Yaacov Markovitch wasn’t ugly. Which is not to say he was handsome. Little girls didn’t burst into tears at the sight of him, but neither did they smile when they saw his face. He was, you might say, gloriously average. Moreover, Yaacov Markovitch’s face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much so that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onward to other objects. A tree on the street. A cat in the corner. It required an enormous effort to keep looking at the barrenness of Yaacov Markovitch’s face. People do not enjoy making enormous efforts, and so they only rarely looked at his face for any length of time. This had its advantages, and the unit commander was aware of them. He looked at Yaacov Markovitch’s face for exactly the amount of time he needed, then dropped his gaze. You will smuggle weapons, the unit commander said. With that face, no one will notice. And he was right. Yaacov Markovitch probably smuggled more weapons than any other member of the Irgun, and never came close to being caught. The British soldiers’ gaze slid over his face like oil on a gun. If the Irgun members valued Yaacov Markovitch for his daring, he didn’t know it. Few spoke to him.
When he wasn’t smuggling weapons, he worked in the field. In the evening, he sat in the yard and fed leftover bread to the pigeons. Very quickly, a flock took to gathering there regularly, eating from his hands and perching on his shoulder. The village children would have laughed if they had seen that, but no one passed by the stone fence. At night, he read from the writings of Jabotinsky. Once a month, he went to Haifa and paid a woman to sleep with him. Sometimes it was the same woman, sometimes a different one. He didn’t dwell on her face and she didn’t dwell on his.
Yaacov Markovitch had one friend. Zeev Feinberg was, first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”. Everyone laughed, but Zeev Feinberg laughed harder than any of them. And when he laughed, his mustache shook above his upper lip, it jiggled and wobbled, as happy as its owner had been between that girl’s thighs. It was clear that Zeev Feinberg was not born to smuggle weapons; his mustache preceded him like a pair of marching black exclamation marks. You had to be blind and stupid not to see him. And while the British were indeed stupid, it would be too optimistic to assume they were blind as well. But though he could not smuggle weapons in, Zeev Feinberg knew quite well how to drive Arabs out, and he spent many nights patrolling the village.
Few were the nights that Zeev Feinberg spent alone. When it became known that it was his night to stand guard, a group would immediately gather. Some wanted to hear about the adventures of his mustache between women’s thighs, others wanted to talk about the political situation and the damn Germans, and still others simply wanted his advice on raising cattle, weeding fields and extracting wisdom teeth—some of the areas in which Zeev Feinberg considered himself an expert. Girls would come as well. Though Zeev Feinberg was a loyal guard, his finger always on the trigger, it was nonetheless important to remember that God gave men ten fingers, and not for nothing. The fragrance of fields after rain, a smidgen of danger—a rustling there, an Arab or a wild boar—and the moans could sometimes carry all the way to the walls of the houses. Sometimes Yaacov Markovitch would join them, carrying his worn copy of Jabotinsky’s writings under his armpit, the smell of sweat rising from its pages. Zeev Feinberg welcomed him happily, as he did everyone else. He was so used to the company of people that he didn’t know how to be unsociable, even if he had wanted to. He didn’t really even hate the British, and when he killed someone, he did so reluctantly, albeit with great efficiency. The first time they spoke was when Yaacov Markovitch returned in the middle of the night from a journey to Haifa.
“Halt,” Zeev Feinberg thundered at him in the darkness. “Who are you and where do you come from?”
Yaacov Markovitch felt his legs tremble but answered in a steady voice, “I am Yaacov Markovitch, I was with a woman.”
Zeev Feinberg’s laughter woke the chickens in the coop. When they sat down together he continued to ask questions, and Yaacov Markovitch replied eagerly. He talked about the woman’s nipples, which were extremely nice, and agreed to describe in detail her rear end and her legs without demanding even one lira from Zeev Feinberg for the information that had cost him half his weekly wage.
In the end, Zeev Feinberg leaned towards Yaacov Markovitch and asked, “Tell me, how wet was she down there?”
Zeev Feinberg’s mustache tickled Yaacov Markovitch’s cheek, but he didn’t dare move. No one had ever looked at his face for such a long period of time.
