Dorit Rabinyan’s protagonist is caught in a generational gap, and angry waters threaten to annihilate him. His wife, who is about to give birth to their child, is on one side of the umbilical cold, while his parents are on the other. The waterfall flowing in the photograph tacked on his parents’ wall is ominous and threatens to overpower him, to drown him. The photograph, a faded remnant from the 1970’s, exemplifies the determinism of lineage and propagation: the past will define the future. With her expertly crafted prose, masterfully playing with the language and enlivening the senses, Rabinyan presents a brilliant story that navigates the tensions between tradition and modernity, the past and the present, and the establishment of a new family — as the story of a woman leaving her family to join her husband lies behind the figure of the male protagonist, who will only part with his paternal home at the moment his wife gives birth to their first-born child.
Translated by: Maya Klein
He walks into the living room, flinging the keys from his hand; they jingle slightly in mid-air before landing in the empty copper bowl at the center of the table – echoing like a gong. His mother isn’t home. He peers into the kitchen and sees the pot on the counter. The window is slightly open, but the scent of fried meat still hangs in the air. She prepared chicken liver and told him to come pick some up for Esther. She needs the iron; she needs to increase her hemoglobin. That’s what they told him at the Emergency Labor Ward, that’s what the nurse who administered the IV had said; the placenta develops on the uterine wall, delivering oxygen to the fetus though the mother’s blood cells, through the umbilical cord.
He brings his phone over to the table, sighing and sinking heavily into the sofa. His elbows dig into his knees; his neck is bent and misshapen. He drops his head and empties his face into his hands; wringing it in desperation, rubbing his eyes in their sockets. He is so tired and tense; he feels empty, dull, eaten away on the inside. He stays that way for another long moment, kneading, distorting his flesh with a kind of meticulousness; as if he were washing his face with air, scrubbing at it; attempting to remove some sort of sticky, stubborn mask.
He hasn’t shaved in two days and his stubbly beard, sharp and rough, is thicker than ever. He smells traces of the soap from the hospital ward on his hands; the pinkish fluorescent liquid from that bathroom. The tips of his fingers smell of cigarettes and bear the sour metal scent of his keys. He needs to take a shower. He’ll collect the chicken liver and go home for an hour. Grab a shower, shave; collect the items that Esther wanted from home. Then at 2, he’ll leave for the train station. Her sister’s train is due to arrive at 2:15.
He picks up the phone and calls his mother. But half of a second later he hears it ringing in the kitchen. Why did he bother getting her a mobile phone if she always leaves it at home? He hangs up. Drops the phone in his lap. And his hands begin moving over his stubble again, fingering the hairs on the sides of his mouth; raking them over with stern determination, going against the direction of their growth.
The first tingle starts here, from the far corners of his lips, eight or nine hours after he shaves. Within two hours the sensation crawls under his cheekbones, and trickles through to the lower part of his nostrils. After four hours his neck starts to itch too. By the time he leaves the office, he has a five o’clock shadow, the greyish shade of evening. Esther says that it’s sexy, but he can’t stand it. He hates the prickly, unclean feeling; the fact that his face becomes dark and brooding when he doesn’t shave. If they have plans to go out or meet friends after he gets home, he’ll shave again in the evening too. He feels more comfortable clean-shaven, more confident, as if when he steps out of the shower he’s a new man, an entirely new man.
He was always clean-shaven, even in the army. Only when his father died, during his second year at university, did he let his beard grow out. He can still recall the pang of panic that hit him at the end of the shiva, when he stepped out of the shower dripping wet and caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror- he stopped for a moment, as if before him stood a strange man, someone that had snuck up from behind. When the shiva began, his mother had covered the television and all of mirrors in the house with bed sheets; she took this one off of its hook first. He wiped the mirror with the back of his hand, and for the first time in seven days, through the blurry steam, caught sight of his gaunt face.
His beard was short and dense. Thick and black as the hair on his head, but curlier, as curly as the pubic hair that dripped between his legs. And the roots were tough, dark as coal. He forced his eyes to look in the mirror, contemplating his reflection with astonishment. His dick shriveled up from the cold shock of the sink. Up close, with his overgrown beard and red eyes burning at the mirror, he resembled a madman – he examined his face closely from top to bottom – like some dangerous psychopath in a movie; someone that will eventually turn out to be a very violent character.
