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The pale of settlement, p.12

The Pale of Settlement, page 12

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  Udi ran his hands back over his scalp, adjusted his kippa, and leaned back in his chair. It’s a disaster, he said. One bus blows up and all the Americans and Europeans hide beneath their beds. We’re going in with twenty volunteers instead of a hundred and twenty. Apparently Feigelman’s canceling his 2001 expedition altogether! But, as you know, we don’t have a choice. The conservation work can’t wait.

  Avraham shook his head. It wasn’t his problem anymore. He would go to Be’er Sheva and visit his grandchildren instead.

  Avraham shut the blinds against the light and lay down on top of the sheets, propping a pillow behind his head. From the open windows came the sounds of honking horns, the hiss of a braking bus, the hollow pock of a tennis ball hitting concrete. No one took a siesta anymore, these days. Avraham pushed his newspaper aside, picked up Leah’s diary instead. When did it begin? He counted back—she would have been seventeen in 1956—his first season at Hazor. He was just a student volunteer back then, working under Trude in the Canaanite temple and potter’s storeroom in Area C. In the expedition photograph taken at the end of that season, Yadin sat in the center of the front row—his legs apart, hands resting on his knees, like the statue of the Canaanite king they’d found among the stelae. Avraham was standing at the back, his shirtsleeves rolled up over his biceps, grinning from ear to ear. Nothing he’d ever done, before or since, came close to the excitement of those times.

  Leah would have been at home with Abba then. He pictured her sitting at the kitchen table in the fading evening light, her hair falling forward to screen her face, closed around herself like fruit around a stone. Sounds waft in—the cadence of a Yiddish argument, the crickets’ chirping drone, a dog’s yowl. Everyone wants too much from me, but at the same time there is not a single person who really cares. Why did I let D. kiss me after the cinema on Saturday night? A huge mistake! Now he keeps sending me such desperate notes—“What about us? Do you ever want to see me again?” I’m sick of these boys. I’m sick of the girls, too, twittering like stupid birds. I’m sick of being a girl, of all the male attention and demands, of having to be nice. But nice is what she is, of course, a dutiful daughter, desperate to please. It is Abba who always wants too much from her, who shouts at her to lose weight, pull back her hair, put on a dress. He has not managed well without a wife. He is an angry patriarch right out of the Bible, punishing and remote. Who will ever want to marry a lazy girl like you? As if she should stay home and take care of him instead.

  Leah shakes her hair back, stares into space. She is thinking of the way D. held her against the cinema’s wall, his tongue flicking against hers, his knee against her groin. His metallic taste, his smell. The way he made her grow so wet. She lives, motherless, in a world of men—father, brothers, teachers, boys from school. Men hold her back, yet without a man, she cannot imagine her escape. He will be tall, dark, slim, with a strong chin, straight nose, etc.—impossible, clearly. He could be anyone at all. He does not exist. I’m sick of being a girl. She’d like to be the one to sail off beyond the Green Line, to Europe or the States, although she doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t know that within six years she’ll be married in New York, that her father will be dead. She doesn’t know how quickly the borders of a life can change.

  Cuneiform Tablet ~ The tablet lay on the rubble dump, sunlight shadowing the wedge-shaped marks embedded in the clay. Triangular impressions like headless torsos; horizontal lines like flags stretched out in a stiff wind. One shape like a trident, another like a star. Marks made with a stylus made from a reed cut on a slant. Scratched sideways, from left to right.

  They unearthed half a dozen tablets, over the years, though not the royal archive they believed, or hoped, was buried there. They found a record of a fourteenth-century BCE real estate case; a fragment of an Akkadian-Sumerian dictionary; an inventory of goods (textiles, copper, silver, gold) to be sent to Mari, north of Babylon. A list of names and payments: a third of a shekel, or a half. Multiplication tables. A letter delineating a legal dispute.

  To Ibni, this tablet began. Was this the ancient king Ibni-Addu mentioned in the Mari archive? Or could it be Jabin, the Canaanite ruler famously overthrown by Joshua? Or an even later king, possessing the same name?

  Everything depended on a few lines etched in red-brown clay.

  A scratch made by a human hand.

  The impression of a wedge.

