh white flesh. How many little pairs of socks go in and out of the washing machine? Rachel rolls them into unequal balls of socks of different colors, because she doesn’t care if blue joins up with green or another color from the same family. Our children don’t notice when she bends down to them and straightens out at the low height and slips on one sock after the other, and then does the same with the second child, sometimes laughing when they agree to hold out their feet without her having to ask them a few times, delighting in their touch and suppleness. We both love these feet so much, and we’re happy that we succeeded in bringing skin like this into our home too.
Now it looks like half past ten in the morning or maybe eleven. In another hour it will be lunch time. And the children? When exactly do they arrive? Where do they come in? What food do they eat? And their chatter, and David’s questions. I go on to the bedroom and pass the mirror in the corner quickly. I don’t want to linger in this part of the apartment. Maybe someone will come in or knock on the door, maybe voices will come from an unknown place and talk to me nicely and say something connected to the vanished Rachel, and then she’ll come back to breathe inside my head even if there’s no proof before my eyes.
From the kitchen window I see the light. Outside, the silence of the morning is still preserved. This is its peak hour. The light is made up of a pale dazzling brightness and a darker shade with faint stains scattered among the shadows of the house. The stains are also outside between the trees on the pavements, guarding beneath them the silence which it is impossible to fully understand, but it is possible to know that it is wondrous, as if only there, in the intervals between the trees at the edges of the pavements of the town, the original morning exists.
The sun shines around the building and fails to penetrate it with its rays. The apartment receives only the remnants of the heat. I feel a pleasant hunger rising in the middle of my body. I can eat a good breakfast here. If I was in the office now I would look at the sliced bread in the coffee corner, which also has cheese and chocolate spread. The girls spread it on Petit Beurre biscuits that they buy from the common kitty. Sometimes there are flaky burekas, which are soon polished off, because everybody is happy about them and the change they bring.
Now I can prepare a meal. I open the fridge and see vegetables in the transparent compartment, also eggs and soft white cheese, one kind with olives and another one with dill. I take out two tomatoes and a cucumber, look for the spring onion and can’t find it. Instead I see little pale pink radishes. I’m glad of them. When did I eat washed radishes in the morning? Rachel buys them and I don’t notice that they’re there. I lift radishes out of the packet and wash them with the vegetables. There are onions in a bag next to the cupboard. Rachel keeps them there and not in the fridge so they won’t grow roots and rot. I cut everything quickly into cubes, don’t put on salt in the meantime, and take out two eggs. The frying pan is clean, standing on the stove. I put in cooking margarine and light the gas. The margarine melts. I break the eggs into it and they merge and solidify into an opaque yellow-white color. I mix them quickly with a fork and turn off the flame to keep the mixture soft. I transfer the eggs to the plate next to the cut vegetables, throw salt on everything, drip oil on the vegetables, and sit down at the table.
The juices rise in my stomach and saliva collects in my mouth. I can make coffee later and now I eat, take the eggs on my fork and put them in my mouth. I hardly chew. They slide down my throat and leave the unique taste of eggs behind them, almost like I tasted once when I was small and they prepared my meals for me, served them to me on a brown glass plate, and put a piece of white bread next to it. Here there’s no bread like that. I look at the plate and feel moved to have something there that I succeeded in making myself. I put another forkful into my mouth, add fresh vegetables, and bite into the radishes, which squirt a sharp delicate liquid onto my palate. Everything tastes good. I want bread, too, but there isn’t any.
The plate empties quickly. A few bits of vegetables swim in liquid and start losing shape and turning pale. Now my stomach feels better, and I wonder if this is the breakfast that should be eaten in a house like this. What would happen if I always stayed here at these hours. I would definitely make sure that there was bread baked from plain flour, which was also scattered over the surface. I would cut myself a slice or even tear a piece off with my hands. A smooth white powder would be left on my fingers, and I would slide the bread gently over the plate, soak up the liquids remaining from the eggs and the vegetables. I would spread it with white cheese. too, and so more empty spaces would be filled in my stomach and contribute to the feeling of satisfaction.
I get up and take the two plates and the fork, put them in the sink and soap them and the pan. A fresh memory comes into my head. Was it over two hours ago? Yes, this morning. Earlier this morning I washed the plates and cups used by David and Dror. I stood here and washed dishes. Now the cold water is less hard. I wipe my hands on a towel, turn to the dining table and peep into the open living room. My eyes narrow and Rachel appears inside me. Yesterday I saw her there when I drank a glass of wine. Even two glasses I drank, and I poured one for Rachel too and went over to the couch with the glass. She lay with her face to the backrest, completely hidden, like a headless body. I think this is what happened last night.
