(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Savyon Liebrecht
Translated from Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
One Saturday it seemed to me I had succeeded in teaching my father seven new words in English, but two days later only one was still hanging on in his memory.
“Your father’s head is drying up,” he announced loudly, raising his hands accusingly to the ceiling, his attempt at preempting an attack.
I tried in vain to plaster over the disappointment. I sat with him in the living room and the two of us counted and rehearsed the words he already knew: baby (his hands formed the shape of a large ball in the air); rose (“Like Rosa Luxemburg, Rosa the Red,” he said, two fingers tracing the stem of a flower); one, two, three (“Little Indians,” he said, quoting from a ditty he knew and smiling, his upper dentures loose against his receding gums); goodbye (he raised his hand as if taking leave of someone waving from a distance, and a shadow passed over his eyes); old man (he pointed to his own body, to his navel, as though that was where the essence of his being resided); good (“Tov,” he repeated in Hebrew, pointing his finger at me and smiling mischievously).
After that we reviewed the six words he had forgotten: morning (he spread his fingers into a shining sun); evening (pulled his fingers into a fist); to eat, to sleep, to wash, to sit (he had grown tired of demonstrating).
But by the time I came to him with the Filipina, about a month later, he had forgotten all the new words and received her with leftovers from the old stockpile: “Old-man-goodbye.”
She did not understand what he wished to say to her, this man in the wheelchair, and for a moment she stood without moving, trying – like a student faced with a particularly knotty exam – to decipher what he had said, her face in full concentration and the slits of her eyes, like a cat’s, nearly shut tight with exertion. Perhaps she was alarmed at the thought that she had not taken five steps into the room and she was already a candidate for expulsion.
He watched her, his face bright and eager, his smiling eyes a clue that he did not wish to send her away but rather to welcome her. By the spark in her own eyes it seemed she had understood that the words “Old-man-goodbye” were not intended to threaten her, nor were they the expression of a desire to leave this world. All at once she burst out in relieved laughter, dropped her travel bag at her feet and hastened to block her mouth with both hands, her body arched backwards as her laughter increased. Her laughter was strange, like the sound of a remote language borne by thin shrieks and the diving swoops of a siren. But she understood that her reaction might be interpreted as ill-mannered, and so she made an effort to subdue her laughter until it was reduced to small sighs beneath her hand, which blocked it.
My father, leaning toward her from his wheelchair, his eyes nearly the same height as her own, regarded her, his eyebrows pulled high in wonder as if surprised to discover that at his age it was still possible to surprise him. With enjoyment he watched the merry young woman, no taller than a child, gurgling the kind of laughter that brings tears to the eyes. He brought out that special smile he reserved for his grandchildren, exposing his upper dentures.
All the while my mother was standing ramrod straight, like a strict teacher, at the entrance to the room from the hallway, in the space between the pleated curtains to her right and left, observing from a distance this meeting between the mirthful young woman and the astonished old man. She waited until the hilarity had subsided and only then took one step forward and said – I could see how the Filipina’s eyes widened in amazement at her polished English – “We’ve been expecting you these past few months. I am quite sure we’ll get along very well together. My name, by the way, is Galila.”
Her perfect English and clipped voice quickly suppressed any last remnants of the pleasantness that had permeated the atmosphere, and I, who had not taken my eyes off my father, watched as his mood deflated like a child’s whose birthday party is disrupted – and joy extinguished – by the clamorous, unexpected arrival of a grumbling neighbor. The Filipina, her travel bag between her legs, stood bewildered for another moment, caught between the look of longing on my father’s face and the look of austerity on my mother’s, as if trying to comprehend the power struggle she had stumbled into like some dangerous shooting range. She honed all her senses in order to ascertain the situation in this unfamiliar household, aware that the sooner she understood, the less likely she was to make mistakes. Just then she bent down to lift her bag, and by the time she had righted herself again her expression had changed: serious it was now, clearly willing to obey. When my mother turned around in her lordly manner and disappeared down the hallway en route to one of the bedrooms, the Filipina followed behind without a glance in my father’s direction.
My father gazed after her as if abandoned, and I wondered whether the speed at which the Filipina adjusted herself to changing situations, like an experienced chameleon, had astonished him as well. We glanced at each other and I speculated whether he, too, was remembering all that silliness of ours in the past, how we would play charades and hide-and-seek with the cat even when I was already in high school, how we would imitate relatives and neighbors; and, how my mother would suddenly appear out of nowhere, like the tyrannical governess on some BBC television program, putting a stop to the laughter and the wildness with an insulting remark expressed more often than not in particularly formal Hebrew. Then as now, a look of rebuke and helplessness appeared in my father’s eyes.
“My name, by the way, is Eliahu,” he said, trying forcibly – but failing – to restore the relaxed atmosphere that had vanished.
I did not react. The weaker he had grown over the past few months, the more difficult I found it to tolerate these affronts. As he had taken to doing in his increasing moments of embarrassment lately, he raised his tongue to his teeth and jiggled his dentures, about which he had told me in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, after emerging from treatment: “Your father’s become an Ashkenazi Jew with all these new teeth,” a reference to all the jabs he had taken at my mother’s family over the years, where dental problems were part of the genetic heritage, whereas most of the members of his own family needed no dental care until ripe old age. Outside the dentist’s office he had added, “Pretty soon I’ll have blue eyes and maybe your mother will start to like me.”
Now, in the silence that had fallen between us, we could hear my mother’s commanding voice in one of the rooms of the house.
“What do you say?” I asked, trying to cover up her voice.
“What can I say?” he retorted cautiously, unsure whether the question was meant to praise the girl or denounce my mother.
“Is what okay?” he asked, continuing the game.
“Is what okay?” he asked, continuing the game.
“What we saw?”
“What did we see?” He refused to give in.
“I did a pretty good job, didn’t I, finding you this Filipina?” I asked, spelling
“What did you say her name was?”
“Sure knows how to laugh, that Brigitta,” he concluded.
“Laugh,” I said, jumping on the opportunity to add another English word to
his vocabulary. I explained the meaning in Hebrew.
“I am to laugh you,” he tried in English, smiling wanly.
“Me too you.”
I placed my hand on the armrest of his wheelchair and he placed his own on top of mine as if he still needed to protect me, even though I have not needed his protection for years and he has for years been unable, really, to protect me. But I did not pull my hand free from under his, allowing him to let the heat of his body, which had diminished these past months, flow to mine, and witnessing again that strange movement he had adopted to keep me from noticing the new trembling around his mouth.
“What do you say?” he asked me.
“About what?” Now I was the one being cautious.
“About what’s become of your father.”
“What’s become of my father?”
“He’s a piece of junk.”
“He’s a piece of junk.”
Copyright © by Savyon Liebrecht 2011, English translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Savyon Liebrecht was born in Munich, Germany, in 1948, to Holocaust survivor parents. She studied philosophy and literature at Tel Aviv University and started publishing in 1986. Liebrecht has published six collections of short stories and novellas and two novels. She has also written three plays, all of which have been staged, and a number of TV scripts. She has received awards for two of her TV scripts, the Alterman Prize (1987), the Amelia Rosselli Prize for Mail Order Women (Italy, 2002) and the Maior-Amalfi Award for A Good Place for the Night (Italy, 2005). She was awarded Playwright of the Year for her successful plays, It`s All Greek to Me (2005), and Apples in the Desert(2006). Most recently, she received the WIZO Prize (France, 2009).