Saturday, August 12, 2017

ET: Almanac

Leah, his wife, had gone off to attend a ten-day course at the Kibbutzim College of Education that would train her to be a caregiver at the children's house. Roni Shindlin was happy to have a few days without her. He showered after his shift in the metalwork shop and at four in the afternoon went to the children's house to pick up his five-year-old son, Oded. On the days it wasn't raining, he held Oded's small hand and they went for a stroll around the kibbutz. Oded wore green boots, flannel trousers, a sweater, and a jacket. Roni always tied the strings of the boy's hat under his chin because his ears were sensitive to the cold. Then he picked him up, hugged him, and took him to see the cows and the sheep. Oded was afraid of the cows, which wallowed wet dung and mooed faintly from time to time. His father recited for him: "I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one/But I can tell you anyhow/I'd rather see than be one."

Oded asked "Why is it roaring?"
Roni explained, "Cows don't roar. Cows moo. Lions roar."
"Why do lions roar?"
"They're calling their friends."
"Their friends are mean."
"Their friends play with them."
"They're mean."

Oded was a short little boy, slow and always frightened. He was often sick: he had diarrhea almost every week, and in winter he had ear infections. The children in his kindergarten tormented him constantly. He spent most of the day sitting alone on a mat in a corner, his thumb in his mouth, his back to the room, and his face to the wall, playing with wooden blocks or a rubber duck that squealed mournfully when you squeezed it, and he squeezed it all the time. He'd had it since he was a year old. The children called him Oded-pees-his-bed and when the caregiver turned her back, they pulled his hair. He cried softly for hours, snot running down his mouth and chin. The caregivers didn't like him either because he didn't know how to stand up for himself, or because he wouldn't play with the others and he cried so much. At the breakfast table, he would pick at his porridge and leave most of it in the bowl. When they scolded him, he cried. When they tried to coax him into eating, he withdrew into himself and was silent. Five years old, and he still wet his bed every night, so the caregivers had to spread a rubber sheet under the regular one. He got up wet every morning and the children made fun of. He would sit barefoot in his wet pajamas on his wet bed, his thumb in his mouth, and instead of trying to change into dry clothes, he'd cry quietly, the snot mingling with his tears and smearing his cheeks, until the caregiver arrived and scolded him, "Oh, really, get dressed, Oded. Wipe your nose. Enough crying. Stop being such a baby."

The Committee for Preschoolers instructed Leah, his mother, to be firm with him in order to wean him off this self-indulgent behavior. And so during the afternoons he spent at his parents' house, Leah saw to it that he sat with his back straight, always finished everything on his plate, and never sucked his thumb. If he cried, she punished him for being a crybaby. She was against hugging and kissing, believing that the children of our new society had to be strong and resilient. She thought Oded's problems stemmed from the fact that his teachers and caregivers let him get away with things and forgave him his oddities. Roni, for his part, hugged and kissed Oded only when Leah wasn't around. When she was gone, he'd take a bar of chocolate out of his pocket and break off two or three squares for Oded. Father and son kept these squares of chocolate a secret from Leah and everyone else. More than once, Roni had intended to take issue with Leah about how she treated their son, but he feared her angry outbursts, which drove Oded to crawl under the bed with his duck and cry soundlessly until his mother's anger subsided--and even then, the boy was in no hurry to leave his hiding place.

On the kibbutz, Roni Shindlin was considered a gossip and a comedian, but in his own home, he hardly ever joked because Leah couldn't stand his wisecracks, which she found coarse and tasteless. Both Leah and Roni chain-smoked the cheap Silon cigarettes the kibbutz distributed to its members, and their small apartment was always full of smoke. The smell persisted even at night because it had been absorbed by the furniture and the walls and hovered under the ceiling. Leah didn't like unnecessary touching and talking. She believed in solid principles. She adhered to all the kibbutz tenets with a zealot's fervor. In her view, a couple on the kibbutz should live a simple life.

