By Shahar Bram
I touch now his despair
- John Berryman, Dream Song #145
‘The prosecution calls Mr. Fear to the stand.’
Mr. Fear, a tiny, stooped, reddish creature made his way to the stand.
‘Full name please.’
‘Fear. I have no surname.’
‘Your parent’s names please.’
‘Loneliness and Hollow.’
‘Well then, Fear, son of Loneliness and Hollow, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.’
‘Of course I do, Truth is my loyal ally.’
A wave of agitation crossed the crowded hall.
‘Is that Fear?’
‘I would never have guessed…’
‘Yes, he looks kind of shabby, a pitiable creature.’
‘And that red complexion…an outcast…’
He looks like he has been cooked…’
‘But why is he here?’
‘He’s a witness for the prosecution; he was the kid’s best friend.’
‘Silence in the courtroom!’ The judge hushed the crowed in a hoarse voice. Endless sessions had exhausted him. He longed for the verdict, it didn’t matter what decision the jury would reach. His thoughts drifted to his white bed. All he wished for was an everlasting rest. In the meantime, red-faced Fear took his place at the stand, and the prosecutor approached.
‘Do you recognize this man?’ The prosecutor pointed to the young man in the first row.
Fear nodded and smiled shyly. His smile looked more like a grimace. ‘That’s the kid. He is my best friend…I mean, we were best friends but now he has no time for me…I think he only pretends though…anyway, at one time we used to hang out together…’
‘What do you mean: used to?’
‘When the kid was younger…I mean, he still is a kid in a way, at least to me, but he has changed…it’s kind of hard to explain…back then he had been a kid, and now…now he is the same kid but somehow different…’
‘But when the kid was younger, as you put it, how were things then? How did you two meet, how did you come to be his friend?’
The twisted smile on Fear’s face grew wider, involuntarily it seemed. Now his expression had changed and the grimace fused with a distorted and disturbing smile. At the same time the most extraordinary thing happened: his tiny body began to swell, he got bigger and bigger, and a reddish haze radiated from his bright face and spread in the courtroom. The audience was overtaken by a sense of alarm. Whispers turned to shouts; seeds of panic grew shoots and branches, fear clouded the room.
‘Ooops…I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to,’ said Fear and stopped smiling. His measures diminished at once, and he was the same miserable creature everybody liked to tease when it was not their Fear. ‘It is an involuntary characteristic of mine,’ said Fear; ‘my specific density changes sometimes, especially when happy memories grow upon me.’
‘Let us hope it won’t happen again.’ The judge’s voice echoed as if it came from an abyss. He seemed distant. His voice was the voice of a zombie. He had seen too much, and the involuntary characteristic of Fear’s density didn’t impress him much. His only concern was his white bed, a place of sheer and utter rest.
‘Well Mr. Fear, would you please tell the court about the circumstances of your acquaintance with the kid?’
‘There’s nothing much to tell actually,’ said Fear. ‘I spend time with many kids; I would even argue that most kids are my friends, and know me quite well. But sometimes…sometimes you get lucky and meet some kid with whom you become really close…as a matter of fact, such special relations are something one realizes right from the start, I mean you can tell right away that with a certain kid you’ll have a life-long, profound friendship; that the two of you will become brothers-in-arms…and that’s exactly what happened with the kid and I. When I came over to his house for the first time, when I met his parents and spent the night, I knew we would be good friends for a very long time, for the rest of our lives, I would dare say, because although the kid spends less time with me now, I know he still thinks of me a lot, just as he did before.’
‘Please be more specific. How did you happen to meet the kid in the first place?’
‘Well, I guess the credit for the beginning of this wonderful and lasting friendship goes to the kid’s father. He invited me over because he already knew my family. My sister, Anxiety, knew the kid’s father from way back, she used to live with him for many years…she still does….and my cousin, Worry, who was always a dear friend of my sister’s, got to know the kid’s father quite well too. You might say that when I first arrived at that house, when the father invited me to play with his son, it was almost a family reunion…and so I could easily fit in, though I was more the kid’s friend while my sister and cousin were closer to the father. Anyway, the three of us—Anxiety, Worry and I, Fear—really had the best time over there. There was the kid, his brother, and the mother and father, all of whom needed attention. To make a long story short: it is the father who introduced me to the son. The mother was helpful, so much is true; I mean, she gave me room and generously shrank into herself, but it was the father who welcomed me and encouraged the kid, his son, to be my best friend.’
