The Sand Dunes of Paris
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Edna Shemesh
Translated from Hebrew by Charles Kamen
Albert first became aware that Anais existed before he’d seen either her face or her body. That first time she’d been only a voice. That first time, which would be etched clearly in his memory, he’d only heard her voice and sat up in bed, terrified by sudden passion, listening to her moans.
Then quiet. And, again, Ohhh —
And the silence which had wrapped the old building in which he lived — and all the neighboring buildings, the entire 4th arrondissement, the whole beautiful city — grew denser and deeper. He grasped the end of the blanket to wrap it around his back because — even though the heavy rains that had been falling on the city for an entire night and half a day had suddenly stopped, and the weather had warmed, and it seemed as if, now, summer had come — that night the chill had again invaded the tiny apartment in which he lived, made him shiver, aroused a dull pain in his back.
He dropped the blanket, tensed.
A gentle, pure, fragile moan — a solitary note in the silence — escaping from a barely open mouth through lips parted above a taut chin.
Is a woman crying behind her half-closed, faintly-lit window? Is she moaning in pain? His hand seemed to recover, resumed the movement that had been interrupted in mid-air. He wrapped his bare back in the blanket and his body, which had stiffened, relaxed slightly and his head fell back on the pillow.
Albert rose on his elbows, fully awake. He bent his head toward the voice and listened intently. The syllables he heard as they arrived one by one seemed to him like ripples spreading after a stone is thrown into the water; they reached his ears gently, softly, emerged from deep in the throat as if pleading, at regular intervals. He doubted no longer. He heard moans of love. For a moment shame and embarrassment enveloped him, as if he were an accomplice to a crime, as if he’d poked a hole in the wall with a bloody finger, through the layers of paint, through the plaster, through the solid bricks, to watch her where she lay. And listen.
But, he thought, where’s the guy?
He imagined from afar hearing Liliana’s roars when he’d burst into the room she shared with his other sisters. He’d been playing hide-and-seek with Taher and suddenly wanted to play a little trick on his younger brother, to really hide from him, to disappear like a conjurer so it would take Taher an hour to find him. The search and ambush would exhilarate him; his sinews would acquire the suppleness needed for escape, the way he’d felt when he was his brother’s age. In fact, he wasn’t many years older than Taher because their mother had given birth to them almost one after the other. He darted along the narrow corridor, charged at the door behind which he wanted to hide and burst through.
Albert had never dared imagine Liliana — or one of his other sisters — naked, but that day, in the long, narrow room almost filled by their beds, from whose tall window a soft light splashed on the opposite wall as if emerging from a funnel and illuminating his sister so it seemed she burned with a gentle flame, he saw her lying on her back in the splashes of light, her panties down around her ankles and her slim arm rising and falling between her bent legs. Even now, when they’re at opposite ends of the country and so much time has passed, even now he doesn’t dare form an exact picture in his head or see it fully, and does all he can to blur the image in his brain, until his sister’s splayed body is transformed into the momentary paralysis that overcame him, and into his stupid flight from his sisters’ room toward the echoes of Taher’s rising wails because no one was looking for the boy. Sometimes the picture of his sister Liliana’s parted knees was replaced by the comforting image of sweet Maryse, whose two thick braids were always tied together by a white ribbon and whom he’d never kissed before he left — not even once — though he’d wanted to.
Now the three of them were all mixed together — his older sister, and Maryse far away, and the moaning woman he couldn’t see — and all that, just before he planned to go to sleep, seemed ridiculous, preposterous, made his head hurt as if birds were flying around inside, pecking him. He drove his nose into the pillow.
But then the woman’s moans grew more frequent — he hadn’t known how close her window was to his — floated from her room to land repeatedly on his threshold, intensified, sounded hoarser and increasingly strained to his ears, as if she were unable to restrain her pleasure any longer. In a moment she’ll stop. And he shivered and grew hard, refusing to believe he was really hearing it all, turned over on his back, raised himself up slightly and remained in that position, leaning on his elbows, listening to the moans in amazement and shame.
Suddenly the sounds on the other side of the wall grew faint, muffled perhaps behind a palm pressed to a mouth or beneath lips pressed against lips, and one quick, deep groan burst suddenly from a man’s throat. Both immediately fell silent. Albert recoiled slightly in his bed, feeling a wry disappointment, feeling almost duped. He clenched his jaws, crushing his upper and lower teeth together, opened his mouth wide and moved his jaws from side to side to dull the pain. Then he let his body slowly relax, fell back on the mattress, stretched out his legs and rested his hands, cupped, on his hips.
