By Nava Semel
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
I won’t live forever. That thought, which seemed so obvious, struck me sharply when I tried to take a picture for the first time.
I tried to correct the flawed, cruel landscape reflected in the lens. A ridiculous attempt to compensate for small injustices, but even so, I couldn’t give it up.
I am not the main character of this story. All my life, I have always preferred to look at things through the transparent shield of a camera, using it as an intermediary to protect myself. I don’t pretend to include everything. The narrow strip of celluloid time has indeed been fastened onto the spinning reel, but I found a way - although not an especially original one - to interrupt and alter the arbitrary flow of the screening.
I sometimes wonder if that really was my life, and I’m afraid that one day, I’ll discover that the most important things were left on the cutting room floor.
In the end, I did not succeed in finding the image that would truthfully represent the grand words. I closed my eyes in despair a thousand times, as I tried to convey love or homeland in a tangible image. Words, after all, were never enough for me. Even when you arrange them this way or that, they never tell the exact story you want, and the story too, no matter how faithful it is, changes before your very eyes, as if another director were interfering in your work. Is what I described what actually happened? I, like everyone else, have the right to be skeptical.
How arrogant it is to move through time as if it were my own personal possession. To appropriate my own story, to tear off pieces of other people’s memories, interspersing them with the opaque strips of film we call “leaders”. Methods have improved. Something new comes onto the scene every day, and confusion grows. I don’t fool myself that I’ll ever be able to bridge the gaps between the black strip and the white screen. If I made a bad bargain in my choices, this is my last chance to correct them, because what I choose to tell is what will remain, Zionka. And you asked me to learn one more lesson that had nothing to do with letters and words. The day will come - if it does - when I learn to forgive myself.
One year in the life of a dog is equivalent to seven years of human life. That too is a strip of time spinning out on another reel. I’ve had endless conversations on the subject, but I still haven’t discovered whether dogs also find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the terrifying fact that they can’t live forever. I don’t know if any of the dogs I had, any of my Johnny Weissmullers, ever weighed the balance of good and bad in their lives, or regretted what they had missed.
There are many ways to tell this story, and mine is not necessarily the right one. When the reel spins on the projector, and the last picture flickers in the air, practically slipping back into the projectionist’s hands, I ask myself if what I have done was worth doing. I ask, and will keep on asking again and again, whether there is a person there.
Dzoncz in Polish, ikta in Arabic, and we never use the Hebrew word.
Whenever someone asked me what my family did for the homeland - a question people never stopped asking in Palestine - I always answered immediately - “We get married.” I remember the first time I said it and my teacher threw me out of class. He tried to get control of himself, silencing the first giggles with a threatening gesture. Banished, I stood near the principal’s office, my teacher’s note of complaint in my hand. Even though it was folded in a sealed envelope, I managed to take it out, careful not to tear the envelope. I tried to get someone to read the words for me, and Zionka was the only one who would do it.
“Uziel has dishonored our people and our homeland,” the note said. Zionka was embarrassed. She lowered her eyes as if she were the guilty party. She could barely get the words out, and not because she had some kind of reading problem like I did.
And so, dear children, we repeat the question. What does your family do for the homeland? Herzl Fleisher stood up first, followed by the other pupils, all of them describing how their fathers or their uncles or other people they knew were active in the defense of the Jews in Palestine or had devoted their lives to building the country. But I hadn’t lied. My big brother Imri really did go to Poland to get married for the homeland.
His first bride was Anna.
The night Imri left, he went to the toolshed, opened the rusty metal locks of the old brown valise lying near the clay pots once used as bee hives, and emptied out his old school notebooks. Imri too had once been a kid, though that was sometimes hard for me to believe. Aunt Miriam says that he was the most outstanding student in the history of our village and made our mother and father very proud. They expected great things from him. That’s what Aunt Miriam told anyone who was willing to listen. To me, she used to say, “How lucky they’re not alive to see how you’ve turned out.”
Imri filled the valise with clothes that had been lying around the shed since our father died. Watching him trying to fold our father’s best, English-made black suit and two wrinkled, white silk shirts, I began to laugh.
“Imri,” I asked, “are you going to a fancy dress ball?”
Then he stood in front of the small, cracked mirror he had hung on a hook and practiced knotting a tie. He kept getting a different, peculiar-looking knot every time, and I said he looked like a condemned prisoner who had volunteered to tie his own noose. But he wasn’t offended at all. He simply bent down in front of the small mirror, hunting for the exact spot where his head ended and his neck began and mumbling, “It’ll work. It has to work.”
Imri didn’t pack his real clothes. There were none of the khaki pants and sleeveless undershirts Aunt Miriam mended every Saturday night. I don’t know where he found Daddy’s ironed handkerchiefs. I was sure Aunt Miriam had given them to the Sephardic old age home in Jerusalem a long time ago.