‘And what did the two of you do together? How did you spend your time?’
‘Well, again, it wasn’t anything special; it wasn’t even much of an effort for there was plenty to do at home. For instance, from a fair distance, we would watch the father yell, and the mother run into the bedroom, or we would peep and see the father smashing the already-cracked door with his fierce fist; sometimes we would eavesdrop behind the shaking door, or hide in the closet, as if in a den or a cave, and hear the mother cry; other times we would just lay in bed and imagine that we were blind as bats or deaf as the dead. Actually it was enough just to face that broad-shouldered father, every word he uttered kept us busy for days. He would make clear that we are not to play outside; that it is dangerous to go anywhere because evil lurks everywhere and any minute a catastrophe is bound to happen; it was so fascinating and hypnotizing just to look at his grey face and his big fist waving in the air; we really admired his deep low voice. Yes, these impressions kept us busy for days…those were the days, the good old days when the best pleasures were the simple, domestic ones…in the old days one didn’t have to go to the movies for entertainment, the real thrill was in everyday domestic games.’
‘So you didn’t go out at all, you didn’t hang out together?’
‘Well of course later on, when the kid grew up, like all kids, we too, sneaked out of the house. And hanging out together wasn’t in any way less fun than our long days at home. I remember perfectly well how the kid insisted I accompany him everywhere he went, and indeed I never left him for a second: we were together after school when he went to his grandmother’s, we were together at the movies with his other friends, we were together all the time, even if it was just a short stroll to the grocery store; the kid insisted on it, so close we were. And the fun part outside was also this little game we used to play where I was his bodyguard, I had to let no one come near, I was a shield and he was inside. Yes, those were the happy days when the kid and I were like brothers…we would roam the streets and invent joyful games: for instance, we would try and guess, out of all the people walking besides us on the street, who was the one waiting for an opportunity to harm us, and then we would count one by one all the ways to run and hide…funny, I remember the game where we would shut our eyes and run as fast as we could while passing the neighbor’s balcony where the dog always barked…I really liked that game, it’s a shame it had to end after the dog jumped and joined our race, caught up with us and bit the kid. I admit that at that time I blamed myself, so I went with him to the doctor, where we soon found another hypnotizing game: we stared at the needle and screamed our hearts out…those were wonderful days, so creative…let me tell you a secret: sometimes he—I mean the kid—would pretend that I don’t exist, that I’m not there, that he hates me, that he’s not happy with me…but that, of course, was only a game too, a really ingenious one I must say, it was the kid’s own idea, I had nothing to do with it. Those were the good old days…. He really loved me very much back then, we were like twins, and he wasn’t afraid to show it, he wouldn’t move an inch without me; I was more than a brother to him. I was a part of his life, I was the dearest part of his life, I know it…it’s a shame that nowadays I embarrass him.’
‘Mr. Fear, I would like to thank you for this moving testimony. Is there anything else you would like to add, maybe something you forgot to mention and you think the jury should know?’
‘Um…well…maybe I…I just want to say that he is really still my best friend and I’ll do anything for him, absolutely anything…because we were so close, we were one, body and soul…and I know that even now, though he seems a little distant, as if I am no longer his friend…I think he hasn’t really changed, I’m still a part of his life, we are still together, even though he has grown up, he still loves me, he cannot forget me, I’m engraved in his heart; please, dear people, you must know that this kid doesn’t forget where he comes from and keeps his friends in his heart.’
(BANG BANG BANG: session is over).
‘The defense calls to the stand Ms. Anxiety.’
Ms. Anxiety, awkward and bulky, made her way slowly to the stand.
‘Full name, please.’
‘Anxiety it is; like my young brother Fear, I have no surname; why bother with this pathetic redundancy? Those who meet me don’t forget me.’
‘Well then, Anxiety, daughter of Loneliness and Hollow, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?’
‘You bet I do, I myself am the whole truth.’