Finally, realizing that he could hesitate no longer, he replied, “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” Zeev Feinberg’s mustache whipped Yaacov Markovitch, pushing him backwards. His blue eyes gaped with such great shock that they almost swallowed up Yaacov Markovitch, together with the writings of Jabotinsky. “I mean her vagina, comrade. How wet was her vagina?” The very sound of the word made Yaacov Markovitch dizzy, and he sat down on a rock. Zeev Feinberg sat down beside him. “You do realize, I hope, that there can be different degrees of wetness? There are moist ones and there are wet ones, and there are the ones that—aie aie aie—you can drown in, like in the Black Sea. It depends, of course, on the woman’s nutrition and the weather, but mostly on the passion between the man and the woman.” Then Zeev Feinberg asked again how wet she was there, and Yaacov Markovitch had to admit that he hadn’t noticed even a tiny bit of dampness. “Nothing?”
“Nothing. Dry as the fields at the end of August.”
Now Zeev Feinberg was silent for a while, and then finally said, “In a case like that, comrade, I suggest that you find out whether she has other men. You’re probably familiar with the law of the preservation of matter. The body of a person contains a limited amount of liquid, and I suspect, my friend, that your woman there in Haifa is using hers up in the presence of another man.”
Yaacov Markovitch breathed a sigh of relief and declared that it was all clear to him now: the woman in Haifa had said that he was the fourth one that night, and, based on his knowledge of the law of the preservation of matter, it was indeed logical not to find water there. Zeev Feinberg burst out laughing and Yaacov Markovitch had to join in. He didn’t know what he was laughing about, nor did he wish to know. It was so pleasant to laugh beside that man whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country. If there had been any mockery in Zeev Feinberg’s laughter, it faded immediately, while the laughter went on for a long time. He laughed and laughed, until a small stain appeared at his crotch, and when he saw it he laughed even harder. From that night on, Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg were friends.
Yaacov Markovitch saved Zeev Feinberg’s life twice, both times on the same night. Back from one of his trips to Haifa, he was hurrying to the guard post because for the first time in his life he had seen two breasts that were not the same size. Still wondering what Zeev Feinberg would say about that, he saw a young Arab crouched in the bushes, the barrel of his rifle aimed at a moving mass, apparently Zeev Feinberg astride a woman. It’s tempting to say that Yaacov Markovitch didn’t hesitate. But until that night he had only smuggled weapons and, except for having smashed the heads of rats that destroyed the crops, he had never killed a living creature. Nonetheless, he overcame the trembling in his legs, gingerly picked up a smooth white stone, and in one strong blow smashed the Arab’s head. A shot pierced the darkness and Yaacov Markovitch’s eardrum. He ran his hands over his body to see whether he’d been hit, and found that this time Zeev Feinberg’s pistol had missed. “It’s me,” he shouted, “don’t shoot!”
Zeev Feinberg’s mumbled thank-yous were lost in the stream of vomit. One look at the Arab lying on the ground, and Yaacov Markovitch’s stomach overflowed. The Arab’s blood glistened in the moonlight and his exposed brain tissue horrified Yaacov Markovitch. The crickets, in any case, continued to chirp. Yaacov Markovitch closed his eyes in despair, slammed the doors of his mind before the images of the Arab and his spilt brain, and clung as tightly as he could to the breasts of the woman from Haifa. When he opened his eyes, he saw a different pair of breasts before him, remarkably symmetrical. Rachel Mandelbaum, half naked, stood shaking beside Zeev Feinberg. She had been so stunned that she forgot to cover herself, and now appeared before him in all her glory, weeping at the sight of the Arab’s corpse. When he looked at Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts, Yaacov Markovitch’s penis stiffened. The stiffer it got, the weaker his mind became, until it completely let go of the image of the crushed Arab. The realization slowly penetrated his mind that he was staring at the breasts of Rachel Mandelbaum, even though he was absolutely not Avraham Mandelbaum. That realization caused Yaacov Markovitch to stop looking at Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts and, turning to Zeev Feinberg, he said, “Avraham will kill you.”