  Avraham skimmed on, noting how the loopy characters of his sister’s handwriting became smaller and more regular as time progressed. Was this the way personality consolidated, over time—growing tighter, more self-contained? He lost track of the chronology, turned back again. I don’t know what to write—there are so many things floating around within me, sticking together in a burning clump, tipping the balance of my moods. I don’t know who I am or who I want to be. She could barely hold herself together, at seventeen. I feel caught in the middle of everything, neither here nor there. On the cusp of living, stuck in time.

  And what about him? He could not find a single mention of his own name. Yet of course he’d been there all along, there in the Sanhedria flat with her and Abba, except for summers on the dig and those times when he got called to the reserves. But his memory was as unrevealing as the pages of the little book. He must have sat across from her at the dinner table on Shabbat, waited in the hallway for her to finish in the bathroom, rapping at the door. But the only moment he remembered now was one captured in a photograph—not a true memory at all. In the picture, they are standing in front of Abba’s brand new car, a Morris imported from England at considerable expense. His arm is loose around her waist. He’s looking straight into the camera, his forehead pressed into a frown. Hurry up. Leah is wearing denim shorts and sandals; her legs are brown and strong. She is looking off to the side, beyond the range of the lens. They are touching, but not quite.

  Somewhere along the way, her handwriting began to change. Somewhere came a marked shift in tone. He leafed back through the pages, checking dates. May. August. May again. When?

  She has finished the bagrut; she is in the army now, a desk job on the base—that much is clear. She is still living at home, but she’s almost out from under: real life has drawn her in. Well, it has begun! So many new and interesting things are happening, I can hardly write it all down. She is typing up reports, shuffling paper at a metal desk, answering the phone. She wears a pert beret, a khaki skirt, and a blouse. She twists her hair back into a knot. It does seem strange that I’ve only been here such a short while! We are all strangers, from such different backgrounds, and yet held by such a strong, common bond. Her unit is a mix of the children of old-time socialists, Holocaust survivors, and refugees from Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, all building the new nation, the fledgling Jewish state. This “experience” really is important, if only in terms of forcing me to get to know and re-evaluate myself. But what a provisional thing “experience” is, set inside quotation marks like that. “Experience” is what will happen to her, not something she will do herself. In the end, “experience” can only mean one thing.

  And here it is, just a few pages on: Noticed Y. again this morning, getting on the bus. He is really nice-looking, I think! Dark curly hair, wide dark eyes, straight nose, broad face, long fingers, gorgeous smile. I like him—though I’d better not let anyone find out. Who is he, this “Y”—a Yochanan or Ya’acov, Yaron or Yonatan? A fellow soldier? An officer, perhaps? The other day, I thought he had on a wedding ring... but today it wasn’t there. What kind of situation is that, I wonder? What kind, indeed. The attentions of an older, married man would be just ambiguous enough to be exciting, illicit but not impossible—such things happened all the time. No one called it harassment, back then.

  He could just see Leah in her cap and skirt, sitting at her Underwood, playing with a loose strand of hair. Stepping up to board the bus, hiking her skirt above her knees as she mounts the stairs. Then he got on too and sat in front, but after a bit he got up and moved back to where I was! This is what
“experience” was meant to be! She feels her gut contract, the blood rush to her cheeks. He stayed there next to me the whole ride home! Well, actually, he sat across the aisle, but he was still next to me, except for the open space. I swear he looked right at me a couple of times, and smiled, too. I couldn’t speak a word. The whole ride was just one long expanse of time. This is nothing like the way it was with those high school boys. She is aware that these are the symptoms of a girlish crush, but she wants it to be more. I think that I’m in love with him! Of all people. Shit. Her heart beats fast and high inside her throat. His heart is beating, too, right there across the aisle. If a boundary exists between them, it is invisible as air.