My head is heavy and the food is stuck inside me, like yesterday’s wine, turning into an alcoholic liquid that exhausts me. I fall onto a kitchen chair and take a breath and then another one. My head down with the floor tiles opposite me, continuing into the wide open living room. Why did I agree to having it open here? The transition is so easy and you can see everything from every angle. We gained a sense of space and lost a partition, which would have made a border between a place for sitting and a place for eating.
If there were partitions here perhaps we would have known how to behave. I got used to this kitchen too quickly. Every picture from the past looks impossible to me. We have no short passage to detach this place from the rest of the house. There is nothing here to remind me of the white kitchen in the ghetto, where all the rooms had high ceilings and only in the kitchen the ceiling seemed lower. The floor there was crooked and untiled, hard ground, with stoves at the sides and iron cupboards in the corner, and a low tap stuck next to them, and there were two backless stools too, which I never saw anyone sit on but my grandmother. What exactly did she do there all the time? We saw vegetables and meat and tins and solid ingredients and rising smoke with a sharp smell. She did everything herself in a kitchen that only had one high, narrow rectangular window. The smells stayed in the kitchen, and nothing bothered Grandmother, because this was her laboratory from half past four in the morning until late in the evening, sitting bent over, touching and touching, hardly talking to whoever came in, and never thinking that we had questions about her and what she did here.
Today there are less questions, and I am beginning to get an idea of what happened once and how come there were only young women beside this grandmother, and a child like me, and other children who were my cousins, who also came to her and even sat on one of her knees. But not a single man of all the people who lived in our tall house came into that kitchen and stood close to her. Not my handsome uncles, and not my father, who I thought was different from everybody else, and not my grandfather, who was once the head and the first of the family, like the tribal elder of a tribe that he had created himself. Afterwards he disappeared and died, leaving a hole in our heads and strange thoughts about him and his connection to Grandmother, who went on living long after him and sometimes looked at everybody with suspicious eyes, even at us little grandchildren who didn’t know what to do about her and how to talk to her. There were nights when I dreamt of going up to her and asking, ‘What did you do to Grandpa and why do you prefer to be alone?’ and she always kept quiet in her short, full body that made my heart beat faster.
Where can I find a picture of my relations? On the bookshelf there are albums of mine and Rachel’s, and also unsorted photos of the children. The ornaments in the apartment are standard and there is nothing special that stands out. In the bedroom there are three pictures, standing slantwise on the low bureau next to the mirror. One of David and one of Dror, with framed smiles, and a third picture of Rachel holding the two of them in her arms, laughing and almost falling down with their weight.
In the albums there are a lot of pictures of our years in this country, from the period when it was only me and Rachel, a little after the end of the seventies when I’d already been here for over ten years and I felt that it was a long time for me, very far from the house in the white ghetto and without any breathing reminder of it.
Afterwards I tried to get a clear picture from there, and I found that I could only imagine Grandpa, and my father a little. I left whatever I could summon up of them.. I had hardly known either of them. Grandpa I had only seen a few times, for a few short minutes, always on the first floor in the corner of the salon, which was close to the other side of the house. From this direction a short narrow passage led to the big bathroom and another room, which held a bed and was also a storeroom for sheets and fabrics and clay and iron bowls. Apparently this was where Grandpa slept at night and in the afternoons, and also on Shabbat and holidays, which we observed and which supported us every year anew.
From Grandpa we inherited the correct way of thinking about holidays and tradition. All this was also connected to the corresponding foods, which emerged in an unchanging order of appetizers, served in oval appetizer dishes with little snacks of olives and peanuts, followed by cold plump fish, and then the main dish, which was heavy and decorated and accompanied by something soft that disappeared into our talking mouths. It was like a strict, serious ritual. Grandpa’s sons behaved almost like him, and they were even more serious, and prepared thoroughly for every Shabbat and holiday that added up to a few days, and sometimes fell on a Sunday that for some of us was free.
