Isra Isle


Isra Isle

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Nava Semel

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen


I lodge the canoe’s stern on the bank, lay down the slippery oar, and roll up the mat that covered my lap while I rowed. The water reflects the glimmering wampum beads on my belt. I grip the belt, which will protect me from the unknown.
As soon as he arrived at the mansion, the Jewish chief began to wave his deed of ownership around. At first I thought he was using it as a fan, but in fact he was displaying his entitlement to a valuable property, as though he had won a rare treasure.
Lady Lenox turned to me: That is your homeland, is it not? She did not wait for an answer.
My lady’s husband took the deed from the Jewish chief and fingered it as he does when he examines the silver fur of a grizzly bear and bargains with the Inuit hunter who came all the way from the expanses beyond the great falls. He spent a long time examining the small, crowded writing on the paper and finally decreed: You are a lucky man, Major Noah. You know how to pull the right strings. Then he winked: You Jews . . . As if he had said: You Indians.
Land is not property. It was given to all creatures for custody, I said, boldly expressing a red thought. The men in the parlor rolled their laughter out like barrels.
Master Lenox whispered something to the Jewish chief and then turned to me. As always, he spoke to me slowly and deliberately.
Land is merchandise, Girl, just like the corn you help us grow, in return for which we give you shelter. This is the New World. But you would not understand that.
He addressed the guest again: How much did you pay, Major Noah? That’s a bargain! If we had known Grand Island was up for sale . . .
Then he began pacing back and forth, making calculations. He had not yet given the deed back to the guest.
Perhaps there are other lands on the market, Lady Lenox opined. Lands one can buy for cheap, because no one wants to live or die in them. A land of exile, like Elba or Saint Helena, where the deposed Emperor Napoleon was sent, ten sun cycles ago.
The men’s laughter echoed through the parlor again.
Suddenly Master Lenox tensed. His white thought turned even paler and he exclaimed: So close to us . . . An island of Jews . . .
He put his hand to his musket rifle.
That is when I told the chief: I will take you there.
A land of exile.
A land of exiles . . .
Jews. What are they? Who are they?
Do Father Raven and Little Dove not have the right to know who their heirs are?
A desired land. A piece of paper the white people pass from hand to hand.
I write my thoughts down in a little notebook, which I stole from my lady’s escritoire. I keep it well hidden in the leather pouch on my belt, next to the pipe, lest her husband find out that I can read and write.
The Jewish chief pushes his way between the ferns, spraying us with beads of last night’s rain. The night raptors open their beaks, and I refrain from replying to the eagle owls so that they do not think I am their lost mate. To reassure the Jew, I explain that if a coyote were lying in wait for us in the thicket, his smell would have reached my nostrils by now. I can even pick up the scent of my lady’s husband from behind the door when he tries to break into my room at night.
Earlier this evening, in Buffalo, as I pushed the canoe into the currents, Master Lenox stood on the staircase with his feet apart and warned the Jewish chief about red women. Who knows what they’re scheming? he said. She’ll lead you into a pit, and in the morning she’ll come back and tell us you were devoured by wild animals. She’ll throw down your overcoat, ripped and soiled, and demand the island for herself.
But the Jewish chief turned his back on him, sat down in the canoe, and handed me the oar.
Now, on the island, when we finally emerge from the thicket, I tell him: A land cannot be bequeathed with blood. Then I drop to the ground.
At the end of every summer, when I reach the island, I get down on my knees, which are swollen from rowing, and unload my longings for the island I have not set foot on since winter. On clear days I can see it from the window of my room in the mansion, far away in the distance yet almost within reach. In the rainy season the island blurs in the river’s mist, and a great fear overcomes me: perhaps the grassy lowland has sunk into the water’s depths and I have done nothing to save it.
If I had a lot of money, like the Jew, I tell myself, I would face the governor of the State of New York and buy back my island. But that is a futile notion: our tribes have dispersed, and even if Chief Red Jacket were still in this life, sated with moons and suns, he would not even recall his own name.
At the end of every summer, I kneel down on the shore. Were Lady Lenox to see me, she would quickly cross herself in fear. Countless times she has asked me to go to church with her, but I have avoided it.
Tonight a Jewish chief watches me. I thought he would throw the javelin of his faith at me and call me a heretic, but he keeps his white thoughts to himself.
