Only sometimes, when he returned from the swamp behind the railway tracks, chewing grey eucalyptus leaves and holding red poppies, a few narcissi or purple irises in his hands, they would smile at him. He would plant the flowers in the bed of loose soil in front of the house, look at them, kick the air, spit out the bits of leaf grating between his teeth, laugh, take a little clay flowerpot out of the shed, fill it with sand, transfer the flowers to it, pull up the black rubber hose attached to the tap, and water them. The grains of sand, together with the white drops of water, would spray out, hitting his knees, the flowers would fall down, float, but he would go on standing opposite them, his feet in the mud, his shadow in the sand, until his mother would arrive, kiss his narrow forehead, pass her finger over her cracked lips, pick up the flowerpot, put it down on the balustrade of the verandah, go into the house, come out with a long-necked, pot-bellied glass jar, and transfer the flowers to it. She would shake the flowers, arrange them, co-ordinate the colours, and stand the jar on the embroidered white cloth covering the sideboard in the dining room. But after supper, when his tongue lolled, and the dregs of the coffee in the little cups dried, the flowers would suffocate too. Only their sweet smell mingled with the scent of the rot nibbling at the ends of the stems would fill the room, and she would put them on the window sill, opposite the flies buzzing on the other side of the screen, kiss him again, pass her finger over her lips, and put him to bed.
On Saturdays he would run to the football field, climb one of the cypresses standing behind the fence and the audience, and watch the game. When the team scored a goal he would sway on the tall trunk, rocking the branches, and cones would fall on the heads of the spectators sitting underneath him. When the players in the opposing team attacked, he would boo with everybody else, until one day he slipped off his branch and fell, like one of the cones, into the field, grazing his knees and hitting a boy standing next to his father, and when he rose to his feet, drops of blood oozing from his knees and burning them, the big man slapped him and pushed him towards the rusty fence. His legs trembled, his tongue protruded, he moved his hands from his sore face to the sleeve of his torn shirt, to the scratch cutting his full arm, but the big man, a flat grey cap on his head, was on top of him again, seizing him by the shoulder and dragging him towards the wall. The benches were crowded, the game was about to end, all the spectators were already on their feet, and only he fell, got up, and sat down on the long, narrow plank, among the dusty trousers and the polished shoes, his head bowed, his hand stroking the torn sleeve. A huge sigh accompanied the final whistle. He didn't know who'd won and who'd lost, trousers, blue and grey, brushed past him, hurting his burning knees, touching his hands, his shoulders, his head, and disappeared, it was quiet, and he was left behind among the torn tickets, the sunflower-seed shells, the peanut shells, the crumpled paper planes, the sweaty steam rising from the lawn, from the islands of yellow sand between the goal posts. He picked up a cigarette stub, sniffed it, and went on sitting there on the bench, alone, until Motke the usher arrived, slapped him on the back, sent him on his way and closed the big wooden gates behind him.
They found him in an abandoned packing shed, sleeping. The blood stains on his shirt were already black and dry, a yellow chick he had stolen from Nachmani's hatchery cupped in his hands. His mother stripped off his shirt, threw it onto the steps of the garden shed, and as he stooped over the big tin basin with the water running onto his head, she told him again that he must never leave the house without permission. But he always found some moment of commotion, of distraction, to run away and roam. He would wander round the market, among the stalls, cross fields and citrus groves, break off branches, tear off the leaves, carve them into human figures, run to the railway tracks, pick flowers next to the narcissus swamp, and they would set out after him, apologizing to the passersby, searching for him, until one day Nachmani caught him with his fly open among the calves grazing next to his citrus grove, and they sent him away.