He reeked of mothballs. I wrinkled my nose and said, “Imri, be careful these clothes don’t change you,” and he replied dismissively, “Clothes are just pieces of material loosely sewn together. What’s inside never changes.” When he was finally satisfied with the knot he had tied, he tightened it, stood up and said, “As for you, Uzik, take care of the house and the hives. And especially of Aunt Miriam.”
I tried to look directly into his eyes, but couldn’t. He was too busy locking the valise and dragging it out of the shed, giving me orders the whole time as if I were a stranger. Don’t forget to feed the chickens and lock the gate to the yard with the heavy padlock every single night. Remember to pay Mohammed Daudi for his work on the first of every month, and be careful a swarm of bees doesn’t attack when you open the cover of the hive and fold back the burlap sack sticky with propolis and wax. And never ever go near the English air base that borders our land. And if anybody asks where your older brother has disappeared to, tell them he’s taken a boat to Italy to bring back some less aggressive, stingless queen bees that will produce thicker honey than ours do.
It was a long list, and I only half-listened. He didn’t mention school, maybe because he knew it was hopeless. Finally, just before two strangers arrived in a van to pick him up, he said, “And promise me you won’t cause any trouble. No pranks while I’m gone,” and added as an afterthought, “It’ll be worth your while. I’ll bring you a present from Europe.”
Wearing striped pajamas that were once Imri’s, I watched them pull away. I didn’t understand why he had to leave me alone with Aunt Miriam for such a long time. He was hardly ever home as it was. I was furious at the people from the Jewish Agency who had sent him on a mission right before the harvesting season. And most of all, I was afraid he was leaving me for a place where mysterious, incomprehensible things happen that have nothing at all to do with bees and honey. I ran after the van, calling, “Imri, Imri, don’t go!” When he didn’t answer, I shouted, “Something terrible’s going to happen and it’ll be your fault!” But my shouts were in vain. Either Imri didn’t hear me or he chose to ignore my threats.
The van rocked its way along the narrow dirt road behind our yard. I saw the two strangers clap him on the back and heard them laugh loudly. One of them said, “There are such beauties waiting for you there," and I recalled what Zionka’s mother said about elegant and educated European women. I hoped none of them would agree to have a boyfriend who smelled of mothballs. The sound of singing drifted over from the English air base, and I knew that the pilots were polishing off another one of the cases of beer they bought in Shmariyahu’s grocery in our village every morning.
I sat on the floor of the toolshed. The lighted kerosene lamp scattered the old smells. Imri isn’t especially neat, but Aunt Miriam never yells at him about it. Our father’s old clothes were strewn all around. I couldn’t remember him ever wearing such fancy clothes. I gathered them into a pile, and didn’t find even one piece of women’s clothing. I smelled the mothballs for a minute, making an effort to remember. But I gave it up immediately. I’d be late for school again and my teacher would say, “So, what can you expect from Uzik the troublemaker.”
I could’ve pulled a trick or two to delay Imri. If I’d taken the air out of the van’s tires, or opened a hive and let the bees out, then maybe he would’ve had to cancel his trip. But it was too late now.
What did you do for your homeland?
I’m sure the principal suspected me of opening the envelope on the sly and getting someone to read the complaint note to me. He and the teachers have insinuated more than once that I really do know how to read. They think I’m purposely putting on an act just to annoy them.
The principal had sighed, “What are we going to do with you, Uziel? I hope this is the last time you carry on this way. We’ll have no choice but to leave you back a grade. Some day, you’ll learn that our homeland is not a joke.”
I tried to guess what kind of punishment was in store for me. Anything but having to write a hundred times in my notebook, “Our homeland is not a joke.” I couldn’t even write that sentence once, let alone a hundred times. I’d have to ask Zionka to do it for me. She has such beautiful handwriting. She’s always getting compliments on her neat, round letters. But when I look in her notebook, I can never tell what’s on the page and what’s run off the edges.
To my surprise, the principal simply raised his glance from the large diary that lay open in front of him and said, “Tell your brother I wish him a very successful trip.”
A single tie lay on the toolshed floor. An orphaned snake, like the kind I find during the summer near the gate of the English air base. I put it around my neck and tried to make a knot like Imri’s. The small mirror was still hanging on its hook. I looked into the crack and saw myself broken into pieces. I narrowed my eyes above the flickering face inside the small frame and said, “Shut up.” I was sorry I hadn’t hugged Imri goodbye, like in the movies. He’s my only brother. I don’t have any others. And it immediately occurred to me that, in the movies, only lovers hug that way when they know they’ll never see each other again. Imri, who had already seen quite a few movies, hates that kind of ending. The girl always whines and waves her handkerchief, looking sniffly and miserable.
