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The pale of settlement, p.9

The Pale of Settlement, page 9

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  Susan narrows her eyes and considers the box. She tries to imagine the rush of heat—the yellow roar—the residue of bone and ash. She tries to imagine her own body, shadowed behind a screen of flames. She imagines herself as weightless as air, the whisper of release.

  Jerusalem Syndrome

  Avraham takes his cap and cane and walks south along Amram Gaon Street before turning onto Kanfei Nesharim in the direction of Har Nof. To avoid tripping, he walks in the road, preferring the idea of sudden death beneath a car’s wheels to the lingering decline of broken bones. A driver swears out his window, leaning on his horn. Avraham passes a clutch of religious boys from the yeshiva, shouting at each other and scuffing their black shoes in the dust. He passes two small children squatting beneath the broad boughs of a pine, cracking open snobarim with a chalky stone. The sun presses white and hot like the palm of a hand. Halfway up the hill, Avraham pauses to rest in the thin shade of a eucalyptus tree. The pavement shimmers in the heat. Just beyond the crest, Avraham knows, is the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center, a cluster of stone buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence, an olive grove, pine and almond trees, and heaps of cracked concrete and tumbled stone. Before the battles of 1948, it was an Arab village. Even now, Palestinians still call it Deir Yassin, although it isn’t marked on any map. After the war, they built a mental hospital there to care for Holocaust survivors gone mad; now it’s where they bring people afflicted with the Jerusalem Syndrome—tourists, usually, found ranting or dressed in robes, claiming to be Elijah or Christ and shouting warnings of the apocalypse. Sometimes, close by the gate, you could hear the false prophets shouting or crying—it was impossible to tell. Avraham himself prefers to look to the past, not the future: his stories run like memory, from back to front, the answers written at the beginning, not the end.

  What Zalman Remembered

  What Zalman remembered many years later was

  a thin disk of sun burning through the ashen sky

  the wind out of the Judean hills hissing through the pines

  the metallic taste of fear like blood in his mouth

  a woman pouring coffee in the cold static time before

  the fighting began, talking about the Jews murdered

  at Gush Etzion, the thirty-five martyrs of the Lamed-Heh.

  The woman said, You give those Arabs something

  they’ll remember this time.

  Zalman remembered the loudspeaker truck

  sent to warn the villagers, stuck in a rut

  blaring like Cassandra into the flat blank dawn

  Evacuate! Evacuate!

  but nobody heard.

  He remembered low stone houses chickens children Arabs dust

  machine gun fire an exploding grenade the boom

  of the two-inch mortar sent by the Palmach when the fighting turned bad

  the smell of burning the shouting the screams

  a boy of no more than nine or ten hurling a homemade bomb

  an old man cowering, knock-kneed, dressed in a woman’s clothes.

  Later, witnesses said the Jewish fighters’ eyes were glazed as if in ecstasy,

  but Zalman doesn’t remember any ecstasy but fear.

  Pain, of course, was the one thing that evaded memory—

  he remembered only the sensation of falling and later great thirst.

  The bullet nicked the femur of his left leg

  but missed the artery; they gave it to him afterward

  in a paper bag. A trophy or a souvenir.

  The only thing that still remained

  was the scar on the outside of his left thigh,

  a pink shiny patch like a small, exploded star.

  Evening Bells

  In the early evening, Susan phones Avraham from her room. She sits on the edge of the bed, listening to the clicks as the call goes through. Six rings before he picks up. Hallo? he hollers, as if she must be very far away. It’s Leah’s daughter, Susan, she says, from the States. Mi zeh? he yells. More slowly, she repeats: Ha bat shel Leah. Leah’s daughter. (How do you say “your niece”? She isn’t sure.) Ah yes, he says in English. Of course. A gritty voice, a European not Israeli accent, with a British tinge. In the distance, Susan hears the evening bells: Armenian, Anglican, Latin, Abyssinian, Russian, Greek. The sound radiates like ripples in a pool. You are at a hotel? her uncle says. This I cannot allow. Tomorrow you will come to me. I will fetch you in the morning. No, no, it is impossible. With the situation as it is now. Ha matzav. Susan looks out the window. The city is cooling from white to golden-pink in the slanting sun. She has no desire to leave this beautiful hotel. The old man’s flat is in that religious neighborhood, Givat Shaul, and almost certainly has no air-conditioning and a cold-water shower or the kind of water heater you have to ignite with a match. It’s probably filled with piles of paper, or potsherds—he was an archeologist—and she recalls that his wife has Alzheimer’s and is in a home. She thinks of the last time she saw her dead uncle Zalman’s apartment in Chicago, with the smell of cooking in the halls, the soot that seeped in at the edges of the window frames. He would offer her hard candies from a bowl, the plastic wrappers glued to peppermints gummy with age. Take, take, he’d insist. And when the woman hadn’t come to clean there would be scabs of food on the forks, for he never wore his glasses when he washed the dishes. Now Avraham is going on about how one no longer goes to King George Street or the Jaffa Road. One must not walk alone at night. Do not take the yellow Arab cabs. His warnings annoy her, though they make her wonder how much things really have changed since she last was here, before the Al-Aqsa intifada began. Even her parents said she was crazy to come. Still. She will hand over the box and be done.

