Thursday, August 3, 2017

ET Almanac

In the early hours, the first rain of the season began to fall on the kibbutz houses, its fields and orchards. The fresh smell of damp earth and clean leaves filled the air. The rain rattled along the gutters and washed the dust off the red roofs and tin sheds. At dawn, a gentle mist enveloped the buildings, and the flowers in the gardens sparkled with beads of water. A redundant lawn sprinkler continued its shuttering. A child's wet red tricycle stood diagonally across a path. From the treetops came the sharp astonished cries of birds.

The rain woke Nahum Asherov from a fitful sleep. For several moments after waking, he thought he heard tapping on the shutters as if someone had come to tell him something. He sat up in bed and listened intently until he realized that the first rain had come. Today, he'd go there, sit Edna down, look her directly in the eyes, and speak to her. About everything. And to David Fagan, too. He couldn't just let it pass.

But what could he actually say to him? Or to her?

Nahum Asherov, a widower of about fifty, was Kibbutz Yekhat's electrician. Edna was his only remaining child after his older son, Yishai, had been killed a few years earlier in a retaliatory raid. A strong-minded young woman, black-eyed and olive-skinned, she had turned seventeen in the spring and was a senior at the kibbutz school. Every afternoon she would come from the dorm room she shared with three other girls to visit her father. She would sit across from him in an armchair, hugging her shoulders as if she were always cold. Even in summer, she would hug herself that way. She would stay with him for about an hour until dusk fell, make coffee, prepare them for a plate of peeled, sliced fruit, and they would chat quietly about the news on the radio or her studies, before she left to spend the rest of the evening with her friends, or perhaps without them. Nahum didn't know and didn't ask about her social life, and she didn't volunteer. He once heard something about a fleeting relationship with Dubi the lifeguard, but the rumor died down. He and his daughter never talked about themselves, except for superficial things. Edna would say, for example, "You have to go to the clinic. I don't like that cough of yours."

Nahum would say, "We'll see. Maybe next week. This week we're installing a new generator in the brooder house at the chicken coop."

Sometimes they would talk bout music, which they both loved. Sometimes they didn't talk at all, but played Schubert on the old gramophone. They never spoke about the death of Edna's mother or brother. Nor did they bring up childhood memories, or future plans. They had an unspoken agreement not to touch on feelings, nor to touch each other. Not even lightly: not a hand on a shoulder, not the brush of fingers on an arm. Standing at the door, about to leave, Edna would say, "Bye, Dad. Don't forget to go to the clinic. I'll come again tomorrow or the day after." And Nahum would say, "Yes. Stop by. And take care of yourself. See you later."

In a few months, Edna, along with all her classmates, would be going into the army. Since she had taught herself Arabic, she would be serving in the Intelligence Corps.

Just a few days before the first rain, Kibbutz Yekhat had been shocked when Edna Asherov packed up her clothes and belongings, left the dorm, and moved in with David Fagan, a teacher her father's age. David Dagan was one of the kibbutz founders and leaders, an articulate, solidly built man with powerful shoulders, a short, sinewy neck, and a full, neatly trimmed mustache that was threaded with gray. He had a tendency to argue ironically and assertively in a deep voice. Almost everyone accepted his authority when it came to ideological issues, as well as to matters of daily life, mainly because he was endowed with razor-sharp logic and irresistible powers of persuasion. He would interrupt you in the middle of a sentence, put his hand warmly on your shoulder, and say firmly: Hang on; just give me a minute so we can set things straight. He was a devout Marxist, but he loved listening to cantorial music. For many years now, David Fagan had been the kibbutz history teacher. He changed lovers frequently and had six children with four different women from our kibbutz and others in the area.