Those in the know and the uninformed were divided on the question of how many people Avraham Mandelbaum had killed. Some said ten, others fifteen. Still others spoke dismissively about the exaggerations, stating firmly that it was no more than four. They finally compromised on a typological number: seven. Although everyone assumed that they were talking about Arabs, one Englishman at the most, none could swear to it. Flies thought twice before approaching Avraham Mandelbaum. Cats did not rub against his legs. If there had been a guillotine in the village, Avraham would have been chosen to operate it. Since there wasn’t, he was forced to settle for the job of ritual slaughterer. Only a few knew that at night he cried in his sleep, mumbling Polish words of longing, muttering mysterious phrases about a white lamb, a sugared apple, malicious children. Rachel Mandelbaum heard and understood, and got quietly out of bed. She had got off the ship quietly too, five years earlier. She had stood silently in the Haifa port, waiting for something to happen. She had exhausted all her resourcefulness in order to survive the journey to Palestine, and now that she had arrived, she no longer had the strength for anything else but to stand and wait. She didn’t wait long. After half an hour, Avraham Mandelbaum went up to her and introduced himself. He bought her a fruit drink at a kiosk and took her to his house. Rachel Mandelbaum followed him like a duckling newly hatched at the gates to the port, trailing after the first thing it sees.
Later, she asked herself what he had been doing at the port on the day the ship arrived. He hadn’t been carrying anything and hadn’t bought anything the entire time he was with her that day. He had no relatives, so Rachel Mandelbaum assumed that he hadn’t gone there to welcome anyone. That’s where she was wrong. Every few weeks, Avraham Mandelbaum went to the port to see the ships come in. When the hunger is great enough, anticipation alone can go a long way to filling the emptiness in your stomach. Avraham Mandelbaum would watch the people getting off the boat, their faces greenish, their limbs pale, and try to identify a familiar feature. After a while, they would disperse and Avraham Mandelbaum would return home. The day he saw Rachel, he knew right away, but waited thirty tormenting minutes to be sure. No one came. She didn’t take a step. In her green dress she looked to him like a bottle that had been thrown out to sea and washed up on the shore, and he, the lonely survivor, would pick it up and read what was inside it. He took her home and married her, but he never succeeded in deciphering the words that were in the bottle.
Rachel Mandelbaum, formerly Kenzelfuld, took off her green dress and made it into a curtain. From her red ball gown she made two tablecloths and a pillowcase. Five months from the day she’d got off the boat, almost nothing was left of the city girl. The whole house was full of memorials to her former life, and they faded, they unraveled, until it seemed as if those pieces of cloth had always been here, in Palestine. The other women observed her with a combination of admiration and puzzlement. On the one hand, it was definitely good to see how well she blended in, not like those pampered young women who came there thinking they were at a holiday resort near Zurich. On the other hand, they wondered at how serenely she turned the most fashionable items into curtains, God help us, how, in her hands, the crème de la crème of Vienna became a towel in her husband’s butcher’s shop. Rachel Kenzelfuld also abandoned the German language. The moment her foot trod the ground of the Haifa port, she swore to speak only Hebrew. When she didn’t know a word, she chose to be silent, even if the person she was talking to also spoke German. When officials from the leadership came to visit, one of them got wind of the fact that the beautiful woman in the butcher’s shop doorway had also been born in Austria. He immediately showered her with an emotional stream of words, to which she responded with a mute stare. Rachel entrenched herself in silence and the embarrassed entourage hurried away. The women, who had learned to like the serious young girl, were quick to praise her devotion to the Hebrew language. The story of the impudent new immigrant who had taught the official the “Jews speak Hebrew” lesson spread rapidly, and many people greeted Rachel in the street. She returned the greeting with a slight accent. Her true reasons remained hidden, perhaps even from her. With some profound inner sense, she knew that if she allowed even the smallest crack, the mourning for her previous life would rise up and flood the entire country. The dresses, the balls, the light reflecting off cobblestoned streets, the snowflakes—all those were locked securely behind bars. One look back and, like Eurydice, she would stumble all the way down to the sweet, the oh-so-sweet European Hades.
During the day Rachel Mandelbaum helped her husband in the butcher’s shop, the blood wafting around her like perfume. At night she sat in bed and knitted very tightly, to keep even one thought about the past from infiltrating into the present. But once a month she put down the knitting needles and slipped quietly out of bed. Avraham Mandelbaum muttered in sleepy Polish and Rachel stroked his head with a practiced hand and went outside. Outside: Palestine is asleep. The ground is breathing heavily, its breath fragrant with the scent of earth and hay and orchards. And waiting for her out there is Zeev Feinberg. She closes her eyes and he kisses her neck. His mustache scratches her delicate, translucent skin. But Rachel doesn’t move her neck away. Just the opposite: she rubs against the stiff hair again and again. And from beyond the orchards, the straw, the port, the great ocean, a memory comes to her of an Austrian soldier’s beard, Johann was his name, and the smell of wine that rose from his lips as they kissed her, and the blood in her veins as he spun her in a never-ending Viennese waltz. At those moments, Rachel Mandelbaum’s eyes grow moist, and so does her vagina.
