(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Shimon Adaf
Translated from Hebrew by Margalit Rodgers and Anthony Berris
Chapter One - Bat-Mitzvah
She was awakened by the yowling of cats in heat and in the dim weightiness of awakening consciousness she carried on listening, but it gradually faded, threads of a dream dwindling into the vast silence of the night. Yet she sat up in bed and cocked an ear, feeling for echoes and refractions. Nothing. Some of the lightening darkness filtered into the room through the almost completely closed slats of the shutter on the only window; darkness mingling with deeper darkness. And apart from that – a hush. You could drown in the density of the silence. It had been one of those nights in which summer breaks through the thickness of winter. Only two weeks ago they had celebrated the New Year of Trees at school, and the sword of the first hamsin heat wave had already struck Netivot. It had taken nature by surprise, albeit with exemplary precision as it did every year in March. And the sound of the insects coming from the wild vegetation of early summer, from the nauseating blossom of the acacia and oleander, from the provocative eruption of the honeysuckle – the bees with their menacing buzzing and the cicadas and their sawing – and the bothersome rustling, the constantly stimulated air still waited, cheated by the feeble movement of the seasons’ clock. It had not rained and the dissonance of the clouds as they collided in their passing, and the whipping of the water, from the hesitant, shy drops of November to the assaults of the December and January hailstorms – the night was clean of all these, innocent of the orchestras of winter and summer. She recognized its deep, scorched smell and inhaled it until her throat became dry.
She threw off the light summer quilt and put both feet onto the floor; putting them down all at once, ready, but not at all prepared for the chill of the tiles that flowed through them, up her body to her shoulders. Then she shivered. She hugged her shoulders mechanically and rubbed them, concentrating momentarily on the focal points of the heat beneath her hands and feeling how thin her arms were. She was almost twelve but relatively small for her age. It seemed that childhood still lingered in her, slow to leave, evaporate, unlike her classmates, especially Gvinush of whom her big brother said when visiting her classroom to see how she was managing on her first day in junior high, “Ya varadi. She’s grown a pair of real grapefruits there!”
In the space of a single summer Asher Elhayani had turned from a skinny kid into a clumsy youth, his limbs lengthened and his voice deepened. Black bristles sprouted haphazardly on his chin and Adam’s apple, which had become prominent and bobbed up and down when he swallowed his saliva between sentences. But despite the new-found confidence instilled by his new body he blushed as he said it, and she replied with a smile, “Ya varadi. What a beetroot you’ve become!”
Asher was right, of course. The other girls in the class whispered among themselves during recesses about “the pair of grapefruits”. Ever since fourth grade, when Gvinush had sent her away shamefaced from a party in her house, they hadn’t exchanged a word. Gvinush’s real name was Rimona, but because of her yellow hair and pale skin she had been dubbed, since first grade, “Yellow Cheese”, or the Hebrew abbreviation of the nickname, “Gvinush”. In any event, that’s what they called her behind her back. None of the kids ever called her that to her face. They were scared of her, perhaps because of her coloring – one kid, she doesn’t remember who, once whispered that “My father said she’s anemic”, and burst into hysterical giggling – or perhaps because of her domineering temperament or loud voice or her race towards puberty in which her body collaborated and made everyone around her feel somewhat rebuked, childish.
Her throat had become even drier and she had to get to the kitchen. Without putting on her slippers she stood up, went to the door of her room, opened it carefully, and with even greater care went out. All week her father had been on nightshift at the factory and she knew how angry he got if his sleep was disturbed the following week when he was on the day shift, which was a week of complete fatigue and explosive anger.
Only the rustle of her nightgown, which she insisted on wearing on the wintry summer nights since she was eight, her mother’s nightgown with the lace hem that gently scratched her shins, and the sleeves in which her hands were lost, only it broke the silence. And perhaps the touch of the flesh of her feet as it was softly squeezed on the tiles. The water spurting from the kitchen faucet was louder than the pounding of the blood in her ears and she quickly turned it off and opened the fridge. She would have to slake her thirst with freezing water and then she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep.
She was wide awake now and stared into the fridge. The cats, she thought after a few moments of standing doing nothing. Was it only a dream? And if not, maybe she’d find them in the yard. From the top shelf she pulled out a box with the leftovers of last night’s chicken and slowly slid open the screen door giving onto the yard.
In the yard her eyes roved over the corrugated iron walls of the shed her father had built, the jumble of scrap metal, the bundle of metal piping that was the frame of the collapsible sukkah, the pair of gas cylinders, the lines from which clothes hung in colorful confusion in the still air, the bitter orange tree bent under the burden of the golden fruit left to rot on its branches, the mulberry tree with its broad, dusty leaves, its pink balls of blossom the size of her clenched fists hanging among them. It seemed that from the corner of her eye she could see elusive figures, perhaps the silhouettes of cats, under cover of the yard’s still shadows. But when she quickly turned her head she didn’t see anything. She opened the box, waved it in the air, sending out the aroma of chicken. No cat came. The dark sky curved above her, trapping her and the yard under a black bell jar sown with cracks and flaws: the stars gleaming metallically and indifferently. There was silence everywhere. Again she inhaled it, the power of the summer blaze whose closeness made her skin crawl, and went back inside.
She moved through the rooms, imagining that this big, emptied house that had been bought with the money left to her mother by her parents, is an enchanted nocturnal palace – enchanted by a thousand-year-old sleeping spell – that might be broken by the force of her movement. She opened the door of Ofra’s, her elder sister’s, room, and peeped in. Soft breathing swallowed by the walls. She moved on to the door of Asher’s room, her brother two years her senior, who could fall asleep anytime, anywhere. His head was squashed between two pillows on the youth bed he’d bought with his earnings from a summer job selling watermelons, the whistling exhalations from his mouth muted by the pillows. In the aquarium, which he’d bought with the remaining money, black-striped goldfish slowly cut through the water making gentle waves, bubbling silently. Only the heating element buzzed, disrupting the melody of their movement. She closed the door.
And then, with a daring that only foolishness or boredom could have sparked in her, she went to the door of her parent’s bedroom and opened it a crack. Her parents were asleep in their separate beds in a huge room. Her father was sprawled like a dead man on their double marital bed, and her mother in a single bed on the other side, shifting in a dream, mumbling, her hands pushing away something that only her eyes could see. Her heart fell. It’s all right, she wanted to tell her. She wanted to go over and catch her arms, bring them back to their place at the sides of her body or lay them on her chest, fold them on it. To whisper, It’s all right. Instead she closed the door and went to the living room.
In the living room she absentmindedly stroked the faded embroidered upholstery of the armchair and looked around. He glance fell on the TV set. Yes, the TV set. I wonder if there’s anything on at this hour. She leant over the big-bellied brown set and pressed the “ON” button. The piercingly high note that burst from the loudspeaker in the set’s side startled her and she pressed the volume button continuously until the high-pitched scream diminished.
On the screen, on the only channel they could get – she’d heard from her classmates that with an outdoor aerial you could pick up Middle East Television – flickered a card divided into colored cubes surrounding a circle at whose center were numbers, a digital clock. It showed 03:25. What could she do until morning, she wondered.
She sank her small body into the armchair and rubbed her cheek against its rough upholstery. The changing numbers of the seconds, followed by the minutes, drew her gaze. She stared at them. Slowly, the presence of all the things around her was erased, the couches and the tapestries on the walls, the family photographs and the small rug that marked the center of the living room, and the sturdy square table and the plastic fruit on it in the glass bowl webbed with tiny slate veins. Only the ugly TV, the clock and its figures, remained imprisoned in her gaze. And then God spoke to her from the TV set.
How could she describe His voice?
If every molecule in the air of that living room was gifted with human consciousness, and each could experience the full purity of a trace of emotion from all the infinite traces of human emotion experienced from the moment of birth to death, and screamed from the existence imposed upon it, or sighed, or bellowed, or lost its voice, or roared with happiness, the pain of happiness, or moaned, or groaned with pain, the happiness of pain, or broke into sobs, or shouted for joy, or wept, and all this commingling of sounds was woven into a single syllable, perhaps then it would be possible to begin to describe the richness, the dimensions of the voice.
It came from every point in the space, from the entire existence, even the most banal, in the room: from the minuscule structures of the roaring blood and the DNA helices spiraling in the cell nucleus, from the deposits in the veins and from the fine fatty stalactites trapped in her hair. Her body was a mouth and lips for it and it was the walls that shouted the bitter, wonderful sound, and the cherry-wood sideboard also called out, and behind its doors, among the bottles as translucent as sapphire her father’s arrack stormed to give voice to the glory of God, and both the sacred and the profane uttered the words. And yet, the voice that was plucking out her eyes and slicing her skin with ten thousand razors was coming from the TV set.
