Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Every few days Fanya made some motion to leave; she began to gather the cosmetics she had spread over the dresser-top in Tami’s and Nachum’s bedroom, or she asked for the telephone number of a taxi company for the Jerusalem/Tel Aviv route.
“Stay as long as you like, and leave when you like,” Tami said as if she did not care. Tami longed for her mother to stay, to stay a long while, although she did not know why. The longer Fanya stayed the more alone she felt.
Nachum made no mention of Fanya’s presence, and he did not seem to mind sleeping on the mattress in their son Dov’s room. His silence unsettled Tami and after a time she asked him whether now that the war was over he thought it was time for Fanya to go back to Tel Aviv. The SCUD attacks had ended weeks ago, after all. Ariela no longer appeared at the door at the first wail of sirens, clutching her dolls to her chest; the radio announcer’s voice no longer sounded alerts and all-clears in language after language through the night. Still Tami and Nachum slept in the airless bedroom, its windows sealed shut although there was no more danger of chemical attack. Jerusalem was emptying of its Gulf-War refugees, did Nachum perhaps think Fanya should be leaving soon.
Nachum smiled his broad weathered smile and said only, “She’ll leave when she feels steady enough. Dov is in army training, what does he care if we use his bedroom a few weeks longer? Right now Fanya is out seeing Jerusalem and it makes her happy, nu, so what’s the harm?”
She had never understood Nachum’s patience, his slow easy manner that won him confidences and friends in places where he did not even look for them. She was grateful, now, that he did not say anything about Fanya’s staying on. Still it made Tami want to rage sometimes, how easily he passed through life. Long ago this way of his had charmed Tami, but now it made her feel alien to Nachum and alien to herself, untrustworthy because she wound herself in knots while Nachum continued at his same easy pace, never hurrying, while the world slowed down to accommodate him. He was late for everything and apologized with the easiest of smiles; he never turned away a question or a request on the street, and when he lagged because of it people shook their heads and laughed. That’s Nachum, they said. Nachum can get away with anything. Friends at the post office let him ahead of hour-long lines; the last bus of the night slowed to let him on as it pulled away from the station. Next to Nachum Tami felt methodical and ineffectual.
“Once,” Nachum would begin a favorite story when urged by friends, “Once, when I was 18, and I had just gotten my first apartment. Here in Jerusalem so I could be closer to where I was stationed for the army. I had moved all my things into the place, but the telephone company said I had to wait for a line. Wait and wait and wait again. Every day that I was free from the army, it was me going to the secretary at the telephone company and telling her I had no telephone, and she chewing gum and saying well that’s a shame, because the only person who can get me a line is her superior, and he’s on vacation and she can’t contact him until he returns.”
Telling the story, Nachum would lean forward as if inviting his audience to join him in a secret. “I said to her, ‘But the telephone company is government-owned. The telephone company is the government, nu, what do you mean you don’t have a superior in the country?’ She said to me, ‘Complain to the government then, I’m supposed to be on my lunch break already anyway.’”
