The Fingers on the Hill
By Eytan Freier-Dror
Translated from Hebrew by Judy Kupferman
You were younger then than I am now. You sat on the board and gripped the metal chains. I stood behind you and pushed the swing. Why was I so excited? And why do I still remember this? Maybe because till now there was only must or should, and a swing is neither. Maybe because of the evening that caught us by surprise, and we hadn’t yet found a place to sleep, and my little brother said: “If only Daddy was here now,” and my sister put her hand on his mouth (“Don’t say that.”) On a nearby tree two squirrels danced, and I hoped that one day I would be able to talk to you.
Every morning starts with a battle, even in Zilberman’s grocery store, where he fights for the remnants of the yellow cheese. He knows that another two months will pass before Mr. Zilberman gets the new package of cheese, wrapped in shiny red wax, and Daddy has to have yellow cheese for Saturday. “More important than the fish,” he will say to Mr. Zilberman, and the other will answer: “But Mrs. Michaelov was here first, she too wants yellow cheese.” Mrs. Michaelov will nod her head, and the rolled up knot of hair on her head will threaten to fall down, but no, she will look at the white fingerless hand and say “No that’s fine, let him, after all it’s not a matter of life and death.”
(“Cut it without the end part for me, from here,” Daddy will gesture to Mr. Zilberman.)
“And where were the fingers lost?”
“We told you a thousand times, in that battle on the hill.”
“Two best friends went on their way, bim bam bee, one got a big bump on his knee,” Daddy sang, the yellow cheese locked in the fist of the whole hand, his steps wide and heavy, and a smile on his face. He had won the Thursday morning battle.
“Enough of that song,” you told him when he opened the door, on his lips the second verse or the third, the one where first a cow stood and did what she did.
“Two best friends went on their way, bim bam bee.”
“You’ll wake the baby,” you told him.
He continues to hum in a low whisper: “One got a big bump on his knee!”
“Yechiel, will you stop driving me crazy? As if this awful night isn’t enough, with his crying and your shouting.”
You know just who the two best friends are who went on their way. You’ve been living with them for years. They hang around your house; sleep in your bed.
You raised your voice. “Stop that humming now, Yechiel, I’m warning you.”
Daddy sliced the yellow cheese into thin precise slices; the thumb and pinky thrust into the hard block. “Everybody gets three slices,” he told you, and after a moment: “Rina, do you hear me? Three slices each.”
You put the iron down on the board, folded the sheet and pinched the fold lengthwise between two fingers. “Yes, Yechiel, I heard. You can have my portion. Now you have six slices.”
Daddy counted the slices of cheese once again. “Don’t you do me any favors,” he told you, and arranged the slices one on top of each other, wrapped them all in wax paper and put them in the cracked plastic drawer in the refrigerator.
“Yechiel, please make sandwiches with the yellow cheese for Avinoam and Orna, so they’ll have them at recess.”
“It’s for Saturday,” Daddy decreed. “I bought this for breakfast on Saturday.”
You unplugged the iron and placed it on the floor. With quick steps you entered the kitchen and pushed Daddy aside. He moved over and gave up. “Don’t talk nonsense,” you told him, and you called us: “Kids, who wants me to put margarine in your yellow cheese sandwich?”
“Me! Me! Me!”
You were the one who said they should buy Jacko for him. “It’s a clever parrot,” you said. “He needs noise and color in the house, not to feel alone.”
We were not there anymore when the parrot came, we didn’t see it or hear it, but in one of the rare phone calls, Aunt Leah told me across the distance that after two or three weeks the parrot already learned to talk, and not just to talk, to shout: “Ezra, you go first, and went.”
“And what else?”
“Kiddush, it knows how to say Kiddush.”
For a week and a half the stomach fluttered. Not to tell, not to tell, to keep the secret, not a word, not a word, the secret in bed, under the covers, hard to fall asleep.
“It’s a secret for Daddy,” you said again before the good night kiss. “Not to tell friends, teachers, neighbors. Not one word, do you understand?” You raised your voice.
And when Aunt Leah came to visit, you prodded us: “Go play outside,” and in our ears you whispered: “Aunt Leah too, not one word.”
You sent Daddy anywhere that entered your head, just to keep him out of the house: to the post office and from there to the grocer and from there to the municipality, and then to bring the whipped cream from Batya, who had been with you on the kibbutz and now lived in a distant neighborhood, and would surely invite him to stay for coffee and cake – a thin slice of strawberry cake (“That’s my specialty,” she would giggle to him) – and would free you for another hour. Daddy went willingly, humming his songs, and his voice could be heard from the street up to the second floor, while you packed suitcases and hid them under the beds.
“Because it’s a surprise,” Orna explained again to Dvir afterwards, at the airport, and she asked you: “Why hasn’t he come yet? Maybe we should phone him.”
“Sure,” you told her. “A few more minutes,” and you suggested that meantime we should take the suitcases to the check in counter. And when I prodded you, you said “You need sneakers. Orna, take Dvir and buy yourselves both something good, and we’ll find sneakers for Avinoam.”
And we already had seat belts on, takeoff signs overhead, and the wheels of the plane trembled beneath our feet when Orna asked, “Where’s Daddy?”
Her voice shook. You ignored her.
“Where’s Daddy?” she asked again. “He should have been here a long time ago!”
You gave her an angry look. You placed your index finger on your lips, and she, for the first time in her life, disobeyed you. “Where’s Daddy, where’s Daddy, where is he?” she bellowed.
Dvir began to cry. “Go home,” he screamed, and you placed his head in a soft palm: “Sssh.” And to Orna you hissed: “I should have left you there too, then we’d have seen by now what a great time you’d be having.”
I never asked you if you left him a note. Maybe you gave the job to Aunt Leah, when you asked her to meet us at the airport.
“At the airport?”
“I need to tell you something important there,” you told her.
What did he think when he woke up and saw an empty house? And how come he didn’t wake up at night? Did you dissolve sleeping pills in the cup of after dinner tea?
You put us to bed in our clothes, only without shoes in bed. At dawn you shook my shoulder. “Quick, put your shoes on, take the little suitcase. Orna, take Dvir and go downstairs, the taxi’s waiting.”
Rivka the widow, in a green robe and pink nightcap, peeked at us from the barred window: “Where are you running off to so early?” she asked.