And God said to her, “Arise, shine, Ori, for your light has come.”
And He let her fall from her life, although she never realized that she was at such a great height.
And she fell.
What woke her first, the blow of her body hitting the arm of the chair in the living room, or her mother’s hand shaking and pulling her up from the nothingness and the fall? She heard her mother saying something as she bent over her, but the words rebounded from her eardrum as if it were muffled by water, or perhaps the impenetrable silence of the night. But a bright morning was flooding the outside and shafts of hard light slanted through the window in the eastern wall of the living room and struck her eyelids. She knew they were shut. She opened them to her mother’s dark face that was creased with concern, her brown eyes ready to weep and the corners of her mouth downturned. Again her mother said something but the syllables broke up on their way to her brain that was cushioned with cotton wool. She tried to focus her thoughts, something important had happened. What? She’d woken up in her bed and… She was forced to clear her throat in which dust and rust had accumulated, and her voice was hoarse as she asked tiredly, “What… what happened to the cats?”
The look of concern on her mother’s face was replaced by an expression of wonderment, the skin of her face loosened and softened, and once more she looked her age, forty. The wrinkles around her eyes fell away, her lips pursed to say something.
“What happened to the cats?” she asked again, and her mother shouted “God be praised,” and again, “God be praised,” and struck her chest hard and burst into cries of joy, rolling her tongue between her lips in a failed effort to imitate the other women of the neighborhood who would ululate at the ritual bath at engagement immersions, at weddings, and in the women’s section of the synagogue before raining candies on the heads of the congregation.
“What’s happened?” asked Ofra as she shuffled into the living room from the kitchen. “Who’s died this time? Ima, I’ve told you a thousand times, stop showing us up with that stupid yelling.”
Their mother, who usually silenced her older daughter with the words, “You and your brother and sister, you have no respect for anything, not tradition, not your parents, nothing. You have no fear in your heart,” ignored her and quickly left the living room. Ofra looked at her, turned the palm of her hand left and right questioningly, and she shrugged and said, “I’ve no idea. All I did was ask what happened to the cats.”
Ofra looked at her in amazement. “You’re talking?” she asked, chokingly. “I don’t believe it! I’m dying to see Abba’s face when he hears you. When did you start talking again? You were fooling us, right? Admit it. I bet Asher his aquarium that you were just pretending.”
“I… what…” she started to reply – and the world, over which a band of white light stretched in her consciousness, rose from its ruins, fell back into place around her, and her memory hit her.
Two months earlier she had come home from school, her body shaking. Blood dripped from a cut on her temple but it was smeared all over her face and had stained her dress, endowing her with a terrifying appearance. From the moment she crossed the threshold until that same morning she had not spoken.
Before her eyes flashed the image of her mother who had come running from the living room firing questions, her father’s body tense with anger, the look on Ofra’s and Asher’s faces, and the whispering around her from that day on. In the emergency room they told her parents that nothing was wrong, just a superficial cut on the temple that would heal quickly thanks to her young age. Her father took the doctor who had examined her aside. He asked her something in a demanding whisper. She guessed what he’d asked, and the doctor’s rapidly nodding head had provided a satisfactory answer. She saw his relief.
They left her alone for a day. But when she didn’t say a word next day either, they began pleading. She wanted to tell them that she didn’t know and didn’t remember, but her vocal cords were paralyzed. She had forgotten how to speak. The words formed in her brain but she no longer knew how to order the muscles of her mouth and lips to utter them, she no longer remembered how the voice should sound.
They took her for tests, they ran her through the concrete, neon-illuminated labyrinth of the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. Blood tests. A throat swab – maybe it’s a virus. The audiology lab – perhaps she’s gone deaf. X-rays.
The doctors pronounced, “There’s nothing physiologically or physically wrong. It’s apparently psychological.”
“So what are you actually saying?” her father bellowed at the family doctor who gave them the test results, “What? That my daughter’s mad?”
Her frightened mother knocked three times on the wood of the doctor’s desk. “God help us,” she said.
“No,” the doctor backed off, “but we do need a psychological expert opinion so we know how to treat her, or to see whether she needs treatment at all.”
She listened to the conversation. They talked about her in the third person in her presence. It made no difference to her. The words, cold and remote, sailed through the space of her skull from temple to temple.
The school counselor referred her to a psychologist who visited Netivot once a week. After the sheets of rain that had glutted the week of Hanukkah, the air became clearer. On the way to the psychologist her nostrils were assailed by the intoxicating smell of mud. On every sod of earth her attention was drawn to different birds, a bunting, a warbler and a sparrow. They were no longer a bunch of gray, tweeting feathers for her. Each one existed in its own uniqueness: species discrete from species, individual from individual. Without words that would hide the differences and erase the borderlines between existence and existence, the world perceived by the senses becomes clearer. Even though it sometimes seems that the opposite is true. Language serves the pleasure of forming distinctions only up to a point. From there on in it is too general, vague, it lacks keenness. On the operating table a dull scalpel is likely to kill. In a month of muteness she felt that even the voice in her brain, which incessantly whispered thoughts and suggested wording, had stopped. A different vision matured within her and she was able to differentiate between the birds; the beadiness of the eye, width of beak, the luster of the feathering, its hues.
In a wooden building that a decade earlier had been a classroom in the elementary school, she sat facing the psychologist, a short round-faced man. His green eyes and flaring nostrils gave him the appearance of a lemur. She noticed hairs on his knuckles. He smiled all the time, apologetically or embarrassedly? She didn’t know and didn’t bother to find out. Most of the green formica on the desktops that remained in the room was cracked. She could see initials carved into the desk at which they sat, declarations of love, obscenities. With her fingers she felt the underside of the desk. The tips of her fingers encountered the roughness of the chipboard, the lumps of dried-up chewing gum. Where are the mouths that chewed them, the hands that tired from carving into the formica? For some reason a scene from a movie she’d seen popped into her head – prisoners trying to dig a tunnel to freedom with a spoon.
The psychologist asked her to put together jigsaw puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty and she immersed herself in them. She put them together with ease. When she saw he was following her actions, she slowed down and feigned deliberation, and only then slid the pieces into place. The pictures were simple. One glance was enough to see and understand the various pieces: lines and surfaces, shapes and color. He asked her to draw her house and her parents and her school. And she did, detailed, precise drawings. All the birds she remembered, all the details distinguishing one bird from another. The psychologist looked at the drawings with interest. At the next session he again asked her to draw her family. She drew a great tit and a thrush she’d seen on a nature program on TV. Then she added the tired rosebushes she passes on the way to school, the red sepals sliding into rotting purple, from which Ofra had once picked a whole bunch, soaked them in a bath filled with water and immersed her body in it, and next morning woke up itching all over, her skin covered with a rash. She also drew the hedge carefully tended by her father to hide their yard from the neighbors. The climbing hedge had round leaves with red veins that emerged from the leaf stem; the tendrils were brown, knotty.
At the fourth session he asked her a direct question about that afternoon, and she wrote with a blue crayon, “I don’t remember. Dontremember! Don’t. Remember.”
At the end of the session he told her parents, “Mr. and Mrs. Elhayani, you’ve got a very intelligent daughter. But we’re not getting anywhere. I’ve thought about trying hypnosis.” And her mother yelled at him that they don’t need his idolatry, in Netivot, thank God, they’ve got the Baba Sali, and she dragged her out by the arm.
All this while, as she wandered among her recollections, she looked at Ofra in embarrassment. In the end Ofra said, “You’re not starting your tricks again. Say something,” and the words pulled her out of the Baba Sali’s waiting room, from the tumult of the women laboring over the kneading of couscous, the old men stricken with cataracts, and feverish children. Her mother sat beside her and gripped her hand, squeezing it from time to time. Her father impatiently paced the noisy room, chewing on his extinguished cigarette butt.
“Something,” she said softly to Ofra.
“Ima’s probably gone to tell all the neighbors,” said Ofra with a wily smile.
Their mother came back into the living room a short while later, and Ofra couldn’t restrain herself and repeated her gibe, “You probably went to tell all the neighbors.” And their mother, her face alight, retorted, “Tell me, Ofra, where’s your brain? I’ve got far more important things to do. I called your father at the factory and Mama Elhayani to tell them I was right, that we’re having the bat-mitzvah party as planned.” She leant over the armchair into which her body was still sunk, with her clothes welded to the covering, and stroked her hair. “Jinn,” sweetie, she said, “I knew we shouldn’t cancel the party.”
