Auntie Farhuma Wasn’t a Whore After All
By Yossi Avni-Levy
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
(A moment before:)
On the day they hung Eichmann, I was circumcised. An evil woman with dyed red hair tried to steal from the mohel a part of my body that was lying on a towel, but Mama handed her a piece of chicken liver instead and the evil woman cursed me. Do curses come true?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, Auntie Farhuma was fucking an anonymous client twice a week and Yoav, the hunk from the elite reconnaissance platoon, was calling 056 for erotic conversation. Yes, folks, if you’re stupid, you get pissed on from head to toe by everyone.
And suddenly Arik popped up, promising me once-in-a-lifetime love even though I have bad genes, and an elephant in love trumpeted for us on Mt. Canaan. Only homos really die, I tried to explain to Miodrag, go find yourself a college girl from a good home and live forever. Who mends your socks, my Milosh, who holds your hand when you wake up at night, impoverished prince waiting for me in a distant city while I sit on Rothschild Boulevard in front of two cups of coffee and cry. A country without squirrels is a country with a soul – but at least it’s ours.
˜ On the day they hung Eichmann ˜ Who’s fucking Auntie Farhuma ˜ What does a donkey know about fruit soup ˜ And what is Eegen Meegen hiding under the floor tiles ˜ Even a raisin has a stick up its ass ˜ Meet Eliyahu Yakobian ˜ And this is Charley’s Angels’ cunt ˜ Beh beh beh– ˜
On the day they hung Eichmann, I was circumcised.
It was an especially hot day, Mama said. She washed diapers in the big tub and hung them on the line. The laundry was dry in five minutes. "My guts are falling out," Mama groaned. "Wash, hang, iron! When the head doesn’t work, the body suffers. I have to rest a few minutes, or else the stitches they made me in the hospital will open!" She was angry. "Fire is falling from the sky! You’ll dry up in this heat!" she yelled at Papa and made him a huge glass of tea. Clumps of mint like green scalps were soaking in the tea. It was the end of May, but already very hot.
I was lying in a small carriage, covered with a net against the flies, next to a young plum tree Papa had planted the day after his wedding night. "What a night that was," Mama laughed. "We were both young-stupid. No one taught us."
"Shut up, for God’s sake," Papa would say angrily.
"I threw the chickens into the boiling water with their gall bladders and their shit," Mama recalled. "The food stank like a dead animal, but Rabbi Babajana here gobbled it all down, didn’t leave a crumb." She wiped her eyes. "We were both orphans who came from a foreign country," she went on, looking at her husband affectionately. She pinched him: "I wouldn’t exchange you for a sack of rice."
"Very nice." Papa couldn’t decide whether that was a compliment or not.
"In the morning, your father gets up, sings a few songs in Afghan, and starts planting that tree." She wiped her forehead with a rag. "That’s how he wastes the country’s water."
I remember that Papa dug half-meter circles around the fruit trees and called them "saucers." He pulled a rubber hose to the edges of the saucers and turned on the water. "Fire is falling from the sky, God help us," he said and sat down to slurp the green mint tea. When Mama wasn’t watching, he smoked cigarettes to his heart’s content, then crushed the butts with his thumb and buried them in the ground. Within a few minutes, the water rose and all sorts of earthworms and bugs, mixed with rotten cigarette butts, floated on the spongy ground.
"The water’s running!" Mama would yell, scaring him out of his musings. "Look, you made us a sea in the yard, and you’re still sitting there drinking tea! Eats and shits in the same place! The country will end up without water and they’ll throw us out of the neighborhood! We’ll end up like Hargush,1 God forbid."
Papa was shaken out of his thoughts abruptly and started running to the faucet. But half way there, he slowed down, stopped and turned to her, his eyes blazing.
"You not tell me vot to do!" he’d yell back at her. "I only just turn on voter and put hose in saucer! You not stick your eyes on me! I give you bock to your family right now, you hear?!"
"Curses yells curses yells. Not just deaf, blind too," Mama muttered from behind the kerosene cooker. "Why did I marry an Afghan," she complained to the audience of dishes. "He brings all the sand into the house with his work boots."
"My feet are hundred times more clean than your face!" Papa roared, but he wiped his feet thoroughly on the mat. He fished out the cigarette butts and tossed them into Tsidkiya’s yard. Tsidkiya was the Yemenite witch who lived next door. In a few hours, the guests would be arriving for the circumcision of their first-born son, and they were both very excited.
"We still didn’t cook the chickens," Mama wrung her hands and put a huge pot on the kerosene cooker. She lit the fire with a practiced hand, but burned her fingers anyway. "Let a corpse-washer come and take the man who invented kerosene cookers!" she cursed. "All soot." She wet her finger with cold water. "Even the Yemenite women in the neighborhood have a gas cooker, I’m the only one with a kerosene cooker from the time of Abraham. Nothing in life is perfect," she grumbled. "Even a sweet raisin has a stick up its ass." Moving quickly, she brought a wicker basket with torn handles from the porch and took three slaughtered chickens out of it. Death had withered the birds’ feathers, but they had twisted their yellow feet stubbornly around the rubber handles, refusing to part from the land of the living.
"Sit down and pluck," she ordered Papa. "Help a little, why not! Your fat won’t fall off. The guests will be here soon, and you sit there and smoke."
"Who smoke? I smoke?" Papa made a shocked face. "Six months already I not smoke! Vot six months! Ten years! In my life, I never smoke! Crazy womon! Not know vot she is talking about!"
"Oon donyah,"2 Mama shut him up with a firm nod. "Look how the boy watches you. Poor thing, to have such parents. He has my eyes, I swear! And the chin too! Look how he smiles. So sweet!" She was thrilled. "I will give my whole life for you, my joojeh,"3 and she pinched my cheek so hard that I burst into tears.
"You’re scaring him!" she accused Papa. "Go shave! God help us, the way you look, like you just came from Afghanistan a half hour ago."
"Vot you mean, half hour ago," Papa snapped, but he looked at me suspiciously from the corner of his eye and rubbed his bristles.
"Dardata bokhoram,"4 Mama rocked me, "Little chick, my genius, professor."
I stopped crying.
"This boy, he’ll be Priminister," Mama sighed proudly. "I’m not afraid of Cairo Radio and not of Nasser. We came to this country with nothing, and the children that are born here, they’re our future," she declaimed. "You know what, he doesn’t have to be Priminister, give him only health, You hear?" She looked up reproachfully, as if a not-very-young man were looking at us through the roof tiles and cracking sunflower seeds. "Abraham Isaac Jacob, Nuriel Azriel and Paziel!" she mumbled reverently, banging the frying pan rhythmically. "Don’t let anyone hurt him, You hear?" she threatened. "May her piss be black, that bitch. Hor-mones she takes," she exhaled scornfully. "She can give birth to a cat, who cares."
