Photo: Yoel Kozak
Milk and Honey
By Levana Moshon
Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan
The first thing he got to know was her milky hand: white, slender, soft as velvet. Long fingers topped by clean, pink, virginal fingernails that had never known a day of hard labor in their lives. Sweet fingernails born to be kissed, as if they belonged to a baby. She had a delicate gold ring on her middle finger and a bracelet wrapped around her fragile wrist, from which hung a medallion shaped like a rose. Perhaps a month or two had passed since the hand began reaching out to him in the morning; since a new family moved into house number 18 and the man—meaning, the husband—stepped outside to talk to him. They agreed he’d leave one bottle on the windowsill every day, and that on Fridays the wife would come out to pay their weekly bill.
The men shook on it. She was not part of this conversation, did not speak to him at all, but from the way her hand reached out he knew something about his routine was about to change. He’d been the neighborhood milkman for the past two years, starting in 1961. Two years since the day his father had faltered due to early old age and retired to his bed. Two years since he, his son, was forced to cease his Torah studies to take over the job, lest they lose their Jerusalem neighborhood permit.
Every morning he woke up before dawn, said a quick prayer, and rushed off to get the crates from the dairy. His hands, blue with the mountain chill, gripped the handlebars of his tricycle, hurrying off to the neighborhood homes, to quieten hungry babies and provide the early-risers with their warm drink. Scattering bottles at doorsteps, on windowsills, on top of gas tank containers, on steps, in foyers, or sometimes in wicker baskets left for him beside the gates of yards.
With each stop he paused to jot down in his tiny notepad the number of bottles he provided each family. Everything was arranged in rows and tables, each family’s bill calculated precisely. He finished the distribution between nine and ten in the morning, rode his tricycle to the yeshiva, and delved into the books until sundown.
But for the past two weeks, that white hand had followed him wherever he went. It had already left the window and now it was inside of him, deep in his heart and all over his body, searching hidden corners. First he felt it on his head, then the back of his neck, and before he knew it, it was trembling against his chest hair, drawing aside the corners of his tallit, smoothing the fringes of the holy rope. Small thrills ran down his back; little ants of pleasure. The hand crawled slowly down to his stomach and below, and the deeper he delved into his Talmud page, the more tightly his knees pushed together, lest that hand slip away.
Each morning he yearned for the moment when he walked down the path paved with broken stones between two houses, numbers 18 and 20. He trudged along in his bear walk, his money pouch banging against his thick thigh. Outside, by the curb, his tricycle awaited, overladen with milk crates, a rock wedged behind one of the wheels to keep his cargo from rolling down the sloping street. He set one bottle of milk—only one for the time being—on the windowsill of her kitchen, in the back of the house. A bottle he made sure to wipe clean of dew tears and straw bundles, using the ends of his shirt to polish the glass, breathing on it before rubbing, making its neck shimmer, giving a small stroke to its bottom, placing the gorgeously white bottle in its spot. She deserves, he thought, to hold a noble bottle in her regal hand.
On the side of the sill was the empty bottle she returned to him daily, a bottle in exchange for a bottle, to avoid additional charges.
Then he would step back, lingering for a moment, waiting for the window to open as if on its own. Perhaps he would be able to see a slice of her. Perhaps his hand would touch hers. Perhaps he’d say something to her. Perhaps she would climb on top of a chair to reach him.
That last notion was something that had only occurred to him recently. He’d never had such disturbing dreams before about a woman, a woman standing on a chair to watch him through her window. When he awoke his heart ached from its sudden contraction. Three or four times, she came out on Fridays to pay the bill, and his heart pounded so, his temples beating with heat, that he could not look directly at her. Instead, he pretended to be preoccupied with his notepad. When she reached out her hand to pay, he didn’t even count the money, instead only lightly touching those familiar fingers, wanting to hold them forever, to floodher with the warmth of his heart. He took the money from her quickly, dropped it into his pocket, and averted his eyes. When she left he dared look at her from behind: a thin, small frame in a sweet flannel dress, two bows tied at the waist, her brown silk hair falling long down her back, her feet in low heeled shoes. Twenty-one years old, twenty-two at most, and so very pure.
It had been four weeks since she paid her bill. Each morning he saw the ends of her dark, shiny hair. Each morning her hand reached out into the damp Jerusalem morning. The arm was usually wrapped in the sleeve of a light-colored woolen robe or a silk gown. The fingers gripped the head of the bottle tenderly, the golden ring sparkling between them. With a light, graceful pull, they pulled the bottle into the warm house, vanishing along with it behind the shutting glass and a lace curtain entwined with white ribbon. For a moment she was his, and then she was gone, and that which is taken swiftly burns.
They had not spoken a word to each other yet, other than the necessary exchanges for sale and purchase. At her window, he became paralyzed. He wanted to say, “Good morning, Miss Alisa Eini,” the way he greets other housewives who take his milk bottles, but not a word left his mouth. Everything was different with her.
After the window shut, he walked on, deflated, down the path, to house number 20, where the eldest Levy daughter, a girl of about eighteen with buck teeth and a pointy red nose stepped out to greet him. In a pleated skirt of colorful wool, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, tugging her skirt down to protect her from the cold. As usual, she asked what time he had, wondering aloud if she could still catch the 7:20 bus to Kiryat Shaul. The factory bosses wanted to fire her because she was fifteen minutes late every day, but without a glass of milk, she prattled on, one cannot leave home, and there’s no milk like Avrum the milkman’s, she added with mellifluous flattery. Recently, mindless chatter has been driving him mad. Whenever he exhibited his impatience she delayed him further with pointless conversations about small objects or insects she’d found in the milk, returning half-empty bottles, and he found himself apologizing on behalf of the dairy and offering her family a refund. Sometimes her mother came out to pay a three-week bill, and he lingered in their doorway or at the foyer table, sipping a cup of hot tea quickly whipped up for him.