Yes, the bat-mitzvah. When they came back frustrated from the Baba Sali and it was clear that the amulet bound around her neck with a blue lace, and the blessed water with which she had been sprinkled, and his trembling hands, scrawny with age covering her head, and the words of the prayer he had uttered, would not help, her mother informed her father, “I’m going to talk to your mother.”
“Why? What good can she do?” her father said tiredly. He had been working double shifts to make up the hours he’d missed when they’d taken her for tests.
“She’s helping me plan the bat-mitzvah. The girl will be twelve in two months time.”
“What bat-mitzvah are you on about, Sylvia, are you out of your mind? First let’s see that the girl’s well.”
Her mother shook her head. “Ya’akov, she needs an purpose,” she said, and she knew that her mother meant herself more than her. And indeed, up to that morning her mother had diligently focused on the party. It was as if she had lost all her usual efficiency and also the decisiveness that so typified her actions. They said at the senior citizens’ day center where she worked that she was absent-minded and sometimes forgot to check that the clothing of the old people in her care was dry, and that they’d eaten their lunch. She spent hours of planning with their grandmother, Mama Elhayani, who was not exactly renowned for her lucidity. She wasted days on end on the guest list, adding names and erasing others. One morning she consulted Ofra about inviting some distant uncles from her father’s side. Ofra grumbled,
“Oh, come on, Ima, who are you kidding? Like since your wedding you haven’t kept an organized notebook with who came to every celebration and what present they brought. I still remember you taking it out before Asher’s bar-mitzvah and you saw they hadn’t invited you to their eldest daughter’s wedding. So why are you suddenly playing the innocent?”
In a hurt tone her mother replied, “You come from your father’s side of the family. Always digging, looking for a fight. You and him – a copy.”
Ofra snorted contemptuously and waved her hands, “We’ve heard, we’ve heard you.” And that afternoon, when their father got home from work, Ofra told him,
“Abba, Ima’s driving us crazy with the bat-mitzvah. Who needs it?”
Her father stared at her mother but didn’t say a word.
Her mother’s hand stroked her face, “So what do you say, jinn?”
And she, embarrassed by the uproar surrounding the bat-mitzvah and in a vain effort to conceal her resolve, said in a pampered tone, “I don’t want a party, Ima. Nobody from my class will come. They’re not speaking to me.”
Ofra brayed with laughter, “Or more to the point, you’re not speaking to them.”
“Ima,” Asher called from his room, “make me a cup of coffee.”
“Get up and make it yourself and stop playing the tough guy like your friends,” Ofra replied.
“You’d better shut up,” Asher said as he came into the living room, “before I tell Abba what…” He stopped what he was saying when he saw Ofra and their mother standing beside her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, alarmed.
“There’s nothing wrong,” she answered him, and felt that, like her, her sister and their mother were following his amazed look, and then the expression of relief, and how he struggled to hide it and the sigh of relief about to escape his lips, and his Adam’s apple as it bobbed up and down. With exaggerated toughness he said, “I knew you’d start talking again sometime.”
“Yalla, yalla,” said Ofra and the three of them burst out laughing.
As their laughter subsided, Asher said, red-faced, “So if you’re talking again, maybe you’ll talk to Rimona Peretz, you know that…” and he fell silent.
“The fact that I’m talking again doesn’t mean I’ll speak to that pest.”
“It’ll be interesting to see how your nerdy school friends react,” said Ofra.
Their mother slapped the arm of chair. “I’ve got an idea,” she said, “an excellent idea.”
In the end the bat-mitzvah party was a modest affair. Her mother didn’t make anyone privy to her decisions, not even her. Her age-old determination burst forth again and she invited all her classmates, boys and girls alike, and also the kids from elementary school who’d gone on to the town’s other junior high. She described for herself the ploys her mother used: like her haggling in the market. With any person and in any given situation she always knew which emotions would yield the desired result. This time she’d probably played on pity and guilt.
The day her voice came back she didn’t go to school. Next day she discovered that the rumor of the miracle that had happened to the mute had spread. Everybody knew. Boys and girls she didn’t know came up to her at recess and said, “Come on, say something,” and laughed. She spoke only rarely. She had already gotten used to her tongue being frozen against her palate, and the clumpy thoughts that moved like a flock of sheep in her brain. In school her girlfriends kept their distance. She wondered if they were scared of her, if her brief muteness had left scars on her arms and legs, on some part of her skin that was exposed to looks. Even Ilanit, her best friend, who in the first days of her silence had tried to encourage her in any way possible until she gave up, just gave her a forced, crooked smile in the mornings and mumbled a feeble hello.
The still air was awash with fragrances. Now she had her voice back she did not distinguish between them, and only the dense fabric they wove around her made her restless, created expectation. She observed the guests as they arrived, carrying presents. Gvinush was among them too. Her upper body was covered with an embroidered strapless blouse, which not only accentuated her breasts but also revealed a thin line of transparent hairs running between them. She found she was unable to tear her eyes away from her. “Gross,” she heard a familiar voice whispering in her ear, “what a slut”. She turned her head to look. Yes. It was Ilanit. With uncharacteristic audaciousness she had peroxided a streak in her hair. Circular, white plastic earrings, streaked with black, hung from her earlobes to her shoulders and matched the zebra blouse she was wearing, and her wide collar left one of her narrow shoulders bare. Her lips glistened redly. How come she hadn’t noticed until now? She really is a young woman.
“So what do you say?” Ilanit asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a good party, right?”
Asher, who had been busy clearing the yard – “of all the crap Abba’s been collecting for years” – had strung a chain of fairy lights from the bitter orange to the mulberry tree. He had untied the knots of the clotheslines and adorned the posts bereft of their lines with tiny, flickering lights, the whole thing designed by their mother. At the party he had volunteered his services as a DJ; from one friend he obtained a big tape deck, and from another a collection of hits. The yard was filled with the voice of Sandra, and Ilanit joined in, mangling both music and lyrics. “In the hill of the night,” she screeched. “Yo, that song’s the end.” She started going wild, dancing with complete abandon as she went on singing. By the time Sandra was replaced by Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, all the boys and girls in the yard were caught up in the fever of their clumsy dancing, unintentionally splitting into couples, and when Wham’s “Careless Whisper” came blaring from the loudspeakers, the random couples became fixed, girl in the arms of boy, trapped in the web of spring’s whisper. She stood at the side, her head on Asher’s shoulder, and watched them.
Only Ilanit stayed with her after the party was over. Her father went to bed early; a morning shift awaited him. And while Ofra, who had gone out with her friends and was now back, and their mother collected up the leftovers and the disposable plates and cups from the yard, she and Ilanit sat in her room and opened the presents. Ilanit’s self-possession was fine by her. At first she’d feared that Ilanit would mistakenly think that their old closeness had been re-established and she’d ask unnecessary questions. But Ilanit didn’t ask. Her fingers untied ribbons and were swallowed up in red and purple gift wrapping decorated with hearts and silver stars. She said, “I saw you dancing a slow dance with Noam Ohana.”
“Yes,” Ilanit replied, taking her eyes from the pile of greeting cards she had removed from the presents and was sorting, “he stuck to me the whole evening, right from when I started dancing.” She coiled the end of a peroxided lock of hair around a finger, “And you,” she asked, “why weren’t you dancing?”
“I was too excited,” she replied. “What do you think of Noam?”
“He’s okay. Nice. Why do you ask?”
Two days earlier she had felt an uncontrollable impulse to go back into the classroom during recess. Noam was standing on a desk, his back to her, surrounded by the rest of the boys who were completely focused on him and who, like him, had not noticed her in the doorway. His shorts were round his knees and his underpants were also down, revealing his buttocks. “Look,” he said, “I’ve started to grow hair.” Then she saw the boys’ eyes were riveted to his groin. She fled, filled with disgust. That pervert, she said to herself, trembling. She felt he had unintentionally dirtied her. “Look, I’ve started to grow hair.”
She wanted to tell Ilanit, but just the memory nauseated her. And also the fact that it was one of many troublesome incidents she’d experienced over the last month. At the Purim party in the school gym she’d felt a tingling on the back of her neck and reluctantly turned her head. The principal, Yoram Tuitto, was standing behind the crowd of students, leaning against the wall and picking his nose undisturbed. After taking his finger from his nose, he wiped it on his pants leg and then plunged his hand into a plate of cakes. She tried not to think about the other instances that seared her, and the words that popped into her mind: foulness, defilement.
“I was only asking,” she told Ilanit. “I think…”
“Oh, come on,” Ilanit protested, and added, “tell me, your brother Asher, has he asked about me?”