You ignored her and pushed me forward: “Come on, what are you waiting for?”
“He had other women,” you told Orna.
“You’re making that up?”
You waved the wooden spoon at her, and traces of parsley flew in the air. “Don’t you dare talk to me like that, I’m still your mother, do you hear me?”
Orna wiped her nose on the sleeve of her sweater and kicked at the chair. “I’m going to say what I think, and I’m sick of your lies already.”
“I’m warning you!” you told her. The wooden spoon moved back and forth, chidingly. “I’m warning you, you’re way out of line.”
Orna smiled; her eyes darted from me to you and back. “And what are you going to do to me?”
Then silence, for two or three days, fluttering between the two rooms, passing each other without looking up, at times whispering through me, each near the other: “Tell her that –”
And once, when I asked you how you knew about his other women, you passed the laundry to me and said: “Go tidy up your closet. Only the socks on top are mine.” But I stood opposite you and waited. You stamped your foot, and the bags beneath your eyes trembled.
“Now you’re starting too? Don’t I have enough with your big sister?”
I moved away, and then I turned back to you, determined. You were surprised. Since when do I dare, your nice child, who always does what you tell me? “I want to know how you know,” I said. “Did you see him with them?”
You drew your eyebrows together, slipped off your shawl and threw it on the chair. “Do you remember Rivka the widow?” you asked.
I thought about the faded green robe and about the garbage bag she carried on the staircase. “Yes,” I said.
“Well, Rivka told me.”
I picked up the green shawl that Orna had knitted for you and I folded it. (“My big daughter made that for me!” you bragged at every opportunity.)
“What did she tell you?” I asked.
“You know,” you said, and closed your eyes. “And now I want to rest, Avinoam. Leave me alone, okay?”
“No,” I insisted. “I want to know what she told you.”
“That he shouts at night in his sleep,” you answered in a high voice, and your voice broke at the end of the sentence, and you paused. “And how do you think Rivka knew that he shouts?” you said after a moment. “I certainly didn’t tell her.” You let out a breath. “Oof,” you said in your ordinary voice, “the sink is crammed full of dishes.”
I let you and myself alone just for a short while. “So you suspect him,” I said afterwards. “You only suspect that he was with others, and only because Rivka said something.” I raised my voice above the whistle of the tea kettle, “Maybe she heard it through the walls?”
“What does it matter now, Avinoam? He’s there and we’re here.” You fished a spoon out of the sink and rinsed it off. “Whose turn is it to do the dishes today?”
I poured dish soap onto the sponge. “So you ran away for other reasons,” I said.
You smiled at me. Clearly you had known I would do the dishes. “You know what, Nomileh,” you said, and the music accompanying my name was softer than usual, “maybe it’s time you started thinking about it a bit more like an adult.”
On nights with a full moon, on nights with no moon, from the depth of his dream he shouted: “Ezra, you go first, and he went.”
The wooden legs of the bed creaked when you moved his body, your eyelids red, inflamed with autumn dryness, almost shuttering your eyes, and he would look at you, confused, pupils wide – what does she want from me?
“Yechiel, you’re shouting. You’re always shouting.”
“Why don’t you let me sleep?” He was angry, and beads of sweat streamed down his forehead. “Leave me alone already, let me sleep for one night like a human being.”
“Because you’re shouting.” You beat your hands on his bare chest, and he shrank.
“I didn’t hear a thing.”
You placed your head on the pillow again, hands limp at the sides, and lowered your voice. “Of course you didn’t hear. You’re the only one who can sleep in this house with your shouting.”
Daddy would turn to the wall and cover his head with the blanket, or he would drag himself to the big brown leather armchair, with the blanket crawling behind him on the ground. From there he never shouted, the leather armchair released him from “Ezra, you go first, and he went.”
Orna stops darting about for a moment and says to me: “When Daddy came to visit us in America, he never shouted anything in his sleep. Not a thing.”
“I don’t remember much from his visit,” I said. I lowered the volume on the television. “Did he sleep in our house? Do you remember?”
“And where was Mom?”
“She had already moved to the rabbi’s house,” Orna says. “Daddy slept with us and he didn’t shout even once.” She goes to the shelf and straightens out the books, turns to the standing lamp and straightens the lampshade, inspects the paintings on the wall and straightens them as well. “Not even once,” she declares again. “Nothing.”
“Stand still for a minute, stop moving around. So what are you trying to say?”
Orna crosses her arms. “I don’t know,” she says. “There’s nothing to say. Just that he didn’t shout.”
“And his smell,” I said. “You remember his smell? He came stinking.”
She goes to the table and picks up her cup of tea. She pulls at her nose.
“Come on, why are you crying now? It’s so many years ago.”
“Mom left him alone,” she says. “We left him alone. What did he have to get up for in the morning, tell me? Who did he have to be clean for – for the parrot?”
The series of commercials ended. Daddy is on edge. The interviewer reaches for the microphone on the table and brings it close to Daddy. Signs to him with a nod that he should pay attention, and not move too far away.
Daddy nods, stretches the collar of his sweater and clears his throat. “So as we already said, they were shooting all the time,” he says after a moment. “From inside the houses, from the hills, from the rooftops, from inside the mosque, they were always shooting at us.”
The interviewer crosses his arms and leans his chin on them, pretending to be curious. “Who was shooting?”
“The Arabs,” Daddy says. “Those who stayed in the village shot at us from inside the houses, and we ran between the fences and the trees. We were supposed to get there in the middle of the night, to surprise them, but at dawn the first armored car got stuck on the dirt road leading to the village and blocked all the others. We tried to move it, to get it out of the way. We couldn’t. So we advanced on foot, and when we got there the sun was out already, so somebody saw us and woke them all up.”
“Then why did you go in anyway?” the interviewer wonders, as if he knows what the correct answer should be. “You had already lost the element of surprise.”
Daddy pauses. The interviewer gestures at the microphone.
Daddy gives a light kick at the table leg and shakes the microphone and rocks on the chair. The interviewer gestures to him to stop, and repeats the question: “Then why did you go in anyway?”
“What choice did I have?” Daddy says. “I got an order to occupy the place, and I carried it out. That’s how it works.”
Interviewer: “That’s the battle where you were wounded.” (Daddy wonders if the interviewer is asking or telling.)
