Wrong Sea

 

Wrong Sea

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Rivkie Fried


 

It is late the next day when the news reaches them.
 
When the doorbell rings, Hannah admits the air force officer and distractedly calls out to Gadi, her husband, forgetting he is in the shower. She’s worried about the fish left frying on the stove which, when she last checked, appeared almost done. Then Hannah realises the officer is not alone: several figures, also in uniform, huddle in a blur behind him. At the same moment she recognises their visitor. He is the base commander of her eldest, Yonatan, a veteran helicopter pilot and a squadron commander. The officer’s face possesses a pale, sombre edginess. At that moment she recalls her unpleasant experience in the night, the unexplained blow to her head. Later, much later, she would calculate that it occurred precisely as Yonatan’s helicopter was hit by an enemy missile over Lebanon, news of which is now being brought to her by the unhappy-faced officer and his entourage.
           
Hannah glimpses movement, people hurtling toward her in slow motion. She must have screamed, because suddenly Gadi bursts into the room, the hairs on his chest still dripping from the shower, with only a towel round his considerable girth. Also alerted by the sound, her good friend and neighbour, Dorit Ofer, flies into their hall through the open door. She now stands weeping behind Hannah, gripping her waist, perhaps fearing Hannah might fall. But she does not fall. All she does is scream. She can’t stop screaming. Nor can she relinquish the arm of the base commander, who is blinking at the floor in a distraught manner. “No, not my Yonatan!” she screams repeatedly, tugging at his arm. “Not my Yonatan! Tell me it isn’t true!”
 
Her first-born, Yonatan, is dead.
 
Her heart is gone, replaced by remorse.
 
*
 
Gadi is wary of her, keeping his distance. When everyone left, he told her to snatch some sleep, then made a bed for himself on the living room sofa. Like someone on guard duty, determined this time not to be caught unawares. Neither of them sleeps properly at any rate. Stirring occasionally from a light doze, Hannah smells cigarette smoke in the night air. No doubt Gadi spent the hours of silence smoking outside on the balcony.            
  
It was an exhausting evening. The ringing of the telephone and the doorbell; people slipping inside the apartment, silent and staring with disbelief. First to arrive was her mother, Esther, all in white like a ghost. Her appearance struck Hannah as worrisome until she realised Esther was wearing her white tennis outfit. There were other relatives and a few close friends, all talking in low tones, as though Yonatan was merely asleep and ought not be disturbed. Hannah’s remaining son, Yair, and his estranged wife hovered in a corner, awkwardly exchanging remarks. Soon a forest of shocked faces sprang up, and hands reached for Hannah, seizing, clasping. In a short while a routine set in. Someone was always in the kitchen making tea or coffee, offering cold drinks.
 
Hannah’s mother hovered at her side all evening. A friend arrived with a bag of fruit: mangoes, kiwi, five small oranges out of season. Esther seized the oranges, peeled one deftly, and offered it to Hannah segment by segment. “The sugar,” she explained, although Hannah was not resisting, obediently consuming the fruit, “the sugar is useful after a shock.” Even when Hannah moved away, Esther trailed after her, now and again popping an orange segment into her mouth. Hannah savoured the juiciness as she negotiated the dismal crowd, shook hands, and returned tearful embraces.
 
Now it is almost daybreak. The funeral is late in the morning, in a few hours’ time. Hannah lies in bed waiting for her only daughter, Talia, to arrive from London. Talia has managed to find a late flight, and is bringing her daughters. Hannah watches the first rays of daylight penetrate the shutters. Rather than getting into bed properly, she only grabbed a blanket and threw it over herself. Nor had she undressed. The night before, when their home emptied, she’d intended to take a shower, slip into her nightdress. But remaining fully clothed, without even removing her stockings, felt appropriate, like an ancient mourning ritual everyone had forgotten. A disaster like this, the death of your own child, requires an old ritual. A shower, fresh clothing – all that can wait.
 
She must have fallen asleep. When she stirs a short while later, Talia and the girls are in the doorway. To her surprise Hannah feels a burst of gladness. Already she believed herself incapable of emotion, yet the sight of her English granddaughters makes her happy. Talia remains in the doorway next to Yair, her brother. Yair picked them up from the airport; car keys still dangle from his hand. He peers at his mother uneasily, puts the keys in his pocket, and says, “The plane was early.”
 
