Photo: Daniel Tchetchik
By Rachely Dor Rappaport
Translated and edited from Hebrew by Maayan Eitan and Emily Hochberg
Seven times a day I seek her and did not know I disturbed her.
S.Y. Agnon -
At five, the desert heat threatened to catch up with the night dew, and the cats woke up. She wandered like a bug in the dark, from the house to the backyard, the backyard to the house.
The laundry turned stiff in her arms until it fell down in the kitchen. She divided the laundry into two piles, one into the basket, the other onto the chair, the first waiting and the other finished. I put my fingers inside the clothespin and pressed. I groaned and opened it, then pressed again.
“What are you doing?” she asked and started ironing. Radio sounds echoed between the houses. “Good morning to everyone listening. Those of you who work out, get on your mark!”
Steam ascended from the underwear, drops of sweat flew from her forehead and down her cheek, but she did not wipe them away. “Put your hands together below the knee.” She stretched and listened. “Keep your balance,” the exercise leader instructed and she obeyed, standing straight, until he finished. “This is a balance exercise and you’ve fallen!”
Her eyebrows shrank, she pressed the ironto the fabric and did not lift it until the cotton blackened. She looked at the full waste bin, wiped her hands with her apron, and went to throw out the garbage. I followed her barefoot, and turned on the sandy road, but something pricked my feet. Ouch, it hurt.
“So why did you leave the house?” she asked me without turning her head. Stones and pine needles pinched my skin, but I stood on the lawn looking at her. Flies flew to the waste bin, not a swarm, only two or three, buzzing, attracted to the garbage. She threw it out and hurried inside. I turned behind the house and ran across the lawn. “I beat you,” I smiled when I almost arrived first. “Don’t lie,” she warned.
“Kol Israel, the time is six,” announced an anchorman, and birds hovered in the sky. Wake up calls were heard from the neighbor’s home. “Leave me alone,” yelled an annoyed voice.
“Go wake up your older brother,” she instructed. I got off the chair. Two clothespins stopped my blood from flowing through my fingers all the way to the room. “Get up,” I said, and turned around. The morning light emphasized dust in the air. I removed one clothespin and caught a white grain of dust between its teeth, but let the second clothespin continue suffocating my middlefinger.
“He doesn’t want to,” I announced, and waited.
“You’re going to be late!” She entered the room and opened another blind. The boy opened one eye, moaned, and turned his back to her. She moved a screeching chair and went back to her ironing. She finished the undershirts and pulled a pair of pants to the ironing board. Fabrics refused to surrender. She rested the weight of her body on the iron until pockets and buttons were straightened. She folded clothes into halves, then quarters, until the laundry, burned and blazed, became as small as a folded note.
The boy woke up and went to the bathroom. “Do not waste water!” she yelled as he hummed. A song played on the radio. I counted underwear to the melody:
“Not a foreign country,
Not a doubtful state,
The land is developing
By leaps and bounds.
It is a serious business!
Enough with sentiments!
The Jewish mind
Invents us new patents!”
“Quiet!” She got angry, and I continued in my heart until I finished with the pile of boiled laundry.
An agricultural aircraft flew by, lowered and tilted toward the fields above the neighbors’ house, one yellow wing turning to the sky and the other seemingly falling toward the abyss.
The dog barked from thirst, she went out to fill its water bowl with tap water, and its metal chain moaned wherever she went. She put the water in front of it, then got rid of the beast, and went back.
I hurried with her but looked back. The dog’s tongue swallowed water and spilled saliva, swallowed water and spilled saliva.
She poured some milk into a small pot, and did not leave the pot, lest the milk boil over. She put one cup in front of me and one cup in front of the boy.
“Sit down,” she said. She folded the laundry resting on chairs around me, I stuck out my tongue, dipped it in the cup, and burned myself, crying.
“Who told you to drink?” She got angry. “Come on, the milk is cold,” she lied.
White shirts waited for her on the board, cuffs torn from use and the thin fabric disintegrated. A festive piece of embroidery shrank when she touched it.
Steam spread in the kitchen, the windows became foggy; she flushed, her mouth blowing vapor. I wiped my tears and did not drink again.
The boy came in, drank quickly, and ran away. She yelled after him from the window: “Straighten up!”
He rose for a second but again bent down, his shoulder blades rounded and hunched. Milk coagulated in the cup and turned ugly. I heard the neighbor loudly arguing with her son outside while he laughed at her. Mother listened and did not notice the iron scalding the white fabric. She brushed away the sparks when the smoke ascended, put the iron on its rear end, and disconnected the plug.
I walked slowly after her as she carried the clothes to the room, arranged pants in the boy’s closet and in mine. She sorted until she got confused, put his shirt on my shelf and my pants on his shelf. She regained her composure and restored every item to its rightful place with a steady hand. She’d soon stop, I knew, as she did when she got annoyed, when she couldn’t do anymore.
“Quick,” she said when she broke down, “it’s five to eight.” She took my arm, took a toothbrush dipped in toothpaste, and cleaned my teeth, scrubbed my tongue, washed my face and the corners of my eyes. She pulled me against her and brushed my hair, undoing knots. It hurt, and I opened the second clothespin.
She came down three steps, and I was behind her. The dog lowered its eyes when she turned her back to it. We went down the sandy slope and out to the road. The neighbor stood on the lawn and watered a pit in the ground, slivers of water sprinkler moistening her clothes. Bees buzzed as she passed, and turned silent when Mother turned away. I followed her past weeping willows and orange trees. Sun shone on the hillside, a dog ran, and I asked, “What is your name?” She pulled on my hand, and on the curve to the hill near the kindergarten, sand penetrated my soles. Her steps became heavier, and my sandals filled with red sand. The gate to the kindergarten opened and the assistant teacher hugged me and tickled my fingers until I burst out laughing. Mother saw, and went.