Their apartment was furnished with a plywood bookcase and a sofa with a foam rubber mattress that opened into a double bed at night and was closed again every morning. There were also a coffee table, two wicker armchairs, an upholstered armchair, and a rough floor mat. A painting of a field of sunflowers glowing in the sun hung on the wall, and a mortar shell casing that served as a vase for a bouquet of dry throne stood in the corner of the room. And, of course, the air reeked of cigarettes.

In the evening, after the work schedule for the next day had been hung on the bulletin board, Roni liked to sit with his friends and acquaintances at his regular table at the far end of the dining hall, smoking and talking about the goings-on in the kibbutz members' lives. Nothing escaped his notice. Other people's lives aroused his unflagging curiosity and unleashed a torrent of witticisms. He thought that the higher our ideals, the more absurd our weaknesses and contradictions. Sometimes, with a smile, he quoted Levi Eshkol, who said that a person is only human, and even that, only rarely. He would light himself a fresh cigarette and say to his cronies in a slightly nasal voice, "Some people play musical chairs, but here, we play musical mates. First Boaz ups and leaves Osnat for Ariella Barash, and now Ariella ups and leaves Boaz for her cat and tomorrow some newly abandoned woman will come and collect the newly abandoned Boaz. In the words of the Bible: 'I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for . . . a warm bed.'" Or he'd say, "Anyone on Kibbutz Yekhat who needs a wife can just stand in line at the bottom of David Dagan's steps and wait for a little while. Women are flicked out of there like cigarette butts."

Roni Shindlin and his stablemates sometimes laughed raucously, and the kibbutz members did their best not to become the butt of their jokes.

At ten at night, Roni and his gang dispersed to their apartments, and he would stop in at the children's house to check on Oded and tuck him in. Then he'd trudge home, sit down on the steps to take off his shoes so as not to track in the mud, and tiptoe inside his stocking feet. Leah would be sitting there, chain-smoking listening to the radio. She listened to the radio every night. Roni would also light up,  his last cigarette of the day, and sit down across from her without speaking. At ten thirty, they put out their cigarettes, turned off the light and went to sleep, he wrapped in his blanket and she in hers, because they had to get up before six in the morning for work.

In the metalwork shop, Roni was known to be a hard worker devoted to his job, and he also never missed a meeting of the Farm Management Committee, where he was always on the side of those who supported careful, balanced management of the agricultural divisions and opposed potentially reckless initiatives. He voted for a limited expansion of the chicken coop but against taking bank loans.

He had a stamp collection that he pored over with Oded every day after work: they would sit with their heads bent, almost touching, over the coffee table, the room warmed by a kerosene heater that burned with a blue flame. With water from a small bowl, Oded would wet the pieces of envelopes that bore the stamps in order to melt the glue and separate them from the paper. Then, under his father's supervision, he'd place the stamps face-down on a piece of blotting paper to dry. As Roni arranged the stamps in an album, following the English catalog, he would explain to Oded about Japan, the land of the rising sun, about the freezing country called Iceland, about Aden and the ancient Hazarmaveth, the Courtyard of Death, near the Strait of Tears, about Panama and the large canal that had been dug through it.

Leah squeezed fresh orange juice for them, admonishing Oded to drink it all, then she sat down in her corner and read an education journal. Every now and then they heard a faint burbling from the pipes of the kerosene heater, and the flame behind the iron grate flared up momentarily. Outside, the rain and wind pounded the closed shutters, and the branch of a ficus tree brushed against the outer wall again and again as if begging for mercy. Roni stood up, emptied the ashtray, and rinsed it under the tap. Oded sucked his thumb and clung to his father. Leah scolded him, "Stop sucking. And, you, stop spoiling him. He's spoiled enough as it is." Then she added, "He's better off eating an orange instead, and he should get rid of that pathetic duck of his. Boys on't play with dolls."

