Clay Turtles


Photo: Sary Gutman


Clay Turtles

By Sagit Emet

Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev


It wasn’t the usual girl behind the counter in the café that day.
“What’s happened to Yulia?” Lea asked when it was her turn to be served. “Not working today?”
The new girl, slim, her hair tied in a taut ponytail, gave her a tired look bounded by black, overlong lashes and black, overly sketched eyebrows. She said, “What?”
“Yulia,” Lea repeated. “Not working today?”
“I don’t know any Yulias,” the new girl sighed wearily. “You want to order?”
“Yes, yes, sure,” Lea apologized. “One small latte, please. To go.”
The new girl fluttered her Bambi-like eyelashes and announced, “Thirteen shekels, please.” Lea quickly poured the exact change she had prepared in advance into the slender hand. She looked up, hoping for a little smile of appreciation, or some sort of animated, impressed cry, because change was always scarce in the register. At least, that was what Yulia had once told her, and had added that it was very considerate of clients to prepare the exact change in advance. That was what she had said, word-for-word, but the new girl’s gaze had already drifted away to the man standing behind Lea, patiently awaiting his turn.
As she waited for her coffee, Lea looked around the café carefully. Nothing had changed since yesterday – or all the other yesterdays in the three months since that particular Aroma Café branch had opened under the Golden Towers. Lea happened to live in one of the towers. On the fifteenth floor. Where the assisted living ward was.  
She leaned her elbows on the long, marble-sheathed counter and curiously examined, as if seeing them for the first time, the pockmarks that dotted the almost transparent skin on her hands.
The marble gleamed with cleanliness. The scent of bread and freshly baked cakes filled Lea’s nostrils. She leaned on one of the red bar-chairs, and allowed her eyes to follow the barista’s movements; a young man she had also never before seen.
I wonder what’s happened today, she thought.  Where has everyone gone?
Every day for the past three months, somewhere between four and five, just before her afternoon classes, Lea had taken the transparent elevator down to the lobby, walked out onto, and along, the brick pathway which led to the doors of the adjacent shopping mall. She had entered the mall and almost tumbled straight into the arms of the café that awaited her, as warm,  fragrant and comforting as a mother’s hug.
She always exchanged a few sentences in Russian with Yulia, and then warmly greeted Yahli, the regular barista, and took an interest in the tattoos on his arms. In her heart she wondered whether, in summer, the season of humidity and short sleeves, he would notice hers as well.
They all knew her and made her coffee just the way she liked it. But today, someone else was standing where Yahli usually stood, and he had neither Yahli’s ponytail, nor a single tattoo. He foamed the milk with a blank expression on his face, and Lea didn’t even bother trying to read the small letters etched into the metal name tag attached to his uniform pocket.
Two young women, baby strollers beside them, sat in the corner, chatting away furiously. She felt like peeking into the strollers to see the babies. She thought they would be so cute – as soft and scented as the rolls being baked that very moment in the large glass ovens. Once, she had proudly pushed her own children around in strollers. Now they lived in Silicon Valley and Beersheba. She felt her grandchildren’s names coming unbidden to her lips: Uri and Jonathan. And Shira, and that new one what was his name again? The one born on the other side of mountains and oceans, and she didn’t know when, or even if, she’d ever see him.
“Make it without foam, please,” she asked the unfamiliar barista, her eyes roaming the elevated wooden shelves on which rested coffee bags in bright red packets. Then she moved her eyes to look far beyond the café doors, into the shopping mall, where, same as on any other day, people were running, roaming, looking, pushing, scurrying in waves, their mouths moving, chatting wordlessly, silenced behind the transparent glass walls. 
By the wooden bench, between the jewelry booth and the baby clothes store, Lea’s gaze suddenly came to rest on a girl of about five. She was dressed in a white shirt and was whining and going round in circles, over and over again, like the dial of a broken compass. Shira, Lea’s American granddaughter, also had curls like the little girl’s. And Shira also had a shirt just like the one the girl was wearing. It had a pink animal thingie printed on it, what was the thingie’s name? Nitty? Pitty? Kitty! A spark ignited in Lea's blue transparent eyes. Her Shira had worn a shirt just like that the last time they had met. That had been Passover two years ago! 
