Read an Excerpt
Someone to Run With
A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it. A long rope connects the two and gets tangled in the legs of the passersby, who grumble and gripe, and the boy mutters "Sorry, sorry" again and again. In between mumbled sorries he yells "Stop! Halt!"and to his shame a "Whoa-ah!" escapes from his lips. And the dog keeps running.
It flies on, crossing busy streets, running red lights. Its golden coat disappears before the boy's very eyes and reappears between people's legs, like a secret code. "Slower!" the boy yells, and thinks that if only he knew the dog's name, he could call it and perhaps the dog would stop, or at least slow down. But deep in his heart he knows the dog would keep running, even then. Even if the rope chokes its neck, it'll run until it gets where it's galloping toand don't I wish we were already there and I was rid of him!
All this is happening at a bad time. Assaf, the boy, continues to run ahead while his thoughts remain tangled far behind him. He doesn't want to think them, he needs to concentrate completely on his race after the dog, but he feels them clanging behind him like tin cans. His parents' tripthat's one can. They're flying over the ocean right now, flying for the first time in their liveswhy, why did they have to leave so suddenly, anyway? His older sisterthere's another canand he's simply afraid to think about that one, only trouble can come of it. More cans, little ones and big ones, are clanging, they bang against each other in his mindand at the end of the string drags one that's been following him for two weeks now, and the tinny noise is driving him out of his mind, insisting, shrilly, that he has to fall madly in love with Dafi nowbecause how long are you going to try to put it off? And Assaf knows he has to stop for a minute, has to call these maddening tin followers to order, but the dog has other plans.
Assaf sighs"Hell!"because only a minute before the door opened and he was called in to see the dog, he was so close to identifying the part of himself in which he could fall in love with her, with Dafi. He could actually, finally, feel that spot in himself; he could feel himself suppressing it, refusing it in the depths of his stomach, where a slow, silent voice kept whispering. She's not for you, Dafi, she spends all her time looking for ways to sting and mock everyone, especially you: why do you need to keep up this stupid show, night after night? Then, when he had almost succeeded in silencing that quarrelsome voice, the door of the room in which he had been sitting every day for the last week, from eight to four, opened. There stood Avraham Danokh, skinny and dark and bitter, the assistant manager of the City Sanitation Department. (He was sort of a friend of his father's and got Assaf the job for August.) Danokh told him to get off his ass and come down to the kennels with him, now, because there was finally work for him to do.
Danokh paced the room and started explaining something about a dog. Assaf didn't listen. It usually took him a few seconds to transfer his attention from one situation to another. Now he was dragging after Danokh along the corridors of City Hall, past people who came to pay their bills or their taxes or snitch on the neighbors who built a porch without a license. Following Danokh down the fire stairs, then into the courtyard in back, he tried to decide whether he had already managed to defeat his own last stand against Dafi, whether he knew yet how he would respond today when Roi told him to quit stalling and start acting like a man. Already, in the distance, Assaf heard one strong, persistent bark and wondered why it sounded like that: usually the dogs all barked togethersometimes their chorus would disturb his daydreams on the third floorand now only one was barking. Danokh opened a chain-link gate and, turning to tell Assaf something he couldn't make out over the barks, opened the other gate, and, with a flick of his hand, motioned Assaf down the narrow walkway between the cages.
The sound was unmistakable. It was impossible to think that Danokh had brought Assaf down here for just one dog; eight or nine were penned in separate cages. But only one dog was animated; it was as if it had absorbed the others into its own body, leaving them silent and a bit stunned. The dog wasn't very big, but it was full of strength and savagery and, mainly, despair. Assaf had never seen such despair in a dog; it threw itself against the chain links of its cage again and again, making the entire row shake and rattlethen it would produce a horrifying high wail, a strange cross between a whine and a roar. The other dogs stood, or lay down, watching in silence, in amazement, even respect. Assaf had the strange feeling that if he ever saw a human being behave that way, he would feel compelled to rush up and offer his helpor else leave, so the person could be alone with his sorrow.
In the pauses between barks and slams against the cage, Danokh spoke quietly and quickly: one of the inspectors had found the dog the day before yesterday, running through the center of town near Tziyyon Square. At first the vet thought it was in the early stage of rabies, but there were no further signs of disease: apart from the dirt and a few minor injuries, the dog was in perfect health. Assaf noticed that Danokh spoke out of the corner of his mouth, as if he were trying to keep the dog from knowing it was being talked about. "He's been like that for forty-eight hours now," Danokh whispered, "and still not out of batteries. Some animal, huh?" he added, stretching nervously as the dog stared at him. "It's not just a street dog." "But whose is it?" Assaf asked, stepping back as the dog threw itself against the metal mesh, rocking the cage. "That's it, exactly," Danokh responded nasally, scratching his head, "that's what you have to find out." "Me? How me?" Assaf quavered. "Where will I find him?" Danokh said that as soon as this kalbhe called it a kalb, using Arabiccalms down a little, we'll ask him. Assaf looked at him, puzzled, and Danokh said, "We'll simply do what we always do in such cases: we tie a rope to the dog and let it walk for a while, an hour or two, and it will lead you itself, straight and steady, to its owner."
Assaf thought he was jokingwho had ever heard of such a thing? But Danokh took a folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and said it was very important, before he gave the dog back, for the owners to sign the form. Form 76. Put it in your pocketand don't lose it (because, to tell the truth, you seem a little out to lunch). And most important, you have to explain to the esteemed master of this dog that a fine is included. A settlement of one hundred and fifty shekels or a trialand he'd better pay up. First of all, he neglected to watch his dog, and maybe that will teach him a lesson to be more careful next time, and second, as a minimal compensation (Danokh enjoyed sucking, mockingly, on every syllable) for the headache and hassle he had caused City Hall, not to mention the waste of time of such superb human resources! With that, he tapped Assaf on the shoulder a little too hard and said that after he found the dog's owners, he could return to his room in the Water Department and continue to scratch his head at the taxpayers' expense until the end of his summer vacation.
"But how am I ..." Assaf objected. "Look at it ... It's like, crazy ..."
But then it happened: the dog heard Assaf's voice and stood still. It stopped running back and forth in the cage, approached the wire mesh, and looked at Assaf. Its ribs were still heaving, but it moved more slowly. Its eyes were dark and seemed to focus intensely on him. It cocked its head to the side, as if to get a better look at him, and Assaf thought that the dog was about to open its mouth right then and say in a completely human voice, Oh yeah? You're not exactly a model of sanity yourself.
It lay on its stomach, the dog; it lowered its head, and its front legs slipped under the metal grid, begging with a digging motion, and out of its throat a new voice emerged, thin-and delicate like the cry of a puppy, or a little boy.
Assaf bent in front of it, from the other side of the cage. He didn't notice what he was doingeven Danokh, a hard man, who had arranged the job for Assaf without much enthusiasm, smiled a thin smile when he saw the way Assaf got down on his knees at the blink of an eye. Assaf looked at the dog and spoke quietly to it. "Who do you belong to?" he asked. "What happened to you? Why are you going so crazy?" He spoke slowly, leaving room for answers, not embarrassing the dog by looking into its eyes for too long. He knewhis sister Reli's boyfriend had taught himthe difference between talking at a dog and talking with a dog. The dog was breathing fast, lying down. Now, for the first time, it seemed tired, exhausted, and it looked a lot smaller than before. The kennels finally fell silent, and the other dogs began moving again, as if coming back to life. Assaf put his finger through one of the holes and touched the dog's head. It didn't move. Assaf scratched its head, the matted, dirty fur. The dog began to whine, frightened, persistent, as if it had to unburden itself to someone right away, as if it could no longer keep silent. Its red tongue trembled. Its eyes grew large and expressive.
Assaf didn't argue with Danokh after that. Danokh took advantage of the dog's momentary calm: he entered the cage and tied a long rope to the orange collar hidden in its thick fur.
"Go on, take it," Danokh ordered. "Now it'll go with you like a doll." Danokh jumped back when the dog leaped up and out of the cage, instantly shaking off its fatigue and silent surrender. It looked right and left with fresh nervousness and sniffed the air as if it were listening for a distant voice. "See? You guys already get along great," Danokh said, trying to convince Assaf and himself. "You just watch out for yourself in the cityI promised your dad." The last words were thick in his throat.
The dog was now focused and tense. Its face sharpened, for a moment it was almost wolflike. "Listen," Danokh mumbled with misgiving, "is it okay to send you out like this?" Assaf didn't answer, only stared in astonishment at the change in the dog once it was free. Danokh tapped his shoulder again. "You're a strong kid. Look at you. You're taller than me and your father. You can control it, right?" Assaf wanted to ask what he should do if the dog refused to lead him to its owners, how long he should walk after it (the three lunchtime sandwiches were waiting for him in his desk drawer). What if, for instance, the dog had had a fight with the owners and had no intention of going back to its home
Assaf did not ask those questions at the time, or at any other time. He did not return to meet Danokh that day, nor would he return over the next few days. Sometimes it is so easy to determine the exact moment when somethingAssaf's life, for instancestarts to change, irreversibly, forever.
The moment Assaf's hand clutched the rope, the dog uprooted itself with an amplified leap and pulled Assaf with it. Danokh raised his hand in fright, managed to take a step or two after his hijacked employee, even started running after him. It was useless. Assaf was already being tugged outside City Hall, forced to stumble down the stairs. He broke into the streets, later smashed into a parked car, a garbage can, the people passing by. He ran ...
The big hairy tail wags energetically before his eyes, sweeping aside people and cars, and Assaf follows after it, hypnotized. Sometimes the dog stops for a minute, raises its head, sniffing, then turns down a side street, sweeping along its way, running. It looks as if it knows exactly where it's going, in which case this race will end very soon. The dog will find its home and Assaf will turn it over to its owners, and good riddance. But while it runs, Assaf starts to think about what he will do if the dog's owner doesn't agree to pay the fine. Assaf will say, "Mister, my job doesn't allow me any flexibility in this matter. Either you pay or you go to court!" The man will start to argue, and Assaf is already answering him with convincing responses, running and mumbling in his heart, pursing his lips decisively, and knowing all too well it will never work. Arguing has never been his strong suit. Eventually, it always becomes more convenient for him to give in and not make a fuss. This is exactly why he gives in to Roi, night after night, in the matter of Dafi Kaplanjust to keep from making a fuss. He thinks about it and sees Dafi in front of him, long and lean, and hates himself for his weakness, and notices that a tall man with bushy eyebrows and a white chef's hat is asking him a question.
Assaf appears confusedDafi's face, very pale, with a permanent mocking gaze and transparent lizard eyelids, is morphing into a different face, fat and grumpy. Assaf quickly focuses his eyes and sees a narrow room in front of him, dug into the wall, a searing oven in its depths. Apparently the dog has decided, for some reason, to make a stop at a small pizzeria, and the pizza man bends over the counter and asks Assaf again, for the second, or perhaps the third, time, about a young lady. "Where is she?" he asks. "She disappeared on uswe haven't seen her for a month now." Assaf glances around, perhaps the pizza man is talking to someone standing behind himbut no, the pizza man is talking to him, inquiring as to whether she is his sister or his girlfriend, and Assaf nods in embarrassment. From his first week of working at City Hall, he's already learned that people who work in the center of town sometimes have their own habits and manner of speakingand a weird sense of humor, too. Perhaps it was because they worked for odd customers and tourists from faraway countries; they got used to speaking as if they were in a sort of theateras if there were always an invisible crowd watching the dialogue. He wants to get away and keep racing after the dog, but the dog decides to sit and looks at the pizza man hopefully, wagging its tail. The man gives it a friendly whistle, as if they're old acquaintances, and with one quick flick, like a basketball playerhis hand behind his back and around his waistthrows a thick slice of cheese, and the dog catches it in the air and swallows it.
And the slice that follows it. And another one. And more.
The pizza man has pearly white eyebrows that look like two wild bushes, and they make Assaf feel scolded and uneasy. The man says he never saw her so hungry. Her? Assaf asks silently, baffled. It never occurred to him until now that the dog was a bitch. He only thought of it as a dog with a dog's speed and strength and decisiveness of motion. Why, in the midst of all this crazy running, in his anger and confusion, there were moments when Assaf liked to imagine that they were a team, him and his dog, sharing between them a silent, manly oath. It all seems even stranger to him to know he was running like this after a bitch.
The pizza man knits the bushes of his eyebrows and stares at Assaf intently, even suspiciously, and asks, "So what, then? She decided to send you instead?" And he begins to spin a flying saucer of dough in the air, throwing and catching expertly, and Assaf nods diagonally, on the border between yes and no. He doesn't want to lie, and the pizza man continues by spreading tomato sauce over the dough, although Assaf doesn't see any other customers there but him. Every once in a while, without looking, the man throws a small piece of cheese over his shoulder, and the bitch who was, until a moment ago, a dog, catches it in the air, as if she had anticipated his movement.
Assaf stands, looking at these two in wonder, at their synchronized dance, trying to understand what, exactly, he is doing there, and what, exactly, he is waiting for. Some question he has to ask the pizza man is floating through his head ... probably something about the young lady who apparently comes here with this dog. But every question that comes to mind seems ridiculous and inextricably tangled with complicated explanations about methods for returning lost dogs, about summer jobs in City Halls. Assaf finally starts to grasp the immense complications of this mission he has been assigned. Because, whatyou can't start asking every person in the street if he knows the owner of the dog. Was that even part of his job? How had he allowed Danokh to send him on such an errand without even trying to object? Quickly Assaf's mind runs through everything he should have told Danokh back in the kennels. Like a cunning, seasoned lawyer, and even with a certain arrogance, he unfolds brilliant arguments against this impossible operation, and simultaneously, as always in such situations, his body shrinks a littlehe plants his head between his wide shoulders and waits.
Inwardly, he feels all mixed upfeels all the irritations, large and small, that had been bottled up inside him explode like tiny sparks of lava. He feels them transformedon his chininto one little burning pimple of anger at Roi, who had succeeded in convincing him to go out tonight, just the four of them, again, for the umpteenth time; who had even taken pains to explain that Assaf would soon realize Dafi was his type exactly, if you consider the inner being and all that. This is what he said, Roi did, giving Assaf a long, concentrated look, a conquering look. Assaf looked at the halo in his eyes, the thin golden halo of mockery that surrounded his pupils, and thought, sadly, that over the years their friendship had become something else. But what would you call it now? Seized by a sudden fear, Assaf had promised he would come, again, tonight, and Roi had patted him on his shoulder again and said, "That's my man." Assaf wished he had the guts to turn around and throw that "inner being" crap back in Roi's face, because all Roi really needs is for Assaf and Dafi to be there as a mirror opposite, to make his and his Maytal's glamour and ease even more apparent as they walk together, kissing every two steps, while Assaf and Dafi drag after them in silent, mutual contempt.
"What's the matter with you?" The pizza man is getting angry. "Somebody's talking to you!"
Assaf sees that the pizza, cut into eight slices, had been packed up in a white cardboard box, and the pizza man says, with special emphasis, as if he is sick of repeating his words, "Look, you got the usual in here: two mushroom-and-onion, one anchovy, one corn, two plain, and two olive. Ride fast so it will get there hot. Forty shekels."
"Ride where?" Assaf asks, in a whisper.
"Don't you have a bike?" The pizza man is surprised. "Your sister, she puts it on her basket. How will you carry it like that? Give me the money first." He reaches a long, hairy arm out to Assaf. Assaf is dumbfounded. He puts his hand in his pocket, and anger rises out of him, boiling through him: his parents left him enough money before they went, but he had planned his expenses to the last detail. Every day he skipped the lunch in the City Hall cafeteria so there would be enough money left to buy another lens for the Canon his parents had promised to bring from America. This unlooked-for expense he is now mixed up in really makes him boil, but he has no choice: the man quite clearly prepared the pizza for him especially, that is, for whoever came here with this dog. If Assaf hadn't been so angry, he probably would have just asked who this dog's girl was; but, probably because of this anger, absorbed by the feeling that someone always determines his actions for him, he pays the man and turns away sharply, in a manner that's supposed to express his indifference toward the money that had been taken from him unjustly. And the dogshe doesn't even wait for the exact emotion to bloom on his face. She starts running again, immediately stretching the rope to its full length, and Assaf sails after her with a silent shout, his face twitching from the effort to balance the large cardboard box in one hand and hang on to the rope with the other. Only a miracle keeps him from getting hurt as he passes through the people on the street. With the box waving high in his outstretched hand, he knowsand has no illusions about itthat right now he looks exactly like a caricature of a waiter. On top of everything, the smell of the pizza is starting to leak out of the box; Assaf has eaten only one sandwich since the morning. Of course, he has the complete and legal right to eat the pizza he is now holding above his headhe paid for every olive and mushroom on it. And yet he feels as if it's not completely his, that, in some way, someone else bought it, and it's for yet another person as welland he doesn't know either of them.
And so that morning, pizza in hand, Assaf crossed through more alleys and streets and ran more red lights. He had never run like this, never broken so many rules at oncepeople honked at him from every direction, stumbled into him, cursed and screamed; but after a few moments this ceased to bother him, and step by step his anger at himself washed away. Because, in some unexpected way, he became completely free out there, out of that stuffy, boring office: free from all the small and large troubles that had burdened him in the past few days, wild like a star that had broken free of its orbit, crossing the sky and leaving a trail of sparks behind. After that, he stopped thinking, stopped hearing the roar of the world around him; he was only his feet pounding on the pavement, his heart beating, his rhythmic breath. And even though he wasn't an adventurer by naturethe opposite, if anythinghe was filled with a new, mysterious feeling. The pleasure of running toward the unknown. And deep inside him, a thought started bouncing like a good ball, supple and full of air, the happy thoughtI hope it doesn't ever end.
A month before Assaf and the dog metthirty-one days before, to be preciseon a curving side road above one of the valleys surrounding Jerusalem, a girl stepped off a bus, a small, delicate girl. Her face could hardly be seen under the mane of her curly black hair. She went down the steps, stumbling under the weight of a huge backpack hanging from her shoulders. The driver asked, hesitantly, if she needed help, and she, recoiling at his voice, shrank a little, bit her lips, and shook her head: no.
Afterward, she waited in the empty station until the bus was far away. She continued to wait, even after it had already disappeared behind the bend in the road. She stood, almost without moving, glanced left, glanced right, looking again and again, a ring of light flashing every time the afternoon sun hit the blue earring in her ear.
Next to the station sat a rusty gasoline drum, pierced with holes; an old cardboard sign was attached to an electric pole: TO SIGI AND MOTI'S WEDDING, with an arrow pointing to the sky. The girl looked both ways one last time and saw that she was alone. There weren't even any cars passing along the narrow road. She turned around slowly, passing the shade of the bus stop, now watching the valley at her feet. She made sure her head didn't move, but her eyes swept back and forth, scanning the view.
At a glance, anyone would have thought she was a girl going on a little hike. This is exactly what she wanted to look like. But if a car had passed by, the driver might have wondered, for just a second, why a girl was going into this valley by herself; or perhaps another disturbing thought might have occurred to himwhy it was that a girl going for a little afternoon outing in a valley so close to the city was carrying such a heavy backpack, as if she were ready to sail away on a long journey. But no driver passed by, and there was no one else in the valley. She went down through the yellow mustard flowers, between rocks warm to the touch, and disappeared into terebinth and great burnet bushes. She walked quickly, on the verge of falling at every moment because of the weight of the bag, which tipped and made her teeter back and forth. Her wild hair waved around her face, her mouth still tight with the same decisive, hard tension she had used in refusing the bus driver's help. She was panting hard after a little while, her heart pounding quickly. The bad thoughts were spinning out of control; this was the last time she'd be coming here by herself, she thought. The next time, the next time
If there was a next time.
Now she had reached the creek bed at the bottom of the valley, glancing at the slopes as if enjoying the view. She followed the flight of a jay, bewitched, scanning, with its help, the whole arc of the horizon. Here, for example, was a part of the path where she was completely exposedsomebody standing up on the road by the station would now be able to see her.
Perhaps he had noticed that she had come down here yesterday, and the day before as well.
At least ten times in the past month.
And could trap her here the next time she came back
There will be, there will be a next time, she repeated with effort, and tried not to think about what would happen to her between now and then.
When, stopping for the last time, she squatted down, as if to fasten the buckle of her sandals, she didn't move for two whole minutes. She checked every rock, every tree and bush.
And then she was no more, she simply vanished, like magic. Even if somebody had been following her, he wouldn't have understood what happened: a moment ago, she was sitting there, had finally taken the bag off her shoulders, leaned back on it, inhaledand now the wind moved through the bushes and the valley was empty.
She ran through the lower basin, the hidden one, trying to get the rolling bag in front of her, moving like a soft rock, smashing oats and thornbushes. It was stopped only by the trunk of the terebinth tree; the tree moved and dry gallnuts dropped from it, crumbling into fragments of reddish brown.
Out of the side pocket of the bag she took a flashlight and, with a practiced motion, pushed a few dry, uprooted bushes aside, exposing a low opening like the door to a dwarf's house. Two or three steps in a crouch, ears pricked and eyes wide to hear and to see every motion and shadow. She sniffed like an animal. Every cell in her skin wide open so she could read the darkness: Had anyone visited here since yesterday? Would one of the shadows suddenly detach itself and attack her?
The cave unexpectedly widened, became tall and roomy. You could stand, even walk a few steps from wall to wall. A faint light was leaking in from an opening somewhere in the ceiling of the cave, covered by thick bushes.
Quickly she poured the contents of the bag out onto a rag. Cans, a pack of candles, plastic cups, plates, matches, batteries, another pair of pants and another shirt she had decided to add at the last minute, a foam water cooler, rolls of toilet paper, crossword puzzle booklets, packs of chocolate, Winston cigarettes ... the bag was growing emptier and emptier. She had bought the cans of food this afternoon. She went all the way to Ramat Eshkol so she wouldn't see anyone she knew. Still, she ran into a woman who used to work with her mother in the jewelry store at the King David Hotel; the woman spoke kindly to her, and when she asked why Tamar was buying so many cans of food, Tamar said, without blushing, that she was going on a trip tomorrow.
Moving quickly, she arranged and organized what she had brought, counted the bottles of mineral waterthe most important thing was water. She had over fifty liters there already. That would do. It had to be enough for the whole time, the days and nights. The nights would be the hardest, and she would need a lot of water. She swept the place again, for the last time swept the sand from the stone floor, tried to imagine herself at home here. Once, a million years agountil about a month ago, at leastthis was her most beloved hiding place. Now the thought of what was waiting for her here was twisting her guts.
She laid a thick mattress by the wall and lay down on it to see whether it was comfortable. Even when she was lying down, she didn't allow herself to relaxher brain buzzed constantly. What would it be like when she brought him here, to her six-hundred-square-foot forest, to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe? What would become of her in this place, with him, alone?
On the wall above her, the players of Manchester United shone with happiness after winning the Cup. A little surprise she'd prepared to make him happy, if he noticed at all. She smiled to herself unconsciously, and with the smile, the bad thoughts returned, and fear again shrank into a fist, clenched in her stomach.
What if I'm making a terrible mistake? she thought.
She got up and paced from wall to wall, clutching her hands forcibly against her chest. He will lie here, on this mattress, and here, on the folding plastic chair, she will sit. She prepared a thin mattress for herself as well, but she had no illusions: she wouldn't be able to shut her eyes for even a moment during all those days. Three, four, five days like thatthat's what the toothless man in Independence Park had warned her about. "Take your eyes off him for one minute and he'll run on you." She had stared, depressed, into the empty mouth that sniggered at her, into the eyes that ogled her body and especially the twenty-shekel bill she held in front of him. "Explain," she demanded, trying to hide the trembling in her voice, "just what you mean by 'run on me.' Why should he run?" And he, in his filthy striped gown, cradling himself in a matted fur blanket in spite of the heat, laughed at her innocence. "You ever hear about that magician, sister? The one who could escape, no matter how they locked him up? That's exactly how it's going to be with him. Put him in a box with a hundred locks, in a bank safe, in his mother's belly, and he has to run. Guaranteed. Can't control it. Even the law can't help."
She had no clue how she would be able to stand that. Maybe, when she was here with him, strange new powers would awaken in her. She could count only on that now, on such faint hopes. It didn't matter, everything was faint and hopeless anyway; if she started thinking about her chances, she'd collapse in despair. The fear swept over her, shook her in the little cavedon't think, just don't think logically, she was going to have to be a little crazy now, like a soldier on a suicide mission who doesn't think about what might happen to him. She checked the food supplies again, for the tenth time maybe, calculated once more whether the food would do for all the days and nights. Sat on the folding chair in front of the mattress and tried to imagine what it would be like, what he would tell her, how he would hate her more and more from hour to hour, what he would try to do to her. The thought made her jumpy again. She ran to the hole in the back of the cave and checked over the bandages, the iodine, the dressings. She couldn't calm down, moved a big stone aside, exposing a flat wooden board. Under it, in a little hole dug in the ground, were placed, side by side, a little electric cattle prod and handcuffs.
I'm completely insane, she thought.
Before she left, she stopped and cast another glance over the place she had been preparing and equipping for a whole month. At one time, perhaps hundreds of years ago, people had lived here. She'd found signs of it. Animals lived here, too. And now it was going to be home to him and her, and an asylum, and a hospital, she thought. And, especially, a jail. Enough. She had to go.
And a month later a boy and a dog ran through the streets of Jerusalem, strangers tied to each other by one rope, as if refusing to admit they were really together. Still, as if casually, they were starting to learn little things about each other. How ears prick up in moments of excitementthe power of shoes pounding against asphaltthe smell of sweatall the emotions a tail can expresshow much strength there was in the hand holding the rope, and how much yearning in the body pulling it forward ... They had already escaped the busy thoroughfare, going deeper into narrow, curving alleyways, and the dog still didn't slow down. Assaf imagined that a huge magnet was pulling her, and a strange notion passed through him, that if only he could stop thinking, completely negate his own willpower, he, too, might be sucked toward that place with her. A moment or two later, he was jolted awake, because the dog had stopped in front of a green gate set into a high stone wall, and in a graceful motion, she stood on her hind legs, pushed the metal handle with her paws, and opened it. Assaf looked right and left. The street was empty. The dog breathed and pushed forward. He entered after her and was at once wrapped in a profound silence, the silence of the bottom of the sea.