  The article was not coming along well. Avraham leaned forward, scrolled down to what he’d written the day before. Skipping over the Iron Age chronology, he turned to the question of the Late Bronze Age destruction of Hazor instead. It was written in the Book of Joshua that the Israelites set fire to Hazor in the last stage of their conquest of Canaan. Inscriptions on the Merneptah Stele in Cairo marked the first mention of the name “Israel” in describing the Egyptian victories over Ashkelon and Gezer in 1207 BCE: Israel is laid waste, his seed is not—so one could suppose that the Israelites had conquered Canaan sometime in the thirteenth century BCE. But the archeological record was ambiguous at best. While the ceramic evidence dated the destruction broadly to the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, it said nothing about who set fire to Hazor. The cursor blinked mockingly. He was no Bible scholar or theologian. He’d trusted science, persistence, analytic rigor, methodology. Yet now, after all these years of hard work, he could not confirm a thing.

  Avraham knew what the revisionists were arguing. That the destruction of the nearby Canaanite cities of Aphek, Lachish, and Megiddo took place not all at once but over the course of a century or more. That the hill survey evidence convincingly showed that the Israelites were no well-organized tribe, coming out of Egypt to launch a sudden conquest of the land, but a disparate group of nomad-farmers whose identity developed only slowly, over generations, in the highlands of the Galilee.

  It made perfect sense. It made no sense at all. If the Israelites didn’t destroy Hazor, who did?

  The Palestinians were already making political hay out of the controversy, claiming that they, as direct descendants of the Canaanites, trumped the Jews with the more authentic claim to the ancient land.

  It was no consolation that nothing could be proved.

  Myths created a reality of their own.

  Mask ~ He crouched inside a court defined by four low stone walls, part of a Canaanite temple from the Late Bronze Age, just below the ramparts of the tell. He brushed away the reddish dirt, lifted aside a stone. Two hollow eyes. A nose.

  He called to Trude—Quickly! Over here! Together they reached down and brushed the rest of the dirt away, touching the long brows and parted lips, the beardless cheeks and chin. The holes for tying string in the center of the forehead, and above and below each ear. From the field telephone, they called Yadin. Come quickly! Come and see!

  The face stared up at them like a child at the seashore, buried to the neck in sand. Was it the death mask of a Canaanite child? Or an object associated with a cult? Long after Canaanite times, the Phoenicians depicted the moon god Ba’al Hammon and his consort, a powerful goddess called Tanit. Clay masks found at Carthage—with broad, smooth cheeks and protruding ears, almost identical to this—represented Tanit’s face. Was this too a mask of Tanit? The Deuteronomist called for the destruction of the pagan gods. Did Joshua’s men decapitate the statue of Ba’al that this mask would have adorned, set the universe ablaze?

  For three thousand years, this goddess face has waited, buried deep beneath the ash. But her blank eyes are blind. Her lips are parted, but she cannot speak.

  Avraham sat outside on the terrace, his feet propped on a chair, trying to read in the dim light. It was a windy evening, the air salty, almost sulfurous, blowing in off the Dead Sea. The eucalyptus trees rustled in the dark. There were eucalyptus trees in the garden in Sanhedria, too, shedding their long leaves and curling seedpods over the stony ground. Other trees, as well. There was one low-branched mulberry he used to climb with Zalman, pretending they were in the Palmach, spying on British troops—or trying to catch a glimpse of the fat lady undressing in the house next door. He remembered Leah running to their father to tell on them. He’d decapitated one of her dolls in revenge.

  It wasn’t surprising, he supposed, that he’d had no idea that Leah was in love—it wasn’t as if they’d ever been particularly close. I’ve totally lost my appetite; I can hardly eat a thing. When did her cheeks begin to lose their plumpness, her body to take on a woman’s form? It must have been apparent, only not to him. I was sitting outside, having a coffee with Shlomit, when he walked right by and smiled at me! Shlomit asked me what was wrong, and then she teased that I must be in love. So it must be true! I don’t think it was obvious or anything, but I think (hope?) that it adds up.... Oh, what am I going to do?! Even Leah was lost in the calculus of signs.

