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BenderlyEngrossing and skillful tales that take you through the lives of real people, to the heart of their emotional and moral being.
—Washington Post Book World
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|1||A Room on the Roof||39|
|2||Apples from the Desert||65|
|3||A Married Woman||73|
|4||Hayuta's Engagement Party||81|
|6||Written in Stone||99|
|7||The Road to Cedar City||119|
|8||"What Am I Speaking, Chinese?" She Said to Him||153|
|9||Mother's Photo Album||171|
|10||Morning in the Park Among the Nannies||181|
|12||The Homesick Scientist||203|
Apples from the Desert
ALL THE WAY from the Orthodox quarter of Sha'arei Hesed in Jerusalem to the great stretch of sand where the driver called out "Neve Midbar" and searched for her in his rearview mirror, Victoria Abravanel--her heart pounding and her fists clenched--had only one thing on her mind. She took some bread in brown paper and an apple with a rotten core out of her string bag and adjoined the blessing on the fruit to the prayer for travel, as prescribed. Her eyes were fixed on the yellowing landscape spread out in front of her--and her heart was fixed on her rebellious daughter Rivka, who had left the Orthodox neighborhood six months earlier and gone to live on a kibbutz of secular Jews. Now Victoria had found out from her sister Sara that Rivka was sharing a room with a boy, sleeping in his bed and living as his wife.
All through the eight-hour trip, she pondered how she would behave when she was face to face with her daughter: maybe she would cajole her as if she weren't angry with her, teach her about a girl's honor in a man's eyes, explain sensitive issues, one woman to another. Or maybe she would start out with cries of despair, shout out her grief, the disgrace that Rivka had brought down on their noble family, shriek like a bereaved mourner until the neighbors heard. Or maybe she would perform her mission stealthily, draw her daughter away from there with false news and then put her in her room under lock and key and obliterate all trace of her. Or maybe she would terrify her, tell her about Flora, Yosef Elalouf's daughter, who fell in love with some boy, gave up her virginity for him, and then he deserted her, so she lost her mind and wandered around the streets, pulling little children by the ear.
On the road from Beersheva, she came up with something new: she would attack the boy with her nails, rip off his skin and poke out his eyes for what he had done to this change-of-life daughter of hers. Her daughter would come back to Jerusalem with her, which was what she promised her sister: "I'll bring her back even if I have to drag her by the hair."
From her sister Sara, Victoria already knew that her daughter was sixteen when she met him. He was an army officer and was brought in to tell them about military service for Orthodox girls. Later on there was a fuss about letting people from the army come and poison the girls' hearts, but the venom had already worked on Rivka. Cunningly, he'd sent her letters through a friend even after he had returned to his kibbutz. And she, the fool, who was known for neither grace nor beauty--even when she was a baby, people would mistake her for a boy--she fell for it, and when she was eighteen she picked up and went to him in the desert.
The further Victoria got from Beersheva, the more her heroic spirit deserted her and the pictures in her imagination made her sigh. What if Rivka turned her back on her and threw her out? What if the boy raised his hand to strike her? How would she spend the night if they locked her out and the bus didn't leave till the next morning? What if they didn't get her message? She didn't know anything about traveling, hadn't been outside of the neighborhood since the barren Shifra Ben-Sasson of Tiberias gave birth four years ago.
But when the driver called out "Neve Midbar" again and found her in his mirror, she got off the bus, pulling her basket behind her. She stood there in the sand, the dry wind striking her throat. How could you leave the pure air and beautiful mountains of Jerusalem--and come here?
By the time she came to a path and found a woman to ask about Rivka, rivulets of sweat were streaming from her kerchief. Victoria plodded on, looking dizzily at a woman whose arms were laden with rows of pots, one inside the other, her bare legs in men's shoes and folded army socks. Coming toward them on the opposite path was a girl, also wearing pants, whose hair was cropped short. "Here's Rivka," said the woman. Just as Victoria was about to say, "That's not the one I meant," she recognized her daughter and burst into a shout that resounded like a sob. The girl put down the laundry basket she was carrying and ran to her, her head thrust forward and her eyes weeping.
"What's this ... what's this ...?" Victoria scratched her nose. "Where are your braids? And those pants ... that's how you dress ... oy vey!" Rivka laughed: "I knew that's what you'd say. I wanted to get dressed but I didn't have time. I thought you'd come on the four o'clock bus. When did you leave home? Six? Come on. Enough of this crying. Here's our room. And here's Dubi."
