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The pale of settlement, p.11

The Pale of Settlement, page 11


The Pale of Settlement

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  From her wheelchair in the geriatric ward of Ezrath Nashim reserved for the most advanced victims of Alzheimer’s disease, Eva Bar-On sits with her head tipped forward against her chest, her glasses crooked on her nose, one blue eye askance. Her hands are strapped to the arms of the chair, and there is another strap about her chest. Shalom, Avraham says, and she twists her head and gives him a look as if to say, Who the hell are you? Today is not such a good day. Sometimes she still recognizes him, although usually she does not, and mostly she will speak only in Hungarian, which he does not understand. Our earliest memories are the last to go; they’ve worn the deepest grooves inside our brains. Avraham bends and straightens Eva’s glasses, brushes back her too-short hair with his hand. He has brought some fruit, a tin of jam-filled cakes, which he offers to the girl, who has pulled up a chair and is stroking Eva’s crooked hand. Leah, Eva says suddenly, what’s she doing here? But as he starts to explain, Susan holds up her hand and says, Shhh. Eva tilts her head and says in Hebrew, Ma pitom. Metzuyan. Mea achuz. What’s the problem. Outstanding. One hundred percent. Ken, Susan says. Yes. Avraham watches the girl’s fingers touch his wife’s wasted arm the way a different girl, his wife, once in another life, touched him. Eva glares at him out of one cloudy eye. In its center, he can see only the reflection of his own face.


  In the first light of dawn, the doves call

  to their mates, three hollow notes of a descending wail.

  The flat white sky peels back to blue.

  In her hospital room, Eva Bar-On lies bewildered

  by the white sheets, the four white walls, the straps

  that hold her in her bed. Outside her window,

  in a flowering ash, the doves call coo-coo-coo.

  If she could rise from bed and go to the window

  she would see the white-flowered tree, the stony hillside,

  the scrubby green of the Jerusalem pines,

  and across the wadi, the orange sun striking the windows

  of the mental hospital at Kfar Shaul, once

  an Arab stonecutters’ village called Deir Yassin.

  The sun flares like fire in the windows of the stone houses.

  It flares and fades. Each day the village burns again.

  But Eva Bar-On lays no claim to history. She remembers

  nothing. Instead she floats in exile from memory,

  from herself, furious as wind.

  She is there in the darkest dreams

  you don’t remember: a pressure on your chest,

  a flapping of wings,

  the faintest tinkling of bells.

  I am going to excavate Hazor. I must know about Joshua. I must know if he really conquered it.



  Avraham couldn’t find it anywhere. He remembered it clearly enough—a small fabric-bound diary, its pages wrinkled from the impression of a ballpoint pen, that he’d found in Leah’s old room, nearly forty years ago, as he was clearing out the Sanhedria flat. But where had it gone? He’d rummaged through the drawers of his desk, taken down piles of books from the dusty shelves, poked about in the boxes he kept in the storage space above the bedroom door. Nowhere. It had been ages, of course—decades, probably—since he’d seen it last. He wasn’t even sure why he would have saved the thing, this one odd artifact from his sister’s youth. He never should have mentioned it to the girl.

  The television was on, turned up loud, and from where he bent before the open wardrobe, Avraham could hear the gravely tones of the Tel Aviv archeologist’s voice. Over the plaintive melody—reedy flutes in a minor key—he could make out the words memory, narrative, mistake. He straightened with a groan, pushed his glasses up his nose. The man was photogenic, you had to grant him that, with that dark goatee and curly gray-streaked hair. The camera panned in on the sun rising over the Hebron hills, the rustling olive trees atop the tell, the golden light slanting over the Tomb of the Patriarchs (neatly cropping out the electronic security gate, the phalange of Israeli border guards). Over time, we have found that the story the Bible tells doesn’t exactly fit the facts. A regular prophet, his distinguished colleague. Knocking down all the golden calves.

  What Avraham needed was to get back to work. But the computer sat idle on his desk in Eitan’s old room, its screen filmed with dust, untouched since Leah’s daughter had come to stay a fortnight ago. Now the girl was gone, though, and he had no excuse. He had to confess he missed her presence in the flat, her company at the dinner table, outside on the terrace in the cooling night. A clever girl. A pity she had not yet found herself a man.

  He bent with a groan before the wardrobe and pulled out a drawer, inhaling the scent of cedar and mildew, the odor of decay. Here were decks of cards from the days when he and Eva played bridge. A velveteen case containing a commemorative coin. A glass ashtray swiped from a French hotel. A jar filled with tinny piastres and telephone tokens no longer in use. A discarded eyeglass case, an unwound watch. No diary.

  The music from the documentary played on as the credits rolled, an irritating drone. People liked to glorify the past so they could cry that it was gone. He should write an article about that. He shoved the drawer closed with his knee, then picked up the remote and switched the channel to the evening news. Another shooting at a checkpoint in the Gaza strip. The stock market was down. He poured himself a glass of brandy from a bottle on the sideboard, settled into his comfortable chair. He was quite sure he wouldn’t have thrown Leah’s diary out. But he supposed he would have to write and tell the girl that he was sorry, it just had not turned up.

  In the morning, Avraham poured a mug of coffee and forced himself to sit down at his desk. He wiped the dust from the computer’s screen with his sleeve, waited for the machine’s familiar blink and whirr. Eitan’s old bed had been folded back into a couch, the pillows rearranged, as if the girl had never been there at all. He looked out the window onto the flayed trunks of the eucalyptus trees, the kitchen terraces of the neighboring block of flats. The sky had not yet brightened beyond gray. The birds were twittering their waking chorus, hidden in the leaves, their cacophony crowding out Avraham’s half-hearted attempts to regain his scholarly train of thought. He pulled his notepad closer, took a sip of coffee, pushed his glasses up his nose.

  He missed the university, the fluorescent hum of the institute, his beautiful sweeping view. He couldn’t get used to working here at home—couldn’t shake the feeling that Eitan might walk in on him, even though his son had grown up and moved away years ago. He always felt as if he were sneaking around the way he had during Eitan’s adolescent years, searching for—what? He never found anything, of course, among the textbooks and swimming medals and old toys. Were all parents so baffled by their progeny, all children so opaque? Leave the boy alone, Eva had chided, he’s not a puzzle you can solve. Avraham swallowed the last of his coffee, already cold. All people were puzzles. The cursor blinked steadily, expectantly, on the screen. Most of all the people you loved best.

  Avraham clicked open his file and skimmed what he had written weeks before, scratching the stubble on the underside of his chin as the argument for maintaining the traditional Iron Age chronology orbited inside his head. How long would he have to go on defending his life’s work against the revisionists’ claims? He could just see the Tel Aviv archeologist’s ironic smile, his eyes unblinking as a hawk’s. The truth was Avraham could hardly remember the distinctions he’d made among the thousands of potsherds they’d unearthed, year after year, stratum by stratum, fragments of orange-brown or grayish-yellow clay, incised or burnished, decorated or plain. Pieces of bowls or lamps or storage jars; the bent lip of a juglet, the handle of a pot. The problem was that the evidence could be read so many ways. Any argument was just supposition piled on supposition, a house of sand.

  Avraham picked up the book that had been sent to him for review, weighing it in his hands. The Bible Unearthed. Already it was a best seller in the States. A
nd what if these revisionists were right? What if Stratum X should be redated from the tenth to the ninth century BCE, to the time of Omri and Ahab rather than of Solomon? What if the United Monarchy—the golden age of King David and King Solomon—was at most a minor tribal chiefdom in the south, glorified for political reasons by the Deuteronomist three hundred years after the fact? What if the Israelites never conquered Canaan, never wandered with Moses in the Sinai wilderness, never came out of slavery in Egypt at all? So what?

  Damn the stories, Avraham thought. The evidence was all that mattered. On this point, at least, he and the revisionists agreed. Trying to verify the Bible—he snorted out loud—was a waste of energy as far as he was concerned. He couldn’t stand those Texas Christians who came to dig each summer, aglow with earnestness in their search for corroboration of the Bible’s text. Or those idiots gallivanting about in search of Noah’s Ark on Ararat, or the bones of the pharoah’s hordes in the Sea of Reeds. So what if the six-chambered gate and casemate wall dated not to Solomon, but to a later century, a different king?

  Avraham pushed back from the desk. It was wrong, that was what.

  The birds had given up their singing and the sky had brightened to pale blue beyond the eucalyptus leaves. Already the air vibrated with heat. He was an anachronism, Avraham thought, along with Yadin and Albright and the rest. Only unlike them, he was still alive. He was the one stuck in the wrong century, not the potsherds or the stones. The millennium had passed; archeology was moving on; the revisionists were rewriting history; everything he believed in, had worked so hard for, would be overturned. It was the way of the world. He heard again the music from the documentary, that dismal dirge. It was a dirge for him.

  Tell ~ For centuries, it was known as Tell el-Qedah, or Tell Waggas, rising forty meters above the bed of Wadi el-Waggas, fifteen kilometers north of the Sea of Galilee, a two-hundred-acre grassy plateau. A road winds up the slope of the mound, where for a time, there was an Arab village, also called Waggas. You can see it clearly from the air: a bottle-shaped mound lying on its side atop a vast enclosure flanked by massive earthen ramparts and a moat. To the south, along the highway, a swath of bright green bushes marks the springs. To the north, the ridgeline of Mount Hermon hovers like a cloud. Across the surrounding valley stretches the farmland of Rosh Pinah, squares and rectangles of green and brown.

  Twenty-two cities lie beneath the bottle-shaped tell, stacked one on top of another like bodies in a mass grave. Dig down through the city walls built and burned and built again by Greeks and Persians, Israelites and Canaanites, invaders from Assyria and Egypt and Babylon, down to the bedrock of the plain first inhabited in the twenty-ninth century BCE.

