Longing for Olga
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Aharon Megged
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
On the third day of his silence, at five o'clock in the evening, Albert left his apartment with a frame-rattling slam of the door. Elena jumped up, ran to the door and opened it, calling "Where to?" But Albert ran down the steps without turning his head. She hurried back inside and went to the window that overlooked the street, drew the curtains aside and opened the shutters to a sharp downward angle in order to see better. Where's he going, she asked herself, that crazy husband of hers. With determined steps, arms swinging back and forth, he walked briskly, as if he had decided to take action—who knows what action, he's so unpredictable, that man!—reached the end of the street, stopped, took a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and removed one. He put it in his mouth and, with jittery fingers lighted it with his lighter. He looked up and down the street as if trying to decide which way to turn, and after a moment retraced his steps. No, he didn't enter the house. He passed it without looking up at the window and continued walking. Where to? Where to, you inscrutable creature? But he was walking more slowly, with less determination than at first. His old blue jacket, worn-out and threadbare, how many times did I say to him throw it away, put it outside on the fence and somebody, a garbage man, will take it, but no, he wouldn't part with it, as if it were some family heirloom. He stopped suddenly near a dilapidated old one-story house on the verge of collapse, which only by a miracle had remained standing all these years amidst the three- and four-story buildings. It was doubtful that anyone lived there at all, the weeds had run amok in the yard, threatening to envelop the house on all sides. He flung his cigarette butt on the sidewalk, ground it out violently, squashing it with the sole of his shoe as if it were a bug, and continued on to the end of the street. He seemed to be on his way to buy something at Eliyahu's kiosk, perhaps a pack of Kents—he wouldn't stop smoking, no, not until his lungs were completely burned away, Doctor Rozov warned him that he was shortening his life—but he lingered only briefly near the newspaper stand in front of the kiosk.
Her heart sank when he disappeared around the corner. Who knows if he isn't about to do the same crazy thing he did once, disappearing for ten whole days and she didn't know where, almost losing her mind from worry because he didn't leave her a note saying where he was going and when he would be back, and if it hadn't been for her brother-in-law Marco, she would have called the police, and only after he returned, cloaked in mystery and strangely redolent of mint and mastic shrubs, did he tell her that he had stayed in a hotel in Safed. (Had he really been in Safed? There was something vague and evasive in his words upon his return. And why hadn't he called even once?) He had gone there because he "wanted to be alone, to do some soul searching." And now—again? A new incident? She twisted her ring round and round on her finger, and while continuing to stare through the shutters at the street where the sad silences of gray autumn twilight prevailed—a passing car, a woman holding her little girl's hand as the child skipped happily along, and the rain was late in coming this year, later than in other years—she remembered with concern something that had happened two weeks ago, on the night before Yom Kippur, the night of Kol Nidrei, when Albert left the house wearing a white shirt, a tie and a dress hat he had taken from a forgotten corner of the closet, to go to the synagogue on Herman Cohen Street, telling her not to prepare food for him because he intended to fast until the stars appeared the next evening, and her eyes widened in alarm at the sight of him, a bit ridiculous in the hat he hadn't worn for years, and at the meaning of his declaration, because in all the twenty-seven years of their life together, never once had he set foot inside a synagogue, never had he fasted on Yom Kippur, and as far as she knew, even his parents had never been observant. The next morning he went out again, all dressed up, wearing his black hat, but he was back in an hour carrying a prayer book for the High Holy Days, which he said he had "borrowed" from the synagogue ("borrowed?" Can people "borrow" prayer books to take home with them? Especially on Yom Kippur?). And most puzzling of all was that although he hadn't eaten all day, supposedly to atone for his sins, he sat down at the desk in his room, took up his pen, and through the open door she could see him copying passages from the prayer book into his notebook. He sat that way for hours, until after midday, bent over the book and notebook. It was already three o'clock when he lay down on the bed, exhausted, probably from hunger, and dozed off. After sunset, when he came into the kitchen to eat the meal she had prepared for him to break his fast, he cried angrily: "Flatterers! Hypocrites! Listen to how they address God when begging his forgiveness: 'For thy glory! For thine own great and terrible name! For thine own sake if not for ours! Save us for thy name!' Do you understand? He should forgive the sinners to preserve his own good name! His reputation! What chutzpah! What stupidity!"
The street was shrouded in twilight, street lamps were turned on, the window of the house opposite was lit. When it occurred to her that he might not return—who could fathom the soul of such a person! his unpredictable capriciousness!—she made a mental survey of all she had to defend herself against the vicissitudes of life if she were left alone, God forbid: her salary, which was enough for the bare necessities, the piece of land on the far side of the Yarkon which was registered in both their names, and her small treasure—a string of genuine pearls and a pendant inlaid with three 18-carat diamonds she had inherited from her grandmother, and which Albert didn't know anything about because they were in a safe-deposit box in her name only—what was the number of that box? Suddenly she couldn't remember it—nine-seven-three? Nine-three-seven? Nine-three-four?
She was greatly relieved to see Albert reappear at the end of the street, walking towards the house in slow, measured steps, head bent in contemplation.