"You talk so stupid," Papa said dismissively, but he’d lowered his voice and was looking around.
"There is a God in heaven," Mama interrupted him and banged the frying pan so hard that Papa jumped in alarm. "I know what I am talking about," she poured the boiling water into the large tub she’d used to wash clothes in earlier.
"You make tub kosher before you pluck chickens?" Papa shouted.
Mama kept on pouring the water, careful not to burn herself again.
"She not answer!" Papa yelled in despair and looked at me, as if waiting for me to intervene.
"Sha! Don’t make noise," Mama plucked the feathers. "He talks like a loudspeaker! Curses yells curses yells! Tu tu tu."
"Aiie, you not make tub kosher! They vill say vee are goyim," he lamented. "Thousand times I tell you -"
"Be quiet," she interrupted him. "And shave. The boy is looking."
The white steam rising from the water melted the follicles of the feathers. The rustling sound on the dead skin was pleasant, and a sweetish scorched smell spread through the air.
"You vont me to help you pluck or bring fresh radish from garden to make salad?" Papa was back, shaved and wearing khaki. A year before they married, he’d begun working as a fruit picker in the young Heinz citrus grove that had been planted around the neighborhood. "He’ll be foreman and get a van," Mama had boasted to her Yemenite neighbors. Then she breathed deeply. "At Passover, he’ll buy me a gas stove with two burners. And a Singer sewing machine from the store window. And for the boy, he’ll buy the Tarbut Encyclopedia, like the Ashken-azi boys have."
"She not answer!" Papa slapped his thigh in amazement and looked at me.
I waved my hands and my feet and drove away a pesky fly.
"Radishes," Mama ordered, "and close your mouth. Poor little boy, born to parents like us, a stupid Iranian woman and an Afghan who all day long curses yells curses yells. What are we worth in this country? The Ashken-azim did us a favor and brought us to Israel, to build it and be built by it!" she went on, astonishing him with one of her sayings. "Our children will be better than us. God, you are my witness," she warned Him again.
"Vee vill have best children," Papa glowed. "They vill make country proud."
Mama stared at him. "An acre of potatoes they can plant in your ears! You didn’t clean them like I taught you!"
"Vere?" Papa asked, touching his ears.
"It doesn’t take a genius to eat and shit in the same place!" She washed the glasses. "Get into the shower."
"You not give me orders! You hear?" Papa yelled and looked around to see who was listening. He puffed out his chest like a proud bellows: he’d show her. But there was not a living creature to be seen on the main street of that neighborhood of new immigrants, a trampled dirt road lined on both sides with wretched yards of crabgrass, young fruit trees and a row of low houses covered with rough clay tiles that looked like the eyelids of a chameleon. Wide-bottomed women sat on the parched concrete steps of the tiny cubicles sorting rice and lentils. They planted parsley and mint in their yards and cursed each other in ten different languages and yearned in a thousand dreams for a time that would never come. And at the far end of the neighborhood, across from the shabby hut of crazy Hargush, a large wadi had been dug where chrysanthemums blossomed in spring like the yellow pubic hair of a million Swedish whores.
The heavy end-of-May heat had emptied the streets. The only person there was Henia the rabbi’s wife, walking on the side of the road with a basket, shading her eyes from the yellow-white light.
"For every child of hers they killed, she raises a cat," Mama said, ironing sheets in the terrible heat. "No wonder she got crazy. They should burn in hell, what they did to us," she said to Papa. He gaped at her.
"Vot they did to us," he chanted, as if praying.
The sun beat down on the forest of miniature cactuses that grew under Mendel the grocery man’s house. His wife, Zona Kusman, had taken a dry toothbrush to the wooden shutters and was scraping them so hard that the drooping flesh of her arms shook like the yellow fat Mama pulled off the chicken’s stomach every Friday. The sun’s fury also beat down relentlessly on the hennaed head of Turan Ispahooni, who was standing in her yard. Every time Mama hung laundry, she too would drag her tub to the line, bend down and groan.
"She wanted my boy’s flesh," Mama would whisper. "May she rot in the grave of the evil Haman."
Turan never took her eyes off Mama, and she seemed to be mumbling at her.
"May you spit up blood from tuberculosis," Mama would nod towards her. "Leprosy. A hole in your bowels."
Fences of rusty tin, broken rods, viney hedges and the hatred of poor people separated the small houses built by the Jewish Agency. Turan straightened up in her yard and let loose two black streams at us.
"She’s cursing, I feel it," Mama would go to check the white sheets she’d only just hung. "Look at what holes her curses make in the sheets. God will put poison in your throat," she cursed back at her. "By this bread," she whispered as she held up a dry ear of corn.
Transparent snakes constantly surrounded us, spitting venom in our faces, but never hurting us. Papa was pale with fear.
"Never be a good person, little chick," Mama rocked me in my cradle. "We have bad genes. A good person, everyone shits on his head and pisses on him from head to toe." I looked at her through the apron of sun, a small woman with a flat head who kept putting wet compresses on my forehead.
Eliyahu Yakobian was also hiding from the early khamsin. He had sealed the shutters of the blacksmith shop on the other side of the dry wadi and was idly memorizing dirty jokes to tell that night. The plum tree in our yard cast a pleasant shade. Hairy flies circled in the air, carrying the yellow stamens of bird of paradise flowers. "He’s a big momser, that Eliyahu," Mama said to the neighbors she invited to have tea on the porch; "Alteh zachen," the Iraqi junk collector called in Yiddish from his wagon on the other side of the metal fence. "Don’t think he’s so innocent," she said to our Romanian neighbor, Golditza, "You know what he does at night?"
"What?" Golditza leaned forward.
"He leaves half his wages between Auntie Farhuma’s legs," Mama said, excited by the sound of the words.
Golditza caught her breath and couldn’t get a word out.
"The way he bargains over half a lira, don’t ask," Mama grunted. "I heard with my own ears, from the other side of my bedroom wall. What a miser, angelofdeath! When his peepee gets hot, he runs to her house like a shotor!"5 She stretched a thick arm forward until Golditza shrieked with pleasure. "But later, he doesn’t want to pay, the momser!" she choked. "That’s men for you, dearie," she wet my forehead with water. I pricked my ears to hear how Eliyahu leaves half his wages between Aunti Farhuma’s legs, as if she had a blue Jewish National Fund collection box there.
"You don’t know the half of it. Farhuma, she takes hor-mones," Mama stressed each syllable. "Like a dog, he sniffs the hormones she takes and runs with his tongue hanging out. That’s men for you."
