(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Rivka Miriam
Translated from Hebrew by Michael Swirsky
Ever since that writer visited us, I have been going mad with jealousy. And I had thought the character of Rivka, my wife, was already fading from my mind, that she could no longer agitate or trouble me. But, oh, how that one visit of his brought her back, brought her back to me completely, to the point where her presence utterly pervaded me, as it had on that distant day years ago when I saw her shapeless, unformed body for the first time.
The writer, a short fellow with a flat, dark cap on his head, had come to dinner one night. It was Rivka who brought him. He was one of the many acquaintances she accumulated from far and wide whom she would continually spring upon us. His name was Berkowitz or Moscowitz or something. It’s interesting that, then too, no one referred to him by name; “the writer is coming” was how we would tell ourselves we had to prepare for his arrival, as if, compared with that title, his name was but an insignificant detail. It is also hard to remember if it was a weekday or the eve of some holiday. I mainly recall his shape. He entered the room cowering, a movement I had learned to recognize during the war, when we ran hugging the walls for fear of the shells whizzing by all around. The man sat down at the table, still bent over, and stared at the empty plate. The table was already set, and beside the plate were two kinds of knives and two kinds of forks. In back of it were tablespoons, teaspoons, and blue glasses. Bottles of liquor and two vases of gladioli had also been placed on the table.
The writer shuffled silently in, sat down at the table, stared at the plate, and said nothing.
“Are you from Jerusalem?” Yokheved asked him. And here I do remember—strange how the memory works—that she was wearing her light-colored Indian skirt, the one that made her look calm and relaxed. She raised her voice to him a bit. It was probably his bent-over appearance that made her think he might be hard of hearing.
The writer did not reply.
That evening, Yokheved and her beloved Avinoam had come to eat with us. As always, our friend Rita, too, was there. Yahli was sitting in his room at the computer at that moment, finishing a paper that was due at the university.
Not getting an answer, Yokheved reached out and touched the writer gently on the shoulder.
It was a word hardly used any more, and she raised her voice even further.
I looked at her hand as she touched him. It was smallish and freckled, the skin was delicate, and the nails were rounded. If allowed to grow a bit more, they would, it seemed, cover the fingertips like the hood of a raincoat.
The writer, shrinking back, kept silent. He went on staring, or glaring, at the plate in front of him.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Rita was preparing the repast. Avinoam helped her, whistling a soft melody he might have been making up—I could not tell. Cooking aromas already filled the room. Many conquests begin with the sense of smell, I thought to myself.
Yokheved seemed to give up trying to get a response. She went to join those in the kitchen and a few minutes later came back with Avinoam and Rita in tow. Each of them was carrying a steaming dish.
Then Rivka came into the room. Her eyes shone. She was wearing her blue dress with the full sleeves. At the opening of the collar she wore a little brooch, made from one of the stones she used to pick up in the yard and attach to pins. I knew all her clothes and her favorite jewelry. She sat down next to the writer. Still leaning over the plate, he did not look at her but seemed to shrink back a bit, as if to make room for her.
We all came to the table. Yahli joined us, greeting everyone in his cheerful way. Avinoam passed Yokheved the salad bowl. Then the writer suddenly looked up.
And there, in the dark of his eyes, I saw clearly reflected the plate he had been studying so intently. It was deep inside them, white and round. Looking back down at the table, I saw that the plate itself was still on the tablecloth but that a fine crack ran all the way across it.
During the course of the evening we talked about various things. Most of the conversation has escaped me, except for a few points. I clearly remember Avinoam speaking about signs that certain new minerals would soon make their appearance. He spoke, too, about the landscape and about earthquakes. The ancients, he said, used to think that mountains and valleys were signs of an ongoing war between the powers of fire and water. Fire raised the earth up into mountains, and water washed it down into valleys.
Rivka didn’t say much. In recent years she had spoken very little. It was hard to believe she had once been a big talker. Chatterbox, I had called her. She used to laugh a lot too. She laughed all the time, even when there was no reason to do so. She used to do a lot of touching as well. I, who had gotten to know her every gesture so well, who had registered the nuances of her touch the way a blind person’s touch is registered by a worn sheet of Braille, looked at her now almost as if from without.
Where had she met this writer? Where had she dug him up?
We drank, clinking glasses.
Avinoam hummed the melody he had begun to whistle in the kitchen.
