Authors: Zeruya Shalev
Has the room really grown in size, or is she the one who has shrunk? This is after all the smallest room in a minuscule apartment, but now, as she is confined to her bed from morning till evening, it seems its dimensions have expanded – it would take her hundreds of paces to reach the window, hours by the score, and who knows if she will live long enough. The remains of life, that is, the last remnant of the portion of time allotted to her, in some absurd fashion feels like eternity – being in such a state of immobility, it seems it is stretching away into the infinite. The truth is, she is already withered and wizened, as light as a ghost, and the slightest gust of wind would be enough to blow her from the bed, and it appears it is only the weight of the blanket that stops her hovering in the void, and it is also true that any breath could sever the last thread in the spool that connects her to life. But who will do the breathing, who will even take the trouble to breathe in her direction?
Yes, for many years to come she will be lying here under her thick blanket, seeing her children growing older, her grandchildren turning into adults. Yes, with sour indifference they will condemn her to eternal life, because it seems to her suddenly that even the act of dying requires some effort, some vitality on the part of the future deceased or of his environment. Personal attention is needed, a degree of anxious commotion, like the preparations for a birthday party. Even dying requires a measure of love, while she is no longer loved enough, and perhaps not loving enough, even for this.
It’s not that they don’t come: almost every day one of them visits her apartment, sits down in the armchair facing her, apparently enquiring after her health, but she senses the old grudges, notices the glances at the watch, the sighs of relief when their mobiles ring. All at once their voices change, becoming vigorous and full of life, dredging up throaty laughter. I’m at my mother’s place, they finally inform their interlocutors, with sanctimonious rolling of the eyes, I’ll be in touch as soon as I leave, and then they once again turn their hollow attention to her, condescending to ask questions but not listening to what she has to say. And she for her part retaliates with tiresome answers, reporting in detail exactly what the doctor said, reeling off the list of medications before their glassy stares. Which of us is more repelled by the other, I by you or you by me, she wonders, turning them into a single entity, her two children who are so different from one another, although it seems it’s only in her presence that they have succeeded in uniting, and that only recently, addressing the elderly mother who is confined from morning till evening to her bed in the little room, detached from the force of gravity.
The room is cramped and square, its only window overlooking the Arab village. On its northern side is an ancient writing desk and to the south a wardrobe where her clothes are stowed, those colourful clothes that she will never wear again. She was always drawn, a little shamefaced, to vivid colours, irrespective of styles: a long and voluminous kaftan-blouse, a dress drawn in tight at the waist, a pleated skirt – to this day she doesn’t know what suits her best, and now she never will. Her eyes wander to the oval coffee table that her daughter forced her to buy many years ago, weeping bitterly although she was already a big girl. You people forced me to move into this repulsive apartment, and even then you gave me the smallest room, so you can at least buy me something I like. Stop crying, she scolded her, everyone’s looking at you, but of course she gave in, and four hands carried the table which turned out to be exceptionally heavy up the stairs to this room which was her room, where it was dumped in the centre, its new and elegant lustre showing up the shabbiness of the other furniture.
And now this too has seen better days, it has absorbed time into itself and faded. But the packets of tablets hide the oak wood, full and heavy: medications that cure infections but give rise to allergies, medications to combat allergies, tablets to stabilise the heart-rate, and painkillers, and tablets to lower blood-pressure which weakened her so much that she fell and hurt herself and since then has found walking a struggle, and sometimes she longs to pile them all up in a colourful heap and plant a medical garden in her bed, sort everything according to colours and use them to design a little house, red roof, white walls and green lawns, Dad and Mum and two children.
What was all this, she asks, and she’s no longer asking why it was the way it was, nor what was the meaning of what was, but what it really was, and how did the days progress to the point where she arrived in this room, in this bed, and what were they filled with, those tens of thousands of days that clambered over her body like ants on a tree-trunk. It’s her duty to remember and she can’t remember. Even if she exerts herself and gathers together all her memories like old-fashioned notes in a card-index and pins them together, she will succeed in assembling only a few weeks, and where are all the rest, where are all her years? What she doesn’t remember will no longer exist, and maybe it never existed in the first place.
As if in the wake of a disaster, the obligations laid on her now at the end of her life are the struggle against oblivion, the need to safeguard the dead and the missing, and when she looks again at the window it seems to her he is waiting for her there, the lake that died before her very eyes, the misty lake and the swamps surrounding him, soft and steaming, generating fields of papyrus plants tall as a man, launching migratory birds into flight with an emotive flurry of wings. That’s where he is, her lake, in the heart of her valley, a depression running from the lower slopes of Mount Hermon to the hills of Galilee, squeezed by the fists of petrified lava. If only she could manage to leave her bed and make it to the window, she would get to see him again, and she tries to sit up straight, to gauge the distance with her eyes, her glance veering from the window to her aching legs. Since she fell, walking has seemed to her a rather dangerous form of levitation, but he’s there, waiting for her to look, as anxious as she is. Get up Hemdi, she hears her father urging her, just one more step, one little step.
