By Zadock Zemach
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Ezra Salim’s steps grew smaller and smaller as the ascent from Yosef-marrows to felafel-Shalom grew longer and steeper. The two handles of his shopping baskets were covered in white cloth which had turned into filthy rags and the handles cut his hands and dragged him down. The weight of the baskets and the heaviness of his legs reminded him that old age had already caught up with him.
He made his way up the main street of the Mahaneh Yehuda market to his house in one of the alleys of Nahlaot, burdened with the baskets of fruit and vegetables which had all been purchased in obedience to the strict orders of his wife Salima. These orders had all been written in trembling letters on a piece of paper she found in the kitchen and put in his hands, and next to every item he bought he wrote a crooked mark with the pencil she had tied to his pocket, so that he would not, God forbid, get mixed up between what he had bought and not bought, and also so that he would not buy produce he had not been asked to bring. At the end of every line Salima had added the name of the owner of the stall – for example, tomatoes from Shlomo on the corner, marrows from Yosef – because in her opinion it was only there that the vegetables in question were worth buying; and she did not state amounts or numbers, since hundreds of Fridays had taught Ezra to buy exactly one kilo of each fruit and vegetable.
He did not turn into the black alley of the spices (as Salima called it), where the backgammon players sat crouched on their stools and shook the dice, for this time he had not been required to bring spices, but went on walking straight down the main street, his thoughts untroubled by unfathomable depths but only by what Salima would say when he came home from the market – how she would rage, the eggplants are soft as sponges, and why are the strawberries rotten, Ezra, where are your eyes, she would scold him, and the leaves of the parsley are ragged, and why is the lettuce full of holes and worms. Luckily for this silent man he would not be required to explain, for Salima herself added an explanation: It’s all because you bought from the fatso in the Iraqi market, where I’ve told a hundred times never to go, and he gave you last week’s produce. Stop it, Salima, that’s enough, he would plead, I’ll wrap the mint in newspaper, I’ll go and change the eggplants right now, I’ll take the black leaves off the lettuce and put it in water, you just arrange everything in the fridge –
A honking horn cut into Ezra’s thoughts, and he walked on with heavy steps as if woken from an afternoon nap, and a new thought came to replace the previous one: How did Salima manage to fit everything into one fridge, one thing next to the other, one on top of the other, one inside the other, and remember what she had put where and when, and how much there was of this vegetable and those greens and that dish, and how she never threw anything away in the rubbish bin under the sink. And another thought popped up, and it was a good thing that thoughts didn’t have the power to interfere with the movement of the people behind and before him, nor with the traffic of the motorcars next to him, among them a gleaming red car which was advancing behind him as slowly as a tortoise, trapped between the cars in front of it and behind it, whose impatient drivers stuck their heads out of their windows waiting for the traffic lights to change and for the car in front of them to get a move on already, before the one on the right broke in, and why the hell did the guy with the gas balloons have to get stuck precisely here, and why did the Toyota with the watermelons have to stop to unload precisely now. And of all the vehicles the only one worth resting your eyes on was the red one, as Ezra Salim was doing now, and it wasn’t the gleam of the car or its streamlined model that disturbed his thoughts, because Ezra, what did he know about motor cars, he didn’t even have a bicycle. It was the woman sitting in the car that riveted his gaze, a glance was enough for her beauty to stab the onlooker with the sharp pins of missed opportunity. Hair black as coal falling smooth as silk to below her shoulders, a chiseled forehead above green almond-shaped eyes with a kind expression, and below them a nose sculpted by a master. What can we say and what can we do, we too are stunned by the beauty of this woman appearing before us in the middle of the market.
Ezra Salim’s affairs were the affairs of an old man. All kinds of maladies made his life gray, his daily schedule consisted of going to the HMO clinic and taking pills, and shopping in the market, and visits from three exhausting grandchildren – he was not at leisure like the backgammon players to raise their eyes from the board and the dice and stare at women, and to put it plainly: Ezra Salim was not tempted by the girls he saw in the street, he did not notice them. Even if they should approach him and tweak the tip of his nose with their pretty fingers, he would not feel it, because the one and only girl in his life was his beloved Salima.
