Wednesday, August 9, 2017

ET: Almanac

Sixteen-year-old Moshe Yashar, tall, thin, sad, and bespectacled, went to see his teacher David Dagan at the ten o'clock break and asked his permission to visit his father when school was over and he'd finished work. He planned to stay overnight with relatives in Or Yehuda and get up at four thirty the next morning to catch the first bus back to the kibbutz so he could be there before school began.

David Dagan patted the boy's shoulder and said warmly, "These visits to your relatives pull you away from us. And you're almost one of us now."

Moshe said, "He's my father."

David Dagan pondered this for a moment, nodded twice as if agreeing with himself, and asked, "So tell me, have you learned to swim yet?"

The boy, gazing down at his sandals, said that he could swim a little. His teacher said, "And stop cutting your hair so short. With that stubble on your head, you look like a refugee. It's time you had a decent head of hair like all the other boys.

After a brief hesitation, he added affectionately, "All right, go. But only if you come back tomorrow before the first lesson. And while you're there, don't forget that you're one of us now."

Moshe Yashar was a boarder at our kibbutz. He was brought to us by a welfare worker: his mother died when he was seven and when his father fell ill, his Uncle Sami from Givat Olga took in the children. Several years later, when his uncle also became ill, the Welfare Office decided to split the children up and send them to various kibbutzim to live and attend school. Moshe came to Kibbutz Yekhat at the beginning of the school year wearing a plain white shirt without pockets, buttoned all the way up to the neck, and a black beret. He quickly learned to walk around barefoot and dress as we did, in shorts and singlet. We signed him up for the art club and the current events group, because he was tall and agile, he also found his way to the basketball court. But there was always something of the outsider about him: when we went on nocturnal forays to the food storeroom to scavenge treats for a sumptuous midnight feast, he never came with us. After school, when we all went to work and then to our parents' houses for the evening, Moshe remained alone in his room, doing homework, or went to the clubhouse where, with his glasses sliding down his nose, he would read all the newspapers from beginning to end. And wen we lay on the grass at night and sang nostalgic songs under the stars, he was the only one who didn't put his head on the lap of one of the girls. At first we called him alien and made fun of his shyness, but a few weeks after his arrival, we stopped teasing him about his foreignness, which was of a quiet, restrained kind. If someone offended him, Moshe Yashar would look the offender right in the eye. Sometimes he would say in a calm voice, "You're insulting me." But he bore no grudges and was always ready to help with any kind of work: carrying, moving, hanging things. He was even willing to help those who'd hurt his feelings, if they asked. After a few months, the "alien" appellation fell away and the girls began to call him Moshik. There was a unique gentleness in the way he behaved toward the girls, a gentleness in direct contrast to our ruff banter. Moshe spoke to the girls as if there were something marvelous about the mere fact that they were girls.

The school day began at seven in the morning and ended at one, when we had lunch in the school dining room, then went to change into our work clothes. From two until four every day, we worked in the various branches of the kibbutz. Moshe worked in the chicken coup and, unlike many of us, never asked for a different job. He quickly learned to spread feed in the troughs, collect eggs from the shelves that ran the length of the hens' air cages and arrange them in rows in cartons, set the thermostat in the brooder house, and feed the chicks, and he even injected the hens with vaccines. The old-timers who worked in the coop Shraga Shetchopek and Cheska Honig, were very pleased with him. He was fast and hard-working, quiet and thorough, and he never broke an egg or forgot to spread clean sawdust in the brooder houses where the newly hatched chicks were kept, was never late, and never took a sick day or stayed away for any other reason.

David Dagan said to Rivka Rikover, another teacher, "I let him go visit his family from after work today till the first lesson tomorrow. Though I'm not completely happy about this trip."

Rivka said "We have to encourage him to break off contact with them. They pull him back."

David said, "When we came to this country, we simply left our parents behind. We cut them out of our lives with a single stroke and that was that."