An old memory caused her gaze to freeze. Filled her eyes with terror.
She grabbed her coffee cup and marched across the threshold of the transparent doors that marked the limits of the café. Carefully she stepped into, and through, the teeming human hive, at the center of which stood the crying little girl.         
“What’s happened, meidele?” Lea bent down, leaning on her cane. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
The girl, startled, raised her head and looked at Lea with torn, moist eyes, as if she were a doe momentarily trapped in someone’s crosshairs.
“Are you lost?” asked Lea.
The girl nodded. Lea stole glances left and right, and then sank down onto the nearby bench. “Come.” She reached out her hand and pulled the girl to her. “We’ll wait here until your mommy comes back, all right?”
The girl was still, unmoving.
“I’ll keep you safe, meidele,” Lea promised. “Come.” She pulled the matchlike arm to her, drawing the girl closer until she was so close she was almost glued to the older woman’s thighs. Then, her fingers trembling, she brushed a springy brown lock away from the young forehead, smoothing it behind one small ear. “What’s your name, mamele?”
The large eyes were still moist with tears, but the sobbing had stopped, and Lea felt the child’s gaze moving over her, lingering, curious, as if she was trying to discover the person behind the tattered, worn-out mask of furrows and pockmarks that had become Lea’s face.
What a sweet little girl!
The girl’s gaze slid downward, curiosity mixed with concern, to the walking cane Lea had bought in China. It was decorated with a red, gilded dragon that coiled along its length.
“Shira,” the girl whispered.
“What did you say?” Lea furrowed her forehead. “Speak louder, I can’t hear so well…”
“Shira,” the girl shouted in Lea’s ear.
There was a momentary pause, then a wide smile bloomed and quickly spread over the old face.
All at once, it became clear to her. “Shira! I had a feeling!” Lea exclaimed happily. “You’ve come all the way from America to surprise me?”
The girl gave a tiny, embarrassed smile.
Lea looked left, then right again, as if wishing to share her happiness with the passersby. “This is a wonderful surprise, mamele! Oh… simply wonderful!” She struck the dragon’s tail on the floor and rose from the bench, bent and animated, ignoring the paper cup she had placed on the bench when she had approached the girl. It tumbled from the bench and rolled across the shopping mall floor, spraying out jets of warm coffee. “Now you must come with me, eh, mamin’ke? We will have to go slowly because I’m old and it’s hard for me to walk. I’ll take you to my room, all right?”
The girl nodded and said loudly, “Yes.”
“They didn’t even hint at this!” Lea smiled to herself as the two of them walked slowly, hand in hand, towards the exit.
“What?” The girl glanced at her.
“Your parents. I spoke with your Daddy on Friday and they didn’t tell me anything. The naughty little things…”
They left the mall and started silently along the brick pathway outside, ignoring the hubbub of the cars throbbing in and out of the nearby parking lot.
Lea thought she heard the girl say something. 
“What happened, mamele?” Lea stopped for a moment and looked down. “Did you see your Mommy?”
“No,” said the girl, mumbling again.
“Speak louder, sweetheart, I can’t hear so well.”
“Maybe we could call Mommy.” The girl raised her eyes to Lea. “I think I know her number by heart.” She was visibly trying to speak in a loud, steady voice.
Lea leaned on her walking cane, and for a single long moment her gaze was fixed somewhere in the air. “Sure,” she said finally. “I have the number. We’ll call her from my room.”
The girl smiled at Lea, then cast a cautious, tense look at the red dragon as it moved forward, curled around the cane, creating an invisible path for those old feet.
“We’ll just wait a little, okay?” said Lea. She didn’t look at the girl. “Because it’s night where you live now.”
The girl glanced at Lea, then lifted her eyes to look at the sky. The hint of a smile curled her lips. “But it’s still light outside,” she said hesitantly.
“It’s light here,” Lea explained with the patience of a former teacher, “but where you live, it’s the other way around.”         
The girl stood motionless, amazed.
“What? You didn’t know?” Lea was surprised.
