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The pale of settlement, p.17

The Pale of Settlement, page 17

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  But did you see any bodies? Susan asked Debbie, pressing her fingers into her free ear. They were jackhammering on Thirty-third Street, a broken water main, loud even here in the windowless newsroom on the eleventh floor.

  I didn’t, no, Debbie said.

  Susan shifted the phone to her other ear. What about the smell?

  Look, Debbie said, we were in an IDF armored personnel carrier the whole time. I couldn’t smell shit. But let me tell you something: the whole place stinks. The water and electricity have been cut off for days; the garbage is piled up a story high. The camp looks like it’s been bombed. Entire fronts of buildings sheared off by bulldozers. The center of Hawashin has been bulldozed completely flat. If there were bodies under there, you’d never know.

  Susan hung up and reread Debbie’s piece. Israeli officials put the Palestinian death toll at less than 100, but the director of Jenin’s main hospital said the number killed could reach as high as 400 once all the bodies had been uncovered. She stared at the vibrating words until her screensaver flashed on, a photograph of her brother Noah’s kids. His two-year-old was wearing a T-shirt that said “Lock up your daughters!” in colorful bold type.

  They were all implicated, Susan thought, in this tangle of images and metaphors, deliberate and inadvertent lies. She knew that Bill would cut the bit about ambulances being used to transport munitions (unsubstantiated) and add a disclaimer about how none of the claims could be verified (true). International human rights organizations were being called in to investigate. But it didn’t matter. Already it was too late.

  After filing, Susan took the subway home and went out for a run. The early evening sunlight was soft and clear, a strong wind rippling the flags along Central Park West. She crossed into the park, running slowly at first, picking up the pace as her breathing settled into a steady beat, following her regular route to the reservoir track. The high-rises of the Upper East Side hovered beyond the new green leaves, glinting orange in the setting sun. Her lungs expanded behind her ribs; her abdomen pulled taut against the waistband of her shorts. It was good to feel her body: muscles, ligaments, blood, and breath. Her body seemed to grow lighter as she ran, as if her bones were aerating, losing mass.

  On the way home, she sprinted the last few blocks, her legs whirring with fatigue, raising her arms as she slowed like a racer breaking through a finish line tape. At her building, she bent forward, her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. When she raised her head, he was standing right in front of her. For an instant, she didn’t recognize him.

  Hey, Reid said.

  Susan wiped her forehead with her forearm, still panting. Are you here to see me? she said. She wouldn’t have thought Reid even knew where she lived.

  Reid shrugged. I was in the neighborhood, he said. Thought I’d see if you were in.

  Well, come on up, I guess, she said, pulling open the door.

  In the apartment, Reid looked around her living room, studying the spines of her books along the shelves, admiring the view over the Hudson, and then settled himself on the couch. Susan leaned back against the window with a glass of water, conscious of how flushed and shiny her face must be, of the outline of her nipples through her nylon running shirt, of how the crotch of her shorts was damp with sweat. She shook out her ponytail, smoothing her hair back with her hand.

  Hey, check this out, Reid said, reaching into his bag. He handed her a portfolio of photographs, large format, black-and-white. I just found out two of them are going to be in a show next month at the ICP, he said.

  That’s cool, congratulations, Susan said.

  The photographs were from Rwanda. There were no close-ups of children or soldiers at checkpoints, no hazy panoramas of refugee camp tents: just bodies. In some of the photographs, she couldn’t even tell at first that they were bodies, but realized, on inspection, that what seemed at first to be abstract patterns of darkness and light were in fact enormous heaps of machete-hacked limbs. The bodies were twisted and bloated, piled nine or ten deep, Tutsis or Hutus, staring, white-eyed, identical in death.

  That was back in what, 1994, right? Susan said.

  Nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in one hundred days, Reid said. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it, numbers as large as that?

  I can’t get my mind around any numbers these days, Susan said. But she was thinking that a million you could call a massacre. You could call that an atrocity.