She still couldn't understand why he was punishing her with these three days of silence. How had she sinned against him? And when she asked him at breakfast before leaving for work, at least tell me what you're accusing me of, I have a right to know, don't I?—he didn't answer her. He hid behind his newspaper and did not reply. She served him supper when she came home from the office, and he didn't utter a word! What in the world could he suspect her of? In all the years of their marriage she had never been unfaithful to him, not even in her imagination, not even in her dreams…
But at the very instant she said that to herself—how strange!—she suddenly remembered (blushing violently) the dream she had last night: she left her office and instead of going home, she turned north and reached a beautiful park at the end of the street—it reminded her a little of Yarkon Park, except that the trees were taller and denser—and walking through it she sensed that someone, a man, was following her. Turning her head to the right, she saw that it was Paul Newman!—Paul Newman, she laughed to herself now, Paul Newman was pursuing her—he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to him, and she was seized by a kind of excitement, a hot flow of blood. Why Paul Newman of all people—she laughed—and then she remembered that the night before she had seen a movie on television with Paul Newman playing the manager of a hockey team.
Yes, well there was one small incident, innocent enough, with Z.—it was such a long time ago! When Dana was what, ten? nine? --but I didn't do a thing to encourage him or lead him on. On the contrary!
"Sit!" he pointed to the couch upon entering the room—a teacher ordering his pupil to sit before him for a scolding.
Elena sat, knees apart, hands clasped on the skirt of her dress, looking at him expectantly. He had broken his silence—she was relieved about that, but what now?—Albert sat facing her on a high-backed chair they had bought years ago in the flea market, upholstered in a fabric patterned with lilies that made it look like a throne. He scrutinized her as if her crime were etched on her face, and after a tense moment, said:
"What, in your opinion, is the most important thing in married life?"
Elena smiled and two dimples worked their way into her plump cheeks. What kind of question had he decided to test her with? For some reason, she was reminded of what he had said to her one morning—when was it? two years ago? more? He had just awakened, only a faint light penetrated the shutters. He told her he had dreamt he was being tested on the Book of Obadiah, which he felt had been written about him, saying, "I'm like Obadiah, the shortest book in the Bible, only one chapter."
"Love, I think, isn't it?" she replied to his question with a little giggle.
Albert gave her a piercing look and after a long moment of silence, pointed his finger at her, calling out somewhat hoarsely, "Honesty!"
And then, in a soft, almost elegiac tone, as if in mourning for something irretrievably lost, "Yes, honesty."
Elena blushed. What was he talking about? Had she done something dishonest? When? Maybe, she shuddered, he had found out about the safe-deposit box? Directing his words at her eyes, her heart, Albert said that if there is no honesty between a husband and wife, then their love is worthless as a button, their married life but "a passing cloud," "flying dust."
Elena had great respect for his command of Hebrew. But now she was worried about his grim voice, his visage. It seemed as if all the lines in his face focused on his short, rectangular mustache, giving him a menacing look.
"What do a man and woman share in their life together?" he asked rhetorically, responding that all the mundane things such as earning a living, maintaining an apartment, raising children and the like, lose their emotional content, their meaning, in fact, if there is no trust between husband and wife, if they cannot be sure of each other.
Elena's glance fell upon the sideboard shelf which was lined with small porcelain figurines—a white dog lying at its master's feet, a yellow-haired goose-girl holding a green branch, a Russian troika—suddenly noticing a film of dust on the left side—how had she missed it when she cleaned the room on Friday? She was seized with an intense, irresistible urge to get up that instant, grab a dust cloth and obliterate the shame with a flick of her wrist.
" . . . until one day they discover that it's too late," Albert continued, "it cannot be salvaged. The lie has penetrated too deeply. A stench fills their house. And what happens then?" His eyes flashed a menacing warning of hellish retribution.
Yes, he's found out about the safe-deposit box. Her heart filled with a profound sense of regret. Why had she listened to her mother back then—"These days, you never know what might happen to you, so you need something of your own"—why had she kept it from him? From the very beginning, her mother had been against this marriage to "a boy from a simple, Bulgarian family of little means."
"How dare you open my notebook!" Albert's voice rose suddenly to a shout, his face constricted in a spasm of pain and the bristles of his mustache seemed to stiffen and shoot out sparks around him. "How dare you even go near it! You know I warned you it was taboo! Out of bounds! It's my private property, mine alone!" His voice was choked with tears of rage.
Even though Elena was pale with astonishment, she was relieved: thank God, not the safe-deposit box! But what notebook was he talking about? Did I open his notebook?
"Me?" placing a hand on her breast.
"You! You!" he waved a finger in her face. "You can't hide it from me. You opened my notebook. . . ."
"What are you talking about? I swear to you . . . " she blushed profusely.
"Don't lie! Just don't lie!"
"Have I ever lied to you?"
Although I never told him about Z.—she felt a slight pang of conscience—I didn't lie either. What was there to tell, anyway?
