Photo: Amitai Elon
House on Endless Waters
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Emuna Elon
Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yehiel
One after another the people are swallowed up into the plane to Amsterdam, one after another after another. Yoel, too, is approaching the aircraft’s door but the flow of passengers is suddenly halted by somebody, a woman in an orange windbreaker who has planted herself in the doorway of the Boeing 737 and refuses to step inside. Yoel’s thoughts are already with the new novel he has decided to write, and he thinks about this woman and asks himself which of his new characters would be capable of admitting to the primal, naked fear that besets every mortal on entering the flying trap called an airplane. Who would volunteer to disrupt with her body the “everything’s okay” façade, and violate the sacred order to which people clutch so they won’t have to admit that everything is truly chaotic?
From his place in the line Yoel can see only the woman’s back. Even through the orange plastic of her windbreaker he can see how tense her muscles are, and over the shoulders of the people in front of him he discerns the beads of perspiration breaking out on the back of her neck and around her ears. The line starts burbling irritably, people peek anxiously at their boarding passes for flight such-and such, clutching the rectangular pieces of paper as if they were an assurance that the plane would eventually take off. Then from out of nowhere appears a man in a resplendent uniform, with gray hair and an air of authority, who introduces himself as the purser and puts a fatherly arm around the stricken passenger’s shoulders. As he gently takes her aside the plane continues filling up, and as Yoel passes them he hears him telling her, Believe me, my dear, I have anxious passengers on every flight, and that’s fine. I promise I’ll come and hold your hand during takeoff.
Whenever he’s invited overseas concerning his books, he and Bat-Ami usually fly business class, thus saving him from physical contact with the masses of other passengers and from exposure to the masses of looks he gets from them. Since this time he’s flying on his own, and mainly since he’s paying for his ticket out of his own pocket, he decided to fly economy, and so now all he can do is slide into his seat with the maximal possible privacy. Just look straight ahead and downward, he reminds himself, just straight ahead and downward, don’t raise your eyes or look to the side lest your eyes meet those of somebody who might have recognized you. And be very wary of people who have already recognized you and try to get your attention, and of the ones you can hear telling each other, That’s Yoel Blum. Or, There’s that writer. Or, There’s that famous guy, the one wearing the cap, come on, remind me what his name is.
It has only been a week since his first trip to Amsterdam and the reception held in his honor by his Dutch publisher that was attended by local luminaries from the fields of literature and the media. Only a week since he and Bat-Ami had wandered through the crowds of tall people in the city of bicycles and canals, and strolled through streets, squares, palaces and museums. In the evening, exhausted and ravenous, they went to the publisher’s beautiful home on Apollolaan in the old southern part of Amsterdam, but had to make do with a meal of carrot and cucumber crudités: the fare on the tables was rich and varied, but here too, as at many festive events held in his honor all over the world, it was clearly evident that their hosts hadn’t imagined that in these enlightened times there were still civilized people who observed the ancient Jewish dietary laws.
Before the second part of the literary event began, the Israeli guest was asked to sit on a carved chair in the center of the Dutch living room, next to the stylized Dutch sideboard on whose shelves Dutch Delftware of white porcelain decorated in blue was arranged, and facing the large, wide Dutch window overlooking a canal sown with flickering reflections. His audience sat facing him, waiting for him to answer his red-cheeked host’s question on the difference between the Israeli writers catalogued as writers of the generation of the establishment of the State of Israel, and those known – like Mr. Blum, and I hope it’s alright if we simply call you Yoel – as writers of the new Israeli wave.
The past cannot be hidden — in his fluent English Yoel pronounced the reply he always provides to this question as he crosses his legs and looks pleasantly at his audience that varies from time to time and from country to country. I believe it’s impossible to write Israeli literature without referring either directly or indirectly to the archeological tell on which the State of Israel flourishes, the shores of which are lapped by its new and old waves alike.
Attentive faces nodded their understanding and perhaps even empathy at him.
Attentive faces always nod their understanding and perhaps even empathy at him.