Rivka said "The boy has excellent qualities: he's quiet, hard-working, and he gets on with people."

David said, "On the whole, I have a very optimistic view of the Sephardim. We'll have to invest a great deal in them, but the investment will pay off. In another generation or two, they'll be just like us."

After David Dagan gave him permission to go, Moshe hurried to the room he shared with Tamir and Dror. By the end of the ten o'clock break, he had finished packing his small bag with underwear, socks, a spare shirt, his toothbrush and toothpaste, a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus, and his old black beret, which he kept hidden under a pile of clothes in the left compartment of the wardrobe under Tamir's.

After break, they had a history lesson. David Dagan, their teacher, gave a lecture on the French Revolution, dwelling on Karl Marx'sview of it, as a foreshadowing and early stage of the necessary and inevitable historical revolutions that would culminate in a classless society. Gideon, Lilah, and Carmela raised their hands and asked questions that David Dagan answered firmly and at length: "Just give me a minute," he said, "so we can set things straight."

Moshe cleaned his glasses and wrote everything down in his notebook--he was a conscientious student--but refrained from asking questions. Some weeks earlier, he'd read several chapters of Das Kapital in the school library and he didn't like Karl Marx: he felt that there could have been an exclamation mark after almost every sentence, and that put him off. Marx claimed, so it seemed to Moshe, that economic, social, and historical laws were as clear and immutable as the laws of nature. And Moshe had his doubts even about the immutability of the laws of nature.

When Lilah remarked that in order to have prioress, there have to be victims, David Dagan agreed with her and added that history is by no means a garden party. Bloodshed repelled Moshe and garden parties did not particularly appeal to him either. Not that he'd ever been to a garden party, but neither did he think he'd ever want to attend one. He spent his free time reading in the empty library when his classmates were with their parents. Among the books he'd read was a translated World War II story of escape and survival in the frozen north, entitled We Die Alone by David Howarth. His reading was leading him to the simple conclusion that most people need more affection than they can find. These were the thoughts that filled his mind during the lesson on the French Revolution. After history class, two lessons remained, trigonometry and agriculture, and when they were over, we all dashed out of class straight to our rooms to put on our work clothes and race off to the dining room for a quick lunch.

Lunch consisted of spinach patties with mashed potatoes, sour pickles, and cooked carrots. We were hungry, so we also wolfed down bread and asked for more mashed potatoes. There was a large tin jug of cold water on every table, and we each drank two or three glasses because of the heat. Flies buzzed around our heads and large, dusty ceiling fans whirred above us. Desert was stewed fruit. When we finished eating, we took our dishes and silverware to the hatch that opened into the dishwashing room and went off to our jobs: Tamir to the garage, Door to the fodder fields, Carmela to the children's house, and Lilah to the laundry.

Moshe, wearing his dusty work clothes and shoes that stank of chicken droppings, crossed the road lined with cypress trees, passed two abandoned sheds and a tin-roofed lean-to, and reached the large chicken coop. Even from a distance, the smell of the coop enveloped him: the stench of chicken excrement, of the dust that rises from the feed, of torn-out feathers that stuck to the wire netting, along with another vague smell of overcrowding and suffocation. Cheska Honig was waiting for him, sitting on a small stool sorting eggs into cartons according to size. Moshe asked how she was, then told her that today, right after work, he was taking the four o'clock bus to visit his father. Cheska pointed out that when she was young, she just got up one day and ran away from home to go to Eretz Israel and join a kibbutz, so she actually never said goodbye to her parents. The Nazis murdered them in Lithuania. "Where is this family of yours, anyway?" Cheska asked Moshe. "They live in some kind of immigrants' camp?"