“That’s good,” Hannah replies.
 
“The roads were completely empty. We managed to make it home in record time.”
 
“That’s good,” Hannah repeats.
 
He pauses as though searching for something more to say. Then, nodding at his sister, he vanishes into the corridor.  
 
Hannah straightens up in bed, fixing on Talia a look of anguish. Then her eyes travel to the two girls and she smiles despite herself. She adores her English granddaughters, although it’s a shame they speak so little Hebrew. Children should know Hebrew, she frequently scolds Talia, so they can communicate with their grandparents.
 
Talia hovers in the doorway with an uncharacteristically timid air. As though stepping inside means departing the present and entering the future, a future that is anyway beyond their control. I must look terrible, Hannah thinks, attempting to smooth her rumpled hair and clothes. But the girls, Natasha and Abigail, are undeterred. Coming forward in unison they call out, “Shalom, savta,” and in turn kiss her cheek.
 
“There’s juice,” Hannah says in English. “Do you want juice?”
 
The girls nod in agreement.
 
“They do understand Hebrew,” mutters Talia. “I keep telling you that.”
 
Hannah holds her tongue. This is not the time for an argument. No showers, no arguments. The two girls exchange smiles and leave the room.
 
“They’re going to get juice,” Hannah says, watching them depart. Daylight filters into the room. It’s going to be a warm day. “I may as well get up,” she remarks. “Your father must be awake.”
 
“He hasn’t slept.” Talia finally draws forward and kisses her mother’s cheek. Perching on the edge of the bed, she says. “Dad hasn’t slept all night. There are overflowing ashtrays everywhere.” Then, with a sigh, “Robert is still in Scotland. He’s speaking at a conference in the morning.”
 
“Yes,” Hannah says. “Never mind.”
 
“He said he’s sorry to miss the funeral, but he’ll get an afternoon flight out.”
 
“Never mind,” Hannah repeats.  I wish I could miss the funeral.” 
 
“Yes, me too.” Talia seizes her mother’s hand, imprinting on it a hasty kiss. “Me, too.”
 
A faint smell reaches Hannah, like the soured edge of fatigue. She scrutinises Talia, noting her appearance for the first time. Talia is wearing a short top; Hannah surmises that, from the rear, the tattoo above her ass is plainly visible. Hannah despises that tattoo. Nasty green snake – what is it supposed to mean, anyway? But what strikes Hannah now is Talia’s hair, short and spiky, dyed a lurid red that is almost orange.   
 
“None of us slept all night,” she remarks mildly.
 
“I had a brief nap on the plane.” All at once Talia bows her head, blinking rapidly.
 
“Don’t start crying, Talia. Please, I can’t bear it.”
 
“I won’t. I’m still in a state of shock.”
 
“Yes.”
 
“That awful place, Lebanon. Why does the army keep going in there?”
 
“Not now. Talia, look, lie down; yes, come closer. Let’s close our eyes for a bit. Maybe we’ll manage a bit of a rest.”
 
“The girls?”
 
“They’re with your father.”
 
“I’m overtired,” moans Talia, her head burrowing under Hannah’s shoulder. “I won’t sleep a wink.”
 
“No. Nor will I.”
 
But soon a heavy slumber overcomes them both. When they wake, the two girls are curled up at their feet, also asleep. Gadi stands in the doorway, his face as pale and grey as cigarette ashes.
 
“I’ve made scrambled eggs,” he announces.
 
*
 
They sit down to breakfast. Eggs, cheese, overly-strong coffee that sets the blood racing. Now and again the telephone rings. What time is the funeral? Has so-and-so been told? Is there anything… ?
 
Hannah gazes round, taking in every detail with the numb, quivering clarity of exhaustion. The overgrown geraniums on the windowsill and the ghastly table mats – cat-shaped, a horrendous purple vinyl – that Gadi was so pleased to have found in the market years ago. She notes the faces of her grandchildren, older than they appeared at daybreak. They wear identical expression: cautious, restrained. Talia is busy in the guest room, unpacking clothes and occasionally appearing with gifts. “But Talia, you shouldn’t have bothered. Particularly now…” And Talia replies, frowning: “I bought these months ago, in a sale. Look, Dad, look at this cardigan; it’s just your colour.” Gadi pats the fabric with a smile, and hurries back to the stove to scramble more eggs for his ravenous granddaughters. He is a man who craves activity. “Gadi, the cholesterol,” admonishes Hannah automatically. And he replies, “Don’t be a fundamentalist. They’re only kids.”
 