Thus we all lived together in the house, the commanding men and the happy women. We received the pleasant laws of Judaism through Grandpa’s actions and his blurred face. For him peoplehood was important. He took care to emphasize the words of a Jew and of Jews, and even reminded us that here in the fine ghetto we would not remain safe. He also said that we needed to pronounce and know Hebrew and Israeli holidays, because it was an important part of us, and that all this could only happen in Eretz Israel, where everything was in the Hebrew language, which conveyed the sacred pulse of the Jewish people.
Grandma would listen to him making these speeches, and she always pulled a face and waved her hands, and sometimes she threw out a few words I didn’t understand. But our ears heard him and truly believed that our holy fathers were there, buried in the earth that brought a blessing to everyone that stood on it, and especially to us, the pure Jews we were privileged to be, who were part of an important dynasty.
Suddenly a little burst of energy awakens in me and I feel like celebrating a private holiday here. My wife has to come back soon, and things will begin to change. I should have something to drink in honor of this feeling. I turn on the electric kettle and remember that next month the High Holidays are coming, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Perhaps this year we’ll do them differently? Introduce innovations in the arrangements of the apartment and the food? Maybe we’ll think about them seriously? I want to share this idea with Rachel and transmit the awakening energy to her. I know that she’ll ask what exactly I want and what I have in mind. But if she doesn’t understand me, I won’t explain it to her and I’ll manage the preparations myself, and so I’ll surprise her and the children with the new holiday practices that will come into being for them.
From the direction of the door comes a light knocking on the mailboxes. The faint sound of the metal lids falling on the narrow slots reaches all the way here. The mailman is delivering letters. Maybe I should open the door and peek through the stairwell to see the sweating man, go down to him with a glass of cold water and tell him a little about this change that I imagine, give him the news of the new holidays that will soon arrive in my house.
It’s possible to laugh and think that not everything has vanished. Even if I am not in contact with the dispersed members of my family, they nevertheless go on existing in different places in the world, represented on every continent, living in groups of houses and children, just like my group that chose this empty apartment that will soon fill up, because the children will come back from school and kindergarten, and later on they’ll grow up very quickly, and I’ll talk to them and explain something, and Rachel too will take part in this with us. It’s impossible to change this, Rachel is the woman who chose to meet me and accept me, to make my assimilation easy and reconciled. She is the one who helped me not to be afraid and not to be shocked by the new country.
I decided to come here thirty years ago. I didn’t immigrate to Israel due to ideas of building the country. I was curious and at first I also had thoughts about our ancestors, the holy men I had heard about from my grandfather and my uncles. But these soon disappeared when I arrived here at the beginning of the seventies and saw something else. The country was unclear and restless. Everybody was waiting in a kind of superficial tension for something to happen, after one war had just ended. I had hardly managed to understand who the enemy was, when another war broke out on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of all. I was confused and afraid and I didn’t know much. I was ashamed to speak of my thoughts about the heavens above and the God of the Jews in the past, and how it could be possible that on this day of all days a catastrophe would come down on the state, here on the blessed ground. Even though I knew how to speak and write Hebrew, and I studied it thoroughly until it sunk into me and became pleasing to me, there was nobody I could speak to in a coherent way about the confusion I felt. I was in different agricultural training groups. We were supervised by tanned instructors from the Jewish Agency, and volunteers from the Israeli kibbutzim. There were youths from other hot countries with me, dark and thin, innocently wearing short-sleeved buttoned shirts. I wanted to say to them, ‘Let’s take off our foreign shirts and begin to dirty our skin.’ I searched them for signs of danger, and I saw that they were tense and alert, as if a new, unknown fate had descended on them. We had to focus on those crucial moments and not think thoughts about spiritual skies.
Perhaps in spite of everything I should go outside and turn up late for work. I could tell my nice branch manager that I had taken my son to the doctor because he didn’t feel well. I could say that I was the only one who could take him, because my wife had to leave early. There wouldn’t be any problem if I spoke to her like this. I would ask a question or two and go to my corner and sit down in front of the files that needed to be dealt with. Afterwards I would make the necessary telephone calls, go up to one of the girls sitting next to me to check something with her, and gradually things would leave me and I would stop worrying about Rachel. Maybe in the meantime she would even return home.