I slowly stand up and my mouth is full of words. Trampled grass, broken twigs, crushed needles, droppings, patches of urine—tracks that lead nowhere, yet they are tiny circles of life. The earth is not sacred, I once wrote in my notebook, but those who dwell on it are so easily desecrated.
The Jewish chief leaves his clumsy footprints on the earth’s rain-softened skin, while I tread lightly with my dove-toes. One can walk that way for hours without tiring, leaving no visible tracks. The Jewish chief tries to mimic my gait, but in vain. From time to time we bump into one another, and he quickly moves his body away from mine.
A red woman.
The whites stare at me, and there are always those who try to touch.
How pale Lady Lenox looked to me when I came to Buffalo ten sun cycles ago. I thought then that she was ill.
If only I could learn how to forget.
But you, Father Raven, pierced me with the javelin of remembrance, and bequeathed me the wampum belt. Our predecessors were the ones who gathered the white and purple shells on the shores of America and threaded them into the tale of our history in this world. The belt will always remind you of who and what you are, you told me, like the white man’s Book of Books. But the beaver of time gnawed at the belt, the beads unraveled, and I learned how to write my memories using white people’s letters.
I found the notebook one day during the great snow, in my lady’s escritoire. A binder of thin pages, easily torn out, like a flock of memories gliding and swooping. At first my letters were heavy and clumsy, bleeding ink on the paper and on my fingertips. Later I learned to turn the quill into a needle that threads the word-shells. I write, though I do not know if there will ever be a reader.
We proceed, but I keep glancing back surreptitiously.
The Jewish chief is neither young nor old. He is in that moment of life when self-satisfaction stands as an unwavering dam between childhood wounds and the beginning of bodily decay. His hair is the tone of reddish sand, and the nose beneath his high forehead slopes down like an eagle’s beak. His sideburns are long and his lips are fleshy, and he constantly lowers his eyes, as though afraid I might perceive his weakness. Are these the features of the Jews?
We will know how to recognize them anywhere, and we must protect ourselves from them, said my lady’s husband to those gathered in the parlor. This was on the second day of the guest’s visit. A coyote in human clothing. If that is indeed the true nature of the Jew, then I have walked into a trap. I should not have tempted him to sail in my canoe. After all, a man can inherit an island without stepping foot on it. He had initially intended to hold the ceremony on Grand Island, but was forced to change his plans when he learned there were not enough boats in Buffalo to transport the guests to the island. He spent six days in the mansion, devising the ceremony as though it were a coronation. Until the day I opened my mouth in the parlor, he did not so much as glance in my direction. Only when I offered to accompany him to the island did he freeze for a moment, survey me from moccasins to braids, and acquiesce. Perhaps he wanted to ensure that he was not risking his money on a dubious scheme.
He bought himself an island just like Master Lenox buys black slaves in the southern states.
When I suggest turning back, the Jewish chief refuses. It might be his pride. My lady’s husband says that is a quality of his tribesmen.
Why this grassy lowland, unknown far and wide—why was it chosen? Was there no other land under the wings of Wakan Tanka that could be given willingly to the Jews?
My red questions stir in my mind, but I do not write them down, only tighten the wampum belt against my body.
The animals track us, but the Jewish chief disregards them, as though there were no living creature in the world apart from him. We find shelter, and I explain to him that we must wait. Only after waiting for an unknown length of time will the island’s residents welcome us, although suspicion will still hover over our heads.
To my surprise, the Jewish chief concurs. He seems to slowly open up, but I do not know if his ears can detect the woodpecker tapping, the branches creaking, the crickets chattering, and the crow calling.
I tell him: If you do not learn to recognize these sounds, you will not survive, here or anywhere. From within the fog in my head a voice thunders out: They are a race of survivors. But the Jewish chief’s lips are sealed.
Where did that voice come from? An uninvited vision? Mine or his?
It is doubtful that the Jews are graced with a talent for visions. After all, they are white men.
Despite the fur of darkness that envelops us, I do not light a fire. It is buried in a shell in the leather pouch on my waist. Before leaving, I took an ember from Lady Lenox’s kitchen. It burned my fingers but I did not speak the pain.
We must wait, I tell the Jewish chief. We must breathe the darkness together like a pair of scarecrows.
He stomps his feet like a caged animal, but finally submits.