Drops of water fell from his earlobes; he could see and feel them, cold, dripping quickly onto his chest hair; pooling in the cave of his navel. He loaded a new cartridge in his razor, and slid it over the foamy mask, starting at the top and his way down; stopping occasionally to wash in the noiseless column of water. Sharp stumps accumulated on the inner ring of the sink, like iron shavings. The blade squeaked, whispered, cleared a path and chiseled its way, as if it were sculpting his bones anew; thorough, meticulous and patient; as if it were suppressing a second, aggressive nature, something that is always there, buried within him. Little by little, his face was exposed – stern, tense, alive with severity. He bent his head down to the faucet, then straightened up, realigning himself with the mirror, dripping wet.
Underneath the beard he wore the young face of his father. He had his mother’s thick build, and his father’s dark features. It was as if someone had taken their wedding picture from the living room wall and fused the thin face of the stunned groom with the heavyset body belonging to the bride, who was taller than him by half of a head. The shape of the eyes, the hooked nose, the dimpled chin, the prominent jawbones – his father’s face appeared in the mirror, peering out from underneath the fog of steam, as if he were standing there and looking at him.
His father was found dead in the small store in south Tel Aviv; frozen in the same position he had sat for more than twenty-six years, ever since he made aliya and bought the leasehold to the store.
A customer had found him at his desk, in mid-day, among the piles of carpets; his head slumped down on his chest, his tea still lukewarm in the mug before him. A few minutes after she called the police, the ambulance arrived and his death was pronounced. They were later told it had been cardiac arrest.
During summer vacation, sometimes Eitan would accompany him to the store. He would ride the bus to Tel Aviv and spend the day with him in the quiet, dusky store, immersed in the heavy scent of the carpets. He’d take off his sandals and skip barefoot from pile to pile. Enter the dark narrow crevices in the depth of the store; stand inside of the tall funnels of rugs that leaned against the entrance walls, and climb over the stacks of carpets that towered to great heights, ascending until he reached the top, the grand summit that looked out on the entire space; he’d send his arm up until he could practically touch the ceiling.
His father sat behind an old office desk, looking outside; always sitting there, silently looking out onto the busy street. The dim moan of muffled traffic was absorbed by the carpets and seemed to rise from a great distance. Two low, mismatched chairs joined him in lethargic anticipation for customers. And the lazy ceiling fan circled over his head, spinning bits of string and old cobwebs with its soot-covered blades, mixing the heavy air, unconscious with heat. Cool moisture always stood in the air, even when outside everything was being brought to a boil, as if in his store even the climate was different, in some kind of exile.
He was a silent man, brooding, closed-off. He spent most of the day – from nine am until he closed the iron gate and locked up at seven pm – alone, staring dumbly. Boiling and pouring and stirring countless cups of tea. Faintly reading aloud from the Psalms. Listening to the continuous hum of his beat-up radio, which was held together by scotch-tape and tuned to Reshet Beyt. When one of the neighboring store-keepers walked by, he’d give a slight nod of his head; he almost never smiled. He was a lousy merchant; a lonely man, isolated, closed-off, unlikeable. Sometimes he would sit, alone, for days on end, in the blazing heat of summer, without a single customer coming through the door; staring at the passing cars.
And when someone finally did pass through the store’s threshold, he acted as if it were an intrusion. He rose, grudgingly, and would serve people with hesitation, answering their questions half-heartedly, like he was preoccupied with something else. He would carefully spread out the carpets and display the various patterns, then roll them back again with great ceremony, while at the same time, it seemed there was another matter, a more pressing affair that was distracting him.
His Hebrew. His crushed, contrived Hebrew. The muddled language that fought the Persian of his thoughts. His heavy accent. His uncomfortable gaze, falling to the floor. The brief, decisive pause he took before he stated the price with his eyes closed. His courteous, overly courteous, body language, which always kept him distant. His exaggeratedly good manners, causing him to hang back, patiently waiting, never interfering until a question was demanded of him. And finally, the resignation, the demure lowering of his head, when he saw his customers to the door.