After Sukkot the hard rains began, and Avrum, in a raincoat and boots, under cover of the dimness of a rainy morning, when no one had yet dared to pop their noses out, mustered up his courage and waited for her at the window. When her hand reached out for the bottle as it did every morning, he took it, making it linger. The hand was warm and soft, and when he touched it with his damp hand, it froze, startled, letting the bottle drop to the ground. She slammed the window shut, but not before he had a chance to whisper, “Don’t be afraid, Alisa, it’s me, Avrum.”
From the way she slammed the window, he could tell she was irritated. He quickly replaced the bottle with another, collected the broken glass off the path, and went on with his work. The rain blurred the white stain, and his shame flowed quickly away.
The next day, he pinned a wet note to the milk bottle on the windowsill and left. He didn’t sleep a wink all night, agonizing over his gumption. His note read: “Forgive me, dear Miss Alisa, but I must tell you something important. Meet me at three o’clock by Nachman’s grocery. Signed, Avrum the Milkman.”
At first he thought to write something about her bill, just as a pretext, but then thought better of it. Then he considered knocking on her door to remind her of the outstanding payment and hope that they would get to the other matter. But eventually he’d decided to ask her to meet, and wait to find out if she would show up. He was convinced she wouldn’t.
Nachman’s grocery was the only place he could think of. Three o’clock was closing time. Behind the grocery was a large shed, and at its foot were empty bottle crates, tin cans, and grain sacks. He hoped the rain would keep people in their homes, allowing her to come undetected. Perhaps she could conceal herself with a large raincoat and umbrella, so he could tell her everything that was in his heart. And what if she didn’t come at all? Or, worse yet, what if she came only to rebuke him? What if she sent her husband instead to pay the bill and inform him that they would no longer be requiring his services?
Avrum was a twenty-five-year-old bachelor who’d never known a woman, but he was certain he knew Alisa from head to toe. Every bit of her flesh. His body was covered with the burns of a flaming desire. That entire day he could not see the letters of the Talmud before him. All he could see was her warm hand, the long fingers, the gold ring, her dark head. How would he recognize her? He was no longer sure of her shape. Inside of him, he felt he would love her in any shape she took, his hot mouth covering her white hand with hundreds of mad little kisses. In his mind’s eye, he wrapped his naked body with her brown hair and made permitted and forbidden love to her. He wanted to tell her he had more than just milk for her. He had honey, too—barrels of it.
As he waited by the grocery, a storm raged. The sky opened and a furious rain came down. Lightning sliced through the black sky. Water raged through the street in strong currents, taking with it small branches and debris. Avrum stood in the covered porch outside the grocery, and prayed. How great are your works, Lord! He looked left and right and saw no one on the street.
First the tin cylinder covering the porch blew off. It rolled down the street with the strong winds, banging into puddles. Avrum pushed himself against the door to the grocery. The storm pummeled his umbrella with the gravel of raindrops, bending its aluminum strips, and pushing him around. He thought it was a message from the heavens, telling him to leave, but he was prepared to argue with God and stand his ground. He huddled by the door, holding the bent umbrella for dear life, waiting.
Then the tall pine tree planted in the pavement in front of the grocery bowed. At first the trunk seemed resistant to the storm. For long moments, its branches whined, threatening to break, mere moments from losing the battle. Avrum did not move. He couldn’t bear the thought that she might still show up and not see that he’d been waiting for her his entire life. He hid his face behind the crumpled umbrella, unable to see how the next gust of terrible wind brought the pine tree down right on top of him, its green top crushed against the grocery’s door.
Alisa ran, breathless in her low heels, through the puddles on the sidewalk. Her purse weighed heavy on her arm. Her head was wrapped in a woolen scarf that was already drenched. Her raincoat clung to her legs. She’d left work thirty minutes early, but the bus was late, and she got drenched waiting for it. Now she rushed toward Nachman’s grocery, feeling her wet legs growing heavy and tired, begging her to slow down in her wild stride. She was already late. A mighty thunder rolled through the black sky. Alisa’s lungs ached with the effort.
From a distance, she could already see the pine tree spilled over the door to the grocery. She came closer, looked around, but saw no one. She couldn’t keep standing there, with streams of water pouring from above. She paced the street for long moments, beside herself. It was empty. Then she made a decision: she went home.
The next morning, Alisa waited at the window. She stood on top of a chair so she could see, leaving the window with its white lace curtain open in spite of the intense cold. Her hand was ready to reach out at a moment’s notice. But she didn’t hear the screeching of his tricycle or his footsteps on the path. He did not show up with his polished bottle. The Levy girl ran up and down the path, waiting for Avrum’s milk, tugging her skirt down, the chill nipping at her blue legs. As she scampered, she glanced, surprised, at Alisa waiting high up in her window.
Alisa looked at the clock in despair. It was getting late. She put on her boots and left for work. Damp obituaries were already glued to the electric poles, the black ink dripping out from the letters. Alisa put her elegant hand to her gaping mouth. She still owed him three lira and forty agorot.