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The pale of settlement, p.1

The Pale of Settlement, page 1


The Pale of Settlement

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The Pale of Settlement


  winner of the flannery o’connor award for short fiction



  Published by the University of Georgia Press

  Athens, Georgia 30602

  © 2007 by Margot Singer

  All rights reserved

  Designed by Mindy Basinger Hill

  Set in 11/15 pt Filosofia

  The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.

  Printed in the United States of America

  11 10 09 08 07 c 5 4 3 2 1

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Singer, Margot.

  The Pale of Settlement : stories / Margot Singer.

  p. cm. — (The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction)

  ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3000-6 (alk. paper)

  ISBN-10: 0-8203-3000-0 (alk. paper)

  1. Jews—Identity—Fiction. 2. Jewish diaspora—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3619.1572447 2007

  813’.6—dc22 2007015079

  British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available

  ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-3586-5


  Through the window that is not there, we see our children

  searching the old ruin for toys they lost yesterday

  and turning up broken clay jars from centuries ago.

  The chasm between generations fills up with dust and sand,

  human bones, animal bones, a multitude of broken vessels.

  Broken jars speak the truth. A new jar is the lie of beauty.

  YEHUDA AMICHAI ~ from “Summer and the Far End of Prophesy”



  Helicopter Days


  Lila’s Story


  Deir Yassin



  Body Count

  The Pale of Settlement

  A Note on Sources


  Many of the stories in this collection first appeared in journals (some in slightly different form): “Helicopter Days” in Ascent; “Reunification” in Agni; “Lila’s Story” in Shenandoah; “As Dawn Splits” (the first section of “Deir Yassin”) in the Mid-American Review; “Borderland” in the Gettysburg Review; “Deir Yassin” and “Hazor” in the Western Humanities Review; “Body Count” in Prairie Schooner; and “The Pale of Settlement” in the North American Review.

  The lines from Hannah Senesh’s poem “Now” appear with the permission of Stuart Matlins, publisher, Jewish Lights Publishing.


  Love is a simultaneous firing of two spirits engaged in the autonomous act of growing up. And the sensation is of something having noiselessly exploded inside each of them.



  The bomb went off downtown, near the entrance to the Haifa Carmelit subway, at 5:27 on a Friday morning in late June. It blew up a white Fiat and shattered the plate glass windows of the Bank Hapoalim branch across the intersection. It exploded a streetlight, two signposts, and part of the stone wall bordering the sidewalk on the subway side of the street. The lower branches of a eucalyptus tree were burned clear of leaves, and the trunk was singed with streaks of black, like a primitive drawing. The pavement was covered with bits of twisted metal and broken stone.

  The dawning light was gray as glass. Along the beaches, less than a kilometer away, waves folded over on the sand. Halfway up Mount Carmel, a muezzin called the faithful to prayer from a loudspeaker mounted on a minaret. In the cypresses that lined the steep slope of the Baha’i gardens, below the temple’s golden dome, jays woke and began to chatter, agitating the branches of the trees. Near the top of the Carmel, from the couch in her father’s old room where she slept behind green trissim folded down against the light, Susan did not hear the explosion on the Hadar. Other sounds came to her as if through water: the clink of cutlery, a barking dog, the murmur of a radio. The Voice of Israel reported in its nine o’clock broadcast that no one had been injured in the blast. Other than a disruption to traffic, everything was functioning as normal. Only a few commuters, stepping out of the Carmelit station into the daylight, noticed the smell of burned rubber, the toppled poles, the unswept bits of glass.

  During that summer of the 1982 war in Lebanon, nothing seemed dangerous the way Susan had imagined it would. That summer, the first time Susan had come to Israel on her own, she walked with her grandmother as usual to the corner makolet to buy plastic sacks of milk and loaves of bread; on the merkaz, people sat outside in the cafés, drinking coffee and smoking, as they always did. There were soldiers about, kids her age, hitchhiking at bus stops or by the beach, the boys with M16s slung over their shoulders, the girls in khaki skirts and caps, but that, too, was nothing new. When Susan’s parents telephoned from New York, she assured them everything was fine. Still, there was a tension in the air, like the faint buzz of high-voltage power lines: a sense of the borders just there, around that headland, over those hills. The narrowness of the land.

