(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Yehoshua Sobol
Translated from Hebrew by Chaya Galai
Since the day I learned to read and write, I have never written a word of my own. I have merely copied what others have written. When I was a small child, I used to copy out excerpts from books. Then I began copying the manuscripts of the writer who lived in our village, so that he could send them off for publication. I remember the day the writer invited me to his house to copy out his manuscript for him. I was ten or eleven, I don’t recall exactly how old. But I remember the day and the hour. This is the way the writer described them in a paragraph I found in his book “The forbidden village” while I was copying it:
“It was a hot summer day. Afternoon. The air was motionless, swooning in the heat. The little village houses lay, shuttered in on themselves and on the people within who were seeking some refuge from the heat. Silence prevailed everywhere. Not a cow was mooing, not a cock crowing, not a bird was twittering, and even the donkeys had ceased braying. The dogs too were sleeping, routed, in the patches of shade cast by the trees on the soft sand. The gang of children was the sole indication that life was going on here. They were clustered around their leader under the ancient carob tree atop of the limestone hill overlooking the sea, busily plotting some mischief, or perhaps absorbed in some mysterious affair.”
I remember them. Many of them are no longer alive. The leader, Eli, became a pilot. He used to arrive in a small military aircraft and fly over the village, low over the trees and houses, close to the electricity lines. He’ll be killed some day, I heard my father say to my mother. One day he was in fact killed. He was interred in the village cemetery. His widowed mother shouted at him as his coffin was lowered into the grave. Eli, why are you doing this to me, Eli, she shouted at him. A few years earlier, when he was still a boy, he fashioned a bow and arrows. He drilled holes in the arrow heads and stuck in long needles, with the pointed end outward. In the canine mating season, he fired the arrows at the dogs as they clung to the hindquarters of his bitch, Ditzy. The arrows stuck to their bodies, and the dogs howled and dragged Ditzy backward and forward in their frantic efforts to be rid of them. All the children stood and watched the scene in silence. He was also the first of the boys to screw Ruta, whose mother was the neighbor and mistress of the writer, who visited her in the course of his afternoon walks. That I discovered later when he assigned me the task of copying the manuscript of The Forbidden Village.
Among the members of that gang was Bentzy the Professor, who did indeed become a professor at the university, just as everyone had predicted, and died of a heart attack many years ago. And there was Zevik, who became a missile engineer, and travelled the world on business. And one day they brought him back from the outside world to the village, desperately ill and paralyzed, and his wife, Rina, who had also been one of the gang, pushed his wheelchair along the newly-paved sidewalk in front of his parents’ house in the village which, by then, had become a small town. I passed them frequently on my daily roamings through the streets of the town, but they didn’t remember me. Zevik sat shrunken in his wheelchair, gaping at the world with empty eyes, and Rina, a fat, awkward woman who had once been a pretty, delicate little girl, pushed the wheelchair with a blank face. I asked myself if he knew that his mother Clara, who was our gymnastics teacher, was also in thrall to the writer, who maintained a client-whore relationship with her for many years, if his descriptions can be believed. All this happened before the palsy afflicted him and slowly turned him into a shadow of his former self, and after his death Clara invited me to her home to tell me her version, because it was rumored in the village that I was working on the writer’s biography, and I spent long hours listening to the story of her tangled life, and eventually she also took me into her bed and appointed me her last lover.
There were two children in that gang who, years later, as they were returning at night from a party in one of the neighboring villages, were murdered among the orange groves by Arab infiltrators. And then there was the son of the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, a boy who used to sneak out of his house and come to play with the children, removing his kipa and making fun of his father. He knew nothing about the role of his father the shochet in the onset and continuance of my silence. One day the shochet’s son’s body was shipped back from an African country, where he had been killed while fighting as a mercenary in a tribal war.
And then there was Noga, the prettiest and most exciting girl in the village. She had smooth tanned skin, honey-colored hair and green eyes. Whenever there was dancing in the cultural center, Noga would pull off her sandals and dance in her bare feet. Her blue skirt flew up to her waist and her lovely calves and thighs were exposed, and her underpants as well, but she didn’t care, and everyone loved her. I loved her too. One day I almost decided to go and tell her I loved her, although that would have caused a real ruckus in the village, the mute boy talking, and then I would not have been able to remain silent to the very end and I would have been forced to talk to people. I loved Noga that much. But just as I was about to go over and tell her, one of the big boys, Avinoam, caught hold of her and twisted her arm, and Noga bent over backwards, and I saw her eyes, looking at him, laughing and teasing and inviting, and I no longer wanted to tell her anything, and I was glad I had not gone over to her and opened my mouth to speak. When Noga was fifteen or sixteen, she fell in love with the dance teacher, who was brought in from the city to rehearse us for our graduation ceremony. He was a young man, slim and dark. He had a sunken chest, and bloodshot eyes and a wrinkled forehead. When the ceremony was over, the teacher went back to the city, and soon afterwards Noga disappeared from the village. But I never forgot her. At night I saw her in my mind’s eye, but I didn’t know how to find her.