His gaze lingered on the girl in the car, and he immediately thought of Salima, how angry she would be when she discovered that he had bought the expensive toothpaste again, hadn’t she always told him to buy from the Yemenite’s grocery next to the pickle stall, where it was not only cheaper by two shekels but you also got a small toothbrush as a gift. Enough, enough, Salima, he would grumble to himself. I told you the ordinary one doesn’t feel good in my mouth. And for once he would have liked to stand up to her and say: How is it Salima that you never find one good thing to come out of your mouth, for instance: Really, Ezra, you did well with the pickled cucumbers you brought, a real pleasure, and the lemons you bought are so full of juice. But why waste our time on the old woman Salima and the compliments she fails to give, we want to hurry on to the other woman, her beauty penetrates the thin skin of our complacency – a palatial beauty moves along the gray stone streets of Jerusalem, a delicacy that never appeared on our poor table, even though our streets are full of pretty girls, a mixture of East and West gave birth to them, the devil knows how, beautiful as the moon and pure as the sun, but these beauties of ours don’t bear even the hint of a resemblance to the princess sitting in the red motorcar, who stuns everyone that looks at her: riveted to his chair if he’s sitting, slowing his steps if he’s walking, like for instance this man, Ezra Salim, whose old eyes too have sipped at this liquor. And now her car approaches him, only two meters separate the old man and the woman and for a moment their eyes meet, and Ezra, if only he had stopped dead in his tracks opposite the beauty of this woman, like the Stop sign five meters in front of him. For a split second they touch, east and west, her life and his, he stooped and burdened on his way home from the market and she whose beauty and nobility are like those of a princess. How cruel is the wastefulness of fate which gives so generously to one and so stingily to another.
While Ezra’s eyes are astonished by the woman in the car, her gaze glides over his faded figure, and on her kindly face there is no sign of disgust, not even of indifference, in the manner of beautiful women passing by in the market – there is compassion there for the elderly creature walking on the pavement next to her car.
Bernarda Valucci of Milan converted to Judaism a month before her marriage to Albert Elbaz, a pious Jew whose family had emigrated from Rabat in Morocco to north Italy where they had expanded their clothing business and made a fortune. For years the family had donated part of their profits to the needy – families who had suffered calamities, widows unable to pay for their children’s education, orphans, alcoholics – there will never be a shortage of the wretched on this earth. Their only rivals in charity were the Valuccis, descendents of patrons of the arts from Venice, and the competition between the families turned into open warfare, to the good fortune of the wretched of the earth, for while one donated a synagogue to the congregation and hired a battalion of teachers for the failing children of the city, the other contributed millions to the building of a new hospital wing. In the course of one of these charitable wars Bernarda Valucci met Albert Elbaz. The suspicion and hostility of their first steps towards each other gave way to intimacy and friendship, and in the end they fell into each other’s arms. Bernarda and Albert married in a Jewish ceremony, for the charitable Bernarda was a woman with no religion and she had no difficulty in accepting her husband’s religion. In the first spring of their married life the couple came to Israel to visit Albert’s relations, the living and the dead.
