The young man stood in the street, behind the hedge, trying to talk to the figure sprawled out under the big motorcycle. The grease-stained overalls moved and Ayala roared “What?” in the rough voice she used for strangers.
“I’m looking for Miriam. Miriam Saridr.”
Ayala slid out from under the wheels of the motorcycle. Since he didn’t look like one of those pests who come to gawk at the motorcycle repair woman, she stood up straight and stared curiously at him.
“Come on in” she invited, waving her dirty hand. But the young man stared at her in amazement and stammered: “I thought you… I mean… that is …”
“Yeah, yeah!” she cut him off impatiently. “I know. I am a girl and do me a favor, don’t ask what’s a nice girl like me doing fixing motorcycles!”
“What’s a nice girl like you doing fixing motorcycles?” he smiled. “I’m Doron.”
All the while, Miriam was standing at the kitchen sink, peeping out into the yard through the slats of the shutter, her heart pounding.
He was taller than she had imagined and thinner too. His nose was fleshy and his big ears stuck out like fins. His hair was soft and brown and his neck was too thin. Miriam was surprised to find she was disappointed. What did she expect?
“I’m Ayala’,’ the girl began talking as she let Doron in. “But everybody calls me Avigdor.”
“So, you folks finally remembered Miriam” complained Ayala.
“What do you mean, ‘you folks’?”
“She’s been here for half a year now! What if she was sick? I was hoping she’d take care of me and it turns out that I have to take care of her.”
Miriam was suiprised at that. So, the girl’s been taking care of her.
When they decided in the kibbutz that Miriam would move out of her room and go live with Kayla and Guri’s grandmother, Miriam told Yosha, the secretary, that she had decided to go to the city for a year. Yosha objected, the travel committee objected, but she stood her ground. Some members go on trips abroad and others study at the university; after the army, young people take a year’s vacation, and all she was asking in exchange for a lifetime of toil was one year in the city.
“What difference does it make to you?” she asked. “It just means that there’ll be one less old lady wandering around here.”
They talked about precedent, a word they always pulled out when they had a hard time getting used to some change. But this time, Miriam stood her ground. She would be willing to live in a small room with ten other people — hadn’t she done that in the past, when they first came here? — but, to move out to make more room for somebody else? Was she worth less than them? A young couple, terrific! She and Kayla and Yosha’s father, Sand-kovitz, all remembered that year in Beit Shean Valley when all the members were huddled together in a clay hut, in heat wave and rain storm. That was the summer Gershon came from Re-hovot where he was a teacher. He planned to give them a hand and wound up staying with them. During the day, they uprooted couch grass and whoever could still stand up at night would dance. It was Gershon’s voice that won her heart, his full, unbridled singing. In the spring, they made them a chupa on pitchforks.
It was seven years before the kibbutz children were big enough for Gershon to go back to teaching. In the corridor of the school was a picture of the first choir. Gershon stands among the little singers. Now the picture was hidden in a suitcase under her bed. At Pesach, they painted the school. And all of a sudden, a three-dimensional picture of a cat and kittens appeared on the wall. Miriam asked Ronit where the picture of Gershon was and Ronit pulled it out of a heap of old pamphlets that had been stuffed in a box. Ronit, Sandkovitz’s granddaughter, had studied education at the university and had her own firm principles. Miriam took the picture out of the box, dusted it off and said to herself: “You’re lucky, Gershon!”
The bereavement was hers alone and there was plenty. Hanoch, her eldest, fell in the battle of Latrun in ’48 and the two of them buried him. But she buried Nissan, the younger one, all by herself. He was killed at Tel Azaziat on June 9, 1967, two days after his forty-second birthday. The little family walked to the cemetery. She and liana, her daughter-in-law, Nadav, her grandson, and Tamar, her granddaughter. Nadav fell at the Suez Canal, and his sister Tamar wandered around in Europe for a year like a madwoman. A Swedish volunteer on the kibbutz won her heart and Miriam — unlike liana — gave her blessing.
