Read an Excerpt
On warm days, a soft smell of milk rises from the walls of my house. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, tiles cover the ground, but from the pores of the walls and the cracks of the floor, the smell rises to me, persists, steals in like the sweat of an ancient love.
Once my house was a cowshed. The house of a horse and a she-ass and a few milk cows. It had a wide wooden door, with an iron bolt across it, concrete troughs, yokes for cattle, jugs, cans, and milking stations.
And a woman lived in the cowshed, she worked and slept in it, dreamed and wept. And on a bed of sacks she gave birth to her son.
Doves walked back and forth on the ridge of the roof, in the remote corners the swallows were fussing over their nests of mud, and the fluttering of their wings was so pleasant I feel it even now, softening the expression on my face, smoothing the wrinkles of age and anger as it rises in my memory.
In the morning, the sun illuminated squares of windows on the walls and gilded the dust particles dancing in the air. Dew gathered on the lids of the jugs and field mice scurried over the bundles of straw like small gray lightning bolts.
The she-ass, my mother told me, because she wanted to preserve the memories in me, was wild and very wise, and even in her sleep she would kick, and when you wanted to ride on her back, Zayde, she would gallop to the door, bow down, and pass under the bar of the bolt, and if you didn’t jump off her back in time, Zayde meyn kind, the iron bar hit your chest and brought you down. The she- ass also knew how to steal barley from the horse and how to laugh out loud and how to rap on the door of the house with her hoof to get some candy.
And a mighty eucalyptus tree rose up in the yard, its boughs wide, fragrant, and always rustling. No one knew who had planted it or what wind had borne its seed. Bigger and older than all its brothers in the nearby eucalyptus forest, it stood in its place and waited long before the village was founded. I often climbed it because crows nested in its crest and even then I was observing their ways.
By now my mother is dead and the tree has been cut down and the cowshed has become a house and the crows have taken off and new ones have come, returning to their dust and hatching out of their eggs. And nevertheless, those crows and those stories and that cowshed and that eucalyptus—they’re the anchors, the eternal pictures of my life.
The tree was about sixty feet high, the crows’ nest was close to its crest, and in the thicket of its lower branches you could see the remnants of the “Tarzan hut” of children who climbed up and nested in it before I was born.
In the old aerial photos taken by the British air force and in the stories of the villagers it is clearly visible, but today all that’s left of it is an immense stump, with the date it was cut down seared in it like the date of death on a tombstone: December 10, 1950. Moshe Rabinovitch, the man whose yard I grew up in and whose cowshed I live in, the man who gave me his name and bequeathed me his farm, came back from burying my mother, sharpened his big axe, and put the tree to death.
For three days Rabinovitch chopped down the tree. Over and over again the axe swung up, and over and over again it came down. Around and around the man chopped, moaned and swung, groaned and struck.
A short man, Rabinovitch, taciturn and broad, with thick, short hands. Even today, in old age, the villagers call him “Rabinovitch the Ox” because of his strength and his passivity, and the third generation of children play the “awful bear” with him: in one hand, he holds three thin arms of three children, and shrieking and laughing, they can’t get out of his grip.
Chips and sighs flew, tears and sweat dripped, snowflakes swirled around, and even though differences of opinion erupt here about every memory—they don’t argue in our village about the act of vengeance, and every baby knows the details:
A dozen towels Rabinovitch used to wipe his face and the back of his neck.
Eight axe handles he broke and replaced.
Twenty-four quarts of water and six pots of tea he drank.
Once every half hour, he honed the blade of the axe with the whetstone and a steel file.
Nine loaves of bread with sausage he ate, and one crate of oranges.
Seventeen times he sank onto the snow and sixteen times he got up and went on hitting.
And the whole time, his thirty-two teeth were clamped and his ten fingers were clenched and his weeping breath steamed in the cold, until the great screech of the break was heard, along with the loud sigh of the onlookers, like the murmur that arose in the community center when the lights were turned out, but louder and more scared.
And then the shouts of alarm and the patter of feet fleeing and afterward the clamor of death, and there’s no simile for it except to say the thing itself: the clamor of the fall and death of a big tree, and everyone who heard it will never forget it—the explosion of the splitting and the roar of the fall and the whiplash of the crash to the ground.
