The Bed You Make
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Ayelet Shamir
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Eve of Rosh Hashana, 1991
At the gas station they said afterwards: ‘It all began with those two brothers from Wadi Ara who brought that crazy horse to Eitan Russo as a gift.’
And there were some who added with a crooked smile: ‘Crazy maybe. But a beauty like that isn’t something you see every day.’
And there were whispers: ‘The horse wasn’t for him. It was for her.’
And others: ‘She brought him nothing but trouble, that’s for sure.’
And they were all wrong.
It wasn’t just his color or pungent smell, or the way he looked in the faint light before daybreak; it was the color and the smell and the supple wildness all together that gave him a kind of vicious beauty. And nevertheless he knew, Eitan Russo knew how quickly it could all go wrong; a plastic bag blown at random in the wind, the annoying buzz of a wasp, the sharp bark of a dog, the growl of an engine – the slightest little thing could be enough to alarm the horse and make him lose his head. Nor did he forget the first times he had tried to approach the stallion and Barb had suddenly panicked – it could have meant a classic case of instant death or serious injury, but mainly it was insulting and infuriating.
He stood opposite him in the enclosure, at an angle, so that Barb could see him clearly, and looked him straight in the eye.
The horse pawed the ground, reared back nervously.
Eitan Russo went on looking deep into his eyes.
The horse registered the look and trembled. He shook his big head and laid his ears back, flared his nostrils; he ran back and forth, and suddenly he lowered his head and threw his hind legs into the air with his back almost vertical.
Eitan pulled hard on the rope and dragged him with all his strength to the gate post, until the rope tightened round the horse’s neck and almost choked him.
Barb’s eyes were moist and glittering. He looked at Eitan with a steady look, not challenging but alert: here was someone impossible to trust.
If he had tried to mount him now, he wouldn’t have had a chance. He took a few steps backward and coiled the rope round his arm and shortened it and pulled the horse a little closer, and turned a little to the left until the top of the rising sun was at his back, and without averting his eyes looked slantwise at the horse, and wiped his face and went on looking at him with an inquiring look, sidelong, with his head inclined, without moving.
The horse trembled. He had one answer for him: he dug in his heels and pricked up his ears, then laid them back and locked his jaws, looked quickly to the right, looked straight ahead, and all of a sudden he reared up on his hind legs and churned the air with his fore hooves.
The air was filled with a buzzing noise; green flies and mosquitoes coming from God knows where swarmed round the dung suddenly dumped by Barb on the red soil beneath him.
Far behind his back, from the mountain range to the east, the yolk of the sun gradually emerged, and Eitan raised his head and took a deep breath and sneezed. For more than five years now he had been working with horses, and still every morning the sharp smell made him sneeze.
There were no people to be seen on the country road at this hour, and vapors of early morning dew covered the windows of the houses. A changing wind stirred the branches of the silvery poplar tree and the old wooden gate which creaked on it rusty hinges, shaking the old tin sign attached to it. The name stamped onto the sign was RUSSO, a dilapidated metallic witness to the firm hand which had hammered the square letters into the tin in complete confidence that this sign would always go on hanging there.
Eitan stood tensely opposite the horse. He heard the creaking, but he didn’t want to think now about the gate or the hand which had fastened the sign to it the year that he was born, the same hand that had always touched him with fingers that were too rough. Nor did he want to think about the muscular arm attached to the hand or the shoulders bowed by hard labor, nor about the dark bearded face above those shoulders, the face that had bent over him every evening to see if he was already asleep, examining intently, with a dark look of demand, his eyelids and eyelashes and his features and freckles (‘Now close your eyes and go to sleep. And when you wake up you’ll be a man.’)
He closed his eyes. Tightly and obediently he closed them then, and fell asleep, and for longer than he could imagine, as if it was his only salvation. For long years he had fought the memory with his eyes closed, trying to escape that look: for him not to demand anything of him or expect anything from him or interrogate him about anything, and mainly for him not to have to turn his face back because of him and see what he saw then in the plantation, forty years ago, on that distant Sabbath morning.
Whenever he thought about it by accident it plunged him into gloom, but this morning, for some reason, he felt alert and absolutely awake. After all, this was his regular hour, this was his horse, Barb, and before the sun rose completely, he had to bridle him.
He looked up and inspected the sky: you couldn’t even trust the weather in this country any more. A day that began with a cool breeze turned into a khamsin by noon. And even though the light was still soft and mild, rivulets of sweat were already trickling down his forehead and lower back. Damn it. He sneezed again, shot a quick look at the horse and suddenly pulled the rope, coiled it quickly round his fist, took a deep breath and waited.
The horse blew out a jet of air, stamped his feet and lashed his tail, and he too waited. He snorted and raised his broad lips above his gums and bared his yellow teeth threateningly. His eyes blazed like torches and glared with bewilderment, with despair, with resignation, until they showed their whites. He tried to understand, Barb, and found no rest, and shook his head again and again as if to rid it of some aggressive thought.