  Reid leaned forward and cleared his throat. You know, I was thinking, he said. Maybe we could hang out together one of these days.

  Susan looked up from the photographs, the words reverberating in her head. Reid was giving her a hard, expectant look. She noticed that the skin along Reid’s jaw was irritated where he’d shaved. Clean-shaven, in a button-down shirt, sitting there on her white couch, he looked completely different, she thought—boyish, even vulnerable. Or maybe it was just a matter of context, or scale. She crossed her arms over her chest. What was that youthful euphemism he’d used? Hang out.

  So what’s up with Kristin? she said.

  Reid shifted on the couch. It’s pretty much over, he said.

  Pretty much? Susan said.

  She waited, feeling his gaze against her skin. What did he see? He hardly knew her, really, at all. Across the living room, through the open bedroom door, she could see the edge of her unmade bed, a tangle of sheets. She pressed her arms harder against her stomach, but already she was unraveling, twisting on a thread. Bodies came together, bodies came apart—what difference did it make, really, in the end?

  Reid stood up then and stepped forward, pulling her to him so close she could feel the quiver of his eyes on hers, the exhalation of his breath. She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head.

  What are you so worried about? he said.

  By the end of April 2002, Israel was still blocking a United Nations fact-finding mission from investigating the charges of a massacre in Jenin, and Palestinians were still saying Israeli soldiers murdered thousands of civilians during the eight-day operation in the camp. The Israelis called the claims a blood libel and said they’d found only forty-three bodies in the rubble; the Jenin Hospital confirmed that fifty-two camp residents had died, but continued to hold out the possibility that more corpses might be unearthed. Arafat’s compound in Ramallah was still under siege. Palestinian gunmen were still holding off Israeli troops inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

  Same old story, isn’t it? Bill said. We’ll run six inches on page nine.

  Susan shrugged. There would be no untangling the mess. Her e-mail box was full of messages saying that they’d been overly eager to report a dramatic massacre that hadn’t really taken place. Even where the words were evenhanded, one particularly irate letter said, the photographs reinforced the anti-Semitic image of the Israelis as brutal bullies, the Palestinians as innocent victims. Had she been taken in?

  She picked up a copy of the paper and turned to the photo essay they’d run the previous Sunday, scanning the now-familiar images of toppled buildings, burned-out carcasses of cars, walls sheared off by bulldozers or punched through by trucks, women in headscarves picking through mountains of rubble bristling with twisted metal, shreds of clothing, a propane tank, a satellite dish, a headless doll. In one photograph, a group of little boys sat on top of a heap of debris beneath a red, white, and green—striped Palestinian flag, draped over them like a tent. They were shirtless, their bodies brown and lean. There were plastic buckets at their feet; perhaps they were searching for their families’ belongings, or for scraps of copper or aluminum to sell. One of them, she noticed, held what appeared to be the muzzle of a machine gun between his legs. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. He gazed, gap-toothed, straight out of the photograph at her, as if he had something urgent to say.

  On Saturday, the buzzer rang before Susan was even out of bed. Squinting in the sunlight, she shuffled barefoot across the living room to the door. The intercom crackled. It’s Kr
istin, the voice said.

  By the time Susan had pulled on a pair of jeans and run her fingers through her hair, there was a knock at the door. Kristin stood there, her hair loosely twisted in a frizzy knot, her skin blotchy and pale.

  Well, come in, Susan said. Let me put some coffee on. You kind of woke me up.

  Kristin walked over to the window and stood there, her back to Susan, looking out. Through the kitchen pass-through, Susan could see the sharp planes of Kristin’s shoulder blades, the shadow of her spine. She felt a twist of apprehension; involuntarily, she braced herself for flying things: an ashtray, a glossy magazine, a book.

  Kristin crossed into the kitchen, and Susan handed her a mug. Did something happen? Susan said. Is everything okay?

  Kristin’s mouth twisted. How could you? she said.

  Susan poured milk into her coffee and looked up. How could I what?

  He told me, Kristin said. He said he was breaking up with me because he wanted to start seeing you. He told me you’d agreed.