She bowed her head and smiled to herself, discovering fresh interest in the presents.
“What cheek,” said Ilanit a few moments later. She waved a piece of paper. “She didn’t even buy a card, that Gvinush. Listen, ‘Mazal Tov from Rimona’. That’s all. Not to who. Nothing.” She picked up Gvinush’s present and felt it. “I wonder what it is. Probably something old.”
“Open it,” she told her.
“No, it’s your present,” Ilanit replied.
She sighed and opened the brown paper wrapping. Inside was an Alice band. A simple, pink plastic Alice band decorated with tiny butterflies shining in green and gold. Sparks of light leapt from them as Ilanit took it from her and examined it. “That tight-fisted Kamtza Bat Kamtza,” she said, “you can buy these for a shekel each from Knafo in the market. It’s really insulting. That’s what she’s trying to do, insult you.”
“Don’t just shrug,” Ilanit protested, “you’ve got to get back at her. She’s got no shame. Listen to me, Flory…”
She looked at Ilanit with sudden anger. It flickered in her eyes, she could actually feel them burning, flashing at her friend who fell silent. And in the gravest tone a twelve-year-old girl could muster she said, “Ilanit, don’t call me Flory or Flora or Florence anymore. D’you hear me? From now on my name’s Ori, Ori Elhayani.”
Chapter Two - Books
During the Passover vacation, two weeks after the bat-mitzvah, the love of reading was born in Ori and the love of writing followed close behind, like twins bursting from the womb with the hand of one grasping the heel of the other, the neck of the other. Now she demanded from everyone who knew her by her old name to call her Ori. On the morning after the party, still red-eyed, she asked Elisheva Zikri, her literature and Bible studies teacher, to inform her classmates, and uncharacteristically, Elisheva agreed with a silent, vigorous nod, perhaps because a vestige of last night’s solemnity still encircled Ori with its aura, a kind of filmy gossamer running the entire length of her, spreading over her body and lightly shaking the limbs and the flesh too delicate to see, and the eyes, despite their redness, gleamed like those of someone whose demands must be met, if such gleaming indeed exists.
That morning she chose her clothes with care. But beforehand, as soon as she got up, she hurried to the bathroom. She had got up early and Summer Time darkened the world. A soft spring brightness started to protest against the impermeability of the windowpane, against the yellow tyranny of the incandescent light bulb. The pail, which stood in the corner between the toilet bowl and the wall, she turned upside down on the floor. It rocked slightly as she got up onto it but she knew it would not collapse under her weight. She looked into the mirror. Her hair, which didn’t need straightening or blow-drying, fell over her face in straight lines, a curtain of black plastic strings. Her eyes were still half closed with sleep and networked with burst capillaries, but still huge in her angular face. She studied her multiplied image in the reflected depth of the brown pupils and the wall inlaid with blue ceramic tiles curving around the reflection of her body. Something was breaking up the proportions of her features. Her fringe. Even yesterday afternoon, when the hairdresser’s scissor blades stopped their snipping, she had known that this fringe wasn’t right. It was too long, actually touching her eyebrows, spreading to the sides like two halves of a curtain locked in an embrace in a silly attempt to hide her high forehead. It doesn’t work, she thought. She got down from the upturned pail and it fell and lay on its side, crumpled from her weight. She’d have to think of something else. In the kitchen she climbed onto the work surface and from the top shelf took down her mother’s sewing box, and from it a pair of scissors. From the living room she took the wood and cane stool her father used as a footrest when he watched TV. She went back to the bathroom. The stool was steadier than the pail beneath her feet. Very good. She would need steadiness. She combed her fringe with strong strokes, forcing apart the springiness imposed on it by the round brush and the hairdresser’s skilful hand. It fell down over her face, straight. With the fingers of her left hand she divided it into locks, wound one around her finger and pulled it tight. With her right hand she started cutting.
The result was less impressive than she’d hoped, but still satisfactory. The fringe had been cut almost to its roots and was the same length across her forehead. She gathered up the hair that had fallen into the sink and remembered her mother’s warnings: hair and nail clippings must not be left anywhere in the house; if a pregnant woman steps on a nail clipping she will abort her fetus, and should a single hair from her head find its way into the hands of the neighbors, they will be able to cast a shadow over her fate with one of their curses. She wrapped the hair in a piece of toilet paper and twisted it into a ball. She dropped it into the toilet bowl, flushed it, scrubbed the sink, and then took a shower.
She went back to her room with very light steps. From her closet she took out a blue blouse with a petal-shaped roll collar embroidered with red and purple flowers. The blouse’s sleeves were puffed at the shoulder and narrow at the wrist. Its buttons gleamed like ivory in the light flooding the room through the shutter slats. She put it on and smoothed the material over her body. She put on a somewhat faded denim skirt that came down to her knees. On seeing her body in the closet’s full-length mirror it seemed that her appearance was incomplete. She went to Ofra’s room, who was still tossing and turning in a struggle to get up and who, in the depth of the sleep she was loath to forego, did not see her. She quickly picked a belt from her sister’s collection. She had had her eye on this particular one for a long time. It was of thick white leather and a big metal buckle fastened it somewhat loosely around her waist, and fell between her thighs. Yes. Now she looked perfect with the light pearl colored Converse All Star sneakers – that Ofra called ‘off-white’ – the striped socks with their white and purple hoops and the Alice band Gvinush had given her. A radiance like electrum leapt from its reflection and flickered through her body. Like Wonder Woman’s sash, she thought. But as she was about to leave for school her mother said, “What’s this, Flory, my love, why are you dressed up like Goldilocks?” And Ofra, staring at her over the rim of her cup of instant coffee, added, “Pccch, tell me, what’s with the blouse, have you gone Yemenite?”
In class she assertively faced the astonished and silent stares – only Gvinush chuckled to herself – and said confidently, “From now on I’m asking you to call me Ori. Not Flora or Flory.”
“What?” said Gvinush, and started laughing. But nobody laughed with her. Silence thickened the air in the classroom and quieted the brief, coarse laughter.
“Flora,” Elisheva said embarrassedly, “you can’t be serious. I mean, changing your name… is a serious matter. I don’t know…”
“Please, don’t call me Flora anymore,” fixing her with a look. “That’s the last time I’ll answer when I’m called by that name.”
“Go to your desk,” Elisheva said, the permanent anger slowly filtering back into her voice and eyes. “We’ve no more time to waste today.”
Ori began striding towards her desk, which two weeks after she found her voice again was still reserved for her, without a neighbor to share it with, not even Ilanit. As she passed Gvinush’s desk, Gvinush fired at her, “You’re getting more screwed up by the day. It was better when you didn’t talk.” She spoke the words aloud, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear.
“What right have you to say anything, you piece of stinking yellow cheese?” She was amazed by the violence that took over her voice, the toughness that straightened her back and the pleasure she got from the words.
Gvinush panted with anger and the blood quickly rushed to her face, wildly endowing it with a deep poppy red, spreading like a rash, making her cheeks ugly. She had difficulty speaking and Ori tore the pink Alice band from her hair and waved it over her head. “Look at what this cheapskate gave me for a bat-mitzvah present,” she yelled. And the paper butterflies on the band made twisting, flashing tracks as they sliced the air. Then she grasped the band at both ends and bent it until a crack was heard, as weak as the tiny cry of a body whose pulsing had ceased, and in the class holding its breath it resounded like a thunderclap. She threw the two halves down in the middle of the desk so they separated Gvinush and her slave, Aliza Edri.
“Who needs your presents anyway, eh?” she added, drunk with her sudden, imprudent triumph, and had Elisheva not grasped her elbow and led her to her desk, she would surely have stood longer at Gvinush’s desk and drowned her with her thoughts.
“You’ve got some guts putting her in her place like that in front of the whole class,” Ilanit told her at recess. “Now she’ll be in your face all the time.”
“You’re the one who told me to get her back,” she replied indifferently.
“Yes, but… Ori?” she said, pronouncing the name hesitantly, as a question, making both of them feel its strangeness. Then she said it again, this time with greater assurance, “Ori, I didn’t really mean you to do anything,” and she laughed.
“What time does the school library open?” Ori asked.
“I don’t know. I think the librarian’s off sick today.”
“Oof, that Elisheva. What’s the point of reading the book by that one… what’s her name?”
“Galila Ron-Feder. And don’t knock her. She’s an awesome writer,” Ilanit said.
Ori snorted derisively. For a moment she felt filled with power like her sister Ofra.
“No,” Ilanit grumbled, “what’s that for? What’s happening to you lately? I cried at the end of To Myself.”