Daddy: “That’s where I was wounded. That was after we had occupied most of the village. I was wounded near the end of the battle. I was wounded from a grenade they threw at us.”
The interviewer bows his head slightly and injects a melancholy note into his voice. “I understand that there were quite a few women and children there who were killed in the battle. How did that happen?”
Daddy straightens up and raises his voice. “They weren’t supposed to be there. I’m not responsible for civilians who decide to stay.”
“Where were they supposed to be?” wonders the interviewer, his voice still soft.
“Where did you want the women and the children to go?”
Daddy: “I don’t know. They should just go. It’s a war, in a war people die.”
Interviewer: “Maybe it would have been better not to fight, if there were still women and children in the village. You tell me, where were they supposed to go?”
Daddy: “I don’t know. What am I, the head of the village? Let them run away with everybody else.”
Interviewer: “So how many women and children died there, actually?”
Daddy: “I can tell you how many of our soldiers died there.”
The interviewer pauses. He looks at Daddy and after a moment he says: “This I know, twenty-six soldiers.” He looks at the index card in front of him. “You told me before that the cold was intolerable. You noted that you remember that you suffered very much from the cold.”
Daddy: “Yes, in the middle it started snowing. Not in the middle, near the end, when we had already occupied almost all of it. It was terribly cold, but it was so beautiful, everything covered in white. The hills of Judea in white are really the most beautiful thing there is.”
Interviewer, offhand: “And this whole beautiful thing happened on the day that your soldiers died, the soldiers who followed you into battle.”
Daddy: “That was really a pity. I was sorry that they didn’t see it. Some of them did see, some died after everything was already covered with snow.”
Interviewer: “But you said that the snow fell towards the end.”
Daddy lets out a high, stabbing sound.
The interviewer smiles, waiting for Daddy to say something else. After a short silence he says: “For those of you joining us now, here in the studio with me is Yechiel Halevi, the commander of the famous battle on the hill, exactly thirty years ago today.”
Daddy: “And look, today it’s sunny outside, and then it was snowing.”
Interviewer: “Yes, it’s a nice day out. And now…”
Daddy mutters: “The hills of Judea in white are really the most beautiful thing there is.”
Interviewer: “And now we take a short break for commercials, and we’ll be right back. Stay with us.”
Daddy didn’t stay. In the middle of the commercial he decided that he’d had enough, got up and left.
“Do you think it’s a coincidence that none of us had a family?” she asks, and opens the kitchen closets one after another, peeks inside and closes.
“What are you looking for?”
“Nothing,” she says. “So you think it’s a coincidence that we’re all like that?”
“Give Dvir a chance. He has a girlfriend.”
Orna laughs. “Not any more, he broke up with her.”
“When did they break up? Would you sit down already? It drives me nuts that you keep going and coming like that.”
She sits on the couch next to me. “Move over a bit,” she says, and pushes her head into my stomach, and with her accusing voice she asks: “Don’t you talk to each other? You really don’t know what’s going on with Dvir?”
She takes off her shoes and swings her legs up on the couch. I stroke her.
“Keep going,” she says when I stop for a moment. “Come on, Avinoam, can’t you talk and make nice at the same time?”
“I talked to Dvir a week ago. He didn’t say anything to me about a breakup.”
Above us there is the sound of chairs being dragged, a hobby of the neighbors’ children. I have already spoken to them about this several times, but no use – each day after school this concert begins. “Tell me, what do they do with the chairs?
What do they drag them for?”
“Don’t know.” She takes my hand and places it on her head, strokes herself with my hand.” “Go on then,” she says. “So what do you talk about? It’s been a month already since they broke up.”
“Dvir told you that they’re not together any more?”
After a few more minutes of quiet, something fleeting crosses her face, and she says: “She wanted them to buy him a parrot. What was she thinking, that crazy woman?”
“Avinoam, get up, he’s shouting again.” Orna bent over me, and her hair brushed my face. In one hand she gripped my pyjama pants, and with the other she pulled the blanket off of me. From their bedroom he shouted: “Ezra, you go first, and he went.”
“Leave me alone, let me sleep.” I tried to pull back the blanket.
“Avinoam, get up already!”
“This house is shit,” I said, and sat up on the bed. “Why are you standing here?”
I felt at the damp stain on my pyjama pants, convinced myself that it was unnoticeable, and got up. Dvir started to wail, and his crying got louder.
“Come on, take him. Pick him up. Oof, now it’s him too.”
Orna gathers her hair into a pony tail. “And you go in there, wake him up.”
“How should I know? Go there already.”
She picks Dvir up and rocks him.
“It’s always me that has to go to him.”
The door to their room is closed, and I could peek through the hole left by the dismantled lock. It looked like he was alone. Three knocks and a pause. Another three knocks. If you had been there you would have woken up. I pressed the doorknob, opened the door a slit. “Ezra, you go first, and he went,” he said to the empty room. He didn’t shout.
“Daddy,” I called to him, “Daddy!” He lifted his head slightly, the eyes gray, sunken, seeing nothing and yet looking at me. He dropped his head onto the pillow and fell asleep. The silence returned.
“Mom isn’t there,” I said.
“With the money he earned, there was no possibility to support a family. Fired from here and fired from there, always unjustly, always the boss’s fault,” you told me. Even years later you are still justifying and defending the choice. The escape.
I remember the nights when you went out to work. A short period in a bakery, you would come home at dawn, when we already had our backpacks on, and you would stick fresh rolls into them. “Have a nice day, darlings,” you said and kissed us.
He used to get a roll too. Once there was love there, that’s clear.
And you scolded Orna: “Ezra only showed up after the wedding. “What do you think,” you pulled your nose and swallowed saliva, “that it was like today, everybody sleeps with each other before the wedding? How could I know?”
“But you heard about Ezra before the wedding,” Orna insisted. “And you knew what happened on the hill.”
“Stories about Ezra he told without end, sure I heard, but during the day, not shouts in the nights. Who could stand this, you tell me? Could you stand it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If I were in love.”
You crossed your arms on your chest. “You know what, Orna? You’re really a saint. A pure great spirit.”
“Make me ten fingers.”
Daddy places his hands in front, spreads his fingers and moves them lightly. Dvir’s laugh rolls out. “And sing,” he asks him in a thin, piercing voice. “Come on, sing to me too.”