Ms. Anxiety, panting, climbed heavily to her place at the stand. The judge, tired after another sleepless night, hushed the crowed. His much desired rest, the sleep he longed for and the oblivion he craved, all turned out to be a fantasy. The sessions continued day after day, and night after night, he couldn’t get the trial out of his head. I should have practiced Zen on some high mountain, he thought; meanwhile, instead of reaching Nirvana, he was turning into a nervous wreck. He looked at the people pouring into the hall. What in God’s name are they doing here? What’s this trial to them anyway? They don’t know the kid, they don’t know his parents, why…what is the meaning of this? For a split second the judge imagined himself far away from this dirty courthouse, away from the despairing duty that turned out to be a role in a live theater. But after this brief daydream he realized once again that playing the judge was his life sentence. He struck the desk and turned his head away from the bustling crowed and slowly turned towards the stand.
‘Are you ready?’ He asked Ms. Anxiety who finally sat down after a long struggle with the narrow bench. When she nodded, he signaled the defense attorney to take his place.
‘Do you recognize this man?’ the attorney asked, and pointed in the direction of an old, stooped, grey-headed man, who sat near the persecutor.
‘Sure, sure, that’s my…that’s the father of the young man you call the kid, though to me he doesn’t seem like a kid at all…yes, that’s the kid’s father…I know him very well, I lived with him for many years, I still do, I’ll stick with him till the very end…I’ve known him since he was a child; I spent time with him way back when he was strolling barefoot on the barren land upon which this courthouse now stands…. Yes, before all of you, the important, respected and wise, have decided that the father is to blame…’
‘Ms. Anxiety, please…’
‘Okay, Okay, I’ll stick to the question…all this court cares about is blaming someone, as if it will do any good…where was I? His childhood…yes, I know the father since he was a child and later we became…well, that’s the truth so let it be heard: we became and still are the most loyal couple, that’s how it always was and that’s how it’s going to stay. When he was a young man I made my final decision and chose him as my partner for better or for worse. At that time his own father became ill, and soon afterward died, and it was then that he—the kid’s father as you call him here—and I signed a contract for life, and swore to be always faithful to each other, and indeed, I have been living with him ever since, and I’ll tell you one thing: I know him better than anyone, better than any of you smart people, better than his lawful wedded wife did, better yet than his son, the one you call the kid, but it would have been better for him to finally grow up and face life as a man….’
‘Please, Ms. Anxiety…would you like some water? Now, tell us about the accused and his family at that time. What did the father’s father die of?’
‘His father died of cancer. They said it was the cigarettes that killed him, but I say the cigarettes only spread the black specks in his soul, which were the swollen fruits of past seeds: his soul was dotted with the black letters of his brothers’ names, left behind in his homeland, caged in camps and later disappeared into thin air, thinner than cigarette smoke. His mother’s black letters of relatives’ names, however, roamed her heart: she had a heart disease…and of course it got worse after her husband died. She was a petite woman who was almost buried beneath the heaps of pills she had to swallow. At that time, the accused…. No, I won’t be part of this slander, how dare you call him that? Is that what you call justice? He was never to blame, this court is a disgrace…he worked so hard all his life, he gave his family everything he had, never thought of himself, he loved them so much, he worked hard to give them the good life they wanted…did you know that his wife never worked, that she couldn’t drive, that she spent her life daydreaming, that he had to take care of everyone and make a living too? His ill mother, his manic-depressive wife, and the kids…there was no one to help him, and he started from nothing and made it on his own, but so much effort and hard work, and never a thought of himself…look, take a look at the young man over there, the one you call the kid, he doesn’t seem to be in bad shape…and now take a look at his father, this grey-haired old man, who gave his son everything…this father loves that kid so much, he loves him more than he loves himself, he always took it all upon himself and never said a word, with no one there to help him, only me, I was his only real friend…’
‘Ms. Anxiety, please calm down, don’t get too excited. We hear you; that’s exactly what we came for, to hear what you have to say…’
‘Yes, yes, certainly, and I won’t let any of you leave before I make myself perfectly clear…let me see, where was I? Yes…after his father died, the kid’s father had to take care of his mother, she had a heart disease…she was alone and he knew it was his duty, he never denied his lifelong responsibilities like some of us do…. He is the most responsible and realistic person I have ever met, and that’s part of the reasons why I knew we would get along so well. I remember a time when his mother was ill and he was already married: his wife was dreaming away all day and he had to run from his work to his mother’s, from his mother’s back home, from there to his night shift at the factory and so forth…I was there with him all the time, I never left his side; I was a real partner, we got along very well because I was the only one that could see into his soul. I even asked my cousin Worry to help me, because he was cracking up, though it never showed…I tell you, Mr. Attorney, the three of us were really close, and after a while my brother Fear came along, to take care of the growing kids: the mother was already losing it back then and someone had to be with the kids…so I’m not ashamed to say: his wife couldn’t see into his heart, only I could…because she was…well, it wasn’t her fault, I admit…but unlike her he carried on and what for, now he’s being accused…. He had no one to help him except for me; I was the only one who knew what was going on, I was his true friend all those years, and if he made a few mistakes along the way—what could you expect, he was exhausted, I tell you, it’s a wonder he survived it all, you cannot put the blame on him….’