Now that the eyes of the two have met, the young woman and the old man, in the narrow crowded street, we know that they are not nameless, homeless, or unconcerned. Bernarda’s concern is that she has to make a speech and cut a ribbon at the institute for the blind, where her family had donated a new wing and a library, but because of this traffic jam, which she cannot fly over, she is liable to be late, and precisely on a Friday when every delay is dangerous, and when her lateness might God forbid be mistaken there for the condescension of the rich and contempt for tradition. Whereas she is innocent of any such airs and close in her humility to the common people, such as this man with the shopping baskets, whose steps are slow and deliberate and who is bowled over by her beauty, and who thinks to himself, God in heaven, how much you labored over the beauty of one woman and how many others you neglected. And a pain stabbed his soul, for even though he was fortunate enough to have won Salima, how he would have loved to sit, even for a few moments, next to such a woman in a red car. And Ezra does not look ahead of him, but quenches his thirst more and more with the beauty on his left, and how will he see on the pavement before him the pole standing opposite him with the sign ‘Stop’ on top of it. The pole and the sign have no mouth and voice to shout: Stop Ezra, be careful Ezra, in a minute you’ll bump into me. And he does not wake up in time to turn his eyes forward, but takes another step and continues on his path. Ezra be careful, Ezra be careful, there is no one to shout these words at the top of his voice, and there is no kind soul to turn him away from his fate, and crash, a human forehead and an iron pole collide, and the blow makes a dull sound and its force is like a wild horse’s kick to his forehead. And suddenly the din of the market dies down in his head, the shouts are stilled, the whistles, the calls, and all this racket is covered by a dark silence, and the old man who beheld infinite beauty before his eyes falls flat on the ground, like a tree felled in the forest, and although his eyes are closed, stars shine in his head among the darkness.
Ezra has fainted. His hands have dropped the two shopping baskets loaded with good things onto the pavement, and all their contents have scattered, spilling into the road: carefully chosen red tomatoes are squashed under rough tires, a bicycle wheel crushes choice marrows from Yosef-marrows, a sturdy man in a business suit picks his way between the eggplants and a mess of sweet potatoes mingled with parsley, and all the passersby hurry their steps, ignoring all the crushed fruits and vegetables whose vivid colors emphasize the dullness of the figure lying among them.
Bernarda, the only one who knows the reason for the incident, swallows her saliva and her mouth is dry. Her conscience pricks, her heart pounds, it is clear to her that the hand of fate has intervened here and that this hand is determined to connect the two of them. It is clear to her that the old man was dazzled by the face she was blessed with, and that because of her, and only because of her, he is lying unconscious, perhaps dead, on the pavement – alone and deserted like a soldier wounded in battle. In order to summon help something needed to be done, but what and how she did not know. And since she was stuck in a traffic jam and unable to turn left or right, or even park the car at the side of the road, she sat still, immobile as a marble statue placed in her car. She was powerless to save the wretch she had felled with her beauty, she was not a qualified doctor, nor even a nurse, and it occurred to her that it might be better to continue on her way as if nothing had happened. The man had only fallen and would surely get up again. He had not been run over, only collided with a pole. But then, like the sting of a nettle, she felt her father’s words, that sometimes an empty hand offered in help was better than a hand writing a check.
And at that moment, with which the God of the Jews had confronted her to test her, exaggerating in the difficulties He piled up as usual, she still did not know what she would do. If she would step out of the boundaries of her air-conditioned domain straight into the heat of the market and its crowds, or forget morality and let events take their course, for no witness or wild imagination would connect her to the unconscious old man, who would no doubt soon get up and stand on his feet. Peeep, peeep, peeep, the drivers behind her hooted impatiently. Just a minute, just a minute, just a minute, she silently implored, just let her see him recover and sit up and stand. But Ezra did not recover and sit up and stand, he went on lying unconscious on the pavement. Peeep, peeep, those accursed horns went on honking and goading her. Bernarda needed a minute more to make up her mind, but there was no time for reflection with the noise growing louder behind her back and deafening her ears, with the addition of rude shouts by hotheads: Who did she think she was and who gave her a license and why didn’t she learn how to drive and why wasn’t she in the kitchen, and other examples of local wit.
A first tear welled up between her lids, and through the film of the teardrop she saw Albert’s face, full of sorrow and disappointment: You made an old Jew fall, a skullcap on his head, all his produce spilled on the ground, and he lies before you begging for help, and you close your ears to his pleas?