On the night Yaacov Markovitch crushed the Arab’s head, Rachel Mandelbaum’s eyes hadn’t had time to grow moist. Several moments earlier, Zeev Feinberg had taken off her blouse and hurriedly thrust his face between her breasts. The Austrian soldier, Johann, had never managed to visit between her breasts, so the touch of Zeev Feinberg’s mustache there did not arouse any feeling in her except for, perhaps, a slight stinging. Rachel Mandelbaum wondered whether it was appropriate to move Zeev Feinberg’s head from her breasts to her neck, but before she had time to come to a decision she heard the sickening sound of a skull being crushed. Rachel knew that sound very well. Despite its infrequent occurrence, from the moment your ear absorbs it there can be no mistaking it ever again. One clear night in Vienna, as she walked from her home to the café in the square, Rachel Kenzelfuld saw three boys pushing an old Jew. They passed him from one to the other as if he were a ball, and Rachel was shocked to see the expression of innocent pleasure on their faces, an expression so typical of children at play. Then one of them pushed the old man clumsily, and he stumbled and fell on the sidewalk, smashing his head on the curbstone. The Jew was no longer a game, but only a broken toy, a ball emptied of air. The boys looked at him in alarm. Several moments later, one of the boys swallowed his saliva and said, “Let’s go. We’ll find another one.” They went on their way and she on hers. A week later, she boarded the ship. At night, when her stomach was on the verge of bursting from nausea and longing, she remembered the noise of the shattering skull.
When Yaacov Markovitch said, “Avraham will kill you” to Zeev Feinberg, Rachel Mandelbaum understood that she was standing bare-breasted in front of Yaacov Markovitch. A quick glance at his face was enough to see that Yaacov Markovitch did not even have the shadow of a mustache, so Rachel Mandelbaum found nothing to justify her nakedness. She covered herself quickly, upset by the thought that now three men in the village knew the mole she had above her right breast. If she had understood Yaacov Markovitch’s train of thought, she might not have been upset. Compared to the asymmetrical breasts of the woman from Haifa, Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts were a divine creation, and Yaacov Markovitch decided that they definitely merited the sacrifice of a slaughtered Arab. Nonetheless, he thought, a slaughtered Arab is more than enough, and there was no need for the additional sacrifice of Zeev Feinberg, who had finally stopped thanking Yaacov Markovitch and was now cursing like a Russian sailor.
“Idiot, imbecile, damn the bitch that gave birth to you.” At first Yaacov Markovitch thought that Zeev Feinberg was talking to the Arab, but when he began to tear out the hair of his mustache with his bear-sized hand, he realized that he was cursing himself. “Thirty men will be here within three minutes, and that still won’t be enough to pry Avraham Mandelbaum’s hands off my throat. Aaah, you suckling pig, today you go to the slaughter.” Zeev Feinberg resumed tearing out his mustache and Yaacov Markovitch felt as if a wonder of the world was being destroyed right before his eyes, as if he were watching the conflagration of the library in Alexandria.
“Leave your mustache alone,” he roared, frightened by the sound of his voice, “we’ll face him together.”
Zeev Feinberg finally let go of his mustache, to the relief of Yaacov Markovitch and Rachel Mandelbaum. The terror on his face was replaced by an expression that, from a certain angle, looked like scorn. He was a head taller than Yaacov Markovitch, and almost twice as wide. Yaacov Markovitch’s seventy-eight kilograms would not win that battle, which had actually ended before it began. Yaacov Markovitch saw that expression and bitterness filled his heart. In the distance, they heard the voices of men who had been startled from their sleep by the sound of the shot. Avraham Mandelbaum was undoubtedly leading the pack.
“Run,” Yaacov Markovitch roared. Zeev Feinberg remained where he was. “I’ll say that I came back from Haifa and saw the Arab attacking Rachel. You were patrolling the northern fields at the time, heard shouting and fired into the air. Now go, go!” Under his mustache, Zeev Feinberg’s lips opened in shock. It didn’t take long for him to leap onto his horse and gallop off. Rachel Mandelbaum looked at Yaacov Markovitch as if she were seeing him for the first time. Lofty words in German came into her mind, but she didn’t know their Hebrew form, so she remained silent. And perhaps that was a good thing. It was not for her that Yaacov Markovitch had dared to put himself in so much danger. Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts might be round and lovely, but Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was one of a kind. It was the only mustache that rose in a welcoming smile whenever Yaacov Markovitch appeared.