“No,” the girl whispered and lowered her gaze. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course,” cried Lea. “When it’s day here, it’s night where you live. But don’t worry,” she added quickly when she saw the little chin start to quiver again, “you can come to the afternoon class with me in the meantime. We have pottery today, which is very, very nice! Once, when it was family day, everyone came with their grandchildren, but it was Christmas where you live, so you couldn’t come. I will just ask Naama, the instructor, to let you in, I’m sure she won’t mind.” 
Lea took the smooth little hand in her frail, pockmarked, fist, and they walked on up the pathway until they reached the wide door of the first Golden Tower.
“Hello!” Lea festively called as she and the girl entered the lobby.
Shuly, in reception, had just finished talking on the phone. “Good afternoon,” she replied habitually. But then she froze for a moment when she noticed the little girl. She was confused. “I see you have a guest!” Her eyes were opened wide.
“Yes.” Lea flashed a happy smile and raised a little arm in the air. “It’s Shira!”
Lea’s eyes rapidly raked the lobby with a momentous joy that quickly imploded. No one, except two wheelchair-bound, infirm elders from the nursing ward sitting near the piano, was there to witness her sudden, unexpected happiness.
“They surprised me!” she smiled at the amazed Shuli.
“Oh, Lea” Shuli rose “she is just adorable!” She poked her head through the reception window to get a better look at the little wonder, and then spoke to her in broken English. “You speak Hebrew?”
The girl looked at Shuli, then at Lea, and said nothing.
“She almost got lost, this cute little thing, this mamele,” Lea interjected quickly.
“They just dropped her off and left.”
“And your son?” Shuly marveled, “and his wife? Where are they?”
“They’ll come by later,” Lea explained, to Shuli as much as to the girl who was standing very close to the red dragon and listening attentively. “They want to surprise me, so they’ll drop by later, right, meidele?”
The girl nodded and batted her eyelids. Her milk teeth bit into the little lips, grinding at them, leaving minute furrows.  
“You know, Shiri, sweetie,” Lea told her when they were standing in the transparent elevator.
“Once, when I was your age, I also got lost.”
They soared upwards, towards the third floor where the classes were, and Lea noticed the girl tense up. “Really?” Shira asked. “You, too?”
“Yes,” Lea lowered her eyes to look at the lobby, disappearing beneath them. “It was on a train, many, many years ago.”
In her mind’s eye, Lea saw again her mother’s image in a black and white striped dress and a little black hat. Before they had left the house, her mother had lingered in front of the mirror, fixing the hat carefully on her head, as if not really knowing where she was headed. It wasn’t vanity, Lea would realize years later, but bravery. Defiance against those who sought to wipe out her identity, turn her into an indistinct member of a herd of cattle. Later, on the station platform, that was exactly what they had looked like: a herd.
Lea had been five then. With one hand, Mommy had pulled Shima’le against her hips. With the other, she had firmly held Lea’s hand. Adas and Brunia had been eight and ten already, and had walked behind them. Only Daddy had been missing. He had been sent to a labor camp the month before. “Hold on to my dress!” Mommy shouted at Lea’s older sisters trudging behind. “Hold on to my dress!” Her eyes had blazed as the five of them were crammed into the train car. Lea remembered how her mother’s hat had fallen off her head and been trampled under the feet of the people milling around. And she remembered how she, Lea, had bent to pick it up. “Never mind that now, Lea’leh. Just stay close to me!” Mommy had angrily pulled her closer.
“And what did you do?”
Lea looked down to where the voice had come from. It was a cute, curly-haired little girl who was wearing a Hello Kitty shirt. She was looking up at Lea through deep, chocolaty eyes.
“When you got lost on the train, what did you do?”
“Oh,” Lea smiled at the girl. “It happened in a great big war, you see? What could I have done?”