The place was far from home, but he learnt to read and write there, worked in the carpentry shop, took care to water the flowers in front of the hut, and set up a football team in which he was the goalie. Whenever he came to visit his parents he would bring them a present which he had made in the carpentry shop: a carved box, an ashtray, sometimes even a menorah or a tray. His mother would quickly pat his back and put the present in the living room, on the low table or inside the sideboard. During these visits home, with a ticket bought for him by his father in advance, he would go to the Saturday game. The football field was already in a different place, without cypress trees. Only a high, fenced wall and long concrete seats. It was impossible to sneak in. It was impossible to see it from outside. He would always sit next to one of the iron gates, watch the game, and look suspiciously from side to side, searching for the big man's flat cap, but before his eyes he would see the ruined wall of the old field, the islands of yellow sand, the broad, open field where they had now built white houses, and whose edges were still littered with building debris, abandoned cars stripped of their parts, rusty barrels, torn plastic bags and old newspapers. The smell of urine rose through the rusty bars of the derelict concrete hut, the old ticket booth, which was still strewn with bundles of old, unused tickets. He didn't roar with everyone else when a goal was scored, or sigh when the ball missed, and when the game was over he would walk past the cinema, look at the pictures, and go home. There he would remove the box or the ashtray he had brought from the sideboard, and place it on the dining table. He would point to it and finger it, look at it and laugh. They wouldn't say anything and as soon as it grew dark they would accompany him to the station, put him on the bus, wink at the driver, and from there he would return by himself. They would take his present off the table and transfer it to the garden shed.
Only now, as after every unclear accident, the body was at Abu Kabir, to determine the cause of death. There was something repellent about his narrow forehead, about the hair growing from it in a crooked line. But until he began to go to kindergarten - nobody could have known by looking at him. And later too, when the right side of his forehead grew even more distorted and his hair joined up with his eyebrow, pulling it upwards, nobody said anything. He would appear at festive occasions in the village, and family celebrations too, hang around his peers, listening to them talk and remembering them all. But in the street they ignored him, and little by little they stopped visiting the house too. And sometimes the children would go away, he didn't know where, and he would run after them in the alleys, looking for them and not finding them, and he would go home alone, sit down on the steps, go into the kitchen, rummage in the cupboards, grab a leftover piece of cake from the table, go back outside, stick out his tongue, pick his way through the chips of wood and sawdust coming from the carpentry shop, and disappear again.
“Yair's carpentry shop, Yair's carpentry shop,” he would accost passersby as he stood in front of the piles of wood in the morning, pulling the leaves off a broken eucalyptus branch and chewing them. Because the school wouldn't take him, and in the morning, when the street was empty of children, he would help his father in the carpentry shop. Pulling rusty nails out of old building planks, moving logs up to the electric saw, greeting new customers and leading them to his father. He would try to catch the motes of dust sailing on the rays of light, run about among the piles of wood, the saws and the customers, until one day a young couple came into the shop, wanting to buy a new bed. It was hot and he was sweating, but he pulled them inside, to his father, who showed them several models and also told them that they could order anything they wanted. Only then the woman suddenly said,
“Thank you very much, it's too expensive for us.”
“But I haven't even told you yet how much it costs,” his father said, and pushed him into a corner, and ever since then he would sweep the pavement and the concrete floor, and when new customers came he would run to the storeroom and hide. At midday the children came home from school, and he would go to the big Persian lilac outside Kasos's café and watch them playing marbles, draughts and five stones, shouting and quarreling. Only after they left he too would sit down on one of the big stones left behind after the widening of the street, pick up a few bits of gravel, and play by himself. Thus the day would pass, but when he grew older, instead of going to the Persian lilac, he would go to Nachmani's farm. He would steal up and hide behind the sacks of fodder, and watch the farm hands feeding the chickens, and when there was nobody left in the chicken coop he would go into the hatchery, stroke the yellow chicks, put them into his shirt and then let them go. One day the Arab farm hand forgot to secure the chain round the door to the chicken coop, and the next day Nachmani found white feathers and red coxcombs everywhere, ripped, beheaded fowls, dead and wounded chicks. Tiny, crowded tracks filled the yard, leading to the high wire fence which separated the farm yard from the citrus grove.
“I thought they'd exterminated them already,” said Nachmani to the farm hand, as he stopped up the little hole and walked along the fence, tightening loose wires. A band of jackals had invaded the chicken coop in the night. The sacks of chicken feed, too, were spotted with blood, white and yellow feathers. Nachmani cleaned the yard and the chicken coop, fixed the tin troughs which had been torn from their places, and went home. When he returned after lunch, he saw him in the hatchery, sitting on the sawdust, trying to insert crumbs of bread into a chick's beak. He put the shabby hat he was holding in his hand on his head, grabbed him by his shirt, dragged him to the main road, and chased him away.