"So why," he shrieked, "why, when I went into my room on Sunday, did I find . . . " his shrieks becoming a kind of wail, choked him. He became silent, covered his face with his hands. "Why," he repeated, quietly this time, appealing to her conscience, "did I find that my notebook was not in its regular place—and it was open! I left it closed on the left side of the desk near the lamp, I remember very well, with a box of paper clips and my pen on it. Why was it on the right side when I came back into the room forty minutes later?"—and once again his voice escalated to a scream. "Open! and face down!"
"I didn't open it," Elena said quietly. "Maybe I moved it a little when I dusted the desk."
"So don't dust it!" he shouted. "I don't need you to clean my desk!"
Her passion for cleaning drove him crazy. It was a disease, an incurable disease. From the minute she gets home from her office, she's cleaning, polishing, scrubbing. If he moves a chair from here to there, she quickly moves it back. The living room is a museum for her, a permanent exhibit of furniture and "touch-me-not" objects. Sometimes, when he comes home and sees how immaculate it is, everything in its place, spotless—he becomes inexplicably depressed, feels a bone-chilling sense of imminent death.
And the same was true of his room, the one that had been Dana's before she left the house. He leaves three or four books on the desk, and she, dust cloth in hand, wipes them off and returns them to the shelf when he's not around. "I don't care about order!" he screams at her when he reenters his room and finds that his books are not where he left them. "The world is round!!!"
This sentence, which he repeated so frequently, was one she simply didn't understand. She sensed that it had some kind of philosophical depth—the world is round, of course, she would laugh to herself—no one understood that better than she, who worked in a travel agency. But why did he proclaim it as if it were an amazing new discovery?
"And you didn't open it?" he looked intently into her eyes.
"I swear it!" she put her hand on her heart once again.
Albert dropped his head onto his chest and closed his eyes. His shoulders drooped as if burdened by a heavy load. Elena was moved to pity by the sight of that thin body and his old, threadbare blue jacket gathered as if he wore it in defense against the world. The bad, round world. Sometimes, seeing him from afar as he approached the house carrying a grocery bag, or the worn-out briefcase that held his notebooks—the very same notebooks she would never open to read what was written in them because they were so sacred to him—and a book or two under his arm, walking and pondering, his small face constricted in sorrow, disappointment or bitterness, only the black, rectangular strip of mustache bearing witness to the courage hidden within his heart—she would say to herself, "He is a miniature genius." A great soul sparked with genius that only she was aware of, but which would someday be revealed to the world—a body too small to contain such a large soul, thinness held sway over him. His soul, she said to herself, blazes with a kind of eternal fire that burns away his flesh. Even if he eats a lot, chorba, calf spleen with gravy, sarsicha—he actually has a good appetite—he doesn't gain even a kilo.
"Okay, I believe you," Albert looked at her after the long silence.
Elena sighed inwardly with relief. Her face cleared, beamed. She wanted to get up and hug him to her ample breasts the way she would hug a child in need of compassion, drawing him into her bosom, making him part of her.
"Should I make us a salad?" she asked after bestowing upon him a long, forgiving look.
Albert nodded, smiling gratefully.
Elena got up, straightened her dress as if brushing crumbs from it, and went to the kitchen to prepare a Bulgarian salad with feta cheese, garlic, parsley, just the way he liked it.
Once, when Albert was forty-five, he was crossing Malchei Israel Square at noon on the way from his house to the clinic where he was going because of a worrisome pressure he felt around his heart. Reaching the middle of the empty square, he suddenly stopped, panicked because he couldn't see his shadow, not in front of him or behind him or on either side. He spun around on his heel looking down at the pavement, but there was no shadow. Looking up at the sky, he saw that the sun was at its zenith, directly over his head, and he understood why he had no shadow. But his eyes filled with tears from the intensity of the light and the whole world became a blur. He turned around and went home.
Albert had three notebooks: the first was a journal, the second a lexicon of beautiful expressions, and the third he called "The Creation." The first two were meant to nourish the third, the way streams flowing into a lake nourish it with their fertilizing materials. He forbade Elena to touch them. He would shove them into his desk drawer, which he didn't lock because he trusted her.
His greatest fear was that she might once accidentally, unintentionally take a peek at the third notebook. For two years—two years had passed since he left his job at the municipality, having decided to devote all his time to writing—nothing had been written in it except for the name of the work and two lines below it. When she would tremblingly ask him, how is it going, he would promise to show her the "Creation" when it was finished. She knew that the wonders were transpiring hidden deep within him. The way a fetus develops, invisibly, in the secret recesses of its mother's womb. The way a seed swells in the belly of the soil, only the sprouting of its first green shoots bringing joy to the heart of the beholder. Sometimes, sitting at his desk, his notebook before him, he would hear her approaching steps and, fearing she might open the door to ask something, to take something, he would quickly pick up his pen and bend over the page, as if totally immersed in the creative act.