Thus I would cleave to the routines of the office, I would skip from here to there, and even my grandfather, who was still popping up in my head, would no longer remain the same. Once I went to him in his room, and stood next to his chair without fear. His narrowed eyes almost closed behind his glasses. I wanted to take them off him, but suddenly he smiled and nodded his head. ‘It’s me,’ I said, and Grandpa replied, ‘Yes, I know who you are.’ I was too shy to touch the robe he was wearing, and he held out his trembling, wrinkled hand to me. I touched his fingers and they were warm. And then, one day, he disappeared from the spacious house. Grandpa died at his unknown age without parting from his sons and his little grandchildren. I was there on that day and I didn’t ask any questions. After two days I heard words coming from Grandma to her eldest son who was my round old uncle and who was always friendly and smiling. But this time when she spoke to him his face was astonished, as if he was hearing some truth or news of something dangerous and alarming that could reach him too. I remember that he didn’t answer her when he looked down at her and heard her saying to him, ‘Only the day before yesterday your father spoke to me, and he was here in the kitchen with me because he felt so thirsty and he wanted to drink, and I immediately gave him water and he went away and I was happy.’
This was the great hint of hers that remained with me and that I didn’t fully understand. Now it would be best for me to escape from that memory. There is no need to explain why precisely those words remain with me, and I don’t tell them to anybody, perhaps like my eldest uncle who heard them and swallowed them. Years later he was the first to succeed in leaving home and getting out of the ghetto, finding work in another town, and afterwards leaving the desert country too, and reaching the cold center of Europe.
Today he has descendants too, and not only males. Thin, beautiful women were also born to him. These women learned to behave and talk and dress in the simply tailored clothes cut from the fine thin cloth that outlines the shapely figures of the cousins I have never met. Ten years ago or more an envelope arrived with my full name and address in French words, containing pictures in black-and-white and also in color. I looked at them and was astonished to see our dismantled dynasty and how it had learned to appear so different through these elegant women. Over there they found foreign men, men with smooth hair combed with straight partings, gleaming in their blank looks, handsome and well-groomed next to the women of our assimilated family. They no longer belong to us, and this is part of the continuing change.
Outside the sound of a distant siren rises into the air. From here it’s hard to distinguish between the siren of an ambulance and a police car. In the apartment there is a settled atmosphere that sinks into my eyes and heart. But the pauses in my head slip down into my body, as if making me vertical in this space. Something jams in me during these suspensions: both the house and the office, both the children and the sick Rachel. Some difficulty has descended on me. Two things that have become three since this morning, from the moment David came into my room and said that mommy isn’t home. While I was still in bed I tried to think what had happened last night. Something happened then. It couldn’t be that Rachel had suddenly stood up and left in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t do anything so extreme, set out like that into the indifferent chaos of the country in a time of crisis and unsafe days.
The darkness I remember from last night is so different from the light now, which has a certain clarity about it – and nevertheless the bad feeling doesn’t go away. The self-persuasion doesn’t help. What the hell happened with her? Rachel blurs and merges in my mind with the hard country and its right to exist. Soon another year of bloodshed and terrible talk will close. This is only the second year of the new century that has begun. I had expectations of it. I waited for the sounds and the joyful explosions they showed on television on New Year’s eve from all over the world. Pictures of colorful firework displays advanced through different continents, each at its midnight hour. There was a feeling of something unnatural happening and of a unique reality coming into being, as if the past had been wiped out and would no longer be taken into account, and only now counted, and soon a proud young declaration would come over the air, that the history of a new present had begun, whose like we had never known.
All this arouses in me an anger that emerges from me and is pushed back to me. My head engages in a duel with the country of my childhood, in which I never lived to see my adolescence. What would have happened if I had stayed there and succeeded in seeing things that were wide and open, a desert horizon connected in strong colors to the city? How thrilled I had been when evening came in a shade of blue that never disappeared at night, and turned to orange on the still houses standing next to a well or a small oasis.
Here on this little strip of land I remain without justification opposite the different continents of the world. There perhaps they don’t try to understand what a place means and how you should tread on it. I still see this country as small and simple. How will it withstand more months like these? No other place has gone through anything like this. So many days out of so few years. Why am I afraid for it? Why does a black ugly picture come into my mind of a thin limping animal, sapped of vital fluids, forced to seek help in stable peaceful countries, who watch it refusing to die and dragging itself on, stumbling and wounded, bearing a cut that will not heal or grow a scar?
