By Gail Hareven
Translated from Hebrew by Ronnie Hope
At the age of 47, Rachel Shachner is a good-looking woman by any standards and a friend of friends who once sat next to her at a dinner party even insisted that she was a true beauty. “Especially her profile, you should look at her profile, she has the profile of an Assyrian sculpture,” said the friend, who, as she was some sort of artist, must have known for sure. People who have known Rachel for years agree that she is only getting better-looking, and she has even developed a personal sartorial style of her own. Leotards suit her, with that dancer’s posture of hers, and the rather transparent layers she wears over them are very becoming. Lilac is without any doubt her color, and with the large earrings she has begun to wear, you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t look like someone’s American aunt anymore. It’s absolutely unclear why she doesn’t do well with men, a real mystery. For four or five months, great hopes were pinned on a certain senior municipal official, whom she dated twice a week, or perhaps three times, but then something happened, or perhaps nothing happened, and the dates stopped, without Rachel herself being able explain how or why. One couldn’t even curse the man, or console her for his nastiness, or find a moral, because the way she told it didn’t have any concrete narrative to it. Perhaps this is the problem. This hovering, this flat voice that complains dispassionately, this lack of grip that could be construed as indifference. Altogether, perhaps it would do her good to sink into some serious misery. Let her fall. Let her suffer. Let her shatter, good and proper. Perhaps what she really needs is to go to one of those group-dynamics weekends where they’ll yell at her, humiliate her a little, rip off her masks, where she’ll cry like a mensch, until she learns to yell back. Let her try it. Before her birthday, a friend even suggested giving her a weekend like that for a present but in the end they bought her a miniature palm in a copper pot. In the evening, when they take her to a restaurant, they’ll present it to her, and accompany the presentation with a funny story full of little gripes about everyone who signed the card, but not about Rachel, not by any means. Rachel never knew about these plans, but she did know to leave the evening free, as if it wasn’t free anyway.
The first call, that woke her up, was from her parents. Then came more birthday calls, after which she did something unusual: On the spur of the moment, she called her office, in the municipal education department, and said she was unable to come in and yes, of course, she would be in tomorrow as usual. After that she rinsed her other coffee mug, the special one, looked in the mirror at her jet black-dyed curls, tied an Indian scarf around her neck, donned her outsize sunglasses, and drove to the zoo in Ramat Gan. It wasn’t the screeches of the neighbors’ pet parrots that gave her the idea, nor was it the sudden glimpse of the light blue sky through the kitchen window, or the sunlight on the building across the road, or the smell of laundry softener in the air. She got the idea to visit the zoo from a copy of Cosmopolitan that she had leafed through two years before, in the plane coming back from an organized group trip to Greece. “Why don’t you surprise yourself, take a morning off, and go for a walk in the zoo?” asked the writer. “Why don’t you have a glass of white wine while lying in a bubble bath? Why don’t you buy yourself a harmonica, or a balloon?” There were twenty questions like that, and out of all of them it was just the suggestion to go to the zoo that stuck in her mind. White wine only gives her a headache; she is a shower person who only takes baths occasionally, when she’s bored by the programs on television and for some reason she can’t fall asleep, after all one has to get some sleep, because one has got to get up and go to work in the morning. Don’t conclude from this that Rachel took Cosmopolitan and its advice columns seriously. She has a BA in literature, she has done a year toward a master’s in education and three or four times a year she goes to hear lectures at educational weekends held at hotels in different parts of the country, summarizing them in her notebook, so she absolutely was aware that the suggestion of going to the zoo was ridiculous, only it occurred to her that by doing something ridiculous some sort of happiness might come her way.
From a young age Rachel has known she can’t tell a story. She’d begin to tell something, but the story would begin stammering and get lost, come back into her head, to the place where it began, perhaps, and then get lost again and slide away to look for another beginning, until a hand from above patted her on the head, signaling the end, and her little sister was already interrupting. She has never learned how to begin or how to hold on to a story line, all the details seem just as important and as pointless as each other and she was astonished by other people’s ability to relate narratives, like all talents that are in the realm of the miraculous. As lacking in narrative skill as she was, Rachel still knew that “This morning I canceled everything, I called the office to say I’m not coming and … Guess what I did? I went to the zoo” would be a good opening. How she would go on, she didn’t yet know, but perhaps that evening she would tell her friends at the restaurant – they hadn’t yet said which one.