In a low, even voice Moshe told her what he told everyone here who asked him, that his mother died and his father fell ill and his uncle fell ill, too, so he and his brothers and sisters were sent to live in various kibbutzim. As they spoke, he rolled the feed cart under the large funnel of the feed container and filled it to the brim. He pushed it along the concrete walk between the two rows of cages and began to fill the troughs with feed. Under the cages crammed with chickens were piles of droppings. When here and there he found a dead chicken in a cage, he opened the cage, took out the carcass, and placed it gently on the concrete walk behind him. When he finished distributing the feed into all the troughs, he went back to collect the carcasses. Low moaning filled the air as if the hens, squeezed together two by two in the cages, were keening a faint, persistent, lost lament. Only now and then did a sharp screech of fear burst from one of the cages, as if a chicken had suddenly guessed how all of this would end. After all, no two chickens are or ever have been exactly alike. They all look the same to us, but they are actually different from one another the same way that people are, and since the creation of the world, no two identical creatures have ever been born. Moshe had already decided to become a vegetarian one day, maybe even a vegan, but had postponed implementing the decision because being a vegan among the kibbutz boys would to be easy. Even without being a vegetarian, he had to work hard day and night to seem like everyone else here. He had to keep his feelings to himself. Pretend. He thought of the cruelty of eating meat and of the fate of these hens, doomed to spend their entire lives packed tightly in wire cages, unable to move even one step. Someday, Moshe thought, a future generation will call us murderers, unable to comprehend how we could eat the flesh of creatures like ourselves, rob them of the feel of the earth and the smell of the grass, hatch them in automatic incubators, raise them in crowded cages, force-feed them, steal all their eggs before they hatch, and finally, slit their throats, pluck their feathers, tear them limb from limb, gorge oursevles on them, and drool and lick the fat from our lips. For months now, Moshe had been plotting to ope a cage and surreptitiously steal a chicken, only one, hide it under his shirt, away from the watchful eyes of Cheska and Shrug, spirit it out of the coop, and set it free on the other side of the kibbutz fence. But what would an abandoned chicken do all alone in the fields? At night the jackals would come and tear it to pieces.

He was suddenly disgusted with himself, a feeling he had often and for many and sundry reasons. Then he was disgusted by his disgust, scornfully calling himself a bleeding heart, a label that David Dagan sometimes applied to those who recoiled from the necessary cruelty of the revolution. Moshe respected David Dagan, a man of principle with strong opinions who spread a fatherly wing over him and all the other students in their school. It was David Dagan who had welcomed him into Kibbutz Yekhat and guided him gently but firmly into his new life. He was the one who signed Moshe up for the art club and the current events group, and he it was who defended him fiercely against the other children's mocking attitude when he first arrived. Moshe knew, as we all did, that David was living with a very young girl, Edna Asherov, Nahum the electrician's daughter. There had been many women in David's life, and though that surprised Moshe, he said to himself that after all, David Dagan wasn't an ordinary person like the rest of us, but a philosopher. He didn't judge David because he didn't like to judge other people and because he was so grateful to him. But he did wonder. He had often tried to put himself in David Dagan's shoes, but he was never able to imagine the teacher's easy sense of entitlement when it came to women and girls. Not just social revolution, he thought, not even the final, cruel one that David spoke about, could lead to equality between people like David, who attracted women effortlessly, and people like me, who would never dare, not even in their imaginations.

Yes, Moshe Yashar did occasionally dream of his classmate Carmela Nero's shy smile and of her fingers playing melancholy songs on the recorder, but he never dared to approach her, not with words, and almost never with looks. From where he sat in class, two rows behind her, he could see the curve of her slender neck as she bent over her notebook and the soft down of the hair on her nape. Once, when Carmela was standing between the light and the wall talking to one of the girls, he walked past and stroked her shadow. Afterward, he lay awake half the night, unable to sleep.

Cheska said, "After you've set the thermostat in the brooder house and checked that there's water in the trough and fed the chicks and put all the egg cartons in the refrigerator, you can go. I'll write down the daily summary for you today. And I'll let you go fifteen minutes early so you have time to shower and change and catch the four o'clock bus."