Eegen Meegen appeared at the top of the blazing street. He was walking slowly and peering into the parched yards like a ragged scarecrow whose clothes were falling off. An old hat perched diagonally on his head, and he straightened it every now and then as he proceeded at a snail’s pace through the bubbling swamp of sweat in this land of evil sun. He lingered a bit longer outside Auntie Farhuma’s ramshackle house, nodding oddly to himself in front of the dried up jasmine bushes, then continued on his way.
The sight of Eegen Meegen emboldened Papa, who straightened up, the veins bulging in his neck as if he were an ancient prophet of doom.
"Cheshmet, koor!"6 he yelled at Mama, glancing excitedly at Eegen Meegen. "She is killing me, that vomon! Killing me!" he slapped his knees in despair. "Such vords! Such vords she talks in front of the baby on Shabbat!"
Eegen Meegen stopped and scratched inside his ear. Who could guess what secret was locked inside that man.
"Sha," Mama shushed Papa. "The boy is sleeping. Can’t you see?" She rocked the carriage so forcefully that my hat fell off and I woke up. "If he hears that loudspeaker of yours, he’ll grow up to be an Afghoon like you, God forbid!" she fumed at him. "Look what an old chicken Reuven Ayoobi sold you, the bastardsonofabitch, may he burn in hell. It’s so old, I can’t pluck it, not even a hundred grams of meat on it," she raged. "Even my donkey has more meat!"
"Vot you talking about, I buy best chicken," he said, shamefaced.
"If it was good, they wouldn’t sell it to you!" she delivered the coup de grâce. "Don’t you have eyes left to see how they screw you? A stupid man gets pissed on."
"You not raise your voice to me! You hear?!" Papa shouted at the top of his lungs. "You not buy me with the dowry your brother give!" All his brothers had married obedient women who stood in the kitchen, kerchiefs on their head, cooking white rice for their husbands. All their lives, they picked potatoes, sorted lentils and made quince jam. They had hot tea hurled in their faces for the smallest infraction. And he, poor thing, who did he marry?
"She is killing me!" Papa yelled bitterly. "Better to die thon live vith that vomon!" He was feeling very sorry for himself.
"Come in, come in," Mama stood up as Eegen Meegen approached, and wiped the mash of feathers from her hands. "They don’t come off," she mumbled. She’d been scraping the thigh of the old chicken with a knife and the white follicles stuck to her fingers like fish scales. "I had a hard delivery. They cut me with a scissors to save me. Look how the boy is smiling at you, he knows you already." She glanced at me lovingly.
"You have radio?" Eegen Meegen asked. His wet forehead glistened in the sun.
"You’re looking for a radio? Everything in this house is broken!" Mama asserted. "I don’t even have a kerosene stove. The sewer tank is flooding the whole house with lumps of shit, but you think he cares? Morning, noon and night he sleeps like his mother. Pfft...!" she spat air. "Like talking to the walls! What does the donkey know about fruit soup! In bed all day. A lump of dead meat."
"Pedaret laanat. Nat!" Papa declaimed loudly from the window, adding an extra syllable for emphasis.
"They cut me without mercy," Mama rocked me. "But he’ll be a genius. President of the country. Einstein. All the girls will throw themselves at his feet. I know it. A mother’s heart doesn’t lie," she caressed me with her glance.
"You have radio?" Eegen Meegen pleaded. "Today, everyone must listen to radio. Every Jew must listen to radio." His whole body shook as if he were cold.
But it was very hot. It was the end of May.
Mama grimaced with loathing. "Who needs to listen to the radio? It’s getting screwed, it’s murder, it’s a thief, it’s a lie! The Arabs will throw us into the sea without even trying. They’ll chew us up and spit us out – Shma Yisrael Gabriel and Zuriel,” she added, frightened by her own words. “They have healthy genes, may their names be cursed! Who needs to listen to the news? It makes your blood pressure go up and gives you a thousand sicknesses! I just have to listen to Radio Cairo that they’ll throw us into the sea, and I can’t fall asleep! I don’t know how to swim, and the baby,” she cried as if the water was already on its way.
It was so hot. The humidity choked off your breath like a moldy, reeking sponge. Mosquitoes bit you endlessly, circling the naked light bulbs like a saint’s halo.
"Soon, the tree vill give fruit," Papa mumbled, ruffling my hair affectionately. "You vill be a sol-dier, and go to ar-my, and the tree vill reach the sky," he said, looking at me. "See how big you getting. Like a little man."
"May the evil eye keep away, may he live to a hundred and twenty!" Mama spat. She stroked my forehead. "God will watch over you. I’d give my whole life for you, dardatah bokhoram. Little chick, jigarem," she added, pinching me. Then she hugged me so tightly that I could smell her hair, the salt on her skin, her longing for a different life. "So ugly, skin and bones." She made a face and looked over at evil Tooran’s yard. "Five years old but looks three." It was a lie and she knew it.
"He has big bones. Undernourished."
"What’s wrong with you, he finished all the rice," our neighbor Golditza said in surprise. "I should only have such an appetite."
"What are you talking about! Stupid woman! Look how big and crooked his nose is!" Mama spat in four directions and shoved another spoonful of rice with coriander into my mouth. "His bones stick out like in the ghetto, God help us. There in nothing perfect in life. You see this raisin?" She picked up a sprig of coriander. "Even this raisin has a stick up its ass."
The small house was swimming in the fragrance of coriander. The coriander spread a dark blanket of compassion over us. A huge pot of rice cooked in coriander and parsley and dotted with lentils and bits of carrot stood on the stove. Meatballs with coriander and thinly ground cardamon sizzled on the kerosene cooker. Bowls brimming with balls of semolina and coriander had been placed on the floor as an offering to the gods of plenty.
And outside the window, Tsidkiya was cursing in a thick voice. She was smoking a nargileh, her legs crossed like a man’s. "A vitch shall not be allowed to live," Papa would quote every time he saw the smoke rings curling through the old Yemenite woman’s window. His chickens were so stupid that they sometimes crossed the boundary between the two yards. In the morning, we would find a poor chicken on the fence, split in two. Papa would break into battle cries, cursing all the Yemenites, and Tsidkiya would reply with Yemenite curses as sharp as seeds of poison.
"Go make up with her, so she won’t curse the boy, God help us," Mama nagged at him for the whole night. I was lying in my bed and heard everything. "The Yemenites are dangerous, they have black souls and they never forgive," Papa gave in. In the morning, he filled a basket with oranges and put it among Tsidkiya’s gat bushes, which gave off a bitter smell of holiness. From the window, a pair of dark eyes followed him. And then something strange happened.