Though it was now quiet, he still couldn’t sleep. Again he heard the black swifts soaring among the chimneys. Their cries were sharp, short. Nothing dissuaded them from their incessant flight. Aloft their entire lives, they never collided with the round chimneys or the long windows whose white cloth curtains were usually drawn. Not long ago an errant swift flashed into his room through the open window. It zigzagged through the air in panic, immediately turned toward the light, vanished, and Albert barely managed to discern its fugitive silhouette at the instant it entered or at the instant it fled. Now he focused his thoughts on that swift, black and elusive, which had fluttered panic-stricken from one wall to the other, in order to clear his head of the scene that longed to push aside that image: a man and woman lying naked in bed on the other side of the wall, closer to him than he desired, as if both of them — her head on his arm, his semen on her hip — compelled him, by their very existence, to participate in their act of love, turning him against his will into a voyeur, a momentary pervert, arousing his lust. He rolled over onto his stomach and buried his head in the faded pillowcase. “Maryse, Maryse,” he mumbled, even though he knew that he wouldn’t see her, would never see her.
And again he closed his eyes and again turned over on his back, and when his bed suddenly creaked in response, he stopped moving for a moment. Perhaps the couple beyond the wall had heard him? But nothing broke the silence. Far beneath him, through the large courtyard spread out four floors below, rolled a suitcase belonging to one of the residents — perhaps he’d just arrived, or was just leaving — its wheels bumping on the ancient paving stones. A gentle wind moved the white curtain tangled in the open window and Albert took a deep breath. It seemed that residents were constantly moving in and out of his building as well as those adjacent, which together formed a connected square around the courtyard he loved because of a climbing vine entwined around the downspouts that, for weeks, had flowered with vibrant blue clusters. In the center of the courtyard grew a large tree. Sometimes, late at night, his sleep was disturbed. He’d hear hushed conversation, laughter, people arriving, footsteps fading away, doors slamming as if it were day rather than night, and he would wake.
Sometimes, at night, he would watch from his window, standing back a little because he was in his underwear, looking out and seeing windows illuminated by white neon lamps or by the yellow light of a bulb. Most of the windows were open to the evening air. On the second floor, two storeys below, he’d recently seen a portion of a room containing a baby’s white bureau with drawers that had been left open, as if the room had been hastily abandoned. He’d never heard a baby’s voice or seen anyone enter or leave the room, but every evening the light was on.
Through another window he could see a woman, her hair disheveled, lying on a sofa, covered by a sheet, watching television. A bluish light intermittently tinted the lenses of her glasses. A long blouse, or perhaps a short housecoat, covered her knees, and one of her legs hung, elevated, from the sofa’s arm. Loud voices erupted from across the courtyard one floor above him; he could see shadows of girls seated in a circle. Heard them laughing. Their laughter rose in waves through the evening air.
And now those moans, moans of love, which he’d heard as if they’d come from his own room, floated toward him through its now-dense air. Sleep eluded him. (“You can’t fall asleep if you’re waiting,” his mother had said.) He covered his shoulders with the blanket. He admitted to himself that he was waiting to hear more.
Later he heard rustling. Albert rose. He was already fully awake. He approached the window barefoot, almost on tiptoe, leaned forward, and listened intently. He might have appeared from outside to be inhaling the night air. Then he drew back from the window, pressed sideways against the wall and laid his ear to it. He heard, on the other side, a door open gently and a door slam shut, and the wall between them shook. Water began flowing in the shower. The couple showered for a long time, the man mumbling melodiously in French words that weren’t clear, their syllables swallowed by the stream of water. The woman laughed in response. Her laughter was sweet.
Suddenly Albert heard the man call loudly: “Anais, bring me the towel, please. I forgot it on the chair!”
Anais. When he learned her name his embarrassment grew. A rude curse in his mother’s language, short and bitter, escaped through his clenched teeth. He left the window and stretched out on the bed. He would have to get up this morning earlier than usual. A large shipment of fresh produce would be arriving from the south and if he was late, his stern uncle — who did a very big favor for Fadina, his youngest sister, and agreed to give her son a job in his fruit and vegetable store until he got settled — if he was late for work, his uncle would give him one of those dark looks in which there was a sheen he’d never expect to see in the eyes of someone without a high temperature, and would rub his smooth temple as if a bit of stubborn dirt were stuck there, or as if he’d felt a sudden, sharp pain in his head. If he was late his uncle won’t say a word, but later, all day long, he’d-continue-not-to-say-a-word-about-his-tardiness, his silence reverberating until closing time and lying oppressively between them.
Fall asleep already, he told himself; those moans — Anais’ moans — have ceased. There’s no encore. He smiled a tired smile into the crumpled pillow. So some couple did-what-they-did right under your nose, and you heard it all. So what? Go to sleep.
Nevertheless, he didn’t shut the window. He needed air, he needed a breeze. Since arriving he’d been addicted to the pure, late evening air that rose from below in gentle gusts, poured through the windows into the small, two-room apartment after the sun finally set, and its interior was finally freed from the day’s oppressive heat. And when he slumped onto the mattress at night the air had already grown chilly and he had to wrap himself in a blanket — at least his back, one side of which hurt. The left side of his back had been painful for a long time because of the heavy crates of produce he hauled every day, and the cartons of mineral water, and the soft drinks, and in the evening, when he stretched out in bed, dying to sleep, he turned first one way and then another and didn’t fall asleep until the gentle breeze began to ease slightly the burden of the waning summer day.