The elevator came to a halt on the second floor. The glass doors slid open, but no one was waiting to get on. Lea waited for the doors to close, then pressed the button for number three again. Her heart sank as she looked at the mocha-hued skin of the girl standing beside her. Beyond the glass doors, she saw the three soldiers who had boarded the train barking orders in German. One had only one eye, a black patch covering the other, which she thought must be missing. She could still sometimes feel her mother’s wet hand holding her very tightly. With her other hand, Mommy had been holding onto Shima’le, and had cast frequent glances over her shoulder to make sure Adas and Brunia were still holding onto the black-and-white striped dress which was now wrinkled and soaked with sweat. Her hairdo had come apart and was disheveled, strands of dark hair glued to her forehead. Lea held onto Mommy’s hand even though their hands had almost slipped and parted when they had disembarked onto the platform. They were absorbed into a group of passengers standing huddled together, waiting for instructions.
It was the one-eyed officer who had pointed with his club at platform number seven. He screamed in German, “Jews go over there!” 
She remembered it vividly. A cursed, natural gift, her memory. All those years from which the images rose in her mind. Sometimes she yielded to them almost yearningly, but most times they would surface at just the wrong moment, obscuring her reality.
Despite the one-eyed officer’s pointing hand, Mommy had turned the other way, to platform number ten. Realization landed in little Lea’s mind like a spaceship from another dimension. They might be Jews, but they were blessed with clear, blue eyes and straight noses. “Speak only in Polish. Only in Polish,” Mommy had hissed. “Not a single word of Yiddish.”
A group of Polish women laborers also hurried to platform ten. From behind the building, four soldiers on horseback suddenly emerged. Galloping forward, they directed the Jews onto a single black train car that waited for them on the tracks, still and silent. The laborers quickened their steps, tugging and pushing each other. It was crowded. It was hard to breathe. There was weeping. Lea distinctly remembered the sound of it.
In a fraction of a second, a moment Lea had recreated in her mind over and over and over again for eighty years, her hand slipped and was detached from her mother, who vanished all at once with Shime’le, Adas, and Brunia.            
She cried, “Mommy! Mommy!” But the people ignored her, and the trains started chugging and moving on the tracks, emitting ear-splitting cries, like wails of pain.
Ding! The elevator stopped with a gentle chime. The girl was able to read the number three that flickered as a dim red light over the door.
“Come, mamele, hold my hand tight so we can get out carefully.”
Lea turned right. She held the girl’s little hand in one of hers, while the other gripped the dragon cane that stuttered noisily on the floor as they walked down the long corridor.
“But how did you find your mother?” the girl asked.
“There were a lot of people there, more than in the shopping mall. Lots more. And soldiers, too, don’t forget, and policemen and shooting. And I spun around like a dreidel, searching for my Mom, but I couldn’t see anything. I kept spinning round and round until the evening came. Until my uncle suddenly showed up and took me to the Podolskayas.”
“Where?” the girl’s eyes were wide.
“Podolskaya.” Lea stopped outside a large brown door.
The girl’s gaze didn’t waver from Lea’s face. “But you did find her, right?” she finally asked.
Lea put out a trembling hand and smoothed the soft, springy curls. “Oh, I’m sure everyone will just die when they see you!” Her smile was as wide as her happiness. “Oh, won’t they be happy! And Naama, the instructor, is so nice, you’ll see…”
All eyes turned towards them when the brown door opened.
“Who’s this?” The first one to see them was Bracha, Lea’s next-room neighbor on the fifteenth floor of the assisted living ward.
Nachum, who was standing by the entrance wearing an apron, clasped his hands excitedly. “I see we have a guest here!”
Naama, the instructor, asked, “What’s this? What did you bring us, Lea? Who is this beautiful girl?”
Lea almost collapsed into one of the plastic chairs, and allowed herself a happy sigh.
“They surprised me.” Her hands trembled. She must have been unaware just how overwhelmed with emotion she had been, and of the strain of leading the girl safely all the way to the room they were in. “This is Shira.” 
“Well, isn’t she just the cutest little thing?” Bracha clasped her hands together. She gave her neighbor a warm look. “See? I told you they’d come. A son never forgets his own mother. A mother’s a mother.”
“How old are you, Shira?” Nachum asked.
“Five and a half,” the girl said timidly, pressing closer to Lea, who sat in the plastic chair, nodding.
“Just look at how attached she is to you!” Bracha said. “Did I tell you or what? A grandma’s a grandma!”