On that same Sunday, alone at home in the late afternoon—Elena had gone out to the greengrocer's—he sat facing the open notebook, trying to overcome what he called "third-line phobia." Glancing at his watch, he was alarmed to see that it was 5:20. The banks closed at 5:30, and this was the last day to pay the telephone bill (an amazing 348.45 shekels, because Elena is capable of babbling away on the phone for an hour and a half straight with her good friend, Malka Kliger—also Romanian—and every few days she had a long, heart-to-heart conversation with her sister or her mother, who was in a retirement home). He got up and hurried out, running to get to the bank before it closed. On his way back, he remembered with horror that he had left his notebook on the desk—had he at least closed it? Yes, because he had put his pen on top of it, meaning that he had closed it!—And Elena might have gone in and might have been tempted—such are the impulses of the human heart!—to take a peek. Entering his room, he was astonished to see the notebook lying open, face down on the right-hand side of the desk, with the ashtray, emptied of ashes and cigarette butts, on top of it. He never, ever put the ashtray on the notebook! And if it was empty, that meant that Elena had been in the room and had handled the notebook, moving it from one place to another, opening it, glancing inside, seeing…
(He forgot that, in his haste, he had left the notebook open, its nakedness exposed to anyone entering the room—but when Elena came in—yes, to empty the ashtray, as she was wont to do—and saw the notebook lying there that way, she quickly covered its nakedness and in her modesty, shut her eyes before slapping it face down, lest she sin by breaking her promise and trespassing.)
So profound was his shame when the fact penetrated his mind, pierced it like a sharp nail, that his wife, his helpmeet, the mother of his daughter, had abused his faith in her, so enormous was his anger that Albert could find no words with which to condemn, to admonish, to castigate, to lash out with. He was silent. And his thunderous silence was meant to punish the sinner.
Standing alone in his room before Elena had returned, facing his desk and the desecrated notebook, he thought that he could no longer continue with this creation he had begun writing more than two years ago, as if the wind had been taken out of his sails.
Someone completely immersed in the material world, in practical things, might think it was just a chance occurrence—perhaps not a very successful one at that—that Albert Giron left his job with the municipality to devote himself to writing, and only writing. But anyone who has ever felt the spirit of creativity surging within him knows that there are no chance occurrences in such matters.
And this is how it happened.
Elena had asked, begged, pleaded with him so many times—who can count them over more than 25 years of marriage?—to take a two- or three-week vacation abroad with her. As a veteran in the travel agency, she was entitled to a ten percent discount on plane tickets, and the two of them earned fairly good salaries. They needed rest and distraction from the aggravations of everyday life. How much pleasure does a person have in his life? Why not step out of the monotony of your days in that suffocating room in the municipal building and feast your eyes on some beautiful sights? He stubbornly refused. Europe didn't interest him. He knew it from his childhood. Switzerland, France, England—all their "beauty" could be summed up in one simple formula, which applied to all of Europe: forests, rivers, mountains. He had seen all of that during his childhood in Gorna-Dzjomaya. All were deeply engraved on his heart. Nothing could surprise him. He had seen churches and museums on trips to Sofia with his parents to visit his two aunts. What could be the novelty for him? All churches have the same altars and the same saints with sickeningly pious faces. And it's preferable to look at the Mona Lisa and Rembrandt paintings in albums, because in a museum, the many visitors around you block the paintings from view or distract you from them. America? He hated America because of the sloppy, vulgar English spoken there, from the sales clerks up to the president. Just shameful! Not a drop of gentility, delicacy, or refinement. And he wouldn't travel to the Far East because he was sure to catch some exotic Asiatic disease there. Let her travel alone, without him, if she had such a strong desire to stick her head out of the window of the ark in which we stand crowded together, two by two, and breathe fresh air. "You're just afraid of flying," her azure eyes smiled at him with an understanding of forgivable human weakness. "Afraid? Me?" He shrugged his shoulders and gave a hollow chuckle. But even when she suggested a trip to Cyprus—not by plane, by ship!—he refused. He was seized by panic as he pictured himself seasick on a ship being tossed about on the stormy ocean, about to vomit over the deck rail, his upper plate of false teeth flying out of his mouth and sinking into the murky depths. "Go alone," he told her.
And she did. Six times, always with a guided tour group, and with her best friend, Malka Kliger. During the first four trips, she covered most of Europe and accumulated hundreds of photographs, an album for each country, and dozens of lace doilies, lace tablecloths and lace baskets. A sample of folk crafts from each country.
Elena was a rather strange kind of tourist, different from all her fellow travelers.
She had been an avid reader since her youth, and for the past twelve years especially in English. Every two or three weeks, after work, she would go directly from her office to the British Council Lending Library, where she was a member, and sign out four books which she carried in her handbag. It had all started when she decided to improve her spoken English, necessary for her work in the travel agency; and although it was not her original intention, the more she read—novels, biographies and travel books—the more she enjoyed reading and she found herself reading faster in English than in Hebrew. She grew very fond of several authors—Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier, Penelope Gilliat and Penelope Lively, Doris Lessing and Anita Brookner. Lying in bed reading their books, she seemed to feel their breath brushing her face.
