“Ksantini, The Last Child of the Century” is my favorite story by Sami Berdugo. It’s a story of parting, beautiful, and melancholic, whose course intertwines with time, geography, landscape and body. The parting that is marked in the story is not only an actual move from the rural town to the big city, it is also a thematic transition that attempts to sum up a period in Berdugo’s writing and his subjects of interest, as it manifested throughout the collection of his stories published in 2011, that ends with this story, and called by its name.
A large damp stain appears on the wall in the apartment of the protagonist – an image of the writer (this stain on the wall alludes to a famous poem by David Avidan, Tel Aviv’s greatest poets, as if it demarcates the literary geography of the plot at the very start). This stain, which becomes larger and wider, threatening to bring the house down, has an odious smell and drives the protagonist to take action. “Sometimes,” Sami Berdugo once wrote, “I feel as if there is only one place, only one street. It seems as if the street corner of my childhood and adolescence has taken over all possible places that writing can reach and perhaps it even longs to do so.” As the story advances, the stain spreading throughout the apartment seems to be an expression of the feeling described – maybe the “stain of the past”, the stain of identity, or the burden of the past and of a nostalgia that becomes cloying, oppressive; the need to “get rid of it” is so difficult and deceiving that it eventually leads to paralysis. The narrator closes himself off in his apartment in the big city and dreams of his childhood landscape, of the good winter when “I could easily see the webbed veins of the leaves,” and the apartment transforms into a place of limbo, a perpetual present that won’t allow taking even one step forward.
The stains slowly spread and the narrator is forced to realize that “here in the city and the apartment, memory has no meaning,” and after being stripped of memory, of the identity formed in childhood and adolescence, what remains? The body, and from this mundane satisfaction the path is paved toward the inevitable, direct confrontation with the concrete: with the leaky water heater hiding in the storage area, making the apartment gradually decay. The protagonist has to call a professional, and here a visitor from the past invades the story: Ksantini, the last child of the century, the representative of the previous politics of identity: one of the two handymen standing at the door seems to be a child from his old neighborhood, to whom he gave private lessons when he was in high school. Suddenly, he feels “a fondness for his simple sentences” and that is strange, because the presence of the hard struggle to acquire a language, which is so characteristic of Berdugo’s previous stories, is missing in this story that might have been written by a writer who can’t and won’t continue writing his past. Now this struggle reappears in the shame (of the neglected apartment), in the longing – the narrator finds it hard to part with it, to let go, even though he realizes that the account has been settled, that the times are different times – “I knew that he [Ksantini] no longer needed me. He needed nothing from me.” The story ends with a revelation, with acceptance of the new time’s uncertainty: “And my desire to go to the needy Kasntinis, makes me fall into a new deception”. The decaying past has been removed from the apartment, but it hasn’t entirely disappeared from view: the old water heater still lurks in the stairwell, waiting for another Ksantini to come and take it away. The protagonists of Berdugo’s latest novel, which was published in 2014, are already wandering across the country.
Translated by: Leanne Raday
The stain could not be allowed to spread any further across the wall. My desk stood against that wall and my eyes, which looked at the stain, were too close to it. I couldn’t tell if it was actually spreading every day but on weekends, after seven days had passed, it was clear it had grown. Ten weeks had passed by and I knew the moment I had to deal with the stain was approaching. After all, how long can you postpone problems you’ve grown used to, even enjoying a certain sense of ease they leave in the house and body over time? It was a threat I tried to resist but almost failed to, because some sort of dormant pleasure re-surged in my blood as a result of the decay spreading across the wall. I might have even encouraged the stain to spread, deep down, as if hoping to see how far it would reach and when and how it would cover the remaining dry paint. In vain I wished for help, and the current days served as proof that the present time was no one’s benefit. It was clear to me: the era was different and changing. And so, the questions became more acute – will the stain bring the wall down? What is the greatest damage it could cause? Who will have to intervene and offer a professional solution? How much money will it cost?
But most of all, the stain exhausted me and I despaired. It was hard for me to imagine myself taking the slightest action against it. I couldn’t collect my thoughts and understand how to begin initiating a change. The stale scent that emanated from the wall changing before my very eyes and spreading through the apartment seemed to dissolve me, penetrate me like an aerial drug that relaxed my limbs and directed me to lounge on the sofa, letting my spirit give in, leaning against the cushions and breathing in the mouldy odour; and then, lying opposite the window, the scent took me back, time and again, to the leaves that fell in the past, in the previous century, when there was still winter in this country. I spent my childhood and adolescence in that past and remembered those leaves that remained on the ground and softened with time. The rain would dribble on them, once in a torrent and once in the form of measured drops and, together with the moist ground, this was the exact scent they emitted, a scent which now surprised me with its renewed presence around me in the closed rented apartment at the end of the urban street.