“And I said to myself, ‘You don’t have a superior in the country? We’ll see about that.’ So that afternoon I was at the tank base and I went to a pay telephone.” Nachum made a swift motion as if picking up a receiver. “I called the operator and told her quick, put me directly through to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. The secretary in the Prime Minister’s office sounded suspicious, she wanted to know if it was important, and I said ‘Oh yes, it’s very important.’ And the secretary hesitated and then she said, ‘Because the Prime Minister isn’t in, but if it’s urgent I can get him on the field telephone. He’s on a tour of the Jordanian border with the Commander-in-Chief, the Ramatkal, you understand.’ So I said of course I understood, of course it was important, would Nachum Shachar call if it wasn’t important?” Nachum waited for his listeners’ laughter. “And she didn’t know what to say to that. So she connected me to the Ramatkal’s field telephone and over the static, I had to shout so he could hear me, I said to the Prime Minister of Israel, ‘Hello, this is Nachum Shachar, I just called to say good-day, and do you know by the way why it is that I’m calling from a pay telephone?’ And there was only silence, so of course I had to explain the whole situation to him, how as our elected leader he might be interested to know that the national telephone company hadn’t seen fit yet to give me a telephone line. And when I’d finished saying that, he didn’t say anything for a while. We both listened to the telephone crackling and whining, he didn’t say anything for a while. This was Nachum’s favorite part of the story and those who had already heard it nodded encouragement. “‘Shahar,’” Nachum said in the raspy voice of the Prime Minister, “‘Shahar, you are a thorn in my rear end.’” Nachum smiled and cracked a sunflower seed between his teeth, sucking out the inside and picking the shell halves delicately off his tongue with quick fingers. “And within an hour my apartment had a dial tone. Of course I immediately called our Prime Minister to thank him, nu, don’t let anyone say I don’t have manners, but apparently he’d left a very clear message with his secretary that he was not to be disturbed again. Even for Nachum Shachar.” While his audience laughed Nachum winked and reached for the bowl of seeds again.
She had known Nachum, of course, when he had made that telephone call; she had known him growing up, in Tel Aviv. Nachum had been in her scout troop, and had gone to the high school in the next neighborhood. Whatever the group’s activity had been he had always been one of the leaders, arranging hikes or carpools, or meeting points in parking lots by the beach for midnight bonfires. Tami had known him only vaguely; they had never spoken. She had participated from time to time in one of these activities that seemed near-constant, but most often she ignored the invitations that Nachum and his friends passed out after school.
When they had met at the laundry counter of the Negev tank base to which they had both been assigned, he had not recognized her. But he was quick with an invitation to a gathering that evening at the shed where sodas and coffee were sold until midnight, where the soda vendor left his radio propped up on the stony ground so they could sit on the plastic benches and listen to American rock and Israeli news. Tami had brought Gila with her to the shed that first night, and again the second night, but she had come alone the third.
She had not had many boyfriends before; three counting Aryeh, who used to walk her home from school with an arm across her shoulders. Fanya had not thought any of the boys at school good enough for her, and Tami had not resisted her mother’s judgments.
She was quiet with Nachum, and she thought he would lose interest in her quickly. The girls she had seen him with before had been loud and free with their opinions, long-haired and tall, the first to rush to the front of the hiking column to lead the group through the dry, bone-colored chutes of a wadi. While Tami herself trailed behind, running her fingertips over the slippery, water-smoothed stone that arched over and around the hikers and made their voices echo out into the blue sky beyond.
She was surprised when Nachum told her that he liked her quietness. “I’ve never met anyone like you,” he said, and she felt a flush of unfamiliar pride. When they had first slept together they had already been dating for more than six weeks; Nachum seemed to take pride in being courtly with her, as if she were another breed from the sharp-tongued daughters of Tel Aviv he had known before her.
They had been given the day off from their training; Nachum convinced Uri at the garage to let them take a jeep off the base, and they drove for an hour until they were deep in the desert, first on the highway and then off the road on the rocky plain. They had eaten their sandwiches in the jeep; now they turned off the engine, and Nachum spread a tarpaulin on the hard ground. They had planned to build a fire, make coffee, scout the area before settling in for the night—Nachum’s ideas—but instead they sat.
They took off their boots, stuffing their socks inside, and, moving on hands and knees to keep the tarpaulin from blowing away with the cooling breeze, they anchored each corner of the crackling cloth before settling back again. He kissed her and she smiled at him and looked away. Around them the hills were dark against the paling sky. There was no sound of motors, of voices or animals or anything save the breeze casting pebbles against the side of the jeep. The silence engulfed them easily along with the rock-strewn hills.