David Fagan was about fifty and Edna, who had been his student the previous year, was only seventeen. No wonder the gossip swirled wildly around Roni Shindlin's regular table in the dining hall. Names like Abishag the Shunammite, Lolita, and Bluebeard were tossed about. Yoskeh M. said that such a disgrace shook the very foundations of the school. How could it be--a teacher and his young student? They ought to convene an immediate meeting of the Education Committee. Yoshka disagreed: After all, you can't argue with love; anyway, we've always advocated free love here. And Rivka R. said: How could she do something like this to her father, after all he's lost? Poor Nahum, he just won't be able to bear it.

"The entire young generation suddenly wants to go to college," David Fagan said in his deep voice from his table in the dining hall. "No one wants to work in the fields and orchards anymore." Then he added harshly, "We have to draw the line somewhere. Does anyone disagree?"

Although everyone in the kibbutz felt sorry for Nahum Asherov, no one spoke up. Behind Edna's and David Dagan's backs, they said: It will end in tears. And they said: He is really, really out of line. He was always out of line when it came to women. And as for her, we're simply shocked.

Nahum said nothing. It seemed to him that everyone who passed him on the kibbutz paths wondered what he would do, or why he wasn't doing it: Your daughter has been seduced; how can you keep silent? He tried in vain to find comfort in his progressive views of love and freedom. But sorrow, embarrassment, and shame filled his heart. Every morning he would go to his workshop, fix electric lights and cookers, replace old plugs with new ones, repair broken appliances. He would go out to the yard, a long ladder over his shoulder, toolbox in hand, to perform his duties, such as running a new power line to the kindergarten. Morning, noon, and night he would appear in the dining hall to stand mutely in the line at the serving counter, load his meal onto a tray, and then sit down in a corner to eat, preferably in silence. He always sat in the same corner. People spoke to him gently, as if they were speaking to someone who was terminally ill, avoiding any mention or even hint of his problem, and he would answer briefly in his quiet, composed, slightly hoarse voice. To himself he said: One more day and I'll go and talk to her. And to him, too. After all, she's still a child.

But time passed. Day after day, Nahum Asherov sat in the electrician's workshop, shoulders stooped, glasses sliding down his nose, working not he appliances in need of repair, electric kettles, radios, fans. He told himself: After work today, I will definitely go there. I'll talk to both of them. I'll say only one or two things, then I'll grab Edna's arm and drag her home. Not to her room in the dormitory, but here, home. How will I begin, though? How shall I put it? Will I get angry or should I restrain myself and appeal to their sense of reason and duty? Yet inside, he felt neither anger nor rebuke, only pain and disappointment. David Fagan had sons who were a few years older than Edna and they had already done their military service. Maybe instead of going there, he should talk to one of them? But what exactly would he say?

From the time she was a child, Edna had been closer to Nahum than to her mother. Although she rarely expressed this closeness in words, Nahum always knew, from some unspoken mutual understanding, what to ask and what not to ask, when to concede and when to stand his ground. Since her mother's death, Edna had taken it upon herself to drop off her father's clothes at the laundry every Monday and return with a bundle of clean, ironed clothes ever Friday; or she would sew on missing buttons for him. Since her brother's death, she came to his apartment every day in the late afternoon, made them coffee, and sat with him for an hour or so. They spoke very little, usually just about her studies or his work. Sometimes they talked about a book. They listened to music together. Peeled and ate fruit. After the hour had passed, she would get up, take the cups to the sink, but would leave them for her father to wash after she had left for the school dormitory. Though Nahum knew almost nothing about her social life, he did know that her teachers were pleased with her, and he was proud that she'd learned Arabic on her own. A quiet girl, they said about her on the kibbutz, not impetuous like her mother, but devoted and diligent, like her father. What a shame she had cut off her braids for a short bob with bangs. With her hair braided and parted down the middle, she had looked just like one of those pioneer girls of an earlier generation.