He never went into the chicken coop again, he would wander round among the garbage dumps, not far from the Arab village and Benjamin's Tomb, dragging old mattresses and wicker rocking chairs out of the dump, and only rarely he would go past Nachamani's farm, enter the citrus grove, stand opposite the cows, stroke the goats and the calves, pick green oranges, bite into their skins, and sometimes open his trousers. Until that cold, rainy day, when Nachmani seized him by his shirt collar and dragged him to the road, over the grass and the mud. His trousers were dropped on his shoes, his thighs and knees were bare, and only the rusty scouts' emblem at the end of his belt trailed behind him and cut the wet sand. Nachmani spat out his cigarette and dragged him all along the Sharon Road. He passed the Persian lilac and the little carpentry shop, and then, without saying a word, threw him onto the doorstep of his house.
His mother, her head bound in white plastic, her body wrapped in a pink bathrobe, came outside. She hit him, pulled him inside, zipped up his trousers, and the next morning, they had already made the inquiries a long time ago, they sent him away.
In the southernmost street of the village too, next to the cemetery, there had once been a place like that, and they passed it every day on their way home from school. The place was far from the square, far from the shops, far from the warehouses and the residential buildings. Only the school wasn't so far from it, and also the round dam, where two Australian soldiers, twins, people said, had drowned during the Second World War.
The bell at the end of the last lesson always rang particularly long and loud, and the children would burst outside, run to the road which led to the dam and the cemetery, kicking pine cones, pass under the spreading ficuses, reach the cypresses wrapped in purple bougainvillea and fine nets of dry creepers, press up against the fence and the thorns, and peep through the rusty barbed wire and rough branches to see what was happening inside.
Sometimes the yard was empty, but little by little the inmates on the other side of the fence also learned when the children were due to come down the street. They would peep out of the windows, laugh, come out onto the balconies, wave their fingers, go down to the yard, even all the way to the fence, stretching their hands out to the brightly coloured satchels, uttering unclear sounds, waiting for something. Only a few of the schoolchildren would remain between the bushes and the trunks of the cypress trees, throwing unshelled peanuts and unfinished sandwiches at the walls, which had once been painted white, looking at the few inmates who had ventured as far as the fence, watching them chase after a torn scrap of salami, a slice of tomato or cheese flying in the air, stretching out their hands, bending down, snatching, quarreling, dispersing, disappearing, chewing in secret, and returning to the fence, fixing their eyes on them. Yair Kluski would not approach the fence. He would always sit on the other side of the street, under the bitter orange trees bordering Nachmani's citrus grove, peeling broken branches with his red penknife, pulling off the leaves and carving long, narrow people from them. But someone would always jump up and snatch the branch from him, to whip the stubby fingers breaking out of the fence with it. Sometimes Ruhama Schwartz's volleyball would come flying towards the trees and the fence, but somebody's foot would always kick it away. Ruhama Schwartz and Yaffa Kanetti would go past, shouting, “You horrible, nasty boys,” they would chase the ball, catch it, and go on throwing it to each other, and when they reached the top of the hill by the cemetery, they would stop and watch. No hand ever touched those fingers breaking through the fence, and afterwards they would all go away, running and laughing.
Eitan Spector, too, would stand apart, next to the cypress tree, looking and not looking at the whitewashed balcony, at the raspberry canes climbing up it, at the short iron pipes sticking out of the exposed balustrade. Two sparrows stood on the amputated pipes. Black spots of mould flourished on the peeling whitewash, growing out of the little puddle of water under the balcony. Drops of gum from the bark of the cypress tree would stick to Eitan Spector's hands, the brambles would scratch his bare knees, until one day he saw her jutting cheekbones, her smooth little face. Her light brown hair was short, smooth, cut in a straight line across her nape, just like the wig worn by the paediatrician who visited the school every few weeks, pushed flat wooden sticks into their mouths, shone a little flashlight into their throats, looked inside and gave them injections. Only the girl had a blurry kind of squint in her eyes, her breasts were large, bursting out of her blue blouse, exposing her pink bra. From his hiding place he couldn't see her slender legs, but her arms sticking out of the rolled-up blue sleeves were fair and rather full. She would take the pots to the kitchen, water the flowerbeds bordering the path to the door, and when the children passed on their way home from school she would kneel down, take the black rubber hosepipe from the basin round the apple tree, wash her hands and face, look at the water filling the basin round the tree trunk, wet her hair a little, straighten it with her fingers, look at the water again, stand up, hit her thighs and knees with her hands, brush the bits of grass and soil from her short pants, and go inside. And perhaps it was at such a moment, with little swarms of gnats buzzing on the surface of the water, her elbow on the window sill, the incense of eucalyptus and little lantana flowers in the air, a cigarette in her hand, the smoke revealing and concealing her face, hiding her full, pouting lips, that he saw her in the window and her eyes met his.