The Yemenite woman, who was gathering twigs, was so thrilled that she burst into ancient holiday songs and went to light the clay oven at the far end of her yard. With surprising agility, she spread small lumps of dough on the rounded walls of the oven and they turned into pita breads. All morning, the wonderful aroma capered among the yellow tassels that shot up like batons in the blazing khamsin. At lunchtime, a tired and proud Yemenite woman appeared at our door and put down a huge pile of fresh pita breads, right in front of Papa’s astonished eyes. She peered inside curiously, mumbled a few embarrassed words of greeting and disappeared back into her yard, her dark skirt swaying.
She liked me, that witch who was our neighbor. She hung blue and green handkerchiefs on branches of trees against the evil eye. I remember the guttural sounds of her songs, the pieces of cloth waving in the hot wind like goats’ whiskers.
And I remember the speech I gave in kindergarten that day, and Mama’s tears of joy and Papa’s proud eyes:
"I’m five years old today,
I’ll grow up and work hard every day
I’ll never be afraid of anyone
I’ll help people and be a good son."
"Salt! Don’t forget to add salt! Salt gives flavor!" Mama roared like a high priestess over the rumbling of the kerosene cooker. "You know why people in the Middle Ages died like flies on their ships?"
"Because they didn’t have enough salt! That’s why they raped black boys on the slave ships of Uncle Tom’s cabin!" She wiped her nose because of the onions. She was allergic to onions, just as she was allergic to black pepper, cumin, cardamon and garlic, the staple ingredients of the food she cooked.
The commotion was at its height. "Where’s the rice? The guests will be here any minute!" Papa said excitedly. It was clear he was happy.
"I’m sick of cooking! I’m sick of standing in front of pots every day!" Mama yelled at him in a euphoria of despair. "I have to change, I have to change," she muttered as she ran back and forth between a thousand different places at the same time, adding spices, tasting, pouring out water, chopping parsley and scattering it over everything like fairy dust. "There’s nothing hard about cooking," she said, mixing the contents of a steaming pot with both hands. "If you put good things in a pot, the food comes out okay. But if you put love in it too, oh boy, the food comes out really delicious, beh beh beh." Her jaws shook. "Taste it, little chick," she gave me a spoonful.
"Beh beh beh,’ I chirped.
"Take more," she pleaded.
The aromas burst forth in the air of the kitchen like colored bubbles. An eggplant and beef stew simmered. Red clouds of steam billowed above the pots, blurring sight. Scallions were being chopped in every corner, chak chak chak, and their smell clotted on the eyelids like thin curtains. Radishes and kohlrabi were cut into thin slices. Coriander was sprinkled over everything.
"Now the chickens," Papa said excitedly.
She thrust into the chicken the secret that only she knew, a concoction of Persian herbs and raisins that had been soaked in wine until their skins were as brittle as an old woman’s fingers. "For the flavor," Mama whispered. "For the blessing," she said, crumbling more dry coriander and shoving it into the packed space between the skin and the meat.
"Should I bring more coriander?" Papa asked.
He waited for a moment, at a loss. A skinny, tired man wearing a workman’s cloth hat, the hem of his shorts folded. He simply looked from her to me and back again. "Not-answer!" he cried in despair, waiting for confirmation that I did actually see his wife abusing him. "Put in a little salt."
"How many times did I say salt is not allowed!" Mama yelled, wiping the beads of sweat from her forehead. "Salt brings a thousand sicknesses! The Ashkena-zim never use salt! That’s why they’re healthy and we’re sick all the time, health clinic, hospital, cemetery! You know why people died like flies in the Middle Ages?!" she attacked Papa.
"Maybe because they have a vife like you?"
"Move!" She pushed him, suddenly frantic. She snatched the large ladle from above the red-hot stove.
"Peel oranges and don’t make noise!" she ordered impatiently.
"You not give me orders! You hear? You not buy me!" he roared and waved his hand, but he looked at me and calmed down. "Vot are you doing," he asked me affectionately.
"Cutting. Tomatoes," I said shyly. My voice had started changing. "For salad."
"Sal-ad." Papa sang. "How nice." He made himself a cup of mint tea. "You vont?"
"You know by heart already the blessing for going up to read the Torah?"
"Good," he gulped down all the tea, felt ashamed and went outside.
Mama wiped her red eyes. She left her cooking for a minute and came over to me. "A thirteen-year-old should know everything, little chick. How to cook, to clean, to bake," she hugged me close to her beating heart, a little mother who was always sweating, walking through onions and garlic and coriander that would never be washed away. "Everything we never had, you will have. You’ll see. The girls will run after you and fight over you," she shook her head from side to side.
"I’ll be Prime Minister," I suddenly chirped. "I’ll be Foreign Minister. President."
"Mo-sha-allah, Mo-sha-allah," Papa cried happily from the porch. He was carrying an enormous tray of beautifully peeled oranges. He was so excited that a few of them fell onto the floor.
"God willing, God willing," Mama mumbled nervously and threw a handful of salt straight into the leering eyes of the demons and devils. "We don’t need Prime Minister. Just be happy, son," she whispered, "It’s all up to you, sanvi, sansanvi, samangalef." she whispered incantations to ancient goddesses, reciting the words she had once heard in her mother’s house.
"What does that mean," I asked.
"Ssh… son" she put her arms around my neck. "There are things it is better not to know."
Papa also sprinkled handfuls of salt on the tree trunks, into the oppressive air hanging over us like a hot fetid rag, on the surprised cats that ran off into the dry thorns.
"There’s no choice, I have to shed blood," Mama said suddenly. She had paled. "Bring a young chicken. She’s standing there and cursing."
"You not have to," Papa shrank at the idea. "Another time."
"Everyone has his own fate," Mama muttered, tired. She closed her eyes, then she attacked the fire with renewed strength, an infinite woman with a fervent expression. "So there’ll be a little flavor," she rubbed handfuls of rare herbs around the rims of the pots: dried, spicy tartizak, fresh shayi and the sourish, bitter gishniz that Papa brought from crazy Hargush’s yard.
"Before I married your father, I worked in a hotel for tourists, "she said, suddenly quiet.
"Tell me about it," I touched the back of her hand.
"They treated me with respect, little chick," she whispered. "They called me Frau Shamsi. And now? Now I’m a sparrow trapped in a cage. I want to fly but I can’t." She waved her arms as if she were trying to take off. "My heart is exploding. Everyone goes on trips on Saturdays and holidays, and we’re stuck in this graveyard and we don’t have a car to go out in, to see the countryside and the people, to travel round in."
"My teacher told us that in other countries, the buses run on Saturday. They even have trains."