Again the ringing of the telephone. All the top brass will be there. It’s rumoured that the Chief of Staff is coming to the funeral.
 
Gadi takes the call. Afterwards he tells them matter-of-factly: “Yonatan was a squadron commander. Of course the top brass will be there.” He distributes the scrambled eggs between two plates. “By the way, you’ll never guess who telephoned at six in the morning. It was Sarit.”
 
Hannah regards him vacantly. “Who?”
 
“Sarit. Yonatan’s ex-wife.”
 
“How,” Talia interjects, “did she hear so quickly?”
 
Gadi shrugs. “This country is a village.”
 
“Talia,” Hannah calls out, “come and sit down. Your father’s preparing more eggs – he’s determined to give us all a cholesterol attack.”
 
Talia leans down toward Hannah. “Stop crying, Mom,” she says quietly, concern mingling with resentment in her voice. “You’re unsettling the girls.”
 
From the stove Gadi signals to his daughter, one hand wind-milling in agitation. Hannah notes this. She notices everything with uncanny clarity.
 
Occasionally, it is true, a dampened blur obscures her vision. But crying? Hannah puts a hand to her face, surprised to find it wet. “I… I didn’t even realise
 
“It doesn’t matter,” Gadi says, and steps forward, only to halt in confusion. “It doesn’t matter.”
 
“Here.” Talia hands her a towel. “Here, wipe your face, Mom. And please eat something. It’s going to be a difficult day. Get some sustenance inside you.”
 
Hannah nods, wipes her face, and appraises with defeat the array of food on the table. Somewhere young voices are singing in English. It is Abigail and Natasha, who had slipped off to the next room. She realises, from the grimacing faces round her, that helpless tears are again spurting from her eyes.
 
She doesn’t know where she is today. It’s like she’s forgotten her body, mislaid it somewhere. And her body is weeping.
         
*
 
At the funeral they stand silently in the warm morning, held captive by the army chaplain’s melodious voice. O God full of mercy… From somewhere a burst of unrestrained sobbing reaches Hannah. She turns around, curious to see who it might be, but the pitying glances from all sides cause her to lower her head once more.
 
It all rushes along quickly. The flag-draped coffin arrives in the open command car and is carried to the grave by six senior officers, grim-faced, with downcast eyes. In a moment of detachment Hannah finds herself admiring the officers, their sombre but pleasing stride. But within minutes the coffin is swallowed by the open grave and shovels of tossed earth. Each time Hannah hears the thud of sand hitting the coffin, she longs to cover her ears. The chaplain is now reciting psalms in his lovely yet unemotional voice. She tries to pay attention, but her mind wanders.
 
So many uniforms – she can’t recall when she last saw so many. And all for her son, a minor, obscure hero, twice-decorated. Hannah sniffs discreetly, aware of Talia’s worried gaze. Such a pity Yonatan isn’t present, she thinks stupidly. He always adored military ceremonies, spectacles. Look, Yonatan – look at the crowd that’s come to your funeral. Not merely a respectable turnout, but downright overwhelming. Hannah feels a momentary gladness, anticipating his pleasure. Look, Yonatan, practically half the air force is here. Then realisation clears the fog from her brain. Appalled and ashamed, she wipes her eyes. If only the tears would cease.
 
Just then gunshots ring out. She nearly screams with fright, then realises it’s the gun salute over his grave. An acrid stench fills her nostrils. The soldiers are impressive as they repeatedly take aim at the sky: grim and strong, like something from a photograph. I hate guns, Hannah thinks. I hate the army and the air force. I should have moved to America decades ago, like Nurit from my class in high school.
 
