Translated by: Sondra Silverstone
A few months before Mother’s madness was officially announced, though there were hints that something out of the ordinary was happening, and our daily routine suffered small blows, life went on and the days were all pretty well alike.
She spread slices of pickled cucumbers on the windowsill and said that once the sun dried them out pure cucumber would be left, that there was enough water in the tap anyway and it was just inflating the cucumber, but the sun shrivelled them into transparent greenish rags spotted with dried seeds which she ate and ate and her mouth reeked of rotten bay leaves and neglected teeth. Then there was the business about the windows, that we mustn’t close because there wasn’t enough air for five pairs of nostrils and if everyone exhaled their carbon dioxide into the closed apartment the air would be poisoned. But when the strong autumn winds blew through the rooms and the windows swung wildly on their hinges, banging and rattling the panes, it was clear that something new was happening.
Father oiled the wood of the windowsill because the vinegar from the pickles had erased the paint and eaten away the glaze. He didn’t tell Mother to stop it, just as he didn’t tell her that the cold coming in through the open windows gave us goose flesh, just as he didn’t tell her that there was nothing wrong with her stomach, but the more she folded her hands over her stomach and said she was wasting away, the more reason he found to look after his Subaru. He tightened bolts, stretched belts, wiped the panes with damp cloths until they shone like mirrors and you could see the neighbours’ houses reflected in them. He shook out the rubber mats and spread them on the asphalt driveway and he scrubbed the headlights with the green washing-up soap, and only when the darkness thickened so that he couldn’t tell the pliers from the screwdriver did he close his toolbox, gather up the rags and go upstairs.
There were no signs that Mother was wasting away. After all, when someone is wasting away they get smaller and smaller, but not one centimetre of Mother’s metre sixty-two was missing, her ring stayed attached to her finger like a thin gold canal between two banks of thick flesh, her belt was buckled as always on the third hole and as always, when she leaned against the doorjamb, the top of her head reached the bottom nail of the mezuzah. I believed that she was wasting away from the inside, that her intestines were growing shorter, her blood drying up, her heart shrinking and only her outer skin remained blown up and covered the general withering away taking place inside.
So many things changed all at once that from fear I began to count the things that were still the same and did not panic because of sudden tears or shrieks that turned into laughter. One of those things was Talia’s morning. She would stand in front of the mirror combing her hair to her heart’s content, the black plastic comb shifting rearranging the varying shades of brown and gold and the steady rhythm of Talia’s hand remained constant despite Mother’s screaming enough with that mirror. The shouts grew louder, rattling the mirror, but Talia would slowly and painstakingly continue to arrange each strand of hair. When it became unbearable Father would try to imprison the noises and violated the latest decree by closing the kitchen window but the insulation was less than perfect and the neighbours heard. The Baumans’ curtains moved and half of Mrs Bauman’s face filled the slit between them, then the opening narrowed to the width of her ear and she had to decide whether to devote it to her eye or her ear.
I didn’t understand how Talia was able to wrap herself in a kind of membrane and detach herself from the screaming and how day by day she perfected this membraning ability of hers. I thought that if I tried hard enough I could be as good at it as she was. When I wrapped my sandwich in waxed paper and Mother screamed that I was getting on her nerves with that noisy paper and enough and get on with it, I couldn’t go on like Talia and I didn’t finish folding the paper over the sandwich and the mayonnaise dripped on my fingers and then she screamed you think I didn’t see you wiping your hands on your dress, and I didn’t answer. The truth is that I didn’t wipe them on my dress, and when I bit my nails in the first lesson the nail slivers I swallowed had enough mayonnaise on them to last me the whole lesson.
With Talia and me Mother’s nerves were like a lizard’s severed tail. Only Uli didn’t irritate her, and when she ran her fingers through his soft hair they stayed straight and didn’t curl on his forehead and didn’t feel his hot scalp and all the fears accumulated inside his little skull. He sat on the living-room floor for hours lining up a long row of red Lego pieces, attaching one to the other, making sure that their sides fitted together without a crack. When there were no red pieces left he pulled out his shoelaces and tried to thread them through again, pushing the hard plastic tip of the lace into the holes until the plastic began to split and spread from so much pushing and wouldn’t go through and Uli tried again and again and the tips of the laces broke altogether, and finally he went to kindergarten with his shoes untied and the teacher glued the split plastic, re-threaded the laces and tied two bows.
Those shoes of Uli’s had a function, those two little brown things were part of the arrangements I made to maintain order amid all the changes taking place in the house. Every evening after he fell asleep I pressed them together between the legs of his bed and every once in a while I checked to see that the angle hadn’t changed, that the soles touched each other neatly with the little hollow in the middle. Those shoes that had taken the shape of Uli’s feet were a kind of good-luck charm protecting me from the chameleons of that house.
