Authors: Aharon Appelfeld
The Age of Wonders
Tzili: The Story of a Life
To the Land of the Cattails
The Immortal Bartfuss
For Every Sin
Unto the Soul
Beyond Despair: Three Lectures
and a Conversation with Philip Roth
The Iron Tracks
The Story of a Life
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Translation copyright © 1992 by Aharon Appelfeld
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Schocken Books,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in
Israel by Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, in 1989.
Copyright © 1989 by Aharon Appelfeld and Keter Publishing House,
Jerusalem, Ltd., P.O. Box 7145, Jerusalem, Israel.
This translation originally published in the United States by
Random House, Inc., New York, in 1992.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Katerina / Aharon Appelfeld; translated by Jeffrey M. Green.
I. Green, Yaacov Jeffrey. II. Title.
PJ5054.A755K3613 2006 892.4′36—dc22 2005049965
Y NAME IS KATERINA,
and I will soon be eighty years old. After Easter I returned to my native village and to my father’s farm, small and dilapidated, with no building left intact except this hut where I’m living. But it has one single window, open wide, and it allows in the breadth of the world. My eyes, in truth, have grown weaker, but the desire to see still throbs within them. At noon, when the light is most powerful, open space expands before me as far as the banks of the Prut, whose water is blue this season, vibrant with splendor.
I left this place behind more than sixty years ago—to be precise, sixty-three years ago—but it hasn’t changed much. The vegetation, that green eternity which envelops these hills, stands tall. If my eyes do not deceive me, it’s even greener. A few trees from my distant childhood still stand straight and sprout leaves, not to mention that enchanting, wavelike movement of these hills. Everything is in its place, except for the people. They’ve all left and gone away.
In the early morning hours, I remove the heavy veils that
obscure the many years and examine them, with silent observation, face to face, as they say in Scripture.
The summer nights in this season are long and splendid, and not only are the oaks reflected in the lake, but the simple reeds also draw vigor from that clear water. I always loved that modest lake, but I especially loved it during the brilliant summer nights, when the line between heaven and earth is erased and the whole cosmos is suffused with heavenly light. The years in a foreign land distanced me from these marvels, and they were obliterated from my memory, but not, apparently, from my heart. Now I know that light is what drew me back. Such purity, oh Lord! Sometimes I wish to stretch out my hand and touch the breezes that meet me on my way, because in this season they are soft as silk.
It’s hard to sleep on these brilliant summer nights. Sometimes it seems to me that it’s a sin to sleep in this brilliance. I understand now what it says in the Holy Scriptures: “He who stretches out the heaven like a thin curtain.” The word
always sounded strange and distant. Now I can see the thin curtain.
Walking is very hard for me. Without the broad window, which is open wide, without it taking me out and bringing me in, I would be locked up here like in prison, but this opening, by its grace, brings me out easily, and I wander over the meadows as in my youth. Late at night, when the light dims on the horizon, I return to my cage, my hunger sated and my thirst slaked, and I shut my eyes. When I close my eyes I encounter other faces, faces I haven’t seen before.
On Sundays I pull myself together and go down to the chapel. The distance from my hut to the chapel isn’t great, a quarter of an hour’s walk. In my youth I used to cover
the distance in a single bound. Then all my life was a single puff of breeze, but today, though every step is painful, that walk is still very important to me. These stones awaken my memory, especially the memory from before memory, and I see not only my departed mother but everyone who ever passed over these paths, knelt, wept, and prayed. For some reason it now seems that they all used to wear fur coats. Maybe because of a nameless peasant, who came here secretly, prayed, and afterward took his life with his own hand. His shouts pierced my temples.
The chapel building is old and rickety yet lovely in its simplicity. The wooden buttresses that my father installed still protect it. My father wasn’t scrupulous about keeping our religion, but he saw it as his duty not to neglect this small sanctuary. I remember, as though in a twilight, the beams he carried on his shoulders, thick staves, and the way he pounded them into the earth with a huge wooden mallet. My father seemed like a giant to me then, and his work was the work of giants. Those beams, though they’ve rotted, are still rooted in their place. Inanimate objects live a long life; only man is snatched away untimely.