Stunned by the short hair, the frayed trousers with patches on the back, and the shoes spotted with chicken droppings, Victoria found herself squeezed in two big arms, a fair face close to hers, and a male voice said, "Hello, Mother." Her basket was already in his hand and she--not understanding herself, her hands suddenly light--was drawn after her daughter into a shaded room and seated on a chair. At once there was a glass of juice in her hand; her eyes looked but didn't know what they saw, and later on she'd remember only the double bed covered with a patchwork quilt and the voice of the giant with golden hair saying "Welcome, Mother." And as soon as she heard him say "mother" again, very clearly, she swallowed some juice that went down the wrong way and started choking and coughing. The two of them rushed to her and started pounding her on the back like a child.
"Leave me alone," she said weakly and pushed them away. "Let me look at you," she said after a moment. Once again she scolded Rivka: "What is this, those pants? Those are your Sabbath shoes?" Rivka laughed, "I'm working in the chicken coop this week. They brought in new hens. I usually work in the vegetable garden. Just this week in the chicken coop."
Weary from the journey, confused by what she was seeing, shaken by the vicissitudes of the day, and straining to repress her rage, which was getting away from her in spite of herself--and always remembering her mission--Victoria sat down with her daughter Rivka and talked with her as she had never talked with her children before in her life. She didn't remember what she said and she didn't remember when the boy who called her mother left, but her eyes saw and knew: her daughter's face looked good. Not since Rivka was a little girl had she seen her eyes sparkle like this. Even her short hair, Victoria admitted to herself, made her look pretty. Not like when she wore a skirt and stockings, with her broad shoulders, as if she were a man dressed up in women's clothes.
"You don't miss the neighborhood?"
"Sometimes. On holidays. I miss the Sabbath table and the songs and Aunt Sara's laugh. But I like it here. I love working outside with the animals ... You, too, I miss you a lot."
"And Papa?" Victoria asked in a whisper into the evening light filtering in.
"Papa doesn't care about anybody. Especially not me. All day long in the store and with his books and prayers. Like I'm not his daughter."
"God forbid! Don't say such a thing," Victoria was scared--of the truth.
"He wanted to marry me off to Yekutiel's son. Like I was a widow or a cripple."
"Don't play games with me. As if you didn't know."
"They talked. You heard. We don't make forced matches. And anyway, Yekutiel's son is a genius."
"A pale, sick genius, like he sits in a pit all day long. And anyway, I don't love him."
"What do you think? You think love is everything?"
"What do you know about love?"
"What does that mean?" Victoria was offended and sat up straight. "This is how you talk to your mother around here?"
"You didn't love Papa and he didn't love you." Rivka ignored her and went on in the silence that descended: "I, at home ... I wasn't worth much."
"And here?" Victoria asked in a whisper.
A question began to take shape in Victoria's mind about Dubi, the fair-haired giant, but the door opened, a light suddenly came on, and he himself said, "Great that you're saving electricity. I brought something to eat. Yogurt and vegetables on a new plastic plate. That's okay, isn't it? Then, Rivka, you should take Mother to Osnat's room. It's empty. She must be tired."
In the room that led out to the darkening fields, Victoria tried to get things straight in her heart. But years of dreariness had dulled her edge and yet she already knew: she wouldn't bring her daughter back to Jerusalem by her hair.
"Why did it take you half a year to come here?" Rivka asked.
"Your papa didn't want me to come."
"And you, you don't have a will of your own?" Victoria had no answer.
When Dubi came to take her to the dining hall, she poured all her rage on him, and yet she was drawn to him, which only served to increase her wrath.
"What's this `Dubi'? What kind of name is that?" Anger pulled words out of her mouth.
"It's Dov, after my mother's father. The Germans killed him in the war."
"That's a good name for a baby, Dov?" She hardened her heart against him.
"I don't mind." He shrugged, and then stopped and said with comic seriousness, "But if you do---I'll change it tomorrow." She strained to keep from laughing.
In the evening, the two of them sat at the table with their eyes on Rivka as if she were all alone in the big hall, while she made the rounds with a serving cart, asking people what they wanted.
"You want something else to drink, Mother?" she heard him ask. She queried angrily, "You call me `Mother.' What kind of mother am I to you?"
"I'm dying for you to be my mother."
"Really? So, who's stopping you?" she asked, and her sister Sara's mischievousness crept into her voice.
"How is she stopping you?"
"She doesn't want to be my wife."
"My daughter doesn't want to get married. That's what you're telling me?"