  From her grandparents’ terrace, Susan could see the army helicopters landing on the roof of Rambam hospital. On some days, bad days, she counted ten or fifteen at a time, pulsing low along the horizon on their way in, arcing high out over the bay on their return to the north. Lebanon was barely twenty miles away, less than the distance from Susan’s parents’ apartment in Riverdale to the bottom of Staten Island. Even though she couldn’t understand most of the newscaster’s words, Susan watched the news each evening on TV, footage of Israeli soldiers waving to their families back home, women in bikinis sunbathing on the beaches near Beirut, rows of Mercedes parked along the palm tree—lined boulevards. Look at that, Susan’s aunt said, they don’t care about the war at all! But hadn’t Susan gone to the beach herself that very day? A story ran in the Jerusalem Post claiming that a photograph of an armless Lebanese orphan wounded by Israeli shelling was, in fact, a healthy Druze child with limbs and parents both intact. Susan studied the grainy photograph that showed a baby swaddled in a blanket in the arms of a Red Cross nurse. It was impossible to tell.

  Her friends back in New York didn’t consider Israel a safe place. Don’t things blow up over there all the time? they said. Once, as a little girl, Susan had reached for an empty plastic jug lying on the ground, and her grandmother had slapped her, hard, on the hand. Never, ever touch anything you find on the street! her grandmother scolded. You never know what could be a bomb! But the truth was Susan had never encountered anything remotely dangerous there. Israel was the place her parents and all her relatives were from. It was almost home.

  Susan’s cousin Gavi was in the army, stationed near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Most weeks, he came home on Friday night for Shabbat, just as if he had a regular job. He sprawled on the couch, his army boots unlaced and shirt unbuttoned, watching Dallas reruns on TV. Susan wanted to know what it was like along the front. She wanted details: the sound of shelling, the soldiers wounded or dead.

  No, Gavi said, shaking his head and making the tsk-tsk sound Israelis always made when you said something they considered stupid. It’s not like that at all. Mostly we just sit around with nothing much to do.

  Susan kept a photograph of Gavi pinned to the bulletin board above her desk back at college. He stood tall and broad shouldered in his uniform, backed by a picture-postcard view of Haifa bay. Friends who came by Susan’s room sometimes asked if he was her boyfriend, and sometimes she said yes,
just for fun.

  They were paired from birth, Susan and Gavi, her mother and her aunt due on the same day, although in the end she was a few weeks early and he a few days late, making her a Taurus and him a Gemini, her an earth sign, him air. They all matched, she and Gavi, her two younger brothers and his. Their grandparents took annual summer photographs of the six cousins posed on the living room couch, propped-up babies in the early shots, awkward adolescents in the more recent ones, with freckles and shiny orthodontic grins. The framed photographs hung in the cluster of family pictures that lined the hallway outside her grandparents’ bedroom, and Susan always found herself studying them when she first arrived in Israel, wondering what they would look like when they were all grown up.

  As children, she and Gavi played games in two languages, with made-up words. Gavi always made her shriek and then laughed when the grown-ups scolded her for making too much noise. She challenged him to races, which he invariably won. For a time, they wrote letters to each other, hers in bad Hebrew, his in bad English, sometimes in a mixture of both. She felt close to him, closer than seemed likely given their few summer weeks together every year, given the language barrier, but each summer they just picked up where they’d left off as if no time had passed at all.

  Gavi says he’d like a girlfriend just like you, Susan’s grandmother told her, that summer of the Lebanon war, the summer they were nineteen. It gave her a twinge to hear that, almost like love.