The theory of traces, I tell the Jew, is a struggle between those who try to hide any trace of their identity and those who insist on displaying it like a scalp for all to see. I also tell the chief that any traces can be erased with water. The strongest smell is the smell of the prey’s fear as he flees, galloping toward the quivering line between water and earth. I have learned to recognize my own smell of fear, and it is emanating from me now as though I were a cracked canoe. We lean on the slippery tufts of grass, and the foreign man whose hair is fiery puts one hand on his heart and rocks back and forth like a sheaf of corn in an approaching storm.
Who is the Jews’ helping spirit? Perhaps he has turned his back on them and that is why they must find themselves a new island?
On the third night of his visit I served the guests their dinner and curtseyed, as Lady Lenox taught me. Her husband pointed and said: You are a very fortunate girl. Had we not brought the gifts of progress to this land, you would have drowned in the darkness of ignorance, worshipping stones and animals. And who is your raven? A filthy bird who pecks at carcasses. You should thank us, Girl. Let us all drink to the New World!
The guests raised their glasses, and Lady Lenox also drank. Her cheeks were flushed and she joked: Now I’m a red woman, too.
How does my lady’s husband know about the Raven, my helping spirit? Did my lady disclose my deepest secrets to him? I believed she was my friend. Last winter, when the great snow piled up, we wove a thread of friendship, and she even asked me to call her by her Christian name.
After the meal I washed the goblets. The Jewish chief’s was still full of firewater. I poured the liquid into a pit. I will never taste that fire; that is what I swore to you, Father Raven. As soon as I arrived at the mansion, my lady’s husband tried to make me drink. He wanted to part my lips, and promised me joy and forgetfulness.
But I insist on remembering.
And sorrow insists on being.
How they flattered the distinguished guest, practically scrubbing the Jewish chief with their smooth tongues, glorifying his many titles as if they belonged to them: Major, Attorney, American Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis. He had recently been appointed Sheriff of New York. The Jewish chief showed them missives he had received from Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the guests passed them around and clucked their tongues admiringly. Lady Lenox even read out loud from President Adams’s letter: “I have had occasion to be acquainted with several gentlemen of your nation, and to transact business with some of them. I wish your nation may be admitted to all the privileges of citizens in every country of the world.”
The Jewish chief was delighted. He clapped his hands and showered praise on Lady Lenox. How fluently you read, he said. You are blessed with many talents, my lady. You could take the stage and play the lead part in the play I have written, a heartbreaking love story that takes place during the Revolutionary War. An American revolutionist woos the daughter of his adversaries who support the oppressive British rule. It is a spectacle replete with effects of thunder and blood. It was hugely successful on the stages of New York City. Has my lady ever had the pleasure of visiting the theater?
The Jewish chief promised to seat her in the front row. After the show, he would invite her backstage and show her how these effects of thunder and blood were created.
“Do not extend your hand to foreign mercenaries, who have crept in amongst the brave people fighting for their independence,” he quoted boastfully from one of his plays. In between courses, the Jewish chief scattered a fabric of words, eager to gain their approval, or his own.
My lady did visit the theater once, and returned from New York alight with excitement. This is what she told me when she came home: A man stands on a raised stage and persuades the people sitting opposite him like scarecrows in the dark to believe in something that never happened. When the rector of Saint Paul’s Cathedral announced the distinguished visitor, my lady’s husband wrinkled his nose and only conceded to host the man when the rector slipped a few bills into his hand. But my lady’s excitement was boundless. She ordered me to polish all the silver she had brought from Virginia as part of her dowry, and to lay fine woven blankets on the canopy bed intended for the guest, as though it were a bridal bed.
For six nights in Buffalo, the Jew did not close his eyes. Through the door I could hear him crying and laughing intermittently.
They urged him to report the latest gossip from Tammany Hall, and wanted to know who had helped his election campaigns for the important positions he held. The Jew fell into the trap and could not resist boasting. He told of how he had freed Americans held in slavery by the Bey of the Kingdom of Tunis. He was destined for greatness from his youth, he explained. George Washington himself had been a guest at his parents’ wedding. The chief also noted that he dined twice a month with Governor Clinton, and was his confidant. Was he not the most glorious Jew in America? He was regularly mentioned in newspaper headlines: Mordecai Manuel Noah. He repeated the name twice and opened up the latest newspaper on the table, among the dishes, as evidence.
The guests cheered, and Lady White gave him a few dagger-sharp smiles. Was he in the mind to marry soon and produce a few little Noah children for the world?