One evening several months before, Nahum had gone to look for her in her dorm room to bring her a sweater she had left in his apartment. He found her with two of her girlfriends sitting on their beds, all playing recorders, practicing a simple scale over and over again. As he came in, he apologized for interrupting, then laid the folded sweater on the corner of the bed, brushed a speck of invisible dust off the table, apologized again, and tiptoed away. Outside, he stood under their window in the dark for I've minutes and listened: they were now playing a light, lengthy etude that repeated itself in a melancholy way. His heart suddenly clenched. He walked to his apartment, sat down, and listened to the radio until his eyes closed. At night, half awake, he heard the jackals howling close by, as if they were right under his window.

On Tuesday hand he came home from work, Nahum showered, got dressed in his ironed khaki trousers and a light-blue shirt, put on the short, shabby coat that gave him the air of a poor intellectual from the previous century, polished his glasses with the corner of his handkerchief, and started for the door. Suddenly he remembered the advanced Arabic textbook that Edna had left in his apartment. He wrapped the book carefully in a plastic bag, tucked it under his arm, put on his gray cap, and left the house. Vestiges of rain were still visible in the small puddles and on the fragrant, glistening leaves of the trees. Since he was in no hurry, he took a longer path that meandered past the children's house. He still didn't know what he would say to his daughter or to David Fagan, but he hoped that something would come to him when they were face-to-face. For a moment, he imagined that the whole business between Edna and David Fagan hadn't really happened, but existed only in the malicious imaginations of Roni Shindlin and the other gossipmongers, so that when he finally arrived at David's place, he would find him as usual, sitting and drinking an afternoon coffee with some other woman -- one of his ex-wives, or Zika the teacher, or perhaps an entirely new woman. Maybe Edna wouldn't be there at all and he would simply exchange a few words with David at the door, about politics and the government, and he'd decline to stay for coffee and a chess game but instead would say goodbye and go on his way, perhaps to Edna's dorm room where he would find her reading or playing the recorder or doing homework. As always. And he'd return the book to her there.

Walking along, he inhaled the scent of damp earth and the faint smell of fermenting orange peel and cow dung coming from the yards and the barns. He stopped in front of the memorial to the kibbutz's fallen soldiers and saw his son's name there: Yishai Asherov, killed six years before during the army's incursion into the village of Deer al Nashaf. All eleven names on the memorial were picked out in copper letters, and Yishai was the seventh or eighth on the list. Nahum remembered how, as a child, Yishai used to say "make" instead of "snake" and "actor" instead of "tractor." He reached out and ran his fingertips along the cold copper letters. Then he turned and walked away, still not knowing what he would say, but feeling suddenly dispirited because since his youth, he'd had a soft spot in his heart for David Fagan--and even after what had happened, he still felt no anger, only embarrassment and mostly disappointment and sorrow. As he began to walk away from the memorial, the rain started again, not in sheets but in a thin, stubborn drizzle. It wet his cheeks and fogged his glasses, and he thrust the plastic-wrapped book under his worn coat to hold it close to his chest. He seemed to be pressing on his heart as if he didn't feel well. No one passed him on the path, so no one saw his hand pressed against his coat. And perhaps the unlikely relationship between Edna and David Fagan would end of its own accord in a few days. Would she come to her senses and return to her former life? Or would David quickly grow tired of her as he always grew tired of his lovers? She was, after all, a girl who had never before had a boyfriend except, so they said, for a two- or three-week flirtation with Dubi the lifeguard at the swimming pool; while David Fagan was a well-known philanderer.

Nahum Ahserov remembered the start of his friendship with David Fagan: during the first few years of the kibbutz, they had been so poor that they lived in tents supplied by the Jewish Agency. Only the five babies lived in the single small house on their land. An ideological debate broke out about who should tend to the babies at night: would only the parents take shifts, or would all the members of the kibbutz? The debate stemmed from a deeper point of contention: did the babies belong, in principle, to their parents or to the entire kibbutz? David Fagan fought for the second position while Nahum Asherov sided with the first. For three nights, the members argued until one o'clock in the morning about whether to decide the question with an open vote or a secret ballot. David Fagan supported the open vote while Nahum Asherov advocated a secret ballot. In the end, they agreed to form a committed consisting of David, Nahum, and three women who were not yet mothers. The majority o the committee voted that, although the children belonged to the kibbutz, at the beginning the parents would take turns minding the children at night. Although their opinions differed, Nahum secretly admired David Dagan's consistent and unyielding ideological position. David, for his part, respected Nahum's gentleness and patience and was surprised that Nahum, with his quiet persistence, had actually beaten him. When Yishai was killed in the raid on Deir al Nashaf, David Fagan had spent a few nights in Nahum's apartment. This strengthened their long friendship. Sometimes they'd meet in the early evening to play chess and talk about whether or not the kibbutz was living up to its principles.