Now that Leah had gone away for ten days, Roni went to the children's house every afternoon at four o'clock to pick up Oded and his squealing duck. With the boy astride his shoulders, he'd stroll around the cow barns and chicken coops. The acrid smell of rotting orange peel rose from the compost pile, mingling with the heavy stench of animal feed and wet manure from the barn. A damp wind blew in from the west, and an early twilight fell on the storerooms and sheds and enveloped our small, red-roofed houses. Now and then a bird chirped piercingly in a treetop and the sheep in their pen replied with a heartbreaking bleat. Sometimes it began to drizzle, and father and son inched over and hurried home.

At home after their stroll, Roni coaxed Oded into eating a slice of bread and jam and drinking a cup of cocoa. Oded reluctantly nibbled two or three bites of bread, took a sip of the cocoa, and said, "No more, Daddy. Now stamps."

After Roni had cleared the table and put the dishes in the sink, he took down the green album and the and the two of them bent over it, heads almost touching. Roni lit a cigarette and explained to Oded that stamps are small visitors from distant countries, and each visitor is here to tell us a story about its homeland, its countryside and famous people, its holidays and beautiful buildings. Oded asked if there were countries where children are allowed to sleep with their parents at night and where children aren't mean and don't hit. Roni didn't know how to answer, so he said that there are good people and cruel people everywhere, and he explained the word cruel to Oded. In his heart, Roni believed that, here, cruelty is sometimes disguised as self-righteousness or dedication to principles, and he knew that no one was completely free of it. Not even he himself.

Oded grew anxious as seven thirty approached, the hour he had to go back to the children's house and leave his father for the night. He didn't plead to stay at home, but instead went to the toilet to pee, and when he didn't come out, Roni had to go in after him and found him sitting on the closed toilet, sucking his thumb and hugging his rubber duck, its once-red bill now faded and one of its eyes slightly sunken into its head.

Roni said, "Dedi. We have to go. It's late."
Oded said, "We can't, we just can't. There's a big wolf in the woods."

Finally they both put on their coats. Roni helped Oded into his green boots and tied the strings of his hat under his chin. He took a large, thick stick from behind the steps for chasing away the wolf, held Oded in his arms, and walked to the children's house. The boy hugged his father's head with one hand, and in the other he held the duck so tightly that it emitted a constant stream of faint squeals. When they passed the grove behind the dining hall, Roni waved his stick, striking the wet air every which way until the wolf ran off. Oded thought about that for a moment, then said sadly that the wolf would come back late at night when the parents were asleep. Roni promised that the night guard would chase away the wolf, but the boy was inconsolable because he knew very well that the wolf would devour the night guard.

When they reached the children's house, the electric heater was already on in the dining room and there were plates on the small tables, each filled with a slice of bread and yellow cheese, half a hard-boiled egg, tomato slices, four olives, and a small mound of cream cheese. The caregiver, Hemda, a dumpy woman wearing a white apron around her waist, made sure that the children placed their boots in a neat row by the door and hung their coats on the wall hooks above their boots. Then the parents went outside to smoke, the children ate and took their plates and cups to the sink, and the monitors wiped the tables.

After the meal, the parents were allowed to go in and put their children to bed. The children, in flannel pajamas, gathered around the sinks, screamed and pushed each other, washed their faces and brushed their teeth, and climbed noisily into bed. The parents were given ten minutes to read them a story or sing them a lullaby, then they said good night and left. Hemda turned off the lights, except for a small one in the dining room. She stayed for several more minutes, forbade the children to whisper, ordered them to go to sleep, gave them another warning, said good night, leaving a dim light on in the shower room, turned off the electric heater, and let.

The children waited until she was gone, then got out of bed barefoot and began to run around the bedrooms and the dining room. They hurled their muddy boots at each other, growing rowdier by the minute. The boys wrapped blankets around their heads and frightened the girls by roaring, "We're Arabs, we're attacking now." The shrieking girls huddled together, and one of them, Atida, filled a bottle with water and sprayed the ARabs. The mayhem didn't end until Eviatar, a broad-shouldered boy, suggested, "Hey, let's go and snatch Oded's duck."