There wasn’t even one handkerchief in the whole pile of Daddy’s clothes. Imri had taken them all to blow his nose into or wipe his sweat with. Zionka’s mother is impressed by Imri’s manners. She says he’s “absolutely European,” and that’s exactly why I prefer my sleeve.
My face in the mirror was squashed. For a minute, I looked like a whining girl. Even the tie hung pathetically from my neck because the knot was too loose. What a horrible beginning. The words kept echoing in my mind, “Our homeland is not a joke, not a joke...” I blew out the flame of the kerosene lamp with one breath.
Back then, I still didn’t know Anna.
What do I know about women? The mission I've undertaken is more difficult than I imagined. I shouldn't have agreed. But they pleaded with me. For the sake of the homeland, they said. After all, what did I have to do? It's a trivial matter to say, "Thou art consecrated unto me by the law of Moses and Israel" and then break the glass. Later, we get divorced and I never see her again. It's all arranged in advance, each of us relying on the good will of the other.
Many men endanger their lives for the sake of noble ideas, and I'm not even risking my liberty. I only seem to be doing so. Getting my passport stamped requires no great effort on my part. And yet that faint imprint will bind me to a woman I've never seen before, in a place whose name I've never heard. Teach me, Aharonchik.
I'll have to be alone with her and I don't even know if she's attractive. What will I do if she smells bad or acts strangely? Should I open doors for her, bring her flowers, call her by her first name, and what will I do if, God help me, we touch each other or if I'm forced to put my arm around her shoulders to convince the authorities that she really is my wife?
Now, contemplating the moment we stand face to face, nothing separating us, I'm filled with anxiety. The two of us in the hold of a ship, the compartment narrow and stifling, its round porthole like the window of a prison cell, the black sea rocking us. And I drink in the breath of that stranger lying in the bunk beside me. You could've stopped me, Aharonchik. I must have lost my mind. How naive I am! I may have read many books, but I’m not familiar with that intricate game a man and a woman play. She'll bear my name, and even after I give her the divorce, the paper will bleed with her memory. No one ever taught me how to act with a woman. They teach you everything but that. How do you make love?
In the village, they call me “Uzik the troublemaker”, because of the things I do, which they call “pranks”, and when the village rabbi wants to console Aunt Miriam, he calls them “a bit of mischief”, as if a different name could change what it means. My pranks, I explain to Zionka, aren’t dangerous to anyone and have never yet caused anybody to run away from Palestine.
I think everyone around me is too serious. They work from sunrise to sunset in the cow sheds, in the citrus groves and with the beehives, and they never leave their small stores, even on the hottest days. When we celebrate a special occasion in the village, like a wedding, they cry on the bride’s shoulder, trot out all the troubles they’ve had in the past, and recall all the dead people who martyred themselves for some cause or other. Especially Aunt Miriam, who keeps her feet propped up on a footstool the whole evening, sighing, “Life is hard.”
So, I look for ways to be happy. Most of all, I want to make myself laugh, and sometimes, I think that only a prank can prove I exist.
Aharonchik, the baker, who is the most ardent communist in all the villages in Samariya, calls me “Uzik Mujik”. I asked around about the word “mujik”, and when I heard it means “farmer” in Russian, I thought it was a perfect nickname for someone who lives in an agricultural village and makes his living keeping bees. It even sounded to me like a compliment. Then, I found out that the Russian word has another meaning - “ignoramus” - and that sounded pretty insulting to me. Like the “analphabet” Zionka’s mother and Mali Perlmutter, the watchmaker’s wife, shout at me. Every time I’m in the bakery, I try to figure out from Aharonchik’s voice whether he says “Mujik” out of affection, or whether he means to hurt me, and that’s not easy to do, because a person’s voice sometimes sounds one way, and sometimes another.
The simplest things in Aharonchik’s place, “Half a bread” or “Two Sabbath challahs” sound like a speech. After he finishes off three vodkas, he starts calling me tovarish - “friend” in Russian - and when he begins singing about great Mother Russia, I wait for him to call me an “anarchist”.
Even if Aharonchik planned to announce to the entire world that I was an illiterate ignoramus, I couldn’t argue with him, because it was true. I still hadn’t learned how to read, and my teachers had given up on me. When they wrote on the board, the only thing I could do was listen to the squeaking of the chalk, and the letters looked to me like scared insects. I would look at the other kids’ bent heads and my eyes would immediately fall on Zionka’s golden hair. They’d all be writing away, and I didn’t understand what I was doing there and why I wasn’t outside. I once tried to copy from the board, but when I looked away for only a second, I couldn’t find the word again. The letters had just disappeared.
A long time ago, I asked Aharonchik what the word “anarchist” means. He grinned from ear to ear and even gave me a fresh roll, hot from the oven. “A lawbreaker. Someone who doesn’t accept the rules and lives in complete freedom,” he said, and that was the biggest compliment I ever got in my life.