  That summer, at the end of June, Gavi got a few days leave and borrowed a truck from his unit and they drove south together, past Tel Aviv and Ashdod and Ashkelon to where the land flattened out and dissolved into ochre sand. Susan rolled down the window and let the wind whip through her hair. There on the front seat next to Gavi, she felt a tingling excitement in her veins and wondered if this was how it would feel to travel with a boyfriend of her own. In the late afternoon, Gavi turned off the coastal highway onto a narrow road that ran through a plain of drifted sand crisscrossed with rows of tufted grass and irrigation ducts, clusters of Arab houses roofed with corrugated tin, chickens pecking in the dust. Gavi drove to where the road curved along the sea and pulled over on the verge. There was an army base just up the road, he said, that he’d spent time at during basic training, and he’d promised himself that he’d come back. The base was surrounded by settlements belonging to ultra-Orthodox Jews. There had been three settlements a year ago; there were seven now. Susan knew they had to be very close to, or in, the Gaza Strip. Her aunt and uncle had said specifically to stay away from there.

  Are you sure it’s safe? she said.

  Gavi frowned and made the tsk-tsk sound. It’s okay, he said.

  They climbed out of the truck and pushed through scrub grass to the beach. Rows of separate palm-frond huts for the religious men and women lined the shore. Waves hissed along the untracked sand. The sea was a living, electric blue.

  After they had swum and eaten the cheese and hummus and pita bread her aunt had packed, they sat next to each other on the sand and watched the sun sink into the sea. Darkness dropped quickly here and, away from the city lights, it felt dense as fog. They passed a cigarette back and forth, although neither of them really smoked, the orange tip fading in and out like a tiny flare. Gavi leaned back on his elbows and pointed out the constellations—Cepheus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia—tracing their outlines with his hand.

  Did you know that by the time the light from those stars reaches our eyes, he said, the stars might no longer exist?

  Perhaps there’s just a big black canopy up there, Susan said, lit with golden lamps. She meant it as a joke, an allusion to romantic poetry, but as she spoke, the image suddenly seemed more likely than what she knew from high school physics about spectrography and Doppler shifts and black holes deep in space. Maybe, she said, none of it is real.

  She lay on her back, letting her arm roll outward to touch Gavi’s. The stars didn’t seem to be the same stars she remembered from New York. As she gazed upward, they fell toward her like fireflies.

  Look how beautiful it is, Gavi said, not moving his arm away. These stars, this sky.

  By the time Susan finished college, the pattern of annual summer visits to Israel with her parents and brothers had fallen off for good. Susan flew to Israel by herself to celebrate her grandfather’s eighty-seventh birthday over her spring break from journalism school. She sat on the couch in her grandparents’ living room, sipping champagne, and tried to memorize it all: the fraying Oriental carpet, the tile floor, the discordant mingling of German and English and Hebrew speech, the humidity, the scent of pine.

  Sharona, Gavi’s girlfriend, sat down next to her on the couch. Sharona was a forthright girl with close-set eyes and plump, soft hands; she wore her hair in a spiky, blond-streaked shag. She spoke English fluently, much better than anyone in Susan’s Israeli family. Susan didn’t think she and Sharona were much alike at all.

  So, when are you going to come to live in Israel, make aliyah? Sharona asked.

  I don’t know, one of these days, Susan said. She didn’t imagine that her boyfriend, who favored preppy button-downs and Levi’s cords, would move to Israel with her. What American would? Even her parents would not be pleased. Even they had left and not come back.