Eitan let him be and withdrew a little. He was no less stubborn than the horse and had no intention of giving in, but at the same time, he knew from experience that this was the moment to go easy. He let go of the thick rope with one hand and fished a crumpled cigarette out of his shirt pocket, wet his lips with his tongue and swallowed the bitter saliva that had accumulated in his mouth, then pushed the cigarette between his lips without lighting it.
Barb moved his head and the rope tightened. His hind leg stamped the ground and he fixed Eitan with his two big eyes. Eitan knew that this moderate threat was a sign that he had to be careful, and he also knew that from this distance the horse saw him like a figure cut out of cardboard, almost flat, because that was how horses saw. He took another oblique step backwards and relaxed the rope and stood opposite the horse.
Barb drew the corners of his mouth back and gnashed his teeth. His eyes were still fixed mistrustfully on Eitan, but he allowed the rope to be wrapped round his neck and did not resist the clenched fist holding its end. Gradually the corralled horse calmed down, got used to being tied – he was getting used to it. They were both getting used to it. That was the agreement.
Eitan examined the stallion’s beautiful face with a soft look in his eyes and he approached him and put out his hand to stroke the gleaming coat of his neck, but halfway there he stopped and froze. For a moment it seemed that Barb was contorting his face and recoiling again. Eitan’s hand, brown and still, remained suspended motionless in the air, and he stared silently at the horse and he drew closer to him, slowly and obliquely, and touched him lightly at the top of his neck, near the mane, and massaged the warm skin. Then he paused.
Press. Massage. Press. Body temperature thirty-eight degrees. Fifteen breaths a minute. His pulse was quick even at rest, this horse.
Barb looked at him with one eye and flared his nostrils. Eitan paused. He rolled the unlighted cigarette between his wet lips and waited. They both waited.
The horse opened up, relaxed. His ears moved to the right and then turned towards him, and the arch of his neck stretched as he snuffled his hairy lips and rubbed his shapely head against Eitan’s shoulder and his chest. For a moment he stayed like this, and it was enough for both of them, until he raised his head and looked at him again from close up, this time with a twinkle in his eye.
He breathed close to him, the horse, and widened his nostrils and sniffed him, as if he were breathing in his smell through the skin, from inside. Then he allowed him to touch his nape too, his back, and Eitan leant towards his beautiful face and responded with a gesture of his own: he took a deep breath and gently blew his breath right into the horse’s nostrils; this mutual breathing between horses was like a hug, and hugs wee not something he was in the habit of giving or receiving lately. True, there were nights when he woke up in dread and hugged Alona tightly as if she were his whole life, and felt as if by magic how her warm body responded to him and instantly banished all the loneliness, and he longed for that good feeling. Of the last night it was better not to speak, nor of the evening that preceded it.
What had happened to them? When exactly had their love turned into its opposite, and their bed into a battlefield? It wasn’t so complicated, and nevertheless something in him stubbornly resisted understanding and clarifying the circumstances, and he still hoped that he hadn’t ruined everything completely and that they would succeed in getting through the holiday eve safely.
The horse rubbed against him now, pushing his muzzle into his shirt, and Eitan stroked his face and warm neck, and then put his hand into his back trouser pocket and pulled out the hard-bristled oval grooming brush and slipped his hand under the leather strap attached to the back of the brush and leant a little forward as if to measure the distance, but the horse had already found it.
Gently but steadily he brushed the horse’s coat over and over again, first with the direction of the hair and then against it. And in small circles he moved the brush over his haunches and his ribs and over the entire length of his back up to the mane, giving him more of his breath, the warmth of his hand, the warmth of his mouth, the warmth of his body.
Completely still and leaning towards each other they stood at a distance of half a step from each other; biceps to biceps; nose to nose; chest to chest; slightly raising his head, Eitan held out his free hand and brought it close to Barb’s nose, as if he suddenly felt impelled to reintroduce himself: Eitan Russo. Your man.
Once it was old man Bezalel Russo and now it was Eitan Russo the son. The old man didn’t deal with horses. He had a plantation, twenty-two dunams of avocadoes, he was less than thirty years old when he started it, and he already had behind him two or three incidents that were referred to in the village as ‘complications’; and everyone who heard about his plantation was sure it would end badly. And it really did end badly, but the old man knew how to put on a bridle. He put a bridle on himself then. A strong, tight bridle of silence.
The ‘thing’ that had happened – it was still not named and in fact to this day no one called it by its name, and how could they name it if only two people in the world knew about it, and now there was only one left? He did not include his brother Giddy in this equation; he had run away to Australia, as far south as Melbourne, simply in order to distance himself. As for Alona, she knew nothing. And how could she know if he had never talked about it? And from the two workers too she had heard nothing, for what did they have to do with it? That is to say, not that they had no connection to it, of course they did, but they too knew nothing about it.
A little lock of fair hair slipped forward and fell onto Barb’s forehead between his eyes, and Eitan nodded to himself and to the horse and smiled. In every new horse he encountered he always looked for this – a clear sign of intelligence, and it seemed that this morning, after a difficult period of adjustment, Barb had finally grown comfortable in his company. He came closer and sniffed curiously at the material of his shirt, the stubble on his brown face (Eitan Russo-breathed in, Eitan Russo-breathed out, Eitan Russo-sniffed) and snorted two noisy jets of steam.