He’d still be standing in the doorway long after the customer had left. His head as tall as the mezuzah, his shoulders hunched, the palms of his hands would be anchored in his tail-bone; slowly stirring. Then with measured, contemplative steps, he would re-enter the store and disappear into its depths. Afterwards, he would spread a sheet of newspaper on the table, and set it with two wet plates, two freshly washed forks and the plastic container containing their packed lunch.
His soft, saturated, quivering voice: Couja ei Eitan, where are you?
His dark, sad eyes, travelling from pile to pile in embarrassment. And nervous anticipation was building within Eitan, a wild desire began pounding in his heart at the prospect of his father lifting his gaze and discovering him up here, he’d finally be seen, sprawled out on his stomach at the top of the tall pile, his arm covering his face.
Get up Eitan, get up and biya buchor-
And later, they sit facing each other at the table and eating; eating chicken meatballs in tomato sauce and diced potatoes; his silence. His silent gaze, staring at the plate, or at the entrance to the store. Not a blatant silence; it lacks tension, doesn’t hold any kind of promise. It’s a continuous stillness, content with itself. A supernatural silence. A silence that has no need to hear or be heard. An exhausting silence, driving you mad; making you want to scream.
Esther – a chill comes over him – and the child. While reminiscing about his father, his thoughts had temporarily let go of them both; alleviating the stress for a few minutes – the bleeding and Esther’s backache; those terrifying contractions, the premature ones that suddenly over came her at the start of week twenty-seven; the injections, the tests; and the nebula floating in the dark bubble on the ultra-sound screen, the rapid beat of the tiny, frightened, pleading heart – fear now returns to pervade his heart; gathering its bearings and clasping him once more, like a tooth that resumes aching. He imagines himself standing there in her room, beside the tall bed, he slides over her with his spirit, over her bloated face, exhausted and spent from pregnancy, over her hair spilled sweaty on the pillow – and again he sighs, breathing in and out to the full capacity of his lungs.
He looks at the screen on his phone, checking the time; she was asleep when he left her – twelve twenty- she‘s probably still sleeping. And when he realizes his mother still hasn’t arrived, he thinks of the pot, he just came to pick up the pot; he gazes imploringly at the door-well, where is she? His shoulders sink and he leans his elbow on the armrest, the palm of his hand kneading his cheek; he’ll wait for another ten minutes. If she doesn’t arrive by twelve-thirty – he’s out of here.
The wall facing him is covered by a giant photograph of a waterfall. The wallpaper has been here ever since he was a boy, covering the width of the entire wall, from floor to ceiling. It depicts a river estuary, probably somewhere in Europe; an anonymous waterfall with its frothy waters soaring, captured forever in flight. It could have been nice enough as a panoramic photograph, had it appeared, for instance, on a post-card; as he apologetically explained to Esther before bringing her here for the first time to meet his parents; “But like that?” he continued, when they were back in the car and she laughed; on that humongous scale, almost as large of the view itself – “in the center of that pathetic living room? Their tiny, poor, pathetic living room?” He continued and the rising tide of her laughter soothed him; it assured him that he was forgiven, that she forgave him this too – it was the ugliest thing he could imagine, that wallpaper, “the epitome of bad taste-“
When he was a boy, he used to imagine the waterfall breaking out of the wall; the wild photograph coming to life and devastating their home. He would sit here, like this, on the same sofa, staring at a certain point in the depth of the picture; and would focus on that point completely, gathering himself into it, holding his breath, staring at it. After two minutes his eyes would begin watering; the photograph grew blurry and began to pulsate. Anther sixty seconds and his ears would be filled with terrible thunder as the wall would erupt and collapse.
The water would then thrust forward in rage, in flowing fury, pounding down like a fist. The television shot through the air and smashed in mid-flight, along with the shattered pieces of the stereo and the VCR that stood upon it; shards of crystal from the vases, and pieces of pots and plastic flowers went flying around the room; the basket with all of the cassettes; the cuckoo clock; they were all carried away by the enormous surge that was rising with a roar, heading straight towards the sofas.
He would particularly revel in the destruction of the sofas; crushing them to smithereens; hearing their wooden backbones snap, tearing off the pinkish, sickening upholstery, ripping it to shreds. And riding the momentum, he’d pit the two large space heaters against each other; see them roll into the electric keyboards; crash the chandelier upon them, uproot it from the ceiling and send the keyboards to the floor; then bounding on with the thick, heavy rising water, crashing wildly into the cupboard; listening to the ringing rain of the flowery china and the bottles of cognac, and the teapots and the delicate flutes of wine, tearing the thick glass doors off of their hinges.