And that was enough. Under the uproar of hooting and yelling and vulgar curses, which we don’t have the heart to put down on paper, Bernarda abandoned her fears, opened the door of her car, left the shelter of air-conditioned tin separating her from the market, ignoring the drivers and their horns, and hurried to the figure sprawled on the filthy pavement as if it were a bed. Anxious and at a loss, she approached Ezra and knelt down, bowed her head to his face, whose skin was furrowed with troubles and whose wrinkles were a web of sorrow, and with pursed lips asked him to forgive her: for distracting him from his path, for depriving him of his powers of endurance at the end of his life, for hesitating fearfully before coming to his aid. Just let him breathe, she begged, just let her not have killed a man, God forbid, due to her beauty.
She puts her hand under his head and does not withdraw it from his sweaty nape. Vigilantly she waits for a single breath, however weak, until his chest begins to rise and pauses a moment as if undecided and sinks gently. And through the commotion surrounding her she senses a sigh escaping his mouth, soft as a light breeze, and a trickle of air escaping his nostrils – he’s alive, he’s alive, she trembles and a boulder is lifted from her heart. And the stranger, who up to a moment ago was a blurred figure in the crowds outside the car window, suddenly turns into someone close, a dear grandfather. She tries to lift his head higher, slides a piece of cardboard she finds nearby under it, and prays that no harm has been done to him, that his brain is undamaged, his bones unbroken. Everything happens quickly, but we write slowly: Ezra Salim lies like a log of wood, isolated in his unconscious state, and his eyes open only when Bernarda stokes his cheek with a soft, caressing hand. Between his eyelids parting with difficulty Ezra registers a perfect feminine face, and he immediately lowers his dazzled eyes and realizes that he has lost his mind, fallen into a world of hallucinations – for it cannot be possible that in the middle of the day, in the heart of the market, the Shulamite is bending over him and stroking his cheek.
All the people in the street are also amazed by the extraordinary scene and stop to observe it: how this beautiful young woman is bending on her exposed knees next to an old man lying on the pavement among the scraps of produce from the stalls, and they all marvel at her elegance and at the dress revealing her shapely fair legs. A moment ago they were all broadening their stride and hurrying to their affairs, and now they have time on their hands and nothing to prevent them from gazing at length at the beautiful stranger. And their desire to go on looking is disguised as free medical advice, their expressions as concerned as those of certified surgeons during a fateful operation. Gentlemen, where were you before the beautiful lady got out of her car, when the poor wretch lay here abandoned to his fate? No doubt you said to yourselves, We’re in a hurry, and why did this person have to fall precisely now, and our lives too are full of worries. So hurry home now, get off the pavement and off this page, and leave us with these two, for such closeness between two complete strangers is rare and we want to concentrate on it undisturbed.
But no, they stick like leeches, refusing to leave, avid to imbibe yet more of the magic of Bernarda Velucci. Again and again they examine her face and her legs folded on the pavement, and they envy the man fortunate enough to enjoy the caress of the aristocratic hand – and Ezra, Ezra, good Lord, how unpleasant, we have completely forgotten Ezra, his eyelids fluttering like the wings of a gosling attempting to fly as he tries to assess, among the flickering shapes glimpsed by his eyes, how bad things must be if he is lying here in this shameful position, in front of all the shoppers and hawkers and soldiers and beggars and students and policemen and children in the marketplace, and first and foremost one woman whose beauty melts him utterly. Her kneecaps touch without touching the side of his stomach, and the fragrance of an unfamiliar perfume sends him to realms he has never visited, and her breath is spun in transparent threads straight to his nostrils, and her soft hand strokes his wrinkled unshaved cheek and wipes away a wayward tear. Let this moment last, Ezra prays a prayer not taken from the synagogue services, let this magic touch last. Let it last, this dream which could never come true, and yet it has indeed come true. And for a moment, a single moment lasting an eternity, she is his, all of her, bestowing herself without reservations.
A dream come true, yes we heard, all well and good, but it does nothing to lessen the wretchedness of Ezra. On the contrary, for as he lies here like a miserable beggar, the mosquitoes of disgrace are already circling his head and they are thirsty for blood, coming closer and buzzing in huge swarms. It is shame that pounces on him, that stings every bit of exposed skin, and his cheeks turn as red as the oozing tomatoes on the road.