"I don’t know. I still haven’t been to Eilat, and you’re talking about other countries," she bit her lips. "I would like, once, before I… I…" She looked at me with her kind eyes and wanted to say something else, but her shoulders slumped and she was quiet.
What did you want to say, Mama? I swore I would rescue you from the poverty we grew up in, from the backwardness that stuck to the skin like lice, but I failed. Forgive me, Mama. Forgive me for not rescuing you. Forgive me for running away alone and leaving you in your prison cell. I should burn in hell, Mama. Please forgive me. But Mama looked at me lovingly, her eyes glittering black diamonds. "Someday, you’ll be part of high society, son," she said. "I know it. You’re young and talented. I’m not." She tried to smile and the sweat glistened on her chocolate skin.
Something in me died. It was my liberty. At that moment, it breathed its last breath and died.
Mama stroked the back of my hand and was silent. The smell of onion, lemon and garlic rose from her skin. I love you, I wanted to tell her, and Mama raised her black eyes and gave me a wise, sad smile. I know you won’t rescue me, her smile said. I’m not angry. Everyone has his own fate. Every pot has its cover.
"Could it be that there’s a pot, Mama, and next to it another pot?" I once asked her.
She thought about it. "Yes. But in some other corner of the world, there’s a cover, and next to it, another cover."
It was so hot. I remember the heat walking beside like a nameless family member, its face covered.
"Oy, oy oy," Eegen Meegen moaned as he came slowly into the yard.
"A mekhiya," Mama said, handing him a glass of frothy liquid. "Drink."
"A mekhiya," Papa shouted proudly. "In your Holocaust, there vos orange juice like this? Piss you had, not juice!"
Eegen Meegen scratched behind his ear and moaned.
"What’s up," Eliyahu Yakobian asked in his repulsive voice. "What’s up? How’s your sister Afah? Why doesn’t she come to visit?" Right after the "What’s up," he’d always start telling dirty jokes. Mama despised him.
"Afah’s not here. Why did you come?" she asked him angrily. "He sneaks into people’s yards at night and steals picking machines or pruning shears, he’s the head of the Yemenite gang," she once explained to horrified Golditza. More than once, she’d caught him peeping into the window of Lily Ispahooni who was as hairy as a monkey. "A snake in the grass, that Eliyahu, never believe him," Mama would say to me. "If he comes close to you, call the police right away. You hear?"
"How stupid you talk!" Papa was shocked. "He is boy, not girl."
"Yes," Mama insisted. "Those men, they have… an appetite. Like sailors on a ship."
"Listen to this joke." Eliyahu sat down opposite us. "Three Yemenites are sitting in a car. Who’s driving?"
"Who?" Papa asked curiously.
"The policeman!" Eliyahu cheered.
"May their names be cursed, the Yemenites," Papa said. "Vy they bring them to Israel, I don’t know."
"We’re all Jews," Mama silenced them, chopping coriander. "Even the Yemenites." She used to spend long hours filling bottles with chopped coriander and corking them with bay leaves in case the Arabs attacked and tried to throw us into the sea. But the voices from the other side of the wall drove her mad. "Twice a week, every Monday and Wednesday between four and five, Auntie Farhuma’s regular customer screws her behind my wall," Mama complained to Golditza as she pounded cutlets on the counter.
"Stupid vomon!" Papa would choke. "Such terrible vords you speak in front of strangers!" He’d grimace in shock. "Such ter-ri-ble vords!"
"Screws! Screws! You heard me!" Mama pounded the chicken with a hammer. "You want me to sing you a song, to remind you of something good?"
"Begoo baleh, begoo baleh
Aroos khanom, begoo baleh,"
Mama sang their wedding song to him at the top of her lungs, slapping her wrists together. Every time she heard Aunti Farhuma cry out in passion, she’d burst into that song and laugh wildly.
"Say yes, say yes
Lovely bride, say yes."
"Such a crazy vomon I marry," Papa blushed.
"The boy will be finished with the army soon!" red-headed Golditza said excitedly. "What’s his rank? Lieutencolonel?"
"No. First lieutenant. That’s even higher," Mama explained.
"But a girlfriend he doesn’t have," Papa moaned, "so vot good is it."
"Aziza’s Levan doesn’t have a girlfriend either!" Mama shouted as if a black fire had been lit inside her.
"What’s up?" Eliyahu Yakobian interrupted in his hairy voice. "I thought your sister Afah would come to have tea with us." He’d been in love with Mama’s younger sister for years, but Afah dreamed about an Ashkenazi groom with flaxen hair and bottle-green eyes.
"Afah’s not here! And she won’t have you! Why did you come?" Mama attacked him.
"To see how Avram is, that’s why I came, how is everything Avram?" Eliyahu sweet-talked Papa.
"How can it be?" Papa bit his lips. "Is better I should not talk."
"The Yemenite children steal everything," Mama complained in his stead. "Just this morning, I hung the boy’s uniform on the line and pfft, night came and they took it! He’s a first lieutenant in the army! Whoever stole it they should put in front of a firing squad!" She moved closer to Eliyahu and gave him the slanty-eyed look of a panther. "They should roast him on the cooker, just like the Arabs, may their name be cursed, did to the Jews in Hebron! Anyone who steals at night, may he never stand under the chuppah with a bride!"
Eliyahu paled. I saw that right away. Mama saw it too, and she looked at me victoriously.
"Uniform, you say!" Papa was agitated. "Just yesterday, I leave my saw five minutes on the steps, and the Yemenites come and steal it!" he said, shocked. "Vorse than Arabs! I mean it!"
"What can we do," Mama sighed. "Some are better, some worse, but we are all Jews."
"For the Yemenites, stealing is allowed," Eliyahu recovered. "The Yemenites, they’re like gypsies. Gypsies, you know what they are?" he asked Papa. Papa raised his eyes over the rim of his cup of tea and listened closely. Eliyahu had traveled the world, and the people in the neighborhood liked to hear his pearls of wisdom.
"The gypsies lived in caves in ancient times," Eliyahu stroked his beard. "They would snatch children and eat them while they were still alive, God help us." He got carried away: "That’s why the Crusaders destroyed the Temple. Hey, koreboz!"7 He came over and tapped me on he shoulder. "How’s the army? How are the girls? You use the same shower room? Those Ashkenazi girls, they like us Sephardim," he said in his repulsive voice.
"Hello, watch your mouth," Mama growled at him, but Papa purred with pride. This is my eldest son, he was thinking. He’s an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. The Ashkenazi girls like him.
"This isn’t your whores we’re talking about here," Mama wheezed angrily at Eliyahu Yakobian. "He’ll have high-class girls, not like the ones you screw behind the wall."
