Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ET: Almanac

Sometimes I was left with my grandparents for the night. My grandmother used to point suddenly at a piece of furniture or an item of clothing or a person and say to me:

"It's so ugly, it's almost beautiful."

Sometimes she said:

"He's become so clever, he can't understand anything anymore."


"It hurts so much, it almost makes me laugh."

All day long she hummed tunes to herself that she had brought wth her from places where she lived apparently without fear of germs and without the rudeness that she complained also infected everything here.

"Like animals," she would suddenly hiss disgustedly, for no visible reason, with no provocation or connection, without bothering to explain whom she was comparing to animals. Even when I sat next to her on a park bench in the evening, and there was no one in the park, and a slight breeze gently touched the tips of the leaves or perhaps made them tremble without really touching them with its invisible fingertips, Grandma could suddenly erupt, quivering with shocked loathing:

"Really! How could they! Worse than animals!"

A moment later she was humming to herself gentle tunes that were unfamiliar to me.

She was always humming, in the kitchen, in front of the mirror, on her deck chair on the veranda, even in the night.

Sometimes, after I had had my bath and brushed my teeth and cleaned out my ears with an orange stick with its tip wrapped in cotton wool, I was put to bed next to her, in her wide bed (the double bed that Grandpa had abandoned, or been evicted from, before I was born). Grandma read me a story or two, stroked my cheek, kissed my forehead, and immediately rubbed it with a little handkerchief moistened with perfume, which she always kept in her left sleeve and which she used to wipe away or squash germs, and then she turned out the light. Even then she went on humming in the dark, or rather she expelled from inside her a distant, dreamy voice, a chestnut-colored voice, a pleasant, dark voice that was gradually refined into an echo, a color, a scent, a gentle toughness, a brown warmth, lukewarm amniotic fluid. All night long.

But all these nocturnal delights she made you scrub off furiously first thing in the morning, even before your cup of cocoa without the skin. I would wake up in her bed to the sound of Grandpa's carpet beater as he fought his regular dawn battle with the bedding.

Before you even opened your eyes, there was a steaming hot bath waiting for ou, smelling like a medical clinic because of the antiseptic solution that had been added to the water. On the edge of the bath a toothbrush was laid out, with a curly white worm. Ivory toothpaste already lying along the bristles. Your duty was to immerse yourself, soap yourself all over and rub yourself with the loofah, and rinse yourself, and then Grandma came, got you up on your knees in the bathtub, held you firmly by the arm, and scrubbed you all over, from head to toe and back again, with the dreaded brush, reminiscent of the iron combs that the wicked Romans used to tear the flesh of Rabbi Akiva and the other martyrs of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, until your skin was pink like raw flesh, and then Grandma told you to close your eyes tight as tight, while she shampooed and pummeled your head and scratched your scalp with her sharp nails like Job scraping himself with a potsherd, and all the while she explained to you in her brown, pleasant voice about the filth and mire that the body's glands secret while you sleep, such as sticky sweat and all sorts of fatty discharges and flakes of skin and fallen hairs and millions of dead cells and various kinds of slimy secretions you'd better not know about, and while you were fast asleep all this refuse and effluent smeared itself all over your body and mixed itself up together and invited, yes, positively invited, bacteria and bacili and viruses too to come and swarm all over you, not to mention all the things that science has not yet discovered, things that cannot be seen even with the most powerful microscope, but even if they can't be seen, they crawl all over your body all night with trillions of horrible hairy legs, just like a cockroach's but so tiny you can't see them, even scientists can't see them yet, and on these legs that are covered with disgusting bristles they creep back inside our bodies through the nose and the mouth and through I don't need to tell you where else they crawl in through, especially when people never was themselves there in thos not nice places they just wipe, but wiping isn't cleaning, on the contrary, it just spreads the filthy secretions into the millions of tiny holes we have all over our skin, and it all gets more and more filthy and disgusting, especially when the internal filth that the bdy is constantly excreting, day and night, gets mixed up with the external filth that comes from touching unhygenic things that have been handled by who knows whom before you, like coins or newspapers or handrails or doorknobs or even bought food, after all who an tell who has sneezed over what you're touching, or even, excuse me, wiped their nose or even dripped from their nose precisely on those sweet wrappers that you pick up in the street and put straight on the bed where people sleep, not to mention those corks you pick straight out of the garbage cans, and that corn on the cob your mother, God preserve her, buys straight from the hand of that man who may not even have washed and dried his hands after he has excuse me, and how can we be so sure that he's a healthy man? Or an abscess or enteritis or eczema or psoriasis or impetigo or a boil? He might not even be Jewish. Have you any idea how many diseases there are here? How many Levantine plagues? And I'm only talking about known diseases, not the ones that are not known yet and that medical science doesn't recognize yet, not a day goes by after all here in the Levant that people don't die like flies from some parasite or bacillus or microbe, or from all kinds of microscopic worms that the doctors can't even identify especially here in this country where it's so hot and full of flies, mosquitoes, moths, ants, cockroaches, midges, and who knows what else, and people here perspire all the time and they are always touching and rubbing each other's inflammations and sicharges and sweat and all their bodily fluids, better at your age you shouldn't know from all these foul fluids, and anyone can easily wet someone else so the other one doesn't even feel what' stuck to them in all the crush there is here, a handshake is enough to transmit all sorts of plauges, and even without touching, just by breathing the air that someone else has breathed into his lungs before you with all the germs and bacilli of ringworm and trachoma and bilharzia. And the sanitation here is not at all European, and, as for hygiene, half the people here have never even heard of it, and the air is full of all kinds of Asiatic insects and revolting winged reptiles that come here straight from the Arab villages or even from Africa, and who knows what strange disease and inflammation and discharges they bring with them all the time, the Levant here is full of germs. Now you dry yourself very well all on your own like a big boy, don't leave anywhere damp, and then put some talcum powder all by yourself in your you-know-where, and in your other you-know-where, and all around about, and I want you to rub some Velveta cream from this tube all over your neck, and then get dressed in the clothes I'm putting out for you here, which are the clothes that your mother, God preserve her, has prepared for you only I've gone over them with a hot iron that disinfects and kills anything that might be breding there better than laundering does, and then come to me in the kitchen, with your hair nicely combed, and you'll get a nice cup of cocoa from me and then you'll have your breakfast.

As she left the bathroom, she would mutter to herself, not angrily but with a deep sadness:

"Like animals, or worse."

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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