One day some army units and groups of civilians marched along the highway skirting the village. Many of the villagers went out to watch the marchers. The soldiers marched en masse, with long, slow steps, singing to the rhythm of their march. They resembled the ships which glide across the sea edging our village as they sail out of the bay into the open sea. Stately and slow, they are borne on the waves, rocking from side to side and ploughing a path for themselves, and there is no power on earth that can stop them. The platoons of soldiers looked just like that. I felt as if some giant force was gripping me and drawing me in their wake. I started to follow them at the same pace, and I had the wonderful feeling that I could walk in that fashion to the ends of the earth. Each night the marchers slept in tent encampments in the heart of fields and forests, and early each morning they awoke and set out on their way again. After several days marching we reached a large town, surrounded by hills and forests. I was thirsty and I went into the courtyard of a large stone house to drink water from a dripping faucet beside an olive tree. As I turned on the faucet and bent down to drink, a woman came out of the house carrying a large bowl filled with laundry. Two barefoot little children came running out behind her, wailing in discordant voices. The woman was wearing a faded, frayed, light-blue flowered dress, which was damp from the laundry. Her feet were shoved carelessly into shabby house shoes, and the skin on her ankles was thick and cracked. She stood hanging out the laundry on a line stretched between two trees. And it was Noga. Her breasts were sagging, her belly had swollen. Her back was slightly bent as if she had started growing a hump. Her hair had faded and turned gray, and her eyes were dull. I almost called her name, the second time in my life that I almost opened my mouth because of Noga. I almost said to her, What happened to you, Noga, to make you so old, so lifeless? But at the last moment I checked myself, turned and left the courtyard in silence.
When I returned home after a few days, everyone came running in great excitement. They had thought me lost and here I was, back home. Everyone tried to guess where I had been and what had happened to me, but nobody dreamed that I had gone off to see Noga, that I had actually seen her, and turned back. At that moment I had nothing to say, and even now, as I sit and write these words decades later, I have nothing to say about that whole journey to Noga, and back from Noga to the village. One day, as is my wont, I turned to the obituaries section of the newspaper, and saw that Noga had died “of an incurable disease.”
The children, like the adults, tolerated my presence even though I never uttered a word. They were not troubled by the fact that I never spoke. They did not miss hearing my voice and were content with the hubbub they created without me. I used to watch them from the sidelines as they played their ball games, and I would run and retrieve balls that fell at a distance and sometimes, when they were short one player, they would do me a favor and add me to one of the teams. I did not excel at games, but since I tried to play to the best of my ability, they accepted me into the group. The adults had long since resigned themselves to my silence, which they regarded as a nameless and inexplicable disease. A kind of mysterious blow of fate. That was why they allowed me to stay in their company and took no notice of me. They were accustomed to my silent presence and were reconciled to it as if I were an inanimate object. Only once did one of the children suspect me of not being truly mute. I remember the occasion well. His name was Libby. One summer he came from town to stay with Ruta, who was his cousin. He was a fleshy creature, with narrow eyes like two sharp slits carved into his face with a razor. His cheeks were swollen and flushed and he had a low, narrow forehead. From the moment we met, we detested one another. To myself I nicknamed him Bontz, because the name suited him: Bontz. He had the face of a Bontz, the body of a Bontz, the expression of a Bontz and the voice of a Bontz. I was sure that only one word was going through his head constantly: Bontz. From the day he arrived in the village, he never ceased harassing me and persecuting me in his efforts to make me utter sounds. And that was what he was doing on that still afternoon. I don’t know how far matters would have gone if the writer had not materialized suddenly between us, as if he had popped out of the earth.