Two and a half months later, when the first stain appeared on the ceiling of the small toilet located on the other side of the desk, I felt that the whole thing was beyond my powers. Now there were two infected walls, one vertical and one horizontal. The expansion that took over was clear and evident, yet at the same time so stealthy and sophisticated in its power to invade further. I couldn’t understand it and didn’t have any idea how to uncover the source of the invasion. The advancing movement of the glorious stains in both spaces of the apartment was neat and coherent, a fact that intensified my frustration and helplessness. I quickly identified the other difficulty that loomed over me: the silence of the spreading movement.
I know the despair that surges in me when still objects take on a life of their own without making a sound. And that was how the stains evolved: silently, with nothing but a heavy scent, they spread across the two walls that succumbed to them like weak animals caught between the fangs of angry predators. What can you do against a silent stain and a wall that could crumble and collapse? Both virtually breathed with me. Their quiet strength seeped through, turning the disturbance in the apartment to a fixation that settled in it and in me.
On most days of the week, after coming in from the semi-noisy street and closing myself off, I strained to think what I should do with my confined time, how I could function with a correct logic that would seek to distinguish itself from the straggling city, which was sealed outside as soon as the door had been slammed. Just earlier, in the building stairway, I felt my city and its people clinging to nothing but their attempts to gain a future that wouldn’t be a false-image in their eyes, paying no attention to the present crumbling around them. But inside, in the apartment that was only mine in speech and thought, at those moments of walking into it, the present demanded that I relate to it and wouldn’t let go; but my body gave in to feebleness and surrendered itself to a desire to stop, demanding to put an end to any action. I took a few steps from the door to the short corridor and eventually leaned motionlessly against the doorframe, exposing myself to the growing power of the present and, at this point, facing the apartment’s small space and the sofa that stood at its center, I was overcome by an absolute sense of destruction but also hoping badly to stop the situation. It was strange to have the two of these forces working in me together: the failure of the body that yearned to stay put and the impulse to change. I realized it all depended on the stain.
Later I managed to bring myself to the sofa and lay glued to the greyish fabric with my eyes almost shut. The memory of the fallen leaves always appeared first in my mind but soon disappeared for some time, because outside the window I heard the sound of the approaching evening, fixed and disciplined by its urbanism: occasional cars honking; a woman talking to a child; the vague course of a flying aeroplane; a dog’s bark turning into a howl; a truck’s beep-beep-beep sound as it reverses; a bus’ engine humming at the traffic lights; two male voices standing in the street and talking and the voice of a young woman responding with the word “returns” at least twice. Just like that, a typical evening. The activity of the voices floated round the apartment, enveloping it. But in the apartment itself there was absolute silence. After all, I didn’t talk, didn’t make a sound; just lay there injured and limp.
That was the habit of my closed off life in the past few months. My mind accepted it and made it impossible to change. But I felt that, unlike me, the stain was working and working and so were the walls, which were forced to collaborate. For five months or more I almost mocked myself for my inaction, as I assumed that the spreading through the walls was being conducted with great efficiency and ease, in a marvellously methodical way; the inner dampness didn’t drip out but cunningly trickled soundlessly in the depths, from the insides of the block to the plaster and the paint, which still didn’t peel but only turned darker (I could imagine the wallish texture and wanted to examine it with x-ray eyes); and me, I was lost and far from this industrious production process, I remained a flaccid creature who was unable to make a move.
And so it happened that the stains thrived and I stopped, maybe even trampling fragments of hope. I gave in to the power of the smell and tried to circumvent the sound of the external evening. I unwillingly listened to it for a long while with vacant eyes and an unfolded body. I wasn’t waiting for anything; just to get back to my dead-leaves image. Their shape was mostly ovate and not small. I recalled how I stepped on them, crushing their vanishing-greenish fineness with my feet. A dark brown shade dyed the leaves and replaced it. I believe it happened quite fast; it was as if a paintbrush colored the leaves the moment I stepped over them. That’s what it was like in the nature of the previous century. A good winter would come every year and water dampened the provincial land. In that century there was a healthy fall of leaves from the branches, and they accompanied me on every dirt path. Their staying on the ground was perceived with such tranquillity and despite their dark-brown color they still had a transparent quality – I could easily see their webbed veins. Under my weight they sunk into the soft ground, but still remained exposed, unburied. And it seemed to me that by crushing them I was releasing more and more of the disseminating scent.