During torrid nights in the village where he’d been born and raised, when the walls of the house began releasing the heat they’d accumulated throughout the day, and he couldn’t stand the sweat pouring from his temples and dripping into his eyes, salty and burning, he and his his little brother, carrying their straw mattresses on their heads — his own heavy mattress and Taher’s small, narrow one which always smelled faintly of urine — would climb the stairs to the flat, tiled roof and lie down, each on his own mattress, covered only by a thin blanket.
The heat was also oppressive on the roof but less so than below in the house, and buzzing mosquitoes bit them on their faces and arms and legs and disturbed their sleep. But sometimes, up there on the roof, there was a breeze that seemed to have issued from a narrow tube: concentrated, erratic, like the one now in his room during the chilly nights, which cooled their bodies and slightly eased the heat. Instead of falling asleep immediately, the brothers would tickle each other and giggle, drink water from the pitcher that their sister Esther had brought up to them, blowing two kisses and whispering good night, in a voice filled with envy, and immediately descending, her bare feet pattering. They lay on their backs and the canopy of stars overhead sparkled so brilliantly that Taher and he stopped laughing, fell silent, watched and inhaled the dust of infinity. Even then Taher had been drawn to that unattainable remoteness, his body tensed, his piercing eyes immersed in the shimmering stars. With pointed finger, Albert showed his little brother distant constellations and invented names for them — and also for the speeding satellites and shooting stars and distant airplanes — until Taher, amazed each time anew, tired from all the excitement, turned on his side, farted briefly — self-consciously, drew his legs to his chest, and slept. Late at night, Albert remained lying on his back without moving, Taher’s hard skull resting on his collarbone, rising and falling as he breathed; he lay motionless until his arm fell asleep and began tingling painfully. But for a long time he didn’t move because his brother’s quiet, regular breathing was so sweet. Finally Taher shifted in his sleep, turned his back to his brother, and Albert moved his petrified shoulder, now freed from the weight, reached out to the pitcher and drank. Then he linked his fingers, put his hands, under his head, scrutinized the dark sky, counted stars here and there, organized them, silently wove their shapes into stories, vowing to remember each detail so he could repeat them to Taher on the next hot night — and perhaps also, at some time, to Maryse, when he would tell her about that place, still undefined, that he dreams of and to which he’ll go, that beautiful place. One night a huge milky moon rose, shedding an uncertain glow on his surroundings. The light grew brighter until it seemed to Albert he was hemmed in on all sides. He shut his eyelids tightly and fell asleep. In the morning he awoke chilled, and, although he tried, he could remember none of the lovely stories he‘d imagined before the moon’s face suddenly appeared before him.
For days on end, until late at night, the heat enveloped the house mercilessly, and though everyone was dripping and the sweat made them break out in an itching rash, their mother forbade their sisters to join him and Taher on the roof, to sleep next to them under a sky painted a new shade of black every night.
“What about the neighbors?” she said, clasping her hands, “You know how quickly evil tongues begin wagging, how quickly certain people hear things, and then God only knows what will happen!” And his mother gave him a very significant look which made him feel guilty even though he didn’t understand what it meant.
“But mother,” he remembered Taher saying in his high-pitched, rebellious voice, “we’re their brothers, not strangers!”
“It doesn’t matter,” said their mother decisively, “It’s forbidden.” Then she smacked his shorn head. “Go do your homework before dinner.”
Taher stopped arguing. He made every effort to satisfy his father and mother where school was concerned — diligently prepared all the assigned homework, learned poems by heart without skipping a single line, and long paragraphs, and formulas. His face glowed with intelligence and happiness and he intuited subtleties no one could have taught him. He understood deeply; he almost seemed like a short adult (Albert momentarily remembered what happened that time, in the dunes), his words always serious, surprisingly wise, like a sober grown-up, not a small child. Once their mother had told him, affecting despair, “You were born an old man in the skin of a child, ya Taher. How can you notice everything?”
I love Taher more than anyone, thought Albert gently, despite the difference in age and the distance that had opened between them since he’d left his country. Perhaps he feels that way because his little brother is like him, and both are the same as their father, as similar as two dinar coins, and perhaps because Taher was always more full of life than he was, and of hope.
The light in the adjoining apartment went out. As it did, the darkness also deepened in Albert’s room. He listened a while longer, but heard nothing more. He sighed quietly, then quickly stopped.
Unable to fall asleep he kept thinking, settling his member more comfortably in his underwear. He hoped in his heart to hear “Anais” again, hear the girl — the woman. He couldn’t really tell how old she was on the basis of the single long syllable she’d uttered — a sound of pleasure, her moan delicate and eager. He already imagined her closed eyelids, her clenched palms, her sprawled body. And before renewed lust could overcome him, he turned sharply toward the wall and firmly closed his eyes. The bed creaked softly beneath him and was still.