Covered with snow-white pebbles.
Fruit trees planted in rows.
A round stone house, big and squat.
Assaf walked slowly, cautiously. His steps squeaked against the pebbles. He was surprised by how such a beautiful, wide space could be hidden so close to the center of the city. He passed a round well; a shiny bucket was tied to the well by a rope, a few big clay mugs sat on a nearby tree stump, as if waiting for someone to drink from them. Assaf peeped into the well, threw a small stone, and only after a long moment heard the little hiccup of the water. Not far from the well, smothered in thick grapevines, was a shelter, and under it, five rows of benches. Five large stones stood in front of every bench, each chiseled into a kind of pillow on which to rest tired feet.
He stopped and looked at the stone house. A plant with purple flowers crisscrossed the walls, covering them, climbing all the way up the tall tower that rose above the house, and cascading at the feet of a cross at its top.
It's a church, he thought, surprised. The dog apparently belonged to the church. That's it, she's probably a church dog here, he thought, trying to convince himself, and, for a moment, he managed to picture the streets of Jerusalem filled with lots of agitated church dogs.
The dog picked up her pace, pulling him to the back of the house without hesitating, as if this really were her home. A little arched window was set into the top of the tower, like an open eye in the heart of the bougainvillea. The dog lifted her head to the sky and produced a few short, strong barks.
At first nothing happened. Then Assaf heard the squeak of a chair from above, from the top of the tower. Someone up there movedthe little window openedand an excited shout escaped, a woman's voiceor a man's, it was hard to tell. The voice creaked as if it hadn't been used in a long timeone word escaped, perhaps the dog's name. The dog barked and barked, and the voice from above called her again, sharp and amazed, as if not believing its good fortune. Assaf thought that his little journey with the dog was about to come to an end, she would be going back home to the tenant at the top of the tower. It was over so quickly. He waited for someone to peep out from the window and tell him to come up, but instead of a face, a hand emerged, dark and slenderfor a moment he thought it was a child's handthen a little wooden basket appeared, tied to a rope, and the rope descended. The basket swayed at its end, a little airborne bulrush basket, all the way down, until it stopped right in front of his face.
The dog was nearly out of her mind with excitementthe entire time the basket descended, she barked and pawed at the ground, and rushed to the door of the church and back to Assaf. In the basket Assaf found a big, heavy metal key. He hesitated for a moment. A key meant a door. What was waiting for him beyond? (From one viewpoint, he was just the right person to handle this job. He had, behind him, hundreds of hours of training, preparing him for exactly this kind of situation: big metal key, tall tower, mysterious fortress ... also, a magic sword, a bewitched ring, a treasure chest, and a greedy dragon watching over it. And almost always three doors, and you have to choose which one you'll enterbehind two of them lie a variety of deaths and torments.) But here there was only one key and one door, so Assaf followed the dog to the door and opened it.
He stood on the edge of a large, dark hall; he was hoping that the proprietor would come down to him from the tower, but no one came, and no steps were heard. He entered. The door closed slowly behind him. He waited. The outlines of the hall began to paint themselves out of the darkness: a few high cupboards, chests and tables, and books, thousands of books, covering the full width of the walls, on shelves, on top of the cupboards, on the tables, and piled up on the floor. Huge bundles of newspapers were stacked next to them, tied with twine, each labeled with a little slip of paper1955, 1957, 1960 ... The dog started pulling again, and he was dragged after her. He spotted children's books on one shelf, and was confused and even alarmedwhat were children's books doing here? Since when do priests and monks read children's books?
He swerved around a big square box in the center of the hallperhaps an ancient sarcophagus. Perhaps an altar. He could imagine hearing the sound of motion from above, soft and quick steps, even the clink of forks and knives. Paintings of men in robes hung on the walls, halos of light shining above their heads; their eyes, full of chastisements, fixed on Assaf as he passed.
The big space of the hall echoed around him and the dog, doubling their every motion, each breath, each scratch of nails on the floor. She pulled him toward a wooden door at the end of the hall. He tried to pull her backhe had some sharp intuition that this was his last chance to escape, and possibly to be saved from something. The dog had no more patience for his fear; she smelled someone she loved. The smell was about to become a body, a touch, and she yearned for it in all the depths of her doghoodthe rope stretched and trembled, she reached the door, stood and scratched at it with her nails and whined. When she stood this way, on her hind legs, she was almost as tall as he was, and under the dirt and matted fur, he noticed again how beautiful and supple she was. His heart contractedhe hadn't had time to get to know her. All his life he'd wanted a dog and begged his parents to let him have one, knowing that there was no chance because of his mother's asthma. Now it was as if he had a dogbut so briefly, and only while running.
What am I doing here? he asked himself, and turned the knob. The door opened. He was standing in a corridor that curved around and probably encircled the entire church. I shouldn't be here, he thought, and started running after the dog as it leaped forward, passing three more closed doors, blowing like the wind between thick, white-painted walls. He reached a tall flight of stone stairs. If anything happens to me, he thoughtand in his mind he saw the captain gloomily leaving the cockpit, going to his parents and whispering something in their earsno one in the world would ever think of looking for me here.
Above him, at the top of the stairs, another door. Small and blue. The dog barked and whined, almost talked, and sniffed and scratched under the crack. Behind the door rose noises of joy and delight that sounded to him a bit like a chicken clucking, and someone inside, in a strange, old-fashioned dialect, "Wait, my darling! The gate shall open soon, my heart's delight, there, there."
A key turned in the lock, and the moment the door had opened a crack, the dog shot in, storming whoever was inside, leaving Assaf outside, behind the closing door. He felt disappointedit always ended this way, somehow. In the end, he was always the one left behind a closed door. And just because of that, this time he daredpushed the door a little and peeped inside. He saw a back bending over and a long braid emerging from a round black knit cap. For a split second he thought it was a child with a braid, a girl, tiny and skinny, in a gray robe. But then he saw it was a woman, a little old woman, laughing and burying her face in the dog's neck, petting her with slender hands, speaking to her in an unknown language. Because he didn't want to interrupt, Assaf waited, until the woman pushed the dog away, laughing, and cried out, "Well, my scandalyarisa, enough, enough! You must allow me to receive Tamar as well!" and turned back, and the wide smile on her face suddenly froze.
"But who?" She was taken aback. "Who are you?" she groaned, and her hands hovered at the collar of her robe, her face twisted in a mixture of disappointment and fear. "And what are you doing here?"
Assaf thought for a moment. "I don't know," he said.
The nun was further taken aback and pressed up against the wall of bookshelves. The dog stood between her and Assaf, looking back and forth at them, licking her mouth in embarrassed misery. Assaf could imagine the dog was disappointed as well, that she hadn't brought him here expecting this meeting.
"Excuse me, uhI really don't know what I'm doing here," Assaf repeated, and felt that instead of explaining himself, he was, as usual, only making things more complicated, the way he always did when he had to untangle something with words. He didn't know what to do, to calm the nun down so she wouldn't breathe like that, too quickly, so the wrinkles on her forehead wouldn't quiver so much. "This is pizza," he said gently, signaling, with his eyes, to the box in his hand. He hoped at least this would calm her down, because pizza is simple and has only one meaning. But she pressed herself against the books even more, and Assaf felt his body, big and manly and threatening, and every move he made was the wrong one, and the nun looked so pitiful standing by the shelves, like a tiny, terrified bird, puffing up her feathers to threaten a predator.
Now he noticed the table was set. Two plates and two cups, big iron forks. The nun was expecting a visitor. But he didn't know what could explain such tremendous fear, and such disappointment, really that of a broken heart.
"So ... I'll go," he said cautiously ... but there was also that matter of the form and the fine. He had no idea what to dohow do you say such a thinghow do you ask somebody to pay a fine?
"Go? What do you mean?" the woman wailed. "Where is Tamar? Why hasn't she come?"
"Tamar, Tamar, my Tamar, her Tamar!"
With impatience she pointed at the dog three times, who was watching the conversation with wide eyes, glancing back and forth like a spectator in a Ping-Pong match.
"I don't know her," Assaf mumbled, carefully not committing to anything. "I don't know her, honest."
There was a long silence. Assaf and the nun stared at each other, like two strangers desperately in need of a translator. The dog barked. Both of them blinked as if they had awakened from an enchantment. Assaf pondered, slowly, the thought crawling through his mind: Tamar is probably the same young lady the pizza man was talking about, the one with the bicycle ... maybe she's making deliveries to churches? Well, now everything is clear, he thought, knowing nothing was clear but that it was really no longer his concern.
"Look, I only brought"he put the white cardboard box on the table and immediately stepped back, so she wouldn't think, God forbid, that he intended to eat here as well"the pizza"
"The pizza, the pizza!" the nun exploded in anger. "Say no more about the pizza! I ask about Tamar and he speaks of pizzas! Where did you meet? Speak! Now!"
He stood, lowering his head between his shoulders. Her fear of him quickly evaporated as her questions hit him one after the other. It was as if she were pounding him with her tiny hands. "How can you say that you 'don't know her'? Are you not her friend? Or an acquaintance, or a relative of hers? Won't you look me in the eyes?" He lifted his eyes to her, feeling, for some reason, a little bit like a liar under her piercing gaze. "You mean she didn't send you to me, to make me glad, to put me out of this misery? Waita letter! Of course, I am a foolthere must be a letter!" She grabbed the cardboard box and began to dig through it, lifting the pizza and looking under it, reading the advertisement for the pizza place on the box with strange delight, her little face screwing up as if looking for some clue between the lines.
"Not even a little letter?" she whispered, and nervously fixed her silver hair, which had escaped from under the black knit cap and become disorderly. "At least some message by heart? Something she asked you to remember? Please try, I beg you, it is very important to meshe told you to come and tell me something, didn't she?" Her eyes hung on his mouth, trying to pull the longed-for words from his lips with only the will of her wish. "Perhaps she wished to send word that things went according to plan? That the danger has passed? Is this what she told you? Yes?"
Assaf knew: when he stood like that, he was wearing the expression that once made Reli, his sister, say, "You got lucky with one thing, Assafiwith a face like that, you can only surprise people for the better."
"Just one moment!" The nun's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps you are one of them, God forbid, one of the villains! Speak! Are you one of them? You should know, young man, I am not afraid of you!" She practically stamped her little feet at him, and Assaf was stunned. "What! Now you've swallowed your tongue? Have you hurt her? With these two hands, I will tear you apart if you have touched the child!"
Now the dog broke into a cry, and Assaf, bewildered, knelt beside her, petting her with both his hands; but she continued to whimper, her body trembling with sobs, looking a bit like a child who is trapped in a fight between her parents and can't take it any longer. Assaf actually lay down beside her, lay right down and hugged her, and petted and stroked her, and spoke into her ear, as if he had entirely forgotten where he was, forgotten the place and the nun; only tenderness for the depressed, frightened dog poured out from him. The nun fell silent, looking in wonder at the grown boy, concentrating in that moment, with his serious child's face, the black hair falling over his forehead, the acne on his cheeksand she was moved by what she felt flowing endlessly from his body to the dog.
But at that moment Assaf remembered something. He lifted his head and asked, "Is she a girl?"
"What? Who? Yes, a girlno, a young woman your own age ..." She was searching for her lost voice, freshening her face with light pats of her fingers, watching the way he comforted and appeased the dog, gently, smoothing over the waves of her sobs until he quieted them completely, until the spark of light returned to her brown eyes.
"There, there, you see? Everything is fine," Assaf said to the dog, and stood up, and again retreated into himself a bit when he saw once more where he was and in what kind of trouble he was trapped.
"At the very least, you can explain one thing to me," said the nun, in a voice now full of more than disappointment and sorrow. "If you do not know her, how, then, did you know to bring the Sunday pizza? How did the dog surrender herself to you and let you walk her on a leash? Why, she will not allow such treatment at the hands of anyone in the world, besides Tamar, of course. Or are you, perhaps, a sort of infant Solomon and know the language of the beasts?"
She raised her little sharp chin in front of him, her face demanding an answer, and Assaf, hesitating, told her it wasn't the language of the animals, it was ... how to explain? The truth was, he didn't quite understand everything she was saying, she spoke so energetically and in such odd Hebrew. She especially stressed her consonants and the ends of the syllables, the way old Jerusalemites speak, emphasizing letters Assaf didn't even know should be emphasized. Most of the time, she hardly even waited for his answers, just throwing more and more questions at him.
"But will you finally open your mouth?" she burst out. "Panaghia mou! How long can you remain silent?"
At last he pulled himself together and told her, tersely and succinctly, as he always did, that he was working at City Hall, and this morning
"One moment!" she interrupted him. "You are speaking too quickly now! I do not understandwhy, you are too young to be employed."
Assaf smiled inwardly and told her it was only a summer job, over his vacation, and she responded, "Vacation? To where are you traveling? Tell me quickly, where is this wonderful place?"
So Assaf explained that he meant his summer break. Now it was her turn to smile. "Aaah, you meant your summer recess. Well, well, then, continue, from just before that; please tell me how you managed to obtain such an interesting job."
Assaf was surprised by the questionwhat did that have to do with the dog he brought for her? Why was she so fascinated by the history of what had happened before he came here? But it did seem to interest her. She pulled up a little rocking chair and sat on it, rocking herself gently, her legs slightly parted, hands resting between her knees, and asked him whether he was enjoying his work there. And Assaf said, Not really; he was there to write down residents' complaints about explosions of water pipes in roads and public areas, but most of the time he just sat and dreamed
"Dream?" The nun brightened, as if she had recognized a friend in a place where everyone was a stranger. "Simply sitting, dreaming dreams? For a salary? Aha! Who said you cannot speak? And tell me, what do you dream about?" She knocked her knees against each other in joy. Assaf was very embarrassed and explained to her he wasn't really dreaming, he was just, like, daydreaming, thinking about all kinds of things ... "But what thingsthat is the question!" The nun opened her narrow eyes, now sparkling with something essentially elfish, her face expressing such seriousness and profound interest that it completely confused Assaf, silencing him, because what would he tell herthat he was dreaming about that Dafi, whether he could finally manage to break things off with her and still avoid a quarrel with Roi? He looked at her. Her dark eyes were fixed on his lips, waiting for his words, and for one crazy moment he really thought he would tell her a little. Why not? he thought. Just for the hell of it. She won't be able to understand any of it anyway, thousands of light-years separate my world from hers. Then the nun said, "Yes? Have you gone silent again, my dear? Have your powers of speech suddenly disappeared? God forbid, you should silence a story at its first breath!"
Assaf muttered that it was nothing really, just a silly story. "No, no, no." The little woman clapped her hands. "No such thing as a silly story exists, you should know that. Every story is connected, somewhere, in the depths, to some greater meaning. Even if it is not revealed to us." But this is really a silly story, Assaf insisted seriously, then broke into a smile at the childish, sly way her lips pouted. "Fine," she said, pretending to sigh, and crossed her hands on her chest. "Tell me your silly story, then. But why on earth are you standing? Whoever heard of such a thing?"she looked in amazement around her"the host sitting and the guest standing up!" Quickly she jumped out of her seat and pulled from the shadows a tall chair with a stern, straight back. "Do have a seat, and I will bring out a jar of water and some refreshmentsshall I cut some fresh cucumber and tomato for both of us?"And her tomahto, with the long ah"Why, it isn't every day that we receive such an important guest here, from City Hall! Sit quietly, Dinka, you know you will have some as well."
"Dinka?" asked Assaf. "Is that her name?"
"Yes. Dinka. Tamar calls her Dinkush. And I"she bent to the dog and rubbed noses with her"I call her shrew, and rebel, and dear heart, and my golden fair one, and scandalyarisa, and ever so many more, don't I, my eyes?"
The dog looked at her lovingly, her ears moving every time her name was mentioned. Something unfamiliar, like a light, distant tickle, fluttered inside Assaf as well. Dinka and Tamar, he thought. Tamar's Dinka, and Dinka's Tamar. For the blink of an eye, he saw the two in front of him, cuddling with each other in soft, round completeness. But that really wasn't any of his business, he remembered, forcibly erasing the vision.
"What, what me?"
"What is your name?"
"Assaf, Assaf, a psalm for Assaf ..." she hummed to herself, and hurried to the little kitchen with quick steps, almost skipping. He heard her chopping and humming behind a flowery curtain; she then returned and placed a large glass jar on the table, in which slices of lemon and mint leaves were swimming, and a plate with sliced cucumber and tomato, and also olives and slices of onion and squares of cheese, everything dipped in thick oil. She then sat in front of him, wiped her hands on the apron tied around her robe, and stretched her hand out to him: "Theodora, a native of the isle of Lyxos in Greece. The last citizen of that miserable island now sits to dine with you. Please eat, my son."
Tamar stood for a long moment in front of the little barbershop door in the neighborhood of Rekhavia and didn't dare go in. It was twilight at the end of a relaxed day in July. She had been pacing the sidewalk, back and forth in front of the barbershop, for maybe a whole hour now. She saw her reflection in the glass of the big window and the old barber trimming the hair of three men as old as he was, one after the other. An old man's barbershop, Tamar thought. Suits me. Nobody's going to know me here. Two were now left, waiting their turn: one, reading a newspaper; the other, almost completely baldwhat was he doing here anyway?with watery, bulging eyes, chattered incessantly with the barber. Her hair clung to her back, as if begging for its soul. It had been six years since she had cut her hair, when she was ten. Even during the years when she wanted to forget altogether that she was a girl, she wasn't capable of giving that up. It was a convenient screen for her, and sometimes a little tent to hide in, and sometimes, when it spun around her, wild, full of air, it was her shout of freedom. Every few months, in a rare attack of self-adornment, she would braid it into thick ropes and coil it on top of her head, feeling mature and feminine and restrained, and almost beautiful. Finally, she pushed the door open and entered. The smells of the soap and shampoo and disinfectant greeted her, and the stares of all the people sitting there. A heavy silence fell in the roomshe sat down, bravely ignoring them, and laid the big backpack by her legs. She put the huge black tape recorder on a chair next to her.
"So are you listening"the man with the bug eyes tried, unsuccessfully, to pick up his conversation with the barber"to what she's telling me, my daughter? That they've decided to call my granddaughter, who's just been born, they're going to call her Beverly, and why? Just because. That's what her older sisters want, and"
But his words hung empty in the room, condensing like vapor touching the cold. He went mute with embarrassment, suddenly conscious of his own baldness, as if something were dripping onto it. The men glanced at the girl, and then at one another, their glances quickly weaving strings of agreement. She's not okay, this girl, their looks said, she's not in the right place, and she herself isn't right. The barber worked silently, and once in a while looked in the mirror. He saw her gray-blue eyes, and the knuckles of his fingers went weak.
"Enough, Shimek," he said, in a strangely tired voice, to the man who had gone silent long before. "Tell me later."
Tamar pulled her hair together and brought it in front of her nose and mouth, tasted it, smelled it, and kissed it goodbye, missed it already, its warm touch, the times it had tickled her neck, the weight it had when she pulled it up, the feeling that her hair made her bigger, enlarged her existence and her physical reality in the world.
"Take it all off," she told the barber, when her turn arrived.
"Everything?" His thin voice curled up at its edges in amazement.
"Wouldn't that be a shame?"
"I asked you to take it all off."
The men sitting in the barbershop straightened up. The one called Shimek burst into a choking cough.
"Sweetie," the barber sighed, and a slight vapor misted over his glasses, "maybe it's better for you to go home first and ask your mother and father."
"Tell me," she retorted, all of her being tensed to fight him, "are you a barber or a school counselor?" Their eyes dueled with each other in the mirror. This toughness was new to her as well. She didn't enjoy it, but it was tremendously useful in the places she'd been hanging around lately. "I'm paying for this, aren't I? I asked you to take it all off. End of story."
The barber tried to object: "But this is a man's barbershop."
"Then shave my head," she said irritably. She folded her arms across her chest and closed her eyes.
The barber looked helplessly at the men sitting in the chairs behind her. His eyes said, You're witnessesI tried to persuade her not to cut her hair. From this point on, she is solely responsible for whatever happens! and the men's eyes agreed. He passed his hands over his thin hair and pulled his shoulders back. He then held his big scissors, snipped at the air once or twice; he felt that something in the clacking sound was a little off, it sounded hollow and weak, so he snipped and snapped until it hit the correct pitch, the sound of the joy of his professionthen took one thick curl of hair, wavy and black as coal, sighed, and started cutting.
She didn't open her eyes, not even when he moved to the more delicate scissors, nor later, when he used the electric razor, and not even after that, when he made the last remaining hairs on her neck disappear with a sharp blade. She didn't see the men, focused on her, as one after another they put their newspapers down and leaned forward a little, looking, alternately attracted to and appalled by the too-pink naked skull, like a chick's, becoming exposed. On the floor lay the severed locks, and the barber watched carefully so as not to step on them. The room was pretty warm and stuffy, but she felt the air around her head become cool. Maybe this won't be so bad, she thought, and for a moment a smile passed over her lips. She heard Halina, her old voice teacher, who sometimes scolded her for neglecting herself: "Hair needs attention, too, Tamileh! Treat it well and you are already happier, yes? Why not? You can do ita little conditioner, some creamit's not so terrible to be pretty ..."
"That's it," the barber whispered, and went to clean the blade with cotton balls soaked in alcohol, and messed around with his scissors case. Anything, anything so he could stand with his back to her when she opened her eyes.
She opened them abruptly and saw an ugly, scared little girl. It was almost horrifying. She saw a girl from an institution, a street girl, a crazy girl. The girl's ears were too pointy, her nose too long, and she had huge eyes strangely set at a distance from each other. She'd never noticed how odd her eyes looked, and now the exposed, provocative gaze frightened her. Her first thought was of the sudden resemblance to her father, especially his features as he had aged in the past few years. Her second thought was that with the addition of some suitable clothes, further blurring her appearance like this, there was a chance that even her parents wouldn't recognize her if they accidentally passed her in the street.
In the barbershop, nobody was moving yet. She looked at herself for a long time with no mercy. Her naked head looked like an exposed stump to her. She had the feeling that now everyone could read her thoughts.
"You'll get used to it," she heard the barber murmur, with compassion, from afar. "At your age, it grows quickly."
"Don't worry about me," she said immediately, alert, refusing any tenderness that could crumple her; even her voice sounded different to her without her hair, higher, as if it had split into a few different tones that were coming to her from a new place.
When she paid the barber, he took the money with the tips of his fingers. She thought he was afraid she'd touch him. She strode slowly, very erect, as if balancing a vase on her head. New feelings arose from every move she made, and she actually liked it; the world's air moved in a strange dance around her head, as if coming closer to see who she was, retreating and then returning to touch.
She lifted the backpack onto her shoulders, took the tape player, and began to leave. She stopped for a moment at the door; an experienced stage animal of her kind knew that, in addition to everything else, she was in the middle of a performance. She was a spectacle, frightening perhaps, but mesmerizing as well. She couldn't resist the temptationshe stood up tall, threw her head as if shaking back a grand mane of hair, a diva, and, with a gesture of grandeur of a soul in storm, of Tosca in the final act before she jumps off the battlement, she lifted her arm above her head, let it linger in the air, and then, and only then, did she walk out, slamming the door.
"Mushrooms or olives?"
He didn't know exactly when it had happened. When had Theodora stopped being suspicious of him, and how had he now come to be sitting in front of her, big fork in hand, preparing to eat the pizza? He was only vaguely aware of that momentsomething had happened in the room a few minutes ago, a different look passed over her eyes, and then a little door in her was open to him.
Assaf said, "Mushroom-and-onion," and she laughed to herself. "Tamar likes olives, and you, mushrooms. She, cheese, and you, onions. She is little, and you are Og, King of Bashan. She speaks, and you are silent."
"But now, tell, tell me everything! You were sitting there and dreaming"
"In City Hall! Where! You never told me of whom you were dreaming."
He stared at her: he was fascinated by the way her wrinkles were painted on her face; her forehead was covered with them like tree bark, her chin, too, and wrinkle marks stretched around her lips, the lower lip slightly pushed out. But her cheeks were completely smooth, rounded, untouched, and now, because of his attention, a slight blush reddened them.
Her blush confused him. He straightened up and quickly turned the conversation to business affairs. "So, can I leave the dog here, and you'll give her to Tamar?"
It was clear to him that she was waiting for him to say something very different, about reveries, maybeShe shook her head and announced decisively, "But no, no! That's impossible!" "Why?" he asked, surprised. And she responded quickly, slightly annoyed, "No, no. I wish I could, butdo not inquire into matters beyond your comprehension. Listen here"her voice softened at the sight of his disappointment"I would gladly keep my dear Dinka here with me, but she must go outside every once in a while, must she not? One must take her for little walks in the yard, and in the streets as well, yes? And in addition, she will likely want to escape to the streets once again to search for Tamar. What would I do? I do not leave this place."
"Why?" She tilted her head slowly, back and forth, as if considering a problem between her and herself. "Do you truly want to know?"
Assaf nodded. Maybe she has the flu, he thought. Maybe she's sensitive to the sun.
"And if the pilgrims of Lyxos suddenly arrive? What do you think will happen if I am not here to receive them?"
The well, Assaf remembered, and the wooden benches, and the clay mugs, and the stones to rest your feet on.
"Did you see the dormitory on your way in?"
"No," because Dinka had run and pulled him up the stairs so quickly.
Now the nun, Theodora, stood and held his handshe had a slender, strong handand pulled him to follow her, and called Dinka as well. As the three of them quickly descended the stairs, Assaf noticed a big scar, yellow as wax, on her wrist.
She stopped in front of a tall, wide door. "Stay a moment and close your eyes." He closed them, and wondered who had taught her Hebrew, and in what century. He heard the door open. "Now open them."
He saw a narrow, rounded hall in front of him, and in it, dozens of high iron beds lined up in two rows, facing each other. A thick mattress lay naked on each bed; a sheet, a blanket, and a pillow were folded carefully on each mattress; and on top of everything, like a period at the end of a sentence, rested a little black book.
"Everything is in utmost preparedness for their arrival," Theodora whispered.
Assaf allowed himself to be pulled into the hall, gazing around him; he paced between the beds. At every step, a slight cloud of dust rose. Light leaked in from high windows. He opened one of the books and saw letters of an unfamiliar language. He tried to picture the hall full of excited pilgrims, but here the air was even cooler and more moist than in the nun's room, as if it had a hand and could touch. For some reason, Assaf became uneasy.