Daddy sings in a loud voice, like from a loudspeaker: “Ten fingers have I, they can make anything.” He waves them upwards and brings them close to Dvir’s face.
“What’s this game?” you shout at him. “Where did you get this horrible idea?”
Daddy lowers his hands. “He asked.”
“He’s three.” You lifted your eyes from the book in your hand and rebuked him.
“What is this, ‘he asked’?”
“Why are you angry? It’s just a game.”
“No, really, Yechiel. I just don’t understand you sometimes. What goes on in your head.” You dropped the book and straightened up. Your eyes were fixed on Dvir, brown big eyes, and the brows gathered as always when you were angry. “I forbid it.” Dvir shrank before you, and you said again: “I forbid it.” And to Daddy you said “You really are crazy, I don’t know what to do any more.”
Daddy lowered his voice. “Enough, Rina, it’s just a game,” he said, trying to calm her.
You went back to the couch, sank back into your book, Dvir waited a bit more and in a whisper said: “Daddy, where are the fingers?”
“Left on the hill, far away.”
“Will you bring them?”
Daddy smiled and winked at him. “Too late now.”
He curls the index finger around the middle finger of the left hand, the whole one, and waves them on display. “We were like that, him and me,” he declares. “Like brothers! Never apart, in kindergarten together, at school together.”
Orna and I on either side of him, dragging our feet up the street leading to the clover patch, listening and mumbling the familiar rest of it: “In high school together, in the army together, till he went, in the army.”
After a few quiet minutes Daddy says: “The big lie is all the little lies. Laws, rules, flag, songs, stories.”
“What, Daddy? Who has a flag?”
“We’re almost forty, why don’t you stop going on about this?”
“Because I’m not sealed up like you,” Orna says. “At least I try to understand what I’m feeling.”
On TV there are pictures and no sound. Orna stares at me and then at the screen.
“I’m sealed up?”
“Yes.” She gives me a hasty glance. “You’re not connected to yourself, look at you.”
It makes me laugh, all this stirring up feelings, she always pulls in that direction. Always the memories, the anger.
“And you? How does it help you that you’re so not sealed up? And why didn’t you put sugar in?”
“I did. And you know what, Avinoam? I don’t have the energy to talk to you.” She looks straight at the TV and crosses arms like Mom.
“What do you want now?”
She ignores me. After a few minutes of TV staring, she pulls Stefan Zweig off the shelf. “Did you read this?” she asks, and blows off dust that had gathered between its pages.
“It’s not bad. But take the other one. There’s another Zweig there, a better one.”
She remains with the book that was in her hand.
A rainy afternoon, but not particularly cold. Nevertheless we decided, Orna and I, to make a fire in the fireplace when we got back from the new school. “Maybe Mary Poppins will come,” Orna said. “And something good will finally happen in this house.”
Knocks. The door opened immediately. In the entrance the rabbi’s wife, wig dropped down a bit on her head, locks of the artificial hair sticking up here and there, her eyes confused. “Where is the rabbi?” she asked and passed through the rooms without waiting for a reply, looked around and then at us. “Well?” she prodded me, “Have you seen the rabbi?” We stood there and did not say a word. She sat down on the couch that Mom uses as a bed. “And where is your mother?” She leaned back and straightened out her wig. After a moment she got up. “She thinks I don’t know where she is,” she said, and left.
“Tsipora the rabbi’s wife is apparently the closest thing we’ll get here to Mary Poppins,” Orna said, and after a moment suggested: “Animal-vegetable-mineral?”
“Yes,” I said. I went to get paper and pencils, and then you appeared before me. I hadn’t heard you come in, you had a big white envelope in your hand, there was no address on it and no stamp either. You took a photograph out of it. “Daddy sent this,” you told me, and placed it on the kitchen table. “Orna, come look,” you called her, and to me you said, “We’ll make a nice frame for it.”
Daddy in a baseball cap, only half of his face showing, with a day old beard, his body bent over the counter in Shimon’s kiosk (where else could he hang out?). Three bottles of beer at his side, a hand full of sunflower seeds, and Yossi the parrot poking at his ear. Daddy laughs to the photographer. Maybe the parrot tickled him.
“They look nice together,” you said.
“A crow would suit you better,” Orna muttered, and added in the same mocking tone, “The rabbi’s little Tsipora-bird was here.”
A pure great spirit, you called her. She took the rain soaked clothes out of the suitcase and threw them in the bathtub, wrung them out and cursed. After that she hung them on the thin wire of the plastic curtain that hides the faded tiles.
You sleep in the living room, and the three of us in the bedroom, only strips of gray cloth separate the rooms. But we could sleep. Ezra stayed at home with Daddy and Yossi.
“Do you think we didn’t try to help him?” you asked her.
Orna was silent.
“Well, pure great spirit,” you said to her. “I’m sure you would have done everything better than I did. He didn’t want treatment, do you hear me? You think I didn’t try?”
Orna was silent.
“Too bad I didn’t leave you there,” you said, and Orna answered, “Yes, too bad.”
“Once upon a time there was a nice boy with big good black eyes and brown curly hair that covered his forehead and a bit of his ears, and he also had long fingers that he could pick his nose with. The boy had a very big mother with a thick voice tasting of cigarettes and yellow fingernails. When they asked the boy where’s your father, he said: My mother swallowed him, that’s why she’s so big. And the boy got big too. He didn’t swallow anybody, and yet he was very big.”
“Yechiel, I’m begging you to stop this, afterwards they have nightmares because of you.”
“He died, he died, right, Daddy?”
“You see what I mean.”
“Mrs. Halevi, would you please stop interrupting my story? No, Orna, the boy didn’t die. At the time he was completely alive.”
“Yechiel, you’re just not normal. At least have pity on the children.”
How will this song end my dear?
Bim bam bee?
If you wish to end it here
Bim bam bee
If you wish to end it here
Bim bam bee
Stuff some cotton wool in your ear, Bim bam bee.
“Can a hand be angry, Rina?” he asked you (it was one of the days when you both were in a good mood). “How can a hand be angry? How can a leg? It’s hard to explain, but that’s how they get angry, all the parts. That’s how they come to me in dreams and are angry.”
You placed a hand on his shaking leg. He bit his lips. “Do you remember Ezra’s smile?” he asked you.
