“We were once children/ but that is of course a lie” Nurit Zarchi wrote in a poem titled “The Tattooed Ship” and there is reason to wonder what we are lying about. In Zarchi’s stories, when the truth is diverted from the inner world to the world of actualities, it is pushed aside under various pretexts; it is too much and too little, it doesn’t correspond to some sort of popular opinion or good taste. And about the poem, is the lie that we ever did, somewhere, have a childhood? Or is the lie in the presumption that childhood had ever ended? That there is this “once”? Does childhood continue in the bodies that have grown, some acquiring beauty while others ungainliness.
Bella, the protagonist of “The Sad and Ambitious Province Girls”, the story with the Chekhovian title, is not a child. Not even a young girl perhaps. She is a woman and a mother. But the world still seems to see her as a child. Those who come across her doubt the fact that she herself could have children, which insinuates – the ability to reproduce and become part of the existing order. But Bella herself discovered the secret of reducing the world in childhood (which is of course the opposite of multiplying). Then “she discovered that if you put pressure on the bottom of your eyelid, everything becomes smaller, grows distant – the classroom, the children, the teacher – until it spreads across the eye.” It seems as if this relation remains for her the primary relation.
But not everything scatters. Not immediately. Because Bella, a province girl who has been placed in the city, finds herself facing the fluttering heart of things. The days are days of war, probably the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, and Bella works in the archives of a daily newspaper. She cuts out photographs and articles from the newspaper with her scissors. Bereaved parents come to the archive, like pilgrims, trying to use photographs that appeared only yesterday in the newspaper to identify their son’s blurred portrait. Repudiate the facts. Question the actuality of their soldier son being missing or dead.
Bella believes that the main thing is to live. But that truth is pushed aside in the name of values that are considered nobler, more cultured. “Nonsense,” she is told, “The main thing is how you live.” It is this claim, which is made on the grounds of culture and values and tastefulness, on the grounds of the fine and the worthy, which Zarchi questions. Because Nurit Zarchi, like her protagonists, who will speak the English of the kibbutz even if they do fraternize with fairies, knows where the difference lies. She is enchanted by the beauty, but not by the fine and the good. To her, life will always be better than death and the need to breathe stronger than the “how” to breathe, than the “should be” and “what everyone does” that peeps from underneath what seemingly stands to reason. And there is a reason for this being one of her most political stories. In Zarchi’s work, the world sometimes has to reduce itself and become blurred only so that we can find a way to live in it. Even if we do confront various Frankenstein-like creatures, made of memory, old newspapers and popular opinions, eventually, the world does exist. But that, of course, may also be just a lie.
Translated by: Leanne Raday
Bella loved it, to drive through the sleepy burnt out city, nothing but a few lit windows; and outside the darkness, thin and tangible. This time she was completely guilt free, despite leaving her two babies behind. She knew she would never have made it to the newsroom without the warm transport vehicle consigned to her because of the war. Thanks to the transport vehicle, her life had recently deviated from the private circle.
What could a young woman who had completed half a BA in Philosophy work as?
In one of those conversations between friends, which usually never come to much but comfort, Tami unintentionally recruited her to the war machine.
The lights illuminated in the newsroom with a practical air, as if they would never turn off.
“Hey Bell,” Tami called out loudly, to overcome the noise of the teleprinters. She was anxious. “They’re already crossing. They’re crossing right now. It’s started.”
Bella stood still. Her codes were not yet calibrated. A moment later, the head of the newsroom appeared and snatched the teleprinter paper from her hand. Everyone followed him from the newsroom to the corridor, explaining-excusing-describing the outbreak of war:
“It’s a disaster.”
“It will only take a few days, just wait and see, wait and see.”
Bella stepped into the archives’ room. In the few weeks she had worked there, she became familiar with the photographs crammed into the metal lockers, enticing frames of classified photographs.
She, who spent her whole life dismissing names such as Tito, Foster Dallas and Macmillan, as bothersome details she had no interest in; or Isfahan, Uzbekistan, Rajasthan, Rotterdam and Mont Blanc as obscure somewheres on the world map, while she was the axis point, now had to admit that the proof of their existence was undeniable.