It was not yet time, he replied. He had yet to find the right match. He winked at Lady White and rolled up the newspaper.
Then the women were sent away and the men lit their cigars and filled the parlor with smoke as they lounged among the glass and china cabinets. Master Lenox insisted on walking the guest around the room to show him his cherished collection: white-tailed deer horns, the heads of boars, raccoons, and turkeys, and a taxidermied dove and raven. He told Noah how he had hunted the two birds on the day he married my lady. No one will ever forget that ceremony, he said. The bride’s veil billowed up in the gust coming from the great falls, and the groom tied it around her neck so that it would not fly away.
A woman likes to be bound, he explained with a loud chuckle, and recommended to the lauded journalist from New York that he write down this piece of advice and disseminate it.
The Jewish chief grimaced, but I could not read his thoughts. Only moments before, he had found favor with Lady White and Lady Ransom when he professed his support for women’s suffrage. But upon hearing Master Lenox’s sentiments, he remained as quiet as a black bass.
The Jewish chief did not let go of the title deed for even a moment, keeping it buried deep in his tunic, close to his chest. I could have stolen it without him knowing. He asked to retire to his room, and apologized to his guests, explaining that he needed to finish writing his speech for the ceremony. Lady Lenox told me to prepare his fine clothes, and I followed him to the guest room, two steps behind, my head bowed. He handed me a robe and asked me to clean it. I held my breath. This shade of crimson was appropriate only for the elderly Seneca chief Red Jacket. A cascade of silk flowed between my fingers.
Finally the Jew spoke to me: The day will come when you will tell your children that you witnessed this occasion, the dedication of the Jews’ island of refuge.
What have they suffered that they require refuge? Were they shot at with musket rifles?
Were their teepees and wigwams and longhouses burned? Were they forced to drink firewater and have their visions trampled? Or perhaps they suffered no wrongs, but like the other pale-faced men they have concocted false pretenses to justify ripping out another portion of the earth’s flesh for themselves. This is what the black boy, Simon, a servant at the mansion like me, says. He was born in America, but he looks to what came before what came before—to Africa.
“Everything-thieves,” Simon calls the whites. And what shall I call the new invaders who suddenly emerged from the guts of an unknown continent claiming to be persecuted?
I shook the robe and a slight whiff of dust reached my nostrils. It was borrowed from a theater wardrobe, Lady Ransom’s husband told the guests. They showered the visitor from New York with smiles for six days, but I heard them gossiping behind his back. Beneath all the honorable airs bought with money and scheming, Master Lenox claimed, the Jewish chief was first and foremost concerned for his own people. Lady White’s husband concurred, and said the Jew had failed in his mission in Tunis, since the ransom he paid the Bey for the American hostages was excessive, and eventually he was disgracefully removed from his post as Consul. Lady White’s husband was even able to quote from Secretary of State James Monroe’s letter: “At the time of your appointment, it was not known that the religion which you profess would form an obstacle to the exercise of your Consular functions.”
How fluent was his reading. He too, like my lady, deserved a part in the theater.
I moved among them and they did not bother to obscure their defamations.
Serve the food, Girl. Clear the dishes, Girl. Go to your place.
But where is my place?
Your voice crosses the eternal hunting ground, Father Raven: You are the last one, my daughter. Go wherever you go, just as long as the island is preserved in your visions. But there is no shaman left to guide me. I wear the clothes of the white people, I speak in their tongue, and I am forced to conceal my red visions.
A while later, voices were raised.
Mordecai Manuel Noah was appointed Sheriff of New York? Scandalous! Are we to allow a Jew to order the hanging of a Christian? Lady Ransom’s husband was outraged. Such a thing must not be permitted. Master Lenox expounded: Noah probably elbowed his way into the lofty position through bribery and extortion. Eventually he will open up the prison gates and let murderers and thieves out onto the streets. The notorious Mordecai Manuel Noah.
I stood with my ear to the door. Could this Jew be both a despicable creature and a transcendent being at the same time?
I could hear the chief’s voice coming from the guest room, where he was reciting his speech, but I could not decipher the words.
I continued to eavesdrop on the dispute in the parlor.