I don’t even have any notebooks, just books that I never open, and it’s only out of “the goodness of her heart”, as my teacher said, that I am tested orally. Every year, they threaten to leave me back, but I manage to pass the tests at the last minute.
They say, “Nothing will ever come of him, the poor orphan, a wild, neglected little devil”. They don’t even bother to whisper or talk behind my back, as if I were deaf too, and everyone admires Aunt Miriam for agreeing to look after me and taking on such a heavy burden.
She says, “An obligation is an obligation” and “Blood is thicker than water,” a smug expression spreading across her face. The village rabbi comes to visit us once a week, drinks tea in the china cups with the flower design that Aunt Miriam takes out of the sideboard especially for him, and listens patiently to all her troubles. He compliments her when he arrives, “Who can find a woman of valor,” and before he leaves, he puts his hand on my wild hair and says, “A blessing on your head. The Almighty, blessed be His name, is a great prankster, like you,” and then he kisses the mezuzah.
Only two people in the entire village - the rabbi and the principal - call me by my real name, Uziel, the name my father gave me the day I was born. To this day, Imri claims he chose the name, but I don’t believe him.
I once heard Zionka’s mother warn her not be my friend, because I’m a pest and bigger troublemaker than the British, and that was a real insult, because the English rule Palestine and don’t allow us to call it our homeland. Even Mohammed Daudi hates them, and he says, “With God’s help, one day they’ll leave here with their tail between their legs.”
But I actually secretly admire their spick-and-span uniforms and pilots’ hats, but I’m can’t say so openly. Whenever they practice marching in formation, their hobnailed shoes clacking rhythmically, and they come close to our land where the beehives are, I untie Johnny Weissmuller, my dog, to scare them. But even if they are scared, it’s hard to tell. They go right on marching in perfect step, maybe because the pilot observing them, an officer with light-colored hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, is more of a threat to them than my dog.
I didn’t play any serious pranks all those months that Imri was away from home. Except for the time I jumped through the window of the village committee house, disrupting a lecture on the situation in the country being given by one of the leaders of the Jewish community. I fell inside at exactly the moment he was talking about Lord Passfield’s White Paper, a document that stated how many new immigrants were allowed to come to Palestine and that no one could come near it without a paper known as a “certificate”. Papers were my enemy, I explained to Zionka. Especially what was written on them. I don’t see the words, only the white spaces between them, and sometimes, I try to read them instead of the black marks.
I landed exactly when they were arguing about whether the letter sent by the English Prime Minister, McDonald, to Chaim Weizmann would remedy the situation. Aharonchik the baker argued fervently that it was just another English swindle. The lecturer, an important person who had come especially from Tel Aviv, smiled at me as I landed on his table, and proclaimed, “Here’s a sign from heaven! This is the child for whose sake we are struggling,” and while I was still trying to down get off the table, I said to the audience that I was not willing to be anything for the sake of anybody. My teacher, who was also present, suggested sending me as a gift to the English in exchange for a few new immigrants.
And there was one more small prank. I sent Johnny Weissmuller to chase the ducks in Zionka’s yard. I was lucky that Zionka burst out laughing when she heard the chorus of quacking and didn’t snitch on me to her mother, who would’ve sent me straight to Aunt Miriam, because Zionka’s mother thought I was a hopeless case. But Zionka’s father actually liked me, and every weekend, when he came home from paving roads, he wanted to know what pranks he’d missed, and he would burst out laughing and say: “This is the new generation of Jews that aren’t afraid of anything.” The words didn’t comfort me, because Zionka’s father didn’t have the slightest idea what I really was afraid of.
I followed Imri’s instructions, and I did all the jobs Aunt Miriam assigned me. Mohammed and I harvested the honey, and he didn’t let me do too much licking. He said we have to leave room on our tongue for the taste of onions too.
Aunt Miriam continued to complain that the burden - namely, me - was pushing her poor shoulders down to the ground, and what a tragedy had befallen her when my parents was taken and she was left with the responsibility, and who knows what was in store for all of us in this crazy country. I sometimes thought she was mad at my father because his heart suddenly stopped beating without any warning, and I think to myself, the poor man, why does he have to be blamed for dying? Aunt Miriam never had any complaints about my mother, and maybe that’s because my aunt loved her younger sister very much, and didn’t actually believe she was dead. Every day, she talks to her in the empty air, usually when her hands are busy shining the Sabbath candlesticks. She reports to her on how many centimeters I’ve grown, she lies about my progress in reading, and she also tells her how many new immigrants over the quota had sneaked into the country, right under the nose of the English. Everything Aunt Miriam told my mother sounded better than it was in reality, maybe so the woman in the air wouldn’t worry and think the situation had gotten worse since she left us.