I didn’t stand by them, I grew up and drifted away from the them, but at the time, in a childhood that hurried toward a brief adolescence, on those beautiful winters that awoke to a lungful of air in the previous century, I felt that the leaves continued to live on in the muddy dirt even when I wasn’t walking among them, and that I would never witness their crumbling.
Now I know that among all those walks there was one, on one of those days, the almost-last walk, when childhood ended in the world. I can’t say which one among them it was, but I’m convinced that it happened on one cold and damp afternoon, at the edge of the orchard, near the black ever-green wild trees that had winter flowers scattered around them. Far from me there were babies and children who also heard the sound of branches breaking in other orchards and the crackling leaves. These sounds also announced the end of the dawn of childhood to them, but younger ones ignored the signs and continued counting on that nature and on the nature of their own.
These kinds of sounds are no longer in the country. Here, in the city and apartment, memory has no meaning, and if there was a rare moment I missed, a moment I didn’t notice then among the leaves on the watered lands – I cannot even mourn for it. Along with the lost century and its generous precipitation, which bore the greenness of nature, the memories have also been annihilated. Their remnants don’t kindle a desire in me to change back in the direction of the last days and years and decades of the nineteen-hundreds. A thought I had developed and rummaged through time and again led me to realize that the previous millennia had some final decades in which, I believe, people began reaching humble conclusions about the life of the private individual, whoever he may be. I convinced myself that I had then met more than one person who recognized the great importance of mutual respect. I thought there were quite a few who mostly used the spoken Hebrew language correctly as a decent means to make contact and express opinions and gave a kind of right of way to anyone who asked for it. It was, on their side, moderate behaviour that was unaware of its own naivety, which is what made it so genuine.
The rumours spread here and there by the crowd of city mothers watching over their children in yellowing public gardens; and by the elderly crowds sitting on benches on the dirty street, or the brown benches and chairs that were intended for single passers-by, the ones planted lately in architected arbitrariness that seemingly faced the future of the city, on pavements that were repaved in light coloured grey and red yet aspired to return as soon as possible to the dullness of the old pavements; these rumours may testify to the fact that there were worthier, better days here, but the longing that accompanied the talking voices sounded artificial and vulgar to me, even destructive. I should know: the past has been permanently annihilated and that was that; new buds of the present must be traced. That was also why I hoped to be useful in the days that came to me in the past year; to think of the betterment I could generate from my situation, from its present time, which was the only thing I tended to believe.
But a new development worked against me and didn’t give me the chance to realize any move; because one day new stains appeared in my apartment, secondary stains shaped like round dots. The dots were visible only on the backdrop of the wide stain, not ornamenting the rest of the walls in their distorted roundness. It seemed as if defeat and the bowing of heads not out of respect reigned in the apartment’s narrow space. The walls and I didn’t shout out the trivial plea or the self-pity; we didn’t wave the white flag. There was no point – I already knew that there was no one in this central city who would heed to the loss of the individual. This place, I realized, doesn’t bother about the human wellbeing of the building, the tree, the words spoken, the children educated within it. So I said to myself over and over again: what choice do I have now? With the new layer added to the stain I could turn only to my body and touch it. That was the only way I could reject the declaration of the present, its unrelenting demand: you can’t continue bearing this thing which is taking over your apartment, your head and your life.
In the evenings I walked round the apartment in nothing but underpants. The warming climate in the city and the world and the lack of winter in the fashion of the previous century allowed me to conduct myself like this most days of the year. I encountered my naked image in the bedroom mirror and the elliptic one in the shower room and, out of my failed actions and inefficiency, sought physical reassertion of my existence. I stroked the hair on my chest and pinched my nipples and, in the trapped air of the apartment, the dizzying smell that emanated from the moist walls penetrated me easily and intensely. And so, in the tumult of despair that left me with no option but to touch my body, to cling to the only living thing that would not resist, I sat or lay down and moved my hand between my legs, my member responding immediately and stiffening for its brief pleasure. I understood my justice: that’s all I had, my body and my member, which made me forget about the sordidness that caught me in its net. The daily act of masturbation didn’t actually revive me, but I still waited for it over and over again, building up its climax immediately after feeling the body’s nakedness and then breathing in the heavy scent of mould. For some reason, this was how I managed to reinforce my position in this place and time, and even the evening sounds that gradually came to a close on the uneasy city’s noisy street improved my painful awareness of the time that had ended forty years ago, and of the fact that I had witnessed it during that wonderful period that was now gone. The awareness itself was significant and imperative – not the pain. But it was this gap between then and now, the great difference between those simple days, which allowed for slow conversation and a natural pace of life, and the present day – in which I and others couldn’t find our calling or joy among the abundant talk of adolescents and the parents who were forced to imitate them – which actually encouraged me. That might be the only way I survived those months. There were times I remained leaning against the doorframe, and the wall that closed in on me from the left only encouraged me to take my underwear off and touch myself while sniffing the vapours of smell; I felt as if the stains were toiling with me, shoulder to shoulder, and now, more than ever, I didn’t want them to go away; they should evolve, fulfil their potential and perhaps even draw me into their organized movement, which seemed natural, polite, collected and unhurried. Then the smell of my fallen leaves echoed within me anew; even in their death they never ceased living on the land of that century.