It seemed to him he’d awakened at the moment he’d begun a new dream, perhaps his sole dream that night. In it he’d stood on his windowsill, spread his wings, beat them twice in a practiced motion and soared into a black night sky. He glided through cold, dense air, observing from above the fragments of a dismembered land trapped between buildings joined shoulder-to-shoulder, his avian body feeling the joy of flight; he sensed his vision sharpening, clearing, and slowly swooped for a long time before landing on one of the reddish-brown clay chimneys protruding from the tops of the sloping roofs. As he was about to peck with his curved beak at a bird asleep atop the chimney, he opened his eyes.
He immediately erased the vivid images from his head. He hasn’t time for dreams. He came here, in fact, to get away from his dreams — the old ones, at least. He left his life behind — his rigid father in despair, his timid mother with distinct relief, his rowdy, clever sisters sadly and little Taher with an aching heart. And Maryse, sweet Maryse, whom he already loved with all his heart.
“Go,” his mother had said, with a gravity and solemnity that erased her wrinkles and refreshed her features. As the time for him to leave drew near Albert felt as if he’d accidently discovered a new, determined side of his mother’s character and regretted he’d not have time to fully comprehend it. His mother suddenly spoke as if she’d been kneeling at his side on the roof during all those hot nights, hearing both his daydreams and the ones in his sleep; seeing, together with him, what he saw: the colors of another, imagined life; smelling what he smelled: the scent of distances; feeling what he felt in his feverish innocence: intense, new excitement accompanied by acute fear. But, perhaps, at that time, only he saw stardust on every dusty road, an approaching storm in every passing thunder, a keen hope that stopped his breathing as if a spear had pierced his lungs. Later his dreams dulled.
“Go,” his mother had said to him. Her eyes were dry now. “Leave, so you don’t end up like your father.”
What do you want? he asked himself a few weeks after arriving in the beautiful city, feeling it close in on him, its foreign streets leading only to other foreign streets, feeling such overwhelming loneliness that he began talking to himself aloud in his Uncle Morduk’s apartment, certain no one heard him, not even the unseen tenants in the background whose voices and sounds sometimes filtered through the walls, through the windows, giving evidence of their existence: laughter, a tune, water flowing through pipes, even the coarse belch or fart a person allows himself when alone. And, sometimes, moans of love. One evening his nostrils absorbed the sharp-sweet smell of cigar smoke rising from below; he breathed it into his lungs as if he himself were smoking. And the sudden odor he’d sometimes smelled even late at night — a frying egg, soup cooking — aroused his hunger.
He was happy when letters began to arrive in the mailbox. The first was from Taher. Rectangular wooden boxes, like giant bars of chocolate, filled the entire wall below the worn, curved wooden staircase in the narrow entrance hall. Now, before leaving for work in his uncle’s greengrocery he slips two fingers into the slot of the locked mailbox bearing Morduk Levy’s name – nonchalantly, as if he’s indifferent to whether he finds a letter. Perhaps that’s why, when his fingertips felt the long, smooth envelope through the slot, his joy almost burst its bounds, overflowed. He opened the mailbox with the small key attached to the one for the apartment. Tahar’s letter dropped to the floor.
That night he phoned his mother for the first time since leaving, despite the exorbitant cost of the call, to thank Taher for his letter, hear his voice, retrieve his odor the smell of cheap soap and sweat – from memory, ask when he’ll come visit Uncle Morduk and Aunt Alice. In his hurry he’d called too early. His mother, surprised to hear his voice, said that Taher was still at school and Father had gone to the market — and how are you, ya ibni, how is it there, and how is my brother Morduk and his children — and cried hoarsely in his ear and said nothing , for some reason and not a word about Alice, her sister-in-law. Albert gripped the receiver tightly and moved it away from his ear with mixed feelings. His mother exhausts him; he craves most for her to give him strength — at least once. She talked on, now immersed in her conversation with herself. Her voice became distant, grim, but also stubborn.
“I can’t hear anything, ya Umi.” he said loudly; “Kiss everyone,” and replaced the phone in its cradle.
Every morning, he rises, neatly makes the bed as his mother taught him when he was a child, and quickly showers in a drizzle of hot water. His uncle Morduk doesn’t charge him for water and electricity, only rent, but he is pleased with himself for his own frugality. Hasn’t he lived most of his life on the edge of the desert and learned the value of good water?
On the day he first arrived, his uncle explained that he could afford not to charge rent but wanted him to pay six hundred fifty euros a month – not much for such an apartment, especially in a neighborhood like the Marais! And when Albert’s eyes widened — how could he pay that amount? — his uncle had lectured him about how important it was to raise young people properly. Including Albert, who he considers his own flesh and blood, one of his own children — who must learn that life is hard everywhere, here as well, and if he wants to succeed, he has to work hard, as he himself has worked his entire life. Albert listened irately to his uncle who, as he spoke, bent to quickly arrange fleshy tomatoes with his broad hands, one on top of another in a wooden crate tilted at a fairly sharp angle to dissuade customers who had their eye on those lower down, still fresh and firm. His uncle kept talking; Albert shifted his weight from one leg to the other. In fact, he felt very hungry. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten, or what he’d eaten, but his uncle ignored his nephew’s apparent restlessness as if he’d restrained himself for too long and must now, before doing anything else, lecture his relative. Albert begrudged him that harangue, submitted to it, smothered his resentment, though that kind of grudge was the worst and didn’t ease for some days.