The two sparrows perched on the pipes sticking out of the balustrade flew to the cypress tree, the cigarette was still between her lips, but the window was suddenly black and she was smiling at him from the balcony. The broad smile disguised the squint in her eyes a little. She was short, only her head stuck up over the balustrade and she looked down directly from there to the fence, at his green eyes, his pale face, his ironed khaki shirt, one of whose pockets was crammed with various objects and had the eraser at the tip of a yellow pencil peeping out of it. His head didn't move, but suddenly he lowered his eyes, withdrew into himself, and without a glance at the porch turned round, stood up, and ran away. His leg had gone to sleep, a pack of dogs ran down the street, and he took fright, limped a few steps, and stood still. The dogs ran in the direction of the cemetery, and only one of them turned round, stared at him, and barked. The next day, almost without knowing what he was doing, he trailed behind the others again and kept his distance. He went up to the cypress tree, pushed aside the hard branches hiding his view, leaned against the trunk and looked at the balcony. She was already there, and the same thing happened on the following days too.
One day there was a necklace of shells round her neck. She was standing on something, leaning over the high balustrade, not looking at him, but suddenly she bent down, her head disappeared for a moment. Then she straightened up again, waved her hand, and threw a brown paper bag at him. The bag lay closed and crumpled in the dry grass, but he didn’t dare stretch out his hand to it. The girl didn't say a word. Only signalled him with her face and eyes to bend down, reach for the bag with his hand or a branch, and draw it towards him. She stayed on the balcony. Eitan looked from the girl to the bag and back again, but his hand stayed on his side of the fence. Her eyes darted round, her hands gripped the amputated pipes sticking out of the balustrade, but a heavy smell of burnt grass drifted down the street, a tinny, clattering noise rose from the porch, and she disappeared.
The next day the bag was lying outside the fence, next to the cypress tree. The girl was not yet standing on the porch, and Eitan picked up the bag and tried to open it. There were grease stains spotting the brown paper. The bag tore, fell to the ground, and the sharp smell of peppermint and cinnamon sweets suddenly flooded his face. A grey feather dropped onto his head, voices rose from inside the building, but the balcony remained deserted. There was no way out of it into the yard. Only into the long, dim rooms inside which he had never seen. His hand was covered with grease, drops of gum from the bark of the tree stuck to his hair, but he didn't move. The children were far away. It was quiet. Only the sound of a faint whimper, a noise of dragging, rose from the floor of the balcony. There was a clatter, and two rungs of a wooden ladder rose slowly over the balustrade.
At first he saw her hands, but then, between the rungs of the ladder, her cheekbones peeped out, her short hair and her big eyes. She lifted the ladder over the amputated pipes, slid it over the balustrade, passed it onto the other side of the balcony, and leaned it against the wall. The ladder swayed for a moment, her face disappeared again, and the squeaking of a wooden box or a bench jarred his ears. There were already a few solitary clouds sailing in the sky, but the sun was still bright, there was hardly a shadow on the ground. Little drops of sweat, transparent as glass beads, shone on the pale face of the girl whose whole body was already on top of the balustrade. She stooped over, seized hold of one of the rungs of the ladder, and began to climb down. Her back was narrow, her slender legs trembled, and only the hair exposing her white neck was smooth and straight as a wig. As she climbed down her feet trampled the black fungus corroding the whitewash, the branches and dry leaves lying on the ground. The mosquitoes hovering over a puddle pounced on her, a bad smell spread between the cypresses, and Eitan Spector wanted to move, to run away. Only his hands were stuck in the fence, and now, when the strong wind comes, he grips it harder and harder, because all of a sudden the clouds are low and black.