More than once I woke up in the middle of the night and heard the bats that had deviated from their usual route and were flying through the yard upside down like a plane that had been hit, crashing into the window, their black bellies gleaming in the dark, and the moths began hovering backwards, their antennae gone. I threw off my blanket and ran to Uli’s bed to check if the shoes were obeying the order I had imposed on them, to be sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were still in the same position, the heels a centimetre from the edge of the floor tile, and then I went into the kitchen to see if the tap was still dripping at the same obedient rate. Talia said that the tap got on her nerves and ouf when were they going to fix it, but I hoped they wouldn’t fix it so that I would still be able to hear an old familiar sound amidst all the new sounds that cropped up every day in that house.
Official confirmation of madness arrived on the Sick Fund’s white stationery, with the words Mental Health Clinic printed in blue on either side of the red emblem. Father ran around with it to the National Insurance Institute and the municipality to arrange for allowances and discounts, and from being opened and refolded by a lot of clerks it became smudged at the edges with brown fingerprints until the letter looked like paper which had been left to spin in the washing-machine and came out wrinkled like an old cotton handkerchief.
You could say that that paper reorganized our lives and the days took on a new routine. Even Uli knew that Mother was in a special hospital and that if Bauman or other neighbours asked questions, we had to say that she had stomach problems. Father stopped taking care of our Subaru, and the back window was once again covered with dust, and children drew the word slob and all sorts of other comments in the dust, and on the damp nights water dripped onto the windshield from the roof, leaving muddy brown circles.
We only visited Mother once, and in honour of the occasion I picked an anemone from the flowerbed at school. Talia, in a tight-fitting denim skirt and a black blouse, her brown-gold hair combed back, resting on the back of her neck like a honey-coloured scarf, rattled the house-keys and hurried me, come on now, so we can catch the three-o’clock bus. I put the anemone in an empty olive jar and we left. The bouncing of the bus shook the water in the jar and a woman said, little girl what is this, you shouldn’t take water on a bus, and when we got off a little water spilled on my shoe and my sock got wet but the anemone stayed fresh and its petals looked transparent in the sun, so that you could see their network of thin veins.
Mother was wearing her green track suit and eating chicken and rice. Some crumbs of rice fell on the suit and some hung from the corners of her mouth. She didn’t say hello, or sit down, or anything. The man sitting next to her had the same exact food on his tray, and he was chewing on a chicken bone. Mother smiled at him and put the remains of her rice on his plate, saying take it, eat, and she tidied up his plate, separating the rice from the gnawed bones, and he scraped the rice from Mother’s mouth with a long yellow nicotine-stained finger. Talia twisted the strap of her handbag tightly around her thumb, her nail turned blue but Talia didn’t stop and she stood there taut as an ironed sheet and when Mother said again eat, eat, she roared Hello Mother in a voice I had never heard before. Three patients stopped eating and stared at her with empty eyes, and rice fell from their spoons which hung in the air on the way from their plates to their mouths, but Mother didn’t hear and kept on with her eat, eat and her thigh inside the green sweat suit brushed against the blue pants he was wearing. Then he pushed his plate to the middle of the table, and when he took Mother’s hand and placed it on his knee and began to move it very slowly up his thigh to the wild place of his pants. Talia pulled me out of there and water spilled from my jar onto the bathrobe of one of the patients. Talia was silent all the way home and didn’t wipe the tears that ran down her cheeks. Once the wind blew one of her tears on my chin and I didn’t wipe it off either. There was practically no water left in the jar and nobody scolded me on the bus, but two women stared at us and whispered to each other, I don’t know if it was because of Talia’s beauty or because she was crying. Talia remained silent and I noticed that the black eye of the anemone was watching the petals the whole time, but it couldn’t prevent the widest petal from starting to wrinkle.
In those days there was no-one around to demand explanations when I came late from school, so I could drag out the steps on my way home. I stood for hours under an almond tree, watching the wind scattering the blossoms, thousands of bits of white blossom drifting along the sidewalk. I gathered them up into the empty sandwich bag and when I opened it at home, the delicate scent of the almond tree emerged and overcome the smell of mayonnaise, and I crushed the petals and smeared the damp mess on my forehead and throat. There was a kind of relief about this blooming of the almond tree, it was so completely certain that every year in the early spring the branches would be covered with the white plumage which would then change to green, always in the same order and at the same time. The almond tree is not one of those types that you can surprise, what does it care if the wind bangs windows that must not be closed for fear of carbon dioxide, it doesn’t count the loaves of bread growing more numerous every day because there is no cooked food. I was so envious of the patience of the trees and the exact order in which things happened to them, I lingered outdoors for hours to gather more proof of this. After the almond trees in Shevat anemones bloomed in the flowerbeds at school and then tulip bulbs thickened under their winding green leaves, and during the Passover holydays on the school-yard turned yellow with wild mustard and chrysanthemums. Under my bed, ficus leaves piled up and yellowed while remaining on their stems, Talia said I should throw out all that rubbish but I knew that when the windows started banging and the noise hurt my ears, all I had to do was look at those leaves and I would calm down.