The circles on the stain were living, breathing mould – life in the image of fungi that was grey-colored at first and then slowly changed into greenish; in the weekend before last, they already turned partly black. If I’m not mistaken, the moment black appears the fungus no longer has oxygen. The contaminated addition to the circles was, therefore, partly dead, and I didn’t know if the dead also emanated the pleasant scent. On Thursday that week, the scent instantly blew toward me the moment I opened the door to the apartment, and I was drawn to the entrance of the corridor and hurried to stand next to the desk and examine the mid-bottom of the moist wall. I knew that the upper part, from the middle to the ceiling, had already been totally beaten, and I no longer feared checking whether the defeat had come down to the floor panels. I required no more encouragement. I breathed in the scent and grew weak, not even wanting to touch myself. That same present that was inside, filling the urban exterior, became my biggest worry. The burial of that previous century, which was trapped in my head, was also not to my mental advantage; and so, I had nothing to cling to. In the next two days I didn’t leave the apartment. The weekend helped me stay locked in until Saturday.
And that night I woke up and heard water pounding on the shutter slats. I kept my eyes shut and held the blanket tight, envisaging real cold. For a moment, I wanted to place my two hands between my legs, bury them in my groin and try to recreate human contact. Then a louder noise was heard and I knew that something had been broken. I found it hard to believe the rain in the dark. I tried going back to sleep to the sound of the torrent, which didn’t trickle, but instead hit against the walls of the apartment, probably pecking at the city’s pavements, which didn’t know how to quickly drain the dirty fluids. I didn’t think about the city leaves, because those that were picked off random trees were later torn in their unnatural movement between parked cars and pedestrians who urged themselves on.
Early next morning, a brighter light than usual spread across my bed. Then I noticed that three of the shutter slats separated from the others and must have fallen from up here onto the ground of the building’s neglected yard. Now I’ll have to fix that too, I thought and searched to see leftover waters on cornices and low flat roofs, or still dripping from half-crumbling gutters. It seemed to me now that the scent in the apartment was slightly joined by a light breeze that carried the taste of wet earth. A very fleeting taste that was completely foreign.
I left the apartment and, on the stairway, the neighbour from the lower floor ambushed me, stopping me in the middle of a stair and turning to me in an angry tone that was trying to be somewhat polite: “Listen, you have a leakage, it’s already reached us, it’s coming from you, our whole ceiling is wet, you have to look into it. The water is clearly coming from you.” I answered that maybe it’s all because of last night’s rain, but she was determined that there was no chance and almost demanded to take me back into the apartment and check the source of the leakage at once, and once again emphasized that it all came from me so I’d better call a plumber or someone who knows about these things as soon as I can. “You’ve got to stop it. It’s very serious, the damage. Now it’s just in the ceiling but it’s beginning to spread to the walls, and it’s definitely coming from your apartment.” I didn’t understand how she could be so certain and rejected her direct language, which had distinct decisiveness and, especially, a clear demand to better her current situation and her life in general, which was now completely disrupted because of a stain that was undoubtedly my fault.
There was no kindness in her, in the neighbour from the apartment below mine. I couldn’t find any kindness on the main street of the city either, or in the passengers that travelled with me on the shared taxi going to the New Central Bus Station. The old woman sitting in front of me and the two younger people behind me demonstrated extroverted behaviour with their tense, upright body language, as if this very morning they were rushing toward a guaranteed improvement in their lives. I was very worried by the new disturbance that broke the boundaries of my house and involved strange neighbours in what went on in it. The taxi took the street in and the driver offered no peace and quiet in his frantic driving, which tossed me and the others from side to side every time he overtook. Through the window I could see a construction store and wondered if I should go in and ask, maybe they could tell me who I should turn to in a case like mine. I constructed words in my head to describe the current situation and tried to think how I could explain just how it had all started and evolved. I discovered that I myself couldn’t exactly remember the beginning – the first, original appearance of the stain. How did it look? What was its color? And the smell, did it have a smell then?