A wave of bitter exuberance would then flood his heart, an enthusiastic scream of horror. The water was fervently frothing, silvery-white, and mad with rage from years of being stifled; amassing its anger in the frozen photograph on the wallpaper. And these waters were vindictive, bullying, sowing destruction as they turned to attack the cupboard. The cupboard would always shake terribly, but took its time to fall; it would rattle but refused to surrender immediately, hanging on with a kind of dignified defiance. But the wave pushed and crashed into it, throwing from its shelves all of the sidurs and all of the holy books, the tefillin, the yarmulkes, the playing cards, the menorahs, the photo albums; and kept shaking the heavy, dark brown wooden body, which clattered with Passover dishes that were breaking inside of it; until finally, it too collapsed helplessly, crumpling into the ruins with great discord.
He starts at the sound of the key turning in the door, “Halen Hunai?” His mother, discovering that the door is open, “Eitan?” His mouth opens and his nostrils enlarge – drawing a deep, ravenous breath – and his eyes, awash with the remnants of their hallucination, still scan the living room. It’s amazing that everything remains the same in this room; that awful wallpaper, the gaudy sofas, the crocheted doilies, the cuckoo clock on the television set, the old keyboards; everything has endured the passing years and remains exactly the same. On the wall to his right the Iranian Sha still showed off his haughty profile, beneath the framed embroidery of a ship at sea; and the Baba Sali still stood glumly between them, hunched over, covering his forehead with the palm of his hand. His father’s sidurs and gilded holy books propped up against each other on the cupboard. The same beat-up driver’s manual; the phone books. The eternal bottle of cognac gathering dust beside the crystal goblets. As if the water with which he flooded it all in his imagination had preserved the living room in a protective seal; encasing it in formaldehyde, in his maddening loyalty to himself; stubborn, invincible, almost museum-like.
“I thought,” she says breathlessly, surprised at the door. The plastic bags of groceries that she is holding swish noisily, “I thought you drive already, junam-“
And it seems that she too, hasn’t changed; that she always looked this way; older than her age, heavy-set, slightly masculine. With her broad, sloping shoulders and those small deflated breasts. With that green-blue sweater of hers, worn to death. With her curious, lively eyes, her greedy brows.
“In a bit,” he says dryly, absent-mindedly. Dropping his gaze to the phone, the clock, “There’s still time-“
“You don’t say that her train come at twelve thirty?”
Her awful Hebrew, with that accent, “Two fifteen-“
“Ma’an che midunam? What do I know?” And the suspiciousness, her stubbornness, her infuriating self-confidence, “My word- I hear you say twelve thirty-“
She always stuck with the same story, the same version, over and over, ardently defending it, never accepting defeat, “You say in morning-“
He cuts her off, muttering impatiently, “He didn’t call again?” He used the bitter, tense tone that was exclusively reserved for her, “the guy from work?”
She puts the bags on the floor, “Just your friend little Yemenite calling in the morning, saying why is your phone off-“
Sighing, he gets up off of the couch – her embarrassing prejudices; those dark, racist views – and takes his phone and his keys from the table.
“His aunts too,” her tight, bejeweled fist flutters on her chest, “I said his aunts too he doesn’t allow coming there,” she bites her lower lip self-righteously, as she always does, continuing in the exact same words, “It’s not nice, he’ll think you only not want him coming-“
“Fine” he cuts her off again, this time rudely, “you already said that-“
“Hob junam,” she ignores the change of tone, swishing the grocery bags, “Dur misha hala tu boro hamum kon ga man horak-“
And her insistence on speaking to him in Persian, forcing him to understand, compelling him to know that language; though he never speaks it; he always responds angrily in Hebrew.