David Dagan's apartment was located near a stand of cypress trees at the end of a row of houses. He had moved after leaving his fourth wife. eVeryone knew that he'd left her because of his relationship with Zika, a young teacher from the city who stayed on the kibbutz three nights a week. He'd ended things with Zika when Edna had taken her belongings from the dormitory and moved into his new apartment. Anyone in my shoes, Nahum Asherov thought, would storm in, slap David, grab his daughter, and drag her home. Or the opposite: he'd go in quietly and stand in front of them, broken and distraught, as if to say, How could you, aren't you ashamed? Ashamed of what? Nahum asked himself.

And, meanwhile, he lingered a few more minutes in the feeble rain, on the path leading to the door, pressing the book tighter against his chest, the raindrops on his glasses blurring his vision. Distant thunder sounded and suddenly it began to rain harder. Nahum stood under the overhang at the entrance to the apartment and waited. He still had no idea what he would say when David opened the door. And what if Edna answered? David Dagan's neglected front garden was filled with weeds and thistles, dotted with hordes of white stnails thanks to the rain. Three pots of withered geraniums stood on the windowsill. Not a sound came from the apartment. Nahum wiped his shoes on the doormat, took a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and dried his glasses, replaced the handkerchief, and knocked twice on the door.

"It's you," David said warmly, and pulled Nahum inside. "Wonderful. Come in. Don't stand outside. It's raining. We've been expecting you for a few days now. I was sure you'd come. We have to talk. Edna!" he called out toward the other room. "Make coffee for your father. He's finally here. Take off your coat, Nahum. Sit down. Edna was beginning to think you were angry with us but I told her, You'll see; he'll come. We turned on the heater half an hour ago in your honor. Winter turned up all of a sudden, didn't it? Where di the rain catch you?" He put his large fingers on the sleeves of Nahum's coat and said, "We really have to talk out this annoying business of all the youngsters just out of the army who now want to skip working and go straight to college. Maybe at our next meeting we should vote about making it mandatory for them to work on the kibbutz for three years before they enroll at college. What do you think, Nahum?"

Nahum, still wearing his cap, said in a flat voice, "But I don't understand how --"

David interrupted him by putting a wide hand on his shoulder and saying, "hear me out; just give me a minute to set things straight. I'm not against higher education, as you know, and I don't object to the younger generation getting academic degrees. On the contrary: someday every barn worker will have a Ph.D., why not? But never at the expense of the essential work that must be done in the fields and in the animal pens.

Nahum hesitated. He was still standing in his wet, worn coat, his left arm pressed to his chest to keep the book from slipping. He finally sat down without taking off his coat or cap and without releasing his grip on the book. David Fagan said, "You probably disagree, don't you, Nahum? Has there ever been a time all these years when you didn't disagree with me. But we've always remained friends."

Suddenly Nahum hated David Dagan's thick, neatly trimmed mustache with its threads of gray, and his habit of interrupting and asking for just a minute to set things straight. He said, "But she's your student."

"Not anymore," David said in an authoritative voice, "and in a few months she'll be a soldier. Come here, Edna. Please tell your father that no one has kidnapped you."