God knows what sage decided to put the three bereaved old women together in one room which she secretly called the “ghetto!’ “I’d rather choose my own exile’,’ she answered Kayla when she came to tell Miriam about the proposal. Miriam wasn’t one of those who yelled. All her life, she had bowed her back and her spirit. But this time, she decided to go to the city and she stood firm until finally they gave in.
At night, when all was still on the kibbutz, Miriam took a spade and began digging patiently until she had uprooted the cactus that grew at the entrance to the house. Gershon had planted it when they came to live there. Over the years it had grown and now it was a tall tree. No one would notice that it was missing. Except for her, it was only a part of a landscape whose details no one noticed anymore.
In the city, she spent her first two days in a cheap hotel, scared and wondering if she had done the right thing. Then she found an ad in the paper announcing “room to rent in exchange for housekeeping” She went to the address and found a twenty-year-old landlady.
The house was in an old neighborhood of Tel Aviv. A lemon tree was blooming in the yard of the little house, and a vine twisted around the ledge of the back porch between the clotheslines and the storeroom which was now used as a garage. Young men on motorcycles, with their energy and noise, came and went from morning to night.
It was Avigdor, Ayala’s brother, who had turned the storeroom into a garage. The tools were arranged on the shelves along with rows of jars in pigeonholes containing all kinds of nails and screws. “Every instrument here has its place and purpose!’ Ayala explained to her one day; “and nothing ever got lost except Avigdor.”
Avigdor came back from the fortification, where he had been surrounded by Arabs for 68 hours, hovering in the air, weightless, with the lost smile of wreckage in the depths. He was scared of machines and noises; people were scared of him. A family in a naturalist agricultural settlement agreed to take him in and there he sat all day long, singing quietly, eating rice, wheat and bran.
Ayala’s father, who had been in America for ten years, went on running his laundromats and Ayala’s mother, whose heart was broken by grief for her son, decided to give in to her husband and go to America with him. Ayala refused to go with her. She opened the garage, hired a reliable fellow and worked as his apprentice until she learned the craft.
Young men who came to the garage asking for her brother all got the same answer: “I’m Avigdor now” and finally the name stuck to her. As time went by, people got used to the girl in dirty overalls bent over the big motorcycles.
The two women, the old and the young, lived together nicely. Miriam enjoyed keeping house for Ayala, enjoyed shopping, enjoyed cooking. The first two months, she was afraid she would use up her monthly allowance and would have to go back to the kibbutz in disgrace. But then she found that she could support herself and even afford some luxuries. In the morning, she’d stop at a cafe next to the supermarket, order a piece of cake and a glass of juice and sit there for a long time next to the other ladies, read the newspaper and eavesdrop on her neighbors’ conversations.
“I’m a real city girl!” she’d smile to herself and yet she knew that her self-imposed isolation was enveloping her more and more thickly. Maybe that’s why she answered an ad in the paper. A twenty-two year old soldier, who liked music and travel, was looking for a pen pal. “He didn’t say how old the pen pal had to be!’ she reasoned.
Doron, the young soldier, wrote that he was from Netanya, a gunner, with eight more months to go before he finished his army service. And, he sent her a picture.
Miriam wrote that she was a sales agent for a big cosmetics company and was on the road most of the time, travelling from city to city and didn’t get home very much. She made up a biography and a character, with oval eyes, short hair, a good figure and smooth skin. She listened closely to pick up idioms Ayala and her friends used and was careful not to be solemn or sentimental. She gradually discovered an interesting vocabulary and even bought a dictionary of colloquial Hebrew so she could understand what Doron was talking about when he said they were hassling him or screwing him. Miriam felt sorry for that kid who was having such a bad time. Her hands, the hands of an old peasant woman, felt a yearning to caress. Skin touching skin. When she was young and loved, she had followed in the rut of the ascetic society around her but now, from the remnants of herself, she created a charming golden girl.