Every day, summer and winter, rain and shine, the writer would don his light khaki suit, set his grey felt hat on his bald head, which was as smooth as a pumpkin, pick up his walking stick and set out on his daily stroll through the streets of the village. Sometimes his wife accompanied him. After her death, he continued his custom as if nothing had changed. Later, when I was a constant visitor to his home, and went there daily to copy out his Forbidden Village, I discovered that before setting out on his walk, he performed a series of exhausting physical exercises. This was part and parcel of his self-maintenance and his concern for his body, which was more precious to him than anything else on earth. At first I was surprised to see how fond he was of his body, and I never became accustomed to this strange phenomenon. Even after I had copied large, secret portions of The Forbidden Village, and was acquainted with the numerous and diverse manifestations of that strange tendency or aberration, I was not much wiser about his eccentricities. I encountered them for the first time when I needed his explanation of a word I had been unable to decipher in his handwriting. I summoned him by the signal he had decided on for that purpose: three raps on the desk where I was working. He came over after several seconds and I pointed to the word I had been unable to read. I expected him to pronounce the word and go, but something else happened.
The writer said to me in an irritated and imperious voice:
“Get up from that chair.”
I stood up. He sat down in my place, looked at the word, pronounced it, stood up and went.
This strange ceremony was repeated in precisely the same fashion each time I needed his help in deciphering a word. He came over. I pointed to the unclear word. He told me to stand up. I stood up. He sat down. He deciphered the word. He stood up and went, and I copied the word in my plain, clear handwriting.
But this was only one of the writer’s lesser idiosyncrasies. To this day I fail to understand why women were so fond of that selfish, dry and unfeeling man, who loved nothing but his own flesh.
Everything started, just as I said, in that afternoon hour of a hot summer day when the air was still and the heat had overwhelmed the trees and the buildings and the animals, and people had closed themselves in behind lowered shutters in the little village houses, and were taking their afternoon naps in their underwear. As the writer clambered up the road leading to the top of the limestone hill overlooking the sea, he went unnoticed by the children gathered in the shadow of the great carob tree on the hilltop. They were clustered around their leader, Eli, who had scored a direct hit on a wild dove with a stone fired from his sling. The wild dove had plummeted down from the tree to the ground, and they were all gazing at it. Beautiful Noga, who was to die one day of an incurable disease, was there, and Bentzi the professor, who was to die of a heart attack, and Rina and Zeevik, who were already a couple, and Ruta, who used to sing that song about them, “At midnight when the stars were bright / Zeevik said to Rina, Hold me tight. / If you don’t believe it, come next spring / And you can see her wedding ring.” And that was the way it was. Several years later they were married, and Zeevik, who by then was a missile engineer, went overseas with her and came back a wreck confined to a wheelchair because of some cursed illness, and gradually faded away till he died. And Libby was there, Ruta’s fleshy cousin, the one who used to torment me and pinch me and whisper: “You’re not really a mute, you’re a cheat, I know you’re a cheat, you can talk. I can see in your eyes that you can talk. Go on, talk, talk, talk!” The death of the wild dove had greatly excited him, and made him torment me more than ever, and I looked straight into his narrow eyes, two slits sunk deep in his stupid face, and took great pleasure in my power to keep silent and not be part of the whispers of amazement and the flattery and wheedling of the children, who were pleading with Eli: “Show me, Eli, come on, let me touch the dove.” Eli held the wild dove in one hand, its head dangling like a lifeless limb, and let the children touch it, and even let some of them hold it for a few seconds. My silence irritated Libby, who pinched me and kept urging me: “Ask to touch the dove, go on, ask, ask!” and just at that moment, the writer appeared among us.
The writer loved children. That’s what the women said, particularly the old women. The men were not enthusiastic about his love of children, and my father, at least, wouldn’t permit him to do to me what he did to other children who fell into his hands. My father and mother disagreed on this matter. When the writer wanted to entrap a child, he first captivated him by performing tricks with his walking stick, which had a rounded handle. He had several tricks which he kept repeating, for example, the trick known as the windmill. He used to grip the stick by its middle and twirl it between his fingers like the sails of a windmill. Then he’d fling his head back and balance the stick in the hollow between his nose and his forehead. When the stick was safely balanced, the writer moved his head slowly and very cautiously from side to side, and the stick swayed on the bridge of his nose. This was the “swing” trick. And while the stick was wobbling there, the writer’s watery gray eyes, like the eyes of a cat, would observe the child, who was transfixed by the swinging motion. And then, when the child was off guard, the writer would grasp the stick by its lower end and, with the aid of the rounded handle, snare the little neck with a swift, strong movement, pull the child toward him and grip him between his knees. Now came the turn of the pinches. The writer would pinch his buttocks, his stomach or his cheeks, pinching, pinching mercilessly, and demand that the child, to secure his release, give the correct answer to several strange questions: “What town did Joshua conquer?” The answer was supposed to be “Ai”. “And why am I called Zvati?” (Pincher) “Because you pinch?” “And why do I pinch?” “Because you like children.” “Correct!” the writer would cry triumphantly, releasing the child and giving a wheezing laugh, his face turning beetroot-red, and the tiny threads of veins on his fleshy nose purpling as if they were about to burst.