Moshe, who was collecting the dead chickens he had left on the walkway to drop them outside in the barrel to be burned, said, "Thank you." And added, "I'll be back tomorrow morning and I'll come to work fifteen minutes early in the afternoon."

Cheska said, "The main thing is that you show them you are a total kibbutznik now."

Alone in the shower, he scrubbed off the smells of the coop with soap and water, dried himself, and put on long, ironed trousers and a white Sabbath shirt, rolling the sleeves up past his elbows. He went to his room, took the bag he had packed during the ten o'clock break, and left quickly, cutting across the lawn and past the flower beds. Zvi Provizor, the gardener, was kneeling at one of them, pulling up weeds. He looked up and asked Moshe were he was off to. Moshe was going to say that he was on his way to visit his father in the hospital but, instead, he said only, "Town."

Zvi Provisor asked, "Why? What do they have there that we don't have here?"

Moshe said nothing, but thought about replying: Strangers.

At the central bus station, when he got off the Kibbutz Yekhat bus and boarded the one to the hospital, Moshe chose to sit in the last row of seats. He took his threadbare black beret out of his bag and put it on his head, pulling it down so that it hid half his forehead. He buttoned his shirt all the way up and rolled his sleeves all the way down to his wrists. And instantly looked as he had on the day his welfare worker brought him to Kibbutz Yekhat. He was still wearing the summer sandals they'd given him on the kibbutz, but he was almost sure his father wouldn't notice them. There were very few things his father still noticed. The bus wove through the alleyways near the central bus station, and the smell of heavily fried food and combusted gasoline drifted in through the open windows. Moshe thought about the girls in his class who had begun to call him Moshik. Now that the teasing and mocking had passed, Moshe found that he was enjoying kibbutz social life. He liked school, where he could sit in class barefoot on summer days and argue freely with his teachers without having to show any of the usual subservience. He liked the basketball court. He also liked the art club and the current events group meetings in the evenings where they discussed adult matters, and Israeli life was usually represented by two camps: the progressive and the old-world. Moshe was well aware that part of him still belonged to the old world because he didn't always accept progressive ideas, but rather than argue, he simply listened. He spent his free time reading the books by Dostoevsky, Camus, and Kafka that he borrowed from the library finding himself deeply touched by the enigmas contained in their pages. He was drawn more to unsolved questions than to glib solutions. But he told himself that perhaps this was still part of the adjustment process and in a few months, he'd learn to see the world the way David Dagan and the other teachers wanted their students to see it. How good it was to be one of them. Moshe envied the boys who rested their heads so easily on the girls' laps as they lay on the big lawn in the evening and sang work songs and patriotic tunes. Until the age of twelve, so he was told, girls and boys had showered naked together. Chills of excitement and fear had run down his back when he heard that. Day after day, Tamir and Dror and the other boys had seen Carmela Nevo naked, and they grew inured to what they saw, while for him, even the thought of the curve of her neck and the soft down on the nape made him tremble with longing and shame. Would he become one of them someday? He yearned for that day, but was afraid of it too, and he also knew in his heart of hearts that it would never come.

The bus had already left Tel Aviv and was driving jerkily from town to town, pulling up at every stop, letting passengers on and off, hard-working people who spoke Romanian, Arabic, Yiddish, Hungarian, some carrying live chickens or large bundles wrapped in tattered blankets or old suitcases tied with ropes. When shouting and pushing occasionally broke out on the bus, the driver rebuked the passengers and they cursed him. At one point, the driver stopped on the side of the road between two small villages, got off, stood with his back to the bus, and urinated in a field. When he boarded again and started the engine, a murky cloud of stinking diesel fuel filled the air. It was hot and humid, and the passengers were bathed in sweat. The trip was very long, even longer than the ride from Kibbutz Yekhat to Tel Aviv, because the bus circled through the small towns and an immigrant camp. Citrus groves and fields of thorns filled the unpopulated areas. Dusty cypress or eucalyptus trees with peeling bark lined the sides of the road. Finally, when day began to soften into evening, Moshe stood up, pulled the cord to stop the bus, and stepped off onto the fork int he dirt road that led to the hospital.

