(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Barak Hamdani
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
How many stories begin with a lion? A real lion? One with a golden mane, a catlike gaze, a majesty reserved for kings? How many stories?
Very few. So it seems to Oscar. Maybe only one story. Maybe not even that. Most of the stories he knew began completely differently—with a description of one of the characters, for example, or with details of the weather conditions, or words shouted by one of the characters to another on the perilous deck of a ship, or by an impressive sentence such as “Once upon a time there was a tiger with three heads,” immediately followed by an explanation of how that exotic tiger, who was in fact an ensorcelled prince, was just about to cast off the spell and marry the beautiful flower princess. And his new story? The amazing, hair-raising adventure story he has wanted to tell ever since he could remember? For now, it doesn’t begin with a lion, and to tell the truth it doesn’t begin at all because Oscar, in spite of the electricity flowing into his left hand and making it tingle, and even though potential plot lines ran through his head all night, is unable to produce a single word.
For three hours now he has been in this state. Agitated. Tense. Blocked. All night long he lay awake and now too, sitting on the pavement, he can’t sleep. It doesn’t help to look at the clouds, as he sometimes does, searching for a hint, a clue. Nor does it help to think of a tiger with three heads, which is a trick writers use when in difficulty: they think of something outlandish, like a tiger with three heads, and ask how that came to be, and how many eyes he has in each head, and what kind of three-headed hat the tiger might wear, and other questions and ideas that will cause words to flow into his notebook… In short, this time nothing helps, just the opposite in fact, because this tiger suddenly turns into a prince, one who has to marry the princess on the other side of the kingdom, and these are precisely the stories he doesn’t want to tell. He had written such simple stories ages ago, when he was five years old, stories for his mother, and for at least the last four years he hasn’t bothered to write such things.
And now he is alone. Without her. Twenty-four days already. Trying to write his first real story. But things keep getting in the way. All the time. Not only the tiger. Ideas too, all kinds of ideas, pushing and shoving as if he were the healthy man with the big pot, and they were the hungry people standing in line for lunch, and lots of words swarming around him like a swarm of pesky flies, and a million unsociable opening sentences that no other sentence wanted to connect with, never mind how hard he tried.
No, he hasn’t been able to write anything, and he absolutely can’t write about that lion from last night, that lion from the dark side of the railway platform. He can’t conjure it up from memory and describe its majestic appearance. Maybe because he saw it only for two seconds, no more, and maybe because less than a minute later the thoughts and the writing had already carried him away and his eyes no longer saw anything at all. And because of being carried away like that, he also barely remembered the black car that drove him back from the station to the fortress, the noise of the truck trundling in the rear, the entrance into the dark barracks. His feet carried him of their own accord. His head spun. He only remembers how he stayed awake, tense and excited, and how he ran through a million words and ideas in his head until morning broke, because after lights out it was forbidden to light even a match, and writing in the dark always came out a bit crooked anyway; and how in between he listened to the deep coughing of the professor sleeping on the bed below, and felt how every cough shook their tiered bunk like an earthquake. When dawn broke and he wanted to write about the lion, he discovered that he couldn’t do it, that the words wouldn’t come, and when at long last the words were kind enough to flow they didn’t connect with one another.
He has to see that lion again. That’s the only conclusion. Yes, yes. He really has to. If only he knew where to go. That is to say, where they were hiding him. They wouldn’t show him, they wouldn’t want to tell him. Bruno, that big, frightening man, wouldn’t want to. That was clear from the minute they got out of the black car at the entrance to the barracks and Bruno gripped his shoulder and looked at him with his piercing eyes. Oscar was so scared he hardly dared to look back at him. Bruno tightened his grasp and in a voice scorched by cigarettes said, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw. Is that clear?”
Oscar raises his head from the notebook for moment and looks around him. He still feels the fear from last night. Obviously he won’t tell anyone. He never tells secrets. His mother taught him that long ago, when he was really small. You have to keep secrets like keeping guard over treasure. That’s why he wrote the secrets in his notebook in a code that nobody but him could decipher. He had already collected more than a few secrets there, all kinds of secrets of his and his mother’s, and a lot of secrets of his own that even she didn’t know: details of the investigations he’d conducted, the beginnings of new stories that he was trying to write by himself, plans for the future that he didn’t want anyone else to know. There weren’t only secrets in his notebook. There were also words, sheaves of them. There were scattered, isolated words that suddenly came to him and he hurried to write them down in the margins of the pages. There were words that he amassed over time, piles of them, according to the subject, with headlines above them: words that belonged to trains, to dreams, to adventures. In the course of time, he would use them all. And there were beginnings too, lots of “Once upon a time,” “Many years ago,” and “This morning was a morning like every other,” and there was the new ending for Emil and the Detectives that he presented to Mother as a gift not long ago, on the morning of Christmas Day, and a few additional chapters of Phileas Fogg on his journey East around the world, and all kinds of sketches, ideas, and slivers of thoughts. And in his crammed notebook, which never leaves him and which he never leaves, the notebook in which he writes all the time, because that’s what writers are supposed to do—write—in this notebook he has been trying all morning to write his first full, amazing, thrilling story, but without really succeeding.