The motorcars, we have forgotten them too, they go on honking their horns, and the traffic jam goes on growing, there is no way in or out, the whole main street of the market is jammed from end to end. All hoots and curses and accusations and advice, furious drivers getting out to see what is holding them up, pouring out their wrath on each other and on the police and everyone else, and throwing out guesses about terrorist or criminal or security events, suspicious objects or serious accidents, and they have no idea that the person who parked her car in the middle of the road and vanished is now surrounded by a wall of curious passersby. One stops the other to ask why he stopped, and the latter has already asked the one before him, who asked the one before, and the circle grows wider and spills over from the pavement to the street, and from the street to the opposite pavement, and the day, as already mentioned, is Friday, when all Jerusalem is in a hurry. Before long the perspiring busybody will arrive with his big belly and his bugle, and blow it to remind the dawdlers that the Sabbath is already at the door.
Bernarda, poor thing, knows that she has caused a commotion, but she doesn’t know how to behave with the mob breathing down her neck. She is on the verge of losing her wits and time is short, she feels helpless, gently she moves the stalks of Ezra’s arms and whispers, Get up, sir, please get up. She says this in her own language, in sensuous Italian, and anyone who lends an ear will hear a prayer, but Ezra is like a ship sunk beneath the sea, no sounds reach him. Only his eyelids move faintly, and when his eyes open a little he sees before him tens of pairs of eyes staring at him and prying into him, and all that great crowd besieges him and closes in around him, and all he can do is pray to the heavens to reach out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and take him away from there. And the shopping baskets, suddenly Ezra remembers them, what about the shopping baskets, and he looks round and there are no baskets there, and he remembers Salima, oy oy Salima, we have forgotten Salima, what will he say to her? And worse, what will she say? For such a sin as this, perhaps she will raise her voice to him, and he remembers how she yelled at him thirty-five years ago when he dropped a saucepan of stuffed vegetables, over which she had labored for hours, in honor of her beloved father. And how will he excuse the absence of the baskets to her now? How will he explain that he crashed into the pole of a traffic sign? How will he confess to her the bitter truth, that he was distracted by a beautiful strange woman? And from moment to moment his desire to burst into tears grows stronger, to release it all in an outpouring of weeping like a small child. Not in shy, strangled sobs but in an uninhibited bellow, because this woman in front of him, and the people behind her, and the lost shopping baskets, and Salima too, all of them together were a burden too heavy for his narrow shoulders. Ezra needed these tears, but he was unable to burst into them, certainly not when the exquisite beauty was looking at him with a pained look and wrapping him in her warmth: she knew that he knew who she was, and he knew that she knew who he was. But he didn’t know the kind of traffic jam that had been created here, nor that a police car and an intensive care ambulance and a fire engine were on their way here with sirens wailing, nor did he know that his collapse onto the pavement was delaying an important lady hurrying to make a speech and cut a ribbon in an institute for the blind to which she had donated a new wing and a library. He had no idea. And now he knew only this, that an embarrassing bond had tied the two of them together into one package, and that he was like a baby who wanted to cry but wasn’t allowed to.
Bernarda speaks tenderly to the frightened old man, and her Italian accent casts a spell of movie magic on all the spectators: Sir, you’re fine, sir. Ezra hears not a word, his ears are still ringing from the blow he received, and with trembling lips he whispers softly, his wretchedness obvious to all: Ezra, I’m Ezra. He thought she asked him his name, and she comes closer to him and he makes an effort not to faint, her sadness lends her the face of a Madonna. Again he murmurs faintly: Ezra, Ezra, Ezra, and awakens in her another wave of pity when he tries to point with his dry stalk at his surroundings. The baskets, he mumbles, the baskets, the baskets. The baskets, she replies, yes, the baskets, and she sees that their contents have scattered all over the market in the fan of a peacock’s tail, and understands that what is required of her is action, not a look or a question but an act. So she overcomes her embarrassment and stands up, and kneels down again here and there, and begins collecting from the pavement vegetable after vegetable, fruit after fruit, leaf after leaf, crouching between people’s legs and their baskets and collecting Ezra’s meager property, her knees black with the market refuse, her hands covered in the filth of the pavements. One by one she gathers the lost produce, one by one she returns them to their bags, and the whole market is astonished. How come this elegant woman in a designer dress from an expensive shop is collecting damaged vegetables from the pavements like a pauper? What has this Italian princess to do with an old man she does not know?