‘Ms. Anxiety, I can see this is difficult for you, but would you please speak a little more about the time when the accused became a father? Could you describe to the court the relationship between the kid and his father at that time?’
There was a long silence. The attorney looked at Ms. Anxiety but said nothing. She seemed confused and hesitant; she seemed to be having her own private discussion. She mumbled half-words in a low voice. A couple of times she almost spoke to the court but then recoiled. Eventually she gazed at the crowd. Her piercing eyes scanned the room. After a few moments the silence became stressful and the crowed started to stir. After a few more moments the silence had grown into a blasting whistle that the crowd could no longer stand. No one knew what would happen next. It seemed that the air was running out, people couldn’t breathe. Even the judge suddenly felt as if some heavy stones were piling up on his shoulders and his lungs shrank.
‘Please answer the question, Ms. Anxiety,’ said the judge and pictured his white bed which now suddenly seemed long and narrow, with bouquets of flowers on both sides, and behind them four hooded men holding a red wooden lid, waiting for him to finally close his eyes, waiting to box him in his promised sleep. Like a red ship, his covered bed would sail and all would be white and quiet at last, all will be hushed, there’ll be no more sessions that lead nowhere. There can be no end to this trial, a thought went through his head. Charges or accusations don’t change anything, this is a lost case.
‘Ms. Anxiety, we’re waiting, please…’ the attorney tried to make the witness talk.
‘He shouldn’t have married her,’ said the witness suddenly in a low voice. ‘…it was all a mistake, her mistake, his mistake, one big mistake, but she…she didn’t know anything about anything, she had always been a dreamer, and he should have known better but…that’s the whole point, that’s the man, that’s what he is, he won’t leave, he feels the responsibility…he makes everything his responsibility, and so eventually we have someone to blame…. He made mistakes, of course, and the biggest mistake was his marriage because these two were not good for each other, each needed exactly what the other couldn’t deliver…and so, slowly but surely, each of them headed down their own lonely path: she subsided into the depth of depression, and he crawled to the black abyss of moral conscience. But his soul was drowning, and there was no one beside him but me...they all depended on him, I was the only one to give him a hand…. So what do you want me to tell you, Mr. Attorney, what do you think this crowed wants to hear? He started from scratch and slowly made it, but not for his own good, for his family, for this kid…some kid…sitting in the first row looking at his father as if he were a complete stranger…how dare he? This kid doesn’t know his father, he accuses him of irrational things because his father…the father that this court pretends to judge…for this man his kids are the whole world, he has no life without them…ask my cousin Worry, she’ll tell you: she was with us since the kids were born, she’ll tell you how much he loves them…indeed, she spoke on his behalf for many years, but this kid here wouldn’t understand…kids, what do they know?…kids have expectations and claims and demands but very little do they know of the way the real world works…don’t get me started, but let me just tell you, Mr. Attorney: we all make mistakes and so did the kid’s father…and it is true that he depended upon my cousin and upon myself all these years; but at the same time he worked like crazy and took care of his mother and of everything else, he bought, and fixed, and paid, and drove, and did all that was necessary to make everyday life normal...all he wanted was to protect the kids, to teach them right from wrong, to prepare them for life…and this kid here, so big and so smart, how do you think he got to be like that? His father took care of them all, only for himself he didn’t do what was necessary, and only with me and with my cousin he spoke frankly about his feelings…. Yes, that’s how it was, and if at long last, after so many years, he packed up and left, who would blame him? He didn’t go far, he kept performing all his duties from his new place, he left in order to have a life, in the few years he still had…his new place was a dark hole, a one-room apartment with nothing except for a metal bed and some pictures of the kids and his own parents who finally died too…from this hole he would go either to work or to see his kids, that was his daily routine. And yes, when he had lived with his wife he did yell, and sometime smashed the door in and even slapped the kids…so what? I myself told him to do that and so did my cousin, it was necessary…. Yes, kids have to know that the world is not so nice, they should know that the world is a battlefield, that life is a struggle, that it is difficult out there and very far from the fairy tales they fantasize…his exterminated relatives and sick parents and depressive wife were a reality, they were the real life…because that’s life, and kids should realize this truth as early as possible…that’s all there is, that’s the true color of life…I let you in on a little secret, Mr. Attorney: I myself convinced him to be hard on the kids, to yell and to scare them, to darken their dreamy fantasies about life and, when necessary, to slap them and smash a door or a window in order to wake them up and show them the real face of the world…so what is he to blame for? The truth? The cruel face of reality? The manic depressive disorder of his wife? The fictionalized life everyone dreams of? The black spots that make people crazy sometimes? Those who already know me, also know that I myself am the whole truth…. Look, look at this young man, not a boy anymore, no, no kid but a man, so big, tall, healthy and wise…. What does he accuse his father of? What for? What does he want? You are all wrong, Mr. Attorney, you should have called my older sister Horror to be your witness; she is a part of the family and if she were here you would have all stopped acting like kids….’