“Are you comfortable?” he asked, and she nodded, too full of them and the desert and the wind to answer. They watched the sunset spread and sink over the hills to the west. As the air dimmed a cluster of lights emerged in the distance between two hills, marking the kibbutz at the border with Jordan. Nachum had his eyes half closed, and the last of the light cast a faint shadow at the base of his throat.
She thought that he looked like they were supposed to look, like she had always wanted to look: dark-haired and strong-featured, suntanned and unafraid, blending into the darkness of the sand. She imagined them free, wandering the hills as easily as the night-animals, as unquestioning as aged, ancient men and women who knew that this was their home. This was it, what her European-born mother would never understand: the Israel that had always eluded Tami herself, yet that at this very moment seemed closer to her reach than ever before.
She told Nachum about her re-assignment to the office of the base’s communications station and about Gila’s new boyfriend, and he seemed to listen. He took her hand, caressed it between his warm dry hands, and pushed it and her gently down onto the tarpaulin. He began to undress her and without a word she mirrored his actions. They lay on the unyielding ground, soundless themselves in the cool and silent desert air, under a sky so black and thickly clustered that she could reach out her hand past his back as he moved into her and fit her fingers between the stars.
Jerusalem bloomed that spring in muted colors. The rainfall had not been enough, the Galilee was low, and the lilacs in Liberty Bell park gave only a hint of scent. Tami, walking home from work along the edge of the Valley of the Cross, watched two soldiers flag down a car on Herzog Street and ask the driver for a lift to the central bus station. In the valley outside the monastery one of the monks stood in his black robe, conversing with an elderly tourist in a long flowered skirt. They were good neighbors, the monks, Tami thought, with their quiet smiles and their odd Greek Orthodox hats. She passed through the cement tunnel and out onto the tree-shaded path.
Dov would be at home; he had arrived in Jerusalem the previous afternoon on a bus from the north, toting his soldier’s bag and his gun. His face was weathered and slower to change expression, marked from too much sun and coffee, too many cigarettes, too little sleep. He was thin and hoarse, and he favored his right leg when he walked. When he spoke it was in monosyllables, his vocabulary taken over by acronyms and slang that Tami did not understand, and even Nachum had to ask him what he meant by some of the phrases he slung about as casually as he dropped the M-16 onto his bed. Tami concentrated on his laundry: uniforms matted with dust and sweat and dried mud.
They were laughing in the kitchen, Nachum and Dov, and Rafi, who nodded with mock formality at Tami’s entrance. Rafi had lost weight as well, the last time Tami had seen him was at the high school graduation just before both boys had left for the army. Now Rafi’s eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, his freckled face was gaunt, but his grin was wider than ever. The three of them were splitting seeds between their teeth and piling the shells on the table next to something they were looking at together.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Tami told them. She was changing her clothing at the other end of the apartment when she heard a vague call from Nachum, something about taking the boys down to the shop. The door slammed and there was silence. Buttoning her shirt, Tami came into the kitchen. She stared at the pile of photographs left carelessly where the three of them had sat. Gingerly she sat in the seat her husband had occupied.
The first few photographs were of Dov and some other boys in uniform, looking serious as they leaned against each other and against their guns jammed into the ground. The next pictures showed lithe uniformed figures bent over a pile of gear on the hard-packed dirt. Then a picture of an airplane overhead, and then three pictures of parachutes in the air, figures dangling from them, and something dizzying about the angle of the shot that Tami could not place. She tried to find Dov in the photographs but all the jumpers looked the same, stick-figures dangling by strings from white bags of tautly rippling air. A picture of a parachute billowing close overhead and filling the field of the camera startled Tami, and when she came to the pictures of Dov’s face grimacing at close range, his features pushed up from the force of the air and his eyes slitted in laughter against the wind and his arms extended to hold the camera in front of him, she realized: he had taken his camera on the jump, he had sneaked his camera onto the plane, and she sat and stared at her son’s cleverness that ran ahead out of her reach like water.
