Fiction: Flash Flood
Yoram stops the car just after the Arava Junction. The skies are spread out before and behind them, the horizon is blue and yellow. The girls, Naama and Yael, are strapped into their car seats in the back. Lily opens the car door, looks around.
Yoram raises the volume for the sake of the girls. “One Hundred Songs for Children, volume 1,” the blue cassette. Tzippy Shavit sings the song about the little bunny who forgets to close the door and catches a cold. The two front doors of the car are open. Yoram walks Lily around to the back so the girls won’t see. It all happens silently—she vomits white fluid, with no traces of food. It’s been two days since she’s eaten a thing.
Hot. It’s hot outside, and even hotter in the red Mini Minor—the air conditioning was broken even back when the car belonged to Yoram’s mother. Lily leans against the back bumper. Her straw hat, white with purple plastic flowers and a wide brim, rests on the back of the trunk. There is no wind. The strap of her white dress has fallen off her right shoulder. Her pale skin is nearly camouflaged with the color of the fabric. Her bones protrude.
Yoram doesn’t peer in at the back seat. He prefers to believe that the girls can’t see a thing. Shula Chen sings “Hudie Cutie.” There are no other cars on the road.
It is the end of September, and they’re on their way to Eilat. It’s their last vacation together. Yoram and Lily know this. They own an apartment in Eilat, on Hashmonaim Street. A long street, unvarying, with several roundabouts, overlooking the mountains. They travel there once a year, and the rest of the year they rent out their place. After this vacation Yoram will return only once, to fix up the place and remove the furniture. He will sell the apartment to pay for all the medical bills their health insurance won’t cover. The girls will have no memory of it.
What Naama will remember most of all from that trip is the silence. On the Arava road, just past the Kushi Rimon rest stop, the cassette playing Sukkot songs got stuck. The tape unspooled, making a screeching noise that filled the car. Yoram kept driving along at the same speed. Naama will remember it as if in a dream: the noise, her father’s forehead in the mirror, her mother’s pale hand resting on her knee. Naama stopped singing. No one cried. The sound continued for several long minutes, invading their ear canals, blending with the whir of the engine, with the roar of the wind. Her father’s foot pressed on the gas – he wasn’t paying attention to the speedometer or to the empty noise. Finally her mother shook herself out of her daze and said, “Stop all that noise, Yoram, stop it already.” Not loudly. Bitterly.
He managed to eject the tape without taking his eyes off the road. Then they kept driving a few more kilometers. The girls fell asleep, the radio reception was restored, and there were Hebrew songs playing. Lily’s eyes gleamed and her entire face was flushed, and only her earlobes and the tip of her nose were still pale. “Do you remember the last time I threw up while we were driving?”
Yoram nods, but he is having trouble retrieving the memory.
“It was on those steep descents before the Arava road,” Lily says. I was pregnant with Naama, still at the very beginning. You didn’t know yet. You thought I was just carsick. I hadn’t told you yet,” she responds, almost in a whisper, as if it’s still a secret. “I wanted to get used to the feeling. I wanted to experience it myself first, alone.”
That summer they bought the apartment in Eilat, and they even considered moving there. In the end they abandoned the idea: Naama was born, and they wanted to raise her close to their parents. They had no trouble finding tenants, and during vacations, between one rental period and another, they would drive down.
He casts a smile in her direction, wishing with all his might that he could hold her hand. His whole body is yearning for her touch, but he hesitates, knowing how sensitive she is, how weak her limbs are. Her thin pale fingers, too, stay where they are, interlaced with one another atop her sunken belly, the loose fabric of her dress bunched up beneath them.
In the apartment, on the first day, Yoram makes dinner for everyone. His plate is piled high with chicken wings, pasta with tomato sauce, and salad. Naama eats everything, just a bit less of each dish. He makes Yael’s kids’ plate: peeled cucumbers cut into circles, plain pasta, cut-up pieces of chicken. Lily’s plate is similar: peeled cucumbers and white rice without seasoning. Even that makes her nauseous. The tensing of her bowels, the vomiting in the kitchen sink right on schedule—Lily is already used to it all. These days they can’t insist that the girls finish all the food on their plates.
For dessert—four flavors of ice cream, fruit punch-chocolate-banana-vanilla, sold by the kilo. Lily slides a spoonful of pink along her tongue. She has already vomited everything, and whatever else she eats will remain in her stomach until morning.