He saw Theodora when he glanced up, and, for a split second, the strange feeling passed through him that even if he walked toward her, he would never reach herhe was trapped there, in clotted, motionless time. He almost ran back to her with one urgent question: "And theythe pilgrims"he saw the expression on her face and knew he would have to choose his words carefully"when are they supposed to actually come? I mean, when do you expect them? Today? This week?"
She turned from him sharply, coldly, like the point of a compass. "Come, my dear, let us return, the pizza is becoming cold."
He walked behind, confused and disturbed. "And my Tamar," she said, as they climbed the stairs, her rope sandals tapping in front of his eyes, "she cleans the dormitory; once a week she comes to scour and sweep. But now, as you sawonly dust."
Again, they sat at the table, but something between them had changed, become murky, and Assaf didn't know what it was. He felt agitated by something left unsaid, hovering there between them. The nun, too, was lost in her thoughts and wouldn't look at him. When she delved into herself in this way, her cheekbones were more pronounced, along with the long narrowness of her eyes, and she looked to him like an old Chinese woman. For some time, they ate in silence, or pretended to eat. Occasionally Assaf looked around: a small bed, piled with mountains of books. A table in the corner, holding an ancient black telephone, with a round dial. Another glance, and Assaf's eyes snagged on an objectit looked like a figurine of a donkey, made of bent, rusty iron wires.
"No, no, no!" the nun suddenly protested, slamming the table with two hands. Assaf stopped chewing. "How is it possible to eat without talking? To ruminate like cows? With no conversation regarding matters of the heart? What flavor is there in your pizza, young man, without conversation!" And she abruptly pushed her plate away.
He swallowed whatever was in his mouth quickly, and didn't know how to get out of it. "And you and Tamar ..." He choked a little when he said her name. "You and she talk, right?" His voice sounded too loud to him, artificial.
Naturally she sensed his miserable attempt to avoid talking about himself and stared at him scornfully; but he had already started something and didn't know how to retreat from it respectably. In general, he wasn't well versed in the art of small talk (sometimes, when he was with Roi and Maytal and Dafi, when banter, or at least cheerful everyday chatter, was demanded, he felt like someone who had to turn a tank around inside a room).
"So she ... Tamar ... she comes to you every week, right?"
He could see she wasn't thrilled to have to answer him, but still, after he mentioned Tamar, a spark returned to her eyes. "She has been coming here, to me, for one year and two months now," she said, stroking her braid, with a touch of pride. "And she works a little, because she needs money; lately, quite a bit of money. She does not take any from her parents, of course." Assaf noted the slightest twitch of her nose when she mentioned Tamar's parents, but he didn't askwhat business was it of his? "There is plenty of work here with me, as you have seen: cleaning the dormitory, dusting the beds, and, of course, polishing the big pots in the kitchen every week"
"But what for?" he said abruptly. "All these beds, and the pots, toowhen are they coming here anyway, the pilgrims? When" And very wisely, he shut his mouth. He felt now that he had to wait. A familiar feeling was fluttering inside him: the moment he loved, in the darkroom, when a photo slowly rises out of the solution and the lines start to appear. Here, too, the things he heard, and what he could only guess, started to come together in some shape ... Another moment or two and he would understand.
"And after we work, we remove our aprons, wash our hands, sit, and eat the pizza" She giggled. "The pizza! Why, it is only because of Tamar that I have learned to enjoy pizza ... Then, of course, we talk about all manner of thingsmy little one speaks to me of the entire world." Again he thought he heard a light sound of pride in her voice and wondered what this Tamar must have that Theodora was so proud to be her friend. "And sometimes we argue, as wellfire and brimstone, but all in the most friendly manner." For a moment, she seemed girlish to him as well. "In the manner of very dose friends."
"But what do you talk about so much?" The question escaped from him with a kind of embarrassed urgency; his heart was crushed with an inexplicable envy. Perhaps because he remembered what Dafi had said to him just two days before, that whenever he was about to start a story she had a strange urge to look at her watch. "About God?" he asked, and hoped, because if they were talking just about God, that would be reasonable, bearable.
"God?" Theodora was flabbergasted. "Why ... but it goes without saying ... most certainly ... God appears in our conversations now and again as well. How could He not?" She crossed her arms over her bosom and looked at Assaf wonderingly, considering, to herself, whether she hadn't made a big mistake with this oneand he recognized that look only too well, wanted to jump out of his skin to stop its rays. "But, my dear, let me tell you the truth: I do not like to speak of God. We no longer associate with each other as we once did, God and I. He and I lead separate lives. But do we lack for human beings to speak of in this world of ours? And what of the soul? And love? Is love no longer significant, in your opinion, my dear? Or perhaps you have already solved all its riddles for yourself?" (Assaf blushed, and shook his head vigorously to say no.) "And then we argue to high heavenuntil the tower shakes! What about, you ask." (Assaf understood that he had to ask, and nodded energetically.) "About what do we not speak? We speak of good and evil, and whether we truly possess free will"she flashed a gentle, teasing smile at him"the great freedom to choose our own pathor is it already determined for us in advance? And we speak of Yehudah Poliker, Tamar brings me his every recording, every new song! Everything here is taped! And then, suppose there is a very nice film at the Cinematheque, I say immediately, 'Tamar! You must go for me! There, take some money; bring a friend with you, perhaps, and then return to me quickly and tell me everything, scene by scene!' And this way, she can enjoy herself and entertain me as well."
A new thought occurred to him: "And youhave you ever seen a movie?"
"No. Nor this new thing, the television."
The pieces started fitting together. "And youyou said you don't go out, didn't you?"
She nodded her head, looking at him, smiling, following as the nascent thought dawned slowly upon him.
"You mean ... you never leave here?" he said again, with amazement.
"Since the first day I arrived in the Holy Land," she confirmed again, with that slight pride. "I was a little lamb of twelve years when I was brought here. Fifty years have passed since then."
"And you've been here for fifty years?" His voice sounded small to him, like a child's. "And you never went? Wait a minute, not even out to the yard?"
She nodded again. It suddenly became unbearable for him to be there. He wanted to get up, open a big window, and jump out and run off into the noisy street. He looked at the nun, shocked, and thought that she actually wasn't that old, not even that much older than his fatheronly because of her isolated life does she look like this, like a little girl who aged, instantly, without passing through life.
She waited patiently, allowing him to think all his thoughts about her, and then quietly said, "Tamar discovered a very nice sentence in one of the books: 'The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.' According to this, I am a happy person." Her lips pouted a bit. "Very happy."
Assaf squirmed in his chair. His eyes were searching for the door, his feet tingling. It wasn't that he was unable to be alone in a room, even for long hours at a time, but only with the latest computer, a new quest game, and no one else there to give him the tips so he could solve the problems too quickly. Yes, that could hold him in a room for four or five hours easily, even without food. But to always live this way? All your life? Day and night, week after week? Year after year? For fifty years?
"Thank you for not saying anything," the nun said. "Silence is a sign of wisdom ..."
Assaf didn't know whether he would be allowed to ask a question now, or whether he would have to be considered wise until the end of his visit.
"And now," she said, filling her lungs with air, "now it is your turn. A story for a story. But do not halt at every turnthrow your caution to the winds. Panaghia mou! Why won't you say a single word about yourself? Are you so important?"
"But what should I say?" he asked, distressed, because he didn't want to talk about God, and he didn't know much about Yehudah Poliker, and his life was so regular, and he didn't like to talk about himself anywaywhat could he tell her?
"Tell me a story from your heart," she sighed. "And then I will tell you a story from mine." This is what she said. And smiled a slightly pained smile. Suddenly it was possible.
Twenty-eight days before Assaf met Theodora, before he started working for City Hall, before he even knew a Theodora existed in this world and hadn't dreamed of a Tamar, Tamar left for the streets. Assaf, as he always did on his vacations, slept until noon, then got up and prepared a light breakfast for himselfthree or four sandwiches, a two-egg omeletand read the newspaper. He sent an e-mail to a Houston Rockets fan in Holland, and for one long, exciting hour participated in an online Quest for Glory game forum. In the middle of it, Roi called him, or some other boy from class (he himself almost never called others). Together they tried to come up with a plan for that evening, despaired, and concluded that they would just talk later.
His mother also called from work, to remind him to take out the laundry and empty the dishwasher, and to pick Muki up from her summer camp at two. In between, he watched a little of the National Geographic channel while doing his daily exercises, and went back to the computer, and the hours passed lazily, and nothing happened.
During these very same hours, Tamar shut herself into a tiny stall, covered with graffiti and obscene drawings, in the public bathrooms of the Egged bus station. She slipped off her clothes while she took off her sandals and stood on themLevi's jeans and the thin Indian shirt her parents had bought in London, all but her bra and pantiesdisgusted by the murky, thin air of the stall that hurried to cling to her flesh. She took a smaller bag out of her big backpack, and from that removed a T-shirt and some big blue overalls, stained and torn beyond mending, which felt rough against her skin. Get used to it, she thought, and fastened herself into them. She hesitated for a moment and removed the thin silver bracelet she had received for her bat mitzvah. This, too, was dangerousher full name was etched on it. She took out a pair of sneakers and laced them up. She preferred her sandals, but she could tell she would need these shoes very badly in the next weeks, to give her the feeling of something holding her, keeping her shape together, but also so she'd be able to run faster if she was chased.
Then there was the matter of her diary, six hardcover notebooks sealed into an airtight plastic bag. The first one, from when she was twelve, was thinner than the others, still decorated with colorful drawings of orchids and Bambi and birds and broken hearts. The later ones, their covers smooth, were much thicker, the writing more cramped. They made the bag very heavy, and were a burden to her, but she had had to remove them from her house because she knew her parents would quickly get hold of them. Now she buried them deep into the big bag, but after a moment couldn't hold herself back. She dug out the first one and flipped through the pages, covered in childish handwriting. She smiled, unconsciously, as she sat on the toilet seatthere she is, in the seventh grade, the first time she sneaked out of her house when she went with two girl friends to Tzemah to the Tipex concert. What a crazy night that had been. She flipped forward: Liat came to the party in a shiny black dress and was gorgeous!! Liat danced with Gili Papushado and was so pretty I wanted to cry!! How old wounds never really scabbed overthey were ready to open again at any moment. (But now she really had to get out of here, to go.) She pulled out another notebook, from two and a half years ago: It freaks her out, the way she is growing up, "developing." (Hate that word!!! Their words!) Who needs this? She stopped and tried to remember just why she was writing about herself in the third person. She smiled, sorrowfully: it came back to her, the insane training she had forced herself to endure back then, to toughen herself up, give her thicker skin; she taught herself to withstand tickling, and on the coldest days would take off her sweater and coat, and her shirt, too, or would go barefoot outside, in the streets, in the fieldswriting in the third person was a part of it.
Love's tiny narrow places. Like that space between the closet and the wall in her room that she could still fit into until a month ago, fold herself up in there for hoursand it is driving her crazy that she will never be able to go back!!!
And on the next pageit was unclear what actions inspired this school punishment: she wrote out, exactly a hundred times, I am an empty, shallow girl. I am an empty, shallow girl.
God, she thought, resting her head on the back of the toilet, I can't believe I was so screwed up.
But immediately after that, she discovered her first encounter with Yehuda Amichai's book Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers, and was filled with comfort by that child who wrote: Little fish are born surrounded by a little protein sac, and I know this book will be my little protein sac, for the rest of my life. A week later, decisively, conclusively: In order to have W.E., I vow, from this day forward and for the rest of my life, to look at the world with constant wonder.
She smiled a bitter smile. For months the world had forced her into wonder, and then rage, and, finally, complete despair. And the only thing that had given her Wide Eyes lately was the haircut.
She flipped through the book, forward, backward, laughing a little, sighing a little. It was lucky that she had decided to read her diary before she went on her way. She saw herself spread out and exposed, as if someone had screened a complete movie for her, made up of all the separate shots of her daily life. She had to leave. Leah was waiting for her at the restaurant for their farewell meal. But she couldn't. Couldn't go back out on the streets again, couldn't face those looks they'd given her since she'd shaved her head. At least here she was protected, alone, surrounded by walls; and there, she was fourteen. She had already started writing things backward that she particularly wanted to hide:
Poor Mom. She wanted to have a girl so badly, so she could share everything with her. Tell her secrets, reveal to her the mysteries of femininity, how wonderful it is to be a woman, a gift of God, really. And what did she get? Me.
Mom. Dad. She shut her eyes, pushing them away from herand they shoved themselves right back against her. "In every person's life are situations in which he alone is responsible for saving his own soul," her father had said to her during their last fight. Enough, enoughget out of herewhen everything was over she could think about this. "As far as I'm concerned," he had said, "the matter is closed. I do not intend to lift a finger." He looked at her with false indifference. But his right eyebrow trembled uncontrollably, as if it had a life of its own. Slowly, forcibly, concentrating with effort, she erased them from her thoughts. She mustn't think about her parents nowthey would only weaken her, make her lose heart. They did not exist for her nowand feverishly she drew out a different notebook, one from about a year and a half ago. Idan and Adi had already become part of her life by that point, and everything started changing for the betteror at least she had thought so at the time. She read it, and couldn't believe that she was so occupied with such things until a few months ago. Idan said this and did that. He went to get a Franz Josef haircut and took her, and not Adi, to check out the hairdresser, "because you are so much more practical," he said. She didn't know if, coming from his mouth, that was a compliment or an insultand she was amazed that anyone thought her practical. And the trip to the Arad Festivalsomeone stole the bag that held their three wallets, and they were left with a total of ten shekels. Idan took controlhe bought a coupon book in an office supply store for nine shekels and sent both of them to collect contributions for the Association Against the Hole in the Ozone Layer.
The dizziness of the joy she felt, to pull off such a scam, such a crime, in order to bring him the money they madeand what a decadent meal they ate, and still had enough left over to buy some weed. She smoked it and didn't feel a thing, but Idan and Adi wouldn't stop running around, reporting on their wild high. On the way back, on the bus, Adi sat with Idan two seats in front of her, both of them laughing hysterically the entire way.
Little asides were scattered through the nonsense, brief reports on events she didn't think seemed important then, which were like tiny whispers gathering to become a scream: Mom and Dad discovered that the Afghani wool carpet hung behind the door had disappeared. They fired the cleaning lady, who had been working for them for seven years, immediately. After that, a few hundred dollars vanished from her father's drawerand there went the Arab gardener. After that, that thing with the car, the odometer showing evidence of a long trip while her parents were abroad on vacation. More shadows were sleeping beside the walls of the house, and no one dared to shine any light on them that might be too strong.
Someone pounded on the door. It was the washroom attendant, who shouted that she'd been sitting in there for an hour. Tamar shouted back that she would be there as long as she liked. She panted, startled by the rude disturbance.
When she started reading the last notebook, she was amazedit was all there, completely in the open, in such detail: the plan, the cave, the grocery lists, the dangers possible and unlikely. She knew that she would have to destroy this notebook, make it disappear. It was too dangerous even to hide. She flipped through the pages until her eyes found the exact moment when she had allowed herself to feel somethingthe brief encounter, that night by the Riffraff Club, with the curly-haired boy. He had a soft gaze and showed her his broken fingers, then ran away from her, as if she, too, might do something similar to him. From that point on, she armored herself, became stingy with words, and wrote like the clerk of a secret army unit, about operations, and problems, and dangerswhat was accomplished that day, what needed to be achieved.
She closed the notebook. Her eyes glazed over in front of an obscene drawing on the door. She wished she could take the diary with her, there. She couldn't. But what would she do without it? How would she understand herself without writing in it? Her fingers numb, she tore the first page out and threw it into the toilet, between her legs, and after it another page, and another. One minute, what's that there? I used to cry a lot and was full of hope. These days I laugh a lot, in despair. Into the waterI will probably always fall in love with someone who is already in love with someone else. Why? Just because. Because I'm very good at getting myself into hopeless situations. Everyone has something he's good at. She rippedMy art? What, don't you know?not to live for the moment but to destroy the moment itself. She tore, she tore aggressively; all at once she stood up, dizzy. All that was left were the pages from the most recent daysthe endless arguments with her parents, her screams, her begging, and the terrible knowledge unstitching her heart, her understanding that they really couldn't do anything; they couldn't help her, nor could they prevent her from going. They simply grew hollow, paralyzed by the disaster that had hit them like a magic spell, emptied them out. Only the shells of her parents were left, and now it was she alone who could do something, if she dared.
But when she gets to that place she's trying to find, she will very likely be searched. She will be searched, certainly, and someone will go through her stuff and try to discover who she is. Who am I? What is left of me? She flushed, and gazed at the torn pages, spinning, getting sucked in, disappearing: nothing.
Her spirits were low without her diary, and without Dinka.
She disappeared into the throng that streamed through the station. She saw her reflection in the windows of the restaurants, and in the glass of the hot-dog stands, and in people's eyes. She saw how her lips were pursed in front of her. They had looked at her completely differently until yesterday. And until then, she also encouraged those looks a little, because of the wink, the light, tempting invitation of what she wore, and of how she looked in what she wore. Tamar knew it as the exaggerated courage of the super-shy, the frightened daring that exploded from her, uncontrollably, like a hiccup out of her body: like the see-through shirt she wore to the ninth-grade graduation party. Or the shocking red shoes, the no-place-like-home shoes, she wore to the big recital at the academy. There were other similar incidentsand also the endless, agitated transitions between her days of neglect and abandonment in such matters (Halina once yelled that from now on she was forbidden to dress like some Orthodox girl in those B'nai Brak clothes), to her periods of glossy, well-groomed glamour and style, her purple period, the yellow period, the black ...
She deposited her big backpack at the baggage check counter and clutched the smaller bag to her chest. From now on, this would hold her home. The guy working at the counter took one look at her and, like the barber, was careful that his fingers not touch hers; she picked up the little numbered metal tag from the counter.
She hadn't planned this in advance: and now, where will you put this tag? She almost laughed at herselfshe now understood that she hadn't succeeded in foreseeing and planning everything: and if they find it on you, what will you say? And if one of them goes and gets the backpack from the baggage check, and looks in your wallet, and reads your diary, what then, you stupid, self-absorbed loser. She left, enjoying the self-flagellation, making herself tougher, so she could withstand whatever was waiting for her. But who knew what else would happen there, what unimaginable possibility hadn't occurred to herwhat this new life would bring her wayor how reality would surprise her and betray heras usual.
So he told her, Assaf told her the whole story again, from the beginning, from the job at City Hall arranged through his father's connections with Danokh, because Danokh owed his father some money for some electrical work at his house, butTheodora stopped him again with a wave of her commanding little hand. She wanted to hear about his father and mother first. So Assaf had to stop, and he told her that his parents and little sister may have already landed in Arizona, in the United States, and mentioned that they had left on the spur of the moment because Reli, his older sister, had asked them to come right away. The nun was interested in hearing more about Reli, why she was so far away from homeso, to his surprise, Assaf had to talk about Reli as well. He described her in broad strokeshow special she was, how beautiful, how she crafted jewelry, she was an artist, and she designed a very special line of silver jewelry that was starting to become really successful abroad. He recited Reli's words and phrases, feeling how strange they were to him, perhaps because all this new success of hers was strange to him, perhaps because something there, in all her traveling, scared him. So he added, with slight resentment, that she could certainly be unbearable as well, Reli could, and hinted at her self-righteousness in everything, from the food she ateor rather, didn't eatto her ideas about Arab-Jewish relations, and how the country in general should look and behave; and so it came to pass that he talked about Reli quite a lot, about how she practically ran away from Israel a year ago, because she needed her space. He hated this word of hers, so he hurried to replace it, explaining that Reli felt she was simply suffocating here. Theodora smiled to herself, a deep smile, and Assaf immediately understood it; a breeze of understanding passed wordlessly between them, because there are some people for whom even fifty years in one room are not suffocatingand for some, a whole country is not enough space. Then she wanted to hear about Muki, too, who had gone on the trip with his parents, because she really couldn't be left here, and Assaf talked about her as well, and grinned; his cheeks went redder than usual, swallowing up even his acne, because the moment he said "Muki," the smell of her hair, just washed, wafted into his nostrils. He laughed and said that it always drove him crazy how since she was three, she had insisted on using one specific shampoo, and was careful to use a certain conditioner with itreally, since she was threewith her hair as soft as fog between your fingers, her blond hair. He laughed, and Theodora smiled againand she'll stand in front of the mirror for hours, that little one, and admire herself, certain that the whole world loves her. Whenever he or Reli would get annoyed by this ritual of self-adoration, their mother would tell them not to dare spoil it for her, to let the little one enjoy herself, so there could be at least one person in this household who loved herself boundlessly. Assaf suddenly realized he had been talking, uninterrupted, for quite a while. He got uncomfortable and said, "That's it, a normal family. Really nothing special." And Theodora said, "Your family is exemplary; you should be very, very happy." And he saw her delving deep into herself again. A light had gone off inside her. He didn't understand how he had chatted so freely with her. He told himself, Well, it's because she's so lonely here, maybe she hasn't talked to anyone for a long time, had a real heart-to-heart conversation. And then he thought, Oh yeah? And when was the last time you had one?
Then, of course, he remembered what was awaiting him tonight, with Roi and Dafi, and she leaned toward him a little and asked, "Quickly, quicklywhat did you think just now, at this moment? Your face, my dearpou poua cloud passed over it." "Doesn't matter," he muttered. "Doesn't matter?" she retorted. She had a tremendous curiosity for his silly stories; perhaps they weren't so silly, if someone could be so interested in them. "Nothing ..." He laughed, and squirmed in his chair, embarrassed. He really didn't want to start talking about such thingsit never would have crossed his mind to talk about them before he entered this convent. Why, they hardly knew each otherit was as if some demon had entered him here, was changing him. But the nun threw her head back with fresh laughter, and he felt that even though she looked old, in some ways she was as young as a girl. Perhaps because she had never used up her youthful parts in living. Then it occurred to him: Why should I mind telling her about it, anyway? She's nice, and she's lonely, and I feel like talking a little.
And so, just as he was, he told her about Dafi Kaplan, and Roi and Maytal, and the nun listened carefully, watching his mouth, her lips soundlessly repeating the words he said. After five sentences, she grasped that Dafi wasn't the main story. Assaf was amazed at how readily she understood what had been bothering him the most. "But please, let us put that poor girl aside for a moment"she waved impatiently"she is a flower without scent. I must learn of the heart of the matter: speak of the boy, your Roi, who no longer is yours, if I am not mistaken." Assaf's eyes closed for a moment, because she'd touched the exact place that hurt. He took a deep breath and plunged in. He told her about his friendship with Roi, how they'd been like brothers since the age of four, how they would sleep one night at his house, one night at Roi's, or in the tree house. Of the two, Roi was then smaller and weaker, and Assaf protected him from the bigger kidsthe teachers said he was practically Roi's bodyguard. It continued in this way until about seventh grade, Assaf said quickly, skipping over eight years in one leap, and being brought back, gently but firmly. "And how did it continue?" she wanted to know. So he told her about their elementary school days, when Roi clung to him, wouldn't let him befriend any other boy and invented an array of punishments any time he suspected Assaf of attempting to betray their friendship. The worst was the silent treatment: weeks would pass in which he refused to say a word to Assaf, yet still wouldn't move an inch away from him. Then there were Roi's horrible attacks of rage, like the time Assaf wanted to join the Scouts; Assaf eventually gave them up, with an aching heart. Even then, though, he was flattered that someone needed him and loved him so much. He fell silent, swallowed, and brooded for a moment. And this is how it had continued until junior high, then everything changed. The details didn't matter"They do matter," the nun said. He knew she would say that. He even gave her a teasing smile. It was already a game between them. She went into the tiny kitchen to put water on for coffee, and called for him to continue. Assaf told her how in the seventh grade, about five years ago, girls started to notice that Roi was good-looking. Because Roi really jumped in height, became tall and handsome, and then all the girls started falling in love with him. He loved them, too, all of them, and really toyed with them, Assaf said, trying not to sound too pious. The nun smiled at the red-and-blue wallpaper in her little kitchen. But the girls never tried to get him back for it, said Assaf, in wonder, elbows on the table, chin in his hand, almost talking to himselfif anything, the opposite! Imagine! They competed for his attention! During break, they would sit and talk about how he looked, and what clothes suited him, and how he should cut his hair, how his body moved when he played basketball. Once, by accident, Assaf sat behind the girls' tree in the schoolyard, and he couldn't believe what he heard. They spoke of Roi as if he were some kind of god, or at least a movie star. One girl described how she was plotting, in cold blood, to drop down one level in math, just to be in his class; another said that sometimes she prayed Roi would get sick, so she could go to the clinic and lie on the same examination table!