Sometimes Aunt Miriam would take a break between the things she was saying, as if she were listening to replies. She’d be so quiet and absorbed that I was sure my mother was answering her. I tried to talk to my mother in the air too, but for me, the air always stayed empty.
The morning after Imri left. Aunt Miriam devoted most of her conversation with my mother to a detailed description of her older son’s important mission, finishing up with the sentence that always ended those conversations, “I hope you are well where you are.” Then Aunt Miriam put the shining candlesticks back on the shelf that held all our religious objects. The rabbi always marveled at the “heavenly glow” that came from them.
I didn’t know how long Imri would stay away. Did getting married take a long or a short time? And maybe he’d want to stay in Europe, which was so beautiful and peaceful. I hoped he’d come back. Aunt Miriam had no doubt that he would, but I wasn’t completely sure.
Time is something I think about a lot, especially since the day I went to the movies.
Four months passed. I didn’t know if that was considered a long or a short time. For me, it was an endless period of time, cut into slices of ordinary events of the kind we don’t pay attention to. We received one postcard, and aunt Miriam read it out loud. Imri told us not to worry about him, described the gorgeous European countryside, and said how sorry he was that he didn’t have a camera to immortalize everything. He didn’t mention the new bride. The back of the postcard showed the watercolor drawing of a small village, something like our own village, except that white snow covered the slanted roofs of the houses, and there was a cross at the top of the church. There had already been a succession of three or four queens in our hives, and only the taste of the honey stayed the same. Mohammed Daudi went all the way to Gaza with his hives for the nectar from the cactus flowers, and had already returned. New chicks had hatched from the eggs in the hen house, and the ducks in Zionka’s yard had already learned to swim in the washtub. It was impossible to skip over even the smallest things. What happens is what’s supposed to happen, the rabbi says, but I don’t agree with him. If he’s really the blessed Almighty’s representative on earth, why doesn’t he have a few words with his boss and explain to Him that it’s all so boring if we know everything beforehand. In one of her daily conversations with my mother in the air, Aunt Miriam told her that Imri and his bride would be coming home soon.
I was surprised. Why should the bride come back home with Imri? Aunt Miriam told me specifically that she wasn’t a real bride. Imri didn’t even know his new wife, that’s what I told Zionka. Like a true expert, I said, “You see, Zionka, they made them a couple only to trick the English. It’s a ‘fictitious’ marriage, Zionka. That’s a word you have to remember, “fictitious”.. You don’t have to know how to write it.” And I also told her - word by word from the mouth of Aharonchik the baker, “The reason our best boys volunteer to marry Jewish girls they don’t know in Europe is to have their names entered in their passports as their legal wives, and to avoid having to get a ‘certificate’, without which, you can’t get near this country.” It all sounded like the kind of really clever prank I’d love to take part in.
Zionka was less enthusiastic than I was. She shrugged and said, “I wouldn’t agree to marry just any boy who all of a sudden arrived from Palestine. That bride probably didn’t even know the difference between the Eretz Israel in books and the real Palestine here.”
Then I told her what I’d told my teacher, “You don’t understand, Zionka. It’s all for the sake of the homeland.”
One of the ducks quacked, as if backing up what I had said. It was the duck we later called “the Zionist duck,” because it loved to peck at the picture of Herzl, especially that sentence I don’t know how to read, but can say perfectly, “If you will, it is no fairy-tale.”
And I even boasted to Zionka, “When I grow up, I’ll volunteer too. I’ll even agree to get married a hundred times, until we have our own country”. But I only said that to impress her, because, for Zionka, the homeland is no joke.
She said, “You know, Uzik, that woman will be your sister-in-law.”
I rolled the new word around on my tongue and said, “I never had a sister-in-law”.
Zionka warned me, “Be careful of her. Even a ‘fictitious’ sister-in-law can be a witch, like the stepmother in fairy-tales who throws the child out of the house.” But somehow, I wasn’t scared.
Aunt Miriam told my mother in the air that Imri was bringing his wife to live with us until she found her relatives. And just so my mother wouldn’t worry, she added that, in the meantime, while Imri was staying in the country, the village rabbi would arrange a quick divorce, and then Imri could go back to Europe and marry a second bride. Aunt Miriam added, “You see, my sister, everything is under control”.
It sounded complicated. Getting married ‘fictitiously’, getting divorced ‘fictitiously’. I thought it was a much more serious prank than any of mine, but it seemed that everything was allowed when it came to the homeland. Aunt Miriam assured my mother in the air that none of this was being done behind the rabbi’s back. He was part of it. Aunt Miriam explained everything very seriously, and it was hard for me to understand how dead people could understand anything so complicated, because I don’t believe there’s a homeland in heaven.