“Right,” Lea said animatedly. “That’s right!” She leaned the dragon walking cane against the wooden table that was covered by a thick, transparent plastic cover, the sort that could easily be cleaned of the remains of the clay. Her heart thumped faster than normal, beating against her chest. Her hands quivered. She was overwhelmed by the love she felt for the little girl, and for her son, who lived in far away Silicone Valley, but who had still not forgotten her.
“You’re shivering.” Nachum bent over her, concerned. “Shall I get you some water?” 
Lea leaned against the plastic backrest. She spread her legs forward and whispered, her voice hoarse, “Yes, Nachum, I’d love a glass of water, please.”
“Let’s go get Grandma some water.” He invited the little girl to follow him. He turned and trudged, very slowly, as tall as King Og, and as bent as a broken lamppost, towards the sink in the corner. With his large hands, he filled water into a red plastic cup, and handed it to the girl. “Hold it with both hands! You don’t want to spill it.”
“Well done!” cried Bracha, when the girl carefully placed the cup on the wooden table beside Lea.
Naama moved closer and stroked the girl’s locks. “What do you feel like making, Shira? Something pretty to decorate your room, or a present for Mommy and Daddy, maybe?”
“A present for Mommy,” said the girl, and bit her lip.
“What an adorable girl!” Nachum remarked in admiration, “thinking about Mommy.”
“That’s what they do when they’re little. Then they grow up and start thinking only about themselves,” Shulamit blurted. She had been sitting in absolute silence in a corner until that moment. She had been staring at the goings on from above a gray clay surface she had been rolling out.
Naama put on the little girl a plain apron, the edges of which swept the floor, then showed her examples of various clay models displayed on the shelves.
“You could make a door sign, or a family name sign, or a snail, or a little turtle,” she suggested.
“A turtle,” said the little girl, “for Mommy.”
A wave of warmth washed over Lea at the sight of the dark eyes fluttering curiously over the small clay statues. The girl listened attentively to Naama’s explanations. And Lea was mesmerized by the sight of those little hands moving, vigorously kneading the tiny clay balls, and by the sheen on that smooth, swarthy skin, the motion of the locks capering on and around the little head.
They would have called her out immediately, Lea realized, suddenly cringing in the plastic chair. They would never have been able to say she was Podolskaya’s cousin. Those dark eyes, that frizzy hair… A girl like her would have had to be kept hidden, and hidden well.
A sharp pang of pain crawled down her back. Naama bent over the girl and demonstrated how the clay ball should be kneaded with crushing motions against the table, and Lea realized that, yes, they would have driven her away for sure. Unless she had enough gold, and then, and only then, would Mr. and Mrs. Podolskaya have agreed to hide her in the pit under the bed. The one where they hid the Luria family – the mother, father, and two children. And she, Lea, who in those days had been called Maria, had been sent to get them food every night, or had it been every two nights? Well, it was whenever she was told to do so.
First, she had to knock three times against the wide wooden beam under the bed, then wait for Mr. Luria, who looked less like a man and more like a broken broomstick, to open the wooden cover and silently take the loaf of bread or pot of soup. Even they did not know she was actually “Lea,” as she peered curiously into the pit. She never managed to see much, though only the eyes, as black as the surrounding pit, glinting in the dark.
Naama explained to the girl how the clay ball should be flattened into a small round surface, then arched with the thumb to make a turtle shell, then moistened a little in four corners and scratched a little with a knife. Finally, the four legs could be attached.
“Look how wonderfully she works,” Bracha complimented her. 
Lea smiled. “Yes, she’s a sweetheart, just a sweetheart!” She broke a piece off the large lump of clay that was in a bag on the table. “I’ll make Mommy a turtle, too.” Lea smiled at the girl, who gave her a surprised look. “We’ll make Mommy a whole family of turtles, what do you say?”
The girl smiled at her and went back to work. 
The air conditioning was on in the room, and the windows were shut, but they could still hear sirens wailing outside. “I’m going to the restroom.” Bracha rose from her plastic chair but, before she left the room, she went over to the girl and complimented her: “Such precision! Did you see that?”