He turns his eyes back to the notebook, to the empty page. Nothing. Without paying attention, he turns to the last page. There are twenty-four marks there. Twenty-four days since he set out with Mother on this journey. Every morning, as soon as the lights go on in the dark, locked dormitory, when the space begins to fill with yawns and groans and hacking coughs, he adds another mark. At first he wrote on the wall next to the bed, too. But after he had already been moved twice, he understood that it was impossible to rely on the wall. The wall was fixed; he most definitely was not. He was in the middle of a journey. Better to write in his notebook which was always with him. There was no knowing where he would be the next day.
On the first day of the journey he didn’t make a mark. He didn’t know what it was all about. He didn’t know that they would travel so far by train without any water. He didn’t know that they weren’t going back home. He had even forgotten what it was like to sleep at home in his bed, after showering and brushing his teeth and reading a book. How much time had passed since they had first left home for more than a single day? Since he’d traveled with Mother beyond Dresden? Two years? Three? It was really long ago. With Grandmother. In the summer. They had gone for two days to the mountains. But since all the restrictions and all the bombings, he had hardly left the house. His mother went out. To work. To run errands. He stayed home. She didn’t allow him to go out without her.
Mother didn’t tell him where they were going. Nor when they would return. And he didn’t ask. He simply knew he had to get organized quickly and leave without asking questions; those were moments he might understand later—whether it became clear over time, or whether he would have to investigate. But with hindsight, perhaps he should have asked, because now twenty-four days had passed and so many things were happening around him, and he still didn’t understand.
That morning, just two days after Christmas, flared in his memory again. Mother woke him very early and told him to pack. He looked at her in surprise. He noticed that she was dressed not in her usual daily attire but in festive clothes: the checked skirt, the pressed, button-down white blouse, the gray wool sweater, her hair gathered under the broad, felted Sunday hat. “Hurry up,” she said, “and don’t take anything you can’t carry.” He jumped quickly out of bed. All the signs of the recent past ran before his eyes. Her frequent disappearances from home; the meetings she said she had gone to, though he’d thought she was lying; all the things they were forbidden to do since they became part of the yellow people; and his feeling that she was trying, for some reason, to accustom him to being alone as much as possible. Could it all be connected?
After washing himself, he pulled his little suitcase out from under the bed. He packed shirts, trousers, long-sleeved undershirts, and winter socks, and to be on the safe side two short pieces of rope and a broken piece of mirror he’d found in the street after one of the bombings—maybe it would come in handy—and an empty notebook, three new pencils, and his butterfly net. After that, he put on his hunting outfit and the wide-brimmed hat his mother had bought him two years before which had grown too small in the meantime, but he refused to abandon it. And he didn’t forget the Christmas present, Around the World in Eighty Days, that he had received only two days before. He put the book in the suitcase, but then changed his mind and decided to hold it tightly in his hand so it wouldn’t get lost, and so he could go on reading it whenever possible. Since he had started reading, he had already traveled with Phileas Fogg from London to Port Suez, and he had to know what happened next, so that sometime in the future, when he finished reading, he could write another ending for himself.
Afterwards, his mother came to see what he had packed. She took out the butterfly net and the rope and replaced them with his old coat, which was too small for him, plus two more old shirts and another notebook. He looked at her, and it was clear that this wasn’t the time for questions or arguments. He even kept hidden his pleasure at the fact she hadn’t found the broken mirror.
Less than an hour later, with Mother’s enormous suitcase and his small one, they stood at the station and waited for the tram. It was snowing. There was no one but them at the station. He didn’t even think about the house they had left behind. He didn’t know how much time would pass before they returned, if they ever would. When the tram arrived they got in at the back, of course, because the front entrance was strictly for regular people. There was only one person sitting inside: a regular person. He looked at them for a moment and then returned to his newspaper without getting up to help Mother lift the big suitcase. The tram was otherwise empty. All the seats were unoccupied, but they didn’t sit down. It was forbidden. At the next few stations more yellow people like them were waiting. They all entered the tram from the back entrance. They all had heavy suitcases. They all remained standing. Only the regular person sat and read the newspaper, until he got off at one of the stops.
In the end they arrived at a big, crowded railway station he had never been to before. There were a lot of people there. Yellow people like them. Children, too. And lots of suitcases. The yellow people were running away. That was already clear, beyond a doubt. Someone was pursuing them. They were not wanted. Again, thoughts about the story of the yellow star. It had stopped snowing, and it was so cold that his ears almost froze, but only almost, because despite the cold they picked up rumors of a journey East. A man and a woman stood not far from them and spoke in whispers with another man. To the East?