However, he emphasized in the dramatic crescendo to which his voice always rises at this point, contemporary Israeli writers are first and foremost contemporary Israeli writers. I myself hope that my writing does not wallow in the mire of the past, but carries my soul and the souls of my readers to what is the present and to what will be.
The game went on. In the way that people ask him everywhere, the Dutch asked if the characters populating his books are typical Israelis. And he replied, the way he replies everywhere, that in his view his characters are universal.
For a moment he thought about deviating from his custom and telling them, this particular audience, how hard he works in his writing to refine his characters so that each of them is Everyman. In each movement to capture all the movements which have ever been and will ever be. To formulate the core of the words, their very core.
Like every writer’s characters, he said as he always does, my characters, too, live and act in a reality I am closely acquainted with. As a writer who lives in the Israeli reality, it is only natural that my characters are connected with that reality as well. But the stories I tell about these characters tell about Man wherever he breathes, about Man wherever he loves, about Man wherever he yearns.
The publisher’s red cheeks flushed even more deeply as he read to his guests from The New York Times book review: It is hardly surprising that Yoel Blum’s books have been translated into more than twenty languages and that he has been awarded some of the most prestigious literature prizes. Yoel Blum is a magician, the wave of whose wand turns every human anecdote into the nucleus of every reader’s personal story.
The hue of the Dutch cheeks turned a deep purple as he continued reading: ‘You pick up a Yoel Blum novel and are assured of it revealing your deepest secret: the secret about whose existence you weren't even aware.’
A few more familiar, unavoidable questions and Yoel already estimated that the evening was drawing to its expected conclusion.
But then he was asked an unexpected question by a man introduced to him earlier as a local journalist by the name of Neumark, or maybe Neuberg.
If I’m not mistaken, called the questioner from his seat at the right-hand edge of the circle of chairs, if I’m not mistaken – Mr. Blum, Yoel – you were born here, in Amsterdam?
A stunned silence engulfed the room. Yoel, too, was shocked since, to the best of his knowledge, this fact did not appear in any printed or virtual source dealing with him and his history. He tried to recall the journalist’s name. Neustadt? Neumann? Is he Jewish?
As he did so he heard himself answering calmly: That fact is correct, namely that technically I was indeed born in Amsterdam. But my family emigrated to Israel when I was a baby, and so I’ve always regarded myself as a native of Israel.
Afterwards he managed to divert the talk from his personal history back to the collective Israeli one and to say a few more words about Hebrew literature in these changing times. But it seemed that the matter of his Dutch origins had been placed in the center of the circle and that none of those present could take their eyes off of it. Yoel presumed that they expected him to provide further biographic details, aside from the one already provided by Neuhaus, or Neufeld, according to which the famous Israeli writer is a scion of an old Jewish-Amsterdam family uprooted in the wake of the events of World War Two.
They couldn’t have imagined that the Israeli writer himself knew no further details about it either.
Several times a year he flies to countries where his books are published in various languages, but until last week he hadn’t flown to Amsterdam, neither for the first translation of one of his books into Dutch nor for the second. In early fall when he heard that a third Yoel Blum novel was about to be published in the capital of The Netherlands, Zvika, his literary agent, urged him to go this time and promote sales of the book. Send me to wherever you want, Yoel told him, just not Amsterdam. I can’t go to Amsterdam. But Zvika continued pressing him: You can’t ignore a publisher like this, you can’t disrespect your readers this way. And when Yoel told Bat-Ami about it she decided that he couldn’t refuse. We’re going, she said, we'll be there just for a short time.
He tried to protest. My mother, he said, demanded that I never set foot in Amsterdam.
Your mother’s dead, Yoel.
The words hit him as if it had happened only a moment before.
For his mother had left him long before she finally left this world. Ever so slowly she went out of her mind, then out of her soul and finally out of her body, loosening, stage by stage, her grip on reality. Unpicking, one after the other, the stitches that bound him to her; stitch by stitch, thread by thread, until she detached herself from him completely, and departed.