He remembers clearly his first day in the city. He came off the train which sped swiftly away as if it had paused only for him to alight safely. His uncle, awaiting him on the platform, took the large suitcase, grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him affectionately until the knapsack on his back bobbed back and forth, and drove him home in his old, blue car to meet Alice, his much younger wife, and the children, and to eat and rest and sleep there, as he had repeatedly promised his sister Fadina, which made her feel a little better. Then, he said, in a day or two he’d teach him what to do in the greengrocery and take him to the small apartment he owned in the 4th arrondissement where he would live.
Nor, as they drove, had his uncle asked about the family he’d left behind years before. He drove easily, nonchalantly, like someone used to driving who enjoyed it. Albert looked through the car window, watching the landscape passing quickly, his eyes straining to take in the broad grassy swathes dappled with little white flowers, the boulevards of trees rushing by. He’d never seen such lovely, vivid green foliage. He yearned to shut his ears against the drip-drip of his uncle’s words, but Morduk didn’t let up or stop his chattering, and, as they drove, he told Albert how — until he’d found Alice and married her – he’d lived alone “in a hovel” for a few years, first in a distant quarter — a neighborhood of Africans and criminals and illegal immigrants like himself — that hadn’t much changed since then, and might even have become worse. When he’d lived there, said his uncle, as he rolled down the window so they’d have some air, he’d actually been afraid he’d wound up in Senegal or the Ivory Coast because he saw so many African men and women in colorful robes, and although his own skin isn’t particularly light in color either, he’d felt whiter-than-white by comparison.
After Albert started working in the store, his uncle continued to tell him those stories. Now Morduk’s hands quickly separated a large bundle of herbs into smaller bunches and the mingled scent of mint and sage filled the air, mixing with other fragrances Albert couldn’t yet identify but which aroused a keen longing for home.
“When I still lived in the apartment that’s now your castle,” laughed his uncle, “I was already married to Alice, and Jacques and Danielle had already been born, but I still had nothing in hand.”
The sharp odor of mint began to pervade the air, intensified. His uncle glanced down at his rough hands, the movements of which hadn’t ceased, and looked like two elongated beings whose appendages possessed a life of their own.
“I came here because I had a profession, but Nissim, you know, your mother’s and my middle brother, never even tried to come here. He didn’t want to. He left Algeria, went straight to Israel. Didn’t know what it would be like, couldn’t imagine all the problems in a new country where people come from all over, didn’t believe — the poor souls — they’d be fighting the Arabs for years, that they’d be dumped, just like that, in some miserable hole where they’ll have to spend their whole lives! When I already had a small apartment and a shop here and had begun to breathe a little, Nissim still didn’t have anything there in Sderot. Have you ever heard of that place? No? How could you? Anyway — hand me that empty crate over there — for years Nissim was ashamed to write about how hard it was there for them, he kept writing that the air in Eretz Yisrael was better than perfume. And almost every letter — and there weren’t many who would end with a highfaluting sentence, always the same one — can you believe it? He’d write, ‘Better a humble tent in the homeland than a golden palace in a foreign land,’ or something like that.”
Morduk coughed, adding, “Now you — it’s good you came here.”
His uncle spoke to him in a mixture of French and their mother tongue. Albert was pleased to discover how much he understood of what his uncle said to him in French, if he didn’t talk too fast. He already longed to speak French like that, like his uncle, fluently, as fast as he could think. Now he openly studied this heavy-set man, Morduk Levy, his uncle. Had Albert detected a hint of envy — implicit, confusing — when he spoke of his brother, Nissim?
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” thundered Morduk, tossing the green bunches he held into the empty crate beside him. His expression grew scornful, perhaps at himself, perhaps at his life, as if he were, in some sense, living in sin; for a moment it seemed that the entire brick wall his uncle had worked so hard all this time to build—all these years—was suddenly collapsing before their eyes and flinging fine grey powder straight into their faces.
At first Morduk had worked illegally and, like the others, had dreaded the police because the French he had learned at home and in school and the way he spoke betrayed his origin whenever he opened his mouth. By day he worked at whatever came his way, painting houses or laboring in the produce markets. And at night, almost sleepwalking from exhaustion, he’d slip through dark streets to hang posters for a clandestine Communist organization whose name he no longer remembered and which was demonstrating energetically at that time — probably against capitalism — or for a Jewish group protesting the spread of anti-Semitism, all for a few measly francs which were barely enough to feed his children. And the whole time, he said, he lived in constant fear that one night he’d hear the piercing shriek of a whistle and be caught by the municipal police or immigration officers holding his brush and rolls of paper, and his wife would never know what had happened to him and where he’d disappeared to.