Lady Ransom’s husband suggested appealing to the highest authorities regarding the deed of title. Why should such a valuable asset be given to the Jews without a struggle? Having extricated Grand Island from the savages’ grip, and repelled the impudent demands of the British and the French, shall we now give it up so easily, a free gift to the Jews? The nation of money changers would do best to be dispersed throughout the world. After all, even in the New World there must be some limits to their greed.
Lady White’s husband said: If they gather in one place, the Jews are liable to gain power, and eventually they will rise up against us, break out of the island’s borders, and with their plentiful funds they will try to purchase Buffalo, New York State, and even all of America. A continent of Jews . . . What a horrifying idea! Have we not enough on our hands with the herds of heretics we have here? Must we now have the Jews on our tail too?
Lady Lenox’s husband finally hushed the crowd. It is precisely when they are all in one place, he explained, that we will be able to keep an eye on them. The Niagara River will seal them in, and the great falls will block their exit route.
Upon hearing this reassurance, the dignitaries settled back into their smoke-filled parlor seats. It will be a reservation, Master Lenox explained. And the Jews will enter it of their own free will. The perfect cure for an Old World affliction.
It was only the rector of Saint Paul’s who sided with the Jews, enumerating their positive traits. They are a hardworking people, he said, enterprising and diligent, and most importantly, the Jews obey authority and will submit even to the harshest decrees. They are as soft and supple as the white oak tree. A fine raw material.
It is true, he continued, that the Jews have some well-known flaws, and the Old World attempts to repair them came to naught. But the New World gives us a chance to completely alter their nature. Under our patronage, they will turn the island into a flourishing port of commerce, the Niagara will blossom, and we shall all be rich.
The rector declared, finally: It is better for the Jews to be a tool at our disposal rather than the other way around.
Every Sunday when Lady Lenox goes to church, the rector urges me again to join her, demanding that I kneel before the Christian chief and his virgin mother. But I am steadfast in my refusal. I will not alter my faith, despite the rector’s ire. Why does he not demand that the Jewish chief abandon his faith? Because he is fond of the Jewish chief. The rector sent his carriage to a Cleveland quarry to bring back the stone that the Jewish chief will unveil tomorrow on the island as a monument. It is inscribed with letters in a forgotten language that no one understands.
It is Hebrew, the rector explains to the guests, who have by now begun to yawn. The language in which their Book of Books was written, from right to left. Perhaps that is the root of their troubles. They held onto what came before what came before, refusing to forget. Our duty is to sever the Jews from their past, which weighs them down. In the New World they will be our loyal adherents.
There was finally a hum of approval in the parlor. I stood by the mirror in the hallway, wearing a silk robe that did not belong to me, gazing at my reflection. It was as though one of my foremothers had suddenly appeared to face down the warriors, wearing her soft fur, gold and silver hanging around her neck, a wreath of feathers and gemstones on her head. As the tribal leader, she had the power to decide whether or not to declare war. The hoards cheered and waved their javelins, roaring deafeningly.
That is when Lady Lenox came upon me. Instead of reprimanding me, she tugged at the silk hem: Keep your distance from the Jew, Little Dove. Recant your offer to take him to the island.
I told her: At the end of every summer I row home.
She let go.
Forgive me, Father Raven, for not having yet found the strength to fulfill the tribal custom. This is my last opportunity; after tomorrow your bones will lie in a foreign land.
I took off the crimson robe and informed Lady Lenox that it was spotless. Then I put on my wampum belt, slipped into the Jewish chief’s room, and told him it was time to leave.
All that came before.
These are the traces of our village, I tell the Jewish chief. We climb up the hill and pass the plots where corn, beans, and pumpkin no longer grow—the “three sisters” without which our tribes have no life. Then we cross the remains of the fences that surrounded a group of tunnel-like structures. Only the visions bring me back to the cool darkness that pervaded in the longhouse, with smoke from the cooking fires curling out through the openings. The light would seep inside through little portholes, caressing the beds of dry twigs and leaves. On either side of the central corridor were dwellings separated by lengths of hide. Many families nested there, and when a new couple arrived, we would build an extension on the end of the longhouse.
My vision fills with the laughter of children playing Snow Snake in winter, although I never had the chance to run along the frozen course and throw the javelin-snake.
The soft, pliable maple tree branches that served as the structure’s frame have collapsed, and only one length of elm bark, of all the ones that covered the longhouse, stands up from the ground like the tip of a tomahawk.