Ms. Anxiety’s voice broke and silence took over again. The Attorney who stood by the witness felt a strange sensation in the small concave area under his chest. It felt like something was falling, sinking slowly inside his body. It didn’t hurt, only made his breathing heavy. At the same time his legs started shakings uncontrollably. But he was an experienced lawyer and knew the witness gave what they call an excellent performance, and so there was a good chance that the jury was now on his side. A satisfactory sensation rose in his back as a counterpoint to the unpleasant weary feeling in his chest. He lifted his head, and when he saw Ms. Anxiety getting ready to step down, he suddenly remembered another detail that came to his mind while preparing the case.
‘Ms. Anxiety, I’m sorry, but I have just one more question, a very short one, before you leave. You spoke about the father, but would you like to say something about the kid himself, maybe about your relations with him?’
The witness was already standing and didn’t bother to sit down again. Her bulky body pushed the chair backward as she leaned forward on the stand.
‘The kid? The kid? What would you do with such a dreamy kid that won’t talk, a kid that silently stares at nothing, and looks too much like his mother? Wouldn’t you try to shake him out of it? To save him from his own genes? To put some sense into him? Wouldn’t you talk to him fiercely and try to shake him out of his fantasy world and show him how the real world works? Wouldn’t you explain life to him so that he understood that it is not a game but a war? If the father hadn’t done that, how do you think the kid would have grown up to be the mature and independent man he is today? Wouldn’t you, as a father, do whatever is necessary to prepare your kid for life? Yes, it might not be easy or pleasant, when the kid wants to stay in his fantasy world and remain a kid…. A father must show some authority, which means, sometimes, a fist at the door or a slap on the face…respect…and restrictions…that’s a part of life, isn’t it? The kid…what does this kid want for God’s sake? You see, that’s the problem with my young brother Fear, sometimes he only amuses himself with the kids, he is not thorough enough…. But what do you think, Mr. Attorney? Really, tell me what you think: the father is old now; it won’t be long before I’m all alone again, and then, Mr. Attorney, whom shall I call? Who will be there for me? When the father is gone? Who will share with me a life as full as I had with the father? Well, Mr. Attorney, do you have an idea? Who'll be my new mate if not this kid?’
(CRASH, BANG: the judge wakes up. The walls are cracking, there’s no-one around.)
Copyright © Shahar Bram 2013
Shahar Bram teaches at the Department of Hebrew & Comparative Literature at the University of Haifa. He isthe author of the recently published fiction novel Hazmanim Hametim[The Dead Times]; The Stones Bram is the author of three books of poetry: Gederot, [Walls]; Prihat Hazikaron [The Blooming of Memory]; Ir Ahava [City of Love]. Bram’s scholarly works include: The Ambassadors of Death: The Sister Arts, Western Canon, and the Silent Lines of a Hebrew Survivor; The Backward Look: The Long Poem in the Writings of Israel Pincas, Harold Schimmel and Aharon Shabtay, [The Backward Look]; Charles Olson and Alfred North Whitehead: an Essay on Poetry. Please visit www.shaharbram.com to read excerpts from his work.