The moment he got off the bus, Moshe saw a small mongrel puppy, gray-brown with white patches on its head. It was running diagonally through the bushes toward the road, which it crossed just a the bus began to move. The front tire missed it, but the back one crushed the creature before it even had a chance to bark. There was only a light thump and the bus continued on its way. The little dog's body lay not eh cracked road, still twitching violently, raising its head again and again and banging it on the hard asphalt each time it fell back. Its legs flailed in the air and a stream of dark blood spurted from the open jaw past the small, shiny teeth, and another trickle of blood oozed from its hindquarters. Moshe ran over, kneeled on the road, and held the dog's head gently until it stopped twitching and its eyes glazed oer. Then he picked up the small, still-warm body so that no other cars would run over it and carried it in his arms to the foot of a eucalyptus tree with a whitewashed trunk near the bus stop and laid it down. He cleaned his hands with some dirt but couldn't wipe the bloodstains off his trousers and white Sabbath shirt. He knew his father was not likely to notice them. There were very few things his father still noticed. Moshe stood there for a moment, took out a handkerchief, and wiped the moisture off his glasses; then, since night was falling, he began to walk quickly, almost running along the dirt road.

The hospital, a twenty-minute walk from the road, was surrounded by a wall of untreated cinder blocks topped with barbed wire. By the time he reached it, the blood on his clothes had congealed into rust-colored stains.

A fat, sweaty guard wearing a yarmulke stood at the hospital gate, blocking the entrance with his thick body. He told Moshe that visiting hours were over a long time ago and he should "go and come back tomorrow." Moshe, his eyes still filled with tears for the dead dog, tried to explain that he'd come all the way from Kibbutz Yekhat to see his father, and he had to be back at school on the kibbutz by seven o'clock tomorrow morning. The fat guard, who was in a jovial mood, pointed to the black beret on Moshe's head and said, "They don't keep the Sabbath on the kibbutz and they eat trey there, don't they?" Moshe tried to explain, but the tears chocked him. The guard softened and said, "Don't cry, son, go in, it's okay, go in, but next time, come between four and five, not at night. And don't stay for more than half an hour." Moshe thanked him and, for some reason, reached out to shake the guard's hand. The guard din't take the proffered hand, but tapped the black beret on the young boy's head twice and said, "Just make sure you keep the Sabbath."

Moshe crossed a small, neglected garden with two benches badly in need of fresh paint and walked through the iron-barred door that opened when he rang a raspy bell. In the entrance hall, some ten men and women were sitting on metal chairs that lined the walls, which were painted a sort of khaki color to halfway up. The men and women were all wearing striped hospital gowns and flat slippers. Some were speaking to each other in hesitant voices. The supervisor, a strapping fellow wearing a loud flowered shirt and army-issue trousers and boots, was standing in a corner of the room chewing gum. An older woman was knitting furiously, though she had neither needles nor wool. Her lips moved in flower mutter. A spindly, stoop-shouldered man stood with his back to the room, clutching the bars of the window and speaking to the now-darkening world outside. An old woman was sitting alone near the door, sucking hard on her thumb and mumbling prayers of supplication. His father was out on the balcony, which was covered from top to bottom with netting. He was sitting on a gray metal chair next to a small metal table, also gray, with a tin mug of tea cooling on it. Moshe sat down in a metal chair beside him and said, "Hello, Father." He sat hunched over so that his father wouldn't see the bloodstains on his clothes.

