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The pale of settlement, p.8

The Pale of Settlement, page 8

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  It was only noon. Joyce and the others wouldn’t be back for hours. Why shouldn’t she do exactly what she wanted for once?

  Hey, she said, reaching under the table for his hand. Come with me.

  After Lobuche, everything changed.

  The colors of the landscape grew more intense. Dubi could feel the music of his muscles and ligaments and joints, the swirling flows of blood and lymph and air. He could feel the harmony of the wind and stones and rustling trees, the vibration of the sunshine and the scudding clouds. He listened to the backbeat of his heart.

  In Pangboche, he sat with the monks inside the gompa and watched them meditate. The Buddha smiled down at him in endless repetition from the walls, his thumb and middle finger pressed together, a swirl of blue and orange and green. Dubi took it as a sign. There was the drone of chanting, the chesty vibration of the gong, the clear tone of a silver bell. Afterward, outside the gompa, the letters carved into the mani stones floated loose and rearranged themselves before his eyes.

  Dubi knew that what happened to him on Kala Pattar was real and not just another magic mushroom trip. Along the trail back down to Lukla, it came to him in little bursts, like flashes of white light.

  After Lobuche, even though there was still a week left to the trek, every step was a return. They walked back the way they came, heading down through Pangboche, Tengboche, Namche, the names a musical refrain—going home, going home. The fact that the way was now imaginable changed everything. The intensity of the alpen-glow on a drifting peak, the mysticism of red-robed monks, the tableaux of Sherpa women digging roots out of the frozen fields had faded to the merely picturesque. They were sick of coughing and spitting, of dirty fingers and the runs, of the cold and dust and yak dung everywhere. They’d be home before Thanksgiving. They wanted hot showers, clean hair, a bed with sheets and a pillow, a newspaper, TV.

  Namche Bazaar, with its whitewashed houses, electric light, trekkers’ lodges, and street-side shops, felt like civilization now. They wandered through the crowds on market day, taking pictures of the Tibetans who’d come over the pass to trade meat and salt. The Tibetans wore rough sheepskin outfits and high felt boots, black braids wrapped around their heads and tied with bits of red cloth. They shopped for souvenirs: turquoise rings, woven carpets, thangkas, beaded bracelets, yak-wool sweaters, fur-trimmed embroidered hats. They waved to the smiling Sherpa girls, calling out Namasté, didi! the way the locals did. Susan took off her Russian soldier’s pants and put on jeans. They were loose now at the waist, a good sign.

  With Dubi, there was a studied effort on both their parts to behave as if everything was still the same—overly casual greetings and good-byes, a friction as their eyes met and shifted away. His feint of distance filled her with a delicate desire. At night, in the darkness of her tent, she replayed their afternoon together like a tape. The roughness of his tongue. The flex of muscles, the circle of his arms.

  After Gaza, in those long weeks before he’d left for the Far East, all he’d done was sleep. He went to bed early and slept until noon. He slept with his pillow pressed over his head to block out sound. In the afternoons, he sat by the swimming pool at the Hilton, where Maya had a job, watched the tourists waddle past. His head felt dense as cotton wool. Even the air felt particulate, as if it had condensed to sand.

  But now Dubi couldn’t sleep. His eyes refused to close. His body cast a long shadow as he walked along the streets of Namche in the light of the full moon. He was gigantic, taller than the houses, taller than the trees.

  He could see it clearly, the way things would be. He understood that everything up to now had been a trial, preparing him for this.

  Back in Kathmandu at last, Susan shed the trek along with her smelly clothes. She stood under the shower for half an hour, letting the hot water flood her eyes and lips. Then Ross came to her hotel room with his scissors and trimmed six inches off her hair. Crescents of hair covered the bathroom floor.

  Susan put on sandals and a sleeveless dress. Her hair swung against her neck. She sat down on the bed and turned the TV on to CNN. The stock market was still going up. Impeachment hearings for the president had begun. Armageddon was a huge box office hit. She hadn’t thought about the news in days.