Whoever thought I would come back here? I had erased this first bosom from my memory like an animal, but a person’s memory is stronger than he is. What the will doesn’t do is done by necessity, and necessity ultimately becomes will. I’m not sorry I returned. Apparently, it was ordained.
I sit on the low bench in the chapel for an hour or two. The silence here is massive, perhaps because of the valley that surrounds the place. As a girl I used to run after cows and goats on these trails. How blind and marvelous my life was then. I was like one of the animals I drove, strong like
them and just as mute. Of those years no outward trace remains, just me, the years crammed into me, and my old age. Old age brings a person closer to himself and to the dead. The beloved dead bring us close to God.
In this valley I heard a voice from on high for the first time—actually, it was in the lowest slopes of this valley, where it opens up and flows into a broad plain. I remember the voice with great clarity. I was seven, and suddenly I heard a voice, not my mother’s or father’s, and the voice said to me, “Don’t be afraid, my daughter. You shall find the lost cow.” It was an assured voice, and so calm that it instantly removed the fear from my heart. I sat frozen and watched. The darkness grew thicker. There was no sound, and suddenly the cow emerged from the darkness and came up to me. Ever since then, when I hear the word
, I see that brown cow I had lost and who came back to me. That voice addressed me only once, never again. I never told anyone about it. I kept that secret hidden in my heart, and I rejoiced in it. In those years I was afraid of every shadow. In truth, I was prey to fear for many years and only free of it when I reached an advanced age. If I had prayed, prayer would have taught me not to be afraid. But my fate decreed otherwise, if I may say. The lesson came to me many years too late, immersed in many bitter experiences.
In my youth, I had no desire either for prayer or for the Holy Scriptures. The words of prayers that I intoned were not my own. I went to church because my mother forced me. At the age of twelve, I had visions of obscenities in the middle of prayers, which greatly darkened my spirit. Every Sunday I used to pretend to be sick, and as much as my
mother hit me, nothing did any good. I was as afraid of church as I was of the village doctor.
Nevertheless, thank God, I didn’t cut myself off from the wellsprings of faith. There were moments in my life when I forgot myself, when I sank into filth, when I lost the image of God, but even then I often would fall to my knees and pray. Remember, God, those few moments, because my sins were many, and only Thou, with Thy great mercy, know the soul of Thy handmaiden.
Now, as the proverb says, the water has flowed back into the river, the circle is closed, and I have returned here. The days are full and splendid, and I wander at great length. As long as the window is open and my eyes are awake, loneliness doesn’t grieve my soul. Too bad the dead are forbidden to speak. They have something to say, I’m sure.
Once a week blind Chamilio brings me supplies from the village. My needs are now very few—three or four cups of tea, bread, and farmer’s cheese. There’s plenty of fruit here. I have already tasted the cherries, pure wine.
Chamilio isn’t young any longer, but his blind gait is steady. He gropes with his thick staff, and his staff never betrays him. When he bends over, I discover a strong line in his back. They told me that when he was young, the women clung to him. No wonder; he was handsome. Now, see what the years have done to him. First he became deaf and then he went blind and now there are only remnants of him. When he approaches my hut with the bundle on his shoulders, he seems heavy and submissive for some reason, but that’s only an illusion.
When I left the village he had just been born, but I heard
a lot about him, not always favorable gossip. After years of bachelorhood and wild living, he had married. The bride was pretty and rich and she brought a considerable dowry, but she wasn’t faithful. They said that was his punishment because he had deceived so many women, but she too was punished for her infidelities: A swarm of hornets attacked her in the middle of a field and killed her. For once it seemed as though reward and punishment had been meted out in this world, but who am I to judge about that mysterious balance.