“Bella,” someone shouted out of the newsroom, “Quick, come here, hurry, we need photos for the special edition.”
Real life grew thicker, abandoning the Bella axis, spreading above her like the wave that follows the wave that you barely managed to raise your head above. And Bella, relieved, gave her disturbing marriage and demanding guilt-laden motherhood up to the flames of war.
“We didn’t know if we would make it this time,” Bella recited with a certain solace that came from using the plural form. Her husband was not drafted but she, Bella Hashimshoni, had finally joined the public domain or, even more – the nation.
Once, Bella went into a cinema in summer, wearing summery uniform, and came out in winter. Through the sliding door of the changing seasons, Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo invaded.
Outside there was the smell of rain and the world started over in the rolling wind – the cars moved across the flooded roads like colorful toys, and in the jungle, she was certain, multicolored parrots washed their dusty love coats, and all because she went to a film with Lev. When they went in he was a soldier in a unit from the next-door office and when they came out he was her love.
Lev, the young man who was removed from the calendar: a foreign accent that attested to a place of birth that wasn’t here; narrow yellow eyes, perhaps of Kirghizian origin; a tall frame that went out of his control and could be dragged over the railing. You could use Bella as an ad for railings. You’d like to know if she was justified in that? She was.
Now, in comparison to the war, everything was diminished like an eye of a needle. Bella wasn’t used to that. Her life was usually expanded with the help of experts, like expanding a puddle to find the pearl that plunged into it. In her heart, Bella wasn’t sure she ever did possess that pearl of pearls, but the experts said it was because she refused to look inside.
Bella once told one of them about it, and he laughed and said she would put Dickens to shame. We wouldn’t want to shame Dickens. Neither did Bella, especially now, just as she was about to be called into the newsroom.
No, no. She had no interest in her puddle or in Dickens.
And Lev, she wasn’t thinking about him either, thank God, she had a husband and two girls, and now she had a war. She wasn’t listening to music from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the film she had seen years ago with Lev. Who would listen to those umbrellas at this hour, and after ten years had passed?
You claim you loved him. What did you mean when you said that?
The word lingered around me before I knew Lev. I think it fitted the feeling.
Describe in what way.
It was summer and we went in…
We’ve already heard that. It’s not an answer. Try again.
The skies grew wide and open. The flowers had drawn their hearts. Colors were born and became clearer. The wind was sweeter. The skin no longer hurt. Water rippled from the stone in your chest. The body was filled with movement. Time passed painlessly, as if it were alive.
What does that have to do with Lev?
How silly. Lev caused it.
And that’s why you thought he was the right man for you?
What does that have to do with it? Lev was strange. He increased my sense of strangeness, my insecurity. See the abovementioned matter of the railing.
Perhaps sharing the insecurity is what gave you the wonderful feeling you were talking about.
Are you trying to tell me there’s no love in the world?
It’s your story, Baby.
Why didn’t you want to wait for Lev and then, for years later, cried every time you remembered him?
I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t know then how to recognize what love was. Maybe I didn’t really love him. Maybe I was afraid because of it. And maybe it was a fantasy that was created retrospectively.
Why do you need this fantasy?
Perhaps it isn’t a fantasy?
How can you tell?
How can you tell?
But everything is a fantasy.
The pain was real. You could swear on it. One day they’ll probably measure it too.
When did the pain start?
That’s between God and me. Please, you have no right to interfere.
First Abimelech and then Saul and then David and then Joseph, and when you thought they’d leave you, and you always did, you wanted to die.
That’s right. When I thought that they loved me it was like a survival drug.
How could that be true? Your heart, the heart in your body, is a joke.
So why aren’t I laughing?
Honestly, what do you need all these committees for?
It’s the origin of the species, my Darwinism. The Columbusism, the Archimedianism, the Copernicism, the Sahara, the Antarctic. Some say that Newton was more in the right than Einstein. I’m the laboratory of that which is. This is my inquiry in the world. And I research.