Assaf looked at Theodora and waited for her to laugh with him about that girl's stupiditybut the nun didn't laugh. She only asked him to continue telling his story, and on he went, wishing that he could just shut up already, but it was out of his control. It kept rolling out of him, like a big ball of yarn unravelinghe hadn't spoken of this, in this way, for years, neither with a stranger nor with anyone close to him. It's probably this convent, he thought dimly, or the little room, which was something like the confessional he once saw in a church in Ein Karem. After this he would be himself again, and forget that day he ever sat in a room at the top of a tower and spoke of such nonsense to a strange nun. And Theodora said, "Assaf, I'm waiting!" He talked about how, because of the girls, Roi became, in eighth grade, something likehow can I explain it to youlike the King of the Class, let's say. Assaf meant to explain to her what it meant, but she waved her hand and said impatiently, "Yes, yes, King of the Class, of course I know, do continue, please." And Assaf guessed in a flash that she had heard such stories from Tamar, about boys and girls, and thought maybe she enjoyed listening to him because it recalled her time with Tamar. When that occurred to him, the warm, new tickling moved within him again, and he imagined Tamar, somehow present in the room, unseen but seeingsitting on the floor by Dinka's sleeping body, slowly stroking her head; perhaps he, himself, was also talking to her now, telling her how Roi became Rotem's boyfriend, the Royal Couple of the Eighth Grade. It was years, Assaf muttered, since RotemRoi had been through four or five other girlfriends since her, and these days it's Maytal. Because of her, because Maytal wants it, Roi has been demanding that Assaf fall in love with Dafi, even hinted that it was a condition of their continued friendship. Enough. Assaf shook himself. It didn't matter, it's nothing, nonsense, small details. Again he felt embarrassed, and terribly confused, for spilling his guts this way. "Very, very important," Theodora said tenderly. "You still do not understand, agori mou? How shall I come to know you without the small details? How, then, will I tell you a story from my own heart?" When she saw that he wasn't convinced, she searched out his eyes and forced him to raise them to meet hers. "For Tamar did not want to speak at all of herself either, in the beginningshe, too, said, 'Why does this matter?' and 'Why is this interesting?' I labored to teach her that we have nothing more important than these small things, these trifles of ours. And, you should know, she is far more stubborn than even you!" Once Assaf heard that, he immediately stopped disagreeing with her. It was as if his constricted throat came untied; even his voice changed, loosened up, and he spoke about Dafi, and about how she measured and calculated everyone by money or respect or successas he spoke, he finally realized why being with her held no pleasure for him. She was always competing with everyone, anyone, checking the balance of success versus failure, profit against loss; listening to her, you got the feeling that all the people in the world were waiting at every moment for the chance to conspire against someone, to leap and devour someone the moment he weakened ... "There are such people in the world," the nun said, the moment she felt him faltering in front of her, "yet there are others as well, yes? Is it not true that for those others, life is worth living?" Assaf smiled and straightened up happily, as if with her little aphorism she had solved a very complicated problem that had been bothering him for a long time. He added later that even if Dafi were a completely different person, he still wouldn't fall in love with her; that he thought he would probably never fall in love. At least, not until after the army. He spoke, and was surprised by his own courage; he would say such things to only one person in the world, to Rhino, Reli's boyfriendand even then, only rarely. And to this nun he's known for less than half an hourwhat was the matter with him today?
He fell silent; the two looked at each other as if they had awakened from some mutual hallucination. Theodora smoothed her hands against her head, as if trying to hold something inside; the big yellow burn shone on her wrist. For one moment the room was completely silent. Only Dinka's breath, as she lay sleeping, was heard.
"Now," Theodora whispered, with a tired smile, "after all this, why don't you tell me, finally, how you managed to come to me?"
Only then did he tell her the essential details of the story, efficiently outlining how Danokh had come to his office that morning and called him to the kennels, plus Form 76 and the pizza; it seemed funny to him all of a sudden, how he had run crazily through the city without knowing where he was going. He started to smile. Theodora's face stretched into a smile in front of him. They both peered at each other and burst out laughing; the dog woke up, lifted her head, and started wagging her tail.
"But this is astonishing," Theodora sighed when she calmed down. "The dog brought you to me ..." She gazed at him for a long time, as if he was bathed in a new light. "And you? You were the innocent deliveryman, an unconscious messenger ..." And her eyes really sparkled at him. "Who else would have been willing to walk in this manner, after a naughty dog, to buy the pizza and foot the bill, to completely negate his own will to hers? What a heart, agori mou! What a warm and innocent heart you possess ..."
Assaf fidgeted in embarrassment. The truth was, he had felt like quite an idiot running after the dog that way, and was surprised by this new interpretation of his actions.
The nun hugged her small self and shivered in pleasure. "Now do you understand why I asked you to tell me the whole story? Now I am reassured, because my heart is telling me that if anyone could find my heart's delight, it is you."
Assaf said that was exactly what he had been trying to do since the morning, and if she could now give him Tamar's address, he would find her at once.
"No," she said, and got up quickly. "I am so very sorry, but I cannot do that."
"Because Tamar made me swear."
And as much as he tried to understand, and as much as he asked, she refused to answer. She walked through the room tensely, mumbling her excited pou pous, shaking her head no no no, and spreading her arms helplessly. "Believe me, my dear, if I could, I would even hope for you toNo! Quiet!" She slapped at her own hand angrily. "Silence, old woman! You shall not speak!" Another disturbed circuit around the room with more angry breathing and a little tornado of emotions, and she again stood before him. "Because Tamar asked me directly; you must not take offense, but I can tell you only that the last time she was here she asked me, made me swear, that if anyone should come in the next days and ask where she lives, or, perhaps, what her family name is, or who her parents are, or in any way inquire after her, even if he is the sweetest, the kindestshe didn't say that, I say thatwell, I am forbidden to respond."
"But why, why?" Assaf exploded, and he stood up. "Why would she even say such a thing? What could have happened to her" The nun kept on shaking her head to say no, as if she was afraid he would pull the words out of her. They both raised their voices and moved in front of each other for one brief moment, long enough for her to raise a commanding finger to his lips.
"Now be silent."
Assaf was amazed and sat down.
"Listen to me. I am not allowed to speak of her. I have made a vow; my hands are tied. But let me tell you a tale; perhaps, from this tale, you will come to understand something of the matter."
He sat and tapped his hand against his knee. Perhaps he should go at once and waste no more time. But the word "tale" worked on him like a magic wand, as it always did. The thought that he would hear a story from her mouth, with her facial expressions and the sparks of light from her eyes
"Oh ho! You smiled, my dear! You cannot deceive me, this old woman knows how to read such a smile! You are a stories-childI knew it from the first glance, just exactly like my Tamar! Well, then, I will tell you my story, as a gift, in return for the story you told."
"So what'll we drink to?" Leah asked, forcing a smile. Tamar looked at her wine; she knew if she said her wish aloud, the words would scare her.
Leah said it for her: "Let's drink to your success, and you'll both come back in peace." They clinked their glasses and drank, looking into each other's eyes. The ceiling fans whirred, attempting uselessly to spread cool against the new heat wave pushing in.
"I'm dying to start already," Tamar said. "Because, these last few days"she took a deep breath, and her eyes grew for a moment in her exposed face"I haven't been able to sleep for a week; can't concentrate on anything. The tension is killing me."
Leah stretched her two strong arms across the table, and they linked fingers.
"Tami-mami, you can change your mind, you know. No one'll blame youI'd never say a word about this crazy idea of yours."
Tamar shook her head, pushing away every thought of giving up.
Samir came over and whispered something into Leah's ear. "Serve it in the big bowls," she ordered, "and recommend the Chablis. And for us now, bring the chicken with thyme." Samir smiled broadly at Tamar and returned to the kitchen.
"What did you tell them?" Tamar asked. "The guys in the kitchen, what did you tell them?"
"That we're having a party for you. Waitwhat did I say? Oh, that you're going on a big trip. Check out what they've got for you."
"I'm going to miss it here so much." Tamar sighed.
"You won't have food like this out there."
"Now, look"Tamar's face became hard again"I'm leaving the letters with you, in this envelope. They are already stamped and addressed." Leah's mouth twisted, insulted. "Look, Leah, it's no big deal, and it's not the money, I just wanted everything to be ready so you wouldn't have to go out to buy stuff."
"And because you wanted to do everything yourself, as usual," Leah corrected her, shaking her head as if to say, "What will we do with this child?"
Tamar said, "Enough, Leah. Leave it alone. You remember what to do with the letters, right?"
Leah rolled her eyes like a pupil forced to repeat some loathed material over and over. "Every Tuesday and Friday. Did you put the numbers on them?"
"Here, on the side, on the round sticker, and before you send it"
"Take the sticker off," Leah recited. "What, do you think I'm stupid? Some dumb broad off the street? Is that it?" She let out a slightly exaggerated laugh. "That's exactly what I am."
Tamar ignored Leah's usual self-deprecation. "It is very important that you send them in order, because I really made up a story for them, with little jokes about all the kinds of people I'm meeting. It's pretty moronic, but it will keep them as calm as possible so they'll leave me alone." Her lips narrowed mockingly. "A story, with plot development and everything."
"I don't believe it. You kept all that straight in your head, too?" and when she said "head," Leah's eyes slipped over the exposed skull that seemed so horrible to her.
"Anyway," Tamar continued, thanking Leah in her heart for staying silent, "it should put them to sleep for a month. That's around the amount of time I need, until the middle of August, and they'll be abroad for two weeks of it, anyway. The sacred vacation." She smiled crookedly. "This year, the excuse is that 'life must go on, in spite of everything.'" She and Leah looked into each other's eyes, sighed, and shrugged their shoulders, amazed, completely disbelieving the possibility of such a thing. "The most important thing is that they'll leave me alone. They won't start looking for me."
"It doesn't seem to me like they're rushing to do anything, anyway," muttered Leah. She inspected the envelopes, reading Tamar's parents' names above the address out loud with her thick lips. "Talma and Avner ... nice names they've got." She chuckled. "Straight off public TV." "More like a soap opera, lately."
Leah said, "It reminds me of something I saw written on a wall once: 'I will kill my mother if she ever gives birth to me again.'"
"Something like that." Tamar laughed.
From the kitchen, Samir and Aviva carried in the main course. When she lifted the silver cover off her plate, Tamar saw, around the stuffed grape leaves, her name written with purple cherries.
"This is from all of us in the kitchen, with our love," said Aviva, flushed from the heat of the pots. "So you won't forget us wherever you're going."
They ate silently, both pretending to enjoy it, neither of them with any appetite.
"What was I thinking?" Leah finally said, and pushed her plate away. "You know I have that little storage pantry two doors down from here." Tamar knew. "I'm going to put a mattress on the floor there for youdon't tell me no!" Tamar didn't say anything. "The key will be under the second flowerpot. So if you get sick of sleeping in Independence Park, or whatever you do, if the room service isn't fancy enough, come to my pantry and sleep like a human being for a night. What do you think?"
Tamar thought through each of the possible dangers. Someone could see her entering the storeroom and inquire into who owned itLeah wouldn't give her away, of course, but one of the kitchen workers might say something by mistake, and they'd discover who she was and her plan would be exposed. Leah watched sadly at the wrinkles scrunching over Tamar's white forehead and choked back a sigh. What's been going on with this one lately?
But, actually, the mattress in the pantry was a good idea, Tamar thought. Even a very good idea. She would only have to make sure no one was following her when she entered; no harm would come to her if she slept there for one night, to restore herself to a little humanity. She smiledher sharp, intense, zealous face defrosted; all the sweetness of the world was in her for just one moment, and Leah melted. "Come on, Mami, crash therethere's a tap, and a little sink; you could wash up. There's no toilet, though."
"Ah, it makes me feel good that I can help a little." Leah was excited, and already knew that every morning she would hurry over to the pantry to see if Tamar had slept there the night before; she would leave little encouraging notes for her.
"Just promise me," said Tamar, when she saw Leah's eyes grow moist, "if you see me on the streetit doesn't matter if I'm working, or just sitting and resting on some cornerdon't come up to me. Even if you are sure I'm alone, don't act like you know me, okay?"
"You're tough. Hard-hearted," Leah said. "But if that's what you want, that's what you get. Just tell me how I'll pass by you without giving you a hug or bringing you food. And what if Noa is with me? You think she won't jump on you?"
"She won't recognize me."
"You're right," Leah said quietly. "She won't recognize you like that."
Tamar searched for comfort in her eyes. "Is it that terrible?"
"You ..." You're so naked this way that it breaks my heart, Leah wanted to say. "You're always pretty to me," she finally said. "My mother used to say that a beautiful person is always beautifuleven if he puts a shoe on his face, it will suit him." Tamar smiled gratefully at her, covered Leah's big paw with her hand, and pressed it lovingly, because now the little sail of sorrow that had been stretched between them the whole lunch long billowed in Leah's direction for a moment; when her mother said that sentence, she certainly didn't mean her.
Tamar said, "I don't know how I'd hold myself back if you ever passed by with Noiku. You know what I've been thinking about? This is the longest separation I've ever had from her."
"I brought you her picture," Leah said. "Do you want it for the road?"
"Leah ... I can't take anything there." She held the photo hungrily, and her face became rounder, softer, wider, like a watercolor painting bleeding a bit, diffusing past the contour lines. "What a little hummingbird ... I wish I could take it. I would sniff her a hundred times a day. You know."
Samir cleared the plates away and scolded both of them for not eating everything. He flashed a disturbed glance at Tamar's shaven head. They hardly noticed him: they looked at the photo and rejoiced, a mutual happiness.
"They talked about brothers and sisters in nursery school," Leah told her. "When they asked her if she had a brother or sister, what do you think she said?"
"That I am her sister?" Tamar smiled with pride, swirling inside that word like wine in a glass. They looked at the tiny girl, ivory and almond-eyed, for another long moment. Tamar remembered, word for word, what Leah had told her when they first started becoming close: that in the world of her former incarnation, the one she lived in until she was about thirty, she was hardly a woman. "They treated me with respect there," Leah said. "But they treated me like a guy, not like a woman. I didn't feel like a woman then, never. And when I was a kid, I wasn't really a little girl, and I didn't grow up into a big girl, and not a woman, and not a mother. There was no woman in me until now. Now, at the age of forty-five, because of Noa."
A thick man with silver hair and a red face started raising a fuss at one of the tables in the center room. He was angry with Samir for serving wine that was not sufficiently chilled; he yelled that Samir was ignorant and stupid, and Leah immediately leaped up like a lioness protecting her cub.
"And who are you?" the man said. "I demand to speak with the owner!"
Leah crossed her strong arms across her chest. "That would be me. What's the trouble, buddy?"
"You? Are you kidding?"
Tamar felt her guts freeze from the insult to Leah.
"You got a problem with that?" said Leah with deadly calmbut her lips became pale, and the long scars on her cheeks suddenly popped out. "You think you can order the owner of the restaurant from the menu, too?"
The man became even redder, and the undersides of his eyes muddied. The woman at the table with him, buxom and bedecked with gold necklaces, laid a reassuring hand on his arm. Leah, with powers Tamar never had, immediately pulled herself together, sent Samir to the kitchen to replace the wine, and said the new bottle would be on the house. The stout man grumbled a little longer, but under his breath.
"What a pig," Tamar said when Leah sat down again.
"I know him," Leah said. "Some high-ranking military official, used to be a general or something. Thinks he has the whole country in his pocket, always getting into trouble and winning his fights with cash." She poured herself more wine, and Tamar saw her hand was shaking.
"You never get used to it," Leah admitted with a sigh.
"Don't you dare listen to him!" Tamar rushed to comfort her, as usual. "Just think of what you've done with your life, what you went through and how you got there. You went to France, alone, and studied at that restaurant for three years" Leah listened to her with a strange mixture of hunger and despair; the long scars on her cheeks pulsed as if blood was passing through them. "And how you created this place, all of it, all by yourself; and the way you raise Noikucome on! There is no other mother like you in the world! What do you care about what a loser like that says?"
"Sometimes I think, if only I had a man," Leah mumbled. "Someone who'd take trash like that by the collar and throw him to hell. Like Bruce Willis"
"Or Nick Nolte." Tamar laughed.
"But he should be soft on the inside!" Leah lifted a finger. "He should be sweet."
"Hugh Grant, then." Tamar giggled. "Who will love you and spoil you."
"Not him, I don't believe in pretty faces. You watch out for themI've noticed you have a weakness for that! Now I"Leah laughed, and Tamar's heart expanded, flooding with the knowledge that she had again pulled Leah out of despair"I need a Stallone. But inside, he should be like Harvey Keitel, in that movie we saw, Smoke."
"No one in the world exists who's like that," sighed Tamar.
"Someone must," Leah said. "You need one, too."
"Me? I'm not into that right now." She didn't even have the energy to start that conversation. Any thoughts of love or intimacy seemed dangerous to her now. Leah looked at her and thought, Why is she doing this to herself? Why is she destroying herself this way, so young? Suddenly Leah almost jumped out of her seatoh, God, Tamar would be turning sixteen this week! Right? Am I wrong? Leah raced through the calculations quickly in her headsure, it's this week. And she's not saying a word about it. And she'll be alone on the streetshow can you? How ... and Leah almost said something, but then Zion brought dessert to the table from the kitchen, and she said instead, "What's with all of you today? You're coming out one by one."
Zion laughed. "It's only for Tamar."
Tamar savored the honey-and-lavender ice cream and regretted that she couldn't store it in her body to eat from, slowly, for the next month. She licked the last of it off her spoon, and Leah unconsciously mimicked her lip motions.
"Let's see if I got it all," Leah said. "When do you leave for the streets?"
"Now, I think. After lunch," Tamar said, and shivered a little. "I'm starting right away."
"Are you serious?" Leah couldn't hold back a heavy sigh. "And when will you call me?"
"First of all, I'm not calling anyone for about a month," Tamar said. She knotted her fingers together and squeezed, hard. "Then, after about a month, around mid-August, depending on my situation there, if everything goes well, I'll call and tell you to show up in your VW."
"And then where am I taking you?"
Tamar smiled tightly. "I'll tell you then."
"You're something, you." Leah shook her head and wished everything was over already and the other Tamar would return.
They got up and went to the kitchen. Tamar thanked everyone for the special lunch, and hugged and kissed the cooks and their assistants and the waiters. Leah proposed a toast to Tamar and success on the long journey awaiting her. They drank. Everyone looked at her with concern; she didn't look as if she was going on a journey. She looked like someone going in for surgery.
Tamar, a little dizzy from the wine, looked around the crowded, steamy kitchen, at the loving faces surrounding her. She thought of the many hours she'd spent here, her hands sunk to the elbow in a pile of chopped parsley, or stuffing grape leaves with rice, pine nuts, and meat. Two years ago, when she was fourteen, she had decided to drop out of school and become a sous-chef for Leah. Leah agreed to it, and Tamar worked there for a few weeks until her father found out she hadn't been going to school. He showed up and yelled and threatened to bring in inspectors from the Labor Office if Tamar stepped into the restaurant ever again. Now Tamar almost longed for that shameful scene, to see her father so assertive and decisive, fighting for her. She had returned to her despised studies, and met Leah only at Leah's house, where she would go to baby-sit Noa, the love of her life. But she still didn't give up the idea of cooking, because anyhow, she now thought, it's not as if I have a chance at my other career.
Leah escorted her outside. A thin trace of jasmine hovered in the alley. A couple passed by them, arms around each other, weaving a little, laughing with each other. They watched, looked at each other, and shrugged. Leah had taught her once that every couple has a secret that only the two of them know; if there is no secret, the couple isn't a couple.
"Listen, Tami-mami," Leah said, "I don't know how to say this, but just don't get mad, okay?"
"Let's hear it," Tamar said.
Leah crossed her hands over her chest. "If you want, I can save you from this whole messone minute, let me finish"
Tamar raised her eyebrows in silence but already knew.
"Listen, I just have to make one phone callto someone who still remembers me from those days."
Tamar lifted her hand to silence her. She knew what it had taken Leah to pull herself away from her previous life, the difficulty of the withdrawal from everything she was addicted to, both substances and people. She also remembered well what Leah had told her once, that any contact with that world could screw it all up again.
"No thank you," she said, moved by Leah's offer.
"I just have to pick up the phone," Leah continued, trying to sound enthusiastic. "I'm sure the guy I have in mind knows about these scumbags. In one hour he'll go down there with twenty guys, surprise the hell out of them, and get him out of there for you."
"Thank you, Leah." She shouldn't even think about it. The temptation was too great.
"Some of those guys are just waiting for me to ask them a favor," Leah said dejectedly, to the floor.
Tamar hugged her, reaching up to her and snuggling in her chest. "What a huge heart you have," she murmured quietly.
"Really?" Leah asked, her voice slightly choked. "Too bad there are hardly any tits." She wrapped her arms around Tamar, touching, with compassion, the shoulder blades sticking out of her skinny little body. They stood, hugging each other, for a long moment. Tamar thought that this was going to be the last hug she got before going on her way; Leah felt that, or guessed it, and tried very hard to give her the best hug, motherly and fatherly, that she could. "Just take care of yourself." She mouthed the words above Tamar's head. "Because out there, nobody's going to take care of you. I should know."
Tamar stopped one step before reaching the thoroughfare. Around the corner of the last house in the alley, she sent a frightened, challenging look at the street, scanning her zone of action. She couldn't find the strength to enter itlike an actor or singer, peeking, terrified, through a hole in the curtain before a premiere, trying to guess what would be waiting for her tonight. Out there. In front of them.
She was overwhelmed by the loneliness, fear, and self-pity she had been suppressing, in opposition to everything she had planned, with harsh care, for months; with that, and even a kind of masochism, she got on a bus. She went home, as she was, with her shaved head, in rags, in the middle of the day, and went to her yard. She prayed none of the neighbors would see her, and that the gardener wasn't working that day; she also knew that even if someone saw her, no one would recognize her.
As soon as she opened the gate, she felt the air around her warm up a bit and spiral awake; a big clump of the joy in life and love, covered with golden fur, leaped onto her; a big warm, rough tongue passed again and again over her face. She felt a moment of amazement, of slight embarrassmentbut what a relief, and a true feeling of salvation: the dog recognized her scent, her essence, without hesitation.
"Come on, Dinkush. I can't go through with this alone."
"Once upon a time," Theodora began, "a long, long time ago ..." and laughed at Assaf's surprised reaction to her storytelling voice. She settled herself in her chair, sucked on a piece of lemon to moisten her throat, and then, in a rush of speech, with eager gestures and shining eyes, she told him the tale of her heart. The tale about herself and the island of Lyxos and Tamar.
...One Sunday, about a year ago, Theodora was enjoying her siesta when her entire body was shocked by the explosion of a huge voice outside her window. It sounded like a whine or a whistle, until it became clear that it was the warm voice of a girl calling to her, demanding that she come to the window.
The voice was not calling to her exactly but to "His Holiness, the Monk Who Is Living in the Tower!"
She quickly got up and opened her bougainvillea-framed window, and saw, right over the fence of the convent, a barrel in the schoolyard next door. A slight young woman stood on the barrel; she had black, wildly curly hair and held a megaphone in her hand and was speaking into it.
"Dear Reverend Monk," the girl said politely, and was briefly silenced when she realized that the wrinkled face in the window was a woman's. "Dear Reverend Nun," she corrected herself, hesitatingly, "I would like to tell you a fairy tale that you might know."
Theodora remembered: it was the same girl she'd seen about a week ago, high up in her magnificent fig tree, straddling one of the big branches, writing something in a thick notebook, unconsciously munching fig after fig. Theodora was preparedshe had aimed her slingshot, which she used to scare off thieving birds, at the fig-devouring girl and shot a sanded apricot pit at her.
She hit her mark. She allowed herself a moment of pride at once again discovering that she hadn't forgotten the art of aiming and firing from her childhood days on the island, when she was sent with her sisters to ambush the greedy crows in the vineyards. Theodora heard a yelp of pain and surprise from the girl when the pit hit her neck. The girl clapped her hand over the burning spot, lost her balance, and fell branch after branch until she hit the ground. Theodora experienced a moment of deep regret then. She wanted to run and help her up, to apologize from the bottom of her heart for the shot, and to beg the girl and her friends to stop stealing her fruit. But because she was a prisoner for life in her home, she didn't move; she only served herself the small, painful punishment of making herself watch the girl spring up off the ground and send her a scathing look. The girl turned her back to her and promptly pulled her pants down, mooning her in a way that sent a shock through her heart.
"Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a small village; and near it lived a giant," the girl began, speaking into the megaphone one week after that bitter incident. The nun listened, amazed, her heart fluttering with a strange joy, for the girl had come back.
"The giant had a big garden; and in it, a lot of fruit trees. There were apricot trees, and pear and peach and guava, fig, cherry, and lemon."
Theodora passed a glance over her trees. She found the girl's voice pleasant. It held no resentment; on the contrary, her voice contained an invitation to talk; Theodora felt it right away. Not only was there this note of invitation; the girl spoke as if she were telling a fairy tale to a small child; the soft, soothing voice leaked into the depths of the nun's memory and rippled outward.
"The children of the village loved to play in the giant's garden," the girl continued. "Climbing the trees, bathing in the little stream, running through the meadows ... Excuse me, Nun, I didn't even ask youdo you understand Hebrew?"
Theodora woke up from her sweet reverie, took a piece of paper from her desk, and rolled it into a little megaphone, and, with her slightly clucking voice, a voice that hadn't spoken loudly in years, informed the girl that she spoke, wrote, and read in perfect Hebrew; she learned in her youth, from Mr. Eliasaf, a teacher at Takhkemoni High School, who used to tutor private students in order to supplement his income. When she finished her short, detailed speech, she thought she saw a glimmer of a smile in the girl's eyes.
"You haven't seen her when she smiles," Theodora whispered to Assaf. "With a little dimple here," and she touched his cheek. He trembled as if he could feel the warmth of this girl, Tamar, on his cheekthis girl with whom he had no business at allhe had nothing to do with her dimple! In her heart, Theodora thought, You blushed, my dear! Aloud, she said, "Your heart flies up when she smilesno, do not laugh, I never exaggerateyour heart leaves your body and flaps its wings!"
"But the giant didn't want the children to play in his garden," the girl on the barrel continued. "Didn't want them to enjoy the fruit of his treesdidn't allow them to pick his flowers or bathe in his little stream. So he built a wall around his garden, a high, thick wall." She looked straight into the nun's eyes. Her look was piercing and intense, a lot more mature than her age. Theodora felt tender yearnings slowly spiral inside her.
Assaf was listening, too, hypnotized, smiling unconsciously. He saw the picture in front of him: the little nun peeking out of her window, the wide, fertile garden ... and over the fence, standing on a barrel, the girl. To be honest, he was a little scared of girls who were capable of getting up on barrels, of doing those kinds of things. (What kinds of things? Deliberate, special, provocativeoriginal things.) He could always spot them from a distance and cautiously avoid them: opinionated girls, decisive and self-confident. Girls who felt that the whole world belonged to them, for whom everything is just fun and games; who probably also feel that boys like him are clumsy, and a bit slow, and kind of boring.
Theodora looked at the girl on the barrel, however, and different thoughts arose inside her. She tumbled a pile of books from a chair to the bed and pulled the chair to the window; it was a carved wooden chair, unused for years: the lookout chair for pilgrims. She sat upon it, stiffly, alertly; but in only a few moments her body melted, curved, and bent toward the window, until only her eyes peeked above the sill, her chin pillowed on her palms.
