Photo: Isaac Portal
Good Thing There Aren't Any Children in this Story
By Merav Zaks-Portal
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?”
- Taanit 23a:14, Babylonian Talmud
“Soon it will no longer be possible,” says Dr. Peles, her bespectacled eyes piercing.
“You realize that, don't you?”
“Yes, yes,” I nod knowingly.
“One can't wait forever,” says my mother, handing me a women's magazine bursting with suggestions: in vitro fertilization, donor selection, adoption, surrogacy, pumping…
“Mother! Enough!” I scream at her. “Enough already. I'm sick to death of your nagging. Believe it or not, I know how it's done. Brush in tube, dick in cunt and all that.”
“But why?” She plays stupid, momentarily dropping the rag from her hand as she takes in all of my five feet eight inches – wood sandals, purple velvet skirt, black singlet covering a really flat chest with a large black sweater carelessly thrown on top, and all that joyful mess topped by a swirl of red hair surrounding an over-roundish face.
“But why?” she says again.
“Just because, mom. Because I’m sick of it. Because maybe I don't even want it. Did you ever stop to consider that?”
“Listen, Mickey, dear, by the time you've finished thinking, it will already be too late, and I'm already too…”
“All right, mom, end of discussion. Yalla, I'm off.”
And I'm off, with my mother behind me, waddling in her slippers to the end of the path, waving goodbye from there as if we are parting for all eternity. I merely leave her little house and walk down the long path bound by myrtle bushes all the way to the main road. I cross the road to the grocery store and turn right into my little street. Then I climb the stairs of the three-story building with the carob tree towering beside it. More slowly now, I plod up the stairs to the top floor and go out onto the roof overlooking the neighborhood, my one-room apartment at its center, circled by a swarm of buzzing bees.
The buzzing of those bees threatens to drive me out of my mind — that and the scent of wood, sharp, masculine, mind penetrating. It smells like sperm. Everyone says so with sly, secretive smiles. The carob, vast, casts a shadow over my bedroom, getting into my dreams with its smell, with the buzzing of the bees circling clusters of red flowers sprouting from every separate branch. Not from the tip, but from the center of each branch and all across it. There is something insane, illogical about that carob. I almost expect some tribal rainmaker to emerge and start circling the tree. Perhaps that is what I truly need, a rainmaker to wet my drying ovaries. The tree stuns me. I am dazzled by it, and by my mother too. My mom who thinks she'll have no rest until I present her with a grandchild.
“You should have thought about it,” I tell her, “when you decided to make me your only daughter, to place the burden of all your expectations on my five foot eight inches, on my curls, on my shoulders.”
“Your dad didn't want to,” she always replies. “Never even wanted any children, so we settled for you.”
“Some settlement,” I tell her. “Good thing you didn’t call me ‘That's All We've Got’.”
That's me, though. All they've got. Forty years old and change, collapsing into the flowered sofa, reaching for the black Kindle waiting on the small table, and immersing myself in the thrilling thriller I’d downloaded for $4.30. A thriller whose convoluted plot I will have forgotten by tomorrow. But right now, I’m entranced by the psychopathic heroine patiently staging her disappearance, which would thoroughly implicate her nice husband who had taken her with him to his home town to treat his senile father and start over. Or whatever it is that protagonists always do in America.
Then she disappears, the police investigate, and it turns out he had a lover, which made it difficult for him in all that mess. But never mind. Now he is after her, and so are the police, and for a moment it seems the whole business is solved.
Good thing there aren’t any children in the story – that makes it easier for me to read because, lately, stories with children in them rub me the wrong way. I always measure them, the children. Check how they will fit my wardrobe, my house. How they will blend in with the children’s room I don’t have, the wall paintings I’ll never draw in it; the games I’ll never buy, the cute little bodysuits with a ball, an octopus, or a small giraffe, embroidered on the front. I check how they will lightly totter across my floor, sesame-patterned tiles making the crumbs difficult to spot. How they will crumble, with chubby hands, the soft cookies they are allowed to eat before their milk teeth have hatched, the teeth that will never torture me with sleepless nights as they grow older. And the cat I don’t even have that will follow them, sticking out a pink tongue and licking crumbs. And I will say how useful the cat is and how well he gets along with this baby, who doesn’t have a name yet, even in my dreams. Perhaps I need to give the cat a name, as well — buy one, get one free! But no, for now this non-baby will remain nameless in its cradle, and the cat, anonymous as well, in its corner. Let him bring home dead mice first, earn his bread, then we’ll see.