It had been hamsin when Dov’s hate for her had become irrevocable, a day when the air felt thick and heavy with demands. The sky was white and merged with the light-colored buildings on the hills beyond the Valley of the Cross. It hurt to look across the valley; it hurt to look at anything beyond arm’s reach.
Nachum had returned from reserve duty the previous evening. Tami had stayed up half the night before his return, cooking in the relentless heat, making grape leaves, tomato-eggplant salad, kubeh, and lemon and strawberry mousse pies for dessert. It was nothing compared to what some of the other women in the building did for a simple Friday night or to what Gila did for Yoram when he returned from reserve, but Tami had never liked to fuss in the kitchen, or join in the other women’s conversations about how many and which dishes they were making for a homecoming dinner. Still this time she had cooked with the grim determination that Nachum’s return would chase away a loneliness she had not been able to contain lately, so that sometimes at the customs office she stared at familiar forms as if she had never seen them before.
They had eaten her meal in silence. Nachum was exhausted and close-mouthed about exercises in the heat and dust storm. He ate some of everything and took extra helpings of both pies and while Tami was washing dishes he fell asleep at the table with Ariela in his lap. “Nachum,” Tami had said, and Nachum had opened his eyes, set Ariela on the floor and walked to the bedroom without a word. When she came in moments later he was asleep.
When Tami awoke in the morning, her head throbbing with the heat, Nachum had already left for the shop. In her t-shirt and underwear she shuffled into the kitchen and, eyes half closed, took a glass out of the cabinet over the stove. The sponge with which she had washed dishes the previous night was so dry she could have snapped it in half, and her eyes filled with tears as she opened the tap and let cool water splash into the glass.
She dressed carefully before going to the greengrocer’s. She wore her blue tank top and brown shorts, and her sandals with the leather straps that cut into her ankles when she walked. At the last minute before she left the apartment, she reached into the back of a dresser drawer and pulled out a scratched bottle of perfume, one Fanya had left behind on a visit years before and Tami had never bothered to return. She dabbed some perfume on her wrists.
The greengrocer’s smelled of sour milk and overripe fruit. A girl painted her nails behind the register and in the doorway stood a boy, talking to the girl and leaning on a push-broom that he did not seem intent on pushing anywhere. Tami circled the store, filling her basket with carrots and peach juice for Ariela, mango for Nachum. She picked up a box of Osem soup-almonds, pitas in a damp blue plastic bag, a package of cheese and four heavy boxes of milk, and still she did not see him.
When she took her basket to the counter the girl was gone; he stood in her place, smiling at her with those black eyes that she had wondered about so many times.
His name was Nissim. For years he had rung up her groceries, helped her find misshelved cans of soup, and told her what she owed with a smile in which she saw a knowledge that made her blush. He was dark-skinned, Sephardic, at least ten years younger than she. He kept accounts without writing them down, shaking his head quietly on those occasions when she apologized for not having enough money with her. “You’re a good customer, you always pay your account, so who needs to write it down?” he said. “When a woman like you says she’ll pay, she’ll pay.” He would offer to carry her groceries to the apartment for her. She had always refused.
“Will that be all?” he asked her now.
“Yes, thank you.” She met his eyes and looked away quickly, fidgeting with her purse. “And could you bring the packages to my apartment for me? The groceries are heavy and I’m not feeling so well today.”
“Of course,” he said quickly, as if he did not know what she meant.
She sat in the apartment waiting for him; she thought to herself that this was crazy. She was a mother of two children. Her stomach was flabby and pale, she had not worn her bikini to the beach in more summers than she could remember. Here she was, waiting for her Nissim from the greengrocer’s to climb the stairs to her apartment. It was ridiculous; she would not answer the door when he came.
The doorbell rang, and she jumped, froze for a moment, then, cursing herself, unlocked the door. He was out of breath from the stairs, and he walked past her and set the box of groceries on the kitchen table with a thump.