Like when he was a child and she’d taught him to swim, and she’d stand in the shallow end of the municipal pool holding him on the surface, her sturdy hands supporting his belly and chest while on her instructions his thin arms and legs straightened and bent in swimming movements. And then, millimeter by millimeter, so gradually that he didn’t even feel it, she’d withdraw her large hands from his body. Little by little she withdrew them, little by little, until she folded her arms and only stood next to him, watching but not touching. And the first time he noticed that she wasn’t holding him and that he was actually swimming on his own, he lost his equilibrium and began thrashing around and sinking, swallowing great gulps of water until it seemed he was drowning forever.
Afterward he got used to it.
His first trip back to the city of his birth passed mainly with pangs of remorse for having consented to go in the first place. I should have stuck to my guns, he repeatedly griped to Bat-Ami in the taxi from Jerusalem to the airport. All in all, what did my mother ask of me? She asked so little, I should have respected her wish.
What was she so frightened of? Bat-Ami asked.
What do you mean?
Why didn’t she want you to go to Amsterdam? What was it you might find there that frightened her?
Nothing, what could there be after so many years? She simply didn’t want me or Nettie to have any connection with the place where she lost my father, her parents and siblings, and the life she might have had.
At the Ben-Shemen interchange he realized he’d left his phylacteries at home and on the spot decided to cancel the trip. Forgetting my phylacteries is a sure sign, he explained to Bat-Ami in excited shouts, and ordered the driver to make a U-turn and drive back to Jerusalem. A Jew’s phylacteries are his self-identity, he said, and it’s a fact that I travel so much and have never forgotten them until this forbidden and unnecessary journey.
It was only with much effort that Bat-Ami managed to soothe him. We’re not in an Agnon story, she said, and at this point you haven’t lost any of your self-identity. Following her precise instructions the driver proceeded toward the airport while calling the taxi station and asking for another Jerusalem driver to go to the author’s apartment building, get the key of their apartment from Bat-Ami’s sister who lives on the ground floor, get the phylacteries from their apartment and bring them to Ben-Gurion Airport as quickly as possible. Bat-Ami stayed on the line as she and Yoel reached the airport and as they wheeled their cases into the terminal, and even through security and check-in. She meticulously guided the phylactery courier through each stage of his complex mission, and once it was successfully accomplished and the driver informed her of his arrival at the main entrance with the embroidered velvet bag, she quickly went out to meet him and tipped him handsomely while Yoel waited for her in the departure lounge, his stomach churning.
His first organized memories begin at the kindergarten in Netanya. As he grew up and asked what had come before the kindergarten, his mother would look away, pretending she was immersed in a vital task that brooked no delay, and declare loudly and clearly: What was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.
On more than one occasion he said that he still wanted to know about the place where he was born, but his mother said: Anyone who emigrated to Israel as an infant is considered a native-born Israeli. It’s like you were born here in Israel, Yoel.
And his big sister Nettie explained that that’s how it is with the Dutch. They don’t talk about what they don’t absolutely have to talk about, and they certainly don’t talk about waters that have already flowed onward. In general, she added with the seriousness characteristic of her to this day, being Dutch is no simple matter.
In an attempt to end the meeting at the publisher’s home in a pleasant atmosphere, at the end of the evening Yoel chose to relate, as a sort of encore in a different, lighter tone, one of the jokes with which he spiced his lectures abroad.
God summons the leaders of the three great faiths, he said, and announces that in forty-eight hours’ time he is going to bring down a great and terrible flood on Earth.
The three leaders hasten to gather their people – one in a church, the second in a mosque, the third in a synagogue – and prepare them for the worst. The bishop calls upon his flock to repent and utter the deathbed confession, and the imam tells the Muslim faithful more or less the same thing. The rabbi, however, mounts the rostrum in the center of the synagogue, slams the lectern with the palm of his hand, and announces: Jews, we have forty-eight hours to learn how to live underwater!
That’s an anti-Semitic joke, you know, Bat-Ami murmured late that night as she curled up in their hotel bed, the goyim you tell it to react with Schadenfreude laughter, and the Jews laugh bitterly.
She fell asleep as soon as she completed the sentence, and Yoel was tired too, as bone-weary as if he had walked the length of Amsterdam’s canals for generations.