In the big parking lot there were only a few cars, and Rachel parked her Mini Minor right in front of the zoo gate, next to a bus that was unloading school kids. One of them, a crew-cut blond-haired boy without eyelashes stuck his tongue out at her when she walked past them, and perhaps he also added a gesture or a word. She heard raucous laughing behind her back. Where were the adults? One teacher was in the bus, another at the ticket office and there was no one to stop the kids. As she went through the gate, she rearranged her scarf around her neck, touched her earrings and hurried inside.
Yossi, her senior municipal official, once took part in a long study day about museums where he learned something interesting: Most people when they enter a museum, automatically turn right and select an anti-clockwise route. The same goes for zoos. The flock of kids, who in the meantime had been handed work sheets, turned right towards the small predatory mammals, Rachel turned left and began with the birds, but not before she chose herself a balloon, choosing deliberately, without turning her head towards the flock swarming in behind her. She ruled out the Disney-character balloons, which were too expensive and too childish, and picked out a not-too-large helium balloon with a purple and gold zigzag pattern.
There was no one else in the tropical bird aviary and the air inside was damp and pleasantly warm. Even when she stood on the wooden bridge over the pond of green water, the balloon at the end of the taut string was far from the glass ceiling. A water turtle swam deftly under a moist leaf, and in the sunlight a Chinese Mandarin duck shone like a piece of magnificent ancient jewelry. Birds and ferns, ferns and birds. Pheasants and birds of paradise make you think – about what? About distant islands, about ships and sailors, about royal dynasties and private menageries, wide lawns with beautiful birds scampering around, avoiding the hooves of a galloping white stallion. She wanted to stay with these pleasant thoughts, but they soon extinguished themselves. She wound the string of the balloon around her wrist and her legs carried her away from the bridge even before her mind had decided to carry on walking.
Perhaps later, on one of the paths, a pretty black-haired little girl would come toward her, and Rachel, without saying anything, would give her the balloon and then walk away. Years later, perhaps the girl would recall the figure of a woman draped in diaphanous attire, who picked her out to give her a balloon, and who knows if that moment of choice would affect the life of the little girl, the way she saw the world, and also the way she saw herself, which as is well known is a very important thing, because everything depends on self-perception, really everything. From a distance, from the fence of the elephants’ cage, on which he was leaning as he filled his pipe, a man of about fifty would observe the scene, a man who had known suffering but nevertheless had laugh lines around his eyes. The hand holding the lighter would freeze for a moment above the bowl of the pipe, and a pretty picture of a woman and a little girl would be engraved upon his heart. Two months later, when he met Rachel Shachner, he would recognize her, but she wouldn’t recognize him, because she hadn’t even seen him.
Parrots, apparently hungry ones, screeched at her as walked past their cages, evil screeches, like maledictions. The bears hid in their lairs and after she had read all of the information on the wooden bear-shaped sign – pity there wasn’t more information in the leaflet – she thought that the fresh air was making her hungry too, and another cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt.
The plastic chairs at the kiosk next to the artificial lake were damp from dew and when she put her tray on the table she needed a few paper napkins to wipe off the chair and a place for her elbows. The espresso machine wasn’t working but the cockeyed owner offered her mint to put in her tea, and the aromatic vapors were very pleasant. The pennants around the pergola flapped an irregular rhythm in the wind. Apes with long arms swung around in the branches of a tree planted on an island in the middle of the lake, and a fat man in khaki camouflage clothing was kneeling down at the entrance, trying to fix a toy lion that wouldn’t leap up when coins were inserted in his slot.
Even a yellow-cheese and margarine sandwich can be tasty when the roll is fresh and it is eaten outside, in the morning air. She tied the balloon to the back of her chair and thought: Just imagine, there’s a place here, near Tel Aviv, where you can have a coffee next to a lake, with white swans and black coots floating right close up to you to snatch at crumbs. So why is it that people don’t come? The trouble is that we are all captives to thought patterns, locked into them and it is rare for anyone to do something original. That evening, perhaps she would tell her friends. Or perhaps not. She would keep her little secret, and only by the sight of her face, caressed by the winter sun would they guess that she’d enjoyed a secret delight.