Theodora's garden was surrounded by a stone wall on the side facing the street; but only a high, ugly, chain-link fence separated it from the neighboring school. The fence didn't prevent the invasion of gluttonous students, driven to distraction by the scent of ripe fruit. In the morning, the pupils from the school; in the afternoon, the kids in the chorus that practiced there. Nasrian, her Armenian gardeneralso her housepainter, carpenter, blacksmith, messenger, and mail carrier for her many letterspatched over the holes in the fence again and again, only to discover new ones each morning. The garden that had given Theodora great pleasure in the past now cost her a tormented soul, to the point that, more than once, in times of despair, she seriously considered cutting down all the treesIf I cannot have them, then they shall not have them!
Now, as the girl spoke to her, her exasperation was forgotten. She didn't know the fairy tale the girl was telling, but at the sound of her clear voice, a strange thought occurred to her: a thought about, of all things, her mother, who was always busy and tired, who always had a new baby tied to her back and never had the time to be alone with Theodora, just the two of them together. Then, perhaps for the first time in her life, she realized that her mother had never told her stories, or sang her songs ... and with that, her mind drifted gently to her little village on the island of Lyxos, to the white-painted houses and fishing nets, and the seven windmills, the tiny little wooden birdhouses with diamond openings, built especially for the doves of the island, and the dark octopuses, hanging on ropes to dry ... She hadn't seen that village so clearly in years, the gardens in front of the houses, the narrow streets ... They were paved with round stones, which the people of the island called monkey-headsshe hadn't thought of that nickname for almost fifty years. For almost fifty years, she had forbidden herself to return there for even one moment. She had built a fortress around that region, walled it in, because she knew the yearning and mourning would batter her heart unbearably.
"Take grapes," she said to Assaf, almost soundlessly. "Sweet sultana grapes, because now the story takes a bitter turn."
About sixty-five years before Theodora was born, Panorios, the head of the village, a very rich and educated man, also an experienced traveler, decided to donate a huge sum of money for the building of a house in Holy Jerusalem for the people of his island. Panorios himself made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one, and found himself on a boat, rolling around with hundreds of Russian peasants, in the filthy bunks Russia had built for her pilgrims. He passed hard weeks in the company of people who did not understand his language, whose habits and behavior seemed repulsive to him, even obscene. He fell prey to the hard-hearted tour guides, who tormented the innocent pilgrims and robbed them of what little money they'd brought; when he grew sick, he couldn't find any doctor to treat him who could understand his descriptions of what ailed him. When he finally returned to the island, delirious and dying of typhus, he dictated a last request to his secretary on his deathbed: that in the Holy City a place be built where pilgrims from the island of Lyxos could stay in the Holy Land; a home where they could rest their tired heads, wash their feet after the long journey; a home where they would be spoken to in their own language, and even in the special dialect of the people of the Cyclades. He insisted on one final condition: that in this house should reside, forever, only one, a nun: a girl of the island, whose name would be chosen by lot. She would spend all her pure life in that house and never leave it, not even for a brief hour. Her life would be devoted to waiting for the arrival of the pilgrims of Lyxos, and then seeing to their care.
The girl on the barrel continued her tale, but Theodora had already been swept away by a silent flood of memory. She remembered that day when the old men had gathered in the home of Panorios's grandson, for a third time since the house in Jerusalem was built, to draw a name. Since Panorios's death, two girls from the island had already been sent there: the first lost her mind after forty-five years; Amaryllia, the girl with golden braids, was sent to replace her. Now came an urgent need to replace the sick Amaryllia; rumor said she had fallen ill not only in body. At that hour, twelve-year-old Theodora lay naked and tanned as a plum on a cliff over her secret bay. Eyes closed, she thought of one particular boy who had lately started bothering her wherever she went. He made jokes about her triangular face and her legs, which were always scratched; he called her a scaredy-cat and a little girl. Yesterday, when she returned from the sea alone, he blocked her way and demanded that she bow to him if she wanted him to allow her to pass. She jumped on him and they fought for long minutes in silence; only their panting and gasping could be heard. She scratched and beat at him and spit like a cat, and swore in her heart that she would fight him to death. He almost overpowered herand then, at the sound of approaching wagon wheels, he got up and ran away. But when she picked herself off the ground, she found he had left something for her: a baby donkey he had sculpted from a long piece of iron wire.
So she was lying on the warm cliff, wondering what he would bring her today when she came back from the sea, remembering the strange and pungent smell of his body sweat as they fought, when she heard loud voices from afar. She sat up and saw a tiny figure running, yelling with all its power from the top of the mountain. She didn't understand the yelling at first; then she thought she heard something familiar. She pushed herself up on her knees. The tiny figure must have come out of Panorios's grandson's house. Theodora watched it, and discerned that it was a boy, a half-naked little boy, running across the length of the horizon, waving his arms and wildly yelling out her name.
She was sent away three days later. It was impossible to protest or object; even now the insult rose and bubbled in herher father and mother were as miserable as she about it, but it never crossed their minds to dispute the decision made by the old men of the island. Theodora remembered the farewell party they threw her; the white she-ass decorated with flowers and caramel candies in the shape of a tower in Jerusalem; also, the oath she swore: that never, ever, would she desert the guest home, whose window looked west, toward the sea.
She could no longer remember the exact wording of the oath, but she saw now, again, as in a nightmare, the black-bearded face of the village elder and the fleshy lips of the priest who held her hand and branded her with a red-hot iron in front of the whole village. She knew she'd be able to buy her freedom by allowing a single cry of pain to escape her mouth, even a light moanbut when she glanced up, she saw, on a distant rock, the burning eyes of that boy, and her pride did not allow it.
The strange girl was on the barrel, still talking. Theodora took a deep breath, possessed by a shivershe could almost smell the sea again, sailing on the first and last journey of her life, to the miserable port of Jaffashe saw the long ride to Jerusalem, in an old bus that groaned like a human beingand she remembered the physical shock of amazement that filled her when, for the first time in her life, she was on land that was not an island.
It was late at night when a Bukharani street merchant dropped her off with her bundle in front of the convent gate, and she knew her life had ended. Sister Amaryllia opened the gate for her, and Theodora looked, horrified, into her glassy eyes, her face reduced to nothing: the face of someone buried alive.
In the two years she lived with Sister Amaryllia, not even one pilgrim came to the house in Jerusalem. Theodora grew into a lovely young woman, but Amaryllia reflected back at her, feature by feature and line by line, what was waiting for her when she became old. Almost every hour of the day, Amaryllia would sit on the high chair in front of the window facing west, presumably in the direction of the port of Jaffa, and wait. During the decades she was imprisoned there, she forgot even her family members, the letters of the alphabet, and the people of the island of Lyxos who had sent her there. She gradually eroded away into one narrow line, the scar of a white gaze.
And then, one month after she passed away and was buried in the convent yard, the horrible news came: an earthquake in the Aegean Sea, the Great Earthquake of '51. The island split in twoa great tidal wave rose up and, in a few moments, took all its residents down to the depths of the sea.
But no, this is not what she wants to think about now, when outside, beyond the fruit trees, a clear, daring voice is dancing, walking her back to her childhood buried under fifty years and so much water. She didn't know why she was so willing to give herself over to the temptations of a voice that sounded like a song as it spoke. She pressed her fists to her eyes, hard, as if to escape the sight of the girl on the barrel; through the sparkles, she saw herself, the sharp, daring, feisty Theodora leaping and embracing her two best girl friends, and nowWhere are you, laughing Alexandra, light mountain goat? Where are you, Katarina, who knew all my secrets? The people of the village floated up and rose to greet her, knocking on her closed eyelids, begging to be remembered: her sisters, her big brothers, the twin brothers, infants, struck blind one day when they looked into the sun during an eclipse. They, too, are gone, and also that stupid, beautiful boy.
She wiped her wet eyes on her sleeve and looked at the girl on the barrel, and over her fruit trees, and thought that, actually, she was behaving like a fool, even a villain. The trees bowed under the weight of the fruit, and no one but she ate from them; even after the pupils' daily plundering, masses of fruit were left rotting on the branches. She attacked the children because they stole from her, and she couldn't bear that; but if, perhaps, she allowed them to pick some, perhaps this ugly war could stop immediately ...
A silence snapped her out of her thoughts. The girl had finished her story and was probably waiting for an answer.
Now, when the clumsy megaphone wasn't hiding half her face, Theodora saw how sweet she was; her eyes, revealed in that exposed, beautiful face, shone and teased at the same time, bold, honorable eyes that sliced through all the layers coating Theodora, her age and time and loneliness. Then she raised her paper megaphone and announced, her voice trying to sound serious, that she would be willing to begin negotiations with the girl.
"And this is how it began." Theodora laughed silently, and Assaf stretched his arms, as if waking from a strange dream. "The following day, they came here and sat in my roomTamar, with another boy and girl, her soul matesand presented me with an exemplary, organized plan."
In it, they listed each tree and every member of the chorus who wished to join in the arrangement; a schedule gave everyone a turn and said which weeks they were allowed to pick which fruit ...
"And the war was over," Theodora said, laughing, "in a single day."
Here it comes, Tamar thinks. After this moment, you won't be able to escape. She's dragging her legs and can't find a place to stand; the asphalt burns under her heels wherever she stops. To try and calm herself down, she recalls how she's actually been through many such moments in the past few months: the first time she dared approach someone in one of the dark market corners, asking him if he recognized the person in the photo she was holding. The first time she bought from one of the dealers in Tziyyon Square, a dwarf with thick hips and a colorful wool hatfor a moment, you could almost picture him onstage, playing the role of a friendly troll from Fairylandher negotiation with him was short and to the point, and nobody would have guessed how her heart was beating like a drum. Money and merchandise switched hands, and she kept it in a bag, rolled up in a sock, knowing she now had enough for the first days of the operation
But right now is still the hardest moment. To suddenly stand in the middle of the city, in the middle of traffic, in the pedestrian walkway of Ben Yehuda Street, which she'd walked through a million times like a normal, free person
walking with Idan and Adi, licking Magnum ice creams after chorus rehearsal, or as they sat and drank cappuccinos, laughing at the new tenor, that Russian boy who shamelessly dared to compete with Idan for the solos. "Another mouth-breathing peasant from the Ural Mountains," Idan muttered into his cup, flaring his nostrils lightly in the flutter that signaled both of them to burst into rollicking laughter until they cried. Tamar laughed along, even more loudly than Adi, perhaps so as not to hear what she was thinking about herself in that moment, and she kept laughing like that, for that entire period, because she couldn't get over the wonder that, for the first time in her life, she belonged to those who mocked, a small, united group that had been together already for a year, two months, one week, and a day. Three young artists, a rare oath of fraternity, whose members were loyal to one another, or so, at least, she believed.
And now she has to walk here all by herself, to find a location at an appropriate distance from the old Russian playing his accordion; to stop, within the normal flow of the street, to stand in a certain spot. Someone is already looking at her, slightly disturbed, circling her, with a disagreeable expression on his face. She feels like a little leaf that has decided to take a different direction from the current of the whole riverbut she mustn't hesitate now, she mustn't think. Mustn't entertain the faintest notion that someone will recognize her and come over and ask, Are you crazy? How naive she wasor stupidto think that shaving her head and changing her costume would succeed in transforming her so completely ... and, more than that, if someone were to debate for a moment whether or not it was actually her, why, then he would see Dinka and know. How foolish it was to take Dinka! All of a sudden all her mistakes spread out before her, a chain of foolishness and negligent planning. How had it happened? Look what you've done! Who did you think you wereyou're just a little girl trying to play James Bond. She pulls up short, she stands and winces, as if absorbing a blowbut within herself: How couldn't you guess that this is exactly what would happen, and that in the moment of truth, all the stitches and holes would be exposed? You always do this, don't you? The moment always comes when your fantasies finally touch reality, and then the balloon that you are explodes in your face ... People are milling around her on both sides, grumbling and jostling one another. Dinka barks softly, waking her up. Tamar straightens, bites her lip: Enough, stop feeling sorry for yourself, there's no time to hesitate now, and it's too late to turn back. Get out of your head and obey orders. You will put the big tape player on the stone flowerpot, push the play button, turn the volume up, more, louderthis isn't a room, it's a street, this is Ben Yehuda Street, forget about yourself for once, from here on out you're only an instrument by which to accomplish your mission, nothing more. Listen to the sounds, the beloved sounds, the sounds of his guitar, Shai's guitar, see his long golden hair falling on his cheek when he used to play for you in his room; let him wrap you up, melt your fears away, and at that right moment, that precise"Suzanne takes you down ..."
For long days, she had been trying to decide what song she should use to open her career on the streets. She had to plan that as well, of course. In the same way she planned and calculated the amount of drinking water in the cave, the number of candles and rolls of toilet paper. At first she thought she would sing something in Hebrew, something familiar, Yehudit Ravits or Nurit Galron, something warm and rhythmic and personal, something that wouldn't make her tense, that would mingle and mix with the street. At the same time, she was tickled by her constant temptation to dazzle them right at the start with something unexpected: Cherubino's second aria from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, maybe; to announce, in that way, right at the first moment, a strong, clear declaration about who she was, and what her intentions on this street were, so that everyone would know at once how different and separate she was from everyone else here ...
Because, in her imagination, she had limitless courage; in her imagination, she sent her voice out to the full length and width of the street, filled every gap and pothole there, immersing all the people in a softening, purifying solution; in her imagination, she chose to sing high, so ridiculously high as to blow them away right at the start with her high pitch, to abandon herself shamelessly to the floating exultation that made her feel a little light-headed when she sang like that, drunk from the pleasure of the unbroken takeoff, from her darkest depths to the dizzying altitudes. And eventually, she chose "Suzanne," of all things, because she liked the song, and she liked the warm, sad, defeated voice of Leonard Cohen, and more than anything, she thought it would be easier for her, at least at the beginning, to sing in a foreign language.
But after a second or two of singing, something goes wrong: she already knows that she has started too softly, too hesitantly. No charisma, Idan decides from inside her head, chaining her downwhat's wrong with her? She wishes it wouldn't spoil her singing, the one and only thing about herself she trusts in her whole complex plan. Now it seems much harder than she had thoughtsinging here really means opening herself up, exposing her innermost self to the eyes of the street. She struggles with herself, and sounds a little betterbut it's so far from what she dared to dream aboutthat the whole street would hold its breath from the first sound, and be swept up by the whirlwind of her voice. Why, she had fantasized, in detail, how the window cleaner's gloomy, circular motions on the second floor of the Burger King would freeze; how the juice vendor would stop the juicer in the middle of a carrot's bitter cry ...
But wait, one moment; don't despair so quickly; there is one man over there, by the shoe store, stopping and looking at you, still standing at a sufficient distance, careful not to commit, but still, he's listening to you. She pulls her shoulders back, making her voice full: " ... She gets you on her wavelength ..."
And just as it happens in a river, or on a streetwhen one branch gets stuck, others immediately cluster around it; that's the law, it's the physics of motion within a flow; another man stops next to the man listening noncommittally by the shoe store, and another, and more. Six or seven of them are already gathered there, and now it's eight. She tunes her breath, restraining the slight hysteria at the edges of her voice, and dares to raise her eyes and take a brief peek at the little audience, the ten people who are already gathered around her: " ... You want to travel blind ..."
"Easy, easy, don't push, breathe from below, from your toes, the breath!" She hears the spirit of her tyrannical and adored Halina in her ears. "God forbid you sing like that, from the throatCchh! Ccchh! You're like that one, Cecilia Bartoli ..." Tamar smiles in her heart. She misses her teacher. For her, she climbs the imaginary steps, from her throat up to the secret bird in the middle of her forehead; Halina, then, who actually has the look of a bird, quickly jumps up from her piano, her too-tight skirt rustlingone hand still playing, the other pressing on Tamar's forehead. "There you go! Bravo! Now you hear it! Perhaps they will hear it in the audition as well."
But Halina prepared her to sing in concert halls and elegant recitals, or in master classes with famous conductors or genius opera directors dropping in for a quick visit from abroad. Or for end-of-the-year chorus performances in front of an invited and prejudiced audience, with her mother's proud look (her father used to drive there unwillingly, and once she spotted him reading something that he held on his knees while she sang), and sometimes, a couple of her parents' friends would come, too, their faces soft and shining as she sang, listening to the girl they had known from birth, the one who was born screamingeven the midwife said, "That one will be an opera singer, for sure!" And there was that photo of her at age three, holding the plug from the iron and singing into it ...
And now this. Her fall. What else? It's a pity, it came too fast; but wasn't it clear that this is what would happen to her here? Because we shouldn't forget, dear friends and parents, that this is she who is standing here; nothing about her is reliable, she has to betray herself just when she needs herself the most. That's the way it is, my sweet child, my poor, fucked child; you really have no one to count on, not even yourself. Especially not yourself.
The panic sobers her upa little sobering rat running into the hollow of her stomach and biting into the lining. She is still singing, it's unclear how, but the bad thoughts quickly clutter into different words from the ones she's singing, into her familiar black hymnsthe worst thing that could happen would be for her to sing them by mistake.
Don't stop, don't stop! she yells at herself, frightened when her voice starts shaking because of the quick, relentless heartbeats; her whole body is shrinking, her muscles clenching tightly; they can probably already hear on the outside what is happening to her inside. They can probably see her frightened, tremulous expression. It will all collapse in a few seconds, she knowsnot only this miserable performance here but everything that preceded it, all of it loose and flimsy and hanging on by a thread. Good for you, dummy. You deserve it. You're finally starting to grasp what you've invented for yourself in your deranged minddo you get it? Do you see where you've brought yourself? You're lost, lost. Now pack your things up nicely and quietly, quietly, go back home. No, no, keep on singing, she begs herself, please, please keep singing; she beseeches herself, as if she were a stranger, as if she were kidnapped; if she only had an instrument in her hand, a guitar, even a drum would help, or a handkerchief, like Pavarotti's, something to hold on to to make her body vanish. Her heartbeats become a straight line of internal drumming. Something inside her is, with Satanic efficiency, recruiting everything that can negate her from the inside, all the bad looks ever thrown at her, every whisper, the humiliations, the sins, and the long insults, a procession of rats marching by. Look how quickly the street exposed the lie that you are. No: how quickly reality exposed you. Not your imagination, the hallucinations that you usually inhabit, because this is life, honey, real life, concrete, the existence you are trying to be accepted into, again and again, as a member with equal rights; and it rejects you again and again, like a body rejecting an organ transplant. "Again, you're breathing from chest and not from diaphragm," Halina determines dryly, and with a tug of her zipper closes up her black handbag and turns to go. "Your voice falls completely into your throat. I told you a thousand times: don't force the throat! I don't want you like Mussolini on the balcony!" What would Idan say if he passed by here now? "Don't call us, we'll call you." Let it go; he won't pass by here, and do you remember why? That's right, because our Idan is now in Italyoh, don't think about that now, please, pleaseIdan and Adi and the whole chorus, a month of performances all over the Boot. Today they will sing in the Pergola, and at this very moment, by the way, at this hourthey are rehearsing with the Florence Symphony Orchestra. Let go of it now, concentrate; remember, for example, that this is how you will have to survive, and that without this money you won't be able to eat tonight. Until yesterday, they were in Venice, at La Fenice. I wonder how the performance went, and whether they went later to see the Bridge of Sighs and have some fruit gelato in the Piazza San Marco. They had worked for this trip for almost half a year, the three of them; she still couldn't have imagined then how the world would turn on its head. Forget Venice now, be with "Suzanne," give your whole self to the song. But what if Idan and Adi managed to arrange to sleep together in VeniceI mean, with the same host, I mean, in neighboring rooms?
The thought chokes her. She falls silent in the middle of a word and simply stands mute. The guitar on the tape recorder continues alone, accompanying "Suzanne" without Suzanne. Tamar shuts down the stereo and collapses to the stone flowerpot. She is sitting with her head between her hands. People look at her for another moment, then shrug and start to scatter, wrapping themselves up in the street's skin of estrangement and indifference. Only one older woman, moving heavily, wearing poor clothes, approaches her: "Girl, are you sick? Have you had anything to eat today?" Pity and concern are in her eyes, and Tamar works to try and squeeze out a small smile. "I'm okay, I got a little dizzy." The woman digs through her purse, searching between used bus ticketsTamar doesn't understand what she's looking for in there. She pulls out a few shekel coins and puts them by her side on the flowerpot. "Take it, sweetie. This is from meget something to eat. You shouldn't live this way." Tamar looks at the money. The woman seems a lot poorer than she is. She feels like a liar, feels that she's taken advantage of the woman. She disgusts herself.
But then she remembers she's here on a mission, in a show she is writingand directing, and acting in. Above all, she hopes, with all her heart, that someone is watching her from the side and sees exactly what she wants to show him. The girl in the show has to take the coins left on the flowerpot, count them, put them in her bag, and smile to herself in relief, because now she will have money to buy food.
Dinka lays her head on Tamar's knees and looks into her eyes. Her big, doggy, motherly head. Oh, Dinka, Tamar cries in her heart, I don't have the courage to do this. I am not capable of giving myself up like this, to strangers. Enough, Dinka exhales into Tamar's palm, phumphfirst off, there is nothing you can't do. And second, could you please remind me who was the only one from the whole class who took her shirt off during the closing number of Hair at the end of the year, in front of the whole audience? Tamar is embarrassedit was different there, how can I explain it to you? Dinka lifts her eyebrows a little, her face mocking and inquisitive. Tamar gets annoyedeven you don't understand. Then, it was exactly the posture of the frightened, the arrogance of the shy, the deliberateness of those who are scared of their own shadow; it's always like that, you knowthose "slalom passes," as Shai calls them. And I no longer have strength for them ... Then make a pass like that here, as well, Dinka decrees, decisively shaking her head away from Tamar's hold. Show them the arrogance of the shygive them that slalom. And what if they laugh at my singing, Tamar begs, what will happen if I blow it again? Who will want me?
But they both know that her greatest fear is what would happen if she succeeded, if her plan came to pass and brought her closer, step by step, to those who are supposed to capture her.
"Come on," Tamar says, suddenly full of shaky bravado. "Let's show them who we are."
At two in the afternoon, exactly four weeks after Tamar's failed premiere, Assaf left the convent; the sun attacked him, and he felt like someone who, for a long time, had been in another, very distant world. Theodora escorted him to the stairs descending from her room and urgently insisted he find Tamar, and quickly. He had a lot more questions to ask her, but understood that she would not give him any more details about Tamar, and he no longer had the patience to remain there, in the close room.
His body was tense and electric, and he didn't know why. Dinka trotted by his side, glancing at him with curiosity every once in a while. Perhaps dogs smell these things, he thought. They smell nervousness. He started running. And she woke to him and ran by his side. He loved running. Running calmed him down; he liked to think while he ran. His gym teacher had tried to convince him on more than one occasion to participate in track meets; he said that Assaf had the breath and the pulse and, mainly, the endurance to qualify for the team. But Assaf didn't like the tension of competition. Not only because of the rivalry with boys he didn't know, but also because he didn't like to do things in front of an audience. It was funnyin the 60-meter run, he was always among the last (the teacher called it "late ignition"); but in a 2,000-meter run and, even better, the 5,000, he had no competitors, not even among the seniors. "The moment you have it, you have it, eh? All the way to the end. Guaranteed." His teacher once said that, admiringly; Assaf treasured that little sentence in his heart like a medal.
He now started feeling that all the running he had been doing was finally turning into it, the right running, well tuned and beautifully paced. He ran, and his thoughts became clearer; he somehow knew he had unintentionally been trapped in a little whirlpoolnothing really dangerous, but still, he had apparently entered into a zone of compressed realityelectrified and highly charged.
They ran side by side, relaxed, easy runningthe rope hung loose between them, and Assaf was almost tempted to let go of it completely. He thought this was the first time they had run together like this, like a boy with his doghe glanced aside and saw her there, her tongue hanging out, her eyes shining, and her tail erect. He adjusted his steps to match hers, and was filled with warmth at the pleasure of his new synchronicity with her. He could imagine that she, too, felt this way, that she knew they were companions on a journey. He smiled to himself; there was something in it that he hadn't known for years, that he had already forgotten to yearn forsomething like friendship.
But when he thought again about the girl, Tamar, his temporary peace of mind deserted him, and his pace lengthened. Every new thing he discovered about her, every little fact, every minor detail, seemed, for some reason, immense to him, full of hidden meanings. (Dinka, surprised, hurried after him.) Since the morning, from the moment he had first heard about her, he felt a new being forcibly trying to push itself into his life and cling to it at all costs, send roots down into it. Actually, Assaf didn't really like such surprises; usual, daily life seemed too full of the unexpected as it was. Besides, he remembered, suddenly worried all over again, glancing at his watch, he was supposed to dedicate a little time to his private affairs and figure out how he would get Roi off his back. Plus, he really had no intention of running around half of Jerusalem chasing down some anonymous girl to whom he had no connection and never would. What business of his was her life, anyway? He knew about her only by a strange coincidence, and if you think about it, at least he knew Dafi and didn't have to learn about and get used to her faults. This new girl, whose dog really is very cute, who likes pizza with cheese and olives ... He couldn't remember how this train of thought began.
Suddenly Dinka passed him and started running faster. He didn't understand what had happened; he lifted his head and looked around and couldn't see what she was chasinghe was the only person running on the street. But he had already learned to count on her senses and guessed that she probably saw or smelled something that was hidden to him. It was as if a powerful internal engine had ignitedshe made sharp turns down streets and into alleys, and burst into Independence Park, through bushes and grass; she ran like a storm, her big ears pushed back by the wind. Assaf flew after her and marveled again at a dog's sense of smell, the way she was capable of detecting a person without using her eyes. He also wondered what, exactly, he would say once Dinka led him to this person.
"Gotcha!" somebody said behind him, leaped on his back forcefully, and pushed him to the ground, hard.
Assaf was so shocked that for a long moment he just lay there, unmoving, not thinking. He could feel the man on top of him twisting his hand behind him and almost breaking itand only then did he yell.
"Go ahead, yell," said the man, sitting on his back. "You'll cry soon, too."
"What do you want from me?" Assaf moaned in pain. "What did I do to you?"
The man pushed his head hard into the grounddirt got into his mouth and nose, and he felt his forehead scratching against something until it bled. Two strong fingers pressed hard against the sides of his cheeks and forced his mouth open; immediately after that, other fingers invaded his mouth, searching for something, then leaving. Assaf lay stunned. He saw ants running around in front of him, and a cigarette butt; everything was enlarged.