A group of pilots, standing to one side, come to her notice. As the gun salute continues, they huddle together with a sorrowful air. Among them is Yonatan’s base commander, Eli, who visited Hannah’s home last night. He is short with a burly build, and at his side a uniformed pilot she does not recognise. The two men grip one another, their bowed heads rendering their faces invisible. But the spasmodic movement of their bodies make it plain they are weeping. Hannah gazes at them with grateful astonishment. My Yonatan, they loved you. My difficult, obstinate boy. Half the air force is here, just for you. But did I tell you, Yonatan? That despite everything, I always loved you. I’m sure I did. Maybe not often enough. We’d argue so much. It wasn’t easy having you for a son; we were too alike. But why were we never friends, can you tell me that? No, you stopped telling me anything years ago.
 
The ceremony is almost over. Hannah closes her eyes. She is terribly tired. All at once an image springs into her memory. Yonatan, a boy of five or six, shuffling into the kitchen in his pyjamas at a late hour. Why aren’t you asleep, Yonatan? You can’t sleep – it happens sometimes. Here, don’t fret, I’ll go back to the bedroom with you. What, your brother is keeping you awake? It’s true, he does snore – it’s his adenoids, remember what the doctor said? They might have to do an operation. No, don’t worry about operations now. I’ll come and lie down with you until you fall asleep. Yonatan, don’t argue – even big boys need their mothers sometimes to lie down with them. Here, now let’s get comfortable. It’s not so dark; I can still see your face. Sshh, don’t fret so much. Soon sleep will come. Soon. See, your brother isn’t snoring anymore. It’s all quiet and peaceful now. No, I won’t tell anyone. Of course you’re a big boy. Of course you are. Sshh, now go to sleep, there’s a big boy. I’m here. Don’t be afraid, I’m here.
 
*
           
Ronit, Hannah’s sister, sits at the dressing-table in Hannah’s bedroom, smoothing her eyebrows. She is a woman who never misses an opportunity to repair her appearance. The sisters are very alike, short and dark-haired, with an identical, rapid stride. Their figures, once slender, have thickened over the years.
 
“You still talk in your sleep,” Ronit says.
 
Hannah yawns. “I slept?”
 
“You also mumbled. I heard you mumbling.”
 
The apartment is in a chaotic state. Suitcases and clothing are heaped everywhere, there are dirty saucepans and dishes in the kitchen sink. A mess. Whoever stumbles into the kitchen predicts an infestation of cockroaches. Returning to the living room from their naps, Hannah and Ronit find that Talia and her husband Robert have not stirred from the sofa. Empty glasses stained with beer foam litter the coffee table. It is three days since the funeral, and the middle of the shiva week of mourning. That morning Gadi threatened to terminate the shiva period. At breakfast he began raging for no reason. “Let the Orthodox have their seven days of mourning. Since when are we Orthodox? Enough is enough.”
 
“But you can’t cut the shiva short,” Ronit interjected. “It’s not done.”
 
“I don’t care. This way life will return to normal. People will stop knocking on the door whenever they please, upsetting Hannah.”
 
“They don’t,” Hannah protested. “It’s not true. They don’t upset me.”
 
The truth is, she doesn’t want life to return to normal. Not yet. The sense of gentle chaos in the apartment, the crowds of people – particularly in the evenings, when most of the visitors arrive – distract her. 
 
Now she says to Ronit: “I didn’t mumble. You’re making it up.”
 
“You mumbled in English. You kept saying ‘juice’. In English – ‘juice’.”
 
“I must have been dreaming about Natasha and Abigail.” Hannah turns to Talia.
 
“Where are the kids, by the way?”
 
“Dad took them out for ice cream.”
 
“Ice cream? The freezer is full of ice cream.”
 
“They just needed to get out. And it meant the house was quiet, so you could sleep.”
 
Talia is slumped on the sofa, her thin, pretty face very pale. Perhaps the silly orange hair drains it of colour. At her side Robert picks up one of his architectural magazines, but soon lets it drop to the table. A kind, reserved man, he tends to withdraw to his work when Talia is upset. Hannah smiles at him but he lowers his eyes without noticing. He looks rumpled, his over-long fair hair already turning a silver colour. The magazines arrived with Robert from his conference in Scotland. Largely untouched, they have since occupied the same spot on the table, appearing smudged, weary.
 