And from behind the building, in the low bushes, there suddenly emerges a short, stout man with short hair growing onto his forehead and a big scar covering his right cheek, and he runs towards the balcony and catches hold of the girl from behind and pushes her down onto a pile of straw and leaves heaped up in a kind of shallow ditch cutting the ground between the cracked balcony, the fence and the cypresses. And the cloud of gnats buzzing over the puddle of water merges with stifled sobs as the man pulls down the girl's pants and reveals her smooth rounded little buttocks drowning in the straw. He undoes the belt of his trousers, his legs are hairy, he seizes her shoulders with his hands, pushes them down, pins them to the ground, and with his knees digs between her legs, parts them, crouches over her, pushes his hands under her blouse, strokes her back, lies on top of her, and digs his teeth into her neck. Presses her hard into the straw and the sand, and her nails dig into the dry brown clods clinging to the roots of the grass and the raspberry canes trailing into the shallow ditch. Soft, broken moans rise hoarsely from the ground. His lips are dry and a radiant blue strip between the black clouds encircles him, encloses him. He's quiet now, but his hands are hard on the fence, his legs are tense, sweat sticks his vest to his back. His breath is heavy, full of the smell of wet earth and wet grass burning between the trees, His eyes blink, smoke comes through the fence, his ears ring, sweat bathes his body. It's quiet. Her body rocks, rests her forehead, presses the straw. Gradually the clouds impinge on the blue strip, darkness descends on the day, and the wind blows scraps of grass and leaves into the air, stirs the bougainvillea and her hair spreads covers her face exposes the white nape of her neck. His teeth refuse to let go, kissing cutting sinking into the red wetness. Look what he's seeing there, the devil, the voices are swallowed up in the wind. Look what he's seeing there. They press into the black wind which blows wisps of straw and sand and smoke and feathers into their watering eyes, and they cluster round the cypress tree hang on its branches climb on top of each other, as in the exit from the football field. They push their way through the branches and drops of gum glitter on the rough bark of the tree trunk, stick to their clothes, to their hands, to the fence wrapped in the rustling leaves of the bougainvillea. And the purple flowers tremble and wilt, and among them eyes, more eyes, green, blue, glitter between the branches and the fence opposite the knees of the man digging between her legs — opposite the saliva dripping from his teeth onto his lips opposite her face in the straw, and the dry leaves opposite her clenched fists in front of her forehead. And only her neck is pale and bleeding, and she rises panting underneath him rises and falls. And eyes, and more eyes, peep between the branches and the fence. Even Yair Kluski approaches the cypress tree, hangs on a branch peeping. A warbler shoots out of the branches, vanishes. Two little speckled eggs fall on him from a nest, roll onto his dusty shoes which see nothing, and only his eyes water in the wind which swallows the stifled moans, lifts dry leaves and straggly feathers to the balconies. And Eitan Spector tightens his fists hard around the fence. A wave of hot coldness prickles the skin of his legs. Something wet sticks his underpants, to his thighs. The barbs dig into his hands, he can't open his fists clenched round the fence, and the man with spittle trailing from his lips like damp cobwebs, thin red threads in his eyes, drags himself backwards, his head on the girl's back and his eyes frozen, opposite the tens of eyes fixed on him and on the bite marks on her neck, on her torn blouse, on the strips of pale skin on her back. And he slides over her bare bum and her legs, stands up, turns to the wall, pulls up his pants, trips, gets his foot in the puddle and reaches for the ladder leans against the wall. And she too pulls up her pants crawls along the edge of the puddle, holds out her hand to him. They both stand against the wall, covering with their bodies the black spots of mould, and again his hand is in the pocket of her open blouse which reveals the dangling straps of her bra, and he takes out a crushed packet of “Matosian,” his fingers trembling. Pulls out a flat cigarette, rummages in his pockets, and she too rummages in her pants, pulls out a box of matches. The ladder falls onto the puddle. A miasma of water drops of mud and gnats spreads through the air, the cigarette is already stuck between her lips, smoke covers her jutting cheekbones. Dry leaves and broken stalks of straw are stuck in her straight hair. The man wipes his mouth, but the spittle goes on drooling, soaking into the cigarette, dribbling into the mud stuck to his chin. He begins walking along the closed porches, and she, her hand in his, walks behind him. Only her eyes look from time to time, perhaps seeking him through the smoke.
The dull thud of the falling ladder sunk into the air. A thin film of moisture covered the palm of Eitan Spector's hand, which was still gripping the fence. His brown shoes were full of sand and the squashed shells of the broken eggs which had fallen from the nest.