"I don’t know what you’re talking about. But you’re probably right, Mrs. Shamsi," Eliyahu Yakobian bent his head in surrender. His curly beard was mostly black, but here and there were sad threads of silver. "One hundred percent you’re right," he declaimed loudly. "You know what this is?" he whispered surreptitiously to me and twisted his face in the most indescribably nauseating way. His enormous jaw suddenly moved to the right, then to the left. He thrust his fleshy lips out, exposing a kind of pink bladder between them. It was so disgusting that I was dumbfounded.
"You don’t know what this is?" He moved his jaw and sucked his lips in and out so Mama wouldn’t see.
"It’s the cunt of Charlie’s angels when they jump over cars!" His red demon eyes gaped.
"What do you want from the boy," Mama growled. "Why are you making monkey faces!" She wiped her hands on the edge of her dress. "Don’t go near him."
"I just wished him success in the army, Mrs. Shamsi," ugly Eliyahu cleared his throat and winked at me so I wouldn’t give him away.
"He’ll be Priminister, that boy," Mama said, arranging the citrus fruit on the table. "No! Better he should be happy. God, You hear me God, You are my witness," she reprimanded God with a rough finger.
As usual, God did not respond.
It was very hot. I don’t remember a single day that wasn’t hot in the house where I’d grown up, in the country whose colors had been erased and that scorches its sons. Mama wiped the sweat from her broad forehead, picked up the kitchen knife and began furiously halving the huge number of oranges, grapefruits and lemons. Dozens of summer suns were behind that knife. I thought about the thighs of the girls in the army, how they spread their hairy secret in front of healthy soldiers whose names were Gidi and Oren and Niv, males who did not wash dishes or help their mothers pluck chickens, but fucked girls on army cots. And Eliyahu buried his beard between their legs and licked them with a hot tongue as if he were sticking a million stamps into them. Beh beh, he gurgled, leaving half his wages between their thighs. I am a pot standing alone, where is my cover. I closed my eyes. Or maybe I need another pot.
"Oy," Eegen Meegen sighed.
"Say Eegen Meegen," Eliyahu Yakobian requested.
"Eegen Meegen," Eegen Meegen said, and everyone laughed.
"They say you have a treasure under your floor tiles," Eliyahu said. "They say you’re a millionaire," he curled his thick lips and laughed. Mama turned angry eyes towards him, but he went on: "Where’s the gold, tell us! Who are you saving it for?" He winked both his eyes at Mama. "Are you hiding it for the next world? We’re still young, we’re not even thirty! We want to live!" he cried in a voice as thick as a donkey’s organ.
"Shut up already," Mama ordered.
Eegen Meegen picked at his ears as if that was where he’d hidden the treasure. His squalid little house had been broken into and turned upside down at least ten times, but the burglars found nothing but newspaper clippings in a foreign language, a handful of yellowing photographs and the stench of old age and infirmity. They said that Eliyahu had sent Yemenites to his little house to look for gold. They were so furious that they left feces behind, smeared on the wall with a whitewasher’s mortarboard. Who could guess Eegen Meegen’s little secret?
"And wash glasses!" Mama commanded. "I’m sick of serving all of you. The servants quit. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves."
Papa got up, started towards the sink and stopped. "You von’t look at me like that!" he yelled. "You hear! Or I vill hit you so hard that your head vill roll into the bowl!" He pointed to the asbestos sink leaning against the storeroom wall. "Balah zadeh,"8 he shook his head with husbandly pride. And only then did he go to wash the glasses.
Mama put the split oranges on the juicer and pressed down with her entire body. Colored jets of fresh juice flowed from the udders of the old juicer, mixed with bits of fruit and tiny insects that quivered on their legs in the frothy liquid.
"Good health!" Mama yelled, fishing out the bugs that were drowning while the juice splashed onto the neck of her dress. "Good health! May all our enemies explode!" She pulled out another anti-asthma pill and swallowed it quickly.
"Beh beh beh," Eliyahu Yakobian sighed, moving his head from side to side.
"Beh beh beh," Papa said.
"Beh beh beh," Mama said, pouring everybody another glass glistening with beads of steam.
"Oy oy oy." Eegen Meegen sipped the cold juice, but his completely vacant eyes were darting about. He took his hat, got up slowly and left.
It was hot. It was always hot. A voice came from the yard. Laughter. Yemenite boys drumming on empty olive tins.
A woman shouted on the other side of the wall.
"Auntie Farhuma has clients again!" Mama said, jumping up. "Probably Arabs. But just give them…" She cleared her throat noisily. Papa frowned. He wiped the bottom of a pot with a piece of old black bread and stopped listening. But a new cry of pleasure, stronger than its predecessor, left him no room for doubt.
"Do you hear?" Mama shouted like the prosecutor at a trial. "The men are waiting in line at her place!" She squeaked exultantly and her lungs whistled. Her imagination was all fired up. "There were three buses! She takes hormones and the men sniff her. We have to tell the police! Or do you go to her too?" She looked for her inhalator.
"Jonet mereg besheh,"9 Papa cursed and dropped his head towards the floor. "Kher na dideh,10 you crazy vomon."
"Why get upset!" Mama laughed. "The Ashkena-zim take their boys to a whore when they’re only fourteen. So they know what to do." The slits of her eyes were two stripes of rust.
"Enough, stop," I begged.
But Auntie Farhuma shouted again from the other side of the wall and the Yemenite boys drummed rhythmically on the tins. A distant field of sunflowers opened inside me and hairy flies strolled over their hot flesh on sticky legs of desire. Papa turned on the TV to drown out the sounds. The woman broadcaster’s face lit up on the screen.
"Vy they don’t kill that man vith the glasses?" Papa yelled. "Vy she not say good evening dear viewers, this morning they try to kill that ugly man vith the glasses and that’s it, it’s finished! He vorries about the Arabs, not the Jews, sonofabitch." He shook in anger. "Look, again they killed a womon vith two children in Jerusalem."
"We shouldn’t watch television," Mama turned her head away pointedly. "It raises your cholesterol, may its name be cursed. Look, the guests are here! Sit down and eat," she yelled at the aunts and uncles who had gone straight into the kitchen.
"We ate before we came!" Uncle Mirza yelled at the top of his lungs, but he peeked curiously into a pot.
"We ate before we left the house!" Aunt Minoo yelled in a hungry-duck voice.
"We ate before we left the house," Aunt Victoria said, but she sat down anyway.
"Just a little something," Mama pleaded, the ladle brimming over. "For the blessing."
"Okay," the guests agreed, according to the rules of the ritual.