“Thank you, Nissim,” she said slowly, fingering the money she had counted out in advance. She could hear her heartbeat.
He waited. She turned abruptly and, taking a pitcher from the refrigerator, poured a glass of cold water. She thrust it into his hands. “Here,” she said.
They stood on opposite sides of the narrow kitchen table, and she watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall as he swallowed.
When he had finished he placed the glass on the table. “Thank you,” he said, and waited.
In one hand she clutched the money she owed him. Before she could hesitate she lifted her other hand in a quick motion and brushed her palm against his tight dark curls, and at the same moment as she registered the look of shock on his face and realized she had made a terrible mistake, the door banged open and Dov was staring at the two of them from across the kitchen.
She dropped her hand and Nissim turned and fled the apartment, clattering down the stairs in his sandals without the money she still clutched in her hand. “Dov,” she said, but her son turned and left the apartment without a word. The door closed so gently behind him that she held her breath to hear it, and the heat that filled the apartment in the silence that followed told her everything.
The week Fanya returned to Tel Aviv they moved back into their bedroom, but Nachum’s graphs and magazines stayed in the sealed room, and some nights Nachum fell asleep over his work. When Tami woke him and he had stumbled back to their bedroom then sometimes she sat on her son’s bed for a while before returning to their bedroom. If she fell asleep on Dov’s bed she was woken by the sound of Nachum mixing his mango juice in the doorway of the kitchen in the morning.
Still they reached for each other at night, less often than during the war but still with that same detached intensity, as if they were two young people who had not yet realized that time was not something that could be snatched and prevented from passing. She wondered if Nachum saw someone on the overnight trips he sometimes took to Tel Aviv for business, but she did not ask, and she knew after all that he did not; he would never be as weak as she, to try something like that. It was only she who had somehow fallen into a crack in this great collective society; only she who had somehow, for all her reaching, never grasped what everyone else seemed to hold so easily.
Hamsin again, and the dripping laundry that Tami strung from the porch before waking Ariela was stiff and gritty with dust by the time the girl left for school. Tami filled the tub with cool water and stripped off t-shirt and underwear to sit in it before leaving the apartment for the office. She left a note on the refrigerator door for Ariela with instructions not to go out to play until she had had three full glasses of water, no cheating. Writing the note gave her satisfaction; at least Ariela still listened.
Nachum was tight-lipped when he dropped the evening paper on the kitchen table. He sat on one of the green vinyl chairs and, resting his elbows on the table, pushed his face into his hands as if he were trying to seal his eyes shut by force. “Did you hear?” he asked.
“Three soldiers died in a training accident in the Negev. Dehydrated.”
Dov was in the desert for more training this week; Tami had been trying not to think about him in this heat, going along with whatever craziness his commander ordered as if the lives of his unit depended on it.
“Didn’t the officers know to—”
“One of them was Rafi,” Nachum interrupted her.
Nachum did not answer or remove his hands from his face.
She snatched the newspaper from the tabletop. On the front page were the faces of three boys. She recognized the photograph of Rafi from Dov’s high school yearbook. Rafi was grinning from the depthless paper.
“Oh,” Tami said softly. She lowered herself into a chair next to Nachum.
“Does Dov know?”
“Who knows? Who knows where he is? It must be on the radio by now.”
They sat without moving and without touching until the kitchen was dark.
They came unsummoned to the apartment that night, dozens of Dov’s classmates in uniform who had been allowed to leave their bases to come to Jerusalem. Guns cluttered the sealed room, covered the bed and spilled onto the floor. They left their weapons in Dov’s room and locked the door behind them, and the girls held Ariela on their laps in the living room so that she wouldn’t go near the guns. They sat in the living room in silence, the hamsin hanging in the air between them, and they held onto each other as if to gather strength before going together to the apartment on Radak Street, to Rafi’s parents and sister. No one spoke. Tami put out a pitcher of water and cups and her son’s friends thanked her in soft voices, those same friends who for years had breezed past her on the telephone as if she were a road sign on the way to Dov. She moved through the room, touching one girl’s hair, brushing a hand over a boy’s dusty uniformed shoulder, wanting to touch them all, as if her touch could heal, or at least hold them in place so that they would not disappear, ever. No one moved.
It was after one o’clock in the morning when Dov arrived. When he pushed open the apartment door they stared at him, as if now that he had come there would be an answer. Pulling the key from the door, he turned in the hallway and instead of entering the living room where they waited for him he walked to his room, took the single key from its hook on the wall and opened the door. When he saw the guns piled on his bed something in him seemed to sag; he rested his own gun against the wall inside the room and, stepping out, closed the door softly behind him and locked it. When he walked back into the living room one of the girls, the one Tami now recognized from the open yearbook on Dov’s floor, walked over to him and, tears running down her cheeks, hugged him hard. As if automatically, Dov’s arms went around her waist, but Tami could see that he was not reacting to her, only staring at the far wall past the girl’s back.
The telephone rang.
“Shalom Tami, I heard.” It was Fanya. “Is Dov with you?”
“Yes he is.” Tami felt suddenly feverish at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her mouth was dry and she held onto the wall for support. “His commander drove him down. He has three days leave.”
“I don’t believe it, I don’t believe they could allow something so stupid to happen. A bullet I understand, but the sun? They should have known what can happen out there, they should never have had them train during a hamsin as bad as this one. Even if they force them to drink it’s still not enough in heat like this.
“I hear there’s going to be a military investigation to get to the bottom of this. Three boys, dead like that, just like that, it’s not a thing to be believed. But they’ll investigate, they’ll get to why and how and when and what happened. Does Dov know yet that there’s going to be an investigation?”
“Does he know yet?”
Tami’s head felt so heavy she could barely hold it up. “I don’t think this is the time,” she said.
“Let me talk to him,” Fanya said.
Tami opened her mouth to protest but a strange bitterness stilled her. Who was she to judge, who was she to protect her son?
Tami watched Dov hold the receiver to his ear. “Yes, I know,” he answered Fanya once, and, once, quietly, “Just a few minutes ago.” There was a long silence, at the end of which Dov opened his mouth as if to say something, but instead only nodded and hung up the receiver. He walked out of the kitchen without looking at Tami.
From the balcony Tami watched them walking away down the street, a huddle of arms and heads pressed together and only her son walking to one side, walking straight ahead and ignoring anyone who approached him. Nachum had gone to put Ariela to bed. “But why did they let Rafi go out in hamsin without drinking enough?” Tami heard Ariela ask for the third time that night, but she did not hear Nachum’s answer. The sealed room was strangely empty, its door swinging ajar. Dov had remembered to lock his gun in the cabinet in the living room, and there was nothing on the floor of the room but some of Nachum’s papers and the yearbook still open under the bed. Tami moved Nachum’s papers into the living room. She closed the yearbook and put it on the shelf over Dov’s desk.
It was close to 4:00 in the morning when Dov returned from Radak Street. Nachum was asleep; Tami listened to Dov run water in the bathroom, and heard him click off the light switch. She waited. There was no sound from Dov’s room. After a while she got up and, passing his locked door, walked into the kitchen. She sat in one of the chairs, picking at the seat’s chipping green vinyl with a fingernail.
The following day and the day after, Dov sat in his room and refused to eat or answer the telephone. Nachum tried to talk to him but Dov only turned his back, and when he came out of the boy’s room there was such a look of bewildered hurt in Nachum’s eyes that Tami felt sorry for him and vindicated at the same time. Once Nachum came to Dov’s door with a soccer ball. “Come on outside,” he said. “We’ll play, just you and me. As slow as you want.”