And so, while driving along, I noticed that in the middle of another street – which was essentially an unpleasant ascent and mostly darkened by cluttered Ficus trees on both sides, whose black treetops, which penetrated each other and mingled, burdened the pavements with the filth of rotting fruit and little dry leaves – there was another old construction store located on the ground floor of one of the buildings. And again I said to myself that maybe here my solution would begin, but the store looked closed, maybe even deserted, and when the driver took a sharp right turn and the car window revealed the rebuilding of the enlarged national theatre building, a great anxiety came over me and I couldn’t bare the possibility of walking into one of those stores to get advice. Through the closed window, I saw the many scaffoldings that charged the ruined structure, and among them I recognized the original foundations and their excessive and disarrayed shape. Dust, pipes and crushed stone were everywhere, and I couldn’t grasp how, out of all this, a renewed and clean building would rise and show the heart of the country’s culture. While the taxi drove away from the terrible chaos that was created in the center of the city, I turned my head back and, while looking at the iron beams clinging to the stones and the battered tin closing in on the dusty area, I saw how a similar spectacle would take place in my apartment, and instead of walls I would be surrounded by naked, gaping structures of rusty pipes and dirt and mud, and I would not be able to escape the careless city that had supplied me with choice-less neglect. How would I stand the burden that would soon press down on me?
The apartment and time held on for another whole day. One whole day that lingered on without any action on my side. And even though I assumed that these hours were only an apparent tranquillity, I delved into this lie because I felt that it too joined the other things perishing around me, piled into the disappearing century. And then there was a knock, and another one, maybe not on the door but from its direction. I approached it quickly while glancing at the captive wall, which looked tired and worn out, and stood quietly in front of the handle. I hesitated whether to open, and was also careful not to make any breathing noise, not even the sound of leg muscle joints. I prayed it wasn’t the neighbour who pressed me and very carefully looked through the peephole, but there was no one there, not even on the stairs. I was more fearful now, because I knew that if I persisted with my inaction my imaginings would erupt and take over me. My pounding heart confirmed it and made me pant, which, paired with the scent, made me choke and cough more and more. I hurried to the kitchen to drink some water, bent down towards the tap and swallowed straight from the flow. I tried to repress what came out of my throat and trembled at the thought that I might be very sick and troubled. In just a minute, I knew, I would become mentally frail. So I straightened up mechanically, forcing myself to stay straight and not bend over, took a deep breath of fragrant air and compelled myself to take clear steps in the space only to feel the force of the tiles, their existence and my existence on them. And so, in this uncertain walk, my eyes came across a layer of paint that peeled from the ceiling at the end of the entrance hall. I touched the peelings and they crumbled almost immediately under my fingers, exposing a totally wet ceiling. How was this happening? I begged to know and went on staring. I followed it all the way back to the start of the corridor, where the door to the upper storage space was. I quickly dragged the chair from the desk and positioned it under the opening. I climbed up on it, opened the doors of the little storage cell and was then struck by a strong scent of the familiar mould, a dizzying stench that almost made me fall off the chair.
The deserted storage area was dark and smelly and at the bottom of it was a shallow puddle of standing water I pushed my head in as far as it could go, brushing wet filthy junk – like a torn leather bag and a broken fan – aside with my hands. I exerted myself against the height and the scent and the darkness that lingered in the depth of the storage made things even harder. I sharpened my eyes into it and tried to keep my feet steady. The elbows got wet and I didn’t know what or where to look. I felt I was being covered by the dark filth and the burial dust of the old objects. Now, the moment in which I shout was possibly approaching. Time was about to overpower me and everything around was disturbance in its fullest essence, to the extent of losing rationality and putting your head down for an eternal pause. But then I heard a light dripping noise coming from the right side. I drew my gaze toward it and, at first, recognized the rounding white paint. I pushed myself further in its direction. One of my legs was already hanging in the air and my ribs hurt from being pressed against the edge of the opening – and there, in the corner, lying fat and bloated on its side, was the electric water heater with thin metal pipes coming out of it. I couldn’t locate the source of the drip, but the sound was very clear near the heater and I knew that that whisper was the beginning of my movement.