“You know I never met him,” you answered and pulled your hand away.
“From the pictures, I mean.”
You brought your hand to the knee, to make it stop jumping, and you smiled at him. “In the pictures he really does look like a very nice boy.”
“Really nice, Rina.” He stroked the hand lying on his knee and closed onto it.
“You don’t understand, I miss him so much.”
The left leg too began to tremble, your hand didn’t reach there; you couldn’t stop the trembling. “I understand, of course I understand. I’m sure it’s terribly difficult for you.”
“It’s not difficult, it’s a hole in the stomach, Rina. It’s a hole that’s impossible to fill, he’s dead-dead, I’m alive-dead.”
“But you can’t go on like this all your life,” you attempted gently. “You can’t go on like this.”
“Rina,” he said, and scratched at his neck. “If it’s hard for you, you can always…”
You cut him off. “We’re not talking about me, Yechiel. It’s clear to me that it’s much harder for you. You have to take care of yourself.”
“What do you mean? A psychologist?”
You didn’t answer. Daddy pushed back the chair and got up. “I’m not crazy, Rina.”
You pulled him back to you by his shirt. “Don’t run away, Yechiel. Sit down, we’re talking.”
Daddy agreed. After another moment you added “A psychologist isn’t for crazy people. It’s for everyone.”
He grasped your arm. “Tell me, do you know any one of our friends who goes to a psychologist?”
You released your arm from his grasp. “What do I know?” you said. You got up and went to the kitchen and shouted from there: “Maybe they do go, how would you know what they do?”
He called after you: “Rina, I’m not crazy, don’t make me out to be crazy.”
I remember how I stood at the kitchen entrance at night, another time, and saw you from behind. “You’re my good fortune,” Daddy said to you, and put his head in the valley between your shoulder blades.
You wiped hands on the faded apron, and without turning around you laughed in a soft voice.
“Then maybe yes?” he said to you. He may have placed his hands on your big stomach, you stood with your backs to me and I didn’t see. “Maybe yes?” he repeated. “It’s very important to me, you know that.”
“Under no circumstances, Yechiel!” you said to him. “A child shouldn’t have to carry that name on his shoulders. I thought of Dvir or Yoram. Which of them do you like?”
He took a step back, and you turned around and saw me. You came and gripped my arm, to take me back to bed.
“Let me sleep on it for a few days,” you said to him in a weak voice. And after a few days, in a sharp voice, you said: “No way.”
Despite the verdict requiring the husband to grant a divorce to his wife as soon as possible and to bring this chapter to an end, the husband refused to do so for various reasons that had no reasons, and did this each time he was summoned to court. Following this, Mrs. Halevi turned to Dan Myron, the attorney representing her in the above case, and he approached the court with a request to obligate the husband to grant a divorce and to enact sanctions against him immediately. A date was fixed for a court sitting, at which the husband did not appear. We petitioned in Mrs. Halevi’s name and received a subpoena for the husband at the next sitting. Two sittings were appointed for the issue of restraining orders and arrangement of the divorce, but they were postponed due to the court’s initiative to settle the matter through mediation, which took place about a month and a half ago. The mediation was unsuccessful, and we requested that the court immediately decree the divorce obligatory and also issue a restraining order as is customary by law.
“But she got the divorce when we were already in America.”
“Yes, but not immediately. It took two or three years.”
I dreamed that Mickey Mouse and Minnie were sitting on a bench in the flower garden surrounding the memorial in Petach Tikvah. When I asked Orna to stop next to them and to say hello, she said: “That’s childish of you,” and “Does it have to be on Memorial Day?”
She dragged me quickly because it was ten minutes before the Memorial Day siren, and we could already see the friends from the youth group standing in ironed white shirts and clipping the red carnation to the lapel. I remembered that Mickey Mouse had phoned me from the battle on the hill and told me that war is fun, and then he passed the phone to Ezra, and Ezra said: “Mickey’s helping us have a ball, we’re real friends, and when we need to fight he’s not a mouse, he’s a lion. When I get back I promise to bring him to visit.”
I turned my head to Mickey because I wanted to tell him that I’m Yechiel’s son, and that next time he comes to Petach Tikvah he should bring Ezra, because my father really misses him. But Mickey disappeared.
Orna tried to help me fasten the flower to my shirt, and in the end she put it into the buttonhole. From afar I saw that Mickey found a place in the first row next to Nechama the teacher, just when the siren began. He made faces at her, and she didn’t notice. I had laughter behind my teeth, and I remembered that you’re not allowed to move your legs, and when Mickey jumped over the heads and the chairs and came near and tickled me next to my wee wee, the laughter came out along with little ants of pee, and they crawled and made puddles between the tight pressed legs. Orna pinched me in the arm like Mommy pinches, and the moment the siren was over and Nechama went on stage, she dragged me home. From the loudspeakers we heard Nechama clearing her throat, but instead of words only crying came out, like the year before. And even though I was sleeping, I was sorry to miss the teacher crying.
“The goy,” that’s what you called the Nigerian that Orna brought to Friday dinner.
You ignored his outstretched hand, and yet you smiled. In a caressing voice, so that he could understand nothing from the tone, you said to her: “How dare you bring this goy into my house. You’ve lost all restraint, I don’t know what’s going to be with you, really I have no control over you,” and again you smiled at him politely.
Orna returned your smile and in a gay, mischievous, singing tone she answered you: “I don’t give a shit what you think.”
After we finished eating, and the Nigerian had gone on his way, Orna arranged the dishes in the sink in groups. Like soldiers on parade they stood before her in the sink, ready for soaping and rinsing. While she washed them she sang in her soft voice, that Daddy had once called “the taste of cumin,” imitating Josie Katz’s American accent as he recited part of a Shaul Tchernikhovsky ballad: “Mama, Mama, says he to me/ Cursed be my folk by God/ In this world, in the next/ Scum of everyone on earth.”
She lifted her eyes from the sink, trying to remember, closed her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered to herself, “Daughter, Daughter, damned be the man/who has been cursed by God/ Daughter of rabbis for twenty decades/ You are the daughter of a rabbi in Israel.”
Suddenly she stopped singing and turned her head to you. “Tell me, Mom, you and Rabbi Yakov, is that serious? Can I call him Daddy?”