  Susan’s uncle came in carrying a reel-to-reel projector and several metal canisters of film. Movie time! he said. Susan’s grandfather had shot the sixteen-millimeter film in the 1920s and ’30s, before the war, before they came to Palestine. Susan squeezed closer to Sharona to make room for her grandparents on the couch, and Gavi dimmed the lights. Her grandmother perched upright on the arm of the couch, her knobby hands clasped in her lap. No one had seen the films in years. The light flickered on the wall and then there was her grandmother, a cloche tipped at an angle over her bobbed hair, posing by a motor car parked on a hairpin curve along a Swiss mountain road. There were her grandparents skiing in the Alps, in woolen knickers and jackets, with bamboo poles and wooden skis. There was a baby, all rolls of fat, crawling naked on the grass. Her grandfather said something in German and everybody laughed. What do you think of your Daddy? Susan’s uncle translated. The baby pulled up on a chair and let out an arc of pee. He was a terrible boy, her grandfather said, and again everybody laughed.

  That’s the garden of my parents’ house, Susan’s grandmother said, pressing a tissue to her eyes. It was very beautiful there.

  The next day, Gavi invited Susan to go to the Galilee to see the wildflowers. They squeezed into the front seat of Gavi’s truck, Sharona in the middle and Gavi and Susan on either side. It was a gusty March day; Susan had never been in Israel when there were clouds in the sky, when the light lacked the blunt white glare of heat. They hiked up Mount Tabor; in the hazy distance, Susan could see Nazareth, the green-brown hills of the West Bank. She tried to imagine the early Israelites Devorah and Barak standing on this spot three thousand years ago, preparing to launch their assault on Canaanite Hazor. Susan took out her camera and shot a roll of Gavi and Sharona kneeling among the anemones and irises in the blowing grass. She squinted at them through the Nikon’s telephoto lens, at their close-up smiles and entwined hands, and felt envy rise within her like a blush.

  Susan’s flight back to New York was delayed for five hours due to an air-traffic controllers’ strike in Paris. She found out when the taxi dropped her off at Ben Gurion at midnight, and there was nothing to do but wait. She sat on a plastic chair outside security and tried to read. A group of teenagers were curled like caterpillars in sleeping bags along the wall, and she fought the urge to lie down next to them and sleep. Behind her, male and female soldiers stood alongside tables, rummaging through suitcases, asking questions. Where in Israel have you been? Did you pack your bags yourself? Did anyone give you something to carry for them? A fair-haired girl, a kibbutz volunteer from Scandinavia or Germany, Susan guessed, was crying as a soldier pulled clothes and underwear out of her backpack. No one ever searched Susan’s bags.

  When she next looked up fr
om her book, Gavi was standing right there, in a group of people waiting to check in to a flight to Greece, no more than a few yards away. He was staring out above her head, or right through her, and she began to wave to him, but there was something so strange about his expression that she felt a sudden stab of uncertainty and lowered her arm again. Was it Gavi? They’d had dinner together not six hours before, kissed each other good-bye—he’d said nothing about a trip. Could there be some mistake? But it was Gavi—it had to be.

  She put down her book and stood up, walked over to where he stood. She was almost in front of him before he let his eyes meet hers, raising one hand in a gesture that didn’t quite mean surrender, but wasn’t exactly a wave. He was wearing glasses and his eyes looked tired and red.

  Gavi? she said.

  Please, he said. Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me.

  What are you doing here?

  I’m just going on a trip to Crete, together with some friends, only for two days. It’s the, how do you say, not the solstice—

  The equinox?

  Yes—it’s very nice. We make some music together, talk, look at the sky. You know. But the parents, Sharona, they don’t understand—please.

  Susan felt a hollow space behind her ribs. Of course I won’t say anything, she said. You know you can trust me.

  Gavi glanced back at two men who were watching him from their place in line. They had army buzz cuts just like Gavi’s, tidy clothes—clean-cut types. Gavi nodded to them, picked up his bag.

  I have to go, he said. This time he didn’t kiss her, just gave a little wave good-bye.

  Bye, she said.

  And what could be so bad about a stargazing trip to Crete? But the whole flight home, she sat with an anxious feeling creeping about inside her chest, as if somehow she’d become an accomplice to a crime.

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