One evening Father came home from work, stuck his head in the kitchen sink and turned the tap on full force and the water dripped from his tangled hair on the floor and the counter and he dried himself with a worn kitchen towel and said, children Mother is coming back tomorrow. His face was red from being rubbed and his hair stood on end like a porcupine’s, and once again I felt that noise that hurt my ears because the kitchen window was banging like crazy. Uli stopped chewing his bread and ran to his Lego, and Talia wrapped herself in her membrane, detached from Father’s words, her face closed up tight, her eyes staring at a colour photo of a model in a magazine. I tried to learn from her whether this was good or bad news but I didn’t succeed, I only saw how her jaw protruded, and I knew that she was clenching her teeth very hard. In the long silence it seemed to me that the walls were breathing, small squeaks could be heard, something cracking, I was sure they were groaning in distress and I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I said too bad that she’s coming back, and my hand moved of its own accord to protect my cheek from the expected slap, but Father didn’t slap me, he stood like a solid troll doll, a big drop of water glistening on his earlobe like an earring.
Why now, I thought, maybe we can delay her, maybe somebody can run over there and close the heavy gates. Why right now when I have almost silenced the commotion in my head and I already have ways of calming myself, and I have even got used to the glittering eyeballs of the neighbours peering out at us from their doors. They peered at us through their peepholes, and have long ago dismissed the story about stomach problems. I wanted the days to remain equal and there really was a kind of uniformity about them, and suddenly she’s coming back.
When we heard the doors of the Subaru slam shut we stood in the hallway like an honour guard, Talia first, then me, and Uli after me, close together, and because I was in the middle I could feel the heat coming from both of them and the trembling. I had some round margosa seeds in my pockets for security, and I kept feeling them until they become warm and moist. They helped me to overcome the terrible ringing that sent sparks flying up into my brain and stopped up my ears.
I didn’t give Mother my hand when she came in because it was in my pocket clutching those seeds, and when she bent over Uli I saw that she had grown thin, her bones stuck out under her purple blouse. Father led her into the living room as if she were a glass stem, her white elbow grasped in his big hand, and she let him lead her to the biggest and most formal of our three armchairs. She sat down very slowly without moving her head, as if it was fixed rigidly on her neck, folding only her body into a sitting position and said, I’m terribly thirsty, those pills dry me completely. Talia rushed to the kitchen to make lemonade, Uli sat on the floor near the TV and stirred his Lego and I stood still with the seeds in my hand and I had no idea what is done on such occasions. Father helped her unbuckle her shoes, there were red marks on her white feet from the straps, and I decided that the best thing for me to do was to concentrate on the feet business and think about nothing else.
Why are you afraid of me, she asked and all the windows banged at once, don’t be afraid, I take medicine and I’m fine, I just need to get stronger, and I saw that her ring had slipped down to her knuckle and stopped and she was twisting it around and around on her finger. Ignore it, I said to myself, think about the patience of the old ficus, go to your room and touch the leaves, but the space under my bed was empty and clean, Talia had removed everything.
They didn’t suspect anything at the grocery when I took five jars of pickled cucumbers and said that Father would pay later. The jars were much heavier than I expected and my right shoulder hurt. Everyone was still sitting in the living room when I poured the contents on the windowsill in the kitchen, five rows, ten cucumbers in each row, dark green, close together, glittering in the sun. The strong wind blew out the Baumans’ curtains, now and then enlarging the opening between them. I had been careful to open all the windows earlier, even the small one we never opened in the shower, and all the cabinets and all the drawers, everything was open to enlarge the space and lessen the danger of carbon dioxide. And now that everything was open and air flowed freely from wall to wall I could allow myself to stand quietly in the kitchen and look at what was happening outside. The Baumans’ curtains fluttered like a giant butterfly, thin fringes edging the pink gauze flew about in the wind like Talia’s hair, I think Mrs. Bauman’s eye was blue, or maybe it just seemed that way because the sky was reflected in her glasses.
Winds blew back and forth in the space between our house and theirs, the last fingers of light played on the walls. I waited for darkness when the flight of the bats begins, they take off all at once from the south side of the building and the moon shines on their heavy bellies. Strange creatures, thick membranes connect their limbs and they fly through the yard in total blindness, and perhaps this whole flying business is not as complicated as I thought. I emptied my pockets of the seeds to get rid of the weight, and they bounced against the windows of the neighbors below us until they landed on the ground. I rolled up my sleeves and exposed my elbows and started to move them up and down in a uniform, controlled motion, and felt that with only a little improvement I could detach myself from the ground and hover, and then my flight would be as transparent and delicate as a dragonfly’s, and Mrs. Bauman’s shrieks, help! the girl is jumping, did not divert my mind and the motion of my elbows became smoother, more delicate and exact, almost perfect.
*This story is taken from: Mira Magen, Well Buttoned-Up, Keter, 1994.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
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