Everything was still. Little by litte, without saying a word, the children emerged from the cypress branches. At first they walked slowly, but when they reached the cemetery they broke into a run, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake. The black clouds pursued them too, and they ran with the wind hitting their backs, strewing sand in their hair, the satchels hanging from their shoulders bouncing up and down. Wordlessly they ran past the cemetery and scattered through the streets, alleys and houses.
A scratch cut across Eitan's palm. In spite of the cold wind, his body was soaked in sweat. From the palm of his hand, from the cracks between the fingers, blood flowed.
Noah Kluski, Yair's father, riding past with his cart and horse, saw Eitan lying unconscious on the ground. The bleeding had stopped and only the long scratch tore the delicate lines of fortune cutting across each other on his palm. His leg twitched. The bloodstains soaked into the soil were still wet. A bell rang behind the fence, rain began to fall, but Eitan did not move. The satchel on his back was wet and covered with mud. His shoes too were heavy with mud. Kluski got off his cart and leaned over Eitan without touching him. Only when he saw that his chest was rising and falling and that he was still breathing, he slapped him lightly on the cheek. Eitan opened his eyes and tried to stand up. The rain came down harder. The water running down the low hill from the dam made clear rivulets in the sand.
When he reached home it was no longer raining, but the mud on his clothes was not yet dry, the stinging pain had not abated, and only the blood on the palm of his hand had congealed. Kluski did not wait for Yair's mother to come and get him. There was a small haulage job waiting for him in the centre of town, and he knocked at the door of their home, left Eitan on the doorstep, and went away.
“Did something happen?” his mother asked as she undressed him and washed his hand.
“Did you have a fight with somebody?”
He didn't sleep all night. The sheets on his bed were clean, starched, and the pillowcase too. The rain beat intermittently on the shutters and the roof, the ceiling shone in his eyes. He covered his head with the warm blanket and closed his eyes but he didn't fall asleep.
In the middle of the night his mother came into his room and put her hand on his forehead. “Go to sleep,” she said, “go to sleep. You have to get up in the morning to go to school.” Her fingers were rough, but her palm was soft.
He lay on his back. The rain stopped for a minute. Blue stripes shone though the slits in the shutter. His mother changed the white bandage wrapped round his hand, made him hot lemon tea, and early in the morning he fell asleep. He woke up late and didn't go to school. At lunch time his mother brought him the Davar children's supplement from the shop. “Maybe you'll still find something there to read,” she said, and asked him not to crease the pages, because they still had to sell it. He didn't open the paper. She asked him again if anything had happened, but he only said: “Nothing.”
For a few days the children didn't pass there on their way home from school. They took the short cut they used in summer, through Nachmani's citrus grove, and only Ruhama Schwartz, her frizzy red hair glittering, would bounce her ball in the street, occasionally stopping among the cypresses. But the puddles in the citrus grove didn't dry up even when the sun shone. Nachmani yelled at them, and they returned to the street. At first they didn't linger opposite the long building, they hurried past. But gradually they forgot the day when they had left Eitan Spector unconscious under the cypress tree, and the fence, and they began creeping up to the sliver branches and the bougainvillea, peeping at the empty balconies. Catching a shy, squinting look through the window, a crooked leg dragging on the ground, hearing unclear voices rising from the dark, closed rooms.
Whenever something happened on Nachmani's farm, a sack of oranges stolen in the picking season, the storeroom broken into and tools stolen, a chick found dead on the fence — he would run after Kluski's cart and shout: “Keep your grandson away from me, Kluski, keep your grandson away from me or one day I'll kill him.” But Yair's son had already been absent from the village for a long time, and Kluski himself, whose cart was always loaded with something, old beds or big sacks of sorghum, didn't hear him anyway.