Oded hadn't gotten out of bed when the others did but, instead, lay with his face to the wall and thought about a country from the stamp collection that his father said was called the Hazarmaveth, the Courtyard of Death. The name frightened him and he thought that the courtyard of the children's house located in the darkness right on the other side of the wall was also a hazarmaveth. He pulled the blanket over his head and hugged the rubber duck, knowing it was dangerous to fall asleep or cry. He waited for the others to get tired and go back to bed, hoping they'd forget about him tonight. His mother was away, his father had gone to smoke with his friends at their table in the dining hall, the caregiver, Hemda, was off somewhere, and the Hazarmaveth was right there in the darkness behind the thin wall, the door wasn't locked, and there was a wolf lurking in the woods that they had to pass on the way home.

Tador, Tamir, and Rina tore off his blanket and threw it on the floor, and Dalit chanted in an infuriating singsong: "Oded-pees-his-bed is out of his head."

Eviatar said, "Now he'll cry." And he said in oh, such a sweet voice to Oded, "So, cry a little for us, Oded. Just a little. We're all asking you nicely."

Oded curled into himself, brought his knees up to his stomach, dropped his head down between his shoulders, and clutched his duck, which squealed weakly.

"His duck is filthy."
"Let's watch the duck."
"Let's wash his peepee. His peepee's filthy too."
"Give us the duck, Oded-pees-his-bed. Come on, give it to us. Be nice."

Eviatar tried to pull the duck from Oded's grasp, but the boy held on to it with all his might, pressing it hard against his stomach. Tadmor and Tamir pulled at Oded's arms and he kicked them with his bare feet, and Rina pulled at his pajamas. Tadmor and Tamir pried his fingers away from the duck, and Eviatar wrapped his hand around it, wrenched it away from Oded, and waved it in the air, dancing on one leg, chanting, "Oded's dirty duck is out of luck. Whattya say, let's chuck it away!"

Oded gritted his teeth, fighting not to cry, but his eyes welled and snot ran from his nose onto his mouth and chin. He got out of bed barefoot and tried to attack Eviatar, who was a lot taller and stronger. Eviatar pretended to be afraid and waved the duck high over Oded's head, passing it straight to Tamir, who passed it to Rina, who passed it to Tadmor. Oded, suddenly filled with the despair and fury of the weak, gathered momentum and charged Eviatar as hard as he could, smashing into his stomach and almost knocking him down. The girls, Dalit an Rina, squealed with delight. Eviatar straightened up, pushed Oded away, and punched him hard in the nose. When Oded was finally lying on the floor sobbing, Dalit said, "Let's get him some water," and Tadmor said, "Stop it. That's enough. What's wrong with you? Leave him alone." But Eviatar went to the dining room, took a pair of scissors out of the drawer, cut off the rubber duck's head, and went back to the bedroom, the duck's body in his right hand, its head in his left. He bent over Oded, who was still lying on the floor, and laughed. "Choose, Oded," he said. "You can choose."

Oded got to his feet, pushed his way through the children crowded around him, ran blindly to the door, opened it, and booted straight out into the darkness of the Hazarmaveth that lay beyond the children's house. He ran barefoot in the mud, shaking all over in his pajamas from cold and fear, ran and hopped, like a hunted rabbit, completely soaked by the rain that dripped from his hair down his cheeks and mixed with his tears; he passed blocks of dark buildings, crossed through the darkness of the small grove near the dining hall, heard the thudding of the black wolf's paws pursuing him, felt its breath on the back of his neck, ran faster as the rain grew stronger, the wind beat against his face, and he stumbled and fell onto his knees in a puddle, stood up wet and covered in mud, and ran on alone in the darkness between one streetlamp and the next, ran and wept in small, rapid sobs, ran, his ears frozen and shining, ran until he reached his parents' house where he dropped onto the steps, afraid to go inside, afraid they'd be angry with him and return him to the children's house; and there, on the steps, his little body curled up and frozen and shaking, his father found him crying soundlessly when he came back from the evening's gossip session in the dining hall.