“Is that the one they made us read in fourth grade? What’s to cry about in it? The kid in the book is my brother Asher and your brother Reuven. It’s about us, don’t you get it? What, you get up in the morning, look at your family and cry?”
“Tell me, your brother Asher, has he asked about me?”
Ori turned away to look at the dusty soccer field from which the boys from the senior classes had ejected her classmates. A group of girls led by Gvinush commandeered one side of the paved basketball court. Two of them, Keren and Sima, held a rope that they began twirling as the others formed a line. Gvinush went first, shouting “One” as she jumped, and was followed by Aliza as they chanted, “two, three, four”, and so on. One by one the girls were ‘out’ at different numbers as they caught their feet in the rope and stumbled. At the end of this short qualification process the only two remaining were – wonder of wonders – Gvinush and Aliza. Keren and Sima reversed the direction of the rope, their wrists twirling it anticlockwise, which complicates skipping because you have to jump into the ovoid space made by the rope as it touches the ground, not at its zenith in the air. Ori knew that Gvinush was good at this. The two girls began jumping in alternately, into the rope’s arc and then out again. “L’examere, la pipat la mer.” – what do the words mean, what language are they in – “la pipat la bouche, la quadée de cabouche” – and here the song took on a human guise – “A man got on a horse and yelled: January, February…” and on “May” the rope caught Aliza’s ankles and she fell to the ground with a thump. The sweaty Gvinush yelled in triumph, ignoring the eighth- and ninth-grade boys who had gathered round and were elbowing each other in the ribs and laughing. She could guess what kind of jokes accompanied the nudges. What a repulsive sight, Ori thought, what luck that Asher isn’t there, and quickly turned her head to a sight that turned her stomach. Hidden from the sight of most of the kids on the basketball court, leaning against the wall of the gym, was Noam Ohana, his hand deep in his groin, feeling, touching.
“Gross,” she said, and averted her eyes.
“Yes,” Ilanit replied, “that Gvinush’s got no shame. She’ll do anything to attract attention.”
“Let’s get out of here,” she said. She took Ilanit’s hand and began pulling her after her, “maybe we’ll find the library open and be first for that book that Elisheva told us to read.”
Ilanit freed her hand. “No, I want to stay in the sun a bit longer.”
Ori didn’t look at her. She stared at the ground. That way she wouldn’t see what she was forbidden to look at. She ascribed the burning anger in her throat to Elisheva’s announcement. Why did they have to invite Galila Ron-Feder? She remembered that she’d refused to write her book report about To Myself and had been given a written reprimand by the teacher. And now Elisheva and her nonsense. At the beginning of the literature lesson, which had been combined with Bible studies, Elisheva had excitedly informed them, her naturally hoarse voice suddenly clear, that the author Galila Ron-Feder would be visiting the school two and a half weeks after their return from the Passover vacation, and so they had to read her book, In Light and Hiding: The Story of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
“A moving book that relates our history, a book that will help us understand where we came from and what we’re doing here,” Elisheva said. “Prepare questions at home and we’ll answer them during the lesson. I don’t want you sitting in front of her like dummies.”
Halfway to the library she slowed down. Although she had escaped from the filth surrounding Noam and the boys from the senior classes, her path was leading her towards a no less menacing terror. Ori didn’t like reading the books the elementary school teachers fed them, which made her gorge rise. Except for Ofra, nobody in her family was a reader. And it had even taken Ofra some time to get to books. At first her sister had immersed herself in photo magazines, ‘cine-novels’, which Persian Rosa, their soldier neighbor lent her; Rosa bought them at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station in Neve Sha’anan, so she said. Ofra diligently read the stories accompanying the photographs and had even shown her some of them. She lost herself in them and didn’t answer her mother’s calls, neglected her chores, washing the dishes and the floors, and when she did her household duties she did so absently, so that her mother had to do everything over again, drawing a finger over the skirting boards and windowsills and lifting it up to the light to see the amount of dust accumulated there. Close to last Passover, their mother gave up the fight over the household chores and brought in their father. That evening Ofra found three cine-novels torn into big pieces in the middle of her room; it seemed that quite a bit of rage had gone into ripping them apart. She cried quietly into the night. Only Ori, in her shallow, restless sleep, heard her choked sobbing.
Afterwards Ofra chose to disappear. One day she followed her, so she knew where to – Ofra had found a hidey-hole on the lawn behind the municipal library where she read real, thick books whose pages had yellowed from standing so long and so alone on the library shelves. One summer’s day their mother sent her out to look for Ofra and she covered the seven hundred meters from their neighborhood to the library in ten minutes of strenuous running. He sister was sitting on the mottled brown grass, her knees drawn up to her chest and on them a book, as she leant against the trunk of a wasted poplar. Ofra raised her eyes in a veiled look, and she knelt beside her, trying to steady her breathing. Panting, beads of sweat gathering on her chin, she said, “Ima… Ima’s looking for you.”
“Tell her you don’t know where I am,” she replied, immersing herself in her book again.
After a minute or two, once she realized that Ofra wouldn’t respond, she got up and started back to their house, slowly this time. Some distance away, she realized that another question was gnawing at her. She turned on her heel and whispered, “Tell me, Ofra, are books really all that interesting?”
A rare thoughtful expression spread over Ofra’s face, she who was always ready to blow up, to react without thinking. It seemed that she was formulating a reply, a complex explanation she was laboring over. She could actually see the bodies of her thoughts colliding with one another and then sliding into place; now the explanation would slide into her mouth and slip out. There, the saliva was being swallowed, the vocal cords tensing… but no. Ofra changed her mind at the last moment. She clenched her lips angrily and blurted, “You’ll never understand. Now get lost.”
“I’ll tell Ima on you, you’ll see,” she shouted at her and started running, fleeing from there.
The school library was open after all. As she passed through the door she was greeted by three wide metal stands, painted in dark, concrete-colored varnish, and on them new books were on display, and behind them there were ten or eleven rows of bookshelves of the same material. The floor was carpeted in dark blue felt. The entire space was flooded with dense, alien neon lighting. To the right of the door was a counter, and a dark-skinned, sunburnt, timid girl, glasses wobbling on her aquiline nose, an eleventh- or twelfth-grader, was sitting behind it. She nodded to Ori with a pleasant smile. Embarrassed, Ori turned to look at the books on display. Hard, rectangular surfaces, tightly covered with a layer of shiny plastic. Untouched by human hand. She moved slightly closer, dragging her feet, and inspected their titles. “They’re new books,” the library girl called, and Ori nodded vigorously, exaggeratedly, spastically. What’s she doing here? After all, she’s got no interest in books. She’ll just take that stupid book and go so she won’t go back into class after recess empty-handed, admitting defeat. There were illustrations on some of the covers, which were apparently for the junior classes; the kids from the adjacent elementary school also used the library. One of the illustrations at the end of the second row on the left-hand stand caught her eye. A girl seated on a wood throne that looked as if it sprouted from the ground and encircled her body. Her frowning black eyes stared straight ahead, her arms folded across her chest. An object hung from her sash. A magnifying glass, Ori thought. Her skirt appeared to be woven from leaves and a translucent nimbus hung over her shoulders. Towering over her was a giant, muscular, brown creature, molded from soil and clay, and from its thick, wild locks sprang a pair of tapering horns – ram’s horns, she thought. Pelts draped its body, and its eyes, two slanted red slits, flashed, giving its face a baleful radiance. But no threat was apparent in the creature itself. Its right hand grasped a sword and its body inclined to the left, towards the girl, protecting her.
“Like it?” asked the librarian girl from behind her, and Ori realized that she’d been immersed in the picture and its detail for a few minutes, and the pulsing of her blood heightened, blotting out outside noise.
“No,” came her quick denial, “I was just looking.”
“Okay,” the girl replied, “looking is fine.”
“Have you by any chance got Galila Ron-Feder’s In Light and Hiding?”
“Yes, we’ve got twelve copies. They came yesterday. A gift from the council, I think.”
“And how many can I take?”
“What are you, seventh grade?”
“Then you can have one, for two weeks. But if you take it today you can keep it until after the Passover vacation. Hold on a minute.”
She moved past Ori and disappeared between the bookshelves. Ori went back to gazing at the book cover. “Ariella the Fairy Detective”, she slowly read the title. She liked the sound of it. Now she also understood what the translucent nimbus hovering over the shoulders of the girl in the picture was – wings. “By Prospero Juno” she read. Not Israeli, she thought, maybe Italian or something. Her eyes moved back to the book’s title, Ariella the Fairy Detective. She reached out and with a finger touched the cover, the drawing of the magnifying glass hanging by a cord from the girl’s sash. An electric spark detonated at the tip of her finger. She screamed in amazement and pulled her finger away.