During her trips to Europe, she was so curious to see for herself the places she had read about in these books and compare the way she had pictured them in her imagination to the way they really were, that she would often pass up a visit to a well-known tourist site and slip away from the group to follow her insatiable curiosity. Once, in London, as the group trailed up the wide steps into St. Paul's Cathedral like a flock of sheep behind its shepherd, their guide, who held a fir-tree branch aloft like a flag, she slipped away to the underground and rode to south London, following the path she had marked for herself on the map. Emerging at Lambeth Station, she searched for Vere Street just so she could see where Somerset Maugham's Liza of Lambeth had lived. And in Paris, when the group was visiting the Pantheon, she turned back and went in search of the Hotel d'Alsace at 13 Rue des Beaux-Arts to see the building in which Oscar Wilde had spent his last two years, ill, abandoned and ostracized. And that's how it was in Rome and Venice and all the other cities they visited. Every time she returned to their hotel, Malka would question her about where she had disappeared to, but she did not reveal her secret even to Malka, her best friend, who was always boasting about the fact that she read nothing but detective stories.
Back in Israel, during her friends' visits to hear about a trip, she would sit them down on the sofa, open one of those albums in front of them and point at the photos page after page, describing the strange incidents—surprising ones, funny ones—that had occurred. She had many stories about those trips. Sometimes she would open the sideboard drawer, which contained some hundred-and-fifty lace doilies and tablecloths flattened one on top of the other in perfect order, take out two or three of them and spread them open in front of her guests. The most fantastic trip of all was the fifth one, to Japan (whence she brought Albert a wide-brimmed Chinese straw hat, to shade him from the strong summer sun he was so frightened of). She came back from that trip so full of impressions, so enthusiastic, so excited, that for quite a few days she seemed to be immersed in a dream she refused to awaken from. How many mistakes she made confirming Lufthansa flight times on the computer in her office! And at home, trying to describe to Albert the shrines in Kyoto and the Golden Pavilion of the seventeenth-century Shogun, its wooden walls painted with tigers and birds and clouds—it's unbelievable how thin and delicate the paper partitions between the rooms are and how airy the paintings! And the cherry blossoms in bloom! And the water lilies floating on the surface of the pond in the heart of the garden! . . . she was at a loss for words, simply at a loss for words. And one day, just listen to this story, a Japanese woman stops me—why me, of all the people in the group?—she's about my age, but with a wrinkled face, and bowing, she hands me a bunch of lotus flowers. I'm astonished and ask her in English why me, and she says, also in English, but hard-to-understand English, because you are my sister . . . imagine that! But when she told him, before the sixth trip, that she was going to Turkey—he was furious.
"To Turkey?! To those murderers?! Those barbarians?! Do you know that in 1875 they slaughtered 12,000 Bulgarians, men, women and children? That in 1915 they massacred more than a million Armenians? You read Franz Werfel's The Forty Days of Mussa Dagh. How can you travel to a country of such villains?" But Elena said that she wasn't traveling to see the villains, but to see the ancient ruins and gorgeous scenery. Everyone she knows has already been to Turkey. Everybody goes there. And so she went, bringing back eight large, wonderful lace tablecloths, the likes of which you can't find in all of Europe, and seventy-two photographs of the ruins of Greek churches, amphitheaters, picturesque villages nestled among green mountains, women driving donkeys laden with twigs and one photo showing her and Malka Kliger standing arm-in-arm in front of a statue of Aphrodite.
And she brought back countless geographical maps from each trip, not only maps of cities and countries, but also detailed maps of the transportation lines of all the cities in which she had spent a few days. For example, she brought back three transit maps of Vienna: a map of the underground lines, one of the tram lines, and one of the bus lines; and spread them out in front of Albert to show him points of connection between these lines so that if you want to get, for example, from your hotel near the Opernplatz to Kahlenberg—she moved her finger on the maps—you have to take the No. 2 underground at Karlsplatz to the Schottentor Station and then take the No. 38 tram to Grinzing where you change to the 38A bus that takes you to the summit of Kahlenberg Mountain, which is surrounded by the famous Vienna Woods, and affords a wonderful view of the entire city and the Danube River. Albert would listen impatiently, nervously. This practical efficiency of hers irritated him—he was always confusing one platform with another in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station—but still he was amazed by her logistic abilities.
And then, two years ago—
Two years ago, she finally succeeded in tempting Albert. She told him that a tour of his native country, Bulgaria, was being organized. "You'll have a chance to see your Gorna-Dzjomaya again after more than forty years." Albert looked at her silently, narrowed his eyes as if looking into his heart, and finally announced: "I won't go." And went to his room. Elena was amazed: not to Bulgaria either? The place he was so often nostalgic about? That he talked about so lovingly?
But Albert was unable to fall asleep that whole night. Scenes of his childhood—the little wooden house surrounded by a garden of cherry and pear trees and beds of onions and garlic, the trough, made of the hollow trunk of an oak tree, near the pump well, the pig pen belonging to Lizabetta, their neighbor on the other side of the fence, the little crow he once caught and raised in a dovecote, and the small pond encircled by dense, tangled vegetation, his "little Garden of Eden"—swirled about in his mind. In the morning, sitting down for breakfast, he said as if offhandedly, "How much does that trip cost?" And a week later, he said: "Okay, you make all the arrangements. I can't handle any of that."