After Noah Kluski closed down his little carpentry shop, which kept losing money, and went back to being a cart driver, he would ride down the streets, whipping his mare's back, shouting and settling scores. Yair wasn't born yet, the mare didn't have a name, and he would call her by the names of the people who owed him money, who didn't give him work, who annoyed him or did him down. Haimowitz who had promised him a shilling and a half to move his mother's old furniture to Ashkenazi's junkroom and in the end gave the job to somebody else. Whip. Berl Rogovin from the workers' council who told him he wasn't suited for the Jewish Brigade because they didn't need carpenters or cart drivers there, it wasn't a muleteers’ battalion. Whip. Nisim Kanetti from the grocery store who wasn't prepared to give his wife more than two weeks' credit. Whip. Ephraim Spector who refused to let him leaf through the newspapers in his shop without buying them. Whip. Even after Yair was born, and another mare was pulling the cart, there was no lack of people who annoyed him, and he would whip their names hard onto her back. Shraga Weiss from “Solel Boneh” who refused to sell him a plot for twenty pounds. Whip. Segal who never paid him on time for the ploughing, but always wanted discounts in the carpentry shop. Whip. Motke Shpagat the football usher, who didn't look after Yair's son properly and Shmuel Bendarsky who slapped him whenever he slipped off the cypress tree into the field. Whip. Haimshon the pharmacist, who displayed cosmetics in his shop window instead of medicines, and Kluski's wife bought something there whenever she passed the square, whether she needed it or not. Whip. Only Yoska Schwartz, who he wanted to work for as a truck driver and who told him to get a license first, he never mentioned by name. Whip. The lashes made pale stripes on the mare's glossy brown back, but she never galloped or bolted because of them, and went on walking as usual. Only her big head would sometimes jerk, lift for a minute and tremble after every lash of the whip.
He would shout the names in a hoarse, unclear grunt, because there was always a slender eucalyptus twig or hollow yellow straw stuck between his teeth. Even when he was chewing a wad of stinking tobacco, he didn't stop grumbling, and the names would come out distorted, torn into amputated syllables and crushed to pieces. His flat grey cap would hide his eyes, and people would know by the sound of his voice that he was passing in the street, even when they couldn't understand who he was cursing or why. Sometimes someone would tell him to wait in line together with all the other cart drivers standing between the great synagogue and the square, but when he heard the crack of the whip on the sweating back of the mare, he would give him some little job.
So it went until the council opened a sanitation department and Nisim Kanetti's uncle asked him to empty the garbage bins every morning. From that day on, once a month, he received a regular wage and he no longer had any problems getting credit from the grocery store. He would begin his round of the garbage bins at four o'clock in the morning, finish at seven or eight, when the children were on their way to school, and return to the streets, and the names Haimowitz, Shpagat, Weiss and Rogovin would once more fly up and collide in the air. In Yiddish, Hebrew and also Arabic, until someone called him and gave him some little haulage job, and he would put the whip down and push it into the rusty piece of pipe sticking up next to the seat of the cart. Sometimes, after making a few pointless rounds of the streets when the shutters were closed and everyone was taking their midday nap, he would just shout at random: Sharabi, Nachmani, Admoni, Mizrahi, Haimowitz, Abramowitz, Froike and Rabinowitz. Even though no family called Abramowitz had ever lived in the village, and Rabinowitz, who had worked for a few months in the waterworks, had left long ago for an unknown destination.
But nobody was satisfied.
The cart drivers told Nisim Kanetti's uncle that it wasn't right to give the work exclusively to Noah Kluski, and threatened Noah that if he didn't stop driving round the streets and stealing jobs from them, they would break his horse's legs. Let him stand in line with everyone else, next to the square, and they would see to it that he wasn't left out. Kluski wagged his head, not knowing what to say. He nearly swallowed the wad of tobacco in his mouth, muttered something to the whip in his hand, and a few days later, on condition that he could go on driving round the streets as well, he agreed to stand in line and take his turn with them.
There were also complaints that he emptied the bins too early. Not everybody managed to take out the garbage from the night and the morning in time, and the bins stood stinking in the sun. In order to stop the complaints, he began making an extra, quick round at noon, and when some woman ran after him with her garbage pail he would yell at her that garbage too had to be emptied in time. He would stop, spit out the remains of the tobacco rolling round in his mouth and swelling his cheeks, and without getting down he would pull the thick chain of the lid of the container, which was attached to the rusty pipe sticking up next to him. The container would open and the woman would throw in her garbage. A loud ringing noise would reverberate through the street as the iron lid fell. Kluski would whip the mare, curse Nisim Kanetti's uncle from the local council, and gallop to the area round the railway tracks. He would pass the shallow swamp which was stinking and covered with slime also in summer, reach Benjamin's Tomb, and not far from there, next to the white Sheik's tomb, he would empty the container. Sometimes he would rummage round in the pile of garbage, find an old primus stove that could still be used, or an old candlestick he could sell to Ashkenazi, drive to the council warehouse, detach the container from the cart, and return to the streets.