Roni took his son in his arms, carried him inside, removed the wet pajamas, and cleaned off the mud and mucus with a washcloth, then rubbed his frozen body with a large, coarse towel to warm him. He swathed the boy in a warm blanket and turned on the heater while Oded recounted what had happened in the children's house. Roni told him to wait beside the heater and bolted out into the rain, running, panting, burning with rage, as he raced up the hill.

When he reached the children's house, his shoes heavy with mud, he saw the night guard, Berta From, who tried to tell him something, but he didn't hear and didn't want to hear. Blind and deaf with despair and fury, he burst into Oded's room turned on the light, bent over and yanked a gentle, quiet boy named Yair from under his blanket, stood him on his bed, and slapped his face savagely over and over again until the boy's nose began to bleed and his head banged against the wall with the force of the blows, as Roni shouted in a rasping voice, "This is nothing! Nothing! I will kill anyone who touches Oded again!:

Berta the night guard in the children's house, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him off the child, who flopped onto the bed, his sobs thin and piercing, and said again, "You've got crazy, Roni, completely crazy." Roni punched her in the chest, then ran outside and dashed through the mud and rain back to his son.

Father and son slept with their arms around each other all night on the sofa that opened into a double bed, and in the morning, they stayed in the apartment. Roni didn't go to work and he didn't take Oded to the children's house; he spread jam on a slice of bread and warmed a cup of cocoa. At eight thirty int he morning, Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, appeared grim-faced at the door and curtly informed Roni that he was expected in the kibbutz office at exactly five o'clock the next afternoon for a personal interview at a joint meeting of the Social and Preschool Education Committees.

At lunch, Roni's friends sat at the gossip table without him and talked about what the entire kibbutz had been talking about since morning. They speculated about what Roni would say if someone had done those things. You can never know, they said, such a quiet guy with a sense of humor, and look at what he's capable of. At three in the afternoon, Leah appeared, having been summoned by phone from her course. Before going home, she stopped at the children's house and left warm underwear, clean clothes, and boots for the boy. Tight-lipped, a cigarette burning between her fingers, she informed Roni that she and she alone would be in charge of Oded, and, what's more, she had decided that, for the boy's own good, he would return to the children's house that night.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still heavy with low clouds and a cold, damp wind had been gusting in from the west. The room filled with a cloud of cigarette smoke. At seven thirty in the evening, Leah bundled Oded into his coat, pulled his green boots firmly on his feet, and said, "Come on, Oded. You're going to bed. They won't bother you anymore." And she added, "No more running wild for them. Starting tonight, the night guard will do her job properly."

They went out, leaving Roni alone in the apartment. He lit a cigarette and stood at the window, his back to the room, his face to the darkness outside. Leah returned at nine and didn't say a word to him. She sat down on her wicker armchair, smoked, and read her education magazine. At ten, Roni said, "I'm going out for a walk. To see how he is."

Leah said quietly, "You're not going anywhere."

Roni hesitated, then gave in because he no longer trusted himself.

At ten thirty they turned off the radio, emptied the ashtray, opened the sofa, and made up the double bed. They lay under their separate blankets because tomorrow they had to get up for work before six again. Outside, the rain had resumed and the wind blew the stubborn ficus tree branch against the shutters. Roni lay on his back for a while, his open eyes staring at the ceiling. For a moment, he imagined that he heard a faint whisper in the darkness. He sat up in bed and listened hard, but he could hear only rain and wind and the branch brushing against the shutters. Then he fell asleep.

Amoz Oz - Little Boy

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