It was simple enough to find a wide selection of plumbing services and companies that check and install water heaters and solar systems. Names like “Light of Nature”, “Beam of Light”, “Source of the Sun”, “Bright Light” and “Sun Water” replaced heat with light and the sun with a beam; the water heater warmed the sun in them. The titles cried out and the promises drew my ill attention. I chose the fifth sentence on the list: “Reliable, polite and warm service.” I called “Sun Water” and a low and authoritative voice answered me. His speech was flawed and his voice hurried, and I, out of a certain apprehension, tried to offer details and explain the leakage problem, but he cut me short immediately and diagnosed the problem. “You haven’t seen it yet,” I said. “From my experience, I’m almost sure your water heater’s gone,” he answered. Now he spoke more slowly and asked how long I’ve had it. “I’m not sure, but definitely over ten years”. “So I suggest we come over and see how we solve your problem, but trust me – it’s gone caput. We’ll bring a new one just in case.” I trusted him and agreed that he come over. When he said that he wasn’t coming from my city, but from the southern-central part of the country, I got worried and wondered. He answered me with a chuckle that put me at ease: “Why, where did you think we were coming from? An hour and a half, maybe less, we’ll be at your place.”
The noon was bright and plenty of light came into the apartment, creating a relaxing vibe, but still I grew tense and prepared for the man, who was early and arrived in less than an hour. I heard him in the stairway talking to someone else as he came up toward me. I recognized his low voice and the voice of the other guy sounded younger. Their steps were loud and heavy and they began making me confused and at the same time somewhat confident. I hurried to open the door before they knocked and, at that very second, the two stood in front of me. The older one, short and slightly balding, his medium paunch not flaccid but firm, was wearing a shirt whose sleeves had been cut off, his hands were thick and a little hairy and his skin dark brown. “Hello there,” he said and pushed into the entrance hall, walking passed me and shouting out, “So where is it?” I wanted to go in straight after him but the other guy also managed to walk round me. At that moment I didn’t see him in detail, only noticing that he was quite tall and thin, his skin a reddish-brown and his hair trimmed short. I shut the door and approached the two. Now I looked at the younger one’s eyes and they caught me immediately with their almond shape and very black color. Along with his thin face, smooth skin and protruding cheekbones, he was an image I had once seen from close up. I felt as if I had smiled at him before and was convinced that this young person was somehow connected to me. In the meantime, I didn’t notice that the short fixer had already managed to bring a chair, stand on it and crawl with all his heaviness into the depths of the storage space – with the force in his hands he raised himself and made his way in, moving objects from his path and placing himself narrowed-down and efficient next to the water heater, even humming something to himself through the effort. I stood there, impressed to see how one could issue words with a light and pleasant tone like that while working, and went back to looking at the younger one, who was standing under the open doors looking up and waiting like me for the verdict, even though he already knew what it would be. I stood a few steps away from him, next to the desk and the huge stain, and felt as if the scent was becoming fainter. I was surprised they didn’t mention it, as if it didn’t bother them. I no longer imagined that this young person was next to me at some point and didn’t fabricate a connection to him – I truly recognized his serious and dismissive manner. This identification did not come from the city: I was convinced that he belonged to me from my place of birth, from the previous century.
Noontime was quiet and early. I felt the minutes move slowly, stretching their frames, almost standing still, and hoped that it would go on that way. The younger one, who wasn’t a boy but still had something boyish about him, dedicated himself to his work. In blue joggers with orange stripes along their sides and an Adidas logo on the pockets, he stood and waited for instructions like a loyal apprentice. The trousers hung loose on his body but were also tight, exposing a natural bulge in the groin, because it was necessary and agreed with this fabric, and it was also familiar to me from my past, my adolescence during the decade before last of the first century of my life. I had almost forgotten about the nature of these slight bulges in boys and men. They always appeared in these sporty pants, which were useful for weekdays at school and our way back home, a way in which we passed the hedges of green bushes that were ornamented with a dash of another faint color, but no more; let’s say very light purple or mustard yellow. We walked the winding pavements, which were crushed to the ground, almost equalling it in height, and at a short distance brown-black earth circumvented us, mostly sufficiently wet, so if we touched it and lifted a lump of earth, most of it would crumble in our hands and the few grains that remained in our puffed fingers would be taken away and scattered by the cold wind of the good winter, which also took with it the splendour of fallen leaves from that place. And the time, the time of the land and the children living in un-urban nature, stood like an unchanging, stable theatre set that would never become past or testimony, ever; and so, I and the others were detached from the fear of the end.
This memory seemed like only part of what connected me to the young man who surprised me in my urban apartment and now smiled at me to insinuate that everything was under control. His skin glistened and his ears were intent on the master of fixing buried above us. He was entirely at peace and complete with himself, and was also at ease with the apartment, and because of that I felt that this fresh visitor, along with his boss, who kept touching and checking above, proudly pierced this city and looked without mercy at its streets, at my building and at my derelict apartment.