Then some paper or a formal ID was shoved under his nose. He crossed his eyes but couldn't see anything, it was too close. His eyes were blurred by tears. The guy who was sitting on his back grabbed Assaf by the hair and pulled his head back painfully and shoved the paper under his nose again. Assaf thought his eyes were going to pop out of his sockets and vaguely saw the photo of a smiling, dark-skinned guy on a police badge. He was relieved for a moment, but only for a moment.
"Get up! On your feet, you're under arrest."
"Me? What for, what did I do?"
Assaf's other hand was then twisted back behind him, and he heard a click he knew only from the movieshandcuffs. He was handcuffed. His mother would die.
"What did you do?" A low murmur of laughter behind him. "Soon you'll tell us exactly what you did, you little shit. Up. Get up."
Assaf tucked his head as far as he could between his shoulders and was silent. His guts were going crazy, he was afraid he'd shit his pants. He suddenly lost all his energy. (It always happened that way to him: when someone spoke so rudely to him, or anyone else, his will to live would evaporate for a moment. It was as if he would run out of himself, losing any passion for existence, when people spoke like that.) Dinka, on the other hand, was full of fighting spirit. She stood at a distance and barked with all her strength, in a terrible rage, but didn't dare come closer.
"I said, up on your feet!" the man roared, and grabbed him by the hair again. Assaf had to get up. His hair was almost pulled out by the rootsthe sharp pain again brought big tears into his eyes. The man went through Assaf's pockets, searched in his shirt as well, and quickly patted him down over his back and between his legs, searching for somethinga weapon, maybe, or something else. He was so frightened he didn't dare ask the man anything.
"Tell the world goodbye," the man murmured. "Go on, move your ass, and if you try anything funny, if you act up at all, I'll crush you right here. Got it?" He took a little walkie-talkie out and called for a police car. With that, he pushed Assaf to the park's exit.
Assaf walked, handcuffed, through the streets of Jerusalem. He lowered his head and prayed that none of the people watching him now knew him or his parents. If only his hands had been cuffed in the front, he could raise his shirt to hide his face like the suspects on television. Dinka followed them, and every once in a while burst into a series of raging barks; each time, the man threw curses at her and threatened her with kicks. Assaf still couldn't believe that he was really a policeman, because of his violent hatred for him and Dinka.
But he was a detective, and he walked Assaf, as if he were leading a slave procession, all the way to the police car waiting by the parking lot of Agron Street. As the police car drove them to the station in Migrash ha-Rusim, the two policemen spoke with the detective who caught him. "I recognized the little shit right away," the detective bragged, "because of the dog. The orange collar. They thought they could fool me."
When they arrived at the station, the detective took him into a side room. JUVENILE INVESTIGATION was written in blue marker on the door. The room had very thick walls, and Assaf thought, This is so no one will be able to hear my screams when he tortures me. But the detective left him in there with Dinka and locked the door.
There was a metal desk in the room, two chairs, and one long bench by the wall. Assaf stumbled to the bench and sat on it. He had to go to the bathroom, but there was no one to tell. A big fan was moving slowly on the ceiling. Assaf forced himself to think about the child riding a camel in the Sahara Desert. The thought tried to escape him, but Assaf focused, with all his powers, on the child riding the camel: at this very moment, in the great Sahara Desert, in vast spaces without end or horizon, a huge camel procession moves slowly forward (he usually took his ideas for these thoughts from the National Geographic channel). Toward the end of the line, a little boy sits on one of the camels, swaying and bobbing with the camel's rhythm. His face is covered because of the dust storms; only his eyes peer out, examining the land before him. What does he see? What's going through his head? Assaf swayed with him on the camel, surrounded himself with the silence of the desert. He could always escape there, even within the noise of the drill at the dentist. And not only there: right now, an Icelandic deck boy is sailing over the North Sea on a huge gray fishing boat; he spent the whole morning washing the remains of dead fish from the deck, and now he leans over the metal railing, watching the icebergs rising like mountains above the ship. Does he like those long voyages? Is he afraid of the captain? When will he see his home again? Assaf focused on themhe didn't exactly know how it helped him calm down, but it always worked, kind of like his discussion groups on the Internet, but without any direct connection to anyone. It was as if all those lonely people scattered throughout the world, in some mysterious way, created a secret net, transferring strength to one another in times of need. Like now. At least the shameful storm in his belly had subsided. He straightened up a bit. It would be fine. His mother was rubbing his back softly, caressing him, reminding him that everything would be all right, that in her secret contract with God it clearly stated that he would always, always be fine. He even managed to smile at Dinka. It will be fine, you'll see. Dinka stood up, and in an ancient movement, whose history is as long as the history of the friendship between man and dog but was completely new to the two of them, came and laid her head on his knees and looked into his eyes.
He couldn't even pet her, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Tamar gets up from the stone flowerpot and stands, silent and trapped in thought. It seems, for a moment, as if she has stolen away to a far place, and her eyes grow even bigger and are gazing into the air. Only those who believe in supernatural things would say that lightning passed through her brain in that instant and that, without understanding it, she was seared by a strange, vague prophecy: soon, four weeks from today, she would lose her Dinka, and the dog would later be found searching through the streets frantically, and one boy, a stranger, would follow her, step by step, over the entire face of Jerusalem.
One moment of fog, and the sharp flash in its depths, and then Tamar blinks and smiles with her eyes at Dinka, and forgets. Now she only hopes that no one will remember the last few embarrassing moments. She rewinds the tape and finds the accompaniment she is looking for, listens to the opening notes, moves the tape player so its sound has as wide a reach as possible.
Because here is that moment again when the exodus must come, the deviation from the mass, that is, she has to detach herself from the flowing anonymity, the daily, nervous, protective anonymity of the street. She simply has to be exceptional, and lookyou're surrounded by dozens of indifferent people, and the smells of the shwarma being cut, and the fat dripping into the fire, the shouts of the vendors in the bazaar above you, and the squeaking accordion of the Russian who perhaps used to be someone just like you, a kid in some conservatory in Moscow or Leningrad, and perhaps he, too, had a teacher who called his parents in for a meeting and lacked the words to express her excitement. She lifts her head and chooses a point of focus in the space around her. It's not a Renoir painting hung in the rehearsal hall, and not a chandelier with golden filigree that probably hangs in the Pergola. It is a little sign announcing VARICOSE VEINS CURED IN THREE MONTHS, GUARANTEED! She likes this, of all things. It suits her now. So she closes her eyes and sings to it:
"The water is wide; I cannot get o'er,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I."
She can feel how the street splits in two, even without opening her eyes; it isn't split by its length or width, but into the street that existed before she sang, and afterward. She has the clear, confident sense that she doesn't have to lookher skin feels it: people are slowly stopping where they stand. Some of them turn around and return, hesitatingly, to the place where the voice is coming from. They stand. They listen. They forget themselves in her voice.
Of course, many don't slow down and don't even notice any change in the din of the streetthey go, they come back, they are burdened and embittered. An alarm whines in one of the stores. A beggar woman passes by, pushing an old baby stroller with whistling wheels. The window cleaner on a ladder at the second-floor window of the Burger King doesn't stop his circling motions; but still, with every moment, another person joins the circle around her. One row of people already surrounds her, and another is gathering; Tamar feels herself in a double embrace. The circle is moving in an unconscious, unnoticed motion, a huge creature with tens of legs; the people are turning their backs to the noise and protecting her from the street. They stand in different positions, leaning forward slightly; someone accidentally lifts his eyes and meets the gaze of the person standing next to him. They smile for a moment, and a complete conversation passes through that tender smile. Opening her eyes, Tamar notices all this, but vaguely. She understands the looks in their eyes from previous performances she's had with the chorus, the good ones: that look of someone remembering something he used to have and lost, that he would like to be worthy of again.
"Down in the meadows the other day
A gathering flowers both fine and gay
A gathering flowers both red and blue,
I little thought what love can do."
She finishes with a barely heard notestretching like a thread becoming thinner and thinner, weaving into the mad swell of the wheel of life surrounding her, becoming stronger again now that her song is fading. Those standing around her clap their hands eagerly. One or two sigh deeply. Tamar doesn't move. Her neck is flushed, her eyes silently, soberly alight. She stands, and her hands are pulled down by the sides of her body. She wants to leap in joy and relief, because she did it, and she was so close to giving up. But even now, she remembers that singing is not what brought her here. It is depressing to remember that singing is only the instrument, the bait. No, that's wrongTamar herself is the bait. She looks around, her eyes shining and full of gratitude, but also inspecting. She scans the crowdfrom the first glance, it seems to her that not one of the many people around her is the one who was supposed to swallow the bait that is herself.
Now she realizes that in her agitation before the performance she forgot to put out her hat for the money; and she has to bend over in front of everyone in her uncomfortable overalls and search through her bag, and of course clothes and underwear pour out of it, and Dinka insists on shoving her nose in the bag and sniffing through it. By the time Tamar finds her beretuntil about a year ago she loved to wear hatsuntil Idan told her what he thought about hatsalmost all her audience has scattered.
But some stay, and they approach her, some confidently, some shyly, and put coins into her wrinkled hat.
Tamar hesitates over whether she should stay here and sing some more. She knows she can, she has the courageshe even feels the desire to continue singing, a familiar feeling of conquest and greatness that possessed her from about the middle of the song, but with a power she never knew singing in closed concert halls. Whoever knew that her voice was really so big?
She also knows that if the man or one of his messengers was around, she would feel his presence. He would already be standing somewhere in one of the outer rows of the circle that had gathered around her, looking her over, the way you inspect innocent, unworried prey, calmly considering how to trap it.
She was standing in the heart of a waterfall of golden sunshine. Tamar shivered, gathered up the money from her hat, and started to move away with Dinka. A few people tried to talk to her. One boy raised her hopes; he wouldn't let go of her, there was something cruel and rough in the line of his mouth, and for a moment she stopped to listen to him attentively. But when she realized he was only trying to pick her up, she shook him off and went on her way.
She sang five more times that dayonce in front of Hamashbeer, twice near Gerar Behar Center, and another two times in Tziyyon Square. She added a new song every once in a while, but made sure never to sing more than three at a time. She refused to sing more, even when the applause was hearty, the reactions enthusiastic. She had a goal, and when she finished singing and the thing she was expecting didn't happen, she turned off her tape player, collected her money, and tried to disappear. The main thing had been accomplished: now people would talk about her. She scattered herself like a rumor. She couldn't do more than that, only hope that soon, quickly, the rumor would reach the ears of the man she was waiting forher predator.
He closed his eyes, leaned on the wall; the ceiling fan squeaked in a regular rhythm, and outside, people came and went: policemen, criminals, ordinary citizens. Assaf didn't know how long they would keep him in here like this, and when, if ever, they would come to look after him. Dinka lay by his feet on the cool floor. He got off the wooden bench and sat beside her on the floor, leaning against the wall. They both closed their eyes.
Immediately Theodora's voice swarmed around him, and he dove into it, searched for comfort in it; he was still quite confused by the agitated leaps between her stories, between times and countries and islands. But he remembered quite well how she had sat, bent over and introspective, after she'd finished her story; she seemed, to him, like an old, gnarled root. His heart felt pity for her. If she were his grandmother, he would probably get up and hug her without thinking twice.
"But I lived," she told him, as if she were responding to his soul's movement toward her. "In spite of everything, hear me now, Assaf, I have lived this life!" When she saw the doubt in his eyes, she banged on the table and fumed, "No, my dear! Please remove this look!" She rose slightly out of her chair in anger, and emphasized every word with care: "On that first night after I learned of the terrible fate of Lyxos, when the dawn came and I saw that I had not died of agony or loneliness, I decided to live!"
She was only a girl of fourteen then, but she understood her situation clearly and, above all, with no self-pity. The past had vanished behind her, and no known future awaited her. She knew no one, not here or anywhere else. She knew nothing about the country she lived in, and she didn't speak the local language. Assaf thought perhaps her belief in God must have helped her, but she explained to him that she never had believed very deeply in Godeven less so after the disaster. She had a big, empty house, a generous monthly pension coming in from a bank in Greece, and a harsh oath she knew she would never break, if for no other reason than out of respect for the dead who had sent her here.
"This was my situation," she told him, dryly and restrained. "I had to decide, on my own, what my fate would be, from that moment and for the rest of my life." She stood up and paced around the room; she finally stopped behind him and laid her hands on the back of the chair. "I decided completely. Do you hear me? If I was destined never to emerge from this house and into the world, I would bring the world into it."
So she did. She ordered the convent's servant in those days, Nasrian's father, to go out and buy every book in Greek he could find. He found mainly old sacred scriptures in the cellars of Greek churches, and they didn't interest her much. So, on her fifteenth birthday, she gave herself a present: she hired a private Hebrew tutor and started studying both ancient and modern Hebrew with him. She was quick to learn and hungry for knowledge, and after four months of studying with Mr. Eliasaf, she started buying books from Hans Flueger's Book Merchants, books about the land of Israel, the country in which she had so unwillingly arrived and in which she was imprisoned. She learned everything the books could teach her about the Arabs and the Jews and the Christians living with her in the same city, so near, yet completely invisible. When she was sixteen, she hired another private tutor for Arabic, literary and conversational, and read the Koran and The Arabian Nights with him. The booksellers in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim started sending her wooden crates full of books of the Mishnah and Talmud, and their interpreters. These didn't interest her much, but sometimes, at the bottom of the crate, she would discover a non-kosher, forbidden book about scientific inventions or the lives and habits of ants, or about some famous painter from the sixteenth century, and she would devour it hungrily. When these scraps no longer satisfied her, she started purchasing old, torn copies of books from the Dr. Hugo Bergman Zionist Library. She also paid Eliezer Weingerten, a book distributor, very generously, so he would immediately pass on to her every book about the new subjects her heart was so drawn to: the Napoleonic Wars, inventions and scientific developments, astronomy, the days of prehistoric man, and the travelogues of well-known adventurers.
It wasn't easy, of course. She had to learn how to match the words she read to so many things she'd never seen with her eyes: what, for example, is a "telescope"? What is the "North Pole"? What are "germs" and "opera," "airport" and "basketball"? "Can you believe itthat only at the age of eighteen did I learn of New York, and who Shakespeare was?" Her face wrinkled in wonder, and then she whispered, as if only to herself, "Not for fifty years, since I first entered this house, have I seen a rainbow with my own eyes."
When she was nineteen, she bought the Mikhlal, the youth encyclopedia; others came after it, in three languages, dozens of volumesbut Theodora never forgot the waves of intoxication flooding her during that joyous six months as she read, day and night, entry by entry, the whole of creation.
After this period, she became possessed by a great lust for knowledge, above all, of the present, especially world politics. Every morning she sent Nasrian's father to buy a newspaper in Hebrew and a newspaper in Arabic, and she read them, with a dictionary and gritted teeth; this is how she became acquainted with David Ben-Gurion and the ruler of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. She learned that smoking causes lung cancer, and excitedly followed, together with the rest of the world's citizens, the process of educating Rajiv, the Indian child who had been raised by wolves until the age of nine. Slowly, with great effort, she started cutting a path through the bush of facts and new names, to picture the world, but above all, to beat down her ignorance, the ignorance of a girl from a tiny Cycladic island, the tiniest and most forgotten in the island chain around Delos.
"And still," she told Assaf, and her fingers rested above her eyebrows as if she were pressing down a headache that had started to emerge, "for all the happiness that it brought me, I was sad, and filled with longingbecause it all was words and only more words!"
Assaf gazed at her, not understanding what she meant. So she, as whenever she was impatient, slapped her hand against the table. "And how do you explain green and purple and burgundy to someone who is blindnow do you understand?" He nodded. But he still wasn't sure"So I was, agori mou: licking the peel, but never biting into the fruit itself ... What, for instance, does a baby smell like after its bath? What does a man feel when a fast train passes in front of his face? How do the hearts of all the people sitting in a theater for a magnificent play beat together?" He now started to grasp what she was saying: her world was made entirely of words, descriptions, written characters, dry facts. His mouth opened a bit, with a wondering smile: why, this is exactly what his mother had warned him would happen if he spent all his time in front of the computer.
"You know, in those days, I also established the Republic of the Mail, right here in this room," and she told him about the correspondence she had been maintaining for over forty years, with scholars and philosophers and writers from all over the world. At first she sent them simple questions, ashamed of her ignorance and apologizing for her nerve. In time her questions began deepening, widening; and the answers became more detailed, personal, and heartfelt. "And besides my professors, you should know, I also correspond with quite a few innocent life prisoners, like me." And she showed him a photo of a Dutch woman who was wounded in a terrible accident and bedridden for the rest of her life, and all she saw were a few branches of a chestnut tree and a part of a stone wall; and also a photo of a Brazilian man, who was so fat he could no longer pass through his bedroom door, and from his window, he saw the shore of a small lake (but not the water); and an old peasant from Northern Ireland, whose son is serving a life sentence in England, so he imprisoned himself of his own volition in one room, until his son went free; and many, many others.
"I correspond regularly with seventy-two people in the world," she said with modest pride. "Letters come and go. I write to every one of them at least once a month, and they write to me, and tell me everything about themselveseven their most intimate secrets ..." She laughed and her eyes shone slyly. "They must think, a little old nun sitting at the top of a tower in Jerusalemwho could she tell?"
Only after many years of reading and study and research did it occur to her that she never had had the privilege of reading even a single children's bookyoung Nasrian (who had already replaced his father, whose legs had grown old) started visiting the appropriate shelves in the bookstores. She read Pinocchio for the first time at the age of fifty-five, and Winnie-the-Pooh and Lobengula, Zulu King. They weren't her own childhood, nor were they set in the landscapes in which she had grown up, but her childhood was submerged in the depths of the sea and she could never bear to return to it. One night she laid her hands on The Wind in the Willows, and whispered to herself with amazement and joy, "There. My childhood has just now been born."
"By the way, you should know"she laughed"that until that moment there was not even a single wrinkle on me! I had the face of a baby until I started to read those books!"
Now that she had a childhood, she had to start her adolescence, so she read novels like David Copperfield, The Demon from the Seventh Grade, and Daddy-Long-Legs. The iron door that had been slammed in her face on the island now reopened, and Theodora, an old, knowledge-hungry girl, entered her sleeping, cobwebbed halls: her soul, her body, passion, yearning, love; everything came alive as she delved into the stories, and sometimes, after a night of feverish reading, she would drop her book and feel how her soul rose and swelled within her like milk boiling in a pot. "During those hours," she told Assaf nearly inaudibly, "I would almost plead for a single pinprick of salvation, to pierce the burden, the damned skin of words wrapped about me."
"That was Tamar?" Assaf asked without thinking, in an epiphany he immediately regretted, because Theodora practically shook, as if he had carelessly touched her in her soul's depths.
"What? What did you say?" she stared at him for a long moment. "Tamar? Yes, perhaps, who knows ... I never thought of it ..." But something curled up inside her, as if Assaf had been taunting her deliberately; explicitly telling her: You brought everything books could teach you, with words and letters, into your room, and suddenly a flesh-and-blood girl burst in, strong, alive, dynamic.
"Enough." She shook herself. "We have spoken enough, my dear, and perhaps you should have left already."
"I still don't understand something: she"
"Go find her, and then you will understand everything."
"But explain!" He almost slammed the table like her. "What do you think happened to her?"
Theodora took a deep breath, hesitated for a moment, and then said, "How can I tell you without telling you ..." She got up, uneasy, and began to pace, glancing at him every once in a while, scrutinizing him the way she had in the first moments of their meeting, to see whether he was worthy of hearing and knowing, whether he was trustworthy. "Listen, this may be just the nonsense of an old foolish woman." She sighed. "But in the last few times she came to me, she was already speaking of different things. Bad things."
"Like what?" Uh-oh, Assaf thought, here it comes.
"She would say that the world is not good," she said, and planted her hands on her bosom. "The world is rotten at its core, and you cannot trust anyone, not even those closest to you; everything revolves around power and fear, self-interest and evil, and that she does not fit."
"Doesn't fit what?"
"Here. In the world."
Assaf was silent. He remembered the bold girl on the barrel, the girl who he was certain was arrogant and mockingbut she is also a little like me, he thought with wonder, and took her off the barrel, gently.
"I would tell her the opposite: how, on the contrary, her life will be good and beautiful; she will love somebody, and he will love her, and they will have children with joyful faces; she will travel the world and meet interesting people, and sing on stages, in concert halls; they will cheer ..."
The words grew cold in her mouth; she sank into herself again, trapped. What does she know, Assaf thought with compassionshe herself doesn't know of any of these things she's promised Tamar, closed up in this house for fifty yearswhat does she know?
He remembered the disappointment and heartbreak on her face when he came here and she saw he was not Tamar; he knew, for certain, how important Tamar was to herno, not only important: necessary, like water and bread, the flavor of life.
"And most recentlynothing. I no longer knew what was happening. She did not open her heart as she once had; she came, and worked, and sat with me, but didn't speak. She sighed often. She was keeping a secret from me. I do not know what is happening to her, Assaf ..." Her eyes and the tip of her nose reddened all of a sudden. "She became thinner, and lost her light. No longer was there light in her beautiful eyes." She lifted her face to him, and he was shocked to see a thin line of tears in her wrinkles. "What do you say, my dear? Will you find her? Will you?"
At nine in the evening she bought two pitas of Jerusalem Mix and a Coke, and sat at the entrance to an office building to eat. She gave Dinka one portion and devoured the other. They both delighted in the food, inhaled and exhaled and eventually sighed together, satiated. Tamar licked her fingers and thought that it had been a long time since she had enjoyed a meal the way she'd enjoyed this one, bought with the money she earned by singing.
Later, the thoughts returned. People hurried by her, and she tried to shrink into a little anonymous bundle. Now she wanted time to turn backward, so she could be the Tamar of a year ago, a year and a quarter; to lie on her stomach on her bed, surrounded by the stuffed animals that had been with her since birth and clutch the phone receiver between her shoulder and ear, her legs swaying and crossing behind her backthe girls in the movies did that, and so did she; she finally had somebody to do that withand it was such a pleasure to lie there and talk to Adi about Galit Adlitz, who was seen kissing Tom, with tongue and everything; or about Leanna, from chorus, who agreed to go steady when some boy from Boyer High School asked her. From Boyer, imagine! Not an artist! And they were both properly shocked by it, confirming to each other, in this way, their mutual loyalty to art, meaning, to Idan.
An old man, leaning on a cane, dressed with old-fashioned elegance, slowly passed by and saw herhis lips wriggled in amazement, like a fish. She saw herself in his eyes: a too-young girl at a too-late hour, in the wrong place.
She cradled herself as closely as she could. The day had been long and exhausting, her first day on the street, but she had to get up and make a few more rounds, so if anyone had noticed her and had been tracking her from afar, he could approach her again, under cover of the dark.
More than a few approached. All the time, people talked to her, making remarks and suggestionsshe had never been so soiled by so much obscenity, by such abrasive anonymity. She quickly learned that she must not answernot say even one word, just hold on to her bag and big tape player and keep walking. Dinka, of course, helped keep harassers away, because when she growled from her gut, even the boldest of men would suddenly evaporate.
But the one she was waiting for, the one of whom she was most frightened, did not come.
She went down to the market Jerusalemites call Cat's Square and passed between the booths, lit with spotlights, secretly caressing the heavy hangers of harem pants and Indian shirts. She loved the square, even though Idan and Adi had deemed it nothing more than a "poor man's Piccadilly." Her hips would begin to sway in a different, elaborate rhythm when she walked through the booths with hookahs and exotic oils and colorful stones. She tried on the Bukharan caps, and the fat vendor teased her about her pointy Ashkenazi head; one boy, a world-class expert (so he said), offered to write her name on a grain of rice, and she said her name was Brunhilde. A beautiful young man in shorts with a turban on his head sat on the ground, holding the smooth leg of a girl in his hand, gently painting on it a henna tattoo. Tamar stood and watched, a little envious. She pulled herself together and walked away, passed once, and twice, through the booths, inhaling the thin smell of incense and the clouds of weed that billowed up here and there. She pretended to be deeply interested in the candle booth, in all the shapes and colors, hoping that the slight shiver she'd been feeling in her back for the past few seconds was telling her that someone was inspecting her, but when she turned around, no one was there.
One street over, on Yoel Moshe Salomon, a performance was in progress: a girl, about her age, whose golden curls peeked out from her colorful knit cap, held two ropes in her hands. Burning wicks were attached to the ends of each rope, and she danced with them, crossing and sliding them against each other in long, round motions; another girl sat behind her, staring, leaning against the wall of a store, keeping a monotonous tempo going with a tambourine.
The girl was completely intent on the motion of the ropes, and Tamar couldn't keep walking, charmed by the girl's absolute concentration, which she understood so well. She also wanted to know what it looked like, what they see in you from the outside when you are entirely absorbed in yourself. What of yourself do you abandon to their eyes? The girl's eyes were blue and beautiful, and mulishly following the two little flames; her eyebrows quivered up and down with childish wonder, and Tamar thought they were similar in that way, she and the girl, because Tamar also "sang with her eyebrows." The two little flames crossed the night skies; there was something touching about them, so daring, so precarious. Tamar then remembered where she was and why; without moving, she cautiously and systematically glanced to the sides. She didn't know exactly whom she was looking for. She thought she was looking for a man, that was as much as she had been able to gather over the last month: it's a group of young men, very toughone of them was supposed to approach her on the street and ask her to come with him, on the condition, of course, that she could first walk over the coals, meaning, prove she could capture an audience. Tamar knew she had passed that test. It was her only great achievement to date.
The rope girl's mouth fell open a little in self-forgetfulness, exposing her snow-white teeth. She started to increase the tempo, and the tambourine tempo increased as well. Tamar's eyes hopped from person to person; quite a few young men were standing there, but she couldn't decide if any one of them was eyeing her differently, with some significance. Two small punks with spiked hair suddenly jumped out from the audience in front of the performer and started yelling right in her face; they weren't even yelling words, just barking rudely, like animals. It distracted the girl for a momentand the two ropes got twisted and sank to the ground, ashamed. The girl sadly took off her knit hat; her golden curls tumbled out in slow motion. She wiped her sweat and stood lost, as if she had been awakened from a dream. The audience gave a single, united sigh of disappointment and scattered. Not one of them gave her any money for all the effort she had made up until that moment. Tamar approached her and put a five-shekel coin, one that she had earned that day, in the hat. The girl smiled at her, tired.