“What’s the matter?” came the librarian’s demanding whisper from the far end of the library.
“Nothing,” Ori replied in a loud voice, and immediately lowered it to a whisper, even though there was nobody else in the library but her, “I’m sorry.”
She put her finger back onto the cover and traced the outline of the wood throne, and despite the plastic covering separating her finger from the book, she could feel the rough, rich texture of the wood and inhaled its deep fragrance, a smell of decomposition and the scorching of the sun and the dimness of the soil, and the promise of growth inherent in every waning. And she recalled the long winter days when she looked out of her window at the shimmering firmament, waiting for a break in the evening clouds, for the appearance of a ray of light whose gold was already touched by the purple bruise of the sunset and which dimmed the closer it came to the earth’s surface. And although she didn’t yet know it, it was the transformation that drew her attention, the alternation, the realization that from the moment of birth all things are marked to die, and as they extinguish something new blossoms in them and they are transformed into something different. The memory filled her with excitement and she picked up the book and opened it at the first chapter, ‘An Unfortunate Accident’, and began reading. ‘Ariella had always felt that she lacked something, something she couldn’t give a name to.’ She caught her breath when she reached the period at the end of the sentence, and she went back to the beginning. ‘Ariella had always felt…’ she began reading again, but this time, with no surprise knowledge awaiting her, her eyes raced across the page and the words began piling up and competing for her attention.
“Here’s the book you wanted.” The librarian’s soft whisper and outstretched, tempting hand startled her.
Ori slammed the book shut and the air expressed from between its pages sighed in protest. “Ah,” she said, “I… I think I’ll take this one instead,” and held it out to the librarian. Then, still embarrassed, she added, “Do you know if it’s any good?”
“It looks a bit childish,” the librarian replied, “In Light and Hiding is more serious. It’s…”
“No,” Ori said more decisively than she felt, “I’ll take this one.”
“Okay,” the librarian said with pronounced reluctance, drawing out the second syllable between her stretched lips, “it’s up to you. Let’s open you a reader’s card. This is your first time in the library, right?”
Recess was almost over when she left the library and she dragged her feet back to the classroom along the paved path, on both sides of which, behind a low, blue metal fence, there were margosa trees whose purple blossom, an open lacework of tiny petals, had begun to flower. She felt that they were inclining towards her as she walked, or were whispering to one another, and their tops were twined and bound around one another until they formed a shady, roofed corridor through which she passed, the opening sentence of the book echoing in her head, and the burden of the short, sharp hamsinim of April – the heat that fused the fronds into a dense, taut net – was removed from her.
The bell urging the return to the classroom raised the treetops upright, sending the margosas back to being the simple, rough-barked trees whose dirty-yellow fruit hanging in bunches was only good for the children to play their war games with. She walked faster and went into class at the last minute. As she passed Ilanit’s desk, Ilanit asked her if she’d found the book and whether there were still any copies left in the library. “Yes,” she replied brusquely, “I found it. But I didn’t take it. I don’t feel like reading.” And with that the desire vanished from her and the words she’d read in the book evaporated.
Five days later her mother fell ill. There were some early signs but that vigorous woman refused to submit to them. She was in the middle of making the house kosher for Passover and to complete it she’d taken time off from her job at the day center. She moved from one room to another in the big house, taking clothes out of closets and dusting each shelf in turn, washing the clothes and at the same time replacing winter clothes with summer ones, putting away the down quilts, spreading the contents of the house out in the yard to tempt the sun’s rays like a woman laying a snare for birds, and refolding everything and scrubbing the walls – this year her father had decided not to whitewash them as he had in previous years. Ah, scrubbing the walls! There was no doubt that it was the source of the calamity. Sylvia decided to fight the flu virus that had infected her with paracetamol, which would subdue the fever that had conquered her body. But even the world’s greatest strategist and the wiliest chess player make mistakes. And so did her mother in the stubborn fight against the illness with her terrible, cruel scrubbing of the walls with a mixture of water, toxic fumes from the cleaning agents, and bending her back. Her temperature soared. It’s only a few hours until it goes down, she said. Sylvia started vomiting. All right, it’ll pass. In any case, Ofra has been disappearing for long periods over the last few months, and who’ll make the house kosher? This last thought should have set off alarm bells and forced her to admit that it was the fever talking. That she should give up on a quarrel with her eldest daughter? Whoever heard of such a thing?
Then she collapsed. Asher came home from school and found her on the living room floor, helplessly cursing her traitorous body. “Asher,” she said – so she told anyone who wanted to hear, those moments were clear and etched on her memory – “be an angel and help me up. I’ve only got the living room walls left to do.” Asher led her to the couch and ordered her to stay there. He called their father at the factory and he, fuming at his feeble, sickly family who lacked resourcefulness, stormed into the house. Then he saw his wife, smiling weakly, her almond eyes unfocused, barely managing to sip some water, and his anger was replaced with panic.
Towards evening they were driven to the hospital in Beersheba by Persian Rosa’s father, the carpet merchant. There were rolled-up carpets in the trunk of his long, white van, and there were also some on the back seat, which had been folded for this purpose. Asher and Ofra squeezed in beside him in the front, and she lay on the carpets in the back, facing forward, and her head bounced and jolted with each bump in the road. On the way he asked them questions, how they’d manage on seder night and what the doctors had said. Politely, Asher started to answer, but his words dissolved into stammering. Ofra, too, didn’t know the answers. They parted at the entrance to Soroka Hospital, he promising to come back in two hours, and he drove off to his business in the city center.
Nausea flooded Ori as the three of them walked through the wide glass doors. She had been in this hospital before. More than once. But not as a visitor, not of her own free will, but as someone in need, a patient, and she had been wheeled through the corridors in search of hope. Now, she sensed in all its intensity that the city behind the glass doors was cut off, that the disappearing sun was casting a golden glow with mad power. She was in another kingdom, the land of death and corruption of the flesh. She had never sensed it before, how this destruction was concealed in each of the body’s smells, in the stench of urine and the sourness of sweat, and in the surfeit of carbon dioxide emitted from the lungs and blood of the elderly people hobbling down the corridor and the children with dressings over their eyes and on their heads, and the young men in casts and the gangrenous girls. There were numerous beds standing against the walls outside the internal medicine wards and on them the patients sprawled, each with his own perverse stench.
She wanted to retreat, to flee the place where flesh had such a powerful hold and such paltry dominion, but Ofra, who sensed her flinching, pulled her by the arm to the information desk. A mustachioed fleshy man looked at them through the glass and Asher inquired, “Sylvia Elhayani?”
They clustered around the bed. She and Ofra ignored the other five women patients, the green plastic curtain hanging lifelessly from its stainless steel rod, the IV stand from which hung a small plastic bag that dripped, and from it emerged a transparent, twisting tube that disappeared into their mother’s arm. But not Asher. In the next bed was a old woman who didn’t stop groaning and complaining about her illness to another younger woman, her daughter perhaps, in an accent that made Asher laugh, especially when she said: “Oy, Dvora’leh, it hoits so much.”
Everything’s fine, their mother soothed them, and as usual her voice was assertive through the limp cloud over her face. It’s just pneumonia. In both lungs, because she didn’t take care of herself and the inflammation spread from the infected lung to the healthy one. Yes, the doctor was surprised when she was admitted in that condition. What, didn’t she feel she had difficulty breathing? Hadn’t she checked her temperature? And in general, pneumonia’s rare at this time of year, did they have pets at home? No. She explained at length about making the house kosher for Passover and its importance, she didn’t gloss over a single detail. Yes, he listened to her, she saw how his face showed his amazement. These poor people without roots, they don’t know anything. It all seems like idolatry to them. And I’m sure his wife doesn’t do anything at home, that’s why he was so surprised by all her efforts. And yes, she told him, and when she told them she smiled slyly, her eldest daughter helps her, only now she’s in eleventh grade and she’s got a lot of exams. And they shouldn’t worry, they’re giving her antibiotics through the infusion and if all the tests are all right they’ll discharge her in a few days, she’ll have enough time to prepare for the festival, she’s already planning how she’ll manage to do more…
Their father, who was sitting on a chair by the wall, a short distance from their mother’s bed, remained silent the whole time. A withdrawn, constricted, tense silence. The whole room was drawn into him, as if he were its nucleus and the surrounding walls a cloud of electrons, a haze of possibilities and probabilities. “I’m not finished with you yet,” was the first sentence he uttered. Without any connection to the conversation taking shape. Without directly addressing any of them by name or leaning towards them, with a gesture or motioning with his chin, the four of them knew he was talking about Ofra. Ofra looked straight at him challengingly, but coughed. In her fear she had swallowed the gum she was chewing and choked. Asher banged her on the back until she managed to cough it up in a brilliant arc that ended on the bed of the old lady groaning “Dvora’leh, Dvora’leh”.