  Words

  Because her Hebrew is not good, in Israel Susan’s always a tourist,

  or if not exactly a tourist, someone who can’t exactly pass

  for a sabra, even though this is the place her family is from,

  or if not exactly from, the closest thing to it

  (closer anyway than New York or Berlin or Vienna or Lwów).

  Everyone speaks English here in any case, and even if not, Susan can usually get by

  in her limping Hebrew restricted to a few dozen nouns and the present tense.

  It’s a troublesome language that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda resurrected

  from biblical ossification with its absence of vowels and no verb “to be.”

  The sequence of consonants gimel, lamed, and shin, Susan knows, can be read as

  golesh (to overflow like hot frothy milk or streaming wet hair),

  or as its opposite, gelesh (baldness),

  or even as le-haglish (to publish, in the sense of words flowing to light, like the skin on a newly bald scalp).

  The root gimel-lamed-shin also forms the words maglesha, miglasha, miglashayim, gilshon, gelisha:

  a slide, a sled, a pair of skis, a surfer, a hang glider, an avalanche.

  The way letters slip around it’s not surprising that the Kabbalists tried to shake loose

  the letters of God’s very name from their usual signification,

  as if meaning itself could overflow and slip away

  like a pot boiling over, wet hair fanning out in a pool, a sparkler’s shower of light.

  Where Her Blood Jangles

  Now she’s sitting in the cellar bar twisting the stem of her wine glass between her forefinger and thumb, feeling that strange way you feel sometimes when you travel alone—an echoing inside your head as if the words in there have no place to go but just bump around like a bluebottle fly on a windowpane. Two fair-haired men are sitting at a table in the corner, speaking some lilting language, Swedish perhaps, eating roasted peanuts out of their palms. The bartender is a young fellow with jutting elbows and eyebrows that meet in an arc at the bridge of his nose and skin pockmarked like orange rind. He refills her glass, not quite looking at her but not quite looking away, and when she thanks him, he says: Please. He could be an Israeli Arab or a Mizrahi Jew or a Druze:
he has features she can’t read. Susan herself is the kind of person to whom people sometimes say, But you don’t look Jewish! She has long, straight hair, amber-flecked eyes, a nose that tapers to a bump. The truth is that inside, where her blood jangles and her breath beats against her ears, she doesn’t exactly feel Jewish either. She feels hollow, like a knotty gourd.

  Night Sounds

  Avraham sits on the terrace and listens to the night sounds in the dark—

  engines revving at the stoplight, a cat wailing like a colicky child,

  the drone of the nine o’clock news on someone’s TV.

  The economic outlook’s even worse. Tomorrow, hot, khamsin.

  But right now it’s cool—he’s wrapped himself in a shawl like an old woman

  and is listening to the cicadas’ creak. Someone is shouting—Avi Avi—a mother

  calling for her child to come in. So once his mother called to him, too—Avi Avi—

  as dusk dropped over the bald hills. He remembers racing

  up the three stone steps from the garden, slippery with pine needles,

  the smells of thistles, goat dung, apricots rotting on the rocky ground.

  There were still jackals in the wadi then, hyenas, too. It doesn’t seem possible

  that breathless boy in khaki shorts could really have been him.

  He has never thought much of Freud’s interest in archeology,

  his likening of the tumbled ruins of the past to the unconscious mind,

  as if memory were something you could excavate, analyze, piece together, solve,

  instead of a story you invent in the shape of your desire.