  And do you believe that? Susan said.

  Kristin set her untouched coffee onto the counter and put her hands over her face. After a moment, Susan stepped forward and put her arms around her. Pressed against her body, Kristin felt even thinner than Susan expected, small-boned as a bird. How strange, Susan thought, to be a man, and embrace such slender, insubstantial things.

  Kristin pulled back, wiping her eyes. She shook her head. I don’t know what to believe, she said.

  I swear, Susan said, we’re not involved. It was perfectly, completely true.

  By early May, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released reports stating that there was no evidence to support claims of massacre or deliberate slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in Jenin. The UN put the final Palestinian body count at fifty-four dead, although disagreement remained over whether the bodies were civilians or militants. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers had been killed, not counting the victims of the suicide attacks. But the final numbers didn’t matter, Susan thought. The story of the Battle of Jenin would remain a tale of Palestinian martyrdom, no matter what anybody said. And she was as responsible as anyone for that.

  Susan logged onto her computer, sipping her coffee and picking at a cinnamon sugar—encrusted muffin in a paper bag. Along with a fresh flood of critical e-mail, there was a message from Debbie with a link to a blurry video clip filmed by an IDF drone of a group of Palestinians carrying out a funeral procession in Jenin. The “body” stood up off the ground after being dropped off the blanket in which it had been rolled and walked away at the end. Now they’re saying it was just children playing a game, Debbie wrote, but do those look like kids?

  She called Debbie at home. Hallo, mi zeh? Debbie said, just like an Israeli would.

  We can’t run the fake funeral piece without some corroborating facts, Susan said. Too much crap’s gone down already as it is.

  Well, it’s your call, Debbie said.

  There was a rustling in the background, as if Debbie was running water, or opening the fridge. Susan tried to picture Debbie at home in her flat, but this time she drew a blank. She felt it pull at her, the old yearning, across the static line. What are you doing? she said.

  Doing? Debbie said. Like right now? Well, if you really want to know, I’m feeding the cat, and then I’m going to drop off Orly at her father’s place. It’s his weekend to take the kid.

  Susan pressed the phone against her ear, feeling it open out before her like a geological rift, this life unfolding in a Jerusalem apartment with cold tile floors and windows open to dry Judean hills, a life with a cat and an ex-husband and a child. Could she see herself there, doing these things? No, she couldn’t imagine it at all.

  Susan took a sip of lukewarm coffee. In Israel, it was already Friday night. Have a good weekend, then, she said.

  Susan hung up, then jiggled her mouse and clicked on the media player to replay the Jenin video clip. She made the blurry “body” fall off and then fly backward up onto the blanket a couple of times, until she tired of the game. Then she clicked the window shut and turned away.

  THE PALE OF SETTLEMENT

  Her mother told her bedtime stories. The stories were about her mother’s childhood and they were always sad. Her mother would sit on the edge of the bed and smooth her hand along the quilt. Once upon a time, she would begin, as if the stories might be made-up tales, the girl someone other than herself.

  Tell the one about your grandfather, Susan said. Tell how he was a horse thief and got sent to Siberia. The furrow between her mother’s eyes grew deep. He was a Jew from a village near Lwów. Someone told a story that he stole a horse. It makes no difference if it was true or not. They sent him to the gulag anyway.

  The places her mother talked about had vanished into a pink blotch that spread across the top of the map that pulled down over the blackboard in Susan’s classroom like a window shade. Vilna, Lwów, Bessarabia, Belarus. The Pale of Settlement. You couldn’t go to those parts of the world any longer. They were gone.

  My grandfather came to live with us after the war, her mother said. Of all the relatives my parents left behind in Poland when they ran away, only he survived. He told stories in Yiddish and held me on his knee. We were each other’s only friend. Her mother sighed, a sharp exhalation, as if a weight were pressing on her chest. He died when I was eight.