Rivka turned to the writer. Oh, how she shone. Shyly, she asked him if he’d like to see some of her childhood photos. Her voice seemed forced and affected. The man nodded. It was a brief, laconic movement. What a flirt, I thought. And just because he’s a writer, a writer! The whole thing is so meaningless: this presumption writers have that they alone see things as they really are, and the subtle flattery exuded by everyone who meets a writer, combined inevitably with the ridiculous compulsion to confess all one’s secrets to him.
Though from where I was sitting I could see him only in profile, I imagined, from the movement of his cheek, that he was smiling. Rivka pulled a thick, brown album off the shelf and blew from it a little cloud of dust. She opened the album on his bony knees. It was only now that I realized how bony they were. His boniness suddenly struck me as a sign of asceticism meant for effect. The writer leafed through the open album for a moment and then shut his eyes. Without opening them, he went on turning the pages.
Aha, I said to myself, aha.
With his eyes closed, the writer took a deep breath. So did I.
For no apparent reason, Yokheved began to giggle. She tried to stifle her laughter, covering her mouth with a little embroidered handkerchief. Perhaps under the table Avinoam had touched her with his hand or foot.
Yahli, sitting on the other side of the table, started to talk about the work he was doing. In the course of investigating something else, he said, he had been surprised to discover a connection between the words chalom—dream—and Chelm.
“For many years, I did not realize”—said Yahli now—“that this town of fools, of ‘wise men,’ which I had so loved to read about as a child, was a real place. I was stunned to find it out. In fact, the Chelm of the stories can still be found on maps, although its inhabitants are gone, wiped out. And the language they spoke has been extirpated and replaced by another tongue. The town remains standing, like a picture-frame that has been emptied and then filled with a completely different picture. To be sure, with the passage of time there is some turnover of population and language everywhere, but in this case it happened in a completely ‘abnormal’ way, from one day to the next. The logical order of things was overturned, and everyday reality turned out to be an illusion or fantasy. It was the essence of the absurd. Chelm was a prophecy that, in jocular fashion, foretold its own terrible demise. The ‘wisdom’ of Chelm lost its quotation marks. What to some of us had seemed dubious turned out to be the reality. The fools of Chelm could also be called ‘the simple ones,’ like the ‘simple’ son in the Haggada. The simple son is the only wise one.”
He pointed to two separate passages in the Hebrew Encyclopedia beginning with the letter chet:
Chelm. A town in Poland, east of Lublin. It had Jewish inhabitants as early as the 13th century. In recent times, the majority of the population was Jewish. The story of the famous golem was originally attributed to Eliyahu Ba’al-Shem, at one time the rabbi of Chelm. The great Maharsha, too, served as a rabbi there. The town had three Jewish banks, Jewish printers, traditional charitable organizations, and a branch of Taz, the Jewish health organization. The educational institutions were traditional elementary schools, where children learned Hebrew and Polish; a Yiddish-language folkshul; a Hebrew-language Tarbut school; several yeshivot; a religious girls’ school; and Hebrew-language and Polish-language Jewish gymnasiums. Various Zionist parties were active in Chelm, as well as the anti-Zionist Agudas Yisroel and the Bund, and some of the local Jews also belonged to the Polish Communist Party. The town had a Jewish library and a Jewish sports club, and three Yiddish-language newspapers were published there. Very few of its Jews survived the Holocaust.
Chalom. Past events, even distant ones, mingle in dreams with recent events and imagery of future situations, desired or otherwise. There may also be admixtures of phenomena and places that are very far apart, very close together, or entirely imaginary. The relationship among these events does not lend itself to intellectual analysis, and the connection among the ideas they contain is not subject to logic. The contrasts and contradictions in a dream arouse neither amazement nor resistance.
Yahli pressed a finger to the side of his nose, as he always did when he was embarrassed to express an idea.
Then little dishes of fruit salad were served. And tea.
How slowly the memory of that evening comes back to me, unfolding with an almost unnatural deliberateness, like a patient counting backwards while being anesthetized for surgery.
So, for example, I remember Yokheved saying, “It has been reported that in cemeteries all over the country the dead have suddenly begun to commit suicide. From time to time—it isn’t clear just when, perhaps at night—their graves leap over the fences, one after another, and come to rest on the other side, where the suicides are always buried. It started with a few graves, and now it has spread to whole sections of the cemeteries.”
“It could be,” Yokheved added—and I now recall clearly how, as she spoke, a little bit of saliva collected at the corner of her mouth—“it could be that only now is the power inherent in death slowly coming to light. One could even imagine that in the next few hundred years airplanes and space ships will be propelled not by ordinary fuel but by the power of death, as soon as a way can be found to store it in tanks and reservoirs.”