“So you,” his uncle had said, his back to him, vigorously scrubbing his hands with soap and water over the sink on the wall of the store, “you’ll at least pay me rent.”
After he’d worked for ten years, his uncle had had enough money to buy the small apartment in which Albert now lived. That was before he’d obtained his documents and moved to a different neighborhood with a much better reputation. It was then, more or less, when his temporary residence permit had been extended and he no longer had to show up at the police station every twenty-four hours — that’s right, every twenty-four hours! Can you believe that? But, fortunately, he earned a good living from his temporary jobs because, as he said again proudly, he had always worked hard and been ambitious, and anyway there wasn’t anything in that neighborhood other than prostitutes and homosexuals and apartments were cheap. Almost free. The greengrocery? He’d bought it from a solitary old Moroccan Muslim who no longer had the strength to work nor anyone to inherit the store, who sold it to him so he’d have enough money before he died to travel once more to Tetouan, his little Jerusalem, as his lovely city used to be called. The stupid old man who, his uncle said derisively, could have asked much more for the store, also neglected to include in the price the extensive clientele he’d built up over the years, and so, exulted his uncle, he was able to buy a more spacious apartment for himself and his growing family without having to sell the “hovel” he’s now renting to him. For years he’d rented it to couples who’d turned up and actually took very good care of it, or to artists of every nationality who’d arrived with lots of grand aspirations and half-empty pockets — and who no one had ever heard of, neither before they arrived nor after they’d moved out of his apartment.
Now he watched his Uncle Morduk place soda bottles on a shelf, straighten with a sigh and say, with a look in his eyes of amazement mingled with scorn, “You know, Albert, my dear, I think I’m the only Jewish greengrocer in this entire city! Once, everyone who arrived had a profession — executives, accountants — no one was a greengrocer. Look around — other than me, they’re all Muslims! Sometimes they call me L’Arbe du coin, “the Arab at the corner” — you understand?
And his uncle gripped Albert by the hand as if he had something important to show him and practically dragged him to the entrance of the store.
“Here’s one!” cried Morduk. His voice trembled with rage, and his words sprayed from his mouth in a mist of saliva.
“One what?” asked Albert. He didn’t at all understand why his uncle was so belligerent.
“Here’s the real ‘Arab at the corner’!” He pointed to the greengrocer across the street.
Albert’s lips bent into a smile. There was nothing unusual about the shop across the street. It was almost a mirror-image of his uncle’s.
“That’s just the point,” glowered his uncle and turned on Albert. “Tell me—what don’t you understand? I was here long before him—a long, long time before him! I was the only greengrocer on the whole street, made a good living, and all of a sudden this Muslim shows up!”
“Not, God forbid, that I have anything against Muslims,” his uncle said, curbing his anger, “but when things are tough there’s no place for two greengrocers so close to one another. For ten years already that Shehadeh has been driving me crazy: I bring Japanese shiitake mushrooms that the French don’t yet know about; he brings shiitake. I offer a special on black grapes; he sells them cheaper. I install a display case for ice cream; he installs a bigger one! And he keeps sending people to sniff around my shop and I can’t chase them away. They buy something, but they’re spying for him!”
And his uncle practically dragged Albert back into the store and slammed his fist on the counter because he hadn’t yet cooled off. “Let me tell you something, Albert. We fled here to get away from them, but we won’t be able to run away much longer. I’ll tell you this: if anything leads me to an early grave it’ll be that greengrocer across the street.”
Then he calmed down, went to the rear of the store, sat down at a small table, and worked on the accounts.
If I do well, thought Albert now, as he swept with broad movements the celery and parsley leaves that fell from the bunches his uncle had arranged neatly on the counter next to the cash register – if I really do well — maybe one day I’ll be able to buy this apartment from him. Then Albert grew angry. Where could these stupid ideas have come from? He looked down. Their home in the village must have been constructed of elastic materials: when he was a little boy it seemed almost boundless. The walls drew apart and the room between them became larger and larger, living and breathing like an animal. And there was also much above, and below, and underneath, and within. But the house gradually became smaller, shrank as he grew. And when the suitcase was already packed and it seemed to Albert he was ready to take the step across the threshold that would change his world completely, he took another look around, perhaps for the last time, almost surreptitiously, and felt the walls closing in on him, making him feel suffocated.
“May Tahar come too?” he asked his uncle hesitantly as he began to sort long cucumbers in the rear of the store, a kind he’d never seen before and which, in his opinion, already felt too soft. He covertly broke one of them, put a piece in his mouth and quickly chewed. It was soft, watery, its peel bitter. He immediately spat into his palm and hurriedly washed his hands. Why should people buy them? But other cucumbers don’t grow here — not the small, firm, sugary ones like those from the sparingly watered vegetable bed near his mother’s chicken coop in the courtyard of his parents’ home.