I’m not sure I’m too crazy about the idea of a strange woman suddenly coming to live with us. If they tell me to leave my room, I won’t do it. Everything is exactly where I want it to be, even if Aunt Miriam claims my room is a total mess, and even the blessed Almighty couldn’t find His way in it. I don’t like changes, I don’t want to change, even though Zionka’s mother thinks that’s exactly what I need. I hope that Polish woman is a short-term guest.
Aunt Miriam said to the rabbi, “So, all right, another burden to bear, but I’m used to it already”.
Aunt Mirian didn’t close her mouth, making the room spin from so many words and china cups. She promised the rabbi she would do everything to help the poor girl until she could manage by herself in the country. A new immigrant with delicate hands who would complain about the heat and the mosquitoes and how hard it was to find a job. We’d have to explain to her that here, you have to work at all kinds of different jobs, and women even go out to work in the quarry, or go from house to house selling “laundry bluing” in small tin boxes. “We don’t have any time here for idleness or recreation,” Aunt Miriam proclaimed, as if recreation were a dangerous disease, and she bragged so much about our wonderful Imri, the precious son of the entire village, who was sacrificing his passport on the altar of the nation. He had promised the Jewish Agency to marry at least four women for them. She never called him a ‘burden’.
The rabbi swallowed the hot tea in one gulp, as if the pale brew had suddenly been struck by frost, and said, “They shall come to this land no matter how much the English, may their names be cursed, rant and rave,” and for a minute, he reminded me of Mohammed Daudi.
You’re an experienced man, Aharonchik, you’ve seen the world and you took part in the great revolution. How should I act with a woman? Do I flatter her, even if she isn’t beautiful? And what do women in Europe wear? I hardly get any sleep, and all the fellows wink at me and roll their eyes, as if I’m about to enter the gates of heaven. I can’t ask my Aunt Miriam or our next-door neighbor, Zionka’s mother. The other women in our village wear shabby clothes that hide their bodies. I secretly opened my mother’s closet to look inside, but then I lost my nerve. After all, my mother was born here, not in Europe. I remember one gray dress. She wore it the day she gave birth to my little brother. On that day, she was so heavy she could barely move, and only her smile shone. She took my little hand, and spreading the fingers, she placed it on her swollen belly, saying, “This is life.”
On the day Anna arrived, Johnny Weissmuller tore his leash and ran off to the English air force base. Instead of going to school, I went out to look for him in the village. The ducks in Zionka’s yard were strolling around leisurely, so I understood the dog wasn’t there. Zionka’s mother came outside and ripped into me, “What are you doing here? Zionka is an outstanding pupil. Stop bothering her, you nincompoop.
I’d never been called that name before. Zionka’s mother was original. Too bad Zionka’s father only came home on the weekends. As for her mother, I thought, how generous her imagination is with words, but how stingy she is with her smiles.
The Zionist duck ran towards me, quacking loudly, and I’d already decided that it had a special fondness for people who didn’t know how to read. Then it tried to get out onto the street, and Zionka’s mother chased it inside with a stick, calling it a nincompoop too.
I went to Aharonchik’s bakery. I was always looking for excuses to go there. He gave me a hot roll, and in exchange, I had to listen to one of his fiery speeches on the socialist revolution about to take place throughout the world. Always sticking out of the baker’s pocket was the Yiddish newspaper he received in the mail from Moscow once a month. That’s where he got his information about the future, and he told everyone that it was the only newspaper that printed the truth, because that was its name. Aharonchik saw dangerous aristocrats and imperialists lurking in every corner, and he dreamed of a state filled with Jewish and Arab workers, who would live together in brotherhood and equality, raising high their red flag. Hanging over the oven was a picture of Stalin, an angry, mustached man, whom he called “the sun of all nations”, even though that gloomy man looked to me like he actually liked the dark better.
“Have you seen Johnny Weissmuller, Aharonchik? He’s not a communist. Just a plain old dog.” But before I could get an answer, I first had to listen to a passage in Russian from the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, which Aharonchik thought was the most important book ever written. I told him that written things can’t be that important, and Aharonchik clutched his head and said, “Mujik, what’s to become of you?”
Then I went to Meir the butcher, who is the most charming man in our village. Zionka’s mother always stays in his shop longer than she has to just to buy a measly old chicken wing. I hoped Johnny Weissmuller, who was always hungry, was lying in wait there for a bone someone might generously decide to throw him, but the dog wasn’t at the charming butcher’s shop either.
I whistled for him, a perfect imitation of Tarzan’s roar in the only movie I ever saw, when I went to Tel Aviv with Imri at the beginning of the summer. Thirty-one reels at the Beit Ha’am movie theater. Not a dilapidated old shack like the one in our village, but a real theater, with a flat white screen and wooden folding chairs, and an usher and a candy vendor who passed through the aisles with a box hanging around his neck on a strap, calling “Chocolate, mints, chewing gum”. Every night, before I fell asleep, I rolled the pictures around in my memory. Sometimes, in the right order, and sometimes in a new order that I chose, and it didn’t cost 13 cents a ticket.