“Coffee?” Hannah asks Robert. “Coffee and poppy cake?”
 
“Poppy seed cake,” Talia corrects her. Then, in Hebrew, “Mother, he doesn’t like poppy seed cake.”
 
“Yes, I do,” Robert breaks in, although he doesn’t speak Hebrew. Some interactions of family life, Hannah muses, are often conveyed without language. “Coffee and poppy seed cake would be lovely,” he says.
 
Hannah winks at him. “You do understand Hebrew.”
 
“Just an inspired guess,” he replies with a faint grin.
 
“How about coffee, everyone?” Hannah asks.
 
There are nods from all sides. In the kitchen, Hannah puts the kettle to boil and, seeking preoccupation, starts loading the dishwasher. From the window something catches her eye. Across the road an Israeli flag is displayed at a top floor window. As she appraises it, something stirs in her consciousness, a blurred image that remains out of reach. Just then raised voices reach her from the next room. Talia is talking loudly to Ronit. Frowning, Hannah returns to the living room and hands out cake and cups of coffee. Robert rewards her with a kind smile. Although a large man, he seems diminished, and Hannah feels sorry for him. Yonatan loved London and frequently stayed there with Talia and Robert. The two men became very fond of one another and Hannah suspects Robert is quietly distraught.
 
Ronit speaks up. “Talia is trying to explain something.”
 
“Yes?” asks Hannah in a timorous voice. She does not relish another of Talia’s arguments.
 
Talia says, “Why was Yonatan in Lebanon in the first place? Tell me that.”
 
“The army went in,” Ronit says. “The army went in and he had to bring the boys back.”
 
“I wish he’d moved to England, like he intended.”
 
“Was he talking about that?” asks Hannah, with a quick intake of breath.
 
“It was probably a fantasy,” Talia replies, not unkindly, “or he would have told you.” She fixes her aunt with a pale, sober glance. “What did you say, Ronit? ‘The army went in’? The army is always going in. ‘To put an end to it once and for all’ – that’s what I’ve heard all my life. It’s always force, and more force. That’s the only thing Arabs understand, right? We’ll teach them a lesson they won’t forget. And we do it again and again like mindless idiots, equipped with the best army in the Middle East. And what happens?”
 
“Talia,” Hannah interrupts, “what’s the point of this? It was Yonatan’s job; it was what he wanted
 
“And what happens?” Talia continues, ignoring her mother. “What do we ever accomplish?”
 
“Well,” says Ronit, “it’s not always clear-cut. These army operations
 
“And what happens?” Talia repeats. Something about her voice causes them all to watch her expectantly. “I’ll tell you what happens. Now we have Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the territories. We have militant Islam, courtesy of the Iranians.”
 
“That’s right,” Ronit agrees faintly, “militant Islam.” Then she asks Robert, almost desperately, “Do you want more coffee?”
 
He regards her sympathetically but shakes his head.
 
“I’m surprised,” Talia goes on, “that al-Qaeda hasn’t joined them yet.”
 
Suddenly restless, Hannah goes to stand at the window. She is tired of this conversation. First it was Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, and now al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda! She’s sick of it. What a know-it-all Talia has become. It’s all because of Varda, her Israeli friend in London. A disgruntled woman, an extremist in Hannah’s opinion, always sitting on her fat ass in Talia’s kitchen and complaining about one thing or another. The Israeli government, the Palestinians, the injustice in the territories. You’d think her own olive grove, her own land, had been stolen away. And now Talia sounds just like that fat, extremist Varda. Of course Hannah doesn’t know that much about al-Qaeda, or Hamas and Hezbollah, either. The sketchy details, that’s all. Listening to Talia sometimes leaves Hannah feeling ignorant and resentful. One’s grown children can make one feel stupid.
 
Hannah’s eyes return to the flag across the road. Suddenly she recalls what it is that eluded her earlier as she looked out the kitchen window. The flag reminded her of the funeral, of Yonatan’s coffin draped with the blue-and-white flag. At the funeral she stared at the flag and found herself thinking: I’d have liked to replace it with something different. Some cosy item from home – perhaps that ragged blue blanket Yonatan always packed, somewhat shamefacedly, when he went camping with his youth movement. Such a silly thought, really. Yet she wished that, as a matter of routine, the military authorities approached bereaved parents to ask, “So what would you prefer,  the flag or some cosy item from home?”
 