They left the house at five in the morning and in the taxi all the way to the airport, Albert did not utter a sound. He turned his head toward the window, hugged himself as if against the cold, and stared out at the fields and orange groves that were wrapped in thin fog. Long lines had formed in front of the airline counters in the departure terminal, and the slowness of the security checks and the length of the serpentine line they stood on convinced him they would miss the plane. They advanced towards the counter at a snail's pace and all of Elena's sprightly words of encouragement—she was an experienced traveler and not at all upset—did not succeed in drawing Albert out of his bitter silence. After about fifteen minutes, he watched anxiously as the security checker removed the contents of an enormous, overstuffed, multi-sectioned travel bag belonging to a blonde girl about eighteen years old, who looked as if she was probably from one of the northern countries—innocent-looking, definitely innocent, he thought. Moreover, in response to a question posed by the grim inquisitor, she said that she had spent five months in kibbutz Sha'ar HaGolan. The checker pulled all of the girl's modest belongings out of the bag—underpants, undershirts, bras, handkerchiefs, tubes of toothpaste and other kinds of creams—publicly humiliating the innocent young girl, who had probably been a volunteer worker at the kibbutz out of love for the country, and maybe she was even a German who had come to atone for the sins of her forefathers—how could that idiot checker do that? How could she? Why all that torture? Such stupidity!—he muttered to himself, that's how the country gets such a bad name in the rest of the world. . . such harassment!—he raged inside as the mindless security checker rummaged around in the depths of the bag, pulling out wrinkled, dusty work pants and a crushed package of cotton-wool. He wanted to go up to her and scream: Can't you see that she's guiltless? I personally guarantee it! Elena, who always knew what he was feeling even when he didn't say a word, put her hand on his arm to calm him: patience, patience, she's only doing her job. Don't get excited. But his agitation continued, because, on the other hand—no, he couldn't understand the logic behind the worthless, criminal system fraught with danger that would allow the suitcases of the passenger in front of him to pass—a big man in an elegant black suit, swarthy and definitely suspicious-looking, probably not even Jewish, Iranian perhaps, or Turkish—the checker did not even open them, but passed him through after only a few questions—how could she know whether his declaration was true?—and fixed the okay stickers onto his baggage.
They went through the passport check on the upper floor without any trouble, and Elena suggested they buy some things at the duty-free shop. Skin cream she had promised to bring for her mother, which could be found only here, not even at Schiphol in Amsterdam. And a carton of Kents for him—if he absolutely insists on smoking himself to death. "Not interested," he announced, pacing back and forth, his hands in his pockets, along the length of the large hall with its dazzlingly shiny floors and lights. Restless, he shot hostile glances at the glittering abundance on the sales counters—gold and silver jewelry, vulgar souvenirs, expensive sweets—deceptive lights! Illusions! He had a foreboding that his plane would be hijacked and forced to land in Libya. The miracle of Entebbe would not be repeated. And if it weren't hijacked, it would explode in the sky. A bomb had been planted on it. He couldn't rid his mind of the image of the large, swarthy man, the Turk or the Iranian, an agent of some Muslim terrorist organization. He felt his bowels grow weak, as if they were melting, and five minutes before boarding time was announced, he felt an urgent need to urinate. Entering the restroom, which was also scrubbed and dazzlingly shiny, he stood in front of the urinal and took out his penis—but the urine refused to flow. He shook his recalcitrant organ to encourage it, to urge it on, but not even one drop emerged. A sealed fountain. He felt as if his bladder were about to burst, but the flow was arrested, as if the pipe were blocked. Something that had never happened to him before—to him, who, at the age of eight, when he was still in Gorna-Dzjomaya, used to reach a distance of two meters twenty in competitions with his friends to see who could urinate further. Outside, the loudspeaker echoed, calling in three languages for the passengers to board the plane, to gather at the boarding gate. He squeezed the muscles of his intestines, his bladder, he chided his penis, but all his efforts were in vain. He felt only a sharp sticking pain, like a needle, in the tip of his penis.
Outside, Elena was panicking. The passengers had already crowded around the boarding gate, the loudspeaker had twice called them to board, and Albert had yet to return. Against all propriety—what did she care about niceties in such an emergency?—she crossed into the men's section of the restroom entrance and called her husband's name loudly. Albert, in despair, zipped up his pants and went out to her. "What happened?" She stood before him, alarmed. "I'm not going," he whispered, "go by yourself." Astonished, Elena didn't know what to say. The tickets, the money, the suitcases . . . she had already gotten used to many of his whims, but she had never even imagined this kind of madness. "The suitcases are already on the plane," she whispered so as not to scream. "What happened to you? Don't you feel well?"—"Yes, I don't feel well," he placed both hands on his stomach. Elena, seeing now that he was pale and perspiring, was at a loss. But she was a resourceful, quick-witted woman: Albert's refusal to go—whether because he really felt ill or for some other reason that could not be delved into at the moment—could not be ignored. That much was clear. She therefore had to hurry and salvage what she could. Run downstairs and inform the company they were canceling because her husband had felt the sudden onset of an attack—the price of the tickets would be refunded within a month, she was sure of that—give the numbers of the tags on their suitcases and a description of them and request that they be sent back to Israel on the return flight.