We can go on living like this for a long time yet. The tension in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv quickly becomes routine in the lives of the people. Here in Petah Tikva it’s the same, mainly in the center of town and less in the outlying neighborhoods. All of us find roundabout solutions in the streets and shops, are careful about traveling in buses, and declare with silent faces that we can endure anything. The security guards are dispersed at short intervals on the pavements, the look in their eyes is always heavy. These are the people who stand out and keep order in the town. They all stand limply with little pot-bellies under their black guard trousers. They wear uniforms of white or blue buttoned shirts. There are also gray creased shirts. The white ones are thin and transparent and reveal a triangle of burnt skin on their chests and Hebrew hairs growing on it. On the shirt the name of the security company appears in yellow letters, like a medal in the eyes of the passersby.
These security guards are loyal to their salaries and their noble work. I am happy that this work exists. I myself have sent more than one person to work in these security companies after their wives sat in front of me in the welfare bureau. It’s always the women who come to us. Many of them are new in the country, and there are also a few old timers. They speak to me nicely and see that I am full of sympathy for them, allowing them to be gentle and speak in whispers, as if they are penetrating me with their broken voices and their broken language. ‘And where is your husband now?’ I ask them, and they say, ‘At home, there’s no work for him,’ and then I suggest the work as a guard, which is a good chance for a desperate family, and they request, if possible, that I make the phone call for them. ‘Yes, certainly, I’ll call to ask,’ I reply, and they are happy and nod their heads enthusiastically, ‘Yes, yes, better for you, if I to talk to boss for work for husband, he…..this way he understand good.’ I don’t correct their Hebrew, and I make the call and ask if I can send a new candidate. On the other end of the line they say, ‘Send him and we’ll see.’ So things are brought to a happy conclusion over my desk and the satisfied woman gets up and leaves, feeling that a good solution has been found for her in the right place. On the way home I look at the guards dispersed in the street at the entrances to the banks, the restaurants, and the department stores, and try to guess which of the men belong to the tearful women who dare to approach my office in their name and feel no shame.
Rachel can’t have gone far. She must be in Petah Tikva. She has no friends or extended family in the big cities. Nor in the little settlements scattered over the blurred borders. She won’t have gone to Kfar Saba or Netanya, nor to Be’er Sheva or Kiryat Tivon. She doesn’t like bus journeys, unless they’re long express journeys to the north of the country, stopping in Rosh Pina, and going on from there almost to Metulla. She well remembers the scenery next to the Good Fence, and admires the Galilee hills standing on the left side of the winding road from where you can see the edges of small settlements and kibbutzim. ‘This is the life, where people really live for good agriculture,’ Rachel says, and she respects the locals here and always remarks that you don’t sense danger on their faces, even when they see the barbed wire of the border with the enemy country.
But she won’t go there either. Rachel won’t want to see all that on her own and feel good in nature. Certainly not today, when she’s weak and only wants to rest, doesn’t want anybody to talk to her and interfere with her silent preoccupation with her head and her body. She couldn’t suddenly get up and feel strong, because I saw how she isn’t herself, how much she resembles herself but how different in the way she looks at me and the children and also at the house and the corners to which she directs her gaze. Two weeks ago, when she was standing in the kitchen, it seemed as if everything was strange to her, the water and the pots and the pan. Every smell and taste she prepared were indifferent to her sharp little nose, which lately has grown redder, because of the handkerchief she wipes it with, clinging to it and to the roll of white toilet paper, pushing them into the pockets of her wide trousers and big sweater.
‘She’ll stay here, only here,’ I say out loud and hear the words coming out of my mouth. This is the only place she loves and where she knows that it’s good. Who can tell her otherwise? Who is possible for her? Who can help her? What about her solitary parents now sitting in their house? She won’t go to them and worry them with new fears and hint that something has happened in her young family, say that a big break has begun which she discovered in us, something she never recognized in herself and in me until last night, when she saw me a little foolish from good wine which made me drunk and cheerful and sent a pleasant tingle into my hands and feet, and after a while, when the black in the kitchen window was heavy and opaque, I went up to Rachel on the couch and offered her a drink, as well. I wanted to share my pity for her and her disintegrating body with her, in my heart I wanted to talk to her and to tell her that we had to do something and that we couldn’t go on like this, because it was impossible for her not to say anything and to remain contemptuously indifferent to me and the children, who were branding downcast pictures of a sick mother in their memories.
But maybe our car? What about the car? Could it be that Rachel had taken the car with her? I get up quickly and go to the kitchen window and look down at the parking lot. Two white cars are standing there, and I can also see the front edge of a red one. That could be ours. How many cars are there in the parking lot shared by the two buildings? Eight families in each building, sixteen in all, and how many of them had red cars? From the window the metal looks new. Our car is well preserved too, but I can’t be sure.