You couldn’t restrain yourself and you slapped her. The plate she was soaping flew out of the mirror and smashed on the floor.
Orna laughs. “Really?” she asks me. “That’s what I said to her?”
“Yes, that’s what you said, and then you went out after your goy. That night you didn’t come back home.”
“Look how nicely Ephraim behaves,” you said in English and you covered your head with a white lace handkerchief.
“What’s she putting on her head?” Orna whispered to me. “It looks like a table napkin.”
I let out a short laugh.
Mom said again: “Ephraim behaves so beautifully, maybe you could learn something from him.”
Ephraim’s cheeks turned red, and he looked at his shoes. His arms were crossed behind his bent back, and he mumbled Kiddush with his father. The rabbi brought the cup of wine to your lips, you bent your head, and Ephraim, his cross-eyed son, went to wash his hands.
“You go too,” you said.
Dvir and I came after you, obedient, and filled the hand-washing goblet with water.
The rabbi mumbled to us, “Who blessed us with his commandments,” and waited for us to repeat after him.
Orna, behind his back, sent a quick glance at me and at Dvir, crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. We burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” You shot a reproving look at Orna, the new source of your troubles. “Now we don’t talk,” you told her. “Until the rabbi says the blessing and you eat from the challah.”
Orna whistled the tune of “The Rabbi’s Daughter and her Mother,” and you shot her a murderous glance.
“I’m whistling,” she defended herself. “You only said we shouldn’t talk.” Later, during the meal, she drummed on the table with her soup spoon and hummed “Is Ephraim my dear son, is Ephraim my dear son.”
Again you gave her a look.
“Oh sorry, so we can’t sing either?” she said. “I didn’t know, I’m just starting to learn the rules.” Then she smiled at me and said: “Wow, I must have so many sins already, going straight to hell, straight to hell.”
You and three children in a strange country. Evening fell as a suprise, and you had not yet found us a place to sleep. Did despair bring you to sit on the swing?
“Laugh, laugh at all the dreams,” you hummed to yourself. On a nearby tree two squirrels pranced to the music.
“To think that she’s coming back here, that she’ll be so close, that she could suddenly show up at my house with her annoying movements, every two minutes she’ll fix her head kerchief and roll her eyes, I can’t stand it.”
Orna mimics Mom’s movements and mutters: “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord,” rocks her body and stops, grasps my shoulders when I try to slip away. “Avinoam, my sainted boy! I swear you’re a saint!”
I remove her hand. “Stop with the nonsense, she won’t show up at your house, it’s not kosher at all.”
“Again with her questions and the advice and the witchcraft.”
“She won’t show up at your house just like that.”
Orna curls her index finger around her middle finger, smiles at me, her and my scouts’ oath. “We were like that,” she says aggressively and waves her hand upward, and I join the chant without enthusiasm, out of habit: “In kindergarten together, at school together, in high school together, in the army together, until he went, in the army.”
The husband has a stay of exit order, forbidden to use passport and forbidden to write checks.
You held the trump card. In return for a divorce he can meet with the children.
“What’s wrong with him, with Zilberman? How come Shalom always has yellow cheese but with him we have to wait in line?”
“Go buy from Shalom,” you told him. “What do you care?”
“I don’t need to go to Shalom. Zilberman is the nearest grocery store.”
“I don’t understand why you’re angry at him and what you want from him. What does he owe you?”
Daddy’s neck swelled up like a turkey’s neck. “He’s a grocery store, and yes, a grocery owes you yellow cheese.”
“Yechiel, leave it now, you have an obsession about yellow cheese. Enough already. Go down to the playground with the children, they’ve been waiting for you all afternoon.”
He pulled the kitchen towel from Mom’s hand and wiped his face with it. “You’d be ready to live on jam and cottage cheese.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
He looked at you as if you had turned into a stranger. “Hold my hands,” he said to me and to Orna. “Come on, hold my hands.”
On the path leading to the park, far from the Supervisor’s ears, he insisted:
“One line you and one line me, bim bam bee.”
Daddy: And so a lass with lovely eye
We: Bim bam bee
Daddy: Threw him flowers from the sky
We: Bim bam bee.
Daddy: Threw him flowers from the sky
We: Bim bam bee.
We and Daddy together, very loud: And a jar of water too did fly
We: Bim bam bee!
At the small mirror in the bathroom, you stroked the spikes that remained of your hair, getting used to the touch, to the sight. At home with head uncovered, outside with a black kerchief to the eyebrows. “That’s what the rabbi wanted,” you excused yourself.
A few days later Orna too shaved her head. On her neck she tattooed a snake. And in response to your look she said, “That’s what ‘The Flintstones’ wanted.”
In the conquest of the village, on the second night of the operation, twenty-six fighters fell.
“We expected only small arms fire,” said Levi, the company commander, in the inquiry held after the close of the battle, “but they shot at us with mortars, threw grenades. Right from the blockade of the axis everything went wrong. We placed blockades in the region and went in to begin mopping up. Right away we were met with heavy fire. It was hard to locate the sources of the shooting.”
His deputy, Lieutenant Doron, added: “Even before we finished mopping up the targets I reported twenty dead. We estimated that the village had been cleared and we carried out a search, and then we surprised a force that remained, three terrorists who hid in a cave opening on the northern side, past the grove. The terrorist cell wounded and killed another six soldiers. The force identified the terrorists and liquidated all three in a short battle.”
“The Poem of Yossi the Parrot” by Avraham Halfi:
And then in my grief
To the walls I will whisper: Yossi is dead
Yossi is dead.
Your ashes will come from the cage to the homeland—
From the shining white cage to the yellowish dirt
Barren, no parrot wife, no baby parrots
Such a parrot as you is forbidden to love.
“You see, Rina,” Daddy scratched his ear, coughed and again began playing with the remnants of food on the plate, “I promised his mother that I’d bring him back safe and sound after the war.”
“No,” you said, and looked out at the rain that battered the window, but did not erase the bird droppings scattered over it. “I don’t understand. How could you promise his mother such a thing?”
“He’s an only son, what else does she have in the world?”
You let out an impatient breath, took his plate and moved it to the end of the table. “I don’t understand how you could promise such a thing to a mother whose son you’re taking into battle. Fine, enough, it doesn’t matter now. After all, she didn’t think you could keep the promise, that’s clear. But what went through your head? tell me. Who says such a thing?”