And to them, who in the course of time have grown indifferent to the fate of their fellows, here comes this woman and teaches them something that should not be forgotten. Ashamed of their indifference and their apathy, they bow down one after the other to the pavement to join the search for Ezra’s meager treasures. Now a man in a checked cap hands a cucumber to a tall youth in a white shirt, and a Chabadnik puts two kohlrabi in a bag, and an old woman in a striped shirt with a green handbag hands a lettuce leaf to a fat man with a dog, and a yeshiva student wraps up onions given him by a shapely girl with a ring glittering in her navel, and a gentleman with twins in a stroller picks up coriander and two beets from the pavement, and a young man with an earring hands over an eggplant, and a Romanian worker adds a watermelon, and an Arab in a keffiyeh adds three carrots. And one of the stall owners, hats off to him, appoints himself the vegetable traffic cop, and sorts out the produce and demands more baskets, for there is no room left.
Bernarda rises slowly from the pavement. Her back is stooped and aching from the effort, and she is surprised to see that everyone around her, all the market people, sweating, beaten by the sun, gray in their souls, all of them as one are joined together now in a chain of hands passing produce and baskets. And a thought comes into her mind, this is truly a holy land, for only here, in Albert’s country, in the land of the Jews, does an entire people join forces for the good of half a man. Only here does everyone stop to help their compatriot. And a film of tears envelops her cheeks and gathers when her husband’s face appears before her eyes, sending her a proud smile as if to say, You behaved well, my wife, with the old Jew. And she is surprised to see the baskets multiplying, the two miraculously turning into three, which double their number and turn into six, and soon there are ten brimming baskets and five cardboard boxes full to the brim, all lined up next to Ezra. And two muscular young men are already helping her to raise the old man to his feet, and he, who lets them pick him up and understands that all this produce is for him, doesn’t know whether to speak or be silent, to shout or run for his life. And only the thought of Salima will not let him be: how angry she will be with him for returning from the market so late, and how come he brought her these discarded leftovers from the wrong stalls, and what on earth is the matter with him, has he gone mad to bring enough produce for the whole neighborhood?
He stands on his two feet facing Bernarda, who smiles the smile of a proud mother, and there is one prayer in his heart, to curl up in the shelter of one of the cardboard boxes, to hide there in the company of the onions and the marrows until the storm passes. But this doesn’t happen. Something else happens: with her perfumed hand, Bernarda takes hold of his withered hand, and pulls it gently, and Ezra has neither the willpower nor the strength to resist, and so he walks with her, and the two of them step with the stately steps of a princess and a president. And bringing up the rear, a procession of all the market people bearing brimming baskets and boxes, and from the street, drivers cheer them with a fanfare of honking horns, and from the opposite pavement children wave with empty bags turned into colorful flags, Hurrah, hurrah. The entourage of the market people advances on a red carpet of squashed tomatoes between the wondering crowds and the laden stalls, and Bernarda makes for the red motorcar in the middle of the road, its engine still humming, and she opens the door for the darling of the marketplace, Mr. Ezra Salim, and helps him to sit down. And the two stalwart bodyguards arrange his baskets and boxes on the back seat, and the silent, riveted audience holds its breath and swallows its saliva as Ezra sits like a Saudi sheik in the front seat next to his driver, the fairest of women. And she waves her hand in thanks to all the people of the market and the two of them drive away like a royal pair in their carriage, to who knows where.