Johnny Weissmuller leaped from branch to branch, roaring as he hovered in the air, dropping down easily from African trees so huge, they hid the sky. What a sound came out of his mouth! Lying in bed, I covered my ears. Imri said it was just a trick they do in the movies, but I didn’t believe him. I was positive it was Johnny Weissmuller’s real voice.
I searched everywhere for sounds and listened to them. Since the movie, I was practicing feeling things through my ears. I could walk with my eyes closed and always know where I was. The kids playing stickball during recess, and the little ones in kindergarten singing off-key. The rabbi standing at the door of the synagogue with the sexton, trying to settle an argument between him and Alter, who owns a citrus grove, about how much to pay for being called up to read from the Torah. I also listened to the clanking of the milk pails in the dairy belonging to Altschuler, who brags that he doesn’t dilute his milk with water, and the cases of beer being unloaded at the entrance to Shmariyahu’s grocery, and I listened to the ticking of the clocks in the shop belonging to Ephraim Perlmutter, the watchmaker. His wife, Mali, always stops me at the door to the shop and asks me to do her a favor and give a message to her best friend, Zionka’s mother.
I walked from one end of the village to the other, whistling and searching, until I reached our beehives. I leaned against the sealed boxes, wooden panels covered with gray-painted tin, my ears straining to hear the buzzing inside. Maybe hundreds, even thousands, of creatures lived inside, and no one in the world could tell them apart. Even the oldest, most experienced beekeeper doesn’t expect to get a smile from a bee, because we don’t understand bee jokes. Here, in the closed, not very large, box, every bee knows its job - the worker, the queen, the male - and Mohammed Daudi doesn’t think they dream of being something else. “Bees,” he explains, “never sleep, and that’s why they don’t have dreams.” I learned everything from Mohammed, who’s been working with bees for a very long time and knows how to identify the different kinds of honey according to the nectar they’re made from, and has been to every far corner of the country, because he moves his hives from one place to another, depending on the season.
Suddenly, I heard Johnny Weissmuller barking. I bent down under the hive and started looking. For a minute, I was afraid he’d managed to open the cover and dive inside, and was now battling a whole swarm. But then I saw him running on the other side of the fence, inside the English pilots’ base.
If I had known where he’d gotten in, how he’d crossed to the other side of the tall barbed wire fence and gotten past the sentry who sits at the entrance day and night, with his rifle in his hand, I would have followed him. I looked for a hole in the fence, but couldn’t find one.
The camp was an island surrounded by signs. I knew that they warned, “Military property. No admittance!” even though I couldn’t read them.
The parade grounds on the other side of the fence were empty. I had to save Johnny Weissmuller before some English pilot decided to make him a new immigrant in the opposite direction, and arrange an English “certificate” for him.
I dragged one of the hives carefully, so the bees wouldn’t go wild. It was heavy, but I managed to move it closer to the fence so I could use it as a ladder. If Mohammed could see me now, he would be proud of my ingenuity, and I was just as strong as the real Johnny Weissmuller in “Tarzan, King of the Apes.”
I climbed onto the gray box, careful not to shake it and upset the bees, and, watching out for the sharp points of the barbed wire, I jumped inside. Now I was standing in the middle of the parade grounds, that were all shiny like Aunt Miriam’s candlesticks. There were long Quonset huts among the pine and eucalyptus trees whose trunks had been freshly whitewashed. Curbstones and rope fences lined both sides of the paths. In the distance, I could see the stretch of flat red earth they used as a landing strip, and that too was marked with whitewashed stones.
The English base was silent. The midday sun was blazing, even though it was already autumn. Aunt Miriam says that this is the time of day when even God, blessed be His name, grabs a nap and forgets about everything. I understood why the English curse the weather in Palestine when they’re buying their bottles of cold beer at Shmariyahu’s grocery, losing their English politeness for a minute. Aharonchik watches them every day, and says that people who drink whisky instead of vodka will never rule the world.
Johnny Weissmuller had disappeared. I started to cross the grounds, my shadow in front of me. I walked past the big hangar where they repair airplanes and slowly approached the planes that were lined up on this side of the landing strip. I’d never seen an airplane close up. Its body was painted silver, and its tail was blue, white and red, like the circle imprinted on its side. The nose was yellow, and the machine gun protruded from behind the cockpit. I just had to touch the wings of the Hawker. Herzl Fleischer in my class would die of jealousy. Maybe he’s an expert in weapons, but he never touched the wings of a real airplane.
Near the landing wheels of the last Hawker in the row, Johnny Weissmuller barked with happiness, as if he had just finished wolfing down all the salami in the English pilots’ canteen. He wagged his tail, and I whistled a quiet Tarzan whistle at him.