And he remembered the day he and Taher had walked to the movie theater in the neighboring village which wasn’t very far from theirs. He’d left school that day before classes ended. Anyway, he wasn’t required to attend the Koran class. Taher was stretched out on the courtyard’s hard earth watching ants run around.
“Let’s go,” he’d said to Taher, pulling him by the arm. Albert strode along, Taher running alongside under the hot sun, past the blinding white dune that filled their mouths with fine grains of sand. His little brother didn’t even ask where they were going, just hurried to keep up. As they saw from a distance the closest buildings of the next village spread out before them on the broad limestone plain, they heard the bray of the trotting donkey and encountered the cart of the oil seller who knew their mother. They rode with him the short distance that remained and when they jumped down from the cart, not far from the entrance to the market strewn with rubbish and junk, he tossed them two small cucumbers he’d pulled from beneath his seat and drove off. Taher crammed the cucumber into his mouth and Albert also ate his quickly, peel and all. They both were still hungry. Albert grew thirstier. The sweet taste of the oil seller’s cucumber merged with the odor of the donkey’s sudden, dark droppings and the brays of pain when its owner pulled hard on its reins and beat his heels against its ribs.
“What should I do now, Uncle?” asked Albert from the depths of the store.
“Take a rest.”
Albert glanced sideways and sat in Morduk’s chair. He wanted to tell him the cucumbers here were no good, big and tasteless, but he said nothing. He sat on the chair arms extended, palms resting on his knees, and felt like an old man.
And he saw Taher’s eyes following with horror the thrusts of the curved sword in the hand of the masked Emir who mercilessly massacred his enemies on the screen of the old movie theater and his ears filled with the distant clang of clashing swords. He no longer tried to hide his longing for his little brother, his urge to see him, tussle with him, hear his wild laughter, wipe the tears that fell from his squinting eyes after they’d returned home and been slapped in turn by their father. Dusk descended slowly as they’d walked home. They had listened intently to the silence. Not even the wind that had risen breached it. He had held Taher’s sweaty hand, the waning sun at their back, the trail of their footsteps stretching behind them in the sand: four hurrying footprints which were sometimes no longer visible where the wind had swept away the sand to expose the hard ground underneath. Little Taher had said nothing all the way home, asked nothing about the scary man in the black cloak whose face was never revealed, even for a moment, on the yellowed screen covering the wall — the man who had never said a single word while he flickered on the screen, just slit bellies and cut off heads with his flicking sword — and Taher had again tightened his small hand in his brother’s as they hurried, and in a thin voice said he was hungry.
“Sure, Taher can come, too,” replied Morduk, laying his hand on his nephew’s shoulder. Albert hadn’t even heard his approaching footsteps. “You think you’re an outstanding worker, Albert? Another pair of hands won’t hurt. He’ll finish school and come, too. Are you done resting?”
His uncle’s apartment is so small that Albert’s bedroom is only a few steps from the nook where he cooks and washes dishes, and the shower, toilet and small washing machine are also crowded together, separated only by a narrow sliding door. Nevertheless, from the first moment, his uncle’s apartment seemed like a palace compared to the scant corner he had shared at home with his brother, its walls roughly whitewashed, containing only the two beds and a high rectangular window covered outside by chicken wire to keep the crows and pigeon droppings from his sill. He’d already fallen in love with the river and the beautiful bridges spanning it; the sight of them made his mouth and eyes open wide. He’ll have to get used to the fact he’s actually here, living here.
How amazed he was to discover that some of the city’s interesting, ancient sites were located only a short walk from the tiny apartment in which he lived. He felt lucky. He took a walk every evening, each time in a different direction, letting his feet lead him, letting the streets carry him along. He seldom lost his way. Gradually he extended his range, feeling a bit like the locals walking smugly along. Sometimes a sudden anxiety or a bitter, corrosive taste would impinge on his feeling of satisfaction, but he soon understood he’d never want to live anywhere else on earth. His heart sang and Albert sensed his life slowly taking off. He didn’t yet know — how could he have known? – that one day he would walk into his uncle’s store, find him sprawled on the floor with his skull crushed, and nothing would be the same again.
One evening he dared to enter a dimly-lit pub. He could barely make out what was happening inside, but the commotion, the strong odor of beer, the acrid cigarette smoke, and the searching eyes of drunken youths drove him back into the street and to his uncle’s apartment. Weeks passed before he again went out at night to one of the clubs from which many good-looking, well-dressed young people poured as from a cornucopia, until they filled the sidewalk and overflowed into the narrow street between the buildings where cars seldom appeared and parking was prohibited. He slipped inside, weaving from side to side to avoid bumping into the young people crowded in the small space or brushing against them as he passed, and ordered a glass of beer. The bartender smiled at him politely, said “Bon soir,” and asked for five euros, “s’il vous plait.”