The writer did not interrupt Yahli. Nor did he react to what Yokheved was saying. One could not tell from his expression whether he was indifferent or bored. He then apologized that he had to be on his way.
He got up, but before leaving he paused for a moment at the buffet and picked up the porcelain figurine of the girl with the flower that always stood there. He held the figurine in both hands, gazing at it in his inscrutable way, and put it back. He then quickly bowed, the way certain birds do when courting. Now, too, he seemed to be hiding, as if by bending over he could cover up his face. He held the hat in his hand.
Rivka accompanied him to the stairs. When she came back a few minutes later, she was blushing.
Rita quickly collected the dishes from the table. We all got up to help. After a few minutes, Avinoam and Yokheved got up to leave, and as he helped her into her coat, I saw him casually stroke her neck with his big hand.
And at night, Rivka slept with her back to me. Her shoulder, covered by the big shirt with baby chicks on the front, protruded from under the blanket. Who is she? Who is this woman?
I lay there with my eyes open, facing her back. I did not turn her toward me.
Since then, I’ve had trouble remembering in what order things happened. Everything started shifting, as it does when one is dizzy. After two or three days, for example, I suddenly noticed a change in the figurine. I was looking for a booklet I had put down somewhere, and my eye fell by chance on the porcelain statuette. The girl whom the writer had held in his hands was still standing in her usual place on the buffet, but instead of a single flower she now held a bouquet in her hand, a whole bouquet. It was absolutely clear that, somehow or other, that one colorful porcelain flower had been joined by several others.
And the edge of the chair in which he had sat had suddenly, without anyone touching it, been painted green.
I have said that the writer brought Rivka back to me. That isn’t quite what happened. When I thought about her as she was then, in those days when her every movement touched my heart, I was full of tenderness and longing. I can’t say I no longer felt this longing for her—I did—but it was tinged with pent-up anger.
Even when I wanted to feel her in my arms, they were now in competition with his, and I expected to see her in his embrace at any moment. I no longer reached out to touch her as I once had, when we brushed lightly against each other in the corridor. I no longer played word games with her or prepared surprises for her in unexpected places around the house, surprises that would bring smiles of wonderment to her face.
When I sniffed her clothing in the closet, it was not only that I once again hankered for her scent; I was also seeking his. I had no way of knowing what he smelled like, but from the moment I first saw him come into the house I was haunted by a single word: spy.
Yes. With his furtive, cowering walk. With his big, upturned collar, so easy to hide in, the way secret agents did in the old spy movies. With his crumpled hat, meant to give him anonymity. With his reticence, too. And with his damp, elusive handshake, which I had felt briefly when we parted company.
Also, the way he stroked the figurine seemed wily to me. And the way he stared at the plate. And the fact that not for a second did he ever make eye contact with Rivka, even though it was plain as day that she alone interested him.
A spy, I thought. The thought came back to me again and again, but the term never escaped my lips.
I kept it to myself.
Is there any point now in trying to reconstruct the sequence of events, to document each of them in precise fashion, to go into detail, describing, for example, how and when I saw Rivka for the first time, what she was wearing, what she said, what she didn’t say, what I said and didn’t say? Had there been some mistake, and if so, how and when did it happen? No, there’s no point. The events are not recorded here in sequence, nor is it the sequence that gives them meaning.
Nor is it the details.
Maybe it’s the fact that I cannot do without her, that at some point, long ago, she captured my heart. Little, she was. A bit coarse. With a tendency to chatter. Or to keep quiet. To get angry. And sometimes to scream. To say contradictory things with great conviction. To laugh, then laugh some more. To be mischievous. To lead me around our still unfurnished apartment in the dark of night. And suddenly to lie down on the floor and burst into tears.
I’m going into her room now. She’s not around. There are books here. I know she hasn’t finished reading most of them. After a sentence or even a single word, she is already talking about them. Appropriating them.
The room is neat, if not clean. She never liked cleaning. The dust here smells of her. And perhaps she smells of the dust too.
How unfeminine that sounds.
Here’s a photograph on the wall. Her father and mother. Half his body is in a cast. This was in a sanitarium in Switzerland, I think, when he came down with tuberculosis after the war. Here she is with her brother on the back of a camel by the seashore. Here she is pregnant. One of our children is taking shape inside her. And here she is hugging a dog. Kedem. Or Tzlil. How she has already projected her past onto me, to such an extent that I can now carry the weight of her life story on my back.
And how my image of her back then faded and lost its grip on me.