There were three clerks in the archives:
Yulia didn’t come to work on the second day of the war, when her cousin died. He had lost his mother and Yulia was, to a great extent, like a mother to him. This was how Yulia excused her absence, with puffy eyes, as if only a cousin wasn’t a good enough reason.
Shoshi resigned because of weak nerves. It was on the third day of the war, maybe the fourth – Bella couldn’t keep track anymore, working at night and unable to sleep during the day – after the first parents arrived.
“We saw him in the newspaper,” they said. “Please show us the Thursday paper; it was his face, behind one of the soldiers, see? Here, this is his cheek, no doubt about it. They told us he had gone missing, but that’s clearly a mistake. The Thursday paper. The Thursday paper. Send it to UNICEF. Urgently! Now! You hear? It’s a terrible mistake. You can’t find the photograph? That’s impossible. We saw him. You don’t have time now? That’s impossible! It’s my son, you hear? Look for it quickly. Right now. Are you listening?”
Bella started crying. The photographs opposite her on the table, newspapers that hadn’t yet been cut, the list of photographers on the wall. “Shma’aya, you’re certain that’s the photographer? This airplane is in one piece; you can clearly make out the letters on the wing. It’s from Monday. You said so yourself, look: it says the tenth. That’s Monday. Any idiot can see. So how could they say he disappeared on Sunday if they took a photograph of him in the air on Monday?”
“Here, look through the magnifying glass yourself.” “Sir, I was here before you.” “My son, they say he was taken captive. Yes, on Sunday, but of course it’s obviously a mistake.”
The newsroom went silent. The woman who had walked in hesitantly took one step forward and shouted, “Captivity, Sir, and you’re arguing? Captivity is alive, alive, don’t you get it? My son,” and she fainted.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, a week, a fortnight. Bella stopped counting. She was in limbo, unable to distinguish between day and night.
“Give me the newspaper. You see the hand with the watch? It’s his watch, we bought it for his Bar Mitzvah. You know, he was a different child, but no one ever shouted at him because he had this charming smile. He has a baby. Do you understand? A baby. Do you know what it’s like to grow up without a father, young lady? Do you know anything at all about this life?”
Regarding her daughters, Bella had decided, and informed her husband, that they would have a happy life. We’ll start from the basics:
First, they won’t move apartments each year, like some of us do.
Second, their parents will make an effort not to die before the girls reach an appropriate age.
Did they have to leave the kibbutz? Did they have to go away to Stockholm for work? Come back and buy an apartment in Rishon, because it was cheaper there? Go back to Stockholm when they were invited? The little one still talks two languages, in her husband’s opinion, or no clear language, as Bella defines it – that, in her opinion, is the more responsible way of putting it. But he believes it just venerates her half-glass method. And the older one?
Bella used to think that her daughter had identified her parents’ weak spot and used it to control them efficiently. Lately, she began realizing that the child was petrified. In her book of guilt, the approval signatures of both girls already appeared, even though Bella never neglected them, not even for a minute, and took them wherever she went; that was also registered against her, sealed by the stamp attached by the two girls. The drawing of the hot-air balloon above their bed, the birthdays on the beach or watching the world wake up at dawn apparently did nothing to lighten the verdict.
The thought clung like a sick monkey and wouldn’t let go of her brain’s diverticula.
When Bella was in elementary school she discovered that if you put pressure on the bottom of your eyelid everything becomes smaller, grows distant – the classroom, the children, the teacher – until it spreads across the eye. That’s what Bella felt like now. Everything was small besides the room with the dusty windows that were not to be opened to the street, which grew and grew. The papers kept coming in, Bella kept cutting the photos. The photographers sent the photos from the local and international agencies. With her every breathe a soldier was killed in the north or the south and, in Bella’s office, parents, sisters and other relatives appeared. Bella wanted to stop breathing.
She completely gave up on cutting the photographs out or sorting them. The office was filled with newspapers and photographs: on the desk, the metal shelves, the stands laden with drawers; in the outgoing mail basket and the incoming mail basket. And the people who came in descended on them like wounded vultures.
Management, Bella assumed, preferred not to say anything and was simply happy that there was someone sitting in the office when the searchers arrived.