“You’re against me!” Daddy banged his fist on the table. “You’re always against me, looking for a way to make me feel bad.”
You got up and collected the dishes from the table. “You need to bring Orna from kindergarten, don’t make her wait. And don’t stop at the kiosk, not for a cold drink and not for a cigarette.”
Daddy pushed the chair away from the table, and the wooden legs creaked on the gray tiles. “You’re against me, you don’t love me any more, come on, say it already.”
You looked at the clock. “Yechiel, it’s a quarter to four. I’m not against you, I’m just asking you to go and get the child, yesterday you were ten minutes late getting there.”
Daddy mimicked you, “You were ten minutes late getting there.” He repeated it again and said angrily “If somebody knew about that.”
“Take a coat,” you shouted after him.
He passed the mirror at the entrance and went back there, passed a hand through his thinning hair, dragged it back to give it some shape. “Will you stop talking to me as if you’re my mother?” he answered you.
“And take Orna’s coat too. This morning it was still nice out.”
Daddy brought his head close to the mirror. “I need a haircut,” he muttered to himself. And to you he said “Just a few drops.”
“Don’t be silly, look at that rain. And an umbrella, take an umbrella too.”
“I can’t stand umbrellas.”
He went out without coat or umbrella, and half an hour later he returned with Orna. Both of them were dripping wet. Orna stood in the doorway staring and trembling, biting purple lips. You took her to the bedroom, took her clothes off by the radiator and dried her off. She told you excitedly about heroic soldiers who fight even in the rain and the cold. “It was really true, Daddy told me while we walked,” she told you. You didn’t listen, you cried.
“…who has prohibited us those who are merely betrothed and has permitted us those who are legally married to us by chuppa and kiddushin.”
He sent his Tsipora-bird from the nest straight to the mental hospital at the southern end of the city, and Daddy finally gave you a divorce and set you free, and so you were also set free from “Ezra, you go first.”
You found yourself under the chuppa; after many years you could laugh again.
Orna at Shabbat dinner: “I have a dvar Torah to say.”
You looked at her suspiciously, and the rabbi’s face lit up. “Everybody listen,” he said.
Orna opened the Bible, and from the weekly chapter she read: “If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young: But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days.”
“Go on,” you told her, and got up. “Meanwhile I’ll serve dessert.”
Remember the Memorial Day ceremonies? The trip on the bus that was packed full, the red-eyed women with white wreaths of flowers, the parking lot, the stands, the vendors of holy water and charms? I remember the steep uphill climb to the cemetery, the white shirts and the carnation in the lapel. “Yechiel, I’m not joining you,” you told him on one of the Memorial Days.
“All these years, I’ve had enough.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, astonished. “It’s Memorial Day.”
You straightened the collar of my white shirt, my dress-up shirt. “Behave,” you told me, and to Daddy you replied: “It means I’m not coming to the cemetery with you anymore.”
“There are no more carnations in the flower shops,” Orna says. “I haven’t seen any for years.”
“No need to worry, I’m sure they’ll come back in style along with the wars.”
“And this is the only battle where they made mistakes?” Daddy shouted at you, as if you were responsible for the accusations, for the results of the inquiry.
“Should I make you a list?”
You sat him down at the table. “Here, it’s orange juice,” you handed it to him. Tiny orange seeds floated to the top. “Drink, Yechiel. It’s fresh. Nobody else was there in your place, nobody really knows what happened there.”
He took a sip. Filled his mouth and only then swallowed, his head hung, his eyes locked to the floor. After a moment he became angry again, and you whispered: “Enough already, Yechiel. Come on, enough, Leah will be here in a minute.”
He placed the empty glass on the table with a loud bang. “This is the only battle where they made mistakes, I’m asking you?!”
“Yechiel, she’s already at the door, come on, not now.”
Leah did not knock and did not wait for the door to be opened. She opened the door and Daddy fell silent, got up to welcome her, offered her coffee right away, sliced the bread and took out the jam. “Aunt Leah’s here,” he called out.
“Children, come and say hello.”
Aunt Leah stayed over and slept in my bed, I was sent to Orna’s bed, feet to head, head to feet.
At night Ezra attacked the house and woke everybody up. I think it was only then that Leah understood what you had been complaining to her about for over a year.
A gray African parrot, also known as Jacko. Originated in Africa, medium size, and considered one of the smartest birds in the world. Nutrition: primarily nuts, fruit and leaves.
The body of the parrot is dark gray. The cheeks and the region of the head light gray. Tail color dark red, mostly black at the ends.
Orna disappeared with her black man. “She’ll come back crawling,” you said, and to the rabbi you whispered: “Yakov, the mezuzah has to be checked.”
Years later you told me smiling, “I didn’t fail with all my children. Look at Ephraim.”
Only after that did you remember, and then you returned to the new style of speech you had adopted. “He’s like my own child,” you said and immediately muttered: “God help him, the poor thing, the orphan.”
True. What didn’t work for us worked for Ephraim. It looks like he’ll never leave the house, leave you.
“Why did Daddy send him up ahead?” I asked you.
“He didn’t send him up ahead. Daddy was at the head of the unit all the time. For a minute he stopped to fix the radio and asked Ezra who was right behind him to move ahead so they wouldn’t be slowed down because of him.”
“How do you know all that?” I asked.
Evening. You’re in the kitchen, adding spices to the rice. “Come on, Avinoam. How do I know? I can recite this entire battle backwards and forwards, I was there more than any of them,” you sighed, and tightened the kerchief to your head. “With God’s help everything will be fine, it’s better for us to forget.”
“With God’s help” went with us everywhere, and the two rooms were crowded enough without it.
Why didn’t you move right in with the rabbi? After all you weren’t afraid to leave us alone.
Dvir joined us, stood by you, sniffed at the pot and placed an arm round your shoulders. “So Daddy was lucky, he was saved, he could have died.”
“Yes,” you said, “He had a miracle.”
Did you really think that’s what happened to him? Is that what they call a miracle?
At dawn Daddy landed at the airport: wizened, dragging a small suitcase, looking from side to side, searching. Orna recognized him and cried out “There he is!” She pointed at him, and we ran. She didn’t join us. Disappeared. The next day she came home, did not explain and did not apologize for leaving me and Dvir alone with him. We gripped his elbows and helped him to get into the car that the rabbi had sent.