Edna came into the room wearing brown cords and an oversize blue sweater. Her black hair was tied back with a light-colored ribbon. She carried a tray set with two cups of coffee, a sugar bowl, and a small jug of milk. She bent down, put the tray on the table, and stood a small distance from the two men, her arms hugging her shoulders as if here, too, she was cold, even though a kerosene heater burned with a clear blue flame. Nahum stole a quick glance at his daughter, then immediately shifted his eyes and blushed as if he had caught a glimpse of her half naked. She said, "There are biscuits, too." Then, after a pause, still standing, she added in her soft, quiet voice, "Hello, Papa."

Nahum found neither anger nor rebuke in his heart, only a sharp longing for his daughter, as if she weren't present in the room, three steps away from him, as if she had traveled to a far-off, alien place. He said timid and with a question mark at the end of his sentence, "I came to take you home?"

David Fagan put his hand on the nape of Edna's neck stroked her back, played with her hair a littler nd said comfortably, "Edna is not a kettle. She's not something you can just take and put anywhere. Right, Edna?"

She didn't say anything. She stood there next to the heater, her arms hugging her shoulders, ignoring David Dagan's fingers, and stared at the rain on the window.

Nahum looked at her. She seemed quiet and focused as if she were thinking about other things. As if she had been distracted from contemplating the choice between these two men, both thirty years older than she. Or as if she had never contemplated the choice in the first place.

They heard the constant sound of rain beating against the windowpanes and rushing along the gutters. The heater glowed with a cozy fire. Occasionally they could hear kerosene bubbling through the inner pipes of the heater.

Why did you come here? Nahum asked himself. Did you really think you would slay the dragon and free the abducted princess? You should have stayed home and waited until she came back. Because, really, all she did was swap a weak father figure for a strong one. And the strong figure will quickly begin to pall. She makes him coffee and takes his laundry on Monday and returns it on Friday. She'll probably get tired of all that. If only you hadn't been in such a hurry to come here in this rain, if only you'd been smart enough to sit quietly at home and wait for her, sooner or later she'd have come back, either to explain herself or because the love had ended. Love is a kind of infection, possessing then releasing you.

David said, "Hang on; just give me a minute to set things straight. You and I, Nahum, have always been connected through friendships despite our disagreements about how to run the kibbutz. And now there is another strong connection between us. That's all. Nothing bad has happened. At the general meeting, I plan to propose the idea of three years' mandatory work before college. Obviously you won't support me but in your heart you know very well that 'm right on this, too. At least don't keep me from mobilizing a majority at the meeting. Drink your coffee; it's getting cold."

Edna said, "Don't go. Wait till the rain stops, Papa. Then she said, "Don't worry about me. I'm fine here."

Nahum decided not to respond at all. He ignored the coffee his daughter had brought him. He regretted having come. What had he actually wanted? To vanquish love? A fleeting glint of light from the lamp reflected off his glasses. Love suddenly seemed to him to be another of life's obstacles; when you confront it, you have to duck your head and wait until it passes. In another minute, David Fagan would probably start a conversation about the government or the advantages of rain. The rare audacity that suffering can sometimes draw form the depths of mild people lent Nahum Asherov's hoarse voice a harsh, bitter tone. "How could you?"

He shot out of his chair and whipped out the advanced Arabic textbook from his worn coat, intending to slam it on the table hard enough to make the spoons rattle in their cups, but at the last minute he stopped and placed the book down gently as if taking care not to damage it, or the cups, or the oilcloth-covered table. As he groped his way toward the door, he turned around and saw his daughter standing there watching him with a sad expression, hugging her shoulders, and he saw his good friend sitting with his legs crossed, strong hands encircling a cup, his expression a mixture of compassion, forgiveness, and irony. Nahum thrust his head forward and strode toward the door as if he planned to butt it. Instead of slamming it when he went out, he closed it gently,  as though afraid of hurting the door or the frame, pulled his cap down almost to his eyes, raised his coat collar, and walked along the wet path that led through a pine grove. His glasses instantly beaded with water. He buttoned the top of his coat and pressed his left hand against his chest as if the books were still tucked inside. And, meanwhile, outside it had grown dark.

Amos Oz - Between Friends 

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