As she was struggling with what he had said, he started telling her about the apple orchard he was growing. An American scientist who grew apples in the Nevada desert had sent him special seeds. You plant them in tin cans full of organic fertilizer and they grow into trees as high as a baby, with little roots, and sometimes they produce fruit in the summer like a tree in the Garden of Eden. "Apples love the cold," he explained as their eyes wandered after Rivka, "and at night, you have to open the plastic sheets and let the desert cold in. At dawn, you have to close the sheets to preserve the cold air and keep the heat out."
"Really," she muttered, hearing these words now and thinking about what he had said before. Meanwhile, somebody came to her and said, "You're Rivka's mother? Congratulations on such a daughter." And suddenly her heart swelled within her.
Then she remembered something that resurfaced from distant days and dimensions. She was fifteen years old. On Saturdays in the synagogue, she used to exchange glances with Moshe Elkayam, the goldsmith's son, and then she would lower her eyes to the floor. In the women's section, she would push up to the wooden lattice to see his hands that worked with silver and gold and precious stones. Something grew between them without any words, and his sister would smile at her in the street. But when the matchmaker came to talk to her about Shaul Abravanel, she didn't dare hurt her father, who wanted a scholar for a son-in-law.
At night, when Rivka took her back to her room, she asked, "You came to take me back to Jerusalem, didn't you?"
Her mother chose not to answer. After a pause she said, apropos of nothing, "Don't do anything dumb."
"I know what I want."
"Your aunt also knew when she was your age. Look at the kind of life she has now. Goes from house to house like a cat."
"Don't worry about me."
Victoria plucked up her courage: "Is it true what he told me, that you don't want to marry him?"
"That's what he told you?"
"Yes or no?"
"I'm not sure yet."
"Where did you learn that."
"How?" Victoria was amazed.
"I don't want to live like you and Papa."
"Again love!" She beat her thighs with her palms until they trembled--a gesture of rage without the rage. They reached the door. Victoria thought a moment about the bed with patchwork quilt and heard herself asking, "And the special bedtime prayer, do you say that?"
"You don't say the prayer?"
"Only sometimes, silently. So even I don't hear it myself," said Rivka. She laughed and kissed her mother on the cheek. Then she said: "Don't get scared if you hear jackals. Good night." Like a mother soothing her child.
Facing the bare sand dunes stretching soft lines within the window frame, as into the frame of a picture, Victoria said a fervent prayer, for both of them, her and Rivka. Her heart was both heavy and light, "... Let not my thoughts trouble me, nor evil dreams, nor evil fancies, but let my rest be perfect before Thee ..."
And at night she dreamed.
In the dream a man approaches a white curtain and she sees him from behind. The man moves the curtain aside and the trees of the Garden of Eden are in front of him: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge and beautiful trees in cans of organic fertilizer. The man goes to the apple tree, laden with fruit, and the fruit drops off and rolls into his hands and, suddenly, the fruit is small and turns into stones. And Victoria sees handfuls of precious stones and gold and silver in his white fingers. Suddenly the man turns around, and it's Moshe Elkayam, the goldsmith's son, and his hair is in flames.
All the way back to Sha'arei Hesed she sat, her eyes still clutching at their rage but her heart already reconciled, her basket at her feet and, on her lap, a sack of apples hard as stones that Dubi gave her. She remembered her daughter asking, "You see that everything's fine, right?"--her fingers on her mother's cheek; and Dubi's voice saying, "It'll be fine, Mother."
All the way, she pondered what she would tell her husband and her sister. Maybe she would sit them down and tell them exactly what happened to her. When the bus passed the junction, she considered it. How could she describe to her sister, who had never known a man, or to her husband, who had never touched her with love--how could she describe the boy's eyes on her daughter's face? When the mountains of Jerusalem appeared in the distance, she knew what she would do.
From her sister, who could read her mind, she wouldn't keep a secret. She'd pull her kerchief aside, put her mouth up to her ear, like when they were children, and whisper, "Sarike, we've spent our lives alone, you without a husband and me with one. My little daughter taught me something. And us, remember how we thought she was a bit backward, God forbid? How I used to cry over her? No beauty, no grace, no intelligence or talent, and as tall as Og, King of Bashan. He wanted to marry her off to Yekutiel and they were doing us a favor, like Abravanel's daughter wasn't good enough for them. Just look at her now." Here she would turn her face to the side and spit spiritedly against the evil eye. "Milk and honey. Smart, too. And laughing all the time. Maybe, with God's help, we'll see joy from her."
And to her husband, who never read her heart, she would give apples in honey, put both hands on her hips and say, "We don't have to worry about Rivka. She's happy there, thank God. We'll hear good tidings from her soon. Now, taste that and tell me: apples that bloom in summer and are put in organic fertilizer and their roots stay small--did you ever hear of such a thing in your life?"
Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav