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HE HAD tried to explain for his sons the sense of mountains so high, sharp, and bare that winds blew ice into waves and silver crowns, of air so thin and cold it tattooed the skin and lungs with the blue of heaven and the bronze of sunshining rock crevasse. He had tried to tell them of the house in which he had lived, made of mountain rock, with terraces, and ten fires within-when shutters were thrown open and hit the stone like the report of a shell in an echoing valley he could see mountains of white ice two hundred miles distant. The eggs there were milk-white, the milk like cloud. In winter it often snowed in one day enough to trap and kill horses and bulls. He had been a sawyer, guiding his saws through countless timbers all day long in the open air, so that his body was as intensely powerful as (he would say) gunpowder in a brass casing. Then, when he was younger and worked at the timbers, he could by the pressure of his hands and arms break a heavy iron chain. And there was not much else, at least as he thought of it twenty and more years later. These things were so deep and wonderful that they could bear telling a thousand times a thousand times. But he could not say them even once to his sons, for they did not know Persian, which he had almost forgotten, and his Hebrew was of the shacks and hot streets and blood-guttered markets.
This life of his came to be like the fall of an angel, and yet by the tenets of his belief he believed himself lucky. He had come alone from Persia's mountainous north, where the air was cross-currented and symphonically clear, to Tel Aviv where air was obsolete and the entire city heated like potters' kilns in Iran. When in late 1948 he had stepped off a small ship in Jaffa, he had said to himself, Najime, it will be profitable to find the large oven which heats up the city, for there they are undoubtedly drying vast amounts of wood, and may need me to saw. For several hours he had glided about the city in his boots of fur and leather asking passers-by in Persian, "Where is the great oven?" The passers-by, obviously ignorant of Persian, jaded by the sight of ambulant wolflike lunatic-looking Persians and Turcomans, would throw up their hands, shrug their shoulders, and say to themselves in Yiddish, He should only not kill me dear God. And Najime would continue on, still in search of the all-pervasive heat.
Instead of his crooked, ancient, and vast stone house with ether forcing its way shrieking through the cracks, and fires flickering, instead of sheepskins and earthenware pitchers of iced white wine, instead of the little synagogue where sawyers, sheepherders, and merchants watched the sun rise golden from a cradle of distant mountains and light gold chains coming triangularly from the ceiling, instead of tall candles, and contests of strength in the bitter cold, he found a tin shack almost melting, filthy sacks for a bed, no breeze, rationed food, a synagogue of brown Yemenites and Moroccans who were softer and soaking in Arabic and the desert and knowing a God who possessed another face than his rugged, whistling, clean, and mystic God of altitudes, hunters, and eagles' flight. That was the angel's fall, and he often inflated himself with longing, letting the remaining Persian words circle around by themselves in his head, reluctant to talk to others whose dialects were not the same.
But his balance on the scaffolded logs had long before taught him of polarities, and he was well aware of the blessings of his situation. To his eldest son Yacov he had often said, There is plenty of balance here for what was lost. Of course he knew that the boy, knowing no other country, brought up as it were in a sewing box, would never sense except in the airy sadness of dreams what Persia had been like, and that since he had become a sergeant in the army and had been in battles he had learned his own lessons and only tolerated his strange father, although he loved him, for his father was a rough peasant who had walked halfway across Asia from deep in the past, and the young man already had a small car and a telephone of his own. But Najime went on anyway, as he often did, saying, "There are two main things which balance out the loss, two main things. The first is that I have come to a Jewish country where I can live as a Jew (although you know I lived as a Jew there too), and have helped to build the third commonwealth, a new land for us. The soldiers I see are our soldiers, and that is good, and Hebrew is our language. That is good." He stopped, beaming, and poured himself a glass of grapefruit juice from an old bottle. His son looked at him with an habitual incredulousness.
"Nu?" said the stocky ex-sergeant. "And...?"
"That's all," said Najime, "what else?"
"What is the second reason? You said there were two."
"I can't tell you."
"I can't say."
"Nonsense," said Yacov, slamming the table with his fist. "You always say there are two reasons and then give only one."
"I know," said Najime, strangely upset, then retreating into his thoughts and memories like an old man.
"You are not such an old man, you know. You can't do this. What is the second reason? I know. You can't tell me."
They had had this exchange a hundred times a hundred times, and always with the same result. But once at a wedding Najime had consumed three bottles of wine. Then when his son had pressed him for the second reason he had blurted out, "Because I saw the Devil, and he had fur in his eyes." He had started to shake, and the boy in the new uniform had seen the hair on his father's arms and neck stand up. What did he mean? Certainly he had not seen the Devil. But from then on he would elaborate no further, and any inquiry about (directly) the Devil, or (indirectly in order, he thought, subtly to pry out the secret) the strange condition of having fur in the eyes, brought Yacov a hard slap in the face and a long stream of expletives in mountain Persian.
And so they had continued to live out their lives in the Ha Tikva Quarter, a place where all the functions of human existence combined ungraciously and people were struck like bells in no chorus, camel bells upset and sad but active in contrast to the still green palms, a tree with a lisp in the wind and infinite patience, variegated sun shadows, shelterer of doves, the green rafters of Tel Aviv. All this in the Ha Tikva was sometimes struck down by the Hamsin, and more significantly, sometimes blown onto another course by winds of war and death and change. And at these times the inhabitants paused in the struggle, and very like sailors on a coasting ship breaching a passage of high cliffs and tumultuous blue-green waters into an unknown gulf or sea, waited for the change, marking a point in their lives, aware of time and their part in it. And one day this violent wind was blowing through Ha Tikva, at least for Najime and his son.
Najime was sitting on his chair, listening to the BBC Arabic service (of which he understood nothing) and looking out onto the street. In the distance he saw the tops of a few skyscrapers, and closer, a row of palms which caught a sea breeze never to reach him. Closer still was a series of old concrete buildings which had been built with sea water a generation or more before and which like lepers had been losing bits and pieces ever since. Before him was a street of hard-packed dust lined with sterile date palms, tin shacks, dogs, and chickens. Yacov was sitting in the back of the room cleaning a submachine gun he had stolen from the army. He had its various parts and springs assembled unassembled before him ready to be oiled, and was about to begin work on the magazines when he was startled by the crash of his father's chair.
Najime had crouched like a hunter among the rocks, and was staring out the window, jaw hanging open. "What is it!" screamed Yacov, as he like the trained soldier he was vaulted over the kitchen table to his father's side, wincing in mid-air as he heard the several dozen springs, nuts, and molded pieces of his gun jangle onto the floor.
Copyright © 1975, 1974, 1973, 1969 by Mark Helprin
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