The glance that Dov passed over Nachum was condemning in its indifference. “No, Abba,” he said. And when Dov saw Tami peering into the room from the hallway after Nachum had gone, he rose, glaring, and shut the door. Tami followed Nachum out onto the porch. She watched him brace himself against the railing with both hands and look down through the glare of sun and dust onto the street. For the first time since she had known him he seemed to her so lonely, and she was ashamed of the suddenly overwhelming tenderness she felt. Hesitating a moment, she reached out and rubbed his shoulders. He patted her hand absently before moving back into the apartment.
The third night was relentless; the forecaster said the heat had spent itself, but the hamsin did not break. Nachum had taken Ariela out for ice cream and a movie. He had said Ariela needed extra attention and Tami had agreed without a word.
She sat on the porch in the sagging plastic chair. She had showered again, turning her face up into the cool trickling water. Already sweat prickled at the back of her neck through her wet hair. She watched the moths circle the light-bulb that dangled above her from the stone overhang. Framed in a window across the alley, a woman, seated in a chair, combed the hair of the girl who sat between her knees on the floor. In the blackness of the Valley of the Cross a light burned in an upper room of the monastery, and a few pieces of the monks’ clothing caught the light, white underclothes and long dark shadows huddled together on a line. They bobbed slightly, noiselessly; the rest of the clothesline trailed off into darkness. On the hill the yellow-white lights of the Knesset building lit a small area of surrounding garden, and a single car honked from outside the gates to the circular drive.
From inside the apartment there was a muffled sound that was repeated twice and then, after a pause, again. Rising slowly, Tami wrapped her robe more tightly around her. She pushed aside the curtain and stepped inside.
In the sealed room Dov stood with his head down nearly to his chest. His hair was matted and his uniform hung on his body. Blood laced over the knuckles of his right fist in spidery-thin lines and dripped onto the floor.
“Oh god.” Tami stepped forward to touch his hand. He snatched it away.
In the wall over the desk beneath the taped and unshuttered window there was a ragged hole, bits of plaster chipping from its edges. Looking, Tami expected somehow to find the air of a cool night pouring into the room at last, bringing with it stars, the smell of eucalyptus. But Dov’s fist had only knocked away the plaster, only cracked the sheetrock and exposed the stone behind.
“Leave me alone,” Dov said, and when Tami did not speak or move he looked up at her, his eyes filled with hate. “Leave me alone,” he shouted.
She stood barefoot, staring at the spots of blood on the cool tile floor, and a sudden rage blew through her. What right had he to look at her that way. As if she had chosen that the world be the way it was, as if she had ordered the wars and the terrorism, the dust wind and the desert with its patches of black sand that heated up to 60 degrees and killed boys without warning. The rage that gripped her now, making her hands tremble and her jaw ache, was a comfortable rage; it was a collective, inevitable, irrefutable rage, so complete it absolved her of whatever she alone had done. What right had he. As if she had chosen this path for them, as if she had chosen that they live clinging to each other’s bodies and the soil and the here and now, lest someone catch them without their roots deep in each other and all would be lost, with no second chances.
Looking at the boy before her, she saw that his hand was scarred and ugly and the sight tightened her throat until it burned.
“What’s wrong with you?” she shouted into the quiet apartment. “What’s wrong with you?” She stared at him. “Did you think you’d punch through? Did you think you could? Did you?”
She stood still, her bare feet trembling from the stone tiles. He was sobbing quietly with his head bent to his chest. His hands hung unclenched at his sides.
It was the simplest of steps that carried her forward, as easy and unwilled as a heartbeat, and she held him; held his lean battered body and she felt herself becoming something huge and primal and ancient.
He cried into her shoulder, he held her tightly, he did not let her go.
Rachel Kadish lived in Jerusalem, where she worked for the Israel Women’s Network. She has received grants from the Whiting Foundation and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and is currently a literary editor for the Public Media Foundation’s The Radio Play. This excerpt is from her novel, From a Sealed Room.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.