And now, only a week after that night he’s flying to Amsterdam again. He’s going in order to start working on a new novel after discovering, in the few days since his last trip, what he must write about.
It’s hard to say he isn’t apprehensive about the long stay in his foreign homeland.
It’s hard to say that he has no doubts about his ability to gather the necessary material, fill his notebooks with notes and interviews, and then find the strength to return to his home and turn them into a book.
But something inside tells him that if he succeeds in all this, this book will be the novel of his life; the novel for whose writing he had become a writer.
This time Yoel is flying to Amsterdam on his own, and everything he does or doesn’t do there depends on him alone. But on his first visit to this forbidden city he was terror-stricken because of his desecration of his mother’s last testament, and Bat-Ami took his hand as one would take the hand of a wayward child, and led him to where she had chosen to lead him.
Their hosts had booked them into the Hotel de Paris, one of the many small, elegant hotels in the city’s entertainment district around Leidseplein, and Bat-Ami contended that it was one of the more charming hotels they had ever stayed in. From the moment they touched down at Schiphol Airport she hadn’t stopped admiring and enthusing over Amsterdam’s picturesque architecture, the charm of the canals, the bridges, the boulevards and buildings, the multitude of colors and forms, and of course the well-built, pleasant inhabitants flowing by on their bicycles in the open air.
He couldn’t understand how one could get one’s bearings in this strange city that is almost entirely contained within a semicircle delineated by its four main canals. For example, if the Keizersgracht begins at the western end of Amsterdam and ends after a semicircle at the eastern end, then when you see a sign bearing the name “Keizersgracht” you know you’re on the bank of that canal but you can’t guess if you’re in the center, west, or east of the city.
Still, right away and without any difficulty Bat-Ami learned to find her way through the maze of strips of dry land running between the canals. And she marched him along through that maze energetically and confidently, as she constantly praised the universal spirit of freedom, and was excited even by blatantly touristic gimmicks like the floating flower market or the outlandish Dutch staircases that are so steep they are a threat to life and limb.
They build their staircases at such an acute angle because of the water, she explained to him according to her vade mecum, the Israeli Tourist Guidebook, first and foremost to save precious land, and second to provide an escape route to the top floor in the event of flooding.
She further told him, her eyes shining, that because their staircases are so narrow and steep, the Dutch move furniture and other large items into or out of their homes through the windows, usually using a block and tackle hoist. They just tie bulky objects with rope and bind it around those hooks, she said, pointing at a random row of houses, and only then Yoel saw the big hook sunk into a protruding beam under the gable of every house.
And she was also captivated by their custom, which he found incomprehensible, of leaving these big windows exposed to full view and not hiding their private life behind shutters or curtains. This blatant exposure shocked him profoundly, but the happy Bat-Ami didn’t stop telling him, Look, look at this and Look at that, and mainly See how nothing’s changed here in Amsterdam since Holland’s Golden Age. What hasn’t happened to us Jews since then, while here throughout all those long years the same buildings, the same streets, the same water and the same people. Just look at this guy for example, she whispered as they went into their hotel and the elderly, suited clerk handed them their room key over a counter filled with Dutch clogs, miniature windmills and pictures of sailing ships. I’ll bet he hasn’t moved from that counter since the reign of Philip the Second.
It seems that it’s easier for Bat-Ami on their trips abroad than it is in Israel. When she’s in Israel she shoulders all matters pertaining to the family, the home, the State of Israel and the human race. But the moment the landing gear of the plane leaves the runway at Ben-Gurion Airport, Bat-Ami detaches herself from her perpetual duties and lets the world go its way. When she’s abroad she even frees herself of the burden of her big bunch of keys without which she doesn’t go anywhere in Israel. Still, when she’s abroad she’s always armed with a large purse and a cellphone, but there’s no doubt that it’s lighter without her silvered hamsa hand inset with a miniature family photograph, on which hang and jangle at all times the front door key and the key to the storeroom, the key to the garden gate and the key to the roof door, their mailbox key, the one to the gas cylinder cage, her car key, his car key, and emergency keys to her brother’s and sisters’ apartments, a key to each of their three daughters’ apartments, and more large and small keys to padlocks known to her alone.