  Avraham ran his finger along the inside seam of the diary, touching ragged bits of paper where a page or pages had been torn out. Were all diaries written in the consciousness that they might someday be found? He tilted the book up to the light. We were eating lunch when suddenly the doorbell rang and my stomach dropped. Abba stopped chewing and asked me if I had a “date”—as if I’d let anyone call on me here! Then Avi came back with a rather bewildered look, carrying a single long-stemmed rose that the florist’s boy had delivered to the door. There was a note attached to it, with my name on the envelope, but I couldn’t immediately decipher what it said, as it was written in some kind of code. So he was there after all, holding the telltale rose. Bewildered, indeed. Avraham thought back to his own first dates with Eva, which would have been right around that same time. He certainly never sent her a rose! But he vividly remembered trembling as he waited in the stairwell for her father to answer the door. He had to smile at the thought of his own awkward, youthful self.

  Here was “experience,” then, breaking over Leah like a wave. I can’t even believe that certain things that are happening are happening and have happened and are going to happen. But whatever did happen—those certain things—were lost now with the torn-out page; only a trace remained. It all happened so naturally, gently, beautifully, just as I’d imagined that it would. I felt absolutely at ease, not at all guilty or embarrassed, like before. It didn’t matter anymore what anybody else thought. It was still the fifties, Avraham reminded himself. She would have had to sneak out late, after Abba was asleep, through the back gate to the next street. He’d have borrowed a car or army truck, taken her to some out-of-the-way place—a coffeehouse or social club, in the new suburbs to the west. A dim and smoky place with wooden chairs, a Shoshana Damari ballad playing on the phonograph. They’d have stepped outside, out of the light, looked up at the stars. Oh, his curly black hair, his eyes, his hands, his smooth dark skin! He would have leaned close to light her cigarette, closer to kiss her lips. She feels herself dissolving, growing blurry with desire. He put his arms around me and lifted me up then and said, Is it really you? Later, she sits in bed, too overwhelmed to sleep, the diary propped on her knees, her mascara smudged beneath her eyes. Even as I write this, it becomes more and more unreal, flat and featureless as a slide. Is it really me here? Was it really me there? The eastern rim of sky is already growing light. Like everything else she longs for, like memory, it shimmers beyond her reach.

  Avraham closed the diary, raised himself from his chair, pressing his palms against his lower back. It was very late. All the windows in the neighboring apartment blocks were dark. The stars were out, faint perforations in an orange-tinted sky. The same stars Leah had gazed up at on that different, vanished night.

  Did Abba know? He must have, or he wouldn’t have packed Leah off to study in the States. Avraham remembered Leah shouting that she wouldn’t go, Abba shouting how she didn
’t know how lucky she was, the envelopes with U.S. stamps stacked beside the phone. He’d never understood why their father had been so adamant, but now, maybe, it made sense. Abba would never have tolerated her carrying on with an older, married man. Avraham picked up the diary and went inside, switching off the terrace light. So Abba knew. Or did he? There was no way to tell. There were no facts, just hypotheses and explanations with relative degrees of plausibility. Who was to say that a diary contained any greater truth than any other artifact? No text could escape the distortions of its own mythology. The truth erased itself as you wrote it down—even Leah knew that. I have no perspective now—I just wish I could find the words to anchor a corner of this slippery memory that is all I have left. Avraham turned the key to lock the terrace door, switched off the outside light.

  In the kitchen, the Frigidaire shifted gears like a laboring truck. Avraham paused as he passed Eitan’s old room, the curve of his desk chair and computer momentarily taking on human form, as if his own ghost were sitting there. Avraham wiped his glasses on his shirt. His eyelids burned—he never should have stayed up so late.

  Avraham got into bed but, even as he closed his eyes, Leah’s words continued to tumble through his head. His curly black hair, his eyes, his hands, his smooth dark skin! Breezy as it had been outside, no air moved through the bedroom windows. It was too hot to sleep. I think that I’m in love with him! Of all people. Shit. He turned the pillow over to the cool side, kicked back the sheets. I’d better not let anyone find out. Oh, what am I going to do?! What was she so worried about? That he was an officer? A married man? Maybe, but still, something didn’t fit. A single long-stemmed rose. Sending roses wasn’t the style of the officers he knew—not back in those macho pioneering days. The guys he knew just took their girls by the hand and led them straight to bed. (The image came to him of a particular field assistant—what was her name, anyway, Shoshana? Shulamith?—who’d come at night to his own kibbutz bed during those first few summers at Hazor.) A single rose, a note in code. Was this Y just a romantic, or did he have something to hide?

 
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