"It’s because you don’t eat anything, that’s why you have a good figure," Eliyahu sweet-talked beautiful Aunt Afah. For years he’d been trying to coax her into marrying him, but she kept refusing.
"You go to other country?" the aunts and uncles asked as they chewed.
"Yes," I said.
"Bli ayin ha’ra," Mama said proudly, as though warding off the evil eye with that expression left no room to doubt his answer.
"Must to find a vife!" The aunts and uncles devoured more roast chicken thighs. "Must to make already three babies," they added malevolently.
"What do you want from him!" said Mama angrily. "He’s full of sicknesses." She spat in four directions. "High blood pressure, possible diabetes, hidden tuberculosis."
"Did I tell you that I have a new blacksmith shop?" Eliyahu Yakobian announced, looking at Aunt Afah. "The money’s flowing in." But Aunt Afah turned her face away.
A sharp moan came from the other side of the wall. "Oy. Again." Everyone went pale.
"Again we didn’t catch him, the bastard!" Mama wrung her hands in disappointment. We used to lie in wait for hours to see who Auntie Farhuma’s mysterious client was, but in vain.
"Khoda! Khoda!"11 Auntie Farhuma called upon God. The Yemenite boys woke up in their vine-covered pergolas. One of them began drumming. From the other side of the wall came the sound of water. A door creaked. Silence.
"It must be Arabs from Kalkilya that come to her. Hormones she takes," Mama wheezed. "With my own eyes I saw a bus full of Arab workers."
"Phew!" Papa cringed.
We heard a faint knocking. A worn hat drifted in, followed by a scrawny old man with drooping lips.
"Come in, come in," Mama led him to the table. "We were waiting just for you," she said, shushing the guests. The old man sat down at the foot of the table and foraged around in his ear. He buried his nose in his plate but didn’t touch the choice dumplings Mama had put there.
"His clothes," Aunt Minoo said in Farsi, wrinkling the tip of her nose. "What a stink."
"Be quiet!" Mama said in a thick, low voice. "They burned his whole family in the oven. What does he have left in the world? Those poor people, the Ashkenazim, what they went through. They built this country and we’re destroying it."
"We’re destroying it," Papa repeated automatically.
Eegen Meegen lifted his head and looked at us sadly, as if he understood every word.
"Heh heh heh! Hee hee hee!" Mama jumped around in front of him like a clown. She put two fingers on her head and made funny noises. The man who was all alone in the world chuckled at her and his features softened.
"Say Eegen Meegen," Eliyahu Yakobian ordered him, eyeing the choice gondi balls Mama had put on the plate across from him. Five, he counted covetously.
"Eegen Meegen," he said. Everyone laughed.
"What about the treasure you’re hiding under your floor tiles," Eliyahu said, the same wise guy he was every year, peeking at Aunt Afah’s face. He’d already bought the blacksmith shop where he worked, had installed two lathes and even hired three workers. But he still hadn’t found a wife. "Everyone says you have a bag full of gold teeth you brought from the concentration camps, that you put teeth from a whole city of dead people into a single bag, God help us," Eliyahu belched. "Forget that, I know what you have there. Diamonds. Hah! Me you can’t fool. Diamonds!" Eliyahu banged his hand on the table. "We’re still young!" Then he looked straight into Aunt Afah’s eyes. "We’re not even forty yet!"
"Let him eat in peace!" Mama reprimanded him and decorated Eegen Meegen’s plate with strips of pepper she’d roasted on the stove. "What does money matter? Being a person matters. Being happy matters. The important thing is peace - quiet."
"Beh beh beh," Uncle Mirza sighed, moving his head from side to side.
"Beh beh beh," Aunt Afah blinked.
"Beh beh beh," Eliyahu Yakobian hiccupped.
"Why so hot?" Papa coughed. "How many times I tell you not to put hot pepper!" He tapped his chest.
"Curses yells curses yells," Mama pounded his back until she almost broke it.
"Aie!" Papa yelled. "Like Hitler she hits me!"
"You go to Europe?" Eegen Meegen asked, fixing very sick, tired eyes on me.
"Yes," I replied.
"Where you go?"
I told him. He paled.
"You go work there?" he stammered.
"But not marry there," he said, part question, part request.
"No. God forbid."
"Not touch them," he blushed. "You are listen, six million witness."
"I won’t touch."
"Be always healthy," Eegen Meegen put a dry hand on my cheek. Strange, that was the only time he ever touched me. As if he were saying goodbye. As if he knew we would never see each other again.
"You know when an Ashkenazi eats chicken?" Eliyahu asked. His beard was almost completely white, making him look like an Afghan mullah come down from the mountains.
"Either the Ashkenazi’s sick or the chicken’s sick."
Uncle Mirza picked his teeth. Aunt Afah was picking at her carrot salad. Her three children sat next to her, and although their hair was neatly combed, they were very ugly. After years of hoping, Aunt Afah had found an Ashkenazi husband with bottle-green eyes. He left her a few years later and went to live with his Tunisian secretary in a penthouse in Tel Aviv. Now she hated every Tunisian in the world.
"I’ve been on my feet since the morning!" Mama panted. "Standing in front of the pots all day! Cook clean! The servants quit a long time ago! Should I make you another cup of tea?" she asked the aunts and uncles, running back and forth restlessly. "We have delicious dates! Wonderful raisins! Tunisian carrots!" She thrust the tray under Aunt Afah’s nose.
Aunt Afah paled. "I’m sorry," Mama mumbled.
"Taste these, my son." Papa took a handful of wrinkled fruits from his pocket and put them down in front of me.
"Plums. From our tree."
"Don’t eat them," Mama whispered. "He pees under the tree."
I took a plum and sank my teeth into it. It was sweet and bitter at the same time.
"It’s too bad that Eegen Meegen can’t see you, that you came back to Israel, thank God," Mama tried to snatch away the plum. "He loved you so much, and worried about you," she stroked the back of my hand. "He always asked about you."
"Better he gave you half-acre land!" Papa roared, and everyone burst out laughing.
"What a momser he was, that Eegen Meegen!" Eliyahu was morose and sank into thought. All the single women around had married, except for a few Yemenites. Even Aunt Afah had thickened and her legs had swelled. Only he, with his best years behind him, was still single.
"What does a person need in life?" Eliyahu Yakobian belched. "A good house, good food, a good woman." He looked at Afah’s fat hands. "We’re still young, not even fifty. We still have seventy years left, if the Arabs don’t wipe us all out, may their names be cursed," he sighed.
"May their names be cursed! Quiet! News!" everyone yelled.
"Who needs news?" Mama said, escaping to the porch. "They go from house to house, those Arabs. They’ll kill us all. Like in the Holocaust." She suddenly touched the back of my hand, as if she were afraid. Maybe she wanted to protect me, that small, sweating woman.