The men surrounded Yaacov Markovitch in a semicircle. He had never been looked at by so many eyes at the same time. He repeated his story for the second time, glancing at Rachel every few sentences for confirmation. Her nods seemed excessive to him, and he was afraid they would be damaging to them. A man doesn’t shout in the streets that two and two are four when saying it quietly is enough, but Rachel’s head was going up and down with almost religious fervor. Avraham Mandelbaurn noticed it too. He thought that the flush on his wife’s cheeks was too bright, and even though he couldn’t distinguish between cheeks colored pink by grievance and cheeks colored pink by pleasure, her lips were too swollen, the way they were during intercourse. When Zeev Feinberg finally arrived astride his horse, Avraham Mandelbaum’s eyebrows contracted like two black goats pressing together in the cold night air.
“You took a long time getting here,” one of the men noted.
“I circled the fields to see if there are others there.”
Murmurs of agreement rose from the crowd and Yaacov Markovitch finally allowed himself to exhale normally.
“And you,” Avraham Mandelbaum said to his wife, “what were you thinking when you went out wandering at this hour?”
Rachel Mandelbaum lowered her gaze to the ground and said, “Insomnia.”
The moon reappeared through the clouds, illuminating Rachel Mandelbaum like a spotlight on a stage. She was so fragile, with her downcast eyes and torn nightgown, that not a man there didn’t want to take her in his arms and protect her in his bed, and if it hadn’t been for Avraham Mandelbaum, they would most likely have done so. Avraham Mandelbaum was the only man who didn’t look at his wife, but kept his eyes on Zeev Feinberg’s fly, which was gaping like a mouth open in a scream. Zeev Feinberg, wiping away a tear of sympathy for Rachel Mandelbaum’s pain, saw her husband staring at his crotch and quickly zipped up.
“I’m a little embarrassed to say that when I heard the shot, I was about to pee for the sixth time tonight. That’s how it is, when there’s no one to talk to, you keep your mouth busy drinking. I spend whole nights like this, drinking and peeing, drinking and peeing.”
The men burst out laughing, Rachel Mandelbaum smiled politely. Avraham Mandelbaum was silent.
A day later, around 7:30, someone pounded on Yaacov Markovitch’s door. Zeev Feinberg stood in the doorway. “Pack quickly. He found out.” On their way to Tel Aviv, as the clattering of the train drowned out the growling of Yaacov Markovitch’s stomach (breakfast in his house was out of the question), Zeev Feinberg told him what had happened. “In the morning, Avraham Mandelbaum decided to have sex with his wife. He removed her nightgown and saw a terrible rash on her chest. An allergic reaction to the friction of the mustache rubbing against the delicate skin she had there. Aie aie aie, such beautiful skin! Pure milk. Except for the mole. You saw the mole?” Yaacov Markovitch said that he hadn’t seen a mole, but would be happy to learn how Zeev Feinberg had been saved from the slaughterer’s knife. “That’s just it, he couldn’t decide which knife to use. It took him five minutes to choose the right one, enough time for Rachel to run to my Sonya and tell her to warn us. Except that Sonya isn’t like Avraham Mandelbaum, she’s a lot less picky.” Zeev Feinberg lifted his shirt and showed Yaacov Markovitch five long, bloody scratches. “My God, that woman has the strength of ten men.” Yaacov Markovitch nodded appraisingly. Zeev Feinberg began to compare Sonya to a series of mammals, from wolf to hyena, but Yaacov Markovitch simply stared enviously at the five bleeding canals that had been dug in Zeev Feinberg’s chest. “For a woman to feel that much for you, that’s something I never thought was possible.” At that moment Zeev Feinberg stopped talking about the wild bitch that had given birth to Sonya and nodded. “She has a heart the size of a dove, and a vagina of sweet water.” Here Zeev Feinberg launched into a detailed description of Sonya’s vagina, its sweetness, its pinkness, and the warm, cheerful moistness with which it welcomed him. “And she may not have breasts like Rachel, but she can make you laugh until your balls twist themselves around each other.” At that point Zeev Feinberg burst into such roaring laughter that the train accelerated, and he finally sighed and said, “When we go back, I’ll marry her. Really and truly.”