Outside the sirens seemed to be growing louder, drawing closer.
“There was an ambulance here just yesterday,” Nachum growled as he painted a coarse clay shoe green. “Mordechai from the tenth floor of the nursing care ward. Poof! They took him. Just like that!”
“Took, and never gave him back,” said Lea without raising her eyes.
Naama stood by the window and looked down. “It isn’t an ambulance,” she muttered as if to herself. “What’s going on down there?”
“What’s happened?” Nachum’s brush stopped moving between his suddenly frozen fingers.
“I don’t know,” said Naama. “It’s the police. Maybe there’s a bomb threat.”
The classroom door swung open. “The place is crawling with cops,” Bracha reported excitedly as she came into the room. “They’re all over the lobby in the restrooms even. What a mess!”
Lea said nothing, merely gazed at Bracha, who sat down and went back to rolling out her clay. Lea looked at Naama who opened the door and peeked outside. The weight of responsibility slowed Lea’s every movement, but it was entirely clear to her what she had to do.
“Come on, sweetie.” She tugged gently on the girl’s arm. “We have to go now.”
“What’s happened?” asked Naama.
“I’m really sorry,” Lea said, impassioned. “It’s just that I forgot something. We’ll come back next week.”
With her left hand, she grabbed the little girl’s wrist tightly, and with her right she took up the red Chinese dragon. They hurried out, without even washing their hands or wrapping the turtles, or even cleaning the table as they should have.
“If you see people wearing a uniform,” she whispered hoarsely to the girl, “don’t look them in the eyes, okay, mamele? And hold onto my hand as tight as you can.”
The patches of sky that could be seen through the large windows across the corridor darkened.
“Are we going to call Mommy soon?” asked the girl.
“Of course we will,” Lea promised. “But first we need to make sure the coast is clear, you understand?”
She did. 
Through the transparent elevator, Lea saw police officers scurrying around with their hats on. In her eyes they looked like tiny little clay turtles. Lea locked the door of her room behind them, then quickly opened the storage box in the ottoman. The cover billowed up in the air like a giant jack-in-the-box. Her fingers trembling, she took all the blankets and pillows out of the storage box, leaving only a comforter inside it. She rolled the comforter out to cover the base of the box.
“Climb in,” she instructed the little girl, and demonstrated to her how she should lie down, doubled over on the comforter, still and silent, making not even a single sound. Lea told the girl not to be afraid even if it was dark in the box, and she promised that once the cops had gone she would let her out again, and it would be nice for her because the Luria family’s children sometimes came out at nights, and she would be able to play with them.
The girl lay on the comforter and shut her eyes. She said nothing, not a sound. Not even half an hour later, when the police officers knocked on the door, accompanied by Naama, the nice instructor. Not even when she heard them ask Lea where the little girl was, the one who had been with her earlier, the one who had been wearing a white Hello Kitty shirt. Not even when she heard Lea wail, “There’s no girl, I haven’t seen anything.” Not even when Naama politely asked if they could come into the room and Lea kept screaming, “No! No!” and tried to slam the door on her. And suddenly, from somewhere behind, the nurse from the nursing care ward emerged and stuck a needle into the flabby arm.
Not even when Lea saw the red golden dragon gaping its maw to breathe flames of fire into the room, and the storage box cover went upward, as if borne by a whirlwind, to heaven.

Even then, the girl remained still and silent.


Copyright © Sagit Emet 2021

Sagit Emet is an Israeli author, playwright, and writing workshop facilitator. Winner of the Zeev Prize and the Leah Goldberg Prize for children’s literature for her novel Gaya’s Dawn (Keter, 1999). Emet is also the author of the adult novel Days to See (Yediot Books), winner of the Golden Book award for 2017.
Her short story "Two" was selected as one of the finalists in the Boston Review’s literature Allies contest in 2019. 

Yaron Regev
(the translator) is an author and translator. He is the author of two graphic novels, the 2019 published Ghosts of Love and Country, the soon to be released Descartes’ World, an upcoming YA fantasy series called The Door Behind the Sun, the short play Until the Children Will Return, and several adult novels.

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