  Take his brother Zalman, that other phantom boy he hasn’t seen in years.

  Lately he’s begun to confuse Zalman in his memory with their father.

  He sees them both as bearded old men with cloudy eyes, bent like Polish rabbis

  over Torah scrolls. Only his father was the religious one, not Zalman.

  Zalman was a different kind of zealot. A patriot. A pioneer. He remembers

  his father and Zalman arguing, hardheaded, at the kitchen table in the old flat

  in Sanhedria, after Zalman told them he was joining the Irgun. Those terrorists?

  their father yelled. The bread knife jumped. Or has he made this memory up, too?

  Zalman Wondered

  Near the end, Zalman wondered how it was that he was still here, here in America, in this place he’d only intended to stay a year or two or five at most, until the situation back home, the flap over the Irgun, settled down. It was Shula who suggested it, who wrote to her cousin in the wonderful-sounding Champaign, Illinois. Just for a year or two, they said. Then we’ll see. They took only three suitcases and left the cat behind, that odd gray cat with yellow eyes that vanished, they found out later, on the very day they decided to stay on in the States another year. Cats know things, Shula said. She was mystical about animals, though not about much else. He himself kept half-expecting that cat to turn up one day in Chicago, having followed them there the way pets sometimes did. He’d find himself peering behind the trashcans in the alley, listening for her cry at night. Eventually, they took in a stray instead, a blind old tabby with one torn ear. Now the cat and Shula both were gone, and here he was still. But never for a moment had he meant to stay for good. Even now, whenever he said home, he still always meant there.

  Here

  At 2:17 a.m. she opens her eyes, wide awake.

  For a moment the bed tilts, the grainy darkness swirls.

  The door and the window have changed places.

  Then she remembers. Here she is. Here.

  She remembers a night when she was eight or nine or ten,

  lying awake in a hard unfamiliar darkness

  her first night in a flat rented for the summer

  with a strange stretched feeling at the back of her throat

  like the memory of a yawn that wouldn’t come.

  She remembers running in a panic barefoot

  across the cold floor to her parents’ room,

  and her mother soft and dozy in her loose nightgown

  giving her a glass of milk and a quarter of a Darvon

  to help her sleep. Here take this. Here.

  She remembers once her brothers and cousins,

  digging in the garden behind her grandparents’ flat,

  turned up beneath the stony dirt the skeleton

  of a cat. Maggots had left the bones bright and clean.

  There was a one-legged Russian, their grandmother said,

  who lived next door and kept two dozen cats. At night they’d scream

  like infants in pain. He fed them fish heads from a canvas bag,

  stumping on his wooden peg. He died maybe ten years ago,

  she said, and the cats ran off, thank G-d. Good riddance to them all.

  The boys covered the bones with fresh dirt and said kaddish

  for the cat. They said, Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’meyh rabbah.

  There sits the box, heavy-gauge cardboard

  labeled CREMATED REMAINS. Cremations are forbidden

  here. The Orthodox say the body belongs to God alone,

  that this spinning world is neither the beginning

  nor the end of man. So what remains? Nothing.

  She believes nothing, and yet here she is,

  carrying out a dead man’s will. Maybe the word

  for it is just nostalgia.

  She’s starting to feel a little sleepy again. She turns

  the pillow over to the cool side. Now sleep.

  He Who Has Spent His Life Digging

  Avraham, having fallen asleep in his chair on the terrace, wakes at exactly 2:17 a.m. according to the kitchen clock (which might or might not still be stopped or running slow) and stumbles in to bed. The breeze has died and the air is still and dense as sand. He switches off the light and as he lies back he tries to imagine what it would be like to be buried alive, the weight on his chest, the pressure in his lungs, the smothering blackness the same with your eyes open or closed. He opens and closes his eyes now and, perceiving no difference, wonders if he’s suddenly gone blind. But slowly the outline of the wardrobe floats toward him, then the faint stripes of the blinds. He thinks of Zalman. Fifty years he’s been away and now he wants his ashes scattered here. His ashes! Leave it to Zalman to desire such an outrageous thing. It is fitting, he supposes, that he, Avraham, who has spent his life digging dead things out of the ground, should now be the one to add another body to this necropolis Jerusalem. But where? In the parklands of Hinnom, where the Canaanites sacrificed their children to the gods? On Ha-Ofel, by the Jebusite graves or the false tomb of Absalom? Or right here in the cemetery in Givat Shaul? Avraham feels a certain chill at the thought of Zalman’s ashes mingling with the nearby dead of Deir Yassin. I told that boy not to join those bandits the Irgun, their father had said when the telephone call came to say that Zalman had been shot. Bloody terrorists, he said, spitting over his shoulder, pthew, pthew, when they heard that open carts of Arab prisoners from the village had been paraded down King George V Street before a cheering crowd. Later, they heard other stories, too, that the Arabs were taken to a quarry behind the village and shot—a hundred or two hundred or even more. They tried to bury the story, but there were those who remembered still. Those who saw. Their frozen eyes. Their blood-stained clothes.