Back home, Albert undressed, lay down in bed, pulled the sheet over his head, and uttered not a sound.
Elena telephoned Dana in Jerusalem. "Are you calling from Vienna? Sofia?" asked Dana. "From here, Spinoza Street," Elena informed her, and told her what had happened at the airport. "Psychosomatic," Dana asserted. "With Daddy, everything's psychosomatic."—"He's not talking. I ask him a question and he won't answer. Not a word." Dana was silent for a minute, and then said: "Do you want me to come?" Elena knew that this was an empty gesture. Dana very often offered assistance, but without any real intention of coming and helping. She had other things on her mind. Protests, demonstrations, vigils opposite the Prime Minister's office. . . . "No need. He'll recover, I hope."
But for thirty-two hours, Albert did not recover. He didn't eat, didn't drink, didn't speak a word. He lay covered by the sheet, half-asleep, hallucinations spinning around in his mind. In one of them, his brother-in-law, Marco—my boorish brother-in-law, he calls him—meets him on the street and asks that he accompany him to the parking lot opposite his furniture store, shouting, "You're a coward, a miserable coward." He spits at him, shouting, "Mouse! Go and hide in your hole!" In another hallucination, he sees himself standing on a stage doing magic tricks: he pulls a woman's panties, bras, sanitary napkins out of his sleeve and tosses them into the air, but no one in the large audience laughs, no one is amazed, no one applauds, and he leaves the stage in shame. During the twilight hours, hunger gnawing at him, he hallucinates that he is entering the municipal building. He goes up to his room on the fifth floor and finds the door locked. When he asks the cleaning woman where the key is, she laughs in his face and tells him to wait in the corridor. Standing there and waiting, who should he see coming down the hall but Finkelstein, the Department Head, the person who made his life miserable, who tormented and ignored him, who never offered him a cigarette. Tall, broad-shouldered, a sneer on his thick lips, he approached Albert, chiding him, "Did I give you permission? Did I give you permission to be absent from work?" Albert wants to slap his face, but his hand is paralyzed. And in the morning, sunbeams penetrating the eastern window and arching over his bed, the room flooded with light, he has a vision of a sailboat gliding off into the distance, seagulls circling it, and he gazes at it with great longing, how much he wants to be sailing away on it . . . The world is round, his heart whispers.
(Once, Elena asked him: "Why do you always repeat that sentence, 'The world is round?' Everyone knows it's round!" "Don't you understand?" he whispered dejectedly. "Don't you understand that you can't escape from it? That wherever you go, you inevitably return to the same place? That is the tragedy of humankind.")
The next evening, when Elena came home, he sat up in bed, asked her to sit on the chair facing him, and said quietly: "I am not going back to work."—"To what work?"—"To the municipality. I'm not going back there anymore." Elena looked at him fearfully. She was afraid that he had lost his mind. "Do you want to find another job?" she asked hesitantly. He looked even thinner than usual in his undershirt and shorts, his chest sagging, his face haggard. "No. No job. I'll take early retirement. In another two months I'll be fifty-three and eligible for about fifty percent after twenty-seven years of work." Something had happened to him there, at the airport, Elena thought. Some sort of demon had possessed him. His eyes glittered strangely. What was he contemplating?
The thought flashed through her mind to call Z.—such a sane person, whose words were always so reasonable, spoken so calmly, imbuing her with peace of mind. But she knew that, like all the other times she had thought of calling him over the years, she would not do it. Anyway, he probably didn't even remember me.
Albert explained: how many more years did he have left to live? Twenty? Twenty-five? He had wasted twenty-seven of the best years of his life—and on what? On tax collecting, on mindless bookkeeping, on nerve-wracking, sometimes maddening arguments with irate citizens who thought they had found mistakes in their municipal property taxes or water bills. Vanity. Vanity. "I was withering away there!" he cried from the depths of his heart and after a brief silence, lowered his voice: "A man must leave some kind of mark on the world before he dies. Some trace. You read 'The Overcoat,' didn't you? I gave it to you once. Even a pathetic clerk like Akaky Akakyevich left his mark on the world, because when he copied documents with his quill, in his own handwriting, forming every letter carefully and precisely, he considered it art! His handwriting was his mark on the world! And I—not even that! Because now everything is computerized! Everything is anonymous! Nameless! I was a nobody!"
"You want to write," Elena bestowed an understanding glance upon him.