Beyond the hedge fencing off the big yard, the sound of an approaching car was heard. It came closer and crossed the bend in the narrow country road, and Eitan caught sight of the glint of the nickel bumper and the radiator grille and the gleam of the dark opaque windows. He smelled the burnt diesel coming from the exhaust of the vehicle, which slowed down next to the gate. The driver observed him. It was impossible to look inside; only those inside could look out. It was the contractor who was building six crowded new villas at the end of the road, on the ruins of one of the old houses. The style of these new entrepreneurs looking for rural plots at bargain prices was detestable to Eitan. Since this Saturday this was the tenth car patrolling his street and the nearby streets. The hunting season of the new year had begun, and all the real estate vultures were circling round him in ever decreasing circles as if they had identified a carcass. They never gave up. Even if the house looked like a kennel, they didn’t retreat. On the contrary, it was the land, the land that sent the adrenalin racing in their blood, not the house that was going to be demolished anyway. And really, where could you find land at bargain prices today?
It wasn’t overnight that the primeval landscape had been transformed into a group of houses, a village: it took years. And nevertheless, it sometimes seemed as if one fine morning the empty red earth had woken up from its sleep and discovered to its shock that the malaria-stricken swamps had been transformed into forests of eucalyptus and oak and carob trees, and the virgin fields had been turned into plantations, orchards, hothouses, ploughed plots, and the paths at the edges of the plots had broadened into trodden dirt tracks. Afterwards the plantations and orchards were chopped down and uprooted, and the hothouses were dismantled to make way for paved roads, and it didn’t take long for additional private roads to appear on their right and their left, and branching out wildly from them junctions without traffic lights, and new neighborhoods of identical houses rose in an ugly, crowded jumble, and old estates were sold and changed hands and owners, and new names and new faces appeared – names and faces that had no future to look forward to in the eyes of the first inhabitants, perhaps because they had no past to boast of, and perhaps simply out of spite (and reasons for spite are never in short supply).
And the dirt track too – that same dusty limestone path illuminated by the sun on that morning when they had walked along it to the plantation, he and his brother Giddy, with their father and the dog Titus, the path that had then crossed with a winding chalk line the fields of wheat and corn on its way to the lone oak hill – it too had almost been swallowed up in the mad rush to progress.
A lot of people had been tempted to move away, not without reason. Some had migrated to the city, others had put money away for a rainy day, bought apartments for their grandchildren in Tel Aviv, in Ra’anana, even in Petah Tikva. With a history of eighty years or more in this place, which had started with a few mean wooden huts surrounded by slimy swamps swarming with mosquitoes and buffaloes, they had every reason in the world not to think of anything but the goal before them: to hang onto their land as long as the prices kept on going up. But not Eitan. The new neighbors across the road called him ‘the lord of the manor’ behind his back, and they barely greeted him on the few occasions when their paths crossed, as if they wanted to avoid any contact with his past. They had heard – if not the whole story, at least the twisted tail of the story which had this family and the cursed plantation at its center. And it had happened long before he began to work with horses.
In the meantime the debts swelled: debts to banks, debts to the citrus board, debts for taxes to the local council, debts to the water company, debts to the grocer; but he closed his ears to all the offers and refused to sell, perhaps because he it gave him satisfaction to find the old things still in their original places, perhaps because of the stubbornness inherited from his father, and perhaps out of blind revenge against all the quarrelsome, self-righteous villagers, who had been robbed of whatever little human warmth remained in their old bones by a deadly succession of drought years and an ever-diminishing water allocation. And perhaps for other, far darker, reasons.
Besides, he could never stand the city (he had only held out in Tel Aviv for one year), he did not want any more children, and he thought to himself that as far as he was concerned it was over and done with: no more foolish passions of the heart, no more unplanned steps, no more women who took you in for the night and tied you down for the rest of your life.
Would he be able to hold out? He didn’t know, just as he didn’t know if would be able to hold out in other matters, and every thought of a rainy day led in his mind to other things and other times, when there was still a point in paying for your mistakes. And really, perhaps things would have looked different if they had moved away then, he and his brother and their mother, to some other place, and not stubbornly insisted on staying. But perhaps this stubbornness was the right thing in the circumstances at the time?
A numbing weariness took hold of him, weariness at the prospect of continuing to fight: for his place, for the routine he had achieved in his life, for love. And in recent months, with the plans to enlarge the farm, it seemed as if he was being dragged into battle once more. But this time it would be his private battle, a battle he would wage on his own, and he did not want to fail again. He intended to keep his distance from that old business of the plantation, too. Nevertheless, at this early dawn hour of a Monday morning, he was overcome by an oppressive feeling that however he acted and whatever he did, he would be provoking what had happened here forty years ago.
One filthy thing did not justify another, he thought. Nevertheless, the more the years went by the more it seemed to him that everything went round in a circle, like a noose slowly tightening around your neck.