In the evening Yoram fixes up the outside antenna, knocks on the back of the television, tries to improve the reception. Yael is already asleep in her crib. They are sitting on the old couch, Yoram’s arm is around Lily’s shoulders, and despite the pain, she is holding Naama on her lap, explaining to her what’s happening on the screen. This was how they’d imagined their evenings when they didn’t yet know if Lily was having a boy or a girl.
On Tuesday Yoram took the girls on a hike in Park Timna—it was only a 20-minute drive. Lily didn’t join them. At the entrance to the park, right after the ticket booths, he stopped to call her. He left the girls strapped in the backseat with the windows open and got out of the car. The guard refused: Visitors were not allowed to use the office phone. Yoram stood with his back to the car and explained the situation briefly, his head lowered. “Their mother is not well, you understand, just to make sure she’s all right.” The guard looked over at the two girls.
Lily answered after four rings. She said she was on the porch, resting, reading a book. Had she not answered, he would have turned around, speeding back in the Mini Minor like a police car with its sirens wailing.
He didn’t know that afterwards, while the three of them were in the park, Lily was no longer resting on the porch. She was standing there, barefoot on the fifth floor, trying to make a decision. One of her legs was already swung over the railing.
On their second day in Eilat they sat on the Dekalim beach, caressed by the rays of the afternoon sun in autumn. One moment stood out from all the others: a silence in a world that was blindly dazzling, gold sparkling around them, and they are under a yellowish-orange beach umbrella. Lily and Yoram are lying on a straw mat, their heads touching one another on their folded-up towels. Lily’s straw hat is next to them, moving slightly in the wind. The shadow of the beach umbrella extends almost to their knees, and Lily’s thighs—pale and smooth compared to Yoram’s dark and hairy ones—are baking in the sun. Naama is building a sandcastle, and Yael is feeling around in the wet sand next to her sister, alternately helping her and wrecking her handiwork. When the wind gets stronger it tousles Yael’s curls, and sand flies into her eyes and she starts to cry. Yoram and Lily do not get up. Nothing can disturb the cocoon they have spun for themselves under the beach umbrella. Their eyes are closed, and as if in an unspoken agreement, they will not open them. Most of all Yoram remembers the smell of Lily’s hair and the way it brushed against his shoulder, the image of their daughters playing in the sand, the sun disappearing behind the mountains.
In the years when they almost never spoke about Lily except on the anniversary of her death, which they always commemorated on a Friday so that everyone would be able to make it—during those years, Naama found herself drawn again and again to the beaches of the Red Sea, along with her husband and children. While the others were in the water, she would lie on the beach, covered in sunscreen, her skin fair like her mother’s. She had a scattering of freckles, which had popped up as if overnight. But she is healthy and her kids are healthy. And there is no fear, just an elusive memory of her mother with all those tubes, before the very end—that was how she looked in the hospital, even though she didn’t want anyone to visit her.
Yoram silenced the engine, got out of the car, and removed Yael’s stroller from the trunk. Lily, who seemed to have regained some of her strength, also got out and looked beyond the long line of cars, whose roofs grew smaller and smaller towards the horizon. All they could see from their vantage point were the cars and the mountains, and all they could hear was the raging of the water. Many people had gotten out of their cars. A public bus spewed out a group of boisterous teenagers, and behind them was a religious couple with their five children. There were cars whose doors were flung wide open, the passengers napping in the cool air, the car stereos blasting the latest hits.
When they had walked halfway there Lily’s strength suddenly failed her, and Yoram reached out to support her while continuing to push the stroller with his left hand. When they arrived at the gushing water, he regretted that he hadn’t taken his camera. You see a flash flood like this only once in a lifetime. The crowd that had gathered looked out in amazement.
Naama kept pushing the crowds aside. She held on to her mother’s hand and pulled her forward in order to see better, dragging her farther from her father. The water was very high and the desert was yellow and calm; the storm had already turned into rainfall over the Red Sea. And then their grasp was broken when, worn out, Lily leaned against the very first car in the procession, and Naama cleared a path forward in order to see the water from up close. A young woman patted her on the head and said to her quietly, “Be careful, sweetie, it’s dangerous.” Naama looked up, expecting to see her mother, but the woman wore a different hat, greenish and without any flowers, and she wore a tight black shirt that her mother would never wear.
That moment the members of the family stood apart from one another: Lily leaning against the first car, Naama at the front of the crowd of curious onlookers snapping photos, and Yoram in the back, following them both with his eyes. The wadi swept away branches and uprooted shrubs, and the rising waters were a turbid brown. Naama looked on in awe, as if at an image from a movie. Yael slept in her stroller, until she woke and began crying. Yoram picked her up and hugged her.