  Dubi was standing in the lobby when she came downstairs. He hadn’t showered or changed, and she felt a small shiver of distaste. He was looking at her in that odd way again. The clenched-jaw grimace seemed more pronounced against the stubble of his suntanned face. In two days, she’d be back home. She wished she could have preserved her memory of him the way he was during the trek—a perfect souvenir. But here he was, looking at her like that.

  Ooh-ah, he said. You are beautiful.

  I was about to go out for a walk, she said. She knew he felt her distance. He was pulling her down, a heavy stone. She could see the pain fracture in his eyes.

  He said, I’ll come, too.

  He reminded her of a boy in her fifth-grade class who used to follow her around, his tongue practically lolling out. He wrote her love notes and made his sister slip them into her desk. At recess, the other boys would beat him up and jeer and he would just lie there in the dirt, his arms and legs curled limply to his chest, until they were done. Come on, guys, don’t, he’d whimper. Andrew. That was the boy’s name.

  Dubi pushed open the door and they stepped out of the air-conditioned lobby chill into the gritty heat. Sea level was a come-down. The smells of diesel exhaust and garbage settled like a weight.

  Dubi said nothing as they walked but Susan could tell he was turning words around inside his head. He seemed to have lost his flirty humor, his aggressive Israeli style. In their place was that almost manic energy, those circles beneath his eyes. The image of her cousin Gavi rose in her mind before she could shut it out.

  They were crossing a courtyard off Durbar Square when he pulled her to a stop, took her hands in his. She glanced up, over his shoulder, and recognized the balconies of the temple of the Kumari Devi, the same place she’d seen him, videotaping, back at the beginning of it all. The balconies were empty now, the windows reflecting the orange sun.

  What he said was not what she expected. She wasn’t sure she even understood it all. Something about a message he’d received, a sign. Something about the connection between them, how special she was—far more than she could know.

  There is a reason we found each other, he said. It is not just a coincidence.

  Coincidence. What was coincidence, really, but incidents randomly occupying the same place in space or time? Everything was a co-incidence, if you thought about it that way. The two of them were a case in point. Here they were, holding hands, but they’d never really touched at all.

  Still, Susan felt herself softening a little bit. He was just a kid. He’d get over her soon enough. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek. She was feeling generous now.

  Who knows, she said. Maybe some day we’ll meet again.

  B’seder, he said. Okay.

  It was not so difficult. Her room was only on the second floor. He swung himself up to the balcony and crouched there in the darkness, listening. Below him, in the hotel garden, hibiscus flowers stretched their stamens up and spread their petals wide. The city’s glow dimmed the stars. In the distance came the sound of a motorbike’s high whine, the barking of a dog.

  He pressed his forehead against the sliding door and let his eyes adjust. There was the dim outline of the bed. An uneven shape on top. He pushed gently against the glass. The door slid open, as he’d known it would.

  He felt her before he could see her, the silent rise and fall of breath, the subtle movement of her shoulders, the faint flutter of her eyelids. He inhaled deep into his lungs, timing his own breath to hers. Blood pulsed through his limbs like light.

  She turned, flinging an arm above her head, moaning softly in her sleep. The sheet pulled back across her chest; her skin glowed like the moon.

  He crouched down, bracing himself against the wall as he slipped the
lens cap off, lifted the video camera to his eye, pressed the button. Record.

  He filmed until the tape ran out. He was so close that he could see the hairs along her bare arms, the soft down along her neck.

  It was only then that he noticed the glint of light. It was a watch, round-faced, gold, lying on the night table next to the lamp. The hinged bracelet held in a circle by a chain. He put it to his ear, felt the beating of its tiny heart. Inside his shirt pocket, against his chest, it pulsed with his blood. Outside, a misshapen moon dangled in the sky. The air was warm as skin.

  The hotel manager said he could not call the police since there was no sign that her room had been broken into or anything disturbed. Perhaps it has been misplaced, he said. He noted her address and phone number, tucked the paper into the pocket of his shirt. He said, Madam, we will certainly inform you if anything turns up, so Susan knew she’d never hear from him again.

  It is not fucking misplaced, Susan told Joyce afterward as they waited for their midnight flight from Delhi to New York to board. My grandmother gave me that watch, Susan said, when I turned thirteen. I knew I should have left it at home.