Dvora’leh got up angrily as the gum hit the side of the bed, and cut off the flow of the old lady’s complaints. One fleeting glance at the family facing her was enough. An expression of disgust came over her face. She took her eyes off them and spat at her groaning mother, “Barbarians. Animals. Why were they brought here at all?” And the mother repeated, “Oy, Dvora’leh, it hoits,” and added a few more words in their language.
This time Asher didn’t laugh and Ori could imagine why. Even in her suffering their mother was capable of one of her caustic looks; the tenseness around the mouth and the hardening of the eyes hinted at disappointment and despair – all her efforts to inculcate good manners in her children had come to naught. Ori didn’t want to make sure if she was right. Her look was drawn backwards; again that itch at the back of the neck, the fine hairs bristling, which she had learnt to obey involuntarily, to obey the different nature that permeated and rose within her. A doctor was standing in the doorway and despite his white coat, and despite his coming from the corridor flooded with light into the dimness of the room, by his blade-thin figure, his tense stance, she knew whose emissary he was. With a slow movement of his head he summoned Dvora’leh, and she was torn from her place, leaving behind her mother’s soft groaning and mind gone awry, and went over to him to hear what her heart had long since predicted.
“All you do is cause trouble,” their father told Ofra. “Tomorrow morning you’re going to carry on with what your mother didn’t manage. She’ll tell you what to do, and how. Asher, you’re in charge of the shopping.”
“What about me?” Ori asked. She tried to imbue her voice with a demanding tone but only a squeak came out, “I want to help too.”
“You’ll help as much as you can,” her mother said sharply, with a rapidity that left no room for doubt that it was she who had drawn up the new work arrangements. “But you’ve got to rest. I’m not sure you’ve recovered.”
“No buts,” her father said, cutting her short.
She thought about calling Ilanit’s house and asking for the number of her aunt and uncle in Beit Shemesh where she’d gone for the entire Passover vacation. It was morning and she had to talk to somebody. Last night their father had come home from the hospital and right away started getting ready for his night shift. She’s going to be all right, he again pacified them, but her anxiety, that slow-moving rodent gnawing away in her chest, did not cease. While their mother was imprisoned in that castle, where the body and its approaching end was, she had no faith in words, in consolation. And as the light flared in her room she leapt out of bed and went to offer her help to Ofra, who was laboring over the remaining wall with a sponge and water that stung the eyes. Ofra looked at her with a hard expression, a stare of pride she had previously seen on her parents’ faces. If she had been sentenced to this labor, this existence, she would welcome it, make it hers out of choice. Until the day arrived when she would join the army – that was the permanent threat she declaimed whenever she’d had enough of their parents’ tyranny – and then she’d be free of them, and afterwards, when she had completed her service, she would sail away, go to Tel Aviv, to Hollywood. Her face would never again be seen in Netivot. And should anyone desire to see her, they would have to go to the community center cinema where her face would look out at them from the screen. But on this occasion she didn’t say any of this but just waved her hand dismissively. “You heard what Ima said,” she muttered and went back to scrubbing the wall.
Ori went to the phone but could not summon up the courage to lift the receiver. What would she say to Ilanit? That her mother’s in hospital? What could Ilanit do, feel sorry for her? And why would she ask Ilanit’s parents for her phone number? Had Ilanit wanted to keep in touch during the vacation, she would have given her the number herself. How strange it was to be having these thoughts, to suddenly feel this quailing. Everything that had so far come naturally now needed justification and clarification, intricate excuses. Without warning, speaking to one of Ilanit’s parents had become a barrier, a river whose foaming, turbulent current drove her back. Why had she thought about a river?
She trudged back to her room, her body fatigued from inactivity. And as she fell back onto her unmade bed her eyes lit upon the abandoned book. It had lain on the shelf in her room for a week. Each morning it waited for her – the light filtering through the slats danced and flared on the creases in its plastic cover. Ariella’s glance came to her from the depths of the cover, not losing its weight, its erudition, but the urge to open the book had vanished shortly after she borrowed it. Again she studied the cover illustration, and this time it was not the girl’s penetrating look that drew her to it, but the malevolent glint on the face of the wild creature protecting her. Again her curiosity was piqued and she opened the book.
Evening fell without her noticing it sliding around her, stealing in from the window, and afterwards – the silent softness of its movement. When she closed the book it was already a fait accompli, Netivot was once more in the hands of darkness. In the last chapters she felt her vision dimming and the print blurring. She got up and absently switched on the light, her eyes not leaving the page for a second, and went back to bed. Now she lay on it with her arms outstretched, panting, the book dropped onto the rug at the foot of the bed. Warmth floated through her body as if caressing her with innumerable hands, with feathers and fine satin, and her skin was like pure silk. She thought about the story with wonderment, attempting to hunt down its core in the waves of pleasure that shivered her flesh. Ariella, the book’s heroine, was her age – twelve – and lived with her parents in London. One day a calamity overtakes her. Her parents are killed in a horrendous crash on the Underground and the stunned Ariella is sent to live in a village with her paternal grandmother whom she has never met. She had once heard her parents talking about the old shrew, that’s what they called her, as they discussed her opposition to their marriage. When Ariella reaches her grandmother’s home she learns from personal experience that not for nothing was she called an old shrew; her grandmother treats her cruelly and exacts her revenge on the girl for her father turning his back on her, she insults and humiliates her and orders her to do horrid, purposeless jobs. One night, when the despairing Ariella is weeping bitterly into her pillow, a creature made of moonlight and tin appears in her room and leads her to an ancient oak tree. There he begs her to return to the City of Tempest and help them; he has been searching for her for twelve years, a dozen years of darkness and destruction. Ariella declines, saying it is a case of mistaken identity. She is not the girl he’s looking for. She has never heard of the City of Tempest. The creature asks her to dig under the oak’s roots when the first glimmer of dawn appears in the sky. Ariella stays awake all night, leaning against the tree’s trunk. When the first band of light gleams in the sky, she puts her hand into the space that has appeared between the roots and takes out a parchment scroll. The scroll contains directions for getting to the City of Tempest. But she still hesitates. She goes back to her grandmother’s house, and her grandmother, who is angry with her for leaving the house without permission, mercilessly vents her anger on her. At the day’s end, as twilight merges with the golden air of summer, Ariella decides to try the transporting spell. She succeeds in casting it and wakes up in a cave, inside a vast crystal bead, completely frozen. A crowd of creatures, who look like a flock of children at a masquerade, surrounds her. As she inspects her body he sees that she, too, is in costume: close-fitting trousers of shiny scales cover her legs, and the blouse she is wearing is made of similar scaly material, her arms are very white and wings are stuck to her shoulders. Her head, when she feels it, is adorned with a diadem. The creatures rejoice at her awakening. They think she is another Ariella, their seer and revelator. The City of Tempest was stricken by a spell, they tell her, detracting something from all things. The spell had cast a twelve-year slumber on her. But now she had awakened she could discover its source, for this is her role – she is their fairy detective, the patron of riddles – to expose the instigator of their troubles and restore matters to their original state. She tries telling them that she’s not who they think she is, but when she opens her mouth to protest and explain, she realizes that all the creatures can hear when she talks about her grandmother’s house and London, is a meaningless twittering. They lead her from the cave to her chambers to rest, and there, in the mirror, the truth is revealed: she is not in costume. Her soul and consciousness reside in a new body, the body of a fairy. The wings sprout from her body and the diadem on her head is made of a dozen precious stones set into her brow, endowing her with the wisdom of the Urim and Thummim. In the hope that as soon as she gets to the bottom of the matter she will also discover how to get back to England, she sets off to investigate. Four border countries encircle the City of Tempest, the Kingdoms of the Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. And there is a fifth kingdom, Napoli of Darkness, of which all creatures have heard but to which none knows the way. In the Kingdom of Summer, the first border country she travels to, she meets Pereh, an ugly, powerful, horned creature. She saves him from the king’s soldiers and certain death. But they are both captured and taken to the King of Summer’s court to stand trial, and there she discovers the first clues in solving the riddle. The spell was part of a long-standing conflict between the Kingdom of Summer and the Kingdom of Spring over the identity of their young, haunted, tormented kings, who had been born on exactly the same day. With the help of Pereh, who has become her right-hand man and confidant, she escapes from her imprisonment in the Kingdom of Summer and ends up in the Kingdom of Spring where she finds the key to the mystery. After restoring matters to their former state in the City of Tempest and the Kingdoms of Summer and Spring, and digesting the knowledge that she no longer has a home to go back to, Ariella decides to remain in the City of Tempest and devote herself to her vocation as a fairy detective.