White foam would drip from the mare's tongue and cover her lips and the silver bit in her mouth. Kluski would pull up the reins, stop next to Kasos's café, stick the whip into the sawn-off, rusty pipe, and hide the articles he had found in the garbage dump under an old fodder sack. Then he would get off the cart, hang a bag of hay round the mare's neck, and climb the steps to the café. He would sit down next to the window, buy a glass of soda, look at the sign saying: Yoska Schwartz's Haulage Company, and wait for the driving teacher. The teacher never arrived on time, and Kluski would push a little wad of tobacco into his mouth again, remove the bitten stump of a yellow carpenter's pencil and a folded black notebook from his shirt pocket, straighten out the notebook, and make various calculations in it.
“What are you busy calculating there all the time?” Kasos would say as he cleaned the marble counter next to the soda-pop tap. “Those calculations won't bring you a haulage truck. First get your license.”
“It isn't working out.” Kluski would clutch the pencil stump in his thick, hairy fingers.
“It's the same with everyone. They get it in the end.”
The mare's hooves would stamp on the asphalt. A horn would hoot in the street.
Kluski would squeeze another few drops of soda out of his glass, go down to the square, shove a little hay into the bag round the mare's neck, and climb into the blue GMC which was already waiting for him next to Ashkenazi's shed, opposite Ben-Basat's clothing and handbag store, and begin his weekly driving lesson.
“A motorcar isn't a cart,” the driving teacher once said to him after stopping the truck in the nick of time to prevent an accident. Kluski took a lot of driving lessons. Nobody counted any longer the number of tests he had failed. He never succeeded in obtaining a driving license, but he never gave up the dream of buying a cheap truck and joining Schwartz's haulage company.
Kluski would return to the café, where Ashkenazi was already sitting and watching the street through the window.
“Have you heard anything?” He would ask Ashkenazi the same question year in year out, meaning something else every time.
“What if I have?” Ashkenazi would spread the dominoes out on the table like cards, joining them and separating them, pushing them from place to place. “He isn't even prepared to take on Nachmani's son, a blood relative. He's got troubles of his own. He doesn't need any new partners.”
“He's out of the army, didn't you know?” Ashkenazi picked up a domino, examined the white dots closely as if he was examining the number on a dice, and then said: “He's driving Nachmani crazy. One day he wants him to buy him a truck. The next he wants him to open a business for him in Tel Aviv. And in the meantime he doesn't do anything. Trains the puppy he brought back with him from the army and races down the streets on his motorbike. But don't worry.” he would take a sip of the tea standing on the corner of the table. “When it comes to the truck, if you're short, I'll give you what you need. I'm not afraid of lending you money, you know that.”
Kluski wouldn't reply. Years went by and they always held the same conversation. He would look at Ashkenazi's tangled white eyebrows, at the shabby black ribbon round his crumpled hat, and scratch his chin. The stubble of Kluski's beard was also white, the hair on his head was getting thin. His shoulders had shrunk a little, his paunch had swelled, and not only because of the long cloth belt he would wrap around his waist every morning, to strengthen his back and keep his money safe. With Ashkenazi's brokerage he had already bought and sold a number of plots, paying and receiving everything in cash. He had acquired new machinery for Yair's carpentry shop, and purchased a citrus grove, where he went to work every morning, in spite of its distance from the centre of town, winter and summer.
“Where are you going?” Nisim Kanetti asked him early one morning, on his way to open his store, wrapped in a transparent raincoat. The big pines swaying in the wind were black. Rivulets of water run down the sides of the road, along the pavements. Nobody walked past in the street. Only a few solitary worshippers went into the great synagogue. “It's flooding over there next to the railway tracks. Everything's full of mud.”
“What do you mean? Where?” Kluski didn't stop the cart. “Don't you open your shop every morning?” The mare's bridle too was black with rain.
“The land won't run away,” shouted Kanetti.
“It's not the land. Trees can run away.”
The rain came down hard. Kluski's cap was covered with transparent plastic. He tugged at the old army cape wrapped round his back with both hands, tightened it round his neck, whipped the mare, and the wheels went on making grooves in the mud.