He looked at his mother, surprised. She too had heard. There was a faint smile on her lips. He looked at the book he had been holding all this time. Phileas Fogg had also traveled to the East. To India. And then Hong Kong. Japan. Around to America and back to London. He read a few more lines and then looked at his mother again. Around the world in eighty days!
At that moment, on a strange impulse, he put his ear to the floor of the platform. Mother laughed. A train, he signaled her. A few minutes later the train entered the station. Dozens of cars pulled by a steaming locomotive. Soldiers and policemen watched from the side as the yellow crowds squeezed inside. This time somebody did help Mother with the big suitcase. They sat down in a splendid carriage with an elderly couple: a man accompanied by a pale, slow-moving woman. The train set off with a loud noise. He sat next to the window so he could look out. Mother spoke a little to the old couple, but they looked quite boring to him.
The view from the window was of low hills, snowy fields, and occasionally of dense woods. Oscar soon tired of the view. He returned to the book in his hand, to Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in Port Suez. The harbor there was bustling with mustachioed porters, corpulent merchants, women with veiled faces, and tourists in white suits. And now they embark on a ship and sail three hundred and ten miles on a turquoise sea to Aden, and another six hundred miles in a strong wind to distant India.
And here’s Bombay: a twin-towered pagoda, pointed minarets of mosques, temples, bazaars crowded with people and animals, the sweet smell of incense. Here he is in the city streets, swallowed up in the crowds. Hindus with turbans wrapped round their heads. Armenians in long robes. Brahmin priests in square hats. Dancers with brass bracelets, dressed in silks and lace. From there, everybody boards a train to Calcutta, just like Mother, Oscar, and all the other yellow people. The windows reveal spacious plains, cotton and coffee plantations, abandoned monasteries, and temples dotting the landscape. A land of savage tribes, sorcerers, and magic. The railway tracks twist and turn, climb mountain ridges. The engine groans, blackens the evergreen branches with sooty smoke. Wild animals flash through the darkness. A snake slithers on its belly. A rhinoceros snorts angrily. A jaguar narrows its eyes to slits. Thus they’ve passed Salsette, crossed the Ghat Mountains, and moved north towards Bundelkhand, until they suddenly stop fifteen miles before Allahabad in a dense thicket of acacias and tamarinds, because the railway tracks have come to an end.
Oscar looked up from the book. He was so absorbed in his reading that he hadn’t noticed how dark the carriage had become. Mother sat beside him with her eyes closed. The elderly couple opposite them sat silently holding hands. To the left, on the other side of the aisle, a number of people were huddled together speaking in low voices. The window on his right was covered in condensation. He wiped the glass a little to see what was happening outside, but the only thing he saw was a faded reflection of himself—with the hunting cap on his head and his forelock peeping out from beneath it.
A moment later he returned to his book. The railway track had come to an end, but Phileas Fogg was undeterred by this new difficulty. Completely composed, he descended from the train and turned his mind to finding a solution, and soon enough he found one: an elephant! In exchange for two thousand pounds sterling he acquired one, and climbed onto its back. But just at the moment that Fogg began to make his way into the forest, Oscar’s own train stopped. Loud voices rose from the platform in German and another unfamiliar language. Shouting. The sound of a dog barking. People spilled out like sand from the train. Oscar looked around. Glaring lights cut through the darkness. Snowflakes drifted like dust. Commands cut the air. From here and there rose the cries of babies. And there, in the commotion, he lost his book. Exactly as his mother had warned him would happen one day. But he wasn’t worried, not in the least. There was no story he couldn’t continue himself, especially as he had written down the route of the journey in his notebook: first to Calcutta by train, then to Hong Kong by ship, from there to Yokohama in Japan, from there to distant America, to San Francisco, on to New York by train, and then back to London by steamship—although it was quite probable that something in the plan would go wrong. That was what happened with plans. They went wrong. If they didn’t go wrong there wouldn’t be adventures, and writers like him wouldn’t be able to write hair-raising stories about them.
And then they separated them. One minute they were standing side by side, close together with their suitcases, and the next minute there were shouted commands: “Women over here! Children on the other side! Men wait with the luggage!” He looked at her. She nodded as if to say: Go. He picked up his suitcase and began to walk. Slowly. Towards the children. “Write,” he heard her say suddenly. What? he looked at her. “Write,” she said again and walked with her suitcase to the women’s side. She had often told him to write. That’s what writers are supposed to do all the time: write. But this time was different. Even then he could feel it. She said “write” in a different voice—not “write” like you say to a child, but the kind of “write” you say to a writer.
Perhaps that was the sign, along with the lost book. That’s what he’s been thinking, especially since last night when he saw the lion. Maybe that was exactly it. He had to start writing his first story. All by himself.