There’s no point in going down to check. Rachel apparently left the car in the spot I’m looking at, even though lately she’s the one who drives it. I’ve been taking the bus for a week now. I realized that Rachel needs help now. She doesn’t have to ask me to leave her the car and say that she feels worn out after the day’s work and wants to get home as quickly as possible. I leave her the car without her having to ask, and she drives it here, parks wherever there’s a free spot in the lot, gets out of the car and walks up to the apartment, opens the door and goes to the couch, and quickly falls asleep until one of the children comes and wants to eat and asks a question.
I feel a twitch in my eyes and hold on tight to the window frame. My back is still bent and my head droops down with a heavy weight. I straighten up and close my eyes for a few seconds, arrest the approaching dizziness, open them again and leave the window. I go to the short passage and make for my bed. My steps are slow and my eyes are closing. Suddenly a sharp, stabbing pain explodes in my head, ‘Aaai’ - I stop and quickly put my fingers on my temples, rub them gently in circles on the skin, and the frightening stabbing stops.
What’s happening to my head? What’s doing this to me? I remain standing in front of the bedroom and put my hand on the door frame, praying that it won’t come back. These stabs have already attacked me before. They appeared last night exactly when I walked along this passage at a drunken stagger, after I left Rachel lying on the couch. Before that I sat next to her and asked her gently to take a drink of wine with me. She refused with a shake of her head, and I asked again, ‘Come on, drink, it will do you good,’ and she went on shaking her head and refused me again. And I said to her, ‘Rachel, try, wine is medicinal too, that’s what they say, perhaps this is exactly what will strengthen you,’ and she bent her knees, curled up and said to me…. ‘Go away’….Yes, that’s what she said, I think…. ‘Please, I don’t…..go, go away.’
The bed receives me unconditionally. The mattress is right, the blanket over me makes a welcome darkness. The food is digested in my stomach, my body works. I lie on my stomach with my hands spread out at my sides, touching the hardness of the mattress and unable to move. The earlier stabbings have entered my memory and the fear of them has not yet gone away. I have to prepare for an interval. In a minute I’ll begin to breathe heavily, and slowly I’ll begin to fall asleep. My eyes are closed tight, as if digging themselves backwards. This helps me to forget the passage I walked down. Every day I pass through it without noticing this short walk. It has no importance. What is a passage? All in all a narrow transition between interior rooms and the entrance to an apartment. Yes, this passage is nothing. From the comfort of my bed I can despise it, even call it a ‘hall’, to return it to the foreign word, because it really isn’t worthy of a Hebrew word. How important our Hebrew words are, the letters of the state and the Israeli language that externalizes them and enables us all to talk to each other. Hats off to us for the success of the language and for learning to think in local letters. I too can use it fluently, but precisely the fragmentary conversation with Rachel from last night comes back to life. It isn’t déjà vu, but something else, with flashes that I can’t control, like little electric shocks and sparks that can be combined and made into a current. Something from last night sticks to me. Damned bits and pieces, one and then another one, with Rachel and me in them. She says to me, ‘Go away,’ and I say to her, ‘Just a minute Rachel,’ ‘No, go,’ ‘Drink, drink some wine,’ ‘Not now, go.’ ‘Go’ she says to me, ‘You go,’ I mumble into the pillow, ‘You go, Rachel, please, Rachel, no, you go, go,’ I whisper and see the warm breath of my voice, ‘Go now, go to the heavy breaths,’ you have to catch them and reach what your weak limbs desire.
Copyright © by Sami Berdugo 2012. Worldwide Translation Copyright © by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Sami Berdugo was born in 1970. He studied comparative literature and history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At present, he teaches creative writing at Tel Aviv University and Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. He also holds writing workshops for youth. Berdugo has published novels, short stories and novellas. In 1998, he won the Haaretz Short Story Competition. He has also been awarded the Yaakov Shabtai Prize (2002), the Peter Schweifert Prize (2003), the Bernstein Prize (2003), the Prime Minister’s Prize (2005) and the Newman Prize (2007). He is the first Israeli to be awarded a Sanskriti Foundation Residency (New Delhi, 2007). Most recently, he received the Isaac Leib and Rachel Goldberg Prize for his novel That Is to Say.