  She felt the thickness of the dark, the breathing of another body too close to hers, the violation of space. She pushed the thought from her mind.

  In the windowless Delhi transit lounge, birds were twittering in the branches of an indoor ficus tree. Two lavatory attendants, squatting against the far wall by their buckets and brooms, took turns sipping from a thermos of tea. She rubbed her fingers over the tan line that marked where the watch should have been. Was it now on some Nepali chambermaid’s wrist, or in a dusty pawnshop off Durbar Square? She missed its familiar face, its comforting soft tick. It seemed impossible that it was gone.

  She closed her eyes and leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair. It was a sunny afternoon in a stubble field, prayer wheels spinning in a milky stream. Words were tumbling through the water, blowing through the air. The sun pulsed red against her eyelids. She felt the closeness of another hand beside her own.

  DEIR YASSIN

  As Dawn Splits

  All the way from New York to Tel Aviv, she keeps the box beneath the seat in front of her. She slips off her sandals and touches it with her toes. A movie flickers overhead; the darkened shades are rimmed with static slits of light. The man next to her guffaws into his headphones. Thirty-six thousand feet up, she’s thinking about the many possibilities of return. In a Tibetan air burial, bodies are left naked on a rock for vultures to pick to bones. In India, pyres smolder along the Ganges, ashes and marigolds drifting with the stream. Maybe she’ll just leave the box at Ben Gurion, revolving like a planet on a baggage carousel. Maybe she’ll drop it inside the Damascus Gate, ticking like a bomb. Or maybe she’ll take it to a café deep inside the souk and stir the ashes, a teaspoonful at a time, into a cup of Arabic coffee, boiled sweet. She’ll turn the cup over, twist it three times, read the prophecy etched into the grinds. As dawn splits over the Mediterranean, three men in black suits and rumpled shirts shuffle past her and place themselves in the space between the galley and the lavatories, behind her seat. They wind phylacteries around their arms and foreheads, drape prayer shawls over their heads, and daven toward the streaks of light. She feels the chanted words bending, bobbing, against her neck. The words keep the hurtling plane miraculously aloft. Susan touches the box with her toes and listens to the praying men. She’s thinking that bodies, like words, dissolve, dry up, fly into the air. They fly away and are gone.

  Here Buried

  Avraham Bar-On wakes at dawn. As he buttons his shirt, he looks out the window at the Jerusalem pines and flat rooftops of Givat Shaul. The early light is flat and gray. He boils coffee at the stove, tosses yesterday’s bread to the pigeons waiting on the windowsill. He is thinking about the town where he was born, pigeons pecking at the cobbled square at dawn, the women setting up their market stalls, their heads wrapped in flowered scarves, squat burlap sacks filled with barley and corn and rye, or in summer, buckets of lilies and gladiolas from the fields. Avraham takes off his glasses, wipes them with a dishrag. He knows these images may not really be memories at all, but just the sediment of stories he’s been told, or photographs he’s seen in books. He was just a child when he left Poland, and he has never returned. He was Abie Borodsky then, another person in another world. Here, too, beneath his feet, lie other lives, other worlds. Here buried under layers of broken stone and dirt and dust lie, perhaps, some potsherds, a Roman coin, a cistern, abandoned graves. Two thousand years from now, he thinks, everything will still be much the same. The indifferent sun will still appear each day, though little will remain to show that he was ever here—an aluminum can, a splinter of bone. Maybe it’s the news of his brother Zalman’s death that has done it—lately everything around him has started to recede, as if he were on a banking plane watching the green-brown squares of cultivated earth curve out and slip away. He thinks of his wife, Eva, strapped to her chair in the hospital ward, her memory gone, her mind as blank as air. Avraham doesn’t pick up the paper lying outside his door; he doesn’t listen to the morning news. He stands by the stove, sipping his coffee, bitter and black, as the light grows sharp over the stones.