The two were clearly better than me and my environment, and I wasn’t sorry that I had suddenly been discovered in a place that was different from them, a place that was inferior and neglected. And then the fixer peeped at us and pulled himself out of the storage doors, jumping fearlessly to the floor, and while straightening to his low height and letting out a short exhale, he announced that the water heater had indeed broken down and he had already closed it, and now they also needed to close my gate valve, and they asked me about its location, which I didn’t know, and he laughed and reassured me, don’t worry, we’ll find it, and then, with the sort of joy of a person who had solutions and who, on the basis of his expertise, managed to diagnose the problem, he declared: “I told you, we’ll have to put in a new one”. “Okay,” I answered, and he encouraged me that it would all disappear right away, the dampness and smell and that the water heater he had brought with him was state-of-the-art and very cost-effective. I listened to him willingly and a sense of comfort rose in me as I heard his simple sentences, and when he bowed his head down slightly and was about to turn round, I caught a glimpse of his lips spreading and his very white teeth revealing themselves, laughing at the situation, and I really wanted to walk up to him and at least shake his hand in a gesture that was more than mere politeness, but then, in his fatherly voice, he commanded the younger one to go down and find the gate valve, close it and bring up the new water heater. He sent him on the mission in an expected and good-natured manner and they both conducted themselves in such a contemporary, precise, both patient and rash way; and the tall young one looked at me, as if asking for my approval, so I nodded, and only then did he walk to the door and hurry down the stairs; and the fixer easily slipped back into the storage space to remove the old water heater while humming a song that I slightly recognized.
Who was Ksantini and how did he suddenly remerge in my life? He was single and solitary but a number of characters who shared great resemblance, who turned and alternated in my mind becoming a single Ksantini pattern. But he was completely buried in my memory and I was certain that that was it, that I wouldn’t see anymore of Ksantini and he would have no place in my life, because his significance to me was very weak anyhow. And here, at noontime a week ago, which was not especially wintry even though December was coming to an end, I felt warm at heart from the fact that an entirely erased character could come back to me because of a stain problem, and I seriously toyed with the thought that I should also do something for him, and maybe for myself. But I also knew that he no longer needed me these days.
He didn’t need anything from me, and neither did his eldest brother and certainly not his two other older brothers. They were all part of the male Ksantini dynasty that I knew as a boy. Then they were kids with little gaps between them, and they lived their crooked life not far from my house, in the new three-story buildings that inhabited the underprivileged. Their mother was a short-haired and thick-legged woman-man with a loud mocking voice, who hurried around in boots or heavy shoes, cleaning houses with glorious diligence, and only on her way from here to there did she find the time to rear her young. The father, an older Ksantini model, is the one who wanted to better their future and was especially worried that they might stray and end up in prison, where he himself spent most his days as a tough prison guard. So he approached me via my mother and asked that his young children come to my room to get help with their homework and to improve their study material in general. He suggested that for a few shekels (which were important to me then; they were a fortune to me) I would be their private tutor. And I was just a boy myself those days, fifteen and sixteen years old, who didn’t think of his future, which would burst into the end of the arid century and eliminate the un-rural village it knew.
I remember that Ksantini senior, who I met on the flat street, or the bus station, or on the inclined approach to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and who recognized me as his sons’ wise, young teacher, would look at me with his almond eyes, following me with the quiet, sharp and malicious gaze of a hawk, and I feared him; I feared his black skin and wide nape so that I mostly tried to avoid meeting him. I couldn’t understand how this man could be the father of soft Ksantinis who were colored dark brown and mostly laughed, occasionally ignoring the homework and the seriousness I tried to uphold at first. The father’s stiff body astonished me with its noble, alert sensuality, which was also crooked when he stood but always secure and safe, like a top predator that doesn’t fear those who were on the same level of the food chain. Without words, he demanded that I give his children a basic education, with a concern that was not only fatherly, but even godly, as if he was saying: “To you I bequeath them. I trust you.” And then insinuating: “Make mine like you.”
I conjure up the actions of the two in my apartment a week ago, seeing the heavy and light image of the younger one coming back sweaty and red with a new water heater on his back, and the short older one leading him down the corridor; and both of them skilfully bringing down the damaged, rusty water heater that leaked murky drops that hit their arms and the floor, undisturbed by the filth. Together they proceeded with the rickety container down the corridor, took it out to the stairway and placed it cautiously in front of the door, walking briskly back in. Before they hoisted the new water heater into the storage space, I managed to read the big, black writing on it: “Sun Water” and under it in small letter: “original”. The short fixer pushed in and installed and the younger one looked at him standing steadily on my desk chair, unwavering and asking the man inside from time to time if he needed anything and if he too should climb into the darkness of the storage space. I also felt a need to get closer to the chair and so participate in the replacement. From the angle in which I was standing I was glad we were three, creating a scaled ladder on which one was between the ceiling and the floor, the other was high up on a chair and I, the last, was erect at the bottom. I didn’t want to glimpse again, at eye level, at the bulge in the groin of the long young one, because I noticed how indifferent the older repairer was to it during their visit here so far. The groin fondling of the last few months suddenly seemed deviant and despicable to me, and so I finally moved away from the chair on which the young Ksantini stood, thereby breaking the imaginary ladder. I preferred moving away and gazing at the sofa in the middle of the living room until they were finished, and it was actually when I wasn’t near them that I longed to be more like them, clean and distant from my city.