Those aren’t like the sounds of a human being’s death, but then the sounds of the life of a tree and of a human being are also different, and they leave behind different silences after they go.
The silence of the hewn tree is a curtain of darkness soon rent by the shouts of people, by the rippling gusts of wind, and by the cries of birds and beasts. And the quiet that filled the world at my mother’s death is thin and clear, and so, lucid and crystal, it stands and doesn’t melt away.
Here it is, with me, next to all the noises of the world. It doesn’t swallow them and they don’t blend with it.
Flikt di mame federn,
federn un pukh,
fun helln-roytn tukh.
I knew that song even before I understood what it means. It tells of a mother plucking feathers to make her son a down quilt with a pink cloth cover.
Many mothers, I imagine, sang that song to their children, and every one put in the name of her own child. “Zaydele” was me. That wasn’t a nickname that stuck to me, but my real name. “Zayde,” which means grandfather, is the name my mother gave me when I was born.
For years I’ve wanted to change it. But I don’t. At first I didn’t have the courage, then I didn’t find the strength, and finally we gave up, my name and I, and we’ve made peace with one another. I was only a few months old when Mother sewed the cover and sang me the song, but even so, I seem to remember those nights well. Winters were cold in Moshe Rabinovitch’s cowshed, while in summer Mother negotiated with our neighbor Eliezer Papish, who raised geese, and in exchange for his goose down, she sewed down quilts for him and his whole family. By the way, we called Eliezer Papish the “Village Papish” to distinguish him from his rich brother, who sold tools and building supplies in Haifa and was called the “City Papish,” and maybe I’ll tell about him, too, later on.
So, my name is Zayde, Zayde Rabinovitch. My mother’s name is Judith, and in the village they called her Rabinovitch’s Judith. A good smell of lemon leaves wafted from her hands and a blue kerchief was always wound around her head. She was hard of hearing in her left ear and she got mad when anyone talked to her on that side.
My father’s name nobody knows. I am illegitimate, and three men claimed me as their son. From Moshe Rabinovitch, I inherited a farm and a cowshed and yellow hair.
From Jacob Sheinfeld I inherited a fine house, fine furnishings, empty canary cages, and drooping shoulders.
And from Globerman the cattle dealer, I inherited a knipele of money and my gigantic feet.
And despite that complication, my name was crueler for me than the circumstances of my birth. I wasn’t the only child in the village or the Valley sired by a father who was unknown or a father that wasn’t his; but in the entire country, maybe even in the world, there wasn’t another child whose name was Zayde. In school they called me Methuselah and “Gramps,” and every time I came home and complained about that name she gave me and wanted to know why, Mother explained simply: “If the Angel of Death comes and sees a little boy named Zayde, Grandfather, he understands right away that there’s a mistake here and he goes to someplace else.”
Since I had no choice, I was convinced that my name protected me against death and I became a child who knew no fear. Even the primeval dreads that reside in the heart of every human being before he’s born were eradicated in me.
Fearlessly, I would hold out my hands to the snakes nesting in the crevices of the chicken coop, and they would watch me, winding their necks inquisitively, and didn’t hurt me.
Often I climbed up on the roof of the cowshed and ran along the steep slope of shingles with my eyes shut. I engaged my heart to approach the village dogs who were always tied up and had become thirsty for blood and revenge, and they wagged their tails amiably at me and licked my hand.
And once, when I was an eight-year-old grandfather, a pair of crows attacked me as I climbed up to their nest. A hard black blow landed on my forehead and I spun around and lost my grip on the branch. Swooning with delight, I dropped down and down. Soft embraces of branches slowed my fall, and my landing was padded by the expected bed of leaves, the soft ground, and my mother’s superstition.
I got up and ran home and Mother applied iodine to my scratches.
“The Angel of Death is an orderly angel. He’s got a pencil, he’s got a notebook, and he writes down everything,” she laughed, the way she laughed whenever I was saved; “but you can’t count on the Malakh-funshlof. That Angel of Sleep never writes down anything and never remembers. Sometimes he comes and sometimes he falls asleep himself and forgets.”