“Over and over and over again, I’ve asked you for a picture and you, you bad girl, you don’t send me one!” he complained in his last letter. “I want to dream about you sometimes. I promise to love you, although you’re a dwarf and a hunchback!’ Well, a dwarf and a hunchback she wasn’t, just a wrinkled 67-year-old grandmother.
Miriam slipped out of the kitchen to her room and then out into the street. Wearing her robe, she seemed to sleepwalk to the sea, wandered around here and there until she sat down under an awning, stunned. She tried to guess what was happening now between Ayala and Doron. At last the truth had come out and now both of them were surprised and laughing!
A few feet away, two men were playing paddleball, spraying sand to her lap. The monotonous banging of the ball finally put her to sleep.
It was five o’clock by the time she awoke. Miriam stood still for a while, seeing shapes and silhouettes, wondering what happened. Then she remembered.
The tools had vanished from the path, the motorcycle was gone from the porch and the house was empty. Miriam took her suitcase out from under the bed, threw her things into it, took a shower and slipped quickly out of the house.
She reached the kibbutz at midnight. Shlomo Sandkovitz came on her near the cow shed and blared out: “Came back, hey?”
She laughed and answered: “All good things come to an end’,’ as she rehearsed during the long bus ride. She wondered where she would spend the night. Slowly, she opened the screen door of the “ghetto!’ Guri’s grandmother (the old woman was only five years older than Miriam) was sprawled out, her head back, her mouth wide open like a black cavern with choked snores emanating from it. The smell of old age and decay lingered in the room. Kayla muttered some long, unintelligible sentence. Tomorrow, as always, she’d tell what she had dreamed. Miriam tiptoed out, leaving her suitcase on the floor of the porch. In the children’s house, she found an empty bed and lay down, pulling her legs up under her dress.
In the morning, she ran around the kibbutz from one person to another, shouting: “I came back!” — like someone who found a treasure. Happy as a lark, she latched onto people, telling and asking until they began to wonder if something was wrong with Miriam. Maybe the whole trip was simply a symptom of something wrong which they didn’t understand. They began to avoid her and to hurry to work. Miriam had a new style, insolent and loud — urban! — she who had always worked hard as an ant, borne every burden, now squared her drooping shoulders and demanded this and that. That very morning, she went to Yosha Sandkovitz and demanded he put her back in her old room.
“You won’t get rid of me!” Miriam persisted. “Gershon’s dead but I’m still alive!”
“You don’t understand! We’re trying to make it easy for you. Something might happen to you, you could fall down the stairs, you might feel sick. You’re the youngest one, take care of Kayla and Rachel and, when the time comes, somebody else will take care of you.”
She left him with a scornful snort and slammed the door so hard the glass shattered. The sound of breaking glass was music to her ears.
From the secretary’s office, Miriam went to the “ghetto” and dragged out her bed. The legs of the bed plowed deep furrows in the earth. Now and then, Miriam would sit down to catch her breath. Finally she reached her destination: She put the bed down on the lawn near her old room. Then she went back and dragged her suitcase here too and stuck it under the bed.
The kibbutzniks gathered around. Some of them burst out laughing when they saw “Miriam’s residence;” others shouted: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Children called out: “Can we come in?” and “When are you gonna paint?” and other such jokes. Miriam stared stubbornly into space, her jaw clamped shut.
The crowd streaming to “Miriam’s residence” disturbed the young couple who had taken over her room. When two weeks went by and she was still planted in their midst like a sore, Nir went to Yosha and shouted: “You know what it is to have children all day and grownups all night right under your nose? We don’t have a drop of privacy, none! I’m not leaving you alone until you come and throw her out! Either there was a decision or there wasn’t!”
“If you have complaints ” Yosha pleaded with Miriam, “come to me — “
“I did! That helped a lot!”