The day after the literary evening at the Dutch publisher’s home, between a visit to a museum across the River Amstel and a lightning tour she’d planned of the Rembrandt House Museum and the Waterlooplein flea market, Bat-Ami decided that they couldn’t possibly pass through the Old Jewish Quarter without taking a look at the Jewish Historical Museum. And so Yoel found himself in a dim exhibition hall, the length of which illuminated glass cabinets displayed mezuzahs torn from doorposts, a faded wooden sign warning in black lettering Voor Joden Verboden (Jews prohibited), photographs and documents and various utensils. He thought he’d better get out of there, that he should respect the wishes of his mother who had wanted so much for him not to see these things. He looked around and couldn’t find Bat-Ami and was gripped by panic until in the dim light he saw her sitting on one of the benches.
He made his way over to her through the knots of visitors moving around quietly, passing a group of Dutch youngsters following their teacher. Bat-Ami appeared not to have noticed him and when he touched her shoulder she didn’t raise her eyes to him but with muted excitement gestured that he sit down beside her. Only her hand moved and when Yoel sat down he saw that she was watching old black-and-white films screened onto the length and breadth of the wall facing them.
What, Yoel wondered, was gluing his wife’s eyes to these silent images? When he looked at them he saw people celebrating at a wedding party. The men were wearing tuxedos and the women splendid evening gowns, their hair elegantly coiffed, and the men were bareheaded, their hair gleaming with brilliantine. He turned to Bat-Ami but she didn’t turn her face to him. Her eyes were still glued to the flickering images but she sensed his look and gestured imperatively: Look at the wall, look at the film, and he turned his head as she instructed and saw a shot of the bride and groom, and then a close-up of their parents, and a shot of the bridesmaids walking behind the bride, reverently bearing her train. Then there was a shot of a woman holding a baby girl, pointing at the camera and trying to get the indifferent infant to smile, and then one of two bow-tied young men waving at the camera, and Bat-Ami pinched his arm and tensed, and the shot of the young men was replaced by one of a young family: a man and woman, him holding a little girl in his arms, and she an infant in hers. The image flickered on the wall for just a heartbeat but even in that fleeting second Yoel managed to discern that the woman in the picture was his mother: his mother in her early years, his mother in the days that preceded the compass of his memory, but his mother.
He stopped breathing.
Wait, Bat-Ami whispered, relaxing her grip on his arm, it’s screened in a loop, it’ll be on again soon. As she said the word loop she drew an imaginary circle in the air with her finger. Yoel swallowed saliva and nodded, but apart from the shape of the loop he didn’t understand a thing.
Time after time Yoel and Bat-Ami watched the shots in the old wedding film. They sat on the bench in the center of the museum hall for a long time, and watched the bride and groom over and over again, and then the couple’s happy and concerned parents, and the girls carrying the train in deadly seriousness, and then the woman with the baby and her pointing finger, and even the wave of the happy boys in their bowties, and then – Now, Yoel said to himself, pay attention now – and he stared with all his might, and even on the tenth time he saw the fragments of the film — like on the twenty-second and the thirtieth times — he was still convinced that the woman flickering before him for a second or two, was indeed his mother. The image was grainy, but without question it was his mother’s tallness, her big hands, the way she stood, and the face was without doubt the broad farm girl’s face that he loved so much, which in the film could be seen full face and in profile as she turned her head to the right and smiled at her husband, his father. He was only a baby when his father was taken, and at the time all the photographs of his parents, together with the rest of their property, had been lost, but now he was sure that the slightly-built bespectacled man in the film was his father, mainly because of the warmth and approbation in his mother’s eyes as she stole a glance at this man who was a bit shorter than her.
The little girl the man was holding in his arms was Nettie, and he had no doubt it was her: the facial features, the expression, everything. But who is the strange infant, his heart asked him, who is that strange baby boy nestled in your mother’s arms?
The baby must be you, Bat-Ami whispered as if she’d heard the question.
But it’s not me, he whispered back.