“It’s his eye, I’m sure, by the eyebrow. Here is his elbow, can’t you see? He had a small scar, here, use the magnifying glass. Don’t you remember he fell off the bicycle on his birthday, then, when…?”
Bella closed her ears.
“Mommy, mommy, get up! It’s lunchtime. Come, see. Daddy’s taking pictures of us in costumes.”
“What? No way. That’s out of the question. Stop it right now. Right now, you hear?”
“Mom, but you said…”
“It doesn’t matter what I said. That was before. You hear? No photographs. Nothing of the sort.”
From the corner of her eye, Bella saw her husband staring at her.
Then she apologized, and apologized again. And her husband gave her that familiar look of his, the look you give a lost cause.
Did the soul remain in the photos?
Bella didn’t like photography, but she never gave it much thought before arriving at the photograph archives. You look at what you think you are or once were. She didn’t like that feeling, as though she’d seen a ghost. Was it because she remembered and the appearance seemed false? Or was it actually because she had no image of her own inside her, or had forgotten, making every semblance seem implausible?
There she is on the beach, very thin. It was her honeymoon. She had seldom been more miserable. Perhaps because she knew she was supposed to be happy.
There is her husband. She remembered she couldn’t look him in the face then, but here he looks very cute and young – she examined his face carefully – even happy.
And here were the girls. Beautiful babies. Or perhaps only in her eyes? But these babies, where were they? deep inside her grownup girls? Bella felt great loneliness whenever she looked at this pile of pictures – she never arranged them in an album – as if they held false hope that there would be a second chance, as though they offered promise that there used to be a past.
And as for the testimony, what value did it have when the witness was long since not who he used to be.
“Mr. Hermon,” said Bella, “I want it to stop immediately. Right now. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the important thing is that they stop dying. Right now.”
Mr. Hermon was one of the newspaper’s owners and both his sons were at the front. There was no sign of life from either. In the first days, when they just waited for the war, Mr. Hermon would come in every day, after writing the editorial column, sit down on a chair next to Yulia’s desk and teach her the ways of life: where to buy tiles; which institution to send your child to; which medication to use for the common cold and which to use for an allergy; and what would be the fate of the government if the municipal master plan was accepted.
Sometimes, Mr. Hermon would invite Yulia and her husband, along with the child, to his house for Friday night dinner with Mrs. Hermon and himself.
“What does she look like?” Bella had asked at the time.
“Ah,” said Yulia waving her hand. “Ah.”
Yulia hadn’t been at the archives in a long time. Bella would wander down the corridor office entrances and call out, “Where are my scissors? Has anyone seen my scissors?” The scissors would disappear every morning. Mr. Hermon, like the scissors, was an inheritance passed down by Yulia. He would come every morning and sit on the chair opposite the desk that was now hers. Bella didn’t know what to say to him. Sometimes he’d ask after Yulia and then return to his office on the upper floor.
Now Mr. Hermon looked at her from the pinnacle of his silence. “Out of the question,” he said. “It’s because of people like you that we find ourselves in the same place time and again.”
“But…” Bella didn’t want to complete the sentence.
Mr. Hermon answered the part she had left out: “It’s not a private matter. It goes far beyond that. It’s the fate of the country, don’t you realize?”
“What you don’t realize is that the people who have died won’t come back to life like film stars at the end of a movie.”
“You’re spoiled and don’t know what it means to be without a country. This generation, you all lack self-respect.”
Bella wasn’t sure if it would be right to say “The dead praise not the Lord” at that point. First, because Mr. Hermon would doubt the strength of her suddenly acquired faith. Second, because she thought it was unfair to use God to explain something so obvious. And so she said, “The important thing is to live.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Hermon – everyone in the office was always careful to add the Mr. – “The important thing is how you live.” And he left, wrapping the cloak of his silence after him.
In the middle of the night, when Bella arrived at the office, Tami would poke her head out of the teleprinter room. “Good morning, Bell.” Her voice would stretch gaily down the bleak corridor. Bella was surprised each time. She had her own theory about Tami and her bright mood.