It’s nice to sit like this in the sun. Very nice. The mind clear of thoughts, eyelids closed, with circles of all the colors of the rainbow dancing behind them, and the possibility that with the delicate rays of the sun a new happiness would come down upon her, pierce her soul and spread. True happiness stretches the soul to contain it and the light that pours down must awaken hidden lights beneath, and the rising light touches the light from above so that a new human being, a new woman is born, bathed in the light. And even if she did not proceed in this light, which by its nature is only a moment of grace and no more, the recollection of the sudden happiness that pierced her soul would be visible in her gait, visible in her glance, visible in the movement of her hands and people would look over their shoulders at her and unknowingly wonder at the radiance in this woman. There are people who shine like that, there are people like that in the world, in all kinds of places, here too, why not here – there has to be happiness like that, there has to be happiness nearby, it is possible that happiness can come to a woman who is opening up next to the lake in the zoo, even now it would come, now it would come, why shouldn’t it come now?
Something moved inside her and Rachel heard her stomach groan. Then nothing but a flutter of wings on the water, far-off children’s voices, animal screeches, a monkey perhaps or a peacock. In her childhood she dreamed of living by the sea, knowing all its shades of blue and all of its movements, and in a quiet voice forecasting a calm sea by the ring around the moon too; but now here she was and it is not every day that a woman sits like this free of all nuisances, free of petty things, emptying out her inner self, and even if there is no other deeply felt experience the very act of emptying oneself is a really deeply felt experience and there is no way that it wouldn’t leave its mark on her, leave something. She waited a little, and a moment before she opened her eyes she was still hoping she would see new colors against the background of a new blue in the sky.
The kiosk owner, who until that minute had been piling sandwiches into a pyramid on the counter, turned around to turn on the radio, but because he was not only cockeyed but also myopic, he had not looked at her before either. So he did not see how the woman arose, a little stiffly, from the chair, untied the balloon and with a ceremonious gesture sent it soaring into the air, gazing at it as it traveled without rising, toward the monkey’s tree.
The fat man in khaki was not there when she left the kiosk area, but the smiling lion had been fixed and it was moving up and down in its place, slowing gradually, and then stopped.
“You won’t believe how I celebrated this morning,” said Rachel Shachner to her friends straight after the waitress collected the menus.
“Shut up for a sec, you dopes, Rachel is telling us something …” Painted mouths, mouths sucking in smoke, mouths ready to start chewing closed demonstratively, but there were a lot of fingers mingling on the table, creeping to tear off a piece of pita bread, crushing a plastic flower, crushing a cigarette butt, stained red, in an ashtray.
“I decided that I wasn’t going to work, and instead I surprised myself and went to the zoo. In Ramat Gan.”
A few glances were exchanged, a few eyebrows were raised in anticipation as Rachel, straightening the napkin on her lap, went on in a fading voice. “It was great. It’s really nice there in the morning, and it’s empty. Completely empty. You should try it sometime …” Why had she abandoned the diaphanous lilac and this night of all nights picked the stiff polka dotted dress? In the candlelight, her black hair looked like a helmet plunked onto her head and it darkened her facial features and blurred the profile of the Assyrian sculpture with its sealed lips and its eyes closed for a few seconds too long.
The husband of one of her friends leaned forward, quick to cover up for her, and told a moderately funny joke about monkeys.
Copyright © 1997 Gail Hareven. English translation copyright © 2010 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Gail Hareven is a writer and columnist who was born in Jerusalem in 1959. She studied behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Talmud and Jewish philosophy at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Hareven has written widely on politics and feminist issues; she has been a columnist for Maariv, Hadashot, the Jerusalem Report and Lady Globes; she also writes book reviews for the Hebrew press. In addition, Hareven teaches feminist theory, gives writing workshops and lectures on a variety of socio-cultural topics. In 2006, she was visiting professor at the University of Illinois. Hareven has published six novels, three collections of short stories, two non-fiction books, two children’s books and four plays, all of which have been staged. In 2002, she received the prestigious Sapir Prize for her novel, The Confessions of Noa Weber.