  A Sky Blue Marble

  Susan carries the box containing the ashes of her dead uncle off the plane, through immigration, past the baggage carousels, and out the lane marked NOTHING TO DECLARE, into the light. People push and wave and shout, pressing against the barricades outside the sliding doors. No one is here to greet her. There’s the smell of too many bodies, of flesh and sweat. Susan has been to Israel many times, but this time everything looks strange, as if illuminated by a too-bright light. She’s struck by the rising cadence of language she does not understand, by the Hebrew letters surrounding her on billboards, blocky and obscure. She notices the soldiers, M16s swinging at their sides, the Mizrahi men with gold chains around their necks, Arab families tugging enormous suitcases on wheels, Haredim in black with side curls at their ears. Almost no tourists.

  Susan holds the box on her lap as the sherut winds up the road to Jerusalem. She rolls down her window and breathes the hot dry air that smells of diesel exhaust and pine: familiar, foreign smells. A burned-out armored van tilts on the verge, a relic of the first war. New trees line the hillsides, rows of saplings orderly as military graves. She is the last passenger to be dropped off. The driver does not want to take her to East Jerusalem. He lectures her in a Russian-inflected Hebrew, waving his hands and glaring at her in the rearview mirror, from which an amulet swings, a sky blue marble against the evil eye. She makes out the word intifada, the words Aravim and Yehudim, Arabs and Jews. The American Colony Hotel, once a pasha’s palace, is a favorite of journalists and diplomats who don’t mind its location in the Arab part of town. The lobby is cool and dim, with vaulted arches and floors of time-worn stone. In these troubled times, it is quiet as a tomb. Past the lobby, Susan can see the empty tables in the courtyard café, the Turkish fountain burbling beneath an orange tree. Susan does not give the box to the bellboy who leads her to her room. She carries it before her like a gift, feeling the rasp of sediment shifting inside.

  Pigeon

  On the morning before the day he died, Zalman Bar-On lay awake behind hazy slats of light and tried to remember his dream. A pigeon had flown in through the bedroom window—although it was not this bedroom, but another one that reminded him of their first apartment in Chicago, the one with the smell of gas in the hallway and a rust-rimmed sink. The pigeon flew in through the window and his ex-wife, Shula, carried the bird out to the fire escape and let it go. It flapped up into the yellow sky and was gone. Then Zalman was alone and he was holding the pigeon on his finger, its knotty talons piercing his skin. The bird led him through the rutted streets of a village both familiar and strange, with old stone houses and olive trees trembling in the rain. The dream annoyed him. He shook it off with the sheets and got out of bed. The floor felt cold underfoot. The water ran cold in the b
athroom sink.

  The Second Hand

  In the flat on Amram Gaon Street the second hand

  of Avraham Bar-On’s kitchen clock is stuck

  between the three and the four. It quivers

  and gives out a low hum like a moan

  before springing reluctantly ahead.

  Avraham has washed his cup and plate

  and is trying to decide what to do next.

  In the old days, he’d be at the university by now,

  his work spread out like a fan inside his head.

  But these days, time keeps getting stuck

  like this clock, whose batteries

  probably need to be replaced.

  Patrimony

  Susan’s room looks out over a too-blue swimming pool, where one lone hotel guest reclines oily in the sun. She sets the box on the table next to the complimentary basket of fruit and stack of glossy tourist magazines, and sits down on the bed. It is her first trip to Jerusalem in years. Now her grandparents are dead; this time it is the other side of the family she has come to see: her mother’s oldest brother, Avraham Bar-On, a man she hardly knows. She has brought him the box.

  Susan often feels related only to her father. People always say she looks just like her mother, with her thick-lashed eyes and long dark hair, but Susan’s good sense of direction, her reporter’s desire for the story, her crooked little toe, are all his. Susan’s mother has always promoted the myth of Susan’s lack of relation to her own family, whose women (she said) were prone to nervous disorders, hypertension, leaky heart valves, and untimely death. Susan’s mother had tried to evade her legacy the old-fashioned way, trading one patrimony for another in marriage, but who was to say what she’d passed along to her daughter, this lone girl among brothers and cousins, uncles and sons, and sometimes Susan wondered what weakness lay on her X chromosomes, like a point of metal fatigue on the wing of a plane.

 
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