The story grips me, and, despite my tiredness, I yield to it. I read to the last letter. The beautiful heroine staged the whole story of her mysterious disappearance because she wanted attention, or something else, something which is also nameless. But all’s well that ends well – she’s in prison; he’s at home, and his lover is with her husband. A happy ending. I throw myself on my bed without removing my clothes and socks, and fall into a heavy sleep barely pierced by the rattling of the alarm clock.
It is already seven and they’ll be waiting for me at the kindergarten I need to open up and air out. I also need to buy bread and milk, spread little sandwiches with jam, and rearrange the little chairs the cleaner stacked on the table the night before: then, at eight, the gate will open and rushing parents will deposit their most precious possessions in my hands. That’s what they always say when things turn sour, don’t they? They trusted her with their precious children and she… but no, I can’t think about it now. I need to get dressed, drink my instant coffee, get on my bike and ride to the kindergarten at the corner of Herzl and Parashat Drachim.
Another day, another night. In the midst of it, I am woken by a loud buzzing outside my window. Bees, I tell myself, and try to go back to sleep. But the thought lingers. Bees? In the middle of the night? So I trudge through to the living room, bleary-eyed and bleary-minded, and look outside. The tree is surrounded by bees in the dark. I leave the room, throw a light blanket over myself to protect me from the chill, and carefully peek beyond the edge of the room. The tree is swarming with bees as if it is high noon, and something in this strange occurrence scratches at the back of my mind. But since it is late, and there is work tomorrow, I relinquish further investigation and return to bed. I fall asleep almost instantly, and dream of something confusing and extremely embarrassing.
In the morning, the commotion of bees is as it always has been. They do not seem tired by their nocturnal activities, or perhaps they are different bees that have taken the place of the old ones? In any event, there is no time to delve into it. I unlock the bicycle chain and quickly pedal my way to the kindergarten where the early risers are already waiting with a somewhat nervous look in their eyes, maybe because of the traffic and everything that weighs heavily in their lives.
The kindergarten opens at eight. It’s seven forty-five, I shout silently.What do you want from me? But I keep my mouth shut. Smiling, I open the kindergarten while they babble with their toddlers, saying goodbye to them. Then I sit and wait for the kindergarten teacher. I am bouncing an infant on each knee, thinking of the bees from last night, and then, at eight a.m. sharp, Amalia arrives, all fired up with enthusiasm for the coming day, immediately shepherding the toddlers to the morning circle. They wobble after her like obedient subjects, leaving me on my own to ponder while scrambling eggs and cutting vegetables for the dwarves’ breakfast.
“You know anything about bees, Amalia?” I check with her later on, during a rare moment of silence. Her father, as it turns out, keeps apiaries in a moshav in Heffer Valley, and she vehemently proclaims that bees do not fly around at night.
“You must have been dreaming,” she states, and hurries to wipe the snot off some boy’s nose, and then picks up a fork belonging to a girl who has dropped it while trying to impale the over-thin cucumber slices.
In the evening I lurk, waiting for them, for the bees. I don’t read, or watch TV, just vigilantly sit by the window. Darkness falls and there is not a single bee on the tree, nor is there after an hour, and then two. For dinner, I slice up a banana and pour yogurt and granola on top of it, then I eat with expectation by the window. It is ten already and no trace of any bees. So I go on waiting until I fall asleep and wake up to the sound of weeping. I look at the clock. It is 3:00 a.m., and the crying doesn’t stop. I go out to the whitewashed roof, the almost full moon hanging above, and there, beside the building’s water heaters, stands a little boy crying his heart out. Crying like the children in my kindergarten do when they part from their parents on the first day after a vacation.
I move closer to him. He doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps crying and crying. And it is so strange that no window opens, no light turns on. I move even closer, carefully, and see that he has brown curls encircling his round head. He has a chubby belly and bare feet and is perhaps three years old.
“What’s your name, little boy?” I ask him quietly, and he raises his head, looks at me, and goes right on crying.
“Shu ismak? Comment t'appelle tu? Wie heißen sie?” I try every language I know. I get no reply, just more quiet, stubborn weeping. Then, when I fall silent, he looks up, and I say, “Come here, little boy!” I spread my arms wide and he wobbles over to me. I notice he is limping a little, a wobbly boy, a damaged boy: one foot gently folds in, as if he has stepped on a thorn and is afraid of hurting himself.
“Come little boy, come!” I call him again. And he comes. And I pick him up in my arms and feel his warmth. I smell the somewhat sour scent of sweat and fear, then he places his head against my shoulder, and it seems as if he has fallen asleep. And so we descend – a woman in slippers, a small boy with brown curls, and a happy ending. Ever after.