  There was one photograph of Susan’s great-grandfather, a passport square distorted by the embossment of an official stamp. His face was gray and grizzled, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. His jaw thrust forward, his mouth pressed into a line. Susan imagined him just freed from the work camps, standing like a character in a Cervantes tale beside his loyal stolen horse.

  Susan’s mother stood, straightened out her shirt. They said his wife never forgave him. For what? Susan said. For abandoning them the way he did, when he was sent away. But it wasn’t his fault! Susan’s mother pulled up the quilt and tucked it in. Well, no. Now go to sleep.

  Susan remembers the touch of her mother’s cheek, her accent, her powdery perfumed smell.

  Layla tov, she’d say. Good night.

  Here is what I see, James said. They were in bed together and it was late. Back in the early nineties, when he was still living in New York but wasn’t married yet, James slept on a futon on the floor, overhung with netting like a Bedouin’s tent. The walls were painted terra-cotta red, the windows bare and open to the sky. Telling stories was his idea. You had to close your eyes and describe the first thing that came into your head.

  He lay back and folded his arms behind his neck. I see a sail-boat floating on the sea, he said. A sleek racing boat with polished wood, shiny trim. Only the sails are slack. The sailboat is you. You’re bobbing on the ocean swell, waiting for the wind to catch your sails.

  What a line, Susan thinks now. Only becalmed was exactly how she’d felt.

  She ran her hand along his arm, wrapped her fingers around his wrist. He was a big man and her thumb and middle finger didn’t reach all the way around. The back of his hands and arms shone with reddish hair, like a golden idol. Because of this, or maybe because he spoke with an Australian accent, she endowed him with the power of prophesy.

  She remembers the orange glow of the night sky, the rumpled sheets, the haze of netting overhead. Your turn, he said. She closed her eyes but what she saw was only darkness, pulsating like space.

  Tell me a story, Susan said. Her mother’s stories gave her a hollow feeling behind her ribs, as if there was a trapdoor inside her that dropped open to her mother’s pain. But she asked to hear them anyway. The stories kept her mother there with her, put off going to sleep.

  When I was a little girl, I never got so many stories at bedtime, her mother said. She scrunched her lips together, fixed her gaze beyond the darkened window frame. My own mother was always busy. Always tired. Although sometimes I remember she would sit in an alcove outside my bedroom and crochet. I liked to be able to see her from where I lay in bed.


  There were photographs of Susan’s maternal grandmother, doomed and gone long before Susan was even born. She had high cheekbones, pale gray eyes. Cossack blood, her mother said. It was many years before Susan understood that Cossack blood meant that someone had been raped.

  Susan’s mother drew in her breath and let it out, a heavy sigh. My mother married a man from the old world, do you understand? She did not have an easy time. A wife was expected to behave a certain way. My father demanded that she wait on him. She had to have his breakfast ready the moment he was dressed. We had to listen for the shower turning off, the creak of the bedroom door. If she didn’t time his eggs exactly right, he would explode. He tormented her, belittled her with words. She was an educated woman, not from the shtetl like him. She was a lovely person, everybody said. But in our house she was no better than a slave.

  Susan’s mother stood up, smoothed the sheets, tucked them in. Now go to sleep, she said. It’s late. Susan took a breath, dug her nails into her palm. But what was it like? When she died? In the doorway, her mother stopped and turned. Honey, she said, I don’t think that’s something you need to know. Backlit by the hallway light, her features disappeared.

  But Susan did need to know, the way she covered her eyes during the scary parts of movies but peeked between her fingers anyway. She heard her mother shift her weight. There was a smell of sickness in the flat, she said at last. Something you’ll never know—a terrible smell of camphor. They kept all the windows closed. At night I could hear her crying out in pain. Later, I saw the scratch marks in the plaster from her nails. I shut myself away inside my room and read. Romantic novels. Mysteries. Anything I could find. What could I do? I was just thirteen. No one explained anything to me. One day a neighbor woman came to my room and told me she was dead. She took me by the hand. As we passed my mother’s room, I saw that the bed was empty. They had already taken her away.

 
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