The whistling burst from all the yards. Even the Yemenites stopped chattering in their vine-covered pergolas.
"Never vee vill have peace vith them," Papa moved his eyes closer to the screen. "It’s us or them."
"The doctors told you not to watch the news! It brings a thousand sicknesses!" Mama said in alarm, but her eyes too were drawn magnetically to the horrible scenes.
"Some peace process they make for us!" Papa shouted. "Look, a girl, five years old, they slaughter today in her bed! Every day they put bombs in the supermarket! Vy they not kill that baldy vith the glasses?!" He shook with terrible rage. "Say that bastard is assassinated, for vonce do a mitzvah!" he yelled at the woman newscaster.
I looked at my father, an angry, hopeless old man sitting on a crumbling armchair, his sparse hair white.
"Calm down." Mama put a hand on his shoulder. "It gives you blood pressure."
"The Arabs he likes, not us!" Papa trembled.
"Sha," Mama unwrapped a piece of candy for him. "The People of Israel live, look, our son is back."
"Our son is back," Papa said. "Eat a plum, son. The tree is old. Already thirty-three years. Before it dies, it gives the sveetest fruit."
I took a plum. It was as velvety as a fetus. "Delicious," I told Papa.
He laughed, showing toothless gums. "The fruit get rotten on the ground and your Mama don’t vant to make from it jam," he coughed. "But tell her they sell in the supermarket plum jam for tventy shekels, she jumps up and runs to buy."
"Jam is sugar. Sugar brings cortisone and cortisone brings a thousand sicknesses," Mama asserted. "Should I get you some fresh poppy seed cake, the last piece?"
"You didn’t just say sugar brings a thousand sicknesses?"
"One little crumb," she wheedled. "To forget a little the troubles the Arabs give us, may their names be cursed." She pointed to the TV. "We’re almost done for. They won’t let us live."
"God forbid," Papa said, alarmed. "Vee have the strongest army, the Israel Defense Forces! And they have the best commander in the vorld: God Almighty. He vill protect us."
Late at night, my mother and I were sitting in the living room.
"I already thought you would never come home, my little chick." She ran her hands over my face as if she were blind. "Every night I prayed to God to watch over you," she whispered. "A lot of people hate us, Jujeh. We have to stand together. We don’t have good genes."
"I know, Mama. I’ll take care of myself and you take care of yourself. That’s the contract between us."
"I don’t have dreams anymore," she said, leaning against my shoulder. "How much longer will I live. I pray only to see you happy. You left a country that was blooming and you came back to ruins. Everything is collapsing on our heads. We have no country. Even he left you alone, like a dog!" She cringed. "He promised me to watch over you. I will never forgive him. To the day I die."
"He found some girl, right? Tell me the truth."
"No! He’s all alone!" I said, hoping with all my heart that I was wrong. Hoping that you were happy, Arik.
"But what will become of you, my little chick," Mama burst into tears. "How long will you be alone, with no one to hug you, no one to take care of you when you’re old, God forbid." She wiped her tears.
"I’m not a little chick anymore," I said quietly. "I’m a tough old duck with coarse feathers."
"No," Mama smiled, spreading clean sheets over the couch on the porch. "No. For me, you are the most beautiful little chick. My back hurts," she sighed, a woman no longer young. The smells of my childhood gathered in heaps on the porch, mixed with dust balls, a handful of hair from stray cats, and end-of-summer lemons.
"Go to sleep, Mama. You can hardly breathe."
"I’m allergic to rat shit," she wheezed, confused. "I love you so much." She wrung her hands and sat down beside me. "I want to sing you a song I used to sing to you - ‘The fish-er-man sailed his ship in the sea’… ”
"Stop Mama. The neighbors will think you’ve gone crazy."
"They can all drop dead, one by one," she swallowed her tears and muttered something. "Should I cook you something you like?" She got up abruptly.
"Yes," I smiled. "Breadballs."
"Breadballs?" she said in surprise. "Like I used to make, with onions and coriander?"
"With garlic or without?" She was revived and completely happy. "With chopped chicken? Should I soak the bread with cardamon?"
"Whatever you like."
"I didn’t know that you remember those breadballs, my little chick." She glowed, my sad little mother. "You see, you’ve been all around the world and ate at the best restaurants, first-course and last-course, but your Mama’s breadballs you never forgot," she said, slipping happily into the kitchen.
"A few strips of chicken breast roasted in paprika, the way you like them?" From far away, she was opening and slamming shut all the doors.
"Why not," I turned over on my bed.
"Vot is all this noise five o’clock in the morning!" Papa said angrily, standing at the door in his underwear with his shiny white pate. "Cook for the boy some meat, vy you give him carrot salad?" As usual, he hadn’t heard well.
"Go to sleep, you’re falling off your feet," Mama said to him quietly. "All morning you cried like a baby from so much excitement before we went to the airport."
"Vere is the sack of rice I buy yesterday. I vill make a pot of rice." Papa stumbled to the kitchen in his underwear. "You don’t know how to make Basmati rice so is not mushy."
"Wash coriander," Mama ordered him. "I made rice already."
He turned on the faucet. "You don’t give me orders, you hear?"
And between the croaking frogs and the sizzling onions, it was clear to me that this was where I should be, with the people who loved me, that this should be my home. That tomorrow, the searching would stop. That a tall, sad boy was sitting with his mother in a shabby little room in a far-off land waiting for me to call him to come. That I have everything and I have nothing.
God, I prayed on that porch of my childhood, amidst the stink of cats, dustballs and mildew. Help me gather up the remains of my life and knead them into a new life, the way Mama is kneading breadballs for me at four in the morning. And God answered me, little chick, it’s already five o’clock in the morning, for your information. Haven’t you learned yet that God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves?
1 Donkey ears (Farsi)
2 In the next world (Farsi)
3 Chick (Farsi)
4 I will suffer your pains (Farsi)
5 Camel (Farsi)
6 May your eyes fall out (Farsi)
7 Goat testicles (Farsi)
8 May you be struck down by plague (Farsi)
9 May you take your last breath (Farsi)
10 May you never see anything good (Farsi)
11 God, God (Farsi)
Copyright © 2002 Yossi Avni and Am Oved Publishing House
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
English translation © 2010 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature - www.ithl.org.il
Yossi Avni-Levy was born in Israel in 1962 and served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces for several years. He then studied Middle Eastern history and law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Avni-Levy has published two books of short stories and novellas, and two novels. A Man Without Shadow is now being made into a feature film. He has received the Prime Minister's Prize (2007).