Up the street, Tziyyon Square was also crowded and full of life. Boys were skateboarding in the plaza below the bank. There was no chance of singing there, because the Breslevs showed up with huge speakers thundering Hasidic tunes from the roof of their car. Tamar sat in a corner by the bank and curled up, all eyes, hugging Dinka closer to her. Dozens of boys and girls were running around; some kind of unpleasant fuss and buzz emanated from them, a mechanical hum as they stretched out in lines all over the square, as if they were zooming along invisible rails. They went, they came backthey were looking for something urgently. Some of them stood by the railings, talking tersely to a bearded guy. She saw the dwarf with the thick hips and the cheerful woolen cap, almost hidden by a group that surrounded him: hands touched pockets, concealing fingers closed over something. A tall boy in denim overalls like hers, but wearing nothing underneath, approached her. "Sister," he said, and knelt in front of her so that he was level with her face. He had a nipple ring. "H. I've got H." She shook her head emphatically, no, noshe was set for the first weekand he didn't make a big deal out of it, stood up and moved on. She shrank, shocked, not by what he said to her, but by what he had called her.
She closed her eyes hard and opened them, and the square was still there. The Breslev Hasidim were dancing in the center of it: seven grown men with long hair and flying beards, in snow-white clothes and big white yarmulkes. She already knew from her previous nights here that they would dance like that until midnight, with continuous leaps of madness and heated passion. Two voluptuous young women in scanty T-shirts passed by her, their arms linked, and stopped to watch. "Look at them," one of the girls said. "And they're like that without Ecstasythey're on faith." Dinka pushed closer to her. Suffering terribly from the noise, she turned her back to the square, cradled by Tamar's bosom, and tried to fall asleep. Poor Dinkush, Tamar thought. She doesn't understand what I'm doing. This must be a nightmare for her.
A young woman approached her, holding a thermos and a plastic cup. She asked Tamar if she wanted tea. Tamar didn't understand this unexpected tenderness, it sounded like someone speaking in a foreign language. The woman crouched down and sat by her on the sidewalk. "There are cookies, too," she said with a smile. A new thought made Tamar sit up suddenly. Her heart started beating. Perhaps her predator was actually a predatress; she'd heard rumors that quite a few girls were in the business, too. But this woman really wanted to help her. She said she was from a group of volunteers that come to make contact with, and just be there for, the kids in the square. She poured hot tea for Tamar, who wrapped her two cold hands around the cup. An almost embarrassing wave of gratitude rose in her. She ate a cookie, too, and refused to talk. The woman patted Dinka, scratching her just the way she liked, and gave her a cookie as well. "I've seen you here before," the woman remembered. "About two weeks ago?" Tamar nodded. "I also saw when you bought from that guy, the short one, and I saw how the undercover cop chased you. Tell me, do you think you might want to meet someone who's already been through this?" Tamar withdrew into herselfthe last thing she needed was to be saved from the streets when she hadn't yet managed to get onto the streets.
"I'm giving you our phone number," the woman said, writing it on a napkin. "If you want to talk, or you need any help, or want to meet with your parents at our place, we'll be there." Tamar looked at her, and for a moment forgot herself in the good green eyes. She almost dared to ask whether she had seen a guy here in the square who played guitar, a guy with long, honey-colored hair that fell over his eyes, a very skinny and tall and terribly miserable guy. She didn't say a thing. The woman nodded, as if she had received some signal from Tamar but it hadn't got all the way through. Then she touched Tamar's arm lightly, smiled a real smile, and left. Tamar was alone again, and lonelier than before.
Not far from her a group of boys sat, beer cans in their hands, wearing only undershirtshow were they not cold? A stocky boy approached them"Hey, brother," "Hey, bro." "Anybody out here?" "Go by the pool club, the Arab's around," and they slapped their palms together and pulled in for a quick hug, their hands slapping twice on the other's back, one-two. Tamar watched them and carved it into her memory. He's been living in this world of body language for at least a year. That's probably how he speaks now. With what language would he speak to her? How would he treat her when he saw her?
And why isn't she joining one of the groups? Why is she paralyzed, trapped like this in the farthest corner of the square? At this stage in her plan, she had thought she would have somehow met up with a group of kids and perhaps found the place she was trying to reach through that group. From the outside, it looked so easy to join; especially if you were a girl, you just trailed along the margins of the group, and then they would start to notice you, and you'd talk, laugh a little, flirt a little, smoke something together, and that's ityou'd already be sucked in, and would crash with them at their squat in a public park or on some roof somewhere.
But it wasn't happening for her. Not todaymaybe tomorrow. Maybe never. She couldn't join in yet. She pulled her knees into her stomach; the thoughts climbed over one another, stinging and biting her in exactly the place that hurt. Perhaps it was just her reserve with strangers, her thoughts whispered; she'd always had such a damned hard time bonding, mingling with others, compromising on a mutual language to share. "You can call it snobbery," she whispered suddenly, passionately, into Dinka's fur, "the truth is, it's just my miserable soul. What do you think, that I don't want to connect with other people? I can't truly connect with anyone; it's how I was made. It's a fact. It's as if my soul lacks that part that can stick together, like a Lego piece that really sticks to someone else. Everything eventually falls apart for me. Back to zero. Family, friends, everything."
The candy-apple man passed for the tenth time that night, offering her one, not giving up. He was old, with a yarmulke and a tired smile. "Take it, only three shekels, it's healthy." She said thank you and didn't take it. He stood still for a moment and watched her. What does he see in herwhat do others see? A girl with a shaved head in overalls, with a backpack, a big tape player, and a dog. The casino had started operating for the night, over by the garbage cans: a skinny man in cutoff pants and a sailor's bowed legs turned a cardboard box over onto the trash cans and started shaking dice in a plastic cup. "Who bets on the biggest seven? Who goes for seven times three?" She was shrinking with loneliness, more and more. She lashed into herself: You don't belong anywhere anymore, not at home, not with the chorus, not to the closest friends you ever had; one more minute and you'll disappear completely and no one will notice it. No, no, it's really better not to start doing this now. Look, Dinkush, it's not that I think they shouldn't have gone to Italy because of me, that's not it, because what could they do if they stayed here? She giggled, picturing Idan perched on the railings in the square, associating with these people"Hey, bro." "Whassup, man"but it's the way they treated it from the first moment they knew. I only tried to mention it to them, to explain a bitand the way that they both, together, immediately
Obliterated me. She choked over these words in her throat; the Breslev Hasidim changed the tape. Now they were playing trance music, and danced to it like wild goats, hands and legs and beards waving in every direction. The music shook the ground she was sitting on. The square started to spin. A few boys and girls joined in the dancing now; they were fluent in this music. She tried to remember the short course she went through with the old albinohe looked at least forty to herwhom she had met at the Submarine two weeks ago: "Acid is what you take for trance." His shirt was open to his navel, exposing a smooth red chest that looked practically cooked. "But E goes with house music, because the people who dance to it are more, like, upscalethere's lots of pose to it. And with techno, you'd want" She couldn't remember what techno went with anymore. She mainly remembered his spongy hands, covered in fake-hippie silver rings, which stubbornly tried to climb onto her thigh.
The Breslev Hasid kids were running around, excited, between the dancers. Another girl approached Tamar, sat next to her cross-legged and silent. She was wearing jeans and a hand-knit white sweater, but her sneakers were torn and her pupils too large. Tamar waited. Perhaps she was the one? Perhaps now, now it would begin. "Can I?" the girl finally asked in a high-pitched voice, and started petting Dinka. And Tamar knew, she sensed it, that this girl was not one of them. She petted Dinka for a long time, as if it satisfied a craving; inhaled her scent and made noises of affection. For a few moments she abandoned herself wordlessly to Dinka. She then stood up heavily, and told Tamar, "Thank you." Her eyes were shining, and Tamar didn't know whether it was from joy or tears. She walked a few steps away and then returned. "Me? I went out and worked the streets so I could get my dog out of the kennels in Shoafat," she explained to Tamar in a voice that was completely childlike but slow and lingering. "I made a hundred shekels, and went immediately to pull him out of Shoafat. A week later, he got run over by a car. Just like that, in front of my eyes"and with that, she walked away.
Tamar hugged Dinka anxiously. She didn't want to stay there another moment, so she got up and walked away, but slowly; and when she reached the center of the square, she stood briefly, making herself as visible as she could. Perhaps it would happen now. Somebody would come up to her and tell her to follow him, and she wouldn't ask any questions and wouldn't argue. She would follow him obediently to whatever was waiting for her. The square was full of people, but nobody approached her. Crouched over by the railings, mumbling to himself, stood that curly-haired boy; he had been a guitar player once, and they'd broken his fingers. She remembered him in his last incarnation, playing accompaniment in a recital at the music academy. Now he came here almost every night and hung around on the edges of the groups. She heard a rumor that once, about a year and a half ago, he was the star player here, a musician of divine grace, their breaker of box office records, until he thought he'd get smart and run away. When he felt her looking at him, he slunk off, his shoulders pulled almost up to his ears. Tamar sighed to herself as she thought that now Shai had probably been the one to replace him.
She made it out of the illuminated, noisy square, and gave a deep sigh of relief. She squatted and pissed in a courtyard, between stacks of construction wood. Dinka stood guard. She smelled the warm steam coming up from between her legs. She looked at the wood planks, whitened by the moonlight and reflecting on the piles of trash. The sounds of the square reached all the way there. She stood, pulled her overalls up, and for a moment surrendered to the strangeness of the place, the iron cutting machine standing by the cement mixer, the two looking like a pair of giant bugs. How can a coward like me be doing this? she thought, surprised.
Now she only wanted to lie down and fall asleep and escape, even from herself. She wished she had someplace to wash, to scrub herself clean of the day. She hesitated for a moment: Leah had a place prepared for her, and she knew treats would be waiting theresome great meal packed away, still warm, with expensive chocolates for dessert; and probably a funny little letter, too, with a painting by Noiku, something that would restore to her some of her humanity. But Tamar had decided that morning that she would not go there. Everything, everything must be hers alone, only hers. Why? Because. What does Theo say? Don't inquire into matters beyond your comprehension. She walked more quickly. Her lips moved as she argued with herself: Just explain to me why you shouldn't go to Leah's storeroom. I don't know. Just so you won't put Leah in danger? No comment. Or maybe so you can believe even more than you already do that there is no one, no one in the world, you can count on except yourself?
She crossed King George Street and circled around and around the tall, crumbling building where her father's office was located. The streets seemed empty. She moved like a robot now. Went in, went down the stairs to the bottom floor, to the bomb shelter, and found the key she had hidden above the door frame. She opened the iron door. A thin mattress and light blanket waited there for her, and one more thing. She had laughed at herself when she brought it over last week, yet now she clung to it as if it could purify her. Her brown stuffed teddy bear, missing an ear, which she had slept with every night since she was born.
A key turned in the lock. Assaf leaped from the floor to the bench. The detective entered and saw his panicked jump, and Assaf immediately felt guilty for something. A handsome young woman in uniform entered with the detective. She told Assaf her name, Sigal or Sigalithe didn't quite catch itand added that she was a police investigator, with a special certification in adolescent counseling, and that she was going to have a conversation with him and the detective. She asked whether he would like a relative to be present during the interrogation, and Assaf almost yelped a terrified "No!"
"Well then, let's begin," said the investigator pleasantly. She looked again at the open file in front of her, asked Assaf a few general questions, wrote down his answers, and explained his rights in detail. At the end of every sentence, hers or his, she would smile at him, with a smile that split her face in two. Assaf wondered if her rule book said she was required to smile. Eventually she said, "Perhaps we should first hear what Moti has to say to you."
The detective, whose face clearly registered disgust at her touchy-feely manner, sat across the table noisily, spread his legs, and stuck his thumbs in his belt loops. "All right," he growled, "spit it outsuppliers, dealers, amounts, kinds of dope, names. I want information and no bullshit. You got that?"
Assaf looked at the woman. He didn't understand a thing.
"Answer him, please," said the investigator. She lit a cigarette and prepared to write down whatever he said in his file.
"But what did I do?" Assaf asked, and was embarrassed by how his voice almost curled into a whine.
"Listen, you little" the detective started, but the woman cleared her throat, and he licked his upper lip quickly and clenched his jaw.
"Now listen to me carefully," he said after a moment, "I've been on this job for seven years. And I have a photographic memory, you ask anyoneand I saw your stinking dog, not a year ago, not two years ago, just under a month ago. There was a girl attached to it, maybe fifteen or sixteen, curly, big black hair, about a meter sixty, with a nice face, actually." The detective was now speaking mainly to the investigator, undoubtedly trying to impress her with his photographic memory. "I had her in my hands, in the middle of a deal with the dwarf in Tziyyon Square, and if it wasn't for that dog, that mo"
Throat clearing. Lip licking. Deep breath.
"Now just look at this," and he pulled his pants leg up, exposing a hairy, muscled calf with signs of a bite and stitches still clearly visible on him.
"To the bone. I've already gotten ten shots because of that dog, that motherfuthat stinking dog."
Dinka barked in protest.
"Shut up, you stinking piece of shit," the detective spat at her.
"But what did I do?" Assaf asked again. His focus was completely lost: a meter sixty? Meaning, about to his shoulder. Black hair and curls, and actually a nice face.
"But what did I do?"The detective imitated him, mockingly. "You'll hear what you did: it's whatever you and her and the dog did. You're this close. This! Close!" The detective made a squinching motion with three of his fingers. "What, do you think we're idiots? You will give me her name, immediately!" And he slammed both his hands on the table as hard as he could. Between his hands and his power at the table, Assaf jumped in fear.
"I don't know."
"Don't know what?" The detective got up and paced around him in the room. Assaf watched nervously. "You were just strolling along the street, no big deal, and saw this big, expensive dog, and just like that, it agreed to come with you for a walk?" Suddenly he jumped at Assaf, grabbed his shirt, and shook. "Talk, motherfuck"
"Moti!" the woman shouted, and the detective loosened his grip. He gave her a bitter look and shut up, still bubbling with anger.
"Look, uh, Assaf," the woman said in a polished voice, "if you didn't do anything, why were you trying to escape?"
"I wasn't trying to escape. I didn't even know he was chasing me."
The detective, Moti, spit out venomous laughter. "Who is he kidding? I chased him through half of the city, and now he's giving me, 'I didn't know!'"
"Then perhaps" The investigator raised her voice over the boiling detective's. "Will you tell us how exactly you got the dog from the girl? What do you think, Assaf?"
"I didn't get it from her, I don't even know her!" Assaf cried out from the bottom of his heart. The investigator pursed her lips in hesitation.
"But how can that be?" she asked again. "Just tell me, you seem to be a reasonable kid. Do you really think we would believe that a dog like that just came up to you and let you take him by a leash? Would it let me? Would it let Moti?"
She gestured lightly toward Dinka, and Dinka gave her a furious growl.
"You see? You had better tell me the truth."
The truth! How hadn't it occurred to him? Probably because of the fear and the pressure and the humiliation of the handcuffs, and more than anythingbecause of the feeling he knew from other places, that even if he wasn't really guilty, he would be punished, and justifiably, for something; even if he wasn't clear what it was for, something he had probably done sometime, and now it was time to be punished ...
"In my shirt pocket." He had no voice, and he said again, "In my shirt pocket, look, there's a piece of paper."
She looked at the detective, and he approved her approach with a nod. She searched and found the paper.
"What is this?" She read it, and read it again, and gave it to the detective. "What is this?"
"Form 76," Assaf said, sucking power from the words. "I have a summer job at City Hall. They found this dog, and I was supposed to look for her owners." He said "owners," luckily, not letting slip the fact that he knew her name, the curly-haired owner's name.
The woman turned and looked at Moti. He chewed his lip vigorously.
"Call City Hall," she ordered him. "Now! From this phone!"
Assaf gave them the number, and told them to ask for Avraham Danokh. The detective dialed, his hands jerking violently. There was a silence. Assaf heard Danokh's sharp voice in the receiver.
The detective said he was a member of the Jerusalem police and that he had caught Assaf walking a dog in the center of the city. Danokh laughed his thin, bitter laugh and said a few words Assaf couldn't make out. Moti listened, muttered a thank-you, and hung up. He looked at the wall sternly, his lips pursed.
"So, what are you waiting for," the investigator scolded. "Release him already!"
The detective turned Assaf around brutally. Assaf heard the sound he so yearned for, the sound of handcuffs being unlocked.
He massaged his wrists like they did in the movies (now he understood why).
"One minute," Moti said. He tried to harden his voice, so they wouldn't see his defeat. "Have you found anyone yet who knows her?"
"No," Assaf lied easily. It didn't matter what she did, he wasn't going to turn Tamar in to this guy's hands.
"Listen, we really apologize for the misunderstanding," the investigator said. She didn't look at him. "Perhaps you want to get something to drink from the cafeteria? Do you want to call anyone? Your parents?"
"No, eh ... yes, I want to call somebody."
"Please do," she said, giving him a real smile for a change. "Dial nine first."
Assaf dialed. The detective and the woman spoke in whispers. Dinka came and stood by him; her head barely touched his leg. With his free hand he scratched the fur on her head.
Someone picked up the phone on the other end; noise filled the receiver.
"Hallo," a voice yelled.
Assaf yelled back: "Rhino?"
The detective left the room. The investigator stared at the wall as if she wasn't listening.
"Who is it? Assaf? Is that you?" Rhino yelled, trying to be heard over the noise of the machines. "What's up, my man?"
Just then, when he called him "man," Assaf suddenly found himself on the verge of a breakdown.
"Hey, Assaf, I can't hear you! Assaf? Are you there?" Rhino called him A-ssaf, with the emphasis on the first A, which drove Reli crazy.
"Rhino, I ... I'm a little ... something happened ... I need to talk to you."
"Wait a minute." Assaf heard him yell out to Rami, who worked for him, to turn off the metal sharpener.
"So where are you?" Rhino asked from the new silence.
"At theit doesn't matter. I have to see you. Will you meet me at Sima's?"
"Now? I already had lunch."
"Wait a minutelet me see ..." Assaf heard him giving orders to his workers. From what he heard, he understood that of all the days he could have called on Rhino he had picked a busy one. He listened to the instructions and smiled: a bust of Herzl, a woman on a swan, three big Buddhas, and six statuettes that would be presented during the Israeli Academy Awards ceremony. "Okay." Rhino returned to him. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes. Don't worry. And don't do anything stupid. I'm coming."
A big weight started rolling off Assaf's chest.
"A friend of yours?" the investigator asked affectionately.
"Yes ... Not exactly, a friend of my sister's ... Never mind." He had no intention of telling her the whole complicated story. She walked him outside; it was completely different to walk past the policemen and other officers as a free, innocent man.
"Tell me," he asked her as they stood outside, before they parted. "The detective, he said something about that girl being in the middle of a deal. I'm just curiouswhat deal?"
She squeezed the cardboard file she held close to her body and looked right and left; she was silent. Now that he was free, he could see that she was really pretty. It's not her fault, he thought, she was only doing her job.
"I'm not sure we should talk about that," she finally said, with an apologetic smile.
"But it's important to me," Assaf said, quietly and firmly. "So I will at least know what he suspected me of doing."
She stared at the pointed toes of her black shoes. At last she said, "It had something to do with drugs. She was buying drugs from someone in the center of the city. Apparently it wasn't a small amount. But really, you didn't hear anything from me, you understand?"
She turned and left.
Assaf passed through the guard's booth and went down to Jaffa Street, walking slowly, thinking slow thoughts; everything stopped cold. All that running since morning, and Theodora's story, and the little excitements, all the tiny hopes that rose up, here and there, inside him, all his foolish illusionshe felt as if he had taken a punch in the stomach. Sometimes, when taking photographs, something like that would happen to him; he would take a shot of a man sitting on a bench, not noticing that far behind him there was an electric pole; only when he developed the picture would he see a huge pole rising out of the man's head.
And what a pole! Dinka was moving closer to him, carefully rubbing against his thigh. She seemed ashamed to him, because of her relationship to Tamar. "Dinka," he said quietly, so only she would hear, "how could she have anything to do with ... Why is she messing around with ... . ?"
The words soured in his throat. He kicked an empty beer can as hard as he could. Quite a few in his class were already smoking cigarettes, and then there were those five guys who were caught taking bong hits in the bathroom. And of course, rumors running constantly throughout the corridors about other people, too, who didn't get caught. Those guys had started coming back from trance parties, in Ben Shemen Forest, or on Nitzanim Beach, speaking a new language. He sometimes felt as if everyone around him, more or less, had already experimented. Maybe even Roi, who had been smoking cigarettes openly for two years now. Assaf always pushed the rumors away from himself; he didn't want to know about it; it made him tense to think that things like that were happening to people he knew, to kids who had been in class with him since kindergarten, and now it was happening to Tamar as well, whom he didn't know but whom he already knew a little bit about
"No. Explain to me so I'll understand." He became angrier and angrier and spoke to Dinka in a loud whisperand she seemed used to such street talk"How can it be that a girl like her is on drugs, and taking so much?" But what do you actually know about her? he responded to himself. You hardly know her. You were so sure, you just assumed, instantly, that she was just like you. And, as usual, you instantly started inventing some little story about you and her. Am I right? Am I right?
Dinka walked beside him, her head bowed, her tail drooping; walking like that on the side of the road, they looked like two mourners. The rope dragged on the ground between them. Assaf opened his hand and let it fall to the ground, but Dinka stopped, as if she were amazed and scared by his action, from the hinted intention of it. Assaf immediately bent down and picked it up.
Heavy and defeated, he walked toward the market, to Sima's Restaurant, willing himself to cling to the picture in his mind, of her standing on the barrel and telling the tale of the Giant's Garden. The more effort he put into keeping the image fixed, the more he felt it slipping away from himhe couldn't understand her, and he didn't want to have anything to do with her.
But something in his heart contracted a little at these thoughts. Perhaps it was the look Dinka had given him when he let go of the rope just now. Perhaps it was because he felt that if he gave up on this whole thing right now and brought Dinka back, and told Danokh that he had tried and had got beaten up, and even arrested, and he was sick of itif he did that, he would not only be giving up the possibility of seeing, just once, what she looked like, this Tamar, but he might, you could say, actually be abandoning her.
Nothing happened on her second day on the streets, either. She sang three times in the pedestrian mall, once in the entrance to the Klal Building, and twice more in Tziyyon Square, so different in the daytime that it was almost delightful. Faces started to pop out of the crowd: store owners she already knew, the juice man, who sent over a big cup of mango-peach and told her that when she sang, his fruit gave more juice; the women soldiers patrolling the area had started smiling at her; and the Russian with the accordion came over and told her about himself, and begged her to please wait until he finished his set before she started singing, because she was taking all his income.
By the time she had finished a dozen performances, she knew not only how to sing but what numbers worked. "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from The Sound of Music had always seemed saccharine and schmaltzy to her, but people loved it here; it always brought a loud round of applause, and money, too. The same went for another old standby"Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Maryso she sang that one over and over, shifting it around for herself with the "Little Prince of the Second Platoon," or with something warm and melancholy by Shalom Hanokh. On the contrary, the one time she dared to sing Barbarina's aria from The Marriage of Figaro, the pride of her auditions, from the platform of the Old Knesset, people left in the middlepeople laughed in her face. A few boys stood behind her and imitated her. Still, she kept it up all the way to the end, and watched how, one by one, people would detach themselves from the crowd like grapes from a bunch on the vine; every person, as he left, gave her a little pinch of insult, as if she wasn't good enough for him. She then had a short, sharp argument with herself (with Idan, actually) about whether she should remain faithful to her own vision at any cost or adapt herself to the tastes of the audience"Surrender to the mob, you mean," Idan corrected her. She decided that, for her purposes, she was allowed to compromise, to be a little flexible (he tapped the table with his thin, pale fingers, looked upward in deep thought, and didn't say a word). And even enjoy itwhy not?
She slept in her shelter again that night. This time, she was almost tempted by Leah's storeroom; it began to appear in her mind as a palace full of superb food, with waterfalls for washing in and delicate silk sheetsbut she knew there might be a chance, tiny, yet bigger than yesterday, that her predator was watching her. He, or one of his messengers. It was very likely they had seen her singing this morning and reported to their boss; he probably had told them to go back and check up on exactly who she was, whom she was hanging around with, whom she was talking to, and to make sure she wasn't a police plant or something.
Because of this tiny, insistent worry, she returned on the second night to her stinking shelter, with the cockroaches scurrying around all night. She lay awake and thought thoughts: she passed from city to city over the map of Italy, and counted the days on her fingers, and she knew tomorrow was her day. She heard the rustle of tiny legs on the walls and on the floors around her, and beat back the waves of self-pity storming through her. In every person's life, she remembered bitterly, there are situations in which he is solely responsible for saving his own soul. She couldn't close her eyes until dawn.
"Abandoning her?" Rhino roared, his mouth full. "What do you mean abandoning her? You don't even know her!"
"I know enough ..."
Assaf stuck his face in his plate of stuffed vegetables so Rhino wouldn't see the dramatic change in his complexion.
"I can't believe it," Rhino said. "Your parents leave you alone for ten minutes and you're already messing around with girls."
The people at the next table stopped in the middle of a political argument and looked at them.
"I'm not!" Assaf whispered again, angrily.
Rhino leaned back and inspected Assaf profoundly, with new appreciation. "Assaf," he said, "you'll start shaving soon."
"Where did you get that from?" Assaf said, touched his cheek briefly, and felt the fuzz. "I still have some time."
"But what are we going to do about this?" Rhino asked, and started to pull shish kebab off the skewer. Assaf watched him and pondered one of Reli's theories: that one mustn't ever eat more than six mouthfuls during a meal, because a stomach is satisfied after those six and any additional swallow is excessive, gluttonous. And Rhino sat here in front of himfor a second lunch, he was doing pretty well.
"I'll keep walking with the dog," Assaf said, "and maybe, eventually, we'll find her."
"A girl that's on drugs, Assafi." Rhino used his heavy voice, laying every word down like a sack of cement.