Until the writer showed up.
As she stood in the yard watering the plants, I went up to her. She had her finger in the mouth of the hose, spraying the various herbs: the sage, the micromeria, the lemon grass, the peppermint. The force of the stream scattered the dust, and Rivka’s slacks and blouse were splattered with mud.
Hearing my footsteps, she turned toward me. “Have you been here long?”
“A few minutes.”
I didn’t know what to say next. Should I lay it all out for her? Should I tell her how I had discovered his scent in her dresser drawers? Or how the color of her skin had changed? Or that I had heard her singing that morning as she got dressed?
“How are you?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said. That terrible word, okay.
“I’m going out to do some errands,” I said. “I’ll be going by the office. Yaakobi is supposed to give me some sort of document.”
Again, that word. And she didn’t ask when I’d be back. Nor did she tell me how she was planning to spend her morning or the rest of her day. She didn’t ask how I was. She didn’t roll with me here in the high grass under the lemon tree, laughing, groaning, biting my shoulder and my cheeks with her little teeth, reaching my lower parts, pulling out from under her back brown lemons that had fallen months before and that we had been too lazy or indifferent to clear away.
As I turned to go, I saw Hanan fly down and land on her shoulder. Hanan, who had come to us as a fledgling and was now a stouthearted bulbul. Hanan flies to her from wherever he is, as soon as she gives him a chirp.
Loneliness—which some time ago took up residence inside me—changed places with me and became an enormous house in which I lived. Lost and confused, I wandered among its empty rooms, as if the possibility of language had not yet come into the world.
I don’t know whom I thought about more, her or him. About his clipped, echoless voice. Writers, I once thought, are supposed to have vivid, warm, encompassing voices. I also focused on his brown shoes, which seemed to belong to another era. And on his bulging pants pocket that was undoubtedly stuffed with pencils and pens and a dirty handkerchief.
But she, too, was always with me. Her little-girl voice. The wrinkles of sleep on her face each morning. The sounds she made while she slept, which were neither speech nor crying nor laughter but more like chewing or suckling, the sounds an infant makes when it puts a clenched fist into its mouth, the only way it can fall asleep.
Then I discovered his address. Not in the drawers, heaven forfend. She would never leave things so open, so exposed. When I looked into her room, it was clear to me that she, too, had begun to lead a secret life. Not everything that seemed to be there by accident had, in fact, just been left there. No doubt she had deliberated long and hard about where to place each object. But I had not been left out either. Now I, too, could decipher situations and nuances. I had lost my innocence and acquired in its place a heightened awareness. When I spoke here about intelligence gathering, it was him I had in mind as a spy. But secrecy (or lies), like fashion, colloquial speech, and even taste in food, has a tendency to spread like the plague. People describe themselves as having qualities and preferences without considering that these may have come to them, at least in part, fortuitously, like a delicate spider web being spun around them.
Tastes in food and art are fleeting. One day, someone will discover the leaping hormone that disseminates behaviors and habits for limited periods of time, not only in a given room, but also in a certain family or country and sometimes all over the globe on which we ride, around and around.
She was washing as I opened her pack. I could hear a radio playing in the bathroom. Old Hebrew songs. Shoshana Damari, Shimon Yisraeli. Those larger-than-life voices she so loved but with which I personally was not always comfortable.
I undid the backpack hastily. Photocopies of midrashic texts. Three or four crumpled receipts. A small change-purse. A knit scarf in shades of orange. A little book of Gnessin short stories. And the narrow, olive-colored address book.
I quickly leafed through it. When put to the test, a person can find it in himself to be a dancer, a fighter, or a thief. On the fifth page, or maybe it was the sixth, I found his address. Surprisingly enough, his particulars were inscribed clearly, in large letters, as if there were no need to hide them.
And perhaps she had not been able to restrain herself. Perhaps the space he filled in her life was too great to be repressed and hidden.
His home was in an undistinguished neighborhood on the outskirts of town. A four-storey walkup with no elevator. I spent several days on that street, walking up and down, nosing around, the way I had done as a child when, as a member of the secret society I organized with my classmates, I practiced following suspects.
But now it was all fraught with pain. The very act of looking at his home. I could almost see Rivka going up those seven steps at the entrance, disappearing into the stair-hall. There she would no doubt press the illuminated red button, turning on the lights all up and down the stairway. Perhaps it would not even be necessary for her to ring his doorbell, because he would have given her the key.