How can you know?
It isn’t me. Look at the shape of his head, the eyes, the hair. It isn’t me.
Then perhaps, she suggested after the figures had reappeared and vanished again, perhaps just as they were photographed she was holding someone else’s baby?
Yoel wanted to espouse this assumption. He wished he could. But the loop completed its cycle again, and again the same image appeared on the wall, and again he saw his mother holding the unknown baby the way mothers hold their own children, and not only that: he saw – for it was impossible not to – how much the unknown baby resembled her, especially in the wide cheeks and clear eyes whose corners turned slightly downward. And how there wasn’t even a hint of resemblance between the face of the unknown baby and his own, dark and long, in the photographs from his childhood taken after they emigrated to Israel and which his mother stuck, using tiny mounting squares, onto the rough black pages of the beautifully arranged album that sat on the sideboard in the living room of their apartment in Netanya.
As soon as they got back to their hotel room from the museum, Yoel took out his cellphone and brought up Nettie’s number. He looked at the line of illuminated digital numbers and thought about his sister sitting at this twilight hour in her small apartment in the kibbutz located between the River Jordan and Mount Gilboa. Her face is serene, on her knees an open book, and her old radio is playing classical music from the station to which it is permanently tuned. Her husband Eliezer awaits her in the kibbutz cemetery at the foot of the mountain. He is buried there next to Yisrael, their firstborn, their handsome, tousle-haired son who had fought in the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, and was killed not in battle but in the kibbutz’s date palm orchard. Yoel had never managed to picture the day they had come to tell Nettie and Eliezer and their daughter that the power ladder they used in the orchard had hit an electric cable and that Yisrael, who was high in the air dusting the palms with pesticide, was dead even before his strong body in its blue work clothes folded inwards and hit the ground with a thump.
Nettie will soon put her book aside, sigh, and turn on the TV to watch the early edition of the evening news.
Yoel turned off his phone.
Through the window of the building opposite their hotel room he could see a kitchen in which a woman was standing washing a stainless steel jug, and he was fascinated by her movements as she soaped and scrubbed the outside and inside with a long-handled brush, and then rinsed it thoroughly in tap water. Over the past day he had learned that the woman lived in a two-room apartment with only a brown-and-white dog and the plants she tended in a window box. She is a good-looking woman, her straight blonde hair is cut short, and when she comes into the kitchen she puts a floral apron over her erect figure. In the morning he’d seen her making herself a cup of coffee before leaving for work, in the middle of the day he’d seen her short-legged, floppy-eared dog waiting for her forlornly on the armchair in the living room, and at six in the evening she had come home and turned on the light, and at a distance of only a few meters from her he’d seen her bend to put food into the dog’s bowl that was evidently on the floor under the kitchen window. He wondered if she knew she was being watched, and whether she cared. Afterward for some reason he was compelled to see her beating eggs, slicing vegetables, mixing them in a deep bowl, tasting. He could hear the rattle of her dishes and kitchen tools, and almost the sound of her breathing. Almost the sound of her breathing.
Thanks to his friends at kindergarten and in the neighborhood, he had learned to make up stories at an early age.
Say, Yoel, why haven’t you got a dad?
I’ve got a dad! My dad’s at work. My dad’s in the army. My dad’s on a secret mission overseas.
Throughout his childhood the plots his brain had woven around the figure of his absent father were filled with mystery and magic. They endowed his father with a multitude of daring roles in the army and the secret services, a wide range of groundbreaking scientific studies, and vital missions across the sea.
And every time he was asked about his father he invented a new reply and believed it with all his heart. The story his mother told him about a young man who had died in a faraway and incomprehensible war was, in his eyes, only one possible answer to the question of where his father was. Only one story, which held no advantage over all the others, and Yoel saw no reason not to replace its sparse plot with more interesting ones, in accordance with his desires and his flights of fancy.