Everyone in the newsroom whispered behind her back that her husband was a spy in a country whose name everyone, including Tami, was forbidden from knowing. They said that he couldn’t make contact for extended periods, leaving Tami to keep herself happy. Parties, jazz, sport clubs, films she would watch diligently. Tami had seen all the films showing in town and whoever wanted to go to the cinema would seek her guidance.
Bella realized that Tami had added her own pile of worry to the general distress with a sense of relief. Like those who, in the biblical desert, had given up their jewelry. In the depths of her heart, she recognized the system.
“Bella,” Tami called out of the teleprinter room, “Are we going for a coffee during the break?”
“No,” said Bella, “Of course not.” She already imagined what the day held in store for her. “Don’t you know there’s a war?”
“You don’t say, Bellinka. If you have a coffee, the battle is lost. Who do you think you are? Be happy that you still have enough life in you in the meantime to drink coffee.”
Bella stopped. She saw the pile of new newspapers already left by the delivery boy at the door.
“You know what?” she said to Tami , more out of shame than enthusiasm, “Okay, let’s go.”
Bella hadn’t been outdoors during these hours in a while. A bright noon sun shed its golden light on the ficus trees and the colorful clothes of the café customers sitting on the pavement. Bella had forgotten that the world had that colorful capability to surprise.
She sat at a small table.
“They have the best espresso in Tel Aviv and marvelous cakes that you can’t find anywhere else in town,” said Tami.
Bella didn’t usually go into cafés. In the town where she lived there were a few kiosks and a simple restaurant. Here it was the big city, Tel aviv. No wonder that during her life before the war she felt such tedium and emptiness. But how could it be that in the war, when those parents are soon going to appear in her office, golden channels of gaiety were still flowing? She didn’t know if she should look on the café customers as traitors or if it was a kind of big city dwellers’ irony.
“Espresso,” said Tami. “Two. And Cake. Bell, which cake are you taking? It’s my treat.”
Bella looked over the desserts on the menu and, wanting to fully identify with the urban vibe and Tami’s genuine or false frivolousness, she pointed to the cake with the strangest name.
“Are you sure?” asked Tami.
Bella nodded. Only later, in the newsroom, did she realize what Tami’s expression had meant – it was the most expensive cake on the menu. Bella put her foot in the rules of the world. She couldn’t apologize immediately, because she might be mistaken. She couldn’t go on thinking about it all day long, because when she got back two mothers were fighting over a photograph in the office. They both recognized their missing sons in the same soldier. And there were other cases like that. At the end of the day, when she remembered the café, a shudder of shame ran through her body.
Bella arrived at night with the van and went back in the day. She could no longer tell whether today was today, yesterday or tomorrow. The war wasn’t over. The number of missing soldiers grew each day, and so did the number of the missing soldiers’ family members. From UNESCO, UNRWA, the Government Press Office and the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit they phoned and sent messengers and photographs. The newspapers kept stacking up on the metal cabinet and the photographs on her desk. They slid to the floor. They filled the office. Every time she tried putting things in order, the photo seekers would come and scatter everything. Bella sat in her office as if she didn’t exist. The visitors circled around her, and she observed their sorrow.
It was either morning or evening. Someone was at the door. Bella raised her eyes from the desk.
Before registering the narrow yellow eyes she felt the blow inside her.
The war brought him to her. The ones who didn’t die lived.
Bella stood up and didn’t move. Lev walked up to her and placed the back of his hand on her cheek, as she remembered; it was a lighter color than his complexion and its touch was fresh and life-enshrouding, like a large leaf.
“How did you find me? How did you know I was here? How did you know to find me here?”
Lev stretched his hand out to her. Bella began crying quietly, as though a stone was beginning to dissolve inside her. The softer her face became under the flow of tears, hidden in his embrace, the more she felt the strength of her sorrow that came to life.
Lev moved her away for a moment, wiped her cheeks with his palms. “Hey, Shimshon,” he said and drew her back to him.
“You finally came,” Bella muttered into his coat.
“Really. You’re telling me. I’ve been hitchhiking for the past two nights.”
“All that, was it awful?” asked Bella.