“Not now, I’ll shower at home-“
He draws shameful pleasure in seeing her face fall, offended, “What for there, junam?” she wonders, coming closer to him, “Man barash octahe doros mikonam-“
“You,” he bursts out suddenly, his voice thundering before he can complete the sentence, coloring his face with rage, “You, don’t you fix up a room for her, hear me? She sleeps on our sofa, in our house. Or, or maybe I’ll put her in our room and I’ll sleep on the sofa. We’ll see-“
His exhaustion, the hint of indecision in his voice is like an invitation, beckoning her to try and squeeze through the crack, and she whines dolefully, “What for junam? Her sister sleeps here better-“
“You, don’t,” he puts his guard up again, as if remembering his anger and raises his finger at her, “Don’t you interfere where you’re not needed,” He sees her hold her breath, “you hear?”
“Ok, ok,” she backs off; her gaze both alarmed and deferential, “What I say to make you like this?”
He rolls his eyes in disgust, and then closes them entreatingly as his body sinks back into the sofa. There is no one in the world that can drive him crazy like this, that gets on his nerves this way; only her. He tries to breathe, to collect his thoughts, but the swishing sound of the grocery bags begins again.
“Because our house close to the hospital,” now she’s defensive; whispering, restless, as if she’s talking to herself, “that why I said it, so she be more comfortable-“ Always so self-pitying, with an air of innocence, always helpless, “to go visit Ester, may God bless her-“
“For this? Is this why you asked me to come here? To drive me crazy?” Now he’s roaring, his face contorting, boiling with rage, “Did you? Just to drive me out of my mind? Is that what you think I need now, on top of all of-“
Nah, junam,” she shouts after him, remorseful, “No, I swear on my life-“
He surrenders to the fury as though a massive sense of happiness has just entered his bones, “Really? So you can get on my back? Just so you can drive me nuts?”
Their arguments have an internal order to them, a permanent pattern that has been repeating for years; each with their own role. For instance, now, he knows that she is about to burst out, and then reprimand him like a young child.
“Alright, alright, relax already-“
And he fumes, disdainfully mocking her, enthusiastically repeating the same worn out tune, his voice rising and falling, “’Let her sleep here then’, ‘No, she’ll sleep there’, ‘No she’ll sleep here’-“
“Hob bas kon!” she begs with a piercing wail, her voice hurt, “Eitan, bas con, enough!”
Silence falls between them.
“It’s a shame you kill yourself like this,” her voice breaks, goes out to him.
Her eyes melting, pardoning, she reaches her hand out in compassion, “Don’t worry-“
He pulls back contemptuously, almost in disgust, “Leave me alone now-“
“God is great junam,” she murmurs in sorrow, with great intent, “Everything will be alright, God willing-“
“Nu, leave me alone,” he bellows, fighting her, his throat suddenly choking up.
But she is already kissing him, caressing him from this side and that, throwing herself upon his neck. Holding him tight and delivering her scent to his nose; her deep, essential, dizzying scent. Stroking his face; and her touch is close, intimate, embarrassingly familiar, “May I die for you,” she moans in empathy, stirring his heart, “Everything will be alright, junam, don’t worry-“
“I’ve had it with you, don’t you understand?” he berates her, his voice breaking; breathing desperately into her flesh, closing his eyes in defeat, “I’ve had it with you-“
“Hov, Junam,” she says and releases the embrace, her hand gliding forgivingly over his hair, “It will be alright, God willing, God is great-“
Her lips move, faintly murmuring, beseeching the ceiling and he follows with his gaze, as she takes the grocery bags to the kitchen. She continues her prayers, adding him to her persistent pleas as she stores the milk and cheese in the refrigerator.
He stands to his feet now. And on the wall behind the sofa he sees, he remembers; that something has changed after all. To the right of his parents’ black and white wedding portrait, beside the two stunned young people that have been staring at him in their gilded frame ever since he was a boy, a glossy color photo of his sister Batya and her husband Yaron underneath the chuppa had been added a few years ago. Afterwards, the photos of Ilay wearing a birthday wreath and of Na’ama as a newborn were added as well. And on the left, over a year ago, last summer, his and Esther’s photograph was hung. Her eyes shine at him; laughing, all made-up – what would he do without her? How lost he was before he met her, how lonely – she is happy, smiling widely, you can tell she’s already a little drunk; he’s beside her, grinning like an idiot. And she looks at him and her eyes assure him that it will be alright. It will be alright, her eyes tell him. Right here, on the blank white spot of wall next to them, there will be a photo of their child. God willing, God willing, they will have a child.
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