Ori turned the story over in her mind, following the threads of the plot, their crossings and relationships. Not even Ofra’s call that supper was ready, and the puzzled look Asher gave her from the doorway when he came in to see what was happening with her, budged her from her thoughts. In particular she thought about the Kingdom of Spring and the paragraphs describing how Ariella crossed the thick beech forest that led to it, and the signs of spring abounding in summer’s domain: the warm light, an ocean of molten honey, brightening and becoming flakes of shaded gold, a latticework of amber, and the broad-leafed, thick-trunked beeches, massive trees rising from the mist of forgotten times, casting an enchanted silence on the forest as if they were nourished by sleep and dreams. What connection has that with April here, the lull in the heat-wave which has only gone underground in order to return and reveal itself in its old, full splendor, with the nettles and the thistles, and ricinus dried-up in the noonday sun? That’s where she wanted to be, with Ariella, where each of the seasons is always at its height, where the colorful City of Tempest borrows from them whenever it wishes.
After half an hour she picked up the book lying at her bedside. She began wondering. The mystery of the spell had been solved, but the story itself, the story of Ariella and Pereh, had not ended. She turned the book over and for the first time read the back cover. It was the first volume in a series of seven by the British author, Prospero Juno, about the adventures of Ariella and Pereh and the mysteries they investigated. Seven books! she thought joyfully. Seven! she almost sang aloud. She’d go right downstairs and ask Ofra if they were in the municipal library. She repeated the author’s name, Prospero Juno, and the titles of his other books – only three were mentioned on the back cover. She’d remember them by heart. The simple idea of writing their names on a piece of paper did not come to her naturally. Just as she didn’t like reading books, she abhorred the trouble involved in writing. In first grade, after they’d learnt all the letters of the alphabet, she’d seen how the fever of writing had infected all her friends. They scribbled on every empty and available surface, filled their notebooks densely with their names, the names of their brothers and sisters and parents, and began sending notes full of mistakes to one another, and doodling on the blackboard with chalk during recess. She avoided this, even though her handwriting, first in block letters and then in grown-up ones, was good and legible. She only wrote her homework and class assignments, but briefly and to the point. She didn’t have the desire, the passion was not ignited in her, neither distractedly nor intentionally at first, to catch the world as it passed and dwindled.
In fourth grade her friends began collecting stationery sets and trading them, and after that they began writing to other girls in distant towns. Gvinush even corresponded with some girl from a kibbutz in the north of Israel and with a girl from Kiryat Shemona whose house had been hit by a Katyusha rocket and destroyed. And as usual she got carried away. She was so enthusiastic about letter-writing that she hadn’t been able to restrain herself and had sent a heart-rending and totally untruthful letter to the children’s TV program, “Loop the Loop”, in which she said that her father is out of work and they’ve got no food for the Sabbath. The presenter, Dalik, read it out with tears in his eyes. Next day she was punished at school. The principal, Rivka Dadon, who every now and again would kick the knees of children who dozed during morning prayers, held a special school assembly in the gym and brought Gvinush onto the wooden stage at the front. “Now,” she reprimanded her in front of everyone, “because of your lying we’ll have a stigma. Even without this, the government and the media say about us that we whine and whine for no reason, that we shout all day that they owe us, and lie.”
Gvinush apologized with such humility that anyone who knew her knew that she didn’t mean a word of it, or of what she wrote in the letter of apology they made her write to “Loop the Loop”. Dalik, it emerged afterwards, refused to read it on air. That day Ori went to see Gvinush, back then they were still bosom pals, to buck her up. But Gvinush wasn’t in, she’d gone out somewhere with her father, and her mother showed her to her room and asked her to wait there. She’ll be back in ten minutes, she promised.
She quickly got bored waiting and began inspecting the room, which she knew well, and yet because she was alone, dimensions were revealed in it that she’d missed before. The poster of singer Ofra Haza now seemed repulsive, and the one of the singer Adam was horrifying. The room was a mess of revolting bric-a-brac, and the tumult of colors disturbed her. She began poking around the drawers of the dressing table welded to the bed, which was covered with pinkish formica and had worked copper handles. A “toilette” is what Gvinush called the complex structure of her double bed, the two chests of drawers and long oval mirror. The middle drawer contained a notebook whose cover bore a photograph of Farrah Fawcett. On her forehead was written “Diary”, and on her beautifully coiffed hair was “Rimona Peretz” on one side, and “Top Secret” on the other.
She opened the notebook at random and there a surprise awaited her. Rimona had written about her:
“Dear Diary, I wanted to say that today I noaticed that Flora is starting to be ugley. Her nose is big!!!!” – she felt her nose angrily. What is she talking about? – and went on reading. The next paragraph made her blood boil. “But Asher her brother isn’t ugley. He’s a hunk like Amar from Amar Akbar Anthony.” Under this was a heart pierced by an arrow. On the feathering was written “Rimona” and on the point – “Asher Elhayani”. In the middle was written: “Forever and Ever Amen”.
She turned the page. Here, too, there appeared at the top the touching salutation “Dear Diary” followed by a story that had happened in class and was connected with Ilanit. She didn’t manage to read it because the sound of distant merriment accompanied by low, resentful grumbling told her that Gvinush and her father had come home. She put the notebook back. She went back to Rimona’s house next day and on some pretext or another went into her room to wait for her. And again she read the diary. And thus, for a whole month, she finagled invitations from Rimona and plotted to get there earlier; or she arranged to meet in the center of town, by the kiosk, and went to her room and the hidden diary, to the confessions and the dreams and the words of longing and the desires. And another day, when she was calmer, completely sure of her skill in deceit and the power of her plotting, she totally immersed herself in a juicy excerpt that had just been written and compared the noble attributes of Adam Carrington from “Dynasty” with those of her brother Asher. Now heavy footfalls were heard, but their sound did not come closer, but oddly, they sounded close all the time, as if someone by the door was stamping. She closed the notebook and stuffed it into the middle drawer. As she straightened up Rimona came in, her facial muscles trembling from the effort of appearing calm, friendly, revealing everything. They had an inconsequential, aimless chat, and she went back home with a gnawing feeling of impending disaster. At the end of a three-day silence Rimona invited her to a party she was going to have at her house in two weeks time. Thinking back, and knowing Rimona’s scheming nature, her lust for vengeance, she should have suspected something and declined. But she accepted the invitation. And from the day of the party, every time she had to write something her insides turned over. At first she’d think of the words that Gvinush had almost certainly used in her diary to describe the insults she’d heaped on her, and the final act of humiliation. Afterwards, all that remained was the mechanical flinching, the horror associated with forming letters.
But on that exciting April evening, under the window opened to the outside dense with the richness and profundity of the stars, under the seeming threat of the slivered moon, on her bed in her room, breathing deeply and silently chuckling to herself, a buried and hidden urge rose in her. She got up, went into Ofra’s room and in her satchel found an empty notebook. After going back to her own room she opened it and copied the book’s concluding sentence: “‘Whether I like it or not,’ Ariella told Pereh, ‘this is my home,’ and betwixt the boughs dusty birds overlaid the meadows with their song.” The final words had a curious ring to them more than they had meaning. She underlined them and wrote in the margin, “Need to find out what these words mean.” Then she straightened up and stretched. She was suddenly aware of a strong desire for something sweet, of a nauseating constriction in her body, the racing sugar in the veins. Before she left the room she glanced at the book in its place on the chest of drawers. She had no doubt that tomorrow she would go back and read it from the beginning.
Copyright © by Shimon Adaf 2011, English translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
Sunburnt Faces will be published by PS Publishing.
Shimon Adaf was born in Sderot, Israel, in 1972 to parents of Moroccan origin. He began publishing poetry during his military service. A poet, novelist and musician, Adaf studied in the program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University, simultaneously writing articles on literature, film and rock music for leading Hebrew newspapers. He was also a founding member of the literary group "ev" whose aim was to find a new poetic interface between classical and modern Hebrew. Adaf worked for several years as literary editor at Keter Publishing House, and has also been writer-in-residence at Iowa University. He was awarded the Ministry of Education Award for his first collection of poetry(1996), the Prime Minister’s Prize (2007 and the Yehuda Amichai Prize for Poetry (2010).