The father said hello without looking at his son.
"I've come to see you."
The father nodded and said nothing.
"I've come by bus."
The father asked, "Where did he go?"
"I'm Moshe."
"You're Moshe."
"I'm Moshe. I've come to visit you."
"You're Moshe."
"How are you, Father?"
The father asked again, with concern and profound sadness, in a voice trembling with pain, "Where did he go? Where?"

Moshe took his wrinkled, veiny hand, worn out by hard work building roads and planting crops, and said, "I've come from the kibbutz, Father. I've come from Kibbutz Yekhat. I've come to visit you. Everything is fine with me. It's going very well."

"You're Moshe?"

So Moshe began to tell his father about his school. About his teacher, David Dagan. About the library. About working in the chicken coop. About the girls who sing beautiful, nostalgic songs. Then he opened his shoulder bag and took out The Plague, with its green cover, and read the first two paragraphs to his father. His father, a yarmulke on his slightly tilted head, listened attentively, weary eyes half closed, then suddenly picked up the tin mug, looked at the now-cool tea, shook his head sadly, put the mug down again, and asked, "Where did he go?"

Moshe said, "I'll go to the kitchen and get you a fresh cup of tea. Hot tea."

His father wiped his forehead with his hand and, as if awakening from sleep, said again, "You're Moshe."

Moshe held his father's hand and didn't hug him, but kept pressing the limp, brown hand. He told his father about the basketball court, the books he'd read, the debates in the current events group, and his participation in the discussions in the art club, about Joseph K. from Kafka's book, and about David Dagan, who'd already had several wives and lovers and now lived with a seventeen-year-old girl, but always gave his full attention to his students and had defended him fiercely when the others teased and mocked him during his first few weeks on the kibbutz. David Dagan, he has a habit of saying to people, "Just give me a minute so we can set things straight." Moshe spoke to his father for about the minutes, and his father closed his eyes, then opened them and said sorrowfully, "All right. You can go now. You're Moshe?"

Moshe said, "Yes, Father," and added, "Don't worry. I'll come to see you again in two weeks. They let me come. David Dagan lets me come."

The father nodded and dropped his chin to his chest, as if in mourning.

Moshe said, "Goodbye, Father." Then he said, "I'll see you soon. Don't worry.

From the door, he gave a last look at his father, who was sitting utterly still, staring at the tin mug. On the way out, Moshe asked the supervisor in the army trousers, "How is he?"

The supervisor said, "He's fine. Quiet." Then he said, "I wish they were all like him," and finally added, "You're a very good son. Bless you."

When he left, it was almost dark outside. Moshe was suddenly filled with that familiar sense of self-loathing. He took his black beret off and put it in his bag. He rolled his sleeves up to his biceps again and undid his top button. Only thorns and couch grass grew in the small front garden of the hospital. But someone had forgotten a dishtowel on the bench and someone had lost the belt to his robe among the thorns. Moshe noticed those details because he was drawn to details. He thought about Cheska Honig, who had taught him to keep an eye out for sick hens and isolate them before they infected the whole coop. And he thought about his classmates lying on one of the lawns now, the boys heads resting on the girls' laps as they sang nostalgic songs. One of them, Tamir or Door or Gideon or Arnon, was now putting his blond head on Carmela Nero's lap, its heat caressing his cheek. Moshe would give everything he had to be there now. One and for all to be one of them. And yet he knew very well that it would never happen. As he walked through the gate, the jovial guard asked, "What's this, you go in with a hat on and come out without it?"

Moshe said only good night and turned onto the dirt path that led from the hospital to the road. It was dark and empty. Not a single car drove past. Pinpoints of light shone in the distance and he could hear the braying of a donkey. The faint voices of children also came from the direction of the lights. He kneeled on the ground and sat back on his legs at the foot of the white-washed eucalyptus tree, close to where he had laid the run-over dog, and waited. He waited for a long time. He thought he could hear sounds of jagged weeping coming from the hospital, but he wasn't sure. He sat there motionless, and listened.

Amos Oz - Father

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