The kindergarten was chilly. The smell of sickness stood in the bathroom air. One boy had hurt his hand and the teacher applied ink to his elbow.
I did not touch any of the dolls. Instead, I slipped outside. I climbed the ladder, crawled into a barrel that burned hot from the summer day, and felt my pulse quicken in my bellybutton and sweat moisten the roots of my hair.I ran toward the shade of the rubber plant, wind blowing against my forehead.
I looked outside: waves of heat drew transparent puddles above the sandy road. There was a watermelon peddler on a thin horse in the middle of the village and there was the clapping sound of horseshoes. The horse raised its ears when it passed the kindergarten’s fence, and lowered its head to the ground as it left. Watermelons rolled in the wagon, wood planks and greenrinds boiled in the sun, and the peddler called to the sealed houses, “Watermelon!” but no one came. A thirsty donkey brayed from one of the yards. The teacher called me inside, put on a record, and sang with her mouth open:
“Even if our head is low
And sorrow surrounds us,
We should burst in joy
For happiness is inside us.”
The kindergarten’s blinds were shut, but heat made its way under the door. One girl fell asleep, the boy who was hurt that morning consoled himself by sucking on his thumb, and I noticed clothespin scars on my arms.
Words burned above the black floor; air stuck in my throat and stopped. The record needle screeched when it reached the end, and the teacher rose, took it with her finger, and returned it to the beginning. I held one clothespin in my pocket, biting and opening the pocket's fabric endlessly.
Children went to the gate and were picked up one by one. Mothers chatted. I circled around the playtime chairs until I was dizzy. I ran toward a closed door and fell over some wooden cubes until the teacher came by and wrapped her hand over mine. “Outside,” she said. I moved through darkness and whiteness, cement and light, until she sent me off, following me with her eyes. “Straight home,” she whispered at the gate’s lock.
I went through a road of conifers and passed a water tank. The sun glittered and darkened. Walnut trees rustled. An orchard offered cool breezes when I took a shortcut through it, until I came out into the scalding sun.
I hurried downhill until I reached a slope of sand with signs of tires: sculptured rectangles and parallelograms, slits and roofs, in the earth. I took off my sandals and pulverized the shapes with my feet.
The dog slept in the kennel, and only its chain testified to its existence as quiet reigned in the yard, while a radio whispered from the house.
The door screeched as I held it behind me. She wasn’t in the kitchen, and I couldn’t find her in the living room. She lay inthe bedroom, her mouth sealed, her breath uneven. I climbed on the bed, but she did not turn. I pushed myself under the blanket and she did not stiffen. Light emerged from a shutter, and beams crossed her forehead, nose, and neck. She was a shadow, an orphan, a Displaced Person during the war. I slid off the bed, rolled up on the carpet as round as a ball, then flipped through a magazine that she’d dropped, with a woman in a pink sweater smiling on the cover. I closed the magazine, and a boy on a yellow bike waved hello from the door of a nearby house. I waited for her to get up.
The door screeched: the boy was back. He slammed doors, and the smell of sweat pervaded the rooms. He went to the bathroom in one step, telling me, “Get out.”
I went back to her room, but she turned her back to me. “It’s two already,” she said when I tried to push the blanket aside. She sat up, put her feet inside her shoes, and buttoned up her dress. She combed her hair and walked into the hallway. One lock of hair refused to straighten after her sleep, jumping above her ear. I played with my hair where hers jumped, rolling one lock around my finger, but the hair went straight back.
I sat at the kitchen table as she stood by the window. “Go wash your hands,” she ordered.
I climbed onto a stool and opened the faucet. Water cooled my hands where the clothespins had hurt them. She put water in the kettle and boiled it until it hissed. She turned it off but did not pour. I sat down and she gave me some juice. I drank until the glass was empty. She returned to the cooking pots, turned on a blue flame under a big pot, and the scent of something roasting filled the kitchen.
“I don’t want chicken,” I complained, but she didn’t answer, just gave me a plate of hot food as she drank from a warm cup. I chewed and she sipped. I swallowed and she drank. I searched in my pocket and took out a clothespin. “Enough with that already!” She grabbed it and threw it to the other side of the table. I rubbed my fingers until they turned red.
At four o’clock she turned up the volume of the radio and the anchorman spoke with a rolling R. She rolled the selection button and the voices blurred: once music was heard, once a different anchorman, mostly the rustle of noise. She decreased the volume of one station and the words turned into small bubbles.
I followed her to the garden where she watered the plants quickly, moving the hose from one section to another while mud was thrown at her legs. She washed her skin, took off her shoes, and rubbed her feet on a mat. The afternoon sun tilted; shadows cooled the house while a breeze blew in the yard.
The dog devoured the bones and meat she threw to him, and looked at her kindly when she added water to his bowl. Between the houses children played with the water sprinklers. “A waste,” she said, and looked at me when I turned to wade with them in the neighboring yard. I laughed loudly at one girl’s mischief, and Mother went inside the house.
At five o’clock she called me in to wash, and I didn’t come. She waited one minute and called me again, angry. I waited until the third yell, and ran home, breathing quickly. She undressed me, washed my hair until all I saw was black. The she dried me with a towel until she was again visible in front of me, different in the evening light. She dressed me in a summer dress and served the meal.
The boy shouted that he’d already eaten at a friend’s house. “Liar,” she whispered quietly, and pushed aside the fork and knife she’d put down for him. The children were still playing outside. A yellow sun shone, but she turned on the lights and increased the volume of the radio.
“The time is six and this is the news,” said the anchorman on the radio. Her face was tired, her eyes diminished. I took the clothespin from the other side of the table, and pinched.