“Think of the young couple! Nir’s one of us, but Ophra! You know what kind of name we’re going to have?”
“And my suffering doesn’t count? They’re cleaning Gershon’s smell off the walls! What’s this? I can’t even be outside? So throw me out and be done with it!”
“What are you talking about?” shouted Yosha to the delight of the children surrounding him. “We want what’s good for you! It’s not healthy to sleep outside! You could catch a cold or a scorpion might bite you!”
“Fine! At least you’ll bury me next to Gershon, I hope!”
Yosha Sandkovitz gave up. He turned around, pushed aside the children in his way and took off. Miriam dragged out the suitcase and put it on the bed. She took out the family pictures and lined them up along the mattress, one next to the other.
Dust dropped out of the trees and insects rustled. A humming put Miriam to sleep. From the babble of distant sounds rose the roar of a motorcycle approaching. The motorcycle stopped abruptly next to Miriam’s bed and Ayala jumped off. Miriam, awakened with a start, sucked her lips in embarrassment and, at last, said: “This is Gershon” touching the famous picture. “He set up the first children’s choir in the kibbutz.”
Ayala handed Miriam a bundle of letters. Miriam identified the handwriting on the envelopes. “He’s angry?” she asked.
“He thinks I’m the one who wrote the letters!’ answered Ayala.
From the suitcase, Miriam took out an old leather wallet and, from it, she took a brown envelope with Doron’s letters. The ceremony of exchanging letters took place without a word. Miriam cleared her throat, finally steadied her breath, stood up and said to Ayala: “Please help me.”
The two of them put the big suitcase on the mattress and then carried the bed together to Miriam’s new room. Miriam kicked open the door and burst inside, waking up Kayla and Rachel: “Hi there, beauties!” she shouted. “I’m moving in!”
Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav.
(c) Shulamit Lapid, 1989.
Barbara Harshav lives in North Haven, Connecticut. She translates from Hebrew, French, German and Yiddish. Her forthcoming translations include The Court Jesters by Avigdor Dagan (Jewish Publication Society) and Memories Juives by Lucette Valensi and Nathan Wachtel (University of California Press).
fiction by Shulamit Lapid
Shulamit Lapid: ‘THIS IS POLITICS’
“I used to write a lot about women who do men’s work,” says Shulamit Lapid, speaking by phone from her home in Tel Aviv. “I wanted to change the image of women in society. But now I don’t try to change society, I try to depict society. For example, there was a rape in Tel Aviv a few years ago. Everyone told jokes about it. I was outraged. So I wrote an aggressive story about the rape of a male. I published it in a glossy magazine which had naked women all over the cover. Everyone remembers this story. I was making a political point.”
Lapid, who describes herself as “small, delicate, more and more aggressive” and a “ripe 54,” does not consider herself a feminist. Still, she says, “I write mostly about women. I feel more deeply for their plight. I confine myself to women’s subjects: husband and wife, old age, young strivings.
“Why don’t I write about politics and wars?” she asks rhetorically, “because I am interested in a different kind of politics. My current play, ‘Abandoned Property,’ describes three women standing in a kitchen – this is politics.
“If you’re a good writer,” she continues, “you are accepted here in Israel —male or female. And even if we’re best-sellers, none of us can support ourselves by our writing — male or female.” Lapid is a startlingly prolific writer, having published three books of collected stories, three novels, three plays and five children’s books — all in Hebrew. Still, to explain why she was 35 before her work was published, and why “there are so few female novelists here; most women are poets,” she quotes Shulamit Hareven as: “When the children are small, we write poetry. When they grow up, we write short stories. When they leave home, we write novels.”
Lapid is a former chair of the Israeli Writers’ Association. Her father, husband and son are journalists and writers. (Her son, at 25, just published his first novel.) Her daughter, 23, is “not a writer, thank God. She is studying to be a psychologist.”