Lily had already broken away from the car and she looked at the water in awe, astonished by its force. If her body were to fall into those waters, she would be swept far, far away, she thought, unmoving. The girls and Yoram were not paying any attention to her. The world was just patches of color blended together, and all the lines had blurred. Bright yellow coats floated before her, red Caution signs sharpened into focus, and she felt dizzy and weak, but she took two steps forward, or perhaps she only imagined it, that she was slowly approaching the flood water. The mountains were a blur and she pushed herself forward, or she just imagined it, getting swallowed up by the flow of the water, but then Naama emerged from the crowds and leaned against her legs like a stubborn little elf.
The two of them stood there, hand in hand. The horizon had become clear again, the lines came back into focus. The dizziness passed and Lily’s throat was dry. The flooding gradually subsided and people began returning to their cars, waiting for the traffic to start moving, but the road was still impassable. A blue jeep splattered with mud emerged from the long line of cars and began crossing the water on a diagonal. Naama watched the spinning wheels. Then she saw her father in the crowd, and she pulled her mother by the hand to pass through everyone else, until their loose grasp came free. He drew her close and tousled her ponytail, and her mother, who saw them, began making her way toward them. When she reached them her hands were thrust as if by their own accord toward the handle of the empty stroller, and the four of them began walking back to the car. It was now afternoon. The sky cleared and the sun once again warmed the air. Lily pushed the stroller in front of them. She looked confused, her eyes unfocused and dreamy.
If Yoram had to identify the moment he lost her, before illness completely took over her body, this is the image that would come to mind: Lily making her way along the road, the line of stationary cars to her left, the white straw hat with purple flowers on her head, her yellow dress like the color of the desert sand. The stroller moved along the road in the direction of Eilat, as if they were just beginning their vacation – as if they’d come on foot, in a sort of desert pilgrimage, and Lily was advancing without looking back, growing increasingly distant, slipping away beyond reach.
Yoram continued holding Yael, her eyes still red from crying. He didn’t pay attention to how distant Lily had become until they reached the Mini Minor. Only then did he yell to her: “Lily! Over here!” He had to yell just once. She stopped, turned around, focused her gaze, and her face brightened. A moment passed before she slowly turned the stroller around. In front of them impatient drivers prepared for the traffic ahead. Yoram folded up the stroller and put it back in the trunk. He strapped Naama and Yael into their car seats, opened the door for Lily and helped her sit down. He placed a new tape into the cassette player.
“You’ll get married again,” Lily suddenly said. The Arava road stretched out behind and ahead of them, the desert was silent, and the girls had sunk into that childish slumber that the whir of the engine induces. And even so, he cast a glance at the overhead mirror to make sure their eyes were closed. “You’ll get married,” she declared. It wasn’t a question. Yoram wondered how to respond. He wanted her to know that he could not imagine ever loving someone else. He looked up at the mirror and debated whether to press on the brakes and wake one of the girls, but he kept driving and didn’t say a word.
Lily wondered if she had said enough. She wanted to tell him, too, that he should have more children—maybe a son. But she remained silent. She saw the tremble in his hands, the sweat from his fingers on the burning hot steering wheel, small beads of sweat above his upper lip and between his eyebrows. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she reached out her hand and caressed his cheek. It was the feel of her touch that he had been yearning for all that time. He’d already forgotten how his whole body woke to her touch. He was addicted to that feeling, and almost let himself close his eyes. Then she turned, took a long look at the girls, and declared, “They are looking more and more like you,” as if she were trying to erase all traces of herself in the years ahead.
In the long silence that followed he was able to distract himself by switching lanes, concentrating on passing a long truck: the shift at just the right second to the opposite lane, the near-crazy acceleration of the engine, the appearance of a car in the distance, the rush to make it in time, and the hot wave that rushed over him, repressing their last conversation. And amidst all that, during that fraught and almost threatening silence, Yael suddenly stirred in the back seat. She opened her eyes and Yoram said, “Good morning, sweetie.” With the girls awake, there was no place for Lily’s prophecies. And it was true – Lily turned to look out the window and said, “We’re coming up to Kushi Rimon. Stop here so they can pee.”
Hila Amit grew up in Kfar Saba and divides her time between Tel-Aviv and Berlin. Her short story collection Moving On From Bliss was published by Am Oved in 2016. She was awarded the Israeli Ministry of Culture prize for debut authors in 2017. Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, will be published in September 2017.