Albert’s hand, reaching for the glass, froze momentarily. He had no choice but to pay the exorbitant price. He leaned against the narrow bar and drank, his eyes following the slim girls in short, tight dresses and the gaunt guys whose fashionable one- or two-day growth of beard shadowed their faces. Surreptitiously he passed his hand along his smooth cheek and took a sip of beer. He didn’t like its sour smell and bitter taste — not the first sips, at least. And when he became uncomfortable standing there alone, and the smoke burned his eyes, he placed his empty glass on the bar, stifled a belch, and exited into the night air.
For a long time, Albert had lived out of his suitcase. He’d take out a shirt, wear it, then toss it, dirty and sweat-stained, next to his three or four clean shirts. But soon the disorder, the dirt and the unpleasant odors began to bother him and he emptied his suitcase and shoved it under the bed. He smelled dust as he folded the bedspread and thrust it, too, under the bed. Then he folded his clean clothes and arranged them more or less neatly on the two narrow shelves opposite his bed. He’d bought almost nothing for himself since he’d arrived. Whatever he needed he bought sparingly. He had a considerable amount left in his pocket at the end of each month. He’d put part of his pay in a long envelope, sigh resentfully but also with a certain satisfaction, wrap the bills in a few sheets of paper so they couldn’t be felt, and send the money to his mother and father. Sometimes he’d add a few words and sign “Love, Albert”; sometimes he was too short-tempered and didn’t write anything, hushing the voice which grated at him: You’re being spiteful, ya Albert; she’s your mother, isn’t she? And your father? You send them a little money, and that’s it?
More than once he considered an idea that was more seductive than he’d anticipated: maybe he’d stop sending them money. How long would he have to support his parents? But every few weeks a letter would arrive from his mother — his father never wrote to him — and he drew the creased envelope from the small mailbox in the entryway as if he were dealing with a poisonous scorpion. The letter was written in his mother’s ragged script as always, she sent her reverent love and fevered kisses, wrote apologetically on behalf of herself and his father — how she’d kiss his forehead, his hands if only he were there — phrasing her sentences as carefully as possible, as if she were addressing a dignitary, not her eldest son who’d gone away, and who now, thank God, was relieving their dismal poverty. She prays for him every day, hopes every day that he’s well, and wishes him a long, happy and gratifying life. Amen. His mother writes the same thing in every letter, almost the same words, the same annoying sentences which immediately head straight for a hidden place in his heart to arouse his sympathy but instead cause unavoidable pain, her uncontrolled tears dampening the coarse paper, her repeatedly thanking him, her eldest, for helping send his brother and sisters to school so their fate will be better than hers and their father’s. And, as if she’d read his bitterness and longing for Taher between the brief lines he’d written in reply on the pages in which he wrapped the money he sent her, she deliberately writes little about his sisters, as if she doesn’t consider what was going on with them to be important (Flor had recently married a postal clerk and accepted her modest life), but couldn’t write enough about Taher. Sometimes she included a small photo in her letter so he could see how his little brother had grown, and not forget, God forbid, what he looks like. The photos became Albert’s small treasure: here’s the little boy who’d laid his head in his lap positioned so that Albert always saw the broad scar on his scalp caused when he fell from the second floor balcony and received a deep cut on his head. In another photo, his unexpectedly closely-cropped hair had already grown back and the scar was no longer visible. And how he’d grown during that time. Taher couldn’t possibly be taller than he. Still, Albert had his doubts and worried that if he wanted to hug him he’d have to climb up two rungs of a ladder to look him in the eye.
Albert fills a glass from the faucet and waters the small geranium growing alone in the middle of a white plastic window box on the sill facing the courtyard. It wasn’t he who’d planted it. Perhaps his Aunt Alice, perhaps one of the former tenants. It will live if he waters it, will wilt if he forgets. Sometimes he forgets. His sister Flor’s small herb garden had been planted at the edge of their courtyard next to the shed in which his father piled rusted tools and the corroded metal bed of the firstborn son who’d died before any of his other children had been born. Not much had grown in the hard ground at the edge of the desert, and what did grow was always poised, tormented, between life and death. But Flor was stubborn. No one knew from whose poor garden she’d secretly uprooted small, half-wilted sprouts of tarragon, cilantro, garlic. Once she’d even found a plant with dense roots and a pleasant fragrance which survived and then flourished, spreading uncontrollably; their mother had crushed its leaves for za’atar. Albert cracked his knuckles. Was his sister Flor happy with her new life? Perhaps she was already with child, like all the girls who marry and whose midriffs begin to swell. Does the postal clerk, he wondered, treat her the way his uncle treats Alice? Does she work hard, like their mother, to take care of her new home? Albert crosses to the kitchen nook, refills the glass, returns to the window, bends and waters the geranium which had already begun to bud and whose blossoms might be pink when they open. The water is immediately absorbed by the earth, seeping to the bottom of the window box, and Albert hears the drops falling onto the paving stones below. Before going to sleep he presses his ear to the wall and listens. He might hear Anais.