Once he played the pinching trick on me, but unlike the other children, I didn’t answer his questions. The writer tightened the grip of his knees, pinched my cheek, and kept repeating the question, “Which town did Joshua conquer?” And although I knew I was supposed to shout “Ai,” I didn’t utter a word. My mother, in a faint voice, urged the writer to leave me alone, but he persisted: “For me he’ll talk,” he announced in his red, confident voice, and announced again: “You shall see that for me he will talk.” Even at this exciting moment, he didn’t forget his grammar. I saw his flushed face, his fleshy nose with the purple veins, and behind him I saw the faces of my aunts and the women neighbors, awaiting, with morbid curiosity and bated breath, the miracle the writer was about to perform before their wondering eyes. What the greatest physicians and professors had not succeeded in doing, he, the writer, was going to achieve through his great firmness of purpose and his enthusiasm. The eager faces of the women awaiting a miracle brought two pictures to my mind.
One of them is repeated once a year, on the eve of Passover, when all the village women make their way to the courtyard of the shochet carrying trussed fowls, hens, ducks, fattened geese and black-feathered, red-wattled turkeys. One by one the women hand over the live fowls to the shochet, and he spreads the bird’s wings, grips them and pulls them together by force. While the terrified bird is still stunned by this unnatural treatment of its wings, the shochet squeezes it between his knees, leans over it, clutches its head in his left hand, stretches it backward, plucks a few feathers from its neck, removes the knife from between his teeth, slides it rapidly to and fro over the bird’s throat, and instantly the slaughtered neck blossoms like a red poppy between the bristling feathers, and for a moment the bird is quietened as if it has not yet understood what has been done to it, and before it can grasp what has happened, the shochet has hurled it away, the way one casts away a worn-out rag, and in mid-flight, as the air caresses its wings, the bird remembers that it is a bird and, with a supreme effort, summoning up all its life force, it frees its crossed wings and batters at the air as if trying to rise and to escape the piercing pain in its throat, but straight away it falls to the ground with a thump, and there it staggers about despairingly among the slit-throated ducks and geese and turkeys that are also writhing through their death pangs, until its blood and its strength drain away, and it is cast onto the heap of corpses, still twitching in the last death spasms, and with yearning eyes it sees the final sight of its life: the face of the shochet, the knife in his teeth and his hands gripping another bird, which is still oblivious to what lies ahead, and behind the shochet float the fleshy faces of women who are staring with eyes filled with lusts of the flesh, lust for life, lust for death.
That is the first picture which comes to the child’s mind at the moment when the writer grips him between his knees and announces: “For me he will talk” and the women’s eyes are on him, pervaded with lust. But the second picture is more enigmatic and harsher.
It is not clear whether it is day or night. If it is nighttime, then the night is bathed in blazing orange light; if daytime – the light is dim like darkness at noon. Somebody, seated in a chair whose back is resting against the narrow side of the large table, is holding me on his lap on a soft, white cloth, and prying my knees apart with his hands. And I am naked. All I am wearing is a long-sleeved vest. But from the belly down I am naked. And the shochet stands facing me. I can see his beard and the knife between his teeth. Behind him are clustered flushed faces, goggling at me. Staring. Grinning. I see the faces of both men and women. The men shrink back, constrained. I see dread in their eyes. The women’s eyes are glistening. I hear someone ask a question, and someone else reply. It seems to me that the questioner is the shochet, and that the man who replies is my father. I hear his voice above me, behind me. I can understand every word that is said. They are talking about me. The shochet asks my father if he wants to redeem me. My father says yes. The shochet asks for how much. My father says something I don’t understand. It seems to me that he is saying, five lira. The people around me respond approvingly. And then something happens which I cannot remember but can never forget. The shochet leans over me and grips the flesh between my legs. He pulls and pulls as if pulling something out of my belly, and then he pinches me hard. I want to open my mouth and tell him to leave me alone, not to do this to me, but it is useless to speak. The die has been cast, and I am incapable of doing anything to change it. I listen carefully to all that is said and to how it is said, but I do not utter a sound. The shochet takes the knife in his hand and leans over my splayed knees. He does something there. I feel a sharp pinch. I want to say: “Enough!” but I am silent. I hear the voices of the people marvelling at my silence. “He didn’t even scream,” says my mother’s aunt. “What a quiet child.”