One day I saw him coming out of the house. He was wearing that same hat, hunched over in that same furtive way. Seeing him, I froze in my tracks. There he was. Alive. Real. Not some figment of my feverish imagination. At that moment I was flooded with a shame too terrible to contain. With this man? Skinny, bent over, and pathetic. In books and movies, it is always strikingly handsome men, who, in that era before smokers were universally ostracized, would have a cigarette dangling casually from the corners of their mouths. Skinny, bent over, and pathetic. Wrinkled and ill-tempered.
I studied his comings and goings, although I could see he didn’t have a regular schedule. Sometimes he left at dawn, sometimes only in the afternoon or towards evening. But always, when he left, he would stay away for several hours.
And that morning, seeing him recede up the street, I darted into the stairhall. I bounded up all four flights of steps. There was a half-wilted potted plant beside the door. I was right. In the saucer beneath it lay the key.
His apartment was strikingly colorful and vivid, as though a rainbow had splintered into myriad shining crystals. And all about, there were her pictures. Pictures of her. Rivka, with her innumerable faces. Even some that I thought no one but me had ever known about. Asleep and awake. Yawning. Brushing her teeth. Squinting as she tried to recover some elusive memory. She, with all her faces, all her grimaces. With all the hidden nooks and crannies of her body. Here were her beauty marks too, her freckles. All of her was here, on the walls, on the shelves, in the drawers, which I opened too, once I had overcome my initial paralysis. In the trunks. In the stacked-up cartons. Jars filled with her scent, her morning scent, her evening scent. Drops of perspiration. Fluffy black curls, graying locks. Scraps of knitting. Her baby clothes, party clothes, shoes.
As I have said, I froze. And then I melted. I threw caution to the winds. Slowly, I began to examine the things around me, item by item.
And her presence was everywhere.
There was no computer in the apartment, but on the desk lay piles of different colored booklets. I began to read.
Towards evening I left his apartment. I walked quickly, in a daze, and the passersby were just a blur of indifferent moving spots. And cars. And buses with their stops.
He was the writer who was writing her life.
He wrote, and her life was formed and came into being accordingly. He was the architect and the engineer, and, without realizing it, she and all of us who lived with her had turned into the contractor who was executing his plans. I too, it turned out, was living my life according to what he wrote. Her parents, too. And her children, our children. In the booklets on the desk I found the jealousy that had been driving me crazy for weeks, my climb up the steps to the fourth floor, my leaning over to pick up the key from the saucer under the plant. My paralysis there in the apartment. My walking now in the street, dazed.
Her future, too, was inscribed there, or rather her futures, with the many directions they might take.
I shut my eyes to avoid seeing them. “No man shall see Me and live,” scripture says. It is the same with the story of a person’s life.
Again, I was at a loss as to what to do. Should I burst wildly into the house, gather her into my arms and inhale her whole body to the tips of her toes? Should I take her and run off somewhere? Should I shut myself up in my room and burst into tears? The unfaithfulness I thought I had found in her suddenly seemed secondary. I no longer knew if she was even mine. If she had ever been mine. If I had ever been mine.
Had I been able to, I would now make love to myself, so as to feel my warm skin and my breathing body, so as to know that I still existed.
Copyright © Rivka Miriam 2014. Translation copyright © Rivka Miriam 2014. Trading Places was originally published in Hebrew as Behilufin (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2008).
Rivka Miriam, one of Israel’s most prolific and admired writers, is the author of sixteen volumes of Hebrew verse as well as five volumes of fiction and prose reflections and four children’s books. She has received numerous prizes for her work, including, twice, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Creative Achievement. She is also a painter and has collaborated with musicians and dramatists in the adaptation of her poetry to the stage. Her work is pervaded by a profound and often radical Jewish spirituality. In 2010, These Mountains, a selection of her poems edited and translated into English by Linda Zisquit, was published by the Toby Press. Born in Jerusalem in 1952, Rivka Miriam grew up in a home that was a gathering place for literati who, like her mother and father, the Yiddish writer Leib Rochman, had survived the Holocaust and made their way to the Land of Israel.
Michael Swirsky (the translator) has translated into English the works of a number of well-known Hebrew authors, including S.Y. Agnon (Present at Sinai), Haim Gouri (Facing the Glass Booth), Adin Steinsaltz (Teshuvah), Ehud Luz (Wrestling with an Angel), and Aviezer Ravitzky (Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism). He is also the editor and translator of two anthologies of Hebrew poetry and prose: At the Threshold: Jewish Meditations on Death and Love Letters (with art by David Moss). He lives in Jerusalem.