Zeev Feinberg’s eyes were full of purpose, and Yaacov Markovitch almost believed him. Then he dropped his gaze from Zeev Feinberg’s eyes to his mustache, remembering how it curled when, from the corner of his eye, he saw a woman smile, how it quivered like a cat’s delicate whiskers did when a mouse drew near. And he also remembered the cat that waited at the butcher’s shop door for Rachel Mandelbaum's generous handouts. It was sated and fat, but nonetheless tormented an injured bird that happened to cross its path, not for the sake of the hunt, but out of habit. Zeev Feinberg was a true revolutionary. A Communist in every sense of the word. He distributed his love equally, showing no preference for one woman over another. “I’ll marry her,” Zeev Feinberg repeated, and also slapped his thigh with his hand, as if declaring the matter closed, “This time I’ll marry her.”
When the train entered Tel Aviv, Zeev Feinberg was regaling Yaacov Markovitch with a detailed description of the wedding banquet, where herring, sweet challah and pot roast had already been served. Yaacov Markovitch ate with his ears, but they apparently led to someone else’s stomach. His own stomach had been empty for several hours now. Finally, he dared to stop Zeev Feinberg and ask where they were going and if there was food there.
“We’re going to see Froike,” Zeev Feinberg said, “and if I know him, you won’t leave hungry.”
Yaacov Markovitch froze. “You mean the deputy commander of the Irgun?”
“The one and only.”
“How do you know him?”
Yaacov Markovitch’s squad commander had spoken about the deputy with awe, and he himself had never dared to even dream of a meeting with that man who, as far as he knew, was ready to swallow a grenade and eject it from his anus if it would help save the country.
“We came on the ship together,” Zeev Feinberg said, and kept walking.
But there was, of course, more to it. Four hundred other people had arrived on that ship, but none of them had formed the kind of relationship that Zeev Feinberg and the future deputy commander of Irgun had. They shared a love of women, jokes and chess, which, although common to many other people, was rarely as powerful. Since the ship was small—some fifty single women, close to thirty good jokes and one chess set—they decided to leave behind their European possessiveness and divide everything equally. They retained their previous fanaticism about only one thing: winning. When the ship reached the shores of the country, the two men were engrossed in a stormy game of chess. When Zeev Feinberg heard the captain’s cry, he put his bishop down on the board and stood up. The future deputy commander of the Irgun gave him a deadly look. A razor had not touched his face since he left Europe, and now he looked again like the yeshiva boy he had once been, except that his eyes said that he had already sampled the taste of sin and he was not sated. “He who begins a good deed must complete it,” he admonished Zeev Feinberg, “We’ve waited 2,000 years, we can wait another fifteen minutes.” Surrounded by the tumult of boats being lowered into the water, the two men continued to play. Neither looked at his watch. Those two men had already tasted so many sweet mouths that neither was especially anxious to run his tongue over the earth of the Holy Land. When twenty more minutes had passed, the captain burst into the room. “If the British catch you, you’ll be able to play chess all the way back to Europe!” The future deputy commander of the Irgun seemed to be seriously weighing the possibility. Finally, he relented and said, “I hope you can swim with one hand, Feinberg, because with the other, you’ll be holding your pieces.”
With bursting rucksacks on their backs and chess pieces in their hands, they hurried to the deck. Each held his own pieces, repeating to himself over and over again their positions on the board. Then the captain told them to help a pregnant woman and her two small daughters. They almost refused. In the end, it was decided: in a choice between the rucksack, the three illegal female immigrants and the chess game waiting to be finished, the rucksack lost. Zeev Feinberg took the pregnant woman and the black chess pieces. The future deputy commander of the Irgun maneuvered courageously between the pair of weeping girls and the white pieces, keeping all of them from vanishing in the waves. When they reached the beach, they parted from the grateful woman, brushed the wrinkled cheek of the Holy Land with a polite kiss, and were horrified to discover that they had forgotten where the pieces had stood on the board. They sat all night on the beach in their wet underpants, chests bare, arguing about the right placement. When the British arrived in the morning, the two men looked to them as if they had been on the beach forever. In the end, they left to explore the country, each in his underpants. Zeev Feinberg went north, and the future deputy commander of the Irgun headed for Tel Aviv, where he became the present deputy commander of the Irgun. At one of their meetings, when Zeev Feinberg asked how a person who had almost left behind a pregnant illegal immigrant in favor of a castle had become the co-ordinator of the Zionist project for smuggling illegal immigrants into the country, his friend replied that all he did was exchange one obsession for another. “In this too, there are black pawns and white pawns. And in this too, I hate to lose.”
Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg sat in front of the desk of the deputy commander of the Irgun. The former—cowering in embarrassment, his body seeming to withdraw into itself. The latter—arrogant, legs stretched forward, limbs relaxed. Even though his gaze was constantly drawn to the deputy commander of the Irgun, Yaacov Markovitch could not help noticing the essential difference between the way he and Zeev Feinberg were sitting. Yaacov Markovitch thought: there are people who walk through the world as if they were there by mistake, as if at any moment someone would put a hand on their shoulder and shout in their ears, “What is this? Who let you in? Get out, fast.” And there are people who don’t walk through the world at all. Just the opposite, they sail through it, slicing the water in two wherever they pass, like a boat full of confidence. It wasn’t envy that Yaacov Markovitch felt towards Zeev Feinberg right then. It was a more complex emotion. Yaacov Markovitch sat in the office of the deputy commander of the Irgun looking at the extended legs of Zeev Feinberg, embarrassed by his own bent legs, and wondered how many other offices he would sit in with his legs withdrawn under him, and whether he would ever stretch his limbs with such liberty in the presence of other people. It was those questions that pushed him suddenly to straighten up, extend his hand to the deputy commander of the Irgun who, until that moment, hadn’t said a single word to him, and say, “Yaacov Markovitch, at your service.”
In the silence that ensued, he realized his mistake. The two men had apparently been engrossed in discussing several extremely important subjects: an audacious plan to defend the Holy Land, an especially complicated sexual position, a brilliant chess move they needed to practice—and Yaacov Markovitch’s declaration did not fit in with a single one of them. The deputy commander of the Irgun looked appraisingly at Yaacov Markovitch, like the village doctor examining feces, and then turned back to Zeev Feinberg. “So how big is her mole?” The deputy commander of the Irgun was a well-known mole aficionado. His rivals claimed that he preferred them to the actual body of a woman. When Zeev Feinberg told him about the incident that had begun with Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts and ended with Avraham Mandelbaum’s knife, the deputy commander of the Irgun ignored the knife—he’d had more than enough of those—and focused on the breasts. Zeev Feinberg didn’t care. On the contrary—he admired his friend for knowing how to tell the wheat from the chaff, and returned happily to Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts. But then something strange happened: the more he conjured up Rachel’s plump breasts, the more they looked to him like Sonya’s breasts. And even though Rachel’s breasts were more beautiful than Sonya’s—plump and sweet and very, very firm—the image of Sonya’s breasts made him so happy that he didn’t want to drive them away. So it happened that he described Rachel’s breast to the deputy commander of the Irgun while he was seeing Sonya’s breasts in his mind’s eye, until he was suddenly seized by the fear that he might get confused and begin describing Sonya’s breasts to his friend, not Rachel’s, and that was something he did not want to do.
Zeev Feinberg stopped speaking. For the first time since he met the deputy commander of the Irgun on the ship’s deck, he felt that he possessed something he had no intention of sharing. Yaacov Markovitch was also silent. He was still cursing himself for his earlier remark. Despite his agitation, he noticed the change that had taken place in Zeev Feinberg: until now, he had recreated his conquests like someone musing to himself, still savoring the previous night’s meal. But this time he spoke with genuine longing in his eyes: it is not a satiated man who praises his meal, but a hungry one, mad with yearning. The brightness that spread over Zeev Feinberg’s face as he was supposedly recalling Rachel Mandelbaum’s breasts was greater than the happiness he felt when he was actually with her. In light of his previous failure, Yaacov Markovitch needed all of his courage to open his mouth and say, “You will go back to Sonya someday.” Zeev Feinberg looked at him, stunned. Then he smiled. If he had been alarmed at first by the clarity with which Yaacov Markovitch read his most secret thoughts, his fear turned immediately into relief—his friend could read the mysteries of his mind, the hieroglyphs he had long ago lost hope that anyone but he could decipher.