Read The Pale of Settlement Online
Authors: Margot Singer
winner of the flannery o'connor award for short fiction
STORIES BY MARGOT SINGER
Published by the University of Georgia Press
Athens, Georgia 30602
Â© 2007 by Margot Singer
All rights reserved
Designed by Mindy Basinger Hill
Set in 11/15 pt Filosofia
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.
Printed in the United States of America
11 10 09 08 07
5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Pale of Settlement : stories / Margot Singer.
p. cm. â (The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction)
-13: 978-0-8203-3000-6 (alk. paper)
-10: 0-8203-3000-0 (alk. paper)
1. JewsâIdentityâFiction. 2. Jewish diasporaâFiction. I. Title.
813'.6âdc22Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 2007015079
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available
ISBN for this digital edition: 978-0-8203-3586-5
FOR MY PARENTS
Through the window that is not there, we see our children
searching the old ruin for toys they lost yesterday
and turning up broken clay jars from centuries ago.
The chasm between generations fills up with dust and sand,
human bones, animal bones, a multitude of broken vessels.
Broken jars speak the truth. A new jar is the lie of beauty.
~ from “Summer and the Far End of Prophesy”
Many of the stories in this collection first appeared in journals (some in slightly different form): “Helicopter Days” in
; “Reunification” in
; “Lila's Story” in
; “As Dawn Splits” (the first section of “Deir Yassin”) in the
; “Borderland” in the
; “Deir Yassin” and “Hazor” in the
Western Humanities Review
; “Body Count” in
; and “The Pale of Settlement” in the
North American Review
The lines from Hannah Senesh's poem “Now” appear with the permission of Stuart Matlins, publisher, Jewish Lights Publishing.
Love is a simultaneous firing of two spirits engaged in the autonomous act of growing up. And the sensation is of something having noiselessly exploded inside each of them
The bomb went off downtown, near the entrance to the Haifa Carmelit subway, at 5:27 on a Friday morning in late June. It blew up a white Fiat and shattered the plate glass windows of the Bank Hapoalim branch across the intersection. It exploded a streetlight, two signposts, and part of the stone wall bordering the sidewalk on the subway side of the street. The lower branches of a eucalyptus tree were burned clear of leaves, and the trunk was singed with streaks of black, like a primitive drawing. The pavement was covered with bits of twisted metal and broken stone.
The dawning light was gray as glass. Along the beaches, less than a kilometer away, waves folded over on the sand. Halfway up Mount Carmel, a muezzin called the faithful to prayer from a loudspeaker mounted on a minaret. In the cypresses that lined the steep slope of the Baha'i gardens, below the temple's golden dome, jays woke and began to chatter, agitating the branches of the trees. Near the top of the Carmel, from the couch in her father's old room where
she slept behind green
folded down against the light, Susan did not hear the explosion on the Hadar. Other sounds came to her as if through water: the clink of cutlery, a barking dog, the murmur of a radio. The Voice of Israel reported in its nine o'clock broadcast that no one had been injured in the blast. Other than a disruption to traffic, everything was functioning as normal. Only a few commuters, stepping out of the Carmelit station into the daylight, noticed the smell of burned rubber, the toppled poles, the unswept bits of glass.
During that summer of the 1982 war in Lebanon, nothing seemed dangerous the way Susan had imagined it would. That summer, the first time Susan had come to Israel on her own, she walked with her grandmother as usual to the corner
to buy plastic sacks of milk and loaves of bread; on the
, people sat outside in the cafÃ©s, drinking coffee and smoking, as they always did. There were soldiers about, kids her age, hitchhiking at bus stops or by the beach, the boys with
16s slung over their shoulders, the girls in khaki skirts and caps, but that, too, was nothing new. When Susan's parents telephoned from New York, she assured them everything was fine. Still, there was a tension in the air, like the faint buzz of high-voltage power lines: a sense of the borders just there, around that headland, over those hills. The narrowness of the land.
From her grandparents' terrace, Susan could see the army helicopters landing on the roof of Rambam hospital. On some days, bad days, she counted ten or fifteen at a time, pulsing low along the horizon on their way in, arcing high out over the bay on their return to the north. Lebanon was barely twenty miles away, less than the distance from Susan's parents' apartment in Riverdale to
the bottom of Staten Island. Even though she couldn't understand most of the newscaster's words, Susan watched the news each evening on
, footage of Israeli soldiers waving to their families back home, women in bikinis sunbathing on the beaches near Beirut, rows of Mercedes parked along the palm treeâlined boulevards. Look at that, Susan's aunt said, they don't care about the war at all! But hadn't Susan gone to the beach herself that very day? A story ran in the
claiming that a photograph of an armless Lebanese orphan wounded by Israeli shelling was, in fact, a healthy Druze child with limbs and parents both intact. Susan studied the grainy photograph that showed a baby swaddled in a blanket in the arms of a Red Cross nurse. It was impossible to tell.