I don’t know how long the images of the installer and his young nephew, both Ksantini, will stay with me. How surprised I was when the link to the name became apparent. It happened when the two finished their work and I asked for a receipt I could show my landlord. The short older one commented with instant mockery: “Is he a landlord is he? This is how he takes care of you with all the rent you pay him? Probably loads of money you give him, don’t you?” And then he pulled his receipt book from the worn out bag, and in those moments the young one didn’t intervene or offer assistance, just stood and waited. After the older one wrote up the details with an old pen and handed me the paper, I found out that he didn’t mention my name, only the replacement of the water heater, and then I noticed his name printed at the top: “Herzl Ksantini, Electric Water Heaters and Solar Water Heaters.”
And so the tie was unravelled and I immediately said in a clear voice: “I know a Kasantni.” And the older one asked: “Where from?” and I answered “From there, where I was born and grew up.” And I mentioned the name of the place, and then the young one intervened and smiled, “Sure, I’m from there, my whole family’s there, my brothers, and this is my uncle, my father’s brother,” and he started mentioning his brothers by name and I immediately saw them, the first , the second and the third, ten, nine and seven years old, how each took his turn sitting on the chair beside the library desk in my old, dark room, each submerged in his own world and the tiredness of the hour, but listening and respecting my voice and instructions, and at the same time thinking little of them and of the good that could really come of this time, maybe because I too believed that nothing much would come of this studying, and even demonstrated anger and lack of interest. I didn’t dare behave like that in front of their father, which radicalized the disgust that soared in me. There were many minutes in which we did nothing, forsaking the notebooks and books and submerging ourselves in the crammed smell of the room and our momentary misery, wanting to escape each other. By the authority given to me, I commanded one Ksantini or another to sit and stay still while I got up and left the room, waiting for the time to pass.
But now, in my apartment, I didn’t tell the two about these sensations and only cried out in admiration: “Yes, I remember. I really remember your brothers.” The young man nodded to me and I walked closer to him and saw how entirely Ksantini he was, the glory of the family appearing before me in its upgraded grownup masculine form. “And you, where were you?” I asked. “I was the youngest brother. The last one. The last child,” he answered and immediately added that he remembered his elder brothers going to me, alternating throughout the week, each on a different day. “But you didn’t get to teach me,” he finished off and turned away to the corridor.
How wondrous it is to me, the simple fact that this young man and his uncle were with me in that century, and we shared the same time in a mutual place. The distance between us is so great now, and my desire to go to my own impoverished kinfolk, to the needy Kasntinis, makes me stumble into a new deception. I know they are wanting for nothing, that they are sated with a worthy livelihood. I felt it well when both the younger and older men mocked this city and my small apartment. “You call this a building? You call this maintenance?” they both said after I told them about the shutter slats that fell in the last rain. And while they were packing their tools, the younger one retorted: “Look at the decay you have here.” I was ashamed of my abode, of the fact that I had no commendable top or bottom, and the word decay shrieked in my heart. And yet this young Ksantini, who was about to leave and drive back with his uncle to the un-rural village, he still has the land and nature I had declared dead. He is still there, I said to myself with sorrow, and he might witness the ovate leaves whose movement precedes the rain.
The stains began dying out the next day, as if sucked back into the walls. The scent also gradually lost its thickness. But the old water heater is still placed outside my front door. I cannot drag it down the stairs by myself. Now I wait, without knowing if I really should wait, for the return of the young Ksantini, because his uncle said that day that they were already late for the installation of a solar water heater, but if they passed by here another day, he would send his nephew up to remove the old water heater and even hinted that I should give him fifty shekels right now, to encourage him, which I did. Just before they left I gave the money to the uncle and asked him to pass it on to the young man. A week has passed, but I still believe that one day Ksantini will come and finish the job, leaving me completely dry. How strange it is that the city these days is adorning itself with dark skies, grey clouds are massed on its horizon.
*This story is taken from the collection “The Last Child Of The Century” by Sami Berdugo, editor: Menachem Perry, The New Library,(Hakibbutz Hameuchad / Siman Kriaa Books), 2011.
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