The Jewish chief detects the other traces himself. A mat made of reeds sown together with a bone-needle and a thread of plant fibers, a cracked cooking kettle, a wicker basket, a pebble earring, a bear-tooth hair clip.
The traces are deceptive. Some might mistakenly think we left only days ago. A faint whiff of black bass roasted with roots and bulbs still comes from the kettle.
They came before us, Chief. Despite the heart’s inclination to overflow and remember them more beautiful and kinder than they were, I will not adorn them with feathers of glory. In this place, in its multiple worlds, they rustled, flowered, and withered. Some loved, some hated. One took revenge, another made peace. They gave birth, they buried parents. Cycle after cycle, man and woman, they matured, they went into the forest to seek their helping spirits, and returned to the village with new names. But I did not go on my Vision Quest. The village was abandoned and we were left alone on the island, Father Raven and me, Little Dove.
No place is completely empty, I tell the man beside me. We all hover in little circles reflected in our wide eyes. Sometimes it is our turn to go outside, and sometimes to come inside. Life after life. Life before . . .
The Jewish chief will soon try to dam my flood of thoughts. Like my lady’s husband, he will say: Here is a redundant relic of the Old World. But instead he picks up an object and places it in my palm. His fingers breathe warmth through the clods of earth, but a chill runs through my body.
What is this object? the Jewish chief asks, and I take a step back.
A broken spear, its flint tip still sharp. If the Jew is injured, I will be blamed.
You fool, you senseless dove. The New World and the Old World are one and the same. Did the Huron not decimate every last one of the Neutrals? And were the Huron themselves not slaughtered by the Senecas? The Niagara River ran red.
That is the color of my skin.
The Jews will inherit that, too.
That is your homeland, is it not? Lady Lenox asked on that summer day in the fields.
We were standing in the bower overlooking the cornfields, and the island hung from the river’s neck like a pendant. We stopped beating the copper vessels, and I alerted my lady to the subtlest rustles: the beating of a butterfly’s wings, a spider spinning its web, a goose feather in flight.
Her limbs grew increasingly rigid. I urged her to relax, but she resisted, spreading her arms out wide as she gazed at a flock of birds.
Suddenly her husband fell upon us and almost beat her for adopting savage customs. He threatened to throw me out of their home. Lady Lenox got down on her knees and pleaded on my behalf. Her husband put his hand to his musket rifle and spat at me: A hundred years from now, there’ll be no trace of you.
That is your homeland, is it not? Those were the first words I wrote in my notebook. Now I wonder about my lady’s intent. Is one’s homeland the place where a person evolves into life, or is that a choice made in adulthood, as one chooses a fateful name? Perhaps it is also your memory, Father Raven, that plays tricks on me, and the land that was given to my mind’s eye is not at all the homeland where our ancestors lived. Am I entitled to call my island “home,” even though I do not live in it permanently? Even though from sun cycle to sun cycle it becomes more of a dream? I am flooded with another person’s nostalgia, captive to the visions that insist on visiting me. You said: The visions will guide you. But the doubts have been planted.
A fictitious homeland. A longed-for land that never was.
If land is not property, then anywhere may be considered a homeland, and the Jewish tribe may therefore adopt the island even without a deed of ownership. The Jew is free to settle in whichever land he desires. Why, then, does he insist on drawing borders for himself, when he has already managed to obtain a measure of power that I will never achieve?
Perhaps that is the Jewish tribe’s virtue: they have turned their foreignness into a javelin.
Last night in Buffalo, I stood at the mirror, wearing another person’s crimson robe, and the reflection stated defiantly: This is your true nature. The dove, too, longs to be a coyote. Nothing distinguishes you from this chief. You both entrench yourselves in secrets about suffering and draw power from them.
Now, by the ruins of the abandoned village, the ancient voice returns to unsettle my mind. Throw the javelin, Little Dove—it is still sharp—before the island’s new owners destroy it. Here come the Jews to disinherit you from your earth: Shall you lower your head in defeat? You are the daughter of the daughter of prideful warriors, and your foremothers are the women who chose the chiefs and determined, with a wave of the hand, who would live and who would die. How will you look back at what came before you? You will turn red with shame. Throw the javelin now, Little Dove!
I repel the voice that growls inside me and toss away the flint blade.
A land is not inherited by blood . . .
A land is not . . .