Her friends back in New York didn't consider Israel a safe place. Don't things blow up over there all the time? they said. Once, as a little girl, Susan had reached for an empty plastic jug lying on the ground, and her grandmother had slapped her, hard, on the hand. Never, ever touch anything you find on the street! her grandmother scolded. You never know what could be a bomb! But the truth was Susan had never encountered anything remotely dangerous there. Israel was the place her parents and all her relatives were from. It was almost home.
Susan's cousin Gavi was in the army, stationed near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Most weeks, he came home on Friday night for Shabbat, just as if he had a regular job. He sprawled on the couch, his army boots unlaced and shirt unbuttoned, watching
. Susan wanted to know what it was like along the front. She wanted details: the sound of shelling, the soldiers wounded or dead.
No, Gavi said, shaking his head and making the tsk-tsk sound
Israelis always made when you said something they considered stupid. It's not like that at all. Mostly we just sit around with nothing much to do.
Susan kept a photograph of Gavi pinned to the bulletin board above her desk back at college. He stood tall and broad shouldered in his uniform, backed by a picture-postcard view of Haifa bay. Friends who came by Susan's room sometimes asked if he was her boyfriend, and sometimes she said yes, just for fun.
They were paired from birth, Susan and Gavi, her mother and her aunt due on the same day, although in the end she was a few weeks early and he a few days late, making her a Taurus and him a Gemini, her an earth sign, him air. They all matched, she and Gavi, her two younger brothers and his. Their grandparents took annual summer photographs of the six cousins posed on the living room couch, propped-up babies in the early shots, awkward adolescents in the more recent ones, with freckles and shiny orthodontic grins. The framed photographs hung in the cluster of family pictures that lined the hallway outside her grandparents' bedroom, and Susan always found herself studying them when she first arrived in Israel, wondering what they would look like when they were all grown up.
As children, she and Gavi played games in two languages, with made-up words. Gavi always made her shriek and then laughed when the grown-ups scolded her for making too much noise. She challenged him to races, which he invariably won. For a time, they wrote letters to each other, hers in bad Hebrew, his in bad English, sometimes in a mixture of both. She felt close to him, closer than seemed likely given their few summer weeks together every year,
given the language barrier, but each summer they just picked up where they'd left off as if no time had passed at all.
Gavi says he'd like a girlfriend just like you, Susan's grandmother told her, that summer of the Lebanon war, the summer they were nineteen. It gave her a twinge to hear that, almost like love.
That summer, at the end of June, Gavi got a few days leave and borrowed a truck from his unit and they drove south together, past Tel Aviv and Ashdod and Ashkelon to where the land flattened out and dissolved into ochre sand. Susan rolled down the window and let the wind whip through her hair. There on the front seat next to Gavi, she felt a tingling excitement in her veins and wondered if this was how it would feel to travel with a boyfriend of her own. In the late afternoon, Gavi turned off the coastal highway onto a narrow road that ran through a plain of drifted sand crisscrossed with rows of tufted grass and irrigation ducts, clusters of Arab houses roofed with corrugated tin, chickens pecking in the dust. Gavi drove to where the road curved along the sea and pulled over on the verge. There was an army base just up the road, he said, that he'd spent time at during basic training, and he'd promised himself that he'd come back. The base was surrounded by settlements belonging to ultra-Orthodox Jews. There had been three settlements a year ago; there were seven now. Susan knew they had to be very close to, or in, the Gaza Strip. Her aunt and uncle had said specifically to stay away from there.
Are you sure it's safe? she said.
Gavi frowned and made the tsk-tsk sound. It's okay, he said.
They climbed out of the truck and pushed through scrub grass to the beach. Rows of separate palm-frond huts for the religious men
and women lined the shore. Waves hissed along the untracked sand. The sea was a living, electric blue.
After they had swum and eaten the cheese and hummus and pita bread her aunt had packed, they sat next to each other on the sand and watched the sun sink into the sea. Darkness dropped quickly here and, away from the city lights, it felt dense as fog. They passed a cigarette back and forth, although neither of them really smoked, the orange tip fading in and out like a tiny flare. Gavi leaned back on his elbows and pointed out the constellationsâCepheus, Andromeda, Cassiopeiaâtracing their outlines with his hand.
Did you know that by the time the light from those stars reaches our eyes, he said, the stars might no longer exist?
Perhaps there's just a big black canopy up there, Susan said, lit with golden lamps. She meant it as a joke, an allusion to romantic poetry, but as she spoke, the image suddenly seemed more likely than what she knew from high school physics about spectrography and Doppler shifts and black holes deep in space. Maybe, she said, none of it is real.