Lev placed his finger on her mouth. “Shhh…” he said. “You’re here and I’m here.”
The sand was damp but they paid it no heed. On the beach, there was no one besides them and the sprays of water created a sort of mist. Every one of his touches untangled a string of tears in her.
“Oh-ho,” said Lev, “And you’re still crying?” that was the same sentence he said in astonishment then, when they had left the cinema.
“Yes,” said Bella, “Yes, you know I can’t bare sad endings.”
“As if that was the only awful thing in the world,” he said and added, “I’m tired. My eyes are closing. I want to fall asleep here next to you and never wake up. Only first…” And Bella moved her hands over his eyelids.
After crying, Bella laughed, and then a great silence rose within her. She had never before felt how her body can take her to that place.
“And the same skin,” said Lev, “I remember. It’s stayed so smooth.”
“I love you,” said Bella. And Lev shut her mouth, this time with his lips.
When she opened her eyes she was astounded to see that on the beach right next to them a huge submarine had risen from the sea, all its lights aglow. With great relief she realized that there could actually be something so powerful that wasn’t her responsibility.
Rain began to trickle, very light and short, a sort of insinuation.
Bella said, “Like then, when we left the cinema.” She didn’t know if Lev remembered or if he had even noticed. And Lev said, “No. Never like then. Because you’re married and I’m…”
Bella said, “But now you’re back.”
And Lev said, “I’ve only come to visit.”
And Bella said, “How? How? Can’t you see that we’re just…? You can’t give up on life.”
And Lev said, “I already gave up once. No. It was you who gave up.”
“There’s no point in arguing,” said Lev.
And Bella said, “But Lev, this is our life. We made a mistake. So what, can’t we fix it?”
“It’s late,” said Lev.
“Late for what? Late for living?”
“Baby. I love you,” said Lev, “Always remember that,” and he shoved her cold hands into his pockets.
“I don’t care,” said Bella, putting together the conclusions of the joke, riddle and inquiry committees. “I want to be with you in the morning when I wake up and in the evening before I go to sleep.”
And Lev said, “That’s what the Riddle Committee will never forget, because I love you, I must leave you.”
Maybe it was a sentence out of a Charlie Chaplin film or another film he used to quote to her in his youth. Bella said, “Becose you love me, you have to live wiz me.”
“You and your broken English,” said Lev.
“It’s the English of the kibbutz,” said Bella, as if that was what mattered now.
Bella gazed at the sea. If there ever was a submarine there, it had disappeared behind the curtain of mist.
The phone rang. Bella raised her head. It took her a few minutes to realize where she was: in the office, in the dark, sleeping on her desk.
“Mom, I dialed your number all by myself. Dad asks when you’re coming home.”
“Soon, Sweetie. Tell him I’m just finishing up here and leaving.”
Mom? It was astonishing that she still belonged to anyone in the world. Bella felt she was powerless to get up and leave. Cars passed by on the road below and cast diagonal ladders of light on the wall. She sat and followed the alternating lights and thought she would sit like that forever.
And then a strong light pierced through the window. A heavy car probably stopped down below without turning its lights off. Bella noticed that the photos on the desk of the light-flooded office began to move toward each other and come together: face to shoulder, shoulder to arm, to neck, to tummy, to leg, to foot, to biceps. A huge figure stood tall in the room. All the fragments of photos of the missing and the dead from the first day of the war, the second, the tenth, the thirtieth, the one that belonged to this mother or the next; a human figure – all or no one – began to take large steps toward the door. He passed above her with his giant steps.
“Stop,” Bella shouted at him, “Stop.”
He didn’t turn his head, as if he didn’t hear or didn’t understand human language.
“Stop,” Bella shouted again.
She heard him walk down the corridor with no one stopping him, heard his pounding steps heading to the street. She didn’t know what he was going to do. Bella ran to the entrance. She wanted to shout. What should she shout, help? or careful? or listen? or come here look, look what, who died, who returned?
Bella stood still in her office, which was dark once more. Who should she call? She didn’t know what he wanted – revenge, pity, love… And from whom?
She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “And this is for you, God.”
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