And here comes the writer, seeming to emerge out of nowhere and he is in the midst of the group of children. And they, who until a split second ago were with Eli and the drooping wild dove, turn, startled, toward the big man, from under whose grey hat a red swollen sweat-dappled countenance peers out. Alien to the heat and the coarse limestone dust and the prickly poterium and hairy cassia plants, the writer who loves children stands among them, straining to mingle with constrained cordiality, and even a touch of self-abnegation in the face of their naive savagery, bare feet and naked legs, their suntan coated with pale dust. He will never be like them. They are from here and he is from there. From a world where the skin is anointed with greasy creams and wrapped in layers of soft cloth, which is covered with further, coarser layers. And when all the layers are removed, pink, soft, damp skin is revealed, like the skin of baby rats exposed suddenly when an old sack is lifted up in the animal feed store, squealing and wriggling uneasily in the strong light, just before the iron spade descends on them with a dull thud. It is thus that the writer stands among them, a summer jacket suspended from his shoulders, covering the khaki suit, beneath which a white shirt, which is neither clean nor fresh, is visible, above a sweaty undershirt, which protects his delicate cream-anointed skin. He stands among them enthralled by the duskiness of the bare skin of the half-naked boys, whose bony muscular legs stretch below their short pants like the trunks of young olive trees, and are linked to the ground by bare feet which are as gnarled as roots. He stands among them lusting for the solid suntanned thighs and shapely calves of Noga, and the golden down, almost invisible against the polished copper of her skin, evokes in him an agonizing urge to lick her with his fleshy tongue. To take her down to the beach, to rinse the dust off her feet in the sea until the smoothness of her skin is revealed, to lick the salt from between her toes, to lay her down in the sand and lick the chocolate-hued skin of her calves and thighs until her legs fall open and with feverish fingers she pulls off her underpants and offers him her nakedness and he will lick and his tongue will separate the large outer lips which will swell and open wide like the greedy mouth of a water lily and his long fleshy tongue will twist between the lips of her damp, pink cunt and the tip of his tongue will stretch and touch the button of the flower and reach the flower, suck the honeyed juice and return to the button until Noga shivers and sobs and cries out and whispers, that's so good...so good.…
Nobody in the village dreams that such thoughts are writhing like fat worms at this moment through the head of the writer as he stands here amidst the gang of children at the top of the limestone hill, in the shade of the ancient carob tree. These things will only be revealed to me some time later, when the palsy has totally disrupted the writer’s control of his hands and his bodily apertures, and he will dictate them to me in a shaky voice.
But now, as he stands here, nobody in the village knows yet that the palsy is already lurking secretly in the tissue of his muscles. The layers of clothing he wears protect him like thick armor and conceal the disease from prying eyes, and as yet there is no external indication of the slow ruin that has already commenced. Only the writer knows of the imminent calamity. In the still of the night, in the silence of his study, by the light of his desk lamp with its black enamel shade, he watches in dread as the letters emerge crippled and distorted from the nib of his pen, like summer larvae which weave a chrysalis around themselves, or like worms which have been boiled and have frozen in their distorted position. He tries to control his hand and to correct the distortion, but his hand betrays him, and the more he tries, the more illegible the letters. The effort of concentrating on his handwriting distracts his thoughts, and his writing becomes less and less precise. At first he tries to avoid words containing the letter alef, which is particularly hard for him to write. But after some time the mem also emerges like the graph of an earthquake, and he tries to do without that letter as well. He soon discovers that in Hebrew, without the alef and mem, there can be no mother, no father, no human, no earth, no man, no woman, no water and no sky, and no no either. All these things I was to hear from him in a later confession, after I had tried several times to evade him and the task of the copying of his manuscripts, and he had no alternative but to swallow his pride and confess to me the real reason he had asked my help in copying his manuscripts.
Yehoshua Sobol was born in Israel in 1939. He graduated in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. A leading Hebrew playwright, Sobol has been artistic director of the Haifa Theater; he has also taught esthetics and directed theater workshops at Tel Aviv University. Sobol has written over 60 plays, many of which have been performed in Europe and the USA to great critical acclaim. Ghetto won the London Critics' and the Evening Standard awards for Britain's Best Play of the Year in 1989, and has been staged in leading theaters worldwide. His polydrama Alma has been playing for the last eighteen years in Austria, Italy, Portugal, USA, Germany and Israel. In 2013 Sobol was awarded the Golden Medal of the City of Vienna in recognition of his long-standing theatrical innovation on the stages of Austria’s capital.Sobol's novel Silence was nominated for the Sapir Literary award.