Suddenly, a hand grabbed me.
“What’re you doing here, kid?” someone asked me in English, shaking me by my collar. It was the pilot with the light-colored hair and the well-trimmed mustache who observed the soldiers marching. His shoes gleamed, and every button and buckle on his blue uniform glittered.
I understood every word. I also knew Russian from Aharonchik, I’d picked up Yiddish from the rabbi’s conversations with Aunt Miriam, and I’d learned Arabic from Mohammed. But that didn’t mean a thing to them. All they cared about was reading and writing. Too bad the words didn’t get into my head through my eyes the way they did through my ears. They turned upside down on the page, twisted and turned like little worms, changed places and fell inside each other. Only in my ears did the words stop moving, and I understood them even when they were in a different language.
I stuttered. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Anyone in particular?” the pilot asked
The officer was tall. Much taller than I remembered when I saw him observing the obedient soldiers on the other side of the fence.
“We don’t find friends easily. Perhaps someone sent you to sniff about here?”
“Sniff about?” Now I was scared. I felt so small next to him.
“Spy. Count the number of planes on the ground. Here, this is a Hawker. A two-seater bomber that pecks at you like a hawk.”
“I’m looking for Johnny Weissmuller.”
The pilot burst out laughing. Even his mustache shook.
“You won’t find him. This isn’t a Hollywood studio with an African set.”
I felt myself starting to get angry. I didn’t know where Hollywood was.
“There he is,” I pointed to the dog barking happily near the plane’s tail, “And besides, Tarzan is not a set. It’s all real.”
The pilot raised his hand and pointed, but I didn’t know at what. The stripes on his sleeve glowed in the sun. Two blue ones on each side, and another two turquoise ones separated by a thin line as clear as air.
“You see, this is also a set. Nothing here is real.”
Hollywood? Where is Hollywood? I didn’t know any new immigrants who came from Hollywood. And maybe this Englishman had finished a case of beer and was just plain drunk. He signaled with his finger again, and Johnny Weissmuller jumped out from behind the tail of the plane and stood in front of him, like one of his obedient marching soldiers. The officer uttered something in a quiet voice, and the dog sat down, looking up at him expectantly. The pilot made another gesture with his hand, and Johnny Weissmuller began to follow him obediently, as if he’d always been his dog.
I said in a choked voice, “I wish you’d go away from here. This isn’t your homeland.”
“So I have a patriot here,” the officer said, smiling. Johnny Weissmuller was still lying at his feet, waiting patiently for instructions. “Little Zionist, are you too hiding guns and learning how to shoot?”
“Patriot” was a word everybody used. There wasn’t a single one of us who didn’t think he was a patriot.
“Love of the homeland,” the pilot laughed. “You’ll discover one day that there are things one loves more.”
I remembered what Mohammed once said about the British. “Someday, you’ll leave here with your tail between your legs.” And I added, “And you won’t be waving your tail anymore.”
I thought the English pilot would hit me, but he burst out laughing again. His mustache fluttered and the Hawker’s wings shook as if it were a giant bee. A machine gun protruded from the machine-gunner’s empty compartment.
“Go home, little Zionist, and don’t forget. A movie is just a set. So says Major Charles Timothy Parker of the Royal Air Force, always at your command!” And then he saluted me.
I whistled as loud as I could. In the movie, Johnny Weissmuller fought with his enemies. He wasn’t a man who knuckled under or ran away from danger. I pushed my clenched lips, positive that my piercing Tarzan whistle would wake even God, blessed be His name, from His nap.
Johnny Weissmuller turned around and walked towards me with obvious reluctance, his shadow next to mine and his tail wagging merrily, as if nothing had happened. To make him mad, I told him about the expert sent here three years ago by the Ministry for the English Colonies. That man, whose name I don’t remember, decided that there was no room left in Palestine for even one more cat.
I wanted to yell at Johnny, to show him that there wasn’t any room in the country for dogs either, but he ignored me.
“A movie is real and so are you!” I roared at Major Charles Timothy Parker. I was far enough away so he couldn’t grab me, and the gate sentry holding his rifle was far behind me too. Too bad I didn’t get to touch the wings of the Hawker.
I ran all the way back, Johnny Weissmuller barking behind me, sure that it was just a game. And then I saw Zusia the wagoner’s horse and wagon at the entrance to our house. The light had faded and the sun had vanished behind the English base. Imri helped her down, exactly like an English gentleman knowledgeable in etiquette, wearing father’s best English suit. Aunt Miriam was watching them silently.
I saw a tall, slender woman wearing a dark dress and a hat put one foot in the air and step hesitantly onto the ground.
Irmi lingered, he could’ve let go of her hand, but kept on holding it. He said softly, “Welcome, Anna.”