  Then the wind will blow and dirt and grass will cover all your traces, as if you, too, were never there.

  Avraham lay in bed, trying not to think about the difficulty of falling asleep, when it came to him with the sudden clarity of a dream that Leah’s diary was inside a pigeonhole of the writing desk in the corner of the room. He sat up and swung his feet to the floor, fumbling for his glasses, half-expecting the desk itself to vanish like a mirage. But there it was, potbellied and square, its legs awkward as a giraffe’s. He remembered the day he and Eva had found the desk among the clay amphorae and milky Roman glass at the back of a Jaffa shop. Eva had admired its graceful lines, the pattern of vines and leaves carved into the rosewood along the top and sides. Art Deco, the dealer said, from the south of France. A real find. Art Deco my ass, Avraham had whispered in his wife’s ear as she started to negotiate. It was almost certainly a fake—he could tell by looking at the grain of the wood and the join how recently it had been made. But no matter—he overpaid; they hauled it home. Neither of them actually used it for writing, of course. Perhaps that was why he’d overlooked it—he’d almost forgotten that you could fold down the lid, pull up a chair. Avraham got out of bed and went over to the desk, turned the skeleton key.

  The little book was there. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands, touching the cloth of its cover, riffling the pages with his thumb. Funny, how objects had a way of turning up like that—it happened on digs, too. He remembered the cuneiform tablet a little boy found on an excavation dump at Hazor, back in the 1960s, as if something had drawn him to the spot, right to the one thing the archeologists had overlooked. The boy had grown up, he’d heard, to become a notorious dealer in fake antiquities. Avraham wasn’t especially surprised. He understood that feeling, the incomparable exhilaration of the find.

  Avraham climbed back into bed, switched on the reading lamp. It was late now, after one a.m., but he knew he wouldn’t fall asleep. He felt the diary’s cheap paper between his fingers, examined his sister’s handwriting curling across the page. The year didn’t appear anywhere in the diary; there was just an occasional notation of the day and month. Leah clearly hadn’t written regularly. He guessed that she’d started the diary before she went to the army, before their father died. It was more difficult to tell when the later entries had taken place. The last third or so of the book was blank.

  On the inside cover, Leah had copied out the famous poem by Hannah Senesh: Now—now I’d like to say something / Something more than mere words. She must have read Senesh’s diary in school. Had he even read the diary when he first came across it, all those years ago? None of it seemed familiar now.

  He tried to picture Leah, lying on her stomach on her bed, her bare feet kicked up, her arm curled over the page. The windows open to the breeze. The flat ticking in the late afternoon heat. She is chewing on the end of her pen, shaking her hair back from her eyes. She writes slowly, using the words she thinks a real writer would use. I am caught in the middle of everything, neither here nor there, stuck between my memories and the ever-receding future I so long to reach. She peers out uneasily from the confines of her bounded universe, a slouchy, self-conscious girl at seventeen, a little overweight ever since her mother died, lively with her friends, silent and insular at home. It is as if I, as a material body, have simply stopped, suspended in space and time. It seems as if escape will never come, what she thinks of as her afterlife. It is hanging out there, like a prize.

  The university was quiet, the students mostly gone for the semester break. Avraham crossed the empty plaza to the institute, stopping by the faculty boxes to pick up his thin stack of mail. He waved to the department secretary, who fortunately was busy chatting on the phone. This would be the first summer in over forty years that he wouldn’t be in the field. He was out to pasture instead.

  In the office that had once been Avraham’s, Udi’s light was on, his door open halfway. Avraham poked his head around the door-frame.

  Avraham! Udi said, waving him in with a pudgy hand. Sit down, sit down!

  Avraham lowered himself onto a chair facing Udi. The desk was piled with stacks of site plans, grant applications, books and journals, excavation reports. Udi’s hair had receded even further, if such a thing were possible, in just the few weeks since Avraham had seen him last. Even the young men were ancient here. The place was a goddamned morgue.

  Nu! Udi said. How’s the life of leisure treating you? He laced his fingers together, pushing them outward with a crack.

  Avraham shrugged. He noticed that Udi still bit his nails down to the quick.

  So, Udi said, did you catch our good friend Feigelman on television the other night? Son of a bitch never misses an opportunity to create a stir.

  What’s so bad about a stir? Avraham said. Udi was jealous, that much was clear. Feigelman is smart, he said, rubbing it in. Who’s the one with the villa in Herzliya, you or him?

  The man just likes to piss on all our founding myths, Udi said, bringing his fist down on the desk and sending a small avalanche of paper cascading to the floor. It’s his wife’s money, anyway, he added.

  I told you he’s smart, Avraham said. But he was in no mood to defend Feigelman. The fellow might be smart, but he had his Iron Age chronology dead wrong. Avraham stretched out his legs. So, he
said, are you ready for the dig?

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