A sudden chill descends from the river, and the Jewish chief shivers. I gather stones, arrange them in a circle, and dig a hole in the center. I send him to gather firewood and he returns with maple branches and hands them to me with an imploring look. Perhaps this is how the Jews build shelter for freezing days.
The chief throws the maple branches into the circle of stones. Then he leans over and straightens one of them so it does not breach the border. Meticulous, like Lady Lenox’s husband, who devotes his Sundays to polishing his rifle collection. The black boy Simon stands beside him, handing him the cleaning tools and looking down, fearful of the whip.
Despite the darkness, I recognize the maple. A perfect tree, resembling a bird in flight. At the end of every summer I sit at its foot and look up. Each limb has its reflection on the other side: leaf facing leaf, bud facing bud. When the maple leaves take on the tone of sunset, I know autumn is coming and it is time to return to the mainland.
In early spring, when the snow still covered the ground but the sun was beginning to warm the bark, our people used to collect the maple’s sweet sap. But now summer is dying, and those who come after us—whoever they may be—will not write in their notebooks: Here sat a man and a woman and quenched their thirst for sweetness.
If I were to give the Jewish chief a drink . . .
His breaths are so close.
I remove the ember from my shell and throw it into the circle of stones. The twigs ignite and the crackling hushes the water’s rustle. How do the voices of my land sound to a stranger’s ears? Are they a blend of languages he cannot decipher? Tomorrow the Jews will drown out the quiet tranquility of the grassy lowland with their forgotten tongue that no one else understands. What is their bond with this island? Is it possible to bundle up the history of a tribe and float it down the river in a canoe like cobs of corn?
Throw the javelin, Little Dove. This is your last chance to save your land from the trail of tears. Push the Jew into the flames, drown the stranger in the waters, restore your stolen home. So many strange deaths; the Jew’s fate will never be discovered.
It is not the voice of the ancient War Mother that I hear, but that of Master Lenox loading his musket rifle with gunpowder.
The fire burns vigorously but does not throw off sparks. The Jewish chief holds his hands close to the flames and draws their heat as if it were golden maple honey. He has removed his overcoat and his eyes shine brightly. The smoke blurs my senses, and for a moment I, too, am a daughter of the Jewish tribe, sailing behind my chief to a dream island, persistently murmuring foreign phrases. In my spirit’s eye I dance between water and earth and call to the newcomers: Be whoever you wish to be, as long as you fill my island with compassion, for the world is emptying out. It is your turn to go inside and our turn to go outside.
If only I could trace the route I will take from here into the future. Will I bother to interpret tomorrow the traces I left yesterday? The indentation created by my toes is deeper than the one left by my heels, for I lean forward to fan the flames with a branch. The earth is marked by the fringes of my leather dress, made of hedgehog quills I gathered with my lady near the cornfield. On the nights of the big snow I sewed them into a dress, but no eye can detect the blood that dripped from my lady’s fingers. She begged me to teach her the method. She said we were sisters...
The Jewish chief’s face turns red from the fire. In the morning our tracks will be found: a wave of clear ashes in the heart of a circle of stones. The maple is better for burning than any other tree, and anyone who sniffs the ashes will inhale its wonderful aroma. The trackers—whoever they may be—will write in their notepads: At the fireside sat a man and a woman and warmed their bones together.


This excerpt is from Nava Semel's forthcoming novel, Isra Isle, which will be published soon by Mandel Vilar Press. This book may be purchased here.

Copyright © by Nava Semel. Copyright in the English translation © by Jessica Cohen. Published by arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Nava Semel, born in Israel in 1954, is the author of sixteen books, including Becoming Gershona, winner of the 1990 National Jewish Book Award; Flying Lessons, a cross-over novel, published in 1995 and chosen as one of the best young adults novels in Germany; and her most acclaimed novel, And the Rat Laughed, published in Hebrew in 2001, and in English in 2008. Semel also writes plays, opera libretti, poetry, and screenplays. Her works have been translated into many languages and published in many countries. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Jessica Cohen, the translator, was born in England in 1973, moved with her family to Israel in 1980, and to the United States in 1997. She now lives in Denver, Colorado. Cohen has worked with some of Israel’s finest writers, including David Grossman, Etgar Keret, Assaf Gavron, Rutu Modan, Amir Gutfreund, Yael Hedaya, Ronit Matalon, and Tom Segev, as well as with prominent screenwriters such as Ari Folman and Ron Leshem.

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