She remembered very clearly the things he had said to her even before they had gotten married, while strolling along the shore near the large rocks in north Jaffa one moonlit evening. He had stopped walking and held his hand up to her, saying: "Do you see these fingers? They don't play the piano, but they have a feeling for the music of words. Someday this feeling will be transferred to a pen, and from the pen to paper." On their honeymoon—oh, what a lovely time that was in Ashkelon!—he would dash into the waves head-first and swim far out, and she, who even then was too heavy, although not like now, it's really scandalous how fat she has gotten over the last few years, all because of her uncontrollable sweet tooth—she would step into the water after him and swim like a whale, and after lunch in the hotel, they would go to bed and make love . . . and once, he showed her a story he had written when he was in the army, his descriptions of the gorgeous Sinai landscape intertwined like the lacework loops of her doilies. One sentence had made a great impression on her, had even become carved into her memory: "In stunned silence, the hills stood covered by the crimson light of dawn sprawled across the jagged summits of the desert expanse, upright sentinels, cloaked in proud isolation." And when he told her about the French writer he admired so much, Albert Camus, a goal-keeper on a football team in his youth, winner of the Nobel Prize the age of forty-four, quoting whole sentences of The Stranger from memory—a book she had also later read at his recommendation, although she hadn't been very impressed with it—she teased him, saying: "When you were a boy, you played football with Maccabi Jaffa and your name is Albert too, so maybe one day you too will be awarded the Nobel Prize." She remembered that quite a few times during their many years of marriage, while walking together, or offhandedly, while reading the newspaper at breakfast, he had hinted to her, almost in a whisper, humbly, that if he had some free time, if he weren't buried in enervating office routine, then he . . . because his head was sometimes bursting with ideas—yes, she believed in him. He would occasionally make inspired remarks, casually, as it were, that would surprise her by their originality and depth—like something she remembered and had repeated to Malka Kliger—"We are all victims of our nature, which plays a cunning game with us by holding its cards close to its chest." Or, "Wickedness ages people, especially women" (adding with an affectionate wink: "And goodness makes people younger—especially women"); or "If all the Jews really wanted to, they could stop the world from spinning." And once he said to her: "There is no history. There is only character. And character is unchanging."
"Your salary," he said, sitting opposite her in his underwear, the bristles of his beard darkening his cheeks, "plus my pension will be enough for us, in my opinion, if we live frugally. And don't forget that we also have that half-dunam lot, and when the area on the other side of the Yarkon is authorized for building, we'll be able to get thousands of dollars for it. Take that into account."
Yes, Elena remembered that lot she hadn't ever seen, bought fifteen years ago at a bargain price and with a twenty-year noninterest loan, at the recommendation of the Municipal Employees' Union. Sadness suddenly engulfed her. Dispiritedly, she thought about the fact that Albert would no longer leave the house every morning for work the way he had for all these years.
"I called Dana," she said, "and told her that you felt ill and we didn't go."
Albert lowered his head onto his chest, and his chin stuck in the space between his collar bones.
"Did you talk to her about her hairstyle?" He raised his eyes.
"What about her hairstyle?"
"What is it supposed to be, some kind of political fashion, chopping off your hair? It doesn't suit her! She looks like a mentally retarded inmate who has fled the institution!"
"I don't think so," Elena smiled ruefully.
Albert looked at her dejectedly, submissively from under his brow.
"You're probably very hungry. Get up and take a shower." Elena rose from her chair and went into the kitchen.
Standing and peeling vegetables, she thought about whether to call her sister Mira that same night to tell her what had happened, but she decided to put it off for a few days. Suddenly, she was flooded with a sense of bitter injustice. Why do only we have such upheavals? Why does life flow so smoothly, with no jolts, for Mira and Marco? They have security, and their son and daughter are married. . . .
But, pouring oil into the salad bowl, she said to herself: Don't be jealous. What do people really know about what lies behind your sister's pleasant smile? Only I notice the look she sometimes gives Marco. God help us!
One morning, years ago, before leaving for work at the municipality, Albert stood shaving in front of the mirror in the bathroom. He spread a thick layer of shaving cream on his cheeks and neck and used his razor to draw off strip after strip of the snowy cream dotted with tiny bristles which he then rinsed off with water.
Pulling the razor along the length and width of his cheeks and around his chin, he was careful not to infringe upon the bounds of his small, trapezoid mustache. The vapor from the hot water he left running in the sink had spread about the room, fogging the mirror and obscuring his image. When he had wiped the steam from mirror with his hand to clear it, he panicked: he didn't recognize the face reflected there. The morose eyes of a dog stared back at him; a beaten, lost dog bereft of its master, bewildered, not knowing where it belongs.
He was so upset that when he pulled the razor across his cheek again, a crimson stain spread across the snow. In his confusion, he grabbed the white shirt hanging on the wall and wiped his face with it. And when that too became stained with red, he felt his entire body had been slashed.
English translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Aharon Megged was born in Wroclawek, Poland, in 1920 and came to pre-state Israel when he was six. He lived on a kibbutz for many years, working in agriculture and fishing. Later, he became a journalist and literary editor, served as cultural attache in London, and was writer-in-residence at Oxford and Haifa Universities. He served as president of the Israeli branch of PEN from 1980 to 1987, and has been a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language since 1980. Megged has published over 40 books. Among his many literary awards: the Bialik Prize (1973), the Brenner Prize, the ACUM Prize (1990), the Newman Prize (1991), the Agnon Prize (1996), the WIZO Prize (France, 1998), the President`s Prize (2001), the Israel Prize for Literature (2003), the Koret Jewish Book Award (USA, 2004), and the Prime Minister's Prize three times, most recently in 2007. He has also been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Bar-Ilan University (2008).