“Talia,” she calls out, “do you remember that blue blanket? Yonatan’s baby blanket?”
 
The room is momentarily silent. Then, to her surprise, her daughter gives her a tender glance. “No, Mom. Sorry. I probably wasn’t born yet.”
 
Robert speaks up. “Some woman telephoned. She said her name was Seagull. Something like that.”
 
Hannah smiles.  “Segal. It must have been Segal.”
 
“I was in the bathroom,” explains Talia, “when she phoned.”  Then, to her mother, “Who is Segal?”
 
“Who?” asks Hannah absently. “She was just one of Yonatan’s girlfriends, nobody important. They only went out a few times.”
 
“I’m surprised he didn’t tell me,” says Talia accusingly. “He used to tell me that sort of thing.”
 
“Maybe he told you and you forgot.” She crosses the room, sits next to Talia, and wearily strokes her head. “Why are you crying again? She wasn’t an important girlfriend. They met by chance at the travel agency where she worked.”
 
Talia regards her mother tearfully. “What was he doing at a travel agency?”
 
“He was planning to go to Crete.”
 
“But his trip to England was all arranged. I bought tickets for the Rolling Stones concert.”
 
“I guess he was going first to Crete, then continuing to London.” She hands Talia some tissues. “Please take it easy. Enough now.”
 
Talia nods and wipes her eyes. “Okay, okay,” she mumbles.
 
They fall silent. The sound of running water is heard in the distance.
 
Ronit says in a startled voice, “Is someone in the shower?”
 
“It’s Mother,” Hannah replies.
 
“Mother?” echoes Ronit blankly.
 
“Yes, Mother,” Hannah nods. “Our mother. She arrived while we were having our nap.”
 
Talia peers at her with surprise. “You heard her? We told her you were both resting, so she decided to have a rest in my room.”
 
“I always know when Mother’s present,” Hannah says. “I think my heartbeat changes, something like that. It’s a chemical thing.” She looks at Ronit. “Don’t you feel the same?”
 
Without replying, her sister turns to Talia. “Are you feeling better, sweetheart?”
 
“Yes. Thank you.”
 
“Tell me, how is your job going?”
 
“Off and on, you know how it is. Israeli criminals come and go.” Talia is a freelance interpreter for the London police. “Actually, I haven’t worked for a while.”
 
“A Rolling Stones concert, did you say? Aren’t they getting too decrepit for that sort of thing?”
 
“It was Yonatan’s idea.” Talia beams. “He loved the Stones.”
 
“But they were our music. Our generation.”
 
“Yonatan once said the Stones reminded him of his childhood. Of being alone with Mom. He remembered Mom dancing in the kitchen one time to the Stones.”
 
“Really?” Hannah exclaims. She feels an unexpected, wonderful relief. “How do you like that...”
 
Robert was flicking half-heartedly through his magazine, but now he looks up. “What are you all talking about?”
 
Talia says, “The Rolling Stones. The concert Yonatan wanted to go to at Wembley.”
“We’ll go,” Robert murmurs gently. “We’ll go, anyway.”
 
Talia brightens. “Okay. We’ll see.”
           
At that moment the bathroom door opens and Hannah’s mother Esther appears. Once again she is dressed all in white: white slacks, white silk shirt, and white loafers. Despite her age, Esther is still very particular about her appearance. Robert gets up, gives her a flustered kiss, and offers her his seat. He has a soft spot for Esther.
 
“Thank you,” she says. Then to Hannah, “Did you have a good rest?”
 
“Only a quick nap.”

“She still talks in her sleep,” says Ronit.

         

Copyright © Rivkie Fried 2022

Rivkie Fried was born in Israel, raised in Tel Aviv and New York, and has lived in England for many years.  As a journalist she covered the Middle East for Reuters News Agency and for radio, both in occupied Syria and Lebanon. She has published stories in American and British magazines, including Story Quarterly, Stand, and The Massachusetts Review. This extract is taken from her novel, The Wrong Sea. It tells the story of an Israeli family coming to terms with the death of its eldest son, a helicopter pilot shot down over Lebanon.



 

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