"I know. But"
"Not just a girl who takes a puff here and there"
"A girl that's buying from a dealer in the citypills, you said?"
"I don't know. How should I know? I don't understand anything about it."
"And what do you think you're going to do when you find her? You'll tell her to stop and she'll stop, just like that?"
"I haven't thought that far ahead." Assaf shifted in his chair. "I only want to give her the dog. It's part of my job, right?" He did his best to look unquestionably official, without much success. Dinka lay down beside them, her tongue hanging out, her alert eyes focused on them, passing from one to the other.
"Listen." Rhino leaned forward and emphasized his words with the slice of pita in his hands. "I got two guys in my workshop who've finally gotten clean. You know what getting clean means? It means relapsing at least three timesthey get clean and then go back to using and get out of it and fall back into it. It's the same thing every timethey fall off the wagon and then have to go through the entire mess all over againthe police and detox and rehaband even now I'm not one hundred percent sure that they're immune to getting back into it." The pita slice bobbed up and down in front of Assaf's eyes. He rubbed his temples hard and felt how hot his skin was. Rhino was right. He should just walk out of this entire story now. Butthe girl on the barrel, how could he give her up?
"Listen to me, Assaf. Forget about her. Stop daydreaming. You don't know how hard it is for an addict to kick his habit." Rhino put down the pita and the fork, and rubbed his heavy palms against each other. "I've been swallowing all these storiesI'm using, I'm cleansince childhood. Half the people in my neighborhood were users. Do you know what 'jonesing' is?"
"I've heard of it. Not really."
Everything Rhino said was making Assaf depressed. Not just thatit was strange that he was delivering these formal sermons. He usually didn't speak much. Rhino loosened his belt to give the food room, and also so he could take a deep breath. "Jonesing is what happens in the first days of withdrawal. Are you listening to me? I'm talking about the four or five first days, when a user's body starts to scream in pain because it isn't getting its fix." He leaned forward and spoke quietly, his eyes squinting at Assaf. "It's like being without food and drink for a month; it simply tears a human being apart, from the inside. You've never seen it, how a man gets sweaty and gray, his hands and legs twitching"
The whole time Rhino spoke, Assaf shook his head to say no, as if trying to push the words away from him.
"So, what do you say?" Rhino asked him when he was finished. "Are we forgetting about this?"
Assaf took long sips from his Coke, put the glass down, didn't look at Rhino. He simply couldn't bring himself to say the word.
Rhino looked at him curiously. His wide chest exhaled the air locked inside it. "I understand," he said with a sigh. "We have a complication here." He bit into something and stopped. The fork looked like a child's utensil between his fingers. Assaf's mother, who was an expert on fingers, always said that Rhino had the most masculine fingers she'd ever seen.
"And you?" Assaf dared. "You never took drugs?"
"Never." Rhino leaned back, and the chair groaned. "I was this close to trying it, and didn't. I had another addiction. You know."
And he told Assaf, for the umpteenth timebut there was something familiar and reassuring about ithow, in his childhood, since he was six, he would go with his father to synagogue on Shabbat, and once there would run away, to the tree next to the YMCA stadium, and sit on it from nine in the morning until the game started at half past two.
"I would watch the game, go back home, get a horrible beating from my father, and then start waiting for the next Shabbat." Assaf pictured him, small and burning with excitement from between the trees' branches, and smiled.
"Do you understand?" Rhino said, laughing. "Now I think that maybe it wasn't even the game that interested me so much, not as much as the anticipation; waiting there for five hours and thinking, It's coming, any minute it's going to happenthat's what I liked more than anything. That was the drug. And the moment the game was over, I felt complete emptiness until the next week. But how did we get on this?"
Assaf smiled. "We got talking."
"Well, fine," Rhino said, and Assaf felt him change tactics. "Why am I attacking you? You've had enough of that from the bastard with the handcuffs."
They ate in complete silence for a few more minutes. Rhino ate a lot and drank a little water, and ate again, and drank again. Assaf finished everything on his plate. Gradually, the tension between them dissolved. Then they looked at each other, full and satisfied, and smiled. Normally, they got along better in silence.
"So, what have the old folks been telling you?" Rhino asked.
Assaf said that they hadn't called yesterday, but probably would today.
"I wonder if your mother managed"
"with the door of the airplane bathroom," Assaf finished, and they both laughed. She had been practicing at home on the handle that opened the dishwasher; Rhino had told her it worked on almost the same principle. Her deep apprehension regarding the door had become a family joke.
"So you're telling me you still haven't heard from them," Rhino inquired again, and looked for something deep in Assaf's eyes.
"No. I haven't, really."
Rhino didn't like the notion of this trip. He suspected Assaf's parents weren't telling him the whole truth. "And what about Reli?" he asked, as if it meant nothing.
"I think she's okay." Assaf regretted having already finished his food, not having a full plate to stick his face into.
"She's coming back with them? She's not coming back?"
"I hope she is. I don't know. Maybe."
Rhino was downright inspecting his face, looking for clues. But Assaf had nothing to show him. He had his own deep suspicions that there was some secret they were hiding from him because of his strong connection to Rhino; they decided too easily not to take him, then they bribed him with the promise of a Canon.
"Because I"Rhino lit a cigarette and sucked at it with pleasure"I've been having this feeling, all the time."
"No, no," Assaf said quickly. "You'll see, it'll be okay." He remembered the long period when Rhino had quit smoking because Reli demanded it. He knew that smoking now was another bad sign. "Don't worry. They'll go there and talk to her, and she'll come back to us."
"To us" also meant to Rhino, of course. Especially to Rhino.
"She's found someone else over there," Rhino said in his low basso, and exhaled upward. "She found some geeky American. She's going to stay there, I'm telling you; I feel these things in my bones."
"She won't," Assaf said.
"I've been fooling myself, for nothing." Rhino stubbed out his cigarette cruelly, even though he had smoked only a quarter. Assaf knew, by how much he had spoken during the meal, that Rhino was in an unusual state of mind. It was a little embarrassing to see him, with all his size and strength, exposed this way, so helpless. Assaf suddenly understood that Rhino no longer had any control over it. "Look at how many years I've continued to delude myself," Rhino said, very slowly, as if he was enjoying hurting himself. "Look at what love is."
They both went into a panicked silence. Assaf felt that word of Rhino's burning through him, perhaps because it had never, ever been used in their conversations.
And the word was there, fluttering like a living creature, a chick that had fallen from Rhino's bosom, and someone had to pick it up.
"The girl," Assaf muttered, without thinking, "the dog's girl. She had a friend, a nun who for fifty years has been" and shut up, because he felt it was a little insensitive on his part to talk like that, about his own concerns, while Rhino sat, tormented, in front of him. "You'll see, she'll come back," he said, strangely, weakly, because what else could he say except to repeat those words over and over, like a prayer or an oath? "Where will she find someone like you? My parents say that, too, you know."
"Yes. If it was only up to your parents ..." Rhino nodded his head, then stretched out his full size, looked up and to the sides, sighed. "Look. Your dog's asleep," he said.
Dinka really had fallen asleep. Assaf had been sneaking her shish kebab and fries during the whole meal. They don't usually allow dogs here, Khezi the waiter told Rhino, but for Mr. Tzahi ... Assaf and Rhino stayed a little longer, to sit and chat; they talked about all kinds of things, getting away a little from what had passed between them earlier. Rhino told him about the new statue he was casting today: by that sculptor, the famous but crazy one, who quarreled with every foundry in the country; he fought with Rhino every time, sometimes coming to blowsit's the same story with every sculpture. But when he returns to the workshop a year later, saying, with his crooked smile, that he has new work, Rhino just can't say no. "That's how artists are," Rhino said, laughing. "You can't try to reason with their minds, because they can't either. These guys have no fear of Godthey're taking orders only from themselves. So what are you going to doargue with them?" His laughter was quickly smothered; maybe he remembered that jewelry is also an art.
The people at the next table got up to leave. "Turkish coffee, Mr. Tzahi?" the waiter asked Rhino, and Rhino ordered it for both of them.
"No," said Rhino, when the little cups arrived. "You still haven't learned how. This is how you drink it" and he sucked up the coffee with a whistle, his lips, thick and almost purple, pursed like a kiss. Assaf tried to imitate him, but only drew air. Rhino smiled. Assaf looked carefully. It was "the smile that melted every woman on earth," his mother had announced, annoyed that only one woman on earth, Reli the Fool, was indifferent to it. Stone, stone, a heart of stone.
"So then, what are we going to do about this?" Rhino asked, indicating the dog. "You don't mean to give the girl up, do you?"
"I'll walk around a little more today, until the evening, and then I'll see."
"And until tomorrow?" Rhino smiled. "And until you find her, huh?"
Assaf shrugged. Rhino looked at him at length and sucked in his cheeks. During the Gulf War, Rhino had bought a ten-thousand-piece puzzle of the Swiss Alps and brought it to Reli and her parents, to try and ease the tension of the evening hours between the shelter siren and the All Clear. Reli broke down first, on the first evening. Assaf's mother followed her, giving up two days later, saying that even Saddam's missiles were better than this Swiss torture. His father continued for a week. Rhino kept after it for a month, for the principle of it, and stopped only after he started imagining that he was developing a slight color blindness, especially to shades of blue. Assaf finished the puzzle a week after the war ended.
"Listen now." Rhino thought for a moment, his fingers playing with the military chain around his neck. The edges of his undershirt had gone green from the oxidized bronze dust. "I don't like that you're going around like thisand your folks will have me for lunch if you lose a fingernail. Am I right?"
"Right." Assaf also knew that Rhino wouldn't forgive himself if something bad happened.
"You've been lucky so far, only one sadistic cop got you. It could be somebody else next time."
"But I need to look for her," Assaf repeated stubbornly, thinking in his heart, "find her."
"Here's what we'll do." Rhino pulled a red marker out of his overalls, with which he marked the statues. "I'm writing down my cell number, and my numbers at home and at work."
"I know them."
"It's better if they're all in one place. Listen to me well and don't tell me later that you didn't hear me: if there is the smallest problemand I mean the tiniest, I don't know whatif someone's harassing you, or walking half a meter behind you, or you just don't like somebody's face, you go to the nearest pay phone. At once. Promise?"
Assaf made a face that said, "What, am I a baby?" but inside he didn't really object.
"Do you have a phone card?"
"My parents left me fiveuh, seven."
"On you, I mean, do you have one on you?"
"They're at home."
"Take this. Don't save money on my account. Now, who's paying for the meal?"
"Shall we do the usual?"
They cleared the table, then positioned their arms in front of each other. Assaf was a strong figure of a man, and every day, in two sessions, did 120 push-ups and 140 sit-ups. Now, for a few moments, he squeaked and groaned, but he still had no chance of beating Rhino.
"But it's getting harder and harder every time," Rhino said gallantly, and paid the waiter.
They stood up to go. Dinka trotted between them, and Assaf was secretly pleased to see the three of them together this way, he and Rhino and the dog in between. Outside the restaurant, Rhino went down on one knee, just like that, knelt on the dirty sidewalk and looked into Dinka's eyes. She looked at him for a moment and immediately moved her head, as if his gaze were too close, held too many emotions for her.
"If you don't find the girl, bring the dog to me. She's smart. She'll have friends in my yard."
"But the form, the fine."
"It's on me. What, do you want the City Hall vet to inject her with something?"
Dinka licked his face.
"Hey, hey." He laughed. "We've only just met."
He got on his motorcycle. "Where are you going from here?" he asked; the helmet mashed his face down for a minute.
"Wherever she takes me."
Rhino looked at him and laughed from the depths of his stomach. "What can I say, Assafi? To hear a sentence like that from you ... this dog has certainly succeeded where your parents and Reli failed. 'Wherever she takes me' ... the days of the Messiah have come!" He started his bike with a roar, making the street tremble; the bike moved away, he stuck out his leg, waved an arm, and disappeared.
The two of them were left alone.
"What now, Dinka?"
She watched Rhino until he disappeared, then sniffed at the air. Perhaps she was waiting for the fuel fumes to evaporate. She then turned around, stood erect, lifted her head, raised her nose. Her ears poked forward a little bit, toward something beyond the houses surrounding the market street. Assaf already knew the signs.
"Rruf!" she said, and started running.
On the third day, already tired, legs dragging after a sleepless night in the shelter, they went back out on the street, before the offices opened in the building where she was hiding. She bought Dinka and herself breakfast in the Dell'Arte Café, and they both ate in the empty courtyard of the club next door, the Experiment. Tamar's heart ached for Dinka, who looked so ragged. The sheen of her fur had disappeared, the golden waves of her beautiful coat. Poor Dinkush. I dragged you into this without even asking. Look at you, trusting me with closed eyes. I wish I understood exactly what I was doing and where I was going.
Yet, as always, when she stood in front of an audience, she was quickly made whole.
She sang on Lunz Street, and the audience that gathered around her wouldn't let her go, asking for more and more. Her eyes shone: as each performance passed, the familiar urge became even stronger in hershe couldn't believe it would be aroused in her here as well, and with such intensitythe need to get them, to sweep them up into her from the very first note. Immediately she heard Idan and Adi screech: "But a piece of music has to develop slowly, to ripen! There is no such thing as instant art!" And she thought, They don't know what they're talking about. Here, it wasn't golden chandeliers and velvet walls. No one here was going to wait for her to "ripen": the street was full of temptations that could attract the people passing by as much as she did. Every twenty meters, someone stood playing a violin or a flute, or throwing torches into the air, and every one of them desired, at least as much as she did, to be heard and discovered, and to be loved. On top of that were the hundreds of shop owners and vendors and falafel and shwarma sellers, people standing behind store counters, and peddlers in the bazaar, the coffeehouse waiters and the lottery-ticket hawkers and the street beggars, and each one of them constantly calling out with a mute, insistent cry, "Me, come to me, only to me!"
Of course, in the chorus, there had also been quarrels and jealousies and competition for the good parts. Each time the conductor gave someone a solo, three others announced their resignation. But it looked like child's play now, compared to what she saw on the street. Yesterday, for example, when she saw that the circle forming around the two Irish girls with silver flutes was much larger than hers, she felt a pinch of jealousy much more bitter than the one she'd felt when Atalia from the chorus was accepted at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
Today, as she bowed gracefully in front of her audience's lit-up faces, in front of their hands applauding her enthusiastically, she knew she truly wanted to play the game here according to its rules, to fight for her audience, and tempt themto be daring and amazing and of the street. She even thrilled to the street as an arena of unending struggle: a war of existence waged at each moment beneath the cheerful, colorful, civil appearances. She knew that to survive here, she had to free herself from her delicately refined tastes, to be a guerrilla fighter in developed urban territory; and this is why she took five big steps away from Lunz and positioned herself in the middle of the pedestrian mall, sent a wink in her heart to Halina, who had always complained that she didn't have any of the ambition that was so vital for an artist, that she was spoiled and refused to fight for her proper place, avoiding competition of every kindand now, look at me, in the center of the universewould you believe it's me?
And she sang, in the richest and clearest voice she had yet achieved since coming to the streets, Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child." As she was about to start the second song, the Russian accordionist suddenly started playing "Happy Birthday to You" very loudly, and the Irish girls with the flutes from down the street joined in, as did the blind violinist from Lunz Alley who played ersatz Gypsy music, and to her surprise, even the three men from Paraguay, with their guarded faces and their exotic, gloomy instrumentsthey all came and surrounded her and played for her. She stood in the middle, her heart overflowing, deviating insanely from all her rules of caution, smiling joyfully to the audience around her, to all the strange faces that shone with genuine affection as they understood why the Russian was bowing to her; it almost swept away the painful thought of how she had spent her last birthday with Idan and Adi at the top of the tower on Hatzofim Mountain, how they had sneaked up there at midnight and stayed awake until they saw the sunrise ...
When they finished the number, she didn't sing another song. She detached herself apologetically from the audience, went up to the Russian, and heard what she figured she would, that yesterday a woman had showed up, tall, kind of butch, with scars all over her face, and "give fifty shekel that we should play you this song today. Well, fifty shekel not in every hand, so we don't ask nothing." He looked at her warily: What is it Tamarutschka, I don't play good?
You played superbly, Leonid. Top marks.
She left, thinking that the world was a good place, or at least had some potential, as long as people like Leah lived in it. She considered the description of Leah that had come from Leonid's mouth and wondered how she herself almost didn't see those scars anymore, what Leah called her stripes, and thought that she had been saved from at least one torment today: that of sitting by the phone waiting for someone to call and wish her many happy returns. Her reverie was broken when she realized she had come to the platform in front of Hamashbir. She didn't like performing thereshe didn't even like being there, between the traffic and the vendors and petition tables and the noise of the buses. She turned around. She wanted to go back to the pedestrian mall, but still, she hesitated. Something stopped her. She didn't know what it was. She became nervous and uneasy, probably because of the birthday celebrationbut also because of some internal muddle, new and unexplained. She walked, drawn backand now grew suddenly angry at Leah, who had thrown such a party for her in the middle of the street, in front of everyoneand what if things got complicated later? Someone would start investigating who the scarred woman was who had paid Leonid and the others. She walked aimlessly, getting angrier and angrier. What did she need a birthday for, while she was in the middle of matters that were far more important?
With evident reluctance, she decided to sing one song, no more, and walk away. And of all the times and places, this is where it happened, and without her being prepared for it: she who had aimed for this, waited for this moment so desperately; she who had remained so alert, guessing countless times at what shape it would take, who would be the messenger of her predatorshe didn't grasp what was happening when it came.
She finished singing and collected the coins. The people scattered, and she was left with a feeling she already knew, the strange combination of pride in doing a good show, for succeeding once more in charming them; and mixed with it, the distasteful sense that crawled into her after everyone had walked away and she was stuck in the middle of the street, knowing she had just abandoned some very private part of herself to strangers.
Two old people, a man and a woman, who had spent the performance sitting on a stone bench to the side, stood up and tottered toward her. They gripped each other tightly, and the man leaned on the woman. They were small and wrapped up in clothing that was too heavy for such a hot day. The woman smiled shyly at Tamar, her smile almost completely toothless, and asked, "May I?" Tamar didn't know what she wanted and said yes. She was moved by the way they stood there, clinging to each other.
"The way you sing. Oy! Oy!" The woman put her hands on her cheeks. "Like in the opera, like a cantor," she said, and her chest rose and swelled. She touched Tamar's arm and patted it excitedly. Tamar didn't usually like strangers to touch her, but she felt all her soul being drawn to the soft hand.
"And he" The old lady nodded toward her husband with her eyes. "My husband, Yosef, he has almost no more eyes to see and hardly can hear with his ears, and I am his eyes and ears, but he heard you. Isn't it true you heard her, Yosef?" And she nudged him with her shoulder a little. "Isn't it true you heard her singing?"
The man looked at Tamar and smiled vacantly, and his yellow mustache split in two.
"Excuse me for asking," the woman said sweetly, and her soft, chubby face suddenly moved very close to Tamar's face, "but your parents, do they know you are like this, alone in the street?"
Tamar still didn't understand what she wanted, still didn't suspect anything. She said she had left home "because it was getting difficult there," and smiled a little apologetically for having to expose such a good woman to the harsh facts of life. "But I'm okay, don't worry." The old woman still looked at her piercingly, and grabbed Tamar's wrist with her doughy hand, encircling it with unexpected force, and for the blink of an eye the image flashed in Tamar's mind of the Wicked Witch checking to see if Gretel was fat enough yetbut the image vanished as quickly as it had appeared, in front of the puffed-up, friendly face.
"Not good," the woman murmured, and glanced around. "It is not good to be like this! A girl alone, and there are all kinds of people here and nobody to take care of you. And what if someone wants to steal your money? Or, God forbid, something worse?"
"I can take care of myself, Grandma." Tamar laughed, wanting to leave now; the concern surrounding her was a burden and plucked at all her sore strings.
"No friend or brother to guard you?" the woman sputtered. "And where do you sleep at night? You shouldn't live like this!"
It was at this point that suspicion first woke in Tamar, fluttered in her stomach, whispering to her not to say too much. She couldn't believe the flutterthe old people looked so innocent and friendlyand so she laughed now again, but it was a different laugh, forced. She repeated herself, saying that she really didn't need anyone to take care of her. She turned to leave. But the woman hung on to herTamar was amazed that the gnarled fingers possessed such violent forceand she asked whether Tamar was eating enoughyou look so thin, sweetie, just skin and bonesand Tamar, already more alert because of the "sweetie," said she was doing just fine, thank you. The old woman stayed silent for another moment. Tamar saw her lips forming some final question, and then it came, sharp and cutting: "Tell me, maideleh, perhaps you want someone to protect you while you are here?"
She had already backed off half a step away from them. They had really started disturbing herthey were surrounding her very closely, like smoke; but this was a new kind of question, this last one, and it came from a completely different place. Tamar stopped and looked at the two in surprisebut the thought started to swell up in her brain: This is it. It's themhow impossiblebut these were probably the people she had been waiting for, his messengers.
But it couldn't be! She shook herself, smiling at her foolishness. Look at them, two poor refugees; but they were asking the right questions. No, it's impossible, look at them, Granny and Grandpa, full of goodwill and concernwhat connection could they have to that horrible man?
"What? What do you mean?" she asked, her eyes larger than usual. "I don't understand." She knew she had to be smart now, very alert, not too excited and not too frightened; only her heartthey could probably see from the outside how hard it was beating through her overalls.
"Because we, Yosef and me, know a very good place, like a home, where you can live, and there is good food, and you will also have friends, and it's very happy all the time. Right, Yosef?"
"What?" Yosef asked; he seemed to keep falling asleep behind his dark glasses, and only her nudging woke him up.
"That we have good food."
"Well yes, the best food there is. This is because Henya is cooking," he explained, with a nod toward his wife. "So the food is good, and you can to drink and to sleepeverything is good!"
Tamar didn't hurry. Something in her still refused to believe it, or was afraid to believe it; something in her eyes was still begging them to prove her wrong, because if this was really it, if they were really his messengers, then everything was about to start. Now. And she would have no control over what was going to happen. And she knew that instant that she didn't have the courage to do it.
"So what do you say, cutie?" the woman asked her. Tamar could see her lips trembling with excitement.
"I don't know," Tamar said. "Where is it? Is it far?"
"It's not so far." The old woman cleared her throat, and her hands started to wave in front of Tamar. Perhaps it was the excitement. "It's right here, just half a moment, but we'll take a taxi, or somebody will take us, just say already, say yes or no. All the restwe'll take care of it."
"But I ... I don't know you," Tamar almost shrieked in fear.
"What is there to know? I am Grandma, and he is Grandpa. Old people! And there is one son, Pesach, who is the manager there, and he's a fine boy, believe me, cutie, he is gold." Tamar looked at them despairingly. This really was it. That was the name Shai had given her when he'd called from there. Pesach, the man who had hit him, who had almost killed him with beatings. The old woman continued: "And he has this place exactly for children like you."
"Place?" Tamar asked, playing dumb. "Are there more children?"
"But of course! What did you think, you will be alone there? You have there kids who are actors, A-plus! And some they do gymnastica, like the circus! And there are musikanti with violin and guitar, and one that does a show with no talking, like the onewhat's his name from the television?Rosen! And the one that's eating the fire, and a girl that's walking with only hands, woo-hoo!" She shook her head in awe. "You will have so many friends there, you will go to be happy all the day!"
Tamar shrugged. "It actually sounds nice," her lips lied, but her voice barely registered.
"So we go, then?" The old woman's mouth trembled and her face blushed eagerly. Tamar couldn't look at her all of a suddenshe seemed like a fat spider, a spider so quickly weaving her web around the ant. Her.
The old woman took Tamar's arm, and together they walked back down to the pedestrian mall. They moved very slowly because of blind Yosef. The woman didn't stop speaking, as if trying to flood Tamar with words so that she wouldn't understand exactly what was happening. Tamar's heels were burning. It would be so easy, right now, to just detach herself from the old woman's arm and simply walk away, and leave for good. She would never have to feel this cool, loose skin against hers; she wouldn't get entangled in this web the woman was excreting around her.
And she would never reach that house that she had been searching for for months.
Tamar looked around sorrowfully, as if she would never walk on the street again and wouldn't see the stores and the people and everyday life. In a whiny voice, Eeyore's voice, she thought to herself, Many happy returns of my birthday, and thanks so much for the wonderful gift.
"Do we must take the dog?" the old woman squawked with dissatisfaction when she suddenly noticed that the big dog dragging along behind them belonged to Tamar.
"Yes, she's coming with me!" Tamar answered quickly, and deep in her heart hoped they would say that she couldn't bring a dog, and then she would have a good excuse to get away.
"It's a woman, the dog? Female?" The old woman twisted her mouth. "And what will happen? She'll be pregnant and have puppies and we have a party?"
"She's ... she's already old. She can't get pregnant," Tamar whispered, and her heart pitied Dinka, having to go through such humiliation at her age.
"So, what do you care?" the woman tried again. "Leave her here. What do you need her for? And we must feed her, and she will get sick and bring dirt."
"The dog is coming with me!" Tamar cut into her; for a moment she and the old woman looked at each other, and Tamar now saw what was hiding under the wide smiles and fat, motherly wrinklesa sharp look, gray as steel, a battle veteranbut the old woman lowered her eyes first. "You don't need to shout like that! What did I say? What is it, such nerve to shout at us, and we're doing you a favor ..."
And Tamar knew, knew, knew this was it.
They continued in silence for a few more minutes. Near Cat's Square a blue, dirty, beat-up car started gliding toward them. Tamar didn't notice it at firstthen she started wondering why the Subaru was coming so close to them, and then her throat started to choke in terror. The car pulled up next to them; the old woman looked to the right and left quickly.
The driver, a dark young guy with one deep wrinkle plowing the center of his forehead, got out of the car and glanced at Tamar, his eyes hot and full of contempt. He opened the front door for the old woman, as if he were driving a Rolls-Royce. The woman waited until her husband had squeezed himself into the backseat, then pushed Tamar, clutching Dinka, in after him.
"Straight to Pesach," she ordered. The driver released the parking brake and the car leaped forward. Tamar turned her head and saw the street diminishing behind her, closing quickly like a zipper.
SOMEONE TO RUN WITH. Copyright © 2000 by David Grossman. Translation copyright © 2004 by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz. All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10010.