He couldn’t sleep that night. Bat-Ami was snoring lightly as he extricated himself from the confining quilt and the foreign hotel bed, about which he couldn’t know if its previous occupant had been sad or happy, lonesome or loved. He quietly tried to find a place for himself, trying not to bump into the furniture and other objects that filled the small room, until by one of the walls he found a free area of carpeting where he was able to sit cross-legged. He actually needed some fresh air, he actually wanted to get out of the crowded room and go down into the street, but he didn’t go down and didn’t go out because he was afraid that Bet-Ami would wake up while he was gone, and he knew that if he’d woken up in the middle of the night and seen that she wasn’t there he’d have been beset by anxiety lest something bad had happened to her, lest she’d left him, lest he’d never see her again.
On second thought, he said to himself, would Bat-Ami indeed be worried if she woke up and didn’t find him in the room? He shifted his position on the carpet and straightened his back against the wall, placing his hands on his crossed legs and looking around. From this angle how different the walls and corners of the ceiling seemed. How different the wardrobe, the bed, the woman sleeping in the bed. He heard her mumble something in her sleep and thought, What do I know about her dreams? What do I know about her? I’ve always thought that I know how to write people because I know how to see them, yet today I discovered that I’d never really succeeded in seeing my own mother. I thought I was close to you, my beloved mother, I thought I knew you well, and now it turns out that all the time you were carrying a dead child in your heart – and I, your living child, didn’t feel it and would never have guessed.
Darkness crawled to him from the four corners of the room, closing in on him, its black particles climbing over his body and infiltrating his skin through its pores until he was forced to stand up, dress quickly and flee to the street. Bat-Ami isn’t me, he repeated to himself as he bent to tie his shoelaces. Bat-Ami is Bat-Ami. And if she wakes up and sees I’m not there she’ll understand that I’ve gone out to get some fresh air and she’ll immediately close her eyes and fall back to sleep.
Colored lights were flickering in a small, crowded pub across the street from the hotel entrance. A giant of a man whose bare, heavily-muscled arms were covered with tattoos went into the pub and was swallowed up in the crowd.
Yoel moved on.
On the day he got up from the seven days of mourning for his mother and went out of his house, he realized he didn’t know how to walk in a world in which his mother was no longer present. Very slowly he taught himself to walk again, and since then it had seemed to him that he was walking properly. But at this nocturnal hour, alone in the city of his birth where he had first learned to walk, he felt as if he had to instruct his body to execute the requisite actions again: raise the right foot, there, excellent. Now move the right foot forward and place it on the sidewalk. Well done, Yoel, and now lift the left foot, move it forward…
He pulled his coat collar up round his ears, hunched his head into his shoulders, and proceeded, step by step, his eyes on his feet and the flagstones beneath them. At the end of a row of houses the sidewalk took an upward curve, and he looked from inside his coat and saw he’d come to a humpbacked bridge over a canal. He saw a bench on the canal bank and let his body collapse onto it, exhausted.
The waters of the canal flowed dark and silent along their ancient course, dark and silent and remembering everything. Yoel sat on the bench and gazed at the water as if seeking to pluck even a fleeting shadow from it, or an echo left in it by his lost brother who, by his calculations done mainly according to Nettie’s estimated age in the museum film, was somewhat younger than him. His little brother.
What had happened to him, to the light-skinned baby? Where was he, Yoel, when the wedding photographer had immortalized his little brother with his parents and his sister Nettie? Had what happened to his little brother almost happened to Yoel too? And could that explain the early memory in which he was tossed into a corner, abandoned, and his body, the body of the small child he was then, was trembling from wetness, cold and fear? All his life he had told himself that this early memory of his was nothing but a figment of his fertile imagination. All his life he had submerged it in the depths of his subconscious, and yet the memory resurfaced, drawing him into the torment from which there was no release, of a toddler who did not yet know how to put its feelings into words. Whether experiencing this anguish in reality or in his imagination, he cannot forget the hard touch of the surface he was lying on, he cannot forget that the surface seemed to rock and shake beneath him while he cried until his strength ebbed away, and he cannot forget how he wanted his abandoned soul to die, to die and live no longer. And he is unceasingly haunted by the strange part his mother plays in this memory, his mother who while he lay there suffering, simply sat beside him, sat and did nothing, looking as if she was not his mother at all.