Daddy sat in the middle, smiling, put his arms around our shoulders. He forgot the teeth. “Zvia packed the bag,” he said. “See if they’re maybe in there.”
The driver peeked at us through the mirror, and in English that sounded like Yiddish he asked with wonder: “So this is the man that the honorable Rabbi Yakov asked to bring to him?”
“America,” Daddy said with a smile and bent to look out the window.
“Yes, Daddy. We’re in Boston.”
“It’s terribly cold here, cold by you,” he hugged himself. “Maybe we could close the window?”
I closed it, but I left a slit. He gave off a sour smell of sweat. “We need a little air,” I said. “How was your flight?”
“We need a little air,” he laughed, and leaned his head for a brief moment on my shoulder. “My children,” he said. “You don’t look American,” he laughed.
Dvir stretched out a hand to him and passed it over his cheek and then over the hair. “How are you, Daddy?” he asked.
Only then did I notice how much he had grown up. He was only eleven then, twelve at most.
“Do you remember we used to play?” Daddy asked Dvir. “There were a whole lot of things we did together. Can you still remember that?”
“Sure. Now we’re going to have time too. Mom agrees that I can skip school this week.”
“So many things we did together!” Daddy nodded. “So many things.”
His eyes followed the tall trees at the sides of the road, and his body tensed suddenly.
The trip passed silently. We were strangers to each other, because what had we had in all these years? Just a brief conversation every two weeks, “What’s new? Fine, thanks –”
“It’s terribly cold.” Daddy stuck his hands into his armpits. Dvir took off the coat and placed it on Daddy’s knees.
“You need a coat, we’ll buy you one,” I said.
Dvir looked at me and asked in a whisper: “How could they send him like this, without a coat?”
Dvir came back from kindergarten and two friends were with him. “Sing to them too,” he asked Daddy.
Daddy bent towards them, hands crossed behind his back, and whispered: “Stand in a line.”
When they stood beside each other he began to sing in a loud voice:
“Ten fingers have I, they can make anything,” pulled out his hands and waved them at their faces. The two screamed: “Want to go home!”
Who brought home the mother of “Ezra you go first,” who had a voice tasting of cigarettes, but was no longer as big as she had once been – is it you who brought her? Did you ask her to talk to Daddy? To say she forgave, that she didn’t blame? What were you thinking – that you would be doing him good?
Two whole weeks after that, maybe three, there was not even one night that we could sleep all the way through.
Winter sunlight. We strolled along the banks of the Charles river. This is how a family looks, I thought, and you weren’t there to give Orna reasons to argue. We walked beside each other in silence.
“It’s good that you have a little sun,” Daddy said, drew the collar of his new coat more tightly to his neck, and pulled up the zipper.
Another two days remained before his flight. We didn’t know if we would walk like this again. Dvir, who gripped Daddy’s hand, said now and then: “Daddy.” Maybe he wanted to cheer him up.
Daddy, with a sad smile, said: “I miss him, my parrot.” And after a few minutes as if summarizing the visit he said: “My family.”
“I’m going back with him,” Orna told me, and that evening she bought an airline ticket. A month later, in a short phone call, she said: “I joined the army.” You no longer had a place in her heart.
“Is everything all right?” you asked me in our regular Friday phone call.
“Yes, Mom, everything’s fine.”
“Do you have a girl? Have you met anybody?”
“No, not right now.”
“At your age I –”
I stopped her. “I know, you already had two children.”
“I thought of suggesting to you,” you said, and I could picture you sitting on the chair upholstered in black velvet, with copper nails fastening it to the back rest, and the telephone corner in your house, the rabbi’s house, and one of the saints listening to our conversation from a golden frame.
“Mom, I’m not going to meet a girl in a shidduch.”
“Why are you so stubborn, the rabbi said it’s a wonderful family.”
I took a breath. No outbursts, I reminded myself. “I’m not going to meet a girl that your husband finds for me.”
“I don’t know what you want anymore,” you sigh.
“To hear how you are. And also tell me how Ephraim is.”
“Everything’s fine, God be blessed, I already told you. Ephraim too feels just fine. Are you taking care of Dvir?”
Again I took a breath. Think about something else, cool the head. “Why does he need taking care of?”
“So is Orna taking care of him? Or does he come to your house when he has weekend leave?”
“He goes to Orna.”
“Why don’t you tell her to talk to me?” Again the tragic tone that you have adopted along with the Psalm mumbling and other chants.
“I told her. But leave me out of it, I don’t feel like being a go-between.”
“A go-between,” you said. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
And after that you snorted: “Good, the main thing is everything’s fine with you, God be blessed.”
We were silent.
“You tell Dvir I called.”
“And Orna too, and tell her she’s allowed to pick up the phone. She has the number, right?”
“I don’t know.”
“So give it to her.”
I didn’t answer.
“Good, God be blessed, I’ll call next week.”
“Look, Dvir,” Orna pointed at the big branch, bent over from the weight of the leaves. “Two squirrels.”
And you asked me: “Higher, my ’Nomileh, Push the swing higher.”
I pushed as hard as I could, with both hands. Your skirt, to which years later you would sew on extra cloth for modesty, covered your face for a moment.
Once upon a time there was a nice boy with big black good eyes and curly brown hair that covered his forehead and a bit of the ears, and long fingers to pick his nose with. This boy had a very big mother with a thick voice tasting of cigarettes.
Once a year we met her on the hill, Orna, Daddy and I, hand in hand, all sticky and sweaty. She bent over the gray stone, a bottle of water at her side. With one hand she passed a brush over the marble, took time over the notches, and with her thumbnail extracted the mold. In the other hand a lit cigarette. When she noticed us, she put the brush and the cigarette on the edge of the stone and rose, caressed my head and after that Orna’s head, and in a low hoarse voice she said: “So, Yechiel, I see that the children keep growing.”
Orna hushed me when I said: “Your son is dead,” and hushed me again when I asked: “Does he hurt now?”
Daddy was silent, hands in his pockets. After that more people came who called Daddy “Commander” and told stories, somebody put a wreath there, and Ezra’s mother said, “That’s a silly custom, and so unnecessary.”