She was the first child born on the kibbutz, and they all gathered in the dining hall to see her take her first steps. It seems that all the longings for younger siblings left behind in foreign parts, for their own childhood which had been cut short by a stern ideology, for the love of parents whom they hadn’t seen since they got up and left, some angry and some broken-hearted – all came together in the dining hall that had only just been built. With sparkling eyes they watched her, urging her to walk, for them, for their elderly parents, for the brothers who had grown up in the meantime and within a few years would be destroyed, and she was flustered but eager to please, standing on her unsteady legs holding her father’s hand, were his fingers already smelling of fish or was that only later, and she put one trembling foot forward at precisely the moment her father released her hand, and all those present cheered and whooped and applauded her, a quite terrifying cacophony, and she fell flat on her back and burst into tears under the blue and stubborn eyes of her father, who urged her to get up and try again, to show them all that she’s growing up, just one little step, but she lay on her back, knowing this was a gift she couldn’t give him, knowing he would never forgive her.
And after that she refused to walk for two whole years, until the age of three she was carried around like a cripple, although tests revealed nothing and they were considering taking her to a paediatrician in faraway Vienna. Children born after her were already running around and only she was lying on her back in the playpen, gazing up at the top of the pepper tree, with tiny red balls like pills adorning its branches, whispering to her, and she smiled at them. Only they did not exhort her, only they accepted her immobile presence, whereas her father wouldn’t give up the fight, and pursued by guilt he carried her in his arms from doctor to doctor, until a specialist in Tel Aviv finally declared, there’s nothing wrong with her brain, she’s just afraid of walking. Find something that will scare her even more.
Why scare her more? her father asked, and the doctor replied, there’s no other way. If you want her to start walking, make her more scared of you than she is of walking, and thereafter her handsome father would wrap a towel around her, hold the end of it like a halter and try to make her walk in front of him, hitting her hard when she refused. It’s for your own good Hemdi, he used to wheeze, choking at the sight of her face swollen with weeping, so you’ll be like all the other children, so you’ll stop being afraid, and it seems that doctor’s advice was sound, because after a few weeks she was already walking unsteadily, her body smarting from the beatings, her consciousness frozen like the consciousness of a small wild beast, in a cruel process of training, far from achievement, far from happiness, dimly aware that even if she succeeds in walking, even if she succeeds in running, she will still have nowhere to go.
Far from happiness, far from achievement, yet all the same it seems to her this morning she has somewhere to go, to the window, Hemda, to see your lake, the one that whispers to you. If I have come to you, he whispers, if I have gathered together all my greenish waters and the fishes and the vegetation and the migratory birds, if I have succeeded in reconstituting myself in a hill town opposite your window, despite the horrendous effort invested in my relocation, won’t you get out of bed and walk to the window to see? And she answers him with a sigh, just a few weeks ago I was still pacing the corridor with halting steps, why didn’t you come then? Why come now of all times, after the fall, and it isn’t only you, since time began things have arrived too late or too early, but he sends her a moist blast of air and whispers, for decades I’ve been joining drop to drop, branch to branch, wing to wing, just to appear before you again, to see you, come to me, Hemda, come to the window. And she shakes her head in bemusement. What were all those years and what were they for if they have left no register behind, if at the end of the day a little girl is left, longing to bathe naked in her lake.
With crooked fingers she tries to peel from her skin the nightdress that she received once as a present from her daughter, received with some resentment. She always looked askance at her presents, although they were agreeable enough and generous, and she always hit out at her daughter at these of all moments, when she was eager to give satisfaction. Open it, Mum, she would urge her. I spent hours going round the shops to find something you like, go on and open it, check the size, you’ll like it. And she would tear the superior wrapping paper, fingering suspiciously, because the soft feel of the fabric, the unfamiliar smells it exuded, the sights hidden behind it, the landscapes through which her daughter walked without her, all these things aroused her to sudden anger, and she was mumbling, thank you, Dina, really you shouldn’t have, crushing the empty wrapping, surprising even herself with the intensity of her unease. Does the giving of every small gift engender so much guilt, alongside the wish for absolute and unlimited giving? Take me with you, she wanted to say to her, instead of bringing me souvenirs of your separate existence, and Dina would look at her with a chagrined expression, don’t you like it, Mum?
I love it, love it too much, was this the right answer that was never spoken, loving too much or too little, too late or too early, and then she would put the fabric back in the wrapping and hide it in the wardrobe, and only after some time, when the affront was deeply ingrained and beyond repair, too late for that, would she wrap herself angrily in that forgotten present: sweater, scarf, nightdress checked with grey flowers – who ever saw a grey flower? – and she’s trying to extricate her arm from the sleeve that has stuck to her when her eyes fall unexpectedly on her exposed bosom; her nipples are grey flowers, bowing their heads at the edges of the flattened breasts, withered and drooping. Her fingers suspiciously probe the folds of skin and she remembers the youngest of her grandsons, how they sat him on her knees at a festive meal a few months ago and within moments he’d spilled a glass of water over himself, and when she pulled his shirt off he suddenly stretched out his bare arm and inspected it with wonder, as if seeing it for the first time, moving it up and down, fingering and licking, and then moved on to a frenzied groping of the soft skin of his stomach, delighting in the contact. This was a virginal love dance, a hymn to self-love, if indeed the mentality of the toddler could grasp the fact that this body was his own, if indeed her mentality today is capable of taking on dominion over the drooping body. No, it still seems to her that old age is nothing more than dirt that has stuck to her over the years, or a transient sickness, and the moment she reaches the lake, the moment she bathes in its water, her body will be cured like the flesh of the Syrian general who bathed in the Jordan seven times and was cured of his leprosy.