  Khamsin

  Khamsin is the Arabic word for fifty:

  the fifty days of hot wind from the east

  blowing dust and grit through a yellow sky

  like a last exhalation of exhaust

  out of the throat of the Sahara sphinx.

  The old men say that when the khamsin blows

  for five days straight it can drive a man to kill,

  as if such hot murders should be excused.

  In Hebrew, the word for “wind,” ruach, is the same

  as the word for “soul.” But in Arabic there are more

  tha
n fifty different words for “wind,” just as

  in the Koran alone there are more than one hundred and fifty

  different ways of saying

  “God.”

  A Cyclops’s Eye

  In the morning when the sun is slant, she walks along the Nablus Road, through the Damascus Gate, toward the place the Jews call the Temple Mount and the Arabs call Haram esh-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. In the Old City, she strides through the Muslim Quarter along El-Wad, her Nikon swinging against her ribs. Already it is very hot and the air is ripe with smells of dust and dung. A jet traces a chalk line across the sky, the far end blown to haze. It is good to shoot the Old City in this yellow light. The shutter clicks, clicks: a Cyclops’s eye. She shoots buttresses arching across an alleyway, a wooden door braced with rusting iron stays, a grimy-faced child crouching like a cat, curls of red graffiti along a concrete wall, an old man in a kaffiyeh setting out tourist wares, a translucent sickle moon. It is not easy to get past the clichés. She is not far now from the Wailing Wall, from the crowds of swaying men in black, davening to the stones. She could go there now—she would have to cover her bare head and arms, of course, with the blue rectangle of cloth the guard would hand her at the barricade—and write a prayer on a shred of paper, press it into a crack between the Herodian foundation stones. Weeds take root in those spaces, transforming prayers into leaves, into oxygen, into breath. But Susan has no prayers now. She puts the lens cap back on her camera and turns away.

  Avraham Waits

  Avraham waits in the courtyard of the hotel at a table in the thin shade of a palm. He waves the waiter away, checks his watch: the girl is late. He hopes she’s had the sense not to go wandering about the Old City alone. He can’t imagine why she would have wanted to stay in East Jerusalem; even he’s not comfortable here. He fingers a ridge of bristles along his jaw that he must have missed shaving. Lately he’s been having an argument in his head with Udi Azrieli, the schlepper who took over the biblical job when he retired. He can see Udi now, sitting across the table from him, fat and smug, his shirt half-untucked, his kippa bobby-pinned to a tuft of hair. They’ve been arguing over a book that’s just come out, blowing up the old Zionist myths about ’48, arguing that the Palestinians didn’t simply flee at the urging of the Arab League but were terrorized by the Jews and driven off their land, that Ben Gurion gave up the best hopes for peace right at the start. What remains when a myth explodes? Avraham should know better than to argue with Udi, but he can’t help himself. He says occupation; Udi says liberation. He says apartheid; Udi says return. Udi smirks, picking his ear with a matchstick. He says, We’ve been waiting for this for two thousand years. Avraham can’t remember what he was going to say. The vision vanishes. At this very moment, the real Udi is probably sitting at Avraham’s old desk, in his old office on Mount Scopus, looking out at his old beautiful view. Avraham checks his watch again. The girl is more than fifteen minutes late. He’s about to get up and call her room when suddenly he looks up and she is there. He hasn’t seen her in he doesn’t know how many years but there can be no mistaking Leah’s daughter. In fact, it could be Leah herself—the way the girl walks, the way she holds her head and narrows her eyes in a kind of squint. And before he can stand she is holding out her hand, American style, and saying, Hey, I’m Susan, and he is clasping her slim fingers in his and he is glad that she is here.

 
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